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Authors: Charles Blackstone

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BOOK: Vintage Attraction
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And I wasn't only to be Isabelle Conway's in-town companion. We traveled frequently over the next months. We went to Miami for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. We visited Seattle twice. First to attend Taste Washington, and then again, a few weeks later, so Izzy could lead a tasting at a law firm's client appreciation night. In Jacksonville and Silicon Valley, Izzy hosted events for another law firm's satellite bureaus. She spoke at a little regional festival in Traverse City, Michigan that drew, surprisingly, some big-name chefs and wine talent. We only spent a night in New York, so we didn't tell my parents. One Saturday, I had a bagel and read
American Rhapsody
in a completely desolate downtown Cleveland mall while Izzy judged a sommelier competition. Chef Dominique, who'd made brief, superfluous appearances at a few of the Chicago functions, never passed up the opportunity to “be there” for Izzy when the destinations involved a change in time zone. He had no qualms about demanding the liquor distribution syndicate sponsor or law firm or bank or nonprofit hosting the event pay for his airfare and hotel room and lavish meals, in addition to those of the guest of honor's.

But Izzy always insisted on charging my plane tickets to her own AmEx. My guilt over it eventually wore away. I was adding to Izzy's quality of life by tagging along. She called me her “voice of reason” and “stalwart.” The same could not be said of her “manager” and “business partner.” And the adventures were vastly improving my viticultural life, socially, as well as professionally. The data I amassed on these trips! I filled Rhodia page after page with annotated transcripts of Izzy's tastings. When she'd respond to a sniff and a swish of a wine she'd selected for her talk, or one we'd drink at a hotel bar, or another that an assistant lounge manager sent up with room service when we dined in our suite at the end of a harried evening, with descriptors like “intense,” “grippy tannins,” “fruity,” and “big potential,” I'd scribble these immediate reactions of hers, as though a journalist conducting an interview. I wasn't always using the information to develop restaurant concept sketches,
per se,
but the scenes I took always struck me as being useful in a way I couldn't yet see. Capturing Izzy's assessments, embodying them, making the facts permanent parts of my imagination's arsenal, would only fortify a concept that at some point down the wine line I'd construct. Her words weren't just words. They went beyond concepts. They were consequential. What if this experience helped me find my way to opening a
real
restaurant?

The morning after we got back from Kohler, Izzy and I were seated on opposing sides of a plastic booth, at a Pilsen taqueria. The narrow dining room was painted a once bright and now fading yellow. The color seemed even more conspicuously absent behind the dark tint of the laminated tables, which were held up by wobbly metal stilts. Not quite in the corner, there was a hulking Spanish music-spinning jukebox, festooned with dry hanging aloe and potted jade plants. The waitress presented us with inflexible plastic menus, described some highlights, and gasped when Izzy took off her sunglasses.

“Are you—” She interrupted herself when Izzy smiled. “Wow,” she said, “I don't know anyone who doesn't watch your show.”

“Thanks,” Izzy said, and followed with, “Two coffees?” She ordered for both of us, by number, and our jubilant server flip-flopped off for mugs.

I craned my neck to read the descriptions on the wall behind the counter. “Baja shrimp,” I said. “Daring.”

“Exhaustion emboldens me.”

“I hope the weekend wasn't too crazy. You'd think Dominique could give you a day off after a trip.”

She sighed. “The Alsatians don't believe in such things. Leisure is expensive.”

Our dishes arrived within minutes. Izzy emptied a packet of non-dairy creamer into her coffee, stirred, and tapped the spoon on the mug three times, as though signaling the end of a round. We exchanged plates. “Do you teach today?” she asked.

I declined my head theatrically. “Yeah. And office hours. In case any students with etymological crises seek counsel. Nobody ever shows up. Not that I mind the quiet, though.”

She took her first sip of coffee, now sufficiently cooled. “I still have no idea what English comp is all about.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “Do you have a pen in your purse?” She nodded, dug around for one, and produced a blue Bic. “Hold that for a second.” I took several napkins from the tabletop dispenser and passed them over. “What I want you to do is to write out your life in three sentences. I'll tell you what's wrong with it.”

“My life?”

“Your paragraph.”

“I don't know if I want you editing my life.”

I smiled. “Well, that's pretty much it. That's what I do.”

“You're so much better than three sentences, Hapworth. You know that, don't you?”

“It's hard to be sure sometimes,” I said.

Izzy paid the check at the counter and we stepped outside, back into the day. “Are you sure you don't want a ride?” I asked. “We could take a cab to my car and—”

“No,” she said. “It's not too difficult for me to get to the studio on the El.”

“Woman of the people, I remember. I'm accompanying you to the station at least.”

We were waiting at the corner for the walk light when I heard whispering from behind. I stiffened my back to keep myself from turning around. I pretended like I wasn't listening when a voice said, “That's the girl from
Vintage Attraction
.” We began moving again, but a four-way stop sign soon halted us.

“Excuse me,” a shrill elder pitched forward. “Miss. Are you on television?”

“It's crazy how people never leave you alone,” I said, after our privacy had been restored. “How do you deal with the constant interruptions?”

“It's always a little surreal,” she said. “They feel like since they've had me in their bedrooms, they know me, that we're old friends, even though they're strangers.”

“Failing to recall TV only works one way. I hear you.”

“I mean, it's tolerable if I'm prepared for it, which I have to be pretty much any time I'm in public, but I won't lie; it's nice to be able to go home and close the door.”

“Fortunately, they're not showing up in your living room or anything. Yet.”

“Are you sure you're ready for this?” she asked again.

At the El station, Izzy turned to me sharply, as though having just recalled something she'd meant to say. “I was thinking maybe next weekend we could go look at some places,” she said.

We were standing in front of the staircase that descended to the Blue Line subway. Facing each other, we slid, unconsciously, over to one side to clear the way. A cross cascade of passengers accessed and egressed. Some of them, no doubt, gaped.

“Places?”

5

Pilsen, Chicago's little Mexico, had begun a slow course of
gentrification around the time I moved back to Chicago eleven years ago. Garbage and shambling alcoholics still clung to the streets, but a number of trashed buildings on those streets had been swept, retrofitted, and repainted. The onetime Section 8 apartments within were now “gut-rehabbed” condominiums for sale. Stories of empty industrial factories had turned into luxury lofts plugged with consumer appliances, gleaming hardwood lining the once untenable concrete floors. Pilsen didn't appeal to all gringos. Many only passed through to buy drugs. To the urban pioneers that it did, like Izzy, the confluence of progress and unsanctioned sidewalk cart vendors formed an irresistible part of the city, desirable like no other.

There was a lot of living space to be had behind the tamales and
horchata
on the Lower West Side of Chicago for around three hundred thousand dollars. There were also a ton of
spaces
on the market. After three or four Saturday afternoon outings last summer with her realtor, Izzy couldn't make a decision about which one to buy. She was overwhelmed by the profusion of possibilities—and implications. This wasn't like choosing an apartment to lease for a year. Selecting was a commitment for the foreseeable, and unforeseeable, future. So she'd put her plans to become a homeowner on hold. She recently made an appointment to resurrect the search. This morning she enlisted me to come along, in the hopes that I might be able to make the process a little less daunting and help lead her to a conclusion. Safety in numbers.

Izzy's realtor, Leslie, took us past store windows that advertised cut-rate merchandise on neon poster paper and grimy doc-in-a-box clinics to see a new listing in a four-story loft complex on South Blue Island Avenue. The building, as recently as a half century ago, had been a biscuit factory. The “true loft” we saw had visible concrete pillars holding the place up and exposed copper pipes stained with industrial shades of rust overhead in the absence of a finished ceiling. There were views of the Chicago skyline from east-facing windows, limestone on the floor and walls in the master bathroom, his and her closets, a guest room that was larger than my current bedroom, a foyer, cherry hardwood floors, and in-unit washer and dryer. It was a great apartment. It was the kind of place in which I could imagine myself, or the person I wished I were, living. I could tell Izzy also really liked it here. She took in each new room with an excitement that animated her hands. Her brightened face had the mien of a child's, a child who'd never endured anything even remotely infelicitous. The open kitchen with its new GE appliances and raised bar, garbage disposal in the sink, and forty-two-inch “Shaker-style” cabinets, it seemed, provided her with the greatest charge of any of the architectural features and convenience facets we'd glimpsed today.

Leslie read a document she procured from the breakfast bar. She nodded and muttered to herself awhile. Finally she said aloud, “Your elementary school is St. Procopius. Point twelve miles from here.”

Izzy laughed. “Ishiguro still has a few years to go before kindergarten.”

“Does the sheet say which saint Procopius was?” I asked.

Leslie fumbled with the paper. “It doesn't,” she said. She concocted a spurious smile out of Real Estate 101.

“I'm guessing the Saint of Procreation,” I said. Leslie laughed tightly.

“BlackBerry,” Izzy said. She asked Leslie, “What did we do before these things?”

With the device out of her purse, Izzy called up Google on a miniature Internet browser. From where I stood behind her, I could see a red progress bar as it chugged along for a few seconds, struggling to channel information through the signal-depleting concrete that surrounded us. “Procopius of Caesarea was a martyr,” Izzy said then. “‘The first victim of persecution of the Church in Palestine by Emperor Diocletian. He was born in Jerusalem but moved to Scythopolis.'” She flicked the trackball with her index finger a couple of swipes to advance, I supposed, through some boring biographical debris. She resumed, at what sounded like the end of the entry: “‘Procopius was a reader in Scythopolis at the time of his arrest by Roman authorities. He was beheaded.'”

“Let's hope the school is a little more Montessori than Diocletian in its disciplinary practices,” I said. “I bet they have one hell of a church casino night. Caesarea's Palace.”

Izzy put a hand on my shoulder. “You should totally pitch that to them. They'd raise a ton of money.”

I pretended to have found something intriguing near the handle of one of the Shaker cabinets in the kitchen. Here I began to conjure a restaurant with a gambling theme. I envisioned slot machines, roulette wheels, and dice slamming against the shock-absorbing felt of game tables. Then a patter of some sort sounded over our heads. The images in my mind were so vivid that I barely comprehended the noise. It took me several moments after the commotion had died out to register it. “What was that?” I asked. “Nothing,” Izzy said quickly, and plunked the BlackBerry she still held back into her bag.

On the terrace, we took in the panorama. In front of the building, parked cars lined the street. A courtyard apartment complex facing us was in the process of condo-conversion. The biscuit factory's communal yard below had sod slowly taking root. Standing here we discovered the source of the outbreak we'd heard: there were people living upstairs. I was about to put my arm around Izzy when a voice spoke. I looked up at a woman on an identical terrace one floor above. Her face was pointed down at us. “Hi, guys!”

“Hello,” Izzy said tentatively. I snatched my arm back and shook away a shiver of adolescent embarrassment.

“I'm Sheryl,” the woman said. Her accent was brusque, thickly Midwestern, the kind often belonging to a diner waitress or a Chicago traffic cop. Also her forehead had been shot up with a substantial quantity of Botox. “Are you two moving in?” she asked. “Because this is a
great
neighborhood.”

“Thinking about it,” Izzy said.

“Well, I
absolutely
think you should. We could use some more cool people like you two. Has anyone ever told you you look like that wine lady on TV?”

Sheryl continued to lean over the edge and describe Pilsen in bombastic superlatives. The more she effused, the more she turned into a cartoon character.

Izzy remarked succinctly throughout. I knew she was scouring the brief pauses Sheryl left for a way to end the conversation. Before she could, Sheryl exclaimed, “Wait! I'll be right down!”

While Sheryl and Izzy chatted by the door, I returned to the terrace. I felt a little guilty about not correcting Sheryl's misapprehension that Izzy and I were shopping as a couple. A part of me didn't really want it to be untrue.

I stepped back into the empty living room. “I'll take it, Leslie,” Izzy said.

Ten minutes later, Izzy and I were once again in the Mustang. We were on our way to Leslie's office to draw up the paperwork.

“What do you think of Pilsen?” she asked me.

“I like it. I like it a lot, in fact,” I said.

“Enough to live here?”

At a stop sign, my eye caught a mailbox on the corner that was strangling with spray paint. “Sure. In theory.”

“What about in practice?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, maybe we should do this together.”

“How would that work?” I asked. “Would I . . . pay you rent?”

“I was kind of hoping you'd let them put both our names on the mortgage.”

“I don't . . . I don't really think I make the kind of money that can pay half the mortgage on a place like this.” I was getting flustered. I had to pull over and park the car.

“So, fine, you won't pay half. I just . . . I don't know, I've been thinking about how much I've loved these weeks we've been spending together and how much . . . I don't know . . . how much I'd just like to . . . do this with you.”

“Well, I love this, too. And my sublease is up in a couple months. But Izzy, my credit, my credit's never going to pass. I still make payments on
two
grad school degrees. I barely even get approved to
rent
. Plus there's going to be a down payment and—”

“Just forget about that. I have a ton of cash saved, and I'll take care of it and whatever else.”

I turned her head to face mine and pushed the hair out of her eyes. “You really want me to live with you that badly?” I asked.

She looked at me with the guileless, liquid eyes of a five-year-old. “Yes.”

My focus pinned to something nonexistent on her lapel. In a small voice I asked, “Is it really dense of me to wonder why?”

She put my hand between hers. “Easy. You inspire me. I feel like with you I can do anything.”

“Izzy, I have to say, you've never struck me as one who's hindered by much. You did quite a lot before I came along.”

“I did,” she said dully. “And that's the problem. I had to raise myself. I've always had to take care of myself. Everything I've gotten in life, I've gotten because I've been the one to go out there and get it.”

“Same here.”

“But the funny thing is, it's not like I regret it. It's kept me real. It's kept me from thinking I was better than I really am. Hapworth, I never thought celebrity could ever change me, but what if someday it does? I like who I am with you.”

“Same here.”

“And ever since we got together, I keep thinking, what's the point of having everything and being able to do everything—especially when it comes to wine, and this wine life of mine—if you can't share it with someone? I have awards, I have knowledge, my name generates seventeen thousand hits on Google.” She sighed. “But what the hell good is any of it without . . . without my person?”

“And I'm that someone? I'm your person?”

“As long as you want to be.”

I smiled. “You want to marry me or something?” I teased in deadpan.

“I don't know,” she returned, in a similar tone of feigned indifference, “are you asking?”

Several dark nights later, I was to meet Izzy at the mortgage office. I arrived first. Ramona, the broker, began to distribute schedules and brochures. Receiving them without Izzy there made me uneasy. What did I know of itemizations, declarations, and PMI? Izzy showed up. She'd come directly from the studio, in a long blue dress and silver costume pearls. Her face still had on theatrical makeup, and her hair spilled down from the thin silk scarf that wrapped around it. She sat between Ramona and me. Facing the computer, we gave a deposition that required both of us to recite names of employers, years of graduation, to estimate outstanding debts, bank account balances, assets, gross incomes. When my numbers lined up next to Izzy's on Ramona's screen, the disparity in the figures was laughable. After more than a decade, the minimum payments on my student loans hadn't even tickled the principal. In the event we'd have to liquidate our portfolios, I could produce a handful of overripe fifty- and hundred-dollar Series E savings bonds. My teaching salary was, to put it mildly, gross. It was hard to pretend we were getting this loan jointly.

Though Izzy had said it didn't matter what I contributed financially, and would shortly to that end issue a check for our hundred-thousand-dollar down payment with intrepidity and without having to pawn a single piece of stereo equipment, for me to even nominally cosign on a mortgage for the two-hundred-thousand-dollar balance meant I'd have to set aside the juvenile philosophies—an ethos born of insecurity—that had, if not stood in the way, at least hovered over my ability to love and have a life to a defying degree since I was a teenager.

Dating before Izzy, I always paid for everything. I couldn't admit to Ramona that it took me a year to vacate the sizable debt I'd managed to amass funding my high school girlfriend Sydney's and my frequent treks down to the Village for cheeseburgers and Export A's and carne asada at Las Mañanitas on Bleecker Street. She had plenty of allowance—her father was a gentleman mobster with a wall safe in the library off the living room filled with guns, porn, and stacks of freshly laundered cash—but I insisted. When I was seeing Amy in college, I also adamantly refused to let her pick up a single check, despite the fact that her job as editor-in-chief of the
Maroon
had a restaurant review expense account. At meals, at concerts, at movies, I'd drawn my credit card as instantly as I'd been approved for it at a Reynolds Club table offering students the choice of a Frisbee or complimentary Kit Kat in exchange for applying. I knew that the source of the compulsion went beyond merely thinking that's what the guy in a couple was supposed to do. The reason I couldn't let a girlfriend buy something for me was because I never could say what apprehensible thing I brought to the relationship. I'd always thought, if I wasn't spending money—money I didn't even have—could these women and those that would succeed them, particularly the accomplished ones, ever see me as a
sine qua non
in their lives, or would I always just be a charming, affectionate, solicitous, witty, but ultimately inconsequential transient?

All of that thinking fell away last October. Izzy changed me. I no longer felt like I had to justify my existence materially. So what if I couldn't pay half the mortgage? My contribution was more significant. Getting this loft wasn't just something Izzy wanted. It was something she
needed
. But she didn't need my help to get it. Somehow I'd ended up the catalyst, the
sine qua non
. She needed me.

I needed this, too. The risk I was about to take to prove how much I loved somebody wasn't a student Visa with a $1,500 limit for which there could be easy absolution in the aftermath of recklessness. The stakes were the highest they'd ever been in my life. I was signing up for, potentially, decades of relying on someone else, someone with whom I was romantically involved, a woman. And yet it didn't trouble me. Instead, I saw only opportunity. Here was a chance to take something I'd started somewhere beyond the safety of the merely theoretical. For the first time since my bar mitzvah, I, with mighty pen in hand, was to become a man.

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