TEA & CARNATIONS

Updated: Jun 5


Painting by Edward Hopper.

Candida isolated herself at a corner table of the diner downstairs from Ginger’s room on 167th Street. She sipped at a cup of sweet black tea while perusing the purloined diary that she'd earlier discovered amongst her friend’s possessions.


Wherever Candida went, she always brought along a small plant of one variety or another, a marigold or perhaps a geranium, or even some cut flowers. If she were in a particularly surly mood, it would be a menacing cactus bristling with tiny needles. Today it was a bunch of pink carnations in a glazed porcelain vase that she placed in the winter sunlight streaming in through the restaurant window.


A week had now passed since Ginger boarded the New York Central for Chicago. She told her friend that she’d be attending a publishers’ convention in the Windy City. Candida knew that Ginger worked as a part-time proof-reader for a literary agency, but she didn’t know which one or understand how it was that a casual employee might be attending such a high-level event. And there were other mysterious things.


On the first weekend of her stay in Ginger’s room, she decided to give the adjoining bathroom a good going over with a scrub brush and Spic and Span. She filled the wash basin with cold water from the tap. It was a cold-water flat and if she wanted hot water, she’d need to set a pot on the small electric hot plate to boil. When she lifted the toilet seat to swish out the bowl with her brush, there was an illegible message scribbled on a paper card pasted to the underside. Why anyone would stick notes to the underside of a toilet seat was beyond her imagination. In disgust, she peeled away the soiled card and tossed it into the wastebasket under the sink.


Candida threw open the window above the radiator to welcome some of the fresh breezes that blew in off the Atlantic. New air would chase away the mustiness, she reasoned. She stripped the bed of its coverings then collected the various items of clothing that Ginger had carelessly tossed onto the floor and stuffed everything into her roomy canvas shoulder bag.


Next, she took a worn-out bath towel and swung it about her head like a whirligig, slapping the walls and wainscoting to chase the accumulated dust to the floor, then hung the red woolen carpet over the railing of the fire escape and beat it mercilessly with her broom handle. That done, she picked up her shoulder sack and set off for the nearby laundromat. She’d deposit the soiled items in a washing machine and throw in a coin, then drop into the diner for a nice cup of tea while she waited.


She'd discovered the diary nestled amongst a pile of loose papers on the table next to the ancient Underwood typewriter and couldn’t resist temptation. If people didn’t want others to read their writings, then they shouldn’t leave these things where others might so easily find them, is how she justified this intrusion onto her friend’s most personal space. She promised herself that she would never mention anything about having violated the sanctity of another woman’s diary or even having read any of the many drafts of chapters in Ginger’s novel whose loose paperwork, both handwritten and typed, lay strewn around the place. It was like finding oneself in an enchanting garden, she thought, but without being allowed to smell any of the flowers. She would enjoy the garden, and nobody would be the wiser.


Resting herself on Ginger’s mattress as midnight approached on the previous evening, Candida’s eyes had soon become heavy. She set her reading materials down on the nightstand then noticed an envelope peeking out from beneath the lamp base, the perfect bookmark. She stuffed it in between the pages of the diary to mark her spot and switched off the light. She slid her body down until her head rested comfortably on the pillow, pulled the coverlet to her chin, then surrendered herself to the beckoning arms of Morpheus. She’d brought along a soft flannel nightgown and her thick cotton sleeping mask to block out the flashes of blue and red neon that pierced the unshaded window and infused the room with a bizarre, otherworldly luminescence.


February 6, 1945. Emptiness. The emptiness of this tunnel which is my life. It’s been over six months now and still no word from the government. They stopped sending me his army pay each month. No widow’s pension either. I don’t expect I’ll hear from them again. He abandoned me to go overseas on a solemn promise to come back. If anything should happen, he insisted, the government would take care of me. A joke. I’ve since learned not to rely on men’s promises. It seems the government is run by men.


I ask myself how one defines a woman’s life if it’s not delineated by her relationship with a man. When I leave my room to roam the streets of this too-large, too-dirty city with its too-tall buildings, all I encounter are the extremes – starry-eyed young girls clinging to the arms of their smirking dates or complacent young husbands. Then there’s the other extreme, the burnt-out wreckage of elderly couples trudging along the sidewalk, not touching, he a few steps ahead, she behind, the corners of their creased lips turned down in ugly, menacing scowls. I try to imagine what’s going on in their minds and, even more frighteningly, in their hearts.


Quite obviously, they’ve said everything to one another that needs to be said in a lifetime. I try to calculate how many times they’d made love, theoretically that is, those who’d actually made love or at least experienced some form of sexual encounter. There must be some kind of algorithm. Five times a day during the honeymoon: first in the bed at sunrise, then at noon on the kitchen table, then later on top of the refrigerator, then on a bearskin rug in front of the fireplace, and finally in the bed before lights out. Then twice each night during the first six months together. Once a night after that until the first child comes along then a lengthy hiatus while she focuses her all her affections on the little one and he gropes the secretary and visits men’s bars where women like myself solicit clients for blow jobs or a quick lay. Then it’s back to two times a week, a meat-and-potatoes regimen that’s devoid of any actual passion, or at least there aren’t the fireworks as before; only a few wisps of smoke, perfunctory and short. Then once a week. Then once a month. Then not at all. She has no time for him, he has no desire for her. They stay together out of sheer habit and die within a few months of one another.


I coaxed a young sailor up to this room last night. Couldn’t stand the isolation any longer, stuck in that spatial emptiness that is my own private purgatory. I just needed to feel the warmth of another human body against my skin, to be cuddled and stroked, to sense someone’s fingers running through my hair, to have my forehead kissed. I was willing to trade my flesh for some small measure of feigned affection.


The boy never uttered even a single word to me, just tossed his white sailor suit onto the floor, kicked off his briefs and jumped onboard. In less than two minutes he’d finished.


“Is that all?” I asked.


“All of what?” he shot back, annoyed.


“Thank you.”


“No problem, ma’am.”


I didn’t even have time to fake an orgasm. He quickly threw the uniform back on and was gone. I hadn’t asked for any money and he hadn’t the grace to leave any.


Excerpted from The Cranesbill, an unpublished novel in search of representation. Download sample chapters at www.francescorizzuto.com/portfolios or leave a message on my contacts page at www.francescorizzuto.com/contact


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