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Central Square

Central Square

by George Packer




When Joe arrives in Boston and is mistaken for African— rather than African American— he quickly discovers that letting the illusion stand generates magic. A job, a place to live, even a kind of deference he's never known before are suddenly casually endowed upon him, a man who surely must have a closer connection to life's hidden possibilities.

Central Square bustles with the complexities and contradictions of today's urban existence as it tells what happens when the enigmatic Joe meets up with several other disparate characters. There is Paula, the social worker whose loneliness is intensified with each sad story she hears; Eric, the writer who struggles in a world that ignores his work and whose wife has abandoned him for pregnancy; the mysterious community group that has posted titillating "feel-good" signs around the city.

As characters collide with circumstances, and each other, George Packer's bold novel explores the conflict between personal desires and social constraints, and the unattainable balance between private life and the life of a community. Unafraid to expose the difficult truths about contemporary society, Central Square asks how we can find something decent to which to commit our lives.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555972776
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 09/01/1998
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 5.84(w) x 10.12(h) x 1.24(d)

About the Author

George Packer has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa, a carpenter in Boston, and a writing instructor at Harvard, Bennington, and Emerson. He is the author of The Village of Waiting, a memoir about his Peace Corps years, and the novel The Half Man. He now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

November breaks up a Northern city into its separate lives. No one lingers on granite planters, strangers stop making conversation pigeons go unfed. Murk settles over the river and dusk comes mid-morning. Buildings lose their heads, faces grow indistinct. In the evening, trains and buses fill up with individuals, and the bodies layered in bulky clothing shrink from the coming winter and one another. The yellow glow in windows lights them safely home. This is the new center of life: The household becomes the temple, the family the god. Even those who have no home disappear, crowding the shelters. Every November, when the sky turns leaden and the clock have been set back, the larger body dies and the idea of the city becomes a memory, an accident of warm weather. More than the fall of leaves and the flight of geese, this memory explains November's sadness in a Northern city.

    That November in Cambridge, across the river from Boston, people started noticing signs. Teal-colored flyers, recognizable from a distance on lampposts, in the windows of Laundromats and discount clothiers and walk-in clinics, or around the new construction site. Cryptic phrases in small black type.

No One Is Excused.
Do You Know Where You Live?
Who Is Your Neighbor?
You Could Be Anyone.

No one claimed responsibility, and the signs became a conversation piece and source of speculation--a terrorist cell with a set humor, an ad campaign for a blockbuster movie, a millenarian lunatic.

    Their appearance, just at the moment when cold weather and early darkness arrived to close up windows and doors, worked strangely on people's nerves. The signs irritated and disturbed some; in others they woke nameless longings. The feelings were rawest where the signs were thickest, in the heart of the city--the several dingy blocks of Massachusetts Avenue, its main artery, growing dingier toward the river--known as Central Square. By late November, these nerves and signs were all that remained of the idea of the city.

In her blind basement office in Central Square, Paula Voorhees sat listening to Gladys Dill.

    "Uh-uh, not intimidated. Maybe scared sometimes. Like last night when he comes home all depressed from being dissed at the garage and I don't know how to make him feel good. And he starts screaming at me and Michael and that's when the feeling is like, I must be crazy to be here even though I love James, like I'm enabling him by being passive and all. I don't know."

    Paula's eyes shifted from Gladys to the wall clock behind her. "It sounds like you feel both responsible and helpless." She watched the last minute tick down. "No wonder you think you're going crazy."

    "I don't know. OK, I know, time's up."

    The chairs were arranged in the room--windowless, a midsized closet--so that only Paula could see the clock. Between her and Gladys there was a low table with a box of Kleenex on it. Today no tears had accompanied the catalog of James trouble and money trouble and childhood trouble. Gladys had come in with one lens missing from her plastic-frame glasses. It made her look crazy. The naked eye was a little unnerving--half of Gladys's face seemed to be analyzing her. But Paula was an expert listener even when she wasn't listening.

    She sat forward. Gladys Dill slumped, unbudging. Paula imagined hauling her large body out of the room, heaving it out of the basement, into ... life. Her stuckness was maddening.

    "I don't think I can keep coming."

    Familiar stuff; and the hour was up. "Why not?"

    "Michael's asthma medicine. They're fixing to shut the gas off."

    "Next time let's talk about adjusting your fee again."

    "I'm just trying to figure out what we accomplished today."

    Paula's mouth went dry. "You made a connection between James's troubles at the garage and your stepfather's anger. Don't you think that's something to pursue next week?"

    Now the lensless eye reddened, and the other disappeared behind fog. "But what did that accomplish?"

    Paula edged out of the chair. Her own vocabulary was boomeranging. We need more black therapists, she thought, this one really ought to be seeing a black woman. "If you can feel these things in here," she said, passing the Kleenex box, "you'll have a safe place to work on them. That will make it easier to get what you want out there."

    Paula had resorted to talking shit.

    Suddenly Gladys gave back the Kleenex box, gathered herself, and stood up. "OK. See you next week."

    Gladys Dill was nearly six feet tall, thick-bodied and short-haired. In her beret and long winter coat she looked like a different woman, maybe the one Paula never saw, the one who was raising a child and had trained as a nurse's aide before cocaine messed up her plans. The transformation came as a rebuke.

    After showing her out, Paula sat and stared at the Cape Cod beach that Fran, her office-mate, had hung over the desk. She felt like tearing it down--its beige and blue calm enraged her. Her progress file lay open on the desk. Gladys Dill was her last of the day.

    At the very least she could have said, "You're mad at me." And then Gladys would have denied it, and the notion of being mad would have hovered over her thoughts for a week, and by next week they might have finally reached Square B. But it wasn't nice to have people mad at you. It was nicer when they teared up and you passed the Kleenex. So instead Gladys had left the way she always left, depressed.

    And what good have you done her?

    Once, she got the gas turned back on in Gladys's apartment in the Columbia Street projects. A call to Com Gas, her professional voice informing some clerk that Ms. Dill suffered a disability, and it was done. A seductive revelation--more power than she knew she had. But it was just crisis management, not the real work, which was supposed to take place in Gladys's mind, a slippery, perilous place that couldn't be fixed with a phone call. This real work never seemed to get done because there was always an eviction crisis or a violence crisis or a drug-relapse crisis, the crisis that had sent Gladys via the hospital to the Problem Place and Paula's office.

    She would be taking this one home. It was working on her nervous system like a third cup of coffee.

    "Staff meeting, sweetheart."

    Fran stood in the door. Her peasant skirt and bonnet of frizzy gray hair suggested an embittered hippie turned Puritan.

    Paula said, "All we ever do around here is talk."

    "Who did you just have?"

    "The asthmatic's mother."

    "She sounds very damaged."

    Every one of Fran's clients turned out to be an abuse case. For all Paula knew it was true, but her own overripe sense of ambiguity compelled her to explore other regions for the sources of human misery. Irritated and chairbound, unable to make Fran go away, Paula rashly decided to unburden herself.

    "She wanted to know what good it does her to talk to me."

    "Hey, great! You can really work with that."

    "It's a good question, isn't it? Talk doesn't pay for Michael's asthma medicine. It doesn't stop James from scaring the hell out of her. It's a fucking good question."

    Fran frowned. Profanity was the language of the clients, displaying lack of impulse control. "But you can help her see how the victimization works."

    "Com Gas is going to cut her a break for self-awareness? At the very least that woman needs a shrink whose skin is thicker and darker than mine."

    "This is very negative talk I'm hearing," Fran said. "Bring it to the meeting. We've all been there, sweetheart."

    "You go ahead. I need to catch up on my notes."

    Alone, Paula went back over the day. In the morning there had been Nick, her wordless mailman, whose wife had given him the get-help-or-I'm-leaving ultimatum. After that came Raul, her sweet closet transvestite who, she felt pretty sure, was developing a crush on his therapist. She had hope for Raul. He was able to love and one day he might be capable of loving himself. She felt not nearly so sanguine about Earl, overweight and unemployed, a victim of corporate downsizing on Route 128. Middle management had held Earl's being together. Now, having lost status, function, and wife, he'd turned to eating undistributed Halloween candy in front of late-night TV and shouting obscenities at the screen. Earl's life was a nonstop parade of comedowns and insults. The delicate move was getting past the paranoia without making him out to be a total failure. Today, through his Xanax fog, he let Paula know that she inspired homicidal feelings. This was progress, but it felt like training a drugged bear to perform tricks designed to put her life at risk. The one place in Earl she could reach was a spot of fear, for he was not so paranoid that he didn't grasp what was happening to him. But sometimes she flashed on his body crushing hers, pumping hard. In the tiny office their sessions were tense, and small-boned Paula had trouble drawing breath.

    Then Gladys Dill, with her question.

    Paula sat with her pen poised. She had been a good listener all her life, having been born, she was told, without making a sound. Sometimes she thought of herself as the priest she stopped seeing around her first period, his side of the confessional silent except for nasal breathing. Other times she felt like a hooker hired by the hour to coax vices, hand out Kleenex, make the client feel that she cared for no one else in the world. In return they told her about cruel fathers, indifferent mothers, devouring lovers, maddening children, humiliating bosses. Some were tormented by the lottery, some considered getting out of bed a victory. Many of them told her it helped them to talk to her--that they had no one else in the world to talk to.

    Today this thought saddened her beyond words.

Entering the conference room, she was surprised by the color of twilight through the casement window at sidewalk level.

    "We can't start without Paula." Peter Fine watched as she squeezed behind the chairs. "Paula is indispensable."

    The executive director of the Problem Place sat gnome-like in his armchair at the head of the table, trim-bearded, plump in his sweater vest, his stocking feet pulled up on the cushion and cozily crossed at the ankles. Around the table sat his harem of dependent, resentful MSWs and PsyDs. Except for Philip, who was gay, Fine was the only man in the room.

    "I have important news so I'll get straight to the point," Fine said--but first there was praise for his staff's dedication; a plug for a paper he was writing with Suzanne Martin, his associate director, on post-traumatic stress in children of divorced parents; a reference to the couples' treatment he was doing with a manic-depressive woman and her affectless husband (today both cried). Suzanne looked on smilingly; glancing at Paula, she rolled her eyes as if they were secret confidantes. According to Fran, Suzanne was the mother who refused to see that her children were being incested.

    Paula looked around the table. Her colleagues were listening with attitudes of numb rage. She thought: What am I doing here? There were a hundred other things she could do. Like work at a big hospital where you didn't have to hear your boss go on about "therapeutic courage." Or just get out of the field. She could do that. She sometimes thought that her real talent, the one going to waste, was as a private investigator. She loved detail and had an infallible nose for guilt. She wasn't the type of therapist who was too weird for any other kind of work.

    "OK," Fine at last getting to the point. "Unfortunately, today's topic is money." The harem stirred nervously. "Wouldn't it be great if we could do our work as healers without thinking about money? We know that's not the real world. The Department of Mental Health has decided not to renew our allowance."

    With a mental clunk, Paula returned to the table. From Fran and Philip's corner came audible groans. Suzanne, who'd obviously heard the news and whose job was secure, dished around looks of pained sympathy.

    "I don't have to tell you contributions are down--empathy fatigue, structural recession, I'm not interested in labels. Now the Commonwealth in its wisdom decides sports arenas are more important than the psychic wholeness of the underprivileged. No one here wants to get into short-term therapy and meds--"

    "What's the bad news, Peter?" asked Sara Simon, Paula's one friend here.

    Fine took a breath. "As of January first, all staff clinicians will move to a fee-for-service basis as independent contractors."

    Around the table there was stunned silence.

    "That means the Problem Place will no longer cover health benefits. You'll be doing a lot more paperwork. If a client doesn't show, you'll have to reimburse their part of the fee." Fine was nodding with the gravity of a clergyman comforting his flock in the face of collective tragedy. "I know this is upsetting. I'm upset--I'm very upset. There are going to be painful decisions about who can continue here. But some of you could turn this into a positive and pick up more client hours."

    Paula's throat was burning--nausea coming on. There were no jobs, everyone knew that. Therapists were moving to other states. Social workers with union cards were living off unemployment or going into day care. It was cold and gloomy out there and once you were thrown outside you never got back in, unless you were willing to commute an hour to work with violent teenagers in Lawrence. But she didn't even have a car. She had no connections, hadn't even bothered schmoozing when she met the director of a psych ward at a party last week.

    "Don't you sometimes think," Fine asked, "there's a plague on men and women today? And the symptom is a fearful and rageful hardening of the heart? And we in this room know the cure but no one listens? I think there is a plague and it's called All Against All, and it's killing us. America should be quarantined. This basement may be our last sanctuary."

    Fine openly desired the status of therapeutic rock star. He wanted to counsel in stadiums or on public television, and he sometimes spoke as if the clients interfered with his work. He believed that shrinks suffered from lack of vision. Thousands of them toiling away separately in fifty-minute hours--if they looked up long enough to realize their collective strength, they could treat the nation's damaged psyche. His ambition mirrored Paula's restlessness, grossly magnified and distorted.

    She had started out a favorite. With Fine there was never a clear line between supervision and foreplay, but his come-ons were always psychological. He stayed technically faithful to the childless wife no one ever saw--and Paula once told Sara Simon that it would be better for everyone if Fine just bedded one of the harem so he could abstain from mind-fucking everyone else. Still, she had refused even sublimated concubinage, and it was partly her fault that he decided she was an enemy. She lacked the therapist's gift for euphemism, not because she was confident but because she was shy. She hadn't been political. She should have been volunteering to do research papers with him, instead of walking into staff meetings late. Now she'd be the first one Fine cut. It was stupid and reckless to be superior to all the crap you had to do to survive.

    Paula's stomach was turning over. How would she tell them? Gladys Dill would die without her. Earl would end up in Walpole Prison.

    "We've been addicted to government," Fine was saying. "Now we're clean and free to create something totally new. And you know what? It's going on right now in this very city. This very room."

    "Peter, there's private grant money out there." Paula was speaking rapidly and her voice sounded unnatural. "I could do some research on it."

    In silence, a dozen therapists processed this event. Fran's stare accused Paula of betrayal. Fine's lips opened a pink hole in his beard.

    "Beautiful, Paula."

    She crossed her legs under the table. She felt dirty. No one got off free with Fine. But she could tell that he was relieved to have her on his side--she frightened him. At their core these megalomaniacs were little boys trying to please Mama.

    Fine talked on, and the staff sank into depression. Outside it was night; trouser legs, coat hems, winter shoes walked past the casement window, people going home at the end of their workday. In the cramped conference room they were all sucking the available air into their self-monitoring, overheated brains. Paula felt a headache coming on. When the meeting broke up she made for the door, but Fine intercepted her.

    "Stay late tonight." His voice was intimate. "Something's happened to my Wednesday evening group. This guy from out of town, a kind of organizer, he contacted me. He wanted me to open it up to new people. A new group every week."

    "What about your old people?"

    Fine smiled enigmatically and shook his head. He was standing so close that she could see the shaved bristles above his sculpted beard. "The whole focus is changing. It's outward-oriented, community-oriented. This is what we've needed." He extended a finger to within three inches of her sweater above the breast. "What you've needed, Paula. Other people. Isn't it?"

    Her face grew hot; she knew she was coloring. She had no idea what he meant but felt utterly transparent. "I have something tonight. Next week?"

    "OK." Fine released her with a wink. "I always knew you'd come back to me, Paula."

Fleeing up the exit stairs, she was pursued by Sara Simon.

    "Dum-da-dum-dum," Sara said.

    "The beginning of the end."

    "For me. He'll keep you because you're prettier."

    Paula was about to say that with Fine being pretty had its disadvantages. But she realized it wouldn't console Sara. "None of us will go. We'll have a revolution and throw him out."

    "And tear him to pieces like the women in that Greek play. It really sucks--he and Suzanne stay on salary, of course. Want to have dinner at the new Mexican place?"

    "I'm--going to the movies."

    "Sounds like fun." Sara brushed a ringlet of hair from her face. "Do I know the guy?"

    "It's not a guy," Paula lied again.

    In the bad light of the stairway Sara looked pale and puffy. She was five years deeper into her thirties than Paula, and "Do I know the guy?" was both confession and rebuke. Sara was irremediably single. She had a body firmed up at the YMCA down the street, and a dry wit that appealed to Paula in an otherwise irony-free workplace. Yet her singleness had become a condition--suppressed panic with a whiff of cat hair. But Sara would never go to fat and enlist in the sisterhood with Fran. The tragedy was that she couldn't imagine happiness without a man. She never addressed the subject directly, but it never failed to come up, like someone dying of cancer, deep in denial, yet forever complaining about mysterious stomachaches. Paula sometimes caught in Sara's eyes the devouring look of the doomed: You too some day, you too.

    "How about tomorrow?" Paula said.

    "I have therapy." In spite of the lies, Sara wasn't letting her off easy. "Well, it's home to Lucy and Spike, the little ingrates. Have a good time, Paula. See you tomorrow at the shop of horrors."

    Sara disappeared into the subway. Paula began walking down Mass. Avenue. The sidewalk was slick with rain, and a frozen mist descended on her hair. She'd forgotten her umbrella again. The traffic slid thickly by and at the corner the Number 1 bus wheezed to a stop, splashing the people waiting to board. Paula turned and saw a big man in a shapeless suit coming at her. For a heart-stopping second she thought it was Earl, smiling, approaching to kill with bare hands. The man mimicked her startle, throwing his shoulders back in stylized surprise. When she tried to pass, he stepped in her path. She went the other way and he moved to block her, his pasty face hugely amused.

    "Fuck off," she said with false bravado.

    "Only if you help."

    She managed to get around him, head down, pushing on past the discount children's clothing store, where a secret pedophile was peering in the window. In the light of the bank machine a hooded teenager stared Paula down; she imagined a gun in his backpack.

    It was the witching hour, when the whole world went mad. Out of the clinic into rush-hour Central Square, Paula encountered a city full of lunatics. They came out of the cold fog faster than she could keep track. This elegant woman waving for a cab to take her home to her husband's emotional blackmail. These little wailing children dragged along by their mother who was straining against the urge to infanticide. The men whose minds lurched from rape to rape, the women who tore out clumps of their own hair. The respectable alcoholics and the surprise addicts, the liars, self-deceivers, self-haters, the ones who didn't know about themselves half the things Paula knew from a glance at their public faces. The fog was electric with every kind of disturbance.

    As she walked, the charge crackled inside her. In the clinic, talk grounded it and the basement's thick stone walls retained it. Here on the street it ran out of control, right through her. A few minutes ago the thought of not being allowed to spend her days bathed in the psychic ills of poor people had made her sick to her stomach.

    Recently, Paula had begun to suspect that she lacked the talent of living--of simply entering the mindless stream of life. And that her job was the main expression of this lack, as well as its cause. Anyone who needed a job that badly deserved to be let go. Gladys Dill had handed her an opportunity and she had blown it.

    As if the others could do any better. Fran would be so earnest that Gladys would have to kill herself. And Fine! Fine wouldn't last a minute with Earl, he'd say things like "community-oriented" and Earl would have to kill him.

    Down the avenue, past the new building going up on what had been for years an empty lot. One day a crater appeared, and now two stories of skeletal steel gleamed in the streetlamps and headlights. Chain link protected the site but hadn't kept a brigade of rats from escaping when a sewer was rerouted for the foundation. Paula read the latest blue signs on the fence. "Who owns the building?" "What is the building for?" Some paranoid grad-school dropout, hunched over his computer at 3 A.M. Soon she would read about the blue-flyer bombings.

    She stopped by The King and I for the order Steve would have phoned ahead. His loft was next door above a photocopy store. He was a forty-year-old city planner, and there wasn't much else she knew about Steve Lorenz. When she rang she was instantly buzzed in. Being buzzed in without a question was part of the secret excitement of Wednesday night.

    "You again," he said at the front door. She had forgotten the ponytail and earring, because she disapproved--wanted to tell him, "Don't do that, you don't need to." The strong stubbled jawline and sly gray eyes she remembered. In jeans and a bulky maroon sweater he cut a lean figure of advancing hipness.

    "Yep, me. Quick, warm up my hands." She held them out and Steve gave a vigorous chafing. He pulled her toward him and then there was the unbelievable softness of human lips. So much of the time everyone had to keep their hands to themselves, brain-stuffed and sense-starved. Tonight, after her brush with a cold, jobless, clientless world, she felt more grateful than usual to be here, to be kissed.

    Steve ran his hand through the back of her wavy black hair. Though he cultivated detachment, she knew it was the same for him--the surprise, the pleasure.

    "It's wet out there," Steve said.

    "Wet and wild."

    "Central Square? Come on."

    "It's all invisible."

    "This city," he said, "is more repressed than Orem, Utah. First Puritans, then Catholics, then liberals, then yuppies. Herbal or Earl Grey?"

    He could be a bore on the subject of Old Cambridge before gentrification--apparently the Ford-Carter era had been a period of continuous debauch--but she didn't mind, because Steve wasn't her boyfriend. He was Wednesday night, the way a therapist only existed on the day of your session. There was an archaic word that she liked: tryst. Her pattern was either infatuation with men dimly aware of her existence or else apologetic and repelled flight from the heartbroken. But she and Steve had slept together immediately, without fear or regret. Having no future made them calm and generous. Why they had no future she didn't know.

    "It isn't fair," she said as they sat on the wood floor to eat from his junk-shop coffee table.

    "Of course it isn't. What?"

    "Biology. Demographics. I have a friend who's thirty-six and--"

    "Nope, too old. That's when they start to get scary."

    His irony irritated her, too safe and smug. "That's what I mean. The other day I heard a man tell another guy, quote, 'I need to meet a woman who's ready for my intensity.' This guy had gray hair. He was at least fifty. Who the hell does he think he is, talking like that?"

    "He's Educated American Male. He's pushing the evolutionary envelope."

    "He ought to be helping his wife through menopause. It's obscene."

    "While your friend's eggs go to waste. It isn't fair."

    In Steve's good looks there was a sort of decayed youthfulness. All these years on the scene of his higher education, haunting the same bookstores, watching his favorite bars turn into boutiques, had arrested his growth. In ten years Steve would be telling someone about his intensity.

    He was reporting on his current peeve: the half-finished construction site up the street.

    "What's that building for anyway?"

    "I just told you, Paula, nobody has a clue, that's the problem."

    She had been thinking about Fine--Fine wanted the building for the Problem Place. Big ideas while they went down the tube. What the hell did he mean, "You've needed this"? What did she need?

    "The owner was building office space," Steve said. "He had his problems with the IRS and lost it. The city took over and now no one can make a decision and the work's still going on. I'm surprised you don't know any of this."

    "I should be more political."

    "Now everyone's getting in on the act. An AIDS clinic, says the gay community. A youth center, says the--the African American community. Oh no, say the homeless advocates, a wet shelter. We'll buy it, says big bad MIT. Twenty developers want to bid for retail plus luxury housing. There's even a rumor a Florida gaming enterprise is interested. A casino in Central Square! And the city council is shitting its pants, like 'Building? What building?'"

    Paula nodded, locked her eyes on Steve's, and timed her "Mm-hmms" as if, like a first-time client, he might clam up any second.

    "Anyway, it's not important."

    "I'm sorry, I was listening."

    "Never mind. Let's hear about your day with the emotionally challenged."

    Pouting made Steve's fork clumsy with the yellow-curry beef, and it blew away her fantasy of an insouciant at ease in a world that bewildered and threatened her. What, she wondered, was his fantasy of her? Dark pretty little sister of charity with a fun side. Tending to the poor and then to him. She told Steve about Fine and the cutbacks but left out the moment of her undoing with Gladys Dill.

    "It scares me to need this job that much. I literally can't imagine how I'd live without it."

    His eyes were unfocusing. She wondered if marriage was like this.

    They watched a video. Nestled against his chest, she drifted in and out of sleep, feeling a vague urgency to keep him talking, and the characters in the movie too, afraid the tape would stop if she faded out, wanting to apologize to them all every time she woke up. Finally she gave in to the downward pull.

    Paula jerked awake as Steve was rewinding. "Great movie."

    "Do you always twitch in your sleep so much?"

    "I don't know, I'm always asleep." She didn't like being seen unconscious, nerves discharging the day's electricity after the current is switched off.

    "They say you have to trust someone to sleep in their presence."

    "I think I'm just really tired." Not that I don't trust you, she thought. What could the word mean for them? He mimed a hurt face as he cleared the plates, mocking himself, and it was enough to make her like him again. When Steve came back from the kitchen she reached for his hand, pulling herself up into a kiss. She enjoyed her ability to please him; the sex itself she liked better than cooking, less than conversation. Before Steve there had been almost a year without--the period when the talent of living had begun to elude her. She knew that men liked the way she looked and the things she did, but a strange detachment from her own body had set in, as if it were made of foam rubber wired to her nervous system. Once sex had been an effortless pleasure, she'd jumped into bed with men she didn't care to remember now. She longed for this one to take her out of her head.

    The ritual of undressing, condom-fumbling. His style of narcissism was to let her come first, but tonight, with Gladys and everything else, she knew it was hopeless and coaxed him along. "What about you?" "No, never mind, you." In the middle of his climax, the buttocks-tensing earnestness of it all struck her as extremely funny. She tried to stifle a giggle and dissolved in helpless laughter. She apologized, and for a moment it was touch-and-go whether he would take offense; then they were laughing together.

    Shortly, under his warm weight, she was asleep again.

    "Why don't you stay the night?"

    Paula came to groggy and grumpy. Inside her he felt like an uninvited finger.

    "Mm ... that's tempting. Jesus, what time is it?"

    The blue digits of his clock radio read 11:08. She thought of checking her office voice mail. Any disasters out there?

    "I should probably get home."

    "Bagels on the house," he said, "then you can walk to work. It's wet and wild out there."

    And it was warm in here. And in the morning she would put on yesterday's underwear, and brush her teeth with his toothbrush, and he would still be there.

    "Then a rain check? I don't have my makeup or toothbrush."

    "I have a spare. I admit I'm out of lipstick."

    "It's a nice offer."

    "So accept it."

    She eased him out and off her and sat up.

    "Too spontaneous?" he asked. "Need time to analyze it?"

    "No." As she covered herself with the wool blanket, irritation prickled her skin. She saw clearly the awkwardness of cream cheese, the false kiss at the door, the stale disorderly day. "I have nothing against spontaneity. I just have a thing about going home at night."

    "Maybe I shouldn't have offered."

    "No, it's sweet of you."

    Dressing, she felt his resentful gaze in the darkness.

    "I want to see if you turn into a pumpkin at midnight."

    "Unfortunately, I never stop being me."

    "'All you want is my body!'" Steve imitated female hysteria and pretended to find the reversal amusing. "'You never respected me!'"

    Paula was hurrying with her snaps and buttons. There were a hundred things she didn't want to know about him, and now that the stuffing was pouring out she was furious. "You could just call me a little tramp."

    "I like little tramps."

    "That must be your problem."

    "What's your problem, Paula? Because you clearly have one."

    Paula stopped zipping up her skirt. She imagined the sneer on his handsome, preserved face. The hurt pride of demographically spoiled Educated American Male.

    "You don't know me," she told him.

    Steve fell silent.

    In his bathrobe he showed her to the door. At the touch of the brass knob, Paula suddenly felt dizzy. Vertigo dimmed her vision, and then came the nauseous burning in her throat that she had felt in the conference room when her job had trembled and cracked. She paused in confusion and closed her eyes.

    "I hope your building gets worked out," she told him.

    "Thanks. I hope you don't get downsized."

    If they'd only said this before then things would have gone as always, he wouldn't have asked her to stay, and they could now say good night without wondering if there would be another Wednesday.

To get home she had to take two buses and it was on the second, composing herself against the window and watching the rotten triple-deckers of Prospect Street tilt crazily against the night sky, that Paula understood what had gone wrong. Steve had asked for more than fifty minutes. She knew by heart the reasons why you respected the limit: You got more done in the available time, you both knew what to expect, the encounter remained under control. Pushed, she was ready to bring her authority to bear.

    Paula lived near Union Square, in an old brick building whose long hallways and broad staircase suggested a boarding house from the Sacco and Vanzetti era. It even had a name, the Narconia, which was never satisfactorily explained to Paula but seemed apt. The Narconia housed a strange collection of tenants: Irish widows, immigrant families from Egypt and Haiti, single mothers on subsidy, pale quiet people working in marginal jobs as paralegals or teaching assistants. The damp smell of the hallway runner, the gloom of the varnish, the tinny slamming of mailboxes--all of it said that no one in the Narconia was getting anywhere.

    Paula had moved into this building when she came up from New York, during the late-eighties boom. The Narconia was a temporary solution to the shortage of affordable apartments--a room and a half with a fine view of the Dumpster, a neighborhood of funeral homes and bathtub madonnas behind rosebushes in the tidy front yards of aluminum-siding houses. Her apartment never fully shed its odor of fried potatoes and lemon-scented air freshener. But Paula painted the woodwork white and replaced the yellowing curtains with bamboo blinds. Six years later it was still home.

    Her key was hardly in the lock when the next door flew open. Mary's face, sagging from the dozen children who never visited, peered out. Scandal was magnified in her eyes by plastic glasses that reminded Paula of Gladys Dill's missing lens.

    "Paula dear, thank God you come home. The super and his wife been fighting all evening with all sorts of language. Now Linda's catching her death outside in nothing but her nightie and Bud's been smashing the kitchenware and watching violence on TV."

    Paula sighed. "What am I supposed to do about it?"

    This checked Mary's titillated panic. "I just thought since you come home, and you work with them crazies and all--I'd go out myself only I ain't dressed and she don't like me anyway because I'm friends with Colleen in Number 17."

    Paula withdrew her key. It was probably her own fault that people assumed she was willing to solve every problem, but at the moment it made her want to smash some kitchenware herself. Passing the super's apartment, she smelled beer and dead ash from under the door. The TV was on--a woman was screaming.

    Around the side of the building the super's wife, barefoot on an upturned cinder block, was leaning over the Dumpster and rummaging furiously. Bags were torn, bottles smashed. Linda's nightgown, which Bud might have bought her during a tender mood, barely covered the tops of her thighs. As she disappeared over the side, a red bottom came into view. Paula recoiled.

    "Who the fuck is no use around here, you useless fuck?" The voice was headless, as if the Dumpster itself were drunk and rebellious.



    "Are you looking for something?"

    "He threw my fucking prescription away!"

    "What prescription?"


    Levering herself up on her belly, the super's wife confronted her questioner. In their only previous conversation they had discussed a washing machine that was prone to overflowing; Linda had seemed simple and sweet.

    "Can't your doctor write another?"

    "He says he won't!"

    Linda began to weep. Her face twisted with shameless, childlike sobs.

    "It's cold, and it's starting to rain again."

    "But I need it!" Linda looked at the Dumpster. "He'll steal it, the dirty bastard!"

    She began lowering her body down inside.

    "Linda, I'm afraid you'll fall in."

    "Good, they can haul me away."

    "Can you tell me what the prescription was for?"

    "None of your fucking business!"

    "Fine." Tired and cold, Paula had had enough. It might be tragic, but it was also a pain. With a strange feeling of satisfaction she went back inside. That was how it was done: The super's wife had told her to fuck off, and she had told the super's wife to fuck off. They had both connected with their feelings and gotten admirably to the point, using a minimum of jargon. It felt like her first real human contact of the day.

    Mary was by her door, wringing the knot of her bathrobe. "What are you going to do?"

    "If Linda wants to freeze in a Dumpster that's her business."

    Paula's answering machine carried a message from her mother--a long account of an argument with her West Fourth Street neighbor who had complained that she was playing an Edith Piaf CD too loud. In the oldest corner of her being, Paula felt a flutter of panic. Too late to call. She told herself that her mother would survive until morning.

    Mercifully, nothing on her voice mail at the Problem Place.

    She sat on the edge of the tub while hot water steamed around her naked body. Half-dozing, she entertained the notion that the super's wife had shown her the same truth she had just learned with Steve. That she really didn't care. About anyone.

    But it was supposed to be her business to care. For fifty minutes and a modest fee, within the rules. She was a fraud.

    Paula imagined a man standing beside her in the bathroom, stroking her shoulder, telling her to stop being so hard on herself.

    In the bath she scrubbed with her coarse sponge and the water darkened. She rid herself of the day's involvements so that she might sleep straight through the night without troubling dreams and wake up clean and shiny to go back into the fray. Because it was her contribution. She was good at it, they told her so, the ones who knew. In a murmur that she once used as a girl for prayer, Paula vowed to make Gladys Dill better, stronger, happier.

    She walked in her kimono through her room and a half, absently tidying up. At the sight of the clutter on her table, sadness came over her. She took a muscle relaxant and turned on the radio. A novelist was being interviewed. She switched to music, then turned it off. The radiator was clanking to life. As she lay on the covers, Steve's doorknob flashed through her mind and she became dizzy again.

    She had tricked herself. What she had felt at his door wasn't relief at all.

    Fine said she needed something--he had a way of drilling into her brain. Weekly meetings with strangers? What she needed didn't come in groups. But she wouldn't go back to Steve's again, for her own good. Because a lover wasn't a client. Lovers loved. The thought of not going back frightened her, but she would do this; it would be decisive, like leaving Linda outside.

    Paula switched off the light and lifted the blinds. Down the alley the Dumpster huddled in a dark mass, but the super's wife was nowhere to be seen.

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