by jane katims
I find myself on 44th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, in front of a gallery displaying award-winning photographs by students. I shade my eyes with my hand and peer through the window of the gallery — inside, a reception party is in progress, glasses of wine poured and passed around, animated conversation, laughter. A tempting sight, but I prefer to look in on it from the outside, prefer to be free to move away, to feel the spring air, and to let my own thoughts encircle me. For a moment, I stand on the corner, observing life on the street.
I wander down 44th. At the entrance of the Algonquin Hotel, a doorman nods, opens the glass doors for me. In the hotel’s large lobby-lounge, a woman with a beaded black jacket with sequins around the collar sits on a couch. Her legs are crossed, she holds a yellow iced drink. A man with a martini sits close to the woman, his arm around her.
On the carpet, patterns of large flowers with layered petals. The room has a warm glow; everywhere are stained glass lamps and light sconces with frosted etched glass. The couches and armchairs (it’s a huge lobby, like an oversized living room) are upholstered in mauve, pale green, and honey-brown — some floral patterns, some checkered, some in silk, some velvet.
I feel as brazen as the brash blooms on the rug. I walk slowly toward a chaise lounge, recline on it, careful to keep my booted feet hanging over the side, dangling. I remove my leather jacket. The air gets to my skin through my light silk blouse. I feel light!
A few moments of relaxing on the chaise. Then a young girl, maybe eleven, all alone, comes over, sits by my bent knees on the edge of the chaise. She’s so skinny it’s distressing; her thinness is accentuated by her spiky black hair and skimpy violet cardigan. Isn’t she much too young to be punk? Her eyes dart left and right. “There will be a small concert in here,” she says. In this lobby. Pretty soon, they’ll roll the piano in. My mother is the pianist. Some old-timers will sing Cole Porter tunes.” She seems intelligent; her movements are abrupt, her head and arms jerk around oddly, her eyes are flighty.
“Do you play an instrument?” I ask.
“Yes, several — flute and violin. My name is Saturn.”
“That’s an unusual name.”
“I am so good in math, my mother is the best pianist in the world, I can’t go to school, I’m too good.”
This child is making me very uncomfortable; I am about to excuse myself and move away, leave my beloved chaise behind for another seat, or maybe exit the hotel, when Saturn says to me “You are very elegant.” Her voice is kind, reassuring. And then, the next second, she is dashing on her long, toothpick legs toward The Oak Room where the doors are opening and, just as she promised, an upright piano is rolled in.
I smooth down my blouse. I want to stay here. I think of Dorothy Parker at the famous Round Table in this hotel. Other women too, like Edna Ferber. A sudden pang of longing when it occurs to me: My mother was here, too. Over forty years ago! In this very hotel! My mother had come to see me accept an award. I was a freshman in high school — it was early Fall as it is now. I’d written an article in English class that won second prize in a Young Journalists contest. The ceremony was in The Rose Room, where the Round Table Restaurant is now. There, around dark wood tables decorated with flowers, family and friends gathered. I sat with other awardees at the dais in the front of the room. I remember giving a short speech, acknowledging the award. My mother, from her seat, waved adoringly at me, her eyes fastened on my face; she smiled, beamed.
When the ceremony ended and everyone cleared out, my mother and I lingered. I wandered from The Rose Room into the hotel lobby. Suddenly my mother’s face went ashen. Her legs buckled, her body folded, and down she sank, right onto the carpet. I crouched, kneeled beside her. I fixed my hands under her armpits. Her hair splayed out untidily. The cotton cloth of her dress — a blue dress with capped sleeves and high collar (to hide scars from the mastectomy) — was soft and damp. I felt bone on her left arm; she had so little flesh there. Her right arm was swollen from the operation — it felt spongy. I was repulsed, but I didn’t flinch. A man in a grey uniform — where had he come from? — ran over to help. He attempted to steady my mother. It was mainly I, though, who lifted her, moved her to the nearest armchair as her feet skittered under her..
“I’m fine, Janie, don’t worry. I’m fine,” she said. She thanked the man in the grey uniform, dismissing him when he asked if she needed anything. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Yes” she insisted, “I’m fine.” She told the man to leave; after seeing she had steadied herself, he withdrew.
I sat down on a large love seat near the armchair where my mother sat.
“What a wonderful event,” my mother said, her voice hoarse. I reached to straighten her hair. “Your speech was terrific, Janie. I liked the part about intrepid questioning — is that the word? “
I raised my eyes, looked past her at the large window facing 44th Street. Heavy, ornate drapes were pulled to either side by braided ties. A darkness loomed outside, black and threatening.
My mother said, “It’s time to go. It’s nearly eight.”
I busied myself, zipping, then unzipping, the large flap on my backpack.
My mother smoothed out the bunched skirt of her dress; she crossed her legs at her ankles, her eyes stared at her shoes. “Well,” she said gently, “we have to get back.”
“No,” I said.
My mother looked startled, then composed herself . “What you said in your speech, Jane, about careful listening to the person you’re interviewing — that was great.”
I didn’t respond.
“It’s getting late,” my mother said.
A waiter who serves drinks and small snacks right here in the lounge stopped by us. I said to him, “Can you bring us two cokes?”
I expected my mother to admonish my brashness, but she said nothing.
And very quickly, the waiter was back with the drinks. He set the cokes down on a small glass-topped coffee table between my mother and me.
I sipped slowly.
“I brought along extra money,” my mother said. “We’ll ask that nice man to call a cab for us.”
“I don’t want to go home.” I said.
“We have to get to Port Authority in time for our bus home to Jersey.”
“No, I said sullenly. “We could book a room here.”
My mother froze for a minute, her eyes half closed. She took a breath, then looked at me, “You know Jane, you look beautiful sitting right there on that love seat.” She reached over, touched my cheek. “You look really beautiful, Jane.”
Through the Algonquin’s window, now, the very same window that was dark forty years ago, afternoon light streams in and I remember what else my mother said: You will be able to visit many wonderful places, like this one—hotels, restaurant, ballrooms, theaters—all through your long life.
Jane Katims authored numerous radio series for Wisconsin Public Radio, one earning her a George Foster Peabody Award in Broadcasting. She’s also received the John Woods Scholarship in Fiction Writing. A collection of her poetry, Dancing On A Slippery Floor, is published. Her work has appeared in Pearl Magazine, Proximity Magazine and The Coachella Review. Currently, she’s working on a collection of essays. She has three children: Joshua, Ben, and Rachel and lives with her husband, Dan Perlman, in Arlington, Massachusetts where she teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at The Cambridge Center for Adult Education and at Tufts Institute for Lifelong Learning at Tufts University.