Fly Into Another's Cage
New York, 1966
The garden is full—gardenia, lilac, black walnuts. I bought some elderberry jam. When the season changes, it does so. Autumn has no trumpet but one begins to march, and the earth beats and braves itself—I do, also. In the winter we will account for perilous strides and false promises, a lagger here and there, a laziness where the will meets flesh. I am not stoic. I cannot be absent. I can bend beyond belief.
The rumor is that my reputation with the studios is bad. Maybe that is good.
Love to you, D.
The fog hung low over San Francisco the night that I met her. She stood poised in the doorway, as if not certain she wanted to come in. Class had not yet started, and we were warming up and adjusting our leotards. I saw that her eyes were blue, at the center of them pinpoints of light. One hand clutched her purse, and the other she held, palm forward, in front of her. I had the impression she was trying to push something away.
* * *
"She used to be a movie star," one of the dancers whispered. After class, in the dressing room, I worked myself close to her. Her blond hair slid over her back as she bent to pull on her skirt. Zipping her coat, she smiled and asked me if I wanted to have coffee. We hardly spoke walking out onto the street. Damp with fog, we turned into a dimly lit coffeehouse. It had a long counter, with round vinyl seats. In the back, the day's menu had been printed on a blackboard.
"Perhaps it's a code," she said, staring.
I looked at the blackboard. All I could see was ordinary chalking. "See anything you want to order?" I said.
"I don't know about this place," she said. "Chocolate cake, I guess."
She pulled her coat tighter. I started working a napkin into confetti.
"I'm twenty-five," she said. Her words came at me weightedly.
"So am I," I said.
"Fly into another's cage," she said. She took a pen from her purse and scribbled her address on a scrap of paper.
"I live just a few blocks from you," I said, looking at the address.
Pushing open the cafe door, she warned, "Don't tell anyone."
"Where you live, you mean?"
"About the man who is following me." She pointed to a passing car.
I did not think the man was following her, but I found myself starting to believe that he was. How else could I explain the look of fear on her face, her body bent forward as she started to run? The cafe was next to an alleyway and we ducked into the shadows, keeping close to the walls. I turned to see if anyone was in back of us. All I saw were the streetlights, partly shrouded by fog. Finally she flattened herself against a building and lit an unfiltered cigarette.
"He's gone," she said with a sigh.
"Could I have a drag?" I asked, even though I did not smoke.
"I don't know what comes over me," she said. She handed me the cigarette. "Sorry if I gave you a scare."
The next day, I stood for a long time outside her front door before I rang the doorbell. The shutters were slanted open so that I could almost see in. She led me to a round room at the top of a winding staircase. A wooden crucifix and pictures of her hung on the wall. We sat on the floor, on a thick carpet, in squares of sunlight.
"Chocolate cookies?" she asked.
She talked about Hollywood, what a director had done to her. "He forced me to swim, even though I told him I was afraid I would drown." She tilted her face, pointed to a small triangular dent on her forehead. "He pushed me and I fell onto something. When I tried to get up, he pushed me back down."
"Tell me about yourself," she said.
I had only known her for hours, but words spilled out I had never spoken to anyone. Stories I had almost forgotten, or remembered only in dreams. She said, "I'm afraid of that, too," and "No, you didn't imagine it," and "Face the wind, don't turn your back to it." The sun started to set, casting a glow onto her pale skin.
I suppose I should admit that, in no small measure, her celebrity was part of my attraction to her. I imagined some of the glamour, the accomplishment, reflected onto me. Sometimes in a store, or on the street, a stranger would recognize her. I stood next to her, making certain the person knew I was her friend.
It was hard not to stare at her finely shaped features. Her hair skirted her cheekbones and hung almost to her waist. When she touched something, I had the impression she was sliding her fingers carefully under the surface. Her eyes were luminescent, but sometimes she looked at me blankly, as if unable to recall exactly who I was. Once, she said bitterly, "I wish I could have made a film with Bergman, or Fellini." And then, "I should be wearing heavy shoes—oxfords, not sandals. Nothing light."
A few months later, she started packing things into cartons. New York, she said, was where she wanted to live next. I asked her why. She looked at me as if I had missed the point of something.
"California," she said, "has brought nothing but bad luck."
I said, "I won't have anyone to tell the secrets to."
She said, "I'll miss the way your hands draw angels in the air."
After she left, from time to time I called, or would write a letter to her. I could almost count on a letter from her that same day. In one, she said, "When you come here, I will show you the big town. It is good to go there even though we must walk blocks through heat and hurry. Everywhere lives the crucified God, and blind indifference. Even so, love and truth leap with the mighty and meet the excellence." That summer, she met me at the airport. I had expected to take a cab, so I had not given her my flight number
"How did you find me?" I asked.
"I just guessed at it," she said.
In the afternoon, we strolled in a park not far from her apartment, in Brooklyn. Long branches shaded the weedy pathways from the summer sun. The air was flecked with soot, or ashes, from a nearby factory.
"I should work in a place like that. For punishment," she said.
"Punishment for what?" I asked.
Looking down, she aimed her foot at the center of a square in the sidewalk. "We shouldn't step on the cracks," she said.
Each day, the subway forged through tunnels to Lexington Avenue. In dance class, our clipped-back hair and our leotards reminded me of how we had met. Hands clasped, we dipped forward on one leg and lifted the other in back of us. We knew if one of us let go, the other would fall. Afterwards, on Madison Avenue, we tried on dresses in one boutique after another. In Schraffts, chocolate soda fizzed over the edge of a tall glass.
But by the end of a week, I felt drawn into a world I did not recognize. The apartment seemed smaller. She stared at me accusingly, I thought, if I started to leave the room. I kept thinking of how, in the subway, she had whispered that a man was brushing his hand against her. But when I looked at the man, I saw him reaching up to grab hold of the overhead strap. Back at the apartment, making dinner, I suggested, "I think the man might have been trying to keep his balance."
"You just didn't see it," she insisted.
"Maybe I didn't," I said. "Can we have a drink?"
"There are thirty-two alcoholics in my family," she said, uncorking a bottle of wine.
"There are two in mine," I said.
"A pencil lead is good, it can write, but it can also poison you," she said. "What do you want for dessert?"
"I can't stay as long as I thought I could," I announced carefully.
"A broom is good because it sweeps, but it can poke your eye out," she said quietly.
Sliding my arm around her shoulder, I said, "I'll come back to visit another time."
Early the next morning, just after the sun came up, I slipped out the front door without, I thought, making a sound. But I saw her face at the window when I looked back, hesitating before I shoved my suitcase into a cab. After I got home, I called her from time to time. I could tell she did not want to talk to me. Finally I wrote her a letter, but it came back to me, no forwarding address.
I was in the car, almost thirty years later, when I heard her name on the radio. The announcer was talking about a film I had seen for the fourth time, not too long ago. As he spoke, I thought of how I had wished she could walk out of the film and start talking to me. I had a story to tell her, something I could tell to no one else. Then he said, "It is not known, although it is suspected, that her death was a suicide." I stopped the car, bent over the steering wheel, and cried.
Paula Chertok was previously published in The Quarterly. She is also a musician (classical piano), and currently living in Portland, Oregon.