The Blue Room by Karen Kates

Columbia in winter by Amanda. CC license.

Apparently, during the fifteen or so minutes while my husband and daughter waited in the car outside Whole Foods, some man had knifed his ex-wife. The injury doesn’t seem serious; she’s slouched in the rear of an open ambulance, where a paramedic presses a tiny bandage to her cheek. Still, I’m horrified: that blade could have reached her eye. I’m relieved to see my husband, Nathan, sitting up straight in the Volvo, and six-year-old Juliet, harnessed behind him, in that complicated plastic bucket of a seat. It’s bitter cold, sleeting. As I get into the car, a cop inquires whether Nathan or I saw the culprit. Then he gently asks Juliet, “You didn’t notice anything, young lady, did you?”

She replies, “Yes, I saw a woman give my dad a kiss.”

Just a half hour before, I’d been thinking how good my marriage was. Most bickering is really banter. We had the Manhattanite’s impulse to seize the freak parking space right in front of a supermarket on the Upper West Side, although we were a block from home. Nathan and I engaged in a brief, friendly debate over whether I truly needed a pound of fresh-spun garlic fettuccini, samples of which were draped like Christmas tinsel over pine branches in the store window. It’s the stuff our friends Grace and Zack had served on New Year’s Eve last week, I explained, and that settled that.

My husband looks past the policeman, directly at me.

He says, “When it started to snow, so messily, we watched people put paper Whole Foods bags on their heads.”

“We counted ten Bag Heads!” yells Juliet. “Soon the hats turned white! Daddy said, ‘We’re seeing a parade of chefs stocking up on supplies!’”

I wonder if the officer ever needed to entertain a six-year-old. A sensible, humorous explanation for the kiss will be revealed too, I think. Another woman mistook the Volvo, with its obligatory child strapped inside, for her own. She opened the car door, and swooped toward Nathan.

But the cop’s tone is grave. “Sir, was it the female victim who kissed you?”

Nathan again turns to me. “Dawn-Marie, one of the office assistants from work, tapped on my window. When I rolled it down she kissed me, and then fled.”

“Who the heck?” I ask, although the name is vaguely familiar.

“Bleached hair that frizzes out a mile. Wrist to elbow Cleopatra bracelets. When she showed up with an eyebrow ring she was told to remove it.”

“Ah, Dawn-Marie,” I recall.

Certainly, she’s not his type. If Nathan claims that some revenge is in the picture, I might believe him. He’s head of compensation at a big insurance firm where, in a pad-the-bottom-line-strategy, employees have been roped like cattle into restrictive salary zones. There will rarely be as much as a cost of living raise, even for workers who’d stuck around for decades, whose salary has hit the high water mark.

“I suppose Dawn-Marie’s paycheck is frozen,” I say.

“Next century it might go up,” he replies, glum.

 

Nathan’s bosses instructed him to design the zones, but everyone’s mad at Nathan. Last month someone tossed snowballs at our third-floor windows. He and I looked down to see a nice guy from marketing standing on the sidewalk with his wife and three children.

“What about college funds, Nat?” he’d shouted.

Then, after we’d thrown open a window, “Not to mention fifteen thousand dollars worth of orthodenture!”

“Merry Christmas, Scrooge!” the wife and kids bellowed, although the man seemed embarrassed by that point, and tried to hush everyone up.

The policeman’s shoulders are covered with a shawl of snow. He says, “You’ll need to give me your secretary’s name. Maybe she saw something.”

His mouth twitches into a smirk about the triteness of what he assumes to be our marital problems. He leans into the car to write on his pad. I’m afraid of his guns, worried that Juliet will impulsively grab one, and I’m irritated by his crackling radio that seems about to detonate, like a bomb.

In fact, I’m furious at Nathan for putting Juliet in danger. And when we’re finally permitted to leave, suspicion washes over me. What if he will admit to a fling, or that he’s smitten. Enough of my brains and style—I keep my blonde hair long and straight at forty-two, or I don’t feel like myself. I imagine him removing Dawn-Marie’s armload of bracelets, dropping them on the floor, where they make the clanking sound of an overheated radiator.

I always try to be a good mother, though. Right now, I want Juliet to feel secure, so I ask, “Babycakes, do you know how much your dad and I love each other?”

She’s blasé about my question. “That lady knew Daddy. People always kiss hello.”

Our Juliet, our blessing, doesn’t look like Shakespeare’s wan, suicidal creation. She’s inherited Nathan’s swarthiness. He’s pencil thin, however, while Juliet’s so stocky her balcony would collapse during a soliloquy. Because she’s exceedingly kind to other children, according to her teachers, Nathan and I feel that we have breathing room to admire her candor toward adults, we fools. When Juliet was three, I gave her a campus tour of Columbia, where I’m a Victorian Lit professor. I introduced her to my meeting-scheduling, committee-creating boss: “This is Dean McCoy.” Juliet’s response was: “I don’t care!”

And: yesterday when I had to bring clothes to school because Juliet wore her bathing suit under her snowsuit in sub-zero weather, she stated, “If I do anything bad, what can happen to me? Nobody arrests a six-year-old.”

“How about my feelings?” I asked.

“In a year you’ll forget what annoys you today.”

Juliet will stand her ground in this complicated world.

 

blue walled bedroom
In the morning light by Kate Hiscock. CC license.

We own (at a market value of $900,764) the same apartment in a brownstone on Riverside and One-Twenty-First that we rented as grad students for four hundred a month. When we’d turn on the lights a thick carpet of cockroaches seemed to rise up and dance, and then fled toward cracks in the baseboard. Now one tap of a finger switches on lamps, the security system, and a Springsteen C.D.

“Into p.j.s, Princess,” Nathan instructs Juliet. But he hasn’t even hung up his wet parka. He’s shedding a trail of clothes that leads to the shower stall in our bedroom.

I hear him turn on the water full blast. “Hurry up, Susan. Get in here.”

“Nathan,” I tease, when I’m naked and wet beside him. “Don’t tell me you think we were being wiretapped?”

“I don’t want Julie to hear.”

“So you’re going to confess you’ve kissed Dawn-Marie before!”

It occurs to me that in the shower she would become more ordinary, perhaps very lovely, her hair sleek from the water.

“Never. I’m afraid of her. She thinks of me as a suit. Why was she close by?” he asks. “She lives way down in Alphabet City.”

“How do you know that?”

“She’s into rallies about letting the squatters squat in abandoned buildings down there. According to her, those homeless folks transform tenements into reasonable homes.”

“Are you having an affair, Nathan?”

“Not with anyone, my love, and Dawn-Marie isn’t someone I like. She’s always talking loudly in the corridor. Last week she bellowed about her New Year’s Eve party. Topless dancing. Kegs of beer.”

Back in college and grad school, we often went to such parties. We break-danced in the nude. (Although we also clustered together in front of a TV for Bob Newhart reruns, and we took a swig of beer whenever Susanne Pleshette said, “Oh, Bob.”) But our best friends from those days, Zack and Grace—he’s a portfolio analyst and she’s an obstetrician now—have a fantastic Fifth Avenue penthouse. Each New Year’s Eve they make a roaring fire, and then set out silver terrines of caviar and Dom Perignon next to ruby red glasses that Grace swears her grandmother kept hidden in a haystack during the Holocaust. George plays all his Ella Fitzgerald C.D.s: Ella Sings Rogers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter. I usually ask to hear In the Blue Room a couple of times. The penthouse living room is wall-papered a silvery blue; we sprawl on soft clouds of white sectional couches. Because of the wrap-around windows we seem to be floating among the stars—so I tell myself every year, tipsily clutching my Holocaust glass.

Before she was born, I’d painted Juliet’s room sky-blue. Nathan and I are happiest there, tucking her in at night, admiring what we’ve created, this sturdy, honest little girl, whose navy-colored shelves we cram with toys and books.

Sometimes, though, I contemplate the lyrics of In the Blue Room. When I taught Juliet to read I used a few lines: We don’t need a ball room, just a hall room, a small room. And I think about how that should be enough too, for Nathan, Juliet and me—not our one-touch-of-the-button orchestration of electrical gadgets, or her pricey American Girl doll.

Nathan embraces me. He declares, “There’s no one but you, Susan Barrett!”

I shut the water and hand him a towel. “Maybe Juliet should touch base with shrink. The last few hours were too strange for a child.”

We stare at each other, knowing that as children we survived harder times. There wasn’t much money, and both of our fathers saw other women. My mother never let me catch on until I was an adolescent. While she rifled through his pockets for phone numbers and receipts, she pretended to be on an old penny raid for my coin collection book. In contrast, his mother fell apart. Often, beginning when he was eight-years-old, she’d swallow a quart of Jack Daniels before dinner, and scrawny Nathan had to turn of the burners, and help her to bed.

 

The next night Nathan reads Juliet a bedtime story while I make her lunch. We’ve all just come back from seeing a psychiatrist, who squeezed us in because he has a certain celebrity status, and who, Nathan and I agree, was an appalling quack. The man spoke to Juliet briefly, after which he sent her to his playroom, while he assured us that she seemed like an especially joyous child. He said that nevertheless, parenting needed daily practice, like playing an instrument. Eventually, he showed us a video of parents with two girls, maybe nine and twelve, at a restaurant that seemed too fancy for children. The therapist explained that for this particular couple a celebration wouldn’t be complete without their daughters’ presence. He asked us to observe how the parents kept up non-stop conversations with the girls.

I was bothered because the so-called perfect parents in the video seemed familiar. Soon I declared, “I know those people! She was the future step-mom, trying desperately to win the girls over!

The doctor said, “Well then Susan, as you’re aware, the story ends happily. Her relationship with the kids has stayed terrific. Actually, our mutual acquaintances wanted this—their engagement dinner—videotaped. I howled for a copy, to use as a lesson in flawless parenting—with their permission, of course.”

Smearing peanut butter on bread, I think about how life is so easy to misconstrue. I’m still resentful at the cop for making his assumption about Dawn-Marie’s kiss, without knowing anything about Nathan or me. For years, many residents of our street gave money to an old man who sat on the sidewalk in a wheel chair, year-round. I’ve been told that when there was an armed robbery at the liquor store around the corner, he jumped up and ran away, leaving his chair spinning, like an amusement park ride.

When I’m done with the lunch bag, I find Nathan alone in the living room. He says that Juliet wants to play for a while near her bed; she’s made a tent out of blankets so she can camp out with Baywatch Barbie and a flashlight. He turns off a few lamps and says, “Both of us keep forgetting to call about an estimate for rewiring the apartment. Our circuits are overloaded.”

We’re quiet. We’re too sophisticated to pounce on the metaphor about how work and parenting sometimes exhausts us. And we’re also too materialistic to sacrifice the sound system, light system, or complicated security hook-ups.

My husband raps his forehead with his knuckles. “I forgot. I passed by a Williams Sonoma store during my lunch hour, and I bought you a present.”

He hands me a box, which I open. Nathan knows that I’m a sucker for glazed blue china pottery. This one’s a large platter that can rotate on a stand.

However, I ask, “Trying to make a statement about the wiring, Nat? You bought me a Lazy Susan?”

He squeezes my fingers between his own. “Ever since this Dawn-Marie business began, I’ve told you a dozen times that I fell in love and stayed in love only with you.”

Juliet calls me.

I go to my daughter in her blue room, where, as usual, she seems bright, sturdy, and confident. Once again, I admire this gift we’ve been given. But because we indulge her, will she grow up selfish?

I’m a teacher. A technique I use with my students is to tell a good story that cries out for commentary. This week I heard an irresistible anecdote, although it’s probably inappropriate for a young child.

“Julie, a friend of mine mentioned something odd. He was scuba diving with his wife. He panicked, because he thought he didn’t have enough air—and grabbed off her mask, right in the middle of the ocean!”

“Maybe he thought killer sharks were coming, and he was the stronger swimmer, so he wanted to save himself and his wife. You know, the way on planes parents are supposed to put on their oxygen masks first so they can take care of their kids.”

I hug her. What a wonderful girl!

The phone rings. Nathan picks up, and then tells me that the Columbia University Web Master announced another bust of a term paper auction over the internet. Self-Serving Sisters of Sense and Sensibility, written for one of your classes a few years ago, went on sale for a hundred dollars!”

“That’s all? The Great Wait—Virginity in George Elliot once got three hundred seventy-five.”

I’m made uneasy by so much dishonesty, though: the students, the shrink, the wheel chair guy. Perhaps Nathan too has lied.

I love him: his quick humor, his nerdy handsomeness, his due-to-mother caution. But what if he’s thought: the hell with my wife and little girl, as he tilts a beer bottle upright, an arm wound around Dawn-Marie, somewhere down in Alphabet City.

 

Late on the following afternoon I arrange for a Juliet’s favorite sitter to stay through dinner. I intend to stalk Dawn-Marie, who leaves work promptly at five.

It’s not hard to find her among the hundreds of employees streaming out of the office building because they wear ordinary clothes. Her cowboy boots, complete with spurs, rise past the knees of her leggings. She heads for a coffee shop, and I follow, audaciously sitting at the booth right next to her.

She orders a jalapeno pepper and blue cheese omelet. I ask for a slice of pound cake. The server brings both our food out fast and simultaneously. However, he gets our orders mixed up, which attracts Dawn-Marie’s attention. She stares at me. Although I’m not hungry, I pick up my knife and fork. She clatters her own utensils on to her plate.

“That’s it. That’s what I thought!” she cries. “You’re Mr. Stiff as Cardboard’s wife!”

part of a face showing eyebrow piercings
My Piercings by Augusto Serna. CC license.

Her frizzy hair blasts out like missiles from each side of her face. She pulls off a purple blazer so that she’s wearing only a white camisole. She’s body-pierced, silver ringed, along her collar bone. A shoulder tattoo says SWEET SPRINGSTEEN. I count a dozen eye-hurting coppery bangle bracelets stacked on each arm.

Then she comments, “In the snapshot of you at some ritzy banquet that he keeps on his desk, you’re holding your fork the same way, like a shovel.”

“Nathan and I were scholarship kids. No one taught us continental manners. I still slip up.”

“What hardship! My daughter and I may be evicted because the landlord never thought much of me, and now, as you know, the police came around.”

“Wait, you have a child?”

She puddles ketchup over her omelet. “Care to follow my example, Professor?”

“How old…?”

“I’m sure your spouse, Mr. Uptight-Cheapskate, tuned out her existence as irrelevant to him.”

I ask, “Is that why you kissed him in front of Juliet? You’re that vindictive?”

“At first I didn’t see her. My plan was to have the doorman ask him come down to your apartment lobby, but on the way over I saw you dash out of the car and into the supermarket.”

She looks smug. “Almost thirty people bet a buck that I’d never smooch him. I used the money to buy my two-year-old a snowsuit.”

I can imagine her pals celebrating the stunt. I refuse to embellish her triumph by becoming angry now.

So I hold my temper and tell her that Nathan does notice how she campaigns for squatters’ rights. I expect her to argue that he refuses to donate a cent, but she shrugs.

“A lot of those people are just down on their luck. Plus they’re around for free babysitting when I need to escape. Once my kid starts, she wails like a banshee. Ever try some wine to wind down that chubby little daughter of yours, Professor?”

“You were my student!” I exclaim. “They called you Dawn, just like in the old Four Seasons Song. You bound your curls up in beautiful silver barrettes. I gave you A’s. When we conferenced you told me your nice enough doctor parents in Connecticut encouraged you to follow their path, but you wanted to be an English major.”

I expect a significant revelation: that the bracelets cover scars from a suicide attempt; that she’s gunning for Nathan because my advice got her disinherited.

Dawn-Marie shrugs again. “When I graduated, I’d had enough of school, and it was hard to find a position as an editorial something or other. Anyway, I don’t like to be shackled to one job.”

“You described how your bed in your childhood room overlooked the backyard pool. In summer you slept with the curtains open so that the moment you woke up, you’d see the jewel-blue water. Those were your words! Where are your parents, Dawn?”

“Retired in Florida. More pools, of course.”

“Do you speak with them? Do they care about you?”

“You mean, do they approve of me? They say my life’s my own. Soon I’ll probably move on to another tight-knit fraternity of selfish suits like your husband.”

How generous I am with my time, to female students especially, who come into my office for term paper talks, then sob about their boyfriends. Although my head stays swollen with their stories, by our next meeting they’ve blithely taken on some other guy. And after I’ve put in so much effort listening to personal crises, not to mention teaching Victorian culture and subtext, has even one teary kid morphed into a scholar, a colleague wearing a chic pants suit with high heels whom I’d run into at a conference on: Wealth Won’t Last: Asset Management in the novels of Jane Austen?

My worry about Nathan and this woman has vanished, replaced by a far keener panic: what guarantee is there that Juliet will not turn out like Dawn-Marie? Too easily, I imagine myself boasting to friends that my stubbornly independent daughter’s going through a stage. She bleached and permed her hair, yanked on cowboy chaps, poked silver beads through her nostrils, and won’t commit to a vocation because she’s trying to find herself.

Nathan and I, so frightened of being poor like our neglected mothers, rushed headlong into security. Juliet, we always agreed, could backpack through Europe for a year, pause at the edge of a career cliff before plunging. Because we’ve brought up our girl well, she’ll certainly use splendid judgment.

I’d rip any body jewelry off Juliet’s skin. Forget the way Nathan and I now gently pry off splinters with tweezers. Maybe I’d string each stud to a doorknob and slam. I’ll scour her tattoos with lye. By George, if necessary, I’ll keep her locked in the apartment until she’s thirty-five.

My cell phone rings—it’s Nathan—but I’m embarrassed to answer in front of Dawn-Marie, who’s moved on from discussing her family to a description of a previous boss who made her scrub his cappuccino machine. I tell her that I need to get home to my daughter.

The phone bleats twice on the subway; however, the rush hour train’s too packed for me to reach inside my purse. As I walk on to Riverside Drive I observe a police car’s blue strobes flashing against our building. A fire truck and an ambulance are also in front of the brownstone. I recognize neighbors, clustered together in their overcoats.

I run, screaming Juliet’s name. I find her quickly: a paramedic is desperately hanging on to my daughter, who’s kicking him in the knees, as if she’s a drunk who’s been pulled from a bar brawl. When the man releases her, I hold her tight, repeating, “Oh, my baby.”

The medic explains, “We just checked this little girl for smoke inhalation, because she escaped the lady who was taking care of her, and came too close to the building. She thought you were trapped inside.”

Black and white photo of firemen on climbing ladder towards roof
Firemen on Roof by Narisa Spaulding. CC license.

I gaze up at the flames that are only in our apartment. Although the panes are gone, the four front windows look like decorative fires, neatly contained behind grates. Then Nathan’s arms are around me.

“Thank goodness when the blaze erupted, she was out for a walk with the sitter.”

“You’re not allowed out after dark!” I scold my daughter, despite everything that has happened.

She admits, “Actually, last time, we walked down to the river to watch boats. Their lights were pretty.”

I look at Nathan, “So the babysitter deceived me too, but she may have saved Juliet’s life!”

I ask him where the conflagration started. From what he understands, a wire shorted out in the hallway next to the kitchen. I press my face against his chest.

“That hall’s between my study and her room. If I were home, I would have been preparing a class. What if I couldn’t get to her?”

Old Mrs. Moskowitz from downstairs says, “Shh, Susan, sweetheart, when you raise children there’s always a margin of error—this time it went in your favor. Be thankful!”

“Be thankful!” echoes Nathan. “Julie’s safe. The rest of our existence is backed up on Google Drive, right? Luckily you were at a meeting!”

“I was meeting Dawn-Marie, who earned 30 dollars by daring to kiss you.”

Even now, we reflexively glance at each other, concerned; we shouldn’t discuss this in front of our child.

He kisses me once, twice, three times. With Juliet between us, we watch as the diminishing blaze is hosed down. Whenever I think it’s finally over—-that the men will haul in their hoses, another flame spurts up, like a streak of yellow thunder. I wonder whether our windows imploded, spraying tiny shards, like snow blowing in the wind, or if firefighters axed the glass, so that jagged strips plummeted down like icicles. Probably, the gutted apartment will look similar to when Nathan and I moved there, so many years ago, unmarried, although we suspected that we were in love.


Karen Kates
The fiction of Karen Kates has appeared in many magazines including The Chicago Quarterly Review, Wind, Descant, The Cottonwood Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Words Wrights, The Timber Creek Review and Stone Boat. A New Jersey writer (Exit 151), her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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