Book: Slaves of New York
Author: Tama Janowitz (if she has a blog or an official site, I cannot seem to find them)
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book is one of my favorite books of all time and I just need to discuss it here.
Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:
Comments: I’ve had a hard time writing, lately. I’ve got around half a dozen nearly complete entries, with at least twice that many partially finished discussions. I sort of know why I haven’t been able to finish them all but I also think that thinking about the reason why is irrelevant. I’ll finish them when I finish them. But in the middle of all that unfinished writing, I found myself wanting to discuss in detail one of my favorite books. Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz is in my Top-Twenty-All-Time-Favorite-Books and I’m sort of surprised I have not discussed it here yet.
The literary Brat Pack has gone to the rats, it seems. Donna Tartt is still doing well but she has yet to match the mind-blowing talent she showed in her very excellent novel, The Secret History (which I also cannot believe I have not discussed here yet). We still have Bret Easton Ellis doing things, good and bad, mostly entertaining in a rubbernecking-on-Twitter sort of way. I think Jay McInerney is still alive but I never liked him much in the first place. Same with Susan Minot. The two best Brat Pack writers in my estimation are Tartt and Tama Janowitz, and Slaves of New York is Janowitz’s masterpiece.
It really is a masterpiece.Though there are some pop culture references that age it a bit (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, y’all!), this book has held up well because the stories are character-driven and the situations reasonably universal. Struggles between relationship dependency and independence, faith in one’s skill and talent, difficulties with parents, depression, anxiety and neurosis – it’s not going to read too archaic to modern readers. The stories had a period of acclaim but then more or less disappeared from the literary landscape. I see plenty of buzz around Bret Easton Ellis’ current and older works but very little about Janowitz, and even less about this short story collection. That’s a shame because this collection, while being funny and clever, is also so well-written that its power isn’t necessarily obvious after the first read.
I used to read Slaves of New York a couple of times a year, then it trickled down to once a year, then every other year, but it’s still a book I revisit. Each time I read it, I find myself marveling at something new I pick up in terms of plot and characterization. This book has proved to be a strange barometer of where I am as a human being, because over time my identification with specific characters has changed. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that this novel is a paean to neurosis, a goddamn hallelujah to nervous, miserable, delusional, yet ultimately likeable headcases. If I love a book enough to reread it continually because I identify with characters, it’s a safe bet the book will be populated with neurotic people.
This is a collection of linked short stories, taking place in New York City, with a couple of outliers. The characters show up in walk-on roles in other stories, each story in this collection can stand alone, and each story is worth reading. Sometimes the links are subtle – one character speaks of having to rehome a cat that hated her boyfriend. A friend of hers took the cat in, and that same cat shows up in another story, tormenting a different man. (And that story, “Snowball,” is a look at a male neurotic, Victor. If you are prone to acid reflux, pop a Zantac before reading this story because Victor will give you sour burps. Victor, a nervous, anxious, miserable man, was portrayed by the suave, cool Chris Sarandon in the film adaptation of these stories. It’s hard for me to think of a film that was as completely miscast as Slaves of New York. John Wayne as Genghis Khan comes close. Skip the film, read the book.)
Of all the characters this book, there are three characters whose stories resonated with me at different times in my own life. Cora meant a lot to me when I was still quite young. Eleanor came up in my 30s. Marley, while I don’t necessarily see him in myself, is infinitely more understandable to me in my middle age. This depressive, neurotic, delusional trio, respectively, will make up the basis of my look at Slaves of New York. Cora, Eleanor, and Marley – my Disordered Trinity. To prevent this from being the longest discussion of a single book written by the Internet’s most verbose book lover, I will discuss each character in a separate entry. And yes, this will likely be a discussion of a story that may be longer than the story itself.
Let’s begin with Cora.
I first read Slaves of New York when I was a senior in high school. The time that spanned 1988 through 1993 or so is what I now call a season of “slow nervous breakdown.” It was, in retrospect, a miracle that I graduated from college at all. The entire world seemed a puzzle I could not figure out. Sometimes I had trouble understanding simple things people said to me – basic conversation confused me. I recall this period of my life as if it was filmed through cheesecloth, fuzzy and muffled. I was going through the motions, making up shit as I went along in order to explain myself, and forgetting it almost as soon as it was out of my mouth. I fluctuated between periods of frenzied activity and near-motionless depression. I suspect that had I received proper mental health care I would have been diagnosed with bipolar but really I was a highly strung neurotic with an appalling family and personal life, slowly coming unraveled. Many may not remember me as a depressive because I had a tendency to be frenetic around others, an attempt to hide how the quicksand was sucking me down.
I first read this book when I was a teenager, a senior in high school. Slaves of New York is not an upsetting book but I am prefacing my discussion of Cora with an explanation of my reading habits then because that explanation will help explain my teen affinity for Cora, even if I didn’t understand it at the time. I read a whole lot of literature that was wholly inappropriate for my age because the sorts of books that were available for teens at the time were turgid, tiresome and mired in temporary physicality. Characters agonizing over first kisses or first lays. Body anxiety in the form of first periods, scoliosis, anorexia. Terrible family situations in the form of divorce and siblings who drank too much. Some of us nervous reader-kids branched out early into VC Andrews and Stephen King because Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High just weren’t cutting it for us. I knew of the Beats, and I absolutely devoured true crime novels and old-school horror, but the first genuinely transgressive book I read was Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. I don’t think I had even made it into my teens when I read it.
I was unprepared for the extremity of content but the fact was that my home life was so foul that the book helped me even as it bothered me. Life was nasty in a way that edgy but saccharine teen books and after school specials could not touch. There would be no magical moment wherein my family would heal itself. My issues could not be solved by a bit of family therapy followed by a nice relationship with a caring teacher who nursed my intellect as I found my way. Selby confirmed for me that I was not perverse – what I already knew was proven true in his writing – the world often sucked and broken people did broken things. I used to say I hated Selby but I don’t. I think I resented him for a while, for being a rough teacher. I love him now. And his book liberated me finally from the teen fare of girls with their horses, braces and fears of getting caught smoking a cigarette with a bad boy.
All of this hopefully explains how a teenager in 1980s Carrollton, Texas, found herself buying Brat Pack literature off the shelves at Waldenbooks in Prestonwood Mall during her lunch break from her part-time job at Miller’s Outpost.
As I said already, Slaves of New York is not a book that is upsetting to read. The only chapter that could possibly cause anyone to feel unsettled is the first chapter, “Modern Saint # 271.” It’s the story of a misfit wild girl who becomes a prostitute and it’s an interesting character sketch, not a frightening corollary to Selby’s Tralala. The only bad thing that happens to a transvestite or transsexual in Slaves of New York is having cold dishwater poured on her head by an unthinking apartment dweller, unpleasant but utterly without malice. But the sole chapter dealing with Cora, “Engagements,” was and in some ways still is a very dark chapter because Cora sank for a while into the muffled confusion that marked my slow motion nervous breakdown. Like Selby’s book of urban horrors, Janowitz confirmed for me that my mental state, the mental mire and strange way others want to connect with depressives, was something someone else had experienced.
I tried to explain Cora to a friend of mine and she immediately said Cora sounded like Plath’s Esther Greenwood. I can sort of see that because, like Esther, Cora had all kinds of amazing options before her even as she was terribly overwhelmed – people would have considered her lucky. Even as I felt her plight I was jealous of her relationship with her mother, as I was jealous of Esther’s internship at a major magazine and her Ivy League education. But Cora was temporarily victim to an aggressive metaphysical depression that ultimately was necessary in her development into genuine adulthood, whereas Esther was a profile of a break down that kept happening over and over to Plath herself, until she finally cracked under the weight of all that frenetic drama. Cora was real in a way Esther could not be because Esther was Plath, we all knew that. Cora was herself and only herself, which meant I could see things in her in myself without engaging in psychological back-patting that felt false since I knew I was not like Plath and also because I knew Esther never rose above at the end of it all because Plath did not rise above at the end of it all. I didn’t want to be a tragic girl-child, head in the oven, or at least I didn’t once the attraction that most young, difficult girls felt for Plath after first reading, “Daddy” faded.
We first meet Cora as she is moving into a scrubby little apartment, just before her Master’s level classes in Yale’s Women’s Studies Program begin. She meets a man named Ray at a university mixer and he immediately shows strange interest in her, an interest she does not return. Ray is short, frail and nervous and has a servile, cringing way about him – the reader feels Cora’s lack of interest, too. But when he shows up at her apartment a few days later, unannounced, and invites her to go into New York to meet his parents, she is so lethargic she can’t really find a way to refuse. She dresses up in her nicest clothes and realizes how provincial she appears as she meets Ray’s wealthy, seemingly happy family.
But in the nice apartment with air conditioning and expensive furniture, Cora feels numb. None of it appeals to her.
It made me nervous to think I wasn’t envious of this sort of lifestyle. What could be wrong with me? Had I no cravings for a milky-white fur coat, an ice cream maker to spin gelato from invisible threads – or whatever it was those machines did – or a baby with hot, sweaty palms to cling to me like a marsupial? Aside from somebody’s old clothes, I couldn’t think of anything to want: I even lacked the desire to go on a macrobiotic diet and have my cards read by an Indian master. Once I had read about a person who had had a lobotomy – I could empathize with this, at least when I was in the presence of others.
I graduated from high school with the notion that I wanted enough money to escape and go away to a place where no one knew me, but had no real idea how to do it and no real will to find out. I was a smart girl so I went to college – a state school I commuted to – and worked retail and menial jobs and ricocheted between notions of what to do next, ultimately knowing I had zero capacity to have a real career – lawyer, doctor, publisher, editor. My most persistent notion of myself in the future was moving to Arizona and living in a trailer in the desert. Maybe I’d have a cat, and the trailer would be mostly empty except for books and a bed. I’d maybe work as a waitress or a house cleaner and have enough money to buy books and live well-enough anyway because I could live cheaply.
I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to get married. I didn’t want a family or too many friends or a church. I just wanted enough that I could be alone without too much fear about lacking a safety net.
I should have moved to Arizona, found that trailer, worked those jobs. But I didn’t. I went to school because I was a Smart Girl from a Poor Family and had few mental alternatives. Moving away required far more energy than just staying put. But staying put in a place that gave me nothing I wanted caused me to begin to search for something to want. I drank too much, shopped too much, ate too much, gathering the world around me in purchasable units, not enjoying it but still certain that not to want was unnatural. I saw my friends get engaged, squealing over rings and plans and dresses. I seemed arrogant and nasty because I didn’t understand their impulses. There was a script, a pre-ordained sense of what people were meant to want and do and I felt so unnatural. Sometimes I longed for a disease to level me so that I could explain better to others why I had no vision of a future. A Smart but Sick Girl had no need for plans and she wouldn’t want a new car or a diamond ring. Like Cora, I felt the lack of desire to be a strange thing and worried about myself.
Back to Cora. After spending time with Ray’s parents, Ray takes Cora out for Japanese food, sushi, and she doesn’t really enjoy the food or the company. The food cost a lot of money in Cora’s world and she began to worry that Ray would expect sex in return for such largesse. The meal is tiresome.
We had nothing to talk about, though Ray told me more about Max, the cat, and his younger brother. Then he fell silent and stared down at his hands. I thought of a few topics: my courses at Yale, my feminist professor. Ray didn’t seem very interested. I mentioned my father, whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years. My parents had been divorced when I was four. My father, whom my mother called “Captain Ahab,” had remarried and moved to New Zealand in order to avoid nuclear fallout. There was a thirty-three-percent chance that New Zealand wouldn’t be affected. But Ray apparently wasn’t listening; his eyes wandered to his reflection in the mirror behind me and he reached across the table and jabbed my elbow with a chopstick.
It was here that I began to feel a strong affinity for Cora. Have you ever been a bit player in someone else’s fantasy? That happened to me far more than it should have, and still happens from time to time. If anyone ever wondered why it is I finally gave up LiveJournal after more than a decade on the platform, it was because I just couldn’t take anymore people who saw in me things that were not there, certain I was destined to be their best friend, their new girlfriend, their second wife, their muse or mentor. It happened often when I was drinking and didn’t set clear boundaries but when I became sober those people who felt strongly about me began to wear my psychic fabric thin.
Part of it is the whole not sure what I want thing, which still plagues me a bit but not as much. Because I don’t have a clear path – career, family, mainstream side interests – it is apparently easy to imprint your idea of who you need upon me. This was happening to me when I read this book the first dozen times or so, with two different people, one female and one male. Each had decided I was who they needed me to be and who I was was irrelevant. Ray has no real interest, genuinely-derived, in Cora, that much becomes clear later. Ray was the loser son in a successful, vibrant family. Cora and all women like Cora were symbols to him, tangible objects that show others that Ray is achieving one level of success that not even his father can buy him – an adoring woman.
Cora’s tired. She’s got baggage. But she tries. You tell a man about your father, who buggered off to a different continent in a different hemisphere and left you behind and started a new family, that’s important, even if it’s told in an amusing manner, emphasizing Dad’s strange conspiracy beliefs. But Ray becomes so frustrated with her attempts to talk, conversation in which she was telling him significant cues as to how to relate to her, how to see her, that he literally pokes her with a stick.
I felt that way when I read this book the first few times. I realized there were people who loved me because they created an identity for me that was not mine or because they just hoped I would be who they wanted. My identity was immaterial – they had cast me in a role in their lives and things became difficult when I went off script. I didn’t fully understand this then, but on an almost animal level I understood that I too had been poked with sticks and was tired of it, and I felt closer to Cora because she was showing me the complex yet shallow connections women and men create with others when they need a person, any person, and decide you will do.
Ray senses that he is screwing things up with Cora. He comes by her apartment again a few days later with some expensive furniture for her, from his father’s business. He is likely seeing himself as greatly generous, as a man who makes grand gestures for his beloved. What he was really doing was creating an obligation with Cora. How could she not want to be around him when he was so kind, so giving? The male who had fixated on me did similar things with jewelry, something I did not wear then and do not wear now. In his mind all women liked jewelry so buying me bracelets and strange baubles was something I needed to be grateful for.
After settling in with the furniture, Ray takes Cora for coffee at a place she cannot generally afford so she tries to enjoy the experience.
I had one of the coffees with whipped cream, and a big piece of carrot cake. I ate the cake eagerly, cramming it into my mouth as if it were a drug, somehow feeling this would give me strength for whatever was to happen with Ray. “I like to watch you eat,” Ray said, looking at me dreamy-eyed. I wiped off my chin with a napkin; the cake had abruptly become quite tasteless.
This is another oh-shit moment that even if I could not identify then I definitely understand now. This is only the second time Ray has seen Cora eat. She described the sushi he got her in New York as tasting as if she was reenacting a spell of seasickness she once had. She had not enjoyed that food and he stabbed her in the elbow with a chopstick when she went off script. But she’s on script at the coffee shop. She’s enjoying the cake. Ray thinks he’s being sweet or romantic but what he’s really doing is reminding Cora that her enjoyment of the food is her form of payment. He cannot let her enjoy without commenting upon it, without making it clear to her the role she must perform – the role of gracious supplicant.
Does this seem persnickety to you? Am I reading too much into Ray? Perhaps, but it’s important to understand that Ray was a sad, unhappy man. Cora was a stand-in for the girls he had lost, and the next girl would be a stand-in for Cora, but he wanted happiness, too. He didn’t want to be lonely anymore and his only capital was his financial status so he used money and goods to woo and interpreted happiness in what he purchased as happiness directed at him personally. He wasn’t a Machiavellian monster intent on bending Cora to his will or forcing her to take on a role she didn’t want. People are complex and even those who seem like they are manipulative sociopaths have their own unintentional reasons, deep and at times incomprehensible, for behaving as they do. And if you are sort of a cypher, a person whose needs and ideas are not always clear, you may need to expect this sort of thing. In my case it happened enough times that I could not deny my role in permitting people to imprint their wants and needs upon me. No idea if this was a chronic problem for Cora, but it seems like it had happened before. She says later that she’s begun to understand that any time a man describes a movie plot to her, it’s a sort of declaration of love. One has to have attracted a fair share of suitors to see this as a specific trend.
Poor Ray. And poor Cora. After the cake and coffee they return to Cora’s apartment and Cora decides that she would try to have sex with Ray because perhaps they would connect on a sexual level. But Ray doesn’t pick up on her cues (she’s actually quite tired and Ray may not have had any idea what she wanted to do) and just as Cora is about to ask him to leave, Ray goes into her closet and begins to try on her shoes.
He tries on a pair of her high heels.
“How do I look?”
A wave of rage rose within me. He walked all around the apartment in my shoes. I didn’t dare say, “Listen, Ray, you’re going to stretch out my favorite shoes,” because he had just given me all that furniture, and I didn’t want to embarrass him.
She finally gets Ray to leave and he understands that he has missed a chance – he kisses her goodnight and gives her sad looks in the hopes she will ask him to stay but he’d worn her shoes (and a hat) and taken up a lot of her time and she just wanted it all to stop.
I put myself through college selling shoes (and other things but mostly selling shoes). My mother called me “The Imelda Marcos of Texas” because I had so many shoes. I’d have to get shoes to wear at work that were current to the styles we were selling and then I’d buy things on sale and before I knew it I had over 200 pairs of shoes. I was like Cora – I loathed lending my shoes. A college roommate wore a pair of my shoes once and tried to say she hadn’t but I could tell and that was the beginning of the end of our friendship. You don’t borrow underwear and unless it’s your twin sister you don’t borrow shoes ever. But the right sort of Ray is going to find the thing that enrages you after a while, no matter how laid back you are. He doesn’t get it either – money comes easily to him. Stretched out shoes for Cora is not something she can instantly remedy but Ray has no way of understanding that.
But as important as all of my connections with Cora may seem to me, there was a stunning moment in this story that seemed unbelievable to me when I first read it. Lemons and chalk.
Cora only decided to go to Yale because she failed to get an apartment she wanted in New York. It was a beautiful, strange place, unmodernized and romantic. It was cheap, and it was perfect for her. She imagined herself having brooding dinner parties, wearing velvet dresses. The apartment was a perfect complement for her personality. She hurriedly put down a deposit but the landlady called her later to tell her that the apartment had already been rented out by someone else, sorry.
“Goddamn it,” I said to my mother. “That was my apartment. It felt like my apartment.” The flavor of lemons and chalk filled my mouth, the taste of disappointment. The loss was an indication my whole life was out of sync. Nell was also disappointed. There was nothing she could say or do, but she did show me an article in Fate magazine which suggested that possibly I had lived in the apartment in another incarnation but was not meant to now.
Lemons and chalk. The day before I started the fifth grade, I suffered a terrible oil burn on my right arm. From my thumb up to my elbow, I had bubbling, blistering third degree burns. I had to have debridement treatments that my mother ultimately did at home. The doctors told her to give me a Tylenol before each debridement but it didn’t touch the pain of having burnt skin ripped off my arm. My mom did a very good job with those debridement treatments. I didn’t require any sort of surgery or skin grafts and today you can barely tell where the burn was. There’s a very faint mottled area that if I trace with a finger becomes visible. Mr OTC can see it but unless I show you you’d never know.
During the debridement treatments, I suspect I dissociated due to the pain because I remember the pain in terms of taste and color. Lemons and chalk. Bitter and sour at the same time at the back of my throat, searing bright yellow and white light shining into my eyes.
Cora experiences disappointment as lemons and chalk. I experienced pain as lemons and chalk. Never before or after have I ever read anyone describe any unfortunate experience as tasting of lemons and chalk. I wondered once if I had created the memory of lemons and chalk based on reading this book and was not remembering my experiences accurately. I wanted to be sure, so years ago I asked my mother about the burn. A garrulous story-teller in her own right, she told me the story of how horrible the debridements were, how she felt so terrible having to do it yet knowing that if she didn’t I could have had bad scarring. And, unbidden, told me how I would complain later of dry mouth and tasting something lemony in my mouth.
Yeah, it’s in the realm of Fate magazine, to find this sort of thing significant but there you go. Lemons and chalk. Once I read that phrase in “Engagements” it was impossible not to see Janowitz as some sort of literary seer, a writer who likely had some extraordinary commonality with most of us. People stalk celebrities for less than this. Luckily for Janowitz I’m neurotic and not psychotic.
Back to the story. Cora’s experiences with Ray may have a bit been tolerable had her classes at Yale meant anything to her. But her experiences in the women’s studies program read all too familiar to me.
At the beginning of the semester, my courses seemed quite interesting; but a few days after Ray tried on my shoes I was sitting in class, taking notes as usual, when it became apparent that not one word that was being said made the slightest bit of sense. The teacher, Anna Castleton, a well-padded, grayish woman with clipped, poodle hair, was discussing a conference she had attended the week before – a Poetics of Gender colloquium – where she was severely attacked for her presentation. I carefully wrote down everything Anna had said but when I got home that night I reread the notes and found they still sounded as if they had been written in a foreign language.
God, grad school sucked. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault that I hated it. My counselor was appalled I was dropping out. I had a 4.0. I was doing really well. I couldn’t explain in a way that made sense to him or anyone else why I found it so insufferable but ultimately it boiled down to the way that school stripped all enjoyment from reading. I never knew if anyone actually liked the books we were forced to read. I knew what schools of thought they applied to the books, I knew whether or not they found the books technically proficient but I never knew if the literature spoke to them. If it moved them. If it meant anything to them. (Well, there was a women who was a high school teacher who was very moved by Toni Morrison’s works and those books affected and changed how she taught her students about slavery and the Middle Passage and she was pretty fun and interesting to have in classes. But her presence in class only underscored how different she and I were to the others. One group of girls actually rolled their eyes when she was telling us all, excitedly, how her students responded to her lesson plan, because fuck her, right? Screw us plebs who wanted literature to matter beyond what some dude in a book had to say about the turgid nature of the trauma narrative.)
You may think Cora is just an alienated weirdo who has no place in academia, but here’s what her professor told the class:
Status of empirical discourse.
Post-structuralist account of dissolving subject precludes formation of female identity.
The notion of the subject in progress.
It was assumed she was calling for a return to fixed identities.
If gender is constructed – a gendered identity 99% of the time is built onto a person who has a sex.
Here I had made a little sketch in the margin: a picture of a beaver, paddling frantically, with a tree stump clutched in its large buck teeth.
I won’t inflict the rest of the lecture on you. But I do want to mention how much Cora’s beaver, struggling to keep its head above water, reminds me of my own Nothingface. I think I’ve mentioned him here before. In college I drew a very sad stick figure with an enormous head that hung below his shoulder like a drooping balloon, attached to a long, unstable neck. He appeared continually in my notes and in the margins of text books. I need to scan the extant examples I have of him. Cora was trying to stay afloat, I was drifting down to the ground. I wonder how many college texts and notebooks have similar sketches that reflect student despair?
Cora gives a presentation in class, and this teacher, Anna Castleton, who devoted a lecture to retelling how she was savagely attacked at a symposium, paid it forward by attacking Cora’s work. Her fellow students all turn to see Cora’s response to the teacher’s condemnation – academic vultures. Cora wonders if she is just tired. Maybe she will feel better after Christmas break. She doesn’t, and decides not to return to Yale, choosing to remain living with her mother in a small house in the Hamptons (a house purchased long before the Hamptons became a rich destination and leased during the summer to said rich people in order to supplement Nell’s income as a librarian). Nell is happy to have her daughter around so Cora has time to think, time to rest.
There were so many ways to fill up a day, let alone a life. I didn’t see how I could possibly cram anything – anyone – into my hours. For example, one afternoon I spent three hours reviewing the contents of a sweepstakes brochure that came in the mail. It took hours to figure out the rules of the sweepstakes; apparently one had to purchase an item of jewelry for $4.99 before the entry could be considered valid. Though I knew I’d never enter, I felt obliged to read about each item of jewelry: elegant “love” ring with genuine diamonds; Pegasus pendant with genuine ruby and swirl of faux diamonds; Princess Di’s famous sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring; the descriptions were written in a style that was as interesting to me as my feminist crit. courses had once been.
As I consider how much Cora seemed to reflect my behavior back to me, it occurs to me that this is how so many depressed people behave. Reading a cereal box, reading one entry after another on WebMD, spending hours tinkering around on the inconsequential. Such activities seem like they may be wastes of time, similar to how I read the same book over and over and listen to the same television programs over and over as I do the same chores day after day, but at their core such repetitive, trivial activities are either a tether to keep the depressed person from floating out into a depressive sea, or they are a stem on a stopped watch. They’re an anchor or a place holder – they keep us sane and help ramp us back up until we can move onto something else, something different and possibly more productive.
Cora’s ramping back up. But before she reaches full speed, Ray finds her. He had spent months desperately searching for her, finally writing to her at her Yale address and hoping a change of address request would get his letter to her. She has been gardening, spending hours and hours planting flowers, weeding, digging in the dirt. This is such a positive sign – I mean, how more on the nose could it be – Cora’s responsible for things blooming, growing, changing from seed to flower. So of course Ray finds her. Nell encourages her to call Ray and invite him for dinner.
So Cora invites him, and perhaps Nell was right to encourage her to do it.
For his visit I made chili and corn bread and a salad; I supposed I really had been cut off for quite a while. I found myself going out of my way to dress up, make the dinner elegant.
But Ray is Ray, which means he is hapless, pitiful and prone to all kinds of events working against him, so of course he is late to leave New Haven and gets trapped in traffic for hours. He is supposed to be there at seven and calls at nine to tell them he will be late. He gets there at 10:15, eats little and he and Cora take a walk, Cora searching for something to talk about.
“How’s that crazy cat?” I said.
“Max?” Ray said. “He’s fine.” We turn around and walked the other way.
“Listen,” he said. “I really want to get married.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I mean, maybe you think this is coming out of left field.”
“Not if that’s what you want to do,” I said. “When are you getting married?”
“No, seriously,” Ray said. “I was thinking we could go steady.”
“I don’t even know you, Ray,” I said.
“Well, that’s okay,” he said. “You’d get to know me.”
I turned to look at him, but he wasn’t smiling. I thought I had never met a person who had less to say; nor did I feel any dog-like waves of love coming from him. There was simply no connection.
A scene very similar to this one happened to me, only more passive-aggressive and manipulative. There’s really no way to describe the impact of such a scene – Janowitz nails the metaphysical despair very well. There you are, just wanting someone to leave, unable to be cruel but also unwilling to be kinder than necessary and then a proposal is made. A person who barely knows you wants to spend the rest of his or her life with you.
As annoying as Ray is, I like that Janowitz imbues him with a certain amount of humanity. We’re on Cora’s side but we never hate Ray. We all limp through life – Ray’s attempts to correct his limp are just more misguided than others.
Ray tells Cora he’s going to have back surgery and that he wants her to visit him in the hospital. Cora agrees and asks him how it was he hurt his back in the first place.
“My fiancee,” said Ray. “It was a New Year’s Eve party, and we were engaged – in fact, we were going to be married in a week – and I bumped into her in the bathroom with some guy. I just started running, and it was in an old loft building and the elevator door opened and the elevator wasn’t there.”
Jesus. Ray fell down an elevator shaft and broke his back on New Year’s Eve after catching his fiancee cheating on him. Ray irritates me – I can feel Cora’s resistance and frustration keenly – but I still have such empathy for him. Strangely, the man who wanted me to marry him had a similar story, except he was the guy in the bathroom, so to speak. I have less sympathy for him than Ray.
Cora, of course, doesn’t consider his proposal but she does go to see him in the hospital. While there, Ray’s mother comes breezily into the room and is very affectionate with Cora, hugging her and kissing her on the cheek. This seems overly familiar to the reader until Ray’s mother reveals an unexpected element of Ray’s castle-building with Cora as his queen. Ray’s mother says, fondly:
“What a couple of deadbeats. Cora, where have you been? Ray was frantic when you left New Haven. Now I don’t want to interfere; you just tell me to shut up. But why do you two have to live together? Why don’t you just get married?”
There is a sinking feeling in the stomach, probably not dissimilar from the sensation of stepping into an elevator and realizing there is no floor beneath your feet, realizing that someone who does not really matter that much to you has an entire inner life, complete with lies he has told his family, that involves you. What had Ray told his parents? Whatever it was, his mother was under the impression that Cora was either living with her son or was preparing to move in with him. Ray’s mother tries to get Cora to stay with her at the Manhattan apartment but Cora wriggles free. Ray asks her to call him but she never does and he never reaches out to her again.
In the fall Cora finds a proper job – in publishing – and begins the search again for an apartment. She finds one she can afford and jumps through necessary hoops, but once she has jumped she decides to check out the apartment she missed out on the year before. Maybe the tenants had moved, maybe she had another chance to live there.
Standing in the front entrance of the building was Ray.
“Hi,” he said.
“Ray,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“My father bought the first floor,” he said.
“I don’t believe this,” I said. “I tried to rent this place last year. I came back to look.”
Ray is in the middle of renovating the apartment and invites Cora to go in and look at the progress.
The first floor had been completely stripped. Now the rococo molding was gone, there was wall-to-wall carpeting over the floor and track lighting. The bathroom was replaced with modern equipment. It was probably neater and cleaner, but the crazy charm of the place was gone. Now that it had new windows and different doors, it was just like a million other apartments.
Ray has one other surprise for Cora.
“We’re just subletting a place right now,” Ray said. “As soon as this place is finished, in a couple of weeks, then we can move in.”
“Who’s we?” I asked.
“I got married last month,” Ray said. He looked at me with a wry expression. I thought he was waiting for me to burst into tears. “My father got us this place as a wedding present.”
Cora goes through the appropriate motions, congratulating him, asking how long he had known his bride. Turns out he had only recently met her – it was a fast-moving courtship.
And here’s where the story took a turn I wasn’t prepared for. Cora was playing a role in Ray’s drama, but perhaps Cora meant more to him than just a prize to show his worth to his parents, to others. Maybe she was more to him than just someone to marry quickly, now now now, any woman will do. He is upset when Cora doesn’t seem to mind that she lost out on being with him, and that he lost out on being with her.
His small, worried eyes looked at me with a combination of rage and love.
He loved her? I don’t want to consider this because if I do then I have to consider that my own Ray, the male version at least, loved me. It’s easier to consider that he just saw me as an interchangeable cog in his quest to be part of a stable couple. Does it matter if Ray did love Cora? Does it change some element of his desperation? For some reason, it does for me, though it doesn’t change my opinion of my own Ray and his delusional opinions about me. I suspect we can only have empathy for other people’s Rays because in real life we cringe when our old Rays find us on Facebook, online, at work, wherever. At the end the important thing to take away from this is that had Cora lacked the energy to hold Ray at arm’s length, she would have ended up as renovated as her beloved apartment.
And what happens next will help you avoid feeling too bad for Ray because after he shoots that look of rage and love at Cora, he then asks her if she still has the furniture he gave her, subtly reminding her of his economic kindness to her, wholly unasked for by Cora. He then gives her his phone number and suggests they have lunch soon, which is kind of unseemly behavior for a newly married man, a man who is trying to reconnect with someone he wanted to marry so soon after marrying another woman entirely. But then again, Ray seems to be a bottomless well of need. This is all expected from a man like Ray.
Cora leaves and goes shoe shopping with Nell – purchasing shoes that Ray will never get a chance to cram on his feet. Later she sees Ray’s father on television, kicking a mattress to show how well it was made. Ray’s father is strong and handsome and ripsthe mattress apart with his bare hands, in a manner his son never could have managed.
I now only relate to Cora in terms of how my depression affects me. After being with Mr OTC off and on for over 20 years and married for ten of them, I seldom have any cause to think about dating days and, after closing off most avenues of shallow relationships, I no longer have Rays, either as suitors or overly ardent friends, inveigling their way into my life. But it’s interesting remembering my time in the trenches of singledom, of how I hated academia, and considering how passive yet enveloping depression defined so many of my activities.
But this story illustrates for me that magical moment when a story becomes more than a story for you. It becomes a mirror where you can see yourself, a film wherein you see your past reenacted for you. This is an amusing story about a young woman finding her way, breaking out of ennui, shedding skin scarred from other people’s emotional shrapnel. She may not have existed but I was a sort of Cora and, if I was a sort of Cora, then there were others of us out there. Doesn’t matter if I never meet another Cora. It’s enough to know that life is not so unique, that there are links between Cora and the emotionally numb and messy girl I used to be. When you’re really young you want to believe that you are the most unusual person ever to exist, but then you age and the sense that you aren’t the only person life smacked in the face a few times matters, even if you really only see it in literature.
And lemons and chalk. Goddamn.
But all this connection can only happen when a writer creates a character like Cora. At first read this story seems farcical – Ray seems like a silly, bumbling fool and Cora seems kind of flaky and maybe that’s accurate but under the humor Janowitz conveys some amazing characterization without condemnation or cruelty, showing empathy for Ray and understanding for Cora. She caught so perfectly the exhausting agony of being young, unfocused and the object of unwanted ardor that it really is a shame that this book isn’t as well known as I think it should be.
Do you have a fictional character who showed you parts of yourself? Is there a story or book that became a part of your life, requiring yearly rereads? Would you rather slam your nose in a car door than ever find yourself involved in academia or dating? If you managed to read this far, you may as well share in the comments.
Next entry will deal with Eleanor, the ostensible heroine of the Slaves of New York short story collection. It may be this long but I’ll try to exercise more word economy. We’ll see.