The front offices of RS & B did not differ significantly from those of the thirty-odd law firms in which I had waited nearly every Monday morning of my six-month stint with the TempSec Agency. An L-shaped plastic sofa faced sliding glass doors through which marched a parade of youngish lawyers and secretaries, most of them white, all crisply dressed, bouncing lightly past the switchboard with an air of anticipation. Only the switchboard operator exhibited the classic signs of boredom, as she plugged and unplugged wires, droning “Law Office” in a slow heavy drawl. But then, she was the only worker I’d actually had a chance to scrutinize.
The elevator bells chimed and the glass doors slid open to admit a man and a woman.
“So I told her,” the man was saying, gesticulating with skinny arms poking out from too-short sleeves, “it’s called division of labor — you watch the briefcase and I’ll hail the cab.”
The woman laughed, her glossy red lips widening. “Come on, Sammy, I know you — she’d probably already paid for dinner.”
“Natalia, what has that got to do with it?
Natalia eyed Sammy with a mixture of suspicion and affection. The entire exchange took less than a minute, enough time for my attention to be diverted from the sweetly familiar Sammy — he might have been my brother or any one of my cousins — onto Natalia.
She was astonishingly beautiful with a carefully cultivated outward appearance; it had to have taken her a good two hours to put herself together. Tall, slender, her jet black perfectly-cut hair framed an impeccably made-up face. She wore a black belted skirt and cowl neck sweater, high heels and dark stockings. A delicate bone structure belied the polished exterior with intimations of fragility.
“Good morning,” the switchboard operator virtually sang, handing Sammy a pile of pink papers. She too was carefully coifed and cosmeticized, but whereas Natalia’s lipsticked mouth invited contact, the switchboard operator’s brittle exterior seemed impenetrable.
“Any messages for me, Annette?” Natalia asked. Annette made a great show of busy-ness with her plugs and wires; without looking up, she managed to convey hostility as she handed Natalia a pink slip.
Natalia studied the message, glanced in my direction and slowly approached. “Are you Francine?”
I nodded, unable to speak to this exquisite creature, who gestured for me to follow her. Walking down the narrow corridor behind Natalia, whose movements through space had been seemingly choreographed by Ballanchine, I tugged at my blouse, trying to hide my lumpy middle, and pushed at my hair, crackling with static. I was conscious of being a good inch shorter, and several inches wider, than Natalia.
She led me through a room containing six desks, at four of which women were busily typing, over to a corner office. Pausing before a closed door she turned to me and whispered, “You’re lucky. Mr. Shear is the nicest guy in the place — not that that’s any great accomplishment.”
As soon as I sank into the red leather armchair facing Mr. Shear, I knew my tenure with TempSec had ended, that I had found a more-or-less permanent job. That chair cradled my bones in a way that confronted what the weekly shift in scenery had been doing to me. That chair said stay.
Mr. Shear did turn out to be an affable man; but it was really the chair that held me — that and Natalia.
Three months later Natalia and I are having lunch in a Jewish deli. Although she has a habit of flashing her wedding ring around, every man in the place is ogling her. You’d think that by the age of twenty-five she’d have learned to take it in stride, but it makes her nervous, wary. (Once we met by chance on the subway platform, and I was shocked to see her eyes darting about like those of a frightened little sparrow.)
I’m munching away on a pickle, telling Natalia about the women’s theater group I used to perform with, a subject foreign to her experience and which consequently fascinates her. Just as I’m reaching the climax to my story, a balding man in a black trench coat walks right up to our table, leans over and says to her, “That man over by the door wants to marry you.”
Natalia’s eyes flicker briefly with irritation before she smiles charmingly and replies, “What a shame — I’m already married. And he looks like such a nice person.” She glances over at her would-be groom, waving with her ringed hand, then leans towards me, dismissing the messenger.
“What were you saying, Franny?”
“How did that make you feel?”
“Oh, please, such stupidity. I want to hear the rest of your story.”
But I’ve run out of enthusiasm. I’m getting tired of these kinds of interruptions, partly because they serve to remind me that Natalia and I are a breed apart.
“You’re adorable,” she says later as we comb our hair in the ladies’ room. She tells me this often, sometimes fussing with my hair, claiming to be jealous of its natural wave.
Still, when Natalia and I stand before the mirror, I invariably have to look away. I have observed other women actually flee the room when Natalia applies makeup to imaginary blemishes.
“You’re really something,” she calls from behind the toilet stall. “The first thing you wanted to know was how that jerk made me feel.”
“I don’t know. Not great. I felt kind of stupid actually.”
“I’m not sure. I mean, did I cause that to happen? I’ve been noticing lately, men don’t do those things to you. Maybe I’m doing something to encourage them.”
“Natalia, I do not look like you.”
“But you’re adorable.” She drowns out my protests with a flush.
She seems genuinely unaware that my life experience has differed from hers. When Sammy turns down lunch with me, she is more outraged than I.
“Don’t talk to him again,” she admonishes, upset when I am still civil, even friendly, towards him. “I’d never ask a man out.”
I don’t bother to explain that if I didn’t take the initiative, it might never happen, just as I don’t explain why I asked for this job before it was offered. She has told me she’s never had to ask for a job. Does she think it’s her flawless shorthand?
Natalia and I are on the beach, Brighton Beach, where she lives with her husband Stanley just two blocks from her parents, surrounded by sisters, brothers and cousins. Stanley, who elects to stay home while we sunbathe, is a seemingly nondescript man, remarkable only for his devotion to Natalia.
“Stanley’s studying for the bar,” she tells me as we set up our beach chairs. “He’s absolutely brilliant.” She shades her eyes with a perfectly manicured hand. “Which direction is the sun headed?”
She is standing there in her black bikini, long legs wide apart, burnished hair gleaming in the sunlight. I feel as I did the day we met: unable to speak, self-conscious about my less-than perfect body. I feel, too, a desire to merge with Natalia, to ingest some of her beauty — a desire that is undeniably sexual.
“I’m going to check out the water,” I say, and quickly jog to the shore. When I return, Natalia is settled in a lounge chair, her body sleek with suntan oil, her golden color deepening.
“You’ll never believe what just happened,” she says. “A guy came over and asked if he could cool his feet in my shade. Can you believe the lines they’re coming up with these days?”
I laugh half-heartedly, settling into a chair next to her.
“Watch how you position yourself,” she jokes. “Don’t leave too much shade.”
“Natalia, men do not ask to cool their feet in my shade.”
“How do you know they won’t?” she asks, genuinely wounded. “It’s the new come-on. I never heard it before either.”
She is determined to believe that we exist in the same universe, that men make no significant distinction between us. Perhaps she needs to believe this so that our friendship can remain on an equal footing.
“I get along better with men,” she has said more than once, with an odd mixture of boastfulness, complaint and hurt bewilderment.
Later she cooks dinner; Natalia, I am surprised to learn, keeps a kosher kitchen. She eats very little of the rich food she piles onto Stanley’s and my plates: stuffed derma, pot roast, potato kugel, fried cauliflowerets.
“Nat’s the only cook in the world so extravagant she makes homemade chicken soup just to boil the cauliflower,” Stanley brags under the guise of a complaint.
After dinner Natalia shows me pictures of her parents, siblings and cousins. Her family is as strikingly attractive as Natalia, but what impresses me most is the pride with which she presents each picture, and the way her face softens when she speaks of her family.
Riding back to Manhattan I experience mild cultural shock; Natalia’s gentle world seems closer to Anatefka than New York City, and my studio apartment feels coldly futuristic.
One morning I find Natalia in the ladies’ room, sobbing into the sink, her makeup washed away: a tragic beauty with marks of sleeplessness on her face.
“God, I’m so glad you’re here,” she says, blowing her nose.
“My brother and his wife are moving to California. He told us last night. I can’t handle it. What right does he have to abandon his family?” She looks to me for support, but I, with a sister in Spain, a brother in Phoenix and a daughter who lives with her father, am taken aback by the intensity of Natalia’s grief.
“It’ll be all right, Nat, you’ll see. You can visit them in California. Have you ever been there?”
“Visiting isn’t the same. I told them, look, it’s your life, do what you want, but don’t expect me to pack your bags for you.”
The door swings open and Annette enters. She nods curtly at me, then steps into a toilet stall without so much as a glance at Natalia.
“Bitch,” Natalia mouths silently in the mirror. She exhales noisily and pulls herself erect. “My God, look at me.” Hastily she pulls out an assortment of tubes and pots, and begins dabbing color onto her face.
When her brother moves, Natalia is out for three days.
Natalia and I have decided that, in the interest of saving money, we will brown bag it to work. It’s autumn in New York, and we carry our lunches to a small park off Madison Avenue where a man-made waterfall offers respite from the noisy streets. The setting makes me think about my ten-year-old daughter, with whom I spend weekends in the country.
“She’s such a great kid,” I tell Natalia. “She’s at that age when most girls become little sexpots — you know, putting on makeup and fooling with their hair, becoming self-conscious and silly. But Sasha hasn’t succumbed yet. She’s still into rocks and stars and creating things, she still knows her own mind.”
I stop short, realizing that I’ve been bragging about my child, an activity in which I rarely indulge; the inevitable response is, at worst, resentment, at best, perfunctory agreement that my child is indeed a wonder.
But Natalia smiles with genuine happiness for me. “It’s so great that you feel that way about her.”
“Yeah,” I say, suddenly realizing that my approval of Sasha is indeed more important than the particulars of her personality,” It is, isn’t it?”
For a moment we watch the waterfall together, contemplating mothers and daughters, before opening our lunch bags. I surprise Natalia with a flask of white wine and two plastic glasses.
“It’s non-fattening,” I assure her, as we get mildly high in the mid-day sun.
Natalia gets to meet Sasha two months later, when I throw a party for my 30th birthday, billed as my “Second Annual 29th.” I’m a bit nervous about how she’ll respond to my friends, a hodgepodge of artists, gay men and lesbians, with only a smattering of the nine-to-fivers she’s accustomed to.
Natalia and Sasha immediately fall in love with each other. They spend a great deal of time in the kitchen, emerging every so often with things like radish roses and watermelon boats. When she’s not teaching Sasha the art of edible sculpture, she’s hanging onto Stanley’s arm, a habit I suspect is more self-protection than devotional.
At one point I am cornered by a very drunk photographer who tells me of his latest confrontation with the NEA; glancing about for an escape route, I notice Natalia, Stanley and Sasha standing in the corner looking like a promotional ad for the nuclear family. Natalia says something to Sasha and then looks at me; though I can’t hear the words, I’m momentarily stunned by the look on Natalia’s face — it’s the soft gaze she wears when she talks about her family. I try to disengage myself from the photographer, but he moves closer, demanding my attention.
Later, when all the guests have gone, Sasha and I cuddle up on the couch surrounded by beer cans and overflowing ashtrays.
“You liked Natalia, didn’t you?” I ask rhetorically.
“She knows how to make neat things. She’s going to send me some recipes.”
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“I guess,” Sasha says disinterestedly.
“I think she’s the most beautiful woman I ever met.”
“That’s funny,” Sasha says. “She said the same thing about you.”
“Uh huh.” Sasha yawns, bored with this line of conversation. I remember the look on Natalia’s face while I was listening to the photographer.
A few days later I go to the photo store, pick up the pictures taken at the party and browse through them. Sasha carrying a tray of hors d’oeuvres out of the kitchen. The photographer, looking drunk and disoriented. Stanley fiddling with the stereo. And then there’s one of Natalia and me, just after she arrived. Like most of the people in the photos, we’re smiling, but we’re not looking at the camera.
We’re looking at each other.