Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 121 in December, 2009.
Gordon Davison had chosen not to fight the early retirement foisted on him by the department of archeology. He still had his apartment on Morningside Heights, his books, his ideas. What he didn’t know about the attention his former rivals were getting for their work couldn’t hurt him. And he had chosen not to know. He lived a cozily impossible dream of resurrection as a triumphant Schliemann excavating his own latter day Mycenae.
Gordon’s next door neighbors, the Bakers, had one daughter, Sylvia. Amidst his years of futile struggle to maintain his position in the department, he was so self-absorbed he failed to pay attention to Sylvia or anyone else in his building. Gordon had so little idea of Sylvia or the passage of time, he’d almost called the super when he saw an attractive young woman, who looked like an undergraduate, playing with the lock in the Bakers’ door. Sylvia had grown up and Gordon didn’t recognize her.
Sylvia was just the type of woman Gordon had been attracted to forty years ago. He’d never had the guts to go after what he wanted. He often found himself inadvertently looking at the very women he had always been attracted to, forgetting that the reason why his gaze wasn’t reciprocated was the fact that he had aged. He was drawn to the same women, but besides his brain, he wasn’t the same man. What these young women saw was another leering old man. When Gordon looked at one of the objects of his desire, he visualized himself as the young man he was rather than as the aging creature he’d become.
Coming home from the library, several days after first taking note of Sylvia, Davison found the Bakers’ door wide open. From inside the apartment he heard what he thought were groans as if someone was in pain, but soon he realized the groans were not pain, but pleasure. “Oh, yeah, oh that’s it, really put it in. Wow! Oh harder Jack. Fuck me in the ass.” Gordon could actually hear the mattress springs. It was Sylvia. The Bakers, who had moved up from Mississippi, had always left their door unlocked. They believed in traditional southern hospitality, but now Sylvia had carried matters to the extreme.
Gordon felt guilty. He knew he should turn the lock to his apartment door, but he couldn’t stop himself. Finally he heard footsteps coming. All of a sudden there was Sylvia in a bra and panties. “Oh hi,” she said as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about her appearance. Then she shut the door in his face. Gordon didn’t think much of Sylvia’s scant outfit. These days Barnard and Columbia undergrads walked around on the streets as if they had nothing on anyway.
Two days later there was a ring at the door.
“I have to show you this.” It was Sylvia carrying an ancient world atlas in her arms as if it were a child. The spine of the antique volume was crumbling as she was talking; little pieces of the decaying rust colored cover crumbled onto the thin blond down of Sylvia’s arms. She walked right into the Davison’s living room as if she were an old family friend, finding her way into Gordon’s study, where she plunked the book down and opened the page to the country that had once been called Persia.
“I’m thinking of archeology and I thought, wow, this book is so cool; it’s like an artifact.”
Sylvia had perfectly straight dark brown hair that looked like it had just been washed and combed. She wore large gold hoop earrings, a work shirt opened wide enough at the top to make it evident she wasn’t wearing anything underneath, jeans and sandals. When Sylvia turned to the side Davison felt a shock as he got a peek at one of her perfectly formed breasts through the opening of the buttons on the front of the shirt.
Davison removed his glasses, breathed on to the lenses, then wiped them with the handkerchief he pulled out of the breast pocket of his rumpled seersucker jacket. Davison had big rings under his eyes which gave him the look of a suffering poet; with his bulging stomach and white hair he looked like the aged Yeats.
“I just wanted to show it to you. I got it for almost nothing. Well, I guess you’ve seen everything. It’s probably not so interesting after all.” Davison was paralyzed; he wanted to say something unforgettable, but he was struck dumb. This was an old story with Davison. Confronted with the presence of something or someone he desired, he drifted into a solipsistic debate. Did he or she exist? Did anything exist outside of mind? Sylvia, obviously discomforted by Davison’s silence, walked out before he could say anything. After Sylvia left, Davison found himself replaying in his mind every movement he’d made as if he were a young man going out on his first date; he chastised himself for not rising to the occasion, for not breaking his silence. Then he caught himself. She was nothing more than an impetuous child who didn’t know better than to walk into the middle of a stranger’s living room. Sylvia was taking time out of Davison’s busy day.
Still he found himself thinking about Sylvia, first romantically, then sexually. Davison hadn’t allowed himself fantasy for years; in order to fantasize you have to imagine yourself as the reciprocal object of someone else’s desire. He had had passing imaginings of many women dressed and undressed, but feeling himself old, washed up and undesirable to everyone, he hadn’t felt worthy of fantasy until now. There was a guilty exuberance to it all. He wasn’t in love with Sylvia, but he felt alive because of her boldness, because of the sloppy way she had insinuated herself into the middle of his moribund existence. It was not Sylvia’s boyfriend Jack that he imagined removing the work shirt and jeans. It was he himself. He imagined himself kissing her breasts, licking her back. He loved her swarthy skin and her full, slightly parched lips (which he saw himself sucking), he loved her toes with their bright red nail polish, he loved her turned up nose and the baby skin of her cheeks. In the fantasy he had again and again he saw himself mounting Sylvia. He saw himself like he hadn’t for years, powerful, vigorous and attractive. One night the fantasy turned into a dream in which Sylvia was crying out “Gordon, Gordon, Gordon...Fuck me in the ass.”
I LOVE YOU. He was screaming when Jennifer shook him. He sprang up, then sat on the edge of the bed, shivering.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I must have been having a nightmare,” he lied.
“What was it? Did you fall in love with the big bad wolf?”
“You know, Jennifer, everyone finds you so witty, but after all these years I have to confess I’ve never gotten your sense of humor.”
“It’s not humor. You were screaming ‘I love you’ and yet you claim you were having a nightmare. So I assumed there must be a monster involved.”
Davison got a cramp in his leg. He turned on the lamp on the end table beside his bed. He lifted his leg up, straightening it and massaging the calf.
“Are you having an affair?” Jennifer asked sardonically, as if to mock the very idea as she uttered the words. “You seem distracted.”
“As a matter of fact I am. You know the Baker girl. Well she’s grown up and now she’s throwing herself at me. You’re probably not surprised.”
“I have to get back to sleep, Gordon. Howard Gardner is lecturing at the New School at 8:30, and I said I’d help set up the coffee.” Jennifer, who had retired from her job administering a program for gifted children, did volunteer work for several education orientated foundations. She was no longer amused. She always had trouble getting back to sleep once she was awakened in the middle of the night.
Jennifer turned away from him, pulling the comforter over her back as Davison shut off the light.
Davison followed Sylvia as she crossed Claremont Avenue. She was coming home from school at 3:30 in the afternoon. The bright red lipstick he got a glimpse of from the side as she turned down their block was a marked contrast to her backpack. Was she a schoolgirl or the fully developed woman she seemed to be? He was on his way to the CVS to fill a prescription for Jennifer’s beta blocker. When Davison returned home, he immediately noticed the Bakers’ front door was wide open. Then for a second he saw Sylvia like some kind of forest sprite dancing naked through the living room area into which he was looking. She was more beautiful than he’d even expected. She had large breasts, a perfectly formed back and a pronounced Venus mound. Rather than being a mere schoolgirl, she was a fully developed woman. Her beauty and precociousness had given her experience. She’d had more experience in her 17 years than he’d had in his whole life.
Davison turned away. He was nervous with excitement. He fumbled through his coat pocket for his keys, finally realizing that he didn’t have them and that they had been left in his seersucker jacket.
“Shit.” Now Davison would have to find the super to get in.
“I saw you looking at me.” Sylvia was standing in doorway with a towel wrapped around her. She put her lips up against the metal frame of the doorjamb.
Davison was going to fake ignorance.
“I wouldn’t miss such a sight anymore than I’d miss seeing the Venus De Milo.”
The last words Davison remembered her saying (and he couldn’t believe he’d heard them as they were being said or even after) were: “I like getting deliveries in the backdoor before the milkman comes.”
He found himself on the sofa of the Bakers’ living room in his underwear. It was over before he knew it and Sylvia was gone. Davison picked his pants and shirt up off the floor. He was looking for one of his loafers which, it turned out, had been kicked under the sofa.
She had assaulted him, knowingly, cunningly, arousing in him a desire he thought he’d totally lost, then totally leaving him when she’d finished with him. Even though he realized Debbie Baker could easily walk in at any moment, he called out frantically, desperately to Sylvia, knowing in his heart that she was nowhere to be found. He scoured the apartment, running into the Baker’s bedroom and into Sylvia’s messy cubbyhole off the kitchen in which a math textbook was turned face down on a lacy black thong. He hadn’t even bothered to dress himself. Nothing mattered anymore. He would have done anything to touch her again. He still wanted her. He wasn’t satisfied. He loved her. He was convinced he would give up everything to run off to some country where no laws limited relationships with minors, but he loved her not only for her beauty, but for the way the beauty awakened the kind of desire he hadn’t felt for years.
Jennifer was adding breadcrumbs and parsley to the raw hamburger meat that was sitting in a yellow Teflon bowl on the kitchen counter. She sprinkled the top with salt, pepper and oregano. She started to whistle as she cracked an egg on top. Then she kneaded the mixture with her hands vigorously. Davison watched her chapped hands as she worked. Her hands reminded him of a trip they’d taken to Silvermine Arts Colony in Connecticut a quarter of a century before when they were both still young. They’d watched a potter kneading clay. The potter’s hands were all totally covered with the gray green matter. Then the potter had taken the chaotic mass, deftly spinning it into a delicate object on her wheel.
Now Jennifer lined a metal baking pan with tin foil. She took the clump of meat, which looked like one of those asteroids that ends up on earth as exemplars of the infinite possibilities of shape itself—every edge turned in a series of chaotic, unpredictable movements—and molded it into a rounded top rectangular shaped object. She looked up at him as she smoothed out the edges of her masterpiece.
“I was going to take you somewhere nice for dinner.” Davison went to the refrigerator, ferreting under Jennifer’s neatly covered containers. He’d forgotten how hungry he got after sex. He pulled a piece of Jarlsberg cheese from a plastic pack.
“I hate it when you pick. Why don’t you make yourself a sandwich and put it on a plate?”
Jennifer turned back towards her creation. Davison came up behind her, putting his arms around her waist. It wasn’t that Jennifer, her hands covered with raw hamburger meat, was suddenly attractive. His brief tryst—and the fact that a young woman had actually found him attractive enough to seduce—made him feel sexy. His good mood created an affection that had nothing to do with his wife.
“So what about it?”
“Can’t you see I’m trying to make dinner?”
“I was thinking about taking you out to some place nice for dinner.” Davison almost regretted repeating himself. He was losing his interest in dinner out with Jennifer. In fact, he didn’t even know why he’d asked. He’d rather have Jennifer’s little meatloaf with the predictable canned roasted potatoes and iceberg lettuce. He’d be able to expedite the meal so he could get back to his fantasies of Sylvia.
“We’re having dinner out next week.”
“With the Bakers, we haven’t decided.”
“Is Sylvia coming?”
“I’m sure she has better things to do than hang out with the kind of old crones her parents know. Actually, Debby’s worried about Sylvia.”
“She grew up so fast. Debby says she attracts older guys because of how grownup she looks, but Debby isn’t sure if she’s emotionally ready.”
“How old are we talking about?”
“Apparently Sylvia was seeing some 19 year old.”
Davison broke into a laugh.
Jennifer turned the oven to 350 and stuck her meatloaf in. She went over to the sink, washing her hands with dishwashing fluid. She looked around for something to wipe them on, finally pulling a dish towel out of the cupboard drawer.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, I was thinking about something else.”
“You say he was 19...no, I was thinking about this dirty joke Stu Baker told me in the elevator.” Jennifer didn’t like dirty jokes. Davison knew she wouldn’t ask him to repeat it.
“Do you think we should have somebody take a look at you? A neurologist or something. I’ve noticed you’ve been drifting off into these private little jokes quite a bit lately. I’m worried you might be developing an attention deficit disorder, which can be a bad sign for someone your age.”
“You’re making me nervous.”
“I just want to nip it in the bud.”
Davison couldn’t wait to see Sylvia, but like the shy unconfident adolescent he still was in his soul, he was also afraid. The anticipation was so delicious that the reality, which he felt would result in disappointment, was better put off as long as possible. For the next few days Davison slunk out of his apartment, early in the morning, or very late at night. It wasn’t a dramatic shift in his schedule, since he’d always gone out for a last walk to pick up the next day’s Times anyway.
When a week had passed and he’d still failed to see Sylvia, Davison began to grow impatient. He imagined himself running off with Sylvia. He saw them staying in flophouses and motels fleeing the police and then ending up in a some sort of standoff in which finally they were shot, dying in each other’s arms, Tristan and Isoldt in a Wagnerian Liebestod.
Then he saw her. He’d avoided going out during the afternoons since he knew this was precisely when she came home from school. He was playing hard to get, but he needed to start a root canal and the only time the dentist could see him was at 2:00. When he climbed out of the subway at 116th and Broadway, his cheeks were swollen and his mouth was numb from Novocain. He didn’t want Sylvia to see him. He was standing on the island in the middle of 116th Street, waiting for the light to change, but he couldn’t stand the wait. He dashed across the street without seeing a white van coming at him. The van swerved to miss him and almost hit a cab. The van screeched to a halt and the driver screamed at Gordon in Spanish.
“Gordon!” It was Sylvia. “Man, you’ve got to watch it.”
“I’m in a terrible hurry, my dear.” Davison was trying to appear uncaring—the last thing he wanted to reveal was humiliating, unreciprocated desire—especially considering the discomfort he was already in.
Davison stalked off. His eyes welled up. He attributed the tears streaming down cheeks to the wind. He always cried when wind blew in his eyes. He was sensitive. It was only when he walked in the apartment and Jennifer asked, “Gordon, what’s wrong?” that he started to cry uncontrollably.
“It hit me all at once, I’m growing old,” Gordon babbled. He shut the door of his study, hoping Jennifer wouldn’t follow him. The grief was almost delicious. The stupidity of his desire and the fact that his life hadn’t amounted to anything merged together in one cathartic disappointment. He lay on his back on his couch staring up at a volume devoted to homosexuality in ancient Greece.
“We all are, dear. Try one of these. I just baked them.” She took a hot chocolate chip off the plate she was holding and shoved it in his mouth.
“I’m afraid I’m not very hungry.”
“Even for freshly baked chocolate chips.” Jennifer sat down on the edge of the couch. She was almost coquettish. For a moment he wanted her, though the thought of actually having sex with the woman she’d become filled him with revulsion.
“You’re sweet. Darling, if I could just have a few moments to myself I could get over the current bout of senile dementia in time to be my usual acid self for dinner. What’s for dinner? Please tell me it’s meatloaf.”
“Actually, I forgot to tell you the Bakers couldn’t make it next week. So I invited them over for dinner tonight.”
“We’re having lobster thermidor.”
As Davison sat across from Debbie at the candlelit table he valiantly tried to keep up the stream of small talk about the building and all the horrible new shareholders. He was sure Debbie and Stu knew about him. All through the meal the Bakers seemed to be looking at him oddly, sizing him up. Perhaps they were even trying to envision him as a son-in-law in the event something happened to Jennifer and the impossible came to be.
“I wanted to chat with you about something,” Stu said to Davison as they all exchanged the usual “thank you for a wonderful evening at the front door.”
“About what?” Davison was alarmed. Stu was plainly taken aback.
“Oh, nothing. Just something about Sylvia. But it can wait.”
“I can speak to Sylvia if you like.”
“Now Gordon, get control of yourself. We all know that Sylvia is a fetching young lady.” Jennifer winked at Debbie and they all laughed.
“Sylvia spoke to me about her interest in archeology,” Davison said, trying to sound as measured and rational as possible.
“I tried to explain to her that there aren’t any jobs available for archeologists,” Stu said. “Don’t get up in arms, Gordon, but I’m actually trying to dissuade her. She might as well have told me she wanted to be an actress.”
“She is actually quite an actress,” Davison mumbled to himself.
“What did you say?”
“After all she has the looks to act.”
“But will looks get her a job as an archeologist?”
“It all depends on what they’re looking for.”
There was a roar of laughter which provided the final thrust that sent the Bakers out of the Davison’s apartment. “Thank God,” Davison said.
“You looked like you were having a good time.”
“You did a wonderful job, Jennifer.” Davison kissed his wife on the cheek and went off to his study, wanting only to be undisturbed so he could be miserable in peace.
There she was in the elevator, first thing in the morning, in her usual sandals and work shirt, one button undone in excess of propriety, the backpack, the hoop earrings, the lipstick. Sylvia in her most idealized form. He felt like he did on a dig in his early career, when he’d come upon a perfectly preserved Etruscan vase whose design narrated the story of a princely birth.
“Please don’t give me the party line.”
“Your father? Well it’s not easy. Sylvia, archeology’s the kind of thing you have to be passionate for. When there’s passion, anything can happen. It’s no use talking about the number of jobs that are available. But if you’re looking at it like another job where a certain amount of time will earn you your just rewards...”
“It doesn’t seem fair. Well...” Sylvia turned to go uptown. Davison started towards the newspaper stand at the subway. Then he turned back. He ran up alongside Sylvia.
“Gordon, what are you doing here? I thought you went the other way.”
“You haven’t said anything or mentioned anything or tried to see me. It’s as if it hadn’t happened.”
“I didn’t want you to think I didn’t care, that I was slam bam thanking you ma’aming it. I wanted you to know I did care. I really care about you. I even feel like I’m falling in love with you.”
“Gordon, you must be fifty.”
“I’m 58, to be exact. It didn’t stop you.”
“I do this all the time in my improv class. I like to kid around. I do these scenes from novels I’ve read like Lolita or like that movie The Blue Angel. You know, the one where the dancer destroys the old professor. But it’s just a movie. I know you’re not like some old professor in a movie. Anyway you’re married.”
“Is this how you and your friends get your kicks, seducing older men and making them fall hopelessly in love with you? Why don’t you try paraplegics?”
Davison found himself standing totally still in the middle of Claremont Avenue watching Sylvia walking off and hating her, even as he craved touching his lips to hers, touching the baby skin of her cheeks. He came to attention when a cruising cab honked insistently.
“Why don’t you look where the hell you are?” the cabdriver screamed.
“Because I don’t know.”
Davison wandered around Morningside Heights. He walked down to 110th Street and entered Central Park. He spent most of the day listlessly traversing the city. By the time he got home it was late afternoon. He’d been meaning to pick up a few new archeology magazines, but he suddenly didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything. There was nothing he wanted, but to have the old feelings of love he had towards a child he no longer even liked. If only he hadn’t run into her in the elevator at that time. If only he could have waited. If he hadn’t seen her he could at least have bought time. Now there was nothing to look forward to.
When he got home, it was late afternoon. The elevator was on four, the floor he occupied with the Bakers. He rang. When the door opened, he found Sylvia with her back to him. She had her arms around a young man and a leg curled lasciviously around his waist. The boy had stuck his hand under the short pleated skirt she had changed into. It was plainly lodged in her underwear. Sylvia turned around towards Gordon.
“I’ve decided I’m not interested in archeology after all. I want to do something with film, maybe even film editing. This is my friend Jack. Jack, this is Gordon. He’s the next door neighbor. He’s an archeologist. Isn’t that cool?”
“That’s so weird. I was just talking about archeology with this dude. Do you mind if we rang your bell some time?”
“You could give me a call. Sylvia has my number.”
“Cool.” Sylvia and Jack threw their arms around each other and started laughing as they danced out of the lobby of the building out onto Claremont Avenue.
“Cool.” Gordon muttered to himself as the elevator door closed behind him. He smashed the button for four with his fist. As the elevator approached his floor, he could smell the aroma of the meatloaf Jennifer was cooking.