During my first year in New York, I lived with an old Art Collector. She died this winter. They found her laying on her marble floor corridor, wearing her red fur coat, Jeffery, her Portuguese water dog, barking at her side. The leash was hanging loosely around his neck.
Her name was Amanda, but I never called her by her first name. She was a guarded person like people with that much money often are. Sometimes I thought she wanted to be called by her first name, more than anything else, but she harbored a secret shyness about it. It was almost as if she was trapped in the reverence and submissive respect with which everyone treated her.
Traveling was her biggest passion, but since her old age did not permit her to do so as much as she used to, she decided to open the doors of her mansion to the world instead. She always wanted “a fresh breeze of interesting people, coming and going,” she said once, on her way back from a summer spent at her house in Venice which she described as being of an “ancient, melancholic beauty.” She was wearing a floppy straw hat, her giant Chanel glasses and a white crisp linen dress which revealed her tan chubby arms sprinkled with aging spots, her wrists noisy with golden bracelets. She let young students, or young working professionals, who were just starting out with their lives in the city and needed a place to stay for the first year or so, live in her 5 floor home in the Upper East Side, 5 blocks from Central Park and the Met Museum, of which she was a generous board member.
Her “guests” weren’t strangers. They were all daughters and sons of her children’s friends from Europe, with whom they had been to summer camp in Switzerland or studied in Paris or some other fancy European capital. From the very beginning, I remember feeling effortlessly incorporated into her household. Perhaps during that time of my life, I was secretly hoping to belong to someone else’s life. I was lost, didn’t know who I was and how to find my place in the world. During my stay at Mrs. Draftons mansion, I became friends with her many guests. People who would go shopping on Madison Avenue at stores where you had to be buzzed into. When they shopped, they shopped for cashmere cardigans and outrageously expensive English colognes. People with opinions, polished over the years, that they would roll out gracefully at dinner parties, after asking one an-others advice on cooks and maids for their houses in the countryside. People oblivious to the existential thirst and sense of attachment that arises when the bare necessities cannot be taken for granted.
Mrs. Drafton’s guests were busy learning about home décor instead and would go fox hunting on Sundays in their English or French cottages, flying one another to fancy birthday parties held in expensive resorts in the Middle East.
I remember the dinner and tea parties, the topics discussed that varied from art history, new exhibitions, good restaurants, the design of everyday things, to stories of New York’s neighborhoods, how they had changed over time. Or stories of the many extravagant people who had stayed at the house since Mrs. Drafton had converted it into a kind of luxurious Bed and Breakfast for the rich European youngsters, of which I was nothing but a spy…
Being a spy was something I had gotten used to. I believe foreigners all over the world tend to feel this way, maybe not the ones whose natural identity is belonging to the world’s rich class. Foreigners somehow like feeling at home, yet not at home enough to satisfy what seems to be a peculiar psychological need. I believe that’s why some of us wander or move to countries very different and far away from home. It’s not about wanting to be exotic, nor is it about giving up our culture. I guess it’s mostly about staying curious and allowing ourselves an innocence and originality of perspective that would vanish the second we would agree to belong completely.
During my stay in Mrs. Drafton’s home, I became good friends with George, the house’s piano player, who used to be the protégée of the world-renowned pianist Claudio Arrau and who had lived with Grace Kelly and played the piano for the Agacan. He had stories to tell from all over the world. I remember us sitting at the dark wooden kitchen table, the French doors leading to the inner court garden behind us, the walls adorned with prints of ivy leaves and the collection of fancy ceramic plates and platters displayed on open shelves, along with hundreds of books on art history and cuisines from different countries. Drinking steaming hot tea out of heavy cups, letting it get cold, while his hands drew broad gestures into the air around us, to better explain all he had done and seen. His pale blue eyes, whose rims were always slightly reddened, widening into stupor, reflecting all the sense of wonder, amusement, and liberated excitement that the recollection and telling of his stories would trigger.
I knew George didn’t get to talk to people a lot, so I enjoyed his excitement when I would sit down and make the time to really listen to his stories. From time to time Mrs. Drafton took him to see new exhibitions, but only when she had no one else to go with. To him looking at a painting was the start of a new world. He loved wandering around the museum, spending a great amount of time with each painting, observing every detail with great care and interest. He would go, see, walk back, come back again to look closer. And then he would go on raving about details such as “the litanies of perfect movements and shadows,” whereas to Mrs. Drafton the accumulation and appreciation of Art was more of an obligation, something she did because it was a part of the world that she was born into. The officious, self-absorbed way people in the Art industry talked, showing off with all they knew, made her anxious and George’s endless philosophical rants seemed to bore her. She preferred him in her music room, playing Chopin or Bach, to accompany the coming and going of the “fresh breeze of young people from the Europe that came in and out of the house like flocks of colorful, migrating birds, to distract her from her worries of old age and sickness.
She was a practical woman, who held her feelings in balance with her judgment. A cancer survivor. Her beloved husband, with whom she had lived happily for 50 years of her life, had died only a couple of years before I had moved in.
She once admitted to “hate sentimentality.” The blurring of the emotional with the real bothered her – its lack of exactitude. It sometimes seemed as if she felt threatened by anything vague. Anything she couldn’t imprison into her short, clipped sentences. Her hair was always pulled back, without fuzz, and she used to wear thick dark red lipstick. Always that same shade. There was a note of challenge in her voice, which reflected her superiority upon her mansion’s household. The variations of the tone of her voice expressed your position within the ranking through which she would categorize her guests. There were her favorites and her least favorites. The guests that were allowed to come back, whenever they felt like it, and the ones she preferred not to.
I will never forget the day that I saw her cry for the very first time. It was right after the death of her first dog, Jack, the one she owned before Jeffery, and that reminded her of her deceased husband because they had raised him together and gotten him when he was only a puppy. By then I had only lived in the house for a week, and Mrs. Drafton was still somewhat of a mystery, that I had no idea how to behave around. At that time I was allowed to live in the biggest room of the house with my own spacious walk-in closet, a winter garden that smelled like wet roses when it rained.
That morning Mrs. Drafton was dressed in a green suit with white large flower prints. It was St. Patricks day, and she breezed into the kitchen looking as fresh and crisp as the brightest of all spring days, “Why is nobody else wearing green?” she announced with a voice that sounded half celebratory and half accusatory. I remember standing behind the kitchen island, wearing a short black dress, arranging some tulips into a vase.
I apologized that I had forgotten about St. Patricks day, and then I simply expressed my condolences for her dog’s death.
That morning was the only time that her voice lost that tone of certainty, which was so characteristic of hers. The only time that I saw tears fill her eyes without warning. There was a sudden childish look in her intelligent, old-fashioned face. An expression so vulnerable that I was almost too ashamed to witness. The housekeeper stabbed me with an angry look as if instead of politely expressing my empathy I had said something terrible.
Mrs. Drafton shrank back into a smaller version of herself, the large flowers set against her green suit, in stark contrast with her complexion that had suddenly turned frighteningly pale. I watched her step back until she disappeared into the dining room. A few moments later the housekeeper asked me to join her for tea. “You are from Tuscany right? I heard it’s something out of a fairytale!” she exclaimed, nonchalantly throwing a lump of brown sugar into her steaming cup of Earl Gray, and inserting a stick of butter into a muffin she had cut in half, now pressing the two halves together, her features hardened into a plastered, expectant smile – as if nothing had happened. Her eyes were glittering, like the precious jewels of the panther-shaped brooch that she wore pinned to her green collar. “Why are you not wearing green?”