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.

Love in the Revolution

What the student strike had in worthy causes — the escalation of the war and the killings at Kent State — it sometimes lacked in organization. With no cell phones and no social media, trying to mobilize people to their respective corners was a challenge. Each speech or every time 50 people walked in one direction on campus took on guerrilla importance.

I reported to my parents that I was learning more from teach-ins and caucuses than I’d ever learned in classrooms. This no doubt pleased them abundantly. They humored me, thinking it was a phase. I dug in harder, adding a new –ism to my vocabulary every few hours. Imperialism, paternalism, asceticism. You get the idea. I don’t think I yet knew the word “dilettante,” which might have slowed my roll a bit.

On the second day of the strike, tensions were high. More speeches. Much more chanting. Fewer peace signs, more angry fists in the air. I was taking a shortcut through the Old Main building and passed by the auditorium just as a loud eruption of applause came through the doors. I should probably know about this, I thought, not having any idea what this was.

Behind the podium was one of the strike leaders. I recognized him by his long curly hair, which I’d admired the day before. Whoever he was, he was igniting this crowd. His wire-rimmed glasses rested on his prominent nose as he spoke without notes. I thought he was brilliant, and — looking back — he may have been. One thing was clear. I’d never passed him in the hallway of a fraternity party.

During one of the audience’s loud chants and extended cheers, I asked the person next to me if she knew his name.

She said “Paul Goldberg” as if maybe I’d spent the semester in a cave.

A couple of days later, Cortland — knowing it had lost control of all the students now yelling, “Strike! Strike! Strike!”  — announced it would close early for the semester. And, in triumph, everyone began making arrangements to leave campus and travel to other places and be radical and revolutionary in locales that mattered more.

I set out to meet Paul Goldberg before he left town.

I was walking downtown when I spotted him a block away. If that sounds one single bit coincidental, it was not. I believe the latter-day word for what I did is classified as stalking, about which there are now laws in place.

He was alone. I began to follow him. I was rehearsing opening lines when he turned onto a residential street. It looked like the part of town Paul Goldberg would live in. A little seedy, but he might call it “being with the people,” or any number of phrases I thought he might say. Then suddenly he took another turn. I realized he was walking to the door of his apartment.

He was five steps away from being gone forever.

“Excuse me.”

He turned, and there I was. All at once I could tell this was new territory for Paul Goldberg. My guess is that never in his life had the pretty blonde girl who dated lacrosse players moved in on him quite so aggressively. Or moderately aggressively. Or at all.

“I just wanted to tell you that I was in Old Main when you were giving your speech the other day. And it was the greatest speech I’ve ever heard.”

It wasn’t much but it was all I had. Specifics or critique would have just gotten me in trouble. I went with the broad stroke.

He was wide-eyed.

“Thanks.”

“Well, that’s it really.” I paused a bit but his mouth was still slightly open, and he didn’t look like he was going to say anything more.

“So, uh, have a good day,” I said as I turned and started back toward Main Street.

With every step I was silently saying, Please Please Please Please. Please, Paul Goldberg, this is our last chance to be together until the end of time. Say something.

“Wait a minute!”

Ah.

[Up next Thursday: The Phone Call That Didn’t Go Well]