The day on which the sky cracked open over Jennie's head had begun as gladly as any other day in that wonderful year. It had been the best year of her life until then.
At noon she had been standing with Jay on the lip of the hill that overlooked the wild land called, by the town to which it belonged, the Green Marsh. It was one of those Indian summer intervals, when, after two weeks of rain and premature gray cold, everything suddenly burns again; the distant air burns blue and the near oaks flare red; in the marsh, cattails and spreading juniper glisten darkly after the night's rain. Canada geese come streaming, honking their long way to the south; and ducks, with a great flapping racket, splash into the pond.
"You see, it's not all marsh," Jay explained. "There's meadow and forest at the other end. Over a thousand acres, all wild. Been here for Lord knows how many thousand of years, just as you see it, untouched. We're trying to get the state to take it over as part of the wilderness system. That way it'll be safe forever. But we've got to hurry before the New York builders put their bid through."
"Do you suppose they'll be able to?"
"God, I hope not. Imagine ruining all this!"
They stood for a little while listening to the silence. Totally at ease, accustomed as they were to quiet hours with each other, they felt no need for a continuous flow of speech.
A small sudden wind blew a dry shower of leaves, and at the bottom of the hill Jay's children came into sight, running with the wind. They made themselves fall, the two girls rolling their little brother in the leaves. They shrieked; the dog barked; and the wind, carrying the sounds back up the hill, shattered the Sunday peace.
"Darling," Jay said.
Turning to him, Jennie knew that he had been watching her while she watched his children.
"I'm happier than anyone has a right to be," she murmured.
He searched her face with such intensity, such love, that she felt an ache in her throat.
Oh, Jennie, I can't tell you . . . You give me . . ." He threw out his arms to encompass the whole bright scene in one characteristic, generous gesture. "I never thought . . ." Not finishing, he put his arms around her shoulders and drew her close.
Into the curve of his arm she settled, feeling a perfect happiness. Memory ran backward to the beginning of this miracle. A year and a half before, when they had first met, Jay had been a widower for two years, his young wife having died most terribly of cancer. He had been left with two small girls and an infant son, a rather grand Upper East Side apartment, and a partnership in one of New York's most prestigious law firms, a position not inherited as sometimes happens, but earned through merit and hard effort. One of the first things Jennie had observed about Jay had been a strained expression that might signify anxiety, overwork, loneliness, or all of these. Certainly if loneliness was a problem, the city had enough desirable young women to fill a man's vacant hours, especially those of a tall young man with vivid eyes and a charming cleft in his chin. When she knew him better, she understood that he had been very, very careful about involvements because of his children. Some of his friends had asked her whether she didn't find his devotion to the children a bore or a hindrance; on the contrary, she admired it, was glad of it, and would have thought less of him if he had not felt a loving, deep responsibility toward them.
She turned her face up now to see his. Yes, the look of strain was definitely gone, along with that nervous habit of pulling a strand of hair at his temple, and along with smoking too much and sleeping too little. Indeed, this last month he had stopped smoking altogether. Smiles came easily now, and certainly he looked much younger than thirty-eight.
"What are you staring at, woman?"
"I like you in plaid shirts and jeans."
"Better than in my Brooks Brothers vest?"
"I like you best in nothing at all, since you ask."
"Same to you. Listen, I was thinking just now, would you like to have a little summer place up around here? We could build something at the far end of my parents' property, or somewhere else, or not at all. You choose."
"I can't think. I've never had so many choices in my life!"
"It's time you had some, then."
She had never been one who craved choices. In her mind she stripped things bare to the core, and the core now was just her pure need to be with Jay always and forever; houses, plans, things
–all were unimportant beside that need.
"Have you decided where you want the wedding? Mother and Dad would be glad to have it at their apartment. Mother said she's already told you."
A woman was supposed to be married from her own house. But when the home consisted of two cramped rooms in a renovated walk-up tenement, even the simplest ceremony presented a problem. Obviously Jay's mother understood that, although with kindest tact she had not referred to it.
"Yes. It was a lovely offer." But in Jay's apartment, Jennie thought, it would seem a little bit like her own home. "I'd like your place. Would that be all right? Since that's where I'm going to be living?"
"I'd love it, darling. I was hoping you'd want to. So, now that's settled. One thing more and we'll be all settled. What about your office? Do you want to stay where you are or come to my firm's building? There's going to be some available space on the fifteenth floor."
"Stay where I am, Jay. My clients would be intimidated, scared to death on Madison Avenue. All my poor, broken-down women with their miserable problems and their shabby clothes . . . It would be cruel. Besides, I couldn't afford a move like that, anyway."
Jay grinned and ruffled her hair. "Independent cuss, aren't you?"
"When it comes to my law practice, yes," she answered seriously.
She supposed that his practice must mean as much to him as hers did to her. After all, why else would he have chosen it and stayed in it? But she couldn't imagine anyone, certainly not herself, caring as deeply about wills and trusts and litigation over money as about people–the battered wives, abused children, dispossessed families, and all the other pitiable souls who came asking for help. Yet no one could be more kind and caring than Jay. And money, after all, did grease the world's wheels, didn't it? Obviously, then, somebody had to take care of it.
At the foot of the hill they could see the setter's tail waving above dead weeds. The children were now stooped over.
"What on earth are they doing?" Jay asked.
"Collecing leaves. I bought scrapbooks for Sue and Emily to take to science class."
"You think of everything! They're going to love you, Jennie. They do already." He looked at his watch. "Hey, we'd better call them. My mother's having an early lunch, so we can get back to the city by their bedtime."
The two-lane blacktop road passed dairy farms and apple growers' wide, level spreads: little old houses with battered swings on front porches stood close to big red barns; horses in their shabby winter coats drooped their heads over wire fences; here and there a glossy white-painted house at the end of a gravel drive bordered with rhododendrons and azaleas proclaimed ownership by some local banker or, more likely still, by some city family who enjoyed its two or three summer months of rural peace.
"I can't believe my noisy little rooms in New York are only hours away," Jennie said.
When the winter-brown fields gave way to the town, they entered the main street. Here chain stores, gas stations, a bowling alley, a pizza parlor, a redbrick consolidated high school, a Ford dealership, a dingy movie theater, and three or four new, low office buildings reflected modern times, while a saddlery, a volunteer fire department, and a feed store with a sign above the front entry–FOUNDED 1868–spoke of a life that had been and was now changing.
"As I remember it, the town was half this size when Dad bought our place," Jay remarked.
"Do you think of this as your true home?"
"Not yet. Maybe someday when I'm my parents' age. You know, I wouldn't be surprised if they were to give up their New York apartment and stay here all year, now that Dad's selling the factory and retiring."
Mrs. Wolfe was spreading compost over a rose bed at the side of the house when they drove up. She straightened, took off her gardening gloves, and spread her arms to the little boy, who ran into them.
"Did you have a good ride, Donny? Did you see the horses?"
The girls interrupted. "We went to the academy, but Donny didn't want to get on the pony."
"Daddy promised us chocolate bars, but the stores were all closed."
"A good thing, too, or you wouldn't eat any lunch. And we've a beautiful chocolate cake for dessert." The grandmother smiled at Jennie. "I hope we haven't tired you out this weekend."
"No, Mrs. Wolfe, I could walk ten miles a day through these hills."
"Well, I'm sure Jay will take you up on that sometime. Let's go in, shall we?"
Jennie stepped aside to let the other woman precede her into the house. She must be careful to remember every little nicety. . . .
It was only natural to feel unease in the presence of one's future husband's parents, wasn't it? Especially when this was her first visit after only two previous meetings, and those in the impersonal setting of a restaurant. Enid Wolfe, for all her welcoming manner, possessed an elegance that easily could be daunting. Even in her gingham shirt and denim skirt, she had it without trying.
The whole house had it. Its very simplicity told the story of people who were above any effort to impress. Through a white-paneled door one entered into a low-ceilinged hall; people were shorter two hundred years ago, so Jay had explained, when this farmhouse was built. Now worn old Oriental scatter rugs lay on the wood-pegged floors. Mixed fragrances of pine logs, furniture wax, and flowers hung in the air. On the coffee table in the living room lay a mound of splendid, blood-red roses–the last of the year, someone said. A pair of chintz-covered sofas faced each other in front of the fireplace. The cabinets looked antique, and there was a handsome baby grand piano at the far end of the long room. Two small paintings of blurry skies above a river stood on the pine mantel. They looked like the Turners Jennie had seen in the museum, but knowing so little about art and fearful of making a foolish mistake, she refrained from saying so. Really, she must make an effort to learn more about these things, for Jay knew and cared about them.
She suspected that the taste here was faultless, and undoubtedly expensive. Yet the room, the whole house, said: "I don't pretend, I am who I am." Fat, homemade needlepoint pillows lay about. Books stood in piles on tables, with a tumbling stack on the floor. Photographs cluttered another large round table: there was a 1920s bride in a short skirt and a long train; there were children and a graduation picture and one of a pug dog. Tennis rackets were propped against a wall in a corner. A tortoise cat had wrapped itself in an afghan on one of the easy chairs, and now the setter came bounding in to flop in front of the fire.
Jay's father got up from the wing chair in which he had been sitting with a drink in hand. He was craggy, with a beaky, aristocratic nose, and taller than his tall wife. Jay would look like him someday.
"Come on in. Daisy is just about to put things on the table. Where've you people been all this time?" he inquired as they went to the dining room.
"Oh, around," Jay said. "I wanted to show Jennie the neighborhood. We finished at the Green Marsh. What's new with the situation since I talked to you?"
Arthur Wolfe gave the table a startling thump. "They've been up from New York, thick as thieves all over town these past weeks. Made a big offer, four and a half million." He made a grim mouth. "It'll tear the town apart, I predict, before we're through."
"What's happening with the state? The park negotiations?"
"Oh, politicians! Red tape! Who knows when they'll get around to it in the legislature? In the meantime the developers are on the move, and fast. I'm disgusted."
Jay frowned. "So what are you doing about it?"
"Well, we've got a committee together, Horace Ferguson and I. He's doing most of the work. I'm too old to do much–"
"Arthur Wolfe, you are not old!" his wife protested.
"Okay, let's say I'm doing enough. I've been talking to the people who'll be sure to see it the right way, especially on the planning board." The old man took a spoonful of soup, then laid the spoon down and exploded again. "Good God, the whole nation will be paved over before you know it, with nothing green left alive!"
"Hmm," Jay reflected, "that marsh is an aquifer. They'll wreck the water table if they start to tinker with it. It'll affect every town in the area, and all the farms. Don't they know that?"
"Don't who know it? Developers? What do they care? Come up from the city, pollute the place, make a bundle, and leave."
"Arthur, eat your dinner," his wife said gently. "The soup's getting cold. We're all very conservation-minded in our family," she explained, turning to Jennie. "But you've probably noticed."
"I agree with you all," Jennie answered. "It's high time we cleaned things up–the water, the air, the strip mines, everything. Otherwise there'll be nothing left for people like Emily and Sue and Donny."
"Jennie's an outdoor girl," Jay said. "Last summer in Maine we took a thirty-mile canoe trip with portage a good part of the way, and she held up as well as I did. Better, maybe."
The old man was interested. "Where'd you grow up, Jennie? You never said."
"Not where you might think. In the city, the heart of Baltimore. I guess maybe I was a farmer's daughter in another incarnation."
Now, as the meal progressed, the conversation was diverted. Donny's meat had to be cut up for him. Sue had complaints about her piano teacher. Emily spilled milk on her skirt and had to be dried off. Enid Wolfe inquired about tickets for a new play. They were having dessert when Arthur returned to the subject of the Green Marsh, making explanations for Jennie's benefit.
"It's almost fourteen hundred acres, including the lake. The town owns it. Was willed to it . . . oh, it must be close to eighty years ago. Let's see, we've been summering here since our first son, Philip, was born, and he's going on fifty. At first we rented, and then after I inherited a little money from my grandmother I bought the place for a song. Well, so the town has the land and it's understood that it would be kept as is. It's full of wildlife, you know, beaver and fox. And, of course, it's a sanctuary for birds. Some of the oaks are two hundred years old. Local kids all swim in the lake. Then there's fishing and nature trails for the schools, everything. It's a treasure, a common treasure for everybody, and we can't let it go. We're not going to." He balled his napkin and thrust it from him. "Our group–concerned citizens we can call ourselves, I guess–is pooling our money to hire counsel and fight this thing hard."
"You really expect a hard fight?" Jay asked.
"I told you I do. I hate to be a cynic–good liberals aren't supposed to be cynical–but money will talk to a lot of folks around here. They won't care about natural beauty, not even about the water table, poor fools. There'll be promises of jobs, increased business, the usual shortsighted arguments. So we'd better be prepared.""
"I see." Jay was thoughtful for a moment. "Hiring counsel, you said. Somebody in town?"
"No. The lawyers around here aren't on our side. They all hope to get business from the developers."
"Got anyone in mind, then?" asked Jay.
"Well, your firm's diversified, isn't it? Would somebody take it on? Of course, there won't be much of a fee. It'll depend on what Horace and I and a handful more can raise among us." As Jay hesitated, the sharp old eyes twinkled. "Okay, I know your fees. I'm only teasing."
"That's not it at all! You know I'd do it myself for nothing if you asked me to. The fact is, I was thinking of Jennie."
"Me!" she cried.
"Why not? You can do it beautifully." And Jay said to his parents, "I never told you that the first time we met, Jennie had just won an environment case. I had happened to read an article about it in the Times
that morning, and so when somebody at this party pointed her out, I asked to be introduced."
"How did you come to do that, Jennie?" Arthur Wolfe wanted to know. "It's not what you generally do, is it?"
"Oh, no, I almost always take women's cases, family problems. It happened that I defended a woman with four children against a landlord who wanted to evict them. Well, she was very grateful, and later she asked me to help some relatives on Long Island who had a land-use problem. I had never done anything like it before, but it appealed to me–the justice of it, I mean–so I wanted to try it." She stopped. "That's it. I don't want to bore you with the details."
"You won't bore us. I want the details."
"Well." Suddenly aware that she was using too many wells
, she stopped and began again. "It was a working-class neighborhood. Blue-collar, without money or influence. At the end of the street on the cross avenue there was a vacant tract that was zoned for business and bought by some people who wanted to build a small chemical plant. There would have been noxious odors and, quite probably, carcinogenic emissions. It would have blighted the neighborhood. We had a very tough fight because there were political connections–the usual thing."
"But you won," Jay said proudly. "And you haven't mentioned that it was a test case and set a precedent."
His father was studying Jennie. "Do you think you'd be interested in our case?"
"I'd need to know more about it. What do they want to do with the land?"
"They want to build what they call a recreational subdivision. Vacation homes. Corporate retreats. It would be high-density condominiums one on top of the other. You see, the new highway makes it accessible, there's skiing only half an hour away, and after they dredge the lake they'll double its size and–" He stopped.
Enid interjected, "And incidentally, if we should have a wet season, flood all the fields south of town. Oh, it makes me sick! This is one of the most beautiful areas in the state–in the East, for that matter. I see it as a symbol. If this falls victim to greed, then anything can. Do you see what I mean, Jennie?"
"Oh, greed," Jennie said. "I deal with it every day. It's the ultimate poison, whether it's rat-infested tenements or polluted oceans or mangled jungles–" Again she stopped, feeling still the slight unease of being there under observation, and was conscious of her voice, which tended to rise in her enthusiasm, and of her hands, which she had been training herself to keep in her lap. "It will destroy us all in the end," she finished more quietly.
Jay smiled. He approved of her enthusiasm. "Not while there are people like you to fight."
"I take it that you accept," said Arthur Wolfe.
She thought, So I shall be defending the rights of a piece of land to exist! A curious change for an urban person who'd never owned a foot of land. And yet, ever since she had been a child, taken for an occasional Sunday ride in the country, she had felt a pull toward the land, as if the trees had spoken to her. Later, reading Rachel Carson's book, or the Club of Rome's, and watching the National Geographic
programs on television, she had felt a stronger pull, with greater understanding.
"Yes, I'll do it," she said, and felt a warm surge of pleasurable excitement.
"Great! If Jay says you're good, you're good." Arthur got up from the table and stood over Jennie. "We've already had the first reading of the proposal before the town council, and the matter's on the way to the planning board. They'll be hearing it in two or three weeks, so you'll be coming back up here pretty soon. Jay can fill you in on the town government. I won't take up your time now, but it's the usual thing, nine elected council members, one of whom is the mayor." He shook Jennie's hand, pumping it. "Before you leave now, I've a mile-high stack of papers for you to take back, reports from engineers and water experts, a survey, the petition to the legislature, and of course the developer's lousy proposal." He pumped her hand again. "We're on the way, I think."
"It's a challenge," Jennie told him. "I'll do my best."
Jay looked at his watch. "Time to get started. Let's get our bags, Jennie, and go."
Jennie was in the guest room collecting her coat and overnight bag when Mrs. Wolfe knocked.
"May I come in? I wanted one private minute with you." She was carrying a flat maroon box. "I wanted to give you this. Quietly, upstairs here, with just the two of us. Open it, Jennie."
On a velvet cushion, curved into a double circle, lay a long strand of pearls, large, uniform, and very faintly, shyly, pink. For a second Jennie went blank. She knew really nothing about pearls, having owned only a short string bought at a costume-jewelry counter, so as to seem less strictly tailored in the courtroom. The instant's blankness was followed by an instant's confusion.
"They were my mother-in-law's. I've been keeping them for the next bride in the family," Enid Wolfe said, adding after a second's hesitation, "I'd already given away my own mother's necklace."
Jennie's eyes went from the pearls to the other woman's face, which was subdued into a kind of reverence. She understood that the gift had deep meanings.
"Oh . . . lovely," she faltered.
"Yes, aren't they? Here. Try them on." And as Jennie leaned forward, she dropped the necklace over her head. "Now look at yourself."
From the mirror above the chest of drawers a round, young face, much younger than its thirty-six years, looked back out of a pair of unusually sharp green eyes. "Cat's eyes," Jay teased. At this moment they were rather startled. The cheeks, which were naturally ruddy so that they had never needed to be rouged, were flushed up to the prominent cheekbones.
"Pearls always do something for a woman, don't they?" Enid said. "Even with just that sweater and skirt."
"Oh, lovely," Jennie repeated.
"Yes, you don't see many like them anymore."
"I'm . . . I'm speechless, Mrs. Wolfe. That's not like me, either."
"Would you like to call me Enid? Mrs. Wolfe is too formal for someone who's going to be in the family." Enid's austere face brightened suddenly. "Believe me, I don't say lightly what I'm going to say now. One doesn't watch one's son give himself and his precious children over to the care of another woman without thinking very, very carefully about her. But you've been so good for Jay. We've seen it, and we want you to know . . ." She laid a hand on Jennie's shoulder. "I want you to know that Arthur and I are most happy about you. We admire you, Jennie."
"Sometimes I think I'm in a dream," Jennie said softly. She stroked the pearls. "Jay and I and the children . . . and now you. All of you being so wonderful to me."
"Why shouldn't we be? And as for Jay, I surely don't have to tell you how loving he is. You'll have a good life with him. Oh," said Enid, smiling with a mother's indulgence, "he has his faults, of course. He can't stand to be kept waiting. He likes his hot food burning and his cold food icy. Things like that." Perched now on the bed, she was confiding, intimate. "But he's a good man, a good human being. The word good
covers so much, doesn't it? Total honesty, for one thing. Jay says what he means and means what he says. He's entirely open, easy to read. And I see the same in you. Of course, Jay's told us so much about you that we felt, before we even met you, that we already knew you." She stood up. "My goodness, I'm talking my head off. Come, they're waiting for you. You've got a good three-hour drive ahead."
On the way home Jay remarked, "I haven't seen my father so worked up about anything since the days when he used to fight in the city for public housing and better schools for the poor."
They were talking in low voices while the children dozed in the backseat.
"I hope I can handle the case. And I guess I won't be able to think of anything else until I've done it."
"Are you that nervous about it already? I don't want you to take it if you're going to be. I want my bride to be relaxed. No worry lines around the eyes."
"I have to do it now. I said I would."
"Come on. Don't let Dad foist it on you if you feel any hesitance. I'll get one of the young guys in the office to do it, that's all."
She answered with mock indignation, "What? Turn it over to a man, as if a woman couldn't handle it? No, it's just that–it's your father, your family. I so want them to think well of me."
"For Pete's sake, they already do. You know that. Do you need more proof than having my grandmother's pearls in your lap? My mother would as soon part with her teeth as see those in the wrong hands. Seriously, though, for such a feisty lady, you shouldn't be so unsure of yourself around my family."
"Am I? Is that the impression I give?"
"A little. Don't worry about it." Jay reached over and squeezed her hand. "More seriously, hang on to that box until I can get it insured in the new name tomorrow."
It was dark when they drew up in front of the apartment house. Two handsome brass coach lamps gleamed at the entrance under the green awning. Down Park Avenue, a double row of parallel streetlights shone on the white limestone and the brick and granite fronts of the fine solid structures that stretched all the way to the low facade of Grand Central Terminal, with the Pan Am Building behind it, at the base of the avenue. It was one of the most famous views in the world, as typical of the city as London's Trafalgar Square or Paris's Place de la Concorde. Jennie stood a moment to take it all in while Jay helped the children out of the backseat. Her life seldom brought her to this part of the city; in fact, she had never even been inside a building like this before knowing Jay.
"Is the nanny back yet?" she asked now.
"No, she comes early Monday morning in time to get them ready for school."
"Then I'll go up and help you put them to bed."
"No need to. I can manage. You've got a big day tomorrow, you said."
"You've got a big day too. Besides, I want to."
Upstairs, while Jay undressed his little son and settled him in bed among a mound of assorted teddy bears and pandas, Jennie supervised the girls.
"It's late and you had a shower this morning, so I think we'll skip baths tonight," she said.
Sue clamored, "A story? Do we get a story?"
Jennie looked at the clock on the table between the two ivory-enameled beds. "It's too late for stories. I'll read you some poems instead." Becoming more and more accustomed to and accepted by the children, she felt competent, equipped to mother them. "How about A. A. Milne? Good? All right, into the bathroom with you."
They brushed their teeth and washed their hands and faces. They dropped their soiled clothes into the hamper and put on their pink cotton nightgowns. Lastly Jennie unwound their braids and brushed their long, straight tan hair. Jay and his family were dark-haired. Probably the girls were like their mother.
Emily touched Jennie's hair. "I wish I had black curls like yours."
"And I wish I had hair like yours. Mine gets all frizzy when it rains. It's a nuisance."
"No, it's beautiful," Sue said. "Daddy thinks so too. I asked him."
Jennie hugged her. They were so sweet, these children, with their fragrant skin and moist, sloppy kisses! Oh, they could have nasty tantrums now and then–she had seen a few–but that was natural. She felt a surge of something that, if not love–how easily one tosses the word love
around!–was very close to it. Back in the bedroom, she got out the beloved book and read about Christopher Robin.
"They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace;
Christopher Robin went down with Alice."
She read about water-lilies.
"Where the water-lilies go
To and fro,
Rocking in the ripples of the water–"
She closed the book–"Now, bedtime"–and drew the embroidered curtains against the night.
In the rosy, lamplit room, all was orderly and clean. This peace did something to Jennie's heart. So much did she see of life's other side, of the abuse and hurt and ugliness that human beings inflict on one another! Taking a last look at the two little girls, she felt waves of thankfulness that they, at least, had been spared. Complicated feelings these were, almost prayerful.
She turned off the light. "Good night, darlings. Pleasant dreams. That's what my mother used to say to me. Pleasant dreams."
Jay was standing at the door of the master bedroom. "I know you said you don't want to change anything in the apartment," he began.
"It would be awfully extravagant when everything's in perfect condition."
The thought of redecorating all these rooms was distressing. She wasn't prepared with the right knowledge to do it, and moreover, she wasn't really interested. She looked down the corridor now into the long living room, over a sea of moss-green carpeting on which stood islands of mahogany and chintz in pleasing, quiet taste, and then across into the dining room, where she surprised herself by recognizing that the table was Duncan Phyfe, and the chairs, with seats of ruby-flowered silk, were Chippendale.
"But the bedroom, at least," Jay said. "We'll want a new bedroom."
Yes, she would concede that. She didn't want the canopied bed in which he had slept with another woman. Also, she would replace the armoire and chests in which Phyllis had kept her clothes. She would take time next week and attend to that.
On a tall chest, which she supposed was Jay's, stood a silver-framed photograph of a young woman wearing a spreading ball gown and the other grandmother's pearls. Her eyes were large, with traces of amusement in them; her face was round, with prominent cheekbones. Why, Jennie thought, except for the straight, light hair, she looks like me! She wondered whether Jay was conscious of the resemblance. Probably he wasn't. It was said that people unconsciously made the same choice over and over. She paused, examining the face and comparing.
Somewhat anxiously Jay said, "That won't stay, of course. I should have put it someplace else."
"Why shouldn't it stay? You wouldn't be much of a man if you were to forget her."
Poor soul, dead of cancer at thirty-two, leaving all this life, these beloved people behind!
"There's nobody like you, Jennie." Jay's voice was rough with emotion. "Not one woman in fifty would say that and mean it, as I know you do."
And she did mean it. Strange it was that, alone with Jay, she felt no insecurity, not the least dread of invidious comparisons with anyone else. Alone with him, she was absolutely certain of her own worth. It was only the family, the parents, the setting that caused a wavering, a dread of not belonging in spite of all their welcome. But she would get over that. . . .
He put his arms around her and laid her head on his shoulder. "I'm in such a damn hurry to get this wedding business over. Couldn't sleep together this weekend at my parents' house, can't sleep together here because of the children and the nanny. It's hell."
"My place again any night this week," she mumured, then raised her head to look into his face. She ran her finger down his nose. "Have I ever told you that you remind me of Lincoln? If you had a beard, you'd be a dead ringer for him."
Jay burst out laughing. "Any man who's tall and thin and has a narrow face and a long nose is supposed to look like Lincoln. For a hardheaded young lawyer, you're a romantic," he said.
"Hardheaded I may be, but softhearted too."
"Darling, I know that well. Now listen, you need your sleep. I'm going to put you in a taxi. And phone me when you get home."
"I can put myself in a taxi, Jay. I've never been so pampered! You don't think the taxi driver's going to kidnap me, do you?"
"No, but phone me, anyway, when you get back."
The flat in the renovated walk-up near the East River was a different world. Here lived the singles and the live-together couples, young people from the theater, the arts, and business, either on the way up or hoping to start on the way up soon. Their homes ranged from empty–futon on the floor and a standing lamp–to half furnished–raw wood painted over in brave black enamel or scarlet, with Victorian wicker rocking chairs from the secondhand stores–to the furnished, complete with rugs, books, records, and plants. Jennie's was furnished.
The moment she turned the key in the lock, the door across the hall was opened.
"Hi! How was it?" Shirley Weinberg, in a chenille bathrobe with a wet head wrapped in a towel, wanted to know. "I was just drying my hair when I heard you. How was it?" she repeated. "All right if I come in?"
"Sure, come on."
They had been neighbors for five years and hadn't much more than neighborliness in common, that and friendly goodwill. Shirley, secretary to a theatrical producer, thought in terms of Broadway and what she saw as glamour, certainly not in terms of battered wives and dingy courtrooms. She sat down on Jennie's sofa.
"Was it gorgeous, their place?"
Shirley's vision, no doubt, was of marble floors and gilded wood.
"Not really. It's a farmhouse, a hundred fifty years old or more. I liked it, but you wouldn't."
"They're terribly rich, though, aren't they?"
Questions like this were offensive, yet one should take them from where they came. Shirley was blunt and kind. But why did so many people ask such questions? From somewhere a memory stirred, a voice asking, "Who? When?" The memory dissolved. . . .
"I don't suppose they are 'terribly rich.' But they're not poor, either," Jennie replied patiently. "Somehow one doesn't think of them that way."
may not. But you're a funny duck," Shirley said affectionately. "What's in the box?"
"A necklace. I'll show you."
"My God, will you look at that!"
"You scared me. What are you shrieking about?"
"These, you idiot. You've got ten thousand dollars' worth of pearls here, don't you know that? No, what am I saying? More than that. Pearls have gone way up again."
"That's not possible," Jennie said.
"I'm telling you what I know. I used to work on Madison Avenue at a jeweler's didn't I? They're nine-millimeter. Do you know what that means? No, of course you don't. Put them on."
"Now I'm afraid to touch them. I'm afraid they'll break."
"They won't break. Put them on."
"I feel silly if they're really worth that. Where will I wear them?"
"Lots of places. They're gorgeous. Look."
"I never know about things like these," Jennie said wonderingly. "I mean, why would anybody want to hang all that money around her neck?"
a funny duck," the other repeated. "They really don't matter to you at all?"
"Well, in one way they do. They're very beautiful, of course, but what matters to me is what they stand for, that I'm wanted in their family, and I'm very, very happy about that. I just never craved things like this. And a good thing I didn't, because I never could have afforded them."
"Well, it looks as if you'll be able to afford them now. You're really mad about him, aren't you?"
Jennie raised her eyes to the other's face, on which a certain tenderness was mingled with curiosity. "Yes," she said simply. "That's about it. I am."
"I've never seen you like this about anyone before."
"I haven't felt like this about anyone before, that's why."
"You're lucky. Do you know how darn lucky you are?"
"Yes, I know."
"To be in love with a man who wants to make it forever. God, I'm sick of guys who don't want to promise you anything except that they'll never interfere with your freedom. I'd like to give up a little freedom–not all of it, just some of it–to have a home and a kid. Two kids. The men you meet these days are all kids themselves," Shirley finished, grumbling.
Jennie, hanging up her coat, had no answer. She remembered how, not much more than a year ago, Shirley, like most of her contemporaries, including Jennie herself, had gloated over total independence, being able to experience the adventure that had once belonged only to men. And then the biological clock, as they called it these days, had begun to tick very loudly.
"The biological clock," she said now.
"Yeah. Well, I'm glad for you, anyway." Shirley stood up and kissed Jennie's cheek. "Couldn't happen to a nicer gal. Listen. Be sure to get a piece of flannel and wipe those every time you wear them. And have them restrung every couple of years. I'd go to Tiffany for that, if I were you."
When she went out, Jennie stood for a few moments with the pearls draped over her arm. Thoughts flooded her mind. She looked around the little room. You certainly wouldn't call it a handsome room, but it was comfortable and pretty, with its prints, Picasso's doves and Mondrian's vivid geometrics. Sometimes she thought what fun it would be if Jay could just move in here with her, instead of the other way around. She had painted the yellow walls herself, bought the homemade patchwork quilt from Tennessee mountain craftspeople, and nurtured the tall palm that stood in the brass container at the window. The books, which were her extravagance, and the first-rate sterio equipment all were the fruits of her own labor, and that was a good feeling; probably there was no better satisfaction.
Indeed she had come far. Now, having confronted the world and proven that she could survive in it alone, she was ready, willing, and glad to relinquish some of her independence to Jay.
They had met at one of those big, fancy gatherings of disparate people in a fancy, renovated loft filled with abstract sculpture, stainless-steel mobiles, sushi, white wine, and buzzing talk. Somebody had made a remark about Jennie's Long Island environment case, and somebody else had casually and hastily introduced Jay. Almost at once they had drifted away by themselves.
"You're a lawyer too?" she asked.
"Yes. With DePuyster, Fillmore, Johnston, Brown, Rosenbaum and Levy."
"Very different from me."
"Very different." He smiled. His eyes held a twinkle of amusement. "Are you thinking that I'm a wicked defender of wicked corporations?"
"I'm not stupid enough to think that corporations are all wicked."
"Good. Because I'd like you to approve of me."
"It's just something I could never imagine myself doing."
"Fair enough. But I do pro bono work also, you know."
"That's good too." She smiled back.
"You're not enjoying this," he said. "All the pop sociology and psychology. You know what it boils down to? 'Look at me, I'm here, listen to me.' When it's all over, you've nothing but a headache to show for the whole evening. Let's leave."
In a quiet bar downtown they sat half the night telling each other all about themselves: their politics, their families; their taste in music, food, books, and movies; their interest in tennis. They liked Zubin Mehta, Woody Allen, Updike, and Dickens. They hated golf, buttery sauces, zoos, and cruises. Something clicked. Afterward they both agreed that they had known it right then, that very night.
The next day he sent flowers. She was touched by the old-fashioned gesture, and expectant as she had never been before. Suddenly it was clear to her that she had never known the possibilities of loving, never known what lay at the core of things. She had only thought she knew.
So it had begun.
She had come a long, long way since the row house in Baltimore and Pop's delicatessen. A long way from the University of Pennsylvania and its tuition, so painfully eked out. About the time she had graduated from the university, her father became ill with a degenerative kidney disease. When he died, she was already twenty-five. Her mother sold the store and with the small proceeds of the sale, plus Pop's small insurance, went to live with her sister in Miami, where the climate was benign and living was cheaper. Then, having saved enough for law school, Jennie went back to Philadelphia and enrolled again at the university.
She had no time to waste, for she had lost four years. She was all purpose, working hard and seldom playing. At twenty-nine, she graduated with an outstanding record, enough to provide her with a prized clerkship for the following year. The clerkship would have led to a position in an esteemed Philadelphia law firm, if she had wanted it to. But during the intervening hard years, a distinctive character had been formed and a point of view had been taken. The times were ripe for what she wanted to do, and the logical place to do it was, in her mind, New York.
In a modest neighborhood downtown near Second Avenue, she established an office, two rooms sublet in space belonging to a striving partnership of three young men who were just barely out of law school themselves and eager to get a footing in criminal law. Having no interest in family cases or the particular problems of women, they were glad to refer all such to Jennie. So she began and gradually was able to build a reputation as a dedicated, caring, tough defender of women's rights, especially those of the poor.
And the years went by then in the style of the times and the place. She went to consciousness-raising groups, learning something from them, and left them behind. Like Shirley, she had her share of men, who were bright and fun but wanted no permanence. She fell briefly in love–or thought she did–with a nice young man who finally, half in tears, confessed that he had tried hard, but he really preferred nice young men, after all. She was pursued by one or two decent men who would have married her and whom she would have married if only she could have loved them. She met a charming man who adored her but had no intention of divorcing his wife. Somehow nothing worked out. So she was thankful to have her work and all the good things that the city afforded, the ballet and opera at Lincoln Center, the first-run foreign movies, jogging on Sundays in the park, Fifth Avenue bookstores, Italian trattorias in the Village, and courses at the New School.
A busy life it had been, a productive and useful one, but it had led nowhere in particular, and when all was said and done, there had been a coolness at its heart.
Until Jay had come into it. Almost two years it was now, and here they were.
Her reflections ended, Jennie wiped the pearls as she had been advised to do, laid them carefully on their velvet cushion, and hid the box under her nightgowns. Undressed, she regarded herself in the full-length mirror on the bathroom door. Not bad. She had never had much trouble keeping her weight down, which was a blessing because she loved food, good rich pastas and lots of bread. No flab, either, thanks to tennis and running. Humming to herself, she whirled and did a little dance in front of the mirror. Happy, happy–
The telephone rang.
"Is this Janine Rakowsky?" Janine. Nobody except her mother called her that anymore.
"Yes," she answered cautiously.
"My name is James Riley." The voice was courteous and refined. "I know that what I'm going to say will startle you, but–"
Mom. An accident in Florida. Mom's hurt. In the flash of a second, brakes yelp. Rain glitters on the highway. Sirens. Police converge. An ambulance comes racing. Red lights revolve.
"What is it? What's happened?"
"No, no," the man said quickly. "Nothing bad. I'm sorry I frightened you. It's just this. I represent a service for adoptees. We're called Birth Search. You've probably heard about us."
"I don't believe so." She was puzzled. "Are you in need of an attorney?"
"Oh, no. This isn't a legal matter. It's this way–"
She seemed to see the man settled back for a lengthy explanation, and so she interrupted quietly. "I'm an attorney, so since it's not a legal matter, I really don't have time to talk. I'm sorry–"
Now it was he who, with equal quietness, interrupted. "If you'll just give me a minute or two, I'll explain. You're aware, I'm sure, of the numbers of adoptees who are now seeking their natural parents. So many organizations have sprung up to help, of which ours is just one, and we–"
A long sigh quivered in Jennie's chest. "I give as much to charity as I can afford. If you'll send me a brochure describing your work, I'll read it," she said.
The man wasn't about to let go. "This isn't a call for charity, Miss Rakowsky." There was a long pause. When he spoke again, it was almost a whisper. "You gave birth to a girl nineteen years ago."
Seconds passed. The second hand jerked and ticked on the desk clock. Small crackling sounds came over the wire, or maybe they were the sounds of blood rushing in the arteries.
"She's been searching for more than a year. She wants to see you."
I'm going to be sick, Jennie thought. I'm going to faint. She sat down.
"I called you at home rather than at your office, since this is so personal."
She couldn't speak.
"Are you there? Miss Rakowsky?"
"No!" A terrible sound tore out of Jennie's throat, as if she had been cut without anesthesia. "No! It's impossible! I can't!"
"I understand. Yes. Of course this is a shock to you. That's why your daughter wanted us–me–to call first." A pause. "Her name is Victoria Miller. She's called Jill. She's here in the city, a sophomore at Barnard."
Cold fingers ran on Jennie's spine. Her leaping, crazy heart accelerated.
"It's impossible. . . . For God's sake, don't you see it's impossible? We don't know each other."
"That's the point, isn't it? That you ought to know each other?"
"It's not the point! I put her in good hands. Do you think I would have let them give her away to just anybody? Do you?"
Now Jennie's voice squealed and ended with a sobbing breath.
"No, I certainly don't think you would, but–"
"Why? Is there something wrong with her? Has something happened to her?"
"Not a thing. She's quite happy and well adjusted."
"There! You see? I told you! So she has a family, they're taking care of her. What does she want with me? I never even saw her face. I–" Clutching the phone, Jennie sank to the floor and leaned against the desk for support.
"Yes, she has a family, a very good one. But she wants to know you. Isn't it natural for her to want to know who you are?" The voice was quiet and reasonable.
"No! No! It's over, it's ancient history. Everything was settled. When things are settled, leave them alone. I couldn't have taken care of her then! You don't know what it was like! I had to give her away. I–"
"No one is saying a word about that, Miss Rakowsky, it's well understood. We're all professionals here, psychologists and social workers, and we do understand. I understand you. Believe me, I do."
Sweat poured on Jennie's palms and all over her body. The sweat, the racing heart, and the weakness in her legs were terrifying in themselves. She had to pull herself together, had to; she couldn't collapse here, have a heart attack alone–
"Jill is a delightful young woman, very intelligent," the voice coaxed. "You would–"
"No, I said! There's no sense in it! We can't just–just start up after nineteen years. Oh, please!" Now she wept. "Please tell her it's impossible. Tell her to be happy and to leave me alone. Forget this. It's better for her the way it is. I know it's better. Please. For God's sake, go away and leave me alone! Oh, please!"
"Miss Rakowsky, I won't bother you anymore now. Take a few days to think it over. I believe, if you try, you'll understand it's not such a bad thing, not a tragedy. I'll talk to you again."
"No! I don't want to talk to you again. I–"
The connection was broken.
She laid her back against the desk, holding the dead phone in her lap. Her heart still hammered so fiercely that she could hear it in her ears.
"Oh, my God!" she said aloud. "Oh, my God!" She closed her eyes and put her head down between her knees.
"I'm going to vomit, I'm going to faint. . . ."
When she opened her eyes, the pattern on the big chair was spinning. Brown, white, and black circles, squares, dots, and stars flickered and flashed. She closed her eyes again, squeezing the lids against the eyeballs.
All these years. I didn't want to remember her. I had to forget her, didn't I? And sometimes I did forget her. But other times? I don't dare think of the other times . . .
"Don't you see?" she cried out into the silent room, cried out to no one, to everyone, to the world, the fates. "Don't you see?
"Oh, my God . . ." she sobbed. With her hands over her face, she rocked and sobbed.
After a long while then, her mind began to click. She summoned it now, the little machine in her head, to take control lest she fly apart and scatter in broken pieces.
Think, Jennie. You can't afford to panic. There's an intelligent way of handling everything, isn't there? You always tell other people so. Now tell yourself. Think.
The phone rang again. Muffled in the folds of her bathrobe, it sounded far away.
"You didn't call me," Jay said.
She went blank. "Call?"
"Your line was busy."
"Yes, it was a client."
"Must they bother you on Sunday too?"
"Well it happens sometimes." She began to babble. "The landlord's been harassing the woman. It's awful. And Shirley was here, so I couldn't use the phone, anyway. She just left this minute. I couldn't get rid of her."
Jay laughed. "She'll miss you, that one. Oh, wasn't this a perfect day? I'm just sitting here thinking about it."
"A perfect weekend. Yes, it was."
"We still haven't gotten your ring. Can I pin you down one afternoon this week?"
How can I just suddenly produce a child? If I had told him the first day–
He spoke again, interrupting her thoughts. "We'll go to Cartier's. It won't take long."
"Jay, I don't need such an expensive ring. Really I don't."
"Jennie, don't be a nuisance, will you? Don't argue with me. Go to sleep. I'm half asleep already. Good night, darling."
She hung up and cried out loud into the room. "My God, what am I going to do?"
Walk into the family all of a sudden with a nineteen-year-old daughter, dropped down from nowhere . . . Jay's babies . . . the wedding just a couple of months away . . . the Wolfes, that decorous, trusting, honorable pair. Liberal. Decent. But never fool yourself, the code behind the pleasant surface is a rigid one. And Jay . . . I've lied. . . . Concealment like this, all this time, is a lie and nothing but. Yes . . . yes.
An intelligent girl, the man had said. Jill, they call her. Why should she want me? I'm the one who gave her away. Poor baby. Given away. She came out of me, out of the very core of me. I heard the newborn squall of protest, and that was all, one pitiable, helpless cry, and then they carried her out, a small wrapped bundle carried out of the room, out of my life. Does she look at all like me? Would I feel any recognition if I were to meet her someplace, not knowing who she is? But I did right. You know you did right, Jennie. And she can't come back into your life now. She can't. It won't work. Think, I told you. But I can't think. I haven't got the strength. I'm drained.
After a while she got up from the floor, turned off the lights, and, still huddled in the bathrobe, lay down on the bed. She had begun to shiver. For a long time she lay with the quilt drawn over her head. Absolutely alone . . .
Alone, just as she had been on that bus heading back east from Nebraska. It felt the same. She could smell the exhaust again and swallow the threat of nausea as the bus swung, lurching too fast through all the monotonous small towns, passing the supermarkets, used-car lots, and malls, going back to pick up a life. Going back . . .
Excerpted from Blessings by Belva Plain. Copyright © 2006 by Belva Plain. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.