Nora Johnson

The Two of Us

CASSIE:

I am an ordinary person who leads an ordinary life. I have a husband and three children, and we live in Santa Barbara, California. I’m forty-three years old, but thanks to the care I give my appearance I resemble a much younger woman, besides being fortunate enough to have excellent health and enough money to satisfy all my wants and needs.  My life is in general quite happy and my problems are mostly those of average housewife, for instance, whether we should put a tennis court in the area beyond the pool, or whether the condition of the rose garden is worth arguing about with the gardener, who speaks English very badly and with an impossible accent.

Sam and I have discussed the tennis court without coming to any conclusion. I personally feel it might be a good source of exercise for Sammy, Stu and Shelli, who spend a good deal of time lying around the pool or in their rooms, sometimes with earphones on their heads – though Shelli does go for a ride every day on her horse, Ginger, who is stabled just up the mountain. Sam says they are already spoiled rotten and “glutted” with possessions, such as stereos, tape decks, TV sets and expensive clothes, not to mention orthodontia, Vidal Sassoon haircuts and therapists – unlike the small number of possessions that he and I had at the same age. Besides, if we had the tennis court, he’d have to play or else feel guilty, especially since, unlike me, Sam has a tendency to put on weight. I don’t think either of us is very interested in this tennis court, but it’s something to talk about.

CELIA:

Let me explain myself. I’m a divorced woman living alone in Manhattan – the cliché of our time. We are legion. We are liberated. We have careers and affairs. We drink and smoke too much. We are lonely, but we avoid intimacy. We think we know everything, but that doesn’t prevent us from making vast, irreparable mistakes. We pretend to be vital and alive, but we are very, very tired.

I am an aging Cosmo girl.

Survival in my world, from a practical point of view, depends on one’s apartment. Mine is in the low Eighties near Second. Three flights up. Sunlight ten minutes a day. A no-more-than-average-crazed super. It consists of a smallish living room, a smaller bedroom, a john, a miniature hallway and an amusing little kitchen. There is a fire escape by the kitchen window where I try and fail to grow tomatoes in the summer. As I chop my vegetables, I look out over many tar roofs. I’ve lived here for five years and will never leave it. Why? The rent is only four hundred a month. Most of the block isn’t bad at all, though there’s a creepy patch down at the end you have to watch late at night. There are a few trees where sparrows twitter in the spring, around whose bases the Block Association plants tulips and marigolds.

I love/​hate my apartment with a terrible intensity. Each night as I climb the stairs, terrible images flash through my mind: broken glass, bent and misshapen window gates flung aside, drawers pulled out and overturned lamps smashed, FUCK written on the wall in green spray paint…so far this has not happened.

……

Cassie dug out two skirts, two Irish sweaters she had been unable to resist, two-for-the-price-of-one suede walking shoes and two pairs of brown stockings. Our hair was still different, and we had the bright idea of dying mine with some extra rinse she’d gotten when she’d had hers done… and she tried to make hers straight, which was impossible because she’d had it permanented. This was all done with a great deal of giggling and bickering…we had regressed to about age thirteen.

What a grand game Cassie and I had discovered, apparently by accident. Though, as always, it was I who wanted to do it and Cassie who hung back.

“It’s not cute any more, Cece. It’s not natural.”

“Then we aren’t natural.”

“And you may think it’s stupid, but I’m worried about God.”

So we got dressed alike and went to St. Anthony’s church to ask God. I hadn’t been there since I was about fifteen, and as we sat there I thought how foolish I had been to turn my back on such a pleasant place, particularly since I was always seeking peace of mind… there was something soothing about sitting in the pew watching the shadows from the trees outside skitter through the stain-glass windows, Rivertown’s pride. And it had been fun to see the Reverent Mr. Bellwether start at the sight of us. He certainly couldn’t tell us apart – though most people were easy, it was Dorothy, our mother, we wanted to fool. Or I did, for there was a doubt, a negativeness about Cassie that I didn’t remember from before. A cloudiness.

In the pew, her face grew worried, then startled. “God says ‘it’s too late.’”

“For what?”

“For being alike.”

“Well, I’m not so sure He means that. He could mean anything… if you think about it, it’s too late for a lot of things.”

“But I don’t see why we’re doing it.”

“Who cares?” I was annoyed. “I don’t know. Just for fun. Because we can do something that nobody else can.” It was funny – I’d always been the one who worried about why all the time. Now I didn’t care and she did. “It makes us extraordinary for a change. I love it when people stare at us and can’t tell us apart – it gives me goose bumps. Nobody has stared at me in years – and not even much before that.”

“Well, they have at me.”

“They’ve stared at your clothes and your make-up/​”

That hit a nerve. “You bitch,” she whispered. She got up and tore out of the church. I followed, showering apologies. Our customary postures. It’s been said there’s always one who loves more. “This is ridiculous, Celia,” she said, half-running along the street. “I’m going back to Santa Barbara.”

Selected Works

Memoir
Coast to Coast: A Family Romance
       “…a lovely, piercing book…that provides the reader with a twinkling portrait of Hollywood and New York in the 1940’s and 50’s”
-Michiko Kakutani
Novel
The Two of Us
“Nora Johnson has revitalized the American novel. The Two of Us  is daring in concept, dazzling in execution, profound in theme. A triumph and a treasure."
-Garson Kanin
 
Tender Offer
“A smart and funny and tightrope combination of frolic and farce and sad and surgical insights into the world of rich WASPS.”
-Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
 

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