White Houses

Friday afternoon, April 27, 1945

29 Washington Square West

New York, New York

No love like old love.

I’ve done the flowers as best I could. I got stock and snapdragons, pink roses and daffodils, from the Italian florist and I’ve put a vaseful in every room. I’ve straightened up the four rooms, which were already neat. The radio still works. The record player works too, and someone has brought in albums of Cole Porter and Gershwin and there is one scratchy record of La Bohème with Lisa Perli from when I was a more regular visitor. I’ve gone to the corner grocery twice (eggs, milk, bread, horseradish cheese, sardines, and I went back again because there was no can opener) and up the street one more time, for booze. I hope that at five o’clock, we’ll be drinking sidecars. I bought lemons. I want to have everything we need close by. I am hoping we don’t see so much as the lobby all weekend.

I change my clothes in the living room. I don’t think I should be in the bedroom, at all, unless I get invited. I anticipate sleeping on the couch. I’ve brought my navy-blue Sulka pajamas, for old times’ sake.

On the radio, the newsman raises his voice like a coach on the field, and says that the eighteen major cities of Germany are ablaze. He says, the Potsdam Division of the German army is systematically murdering the Americans wounded on the battlefield. He says, with a lilt, that two thousand American planes are attacking rail positions near Berlin and other communications centers in southern Germany. He says, Good night, ladies and gentlemen, victory is in sight. I hope so.

I’m glad and I’m tired. I’ll celebrate the war’s end out on Long Island, with a couple of other old broads and our dogs, and we will all toast Franklin Roosevelt, who didn’t live to see it. My neighbor Gloria and I will sing “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Every single one of us will cry.

I sit down on the living room couch to wait. I used to be able to read Eleanor’s heart, when I saw her face, and I worry that I can’t anymore. I expect to see her gray with Roosevelt suffering, the kind that must not only be borne but must be seen to be borne, elegantly, showing her great effort to be patient with everyone’s sadness and pulling need and beneath that, just like it was with her brother, a hook of barbed and furious grief that she’d tear out if she could. She told me that nothing on earth was worse than losing her baby, the first Franklin Junior, but I sat with her for the long days of her brother Hall’s death, and she cried for him, every night, as if he hadn’t broken everybody’s hearts, as if he hadn’t almost killed one of his own children and ruined the other five. She sat by Hall’s bed, looking like that Henry Adams statue she used to drag me to, the monument of transcendent misery Adams put up when his wife killed herself with cyanide. That’s what I am expecting, but I hope that in the mix of her feelings for Franklin, sorrow at his death, and grief for her children and for the country, she’ll be glad to see me. I want her to feel that with me, she’s home, like it used to be. She sent me away eight years ago, and I left. Two days ago, she called me to come and I came.

The buzzer rings, which means her hands are full and she can’t get to her key.

I open the door and Eleanor is leaning against the wall, paper white.

Her beautiful blue eyes are red-rimmed, all the way around, and she looks as if she has never smiled in her life. Her dusty black coat is enormous on her, and her lisle stockings bag. I kiss her because I always kiss her hello, when we are alone and we’re on speaking terms, and she turns her cheek toward me and looks away. She hands me her purse and her suitcase. I put down the bags and I put my arm around her waist. I try to pull her face to mine but she turns away and rests one hand on my shoulder, to take off her shoes.

She drops her hat, coat, and scarf on the big brocade armchair. She unbuttons her gray blouse and lets it fall to the floor. She walks into the bedroom, unzips her skirt, and I follow behind, picking up as we go. She sits on the edge of the bed in a ragged white slip she should have thrown out long before the war.

She takes the pins out of her gray hair and pulls off her awful lisle stockings. We fought about those stockings. I said that even in a war, the First Lady did not actually have to entertain royalty while wearing knit cotton stockings and she said that was exactly what the First Lady had to do. I stretch the stockings over the arm of the club chair and she shrugs.

She lies down on the bed, facing the wall, and lifts her right arm up behind her. Without turning to face me, she beckons me over.

“Well, Queen of England,” I say.

She drops her arm. This is not my Eleanor. I used to weep when she was stern and gracious with me, explaining my faults until I curled up like a snail on a bed of salt. She’d sit still and tragically disappointed for an hour or more, until I begged forgiveness. That’s my sweetheart. This waxy indifference is new.

I pile her clothes on the wood chair. I put her black shoes in front of the fireplace. I hang her black coat in the closet, next to my navy-blue one, and my red scarf falls over them both. I’m sorry I’ve come.

Oh, Hick, she says, if you don’t hold me, I will die.

I climb in behind her and she undresses me with one long white hand, still not turning. I look out over her shoulder and watch people turn on their lights.

Eleven years ago we had our golden time and our first vacation. Maine and beyond was our golden hour. Hoover was out. Franklin was in. We all moved into the White House, friends, family, and me.

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