[The following is an excerpt from the novel The Last Good Woman]1
But honeymoons don’t last forever, and when we got back to Florida it was back to the real world, and back there you had to wonder about things – like what might have happened – for in the real world I not only attended school and worked at the library and ran five miles a day and kissed my wife when she got home from work each afternoon. I was also out in the night with Warren and Lefevre, and out there you’d better have a sense of proportion, and it had damn well better be nailed shut. Stacy was not the first temptation and would certainly not be the last, but I was safely married now and a married man of his word would not allow such circumstances to trap him twice. The safely married man, in an effort to prove that little had changed, drank as much as ever, talked as much as ever, and generally proved himself to be as agreeable and fun-loving as ever. He might even flirt a little, but he knew where to draw the line. He did not want to be trapped by circumstances, but it would please him to discover that behind his back girls like Stacy sighed and murmured among themselves what a shame it was that such a specimen should be monopolized by one woman. Thus reassured, and unafflicted with pangs of envy, the safely married man could graciously bow out when the real fun started, smiling in benign amusement upon his friends sowing their wild oats while he returned home to till his own ground in neatly plotted rows, his contentment marred only slightly by an exquisite nostalgia for the good old days when the boundaries to one’s sense of proportion were not shaped by the form of one woman, but by the abundant formlessness of womankind…
At the end of the ride the safely married man must go his separate way. He must get into his own car and return to hearth and home, cheerfully conceding that while his friends disappeared into the darkened, shrub-shrouded house for the evening’s fulfillment, his own had come upon him once and forever on that hot day in June when Gerald shrugged and the priest pronounced, the priest with the sparkling, shrewd, fiery blue eyes intent upon the business at hand. And what he had pronounced was that this fulfillment would endure unto death. The safely married man admired the staggering air of permanence breathed forth by such an arrangement. It freed him from the pangs of envy. It allowed him to take the larger view recommended by Emerson, a view in which his thoughts converged with inerrant symmetry upon such pearls of wisdom as that his own fulfillment was lasting while that of his friends was fleeting. After all, it wasn’t easy these days to keep the Lasting perpetually before one’s eyes. It required a certain quality of mind that probably descended in a direct line from Socrates to himself. But if he paused to turn this pearl and its priceless sheen over in his mind, it began to sound like a judgement. It rang in the ears the way the priest’s invocation rang against the vaulted roof of the church. It began to sound as though it had been pronounced, and the more likely this seemed the less inclined he was to dwell on it. One freed from the pangs of envy need not pass judgement.
And so he didn’t. He decided that his vision of the road ahead was obscured by imaginative efforts to discover what Linda’s incredible legs really looked like because of a healthy curiosity, a normal glandular flow unrelated to envy or judgement or even lust, although once he got her legs in place it was of course necessary to disclose the rest of her...He shook his head to clear it, his vision of the road obscured but not his vision of the Lasting. You are fulfilled, he chastised, go home and be content with your lot.
I drove home alone in the hours after midnight along nearly deserted streets a number of times that summer, fulfilled in the long run but in the short run feeling somewhat deprived. And each time I’d come through the door of the apartment half expecting to see Liz sitting on the sofa wrapped in her white cotton bathrobe, grading a batch of papers from which she’d suddenly look up, reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, and smile in sublime gladness as the answer to her own deprivation walked through the door. There was no reason why I should expect to see this. I knew perfectly well she would be asleep and that I’d end up in a chair in the front room, beer in hand, browsing through a Playboy or staring at the wall and pondering the story Murch thought I’d been working on for the past three months but which I had not even started. I had not started it because it did not exist. It did not exist because I pondered not a story but the idea of one, and less the idea of one than of writing it. Like all stories I saw myself writing it was undoubtedly a great story, and doomed to remain so.
But I did not spend much time that summer browsing through magazines or pondering stories not merely unborn but unconceived. I acquired instead a new habit which on the surface seemed just slightly less compelling than pictures of naked women passing beneath my eyes like various succulent dishes laid out buffet-style and more or less suited to taste, but which was in the beginning aimed at the same end and was therefore itself a compulsion: I fell into the habit of watching Liz sleep.
On the very night the cheerleader stuck to her scruples and my vision of the road was obscured by healthy curiosity, I came through the front door to be greeted by the pale glow of the desk lamp Liz had left burning. I passed into the darkened back room and knelt down to give the good-night kiss she expected even in sleep. As I did so, she trapped my face between her cheek and shoulder with a brief shrug, her breathing undisturbed. Then I got a beer from the refrigerator, pulled a magazine off the stack, and by the light of the desk lamp sat down to see what the day’s selection was like. After a few minutes it occurred to me that the pictures seemed to complete what my imagination, in the matter of Linda’s legs, only guessed at, but that the pictures made me guess at what could be completed by neither. The more I thought about it the more imaginary the pictures became. They became more imaginary than the imagination, which may not have been able to get Linda’s legs right but at least could finish what it started, even if it finished falsely.
There is nothing in the real world like the real thing. The picture must be finished truly, and if it was true in the long run then it was true in the short – rising from the chair as I thought this, flinging the magazine back on the stack with one hand, clenching the beer in the other – and if that day on which Gerald shrugged and the priest pronounced had finished something, had heralded the beginning of a true end, then the real thing was at that moment asleep in the room behind me.
It was a typically humid summer night and she slept with the sheet thrown back. I sat down to observe her from the dressing table chair, the only light coming from the doorway behind me and the window over the bed through which a streetlight cast the same soft white glow as the desk lamp. She lay on her stomach with one leg drawn up and wearing a brief green and white-striped nightshift that had ridden above her hips. Staring now at the rims of her bottom peeking from beneath the panties, I attempted to invest my gaze with an excess of healthy curiosity, to inspire a little glandular flow. I leaned forward, as though trying to cross some kind of barrier, and there suddenly swam into view Stacy’s blond form shimmering in the moonlight. I could feel her hand on my chest, her breast against my shoulder; all I had to do was roll over and take hold of the real thing. Liz gave a deep sigh and wiped it away. She raised up on her hands slightly and turned toward the wall, now with the other leg drawn up. I continued staring, thinking something might happen now that I couldn’t see her face so well, but this trick of trying to see her anew by not seeing her at all didn’t work anymore and Stacy returned, standing there before me and billowing forth an invisible womb of warmth mere clothing, had she worn any, could not possibly contain, or so it seemed in memory. I reached for the warmth but did not touch. And there she was, asleep in my bed the next morning with one breast exposed and looking like an angel. If things had worked out differently, I might have been asleep beside her. If things had worked out differently, I might never have seen her as she really wasn’t.
I sat back in the chair, still gazing at that spot where thighs and rump join forces, but no longer with such ferocity of purpose, for all attempts to invoke lust invoked anything but Liz. That spot, or any other, had become too much a part of her to be also a part of my imagination. And if I had been close enough to touch I would have discovered only what I already knew – that she was soft there, so soft you indeed had to touch, or even kiss, to know it, and more often of late found myself doing just that, though not in a riot of passion but peace. One recent evening while waiting my turn at the shower, she had emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a towel. She stood before the mirror unpinning her hair, drops of water still sparkling on her shoulders. I sat on the bed behind her, watching. After a moment, the action far ahead of any conscious impulse, I reached out to grab her hips. I turned her around and pulled the towel away. There was no rush to modesty. She just gave me a vaguely puzzled smile as I gradually buried my face in her stomach. She placed her hands on my head and rested them there until the compulsion released its hold, then turned around and continued undoing her hair, as though my need to fix upon her as an object of reverence were perfectly natural and even anticipated.
Thinking back on it later I’d wonder at a thing so capable of possessing and nearly rending the heart that it seemed anything so exquisitely painful must also be unnatural, that if given half a chance love would overwhelm and devour everything in its path, and that anything so voracious must also be guarded against. But reason could not tame its rising within like some hidden second creature with a will and ambition of its own because, for the moment at least, its will was my will; because, with my face nestled in her belly in defiance of all reason, I knew that I had never done anything so reasonable, to the point that even in moments of idle fantasy attempts to use Liz in the same way I’d use pictures in a magazine or the memory of Stacy left me with the ugly sensation that something was being profaned, and hence with the paradox that what was good enough for most other women was not good enough for this certain one.
It had not always been so. I had once been of the mind that what was good enough for one was good for all, and Liz was one among many. She was not, in those days, an object of reverence but she was certainly an object of interest, and so I strove by the light of the streetlamp to see her anew by seeing her in the past when, as I supposed, she really was new. But if she was new my intentions were not. And if she was new she was hardly unique, for in this sense all women are new, but they are all the same character in an old story we never tire of telling.
To get to the end it seemed logical to start at the beginning, back at the time when, if my face was found lodged in Liz’s stomach, it did not hope to stop there. But it was not the object of interest memory first seized nor even the object of reverence which came much later. As I watched from the dressing table chair those late summer nights, it was never the beginning that took hold but rather that moment somewhat beyond, when my eyes first abandoned her panty-clad rear end to travel the length of her extended bare leg and finally come to rest upon the foot dangling over the edge of the bed, upon that moment when I first saw her as a woman.
It was three years ago, and I sat in a chair on the other side of the room slowly getting dressed, looking up every now and then to observe as she lay on the bed bathed in sunlight which poured in a narrow shaft through the dormitory window. She appeared to be sound asleep. We were seven stories up in one of those hermetically sealed tubes that Lefevre so detested and in which the cheerleader was reportedly incarcerated. It was morning, not night, and it was her room, not ours. It was the morning after the thousand and first night of fruitless grabbing and groping, of wrangling and wrestling, of thrust and parry, of wondering wearily why I continued to put up with it.
I finished dressing then sat back in the chair and lit a cigarette, watching at my leisure, striving for a more charitable frame of mind, for this was the last morning I’d wake to gaze upon the girl who wouldn’t because the girls who would were not to be found. This was the morning when patience ran out and pride rediscovered itself. I’d walk out the door and that would be it, the end, though the end of what I wasn’t quite sure. She probably liked me a good deal more than she ought to, and certainly more than I liked her, but I didn’t expect her to come crawling when she realized that fun and games were over. She was at once too shy and too proud, though I considered her sort of pride rather useless – the pride of one who is lost to the world in a morass of childhood scruples, a lost cause. She was going to lead a very dull life. She should at least have been worthy of pity, for it was not beyond imagining that when she awoke and found me gone a keen stab of regret would pierce her heart, subsiding with time’s passage into a dull, permanent ache of longing and wonder at what might have been had she not been so stubborn. Was I the one she would carry forever, the one she might have had if only she had let me have her? No one wished such a fate upon her even if it would serve her right. She was a case for pity, not vindictiveness or anger, both of which were beneath me in any case.
She slept in what I would come to recognize as her favorite position, on her stomach with one leg drawn up and the other stretched out, jet black hair sprayed across her shoulders and the pillow as though blown there by the wind. It was beautiful hair, unfurling in waves to the middle of her back when she brushed it out, and a few stray wisps clung to her cheeks and forehead, to the utterly placid expression worn in sleep and which became her nicely, for I now conceded that perhaps she was, after all, more attractive than I generally gave her credit for and if she lost about fifteen pounds she might just turn into a ripe tomato. There was no harm in admitting this. As a parting gesture it was more than fair and struck just that note of charity for which I had been striving, and charity was far better than pity.
My eyes moved across the sheet covering her torso and down to the lower parts, where the panties would be, hovering there not in a scrutiny of lust but in a sort of wry and preoccupied bewilderment, musing upon the worth and longevity of pride, for this was not the first time I’d kissed her off. Only a month earlier, at the end of another night of frustration, I’d sat her down on the concrete steps in front of the dorm and strode the pavement before her expostulating upon the injustices suffered at her hands: the implicit, unfulfilled promises, the wasted time (especially this, for life was short), and further explaining that there was a name for girls like her, girls who keep you guessing but the guesses don’t lead anywhere, who take you through the motions but the motions don’t describe anything. It was a game of charades and one of us was cheating. And the name for a girl like that is a prick-tease. It was a stupid game and I didn’t want to play anymore.
She sat there with elbows on knees, her chin propped in her hands, and smoking a cigarette. She nodded patiently every now and then, gazing off into the dark distance, seldom meeting my eye. She’d heard it all before under different circumstances, in different forms, a different face behind the voice. She’d once told me about her first date at the university, her introduction to the real world. She’d been set up with some swell-headed, well-heeled fraternity flash who squired her around in his shiny Pontiac Gran Prix. He took her to a football game, dinner at an expensive steak joint, and to a live-band party at the fraternity house. Midway through the party he had taken her upstairs to show her the layout, and in the course of this tour had taken advantage of an empty room to try to put the moves on her. She had remained her characteristically unmoved self. Whereupon the young man promptly escorted her back downstairs and into his shiny car. She wanted to know where they were going. He informed her coldly, but not angrily, that he was taking her home. Playboy magazine had voted this college the number one party school in the nation and number one as well in its sex-on-campus survey and he was glad to have found out where she stood early on because there were still plenty of girls back at the party who read the right sort of literature.
“You and that guy have a lot in common,” I said, recalling the incident now, and over which we’d once shared a good laugh. “You both play stupid games.”
“And you don’t,” she said.
“That’s right. I can’t afford the fancy car or the restaurants or any of that crap. All I’ve got is myself and I’ve always told you right up front what I expect. I don’t have anything to bribe you with.”
“Neither did he,” she said, “unless you think I might be a whore. Maybe you think the price wasn’t right – “
“Oh, hell,” I groaned, and leaned over her like one admonishing a child. “You’re missing the point. You’re a hypocrite. You lead me to believe you’re interested but it turns out you’re not. You will go this far but no further. If you’re not going all the way, why go any distance at all?”
I straightened up to let this sink in. She dragged on the cigarette and stared unflinching into the darkness. I resumed pacing the pavement slowly, letting silence and truth do their work.
“You’re right,” she said, and I stopped, struck not with her admission but with the calm in her voice, a leaden resignation that spoke from weary bones, as though she could see approaching some part of the darkness which had separated from the rest and taken the form of her own certain and inescapable fate. Years later I’d ask about it and she’d remember with cringing eyes that she’d suddenly understood that I was right, that it was her own fault for thinking she could con love, for thinking that by showing a little I’d fall in love with the whole, that falling in love, which had always seemed her natural destiny, like the birthright of any princess, became in that moment something she’d only dreamed once, a tale of long ago and far away told by a deceiving parent to a faithful child. Love, the desire most desired, was not for the mere having.
I shrugged off the black calm in her voice, but still it hung over us like another layer of night.
“Listen,” I said, “I like you well enough, all right? I just can’t see going on with this.” She nodded again, the movement an eerie mixture of patience and submission. “I don’t want to be enemies. When we bump into each other, let’s try and still be friends. Okay?”
“That’s all we’ve ever done anyway,” she murmured.
To my puzzled silence she said, “Bump into each other.” Bitterness briefly twisted her mouth, then disappeared.
The endless rock concerts on campus, the night-haunts of our friends, the parties, these were the places we met, but then the practice of dating, like chivalry and vows of eternal fidelity, was in general decline everywhere. The world was in a convulsion against the verities, and that was fine with me. The reality would now precede the formality, and on this point, as on a matter of principle, dating seemed like nothing so much as a bargaining chip, and by her own account she was invulnerable to a bribe.
“Whatever,” I said, and with a measured reluctance that gave her time for a change of heart, turned and walked away, leaving her alone to the darkness.
But if her heart was subject to change, it was less perceptibly so than someone else’s pride, which wasn’t worth the mortal frame on which it hung, for when, not many nights later, we met again – engaged more by duty than adventure, a sort of grim determination governing our journey like two tight-lipped figures half frozen in awe and boredom at their enslavement to a circular destiny – we walked once more down the hall to my room, and the week after rode the elevator to hers where, in the morning light, I watched her from the chair and knew that this time, for the last time, pride would stick. And as my eyes left the sheet and traveled the length of her extended bare leg with the keen but unhurried attentiveness I generally brought to the female presence, as though it posed an annoying, but not pressing, problem, I tried to remember the first time we’d met, thinking this was something I ought to be able to do. Her face gradually emerged from a room filled with smoke and loud music and lounging, bombed-out companions, a popular sort of party in those days, a sea of lethargy. But which room, or where, or whose party, escaped me. And just as I thought Who cares? – just as I thought it’s not as though this is the end of something, it’s not as though you owe her the damned memory, at that moment my gaze finished its trip down the leg and came to rest upon the foot dangling over the edge of the bed. And suddenly she was different. For the briefest instant I saw only that the remarkable grace in the lines and curves of the female form were to be found even here, where something of childhood’s softness was retained, as it was not in men, alongside the fullness of womanhood. And the fear that there beat within me the heart of a fetishist might indeed have arisen without surprise, without, in fact, going far out of character, if only the fetishist had ever conceived a foot as something apart from his hunger. But what I saw was hers and had nothing to do with me, as though for once my eye was permitted to leave what it saw well enough alone, to leave it in peace, to just let it be, and it seemed a good thing. She was in the instant free from my gaze, though I had never looked more closely. My glance shot up to her face, to the placid, untroubled brow, then back down again along the leg, taking in the whole of her to make certain it was still the same girl, and certain as well that I had seen in the brow a fulfillment of which the foot was only a promise, and at first thought it something never seen or understood before – but as the instant waned, more like something seen once long ago, when the world was still new, and then forgotten. And like the world seen from childhood she was different now because she was new again, or rather new for the first time – the same girl who could never be the same.
Where the moment came from or how it managed to invade the fortress walls and make its appearance in a mind wholly undisposed, not so much against my will as in spite of it, was not mine for the knowing. At the time I scarcely admitted the appearance, let alone that it was an invasion. At the time, as was my talent, I merely dismissed it. I got up and went into the bathroom to wash up. When I came out she was sitting in a chair at the kitchen table, Indian-style, glasses perched on the end of her nose and a textbook open in her lap. She had donned an over-sized T-shirt with a picture of Mickey Mouse on the front that more or less protected her modesty.
It was time, but there would be no speeches like before, no more ‘let’s still be friends’, because I didn’t care if we were friends or not. This time the door would click shut behind me with a gentle and dreadful permanence that rendered the blow swift, merciful, and straight to the heart.
She looked up with a smile and nodded. “Test on Monday.”
I stood there a moment nodding back at her, then opened the door and paused on the threshold. “Well, I’ve got to go to work.”
She smiled some more, waiting for me to say my piece and leave, but with an odd air of cheerful and patient expectation, as though the separation would be only temporary. The morning after wasn’t usually such a convivial occasion. Usually, in fact, it was damn awkward, because so poorly connected with the night before. But I said my piece and when I did it came out sounding crazy. It sounded like someone else speaking through me, the words being formed and uttered but by a voice distant and unrecognizable, the bond between tongue and will severed:
“Listen, maybe I’ll come up and – uh – ” fighting for control, finishing nevertheless in its absence – “maybe pay you a visit sometime.”
The smile brightened visibly, a sudden startled, almost joyful lifting of the eyebrows and then I was in the elevator on the way down, my face hot with shame and confusion and outrage at that one blinding moment when a sensation approaching guilt had raced through me, when I stood in the doorway and saw what a small thing it was to have never entered this room but for the pleasure of slipping out the next morning like someone with something to hide, a coward who will not admit his part in the deed, or like a salesman, money in hand, who wants to be out of sight when the piece of junk breaks down. To hell with it, to hell with pride and principle and all the other words you don’t know the meaning of, realizing then with a rush of relief that I had made no promises. Maybe I would come and visit. Maybe not. Maybe was a good word. I was forever indebted to it. Thank God for maybe.
At the time I would not admit the invasion, let alone that the invasion was complete, but that is what I understood. At the time I would not admit that the keen attentiveness I brought to the female presence was nothing more than a distracted rumination I brought to everyone, myself included, a slovenly, clouded, and sleepy curiosity brought to the whole world, but that is what I understood. That she is a woman was not thought or said, but it was understood. I did not admit, in short, that I was in love with her, but that is what I was.
Or at least that’s how it looked those dark summer hours after midnight a few years later when, seated on the dressing table chair in a room truly our own, I watched her sleep by the light of the streetlamp and tried seeing her anew by seeing her in the past. When, after a time on the town with Warren and Lefevre, my imagination working with feverish envy, I’d lose myself in Liz, in the graceful foot, the placid brow, wondering what I had seen there, trying to recapture that moment that broke upon the mind like an instant of blinding sunlight through an even more blinding fog, trying so that I could also recapture the others that came in its wake, looking for the pattern, the trail, the faint footsteps in memory’s sand worn smooth by the incessant outwash of time.
A mere two weeks later she had downed an extra beer and followed me down the hall to the room in the old wooden roachtrap with a view of a gas station’s backside, a view she had found, along with a number of other things, very funny. It was also the night she lost her virginity, and I had not known why nor had I spent much time trying to figure it out. Having damned pride and principle I took each day as it came and this was just another. But from the vantage point of those compulsive summer nights, from my perch on the dressing table chair, an answer began to suggest itself, and the answer was that she had surrendered to me because she had first surrendered to something else, something like despair. Two weeks had passed since dropping the hint that I might come and pay her a visit, a visit never made because never a promise, enough time for her to decide that every word proceeding from my mouth held no more substance than vaporous breath in a cold wind. And more than two weeks had passed since the time she sat on the concrete steps in front of her dormitory staring patiently into the darkness and the depthless shapes of university monoliths hulked against the night sky like massive mausoleums where lay interred her frivolous dreams of love, the time I offered friendship with one hand and disavowed it with the other. I remembered that time now and wondered if – knew that it was – I who had nearly killed the dream.
And I remembered the morning after the night of surrender when I suggested, in another fit of abandon, in the grip of that alien force speaking through me, that next time she was in the neighborhood she might drop in for a visit, hoping at once she would take the invitation as seriously as I had uttered it, which was not at all. She was in the neighborhood next morning. I opened to the knock on the door and found her standing there in jeans and a burgundy sweater-vest over a long sleeved blue shirt, wavy black hair ranging free. It was late September, the weather was beginning to cool, and there was coffee on the hot plate. She looked rather pretty I had to admit, but I was on my way out, I really was, had to meet someone and no way out of it and then I had to be at work by noon but she could stop by around eight that night if she liked when my shift was over. I left her standing downstairs beside her bicycle, nodding and saying yes she understood and yes she might stop by which, of course, she never did.
Later, in a still, unguarded moment, when the threat of an actual visit had passed, her face came back to me and I saw the disappointment in her brown eyes overwhelming the nod of understanding. Well, I told her to drop in if she was in the neighborhood. Since she was in the neighborhood she must have had business elsewhere. If she had business elsewhere she could not have been taken out of her way. I actually managed to find satisfaction in this, not wondering why I should need satisfying at all. Still, she had come to see me, business or no business, and the realization was not as unpleasant as it should have been. It did not fill me with foreboding, dread, or even discomfort. I wasn’t quite sure what it filled me with and knew instinctively not to dwell on it.
One morning in early November I woke to find a white envelope beneath my door. Inside was a birthday card that said: “Here’s hoping that much happiness will surely come your way, here’s wishing you the very best on this your special day.” It was signed, ‘Liz.’ It was something I wouldn’t send to someone I despised. It was something she could have decided on only after much agonizing. The funny card wouldn’t say what she wanted. The serious card, the one with the bouquet of roses on the front, would have said too much. It had taken great care and trepidation to settle on the depths of mediocrity. God, how I hated birthdays. I hated birthdays because I hated gifts. I hated gifts because they made you indebted, and I hated being a debtor more than anything.
The problem was that this was no ordinary gift. The problem was I couldn’t remember having told her my birthdate. For this gift to have been delivered required some measure of diligence. Why, I wondered, had she bothered? And why me? Why couldn’t she find someone else’s heart to warm, someone else’s goddamnn special day to remember? And it was then that something inside must have given way, some weak stone in the larger structure, a slippage in the ancient and revered foundation, for I discovered that I simply had not the energy to hate her for it. She had not, strictly speaking, remembered anything. She had taken the trouble to find out. More than a remembrance it was, like the knock on the door, for me, and hence truly a gift and she could not be hated for it. Which I probably did not think at the time so much as feel, but over the comfortable distance of the years I thought Yeah, the old hooks were in, you were done for, a goner already and didn’t even know it, not from that moment but one two months before when you lingered on her sleeping form longer than you should have, when you saw something in the graceful foot and placid brow that let her outside your head, and once she stood alone and breathing you were done for.
That night I was in a phone booth dialing Liz’s number, acquired from the campus operator, calling to thank her for the card. She said I was most welcome. There was silence. It was nice, I said, to be remembered. Yes, she agreed, it was. Acutely aware that the burden was upon me to keep this thing going, I informed her that after work Friday I would probably go out for a few beers. I did not exactly ask or invite as apprise her of the possibility that we might bump into each other. Yes, she agreed, that was certainly possible. Exactly where, and at what time, might this possibly happen?
I did not know that I was done for but, on the other hand, neither was I bereft of all power of foresight. I saw now how she was working it. She had made me feel that something was owed her and I had given it. There was something about women that made you feel that way. There was something about her and her alone that had caused me over the past few months to say things not intended, but the trait was common to her kind, inborn. She probably couldn’t help it. She would not, of course, be hated for it, but she must be stopped. Because the next time I called it would be to invite her, and the time after that I’d actually be pulling up in front of her dormitory in my 1961 Chevy Bel Air, five of six cylinders firing and two of three gears in perfect working order. She’d been in it before. I’d taken her home but never out. Before you knew it we’d be seeing each other on weeknights as well as weekends and by then events would be out of control, and that could not happen unless I was out of control, unless I began to imagine that I was infatuated with her. At work I’d pump eight gallons of gas into the car of a customer who’d ordered only five, the difference coming out of my pocket. At home before the typewriter the words would not issue from a mind that never ceased its wandering, a mind suffused with a strange and dazzling new warmth. I’d been there before, and a mind in love is a mind asleep. The demands of art could not abide it. Principle could not swallow that much pride. The card was cute but I could see how she was working it and she had to be stopped.
So on Thursday, the night before our scheduled non-date, at midnight to be exact – an hour before the dormitory doors were locked to outsiders – I rode the elevator to her floor with the intention of performing the least that honesty would stand for, the duty to make clear the true nature of our...acquaintance. We should continue being friends, I would tell her. We enjoyed each other’s company. In fact, it was not going too far to say that I’d grown quite fond of her (this last would soften the blow). I feared, however, that her own intentions might have gone beyond the present state of affairs, that she held hope for a future I simply could not give her. If she were unable to accept a friendship that did not amount to an exclusive claim, I would of course understand and gracefully withdraw. The pain spared would be mine as well as hers.
I knocked on the door, much too gratified that my thoughts proceeded in an orderly fashion to heed the small, insistent voice trying to tell me it had heard all this before. She stood there in barefeet and white bathrobe, the long hair on top of her head in bobby pins, sleepy eyes struggling in childlike wonder with the surprise of my visit.
“You should ask who it is before you open up,” I said.
“Lewis.” Her voice was husky with sleep. “What are you doing here? Is something wrong?”
“I was in the neighborhood. Thought I’d drop by.”
“Oh,” she said. We still faced each other across the threshold.
“Actually I need to talk to you.”
She yawned and rubbed her eyes, then turned and beckoned me to follow with a wave of her hand. In the bedroom she sat on the bed with her hands in her lap and opened her eyes wide several times in an effort to come awake. A dim light came through the open door from the kitchen. I sat beside her and waited for the struggle to end and the tired eyes to settle in my direction.
“Will you be going home for Thanksgiving?”
She looked at me somewhat askance. “No.”
“Yeah,” I said, “too far away and not enough time.”
“Christmas, though. You’ll have a good three weeks or more.”
She shook her head and sighed. “Lewis, it’s very late. Did you come up here to talk about Christmas?” The eyes were skeptical now, almost hard, eyes that knew no good ever came of surprise visits, or anything I’d ever said, in the dead of night.
“Uh, no, not exactly. I wanted to thank you for the card – ”
“You already did.”
“ – again,” I finished. “It was nice. Really was.” I paused and looked around the room as though I hadn’t been there a few times before. “And we’ve had some pretty good times together, haven’t we? I mean for a couple of people who don’t have any kind of, uh, you know, a firm sort of thing, I mean we ought to know each other pretty well by now.”
If she didn’t know what I was driving at I couldn’t blame her, but the hardness in her eyes was gone. In fact they had softened considerably, as though caught up in a wistful memory.
“Yes,” she murmured, “we ought to.”
“I mean we ought to be pretty good friends by now. That’s what we ought to be even if we aren’t,” and for some reason this made me laugh. I looked for a smile but now the softness disappeared as well, replaced by an odd and discomfiting patience I’d seen somewhere before. This had to be gotten over with. I owed it to her to get to the point, although the point was no longer as clear as in the elevator on the way up. The necessity of forcing the issue, of resolving a dilemma that did not formally exist, was no longer very clear at all.
“That’s what I want us to be,” I said. “Friends, I mean. Do you understand? Have I made much sense?”
She nodded slowly within the womb of that terrible patience I recognized but did not understand, staring not into my eyes but at a point somewhere to the side where she seemed to behold, as on that night in front of her dormitory, some mesmerizing figure of darkness who silently explained it all.
“Listen,” I said, intending now a swift conclusion, “I’ve grown very fond of you. It’s just that – ”
Her eyes shifted quickly to my own, full of an intense, befuddled curiosity, her head cocked to one side as though unsure she’d heard me right. I groped for the next line. The fondness had gotten out, but what came next? A carefully chosen word, that, fond. As carefully chosen as a certain birthday card I’d received not too long ago. It straddled a very narrow fence. It was a word that strove for balance, restraint, and the virtue of moderation. Hence it was vague. It desired control, not rash judgement, neither adventure nor precipitous leaps into the unknown. It was, in short, a word with no heart but it was the word I wanted.
“What I’m trying to say – ”
“I know,” she said, and her arms were suddenly around my neck. With a swift, sure movement she leaned forward and hung there, soundless but for her breath in my ear.
I could not simply disengage, just as I could not simply get to the point. Too taken aback to say or do anything, my face flushed hot with embarrassment and every fiber of my body poised to flee, I could not unwind the arms and push her away. I had been in them too many times before. This was something different.
“Liz,” I began again, but like everything else it came out wrong – a whispered swoon, not a gentle remonstrance.
My arms rose to lift her own from my neck but, lacking courage, hesitated at her sides where my hands were surprised to feel her ribs so cleanly beneath the robe. I lingered there to rock quietly in the rise and fall of her breathing, the fragile grip of its secret rhythm, and that’s when the weakness returned.
“Liz. You don’t understand.”
“Just be quiet a minute,” she whispered. “Then you can go.”
There came again that sense of slippage in the aged and beloved foundation. Even as I saw that she understood, that she held on now for the sake of a memory, there came again that sense, the ache, of the heart giving ground and the ground giving way and I knew my speech would never see completion, for in her arms the war was over. All the things that must be said would hardly be granted the dignity of remembering, for in her arms was rest and I could not talk my way out of it. Slowly, imprisoned by chains of carefully chosen words, my arms rose up to complete the circle. Eyes closed to the semi-darkness and the last dark obstruction of the past, the merciful command to lay down my arms was obeyed – even as they tightened to embrace her.
It was not the imagined ending but it was the best I could manage, and perhaps even the real and proper one. Later, lying in my own bed unable to sleep, exhilarated and exhausted as by an ordeal, I had not yet put a name to what happened. The exhilaration I recognized, down in that part of me that is loath to recognize anything, as joy. But it was a symptom, not the cause, nor the thing itself. When sleep came it was fitful, as if that deep down reluctant part of me still struggled for, or fought against, the right word to describe what had happened to it, to finally call the thing by its right name. By morning I was in the phone booth once again, this time calling south to the house on the lake.
“Mom. Guess what.”
“Go on. Guess.”
“I don’t like surprises, Lewis.”
“Go on. It’s good news.”
“Lewis, this is your mother. Why do you insist on tormenting – ”
“I think I’m in love,” and recognized at once the right name, baffled that it had to be said before it could be fully seen. From the other end came a sigh of relief, or disbelief, or both.
“So,” she remarked, “you’ve decided to do something normal for a change.”
It was true enough I felt pretty damn good, and on those summer nights three years later when I traced it to its origin, the moment that started it all when I looked at her foot and found a woman, I wondered if that was normal, too. But if it wasn’t normal it was certainly real, saving me time and again from the real world and maintaining incorrupt, in deed if not in thought, the answer I’d given Father Moran. For out in the night with Warren and Lefevre the moment came back to me and back again, because the night can seem more real than the real world, because that’s where the girls are, and where they touch you with a certain casual intimacy, the way the cheerleader placed her hand on Lefevre’s arm and asked him to call, her eyes occupying the center of something around which her words merely circled; because that’s where the Staceys are and where they walk into a room without any clothes and take a bath in the moonlight while your eyes feast and wonder how the dust of your promises can ever hold ground in the face of this ceaseless wind.