There’s something of the caged tiger to a woman like that. As a girl she read voraciously, she climbed trees, she learned to throw punches. You could see it on her body, if you looked: slightly misshapen knuckles, gestures that suggested strength gone to seed. You could watch it in her face: the way she clamped down on a thousandsome comments unuttered.
She could stand with any man.
Marriage was a state of suppressed magnificence for her, a deliberate encapsulation of self in self.
You can’t trust a woman like that. Nor can you stop looking.
She married Bill in 1954 and in 1956, by the time the Interstate Highway System had begun to cut through cities and make all of us in the suburbs approachable, she had commenced her “dalliances.” She really talked like that.
I like to stand justified with good men. Bill was a good man, but he was able to look away. I am not a good man and I had to look. You could compare the feeling of being near her with other things, poetic things, but why would you? That would be suppressed magnificence. That would be false. That would mean looking away.
The thing about the explorers was they liked to do the watching. They didn’t much like to be watched. Think about in the Cook’s second voyage – the New Zealanders performing all that cannibalism to frighten the crew off. Really, it was less the fear of being eaten and more, I think, the repulsion at being watched that did it for those men. They plotted a new course and off they went.
I suppose it was always the same for me. It’s why I was able to marry Bill at all. It’s why I forgave him for keeping me in one place – he didn’t really look at me.
He had wanted the wedding – The Wedding: the kind that girls imagine for themselves, white dresses, rice, color coordination, cutlery clinking crystal. Allowing that was a kind of gift to him, a concession to commence our marriage. We honeymooned at Niagara. There is a snow globe on our mantle flanked by two smiling pictures.
Being married to him was like a dance. You learn to exist within the formal constraints of it until you develop a kind of muscle memory for the tasks. You cook and clean and socialize with the other wives. You listen through posture until sometimes you discover your neck finds that shape on its own, sitting in the quiet of the kitchen at midday, you tilt it 20 degrees and listen to nothing.
It was at their holiday party that she started it. Her shoulders were bare.
Someone knocked over my glass. She saw me watch her cross the room. She bent down at my feet to collect the shards. She used my knee to steady herself on the way down. Her neck near my knee. And she looked right at me when she stood up, glass in her hands.
When they started construction on the interstate, it became part of how things worked in my house. I had to keep the kitchen windows closed because the exhaust blew in across the valley. No one likes a pie that tastes faintly of tarmac. I had to rearrange the hutch because the crystal would start to ring in concert with the large movements of the trucks – like they were picking up the whole crust of the earth over there and slamming it back down. The china would jostle like it wanted to be some beatnik tambourine. So, I took everything out and moved the entire thing to the parlor. I put more space between each piece of crystal as I returned them to their place.
It bothered me.
You are supposed to let pies cool in an open kitchen window. Otherwise they’re not icons anymore. Otherwise what the hell are you engaging in when you do all this work during the day?
It bothered me and it didn’t leave me alone.
“No, no,” she had said. “I’ll meet you. I want to see where you live.” I had invited her to a diner for a coffee and maybe a slice of pie.
You don’t say no to a woman like that. You don’t say no and you don’t stop looking and you can’t trust her. But you can’t look away either.
I had been worried that she would think I was empty when she saw where I lived. I liked it: it was functional, not filled with superfluous things, not marked with emotion. It was a space; it wasn’t laden with identity or need or any of it. I liked it. But I would have preferred for her to meet me somewhere else. And yet, the thought of insisting on something unendorsed by her was absurd. Even after everything, that seems absurd to me.
So she met me at my apartment.
Bill had never been particularly good at conversation. I guess cleverer women look for that kind of companionship, foreseeing the dreariness of housework. I don’t know why I didn’t figure on it. At first housework had the excitement of the acquisition and honing of a new skill. I figured it out and I made it efficient and, before I could stop myself, I was bored.
It’s not attractive to be bored. Not to anyone. Certainly not to me.
I tried reading. I tried painting. I tried gardening. I volunteered at the library. But the weight of that kind of life, the sheer force of it bearing down on you, makes all those other activities irrelevant.
It is probably cruel to say that Bill didn’t make me accountable to him, that if I had felt different responsibilities to him – human responsibilities – I wouldn’t have done it.
If he had just talked to me more.
But that’s not why I married him. I married him because he was loyal, because he had known me as a girl, and because he had an insignificant impact on me.
As a boy he was so controlled. We would climb trees and he’d divert his gaze even from an accidental glimpse of my skin. He knew how to shape that and he learned how to hear me out, to make sure I was okay by listening to where I was.
More often than not he’d need his way mapped down from a tree. But I liked that, too. And he was good enough to let me excel at the activities boys do.
When she came to me, she’d let me have my way with her.
I suppose people call you newlyweds when you start out like that – parties, vacations, no kids. It was during that time that I had convinced him to get a little beetle cat that we could take out. We could go on adventures like we had as children.
It’s probably wrong for a wife to want things to be the way they were when she was a child.
At any rate, he came back with a motor boat. To go fishing on. It had built-in coolers.
I suppose that was the day that I started thinking of our marriage differently. It started then. During the day, I would go on long drives. The courses explorers would take across the oceans were not all that different from the Interstate Highway System in those days. So, that’s what I thought about when I would take off during the day – that and ways that I could end my days with Bill.
I never wanted for his fate to be decided entirely by me. I wanted to leave it open to other factors. I wanted him to have some agency in it.
He was just always so trusting of me – to guide him, to feed him, to get him out of trees.
Some days we would stay in. She liked the bare space of my domicile, she called it. She would lay in my bed. Her body was long. She smoked. She smoked in bed. Iconographic.
Other days she would drive me places. We would take to the highway and stop off in small towns and suburbs in between Boston and Providence, in between Hartford and Albany. She would stop, pull over to the side of the road somewhere indistinct. We’d hike in and set down a blanket somewhere.
She got restless in the winter when we had to be inside.
Long of limb and restless.
I stopped cooking well rounded meals for him. It progressed quickly. Within three weeks, the follicles on his arm hairs bloomed with blood. At week four, he lost a tooth.
Shaving for work, he nicked his chin where it buckled. He left the house with tissue still sopping at it. He came home with tissue sopping it. After a week it had grown into an oozing wound.
His old injuries started to open back up.
Our sheets, our clothes, our house began to smell putrid.
I was disgusted. But that’s how guilt works on us, right?, we hate that which makes us feel guilty. At least it always seemed so to me. The pets we didn’t care for as children. The clothes we didn’t fold. The husbands we neglect.
So I kept cooking him white food.
There comes a point when you have to choose between a woman and your best friend. She was always doing things in a big symbolic way. She was a woman like no one real is a woman. She set it up like a Western. And you know who I had to pick.
I tried out different excuses for her. Everyone gets sick sometimes, I thought. You can’t account for the health of the man of a certain age, I thought. But Bill was never any good at taking care of himself, and it became pretty clear to me what she was doing once I had that idea in my head.
I guess she had tried, at the last moment, to make him some kind of romantic dinner. Vitamin C-rich, she said. And he wouldn’t eat it. She had called him an ambulance and drove to my apartment. She was crying at the door, rattling off meal elements: caviar and roasted brussels sprouts, a sausage ring with sauerkraut, chocolate covered guava and strawberries.
In the end, she had me drive her to the police station.
And here I am. Do you think I could ever really look at a woman again?