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No Regrets, Sydney

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

I don’t denigrate a man’s orgasm at any age. At 19 . . . 30 even . . . it’s wonderful. But it doesn’t compare . . . it’s not in the same league as an orgasm at 80. Then it has importance. There’s nothing like it. I know. I’m 80. I would suggest to young men, if it were possible, to save a few, bank them, to use later. I’m thinking now I should maybe think about saving some for when I’m a hundred.

My wife died last year. We were married 50 years. In 50 years I learned how to get along with her. I simply gave her everything she wanted. Why not? I could afford to. My wife had a gift for wanting. It’s a gift. My mother never had it. My father never had the gift of making the money. I determined very young that I would cultivate it.

I still go into the office every day, and I take people out to lunch: the old clients, and the judges and the politicos. I maintain certain contacts for the firm. For that I have my own office and a secretary and a blue brocade couch where I take a nap whenever I want to, because they are very important contacts.

She was dynamite, my wife, Sydney. Nee Shirley I think. I’m not sure. I never asked. There are things one didn’t discuss with Sydney. She could give you this look, like you had just pissed on the sidewalk in front of Bergdorf s at high noon. And truthfully, who wouldn’t change from Shirley to Sydney, if she resided on Fifth Avenue across from the park, with two in help, and antique furniture and modern art and four bedrooms and four bathrooms not counting the maid’s section and a nine foot Steinway in the music room and all her clothes were custom made, even her shoes.

Sydney was very big on The Arts. She once wanted to be an opera singer. She had some talent, but more important, she was very beautiful. She knew how to put herself together. Her presentation was superb. She decided, wisely, to make it on her beauty. That way she got to own jewelry from Bulgari and still have her name in the program. As a patron. Both our names. I met a lot of very important people that way. It’s astonishing how many prominent statesmen and millionaires are dragged to cultural functions by their wives. I’ve unzipped my fly in the men’s room at Carnegie Hall next to the biggest, most influential Dicks and Toms and Harrys, chatting familiarly about Horowitz and Domingo and Bubbles Sills. I’ve sat in a box with a Supreme Court judge and heard him snore through Beethoven’s Ninth with the whole orchestra and chorus at top volume. I’ve been to dinner with Lenny and that Pharsee Indian they had before Mazur … what’s his name… . That’s a problem you know, when you get older. Names. They slip in and out of your memory. That’s why it doesn’t matter what my wife’s name really was. I wrote Sydney in her obit in The Times. It didn’t make her less dead. It didn’t make me less lonely. I missed her. We had things pretty well divided, between us. I made the money, she made the lifestyle. I liked it. I was proud of it. Proud of her. I was a boy from the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. She was polite to them but they were never invited to dinner with Our Crowd. They never saw the Christmas tree. We grew apart, my family and I. I dealt with all that on the couch, because Sydney believed one should learn to live without regrets. I went to a very eminent doctor. Sydney found him for me. She wouldn’t have me go to just anyone. I discovered a lot of judges and Wall Streeters saw him too. I met a few, coming in and out of the office. I got to be friendly with a number of them. After all, sooner or later, everyone needs a law firm, why not ours?

Did I love Sydney? I thought so. I don’t dwell on morbid things. The preoccupation with love can be morbid. Like the subject of pride and the subject of religion—and of regrets.

Sydney taught me to avoid morbidity. I suppose she thought it was somehow Jewish.

I learned a lot from Sydney. I learned to enjoy paying a hundred dollars for a tie. I learned how to project poise. I learned if a pianist was using too much pedal, and if the conductor really understood the style of Mozart. I could state definitively that Winslow Homer was merely a technician who painted without emotion, and people listened to me. I was charming and attentive to the men and women who buzzed around Sydney, fawning and admiring. Actually she really loved music. She loved the theatre. She had wonderful taste in art. I have a magnificent, valuable collection because of her. I deferred to her sensitivities and judgment. I became a gentleman with a condominium on Fifth Avenue instead of a boy from a fifth floor walk up on Mosholu Parkway. She was also imperious and self-centered and demanding. She would send back a bag of apples if one of them wasn’t perfect. The tradesmen never tangled with my Sydney. She always got the best table in the restaurant.

She did everything well. She would tell you that herself. Often did. She made everything perfect. Except Kimberly. Our daughter. My only heir. Sydney did her best, but Kimberly was always a disappointment. How could the poor girl compete with such a mother? Kimberly never persevered at anything. Something always stopped her short; she sabotaged herself. She wanted to be an actress. She had some talent. But she was fat. Still is. Pretty face, good skin, nice hair, wonderful legs. But fat. Never seemed able to do anything about it. Not good enough to be a character actress where fat wouldn’t have mattered.

Kimberly doesn’t work, of course. I support her. I can afford it. But I find it uncomfortable when people ask what she does. Plays with her cat mostly. And does lunch.

She never married. She said she couldn’t find a man as good as the one her mother married.

Sydney was 78 when she died. That year she had given me a new picture of herself for my office. She looked 30. She’d had all the wrinkles air brushed out. It wasn’t vanity. At least, not completely. I think she wanted me—the world—to see her always young and beautiful. I did see her that way. I still keep the picture in my office.

Until she died, we were out nearly every night. The few nights we spent at home we watched TV together, sitting on our own sides of the bed. The problem with those designer chairs she bought is that they are miserably uncomfortable. Beautiful. But deadly on your back or legs.

Long before she died, sex had become a memory. Like names. It slipped in and out of my recollection. It wasn’t something Sydney ever really enjoyed. I think she was glad she reached the age when she felt she could reject it.

She died suddenly. An aneurism in the brain. I’d like to arrange it like that for myself, if I could, but not right away, of course. I’m in no hurry.

We had no funeral or memorial service. Sydney wouldn’t have wanted it. She always said it was barbaric. But we were at home. For seven days. People never stopped coming. Hundreds of people; friends and colleagues of mine, friends of Sydney’s, Kimberly’s few friends. Not that anyone talked about her much when they came. That’s how it is, isn’t it? Anyone’s dying is a reminder… . They come and hug you or kiss you or shake your hand and look solemn and sad and then they escape to another part of the room to talk about the ball game or the latest film and have coffee or a drink. There was even some laughter. I felt like the host at one of our parties, introducing people, chatting. In fact it wasn’t unpleasant; surrounded by friends, it was even a nice evening. But I kept glancing around to find Sydney, see if she had some instructions.

The last night, Rebecca came. I had met her a few times. She was a friend of Kimberly’s, widowed with several children scattered around the country. Ten years older than Kimberly. Fifty-five. Sydney had never thought much of her. She hadn’t disapproved violently, but she gave her judgment: ordinary. It wasn’t necessarily a death sentence, but close. Kimberly said, “She’s very sweet and kind hearted. And she can be lots of fun.” Qualities which were not held in specially high esteem by Sydney.

“She wears too much makeup,” Sydney said.

In regard to Kimberly, Sydney never did learn. Her disapproval only drew Kimberly closer to Rebecca. I tried to explain that to her, then I dropped it. Pointless to argue. I am a realist. Except when I’m not.

I didn’t give Rebecca any thought, except, perhaps, to feel somewhat sorry for her. She was utterly unable to cope with Sydney. Whenever they met she was tongue-tied and uncomfortable. Even with Kimberly she was playing out of her league. I wondered idly why she bothered. I found out later she was sorry for Kimberly. . . . It astonished me. Rebecca was sorry for Kimberly!

I must say I was always gracious to the woman. Because I am always gracious. Why not? I’m a prince of a man. I’ve heard it said about me many times. “Ben is a prince… .”

That last evening I was standing with a group of friends, trying to avoid Dorothy Brant. Dorothy had come every night. She was a thin woman with a pinched, lined, anxious face and henna hair and a great deal of gold hanging on her. I happened to know, since I had drawn her late husband’s will, he had provided for her in her widowhood very well. She came early and stayed till everyone left. Kimberly noticed Dorothy’s attentions. Nothing unimportant ever escapes Kimberly. She said nastily, “I suppose Dorothy will invite you to dinner next week.”

“She already has,” I said. “I told her I wasn’t ready for invitations. I’d call her.” I had said it in a courtly way, very sincere. But firm. I didn’t expect her to give up though.

Kimberly was specially sweet to poor Dorothy. It’s her way of being mean. She’s very sweet, and then when you think she’s your friend she becomes totally cold and inaccessible so you’re really hurt, can’t figure out what you did.

I saw Dorothy Brant hovering in the background, waiting to pounce again, to squeeze my hand, to ask if I wanted anything. I turned away quickly, and Kimberly stepped in with Rebecca in tow.

Rebecca’s not a pretty woman, but not unpretty either. She has a round, full face and lively dark eyes and short, curly black hair. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Sydney was a very special person… .” She put her arms around me and hugged me. She was going to kiss my cheek, but I saw Dorothy bearing down on us, so I turned my head quickly to avoid meeting her eyes; the kiss landed on my lips. I was startled. She was too. She blushed and let go of me, and moved off down the foyer to the outer door. I watched her go. She was a trifle hippy, just enough so you knew she was a woman. Not fat, but not slim, either. The feeling of her mouth lingered on mine. Pleasantly.

Wearing her sable, Dorothy sidled up for a last goodbye, a prolonged clutch and squeeze of my hand. I patted her shoulder kindly and led her to the door.

Kimberly stayed on, moving some of her things into her old room. One day she brought her cat, a fat, lazy creature who never moved or even opened her eyes except to eat. Sydney had hated the cat. She told Kimberly she wondered if pets get to be like their owners or owners get to be like their pets; which came first? She and Kimberly could go at each other quite well. Sydney was so disappointed in her daughter. She had assumed any child of hers would be spectacular. And of course the more she expected, the less Kimberly gave her.

I resumed my regular round of activities: concerts and theatre and gallery openings and dinner parties, only now I was frequently accompanied by Kimberly instead of Sydney. She did very well with the clients who were often my guests. She could tell a story charmingly, and she could appear to listen well, but not for long. She couldn’t listen to anyone for long. And of course, she didn’t have the elan Sydney had, the air of the princess accepting you into the court… .

Almost immediately the introductions began. There was always a woman at the dinner party for me to meet. Sometimes I was warned ahead of time, sometimes they were sprung on me. They were all suitable. Rich. Poised. Interested. Even eager. Expensively dressed. Extravagant jewelry. Cultured. They always called me. I was astonished at the number of women who called. In this town, any man over 70 who’s still breathing, owns a dinner jacket, and doesn’t pick his nose in public can be busy every evening and it often doesn’t cost him a dime. Sometimes I took one of them to dinner and a concert, if Kimberly didn’t want to go, because I never went alone. I don’t like to go anywhere alone.

On the opening night of the opera, Kimberly suddenly fell ill. She said she’d felt poorly all day, but she’d hoped it would go away, and then she was worse. Had fever. She waited until an hour before we were supposed to leave to tell me. I couldn’t insult anyone by calling at the last moment. I was put out. I love the opening night. Everyone is there. Kimberly loves it too. She must have felt her end was near or she would have dragged herself to it. She said she would get me a replacement. I said no one worthwhile would admit to being available on such short notice. “You don’t understand Rebecca,” she said. “She’s totally without pretenses. She will undoubtedly even listen to the music.” It didn’t sound like a good recommendation to me, but I didn’t want to miss the opening. The opera itself I can always miss. I never could understand the allure of huge-breasted women howling at the audience about their undying love for the barrel shaped tenors awaiting their turn to bellow. But the audience is always fascinating.

Rebecca was available. She wore a clinging red polyester and some kind of artsy beads. More suitable to the dress circle than Row H center in the orchestra. And Kimberly was right: she did listen to the music. At intermission I introduced her to several people as Kimberly’s friend who had kindly accepted a last minute invitation. Judge Ryan’s wife said, right in front of her, “You could have asked Dorothy Brant. She would have been happy to accept.” I thought that might have hurt Rebecca. It was so dismissive, even rude. I took her arm protectively when we walked back to our seats. “Judge Ryan’s wife has a friend she’s promoting,” I said.

That week I went out with a youngish woman judge and someone’s widowed sister-in-law and Kimberly, of course. I can’t remember two seconds of any of it.

A few weeks later I wound up with a pair of tickets for a cellist who wasn’t very good. Kimberly had something else to do. I called Rebecca. I told her the concert might not be interesting. She said it was the company not the concert that was important. I said that’s ridiculous. “No it isn’t,” she said.

She knew a lot about music. But we talked mostly about law. About my cases. I realized I’d had some very important cases. Some decisions that had made a difference.

In the next couple of weeks whenever Kimberly couldn’t accompany me, I invited Rebecca. When we were out, I introduced her to very important people. She always smiled and was tongue tied. They had nothing to say to her either, though I was aware they looked her over thoroughly. Their eyes said, “Balcony.” I felt uncomfortable. But also protective. She wasn’t any good in a crowd. She was strictly one on one. And she was most comfortable in her own house. She played the piano for me sometimes. She was surprisingly good. I told her she should have been a professional. “Oh,” she said, “it’s a very hard life. And mostly nowadays you have to be peculiar … crippled or 12 years old or Russian or Oriental. I didn’t have lessons till I was 16 and got a job and could pay for them myself.”

It was one of the few facts she told me about her life. I didn’t ask more, not because I wasn’t interested, but because I knew without being told. It was an ordinary story: a lower middle class Jewish woman whose family had a little grocery, where they worked from six a.m. till midnight, had a bunch of children, Socialist leanings, and intense respect for learning. All the kids worked their way through college, helped out at home and in the store. It produced industrious, independent, intelligent, even intellectual, people. New York is full of them . . . or was. They’re dying off or moving to Florida, mostly sad and disillusioned and bewildered by a new world that doesn’t share their values and where they get mugged by the very people they had fought for. I never got into these things with Rebecca. We talked mostly about me. She let me know she thought I was brilliant and charming and urbane. We laughed a lot, about insignificant things: a snippet of conversation overheard in the theatre, some small irony of life in New York. Gentle things, not particularly clever, little tickles really.

The weekend of July fourth, Kimberly accepted an invitation to the Hamptons. Sydney and I had begun to avoid the Hamptons. She said it had been taken over by dentists.

The city was empty and hot. Rebecca invited me to spend the weekend with her in a beach house she owned on the Jersey shore. No place fashionable. She rented a car and we drove there on Friday afternoon. She cooked dinner and afterwards we sat on her very comfortable couch watching a video. Her children had bought her a VCR in an effort, she said, to bring her into the 20th century, but she’d never used it. I set it up for her. I make it a point of being in this century, so I understand all these modern things. I suppose I feel it’s proof I’m still compos mente to learn about electronic gad-getry. We were sitting close. She put her legs up on my lap and I massaged her feet. She leaned over and kissed me. I held her close and she took my hand and slid it inside the v-neck blouse. Her breasts were lovely—soft and still firm. I felt feeble, distantly remembered stirrings.

When she opened my shirt, I said, “I haven’t done this in a very long time, Rebecca. I’m not sure I can.”

“Why don’t we find out,” she said.

We got to the bedroom. I won’t go into the details. I felt foolish at first. Embarrassed. I didn’t know if the machinery would work, and I am a man who respects success.

She was patient. She was generous. She was wonderful.

So far as I’m concerned, they can keep all those famous miracles: walking on water, parting the Red Sea, burning bushes. They’re all insignificant. Nothing compared to what I felt that evening. That … That was a miracle.

Never mind it took too long getting itself able and then it was over too soon. She said it was because I was out of practice. I was happy to continue practicing, which we did all weekend.

She didn’t like restaurants much. She had prepared food and we ate leftovers and didn’t even get dressed until the last evening when I insisted on taking her to dinner. I told her it had been a wonderful weekend and she seemed genuinely happy.

I think that was what stayed with me, as much as the miracle. She looked happy. It made me feel good. My Sydney, through me she had achieved many things: success, status, designer gowns—but I had never seen her look happy. Satisfied, triumphant, but not happy. I told Rebecca I would call her the next day.

When I got home, Kimberly was there. She had decided not to go to the Hamptons after all. She pouted that she had been left alone all weekend with nothing to do and no one to do it with. The city was a desert she said. Accusingly. I refrained from commenting that she had planned to leave me alone in the desert. She looked superciliously amused when I told her where I had been. “Well, I suppose I can’t blame you for not wanting to be alone,” she said. “But Rebecca!”

“I thought you liked her.”

“Of course I like her. She’s such a good person. But so dull. Everyone says so.”

“You always defended her to Mother.”

“Did I?” she said vaguely and wandered off to her room. She had moved in with me by now. It just seemed to happen. She had taken to wearing a tee shirt around the house that said, “My heart belongs to daddy.”

I slept very well that night, better than I had in years. Overslept, in fact, and got to the office late. Not that it matters. I make my own hours, but it’s important to me to come in on time. I had my hand on the phone to call Rebecca when it rang. It was Kimberly. She said she was calling to remind me about Judge Ryan’s birthday dinner that evening. “I thought you might have forgotten. You’re getting forgetful. I know it’s to be expected at your age.”

“I’m not forgetful at all,” I said coldly. But it bothered me. Because of course I’m forgetful. And of course I’d forgotten about the dinner. Then my secretary came in with the morning’s mail and that kept me busy, and there was a partner’s meeting, and lunch with an important client and then my nap and I never did get to call Rebecca, though I thought about her a great deal. When I got home I barely had time to change before getting to the dinner. I remembered several times that I hadn’t called Rebecca. The time was somehow never right.

At dinner, Dorothy Brant was seated on my right. I got the full brunt of her attention. She invited me to a concert the following evening, but I was going with Kimberly so she said how nice it was that we both had the same tastes and interests. She invited me to dinner at her home on Saturday. I didn’t know how to say no without appearing rude, since I had already declined all of her numerous invitations. I said I didn’t have my book with me and would have to call her about it. She said, leaning close and gazing at me intently, that she understood how lonely I must be, how hard it was to be alone, especially after such a vital and exciting woman as Sydney; she was sure no one could ever take her place. I agreed. But at our age, she went on, one could become ill, need someone… . One didn’t want to die alone… . Listening to her I felt all of my 80 years.

I kissed her papery, dry cheek when I left. Made me think of Sydney. Of our sitting in bed, not touching, watching TV… .

Judge Ryan showed me out. I always liked him. He was a bright man, very pragmatic. I admire pragmatism. Romanticism is something only the very poor can afford. Ryan had been able to accept a judgeship because his wife was independently wealthy. Judges don’t earn a lot. He gripped my arm, drawing me close.

“My wife is persevering in her little promotion, I see.”

“It’s nice of her to care,” I said. I didn’t mention there seemed to be 20 other women with the same concern.

“Dorothy is very suitable,” he said. “Very suitable, don’t you think?”

“She’s a very nice person,” I said. My comments would be duly reported, I knew.

“Attractive. She knows how to dress, make up.”

I agreed. It was true. Although I didn’t know what he knew about makeup. He was merely quoting.

“Suitability is important in a wife,” he said, clearing his throat and looking uncomfortable. “It’s a relief, isn’t it, to be old… . not to be fogged up by … other things… .”

I was older than he was, by ten years, at least. What did he know about being old?

I said, “Yes, suitability is important.”

I felt strangely sad. Defeated. These were, after all, my friends of many years. My peers. My world. A world I had earned. It was my reality. One didn’t throw over reality for miracles.

It was past midnight when I got home. Kimberly was waiting up, wearing her tee shirt. She asked about the dinner party. I said it had been pleasant and diddled with some papers before I let myself ask casually, “Did I get any calls?”

“No, Were you expecting to hear from anyone in particular?”

I shrugged. “Rebecca, perhaps. Actually I was supposed to call her. I got so busy… .”

“Dad,” she said, with a mixture of concern and contempt. “Everyone is worried about you. It’s inappropriate. She’s inappropriate.”

She gave me the smile she had learned from her mother. It could shrivel stones. I felt like a small boy who had been caught doing something bad.

“You’re still wearing your coat, Daddy. Let me help you with it.” She slid th coat off my back and over my arms. “Did you remember to take your pills at dinner? I know you forget sometimes, or you feel uncomfortable about it in company.

You’re so proud. But you mustn’t be proud. When people get old their bodies start to wear out.”

She held my coat, caressing the sleeves as if to soothe them, comfort them. As if it were me she was holding. “It’s all right, Daddy. Don’t worry. I’ll always take care of you. You mustn’t worry about being old.”

I snatched the coat from her. “I’m not old,” I said, moving to the door as fast as a man of 80 can go. Believe me, it can be very fast when you’re going for a miracle. Without looking back, I added, “And get rid of that tee shirt.”


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