Summer's House

A Novel

Eric Gabriel Lehman

St. Martin's Press

Mother played with dolls. Her room behind the kitchen was an orphanage of mute dependents. She gave them names, assigned talents, quirks, and health problems to each. It scared me to hear my mother talking to herself late at night in that room behind the kitchen, so I told myself she was memorizing chemical formulas. I wasn’t supposed to know about her dolls. Mother dwelled in secrets, cloistered within walls she’d built brick by necessary brick. I found out that my father had struck a deal with her after I told her what he’d been doing. He promised to stop, and in return, he told her he wouldn’t say anything to Aunt Mattie about the dolls. Mother was forever afraid of what Mattie might think. Why else would she have given me her horrible name, the one I refuse to use, if not to appease her? Mother sold my birthright, so I am to blame for what I did to her?
Mornings before her lecture at Drexel, she made my father’s coffee and then took hers in that tiny room off the kitchen, cozy because of the boiler, facing the lushest corner of the yard. I wasn’t allowed in. I protested—I wanted to be with her all the time—but Mother said drinking coffee alone in the morning was like praying, something she had to do by herself. Then I found out the real reason: it was where the dolls were.
I ate my breakfast in the kitchen with my father, somber as his mahogany bookshelves. The kitchen smelled like a hunting lodge because of his cologne, shoe polish, hair tonic—and from his coffee, strong enough to leave tooth marks in the air. He always dressed as if he were going to work, although he never left the house.
New Cornwall, June 30
What am I doing here? I don’t need anyone’s help, just someone to listen to the truth. I should go somewhere sunny to read and draw until my fury dries up. So why am I in this phony, barren place? Because I know too many secrets. Secrets are hidden truths. I’ve been sent here to forget. But a person’s memory is their name. Without it, they have no identity. Tyrants have always tried to strip people of what they know, to rewrite them. My memories are woven into me; they’ll bleed if the doctors try to tear them loose.
For as long as I could remember, my parents didn’t get along. They never argued, no. The Podilacks two floors above us, now they argued. Several nights a week, Mr. Podilacks’s drunken Ukrainian snarled as Mrs. Podilack hurled plates, and their noisy strife slid down the heating pipes and slipped menacingly into my dreams. Things seemed quieter in our house, but it was the stiff calm of a truce.
I was their only child, moody and intolerant as only children are, fulcrum of this delicate balance, and I soon grew aware of my power to upset it. A fork dropped at supper or a fuse blown when I fiddled with a lamp socket brightened the dullest evening. When I was older, hitting my father up for spending money brought on my mother’s protest, which flamed into argument the moment he reached for his wallet. I’d leave the house, pockets full, as my mother glared. I justified my antics by telling myself that I took their minds off their domestic misery. I was as good as a marriage counselor.
Yet my motives weren’t selfless; I was terrified of a breakup. For a long time, we’d been but paper-clipped together by last name. With no siblings, I sensed that our frail family tree wouldn’t withstand too much of a storm. I needn’t have worried. My mother considered divorce something for the irresponsible and unstable, not for decent Jewish people. As for my father, staying married was a matter of practicality or, perhaps, habit. He lived in near-biblical simplicity and claimed that he’d always be happy as long as he had a roof over his head and money coming in. This, as it turned out, was not entirely true.
Perhaps the chief source of my mother’s dissatisfaction with my father was her failure to accept that her life with him would always be ordinary. Sundays she took me downtown in search of elegance. She dressed with care, hat and gloves and a new Bonwit Teller dress bought with her employee discount, and she reminded me to shine my shoes. My father never went with us, preferring to work at his drafting table in his undershirt.
“Just look at that architecture,” she exclaimed before the elegant town houses near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, our destination for the day. “Those magnificent windows, the masonry.” I dutifully scanned the glass polished to a blue sheen, cornucopia clustered over spandreled doorways, columns bearing Corinthian curls. Other people’s luxury enthralled her.
Her face took on a reverential glow inside the museum. “I can’t remember the last time I was here,” she said, but I already knew: not since I married your father. She divided her life history into Before and After, with marriage the dark line of demarcation. The portraits of the Old Masters regarded us with severity from their heavy gold frames. My mother filed past piously, a guest in their house, and she seemed relieved when we made it to the more-recent American paintings, where the women wore recognizable clothing and jewelry.
Afterward, we stopped at a coffee shop for sandwiches.
“Don’t wolf your food down,” she said. She longed to stretch out our Manhattan holiday for as long as she could, but I’d already had enough, a token at the ready in my pocket, and soon we’d been back on the train, returning to our old lives.
She consoled herself over her unsatisfying marriage with buying clothes. The worse things were, the more she bought. Like with the Queen of England’s hats, I could rarely recall seeing my mother in the same outfit twice. My father, on the other hand, grew ever more spartan. For every new dress, he held onto a shirt a year longer, wearing it out at the elbows, perhaps out of spite.
But life went on. We ate together. My mother signed my report cards, and my father paid for my clarinet lessons. We dutifully attended family functions together, my father and I in our rented formal wear, my mother in yet another new dress, but once back in the house, their estrangement quietly resumed. We might have been no happier than the Podilacks, but at least no one knew.
They maintained a discreet distance from one another, my mother in her bedroom and my father in his: a corner of the living room where he’d set up camp a year or two earlier. At first my mother took pains to mask their separation and kept the room as photogenic as a furniture advertisement, the glass top of the coffee table mirror-bright, the vacuumed carpet a freshly plowed field. Early in my senior year of high school, when she ceased folding up his bedding in the morning, letting the living room look like the boarder’s room it had become, I knew things had taken a turn for the worse. It wasn’t long after that when we found out that my father had been having an affair.
I was never the chummy type, and I had my own opinions about things, so perhaps for those reasons, I was obliged to discover the melancholy pleasures of solitude early on. I busied myself with things best done alone: rearranging my drawers, reading magazines, and collecting postcards while my mother’s mambo records blasted in the background. I shunned the playground—a nest of carnivorous local toughs lying in wait for chumps like me who didn’t care about stickball. I felt safer with the shyer kids, although they, too, had their shy-person way of doing things that they also preferred doing alone. I often fell into conversation with old ladies on line in Woolworth’s, mesmerized by the poignant ring of their voices. I spent undisturbed afternoons in the yard behind our building, cloister-like and fragrant with rot. The abandoned railroad station nearby drew me to its picturesque decay. Stray dogs were always sniffing their way over to me.
I’d inherited my mother’s insomnia and was proud of this affliction, for it seemed the mark of the stylishly neurotic and urbane. Nights, I snuck out of the house and went for walks. Our neighborhood was bounded by railroad tracks, expressways, and the oily arm of the Harlem River. Defying prudence, I followed streets until they dead-ended and crumbled into noman’s-land. There I’d sit, waiting for the subway to churn out of the tunnel up onto the El, a deep-sea beast breaking the surface of the water with a lusty snort. I’d think of poems to write, imagining myself the subject of a curled sepia photograph, wearing a faraway and wistful expression. Mostly I waited, although it took some time before I knew exactly what I waited for.
“You and your solitude,” Agatha would say later that summer. She told me I remained at too much remove from myself. “You’ll never be able to love anyone that way.”
“I love you,” I told her.
“No, you don’t, Raymond. You just like the idea of loving me. We could become good friends if only you’d get these romantic ideas out of your head.” She was a good ten years older than I, which seemed to give her the right to tell me what I was thinking. But she didn’t understand how necessary my solitude was. People scared me.
There was another reason why I took those long walks riverward: it kept me from going the other way—toward the park. The park wasn’t like most other city parks—concrete deserts, dry boccie courts, and peeling beech trees. This park was a wild outcropping of granite, a green fortress above a moat of traffic on all sides, rising to a rocky summit flattened by a rectangular terrace set with benches. Like all such castles, it housed secrets, dangers, temptations. The terrace was reached by broad stairs that curled around the park’s perimeter, turning ever inward with Yellow-Brick-Road whimsy. Missing bench slats and broken glass marked the place as a hangout, and only one of the two lamps worked, so at night, the terrace hung in shadow. I’d sit there breathing in the city’s sour spirit. I imagined myself to be standing at the very top of the world, poignantly alone, except that, unlike those walks to the river, I knew that I wasn’t. There was always a guy or two up there.
Guys began to be everywhere, or, more precisely, I began to notice them in a different way. They’d always been there, of course, elbowing their way around and ready to slug you if you stepped on their feet by accident. But suddenly I saw how their muscles bunched up when they bent their arms, the appealing bulge of sinew in their calves, and the enticing curve between their neck and shoulders. I became aware of their shoulders. I discovered that just about all guys looked great from the back. In short, I stopped seeing them as who they were, but as what they were. And what were they? The objects of my as-yet-unnamed desire.
About the same time, I also began to see a different kind of guy, one who walked with just a little too much edge in his step as if in a hurry, or anxious to draw glances toward himself as if by convection. Without looking at anything in particular, these guys took in everything with a microscope’s precision. They often wore shoes without socks. Sneakers without socks wouldn’t have stood out, but shoes? For some reason—did I attract them?—they always managed to sit themselves next to me in the subway, their butterfly net of a glance dropping over me. I enjoyed the attention, aware of the alluring power of my disinterest, but any pleasure curdled the moment they spoke or, worse, looked ready to touch me, since it implied that we were alike. I always saw it coming. A watery pleading softened their faces, and their mouths opened just enough to emit a waiting breath. I’d tell myself to change places or look away, all the while curious about what might happen next. If I didn’t move, it wasn’t long before I’d feel a slithery caress to my thigh or a hand darting between my legs, swift as a lizard’s tongue. Then I’d flee, disgusted and full of pity. Knowing they wanted me was reason enough to find them repulsive.
But last summer I let a man from the terrace do me. He had a tattoo of a dark sun just below his left shoulder and smooth, shapely arms. He slid beside me on the bench, graceful as a dancer, and my heart sped into a trot and then a canter, and I was ready to flee. But I didn’t. The light painted a delicate line down his smooth arms, and his eyes were large and deep. With his narrow face and long hair, he was, I thought, pretty, which confused me, since I’d never thought of men as being pretty. We began to talk, and all the while, I waited for the sly caress, the sneaky hand slipping onto my knee when he thought I wasn’t looking. Instead, he surprised me by inviting me up to his apartment and pointed to a row of windows in a building across the street.
His lobby was brightly lit and walled with mirrors reflecting us paired together dozens of times. People looked, knowing just what we were up to, I was certain. The elevator came and disbursed a frowning old matriarch with a laundry cart. Go home, she seemed to say. Go home right now, meet a girl, marry and multiply. But the closing elevator doors sealed my fate, and we ascended.
My eyes shot around his living room, on the lookout for signs of strangeness, which I thought must mark men like him, but the sofa and coffee table appeared innocent enough, and so did the stereo. He offered me the same cheap brand of orange soda my mother bought and served it in a normal glass. But when he lowered the lights—men like him obviously had dimmer switches—my teeth started chattering. I was on the edge of an arctic precipice, and the slightest movement might hurl me into its icy, jagged mouth.
“Gotta warm you up,” he said in a voice suddenly deep. His palms worked heat into my skin. Slender fingers ivied around my wrist, forearm, and arm muscle, while his large eyes monitored my every reaction. His hands sleeved my skin in warmth, and the tattoo slithered over the muscle hardening in his forearm, its sun shooting out fiery flares. He slung his arm around my neck and pulled me close with just enough firmness to let me know he meant business. His mouth sought mine, but I wouldn’t kiss him, and my face fell against his neck, whose sour-salty smell was exhilarating because it was so uniquely a man’s. His hand slid under my shirt, migrating across my chest and soft belly, which I quickly tightened. He pushed my mouth against his chest, and I tasted him. This was a man, I told myself. A man.
He parted my knees tenderly, deliberately. His fingers worked my zipper and belt; soon my legs were exposed and, seconds later, my thing, wrinkled and puny in his hand, shaming me. His mouth swiftly engulfed it, kneading it between his tongue and lips, and miraculously it hardened. Soon—too soon for me to worry about what was happening—everything pulled out of me. I looked down to see my juice clinging to his face like fat, white tears. He grinned. It had happened. It had really happened. He went for a tissue.
I didn’t stay. I feared he’d make me do to him what he’d done to me. I hurried down the hallway, its every peephole wide with surveillance. I took the stairs to avoid looking at myself in the elevator’s mirrors and barrelled down the stairs until dizzy, rounding each landing with centrifugal speed to throw off what I was certain would now cling to me for the rest of my life.
I began watching old black-and-white movies on TV after school. Not surprisingly, my favorites were melodramas of rocky marriages: Back Street, Five Finger Exercise, and Come Back, Little Sheba. I began pumping my mother for details of her domestic misery, but she clung to her secrets tightly. Secrets had a long tradition in her family. A careless remark about my grandfather’s youthful liaisons had all the adults in the living room shushing. There was talk of my grandmother’s clandestine visits to a woman in South Brooklyn to get “cleaned out” when she couldn’t afford another child. And what had my grandfather said to Uncle Abe one fateful afternoon that made him storm out of the house—the very same day the Brooklyn Dodgers won the pennant—vanishing for years until turning up in San Francisco many years later? (When my grandfather’s beloved Dodgers migrated to the coast, Uncle Alfred termed it divine retribution.) There were more secrets: one of my mother’s cousins had been a communist; another believed that Adlai Stevenson communicated with her via the radio; still another—her name was never mentioned without a hush falling on the room—killed herself. Nothing of this was ever spoken of openly—no one wanted to risk being quoted—but passed on by word of mouth, tongues clicking like telegraphs. “Hint at, don’t accuse,” might have been the motto on the family crest, had there been one. When Uncle Lester landed in Chapter 11 at the end of that summer, no one in the family was surprised, since they’d already found out about it.
So many secrets. No wonder I found myself trapped in my own.
The biggest secret was, of course, my father’s affair. The revelation came, sadly enough, just before Mother’s Day. In an act of stupidity or cruelty, depending upon whose version you believed, Uncle Lester told his wife about it, and Aunt Rhoda in turn told my mother by phone. The question on everyone’s mind was why Uncle Lester had waited until just that moment to drop this bomb. My father, it seems, had been carrying on for months.