Excerpt

If I Forget You

Thomas Christopher Greene

July 22, 2016 
The following is from Thomas Christopher Greene’s novel, If I Forget You. Greene is the author of four previous novels: Mirror Lake; I'll Never Be Long Gone; Envious Moon and The Headmaster's Wife. In 2008, Tom founded Vermont College of Fine Arts, a top graduate fine arts college, making him the youngest college president in the country at the time.

Henry, 2012

On the kind of beautiful spring day where no one expects anything of significance to happen, Henry Gold, a poet who teaches at NYU, fi nishes class and decides to do something he has not done in years: walk a good length of the city to his apartment. Normally he hops on the A train at West Fourth Street and arrives within a few blocks of his house. Today he is feeling inspired, as if he has not seen the sun shining in a while, though that can’t be true, can it? Hasn’t it been a magnificent spring?

At forty-two years of age, Henry Gold is not a famous poet by any stretch, though he won a few awards in his youth and this translated into a teaching career. He has been in The New Yorker twice, though not for about ten years. What he is, is a fine teacher. He has an ear for other’s work that he doesn’t have for his own. He is able to discern a musicality that certain students possess and is able to nudge them in the right direction, for he believes that is all a teacher of writing is really ever able to do.

Henry walks through Union Square Park and then up Fifth Avenue. All around him is the madness of the city, and he sees it today with fresh eyes, like someone who is just visiting here must. Everywhere he looks, he sees something that makes him smile. Even the insanity of midtown, people moving like schools of fish, then stopping all at once and standing in one giant breathing group, doesn’t annoy him as it usually might.

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Through a V of lesser buildings, Henry spies the Chrysler to the east, his favorite New York landmark. The sun has been arrested in its spire, a kaleidoscope of spun gold.

The day is warm, and as Henry walks, he removes his suit jacket and hangs it over one arm. Passing a playground, he sees a woman dressed in black scolding a small curly- haired child, and Henry cannot help remembering his own mother, his fiery and emotional mother, whose coal black eyes burned hot when she was angry. He remembers his West End of Providence neighborhood, where he was the only Jewish kid. His mother once racing outside in her thick black dress and pinning an Italian bully to the ground, her knees on his biceps, her hands slapping his face and asking him how he liked it. He remembers all his constant embarrassment and how he ran from all of it. Nights when as a child he lay in bed and wished he wasn’t a Jew and asked himself why they just couldn’t be normal and be Catholics like the other families. Henry recalls his mother saying to him, “Henry Gold, don’t ever let anyone tell you can’t do something.” Her words haunt him, for it is the great failing of his life. Many years ago, someone told him how to do things, and he didn’t fight like he should have.

Henry shakes his head. He doesn’t want to think about this.

He moves through the crowds on Fifth before the park, the shoppers with their oversize bags in each hand, people spilling out of stores with ornate window treatments, the heart of commerce in the heart of the most important city of the time. Soon the city opens up once again. Here now is the park, Olmsted’s great monument to smart planning: an emerald island in the middle of the concrete one. It is bustling, too, of course, the hustlers and the horses and the pedis all lined up to take advantage of a sunny day. Tourists having their photo taken with the guy dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Henry stops for a moment and studies a chestnut tree in full bloom, golden cones like offerings waiting to be plucked.

Henry has a vague idea about maybe getting a drink. He is feeling bright and wants to be around people. He drifts across Central Park South toward Columbus Circle. There is a wine bar on the third floor of the Time Warner Center that he has been to a few times. It is a good place for someone alone. It is the kind of place where he could sit for hours with a book and a glass of wine.

Yes, this is what he will do. When Henry reaches the plaza in front of the center, for no reason in particular he suddenly stops and turns so his back is to the building. It is just before five o’clock and there is a rush of people. Henry puts his arms up in the air, and it is like standing in the ocean, the waves coming over and then falling back and then coming over him again. This is not a city where people just stand still.

He looks toward the park across the circle and he sees the pigeon. There are thousands of pigeons, but this one is flying right at him with what looks like purpose. Henry smiles. The pigeon is like a missile. The gray bird flies past him, and Henry instinctively turns, and as he watches, the pigeon flies directly into the glass above the revolving doors without braking at all. It bounces off the glass and lands on the ground, to the right of the door. People stream out, unaware of the death in their midst.

Just when Henry thinks he is the only one who has seen this, a woman coming out the door stops. She leans down next to the pigeon, which is on its back. She places her hand on its breast. She is well dressed, a gray suit, hair cut in a bob. As if she senses Henry’s eyes on her, she suddenly looks toward him, and the face Henry sees travels to him from a lifetime ago.

“Margot,” Henry whispers. It is a name he has always loved to say. A name that is sui generis to him, it could belong only to her. He has never known another Margot. It is a name he likes to turn over in his mouth. A tiny poem of a name, how it rises to the g and then falls soft as silk to the silence of the t.

He sees a flash of recognition in her look, and now he definitely says her name out loud, though it is instantly drowned out in the roar of the city.

For a time that feels like forever, their eyes meet. There is no question now. It is Margot. And in her face, Henry sees that she recognizes him, too. Henry starts to walk toward her, and as soon as he does, she gets to her feet and moves into the roiling rush- hour crowd.

“Margot,” he shouts, but she doesn’t stop.

She climbs into the yellow cab that is first in the line of yellow cabs. Henry is running now. He is at the window. She looks up at him—those eyes, unchanged, the pale blue of sea glass—and he stretches his hand toward the closed window and the cab lurches out into traffic, merging quickly, a damn sea of yellow cabs, and he tries to keep his eyes on the one that carries her, until he is no longer sure which one it is and a phalanx of them moves up Broadway and out of sight.  

*  *  *  *

Margo, 2012

A tiresome monthly lunch with her mother summons Margot into the city. She is so reluctant to go, she has this fantasy of missing the train. Though she knows what is expected of her. Outside her house, she stops for a moment and stands in her expansive yard, the large Tudor house behind her, and she just takes in the smell of the lilacs. Her husband, Chad, has a mild allergy to them but tolerates a few weeks of sneezing because the smell of them, slightly fetid and soapy but also sweet, she loves more than anything.

Then on the train, Margot is restless and anxious about lunch with her mother. But something else is bothering her, too, and it’s hard to put her finger on it: more of a vague unease she has had lately. Perhaps it’s only because this is the first year both her kids have been away at school. Alex is in his third year at Wesleyan University and Emma has just started at Miss Porter’s. School is out in a week. But then the busy summer will start, a few days home and then Emma off to camp in Maine, the same one she attended as a child, and Alex to the city with friends for an internship. Maybe it’s that, how fast everything always moves, life like this train, uncontrollable to her and nothing she can do to stop it.

Or perhaps it’s Chad? Sure, he works all the time, and sometimes she wonders if he is the kind of man who has affairs. He always knows her schedule, so she never has an opportunity to surprise him in the city. Perhaps he has a whole life here she doesn’t know about. For isn’t that the way with men who work in the city and live in the burbs?

Coming through the Bronx now, the train passes abandoned warehouse after abandoned ware house, broken windows and graffiti. Funny how much trains stare at the darkest parts of America. Places she would never see otherwise.

From Grand Central, she takes a cab to Columbus Circle. Lunch is at Masa. Her parents bought a place on Central Park West ten years ago, top fl oor of a prewar building overlooking the park. Th ey are seasonal New Yorkers— here for the fall and spring— with winters in Tucson, Arizona, and summers on the Vineyard. Many of the friends in their orbit following a similar schedule, like school for wealthy retired people. Lately, her mother has discovered sushi. When Margot was growing up, her mother practically sneezed at anything ethnic—of course there was no Masa then, with its $450 prix fixe.

Her mother waits for her in the foyer to the restaurant. They kiss on both cheeks. Her mother is immaculately put together, as always, as if an important social event might materialize at any moment. Margot reminds herself to exude energy, and right away she has the sense of her mother appraising her, assessing her, and that after, a full report will be given to her sister, Katherine, as Margot always gets one on Katherine post her mother’s lunches with her sister.

Do other adult children meet their parents in an atmosphere like a job interview? Like they are trying out for the role, perhaps? Would you be my daughter? Of course, that’s absurd, and over a bottle of Corsican white, and the tiniest pieces of the freshest fish imaginable, they talk.

Her mother takes her time but eventually warms to the topic that interests her. It is not a new conversation. They— her parents— are concerned about Chad. He is forty- five years old now, well in his prime, and still mid- level at Goldman. Worse, he is on the sales side, which is less attractive than becoming a partner. Margot wants to tell her mother that Chad is essentially a good- time guy, that the wealthy clients like him because he is funny and amiable and that he loves to drink. Chad has never met a party he couldn’t make his own. He is quick with a top- notch cigar and a rabidly funny dirty joke in his back pocket. Besides that, Chad doesn’t really like to work. He doesn’t have that burn of ambition you need to have to climb to great heights, the burn her father clearly had when he became CEO of the largest soft- drink company in the world in his early forties.

Her mother looks at her across the table between small bites of something incredibly exotic— Margot didn’t quite hear what it was. Peekytoe crab, maybe. Her mother’s eyes are steely blue, like hers, though colder.

Her mother says, “Perhaps there is something you can do?”

“What do you mean?” says Margot.

“A wife can often be the greatest asset,” her mother says cheerfully. “You could do more, you know. Charities. Get yourself out there. What do you do in that house all day?”

Margot considers this. Lately she has been painting again. With the kids gone—except for summer—she suddenly has this sea of time. In truth, she has been busy. There are the normal volunteer things she does, serving on the library board and on the board of a foundation a friend started after her son died of a rare disease. She does Pilates three or four days a week, depending. There is the weekly doubles match with the same group of women. She belongs to a book club, of course, which is more an excuse to drink wine than it is to really engage with literature.

But of all those things, the painting is what gives her pleasure. Margot wanted to major in art in college—but the kids who majored in art, to put a fine point on it, were not like her. She studied art history instead, which at least had the veneer of practicality. Not that a career was something she would ever need to worry about. But if she couldn’t paint, she could at least pretend that someday she might be the curator at a museum or run a downtown gallery. Art was the only subject she ever really liked, but she harbored her love of painting like a secret. And the only one to ever see anything she has done is Chad, who will look over the swirling brushstrokes, the abstracts she is into now, and always make some joke about how everything she does looks like a vagina and why is that.

“A secret weapon,” her mother says.

“What?” Margot asks, aware suddenly that she had been lost in thought and looking down the length of the dining room to the panel of windows, the ones that look south toward midtown.

“You could be his secret weapon, dear,” her mother says. “Never underestimate how important the wife can be.”

Margot thinks about this. Perhaps she could do more, especially in the city. Cricket and others are always after her to join this or that board, help or ga nize this gala. And the children always give her a polite reason to demur.

Margot makes it through the rest of lunch. Her mother suggests they do some poking around in some of the stores in the mall, but Margot is prepared for this. She has made plans to meet a friend for coffee on the Upper East Side. At the door to the restaurant, they kiss again, on both cheeks, and Margot moves through the expanse of mall, down three sets of escalators, and to the front door.

She is just about to move through the revolving doors when something draws her eyes upward. She sees the pigeon then, sees it before it hits the glass. Then she sees it hit and fall to the ground.

Through the doors she goes, and behind her is the rush of air as the carousel continues, people being pushed out into the spring day.

When she was a child, at her parents’ giant brick house in Westchester, birds used to fall off the roof, out of the gutters, babies, and Margot would nurse them back to health. Sometimes they didn’t make it. Other times she fed them white bread soaked with milk out of an eyedropper, and like a miracle, they grew. In her yard, she would teach them to fly and they would leave her.

Margot kneels next to the pigeon. She is oblivious to the people moving around her. The bird, squat and city- fat, is on its back. Margot puts her fingers on its breast. She feels it heave up, one last time, soft and hard, a final breath. And then the pigeon goes still under her fingertips.

Margot looks up, and twenty yards away or so is Henry. It is an older, stouter version of Henry, but unmistakably him. She would have recognized him from behind, just from seeing him walk. Funny how that works, isn’t it? How the smallest of clues can create an entire portrait of someone we know well?

Henry has his suit jacket slung over one arm. He is saying her name. This is a moment she has long imagined, and part of her knew it would happen like this, when she wasn’t thinking about it all.

Henry starts to walk toward her. Margot stands, her heart in her throat, and she does the only thing she knows how to do. She moves quickly to one of the waiting cabs. She does not look back. She climbs into it and says to the elderly driver, “Fifth and Eighty- second.” He doesn’t say anything in return, just starts to inch out into traffic.

And then Henry is in her window. His face. Those dark eyes, his curly hair cut short now, with a hint of silver above the ears. His hand is reaching out to her; the spread of his fingers and the glass separates them. The car pulls away and into the spinning circle, yellow cabs after yellow cabs, and Margot does not look back.

 

From IF I FORGET YOU. Used with permission of Thomas Dunne Books. Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Christopher Greene.




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