by: Alan Swyer
Sometimes even the most confounding of circumstances can be a blessing in a disguise, like when an innocuous trip to see a film leads to everything you have ever desired in life….
Immediately Epstein feared the worst. What troubled him was not what Tina had just said over the phone when she called him at work that afternoon, but the way in which she said it, with a solemn tone that was uncharacteristically troubling.
“I know you were supposed to have a drink after work with your buddy from high school,” Tina stated. “But any way you can bump it to another night so that you and I can talk?”
“Of course,” Epstein replied. “But is there anything you want to tell me now?”
“I’d rather we talk face to face,” Tina said coldly.
“Sure?” Epstein replied with a questioning rise to his tone as he spoke.
“I’ll see you at home.”
Hanging up, Epstein was unable to keep his mind from racing. Had Tina, who had been complaining about a lingering cough, gone to see a doctor and gotten a frightening diagnosis? Could it be bronchitis? Pneumonia? Tuberculosis? Cancer? A chill came over Epstein as he contemplated the possibility of losing Tina.
Aware that making such leaps did no good whatsoever, Epstein forced himself to think instead about the French film series he was helping to curate for the museum where he worked. Yet try as he might to focus on a list of suggestions that thus far included Claude Sautet’s Mado (which he discovered his sophomore year of college), Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (which he saw on a summer trip to Paris), Alain Resnais’ Je T’aime, Je T’aime (which he watched with Tina on their first date), and a few overlooked personal favorites, his mind kept returning to their brief conversation.
Maybe, he thought, it’s not that Tina’s sick, but that she’s sick of me. If that’s the case, she probably feels it’s much too cold to break up with me over the phone.
Shaken, Epstein called his old basketball teammate Freddie to postpone their get-together.
“You okay?” Freddie asked, after listening to Epstein’s request.
“Why do you ask?”
“You sound like you’re about to jump out a window.”
“The windows here don’t open.”
“That’s reassuring. Anything you want to talk about?”
“Maybe one of these days.”
On the subway ride home, after an afternoon that disappeared in a blur, Epstein felt uncharacteristically self-conscious, as though everyone else on his Brooklyn-bound train knew that a potentially cataclysmic revelation awaited him.
Having worked himself into a frenzy, Epstein exited the train at the stop before his in the hope that a longer walk would somehow soothe his nerves.
That, however, proved to be far from the case. Wishing he had thought to grab a Xanax or two from Tina’s ever-increasing array of pharmaceuticals, Epstein soldiered on, trying his best to steel himself for what, he was certain, was to be devastating news.
Nearing his destination, Epstein contemplated buying a little gift before going upstairs. His first thought was flowers. Then he contemplated a bottle of wine, or a couple of Bananas Foster donuts from the new over-priced bakery that had opened a block away. But those notions, he realized, were pointless attempts to temporize the impending to forestall the inevitable.
Hesitating in front of the apartment that he and Tina had rented when they made the decision to live together, which fortuitously was just before prices began skyrocketing, Epstein finally unlocked the door. Upon entering, he found Tina wearing the paint-stained smock and jeans that constituted her regular outfit while working in the studio space that she shared with two other painters.
“A glass of wine?” Tina asked.
“Do I need it?”
Stepping into the living room, Tina took a seat on the sofa, then motioned for Epstein to do the same.
Silence reigned for a couple of moments until at last Tina spoke. “I want you to know I love you.”
“And I love you,” Epstein responded sincerely.
“But there’s something I need to say.”
“I feel like there’s something missing in my life.”
“You mean you’re healthy?”
Tina paused. “Oh you thought, that maybe—”
“I mean with that cough—”
“It’s nothing. But what I was trying to say—”
“This is not easy—”
“Tina, please. If it’s over, you might as well say it.”
“Who said anything about over?”
“You mean you want to stay together?”
“Of course I want to stay together.”
“Then what in the world are you trying to tell me?”
“Would you be okay if—”
“Tried an open marriage?”
“I mean not just for me,” Tina affirmed. “But you, too.”
That night, Epstein lay awake in bed kicking himself. So relieved had he been that Tina’s life was not in jeopardy, and neither was their marriage, that he somehow tacitly acquiesced to an arrangement that was nothing short of anathema to him.
On multiple occasions he nearly woke his sleeping wife to tell her that he had reconsidered, that there was no way in the world he could go along with her plan. But at four in the morning, Tina awakened on her own and tiptoed to the bathroom and realized upon returning that her husband, too, was awake, she said, “Thank you.” When she followed that with a kiss, Epstein said not a word.
Three and a half hours later, upon stumbling wearily into the kitchen, Epstein found his preferred breakfast of oatmeal, strawberries, and green tea waiting for him, along with the Sports Section of the Times and another kiss. At that point he sensed it was too late to explain to Tina how he really felt.
Forced to stand in a crowded subway car on the way to work, a still rattled Epstein realized that he had no clue whether Tina had been talking about an abstraction—something she had been vaguely contemplating or daydreaming about—or a not-yet-consummated but nevertheless ready-to-go situation. Epstein secretly hoped that by not inquiring more thoroughly about the matter, the whole affair would somehow magically vanish. The mounting suspense was finally shattered when, as the two of them sat down a couple of evenings later to watch an episode of the French series Spiral on a cable channel called MHZ Choice, Tina faced him.
“Wednesday evening okay?” she asked.
“I-I suppose,” Epstein managed to mumble.
“It goes for you, too. You know that, right?”
“Okay if I have the apartment?”
Epstein’s only response was a sigh.
“Someone getting cold feet?”
“Go have yourself some fun,” Tina said. “I bet it’ll make us appreciate each other even more.”
As what he was considering to be doomsday neared, Epstein reflected upon his options. His first thought was to find a hiding place near their building so as to see who it was that would be temporarily sharing his bed. But upon second thought, he recognized that unless he was willing to play mugger, seeing the actual person would only make matters worse.
Never having so much as flirted with another woman once he started keeping company with Tina, Epstein could not think of a single soul to whom he could propose a tryst or a hook-up, even if he wanted one. And in truth he had never been big on hitting on women at clubs and bars anyways. For a moment the possibility of finding the right kind of massage parlor crossed his mind, but that, too, was dismissed as being not the least bit interesting or appropriate, as was the possibility of searching for an escort service on the internet.
Drowning his sorrows at some local bar seemed like the most fitting and appropriate way of killing time while banished from his own apartment. But at the last minute, Epstein opted instead to stay at the museum for a screening of one of his favorite films, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America.
Just his luck, instead of the usual array of cinephiles who so often showed up solo for revivals, that night the crowd seemed almost exclusively couples: straight and gay, young and old. With the exception of Epstein, the only discernible unattached arrivals, other than a homeless guy with a backpack who somehow wandered in, were a Japanese tourist, an elderly lady in a walker, a scruffy college kid wearing a Bard t-shirt, and an attractive Asian woman draped in a red scarf and a man’s denim work shirt, who seemed to be as uncomfortable as Epstein.
For a moment Epstein thought about approaching her, but the fear of a brush-off was too much for him to bear.
When Epstein returned home just after midnight, Tina greeted him with a kiss. “Good time?” she asked.
“You bet,” he overstated.
“Want to talk about it?”
“Want to hear about my evening?”
Hoping that Tina had at least changed the sheets, Epstein dawdled before climbing into bed. Once he finally did, after discovering that the blue sheets had been replaced by new ones with blue and white stripes, he proceeded to spend the night tossing and turning, all the while trying hard not to think about the gymnastics that had taken place where he was currently lying.
Monday at breakfast, after a weekend in which what had hovered like a noxious cloud over what heretofore would have seemed like normalcy to Epstein, Tina looked up suddenly from her daily bowl of yogurt and granola.
“Wednesday okay again?” she asked.
Trying not to display too much unhappiness, Epstein gave the tiniest of nods.
“You can say no,” Tina continued.
Epstein chose not to reply.
When Wednesday finally arrived, Epstein, after flirting with various possibilities, again opted to see a film at the museum. As he shuffled toward the screening room with a decided absence of glee, among the people showing up was the Asian woman he’d spotted the week before, this time with a streak of purple in her hair.
“Like Cassavetes?” she inquired casually.
“A whole lot.”
For an instant Epstein thought about asking his fellow moviegoer if she’d like to sit together. But before he could do so, she wandered away, leaving him fearing that he would come off like a stalker if he followed her toward the second row where she took a seat.
Just as before, Tina greeted Epstein with a kiss when he walked through the door around midnight.
“Since you, too, seem to be doing fine,” she then said, “shall we make Wednesdays a regular thing?”
Once more Epstein bit his lip.
Finding himself thinking about the striking woman he’d seen at two screenings in a row, Epstein had a surprising sense of anticipation as the third Wednesday neared. Aside from the question of whether again she would be there, he found himself wondering about her—who she was, what she did, and why film seemed so much a part of her life. More than that, he pondered about how best to engage her in more than just a fleeting conversation.
In professional situations Epstein’s innate shyness rarely posed much of a problem. But initiating small talk with people he didn’t know, especially desirable women, had always ranged from difficult to downright daunting.
Yet, for reasons he didn’t fully understand, that woman in particular, whom he began thinking of as The Filmgoer, intrigued him in unexpected ways.
As Wednesday approached, Epstein found himself so nervous that a part of him almost hoped she would not show up, since that would spare him from making a fool of himself or being rejected. Yet, after quickly stepping out of the museum to inhale a slice of pesto pizza and a Pellegrino, when he came back and stepped into the elevator, the Asian woman stood before him, the purple streak in her hair replaced by one that was silver.
“You’re either a big movie fan,” she said upon recognizing him, “or you’ve got a reason for not wanting to be home.”
“What if I say both?” Epstein found himself responding.
“Sounds like me,” she replied. “Tell me more after the film?”
“Why not?” Epstein said happily as the two of them chose seats together.
“I‘m Nicki by the way,” Epstein’s new friend said as they walked together toward a bar a couple of blocks away.
“And I’m Phil.”
Once they were seated at a corner table with mojitos in front of them, Nicki took a sip, then faced Epstein.
“So aside from obvious good taste in film, what’s your story?” she asked.
“Truth is, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
“You’re talking to someone who leads the league in embarrassing.”
“Well, the guy I’m living with suddenly started having what he calls business meetings on Wednesday evenings, which I’m pretty sure are more like monkey business.”
“I even followed him to the subway one time, to get a sense of where he was heading.”
“Which turned out to be?”
“He hopped on a Brooklyn-bound train.”
Epstein had all he could do to keep from spewing a mouthful of mojito.
“Can I ask what your boyfriend does?”
“His name is Sheldon?”
“He prefers Shelley.”
“I can see why. Is he a doctor? Lawyer? Mortician?”
“He’s an artist.”
“With a gallery?”
“Why does that matter?”
“Indulge me, okay? Is he by any chance with Trudy Ross?”
“How in hell would you know that?” Nicki asked.
“Freud said there are no coincidences.”
“We both need another drink. Look, I could be wrong—” Epstein started to say while flagging a waitress.
“I may happen to know where Sheldon goes on Wednesday evenings.”
“And more than that, with whom.”
In the days that followed, Epstein couldn’t stop thinking about his lengthy conversation with Nicki. He learned she was raised in San Francisco, where she was dubbed an “ABC,” as in American Born Chinese. After a couple of years at Berkeley, which flowed into a stint in art school in the Bay Area, she had come to New York City, where she took a day job in a frame shop before moving into graphic design and using her free time to pursue her great love, ceramics.
Moving into Shelley Resnick’s Greene Street loft, she explained to Epstein with a measure of awkwardness, gave her newfound exposure in the art world, while also eliminating the pressure to toil at a day job for rent money. But the advantages, she went on, came at a price, thanks to Shelley’s weakness for booze, drugs, and, she was learning, women.
But it wasn’t only about herself that Nicki spoke. Nor did she do all the talking. In a way that almost never happened when he was with Tina, Epstein found himself opening up about his own life, and even about his rarely discussed dreams. Acknowledging that he had taken the job at the museum in order to give Tina, whose painting was not yet particularly remunerative, the time and freedom to pursue her art, Epstein said that one day, instead of doing work that involved film, he would like to try his hand at writing screenplays.
“Why one day?” Nicki asked pointedly. “Why wait?”
Epstein offered no answer.
As their texting increased from once or twice a day to several times each morning and afternoon, Nicki and Epstein decided to forego the following Wednesday’s screening and meet instead at an Ethiopian restaurant in Harlem.
There, midway through the meal, Nicki suddenly shook her head.
“What’s up?” Epstein immediately asked.
“Seems like something’s wrong with this picture.”
“While two people we know are busy bouncing on each other’s bones, you and I are sitting here eating doro wat and lentils.”
“If we’re having a relationship, which begs a certain question—”
“As in are we having a relationship?”
“Well, are we?” Nicki asked.
“I’d like to think—or better yet, hope—we are.”
“Then for me there’s only one problem.”
“I don’t want it to be something that’s only on the sly—”
“Or that’s somehow nothing but payback for what you-know-who are doing. You follow me?”
“So what’s our next step?” Nicki asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Epstein, “but I hope there is one.”
“Can I ask a goofy question?”
“The goofier the better.”
“Do you live with someone who likes to eat the way you and I obviously do?”
“Me, neither,” said Nicki.
Springing for an Uber, Epstein dropped Nicki off in SoHo, then headed across the bridge to Brooklyn, all the while thinking that instead of merely working with films, his life in unexpected ways had become a film.
Taking a couple of deep breaths before heading upstairs to his apartment, Epstein was surprised to find Tina sitting on the sofa, deep in thought.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I want to ask how you feel about something.”
“The guy I’ve been seeing—”
“He and I have been thinking about taking a trip to London.”
Epstein said nothing.
“No comment?” Tina asked.
“Sure you want to hear?”
“Is this another way to make us appreciate each other even more?”
Tina frowned. “So you think I shouldn’t do it.”
“Says who? You want to go? Who am I to stop you?”
When Epstein turned on his phone the next morning he was greeted by a text. “Can we have lunch?” asked Nicki.
“U bet!” was Epstein’s reply. “Dumplings at Xi’an’s?”
“U read my mind!” answered Nicki, whose parents had hailed from the land of Terra Cotta Warriors.
“So what do we do about the trip?” Nicki asked between bites of lamb dumpling.
“Are you asking what will we do? Or what should we do?”
“Let’s try the latter,” Nicki said, spearing some chicken with hand-ripped noodles with her chopsticks.
“If we’re smart—”
“We take one of our own.”
Nicki grabbed a piece of spicy cucumber salad, then smiled. “So where are going?” she asked.
“Got a passport?”
Nicki nodded happily.
Ten days later, Epstein was seated with Nicki at his favorite place in Paris, Brasserie Balzar, feasting on foie gras, skate wing, and raspberry tart. After lunch, the two of them were strolling happily toward Place de la Contrescarpe when he received an unexpected text.
Epstein stopped to read it, then shook his head. “Ready for this?” he asked Nicki.
“A certain roommate of yours took a swing at guess who, then proceeded to throw her suitcases out of their hotel room window.”
“The Bobbies, as they’re called, just led him away to jail.”
“Well now,” said Nicki. “Isn’t that romantic? And now, I suspect, someone wants you to play Prince Charming and come to her rescue?”
“Except last I checked, I happened to be otherwise occupied.”
Approaching Cafe de la Contrescarpe, the two of them grabbed a table perfect for people-watching. Moments later, after Epstein spoke to the waiter in French, Nicki had her first taste of absinthe.
After that they wandered merrily toward a destination long cherished by Epstein, Bertillon, where he and Nicki indulged wholeheartedly in the kind of ice cream and sorbets that Tina shunned because of her fanatical obsession with calories.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel, The Beard, was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
This is a very charming story, which moved along smoothly. I love the sentence, “Those notions, he realized, were pointless attempts to temporize the impending to forestall the inevitable.” And I love the song “With Pen in Hand.”
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