58. Sunset Park

I RAN INTO JEANNIE Fournier again 18, maybe 20 years later. I was in Denver, touring a program of late Beethoven quartets with Carl Griberg’s quartet, filling in on second violin. Jeannie knocked on the dressing room door after the show. Inevitably, she’d aged – the realisation came as a shock, as it always does – but she’d aged beautifully, the way some people do. I knew her from my time studying violin at the Brooklyn Conservatory. I’d just moved to New York from Halifax and was dating her sister Zan, whose real name was Suzanne, and who played the oboe and wrote poetry and could recite e.e. cummings endlessly. The Fournier family consisted of five daughters who lived in a brownstone a block from Sunset Park, and I can honestly say I was as much in love with her for her family as for herself. From oldest to youngest, it went: Eliza, who drew comic books and was haughty and kept to herself; Jeannie, who had a dark, dry wit, who played piano and was always making shadow puppets out of wood and paper; Zan the oboe player and poet; Lola the actor, who wrote violent shadow puppet plays that were always set in Mexico; and Cheever, the youngest and happiest, the most beautiful too, who was obsessed with dancing and was named after the writer John Cheever. The parents seemed to have given themselves over entirely to their children and, now that their children had grown, had been left hollowed out from the inside. The mother, Sam Fournier, taught history at the Coney Island school for gifted children, where the girls had all studied and where Cheever was still a student. She slept on the couch in the lounge room. The father, David, was a physician at the University Hospital but he lives on in my memory only as an apparition, very rarely there in person, and if so flitting from room to room in the background like the shadow of an old, antisocial cat. He slept in the study. Lola and Cheever shared a room and the three eldest girls each had their own room, which they shared with a passing parade of boyfriends, girlfriends, best friends, and occasional strangers and lost souls who needed a place to stay. At first I rented a dismal room in Queens but I gave it up six months after meeting Zan – it seemed dumb to pay rent when I was never there. I lived in Sunset Park for just on two and a half years, rarely venturing out for lack of money and a surfeit of happiness. We spent entire winters in the brownstone and on summer days we undertook elaborate daily migrations involving chairs and blankets to Sunset Park. As the only child of two thrifty, hardworking Halifax Armenians, I made the Fourniers, who all spoke French and made their own bread, my ideal family, the kind of family I wished I’d been born into. This arrangement lasted until Zan, who was a far more talented musician than I was, won a scholarship to study in London. I had two years of study left to complete at the conservatory so I stayed behind. We called each other every day at first, and then every week, every fortnight and every month, until she told me she was seeing someone, and it ended. I tried to stay within the orbit of the Fourniers but Lola wanted her own room so I moved back into the apartment in Queens and the following year I got a job with the Santa Fe Opera and that was the last I saw of them all for almost 20 years, until Jeannie turned up at my dressing room door. She said she couldn’t stay long, she had a sitter waiting at home, but we talked until after midnight. She told me she was divorced with two kids and working as an air traffic controller at the airport. Her father had passed away and her mother lived in a nursing home in Bensonhurst. She said Eliza’s heart had been broken and never mended, and she now lived as a recluse in Pennsylvania. Lola the actress had worked in theatre in New York through her twenties and then moved to Los Angeles where she now did voiceover work and cared for an autistic son with her husband, who worked in advertising. Cheever’s dance career was cut short by a back injury; she’d later owned an upscale pizza restaurant that had gone bankrupt and she’d almost gone to jail. At this point a security guard interrupted to tell us we had to leave, the cleaners were waiting. We stepped out into the carpark. It was a balmy night for November. It smelled like the sky would burst open with rain at any moment, and then winter would truly start, and that once it had started it would last a long time, maybe forever. What about Zan?, I said. Jeannie told me she couldn’t say for sure what had happened. After London something seemed to have gone wrong for her, although Jeannie couldn’t say for sure what it was. Zan would drop out of sight for years at a time, only to call one of her sisters every now and then from somewhere incredibly exotic like Bangkok, Bombay, Istanbul, Moscow. She’d tell them she was happy, that she’d settled down with a man – always a different man – who was handsome, rich and loved her to blazes, but that she was in a bit of a spot and could she borrow some money until things could be tided over. The money would be wired and it would never return. She did it with all of them, even Cheever when the pizza restaurant was going broke. Jeannie said it had been a few years since any of them had heard from Zan, and lately she’d been wondering if they shouldn’t do something, maybe hire someone to find her. For a moment I felt like setting out to find her myself. I took Jeannie's phone number and went back to my hotel room burning with the idea, spending half the night making plans in my head until I fell asleep. By the next morning it had begun to rain, and the fire had burned itself out.