"I called him before I left my office," I lie. "He's working late tonight."
Demi may be drunk and (to quote James) the world's oldest two-year-old, but he's shrewd enough to see through me. I guess after 30 years as a bartender you can detect anyone's bullshit. He stares at me, shaking his head, scaring me to death. His still-full head of hair is white, but his eyebrows and eyes glower blackly. His alcohol reek coats me like pure disdain. I know that reek from my own father, but I've always associated it with weakness. Not with a Demi kind of threat.
"I mean it," I say, unconvincingly. "He's not here. I'm closing the door now." My arm moves to punch the button. My arm is long, thin, and freckled, a dry branch that may snap when punched against anything.
Demi whips his head back and then forward, as if nodding in violent agreement. Then I remember that Greeks from Greece use the same motion to say no that Americans use for yes. "You don't close doors on me. You're nobody. I say it's open."
And then I can't help it: I laugh. He's just too childish, and he sends me back years, to the Grigoriades' house in Cresskill, New Jersey. We'd come out for Sunday dinner and the birthday of James's mother Kiki. Relations between James and his family were already strained: they expected him to come every Sunday, and he'd cut it to once every two months. They weren't happy about James changing his name from Grigoriades to Gregg, "for professional reasons"; they had never forgiven him for not marrying the girl they approved of; and his sister Helen had accused James of avoiding and abandoning her. But he had told me that he was going to marry me, and now he wanted to tell them. I had met his family several times, but James pointed out, correctly, that they hadn't registered me. "Most people don't," I said. (Not surprising, since I'm plain-faced and skinny, with breasts small as lemons.) "I do," James said. He wanted them to know that for him to accept them, they would have to acknowledge me. I so loved him for that.
Although it was her birthday, Kiki insisted on doing all the cooking and complaining through every course. She kissed us both when we arrived, but her eyes wandered and her lips disappeared when she smiled at me. Demi, as ever, greeted me like a king--king of the smallest of kingdoms, shoebox house and yard, but still a king, showing off his vegetable patch, calling me Patty instead of Patsy, even after James corrected him. The needy Helen, her face still flushed with rosacea but her hair now blonder than mine, acted like she didn't need her brother at all: she barely spoke to James (though she snuck some looks at him), instead asking me questions all afternoon, questions designed to show how unread and unremarkable I am. James countered this by overpraising my art, calling me a "naÔve genius."
But mostly James was quiet and smiling behind sunglasses. He hadn't said a word yet about our marriage plans; he wanted Kiki to have her spotlight, and would make our announcement after her birthday had been toasted and sung. Hours passed in the backyard, plate after plate of heavy, overcooked food was served, and then neighbors began to arrive for coffee, cake, and gift-opening. I whispered to James: "I can't stand this. Can't we get out of here?" I also flicked my tongue over his ear. James grimaced and whispered back, "Siren slut."
We slipped away to the house and ended up in James's old room (still his room when he stayed over, and in every particular frozen at his 18th birthday). I sat on the bed and James shut the door. Five minutes later Demi opened the door without knocking: we weren't fucking, or even undressed, but his abrupt entrance tore our lips apart and sent us to opposite ends of the bed. Demi was wearing a shiny party hat. He looked disgusted but not surprised, as if this wasn't the first time he'd caught us. Then James shot to his feet: "Jesus! The door was closed, didn't you notice?" "Nobody close doors on me in my house!" Demi thundered back; the hat fell off his head and both James and I started giggling. Then he said, "You mother opens her gifts now," and walked away.
Well. He shows no sign of walking away now. I stop laughing, and I yell: "Jordi!"
Instantly I regret it. Demi steps back, blinking, looking over his shoulder and then back at me with a faint tremor of his head. He could have just pushed into the elevator, punched our floor button, and forced me to let him into our apartment. He could have done that easily. So now I grab the frame, jolted by the door sliding out (it slides back again), and I say to Jordi, who towers above Demi from behind: "Wait."
Jordi, our doorman, is South American, I think Peruvian, and huge and dark and silent. He speaks if spoken to but you never remember his voice. I've never seen him raise a hand except to help tenants with luggage or packages, but when he's on duty you feel safe. Once James got so annoyed at the squeegee guys working our street corner (one reason why we're moving!) that he grabbed their bucket and ran with it into our lobby. Two angry, cursing kids came right after him, and Jordi simply filled the front doorway, stopping them.
"Jordi, it's OK. Forget it." I leave the elevator. It shuts behind me.
After a second Jordi nods--at Demi, not at me. Demi's face is all emotion and Jordi's shows none, yet they seem to be in sync. Jordi leaves the building, stands out front with his back to us. I say to Demi, "Do you want to talk a minute?"
"What am I talk to you for!" But I don't flinch; his rage enables me to escape into art. I don't draw from life and I never draw people. My subject: pigs. Pigs that are blue and green and purple, pigs with lamb fur and dog tails, pigs that fly and speak and possess other fantastic powers, divine pigs who reign over a world of clouds--"Pig Sky." I didn't know it was called that until James asked me. I don't know where all this comes from; I just started drawing one day and have never stopped. I do know Pig Sky is a better world than this one, partly because we aren't in it. But looking at Demi I can see including him in at least one picture, the only human in Pig Sky, reminding me why there should be no others.
"Well . . . stay for a minute." I touch his arm to steer him toward the lobby's one couch. He shifts away from me and the motion brings the smell of booze. One thing I know from growing up with a drunk: the smell issues not just from their mouths but from every action, every gesture. In my father's case, it was dull and perennial, even when he was on the wagon. From Demi it wafts fresh, sweet, gross.
He sits on the couch. He looks so small; I can't believe this man and my husband are related. James is six feet tall, and his upright neck and shoulders give him the aura of greater height. Demi is maybe five eight (in flats I'm taller), very fat (he blew up after quitting smoking, James told me), far wider at the waist than the chest (although once, after James teased him about his accent, I watched Demi pin his son down and tickle him until he apologized). Sloping nose, however, black eyes, chin with its faint splintered cleft, widow's peak, eyebrows so thick James gets them trimmed along with his hair: all these connect them. Through Demi's mask of fat I see James's face, itself mask-like in its blunt bone structure and expression--although in Demi's case the bluntness is somehow embarrassing.
I sit so that there's a foot between Demi and me. The couch is shabby and the only furniture in sight, unless you count the doorman's station, which looks like the offspring of a desk and a podium--too narrow to sit at, too squat to stand behind with any dignity. For a second these things depress me, and I remind myself that we're moving--to a landmark building on Park Avenue with a lobby that looks like the reading room of the Harvard Club. Our new apartment is three times bigger than our current one, has an office for James and a studio for me with unimpeded light, although I don't need it since I don't draw from life anyway.
I look at Demi. Isn't this when his shift starts? (He works nights and sleeps days--the reason, according to James, why Demi and Kiki are still married.) He's dressed in his bartender uniform of shiny black pants and lace-up shoes, white shirt, a vest of fake gold leaf with minute fissures from too many dry-cleanings, an untied tie flowing from his shirt collar. Over it he wears an old man's windbreaker, also black but duller than the pants and shoes. Did he come here before work? No, I can't imagine Demi getting drunk before work, and I doubt that Weinerwald, the German bar-restaurant chain that employs him, would tolerate a drunk serving drunks. Maybe he worked a double shift, had drinks afterward, and on the strength of that journeyed to the east side . . .
"What brings you here," I say, "at this time of day?"
Demi pounces: "What brings me here. What kind of stupid? To ask me that?"
"No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean . . . I just meant: this is early for you, don't you work nights usually?"
"I work. I work 40 years to make my family, give my children better life than me. Understand? I come across the ocean to do that. Your people born here?" For a second I'm blank, because Demi pronounces people Greek-style, phonetically, so it sounds like pee-pleh. "Parents?" he clarifies.
"You don't know my parents." (Thank God. Now that would be Halloween in April, the collision of my Irish-German trash with James's freaky Greeks.)
"That's right. And you don't know me, my business. What do you know? What my son wants you to know."
"I know he's the best thing that ever happened to me."
Demi smiles again, but then, as if he can't help pitying me, looks away. "Patty?"
"I'm sorry, dear, but you don't know nothing. Anything."
"Don't patronize me." I wonder if Demi knows what patronize means and I decide the statement is stronger if he doesn't. "You seem to think I met James yesterday. We've lived together three years. I knew him very well before we got married."
"Married. What, in a jail?"
"Actually, in a judge's chambers. It was very nice."
Now my stupidity has overcome any pity Demi might feel. "No church, no priest. No family. That's no marriage. That's what my great son gives you?"
"Happiest day of my life." We married at 10 AM on a Friday, and after leaving the judge on Centre Street, we celebrated over pastries and espresso at Ferrarro's, and then drove up to Vermont and cold and snow (it was February) for a honeymoon that was really a three-day weekend, since James had to show some townhouses on Monday. That first day we ate a hearty lunch and dinner and had four bottles of wine; between meals we walked thickly through the snow on the streets while more snow swirled in our faces, helping me imagine we had ascended and been granted entrance to Pig Sky, and were exploring the cloud that would be our home.
"You see this dump? We're leaving, moving someplace a thousand times better, thanks to James. He made himself a success with nobody's help, none from you, that's for sure. I designed stupid book covers before I met him. Now I do my own drawing full time. As of today. I just quit my stupid job."
Demi seems amused at my little speech. I realize he's amused at the information I've given him, particularly the fact that we're moving.
"That's a big mistake," Demi says calmly. "You better ask for it back."
"Oh? I don't think so."
My voice isn't as sarcastic as I'd like it to be.
"He almost marry another girl, you know."
"I do know."
"Beautiful girl. Her family goes to our same church in Tenafly. It's all set, wedding date, reception, photographer. A week before? He cancels."
"Demi, I know all about it. Tina, right? For Constantina? James tells me everything."
"He tell you he never loved her? Well, he tells her he loves her. He tells us he loves her. Then a week before the wedding he says he never did. Terrible. I almost kill him. Beautiful girl--"
"Beautiful Greek girl, you mean."
"He's Greek. Why shouldn't he marry a Greek girl?"
"That's why you came across the ocean. You love America so much, you just want to be with other Greeks. No wonder he did what he did. James still feels bad about it. But he was in a trap. He had to get out."
"This is what he tells you."
"It's the truth."
"You're stupid, Patty. Patsy. She traps him? No. Doesn't matter. That's not why he does this. Because she's Greek." He waits for me to ask why but I don't. "He's crazy! He does this to everybody! To his own sister. You don't know him. You make a big mistake, leaving that job. He'll leave you too . . . with nothing."
I shake my head slowly, dismissively. I don't trust my voice and I don't want to give Demi any false advantage. It's just that today, leaving my supervisor's office after my little resignation speech, I heard the same words in my head: You're making a mistake. I didn't hear them the way Demi means them, and I don't doubt James's love or commitment. I know he believes in my talent. My doubts are directed at me. I remember my astonishment the day we met, at the Art Students' League where I was taking a Life Class, trying to force my drawing skills into competence. James was our instructor, substituting for a friend who had gone off on a bender with one of our classmates. As he told us this and warned that he had no idea how to teach, my hands shook; on first impression his mask of a face was handsome and ruthless, and I anticipated a brutal critic.
He drew along with us and stopped after five minutes as we did. His sketch was superb; yet the first thing he did was curtly point out all its flaws, and then he went from student to student, giving each one a specific comment, which so hit home the recipient rushed to add more self-criticisms. I cringed when he got to my sketch, but he never looked at it, because he noticed a torn-off sheet on the radiator behind me, a Pig Sky picture I'd scribbled while waiting for class to start. "That's a riot," he said. "That's . . . adorable. What are you doing here? You should be working on that. Is it a story?"
"Yes," I told him, "a ridiculous story with no plot and no end in sight." He shook his head: "Oh it's got a plot, all right, you just don't know it yet." "I don't know where any of it comes from," I admitted. "You don't really like it?" "I love it," James said. "Let's have coffee, after this," he added, with a wink at my fellow students.
We had coffee, and he insisted on seeing more drawings, and I took him to my sad little first-floor tenement room. My work excited him. And he excited me. I waited for him to touch me, but James, so forceful in every other way, can be shy about sex. However, like many a plain girl, I had learned how to make the first move. We ended up on the floor surrounded by the curling sheets of my drawings. "You really like them?" I asked. "You really think they're anything?"
James's overwhelming affirmation swept me into our life together. He dismissed himself as a dime-a-dozen draughtsman, and used my work as the proof and reason why he had already drifted from art into real estate, a field he disparaged but in which his presence and enthusiasm made him a convincing salesman. "This is perfect," he said. "I can't do it, but I can help you do it. I'll make the money. You make the art." He's helped me sell some drawings to his clients, more than I ever dreamed of, yet he insists this is just the beginning, that gallery shows and huge sales lay ahead; but to fulfill my potential I must draw full-time. So after months of him urging me, I quit. I love my art and I'm giddy about having more time to do it. And yet I did think it: You're making a mistake. Because maybe James is deluded about me. Maybe the day will come when he realizes it.
"He cuts people off. Look how he does to Tina. His family. You don't think he does to you?"
Sensing my hesitation, Demi gets close to my face.
"There's no comparison," I say. "How can you deny what you did to him?"
"Oh, you tell me what I do to him."
I say: "I knew you opposed the marriage. But I invited you to our wedding anyway, because you're my family. And none of you showed up. None of you said a word, not even a lame excuse. That really hurt. So I wasn't in the mood to see any of you for a while . . ."
Demi starts nodding no furiously; and then he stops, when he realizes I'm speaking in the first person.
I realize it too. But I keep on talking. I feel . . . ecstatic, as if James is flowing through me.
"And then Helen sent me her letter telling me as far as she was concerned, I was dead. And what do you do? Chastise me for not talking to her! But when I tried to call her she hung up on me. So I called Mom. And Mom informed me that she agreed with everything Helen had said. So I said to Mom, fine, I am dead; you won't see or hear me anymore. Her response, naturally, was to hang up on me too. Which is why I'm telling you now in writing. I never wanted to write this. But you gave me no choice."
Actually I'm reciting James's letter. He sent it more than a year ago but read it to me so many times that I know it by heart. I agree with everything it said, but at the time I told him to tear it up. I could never send such a letter to my own family. God knows they're worse than the Grigoriades tribe; they've damaged me and I loathe them. But I just did what most people do: I moved to another state and let geography serve as the excuse for seeing them only on holidays and birthdays; I call them every day, but mostly when I know the answering machine, not my father or mother, will pick up.
By the end of my recitation Demi has closed his eyes, as if afraid to look at me. Now he opens them and says, "This is what he tells you. Now I tell you what's truth. We don't care you're not Greek. We want to stop him from another mistake. We know how he is. He hurts one girl he hurt another. We tell him wait. That's all. Next we know he's married. Invited us? He never invited shit."
"Demi, he called you. He faxed Helen at her office."
"No. He's too scared to call. Fax." He says it like Fucks.
"Right. Whatever. And now you're going to tell me Helen never wrote him that letter, either?"
"She's mad at him. You say it, hysterica. He should know better."
"She told him he was dead."
"No she does not. I see it, she shows me a copy. It feels like he died, she say. Because she never see him, hears from him, and can't believe he does this."
Demi is correct: Helen's precise words were, "I feel like my brother died three years ago." Given his English, I'm startled that he would grasp such a nuance.
"The bottom line," I say, "is that he was dead to her. Besides, she said a lot of other things, horrible things."
"She's his sister. Your family never say anything to you? He's the man, he should know better."
"What about you? You endorsed her and disowned him. He just had the guts to--"
Demi jumps up, pointing his finger close to my nose. "That's a lie! I never disown him. Garbage. I beg him to talk to his sister. To his mother. I beg him."
I say calmly: "You never take responsibility for your actions. Even when he tried to call you, you hung up on him."
"I never hang up on him!"
"Well, Kiki did."
"She . . . does . . . not." In despair the hand drops, both arms flop to his sides. "He never calls. He sends his letter. Helen is nothing, compared to this. Like a spineless, he says nothing."
"No, Demi. I was right in the next room when he called you. I heard him call three times. And three times you, or Kiki, hung up on him. He was crushed."
"Just because he picks up a phone doesn't mean he call us." And he laughs suddenly, sits back down. "Maybe he calls the weather."
I smile--it's so ridiculous. "No--you don't know," he says. "My son is a sneak. A snake."
"A sneak and a snake." I can't help it, filtered through Demi's accent the words make me laugh.
"He is a sneak. Goes to peep show. You don't know that. You think he works late."
"Peep shows." I laugh a bit more, to show that I don't take him at all seriously. "And how would you know this, unless you go to them yourself?"
"I work on Eighth Avenue. I see him one night--there's place right across from the bar, terrible--I look out the door and see my son go in . . ."
I'm about to ask when this was (was it a night James came home late? He's late every night!), but instead I say, "Demi. Why are you here?" The question, or the quiet way I ask it, catches him off guard. "James is a sneak, a snake, he's crazy, he's a pervert, did I miss anything? If he's so bad . . ."
"My wife cries every day. And Helen, she . . . I think she has nervous breakdown. I yell at her about what she writes to him. I shouldn't. He start it, but now she feels she start it. Started it, excuse me. She won't eat. She miss work. 'I can't believe I never see my brother again,' she say. She love him so much . . ."
"In her letter she used the word 'hate' a lot."
"No, they always too close. She loves him like--too close, too close. I catch them once." His gaze is suddenly pained, nostalgic. "Play doctor. I catch them. He should know better. She's always nervous. Sensitive. I don't think she can ever love a man like her brother."
I remember my father once hugging me too close, too drunk to know what he was doing and yet doing what he'd always wanted to do: and I shove the memory away as I shoved him, so that he staggered and sat on his ass. "What are you saying, Demi? Do you have any idea what you're saying?"
Demi seems, for once, unable to respond.
"He's a monster, that's what you're saying. He's sick and disgusting and evil and he should have his balls cut off. Shouldn't he?" I shout, goading him. "Shouldn't he? Is that why you're here?"
But Demi doesn't jump to his feet, or point a finger, or blast like thunder, or sag like a martyr. He seems to have no expression, to be losing his features, eyes, brows, nose, chin, the entire mask melting, sliding down the paralyzed hole of his mouth. He's the Wicked Witch of the West meeting her demise. No--he's Demi and he's showing me his grief, which is simply grotesque.
"He's my son," he says. He makes a gagging sound that breaks, becomes bitter crying. And I am repulsed, but also concerned, as I would be at the naked distress of any beast. My hand lightly touches his shoulder--
And Demi pulls away: "Go to hell!" Distress becomes hatred, which somewhat restores him. He stands and walks out of the lobby to the street. There he stops again, head down, and Jordi lays a hand on his shoulder, as I did, but now Demi allows it. I stand, hesitate, and Jordi flicks me a look which says I'm free to go. At least this time the elevator door opens instantly and closes the second I punch the button for our floor.
My hand is shaking. I breathe slowly, steadying myself enough to unlock the door.
I shriek. A hand first touches the top of my head, then covers my mouth. Not Demi's hand, though: itís James. "Sorry Honey," he says. "I didn't mean to scare you!" He laughs, nervously.
I shove his hand away. "Well you did!" I open the door with such force it bangs the wall, and then I slam it shut and lock both locks and put the chain up. "You don't know what I just went through!"
"Actually, I do."
"Demi was here. Your father--"
"I know. I know. I saw it all." He raises a hand as if to stop me from shrieking again. "I should say I heard it all. I was there, Honey. In the lobby. Behind that stupid doorman thing." He gives a stagy groan. "My back is killing me." He takes my hand and presses it near the base of his spine. I'm so stunned it takes me a moment to yank my hand away.
"You were hiding behind the doorman's . . .? No. You're lying. You're a liar." No shriek, but my voice erases his smile.
He stares at me. "God, you're upset. I am sorry. Just . . . sit down, for a minute."
He gently herds me into the living room and onto the couch. He stands over me: it's as if I've awakened from a nightmare version of his face, and now the real face, the blunt comfort of eyes and nose and jawbone and splintered cleft, the thick black hair, the white, faintly oily skin that seems luminous in any light, all is restored. As always I think he must be six four, not just six feet; his posture and bearing levitate him. His sleek, slate-grey raincoat further extends him.
But his skin isn't really luminous, it's sweaty; and I keep trying to imagine how he stunted himself behind that podium, how he must have crammed and compressed his frame, how his coat dragged the floor (there's a white dust streak near the hem), and how he managed to hear everything and say nothing.
"I was across the street," he is saying, "and I saw Demi following you to the elevator. His back was to me and he was blocking your view. I tiptoed in--I wanted to surprise him, not the other way around--but then you got him to walk away! And my reaction was, well, you're safe and he's leaving, if I can avoid a whole scene with him, why not? But you came out of the elevator. You made him sit. You talked to him."
"And Jordi never saw you?"
"Of course Jordi saw me; why do you think he walked out, there was no room for him back there!"
He laughs. I don't. "I don't believe it."
"Well, I can't believe how long you talked to him," James says--and then at the look on my face hurries to add: "But you did great. You really did."
"And you never said a word. How could you, James? Leaving me with him, I was scared to death! He was drunk--"
"But you did great. You defused him. Like a bomb. If I'd come out he would have exploded." He pats my cheek. "Don't be mad, Honey. It was the right thing to do."
I don't pull away, but his hand is cool and moist and makes my cheek shudder. "The things he said, James."
"A load of crap," James says: not thundering like Demi but now I hear a similarity in their voices, and maybe he hears it too, because he crouches beside me. "Patsy. Honey. I love you. I've always told you everything."
"Have you? You didn't tell me you'd be early today."
"I wanted to surprise you! This is your big day and I'm taking you out. We really should get going. I got us into Danielle, but it's an early reservation--six."
"Yes really, and some other stuff after that I'm not going to tell you about yet. Not that I'm being a sneak. It's a surprise, OK?"
I laugh. Encouraged, he says, "Anyway. How did it go with Connors?"
"It went . . . fine. I resigned. But he wants me to think it over this weekend."
"Yeah well, he can want what he wants--"
"Well, I said I would." Which astonishes me, because I never said any such thing; but I don't take it back. And James avoids my eyes and my statement by hugging me.
"Honey, you did it. Congratulations! I'm so proud of you," and he kisses me. "Now let's celebrate."
He goes into the kitchen, pops a cork, and returns with two flutes of champagne. But as he holds one up in toast and the other toward me, as he levitates to his full height, I can't stop thinking of him behind that podium, a few feet from Demi and me, crouched and bent and furtive, hiding from us both.
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