An Afternoon of Art and Conversation

Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser
Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser

I know what they think, the two of us gliding through the art institute, his hand on my elbow, my eyes a bit dreamy, pearls swaying with each confident step. He is bulky and tall, his hair streaked with silver and wavy, and his heavy coat which he wore as though it’s a royal cloak, well, it’s cashmere, isn’t it? Of course they think those thoughts. I am too young for him. We’re not even friendly in a way one would expect family. I wear, I suspect, a look of slightly tarnished yet studied elegance. Do they think I don’t know what effect I can create? It’s in my blood. An actress mother; a composer father. We design everything.

I call him Samuel and he calls me Galinda, our ruse in case someone should hear or spot him and then proceed to detain us with an intrusive chat. He is well-known. I am nobody despite my attempt to appear cosmopolitan. Bored, perhaps above it all. Samuel bends over from time to time to inquire after me, to offer knowledge or astute criticism. I try to enjoy this tomb full of artistic endeavors. The places they put art! I have never visited the Detroit Institute of Arts. Why would I? I’m not ignorant. I just live in Kansas City. Or, I guess, did.

After we fill ourselves with a smorgasboard of classical works and outrageously modern pieces that make him squirm and me giggle, we sit in the courtyard. It’s chilly so he offers me his suede sport coat across my legs, considerate, a rather intimate act. I need a smoke. He offers me one of his, and the gold-plated lighter makes the barest flicking sound, not like my blue plastic Bic. I nearly choke; they’re French cigarettes. I suppress a cough while he looks away politely. He doesn’t really want to be here on a Saturday afternoon. I am his wife’s niece. He just married Portia a year ago. He wants to please her while she’s at her office.

Everyone said it was for her glamour but really, it was for her wit. I have seen them together enough to know how much he admires her. And she him. Portia is much like my mother, Eleanora, but absolutely intact. Her cosmetics business thrives.

My mother is in a place no one wants to mention. My father, Abe, distracts himself by playing piano all hours of the day and night. He won’t eat my cooking. He doesn’t like to sleep alone in their satin-covered, sway-backed bed.

This is how it was, act 1, scene 4:

“Why do you bring me chicken and peas at eight o’clock at night? Can’t you see I’m working? No, no food. Remove the tea, as well. Coffee. Please.”

I stand in the doorway, holding the too-hot china plate, then pick up bright green peas one by one and pop them in my mouth. The chicken is enveloped in mushroom sauce that even I loathe.

“Must you eat that way? Don’t we have a dining room table, silverware? Let me work now. I have to get this completed for the publisher.”

How can I blame Abe? Eleanora is the only one who has mastered him. Coddled him. I am the result of idealistic passion that has begun to erode from the sharp edges of life.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, darling. Come and sit.”

He swivels on the piano bench and holds out his hands to me. But I am already finished with the peas and my fingers are slippery with the last tablespoon of butter. I leave the music room. The silence soon iss stuffed with allegretto and appassionata and a moan of misery as he stops again and again. He huddles over his score. I feet his loneliness like an arctic wind. I can’t evade it no matter how hard I try.

Eleanora has always been absorbed by acting–live theater–and has done well enough to have her name on a half-dozen major Midwest marquees many times. But things change. She is now not the type they seek. Age creeps in and her flirtatious nature becomes a little sad. Or she stumbles over her lines more often. Prestige can’t be easily bargained for or bought. I’ve watched her slip away, into odd reveries, into sleep and finally into a dark corner of her mind but cannot tell you exactly why. My mother still can hush every room she enters. She has such flair and is so quick one has to work to keep up with her. But we are helpless. Well, I haven’t been home for four years but I saw it coming even before I left.

Fade to black, scene change. My own dubious future.

I think sometimes creativity can contort things. It can turn you inside out and then where is the refuge? I’ve noticed that everyone I know who adores creating risks adoration of their own feelings. It’s like a mirror they fall into if there are not enough other images to divert their attention and energy. Or simply not enough spark to illuminate something greater.

Eleanora and Abe would scoff at this. I am just a twenty-two year old college graduate with a new job. No matter that I pay attention. I am nothing if not a neophyte. I have not become absolutely amazing, something they desire with all their hearts.

So, Aunt Portia. She found a place for mother to recuperate from life. She offered me a room in their suburban Detroit home that could accommodate three families so here I am. I work at Metropolitan Estates for now, crunching numbers, attending to people’s wills and all. That’s right, as glamorous as all that, but when I tell people I’m quite interested in wills and inheritance taxes, they act as if I’m somewhat a genius, at the very least clever. But the word I most often hear? “Spunky.” How spunky of me to move here and take this job right out of college in nineteen sixty-seven. I think, how crucial to survival now that I am on my own.

“You enjoyed the art?” Samuel asks with interest.

His name is really Arthur Minhausen III. He owns so much commercial property in this city you about trip over it just walking down the street.

I exhale as he stubs his own cigarette out.

“Some beautiful paintings, of course. But I like living art, not entombed, untouchable.”

Samuel smiles, a crooked front tooth adding a certain flair. He brings his coffee cup to his lips, hesitates before drinking. “Example?”

“How about gardens? Aunt Portia’s is outstanding. Or public sculptures that seem in short supply here but abound in Europe, I hear. People can touch them, enjoy a summer breeze as they sit and gaze at them with serious intent. Or not. Art for the masses, all sorts. Or art you can wear, we certainly need that, too!”

“Ah, now you sound like Portia,” he says. “You should travel more and then tell me what you think. Explore different cultures, enjoy other visions.”

I look away to hide the fact that I don’t believe that will ever happen. My life doesn’t include windfalls. But I see a couple staring at us, the woman whispering to her companion. Arthur is high-profile, a local celebrity. He fundraises. He is a toastmaster about town, a gad-about that everyone likes to rub shoulders with. He looks as good as he talks and his wife is even better.

“Well, I made it to Detroit. That’s a start.”

He leans toward me. “A bold move, I must say.” He inclines his head. “Lizzie, you share your mother’s and aunt’s gifts, you know.”

My actual name spoken is a disappointment–shhouldn’t I go by Elizabeth now?–but I flush. Too often I’ve heard I have my mother’s and aunt’s looks and it gets tiring. I have known this new uncle for about a month. “Meaning?”

“You’re a creative thinker, practical. Smart, personable. Independent. You will do well. It won’t always be Detroit. It may be New York or Los Angeles. Public relations, as you hope. You’ll make your way.”

It seems extravagant to me, all this praise. Arthur/Samuel is lighting another cigarette and handing me a second, which I refuse. His smallish eyes are clear and steady. I open my mouth and close it. He nods to encourage my response.

“You forget I might have gotten a serious genetic load of melancholia. I may be doomed to swooning too much or crying over how unfair life is. Worse, collapsing under my own emotional weight. My own mother finds her life less than she desires and what happens? She dives deep into the cave of her bedroom until we have to search for her and send her away for reconstruction. I’m sometimes fearful if I stub my toe I might decide I can’t even walk!”

I’m embarrassed by my frankness, how easy it is. And my anger. Surely I can be kinder. But there it is. Meanness where there should be tenderness. She is my mother, after all. My father could do with more goodness from me, too. He wept as he told me it was best I go.

“It happens. We think we know how to manage and then find out we have a deficit that needs addressing. Or there’s a change in the weather, whatever! We might need help. Everyone does, sooner or later.”

“Not you, I’m sure.”

Arthur inhales and holds it too long, as if the smothered smoke keeps his thoughts in place. I imagine a boat coming to port, the thoughts ready to disembark, waiting for a signal. The he exhales and words tumble out.

“Why not me? Is my ambition separate from the rest of my living? It all comes from the same source: ourselves. Dreams and failures, achievements and losses. But there are our plans and life’s plans. We make ourselves who we need to be, and it works or it doesn’t. I tell you, I haven’t always had it this good, and I don’t mean just materially.”

I sipped my Coke, then held it with both hands to cool myself. “Okay, wait, so my mother chose to be nuts? And I can choose not to be? Just like that.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s the luck of the draw, sometimes, but it’s also how we deal with what is dealt. Everything we do is a risk. Like my business. Like you coming to stay with us. Even your mother’s choices, Lizzie.” He reaches for my wrist and his hand is dry, firm. “She will rebound, Portia believes, don’t you? People start over. And you are not to feel guilty about any of it, if I may say so. Just live your own life and see what happens.”

I am about to tell him he has a lot to say and I’m glad he took me here. But someone is fast approaching us. There is a camera held high. Arthur takes my hand–“Galinda? Shall we?”–and we stand up, turn, walk briskly away.

He leans and whispers. “Let’s call Portia and meet her for a Greek dinner. This way, my dear.”

We leave a gallery of eyes behind us. I know how we seem. An older man taking charge, his arm about me to shield me from the press, a man who knows what he wants and gets it. Me, a stranger to Detroit, too young to know what she is doing, full of high-spiritedness. A certain sophistication she only copies from her mother, aunt and many others she admires.

But as we walk into the brashness of afternoon sunshine I feel strength of my own. He has let go of me. I can manage just fine. I only have to step forward. Tomorrow I’ll call my parents. Let them know I do love and miss them though I’m glad–delirious, really!–to be here. Cue the curtain. I have much more to actually live, darlings.

Photo courtesy of DIA
Photo courtesy of DIA

How Eliana and Roe Met

Photo by Diane Arbus
Photo by Diane Arbus

We called them The Twins although they weren’t sisters and didn’t appear to be that much alike when you got invited to sit at their table. The only ones who really enjoyed that were those of us who hung out at Rolf’s between auditions or shoots. With their well-cut, old fashioned hats and suits they elicited whispers and looks but we were arty types, people who risked our psyches every day for our dreams. We could find virtue where others saw irrelevance or annoyance, I thought, and wished to be tolerant. I was pulled to them. I found their generousity of spirit a balm after the hurt left by my parents’ disapproval of my career choice.

Eliana and Roe, short for Roella, told someone who objected to their always snagging the corner table they were cousins of the owner by marriage and thus, entitled to it. When asked later about that, they denied having said it. They could be outrageous like that,  but with elan. They were a fixture at least three days a week around lunchtime.

They had lived together for twelve years, since their husbands passed away. Eliana was from Argentina and Roe, from Pittsburgh by way of Germany, but they had each ended up in Seattle. They looked like over-dressed, snooty dowagers even when trying to be friendly, Frank said. No, said another, more like two worn out basset hounds in discarded vintage wear, a new guy said, and that sealed his fate, never allowed at our lunch tables again. There may have been some truth in it; we just didn’t want to be unkind to two people who adored the arts and expressed genuine interest in our affairs, creative and otherwise. Besides, I appreciated their decided flair and was intrigued by their togetherness.

Frank and I had been close like that once, two peas and all that, but by then less so. He was an actor, I, a model, both of us struggling but determined. I was succeeding a bit more; he was becoming harder to enjoy. We often met at Rolf’s after auditions, joined at times by Viveca and her insufferable boyfriend, Mr. Harper, a supposed playwright. When he saw The Twins, he said, “Lesbians, what else?” with a dismissive flip of his hand. They were theatre people; I in a way was, too, with my play acting for cameras. We lived in altered realities and felt removed from mainstream earth people. But I didn’t think The Twins were gay. No matter; I was on a sharp learning curve those years.

After the older ladies had chatted several times with us, then asked to join them twice, they told us the story of how they met thirty years before. Roe first gestured to the waitress for a big pot of coffee and cookies for all. Eliana lit her first cigarette, then turned to Roe, the inscribed sterling silver lighter aloft to fire up hers. They seemed to inhale at the same time, sat close together, their lotioned and buffed fingers poised in the air.

“I was to meet a neighbor downtown at Pike Place market but she never showed,” Eliana said with a soft, lilting accent. “So I was musing over vegetables. Hills of tomatoes, mounds of green and yellow beans and bunches of radishes that looked so perky with those red skins and hard, white hearts. I was reaching for the biggest bunch on the top near the back of a wooden box and my hand collided with Roe’s. She was after the same bunch!”

Eliana looked at Roe and Roe raised her eyebrows.

“I saw them first,” Roe continued. “I eat a few radishes daily, with or without salad. They keep my palate fresh. They bring a little spice. I’ve found more ways to use an odd radish here and there so when I see a perfect bunch–”

“And when her hand hit mine, it quite hurt. ‘Pardon me, so sorry’, I said, but Roe still didn’t back away. I grabbed hold of them, gave them a yank and took them to the cashier’s table. Roe followed.”

Roe elbowed Eliana.”I was not about to let her get away with those. ‘Wait a darned minute’, I told her, ‘we have some business to discuss. First dibs when I saw them before you got your paws on them.’ But she did not relent. The cashier was annoyed, there was a line behind us and we were fighting over a bunch of radishes.”

“So we split them!” Eliana said triumphantly.

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“Equitable arrangement,”Frank noted.

“So you just shopped together?” I encouraged them as I eyed the plate of lemon bars. I was trying to avoid the extra pounds that sugar loves to leave me since I had more “go-sees” for modelling jobs in the morning. But hunger was gaining and food shopping sounded adventurous.

Eliana stubbed out her cigarette and took a lemon bar, nibbled a bite, then broke off a piece for Roe, who took the entire bar. Eliana shrugged. “Not at all, dears. We two some spicy Italian sausages at a food stand and sat on a nice painted bench on the street. The weather was so blue and sunny it demanded we bask in it and talk. We chattered on for a couple of hours.”

Roe took another cookie and placed it in Eliana’s hand. “We hit it off. Same age, similar tastes. Both our husbands were in business–mine ran a paper products company; hers owned import/export–and we all became fast friends.”

“Well…not exactly. Raoul was not the social type. Arnie was more of a conversationalist. A braggart compared to my humble love. What an odd couple.” They both giggled. “They mostly got along by playing cards and smoking cigars as they listened to music. Thanks goodness, they did both like a little jazz.”

“Big band, usually. Arnie started to appreciate tango near the end and Eliana taught us some gorgeous moves…” Roe was perilously close to veering into full nostalgia but snapped out of it. “She and I sat in the kitchen after we cleaned up and enjoyed a couple coffees, planned our next outing. So it went from A to Z like that: strangers to very best friends. And when our husbands died, I sold my house and moved into her bigger and, I must say, smarter house. Consolidated assets in a few ways. We live quite nicely, thanks to Eliana’s business profits and my financial acumen.”

“Yes, a good German, she has to be practical about everything and it’s worked out so well. I would have been a sorry old lady without Roe there to keep my spirits up. Raoul was such a lovely man. But Roe will quite do for companionship and sheer entertainment.”

Frank was on his third lemon bar and I was getting resentful. He leaned closer. “They didn’t die at the same time, did they? I mean, that would be hideous. They weren’t so close, you said.”

I kicked his leg under the table and snatched the last cookie.

Eliana’s eyebrows dipped further down and her round face caved. “How odd to say that! Yes…they were in an auto accident. On the way back from Spokane. Arnie had a convention to attend and Raoul went along to see an old friend from Buenos Aries who taught at university in Spokane. It was a four-day event. On the way home a truck–what did they call it? A nightmare.”

“Jack-knifed, El… a Mac truck jack-knifed and the driver lived, even with spilled gasoline that caught fire. Our husbands did not.” Roe looked down at the napkin she had folded into thirds, and now into halves and sighed.

Frank and I didn’t know what to say. He really could go too far, say things off the cuff as though he was in improvisation class. That was what did us in.

“My apologies,” he said, chagrined.

“No matter now, dears, we have gone on well enough,” Eliana said. “So tell me about your ‘go-sees’, Marisa. How many today?” She lit another cigarette and inhaled lightly, licking a lemon bar crumb off her peachy lower lip.

“Only two. I have a chance with the make up company but not, I doubt, for the swimsuit ad. Not their type.”

Roe looked shocked. “Not their type! What can they want when you are blue-eyed, raven haired, ivory-skinned skin and svelte?”

“I second that!”

Frank still admired me some days but who cared?

Roe lit her own cigarette this time and leaned forward to pat my hand. “They’re missing out. You must know you’re quite the beauty. Why, you could be Eliana’s lovely granddaughter with your coloring and style.”

Frank about choked on his coffee–he was going to say something stupid about my style, I knew it– but then spotted Viveca in red heels as she strode in with Mr. Harper. He excused himself but first bent over and told me he’d call after his hot audition the following week. I smiled to assuage his insecurity.

“Hi, Twins!” Viveca called out and the women returned the greeting. They didn’t care for her so much, they told me. Viveca was so addicted to the sound of her own voice they hardly got to speak. They liked having an exchange with others.

“Anyway, as Roe was saying. My daughter, Maria Teresa, she married a Brazilian and all three have moved there.” She produced an embroidered handkerchief and dabbed her nose.

I stayed another half hour, listening to their stories about being young wives and mothers (Roe’s sons lived in Alaska and New York; she’d visited but they were so busy), telling them about my modelling jobs and going to the Black Forest in Germany the previous year. That made Roe so happy–she had lived the first five years of her life just fifteen miles from there–she offered to buy me lunch the next Monday, which I agreed to since it was a gracious gift.

But when I entered Rolf’s with a bouquet of flowers, The Twins were not there. Roe was, sitting at their spot as usual. She was shredding her napkin and letting her cigarette burn away in the clean glass ashtray. I sat opposite her and she startled.

photo-Wikipedia
photo-Wikipedia

“What’s up? Is Eliana not able to come?”

“Eliana sends her apologies. She’s at the travel agency. Then visiting a realtor’s office.” Roe placed what was left of the napkin over her mouth to stifle a cry.

“What? This doesn’t sound good.”

She crushed the cigarette. “No, not so good! But I should have known. She has been talking about going home awhile –missing Maria Theresa and little Arianna.”

“You mentioned the grandchild last week. I thought Eliana looked sadder than usual.”

“Than usual?”

I felt like an interloper. What did I understand about the ladies and their concerns? They knew so much more about life. “I mean, Eliana always seems melancholy to me…and then when you said that, she sort of teared up.”

Roe slowly pulled another cigarette from its package and rooted for a lighter in her crocodile handbag. I got a matchbook from my purse and lit it for her, thinking cigarettes were more like accessories.

She smiled at me. “Eliana’s a real class act, you know, much more than I am. And a good heart. My very favorite person after my husband.” She turned to look out the window at the congested street and took a deep drag and coughed. “But we all have to do what works best. Right? Right.”

For the first time I saw remnants of the woman she must have been, someone who worked very hard and kept a firm hand on things, was a devoted but realistic wife and a stern, loyal mother. Someone who cared about quality in food, in possessions and endeavors, and certainly people. All kinds of them, even us young adults with our arrogant self-delusions, our fragile egos. Roe could not feasibly have a breakable heart. She was far too accepting, and more yielding than apparent, in the end.

“Lovely flowers, so kind!” She sniffed them. “Now how about lunch?” She pushed the ashtray away. “Nasty habit. I think I”ll stop if she…goes.” She closed her eyes a second, then raised her hand to the waitress, shaking her wrist so that her gold bangles rattled pleasantly. “Don’t tell her I got emotional. She will go if she must, but you can’t really sever deep ties like we have. Now tell me about your week. Trips coming up? Maybe next year an escape to Brazil! We’ll both go, shall we?”

Anything seemed possible with the marvelous Twins. Gratitude filled me. I threw all caution to the wind and ordered a burger with avocado and bacon. I split it with Roe, then we each had chocolate mousse.

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