I’ll just bet they did. Luckily no one’s thought of setting this kind of thing to music, with the grandkids singing backup, but I’m sure that’s coming.
Then the exchanges fall off, and sometimes there is a card announcing a death, which is sad, like hearing an already forgotten movie star or celebrity has overdosed. Sometimes, after a brief pause, a new wife or husband will step in to carry on the family’s awful-poetry tradition.
Zora caught my eye out of this changing cast of Kildare dwellers because Zora was the type of woman made to catch the eye. There’s no other way to put it: Some women command center stage without even trying. There’s no point in envying people like Zora, these winners of the gene-pool lottery; one may as well envy a tornado or tsunami or another force of nature. They just are.
Even when Zora was unobserved, or thought she was, she had a way of slinking gracefully about or draping herself across a couch in a way that was so mesmerizing that you - I - couldn’t wait to see what she might do next. Because her townhouse wasn’t directly in back of mine, I could only see about three-quarters of her living room, where generally she would be reading or watching television or maybe eating a sandwich.
She was not tall, probably just over five feet. She was carrying extra baby weight when they first moved in, but with the help of exercise, which I witnessed but was not inspired to imitate, she soon lost enough bulk that you could see the Kardashian beneath, the difference between Zora and the reality star being that no part of her beauty looked particularly enhanced, waxed, shellacked, or rhinestoned. She just was. A curtain of silky jet-black hair fell down her back, sometimes held with a ribbon or scarf; the blinding sheen of it suggested frequent visits to the blow-dry bar. Her eyes were dark and slightly tilted; I couldn’t tell what color they were, possibly brown. Sitting on the couch holding the baby, she looked like a twenty-first-century Madonna.
Niko Norman was not bad to look at, either. He resembled a beefed-up Jude Law, which is not a bad win in the gene lottery, either. The wonder was that Zora tended to outshine his beauty like the sun, making his blond good looks insipid by comparison, his cleft chin weak. This may be me reading things into his character which I only later came to question, but I think I’m right. Being around her probably drained him of self-confidence. In ordinary light, by himself, out on the street, he would have looked great.
He seemed like an OK father; at least he acknowledged the baby when he - Niko - came home. But you could see it plainly, at least I thought I could, the dynamic of that household - Niko moving towards his wife, drawn like the proverbial magnet, the baby forgotten, an accessory at best. If she happened to be holding the child, Niko would take it from her, give it a perfunctory kiss on the forehead, and deposit it in its playpen. The child seldom cried at this offhand neglect, not that I ever saw. Even at a tender age, perhaps it understood how people can easily be displaced by a shinier object.
They would settle onto the couch - one of those modular arrangements with outsized pillows, upholstered in a nubbly beige fabric, dotted with colorful boho throw pillows - and if the lighting was such that I might be noticed, I would discreetly withdraw. I wasn’t keen on them staring directly into my place either, so I would go upstairs to my office to get some work done before dinner.
The night of the curious incident at the Normans’ there was yet another documentary on TV about Keith Raniere and his NXIVM cult. The show was so engrossing it was pure chance I noticed anything else.
About halfway through I had come downstairs from the bedroom to pour myself a glass of wine. The kitchen is at the heart of the house, in between the living and dining rooms on the second floor. The stairwell and hallway occupy the rest of the space. The layout is the mirror image of Chez Norman.
I was in a hurry to get back to the TV, so ordinarily I wouldn’t have paid much attention to what was going on out in back. Raniere was in the middle of explaining his theory of what constituted a successful life, and as avidly as I watched for any clue, I could not understand anyone’s following this guy to Albany, New York. Tuscany, maybe, but Albany?
Like everyone else, I was particularly taken with the idea of anyone’s submitting to being branded with anyone’s initials, especially the initials of a guy who looked like he might work at installing HVAC systems. Even if George Clooney wanted to brand me with his initials, I’d refuse, although I might consider a small and tasteful tattoo.
But I do understand something of the psychology behind cults, and how easily one can be deceived by a charismatic and, to all appearances, benign figure. A highly respected pediatrician named Marcus, for example. It simply wrecks your head.
The fear of growing old alone is powerful and it takes a strong, integrated personality to resist the pull of anything that looks like love or a ready-made family, especially if your own family has gone out of business because of divorce or death or general craziness, especially if you’ve been alone in the world too long, and most especially (for Americans) during that dangerous time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
That line about the phone never ringing? That was me before I met Marcus, who came bundled with lots of friends and family.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Something Wicked by David Housewright.