The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue
by Walter Cummins
Teddy watched Jill walk about the apartment, turning on faucets, snapping on light switches, rubbing her fingertips over the pimpled wall plaster, stepping across the ragged segment of Oriental rug to open and shut closet doors. Angela had invited him to be there, ringing his doorbell — as far as Teddy could tell — nothing but a man's frayed blue oxford shirt and announcing, "I'm subletting and this afternoon some person is coming to peek into all my crannies." That person was Jill.
"You're leaving?" Teddy had choked his panic on a mouthful of toast, once again feeling foolish in Angela's presence, even though he was almost twenty years older. Every moment with her Teddy couldn't stop being conscious of her assured grace, certain she disdained anyone who didn't measure up to her standard. And certain he didn't.
Her eyes followed Jill's anxious scrutiny, too bored to smirk. "You'd have thought she was burrowing in for life," she told Teddy later.
But Teddy knew all of Jill's frantic thoroughness was only a pretense by someone trying to hide the terror of decision–making. Teddy understood, sympathized; she was overwhelmed by everyday functioning as if it were a final exam. To Angela, she must have been a creature from another species.
Angela had advertised the sublet as two and one–half rooms. Actually, when the house belonged to one family, that of a ship's captain, a hundred years before, it had been the parlor, fifteen by twenty. But now, renovated for modern times, it contained a kitchen unit built into the back wall beside the bathroom and a partitioned cubicle in one corner large enough for a bureau and single bed. Teddy's apartment was a mirror image with a common wall.
Jill stopped to admire the steel–framed French posters. "You've fixed it up nice," she said and blushed. Most of Angela's furniture was wicker, with two orange sling–back chairs on either side of a glass–topped coffee table. "I don't own a thing. Not a stick."
"Where are you living now?" Angela asked.
"At home. With my mother."
"Aren't you happy with mother any more?"
"I'm twenty–five. It upsets her that I'm not married. If I went out on my own, maybe she could make believe I was."
Angela smiled at Jill, a brilliant smile, disarming; people like Jill were flattered to be receiving it. Whenever they were together, Teddy would keep alert to seize it in his memory even though he knew it had nothing to do with him, just a calculated reflex.
Jill seemed nice, shy enough to put him at ease with her. She had a pleasant round face and a tendency toward plumpness, with years of nervous dieting ahead before she would give up to a fifty–pound explosion. Her hair was dyed too blonde for her deep–pored skin. Angela's, loose now, shimmered rich and dark; her flesh glowed.
"I don't know what I'll do for furniture." Jill said to him. "It must be expensive to outfit even a small place."
Teddy nodded in sympathy.
"I'll sell you mine," Angela offered, waving her hand as if she held a wand.
"But what will you use?"
"New things for a new place."
"How much would you want?"
Angela took in the room with a sweep of her hand. "Let's say five hundred dollars."
"Is that enough for all this?"
"You'll save me the bother of moving."
Later, Jill gone, waving her check as if drying the ink, Angela told Teddy, "It didn't cost me a cent anyway. Bloomingdale's wrote off the wicker as a bad debt. The rest came from garbage picking in the better neighborhoods. You should have seen Franklin trying to stuff the mattress into his Jag."
"Welcome," Teddy said to Jill when she handed Angela another check for two month's rent.
"This is Teddy," Angela told her, forgetting he had been there when Jill first saw the apartment. "He lives behind us and is always knocking on the door with a bottle of chilled wine. You'll probably think he's fatherly."
"Why are you moving?" Jill asked.
Teddy listened very carefully, ready to remember every nuance of her reply.
"I've been here six months. That's my limit –– for places or people."
Jill giggled. "I spent my first twenty–five years in the same apartment. I'll probably spend my next twenty–five here."
"Nonsense. Places like these are only for getting your bearings."
"Do you know what made me decide to take it?"
"The posters? They stay too. Part of the furnishings."
"The posters are nice. But I like the windows best of all."
Two wide front windows took up much of the front wall.
"Look how much indirect sunlight there is," Jill said. "It's perfect for my plants."
"Plants?" Angela repeated the word with a twist of distaste.
"My African violets. They'll be the only memories I'll bring from my old life."
Teddy kept waiting for Angela's leaving, expecting her to borrow suitcases he'd never see again or — more likely — just disappear. But when, two Sundays after she signed the sublease, Jill appeared from a taxi, and Teddy helped her carry in matching plaid three–piece luggage, a garment bag, and six potted plants in a cardboard carton, Angela was still in the apartment, her belongings hanging in the closets, stored in the drawers. Angela herself sat yogi–like on the middle of the rug with a large art book spread across her thighs. She gave a startled look when Teddy pushed open the door and dropped the luggage. Then she gazed at Jill with a glimmer of recognition.
Jill froze in the doorway with shoulders sagging from the weight of the plants as if she couldn't enter without Angela's invitation.
"Is it you already?" Angela finally said.
"It's me." Jill seemed embarrassed at the admission.
"Didn't mother come?" Angela asked.
"She was crying too much." Jill made a bewildered scan of the room. "Did I mess up?
Is this the wrong day?"
"I'm in a bit of a bother. My new apartment didn't . . . materialize. There was a man
involved. A Franklin. And, well . . . I'm sure you understand."
Jill nodded even though it was clear she didn't.
Teddy took the box of plants from her. Each African violet bloomed with lush flowers — blue, pink, magenta, purple. Teddy was about to tell Jill how beautiful they were, when Angela stroked three fingers down through the length of her hair and his stomach flipped.
"I have a marvelous idea," she said, her smile so dazzling Jill gaped open mouthed. "We can stay here together. For a few days. Until I make other arrangements."
"That would be great." Jill sounded relieved.
Teddy realized that he'd been about to offer Angela his apartment and find a cheap hotel.
Angela flipped the pages of her book and watched Jill unpack. "I'd help, but I'm sure you know exactly where you want everything."
Jill had to leave half her clothing in the suitcases. Then, with great care, she lifted her plants one by one from the box Teddy held and arranged them on the windowsills.
"It's perfect," she said. "They'll make new buds in no time."
"It's like living in a greenhouse," Angela told Teddy in the hallway a few evenings later. "I gag on chlorophyll, and she talks to the damn things as if they were puppies."
Teddy slipped back to his apartment for a bottle of Soave and three glasses. Angela and Teddy sat and refilled their glasses while Jill puttered about. Jill barely sipped her wine. "I get tipsy so easy."
At twilight Angela rose, picked a cashmere coat from the closet, and opened the door.
"Are you going out?" Jill asked, as disappointed as Teddy was.
"On a Sunday night?"
"When you're a high–priced call girl you can't choose your hours." She pulled the door closed behind her.
Jill swung around and gave Teddy a look of alarm. So Teddy shook his head as fast as he could. "Angela says outrageous things."
"Where does she work?"
"Here and there," Teddy told her. "She seems to know a thousand people who do nothing but devise possibilities for her. But she refuses to stick at anything. Some days she models at Bergdorf's. Another she translates at the UN. She sells antiques, appraises jewelry, and lingers in the background of TV commercials. Tonight must be when she's supposed to take two Japanese diplomats to the opera."
"She's a fascinating person," Jill said.
"Fascinating," Teddy echoed and, as much as Teddy knew he shouldn't, spent the rest of the evening killing off the soave and detailing every nuance of Angela's fascination.
The more Teddy talked, the more he saw Jill's expression become an embarrassed recognition, and, by the time he left for his apartment with the empty bottle dangling from two fingertips, a look of pity.
Whenever Teddy tapped on their door, Jill would open it slowly while Angela stood between the windows snapping closed the skirt she had just thrown over her tights. When she and Jill were alone in the apartment, Teddy knew, Angela wore nothing but black tights and leotards that accentuated her graceful slim legs, her flat stomach, her small firm breasts. Before Jill moved in, he'd seen her without a skirt a few times, and safe in solitude let himself gasp at the memory.
Teddy could see Jill watching Angela move across the room, certain she felt her own body lumpish in comparison. She spilled, stumbled, bumped into furniture in Angela's presence.
Teddy was always tapping at their door, a bottled of wine under his arm and three stemmed glasses between his fingers, much more often than Teddy knew he should. Some evenings he'd stare at the wall that divided the apartments and warn himself not to do it. But there he'd be, out in the hallway, signaling with a dance of his fingernails on the wooden panel.
Jill would water her plants and listen to the conversation, Angela delightful in her anecdotes of the rich and famous, Teddy foolishly attempting to match wits, Jill grinning feebly.
After a month, Jill's African violets had lost their flowers and still had not budded, and Angela still had not moved, in fact stopped talking about the spectacular apartments important people were always on the verge of offering. Jill paid the rent, bought the food, and did the laundry; she even made up three months back electricity when the lights were shut off.
One evening when Angela was out working at some unspecified job, Teddy found Jill kneeling at the window feeding her violets spoonfuls of powdered nourishment in hopes of stimulating buds.
"Does she ever pay for anything?" Jill said.
Teddy knew he should say something just to let her know he realized how much she was being used. But he didn't want to admit it.
"If it's the money," Teddy said, "let me pay her share. But don't say a word about it."
"It's not the money as much as it is her not even wondering if she has to pay her own way. She assumes I'm around just to smooth a path for her life. That everybody is."
"If she acted any other way, she wouldn't be Angela."
Jill fixed her eyes on his. "Is it worth being abused just to have her around?"
His cheeks burned. "For me it is."
"Do you expect her ever to care anything about you?"
Teddy shook his head, his face on fire now, his forehead bubbling sweat. "The day she moves from this building, she'll forget all about me. You too."
"Then why do you bother?"
"Why don't you kick her out?"
Teddy couldn't remember who began crying first, the two of them suddenly embracing, weeping on each other's shoulders, squeezing harder and harder, somehow ending on the bed, Teddy sure she knew he was making love to someone else, sure she was trying to will herself to be that person.
Later, when they lay apart, only their feet touching, Jill asked if she could tell him something.
"Yes," Teddy said, half guessing what it would be about.
"When she turns out the lights at night, I lie in bed and see her roll out her sleeping bag on the rug and step out of her tights. Then I watch her outlined in the glow of the streetlight. She just stands there until I can't bear not being her and have to hide my face in the pillow."
Teddy stayed home one morning while Jill was at work to talk to Angela. When he entered their apartment, Angela sat mermaid–like in the sleeping bag, tossing her arms with the groans and stretches of awakening. She blinked and grimaced at the shaft of sunlight.
Teddy felt awkward not to be carrying a wine bottle, his ticket of admission. It was hard to bring himself to speak.
"What is it?" Angela wanted to know.
"I'd like to ask you for a favor."
"Please be nicer to Jill."
"Jill? She's such an ungainly thing."
"Your approval means a lot to her."
"What do you suggest?"
"Treat her as if she matters."
Angela glanced toward the violets. "Would you like me to root her in a giant urn and murmur nurturing sounds?"
"Just be kind."
"Teddy, go home."
Before he closed the door, Angela sprang from the sleeping bag, threw back her head, and spun in a dancer's twirl, loose hair floating behind her. She glided naked to the window and extended her arms to the warmth as if possessing it.
Angela began to go out early every night, return at dawn, and sleep until afternoon while Jill was away at work. As Jill told Teddy, they saw each other only for an hour or so in the evening when Jill got home and Angela was dressing.
Now and then Jill and Teddy slept together but took no real pleasure in it. "Every time she says goodbye and slams the door," Jill told him, "I shudder with loneliness."
Her plants began to wither even though she spent most of her hours in the apartment caring for them.
Teddy came by with fresh–bought pastries on a Sunday evening, surprised to find Angela home, deep in a sling chair in a silk dress and doing the crossword puzzle while Jill fed her sick violets with an eyedropper.
"The poor thing doesn't seem to be having much luck with her flowers," Angela told him.
"Not since I moved here," Jill said.
"Then why don't I bring them new life?" Angela tossed her puzzle to the floor and moved to sit cross–legged at an open window.
She held a violet up to the light in her left hand, drew back the right, and flexed her long, tapered fingers at it. "Heal!" she commanded.
The leaves were dry and brown at the tips. When Angela tried to stroke one, it crumbled. She snapped off the leaf at the stalk, paused, and then began snapping off each of the others, one by one. "I hate potted plants. I'd rather have roaches in an apartment." Jill watched numbly, too stunned to stop her. Teddy stood fascinated.
When the stalk was bare, Angela held the pot out the window, turned it upside–down, and slapped against the bottom until the dirt dropped out and burst on the sidewalk."
"Why did you do that?" Jill asked so calmly Teddy held his breath.
"I put it out of its misery," Angela said.
"Flower killer." At first, Jill almost whispered the words. Then she screamed, "Flower killer!"
"Nonsense. Look what you've done to the poor things." Angela pointed to all the pots aligned on the sill. "You're keeping them prisoner in this miserable little room."
Tearful, on the edge of blubbering, Jill rushed forward and started kicking the African violets out the window. They crashed with little mounds of dirt and quivering upended roots. By the time Teddy thought to pull her away, she had destroyed all her remaining plants.
"That was a foolish thing to do," Angela said.
A long–hooded black Jaguar appeared at the curb, and while Jill stood trembling, Angela vanished from the apartment to reappear seconds later outside the window, slipping into the passenger's seat as the car sped away with roaring acceleration.
Jill spun toward Teddy. "You get out too!" When he didn't — couldn't — move, she struck out with both hands, backing him off until Teddy retreated to the hallway and she slam–bolted the door.
Immediately, Teddy ran out onto the sidewalk and waited while Jill stood fixed in one spot by a window and watched the people who passed trample the naked plants, kicking the shards of broken pots into the gutter.
When the streetlights went on and Teddy started to shiver, he watched Jill turn back into the darkening apartment and begin pulling Angela's clothing from the closets. Teddy leaped up at the window ledge, but it was just inches beyond his fingertips. He called to her: "Jill!" But she ignored him, emptying leotards, tights, and shining silk panties from the drawers, dumping everything into a heap on the floor.
Teddy ran into the house and began pounding on the door, heaving his shoulder into it. But the lock held and Teddy rushed back to the sidewalk as Jill swept Angela's perfumes and cosmetics from the bathroom shelf into a garbage bag. She removed a packet of letters from the small drawer in the night table and tossed it onto the pile. Teddy knew without reading even one that each came from a man desperate in his longing.
When all Angela's possessions were gathered on the floor, Jill scooped them up in armfuls to heave out the window. Teddy darted about trying to catch it all, but there was too much. Even as he scooped up some items from the sidewalk, Jill dropped more. While Teddy tried to fold the garments into neat stacks, Jill started dragging the wicker furniture, the coffee table, the sling–back chairs, and the scrap of rug across the room and shoved them out, scattering his stacks. Last, she threw the framed posters down as hard as she could, twisting the steel, shattering glass.
Teddy had to jump back behind a parked car. A few people stopped to watch, but most walked past as it nothing were happening, just circling off the sidewalk to avoid the mess.
Teddy salvaged what belongings he could and brought them to his apartment, then sat on the bottom of the stairway to the upper floors, sensing Jill in the darkness just a few feet away on the other side of a wall. He left the front door open to see out into the street.
Angela did not return until long after midnight, on foot, approaching from the far corner. Teddy recognized the rhythm of her movement even in the distant shadows and ran out to the sidewalk.
She stopped short half a block away when she noticed her possessions and stared up at the apartment windows. She paused with a hand in the air, as if about to make a gesture. Teddy called to her. "Angela, I saved your clothes,"
She turned and began to walk back the way she had come, refusing to look behind. When she was gone, beyond his vision, Teddy looked up and saw Jill's face pressed against the window, her body heaving with sobs. Teddy sensed her misery was as deep as his own, but knew he would never forgive her.