When Isabel told me she was pregnant we were sitting on a couch in an otherwise empty penthouse overlooking New York's Upper East Side. It was a gray and rainy winter's day and I had just arrived by train from Bronxville where I was going to school. In the months since being away, I had stopped returning Isabel's calls or answering her letters. This time when she called, her voice sounded different and I picked up. She said she needed to see me in person, that it was important and could I meet her at her brother's apartment in the city. Figuring she had finally had enough of me avoiding her and that she wanted to put a more "official" end to things, I agreed.
"I thought you had the right to know," she said from the far side of the couch. Petite and elegant in a red cashmere dress, Isabel looked like Italian royalty, a princess from another age. "I didn't want to tell you over the phone. I thought you should have the opportunity to respond."
The wind knocked out of me, I laid back against the pillows and, looking out the windows at the mountain range of clouds beyond, watched as my spirit ran off along their dark, backlit peaks.
Touching a fingertip to Isabel's knee, I said, "Opportunity to respond? How long have you been rehearsing that?"
Isabel smiled but didn't look up. "Three weeks and two days."
We were quiet for a long time, than Isabel touched her fingertip to mine. Taking her hand, I pulled her to me.
Growing up in East Hampton, Long Island, I wanted desperately to be as rich and famous as the people for whom the town was renowned. As beautiful a place as it was to grow up, I hated my father for not making the kind of money that so many of my friends fathers did. I was ashamed of my family and distanced myself from them as best I could by adopting the dress, manner and association of those I wished to become. Summer mornings when I was young, I would flee the house early and spend the entire day with my two closest friends at an exclusive beach club their family belonged to. We played golf and tennis, learned to surf, and paid for lunch at the ocean-side snack bar by signing a chit. When a little older, we crashed parties at the nearby yacht club. Dressed in linen shorts, button down shirts and Top-Siders, we learned to drink under paper lanterns and made it with steady-eyed girls from The Dalton School, Spence and Choate. Like Nick Carraway, I was enthralled by the world I'd entered. Only, I hadn't entered it.
The hard fact of my exclusion was brought home to me time and again when, at the end of each summer, the well to do closed up their homes and returned, en masse, to Manhattan. At the end of the Memorial Day Weekend, the line of traffic out of town would stretch past our house. Moving with the stately crawl of a funeral procession leaving a cemetery, it made my stomach hurt to watch. With the leaving of the cars, East Hampton transformed from the rarified vacationland it had been, to just another lonely and desolate, Long Island small town.
Feeling myself condemned to live in this barren wasteland, the school year in East Hampton was insufferable. It felt fake to me, like a cheap, plastic life I was being forced to accept in place of the real one. My classmates were automatons. The way they settled into their studies and so diligently planned for college repulsed me. How anyone could ask so little of life after having been exposed to the kind of opulence and privilege that we had been, filled me with contempt. I thought them all cowards and couldn't wait to be rid of them.
My senior year of high school, convinced that my way out lay in becoming a famous actor, I graduated early and moved to Manhattan. It was a rude awaking. Without a clue how to become a professional actor I spent my first several months in the city just wandering the streets. I was terrified and thought I was going to die.
In the six years that followed, I eventually made my way and even had a few acting successes. But none of the jobs I landed made me the kind of mega-star I needed them to, the kind of star I believed I deserved to be. The failure was intolerable. Driven as I was, I knew no middle ground and had no backup plan. In all the years of dreaming about my destiny, it never once occurred to me to ask what I might do if it didn't work out. Twenty-four years old and feeling forsaken by everything I had ever believed in, the anguish eventually became too much and I had to call it quits. Broken, humiliated and ashamed, I moved back to my parents' house in East Hampton and enrolled at Suffolk Community College.
I went to the landscaper I had worked summers for during high school and asked if I could have my old job back. Jimmy did a double take when he saw me walking up to the barn.
"H-o-l-y shit," he said, smiling, a stack of lawn mower blades in his hands. "That you Charlie?"
I laughed. All the guys on the crew used to call each other Charlie.
Pete, Carl and Pecker came out of the barn to see what was up. All smiles, they said hello and shook my hand. It was so good to see those clowns.
"Get the fuck back to work!" barked Jimmy, breaking it up. The guys laughed and slouched off back towards the barn. "Jesus Christ," Continued Jimmy at their backs. "What's the matter with you guys? Lived here all your lives and ain't seen a movie star before?" The guys laughed again. Jimmy did too, and then he winked at me. When we were alone he said, "So what's up? Debbie saw your mother. Says you're going back to school."
"Good for you. An education is something no one can ever take away from you."
I smiled and looked away to the fields beyond the hedge. It was barely eight AM and Jimmy's uncle, Henry, was out there hoeing his flowers just as he'd done when I left six years ago. "How old must he be now," I wondered. When I came back, Jimmy was looking at me. He could see I wasn't the same person I'd been, that I was down. I could tell he felt bad for me, but he didn't know what to do, and that made him impatient.
"So," he said, "you here to work, say hello, or what?"
I smiled. "Work, Charlie. I'm here to work."
"Good." he said. Then he handed me the mower blades. "Remember how to sharpen them?" He was already walking away.
"Yeah," I said.
He motioned towards the house. "Say hello to my mother before you start. She's at the window."
The old woman was beaming. I waved and she waved back.
"Oh yeah," said Jimmy, turning. "You buy the coffee today."
"Me? How come?"
Smiling, he held up his watch. "8:05, Charlie. You're late!"
In the years since I had worked for him, Jimmy had expanded his business to include deliveries of his uncle's flowers a few times a month to some of the higher end boutiques in town; Isabel's dress shop among them. The first time I made the delivery to her, Jimmy and the guys were waiting for me when I came out. My hand on my chest like I was having a heart attack, I staggered down the sidewalk. In the cab with Jimmy, I said, "You should have prepared me for that."
"Whew. I'll say. Who is she?"
Jimmy threw the truck in gear and pulled away from the curb. "I don't really know. Deb says she's from up Island someplace. Nice girl."
A black Mercedes sedan cut us off and Jimmy locked up the breaks. "Motherfucker! I'm telling you, I have had it with these assholes. Think they own the fucking place."
I laughed. "They do."
"Yeah, well fuck that shit."
We drove in silence for a while. There was no talking to Jimmy when he got like this.
Soon we were away from town and Jimmy relaxed. "You should ask her out, Charlie," he said.
I scoffed and rolled my window down.
Jimmy laughed. "You ain't afraid, are ya movie star?"
I gave Jimmy the finger and it delighted him. He rolled down his window and shouted to Carl and Pecker in back how I was going to give Isabel the "big dabloon." That was Jimmy's word for it. Carl and Pecker went ape shit. They banged on the roof and pretended to hump each other. I rolled my window back up and turned the radio on.
For the next year and a half, this was all I heard about. Every delivery day, Jimmy and the guys rode me about Isabel, my girlfriend. I didn't think it was funny, and more than once a punch got thrown at someone to shut the fuck up about it. But this only made them push harder. I was afraid of Isabel, and they knew it.
Besides being gorgeous, Isabel was eleven years older than me. She was a woman, a grown up with a successful business, her own home and a fancy car. I was a twenty-five year old loser living at his parents' house and going to community college. On delivery days I'd chat with Isabel and make her laugh, but I knew better than to over-reach myself. I'd learned that lesson.
And then Isabel kissed me.
Nearly finished with the shelves Isabel had hired me to build in her stockroom, I was working late one night when she came in through the back door carrying a bottle of wine and a small pizza from the gourmet shop next door. I was just down from the ladder and still thanking her for her thoughtfulness, when she just leaned in and kissed me. I was dumbstruck. Like a flaming arrow, Isabel's kiss by-passed my entombed mind and burst my heart into flames. The feeling was so intense that, with eyes closed and hammer and nails still in my hands, I got dizzy and had to sit down.
Isabel smiled and touched my face. "That's a first," she said, and then she kissed me again.
Over the next few months, Isabel and I consumed each other. We were insatiable. Isabel's love for me broke through the wall of unhappiness I had carried all my life but had never shared with anyone. Once opened, I poured my story out to her in mad rants that saw many nights turn into day. Isabel hung on my every word. Her need to give love as deep as my need to be loved, she took everything I said inside herself. When words failed, she took my body inside of hers. Finding peace through exhaustion, we would fall asleep in each other's arms.
Part of what made Isabel such a voracious listener was her inability to access her past beyond just the details. She couldn't feel it. At 14, Isabel and her older sister, Christina, ran away from home. Their mother having died when they were young, their alcoholic father took to beating them and molesting Christina. When he began turning his attention towards Isabel, Christina got herself and her sister out of the house. Unable to take care of their younger brother, but thinking him safe because of his being male, the sisters opted to leave him behind; a choice for which neither woman has ever been able to forgive herself. At one time a rising star on Wall Street, Teddy parked his Porsche one night in front of the family home on Long Island, and took his life with a handgun. With Christina now living over seas, it had fallen to Isabel to clear out their brother's belongings and sell the penthouse. The few times I pressed her for specifics about what had gone on in their household and what exactly had happened to Teddy, Isabel would become distant to the point of shutting down. "I can't," is she all she could manage to say. "I'm sorry. I can't."
As our relationship settled and the passion began to abate, I grew increasingly dissatisfied with Isabel. Her inability to share her life with me with the same depth of feeling, as I believed I was sharing my life with her, became the centerpiece of my disillusionment. Though obvious Isabel had been traumatized and couldn't help herself, I didn't really care. In the same way I believed that fame and fortune were my birthright, I believed I was owed a partner who could meet me in every way, who could complete me. All that was needed was the right woman. And, it soon became evident, that that wasn't Isabel.
My acceptance letter to Sarah Lawrence College, like prestigious acting jobs in the past, rekindled my dreams of grandeur all over again, and instantly wiped away all memory of the suffering I had endured in their pursuit. With my departure date for school in sight, and believing a far greater life imminent, I once again cut ties to East Hampton. It felt good to quit landscaping, and empowering to break up with Isabel.
In early winter, I drove from Sarah Lawrence back to my parents' house on the Island for the weekend. A snow was expected and I had for weeks been promising my father I would take the screens down and put the storm windows up. I had a paper to write anyway, and as no one would be out at the house, it would be the perfect place to get it done.
The snow began falling the night I arrived and continued straight through the following day. Finishing the windows, I made camp by the wood-burning stove in the living room and set to work on my paper. By evening, the world had vanished. Standing in the dark on the front porch watching the snow falling through the spill of a streetlight, my thoughts turned to Isabel. I wanted her.
Back inside, I grabbed my coat and keys and headed out into the storm. Visibility was awful but, in four-wheel drive, my Jeep had no problem holding the road. Except for a single convoy consisting of a snowplow and salt truck coming in the other direction, I didn't see another living soul. In town I rolled through both red lights.
"They're signs Jack," I thought to myself. "Literally. You should heed them."
At the stove in her nightgown, Isabel had her back to me when I came in the door. Startled, she screamed and jumped her body away from the kettle and cup she held in her hands. She laughed. "You ever going to learn to knock?"
Pulling off my parka and stepping out of my boots, I said, "Uh huh. As soon as you learn to lock your doors."
With Isabel there weren't any questions. She didn't care, didn't want to know. She loved me was all and would take me back no matter how many times I left or in whatever shape I returned. It was so good to see her. College was fine, but it wasn't nearly as grand as I had hoped. Standing there in Isabel's kitchen, I felt just as lost and lonely as I had been the day she kissed me in her stockroom.
In her big bed in the tiny room at the top of the stairs, Isabel's body burst into flames. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Rather than a moment or two of passing ecstasy, Isabel entered a semi-unconscious state that refused to let her go. Like a woman possessed she writhed with a power and ferocity that was frightening. It was like fucking the molten core of the earth. When it was over, whether Isabel passed out or just fell asleep I couldn't tell, but she looked more beautiful and peaceful than I had ever seen her. She looked new.
The room was stifling, so I leaned over and opened the little window next to the bed. Lying back down, Isabel asleep in my arms, I watched as errant snowflakes drifted in the window, then landed and dissolved on the rolling landscape of her still fever-hot body.
I thought of all of this while lying with Isabel on the couch in her dead brother's penthouse. Her head on my chest with her eyes closed, she seemed so young and vulnerable, so in need of care. Looking out the window once more at the mountain range of clouds, I caught sight of my spirit, scared shitless and ready to run again.
"Shame on you," I thought.
Lightly kissing Isabel's forehead, she opened her eyes and we both sat up. Then Isabel gave a little laugh. She was exhausted, and laid back down in the other direction. I laid a hand on her stomach. "Isabel," I said, "I'll do whatever you want. If you want to have this baby, I'll have it with you. I'll be its father. I'll show up. Whatever that means."
Isabel laid her hand over mine and sat back up.
"I've been an absolute asshole to you," I said. "I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me, why nothing is ever good enough. I've been this way my whole life and it's killing me... Anyway, I'm sorry. I am truly sorry for hurting you the way I have. I love you, Isabel. I really do. And if it's what you want, and you'll have me, I think we should get married and raise this kid proper."
Isabel was stunned. "Never in a million years did I think you would say what you just said."
I laughed. "Me neither."
Isabel was quiet for a long time, collecting her thoughts. "I can't be a mother," she said, at last. "It's not something... I can do." As Isabel spoke, her voice trailed off and her gaze turned inward and back in time to the terror of her past. Holding her hand I told her that she didn't have to go there, that she wasn't alone anymore, and that I would keep her safe. Her spirit gone out the windows to the clouds, she looked at me from far, far away and said, "I can't. I'm sorry. I can't."
The next morning, I accompanied Isabel to a clinic off Park Avenue, then drove her home to Long Island and put her to bed. When she was finally asleep, I kissed her goodbye, let myself out the back door, than walked in the dark to the train station.