The Apartment

by Mel Waldman

part 1 of 2


Many years ago, I sat with my aunt in her four-room apartment, which was immaculately clean and neat and spotless, both physically and morally. And from any other point of view, it had an aura of middle-class beauty and purity, especially of the genre distinctive of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Her apartment was located in Brooklyn near Kings Highway and Ocean Avenue. When she was alive, the apartment was situated in a conservative neighborhood which was both safe for the local, provincial dwellers and also removed from the ecumenical reality outside of Flatbush. So it seemed, for Flatbush people and even the broader class of Brooklyn people appeared unaware of that threatening and brutally stimulating world beyond.

I sat with my aunt in her pristine apartment and sometimes I thought we were in the Garden of Eden. Inside her home, I momentarily felt that no evil could touch me. An invisible shield of innocence and absolute faith in G-d protected me and I took in her lofty, beautiful, soothing words.

A tall, classy brunette with devastating beauty, she possessed the moral fiber of a Joan of Arc. She could have been a reformed rabbi or a minister (had she not been Jewish), for she was more positive and optimistic than Norman Vincent Peale. After Mother’s death, she was my Light!

We sat in the living room while my uncle stayed in the bedroom and did work. He had his own business which seemed to consume his life. He sold notions — small lightweight items for the home — in his tiny office on 42nd Street. When I visited him in his Manhattan office, he showed me his precious needles, buttons, thread, and dozens of other practical items.

A soft-spoken, gentle man, he was proud of his little kingdom of notions. But it seems he didn’t have a clue about the toxic city environment surrounding him. (He seemed unaware of the prostitutes and pimps and junkies parading Times Square.) And often, he didn’t see his family. The tall balding man worked hard and had to be prodded to spend time with his wife and two children. But sometimes he came out of hiding to say hello. From time to time, he spent quality time with his wife and son and daughter.

We sat in the living room and smoked heavily and talked into the night. I smoked King Size Kools. My aunt smoked Chesterfields and sometimes Pall Malls. Sometimes, my preteen cousins joined us for a short while. But they had others things to do, like getting ready for school the next day and doing homework and most of the time, they weren’t interested in our conversations.

I mean, we often talked about the dead. I suppose we were obsessed about death and dying and in particular, we needed to talk about the loved ones who had departed-like Mother and my aunt’s folks (my grandparents).

I loved my aunt and uncle and two cousins. Yet sometimes I was jealous of their safe existence. And even though I was safe, too, when I sat with my aunt, I knew I had to leave at the end of the night and journey into the darkness. At 20, I was alone in the world and lost in an alien universe.

After Mother died, Father tolerated my presence for a very short period of time. And then he kicked me out. I lived with an uncle for a few weeks. Then Father took me back, only to release me into the world again. I lived in cheap hotels and other dives but eventually got my own place on Father’s block, around the corner from my aunt. I guess I traveled far and yet not far enough. The old block was familiar but eerily different. I was alone.

My aunt seemed blessed. But she died young, at the age of 48. The cause of death is unclear. She had a rare blood disease and maybe it was leukemia or another form of cancer or something equally lethal. In any case, it killed her.

When she died, she had lost much of her physical beauty. I can’t see her face or body now. Please forgive. Was she fat or emaciated? Can’t recall. But I know that when I looked into her eyes, I saw Death! Yet till the very end, she had a soulful beauty. So I looked at her and saw the Shadow of Death and an inner, radiant beauty too that transcended her moribund condition. She was my second Mother. And she died, too!

My uncle died on the D-train of a heart attack a few years after my aunt passed away. I guess he couldn’t live without her.

My two cousins were orphans. Alone in the world. Desperately alone! One survived the tragedy of death. The other one did not. One lived to suffer the loss and anguish of a dead sibling. The other one died under suspicious circumstances.

I suppose I jump back and forth in Time, struggling to make sense of my incomprehensible existence. It’s how I cope, I guess. Sometimes, looking Reality straight in the eye is just too painful. You’ve got to circle around it, leap through Time and Space to make any sense of it at all. So let’s return, momentarily, to the beginning of my story, before leaping into the future again.

Many years ago, I sat with my aunt in her four-room apartment which was immaculately clean and neat and spotless, both physically and morally. And from any other point of view, it had an aura of middle class beauty and purity, especially of the genre distinctive of the ’40s and ’50s.

Her apartment was located in Brooklyn near Kings Highway and Ocean Avenue. When she was alive, the apartment was situated in a conservative neighborhood which was both safe for the local, provincial dwellers and also removed from the ecumenical reality outside of Flatbush. So it seemed, for Flatbush people and even the broader class of Brooklyn people appeared unaware of that threatening and brutally stimulating world beyond.

Those of us who ventured into Manhattan for the working hours of 9-5 seemed almost destined to rush back home to Brooklyn afterwards, eager for the deadening and stultifying effect of our predictable and swaddling environment. We were enthusiastic about this kind of sure-fire, deadening existence. And I was part of that generation, when my aunt was alive and living in that historic apartment.

That old apartment had a lot of character and stability, and it contained a lot of the old stuff our parents grew up with. A lot of vague memories come back to me. Maybe I can share with you the real and phantasmagoric thoughts which assault me now as I try to understand that beautiful Home of Yesterday and Today.

But first, I must skip around in my mind and play a child’s game of fantasy. So we will find ourselves in Yesterday’s backyard and then suddenly in this very fragile moment. And with pure delight, I will leap into Tomorrow’s ambiguous and uncertain landscape.

You see, Tomorrow is magical, most important, and the driving force of my life. She is the seductive Lady of My Being! (And sometimes, a tricky and disappointing whore.)

Look, a month ago I left my woman. Actually, she requested I leave her and her little girl. We were living together (cohabitating, as they say nowadays) in the Bronx, in that special section called Co-op City. Presumably, Co-op City is a dangerous place to live. A lot of maniacs come out of that peculiar place.

I wonder. I think the place has a lovely aura and its own distinctive character. It’s a good place. You know, you get a feeling for a place, and even that part of the Bronx has its personal and authentic cachet. Well, I miss the old places there-and the woman and the little girl.

I had to find a new place quick. And I needed a place that would touch me and make me feel good. I needed a lot of warmth at this particular time in my life. As my mind meandered, I thought of my childhood in Brooklyn. Not that far away from the Bronx. I mean, it’s all New York.

I thought of my dead mother and my dead aunt and others who had passed away. Passed away? What does that mean? Passed on? Even more incomprehensible. These old timers — these significant people (an understatement) of my past — had abandoned me some time ago. Dead! Dead today! Although they promised me that life would be good and pure. They never stayed around to see the end product of their dreams. Their dreams. Hmm. Their expectations. But I lived through the flesh of their illusions. I touched the actuality which I passed through. And I died too. Many, too many times. So when my woman told me she no longer needed my presence, I thought of Brooklyn.

It is not easy to forget the dead. So at that empty moment when I was alone again, I remembered. I remembered them with poignant sentiment. So readily, I thought of Mother and my wise aunt. You bet I thought of these important people of my past when once again, I was forced to leave home and make the big mind-trip alone. Alone — what a dirty word after a fellow’s been bedding with his old lady for any length of time at all. Yeah, I was moving on (or back) again. And I thought of Brooklyn.

In two days, I found my apartment. Isn’t that remarkable? Prior to this occasion, I had often hunted for months to no avail. But this time, I connected immediately. In fact, my new apartment was located on the block where my old synagogue stood proudly and steadfastly. Twenty years ago, I had been bar mitzvahed on that old fashioned block. Afterwards, I had made my way into the sophisticated world beyond.

And perhaps I became too wise and suspicious. I became too worldly to cling to old ways and old beliefs. I was more than a Jew. I was a Jewish man. I was a Jew and a man and a person. Then one day I was a person only. The other label — so much a part of my early identity — merely dropped off of my mental attire. I was free. I was freer than before. I was different. Until years slipped by. But one day I returned.

Eight years ago, I fell in love with a Gentile. Nowadays, this is not an unusual occurrence. However, after we were married, a lot of weird and undesirable things transpired. Jesus, Mary was a lovely woman — a statuesque blonde-blue-eyed angel. I truly loved her, I guess.

Before I met my irresistible Mary, I was passionately involved in a quasi-childhood love affair. That is, a young woman I met in my early twenties was intertwined with me in a superbly internecine relationship. How we thrived on mutually self-destructive patterns! But so much for my psychological expertise and futile observations.

My childhood sweetheart lived in Douglaston, Queens. I was living in a basement apartment in Brighton Beach. I traveled two hours each way to see my beloved. How very much in love (or out of my mind) I was! Gee, I miss those glamorous days of adventure. (Is that why I’ve come back HERE? Am I about to plunge into a new and refreshing symbiotic relationship?) Did they slip away forever? (Have I vanished intransigently too?)

My sweetheart — Rosemary we may call her — was a tall, lithe, slender brunette with hair cascading down her rhythmic torso. Her green eyes were piercing and sometimes almost phallic. In other words, this was a very foxy lady, a femme fatale, so she seemed. Sometimes, however, she was just a quiet being, a withdrawn and inscrutable creature. She was a mannikin given a few breaths of life. Rosemary was a very complex and unknowable person. On special occasions, she was almost an inanimate object.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Mel Waldman

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