Ask and It is Given
Published in the 7/2013 as issue Pif magazine
Janey Lipsett and Damon Murphy fell in love during their senior year at the Ocean State University. Or rather, it would have been Damon’s senior year, had he graduated.
Janey had not noticed Damon at first in Environmental Journalism, because he was seldom there. The small class was held at 9 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with students facing each other at four tables forming a square. Janey was deadly serious about The Environment. She had always had a terrible hunger to do good, make a helpful change in the world, but had been born into a home where Dance lessons, Art lessons, and above all, Shopping, were the most important things on earth.
“Damon Murphy not here again, that’s no surprise,” the professor said, sardonic in his bizarrely deep, newscasterly voice. Dr. Hanson’s big voice emanated from a small thin body with a large head like a bug. The professor was not normally sarcastic, but it was the day of the projects, and he felt a small amount of disdain his due.
“His mother died,” piped a hippy girl. “Stroke.” Everyone in class, especially the girls, emitted sounds of distress. It seemed everyone knew Damon but Janey.
Janey began college at a dumb rich kids’ school in urban upstate New York, but found the milieu scant contrast to Scarsdale, where she grew up. Where Janey came from, state schools were indelicate things, hardly spoken of; your maid’s kid might attend one, but you didn’t.
Janey’s own parents had gone to Columbia, indeed, her mother taught adjunct there. But Barnard seemed not only too obvious a choice, but an unjust one; Janey’s middling grades wouldn’t have qualified her for entry without this family connection. She never even applied, nor did her parents urge her to. When she grew disenchanted with her first school, they let her transfer to Ocean State without criticism or even comment. Janey usually got what she wanted.
Janey and her older brother grew up in wild, licentious times. Only her family’s cabal of crafty lawyers saved Barry from the fate of most teenaged drug dealers, and when he entered Columbia it was through pulled strings. After Barry, anything Janey did was fine. The most daring thing she’d done so far was, at age thirteen, make out with the nineteen-year-old counselor at Camp Young Judea. The worst was the death of her Labrador Dandy. Both Nanas were living, if demented; she didn’t remember the grandfathers who’d “worked their fingers to the bone” so she could have “the best of everything.”
The scariest thing – besides 9/11, which happened to everyone — was when at fifteen, riding on the Metro North train home in a sweaty Danskin from the Martha Graham Youth Dance School, a businessman felt her up in her tight blue jeans under the seat. She was so embarrassed that, like her assailant, she pretended nothing was going on. She also feigned ignorance of her brother Barry’s high crimes when she was eleven and he sixteen, and it was all hush-hush with the lawyers. “Good as new,” she overheard her father say of his son’s clean record.
In those turbulent years, Janey’s parents whisked her away to classical music festivals in Newport, and for her, the holiday appeal of the nearby seaside school beckoned after the creepy high rise dorms in upstate New York.
At Ocean State some kids were dumb and some smart, but no one, it seemed, but Janey was rich. She quickly bundled her mink (dyed blue to appear fake) into the back of the closet when she moved in. Her family were furriers, going all the way back to Russia.
Her second week at school, Janey stared at the blank space in the back of her closet. Slid her many colorful clothes up and down the rack, but knew it was history. Like her GPS and stereo system the first night on campus.
“Oh well, I guess it’s gone.”
To her roommate, Janey sounded resigned.
“What’s gone?” Demebra looked up from rubbing cocoa butter into her feet. She’d just finished soaking them in a small plastic tub of soothing salts. Demebra played basketball – full scholarship — and was vigilant about “maintaining the goods” as she put it. Janey shook her head so her silky hair fell in her face.
“That stupid fur coat. I should never have left it. I should never have brought it.”
“They took that fly coat! That Pam and her meth-head boyfriend?”
Demebra referred to a large blonde on the other side of the suite. Pam was from the depressed rural northern part of the state, and sent half her Pell grant home to her mother on disability. At Ocean State Janey had met poor white people for the first time in her life.
“You collect insurance for that, you know.” Demebra was majoring in business administration. “You gotta receipt?”
Janey sighed again and slid the door shut on its smooth rider. “I don’t really care.”
Her roommate slammed her foot on the floor, her nail file also clattering melodramatically. “File a form. Tell Housing.”
“No,” Janey said. “I’ve wanted to get rid of that thing for years. Someone tried to set it on fire once.”
“Then why you got it? Your man buy you that?”
Janey bit her lip tragically, hands on shapely hips, gazing at the weeping willow out the window. “It’s an heirloom. I’m glad to get rid of it.”
Janey usually got what she wanted.
“Your folks be mad?”
“They won’t notice.”
When Damon returned from his week’s mourning, Janey could only just place him. Before, he had been just another picturesque figure of rebellion, slightly built, in sunglasses with long, greasy hair pushed back. Post-funeral he’d cleaned up, with hair cut so it fell an inch or less over the back collar of his clean ragged shirt, and in front lay dryly across an innocent brow. Without the dark glasses his eyes — the pale green of grapes — were enormous, sloping dramatically down at the corners, long lashes throwing shadows. Between the hair, his skinniness, and his plaintive expression, he resembled a French boy, or one of the Beatles in extreme youth.
When young, Janey had been fat and moon-faced, but by twenty had refined to a voluptuous beauty, with white skin in a wide face of heart-shaped symmetry. This whiteness was punctuated by red lipstick on her small, half-curved mouth — for she greeted the world with good will — and flanked by glossy, straight black hair hanging thickly to her shoulders. Her eyes were yellow brown, and for being slightly deep set even more like treasured jewels, some amber or topaz transparencies, through which gleamed pure light. Her short nose had a slight bump, but this embellishment merely gave her an aura of regality and exoticness. Janey turned the full force of these amber eyes on Damon, projecting good will.
He looked back, and coming to the next class, sat beside her.
“Would you care for a Rollo?” He displayed a half-finished tube. His voice was similarly sweet, stoned-sounding. He spoke with disproportionate humbleness and awe: “You’re from New York?”
“Scarsdale,” she said quietly, as if this were a disgrace.
Janey knew she would have been nothing without her advantages of birth. This put her far below most people in the world; below the maids who had bathed and fed her when she was young, below the workmen and gardeners who kept her house humming, below the tramping soldiers who fought their wars, below the floor models she met when she dabbled in her father’s garment district office – girls who came to New York from somewhere else, and were full of hard luck, grief and loneliness, despite their petal skins and slender ankles, girls who were spoken to rudely because they were not someone’s daughter. She was below every minority group that ever walked the face of the earth, including her own; she’d always felt responsible for the Holocaust, as well as slavery.
She was well below fellow students like Damon, who subsisted on grants and loans, whose clothes were cheap and worn, who didn’t have a cell phone or computer, who couldn’t afford to buy textbooks, and fell behind in class. It seemed Janey had been waiting all her life to help someone like Damon.
Damon didn’t seem to mind that she was so far below him. He lingered by her side after class.
“I guess I’ll have to take an incomplete,” he remarked, sad but complacent. “Would you care for a Rollo?”
“I’ll help you catch up.”
“That would be niiiice,” he said in his sweet stoned way.
She learned about him in spells at the snack bar. Each day Janey sampled a different pita bread sandwich or elaborate salad, accompanied by herbal tea, hot chocolate, and strawberry frozen yogurt. Damon only ever got coffee or tea, supplemented by his Rollos and Camel Lights. “Hot chocolate, huh,” he said wistfully, watching her stir in the whipped cream. “Maybe I should branch out.”
Damon had so often missed their morning class because he worked the grave-yard shift as a short order cook at a place down by the fishing docks. This explained the pallor and greasy hair. Not merely his own, but his entire family’s finances seemed in a state of disarray. His father had once run a fishing boat, but suffered a back injury, was screwed out of disability, missed a season, and lost the business. Janey was delighted. Her family was riddled with lawyers, they could sue the insurance company, he could get another boat, her father knew people in the gourmet food business who’d kill for fish like they had here …
“It’s too late,” Damon said. “The fishing industry around here is gone. Eco-terrorists killed it.”
Damon was studying environmentalism to “get in bed with the enemy,” as he put it, narrowing green eyes over an unlit Camel Light. “There’s another side to this.”
The Murphys once dwelled in a colorful Victorian by Narragansett Pier, but now rented a two-room cement block in the shadows of a rising McMansion metropolis, once a humble fishing village. “This whole area,” Damon explained, “Is being bought up by absentee landlords who churn vacation rents. They want to look at the ocean, they don’t want people to work in it. Their houses stand empty in winter. Local people can’t afford to live here anymore.” When he revealed that the owners of his father’s bungalow were not only New Yorkers, but named Epstein, Janey felt doubly responsible.
Damon’s two older sisters, Bridget and Mary Claire, dwelled in shifting states of substance abuse, domestic abuse, and rehabilitation. No one seemed to know where they were at any given time. His mother had been holding down two jobs – as a nurse’s aid and cleaner – when she died.
Janey had tears in her eyes. What could she say? That her mother used to scream at her and Barry on the drive to Manhattan where she taught a Saturday class, and where she parked them at the Columbia swimming pool on Mamie’s day off? That at such times Janey felt unwanted and in the way, the thwarter of her mother’s feminist dreams?
Damon sighed and looked out the giant window at an expanse of white clouds over the icy quad.
He plucked her sleeve in the middle of class. “Do you know who you look like?” And name some icon, Audrey Hepburn or Cleopatra or some sitcom actress being ballyhooed.
In Scarsdale Janey had moved in a circle of Jeremys and Joshuas, boys whose fathers were doctors and judges, who drove brand new SUVs, who had black hair and blue eyes, smooth, dermatologist-attended skin, perfect teeth, country club memberships and trips to Israel; boys who could murder someone and still be set up for life.
They did not value Janey as Damon did, because Scarsdale was likewise full of Janeys and Amys with flawless skins, cream-rinsed hair, immaculate cuticles and sixteen room houses. That Janey was less haughty, more kind-hearted than her counterparts actually stood her in worse stead. The Jeremys and Joshuas were readying for lives of battle and domination, and sought like-minded partners.
“He fine, he sweet, but he so –” Demebra searched for a word, “Fey.”
“He’s not gay,” Janey protested, having gleaned that he’d recently wriggled out of a live-in relationship with a hippie girl with long blond braids called GiGi. Damon claimed he’d only ever moved in with her because two sharing a room at a beach house off campus was cheaper. Now that GiGi’s battered car was no longer his, he had to hitch to school and everywhere from his base on his father’s couch, among the bottles and butts.
“No, fey,” Demebra clarified. “Weak. Not what you want.”
Janey looked it up: whimsical, enchanted, doomed.
That first year together, a sorority girl tried to sell Janey a pin promoting the next Olympics. She refused to buy. Contemplating two years in the future raised the possibility that she and Damon might not be together. Even then, she saw the center might not hold.
The first time Damon was arrested, it was not his fault. Naturally, he’d moved to Brooklyn with Janey after graduation; there were no jobs in Rhode Island. Her parents picked up the rent while she made her way through a series of internships. For a time, Demebra was also along for the ride, though she insisted on chipping in for utilities. This largess allowed her to scrabble enough money for her own studio co-op in just three years. Once she left, the Lipsetts were happy to keep funding Damon. Janey shouldn’t live alone, no matter that the neighborhood was filled with harmless “trustafarians,” as Damon contemptuously called the other rich kids, and that Janey outweighed her protector by a good ten pounds.
The call came at midnight, St. Patrick’s. The poignancy unbearable – Damon in the witness box, green tie iridescent under City Hall florescent lights. Barry, awaiting his third try for the bar, was more than adequate as defense.
Damon was picked up in a routine roundup at an east village head shop, where he was making a pickup. As a Wall Street messenger, he had no say over where he was sent and what he picked up. The police van was half-way to the Tombs when he remembered.
“Dude,” he said to one of the arresting officers. “Be careful with that bag. There’s like – a fifty percent chance there’s a loaded gun in there.”
Like the drugs he was ferrying, a Wall Street thing. And of course, when the rookie delved in, he violated search and seizure procedure. Eighteen months and seven thousand dollars of Lipsett money later, Damon’s record was clean.
The Christmas he was Santa Claus, and Janey saw him in Fulton square, smoking a joint with a young black mother on break. The day the mayor came by the soup kitchen where he volunteered, and mistook him for one of the homeless. The way there wasn’t a particular time or day or night when she realized his drinking and drug use were a problem. The Sunday morning her Dad surprised her with a load of groceries from Fairway, and wanted to take them out for steaks at Gage and Tollner. Damon was down at the pub already.
Her father, shaking out a Camel Light from Damon’s pack on the table, “Janey honey, do I have to tell you, four out of five, no, nine out of ten – when you’re talking Irish, you’re talking drunks.”
Janey bit her lip tragically, which had the usual result of her father sighing, opening his wallet, handing her a few C-notes, and telling her to go out and buy herself something nice. Janey usually got what she wanted.
Which was why, three full months after that night of flashing lights and ambulance, that night that ended their life together, when Damon left, or rather, they took him away – her parents, her brother and the police – why three full months afterward she still couldn’t believe it.
Then, the family had briefly focused on her, whisking her from the depths of Brooklyn, depositing her far up on Manhattan’s west side, before leaving her alone again.
On her way to the subway this Monday morning, Janey stumbles. When she kneels to retie the lace on one of her new black ankle boots, she feels, rather than sees him behind her in the swirling and dispersing commuting crowd.
For three months she’s been looking over her shoulder, seeing nothing, sensing Damon. The crisis between them had burned at such high voltage for so long, it can only detonate in disaster, only in death, she thinks melodramatically.
Or else — rising nimbly on sturdy dancer’s legs, smiling involuntarily into the startled blue eyes of a stroller baby — a miracle will occur, and she’ll wake up one day having forgotten Damon and their six years together like they never happened.
This is what the shrinks, 12-step groups, and her family want: that she denounce the only person she’s ever, will ever love. On this throbbing note, she descends the cement stairs of the IRT.
Or, she thinks, settling into a comfortable, orange curved seat, smiling thanks at the large kind man who gave it up to her – another reversal might take place. Damon could change completely, stop being the drinking, drugging, raging maniac he’d bewilderingly metamorphized into over the past year, and revert to the sweet-voiced boy whose plaintive eyes, whose haunting sadness first sliced her heart. They would be happy in love, marry and have a baby. Lulled by the movement of the train, Janey sinks into a daze that lasts until 31st Street.
Janey works at Born Free, the sustainable clothing house her father set up for her. All the manufacturing is done by village women in Ghana. Janey is technically the company director, but Demebra is in charge. “Just hire good people,” was her Dad’s mandate. Daddy was willing to put Damon on the payroll, doing something, anything – but he refused. “You’re just kidding yourself if you think you’re doing something good,” he said. “What Harlem kid can afford a $300 dress?”
Janey spends most of her days as she did while interning in other businesses – in mindless errands, carrying swatches between the designers on 22 and the sample-makers on 24 – some of whom at least are African American. She prefers errands to her desk, whose computer blinks with notices of responses to her profile on Jdate. Janey needs to avoid the candy jar on her desk, needs to walk off all the sweets she’s been eating this winter. She needs to get away from the 12-step slogan sheets stuffed in her drawer: “Letting go does not mean being uncaring, just that you can’t do it for someone else.”
Sometimes she tears a sheet from her stack of multi-colored post-it notes and writes, “Keep the focus on yourself,” or “Do NOT give in to self pity!” or even, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Several more times that day she thinks Damon’s with her, but each time she turns – nothing. She knows that whatever is coming will come soon; Damon is leaving New York. “I can’t live in this city with and without you,” he screamed, wiping away tears and snot, from the distance of thirty feet mandated by the protection order.
At the end of this Monday at the close of March, returning from an errand on a back hall on 24, Janey senses a draft. It draws her to an open door, outside of which is a concrete square, two feet by two, enclosed by a yellow railing. She steps out. Below her the clear drop to the street, a free fall of open empty air. It’s a damp dusk, cool not frigid, the city electric in slicing rain. Traffic noises rise, otherworldly, from below.
Janey breathes the wet cold air and looks out. To the west, the lights of New Jersey; to the east, a building has been torn down. The blast that destroyed it was illegal, written up in all the papers. Janey didn’t see or hear it, Like so many shameful brutal things, it happened under cover, in the middle of the night. An ad for a drugstore chain is painted on the surviving structure. Under the paint, the bricks are ragged and gaping, the corners uneven and torn.
Two things that were like one have been ripped apart. How can the building stand after a trauma like that?
The years between: Lying awake at one a.m.
“Don’t wake up, hon,” his voice sweet and stoned sounding.
“What time is it?”
“Not late. One-thirty.”
“Baby, you promised!”
“I only did a little.” Damon bends down in the dark to kiss her, and she can smell the booze, sense the involuntary grinding of his jaw from the drug. When she gets up to go to the bathroom, he doesn’t see her: the glowing gold light over the table, his slight figure in long johns, the pipe cleaner legs. Cooking his junk over a butane lighter in the giant historical soup spoon that came down from Nana Rosenthal.
Most evenings now, Janey sits in church basements festooned with animal murals and colored chalk drawings. During the day these rooms house pre-schools, at night they fill with depressed, nail-biting adults who’ve grown up in households where there was drinking or incest, gambling or drugs. In Janey’s case, dealing, which Barry always insisted was different. The 12-step reasoning is they’ve all managed to pick out friends or boyfriends, wives or jobs that let them recreate the dramas they grew up with.
Rules of order are strict: you aren’t supposed to address anything anyone said previously. Once when Janey did, a short-haired older woman barked, “No cross talk!” The net effect was supposed to be the creation of a supportive, loving and healing environment.
Janey’s thoughts are so loud, she can’t believe everyone can’t hear them.
Happy days, Scarsdale, Janey’s graduation party. Her parents are gone – if it is not season tickets to Tanglewood, then it is Jacob’s Pillow, or maybe that was the year they went to Tuscany. Damon ran up to Providence in Janey’s SUV to bring down his sisters.
Bridget is enormous, elephantine, her skin deeply grooved as a crone’s, though she’s not yet thirty; her ready smile is gap-toothed. At the sight of her, Barry shakes his head, muttering, “These people …”
Mary Claire is angelic, huge blue-eyed, straight-brown haired, with Damon’s same slight, slender, frame, the same ethereal bones.
“Does anyone have a match?” she pleads softly, incessantly. “Does anyone want to go to a bar?”
By the end of the night, Bridget has vomit down the front of her shirt and Mary Claire has revised her query to, “Does anyone have a bar? Does anyone want to go to a match?”
Barry rolls his eyes. He supplies a gram or two now and then, for good friends. And that was Janey, holding her sweep of glossy black hair back, leaning over the mirror, taking her turn. Everyone in Scarsdale did a few drugs.
Damon put Mary Claire to bed and found a clean T-shirt for Bridget. And likewise he took care of Janey when she was sick, cooked Irish stew and fed it to her bedside. Then turned to a raging monster the next day.
At her desk she clicks onto JDate, and is horrified at the prospect of a Very Successful Attorney with black hair and blue eyes.
Their first embrace back at school. Windshield wipers slapping cold rain, at the side of the road, a slight figure in black, thumb outstretched. She pulled over.
“I knew it was you,” he smiled in his sweet stoned way. They stop for chowder. In the middle of the salty snack they start kissing, and she knows she’s found everything she needs here in this wet, rainy car — his lean strength and his weakness together she already loves, the lost Jesus look in his eyes, the sinewy arms circling her lush, receptive self, her own well formed arms on his ribs, which tremble like a frightened bird, so she knows he’s in love, too.
He stopped everything, he told her – booze, drugs, even pot. She lives alone now among bric-a-brac, old world dark wood, cut crystal, in Nana Rosenthal’s Amsterdam Avenue apartment. The other crisis this winter: Nana broke a hip and went to the Hebrew Home for the Aged. Almost like she was making a space for the new generation. The lease was hers, option to buy, Daddy willing to pay cash and guarantee taxes and maintenance. Pre-war, junior four: a vast space in today’s New York. Ample space for a crib.
“Why can’t my dreams come true? Why can’t my dreams come true?”
She’s left a message at Damon’s SRO, the time and place of her Monday night 12-step group. There’s a protection order against him coming to the apartment building, the doormen know, but who’d enforce it on the street? Not her.
Janey is late. She is having trouble getting herself to meetings. There are packs of people roaming the city, who seem to do nothing but go to meetings all week. Before work, lunch hour, after work, all day Saturday and Sunday. They all know each other, are all in their forties, and command the meetings, only calling on their friends to speak. A person like her, who only went to four or five a week, didn’t stand a chance.
One night she went up to the middle-aged would-be actress, Marge, and complimented her on her speech, in which she’d explained how her mother had orchestrated everything in her life, down to the loss of her virginity. Janey secretly thought this unlikely, but admired Marge’s dramatic gifts.
Marge said grudging thanks, then started complaining about a man in the group who had a violence problem — a handsome young-middle-aged man who often found his way next to Janey when it was time to hold hands and say the Serenity Prayer. All the while, Marge looked Janey up and down, taking in the bright expensive clothes, the gleaming hair, the glowing skin, the shapely legs. Janey registered Marge’s jealousy – of her youth, her beauty, her money, and the fact that she was not one-tenth as fucked up as Marge herself.
Other times after group, Janey would be talking with someone, and in the middle of one of her revelations they’d run off to embrace a group person they knew better. They wouldn’t even introduce her! Janey began leaving without saying anything to anyone.
Last week, a woman talked about being hung from a meat-hook in a barn and sexually abused by her alcoholic parents. What could she say after that?
On this Monday, Janey feels she cannot face the 6:30 meeting on an empty stomach. She stops at a warm lighted diner, and orders a full gyro dinner with a glass of wine.
It is after seven when she emerges, slushy and suddenly freezing, wet pavement turning into a thin layer of ice. Janey is about to cross the street on a blinking Don’t Walk sign, when she thinks better of it and stays on the curb. A big red van that’s been idling at the light gears up and zooms past down the block, then hit its brakes crazily. Janey sees the body tossed up in the air — a slight figure, dressed all in black, flipping like a dummy under the van’s wheels. The cheap red wine comes up in her throat.
Cars swerve and breaks squeal, people crawl out from everywhere. She moves on the outskirts of the thickening crowd. The driver of the van is fingering a knitted cap in his hands, others from the crowd tend the victim, call 911. An agony of time before the ambulance.
The man who’s been hit was crossing from the opposite direction. He could have been going to Janey’s meeting, he could have left because she wasn’t there. The victim was dressed in black, and crossing the street from the left in the middle of the block. The driver didn’t see.
Janey’s windpipe closes. It is exactly as if there are ten clamping fingers cutting off her breath, just as Damon’s did the night of the ambulance and flashing lights, the night she took his bag of drugs and flushed it down the toilet. And like that night, the world goes black.
Then it’s before her: his face, the Jesus eyes, the draped stance, all one hundred thirty pounds shifted of him on one hip, dressed in black as he’d been since the day he left. To Janey, it’s a miracle, a resurrection — the sweet-voiced boy who struck her heart and seeded there so many years ago.
She holds him close, no longer trusting words – for what were those words and words, these past three months in the meetings, compared to feeling his thin ribs trembling like a frightened bird? They are both crying, and kissing, and it is once more his teary, snotty face, and she knows they will be crying together forever.
Her parents will protest. They will put up a small fight. But she will win. Daddy’s handed over the cash, co-signed on the dotted line, the apartment is hers, and so will her life be in it. It won’t be perfect. There will be sunshine and flowers and babies, late nights and tears and heartbreak. But it will be hers.
In the end, Janey always got what she wanted.