Sunday, July 12, 2009

The One Who Got Away: April Fools

t seemed like the beginning, but endings often do. That’s optimism at work – the technique we use to shape the present with the future, sharpening it into an illusion of progress – kind of like using a knife to whittle a stick, until it’s pared away to nothing.

You’re not wandering around, lost in the dark: you’re a man on a mission. But here’s the problem: If your present needs so much help, there’s probably no future in it anyway.

If you’re confident you don’t need optimism; if you’re happy you don’t need hope.

So when I say that going to visit Sophie Zambarano “I was full of bright hope and boyish optimism,” does your spirit sag a little? Does the flicker of impending tragedy make you flinch?

Good for you. I wish I’d been as smart. Part of me does anyway. The rest of me envies that guy, flying in Byron Crane’s Cessna over Nantucket Sound on a bright May morning, with new life over the horizon line -- heading for the second calamitous heartbreak in the space of less than a year.

Ignorance may be bliss. But bliss is a great thing, maybe the greatest thing. Bliss has its own prerogatives, it stakes out its own territory, no matter what else happens. Cherish the bliss: that’s the lesson of this story, if it has one: cherish the bliss. You don’t get much of it and it never lasts.

So anyway …

I was flying to Northampton full of bright hope and boyish optimism. And I was already in trouble, I just didn’t know it yet. Without much effort, I had sowed some serious chaos at home. I couldn’t ask Lisa to take care of the kids – I didn’t even want her to know what I was doing. But trying to keep a secret in a small town is like trying to keep a Chihuahua in a no-pets apartment.

My friend Jack had agreed to take the kids for the day, but couldn’t pick them up until noon. Until then, they were staying with Caroline’s best friend. I had been involved with the mother briefly, before my divorce was final. My affair with Sasha had ended badly, but she retained enough compassion to do me the favor. Mostly she just liked my kids. Still, she drew her boundaries strictly: she had to be at work by twelve o’clock, and couldn’t afford to be a minute late.

I flew off the island at nine, after hurried thank-yous and an awkward hug. I left a message for Jack, reminding him of the schedule, but It was all very tenuous, very much on-the-fly.

These kinds of arrangements, with so much required co-ordination and so many emotional cross-currents, seem to have failure built in to them -- some kind of inherent chaos, like the the alcolholism marker in a drunkard’s DNA.

So of course Jack was two hours late and it cascaded from there. Sasha had to call in sick to work and she finally lost her temper. She upset the kids, and Caroline called Lisa, who had to pick them up, and the whole roiling swamp of resentment, anger and frustration was waiting for me when I got home that night, after one of the most joyous and carefree days of my life.

Lisa called it ‘instant karma’ – a song she’d always hated by the way. But maybe she was right.

Those were the innocent days before I got a cell phone, so I could still enjoy that exotic, nearly extinct luxury: being out of touch.

It was a perfect day to be on my own –- an early Spring afternoon that turned the dingy brick stonework of Northampton gay and glamorous, transformed like my Mom, some evening when I was ten and she was a crone of forty, dressed up for a date, dancing around the apartment like a teenager.

Love will do that to you.

Sophie met me at the airport in her battered Volvo. She jumped out of the car and ran to meet me, wearing a light summer dress short enough to show off her slim runner’s legs.

We embraced, I felt the length of her against me, the heat of her body through the thin fabric, the scent of her hair in my nostrils.

“You came,” she said.

I spoke to her neck: “Air mail special delivery.”

Byron slugged my shoulder. “You have six hours, Cap. Meter’s running.”

“Do you need a ride somewhere?” Sophie asked him.

“No, I’m good. I like airports.”

He gave his watch one more warning tap and started off toward the main hangar.

We climbed into the car and I sat back on the warm vinyl, folded into the scent of Sophie's Bearnese Mountain dog, as we took off in a cloud of dust. Sophie drove fast, but efficiently, with both hands on the wheel. I closed my eyes for a second and the sun pressed down on them like a warm towel.

When I opened my eyes again to look at her I felt weightless and dizzy. Maybe it was the mild air, or the rush of travel, the sudden jolt as anticipation banged up against reality, like rear-ending another car at a cross-walk, in front of an unexpected pedestrian. More likely, it was the sight of Sophie’s thighs, caressed by the hem of her skirt in the breeze from the car window.

“You’re staring at me,” she said, lightly. She didn’t seem to mind.

“I prefer ogling. It’s funnier.”

“Ogle. What a crazy language to have a verb like that.”

“Actually, I was thinking of starting a porn magazine called Ogle. And then opening a newsstand just to hear people ask for it.”

She drove in silence for a while, and I continued to watch her: the beautiful, but vaguely simian profile: high forehead, snub nose, big lips, the mane of hair thrashing in the wind the car created out of the still Pioneer Valley air. We were driving between wide ploughed fields and the sharp smell of fertilizer spiked the breeze. I could feel her mood changing. The sun passed behind a cloud, throwing the road into shadow.

“What?” I said.

“Nothing, it’s just – I didn’t want to seduce you today. Then I wear this dress. And the sexiest underwear I own. See?”

She flipped up the edge of the dress. I looked and then looked away.

“You’re such a gentleman,” she said.

“A gentleman wouldn’t have looked at all.”

“I took you by surprise.”

“I won’t have that excuse next time.”


She slid the skirt up again and this time I let myself stare at the sheer, pale blue triangle: she was a micron of transparent silk away from naked. The urge to dive between her legs was overwhelming. But her playfulness had vanished as quickly as it arrived.

“You see? I can’t help myself. It’s pathetic.”

I was about to say, Pathetic? Most women would kill for legs like that; but I thought better of it. She didn’t need a compliment and it sounded like flirting was part of the problem. I studied her; she watched the road. The silence felt foreign, an un-translated pause, like eavesdropping on the Dover-Calais ferry: some tense Finnish couple catching their breath.

Sophie started to speak and then stopped.

“Most people would like being seduced,” I said. “I don’t see -- ”

“But I do it with everyone. The lady at the drug store counter, The paper boy, the old man next door. Everybody. I even know why, I’ve had the million hours of therapy, I know all my syndromed and issues and pathologies. I learned them by heart. It all comes from my father – seduction was the only way to please him, and it worked really well, so I never learned any other techniques. But knowing that stuff doesn’t help me. It doesn’t get me anywhere. It doesn’t change anything. I’m still flashing my old boyfriend when I should be just – just talking to him, getting to know him getting to know – us. Whoever that is, those people, that couple, I mean –- if we were ever going to … if this ever works out.”

“We’re talking now.”

“I’m just dumping on you. Telling you crazy stuff no one wants to hear. That wasn’t the plan, you know? This was supposed to be a fun day and then -- ”

“— we got to know each other. Which really is fun, Sophie. At least for me. I want to hear it and so do you.So, okay -- my turn. I realized the other day, I lied to my wife about everything, every minute, every day for years I prided myself on being honest – I never cheated on her, things like that. Big things. But I’m talking about then little things—what I was reading, what I watched on TV when she was out with her friends, what I was thinking, who I was talking to on the phone, where I got gas, what I had for lunch … what I thought about politics and movies and Brussells Sprouts and women’s tennis -- everything. I just didn’t want her to know. I knew she’d have an opinion and I didn’t wan to hear it. So I took the easy way out. But I’m still doing it. That’s what kills me. The other day Tommy was with me and he was too sick to go to school. I was working alone, painting this nine-bedroom house. The owners show up once a year for two weeks in August and that’s it. So I took Tommy with me and set him up in the downstairs guest room. I didn’t tell Lisa and when the school called her to check about getting him his homework. She freaked out. She had the number of the house where I was working. I picked up when I heard her voice on the answering machine. I told her that I had stayed home most of the morning with Tommy, that I had been planning to call her in a few minutes, that I’d tried to reach the doctor and left a message on his office voice mail – all lies. Tommy had a cold – that’s it. No need to waste money on a doctor. I knew it would get worse if he went to school, and he’d pass it around to all his friends. But for Lisa, you drag your ass to school unless you’re so sick you have to be hospitalized. Nothing in between. I told her he was drinking orange juice and I’d given him some children’s Tylenol, because I knew that’s what Lisa would have done. I hate those drugs, especially Tylenol. And orange juice gives Tommy indigestion. But I didn’t want to argue. I told her what she wanted to hear and hung up. The words just flowed out – I didn’t even have to think about it, I was so practiced, so expert. Regular little lying machine. And I realized I’d been doing that constantly, for more than a decade. It was a weird little epiphany. It kind of made me sick. I couldn’t think of a single true thing I’d said to her since – since, I don’t know when. Now that’s bizarre. You want to talk about crazy? That’s crazy. I didn’t even tell her I was coming here today.”

“It sounds like you’re scared of her.”

“Are you kidding? I’m terrified. She’s a monster and you tip-toe past her lair. You don’t want the dragon to wake up.”

“Why would you marry a person like that?”

“Well … she wasn’t like that when I married her. I guess we built this particular monster together. I’m sure she could give you a complete list of the ways I hurt, frustrated and disappointed her. For one thing, I was supposed to be a successful writer who could give her an unlimited number of houses to fill with art and furniture. That was the real betrayal. All those un-purchased three thousand dollar couches start to add up, after a few years.”

“That’s so sad.”

“I guess But what’s even sadder is that if I had succeeded? We’d still be married now. I know that kind of Hollywood marriage. I saw a million of them when I was growing up. Nobody talks, everybody cheats. The men work and the women shop. That’s it. These huge ostentatious houses jammed next to each other on Benedict Canyon and Doheny. Rich people watching other people being rich, playing who’s richer. Ugh. I have friends out there living that way now. I called one of them the other day and got his answering machine. ‘Hi, you’ve reached the Feldmans. Bill is out making money and Ellen is out spending it.’”

Sophie laughed.

“It’s like Bill Feldman always says – ‘it’s only funny because it’s true.’”

We drove along in silence for a while, in the bright morning air.

“So have you stopped lying?” she asked, finally.

“Absolutely. I made a decision – from now on, only new mistakes. I‘m tired of the old ones.”

“I don’t know. That sounds good, but it doesn’t really solve anything. I’ve been making new mistakes for years, and I never seem to run out.”

“Like today?”

She smiled. “No I would categorize this as an old mistake.”

“But it feels right.”

“It always did.”

I reached out, brushed her skirt aside and pressed my palm to her bare thigh. She, pressed my hand down with her own, a perfect physical haiku of her ambivalence: she was welcoming me, affirming the touch; and at the same time restricting a further caress.

We pulled into her driveway, screened from the house by an untrimmed hedge. The house itself was big but teetering, like some tall, old-money Nantucketer, walking up Main Street with excruciating caution, after a night of drinking at the Club Car. The house sagged a little, its big second story bay window leaning down to interrogate the visitor. The place needed a paint job badly; but I always notice that stuff first and chose not to mention it today. The porch tilted a little, but it was nicely arranged with Adirondack chairs and a hammock. Inside the house smelled of herbs and old books and of course the dog, who greeted us effusively, despite his age. The furniture was old – big couches, deep arm chairs, antique tables, most of it scavenged from yard sales. The house felt comfortable, though we never made it upstairs and I didn’t get to see her bedroom. We had tea in the kitchen and then set out to see the town.

We wandered down Riverside drive past the ball fields and through the Smith College campus. The lawns were greening out and the pond which Sophie told had been dredged the winter before, looked inviting enough to swim in. Some boats were out on the water and we could see the boathouse on the pond’s little island, through the screen of trees.

“They say Emily Dickinson wrote poems on this lawn,” Sophie said, leaning back on her elbows, squinting into the glitter.

“So maybe ‘Paradise’ was written about the pond?”

“No, it was about her. Like all her poems. ‘Eden aint so lonesome as New England used to be.’ She probably never came here at all. Everyone claims Emily Dickinson in the Pioneer Valley. She’s our only celebrity. We're so puny.”

We walked up Elm Street to Child’s Park; Sophie wanted me to see the lion fountain. The flower beds hadn’t begun to bloom yet, but we had the quiet little park to ourselves and the lion was definitely worth the trip.

“He reminds me of you,” Sophie said.

“Stony-faced, in need of a hair-cut and drooling?”

She punched me. “Proud and handsome. Leonine.”

“But male lions are lazy shits. They lie around and let the lionesses do all the work.”

“I’ll have to check with your ex-wife about that.”

“Please don’t.”

We stood and stretched, and kept walking. I was getting hungry. She took my hand as we window-shopped on Main Street, and led me to Spoleto for lunch. We shared a thin-crust pizza and she let me talk about my kids. By the time our coffee arrived her mood had shifted again.

“Eric called last night. He knew something was up. He could hear it in my voice.”

“Did you tell him the truth?”

“I told him I was sick. I did sort of feel sick, talking to him.”

I sipped my coffee, not wanting to make the obvious point. After a few seconds and shook her head as if she was coming up from underwater, and let out a long breath with a little smile tagging after it, like a day-dreaming younger sibling.

“Yeah, okay. I’m lying all the time too.”

“It’s a big club.”

She sighed. “Is there a club house?”

“Today it’s your house.”

She looked down. “I’m going out to Alberta to see him next week. April 5th.”

“That’s actually just four days from now.”

“’next week’ sounds further away.”

“Can you get out of it?”

She didn’t say anything.

“Do you want to?”

“I have to see him, Steve. I can’t sort this all out until I see him.”


“It’s okay. I really don’t want to go. But it’s all decided. He pulled string to get me a discounted ticket. I can’t imagine any possible excuse. You’re a writer – and an ex-liar. Any ideas?

“I’ve got nothing. And anyway you’re right. You need to see him.”

I paid the check and we left.

We were lying in her hammock when the subject came up again.

“I guess I’m a little scared of him, too. I don’t want to hurt him … and you never know about men. They turn into stalkers. And this guy hunts with a bow and arrow.”

“You mentioned that. Through the thorax.”

“Not that I’m really worried …”

“Lying is just easier.”

“The lazy lioness.”

“You said it, not me.”

“It’s true.”

We rocked back and forth.

“I bet you’ve broken hearts all over the Pioneer Valley,” I said

She shifted herself over to face me. “Not just men, either.”

I must have looked surprised. “I experimented a little. Years ago. I’ve actually made love in this hammock.”


“It’s difficult but possible. If the spirit is willing.”

I rolled over, and kissed her, grabbing the edge of the hammock for leverage. She kissed me back, but pulled away when my hand cupped her breast.

“Steve -- ”

“It feels wrong.”

“It feels confusing. And you have to leave any second.”

She was right. Byron was waiting at the airport. The day had evaporated.

We disentangled ourselves and found our way out to the car. On the way to the airport I said, “You know, if you had told me not to come, I would have come anyway.”


I nodded.

“That is so cool.”

“But a little stalker-ish.”

She said “Shhh,” and pulled over just to kiss me.

We came up for air and I felt flimsy and flapping, clean and sunshot, like a sheet on a clothesline. I was catching my breath when she said, “I got you something. It’s on the back seat.”

She reached back for a little box, wrapped in flowered paper, and handed it to me with mock ceremony.

“What is it?”

“Open it.”

I pulled the paper off and opened the lid of the box. Inside, on a bed of tissue paper, was an delicate knife with a narrow slanted blade and an intricately worked ivory handle. It was lovely but puzzling.

“It’s an eraser knife. People used them for scratching out fountain pen ink. You still write with a fountain pen, don’t you?”

I nodded. There was a note. I folded it away to read later.

Byron was annoyed with me when we finally pulled up – as was everyone else in my life, though I didn’t know it yet. We got out of the car together. A quick hug and a hasty kiss, just brushing her lips; then I was jogging toward Byron. The plane was ready to go.

Sophie waved as we took off toward the mountains, a diminishing figure on the grassy airstrip. Byron wasn’t in the mood to talk for the moment, at least. The silence suited me. I unfolded Sophie’s note.

A secret weapon for you, she wrote. To eradicate the indelible.

But that had never been my mission. Was it hers? The phrase struck an ominous note. I looked down into the early spring dusk, the hilly landscapes shrinking as we gained altitude, and realized with an irrational shiver that it was April Fool’s Day.

No comments: