Astrid Sees AllNatalie Standiford
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For Eric, always
We hardly ever see the moon any more
so no wonder
it’s so beautiful when we look up suddenly
and there it is gliding broken-faced over the bridges
—Frank O’Hara, “Avenue A”
1 GOING UNDERGROUND
I am sitting, alone, in the apartment on Avenue A that Carmen and I first rented one year ago. The cats are here, and her typewriter is here, and some of her clothes, but she is not, and I wonder if I’m to blame for that.
I wouldn’t be in New York—I wouldn’t be “Astrid”—if not for her. For at least two years, maybe three, Carmen has played a part in every decision I’ve made. What she would think, what she would do in my place, would this attract her or repel her… I considered these questions when choosing what to wear, who to date, where to work, where to live, everything. She wasn’t the most beautiful or most glamorous person I knew, but that was why I emulated her: she found ways to be fascinating without relying on those easy tactics. She had the seen-it-all attitude of a native New Yorker, and I wanted to see it all.
I moved to Manhattan right after college graduation—to the Upper West Side, because Carmen lived on West Eighty-Ninth Street with a friend from Dalton, Sarita Feinman. I imagined Carmen would teach me the secret codes of the New Yorker, the two of us out on the town, people-watching in Central Park, and lounging around drinking beer the way we had in college.
I found a room in a run-down tenement apartment on Eighty-Seventh and Amsterdam—only two blocks from Carmen, so I jumped at it, even though it was small, dark, dirty, full of roaches, overpriced, and came with four roommates. Robin Greene, an assistant editor at a romance publisher, held the lease, which gave her the power to choose who would occupy which room and to kick out girls who didn’t have the right attitude. She preferred wholesome young women like Mary Frank, a devoutly Catholic law student, and Krissi, who had moved from Kansas in search of a job at People and a rich Wall Street husband. A flamboyant actress named Marin Berlin had sneaked in somehow when Robin’s guard was down. Marin was my favorite, but she was hardly ever home. She’d just landed a part in an off-off-Broadway play, a drag melodrama called Medea on Mars.
I called Carmen, who seemed delighted to hear from me. She immediately trotted me across town to her parents’ swank apartment on Sutton Place. Her mother was a former actress, and her father was the famous avant-garde composer Leonard Dietz. Carmen knew Len and Betsy would like me, and they did. Parents always liked me. Back then (a mere year and a half ago), I looked like a girl who couldn’t get into trouble if she tried.
I found a job at Bellow Books for minimum wage. It was a start, but four shifts a week at $3.25 an hour didn’t come close to paying my $350-a-month rent. I lived on bagels, frozen French bread pizzas, pasta, and peanut butter. Once in a while, Carmen and I went out for beers at the Dublin House and bitched about our jobs. I complained about having to work the bag check at the bookstore, pestering customers to hand over their shopping bags lest they stash stolen copies of Ham on Rye in them. She complained about working as an assistant to her mother’s former acting teacher, Bertha Sykes, who was writing her memoirs. Bertha blamed Len for Betsy’s abandonment of her career, and still resented him some twenty-five years later. Carmen toiled in Bertha’s plush Park Avenue apartment: making Bertha’s tea, nursing Bertha’s hangovers, enduring Bertha’s insults, and cleaning up after Bertha’s miniature Yorkie, Mimi, who left a yellow puddle or a neat pile of dog shit in the entry hall almost every morning.
But I only saw Carmen when she wanted to see me. Her boyfriend, Atti, lived downtown, and she spent most of her free time with him. I wouldn’t hear from her for days, and then suddenly she’d surface, like an orca, to see her parents or Sarita or, if I was lucky, me. She was friendly; she tolerated me; but I didn’t seem to interest her anymore.
One night I answered the phone and heard Leonard Dietz’s snappy voice. “Hello, darling, can I speak to Carmen for a sec?”
“Carmen?” I stalled for time, caught off guard. Her father had never called me before. I wasn’t even sure how he’d gotten my number.
“Yes, you know that delightful daughter of mine? She told us she was spending the evening with you tonight.”
I was pretty sure Carmen was downtown with Atti, and quickly realized she was using me as an alibi. “Right! She is. She’s with me. She just nipped out to get us some ice cream. She’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Ice cream? Okay. Well, ask her to call me when she has a minute, would you?”
“I will. Is it important?”
“Not an emergency, I’d just like to speak with her.”
“Okay. I’ll tell her.”
“ ’Bye, dear.”
She didn’t ask me if I minded. She just did it. And I didn’t mind. I was flattered. But it reinforced my sense that I had to earn her friendship. She expected to get something out of being friends with me—an alibi for her secret affair, or at the very least a good story.
I wanted to be more than useful. I wanted to be real friends. So I kept an eye out for ways to make myself interesting to her.
* * *
That first summer in New York, the bookstore and my tiny room felt like cages; I was stuck inside them watching the rest of the city live wild and free. It seemed to me that money was the key to freedom, but the only legal source of good money—besides a trust fund—was a corporate job. Another cage.
Every other week, when I got my meager paycheck, I performed a little ritual. First, I strolled through Zabar’s—past the grumbling old people who waved their deli numbers like protest signs—just to smell the coffee and the cheeses I couldn’t afford to buy. On my way out I tapped the nose of a baguette for good luck. Then I went next door to the takeout café, ordered a cup of frozen yogurt—chocolate-vanilla swirl—and perched at the counter by the window to eat it and watch people hurry up and down the gray expanse of Broadway. Except for the obviously insane, most of them looked disappointingly ordinary.
One day in September, I was sitting at Zabar’s counter eating my chocolate-vanilla swirl when a man sat down next to me. Not the usual old man mashing pastrami with his gums; not a lady bumping her wheeled shopping basket into my legs; no. A man with an aura of adventure. He wore a white oxford shirt under a rumpled navy blazer and a steel watch on a sun-gilded wrist, and smelled lightly of bay rum. Dark hair fringed over his collar, which was unbuttoned. He turned and faced me: a square chin, a hawkish nose, eyes black as tar pits. I self-consciously spooned more yogurt into my mouth.
“Is it good?” he asked.
I swallowed the cold goop. “What?”
“That stuff you are eating.”
The yogurt had a funny metallic taste that was strangely addictive. “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”
“I’ve never tried frozen yogurt before.” He sipped espresso from a miniature white cup, his elbow resting on a folded-up copy of the Times.
“Never.” He had a slight accent, vaguely European… not English or Irish. Continental. “I prefer a chocolate croissant. May I get you one?” He rose to his feet. “I’d like to. Please.”
“Oh, no, no thanks.” I tapped my plastic spoon on my Styrofoam cup. “I
couldn’t eat a chocolate croissant now.”
“What about a coffee then? I’ll buy you an espresso.”
“Well…” I liked espresso, but it was so expensive.
“Wait here. I’ll be quick.”
He went to the counter. His khaki pants were cinched by an artfully beat-up leather belt that looked as if it had been around the world. His shoes were expensive loafers that needed a shine. How old was he? I couldn’t guess. Everyone between twenty-eight and fifty looked basically the same to me. He was at least thirty. Maybe older than that. Forty?
He returned and placed a tiny cup before me. “Voilà.”
“Thank you. That was very nice of you.” I reached for a packet of sugar.
“You are very welcome.” He watched me sip.
“Mm. Good.” I nodded self-consciously. Since he had so generously bought me this extravagant coffee, I felt I had to make a show of enjoying it.
“What’s your name?”
“Phoebe Hayes, would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”
My mouth dried up. “Dinner?”
“Yes, that’s all. Just dinner. Or a drink, how about that?”
“Well, um, shouldn’t I know your name first?”
“I’m sorry! It’s Ivan. Forgive me. I just…” He trailed off, shaking his head at himself as if my charm had overwhelmed his manners. “What do you do, Phoebe? Are you a student?”
“No, I graduated last May. I work at the bookstore, right there on the corner.” I nodded toward the other end of the block. “Bellow Books.”
“A good bookstore. I go there often.”
“You do?” I hadn’t seen him. “What about you?”
“I’m a physician.” He glanced at his watch. “In fact, I should be going. I have an appointment.” He stood and reached into his jacket pocket. “Will you call me?” He gave me a card.
IVAN BERGEN, MD INTERNAL MEDICINE, INFECTIOUS DISEASE
There was an address on West Fifty-Sixth Street and a phone number, and at the bottom:
MÉDECINS SANS FRONTIÈRES
A doctor, like my father. Only Dad didn’t dress with this insouciant elegance. And on a workday he would have carried his stethoscope with him somewhere—around his neck, or in his jacket pocket.
But I wasn’t thinking about my father then, because he was still alive.
“Call me later this afternoon. If you don’t, I’ll come back here looking for you.” Ivan grinned to show that he didn’t mean to sound threatening. He just wanted to see me very badly.
He left, his jacket flapping like a cape, and hailed a taxi. I stared out the window, long after the taxi had disappeared, with the strong feeling that my life had just changed. I couldn’t wait to call Carmen and tell her all about it.
When she finally called me back, very late that night, she asked me what I planned to wear on my date with this exciting older man.
“I don’t know,” I wailed. “I don’t have anything decent.”
“I’ll come over tomorrow and help you figure it out.”
Just like that, I became interesting to her.
* * *
Then, on December first, my sister, Laurel, called to tell me that Dad was sick.
He’d been sick for several months, but none of us knew it. Over the summer my mother had mentioned that he was run-down and working too hard, but when I asked him about it he said, “Nothing a little exercise won’t cure.” He used to say that to me when I complained of feeling tired: “A little exercise will pep you up.” I moved to New York just before he got sick, so I didn’t witness the shadows deepening under his eyes, the pallor of his skin, the way his cheekbones sharpened.
“He has AML,” Laurel told me over the phone. She was premed and liked to show off this link between her and Dad, the jargon they shared.
“Leukemia. The worst kind.”
He’d ignored his own symptoms for four months: classic doctor behavior. Now it was too late. The disease had progressed beyond treatment. “There’s not much you can do for it anyway. I mean, even if he’d had chemo and all that…” Laurel tried to steady her voice as a doctor would, factual and unemotional, but I caught the quaver in it and understood what she didn’t want to say: he was going to die, and soon.
I took the first train to Baltimore. It was strange that Mom hadn’t called me herself, but when I got home I saw why: her tongue was so swollen she couldn’t speak. She couldn’t even close her mouth. It had happened at the doctor’s office, when the oncologist presented Dad’s grim prognosis. She had a psychosomatic reaction. She was embarrassed about it and had shut herself in her room.
Laurel and I drove to the hospital to see Dad. When I kissed him his breath smelled sharply of ammonia, and the sight of his ashen, bony face shocked me. How could he not have known he was sick? How did no one notice?
But he was still Dad. “Phoebe!” He gripped my arm as I leaned down to kiss his papery cheek. “Now that you’re here we can celebrate at last.”
He meant the Orioles’ recent victory over the Phillies in the World Series. I’d watched it at the Dublin House with Carmen, who’d talked through the whole game and had barely paid attention. Until I’d left for college, I’d watched the Orioles games and every World Series with Dad. We loved the O’s, they were our home team, but Dad was a Yankees fan at heart. Phil Rizzuto—small and scrappy, superstitious, bug-phobic, a bunter and a great shortstop—was his favorite player. After he retired, “the Scooter,” as he was known, became a radio and TV announcer for the Yankees, famous for spouting non sequiturs and jokes and stories about his golfing buddies and his beloved wife, Cora. Dad considered him a kind of accidental Zen philosopher, à la Yogi Berra. He listened to the Scooter call the Yankees games whenever he managed to tune into the New York station on the radio, and loved quoting Scooter classics like “That ball is out of here! No, it’s not. Yes, it is. No, it’s not. What happened?”
In August 1979, a few weeks before I left for college, the Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash. The team played the Orioles in New York the next night, and they held a solemn tribute to Munson before the game. I sat with Dad in the den, watching on TV as the Scooter came onto the field to say a favorite prayer for his friend Thurman.
Angel of God, Thurman’s guardian dear,
To whom his love commits him here there or everywhere,
Ever this night and day be at his side,
To light and guard, to rule and guide.
I thought it was corny, but when I saw the tears well up in Dad’s eyes, I started crying too.
“It’s just something to keep you really from going bananas,” the Scooter said. “Because if you let this, if you keep thinking about what happened, and you can’t understand it, that’s what really drives you to despair.”
Now, in the hospital, I tried to be cheerful. “Hey there, Telly Savalas,” I said. Dad had lost a lot of hair, but this was more of an inside joke. One of our favorite Scooter moments was when he spotted Telly Savalas in the stands at Yankee Stadium and complained of the blinding glare coming off Telly’s bald head.
Dad came back with a Scooter line, as I knew he would. “ ‘But that’s the thing lately. They say being bald is very sexy.’ ”
My cheerful mask crumbled, but he kept his up. He asked me if I’d heard any good music in New York, and joked about poor Mom and her tongue. “You know your mother; she always overreacts. Remember how she used to break out in hives if you were late coming home from school?”
Laurel and I tried to stop crying but we couldn’t. When we were upset as little girls, Dad used to say, “Let’s go to the window and see if we see anyone as unhappy as we are.” And he would lead us to the window, where we’d watch people pass by in the street until we cheered up.
Now, in the hospital room, he said it again. He coul
dn’t get out of bed, but Laurel and I went to the window and looked down at St. Paul Street. “Tell me what you see,” Dad said.
“An old man hunched over with holes in his pants,” Laurel said.
“A young woman in a white doctor coat walking very fast,” I said.
“A woman yelling at a toddler who’s not walking fast enough,” Laurel said.
It didn’t seem like anybody was happy. But I couldn’t tell if they were as unhappy as we were.
We stayed with him until visiting hours ended, then brought home a pizza to eat with Mom. She refused to come out of her room. Laurel and I went to my room and cried until we were dehydrated. No one ate the pizza.
Mom’s tongue shrank back to normal by morning. The rest of the week was a hospital blur. Dad had developed pneumonia in one of his lungs. “Get my stethoscope, Phoebe,” he said. “I’ll show you how you can tell which lung is infected.”
His stethoscope was rolled up in the pocket of his sport coat, which hung on the back of the door of his room.
“Put it on.”
I put the earpieces in my ears and he guided the chest piece to his right side. “Now listen.” He whispered, “One, two, three… One, two, three… Do you hear anything?”
“Try the left side.”
I moved the chest piece to the left. Once again he murmured, “One, two, three… One, two, three…” a breathy waltz. This time I heard the whispers through the stethoscope.
“That’s the infected side,” he said. “The consolidation in my lung carries the vibration of my voice. In a clear, normal lung, there’s no infected gunk to vibrate, so you can’t hear the whisper.”
Laurel walked in, back from the cafeteria with three cups of tea. “Laurel already knows all this, don’t you, Laurel.”
“Egophony when auscultating the lungs,” she recited.
“They don’t teach that in med school anymore,” Dad said. “Hardly ever.”