Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father
It’s well known—part fact, part punch line—that people in New York think a great deal about real estate. In the case of Leslie Kramer, she actually was aware of the house Alex Twisden lived in before she had ever met him, or even knew his name. Leslie would often pass by the house on days she chose to walk to Gardenia Press, where, though single and childless herself, she edited children’s books.
The house was a piece of pure old New York, from before taxes, before unions, back when the propertied classes had money for the finest stonework, the finest carpentry, and for a multitude of servants, including people to put straw in the streets so the wagon wheels of passing merchants would not clatter on the cobblestones. It was a four-story townhouse on East Sixty-Ninth Street, an often-photographed Federal-style dwelling made of pale salmon bricks, with windows that turned bursts of light into prismatic fans of color framed by pale green shutters.
It was one of the few residences on this block that had not been broken up into apartments, and the only house in the neighborhood owned by the same family since its construction. It was one of those places that seem immune to change, ever lovely, and ever redolent of privilege and the provenance that justifies the continuation of those privileges. The front of the house bore a polished brass plaque announcing the year of the house’s construction, 1840. The window boxes were almost always in bloom, with snowdrops in the spring, and then with tulips, impatiens, geraniums, and various decorative cabbages, some of them so unusual and obscure that often passersby would stop on the sidewalk and wonder about them. The light post next to the eight-step porch was entwined with twinkling blue lights twelve months a year. Recycling was set out at the curbside inside of cases that once held bottles of Château Beychevelle or Tattinger’s.
Twisdens have been born and have died in these rooms. The first President Roosevelt dined there on several occasions and once famously played the ukulele and sang Cuban folk songs for a dinner party that included the mayor, the ambassador to the Court of King James’s, and a Russian ballerina who, it turned out, was embroiled in an affair with the host, Abraham Twisden. Twisdens who practiced law and medicine lived here, political Twisdens, bohemian Twisdens, drunken and idle Twisdens, one of whom lost the house in a card game on West Fourteenth Street, a debt that was nullified by the sudden death of the lucky winner, who turned out not to be so lucky after all.
Alex was raised in this house along with his sisters, Katherine and Cecile. Their world was this house, with its mahogany globes the size of cantaloupes on the newel posts of every stairway, with wedding-cake plaster on the ceilings, and wainscoting in the parlor, and the library, and antique Persian carpets of red and purple and blue and gold on the wide plank floors, rugs knotted by little hands that had long since turned to dust.
Katherine lives now as a Buddhist nun in Thailand and has renounced the family; she has a brain tumor that has shortened her temper but seems not to be shortening her life. Cecile died at thirteen, of a staph infection following the removal of her appendix, and when their parents died in Corfu, in 1970, the house on Sixty-Ninth Street passed without contest directly to Alex.
In point of fact, it was the house that brought Alex and Leslie together in the first place. One drizzly spring morning, Alex noticed her stopped in front of his house, and he said, “Haven’t I seen you before?”
“Oh, I like to stop here. It’s on my way to work. And it’s such a beautiful house.”
“I’m afraid I’m its prisoner,” Alex said. “I just don’t like anyplace else in the world half so much.”
“I can see why,” Leslie said. The ends of her blunt-cut auburn hair touched the dark red, rain-spotted wool of her coat. She had the plain but lovely face of a pioneer; he could imagine her sitting at the back of a covered wagon, looking longingly east as her family headed west. Her eyes were bright green, and though she was smiling, there seemed something temperamental, easily wounded about her.
Alex, dressed for work in thousands of dollars’ worth of English tailoring and, even in a more overtly social situation, tending toward the reticent, surprised himself by asking, “Would you be interested in seeing the inside?”
From there to courtship to wedding was a mere five months and it did not escape Leslie’s attention that some people (well: many) thought of her as Alex Twisden’s midlife trophy wife. Never mind that she loved him, and never mind that (of this she was certain) he loved her, and never mind that she was almost thirty (well: twenty-eight) and had an excellent (well: good) job at a great (well: up and coming) New York publishing company—the fact that she was seventeen years younger than Alex, and that he was wealthy, and childless and probably (well: definitely) in the hunt for an heir, made Leslie a trophy wife, which, in the parlance of well-off Manhattanites, suggested she was practicing some high-end, socially sanctioned form of prostitution.
But now the shining trophy wife has a very significant ding in her. She has been trying to have a baby for three years, which is why she and Alex are currently sitting in the annex of Herald Church on West Ninetieth Street, a depressing, claustrophobic, smelly, badly lit, terrible, and depressing (yes, it is worth a second mention) basement in which they are attending the biweekly meeting of the Uptown Infertility Support Group. As Leslie looks around at the scuffed linoleum floors, the plasterboard walls, the strip lighting, and the metal folding chairs, she uncrosses and recrosses her legs and tries to read the expression on her husband’s long, narrow, solemn face. But he is as unreadable here as he is when he rides the elevator to the top floor of the Erskine Building, where the venerable firm of Bailey, Twisden, Kaufman, and Chang go about their hushed business, a kind of law that seems to Leslie far closer to accountancy than anything she has ever seen on TV. In TV law, lives hang in the balance, wrongs are redressed, and the system blindly gropes its way toward justice. At BTK&C, all that matters in the orderly transfer of property, and the golden rule seems to be “Don’t ever touch the principal.”
Neither Alex nor Leslie really wants or needs the psychological or moral support of other couples dealing with infertility. They attend because it is Alex’s theory that these meetings, aside from being sobfests and weirdly twelve-steppy in their confessional nature, operate as a kind of clearinghouse for information about fertility treatments and fertility doctors. So far they have not met anyone who has done anything different from what Alex and Leslie have tried, often at the very same clinics, with the very same doctors, and even with the same kindhearted nurses. Tonight’s meeting was particularly useless. Two of the nine couples in the group have already separated—infertility can wreak havoc on a marriage—yet both the husbands from these defunct unions continue not only to show up for meetings but to dominate the discussions. The Featherstones, a chubby, cheerful duo—he a second-grade teacher, she a pastry chef—want to share their fabulous news. Chelsea is, or at least was, pregnant, and even though she miscarried in the third week, both the Featherstones are ebullient, feeling they have their problem, if not defeated, then at least on the run, and they somehow induce the group to share their excitement. As the basement echoes with applause, Leslie pretends to look for something in her purse, and Alex simply sits there with his hands folded in his lap.
When she looked over at him he silently mouths the words I love you.
It’s a balmy evening with the last tatters of daylight hanging pale gray and dark blue from the treetops of Central Park as Leslie and Alex walk home from the church basement on West Ninetieth Street to their town house on East Sixty-Ninth. For the hundredth time Leslie has asked him if he would have married her if he had known they were going to be cast into the medical hell of infertility, where the devils wear white and smell of hand sanitizer and think nothing of charging thousands upon thousands of dollars for failure, and in fact make you feel that the failure is not theirs but yours. And as always Alex has answered, “I believe that the day you consented to be my wife was the luckiest day of my life.” These are the words he said the first time she tremulously posed the question, and now it is their private joke and solace for him to repeat the exact words each time the question is asked, and though the first time he said them Leslie responded with tears of relief, now the repetition makes her laugh—but the relief is still there, nevertheless.
They have, even without a child, so much to live for. They are healthy, they are in love, they are successful in their careers. Leslie was not raised poor, or to be poor, but the kind of material comfort that comes with marriage to Alex (whom she would have married anyhow had he been a mime or a bus driver) is beyond anything she had ever imagined for herself—though, of course, now she has grown accustomed to it. And Alex, though wealthy all his life, had always been surrounded by dour people lacking in charm, charisma, and sexual allure, and to be living with someone who appeals to him like a work of art and excites him sexually so that he feels half his age around her is beyond anything he has imagined for himself—though he, too, has grown accustomed to his good fortune.
Yet the good fortune of their lives is shadowed by an absence that, for all of its invisibility, casts a long cold shadow. When they are not avidly pursuing pregnancy, it seems that they are determinedly avoiding things that make them confront their childless state. They have become unreasonable even to themselves, most recently wasting opera tickets worth hundreds dollars when to their dismay a new hipper-than-thou production of Turandot featured a children’s chorus, all oohing and aahing behind the Principessa, causing them to flee, Alex leading the way, his eyes blazing with the fury of the betrayed, and Leslie following up the aisle, dragging her shawl behind her like an animal she had just killed.
Now they eschew opening nights and make sure they read the theater, movie, and opera reviews to make sure that they don’t get their hearts broken by some display of beautiful children. But the wound of their unhappiness disfigures their life in other ways, too. They find themselves seeing less and less of their friends who are parents. The Kaminskys, for example (he a cardiologist, she a lighting designer for the Public Theater) descended into a woe-is-me duet about their difficulties in getting their precious little Henry into a supposedly great preschool, one where presumably the juice boxes were infused with special elixirs that doubled the toddlers’ IQs, and the Legos were specially devised in a top secret laboratory carved into the side of a mountain in Switzerland, and readings of Good Night, Moon included actual trips to the moon. Similarly, Leslie’s colleague at Gardenia Press, Sheri McDougal, who looks like Greta Garbo and was the first openly gay woman from her little hamlet in Nova Scotia, now has a child sprouted from purchased sperm and, at dinner parties, actually sat the gorgeous little baby girl at the table and insisted guests make eye contact with her during conversation so Emily’s brain could be stimulated and the little flame of her self –esteem could begin burning brightly.
Unless they were to move into one of those retirement communities—Seizure World, as Alex calls them—where they don’t allow children beyond the gates, there is no way to live without seeing children. Even tonight, as Leslie and Alex walk through Central Park, it is poignant and disturbing to see children, some with their parents, some with nannies, some completely on their own. (Leslie and Alex have said that if they were to have a child they would never let him or her in the park on his own, or with a nanny.) But as the evening darkens toward night, the number of children suddenly decreases—they seem to fly away like the birds.
Yet as luck would have it, as soon as Leslie notices the absence of children, they come upon a father with his little two-year-old in a stroller. The father sits on a bench talking into his cell phone, one foot on the stroller as he pushes it back and forth, hoping to pacify his child. But the child—a wild-haired boy with dark eyebrows and bright red lips—begins to whimper and wave his hands, and the father, with a quick word or two, flips his phone shut and focuses his attention on his son.
“What are you saying, baby, huh, what’s the fuss?”
The baby, distracted from his troubles by the sound of his father’s cheerful voice, suddenly smiles.
The father takes the child’s little asterisk of a hand and brings it to his lips and makes loud yum yum yum noises, as if devouring the finest delicacy. “Oooh, I could just eat you up,” the father says, as if this were the most normal thing in the world and cannibalism of one’s own child were the ultimate sign of affection.
The child shrieks. It could be hilarity; it could also be fear. And the father pretends to have already polished off one hand and now starts on the other.
Alex takes long strides, forcing Leslie to hurry just a little in order to keep up with him.
“I think that baby was scared,” Leslie says.
“Yeah. Sounded it. There was something a little sick about the whole thing, wasn’t there?”
“I know!” Leslie says. “My uncle James used to do this thing when he’d grab my nose and pretend to pull it off—and show me his thumb as if it were my nose. It totally freaked me out.”
Alex drapes his arm over Leslie’s shoulders. He knows that most of the pressure to conceive comes from him. He regrets it and he cannot help it. Once they have a child Leslie will be grateful.
“Maybe we need to reopen the conversation about adoption,” Leslie says as a couple of bicyclists come zooming past them, with their spandex shorts and Martian helmets.
“I’m afraid I’m a little old-fashioned about these things,” Alex says. Allowing people to shorten his name from Alexander to Alex and even calling himself Alex constitutes his principal concession to modern American life, and his intention is to hold the line on everything else. “I feel a responsibility. The Cranes and the Hillmans on my mother’s side, and the Twisdens and Glomans on my father’s side, have enjoyed extraordinary successes and given extraordinary public service for the last two hundred years, and that’s just in America. I would like to continue that line. And Leslie, your family is nothing to sneeze at either. You have teachers, doctors, congressmen.”
“I have a cousin who ran for Congress in 1998 in Ohio and had his ass handed to him.”
“I know this is hard on you,” Alex says, gathering her closer to him.
They have already tried all the time-tested ways of getting pregnant, and then went on to acupuncture, and from there herbalists. It has been both their privilege and their misfortune that they have plenty of money to spend on treatments, and whereas many couples finally spend themselves out of the quest for fertility, Alex and Leslie have pressed on—and on and on. They have seen two hypnotists—one in Tribeca, whose breath smelled like rust, and the other in Los Angeles, who looked like a marionette come to life. They have spent time at the Whispering Sage Sanctuary in Clearwater, Florida, a so-called Ayurvedic health center, where a long weekend of Panchakarma therapies, yoga, and meditation was offered, and where all they got was a wrenched back for Alex and a touch of food poisoning for Leslie. They have consulted homeopaths, psychiatrists, and, though neither of them were particularly religious, they also went to a clinic called Answered Prayers, in which words and phrases such as ectopic, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, teratozoospermia, and oopause were bandied about but where it basically boiled down to readings of the New Testament and listening to sermons about opening yourself to the blessings of God. They fasted, they ate nothing but fruit, they had the cleanest colons in the world.
And they worried about their marriage. They had seen firsthand how the Baby Hunt douses the flames of romance, turning the joy of sex into the job of sex and making the body a source of failure rather than pleasure. But still they persisted—six different in vitro fertilizations, and a thorough investigation of the legal and psychological dangers of an egg donor or a sperm donor, or even a live person who could impregnate Leslie or whom Alex could impregnate, even though expensive technicians had already tested Leslie’s eggs and Alex’s sperm and as far as anyone could see they were just fine. Yet lightning would not strike; it was out there, but it was dry, distant lightning, just a little quiver of light in the lowering sky, with no rain to follow.
Tonight as they make their way through Central Park after the support group meeting (what Alex calls the Fertilize-Her Society), with nothing to look forward except a quiet dinner for two and, depending on Leslie’s basal temperature, some sad copulation, Leslie and Alex see Jim and Jill Johnson walking their little Yorkshire terrier.
They had come to know the Johnsons, however slightly, through the Uptown Infertility Support Group, though it has been months since the Johnsons have been in attendance. The Johnsons are like them in many ways. Like Alex, Jim is significantly older than his wife; Jim, too, is a lawyer, though with a practice far less lucrative than Alex’s. Like Leslie, Jill is from the Midwest; Jill is a high school teacher, and seems to envy Leslie, imagining her job as an editor at a publishing company to be full of glamour and excitement. Twice they all had drinks together after their group meeting, and once they even met for dinner. The dinner was not a success. Jill always seemed to have some strange grievance against Leslie. She would say things like, “Oh, it must feel strange for you being out with a poor little high school teacher.”
“That’s insane,” Leslie had exclaimed, to Alex’s delight.
Tonight, Jim Johnson is dressed in a dark brown leather jacket and a light brown beret. His hair is much too long. To Alex, he looks like one of those lawyers who imagine themselves champions of the underdogs but who are actually vain grandstanders, would-be gadflies, Sandinistas in three-piece suits. But the real sight to behold is Jill. Never particularly slender, she is immense. At first Alex thinks unhappiness and bad genes have made Jill obese, but he realizes she is pregnant, gloriously, radiantly, and, by the looks of it, quintupfully pregnant. New York City, some say, is the schadenfreude capital of the world—but for Alex and Leslie, seeing a formerly infertile couple pregnant gives them hope. The Johnsons have been trying to get pregnant for eleven years.
“So how did this happen?” Alex bursts out, pointing at Jill’s belly.
“Alex,” Leslie says, giving him a little shove.
“It’s a reasonable question,” he says, as if to her but really to them. “After all we’ve been through together? Come on, we’re soldiers in the same battalion. Right? So what is it? A new diet, a new exercise, a new doctor?”
But the Johnsons are playing it coy. “You know, the thing is,” Jill says, “we tried so many things, in the end I’m not sure what the heck worked.” Her voice is breathless; she sounds like what she is: a woman carrying fifty extra pounds.
Alex narrows his eyes at Jim, causing the father-to-be to shift his weight and his glance—he is the very definition of shifty.
“Well, if you have some great new doctor or something,” Alex says, “I wish you’d tell us. We’re really at the end of our rope. And, honestly, Jim, I think we have a right to know. At the very least” —Alex pokes Jim lightly in the stomach— “professional courtesy, right?”
“We’re actually not able to do that,” Jim says. “It’s complicated.”
“Complicated?” Alex says, as if the word itself was absurd. “Try us.”
“Oh, come on, Alex, we’re fine,” Leslie says. This is far from her idea of how to get information out of people—she would invite them over, serve them a brilliant meal with wonderful wine.
“I’ll tell you what, old friend,” Jim says to Alex, his smile as cold as a zipper. “With a young’un on the way, the mind turn to practical matters. Make me a partner in your law firm and I’ll tell you exactly what we did to make this happen,” Jim pats his wife’s stomach while their little dog begins to yip impatiently.
The men’s eyes lock. It is just now dawning on Alex that this meeting might not be a total coincidence. The Johnsons might well have known that he and Leslie would be coming out of Fertilize-Her at this time and crossing the park on their way to the Upper East Side. And as these thoughts form themselves in Alex’s mind, Jim seems to be nodding his head as if to say That’s right, you’re figuring it out.
“I might see my way through to offering you a position, but I’m certainly not able to offer a partnership,” Alex says, with such seriousness that both of the women turn toward Jim, like people in a stadium watching a tennis match.
“I would need some guarantee that a partnership was at least possible.”
“In the world of business, everything is possible,” Alex says.
“All right, then,” Jim says.
“It’s a deal,” Alex says. He extends his hand. Jim offers his own in return but slowly, suddenly shy. Alex further extends his own reach and seizes Jim’s hand. It looks to Leslie like a big fish eating a small fish. “Come see me at nine o’clock tomorrow.”
“I have an appointment at nine tomorrow,” Jim says.
“Break it,” Alex advises. Though he is ostensibly the supplicant in this matter, he has seized control of the situation nevertheless.