Room in New York
Edward Hopper 1932
Anyone passing by and glancing in through the open windows of their ground floor apartment would have thought, ‘What a cosy room, what a nice looking couple!’ Maybe even felt a little envious for a few moments as they went on their way. The look of the room, flooded with the yellow light of a lamp in the corner, was calm and serene from outside. There was George in his favourite armchair reading the evening paper with great attention, there was Mary playing a little tune on the piano. The tinkling notes filled the air with a light, modern melody that pleased the ear and stayed in the mind.
If anyone interested had passed by earlier that evening, however, they would have seen a very different scene. Mary was sitting there alone, looking bored. It was one of those humid, stuffy days, the air hanging over Manhattan, low and oppressive like a blanket. She always opened the windows once evening fell in the hope of a slight, cooling breeze and drew the curtains together a little for she didn’t like passers by glancing in. Today she couldn’t be bothered. Maybe it was the sultry weather, maybe it was just a mood. Hard to stir herself at all, really.
She read a magazine in a desultory manner, scarcely taking in the fashion pages, gossip and celebrity tittle-tattle, flinging the thing aside suddenly in a fit of petulance. What rubbish it all was! How stupid people were. Nobody cared about these stupid people, so how come they had so much money and so much fun and all the good things in life?
After a while Mary glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. Time for George to come home. The evening meal, prepared earlier, now went into the oven to be heated up for him. She wasn’t hungry herself but knew she would have to join him as he didn’t like to eat alone. On the dot of six George came in and she heard his familiar step in the hallway. Once that sound had given so much pleasure. Then she would have run to greet him and taken off his jacket, kissed him, brought him his slippers. Now she felt almost a sense of dread as the whole evening panned out before her mind’s eye. Almost every word he would say, every word she would say, every gesture, every nuance; she could have written them down like a script for a play that didn’t need to be rehearsed. After their meal they both went as usual into the sitting room where George sat in his favourite chair as he always did. Silence descended. George didn’t like her to talk when he was reading the paper. So she regressed into her inner thoughts and left him to it. Before long, he would start to rant on about politics or sport and she would be even more bored. She knew all his opinions and they hadn’t varied in all these years.
George read on and Mary tinkled away idly, almost listlessly, one arm now resting on the piano, just picking out a tune. They had been married for over twelve years and there seemed little left to say. Once it had been a companionable silence but now it felt as oppressive to her as the weather, as oppressive as her husband who was a heavy man in body, mind and soul.
It was Monday morning. Mary picked up her shopping basket and headed out to Jellico Jack’s store down the road to buy some bread and milk. On the way she passed Delini’s drugstore and saw a man seated by the window looking out at the people passing by. His face was lively and expressive and as their eyes met, she couldn’t help but smile at him, though she was generally a shy person who didn’t respond well to strange folk. He smiled back with such a warm and cheerful smile that it made her heart ache suddenly. She had never seen the man before and never would again but it made her realise just how loveless her life had become, how lacking in warmth and feeling. To her surprise, tears started to her eyes. She wanted to weep.
Pulling herself together she walked on, purchased a few items and walked back the same way she always did, past the drugstore again. The man had gone now but the memory of his face made her feel happy. Just a smile, a warm smile was all it took in life, she thought.
All seemed as usual to George when he came in that night on the dot of six, put his jacket on the hook and entered the kitchen to find Mary dishing up his supper. He said ‘Hi,’ and went to wash his hands, sat himself at the table and picked up his knife and fork. It was Monday so it was sure to be a meat pie made from Sunday leftovers. To his surprise, Mary put a steak and fries down in front of him. However, he said nothing, just ate it in silence as he always did, staring at the plate, gazing at the table.
Mary kept glancing at him and eventually he seemed to feel something of her continuous stare and looked up at her. Something about her looked sort of different but he couldn’t put his finger on it. His mind went back to his work. He would have to get in touch with Tom Sumach tomorrow about those billboards that needed putting up in Times Square. If they didn’t get on with it they might lose the contract and it was a profitable one, couldn’t afford to upset the clients. But that Tom Sumach was a lazy bum and would never stir himself in time, not in this heat anyway. Man was as slow as a turtle. He’d have to do a bit of shouting and he hated that. It was all so much effort. Mary didn’t know how lucky she was sitting about at home all day and polishing her nails.
He then took himself off to the sitting room, leaving his empty plates, put on his slippers, picked up the paper that awaited him on the table neatly folded. He took out a packet of cigars and smoked one serenely for a while. Oh, to hell with that Tom Sumach! Just now was his time and he always enjoyed the quiet of the evening, sitting in his apartment, putting his feet up for a few hours. Guess he was lucky having this apartment. It wasn’t much, not very big or anything, but it did them both. Life was really quite peaceful if you let it be and put all your worries out of your head for a while. Nothing like a nice meal and a nice cigar . . . oh, and a nice woman, of course.
Mary passed by the drugstore once more on the Wednesday morning and saw the man there again, seated by the window. He looked up as she passed by and again their eyes met and he smiled at her with that lovely smile that warmed her heart so much. She couldn’t get it out of her mind. He looked so kind, so interested in her. Yet they had never spoken and never would. But it was nice to fantasise a little. Nice to pretend she would go home and that man would be there waiting for her, his arms full of flowers, ready to kiss her on the lips and say, ‘Why, honey, you’ve bin a while! I’ve bin waiting for you. I’ve bin waiting for you so long!’
Again the tears in her eyes. She too had been waiting so long, so very long for him.
That evening she washed her hair and put on her best red dress. She regarded herself in the mirror, then put on some lipstick and rouge. All in all, she wasn’t so bad looking. In fact, she was very pretty. Yet like a flower blooming in a desert, she felt there was no-one to look at her or tell her how pretty she still was. It seemed such a waste. Many men had real plain wives and those women got to be feted and adored by their men and here she was, a good-looking gal just wasted on George. She was part of the furniture as far as he was concerned.
What would the man in the drugstore do if he was here? She smiled at her reflection and imagined the man coming over to her, standing behind her, putting his hands about her and cupping her breasts in his large, square, lovely hands. She hadn’t seen his hands, but that’s what they would be like. Warm, open, well-shaped hands like his open face.
For the first time in ages, she felt a stirring deep down inside herself. For a moment she was a little ashamed. It was wrong to have such thoughts! She must be a wicked woman. Yet they were so sweet, these thoughts, so sweet and made her feel good. It was almost as if the man was really there. She made up her mind that she would take care of this imaginary man as if he really was there for her. It was for him she would cook, it was for him she would dress and look beautiful and to him she would be talking in her mind when George was immersed in his papers.
George sat at the table that night and absentmindedly began to eat. It slowly registered that he was eating something different, not the usual hamburgers of Wednesday night. It was pasta messed up with some funny meat sauce. He looked at it and then at Mary. She was all done up like a dog’s dinner. She was sitting there opposite him and an odd smile played over her features as she ate silently, her gaze fastened on a point beyond him, as if she was looking at someone else. For a moment, a flash of dismay came over him. Was it an anniversary or birthday or some such thing and he had forgotten it? He searched his mind. Nope, not Mary’s birthday, that had been last February. Nope, not their anniversary. That had been early June and he had almost forgotten it. Just remembered in time to get a bunch of roses on the way home.
Having cleared his mind of all that might be amiss, he shrugged and went back to his meal. Terrible stuff this pasta, only pansies ate this stuff, what had come over her? He missed his hamburgers. But he said nothing. Maybe she had run outa beef.
Mary dressed with care the next morning and went past the drugstore at the same time as usual. She felt really smart and walked with an elegant pride. This time as her eyes met the stranger’s eyes, he beckoned slightly with his hand and indicated the empty seat opposite him. Her heart beating, she went in and sat down opposite him, putting her little basket on the seat beside her.
‘Care to join me for a coffee?’ said the stranger. His voice was warm and deep and his face not handsome exactly but just so pleasing and kindly, his eyes twinkling with good humour. His hands were just as she had imagined, large, square, well-shaped, resting lightly on the table, something strangely peaceful and generous about them. These were hands that could be tender, that might stroke one’s face, one’s body, make a girl feel alive and good and wanted and loved.
‘I sure would, shopping’s such a bore.’
He ordered her a coffee and said, ‘I keep seeing you walk by each day and couldn’t help taking the liberty, ma’am. You look kinda lonely . . . kinda hungry.’
‘Hungry?’ she laughed.
‘Yep, not for food but for . . . dunno, friendship, maybe?’
She stared at him. How could this stranger sum her up just by seeing her walk by each day? She was so stunned that she fell silent.
‘Guess, I’m being a bit forward, maybe upset you?’ the man apologised.
‘Not upset me at all, ‘she said, ‘not upset me, mister, just amazed me. How come you can see into my heart like that? Do I look that miserable?’ she added with a sad little laugh.
‘You look very attractive, not miserable at all,’ he said smiling, ‘guess it may have been the first day you went by, you looked in and I felt I kinda knew you. Sometimes we just know people, don’t we? Know how they feel inside. But that only happens when there’s something in your own self that feels it in the other person.’
‘Are you lonely then . . . you hungry too?’ she asked timidly.
He looked at her, his eyes searching hers. For some time they remained just looking into one another’s hearts through their eyes, wordlessly. The coffee came up. The hours passed by in conversation.
George came in some nights later, hung up his jacket, yawned and opened the kitchen door. The lights were all on and a plate and knife and fork lay on the table and he could smell his dinner cooking in the oven. Smelt good, but where was Mary?
He peeped in the oven. Thank goodness, no fancy dishes today but his favourite beef stew and jacket potatoes. He sat at the table and waited for her to come from wherever the heck she had gone to and serve him his meal.
He waited a long time before he realised at last she simply wasn’t there.
© 2002 Loretta Proctor