The card was postmarked Kanab, Utah, and it said he was coming today, that he'd call, that he needed to see me. All morning, between things, I've been looking for it, drifting through rooms with my eyes on stacks of papers, wastebaskets, piles of laundry, wondering how on earth I could have mislaid something so important. At one point, in the baby's room, I said aloud, "Now what could I have done with it?" My voice was lifted, girlish. I wasn't loud, so the baby didn't wake. She stirred, brought her feet up to meet her velvety hands, then sighed. Jane, my eight-year-old, was downstairs with the TV on, so I know she didn't hear. Earlier, though, she had remarked upon my short fuse, advising therapy once again, which they seem to be teaching children about in the third grade now. Isaac, fourteen, is at baseball practice. As far as he's concerned, I don't have an awareness of men, have no connection to or need for them, and if he even suspected I was crazed because I couldn't find a postcard written to me by a man who happens to be his father but has made no attempt to see him in fourteen years, he'd never stop gagging.
The man's name is Fowler. At the time of my knowing him I was a wreck, but I could have stayed that way and not noticed. We made a truckload of plans, the old story, and he went on to fulfill them without me. We had a son with whom he fell in love but to whom he had the same trouble committing himself. I was eighteen when he left, but thanks to Isaac and my mother, I didn't have time to bottom out. The three of us lived in the apartment where I grew up, while I earned the credits for an equivalency diploma and eventually a B.A. from Hunter. My father, who had gotten his own place downtown while I was still in grade school, gave us money and had us to lunch on Saturdays. He still does the lunch thing when we can coordinate schedules. But I know that my mother goes every Saturday. They are devoted grandparents, and they're devoted to each other. They just don't live in the same house. From them I have learned: that living arrangements can be just that: living arrangements.
For fourteen years I've had no direct news of Fowler. I've seen his name listed as visiting lecturer for some of New York's film series. I know when a film of his is playing or up for an award. I know he's moved out of the antisocial underground commentary he was first famous for into grander issues of progressive social import. I suspect him of having lost his humor, which seems just desserts for a man who once considered the world his playground.
After my current boss, Gillette, rescued me from certain doom as a temp, I met Simon playing tennis in Central Park. He was lithe, older, keen on just about anything. Gillette said he had "Just Divorced" stamped all over him, but I didn't care. We got married at the boat pond eight months after we met, a district judge officiating at what my mother still refers to as "that no-frills affair." It was the best party I ever attended. We have our three extraordinary children (Isaac knows Simon isn't his father, but he'll take no part in a discussion about his real father), our debts, and our loud, uproarious life. Admitted: it is inconceivable that a postcard from Fowler should land anywhere but on the cutting room floor. But I stopped breathing for a minute when it came. I stopped the million things I do per hour. We have unfinished business.
I began an involved primping session: nail care, a facial over the spaghetti pot, for which Jane has still not forgiven me, and now, a bubble bath. Attending to body matters mortifies me, as I've become aware of serious changes. My backside, for instance, used to be a rather firm and perky area. Now it responds only to food and gravity. My arms hang. Bubbles are nice because it's possible to reinvent a younger body, the one Fowler knew, the one I was so eager to show him when I was fifteen. Of course it would be unconscionable for me to be making an effort like this if it was intended to encourage a tryst. But that isn't my purpose. I certainly don't mind the idea of his wanting to see me, but I mean to be even more self-serving here. I will take great delight in any discomfort I can cause him after these fourteen years of raising a child who may never live down his father's deficiency. Fowler once told me, during a lecturing junket, that I'd be the one to leave him. We were at the Wursthaus in Cambridge after one of his Eastern Seaboard screenings. (We went up the coast, from Maryland to Maine, showing his first film at colleges, one that I'd helped him edit.) I had four-week-old Isaac in the Snugli. Fowler looked wan, although the film, about wealthy women living in their cars, had been well received. He said, "You'll leave me. Just wait." Stupidly, I waited.
All sorts of excuses were given when he cut out: I was bound to Isaac now, I'd have to return to school, his career as a filmmaker was being stifled by the academic life, we were too much with each other and not enough out in the world that would feed our genii. I could have better managed the admission that he was bored.
I hug my steaming knees, then stretch. It is still morning, minutes shy of noon. A Saturday. Sunlight refracts in the water where the bubbles have vanished. I am a housewife. I live an hour outside of Manhattan, and I have work I can do at home and be paid for. My husband has never so much as uttered a cruel word to me, he is a fine father, and any bill I can't manage he takes on even if it means a third job. He isn't the humorless dolt I once imagined I'd end up with if I couldn't have Fowler.
"Mom, I have to go!" Jane bellows from the living room. Our downstairs toilet is broken. I told Simon I'd get it taken care of today.
I hurry, creating a tidal wave of bathwater. The cordless rings atop the hamper. I freeze, knee-deep in suds, my skin goosebumpy. My throat is full. I clear, answer, wait.
"Well." The twang, earned in Southern roots and upbringing. Sun in the voice. "You've got a cold."
"It is you, isn't it?"
He laughs. "Meet me. I'm standing on Fifth Avenue, across from the Sherry Netherland. Can you get here?"
I hear Jane's heavy tread, her whining diphthong. "Mo-om." I consider his invitation, pull at the plug chain with my toes. The drain sucks the water out in greedy, loud gulps, "In an hour," I say. I'll take the girls to Kirsten's. She's home Saturdays with her two. Jane loves it there because of Adrienne, eleven, the local expert on AIDS.
"I'll have one drink while I wait," he says. "I'll calm down. This city gets to me. Fabulous." He clicks off.
Still holding the phone, I let Jane in.
"A towel would do wonders," she says. "And try not to drop the phone. You'll be a crispy critter."
She beams at this. I pull my blue wrapper around me.
"Okay, Mom," I tell her. My daughter, the forty-year-old. She knows more now than I'll ever know.
"Mom, are you losing weight?"
Jane asks me this from time to time because she knows it makes me feel good because I am not losing weight. I haven't gained, but I haven't overthrown a few pounds left me from having Daisy, my glorious ten-pounder. Some days it gets to me, although today isn't one of them.
She sits down. Peeing is not a private event for the girls in this family. Simon and Isaac close the door, but we can always hear. "Who was that anyway?"
"A friend. I'm taking you over to Kirsten's for the afternoon."
"But Dad said he'd take us to the pool." Her mouth does the thing all her friends' mouths do to display disgust, upper lip raised on one side, and her eyes roll.
"Kirsten has a pool."
"It's above ground!"
I'm about to call up my don't-give-me-that-yuppie-private-school-me-generation-backtalk speech when I catch myself. In light of the criminal I've decided to have lunch with, I let her have her protest.
"Put your bathing suit in a bag."
"Fine," she says, huffing, and flushes.
I think about underwear for the first time in a while, choosing a Victoria's Secret print set. Over this, jeans and a black silk blouse, all of it reminiscent of younger days when Fowler and I went to downtown bars to meet his friends. Jane comes in with her neon beach bag and scowls. "Mom, are you going to a concert?"
"Yes. The Stones are playing Central Park."
"Very funny, Mom. Daisy's up, you know." There are so many ways in which I am a bad mother today. I can't get past Jane with a thing.
I can hear Daisy, my serene child, cooing and laughing in the little room next to mine. With her I felt I'd finally perfected baby-making: she slept through at three months, she nursed for twelve, she's been sick three times in eighteen months, and she hasn't lost her fat yet. I'm still in love the way I was when they were rolling her in to me at the hospital in her plastic tray. Of course I adore my older ones, but Daisy lets me breathe. Isaac is so angry, so protective of all of us, so ready for the shadow that is his absent father to come in and ruin things, that he never enjoys anything except, occasionally, baseball practice. Jane runs our home. Daisy doesn't seem to need me at all, and so I need her every minute.
"Can I take her out of her crib?" Jane asks, sure of my answer.
"Yes. Put her suit in too. I'll get some crackers and juice."
We travel well, as a family. We're usually prepared with snacks and tapes for the car and car games that can drag on for hours. The children have always liked going places, even if it's two minutes to Kirsten's or six hours to see friends in Vermont. In the front seat Jane empties the glove compartment in search of the 10,000 Maniacs tape, which I know Isaac took to listen to in the Mustard Bomb, our expiring second car meant for local outings.
"Isaac's such a schmuck," she says.
"Jane, must you?" I plead. It's not entirely her fault she has such a vocabulary. Both brother and father have been known to cast such an aspersion on whomever from time to time.
"He takes everything." She slams the compartment and crosses her arms.
"Aouff," Daisy keeps saying, which I take as an indication, that I should hand her something to ear.
"When are you going to be home?" Jane whines. "I want to go out and get my own Maniacs tape."
"This afternoon," I promise. "We'll go to Sam Goody and get you one, and maybe something for Daisy to listen to."
I can't bear to see my kids unhappy, and I often promise them things we can ill afford. The two older ones are aware of this defect in my parenting, but it isn't often that they try for an upper hand. I don't know how we've done it, but we've gotten them to believe in limits.
Kirsten's on her knees in front of the peonies, pruning.
"Can I dump them?" I call from the car.
She stands up, her gardening clothes wrinkly and smeared here and there with topsoil, her highlit hair falling out of its back clip. "Do they have suits?"
"Natch." We smile at each other, squinting. Kirsten is the only friend I have to whom I can safely say "natch," the only one who knows this is a leftover word and that I'm not from somewhere people would generally die to be from. I do have some names in my ancestry, but if there was ever any money it's been spent.
Jane hands me her beach bag and streaks into the house to find Adrienne. I gather Daisy from her car seat, let her straddle my waist and take up fistfuls of my hair.
"Monkey!" Kirsten says to her, trying to ease the transition, failing, as Daisy starts to howl because she knows she's about to be mommyless.
"She'll eat everything you have," I say. "You're a better friend than I am."
"I'll get you back," Kirsten counters. "Ted's away all of next week. If you think I'm staying here alone, you're wrong. There was another 'blackout' yesterday."
She refers to a new gang agenda, about which we've been warned by the papers, talk radio, and local news stations. It involves too much horror to describe in rational terms, but it has the suburban folk as wide-eyed as the city folk."I'll call you. I left Simon a note. I'm going into the city for lunch, and he'll probably pick them up before I get home."
I squeeze Daisy, try to urge the last sob out. "Love you, muffin," I whisper. I give her to Kirsten, and then I turn, unable to watch her face registering the tragedy of my leaving. Not until I get on the parkway do I dare think of anything but her and how I should never let her out of my sight. Not until I'm safely through the toll do I let go enough to enjoy being sleek, or as sleek as I get under the circumstances, in my fleur de lis lingerie, in my worn jeans and platform sandals. I am thirty-one years old. At this moment I might look assured, I might look ridiculous, but I know one thing: this visit with Fowler is an act of will on my part. I'm driving south to where Fowler is. No music. No news. Just the brain thudding with heart's messages, telling me to claim from him what he owes Isaac, what he owes me.
My friend Pam told someone about the pregnancy a few days before our unmodel behavior, mine and Fowler's, was made public by Hastings Prep administrators. I remember a very early morning, how I sensed that other people knew, students, some teachers, even a woman on the kitchen staff who looked at my face probingly when she handed me my second plate of hash browns. Fowler and I had driven over the Massachusetts state line into New York where, he suggested, we could talk about the predicament more rationally, without distraction. He had tried to coerce me into an abortion. Sometimes I think on that effort as generous of him, and indicative of his knowing that he'd never follow through on fatherhood. At the time it struck me as outrageously selfish. I refused. I thought that a baby couldn't be a happier idea, especially if it were Fowler's. I remember shouting at him, invoking Thoreau, twisting his words to make him sound like a hypocrite. He did nothing. He hung on the steering wheel, silent.
When we got back to campus, it was dawn. A green smell emanated from the leaves where the water hung, restive and full, before the April wind pulled it to the ground. The combination of that fresh smell and the one of Fowler's poncho, medicinal, having been packed away in a box with camphor balls for a season, is one I can still recall. I was enshrouded, hidden, under the poncho, and he guided me to the dorm. I imagined witnesses in the landscape, in windows, door frames, peering out from behind hedges. I knew Pam had told someone. My idyllic boarding school world, complete with secret older lover, had changed. It had become a place in which something I had thought could happen only to the lazy, husky-voiced girls I envied, girls like Pam, had happened to me.
"Like something out of a movie," my mother said after she received the letter from the headmaster announcing the "unfortunate -- for all concerned -- circumstance." Every family of every Hastings student, past and present, barring only the deceased graduates, received a copy of this letter detailing the reasons for Fowler's being fired and my expulsion, "sadly, two months prior to graduation." My mother thought the public announcement galling, and she only questioned me one time about why I'd chosen not to have an abortion. She was with me the day Isaac was born. She wept tears of joy on seeing him in my arms. After Fowler left and I went to live with her, she communicated her trouble with the situation only through an earlier bedtime, one she's still observing. "He's a divine boy," she often says, shrugging, which I take to mean that she can't imagine how he could have had such a father, and perhaps that she could have seen Fowler coming for a million miles, so why hadn't I?
My father, circumspect to the last, said the school authorities wouldn't have done anything like this unless they'd decided it was absolutely necessary. He was at a philosophers' conference in Chicago when Isaac was born, but he too wept when they met. Neither of my parents, despite their bohemianism, was able to understand how anyone could up and leave a child of his own in the manner that Fowler did.
After all this time he couldn't have sounded more like himself: charged, definite. I can't imagine what he knows of me now, other than my address and phone number. I don't even know how he got those. We were never married, so when he left I had nothing on him, couldn't sue for divorce or freeze his assets or take out judgments so someone could collar him in an airport. And I'm not sure I'd have done all that anyway. It would have made the fact of his leaving even uglier, more unspeakable. At the time I had Isaac, I was taken in a way I never anticipated, and it softened the blow. Now that I lead the kind of life Fowler and I agreed we'd never live because it would deaden the sensibilities we made such careers of having, I can say I don't hate him. I could not pity him, but I don't hate him. I didn't want it, the misadventure, the friends in vogue, the faux artistes or the real ones, all in black leather, their hair spoiled with dye, sculpted, or simply shaved off.
"Fucking lost souls," I say aloud, in the vernacular of that other time. I mean to include myself. It's what we were. Lost and trying to capitalize on that fact. So sure of ourselves in a nihilistic way. So arrogant.
"What do you need me for?" I remember asking him shortly before Isaac was born. We'd established ourselves in a cavernous room above a Korean market in the East Village. "You'd have done this anyway. You'd be here anyway."
"Oh, Leigh," he said. "Let's not do 'need' tonight. 'Need' is so schmaltzy. Need'll kill you. You don't want to be needed, for God's sake."
Although stung, I understood what he meant. But I had no choice at that point, with a baby coming. I was going to be needed, whether I liked it or not.
But for a long time I did capitalize on the double vision. On the one hand, I was needed (by Isaac), stable (in my goals, in staying in New York where my parents were). On the other, I was an unwed mother with atheistic, separated parents. I was bored unless something outrageous was going on. I liked it, when I met Simon's father, that he'd spent nights in white-collar prison for extortion. I liked it that his various wives had undone themselves in one way or another (plastic surgery, dangerous dieting, excommunication from their children with previous husbands) in order to accommodate him, only to lose him. I just liked the possibility of him, the alternative he offered as a human being. The message that just beyond where we're looking, something wild is preparing to enter and shake us up, make us account for what we're doing, still moves me. I was, in many ways, reminded of Fowler when I met him, the first time, on Fire Island. He was coming off the tennis court, perspiring, bronzed beyond decency. "Tatskela!" he shouted when he saw me, and I felt instantly adored. For a second I could see why women dropped their lives for him.
He came to our wedding in a leather tux, his wife of the minute dressed as a cabaret performer.
"Could you believe?" Simon said, when we got to the hotel. "A gangster and his moll."
I told him I sort of liked their effrontery, their proud transience. "What does it matter anyway?" I hooted. "That's the way he is! He'll always have one foot in the door, one out."
Simon stood there, his arms long, helpless against me and his father.
"You two will get along very well, in that case. You both trade on that."
He is a kind and careful man, and he doesn't believe in being in two places at once. The fact that I do, that I can't help this, is my biggest failing.
"I won't be pigeonholed," I added, with the seriousness he required at the time. "You are what you are."
I cross to the East Side at 57th Street and take a chance on a parking garage off Fifth Avenue. Simon and I don't go in for this kind of expedience when we come into Manhattan; we plan parking ahead of time. But a person on a mission such as mine shouldn't get bogged down in too much banality.
The parking attendant sneers at our downscale wagon. He points out a dent and some scratches on the passenger side to make sure I am aware of their previous incurrence.
"Don't worry," I say. "I'm not going to sue you."
He smiles stingily. I have always wanted to say that to someone. Now I have.
I walk over to Fifth and toward the hotel. It is hard to imagine that there are others with similar stories going to meet prior loves to try to make sense of the damage, but there must be. You hear it all the time on the news, estranged fathers and children and the mothers of those children convening, come what will. Most of the stories I hear are gory, occurring in projects and outside city schools, places where gunfire is the rule rather than the exception.
I stop on 60th Street, sickened, as I'd always predicted I would be if the chance to see Fowler again, to present him with the fact of his son's existence and mine, ever arose. I have neglected to mention shame. Shame, as I know it, is a chameleon. It appears in your children's faces when what you have done mortifies them. It reaches you in snippets of others' conversations, hospital staff, your parents' friends, your new husband's business associates. It is inescapable, and it doesn't transmogrify or dissipate the way that anger and love do. I clutch my bag and step out into the street. I am ashamed, not for what I'm about to do, but for what I've done. My son's fierce granite eyes bore into me from everywhere.
I was at Hastings a whole year before I even connected Fowler's face with his name. Pam and I were dancing in our room in ski boots. He came roaring in, bellowing about noise and unearned senses of entitlement. He'd been trying to hold an advisee meeting in the common room below ours, could we possibly save it for the slopes?
"I don't ski," I told him.
"That's of no consequence," he said.
Pam and I happened to be drunk, and Fowler's rage thrilled and amused us. He was insufferably handsome, with finger-combed streaky blond hair and dark eyes, a combination that continues to be compelling for any girl who lays eyes on Isaac. I expected sarcasm and meanness from a guy like Fowler, but I was taken in by something else: a business, a rush to be done with this interview so he could get to the next thing, a total denial of weariness. An energy. He had energy, what were the senior boys saying that year, out the wazoo. You couldn't keep up with him. Yes, he was handsome. Yes, purported to be brilliant. But he didn't have time to devote to his appearance or his brilliance. He had things to do, people to advise, places to go. You could hop aboard, see if you could stomach the ride, or just sit back and watch his dust.
"I'll see you two Monday morning at seven-thirty in the Hall of Languages. You can tell me and the acting disciplinary synod what you've been drinking that makes you think you can ski indoors."
He picked up a glass that said New York Rangers. (Pam had a car; we were forever filling up the tank for our AWOL runs to the liquor store and being awarded free glasses featuring sports teams we had no interest in.) He sniffed. "Forget rum. It ruins the taste of the Coke."
He was gone. Some people just leave. Fowler was able to vanish. Extreme, he was. A big deal. He made me tired, and he hadn't been in our room but four minutes.
"What was that," I said to Pam, who'd begun her unbuckling.
"Fuck him," Pam said. "Man's got the biggest chip on his shoulder since Richard the Third."
I laughed and fell back on my messy bed. But I thought Pam was wrong. There was no chip. Fowler didn't give damn about who had money and ski boots. He just didn't want them to get in his way, to waste his time with extravagant excuses. I closed my eyes. I thought about seeing him up close again, getting a chance to say something, stopping him dead in his blurry tracks.
For English my first year at Hastings I'd been the only girl in the class of Mr. Inslee Brinkman. "Some names you just don't know what to do with," my father had said when I told him. There were various unkind nicknames, ranging in their aptness. I went with "Pinky" or "Sprinkles," which seemed the most fitting. Brinkman was a bachelor close to retirement who knew grammar as one does one's own face. He could be seen of a Saturday afternoon in the fields beyond the athletic buildings, his back bent, in search of rare breeds of mushrooms. Everyone in his class learned the word "myxomycophetan." I actually liked him in the end, and I even saw reason in his giving me a C.
My second year, the year of the ski boot incident, I had Chip Greenaway for English. He had a Dartmouth smile and a thick neck. He was also the varsity football coach. He spent more time stamping on the desktops than he did with his feet on the floor. He was emphatic, but no one seemed to know about what. I didn't learn a thing from him except shield my head whenever I perceived an overhead shadow. He did fall once, toppled by passion over some abstruse literary conceit. A lot of people got A's in his class, evidence, felt sure, that Greenaway was of a lower order.
Then I was put in Fowler's class. Advanced Placement. This is what my A in Greenaway's class earned me. I knew I had no business in AP anything, but by this time I was enamored of the notion of collecting experience for experience's sake, no matter how painful it promised to be. I'd learned this not from the Lake Poets, but from Pam, my roommate of all three years. Pam had schooled me in the thrills of marijuana, alcohol, and shoplifting. I still didn't believe her on the sex issue. I went into Fowler's hardball English class in the fall believing that he could teach me about that at the very least, and maybe I'd learn something about poetry too.
I'd been on Martha's Vineyard all summer, staying with Pam in her family's lavish compound, by day earning minimum wage for shoveling French fries into waxpaper-lined baskets that also contained gourmet burgers and by night testing the limits of my tolerance for vodka and gin. We'd been sharing the house with an endless battery of male guests: bartenders, sailing and tennis instructors, the odd college grad enrolled in a business training program at a bank set up by Pam's real-estate-broker mother. No night was predictable. There were no set sleeping arrangements. One morning I woke up in Pam's arms. "He left," Pam muttered, and then rolled over and slept until I got home from work. By Labor Day I thought I'd seen it all. My father, a Polish Jew who wouldn't have been allowed to play tennis where Pam and I went to hit in the late afternoons, couldn't understand why I'd wanted to sling hash instead of come with the family to Fire Island for the four hundredth summer in a row. My mother said, "Let her go. It's a nice place. She'll have fun there." She knew. She used to summer there until she married my father.
"Nice bracelet," Fowler said, tapping the gray rope bracelet on my wrist. "Let me guess: summer on an island, lots of people, you don't remember a single name. Great stuff. You must be tired. Time to get down to brass tacks."
He handed out a reading list no elderly person with time on his or her hands could have tackled in five years: The Book of Job, Tristram Shandy, The Divine Comedy, Middlemarch, Ulysses, Moby Dick, War and Peace. I looked up with glazed tired eyes that begged to be impressed.
He was smiling at all of us, waiting for us to look up horror. I steeled myself. No way. I'd drop the course in the afternoon. I'd laugh my way back to the dorm. As Pam had said so often, "Fuck him." Mr. Nowhere doing his Nowhere thing in the middle of Nowhere, Massachusetts. Getting over his brilliance. Fuck him.
He took the roll, making checks as each student responded grimly to the reality of being present. Again he looked up victorious.
"You're here. Get ready. This is going to break all of your backs. But it'll be good. You'll all be as tired as Lisa over here."
"Leigh," I corrected.
"You should be as tired as Adelman over here. Don't worry. She can handle it. So can you."
I swallowed. My last name still rang out like the shofar in this bleak wilderness of pristine WASPdom. I watched him sift through a pile of Xeroxes, decide which to hand out first, start them around, give no instructions, assume everything of us, assume I hadn't taken offense. And, oddly enough, I hadn't.
"It was great," I told Pam, who seemed eager to know. "You know, the kind of class everyone who has no life should take."
We were in the snack bar, smoking, waiting for our group to assemble: Bill, Murph, and Todd, I could have died of boredom, were buying food. It was amazing what they could put away, not so amazing to me now that I see how much Isaac needs to sustain him for a mere morning. "Totally repulsive," Pam had said the night before. She'd never met people who actually ate.
"You call this a life?" she said, indicating the panorama of students in booths stuffing their faces with grease and sugar.
"I know," I said, my voice sliding like Pam's. "I'd much rather be in the dorm reading Job."
"Look," Pam warned, "at least he's fun to look at. All I do in English is stare at Greenaway's nose and try to figure out how many times it's been broken."
Todd and Murph slid their burgers onto the table. "Scoot over," Murph told me. He hip-checked me. He was tall and beefy, like most of the boys at Hastings. He made a show of wanting me, but he always had to get to bed early because of a game the next day, thank God. He was from a town outside of Hartford. Todd, from Greenwich, was in the daily habit of pressing Pam to accompany him to the woods for drugs.
"Hopeless," she called him.
Our intolerance for these boys had magnified since I'd begun Fowler's class and our discussions about him had become regular. I thought Pam might have been miffed that she didn't have a daily crack at getting his attention.
"Hey, nymphet, where are your wings?" Todd said to Pam between bites of burger.
Pam sucked hard on a Parliament. She spoke before exhaling. "Come again?"
Todd chuckled to himself, and Murph waited respectfully for the other shoe to fall. Bill, our wrestler, was unwrapping a Hostess fruit pie.
"I thought all angels had wings." Todd smiled, his eyes red, dopey slits.
"I can't deal," Pam said. She looked at her watch, which was intricate enough. "Time for my enema. Bye, fuzzy-wuzzies."
She got up. She waited for me to get up. I stubbed out my cigarette on the top of a Coke can.
"This is so where I don't want to be," Pam said as we walked across the golf course, knee-deep in mist, the lake still and silver, to our right. To our left, the library lights were being shut off, window by window. Ahead, downhill was our dorm. My sandals were wet from the grass, and was sliding a bit as I walked.
"Have an affair with the guy, would you?" Pam said.
"You have an affair with him." Of course I didn't mean this. I was close. I'd been going for extra help. He'd suggested Saturday morning coffee elsewhere. He'd probably never met a girl who was half Jewish.
"No can do," Pam said.
"Why not? You've got a better shot at him than I do."
Pam was languorous, blond, ready. I was thinner, more nervous, smaller in almost every way. She dropped a whole burning cigarette into the grass and laughed self-consciously.
"I don't want to get near the guy. He might find out how dumb I am."
"So?" We laughed.
"It's not like it's a government secret," Pam said. "All you have to do for people to figure out you're brainless is to get yourself sent to a school where at least one building bears your family name."
We stopped at some trees near the north entrance.
"Fucking amazing moon." Pam said.
"God, will you look at it? I might puke," I said. I was referring to a dorm meeting I could see taking place in the common room. A lot of the girls were already in sleepwear. Pam and I wore T-shirts to sleep, even if it was below zero out.
"Could I have a camera over here?" Pam yelled loud enough to be heard through the open window. "Is this a ad for Lanz?"
I stayed under the trees. I watched Pam, for once not envying her, thinking there was something sad and off balance about this beautiful rich girl yelling to no purpose in the New England wilderness, and wondering what my connection, a girl of very different social and economic bearing, who was actually in love and not just playing at it, to her really was.
That my truancy, and not Pam's, became public, has left me very sour on the subject of her. Although I have no cause to see or speak to her now, and the only news I have of her is that she lives in Newport with her husband and a pair of stunning twin daughters (their picture was featured in an alumni bulletin, which amazed me, as the Pam I knew would have torched such mail before responding to enclosed questionnaires), I sometimes imagine a reunion. We have lunch somewhere ludicrous for my budget, cheap for hers, and she tells me how bored she is and that she's having her house redone at great expense. I show her my children's pictures, one of Isaac in his sky-blue baseball jersey ready to swing, a young Fowler with his eyes typically narrowed to focus on any place other than where you stand beholding him. One of Jane ready for a birthday party on the front steps, looking ever so pleased with herself. One of Daisy in a sunhat, a wondering smile directed at our tiny garden. She shows me a clipping of her twin beauties, each holding up a tennis trophy. We eat, laugh a bit, and then I tell her I haven't forgiven her for telling whoever it was that I was pregnant, for forcing me into hiding, for making a fiasco out of what could have been seen simply as a misfortune. Of course, I was the obstinate one, wanting to go through with Isaac. But I can't think of anything without him in focus, and Pam is only guilty of having a bigger mouth than I thought she had.
She was out cold, not even under the covers of her twin iron bed, after a brutal field hockey scrimmage, the night Fowler knocked once and blew into our room. I was at my desk, my Bible open to Job, my mind on Fowler as an undergraduate at his Southern college. I'd been reading up on himin the orientation handbook for the fiftieth time, mulling over his credentials and trying to picture him in a pair of ripped jeans and sandals, fine hair to his shoulders, in the middle of some campuswide protest. Impossible. He didn't waste time on politics. He probably tore around that campus as he did ours, white shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows, tie loosened to accommodate his whirlwind, leaving trails of people dazed or irritated or swooning or all three. He probably hadn't even waited around to attend his own graduation.
"Come on," he said. "We're going to the movies."
I didn't say a word. I turned off the desk light, grabbed my school sweatshirt and some loose dollars from the bureau and followed him out.
We drove into New York State and saw a double feature of Jules and Jim and The Four Hundred Blows. I tried not to read the subtitles. He sat with his elbows on the armrests and his hands pressed together under his chin as if in prayer. Occasionally he'd turn and whisper, "Watch," then "See?" as if there was something more of note than the character expressions or gestures could communicate and I'd be priveleged to pick up on it. I'd seen both movies before, could have lived without The Four Hundred Blows, but I didn't mind seeing Jules and Jim again, which has always struck me as the happiest possible portrait of a ménage à trois.
"Can I ask you why we just did that?" I said when we left the theater.
"You may," he said. "But first, I think, a hot beverage."
We drank coffee at a diner, three cups each. He wasn't eating anything, so I didn't push for food. He said, "So?"
I felt like saying, "Noo?," which is what my father would have said.
"What about those movies?"
"What about them?" Truffaut would have been disgusted.
"They're the first movies I ever saw. My mother took me. I was nine."
I did the prayer thing with my hands that he'd been doing as we watched the movies. "Are we doing sob stories? Because if we are I'll have to remember my first movie too, and I'm not sure I can."
He laughed. "You're tough. You're not used to being up this late, are you?"
I sprayed coffee all over the table, some on his shirt. "You can't be serious."
"I wasn't," he said. "I know you and Tillinghast" (that was Pam's last name) "never go to bed. Thus the coma when I came in to get you."
Pam did have a way of looking terminal when she slept, as if she'd never snap out of it.
He went on, despite my sarcasm. He said he'd been writing for the movies, between four and six every morning. "I start just about the time you and Tillinghast come oozing up from the lake after the night's dissipation. You look wonderful at that hour, like some undiscovered species, slow but undeniable."
It seemed he never stopped, never let his guard down, always saw and knew everything, was never without his arsenal of commentary and prediction.
"Why are you telling me this?" I said, trying to sound bored.
"Because you want to know what I do."
"Like fun." I smiled. I'd given myself away.
We talked about movies. I told him about seeing The Sound of Music three times in three days, first with my grandmother Liza, who somehow earned the nickname Pussy, then with my mother, then with a friend of Liza's, Holly Butterfield, who loved taking me places because she had no grandchildren of her own. I told him about leaving the theater after the first time, spellbound, on a late fall afternoon, during the season he and I were in now. It was cold. Somehow the excitement continued, I said. I tried to describe the clarity of color, of happening, in the movie as I saw it that day, how these seemed extendable to the sharp beauty of an early winter night, how this was a kind of love I hadn't known before,wqc this love for a movie, for all movies. He watched me. He put money on the table, then stood, and reached for my hand.
"Where are we going now?" I asked, giving it. My questions had sounded unforgivably childish to me all evening.
"Driving," he said. "Continue the excitement."
We drove through towns whose main streets were pitch black, reminders that we were out at the wrong time -- had we no shame? We rattled through some covered bridges. He talked about ideas for movies, reasons to make them, what they meant, in terms of livelihood, for him.
"Some teacher," I said, too tired to care what I was saying.
"It's possible, Adelman, to do more than one thing at time."
I didn't like his instructional tone just then. "Good," I said. "Take me back to campus, in that case, because I'd like to continue this conversation while I'm sleeping." I had given up on sex for the evening.
He stopped the car just shy of the two brick pillars that marked the front entrance to Hastings Prep. He was staring straight through the windshield at the brightening sky.
"Two things," he said, "that matter. Movies and you."
I sighed. I was exhausted.
"And anything you're thinking," he corrected himself. "Now go. Go in through the back door. It's open, as you know."
Again, I did as he said. I stole over the wet grass and up through the metal staircasing to my room where Pam was still comatose, seeming not to have moved. I lay down on my bed, and when I woke two hours later I wasn't even tired. I felt charged, on top of things, ready for him and anything he was planning to dish out.
It is important, for my own sake and for Isaac's, that I remind myself from time to time of Fowler's less salient features, the ones that kept me watching for his car lights on Thursdays when we went driving over state lines to see movies we'd already seen, to have coffee and, finally, sex. We made love in the car, and this was what ultimately bound me to him: a sadness. He didn't gear up for the act in the obvious ways the guys on Martha's Vineyard had (aided by drink, music, urging from peers). He didn't struggle with it. He was careful. At times I thought I was too much for him, that he'd weep or cry out for help. It was the only time I could imagine him as a child, grabbing at the world, seeking help when it became too much. On the rare, sweet occasion when Isaac comes to me in tears I see Fowler in him.
I expect to see him at the bar, downing the drink of the day and talking up the employees, but he isn't there. He's at a table beyond, staring into the middle distance, missing my entrance from the left. The hair at his temples has gone beyond gray to white. Leaning against the table is a walking stick. This year he turned forty-seven.
I stop and wave, An absurd gesture, really, given our history. From his post at the table he opens his arms. He smiles without constraint, with relief, I think. I put my bag on the seat and reach for the hand he's offering me.
"Leigh," he says, softly, tapering, like the final word in a poem or a prayer. He tightens his grip on my hand, and I shut my eyes to the heartbreak of his face because I know, without his saying another word, that he's dying.
Copyright © 1997 by Elizabeth Richards