Still Life with Poodles

A short story about the single life

It’s midnight, and we think the party is over. My father loosens his tie, unbuttons his collar and leans back into the den couch. “That was lovely,” he says to me. “Are you happy with it?”

My mother blinks and smiles at me. She has put on her best, dinner for fifty—family, old friends, new acquaintances. Everyone gathered in her Fifth Avenue apartment to wish me Happy Birthday.

I smile back at my parents. “I’m as happy as I could possibly be, considering that I’ve just turned thirty-five and have neither husband nor children nor a career.”

“Oh, honey!” My mother’s face turns hurt and dewy. As if she has any idea how it feels to wind up with her and my father at the end of the evening. To look forward to Hanukah with them and Christmas with them and New Year’s Eve with no one.

Anyway—surprise!—the party isn’t over. Maximilian Auerbach emerges from my mother’s bathroom. He must have spent the past fifteen minutes in there, while we returned coats and said good-bye to the last elevator-load of guests.

I don’t know Max well. I met him at a Smith-Barney presentation about corporate social responsibility. We have some friends in common. I invited him to my party because he is a moderately attractive, wealthy, single man, and I am desperate to find the love of my life. Not that I’m super-impressed with Max Auerbach, but let’s just say that by now I’ve learned not to leave stones unturned.

My mother tips the caterers, and I expect Max to say, ‘I’d better be heading out’ and ask for his coat. Instead, he sprawls on the couch next to my father and grins. His maroon sports jacket, strawberry blonde hair, ruddy complexion and bloodshot eyes combine to create an impression of great energy, belied by his present posture. I usually think of my father as an imposing figure, particularly from the perspective of a potential suitor, but Max slaps him on the knee and says, “George, we were speaking of dogs. Well, if you’re allergic, a poodle is the only way to go.”

“I don’t like poodles,” my father grumbles, “little snappy, yappy things.”

“Not small poodles. No, of course not. Big ones. A standard poodle. Did you know that the poodle is the most intelligent breed?”

I can just hear my father saying ‘who needs an intelligent dog?’, but because he is even more desperate than my mother and me put together for me to be suitably married—whatever that means to each of us—he nods, considering. My mother feigns interest, too, though she is obviously exhausted from hostessing and has been dead-set against this dog thing for years. I have slipped off my shoes and curled my legs under me in the leather armchair, trying to look charming or at least as if I am awake. I’m so tired I’ve decided I’ll sleep over in my childhood bedroom, now redecorated in chintz for the occasional house guest. Max continues to praise poodles.

I think about my last four blind dates and how futile each one has been. I doubt that passion and fulfillment are coming my way from some nice Jewish boy who belongs to my Aunt Edythe’s country club or works for our stockbroker’s firm, yet I don’t know where else to look. Lonely as I am, I’m not sure my problems are even about a guy. Secretly, I’ve been collecting course catalogs from far away schools, eco-travel brochures and New Age workshop schedules. I fantasize about some program, somewhere, where in exchange for tuition, hard work and cheerful participation, I will be granted a life. I read the Sunday Times education section, wishing that, as the advertisements promise, a night school MBA would open up my world. I peruse the job classifieds and imagine working as an administrative assistant in a busy downtown office. It may sound absurd, but sometimes I envy people who don’t have trust funds.

In the meantime, Max has a great idea. He jumps to his feet and waves his big red hands as he speaks. His two standard poodles are downstairs in his car. He’ll bring them up so my father can meet them. We’ll all get to meet them. Isaac and Sybil.

“Like Isaac and Sybil Freiburg,” my mother says.

“You know who they are?” Max asks.

My mother has just finished reading the book about the Freiburgs, bankers and jewelers in Germany and Holland, and one of the oldest Jewish families in New York.

“Well, my middle name is Freiburg,” Max tells us, beaming and combing his hair back with his fingers. “Isaac and Sybil were my great-grandparents.” He rushes out to fetch their canine namesakes.

My mother perks up like she’s just received a shot of B-12. “He’s descended from the Freiburgs?”

My father glows. “He seems to like you a lot.”

I roll my eyes. Sometimes, the less I say, the better I get along with my parents.

Recently, I made the mistake of showing my mother an article I’d clipped from a human rights magazine. It contrasted an orphanage in Alabama overcrowded with black babies to a New York adoption agency with a three-year waiting list for white newborns. “You want me to have kids.” I said. “How about a black one?”

My mother hardly thought that would be fair, and I asked, to whom? To you, she insisted, it would be so difficult and eventually disappointing, and to the child who needs its own community.

“A slum in Montgomery? Fine, I’ll adopt two—they’ll have each other.”

“Great, darling, your own gang.”

Tonight I remind myself not to mention that the most attractive man at the party was a Puerto Rican catering assistant.

Suddenly, Max is back, and there are dogs in the den, curly poodles the colors of red and white wine. They sniff, they lick, they turn, they wag, with the same extroverted personalities as their master. My mother pats them with one hand, and with the other she deftly whisks a crystal candy dish from the coffee table. I can see from the set of her jaw that she is breathing through her mouth to avoid their smell, which is considerable. In fact, they stink, but no one mentions it. We take turns caressing their heads. My father grabs his camera from a desk drawer, and we take pictures. The poodles pose with my parents, then with Max and me together. My father clicks away, dreaming of grandchildren named Auerbach. I think I feel fleas burrowing into my velvet skirt.

There is a lull in the conversation, and I hope that Max will find it a good time to leave. But my mother is treacherous and asks him if he would like some tea or perhaps a glass of juice.

Max has tea and juice, a few slices of leftover filet and some chocolate-covered strawberries. He licks the chocolate off his fingers, wipes them on his corduroys, then tousles one of the dogs between its ears. He tells us all about his country house in the Hamptons and how adorable the poodles are, bounding playfully in the tall grass. They were just there today. I remind myself to check for deer ticks before bed. If that moment ever comes.

Max disappears down the hall into my mother’s bathroom for another ten minutes, and I imagine his progress. First, he might actually do the legitimate thing—unzip his pants and with rosy penis in hand take a loud piss into my mother’s pink toilet. Then, nine chances out of ten, he leans over the marble vanity, careful not to displace the perfume bottles or enameled make-up dish, and cracks the window. I picture him sitting down on the Lucite vanity stool to roll a joint. He smokes it slowly, while his free hand opens the beveled mirrored medicine chest and he scans the labels of my mother’s prescriptions.

The poodles settle down on my shoes and my parents take advantage of Max’s absence to yawn, stretch and rub their eyes. “He’s enthusiastic,” my mothers whispers, and I nod. My father cracks his knuckles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this patient, certainly not at one-thirty in the morning, and I feel sorry for him.

Max returns, followed by a pungent smoky smell that my parents can’t possibly think is cologne. He does most of the talking. “George, I heard you’re on the board of the East Side Jewish Cultural Center. That’s great. You know, my family put the JCC on the map.” He wraps his arm around my father’s shoulders, and my father forces a smile. Max elaborates upon his ancestors’ accomplishments. At one point he says that his family put Israel on the map.

It is the dogs who finally bark, because they need to be walked. We send Max, Isaac and Sybil Freiburg Auerbach off with hugs, coats, leashes and a blue Tiffany bag full of steak and cookies.

Back in the den, my mother replaces the crystal dish and opens a window to let out the dog smell. “Well, George, I’m still not sold on dogs of our own, but perhaps we could have some grandpoodles.” She winks at me.

I am stony, silent at first. “Mom,” I finally say, “I’d take the dogs before the man.”

“Why?” my parents ask in unison.

“For Christ’s sake, he’s pompous and obnoxious, ridiculous and practically delusional! And by the way, did you notice his eyes? He was smoking dope in your bathroom.”

“Oh well.” my mother says. “That’s what the kids did at your sweet sixteen. I was shooing them out of the bathrooms the whole night. You know. Boys will be boys.”

“But Max is forty.”

“Yes,” she glares at me, “and you’re thirty-five.”

I think how five years from now, if nothing in my life changes, I’ll be blowing out my forty candles in the same Chippendale-furnished dining room, surrounded by the same group of pitying cousins, encouraging friends, stray Jewish bachelors and desperate parents. An untimely death is starting to sound attractive, and my mind casts about for less dramatic options. I will take a boat around the world, buy a house in a small New England town, teach literacy to welfare mothers, join an ashram in India. In any case, I vow, this is my last year of suffering empty luxury.

I do spend Hanukah with my parents and Christmas with my parents, and it’s as depressing as I imagined. Then Max Auerbach calls and invites me to a series of parties for New Year’s Eve. With no viable alternative, I graciously accept, and on December 29th, my mother takes me to the Gianni Versace boutique to purchase a slinky silk dress for the occasion. But on the afternoon of the 31st, when I should be catching a cab to the hair salon, I call Max’s answering machine and cancel. I don’t even tell my parents, who would be too worried on my behalf to enjoy their theater benefit, but I end up spending New Year’s Eve in my bathrobe, alone in my apartment. I eat scrambled eggs for supper and leaf through my files of catalogs and clippings for hours. At midnight, I hear the muffled popping sound of fireworks in the distance and look out the window. A light snow has begun to fall, and I turn off my bedroom lamp to see the swirl of white flakes around the streetlight below. I press my nose against the cold glass, and as I watch a bus roll by, I finger the article about the orphans in Alabama.

Valerie Ann Leff is co-director of the Great Smokies Writing Program in Asheville, North Carolina. Her stories have appeared in The Sun, The Seattle Review and other journals.