Saturday, August 22, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce: Siblings

The transformation started with the kids.

Despite the divorce, with its bitterness resentments, we had launched ourselves into an extraordinary collaboration, a grand project that demoted our personal feelings into irrelevance.

Children had always been status changers. Carrie’s arrival had shifted everything, splitting Lisa’s nuclear family and settling her mother and father in the distant role of grandparents, turning us from lovers into care-givers, reducing our friends without kids to acquaintances. Everyone took a hit. Even Carrie herself, when Tommy arrived: knocked down from her privileged ‘only child’ status into the gritty world of sharing toys and sibling rivalry.

Now things had changed again, though perhaps it was a promotion this time. Lisa and I had remained partners, where we might have easily have become strangers when the statute of limitations of curiosity and even courtesy lapsed between us. Instead we found ourselves still working together, still raising two kids, in two separate households with two sets of rules. We went to the chorus performances and the band concerts together, attended the grim teacher meetings and fall orientations at Nantucket High School, explained to the teachers there that Tom’s lack of interest was boredom, not ADD, protested when Caroline’s math teacher (“I’ve never actually worked in a school situation before”) refused to read her homework assignments.

We had a job to do and we were still doing it. But we had a short-hand for our communications, developed over more than twenty years. It turned out we were good at being divorced. We no longer chafed against each other; living apart had liberated us from the need to fix each other. She could be a spendthrift, I could be a slob – at opposite sides of the island it didn’t really matter.

We still argued and struggled. But we remained a team, with a shared goal: not totally fucking up the extraordinary creatures we had somehow brought into the world.

And then, after my infatuation with Sophie Zambarano, we started talking again. We gossiped about our love-lives, we commiserated, we gave each other advice. It made sense: no one was better qualified. We had known each other longer than anyone else. Together and apart, we had been in love since our second year in college. She knew my body before the bicycle accident that permanently damaged my back; I knew hers before the breast reduction surgery, and after it; no other man had been with her on both sides of that transformation.

She knew my father and step-mother, who never even met our kids; I knew her Mom before she contracted rheumatoid arthritis. I knew her brother in the troubled years before he committed suicide.

She knew me before I went out to Hollywood, cocky with nepotism, and after I fled in stunned defeat. She knew my Mom before she finished her undergraduate work and went on to the Harvard School of Education. We watched her graduate, together.

We had endured break-ups, and love triangles, a purgatorial four years in Los Angeles, a disruptive move across country, a hellish decade of blue collar toil on Nantucket. We had celebrated two pregnancies, accomplished two home births, endured a miscarriage. We were like veterans of the same war, our own war, with its own treaties and reparations, and no one who hadn’t been there could really understand. The events that remained so vivid between us would be hollow anecdotes to anyone new in our lives. I had known her as an innocent nineteen-year old who believed in me passionately and as a disillusioned forty-year old who despised me. We had shared too much of our lives to do anything but accept each other, finally -- flaws, disappointments and all. Time exhausted our antagonisms. I moved from roommate to stalker to stranger to neighbor, to partner and ally in the parental struggle to secure our children’s self-reliant adulthood, striving for the ultimate goal: to render ourselves obsolete.

It’s over now; the kids are grown. But the ties endure. We take care of each other’s dogs, share holidays, count on each other in emergencies. I will always answer that late night call, always listen, always come running when she really needs me. I’ll always be glad to see her; and I’ll always be glad to see her go. There’s a name for this new relationship but I never realized what it was until the last week’s big foreclosure yard sale.

Lisa was losing her house. It was sad but inevitable In many ways she could have been the poster child for the bubble economy. For years she had leveraged every asset to provide the illusion of a prosperous life. First, after the divorce, convincing her father to help her buy the house we had lived in, then selling it at the top of the market and buying a larger house, and then another one, all of them on the narrowest margins with the smallest down-payments possible. Every scrap of equity liquefied into the cash flow required to finance the vacations and cars. That doesn’t mean she was lazy. Far from it. She worked like a sled dog throughout those years, in the store her father helped her buy, and she paid him back every cent he loaned her. I watched her slave away for sixteen hours a day in the retail hell of Nantucket (crowded with appalling rich people all summer; dead for the rest of the year) with awe-struck, horrified admiration. But the fact remains: she tried to expand the store, also, and took out bigger loans to do it, and God knows what cross-collateralizing she did with the houses. She had a genius for it. If she could juggle actual balls and torches half as well she could have joined the circus.

But it was all based on the ever growing economy, in which the value of her house kept on rising into the glare of the sun and out of sight, like a helium balloon

Then it all ended, gravity reasserted itself. The world is strewn with deflated helium balloons – they always come back to earth eventually. A more fitting analogy comes from one of my best customers, a derivatives broker from New Jersey: the crash was a tsunami. Everyone was affected. Many people lost much more than Lisa, but that was cold comfort when the possessions she had accumulated over twenty years were set out on the lawn and to be picked over by greedy strangers.

Lisa absented herself from the actual sale. I worked it with the kids, passing out Downeyflake doughnuts, making up prices on the fly, chatting with people I hadn’t seen in years. Carrie had worked in the store and knew how to move merchandise. Tom had set the whole sale up and stayed with me, moving furniture and making change. Carrie’s fiancée is a computer whiz and he managed to off-load about half a ton of used electronics. We had a steady stream of customers traipsing through the yard and the sale went well into the afternoon. It was a success. Despite the sadness of the occasion, we all had fun. We had drinks afterward to celebrate.

Two days later I saw one of the women from the sale (She had bought the matching bookshelves and some earrings).

“It was so nice of you to do that for your ex-wife,” she said.

That was when the thought occurred to me. “She doesn’t feel like an ex-wife,” I said. “She feels like … my sister. She’s much more of a sister to me than my real one.”

The lady smiled, and patted me on the shoulder.

“Well,” she said. “You’re a very good brother.”

That’s who I’ve turned into.

That’s who I am; and that’s good enough for me.

How to Adapt a Great Book to Film (And How Not to)

Film adaptations of great literature are too often like paintings at a local outdoor art show: they make you realize how much effort and dedication and sheer technical skill it requires to produce something utterly mediocre. Great paintings succeed because they move beyond the technical and the well-intentioned, into the realm of genius and madness and inspiration. Successful film adaptations of great books do the same thing, confronting the solitary author with an equal force, a passion for narrative and a visual genius that creates images that match his prose – all of that in the face of uneducated bullying collaborators, money worries and studio interference. Pulling a genuine work of art out of that tangle seems impossible and in fact it almost never happens.

The thought occurs to me because I happened to see a summer art show yesterday; in the park of the Nantucket Atheneum, and last night I watched Michael Radford’s adaptation of 1984. To clear my head, I took out my coffee table book of Winslow Homer watercolors and then spent the next two hours watching the DVD of Women in Love.

That Winslow Homer towers over some local matron and her trite, paint-by-numbers view of our cobblestone Main Street is absurdly obvious, and barely worth mentioning. But the ways in which Ken Russell and his inspired screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer outshine Mr. Radford deserves a closer look.

Michael Radford had the best of intentions when he set out to film George Orwell’s classic dystopia. You can tell that from the details he included – the Victory cigarettes whose tobacco falls out when you hold them vertical, the glass paperweight with its trapped piece of coral, the singing prole in the courtyard below the little apartment Winston and Julia use for their secret assignations. Only someone who loved the novel would have bothered to collect so many cherished fragments, from the bogus “Comrade Ogilvy” that Winston invents to replace an obsolete news story not worth falsifying, to the “over fulfillment of the 9th three year plan” propaganda bleating from the telescreen in his apartment. Even the Two Minutes Hate could have been scripted by Orwell himself. So many telling gestures are retained: Julia indeed removes her clothes in a single thrilling gesture just as described; OBrien resettles his glasses on his nose, just as written -- and we don’t need to know how ‘curiously civilized’ a gesture it seems to Winston; Richard Burton shows us, and we feel it ourselves.

Indeed, none of the casting can be faulted – Burton of course, but John Hurt embodies Winston Smith perfectly, and you couldn’t ask for a better Julia than Suzanna Hamilton. Even Cyril Cusak, as old Mr. Carrington, seems to have been chosen out of scrupulous deference to the book. The film remains true to the basic plot, and admirably refuses soften the grim ending.

And yet it fails.

How could that happen? Part of it has to do with those details. So many of them are just off target, wrong-headed, askew. The prole pegging out her wash in the backyard actually sings the lyrics Orwell wrote for her – and which in the novel were composed on the “Versificator”, a song-writing machine used by the Ministry of Truth. They are mawkish and sentimental:

It was only a hopeless fancy

It passed like and April day

But a look and a word

And the feelings they stirred

Still pluck my heartstrings today.

You can just imagine this song’s hurdy gurdy British music hall melody; I know I did. But Radford makes it into a cross between a dirge and an operatic aria. I know this seems trivial, but the same just-missed-it feeling pervades the whole film. Even the aspect ratio of the telescreens (square, like TVs, rather than the ominous and much more invasive rectangles that Orwell described) and the exaggerated crumbling squalor of Winston’s apartment (he hides his diary behind a loose brick in the rotting wall and scribbles on a rickety chair; in the book he wrote at a desk in an alcove originally intended for book-cases) add to the sense of miscalculation.

This bumling extends into the scenes themselves, many of them trimmed or omitted to devastating result. We see Winston in the proletarian pub, but don’t get to hear the tragic conversation he strikes up with one of the proles, looking for some solid memories of a time before the dictatorship to ratify his own. All the prole wants to talk about is beer. It comes in litres and half-litres now, instead of pints and half pints. When Winston fixes his neighbor Parsons’ clogged sink, we don’t get tosee Parsons’ vile little boy hitting him with a sling shot and screaming “THOUGHT CRIMINAL!”, a chilling view of the next generation.

Most importantly, Radford chose to omit the critical scene where Winston and Julia go to O’Brien’s house to be formally inducted into the underground resistance. This scene is crucial for so many reasons. It gives the audience hope, and lets them feel -- along with Winston and Julia -- that the government might be over-thrown. It lets us see the couple being brave and pro-active, risking their lives to join this shadowy conspiracy. But there is another side to it. O’Brien subjects them to a harrowing catechism to gauge their commitment to the cause. What would they be willing to do: spread syphilis, blow up buildings, murder innocent people, throw acid in a child’s face? They agree to each demand. And then, much later, when O’Brien is interrogating Winston somewhere in ‘vast underground ramifications’ of the Ministry of Love, Winston makes the claim that he is morally ‘better’ than his tormentors … and O’Brien plays the tape of that catechism. The effect is devastating, at least in the book, where the scenes exist. Was Radford trying to spare Winston Smith that moment of moral bankruptcy? Orwell was ruthless, and he needed to be. Radford chickened out. Or maybe he was just boxing outside of his weight class, outmatched and overpowered by Orwell as Jack Clayton was by F. ScottFitzgerald, when he directed the film version of The Great Gatsby.

In any case, this catalog of Radford's omissions, elisions and compromises fiinally adds up to a thoughtful but juiceless movie, invoking all the fatalistic misery of Orwell's magnum opus, and without touching on its redemptive beauty: a drag, in other words, the kind of film that steers people away from the source material. That's the real tragedy.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Radford worked alone. Movies are essentially collaborative, and it seems that only an inspired, once-in-a-lifetime combination of talents working togegther can pull off such a bravura feat of transformation.

The 1969 film version of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love started with a ruthlessly faithful script by Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart, Faggots) that kept everything essential in the book, and cut everything else. The story of school teacher Rupert Birkin (an obvious stand-in for Lawrence, played by Lawrence look-alike Alan Bates) and his friendship with coal magnate Gerald Critch, the book told the story of their love affairs with the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun and Ursula. Gerald’s destructive lust for the passionate and destructive Gudrun (" her sisTry to love me a,little more and want me a little less") runs parallel to the ideal vision of romance enacted by her siter Ursula andRupert Birkin. Though the struggle for power finally tears Gerald and Gudrun apart, and eventually pushes Gerald to suicide, the only problems facing Rupert and Ursula are his lingering feelings for wealthy wack-job Hermione Riddice and his insistence on the equality of friendship and love. Ursula finds the woman vile and the idea preposterous. Theser relationships are made vivid by the sheer florid power of Lawrence’s prose. For example, one of the first moments when the girls see Gerald Critch. He’s on horseback, at a train- crossing, goading his horse at the train as it roars past:

“The Fool,” cried Ursula loudly, “Why doesn’t he ride away until it’s gone by?”
Gudrun was looking at him with black-dilated, spellbound eyes. But he sat glistening and obstinate, forcing the wheeling mare, which spun and swerved like a wind, and yet could not get out of the grasp of his will, nor escape from the mad clamour of terror that resounded through her as the trucks thumped slowly, heavily, horrifying, one after the other, one pursuing the other, over the rails of the crossing.

The locomotive, as if wanting to see what could be done, put on the brakes, and back came the trucks, rebounding on the iron buffers, striking like horrible cymbals, clashing nearer and nearer in frightful strident concussions. The mare opened her mouth and rose slowly, as if lifted up on a wind of terror. Then suddenly her forefeet struck out, as she convulsed herself utterly away from the horror. Back she went, and the two girls clung to each other, feeling she must fall backwards on top of him. But he leaned forward, his face shining with fixed amusement, and at last he brought her down, sank her down, and was bearing her back to the mark. But as strong as the pressure of his compulsion was the repulsion of her utter terror, throwing her back away from the railway, so that she spun round and round on two legs, as if she were in the centre of some whirlwind. It made Gudrun faint with poignant dizziness, which seemed to penetrate her heart.

How could you translate this wildly over-wrought scene to film?

Hire Ken Russell.

This director, later known for voluptuous extravaganzas like The Devils and Tommy was a perfect match for Lawrence: just as inspired, just crazy, and in his own visual, cinematic terms, just as talented. So that may be the secret: pull two mad geniuses of excess and spectacle together with a rigorous screenplay that brings out the best in both of them. And then you need some luck. Luck with casting – Glenda Jackson, Jenny Linden and Oliver Reed were equal to Alan Bates (Glenda Jackson won the Oscar for her role); and luck with locations. Many of the places they filmed simply don’t exist any more, loughed under for housing subdivisions and shopping plazas. But forty years ago the early twentieth century was still alive and well in Northern England. They found a closed, but working coal mine, and reactivated it for the sequences set there. For a scene that required a great house with a pond you could drain, they found one, complete with the nineteenth century mechanisms for pumping out the water. Hermione’s ‘summer cottage’ – in fact one of the great manor houses of England – was loaned out to the company for the exterior shoot. But the elderly owners enjoyed the film-makers so much they let them film inside, whose lavish décor could never be duplicated by the finest production design or the most elaborate CGI, no matter what the cost.

It doesn’t have to be amicable – Kramer and Russell fought all the time, and some scenes in the movie wound up there over Kramer’s howls of protest. But the only person he had to fight with was Russell: he owned the script and produced it himself. There were no ‘notes; or suggestions (“Does Gerald have to die?” “Gudrun is so unlikable – can we give her a puppy?”) from studio executives. The script remained intact and it kept the whole movie under control. You can read the book with the script at your side and see the exact moment when Kramer cuts into a ten-page dialogue, using the perfect kernel of Lawrence’s text to evoke the full meaning of the scene. It’s surgery and poetry at once. Every word in the script comes from Lawrence … but shaped and pruned to fit the narrow confines of a two hour film. Kramer had his own moments of ecstatic inspiration. One of the most famous scenes in the movie -- the al fresco luncheon where Birkin compares the fig to the vagina is taken from another source – one of Lawrence’s poems. Here’s a sample:

And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.
So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.
And the fig is finished, the year is over.

That's how the fig dies, showing her crimson through purple slit
Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.
Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.

That's how women die too.

Here, too you can see the steely precision of Kramer’s editing. The poem is perhaps five times longer than Birkin’s speech, but, as delivered by the incomparable Alan Bates, no less powerful or disturbing.

So that’s how it’s done: find a great novel that suits itself to the screen as Women in Love does, write a rigorously faithful script with full understanding of the novel’s complexity, hire a lunatic visual artist whose mad vision harmonizes pitch-perfectly with the author’s, cast it with the greatest actors of your time and film it in spectacular locations with no interference from businessmen and fools.

Then instead of a film about a future London whose shabby cluttered roofscape is dwarfed by four white pyramids (the Ministries of Truth, Love, Peace and Plenty) -- which never shows that iconic panorama, you’ll have a film whose images of a snow-white Rolls Royce parting a coal-dark sea of mineworkers, or two men wrestling naked by firelight, or a drowned couple entwined at the bottom of a drained lake in the exact pose of the living lovers nearby, will stay with you forever.

Maybe it’s impossible. Maybe too many variables have to line up perfectly, some bizarre artistic trifecta. Maybe you’d be insanely arrogant to even to try it.

As I write those words I can hear Hermione’s sardonic drawl: “It sounds like megalomania, Rupert.”

Maybe, but when it works, there’s nothing better. And the third or fourth time through Women in Love you start to think, maybe Ken Russell deserved his megalomania, after all. It’s what Michael Radford aspired to, as those local painters aspire to the austere resonance of beauty of Winslow Homer. Aspiration is fine. But it’s the achievements we cherish, the achievements that keep us going, the achievements that make all the effort worthwhile.

Don’t take my word for it, buy the book, find the DVD and enjoy this ferocious bludgeoning awkward word-drunk image-soaked masterpiece in both its forms.

You might just get inspired, yourself.

Scenes We'd Like to See: Town Hall Thug Meets Thug

It’s a typical early evening Town Hall meeting in Corn City, Nebraska. The local high school gym is overheated and the air conditioning broke down hours ago. The place is packed and giant speakers blast the meeting to the parking lot where another thousand people have gathered.

It looks like one more Democratic rout: a few thugs have come to the meeting with their talking points. They arrived early and found good positions inside, near the big podium under the basketball net. Senator Harry Hapless is trying to run the meeting but they’re shouting him down. “You’re stealing my country!” “Obama is a socialist!” “Take your death panels and shove em up yer commie ass!” “East shit and die, Nazi scum!” -- and other examples of reasoned political discourse, circa 2009.

But this meeting is different. Harry isn’t quite as hapless as his unfortunate name would indicate. Harry paid attention to the last two dozen town hall meeting and came up with an idea distinctly alien to his fellow democrats. He gave this long-winded description to his staff: “Confrontational parity to equalize aggression and counteract disruptive behavior”.

In other words: fighting back.

Harry served in Desert Storm with the First Marine Expeditionary Brigade out of Fort Pendelton. Many of his fellow Marines have joined the private secutity industry; some became international mercenaries. Others went back to cvivilian life but kept up at the dojo and the firing range. They all appreciate their Veterans’ benefits and the espansion of those benefits under the Obama Administration. They also have a boyish love for the First Amendment and the Constitution generally. When they got Harry’s calls they were glad to oblige. Many of them flew to Nebraska on their own nickel just for the privilege of the defending the rights they went to war to preserve.

In other wards: there are some bad ass democrats in that gym tonight.

Here’s a moment you won’t see on Fox news (though they have the tape)

Paid redneck thug: “You’re a stinkin liar! We don’t want to hear your stinkin’ lies!”

Marine Staff Sergeant Albert Dawes(Ret.): “That’s enough, sir.”

PRT: “Shut the fuck up, ya commie piece of shit! I’m talking to my Senator here!”

AD: “Actually, you’re rendering any real conversation impossible.”

PRT: “Wanta make something out of it faggot?”

AD: “Oh yes. Oh yes, I most certainly do. So I have to ask you to leave now.”

The gym has gone silent while this confrontation plays out.

PRT “Oh yeah? Well I have to ask you to go fuck yourself!

He pushes Dawes; or tries to. Dawes side-steps the clumsy attack and pushes him along the line of his bulky momentum: he stumbles into three of his friends. When he turns, Dawes has a knife in his hand. He holds it by the blade and extends it to the thug.

PRT” What the --?

AD: “Take it.”

PRT: “What the hell? You’re givin’ me a knife? You wanta die tonight?"

AD. “No, I want it absolutely clear that it was self-defense when kick your ass.”

PRT: “Any way you want it, shitball.”

The thug grabs the knife and charges. There’s a blur of motion, then he’s flat on his face on the floor. The other three attack. Dawes takes the first two out with a pair of straight punches to the throat, catches the third one’s wrist and straightens his elbow with the heel of his hand.

AD “I’m going to break your arm now. It’s going to hurt. I want you to remember that pain the next time you decide to bully someone weaker than you. Can you do that for me?

PRT “Yeah, yeah – just let me go – “

There’s a crack like a rotten tree branch breaking, and the thug collapses to the gym floor moaning and clutching his arm. Dawes turns to the Senator.

AD: “I’m sorry, sir. Please continue. I think the woman had asked you about the benefits of a single payer plan. Or does anyone else want to interrupt?”

No one does.

The meeting proceeds, civilization protected the old-fashioned way: by an overwhelming show of superior force.

MSNBC shows the tape. The idea catches on.

And somewhere Jimmy Carter shakes his head, saddened and baffled.

Rush Limbaugh is speechless.

And Howard Dean smiles.

And Rahm Emmanuel allows himself a single fist pump.

I’m with him.

Scenes From a Divorce: Lost and Found

What happened? And how did it happen? And why?

How could a great love affair pop like soap bubble, vanish in a flick of spray, just from grazing the rough edge of reality?

I’ve been asking myself those questions for more than a decade. I tried to transplant a particularly beautiful Christmas tree one year; of course it died. Turned out, they seal the cut somehow, so the trunk can’t absorb nutrients from the ground. It was just a decorative object, designed to be temporary, with boughs for hanging ornaments, each ornament with its own weight of nostalgia and family history. Then it was New Year’s and we packed them away again; we vacuumed the needles from the rug and took the browning skeleton to the dump. The faint smell of the pine woods lingered in the house for a few days, but the tree wasn’t real. It could never grow on its own.

I thought of my time with Sophie Zambarabno that year, chucking the discarded husk onto the pile.

We talked on the phone a lot when she was in Canada – long, late-night phone calls full of hope and high prospect. But nothing changed. She was going to break up with Eric; then she wasn’t. Then she saw herself forced “To choose between two totally different lives”; the pressure began to exhaust her. It all seemed so impractical and difficult: neither one of us was willing to move and a long distance relationship would just wear both of us down.

Then she was back in Northampton and Eric was moving in. It made sense. He had every advantage. He was with her every day, fighting for their life together. I was a memory, and a compromised one at that: a fantasy.

At one point she said to me “I was cheating on my boyfriend when we were together. It was tainted as romance from the beginning.”

Actually, It was worse than that. Our brief affair was symptomatic of all her pathologies, all the bad stuff she had thought she had left behind – I was the creature from the black lagoon of her past, dragging all the swamp slime of those bad old days with me: the selfishness the sex-addiction, the manipulative power-games. She had seduced me because she could, because it made her feel strong and powerful. It was sick, it was like falling off the wagon, like a drinking binge. The last thing she wanted to do was recall that lost weekend.

I was part of her past and I should stay that way, for both of our sakes.

She had to move on.

I had become a symptom. Somehow I knew that wasn’t good. A few more weeks, and I might become the disease itself. The phone calls, intended to connect us, sharpened the separation. It was trying to set a nail in a knot: each hammer blow pulls the boards farther apart. That’s right, I was thinking about her all the time and every frustrating moment turned into a metaphor. Trying to climb the sand bluff at Surfside, slipping back on the soft sand with every step forward; visiting Los Angeles during one of those Autumn weeks when winter arrives for a few days – with cold and bare trees and wind and white-caps and icy rain – before Mexicans with leaf-blowers clean the streets and it’s summer again. Every temporary futile frustrating thing was a message.

Finally I accepted it.

The calls tapered off. I fought the urge to pick up the phone every day, every night. I began to understand what she meant about addiction.

But eventually I gave up. I started seeing other women. I always knew, though, that no matter what we were doing, no matter what I had told them, no matter how involved we seemed to be … one phone call from Sophie and I’d be gone like a dog jumping out of a parked car. Of course I knew that call was never going to come, but it didn’t matter. I used the idea, and the feeling it provoked, as a point of reference. I was waiting for the woman who could make that mythical phone call moot, conclude the past and let the future begin. But I wasn’t finding her. Part of me knew that looking for her was pointless. You don’t find that kind of relationship; it finds you.

“You weren’t ready for Sophie anyway,” Lisa said to me, over dinner, one of those nights. “Not financially, or emotionally. You were way over-extended. That’s why it failed.”

I nodded. We were eating a cheese soufflé and mescal greens salad. I remembered how I managed to eat a vegetarian diet so many years. She had always been a great cook. I took a bite too soon and burned my tongue, as I always did. I could see it register on her face, but Lisa said nothing; my over-eager table manners weren’t her problem any more. We both liked it that way.

“You know, I saw her once,” Lisa said.


“Sophie. When I was living in New York with Andy. We were on the subway – riding uptown on the Broadway IRT. It was just before Christmas. Andy nudged me and said ‘There she is. Your nemesis.’”

“What did you think?”

“She looked like you. Seriously – she could have been your sister.”

I took it in. “Shouldn’t I have noticed that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the kind of thing people don’t notice. They don’t really know how they look. Everything’s backward in the mirror and most photographs are just bad.”

“This is weird.”

“Not really. Lots of married couples look alike. Sometimes they look like their dogs, too – you’ve seen them. Some jowly old couple waddling along with a fat pug. It’s funny.”


“Well, it doesn’t matter now.”

We ate in silence for while. She’d found some delicious, ridiculously cheap white wine. I poured us each another glass. The kids were both sleeping over at friend’s’ houses, though the crash call from Tommy could come at any time. He rarely made it through a complete sleep-over.

“As long as I don’t wind up looking like The Hoosier.”

I was startled. She rarely mentioned her boyfriend. His name was Ray something but everyone called him the Hoosier. He had played right tackle for Indiana State and he’d put on a lot of weight since then. As one of Lisa’s main criticisms of me during the long decay of our marriage was that I wasn’t fit enough, her infatuation with this Midwestern mountain had always struck me as bizarrely ironic.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said, taking a gulp of the icy wine.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“I’m not thinking. I’m drinking. It works for me.”

She drained her glass, pushed her plate aside. “Looks don’t matter to me.”

“Lucky Hoosier.”

“I think it’s a gender thing. Seriously. You;ve had every fat woman on Nantucket chasing you since you moved out. They come to me for advice.”

“And you tell them to give up, I hope.”

“I tell them if I understood you we’d still be married.”

“It’s just the opposite, actually.”

She laughed.

“You know me way too well.”

“That’s why I stay out of it.”

“I should have known. Women are never that friendly otherwise. If they’re not attracted you could set yourself on fire in front of them and they’d just roast some marshmallows for the cute guy.”

Quiet settled in between us like a cat in a patch of sunlight. By unspoken agreement we started clearing the table together. We were doing the dishes, I was drying them and putting them away, when she spoke again.

“The kids hate Ray. Both of them but especially Carrie.”

“I know. I hear about it all the time.”

“It’s like a war. It’s like I adopted a third kid who turned out to be a bully.”

“You said it not me.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Talk to him, You might remind him that he’s the grown-up in this situation. If only by body weight.”

“I talk to him all the time. We fight about it. We broke up over it. Twice.”

I nodded. “It’s hard to make those break-ups stick.”

“We’ll see. I’m doing it again tonight. I mean it. I’m going over there and telling him we’re done.”

I couldn’t resist: “What about his ‘profound soul’. I remember hearing a lot about that profound soul of his.”

“He pickled it.”

“AA didn’t work?”

“AA got him into cocaine. Some kid at his session was selling it outside the church. That kid was quite a salesman. He even had a slogan – ‘Better than coffee’. Except you need vodka to get to sleep.”

“Life on Nantucket,” I said. I felt her tense up. She hated it when I criticized the place; but come on. “What other little town has five liquor stores? Seven if you count the places that just sell wine. Eight! If you count the health food store. Who buys wine at a health food store?”

“Wine is healthy. Red wine breaks down platelets in the blood. Or something.”

“Whatever. You know what I mean. There’s nothing to do here in the winter but work and drink. And Ray’s out of work. Or so I hear.”

“It’s temporary.”

“So is everything else. But most people manage to cope.”

She handed me the last plate. I dried it and put it away on the high shelf over the sink. I loomed over her for a second.

“Tall person required,” she said softly. It was something she used to say when we were married, if she needed me to reach something up high for her; a faint echo of better days. There actually had been some.

“After college, when we were apart,” she said. “I thought I’d never find anyone who measured up to you, the way I felt about you.”

“I don’t think Ray qualifies.”

“Maybe not. But he hasn’t disappointed me as much either.”

“Give him time.”

“No thanks I tried that plan before. It didn’t work.”

“I had my disappointments too, Lisa. Five years service as a Medieval court eunuch. But court eunuchs got special privileges.”

“You got to sleep with the queen.”

“And she slept naked in the summer. Which made it especially fun.”

“A real eunuch wouldn’t have cared.”

“Thanks. But defensive castration wasn’t covered by our HMO.”

“Byron Clark seemed to think I’d do it for free.”

“Byron Clark thinks you actually did.”

“But we know better.”

We were standing close to each other in the empty kitchen, in the quiet house, water=speckled from the dish-washing, a little tipsy from the wine.

“You know, it’s strange,” she said. “I feel like I’m reaching my sexual peak right now.”

“Rats. And I missed it.”

“There were times when you could have made a move. But you didn’t.”

“You never gave me a hint.”

She move a little closer, brushed against me.

“Maybe you just didn’t pick up on them.”

There was a sudden electrical storm in the house. Lightning was going to strike any second. I decided to throw it myself. I leaned down and kissed her. She kissed me back, hard, her mouth open, her body smashed against mine. It felt crazy, and transgressive, absurdly hot and utterly familiar. We had stood on a dark street in Amherst kissing like this for hours one night, twenty years ago. We were just picking up where we left off.

I put my hand on her breast over her shirt, and she pressed against it with her hand. She wasn’t wearing a bra.

“The best feeling in the world,” I said.

“No,” she said. “This is.”

And she took my wrist, pushed it down and slipped it under her shirt, guided it to her naked breast. We groaned in unison, a shared animal moan of pleasure and want.

I started to unbutton her shirt with my free hand and the physical awkwardness seemed to break the spell. She reared back, shaking her head.

“We can’t do this. It’s – too confusing. It’s not right.”

I knew she was right. I eased my hand out of her shirt, let it dangle by my side. “I know,” I said.

“This can’t happen again.”

“I know.”

“We can’t even – act like it happened. The kids would freak out.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want to disappoint them.”

“Me neither.”

She hugged me.

“I’m sorry,” she said to my chest.

“It’s okay. We both wanted to. That’s enough for me. It’s like … we got something back. We don’t need to do anything about it. We can just – have it. We deserve it. We lived together for twelve years. We made two kids together. There has to be something left after all that.”

“You’re right.”

“Plus I got to cop a feel. There’s no downside there.”

She pushed me away, but she was smiling. “Ugh, you are such a guy.”

I left a few minutes later, and driving home on the long straight road to town under the dense canopy of stars, I felt my desire subside, replaced by something else, a little worm of optimism, nosing through the soil. Things were changing between us, we were moving into another realm, with new rules and conditions, new frustrations, new expectations and risks.

I felt like a man stepping off a plane on some tropical island, feeling the warm air and the scent of jasmine, knowing no one, with no where to stay and no money in my pocket, not even sure where I was, somewhere in the Caribbean, Saint something, probably, feeling lost and over-dressed and disoriented.

But happy to be there; and eager to explore.

The One Who Got Away: Flyin g Weather

We had talked every night on the phone for three nights running and the phone calls weren’t enough and Sophie was leaving for Canada in less than twenty-four hours.

I needed to see her before then.

One of those nights, near dawn, I said to Sophie, “Think about this situation – the two of us falling in love, the bad timing, one of us involved with someone else, flying off to see them and figure things out … it sounds just like twenty years ago.”

“But I couldn’t handle it, and you can.”

“I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about the two of you together in the Canadian Rockies for a week. It sounds way too romantic =- long walks in the snow, drinks by the fire, the big bed, the room so warm you sleep naked -- ”


“Sorry. That was bad. Writers’ imaginations are grotesque. It’s an overdeveloped muscle – like a tennis player’s fore=arm.”

“Nothing’s going to happen.”

“If you knew that for sure you wouldn’t have to go.”

She said nothing.

I pushed on: “Look … When you paint window sash, you line them at an angle against a wall, at an angle so that they lean against it, parallel to each other, like louvers on a door. It looks stable, but it isn’t. If one falls over it knocks all the others down, like dominoes. All you need is someone stomping into the house, or a gust of wind from the front door. It doesn’t take much.”

“Do they break?”

“Just the last one. But that’s the only one I’m worried about.”

“We’re not going to break.”


“Have some faith.”

“Not my specialty.”

“Then trust. You can do that. Trust me. I love you.”

The phone lines breathed between us for a few seconds

“All right.” I said finally. “I love you, too.”

We hung up on that comforting note.

But I was still worried.

The next night, she called late and said “I just had this horrible dream. I had to choose – either we could get married despite the fact that I didn’t really love you and break your heart forever, or I could be absolutely irrevocably in love with you – but you had to die.”

I almost laughed. “But you’re awake now. And there are other options. Like, we just go our separate ways. Or we stay friends. Or we just love each other. We’re hot for each other and make each laugh and like each other’s cooking, and feel privileged to wake up next to each other every morning. Simple stuff. We like the same books and movies – with some bizarre exceptions. Like … I don’t know -- You snoozed through The Color Purple. I hated The Piano. But that shit doesn’t matter. We have fun together. We travel. But even if we’re just going out for coffee or walking the dog, it’s a little adventure. It’s a treat. We have a thought and we say it, and we understand each other, we kiss and it’s always the same kiss and it’s always great. No one’s heart gets broken. No one dies. That’s what I dreamed.”

There was a strange wounded silence across the phone lines, then she said, “Yours is better.”

“Take it, then .”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“So we’ll fight sometimes. Okay> We’ll annoy each other, is that better? You’ll be moody. I’ll flirt with your friends. We’ll fight and have make-up sex.”

“That sounds good.”

“I know it does.”

“I’m going back to bed. Maybe I’ll have a better dream now. And, by the way -- I loved The Color Purple.”

We hung up and then it was the next day. Sophie was leaving for Canada tomorrow. The whole phone call option was used up. More words, without action, would just stifle both of us. I almost called her that morning -- I had the phone in my hand, but it was like that last cup off coffee that turns the buzz sour in your blood. If you’re smart you pour it down the sink and eat something. Or in this case, you drop everything, get to Northampton, track Sophie down, grab her and hold on with all your strength, before the connecting filaments between you stretch white and snap with distance and travel and security checks and airline potato chips and arctic air and Northern Lights and the doting attentions of a boyfriend on his best behavior because he knows he’s in trouble and he has to step up.

So that’s what I did.

I called my friend Byron and negotiated another flight to Northampton. He gave me half-price and let me split the gas, as if we were driving home from college.

“I thought this was going to be a lot harder after last time,” said. “I know you were pissed off when we showed up late.”

“Yeah but something else happened that night, Cap. I saw the girl.”

“She’s your type?”

“I’d say she was anyone’s type, studly. So I’m rooting for you now. Bring champagne and lobster, that’s my advice. I think I have a couple of nice ones in the traps. We’ll drive out to the jetty and take a look later. I’ll pick ‘em for you. Ya can’t beat fresh lobster.”

“Thanks, Byron.”

“As long as we’re back by midnight,” he said. “My plane turns into a pumpkin at midnight.”

No other arrangements had to be made – Lisa had the kids, and I wouldn’t be staying over-night. By seven-thirty we were taking off and the island, reduced to a few patches of twinkling lights floating on the darkness, was falling away below us.

Byron said. “You oughtta drive this trip sometime. Two hours on the ferry, and other two and a half on the road if the traffic is moving. But 495 is always fucked up and the Mass Pike aint much better. Call it three, three and a half hours on top of that boat ride. That’s a reality check for ya – helluva commute for a booty call.”

“She might move to Nantucket.”

“Oh yeah? Walk away from her life, quit her job, sell her house and show up on your doorstep ready to move in? She charges at you that way, you’ll be running for the hills, Romeo. Trust me. But it would never happen anyway. She’s not turning her life upside down based on a couple of days with a guy and some old memories. Anyway, unless I got this story wrong, you’ve never even fucked the girl, pardon my French. So you got some boxes to check before anyone starts over from scratch.”

“I could move there. We could spend time together without the pressure.”

”Right. Because you just won the lottery. Come on, Steve. Jesus. It took you ten years to build up your painting business to what it is now, with customers that trust you and guys like me who can jump in and help you meet a deadline. Ten years to get to the point where you’re just barely scraping by and you never know if you’ve even gonna be working in six months. You got anything lined up for August? How about a big inside job for next winter? Didn’t think so. And that’s on Nantucket where people have the money to do high=end paint jobs. You gonna trash all that and move some place where you get fifteen bucks an hour for work no one wants you to do anyway? I don’t think so. And you aint qualified for anything else – except being a best-selling novelist on the talk-show circuit. But you gotta finish that book before you can sell it, Chief. Besides even if you were Stephen King, one of those guys -- John Grisham, whatever -- you aint leaving those rug rats and wifey would never let you take them, anyway. Face it -- You’re stuck on the rock, just like everybody else.”

The plane droned on and the reality Byron laid out settled over me like sanding dust on a brick sidewalk.

“So this is impossible?”

He laughed – a brutal humorless grunt. “It aint easy. That’s for damn sure.”

“But you’re forgetting -- love conquers all. Virgil said so. In his Tenth Ecologue – ‘Omnia vincit amor’.”

“Yeah, well. That was a long time ago. He’s dead and so is that fucking language he spoke. His whole empire got conquered and it wasn’t by love. More like the Huns and the Turks, all right? And they knew how to conquer some shit. Unlike love. Love conquers nothing, buddy. Maybe back in Rome, I don’t know. These days love gets its ass kicked on a regular basis. Just like a fat kid at recess. And I was that fat kid, so I know what I’m talking about.”

“You never know – love might surprise you this time. We might surprise you.”

He reached across to jab my shoulder. The plane dipped a little. “That’s why we’re here, buddy. That’s why I’m running the Byron Clark air taxi service. Level the playing field, give love a shot.””

It was unseasonably mild when we topped the dark hill and landed at sparsely-lit Northampton airport. Climbing out of the plane the air felt soft and summery, close and intimate. Byron called us a cab and I dropped him off at Spoleto with fifty bucks for dinner.

Alone in the cab I sat back. The driver had some oldies station on -- Joni Mitchell singing A Case of You; a song I knew would always bring me back to this moment

“I drew a map of Canada

O, Canada --

With your face sketched on it twice”

I closed my eyes, and let the high sweet voice and those squeaky guitar chords crowd out my thoughts. The frost-heaved road jolted past. The sense of being in exactly the right place and doing exactly the right thing flowed over me in a steady rush, cool air from the open window.

When we got to Sophie’s house I could see immediately that there was no one home. The big rambling house was dark, except for one light over the front door. I paid the cab and walked up to the porch. The door was open and I could see the big Bearnese poking the screen with his nose, tail wagging. I let myself in, happy to get off the porch and out of the spotlight. I knelt down in the dark hallway to pat the dog, feeling like an idiot, feeling the night close in on me and the clock ticking. So many bad ideas: the surprise visit, just assuming Sophie would be home, the refusal to get a cell phone, which would have made this moment so easy: hit one button, let it ring and just talk to her, wherever she was. Then I noticed her cell phone on the front hall table. I had to smile -- that pretty much defeated the purpose, though people probably did it all the time.

I forced myself to think – where would she be? A friend’s house, the movies, out to dinner? I could never find her in a dark theater; I didn’t know any of her friends. Their numbers were probably filed in the cell phone, but I had no idea how to access that information and I would have felt weird calling random strangers anyway.

Still, I did have one piece of information: I knew a restaurant Sophie liked. It wasn’t much, but it was the only idea I had. Why not give it a try? It beat just standing there. I turned on the hall light and walked into the kitchen, with the big dog trotting behind me. I could see the neighbor’s lights through the big window over the sink. I stood for a second just absorbing the place, the smell of dust and old wood, cinnamon and coffee. The dog lay down on a hooked rug and rested his head on his paws.

I noticed a land-line phone on the wall, with a phone book on a stool below it. I looked up Spoleto and dialed the number.

After two rings a harried woman’s voice said “Spoleto.”

I could hear the clatter of dishes and conversation behind her. Someone shouted “I need another carpaccio!”

“Hello,” I said. “I’m looking for one of your customers … I think she may be eating there tonight – it’s kind of important – ”

“Look we’re busy tonight and I don’t -- ”

“Her name is Sophie Zambarano.”

“—have time to – what? Who did you say?”

“Sophie Zambarano?”

“Hold on a second.”

I waited, listening to the faint jangle of the restaurant, a siren somewhere in the streets outside, the thump of the dog’s tail on the floor. He had perked up at the sound of Sophie’s name.

“We’re tracking her down, buddy,” I said.

Then I heard her voice, breathy and musical, like a torch singer setting up the next song.


“Sophie? It’s Steve. Steve Axelrod? I have to see you tonight and I -- ”


“Yeah, listen, we have to -- ”

“Where are you?”

I winced as I said it: “I’m in your house.”

But she laughed. “You’re out of your mind.”

“Maybe. But you’re out of your house. Which is much worse tonight.”

“I’ll be right there.”

And she hung up.

I put the champagne in the freeze and the lobster in the fridge. She might have already finished dinner but the lobster would keep and there was always room for champagne. I walked back out onto the porch, leaned against the railing, waiting. A few cars passed. Clouds crowded the moon; I could feel rain coming.

Finally the old Volvo pulled into the driveway. I straightened up and leaned against the post, absurdly aware of the figure I cut, trying to look composed and casual when she first saw me. Then she was leaping up the steps and I was twirling her in a concussive hug and the self-consciousness slipped away, like my wedding ring in the ocean, lost after a long day surfing, so many years ago.

“Did you eat?” I asked. “I brought lobster. We could make a salad.”

“I hadn’t even ordered. I was on my second glass of wine.”

We went inside, arms still around each other, slithering round the half-open screen door, unwilling to disentangle. In the kitchen I pulled the bottle from the freezer.

“She was already drunk, Your Honor,” I said. “I had nothing to do with it.”

“He said, opening the Veuve.”

She found glasses and I poured the wine. We clicked rims: “To impulsive behavior,” she said.

“May it always be welcome.”

We drank and she said, “How did you find me?”

“I don’t know … you were out, it was the night before you left. I figured you might be at dinner somewhere, and Spoleto was the only restaurant I knew you liked. Lucky you were there.”

“No, no – it’s better than that. We were supposed to go to a different restaurant, but I made them change the reservation. I wanted to be somewhere you knew, in case you were trying to get in touch with me.”

“That’s wild.”

I finished my champagne and she poured out some more.

“Do you think we’re psychic?” she asked.

“We don’t have to be psychic. We’re thinking the same things.”

We made the lobster salad and took it out to the porch.

“Eric called this morning,” Sophie said “I must have sounded weird. He said ‘Are you still mine? You don’t sound like it.”

“What did you tell him?”

‘That I hated the question. I hate phrases like that. They’re like some bizarre left-over from the days when women actually were chattel. He wouldn’t want to own me anyway. Over-priced, a hundred thousand miles on the odometer, needs new clutch, no warranty. I’m a bad deal.”

“A hundred thousand miles? How do figure that?”

“I don’t know. It feels that way sometimes.”

I took her hand; she squeezed back.

“Your clutch seems okay to me,” I said.

“Very funny.” But she did smile a little.

“Did you tell him all this?”

“No, no -- I didn’t want to get into it. I just said I hated the phone and we’d talk everything over when I saw him. I’m dreading that. The serious relationship conversation.”

“Then don’t go.”

She took her hand back, picked up her fork. “I’m going. The tickets are bought, his family is flying in to meet me. I have to do this, anyway. I have to see him and -- and deal with things. Make a decision.”

She poured out the last of the wine and we ate quietly for a few minutes. Cars passed on the street. A light drizzle had started, blowing out of the north east. The breeze shifted her hair, lifted the napkins on the little wicker table. She shivered a little and I moved closer to her on the little bench, slipped my arm around her shoulders. She leaned into me.

“It can’t decide what season it is today,” she said. “It felt like Spring this morning, By afternoon it was summer. Now it’s Fall again.”

“That’s my favorite season anyway. Maybe it’s all those years of starting school in September, but it always feels like a new beginning. It’s especially nice on Nantucket. The air is so mild. They say it’s because of the Gulf Stream. But you can swim in the ocean in October. You’d love it.”

“I can’t move to Nantucket.”

“Sure you can – rent this house, pack a few boxes and go. You could get a job teaching at NSD or the high school. People do it all the time.”

“What about your kids?”

“They’d love you.”

“The strange new step-mother who appears out of nowhere and yells at them for leaving their dishes in the sink? I don’t think so.”

“No need to yell. Besides, they’re startlingly tidy.”

She reached across her body to put a hand to my mouth, just touching my lips with her fingers. “I can’t deal with the future tonight,” she said.


She arched up to kiss me. I pulled her closer. When we eased out of it she said. “This all seems so easy. I always thought we were star-crossed.”

“Well, maybe something a little less dramatic. Like rain-delayed?”

“Or eclipsed.”


“Come on. When you got married, when your kids were born, you weren’t thinking about me.”

“I guess.”

The rain intensified on the roof of the deck, a dense rattle that subsided again as the worst of the storm moved on. It was cozy on the little bench.

“You know what I regret?,” I said after a while. “It’s the moments I didn’t understand when they were happening. Like the day I left for Los Angeles – back at Hampshire. If I had just been smart enough to turn around that morning -- ”

“We would have lasted about six months. That was all I could handle, then.”

“I suppose. But I blew those six months and I want them back.”

“Well, you got tonight. You made that happen.”


“It sounds like a lot of work, though.”


“And expensive.”

I shrugged. “The best things in life are definitely not free. Who said that anyway?”

“It’s an old song from the twenties. Something about flowers and sunbeams.”

“Written just before the crash, I bet. Nowadays, roses are five dollars a stem, and sunshine gives you skin cancer.”

“What a romantic.”

“I am romantic. I just accept the fact that I have to pay for stuff. Free is con job. I figured that out when I was a kid. Remeber those cereal box offers? ‘Get the Decoder Ring FREE with five box-tops and two dollars for shipping and handling’ Handling. What is handling anyway? It ought to be included. I mean, you can’t rwally ship something without handling it.”


She lifted herself up to kiss me. I felt it in my blood like a drug, pushing through every vein and capillary, rousing every nerve. She reached between my legs to feel where the blood was going.

When she pulled away she said, “Here’s what I regret. We made so many mistakes. We so many things wrong. You were wrong in college, being true to Lisa. I was wrong at your house, being true to Eric. Doing our duty, ignoring what we really wanted, ignoring desire. No, no –I really want to say this. Desire is so fragile. It’s like my delphiniums. They need light and water. They die if you don’t take care of them. And anyway … nobody wants an obligatory kiss. No one wants a favor like that. It’s horrible. So you wind up with nothing except being able to say you did the right thing and feeling superior to the happy people. I don’t want that. And most of all I don’t want to die without making love to you.”

I kissed her but she wasn’t quite finished

“It could happen,” she said. “It almost happened before. I heard about your biking accident in France. I forget who told me, but they thought you were dead and I felt so … so bereft. So lost. Like it was all my fault or my punishment. If I had fought for you and we were together it would never have happened, or – I don’t know. This sounds crazy. Anyway I heard you were all right and felt this huge relief like I’d been carrying some weight the exact size of my body, some sort of custom-made sandbag, and it was suddenly gone and I thought “I’ll see him again’ and here you are. So it’s all okay.”

“That would have been a good moment to call.”

“I know but … I couldn’t do that, out of the blue like that, like you did. Somehow I knew you’d call me, or we’d run into each other on the street in New York City, or at the next table at some restaurant, like – fate. Something would happen. You were alive and it wasn’t over. That’s all.”

I hefted the champagne bottle, but it was empty. “We missed so much time.”

“I know. I was thinking about that today. About – not wanting to live my whole life without – to never … ”


She was looking down, as she was trying to draw some courage from the glass-topped wicker table, the brown weave below the smudged lens. She looked up; our faces were just a few inches apart. She said: “I want to be naked with you.”

I didn’t trust my voice, I didn’t want to bleat. I just nodded, already feeling the tension in my thighs, feeling it pulling at the corners of my eyes, contracting my throat like the start of a yawn, though it was anything but sleep my nerves were stretching for.

She stood and took my hand and led me inside the dark house and up the stairs, into her bedroom.

It was really happening. Somehow I had never quite believed it would. Maybe it was just the caustic threat of disappointment. But I’d played it safe, I realized as she started to unbutton my shirt.

I hadn’t even brought a condom.

It was a fleeting thought, swept away by the accelerating moment, a cup of take-out coffee on the car roof. She pulled my shirt off and ran her hands down my chest, kissed up my neck and then took a small step backward. She lifted her dress over her head. She wasn’t wearing a bra. I stroked up her ribs, caressed the sides of those small perfect breasts, felt her shudder; we were both shaking. I slipped off her panties, went down on my knees to guide them down her legs. She stepped out of the little puddle of cotton and kicked them away delicately, the sexiest dance-step imaginable. I kissed up her thighs, buried my head in the delicious shadow between her legs.

“Wait,’ she said tugging at my hair. I stood. “I’m not done.”

She unbuckled my belt, unbuttoned my pants, unzipped them slowly, pulled them down. I kicked my legs free and she tugged the waistband of my boxers over my hips, lifted it free of my erection. It was a raw adolescent hard-on, expanding past the limits of the skin, tearing the seams. She stroked it once and then we were falling on the bed together

It was perfect, we were hot for each other our hands were all over each other – then it started to go wrong.

Some microscopic virus of thought found its way under my skin, infecting me: So much awareness multiplying in the soft tissue: that she was going to be in bed with another man tomorrow, probably comparing us; that this was my one chance to prove everything to her, sexually but not just sexually because the sex was a metaphor and a symbol and a totem, and if I failed, if I fell short now, I would lose her as surely as if I’d never come at all ,and then the connected epiphany, sharp as the loose razor blade in the junk drawer, slicing the finger tip, perhaps I shouldn’t have come; perhaps I should held off until she had actually broken up with Eric, when this moment could be clear and uncompromised between us. Or I should have left an hour ago, I should be long gone now. I should have turned her down, just said no, as Nancy Reagan suggested.

Abstaining would have been such a perfect move – cravenly saving myself from this impending hydraulic failure, I would have seemed so noble, so wise, so mature.

The perfect coward’s two-for-one.

But it was too late for that. My mind was working too hard, spinning faster and faster, engaging my morbid imagination, visualizing all the other horrible outcomes, the physical reality of my desire suddenly as elusive as a crumb in a glass of water, slipping away from my finger on the sluice of thought.

And Sophie didn’t seem to notice. She was in her own world now, too, the opposite world, a fugue state of abandoned lust.

I held her tight, as I might stamp on the brakes, pressure against the surge of momentum

“Slow down,” I said. “Let me catch up.”

I kissed her hard, she seemed to snap out of it and we both started laughing.

“Do over,” I said.

She stretched herself against me and I could feel the shell of thought crackling loose -- a hard boiled egg, still warm, rolled against a formica counter top, ready to be peeled, ready to be eaten.

“We’re so long together,” she whispered, twining her leg with mine. Then she rolled on top of me, went up on her knees and guided me to the spot. I was inside her then, thrusting up, a little deeper each time, parting every layer of resistance, pressing her to me, hands on her bare ass and it was perfect and then she said,

“You can’t come inside me,”

And I felt the orgasm coming right then, that moment, too soon, too fast, another grating echo of high school sex. I was going to fuck this up every way possible, screw it up, every piece of slang for bungling was a sex word.

I pulled her down, rolled over on top of her, pulled out and came on her leg. She thrust herself against my hip bone and in a second she was coming, too. Afterward, we rolled away from each other a little, gasping.

“Holy crap, we totally suck at this,” I said.

“We just need more practice.”

“You think?”

She nodded. “And speaking of sucking … ”

She started easing herself down my body.

Then the phone rang.

She stopped, listening as the machine picked up.

“This is Sophie. Leave me a message. I like to see the little red light blinking when I come home,” Then we heard Byron’ Clark’s voice.

“Lift off in half an hour, Cinderella. Leave a shoe there. She’ll track you down.”

I stared at Sophie. “It’s eleven thirty already? How is that possible?”

“Don’ t go.”

“I have to.”

“You could leave in the morning.”

“I need to be back in the morning. I’m starting a new job and I have the kids tomorrow.”

“I’ll drive you. We – we could leave before dawn.” “But you’re going to Canada tomorrow. Are you flying out of Logan?”



“Wait a second. Let me think.”

“You could take the shuttle from Boston.”

“No, I checked on that when I was making the reservations. The first flight is at six and my plane leaves New York at seven. I’m supposed to be there an hour early and anyway –“

“That’s cutting it close.”

“I have a five ten flight out of Bradley. The whole package is locked in.”

I stroked her hair. “You could just cancel the whole thing.”

“No I couldn’t.”

“Or I could come with you.”

“Everyone would love that. Surprise! And what about your kids?”

“Okay, okay, bad idea. But we could – it …if they –

I had nothing. I gave up.

“Checkmate,” she said.

“Queen takes King.”

“That’s not fair. King and Queen get taken by Travelocity.”

“You’re right. Sorry.”

She turned the clock on the bedside table so we could see the face.

“We have fifteen minutes to get to the airport.”

Wed didn’t say much on the way to the airport. I don’t know what was going on inside of her but the night had blown the words out of me. I was content to feel the engine vibrate under the torn leather seat and watch Western Massachusetts stream by in the moonlight beyond the window. I took her hand but there were street lights on the empty roads and she needed to shift. Some comment about the merit of automatic transmissions drifted through my mind but tumbled away behind us with the dark landscapes outside. It wasn’t worth breaking the silence for.

She kissed me, standing by the car while Byron ran the ground checks on his little Cessna.

“You’re so much more real to me now,” she said, finally.

“As long as that’s a good thing.”

“You know it is.”

“There’s room on the plane. Last chance to blow it all off and come back to Nantucket with me.”

She pressed her head into my chest, shook it silently.

“I know, I know, you have to go. Just – come back. I did, twenty years ago.”

“For all the good it did you.”

The comment irked me – a little stab of gratuitous pessimism. I took a breath, kissed her forehead.

“You have a better shot. Hopefully we’ve both learned something since last time.”

She looked up, met my eyes. “You’re right. Travel safe.”

“You, too.”

“I will come back, Steve. Wait for me.”

I smiled, a little ruefully. “Don’t worry. I’m good at that.”

One more hurried train-platform kiss and then I was walking to the plane, climbing in with Byron and watching her as she got into her old Volvo and drove away. She was gone before we took off.

I never saw her again.