People tell me things
by David Finkle
[ fiction - september 03 ]
People tell me things. I don't know why. I guess they think I'm a good listener. Or understanding. Or compassionate. Or discreet - though my writing what you're about to read gives the lie to this apprehension.
They may even think I give good advice, although I don't. I make a point of not giving any advice, good or bad. Why? How many times has a friend of yours gotten you alone, leaned forward confidentially, spilled some sticky problem all over your lap and asked, "What should I do?" You answer as thoughtfully as you know how; you hear yourself sounding knowledgeable, simpatico; you like what you hear. A couple of weeks later the same friend comes to you, same sticky problem, same canted posture, some question, "What do I do?"
So, no, I don't give advice. I just let 'em talk. And maybe, in the end, that's what they like - unburdening themselves but not in the service of seeking advice they know they'll eventually feel guilty about not taking.
Let me give you an example of what I mean: my friend, Peter Fleming. Peter and I go, as they say, way back. We know each other since we came to New York in the late 60s. I was introduced to him by a college roommate, Ted Kirstein, when we all hit the Big Apple to pursue our various careers - what another friend of mine refers to, with a mocking glint in his eye, as First-Year New York.
The way it goes with Manhattan friendships I don't see Ted much anymore, but Peter and I are in constant touch. You might say there isn't a lot I don't know about him. A girl I was seeing back then (when we still saw girls, not women), Nancy Lang, had a friend, Bonnie Reddick, she wanted to fix up. I greased the wheels: Peter. In short, I introduced him to the woman he married. Which also means that, while I no longer communicate with Nancy - haven't since the early 70s, and really have no idea where she is - I've remained friendly with Bonnie.
More than that, I serve, and have served for some time, as a confidant to them both, to Peter and Bonnie. It's no surprise to get a call from either of them asking if I'm free for lunch. Truth to tell, it's no surprise to get a call from any of my friends asking if I'm free for lunch. As I say, people tell me things, and lunch is often when they do it.
Oh, the lunches I've had all over Manhattan: in coffee shops where the tomatoes are as chewable as baboon's ears and the rice pudding is pure heaven; in fast-food holes where I don't order anything; and in four-star restaurants where the waiters give themselves brownie points for anticipating your every selfish need. And oh, the trends in food I've been through and the updates on nutritional eating. From the time pasta wasn't good for you to the time it was to the time it wasn't again. Suffice it to say, if I hear the words tapenade or coulis one more time, I'll... I'll - I don't know what I'll.
But that's to digress. Back to Peter. A couple of weeks back I got a late morning bell from him. Was I free for lunch? I was, since - maybe I should throw in - I'm a writer and my hours tend to be flexible. Unless I'm on deadline, and then all bets are off.
Good, Peter said, he needed to talk; he'd even come to my neighborhood.
(If you're taking notes, write this down. There are many ways to gauge how dire a friend's predicament is. The availability to travel is one of them. If they're willing to come to you, things are bad. If they'd rather do it "closer to my office," not only do they have little to grouse about, but there's a good chance they're thinking they're doing you a favor.)
Peter was ready to come to me, and, moreover, we could eat wherever I wanted - he didn't care, probably wouldn't eat much anyway.
(The willingness to eat anything, anywhere indicated - it always does - the truly dire.)
I suggested a small Italian restaurant just around the corner from me where the food is unostentatious, where the help leaves you alone and where you're charged a budget-hunter's seven bucks plus tax and tip for a perfectly acceptable dish of pasta and a salad.
When I arrived at the which-shall-remain-nameless spot only minutes later, Peter was already there. A very, very bad sign. He had a glass of white wine in front of him, and it had been heavily drained.
In one fell gesture I sat down and asked him what was up.
I should say that Peter is, or was, a very good-looking guy. Square features, solid jaw, a comma of black hair punctuating a high forehead, deep-set ice-blue eyes Paul Newman only wishes he had. There was a time in my life when I thought it might be nice to look more like Peter, but that was in my naive days when self-doubt kept me from noticing how much deep shit - you should pardon the profanity - his brand of good looks can get you in. The years waltzed by, however, and I wised up. I learned that the only people who really care whether men are good-looking are homosexuals. And although I've dipped my toes in that fountain, too, I've tried never to make looks a priority.
For his part, Peter had lost what I think is still called the bloom of youth. Some would say he's become lined; others that time has put character on his face. I'd say both, but he was looking particularly drawn as he gazed from me to his glass of wine and back again.
Incidentally, his declaring that the worst had occurred didn't necessarily mean much to me. I'd heard it before. The worsts Peter and I had parsed over lunch included those of the financial and the career kind (often related), but mostly they'd involved the amorous. Peter was - is - a womanizer. (If understatement were a criminal offense, I'd be facing twenty-five years to life.) He had the womanizing inclination, and those drop-dead looks gave him the wherewithal. The blue eyes - which, by the way, I finally realized were just a little too close together - had been enough to put in motion the seductions of many women over the years. Usually they were one-night stands, occasionally two- or three-week affairs, once a year-long liaison that might have gone on longer had the actress under discussion not left her soap to make a full-court press in Hollywood. Successfully; you'd know her bold-face name, but there's no need for me to include it.
I know about all Peter's dalliances because the details had been vouchsafed me in moods ranging from the boastful to the beaten, from the cocky to the confounded. What should he do about this one? Or that one? Usually there wasn't much debate. He certainly wasn't going to leave Bonnie. We both knew it, knew he was no different from all the other guys who tell the girlfriend that they're about to leave the wife right up to the moment when leaving begins to take on the faintest hint of reality. Then it's goodbye, Charlotte, so long, Sheila.
(If you're still taking notes, write this down, too. Everyone knows the husband never leaves the wife; far fewer appear to know that's how the other woman, au fond, wants it.)
So with Peter, in the past "the worst" had meant that he had to make a decision about leaving Bonnie (which we both knew he'd already made); or that he'd picked up some venereal disease (this was in the days before AIDS) and how was he going to spare Bonnie from it and the fact of it; or that the current girlfriend had taken to calling him at home and hanging up if Bonnie answered; or any one of a broad range of tiresome predicaments.
(You know the old saw about a stiff dick having no conscience. That's only part of it. A stiff dick also gets great satisfaction from threatening its owner with the possibility of drastic consequences.)
From where I sat, Peter had been phenomenally lucky. He'd never been caught with his pants down - and I choose the cliché with care, which you'll see as I go on.
"Bonnie wants a divorce."
(Remember I talk to Bonnie, too, but I hadn't heard anything like this.)
As he reported this piece of social news, I noticed a look on Peter's face I'd never seen before. It was something far deeper than concern, something only slightly less than fear. It was an expression that told me in no uncertain terms he was very worried. To demonstrate the extent of my understanding I put down the hunk of bread I was nibbling. "No kidding," I said.
"I wouldn't kid about something like this."
"No, you wouldn't. That was just me batting the conversational ball back in your court. When did she get this idea? Why?"
"She got it last night."
"And she still had it this morning?"
"This morning she was packing her bags. Then she said, the hell with this, and she was packing my bags."
I resumed eating bread - more nerves than hunger, because this didn't sound good.
The waiter arrived, Giorgio, the owner's 15-year-old son, who had that pizza-dough complexion many waiters in Italian restaurants get for reasons I suppose make a kind of sense. I ordered what I always order (pasta pomodoro - simple and reliably fresh). Peter, having no time to waste on inessentials, said he'd have what I was having. When Giorgio brought the food, Paul didn't touch his.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"When I tell you, you won't believe it. No one would."
"You know Alice Feld."
"For a hundred years."
"Uhm." Alice is known to many. She's bright, she's funny, she's attractive in a brassy way - lots of big, highlighted hair, lots of make-up, so much costume jewelry that when she crosses the room she sounds like the Sousa band tuning up. She's always shopping for clothes and "whatevah"; she's married and divorced five times; she's flirtatious. When Alice is around a cocktail party, even the most secure wives find it inadvisable to concentrate fully on their conversations.
"I ran into her yesterday."
"Cause for caution but not necessarily alarm."
"Let me finish?"
"Sorry." I resumed wrapping pasta pomodoro around my fork.
"I was having lunch at that new place on East 50th. You know the one. Lescene - all one word, very smart."
"How'd you like it?"
"It doesn't matter how I liked it."
"I was with this guy from Pittsburgh who's interested in giving me some of the capitalization for my magazine. Alice Feld was there, too, with a woman friend at a table across the room. And of course she had to come over."
"I'm getting very close to tying this guy down to a couple-hundred-thousand-dollar commitment when I hear this commotion at my side. It's Alice on her way out with her shopping bags - from Bloomingdale's and that place on Madison Avenue where they only sell cashmere. She sees me and rushes over, leaves her friend standing there with the silly grin people get on their face when they're trying to look agreeable. Anyway, I've never disliked Alice. She's kind of fun. She always acts as if we share some secret. As if we got it on sometime in the past." He stops, thinks. "It's possible we did, but I can't for the life of me remember when it could have been. She makes me laugh, though. Or did. And you have to admit there's something sexy about her."
"Her timing couldn't have been worse. It was precisely at that moment - you can always feel it - when the guy you're hustling is thinking over the pros and cons and is about to throw business caution to the wind. You have to know just how to negotiate that crucial shoal. And I do. But right in the middle of it, here's Alice, and there's nothing for me to do but get up and give her the big hug she's waiting for. I wrap my arms about her. I'm aware of her breasts under her coat - those monster boobs of hers."
"I introduce her to Goodrich, and as I do, I see a look in his eyes that spells hesitation. I'm ready to brain Alice, when I hear her shriek something like 'My earring.' I turn around and see her rubbing an ear lobe. 'I think I've just lost an earring,' she says. The evidence is she has, since she's got this gold and silver hub cap on one ear and nothing on the other. Now she's looking around to see if it dropped on the floor. And I start to look, and so does Goodrich. Before you know it, people at the tables around us are looking around at their feet. They don't know what they're looking for, but I guess they figure that if they locate some foreign object, it must be what we're missing.
"'Herb gave me these for our anniversary,' she says. 'They cost a fortune.' She's addressing this to everyone around us to explain her frenzy. 'He'll kill me if I lose them. I'll kill myself.' With that she drops her bags and falls to her knees and starts crawling under the table. By now the waiters and the maitre d' have come over, and they're all asking what's the matter. 'Qu'y a-t-il, monsieur, madame, qu'est-ce qui se passe?' Alice decides to tell them and straightens up. But she bangs her head on the underside of the table, which is enough to make Goodrich's wine glass topple. So here's my two-hundred-thousand-dollar-man with merlot all over his trousers. He's trying to act as if it's no problem.
"The maitre d' and the waiters are making a big show of concern, and patrons are pushing their chairs back as a demonstration of heartfelt cooperation - Dominick Dunne over here and Georgette Mosbacher over there. And nobody's finding anything. Then somebody finds something, but it's not the earring. It's the doo-hickey, whatever they call it, that fits over the stem of the earring and locks it in place. So now we know there's every reason to believe the earring has fallen off and must be somewhere. Meanwhile Alice is demanding to go into the kitchen and search any plates that've been bussed. She's threatening to go through the garbage. Still no earring.
"After ten minutes of this, with the restaurant taking on the look of an exploded carnival ride, the maitre d' quiets Alice down long enough to assure her that the earring must be some place. When it turns up, he'll contact her. The woman Alice is with, who's never introduced and whom I don't recognize and who now has affected a look of profound concern, helps Alice out the door. Alice has the stooped shoulders and uncertain gait of someone who's lost a child. The maitre d' looks greatly relieved, and everyone goes back to his lunch. I try to regroup. To no avail. Goodrich, who's still dabbing his napkin at his pants, says he wants to think it over and get back to me. I leave the restaurant convinced his money is just about as likely to happen as me winning the Cy Young award."
Peter falls silent for a second. His face hanging over the cold pasta is as forlorn as I've seen. But since there's no explanation of Bonnie's cataclysmic decision in what's - let's face it - a very funny story if you don't happen to be its leading player, I figure there's more to come. I know enough not to ask. Peter needs time, and I'm giving it to him. He distractedly drinks some water and looks off at a wall where hangs a truly hideous rendition of the Bay of Naples.
"You're probably wondering what this has to do with Bonnie."
"I am. Yes."
"I'm about to tell you. I put Goodrich in a taxi and go home to see if I can try some alternate money sources, people I've tried before who've said no whom I hope I can get to change their minds. I get on my computer and draft a letter to Goodrich that sounds so obsequious when I reread it that I push delete. Bonnie comes home and we have a quiet evening. I never tell her about lunch, because I've taken to not saying very much about the magazine. I've suspected for a long time she's not completely sold on it. Whenever it comes up, she assumes a serious posture and asks back-handed questions like, Do you really think the time is right for a cigarette smokers magazine? Everybody's so anti-smoking these days, she says. As if maybe I haven't heard. As if I don't read the papers and see how out for blood the government is, tobacco lobby be damned. As if there's not an indoor space in all of Manhattan where you can't have yourself a relaxing smoke. I tell her that's just the time to go after a hardcore segment of smokers who want somewhere to turn for reassurance and revenge. Think of the advertising potential, I say. Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds alone could keep me afloat. Look at the success of Cigar Aficionado, blah-blah-blah. She says, Well, yes. But I can tell she's not buying.
"When it comes time to go to bed, we're in the bedroom. Bonnie's already under the sheets, and I'm taking my pants off. 'What's that?' she asks. 'What's what?' I say. 'That,' she says and points in the general direction of my groin. I look down at my boxers. Right by the fly there's this metal object. For a second I'm as baffled as she is. I don't know what to make of it. I grab at it, and stab myself with what feels like a needle. I hold this fucking gold-and-silver thing up. My forefinger is bleeding."
Peter pokes his forefinger my way. I look at it but see no damage.
"Now I know what it is," he says. "'It's an earring,' Bonnie yells. 'How did it - ? You didn't,' she says. I know what she's thinking. She was thinking what I'd be thinking? What anybody would be thinking? Especially in these post-Oval-Office days. Cheap blow-job. 'Of course, I didn't,' I say. But the evidence is incriminating."
This is too much for me. "Well, how did it get there?" I beg. "Was it Alice's?"
"Of course, it was Alice's. Who else's? All I can think is that when Alice hugged me, the earring somehow slid down between my jacket and my shirt, caught at my belt or something and then somehow managed to work its way down inside my trousers."
"And you didn't feel anything? Didn't the stem thing prick you?"
"You mean, didn't it prick my prick? No, you frigging fool. Otherwise I would have noticed and pulled it out."
"Didn't you have to take a piss at some point?"
"Don't think I didn't think of that. Of course, I had to piss. A couple of times. I just never felt it. I kept asking myself how I could have missed it. And eventually I started thinking that at some time late in the afternoon I unconsciously became aware of an unusual weight dragging at my boxers, a presence I just didn't register. But maybe I'm making that up."
"And you didn't try to explain?"
"Yes, I tried to explain. I even told Bonnie to call Alice Feld. And she said, 'The hell I will.' And I said, 'Okay, I'll call her.' And she said, 'The hell you will. Alice Feld's been after you for years. Even if that is her earring, you don't think I'm going to believe it just happened to fall into your pants - "Oh, hell-o!" How dumb do you think I am? I guess I know the answer to that question: very dumb. You don't think I know about all the women over all the years? I do. I chose to look the other way. But even I'm too proud to look the other way when you parade the evidence in front of me. I can't. And don't insult me by trying to deny it. Any of it'"
Peter brushed some imaginary whatever off his lapels. He said, "I realized I could take another stab at denying this one incident. But what about the rest, since they did take place? Think of it, Dan. All my infidelities over the years, and a freak occurrence turns me into a condemned man." He gave me a long look and cracked a rueful grin. In that one expression I saw the shrinking man he'd become over the years.
But as I say, I don't give advice. I just listen. There wasn't much more to listen to that day. I finished what little was left of my pasta, and Peter continued ignoring his. We made some small talk. But it was very small, and I knew whatever I was saying did nothing to alleviate his misery. His past had caught up with him. I saw in those ice-blue eyes he was beginning to accept what he'd gambled he'd never have to accept.
What goes down comes around, they say. Or they say, What goes around comes around. Or they say something along those lines. Whatever it is that they say, his had come around as farce.
We finished lunch, and Peter went back uptown. I talked to him over the next weeks, conferred about the changes he was making - finding an affordable apartment, furnishing it. He was subdued, absent-minded, downhearted, what you'd expect. He was also too busy to get together.
But, of course, that wasn't all there was to it, because, as I say, I'm friendly with Bonnie as well. I decided, though, that I wasn't going to call her. That could possibly be interpreted as my setting myself up as go-between, and I certainly wasn't prepared for that. I figured I'd let Bonnie call me. She didn't at first, and then she did. Peter had been out of their apartment at least a month when she phoned to ask me over for "a drink and something light to eat."
When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was that little had changed. It seemed to me one or two paintings in their - her - living-room were missing, but I wasn't even sure about that. Most of the furniture, and heavy it was, had come from Bonnie's mother's house, and it remained where it had always been. At least what of it I could look around and see while Bonnie was at the wet sink arranging lime wedges around our designer waters. It was as if Peter hadn't left or, more disturbingly, as if he'd never lived there.
I didn't get a good look at Bonnie until she sat down on an ottoman at an angle to me. She looked, as she always had, fashionable and pretty. I know that if I had been holding a photograph of her taken around the time we met, I would have been able to compare it with how she appeared now and would see a difference. But I had no photograph, and my impression was that, aside from wearing her unretouched auburn hair shorter, she looked very much as she always had. Nothing had happened to change the deep green of her eyes or the line of her strong, jaunty nose or her wide mouth. More to the point, wearing a silk blouse loosely over fawn trousers and not much in the way of make-up, she looked remarkably at ease - as good, I'd venture to say, as I'd seen her in a long time. Bonnie, I realized then, was one of those women who, even smiling, always seems tense - as if there's something she can't quite get off her mind. Now it appeared as if she had gotten ithad gotten him, the worst of him - off her mind.
"Have you talked to him?" she asked, all but nonchalantly.
"Not in a few days. Have you?"
"No. I asked him not to call for a while. It seemed a good idea."
"Sounds like it."
"How did he seem when you talked to him last?"
"No, I guess not." Bonnie was wearing carpet slippers with clever insignias on the toe. Not the sort of thing I normally notice, but I did now because she was taking time to look at them. Then she said, "I don't know how much he told you."
"Not a hell of a lot. And I didn't ask too much."
"No. You don't, Dan. I think that's why of all our friends you may be the only one we'll both be able to continue seeing. Sad, huh, but true. When I think of all of this, the friends choosing up sides is what I hate most. Maybe if we had children, that would have been worse to deal with." She was still contemplating her slippers. "I suppose he told you about the earring incident."
"Yes." I noticed - who wouldn't have? - that Bonnie pointedly kept using pronouns - he, him - instead of saying "Peter." I picked up not so much hostility in the usage, or stridence, as dismay and a letting-go that was the onset of forgetting.
"All about Alice Feld, et cetera?"
"And you believed him?"
"I believed him. And you didn't."
"Is that what he told you? That I didn't believe him about Alice and the traveling earring?"
"Yes. Why? Was he lying? Why would he lie about something as crucial as that?"
"No, he wasn't lying. I told him I didn't believe him."
"But you did believe him?" I was confused. "I'm confused."
"How long have you known me, Dan?"
"You know how long."
"And in all that time have I ever asked you anything about Peter and his women?"
"Never. I thought it was classy of you. Or stupid. I could never decide which. But you did find ways to let me know you knew."
"Of course, I knew. What woman with an IQ above forty doesn't? I just chose to deal with it in my way. I felt making scenes - or even just bringing it up not to make scenes - was lowering myself to his school-boy level. Acting as if it wasn't going on was how I protected myself."
"Then why did you make such a final issue out of it this time?" I asked, somewhat puzzled. "When you had no cause?"
Bonnie was sitting on the ottoman with her legs in front of her. Now she shifted position and, resting her elbows on her thighs, arched towards me. She looked me straight in the eye, and I thought, She never looks me in the eye, or hasn't for years. It was as if a long-standing but unspoken embarrassment had thawed and evaporated.
"I'm going to tell you something, Dan. I knew the earring story was true, because Alice Feld told me so. If I've got the chronology right, she tracked me down at my office only minutes after it happened. She described the entire episode and said she was calling me because she didn't want to page Peter at the restaurant. She was so mortified she didn't want to speak to anyone at the restaurant. What she wanted was to ask me to ask Peter, whenever I saw him, whether he had by any chance found the earring after she left. She told me how Herb had given them to her for their 15th anniversary. I knew the earrings she meant. I'd seen her wearing them enough. You could see them from the next county. She was devastated. She said the earring had to be somewhere. I assured her it had to be. I calmed her down by telling her if Peter said anything to me, I'd let her know. Then I forgot about the whole thing until Peter took his pants off that night. I recognized the earring at once."
She still hadn't broken her eye contact with me. I opened my mouth to speak. She put a slim forefinger to my lips. "Now you're going to ask why I would believe Alice had lost it in the way she said and not in the way the world would assume. The answer is, I've known Alice Feld for a long time. She may be showy. She may be silly. But one thing she isn't is a liar. She tells social lies. We all do. But unlike many of us, she can't make them stick. If she'd been manufacturing the story, if she'd really lost the earring while keeping busy between Peter's legs and was trying to cover up the sordid truth, I'd have seen through her in a second. I'd have heard it in her voice."
Bonnie leaned in closer to me and rested her hand on my knee. "But here's what you have to understand: Peter didn't expect me to believe the story."
"Did he say that?"
"Of course not. He wanted me to believe it, but he didn't expect me to. Nobody could be expected to believe a story like that. And you have to remember, Peter's lied to me all these years. I knew if I said I believed him, if I said Alice had called me and told me everything, he still wouldn't have expected me to believe it. He'd have been relieved, of course. I knew that. But somewhere in the back of his mind he'd have thought I'd fallen for another lie. An impossible, blatant, ludicrous lie. A quantum leap forward in lies. Then there'd be no telling what he thought he could get away with in the future. I know him. My presumed gullibility would have been too irresistible not to act on further. Because I've loved him for so long now - because I love him still - I've allowed myself to be a laughing-stock. Pretended I didn't hear the 'poor Bonnie' gossip. But I couldn't allow the stakes to be raised."
I had a thought. "But what if someday Alice tells Peter she spoke to you? Or asks him about the earring again?"
Bonnie looked away from me then. "Oh, she won't ask about the earring. I returned it to her on condition that she never mention it again."
"But what if she does? You know Alice. She opens her mouth and anything can come out."
"It won't matter. Peter knows and I know and you know that just as there are lies like truth, there are truths that sound like lies." Bonnie let that thought work its way into the white noise the air-conditioned air was making. Then she gave me a dry look that slowly became a smile of such relief I joined her in it. We finished our drinks and talked about what she was going to do next. "Get on with my life," she said and convinced me as much as I was likely to be convinced that she meant it.
So, as I say, people tell me things. That doesn't mean I pass them on. There's no reason or need. Possibly to change those things, someone might suggest. But things of this nature rarely change anything just because a pious bystander decides to pass them on as moral lessons. People tell me things, and - save for just this once - I've learned to keep them to myself.