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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Drama · #2161432
Novel in progress
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

When they arrived at the St. Regis lounge Paul was already seated at a table for four facing the King Cole mural behind the bar. Isabel saw him steal a look at his watch. They weren’t late, were they? His body language put her on edge. As the three entered the room his eyes seem to rest first on Lea, until he seemed to catch himself and suddenly stood up to greet Isabel with a kiss. When Steve introduced him to Lea, Paul held out a hand and greeted her with a handsome smile that was sweetly reciprocated.

Over the first round of drinks, they all wanted to know about Lea, including Isabel.

So Lea told them she was pursuing an MFA at Columbia after graduating "back in the Nineties" from Bryn Mawr with a degree in English. She had been born and raised in the Philadelphia area. Isabel was impressed that Lea was content to stop there, resisting any urge she might have had to boast or bore them.

This was enough information for Paul, who responded that his "former wife" was a Bryn Mawr graduate, also born and raised in Philadelphia. When she heard this, Isabel felt an old resentment surface: she'd wanted to go to Bryn Mawr or one of the other Seven Sister colleges herself to study English but had been overruled by Felix. She thought she'd gotten over it, but now and then it manifested itself in a pang of jealousy toward another woman. It was superficial and served no use in her life except to provide something to envy in another woman. It was not something she could expect Steve or Paul to perceive about her, although she once mentioned her disappointment to Paul, as a freshman at NYU. He rebuked her for it. He claimed that most students were not at the college of their first choice and she was terribly spoiled to be complaining at NYU, where many kids would love to switch places with her, some of them women pining away in forced celibacy at those women's colleges to please their parents. She never brought it up again.

They were on the second round of drinks before the subject changed to Felix’s pneumonia, and that soon prompted Paul to ask about the status of Roth & Co., the potential sale of which had been put on hold during Felix's illness. From his discussion on the subject, it was obvious to Isabel Paul knew a little more about the pending matter than what she had discerned over the phone with him earlier, when she thought she was giving him news. It was disconcerting; as she’d protested to Henry not long ago, she felt her family – and now Paul - were holding back information from her, as though she were a child incapable of dealing with it maturely, or more insulting still, unable to understand it.

On the other hand, it was flattering and fascinating to think Paul could arrange his time and mind to accommodate the lives of her brother and father. Why bother himself? He didn't need them now, surely. And he was unlike either Felix or Stephen, whose chief questions in life seemed to Isabel to be “Where am I in this picture?” or “What’s in it for me?” They were businessmen; Paul was a scientist. His pressing question would be more like, “What does this information hold for mankind?” But on second thought, the very fact that he was a scientist now led Isabel to believe he was not so different than her father and brother: his actions and thoughts followed methods just as theirs did, and demanded concrete and measurable answers.

Now she heard Lea telling the group she worked for the Haines Literary Agency. Isabel knew Henry was in contract negotiations with them. And here were Steve and Paul talking about the company’s prospects for being sold!

“Oh? Do you work closely with Steve Haines?” Isabel asked Lea.

“Yes. We're representing Michael Naftali at your company," Lea confirmed.

Isabel cast a disapproving look at Stephen. To Lea, she responded, “That’s interesting! I haven’t read his manuscript but Steve's and my half-brother, Henry Stallings, is very impressed with it. I understand the author is coming in next week.” To sign the papers, hopefully. Henry had mentioned it only in passing.

The table got very quiet then. Isabel picked up her drink and took a sip, pretending not to notice the awkwardness she’d caused by her reference to Henry's biological relationship. Turning to Lea, she asked, “What’s he like? Michael Naftali. Is that his real name, by the way?" She liked saying it. "Michael Naftali."

Lea broke out in a stunning smile that changed her whole countenance. Isabel couldn’t help but notice her brother’s look of admiration. He wants her.

"He spent a few years in Israel as a teenager and decided to Hebraize his name. It was Mike Nathanson before...I think." Lea smiled. "He kept the same initials." No doubt it was something else.

"Well then I don't blame him. I like the name Michael Naftali a lot better for an author," Isabel said. "Just like Saul Bellow was a better choice for the author's name than Solomon Bellows. It's hard to imagine Augie March being written by a guy named Solomon Bellows."

As if it was a sacrilege, which it certainly could be, considering Bellow's literary genius, Lea responded in a hushed voice, "He reminds me of Saul Bellow, in fact." Isabel noted how her face took on the red of her hair, and she dropped her eyes. She’s in love with this guy, I bet. Too bad for Steve.

Isabel couldn't help teasing her. “He must be very handsome, then. Is he married?” Which number wife is he on?

Lea nodded at Isabel. “Married, yes. Nice looking. You'll see for yourself soon."

Well, maybe Steve has a chance with her after all.

Lea rattled off a few harmless facts and observations about the writer. "He’s nearing forty, Jewish, personable, very smart and witty. This is his first novel....a comic novel. He teaches in the humanities at Princeton."

Paul was interested in Lea's assessment. “Is it his writing that reminds you of Bellow, or his looks? Or something else?” he asked her.

Lea looked grateful for the question. "Not his looks, no. Of course, I never met Saul Bellow and only began reading him after his death in 2005. I've watched some interviews, the few I can find online, and he was much older already by then. I love to listen to him speak, how he enunciates - t'wasn't and t'isnt - and watch his expressive face, the nostrils how they twitch and how his eyebrows are so fluid. Michael speaks that way. But before I met him, when I was just reading his manuscript for the first time, I thought of Augie March. So it's the writing. Yes. It's fresh and rich like that. His characters are interesting and well-developed."

"So he piles on a lot of adjectives and bases his characters on real people, like himself?" Steve asked in a sardonic tone.

Lea chuckled self-consciously. "You could be right, Steve."

Isabel approved of this response. There could never be another Saul Bellow, in any case. She told Lea, "My mother was a literary fan of Bellow. I am too. My grandfather was a close friend of his publisher over at Viking and we had his novels in our house when I was growing up; some he even inscribed. My parents met him on several occasions, but I was too young at the time." Madelyn had testified to Bellow's legendary good looks and womanizing, two things not easily lost on her, according to Felix, who knew the score.

Lea's brows went up. "Wow!" she said.

Isabel had an idea then. "Can you describe Mr. Naftali in a Bellow-esque way? You know how his characters wore their essences on their bodies," she prompted Lea.

"Oh, gosh," Lea demurred.

"Just for fun," Isabel encouraged her. "Off the record, of course. I won't repeat anything."

"Great idea!" Steve added. "Size him up for us."

"Yes, please." Isabel said, looking over at Paul, who nodded with enthusiasm for the idea.

Steve motioned for the waiter to bring another round of drinks, and then rubbed his hands together in excitement. Lea drank the rest of her first drink and adopted a serious posture for the challenge.

"Start on the face," Isabel coached her. Does it inflate in laughter? Does he have big boyish teeth, for example?"

"Okay, let's see. His face." Lea wrinkled her brow before going further. "Well, it swells out of his shirt collar in colors... like a knuckle protesting a too-tight wedding band."

Isabel's eyes widened. "That's great!" It sounded original, too. The men were silent, deferring to Isabel's judgement. "What about his eyes?" Isabel asked.

"His eyes?" Lea repeated, stalling for time. "Um...his eyes are the color of dust...that accumulates on a dream too long neglected, maybe."

Steve smiled with his own grayish eyes and added, "Sounds like he needs strong glasses to see through disappointment?"

"Yes," Lea gave Steve a big smile.

"Tell us about his brows.. are they furry caterpillars on the Tree of Knowledge, or shelf mushrooms that grow on old tree trunks? What do his brows say about him?" Isabel asked next.

Lea chuckled in recognition of these Bellow descriptions and furrowed her own brow before coming up with this: "His brows were planted with precision long ago to keep his eyes from wandering too far when he got older."

There was a murmur of appreciation around the table. Paul had one cheek resting in his palm while Steve's face was half hidden behind hands clasped as in prayer. Isabel was mindful that she was barely breathing.

"And his hair?" she asked. Will she say it's vigorous? Or bald like a purge? Scrappy? Old onion roots? Dry as death? Bellow had more fun describing older people, Isabel decided. She was at a loss to recall youthful metaphors, and Naftali was still young, after all.

Lea came up with something else. "His riotous hair pulls out the teeth of combs that try to control it."

Without further coaxing, Lea added, "As for his mouth...a generous oath can pass unimpeded by a weighty truth."

They were all at a loss for words, until Isabel "You're not quoting from the manuscript by any chance, are you? Because I have to say you're dazzling me." The two men echoed her.

This brought a big smile to Lea's face. "Not that I'm aware of, no!"

"But he writes like this?" Isabel asked her. If so, we have a winner.

Steve interjected, "You ought to put this stuff down on paper, Lea." He patted his jacket breast pocket pretending a pen might be there.

Isabel would ask Henry for the manuscript before Friday. In the meantime, she wanted to know, "Is any of it true, Lea?"

It was Paul's turn to interrupt. "The question, it seems to me, is whether you expect Michael to remain faithfully married once he realizes his dream of becoming an author." He looked around the table and his eyes came back to rest on Lea. With eyebrows raised, he asked, "Or have I misinterpreted all the literary clues?"

Not even Isabel expected this reaction from Paul. But it was true, she could see it herself. Paul had been adding up the descriptions to find the essence of the character and had stumbled on a theme. Had Lea done it this way on purpose to see who was paying attention? It was very clever of her, no matter what.

But it was all made up, Lea insisted. "In fact, his eyes aren't even gray, they're very dark brown," she claimed.

"Well, send me a manuscript of your own soon!" Isabel said by way of thanking her. The men made compliments as well. They appeared very stimulated by the game.

"Now it's your turn, Isabel!" Steve said, pointing his glass at her.

"Yes, describe Henry for us," Paul urged her.

" I'd love to know about Henry," Lea agreed, now properly loosened up.

But Isabel declined to continue the game. I can't do better than Lea! Instead, she decided to give Lea and Paul an opportunity to form their own impressions of Henry. She announced to the three of them, “I’m having the seder next Monday night and you’re all invited. Including Henry." She turned to Paul and added, “Bring Joanna too!”

Stephen shook his head with a smile. He had no choice then to make the best of it. “You might actually enjoy it, Lea.”

Isabel wanted to add that it might help her gain insight into Jewish authors, but she stopped herself. Don’t underestimate this woman.

Lea accepted, honored to be invited, she said. Paul was happy to be asked too. “I don’t know what Joanna’s plans are”, he explained, “but if she’s not with her mother, I’m sure she’d be delighted to come.”

“She’ll meet Josette and Peter,” Isabel said. Indeed, it sounded like a big cozy family event, something Isabel had been missing in her life for the past several years. Not even the funeral was much of a family affair.

As though her purpose for attending the gathering tonight had now been met, Isabel announced it was time for her to leave.

“Me too,” Paul said. He got up and started to pull her chair out for her.

“Where are you running off to?” she asked him, surprised.

“Upstairs to write a novel,” he joked. “Come up with me.” He made no unnecessary attempt at subtlety. Isabel found his beguiling smile hard to resist.

Steve put him up to this, I bet. He wants to be alone with Lea. When she looked at her brother, he smiled with approval. So did Lea, for that matter. No one was fooled. Well, why not?


And now up in the room, keenly aware that the hour was getting late, Paul and Isabel shed their clothing quickly and slid between the cool smooth sheets of the sumptuous bed. Their lovemaking was passionate and hurried, but not unsatisfying. Isabel was tired afterwards; she wished she could drop off to sleep right there and then, but she hadn't come prepared to stay the night and didn't want to. She had her thoughts to sort out about Paul. Things were moving along very fast at present and she was used to being in control of her destiny. Now she wasn't sure who was pulling the strings.

To her relief, not more than twenty minutes passed before the room phone rang. It was Stephen calling from the lobby, checking on her. "We're leaving now. If you're finished writing for the night, I'll take you home," he informed her. He sounded tired, uninterested in humor or sarcasm.

"Give me a few minutes and I'll be down," Isabel responded gratefully. Thank you!

The dilemma of how to end the night having thus been solved for her, Isabel entered the grand bathroom in good spirits. She found Paul's boar-bristled brush sitting on the vanity and took several deep strokes through her hair with it, shaking her head afterwards. She stuck her earrings back in and fastened her watch. Then she pulled a tube of dark lipstick out of her purse and applied a fresh coat. When she came back out, she asked Paul, who was standing in his boxer briefs gazing out over 55th Street, “Do I look like I’ve just had a roll in the hay?”

Paul took her in his arms. “I would never guess.” He kissed her neck and whispered, “Next time a much longer one.”

************************************************************

On the ride home, after dropping Lea off, Stephen asked Isabel, “So…does he still do it for you, Isabel? He keeps himself in great shape, doesn't he? I think Lea’s a bit jealous of you now.”

Lea jealous of me? That thought hadn’t occurred to her at all. “She had eyes only for you.”

“And praise for Mr. Naftali.”

“She's his literary agent, Steve. It was to be expected."

“I didn’t think Paul was going to be the one pumping her, though."

Isabel chuckled. "He's a doctor. Who better to perform heroic measures?" she joked. "But settle down, he was just being friendly. I thought it was wonderful, the whole night. I'm glad we got together."

She reached over to turn down the heat. “By God, it’s hot in here!”

“It’s just you,” Steve grumbled.

“Oh, don’t be jealous," Isabel teased. "Once we left you two alone, what did you talk about?” I hope it wasn’t Roth & Co.

“Her marriage.”

“Uh oh!”

“Not what you think. She’s divorced. But get this - he was Jewish! That is, he is Jewish. A history professor at Brandeis now."

After a moment of confusion, Isabel burst out laughing. “Christ, Steve! You couldn’t have found that out sooner? Thank God I didn’t embarrass myself going on about how great Jewish men are!”

“Believe me, she thinks the world of Jewish men. That’s the only reason she’s seeing me, I think. Only I’m not like other Jewish men, she tells me!”

"Maybe that's a good thing, if she's comparing you to men like her ex. Seriously, how does she mean that? Because a woman can love a Jewish man for the very thing that’s missing in him. Maybe something good. And then she can love him for what he has in him, something she despises. So which is it, something you have, or something you don’t have? What would you say?”

Steve made a face. “I don’t think in riddles like you do. But since you’ve asked what I'd say...I’d say the good doctor has dislodged your brain with his dick. Another one of his heroic measures, is it? Damn, the bastard must be hung!"

Isabel threw her head back and laughed. "Whoo whee! Wait til I tell him that! Haha! Jesus, Steve, you're too much! Haha!" Isabel reached up and touched her brother's downcast cheek in loving appreciation. "Thank you for rescuing me from that animal."

Stephen shook his head. When Isabel settled down again, he said, “I suspect she means I’m not as smart as the Jewish men she knows. All she meets are intellectual types...writers, academics, artists.”

“No wonder! Yes, she knows the culture Jews...but then there are the money Jews. No Jewish male stereotype is complete without them. Many more of them around. And just as liberal. But I've always admired Rohatyn, haven't you? 'Fairness does not require the redistribution of wealth, it requires the creation of wealth.'"

The mention of his father's banking mentor (and namesake, as they used to joke), Felix Rohatyn perked Steve up. "Do you know the one about the gorilla?"

It was all before her time, back in the Seventies, but Isabel had come across it somewhere. Rohatyn had claimed, 'Saving New York from bankruptcy is like making love to a gorilla. You don't stop when you're tired; you stop when he's tired.' Isabel repeated it for Steve now. "Or is it when 'she's tired?' Either way, being a gorilla has its advantages, I'd say." She laughed. "What a great man, Rohatyn. He must be ninety years old by now."

"Yes. They brought him back as a special advisor to the CEO sometime after Wasserstein dropped dead at sixty-one. But both of these guys wrote books too, Isabel. I wouldn't be surprised if money Jews are better writers than your culture Jews."

Isabel huffed. "Non-fiction, maybe, because of their famous Wall Street reputations. Of course, don't forget Bruce's sister was a Pulitzer prizing-winning playwright. It wasn't all about money and business in the Wasserstein family. There was art. He owned New York Magazine, as I recall."

"Yes," Steve mumbled. He drove them for several minutes in silence. He'd given Isabel something better to think about than money versus culture Jews and she'd gone back to the penis of the “good doctor” with whom she’d just been copulating.

When they reached Columbus Circle, Steve jerked her out of that reverie. He slapped his palm on the steering wheel and exclaimed, “Damn! I think you hit the nail on the head!”

“Me? How? What did I say?” Isabel asked, startled.

Steve cleared his throat before delivering his revelatory statement. “There’s nothing about me for Lea to despise, that’s what it is! That’s what women want, isn’t it? They fall in love with men who have flaws, and the more fatal the flaws, the more attractive and irresistible the man becomes for them. There has to be a dark side…something they can hate, or try to change, or try to forgive, or at least complain about. There has to be something to despise in order for them to love. If a man is too nice and devoted he’s boring. My God, they were like this in high school and they haven’t changed!" He concluded by grunting “God damn women!”

Isabel was both amused and intrigued. She could identify truth in these gross generalizations that were certainly not limited to Jewish men, but she wondered why Steve had worked himself into such a lather over this woman. It was something she’d never witnessed from him before and seemed so unwarranted now. He hardly knew Lea. Was she really his type? What was his "type"?

Now Isabel found herself wondering what Steve’s definition of love was in the first place, and if his disaffection pertained in any way to his marriage to Judy. Judy found many things to despise about Steve, but they were all in her imagination, part of her mental illness. Nor was there a corresponding love on the flip side to her. Steve could hardly use her as an example from which to base a generalization.

When the car came to a stop in front of her building, Isabel reassured him. “There’s always next week to redeem yourself as a Jewish man if you want. Study the Haggadah…that will impress her. Five-thirty next Monday, don’t forget!” They kissed good night and said “Love you” to each other.
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