A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D
These days, when people ask how I'm doing—some of them still ask, you'd be surprised—I shrug and say, as manfully as I can, "Much better than you'd think." And this is true. I am fed, I am clothed, I still have a few patients, the Nets are winning, and my mother, thank God, has finally agreed to the assisted-living place in Rockland. And I have a home, of sorts—the room we built for Alec above the garage so that he could pursue his oil painting with the firm scaffold of our love and money under his feet. God forbid that Alec should ever have felt unsupported—that we should show dismay at his dropping out of Hampshire after three semesters and almost sixty thousand dollars of tuition, books, board, and other proofs of parental esteem. Sixty thousand dollars vanished—puff—like smoke; our son fails out of a college that doesn't even give grades, and in response we build him an art studio above our garage. And here's the kicker: we were happy to do it. This was one of many lessons we took from the plight of our friends Joe and Iris Stern, whose daughter Laura was lost to them once, and is again, now.

My new home, the studio, is floored in gray, paint-speckled linoleum. Alec's old drawing table sits in the corner, next to a double-sized futon buried under a pile of airplane blankets. On the opposite wall rests a slightly corny oak dresser covered in scrollwork and brass, which Elaine's parents gave us for our wedding and we dutifully kept in our bedroom for twenty-plus years. An armchair from the same era. By the armchair there's a stack of books, some Alec's, some mine: Bukowski and Burroughs, a small selection of graphic novels, and thrillers I no longer have the taste for.

I read in this studio. I sleep. Sometimes, on weekends or late into the evening, I listen to the Kriegers fighting next door. Our garage is situated along the property line; the Kriegers recently finished an addition, and now, without even trying, I can peer right into their granite-and-stainless kitchen and watch them go at it. Jill Krieger is a harridan, it turns out, and Mark likes to throw things. I wonder when this started. Elaine and I always liked them, always thought they had a very nice marriage, nice young kids; sure, their addition took forever, but at least they had the courtesy to keep the exterior tasteful. I wonder if Elaine can hear them. She and I never fought, you know, never like that.

If people keep asking me, look deep into my eyes to see if there are any secrets left in my stubbly soul, I tell them, "Listen, life goes on." And I'm not just feeding them formula, pap. Life really does go on. That's what I've learned. It goes. You'd be surprised.

But there have been moments. Today, for example: A Saturday, too warm for April, I eat lunch with my mother in Yonkers and stay in her asbestos-ceilinged apartment for as long as she'll let me. We have egg salad, watch Law and Order, four in a row, until finally it's time for her nap—Peter, she says to me, her breath heavy with mayo, I love you, but if you don't leave soon I'll have a fit. So I leave, although it takes another two slices of coffee cake; I kiss her on her soft cheek, get into the rusty white Escort I'm driving these days, cross the Tappan Zee, and drive slowly south along the Hudson toward the Palisades. Last month I discovered this small park down there, a little paved area jutting into the river, where a few fishermen and lost sailors were gathered to catch toxic bluefish and use the dented Portosans.

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