The Cellist’s Wife and Me

Paul and I started looking for our own place for a couple of reasons. Paul’s mother rolled her eyes at everything we said. We were getting snubbed in the elevator, even by the man in the uniform whose job it was to make chatty small talk and push the buttons for us. We were done with the Apthorp.

We saw ourselves baking bread and sweating out hot nights in a crumbling walk-up apartment in the East Village where garbage pick-up might be iffy. But those apartments were scarce.

Finally, Paul’s mother called in a favor from friends, a couple she knew about 20 blocks away. He was a famous cellist and they owned a second, smaller apartment in their building, which they’d bought for their daughter. But she was in Barcelona, taking pottery classes and drinking white cava in the afternoons, and it didn’t look like she’d be home soon. It was ours to rent.

The good news: it was closer to Columbia and Harlem.

The bad news: it was on Riverside Drive and the cellist and his wife were filthy rich. We couldn’t lose a doorman or an elevator operator no matter what we did.

Paul was pleased that at least our apartment only had two windows. They faced the brick wall of the next building, a few feet away. It always seemed like it was 4 PM on a cloudy day no matter what the weather.

We were firm in the set-up of our new space. No furniture in the living room, just a few mattresses, so we could invite friends in to discuss anything that needed discussing and give them a place to sleep if they needed one.

After a few weeks, even Paul tired of the dreariness, and we tacked up some posters. And once the walls didn’t look like a subway station anymore, we bought Indian print bedspreads for the mattresses. We thought a chair or two wouldn’t really make us total sell-outs, as long as they weren’t comfortable.

Paul still wanted to pretend we were living in a corner of the Port Authority. The irony weighed on me in a pre-war building with a doorman, but six months into the relationship, I had a deep-pocket investment. I had dropped out of college to be with him, much to the anguish of my parents. They wondered if I’d ever amount to anything without a college diploma. They didn’t love the sex part either.

Once a month I took the elevator to the top floor to pay our rent. The cellist’s wife always seemed to be cooking when I arrived, often wiping her hands with a dish towel as she answered the door.

“Let me get you a receipt,” she’d say as she padded barefoot to her desk. This always gave me time to study the photographs on the baby grand piano, arranged in a clever pattern that made you think it was haphazard. One was of the cellist standing arm in arm with Pablo Casals on a beach. In another he was shaking hands with President Kennedy.

Their living room was full of leather sofas and cozy armchairs upholstered in yellow and blue patterned stripes and checks. Tall potted plants soaked up all the sun that came through their windows. I thought of asking her if I could pay the rent every two weeks — just to be in that space more often and absorb her graciousness — but I sensed it would be taken as weird. And more than anything, I wanted her to be happy to see me on the first of the month.

When word got out we weren’t living at the Apthorp anymore, Paul’s friends from all parts of the country began knocking. Some would stay the day, but others might still be underfoot a week later.

By early spring, everything about Manhattan exhausted me. I hated crowds, I discovered, which made sharing a small island with eight million people a little tricky. While Paul still wanted to cure the world, I’d discovered walking through Bloomingdales at lunchtime did wonders for my middle-of-the-day blues. And then there was my platonic love affair with the cellist’s wife and her glorious living room.

One night someone named “Chicago Tom” was giving a mini-lecture about the travesty of the Yale University endowment. He was eating the last of the chili I was hoping to have for dinner. I went to the bedroom, closed the door, and turned on “Let’s Make a Deal.” The discussion from the living room droned on. I was hungry. My days in the Revolution were over.

The next morning I said out loud what I’d been thinking for weeks. “I’m tired of your friends.” It didn’t go over well.

I decided a college degree wouldn’t be such a smudge on my character after all. I called my parents.

Two weeks later my father — on time as always — pulled up in front. I would stay with my parents for a few weeks and then get back to Cortland for summer school. We started loading my belongings into the back of the station wagon. I was weepy. Paul was, too.

“Maybe we should reconsider,” one of us said, but I don’t remember which one. He let go of me. I got in the car.

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