“Evan is having an affair.”
This is the first of two surprises I’ve brought to my girlfriend’s college from New York. The second is small and circular with a gem the size of my pinkie-nail. I was planning to wait with both until their respectively appropriate moments. But Sarah has been distant and frosty since I arrived an hour ago, so I produce this, the first, as an ice-pick.
Her reaction lacks the animation I had anticipated. Sarah doesn’t know Evan like I do, and perhaps she predicted it, but he’s still her sister’s husband. I expected concern over his disloyalty. She seems more curious about the candles reflected between herself and the night than in my news. She barely blinks acknowledgment. The window is propped and cool fall air sifts through, fluttering the little flames. Outside, the rumble and crash of the trains has begun. Last weekend, it framed our lovemaking until dawn. This weekend, she has yet to let me kiss her.
I slide beside her, and wrap my arms around her shoulders and attempt to pull her against me but she’s all angles and tension. She ducks and I’m left holding air. It’s no use asking. This is one lesson I’ve learned in the three-weeks since we met. When the time is right, she’ll reveal her distress. Not before.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” she says.
It surprised me. It surprised me that he was even home. I had my key in the door of his apartment before the laughter froze my motion. Unmistakably female. Not mistakable as Megan. Then his own laughter in response. The solid ‘Hu Hu Hu’ reminiscent of a Paul Bunyun-sized Santa Claus. I held my breath removing the key from the tumblers. I virtually tiptoed my retreat.
It wasn’t until I hit Fifth Avenue that I began to question my impulsiveness. The laugh was undeniably female. But Evan has female friends. Even if he’s slept with most of them, it’s no reason to suspect adultery now. But there was something beyond the door that flashed red-alert. Something in the laugh. A suggestion of ultimate betrayal.
I let my feet walk south to thirty-seventh street, and then west toward Herald Square. Perhaps I mindlessly retraced my steps for I found myself passing the jewelry store I had visited not two hours before. This reminder of pending commitment restored confidence to my movement. I can always count on Herald Square to do this one way or another. I find solace in the commercial heartbeat of neon lights and urgency. I feel my own ambiguous yearning lost in the mass craving. It is here, where desire embraces reality, that I find my identity.
As my comfort factor rose, so too did the dubious nature of my recent discovery. False accusations can ruin a marriage. I passed the Tower Records Midtown store and snapped my neck in double-take. The television in the window display was flashing MTV images of the very campaign which Evan had been shooting in Boston and Chicago over the past three weeks. The screen was filled with Megan’s smile, straight and white, the beauty mole on her upper lip, some jerky camera motion revealing a hint of shining eye, grainy and frozen … staccato snap-shots of Megan’s smile… and then a longer shot of her in a phone booth with one hand over her eyes… arched against the door of the booth, her other hand touching the receiver like she just hung up or else has yet to call … and the last shot, again, close and grainy: her fingers brush her hair from her eyes, her eyes shine, wet with tears because she’s not smiling at all … she’s crying. The screen displayed the name of the cologne, and, beneath, in smaller letters: BECAUSE SHE’LL ONLY WANT YOU MORE. The copy is mine. My small yet vital contribution to the campaign.
I took a breath and blinked and became aware again of the rest of the display: the long-hair posters, CDs and tapes, concert promos, the mass of people pushing past, searching for a perfect product.
Usually Evan’s work leaves me feeling frail and small and mostly worthless, but at that moment I felt only elation. During the sequence, confusion had cleared. I knew how to resolve my uncertainty. I found a phone. I dialed Evan’s apartment. It rang three times before he answered. I tried to decide whether this was an unwarranted amount.
“Hello?” said Evan.
You’re back.” I said.
There was a pause while he processed my assertion. I tried to discern the nature of his silence.
“Who is this?” he said.
“I just saw your Tout Les Soir piece,” I said. “Fabulous. Powerful. Made me think of you. Made me think of watering your plants which might, incidentally, be thirsty.”
“Just watered them, Waldo. Appreciate your concern.”
“Should I come over?”
“Well … ”
“I’m in the neighborhood. Not five minutes away.”
“Not so good, Waldo. Just back for the night. Early plane and all. Must get the power sleep, you know.”
“If you’re heading out again tomorrow, Evan, all the more reason for me to visit for a half-hour or so. Just to see the uh… battle scars. Just to gain strength from your great red beard.”
“Can’t do it, Waldo. Sorry.”
“Is someone there? Are you busy?”
“No. Just tired. An arduous week. Tired, Waldo. Talk to you soon.”
Then he hung up. And I hung up. I braced one arm against the glass and took deep breaths of the neon mist that dulled the higher bars of light. Traffic was clogged and backed to the park. I watched the million-legged consuming machine begin to close its shutters for the night.
“It’s like someone’s lifting them into the air and then dropping them onto the tracks,” says Sarah. She’s referring to the crash of the trains behind her apartment. “All night, every night. I’m going to complain.”
“You could move back on campus.”
She doesn’t bother to answer that, just rolls her eyes and heaves an exaggerated sigh. She’s leaning against the headboard of her bed. Even in the wavering candlelight, her beauty makes me shiver. Straight from a billboard, her features could sell cars or clothing or cosmetics. Pure American. California without the sun damaged skin. Oklahoma. Whoever could have predicted? Her bangs shift when she moves. The tilt of her face suggests an inner logic. Her cheekbones narrow to the cut of her chin, to the slight sweep of her throat. Back up past parted lips, a slice of nose, to her eyes: large and dark and shiny, now, reflecting the candles. In daylight they vary from hazel to aqua. Her eyes are chameleons, shifting hue to complement their environment. My hand lifts toward her face like metal to a magnet. She turns her chin away.
“Are you worried about your sister?” I say.
“Did you find out more, Wally? Anything for sure?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“Not to accuse my sister’s husband.”
“He lied, Sarah. Someone was there.”
“It doesn’t mean he’s having an affair.”
The bed rocks as Sarah swings her legs to the floor. She stands and stretches, and then bends and kisses me on the lips. She holds my face between her hands. “Don’t concern yourself, Wally. It’s not worth it one way or the other.”
“What…” I say. My throat is thick with confusion. I say, “He’s like a father to me. He’s your brother-in-law.” And then I almost say, “Your future uncle-in-law” but I stop myself. There’s plenty of time for that surprise.
She kisses me again and then pulls away and shakes her head. “No,” she says. “It’s a dangerous thing to say.”
Evan is my dead father’s brother: my uncle. Our relationship, however, transcends biology. After my father died, Evan took it upon himself to aid my mother in any way he could. He helped finance my college education. When I graduated, four months ago, he arranged the interview with Angus Pierce of Pierce and Shully Inc. which secured my position. Part of this extended concern may have been fueled or even motivated by guilt since Evan was in the boat when my father drowned, but this speculation is superfluous. Evan introduced me to the two most valued elements of my life: the world of advertising, and the world of Sarah King. For this I am forever indebted.
Three months ago, Evan called an informal meeting and announced his engagement to a woman named Megan King. She was a model and actress, he said, and of course no one had heard of her because she went by the name Megan Precious, and of course no one had heard of her because her career had just begun. She had moved to Manhattan from Oklahoma.
Barry Lubin, Director of European Layout, spluttered surprise, “An Okie? For real? How old is she, Evan? I mean, is she legal?”
“Of course she’s legal,” answered Evan. “Or … ,” and he winked this addition, “ … she will be by church time.”
And something about his tone, the slight nod of his head, the thin smirk which suggested an inside joke, kept us from enjoying what should, by all rights, have been a period of extreme hilarity. For the concept seemed preposterous given his history of proud philandering. After Evan left the room, Barry forced a chuckle and said, “Look at you all. It’s like you believe him.” And when no one responded, he laughed louder and said, “Come on. Snap out of it. Evan is not getting married.”
But I wasn’t sure. I had witnessed the change in Evan. I knew him in a separate way from the others in the agency. At lunch the day before, he had sat mute and staring. He seemed thinner and pale. Our conversation wandered and lurched, and at one point he slapped himself on the cheek, and said, “Ridiculous! Ridiculous,” and shook his thick red hair and laughed, and when I asked him why, he smiled through me and said, “Your uncle is losing his mind.”
So I was partially prepared. But my jaw still dropped its distance three days later when, at the Halloween masquerade, Evan arrived with a woman of such divine beauty that not even Barry could draw the breath to query or jest or sneer, or do much of anything except stare … and maybe drool. Wrapped in black with bare shoulders and blond hair spun around and lifted like a golden rose. Even before we noticed the seven carat star on her finger, it was obvious she belonged to Evan. Or vice-versa. For he wavered in her presence. And it wasn’t just because she rivaled his height—victorious given the heels and the hair. She was the type of woman that required complete attention. And not only attention, but commitment of thought. And beyond thought, requiring even the world of tangible substance to validate her existence. An anomaly of nature, she only had to breathe and everything else fell into smooth orbit around her.
Evan orbited smoothly for the rest of the night, with a small, guilty smile pinned to his chin. His smile said something about risks and rewards. Like a child caught with the cookie already safe behind his lips. They were married two weeks later.
It was the perfect New York match … the perfect complement … the perfect couple. Megan: smooth and blond and delicate, fluid beside Evan’s solidity. Both of them tall and striking and powerful. Their occupations could not have been better suited. Evan cast Megan in a series of cosmetic spots that earned her immediate recognition in both the commercial and the cinematographic world. In that same month, she was commissioned to do multi-page layouts for Seventeen and Cosmopolitan. She appeared on Donahue with a panel of emerging New York models and actors, and surprised everyone with a rare balance of confidence and deference. There was talk of a series … then a film. Evan began negotiating with agents, and they in turn began negotiating with Hollywood. People whispered “star.” It seemed the logical extension of the traditional Manhattan fairy-tale. Evan spent less time in the office, and although he maintained a dogged silence about his other affairs, the consensus was that he and Megan were on the edge of something vast. When pushed, he would smile at his inside joke and refer enigmatically to this or that meeting with this or that producer.
So it came as an incongruous jolt when, a month later, walking back to the offices from Evan’s favorite deli/bar, he spoke of the relationship in ordinary human terms. And not such positive human terms either. “It’s tiring,” he said, and this was all. But it made me glance at him because I could tell he hadn’t meant to say it. His tone was flat, unfocused: an unintentional expression of emotion. I camouflaged my initial surprise with a cough. Evan believes that curiosity indicates weakness, or worse, perversion. When I looked again, he was watching me, so I leaned further away from him, craning to read the headlines as we passed a newsstand. But he had seen, and he knew I had heard, and he watched me as though he had caught me spying.
“Tiring?” I kept my voice distant, my eyes on the vender.
His pause was tense, prolonged, a reference to danger, a silent warning. Then he laughed, and I breathed a nervous laugh myself because I knew he had decided to cover it. His laugh was boisterous and loudly confidential. “Damn tiring” he said. “God-damned tiring woman! Wears me down … ” and this with a nudge and a wink, “ … Just about wears me down to the nub.”
I laughed with him. I nodded my head and nudged accordance. I said, “She’s remarkable, Evan.”
He said, “Aren’t many like her. That’s the fact of the fact.”
“None,” I said. It seemed self-evident. I had yet to speak to Megan Precious, but I had certainly watched her, and the more I saw, the more I heard, increased my conviction that she was unique.
So when Evan said, “Aren’t many like her,” my response lacked pause or pretense, and this was, perhaps, predictable, because his response to my response seemed unsettlingly prepared.
“Her sister is coming to town.”
I couldn’t help but glance at him again. I hadn’t known she had a sister, or any relatives at all. No one had come to her wedding. Evan never mentioned in-laws.
He said, “Her sister is visiting from college, Waldo. I want you to entertain her.”
“Is she as pretty as Megan?”
Evan nodded slowly, watching me, and then leaned forward in sudden disclosure of relevant secrets. “It’s her twin,” he said. “They look exactly alike.”
And so they did. The four of us went to dinner, the first night Sarah arrived, and I spent much of the time glancing from her to Megan. Sarah had shorter hair and no mole, but an otherwise indistinguishable facial structure. Indistinguishable bodies. Seeing them side by side was disorienting … a fantastic hallucination.
“Have you decided who is who, Waldorf?” These were the first words Sarah sent in my direction.
I nodded my head. I said, “I’m Waldo.” Then I said, “You’re Sarah.”
This made them all laugh, because although I meant only to correct my name, it sounded like I was differentiating her from myself. Evan pulled his beard, and laughed until his eyes watered, and I felt my face heating because I couldn’t shift from Sarah’s eyes, laughing and shining through the candles of the table.
The second thing Sarah said to me, just to me, was, “They’re perfect for each other.”
This was later, still that first night, after dinner, when we were walking toward Springfield’s for cappuccino. Evan had pulled Megan back to expound upon a weakness in a window display and Sarah had kept walking so I kept walking beside her. It was a clear night and I was trying to decide if I should offer her my blazer in an attempt at old-world chivalry, or maintain a cool New York detachment. I unbuttoned it, then rebuttoned it. The fact was, I might get cold. I peeked at this apparition beside me, and felt the wave of disbelief at my own good fortune. Evan and Megan were leaving the next morning for Los Angeles. It was my job to entertain Sarah for the weekend.
I said, “Yes they are. It’s such a magical union.”
“I didn’t mean like that.” She smiled when she said this, her eyes crinkling and her teeth shining in the streetlights.
“How did you mean?” I glanced behind us. Evan trailed by a hundred yards, his heavy frame dark and blocky beside Megan. As I watched, she squealed and hit his shoulder and he ducked and sidestepped.
“I mean that he’ll cheat on her. He’s that type.”
“Right,” I said. “He’s very faithful. Very sincere.”
“No. He will cheat on her, Wally. It’s just a matter of time.”
My focus snapped to her face and she watched me solemnly before starting to laugh. Then I laughed also. I couldn’t help it. It was during that initial moment of confusion, before I laughed, that I committed myself to her smile and wherever it would take me. And then I wasn’t confused anymore because I was laughing, and I didn’t think much of anything except how wonderful it felt, and I knew then that the water around me was warm, even if it was unpredictably deep.
The next day Sarah continued to talk about Evan and Megan. “She deserves it,” Sarah said. “She cheats on everyone herself. All her boyfriends. Even me once.”
“She cheated on you?”
“Well not on me, exactly. He cheated on me. With her. A boyfriend I had. Can you believe it?”
This was in Central Park, the next day, Saturday, in the cool grass of an annex of Sheep’s Meadow. Sarah lay on the Burberry blanket, her forearm resting over her eyes, her other arm stretched out with her fingers brushing the wrapper of the Ghirardelli’s chocolate squares. Her champagne glass wavered, balanced on her stomach. Her stomach showed, bare, where the champagne glass touched between the hem of her blouse and the waist of her pants.
I sipped from my own glass of champagne. Chandon, White Star. Forty-five dollars for the bottle. In the store I had bypassed the Dom in a fit of frugality. It was a decision which haunted me during the rest of our shopping. I kept the bottle wrapped, wondering if she had noticed.
Before parting, the night before, Evan had drawn me aside. He had wrapped his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close. “Can you handle her?” he asked.
I looked up into that red beard of competence and power and I said, “Of course, Evan.”
He said, “Listen, Waldo. Buy her things. She’s young and beautiful. She wants to be pampered.” And then he nodded and I nodded with him, repeating this wisdom in my mind.
So I berated myself for my inexcusable lapse with the wine, and tried to compensate with the rest of the picnic. I bought smoked salmon, curried chicken salad, twice-deviled eggs, rolls, and French bread from Zabars. The strawberries and grapes we purchased from the street vendor on Eighty Sixth street. I bought an extra six-pack of San Pellegrino for washing. I had rented a Central Park carriage to transport it all, and instructed him to wait while we ate. Most of the food remained uneaten. We nibbled the chocolate and drank the champagne. We were far too intent on each other’s eyes to take notice of silly things like hunger.
I won’t condemn our romance to a love-montage. Suffice to say that we ate dinner at Windows on the World. We watched Miss Saigon from seventh row center. Afterwards, I took her to Nightingales for Fra Angelica and jazz. Suffice to say that we slept together, that night, in Evan’s apartment. It was my first time sleeping with a woman. We didn’t have intercourse. My body won’t let me until I am married. This used to bother me: my body’s reluctance to explore, but with Sarah it wasn’t an issue. We both knew the time would come. I had been waiting for the perfect woman. Now Evan had given her to me.
Suffice it to say that after brunch the next morning, at Grand Central Station, waiting for the board to display her gate, I told her that I loved her. I said that it was love at first thought, that I had known it before I had ever seen her.
She looked at me and her eyes were wide and sad. I said, “Shhh. Don’t say anything. I know. I know.”
And I did know. Her eyes told all about the difficulty of believing. About years of empty promises and broken dreams and outright lies. I pulled her to me, there in the frenzy of Grand Central with the frantic scurry of necessity spinning around us, and I stood on my tiptoes to press my cheek to hers. I held her tight, and whispered, “Shhh. I know. I know.”
The following weekend, I visited her school. Suffice to say that the reunion was as spectacular as our introduction, with only the background shifted from New York to Boston. It was as though, when I saw her again, no time had passed. Everything in between became dreamlike and insignificant. It was during that weekend … last weekend … that I realized, consciously, where our lives were heading.
I bought the ring on Wednesday. I heard somewhere that an engagement ring should cost a full month’s salary. Consequently, I spent three. I found as close to a duplicate of Megan’s ring that I could. It rests now, safe in the pocket of my blazer. Tomorrow night I will propose.
“Why won’t you drop it?” says Sarah in the morning. She’s standing in front of her dresser mirror, preparing herself to face the day, and even though the question doesn’t relate to anything immediate, the reference is obvious. It’s as though we have been debating the subject throughout the night, in our dreams, utilizing some secret, nonverbal mode of discourse. This happens often with Sarah and me. This is one of the reasons I know we are meant to share our lives.
“I have to know for sure,” I say. “He has to tell me.”
“Why do you have to know?”
I don’t bother to answer. She’s still upset and contentious. Neither of us slept well, which didn’t surprise me. Even if Sarah had predicted infidelity, a discovery like mine can disrupt a lot of cemented beliefs about the nature of close kin.
Sarah’s housemate pokes her head into Sarah’s room and asks if she can ride with us to the dining hall. The housemate has a moon face, freckles, and black stringy hair that has obviously never seen a salon.
“I imagine she has a good personality,” I say when the housemate closes the door.
Sarah shrugs. She’s applying finishing touches to the masterpiece of her visage. I slide behind her and rise on my toes to nuzzle her ear. Her face glows next to my own. And mine glows next to hers. I’m not especially handsome. But with Sarah I become part of a larger whole. A complete product of absolute purity and precise perfection. Without her, I am, again, Waldo Kimbal: struggling assistant account executive. With her, I am more. Waldo Kimbal and Sarah King. I have considered adopting her last name after our union. Waldo King. A king with his queen.
Sarah’s housemate cracks the door again and pokes her lumpy proboscis through my reverie. “Almost ready?” she asks.
“Almost.” Sarah doesn’t flinch, leaning toward the mirror with her mouth wide and the red Alexandra De Markou pressed against her lip. The housemate watches, expressionless. Her eyes flicker to mine and her nose wrinkles.
I say, “She said we’re almost ready.”
The housemate purses her own pale lips, blinks, removes herself from the doorway. Sarah caps the lipstick, stands examining the result in the mirror. I lean very close, on my tip-toes to press my mouth to her ear. I say, “Do we have to go with your housemate? Do we have to eat on campus? Why don’t we go to a nice restaurant here in town?”
She doesn’t answer but her eyes switch to mine in the mirror. Her attention quickens my breath. With Sarah, I don’t feel physical arousal, although I’m sure that will change with marriage. My excitement is deeper and cerebral. I press my body against her back: the slightest suggestion of alternative venues. “We could just stay here.”
She remains motionless. The humming in my head rises a notch, accompanied by euphoric dizziness. I tighten my arms, drawing her against me. Then she smiles.
“Wally,” she says. “Come on. I want you to see our dining hall.”
The dining hall is no Les Mussier. A factory sized, second-floor space with ranks of fold-out tables and an institutional odor weaving through the industrial-strength racket of 250 freshman scraping chairs and stacking trays. The furthest wall boasts windows which afford a panoramic view of uniform grayness. It is beside this outlook that we find seats. Sarah and I sit on one side, the housemate squeezes her bulk into the corresponding slot across the table.
Outside, gray trees wave the last shriveled leaves of fall toward a field of frozen grass. Further, beyond the field, more buildings rise, stamped from the same indistinct material as the one in which we eat. A group of football players jog in line toward the field. I can see the field, if I lean close to the glass. I hear, dimly, the chanting of the team, in unison: the coughed counting of regimented steps. College. Evan would see it as a bright reservoir of blossoming consumers. Five thousand from this school alone, heading into the jobs that provide the funds to buy the items which produce true happiness. Five thousand processing machines. The possibilities would make Evan smile. I try to smile.
Sarah makes me smile. Nodding an admirable attempt at attentiveness, she keeps her chin up, her shoulders back, as the housemate prattles her monotonous litany. Sarah lifts her fork, slides the leaves of lettuce between her lips. She chews. My chest aches, watching her chew. Effortlessly, thoughtlessly, she chews with grace and poise. She swallows. My eyes begin to water with love. Such perfection.
“Another thing,” I say.
The housemate pauses, her cheeks bulging, a forkful poised to fill gaps as they form. Sarah looks at me.
“Another thing I realized while watching Evan’s new piece with Megan.”
The housemate makes a strangling sound as she forces the load from her cheeks to her stomach.
Sarah smiles. She glances at the housemate, then back at me.
I say, “We can give you a mole.”
The housemate says, “What!”
“It’s a simple operation. I’m sure of it.”
“Give her a mole?” says the housemate.
“Right here.” I reach over and touch Sarah’s lip just above the corner of her mouth. She draws back. “Not really a mole. A beauty mark”
“You’re crazy.” This comes from the housemate. “It’s true. You’re off your nut.”
My glance holds the coldest indifference. “If you’ll excuse us,” I say, “we want to be alone.”
“With pleasure.” The housemate struggles from her chair, her eyes bulging like eggs. She lifts her tray and begins squeezing toward a table where more of her friends shovel recycled garbage into their necks. She twists back toward me and wrinkles her face searching her vacant skull for more profane abuse. At a loss, she sticks out her tongue. I wave graciously.
Sarah is at three-quarter profile. Her eyes flicker through her blond bangs and then drop to her salad. “If I have a mole, I’ll look exactly like my sister.”
“That’s right. It’s very simple.”
“What if I don’t want to look like my sister?”
It hasn’t sunk in. The simplicity: the ease of the maneuver. She hasn’t grasped my control of the situation. “It’s a very simple operation,” I say.
Her eyes are on me now. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Like a trauma victim, she needs to be humored. Sometimes good fortune is as hard to accept as tragedy. I smile and nod my head. “You already look like Megan, Sarah.”
“I don’t have a mole.”
“She just got the luck of the draw. Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Megan Precious. The most beautiful women the world has known. They all have a mole on the upper lip. And you should too. You will. It’s very simple.”
“Evan said he likes me without one.”
“That’s because you’re his wife’s sister … You talked to him?”
She turns now, her eyes very green in the gray light that filters through the pane. “He visited me.”
“He said you asked him to. Did you ask him to?”
“Well … I said if he had a break in the filming … Since he was in Boston. But I didn’t … ”
“Why, Wally? Why did you want that? You know I don’t like him.”
And there it is. Surfacing finally like a splinter through layers of skin: the cause of all the discomfort over the past 12 hours.
“That’s what’s been bothering you,” I say. “Evan.”
“And you’re surprised that he doesn’t tell you.” She’s gone again. Her focus, gone, out the window. “Surprised. The most obvious things.”
“What do you mean?”
No response. Maybe the slightest suggestion of a shrug.
“Evan’s not the angel you want him to be. He’s not a model of all that is honest and true.”
Now, I know how Sarah feels about Evan, and I know her propensity for judgment, but I can’t let this pass. I say, “He’s as close as a man can come.”
“No he’s not, Wally. He’s not close. If you opened your eyes you would see that.”
“He’s the man who made my life possible. He opened all the doors for me.”
“Wally, maybe he opened the doors because he wanted to step through and sleep with your mother.”
Her face turns while she says this, and we stare at each other for a considerable amount of time, during which her expression shifts from violent and angry to sad and maybe tired, probably in response to something she sees on my face which I am mercifully spared from viewing.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“It’s okay” I shake my head and grin. “You’re not the first. I mean, when he lived with us people thought … and I can see how it might have seemed … People have a hard time accepting that a person can be as selflessly considerate as Evan was to us.”
“I know, Wally. It was stupid of me.”
“Sarah! Please. Really. It doesn’t bother me. I know the truth. And I know that you love me and would never say anything to intentionally hurt me, and it’s my fault for asking Evan to check on you because I do know that you don’t like him, and it’s amazing how dumb I can be when I’m only trying to…” And the rest of my words are muffled by the shoulder of her sweater because she’s holding me, now, and we’re holding each other, clinging like koalas.
This has been our first spat. I hold her tighter. True lovers with a lover’s spat. And now the inevitable sweetness of reunion that follows.
My father died when I was eight. His death was quite simple and straightforward as far as water deaths go. He drowned. He was one of the victims who contribute to the statistic about boating accidents which expands every year. Evan didn’t own a boat yet, this one was rented. I don’t remember the trip, although I know I was there. Perhaps I suppressed the memory, or perhaps I just slept through most of it, as I tended to do on those trips. It happened at night, in late fall, the water was cold. Perhaps my father was drinking, as he and Evan tended to do on those trips. It’s all speculation now, nearly fourteen years later. There’s no going back. The events of the past recede with every heart-beat, until they become as insignificant as movement at the wrong end of a telescope.
I had adjusted to the sudden disappearance of my father with remarkable elasticity. Everyone was impressed. At first the psychiatrist to whom my mother sent me insisted it wasn’t real. He was convinced that I was suppressing the pain and that it would affect me in other ways until I released it. But my life continued on course. I progressed in school. I had friends, I played sports, I contributed in the third-grade reading circle. I didn’t cry excessively but I didn’t never cry either, which would have been just as suspect, no doubt, to my psychiatrist. Finally he was forced to shrug his shoulders and relinquish my case.
I’m smart enough to know that the reason I adjusted so quickly and completely to the loss of such a powerful part of my life, was because Evan filled the space. I knew the difference, of course. I had experienced Evan with my father enough to recognize differences beyond the physical. But he worked at it, and I worked at it, and between the two of us we managed, somehow, to fill the gaps … to keep the picture whole.
It’s true that Evan lived with us for a period after the accident. He wasn’t married. He had no connections except for his job, and he thought it might help my mother and myself. His room was the living room. His bed was the pull-out couch. I know this because I remember the period and I remember, specifically, pushing the couch back together so that I could watch television. This was the price I paid to watch television. I had to flip the sheets and blankets together and fold the couch back into itself.
Evan and my mother spent a lot of time together during the first two years after the accident. They always seemed to be getting ready to go to this or that event in the city. An embarrassing memory I have is of one time accusing my mother of neglecting me for Evan. I can’t remember how I said it, or exactly why, but I can remember her reply word for word, and how her eyes misted when she said, “Waldo, I can’t believe you would judge my only friendship after all I’ve been through. I let you have your friends, don’t I?”
She certainly did. Often she would be the one arranging for me to visit some schoolmate or other. I spent many nights at sleep-overs, watching late movies and having popcorn fights just like the other kids. My mother was right. I had no business judging her life when she tried so hard to supply me with a normal upbringing. But on the nights when I remained home, when my friends were away, or busy, it was difficult, lying awake and waiting for the sound of Evan’s car to roll into the gravel drive, the sound of their giddy voices, maybe laughter, subdued so as not to wake me.
Then he didn’t live with us anymore. He was still there much of the time, but he didn’t spend the nights. Maybe he had found a girlfriend and was living with her. Perhaps he was simply working more. I’m sure he was struggling toward becoming the pivotal figure which Pierce and Shully made him. And he was only thirty-two or thirty-three years old. My mother didn’t talk about it. She was lonely, I know … I knew even then. And tense. Once I asked her where Evan had been the previous week and her voice was very strained as she answered, “Not here.”
It was during this period that my mother began to date Mr. Humphreys. When Evan found out about it, he came over and there was a fight on our lawn. Mr. Humphreys drove away. I heard my mother screaming and worked my courage to the point where I cracked the door for better aural access. Evan said, “We’re still a family, Rose. I won’t allow you to destroy it.”
“A family?” My mother’s tone rose toward hysteria. “We? A family? He might have married me. Are you ever going to marry me?”
I held my breath. I knew that if Evan married my mother our worries would vanish. I crossed my fingers. But the only answer was the sound as the front door opened and then closed, and through my window I watched Evan leaving again. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how difficult it must have been for Evan to maintain a respectful distance from his dead brother’s widow.
This event marked the end of Mr. Humphreys, but not my mother’s dating career. I grew accustomed to finding strange men in our living room. My mother was still a very attractive lady at thirty-two years of age. The men became progressively more attractive and progressively younger, but they each only lasted, at most, a couple of months.
That fall, I turned fourteen and went to Hotchkiss with partial scholarship. Evan paid the rest. During breaks I would sometimes go home, but more often I would stay on campus. It seemed easier than dealing with my mother and her boyfriends. On rare occasions, Evan would allow me to stay with him in the city. He had a large apartment, on the twenty-eighth floor of a Fifth Avenue building, with a doorman, a guest room, and a glass wall overlooking the park. Usually there would be a woman staying with him, usually a younger woman, always breathtakingly beautiful.
The summer after my freshman year, I lived at home with my mother and her latest companion in Ashton, Connecticut. We spent the time in perpetual alternation between fighting and ignoring. It was a period of such tension and stress that I swore to never return for an extended time, and I kept this promise during my remaining three years at Hotchkiss.
My sophomore summer I stayed at Seth Drivel’s house in South Clinton. Seth lived by railroad tracks, with which he liked to experiment. We would balance coins on the smooth metal and later find them, spit to the side, round as a wafer, flat as copper paper. Sometimes we would lie on the embankment, close to the tracks, when trains whipped past. And then it would be gone, more suddenly than a nightmare, leaving a sunny summer day and two children dazed and gasping in its wake.
It was during my first summer after Hotchkiss that my life began to take course. I convinced Evan that I wanted to intern at Pierce and Shully. I told him that I had nowhere else to go. This was the truth. I told him I would only go to New York University, if he allowed me to stay in the city for the summer. Evan let me stay in his apartment. He had reached the point where he was fully in charge of a production crew, and had begun traveling, shooting commercials in various locations. I kept his apartment clean and acted as his answering service. I also worked at the Pierce and Shully offices three days a week, typing copy and filling forms. Once, in August, between major shoots, Evan brought me to watch the filming of a Chanel spot. He introduced me to the model, his current girlfriend. She said. “So, Waldo, are you going to be a director, like your father?”
I looked at Evan, but he just shrugged his shoulders and raised an eyebrow.
I said, “Yes. Ma’am, I certainly hope so.”
I stopped smoking cigarettes, which I had never enjoyed. I drank Scotch from Evan’s liquor cabinet. I sat by the glass wall, in Evan’s leather chair, and watched the summer sun warm Central Park. I sipped Scotch and talked to Evan’s friends as if I knew them. I was wildly happy.
In June, soon after I had moved in, Evan had a gathering at his apartment, both in celebration of my graduation from Hotchkiss, and to acquaint me with his friends from Pierce and Shully. My mother showed up. She wore her hair twisted on the top of her head in a style I had never seen before, but then again I hadn’t seen her since the previous Thanksgiving. She wore a tight dress. She wore lipstick the color of blood and pearls around her neck. The man who’s arm she held was tall and square and bored. He sat in a chair and chewed gum and only moved to finger his hair from his forehead. He didn’t look much older than I was.
When my mother left, not long after she arrived, Evan nudged one of his associates and said, “Chippendales?” Evan’s associate smiled into his cup. “Nah,” he said. “Dial-a-hustle.”
And, although I didn’t get the joke, I laughed with them because when she first arrived, my mother had said something which had sent my mood spinning toward euphoria, and which gave anything said or done the happy hue of serendipitous potential.
When she first arrived, my mother abandoned her escort, and came directly across the room to where Evan and I were standing. I let her hug me and then she stepped back and studied my face. She said, “Is this what you want, Waldo? To be here?”
“He’s a grown boy, Rose.” This came from Evan. “He makes decisions.”
She ignored him, watching my face until I nodded. Then she drew a breath and looked up at Evan. “Well, you got him,” she said. “What you wanted.” She looked at me, then at him. “A virtual clone.”
I graduated from New York University with dubious distinction in my major of Media Communications. Dubious because, besides my advisor, I don’t think one of the professors under whom I studied would have known me by name. Of course, that fact has become incidental. I did the work. I received the degree. The piece of paper is tangible and permanent proof of the academic success which helped to secure my full-time position at Pierce and Shully. All other possible pasts are nothing but maybe and might-have-been. It all fades beneath the surface of now. And now I am happy. I am strong. I am in love. Tonight will be the night I reach for my destiny.
Sarah leaves me to attend a class.
I say, “What sort of class meets on Saturday?”
She says, “Acting. It’s an acting class, and we meet whenever the teacher returns from New York.”
I say, “I thought you didn’t like acting.”
She says, “It’s in my blood. I have to act.”
I say, “I thought it was in your sister’s blood. Not yours.”
She shakes her head, disappointed in my lack of imagination. She says, “She’s my sister, Wally. My twin. We share the same blood.”
After she leaves I wander the campus until the thought that I might be mistaken for a student drives me indoors. Soon I find myself dialing a phone in the student union. “Hello.” A generic male voice.
“This is Waldo Kimbal. Can I speak to my mother, please?”
“My mother… Rose. Can I speak to Rose?”
Pause. “Hold on.” His suspicion is tangible. I hear him breathing, still holding the phone to his ear, listening for clues. Then the rustled sound of movement, and I hear murmuring, low murmuring, and then another pause, and louder rustling, and my mother’s voice comes amplified into my head like a bad hangover.
“Hello? Waldo? How are you? How’s your mother? I haven’t talked to her for ages?”
I say, “Mother?”
She drops her voice, hissing venom through the wires. “I told you not to call me here.”
I say, “Mother, I have to ask you something.”
“Well, what is it?” Raised again in sing-song duplicity. “Of course you can ask me.”
“Mother. Did you ever sleep with Evan?”
“Did you and Evan ever sleep together? When he lived with us?”
Sing-song. “Oh Waldo, silly. You know the answer to that.”
“Mother. Did you?”
“And how is Evan? I haven’t seen him in simply eons. It’s been so long.”
“He’s fine. Did you, mother?”
“Well tell Evan I send kisses. I’d love to chat but really, Waldo, I’m so rushed.” And then, hissing through the wires, “Why don’t you ask him, Waldo. If you don’t believe me.”
I say, “I believe you, Mother.” But I’m speaking to plastic. My voice curls uselessly into my own ear.
She’s right. The question is rhetorical. I know the answer. I remember folding the couch to watch television. I even remember Evan on the open couch, wrapped in sheets and snoring into his armpit. That was where he slept.
So I don’t know why I dial his number. I watch my finger pressing the sequence and then I listen to the ring, the phone ringing in his apartment in Manhattan, with dull detachment. When his machine answers, I listen to his recorded voice, then the beeps, and then the silence reserved for my message. I had nothing planned. Even if he had answered, I probably would have remained mute and unconnected.
I convince Sarah to abandon campus for our evening meal. I say, “Anywhere. Anywhere you choose. Price is no object.”
We wind up at a pseudo New York cafe, with wobbly wooden tables, stained-glass sculptures, and local art work on the walls. The menu boasts an array of open-faced sandwiches as well as homemade vegetable soup and eggplant lasagna.
I say, “Is this what you want? Are you sure this is where you want to eat?”
“This is exactly what I want,” says Sarah.
She’s still mad. It’s obvious. Still resentful of my patriarchal concern. It was downright stupid to ask Evan to drop by her school. But there’s nothing to do now but to wait with optimistic patience. I finger the crushed velvet box in my blazer pocket. My ace in the hole. But not yet. The moment will present itself.
“So order whatever you like,” I say. “It’s practically free food. Get one of everything. Or perhaps you would rather that I buy the whole place.”
There’s a window beside us, and the dusk light reflects gray in her eyes. Her hair is cool and pale like her skin. She pulls her bangs to the side and slides the longer strands behind her ear. “You don’t have that kind of money,” she says.
“But I have credit. Spotless, unbounded credit.”
She closes her eyes, relaxes her whole face, and then opens them, and says, “You sound just like Evan. You both think you can buy the world.”
“Ah, but he really can.”
“Look, I just don’t want to talk about Evan. All right? Is that okay?”
I’ve blown it again. How could I speak positively about the man who is cheating on her sister? I clench my teeth and stare at the menu, searching for a permanent change of subject.
“And that goes for you too. I don’t want you to think about him anymore. You’re obsessed with the man. Just let it go. No questions.”
I know her reference. I look up, and she’s watching me. Her eyes are set with conviction. I say, “Sarah, he has to tell us. It affects us all.”
“How does it affect us, Wally?”
“She’s your sister. What affects her affects you affects me.”
“What if I asked you, Wally? What if I asked you not to pursue it? For her sake. What if I said I don’t want my sister to get hurt.”
“But Sarah … I thought you wanted her to find out. You said once that it would serve her right.”
She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, opens them. “Drop it for me, Waldo. Will you do that? Please?” Her head tilts urgent imploringly. Her eyes are wide and beseeching. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for this woman.
I say, “Of course, Sarah. If that’s what you want.”
And I mean it. I won’t ask him. There’s simply no need. I won’t ask him about the voice in his apartment last Wednesday night, and I won’t ask him about his relationship with my mother. The past is gone. The past has no bearing on our lives today.
And yet I remember the boat. I remember the feel of the wind, and the hiss of the hull through the water. I remember the heavy canvas of the sails. I remember that when I slept, at night, sometimes, I could hear my father and my uncle on deck. Perhaps we were anchored in a bay or inlet. Perhaps we were still sliding through the night. I could hear them above me, drinking and laughing … or sometimes fighting. One of them always at the wheel. The feelings I felt during those trips are hard to describe and vastly contradictory. When it was good, my father and Evan created a space of perpetual harmony, with complete understanding of each other and the world around them. When it was bad, they became two identical magnets, both negatively charged. During those times, the air scraped against itself and split with lightning. Their feet stomped the deck and their shouts crashed like recalcitrant rams. When it was bad, I cringed in my bunk. It seemed the universe could not contain such dueling passion.
When I come back from the bathroom that night after brushing my teeth, the housemate has appeared. She’s sitting on Sarah’s bed with her arm around Sarah’s shoulders.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
The housemate scowls at me. Her eyes fling flagrant accusation. “I think Sarah wants to be alone for a few minutes,” she says.
I say, “What did you do to her? Why is she crying?”
The housemate says, “Would you get a clue?”
The audacity of the statement compounded by the context shoots pure hatred through my bloodstream. I step forward, and then Sarah raises her face. Her cheeks shine with moisture.
She says, “It’s not her, Waldo. I’m okay. I’m just…nothing. I’m okay.”
I look from one to the other, both of them watching me, and everything slides into place. It all makes sense. The common denominator behind Sarah’s moodiness and her reluctance to talk and her lack of appetite and her distance. Even her lack of passion. It’s a female thing, the oldest one in the book. The monthly curse.
I take a step back, and nod my head. I say, “I understand. Say no more.”
So they head for the bathroom and I pace her room feeling like a fool. How inconsiderate can a person be? How out of touch? And then I remember my final redemption. The time has come.
I place the small red box in the center of the pillow, in the center of the bed. It belongs on a pillow, floating.
Sarah comes back into the room, and she sees it right away and she stands there, staring at the box on the pillow as if she were to blink it might vanish. Then she looks at me. Her eyes are wide and revealing in a way I have never seen. She shakes her head in disbelief.
“Go on.” The words wheeze between the beating of my heart.
And she does. She crosses to the bed and she lifts the small box and rubs her fingers against the crushed velvet.
“Open it,” I say.
She shakes her head, not looking at me. She’s in shock. Locked in disbelief. Afraid to accept. She says. “I can’t.”
I abandon my speech entirely. I can hardly breathe, never mind orate. I say, “I want you to marry me, Sarah.”
And then she looks at me and I’m afraid she might start to cry again. Her face displays complete vulnerability. Her eyes are dark and ancient. She says, “I’m not the person you think I am, Waldo.”
Now I remember the night it happened. I remember the storm that whipped rain against the sails. I remember clearly the fighting, the shouts. I still hear the splash of a body hitting salt water. As clear as a movie I emerge from my bunk to see Evan’s face illuminated by the compass light, dripping rain water, twisted with rage. The wind heeled the boat and he had one foot braced against a side cleat, and water sizzled around us. I remember the blackness beyond our foaming wake. Blackness as solid and eternal as the loss I would refuse to accept.
I remember his voice then, and I remember knowing, instinctually, that a shift had occurred. A transfer of power under which I was to live indefinitely. “Stand by to come about,” he said. “Man overboard.”
Behind the apartment where Sarah lives is a line of scraggly trees, and a grassy bank which drops down to the train tracks. This is where, at night, they reconnect freight for its next destination. I sit on the rise, with my arms wrapped around my knees, crying like I’ve never cried before. Like I’m trying to suck the sky into my stomach.
My whole body contracts and shakes as I swallow air. I lie in the cold grass and relax myself to great, heaving sobs, and then I’m not really crying anymore. I’m an agent for something larger which flows through me like water.
Since this isn’t a commercial juncture, they don’t bother to mediate the coupling of the freight cars. They simply reverse at a moderate speed until the car slams into the line. Men dance and jump, dark shapes on the tracks, securing connections. Then the engine wrenches away with a sickening screech and trundles toward the next objective.
When I feel like I can stand, I plant my feet and lever myself from the grass. I’m weak, but erect. I descend the embankment, to the tracks, and then along the tracks, away from the trains. Gravel crushes beneath my feet. I step over the rails, crossing to the far set which aren’t used for rearranging connections, but which are reserved for the trains which come thudding periodically past, intent with speed. The metal of the rail is smooth and cold and trembles beneath my fingers. I balance the ring in the center of the rail. The gem shines a glimmer of faint objection but I turn away.