Paris in the Twenties

Fiction: A young woman struggles to find peace as the world she knew begins to unravel around her.

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Paris in the Twenties
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

I did not eat much the winter of my last year in high school. I read compulsively and rarely slept. I didn’t know what I felt when my classmate Ginger Graham died three months after coming to school one day with a bump on the underside of her chin, several months before we were to hear which of the Seven Sisters had accepted or rejected us, and two days after my father hurled a heavy crystal glass across the living room of our penthouse over East 73rd Street, shattering the windowpane in a thousand pieces, and marking one of his last nights in what had been, for all these years, our home.

Miraculously, the heavy tumbler in which he drank Scotch and water, then Scotch and Scotch, bounced back into the room and landed on the grand piano no one played.

It was early 1972, and my parents were good Democrats who opposed the war in Vietnam, supported civil rights, and hated Richard Nixon. It was not politics that pulled them apart, but the political moment—the previous decade of protest, war, burning cities, burning bras—that gave my father the idea that marriage did not have to be a lifetime obligation. And the fact that I, the youngest of three children, was about to leave home. Why couldn’t we all just leave?—that must have been his thinking.

“Are you out of your mind?” my mother shrieked from the armchair that held her, a few beats after the crescendo, once we could see that the drinking glass had boomeranged back to the living room.

“No more than usual.” He did not shriek in return. No need to; evidence of his feelings was everywhere. Bits of glass covered the surfaces like confetti. The air was hushed, electric, and frigid. Cold air blew in through the jagged hole in the pane, and the wind threatened to dislodge even more pieces of glass.

It was her way to shriek and his to respond in dulcet tones, an effort of many years, to make her sound like a madwoman. It didn’t work that night. I felt a sliver of something on my cheekbone, and I could see that my mother was afraid to move. For one thing, she would have to cross my father’s path and feel, from close up, how much distance there was between them.

“Anybody want a refill,” my father said, “besides me?”

She didn’t look up. When he disappeared into the kitchen, she turned to me, her expression as flat and hopeless as I had ever seen it. In 1972 she was a pretty 47-year-old woman—I’m startled by her loveliness in the snapshots I see now, the bright brown eyes and soft smile, her abiding kindness laced with deep despair—but to me that night, she was old and haggard.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “Since you’ve got shoes on, would you go to my closet and get my slippers and a pair of socks? I’m afraid to get up.”

When I returned, my father had a broom, a dustpan, and a brown paper bag. He wasn’t a liberated man doing his share of the cleaning, nothing like that—more like he’d made a mess building a cabinet or drilling a hole in the wall, and it was part of the project to tidy up afterward. But to do it properly, he’d need a vacuum cleaner, even I knew that—and he wouldn’t go that far. That was women’s work.

He had chosen the apartment for the view of Manhattan’s skyline that unfurled and glistened through the oversize windows that circled the living and dining rooms and that he hired someone to clean every two weeks. Through them, he could see from high above what he had come to conquer all those years before.

Now he was all out of dreams, out of rage, expectations, and money too. And it was impossible to see the skyline through the web of broken glass.

My mother put on her slippers as my father picked up what he could with his fingers, and I stood watching until I saw that I could retreat to my room, crack open the window to smoke a cigarette, and read a book of letters from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter. They were mostly written when she was at Vassar, and she was so alienated from her frequently soused father that when they arrived, she’d check them for money and news and toss them into a drawer—“these gorgeous letters,” she says decades later, full of regret at not having been a better daughter. I blew smoke rings out into the cold, keeping the tip of the cigarette in the night air. They knew I smoked, but the rule was that I couldn’t do it in the apartment. It was the only thing they agreed on anymore, maybe the only rule left in our household.

We’d moved to the city when I was 8 and my brothers were 11 and 12. The first year, my father ordered Christmas catalogs from Tiffany and Harry Winston, and we played a game with them well into the spring. One of us would cover the prices of things with our hands, and the others would guess how much they cost. He was schooling us in the ways of the rich for future reference.

It wasn’t until my last year of high school that I learned he usually had more credit than money and now had very little of either. He had made bad investments in real estate. He drank too much and made deals with people like himself. That winter a check that was supposed to come any day now did not come, and we ate a lot of spaghetti and were not allowed to charge anything at Bloomingdale’s.

He ate, when he ate with us at all, in a trance, and did not speak unless asked a question. But there must have been someone he liked, because he spent many nights out and returned as I left for school in the morning. We met sometimes at the front door of the apartment and maneuvered around each other silently.

The doorman on duty in the mornings had begun to say “Good morning” to me in a full, somber voice and dash to open the door, which he knew annoyed me. He must have thought I needed caretaking, and I suppose I did, but I wouldn’t know it for many years.

That winter was also the season of my floor-length navy-blue cashmere coat, which I’d bought for $3 in a thrift store and loved to feel billow around my ankles as I charged through the city. When the hem fell and I mended it with safety pins, my mother said I couldn’t leave the house unless it was sewn. My father said, “Since when are we so poor you have to buy your clothes in a thrift store?”

I wasn’t a fighter like my brother Daniel, but a peacekeeper. If I’d been combative, I’d have zinged back a barb: “Since when? All you ever do is complain that you don’t have any money.” Enter pandemonium.

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