alf awake, pawing at the night table for The Book of Great Conversations, I knock the bottle onto the floor. The sound hangs there: a ringing part, a shattering part, a splashing part. I smell the gin. Fine. It can stay there until I feel like getting up and dealing with it. Nobody here to be scandalized, nobody to be protected. A mouse, I suppose, might scamper across and cut its dainty foot, but that's the mouse's lookout, no? I remember when we first moved in here, we felt sorry for them, darting along the countertop to cower, bright-eyed, beside the toaster. So tiny, so dear: couldn't we all just live? It took a month for you to agree that something had to be done. But no D-Con. So, like what? I said. A resettlement program? "Well, couldn't we?" you said. "Couldn't we try?" And finally I went out and bought the Hav-a-Heart trap. Humane, enlightened. That was only last fall. Less than a year ago. As I remember it, we were all right then.
Kid noise through the open window. Sunday morning, quarter to eleven, already hot. I lift the sheet and shake it out to make it feel cool as it floats back down to rest on my legs. The coolness doesn't last. I prop both pillows (yours and mine) together against the headboard, sit up, put on my prescription sunglasses and turn to the Great Conversation in which Shaw loses his temper when Chesterton calls him a Puritan. Shaw says Chesterton has no real self, no firm place to stand, and Chesterton calls Shaw a Puritan for thinking that was necessary. Trying to understand these ideas is waking me up. Putting the book back on the night table carefully: though now there's no need--I get out of bed, step around the glass (though I can't wholly avoid the gin puddle), go to the window and tug the shade to make it go up. Down in the street firemen have put a sprinkler cap on the hydrant--otherwise the Dominican kids just open it up and let it gush--and pencil-thick streams of water come arching out. A little boy stands at the edge of the widening pool, undecided.
But hang on: didn't I park the car in that first space to the right of the hydrant? What's there now is a rusted-out station wagon, cloudy plastic duct-taped over where the passenger window used to be. So now I know they tow after a week of tickets. Well, fine, more power to 'em. Unless of course somebody stole the thing. In which case, also fine. But isn't it weird. You were always the one who said it was insane to keep a car in New York. I was always the one who said I wanted the feeling I could get out.
And your suddenly having to go to D.C. (yes, well, supposedly) provided a blame-free opportunity. Drive up to New Hampshire, get away from the heat and noise, spend some time with my brother. We hung out at the house mostly--Joey was still depressed about throwing his marriage away--though one afternoon we did get over into Vermont, to a used-book store run by a lady with cats. Joey beat her down on the price of some old compendium of myths he wanted for the engravings, to atone, I picked The Book of Great Conversations off the twenty-five-cent table and told her it came from the dollar table.
He called yesterday, speaking of Joey, to say he was doing a lot better. In case I'd been worried. I said I was doing a lot worse: that you had gone to live in Boston, that I hadn't left the apartment for a week: hadn't called work, didn't know if I had a job anymore and, even if I did, couldn't face going back and having to see Kate every day. I said I couldn't sleep because of the car alarms and sirens. Kate, he said: refresh me. I refreshed him. Hm, he said. But the Kate thing was already over with, I said. Discussed. Worked through. Resolved. Hm, he said. Well, he said, as far as the job, they were probably just assuming I was taking two weeks instead of the one, if they were seriously upset, they would've called, no? He said he was sorry about your leaving, but guessed he'd seen it coming when we'd been up there at Christmas. What do you mean? I said. Why do you say that? Well, he said, for one thing, you never touched each other. He said, speaking as somebody who'd been through the same thing, he knew I was going to come out of this stronger. Said at least in my case there were no children. Said maybe I could start seeing this Kate again. Joey. He runs off to the Outer Banks for a mad two-week interlude with his old used-to-be, she ends up going back to her husband (many tears), he comes home and Meg and the children are gone. And now he discovers there are no great new women in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
The night I arrived, in fact, he tried to talk me into getting back in the car and driving down to Boston to pick up college girls. Just as big as real women, he said, but stupider.
"Joey," I said. "I just drove five hours."
"So I'll drive and you can sleep on the way down. Listen, I got a teensy thing of coke left. And we can absolutely get more once we're in Boston. Fuck, let's do some coke, you want to?~
But as of yesterday, he'd gotten the north side of the house painted, which badly needed it, he'd started cutting wood for the following winter--he likes it to dry for a year and a half--and he'd patched the leak in the woodshed with roofing tar. He'd probably just needed some physical exercise. Said he'd begun a new series of silkscreens, which were absolutely going to be the best things since those ducks he was doing a couple of years ago. They're going to be--whatever the plural is of phoenix. But getting back to my thing: he'd always said that Gordon Conway was scum, and he was glad at least that now everybody would see it. Said as it turned out he guessed it was a damn good thing I'd talked him out of driving down to Boston that night. He'd planned to hit Gordon up, since Gordon generally kept enough coke around to sell, and it would've been an absolute mess if we'd knocked on the door and so on. Said he thought you might come back once the dust had a chance to settle. If that was what we both wanted. Said it seemed to him that despite everything there'd been a lot of love there.
I remember speaking the vows and thinking, Maybe.
The day before the ceremony, we'd had that huge thing about whether Meg's sister Jodie should be there. "What am I supposed to do?" I said. "Turn around at this point and disinvite her? You know, she drives down with them, thinking everything is cool, and--I mean, Cindy: this was literally years ago. She's now a friend. Okay, what should I have done, not told you?"
"Yes," you said. Then you said, "No." Then you began to cry.
But then there were the times when, deferring to my choice of a movie or a restaurant, you used to take my hand and kiss it like a courtier. What were the proportions of sweetness and irony? Not that I ever wanted to pick it apart. This gesture was still in your repertoire as late as a few weeks ago, the night you felt like going down to one of the Indian joints on Sixth Street and I felt like going someplace where we could count on air conditioning. In retrospect, this last handkiss makes me wonder if you and Gordon Conway had already made your arrangements.
As far as I know, you hadn't met him before this spring, when you went up to Boston for Lynnette's show. The three of you having lunch at some health food place. Which seemed fine: a friend of your friend Lynnette's. I remembered him, of course, from when he'd been at Pratt with Joey, and I decided not to be gratuitously unpleasant by saying he'd always struck me as a poseur, and therefore just the kind of person who'd fasten onto Lynnette. Or vice versa. This must have been in April. (It was the weekend Kate and I broke our rule about each other's apartments. She came here; we rented Syberberg's Parsifal, ordered in from the good Chinese place, marveled at how Armin Jordan, playing Amfortas, had lip-synched so undetectably.) Now, at that point, I assume, you were telling me everything, or why would you have told me as much as you did? Well, maybe to preclude my hearing it from somebody else. Or maybe just to get some relief--I know, I've been there. I made a point of telling you what I hoped sounded like everything: like how Kate and I had spent half an hour on hands and knees wrenching misfed paper from increasingly deep places in the innards of that chronically misbehaving copier. Such truths, told forthrightly, kept the rest of the truth away, while telling them, I could almost believe that Kate was just the funny woman who worked two offices down. With the husband who sounded so interesting.
Now, the next thing I heard about your new friend Gordon was the following week: he and Lynnette were both bringing work to show to some dealers in SoHo, and could we all have dinner? This was the point, I decided, at which to get myself on record "As you know," I said, "Lynnette is not one of my favorite people. And I truly dislike Gordon Conway."
"He speaks well of you," you said.
"He's a ferret," I said "Are he and Lynnette an item?"
You said nothing.
"So where are you dining?," I said. "Elaine's?"
You put your glass down. "What's this about?"
"Or, hey, there's always Greenwich Village," I said. "Where the real artists hang out. Now, me, there's nothing I like better than real artists, you know? Getting together and being real. Should I bring a rose and eat it petal by petal?"
"I thought you weren't going."
"Are you?" I said.
"Well," I said, "have a marvelous time."
"Thank you." You picked up your glass. "I intend to."
And then nothing (meaning nothing I was told about) until two weeks ago, when the phone rang on Sunday morning. Me at the kitchen table, drinking coffee.
"I've got it," you called. After a while you came out of the bedroom. I asked if you'd turned the fan off in there. You said you had to go to D.C.
"Why?" I said. "What's up?"
"Marie," you said. "She was in a car wreck. She died this morning.~
"What?" I said.
"Look, I have to pack. Would you please call and see what's the first shuttle I could get?~
"Jesus, no. Oh my God: Cindy. I can't believe--listen, I don't know if they even have the shuttle on weekends. Maybe we should just drive? By the time--"
"You're not coming."
"Would you just call, please?"
"Okay, fine. I will call." You hauled down the Yellow Pages.
"What the hell's going on?" I said. "Of course I'm coming with you.~
"You see my family once a year," you said. "At Thanksgiving. That's a grand total of five times. And once at the wedding."
"This is completely batshit. I'm your husband."
You rolled your eyes.
"Listen," I said, "if absolutely nothing else, it would freak your mother out if I wasn't with you.~
"Helen knows everything is fucked," you said. "She's not expecting you. You're so concerned with the proprieties, write her a note. Truly. I'll hand-deliver it, how's that?" You went back into the bedroom and closed the door. I followed you in, wondering if at a time like this I should be asking what this everything-is-fucked business was about. Or were you entitled to slip stuff in and not be called on it because your sister was dead?
I ended up agreeing to everything: not to come, not to call, to let you deal with this in your own way, to let you breathe. Not to upset your mother by sending flowers. If I'd given you more of an argument, would you have broken down and confessed? Such a bizarre lie: you must have wanted me to bust you on it. So: one more time I failed you. On the other hand, you went to such lengths to make it convincing. So: one more time you arranged for me to fail you. While you packed, I wrote a draft of the note for your mother, then copied it cleanly on a sheet of your good notepaper. Quite a collector's item. What did you end up doing with it?
After helping you down with your stuff and finding you a reputable-looking livery cab I came back upstairs, made more coffee and decided to call in to work the next morning, take the week off and drive up to Joey's. I'd like to think my plan was to spend some of the time thinking about Us. But it was just a holiday: boozing, moping, bullshitting, listening to Miles Davis, wishing for women, drugs and money. Your sister had laid down her life (as I thought) so I could have a week off from you.
I got back from Joey's on Thursday night. You called on Friday, around noon: you were coming in on the shuttle, seven o'clock.
"Want me to come get you?" I said.
"If you feel like it.
"Are you okay?, I said. "How's your mom holding up?"
"Look, I'll see you at seven," you said.
At ten after seven I watched stranger after stranger after stranger come down the carpeted passageway. You touched my arm.
"Hey," I said. "Where'd you come from?~
You shrugged. "I've been here a couple hours. I think.~
"You're kidding," I said. "How come you didn't call?" Then I smelled your breath. "Well, I see you've used the time to advantage.~
"The American Advantage," you said. "Now I have the advantage." You let your suitcase drop, and it fell on its side.
I picked it up and said, "Shall we?" You followed like a little girl who'd been bad. When we got to the escalator I turned around. "Have you eaten anything? Do you want to stop someplace?"
"Want to go home," you said, head down.
"So be it," I said. "I don't know what there is, but there's probably something."
"You don't want to talk to me," you said.
It was the second-to-last of our silent car rides: me thinking of ways to open a conversation and imagining how you'd parry each one. I thought what a drag it was that you chose to get drunk. And then I thought how unfair it was to think that after you'd just lost your sister. (As I believed.) You were looking good, despite the shape you were in: your cheeks pale, your lips fat. It was the first sexual thing I'd felt for you since our confrontation over Kate, but I decided to stay angry. You showed better sense: when we got up the stairs and I put down your suitcase to unlock the door, you reached for my belt. To my credit, I was gracious.
The next afternoon, Saturday, you'd gone up to the Cloisters--you said--when the phone rang. "Hi, it's Marie," said the voice. "Is Cindy around? Listen, when are you guys ever going to come to Washington?"
"Who is this?" I said. "Goddamn it, who the fuck is this?"
When you came in, I said, "Your sister called."
"Oh," you said. "Well." You shook your head, sniffled. "Actually I'm surprised it took this long. But..." You shrugged. "It must've been a little awkward for you. What did you end up saying?"
"Why?" I said. "Why would you be so stupid? I mean, beyond stupid."
"Sometimes you feel like being stupid, what can I say? Didn't you ever want to just be stupid? I have to blow my nose." You went into the bathroom and shut the door.
I shoved it open again. "So where were you?" I said "Obviously you were with somebody. Who was the lucky guy?"
You tore toilet paper off the roll and wiped your nose. "Why do you assume it was only one?" You turned to face me, and struck a pose, palm out, the back of your hand to your forehead. "Oh, Rick, I can't go on living a lie." You gazed ceilingward. "The truth is: it was all of your friends. Every last one. It was Stefan and Andrew and Alex--oh, and Gregory. Now: did I leave anybody out?"
"Okay, forget it," I said. "I mean: I'm through anyway. I truly am."
You buried your face in your hands. "Rick, I need your compassion at this terrible moment. The truth is, it was a woman. In fact, it was your dear friend and platonic coworker Kate. We just found that we had so much in common that we decided to have gay women's sex. Can you ever, ever forgive me?" You gripped my arms, then began to giggle.
"You're stoned," I said.
"Oh, yes, Rick, I am stoned. You're so perspicacious, always. And I'm just--shit under your feet." You dug your fingernails into my arms, then lifted your head and kissed my cheek so hard I felt teeth. Then you let go, stepped back and slapped me, and my glasses went flying. We looked at each other. You were red-faced, breathing hard. I was thinking:
She means to kill me.
I can't walk out with her in this kind of shape.
This will never end.
I will take her throat and rip it open.
I am observing all this from a great distance.
Then you began to sob, and I took you in my arms and patted your back again and again, and smoothed and smoothed your hair, thinking: Every minute of this is a minute out of my life.
When you finally turned to the sink and began washing your face, I picked up my glasses and brought them into the living room. A Y-shaped crack in the left lens. I tried to figure out how to hide from you the evidence of what you yourself had done; all I could come up with was not putting them back on. The bathroom door closed. Now what? Were you using the toilet or swallowing handfuls of Bufferins and Sudafeds? Cutting your wrists? Not easy with a Good News razor. I could save your life by breaking down the door. But first I'd have to ask if you were all right in there, and that might enrage you--even make you suicidal. The thing to do was ask something else--Hey, Cindy? I'm going to need to use the john pretty soon--and see if you answered. But of course you'd see through it.
Finally you came out and sat on the sofa hugging yourself, your feet tucked under you. "I'm sorry," you said. "I am completely humiliated. And I need very much not to talk at this point.
"Don't," she said. "Listen, would you do something? This is crazy, but do you think you could pretend with me? Please? It would just be for a while: okay? Like until tomorrow? Can we just pretend we're all right? One more day?"
We managed it by drinking lots of wine. Or I did--I lost track of you. We called the good Chinese place for cold hacked chicken and cold sesame noodles, and I dug out my prescription sunglasses, and we lay on the bed in our underwear and watched an old Jackie Gleason variety show on cable. It seemed to be about a fat, unhappy man who dressed himself up on Saturday night to watch things happen around him. When he introduced the orchestra leader as Sammy Spear, I pounded the mattress. "God, it's too fucking perfect. It's like, the spear and the wound. Look at him--he's the open wound. He's the walking wounded."
"You're the walking drunk," you said. "You're so cute like that.~
"I'm not walking," I said. "Lying right here. Check it out. Too goddamn smart to even think about walking."
Sunday morning, catnapping. I opened my eyes, looked at the clock, closed them, felt your thigh against mine, opened my eyes again, saw it was ten minutes later, closed them again. Wanted to keep on and on.
Then I woke up and saw you standing at the dresser: bareback, in underpants; I imagined a steely look on your face. I said good morning and you turned around. Your large, flat nipples. You came and took your watch off the night table and strapped it on. It was the look l'd imagined.
You said: "I'm going to pack some things, and then I'm going to go, okay?"
"Go where?" I said. "Would you tell me what's going on? I thought--"
"Please don't be stupid," you said. You took a T-shirt out of the drawer.
I closed my eyes before you pulled it over your head.
"Listen," you said, "I think you're going to come out of this just fine. If your platonic friend and coworker Kate won't take you back, you can always find another platonic friend and coworker. And if that one doesn't work out then you go on to the next one. You know: until you find exactly the right one. So why don't you just go back to sleep and when you wake up--presto: wifey's just an unpleasant memory."
"Where are you going?, I opened my eyes as you were pulling on a pair of jeans.
"To Unpleasant Memoryland. Poof." You raised a palm to your lips and blew.
You zipped up and looked at me. "Boston," you said. "I should give you the address."
"Oh," I said.
"He's a lowlife," I said.
"He's not so bad," you said. "Fact is, he's a little like you. Anyhow: he's probably not forever."
"And then what?"
"Not your problem." You sat down on the bed to put on your running shoes. "Look, I promise you, this will be very easy. I don't want money, I don't want any of the stuff except for my grandfather's chair, which I'll come and get at some point. I guess I want the little rug that's in the other room. My books. I'll let you know when I'm coming down. And I'll call Marie tonight, to spare you any further embarrassment. Okay?" You picked up your purse and slung it over your shoulder, and said in your Robert DeNiro voice, "Don, worr'. I take care ev'ryt'ing."
"I can't believe this," I said.
"Look," you said, "I have to crank it, you know? If I'm going to make my plane."
"Can't I at least drive you to the airport?" I said. "And we could talk on the way? I really need to understand what's going on."
You sighed. "If that's your idea of a good time. But I don't know what you need to understand. Your bad wife is leaving you. For another man. You're a wronged husband. Now you can be happy."
Because Kate wasn't about to leave her husband and I wasn't about to leave you, she and I had agreed to be responsible. No hang-up calls, no leaving the office together, no being at each other's apartments even if it seemed perfectly safe, no overnighters anywhere, ever. But you and I had rules, too, though never codified: the gist was that neither of us was to go looking for what we didn't want to see. You were the one who violated that rule, by following me into the subway at lunch hour, riding to West Fourth Street in the next car, walking a block behind me to Kate's sister's building and watching from a bus shelter as I was buzzed in. I was the one who was trying to be protective.
Basically it was no different from the lie I told you about the Hav-a-Heart trap. We thought it was so ingenious, the way the trapdoor would fall away from under the mouse and tumble him into the box for deportation. But the day we baited it: I got home before you did, opened the thing to check, and voilà: a twitching, squealing mouse, hopelessly wedged into a corner between sharp edges of metal. He'd been trying to worm himself out through a place where the box didn't quite fit together. I watched awhile, then went looking for something. Nearest thing to hand was a screwdriver: I pressed the tip into his neck until I felt a snap. Then I hid him at the bottom of the trash, wrapped in the paper towel I'd used to wipe the inside of the box. When you came in, I told you the trap turned out to be useless.
"It's only been a day," you said.
"Right," I said. "But. One of them already managed to steal the bait and get away. We're either going to have to put up with mice or go to Plan B.~
You shook your head. Sighed. "I don't know. I guess we can't really put up with mice, can we?~
One of our Great Conversations, in which nobody had to come right out and say it. And if I had a whole additional thing I wasn't telling, that was called being a good husband. Back then I loved to play the part.
I tug the shade back down, check the phone book and call the number for towaways. Busy. Eight million stories in the Naked City. I pull off paper towels, mop up the gin: pick up the pieces of broken glass--gingerly, remembering I'm in a stressful period. They go into a paper bag, which goes into an empty Tropicana carton, which goes into the trash so no one gets hurt.
A week ago today, at just about this time, I was driving you to LaGuardia. I asked you what that last weekend had been about, why you'd bothered to come back and put us both through it. You wouldn't talk, I insisted--it seemed wrong not to--but all the while I was thinking, Why not just admit this is a relief? So much traffic: people heading for the beaches. Sun glinting off windshields and bumpers. Good I had those sunglasses. We weren't moving fast enough to get a breeze going, and my shirt was soaked through. Shifting from low to second and back to low, temperature gauge getting close to the red. I remember passing a black van with an orange volcano painted on its side panel, then the van passing us. Its windows were up and the driver, a blond thug, was singing away unheard, beating time on the steering wheel as his girlfriend painted her nails. When we finally got to the terminal, you let me park and carry your suitcase as far as security. I put it on the moving belt, you set your purse next to it and turned to me before stepping into the frame.
~Bye," you said
"This is really it?"
You smiled, beckoned with your forefinger and raised your chin. I cupped my hands like parentheses around your shoulders and bent to kiss you--at least your forehead. You laid a palm on my cheek, pushed my head aside and whispered, "This is what you wanted."
Excerpted from The Wonders of the Invisible World by David Gates. Copyright © 1999 by David Gates. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Photo credit © Marion Ettlinger