MY BEAUTIFUL GODDAMN CITY

 

Both sides of Roy Lichtenstein Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight. Executed in 1996, this work is the artist’s proof from an edition of 6 plus 1 artist’s proof. © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

October 31, 2004. It’s cold in Manhattan today. A restaurant on Desbrosses Street near the river. A woman, MAGGIE BOSWORTH, in her sixties, is sitting at a table drinking a glass of red wine. She is quite handsome, lovely. Someone has been keeping her waiting, waiting. The owner comes to visit for a moment. SERGE, sixty-five, in a turtleneck, comfortable, is also carrying a glass of wine. He has a slight accent.

                                                                                     SERGE

To answer your question, there’s no business to speak of whatsoever, of course, Maggie. And this we accept.

                                                                                     MAGGIE

Surely not, Serge.

                                                                                     SERGE

No, no. I do. A brasserie is too…ornate for this time. I’ve made quite enough tagines, and my wife tells me my North African bent—slightly arabique—it’s not “à la mode,” not of “the time.” Plus, you know the traders and money people on Greenwich Street—young and bloated. What have I got to offer them?

(Sly. Knows he’s on a roll.)

They have a vague and categorical dislike for Middle Eastern food. I wonder why…

(He drinks. They both laugh, and she delights in him.)

…the Tribeca movie people? The ones who work for the monster (and you know I love him), they don’t have the time or the money anymore for a three-course lunch, and they have their own indifferent place, so…who’s left? The old Tribeca dinosaurs. And how many of you are there?

(He looks her in the eye.)

How many of us…are there?

(A shrug)

You don’t mind if I smoke in my own establishment, do you?

                                                                                       MAGGIE

(Smiling)

Please. I mean, I still love it. You have the good French ones.

(He takes out an unfiltered imported smoke.)

                                                                                        SERGE

The ever-increasing inexorable American infantilization. Yes?

                                                                                        MAGGIE

Oh yes.

                                                                                        SERGE

A people who have both too many choices as well as too few and who have no idea anymore of how to exercise the ones they do have.

                                                                                        MAGGIE

Indeed.

                                                                                         SERGE

(A nagging sing-song voice)

“Don’t do this; don’t do that; we know what’s best.” The only bad thing about this goddamn country.

                                                                                         MAGGIE

Not the only.

(Beat)

It’s not looking good, is it?

                                                                                          SERGE

Well. Look—this man—he never expressed himself. He ran cautiously, lovelessly; he ran like a…mechanical tin man. He must be a composite of…these bland men who wish to hold office. Is there passion?

                                                                                         MAGGIE

Yes. The other side, apparently, has boatloads of it.

                                                                                         SERGE

Dark passion, yes. So we have four more years of this catastrophe. The rest of the world now only hates our government, but in a few days, if what we think is going to happen—happens—they’re going to hate the American people too. They will not be able to differentiate between Dick Cheney or you and me.

                                                                                         MAGGIE

The distinction will be lost. We squandered the world’s affections.

(Beat. A French shrug and a French expulsion of breath. A consummate gesture of “It’s outta my hands; we can do nothing to change this.” He smokes.)

                                                                                       SERGE

(Checking his watch)

If you stay long enough today, you get to see something nice. I’m making truffles for the neighborhood kids. Little ones with a pumpkin on top. A Halloween thing. I started, you know…right bloody after…you know…those first weeks…so many families had gone that Halloween. These brave kids. Half a dozen or so.

(She takes a puff. He watches, enjoying her pleasure and the smoke rings she blows.)

And, and, their braver parents—for the parents that year, I made special truffles, loaded the fucking things with enough Armangac to stun Willy Wonka. AND his midget people.

(Beat. He smiles.)

Now they insist on it, the parents, though last year some of the kids apparently got loaded. I must have mixed up a batch. But there are more people each Halloween. So…

                                                                               MAGGIE

I know. It does feel—when I first went to London and Paris and Brussels, I was in college, and you could see how little had been repaired. But the people—this entire neighborhood feels like that.

                                                                                SERGE

You know, my dear, there’s this new insulting fad, this is called “slow cooking,” the “slow food movement.” I have to ask, when you rename the game itself— rituals, concentrations layering and effort—you know, when you begin to rename traditions—religions—dress them up, to recycle the truth…

                                                                                MAGGIE

Yes. Exactly. Old clothes with new names.

                                                                                SERGE

(Contempt)

Slow fucking food. Me? I’m at Hunts Point at four in the fucking morning, you know, some days. South Street was easier, but the truth is, mafia fish actually was inferior; we get much better sole now that they’re gone.

                                                                                MAGGIE

Is that true, Serge?

                                                                                 SERGE

(A shrug, “maybe I’m exaggerating.”)

Because what one does—it’s done slowly. My wife says, “Serge, I suspect in you a kind of bone-deep laziness.” And I tell her, “What you call laziness, I call the subconscious at work!”

                                                                                  MAGGIE

Precisely. I like the Rhone.

                                                                                  SERGE

I don’t so much find it disheartening as I do…another indicator. Your sister is late.

                                                                                  MAGGIE

She is never not late.

                                                                                  SERGE

Why don’t you come in anymore? Did something…? We slipped, I know, but everyone did, you know. I mean, it was very hard to get back on track, and yes, we slipped.

                                                                                 MAGGIE

Serge. It was—no. It was like electroshock. None of the old rituals. I can’t explain. It’s taken…Lewis died last year, and I…

                                                                                 SERGE

Maggie, I wondered.

                                                                                 MAGGIE

Well, he’d been ill. You’d seen. He’d been sick for so long. His heart broke, you know. It pushed him over; he’d fought long and hard, but…(quite upset) We had to move out, you know, and we were in…Vermont.

                                                                                SERGE

I didn’t know.

                                                                                MAGGIE

Yes.

(Quietly, trying to buffer it.)

And he just died two months ago. And so our place here sat empty. It sat empty, literally. It’s been three years of it…sitting there. We came in once, once. To see a play and have dinner—once, on our anniversary. We didn’t know where anything was.

(Beat. She fights tears. Successfully.)

Serge, I only moved back to Manhattan last week. This is my fourth day here.

                                                                                 SERGE

Oh my God. Lewis! Gone! No! He…oh no.

(There is distressed silence. Maggie is struggling for composure and trying to comfort Serge in his lovely cashmere turtleneck and burnished ancient French cords. He deflates.)

                                                                                 MAGGIE

It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…yes, it was time. And he lived a very…good…seventy-four years. Making art…us in love for thirty-eight years. We had so much to be…

                                                                                  SERGE

(Holding Marge’s hand. He’s very upset and does nothing to hide it. A handkerchief comes out of his pocket.)

He was a very special man. You…

(Serge laughs a little, warm and bitter all at once.)

…he…when we moved here in ’78, do you remember? Nothing here. Still spice warehouses and us, and he made me teach him the lamb with preserved lemons and green olives. He made me. I was livid, but you were…

(He shakes his head.)

…my first customers.

                                                                                  MAGGIE

(Looking up. She seems slightly surprised, shocked—her sister has entered.)

Oh, Serge, Patty’s here!

(Maggie waves. PATTY is ten or twelve years younger, blond and thin, and wearing a brilliantly updated version of something Annie Hall might have been covetous of. Serge rises and goes over to her, kissing her on both cheeks. He points to Maggie.)

                                                                                     PATTY

(Coming over)

Why did I stop coming here? What’s wrong with me! I’ve—I haven’t been since— oh—it’s such a big room, and it’s so empty! So it looks even bigger. Hi, sweetheart, look at you—so elegant.

                                                                                    MAGGIE

Elegance. It’s what mother gave us; money was never the secret to it, was it? It was juxtaposition and balance. Never money. Did you know that when they lived in Hollywood, she bought all her clothes at the movie-star thrift stores? Studio heads’ wives’ houndstooth…

                                                                                      PATTY

I know, I still have in a drawer a pair of green suede gloves worn by Jennifer Jones.

                                                                                       MAGGIE

(Gasping)

Those are mine! My God, I loved those!

                                                                                       PATTY

You can have them.

(They kiss. Anyone spying on them could tell how much love there is between them. Patty, however, is quite nervous.)

I’m so late, I’m sorry. My plane circled Newark round and round, and an obese arbitrageur and model World War One airplane collector bored me into a coma. I just sort of sat there stunned like an animal—half an hour, and you can see Tribeca, I can see my goddamn building. I got in, dropped my bag and ran over.

                                                                                      MAGGIE

You look so good. How was—you were in San Francisco?

                                                                                       PATTY

Too coy for its own good. Proper. Always pretending to be grand, but so proper. Though when the war started, the kids there went nuts—the only town—they took over the streets. Made me briefly consider living there.

(Beat)

What are we having? Can you order for both of us? I don’t want to look at a menu.

                                                                                        MAGGIE

I did it already. Serge is roasting us a chicken and making a little salad, and there’s a plate of pomme frites.  I detest these people who have turned on the potato, don’t you?

                                                                                          PATTY

(After a beat)

Uhm…

                                                                                          MAGGIE

Screw them, right?

(Beat)

Serge has fallen on hard times.

(Beat)

He’s claiming redundancy.

                                                                                             PATTY

Well, who isn’t? Tell him to wait his turn.

(Vehement. Too much so.)

Tell him to get in line like all the rest of us.

                                                                                              MAGGIE

You look lovely. Oh my, you look lovely. And here we are, our old place and back living a block apart.

(She takes her sister’s hand.)

Do things. Just be together—

                                                                                               PATTY

I have something to tell you. I’ve been thinking this for a long time. A long time, and we’ve talked about it.

                                                                                              MAGGIE

My God, you’re scaring me. What is it?

(Beat)

Patty, please.

                                                                                               PATTY

I’m leaving the country. I’m going to the airport, and I’m getting on a packed, I’m going to Paris and voting on my way to the plane, and I’m literally, I’ve planned it on November second.

                                                                                              MAGGIE

What?

                                                                                              PATTY

I’m…going. I’ve rented an apartment in Paris, tiny, but on Rue Jacob. I’ll…I’ll…

(Beat. She shakes her head.)

…I can’t anymore. I’m leaving. I just…can’t do this.

                                                                                           MAGGIE

Yes? You…do what? Do what, darling? I don’t know what it is you can’t do; you have a good life.

(There is silence. Serge brings a carafe of red wine and two new glasses, a plate of olives, and a small plate of cheese.)

                                                                                           SERGE

I want you to try this; it’s absurdly cheap, sexy and from Spain. And also this cheese—Garrotxa. Pyrenees, made right on the shores of the Med by people so much happier than us that that’s what you taste when you eat it. Their delight. That and almonds.

(He goes. Maggie stares at Patty. “Why?”)

                                                                                            PATTY

So many factors. This election. For one.

                                                                                            MAGGIE

The election? Surely, you’re joking.

                                                                                             PATTY

(Agitated)

No, no, no, not just that.  It’s all week of it — I was fired last week.

                                                                                           MAGGIE

(Shocked. Injecting.)

Oh God, you’ve been there for so many—

                                                                                           PATTY

(Nodding. Interrupts.)

And, and, you know, I mean, for the stupidest reason, I wrote something snide about Fashion Week, about designers with neither memory nor politics. It’s this thing we have to do now, a blog—you know what that is? It’s a—

                                                                                           MAGGIE

(Nodding, impatient, firm)

I know what a blog is. I read it. I e-mailed you.

                                                                                         PATTY

(Deeply agitated, she continues. She speaks in the style of someone whose thoughts are careening all over the map—urgent but unfocused.)

Oh. I…oh. And it was “one too many,” they said. “This is fashion, not op-ed.” Screaming match. Me screaming, them grinning smugly the way people do when you scream at them. Have you ever noticed this?

                                                                                       MAGGIE

(Firmly)

No.

                                                                                       PATTY

Me saying terrible things. To my bosses. “You bland technocrats! You chronic negotiators! Butlers! This paper has abdicated, has entirely abdicated its responsibilities, become the voice of the mild, the comfortable, the voice of the diplomat.” I screamed, “We’ve become the Switzerland of newspapers,” and they suggested sick leave, but I’ve been mad at them for never having questioned this war—not once—and they’re right, I’ve become shrewish. But I never want to hear the word “reason” again, as in “Be reasonable.” These are not reasonable times! And also it has become disgusting to me. The excess of my…beat. Clothing? Did you read the thing I wrote—“Where is Vivian Westwood when you need her?”—which was about social context in design, you know. You’d have thought I—you know—they had designers calling my editors. Children. Children, spoiled children with sewing machines and no sense of history. I was lectured. “You have changed the criteria! You have injected something inappropriate.” I had to sit there while the culture editors watched, actually smirking at me.

(She drinks.)

And it’s—everything is for the young. The country is only for the young now!

                                                                                 MAGGIE

I see. You were…upset because you finally realized that the fashion world—let me understand this, darling—was irredeemably…frivolous? This is news? Come on.

(Now silence. Maggie takes a sip of wine.)

And because that the newspaper for which you work, which has always been spectacularly middlebrow, for better or worse—personally, I think for better—didn’t attack the administration sooner for going to war?

                                                                                   PATTY

And underreported every fucking protest march, and engaged in—

                                                                                  MAGGIE

(Nodding)

Trying to hold steady amidst cable television news and online shrills, rumormongers and snake-oil news—

                                                                                    PATTY

(Nervous. Going on, over.)

I sublet my place. Not allowed, but I don’t care. I’m never coming back. I just don’t feel like it’s my country anymore.

                                                                                   MAGGIE

(Gentle)

I think most of us are feeling like that. Yes. However, there’s much more to it.

                                                                                       PATTY

I—please—yes, I know, and I know you worked for the State Department for years, but I’m not—you have on a foreign-service voice. It’s just a feeling. It’s not my country!!

                                                                                     MAGGIE

No, I do know what you mean. Uncle Richard. I spoke to him. They’re sitting there in Newport, thrilled. I said to him, “Richard. These people, these people you’re voting for, Bush and Cheney—these are people you’d never have in your homes, you’d never be in business with.”

                                                                                     PATTY

(Shaking her head.)

Oh…he’s…it’s…I don’t know how you two even can talk to one another.

                                                                                     MAGGIE

He’s family. But he agreed! Yet, they’re still going on voting for him as though the wholesale slaughter of young men were a natural…

(She shakes her head.)

…it’s true. It’s the civil war. But you’re making a terrible mistake. If everyone who felt like you went into exile, they’ll have won much more than merely this election.

(She shakes her head.)

And why didn’t you discuss it with me?

                                                                                     PATTY

I didn’t want to be talked out of it.

                                                                                    MAGGIE

And so you waited. Until two days before you’re to go.

(Beat)

You’re being a dreadful little coward, Patty. A self-congratulatory, smug, overly high-strung coward.

                                                                                   PATTY

You can’t think it’s easy to do this?

                                                                                   MAGGIE

I think it resembles something cinematic.

                                                                                    PATTY

Our parents left the country.

                                                                                    MAGGIE

Yes. They were screenwriters; they were blacklisted. Are you being blacklisted?

                                                                                   PATTY

There’s no place for people like me.

                                                                                  MAGGIE

(Smiling)

What? For high-strung neurotics? Yes there is; you’re there.

                                                                                   PATTY

The feeling of otherness, of alienation. I’m so angry all the time, and I’m tired of being angry. And New York. Jeez.

                                                                                 MAGGIE

What about New York?

                                                                                  PATTY

This return to business as usual. This appalling homogeneity.

                                                                                MAGGIE

Please, what do you expect?

(Maggie stares at her sister. Patty pours more wine. Silence.)

No. C’mon. This is what people do. They return to business as usual. They cannot live otherwise. Do you know how much I crave a return to normalcy?

(Beat)

Do not be weak. Moving to Paris is weak. And obvious and beneath you, and I know how lonely you’ll be.

                                                                                           PATTY

You think I’m not lonely here? How often did we see each other? You and Lewis up in Vermont! Yes, it’s…I work too hard, I travel too much…I…I…but that’s the problem. I need to get all this out of my system. Maybe I’ll meet a French guy…they like me. They see me as French by proxy—

                                                                                       MAGGIE

And you take that as a compliment?

                                                                                       PATTY

(Softly, smiling)

Come visit me in a few weeks. I’ll know where the little markets are; we’ll explore. I need you. I…you could help me.

(Maggie shakes her head “no,” very upset.)

                                                                                      MAGGIE

No. I will not. I will not visit you. I will not help you.

(Beat. Emphatic, with certitude and a certain grim fervor.)

I just moved back to Manhattan. I am—I’ve spent the last three days taking Lewis’s things and getting rid of them. I am not going to France. This is my city.

(Furious now)

My beautiful goddamn city, do you hear me? I won’t have this whining of yours. It’s pathetic. This is our city. We are not Americans. We are New Yorkers! It’s not the same thing.

(Beat)

New Yorkers.

(Quietly)

New Yorkers.

(Beat)

And that will never change. I walk down the streets so amazed to be back, so amazed that life goes on here, so pleased. Rebuilding. To see it. There are children in the playground, dogs being walked by the river. And Vermont was beautiful. Bennington is very still and gentle. But this is our home. You are not an exile. An exile is someone who flees something that is bigger than them. This list, this laundry list of your dissatisfaction, is small fucking beer, my girl, very small beer. This family has been here, with some minor absences, for over a hundred years.

(Beat)

I will not leave. Yes, so the government is not your government at the moment. Tough it out. Keep getting fired.

                                                                                      PATTY

Yes, well, you missed it, up there in Vermont, and maybe you feel guilty about having not come back when you could have very easily—yes. After everything was cleaned up, people came back! To your walk-up building—yes—but you chose to not, and so I can see why you might be so emphatic about—

                                                                                      MAGGIE

(Quietly)

No. Let’s not. We will not discuss what was seen on that day. A day when you were, I believe, in Santa Monica. I shall not talk to you about it. And don’t try and vulgarize this conversation.

                                                                                        PATTY

(Backing off)

No, I’m sorry.

(Beat. Very quietly.)

I was on the phone with you.

                                                                                    MAGGIE

(Direct and straightforward, staring Patty down.)

It was different if you were here. And I will speak no more of it.

(And silence)

                                                                                    PATTY

I’m disgusted that they’re building another tall building.

                                                                                   MAGGIE

(Softening. Nods.)

Another reason to stay and fight. The hubris of it.

(Hardening again)

But this is not something to drag into this argument.

(Gently)

Patty. Buck up.

                                                                                   PATTY

Something’s gone out of me.

                                                                                    MAGGIE

I know what happens to ex-pats; it’s not pretty. The longing ceases being romantic and becomes a punishment.

                                                                                    PATTY

(Crying)

I’ve decided. My things are—all my books have been sent. My pictures, my…

                                                                                    MAGGIE

The problem is this: you’ve stopped seeing it.

                                                                                      PATTY

I think you have. Your stoicism and your fortitude. They just—they’re—

                                                                                      MAGGIE

You haven’t earned the right to abandon life here, in this manner. You’ll whither.

                                                                                         PATTY

(Bitterly)

No, I’ll freelance.

                                                                                          MAGGIE

You have no idea how much you’ll miss it. Being part of it, the fight. This time is about being part of the fight, acknowledging it. You’ll miss it. The American Gothic of it all.

                                                                                          PATTY

I will give you that.

                                                                                         MAGGIE

I have an idea.

                                                                                            PATTY

What?

                                                                                          MAGGIE

Look, after lunch, let’s go for a walk together. Let’s go for a walk. Let’s look.

                                                                                        PATTY

A walk?

                                                                                       MAGGIE

Through Manhattan. When you were a kid, didn’t I show you the city? Maybe you need a refresher course. Look at it. At what’s beautiful. At what’s not. Here. Up Canal, taking it in—the stands, the bazaars—and then up through Chinatown. Keep going, but look at people. Yes, so they walk around oblivious talking on little cell phones, but it’s alive. We’ll keep walking. Watch the children trick-or-treating. Go up to the theater district. And then Central Park. Spend the rest of the day with me.

                                                                                      PATTY

I have to still do some…packing and…

(She’s in tears.)

…I’m so, so tired of being angry all the time. This rage. It’s so unhealthy. I look at women now, and I think if they don’t have frown lines, they’re just numb or stupid.

(Beat. She shakes her head, virtually lost in her sorrow.)

The country passed a mark. The stupidity. I used to think there was an innate sense of…justice prevailing. You know, tossing Nixon, stopping Vietnam, civil rights—but this pornographic daily sophistry—all the lying.

(Beat)

My heart is broken.

                                                                                  MAGGIE

Patricia. Don’t you understand?

(Beat)

Paris doesn’t need people like you. There are thousands of you there.

(Maggie looks at her sister. She doesn’t know what to say. She holds her hand.)

                                                                                      MAGGIE

Paris doesn’t. We do. I do. I do.

(Patty looks up at her sister. Serge returns, carrying another bottle of wine and three glasses. He is smoking.)

                                                                                      SERGE

A couple more minutes. And a perfect roast chicken. That’s all I can promise you. Not so much but not nothing, eh?

(He sits down, uncorks the wine, and pours.  Shrugs. Looks around.)

Oh boy. Today for some reason, it’s worse than usual. My wife. She’s in there yelling at me. As though the emptiness of these tables were evidence against me. I don’t know. She tells me, “Close. Enough.” But it’s what I live for: some wine, the gang, an argument, a little spice, defiance, you know…

(Beat)

Fuck ’em.

(He gets up again and goes into the kitchen.)

                                                                                MAGGIE

A walk? Patty? Just a walk through the city?

                                                                                PATTY

(Looking down, smiling.)

Well. We have to do something after this meal. I don’t know why you chose this place. The man uses a stick of butter just in the carrots alone. And the chicken? Please. Someone has to tell him; people don’t eat that way anymore.

                                                                                MAGGIE

I think he knows.

 

                                                                               The end

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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