Chapter Excerpt

A Novel

Chapter One

November 2001

Just until the swelling goes down. That was how long I intended to stay home. Until I could see out of my left eye, until my lower lip closed up. Until all the cuts scabbed over and faded into pale scars. Until I could bend the joints in the two small fingers of my left hand without feeling pain shoot up to my neck. Once the physical injuries healed, though, I still had the anxiety, the guilt, the shame, and then the creeping realization that not leaving my apartment was easier than I expected. It was on a Saturday morning in August, with my palms scraped raw, my two fingers in a splint, and my knees taped in bloody bandages, that I slowly pulled myself up the two steep flights to my small one-bedroom in Hell's Kitchen, closed the door behind me, and quietly turned the locks—click, clack, click—and it wasn't until November that anyone mentioned my absence. That person was Sonia Obolensky, my friend and tormentor.

I should point out that I used to be thrilled by Sonia's blazing tirades. I listened to her rants and watched her shake her fists as if I were sitting in the front row at the opening of the Moscow Art Theater's American tour. Whenever she ripped her blondish hair loose in an explosive moment of ferocity, her tiny teeth gnashing the air, her blue eyes swelling out of their sockets, I wanted to stand up and cheer, invoke endless curtain calls, and throw long-stemmed roses at her petite feet. By that November, however, I suspected that I'd endured the full repertoire and wondered when she would take her show to Chicago and free up the theater for something new.

I still did my best as a friend. When she was fired from her coat-check job at Orso and came to me in tears of rage, I told her I was glad she lost the job. I was honestly relieved that rainy days could now pass by without gleeful squeals of "Umbrellas, umbrellas!" That Sonia would find such euphoria from a few extra wrinkled dollars pressed into her hand while she stood for hours in a box stuffed with dripping trench coats and the suffocating smell of wet wool made me uneasy. As one of the first Americans Sonia met, I felt responsible for all of her setbacks, so it was with increasing frustration that I watched her bounce through a never-ending series of very odd jobs. At times I used humor to help her climb back up on her troika, but making a joke about Sonia's life was a game of Russian roulette.

Sonia had been fired from her eighty-sixth job in the city and was trying her hands at massage; the thought occurred to me, as I lay naked, smeared in oil, and wrapped in a sheet on her folding table, that she was now literally inches away from turning tricks. In hindsight, I should not have voiced the observation. I felt her fingers freeze on my thigh. Then her palm slapped my back. She began noisily packing up her assorted oils and rubbing manuals, leaving my left leg untouched and my right one overworked. Already on edge, I was now lopsided and greasy, unprepared for what she said next.

"And you're mean and spiteful!"

"Sonia, I'm sorry. You know it was just a joke." I was still facedown on the table, my face in the rubber doughnut. "Please do my left leg."

"No! Absolutely no!"

I stared for a few moments at the faded blue carpeting three feet below me. The massage, I knew, was a lost cause, but I still had a chance of letting her fire burn out if I could deprive her of added fuel.

She moved on without my help. "And your apartment stinks and you're lazy."

"My apartment stinks?"

"It has no air. You never leave. You stay here twenty-four and seven."

I sat up, tying my sheet in a knot around my waist, and said, "Twenty-four-seven. No and." This was a sore point between us, and the only thing I could think of to distract her.

"Twenty-four AND seven!" she retaliated. "You never leave."

"What do you mean I never leave?" I tried to laugh it off.

"And what do I mean? You never leave this place. What are you doing here? You mockery me but what do you do?"

"What?" was the best I could muster. I added, "Where?"

"Here! What are you doing here? This stinky room?"

"It does not stink."

"Like one thousand socks! What are you doing? Tell me."

"I am thinking!" I blurted out. Sonia laughed and spat out something in Russian. I made a show of wiping my face of her spray, sliding two fingers firmly over the contours of cheek and chin. She wasn't shaken. I modified my answer: "I'm writing."

"O, Mr. Twain, Dostoevsky!"

"Stop spitting on me."

"Present me your work, so grand."

I had nothing to present her, since I wasn't a writer and only said so because it was a marginally better answer than "I am thinking." Sonia waited. She looked down, her arms folded, her jaw clenched. The residual oil from her hands spotted her bright orange T-shirt. The air was pulsating, I could hear the second hand ticking on her watch. I opened my mouth and then closed it, exhaling through my nose. The silence was uncomfortable but speech was impossible. My throat was contracting.

"Well?" asked Sonia.

"Well, what?"

"Where is your grand think-piece?"

"I'm not showing you. You can read it when it's published."

She held her oily hands up in front of her, palms forward, then back, and then forward again, to remind me of the full extent of her labor-filled life.

"How do you make money?" she asked.

"I have the same job I've always had."

"And you don't go to job!"

"I work from home."

"And they let you do this? How is this thing possible?"

A Novel
. Copyright © by Robert Westfield. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Suspension by Robert Westfield
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.