Semi-Charmed Life

A Novel

Nora Zelevansky

St. Martin's Griffin

1
 
 
LITTLE DID NAÏVE BEATRICE BERNSTEIN KNOW—as she hacked and sniffled privately at her parents’ rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment—that her bothersome cold was New York’s “must-have” ailment of the season.
Everyone who was anyone caught the bronchial cough that just wouldn’t heal and thoroughly enjoyed whining about it in cultivated Kathleen Turner voices at the chicest upscale dives. “Do I sound sexy?” was an oft-repeated phrase from Soho House to Pastis and, though the question was generally followed by a cough or sneeze, the answer was almost always affirmative. For just an instant, postnasal drip was the new black, and lymph nodes and swollen glands jutted out proudly like so many anorexic models’ rib cages.
Meanwhile, Beatrice lamented her “bout of consumption” from a perch upon her childhood bedroom’s antique radiator and interior window ledge. Five days into her illness, she was still sick and officially missing her first week of senior year in college. Her overprotective parents—who would never take no for an answer unless it was barked over lentil soup by Midtown’s infamous Soup Nazi—embargoed her plans to make the thirty-five-block trek uptown to her waiting off-campus apartment. And they remained resolute even after she promised to mummify herself in itchy alpaca wool. At twenty-one years old, Beatrice still rarely won a battle against her mother and father. In this instance, she was too congested to try.
Instead, she choked back boredom like so much phlegm, opening the window wide and gazing twelve stories down with stir-crazy longing. As a child, Beatrice spent many restless evenings in this same spot, as shrill laughter echoed in fits and starts from her parents’ dinner parties. Tracing the radiator’s geometric grate with her fingers, she would pretend the cool winter breeze was arctic and the honking car horns were fellow explorers’ boats.
Now, in one hand she clutched a small Moleskine notebook, in the other a salty licorice cough drop from a stash on a midcentury moderne Lucite bedside table her parents had picked out. To their chagrin, over the years she had covered the stark collectible with stickers, from childish Smurf puffies to Andre the Giant “Obey.” The walls around her—once littered with pictures of her high school friends in Sheep Meadow, Justin Timberlake and Strokes posters, Degas prints and her own Magic Marker drawings—were pockmarked from thumbtacks past.
Beatrice popped the lozenge in her mouth and shuddered, lamenting her parents’ love of all things unusual. Gary and Madeline Bernstein were forever infatuated with esoteric food, music, and design from revolving cultures based on whatever contemporary art show Madeline was curating at “the Museum.”
During a Brazilian projects exhibition, Havaiana flip-flops and feijoada brunches were all the rage in their household. The apartment smelled of smoky sausage and black beans. But then—with the introduction of an Asian group show—Korean spicy tofu stew stole the focus. Kimchi, mixed with pungent Chinese oolong tea, was the prevailing scent, and Japanese neo-punk blared from the stereo.
Currently, Beatrice’s mother was in discussions with a young photographer from Holland. His new series featuring aging red-light-district prostitutes in homey settings with their adorable pets—“a strong juxtaposition,” everyone said—had created quite a stir in Amsterdam. Thus, Beatrice was stuck with her father’s new favorite salty licorice cough drops from the Netherlands, as if black licorice wasn’t bitter enough. Beatrice gagged as the putrid flavor spread across the back of her tongue.
She leaned against the window frame, whimpering martyred last words in the vein of Beth March from Little Women. “Be brave, dear family. I’m not afraid to die.” Wait—did she say that out loud?
“I hardly think you’re going to die,” mocked her father, marching into the bedroom in his uniform Levi’s and black T-shirt and setting her lunch down on a folding bedside table. “Unless you fall out the window. For the umpteenth time, please do not stick your head out that way. It’s bad enough when the cat does it.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes so wide that a witness—had there been one—might have sworn he heard a comical boing! as her irises popped back into place.
“A healthy dose of Daddy’s Soup Surprise should do you wonders.”
Gary could not cook. The one food in his arsenal was a “consommé” concocted from Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup and hot sauce. His ownership over said recipe seemed tenuous at best, but he had always believed that, as life was art and art was life, what pervaded the zeitgeist was pretty much fair game. Whenever Beatrice poked fun, suggesting that heating something on a burner and adding Tabasco Sauce hardly seemed worthy of copyright, her father replied, “Tell it to Andy Warhol.”
At present, she wasn’t telling anything to anyone. Treating Beatrice like a child was part of a deep-rooted family dynamic that no one dared upset, least of all her. And staying put was the norm: Though the Bernsteins analyzed groundbreaking cultural phenomena from around the globe, they were the worst kind of provincial New Yorkers, believing that venturing outside the immediate vicinity was a waste of time.
Thus, Beatrice’s parents’ world—though immaculate and well designed (never a comfortable couch did abound)—was insular, revolving mostly around the not-so-mean streets of the Upper West Side and around friends and family who understood and cared about contemporary art. And that is a very small demographic.
As preschoolers at gallery openings, Beatrice and her older sister, Gertie, navigated a sea of black-clad legs, above which hovered asymmetrical earrings and angular haircuts. Pictures of frequent Bernstein home dinner guests in compromising naked positions with words like “Walk” or “String” painted across their foreheads lined the walls beside monochromatic paintings (all black, all blue, all white). Beatrice learned at an early age that staying within the confines of said world was tricky. There were many rules to being unorthodox, one of which involved almost never setting foot outside New York City.
“Why should we, when we have everything we could want around the corner?” Her parents would shrug.
Beatrice’s mother, Madeline, first made a name for herself as an expert in American abstract expressionism from Jackson Pollock splatter paintings to Mark Rothko’s color block works, so she rarely needed to travel. By the time she developed an interest in more contemporary artists from other countries, she was so established within the field that—most of the time—she could send enthusiastic underlings in her place, while she perused catalog images and JPEGs from behind her gigantic desk. The internationally renowned curator’s resistance to leaving New York was written off by the art world as a fascinating philosophical idiosyncrasy shared by her quirky artist husband. Besides, the Big Apple is the center of the universe, art fans insisted.
But Beatrice couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Aren’t you curious? Don’t you imagine luxuriating in art nouveau chairs at Parisian cafés, while sipping hot café au lait, or buying organic carrots at outdoor markets in Aix-en-Provence?” she would suggest to her father. Her mother had tired of the debate long ago.
“Have you tasted the espresso from Fairway, around the corner?” replied Gary. “How could the cafés in France offer anything better?” Thus began an inevitable tirade about French anti-Semitism.
“But wouldn’t you like to be temporarily blinded by Tokyo’s fluorescent lights, while sorting through T-shirts with nonsensical English slogans like ‘Eat Your Toe’? Imagine waking up in autumn in Kyoto inside a traditional ryokan hotel, back stiff from sleeping on a tatami!”
“Have you wandered Central Park in fall? Tasted the cucumber martini at Nobu? Let Hasaki’s beef negimaki melt in your mouth, knowing you’d drink the sauce if no one was looking? Perused T-shirts and comic book stores on St. Mark’s? Why leave?”
“What about cultures you’ve already learned to love from afar? Don’t you want to sip fresh watermelon caipirinhas under the watchful eye of Sugarloaf in Brazil? Wonder at your own ability to loll on the beaches of Ipanema while City of God gang wars between eight-year-old children are playing out in the favelas above?”
“I hate the beach.” Her father would smile.
Beatrice’s sister Gertie (named for Gertrude Stein, of course) had wholeheartedly adopted her parents’ philosophy. She rarely emerged from her small apartment down the hall, where she’d been examining the minute details of Marcel Proust’s life’s work for the past few eons thanks to the world’s largest literary grant. Her readings, also held in-house, had become a sort of elite salon for posturing academics, who would later brag to friends and professional nemeses alike around the proverbial watercooler—which in this case was generally an instant hazelnut coffee machine—about the rare intimate experience with the doyenne of Proust studies.
Gertie also edited a lauded poetry journal called In the Dark Room, which she started at age eight in third grade, after famously penning a poem during the verbal section of a standardized test:
In the dark room,
Where humans don’t sleep
Doll children are searching for something to eat
Clown on a box,
Tin soldier around,
And doll child, of course, upon the bare ground.
They search for an apple
Or even a pea.
They search for something that humans can’t see.
In the dark room.
Gertie was the youngest person ever to win Canada’s prestigious Winchester prize for poetry. “Apparently, the Canucks don’t know a hoser when they see one,” she’d joke modestly.
Her famed beauty didn’t hurt. Long oil slick–colored hair (or so The New Yorker described it) and jet-black eyes were only further complimented by her signature fire-engine-red lips. Some claimed she tattooed the shade on. Others whispered that she had naturally dyed them, after years of subsisting on Twizzlers and cranberry juice—a sort of hunger strike for lip color. But Beatrice remembered the day when her sister first appeared at the dinner table with the color smeared across her wide lips: Gertie was fifteen years old.
“A new look?” the girls’ father inquired.
“Very Algonquin,” their mother chimed in. “And that’s a fact.”
“This is just what I look like now,” said Gertie.
And she never went back on a proclamation. Eventually, Revlon created a gloss based on her famous mouth called Dark Room Red. Once, Beatrice snuck into her older sister’s bedroom to try the stuff on. But the shade was all wrong: she looked like a thin-lipped transvestite.
At the Proust events, tickets were so scarce that sometimes even Beatrice couldn’t gain access. Gertie’s bouncer/administrative assistant—an enormous bald and tattooed artist named Oscar with a penchant for esoteric prose and collage—stood outside her mauve-colored door and selected guests. Failure to produce a ticket was of course grounds for refusal, but Oscar was also known to reject people—with just a shake of the head, as he rarely spoke—based on attire alone. Too many tweed coats with elbow patches made the place smell of mothballs and pipe tobacco for weeks, Gertie complained. Beatrice once pointed out that hardly any professors actually smoked pipes anymore.
“It’s in their blood.” Gertie shook her head sadly. “It’s in the paint of their office walls, embedded in the plastic of their rollerball pens. It’s even in the instant coffee machine, each time they press that Hazelnut button.”
Oscar was not Beatrice’s fan, as he once caught her with a stack of Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries at a bookstore café up the street and deemed her undiscriminating, lowbrow at best. She looked up from J Is for Judgment and found him glowering at her. For a while after that, she could hardly make it in to her sister’s apartment, even during nonevents.
“But I just want to borrow a scarf!” she’d cry. “I need to ask relationship advice! I need to use her blow-dryer; mine is on the fritz!”
He’d just shake his head dismissively.
G is for Give Me a Goddamn Break,” she finally snapped.
Gertie—who adored her little sister as only an older sister can—had a chat with Oscar and the conflict was resolved. But she had a talk with Beatrice too: “Sorry, Bea Bea Gun, but you might challenge yourself more. If you want a mystery, why not explore something worthwhile, like why Salinger stopped writing, or why cell phone charger packaging is so hard to open?”
When Beatrice complained to her sister about their parents’ incessant worrying, Gertie would only quote Proust, “Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces. Never will the world know all it owes to them, nor all they have suffered to enrich us.” Beatrice considered banging her head against the wall.
But then she often disappointed her family (“intentionally defied,” they might say), as she was involved in a deep, sordid love affair with the pop mainstream: trashy reality TV shows or non-PBS TV at all, for that matter, pop music, Lucky Charms cereal, suburban high schools populated with vicious cheerleaders and beefy blond football players named Chad. And, as with any real love affair, guilt only fueled her desire.
“Where did you come from?” her mother sometimes wondered aloud with an appreciative smile, but also a furrowed brow.
Beatrice’s preoccupation was natural, actually: She was in love with what she was not, just like all the Greenwich, Connecticut, Republican girls dating liberal Jews from Brooklyn or the thousands of corn-fed Middle American college boys devouring rogan gosh with their bohemian Indian girlfriends. Afterward, she mused, one either settles happily into that altered world or has his or her heart stomped to bits in the most unrecoverable way and returns home to the sheltered nest (or to white bread, mayonnaise, and bologna sandwiches, as the case may be for the corn-fed boys).
Beatrice studied obscure literature, as expected, and strove to be a journalist, which she viewed as a sort of compromise between the two worlds. She could act as voyeur, observing the “junk food of life” from a loving distance, while remaining on the right side of the law; if, that is, she could ever conceive of anything worthwhile to write. For now, her Moleskine notebook remained blank.
Meanwhile, she dreamed wildly of Hostess CupCakes and Sandra Bullock movies as she sat around the Bernstein family dinner table ignoring preach-to-the-choir debates about neopostmodernism in a postmodern age or the revival of modernism in an antimodernist millennium or even Fairway belly lox versus Zabar’s nova. When they weren’t looking, she downloaded cute kitten videos from YouTube, flipped through tabloids and luxury travel magazines, and watched marathons of The Biggest Loser and Jersey Shore. One day, perhaps, she would immerse herself completely in the cotton candy–scented bubble bath of movie popcorn existence, learning to do keg stands at Daytona Beach spring break and becoming a contestant on The Real World. Then she’d luxuriate in the warm embrace of the contentedly clueless.
Her parents had insisted she stay close to the nest for school, of course. “Why would you go anywhere else?”
Still, Beatrice had thought college might open doors to adventures beyond books and intellectual discourse. Maybe she would meet boys, apart from the same indie types who marveled at her wit—or maybe it was just her famously artistic family—and tried to stimulate her with talk of literature and art, mostly their own. Though these guys believed that worshipping at the altar of “museum” or that their own prose was superior to, say, Kappa Delta Phi fraternity’s, sloppy make-out sessions and fumbled groping on dorm cots showed there to be no real difference once you got down to brass tacks, at least as far as Beatrice could tell.
It was too late: The Bernstein playbook was ingrained. Nothing had changed, despite keg parties and long nights spent on ripped red leather bar banquettes, some drunken hookups, a single one-night stand (with an economics major!), and a short-lived boyfriend or two. Beatrice’s pretty green eyes, quirky freckles, the emergence of a statuesque build, and even the introduction of low-cut shirts, short dresses, and dark eyeliner failed to ratchet up the excitement. Life remained the same. New York was still New York and she was still Beatrice. And now, as a senior, she accepted her fate: She would graduate and find a job, at best writing about exhibitions she never actually saw unless they traveled to New York. She would likely never eat roast suckling pig on a French Polynesian beach, drizzle honey on hot fried sopaipillas in Santa Fe’s plaza, or even devour a grotesquely large order of Tex-Mex nachos at a Dallas fast-food chain.
As for her writing, that trusty Moleskine notebook—though always nearby—remained empty, save her own scrawled name. And even that was written at an unsatisfactory slant. As her father wandered out of the room in search of his favorite new Dutch electronica CD (a surefire lullaby for his ailing younger daughter), Beatrice leaned out the window and into September’s fresh warm air. It wasn’t even cold season yet, which is why catching those early flu germs was considered so fashion forward.
Despite her stuffed nose, Beatrice rightly imagined that the breeze smelled of onion bagels and fireplaces. Just up West End Avenue, she watched the first precocious loose leaves gliding past brownstones and proud prewar buildings. All were momentarily bare of scaffolding. Prep school boys from Saint Mary’s in navy blue blazers, gray ties, jeans, and enormous backpacks, roughhoused across the street. A lone scrawny student shuffled past the adjoining church’s gates, dragging a rolling school bag behind him. At that age, easy prey is unmistakable. An older boy approached, grabbed the cap off the kid’s head, and knocked him down. Beatrice cringed.
Out of nowhere, a large pigeon—with a strange yellow faux-hawk and glossy oil-spill feathers—landed on the windowsill just inches from Beatrice’s hand. It peered at her sideways, as if posing a question: What is your purpose?
Like most New Yorkers who didn’t regularly feed birds stale bread in the park, Beatrice considered pigeons plague-carrying winged rodents, but she felt sympathetic toward this little guy. Like her, he was disenfranchised, trapped by circumstances of birth. She placed her Moleskine notebook slowly on the outer ledge, climbed inside to a standing position, and then leaned her body entirely out the window to face the pigeon, inching a bit farther into the open air.
“Oh, Mr. Pigeon. You have no idea how good you have it,” she explained. He bent his neck the opposite way and stared at her, awaiting her wisdom (or so she felt). “People may not like you much, but at least you can fly around and see the world from above. I wish I had that kind of freedom.”
I’m confiding my innermost thoughts to a pigeon, Beatrice thought. I doubt if this is what my mother meant when she said I might “benefit from talking to an objective third party.”
Still, Beatrice continued: “I wish that I could go wherever I chose without the pressure of an unforeseen future. I wish I could observe things—while unobserved myself—that inspired me to write. I wish my life were more raucous and wild. I wish—”
But just as she began to wax poetic about the migrations to Florida she’d take and the “birds of a feather” she’d meet if she were lucky enough to be born vermin of the beaked world, a tiny tickle began wiggling at the very top of her sinuses. It tangoed its way down her nasal passage, growing with speed and momentum, until it erupted in an enormous ta-da! sneeze.
The pigeon froze, offended perhaps by this show of incivility. Then, squawking, it took off into the air, almost hitting Beatrice in the face with rapidly beating wings. She was so surprised that she lost her balance and fell forward, feet no longer grounded on the floor of her bedroom. The interior ledge hit her square in the stomach, as she braced herself with one arm and the other dangled perilously into open air. She landed with the right side of her face squished against the filthy ledge, facing her Moleskine notebook.
And just when she began to catch her breath and recover from the terror of almost falling to her death (and, worse, proving her father right), something white and gloppy dropped from the sky and landed splat on the black leather-bound notebook just inches from her face.
She peered slowly upward in disbelief, only to spot the pigeon looking down from the window ledge above. The ingrate! It almost seemed to cackle as it took off and flew away into the wild blue yonder. Faced with the big mess of bird crap on her notebook, Beatrice didn’t know whether to barf or cry.
She reached for the hardwood floor with her feet and pulled herself back inside to catch her breath. She ran her fingers across her now dirty face and through her shoulder-length brown hair, only to discover a knotty rats’ nest behind her head. “I should be quarantined.”
The comment fell on deaf ears, though, as the only audience was her huge cat Waldo, who sat watching at her feet. “Where were you when the pigeon tried to kill me, huh?” she asked. He narrowed his eyes and considered attacking her in the absence of a Friskies chicken liver treat.
She hobbled into her bathroom, washed her hands and cheek with some weird Nicaraguan lava soap her father had ordered, and then flopped down onto her bed. Gary walked back in holding a Chinese soup spoon. “What’s wrong? You look all flushed.”
He put the back of his hand to her forehead to test for fever. She wasn’t about to confess that she’d almost fallen out the window. “A bird shit on my Moleskine notebook.”
“Is that a joke? How many pigeons does it take to shit on a Moleskine notebook?”
She felt like a moron. “I left it on the outer ledge.”
“You know, they say it’s good luck when a bird craps on you.” Gary smiled as he crossed to the window. “But maybe only because it wasn’t a bigger bird.” He picked up the notebook. “Where’s the bird shit, Monkey? There’s not a spot of anything on it.” He opened it up. “Or in it. Plan on ever writing in this thing? You carry it everywhere.”
“Very funny,” she said. “There’s nothing on it? I just saw it with my own eyes.” She studied the notebook in his hands. “It couldn’t just magically disappear.”
“You must have imagined it. Maybe I gave you too much cold medicine. Why don’t you climb back under the covers?” He bonked her playfully on the head with the notebook and then handed it to her.
Beatrice examined the leather-bound thing and found it inexplicably clean. But when she glanced over her shoulder back toward the window, that damn pigeon sat watching from the outside ledge. He ruffled his odd yellow hairdo and flew away, leaving Beatrice—and her now alert cat Waldo—spellbound in his wake.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Nora Zelevansky