Sunday Stories: “The Surrogate”


The Surrogate
by Marlene Molinoff

Brian and I looked up when she knocked on the doorframe of his hospital room. “Isn’t she beautiful!” he whispered, echoing my thoughts. Marianne Depinto was a trim, elegant woman with a halo of silver hair and huge, dark eyes that took in the room, then settled on him. 

I had heard Brian talk about her since my early boyhood. She was, I had assumed somewhere in my late adolescence, a phantom lover, a composite of all his pent-up desire for the true soulmate he never seemed able to find in his quotidian life. For years I heard how wise she was and how much he valued her friendship. And, later, hints about clandestine weekends of lovemaking. Other than my father, who had been Brian’s closest confidante until I assumed the role after his death a few years ago, none of Brian’s friends had ever seen her. Only my father. He claimed to have met her once, early on, when they borrowed his New York apartment for the afternoon. And Googling her led to an endless chain of faces and cities. What I had pieced together about her from Brian over the years was that she lived on the East Coast, was married and had children now grown, worked in some professional capacity, and published short stories from time to time. That they had met at a literary conference and kept up the relationship for more than twenty years. And that she was the reason he had never married. He told me the last when I was still in my twenties and came to him brokenhearted after the collapse of my first love affair. Even then I only half-believed the story until I was the one Brian entrusted to summon her to his bedside when he got his death sentence. She came immediately from somewhere, and as luck would have it, I was there in the hospital room with him when she arrived. 

So she was real and she did care about him, although from their behavior that day, I had no idea what the nature of their relationship was or how long it had been since they had last seen each other. After an awkward few minutes, I left the two of them alone. It was obvious that’s what they wanted. I know she didn’t stay for more than an hour because when I returned shortly after that, Brian was heavily sedated and fast asleep. He never said a word to me about her visit, and I was left to speculate about its brevity.

* * *

The final day came. I sat with Brian until the end, and then, as I had promised, I fulfilled his requests for cremation and an informal memorial gathering. As he did in all his plans, Brian made his wishes abundantly clear. He did not want a funeral, but he hoped his friends would gather with some of his favorite wines (Riesling and Rioja) and his favorite music (Ella Fitzgerald was at the top of the list) to share memories and ruminations about a life he hoped at least some of us would consider well lived.  

I arranged for the event to take place on Sunday, June 8th, Brian’s sixty-seventh birthday, at four in the afternoon. His friends and I would gather at the south end of Poet’s Walk in Central Park, at the Robert Burns statue, where Brian asked me to scatter his ashes. I cautioned the faint of heart that while it was not technically legal, I would be bringing Brian’s remains to the park and doubted that they would make it out with us. Those who did not wish to join us in the park were welcomed to meet us at the Dead Poet on Amsterdam and 82nd at 4:30 to drink and talk Brian. 

I heard back from everyone on my list except for Leila Lamar, Brian’s current in a long line of lovers. She just showed up. Having been rehearsing her role as widow for weeks before he passed—even arranging, toward the end, for a faith healer whose presence, thankfully, Brian was too far gone on morphine to register—she put on quite a show.  

And then there was Marianne, the shadow widow. She wrote that she would not be attending and thanked me for having given her “those last moments with Brian” at Mount Sinai before he went home to die. That was it. I would not contact her again. At least that was my initial thought. 

* * *

Six months later—six excruciating months during which I emerged from a protective shell of methodical observance of Brian’s wishes to the stark realization of his loss—I rationalized that as his surrogate son, I had, perhaps, a duty to check up on the shadow widow at least one more time. Besides, there were things about Brian I needed to know before I could let him go. Things that perhaps she could help me unravel.

Marianne responded almost immediately to my text. “Thanks, Julian. I’ll be in New York in December. Let me know if we can meet for lunch at noon on the 12th. How about Isabella’s, Columbus at 77th? Not very good but one of Brian’s and my favorite haunts.”

At Isabella’s I sat alone until almost half-past twelve, when Marianne appeared. I watched her cross diagonally from the entrance to our table by the Columbus Avenue windows and stood up to greet her. To my surprise she came around the table, reached up to take my face in her hands, and pressed her tiny body into my chest. I felt awkward—giant and childlike at the same time, in spite of my modest five-foot-ten-inch frame and thirty years.

“I’m sorry,” she said, backing away in embarrassment. There were tears in her eyes. “It was so kind of you to ask to meet me. Brian would have liked this. You know…of course you do…how much.”

“Yes,” I said. “But this is not just for him. Or for you. I need to understand. And it’s not simple curiosity. Brian had an incalculable influence on my life.”

“And mine. How can I help you, Julian?”

When the waitress came, Marianne took charge. She ordered two Caesar salads with chicken and extra anchovies and two glasses of the Alsatian Riesling. 

“I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “It was our custom.”

“Not at all. I’d love to hear more about your customs.” I didn’t mean to be harsh, but I added, “I’ve been trying to figure out why Brian lived his life the way he did.”

She looked down at her hands. “You mean alone. You know that was his choice. It could have been otherwise. I would have let him go at any time. I did. We hadn’t seen each other in almost twenty years.” If she felt the sting of accusation, her facial expression did not betray it. She appeared calm, even serene. “It’s hard to explain,” she said, looking beyond me into some empty space. “We existed in a bubble. It was very private, our relationship.”

I would have given up at that point; I would have left her to her memories. I wasn’t the type to beat up on an old woman. She continued of her own accord.

“We broke with each other as lovers years ago. Went our separate ways. Though Brian remained my truest friend, and I was his. There is no one to whom I revealed more of myself. For him it was the same. Anyway, you can find out for yourself, as much as you want to know. We decided it in the hospital that day, that at some point I would give you these.” She reached down into her handbag and placed a set of keys on the table in front of me. “They’re to the apartment Brian and I shared on West Eighty-Eighth Street. I bought it for him years ago, though, at his insistence, I kept the title in my name. I’m in the process of having it transferred to you.”

I was shocked. I stood up and brushed the keys away. “I can’t accept these…”

“Please. Do.” She said this quietly but firmly. “He thought of you as a son. We never had children together. He had none at all.” 

I sat down and took the keys in my hand. That was enough encouragement for her to continue.

“You and your sister were our fantasy family. Especially you, Julian. We talked about you endlessly. Even after the break, there was never a time that I didn’t know where you and Alice were in your lives and what you were doing. That day in the hospital, he told me he wanted you to have the apartment. He knew I couldn’t bear to go there without him. My lawyer would have contacted you eventually. I was sitting on it, unable to let it go. Until I got your text. It’s better this way.”

Now that she had given me the keys, Marianne was totally relaxed. She explained that she’d bought the apartment for Brian when the building went condo. “He’d rented it during one of his down-and-out periods, when he’d cobbled together adjunct teaching positions here and there as he struggled to get published. He couldn’t afford to buy it, and he had nowhere else to go. It was before he sold the movie rights to the novel. Until then the apartment was so many things—first it was his home, then his writing studio and our retreat; the place we went to to be alone together, to read to each other from our manuscripts and our shared library, to prepare our favorite foods, and to sleep in each other’s arms.” She sighed. “Afterward it became a hidden place where he went to think and, occasionally, to write—little more than a placeholder for what might have been.”

* * *

I went to the apartment immediately. It turned out to be a fourth-floor walk-up at the back of a small brownstone with a modest garden in the front. It couldn’t have been more than six hundred square feet in total area with a living room, dining alcove and kitchen, a tiny bathroom just adjacent to the entryway, and a small bedroom overlooking another pocket garden at the back of the house. It was modestly furnished but fully outfitted with pots and pans, dishes, sheets and towels, a box air conditioner in the bedroom window, an old-style stereo with a collection of classical, country-western, and jazz CDs, a large-screen television, bookshelves crammed with a vast assortment of fiction, poetry, and essays, a lifetime of photographs of me and my sister, Alice, growing up, and one exquisite portrait of Marianne, her radiant face framed by a corona of raven hair. Nothing of the two of them together. In the corner was Brian’s desk, littered with the unfinished work he’d intended to return to. It was obvious that the apartment had become his place over the years and one that Marianne rarely visited. In its present state it was little more than a drab, dusty mausoleum honoring the past.

I sat down in the swivel chair facing his computer, touched the “on” key, and stared at the muted screensaver of the two of us toasting each other as we mugged for the camera on his sixty-sixth birthday, which turned out, ironically, to be his last. Brian Brandes was the first adult male to treat me with respect, to ask my opinion and listen to my response. He’d been a fixture in my parents’ house for as long as I could remember, my dad’s best friend, sharing birthdays, holidays, and Sunday dinners, always there, almost always alone, and singling me out, even when I was a young boy, for serious conversation. After my parents’ divorce he was the one I went to to avoid the acrimony of a house divided. He never took sides but he was always available, offering an escape bedroom when I wanted it and the kind of safe haven a kid needs when there is no place to go. I don’t know when it was exactly that we transitioned into friends. Sometime after I came home from Harvard with aspirations of launching a career as a writer, even before my father died, Brian and I would meet for a nightcap and end up savoring single-malt scotch late into the night. By then I was struggling to find my voice, much as he had. I was doing some adjunct teaching, watching my classmates move into cushy jobs and begin climbing the professional ladder, and attempting to fund my life work with an online translation service. He was my first reader, my business counselor, and my staunchest backer.

Sitting at his computer, I wanted to express to him what this felt like, being here in his private space, but I could not find the words in the tangle of untended thoughts that had grown into a dense knot during the half-year he had been absent. After the shock of his diagnosis, there was so little time. Then there was the business of arranging for the mechanics of his death and the legal and social aftermath. I got used to the idea of letting him go. Better anything than to see his body wracked with pain—to watch him hide his tears and cry out in agony. After all of that, there was his infuriating absence from my life and the pain of missing him I carried deep inside. It was a loneliness I had felt before, though never with such a sense of the unequivocal.

I stared at the screen. He’d given me the pattern of his passwords, so that when the prompt appeared on the screen, I typed in Marianne and, not knowing exactly when they’d met, guessed at the date until I hit on 1976. Then I sat back and watched the machine come to life. In due time, I thought, it would reveal many of his secrets. For now I was drawn to the desktop folder labeled Key. When I opened it, the cryptic message read: “Lower left dresser drawer.” Leave it to Brian to set up a treasure hunt. Did I really want to play this game? Honestly, I didn’t have the heart, but I found myself getting up and going to the bedroom, where I found a key hidden in the appointed drawer under a pile of seemingly random junk. It fit perfectly into the only desk drawer that was locked.

I pulled the drawer open to reveal neat rows of chronologically arranged letters banded with elastic. There were years of them, handwritten or typed and still in their original envelopes, dating from the late 1970s and stopping abruptly in February of 1992. Someone had clearly made the decision to bring the collection together at some point because the drawer contained both Brian’s letters to Marianne and hers to him.

Haphazardly I picked up one from the first packet and began to read. 

Sometimes when we venture out at dusk following an afternoon filled with Billie Holiday, friendly argument over intention in the last lines of Robert Frost’s “Moon Compasses,” feeding each other the pasta you so painstakingly prepare, and all the other pleasures we know. When we walk the streets of the Upper West Side in a bazaar of color and aroma, people thronging the stands where you buy me a soft wool scarf, wrap it around me, and pull me close. When we flow through the throngs of shoppers, families pushing kids in their strollers, and beautiful couples who pass us in a blur of intimacy, past the bars and abandoned sidewalk cafés, in a cheerful thrum of music and muted conversation. I feel then that everything hums, and the entire world seems connected and brimming with life, with voices and lights and colors. And in my euphoria I believe that the two of us might take flight at any moment, lift, like Chagall’s lovers, over the heads of the people and soar high into the sky.

I can hear, my darling, what you will say when you read this: This is the peace that comes only with the kind of lovemaking we know. 

I do not take it lightly. I understand.

I refolded Marianne’s letter, put it back in the envelope, and opened Brian’s response. 

When I read your letter, I thought immediately of that wonderful passage from our beloved William James in Varieties: “No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of the chance makes the differencebetween a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.” 

It is with that hope that I greet your expression of our love. If we can soar above Manhattan, why can we not be together in the everyday passage of our lives? Yes. Yes. I know you need time. But how long, my dearest?

I opened random companion letters over the years of their correspondence, discovering a singular poignancy in her indecision and a hardening of resolve in his replies until, toward the end of the packets, I read his ultimatum and her response. I stopped reading. I put the letters back in the drawer and locked it up; locked up the apartment and wandered into a Starbucks on Columbus Avenue, where I drank an endless chain of espressos until my brain began to explode. Then I strolled over to Central Park, down Poet’s Walk, and I stood at the foot of the Robert Burns statue and cried.

* * *

I brooded over the apartment for almost a week, remembering Brian’s distress during his final days at not having time to take care of the loose ends of his life and realizing it had become my job, part of the burden of the son, to protect the privacy of his father. So I went back there, armed with a mound of plastic bags and boxes. I’d rented a pickup truck and grabbed the toolbox I’d rescued from my dad’s basement when I emptied his house. I stood for a moment, taking it all in. One look at Marianne’s photo on the bookshelf propelled me into action. I worked feverishly, dumping drawers of stuff into plastic bags—shirts, socks, underwear, pads of paper and pens, everything except the letters, which I burned in batches in a metal can placed carefully in the center of the bathtub, the exhaust fan running steadily to take up the smoke. Then I piled books and pans into boxes, dismantled most of the furniture, disabled the hard drive, dumped the files, and trashed the rest of it. I put aside very little for myself—the reams of unfinished writing he’d printed out, some of the books we’d read together over the years, Brian’s deeply creased leather desk chair, and a half-bottle of eighteen-year-old Highland Park whiskey, his scotch of choice. I’d already taken the two crystal tumblers we’d regularly toasted with from his last apartment, together with the twelve-year-old whiskey we’d settled for. At one point a curious neighbor knocked to ask if the apartment had been sold. When I grunted “yes,” she smiled and said it would be nice to have someone there, that the previous owner had not used it much for a long time.

I loaded the truck, got in, and drove it to the Bronx-Pelham landfill. I had to load and unload it this way until I was done. It took three trips and an aching back to empty the place out, but I finished by the time the sun was setting over the vast dumping ground where New Yorkers’ leftovers are buried.

Then I went back to Starbucks, ordered two double espressos, and sat at a corner table alone. I looked down at my hands. They were bruised and sore from all the hauling. I figured I should go back there at some point and work out what to do with the place now that it was empty. But I stayed right where I was, drinking endless cups of coffee. 

At first my thoughts were about Brian. About how he had led his life and what it added up to. Once I thought I knew this man; it felt like a long time ago, and now I knew a little more about him. He had always seemed so sure, so confident in his success. The apartment was puzzling. It suggested something otherwise. Something unrequited. And the gift of the apartment, the surprising weight of it, seemed like a sure sign. Unquestionably he needed my help to deal with it in a way that would keep their secret safe; he knew he couldn’t rely on Marianne alone to get it done. My first thought was, “That’s why he sent me there.” But I began to understand there was a more compelling reason. He wanted me to keep it. To go there and claim it as my own. He always said the right thing whenever I asked, but I often wondered how he actually felt about my life, my work, my chances. And now I understood that he believed in me. He believed that even though he couldn’t have whatever it was he’d searched for there in that apartment, perhaps I could. Something was there he didn’t want to go to waste. He’d count on me to find it.



Marlene S. Molinoff splits her time between New York City and Kiawah Island, SC. She writes about people facing life-changing events, by choice or chance. Currently, she is completing a novel about a late-life romance and working on a collection of short stories about people in transition.  A former literature teacher, copywriter, and marketing strategist, she has traveled and photographed extensively worldwide.   Her short fiction has appeared in multiple journals, including Forge, The Alembic, Amarillo Bay, The Edge, Crack the Spine, Steam Ticket Journal, Good Works Review, Ducts, and the Magnolia Review. 

Photo: Deleece Cook/Unsplash

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