Tight Shoes, by Burt Baum
The champagne is having its effect. Like most graduate students, I’m not used to drinking it. I am feeling warm; I am floating. If I close one eye I can just about make out the words on the banner above me:
WELCOME LONDON PHILHARMONIC
INAUGURAL LINCOLN CENTER SEASON
Suddenly I hear this deep feminine voice, sounding like an impending thunderstorm.
“What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.”
I turn to see a small, very thin woman in a black gown. She looks to be in her thirties, and has short jet black hair, a prominent nose and twinkling brown eyes. She is at once very ugly, yet very attractive. I am startled for a moment, but then decide that a good offense is the best defense and say, guessing, “Neither do you.”
She smiles—her nose becomes less prominent. “Well, I don’t, really, I’m Italian. But my husband does, he’s English. The British Consulate is sponsoring this reception. Everyone is here by invitation.”
“Well, I have an aunt who’s English,” I say. Actually my aunt is a school teacher who spent a summer vacationing in England. “She got an invitation, but couldn’t make it, so I’m here in her place—reaffirming my family’s link to the mother country.” The truth is that my friend, Mike, and I have just attended the concert and walked into this roped-off area in the lobby in search of free food and drink.
“Come on, you can tell me the truth,” she says, poking my chest. “I’m not going to turn you in.”
I enjoy the poke—I don’t think a woman has touched me in six months.
“How do I know that?” I say. “You look innocent enough, but might be a spy for all I know.”
“And what big secrets do you have?”
“Well aside from how to make an H-bomb, none really. But my friend, Mike, here—”, I point to Mike, who has just stuffed several shrimp in his mouth. “He knows a lot about the sex drive in the rat.” With this comment Mike starts turning blue and looks like he is about to regurgitate his seafood.
“And why would I want to have sex with a rat?”
“No good reason. I’m Dan Stern and this is my friend, Mike Delmousis. We’re both graduate students at Princeton. He’s in psychology and I’m in biochemistry. Eric Butler, a post-doc in my lab from England, gave us tickets to the concert.”
“And I’m Marcella Langston,” she says, shaking hands with both of us. “This is quite a coincidence. My husband is in the English department at Princeton—I’d introduce you but he’s busy hobnobbing—and, what’s more, I know Eric.”
Mike scoots off while Marcella and I chat for a while longer. It turns out that she lives on Moore Street, a short distance from my apartment.
“We’ll have to get together some time in Princeton,” Marcella says.
“Yeah,” I say, not really expecting to see her again. “It’s a small universe. It was nice meeting you even if the circumstances were a little unusual.”
“Yes, it was,” she says. Her face is more radiant, but the champagne may be affecting my perception. “I’ll mention our little meeting to Eric.”
“And thanks for not ratting on me.”
She smiles—I feel like I am on a beach near the Mediterranean.
“Did I miss anything?” Mike asks, after she walks away.
“Not really. She seems like a very bright, vivacious gal, but, just my luck, she’s married.” I am not a big ladies man—you could engrave the history of all my romantic escapades on the head of the proverbial pin and still have enough room for about a thousand angels to dance.
I turn back to the scene around us. It is graduate school heaven: waiters are carrying trays with glasses of champagne and hors d’oeuvres that do not look like they came from Mc Donald’s. I feel as if I am in the middle of a BBC TV adaptation of a 19th century English novel. Elegant, high-cheek boned women in long evening gowns and tanned, gray-haired men in tuxedos surround us, all talking English-English. Meanwhile I am standing there in my worn, navy blue blazer next to Mike in his scruffy sweater. We realize that soon the jig will be up—Marcella was a close call. We therefore begin grabbing glasses, two at a time, and downing their contents quickly, while frantically trying not to miss any appetizers. We leave when they start running out.
I promptly forget about Marcella, but a few weeks later, as I am shopping in the A&P, I see her. The A&P is really the main gathering place in Princeton. Here you see everyone from town and gown mingling irrespective of social class. After all everyone has to eat.
Marcella sees me and hurriedly pushes her cart over. She smiles. “Hello Daniel.” (Up to this point in my life only my mother calls me Daniel—everybody else calls me Dan.) “What a surprise. So nice to see you. How are you?”
“Fine, nice to see you,” I reply. I feel the warm Italian sun beating down on me.
“Have you been to any concerts lately?”
“No, you know graduate students—nose to the test tube.”
“I haven’t forgotten about getting together with you and the Butlers. It’s not much notice, but if you’re not busy how about dinner this Friday night?”
“I think I can make it,” I say. I know that the only event I have on my busy social calendar is drinking beer with Mike.
“Good.” She writes down her address and phone number on the top of an A&P circular, and hands it to me. “I’m sorry I can’t chat some more, but I’ve got to run. See you about seven.” She disappears into the produce section.
Friday evening comes and I am at her door The house is your typical Princeton colonial with white siding and black shutters—just like Einstein’s but a little larger. A red VW with a Kennedy-Johnson bumper sticker is parked in the driveway. Marcella opens the door. She is wearing a blue dress and a wide grin. She takes me inside and introduces me to her husband, Edward. He is about six feet tall, trim, bald with fringes of black hair and a ruddy complexion. The complexion may be the result of a life of vigorous outdoor activity or of heavy drinking. He looks about fifty. She also introduces me to another English couple, the Ellsworths. He is a lawyer at RCA, and she sells real estate.
Soon the Butlers arrive. I meet Eric’s wife, Cynthia, for the first time. She is a red head with bad teeth and a bubbling personality. She is Irish. I realize that since I am from the Bronx, I am the only one there with no link to the British Empire.
We sit in the living room of the old house in front of a fire, drink wine and tell stories. The fire feels good on a chilly December evening. I conjure up memories of living in the Bronx—I feel it’s expected of me—and tell of experiences I have really never had. I start by describing playing stick ball in the streets. Marcella, who is sitting opposite me, moves forward on her chair, and with each embellished detail her eyes widen as if I am recounting my life on Mars.
When I run out of things to say about stickball, I begin to fabricate stories about roasting potatoes on open fires in abandoned lots and sleeping on the fire escape outside of our apartment on hot summer nights. Everyone laughs; Marcella swallows my every word.
At dinner I sit near Marcella—it’s one of those affairs where no one sits near his or her spouse. Edward sits at the other end of the table near Cynthia, and I sense that they’re playing footsies. Mr. Ellsworth, who looks like he spent his youth locked in his room, is explaining how the Cuban missile crisis would not have happened had Nixon been president. At our end, Marcella, eyes blazing, is talking about a movie, L’Avventura, directed by Antonioni. When I casually admit that I have never heard of the movie or its director, Marcella puts her hand on my arm. “Why you must see the movie. Antonioni is brilliant.″ I like her touching me.
Marcella serves vichyssoise for the first course. Soon I feel my stomach doing push-ups. At the end of the meal—I can’t eat the trifle—I excuse myself, thank the hosts and run home. I spend the next two days on the can.
A few days later Marcella calls me and invites me for drinks on a Thursday evening after dinner—the Butlers will be there. I am glad that it’s after dinner because I am now very leery of her cooking. When I arrive, Marcella, dressed in a black sweater and gray slacks, greets me at the door in her usual buoyant fashion. “Edward is not here,” she says, as she grabs my arm and escorts me into the living room. “He’s off to a meeting of the Chaucer Society or some such thing.”
The Butlers and a woman with medium length brown hair, and horn-rimmed glasses and no makeup, have already arrived. They are seated in front of the fire, a half-empty jug of red wine in front of them.
“This is Libby,” Marcella says, seating me next to her on the leather couch. “She works with me in the admissions office.” Libby tells me that she has moved to Princeton recently and is divorced and has a small child. I smell a plot.
We drink wine and Eric, pushing his fingers through his thinning blonde hair, talks about his experiences as a post-doc in Russia. Eric is a professional post-doc, hopping from country to country and university to university in hopes of coming up with the dream faculty position.
“I don’t know what you Americans are so afraid of,” he says. “The Russians are in bad shape, and JFK showed they’ll back down when challenged.”
“It’s more complicated,″ Marcella says. “Nixon and company have created the feeling that Communists are everywhere, and that intellectuals, the effete snobs from the fancy schools, are particularly suspect. And Kennedy with his Harvard background has to show he’s more anti-communist than anyone.”
I open my mouth, but close it and sit back instead.
“Hey, we’re getting much too serious,” Marcella says. She walks over to the turntable and puts on some Frank Sinatra records. Soon we are dancing. I suspect that it’s a ploy to bring Libby and me closer together. I haven’t danced since my junior year in college and it’s not my favorite form of entertainment, but I participate. Since there are two men and three women, Eric and I are kept moving. Eric, who apparently has been to many of these parties, is a veritable Fred Astaire as he glides easily from woman to woman. I suspect that he graduated with honors from Miss Emerson’s School of the Dance.
The first time I dance with Marcella she feels surprisingly pliant, like silly putty. “You are so much gentler than Edward,” she whispers. An alarm goes off in my head, but it is mute and distant like the faint sound of a siren when you are driving.
Marcella calls and invites me for the next Thursday evening, and soon it becomes a regular routine. Someone brings the wine. Usually the Butlers are there, sometimes Libby and maybe one or two other people: graduate students, members of the junior faculty, university employees or professionals from one of the industrial research groups around town. Edward is never there.
I get Marcella to invite Mike, who shows up in his usual dress: jeans and a plaid shirt. She introduces him to the group, and seats him next to Libby on the couch. The Butlers are there as usual and a new face—a physicist at the Forrestal Labs. We sit in the living room around the fire, drinking Liebfraumilch and munching on Stilton cheese and Ritz crackers. Mike begins expounding on one of his favorite themes: hierarchy of drives. He explains that psychologists have performed these elegant experiments to measure the relative strength of the basic drives by placing rats in cages with electrified grids for floors and then measuring how much of a shock they are willing to endure to get at food, drink or a mate at the other end of the cage.
“This is all bullshit,” I say to stir things up. “You psychologists are just a bunch of sadistic monsters.”
“I think that the problem is that psychologists suffer from physics-envy, just as women suffer from penis-envy. Psychology just isn’t a rigorous science,” the physicist says.
“Now wait a minute.” Marcella’s gaze lingers on each one of us for a moment. “You damn scientists seem to feel that if you can’t put something into an equation it doesn’t exist. Didn’t I read that some scientist proved there was no soul by weighing the same person just before and after death and finding no change?”
Mike attends our get-togethers several times, but soon drops out. The group is held together by Marcella, who laughs eagerly, teases occasionally, and is curious constantly. She and I spend more and more time dancing just with each other, and, although I learn a little more about her, she remains a mystery.
One Thursday evening after several months of parties, while Marcella and I are dancing, she nibbles on my ear, and whispers: “Why don’t you come back a half-hour after you have left with the others? Make sure you walk. I’ll leave the front door unlocked.”
The alarm is clearly audible now. “But what about Edward?” I ask, trying to ignore the shrill sound. We keep dancing and I maneuver us into the adjoining dining room.
“Thursday night is Edward’s night out. He never comes home. Thursday night is seduction night. He is probably seducing some young thing, just like he seduced me. Don’t worry; we have an open marriage. Edward doesn’t care.”
After the party breaks up, I walk downtown. I stop at the Grotto and order a scotch, hoping it will stop the persistent ringing in my ear. I have never had an affair with a married woman. Flirtation—yes. Affair—no. I feel like a mountain climber peering down into a murky chasm from the top of a huge cliff. I’m on the brink and I know that once I go over the edge I will have a hell of a time scrambling back up. But what drives me is my curiosity. Maybe that’s why I’m a scientist. I want to know more—if possible, everything—about Marcella. It’s not just the sex. Sure I want to know how she looks naked and how she will feel next to me in bed, but I also want to know what she looks like in the morning, what she eats for breakfast and what is going on in that brain of hers. And most of all I want to see how this extra-curricular experiment will turn out. So I walk slowly back to her house. The alarm is now a constant, low level background noise, like the ocean near the shore.
The house is dark except for a flickering light in one of the upstairs bedrooms. I open the front door and I hear Marcella’s voice: “I’m upstairs.”
Her bedroom is lit by a series of candles that give off a jasmine scent that causes my stomach to flip-flop. She stands in the doorway in a very sheer hint of a negligee right out of a Saks ad. We embrace.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” she says in her huskiest voice.
“So have I,” I say.
Is this really happening? I never imagined it would go beyond dancing. She feels very soft in my arms and she begins to moan. My heart beats so loudly that it drowns out the sound of the siren. We are soon on the bed thrashing about.
The funny thing about sex is that it is never like in the movies. I mean I didn’t see any fireworks. Bombs didn’t go off. Trains didn’t roar past. It was all right, but I guess we were a little too anxious.
The phone rings in the lab a few days later. “How would you like to meet me for lunch?” Marcella asks. I seldom go out for lunch, but usually heat up a can of tomato rice soup in the lab.
“Where?” I ask, hearing the siren again.
She opens the door. “What’s for lunch?” I ask.
We begin pulling each others clothes off. This time it is as good as in the movies.
We go into the kitchen. There is an open bottle of Spanish sherry on the table with a half-filled glass next to it. Marcella refills the glass, takes a sip and pours me a fresh glass. For lunch she throws some milk, eggs and God knows what into a blender. “It’s tiger’s milk,” she says. “It’ll make you strong.”
Life goes on like this for several months. Sometimes I sneak back to her house after the Thursday night get-togethers. Sometimes we have a rendezvous at lunch. I have learned to ignore the wail of the alarm—it’s too late for to me to heed its warning. I am laughing more—even Mike notices the change—and the tedium, anxiety and frustration of doing research seem more tolerable.
Sherry becomes an important part of our ritual. Several times when Marcella calls me—I can never call her—I notice a slur in her voice.
One Tuesday we both play hooky and meet in New York. We have lunch at a small restaurant on Mulberry Street that she knows. She introduces me to dishes containing pasta, in shapes that I didn’t know existed, and to mussels, which I never had tasted. We drink a magnificent Barolo wine and for dessert we have cannoli. Up to this point in my life my knowledge of Italian food has been limited to pizza, spaghetti with tomato sauce and Chianti.
Then we go to the Museum of Modern Art. There she shows me all her favorites—she is particularly enthusiastic about the chiseled mountains in the Cezanne landscapes. I follow her like an eager student as she points out features that I had not noticed. I am amazed at her knowledge and buoyed by her effervescence and sense of joy. She buys me a reprint of a Utrillo street scene that I admire. “After a while you’ll probably grow tired of this and move on to Picasso, but for now you can put it up in your room next to the Yankee poster,” she says. When I get home, I take the poster down and replace it with the Utrillo.
The phone rings in my lab a few weeks later. “Daniel,” Marcella says in a higher pitched voice than usual, “you have to help me.”
“What’s up?” I say, imagining situations of dire peril.
“Well, this maintenance man in my office just dropped a fluorescent bulb and it’s spewing all this gas in front of me. It’s poisonous isn’t it? What shall I do?”
“I think there’s a small amount of mercury in those bulbs, but a brief exposure to it isn’t that serious,” I say. “You’ll be all right.”
“Are you sure? . I read somewhere that they pose a real health threat.”
“One bulb breaking isn’t going to kill you. Why don’t you just go outside and walk around for a few minutes. The fresh air will make you feel better. I need to get back to my proteins.”
“Gee, I’m sorry I bothered you.”
In the ensuing weeks the frequency of the phone calls increases. They come at any hour of the day or night. To me they seem about trivial events, but to Marcella these happenings are life threatening. I begin to realize that there are two Marcellas—the public carefree, fun loving Marcella and the private sad, tormented Marcella. I am intrigued with the public Marcella, but I want to help the troubled Marcella. I just don’t know how. I can’t imagine the demons that live inside of her.
Marcella still has the Thursday night parties, but they occur less frequently, and she invites fewer people. One Thursday evening, only the Butlers are there. “Oh, I meant to invite the Blacks, you know, he’s the physicist from Georgia, but I got busy and forgot,” Marcella explains.
Eric and Cynthia nod. I feel that they know Marcella well enough not to be surprised at or question anything she does. Eric has never asked me about my relationship with Marcella although it’s obvious we are doing more than holding hands.
We talk for a while and sip wine. Then we begin dancing, but after a few songs, Marcella says: “I’m sorry, I’ve got his headache and it seems to be getting worse. Do you mind if we quit for this evening?”
The Butlers leave quickly. I help Marcella bring the dirty glasses into the kitchen.
“I would rather just be with you,” she tells me.
“Don’t you want to be with your friends? You seem so happy to be surrounded by them,” I say.
“I don’t know. These moods come over me when I don’t want to see a lot of people. Daniel, it would be so nice for us to have a block of time together, rather than piecing together hours and bits of days.”
Finally we get to spend a weekend together. We go to the Poconos and stay at a cabin in one of the honeymoon resorts. I arrange for a heart-shaped bed covered in red satin under a mirrored ceiling, figuring that the tackiness alone will cheer her up. I register us as Mr. and Mrs. Salvatore Utrillo. I find out what Marcella likes for breakfast: sherry—but sometimes gin. She decides that she wants to stop smoking and carries with her the halves of five cigarettes, wrapped in a rubber band, as her ration for the weekend. I don’t smoke, but I can feel her misery. We make love, but with little passion and much desperation. Afterwards she cries and I hold her.
“You have been so good for me. Edward hasn’t touched me for two years.”
“Then what keeps you together?”
“It’s not that bad. We have a sort of non-aggression pact, and Edward can be kind. He’s a brilliant man—that’s what attracted me to him in the first place. It would be hard to leave him and to start all over.”
“This is the sixties. People do start over. You’re certainly young enough.”
“I’m not that young. I’m forty.”
A chill comes over my body; she is fifteen years older than I am. “You certainly don’t look it,” I say
“I love you,” Marcella says. She hugs me tightly. “Don’t be afraid to say you love me. I know it isn’t forever. All I want is two good years to make up for the last two years with Edward.”
“I love you,” I say, but is it because I feel sorry for her? I want to love someone forever, but I wonder if I can make Marcella feel happy for even two years.
It’s Friday morning about 4 AM. I have gone to bed about two hours earlier after having spent the evening with Marcella. She calls. Her speech is slurred.
“Daniel,” she says, “I hear this rustling noise. I think there is someone outside the house trying to get in.”
“It could be some animal or the wind. Do you want me to come over?”
“No. I don’t want to take the chance of disturbing the neighbors.”
“Why don’t you call the cops?”
“I don’t want to do that either. What if it’s nothing? They’ll think I’m nuts.”
“Well if you don’t want me to come over, there’s not much I can do. It doesn’t sound serious. Maybe you’re just feeling a little high strung. Lock all the doors and windows and go to bed. Try and get some sleep.”
“Oh thank you, Daniel, I feel so much better just talking to you. What would I do without you?”
Probably bug the hell out of Edward, I think. “You’d do OK. You’re a strong person,” I say.
“I love you,” Marcella says.
“Yeah, and I love you,” I say.
It’s lunch time and Marcella and I are rolling around her living room floor without any clothes on. Edward comes home.
“What the hell is going on here?” he says in his best, outraged voice.
He really needs no reply. I jump up and put on my pants. I want to say that I thought this was on open marriage, but I think better of it. Maybe it’s only open for him.
Marcella is dressed in a flash. Edward ignores her. “Get out and don’t come back,” he screams at me, his face a few shades redder than usual. “I don’t want you screwing around in my house.” So that’s it. He’s much more concerned about my defiling his house than my defiling his wife.
“Just go,” Marcella whispers to me.
That evening Marcella is at my door, red-eyed, holding a suitcase. “Can I stay here for a while?” she asks.
“Uh, sure,” I say. I hold her and feel her trembling.
“Edward is still ranting and raving. I’ve never seen him like this. I had to get out. I just need a little time away from him to sort things out.”
So Marcella moves in. My apartment is small—a bedroom, living room and kitchen—all designed to accommodate Lilliputians. It is located just above Nick’s Luncheonette on Witherspoon Street. In the past I used to get most of my meals in the luncheonette, but Marcella doesn’t feel like going out much and we don’t have much money so we eat in. I do most of the cooking (I still remember the vichyssoise) and she does the cleaning. She’s a better cleaner than I am a cook, so we may slowly be dying of starvation but the place is looking neater than ever. She goes to work every day, and I go to the lab. We even make love occasionally but usually we’re too tired. It’s not like when I was sneaking back to her house at night. It’s just like we’re married.
As the weeks pass, I notice that Marcella is drinking more gin than sherry and keeps taking small white pills that she says are for her thyroid. I want to speak to her about this, but she seems so fragile that I am afraid she’ll just fall apart if confronted. I keep quiet, feeling that she just needs my unquestioning support for a while. After all I’m somewhat responsible for what’s happened. She seems calmer when I’m around, but she still tells me of seemingly minor incidents that have upset her at work or even while she is walking down the street.
It is 3 AM and I wake up suddenly—something that I’ve been doing a lot lately—my heart thumping and my stomach feeling like rush hour, with Marcella asleep beside me. (I’ve learned one more thing about her: she snores.) Marcella has been here for almost three months, and she’s not made any sign of leaving. I lie in bed and I think that being with Marcella is like wearing a new pair of shoes that really don’t fit. The shoes are Italian—sleek and shiny and very stylish—but they pinch the toes and scrape the back of the feet. They looked so great at first that I ignored the discomfort. Now they hurt so much that they can’t be worn at all.
The problem is that I’m trapped in the 1950’s world of Ozzie and Harriet and can’t escape. I guess eventually I want to live in that white house in the suburbs with my wife and 1.8 kids. That’s not what Marcella wants. And I keep thinking about the difference in our ages. Maybe Marcella has been more like a mother or older sister to me—but I already have one of each. She needs someone, probably someone older, who has the time and money to help her straighten out. I just can’t do it.
I want to tell Marcella all this, but I have been afraid of the effect on her. Now I’m concerned about the effect our being together is having on me. In the past when I had a relationship with a woman, it didn’t last too long. Invariably, my charms wore thin or she would realize that I am afraid of the big “C” (in my case it’s commitment, not cancer) and she would drift away. This time it’s different. I know that I must end it and there never will be a good time. I don’t want to hurt Marcella, but the longer we stay together, the worse it will be. So I will tell her. She will cry, and I probably will, too. It may hurt us both for a while—maybe for a long time—but life will go on.
I remember the question arising, at one of Marcella’s Thursday parties, of whether anyone had ever died of a broken heart. The argument kept going back and forth, when I finally turned to one of Marcella’s friends, an MD in town, for his professional opinion. He wrinkled his brow, thought about it for a while, and said: “There has been only one report in the literature of someone dying of a broken heart, but on subsequent investigation it proved to be syphilis.”
Burt Baum is 77 years old and still young enough to write about affairs even if (as he says) it has become increasingly difficult for him to have them! He retired from his work as an industrial chemist about 15 years ago and has been writing (mainly short stories) ever since. Burt’s work has appeared in the “St. Paul Pioneer Press”, “Elysian Fields”, “The Storyteller”, “The Wall” and “Reflections”.
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Tags: affairs, Burt Baum, personality disorder