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