3


MY BIG SISTER IS A THIEF

I was dying of embarrassment when I told her that I was suspecting my sister of intending to burglarize the apartment. I told her what I knew about the burglary at my father's building in Paris, particularly that the door had been unhinged. I was afraid Jessie would think me paranoid, but instead she said "Well, that's funny, but now that you mention it, I remember that your sister came to the front door while you were speaking on the telephone in your room. She came close to the hinged side of the door and approached within about ten inches of it. I could only see her back and I wondered what she was looking at. I thought that she was ill at ease, since we don't speak the same language, and was doing this to pass the time while you were on the phone. She seemed to be looking at the hinges and at the wire of the alarm system."

I was relieved that Jessie believed me. I asked her how she thought we could improve the security of the apartment. She said that if we locked the door, the apartment was safe. However I asked her to make a copy of the alarm key, which was never turned on, and she accepted.

A FRIGHTENING VISIT

I couldn't sleep during the night of Sunday, and on Monday I called the bookstore to say I wasn't feeling well and would stay at home. I went out to buy a lock and inquire about getting a key for my file cabinet. Back home, unable to sleep or do anything, I lay prostrated on the couch.

Around 4pm, the super's wife rings at the door. She is with a man who stays 10 feet away from the door with his back turned to me. The woman says "I learned that you are going to move within a few weeks". I say I think it's a mistake. I look at the man. He frightens me. He is about 5'9", white skin, dark curly hair. He could be of Italian or Yougoslavian descent. He reminds me of Val but with dark hair. He says he's from the management's office but he doesn't say what he wants. There is something unmistakably French in the way he holds a leather pouch loosely under his arm. After they left, I looked at Jessie's wall calendar. On June 1st, she had written "lease".

In the evening I ask her if she has cancelled the lease and she denies it. I ask her to please let me know asap if she made such a decision. Three days later, she informs me that she's moving out at the end of June, but she adds, the lease isn't up until August. I ask beginning or end of August? She says beginning. When I tell her about the super's wife visit with the man, all the more surprising since I was supposed to be at work that day, she says that it couldn't possibly be for her since on that day she hadn't learned yet that her work schedule had been advanced by one hour, and that it was the reason why she was moving back to NJ.

I never trusted this couple of superintendants. I have no doubt that, for the right price, they would participate in a scheme. During the rest of the week I look for the woman but can't find her. Finally I ask the super who was the man who came to my door with his wife. He answers the same thing as his wife. He says it's a mistake with another building on the block, all the while teasing the doormat with his foot and looking at it, never once looking me in the eyes. If he was from the managing office, how could he have the wrong street address?

I tell Jessie that Agnes and Val are coming for dinner the next evening. I brainstorm, trying to figure out a trap to confound them, like leaving the room so they feel free to talk about their schemes while secretely recording their conversation. But I'm not satisfied and the only thing I'm sure of is that, should I leave the apartment to go to the store, I don't want anybody to enter my room.

On the day of the dinner, I go to the locksmith who is to install the lock on the file cabinet. On the way to the apartment, I ply him with questions. When I consulted him the first time he seemed very suspicious [I had locked the cabinet by mistake by pushing on the lock and did not have a key] and now he was telling me that I sounded very frightened.

DINNER AT MY PLACE

After he left, his job done, I went out shopping for dinner. On the way I crossed Jessie and told her I wouldn't be long. I bought some fresh shelled oysters, mussels and clams to garnish a tart I was going to bake, and four different tropical fruit to make a salad. When I returned, A & V were there already. I started preparing dinner, put flowers in a vase, started the fruit salad, the dough for the tart and served drinks all at the same time, in a state of keen vigilance to what was said and done behind my back while I was officiating at the kitchen counter.

Agnes insisted to help prepare the fruit salad but I looked forward to doing it myself. I knew how I wanted the kiwis cut and I would have it no other way. There she was with her "Let me do this for you." I really had to insist that she not help me.

Then what I expected happened. She got up, walked to my room, saying that she would like to see my books, and closed the door behind her. I rushed after her, opened my bedroom door and suavely told her that there were things in the way, I would push them away from the bookcase so she could have a closer look. There were a bag and a pair of shoes on the floor, which I placed in such a way that she couln't close the door without pushing them aside. Then I returned to the kitchen. She was back in the living room in less than one minute with a magazine.

During dinner, while enjoying my seafood tart with salad, I inquired if they owned a car. They answered that they did and that they use it only for intercity commutes, not to travel inside Paris, and that they have it parked at a Northern city limit. However they didn't say which make it was, nor which color. I was wondering if it wasn't possible that they had themselves perpetrated the robbery and parked the car in the underground lot? [Why did they find it necessary to tell me that they parked the car in the north of Paris, when Porte de Choisy is in the south?] Even to innocuous questions their answers, like those regarding the burglary, again sounded rehearsed. I asked Val if he was making a living with his painting. He said that no, that he was earning money renovating apartments. Agnes was giving seminars on Communication in the corporate world. "I don't work very often but it pays very well." I did not mention that I was going to have to move.

They said they had visited several galleries and that some had requested slides and asked me if I could lend them one of my cameras so that Val could snap some slides of his works at the old man's apartment. The old man was leaving today to Fire Island. I really didn't feel like lending them my camera. I had such bad camera memories already and they knew it. But somehow I felt ashamed to show that I distrusted them and ended accepting and it was agreed that I would have dinner at their place two nights hence and would bring my camera.

As they were leaving, I packed and closed the garbage bag and followed them in the hallway. They said that as they were leaving, they saw Jessie was pretending to sleep but was "spying on them". Then they made some comment about the garbage. I said it was time to take out the garbage. As I was saying it, it occurred to me that they might take it personally and it made me smile.

REGRETS ONLY

After they had left, the prospect of lending them my camera and visiting them at the old man's apartment filled me with intense dread. I felt if I went I would fall into a trap and would be at their complete mercy in the cavernous apartment, the old man being away. And something would happen to my camera. They would say Val took it outside and some one snatched it off him. How could I decline their invitation? I missed the night's sleep thinking about it. I went to the police first thing in the morning and explained that I was afraid to visit my sister for dinner. I explained briefly why I was afraid. Finally an officer said, "Well, then, don't go." I felt relieved that a police officer said it was ok not to go visit one's older sister. I returned home and called Agnes. I told her that it wasn't working between she and I, that the vibes were bad and that I was cancelling our date and didn't want to see her anymore. I felt my throat tight as I was fighting tears. Having to pronounce these words laid it flat that what could have been a lifelong source of mutual comfort and sharing and enrichment was instead an odious pretense of affection and a bottomless pit of hatred, and I was devastated to come to that conclusion. She answered me with some put-down and the conversation ended.

GOOD BYE BIG SIS

My big sister, whom I had looked up to, whom I had trusted until now, to whom I had revealed my deepest thoughts as if she would impart me the wisdom, as if she would pass along the knowldge that I sought, which our mother didn't provide. My big sister who had always been the object of my admiration, a model for emulation, given to me as an example, whom I had always been eager to please in the hope of winning her affection. She had always pulled rank and put me in my lowly number 4 place in the pecking order. With my other two older sisters, they formed the clan of the elder ones and had privileges which were denied me when I reached the age at which they had obtained these privileges. The reason was never formulated but the only underlying assumption was that it was not a matter of age but a matter of personal value, and that I was undeserving of those privileges which they enjoyed. It was common knowledge that I was inferior and as a matter of course, I was treated by my elders as a sub-human. My human rights were being trampled on brazenly and there was nobody to turn to for help.

Children's vocabulary doesn't include "Human Rights" but they have the intuitive knowledge that their parents have certain duties towards them, and when their parents fail them, they are unable to put into words how it makes them suffer, this pain which cuts to the core of their being, which denies their human status. And when the child "acts out", the elders take it as a proof that the child is bad. They knew it all along! So you see, when they punish the child, they know what they're doing.

Agnes had said that they would leave on July 10 but now, in the light of the character revealed, every information she had volunteered was likely to be misinformation. So she would stay, she would follow me or have me followed, she would create a network so tight that she would know my every move.

Every time I went out, I saw a van parked on W96th. On the front doors were printed the words "Val's van". In the beginning it looked like an old van but little by little it got new tan paint, then the windows were changed to dark ones. I wanted to believe it was a coincidence.

Agnes had previously indicated that our father had paid for her trip and I lamented how, after denying me my human rights, my father was now financing my downfall from his stash of unreported money.

DAMAGE CONTROL

But what was I to do? I inquired with a Criminal Lawyer who told me that legally, my sister had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless I wrote down an Affidavit which read: QUOTE

AFFIDAVIT
July 6, 1989 I, Wynnona Spranklin (a.k.a. Jessie) hereby declare the following: -That I have been sharing the Apartment 5C at 35 W96th Street, New York NY 10025, with Brigitte Picart (a.k.a. Axelle) since April 1, 1988; - That during this 15 months period, Axelle has expessed a lot of distress and emotional suffering over some very unusual problems with her family in France, and particularly over the removal of her diaries from her parent's house by her mother; -That on Thursday June 1st, 1989, Agnes Echene came to our apartment. While Axelle was on the phone in her bedroom and I was occupied in the kitchen, I saw Agnes walk to the front door. She stood very close to it and examined every feature of the door: the handle, the lock, the peep-hole, the hinges and the alarm wire. I could not understand this behavior. - That as a result of Agnes Echene's behavior, a locksmith came on June 5th and 6th to put a lock on Axelle's file cabinet and that Axelle bought an extra lock for the front door. - That Axelle had expressed feart that her sister would try to search her room; - That on Tuesday, June 6, 1989, Agnes came for dinner with Val. Agnes asked to see Axelle's books, went to her bedroom and closed the door behind her. Axelle was preparing dinner and rushed after her sister. She opened the door widely, and put a bag and shoes in the door jamb so the door could not be closed again. Agnes, instead of looking at the books, returned instantly to the living room with a magazine. - That after dinner, I fell asleep on the couch while watching TV as happens every night. That I woke up when I heard the front door and opened my eyes a little. I was shocked when Axelle told me that Agnes had said that I was pretending to sleep and that she saw me spy on them. I swear that I have witnessed all the above and that this is the truth." UNQUOTE

Although she had said that she would sign it when I first broached the subject, before writing this Affidavit, Jessie refused to sign now that it was in front of her. So I returned to the business at hand, ignored Agnes knowing that she wasn't ignoring me, and set to find some new lodgings while Jessie was packing. For all I knew Agnes might have arrived in New York earlier than she pretended, and the Carey bus was just a make-believe. After all she and Val hadn't displayed the tell-tale signs of jet-lag. On the contrary they had been up early, seemed well rested, ate at the same hours as us in New York. So they might also stay longer than they had told me and the tenth of June was no relief.

I met John, my ex-husband, in the neighborhood where we both lived. I told him that I had to move. He asked me what neighborhood I would like to move to. I said that I'd like to stay in the Upper West Side, and that I would look for something between 96th and 110th street. I scrutinized the ads and made phone calls. The second Saturday of June Jessie had professional movers remove her belongings from the apartment. She was cheerful, she was pleased as punch. Her two young Jewish movers were even handsome with just the right muscular development on their gleaming chests and arms. She mentioned that she was traveling with them in the truck to NJ.

To put the icing on the cake, in the morning she had asked me if the post office was far away. I was surprised that she didn't know, having lived here one year, but I answered nevertheless and said that no it was real close. "Then", she had said, "could you drop my change of address notice?". And I had accepted and I had done it.

ALONE IN THE APARTMENT

A bare mattress, a kitchen knife with a soft blade and a parakeet were all that she left behind. I did enjoy the emptiness and the silence. No longer were my eyes offended by her tacky furniture, her plastic and her polyester. The ritual torture of the Andy Griffith show whistle had abated forever. Nothing at all in the main room, but the rarefied luxury of utter emptiness and silence, the eyes gorging shamelessly on the absence of anything to look at, of anything for the dust to fall on. That was grand. Just a sideways glance from the sun, shining on the parquet and the off- white walls.

Her ten dollar parakeet, an ill-chosen present from a friend, was now mine. In his cage on the window sill, he was doing his parakeet antics, dangling upside down and chirping soflty, unconcerned by circumstances external to his cage.

Whatever happens, there is always something that I am able to enjoy. There must be, no matter what, even pain, otherwise, it means life is pure hell.

When overdue hunger drew me to the kitchen counter and I realized the knife couldn't even cut the butter, I panicked, rushed to Broadway before closing time and bought a meat-cutting Hoffritz knife with a 12 inch blade. One more time in my life, things were happening beyond my control, danger was hovering and without a good knife as a last resort, I felt utterly defenseless. Strange people had come to this very door, had said strange things, my brain was racing trying to make sense of what was happening.

Sarah called on Monday night. She said that if I needed temporary lodgings, she would gladly accomodate me. She wanted details about Jessie's move, and she wouldn't quit asking questions until I told her I was sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor. Then there was a noticeable satisfaction in her voice and she renewed her offers of help. She said that the dancer with whom she shared the apartment was on tour until the middle of August and maybe later, and that I could occupy the little hallway between his room and hers. I said I would accept her invitation if I hadn't found anything before I had to vacate here. "What are you looking for?" "A room of my own" I said, "near a park." She said that instead I should look for another apartment share, and that the park, I could always take the subway or a bus to go to it. She spoke about that service, Roommate Finders, which for a fee provides lists of available shares. I followed her advice, visited the office, filled out papers, read their policy, signed on the dotted line and paid the fee.

THEO CALLS

On June the 26th, I got a call from Theo. He is my second sister's husband. A theoretical physicist who specializes in Chaos, he came from Germany to the United States about twice a year for professional reasons. He had visited me several times since I had moved to New York and had always behaved as if I were in awe of him, and secretely in love. I had been fascinated by Science since childhood, and it was as if my second sister wanted me to steal him from her, or at least to have sex with him.

This time he had a tragic voice from the first syllable. He said he was calling from California. I asked if it was to complete the project he had been working on from February to May of this year. He answered yes after some hesitation.

He said that Agnes had written to them at the beginning and at the end of her stay in New York. The first time she was enthusiastic about the city, and the second time she was disgusted and said she would never return. I said that not everybody likes New York, that his own wife had not liked it either.

He said that right now he was living with his mother in Heidelberg near Frankfurt while his wife and children were in Regensburg. I asked how was his mother. He said she was fine but was always terrified of robbers, as if he wanted to know my opinion. There was a pause. Finally I said that maybe she was getting something out of being afraid.

Then he said that he and my sister Elisabeth, his wife, were going to look to buy an apartment. He seemed to expect me to say something. I asked him how Europe was doing. He asked if I intended to visit the family any time soon. There are cheap flights, I could come over at his mother's and spend some time with them. I say that I want to get my musical career on tracks before seeing the family. He kept beating around the bush and I was anxious for the conversation to end. Finally he took leave, saying with a phony laugh: "Ha ha, you don't want to say anything to me!"

LOOKING FOR NEW DIGS WITH ROOMMATE FINDERS

Since both Jessie and Sarah had recommended it, I had registered with Roommate Finders and was getting listings of vacancies. Some situations offered were outrageous. Students sharing an apartment offering a bunk bed for $400 per month.

A thirtyish man, whose wife is on tour with a dance company, shares the place with a young black dancer down in Brooklyn. Rooftop over-looking blooming trees, the Brooklyn museum visible close by, and Manhattan far away.

I once visited some roommate offer on West End Avenue in the 80's. The woman was extremely weird. She said she had Lyme disease and was recovering slowly. Her apartment consisted of a long large room with the kitchen near the entrance and the living room toward the back window which overlooked a garden. The room she let was the only other room, besides the bath. It was quite monacal, with a typewriter on a small table. The large rustic bed occupied most of the space. The only closet was of medium size, and besides it was and would be her closet. Like she would have access to my room. She would sleep on the couch in the back of the living room. A screen partially hid her bedding area. She offered me an armchair. It was a hot sunny day and she brought me some Tropicana oj in a styrofoam cup. Between her and me was a fan on the side. She ripped a sheet of kitchen tissue from a roll and handed it to me. Of course the fan kept the tissue stuck to her hand and I knew she expected me to get up from my seat and reach for it. So I didn't. But I felt it was intentional on her part to put me in that situation.

EVA & MATT

Soon another listing caught my attention. It was in the Upper West Side, on 95th street just off Amsterdam, a large room at a price I could afford. A middle aged woman, explained that she rented some of her rooms and that soon one would become available. She spoke in a tone that exsuded warmth and caring, as if I were her niece or her daughter. I asked for the date the room would be free, and she said that she wasn't sure yet, the young man who was leaving was waiting for a car to drive across the United States, but that it would be around the end of the month. She offered me to come and visit and I accepted.

She received me with opened arms and soon placed an arm behind my back and a hand on my shoulder as she led me to the room. It was a large, beautiful room with two windows overlooking a playground and some trees. Then she showed me the kitchen. She had some rules about kitchen use which seemed a bit strict. Then back to the hallway she cordially invited me to sit down. Facing me against the wall were a half dozen of unplugged TV sets. She explained that the apartment was in the name of her younger brother, who works at the American embassy in the Philipines, and that he was rarely there. She asked me about myself, and spoke to me with the same tone of warm concern, as if she had taken an instant liking to me, and made me understand that she would rather have me take the room than any other candidate.

I kept looking at other listings and towards the end of the week, I called the woman again to know if there was any news about the date of the young man's departure. She said she didn't know, but the young man was here, would I come over and speak with him? Ten minutes later I was at the door. She said that he was eating in the kitchen and that we would wait until he was finished. I smelled an unmistakable whiff of Provencal cooking, exactly the same as Val's, as if the same combination of herbs was used.

After a while she said he was back in his room and led me to meet him. He looked like my nephew Mathias, whose nickmane is also Matt. I could have sworn it was him except that his teeth looked bigger when he smiled and said hello. But then the last time I had saw him he was not yet ten years old. The woman said that he was from another state, that he had come here to study and had been teaching French at the French school on the east side, then she left us. He seemed reluctant to speak. I observed that this was a fine room and that the view was nice. He said that he liked children, but in a tone that sounded sinister. He explained that he had just got his driver's license and was going to drive across the US. I asked if he had a firm date for his move. I explained that myself I had a deadline but he could provide no answer. Then I had the idea that if it was only a matter of two or three days, maybe I could move my belongings into his room before he left. He agreed.

Once back home, I realized that this whole affair looked like a trap. I was ready to bring my belongings into a place of which I wouldn't have the key. He would be alone with my things and I would have no way to prevent anything from happening. It seemed to me so grotesque that this could be another trap. As if the situation of my being disposessed was the point of the whole operation, and I was myself offering it, they hade made it look like my own idea. But wasn't it me instead who was being paranoid? Wasn't I ascribing portentous meaning to trifles? I wished I could have reassured myself in this way but I couldn't deny the feeling of dread that the situation inspired me, and the feeling of humiliation at being kept on hold by this young man in such an emergency. I was starting to heed the signals sent by my emotional states. So I decided not to take that room and to let them believe, until they called me, that I was still interested.

Meanwhile I called a drive-away company and inquired how they were screening candidates. There didn't seem to be many conditions to fulfill. Of course one needed a driver's license. If I wanted to drive a car to the West coast and had just had my driver's license, would they let me do it? "No," she said, "your driver's license must be at least one year old." So the whole deal was another set- up.

A week passed and one evening the woman called. She sounded bubbly as ever and told me that the young man was going to leave shortly. In a rather cold tone I said that I had made other arrangements. She didn't seem to have expected me to say that. I didn't elaborate and she didn't say anything for a while, as if her plan had gone awry unexpectedly and she didn't know what to do or say. She had expected me to give up looking for other lodgings without giving me any guarantee on her side, thereby putting me in a no-alternative situation.


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