Casualties – By Len Joy
The waitress refills my coffee. It’s five after eight and Karen is late as usual. From my table at Windows on the 107th floor, I have an awesome view of New York harbor. The September sky is so clear and blue it doesn’t look real. It’s a heartbreaking blue. The vessels in the harbor look like toy boats. I follow one of them as it turns east towards the ocean. I imagine myself at the wheel, salt spray in my face, racing into the morning sun. Heading nowhere. Happy.
I made seven million dollars last year. I have a wife who’s take-your-breath-away beautiful and my daughter Cassie, well, she’s the best. I live in a fifteen room mansion in New Hartford. That’s about ten rooms more than Karen and I need. We have a tennis court I never use, a swimming pool and a carriage house.
I’m forty seven years old and I’ve only loved one woman in my life.
The bulletin board at the back of Willard Straight Hall was plastered with political posters. There were a dozen supporting McGovern and almost as many for the Socialist candidate. There was only one Nixon poster that had survived, and someone had given the President a Hitler-like mustache. It didn’t appear that Nixon was going to carry Cornell.
This was supposed to be an orientation mixer for the Class of 1976, but it appeared that everyone but me had already mixed. I wandered through the hall trying not to look like some hick from a town with one traffic light, and ended up staring at the President.
I had decided that Nixon actually looked better with the mustache when a girl with tangled brown hair, her boobs bouncing free under her red Cornell Frosh tee-shirt, walked over to me. She stared at my nametag.
“So Colin O’Keefe, do you think we should re-elect a President who can’t even organize a third-rate burglary?” Before I could answer she took hold of my nametag so she could read the address line below the name. “Where the hell is Clyde Falls?”
I tried to look surprised. “You’ve never heard of the Wayne County Onion Festival?”
She wrinkled her nose. “You celebrate onions?”
“Actually the festival’s in Elba. But Clyde Falls is just down the road on Highway K,” I said. I wanted to return the favor and grab her nametag, but she had pasted it just above her left nipple and I didn’t have the guts. I could tell from her accent that she was a New Yorker. Cornell was full of them. “Where the hell’s Brooklyn, Maria Pasquale?”
“That’s Pa-squal-e’. Three syllables. Remember the name. One day there will be a wing in MOMA for my work,” she said, jabbing me in the chest.
She rolled her eyes. “How about another beer, farm boy?”
Maria was not one to be tied down by her possessions. Her apartment, a small studio at the bottom of one those ridiculous steep hills that surrounded the campus, was cluttered, but nearly unfurnished. She had a mattress with a comforter in the middle of the floor, a dresser in one corner and a small desk and lamp in another. The air was thick with the smell of paint and turpentine. Sketchpads, brushes, canvases and tubes of paint covered the floor and the mattress.
She turned on the lamp, which cast a soft amber glow over the small room. She plowed the art supplies off the mattress and threw herself facedown on the bed. She patted the mattress. “Come here, Colin. I promise not to bite. Tell me what it was like to grow up in Mayberry.”
I had never been in a girl’s bedroom before. Back home we’d make out in our cars at the drive-in movies, or if the girl was easy, on one of the back roads, but I never got to see their bedroom. I doubted they looked like Maria’s room. I flopped down next to her.
“So what do you want to know? My dad’s a dairy farmer. We got about a hundred Holsteins, half dozen Jerseys, couple of Guernseys.”
“Cows? You have to milk them every day?”
“I guess you don’t have many cows in Brooklyn. What do your parents do?”
Maria flipped over and stared up at the ceiling. “My dad was a cop. He died when I was sixteen. My mother ran off when I was two. Dad always said she was a free spirit.” Maria made imaginary quote marks as she spit out the words.
“Don’t be.” She rolled on to her side and rested her hand on my chest. “I’ll bet you had plenty of girlfriends. Probably even got to date a cheerleader,” she said. She said cheerleader like it was royalty, or some mysterious species.
“You weren’t a cheerleader?”
Maria sat up and cupped her boobs. “What? You don’t think a voluptuous Italian chick can shake her tits and ass as good as some long-legged dairy queen Barbie?”
I squeezed her ass as I pulled her on top of me. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
She nuzzled my neck. “So tell me. What’s it like to kiss a cheerleader?”
“Don’t you know?” I asked.
She looked at me and laughed. “Good one, farm-boy. You get a point for that.”
Before she could come up with another question I kissed her. “It’s not as good as kissing an artist,” I said.
She grabbed my shoulders and rolled us over so she was on top. She pulled off her tee-shirt and threw it on the floor. “I’ll bet you didn’t know any girls like me in Clyde Falls.”
Two weeks after Nixon ran the table on hapless George McGovern I moved into Maria’s place. I was unpacking my stuff, trying to squeeze it into the small dresser Maria provided, when I found a framed photograph of little Maria, wearing a Yankees cap, sitting on her father’s lap. He was decked out in his NYPD dress uniform.
“Don’t tell me you’re a Yankee fan,” I said.
Maria took the frame and dusted it off with her tee-shirt. “I was looking for this.” She placed it on the bookshelf next to the alarm clock. She sat down on the bed, her hands in her lap, as she stared at the faded photo. “My Dad loved the Yankees. He would have traded me for one more World Series.”
I put my arm around her. “No,” I shook my head. “Not for ten World Series.”
We spent the Christmas break with my parents in Clyde Falls. At school Maria hardly took the time to eat, but as soon as she got to Clyde Falls, she acted like she lived in the kitchen. Helped my mother with every meal and she got along great with my father. Maria loved to ask questions and Dad loved to talk. By the end of our stay she probably could have passed the mid-terms in the Ag school. She even got up one morning at four a.m. so she could watch him and his crew do the milking.
The two weeks flew by. On our last day we hiked up to the ridge that overlooked our farmhouse.
“How could you live here all your life and not want to paint this scene?” Maria asked.
“The sun, the snow. Look how the light filters through the trees of the orchard, and that stream, sorry, I mean crick. It’s so goddamn alive.” She sketched for an hour and would have stayed longer, if I hadn’t convinced her that frostbitten fingers would not be good for her career.
The next day, when we were driving back to Cornell, she asked, “Do you think your parents like me?”
I looked over at her to see if she was joking. “Well my mom thinks you ought to wear a bra, but Dad’s fine with your tits flopping around.”
She punched me in the shoulder. “I’m serious. They’re so nice. I want them to like me.” She rubbed my shoulder. “Sorry.”
“Do you think my mother would give you her special recipe for tuna casserole if she didn’t think you were worthy?”
She sat back to consider the possibility. “I guess not,” she said slowly. “And I promise to never make it. What about your father?”
I had to laugh. “Are you kidding? You’re an artist. He worships the ground you walk on.”
I grabbed her hand before she could punch me again. “You think my father’s Old McDonald, but he’s a renaissance man. He made me take piano lessons, violin. One summer he had my mother drive me to Rochester to take ballet classes. I lived in mortal fear my buddies would find out.”
“So where’s your violin.”
“After listening to me practice for six excruciating months he finally conceded I had no talent.”
Maria slid over next to me and put her hand in my crotch. “Not true. You’re a very talented lover.”
Maria was talented. I knew that because at every party we went to one of her artist-friends would tell me. This news was usually delivered to me as though I were some sort of neanderthal who had stumbled upon a precious artifact and had no idea of its value. I think they were afraid I might break her or something.
In the spring of our junior year Maria had a major exhibition at a new gallery off-campus. It was nearly two a.m. by the time we made it back to our apartment after the opening.
“Should we open a bottle of champagne to celebrate?” I teased. Maria was splayed on the bed, her arm covering her eyes. She had stripped off her black cocktail dress and was naked except for her bikini panties.
“My god, I can’t take all this being nice shit. My jaw hurts from smiling. Turn off the light and come here farm boy.”
I sat on the edge of the bed and untied my dress shoes. “Who was that skinny black dude?”
“You mean Baldwin? He teaches oil painting. Why?”
“He told me you should have applied for that fellowship in Florence. What was he talking about?”
Maria made a dismissive pffft sound. “He’s out of his mind. I don’t have a chance of getting into that program.”
“Why not? You’re really good, M. Everyone says so.”
“It’s three years. I’d have to start in the fall. I can’t do that.”
Baldwin had told me the fellowship was a once in a lifetime chance that could make her career. At that moment, as I sat there on the edge of her bed taking off my clunky wing-tips, I had what her artist friends would probably call an epiphany. It wasn’t a blinding flash of light or anything like that, it was more like a switch clicked on in my brain and I knew, without any doubt, that Maria had to apply for that fellowship.
“Why don’t you go for it?” I asked.
She ignored me, scooted over to where I was sitting, and pressed her bare breasts into my back. “Come on Colin, don’t you want to show me how talented you are?”
“Baldwin said you still had time.”
She shoved me away and folded her arms. “It’s a waste of time. Besides the Yankees just signed Catfish Hunter. I think we can win the series this year.”
“I bet you’ll get in.”
She stood up. “For christsake, Salomon Gutierrez is in that program. And Meulier. Fucking Anton Meulier. I’m not in their league.” She jumped off the bed and skipped over to the sink to brush her teeth.
“If you don’t apply I’m going to tell my father you don’t think you’re good enough.”
Maria stared at me in mock horror. “Oh god, don’t do that. He’ll give me that lecture about reaching for the stars.” She turned off the light and jumped back on the bed next to me, her head buried in the pillow. “Do you really think I should?”
“What do you have to lose?”
Most of us have a day that we remember all our lives. I don’t mean those landmarks like Pearl Harbor or Kennedy’s assassination. I mean a day that changes the course of our life. The day that we take the road less traveled and it really does make all the difference. May 15, 1975 was my day.
Classes were over for the year and final grades had been posted. I was headed back to the apartment to tell Maria I’d aced my International Econ final. When I opened the door I found her staring out the window, clutching a letter. She looked at me. There were tears in her eyes, but she was smiling.
“I got in,” she said, handing me the letter.
I stared at the paper. I could see the words, but I couldn’t read them. I took a deep breath.
“That’s fantastic.” I really tried to smile, but I couldn’t make my face work right. It felt rubbery, numb.
“Come with me, Colin. Senior year abroad. It’ll be great. Your Dad will be ecstatic.”
I wrapped my arms around her, the letter still clutched in my hand. My legs trembled.
“Will you marry me, Maria?” I had fantasized about asking her that question ever since the day we met, but this wasn’t how I imagined it. She thought I was joking, but after she looked at me for a moment her expression softened. She didn’t want to hurt me.
“We don’t need some silly ceremony,” she said.
“I need it. I’ll never find someone I love more than you. I want to be the husband of Maria Pasquale. I can take care of you. Clean your paintbrushes. Remind you to eat. But I need to be your husband. I can’t just be your boyfriend.”
“You aren’t just my boyfriend,” she said, her voice breaking.
I loosened my grip on her and the letter slipped from my hand. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to ruin your day. We should be celebrating.”
“Colin, I love you. Please come with me.” She squeezed my hand so hard it hurt.
“I will M. I promise. After graduation. It’s only a year. That will give you time to get settled in.” I kissed away her tears. “Maria you are going to be the toast of Florence.”
On that day I was certain I had made the right choice. I was all caught up in the romantic bullshit that somehow I was setting her free. I wish I had a do-over because I’d follow her to Hell and back if I had another chance.
I knew she would thrive in Florence. And I knew that her new world, like an inferno, would consume our relationship. I knew we would never survive the separation.
I was right.
She left for Europe in July and in December she wrote to tell me that she had moved in with Anton Meulier.
Fucking Anton Meulier.
A week before Thanksgiving, four weeks before I got Maria’s Anton Meulier letter, my buddies insisted I come with them to a party at the Deke house. The band was literally deafening, and the place was packed with sweaty fraternity guys and their dates. It took me ten minutes just to make my way to the front of the bar. Drink in hand, I wheeled around and ran right into the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I spilled my drink on her.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She laughed. “It’s okay I’m used to it. Back in New Hartford the boys were always falling over themselves to bring me a drink.”
Karen was truly stunning. She had blonde hair and pale blue eyes and was wearing a very short black mini-dress that showed off her long tanned legs. I bought her a drink and we went outside where we could talk.
She was a freshman, majoring in English. It was easy to talk to her. She was friendly and uncomplicated. When I walked her back to the dorm, I thought about kissing her, but I didn’t.
I ran into her again just before Christmas break, right after I got the letter from Maria. We shared a pitcher of beer at the Campus Inn. Karen asked if she could see my apartment.
We made love on Maria’s old bed.
Sometimes we determine the course of our lives by the actions we take and sometimes we just go along for the ride, like a leaf in a stream. I chose not to follow Maria to Florence. A decision I came to regret, but at least a decision I made. With Karen, I just jumped in the river and let the current take me.
In April I was accepted at Yale Law School. Two weeks later Karen told me she was pregnant. I asked her if she wanted to get married. It was more a question than a proposal, but she said yes. Then she started crying and told me how happy we were going to be.
We were married in June, ten days after I graduated. I gave up on law school and went to work for Karen’s father.
It wasn’t as though I woke up every day thinking about Maria. I wasn’t obsessed. Karen was a good person. We were compatible. And Cassie, our daughter, was a beautiful diversion. Maybe I wasn’t the happiest guy on the block, but I wasn’t a bad husband. By the time Cassie graduated from NYU and took an advertising job in San Francisco, sometimes months would pass without me even thinking about Maria.
Then last year on New Year’s Day, Karen dragged me to a new gallery in SoHo. I was hungover from the firm’s big Millennium party and I had wandered into the back room of the gallery, looking for a restroom, when I saw the painting. I was staring at it, not believing my eyes, when the owner of the gallery walked up to me. She was rail-thin with dyed black hair, and was smoking a cigarette.
“Have you ever seen anything like that? Such emotion. And sadness.” She had a nasally, Bronx accent.
“Where did you get it?”
“Barcelona. On the Rambla. An American. She was selling everything, moving to the north coast with her boyfriend. Can you believe it? I bought it for a hundred dollars. Of course she didn’t want to sell.” She raised her chin to blow her smoke towards the lofted ceiling.
“Didn’t want to sell?”
“Apparently it had sentimental value. She had a big argument with her boyfriend. I didn’t want to get in the middle of that scene so I told her I’d changed my mind. But that evening he brought it to my hotel.” She shrugged her shoulders and turned up her palms. “What could I do?”
“Who’s the artist?” I asked, peering at the canvas.
“Don’t know. She just signed it, ‘M’. I think it’s a scene from northern Italy.”
The smoke from her cigarette was burning my eyes and it was difficult to breathe. I thought my heart was going to pound through my chest. “No,” I whispered, shaking my head, “it’s not Italy. Excuse me, I need some air.”
I turned my back on Maria’s painting of the farmhouse in Clyde Falls on a gloomy, foreboding autumn day. I raced out of the gallery before anyone could see that I was crying.
Up until that day, I was doing okay. Things were in balance. My life wasn’t perfect, but whose is? I was making it work, but that goddamn painting was like the pebble that unleashes a landslide.
I had to find Maria. I went back to the gallery owner the next day and she gave me the name of a friend who worked for a major gallery in Barcelona. I called her that night. She didn’t know Maria but she gave me a list of smaller dealers that might have run into her. I started calling. I followed every lead. Finally, after three months, I found an art dealer who had purchased one of her paintings and thought she was living outside San Sebastian. He said she usually came south to Barcelona in the fall.
I sent him a five thousand dollar deposit for her next painting, and promised another five if he’d contact me as soon as she made an appearance. He thought I was a crazy American, but last week he called me. Maria’s boyfriend was bringing him three of her paintings. He was going to meet with him this Saturday, the 15th. I made a reservation to fly to Barcelona on Friday.
The boat I’m watching heads out to sea and disappears as the waitress approaches my table again. “More coffee, Mr. O’Keefe? Will you be having breakfast?”
“Please,” I say, moving the cup to my left side. “I’ll wait to order. My wife’s joining me.”
“Very good, sir. Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
I look at my watch. Eight ten. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Usually when Karen comes into the city we meet at the end of the day for dinner, but today she had wanted to meet for breakfast at Windows. Married twenty-five years and she still didn’t understand that this is a damn inconvenient time for me to get away. My day begins at five and by eight the London markets are in their final hour and New York’s preparing to open.
From behind me I can hear Karen greeting the host. “Good morning, Maurice. It is a lovely day.” Her voice is clear, mellifluous.
I turn and watch as she glides towards our table, looking self-possessed, entitled. Her blonde hair is cut stylishly short and her pale-blue halter dress matches her eyes.
“Hi honey, sorry I’m late,” she brushes a kiss on my lips.
The host seats her to my left so we both have a view of the harbor. I hand her the menu.
“I don’t have much time. I need to leave by eight forty-five.”
She takes out her reading glasses and starts to flip through the pages. She always looks at every page and then orders the fruit plate.
“What are you going to have dear?”
She reaches over and gently brushes her fingers through my hair. “Look at you. Not a touch of grey and you can still eat whatever you want. I’ll just have the fruit plate.”
I give the waitress our order. “What have you planned for today?”
She smiles and clasps her hands. “I have a fabulous day planned. A facial and manicure at the Waldorf at ten. Lunch in Central Park, and then I’m going to check out a new boutique in the west Village. I’d like to see the Gorky exhibition at MOMA if I have time. Maybe you can meet me there after work?”
“I don’t know. Depends how the day goes.”
“Mother called as I was leaving.”
Karen’s mother is always calling. Those calls never bring good news.
“She said Father’s retirement is driving her crazy. He wants to run their home like a business.”
I try not to laugh. “Has he come up with a mission statement yet? Given your mom some measurable objectives. Told her how people don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.”
“Stop it, Colin. This is hard for Mom.”
“I had an email from Cassie. She likes her new job.”
Karen puts down her coffee and grabs my hand. “Do you think you could take a week off so we could visit her? The Bay area is so beautiful in the fall.”
The servers arrive with our orders. It’s eight twenty-five. I slice the eggs benedict into bite-size pieces.
Karen, holding a forkful of honeydew in one hand, reaches over and grabs my wrist. “Slow down, dear. You don’t have to race out and milk the cows.”
I pull my hand a way and look at my watch. It’s eight twenty-eight.
“Can you get away for a week?” she asks again.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to check my schedule.”
Karen pulls back in her chair. Now she’s annoyed. “Of course you do,” she says with a slight shake of her head. She extracts a leather-bound planner from her purse. “Tomorrow we have concert tickets, and on Friday, the fourteenth, we have your reunion reception at the Midtown Club. A chance to see all your old Cornell classmates.”
I finish the eggs and throw my napkin on the plate. “I don’t want to go to that.”
“But it’s the twenty-fifth reunion – there should be some fresh faces – it’s a milestone.”
I sign the check and stand up to go. “There’s nobody I want to see. Look I have to leave now. You stay. Enjoy your coffee, I’ll check in with you later. Maybe we can do the Gorky thing.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Karen brings her hand up to cover her mouth. She starts searching through her bag. “I was reading the Cornell newsletter. Remember that girl you used to date? Marie? The artist?”
“What about her?” I sit back down.
“It was in the alumni section.” She continues to sift through the contents of her bag. “Where is it? I know I brought it.”
“Karen, just tell me what the goddamn thing said.” My voice sounds strained.
Karen notices too. She looks at me, puzzled. “Well this actually happened a year ago. Can you believe it? You’d think Cornell could do a better job of keeping track of their alumni.”
I start to reach for my coffee cup, but my hands are shaking.
“She died. In Paris. They didn’t give details. You know, like they never do when someone commits suicide or dies from AIDS or a drug overdose. I am sorry, Colin. I know Marie was your friend.”
I slump back in my chair.
“Maria,” I whisper. “Her name was Maria. She was from Brooklyn.”
It’s eight forty-two.
Maria takes my hand as our boat races out to sea. The sun sparkles on the water and salt spray stings our faces. The sky is so blue it doesn’t look real.
It is a heartbreaking blue.