“Sophie,” I said. “It’s Steve Axelrod.”
“I knew you’d call back.”
“You also knew I’d be awake at one in the morning.”
“You always said – people don’t change.”
“I was a cocky little punk.”
“And now you’re wise old man.”
“Absolutely. A sage.”
“Okay. So, let’s hear it, Ancient One. Do people change?”
“Never. Not one little bit.”
She laughed. “How’d you get so wise, then?”
“Hey, a little deference to the sage! No follow-up questions.”
“No, tell me.”
“I don’t know – I guess … I mean, you learn things. Hopefully. I’ve been sued and I’ve been fired. I’ve been married and divorced. I know how to burp a baby and change a diaper. I can apologize for the English language to a seven year-old with the best of them. Ever see a little kid try to sound out the word 'laughter'? They're pissed off. They want to know what that 'gh' is doing there."
"What do you tell them?"
"That ‘gh’ is like a house guest that everyone tries to ignore, like their uncle Wally. That the English language makes no sense at all and breaks its own rules constantly, but it's lots of fun. I said that to my daughter. She lit up and said 'Just like you, Daddy!"
"She sounds great."
"She's scary. She could out-argue me at two. I told her no more candy one day — she'd had enough sugar. She turned on me and said ‘Mary Poppins says a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.’ What was I supposed to say to that?"
"Well, you could have made her take some medicine with her candy, or told her she was using a logical fallacy — I think it’s called ‘argument from authority’. But you probably just hugged her and gave her another piece of candy and said ‘But that's absolutely the last one.’”
It was my turn to laugh. That was exactly what had happened. "You're right. That's my weakness as a parent. I reward cleverness. But I adore clever children."
There was a moment or two of companionable silence. I
I was shocked at how easy this was; and how much fun. "Tell me about you," I said. "Have you changed? Do you look different? Have you gone gay? Converted to Buddhism or Scientology?"
"No new religions. These days I think of myself as a sort of lapsed agnostic. I really liked having no opinion on the subject, but the Church just seems more idiotic to me all the time. My parents are Catholics. Did I ever tell you that? Good Catholics. That's the best argument against religion I've ever heard."
"I don't know. I've often wished I could believe in it. Eternal life, absolute right and wrong, all my sins forgiven on a weekly basis."
"But that's the silliest part of it. I could never believe in a God who forgave everyone so easily.”
"Why shouldn't he, though? None of our sins affect him personally. He has no stake in it. I lie and steal, what does he care? He knows the truth. It isn't his money.”
"But take the Lord's name in vain and you're in big trouble."
"Even that doesn't bother him, I bet. You can see how he'd be hard to shock. The guy's omniscient. He's seen it all. Besides, it's all his fault, anyway. He made us this way. If he doesn't like us he should recall us like defective cars."
"It sounds even more nonsensical than usual when you put it that way. "
"Yeah — I get an image of Celestial production line with some middle aged unionized demi-God screwing the arms in and waiting for his coffee break."
She laughed. It was a beautiful sound: surprised, breathless, full-throated, light-hearted. It seemed to forgive the world in a way that God was never quite able to do.
"We got off the subject," I said when her laughter had sighed to silence. "How you look these days?"
"Am I fat? Is my hair green? Have I pierced my belly button?"
"Yeah, give me the dirt."
"There really isn't any. Nothing pierced. No tattoos. My hair is still brown. I'm thinner than I was. I run five miles a day. But I don't do it for exercise. It's like -- meditation. When I pound my body hard enough my mind finally shuts up. Around the third mile I start to get a little peace and quiet.”
"Are you still painting?"
"I have a gallery in SoHo that shows my work, but I haven't been doing much lately. I teach at Smith — art history and some studio courses. Technical stuff. We're doing dry point etching this semester. "
I was listening to her voice more than her words: the music, not the lyrics.
"It's really you," I said.
"I was just thinking the same thing."
"Do you remember the last time we saw each other?"
"Of course I do. I just dug out that poem."
"I can’t believe you kept it."
"Of course I kept it. It’s beautiful."
"But not beautiful enough. I thought you'd be on my doorstep in a week."
I could feel her indulgent smile. "You expect too much from your poems."
"They're meant to be spells, actually."
"But I was in love with someone else a the time – remember?."
"How could I forget — 'madly in love’. I felt like I was dying when you said that. Like you were a doctor giving me the biopsy report."
"But you lived."
I shrugged. "That's true."
"It's worth remembering, Steve. You did fine. You got married.”
There was a pause. Things were shifting between us; high clouds on the move.
"How about you?,” I asked softly.
"Tom and I lasted five years. We're still pretty good friends. He lives in Amherst now. There've been a lot of other people. But I never got married. No kids."
I let the silence gather between us; the fact of her on the other end of the line, waiting for me to speak.
"This is amazing,” I said, finally. “It’s like no time has passed."
"But it has. Twenty years is a long time."
"I used to think so. Now I wonder."
There was a long pause, this new silence ominous somehow, like a dropped call. Was she using a cell? For some reason I thought of her as more old-fashioned than that.
Finally she spoke "I’m living with someone, Steven."
"I'd been alone for more than three years. I just met him a few months ago. It's all been very sudden."
I took a breath and pushed it out slowly, letting it rumble over my heartbeat, like driving over a cattle-crossing.
“I don’t get it. What’s going on? Why did you call me?”
“I’m – I don’t know. I’m confused. I’m sorry, I just -- ”
“Are you in love with him?”
“I don’t know. Yes. I guess I am.”
“But not madly in love.”
“He wants to get married.”
“I don’t know what I want. He wants to have children. Right away. I’m thirty nine years old. I better start soon if I’m ever going to.”
I said nothing. I was thinking back to the time before she had met this man. I had been alone, also — I could have called her then, in the early autumn, if I had known, if I had thought of it, if I hadn’t so completely abandoned thought of her. The timing grated on me. But I thought of something my mother said so often: "You do what you have to do, when you can." She had said it most recently when I was berating myself for staying so long in a dead marriage. "You weren't ready to leave," she had told me, simply. And four months ago I hadn't been ready for a conversation like this — maybe I still wasn't ready.
Maybe I never would be.
If she was getting married it made no difference anyway.
“Bear with me,” I said. “I’m trying to figure this out. You’re feeling old. Forty is around the corner and it suddenly occurred to you that you’re actually going to die some day. You’ve been thinking about the past, Your shrink told you to get ‘closure’ – or whatever term they’re using now. So this is just a check-the-box moment, taking the old mid-life inventory.”
“No! That’s not it.”
“So, what then? Revenge? I dumped you all those years ago, it still stings and -- ”
“No, no -- ”
Silence. I could feel her pulling herself together.
“I still love you.”
“What about -- ?”
“Eric. His name is Eric.”
“What about him?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t seem real tonight.”
He couldn’t quite stop; not yet.
“Is he living with you?”
“He’s moving out.”
“Does he know about that?”
A pause. “Not yet. But he will.”
“You’re kicking him out?”
“I – yeah. I guess so. Yes.”
“Because of this call?:
“Because of a lot of things, Steve. I probably shouldn’t have let him stay here in the first place. Everything happened too fast. I didn’t really know him. He has a cold constantly and he leaves trails of tissues all over the house. He doesn’t read. We had a January thaw a few weeks ago, and I said something about the little balloon man whistling far and wee and he just stared at me. He’s never even heard of e.e. cummings How am I supposed to live with someone who’s never heard of e.e. cummings? And there’s more. He bought me a vacuum cleaner for my birthday. He hates Brazilian music. And he’s a hunter. He hunts deer with a bow and arrow, ‘nails them right through the thorax’, that’s what he told me. And he has a temper.”
“He must be great looking.”
“Sophie -- ”
“I know what you’re thinking. You don’t have to say it.”
“I haven’t changed either. I have, though. I know when I’m making mistakes now. And I fix them. That’s why I’m ending this. That’s why I called. And you know it. That’s why we’re still talking.”
“All right. You’re right. It’s true.”
The silence breathed between us again, some frantic grip seemed to release us, as if the wind had dropped off, no longer flailing curtains and scattering papers through the open windows, thrashing the trees outside; leaving the world to the soft tug of gravity. Everything dangled in the vertical calm, unruffled, pressed toward the center.
A motorcycle roared past on Helen’s Drive, heading for Bartlett Road. The dog next door started barking wildly at the noise. Two more dogs joined in the chorus, protecting their houses, doing their jobs
I spoke into the faint rush of static.
“Let me tell you what I decided when I turned forty. I made a plan.”
“What was it?"
"The basic idea is … to figure out which things and people in my life are worth the trouble -- and then take it."
"I like that."
"Good. Because somehow you just sneaked onto the top of the list.”
Had I said too much? Fuck it. Keeping my feelings to myself had killed my marriage. I didn't mind making mistakes but I wanted to make only new mistakes from now on.
I was tired of the old ones.
“I’m not as much trouble as I used to be,” she said.
"I want to see you."
"Come here — just for the day. I'll pay your travel expenses. Drive down to Hyannis and get on the boat. You could take a weekend -- take next weekend. Get an early start on Saturday. You could be here by noon and leave on Sunday night. We could have two days together. What's the worst that can happen?"
“Don’t ask!. There are so many ways it could go wrong. I’m smitten and you feel nothing. You’re smitten and I feel nothing. Or we both feel nothing or I wind up loving you but not enough or vice versa. What if we’re both just … making this up? What if we have nothing to say to each other?”
I had to smile. “I don’t think that will be a problem.’
Another silence slipped by. She was deciding.
“I’ll come,” she said. “I have to check my class schedule. It might have to be two weeks. But I’ll be there. I’ll call and tell you as soon as I figure everything out. I’ll come for the weekend.”
I felt suddenly winded, as if I’d just run upstairs. “Great,” I managed.
“We’re really doing this. I get a chill just saying it. I hope that’s a good thing.”
“It’s a good thing. It may be the best thing.”
“I have to go. It was good to hear your voice, Steven. And it’s nice to say your name. I’ll do it again. Steven.”
“I like the sound of that. Bye, Steven. I’ll call you.”
And she hung up.
I hung up myself and stared down at the phone for a moment. My coffee was cold, but that was the last thing I needed right now. There was a jitter in my hands as I washed the mug. What I needed was a sedative.
I drove to my job site the long way, cruising out to ‘Sconset and back on the Milestone road. I knew I was going to be late and I didn’t care. My crew knew what they were doing. I had spring fever, senior syndrome, all the anarchistic maladies of late adolescence. I was happy in a way I hadn’t been for years. Part of me remained suspicious. I knew very little about Sophie now, after all. Perhaps I had never really known her.
But she was coming to Nantucket. I knew that much. She was coming to see me for no other reason than the thrill in her blood from a long-distance phone call. That one fact about her revealed so much. Her spirit was still intact; she still had the old buccaneering indifference to ordinary rules and expectations.. It answered something wild in me, it was a jolt from a long-lost part of my own past, when I had flung myself forward by just this sort of impulse, running on feeling and instinct, knowing my choices were right just because they felt that way.
Just hearing her voice after all this time … I suddenly had an idea for a poem. And I scribbled it down on the back of an envelope:
The phone rings four times,
Then I hear you
I gulp your voice
Across the telephone line --
You are mine for a moment
Cool and liquid
Against the hollow dry,
Speaking an ordinary sentence
From a distant town.
On a parched summer day
On an empty stomach
You can feel that first swallow of water
All the way
Not a great poem, but a poem, the first one since that initial burst of inspiration when the kids were born.
I wrote in my journal that night:
Sometimes falling in love is a sort of awe-struck passive thing, like watching a giant summer rainstorm boiling up, barometric pressure dropping, sky turning to tin, sunlight pale and glassy, thunderheads piling, ozone sizzling in the air, foretaste of the downpour riding the exhaling breeze, running along your bare arms, better than the real thing. It all swirls around you and there’s nothing you can do but pay attention. If you don’t get inside you’re going to be drenched, but you want to be drenched, you crave it. And if you allow yourself to get soaked, you can own the sidewalks of a big city for a while, as all the rich yuppies cower in the doorways and under the awnings, glancing at their watches, waiting for normal, running late. With your clothes dripping and your shoes squishing, you laugh at them and it’s fair, you should be laughing at them, because for that moment at least, you’re alive and they’re not. That’s how I feel tonight – sopping wet, blissful, superior. Like I was nineteen again. But smarter.”
I went to bed but I couldn’t sleep.
Something big was coming, and it was bringing the poetry with it.