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boyfriend was in prison, twenty-odd years ago. He never hid this,
but in our first four years of living together, I heard him mention
it only a few times. He was a direct person, for the most part, so
if he was keeping his mouth shut on this one, that was it: he
wasn't telling. Not everything has to be dug up all the time, in my
opinion. He got busted for selling marijuana and he was lucky; it
was before the laws got stricter and he did less than a year. I saw
one snapshot of him from before, when he was a cute guy trying to
look like James Dean, a squinting bad-boy. No other picture showed
him like that, and he didn't look anything like that later. He
worked in a camera store for a long time before I knew him, and
that was where we met. He could have been something different, if
he had wanted, especially once he had me.
hadn't been born yet when he was serving time. Sometimes in our
early days he liked to introduce me, slyly, as his little friend
here. Naturally I called him the old man. It was nice to be the
great stroke of luck in somebody's life, although that
interpretation was mostly mine, not his. Gabe was glad but not
dazzled, as far as I could see.
He was easy to live with, which I wouldn't have expected in someone
who'd nested by himself for most of his life. He was domestic--that
is, he liked to do things at home--but he wasn't rigid in his
routines. He would listen to almost any kind of music I tuned in or
put on the stereo--he greeted it with amused attention, he nodded
in spots he liked. He was a good cook and he updated his repertoire
for my benefit, went from spaghetti with meatballs (not that I
minded that) to risotto and Pad Thai.
He looked pretty good. A little chewed up around the edges, a
little thick in the middle and grizzled in the chest and pubic
hair. But he'd never gone bald and he wore his streaky hair in a
ponytail, which made him look like an old boxing coach or an aging
jazz musician, neither of which he was. He wasn't anything. He was
a guy who knew about cameras, and who read all the time. He read
about four hours a day, and he read more than that before we lived
We met in the camera store. It was a big place, near Wall Street,
and I got a job there part-time when I was studying painting at the
School of Visual Arts. Unlike Gabe, I actually cared about
photography, and I spent the first few days just drooling over all
the equipment, set lusciously behind the glass counter. I was
thrilled when anybody asked to see one of the really snazzy models,
with all the bells and whistles. My listing of its virtues was so
awed that I scared people away, which was unfortunate, since we
were paid on commission.
I was told to watch Gabe, who knew how to be casual and quietly
informative in a way that got people used to the idea that this
camera was about to be theirs. Gabe himself was not comfortable
with theories about his salesmanship, although he had worked in the
place the longest of anyone. "Be yourself," he said to me. "You'll
be fine. Do it your way."
He joked around with the other guys, but mostly he kept to himself.
For his lunch break he usually went in the back and ate a sandwich
while he read. He was reading Kafka's The Castle for the third
time, and enjoying it more and more, he told me. In good weather he
sat in City Hall Park. I had just come out of a really messy
relationship and I was tired of going to clubs where all these
fucked-up people hung out, and his self-containment seemed
glamorous to me. So I was the one who came on to him.
I did it pretty bluntly. I said something like, hey, want to have a
drink after work? I was not shy with men generally, and Gabe's age
made me particularly confident with him. "Now?" he said. "Tonight?"
He was confused. We went to one of the darkest, smokiest bars I'd
ever been to, and I talked a blue streak about anything I could
think of, and I put my hand on his knee. I was quite smug, it
seemed to me later.
We got along fine right away but neither of us believed it would
last. It turned out to be, truly, like living in another season,
being with someone like him. When I was with my friends before, we
all talked about how depressed we were; we had fits of being
hysterically miserable, we played at being done in and bottomed
out. Our unhappiness was real, but we had no idea really. A
brighter day tomorrow was a definite likelihood, if we could hold
out till then. Gabe was in another stage. Most of what kept me
going couldn't be said to him. A lot of his life was behind him
already. He was chipper but hopeless; that's how I described him.
He had almost no joy in thinking of how things would turn out. A
friend who was involved with Buddhism thought Gabe was very
advanced in his thinking. Perhaps that was right, or half right. I
couldn't tell exactly, from my corner on this.
I used to try to tell him everything about my past, such as it was.
What I did in high school, how I lost my virginity, why I got
involved with the lunatic I went out with.
When we first started sleeping together, I noticed how patient he
was. He was ardent--I don't mean he wasn't--but he was always
watchful and careful of me. I did what I could to take him out of
himself, I tried my boldest and subtlest maneuvers on him. "Oh, my
girl," he would say. "Jesus, what's this?" He was happy, maybe even
wildly happy, but he was never different from the Gabe I
We always kept a certain amount of our lives separate. I saw people
without him, and I did my painting in a studio in Brooklyn, two
subway lines away in Green Point. At home, he read in one room
while I was in another, and I didn't interrupt him or make him talk
about what he was reading. On weekends he liked to take walks all
over the city by himself. He was something of an expert on its
Sometimes, of course, we were together for social
occasions--parties that my friends gave, for instance. Gabe was
quiet but people got used to him over time. He had small
conversations with the other guys about politics or cars or
whatever. And sometimes he even danced. This was a great thing and
took a large quantity of beer to bring about. He danced in a fluid,
gently wicked way, as if it were no trouble at all, although he
looked a little surprised. People stopped asking why I was with
The only person who loved to raise that question was his aunt, whom
we often visited in Queens. She was a candid creature, Aunt Angie.
"So tell me the truth, Elisa," she would say to me. "Any lead left
in that pencil? He needs a crutch to hold it up or what?" Gabe
always told her the fountain was not running dry, never fear, and
there was a lot of cackling back and forth. Angie would wink at me,
and I would nestle against Gabe to back up his story, which was
The man I was with before Gabe liked to have shouting fights in
public. I got into it, I could shout as loud as he did. I was with
him for a year and at the end he was threatening and hitting
(mostly with an open palm, but a few times with his fist) and one
night I thought I was going to shove him off the roof. I was
standing behind him, thinking how easy it would be, and I got
scared enough to think this is ridiculous, and I ran downstairs
instead. We had a few more rounds left before it was done, but that
was the beginning of my getting out.
I thought of that year as one long freak event I got stuck in,
which was probably how Gabe thought about prison. Although Gabe
once said, in his few words on the subject, that these months were
bad but not that bad--it was a minimum security place, no picnic
but not grisly. "Don't get an exaggerated idea," Gabe said.
"What was it that you wanted to do before then?" I said.
"Make money," he said.
Gabe always dressed carefully--he was careful about everything--but
his tastes were pretty elemental, and nothing in his apartment
would lead anyone to think he was materialistic. He had a stereo
from about 1975, and he had a couch that looked like a graduate
student's castoff. "What were you going to do with this money?" I
"Walk around like a big shot," he said.
"That's all?" I said.
"Travel," he said. "Buy books."
Gabe was surprised our first night together when I made him use a
condom. He didn't ask questions or object, but for a moment I
caught him off guard; it took him a little while to get back on
track. Later on, when we'd been together awhile, we stopped being
Excerpted from LUCKY US © Copyright 2001 by Joan Silber.
Reprinted with permission by Algonquin Books. All rights
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: A Shannon Ravenel Book
- ISBN-10: 1565123204
- ISBN-13: 9781565123205