My next-door neighbors’ children are enthusiastic and frequent criers. I didn’t actually know them – my neighbors nor their children – but I knew the children’s names, having heard them being cajoled, scolded, implored and occasionally begged to do as they’re told, sit still, eat their cereal, put on their raincoat, find their school books or toys, or simply be quiet. They are Cassidy and Cullen. Post-modern names.
The first time I spotted the mother at the mailboxes I only knew it was she because our doorman inquired after Cullen who had apparently been down with the “kiddie-flu.” That’s what Henry the doorman called it, which made it sound like something you got from grubby children, rather than something children contracted from sources unknown. Cullen and Cassidy’s mother was ridiculously chic. She looked nothing like the harried, worn-down housefrau I expected or let’s face it, had hoped to see. She was about five-foot-seven and had shoulder-length dark-brown hair as smooth and glossy as polished mahogany. Her complexion was flawless café au lait and her nails coral pink and perfectly manicured to a reasonable length for a woman who worked. She wore a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress in peach and white, and high strappy sandals; a look I could never in a million years pull off.
I’d heard interesting little tidbits about this couple from Ericka on the third floor. Ericka was an artist whose hands and clothing were perpetually stained with one garish color or another. She made conversation in the elevator, unlike most other residents in the building, and pried loose intimacies you would never think of sharing with a virtual stranger. The first time we met, she’d commented that I looked “a little more bloated than when I saw you last week” and then she suggested a tea she used for PMS that would work wonders. To which I replied reflexively that I was actually not on my period. All this in the first conversation I ever had with her. Anyway, she told me that Cullen and Cassidy’s parents were a famous rapper and his writer wife. That the rapper had been charged with sexual assault, about one year after he married his wife but the charges were dropped when it turned out to be a spurned lover kind of thing.
“You’ve heard of K Smooth haven’t you?” Ericka said. “That’s him. And his wife is editor of a journal for literary geniuses or something.”
I said I thought I might have heard of them, but wasn’t sure.
“They were the ‘it couple’ for awhile,” Ericka continued. “Sickeningly in love and stylish and rich all at the same time.”
Great. One more reason to feel inadequate and unloved living right next door. I had heard of K Smooth and his wife and may even have known that they lived in the building. I hadn’t recognized her when I saw her because if I remembered correctly, she was kind of a hippie. Oh, but success tended to change things like that. I went to college with one of Rupert Murdoch’s daughters and distinctly remember her wearing Guatemalan skirts, a nose-ring, and having disgusting toenails. And a year after graduation she was in Vanity Fair in a Chanel suit, so go figure.
After hearing who they were, I developed a semi-obsession with my famous neighbors. The kids wailed sometimes for the reasons kids wailed (i.e., no reason at all) but I never heard the parents arguing. Once I heard her greet him at the front door. Their voices were so low and sexy, I’d initially mistaken him for a lover, but then the kids came charging up with screams of ‘Daddy, Daddy’ and I was disappointed. No intrigue. Just your run-of-the-mill happily married celebrity couple.
I finally ran into the mother on the elevator with Cullen and Cassidy one afternoon when I was coming from a long weekend picking apples with friends in Dutchess County. I had a duffle bag and was wearing overalls and boots with a long-sleeved white shirt that was kind of filthy. Cullen was about six and Cassidy looked to be three. They were ridiculously adorable – big eyes and chubby fingers and curly hair. They twitched and fidgeted as their mother dug in her purse, probably looking for her keys. Cassidy actually grabbed her mother’s leg and hugged it as I boarded the elevator, peeking from behind her knee occasionally.
“I think we can have the chocolate before dinner,” Cullen opined out of the blue. “I’ll still eat my dinner if we have chocolate, Mommy.”
“No you won’t but nice try,” his mother said not unkindly. She didn’t look up from her purse.
“I would,” Cullen insisted. “I would too.”
“Cullen.” Now she looked up. “I wish I believed you.”
Then she noticed for the first time that they were not alone and looked at me, smiling ruefully.
“Hi,” I reached out a hand. “I’m Jaime. I live on your floor?”
“Oh, of course. I’m Riley. This is Cullen and this is Cassidy.”
“Nice to meet you Cullen and Cassidy.”
I looked down at the kids. Cullen pouted in response and Cassidy retreated further behind her mother’s True Religion jean-clad leg.
Riley laughed. “We’re just coming back from a weekend at their grandmother’s,” she explained. “Not the most fun place in the world for some of us.” She looked significantly in Cullen’s direction.
“Grandma doesn’t even have a TV!” Cullen pleaded his case to the jury.
“Cullen, there’s more interesting things in the world to do than watch television all the time,” Riley said.
She spoke to her son like a person, not a semi-idiot little nonentity; the way I heard some of my very few friends with children speak to their kids.
“No there’s not,” Cullen mumbled. “Daddy’s on TV. I wanted to watch Daddy.”
Riley smiled at me, but didn’t attempt to explain that her husband was a famous rapper. I might have expected she would; that she might faux-apologetically explain that her husband was on MTV all the time because of his career and all. But actually, now that I was up close and personal, she didn’t seem like the type. I knew how to recognize money and privilege, and how to distinguish the old from the new. Nothing about her told you hers was new.
After Ericka told me who he was, I looked K Smooth up to refresh my memory of him. He was good-looking in a smoldering, sexy way and had recently graduated from being a mere performer to super-producer, releasing fewer CDs of his own over the last five years. He was sometimes on MSNBC and CNN talking about hip-hop culture and its relevance. He sounded like an African-American Studies professor in some of the interviews I’d streamed online. He talked a lot about the Hip-Hop Nation. He said it like that: “Hip-Hop Nation” so you could tell that he meant it in capital letters. He was clearly on a different mission than most rappers.
Riley and her kids disembarked first. She herded them ahead of her and turned to drag their weekend luggage – a very enviable soft calfskin leather bag – along. I smiled and politely held the door for her. When she unlocked the apartment, the kids went charging ahead of her, exuberant to be home. She turned and gave me a brief wave.
“Nice meeting you, Jaime.”
“See you around,” I smiled again and returned the wave.
I sometimes waited around, listening for K Smooth to get home. He was unpredictable, and never seemed to arrive at the same time each evening. And of course, he was away quite a bit. Whenever he got home, I could hear his arrival in the hall. Riley almost always greeted him at the door. I could hear some of their conversation each time but the majority was abruptly cut off when they shut the door. The only other room in their apartment that permitted me to eavesdrop seemed to be their kitchen, where most of the conversation centered around Cullen and Cassidy’s eating habits, misbehavior at the table or conduct in school. But once in awhile I got little nuggets. Like the time Riley and her husband talked about his travel schedule. I was standing at my kitchen counter, nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee when their voices rose to just the right pitch that permitted me to eavesdrop.
“. . . all over the country,” he said. “It’s always been that way. Since we met.”
“So you have dibs on a career that involves being away from home, is that it?”
“No, but what I do means I have to travel. That’s not how it is with your work.”
“But I want to travel sometimes. What’s so wrong with that? I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty just because . . .”
“No one’s making you feel anything. If you feel guilty it’s probably because you know as well as I do that kids don’t raise themselves.”
“But I’m not their only parent, Shawn.” There was strain in her voice at this.
“What do you want me to do? Cancel my engagements?”
“Yes, when the situation calls for it. And book fewer to begin with. Even if I don’t get to travel more as a result, I would still like it if you traveled less.”
He said something I couldn’t hear and then there was Riley’s voice again, this time barely controlling her anger.
“So you would rather we get a nanny . . .”
“No, I didn’t say that. I just mean some help. Any kind of help.”
“The only kind of help I need is from my husband. I need you here. Especially if I’m not. We’re not the kinds of people who leave our kids to strangers. I know you don’t honestly want that.”
There was a long silence during which I shamelessly pressed my ear against the wall.
“There’s a symposium at the Sorbonne about the Jazz Age. I want to go.” Riley finally spoke again. “It’s one week long. I can give you the dates now. If you cleared your calendar to be home with the kids, I would really appreciate it.”
“You could take them with you,” he suggested.
I could tell he didn’t mean it. It was funny how hearing a disembodied voice made things obvious. Without the supplementary and sometimes misleading information in a person’s expressions, you could almost always understand the emotion behind the words. He didn’t want her to take the children to France, but he didn’t want her to go either. But she probably couldn’t hear it the way I could; she was probably looking directly into his face, searching only for signs of acquiescence.
“I could, but they would miss school. And who would look after them when I’m at meetings? Why are you making this so difficult for me? I never do anything without thinking of you guys first. Never.”
“Okay, you’re right. When is it? I’ll see what I can do about the schedule.”
“Thank you.” But the words were said in exasperation.
“C’mere,” he said after a moment.
“You say I knew about your traveling before we got married and I did,” Riley said. “But you knew how much my writing means to me, and how much the journal means to me. It’s not fair for you to . . .”
“I know,” he said, interrupting her. “I’m sorry. C’mere.”
“I can’t start to resent my kids, Shawn.” Her voice was muffled now, and I imagined that he was hugging her as she spoke and her face was pressed against his chest. He was, from all the photos I’d seen fairly tall. “And I feel that about to happen. I want to be the best mother I can . . .”
“You are,” he said. “You’re the best mother I know. I love that you’re the mother of my kids. I love you. I’m sorry.”
There was nothing more. They were probably kissing, or doing something more. I walked away, wanting and not wanting to hear further intimacies.
My mother was sitting opposite me in my favorite chair. It was brown microfiber and frayed at the arms. She rested her Chanel purse on her lap as she spoke, not even deigning to place it on the coffee table in front of her. I could only imagine the act of will that it took for her to sit on my grubby furniture at all. She was telling me about her disappointment – she emphasized the ‘DIS’ more than necessary – that I was not coming to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer. She was leaving in the morning and this was her last-ditch effort to make me come along. It had only been a year since she’d permitted me to live in the apartment alone, and she wasn’t yet certain I could be trusted to remain in the city without her being a stone’s throw away on the East Side.
I toed a very delicate line with her because I was living here in this luxury building rent-free, having persuaded her that she need not sell the place even though she was newly-married and now had a much nicer townhouse with my stepfather, Sheldon. Of course, the persuasion not to sell had been easy enough – no one parted with prime real estate in New York City and Sheldon could very handily afford to pay the maintenance fees for this place. She did need a little push from me about not renting it though. The income she was forgoing was considerable and I was just out of college, so hardly in need of a 2,500 square foot home. But I liked it here. It reminded me of my father and of the times we’d had here as a family. It reminded me of what it was like before Yale and all that stuff.
“Jaime, I hope you know that Sheldon would be more than happy if you decided to come with us. He suggested it in fact.”
She shifted closer toward the edge of the chair. I wondered if she might fall off altogether.
The one concession I’d had to make was that she took almost all the furniture. Much of it was in the townhouse. I kept the dining set and the furniture in my bedroom. Everything else I’d gotten from friends and assorted thrift stores. God only knew where some of it had been. Because I had so little, the apartment looked immense, and voices echoed in most of the rooms. But it was still home, and I wanted to hold on to it for as long as I could.
“I know that, Mom. Sheldon’s great. I just want to spend time with my friends here this summer. I’ve got a few from school who’ve got summer jobs in the city and we’re planning all kinds of things.”
Lying to my mother was easy. She was always desperate to believe the most favorable version of everything and Lord knows, she had just about had it with bad news and fear and suspicion where I was concerned.
“Surely you can spend a few weekends with us. Bring whomever you want.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said smiling reassuringly. “But I might not want to miss all the festivities here.” I tried to sound mischievous, like any normal twenty-three year old might, if she were planning weekend high jinks with her girlfriends.
“Well alright. But I wish you would reconsider. It would be wonderful. Like old times.”
I bit my tongue. It would not be like old times. My father was alive in the “old times” and my mother was not married to this man whom I did not know, and who did not know me except as the very problematic offspring of his new wife.
“I’ll definitely think about it.”
I stood, hoping she would do the same. She did.
“Well, I put a little something in your account. Like I said we leave tomorrow, so if you need anything additional, please let me know and I’ll have that arranged.”
A little something. Anything additional. Both were code for money. In my family, and in families like mine where there was money in plenitude, it was never spoken of directly. A “little something” when spoken by my mother meant at least a thousand dollars. She gave me money fairly frequently because I was enrolled in NYU’s MFA program. It was a ruse. I didn’t quite know what to do with my life was the truth. NYU’s program was fairly exclusive and sounded great at cocktail parties. It evoked images of the TriBeCa Film Festival and wealthy doyennes who didn’t mind slumming for the sake of high art. I had one more year of this and then I would have to literally get a life. While my mother might be content to pay my way for the rest of my life if it meant I would be “good”, I sensed that Sheldon was cut of a different cloth and was only biding his time before he made a pitch for her to insist that I make a go of it on my own.
“You look a little thin, Jaime.”
My mother tucked a strand of my unruly auburn hair behind my ear. This was as close as she could come to physical affection and despite my age, it still made me want to fling myself into her skirt and hang on to her leg, starved for a more overt gesture of love.
“Understandably, since I subsist mainly on apples and vodka,” I joked.
She didn’t smile. References to drinking did not go over well given everything.
“In any event,” she turned and headed for the front door. “I trust you’ll be alright and will call me if anything . . . arises.”
“I will. Of course.”
I walked with her and stood at the threshold as she headed toward the elevator. I watched as it opened and she got in. As she did, someone stepped out.
I smiled in spite of myself. He was handsomer in person than I expected. Tall, lean and with new facial hair; a neatly-shaped goatee that made him look unexpectedly serious. He was dressed in business casual, a yellow button-down with t-shirt underneath and lightweight khakis with brown shoes. As I stood there, I realized that he would have to walk right by me to get to his apartment, and that it would look strange if I simply stared.
“Hi,” I said. “You must be Riley’s husband.”
He looked at me for the first time and a half-smile crossed his face. It must have amused him to be referred to in that way.
“Hey,” he said. He stopped to briefly shake my hand. “You are . . ?”
“Jaime,” I said. “I met your wife a few weeks back with your kids. Adorable, by the way.”
“Thank you,” he said. “She is adorable.”
I laughed. “Yes, she is, but I meant the kids.”
He grinned at me. “I’m just messing with you. I hope they don’t keep you up at night. My baby girl’s got a pair of lungs on her and she hasn’t made friends with her bedtime just yet.”
“No, not at all.”
“Good,” he started walking again. “Nice to meet you, Jaime.”
I watched him for only a moment more, afraid he would catch me gawking when he opened his door.
I thought I heard him in the kitchen getting something but mostly, all there was from the other side of the wall was silence. I listened to the quiet for awhile then changed to go for a run in the park. I thought about the rapper as I ran. I wondered about him and his picture-perfect kids, his picture-perfect life. I wondered whether I would see him again. I hoped so.