They started off in a grungy second-floor apartment on West 49th Street. Finn and Marsha occupied the front room and a friend of Finnís, Steve, a Julliard tuba player, occupied the rear. The kitchen, in between, was occupied by roaches. Finnís room was taken up almost entirely by the enormous sagging bed that he had constructed from futons scrounged from the street, each with its respective stains and stories. Itís got a wood floor! he had said to the skeptical tuba player before they moved in. The floor was uneven parquet, and Finn tried to keep it clean by walking on it with bare feet and then scraping the grit that collected on his soles out the window. Itís got a fireplace! he had said to the skeptical tuba player. The fireplace was in Finnís room, unusable, a four-foot plaster sculpture stowed up its chute. Nevertheless, the place was sexy in a gnarly sort of way, with the prominent bed, the wicker basket of jizzy tissues, the wine bottle filled with water on the milk crate night table, the TV with its hanger and tinfoil ears, the gamy scent of fornication. An art studentís love bungalow.
Marsha was a painter. They met at a student exhibition that featured her work. He walked up to her with an air of such purpose that she thought he was going to reprimand her for something. He had the dedicated intensity of those loser museum guards she so despised. Two feet! Two feet from the paintings please! Your painting shouldnít be in here, Finn said breathlessly. Look at this crap! And at first she thought he was talking about her work, but, as it turned out, he was referring to the other student work, which, he said, paled. I mean it, he said. Pales. She stood watching him, still somewhat alarmed, her head drawn back like a catís. He continued to try to explain her excellence to her, the vigor of her lines, the ferocity of her colors. Raw talent, he kept repeating. Finally he noticed her watching him and stopped. Sorry, he said, shrugging. You agitate me.
They went to dinner.
She had the look of a sixties fashion model, all skinny anorexic arms emphasized by long-sleeve shirts with vertical ribbing, long legs svelte in tight capri pants with plaid patterns, hips that jutted forward. Piles of voluptuous brown hair that contrasted with all of this, and with her small hands and tidy deportment. Also like a sixties fashion model she had an empty look to her face, a face that appeared to be waiting for instructions. Her beauty seemed unoccupied, somehow. She had not moved into it. Finn watched her as she padded around his apartment with her hair in a towel. He observed her thin back as she sat on the edge of his bed and with a little boyís concentration set about painting her nails. Steve was edgy around her, and whenever she was talking to him, telling him about her day while waiting for Finn to arrive, perhaps, he would focus powerfully on her teeth and say 'uh huh, yeah' in all the wrong places, in response not to her but to his own need to steady himself. After exchanging formulaic pleasantries he would politely retire to his dark back room and masturbate furiously.
Marsha and Finn fucked constantly, much to Steveís distress. From the outer room, separated from the kitchen by a mere bed sheet tacked to the ceiling, he would hear the closing groans and sapped sighs and then there would be silence and then the TV would snap on. The toilet would flush and the other general sounds of the city would resume, the cool whoosh and bump of the cabs skimming by on the uneven streets, the sirens, Spanish radio. Marsha and Finn were young, and the sex was not subtle, but it was fervent. When they fucked she had the utterly relaxed look of a summertime swimmer collapsed on her towel, drops of seawater not yet evaporated by the sun. He studied her, shaping her body with his sculptorís hands, the shadowed undulations of her ribs, the hinge of her elbow and the single wrinkle that appeared there when the arm was outstretched to tap a cigarette, the lonely look of her thin calves, her disorganized feet loosely splayed. He lay his head on her hip and looked across at her glossy pubic bush rising against the flat of her belly and the horizon curve of her thighs. He gauged the different states of her breasts, where they tended to gather depending on her position, and he sighted between them, taking in the panorama of her body through the foreground of their curves. After sex she always fell into a stupor that she described as being nothing so crude as sleep but not wakefulness either, but some other state altogether. Very pleasant, I assure you.
They were a much-admired couple. They were the same height. And there was something regal about them, something archetypal about Marshaís smile, about Finnís forearms. They stood on the same step on the escalator and nimbly minced through the same section of the revolving door. She carried the subway tokens. She was all limbs, like the letter 'H', often raising her arms above her and twirling her hands or jutting her hips to the side with one long leg outstretched. To see her hail a cab was to die for, to use one of her favorite expressions. They both had long, perfectly matched strides. When they walked she held his forefinger or he held hers. She absently tapped his stomach to check the hardness of the muscles there. They appeared at all the parties, separating at the door and catching each otherís eye as they circulated through the room, eventually meeting at the door again and leaving to go home to have sex. They rented movies and she relied on him to make the remote work. He always checked but he could never find a single red fissure in her eyes, even when she was tired. They were always clear, clear, clear.
Their poverty was a kind of sport. It involved keeping a close eye on all the stores within ten blocks of the apartment. It involved personal grudges against stores such as Sloanís, a supermarket that occasionally attempted to suggest that two cans of tuna for three dollars was a great deal. Bastards, she muttered, noticing the enormous white poster declaring this outrage. On a whim she slipped in and shoplifted an onion and considered it justified. Their poverty involved calculations that neither of them thoroughly understood. Such as when she claimed that the four dollars they saved on groceries permitted them cocktails at a real bar. They searched the local paper for happy hours and drink specials. For her birthday they went to an all-you-can-eat barbecue joint. Ten dollars! he said. Ten dollars and all the beer and ribs you can eat! They starved themselves for a day before going. While walking home she found some boards in the trash that she later washed, painted white and used as canvases. He found some wire mesh. If only we had money, he said. Never mind that, she said, falling back in the disheveled bed and popping open a Pabst. We have the TV. Thereís an infinity of things on TV, all free! Yeah, he said, but the receptionís no good.
Sleeping was a problem. He never slept that well when she was over, which was often, because she lived in a dorm ('Iím too old to be sleeping in a bunk bead,' she said). The first time she was over he didnít sleep at all. Before this they had only been out together twice. She arrived at his apartment unexpected at one in the morning. He thought it must be one of the dealers that hung out on the front steps and always courteously made way for him when he came home, sometimes even holding open the little black gate. But it was her. He lay in bed ignoring the buzzer until he heard her outside, calling, Finn! Finn! Finn positively rocketed from the bed. At the door she said Iím exhausted, although she looked fresh as a flower, as always. Iím exhausted, she said, and she stepped into the apartment and into his room, shedding her clothes as if she had lived there for years, and then she got into his bed. He remained at the door in his pajama bottoms. Iíve got to sleep, she said, and switched off the bedside lamp. He eventually collected himself and gingerly got into bed beside her. Her back was toward him. He felt the heat of her body and turned on his side to absorb as much of it as possible. He was on the verge of putting his arm around her when she reached over and switched on the light, grabbed his little white alarm clock and set it for seven, then placed it back on the night table and switched off the light. And shortly she was asleep. He spent a tense six hours smelling her hair. Then the alarm went off and she reached over and switched it off and turned and yawned and smiled at once and when the yawn was done she remained smiling, catlike and pleased. Howíd you sleep, she asked. Not so good, he said. She yawned again. I slept like a baaaaaayby.
A few years ago Finn was seeing a girl named Julia who when Finn couldnít come over used to sleep with her kitten, Piggy, instead. One day Julia called Finn on the phone, crying. Piggyís dead! Piggyís dead! she wailed. In the night she had rolled over and fractured Piggyís spine. She was awakened by his mewling. Poor Piggy. The fracture didnít kill him, and she had to take him to a vet to get him put to sleep. Could it be that Finn was suffering from some kind of Piggy complex? He speculated this, he speculated this aloud to Marsha, and Marsha listened and quietly smiled. You canít crush me, she said. He picked up one of her hands. Look, he said, look at this. He presented to her her fine, slender hand. As precious as any little kitty cat, he said. Those hands. He liked to watch her do anything with her hands. He liked to watch her push elevator buttons, stir a pot of beans with a wooden spoon. Something about the way she held the crude instrument. The way she clutched the drawstring in her tight little fist as she pulled the blinds, or the delicate manner with which she would tear loose a check, folding it up once first and then pulling it off with two neat tugs. He slept, but when he woke he felt as though he had never left the world. He never had the feeling of returning that she always seemed to have, the feeling of arrival like stepping off the dipping prow of a rowboat into calf-deep water. Freely padding up the beach.
A small price, though, a small price. But there were other problems. She liked to paint at his place sometimes, and he was touched by this. He felt she was entrusting an important part of herself to him. Except that she liked to watch TV when she painted, and when she watched TV he couldnít do anything, couldnít read, sketch in his notebook, sleep. And so he would sit behind her and count the ridges of her backbone with his fingertip, would look over her shoulder and watch the colors cohere. Finally she would turn her head, not even looking directly at him, but just enough for him to see her gray eyes, and then he would say, Sorry, and would fall back on the bed to watch the soap operas, picking out a plausible Marsha and a plausible Finn and tracking the rise and fall of their pretty fortunes, scrutinizing the reasons for their eventual and inevitable quarrel and falling out and almost always finding them shabby, just enough to cue a flight into the arms of another Marsha, another Finn. Sometimes his picks would get no further than exchanging fiery looks across a baroquely laid banquet table. And sometimes they wouldnít meet at all, but in airless parlors would waste away, cheerlessly entertaining a host of inappropriate half-brothers, daughters of business associates of absent parents, and mournful young men recently mangled in hot air balloon accidents. The make-up caked faces, the glassy eyes, the eerie organ music of this always dreary and sunless world, and most importantly the intense passions that the showís characters were too insubstantial to supportótogether these things filled Finn with a sense of doom. Lying on the sodden bed he thought, What am I doing here? He couldnít go out, not with her there. She would ask where he was going, and would think, correctly, that he was leaving because of her. And then there would be a fight. And how would that fight end? Finn didnít know. But nor could he stay, because as long as she was painting he couldnít concentrate. So Finn sat there, and waited it out.
Once or twice when he was by himself he heard the phone ring and didnít pick it up because he knew it would be her and he wanted to spend a night alone.
In time he began to feel that he was carrying a gradually increasing burden of small injustices. There were hundreds of these injustices, too numerous and minor to list, but deadly in aggregate. There was the incident of the towel. She was not a neat person, and tended to discard things she was carrying, her clothes, her dishes, in the same absent-minded manner that she tucked her hair behind her left ear. He had always enjoyed this in her, her disregard for material objects. It was a clear indication that her mind was somewhere else, otherwise occupied in some far more worthy plane of existence. But unlike clothes or other objects, when she dropped the towel on the floor it became dirty because it was damp. This happened repeatedly, and he was irritated that it compelled him to chide her. He didnít like chiding her. He didnít think chiding became him. But one afternoon he was in a grumpy mood and she not only discarded her towel in her favored manner but, returning to the bathroom to brush her teeth, actually stepped on the towel, grinding it into the gritty floor. Hey, he said to her back, and she innocently turned. He pointed at the towel on the floor. She didnít get his meaning, so he said, Would you mind picking that up? She did, and returned the towel to the bathroom, leaning out to say, Well maybe you should wash the floor once in a while, and then closing the door.
He lay back on the enormous bed and thought, Itís not heróitís the towel. A reasonable persona, a practical fellow with the air of a garage mechanic, stepped forward in Finnís mind to explain. If the towel werenít there that would never have happened. Itís the fault of this crappy apartment. You love your baby. But this apartment is laying traps. In his mind Finn continued to explore this line of thought until he realized it would serve as a beautiful rapprochement to a fight. But when she emerged from the bathroom he didnít immediately use it. First he asked her if she was going to finish those Cheerios or if she was going to just let them sit there.
Throughout his last year at school (she was a year behind him), he never lost sight of her excellence, despite their increasing fights. She is someone very special, Finn told himself. Just look around. What do you see? Nothing, man. A bunch of babbling half-wits. Pretty mediocrities and melodramatic soap opera nobodies. Finn was convinced of Marshaís superiority. He knew it was a fact. At another of her shows she dispatched him to fetch her a drink while she talked with a Soho gallery owner. He came back with her drink and put it in her hand and in her ear whispered, Youíre the best. She paused in her conversation with the gallery owner, turned and looked at Finn for a moment with her wonderful wide eyes, somewhat suspiciously, and then swiftly kissed him on the cheek. Also, later, when they lay in bed tenderly facing each other on their sides and she looked at him and said, I love you, he looked back at her and said, Youíre the best. She thought for a moment and then asked, Does that mean you love me?
Too many fights. Too many close calls. Finn was getting weary. And now Steve had a girlfriend, too, a lumpy-looking girl named Maia who was violently allergic to Marshaís smoking. Steve would helplessly stand next to Maia as she sneezed and sneezed, sometimes placing a nervous hand on her back. At night Marsha and Finn would have to hear Steve and Maia screw. They were loud. It was as if they were trying to get back at Finn and Marsha, Maia for the smoke, Steve for the two tormented years of overhearing Marshaís clear cries. That is one sound I really never wanted to hear, Marsha said, as Steve bellowed. He sounds like a tuba.
Finn was very unhappy, and yet he couldnít leave her. Things would be bad for a few days but then they would go do something together, outside in the city. They would go to the Cloisters or to the Museum of Natural History, where a friend of hers worked and they could get in free, and they would walk around and joke and have fun. They would skate in the park on Sundays and be happy and sun-filled and long-limbed like all the other happy, circling couples. But when they returned to his apartment at night he would be assailed by foreboding, and even if nothing was going wrong it would magically start to, because he expected it. Once she woke up in the middle of the night and got up to urinate. It was dark and she didnít notice that his side of the bed was empty. As she was sleepily sitting on the toilet, Finn, who an hour before had given up on the bed to try the tub, pulled the shower curtain aside, startling Marsha to such a degree that it was all he could do to stop her screaming. Steve appeared at the door of the bathroom and flicked on the light and saw them there, and they saw each other. After Steve left, Finn put his hand on Marshaís knee and said, Itís not that we donít work, itís just that we donít work here.
Then spring came, and in the spring she became transformed into some kind of bright-eyed goddess. He became transformed into her old boyfriend, Finn, stunned senseless by her beauty. One afternoon as they were lying around his apartment a butterfly landed on the window ledge, right next to her toes. She was reading in a beat-up chair that Finn had found in the trash, her feet on the sill to catch the sun. Noticing the butterfly she said, Hey check this out, and put her book aside and leaned forward to study the creature, its black wings mechanically louvering the afternoon light. Marsha was fresh from the shower and her hair was otter sleek down her back, which was bare but for the traversing bra straps, the horizontal one rising from her back and bridging her shoulder blades when they rose. There was something transparent about her beauty that Finn couldnít quite understand. But looking at her he could almost feel it, a rivulet of energy that ran from behind her ears and down her neck and back. It explained why he was always approaching from behind and embracing her, feeling this vital electricity against his chest and marveling. They went to the park and she wore brightly colored jumpers and hiking boots and galloped up the sides of the enormous rock formations and she found a warm place in the sun and sat down cross-legged and waited for him, pelting him with twigs and acorns.
They had been seeing each other for over two years by the time he graduated. After the parties, where he had noticed a number of men, including some of his friends, flirting with her, he announced that he was going to get a job on Wall Street. She was shocked. Donít worry, he said. Iím going to get us some money. It was all part of the plan. He was convinced that if he didnít do something drastic he would end up losing her, either she would sleep with one of his friends or in a fit of frustration he would kick her out himself. So he told himself that he would work to get them a new apartment and if things didnít get better after that, well, then, they might as well just call it quits. He had made the decision while talking to Steve, who with his enormous beer gut and imperfect complexion he was beginning to like more and more. The other day, for instance, Finn explained, she woke up bleeding. And the sheets got all stained and it had soaked through to the futon. Now itís not that thatís her fault or anything but couldnít she have known? When it was going to hit? I wasnít going to say anything because then she would make me out to be this peevish asshole and I would never hear the end of it, so it just stays up there in my head, eating away at me. And ultimately, what annoys me most is that something so stupid is coming between us, you know? I mean, how irrelevant. And as Steve stirred and stirred his spaghetti sauce and grew more restless thinking about Marshaís menstrual blood there began to crystallize in Finnís mind a certain truth about love. He said, it seems like such a detail, like, if she had her own bed that would never have happened, it just wouldnít be an issue. If she had her own bed. Finn thought. What if he could just buy her her own damn bed? But then heíd need a bigger apartment. Finn began thinking about love as something like a plant that without the right environment would never bloom. He began to develop a sense of mission, a sense of himself as loveís caretaker. Finn said, I think there are many kinds of love between people and all of them are good. No one kind is better than the other. But each, he said petulantly, has its own dictates, its own requirements. Each has to be properly outfitted if itís going to survive. Finn began picturing his love for Marsha occupying an apartment with two or three rooms, with lots of enormous clean windows with clean windowsills, and couches and chairs and coffee tables and a wide-screen TV with cable. Love, in its spare time, thought Finn, is a kind of interior decorator.
Thus Finnís sculpture went by the board. Thus the beauty of Marshaís form silently defeated that of a thousand unmade others that crowded Finnís mind. He continued at his Wall Street job for eight months, working for a promotion and putting money away, and they continued to live at his 49th Street apartment, although she stayed over less and less. And for this he was simultaneously grateful and aggrieved. In the meantime, they had advanced to that jaded stage of the relationship which allows for screaming. But Finn remained grimly committed to his purpose, bound by the knowledge of his love, of its capacity, though it had been long since he had felt it.
Finally, a day came when Marsha screamed at him so hard that blood came out of her nose. Jesus Christ, she said, touching a finger to her upper lip. She held up her finger and looked at it and then looked around her for something to staunch the blood. Red drops fell from her chin. Finn tossed her one of his T-shirts. Itís okay if I use this now, right? she said. I mean, I donít want to fuck up your clothes or anything. Finn said nothing. He lit one of her cigarettes. Marsha put the T-shirt to her nose and tilted her head back. After a few moments she said, in a nasal voice bleakly comic, So, big guy, you think our time is up? Finn took a slow drag on the stale cigarette. It doesnít mean we donít love each other, he said. It just means that our love needs more space. Yes, Marsha said. Youíve said that. She continued to hold the T-shirt to her nose and Finn watched her sun-bronzed throat convulse as she cried.
One month later he rented an apartment on 8th Street, a two-bedroom on the sixth floor with a view of Washington Square Park. He took her down to the place on a Sunday afternoon, telling her that he had to stop by a friendís place before proceeding to the movie they had planned. What friend? she kept asking. Turning the lock with keys that still felt stolen he held the door wide to their new kingdom and said, by way of explanation, Iím pretty good at this financial stuff, as it turns out. Years later, Finn still remembered the way she walked into the middle of the large living room and, her black sixties-style handbag at her elbow and a calm smile on her face, executed a fashionable turn, her right hand in the air as if holding a waitressí tray.
At once things improved, as Finn knew they would. They moved out of the 49th Street apartment while Steve stood by in his boxers, watching and asking half-heartedly if they wanted help. But they didnít need much help because they werenít taking much with them. Most of the stuff they joyfully threw out the window, including the bed, taping it up in a fat loaf to be hauled away on big trash day, if some other indigent student didnít take it first. The day after the move, they walked into the Mattress Warehouse on 14th Street. The store was one enormous, high-ceilinged room with rows of beds as far as the eye could see. As through a magnificent garden they slowly chose their way, looking about them appreciatively and sometimes pausing to check a tag or texture. Walking among the satiny pink and yellow beds and touching each with his fingertips, giving each a little, soft jounce, Finn felt his love for Marsha luxuriously swell like a morning yawn. Behind them followed a bald-pated salesman, whose rote words about calibrated springs and cushioned vertebrae they couldnít hear, and who intuitively despised them for their shared height, their lightly clasped hands, and their regal air and for the way they immediately made him feel like he didnít belong.