Sarah Rosenthal

from Manhatten

2. On a trip to Manhatten in May 2001, I lay
on my friend Rachel's cream-colored couch,
freezing. In two more days I'd have a
ferocious head cold. I was too cold and far
away from myself to get up and change into
the warm pants I had in my bag, I was
wearing a flimsy, sexy wraparound dress I'd
bought at Macy's for $30. Bare legs and
open-toed shoes. Purple toenails matching
stripes in the dress. I felt femme on Rachel's
couch. Rachel has always had a strong,
capable, androgenous presentation though
she can look exciting in a dress when she
wants to. At our friend Mindy's wedding in
1995 she wore a black backless number with
pearls. But mostly she looks androgynous,
sporty - I don't want to say butch because she
hates gender boxes. I used to do my Rachel
imitation, that lasted many years. Now I do
my Laurie imitation. Laurie is my newer
friend, she dresses extremely femme and has
had a big influence on me because she flaunts
her body and feels safe. So there I was in my
full-on Laurie imitation. My dyed hair.
Rachel's going gray naturally, she gains
power from gray, for me it feels weak
because I want only men. She was frustrated
with herself for not showing interest more
strongly in a woman she liked. I wasn't so
sure about it but we are far apart, see each
other rarely, you have to accept. Nod.
Challenge but within limits. You are
gathering information. There on the shelf
another classmate from Brown, his new
hardback book. I've known him only as Jake
but on the book it said Jacob. I can't even
keep up with his accomplishments. Like
Rachel he moved straight to Manhatten after
graduation. He gets more and more famous,
in media things. In medias res. In the middle
of it all. "In or into the middle of a plot."
Manhatten, in other words. They should put
that in the dictionary. These are terrified
times. They should put that in the dictionary.
There should be a word for that. Rachel gave
me a cup of herbal tea. She sat on the floor in
front of me and we talked about work,
relationships. I had just helped out with my
cousin Susan's wedding, a few blocks north,
walking distance. Penthouse, views. That's
where I caught the head cold, because the air
conditioning blasted on every twenty
minutes. Paul loaned me his suit jacket and I
got food on the sleeve, and he was nice about
it. Susan's cake was from a bakery that's the
latest find, terrible service and bad coffee,
delicious heavy pastries loaded with flower
decorations like a country garden. She saved
hundreds by getting one tier. Her sister Carrie
and I picked it up in a cab, the driver
promised to be careful but he drove fast over
bumps. The cake arrived unharmed. I ended
up in a leadership role, marshalling people
through the photograph session. Late that
night, in the kitchen, Susan's mother
Charlotte was internal. Paranoid from lack of
sleep I said, Is it me. Was I mean to the
guests. No sweetheart she said kindly,
shocked, taking my face between her two
hands the way she does. The first time I met
Charlotte was when I was a kid, one time in
Chicago, she had black hair then. The second
time was in front of a big building in
Manhatten when I came to stay with Hannah
en route to Israel. Her hair had gone
completely white, it looked great with her red
hat and blue coat. She was like a painting of a
woman by a man who really liked women.
Bright primary colors and solid outlines. Like
her looks her warmth was both generous and
contained. Her adoption of me immediate.
We went into some kind of basement science
exhibit, there was popcorn though I doubt we
ate it. Later when I went to Brown, I would
come to visit often. There are photos of me
sitting in the Golds' living room, which
hasn't changed much in decades, lots of
orange and plants. Rachel's living room is
dominated by books, a shelving unit the
length of her living room. She went to the
kitchen to put on the kettle again. I got up
and poked among the books till I found the
Blue Riders catalog. We had gone to the
Guggenheim one time to see an exhibit. By
the end we understood everything. She
bought the book. I've never recaptured it.
Rachel's apartment layout is identical to our
friend Muriel's Aunt Sonya's place, or Sunny
as she's called by her family. One long living-
dining room, convenience kitchen, square
bedroom off to the side. Once during college,
when Sonya was away, Muriel, Rachel, me,
and some others spent the weekend at her
place. It was jammed with tiny beautiful
objects, one of which we broke, an egg from
Russia I think. Photographs by Sonya of poor
kids in Manhatten in the early century. She
had been a student of Lewis Hine. We ate
brunch at her table, took the subway to MTV
where Rachel's big sister had a powerful job.
Abby gave us free MTV buttons, square like
TVs, with lots of yellow. We felt lucky. She
was short and sardonic and warm, as if she'd
already met all of us. I flipped through the
Blue Riders book, then peeked at a draft of
some education report Rachel was putting
together for a leading institution of higher
education. I can't get into how accomplished
Rachel is. She's power, like Abby. Photo of
her dad shaking hands with Kennedy. Sinatra
playing on the stereo in her parents' house in
Armonk when I visited during Brown days.
Her mom's bag of paper-thin-sliced bagels
on the kitchen counter. Me projecting my
own misery onto that when really her mom
was just on some little diet, not trying to wipe
herself off the planet. Rachel returned with
my tea and I sipped as fast as I could, I had a
flight early the next morning. I asked her for
an update on her parents. I've been blessed,
she said, My parents both gave me so much,
it is a joy to give in return. Her mom has
been battling cancer. She is a great therapist
which she didn't even learn to do till late.
Rachel walked me to the subway. By then I'd
changed into my warm clothes and felt better,
we're good at connecting within a time
budget. When I got back to the Golds' Max
was getting ready for bed, Carrie was
sleeping, Charlotte was moving solitary in
her kitchen. Putting things away, thinking. I
said, "Was I too bossy with the photos?"
"Too bossy? You? Of course not, dear," she
said, smiling, taking my face in her warm
hands and pressing her head into my neck the
way she does. I went into the dark bedroom I
was sharing with Carrie. The day before, I
had spent more than an hour in the living
room ironing the antique lace tablecloth that
had been donated for the huppa. It was a big
deal that I was given this chore. Max,
Charlotte and Carrie all kept gently checking
on me and telling me what a help I was. I was
trying to do it just like Hannah would, they l
ove her precise Germanic nature, the Golds
are German Jews and our family is half that
half Christian. How would Hannah do it? The
folds kept piling up on the floor and getting
wrinkled again. The iron was old. Finally it
had to be enough. Carrie and I wrapped it
around a hollow cylinder Charlotte had
acquired. I wish I could remember the
original purpose of the cylinder, it had one.
The next morning, the morning of the
wedding, Max and I went to buy bagels and
coffee. We walked north on Broadway a few
blocks to find something open that early. He
said, "I've realized that different
relationships bring out different sides of a
person. Susan's last relationship was with
someone opposite from Phil." Susan and Phil
are living in Columbia student housing while
he finishes his degree. Susan's a shrink. She
provided shrink referrals for my friend Laurie
who recently moved to New Jersey with
Matthew, commuting distance from
Manhatten where Matthew got a law job. The
firm he almost worked for was in the World
Trade Center; the firm where he accepted a
job has cleared an entire floor of its office
space for the other firm to help it get back on
its feet. Susan and Carrie both keep telling
me about this great photo of Carrie and me
taken by my aunt Renate at the wedding, but
I still haven't gotten a copy of it.

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