Collusions

by Beth Helms

In the afternoons Ghy and I carry our tea out to the screened-in porch. We cut sandwich rounds—using shot glasses to make perfect circles—and stack them with cucumber slices and homemade mayonnaise, tomato and whatever cheese is handy. We line them on a silver tray laid with a linen napkin and use the Limoges tea set we found at a garage sale. We sit on the wicker furniture and remark on how civilized we are, how like our mothers.

Beyond the porch lies the flagstone pool, with its massive stone urns at each of the four corners. Ragged boxwoods grow around these, and the stones on which they rest are becoming uneven with age and tend to trip you up. I talk idly about replacing them but the cost is unspeakable—I’ve had the estimates done.

We sit there, languid from the heat, the sandwiches and their fillings growing limp with neglect—we like to look at these more than eat them, we enjoy the process of their assembly, the fancy toothpicks we use to spear them. Ghy turns her chipped teacup around in her palms, squeezing lemon into it every few sips, and talks about putting in lilies of the valley under the birch trees at the fence line. I counter that the birch trees are in need of attention, that wood bore has gotten into one and will soon overtake its neighbor, unless we intervene. Then there’s the cost again, she’ll say, and I’ll nod. We’ll sigh dramatically and lift our feet onto the shared ottoman. If Ghy has gotten a pedicure recently, I’ll admire the color and say I must get over there myself.

Around us the place is in resolute decline. The gardens are in riot, which I am actually beginning to appreciate—the wildness, the profusion of color—and the house needs masonry and gutter work. A few weeks ago we had bats in the attic and both of us had to have rabies shots—unpleasant, but now we joke we can bite people with abandon. We make lists of people we’d like to get our teeth into: the realtor, the handyman who shows up when he feels like it, the rude woman at the post office. We are elaborate and meticulous in our lists, increasingly spiteful and inventive.

“The squirrels,” Ghy said last week. “The bold-as-brass bastards on the bird feeder.”

I said I drew the line at biting rodents, but Ghy just laughed, said she’d happily chomp a squirrel to teach them all a lesson. Then we discussed whether or not squirrels had the capacity to learn lessons, if behavior modification—or was it operant conditioning?—would work on squirrels.

What I’m saying is, we speak of nothing in particular and everything under the sun.

In the end the dogs will get the sandwiches, which they know full well. While we sit on the porch and discuss the general disintegration—of our looks, the stonework, the rose bushes, the political state of the country—the dogs watch us with rapt attention. Occasionally they will wrestle over a stick or roll around on the checkerboard patio, but they move like lightning when a sandwich is lifted from the tray, and their eyes are always on us. We are careful to make even numbers and dole them out fairly. Our husbands would have made them sit for treats, or offer paws, but we treat them as our friends, not as performing circus monkeys.

“We are approaching our dotage,” Ghy said to me one recent afternoon. A breeze rustled the gardens, and clouds were rearranging themselves overhead. The shadows they cast moved around the grass, gathered and split, vanished and reappeared elsewhere. High above, a plane made slow, noiseless progress through an ocean of air.

“Not approaching it,” I said. “Sneaking up on it. Circling it.”

“We are very nearly crones,” she said.

This is not entirely true—neither of us is sixty—but if we cannot joke about our age then we would surely become depressed, possibly maudlin.

“We don’t have cats,” I told her. “Which I believe is a prerequisite for cronedom.”

“Our friendship may be founded on that,” she said. “A mutual antipathy toward cats.”

“I don’t dislike cats,” I said. “Have I ever said that? I just don’t keep them. Jack wouldn’t stand for it.” At the sound of his name, Jack looked up from the floor, where he was worrying an edge of sisal carpet. He lifted an eyebrow. “Right?” I asked him.

Ghy leaned forward to look at him. She said, “Kitty, kitty. Here kitty.” Jack bolted to his feet and looked around. He cocked his head in that way I love and wrinkled his forehead.

“Don’t torment him,” I said. “Here Jack, have a sandwich.”

“You too, Scottie,” said Ghy. Her dog is named Scottie because he is one, and after Ghy’s husband—a high compliment, contrary to what people often think.

Usually we will get up when the tea has gone cold and walk across the lawn to inventory the slow, creeping collapse of the property. We will stand at the edge of the swimming pool and stare down at the leaves that thicken and crowd the surface. Each of us, I imagine, recalls the weekends we spent here with our young families, how we taught our children to swim, the feel of the water as we slid into it, wincing at the cold. At these moments, I believe, we are each locked in our romantic ideas of the past: we hear the laughter and shouts of the children’s games, remember our husbands when they were strong and handsome; we experience all this in the reflection of the water, the matted surface of brown leaves, the soft afternoon light.

It’s then, before this has gone on too long, that one of us will punch the other in the arm and say something fresh.

We might walk into town for groceries, the dogs trailing us down the quiet dirt road. The bicycles we once used for this are rusting in the shed beside the house—we used to make a funny-looking parade into town with our husbands and children behind us, the dogs that shared our lives years ago. We would beep our air horns at each other or try to make a sort of harmony with them. Ghy’s husband used to call out, Make way for ducklings! as we rounded the steep corner at the bottom of the hill and came into sight of town. These days, Ghy and I prefer the walk, and we generally make it in silence.

The town, now, is not so undiscovered as it once was, but the Sound still glitters through the old Victorians and revivals set along the wide streets, and the air smells of the sea. Ice cream shoppes (so they call themselves) have cropped up, and fancy antique stores are on every corner—and there are now four more corners than there used to be.

We had furnished the house with things bought in and around this town, before it became pricey and found. We spent weekends at craft fairs, driving the back roads looking for yard sales, picking up whatever rare or odd relic struck us. Ghy would have said that we were often struck, because the house has never had that stark feeling of many summer homes; it is warm and crammed with things we love, with antique skis and snowshoes, nautical bits and pieces, big striped pillows and old wooden signs: No Fishing, No Motorized Vehicles, Mad Dog, etc. Even the yard holds things that captured us for one reason or another—a crumbling piece of statuary near the pool, the ornate iron gate leading to the garden, a particularly tacky gazing ball my husband, Jack, had bought as a joke. He had sneaked it onto the front lawn one night when we slept; we discovered it the next morning while making coffee. It is a copper-colored thing—an enormous shining planet—and he had nestled it in the wet grass. The children loved it, mugging for it, watching their distorted reflections, and so it stayed until it became an object we never thought to remove—as much a part of the place as the pink stucco walls, the low doorways, the unpredictable electricity.

When we return from town with whatever provisions we need for the evening—booze or mixers, mushrooms, eggs or asparagus—we make whatever meal suits us. We have rabbitty tastes lately—salads and green things are what we like most. When we have had dinner and taken our drinks onto the porch to watch the light fade and the shadows advance across the garden, Ghy will say what she always does. Thirty-seven more days, or whatever it is. She’s counting.

On the night she says 17, the phone rings. It’s my once-upon-a-time-husband Jack, calling from California, from his chrome and white apartment with his hot tub on the balcony and his new young wife, whom I don’t mind at all, even though her name is Felicity.

He says, “Hey prune-face. How are you two old bats getting along?”

That reminds me, so I tell him the rabies story, punching it up a little for effect.

“Huh,” he says. “I’m not surprised.”

Jack is rarely surprised; it’s one of his most predictable qualities. Now Jack’s unshakeable certainty and knowledge of the unknowable are Felicity’s to enjoy; I bequeathed them to her happily.

We catch up on the children, or rather, I catch him up, since he’s difficult to pin down these days, always traveling somewhere with Felicity and her endless, too-small bikinis.

Otherwise," I say when I’m finished reporting, “nothing.”

“How’s the old dump?” he asks. “Has it fallen down around your ears yet?”

“As we speak,” I say and shoot Ghy a look. She is leaning on the kitchen counter, sipping a drink. She rolls her eyes and lifts Scottie up onto the countertop. This would have made Jack crazy. “Scottie says hi, and Jack.”

“Did you have that bump of his aspirated?”

I sometimes think Jack keeps a list of things I should have done but can’t be trusted to. These form the skeletal structure of all our conversations and anchor them firmly in the pragmatic.

“It’s nothing. Just unsightly, which I can live with.”

He makes a noise that still, after all these years, I cannot interpret.

“The realtor is coming, on the tenth, I think.” I hear him tapping something on his end. His signet ring, most likely, and this makes me smile. When Ghy learned about the divorce she’d said, Thank God I don’t have to listen to that ring-banging anymore. I’ve wanted to chop his hand off for years.

“The weasely one?” I ask. “Not him.”

“They’re all weasels,” Jack says and makes a noise of annoyance. “You can make yourself scarce.”

“Oh no,” I say. “I’ll be here. We’ll both be here.”

“Great,” he says. “Try not to let Ghy open her big trap and queer this. I’ll be lucky to find someone to bulldoze the place.”

“Have a heart,” I say. “We love this place. Your children grew up here. And Scott.”

That was a mistake, of course, and Jack gets off the line as rapidly as he can. Ghy looks at me across the counter’s rough surface—old siding that we’d bought off a farmer pulling his barn down, only a year or so after we had the house. I can’t tell what she’s thinking, and suddenly—between the invocation of Scott’s name and Jack’s remote, familiar voice—I feel displaced, separate from my surroundings. It’s the kind of uneasiness that makes you want to engage frantically in some activity, make a stupid joke or change a subject that hasn’t quite been brought up. Instead, I run my hands over the counter—we’d put it in ourselves, Ghy and I, and the husbands. It was 20-odd years ago, and we were full of that fever that comes with buying something lovely and old. We wanted our hands in the house, nails driven into our fingers and hammers cracking on knuckles—we wanted scars, and we were obliged.

 

We were young couples then, and Jack and Scott had become friends at work in the city. Jack and I lived in the suburbs and Ghy and Scott in a chic brownstone on the Upper West Side. Ghy was fascinating to me from the start, beginning with her name. Ghylain is what it’s short for, and it suits her well—then she was a sleek, slender woman who wore pant suits and could twist her hair into a perfect chignon without even looking in the mirror. Everything she did—hailing cabs, applying lipstick, ordering from menus—she did with a mysterious grace and a sharp, surprising, self-effacing wit. At the time I had one baby and another on the way. I’d resigned myself to frump, to diapers and milk-stained pullovers; also I was stupid from talking to babies all day. Ghy rescued me, at our first dinner as a foursome, when she revealed that she had a baby as well. I was astonished, and more than that, heartened. That a woman with a baby could leave the house looking like Ghy did meant it was possible, and that I was missing something.

“How do you do it?” I’d asked, leaning toward her at the table. When I pushed my hair back from my face I felt a sticky clump in it—it might have been gum, or food, or baby sick.

“I don’t let it touch me,” she’d told me, with a perfectly straight face. “I hand it to the nurse and it keeps its filthy hands away from Mommy.”

“Boy or girl?” I’d asked. Ghy was a little shocking, though flawlessly assembled.

“Did I say ‘It’ again?” she’d asked, wide-eyed. “I must stop doing that. Scott, make me stop doing that.”

“What, darling?” He broke away from his conversation with Jack and fixed her with an admiring look. That he adored her was evident; his hand lingered on the back of her chair, brushed at the wisps of hair around her face; everything she said delighted him. In the years that I knew him he would often stop dead in the middle of a conversation and say to anyone who would listen, “Have you noticed how brilliant Ghy is?” Or beautiful, or gracious, or talented, or well-read. She was, and is, all those things.

“I’m calling Mary ‘It’ again,” she told him, and he abruptly kissed her nose, as if she’d said the most marvelous thing.

“You’ll figure it out,” he said. “It’s only been a few months.” He was a solid man, dependable as a house, but not entirely intellectual. Ghy had turned back to me at the dinner table and raised her eyebrows; it was then we understood each other, quite perfectly.

Why Mary? I’d asked her once. It seemed a prosaic choice for a woman like Ghy. I’m punishing my parents, she’d said immediately, for this ridiculous name they pinned on me. Do they mind? I’d asked. By then I knew her better, and knew she thought her parents, who lived in baronial splendor somewhere in Westchester, were climbers. They keep horses, was what she said about them. For Ghy, that summed it up. About the name, she’d laughed sheepishly and told me it had backfired, they loved it and she hated it and the deed was done. Serves me right, she’d said.

Jack and Scott became close as well—sharing work and having wives who were best friends, it was easy for them, almost unavoidable. Dinners were followed by vacations, vacations by holidays spent together, and finally, during a weekend drive to the water, it had culminated in the purchase of the cottage.

The four of us had been walking through town and stopped to look at the advertisements posted in a realtor’s window. The photograph of the cottage caught us all, instantly. We bullied someone into calling the realtor—it was a Sunday and the office was closed. The town was that small then, that close-knit—the man in the sporting goods shop had rung the realtor up and he’d come at a run, hearing “city people,” no doubt thinking “cash.”

The men hadn’t understood what we were up to. This is what we believed anyway—perhaps many women share this sort of arrogant, conspiratorial friendship—we thought no one could really see us, or penetrate our secret hearts.

When we pulled into the narrow drive of the cottage, daylight was fading. The shadows were long; double-goers of the apple trees and firs stretched in dark repose across the lawn. We noticed the roses—roses in every conceivable variety, they climbed the stone and stucco walls, nestled against the eaves, dripped down over the casement windows. It was simply perfect, in the way that imperfect things can be. For it was not, in the way men view things, ideal. They stomped through the house, our husbands, muttering about electricity. (I’m pretty sure Ben Franklin wired this himself, Jack said.) They noted the water pressure, the softness of the floors, the avocado-colored kitchen and the crumbling bathroom tile. Ghy and I were back on the porch by then, our cursory examination of the house over with. We watched the last light dim away from the gardens, as if it were being drawn offstage by a puppeteer with a string. It seemed to vanish leaf by leaf, blade of grass by blade of grass. The swimming pool was clogged with leaves—as it is today—and we found it beautiful. The crumbling sundial near the peonies was greening with age; its delicate hands had the heads of frogs. The gardens themselves were wild as ponies, everything growing willy-nilly, a great, choking botanical uprising. Poppies grew everywhere—gleaming iridescent petals, black, black centers, their twisting milky stalks.

The realtor came and stood next to us; later we would say he was nearly rubbing his hands together with glee. The screened-in porch was then in tatters—wire mesh hung haphazardly, tilting inward. The beams that supported the porch listed so much we could almost see them moving slowly earthward—like gravity sped up, made visible. “It’s terrible,” Ghy said to him. “Irredeemable.”

I said nothing.

The realtor raised his hands and let them fall. “They’re motivated,” he said. A realtor’s word, one I hope never to hear again.

“How motivated?” she said. I heard it then, in her voice. The same urgency that was rushing through me, that we were using to keep the men in the house, barricaded in there by sheer force of will, making their jokes about wiring.

I remember the beading of perspiration on the man’s forehead, the distinct size of his pores—he had brought his face that close to ours. We leaned back, repelled, and arranged our faces into placid masks.

He was a small man with a mustache, a tie knotted inexpertly, hastily; he wore a plaid jacket and house shoes. What had he been doing on this Sunday afternoon? I wondered. Beating his children or his dog, penciling in the crossword, masturbating?

He said, “Would you care to talk about this at the office?”

Of course he had caught our need, sniffed it out. We had lost the advantage, if indeed we had ever had it at all.

Jack and Scott came out of the house, checking their wristwatches, talking about the drive back, traffic, dinner.

“Scott,” Ghy said, “I need a word with you.”

I watched them step to the edge of the pool, saw Ghy, in her soiled ballet slippers, kick at the grout between the flagstone; she turned up a long thin piece and crushed it with her toe. I admired her ankles doing this and turned to look at Jack, who was watching too. I tucked my hand into his, and the gesture made him look down at me, raise his eyebrows.

“What’s this?” he said. The knowledge crept up on him, furrowing his forehead.

We sealed it that night, the men looking at each other as if they’d been ambushed, had. The price wasn’t good, but we no longer cared. We saw ourselves there; in those brief moments we had fashioned entire lives for ourselves around the pool and on the porch, in the low-ceilinged rooms, by the many fireplaces. Standing on the sinking porch, we had cooked meals in the kitchen and held parties on the lawn—we saw teddy bears sipping lemon tea under parasols, croquet games and the hats we might wear, wide dresses we didn’t yet own, crinolines.

Most of this came true. We owned the house, the four of us. We spent 22 happy summers there. We restored it. Our children rode their bicycles and swam in the cleared pool; adults sipped gin and fresh lemonade on the repaired porch. Dogs, our shared life’s parade of them, gamboled on the lawns, enjoyed each other and lived long and happy lives.

We were not the best or most attentive of mothers, nor the most docile of wives. When our girls grew—we had four between us—we pretended to pray they would not be like us. We had inherited our own mothers’ habits and characteristics—my heirloom bunions, Ghy’s scrawny calves. When the girls showed signs of these traits, we teased them. But we exchanged glances over their wet heads, fresh from showering and baths; we noted the thin blades of their shoulders, the freckles and marks they had. We inventoried these and thought about them later, in our own beds, next to our snoring husbands—we pictured a man’s hands on these girls, his caress. It made us shiver, with horror and longing.

It was our 23rd summer, and Ghy was having one of her romances, a silly thing with a mason. He had loved the arches of her feet, the tendons of her neck, the backs of her knees; he had whispered to these parts of her. He was replacing flagstone, meticulously, worriedly, wanting to give us our money’s worth. He was that sort of laborer: industrious, careful. It was how Ghy described him in bed, those same words.

We were alone during the week with the children. Jack and Scott came on the weekends, tired and grimy from the city, looking for sleep. Instead we put them to work. We made lists for them when we were alone, of the things we couldn’t do ourselves, couldn’t reach or lift.

I should tell it simply. Scott fell from a ladder over the garage, trying to pin roses to the trellis. His neck was broken, we knew this immediately. He lay twisted on the ground below the dutch doors of the garage, those strange useless doors that opened onto air. His eyes were wide and his breathing was intermittent, terrifyingly ragged. The usual people came, the ones you expect, and long minutes passed. It struck me that after the initial horror of such an event some new feeling comes over the people with no urgent task—a strange boredom, a longing for action. I spent it sweeping my toe through the gravel in the driveway—making long, deep arcs. Ghy too did an unexpected thing—she turned and dove into the swimming pool, her body slicing lap after long lap. Some people would have said she was mad with grief or senseless—but I was there and saw it differently. She didn’t dive in with her clothes on; she took them off and hung them carefully in her usual place, on the outstretched forefinger of a statue. Then she dove perfectly into the water and began to swim her strong athletic strokes. She did it every day, and as far as I could tell she was merely exercising, just burning calories, and time.

 

We had another refuge, when the children and husbands were too much for us. On the Sound, not far from the cottage, was the home of a famous actress. Publicly, in the shops and on the street, locals kept their mouths closed about its whereabouts, shutting down nosiness from tourists and daytrippers. But they remarked, talking among themselves, on her failing health and the place’s spectacular seclusion. She gave our little town cachet, simply by virtue of living secretly near it, and by not being seen on its streets. The house sat on the beach on a private peninsula and to reach it you passed huge Victorian homes so immaculately maintained they appeared nearly brand new. There was a golf course, and lawns so vast and green they could only be kept that way by elaborate underground irrigation systems.

The actress’s house looked nothing like its neighbors and was set apart, directly on the sand, the only vegetation a stand of scrubby trees and the ubiquitous wheat-colored beach grasses. It was enormous, made entirely of stone, bleached nearly white in places from years of being battered by salt and sand. It seemed imported from somewhere else—a moor perhaps. It had a bleak gothic quality, a certain tragedy to it—the kind of house where men brood and women throw themselves from balconies.

Ghy and I went there often, not entirely legally. We would park on the road and walk onto the peninsula, sometimes coming in along the sea wall past the picture-perfect lighthouse and sometimes cutting across the golf course, acting as if we belonged. No one ever questioned us, and there was always a thrill when we came along the beach and caught sight of the house. There was rarely a sign of life in it; it didn’t even seem furnished. Once we saw a massive chandelier lit on the second floor, and it fueled our interest for days.

A wooden dock jutted into the sea a short way up the beach, and we spent many afternoons there, watching the house and hoping for activity. We always half expected her to come striding up the beach, the wind whipping her trousers, a scarf covering her hair. Probably, we thought, she would tell us to bugger off, stop trying to peer in her windows. She would threaten to call the police. In other fantasies, she invited us inside and gave us a tour—she lived, we imagined, in one wing of the house and kept the rest of it shuttered. She would have a tremendous library, be very untidy and chain-smoke unfiltered cigarettes. We imagined her polite but imperious, and we vowed we would never question her about films. There would not, we thought, be a single reminder of her fame in the living quarters—no photographs or movie posters, no remnants of stardom. She would most certainly have dogs of all shapes and sizes. Mixed breeds, rescued from bad pasts. How she acquired these dogs—when we never saw a person leave or enter the house—did not concern us. The practicalities of what we imagined for her were trivial matters, and not of interest. We talked instead of what might evolve between us—a sort of friendship involving book lending and afternoon tea, the exchange of recipes, talk of favorite European churches.

We spun these imaginings out on the dock, in all kinds of weather—when the sea was wild and when it was calm, on summer days and wet ones, when ice formed in the furrowed sand and when everything was bright and blue and cloudless. It was where we went to get away from the husbands and later from our children, who grew tall and noisy and demanding.

 

The realtor, when he came, might have been related to that first one from so many years ago. Or perhaps they are all like that: oily, with a deference that borders on contempt. He whistled through his teeth walking around, and Ghy and I made faces behind his back. We were trying to keep each other light, old habits being hard to break.

“What a wreck,” he said, finally. He said it cheerfully, and then whistled again. We were thoroughly annoyed.

“Go away,” Ghy said. It occurred to me that she’d lost a little of her tact over the years, stopped pussy-footing.

“I’m sorry?” he said, and looked at her.

“Scram,” she said. “We’ve changed our minds.”

I was alarmed, but not terribly—not enough to say anything, to call the moment back. Of course, I dreaded speaking to Jack, but the momentary pleasure of the man’s expression, his rapid duck-walk back to his nondescript car, the way he slammed the door and sprayed gravel getting away—I thought it would more than compensate. I thought it was a bargain.

Jack did call later that night, mad as a hornet. When I answered the phone, he didn’t say anything, just breathed at me, waiting. Another habit of his I don’t miss—that laden silence as he waits for an explanation, which he will then summarily reject. He could undo the children like this, and for many years, me as well.

“He was awful,” I said. “And how’s Felicity?”

“Are you trying to unhinge me? No,” he said. “Don’t answer that.”

An argument ensued; the details are uninteresting. The whole time Ghy was arranging blankets on the couches for the dogs—they dislike them bunched up and will wait for one of us to straighten them before clambering up and settling in. When the husbands were around the borders between animals and humans were more strictly defined. There was a dog couch, for instance, and entirely separate furniture for humans.

Jack cared for the dogs, but in a different way. The way you love something of a slightly untrustworthy species and don’t want it getting uppity. Jack thought my devotion to them was unhealthy and ridiculous. And Scott? Anything Ghy wanted was fine with him, and if that meant sleeping with dogs and talking baby talk, so be it, and he did it cheerfully.

“I miss Scott,” I had said to Ghy once, the year after he’d died, when we’d decided—without really discussing it—that we would continue our summers as if nothing terrible had happened at our house, as though there was not one of our number missing. At the time we were sitting on the dock in front of the actress’s house, on a particularly cloudless blue day. In the distance, where the unnaturally emerald lawns met sand, a few small children were running back and forth in bright clothing.

“Do you?” she’d said and given me an odd look. I felt immediately that I’d said something inappropriate, a little sordid. Mind you, there had never been any of that between us—no predictable marital betrayals, no funny business.

Then, unexpectedly, she said a strange thing. She said, “We never argued, you know. Our marriage was almost too perfect.”

I didn’t say anything for a time; out of the corner of my eye I could see her patrician profile—the tiny cross-hatching of lines appearing at the edge of her right eye. It always surprised me to notice any evidence of decline in Ghy; she seemed to me so impervious to frailty. Had she been another kind of friend, I might have held her hand, or murmured something sympathetic, but I knew not to. I also knew what she said wasn’t true. There had been arguments and rancor between them; whom did she think she was talking to? We had lived in each other’s pockets for years.

When I spoke, I was cautious. I said, “Isn’t that how we always remember things? As if they were quite perfect, when in fact they were stupendously ordinary? Cigarette butts and dirty diapers, crumbs in the bed, streaky windows.” There was a tone I was trying to strike in saying this—something between light and somber, jokey and not. But, in retrospect, perhaps I was offering bait, and Ghy—ever perceptive—saw the flash of bright, feathered lure and veered instinctively away.

She stood up and brushed her hands on her pants. They were tweedy and wide-legged—on the beach we always dressed like the actress; we would have said it was unintentional, but it wasn’t. We were like birds trying to attract similar plumage.

She said, “Jack’s been staying in the city a lot lately. What do you think he’s up to?”

I felt as though a wave had struck my face—cold, salty, unexpected. I got to my feet. We walked back down the beach, more apart from each other than usual. I stooped to pick up a sand dollar, and when that arrest in motion put several strides between us, I didn’t hasten to catch up, and she didn’t slow for me.

Now I see her remark for what it was: not so much cruelty as vital diversion, a demarcation that surfaced for an instant and then sank from sight, leaving only the vague, irrefutable knowledge of its existence. A lesson—the way our dogs learn that counters are off limits, and that teeth and human skin don’t mix.

 

But she was right. Our marriage was cracking like badly fired pottery. Ghy would have needed no outside confirmation of this—as I had briefly thought, that she was privy to something I was not. She needed no more than the mere observation of our lives. It no longer surprises me that I thought our secrets more hidden than hers—that she did not see our acrimony, or our faults, the way Jack and I saw theirs. I see now that arrogance goes all ways, in all directions.

Later Jack would say he left me because of the accident, because of Scott’s death. Or I heard he said this, in the way whispered things invariably travel back to the person most intended not to hear them. It did not seem to bother him to say this, though it was certainly offensive. Ghy once said that you don’t go blaming houses for the stupid things people do in them—like climbing rickety ladders after drinking Bloody Marys most of the morning.

Jack stayed in the city more and more, claiming business and exhaustion. Eventually I got the usual tedious explanations—that life was short, meant to be lived to the fullest, that he might step in front of a bus tomorrow. As it turned out Felicity was the bus Jack did step into the path of, under whose surgically enhanced wheels he joyfully threw himself.

After his call Ghy and I made a fire and sat beside it in the living room—there was a storm brewing, which was how we justified it, a fire in August. The dogs sighed happily and left their couches to lie as close as possible. I told her the bad news.

“He says he’s going to come here.”

Ghy snorted. “Actually put himself on a plane and come here? Hard to believe.”

Jack is lazy, is what she really means, and hates details and dirty work. It’s why Ghy and I are here—technically, we’re supposed to be putting the cottage in order to be sold. If Jack did come, he would have a canary to see what we’ve done all summer—namely, nothing.

“Well, he threatened to.”

Ghy thought about it. “Would he bring her?”

“I’m pretty sure they’re attached.”

“Anyway, he won’t.”

She’s probably right. Jack has always been a little afraid of Ghy—he could never quite figure her out, and there is nothing on earth he finds more off-putting than a puzzle. He wants the world to open up and explain itself to him; he wants the opportunity to ask it questions and have them answered smartly.

“If only,” Ghy said then, “children didn’t want college. Not want, expect. Feel entitled to.”

We have four brilliant, beautiful girls, and we sigh a little, thinking about them. Aspiring botanists and biologists, social anthropologists and mathematicians. Girls with grades good enough to get into the right schools, but not quite good enough for scholarships. And grown fathers with new wives spend a lot of money and have little sentimental attachment to the past.

A word about the children. They were not home when Scott fell and were spared that at least. They were boating with friends. What else can be said? It was tragic in all the ordinary ways and will forever be a central event in their lives. But as they spiral away from that afternoon, their lives gathering more events and more immediate heartbreaks, it has faded for them. At least that is what I hope, and have no small amount of faith in.

The details of that afternoon we keep to ourselves, to this day. The girls will never know that Ghy swam those long, panting laps while paramedics were defeated in the driveway. What has held our friendship intact, I believe, are our unspoken agreements. The things we don’t say, rather than the ones we do.

Scott had been drinking that day; I remember his face was red and he looked disheveled—like a messy, friendly bear. The argument was over those lists we were always making. Jack had done his chores early so as not to be nagged. But Scott was slumping around, always easily distracted. A dog looking for a game of stick could lure him away from a book, a child wanting to show off a cartwheel and he would forget whatever it was he had been doing—he was a great one for unfinished projects, wrenches and tools dropped mid-use. And Ghy was hard and glittery that summer, as she always was when she had a boyfriend. Scott annoyed her more then, he became to her less sweet than clumsy, more oafish than merely big, smothering rather than adoring.

They were arguing out by the garage, where the ladder was waiting to be used—and had been for over a week. I was reading on the porch, some novel Ghy had recently finished. While I eavesdropped I was picking her crumbs from between the pages, identifying spots as chocolate, or egg, or dog slime.

The goddamn roses, she was saying. For two fucking weeks, I’ve asked. Could you put the drink down just long enough to take care of it? Am I asking too much? He was laughing—trying to jolly her—but she wasn’t having it. I remember being surprised to hear her use Jack’s name, in the way she did. Holding him up in favorable comparison—he had done something with the boxwoods that weekend. There were more words, some less intelligible, and then the scraping of the ladder as someone moved it. I heard the rails thud against the garage, then the creaking of feet on the rungs. Could I really have heard this? I can’t be sure, though it seems I did.

Ghy came around the house then and stood in front of me; she was breathing heavily—the screen that separated us made her appear a little fuzzy, as if I were seeing her through a bridal veil, or the kind of netting that used to be fashionable in hats. She seemed distant on the other side of the porch, and I was surprised to hear her voice so clearly when she spoke. It seemed we were miles apart.

She said, “That book is rancid. I had to eat Mallomars the whole time, just to get through it.”

Then there was the crash—not a scream, not a single cry, just the noise of the ladder falling, and something else—something hard and soft and heavy.

 

Now we both live in the city, only a few blocks apart. We have a little income; I am teaching an Intellectual History class at a center for continuing education—a dusty, long-forgotten degree of mine makes this possible. Ghy lives simply, using the money from the summer cottage, which she had invested well—following Scott’s death she had sold her share of it to Jack, a thing they kept between them for a number of years. It had only come out when Jack announced his plans to sell the cottage; it was a transaction Ghy seemed a little ashamed of.

Two of our grown daughters live nearby and they are kind enough to have dinner with us occasionally and take our phone calls. They threaten us with grandchildren. I believe Jack thinks it is only a matter of time before we move in together; he jokes that we have tendencies, and we pretend not to know what he means, so he will stop being so stupid. We do have our own lives, other friends, legitimate pastimes.

Jack is an old dog now and Scottie is in ill health. None of us is getting around the way we used to—thank god for taxis. Still, we have a trip planned for the summer. There is a hotel now, near the water, and we will spend a weekend there in June. When the actress died some months ago Ghy called me immediately. It made the national news. We’ve already planned the route and agreed we won’t drive by the old house, which was sold—more easily than we’d anticipated—to some new weekenders. They have strewn the lawn with bright plastic play equipment and fenced in the pool—Ghy heard this, from someone.

Instead, we’ll make our own little pilgrimage, walk the beach and sit for a last time on the dock. We’ll toast our real and make-believe friendships, all the concessions—the complicity—that make them possible. I suspect we’ll get stinking. I am quite looking forward to it.

 

Beth Helms’s short-story collection American Wives won the 2003 Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Nimrod, Natural Bridge, and Kalliope. She lives in Pound Ridge, New York, with a pretty good boyfriend and a truly exceptional dog.

Tags:
Short stories
Marriage
Families
BOMB 88
Summer 2004
The cover of BOMB 88
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