Mid-century modern furniture shop (Sergejf / flickr.com)

In these scary times, I try to remember the exercises we did as young actors to control the anxiety, to keep us in the here-and-now. I plant my feet beneath my hips, breathe from deep in my diaphragm, picture a string holding the top of my head. It helps, it does, but face it––I’m not always good at staying in the present. That nostalgic music blaring from the micro-speakers on every stretch of sidewalk doesn’t help, either. This morning it drifts the twelve stories up to my balcony: too far to make out the melody, close enough to feel the disco beat. The eighties. I shiver.

I heard disco on every sidewalk in the eighties too, but back then it came from boom boxes as big as cartoon cavemen’s clubs. The scene comes to me unbidden: a Sunday morning in spring. Two guys outside our first-floor windows, both wearing wife-beaters, hauling around competing boom boxes, one blaring “Stayin’ Alive,” the other “I Will Survive.” That Sunday, even dissonant disco seemed like the fanciful background score for a movie musical. Crocuses were popping, dogwoods budding: in the bright light, moving to the bright beat, we laughed out loud. Spring in New York redeems everything. We thought we’d hurry the warm weather along by shopping for patio furniture.

Those were the days we thought we controlled the very seasons.

We drove to Manhattan, where Jean-Paul stood in Conran’s surveying the wares as if he were surveying his estate holdings: metal chairs painted blue, red-and-white striped cushions, yolk-yellow umbrellas. He wore a look of such beneficent pleasure that I felt myself grinning. I hated shopping, but when it made Jean-Paul happy, that was enough to make me happy too. In the eighties, we shopped every weekend, all three kids along for the ride, bribed into a trip to Manhattan with the promise of John’s Pizza or the Museum of Natural History or the Central Park Zoo.

We lived in Brooklyn: we’d rented for years in a neighborhood that was pretty funky when we moved in. By the eighties, though, it was crawling with yuppies. I couldn’t bear the thought that we might have turned into yuppies too. It was true we’d finally scraped together enough cash for the down payment on a fancy schmancy apartment, but we picked it up cheap during all the foreclosures. It didn’t look cheap: it was a two-story, five-room slice of renovated mansion our children called The Castle. Back in the days of the Robber Barons, our gonzo living room had been the ballroom, so grand my cheeks flamed orange when friends saw it for the first time. We still had the original chandelier, big and gaudy as the disco ball at Danceteria, where Jean-Paul entertained the latter-day Robber Barons who were his clients now. We had fifteen-foot ceilings and a spiral staircase. We even had a patio, though that morning it was bare.

We meant, that Sunday, to cover our patio with primary-color furniture. A year before, Jean-Paul had made partner—okay, it was only a ten-person agency with five partners, but still, they were hot in the eighties. Jean-Paul was the liaison to production companies because he knew how to talk to directors and producers. At first I thought it would kill him, this admission that our acting days were over for good, but the fast-talkers he worked with convinced him that their boutique agency was not just creative but avant-garde. “Avant-garde corporate clients,” I said. “Civilization advances.”

Those were the days of 18 percent interest, but with Jean-Paul’s promotion we had all the credit we needed. He convinced me that it was fine to load up the charge cards, that it was cheaper to buy now than in six months when stores jacked up prices again. We didn’t have to pay a nanny the way everybody else in the building did. The first time I heard anybody say nanny was in the eighties, and I giggled at the Mary Poppins sound of it. Soon I spent more time with those nannies than I did other mothers, and usually I liked them better too.

Those were the days we thought we controlled the very seasons.

How could I object to our new lives? Jean-Paul was the good father, working this gig to keep our children in Brio railway stations and dolls with hand-painted features. He bubbled over with the pleasure of having money for the first time, having stuff, Spanish tiles and velvet pillows in exotic fruit colors suggesting future trips: Mango Paradise, Pineapple Sunrise. He bought shirts at Prada and picked up hammered-gold earrings for me. Maybe we’d been hippies not long before, but Jean-Paul felt no guilt about living well. He’d grown up polishing the brass in his family’s café in Hell’s Kitchen, and in the eighties he bought retail the way his father shook out a bleached napkin, with full mindfulness.

“You have to indulge yourself sometimes.” He said it so generously that I indulged myself even as I missed the thrift stores of our youth, the temples of musty counterculturalism where the point was how cheap, how many times recycled. We’d met doing street theatre against the war. Now we went on buying sprees. In Conran’s, we posed as if we knew how to play prosperous, surrounded by bright and shiny and new, but I saw Jean-Paul’s shoulders tighten as he scoped out Gracie in picnic ware. She was leading Gabe around with a long string she’d tied to his overalls, as if he were a poodle. Paul, our oldest, plopped himself down on an angular settee to pore over his latest Choose Your Own Adventure. Jean-Paul was checking to see how far we stood from all of them. Far enough. Out of earshot.

“Hey, listen, I’m sorry.” He put his arm around my shoulder.

“Sorry for what?” I thought he meant this wasn’t the greatest patio furniture, though we could well afford it. Since Jean-Paul shook off his depression, we had enough money to buy what we wanted and even what we didn’t.

He wasn’t looking at me: he was still measuring our distance from the kids. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”

I wasn’t even worried at first. “What?”

“We’re okay now, right?”

“Jean-Paul. Just go ahead and tell me already.” But as soon as those words left my mouth, I didn’t want him to tell me. We really were okay by then. I’d worked my way back from the fugue state I was in when life with small children overwhelmed me. Jean-Paul was still never home, but I was past the despair of isolated motherhood and we were both past the despair of not making it as actors. I wasn’t Zombie Woman anymore; now I was Shopping Woman.

Even I could see, though, that he wouldn’t be this tense about shopping. It had to be another woman. I’d always known he dreamed of other women: I knew because we came of age in the free-love days, because he was French, because his father cheated on his mother. I knew it when he stayed at work till all hours, when we shopped among the hip and hipper, when he fantasized. This time it wasn’t fantasy, it was real, real enough to confess in Conran’s where I couldn’t make a scene. I didn’t want to know, not when it started or if it was over, not who or why. What did it matter if it was some svelte actor in a music video or that sneering script supervisor we had dinner with last week?  What did it matter if it was both of them? It was his turn, wasn’t it?

Whoever it was, I couldn’t blame him for what I’d done myself. Only I’d never confessed. I never said: I was so depressed. I never said: I didn’t mean to have an affair, Jean-Paul. He played the accordion in a punk-folk band. The accordion, for God’s sake! I’d met Iggy in the park, saw him again at a small neighborhood protest against the Grenada invasion. The baby wouldn’t stop bawling. Iggy saw how frazzled I was, running after Paul, and rocked the carriage till Gracie fell asleep. He’d been in the Peace Corps—Nicaragua—and now he taught junior high math. He sounded like such a good guy, I kept expecting him to say he volunteered in a soup kitchen. It went way too far with Iggy, but I never told my husband that I fell for a guy whose idealism reminded me of a past I was still trying to grab back. I looked at my children—my present—and came to my senses.

Now that Jean-Paul was about to confess his own affair, our marriage looked like the economic arrangement they told you about in junior-high social studies, when your hormones ran so high you couldn’t hear a word. I’m listening now, Mrs. Scherzkopf. In the sixties, Jean-Paul and I crouched in tiger cages in Father Demo Square to protest torture in Vietnam. By the eighties we were old married people buying patio furniture we didn’t even like, yuppies who had affairs as if we were in a drawing-room comedy.

Jean-Paul was wearing his two-hundred-dollar linen shirt and flip-flops. He’d always been the good-looking one and I’d been the one surprised he was attracted to me in the first place. I was the funny-face, the one cast in daffy comedies. Now I wasn’t even fit for screwball, my hair gone lank, my skin straining to cover all the flesh accumulated with three children. No wonder he took up with someone in calf-stretching stilettos, while his dowdy wife brooded over a miserable affair by then long over. Shielded by his children, in sight of all the goods he could still possess, he decided this was the moment to let me know he loved someone else.

I don’t know when he lifted his arm from my shoulder. I braced myself on a wobbly blue patio chair and watched the walls of Conran’s slide away, stage flats on gliders. Beyond, the city was still filthy and dangerous, but bursting again with glad-handers and hucksters, bond traders and investment bankers patting themselves on the back when they threw dollar bills at the homeless guys on the sidewalk, fat music-video directors with slicked-back hair—I’d had dinner with those directors—pronouncing which twenty-year-old models were has-beens. I hated the eighties with all my heart.

What did some trifling affair even matter with a chorus of Gimme gimme gimme ringing out all over the city? Maybe this was just my penance for singing Gimme too. Maybe I wasn’t afraid that he loved someone else. Maybe I was only afraid he’d move someone thinner into our ballroom, someone who made her own money and wouldn’t make fun of the obscene chandelier. I watched Paul, the one who always worried I’d say something sharp. He read furiously, eyes racing, shoulders hunched like an old man’s. He wouldn’t look our way.

Jean-Paul saw too. “We’ll talk later.”

I’d heard that line before. If there was one thing Jean-Paul had mastered in this marriage, it was the art of not-talking. The Confession with No Sins Named concluded. I went to wrest Gabe the Poodle out of Gracie’s grasp, to cancel the trip to the Central Park Zoo. If we went to the zoo, we’d only stare at neurotic, pacing creatures like the creature I became when I stopped auditioning. Now I just wanted to get my children out of the store and out of Manhattan, away from all the caged animals, all the credit cards, all the stuff.

I said: “I know, let’s go to Brighton Beach,” but I heard myself playing Bouncy Mom Whose Heart Is Breaking and toned it down. “I want to smell the salt air.”

Jean-Paul made a face. He never went to Brighton Beach in the eighties: he couldn’t abide all the trash, all the needles washing up. All the lumpy bodies.


Back in the apartment, he played Exemplar of Paternal Virtue, his children cuddled with him on the couch as he read Tolkien aloud, a fantasy to console them for canceling this week’s bribe. In the eighties, Jean-Paul rotated three roles with the children: Absent Father, Yelling Dad, and Indulgent Papa, the last reserved for times I looked ready to blow. I heard his good deep cadences exuding kindness as I descended the spiral and saw that even wary Paul, who sometimes kept his distance, was curled up close. My bitterness knew no bounds.

Our bedrooms were on the ground level, the realtors said when they showed us this place, but really they were in the basement, where the mansion’s servants must have slept. Basement suited my spirits. In our room I slid the door open and stepped outside, onto our peasants’ allotment of concrete. This was the so-called patio we’d promised ourselves to jazz up this weekend.

I was still trembling, and not from the cool damp air. I tried deep breathing, did my old Alexander exercises. I couldn’t make my heart slow. I tried to envision that children’s theatre co-op I was always threatening to start, but all I could see was a fatherless family smushed together in a single gloomy room. I don’t know how long I’d been out there hyperventilating when I heard the sliding door groan behind me.

Jean-Paul stuck his head outside: “Paul started his homework.”

I didn’t answer.

“Can we talk now?”

He was always accusing me of jealousy and now when my worst fears were about to be realized, I could afford to wait. My ribs clattered against my lungs. Jean-Paul stepped outside. Hours, days, months passed, but I kept my back to him and heard him take a deep cleansing breath. Actors. Here it came, his soliloquy.

“She wants me on Prozac.”

I let out a great shuddering breath. She was his shrink. In acting class, everybody used to talk about their shrinks while Jean-Paul and I raised one amused eyebrow apiece. Who could afford therapy? We couldn’t even afford three meals a day back then. We opened a can of soup for our dinner. Now Jean-Paul couldn’t get up in the morning without his shrink. I recognized Prozac: it was new then, but everybody’d heard of it. I wanted to say: We used to believe in something. Now we just take a pill. I said: “For God’s sake, Jean-Paul, try the Prozac.”

But when I turned, finally, I saw from his furious blinking that Prozac wouldn’t save us. So was it an affair? Or did he know somehow that I still pined for Iggy? I forced myself to look at my husband—how strange, that word husband. He’d stopped blinking but now his eyes were unfocused, angry, frightened. This wasn’t some stupid affair—that was the guilt I’d have to carry forward all by myself. This was something else. He looked so strange I was a little frightened. Jean-Paul had a terrible temper.

This wasn’t some stupid affair—that was the guilt I’d have to carry forward all by myself. This was something else.

He clenched and unclenched his fist and I thought he might, for the first time, hit me. “You never,” he started, but he couldn’t finish the sentence. He swiveled and punched the brick wall. I waited for him to cry out or raise a cracked knuckle but he choked out: “You never want to.”

I waited and waited.

“You never want to hear what’s wrong.”

Every nerve ending stung as if he had, after all, socked me. I never wanted to hear? He was never here. I was trapped with small children in this imaginary castle, this mansion, this repository of all the worldly goods that signified our rise above the bit parts of young actors on the make, playing at poverty and struggle.

I knew somehow to hold my sarcastic tongue for once. After we both stood there trembling long enough, it all came out. They’d laid off a receptionist and a messenger. No one would say it yet, but the agency was going to fold. Maybe they’d last three, six months. He didn’t know how he’d pay the mortgage. Agencies were closing up all over town. He’d have to beg a job from his father, the father he never got on with, the father who cheated on his mother. In the eighties, Pascal’s Café had become Bistro Pascal: even that had gone yuppie.

“We can’t charge one more thing,” he said. “That’s what I was trying to tell you.” I looked around at our empty concrete rectangle, picturing yolk-yellow umbrellas, and somehow found the grace to laugh.

“The kids like it empty anyhow.” It was true, they liked to bring their action figures out here to stage knock-down drag-out fights, marathon battles.

I was the one who’d cheated, who lost herself to despair and spread it to Jean-Paul as if it were a new virus. Now I had nothing to say to comfort him. In a rush of tenderness I reached my arms up but he pulled back before he relented. Then he burrowed his head onto my shoulder, where he sobbed scalding tears. He’d always been the shameless weeper in the family. The first set of tears came over his philandering father. We married not long after, when my mother said we couldn’t visit while we were living in sin. “Nobody even says that anymore,” I told my mother, “living in sin.” Now sin sounded kind of like a useful word.

I could see the future unfurl like a magic carpet. I’d stop being so sarcastic. Already I dreamed of finding thrift stores. Maybe Jean-Paul would be the one to cook in a soup kitchen—it was probably too much to dream he’d take up the accordion. We’d have to move deeper into Brooklyn, into a working-class neighborhood of ugly attached houses with grubby plastic siding. At first we’d be devastated, the children bewildered. But soon enough we’d remember what life was like when we biked all the way to Brighton Beach just to smell the air, when waves of new immigrants, Pakistanis and Belarusians and Nigerians, came rolling in to show us how to hustle, what it meant to really struggle.


My vision of the future wasn’t so far off. Jean-Paul’s agency did fold. We did have to move deeper into Brooklyn, into a vast, shabby building. Our children were frightened, leaving The Castle. They didn’t find it funny that we called our new neighborhood Charmless Brooklyn. They didn’t like squeezing in together or sharing the elevator with blind old ladies cuddling little blind dogs. But they did like being up high, overlooking the city, so when we first moved in, we went out on the balcony, the grim little apartment’s one good feature, pointing out the sights as if our kids were tourists.

We could see from the Verrazano Bridge to the World Trade Center and beyond. For years, though—since 9/11, since the Towers went down––it made us too sad to stand out here. We used to have spectacular sunsets but lately we see strange burning smears behind scrims of rain. The hum of the Ocean Parkway autonotraffic down below us is disconcertingly uniform. And there’s that oppressive music on every sidewalk.

Today’s rare glimpse of sun makes me glad for the balcony all over again. I’m out here remembering a sunny day in the Eighties, watching the rivers cut new channels. Already the mammoth glass towers of the Hudson Yards list toward Jersey. Down on Essex Street lately, you have to wade through hip-deep water to get to the dry-goods stores, which makes for a sorry pun.

Jean-Paul’s out this morning, organizing to stop AutonoAssist homes from moving into the neighborhood: they want to bring in robots to care for the blind old ladies who used to live on their own with the help of their little dogs. The robots will be coming for all of us one of these days. I was out, too, at the crack of dawn, parading my “Stop Killing Somalians” sign for the ProtectAll cameras hidden atop all those blaring speakers.

Now the afternoon spreads out before me the way the city spreads at my feet. We’ll pour a half-glass of wine to go with our soup, then write more protest letters. We’ll each do deep breathing, on and off, through the hours ahead: it gets us past the aches, the frustrations of two willful people in a small enclosed space. We won’t stop the inevitable afternoon rain, but maybe we’ll stop robo-assist for now. If we make ourselves focus on the present the way we used to when we were young, maybe we’ll get ourselves through the afternoon and into what remains of life on earth.

Valerie Sayers, Kenan Professor of English Emerita at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of The Age of Infidelity and Other Stories and six novels.

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Published in the July / August 2020 issue: View Contents
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