Friday, April 10, 2009

The One Who Got Away: The Survivor's Tale, Part One

‘Where should I sleep?” Sophie asked me.

“In my bed?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I took a breath. “Look, we don’t have to do anything. I don’t want to pressure you. I just want to lie down next to you. I just want to hold you for a while. That’s all. Even New England Puritans allowed that. They called it ‘bundling’. Wear a nightgown – wear a flannel nightgown, it doesn’t matter. Just lie down with me for a while.”

She nodded, looking down.

I went to the bathroom and when I came out I saw her clothes, neatly laid out on a chair – pants, shirt and sweater, filmy underwear, plain white bra. The sight stopped my breathing for a second, but I didn’t enjoy the feeling: the last time I had kissed her in a restaurant, she had said “We aren’t going to make love tonight,” and she has said much the same thing a few minutes ago. History was repeating itself, every bit as dull and obnoxious as a drunk in a bar, telling the same old story one more time.

“How often are we going to do this?” I asked as I walked into the bedroom. Only her head was visible above the covers. “I mean … is this going to come around every fifteen years? Because I don’t know if I’ll be up for it at fifty-five.”

I could see the old mischief in her smile, hear it in her voice, when she answered. ‘Sure you will.”

And of course she was right. I’d always be up for this; hobbling around the old folks’ home, I’d be up for it. I’d invite her into my deathbed for a last quickie. I turned off the light, undressed and climbed into bed. She wasn’t wearing a flannel nightgown. It was something short and silky; I could feel the warm length of her legs against mine. She shivered. “You’re cold.”

“Not for long.”

I lay on my back. She tucked her self under my arm and we lay there for a long time, listening to the wind push against the house, the faint almost subliminal rumble of the surf against the south shore. The clock was ticking on the bedside table, but I didn’t want to think about time passing. Sophie Zambarano was in my bed and I wanted the moment to last. She was difficult, tentative, frustrating, but I couldn’t help smiling. Despite everything she was lying in the crook of my arm, her breath on my shoulder. It was fantastic. It gave me hope about everything, made me believe in all the wild possibilities, all the long shots. Maybe we could hold this together, make a life together. The fantasy flared up in vivid mundane details: our answering machine outgoing message, for instance. “Hi, this is Steve, If you have a message for Sophie or myself, leave a message at the beep.” If that was possible, nothing was out of the question. I could support myself with my writing, keep my car clean, learn to speak Italian. Who knew?

After what might have been an twenty minutes or two hours the urge to touch her grew overwhelming. I pitied the Puritans: bundling sucked. I propped myself up on one elbow and leaned down to kiss her lightly on the lips. She lifted her head to meet me then put her arms around my neck and pulled me down into the real thing, a deep wet hungry kiss that made me think, with the small part of my mind that was still rational, this is sex, actual intercourse would be an afterthought to this kind of intimacy. But at the same moment I knew it wasn’t enough. I had to be inside her. I ran my hand over the warm silk and down her thigh to the hem of the fabric. I slipped my hand under it, learning her thigh with my fingertips as if the secret of life were written there in Braille.

Then I felt it again: she was withdrawing, tensing up. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t ask me to stop, but I was losing her. I settled on my back again, stroked her shoulder.

“You don’t want this.”

“Yes I do.” She spoke to my pectoral muscle.

“Look me in the eye and say that again.”

She faced me, but said nothing. She seemed impossibly sad in the pale wash of moonlight from the window,

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, no, don’t be. But I should sleep in the kids’ room.”

“But --”

“If I stay in this bed I won’t be able to sleep. That’s one thing I know for sure.”


She extricated herself from my arm, and slipped out of the bed.

I watched her leave, a shadow moving in the dark.

I’m still not sure why I woke up that night. Normally only a problem with my children could rouse me in the middle of the night. But that was Darwinian lizard-brain stuff hardwired into the fact of parenthood. You never slept soundly again, once your kids were born. But this was different. Apart from anything else, there was no sound, apart from the steady rasp of the wind. I pushed the button on top of the clock to light up the face: twenty after three. I knew Sophie wasn’t in the house, but I checked the kids’ room anyway. Both beds were empty. I got dressed, thinking there was at least one advantage to living on an inconvenient island, thirty miles off the coast. Late night spur-of-the moment panic flight was pretty much impossible. That was something, because Sophie could bolt in a split second, like a deer into the trees. If I lived in Hyannis she would have been halfway back to Northampton by now, hurtling down the Mass Pike with the car radio on, predawn BBC broadcasts on Public Radio, talking about unrest in Africa.

She was sitting on the front step, wearing jeans, bulky sweater, and some kind of barn jacket. I stepped out into the cold and she moved a little to make room for me.

“You have so many stars here,” she said. “Lots more than in Northampton.”

“Too many lights in the big city.”

“And it’s so quiet.”

“But you couldn’t sleep.”

“I dozed a little.”

I had nothing to say. I was happy just sitting there.

“You’re looking at me,” she said.

“It’s been fifteen years. I’ve got some making-up to do.”

She reached over and covered my eyes. “Watch with me with your eyes closed.”

The rest of the couplet came instantly: “It scares you to be so exposed.”

She laughed. “That’s right. It’s a poem.”

“I’ll write the rest of it for you sometime.”

“I’d like that. But I meant it.”

She withdrew her hand but I kept my eyes closed. “This is easy,”: I said. “I’ve been doing it for years.”

“God! You say the most … flagrant things. And anyway you’re lying.”

“I am not. It happens all the time. I’ll be nodding off at a school play and suddenly there’s your face.”

She took my hand. The steady north-east wind pushed at us, carrying, the Atlantic with it, the relentless waves in the distance beyond the pine trees that bordered my little subdivision, crumbling the edges of the night.

Sophie took my hand. “What are we doing here? What are we supposed to -- ”

“We’re supposed to hold hands. Just like this We’re supposed to talk. Tomorrow we’re supposed to sleep late and make coffee and eat breakfast and read the New York Times –

“Steven -- ”


“This is impossible.”

“What is? What’s impossible?”

“I don’t know. Everything.”

“Wrong. Sorry, but you’re over-reaching a little there. I can tell you with absolute certainty – some things are indeed possible. That’s a verifiable scientific fact.”

She smiled, shook her head a little, looking down. “Okay, okay. Let’s walk a little.”

We stood and started up the empty street, holding hands. A couple of dogs raised their heads as we passed by, but they were too sleepy to bark or follow us. The only sound on the little cul-de-sac was a flag rope, slapping against its pole in the wind. It was a lonely sound, a coded message no one would ever understand.

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