Quiet, tense, careful and, not unreasonably, frightened, Tom and Helen managed to remain unseen by them. But they had to wait an extra ninety minutes while nursing another very delicately ordered drink each -- until the little band of luminaries finished whatever business they had -- before they could extricate themselves from the bar. Helen had left first and had taken a cab. Tom had stayed behind and used the pay phone to call home.
Sharon was pissed, mostly at Jimmy’s calling her three times, on a weekend, to ask if she knew if and when Tom would be coming by the studio. Jimmy was just covering his ass, Sharon told Tom, so he could keep hanging around doing fuck all for twenty bucks an hour. Sharon said as far as she was concerned that’s what Jimmy had been doing all along.
Tom absorbed the blow and said he was sorry. He improvised a sloppy excuse about running into a couple of other artists -- "You don’t know them, nobody important" -- and getting waylaid into a couple-pitchers-of-beer gripe session about the art world going down the toilet these days. He overplayed his hand, however, with a postscript about how, with his having a family and everything, he hardly ever got an opportunity to do what artists have always liked to do, which is to sit around with other artists and drink and talk about art.
"Spare me the bullshit, Tom," Sharon said, and hung up, leaving Tom to worry about not only whether Sharon knew he was lying, but if she knew exactly what he was lying about. Tom and Helen cooled it for a week and a half before meeting again.
This time, Helen prepared a cover. She spread some sample pages from a forthcoming book about modern sculpture on the white tablecloth, to the side of her place setting. It wasn’t a Castle / Cartwright book. She’d borrowed the BLAD from a friend at another house who wanted to do Helen a favor because she lusted after a job at Castle / Cartwright. If anybody unexpected -- say, the director of the Modern Museum -- happened to drop in for lunch at La Posada and saw Helen and Tom together, Helen was merely getting a sculptor’s take on the possibility of Castle / Cartwright’s publishing this sort of book. Of course, Helen would leave the matter to implication; she wouldn’t say anything directly, even if pushed. She’d shuffle the pages and turn them over after letting whatever intruder have a quick, unincriminating peek. Manhattan was a very small world -- "an oversized Greek fishing village," her father had once called it -- and if she fibbed out loud, Ben Greenleaf would be quoting her own ill-advised fiction back to her in a trice.
Tom was a little slow on the uptake. "What’re the book pages for?" he asked, playing the thick-headed hunk to a degree which, for a second, irritated Helen immensely.
"Business," she said, "that we’re plausibly doing in case somebody who knows either one of us also gets an appetite for fifteen-dollar quesadillas for lunch."
Tom ran his fingers through his thick brown hair, leaned his head back and laughed softly. Helen thought: Yes, go ahead and regard me as a paranoid female -- you with the rumpled, wide-wale, pea-green corduroy jacket that sticks out in this restaurant like a jailhouse jumpsuit.
"That close call up in Swellville really got to you, didn’t it?" Tom said. He took a sip of his extra-large draft Mexican beer -- it might as well have been a lighted signal flare on the table -- and leaned forward on his elbows. He smiled and looked intently into Helen’s eyes.
"Yes, Tom, it did," Helen said. "You and I both have something to lose getting caught having a little tête-à-tête. You more than me, you know. And quit looking at me like that. You’re not the world-wise older man and I’m not the innocent ingénue."
Tom’s head drooped. "Jesus Christ, Helen," he said in frustration. "What role do you want me to play? I am older, and I’m trying like hell to. . . you know, but you keep stringing me along. I mean, you can save the disguises because right now we don’t have anything to hide. Godammit. I’m starting to think you enjoy dangling me like this."
It was Helen’s turn to lean back. "You’re married," she said.
Tom looked up. "Yes, I’m married. It’s not a perfect marriage -- far from perfect, in fact. All I can say right now is that you’ve known I’m married from the time we met at Jonathan Hirsch’s book party, and yet you’ve still. . ."
"Come on to you," Helen finished.
Tom cringed. Was he always to be cursed with plainspoken women? "No, that’s not how I see what’s been happening. But you haven’t exactly run the other way, either. And it’s pretty apparent, isn’t it, that I’m, I’m. . ."
"In love with me?"
Tom said nothing.
"Tom, this is the twenty-first century, not a Victorian novel. You can’t possibly believe you’re ’in love’ with me when we haven’t slept together. So for the moment, why don’t you just call it ’smitten.’ That should make it suitably polite for your delicate sensibility."
"Jesus, you’re difficult," Tom said. Then he relented. "O.K., I’ll say ’smitten,’ whatever. The point is, I don’t quite get what you’re up to. Unless you enjoy torturing me."
The waiter arrived with two enormous plates. They were decorated with hand-painted cactus designs and filled to the circumferences with food. A small swirl of sour cream embellished the center of each. "Very hot plates," the waiter said. "Be careful. Another cerveça, sir?"
"Thank you, yes," said Tom.
"Another tequila for la señora?"
"No," said Helen. "Not straight. I’ll have a small margarita -- light and not too sweet."
The waiter went away. Tom’s eyes followed him for a couple of seconds. Then he turned back to Helen. "Torturing me," he repeated.
"Adultery is a big step," Helen answered. "And you have children. Very nice, very cute children, I’m told."
Tom plucked his napkin from his lap and dropped it on the table beside his plate. "Godammit, Helen, don’t you think I haven’t thought about all that? My cards are on the table: I want to sleep with you, I want to be your lover, I might even want to run off. . ."
"Stop it," Helen said sharply. "Don’t go there."
"All right, no running off," Tom said. "But the rest is true. And the thing is, you know it. You have known it all along. I mean, why do you go out with me, on these dates? They are dates, you know: having lunch or a drink alone with a man who’s sexually attracted to you."
Tom paused and took a deep breath. "Hey look, if you want me to be absolutely truthful, self-effacingly truthful, then I will be. You’re an absolutely beautiful, stunning woman. Everybody who sees you sees that. And you’re young and smart. There are a million guys in this town -- legitimately single guys, guys with money and bankers’ and lawyers’ jobs, guys who are handsome and play great tennis -- who would give their left testicle just to be sitting where I’m sitting right now. I know that and, godammit, you know it, too. And I know that I’m not that handsome, that I’m an artist with not all that much money, and that I’m a married man with kids. So, I ask myself, why does the beautiful, intelligent Ms. Issacson. . ."
"Don’t forget ’rich,’" Helen interrupted.
Tom’s reply ignored what she’d just said, but his face couldn’t. ". . .want to sit here with me instead of them? And what I come up with is that, for whatever reason -- and I’m thankful for whatever that reason is -- she. . ."
"Has the hots for Tom Mannheim," Helen said.
"Yeah," Tom said.
"Well, I do," Helen said.
"Yours is hardly what I’d call a romantic approach," Helen said.
"What the hell do you want?"
"To tell you the truth, Tom," Helen said, "I thought what I wanted was control. You’re right about the bankers and lawyers. You’re right about yourself, too. You certainly aren’t the man anybody would pick for me for my greater good. But attraction is like that. I couldn’t control the irrational attraction I felt for you. So I at least wanted to choose the time and the place. But then I started to get cold feet. I thought about your wife and your children. ’Homewrecker’ is such a ridiculous-sounding term, but it exists because homewreckers do exist. And I don’t want to be one."
Tom closed his eyes as he spoke. "Look, I’m between a rock and a hard place. If I say that I’m knocked-on-my-ass in love with you, that I’ll give up anything to be with you, then you’ll get scared away from me because you don’t want to break up my marriage. But if I say don’t worry, I’m staying with my wife no matter what, then you’ll think -- and you will think it, no matter what -- that I’m just another macho artist type, out to score with a good-looking woman and then move on."
The drinks came. Helen said to the waiter, "I’m sorry. I know I’m being one of those ditzy women, but I’ve changed my mind. I do want another tequila, straight up. You can take back the margarita and leave it on my part of the bill. We’re going to split the check."
After the waiter had gone, Tom said, "I’m going to eat and just talk art gossip for a while, if I talk at all. But I want you to think about what I just said. By the end of this lunch, please either make me a very happy man or put me out of my goddamned misery." He drained half his draft beer in four swallows, and dug into the steaming mélange of browns and beiges on his plate.
Helen ate, and said nothing until her tequila arrived. Then she knocked back most of it and rose from the table. "Stay here for a few minutes," she said to Tom. "I need a little air. I’m going to walk around the block. Just the one block, and just once. Then I’ll be back. Don’t worry, I’ll be back."
Tom did half of what he was told. Helen took her coat -- itself a little light for the holiday weather -- but her sweater remained draped over her chair. Obviously, she couldn’t just up and leave without it, but just as obviously, Tom couldn’t help worrying if she would. He kept his head down as he ate, not wanting to wonder which of the many figures passing by in the distance, beyond the big, Christmas-decorated windows at the front of the restaurant, might be Helen, returning. When she did, he was so overjoyed that he almost started to cry.
Helen didn’t sit down. "Come over to where the telephones are, in the back," she said to Tom. There’s something I want to show you."
"Show me?" he asked.
"Just come," she said.
Tom stood up awkwardly. Together they walked back to the alcove where a single pay phone was mounted on a velour-wallpapered wall, above a Mission-style table on which a pseudo-peasant basket held a dozen bright waxed red chili papers nestled in cornhusks. To the right was a door marked Mujeres, to the left, another labeled Hombres. Helen pulled Tom around the corner toward the women’s room. She grabbed him by the lapels of his corduroy jacket, pulled his face down to hers and kissed him. She thrust her tongue deep into his mouth, then pulled it back and kept kissing him as though to devour him. Helen released her grip on one lapel, grabbed his hand with hers, and brought it up under her coat, to her breast.
"Jeez-zhus," said Tom, pulling away. "People will. . ."
"We’ll make love," Helen said. "We will. That’s a promise. Just let me figure out where and when. We’ll make love. What you do about it afterward is your business."
Tom tried to say something -- he tried a couple of times -- but couldn’t.
This time, Tom let the obscenities pass. He hung up his jacket and Mets cap and walked toward Jimmy and the sculpture. His construction boots left dark, wet footprints behind him. It was a shitty day outside. Inside, if Jimmy’s greeting was any indication, the weather wasn’t going to be any better. Tom ran his fingers through his hair, whooshed out a loud sigh and said, "It’s me, man, not you. Sorry you have to bear the brunt. It’s probably best for you not to call the loft looking for me."
"Why don’t you get a cell?" Jimmy asked. "Ain’t nobody doesn’t have one these days. Man, even nine-year-old weed runners in Bee-ville carry Razrs -- with text and pix and everything." Jimmy took off his safety goggles and stood up.
Tom tucked his thumbs into his jean pockets and started a counter-clockwise perimeter tour of the big sculpture. "Sharon’s into intense bookkeeping lately," he said. "She says we have too many ’open-ended’ expenses. You know, bills that we don’t know how much they’re going to be each month. The land line is capped -- one set rate fee each month for unlimited whining to her mother about how hard it is to raise two kids and work full time for Hilda Roeninger. A cell can run way over. We have one, but Sharon’s the one who carries it, because she’s careful, she says, and only uses it for essential calls."
"Thomas," Jimmy said, "all you gotta do is get your own on the side. There’s no cell directory. She can’t find you. Have the bill sent here."
Flicking with the back of his hand at a dust bunny that had somehow climbed to the top of the part of the sculpture nearest him, Tom answered, "I’m one of those guys, Jimmy, who’ve ceded all financial control to their wives. Howard’s stipend, all my teaching checks, even the occasional check from David Thornton, have all been set up direct deposit. Sharon does the bills. She’d see the check, or the credit card charge. Even if I ran over to a TelStar Cellular office every thirty days and paid the bill in cash, she’d notice my having to withdraw money from the ATM more often."
"So how. . . ," Jimmy paused before dropping his bomb, ". . .do you keep those dates with Miss Issacson off the books? Or does she treat?"
Tom stood with his back to Jimmy, caressing a beam of the sculpture with one hand. He didn’t turn when he spoke. "Shit," he said, "how’d you find out about that?"
"Lindsey Hynes. He told me was in this bar with Quincy and Chakira, hatching some big business with some museum guy. They left, and bro and sista hopped a cab. Lindsey said he wanted to get a little git-down toke under his belt. No matter how cool he looks, he gets real jangled from doing deals. So he popped down some stairs. You know, to one of those basement entrances to the plastic surgeon’s office. He lit a joint."
Jimmy paused for effect. "Then who comes out of the bar while he’s putting away the roach, and walks right past him? It’s Miss Issacson. Nice view up her skirt, too, Lindsey said, if he went in for white chicks."
"Continue," Tom said.
"Lindsey decided to get real mellow, so he decided to stay there and finish the whole J. Then somebody else came out of the bar. You know who? It was you, the hunky Sculptornator! Lindsey said you were looking like some guy in a spy movie who’d gotten in over his head with the CIA. He almost wanted to go ’Psst!’ and offer you a hit, you looked so. . . what’d he say?. . . ’fearful.’"
"Helen and I were just talking over a proposal she’d been handed by her boss," Tom said, "for a big anthology on modern sculpture. She wanted my reaction -- as a sculptor."
"Thomas," Jimmy said, planting both hands on his hips, "don’t try to run that shit on me. I ain’t no baby, and on the other end, I’m not senile, either. Don’t make me say what’s as plain as the blackness of my ass: You wouldn’t be discussing no sculpture book in a bar, on the goddamned Upper East Side, at night. You’d be in her office, or having coffee right near it. In the daytime. C’mon, I know you’ve got a big hard-on for her. You fucked her yet?"
"Jesus, Jimmy! No," Tom said.
"The ’operative term’ -- as you white folks say -- is ’not yet.’"
"I wouldn’t cheat on Sharon."
"Anybody would cheat on anybody, Thomas," Jimmy said. "First thing homies learn from their mommas and daddies."
"Am I that transparent?" Tom asked, downcast and defenseless.
"Not any more see-through than most people I know. But you’ve been not quite there in the head, when we’ve been working lately. And you’re real touchy about any talk about your home life."
Tom turned around. "Then why’d you bring it up as soon as I walked in the door? You’re supposed to assist me -- that means help me -- and not bring up things that you know will get me off-kilter."
"That was a legit question I had, Thomas," Jimmy said. "The last time I tried to phone you at home, your wife just about bit my little queer head off. You were late and I thought maybe you weren’t coming in. So I called to ask you a question about this muthafuckin’ video equipment shit. I thought I might get some of it hooked up while you weren’t here. I sure hope you don’t treat that cosmetics bitch your wife works for like that if she happens to call looking for Sharon. Y’all’d be on welfare soon enough."
"Do me a favor, Jimmy," Tom said. "Just take Sharon with a grain of salt for a while. She’s got things on her mind, too. And don’t bring up Helen Issacson. I’m thinking things through, and I don’t want to have to explain myself to you while I do it. Not on my twenty bucks an hour, anyway."
Jimmy snapped the goggles back down over his eyes and reached for the sander. "O.K.," he said. "You’re the boss. . . Massuh." He flicked the switch and retreated into the noise.
After a short while, Tom yelled "Jimmy!" twice, three times. On the third, Jimmy cranked his head around in Tom’s direction. Tom gestured for him to turn off the sander. Jimmy obliged.
"You’re right," Tom said. "I’m going to get a cell phone of my own."
Jimmy smiled and nodded. Then he turned the sander back on, saying "a man among men" out loud, knowing Tom couldn’t hear him.
"When you stop and total it up," Sharon said, "you don’t do much of a fucking thing around here at all. You’re too busy playing the suffering artiste."
"Don’t shout the F-word in front of Natalie," Tom said. "Besides, that’s a low blow." He dropped back into his chair at the dining table.
"Really?" said Sharon, sarcastically softly.
"Yeah, really. This place isn’t a Trump co-op, you know. It’s an old sweatshop loft with jerry-rigged fixtures. In the time we’ve lived here, I’ll bet I’ve redone most of the plumbing and half the electric. Not to mention the bunk beds and the play platform for the girls. Not to mention the computer center that you use all the time for Hilda Roeninger’s benefit. Not to mention the waddayacallit, the ’entertainment center,’ where everybody can stretch out and watch TV. Not to mention redoing the whole goddamned kitchen. Not to mention. . ."
"I remember an awful lot of that being hired out because you said you didn’t know plumbing and electric well enough," said Sharon. "And Tom, darling, if you did do all that stuff, you did it in the first six months we lived here. Since then, you haven’t lifted a finger to keep this place in shape. You don’t even help clean it. And I can count on my fingers and toes all the meals you’ve ever cooked for the family." Sharon dropped her head into her hands.
"C’mon, Sharon, you know that I’ve hauled appliances in and out of here, picked up shit you bought at Furniture Barn, just to save a few bucks on the delivery charges. And all so that Hilda would see we lived in a ’nice place’ when she came over. I’m still doing that sort of thing. It takes time out of my day, too, just like cooking dinner does out of yours."
Sharon shot out of her chair like a jack-in-the-box. Her face was suddenly terrifying. "Tom, you sonofabitch, you know this fucking argument isn’t about dinner or laundry or plumbing or furniture or cooking meals, or anything like that. You know goddamned well what it’s about."
"Natalie," Tom said. "You can be excused now. Why don’t you go play, and we’ll warm up some blueberry pie for a nice dessert in a little bit."
"Carla will hit me," Natalie said in an exaggerated pout.
"Just tell Carla that Daddy said to play nice, or no dessert. And tell her that I appointed you Dessert Monitor for tonight."
"All right," said Natalie, clambering down from her booster seat. She ran grinning to her and her sister’s room, the new marshal in town, with the authority of the Territorial Governor backing her up.
Tom turned back to Sharon. "No," he said, "I don’t ’know goddamned well’ what this argument is about, other than what it’s obviously about -- my being an artist."
Sharon threw back her head and faked a laugh. "Jesus, explaining to the criminal exactly what the crime is -- a stock scene on every TV show." She lowered her gaze to level, right at Tom’s eyes, and said very evenly, "It’s about Helen Issacson, that’s what it’s about."
"Jesus Christ," Tom said. "You -- you what? -- you think I’ve got something going with Helen Issacson?"
"No, actually not," said Sharon, crossing her arms. "Jesus, I wish I could smoke a cigaret. But no, I don’t think you’ve actually climbed between the sheets with her and given her one of your patented slam-bang blue-collar sculptor fucks. . ."
"Aw, for God’s sake, Sharon," Tom said, getting up again and starting to pace the floor in a fan of figure-eights.
"But you’re thinking about it, wishing you could," Sharon said. "Maybe you’re wishing you had the fucking guts to do it, wishing that you weren’t married to such a banshee who’d cut off your creative little nuts if she caught you in bed with another woman. And just for the record, Tom, I would."
"This is ridiculous," Tom said weakly.
"Notice the non-denial denial," Sharon said to the wall, as if it were a jury. "He doesn’t say he isn’t thinking about it. He doesn’t even say that I’m ridiculous for saying that he’s thinking about it. No, he simply says that this -- whatever ’this’ is, interrupting his dinner, maybe -- is ridiculous." Then, turning back to Tom:
"You’ve been moping around here -- when you’re here, that is -- with something obviously churning inside you. When I say anything to you, you either clam up, or just grunt, or say something nasty back to me. For no reason, Tom, for no reason."
"Look," said Tom, "maybe I’ve been a bit of a jerk lately. It’s just things, stuff, art stuff. I’m caught between waiting on David to give me that show, waiting for Howard to give the O.K. for the final version of the big piece for his condo development, and waiting for Tony Givens to give me a decent schedule with decent classes. I asked him for two, by the way. I know I have to teach more, to bring in a little cash. It’s all made me edgy, maybe kind of a prick to you sometimes, and I’m sorry. I really am. Can I tell you something?"
Sharon walked over to an antique-shop chest placed against a wall just outside the kitchen, removed the Christmas presents atop it, and opened the lid. She fumbled under some tablecloths and couch pillows and come up with a pack of cigarets with book matches tucked inside the cellophane wrapper. Sharon extracted the matches and a cigaret, and lit up. She inhaled and then -- from between lips stretched against her teeth -- blew a wide, flat stream of smoke into the air. "Go ahead," she said. "Make my day."
"Sometimes the balancing act gets tough," Tom said. "Good, responsible husband. Attentive, caring father. And artist. Not just ’an artist,’ I hope, but a good one. And not just a good artist. I’m trying to be a significantly good one, an artist who gets on the art world’s scoreboard, so to speak."
Tom watched Sharon inhale again. "I’m not a real slick political mover," he said, "out there in the scene; I don’t hang with the FleaMarket crowd, or the Lucy Keller crowd, or with Lindsey Hynes’s entourage. Shit, I don’t even hang with David Thornton’s circle of friends. I’m not connected and, by the art world’s standard these days, I’m not a young artist anymore. I’m way too old to be ’emerging.’ If I’m going to get something going so that I’m not just another schmuck on a barstool telling anybody who’ll listen how real sculpture used to be in the old days, and how much time I spend in the studio still making ’real sculpture,’ and what a wonderful testament to my incorruptibility that is, I have to make the most of a good opportunity when it comes my way."
Tom held out his hands, as if holding a globe. "Right now, there’s a chance of that. There’s a confluence of forces, you might say. If David and Howard come together in the right way, I could be noticed. I could get on the scoreboard. Tony and the Academy might even play into it, too, if he gives me a class with some hip students in it. That’d energize me, too.
"I simply need energy and a little break with timing to get this big piece done, get it shown at David’s, get a version installed in Florida, and get some press on it. Then I’d be over the hump. Then I could relax a little. Not take it easy in the studio, no, but with maybe an opened-up market for my work, start doing some smart, smaller pieces that collectors would want because of the publicity the big piece has gotten. Then I could maybe live a more regular life. And treat you better, too, Sharon. I know I’ve been kind of a shit lately."
"Nice speech," Sharon said. "You should be working for Hilda Roeninger’s advertising department."
"Thanks a lot," Tom said quietly. "I bare my soul, confess my ambitions as an artist, tell you I’m sorry, and you go all snide on me."
"You’re not interested in screwing Helen Issacson," said Sharon. It was a question.
"Oh God, that again?"
"Oh God, the non-denial denial again," Sharon mocked. "Can’t you just say, ’I’m not interested in screwing Helen Issacson’? I’m not saying you can’t have your fantasies. For all I care you can whack off in the shower to a vision of her spread-legged on a polar bear rug. But trying to seduce her, or letting her seduce you -- she doesn’t look above it, either, in spite of the purity of all that alabaster skin -- is out of bounds. A wink at the gallery-opening bar, a remark with an obvious hint in it, maybe even a little lover’s touch of the hands. Those are out of bounds, too. Can’t you just say, ’Sharon, I’m not doing any of those things, and I won’t do them, either’?"
The necessary nature of his forthcoming reply struck Tom with a shocking suddenness. He had absolutely nothing to lose by lying, and everything to lose from letting even a particle of the truth escape his lips. So he lied.
Later, after the blueberry pie had been fed to Carla and Natalie, Tom and Sharon retired to their bedroom. They made sweaty, almost callisthenic love, during which both of them perceived stabs of desperation, in themselves, and in each other.
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.