February 2008

Cassandra Garbus


Cassandra Garbus This marks an author's first online publication Cassandra Garbus is the author of the novel, Solo Variations, which was published by Dutton in 1998. She has also written for the New York Times and several parenting magazines.



Blue was the color of the room where she lost it. Where the Korean man with the dirty pants nudged into her. His hair smelled of turpentine, and he was a painter too, he claimed, pressing against her in the dark corner of Danceteria. Bodies lurched, the dance floor trembled. "Let's split this joint," he whispered, his small palm on her ass.

A rainy, December night, she shivered on the corner of 8th Avenue. Away from the music, the darkness and flickering lights, he seemed closer to middle age; his skinniness and mangy clothes had fooled her. Clenching his fists against the cold, he waded into the street for a cab.

In the Washington Square Hotel, a black-coated man, a hooker with orange lipstick, and a blond girl with a boy's haircut slept in the lobby armchairs. The Korean man seemed almost embarrassed by her. At seventeen, she was chubby, and her wet hair fell flat against her face. Drunk, after three Long Island Ice Teas, she was on some kind of dare with herself, and she laughed too loudly, her insides braced.

"Where have you taken me?" she kidded foolishly, her hands on her hips.

A musty lamp yellowed the dingy carpeted room. The Korean man flicked on the TV, then bounced on the bed, testing its spring. The cover had burgundy flowers with white stitching. It made a zipping sound when he ran his hand over it.

"Come here." He reeled her in with his index finger.

Whispering words she could not understand, he pressed her down to the bed. A TV news program flashed one emergency after another. An earthquake in Mexico. A shooting in the Bronx. A car which had cruised onto the sidewalk in Brooklyn, killing three people. She felt like a wreck as his body careened into hers.


When she was in love for the first time, she was sure her happiness would never end, and when he finally left her, she was sure the pain was endless. Raking her fingers through his complicated brown curls, she would repeat to herself this is the hair, the head, the shoulders of the one I love. Tracing his wiry stomach, imagining the organs, the liver, the veins, the relentless heart beneath the skin, she would repeat to herself this is the flesh, the meat, the body of my love.

Sex with him felt like the earth, undisguised. Lights on, he pumped slowly in and out of her, testing every sensation. Their slippery hips made funny squishing sounds, and she pressed his wet back down with her palms so that their bones might mesh. But the feeling in her own body came and then went. The harder she concentrated on it, the more it eluded her.

They had athletic sex, trying impossible positions on living room furniture, and he reported on all his sensations. He word-processed at a law firm for money, but he called himself a writer, and so he spent nearly as much time finding the perfect words to describe their sex as they spent actually doing it.

"It's like the heat of August subway stations enveloping the shaft," he would say and then immediately revise his description. At twenty, devoted to painting, to solitary work, she had trouble with words and adored hearing him talk. He would pour over every experience to see it from every angle. He was the only man she'd ever met who liked to dissect his own thoughts so thoroughly. At night, he lay awake, wide-eyed. "Am I really in the heart of it? Am I really living? Is this love?"

Those years with him, she painted canvas after canvas: naked tangled bodies in rich earth tones. Crevasses, orifices, tongues and limbs. Her teacher at Cooper Union chose her work as an example for the class. The first three years, she lost her bids for fellowships, the fourth year she won.

"You're a tough nut. A survivor. An ever-ready bunny." Her lover bloated his cheeks, mocking her for her plumpness, and then he barked out a laugh. He could not bear that her work was going better than his.

"It's okay if I think about other women." He shrugged to her one day from his writing desk, the corners of his lips quivering into a smile. He had suffered another bad writing morning and took pleasure in hurting her. Naked beneath an old towel, she felt slapped, dazed, even before she fully heard him.

"It's all part of the experience of sex. Fantasies," he informed her.

"I think about other men too," she retorted. In the bathroom, the steam from the shower dizzied her, and she gripped the towel rack for support. It was true, images of other men had flashed through her mind, and it meant nothing. So what if touching her, his mind wandered too? Why should she feel so ashamed?

To acknowledge this, the fragility of love and passing of passion, was simply being mature. Their sex changed into something furious. They pounded against each other, nails digging in, and she concentrated on the corners of the ceiling and thought, this is life, this rage, this disappointment. Afterwards they lay side by side, confessing everything to each other. He remembered everything she'd told him about her childhood and pointed out how she had been both damaged and saved. No one knew her better.

"You're my best friend," she told him, nuzzling against his complicated curls.


White was the color of loss, of dawns without him. At five am, she would awaken alone, sheets twisted around her legs, the white morning relentless through the window. Broadway was silent below her. The day had not even begun, but the pain was already there, churning in her heart, rising up into her throat until she howled. Like an animal. Like something ugly.

Hot August in the city, she was immobilized on her couch, hours slipping away. Doctors discovered cancer in one of her father's lungs and they operated immediately. A smoker, a constant worker, he had been raised in the Bronx by immigrant parents who had died together in a fire when he was seven. But he had gone on to comedy, producing three hit television series. His eye for what was funny but harmless had never failed him. He'd made money, outstripped his roots, but now groggy from anesthesia, he mumbled how he had never been happy. Not in his work or either of his marriages.

"But I love you," she argued as if her presence and love could ever be enough to make him happy and prevent him from leaving her.

"Sixty years of life and now this." He waved his arm to the narrow hospital room, the single suit hanging in the closet.

"Some people would say you've had everything," she said. On the windowsill were flowers, dazzling and sexual, which his second ex-wife had delivered.

She reminded him that the doctors had been certain all the cancer had been removed.

"What did I tell you about doctors? Stay out of hospitals," he warned, wagging his finger.

She praised his life of hard work, driving a cab days and nights through college, and then his subsequent successes. Television people called the hospital, and his siblings, whom he had neglected, still visited and cared. One of his shows had recently failed, but there was another one in the works, a comedy about hard knocks at a lonely-heart bar.

"You can be happy," she insisted. Her own happiness seemed to depend on him believing her. But he looked over the shoulder of his hospital gown and refused to speak. It was as if his entire life had boiled down to this, this final bed, the East River trudging away indifferently outside his shut window. She tucked herself away, a tough nut, ever-ready, as her old lover had said only months before, and took care of her father. She read glossy magazines, took walks down the fluorescent halls, staring into the open doors of other rooms, onto other narrow beds. All the nurses knew her by name.

"You're a good daughter," they said to console her, and she soaked in their words, repeated them to herself so she might remember them later.

"My hands are empty," she told the old lover over the phone. She had given in and called him, having resisted for a week. They spoke for an hour, but the ex-lover was too busy writing to see her. Stripped down, raw, she became insatiable. She couldn't get enough of bodies, of sweat, of brief, sad encounters. She faked her pleasure. The men were appropriate to varying degrees. Friends were beginning to marry. She asked gentle-looking cab drivers, her father's age, about the secret to marriage, and tears welled in her eyes when they gave the most simple advice about respect and kindness. Meanwhile her father recovered. He would not die now, not this year.


Painting, her mind was most engaged. Even if she began in despair, she would soon come alive, stroking the canvass with swirls of colors: purple here, yellow there, an angle to the left obscuring this figure and emphasizing the next. She loved to feel the ropes of her mind pulling, stretching, puzzling; she loved to see, step back and then see again. The whirl of colors, the mess of life.

And afterwards, she had a profound sense of ease and rest.

Her canvasses were vibrant with color. Tone and hue were everything. It did not matter whether the figure emerged or receded into the splattered color blocks. Eventually the colors, the impression of a dream or nightmare, despair or hope, were all that mattered.

She had one show at an East Village gallery, Mud Fish. She'd agonized over the selection of her work, sure she would later realize other options were far better. Quick witty titles had always escaped her. All her paintings were numbered and named, "Memory." She could not tell if she was a genius or deluded. Work was everything, she thought, the most pleasurable part of life.

The gallery was packed with friends and friends of friends and her divorced parents, who stood on opposite sides of the tiny room, watching each other. Still, for a moment, at the show, she felt bubbly and alive, discussing her own work. Everyone gathered around her and stomped their feet as she received her champagne toast. Face flushed, fingers tingling, she floated around the room. She knew this feeling would end, and so even as she lived it, she was recording it to herself: this is what it was like to shine.


She dressed up for the sculptor in leather and lace.

"Look how sexy you are," he whispered, and in the mirror, her own body and his excitement turned her on. Sometimes he tied her wrists to the bedposts, and she would never admit to anyone how her body trembled before he touched her, first gently and then harshly. In the morning though, rage throbbed in her throat, a crimson behind her eyes, and she could hardly speak. She lay in bed with the lights out, eyes squeezed shut, wishing to be obliterated. Years ago beneath the flashing TV lights at the Washington Square Hotel, she had been sure she would die inside permanently, but now she knew these moments of despair would pass.

As the daylight progressed, the sculptor's tenderness slowly soothed her anger away. Within a day, she might feel ten different ways.

"I'd do anything for you," he said, kissing her awake. Saturday mornings, he went to the deli on Avenue A and served her pancakes and fresh orange juice in bed and fruit from the farmers market, which he perused for hours. "What cherries, what avocado," he would say flushed with his news. She could eat all she wanted with him, all the pancakes, all the syrup. He liked her as she was, soft around the edges.

"Everyone's jealous of me," he would tell her as she dressed for their weekend afternoons together, browsing thrift shops. She wore work boots, fishnets and a bright orange skirt. Joke clothes, but sexy, the sculptor thought.

Though she had pushed her work with dealers and galleries, she had never gotten another solo show. A critic after Mud Fish had called her color-work imitative and glib. Her days seemed consumed by her day job, answering phones at a law firm. Still the sculptor believed in her completely, encouraged her work. For her birthday, he made a series of clay images of her, and for Valentine's Day, he built a stark iron sculpture of a man, bony and bent.

"This is who I'd be without you," he said, though women always wanted him. He had dark hair and lean cheeks. Black angular sweaters draped his wiry shoulders.

"I wake up furious," she told him after sex one morning when the bitterness in her throat was unbearable. "I hate what you do to me."

"You hate it?" He blinked at her, keeping his voice even. "You're so critical. I'm always doing something wrong."

He withdrew from her, touching her only occasionally and tentatively. Even though she apologized, he became even more silent and inexpressive. Evenings he slipped away from her, drinking beer in front of the television and laughing to himself. But this despair was familiar to her, not at all alarming. She had never been attracted to anyone who was mild or facile or clear. The sculptor was still as devoted to her as ever. He worked as a carpenter, and his dream was still to build them a home, a beautiful home of wood and glass in Upstate New York, where he'd been born. Every time she doubted his ambitions, he won something, an award for his art, a grant, an important exhibit.

"I want to please you, to give you everything," he told her.

"You already do," she insisted though, really, she wasn't sure.


But he did build her that home, a home with space and light and tall windows overlooking the Hudson River. They cooked dinner together in their tranquil kitchen, and in the evening, she read books or watched TV beside him. Though she had sworn never to leave the City, she found moments of expansion walking silently with him through the woods. The crunch of their boots, the branches snapping against their jackets, the honorable trees swaying above them.

She taught English as a Second Language to dishwashers at neighboring resorts. She often gave them time she wasn't paid for and spent her evenings devising lesson plans. She had class parties for their birthdays and bought them small presents that, to them, seemed extravagant. They were grossly mistreated by the resort management, and she wrote letters on their behalf. Her days were busy and purposeful, and her relief at not painting surprised her. When she returned to her art on weekends, her chest tightened with anxiety, and she painted less and less.

Though sex was rare, her life with the sculptor had become one of comfort and kindness and much more peace than she had ever expected. If she ever wondered whether she had lost something, she quickly reminded herself how much easier everything was now, with this home, this steady love. She had made a deal long ago, even before the sculptor: touch was too difficult, and the only way she could live contentedly was to live without it.

At thirty-five years old, she was nearly half way through her life. In the confusion, the whirl of it all, how could there ever be only one good decision? Before her father finally died of cancer, he had warned her that she was too much like him, too lost in doubt. "Go forward," he told her. "Don't get stuck in the mire."

Did this mean she should marry the sculptor? She replayed her father's final moment, the moment when the body stopped. A scream had formed behind her eyes, and then the brassy nurse had pushed in, joking about the heat, unknowing. There was something about the Yankees outside the hall. "You're a good daughter," the nurses had all said.

Her August wedding day was humid and still, the sky a muted gray. The Hudson River threaded the hot valley. Women in light summer dresses fanned themselves. Sweat dripped down her sides, and she had to hold best friend's arm for support. At the altar, the sculptor looked a little crazy too, his eyes bright and fidgety, his forehead damp. But when she reached the altar, his long fingers grasped hers. "I love you," he mouthed as they turned together to the judge.

"Are you happy?" She held his hand later as they lay on their backs beneath the moonlight.

"Nothing's changed really." He shrugged off the momentousness of ceremony. In the pale light, his white undershirt glowed.

"I mean, we know each other, don't we?" he said. The pillow rustled as he turned towards her, waiting.

Would she open her arms to him, caress his body in the darkness? Would she be kind?

"I'm happy," she said, as if she weren't quite sure, but then she checked herself and squeezed his hand. "I am."



Cassandra Garbus: Fiction
Copyright ©2008 The Cortland Review Issue 38The Cortland Review