At forty, Ursula Kornfield Gant belives she is independent of the usual pleasures people seek and connections they covet. She lives alone, although there are men who've had, for a while, resident status. She doesn't own a television, rarely sees a movie. At the news kiosk in Harvard Square she hovers, ghostlike, over the racks. She realizes that some people, Daniel, in particular, consider her pretentious. He doesn't say this; he says she's perfect, but he loves her in spite of it, and in fact her only flaw is that she doesn't know one person in People. Books are Ursula's passion.
Immersed one night in The Times Literary Supplement, Ursula reaches for the ringing phone. "Ursula," a woman's voice says. "This is Delray, the third-floor nurse at Woodside."
Her old yellow Labrador beside her in bed flicks open his eyelids. She wonders if he instinctively feels it, her sense that something that matters to her more than anything else in her whole life is about to change. "Go back to sleep, Brontë," she tells the dog. "You can't go."
The empty highway speeds by almost unseen, her mind having returned to the night her father was "sent in" -- that fatal euphemism. The call came on her answering machine, complete and unretractable, moments after Daniel had hurried away. As she was about to leave for the hospital that time, Ursula had lifted the receiver with the idea of paging her departed lover at the airport, before he could slip back to his wife on Central Park South. But at the busy signal she hung up, relieved.
It suits her image, she guesses, to face a crisis alone.
As a child, Ursula had been compliant and secretive in the way of only children in the city, born to older parents. When she was quite small, she started going with her mother to the vault on the fifteenth of the month. The guard knew Mrs. Kornfield; she signed the card, and then he put his key and hers into the steel door and drew out the gray metal box. He set it on the scratched glass. Ursula was allowed into the booth, although never identified. She would climb on the chair and lift out the thick black books. The books had rigid covers that could not be bent but could be taken apart, but never were, by prying up the metal posts that held the pages. The top and bottom boards of the ledgers were lined with patterned paper, fancy scrolls like a grille. The green-tinted pages had thin red lines. Ursula watched her mother enter the names in her level, unbroken script, names she learned to read: John Deere Credit Company and Gulf + Western and Martin Marietta. Each company had its page and the one facing. Ruth wrote the date and the amount in the column marked Dividend. And there was a column for Date Bought. You never sold bonds, Ruth said.
"People get what they deserve" is another thing Ruth said. Ruth was fair and conscientious. She was proud, proud of paying cash, being American, being decent. When Ursula grew older, decency was very important. Decency was not kissing on the first date and not going all the way until you were married. If you did, Ruth said, you would be ruined. Ruined, she emphasized, not rotten in the way of a spoiled piece of fruit. But ruined like a sweater that moths had eaten holes in. Ruth gave Ursula a wrapped book the first time she got the "curse." Though she read the book diligently, to this day Ursula admits she isn't sure how chickens get babies. But in the end that hadn't mattered, had it? Only a month after college graduation, Ursula herself was dispatched to marriage like a gull to the wind. And when her marriage to Jay Gant ended, eighteen months later, Ursula's image of herself as needing nobody was confirmed.
So however it had happened, she thinks now, after all she turned out loose and bold. She slept around -- which is the way her mother referred to it; and realizing that Ruth would die of shame if she knew, Ursula felt a little pang of triumph, being loose and bold, yet stricken to the heart.
"I'm here about my mother, Ruth Kornfield."
Ruth has been stably weak and demented for two years. Before that, when Ursula's daddy was alive, Ruth had roared toward senility on Prozac, directing her financial advisor to "roll over bonds" she claimed had matured. But when Charlie died without fuss, as he'd lived, all the frenzy seemed to drain out of Ruth; and like a general without a war to fight, she retired from public life. Her recall of words failed first, although a startlingly apt phrase would pop out when least expected. Now, in her eighty-first year, Ruth's white, vigorous hair flies up from her high brow, her quick brown eyes are slightly quizzical, and her cheek, when pressed against Ursula's, comes away creased like antique satin. Enthroned in her wheelchair at Woodside Nursing Home, Ruth wears the beatific and vacant expression of a plaster saint. Seeing Ursula, she'll clasp her hands under her chin in a childlike gesture of delight. For their roles have been reversed, and Ursula, whose dependence on her mother's praise forever sealed her lips against any appeal for it, oddly found a source of strength in Ruth's relentless decline. She's taken over the financial records and knows enough to roll over bonds when they mature, both of them living well enough on unearned income.
Ursula is told to take a seat. She opens the George Eliot biography that arrived that morning but can't concentrate. Nearby, a fat black woman is horsing around with an equally fat and pleasant black man, trading insults and poking. Ursula is reminded that Ruth is -- Ruth used to be, before she moved to Woodside -- critical of fat people and black people, as if being so were an indulgence. Indulgence of any kind is unacceptable to Ruth. But in the nursing home, when they bathed and diapered her, Ruth clung to their fat arms and covered their black faces with kisses. Once again, Ursula gives Eliot a chance. But she can't concentrate. In an open phone booth a scrawny youth with stringy hair and red-rimmed eyeglasses is reporting tearfully that he has brought his lover into the ER. A gurney slaps through the automatically parting doors with the orderly running alongside pumping an inert chest. The doors open again, and a panting woman carries in a large unconscious child, saying he's "gone mental." The next two hours are filled with the nightly hospital drama familiar, Ursula supposes, to TV viewers, but utterly new and absorbing to Ursula Gant, whose only reference point is Fred Wiseman's documentary Hospital. Close to midnight the receptionist suddenly shouts, "Ursula! Through the swinging doors. Room twenty-three."
Ruth is connected to a heart monitor; her face is flushed, she's missing her hearing aid and her teeth. Two student nurses chat across Ruth's body about the May wedding one of them plans; they ask Ursula to step outside.
In the hub of the emergency ward, extras mill around a countertop Christmas tree like actors in a green room. They pay no attention to her. At last, a leading-man type, with a stethoscope draped around his neck, separates himself from the bustle.
"What's the matter with my mother?" Ursula asks tensely.
"Her white count's high. I'll probably admit her." He looks uncertain, as if he's ad-libbing; Ursula can tell he lacks experience. The whole production seems to be suffering from the incoherence of an out-of-town tryout.
Broad-spectrum antibiotics do not touch the infection, which lives its own riotous life inside Ruth, spiking her temperature to dangerous numbers. Nurses rotate as unpredictably as apples and oranges in a one-armed bandit. Ruth is packed in ice like a shipped fish. Needles slipping out of her collapsed arm veins are reinstated in her neck, and oxygen flows unseen through tubes in her nose; nourishment enters from a pouch on a pole, and tainted urine drips into a bottle on the floor.
On the other side of the Marimekko print curtain a beaming white-haired woman calls out to Ursula every time she visits, "Tell your daughter hello for me!" Mae's upcoming procedure for uterine cancer is discussed with no apparent loss of good cheer. On Mae's high-mounted television, well-dressed, handsome, successful men and women anguish over their own problems, largely adultery and murder, from what Ursula overhears.
"Do you know you can measure the oxygen in the blood with a meter on the wrist?" Ursula asks Daniel on Friday when he comes for his weekly visit. Daniel shudders visibly at the mention of body fluids. His wife's high-profile illnesses reduce him to panic; at each crisis he clings to Ursula the Indestructible, whispering that Cissy is at death's door. Cissy's broad-bottomed vulnerability feeds Daniel's guilt. Recently he has been going with her to her psychiatrist, to cure her of the mental suffering he is causing her. Ursula decides now to try to squeeze out a little vulnerability, but it's not in her. Early in their relationship, Daniel used to praise her reasonableness and unshakable sanity; he no longer mentions it. His wife is a screamer, a scene maker, a hurler of expensive objects; he'd told Ursula this two years ago, soon after they'd met.
When Ruth surrendered the financial ledgers, Ursula flew to New York to meet Daniel Dorfman, Ruth's financial advisor. In the corporate headquarters, done in chrome and silver-lining gray, she'd been surprised by the lean, young-looking man in a blue striped shirt, initials DMD embroidered on the pocket, necktie rich and modest. At lunch, he came across as boyishly sweet and unoffendingly confident. He didn't smoke or drink. Ursula didn't know what to make of him. He seemed too eager to be liked.
Jay Gant, her first husband, a plastic surgeon and stiff-jawed ringer for Michael Douglas, had managed, even as an impoverished resident, to wear an Armani suit and drive a used red Porsche. And once women's breasts became augmentable, Jay became one of the new breed of West Coast surgeons with incomes like movie stars. He married a sports commentator in the second round and was now on his third wife, the surviving child of a disaster-plagued movie family, maybe DeMille or Goldwyn -- Ursula couldn't keep them straight. Recently he asked on the phone (Jay calls once a year, affecting interest in Ursula's fulfillment; but Ursula thinks he feels sorry for her), "Did you catch my appearance on Oprah?" When Ursula said no, Jay, with a choke in his actorish voice, replied, "I spoke nationwide about you. I told Oprah, 'My first wife is responsible for my understanding of women.'"
Ursula seduced Daniel Dorfman the day she met him, at his party for clients that night. The idea of having sex with her mother's money manager had excited her, made her feel securely herself, accountable to no one. His penthouse. Silent stars above and glass all around, and his wife's shrill laughter climbing the other end of the winding stair. Ursula knelt in the observatory on what had been identified, moments before, as if it had just flown in the window, as a fourteenth-century Dagestan rug, and unzipped his fly.
But now, with her mother sinking fast, she can't bring herself to say, "Daniel, I'm hurting. I need your help."
Daniel is very focused, which may account for his phenomenal success. He jumps hurdles like a horse wearing blinders, paying no more attention to inconsequentials, such as his wife's suicide threats, than he would to a fly in the ditch. The day after they became lovers, Ursula found a box from Bergdorf's in her hallway. She thought the crepe de chine nightgown in pink tissue paper was ridiculous (the tag said dry clean only), but also romantic. The hunger to please her is huge in Daniel. Why is she so afraid to ask him for what she wants?
That Friday, they squeeze into the hospital elevator among the jolly good sports who visit the sick and dying. In Ruth's room, Daniel, wearing his navy blue topcoat, glowing with vitality and money, positions himself at the foot of the bed. "What are you doing here, Ruth?" he calls over the maze of tubes and the capricious buzzing and clicking of the life-support system. "You look too healthy. Move over and make room for me in that bed!" Ruth lights up, either from excitement or fever.
"She looks terrific," he says when they're circling down the ramp in the parking garage. "Better than last time." Last time was in the parlor at Woodside Nursing Home. All Ursula remembers is leaving after ten minutes, as if they had a taxi waiting with the meter running.
Blood is tested daily. X rays are routine. Ultrasound, a popular variation. Ruth is slid onto a plastic slab like a loaf of bread for baking, and hustled upstairs to radiology by a loose-limbed black man in Nike high-tops. Infectious disease teams are brought in. Pulmonary, geriatric, cardiac. Each new team orders new tests; sometimes the new team redoes the old tests. The chief resident is an intense, frizzy-haired young woman in bridal white, who swoops through like the queen bee with the male drones clustered around her and the same potent air of entitlement.
After three weeks of investigation, overnight there is a switch in management. Same white coats and green scrub suits but new name tags. The internal medicine honcho is a Dr. Jane -- and since so many of the doctors are women, Ursula isn't terribly surprised to learn that a male doctor has a woman's name. Meanwhile, Ruth has contracted diarrhea with the Flaubertian title, C. Dificile.
At the end of a month with no diagnosis and no explanation other than a flat temperature for twenty-four hours, the tubes are removed and the teeth and hearing aid reinserted.
On the day of Ruth's discharge, Ursula discovers that she needs her mother alive. She still wants to be loved; she's still hoping for approval. She's afraid that if Ruth dies, she herself will collapse like a puppet with no one holding the strings.
Is Ruth well? Not exactly. But she is only a little more frail, a little more confused, a little less able to function than before she went to the hospital. Ursula believes that in the familiar surroundings of the nursing home, Ruth will improve. Instead, swaddled in silence, she closes her eyes and stops eating. That this downward slide is the beginning of the conclusion does not occur to Ursula.
One day Lucie, the RN, puts her arm around Ursula's waist. "You should get some help for yourself," Lucie says.
"For me? What for?"
"Your mother's deteriorating."
"Deteriorating?" The word stuns Ursula. Slays her! She can see what's happening, so why does she need to be told what it means? Once alerted, however, Ursula begins to make mental preparations, as if she, not Ruth, were soon to leave on a journey from which there'd be no return.
That Friday, she tries out her suffering self on Daniel. He's sitting on the living room sectional, once Ruth's, which Ursula finds almost impossible to look at, with the leaf pattern of the embroidery threatening to reveal the fatal day, the hour. Eyes on the ceiling, Ursula blurts out, "My mother's dying."
"So are you and I," says Daniel gently. "Everybody's dying."
"But she's dying now," Ursula insists.
Daniel stares. At last he comes up with "I'll be satisfied if I make it to Ruth's age."
"I feel alone," Ursula tells him, forcing herself to speak plainly. "I need you."
Daniel assumes he understands; he reaches for her hand. "Come to bed. I'll make you feel better."
Ruth's body swings, curled and boneless as a worm, between the aides' broad arms. Ursula embraces her mother and they sway as if dancing. Propped upright in her wheelchair Ruth's head sags, neckless, to her chest. Her legs hang like sticks; she breathes in huge, chest-raising breaths. Ursula wheels her into the parlor, kneels, and turns up Ruth's hearing aid. "It's me. If you can hear me, give me a sign. Please don't die." Ursula whispers urgently in Ruth's ear, shapely and yawning as a seashell: "I want to tell you I love you. I won't let them hurt you anymore. Please, Ma, speak to me!" For an answer, the tongue lolls to one side of the crooked mouth.
With A Very Easy Death resting on her coffee cup, reading by memory, Ursula hears the phone ring. She continues reading: ...even when I was holding Maman's hand, I was not with her -- I was lying to her. I was making myself an accomplice of that fate which was so misusing her. Yet at the same time in every cell of my body I joined in her refusal, her rebellion: and it was because of that that her defeat overwhelmed me. Now the machine picks up: Daniel's voice, distant, hurried, says he won't be in town that Friday. He's up to his ass, has to work through the weekend; can't help himself. "See you next week."
Ursula crosses the kitchen and erases him. You will like hell!
Leaving her cup in the sink, she goes up the staircase, Brontë at her heels. Her house is a dark red Victorian, high and narrow, with row houses on either side. The second-floor living room is a shrine, furnished in choice 1950s furniture, inherited when Ruth moved to Woodside. The pricey brocade sectional fits as if made for the space under the bay window. A low table with a slab of marble for a top extends to the middle of the room. There's a Corbusier lounge. Ruth had uncommon taste.
Ursula's books cover three walls in bookcases constructed of unfinished pine. Standing and looking at them now, she decides in a flash what she'll need to survive her mother's death: a book room. She goes upstairs to take inventory, starting in her bedroom.
Books fill two high bookcases, spill across the pillows of the bed and sink into the valleys of the quilt. There are three Lucite shelves of paperbacks in the bathroom and a free-standing rack. Going downstairs again she notices that the newest books were carried from the mailbox and stacked, still wrapped, on Ruth's black walnut dining table or piled underneath. No chair seat is empty. Ursula comes across books in places she hadn't known she kept them. They are angled precariously on stacks in the hall; they spread messily on the sides of the cooking range, leaving free one burner where she heats soup. Opening the cabinet for the bottle of vodka, Ursula sees that books have taken over several shelves. Gray wadding from mailing envelopes has found its way into Ruth's bone-china cups.
There's an air of unreality about Ruth's state. Here is her body, whole and smooth-skinned, fleshed hands with freckles arranged on the counterpane. She doesn't look sick or ravaged, just soundly asleep as if under a spell; but not peaceful, because of the misshapen limbs and strong stink of urine. Everything's falling earthward, sinking, trying to slide under.
On Friday Ursula doesn't feel strong enough to get out of bed, and she decides to stay home. Late afternoon, after the stock market's close, Daniel arrives and puts a dozen yellow roses in a vase on the chest of drawers. He sinks down on the bed, dislodging Brontë. He shuts Dylan Thomas on "Do not go gentle into that good night," and lifts the thin volume off Ursula's chest. He tells her in agonizing detail about the high-tech company he is taking public. She has no idea what he's talking about. He opens the wine, hangs up his Wall Street suit. Gets in.
Now she enters the overheated room at all hours. She keeps vigil from the chair beside the bed. Sometimes she lowers the metal side and climbs in. She kisses the fevered cheek and uncovers her mother. She and Ruth breathe in unison. She dry-washes the lightly waved hair, which has grown girlishly long. Ruth's legs turn in at the knees like a nutcracker. Ursula tries to straighten them, as if Ruth were her doll. There are open bedsores on the heels; she smooths lotion on the scaled skin. But Ruth seems damaged beyond repair; she keeps getting smaller and farther away. Ursula has to resist the temptation to fold Ruth in a blanket and carry her home, where she can cure her of dying. Knowing, of course, that Daniel will dissuade her, she calls him at the office on his private line.
Daniel is used to managing crises; a 100-point drop in the market is a challenge. He responds to catastrophe like the ticker tape to a merger, speeding up to take the overload. On the phone he offers medical advice. Impatiently, she cuts him off: "I want you to be with me more." This is a sign of madness, she thinks. An independent woman; from Ruth she has learned never to ask anything from anyone.
There's an awkward pause, both of them speechless for a charged moment. He recovers first, says what's necessary: "Come to New York."
"My mother might die."
"Yes, she might," he grants. But Ursula's overreacting, carrying on as if Ruth were already dead. It's not normal, he points out. Something's going on that he thinks he understands. Will she listen? he asks. "Maybe I'm wrong," he says, "but hear me out." Ursula sits in stony silence while Daniel keeps talking, unaware of her crawling limbs and her swollen heart clogging her throat. He says that Ursula can't face Ruth's dying because her upbringing was a form of abandonment: she was sent to private schools, sent away to camp, left in the care of maids; the closest they had ever come to intimacy was going to the vault. Her needs were decided on by her mother. Her impulses were denied. "As a result," Daniel says, "you've insulated yourself against intimacy. Getting close to anyone scares the hell out of you; you're afraid of being left. You've developed a carapace of detatchment --"
"Please!" Ursula says, in tears.
"Sorry to be so brutal, darling. I love you. To me your impenetrability is a challenge, a turn-on. I wouldn't have you any other way." Ursula is silent. "Okay, I'm through."
Ursula can't believe what she has just heard; she feels unprotected, alone. Abandoned!
"Think about New York. Any day next week."
From this clue, Ursula guesses that Cissy will be at the fat farm; she goes with her sister. Twice a year she deflates herself like an inner tube somewhere in New Jersey and returns home devilishly seductive. Narrow, sloped shoulders, rounded bottom and wispy neck -- shaped like a radish. In person, Ursula has seen Daniel's wife only once, the night she dismissed her as a rival. But she'd taken a good look. Cissy was Giacometti from the waist up, and below she was a Henry Moore cast in bronze. Now Ursula makes no comment, breathes deeply, decides not to be possessive.
It's only ten o'clock in the morning but she goes to bed. Lately she has had trouble staying awake. Her sleep, however, is not restorative. She dreams: That's her, at the door of a New York hotel suite; it's ajar, she pushes it open. Daniel is on the phone, he flashes a cramped smile -- like a snowbank. Ursula is unaccustomed to seeing Daniel outside of Cambridge, her territory, where she visualizes him in lion skin. A few times she has visited his corporate lair, where he apparently breathes fire into the economy, making money out of leveraged paper. She feels shocked now by this new Daniel. How has he changed, she wonders, without her noticing, from an unassuming youth with a sweet smile and close-cut ringlets into a capitalist behemoth? Long-haired tufts barbered into voluptuous waves on his neck. Broad chest as impenetrable as a shield and emblazoned with a coat of arms. Stepping closer, Ursula identifies a radically bright tie.
Daniel, on this island, disrobes her before the eye of the television and carries her to the wide bed in another room. He flings her down, kneels above. The phone rings. Daniel jerks back on his heels. "Yes, yes, what is it?" He listens. "Okay, thanks." He hangs up, lifts his pants, cinches the belt -- waist still narrow. "Sorry, darling," he says, "but we have to leave. Hurry, now, get dressed." He is pressing her underwear on her still languorous body. In her dream, Ursula begins slowly, ineptly to catch her bra around her waist, turn it around and raise the straps. "Please hurry," Daniel urges.
"Where are we going?"
"I have to get back to my office," he says, lifting her suitcase. "That was my secretary. Cissy's home and she's wild. She's looking for me."
Out in the hallway, Daniel opens the door marked IN CASE OF FIRE. Ursula starts down the metal stairs, shoes clattering. She can hear the phone still ringing. Now Cissy seems to be standing at the top, shrilly screaming down. Daniel climbs back up to reason. Their senseless voices echo like an opera in Italian. The phone continues to ring. Twelve rings. Ursula is counting. When she finally sits up and lifts the receiver to her ear, the soft voice says, "This is Laverne."
Copyright © 2000 by Delsa Winer
"At fort, Ursula Korfield Gant believes she is independent of the usual pleasure people seek and connections they covet. She lives alone, although there are men who've had, for a while, resident status."
Thus begins Delsa Winer's engrossing novel, at once terrifying and full of hope. When her mother dies, the shattered Ursula retreats for distant shores, abandoning Daniel, her lover, and the safe boundaries of her life. Meanwhile, Daniel's wife, Cissy, is tormented by a different loss -- she knows of her husband's betrayal -- and she, too, leaves. Both women end up in the same plane crash, and each ventures into the world unknowable and unable to return to the past. The mystery of their fates is the force that drives this emotional journey through the many faces of female identity in all its beauty, chaos, and compassion.
At once ironic and moving, Almost Strangers is a love story, a suspense story, and a novel about starting over.