Though I knew it to be temporary, ending up in the Abernathy-Papen household was not my first choice. While Richard was quite accommodating to my presence, even seemingly relieved to have a houseguest, Francis regarded me with an almost unnervingly frigid eye. It took two weeks for him to address me directly, and then only for a command to go down to the corner drug store and get him some cold cream.
Their relationship, despite what had been printed in the Times marriage announcement Francis had framed and hung over the bar, was not picture perfect. I would often hear them having arguments late into the night, usually about something quite inconsequential like one of the cats vomiting on Richard's bag or Francis' purchase of some baroque end table or some such, but after some time I began to notice that a few names would appear and either cut off argument entirely or continue it in such low tones I could no longer hear it. I wondered fiercely who 'Henry' or 'Charles' could be. If they were other lovers they certainly weren't around currently—Francis' main use for me was taking messages for him when he was away and I was well aware of the names of his callers.
Francis' callers were all of the type I was familiar with—the boozy, faded prep with a loose collar and tan lines from lost class rings. They all engaged me quite winningly in conversation, asking me about sports, girls, that sort of thing with the kind of charm that only comes from a lot of money, but very quickly said their goodbyes when Francis would finally emerge from the bedroom wearing a freshly pressed shirt and what I swore was a touch of powder on his cheek.
Richard seemed to take this brazen behavior in remarkable stride, never particularly surprised by my reports of Francis going out for drinks or to the theater with Harrison or Sterling or whoever, and would instead join me to watch whatever I wanted on television with a great deal of enthusiasm—cop shows, kung fu movies, whatever. It seemed that Francis was completely uninterested, if not openly hostile, to Richard’s less than genteel media interests—I found out that before my arrival it had been Francis’ habit to unplug the television in order to vacuum up some non-existent dust on the carpet whenever Richard was watching something he didn’t like.
Usually Francis would return at about two AM, fairly tipsy and very pleased with himself, to myself and Richard slumped in front of the television, an open pizza box shamefully placed right on top of Francis' prized nineteenth century mahogany table.
If his outing had gone well, as it seemed it usually did, he would snort and kiss Richard on his forehead before retiring to his and Richard's suite for a cup of chamomile tea and a bath. If it had gone poorly, which only happened once or twice in my memory, he would turn on all the lights and spitefully and loudly make himself a drink while complaining bitterly about the mess in the kitchen before sitting down on the couch next to Richard and demanding that they watch some movie he wanted—usually some dreadful period picture.
On the other hand, if Richard had any infidelities, they were well hidden from me, though he would often accept flirtations from older women at Bergdorf's or Swifty's for longer than I thought necessary or even proper. It seemed that Francis found this behavior irksome as well, because whenever it happened in his presence, he would either grab and obscenely squeeze Richard's upper thigh with what I knew from experience to be a surprisingly strong grip or would catch him on the mouth with a long, wet kiss.
I had been caught several times by Francis in the sort of habitual lying and stealing I had gotten comfortable with in Las Vegas. Despite his seeming indifference to my existence, Francis was as sharp-eyed as any prison matron and as strict as one too, but Richard never seemed too inclined to reprimand me and often almost seemed pleased. He would in fact sometimes coach me through my lies, a habit that Francis would clench his jaw at, though Richard would start as though personally offended at any mention of my fantasies of going to California.
I often wondered how Richard and Francis had gotten together, as the story of them being college sweethearts I’d been told at a Columbia party by a professor of Portuguese who smelled strongly of gin, seemed almost absurdly unlikely.
That image, of holding hands on walks through the quad and giggly trysts in dark library corners, did not match the prickly, occasionally jovial, apathy I had observed in their relationship. There seemed to be something unspoken holding their relationship together, not love exactly, some dark experience that bonded them so permanently.
All in all, I found my time with Francis and Richard to be some of my most enjoyable in recent memory. They left me to my own devices mostly, Francis being busy with his packed social calendar and Richard teaching three courses a semester at Columbia, but gave me more than sufficient pocket money and kept the refrigerator full. Neither of them even once came into my room and Francis had forbidden the maid from entering any of the bedrooms, apparently out of some kind of long standing paranoia, so my anxiety over the painting was kept down to only a persistent hum.
While Richard and I had the closer relationship, I found that he was often difficult to talk to about certain things—he would become obviously uncomfortable whenever I brought up Boris and would change the subject after a polite acknowledgement of interest. I guessed what he assumed and didn’t much care for the assumption myself, so I simply stopped mentioning the subject period.
Despite all their arguments, I did think there was something tender deep down between them. The way Richard sometimes looked at Francis was not just with affection, but something just this side of awe—as if he was looking at Byron or Eliot or any one of the stylish, tragic poets he so idolized.
For his part, whenever Francis took me along for one of his innumerable medical and cosmetic appointments, which was often as Richard was rarely free during the afternoons or mornings when they were scheduled, Francis would often pitifully leave long, dramatic voicemails on Richard's cell phone about what the doctor or aesthetician had said. The first time I heard one of these phone calls, I was quite alarmed and was afraid that Francis would indeed die and I would be out at the mercy of CPS once again, but I soon realized that Francis was merely an anxious hypochondriac in the extreme. Death was constantly on his mind—the process of aging particularly. His hair had apparently gone grey quite young and Francis spent a great deal of time and energy trying to maintain the vibrant red color he had lost. He never seemed satisfied by the results, either professional or from a box, and I noticed that his hair changed ever so slightly in tone and intensity like clockwork every three weeks.
Their bedroom arrangement was confusing to me. They had two twin beds at opposite sides like a Doris Day movie but did share a bathroom and I deduced, based upon sheepish expressions and wet hair after unexplained absences, occasionally the shower. Physical affection between them often seemed to be more to prove a point or end an argument than anything else. They always sat a distance from each other, not enough to seem odd, but enough to suggest that they were not completely comfortable with one another. I wondered how it was possible to live with someone for so long, and so intimately, without ever truly being able to relax.
Christmas with Francis and Richard was a dizzying affair, reminiscent of the glamour of the Barbours. They had a soiree every year that had grown in pomp exponentially from its inception in their first year in New York. Francis had case after case of champagne delivered to the apartment and the phone was nearly constantly ringing with RSVPs and inquiries from florists and caterers.
Richard seemed to find this almost as exhausting as I did, as he volunteered with much more constancy than usual to go on errands around Manhattan. I went with him on several occasions both because an extra pair of hands were needed to carry Francis' dry cleaning or the boxes of truffles he intended to give out as gifts and because the tenor of the apartment was so high that it felt almost like the command center of a naval vessel under fire.
One of these such occasions, this time to a shoe store in Midtown to pick up some very specific boot polish, was the first and only time I heard about Henry. I did not bring up the subject—while I was curious I had no interest in rocking the boat, especially with Richard who seemed the most fond of me. He’d been in a strange mood for the last few days, more melancholy than usual and uncharacteristically talkative. It seemed that he didn’t care much for the holidays. He was estranged from his family, never speaking to or hearing from either of his parents except for a Christmas card signed only from his mother. We were waiting for the lone hapless employee of the shoe store to return from the back room and Richard was reading the newspaper. I was bored stiff and found myself reading idly along with him. He was focused on one article in particular—Brooklyn College Professor Found Dead in Apartment, Coroner Rules Suicide. The man had shot himself as a result of either long-term depression, or as the police suspected, a lover’s quarrel. When I finished, I looked up to see Richard still staring at the page. He looked distraught.
“Um, did you know him?” He looked at me blankly for a moment, almost not seeing me. I recognized this quite clearly as absolute numbness of grief. “I’m sorry.”
“What?” He started, apparently coming out of whatever reverie he had been engrossed in.
“The professor, was he a friend of yours?” I looked down at the newspaper and he followed my gaze, eyebrows furrowed.
“Oh no, it just, just reminded me of an old friend of mine, Henry, from college…” He seemed uncertain, unsettled. The hand holding the newspaper tightened its grip, crumpling its edges.
“He…” Richard cleared his throat and shifted in his seat before gesturing vaguely at the article. It took me a moment to realize what he meant.
Outside, an argument had broken out between a meter maid and a harried looking middle-aged woman in a horrific lime green coat. He didn’t seem to notice and continued to stare at the newspaper, though their shouting could be clearly heard through the glass of the shop’s front window. It had started to snow, gently, with huge flakes like laundry soap. They caught and accumulated on the meter maid’s glasses, obscuring her eyes from view and making her look alien and strange—almost ancient, like a marble statue with its face partially knocked away. An uncomfortable silence fell between us and I was glad when the employee finally emerged with Francis’ boot polish. We quickly paid and continued on for the rest of our errands, glad that the change in weather gave us something else to talk about.
Richard’s melancholy mood faded away by the end of holidays and by the time I left, about two months later, it was like it had never happened at all.