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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
13.
Wanda Thiele ("Pronounced ‘Teal,’ like the color, dear") was a widow from the eastern edge of Nassau Country on Long Island, at a distance from the city where people were less thought of by Manhattanites as unsophisticated "Lonn-Guylanders" than as simply rich people with a taste for big houses with vast lawns. Wanda Thiele was indeed rich, having inherited something in the high seven figures from her late husband, Ted. Wanda had two grown children and didn’t communicate much with either one of them. Her son was a resident in a prominent Manhattan teaching hospital and was just too busy to give much time -- on the phone or in person -- to his mother. That was certainly O.K. by Wanda, who reckoned motherhood duties ceased altogether, and for good, once the kids left the nest for college. Her daughter, disappointingly, held down a lower-rung middle-management job in a department store in a huge mall in New Jersey. The daughter lived with a boyfriend -- not a bona fide husband -- with whom she had a three-year-old son, born only a month after Ted’s death. The reasons for Wanda’s not liking much to talk to the daughter were, in ascending order of importance: the daughter’s glamorless job, the layabout boyfriend, and the raw fact that she’d made Wanda a grandmother. Wanda Thiele looked at least ten years younger than her fifty-six years. She found the comment, "You, a grandmother?" to be less of a compliment than a scandal revealed.

Ted had shared her obsession with physical fitness and the preservation of youthful appearance. When knee surgery and then a torn rotator cuff felled him from the tennis ladder at the Cranleigh Country Club, he made a public vow not to take up golf. "It’s only half a step up from shuffleboard, the clothes are vulgar, and men who play it get tits" he’d said, at the cost of several old friends. So Ted had gotten a pilot’s license, and became at first fascinated with, and then maniacally hooked on, those contraptions called ultra-lights that looked to Wanda like flying coat hangers covered with pantyhose.

Sure enough, Ted died in the crash of his ultra-light airplane. He plummeted into some trees just outside the chainlink fence of the playground of a Catholic grammar school. The kids at afternoon recess watched him dangle there for an hour before the paramedics arrived to cut him down. Wanda knew full well that he’d hung there and bled to death, but she told people he died on impact so they wouldn’t squeeze her forearm out of pious pity over how much she must be suffering because of how much Ted had suffered. He’d hung there, too, in a kind of crucifix position, with his arms (broken, both shoulders dislocated) caught in tree-branch Y’s on either side of him. Ted’s helmet had come off in the crash. His hair was collar length -- a common adornment of rebelliousness for retired CEOs in their circle -- and dyed a rich brown. Ted wore a beard, which he also colored artificially. Three second-graders ran inside the school and cried that they’d seen Jesus come down from heaven. Two of the teacher-nuns agreed. The diocese later transferred them to desk jobs, elsewhere in the diocese.

As soon as Wanda received the insurance settlement and the proceeds from Ted’s will (the children got four million apiece -- held in trust until they turned forty), she sold the house and grounds and moved to the city, where she proceeded to live it up royally. Not in a decadent way, no, not at all. No personal-trainer lovers, no cosmetic surgery, no parlor tans, no long loud dinners at newly opened restaurants. Instead, Wanda went to every play, ballet, opera, musical, lecture at the Midtown YMCA, and opening of a blockbuster museum exhibition that she could, and often to more than one event in a single day. She joined all of the major museums in New York at a "patron tier," higher than token but far short of philanthropic. But she hadn’t been a complete saint, either, Wanda had told Helen Issacson after four glasses of Pinot Noir. She’d taken a couple of short Caribbean cruises, and since moving into their building had had sex on three separate occasions. "Good, bad, and indifferent," she’d said to Helen, "in exactly that order."

Where she and Helen had parted ways, at least temporarily, was at Wanda’s suggestion that they possess keys to each other’s apartments, which were across the hall from one another. "We’re both vulnerable, rich single girls with a man -- albeit mine flying around in the hereafter -- paying for our apartments," Wanda had said. "We should trust one another, stick by one another. Exchanging keys would be an expression of that." Helen had said thank you, but no. She had said it more than once. In fact, the next time she had to say it she’d have to add, "and please don’t bring it up again." Wanda probably knew that, and she was waiting to see if, unpestered, Helen softened on her own.

*     *     *
It was one of those awful days whose awfulness was mitigated only because, when the day disappeared into an even colder, damper and drearier night, you didn’t think you were really losing that much. Helen thought exactly that as she clacked in her dress boots across her apartment building’s tiled lobby, leaving wet prints that Javier the super would probably hold against her in some subtle but effective way. The doorman would probably find some tiny way to get even, too. She had not said hello to him.

The elevator lurched once or twice on its way upward, toward the seventh. The carpet in her hallway, Helen noticed for the first time, was really an ugly red. The color was made worse as a result of Javier’s having replaced -- under orders from the co-op board -- the building’s warmer, less fuel-efficient, incandescent hallway lightbulbs with cheaper, cold fluorescents only a coroner could have loved. What bothered Helen the most at the moment, though, was being able to feel, or thinking she felt (no difference), a drop of cum -- actually, the watery residue thereof -- running down the inside of her thigh. She had allowed Tom to forego using a condom. No, she had suggested it herself -- insisted upon it -- thereby heightening the extreme melodrama of the coupling by being reckless in the bargain. Helen was cold, wet, tired, sad, already lonely, and, she knew, a fool.

As she bent, keys in hand, to kick off her boots, Helen could almost feel her across-the-hall neighbor, Wanda, watching her through the peephole in the door to 7C. Helen got her key into the lock on the first stab and went quickly inside her apartment. She kicked the door shut behind her, not bothering to bring her shoes with her. Let Wanda Thiele surveil them for a while, she thought.

Helen’s apartment was done in a style that she laughingly referred to (to herself) as "modern post-postmodern." Nothing in it was black that could have been white, nothing grey that could have been black, nothing silver that could have been grey, and nothing a tick toward the warm side of neutrals that could have been silver. At night, even without one of the elegant drafting lamps turned on, Helen -- or anyone -- could have negotiated any reasonable passage -- say, from the bedroom to the microwave, or to the bathroom from the small leather couch in front of the flat-screen television mounted on the wall -- quite easily, without turning on a light. Helen went straight to her telephone’s big, cool, softly fluorescing answering-machine buttons, and pressed the one that glowed chartreuse.

She’d had her cell phone turned off all day, so anybody wanting to reach her would have do to call her home number, which she bravely left listed. Her father, who didn’t need the directory to get it, was just "checking in’ and himself had "nothing to report." He said the last part as if it were a very clever joke, and laughed loudly. Ben  Greenleaf apologized for calling her at home on a weekend, then asked her if she could come in at eight-thirty Monday morning for a "skull session" before their meeting with some high-powered literary agent. "This request is actually a compliment, Helen," Ben said, "I think I need your intellectual advice." Jonathan Hirsch, who had to look up Helen’s number, also offered a recorded apology, but not for ferreting out her home number and likewise breaking a privacy seal. Rather, he said it was unforgivable of him to let all this time go by without ever thanking her for her part in the wonderful book party at Ben’s place and her part in -- the results were in! -- his book’s surprising success. The director of the Modern Museum -- himself! -- eschewed apology. After all, he was gracing her recording chip with a call not just from the great Museum, but from him, personally. This was not a job offer, please understand, he said. But he would love to have a conversation with her about ideas on a possible complete restructuring -- in theory only, of course -- a major museum’s Public Communications Department. And while they were at it, "How would you implement them if you were ever to run such a department?" You never know.

On any other night, this voice-chip bonanza would have cheered Helen. They would have lifted her out of her deepest "How do really I know. . . ?" torpor and put her firmly back in the here-and-tomorrow. On any other night, she would have gone to bed with the messages replaying in her head and gone to sleep ranking them in order of possible lasting salutary effect on her life. Ben’s call would have been number one. Her father’s telephonic kiss on the cheek would have been second. The museum director’s feeler -- albeit its having such a transparent agenda concerning her father -- would have placed third. And before Jonathan Hirsch had finished repeating his oily, last-place gratitude in her memory, it would have been bright, happy morning. But Helen barely slept all. She stayed awake and asked herself, in a variety of ways, like a detective would put the same incriminating question to a suspect, whether she was a bad girl.

First count of the indictment, obviously, was her committing adultery with Tom. She and Tom Mannheim had driven in a car rented by her (he left his Audi wagon parked in a lot near Canal Street, where he could plausibly have been spending the afternoon and early evening shopping for studio supplies) to Sasaponik-on-the-Sea, New Jersey, and registered, just for the hell of it, as Mr. and Mrs. Quincy Hirsch. Why on earth would she put another woman’s marriage at risk and cast a shadow of parental tumult over two innocent little kids?

Though Tom exuded a meaty charm, physically, and was loveably, bumblingly direct compared to her previous lovers, she didn’t love him, or at least didn’t love him that much. She certainly didn’t love him enough to be stuck with him as a carnal roomie, which might well be the case if Sharon found out, and threw him out. So was she, Helen worried momentarily, a female Don Juan -- in it for the danger and the scoreboard? No, she answered herself. She’d had far fewer lovers than other women her age that she knew, and since returning to New York she had been relatively stingy with her lust.

Of course, there was Arthur. Arthur was a legitimate, unattached suitor -- he clearly wanted what was called, in the most elastic word in the English language outside of "interesting," a "relationship." But that was the part of the trouble: an open relationship with Arthur promised to be boringly proper, by 21st century Manhattan mores. "Oh yes," she could hear people saying, "Helen and Arthur are a super couple; they give the nicest little dinner parties, almost like soirées, where the guests are a mixture of artists, writers and people from the publishing industry -- Arthur does the cooking, you know." Worse (and Helen disliked herself for thinking this way), Arthur -- a working journalist pushing fifty who only wrote about people who faced the demons of the art world and prevailed, instead of being one of them -- would get all the credit. His stock would go way up from snagging a catch like her. (Helen refused to aw-shucks her beauty or -- when she chose to turn it on -- charm.)

She, on the other hand, would be seen as having grown weary of hip society’s courtship rituals and as having taken a convenient way out: entering a "relationship" (gag!) with a chronicler of the kind of art her rich and famous father collected, perhaps guiding Arthur to Castle / Cartwright (or the reverse) for an anthology or, more probably, a through-written book on something like, oh, how the current art world had become a de facto province of show business. (Helen even imagined a title, stolen from a phone conversation with Arthur: They All Want to Direct: Today’s Young Artists and the Lure of Entertainment.) She would bide her time for a while, then open a gallery, or take a job as Senior Editor at Art Discourse. Then she and Arthur would be a "power couple." At that point, her free life would effectively end, weighed down as she would be in a kind of deep-sea diving suit of exercisable clout. Besides, she thought, while going to the freezer for a stashed pack of emergency unfiltered cigarets at four-fifteen in the morning, Tom was probably a much better fuck.

Yes, I am a bad girl, she said aloud (spitting a tobacco fleck at the ganzfeld of her ceiling), as much if not more for leading Arthur fruitlessly along -- so far -- as for guiding Tom to the brink of ruin. And there are no standard, made-for-TV-movie forces at work, she thought. My father never molested me. He didn’t even spoil me, really, given that he has pots of money and I am his only child. I wasn’t done enough dirt by Jean-Claude, or anybody else, to send me bent on revenge against men.

Men and not women, Helen knew, were the inept ones when it came to managing their love lives. They went either for the lowest, basest form of them, or reached hilariously -- like a kitten trying to catch an overhead fan cord yards above his head -- for the unattainable sublime. In one sort of their schizophrenic moods, they wanted to get a little drunk or stoned, enjoy a quick, nasty fuck in some non-missionary position, and awake the next morning entirely unencumbered (and preferably unaccompanied), totally free to hit the gym or settle in before a televised football game without making small talk to a female. In another, they actually believed that romantic love and the erotic infatuation that accompanied a helping of sex with a new woman were sustainable indefinitely.

Women were the sensible ones. They occupied the practical middle ground, which was somewhat more lofty than halfway in between men’s territories. Women knew that love and sex would morph (at best -- disappear at worst) with age, fat and tooth decay. Women, thought Helen, are tragedians, or at least realists. Men -- she refused to mince her interior words -- are clowns.

How was it then (were things ever simple?) that women, who knew that the moving finger of geriatrics, gravity, and compromise wrote the brief interludes of romance and then moved on, were so often "lady novelists" of the sort who scribbled narratives about Elizabeth and Darcy, Cathy and Heathcliffe, Scarlet and Rhett, that could be read again and again and again, invoking a fictive spell that convinced other women that romantic love could indeed defy the weathering of time? Perhaps that debility was confined to art. Helen hoped so. In real life -- take Tom and Helen, Helen thought -- it’s the woman who knows that this -- this, this what? this thing -- has to go somewhere, probably downhill, probably toward something worse. A marital cataclysm and a venomous breakup. Or a but-a-whimper breakup. Maybe both.

It was Tom, handy with tools and simplistically certain about what he needed to do to keep his artist’s career on track, whose head was in the clouds. He could see that his viability as a sculptor couldn’t hover forever among David Thornton’s fobbings-off, Howard Edelman’s real estate speculations, and Tony Givens’s stop-gap paychecks. Something with all three would have to happen or not happen. Five years down the road, Tom could see, he’d either be a real player in Chelsea, an embittered fixture at the Academy, a "coffee-shop loser" as he called it, or a former artist. Whatever happened or didn’t happen, he wouldn’t be the same. But with her -- Tom whispered hoarsely -- he would always be timelessly "incredibly in love." Tom didn’t have a clue.

The morning was indeed bright when it arrived, but not especially happy. When Helen made her way to the front door and opened it to retrieve her boots, the boots were gone. Where they had stood was a note from Wanda, on thick and creamy note paper, in a matching envelope. "Helen dearest," it read. "I came home late from a marvelous dinner at Les Trois Frères and saw your lovely footwear vulnerable in the hall. You have such a sense of style! But there are people in this building who would. . . you know. So I took your boots in for safekeeping. For a mere friendly knock, they’re yours again. It’s been ages, and I have a wonderful bottle of an interesting new red. Hugs, -- Wanda."

Kidnapping for ransom was bad enough, Helen thought, but the bullshit about coming home from dinner out was really obscene. As was the certainty that Wanda would say how much easier it could have been to place the tempting shoes softly inside Helen’s door had she a key to Helen’s apartment. Luckily for Helen in her frame of mind, Ben was most likely out for his usual Sunday Tribune and constantly interrupted breakfast on the Upper West Side. ("It’s networking with home delivery," he liked to say. "The people I need to talk to always happen to show up and come right over to my table.") She left a chirpy message on Ben’s voicemail about happily coming in a bit early tomorrow. Would Ben detect forced cheerfulness? Did it matter? Her father wasn’t at home, either, and his outgoing message had somehow defaulted to an anonymous baritone saying, "The person at this number is not able to come to the phone right now." Helen left a message anyway: a breezy whereabouts lie no less brazen than Wanda’s. The Modern Museum’s director’s machine said he wouldn’t be near his office phone until the following Tuesday. Helen simply thanked him for his call. Jonathan Hirsch? An art critic. A plague on him. Let him dangle like she would for three punishing weeks, waiting to see if her period arrived. She deleted him.


PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery. The archive for The Art Critic can be found here.