CHAPTER NINE: Kate & Gene’s Brownstone – Upper West Side
It was two in the morning and Kate was sitting in the cold, yellow plastic booth of the McDonald’s at the 103rd Street Station. Holding the final bite of a double cheeseburger in her hand, she had not only come to the realization that she was the last one in the restaurant, but that she always seemed to come to that same place whenever she felt like she was doing something wrong. Stuffing her face with crap and wishing it would kill her. Kate’s stomach was attempting to send out the appropriate warning signals, but she refused to acknowledge them. She was well aware that she had so far not spoken a single word to her husband that day, and cramming cheeseburgers down her gullet seemed to be the best way to keep from doing so. She held up the final greasy bite, and considered the possibility that it might end it all. Maybe it could find itself lodged in her throat. Surely there’d be worse places in this city to die than the McDonald’s? Defeated, she dropped the remains of the burger onto the plastic tray when she acknowledged to herself that there undeniably was not. Kate sucked back the last of her vanilla milkshake. It tasted unremarkable, and a little bit like the wax lining of the cheap cup it came in.
She held the letter in her hand. She could barely even remember the blip from her childhood that was Patrick Kohn. Their relationship seemed to be over just like that. Kate recalled Gene’s mustachioed little face in bed that morning and wondered what she had felt guilty for. So what if she didn’t love Gene anymore? Was she the first person to ever fall out of love? Not even close.
Finally, Kate convinced herself she should listen to Tommy’s advice. She would tell Gene that for the sake of everything good in their marriage, their marriage had to end.
With the letter between her teeth, Kate unlocked the door to the brownstone on West 107th Street. Her bag slumped to the hardwood floor just as she manifested a wet milkshake burp. Some of the coffee shop’s matzo ball soup had found its way back up as well, and as she disgusted herself with the taste in her mouth, Kate also imagined Jesse being jealous of the unique flavor combination.
The place was as quiet as ever. Gene had never once said anything to Kate about her late nights out. It started innocently like anything, with some overtime at the office; it was that ridiculous cookbook that needed to get pushed out. Why her editor had decided to put a rush on that one was anyone’s guess. Recipes written by 1980’s Saturday morning cartoon characters? Who was ever going to buy that? No one, as it turned out. The Pendulum stockroom was full of them and office parties would still see such dishes served as Captain Caveman BBQ Ribs, Rubik the Amazing Cubed Fruit Salad or California Raisin Pie with Jem and the Holo-Graham Cracker Crust.
The late nights at work ran seamlessly into late nights at the coffee shop with Tommy and Jesse. Kate had never considered telling Gene where she might be or when she might be home, but Gene had never asked either, and there had never been one argument about the whole situation. Kate often wondered who would be more at fault should a dispute ever arise. She thought it was wonderful to be able to have that kind of confrontational foresight.
At the front door was a small round table and on it sat a picture of Gene and Kate, smiling like they’d just paid for expensive oral surgery. The only other thing on the table was a glass dish full of loose change, dead skin and expired Metrocards.
Kate took her time walking up the stairs. All along the wall were more pictures; each of them horribly outdated and all were of Gene’s family and friends. Kate knew only a handful of the people in the photographs and she’d met even fewer of them. In one, Gene’s mother sat in her favorite armchair clutching a glass of scotch. In another, an aunt was flying a kite at Brighton Beach. Gene’s brother Andrew held up his We’re Number One foam finger at a Yankees game. Some other guy was playing an accordion on an outdoor stage.
Kate climbed higher. There was a picture of Sporty Gene just before he’d rappelled the Hearst Tower for a work charity function; Gentle Gene posing on a Central Park bench with three of his nephews; Teen Gene on the hood of his first car, sporting what could have been his very first mustache; and Little Gene about to board the school bus for his first day of grade school.
In the upstairs hallway, Kate touched the picture of a scruffy dog from Gene’s youth. It was next to the dusty picture of a man standing proudly in front of a barber shop, which was underneath the faded picture of two kids in costume who could have been Gene and his brother, but one was in a Mickey Mouse costume while the other was dressed as Minnie. Kate had never asked who was who.
A feeling came over her. It was a feeling Kate had never experienced before. The further into the house she went, the deeper she got, the less relevant she became. Most of the furniture in the house was Gene’s too, sitting in the same spots they’d been in since Kate first moved in. If it weren’t for that first picture by the front door, her clothes in the bedroom closet or the trace of her perfume in the house, it might be very hard to tell whether or not Kate had ever existed.
The first thing she saw upon entering the bedroom was the last thing she had seen when she left that morning: through the hanging picture frame, Gene was fast asleep. She thought about how a picture frame was supposed to make things better, to highlight a memory that was never meant to be forgotten. That picture frame only made her husband far less than perfect. It revealed all of the man’s flaws and imperfections. All of the times he would decline invitations to visit with her friends. Kate knew for certain now that she’d wasted the last three years of her life. If it wasn’t for those ridiculous hanging frames, she might not have ever come to that realization. Their interior decorator had the audacity to suggest them in the first place. Maybe she should call her right now and thank her? That picture had been the root of her troubles all day. The very spot on the carpet where she stood was exactly the same spot Kate had decided she didn’t want to be in that relationship anymore. And after an entire day thinking about it, after talking so candidly with Tommy, Jesse and yes, even Dwayne the Temp, she still had not changed her mind.
Kate had first met Gene Schneider in the lunch lineup at Schwartz’s in Midtown. He later confessed that he’d seen her there one afternoon a couple of weeks before, and that he’d come back during lunch every day thereafter in the hopes of seeing her again. To Kate, the most flattering part of the whole story was that Gene didn’t even like Schwartz’s sandwiches, which was also so ridiculous at the same time since they were the best sandwiches in the city. But still, he fought through the heartburning pain of sixteen liverwurst sandwiches for the chance that he might talk to Kate.
They were married somewhere between five to nine weeks after that (it would all depend on who told the story), and Kate had soon learned how comfortable it was to live on the salary of a busy Manhattan dental surgeon. Tommy and Jesse were never envious of Kate’s marriage, nor did they ever feel the need to tell her that she may have made a big mistake. Neither of them ever knew what to make of Gene Schneider. His anomalous lumberjack mustache and preposterously parted hair aside, he seemed like a decent enough guy and he had a non-threatening, almost professorial look to him. Quiet, a little withdrawn and not very adventurous with food, Gene always surprised folks when he told them his favorite films were classic Seventies horrors, but then disappointed them when he revealed to them the existence of his Canadian stamp collection. He didn’t voice his opinion often but he was certain about basically everything, and he was a difficult man to convince otherwise. Kate sometimes speculated whether she had been doing Gene a favor by marrying him, or if it was the other way around. Tommy and Jesse were satisfied that she had simply chosen to settle, rather than date yet another What’s-His-Name for yet another two-to-ten-day period of time.
And the truth was Kate had always known that she’d made a big mistake. She knew from the very beginning. She knew while she spoke her wedding vows aloud while on a rooftop overlooking Central Park.
Kate wondered whether she should wake him. Should she just come out with it? How long would that whole conversation take? Five minutes? An hour or more? And then what? She certainly wouldn’t be able to take her regular spot in the bed and just fall asleep beside him like it was any other night. No, things would only get that much more complicated, wouldn’t they?
Thoughts of Patrick Kohn came to mind. What was it about the boy from her youth that sparked a chain reaction resulting in Kate marrying Gene Schneider? Her memory flashed back to the day so many years ago when she awoke to discover Patrick was gone. Could she disappear now, just like Patrick once had? Maybe she could leave her ring behind in the back pocket of Gene’s pants? He was just lying there, unmoving. His bushy mustache whistled with every breath, his breathing crackled like a dirty vinyl record.
But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t wake him and spill her heart. More specifically, Kate couldn’t find the strength within herself to make her life everything it should have been.
Passing back through the stairwell of unfamiliar memories, Kate went down to the kitchen and poured herself a generous glass of white wine. The wine was left over from a dinner party they had last week; Gene had invited some other dentists from the office over and each was encouraged to bring his wife along, for surely the three wives would have just as much in common as their three boring husbands, wouldn’t they? If Linda could marry the overweight and fashion-unconscious Marvin, if Janet could marry the ugly, smelly and humorless Ken, and if Kate could marry the awkwardly haughty Gene, then surely the three women themselves would also share a connection of their own. Tragically, but not surprisingly for Kate, it was the exact opposite of a connection that night; nothing but uneasy stares, plenty of bathroom breaks and jokes without punch lines.
Kate took the wine downstairs into her office. Leaving the lights off and sitting at the desk, she listened quietly for anything outside that might distract her thoughts. However, West 107th Street at three in the morning is never the place to be if one is waiting for action. Kate sat patiently for nearly twenty minutes but there was nothing that could possibly have taken her mind off Patrick Kohn. She was surprised when she discovered that she was still holding his letter in her hand.
The day that Kate met Patrick was the same day her dog Mitch died. She never really cared for the family dog though; she just wanted to feel as though Patrick could fill a void for her like he had done for Tommy. Back in high school, they all thought they knew everything and assumed no one was paying any attention. They were the smartest group of kids in Seattle. But aren’t they all? Kate sees the same in the kids she passes on a daily basis. Along the sidewalks. On the subway. Eating cheeseburgers across from her at the McDonalds at two o’clock in the morning. It’s the same everywhere. The same anywhere. They all act the same way, oblivious to the fact that they really don’t know everything and they never will. Unaware that they’ll one day realize the truth about themselves and it won’t be anything close to what they expected.
It was well past midnight in Seattle, but Kate knew her father would still be awake. There was no fighting his insomnia anymore, it was entirely full-blown, but Gordon Prince still refused to speak with his doctor or even acknowledge his condition. The phone rang seven times without the answering machine ever kicking in.
“Katherine! How are you, Pumpkin-Pie? Boy, it must be late over there.”
“Yeah, I’m not really sleeping tonight.”
“Lately your mother’s been trying to convince me that she can’t fall asleep without me beside her. But I just tell her to close her eyes and turn the other way. Who’s going to know, right?”
“She can be difficult, can’t she?” Kate couldn’t possibly tell her father that her problems were the exact opposite.
“Hold on. You’re speaking so quiet. Let me turn the boob tube off…” Gordon Prince liked to watch the sports channel for the highlights. He’d watch it all night too, even if it was nothing but the same footage looped every thirty to sixty minutes. There was grunting and a stifling clatter on the other end of the phone, like her father was trying to turn off the television by throwing balled-up socks at it. Whatever he did, it seemed to work. “How’s Gene doing?”
“He’s fine dad.”
“How’s your book coming along?”
“Dad, it’s great. It’s all just great. Listen, did you hear about that plane crash today?”
“The one from Seattle?”
“Was there another?”
“Hmm…I don’t think so.”
“Then why would you need to ask?”
“I’m just used to clarifying I suppose. Your mother’s so scatterbrained sometimes I need to ask a kajillion questions just to find out what’s for dinner.”
“Dad, did you hear that Patrick Kohn was coming back to New York? Did you know that?”
“Yeah, I just talked to Jerry yesterday. He said Patrick was going to be running part of the family business over there on the East Coast.” Jerry Kohn still lived a block away from the Princes, in the same house Kate had been in at least a hundred times in her youth.
“Did Jerry say when Patrick was leaving? Do you know which flight he was on?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Kate’s father had never been good at putting two and two together. “But I think it’ll be good for him after what happened with his wife and all.”
Kate’s mother had called maybe three months before to tell her that Natasha Seward-Kohn had died from a very sudden case of brain cancer. It was horrible news with the all-too-common positive spin: “It happened so fast at least she didn’t suffer long.” Kate was never one to try and pull something good out of something negative. And for whatever reason, she didn’t pass the news along to Tommy or Jesse. Kate wasn’t sure why she chose to withhold the information, since all three of them knew Natasha from high school.
Once again, she looked over the letter in her hand:
“To be honest, things in Seattle are not so good right now,” it said. “I’m not certain how much news might have gotten around. I’m not sure if friends and family talk like they used to,” he wrote.
Kate knew exactly what the words had meant when Tommy read the letter aloud that morning, but she still chose to not say anything.
However, it was obvious that her father didn’t know or hear anything more. Kate wondered if that was good or bad news, but she knew that it was meaningless to press her dad for any further information. She made him promise he’d get to bed soon, if only to make sure her mom would fall asleep.
Kate got up to refill her glass, this time taking the bottle back to the office with her as well. She turned on her computer and glossed over the first three pages of her manuscript before deleting the entire thing altogether. She even emptied her computer’s recycling bin just to make sure she didn’t open it again that night. This was not as dramatic a move as she had convinced herself; there was also a version backed up on her external hard drive, one on her computer at work and even a printed version she kept hidden in a location undisclosed to anyone who pried. But it was out of mind for the moment at least, which was enough. Kate took as much wine into her mouth as her mouth would allow and opened up a blank journal from the shelf beside her desk. She stared at it for a minute or two before finally swallowing the wine and scratching the first page with a crooked, tooth-riddled pencil. She began with:
CHAPTER ONE: THE LETTER
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.
Suddenly, Kate was back to paper fences.