(Story from Freeze Tag.)
I had been dating Jeannie for two years and had been living with her for the past six months. We had a place on 31st Street between Madison & Park Avenues and we could afford it because, A. Jeannie was making pretty good money working as an administrative assistant at a law firm, and, B. Jeannie’s mother, Susan, paid a quarter of the rent in exchange for a place to stay when she visited from Connecticut, which she did a couple of weekends a month. I was responsible for the other quarter of the rent.
I worked part-time as a file clerk at an architecture firm located on the Upper West Side. For a while I kept up my end of the bargain, but that had been in winter, and now that it was early summer and I frequently walked to work, I often pit-stopped at Bryant Park and got stuck there. The accommodating lawn chairs, the sun-bleached green grass, the trees like friendly sentries flanking the park: all these things conspired to breed idleness.
So my part-time became part of part-time and what was both good and bad: my bosses at the architecture firm could care less. I barely registered on their radar even when I was there. They were busy with drafts and drawing up plans, doing their architect thing. I shuttled back and forth between my corner alcove and the room where the filing cabinets were, about ten feet away. As long as the files weren’t neglected to a point that was noticeable, I could come and go as I pleased.
Anyway, it was a Friday night and Jeannie would be working late. She wouldn’t be home until nine or so, something about an important project. On the phone she had asked me how work was that day. I lied and said fine. I had, with all the best intentions, started off for work that morning, but when I got to Bryant Park I saw that, at noon, the cast from Rent would be performing excerpts from the show, free to the public.
Susan was staying with us that weekend and was out to dinner with friends. I was lying in bed, propped up on three pillows, watching The Birds, munching my way through a bag of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn. The bulbous half-a-joint set in the ashtray caught my attention. I didn’t smoke often but Jeannie was a chronic smoker and there was always weed in the house. Again, I thought of elements favorably conspiring: The Birds, Orville Redenbacher, marijuana.
I lit the joint, smoked most of it, and placed the remaining stub back in the ashtray. The roasted scent of green made me think of Bryant Park, earlier in the day: the sun, the green grass, the trees, the lung-empowered song sung by that spiky-haired young man in Rent . . . and the associations spun on . . . Henri Bergamot’s articles on bohemianism inspiring Puccini’s La Boheme which gave birth to Rent, then my attention funneled outward and I saw Tippi Hedren on the TV screen, the mask of fear on her face ultra-colorful and vividly magnified. The birds, which were now frighteningly abundant in number, screeched and screeched: windshield wipers wiping glass with nails. Then I heard the door open.
Our apartment was mostly one big room, except for the loft area, just right of the front door, which is where Susan slept when she came. Our bed faced the front door and I saw Susan enter. Her face was well-lit, almost as if it were coated with bright cellophane. Once she said—Oh, hey, Alex—I could tell she had been drinking. Her voice was thick and moist, her delivery slightly off. She set her purse on the dining room table she had to pass en route to the living room. She stood next to the bed and stared at the screen.
Oh, The Birds, she said, I love this film.
Yea, me too, I said, wiping my butter-greased fingers on the sheets. Then she turned to me and gestured dramatically, the movement of her arms both mesmerizing and making no sense to me at all: Oh, Alex, you’ve got to go to this Mexican restaurant I ate at tonight. It’s fabulous. You and Jeannie have got to go. It’s on . . . it’s on 47th & 6th and it’s called—what’s the name—oh, it’s called Pepe’s. Pepe’s. You’ve got to go. It just opened and everything was so good.
Susan arms pinwheeled the entire time she spoke and I noticed that her flesh was loosest just above her elbows.
Yea, we’ll go, I told her.
As if she were a teenager who wanted to confess before getting busted, Susan smiled and screening one side of her mouth with her hand, said: I had some margaritas. Three. No, four. Yes, four.
She seemed pleased to take me into her confidence and her smile stretched even wider. I smiled back and said: So you feel pretty good?
I feel fabulous, she said, in a haughty British accent while throwing her arms outward in a theatrical manner. It was her attempt, I imagined, at playing the great boozy starlet.
Susan turned to the screen and stared at it quietly. I went back to screen-staring as well. Then, without taking her eyes off the screen, Susan lowered herself onto the edge of the bed, and when she moved in a bit, half her skirted ass covered my socked foot. My foot froze and warmed simultaneously. Or went to sleep and woke up at the same time.
I continued to eat my popcorn, munching at a much lower volume. I figured that the more quiet I kept, the greater my power of invisibility, and I could enjoy both being there and not being there at the same time. It almost felt like I was watching a scene from a film about a young man whose foot is suddenly half-seduced by the ass of a middle-aged woman. That this young man happened to be me gave the scene an extra edge of reality.
Susan continued to glare, glassy-eyed, at the screen, either lost in the film or lost somewhere else. My angle, in relation to where Susan was sitting, was diagonal, so I not only saw most of her face but also her body and her legs, which were neatly crossed. The rounded part of her knee stuck out like the nylon summit of a mountain.
Susan was an upper-middle-class Jewish woman with high, hairspray-sculpted hair, a cross between a beehive and cotton candy, and a deeply tanned complexion. The puckered roadmap of wrinkles on her face reflected her age, fifty-seven, but her legs told another story. They were the well-toned legs of an athletic twenty-year-old. I sensed that Susan was proud of her legs in the way that Tina Turner was proud of hers. Susan was an avid jogger who had jogged five miles every morning for the past twenty-somewhat years, and while she emphasized how good it was for her mind she also knew how well her legs took to the discipline.
I was getting hard thinking about Susan’s legs, but luckily I was under the sheets and had arranged them in a billowing lumpy sort of way, so as to conceal any sudden growth. We sat like that, Susan’s ass snug and warm on my foot, for a silent couple of minutes, then she turned to me, her ass shifting ever-so-slightly, and said, in a high-pitched baby-voice: Does Little Alex like watching The Birds? Does Little Alex like The Birds and popcorn and Aunt Mary?
Then she laughed a demented laugh, which turned into nose-first snorting.
I smiled but was freaked the fuck out. Everything was turning into something else. Why had Susan suddenly started talking to me in a baby-voice? And even though she knew that Jeannie and I smoked, I didn’t think she knew the term Aunt Mary. Wasn’t that modern hip terminology for weed? Did Susan secretly listen to Cypress Hill and Sublime to keep up with the lingo? Who was this woman, and what did she want from me?
I hoped, or rather prayed, that the babytalk was over, but Susan went on: Is Little Alex taking care of my Little Jeannie? Is he?
Again the crazy laugh and the snorting, this time joined by a hand half-covering her mouth, as if trying to staunch the flow of hysterics. Tears now filled Susan’s gray eyes and her mascara dribbled dark streaks along the upper part of her cheekbones.
Dabbing at her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse, she wheezed—Am I running, am I running—and before I could answer I heard the front door open. Jeannie was home.
I don’t know if it was the sound of her mother’s laughter or the fact that she was sitting on the bed with me, but I heard the rap-a-tap-tap of Jeannie’s heels clacking hard against the wooden floor and she made her way to us quickly. Susan’s laughter cut off abruptly and she quickly rose to standing. My foot now felt cold and alone: numbness minus the heat.
I wiggled my toes, trying to stimulate circulation, and adjusted my position from comfortably slumped to attentively erect.
What’s going on, Jeannie snapped, her eyes dark and fixed directly on her mother.
Susan played it off cool and casual, continuing to dab at the corners of her eyes with her sleeve. What’s going on, she said, I got home from dinner a little while ago and I was watching The Birds with Alex.
I don’t remember The Birds being that funny, Jeanie said tersely.
Susan smiled: Oh no, no, no, that was something else. A joke.
There was a pause, then Susan touched Jeannie lightly on the wrist and said: Jeannie, you’ve got to go to this new Mexican restaurant I ate at tonight. It’s fabulous.
Jeannie gave a slight nod, but the charge remained in her eyes. I had been on the receiving end of that look on many occasions and knew it well: It was a look that would strangle if it had hands; that would draw blood if it had claws.
Susan either paid it no mind or pretended to pay it no mind. I’m going to bed, she said, and yawned. She turned to me: Good night, Alex.
Good night, Susan, I said, and it felt strange to hear her address me in her grown-up woman-voice.
Susan brushed the dark curls away from Jeannie’s forehead, planted a soft kiss there, and said: Good night, sweetheart. Sleep well.
Jeannie nodded. Susan went to the loft.
Jeannie gave me a funny look, as if trying to gauge something, then sat down on the bed next to me, but her ass did not find my foot in the way her mother’s ass had.
How was work, I asked her.
Work was hard and long. I’m exhausted.
Then she asked, with a briskness bordering sarcasm: How was work for you?
Not that hard and not that long, I said, wanting to be honest without telling the truth.
Jeannie nodded but didn’t look at me. Then she turned to me sharply and asked: What was going on here, Alex?
What was going on, Jeannie. Nothing. I was watching The Birds then your mother got home and she started watching The Birds with me. That was it.
Why was she laughing like that?
That was a more difficult question. Why had she been laughing like that?
I don’t know, I said. She was a little drunk. You know how some people get when they’re drunk.
Yes, I know, Jeannie said, with a slight insinuative jab meant for me.
Then Jeannie exhaled what sounded like pure disgust and said: You don’t know my mother, Alex. You don’t know her at all. If you wanted to fuck her tonight, you could have.
I didn’t want to fuck Jeannie’s mother, not really, but hearing those words come out of Jeannie’s mouth, the way in which she had spoken them, as if she were her mother’s pimp by default and circumstance, turned me on.
Jeannie went on, sounding exasperated: She’s always been like that. She’s always needed attention from my boyfriends. Since I was a teenager, she’s always been that way.
I tried to imagine what that had been like for her, drawing to mind my own mother and sister and their relationship. Yet despite all the conflicts they had engaged in, none had ever resulted from that sort of thing.
I took Jeannie’s hand and told her to forget about it, nothing had happened and nothing like that would ever happen: I was into her, not her mother.
Jeannie was twenty-six, super-intelligent and compassionate, with a gorgeous head of dark curls, alabaster baby-face, and compact body highlighted by an eye-pleasing posterior. Her mother might have had her on legs, but that was it.
I kissed Jeannie on the cheek, then on the lips, then we made out for a while. Afterwards she looked in the ashtray and saw the stub-of-a-joint and laughed.
You smoked it, she said, her eyes bright.
Yea, I said. The Birds, Orville Redenbacher, and Aunt Mary: it’s a winning combo.
Jeannie laughed some more. For some reason, which I didn’t understand, Jeannie found it hilarious when I smoked by myself. She got her stash from her dresser drawer and started rolling a joint. Susan came back.
She was in a loose-fitting pink nightgown, which concealed her legs, and her make-up was washed off her face. She looked a lot older.
Jeannie, she said, don’t forget that we’re having lunch with your father tomorrow. One o’ clock. Alex, you’re more than welcome to join us if you’d like.
Thanks, I said, maybe I will. I knew that I wouldn’t.
Yes, Ma, tomorrow at one, Jeannie said, without looking up, intensely focused on the rolling of her joint.
Good night, kids, Susan said, and went back to the loft.
After Jeannie smoked her joint the day melted away from her. She was in a supremely relaxed and gelatinous state. She clicked on Law & Order, her favorite show, and asked me if I could massage her thighs, which I did. She passed out halfway through Law & Order and I clicked on ESPN to catch up on the day’s sports.
From time to time I would look at Jeannie’s face: peaceful and framed in dark curls. I knew that at some point I would have to get serious about something, but the future, for now, could wait a little while longer.