Saturday, January 16, 2016

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Tiger Sofa

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Tiger Sofa (The Princess and the Pea)
by Julie Baumgold

When Tina gave Caroline the tiger striped velvet sofa she already had doubts about her future daughter in law.

Long ago, by marrying Prince Mihai Romanescu of Romania, Tina had become a princess and, by marrying her son Andrei, Caroline would be a princess too. Their children would have titles and so the ancient diminished Romanescu line would go on.

There were many princes and princesses in New York and not a one of them would think of using the title. Even Diane von Furstenberg and the little Miller girl had given that up despite the business advantages it bestowed. Hohenlohes were running around unacknowledged here and there. Only Arabs used their titles now and, after all, Tina thought, what could one expect.

Tina had been well born in the American sense and, within an unhappy childhood, had been given every advantage. Caroline was from another sector, a suburban sector of basement paneled dens and upstairs nubby sofas. Somehow she had transcended all this in the way she dressed and spoke so that she could almost be taken for an Eastern aristocrat from the world of boarding schools and the Ivy League. This was not deception on her part. As Andrei had explained to his mother, it was inherent.

When the movers came for the sofa, they wrapped it, not in the usual grubby looking movers blankets, but in the old clean sheets and new plastic that Tina demanded.

She was relieved to see the sofa go. It was too large for her new apartment and the Brunswig & Fils tiger striped velvet was much too obvious now. Tina had been the first to use it back in the 1970's and the piece was full of memories, not all of them pleasant.

Now that she was older, Tina tried to surround herself only with happy things and welcoming people, bright soft colors, tuberose scented candles, appreciating gay men and Europeans from her past who had known her in her big houses. The new sofa would be bois de rose linen.
"Tina, it's here! The men did such a great job getting it up the stairs and it looks amazing…"

That word again, Tina thought. If everything was amazing or awesome what was left to really thrill anyone anymore.

"I hope it does not look too big or dominate. Andrei used to play on it and so did quite a few dogs. I've had it recovered twice with the same fabric so it really looks new."

"This is so generous. You must come to see it and see if I placed it right."

The girl's voice had become lower, a bit whispery like her own. Was she imagining this?

Within a day there was a hand-delivered note on Dempsey& Carroll stationery and Tina was shocked even before she opened it, for the writing, with all its extravagant loops and swoops, might have been her own. Tina was briefly touched that the girl had made such a study of her but, at the same time, she was annoyed. Despite false steps, painful public mistakes, and real tragedy, her image had been polished so that now she might emerge as this serene recovered empress of style.
The girl was aquiver, stepping from foot to foot like a racehorse in the gate, barely contained.

What was the matter with these young girls? They seemed to have no grit, no ability to plant themselves in the soil and stay and grow. And Caroline did not seem to want children. Tina looked at her intently, perched on the very edge of the tiger sofa with her feet twisted under her. The sofa did dominate the room just as she had feared. Caroline's hair was far too long.

"We have had," she began to cry "some very bad news. Andrei is very sick and," Caroline stopped for she noticed Tina's sudden shocking pallor.

"…he won't be getting better."

Tina looked around the room at the two photographs of her ex husband Mihai standing on the edge of a forest in shooting clothes and on the deck of Sergei's yacht with her in a bikini and a bunch of tanned pals. They were inserted into the bookshelves that rose to the ceiling and circled the room. Why wasn't Andrei here? Why was she alone with this person sitting on her sofa?

The girl was approaching, bending over her, and she realized that Caroline was taller than she was. She was wearing a pale gray sweater tucked into gray flannel pants and the brown alligator belt with a crested and monogrammed gold buckle that had once belonged to Prince Mihai now migrated across the ocean and downtown onto this slender person who loved her dying son.

Dying son, this was a phrase she had never expected to encounter. Tina felt cold. She had ceased to drink but she knew immediately that she was about to start.

As Caroline told her the awful details, which involved "timing" and an operation without hope, an operation only to prolong, Tina went over to their bar table—it had once been hers—and poured herself a very large vodka from the glass decanter which had belonged to her mother and was hung with her mother's tarnished silver medallion saying "Vodka."

Caroline walked to her and put an arm around her and held her as they both cried and Tina briefly overlooked the fact that she hated to be touched by anyone but a lover.

"Why isn't he here?"

"Because he doesn't want to know. He doesn't want it said. I needed to say it and I thought of course you must know."

What Tina was thinking, along with the sudden wash of the past, all the running little boy in short pants images, was of herself, abandoned yet again by those who might love her, and, at the end, those who might come and sit on the bois de rose sofa waiting, and those left who might be in the room, bedside. Always, among all of those, was her dear son, now the end of his line, never for a moment of his life behaving without elegance and fortitude, the very motto of the Romanescus: Robustior fortitude incarnate.

How very good the vodka tasted after so long. It was not icy the way she liked but it led to the white fire she needed streaking down that gray corridor with oblivion at the end. She would have another here and buy a bottle at whatever obscure liquor store was nearby, one where they would surely not know her.

Who was this girl? Who was this sudden shepherd of her tragedy?

What were her credentials in the larger world outside her university? Could she trust her to take charge and, even as she thought this, she knew that she was relieved of the worst. The worst was the decisions which she could no longer make. Was this girl the real thing?

She studied Caroline sitting on the sofa which, now she decided, had been perfectly placed after all and somehow fit into this room which was very academic in tone. Now nothing mattered at all.

Her blog told people how to live if only they could be photogenic and her. She told them the flowers, the food, about arranging things for the holidays, amusing uses of inherited items, the books she was reading and trips she was taking all of which was useless to this girl who taught at Columbia and now would have to spend her days in hospital waiting rooms and sitting on the corridor floors outside procedure rooms.

Tina had written two picture books that pretended life was forever and could be lived in a rosy glow. They were full of pictures of her then young and attractive European friends slumped over endless lunches in seaside villas and parties in the realm of money. In these dream books age, illness, accident, deadly viruses, and war did not exist. Nor did addiction and collapse appear. There was no stranger with a knife with his foot in the door pushing it open. Style and almost full decanters and exploding flowers and unchipped Chinese porcelain might overcome want and answer desires. Life could and should be crafted. Pumpkins should be gouged and sprayed with silver paint by hired elves and then life would be less nasty.

These fairy tales had led to the blog and all the encouraging comments she got from her "followers" as she thought of them. All of them cared about her as though they knew her. She had thousands of admirers who would pay $75 for a book or at least borrow it from a friend and go on her blog and praise her taste and the brief time they had spent lolling in her sweet unlikely world.

Of course she had lied by omission, the sin she could never forgive in any of her lovers. She had not told of the divorces and suicides and losses of fortune and cancers. She had left out the moments when she would put on a scarf and sunglasses and walk ten blocks to upper First Avenue for two bottles of vodka which she would carry home in a Barney's shopping bag filled with tissue paper so they would not rattle in front of the doorman. And the humiliating but required confessions in church basements among all those strangers in pickup trucks and the occasional acquaintance who would sit as far as possible from her.

She had omitted the younger man who, after years of back and forth drama, filled her favorite suitcase with his things as he walked out on her to the woman he would marry and reform in her image, a woman who could have his children. Then the one after that who took money and the one she had tried to remake into the prince even as he tried to remake her into his second wife.

Andrei came crashing into the house then, pulled by Buster and Bozo and trailed by cold gusts and a lone Autumn leaf skidding across the floor.

"Mummy! Is that actually a drink?"

It was, it was. How, within the need to deny and seem gay, the way she was raised, could she explain the lapse. Dogs, they were always the answer, burying your face in the fur. In her family it was either a dog or a horse that provided the necessary distraction from assorted crises. And always a cocktail.

Buster, or was it Bozo, already had his snout buried in her lap. The other one was sniffing her shoes. Then both dogs bounded onto the sofa.

"What do you think of the sofa? Isn't it marvelous here…" Tina said. "We had such happy times when we would all snuggle up."

"Very kind of you, Mums."

He looked terrible.

"Dad is coming soon with Magda. Did Caroline tell you?" He walked over and lifted the glass from her hand. He did not refill it.

Caroline was straightening a stack of books. The air that floated in with Andrei smelled just like Paris, that combination of rain and ancient gray stone and wet acrid leaves and cigarettes that hovered over the Boulevard St. Germain.

Tina was extremely sad and maybe Paris would cheer her up, a few dinners at Voltaire when the prince was in town with Magda. And suddenly the desire overwhelmed her to run away, to escape the scenes she could well picture, to just do the wrong thing and not behave. She did not want to pick up her son's thinner hand from some hospital bedsheet. She did not want to wait for the doctors to show up and give the reports which could not be good ever again. She could not face confrontations and the people who might say to her "But Tina, it is not about you. You are there for him."

Caroline was bustling about setting up the organic lunch she had called in on that round little thing covered with an Indian cloth that they called a dining room table.

"I didn't realize it was so late. I can't stay."

Tina grazed both Caroline's cheeks and held Andrei to her chest and then she was off, wrapping her thin wrap to her to hold her tight, to hold her together as she looked back at her son and his almost wife, the Princess, all together with their dogs on the tiger sofa.

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