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Meanwhile, my health deteriorated. I was losing strength. My children called in that diligent way grown children do, to report on their lives —my daughter in graduate school in Chicago, my son in Silicon Valley. If they remembered they’d ask about me and I’d say, “Nothing new.” I mentioned I was tired and left it vague, and children in the robustness of their twenties don’t require further explanations for the exhaustion of an older generation. The bicycle remained clamped to the signpost outside my building. It made me edgy, expecting every time I walked out the door to find my ex-husband waiting to pounce on me and demand his wheel back. The wheel was still propped against my bedroom wall. Finally I decided there was only one thing to do. I took the wheel in hand, left my building, and headed uptown for the Versailles. Once again I passed through those imposing gates, meant, no doubt, to keep out the likes of me, and faced the Russian doorman. I held up my hand to silence him. “Please, no announcement. Just give this to Mr. Wolfe.” I gave him the bicycle wheel. “He asked me to drop it off.” I’m not above an occasional fib to accomplish my goals.
I hoped to bring about some sort of resolution, whether it was a confrontation, an explanation, or just an end to his presence in my life. Instead, I received a phone message. I had just returned from another unsatisfactory visit to the doctor, whose description of the prognosis and procedures revolted me and yet he refused my simple request for a prescription, something to pep me up. Picking up the phone I heard my ex-husband’s voice. “Cut it out. You’re scaring my wife. Stay the fuck away from the Upper West Side or I’ll have you locked up.”
Well! I thought, I’ll stay away from you, if you’ll stay away from me. I did my best to put it out of my mind. I started seeing a homeopathic doctor in Chinatown who told me that state of mind was the key to my cure. I devoted myself to herbal teas and meditation. I also visited my lawyer to make a few changes in my will. There’s a calming effect to getting one’s affairs in order. Several weeks went by with no further incidents, and I really thought it was over. I was feeling hopeful. Until I was shocked out of my reprieve.
It was in the MoMA, at the de Kooning retrospective. It was crowded of course, but I was ignoring the crowds, absorbed in the great swirling brushstrokes of pink and black, white and gold, that seemed like raw flesh splayed across the canvas. All at once I was pulled out of reverie by an alarming sight. Not six feet in front of me, her back to me, stood Mrs. Wolfe, entwined with a strange man. She had her arm around him; he had his hand on her ass. They were in animated conversation with one another, ignoring the painting in front of us and the people around them. The implications were unmistakable. Who could he be? I edged around to get a better look, while staying out of her line of sight. He was young, her age or younger, thin to emaciated, wearing the tight black pants and old-school Chuck Taylors of a hipster.
This was too much! This was insupportable! After all that Mr. Wolfe had thrown away for her—his college sweetheart, his long marriage, his adorable (albeit grown) children, his happy home! How could she be unfaithful to him? Where was her gratitude? I rushed toward them, pushing my way through the crowd. A murmur arose; a guard started to move forward. I grabbed the young man by his lapels and yanked him away from her, practically sending him spinning into Pink Angels. We were both surprised at the strength of my vehemence. I looked for words to express my rage. “This has to stop!” I cried. “You have no right!”
“Dude!” he exclaimed. He was a youth of limited vocabulary, unlike my ex-husband, who could be quite eloquent. “What’s up?”
Her face turned white, then flushed to red, like a neon display of guilt. She dropped the arm that had clasped her lover’s waist. “Mr. Wolfe will hear about this!” I sputtered. “You can’t get away with this!” I attempted to push him against the wall.
Someone yelled, “Guard!”
Not one but two guards grasped me roughly by each arm and escorted me from the gallery. I looked back at her over my shoulder. She was brushing off her long black cardigan, as if our encounter had left lint on it. Her companion grinned. I suppose he enjoyed the excitement. The guards took me out of the gallery to an office on the first floor, where after a brief lecture they released me. After all, I hadn’t touched a work of art, and grabbing a man’s jacket hardly qualifies as assault and battery in a city with far worse crime problems. I left the museum to ponder my next step, and walked blindly through the streets, dizzy with the emotions that assailed me.
I felt hurt for my ex-husband, betrayed on his behalf. He was, after all, the love of my life and I still cared for his happiness, even if he had made some wrong choices. There was a possibility that my inadvertent discovery would galvanize Mrs. Wolfe into compliance with her marital vows. The young hipster obviously offered little in comparison to what she already had. It’s true that I had threatened to reveal her, but she might feel confident in her ability to deny the charges.
Against this scenario played another: that I now had what I needed to get my husband back. That the young designer would prove to be just a blip in our long lives together. I entertained this notion with pleasurable fantasies—a house in the country for just the two of us, but with room to spare when our children and grandchildren visited.
For several days I stayed in my apartment, scarcely sleeping, pacing the rooms as I went back and forth in my mind. I imagined his response if I exposed his wife’s affair to Mr. Wolfe. I imagined his rage, turning to despair, turning to. . .what? A softening toward me, the wife who’d stood by him so many years, his confidant, the heartthrob of his youth, the mother of his children. “Darling, can you ever forgive me. . .”
I shook the image from my mind. Finally I could no longer bear the confinement, and I made my way uptown to Zabar’s. I went straight to the Caviar Express Counter and requested a pound of Osetra caviar, which the clerk packaged in a container with a sticker for 1,920 dollars. I went to wait for Mrs. Wolfe at the checkout line. I didn’t have to wait long. At her usual hour she appeared and took her place on the line with her cart. I waited until she was near the register, then I stepped in front of her. She hadn’t seen me since the incident at MoMA. I saw a thousand thoughts flashing on the screen of her mind—shock, fear, revulsion, etc. etc. She didn’t know what I would do.
What I planned to do was to thrust the caviar onto the conveyor belt, slam my credit card on top of it, and declare to her, “This caviar will seal my silence. Take it!” I would exclaim. “And never see the young man again. I’ll be watching.”
However, just at the moment of highest drama when I was to deliver my lines, the most unprecedented arrival of Mr. Wolfe himself, striding up to his wife, out of breath from having hurried through the aisles to catch her, interrupted me. He saw me, raised his fist, and shouted, “You again! Get out! I warned you to stay away!”
I ran for the door, still clinging to the basket of caviar.
Which was how I found myself, two days later, after the most humiliating spectacle of arrest on charges of grand larceny. Grand larceny! I had simply returned to my apartment to hide in shame, and the unfortunate caviar accompanied me. When the officers came, of course I didn’t have the funds to cover my intended purchase. They seemed deaf to my explanations, as did a succession of dreary officials. There were forms, fingerprints, and an uncomfortable conveyance to a bleak island surrounded by chain-link and razor wire. There were endless hallways of shuffling women, a night in a room with fifty cots, peeling linoleum, leaking ceilings, the stench of garbage, barred windows, and the constant roar of jets from a nearby airport over the murmurs and yells of prisoners. There were invasive questions and incredulity to the point where I had no other option but to beg my ex-husband’s help, as much as it galled me. Who else could I turn to? There was a phone call, then more excruciating formalities, then we were sitting in the back of the cab with as much distance between us as was humanly possible.
“It was kind of you to bail me out,” I said. My husband stared resolutely forward and said nothing. Silence had always been one of his most formidable weapons. “Generous,” I said. “More generous than I would have expected.”
“Just tell the driver where you want to be dropped,” he said from the opposite side of the universe. The cab wove from lane to lane on the BQE. From the highway’s elevation, Manhattan appeared like a fairy tale across the river.
“You know,” I said.
“Know what?” he asked.
“My address. Your bicycle is chained in front of my building.”
He looked at me with a peculiar expression, his green eyes penetrating the barrier that separated us. I realized that he had written the bicycle off as a loss, along with me. “I returned the wheel,” I said. “It’s time you retrieve the rest of it.”
“You’re insane,” he said. He turned away.
“I don’t think so.” But to avoid making a scene witnessed by the Pakistani driver (I believe in good international relationships, especially in these troubled times) I gave him directions to my apartment. “Take the Williamsburg Bridge,” I said. “We don’t want to waste any more of Mr. Wolfe’s hard-earned cash than necessary.”
We crossed the bridge without further conversation. We inched our way through congested traffic. Time compressed inside the cab to claustrophobia worse than Rikers Island. Block by agonizing block we traversed the neighborhoods where years ago we’d lived together. So much had changed! Gleaming residences where once there’d been burnt-out slums. The corner bodega where we’d been known by name (we were called the young American couple by the immigrant community) was now a designer boutique. The Chinese laundry that had once returned, folded in a brown paper bag, a week’s pay left in the back pocket of my husband’s jeans—gone. Streets where children had played in open hydrants on hot summer nights, where Italian grandmothers had leaned on pillows from open windows, keeping watch over our comings and goings, I could hear their voices still, shouting for their children, shouting for their husbands—now these streets were tree-lined thoroughfares for the young and chic. Factories turned into artists’ lofts turned into chain retail establishments luring the moneyed masses from around the globe. The past and present hung in layered veils across my vision. I kept blinking, to see if I could clear it.
“Isn’t that where Bella’s Luncheonette used to be?” My ex-husband’s question startled me. Bella’s had been replaced by a store that sold nothing but tiny cupcakes. “Remember the eggplant hero we used to split?” he asked. “Back when we were poor.”
Did I hear wistfulness? Could it be that he was gripped in the very same nostalgia that had me hallucinating, that he was softening? This could be the moment to play my card, to reveal his wife’s duplicity, and invite him back to the heart that had remained true. “Those were good times,” I said. “I wouldn’t mind going back to them.”