A Certain Age (Tama Janowitz)

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  Twenty or thirty people had already arrived. Everyone projected a bleak aura of frantic, nervous despair, as if they were not going to let the fact that they were in the country and not the city have any effect. "Florence! Florence!" She turned to find Neil Pirsig headed in her direction. There was no one she wished to see less. He was contemptible, the way he managed to appear whenever an artist died and take over, skimming the cream off the estate. He was so puffed up with his own importance--his life story, from street-gang member to Yale Law School, had been sold to the movies --he obviously thought all women were desperate for him. He always acted as if Florence wanted to marry him. His amused smile whenever she talked to him provided him with some kind of fix. Yet, she had to admit, there was something about him she found attractive. "Hi, Florence. Still single?" He held up his fingers, crossed, as if warding off a vampire. "Don't start looking at me with those hungry eyes! I'm still not prepared to ask you out on a date."

Excuse me for just a second, Neil," she said coldly. She walked across the living room and out to the patio, smiling weakly though no one was looking at her.

"Have you seen John?" Natalie approached her at the bar. An attractive blond kid, hired for the evening as a bartender, was busy making a drink. There was a silver tub of cigarettes on the edge of the table and Florence picked one up and lit it, for something to do.

"I saw him a while ago," she said. "Oh, gosh, Natalie, 1 just feel so terrible about what happened."

"Don't worry about it," Natalie said. "Florence, have you met Mike Grunlop?" She gestured to a short, barrel-chested man standing nearby who resembled a Roman senator. "Mike's a famous painter--you've probably noticed a lot of his works around the house. We've been collecting him for years. We were one of your first collectors, weren't we, Mike? And his wife, Peony, is a photographer. I'm sure you've seen her things in Life magazine; she just did a whole thing on dying gorillas in the Cameroons. Now she's off to Lima to shoot dogs. What kind of dogs is Peony going to shoot, Mike?"

Mike muttered something in a sullen voice, practically advertising his contempt for anyone who was a "collector." Probably he felt it was an astute move, politically, to accept Natalie's invitation, but at the same time he wanted to make it publicly clear that he was superior to her.

"What did you say?" Natalie looked distracted.

"Peruvian Inca orchid dog," Mike mumbled.

That's just wild! Are you going to go with her, Mike? Excuse me a minute." Natalie's small darting eyes glared furiously past Florence as she looked around the room to see who had already arrived.

As soon as she had moved away, Mike snatched his drink and also wandered off--it was a well-known fact he was interested only in Asian women. His paintings were imitation Chinese calligraphy, black scrawls on gray or white. His reviews always pointed out how simple, pure and powerful his scratches were. The canvases went for almost half a million. Peony made Florence think of a crumpled flower whose petals had been plucked--probably because Mike had spent their entire marriage tormenting her by sleeping with other women.

For a minute Florence stood by the door, looking in. The crowd was growing, the hideous details of the room becoming progressively hidden. Natalie had decorated it in the era of chintz, some seven or so years earlier: the overstuffed furniture was covered with cabbage roses, every end table was heaped with china pug-dogs or wooden English lap desks. The works by Mike Grunlop (there were only two or three, from what Florence remembered) were all upstairs--they had escalated in value only recently.

Over the fireplace hung a portrait of a pop star, an Andy Warhol silk screen--Natalie's father had acquired it back in the late seventies. Nearby were a series of nineteenth-century oil paintings of dogs and opposite these what might have been a bad painting by Sargent of an Indian couple, the man in a pink turban, the woman in a red-and-yellow sari, but which, on closer inspection, proved to be a recent painting by another New York artist whose summer place was nearby.

The house was virtually identical to any one of several hundred others, both in architecture and furnishings, a Levittown of the wealthy. Built by a quite successful young architect in 1982, the size and shape of several barns or, more accurately, an airplane hangar--not completely austere, with half-moon-shaped windows and several silolike appendages to soften the modern appearance--and it was set squarely in the middle of three extremely expensive acres on the correct side of the highway, that narrow strip of road that fronted the ocean rather than the bay.

The landscaping, including the area around the swimming pool and tennis court, had been done by a popular local landscape-gardening firm--to look at a tree was to look at anywhere between six and ten thousand dollars, to examine a plant was to examine one to two hundred. Perhaps each blade of grass was worth a dollar. There was an underground sprinkler system, and year-round gardeners, locals sent out from the same firm, uprooted impatiens--those tiny, pink, screaming petals lining the drive in late summer--and replaced them with chrysanthemums, bulgy and yellow. Diseased trees, or limbs fallen in a storm, were immediately removed; a dead or sickly plant would be replaced with one more currently in style. This year bright flowers must have been viewed as contemptible--Florence had not known that an entire bank of bedding plants could be filled with such grayish, sage-colored frowzy things. Had the land not been so carefully maintained but been allowed to return to its natural state, it would have been nothing but scruffy pines and grasses. Nowadays there were strict zoning laws against such things.

A man on the far side of the room was looking at her with a disgusted expression. It took her several seconds to realize he was offended by her cigarette smoke. It was supposed to be a party; if he didn't like the smoke, surely he could go outside. What gave such an eggy little creature the right to glare at her, as if no decent woman would light up. She was about to blow smoke in his direction when she realized it was Charlie Twigall and quickly crushed out the cigarette. She tried to distract him, turning her scowl into a smile--it was, however, perhaps just a split second too late; he had seen her contempt.

He peered over at her, wanting to talk to her yet--somehow--to avoid her at the same time. Her peculiar little eyes--narrow gray-blue slits, vaguely alien, perhaps from some ancestor raped by a Mongolian invader, a souvenir flung down across generations and the only feature preventing her from resembling a perfect, bland American doll--were half closed. Her blond hair the color
of dirty honey, hung down in messy chunks. And with the back of one graceful hand she reached up to rub her nose, a short, perfect little nose like that of a Persian kitten which had been punched i the face. She tried to make herself seductive; still, he didn't approach.

Now the only way she could compensate was to bludgeon her way eagerly across the room and act overexcited, as if she had been hoping to find him from the start. "Thank goodness!" She grabbed his forearm. "I was hoping I'd see you! I don't know anyone here! What's happening? What have you been doing all day?"

"Hi . . . Florence," he said.

It was hard not to rush him. Yet after a pause she suggested he have a drink. "I'm having white wine," she said.

"Oh . . . no thank you," he said. "I . . . don't drink."

"I usually just have a glass of wine," she said quickly. "At a party, or dinner. So what have you been up to?"

"I spent the day . . . trying to get them . . . to fix my car," he said.

"And they still haven't fixed it yet?" She spoke in a tone of shocked disbelief.

"It's in a . . . garage . . . the dealership . . out here. It still . . . smells. They said . . . it was fixed . . but when I went to the SAAB dealership . . . I said, 'I can still . . . detect an odor.' And the salesman . . . the man who sold it to me . . . initially . . . got in. And he said, 'I don't smell . . . anything.' I said, You must have an olfactory . . . problem.'"

She laughed appreciatively. "An olfactory problem! That's very good! And what did he say?"

In bliss at her laughter, Charlie averted his eyes from her gaze and stared dreamily at her breasts, as if the breasts had been pleasantly responsive rather than her. "I was extremely . . . angry . . . and I asked if he wouldn't mind . . . sitting in the car. After a few minutes . . . of sitting in the car . . . he said that they would try . . . again." How old had Natalie said he was? In his fifties? "Meanwhile . . . I ordered a new Lotus . . . but it's on . . . back order for the summer."

"A Lotus! Great!" She wondered just how many others had been down this path before her, looking at him attentively, trying to find some common ground of interest, trying to convince themelves a sexual magnetism or chemistry was possible. If he had been willing to date plain and undemanding women--a high school math teacher, for example, or a veterinary technician--a life for him with another might have been possible. But as far as she knew he wanted only the flashiest, the most glamorous--fashion models, young movie stars--and these women didn't need his money and didn't want his personality.

He was looking at her as if he could tell what she was thinking. Perhaps, like a draft horse that could read minds, break into a trot with just a thought from its rider, he was not as slow-witted as he appeared. "So how are you getting around?" she asked nervously. "Did they give you a good replacement?"

"A what?"

"A replacement while they fix yours."

His face crinkled with disappointment. "Might they . . . have done that?"

"Gosh, I don't know!" she said. "I suppose . . . maybe if you asked."

"I didn't think . . . to ask."

"Well, they should have offered."

"I took Mother's . . . car and driver for the evening. Mother . . . gave up driving. She says . . . traffic these days."

"That's true!"

"When she first started . . . coming here . . . as a glrl. . . it wasn't at all . . . fashionable. And it was . . . the country. In those days . . . it took five hours . . . to get to Southampton."

"Five hours!"

"The roads . . . were single-lane . . . or something. Now . . . it takes almost that long . . . because of the traffic." She laughed merrily. He looked up at her almost suspiciously, as if she might be making fun of him, but then he studied her eager guileless face and relaxed, pleased with himself. "Do you want to . . . sit outside? It's so . . . nice out, and it might be . . . easier to talk."

"Oh, I would love to! I'll just grab one last glass of wine on the way out."

They sat at one of the little tables for what seemed an interminable length of time, beneath a striped canvas umbrella decorated with hundreds of twinkling lights. "Did anybody see John?" Natalie said, sailing feverishly past.

A waiter circulated announcing that dinner was being served. The line at the buffet already coiled out through the dining room toward the pool. Charlie stood protectively behind her. He was very attentive. This was a good sign, she thought, if she could keep thinking of questions and acting interested in his responses. The man ahead of her turned around. "This line is moving incredibly slowly," he said in an Italian accent. "But I do not mind if it gives me a chance to talk to you."

"Oh yes?" she said nervously. Charlie, who was the same height as she, was already beginning to scowl and jostled her forward slightly, like a bulldog using his stout chest to bully an owner's leg into submission.

"I am Raffaello di Castignolli," the man said, looking down at her with a bemused smile.

"Florence Collins," she muttered. "And this is Charlie Twigall."

"How do you do?" Raffaello said. He was incredibly handsome, in an artificial way, as if a magazine page for men's cologne had been pumped into life by the exhaust pipe of a vacuum cleaner. His black hair was sleeked back, his navy suit was sharp-shouldered and expensive, he gazed at her with the expression of a man accustomed to assessing sports cars. The only thing that wasn't quite right was the suit, a little too flashy-Italian, a bit on the gangster side--too much for the Hamptons, midsummer. "I could not help noticing you when you were coming down the stairs," Raffaello said. "It was very amusing, how you pulled yourself together only as you reached the bottom of the flight. You have, as they say, an inside persona and an outside person you show to the world. For one moment, I am thinking, your inside persona is let accidentally slip. But for me, I could tell something had bappened even before I caught a glimpse of your face."

She smiled weakly. He was expressing interest in her, she supposed. But to be evaluated--summed up--was to also let her know that he was in the superior position, and she the inferior. He was too handsome, too alien in his Europeanness; it made her nervous and he knew it.

"Here's a plate, Florence." Charlie reached around and handed her a plate from the top of the stack as they got to the head of the line.

"I helped make some of the food, last night!" Florence said. A waiter stood behind the table, carving a flank of tuna steak, dried and charred on the outside, bright pink and raw inside. After caning, he plonked each slice on top of a dollop of mashed potatoes and then drizzled some kind of pink sauce over it. For a moment Florence was mesmerized--the whole thing was so hideous.

"May I help you to some of this pasta?" said Raffaello. The pasta was a huge bowl of mushy-looking curly noodles embedded with chunks of tomatoes and congealed lumps of spinach glistening with oil. He spooned some onto her plate, and as he did so he leaned into her, pressing against her from behind. Through his thin trousers she could feel his erection.

She stepped away and gave him a flattered look of disbelief. "You--you're outrageous!"

"And you are just my type. Except for your provincialism--it is so American to pretend to be shocked. Tell me, which is the food you have prepared? I will take that, specially." He certainly had some kind of S and M routine worked out--it was like getting petted and slapped almost at the same time. "Some kind of Brazilian dish," she said. "I was chopping the onions."

"You must be very good at chopping onions."

She felt witless in the presence of such cynical smirkiness. "I think there's tripe in it."

"Not a popular dish, here in America!" he said. "However, for myself, I love what you call organ meat. I am very English, in that respect. You like tripe? Or kidneys? And the sweetbreads--that is my favorite."

"Are you friends of Natalie's? Or John?"

"Oh, of both," he said, helping himself to some dry slabs of white turkey meat. "And you?" He made it clear that her question was banal. Next to the turkey was the dish that she had participated in preparing--a heaving mountain of black beans, from which gray things resembling human digits protruded at various angles.

There were a few other dishes on the table: some bright green peapods, all positioned in exactly the same direction; a salad of orange segments, onion slices and lettuce leaves; and something that might have been a rice pilaf--she was uncertain. There was something that might have been beef or lamb stew, and a platter of chicken legs in a yellow-and-cream-colored sauce. As usual with these buffet dinners, nothing seemed to quite go with anything else; it was almost as if you had to create food in stranger and more peculiar concoctions than had previously been thought of, so that a meal had become the food equivalent of "The Emperor's New Clothes," with people smacking their lips and commenting "How delicious!" over a plate full of garbage.

She had only a few more minutes to decide whether to sit with Raffaello, abandoning Charlie, or wait until Charlie had finished serving himself and act as if it were only natural for the two of them to sit together. Two hundred million dollars! How her life would be changed! In one split second she had mentally purchased an apartment--penthouse duplex, terrace, fifteen rooms--and furnished it: Biedermeier, French club chairs, Mies van der Rohe. The closets were full of clothes, the maid was dusting, admiring friends had arrived, she was debating whether to fly the Concorde--when she quickly realized there was no use in such fantasies: if she indulged in them, she would never get to live them. She stopped the thought as if it were an insect under the edge of her fingernail. "Tell me, what field are you in?" she asked Raffaello.

"Oh, I am in the wine business," he said, retreating into his predatory eye routine once again. The wine business. Did that mean he owned a vineyard in Italy? Or worked in a liquor store? With her luck, it was probably the latter. If only she had the courage to be blunt and ask. But it had seemed rude enough to ask him what he did. His eyes were an intense blue, outlined in black. "And you?" he inquired. "What is your field?" His tone made it perfectly obvious he knew that whatever she did was of no importance whatsoever.

"I work at Quayle's. You know--the auction house?"

He snorted. "Yes, of course. In which department?"

"I'm in jewelry."

"You're kidding!"

She couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic. "No. Why would that be so shocking?" Before she knew it he had picked up two sets of silver wrapped in napkins, gesturing that one was for her, and Florence followed him outside to one of the café tables, ignoring Charlie, who was still hovering wistfully nearby. She was spreading her blue-and-white-plaid napkin over her lap when Natalie emerged from the house and, looking across the patio, steamed toward her.

"What do you think you're up to?"

"What?" Florence said.

"The only reason I was ever friends with you is because our mothers were friends; my mother's always asking how you're doing, did I help you find a boyfriend. In less than twenty-four hours--as my guest--you've screwed my husband and almost drowned my daughter."

Florence looked around the patio, panic-stricken, but none of the other guests were looking in her direction.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Natalie, really. I said I was sorry about the accident with Claudia." The others dining on the patio ceased talking. Three waiters had gathered by the pool bar, motionless, straining to hear. Florence turned and went back inside.

"I think you know what I'm talking about." Natalie was not giving up; she had followed her into the house. "John's not without blame, but you're a total slut; you didn't have to come on to him. And you lock him in your bedroom just before I have a party? Is that supposed to be funny? I don't even want you on my property. I think maybe you should leave."

A droplet of liquid fell onto Natalie's forehead and rolled down her nose. Oblivious, she brushed it away and did not seem to notice when a second appeared. Surreptitiously Florence looked up. The water was coming through the ceiling. A bubble of plaster, like the blister on a burn, bulged ominously, tender and swollen. Another drop of water plashed down.

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Excerpted from A Certain Age by Tama Janowitz. Copyright © 1999 by Tama Janowitz. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.