Excerpt from For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez. Copyright © 2001 by Sigrid Nunez. To be published in November, 2001 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
After my first book was published, I received some letters. Most of them were from strangers, people who had read the book and who wanted me to know what they thought of it. They were friendly letters for the most part, though a few were critical. ("I hope you won't mind my saying that I did not like the ending at all," and so on.) I also heard from people I had known in the past. Near strangers: people I had not been in touch with for twenty, thirty years and whom I rarely if ever still thought about. Almost every one of these letters began with an expression of doubt that I would remember the sender, and my letters in reply always began with an assurance that I did remember, which was the truth. Even before I opened one of these letters, I would recognize the name written above the return address on the envelope. (Sometimes I recognized the handwriting.) Almost always unfamiliar, though, was the return address itself. These old acquaintances of mine, these ghosts from my past, had moved away from the places where I had known them, some very far. One of the few letters from the state of New York had been mailed from a men's penitentiary. Sometimes the writer wrote PERSONAL On the envelope, or PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL. "I hope you will remember my sorry ass," the letter from the inmate began, "now that it has landed in jail."
Unlike the ones I received from strangers, these letters were not usually about my book. In fact, often the writer had not read the book but had only heard of it, from a review, say, and had been moved to get in touch "after all these years." These letters tended to be long--three or four pages--and filled with autobiographical detail. They took me back--to college, to high school, and even further. I heard from three women who had been my best friends in seventh grade. (Most of the people I heard from were women.) Rarely was I surprised to learn what had become of people. They had married. They had had children. The jobs they were in were the jobs I might have predicted for them. It was their wanting to tell me all this that surprised me and that I found poignant.
I answered every letter. And usually that was the end of it. I would not hear from the person again, or if I did it was just once more. A much shorter letter might come; a postcard. One of s20the friends from seventh grade dug up and sent an old photograph, me at thirteen, along with a copy of a poem in my own juvenile hand, which I threw away, unread, remembering only too well the kind of poem I wrote at thirteen.
Time passed. A year, another year, enough time for me to finish another book--a long period when no such letters came. And then one day there came one more. ("I don't know if you remember me.") From Brooklyn this time. And this time I did not remember.
I did not remember a Rouenna Zycinski. I was sure I had never known her. But many years ago, according to her letter, we had been neighbors in the same public housing project, on Staten Island. She was older than I, this woman, the same age as my elder sister, and she remembered her, and my other sister, and my mother and father. She gave everyone's name and the number of the building we had lived in and the apartment number--she gave all this information in her letter, and it was all accurate. That world--the world of the projects--I had written about in my first book, which she had just read. The book had brought that world back to her, had brought back many memories, and that was all she wanted to say.
I answered the letter right away, thanking her for writing, and then I forgot about her, until a few weeks later, she wrote again. We were, she said (hardly accurately this time, in my opinion), neighbors once more. Brooklyn, Manhattan. Two stops on the L train. A matter of minutes. Could we meet?
I did not want to. I had no desire to meet this woman. She was a stranger, and I am wary of strangers. Ours was only the slenderest connection. Not even her name rang a bell. She and her family had moved out of the projects some forty years ago. My own family had moved out ten years later. Why should we meet? I could think of no good reason. And I had the uneasy feeling that this woman wanted something--something more than just to meet. I could not say what it was, but I sensed that there might be some danger--no, danger is melodramatic--some trouble that could come of meeting her, and I had enough trouble. Had she been a man, I do not think it would have been hard for me to say no. But a peculiar sense of obligation nagged me, as if I owed this woman, this perfect stranger from the margins of my book of memories--but what could I possibly owe her?
I had enough trouble. The arrival of this woman's letters coincided with an odd time in my life--an unhappy time. When her first letter came, I had just broken up with a man I had been living with for several years. I had moved out of the apartment we'd shared (his apartment before we met) and into a new one. I was alone. (She was alone, too; though she did not say so, I could not imagine Rouenna Zycinski except living all alone, those two subway stops away in Brooklyn.) Midway through unpacking, I had lost heart and quit. I was living in disarray, half out of boxes--I hardly knew where anything was. The kitchen was bare, I had not yet once used the stove--I went out for everything, from morning coffee to midnight drink. I went out alone--I was avoiding people. I was avoiding having to explain that G. and I were no longer together. I was avoiding having to answer questions about my work, about how my next book was going, and having to explain that it was not going, I had abandoned that book. I had not written anything for months. I'd had to move quickly and was forced to take more or less the first place I saw. Two small rooms that even put together would not have made one large one. The sofa here, the bed there, and no more space. The floor was splintery, the light was--well, there was no light. Almost all the tenants in the building were women. The landlord would not rent to single men or to families (not that it was easy to imagine any family squeezing into one of the cramped apartments that had been carved out of that once-elegant townhouse). So we were mostly women; I had young women living on all sides. I had forgotten how much young women cry. And it seemed I was not the only one with romantic troubles. I often heard couples fighting--how my pulse would surge whenever I heard that. And once, an anguished male voice bellowed up and down the air shaft--I love you, you bitch!--and I burst into tears.
In that building also were many cats. I think every woman had one. (Dogs were not allowed--the landlord had the same low opinion of dogs as he had of single men.) Coming home sometimes I would glance up at the facade of the building and see the familiar curvaceous silhouette in almost every other window. My own cat prowled the cluttered rooms with wide, disbelieving eyes. At first he meowed a lot, as if imploring me . . . Then he grew silent and grave, as (I supposed) the truth sank in: the order that he was accustomed to and needed and loved did not follow wherever we went but belonged to that other life, the one we had left behind forever.
Instead of making order, instead of settling down in my new place and getting on with life, I dreamed of going away. I had read Marguerite Yourcenar's account of how she had traveled by train across the United States, writing portions of her masterpiece, Memoirs of Hadrian. "Closed inside my compartment as if in a cubicle of some Egyptian tomb, I worked late into the night between New York and Chicago; then all the next day, in the restaurant of a Chicago station . . . then again until dawn, alone in the observation car of a Sante Fé limited." Page after page of this work that had given her so much difficulty for so many years now poured out of her, and: "I can hardly recall a day spent with more ardor, or more lucid nights."
Irresistible fantasy. New York to California. I would visit S. in San Francisco. Days of ardor. Lucid nights. Writing as I had never done before.
Irresistible fantasy: the look on G.'s face when I told him. It had been one of his chief complaints: I was incapable of just the sort of act I was now contemplating. I had no sense of adventure, I was the least spontaneous person alive. ("Someone says to you let's have sex, and you say just a minute I have to go make out my will.") If I did not do more--go out, travel, see more of the world, get more experience of life--I would end up having nothing to write about. It had been one of the last things he had said to me before we broke up (though he was hardly saying it to me for the first time), and the way he said it, that final time, I felt as if he were putting a curse on me.
It was not the sort of trip that people made anymore--certainly not alone. I was told that my fellow passengers would be mostly families. And things were different now than they had been in the forties. Now there would be music, or Muzak, playing in that Chicago station restaurant. Nor would Yourcenar likely find herself alone in that observation car. The trains were almost always crowded now, rarely quiet, hardly the place for reading, let alone writing masterpieces. Always the sound of someone's chatter or snoring, the tinny music coming out of other people's Walkmans, or the beeps and quacks of someone's computer game--this, at least, had been my own experience riding trains in recent years. The filth of the toilets. The bad food. The families with young children in neighboring compartments. "Will all the compartments be full?" I asked the booking agent. "Oh, yes. And you'd better make up your mind fast. We book these trains ten months in advance."
So much for spontaneity.
But I had fallen into one of those writer's traps: I had let myself become convinced that in order to begin writing again I needed to be elsewhere--preferably somewhere I had never been before. I wanted to write about us, about G. and me, how we came together, how we came apart. But it was too soon, probably. And anyway I had promised never to . . .
Still, I wanted to go away. It didn't have to be such a big deal, I told myself. I would go anywhere I did not have to hear young women cry. I thought of renting a house for a month or so somewhere in the country. But it was winter. I saw myself cold, snowbound. And how would I get around? Not only did I not have a car, I did not know how to drive.
The train trip, the house in the country. A journey, a retreat. A place to grieve. A place to write. Irresistible fantasies, but in the end I never went anywhere. I stayed home and finished unpacking. G. was right about me then. But he had reminded me of something. As soon as I was finally settled in my new home, for the first time in my life I made out a will.
I did not answer the woman's second letter right away. I put it off for weeks. She had given me her telephone number, but instead of calling I wrote again. I said that she had caught me at a busy time, but perhaps in a month or so . . .
In a month to the day, she wrote again. I saw that it would be useless not to call. It was no longer a question of putting this duty off but of getting it over with.
I had expected she would come to me, in Manhattan. I had several places in mind to suggest for us to meet. Instead, to my dismay, she invited me to lunch at her Brooklyn apartment. A breathy, slightly stammering voice: she sounded both flustered and excited. She sounded as if she was afraid I would say no. I said that I would bring dessert. And that Saturday--a cold gray day with a little dry snow blowing--reluctantly, still fearing some obscure trouble, still burdened with that peculiar sense of obligation and now also with a chocolate mousse pie, I took the L train to Williamsburg.
I was early--I am usually early for appointments (a habit that always irked G., who saw it not as the virtue of punctuality but as a neurotic fear of being late). We really did live only minutes apart, this woman and I, and in my usual (punctual or neurotic) way I had allowed almost an hour for the trip. In those few minutes, though, the weather had changed. I climbed the subway stairs into sun. The snow had stopped. It was a different kind of day entirely--a good day for a walk. And it was while I was walking, careful not to swing the cake box too vigorously, that my mood started to lift.
I knew this neighborhood. I knew several people who lived here, all artists. It had been one of my first thoughts about this woman, that she too might be one of the hundreds of artists who had settled in this part of Brooklyn over the past fifteen years. Easy to recognize, from the style of their clothes and hair and even their backpacks, they thronged the streets that bright Saturday noon, easy to tell from the Italian, Polish, and Latino immigrants they threatened soon to displace. (Displacement anxiety: in the subway station, a sign taped to a post: a woman looking for someone to share her loft: SMOKERS OK, BUT ABSOLUTELY NO WALL STREET YUPPIE TYPES!)
On my walk I went north, into Greenpoint. I remembered the first time I had ever been to Greenpoint, almost ten years before, and had gone into a grocery to buy tea. When I asked the man behind the counter where to find the tea, he pressed his palms together like a priest and shook his head: no English. That store was there still; I paused to look in the window, filled with Polish specialties, and wondered whether the man ever had learned English. To do so, he would have had only to cross the street, where then as now an English language school stood. On the other hand, so long as he never left that neighborhood, there was no real need. Polish was spoken everywhere--in the stores, in the bank, in the health and beauty clinics. Walking through the park, I heard two men arguing in Polish, children playing jacks in Polish, and an ardent young couple sitting on a park bench, making Polish love.
And, on the side of a bus stop shelter, someone had felt-penned this:
Q. What did the Polish artist do?
A. He moved to SoHo.
But none of this had anything to do with my mood, any more than did the change of weather. It was something that had occurred to me--now that I was actually about to meet this woman. Until this moment I had not really given her much thought. Only now did I begin to wonder seriously about her. She was not an artist, I decided. She would not be like one of them or like any of my other friends--she was from another world entirely. The voyeur in me was aroused. Would she really turn out to live alone as I'd imagined, or would there be a roommate, a lover, family? What would her apartment be like, and what did she do for a living? I saw that it would not be hard for me to get through this visit--all I'd have to do would be to eat and listen. For it was not about me that the woman would want to talk, but about herself--I was quite sure of this. I had come to expect it from the kind of people who got in touch with me. That letter from the penitentiary was a full confession--thirty pages in which that old high school boyfriend of mine poured out the whole sad sordid tale of how he'd got there. Rouenna Zycinski, too, wanted to tell me how she'd got where she was. She hadn't done so in her letters--she had said nothing about herself. She was saving her story for when we met. So my thought went. And as I turned around and headed back toward the street where she lived, I found myself intensely curious, and curiosity always perks me up.
Her building was near the subway. A three-story frame house with green vinyl siding, graceless, homely almost to the point of grimness, like most of the buildings around it; like most of Brooklyn. As I rang the bell, the yellowish-gray curtains of a window on the ground floor stirred, and a yellowish-gray head appeared: a woman, the landlady perhaps, keeping an eye out, or just some nosy neighbor. But when I nodded at her, she made a frightful face and withdrew, angrily jerking the curtain shut.
Inside, it smelled of roasted meat. ar
"Hello? Up here--I'm up here." That nervous, breathy voice. I climbed the stairs toward it. She stood in the doorway--she filled the doorway, she was so stout. Her face was flushed, from cooking perhaps, or from nervousness, or stoutness--I didn't know--but she was all red, unnaturally red. No, I did not recognize her in the slightest. "I'm Rouenna," she said. Barefoot on a doormat printed with sunflowers. A long, loose, tent-like dress--it too was printed with flowers. The roast-meat smell was coming from here. I handed her the cake box, and she took it shyly, she made a little show of grateful surprise as if she weren't expecting it, though I had said that I would bring dessert when we made our date on the phone. She backed into the apartment, into the overpowering roast-meat smell. "You look just like your photo," she said, and it took me a moment to figure out that she was talking about the photograph on my book jacket. She held the door open for me, she wafted her hand in a gesture of welcome, and I entered her world.
The word parlor came to me, so old-fashioned did that living room seem, with its stuffed furniture and bric-a-brac, its doilies and afghans and needlepoint. A tall birdcage in a nook by the window held a pair of dozing parakeets. Fake Persian rugs, curtains of moss-green velour--it was the kind of place that makes me want to sneeze, no matter how tidy it is. The kind of place that makes me go a little weak in the knees--I who have lived in rooms so meagerly furnished people visiting for the first time assumed I had just moved in. The Japanese are my heroes in this regard and, closer to home, the Shakers. Neurotic, again, was how G. saw this fear of decoration. But think of it as a way to avoid what always happens: how one possession always leads to another, and how this goes on and on, complicating life until, in no time at all, what we own ends up owning us.
It was summer in that parlor: hot and humid. The windows were opaque with steam. I went weak in the knees right there. The throbbing busyness of the place--all that stuff--the heat, the heavy smell--Rouenna herself all that floral-printed flesh. I sank onto a chair whose cushion gave under me like a feather bed. My misgivings returned. What was I doing there? On a coffee table, among full candy dishes, magazines fanned out as in a dentist's office, a stack of plastic coasters, and a giant kidney-shaped ashtray was my book.
Something to drink, offered Rouenna. I asked for anything fizzy and cold, and she fixed me a ginger ale with ice.
She had cooked, of all things, a turkey. She seemed embarrassed about this. But it was her habit to cook large meals on weekends, she said. She would give part of the turkey to the woman downstairs--not the landlady, as it turned out, but a frail, addled old widow who could barely take care of herself. And some of the turkey would go to the church, where every week volunteers fed Sunday dinner to the homeless.
A good heart. And here I had been inwardly sneering--no, sneering is too harsh I had been shaking my head at her. I sipped my iced drink to cool my shame. Rouenna went back into the kitchen and returned with a tray of different cheeses, crackers, and olives--enough for a meal in itself. Now, and later, when we sat down to the turkey, I noticed how, like many obese people, Rouenna ate daintily--at least in front of a witness. Of the hors d'oeuvres she ate nothing at all; they were for company--like the giant ashtray, I supposed, since Rouenna did not smoke. I noticed too that, for all her weight, she was quite buoyant, bustling about the table, which stood in a little alcove outside the kitchen, light on her small bare feet. She had been slender once, and her body, under its excess pounds, had not forgotten. (I had seen this before, in the plump but graceful mesdames whose photographs from lither days hung in the studios where they now taught ballet.)
It was like Thanksgiving. She had stuffed the turkey. She had made gravy and mashed potatoes and peas and cornbread. She must have been cooking since she got up that morning, and she must have got up early. I caught myself shaking my head again. So much food--"lunch" was going to take hours. Rouenna, as I say, ate only small portions of everything, but I ate a lot, as I usually did when the food was good; though nowhere near Rouenna's size, I had already for some time given up trying to be thin.
It turned out she did live alone in that apartment, the rest of which I would see before going home: a bedroom as bright and busy as the living room, with a ruffled paisley bedspread and matching paisley window curtains, and a thick shaggy gold rug like the fleece of the mythic sheep. (A house without books, I noted. Only that one book, mine, on the coffee table.) She had been living in that same apartment for about six years, she said. Before that she had lived in Manhattan. "I had a nice rent-stabilized place in Kips Bay, but after twelve years I was ready for a change. Or maybe I just needed to get back to my roots." She was Brooklyn-born, with grandparents on both sides from Poland. Though she was only joking about getting back to her roots, she had never regretted leaving "snotty Manhattan." This immigrant working-class neighborhood suited her, and she loved the narrow streets and the low skyline, the Italian cafes with their excellent coffee, the small cheap restaurants serving pierogies and boiled beef and borscht. A bakery on every corner, and in every bakery the delicious poppyseed cake that brought back Grandma . . . Rouenna had been happy those six years in Williamsburg, and she said she wished the artists had chosen somewhere else to settle. To ruin was what she actually said--as if many of them hadn't beaten her to Williamsburg by many years. All these artistes, she said. Moved here supposedly because they were poor, but buying up buildings left and right! As if these could not possibly be people I would ever know or want to know.
Snotty Manhattan was where she worked still. She was the manager of a women's discount clothing store. She had a car but she took the subway every day, to Thirty-fourth Street. Not an exciting job, she admitted; not a job she loved, but better than other jobs she'd had over the years--and she'd had plenty. Waitressing, bartending, grooming pets. All jobs to get by, to pay the rent. And yet Rouenna had a profession: she was a trained nurse.
I had been right about not being bored that day, and wrong about Rouenna's eagerness to talk about herself; I had to draw her out. At first, she kept trying to draw me out. But I was evasive --I had no desire to talk about myself with this strange woman--and in the awkward pauses that fell between us, I watched her struggling, her flushed face turning a deeper, mortified red, as if she was afraid she had offended me. To make it up to her, I kept praising the food, and each time I did so she squirmed and batted her eyes self-consciously. She had unusually pale but intense blue eyes--the one beautiful and still young-looking feature in an otherwise ordinary fiftyish face.
I could not quite see her as a nurse--not with all that weight. But then that time when she had been a nurse was so long past, she herself placed it "in another life."
"If I met that person walking down the street today, I wouldn't recognize her."
"You didn't like being a nurse?"
"Well, back then a girl didn't have many choices."
Three, as I recalled. The others were secretary and schoolteacher. My elder sister, the one who was Rouenna's age, had also gone into nursing, also halfheartedly.
"Don't get me wrong," Rouenna said. "I was a good nurse--I did my job. I just didn't last very long. And besides, look at these." She held out her hands. They were small and plump, like her feet. "A nurse really should have large hands."
I had never thought of this. I said, "When did you quit?"
"After I got out of the army."
"You were in the army?"
She nodded once, sharply, with pursed lips.
"What made you join the army?"
"If you enlisted, they helped pay for nursing school," she said, in a tone that suggested that this had been anything but the great deal it might sound like to me. And then she did a very odd thing: she clutched her head between her hands, opened her mouth, and mimed a loud scream.
She had my full attention. I had never known any woman who'd served in the military, and I wanted to hear more. But it was not to be. Rouenna was on her feet, clearing the table. When I got up to help, she patted the air with one of her small plump hands until I sat down again