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High Maintenance



The morning before I was planning to leave my husband, my friend Violet convinced me to go with her to see a swami in someone's townhouse. I was surprised to see that he was an American guy in an orange dress sitting under a real Picasso.

"When we meditate we keep our eyes open, " the swami said. I was relieved. I didn't want to sit in a strange room with a bunch of freaks with my eyes closed. "Even when we look deeply inside ourselves, we never stop looking out at the world," he said.

I sat there for forty-five minutes with my eyes open thinking about my situation and looking around the room. It was a beautiful living room, all very upholstered, with stairs behind me that led to a private garden. The woman who owned it, our hostess, had been proudly running around, fluffing pillows and pouring the swami tea. It wasn't as nice as my apartment.

The question was who would be forced to leave the apartment --- me or Jack. Jack owned the apartment, and I didn't. Jack could afford the maintenance, and I couldn't without his help. And Jack had announced that the only way he was leaving the apartment was in a pine box.

I didn't want to leave but I refused to be like my mother, a character from a Jacqueline Susann novel complete with gold ankh necklace, turning a blind eye or cheek or whatever it was to her husband's infidelity.

So I would have to be the one to leave. I had spent five years married to man named Jack. I had hung all my hopes on a man with the name of Jack. As if my life were a roadtrip in a car with flat tires and the most important thing to have was a jack. I had wanted a jack even though I would have no idea how to use one if my life depended on it.

I sat there crying until someone finally hit a tiny gong with a stick and the swami asked if anyone had any questions. I thought about asking if I would ever have love again, but I didn't.

He looked right at me and said, "Yes, you will."

I looked behind me, then back at the swami. "I will what?" I said.

"Get a boyfriend," he said sweetly. Everyone laughed. "As long as you don't get too hysterical about it."

"I wasn't thinking about getting a boyfriend," I said. "I'm a married woman," I added. At least I was for one more day. I felt stupid for thinking about love when I should actually be more concerned about getting a job and an apartment.

"My advice is to keep your overhead low," the swami said.

The girl sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me nodded as if deeply moved. A lot of people were nodding and bursting into tears.

"That's especially important for you, " he said to me.

When it was over everyone smiled at me as if I were some kind of meditation celebrity. As if I were the luckiest person to be given the news that I, more than anyone, should keep my overhead low. I felt like I had been given a curse.

Of course Violet never even showed up again. I stood there by myself drinking tea and reluctantly hugging people.

"Do you have the time?" I asked a man on the corner when I left the swami.

He extended his arm to raise the sleeve of his suit in a cartoonish gesture and looked at his watch. He told me. I thanked him and began to cross the street, noticing that I actually felt more relaxed and open.

"Get a watch, lady," he mumbled under his breath.

"What?" I said, turning around.

"Get a fucking watch, lady," he said, loudly.

"Nice. Nice. Really nice," I said. It felt exhilarating to have such an intimate fight on the street, even though when I really looked at him I saw he was pimply and didn't look much older than seventeen. People stared. I felt almost wide-awake.

"What do I fucking look like, Big Ben?" he shouted.

I had sat in a strange living room praying for a man to be sent to me. This was something. The swami had already come through. This boy might not be the man I spent the rest of my life with but it was something. A small beginning. I knew from this that I was ready to date again. It was a sort of warm-up.

"You don't look a thing like Big Ben. There's obviously nothing big about you," I said. "What time did you say it was?"

"Fuck you."

"Fuck you," I said, and walked away.

I bought The New York Times and went to a café so I could sit there pathetically circling things like everyone else. I tried to think of what I could do.

I didn't know what I had been thinking ending up in a café at twenty-six with no skills or education. I had gone to NYU for eight days and hated every minute of it. I went the first Monday through Friday, had the weekend off, wend back Monday, Tuesday, and dropped out at the end of Wednesday. That's where I met Violet. My father had offered to get me a suite at the Plaza Hotel complete with room service, which was his idea of an apartment, but I had decided to live in a dorm because I wanted to feel like a normal person, and Violet was my roommate. For eight days, I had to overhear her on the phone crying to her parents in Texas that she had fallen off a curb and broken her ankle and that all New Yorkers were the ugliest, thickest-lipped people she had ever seen.

That comment always stayed in my mind. I had always thought it was good to have voluptuous lips. Her lips were the only things about her that weren't thick. But she was my roommate, my college roommate, and I loved the idea of that. I admired women who stayed friends with their college roommates and had them as bridesmaids at their weddings. I spent eight days bringing her trays on food because she was on crutches and trying to find charm in the fact that she had never seen a Woody Allen movie.

Then I met Jack in an elevator at the Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street. I was looking to change my name after the New York Post ran a blind item about my father on Page Six ("What famous clothing designer was caught with a transvestite prostitute in Riverside Park and punched out a police officer?", and we got married two years later. After that it always seemed like there was so much to do. The five years just flew by. First of all, we went to his country house every single weekend and that time didn't even count because we weren't in New York. As soon as we hit the Saw Mill it just wasn't my life anymore. There was no sex, no fun, no friends. All I did was listen to the teenage daughter of our closest neighbor talk about all the different places she managed to have sex with her boyfriend without her parents knowing, while I spread jam on saltines in the kitchen, and my husband took naps alternating between the two white couches on the screened-in porch. And then, Mondays through Fridays back in the city, my husband always needed me to do things like buy a chrome orange juicer or interview maids. But at least I hadn't relied on my parents.

Now I couldn't think of anything I could do. I felt a sense of abandonment, beyond my usual sense of abandonment. It made my old sense of abandonment feel like child's play. I was no longer the house that Jack built. I sat in the café reading the paper. The only think I seemed to remember how to do was read. I knew how to read, although I hadn't learned until I was pretty old, seven. But at least I had learned. I looked to see if there were any jobs for readers.

Excerpted from HIGH MAINTENANCE © Copyright 2001 by Jennifer Belle. Reprinted with permission from Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Putnam.

High Maintenance
by by Jennifer Belle

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 337 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1573221856
  • ISBN-13: 9781573221856