CHAPTER FIVE: Tommy’s Apartment – Morningside Heights
The first thing Rachel noticed when she entered Tommy’s apartment was the opened letter. It was on the couch, crumpled into a ball as though tossed across the room in a moment of emotional recklessness. It was an immediate distraction since the apartment had always been so incredibly bare. Tommy didn’t like clutter, and he enjoyed his extreme minimalist attitude. And yet his apartment still seemed to be begging for knickknacks: dusty picture frames filled with family from generations removed; cracked lamps with their cords winding through shag carpeting like snakes through grass; maybe some ornithological chotchkes lined up along the windowsill. Wooden owls. Glass seagulls. Plastic penguins. Rubber ducks. There was never much in his refrigerator aside from a few days’ worth of fruit from the CKY Grocery, a carton of chocolate milk that remained perpetually half-full, and two-dozen bottles of iced coffee. His walls had an assortment of framed movie posters: Manhattan, The Apartment, and a limited edition print of The Royal Tenenbaums signed by Wes Anderson that he had purchased on eBay a number of years ago and had always questioned the signature’s validity. All of these seemed explicably linked by their common locale, the object of Tommy’s inescapable obsession. New York City bathed in his blood as the ocean’s waves lapped the shore of Brighton Beach. Growing up in Seattle, he had never yearned to visit Manhattan; he only ever wished to live there. To Tommy, there was a very significant difference between the two, although no one else could ever seem to appreciate the dissimilarity.
Tommy lived in Morningside Heights, on the sixth floor of the same apartment on West 113th Street that he’d been in since he moved to New York eleven years ago. Over that time he graduated from sharing a first-floor tar hut with an ever-changing collection of college roommates to living on his own in the sixth floor penthouse. The door buzzer only ever worked intermittently and Tommy was quick to hand out copies of his keys to anyone who meant anything to him; sometimes to individuals he only mildly cared for; sometimes even to those he met on the street and simply had a great conversation with. Tommy had a whole drawer full of the things. The Engine Company 47 firehouse was right next door, but the blaring sirens never bothered him. In fact, he convinced himself the racket was actually helpful whenever he would sit down to write. His desk by the window had nothing but an old banker’s lamp and a laptop on it: no other instruments of any kind. At the moment there was a copy of his first novel, BLANC, on the desk as well as a hand-written manuscript for his latest book, The Manhattanite. There were never any lights on in the apartment and the television was rarely used, but Rachel could hear its muffled static coming from the bedroom.
When Rachel reached for the letter on the couch, I couldn’t help but stop and question her reasons for doing so. Rachel Ponzini was not a complicated girl but she had a certain muted quality about her that teased others into stopping dumbfounded at the most unexpected of times.
She was the kind of beautiful that made the average looks of those around her seem all the more lacking. She had a smile that often made men fool themselves into thinking they loved her, but it was simply her disposition that carried such propensities behind her like a balloon on a string. She was smart enough to know things like when to walk out of a bad movie and she was always right when guessing the reasons for subway delays. Rachel was not inherently nosy, nor was she overly obtrusive, but still, she could not resist taking the letter into her hand.
Carefully peeling it open like a suspect piece of fruit, she found both the diligently typed one-page letter and the envelope crushed within one another. The envelope was addressed to Tommy, but to his old address, the apartment on the first floor where he hadn’t lived for as long as she’d known him. The current resident of Apartment 104, the Middle Eastern man with the wooden leg, must have redirected the letter for Tommy. It read:
I’m sorry to contact you in such a way, but you were the only one I was certain I could reach. I’ve got to say, I do sometimes miss that shameless predictability of yours.
I know we’ve lost touch over the years, and I realize that I have to be accountable for my actions, but I’ve got some news for you. And I’m not entirely sure how you’ll take it, but here it is: I’m moving back to Manhattan.
To be honest, things in Seattle are not so good right now. In retrospect, it’s easy to say that I never should have left New York. But by that logic, perhaps I never should have left Seattle in the first place either, right? Who knows though? Maybe I’ll regret this decision too. I’m not certain how much news might have gotten around. I’m not sure if friends and family talk like they used to. But suffice it to say, I was once again in need of a change and one has finally and most opportunistically presented itself.
I hope we might have the chance to sit down again. You, me, Katie and Jesse. Just like old times.
Anyway, I’ll keep things short for now, and save the rest of it for when I arrive in NY. I hope I’ll see you when I get there.
Miss you guys,
Rachel was unsure what to make of it. She didn’t know who Patrick was or what kind of connection he had with Tommy and his friends. She was certain that Tommy had never mentioned him before, and there was something very cold and clinical about the words that had been written. But whoever Patrick was, he seemed to be somebody both close and distant, and the letter left the impression that there was some kind of friction, or possibly even bad blood between them all.
Rachel left the letter unfolded on the couch, and she stepped cautiously towards the bedroom, where she could clearly make out the unmistakable echo of the six o’clock news. She peered around the corner into the dark room as though she didn’t belong there, as though she was an intruder in her own boyfriend’s apartment. She was expecting to see him lying on the bed like he always did. But instead, Tommy was standing in front of the television, his back turned to her. She couldn’t help herself from quietly taking him in with her eyes before making her company known.
Thomas Mueller was tall, tall enough that he would make rooms seem smaller than they were, and his boisterous personality had a way of making him seem even bigger. He could tolerate getting his hair cut no more than twice a year, and he would cringe on that 116th Street barbershop chair like a lamb sheared before the abattoir. Tommy’s skin was unusually dark, making his coffee-stained teeth appear whiter than they actually were. His clothes were always clean and pressed, and generally brand new. A few times a year he would change his entire wardrobe and give his old clothes to Goodwill. Jesse had joked that Manhattan’s homeless numbers seemed much lower than the city claimed since the majority were walking unnoticed in Tommy’s old clothes. As often as his look changed, Tommy could always be counted on to wear one item in particular. It was an old New York Rangers hockey sweater, which despite his generous frame was somehow a size or two too big for him. He didn’t care that the first and last letters had come unstitched and fallen off the front. Now all the jersey said was “ANGER,” and Kate was always quick to suggest he start wearing a different emotion.
The city’s midnight din invigorated Tommy, and he would slide his window wide open and use that time to write exclusively, never sleeping for more than a few hours. He absorbed the sound of the traffic, the wind-carried yelps of both pleasure and violence, and the buzzing of the streetlights, transplanting those feelings into words. Tommy knew the power of words, and he could say wonderful things at times; he once told Rachel that he always thought his grandmother’s smile was the most beautiful sight he’d ever known. But he also said many juvenile things and still found the word dick to be tremendously funny. The first time he ever met Rachel’s father (“Pleased to meet you Tommy. I’m Dick Ponzini.”), Tommy couldn’t help but snort rudely to himself. There was nothing funnier than that word.
His favorite tune was Auld Lang Syne, and he could often be heard humming it, not caring at all when others informed him the song was meant for New Year’s celebrations. When drunk, he would often quote obscure lines from movies and he would not relent until someone guessed the correct film. Tommy had a keen sense of direction, and never felt discombobulated. Even from inside a crowded office tower, he would always point the right way when speaking of a specific location. He never felt inferior around anyone, but there was a devilishly handsome black man in the building who never failed to make Tommy feel uncomfortably mediocre. That man intimidated Tommy beyond imagining, especially when he wore his newborn infant in that front-loaded baby carrier or whenever he would chivalrously hold the lobby or elevator door for him.
Tommy had habits that could always be counted on. He was not a germaphobe but when Tommy used a public washroom, he would lift the toilet seat with the toe of his shoe. When he rode the subway he would sit in the last car, claiming it made the ride last longer. He refused to eat meals with three-pronged forks. He insisted upon sprinkling capers onto nearly everything he ate. And when he watched the six o’clock news he would always lie with his stomach on the bed. It was exactly how he and his brother would lie on the living room floor as they had watched the nightly broadcast with their parents.
But Rachel observed him as he stood there, wearing his favorite ANGER sweater and holding the remote control to his neck as though it was a razor blade. The top story was a report about a plane that had crashed somewhere in the Midwest.
“Look at this,” Tommy directed her, not surprised at all by her sudden appearance.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Come on Rachel. You’re about as stealthy as a bag of broken glass.”
“What are you watching?”
“Plane crash. It left Seattle this afternoon and crashed somewhere in the Midwest. Kansas, I think. Destroyed six farms.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
Tommy set the television to mute, and tossed the remote onto the bed where he sat down. “Everyone on the plane was killed,” he said, his palms pressed together under his chin, as though praying. “And six farms were destroyed,” he reiterated.
“It sounds to me like you’re more concerned for the farms.” Rachel sat down beside him on the bed. “Your sympathy seems a little misguided Tommy.”
He didn’t have more of a reaction to her words than shrugged shoulders. They silently watched the flickering flames on the television for a minute or so longer. The words “ALL 212 PASSENGERS AND CREW KILLED” continued to scroll across the bottom of the screen. The letter on the living room couch aside, Tommy’s past was not a complete mystery to Rachel. She knew that Tommy once had a twin brother. His name was Leyland and he died in a plane crash years before somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. That, along with the memories of September Eleventh, had made Tommy very uneasy whenever there were planes on the news, as though any further tragedy might have been a personal attack against him.
Tommy motioned back towards the remote, but Rachel grabbed it before he could. They looked at each other for a moment, the televised fire reflecting off the right side of Rachel’s face and the left of Tommy’s. “I think we need to talk,” she finally said.
Tommy turned back to the television. “What do you want to talk about, Rachel?” The images before him sent shivers up his spine.
She stumbled with her words. “Tommy, listen…it’s nothing serious. Not really. Well, it is for me I suppose. But I just wanted to make sure you know what I’m feeling.” She placed the remote out of his reach on the other side of the bed, and then lifted Tommy’s thick arm around her. “Baby, don’t you think it’s time I moved in here with you?”
“What?” Tommy reacted as though Rachel had asked him to split the atom right there on the bed.
“I just feel a little lonely sometimes. Do you know what I mean?” With her nose pressed into the itchy fabric of Tommy’s sweater, Rachel could smell both last winter in Morningside Park and the past summer on the windy beach of Montauk. He wore that stupid sweater everywhere. “I have to come in from Queens every day just to go to school right around the corner from you.”
Queens. Tommy shivered again upon the hearing word. Ugh. He didn’t venture outside of Manhattan very often, and if he did, it was usually to go see the Rangers playing the Devils in Jersey. He would save the Long Island trips for when Rachel begged him to visit her family in Montauk, or if there should ever be a playoff series against the Islanders. Thankfully, neither occurred very often.
She continued to talk, not requiring any form of answer from the man. “And it just seems…sort of silly to me. That we’re not, you know…living together.”
Tommy stopped for a moment to consider whether the Blueshirts had a game that night, but he was never very good at remembering the team’s schedule. “What do you mean you’re lonely? There’s got to be five million people in this city Rachel.”
“Yeah, and I push my way through ten thousand of them a day. But I just…I don’t know Tommy. I just feel this way when I’m not with you. And I’ve been feeling it more and more lately.”
It didn’t happen often, but Tommy had no idea how to respond. He turned down to look at her little face staring up at his. The glow from the television licked her ivory skin.
“How long have we been together now Tommy?”
“You don’t know?”
“Of course I know. This is me asking you.”
“I’d say three years? Maybe four?” Tommy had a tendency to reconsider his answers after he’d already given them. “No, three.”
“How long would you say is long enough to wait?”
“Wait for what Rachel? Listen, are you mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at you Tommy. I just…I’m just ready for more is all.”
Tommy couldn’t turn away from her; Rachel’s gaze was unrelenting. Her eyes had always been the most intoxicating part of her. The news report had switched to a story about a university shooting in Boston. Tommy held up his index finger for a moment but then curled it back inside his palm, stopping himself from saying whatever he’d intended.
“What do you say?” she asked, clearly unprepared for the smallest amount of disappointment.
Tommy looked at his hand as though the response he almost had a second ago was still held inside of it. “Do you know what almost happened there, Rachel? I almost forgot where I was.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Having you move in would be great,” he said.
Her eyes lit up. Just before walking up the five flights of stairs to have this talk with Tommy, Rachel had almost convinced herself that it would be a pointless endeavor. Tommy was the most stubborn person she’d ever known, and he was an impossible man to change.
Tommy continued his thought. “We could merge our book collections together. Or we could each take a shelf and do whatever we wanted with it. After a few months I’d probably even think of a clever way to propose to you. Maybe serve the ring to you with breakfast in bed, or maybe for dinner. Squeezed around a chicken finger or drowned in a bowl of hasenpfeffer. We’d get married. We’d paint our walls every year. Solid colors. Maybe an accent wall with stripes. We’d plant our own little garden somewhere in the city. Somewhere so heartbreakingly corny there’d be a story about us on the morning news. We’d circumcise our kids, and then spank them and send them off to university. We could just sit there getting older and older as we watch the Atlantic Ocean roll in every morning from our house in the Hamptons. It all sounds pretty terrific, doesn’t it?”
It did sound pretty terrific, she thought to herself. Even if she had no clue what hasenpfeffer was supposed to be. Was that Yiddish?
“That’s what almost happened just then. But then I remembered where I was Rachel. Everything here is just the way I want it to be. Everything is perfect in this city. That’s why I came here in the first place. And I don’t want any of that to change.”
Rachel sank back into the sweater that now smelled like the night a year ago, when Tommy was drunk and embarrassed her and his friends by quoting lines from Zardoz before throwing up outside the Lafayette Station. She can’t believe the things that come out of his mouth sometimes. “You can’t be serious, can you?”
“I’m not prepared to give up what makes me happy for the things that I’m not so sure about Rachel. That’s just how things work. I came to New York to have everything I wanted, not to have any regrets.”
“So I’ve just wasted three years. Is that what you’re saying?”
“See? I knew it had been three years!”
“I wish we’d talked about this sooner Tommy. Rather than have expectations ruined.”
“Is that wrong? Is it so wrong to want a little more out of something? To expect more from someone?”
Tommy lifted his arm from the girl who only wanted to be held. He shuffled across the bedroom and switched the television off manually, rather than having to reach across Rachel for the remote.
“How about a vacation at least?” she asked him while the room was opportunistically silent.
“I hate vacations.”
“You’ve never been on a vacation Tommy.”
“That’s because I know I’d hate it.”
“So does that mean marriage is out of the question too? And kids?” Clearly, Rachel had never learned about the quantity of potentially disappointing answers this man could generate from any number of her questions. “What about those hypothetical kids of ours you were sending off to university a minute ago Tommy?”
“You know what hypothetical means don’t you Rachel?”
She had no immediate answer for him. She sat on the bed with her arms crossed, hoping it would be enough to make him give in.
“How many kids do you think you want anyway?” he asked her.
She flicked her tooth with a fingernail while she carefully pondered the most honest answer. It probably should have, but that fingernail thing never bothered Tommy. Finally, Rachel said, “I, um…I guess I always imagined us having, well…lots.”
“Lots? In this city? I think Manhattan’s crowded enough as it is, without us adding to its population problems.”
“Who says we have to stay in Manhattan?”
Tommy couldn’t bother dignifying her with an answer to that question. “How many is “lots” anyway?”
“I don’t know. Four?”
Tommy shot her a look that asked, Are you out of your mind?
“What’s wrong with wanting four kids?”
Tommy heard the question, but he didn’t answer right away. There had been many girlfriends in Tommy’s life up to that point. There were many relationships, both serious and casual. And they had all ended in much the same way. Carla Barclay kicked Tommy out of her apartment when he suggested she might consider washing the dishes and cleaning the bathroom before he came by the next time. Sarah Rosenthal left Tommy standing alone in the Dunkin’ Donuts lineup when he pointed out the restaurant now served salads. Isabella Keller simply hung up the phone when Tommy called her by the wrong name. Keekee Kaufman actually jumped off the Triboro Bridge when Tommy blatantly hinted that she might in fact be mentally unstable (Keekee survived, but had no recollection of the event or of Tommy himself when she finally woke up four days later in the Bellevue psychiatric ward). That nameless girl he only danced one song with in the jazz club on Bleecker kicked him in the balls when he kissed her neck and proclaimed she tasted like the men’s room. And Luisa Reyes excused herself from the lecture hall, never to be seen on campus again, after Tommy read a short story aloud to the class that explicitly detailed the two hours of sex they had three nights previously.
If Tommy had considered any of those relationships, if he’d used that moment to reflect upon his past, he might have had a different answer for Rachel Ponzini that night.
“What’s wrong with wanting four kids Tommy?” she repeated.
But he didn’t consider any of the mistakes he’d made before Rachel. Instead, he just opened his mouth and joked, “It’s a vagina Rachel, not a clown car.”
And yet, Tommy knew the second those words were released so haphazardly that he had made yet another mistake. It would have been hard to tell where this one might have ranked amongst the others, but he didn’t have much time to dwell on it. He thought he was cracking a joke, but Tommy was simply too impetuous sometimes. Yes, there were times when he said the most beautiful things, but the power of his words could also be incredibly devastating.
With tears welling in her eyes, Rachel stormed out of the apartment. Of course he had said dumb things before, but Rachel had always come back. Tommy wasn’t so sure this time. And neither was I.