The Corner That Held Them
By Kevin Killian
They were arguing, stupid fight, about if you were color-blind how many colors would you see. Would there be only black and white? Or is color-blindness something larger in scope, with many shades of color, only re-assigned to objects differently than others see them? Listening to them fight, Elaine thought more than once that you could perhaps characterize the two men by the positions they took on the issue. The one who believed that color-blindness reduces everything to black and white, was he the more romantic one of the two? Or was he the more classical? “Like Balanchine,” she thought vaguely, having forgotten most of everything she ever knew about Balanchine somewhere over the years.
No wait a second, there must be still plenty she recalled about Balanchine. Seemed like she could almost see one of his dances, right in front of her eyes, the hush around the dancers, the andante of the music—live music, as she recalled. Did the City Ballet rely on taped music nowadays, hard to know who to ask. My God, George Balanchine meant everything to me at one point, Elaine thought, trying to work herself into a frenzy, and now I can’t even think of the names of any of his dances.
She sipped a little bit of her drink, then put the glass down on the marble coaster. I love these coasters, she thought.
Balanchine, everything black and white, Allegra Kent in some kind of white leotard with little handles around her hips. The stage all very dark except for spotlights from beneath the stage. It must have been the 70s, she thought. She remembered Balanchine’s profile, the way it looked like a mountain peak, and his long legs. They’d met at a party and she wondered why all the women went for him, then she’d decided the women in question must be a horribly neurotic bunch. Last autumn she was down in Los Angeles for the West Hollywood Book Fair, and a woman was speaking who’d written a book all about her late-blooming passion for anal sex, and Elaine had been puzzled and a little nauseated, and then all became clear when the speaker revealed she had been one of Balanchine’s ballerinas.
It had been a beautiful afternoon, outdoors, the speakers at long tables under tents, everyone wearing sunglasses.
The heat concentrating on the very top of your scalp, so Elaine had guarded it with some kind of flyer for the ballerina’s anal sex book. A discreet flyer, thank God, it could have been far worse. There was something almost dignified about it, just as there was, Elaine realized, about all of Balanchine’s work, no matter if he were choreographing for elephants at the circus (surely he did something of the sort, it was part of his legend), or for these incredibly elegant and soignee analholics like Suzanne Farrell or Vera Zorina. And that woman Joan in The New Yorker who never wrote an article without bemoaning the way the City Ballet had forgotten about Balanchine and treated his legacy like so much flypaper. Nowadays there’s a general cultural amnesia about the past. Why in her dim memory she recalled being taken to the NYCB by her godmother, oh, in the middle of some war, everyone upset outside, but inside a dim sense of peace and money.
“You must know Mary Sue,” Tim was saying, “she’s colorblind and you don’t have to be intimate with her to know, just take a look at her outfits, stripes with plaids, everything five different shades of orange. It’s like, when you go into an elevator and it’s all gray rubber, gray steel? At least this is how I understand it, and say you stepped into a big puddle of blood, you wouldn’t even know it. Gray and red are the same thing.”
“I do know Mary Sue and she has often told me, that she has shoppers who put together her clothes for her. It’s a service for the colorblind, and there’s a whole C-B department at Macy’s or Saks. One of them.”
“Oh, she doesn’t buy at Saks.”
“No, that’s true.”
They thought awhile about Mary Sue. Elaine remembered her from the days when all of them used to act in Beach Blanket Babylon, a San Francisco institution that had been running a hundred years; a revue of songs and topical skits and big, brash satire like Saturday Night Live. Mary Sue often played the big, clownish types like Dolly Parton, Peggy Lee, Imelda Marcos. She always dressed beautifully, in Elaine’s opinion, but maybe she had the Macy’s shoppers working for her even then, or else maybe her disease hadn’t spread up to her eyeballs yet (or wherever color blindness affected you last). She imagined it was in the eyeballs, sort of like cancer except not as painful, perhaps not painful at all. You certainly never heard people give little gasps or clutch hankies to their eyes and claim they had just had an attack of color blindness. It couldn’t be painful, but who knew? That Balanchine woman had evaded the question entirely about whether or not anal sex was painful. This guy who she met through the personals (of The New York Review of Books believe it or not) didn’t like her lubricated. He would come over and she was just supposed to lie there while he plunged into her, without a word, without even taking off his pants, just pulling down his zipper—which he could have done easily, in her foyer—and he’d be out of there in two shakes—so to speak—and leave her rapt, restless, and with another chapter’s worth of anal sex to write up in her so-called “diary of obsession.” So, Elaine thought, if Mary Sue indeed suffered from being color blind—in fact, whether or not she was color blind at all, and she, Elaine, did not think she was, despite what Tim and Gerald were swearing, so united in this one lie, despite being at loggerheads in every other aspect of the color-blindness debate; anyhow, if Mary Lou were colorblind she did not seem to ever have felt pain a day in her life. Save perhaps for the day when she was fired from Beach Blanket Babylon for moving to Oakland’s Lake Merritt. You were fired just for moving out of town? They said it’s a betrayal of the BBB ethic.
“Could we stop the car, please,” she said faintly. They’d been bucking up and down the hills of Pacifica and Devil’s Slide for what seemed like hours, and she wasn’t feeling at all comfortable. The drink she put down more firmly in its slot, above the cunning marble coaster. Tim took another glance at her, over his shoulder, with an unspoken fear in his eyes.
“Mom, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, dear,” she said. “That last drink was just a little on the strong side.”
“That’s Gerald,” he said. “When it comes to pouring out, guy’s got an iron hand.”
Gerald protested, as Tim pulled over to the wide gravel next to Highway 1. “It’s hard when someone else is driving. You can’t anticipate, that’s the problemo.”
Elaine put one foot down on the sand, judging its wet firmness. Thirty yards below, the ocean slopped and howled, a hungry beast prowling the shore. When they asked her if she felt better, she nodded, but the truth is it’s so hard to gauge how well or ill you’re feeling when you’re looking down at this horrible wet ocean that’s suffering its own spectacular storm from underneath. All roiled up as though octopi and squids were fighting it out on the ocean floor like King Kong versus the T Rex. In France didn’t they call nausea the “mal du mer”? That expressed it absolutely, the sea suffering, and “mal” meant—evil.
“I’m fine, Gerald,” she called back blithely while slipping a little mirror from her purse and quickly dabbing on some blush. You’re never so sick as makeup won’t help put a better spotlight on things. She wondered what the colorblind did about blush. Weren’t they always putting weird colors on their face? Maybe that’s what happened to all those women the Germans painted in the Blue Rider school, with deep blue cheeks and green chins. It wasn’t the painters who were colorblind, she flashed, it was the models! She should write an article for Art Notes about it. Tiny flakes of powder dusted her fingers and surreptitiously she wiped them on Gerald’s leather seats, the rich leather he was so proud of. However now the apricot dust was staining the black in a way that reminded her, disconcertingly, of a crime scene.
This wasn’t her first visit to Blanc Marie. She had endowed the sisters with a $10,000 fellowship to say prayers in some sort of universal novena in Marty’s memory.
Tim had not been in favor of this investment at all. And Gerald was, predictably, on the fence, not wanting to hurt Tim’s feelings by being disloyal to him, and yet not wanting to rock the boat so far as Elaine went either, for things had been rocky between them ever since Gerald had picked Tim up at some kind of gay cruise and married him on the steps of City Hall. Tim didn’t understand why she felt it necessary to have prayers said in Marty’s name. “I loved him too, Mom,” he said. “But he’s dead and all the prayers in the world aren’t going to bring him back.”
That was his argument, and how could she say that she doubted his sincerity? But the truth is she knew he would rather she spent the money on what, an extra bathroom on the house Tim was building for Gerald in St. Francis Wood. Not that it was all so black and white, she admitted. Marty hadn’t been the world’s best father, number one, and hell, maybe two men living together (with herself to be installed in this deluxe sort of “inlaw” apartment in what wasn’t actually the basement—but amounted to one)—maybe two men needed two bathrooms. (She’d have her own, of course.) Gerald thought it would be cute to have a bidet in his. She made herself grin when she joshed him about it, but inwardly she was thinking of whether or not he enjoyed anal sex and if so, why and how. She kept looking at Tim wondering how she had raised a son who would inflict anal sex on another, smaller boy.
Well, he was forty. And Gerald close to it. They weren’t boys, they just acted like it sometimes.
Today was supposed to be a nice drive in the country but now, as the two men stood there in twin sweaters, staring at her balefully, she felt alarm, seeing her nice afternoon go up in smoke. “What?” she asked. “I’m not going to feel any better with you two glaring at me as though I were–“ She couldn’t think of what. Instantly they broke their gaze off, as though ashamed. One looked up the side of the cliff; the other, to the rocks below. They might have been two surveyors, in fisherman’s sweaters, assigned to measure cliff erosion. Softly, out of the side of his mouth, Tim said, “Mom, do you want a handkerchief?”
“You’ve got all that makeup on the leather.”
Abruptly she swiveled in the backseat and pivoted herself out of the car entirely, hoisting herself up on her pins. Marty always told her she wore too much makeup. That she was beautiful just with a touch of lipstick. She didn’t need all that junk on her eyes. But what did Marty know? He was the one who said they shouldn’t leave New York, they’d be crazy to leave a place they knew, and at night she would feel the fear in his bones as he lay next to her, feigning sleep, in that awful apartment on the Henry Hudson, their last before abandoning the city for once and for all. That lumpy mattress she could have sworn had bedbugs. Him staring at the ceiling through closed eyes but his pulses jumping like the trotters at Aqueduct.
“Are you awake?”
“Marty, you’re not kidding anyone, you’re awake.”
You’d hear a snore, a horribly unconvincing snore, a snore so fake it seemed to signal the very pit of despair, for it didn’t seem to, well, it didn’t seem to care if you thought it was real. Whatever it was, it was not going to then turn around and say, oh yes, I was awake all along. She got up, put her feet in her slippers, padded out to the kitchen, and in the glare of the pink “Pharmacy” neon she picked up her crossword and sat down again at the table, thinking that it would be the last crossword she’d ever do in New York. The sugar bowl was empty, white crystals clinging to its rim. The Daily News printed the most preposterous puzzles, clues so simple little Tim could finish one up by the time he was seven or eight. They did have the Jumble puzzle which has pizzazz, a fairly elegant mess of consonants and vowels you could scramble till they formed a real word. ECRMA. You’d look at that combo and then “cream” would bubble to the surface. She used to tell Marty, “People talk about ‘I love New York,’ all the shops and shows, but all I love is the Jumble puzzles and the City Ballet.”
“Yes,” she said to Tim, “I’ll take a hanky if you have one. I don’t know why I’m so clumsy. It’s just the emotion of the day, I suppose.”
“That’s all right, Elaine,” Gerald said. “We understand.”
Was there a simper of condescension in his voice? There always is, when the young address the old. But they were neither of them young, neither of them old. Wasn’t there some fellow feeling among the middle-aged, or was your birthdate everything forever?
“Of course we do. Marty was a great guy and you probably miss him to bits. I know I do, and who am I?”
“Yes,” she mumbled. In her fist she was rubbing great streaks into his leather, like a Number Two pencil eraser, till it foamed with shavings. The white of Tim’s handkerchief, the thick black leather. It was like some old-fashioned view of the world she had put behind her long ago when she had become a feminist and taken up International Modernism—the new. No more black and white, she’d laughed to Marty, who shook his head like a rueful cart horse. “Everything new,” Marty said, looking around him at the new place on Russian Hill—well, sort of Russian Hill. She never knew when he was kidding. She only knew when he was afraid of something.
Too, he was the victim of a dreadful pair of, well, you could hardly call them parents, they were just monsters. That’s all, monsters. The Nazis, Goebbels and Goering, were better parents, probably. They gave all three of their kids a loveless childhood and made them feel guilty for wanting to get away from them. They picked on the one boy so much he gave it up at thirteen, expiring in some sordid Coney Island brawl that made the papers. And Elaine could just about remember Marty’s sister, who tried to join the Army during Korea and then disappeared into the bars and clubs of the Village sometime around 1956. And the monsters lived on, as monsters always will, their posture stiff and immobile, ruling the roost and keeping poor Mart under their thumb as though he were still a little boy with his father’s—
“Stop staring at me, boys,” she said. “It’s just not polite. Let’s let this be a happy day, shall we? And when we get to Blanc Marie the sisters are going to treat us to a lunch you’ll never forget.” The food they offered the public was spectacular, that was the only word for it. Pressed by friends to describe it, Elaine could only compare her experience at the refectory table to some great fireworks display, perhaps the one Leopold Bloom describes in Ulysses while he’s melting and rubbing himself over that innocent convent girl. Vaguely she knew, somewhere in her soul, that the voluptuousness of the food was in some direct relationship to the simplicity, some might say harshness, of the nuns’ order, but she couldn’t think why. “Sublimation” seemed too simple a concept, something beneath the register of the experience. She had heard that M.F.K. Fisher, the famous California food writer, had devoted a chapter to Blanc Marie in one of her early books, either The Gastronomical Me or I Ate A Whole Fat Pig, but as of yet she hadn’t tracked down the reference. M.F.K. Fisher—the Balanchine of food writers—joyous, vigorous, sensual, in fact downright sexy.
Gerald had picked up a small stone from the side of the road and was expertly tossing it from one hand to the other. “Well,” he said, “you want to get a move on, Elaine? You’re making me hungry, and we still have quite a hike.”
A hike? Just as though they were walking instead of driving. But that was Gerald for you: imprecise. Sometimes, she thought, dealing with him was like dealing with someone who didn’t speak English very well. His expressions were either slightly askew, or else so vulgar you’d think he’d have dropped them years ago as he rose higher in society and status. “Chunk of change,” for example. To Gerald everything was a big chunk of change. The outlay for Marty’s novenas, of course. The cost of a bidet. He whistled beautifully, like Bing Crosby, but only in connection with mentioning a sum of money. “Four hundred dollars!” he would whistle. “That’s some chunk of change all right.”
“Oh yes, let’s move on, I’m so sorry,” said Elaine, drawing her feet together and lifting them back into the car proper. Tim shut her car door from outside, then walked around the car, grabbing for his keys in his pocket.
“We had a little break, that’s all,” said Gerald generously. He held the black stone he’d found in his palm, gazing at it as though it were worth something. Elaine watched it glisten, catching the pinkish cool light and something of the rigor of the waves far below. All greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely! O so soft, sweet, soft!
“I don’t even know how the sisters get to the farmers market, considering they’re not allowed to talk to men,” Elaine said, looking forward now to her lunch. “Maybe they speak only to the women farmers there, I don’t know.”
“Or eunuchs?” Tim said, pulling the car back onto 101, eyes fixed on the rearview mirror. “That would be practical.”
“Hard boiled eggs for lunch?” Gerald suggested.
“Stop it, do,” Elaine laughed. “You two are terrible, terrible.” Tim had grown up with Marty’s sense of humor, an uneasy humor you might say, one that found the wry jest in every awful turn of fate. For Marty, she knew, all too well, such a philosophy had come naturally, for his life really had been tough. Hearing it from Tim, it seemed a little false, for outside of being gay, which in San Francisco was hardly a tragedy, what had he to complain of? It was the same way that the jokes coming out of Woody Allen’s mouth at least seemed felt, whereas the same jokes from Jerry Seinfeld lost punch somehow, or even meaning. Still, nuns were always ridiculous, weren’t they, and the best of them even seemed to concede as much. Mother Hilda always wore a little smile as though she, too, the intimate friend of Loretta Young and Teilhard de Chardin among others, saw how crazy it all was. And good with money too! Tim said that Mother Hilda had the mind of a steel trap, and sometimes she frightened Elaine, just a little; she was utterly pragmatic, hardly spiritual at all in affect. Like a character from one of her favorite books, The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s divine novel about a cloistered order. But then again, the older she got the more Elaine realized that the important part of life, the life of the soul, was all about simple things, and like it or not, the simple things cost money.
You could make a little chart, she thought, about which ballerinas, the ones she’d seen and envied over fifty years, which ones were Catholic girls and which were not. Maria Tallchief, yes. Alicia Alonso, for sure. Janet Collins, probably. Margot Fonteyn, don’t make me laugh. The drive was lovely, but a little dizzying, and it was beyond her now to correlate the data of religious background to the need some lovely dancers seemed to have for anal sex. Maybe after lunch all these columns and lists would add up. In the meantime she applied a renewed vigor to finding a comfortable place on the bridge of her nose for her sunglasses. In the shadowy back seat, she saw what amounted to a stranger—herself—reflected in the tinted glass. A stranger with an expensive pair of shades that looked as though they were biting her nose, as though she were in pain, and a stranger who wore a grimace even on a lovely day.
“Can I roll down the window?” she called up to Tim. “Or are we childproof?” The three of them laughed, just burst out in guffaws, at the incongruity of—of what? That she was no child, and that they had no parental authority over her? That they had no children and they didn’t really want any, so why buy a “childproofed” car? Well that last wasn’t strictly true, for Gerald in fact had three children, apparently, though Elaine had never met any of them. To her they were phantoms, forgettable phantoms, to be trotted out whenever any of them wanted a reminder that Gerald wasn’t maybe one thousand percent gay as he so often seemed. Those three kids, hidden from him by a vengeful ex-wife in Manila or Melbourne, were like the Lost Boys in the story of Peter Pan—they were doing something tropical somewhere, forever young, and noisy, but just about faceless. Elaine supposed that Gerald knew their names but they were so little a part of her life that most of the time she forgot they existed. She had to give him that, he wasn’t one of those fathers who was always trying to show you slides of his children, or JPEGs of their first day at school. Even when he’d downed a few, he never sobbed into his beer about Gerald Junior and the others.
“We’re childproof,” Tim affirmed, and this sent them all into giggles all over again. It was almost as though they had never been at loggerheads, her wonderful son and herself.
“May I see your little rock?” Elaine asked Gerald, raising her hand to his shoulder, pressing her fingers into the wool of his sweater, with what she hoped was a tender sort of touch.
The face he sent back was confused.
“What rock, dear?”
“That little stone you picked up from the roadside,” she said. “It was such a thoughtful souvenir of our day.”
“Did I have a rock?” he said. It was clear he’d forgotten the incident already. “Sure it weren’t no hard boiled egg, Elaine?”
Her nose itched. Sort of a flimsy sensation probably aggravated by the severe bite of the bridge.
“You were tossing that tiny stone around as though you wanted maximum publicity for it,” she said, coolly enough. “I saw it in your hand and for a moment you reminded me of Saint Francis.”
“St. Francis Wood maybe,” said Tim, for that was the luxury neighborhood in San Francisco that he and Gerald aspired to.
“I’m no Saint Francis,” Gerald chuckled.
“Apparently not,” she agreed, with an asperity that afterward dismayed her. Why couldn’t she keep any affection going for Gerald? She would catch it for a second, and she could nurse it for minutes at a stretch, but then like a firefly in her hand it would buzz and flare out, you could almost feel it dying, vacant with beauty. How long did it take to be able to love someone? With Marty it had happened in an instant, like snapping your fingers—or was that the marvelous diminution that time brought with it—everything seemed to have happened in a jumble, fast as thought itself, even falling in love. Or one day she, walking through Flatbush, seeing a used condom on the steps of St. Cecilia’s, suddenly deciding that come hell or high water she would move her family out of New York. And that was that. There were things irrevocable, matters of the spirit, decided in an instant; and then there were men like Gerald who no matter how hard you tried to treat him like a human being, you just kept seeing Tim’s thing in his mouth, his fat little mouth like a daffodil.
“It might be on the floor,” Gerald said. He shook his head from side to side. “The rock thing I mean.”
“You could look,” Tim said.
“Oh it is so unimportant,” Elaine said. “What’s important is having a good time while we still can.”
“Or when we stop I could get out and get you another one,” Gerald said.
“It’s not like they’re expensive,” said Tim.
“Oh, that would be fine,” agreed Elaine. “I wouldn’t want you to be out a chunk of change.”
She noticed, in the side mirror to her right, the cheerful orange and white boxy shape of a U-Haul van in their wake. It was keeping right up; as she thought back, she had been noticing it here and there, in the twisty turns of 101 by Devils Slide, or later, along the bleak Dover Beach seascapes of Pigeon Point, in her peripheral vision that U-Haul van had been almost traveling with them. When they had pulled over for their impromptu “stretch of the legs,” the van had maintained a discreet distance a hundred yards down the highway’s edge.
“Have you boys been watching this U-Haul truck?” she asked, wanting to amuse them. “As Marty used to say, remember Tim? It’s been sticking to us like white on rice.”
“I don’t remember the white on rice thing, Mom.”
Gerald laughed. “What would he say today, when rice isn’t necessarily white, I wonder?”
Tim glanced in his rear view mirror. His lip twitched. “He’d say that the fucking piece of shit was on our ass, is what he’d say.”
“Tim, please,” said Gerald.
“’White on rice,’” he hooted derisively, and if there was one thing Elaine hated it was when someone mocked you by imitating your voice or your expressions—the very things that belonged to you. “Give me a fucking break.”
Gerald leaned over the back seat, cuffed him on the shoulder. “Tim, let’s just try to have a nice day, okay? Our last one for a while, let’s make it nice.”
Last one for a while?
What was going on with that?
“I hurt you, Tim?” Gerald said in a small voice. “Baby, I’m sorry.” Then he must have pushed down a button in the armrest of the “childproof” car, for his window rolled down, nearly inaudibly, but she had always had good hearing and she could sense the atmosphere within the sedan changing, shifting slightly. “I don’t think I hurt our boy, Elaine,” he continued, his voice getting blown about by the wind so that, or so it seemed to her, the syllables in the different words he used seemed to bounce all over them, like the inflatable silver pillows Andy Warhol made for his Factory parties. Those silver pillows she had seen in Time magazine when all New York was talking of Pop Art and Warhol’s Silver Factory, which sounded so elegant. Even in the best of times, Gerald had an affected way of speaking. “He’s made of sturdy stuff as we both of us know all too well.”
Elaine was barely listening to him . . . When she got to Blanc Marie she planned to tuck into whatever rich dessert the Sisters had set aside for her. Too often in the past, she’d scrimped and cheated herself to keep the figure she’d had as a young girl, but we can’t all be sylphlike, so we might as well eat what desserts we may. Look at Violette Verdy! Balanchine had made dozens of dances for her, might as well call them “pipe cleaner dances,” but by the time she retired it was as though someone had pumped air into her like a dirigible so that by the time Reagan became President dear Violette had that silver pillow look herself, like a dumpling wrapped in foil at some dim sum place.
That U-Haul van was really moving. She saw its squarish cabin comically bumping up and down. She glanced at Tim’s knuckles on the steering wheel, how white and old they looked, his fingers knotted around the wheel as though arthritis had molded them into hooks. Poor boy, really. Upset about a tiff with Gerald, no doubt.
A good meal would sort them all out.
“Mom,” Tim said.
Chicken, spinach, chocolate cake—dumplings were in her head thanks to Violette Verdy; maybe there’d be dumplings. Not the Chinese sort, the—
“Mom, it’s not like we haven’t talked this out over and over,” Tim said. He sounded resigned.
She felt Gerald’s paw on her left shoulder.
“Oh, Elaine,” he said. “So awful to see you like this.”
“Don’t pretend you’re, like, all in the dark about the U-Haul, Mom.”
“In the dark?” she repeated. It was like he was being patient with her. An unusual note for Tim. Patience. Something new for our boy. “In the dark about what?”
“About the U-Haul,” Gerald whined. Oh, maybe it wasn’t whining, but his affected way of speaking. No wonder his kids never liked visiting him. Who would want a Dad who talked like Lauren Bacall in an old Douglas Sirk weeper like Written on the Wind? At least Tim had had a manly sort of father, a mensch as they say.
Marty. Buried on a hill, the sea breeze lilting, the stars above blinking out unendurable messages of gravity. A branch of one of those sea-drenched white trees pitched above his grave. Him a suit of bones, as she had used to lie in bed next to him, pressing his skin with her thumb, feeling the bone along his skinny little spine, his absurdly large skull.
“In the dark about what about the U-Haul, can you tell me that?” Elaine cried. “Because I don’t know what you could possibly be talking about.”
“Oh Elaine,” said Gerald, patting her shoulder, gently, as though she were some sort of National Velvet. “Those nuns are gonna take such extra good care of you. You’ll be their sugar doll with all your beautiful clothes and manners. Look! I can almost see it now.” Suddenly his face was next to hers, wreathed in smiles. “It’s coming up around the bend, just you wait and see.”