There was a brief moment once, as we reached the apex of the Manhattan Bridge, when the setting sun pierced the thin opening between rain clouds and horizon, casting the Westward side of Wall Street into a sudden blood orange glow, while the Eastern edges were all still and grey and pounded by black rain. By the time we landed on the island, the sun had set and the world was only overcast and wet.
The Other One
Tension. Late night. Wait for hours to sleep. Talk. More talk.
—Not life this living way for me, the first one says.
I, some part wandering to the other one, strongly, with borrowed temporary will, agree. Such a big heart, such a big false heart, such a false big heart this boy has.
Then tears. Oh, oh tears. We are so close and my care, my care so clear, my care from such a heart, such a strong old heart. Only the best, of course, only the best for everyone, all time all time only the best intended for everyone. Of course. Anyone can see that.
Sleep, sobbing consoled in comfort so close. True we have been, what you want, what I want, and when and for now we’ll just wait. Thinking of the other one I say all this easily, easily. Lie down behind that, hide boy hide, she’s counting, nearing 100, ready or not, hide boy. Whew. Not me, she didn’t get me, not this time. Innocence achieved.
The other one. After all was said and done, the other one. Train, subway, brunch, coffee, croissant, New York, news. Hello the other one.
Nice apartment. Ceilings. What is this place? Quick find the crannies, the corners, the lay of the land. Settle back, talk fast. Always able to adapt to the new ones better than remember the old. Such a big heart.
No, I can’t, really. Can’t. Have a cold. A cold. Such a nasty cold. I would if I could but you see, I, well I, this, you understand? Really? But you don’t fully appreciate this cold. I’ve given already. Years this cold never never goes away. I can’t really.
And that, at least, even if she didn’t quite hear me, was the truth. The unemblemished truth.
Penelope and Clair
—Whose idea was this anyway?
—What do you mean?
—Yours or his?
—His. I think. Yes. Certainly his.
—But it seemed a way out.
—I say it seemed a way out. Of the deception and all. He wasn’t very happy with that.
—And you were, I suppose.
—No. I wasn’t. To be perfectly honest—
—Perhaps it’s a little early for that.
—True. But I’ll say it anyway. I wish he’d divorce you and have done with it. But.
—Right. He won’t.
—And I won’t either.
—Right. You won’t either.
—So here we are.
—Stranger things have happened. In the world. In the History of Romance.
—I’m not history. I’m a cowgirl. I actually tear up when I see tumble-weed. I like chicken fried steak, for Chrissake.
—Me too what?
—Chicken fried steak. I like it.
—Look. It was his idea. But I sort of agreed pretty quick. I mean, what I’m saying is, I’ve always been curious. The way he talks about you. You seemed, if you’ll pardon the phrase, my kind of woman.
—I suppose it is.
—So. How long has this been going on?
—He told you, didn’t he?
—Yeah. But I want the truth.
—Two years this May.
—That’s what he told me.
—It hasn’t been easy.
—It’s not supposed to be easy. I mean, when you fuck another woman’s husband there’s supposed to be a price, a certain, I don’t know, cost, a barrier, obstacle. It is, after all, not the normal thing, if you know what I mean. So I wouldn’t complain.
—I’m not complaining.
—So. The house is open. I mean yours. I mean make yourself at home. I’m going to get a little work done now. Okay?
—What is it?
—A little abrupt maybe.
—Yeah. That’s me.
—Have any parsley?
—It’s steak and potatoes for Chrissake.
—I know what it is. Do you have any parsley?
—I don’t know. Look in there.
—Want to open the wine?
—Not really, but I will. This is getting uncomfortable, you know.
—I can leave.
—No, no. I told him I’d explore. Expand. Give it a day or so to become clear.
—No parsley. Not even dried. How do you cook in here?
—Quickly. As effortlessly as possible.
—Bet there’s Alka-Seltzer upstairs.
—What’d you do to the potatoes?
—I know that. But how?
—Butter. Bake. Poke holes in them with a fork.
—Yes. Of course. Butter.
—I see. Then you poke holes in them with a fork?
—No wonder what?
—He always met me for dinner.
—I worked late a lot.
—And can’t cook worth a shit.
—He said that?
—No. I did.
—Well, I’d be mad as hell except it’s truer than green grass. I never learned.
—It’s not difficult.
—Where there’s no will there’s no way.
—True. True. More creamed spinach?
—Yes. Thank you. It’s like real different from the Popeye kind that comes in a can.
—Yes. It’s different. Funny. Now that I think of it. We met in the produce section at Food Emporium.
—I don’t think I want to hear this.
—I just don’t.
—Isn’t that what we’re here for? To hear all this?
—I suppose so.
—So do you want to hear it or not?
—Sure. Tell me.
—It’s not so bad, you know. People have been fucking around for centuries—
—Profound, aren’t you?
—Being a bitch doesn’t alter truth.
—Okay, okay. Go on.
—Never mind. It’s a silly story anyway.
—No. Go on.
—I don’t think so.
—Did you fuck him that first day?
—Well, not really.
—He was picking out corn. You know, peeling back the shuck, checking the kernels, looking for worm damage—
—No, I don’t know, but I’ll pretend.
—And he wasn’t having much luck. I watched him for a moment. He’s eminently watchable.
—Most times. Yes.
—And he was getting really fed up.
—So I went over and said “Excuse me. The corn’s not so good now. It’s the end of the season.”
—Typical. Knows what he wants, but not the proper time.
—Ha, ha, ha.
—It’s not that funny.
—I’m going for a swim.
—It’s okay then. That I swim.
—Care to join me?
—In a bit perhaps. No. That’s not true. I don’t like water.
—Then why? Have a pool?
—Came with the house.
—Ah. Is it interesting?
—That. What you’re doing.
—Dry as week old pigeon shit. Really routine corporate stuff. A dying company trying to juggle its paper profile a little so the stockholders will be lenient for another quarter.
—That’s what you do then?
—Yeah. That’s it all right.
—I work with houses.
—You have a job?
—A little, hmmm. With houses? Real Estate?
—Landmarks. I make landmarks. At the National Trust.
—You’re working for the National Trust.
—Oh. Yes. Cute.
—So. What do you think? About this house?
—I’d say, let’s see, Queen Anne Stick Victorian around say 1860, hasn’t been too badly botched up. Potential.
—But not a landmark.
—Well. I’m in the pool.
—Have a good swim. Don’t drown or anything.
—Didn’t you ever wonder about his shirts?
—What about his shirts?
—Why they came back without cellophane wrapping, without the little stapled red tags on the bottom buttonholes.
—No. I never wondered.
—So wonder now.
—I did them.
—You did them?
—Once a week.
—I like ironing.
—You’re insane. Sane people don’t enjoy that sort of thing. It just isn’t done.
—Women aren’t supposed to take pleasure in doing for their man. I do. Really. Don’t you? Just a little? Is it always a burden? Or is the true burden not allowing yourself to feel the pleasure of doing. Doing for someone.
—No. I think of the burden as starch.
—Seems to me you’ve been cheated. We do for children, parents. Men have been disqualified from our affection.
—Ironing is not affection.
—It isn’t. Ironing is ironing.
—I liked thinking of his chest touching what I’d touched. All day. All the time.
—And me. What about my touching those shirts.
—I thought about that too.
—There were times when he’d be inside me and I’d feel about to fly off into space. As if his cock was the linchpin holding me together, binding me to the world. I’d try with as much will as I had left to find the places moving in me, to sort of mentally write down what I was feeling and why. But I never could. Something new, a new thrust or wiggle or rush or squirm or tear or gasp would suddenly overtake the pleasure I wanted to tack down, and the swim would start all again, from a different direction. With another force. And I guess the thing I felt most then was not there, or only there, like lost. Like the I I usually walk around with was gone somehow. Why are you crying?
—I’m not crying.
—Yes you are.
—It sounded wonderful. The way you said that. I mean just the way you said it. Was beautiful.
—I thought you might recognize the feeling.
—But I don’t. Not the least resemblance.
—He never made me come apart.
—So what then?
—I can’t talk about it.
—Yes you can. I know, I know, where there’s no will.
—That’s not it. I mean I can’t talk about it. I guess I’d like to. Some day. Maybe.
—Hope I didn’t wake you.
—I smelt the coffee.
—It’s a beautiful day.
—Good coffee. You poke holes in it or something.
—I’m going for a swim—
—Care to join me?
—Too much sun gives you skin cancer.
—Smoking gives you lung cancer.
—Do you think of getting old?
—I remember my grandmother’s hands. And I think, That’s old! And how I’ll have hands like that soon enough.
—That’s it? That’s what you think?
—Basically. And you?
—I try not to.
—Think about it?
—Hardly fair, is it? He ripens, we wither.
—He can’t make babies.
—Of course not.
—I didn’t think so. What’s it like?
—Having a baby.
—I don’t remember.
—They put me out shortly after I got to the hospital. It was a quick and dirty delivery. I woke up a mother.
—You missed the best part.
—The pain. That’s what I missed.
—You missed the best part.
—I suppose you want a mid-wife and a bowl of hot water and a birthing chair.
—I want to be awake.
—You’ll change your mind. You’ll see.
—I’d like to. To see. I’d like to a lot.
—His baby. You’d like his. Say it.
—I’d like his baby. Yes. I would.
—This, I think, is going to be a long day.
—Where you going?
—Bathing suit. To buy one.
—Want to go to a movie?
—No. I don’t think so.
—Don’t you ever stop with the legal shit?
—Sure. When I’m finished. I stop.
—I see. Did you always want to be a lawyer?
—No. For the longest time I wanted to be an oceanographer.
—What’s you’re problem?
—I’m trying to work.
—My dad wanted a boy. My mother actually told me his first words when he saw me were “Missed again.” I have four sisters. I suppose he loved us well enough. But we were still only girls.
—Gee whiz, isn’t it though?
—I mean it. It is.
—Yeah. I suppose it is. When I told him I was going to Harvard Law School he said: “Good Luck. Hope you make it.” As if he never thought for a minute I would. Make it. But I did.
—You talk to him ever?
—Sure. He asks me for inside information.
The Other Sex
—I felt too much. Like I couldn’t possibly feel anymore. And then more would happen. And I’d sort of watch myself vanish. Like on Star Trek. When they dematerialize. Beam me up Scotty. And I’d shake and shake and it scared the hell out of me. Like any second I’d turn into a maniac or a bag lady or a blithering idiot or some swan-like creature with claws. And I’d never come back. Ever. So there’d I’d be, just as frightened as a body can be and still be a body. My teeth hurt and my toes curled and this incredible hunger mixed with fear rolled over me. I’d have to close my eyes. I’d close my eyes. When I did I found I was crying. I’d feel the tears run down into my ears. And so I’d come. Or start to come. And he’d come. And without opening my eyes I knew what he looked like. The tendons in his neck taught, chin jutting, eyes tight, mouth slightly open, teeth clenched. Then I’d feel so suddenly calm. Like I’d given something. Done something. Gotten, I don’t know, a piece of him. A real piece of him to guard and cherish and never lose.
—Wow? That’s it? That’s a relevant response here?
—Don’t be defensive.
—Don’t be so familiar.
—Do you like his cock?
—From Teeny-bopper to Freud. You are a wonder.
—Sarcasm in the current conversation is not the relevant response.
—Of course I like his cock.
—I mean really.
—Except when I think of it inside you.
—What “ah?” Makes perfect sense to me.
—I suppose. Okay. I’ve got another one.
—Am I ready for this?
—Probably not. Do you come? Does he make you come? Or do you make you come?
—How do you answer that?
—There isn’t a right answer.
—I don’t think so.
—All of the above.
—I believe that. All of the above. Different times. But which describes the norm, if you know what I mean.
—I make me come.
—And it’s work, isn’t it?
—You try to relax and let it happen but you’re afraid if you do it’ll pass you by. You’ll maybe wait too long. He’s already almost there. So you switch a gear and think a little harder and moan a little louder than you need to and then you come and he comes and everybody’s happy.
—Except sometimes I resent working so hard.
—It’s hard not to.
—I mean it. Fuck you. Where do you get off analyzing my orgasms. Who elected you sex therapist here—
—I didn’t say—
—This is not working. It’s not my fault I can’t, don’t, whatever, have this free and easy, you know, lackadaisical attitude. It’s important! For Chrissake it’s the most miraculous thing. I can’t take it apart. I hate you for making me try.
—I didn’t make—
—It’s none of your goddamn business how I get off. How we make love.
—I want it to be.
—Because I love him.
—Because he loves you.
—Makes me want to scratch your eyes out.
—Go ahead. Make me bleed.
—You are sick.
—Enough to count.
—Come sit by me.
—Leave me alone.
—Leave me alone!
—I like that clock.
—Thanks. My grandmother’s. It doesn’t tell time very well.
—A little off-key.
—I didn’t notice.
—You’ll see. The last bong goes flat.
—Have it fixed.
—It’s okay. I sort of like the odd bong at the end.
—Are you sorry we did this?
—You think you will be?
—Probably. I don’t like change.
—So what’s changed?
—I see what he sees in you. I think. I can imagine the whole thing a little better.
—Is that bad?
—I think so. I don’t know.
—So what should we do?
—I think we should both leave the fucker high and dry.
—I don’t want to.
—That was a joke.
—What do you think he thinks about you?
—About me how?
—I don’t know. Any how.
—No. You. You know. What you dream of. What you do, I guess. The law stuff.
—I think he approves of the law stuff.
—And he thinks you’re a good mother.
—I’m not, really.
—He loves you, I think.
—I’m really glad to hear that. From you.
—So. Why does he fuck me?
—I’ve been asking myself the same thing.
—Let me see your tits.
—Good God no. A rhetorical suggestion.
—You think he fucks me for my tits.
—And the shirts maybe.
—I see. I see.
—Don’t get pissed at me. At least he does. Fuck you. I’m the one with stretch marks. And hair creeping up to my navel. Remember that before you get your feelings all hurt.
—They’re firm and smooth and bigger than a handful.
—Don’t be spiteful.
—And he loves biting the hard as nuts nipples.
—You let him bite your nipples?
—I beg him.
—Really. I’m sorry.
—No you aren’t.
—I wouldn’t be.
—Let’s be serious. This is serious. I have a theory.
—Shall I tell you?
—Isn’t the weekend over yet?
—I’ll tell you anyway. Seriously.
—Let me sit.
—He likes himself better when he fucks me.
—Then why doesn’t he divorce me and like himself all the time?
—He couldn’t stand it.
—I see. You’re Grace and I’m Penance.
—He’s ashamed of wanting big tits and starched shirts. But that doesn’t stop his wanting them.
—Okay. I’ve got the picture. Let’s see, let’s see. His head is buried between your oceanic breasts. He’s nibbling—
—Gnawing at your nipples. He drools on his freshly pressed shirts when you bend over. Okay. I’ve got the picture. What does he think of you? When the cum dries, what does he wonder at your dreams? What does he think about you waiting around, Penelope of the Ironing Board? What you is there here for him to think about?
—Seems there’s enough me here to keep him busy.
—And he respects you for it? For the waiting around? It’s been two years, woman. Two years.
—I’m not waiting.
—I don’t believe you.
—I’m not waiting.
—I don’t believe you.
—You’re waiting. For me. To go away. I haven’t. I won’t.
—I believe you.
—Don’t forget your suit. Out by the pool.
There were times when our life together seemed all a body could want. And for the longest time, at least the longest time I have known, neither Clair nor I looked any deeper into the matter than this simple, self-satisfied, and self-referential fact: we loved one another. We never imagined more was necessary. We didn’t consider our lives threatened. As we now know they were.
Love is near-sighted. Short sighted. Blind.
We couldn’t see the forest for the leaves.
Just the other day Clair entered the room, walking much the way she always walked when saddened, and sat at the dining-room table, and carefully crossed her hands and lowered her chin and said:
—I think I’ll be leaving now.
—Oh? I asked, wondering, in a sudden image of how poorly things had been for some time now, what had taken her so long.
Or, maybe, if the truth needs to be known, which I’m not at all convinced it need be, I wasn’t at all surprised because it’s pretty much what I had wanted to say myself, would have said in a minute if she hadn’t.
I guess what I felt most was relief.
—Yes, she continued. I think I need this because, through no particular fault of yours, you seem to draw all the life right out of me, you drain my spirit and sap my soul roots, and basically make it impossible for me to exist.
Her eyes, downcast, must have seemed, to her coffee, like wet white marble marbles, shuttered and lashed and a little red.
—I see. I do. I really do. Understand. But what about the Third Man there walking always beside us?
Clair’s eyes glassed.
I didn’t know precisely myself what I meant by the Scriptural reference. I suppose I meant our history and hurts and once-held-hopes. and the habits we’d formed and broken over the decade of our companionship. And the promise we stood on its bare little feet for all the world to see. I guess, for the first time since we had married, now that Clair was saying she didn’t want to be married, I felt very married.
Isn’t that just the way?
—I don’t know, Clair said. It could be I’ll be back in an hour. Or a year or two or 20. I still, you know, love you and all that.
—Yes, I said. I understand.
Max picked up the charcoal grey sweater. It was only a little tattered about the left sleeve. He held it up by the shoulders at arm’s length, and tried to people it. He failed. He held it to his face, feeling very much like the love-lorn hero in a melodrama, and inhaled what odor of Clair still clung to the cashmere. He felt a lump grow in his throat, a clutch in his gut, and despite himself, almost cried a little.
—What’s that? Penelope asked.
—A sweater, Max answered. One of Clair’s.
—Ah. A relic.
—Sort of. Yes. A relic.
Penelope had lived with the remnants of Clair for several months now. She thought Max’s occasional reverence, the spasms of sentimentality that punctuated his usual caustic indifference, she thought them endearing, really. She hoped he might one day treat her memory, if it came to that, with just such a mix of anger and idiocy.
—Here, Max said to Penelope, try it on.
—Okay, Penelope said, thinking it was pretty and much too small, and wondering what Max really felt about her body.
Max placed his hand on the flat of Penelope’s belly, thumb and pinky just barely touching hip bone, palming her entire womb, wondering what she thought of his holding her so. Did she feel this gesture tasted of power or of grace? Max felt a tremor of envy at her mystery and then shame at his envy. These emotions evidenced for him how completely he failed to fully understand the body of his lover. He could only guess her reaction, only surmise the joy she might feel at his tentative appreciation; or only feebly fear the anger well up against his beastly needs and passions.
Neither of these emotions possessed Penelope. She was only aware of the gentle curiosity that seemed to move Max’s hand. She was not thinking of womb or rape. She was reaching with her skin and bone to meet his palm, wanting him to know her, just simply to know and recognize her solidity, her being there naked on his bed.
Confusion and a little grief crossed her eyes when Max withdrew his hand, only a little too quickly, as if the heat of her body had startled him.
Max sidled down beside her, burrowing his stubbled chin into her navel, her hip, her groin. And again Penelope felt the thrill of his attention, the anticipation that soon, perhaps tonight, now, Max would see her fully and lose himself in the sight of her.
She opened her legs wider, negotiating a knee from beneath his rib-cage, thrusting her cunt against his moving chest, feeling the tousle of his hair against her inner thigh, and blurring with the memory, the wish of his open mouth upon her sex.
Max examined the indescribable, ever shifting curves of her cunt lips. He marveled, as ever, at their complexity, at the strange comfort they afforded in their moist mystery. He ran a finger through her hair, separating right lip from hooded apex, left lip traced from top to bottom, gently pressing, as if searching for a pulse.
You should marry young so the divorce will still leave sufficient time for a family. My mother, of all people, gave me that advice, shortly before my first marriage. My second husband has a first wife. We were all young enough to want more than anything to be married. And old enough to recognize when things went irrevocably sour.
So here I sit, in the house my husband owns, in the house he lived in before me, briefly, with Clair. And the house I designed, I recall the days spent looking for the land and the hours with the contractor over blueprints that were as much mine as blueprints are ever anyone’s, husband one lives in with a woman I hope never to meet, raising a family. His voice cracks when he speaks of his children. I cannot bear, or can barely bear, when I give it any thought, the thought of this other lounging in the room I so wittily configured for the couple I was part of then. Plenty of crooks and corners. Just enough distance to create the illusion of solitude despite proximity. Or proximity at arms length. Depending upon which of us you had asked then.
Now I’m here. In this rambling old Victorian whaling ship of a house. I used to think that it had seen over the years sufficient flux not to have noticed Clair at all.
But recently the house has corrected my thinking.
It’s normal for old houses to settle and groan. And they seem more vociferous when one is alone. An illusion of silence. But you mustn’t misunderstand me. I know the normal discourse of old houses. This one, the one I live in, it has begun to speak. In English.
I often hear her name. I hear laughter. I’m sometimes admonished with a resounding “No!” when I settle onto the sofa, or a pained “ouch” when I knock an elbow into the wall.
Just earlier tonight I was lounging in the master bedroom, thinking of what kind of wall paper would be best above the wainscotting I’d just brought home, when I heard, quite distinctly, “How is he?”
“He’s fine,” I said.
The house didn’t answer. Perhaps because it had hoped for a harsher reply.
“He’s fine. Really.” I said again. “I think he’s happy here. And I know I’m happier than I’ve been in years. Since high school perhaps. I know one isn’t supposed to admit this sort of thing, even to a house, I suppose, but I actually enjoy being a wife, a housewife, an expectant mother. When I was married to what’s-his-name I still pretended to a career. Home restoration, landmark preservation, that sort of thing, you know?”
“A noble career,” said the house.
“I just realized, in telling you, how my true intentions were barely masked by my career choice. It seemed more respectable to re-make houses than make a home, to keep houses standing rather than keep house. I’ve come out of the closet.
I don’t want to restore houses for the Historical Society. I want to own one, live in one, populate it with lots and lots of me. And Max. Lots of Max. I want a family and I want it here in this house Clair couldn’t finish or fill or even furnish properly.”
I fell silent, enraged at how history works and thinking of Max’s absence.
“Is that all?” asked the house.
“Are you quite done?”
“Yes, I think so. Yes.”
“Good then,” said the house.
A silence fell full and unbreakable. Not a creak or groan. Not even the furnace metal cracking. Nothing. And I knew the house would say no more. And I’m glad. Soon there will be voices enough.
But I wonder will it ever speak up again. And if it does, will it be me lying here in the master bedroom paying close attention.