As a gay man I consider myself not so much Catholic as “CathoIish.” Obviously, in order to have a full life, I don’t follow all the precepts of the Church. I always attend midnight Mass at Christmas, however, and Holy Week services, too. I never miss an opportunity to be reminded of “Man, thou art dust” on Ash Wednesday, and I have retained the outdated practice of giving something up for Lent. This year I gave up being petty. I decided instead to look for the face of God in everyone I met, to be open to what shines forth, like Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration when the light emanating from their up-to-then earth-bound leader and the voice of God coming from a cloud struck them dumb.
The day after Ash Wednesday I refrained from offering advice to the postal clerk whose hair was skinned back with a considerable amount of product into a frizzy ponytail, although, as one who earns his living fixing hair, my fingers itched to snatch off her rubber band, towel her hair dry, artfully snip the ends and free the whole business up to frame her rather doughy face. Instead, I lifted the window on my side of the barricade, set my package on the scale and closed the window so that she could open the window on her side without fear of my pulling a gun or throwing acid in her face. As she bent to stamp my package, the light fell on her face in such a way as to create a Rembrandt-like effect of light and shadow, giving her a maternal look that reminded me of my dear departed mother and that a frame of hair might have hidden. I felt blessed.
On Friday, I refrained from commenting to Roscoe on the varsity jacket he likes to put on at the first sign of spring, a slope-shouldered garment with none of the élan of a well tailored sports jacket, several of which—all gifts from me—hang on his side of the closet. He’s so proud of the varsity jacket, and because I didn’t speak up at once and didn’t look away I could see in his face the boy he once was, a popular athletic fellow, his high school experience so different from mine. Again, I felt blessed.
I did well with my Lenten resolve that entire first half-week. Then Abby e-mailed to say she was coming to Manhattan and could we meet? She gave a couple of times in her busy schedule when she would be free. I answered that I would be delighted to attend her reading on Monday afternoon and go out to dinner with her that night. I dressed conservatively—aged, faux-preppy—as I never like to make family members uncomfortable or put them to shame in front of others. On the train ride up from the Village, I decided to be as open as possible to Abby’s life’s work, her personal life, her stunted political views and her schedule. Naturally, by now, she had made other arrangements for the evening and my chances of having dinner with her—although I’d told Roscoe not to count on me—were slim. Still, there’d be time to chat after the reading.
Facing me on the train was one young woman with flaming orange tights under a short, short skirt and another revealing cleavage both in her bosom and at the top of her stretch jeans. “My darling,” I wanted to say to each of them, if only we’d had a moment’s privacy, “You are trying too hard.” Both were reading paperbacks and when they tipped them up to turn a page, both revealed the title Ravished Maiden in the Imperial Palace followed by the author’s name in even larger print: Abigail Sweet. If I were more superstitious and less Catholish, I’d have thought it a sign.
I’m always startled to see my sister after a passage of time. I have never gotten over thinking of her as fifteen or twenty-five or thirty-five. By the calendar, Abby’s an old lady now. She was always one to turn heads, to make an entrance, to work a room. Over the years, she’s had work done on her nose, her chin, her eyes, work that started out subtle. By now, a bit of an artificial look has crept in—by no means over the top, however.
She stood up and embraced me and then held me at arms’ length, beaming and gazing for a full minute into my eyes, and, I confess, even though I at times feel resentful of Abby’s neglect, it takes only a moment like that for me to melt once again into the boy who grew up adoring his older sister. She put her hand through my arm and with pride in her voice introduced me as her little brother to the store flunkies on her right and left. “Tony’s not a writer,” she added. I was glad that I was dressed appropriately for the occasion and that through diet and exercise I’d maintained a decent weight and that I still had a nearly full head of hair.
Meanwhile the place was filling up. I turned to make my way to the back, but Abby held onto my arm and indicated a seat in the front row, next to her. So, I sat. There would be no way to avoid playing the part of an attentive and appreciative listener. One of the flunkies stepped to the podium to introduce Abigail Sweet, the queen of romance, the all time best seller who captivated audiences of all ages and today would be reading from her forty-first novel. Then Abby stood and embraced the flunky, stepped back and looked into his eyes. At the podium, she dazzled the audience with a smile for a full minute before opening her book to somewhere in the middle and beginning to read.
Abby is a terrible writer. I used to think she might improve. When she’s asked who her favorite writer is she says Jane Austin or Alice Munro or Ann Patchett. I doubt she’s read any of them—I mean, really read. If she had, she’d catch on about clichés in language and plot. She’d vary her sentences more and make the dialogue sound realistic while at the same time moving the story along. I sometimes think if she hadn’t done so well in sales right from the beginning she might have gotten an MFA from a writing program or at least taken a few workshops. Critics don’t bother with her; she’s too far outside their territory. There’s no one to correct Abby. I’ve heard that she allows her editors to fix only typos. I’m reminded of the story of Jack Kerouac inserting a long roll of paper into a typewriter, typing straight ahead to the end, and pronouncing the result a novel. Only, Abby is no Jack Kerouac. Tony’s not a writer. I can write a better letter than Abby any day, a better e-mail—a better grocery list, for that matter…
Oh, how petty I sounded to myself! I recalled my Lenten resolve and sat back with my eyes closed, letting the prose flow over me. At the conclusion of the reading and the hearty applause of her fans, I stayed in my seat while a long line approached Abby with books for her to sign. The whole thing would have gone faster if she hadn’t smilingly engaged each fan with chitchat and written little notes. As the line neared its end, I grabbed a copy of Ravished Maiden in the Imperial Palace from a stack, handed one of the flunkies my credit card and plunked the book down in front of Abby. Still smiling, she opened the book, dashed off a surprising number of words and signed simply “Abby” with a flourish.
It wasn’t until she’d bid the flunkies goodbye, slung her Gucci bag over her shoulder, taken her mink in her arms and walked out of the store with me that her smile dropped like a curtain at intermission. “Shall we get a cup of tea?” she asked, indicating a nearby Starbucks. In the fading afternoon light I could see the age—and the fatigue—in her face. Poor dear! There’d be no early dinner together, I could see that now. Abby would have tea with me and then go back to her hotel to rest up for a late night at an expensive eatery with others of her ilk—agents, publishers and purveyors of pulp fiction. As always, she had stuffed her schedule as full as her Gucci bag. I reminded myself to feel grateful that a sliver of time remained for me.
Anyone watching me hold the door, escort Abby to a banquette, cup her elbow and wait for her to slide in and arrange her Gucci, her mink and her person might think we possessed the breeding of characters from one of her novels. Such niceties matter to Abby. And, to tell the truth, to me.
The bevy of baristas behind the counter—black, white, Hispanic and Asian—were young and beautiful and as honey-skinned as cinnamon buns. From a pretty boy with spiked black hair plumed with purple I ordered a fusion tea and an espresso and laid a twenty on the counter. Although Abby would gladly lend me without interest—no, give me outright—$100,000 no questions asked, when it comes to little things, she expects any man she’s with to pay. My darling sister is a gigolo’s delight.
“So, how are you, Tony?” she asked after I had placed our cups on the table and lowered myself to a straight-backed chair facing her. Her expression was tender, almost maternal. I’d have told her she looked like Mother except I’m afraid she would have taken offense.
“Life is good.” I sipped my espresso.
“Still with the dog walker?” There was no irony in her tone, but she might have remembered Roscoe by name. She had met him. Once. Mustn’t be petty.
“Still with Roscoe. How’s Chuck?” Like the Samaritan woman Jesus met at Jacob’s Well, Abby’s had five husbands and the man she lives with now is not her husband.
“Happy as a pig in muck now that he has me to support him.” Abby gave a short, dismissive laugh, as though being the money bags for each of the men in her life was a matter of no importance. Not that some of them hadn’t achieved a measure of success in ways other than financial. I had been especially fond of Carlo the poet, who’d had rabid fans of his own. And Chuck was a painter—canvases, not walls. And there’d been another fellow who’d kept bees. Abby squeezed the lemon wedge into her tea. “What’s your current cause, Tony?”
Abby was ignorant of the pressing issues of our time—twenty-first-century America not being ersatz Regency or Victorian England. It would be cruel of me to elaborate on a topic she had no real interest in. Besides, Monday is my day off from both hairdressing and political action. “One more endeavor on my part the Major wouldn’t approve of.”
At the mention of our father, Abby brightened. “I find myself thinking of Dad more and more these days. Do you? Think of him, I mean.”
“I pray for the eternal rest of his soul.” “And Mother—do you pray for her?” Abby halted the cup to her lips and lifted an eyebrow.
“Mother I pray to.” I answered so quickly I forgot to insert irony.
Abby set down her cup and laughed—loudly. It made me happy to see her relax for the first time that afternoon. In our neglected, itinerant childhood, we had always been able to amuse each other. She rummaged in her bag for a packet of tissues and dabbed at her eyes. “Poor Mother! I’ve come around to feeling sorry for her. At least neither of us became a drunk or a pill popper.”
I winced. “There was more to Mother than her weaknesses.”
“She was definitely the reason Dad never made colonel.”
“A phony colonel in a phony war.”
“Better than a phony major. Never making colonel—which he deserved—is what killed him.”
“What killed him, Abby, was the elephant that sat on his chest, the same elephant that kills so many hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking men of a certain age.” There was no rancor in our voices. We had hit our groove, Abby and I. In the hour we had that late afternoon of the first Monday in Lent, our familiar, perennial conversation warmed and filled us as satisfactorily as comfort food.
Outside Starbucks, I saw Abby into a taxi and walked the short distance to the 86th Street subway station. We’ve had such different lives, Abby and I, but each of the scattered hours we’ve spent together over the years always restores the communion we shared growing up. There were never any little nieces or nephews on either side to shore up family feeling. Just my sister and me. One day one of us will attend the other one’s funeral—or send a nice arrangement of flowers, at the very least. Years ago, I refused her offers to set me up in an uptown shop where I would call myself “Mr. Anthony” and cater to the rich and famous. I’ve sometimes wondered if I’ve been a disappointment to her.
Just before my stop I pulled Ravished Maiden in the Imperial Palace from my bag and opened to her inscription: “To my little brother Tony, who lights up my life, thank you for being who you are. All my love, Abby.” As corny and possibly perfunctory as the sentiment was, it brought tears to my eyes. I’m blessed.