Smile Politely

Scorn, chapter two

Read chapter one here.

Otto paced the sidewalks of Greenwich Village, not ambling, not even sure he knew where he was going, moving at a calculated pace in order to avoid being recognized as a tourist, although he was that, trying to propel his ample figure down Second Avenue as though he belonged there and intent on some significant purpose.

He felt out of place, certain that others knew he was only pretending. Still he carried on, occasionally pausing long enough to look into a window, reading the menu outside an Indian restaurant named Gandhi, touching his chin meditatively, debating whether the quality was of sufficient merit and if the yellowed, taped up review from the New York Observer carried any weight.

He still bore the shame of his intrusion into the meeting of alcoholics and junkies, but his curiosity, which bordered on a strange jealously, had overcome him. He was free to explore the city before returning to Illinois, now that Rosetta had boarded her flight to Paris to attend the cooking school for a month, leaving him bereft of companionship but also able to indulge himself, even though he would never dare breach the vows to his partner of so many years.

The AA meeting was a dangerous adventure, but mostly accidental, the result of a miscalculated cab ride that plunked him down in the East Village. He had seen another man in a suit enter the curtain-covered doorway and thinking it was perhaps some independent bookstore of arcane literature, followed him in. Once inside, rather than betray the fact that he was acting on a reckless whim and have to turn heel and walk out, not with the other confessors watching him kindly but soberly, he sat down in the folding chair as though he had known perfectly well what the meeting was all the time. His hands were shaking slightly.

His hypocrisy in attending the meeting was that he could never admit, aloud or to himself, that he had ever in his life mustered enough passion to acquire an addiction of any variety. His few habituated efforts were more like ruts, patterns he could not shake but that left him without feeling. Nothing was worth the risk, or worthy of the attention, to compel him to pursue one or two vices, minor or major, above all else.

He had Manhattan to himself for two more days, a chance to seek the unknown, to venture forward in randomness, although randomness, too, was easier to claim than to achieve. Everything resulted from some choice, some intention, every street corner proposing a decision to be made.

Otto’s tentative exploration of Central Park had reminded him of home, or maybe the parks of neighboring Indiana, the vaguely rugged parts, the trails of Turkey Run, surprising vegetation and rivulets, paths to lose one’s direction, and as he worked his way off the Meadow and into the denser and more hidden areas, he had inadvertently stumbled upon a couple of men in the Ramble, their heads snapping towards him in unison, testing to see if he was kin to their private plans.

He knew better than to greet their gaze, despite his inexperience he had sensed what was amiss, what carnal plans were brewing, and once again his mood plunged from the fleeting familiarity to stark alienation, the sense of him being in the wrong place and at the wrong time, all the time and everywhere in the city.

Rosetta’s plane must be high over the Atlantic now, there was no turning back for either of them, for the first time since their wedding, he would be alone, sleep alone, walk alone, and think without a partner. In the 29 years of his marriage, or even in the years leading up to the union, he had never slept with anyone else, sex was the earthly parallel to the deepest spiritual connection, and every temptation — oh, the temptations! — a holy torture to his body.

That afternoon, frugality had directed him to the half-price tickets booth in Times Square, although he was adamant about not enduring a musical, he had felt some obligation to attend to something of culture in the city. He queued up in the much shorter “plays only” line and selected the title “Angels in America” from the board of options, having recognized the name and approved of the apparent sentiment, both religious and patriotic, in the title and, upon receiving the ticket, carefully deposited it in his wallet, noting on his watch that he had approximately five hours before the play began, five hours to explore, five hours with nothing planned or demanded of him, time for the plunge headlong into adventure or anything, as long as it was new.

After pondering Gandhi’s bill of fare, he checked his watch and decided to give up on the East Village, turning and walking back northwesterly, this time with an increased sense of belonging with the many scattered pedestrians moving up and down Second Avenue. He had joined a meeting of other confused and misplaced souls and he had survived, he had heard stories that reminded him, in strange parallel ways, of himself and his own story, his life-long addiction to cautiousness.

He had seen a Hasidic gentleman passing on the opposite side of the street and tried not to stare, unnerved by how similar the garb reminded him of his childhood and the older Amish men going to Sunday meeting, but that was in the past, that was in the days he bore with resentment and regret and burden, the memory of his bowl-cut bang and the alienation from the English schoolchildren his age, before his parents had taken the bold step of leaving the religion, packing up Otto and his brothers and moving a county away from the Amish acres and into the more moderate Old Order Mennonite neighborhood. Those days were over and those days would never be over.

He circled Union Square, checking his watch again to make sure he would be on time for the play, and walked past the statues on the edges of the park, the naked demonstrator brandishing a sign that read “WILL WORK FOR FOOLS,” trying to avert his eyes and stare at the same time, observing the bus and subway travelers ascending and descending as they went down beneath the city and stepped up from its bowels. He noticed one statue figure almost hidden behind a tall vegetation that looked like native prairie grasses, walked around to see and, then, was surprised to find it was Gandhi carrying a walking stick, an intent purposefulness carved into his eyes, Gandhi as a native presence on these streets, bringing his message of peace and frugality to the urban culture of accumulation and excess, a message that seemed oddly in place nonetheless, unexpectedly fitting comfortably amid the scurry and scheming that Otto had previously associated with these streets. He thought it was curious to have encountered two references to Gandhi between 8th and 14th Streets, as though a spirit of pacifism, the core and sole tenet he had retained consciously from the religion of his childhood and his Amish ancestors.

With Gandhi’s blessing, Otto pursued further acculturation and followed other walkers down the subterranean stairway, the subway presenting another advance, like moving forward in the darkness, feeling his way, sensing, calculating with compulsive need how much time it would be necessary to arrive at the theater. He made a quick study of the map on the wall and the colored lines representing the various subway lines and routes, determining that the shuttle and a transfer to the 7th Avenue line would put him within a few blocks of the theater.

By the time he arrived, the doors had opened. He saved his stub, tucking it into the fold of the Playbill before following the usher to his seat, which was situated in the rear of the orchestra, not a bad view, but several seats in from the aisle, that to reach meant the already seated group of three well-dressed women had to shift their legs to the side to allow him to pass.

“Excuse me. Sorry,” Otto said, pausing politely before working his way to his seat and shuffling past the woman with a shopping bag tucked under her feet, the woman wearing clothes slightly more casual than Otto would have expected at the theater, and the woman who would be seated next to him, dark haired and smiling as though his glancing against her knee in no way imposed her, but pleased her, the contact not awkward and possibly even intentional, a kind of secret greeting, a shared excitement that strangers often expect when jostling at mass functions, spectacles, athletic events, and social engagements. When the house lights darkened and the curtain rose, Otto was still disconcerted by the proximity of his knee to that of the dark-haired woman, knowing that their elbows were likely to repeat a tactile encounter on the shared armrest and turn their unconscious flirtation to a silent, but aware exchange.

The play began and Otto strained to pay attention or to care what the actors were conveying, although for the cost of the ticket he felt that he should have been savoring every word, even calculating the cost of the words, the cost per minute, which given the extremely long running time of the play he earlier had determined that it was the most play for the money on the board of the half-price tickets board. On stage were historical characters and homosexuals, but Otto, already distracted by the woman, failed to engage with the significance of the story, or stories, none of which seemed to bear much relevance to his own story, to his life. He didn’t get it. He had hoped there would be some aesthetic revelation during this sojourn in the city, because he long ago had understood, and was shamed ever to admit, that art eluded him, particularly art that emphasized homosexual relations. None seemed as interesting or as moving as his own narrative, his own marriage, his own attractions, or the elbow of the woman beside him.

His brothers also suffered from this artistic blankness where appreciation belonged, almost certainly the result of their Amish upbringing and the fear deeply instilled in them that any artistic endeavor not specifically directed to the praise and glory of God was sin, punishable by a miserable afterlife, with the threat of being caught in the act of going to a movie or listening to popular music by none other than the imminent and spectacular return of Jesus Christ. The self-scrutiny imposed upon the brothers, the sense of always being watched, had gradually, but incompletely, been worn away over the years, but a residual shame and guilt persisted in them all. Jesus was watching, and Otto believed that his inability to comprehend art, let alone enjoy it in the least, was attributable to this severe training as a child. Not that he hadn’t tried. He and his brothers, fiercely competitive, attempting to unravel their connections to the past, made every effort to achieve an urbane outlook. They read voraciously, even when the value of the work did not sink in past the surface, even when the significance of what was created by these artists seemed, to Otto in particular, inane.

The sense of the production before him now blurred, the actors’ words and movements extravagant, but meaningless. The woman had turned her head toward him slightly, just enough to glance in his direction and she seemed to be smiling at him rather than at the action taking place on the stage. Otto froze, welded motionless to his seat with both thrill and terror. Rosetta’s plane would be approaching Paris just about now and as much as Otto wanted to check the accuracy of this estimation on his watch, he could not move, the warmth of the woman’s sideways gaze keeping him immobilized in a limbo of electricity. Their arms shared the cushioned divider between them and, although they weren’t actually touching, he could feel a twitching energy emanating from her limb, her long limb, next to his, next to him. The Mormon character on the stage was in the process of leaving his wife for a man, it seemed, and Roy Cohn was arguing with Ethel Rosenberg. None of this made sense to Otto, who was becoming increasingly dizzy with all the forbidden and blasphemous and tempting possibilities on the stage and in his row of seats, when in an abrupt, single motion, the woman pressed their arms together as she turned to her companions and whispered her intention to rise and leave, which she then did while pressing her arm even more intently onto Otto’s, signaling, he was certain, for him to follow her.

Far be it from him to disrupt a theatrical production (for which he had paid a sizable price), and further from the realm of his experience was it to follow a woman, not his wife, in what was a lure of some physical nature, however telepathically this may (or may not) have been conveyed, and yet, stirred by the hallucinogenic nature of the day, the play, the location, the strange interactions of the AA meeting, and his determination to venture beyond the boundaries of a life filled with restrictions, he restrained the tremors in his fingers, rose from his seat and whispered apologies as he sidled past the knees of the two remaining women, imagining burning ire aimed towards him from the stage, and stepped into the aisle, making a hasty retreat toward the lobby.

He caught a glimpse of the woman’s hair, the last second as she walked down the lobby stairs toward the lower level. He no longer claimed control of his actions as he followed steadily, preparing excuses in his head for what he would say if it was all some misunderstanding, if she hadn’t really signaled for him to pursue her, and at the same time hardly daring to imagine what any other outcome might entail.

Otto found a door leading to the backstage area ajar in the lower level next to the washrooms, he opened the door, peered ahead and then followed a long concrete corridor painted slate green. The woman was just ahead of him now; he could see her entering an open area filled with props, doors, curtains, dangling ropes, costumes on hooks, half-opened boxes, and stacks of folded blankets. Off to one side, some stage hands worked together to manage some metal equipment. The woman turned and faced Otto, smiling at his awe-struck stare, and his feet continued to move towards her, although he hadn’t the least notion of what he would say, what he would do or what she would do or who would do anything first, his blood pounding with such intensity, it felt as though his entire body was throbbing with this thrill of the forbidden, this joy erupting from within at something so completely without calculation or expectation, so outside his experience, so alive, real and unreal at once.

Then they were standing face to face, no sideways glances, the rest of the world falling away around them, sprinkling down as glittery dust into piles at their feet, their eyes locked. Otto faintly heard the voices of the actors just yards from where they stood, but the words, muffled by curtains, meant nothing, background chanting. The woman raised her hand, beckoning, and Otto thought he might collapse, faint, ready to reach her and fall down in a carnal lock, the two of them, guiltless, free, outside of all restraint, when some new sound, some terrible sound erupting, a staccato fanfare of trumpets overhead, a glorious announcement.

Tilting his head backwards as if in slow motion, Otto gazed toward the distant ceiling where, descending triumphant, white feathered wings outstretched, a celestial body was aglow, it was as he had always imagined and dreaded since his childhood, when he trembled to masturbate in the barn, cow manure on his boots, certain Jesus would return to catch him in the moment of his pleasure and condemn, or at least embarrass him for eternity, caught unprepared for the rapturous return of Christ, and now it was happening, really happening, he had lapsed, probably at the very moment that his life-long faithful wife had landed in France, barely gone eight hours from his sight, and Otto wept in heaving sobs and gasps, and collapsed.

Suspended by ropes and harnesses, the angel continued the descent, with celestial dust glittering, swirling, surrounding, falling down to form stalagmites, cones, pyramids on the stage.

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