If you came to last Saturday’s “Women of a Certain Age” panel, it may be that like me, you just can’t get the sound of Sonia’s marvelous characters Pincus and Faye out of your mind.
Well, here comes a treat!
Sonia has graciously shared with us another chapter from her novel-in-progress, The Last Hotel, about the residents of a residential hotel on the Upper West Side. This is the chapter about that marvelous, mouth-watering brisket that brings the two lonely-hearts together.
(c.) Sonia Pilcer, 2012
Once a week, Henry slipped rent envelopes under residents’ doors. Saul collected on Fridays. Standing behind the top-half of the closed door of his ancient office, a tiny cubicle with black cubbyholes for mail, a cracked peg board with keys and an extinct switchboard, he studied his ledger with everyone’s names and room numbers.
Finally, he looked up.
Faye Meyer paid him forty-five dollars. He stared at her check, peering in the light as if he hadn’t received the identical check the week before. It might be forged.
“Okay,” he said, putting a mark next to her name in his large ledger.
“Don’t mention it.” He grumbled something in Polish or Yiddish to himself.
Though Saul could be a petty, parsimonious pain in the ass, everyone respected, even protected him. It was hard not to stare at the blue number tattoo on his left arm when his sleeve was rolled up. There was a letter, which looked like a B, a hyphen, five or six numbers. Faye tried to make out the exact numerals, but feared he’d notice her staring.
With his glossy, thick hair, black tight curls streaked with silver, his strong physique, Saul must have been something in his youth. But thinking about his youth, she realized how he had spent it — in some German camp in Poland where they branded him like livestock.
Reardon, the Irish bartender on the second floor, stepped to the side of the elevator as Faye entered. A strikingly handsome man with sculptured features, he had white skin like a baby’s that had never seen the light. A regular vampire with very black brows and deep-set black eyes. Black turtleneck. Once he’d been an actor. Rumor had it that he’d had a role in a Fellini film.
They nodded at each other. He was polite enough, but never made a moment’s eye contact. Oh well. Faye reminded herself that she was a member of the Invisible Women’s Club. As he walked out of the elevator, he nodded at her again.
Faye liked living at the Last Hotel. The random roll of the dice every time you stepped in the elevator. If you were going to live alone, as she did since Putzface walked out on her, there was always other people to watch, to imagine their lives. And it was a crosstown bus to Hunter College, where she taught. Often she walked across Central Park in the morning. People said she was crazy to go by herself. She loved the park and walked briskly.
Now Faye sat down on her couch and took off her shoes. Then sighed. The end of another week. She’d only had a few classes. She had to read her graduate student’s thesis proposal. And her Colette article for Feminist Press was overdue.
She walked into her tiny kitchenette. Open her small fridge, took out a package of sirloin wrapped in butcher paper. Laying it flat on a wooden block, she contemplated the red meat. She could never be a vegetarian. She began to hammer the meat with her fists.
If only I had someone. He doesn’t have to be terrific or even great. But weekends sometimes seemed so long. She’d go for B+, B, maybe even B-. She said this to herself not with self-pity. She’d had her share of lovers. And she really didn’t mind being rid of Putzface.
Gathering her ingredients, she now wondered how she would build him. Her Fantasy Man. Of flesh and sinew, of course. Broad shoulders. She liked that. Strong arms. Dark, curly hair, but not too much. Putzface had black hair on his back. Now the truth could be told. She hated it! Graceful in body and speech.
Faye massaged kosher salt into the meat, imagining she was on a beach, spreading oil on his back. The salt felt like sand. Peeling the onions, she wept real tears, which she laughed at as she wiped them with her sleeve. Pathetic. Peeling potatoes. Carrots. Blending them all in her mother’s black iron pot as more tears trickled down her cheeks.
Faye swirled her onions slowly in oil until they were thick and golden, floating in their own juices, the oil sizzling. How she loved the smells. And how it reminded her of her mother, who she’d lost just two years ago.
Once she’d read an article in a women’s magazine. “Are You Just Like Your Mother?” Well, she had her pot. It was like spending a few hours with her mother.
Sadie Goldstein spent all of Friday preparing for the Sabbath. Brisket was her specialty. She too rubbed kosher salt into the beef, kneading it into the folds, until her fingers were raw, the salt pinching her skin.
As Faye stirred the iron pot, steam rose to her face, curling her hair. Double, double toil and trouble. She added the sliced steak pieces. Wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, she caught her reflection in the small window.
She had a strong face – a prominent nose that might overwhelm but for her jutting cleft chin. Red hair dyed to the limit of respectability, definitely a hussy shade, created a nice frisson with her Ph.D. Once Faye had been sought after, mooned over, whistled at, loved, and then not. Now she was an aging Siren. Would anyone hear her song? Would she ever be loved and desired again?
“The Invisible Women’s Club,” she reminded herself. Her sexuality obscure to men of all ages, except those close to the grave, who wanted a caretaker. How could she accept it though? To not want someone to see you? To look at your face, meet your eye? Yet women of the club were hardly invisible to each other. They scrutinized each highlight, every lost or gained pound, not to mention, any ‘work’ done. “Did you do anything? Your wrinkles disappeared!”
“I had a good night’s sleep.”
No, Faye hadn’t done anything nor did she intend to. She worked for every wrinkle on her face. So one part of her would look young while the rest sagged? She wasn’t young. And she’d paid heavily for her hard-won lines of experience.
At that moment, the telephone rang. Faye didn’t move. Five rings, her outgoing message, then she heard her editor Judi’s voice. “The deadline is past. Where is it? Faye, I won’t be pleased if it’s not on my desk on Monday.”
She was supposed to deliver an article on “Women Transitioning: Colette as Role Model.” Publish or perish. Well, not really. She already had tenure. But she still had to finish the last part.
Faye had a doctorate from City College, specializing in French 20th Century. She’d lived in Paris for a year, fallen for a French painter, Claude. A year at the Sorbonne. Lots of wine, lots of sex. And a thesis: “Master or Muse: The Subjugation of Colette’s Art” which she had turned into a monograph.
She had to write the article this weekend. Most of it was written. Just needed a final read through and a strong ending. Her mother’s brisket would keep her company. She set the timer for an hour and a half.
Faye walked over to her wooden desk, opening a notebook. In her notes, she found a quote from Colette that she’d been thinking about.
“You have to get old. Don’t cry, don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel, you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure.”
Colette faced the same daunting struggle. To put a so-called good face on it. Yet in 1921, before turning 50, she had a facelift. Then she became entrepreneurial, created a beauty institute where she dispensed her ‘secret recipes’ and conducted makeovers in a white lab coat! Never underestimate a woman’s vanity. Faye raised her cheeks with her fingers.
Walking into her small bathroom, she turned on the hot water for a bath. Just hot, hot water. It was a good, old-fashioned tub with claws. This was one of her Friday rituals. (She tried not to teach on Fridays.) To cleanse herself of the week. Her own mikvah before Shabbat, though definitely secular. She threw in desert bath salts, sprinkled lilac essence, and a little baby oil to soften her skin.
As she melted into the water, she felt a tweak in her bijoux. Her lovely jewel. It still lived! Jewel had the word Jew in it. What Jonathan, when he loved her, called the little man in the canoe. Faye raised her legs and pointed her toes. Studying Martha Graham technique had preserved her stomach muscles, given her strong, muscular legs. She exhaled and raised her pelvic floor. Squeezed. Oh, those kegels! Not kugels! She giggled. Perhaps like so many other things, sex was wasted on the young. Would anyone ever see her again? More seriously, would she ever fuck again? She applied her Anti-Aging Crème into the pores of her face.
Wrapping herself in a towel, she wandered into her tiny kitchenette. Raised the lid of the iron pot. Beef effluvia filled the room. She dipped a wooden spoon, blew, then tasted. It still needed time. She added a half a cup of wine, and pat of butter for greater succulence. Cholesterol, be damned!
Jonathan had been a great appreciator of her brisket. Though a self-hating Jew, like so many of the lefties they knew from City College, he made an exception for Jewish food. Good Jewish food and deli, of course. She’d married him when he was finishing graduate school. She worked for a French publishing company for a year. He taught linguistics and Foucault deconstructionism at City. They had two grown children. After Elissa, their second daughter graduated Bennington, he spent several weeks of his sabbatical, writing a novel at an artists colony in Virginia. He couldn’t publish the novel. He returned to teaching. He started fucking his linguistics intern, some linguistics they must have performed, right in her own bed, as she discovered them that Wednesday afternoon when her shrink rescheduled her appointment.
The narrative piqued her colleagues in the lunch cafeteria at Hunter.
“A woman is incomplete until she is married,” said Betty Alecson, Applied Sciences, married to a reborn Scientologist. “Then she’s finished. You’re lucky to be free of Jon.”
“True, true,” agreed Selena Grosbard, an abandoned Byron scholar, whose husband ran off with a graduate student. “When a woman steals your husband, the best revenge is to let her keep him.” Her pause very pregnant. “Don’t worry. She’ll find out.”
“You have two choices in life,” added Alice Valens, a never-married Chaucerian. “You can stay single and be miserable, or get married and wish you were dead.”
They were her Greek chorus. Like so many women, feminists like her, they often sounded like they despised men. She didn’t. Her father, Isaac, was not an educated man, but had a gentle, compassionate nature, though he worked hard in the docks at Sheepshead Bay. Yes, Jonathan was a putz. No doubt about that. She slipped into blue jeans and a denim shirt.
That’s when she heard the sound. Turning around, Faye saw something curious. Slowly, her window rose by itself, and a fully formed, rather tall hooded figure crawled in through the fire escape. She would have screamed, if she hadn’t sat on her bed in pure, open-mouthed amazement.
Was this her Fantasy Man? Had her imagination created a golem? She didn’t believe in supernatural kind of stuff, but she sat as if paralyzed. Whatever it was, was cloaked in darkness, but there was an aura of light surrounding it. She couldn’t see a face, but a ruby stone shone from a long, delicate finger.
“Who are you?” Faye asked the apparition.
“Who do you think I am?”
“My projection. That’s what my analyst would say. That I am transferring my need for love in my life, for a man –“
“Oh, shush, you! Think of me as a fairy godmother,” she said, pulling down her hood. “I’m just here to give you a good turn.”
“Because we had a lottery, and I drew you.”
“What kind of lottery?”
“You wouldn’t understand. It’s a complex equation of mitzvot, tzedakah, and because you need it.”
“Excuse me, I don’t understand, but I do have to check my brisket,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
She followed Faye into her kitchenette, watching as she stirred the beef, onions sizzling in her black iron pot. “How did you prepare it?” she inquired.
“A steak, I used sirloin this time, oh, I don’t know, a little tomato paste, onions, carrots, potatoes. Salt and pepper. I throw in red wine.”
“No, my mother didn’t use garlic in her brisket.”
“You should. Whole cloves which you sear –“
“What are you? The Cooking Dybbuk?”
Faye looked, but couldn’t make out a form. Who cared. She was really enjoying this, whatever it was. Maybe she was just losing her mind. “So what can you do for me? Are you like a genie who offers wishes?”
“That a woman like you goes to bed alone every night.”
“We know your husband was a worthless piece of garbage.”
“You shouldn’t give up. You’re still young.”
“I’m over fifty.“
“I’m not impressed. I’m over several hundred. Go find a lover.”
“There’s no one around.”
“I see a man. A man of fine character.”
“Oh. Who’s that?”
“Think close to home.”
“The hotel? There’s no one. Saul is married. Lenny, never. Ugh. Reardon doesn’t talk and besides he’s not interested.”
“He’s an old man.”
“Pincus,” she said solemnly. “There’s more than meets the eye.”
“How do you know?”
“I was married to him in one of my lifetimes. He doesn’t eat well anymore.”
“Pincus?” she asked the apparition.
“There’s more than meets the eye,” she repeated. Then disappeared.
Faye walked over to the window with the fire escape. It was shut. She tried to raise the window, but decades of paint prevented its budging. Had she imagined the whole thing? Was it a hallucination? Maybe something in the brisket. She sighed. Could Pincus be her fantasy man?
That’s when her eyes fell on the silver candlesticks, placed high on a shelf above her table. They had belonged to her mother. She took them down, blowing the dust off their surface. She had the impulse to light Shabbat candles. What the hell. Faye was not a believer. She was, in fact, a devout disbeliever. And yet. The Sabbath bride was on her way. Faye lit the first candle, then the second. She closed her eyes, hands cupped over her face, and said a soft prayer.