My father knew he had leukemia for years before telling my brother and me. He explained that he hadn't wanted his illness to interfere with our lives. It had barely interfered with his own, he said, until recently. "I've been very lucky," he said, and I could tell he wanted us to see it this way, too.
This was an early spring weekend in the suburbs, and the three of us sat outside on the screened-in porch. My mother was in the background that afternoon, doing the brunch dishes and offering more coffee, weeding the garden and filling the bird feeder. It was warm but not hazy the way it can be in spring; the sky was blue with hefty clouds. The dark pink and red azaleas were just beginning to bloom.
Back in New York, I called my father before I left work. He was just getting home from the office. "Hi, love," he said. I knew he was in the kitchen, sipping a gin and tonic while my mother cooked dinner. His voice was as strong and reassuring as ever.
I tried to sound normal, too. Busy. When he asked what I was doing that night I glanced at the newspaper open on my desk--a writer I'd heard on public radio was reading at a bookstore downtown, and I decided to go, so I could say so to my father.
After we hung up, I stared out of my window into the windows of the office building across the street. This was the year everyone started saying, "Work smart instead of long," and the offices were deserted, except for the tiny shapes of cleaning women in their grayish-blue uniforms, one or two on every floor. The woman would go into an office and clean. A second later the light would go out, and on to the next office.
I heard the cleaning woman on my own floor, emptying wastebaskets and moving her custodial cart down the hall.
Her name was Blanca, and she was my social life.
I'd been a rising star at H---- until Mimi Howlett, the new executive editor, decided I was just the lights of an airplane.
The week she arrived she took me to lunch. At the restaurant, people turned around. Some knew Mimi and waved, but others just looked at her because she was beautiful enough for them to wonder if she was famous, and she carried herself as though she was.
I couldn't help staring, either--it was like she was a different species from me. She had the lollipop proportions of a model--big head, stick figure--pale skin, wintergreen eyes, and a nose barely big enough to breathe out of. That day, she was wearing a fedora, a charcoal-colored suit with a short jacket and an ankle-length skirt, and delicate, other-era boots that laced up. She might've been a romantic heroine from a novel, The Age of Innocence maybe, except she was with me, in my sacky wool dress, a worker in a documentary about the lumpenproletariat.
Her voice now: it was soft and whispery, the sound of perfume talking, which made her very occasional use of the word fuck as striking and even beautiful as a masculine man expressing nuanced and heartfelt emotion.
She began by telling me how sorry she was about my former boss, Dorrie, who'd been fired. She did seem sorry, and I hoped she was.
Then we talked about our favorite books--not recently published ones, but what we'd grown up reading and the classics we'd loved in college.
She'd gone to Princeton, she said, and asked where I'd gone. When I told her the name of my tiny college, she said that she thought she'd heard of it, adding, "I think the sister of a friend of mine went there."
She didn't mean to be disparaging, which only made me feel worse. Sitting across from her, I remembered all the rejections I'd gotten from colleges with median SAT scores hundreds of points lower than Princeton's. I remembered the thin envelopes, and how bad it felt to tell my father each night at dinner.
Mimi said, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," I said. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
I tried to avoid Mimi. Her presence seemed to call forth every rejection I'd ever experienced--the teachers who'd looked at me as though I held no promise. The boys who didn't like me back. Around Mimi, I became fourteen again.
I doubt my reaction was new to her, but it couldn't have been pleasant. Even so, she tried to be kind and took me under her fluffy, white wing.
She brought in lipsticks she no longer wore, silk scarves she thought I'd like. She let me know when a good sale was going on at Bergdorf or Barneys. She told me about an apartment, which my friend Sophie wound up taking.
The first time Mimi asked me to read one of her submissions, she said, "I thought you might be interested in this." But soon she was handing me stacks of manuscripts, every submission she didn't want to read herself, a terrible, endless supply. She did it in the nicest possible manner, as though asking a favor I was free to refuse.
Without realizing it, I became less the associate editor I'd been than an assistant she'd decided to bring up. She was forever interrupting herself to explain some basic aspect of publishing to me. I had to stop myself from saying, Yes, I know, which would've come across as an unwillingness to learn. And I did seem to know less and less.
After a while, she never seemed to look at me without assessing who I was and what I was capable of becoming. I could tell she doubted my devotion, and in this she was perfectly justified.
That afternoon, she'd held up her bottle of perfume, and I'd brought my wrists forward to be sprayed, as usual. Then she said that an agent had called asking about Deep South, a lyrical novel he'd submitted weeks ago --Did I know anything about it? I told her I'd look for it.
I knew where it was, of course--under my desk, where I hid all the manuscripts I hadn't read for her. Now I put Deep South in my book bag, said good night to Blanca, and headed downtown for the reading.
The bookstore was so crowded I had to stand along the back shelves. Someone was already up at the microphone welcoming everyone. I was taking off my jacket and folding it over my book bag when I heard the welcomer say, ". . . his editor, Archie Knox."
Since we'd broken up, I'd seen Archie a few times at readings and book parties. The first time, I went up to him, but he barely nodded before turning his back on me. My friend Sophie told me that he avoided me because he cared so much, but that wasn't how it felt.
Archie was a big man, both tough and elegant, with thick white hair and a weathered face; he didn't look older, but I was surprised by how old he did look, by how old he really was, just a few years younger than my father.
He wore an oatmealy Shetland-wool sweater I knew. He was saying that he'd read the book, Loony, straight through, forgetting dinner and postponing bed; he'd stayed up all night and eaten moo shu pork for breakfast, which he did not recommend. He paused and I saw him see me--his eyebrows pulled together--and he coughed and finished his story.
There was applause and then the author, Mickey Lamm, in a brown suit and sneakers, hugged Archie. Mickey looked exactly like his voice: bangs in his eyes and a bouncy walk; puppy-dog tails was what he was made of, though he was probably forty.
When the applause subsided, he said into the microphone, "Archie Knox, the best editor anywhere," and he clapped, and got the crowd clapping again with him. He had a crooked smile that didn't quite cover his teeth, and at about ninety words a minute he invited all the aspiring writers in the audience to send their manuscripts to Archie Knox at K----, and he gave the full address, including zip. In an announcer's voice he said, "That address again..." and repeated it.
I couldn't see where Archie was, but I could feel him there. I closed my eyes while Mickey read and pictured Archie holding a pencil above the manuscript.
Loony was a memoir of childhood, and the chapter Mickey read was about stealing pills from his psychiatrist stepfather's medicine cabinet. As it turned out, they were just antinauseants, though he and his friends imagined they'd discovered an excellent high--and he kept stealing those pills.
Mickey wasn't reading as much as being the boy he'd been--daring devil, winking leprechaun, smiling sociopath--especially when he got caught stealing, and his stepfather asked, "Are you nauseated, Mickey?"
In the audience's laughter, I heard Archie's.
I couldn't bear the prospect of him ignoring me. After the applause, I got my stuff together fast. On my way out, I heard someone from the audience ask the standard question What do you read for inspiration? and Mickey's answer: "Bathroom walls."
I was living in my great-aunt Rita's old apartment in the Village. Legally, I wasn't supposed to be there at all, so I hadn't really moved in. There wasn't room, anyway; she'd lived there for forty years, until her death, and no one had moved her stuff out.
My aunt, a novelist, had introduced me to Archie. She hardly liked anyone, but she liked him. Still, when I told her about Archie and me, she was quiet for a long time. Then she said, "A young woman does a lot for an older man."
I said, "It's not like that." I wanted to convince her. "We think alike."
"Oh, my dear," she'd said, "a man thinks with his dick."
Her apartment seemed less defined by my presence than her absence, and the little terrace was the only place in it I liked to be.
But I couldn't read out there. So I got myself a tall diet root beer and a coaster and took Deep South to her big formal dining-room table.
The novel started on flora (dark woods, tangled thickets, choking vines) and went to fauna--if bugs counted as fauna. Bugs, bugs, bugs--too small to see or as big as birds, swarms and loners, biting, stinging, and going up your nose. The prose was dense and poetic; it was like reading illegible handwriting and after a few pages my eyes were just going left to right, word to word, not reading at all. So, when the phone rang, I answered on ring one.
Archie said, "It's me," though we'd been broken up for almost two years. "What's the matter?"
I was too surprised to answer. Then I started crying and couldn't stop.
Archie hated to hear anyone cry--not because it hurt him or anything like that, he just hated crying. I could tell he was calling from a pay phone and knew that he was probably out to dinner with Mickey and his entourage, but he didn't say. He was silent, waiting for me to talk.
Finally, I got out: "My dad has leukemia."
All he said was, "Oh, honey," but in it I heard everything I needed to. He told me to blow my nose and come over to dinner the next night.
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