Sunday, July 10, 2005

Never Say Goodbye

She was 35, he was 26. She was married and had two children. She was out of reach, she was constantly at hand. She was out of the question, she was the only answer. He told himself that she was none of his goddamned business, but his unexpected admiration for her had broken his defenses. She was all that he wanted. He tried to dismiss his feelings but his desire swelled inexorably, like some sweet secret creation being brought silently to term. Rodney was in love with Marie, but no one knew it, not even Marie.

He had met her at work just a few months earlier and at first might almost have forgotten her. Even now he couldn't recall the moment they'd met or the first words they'd spoken. It was by no means love at first sight, yet she had crept into his consciousness slowly, imperceptibly, completely. Now everything had changed! In a span of time that seemed like a blur to him, Marie had been transformed from a total stranger to a passing acquaintance to an overwhelming presence. Suddenly he felt, not just that he knew her, but that he'd known her all his life! He was obsessed with her-yet he spoke of it to no one.

Rodney Cathcart and Marie Fischer worked in different departments of Bio-Search, an environmental research company whose principal virtue was its greatest fault: an overriding desire to please the client. Before Marie came to work there, Rodney's principal fault and greatest amusement had been to deride that virtue.

In the lunchroom one day, the annoying phrase "requisite expertise" rose above the murmur of conversation. For Rodney, the phrase dangled in the air tantalizingly, like a red flag before a bull. An amused sneer spread across his face as he considered his next words.

"The experts here have already taken every side of every scientific issue known to man except whether or not the world is flat!" he laughed.

"Everyone knows that the world is flat," someone at another table teased him. "Be careful that you don't go too far."

"Maybe so," Rodney answered with the same serene disregard as before, "but Opposing Experts can always be found if the price is right. Bio-Search is here to serve, isn't it?"

The more he talked the more the others wondered what he was doing there. They had often accused him of being philosophical about purely fanciful things, of talking about art as if it were real.

"It's as real as what we're doing here," he had answered with a crooked grin.

A gray-haired woman across the table lit a cigarette and said something in a light-hearted vein about "the marriage of art and science". Though Rodney had only half-heard her, he had caught the gist of it and it set him off again.

"You must be thinking about the scrupulous Dr. Frankenstein," he drawled."

"Jesus," a young man with red hair said irritably, "what's that got to do with anything?"

Rodney stood up from the table and grinned. He always had wild opinions when he got in one of these soapbox moods, but this was an old saw. Some of the people at the table had heard it all before: how before the man caught up with his monster on that icy northern seascape, Frankenstein was no longer a scientist or a man at all.

"He'd become as malevolent and unyielding as the pitiful creature he'd invented!" Rodney insisted with a seriousness that struck most of them as curious. This time, after a measured pause, he pointed his finger at nothing in particular, shrugged, and said lightly, "There's probably a lesson in that for all of us. I wonder what it was?"

Dr. Raskolnikov, one of the younger biologists and yet already a senior partner, seldom paid attention to Rodney's arguments, but was sometimes amused. This time he raised an eyebrow. He said, "That's just a piece of fiction, you know."

And Rodney replied, "That's true-but so are we."

Raskolnikov laughed or snorted-it was hard to say which-and walked out. Rodney wondered if he'd gone too far. His coworkers grinned nervously-some of them at his joke, some at his stubbornness-but those who knew where their bread was buttered frowned thoughtfully and walked away. Rodney understood: he wasn't one of the experts. They figured he was either hostile or foolish and couldn't decide which. For that matter, neither could Rodney. Dr. Raskolnikov had hired him as the only non-technical editor at Bio-Search and Rodney felt that everyone except Raskolnikov saw him as little more than a glorified proofreader. Marie, the newest member of the word-processing department, also lacked expertise, which may explain why she didn't shy away when she heard him, but laughed aloud instead.

"Hello!" she said. "Looking for the moral lessons in life, are you?"

Rodney looked at her and nodded, feeling inexplicably weak, confused, and cornered. All in an instant, it seemed, some potency in her had challenged and conquered him. An unknown, terrifying, unbelievably attractive force. He glanced toward the door that Raskolnikov had gone through.

As the others moved away, Marie leaned forward and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "I guess you realize you're not supposed to make them up as you go along!" And when she laughed again, smiling at him as if they'd known each other forever, Rodney liked the sound of it.

Even so, it wasn't apparent to him at first how much he was drawn to her or just how secretive he was about talking to her. At the end of most workdays, he found that he could speak with her alone. Other employees gravitated toward the time clock, but Marie sat at her desk and knitted. They talked at first about books and he was pleased to find that she was so well read. He was sick to death, he said, of people lazily admitting they "didn't read anymore".

Rodney spoke passionately about books "that reach beyond the ordinary veneer of people's pretenses", but then was chagrinned by how pretentious he must sound. He didn't want her to think him a fool, yet his rash pronouncements about people they knew always confirmed his foolishness. Going too far was never beyond him. He might say, for instance, that people bored him or that he often saw through them. Marie would look up from her knitting and laugh.

"But you so seldom see through to their hearts, Superman!"

"Maybe they're wearing lead shields," he parried, trying to laugh his way out of being laughed at.

Marie smiled and shook her head as she resumed her knitting. Rodney could not remember amusing anyone so much in his life, but he had no control over it. If he tried to make her laugh, she only smiled; he amused her most when he was perfectly serious. He had never felt more vulnerable.

"It's remarkable," she said one day when he had talked too long, "what lengths you go to just to obscure the fact that you care for anyone. No one here knows what you think or what you feel because you don't talk to them."

"I talk to you," he protested.

"Yes, well," she grinned slightly, "that's a wonder in itself. I mean-I can't understand it, but no one realizes that you do talk to me, no one sees what friends we've become!"

"You see, I'm invisible," Rodney smirked. Marie moved her hand in the air as if waving a fly away and continued speaking.

"Oh, yeah, sure. Maybe you should have been a magician-or a pickpocket even! Nobody sees what you don't want them to see!" Her teasing observations tickled his vanity, but worried him too. He liked being thought clever, but if her insights became too penetrating, she might not like what she saw.

"When people speak to me about you," she continued, "they talk as if you are as inexplicable to me as you are to them, and I never know what to say. I don't know whether to explain you or laugh!"

"Laugh," Rodney said.

Yes, perhaps," she said absently. She wasn't convinced. "You see, the thing is that they don't know whether to laugh or not either-about you, I mean."

"Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

Rodney spoke lightly, but in fact she was making him nervous. She smiled wryly at his remark, but otherwise ignored it. If she was as clever as Rodney thought, she must have seen that the hardheaded bastard didn't know how awful he sounded.

"Sometimes it does seem funny," she conceded. "They think you're serious when you're just being facetious. I see how much it amuses you to purposely talk over their heads. But it isn't very funny when some of them dislike you for it and a few of them are even afraid of you."

"Well, they don't know me," he said evasively. Her insights were landing around him like arrows now and he began to pace back and forth.

"The reason they don't know you, numbskull, is that you don't let them! You never want to talk to anybody until they've shown themselves worthy. You apply the most ridiculously strict standards to ordinary conversations and people you've just met! Just because you're intelligent is no excuse for being such an ass!"

Rodney squirmed and said, "I don't know if that's-"

"You're far too fastidious for this world, earthling!" Marie interrupted.

"I'm a very flawed son of a bitch, I guess," Rodney said distractedly. If

he couldn't come up with any real defense, he'd roll over and play dead.

"Yes," Marie agreed, "there's no question about that!"

Rodney was wondering if he dared to attempt any defense at all when she added, "But you are very sweet sometimes, too, and I think you should try to remember that along with the other. Nobody is as perfect as you sometimes seem to imagine, Rodney-not even you. There are more gray areas in life and more dumb kindnesses in the world than you allow."

He needed desperately to see the expression on her face, but she was busy stowing her knitting materials in a large cloth bag at her feet. When she rose and came out from behind the desk, he suppressed an urge to step back. She looked up at him abruptly and he froze, terrified of what she might say next.

"Just be a little nicer to the ignorant sons of bitches!" she told him, shaking a stern finger in his face. A moment passed, and she cocked her head and winked at him, then smiled questioningly as if she thought he was a little slow. It was yet another long moment before he caught on.

"Oh," he said flatly.

Marie laughed, looked at her watch and said, "School's out! I have to run or I'll miss my ride." As she passed, she swatted him gently with the cap she'd been knitting and said, "Never say die."

Rodney just sat. Her footsteps sounded lightly in the hall outside while her laughter rang in his ears. Someone hurried in looking for lost car keys and trying to make small talk, but Rodney only lifted an unlit cigarette to his mouth and held it there. Behind his trembling hand, he nursed a wide, idiotic grin.

In a bright blue spiral notebook, new that year, he began keeping a diary. Somewhere toward the beginning he wrote:

For the first time in years, I feel that I am dealing with an equal. I don't have to explain the world to her or define the words I use. I never have to tell her 'Never mind.'"

You may surmise from this that Rodney's egotism could be obnoxious! He was elated, and yet his rising joy was clouded by the burden of his own clear perception: he only had to look at her hand to see that the world was a better place than he could know. She was perfect for him, but he could never have her.

Lust and guilt churned in him until his stomach felt like a clothes dryer. He was rising heart over head, falling head over heels, tumbling ass over backwards. His passion was swarming over him like ants on a chocolate bar, his brain was swamped with wild and varied similes. Metaphors jumped out of the dark and yelled, "Boo!" and it scared him silly. He'd been in love before, but not like this. This time he was as afraid of success as he was of failure. In the spiral notebook he wrote:

"What do you do with a married woman? Talk to her, talk! And what to do when you've become best friends? Talk! Keep talking!"

He didn't know what to do. When she crossed her legs too slowly, he looked away, lit another cigarette, and wondered if smoke was coming out of his ears. He wanted her, of course, but oddly he could not conceptualize making love to her. True Love, like Disneyland, keeps the utility lines carefully hidden. You never see the hand that turns the valve that releases the steam that passes for dragon's smoke. Everyone, of course, likes to pretend that the dragon is real and that the plumbing is not, but Rodney was starting to believe it.

Ten years later now, lost in memory among the pages of a faded blue diary, he writes:

"It would not tell enough to speak in words about her square handsome face, or her voice deep yet tender, or her long brown hair which extended, when unbound, nearly to her waist. What could it possibly reveal about beauty if I say that I liked to watch her whether she was walking toward me or away?"

Heroic self-denial may have its place, but if even a fraction of this was true, how was he going to resist such beauty? He could not look into her eyes without seeing further than ordinary decency allowed. He felt he saw beyond the trap of flesh and each new view took another rough edge off of him. Whatever beauty is, Marie had it. Behind the flesh, it sprang to life, and it enlivened all her being.

Once, meeting her unexpectedly at the supermarket, from 20 feet away he could see it: her happiness seemed to create around her an aura, a refraction of light waves, something! Who knows what? Other people's happiness showed in them sometimes, but the light in Marie blinded him. Suddenly he could guess why medieval artists had portrayed Christ with a halo. In the bright new notebook he wrote:

"Perhaps such a light might be visible in many people if only one were to look intently enough and with a steadfast belief."

"Good grief!" he laughed aloud. "It sounds as if I've fallen into faith instead of love. Have I gone over the goddamn edge?"

He didn't know and didn't care. His soul was on fire for a woman and that condition has burned many a more saintly imposter than Rodney. Still, he persisted. He was not going to put the make on a married woman, to make a pass at his best friend, to pass off his lurid delusions as reasons sufficient for her to spread her legs!

Whew! As you can see, Rodney had gone a little beyond being a fool in love. He was a sap. A crackpot. A parvenu of daring denial strutting his stuff among the saints, even if he did limp a little from an earthly case of blueballs.

He began to visit her at her home, but he kept a respectable distance. If he thought of kisses or caresses, it was only as children may dream of wings and flight. They would be "just friends". That's all. Damn! Well, they were friends. He read his poetry to her and she didn't just say, "That's nice." She teased him about his posturings and his self-absorbed abstractions, then told him which poems she liked.

"This girl in the poem, 'Reflections'," she said, "who was she? Was she a lover?"

"No, just my roommate's girlfriend. A beautiful sad dreamer who seemed to know too much for someone so young. It was as she'd been stained by some inexplicable, inescapable despair. I guess I wanted to make love to her, but no one else's lovemaking had saved her, so why should mine? It was embarrassing then; it seems ridiculous now."

"Don't be so glib," Marie chided him. "You really cared for her, didn't you?"

"I guess so," he answered reluctantly, "but nothing came of it. I only knew her briefly, and felt what the poem expresses even more briefly. In me, only pity survives. I guess the poem is all that remains of her. I can't even remember her name."

"That wasn't her name you used in the poem?" Marie asked.


"Why did you call her Jenny, then?"

"Because I'd been watching that old movie, "Portrait of Jenny", on TV that night, that's all."

"Your brain works in mysterious ways," Marie said softly, but in her compassionate eyes he could see a twinkle of amusement. Her laughter both thrilled and terrified him. He was afraid of mistaking her delight for an invitation.

Beneath the civilities of these quiet talks over porcelain cups of tea-hindered in part by the front door banging as her children went in and out-Rodney often imagined a perfect intimacy. Her compliments and her criticisms reached out to him and he felt them press against him like something familial, forbidden, almost forgotten. They seemed as real to him as hugs from a favorite aunt or palpitant promises in the dark from a pneumatic distant cousin-but infinitely more desirable. He didn't give a damn for "this girl" or "that girl" from any pitying poem or palpitating scheme. What Marie herself did not understand, what he dared not let anyone in the world see, was that he cared for nothing in the world except Marie.

The first time she came to his apartment, he was thrown completely off balance. He hadn't realized that she knew where he lived. He opened the door, and she began to speak in a rush.

"Here!" she said, thrusting a pile of library books into his hands, "I don't want you sitting around getting bored to death!"

Rodney was too surprised to see her to say anything. He just stood there grinning, feeling ridiculous. He was grateful when the books in his arms began to slip askew and he had to step back into the room to set them down.

"I hope you don't think this is presumptuous of me," Marie said.

Rodney missed his cue. For some reason, he had never been more aware of the difference in their ages. She stood in the doorway looking very adult to him in what she called her "severe business suit". "Actually," he thought, "it's very pretty." He held onto the door with one hand and stood lightly on one foot, feeling far younger than he was.

"Won't you come in?" he said.

"No, listen, I can't stay to visit; I was just passing by and I, uh-."

She had lost the thread of her thought. She laughed at herself and leaned back breathlessly against the doorframe. Suddenly she looked quite girlish. Rodney was transfixed; he wanted her more that moment than he wanted to live.

In a moment she breathed deeply, grinned, and said, "I've been running errands all day today and I'm frazzled! Just let me catch my breath."

Rodney glanced at the stack of books, but his attention was on Marie. He knew he should say something, but couldn't think what.

"I just wanted to see that you got these right away," she said, "and I-I hope you don't mind?"

"No, this is great," he finally assured her. "I'm always too lazy about going to the library. Thank you."

He smiled at her, but she didn't see it. She seemed to be examining the room behind him, which made him very self-conscious. On the coffee table lay an overflowing ashtray, a Time magazine six weeks out of date, and an open copy of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" with a pair of pliers for a bookmark. On one of the chairs an oversized art poster was draped that he'd never gotten around to hanging. Nearby, an open umbrella stood on its head and dust was clearly visible on it. It bothered him that so many of his bad habits were evident, but at least she hadn't seen the pile of unopened mail beneath the book.

"Are you sure you can't come in?" he asked.

"No, no," she replied hurriedly, "I have to get home. It's my turn to cook dinner tonight. But, listen, don't feel that you have to read all these books. If you have time for them, though, I think you'll like them." She picked one up and added, "Try this one first. It's like you," she said in a nervous, but teasing voice, "too thoughtful for its own good."

She shoved it at him, said goodbye, and was gone before he could answer. He glanced down at the book; it was something called "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene. When he set it down with the others, he saw another title by Greene, "Brighton Rock".

"Jesus," he muttered, "she really likes this guy."

Only a few moments had passed since she went out the door.

Rodney stepped hurriedly into the hall and pushed open the exterior door in time to catch a glimpse of her driving away. Her ten-year-old daughter was in the front seat, talking animatedly to her. Her son, who was six, stood up in the back seat; catching sight of Rodney, he waved his hand wildly and stuck out his tongue.

Rodney smiled. He had always been impatient with children, seeing them as claimants for attention with whom he could not respectably compete. Jodie and Samantha, however, seemed charming. They had disarmed him with their intelligence and their decency. Rodney had a weakness for anyone with a sense of fair play, even if it was only the play of children. He felt unsteady, as if up to his waist in deepening water, but still it was pleasing. Back in his apartment, he sat down heavily and wrote a single long line:

"I feel her life drawing me, as if I am some floating leaf in a swift mysterious stream."

He pushed the note aside, thinking he'd come back to it some day and develop it as a poem. He never did. Yet, sitting at his desk and staring at his handwriting, he became conscious of its most important implication. The closer he got to Marie, the nearer he came to what he couldn't help dreading. Rodney had cautiously regarded Marie's husband and hoped to find fault, yet couldn't.

Oh, God, how much easier it would be to yearn for the wife of a terrible man!

"But Elliot is gentle and intelligent, good-humored and considerate. I've been so eager to hate him, but now I'm mortified to realize that Marie's husband and I might easily become friends. Damn! His decency has deflected my prurient desire more ably than any armed resistance!"

When Society said, "Thou shalt not screw around with a married woman," Rodney had only grumbled. When Elliot Fischer generously said, "Your new poem was good; stay for dinner and we'll discuss it," Rodney felt he was sunk.

"In a world full of husbands who are witless shits," he sulked, "I get the good guy."

One Saturday afternoon Marie and Elliot dropped in on Rodney with classical records from the public library. After an hour, Elliot left to run an errand, but Marie stayed. Rodney had never been this much alone with her. She picked out a song to play for him, something in French.

"Listen to this one," she said excitedly. "I don't know what the words mean-right, I know, you love that!-but the music is so poignant, so evocative, like a dream out of Faerie." She was right about the music, and they played it again.

"It does haunt you," he told her. "There's so much longing in it!"

"I think so too," she answered happily. "I'm very glad you like it, I like it so much!"

"You look remarkably satisfied with yourself about it," he teased her. In fact, she was glowing.

"I just haven't heard it in so long, that's all. It's like a long-lost friend, you know? More familiar than you'd expect after so long, and-and yet so new and full of beauty!"

Rodney jumped a little when she said "beauty" because he had just been thinking how beautiful she was. Perhaps she thought his movement was some kind of protest; at any rate she smiled widely at him, raised her eyebrows comically and said, "I can't help it! When I'm happy, I look like the cat who ate the canary!"

Rodney grinned too. He was staring at her mouth now and thinking that her smile was larger than the Cheshire Cat's. He hoped she didn't disappear.

"What is it?" she asked, leaning toward him.

"Nothing," he replied.

The song played on. They smiled back and forth like childish conspirators in some simple secret. Sitting beside him, she pointed out the song title on the record jacket. He could feel through the cardboard the slight pressure of her finger against his knee and it dizzied him. He was overheating and he was afraid that it was beginning to show. Marie turned her face to his, then slightly frowned. (It was thoroughly disconcerting-how lovely she looked, even then!) He was convinced that his adulation was leaking out of him, filling up the room like smoke, but Elliot's breezy return cleared the air at once and Marie bustled out with him. He closed the door behind them softly, then collapsed against it and sighed.

It perplexed him that no one gauged his obsession. He'd lost all sense of how large a hope the human breast can harbor and yet keep hidden from prying, foreign eyes. To the world, nothing was stirring, nothing was expected, but Rodney's soul was gravid with desire. In his notebook he wrote:

"I remember that Marie once said that I should have been a magician or pickpocket. But I just feel like a goddamn sneak-thief."

Going unnoticed was killing him and going too far, for once in his life, was beyond him. He couldn't go on like this. In a moment of crude lucidity he wrote:

"Keeping this secret has been as troublesome as keeping those schoolboy erections hidden when it's two minutes to the bell and it is twice as big as it'll ever be when you actually need it."

Before his smug humor could finish its laugh, however, he'd think about her eyes and see, or remember her voice and hear, a hard and brilliant tenderness which saved him from his wild despair. He had mistrusted life so many times, but now he had found someone in whom he believed completely-and he was going to give her up.

Was this a nice guy or what? Don't believe it. He was as energetically and cautiously crazy as a rat trapped in an empty cheese barrel. What he longed for most was some secret power in the universe to spring up from the ground or swoop down from the sky and save him from his resolution to be a good boy. He was wrapped too tight and he knew it.

"Sproing!" he said, bobbed his head like a jack-in-the-box, and laughed weakly.

In the diary he scribbled, "Where Ego I Go," and stared at it. "That may or may not be funny," he told himself. Turning the page over, he wrote:

"It is so hard to love you without guilt, hard to feel such guilt without having given you a single kiss."

He was trying to screw himself up to be his stronger self-to simply say Goodbye. He teased himself-"You act as if your dog just died"-but he was morose and couldn't sustain the humor.

One cool spring night he told himself, "This will be my final visit to Marie." They talked, sitting close but separate on the sofa, until it was time for her to put the children to bed. In apparent lethargy, he waited and smoked while she settled them down. Elliot had gone to a meeting and was not expected back soon, but that didn't really matter. Rodney nervously noticed how few cigarettes he had and figured he couldn't stay much longer anyway. Marie returned and sat down beside him again, but now their speech together was desultory and Marie began to look tired. She increased his sense of panic by smoking two of his cigarettes.

At last, he said, "I'd better go."

She nodded. "Yes, it's time for you to go." He thought that she looked relieved.

He was heartsick. He had committed himself to denial, to convention, to safety. Still, he had to speak. He rose and began to turn toward her, his eyes fixed on the floor. He meant finally to express his heart somehow, then hurriedly say Goodbye. It bothered him that he had never even held her hand.

Marie rose with him. She rose on one leg first and as the other, which had been beneath her, came off the sofa, she was unsteady and pitched a little too far forward. Rodney continued turning toward her in a distracted, despondent state. When he reached for her hand, he missed, and the rest of her kept coming and fell into his arms. When her lips touched his, he was shocked as if by electricity. In a moment the kiss was broken, but they held one another tightly as if afraid that gravity might fail to hold them. Their hands explored one another's backs as if some message in Braille were hidden there. No purple prose or undying declarations occurred to them; they expressed their affection and gladness in silence. They trembled and they sighed. At last, Rodney opened his eyes, stumbled back, and looked at her. Holding her by the waist, he smiled and leaned his forehead against hers.

Almost apologetically, he whispered, "I only meant to say Goodbye."

"Dear heart, I know," she said. She put her hand on the back of his neck and gently shook him.

They held hands quietly after that; they stroked one another's hair. They kissed modestly and confided that they hadn't expected this-then had to laugh because they saw the lie. They giggled foolishly and said, "Well, how soon shall we fuck?" It was comically unreal and carnally obscene, and yet as straightforwardly unembarrassed as some archaic folk-song about the joy and sin of kings and queens long dead. A long time later, in an old blue notebook, Rodney wrote:

"Was it right? Was it wrong? The truth is: it was. Was it love or was it lust? Yes, I think it was."

Marie kept her affair secret from her husband only briefly. Elliot did not appear to be angry. It is difficult to explain someone who by some quirk is not as jealous as the rest of us. Perhaps he was merely the same kind of fool in love as Rodney, except that he'd been at it longer. Elliot was hardly eager for her to take a lover, but he knew that he couldn't control it. That she was prized and loved by others was something that he had always taken for granted and taken pride in. He had trouble finding fault, even in this extreme example. Of any other man, Rodney might have said that the guy had merely been emasculated

by his vanity and liberal pretenses. But it didn't seem to apply to Elliot. Like Rodney, he believed not just in his love for Marie, but just as deeply in her fidelity to love. Whether rightly or wrongly, Elliot thought that she was incapable of betraying him except by ceasing to love him. You can see by this that Marie was either a remarkable or a very lucky woman-the men in her life were convinced that she could do no wrong!

Domestic problems are more diverse, of course, than who's been sleeping with whom. Thus Elliot visited Rodney several times and talked half the night. Rodney listened, smoking and shifting uncomfortably in his chair. At first he thought that Elliot was trying to undermine his admiration of Marie by telling tales out of school, but how could that be expected to work when it was clear that Elliot held her in the same regard as Rodney?

Some of Marie's less attractive qualities were disclosed those nights, yet it was less damaging that might be supposed. Both of them still believed that she was lovely. In the end, they dismissed everything, concluding that if she was hard to live with at times, so was everyone else. Rodney was impressed that spousal familiarity had bred so little contempt in Elliot. Each time Rodney closed the door behind Elliot, he shook his head and laughed at himself; he wondered if he shouldn't feel more a bit more competitive. Marie's old lover seemed almost to match the new lover in senseless, stainless devotion! But now, no matter how unlikely or awkward it seemed, he and Elliot had become friends. Rodney's loyalties became, not divided, but complex.

Rodney and Marie loved easily for nearly six months. They were together as often as they could be, which wasn't often enough for Rodney. He saw her at work, of course, but that wasn't the same. Sometimes as he lay close beside her, he would say too much.

"I can't imagine you," he told her, "alone or unconnected. Everything you touch comes alive and everyone you love loves you in return. Knowing you is more than pleasure for me-it's an astonishment."

"Hush!" she told him. "Don't be so worshipful. You embarrass the hell out of me."

Even as she spoke, she nuzzled against him and sighed. Minutes passed. She said, "I love you too, you don't have to doubt that. You 'astonish' me, too, you know."

They were charmed by one another, as all new lovers are charmed. They explored one another through kisses and each discovery was celebrated with another kiss. Nothing marred Rodney's happiness. If it bothered him that he had to love so quietly, as if this monumental thing were not really happening to him, he dismissed it. His heart was calm for the first time in years, and Marie must have seen how softened he was by her influence.

From Rodney's diary:

"She brought out the best in me, or dispelled the worst-I don't know which. I only know that her happiness increased and that I was amazed to be the cause of it."

Indeed, Marie seemed to bloom as she basked in the love of two men, one at home, one `a la carte. For her, everything was working out. But then it turned out that part of her glow was not subjective-she was pregnant. Precautions had been taken, but hadn't taken.

"It's the Earth-Mother in me," Marie tried to joke. Rodney was taken aback. For once, he said nothing.

"I'm just so damnably fertile," she added miserably, "that I get knocked up if a man even looks at me wrong."

"Well, somebody must have looked at you wrong," Rodney thought of saying, but bit his tongue. He knew that Marie was bluffing, that it wasn't a joking matter. She didn't want another child, not now.

But Elliot did, she told him. He wanted them to be happy about the pregnancy. The idea of abortion was so oppressive to him that he lost all perspective at the very mention of it. He debated and pled with her. If he had been capable of violence, he would have been violent. Beyond anyone's comprehension, he offered to take the baby and go away forever if only she would have it.

But Elliot loved his family and couldn't have lived without them; his plan was preposterous and impossible. To Rodney, it seemed like madness. To Marie, it was maddening. She felt battered before she had even begun to decide about the child.

When she first told Rodney that she was pregnant, he wasn't sure what to think. He wanted to ask if she wasn't past the age of wanting new babies, but he was afraid that anything he'd say would just sound foolish.

"What are you going to do about it?" he finally asked. If the form his question took implied some presumption, Marie didn't seem to notice.

"I don't know!" she answered in an irritable whine. Suddenly her voice sounded like that of a stranger, and he hated it. He was utterly off-balance with her; her sudden petulance frightened him. He wanted to say something to calm her, but first he had to calm himself. While he hesitated, Marie looked thoughtful, and when she spoke again, it was in her own voice.

"I've been thinking lately that the children aren't babies anymore. Jodie's not so grownup that I don't have to watch him, but I don't have to be such a hawk anymore. I'd been thinking about going back to school, having more of a career, having more money in the family-all sorts of things that having a baby would put an end to. God forgive me, but I'm afraid that this child would make me feel cheated. It would be unforgivable if I had this baby and then resented it."

"Doesn't that make the solution pretty straightforward?" Rodney asked.

"No, it doesn't! I can't stand the idea of an abortion much more than Elliot can! I'm pulled in more directions that you can understand, Rodney. You've never been pregnant, you've never been me! Don't you understand that your imagination's no good in this? You just don't know."

Marie smiled at him wanly. Rodney shrugged and smiled back. Everything was changing. He didn't know what to say, he didn't know what she was saying.

"I had a little morning sickness yesterday," she said, "and a part of me was just plain happy about it. You can call it 'physiological response' or 'biology at the wheel' or anything you like, but there it was. It didn't care what I thought or about any practical consequences. It just swept me along like some aboriginal bush-wife drunk on hormones! So much for the modern woman in me."

Rodney had an impulse to laugh, but stifled it. The image she had conjured might seem comical, but the panic in her voice was plainly serious. "That sounds overpowering," he said.

"Up to a point, I guess it is," she laughed bitterly. "I am a good mother and I'm proud of that. I don't apologize for it to anyone. But it makes me furious to be at the mercy of some goddamned automatic pilot! It makes me wonder if there's something wrong with me for there to be this much division between my body and my mind. Am I myself or a baby factory? A woman or just a thinking machine?"

"Slow down, please," he said. "Getting overwrought won't help."

"I can't help it! I thought I was smarter than this. There are so many arguments chattering away inside of me, I don't know what's sensible. Even the ghost of Catholicism has raised its head, shouting 'Thou shalt not!' as if I were still a little girl, as if I still believed...

"Christ, I don't want to murder this child, I don't want to have this child! There isn't any solution to this, just a choice. I can be selfish or I can be selfless, but there's precious little comfort for the person who got caught in the middle."

Irritably she dug in Rodney's shirt pocket for a cigarette. He handed her his lighter and smiled. She laughed humorlessly and said, "Choose and lose!"

Rodney reeled back from the magnitude of her dilemma. He couldn't even imagine it. If nothing else, he was too selfish to be that irresolute. His heart ached to help her, but he might as well have been dealing cards in the dark.

"Even if this is my baby-" he started to say.

"It isn't," she said firmly.

"Jesus, how can you know that?"

"Oh, I can't explain. I don't really know. I just feel that I know. Don't ask me, it's too complicated."

Rodney didn't understand at all. Had being pregnant conferred on her a mystical intuition? He wanted to shake the truth out of her, but somehow with very few words and little gesture Marie had crossed over into another country. It was a land where Rodney didn't have the right to ask questions-or where, if he did ask, he might regret the answers that he got.

Secretly he had been thrilled to think that Marie's child might be his and that if she chose to have it, it wouldn't be such a terrible thing. Now he gave up the idea. He decided suddenly that he didn't give a damn about anything or anyone that threatened Marie. He began to oppose himself to all of Elliot's arguments, sometimes with great heat. Years later, in the faded blue notebook he wrote:

" "It seemed cruel then-or does it just seem so now? -to oppose myself with such force to all of his lofty sentiments-but I did."

Marie sat in the middle and seemed to listen. She began to smoke too many cigarettes, once even buying her own. She continued the ritual of making tea, but no longer sat down to it. Her otherwise orderly home became strewn with forgotten cups. Late one night he wrote:

"This morning I talked to Ralph Raskolnikov who has-very oddly-turned out to be a good friend who asks no questions. He phoned back this evening and gave me the addresses of some clinics in nearby states where abortions are legal. I have said nothing of this to Marie, and perhaps won't have to. She isn't helpless, she has her own resources. Nonetheless I feel-."

By now perhaps you see the drift of things. In a sense, Rodney had chosen to believe in Marie whether he believed her or not. His swift decision to protect Marie had not been without complication. His self-interest was deeply confused. Neither the old nor the new entries in his diary shed much light on this. Yet how much intuition did it take to see that the question of paternity cried out for a better answer? That he might have been the father of the unborn child and what effect that might have had on Marie's decision are not explored in Rodney's diary. Did it never cross his mind or has he just conveniently

forgotten it? Was everything that unclear to him-or was he possessed of a clarity of purpose so cunning that he had even fooled himself?

She would not let either of them go with her on the flight to the out of state clinic. She didn't want to have to deal any more with their certainties and their doubts. She had her own.

"I'm not mad at either of you," she told them, "but you have to let me do this alone."

While Marie was gone, Rodney and Elliot were both too somber for civilized company. Part of the time, they waited together. Jodie and Samantha were sent to visit friends. Husband and lover alike wandered through Marie's house like strangers, looking at household objects as if they were indecipherably foreign. Rodney studied Marie's knitting as if for the first time and suddenly wondered how she did it.

"It looks so tedious," he thought.

In the late afternoon Elliot made tea, as Marie always did, but it wasn't the same. They barely tasted it. They stared silently at the white cups as evening slowly fell and no one thought to turn on the lights. At length, Elliot and Rodney would speak carelessly, yet carefully, about car repairs and restaurants and movies, but they wouldn't talk about Marie. It was all they could do to look at the cups. They had shown a similar hardheadedness from the beginning of this dilemma; between them, the abortion might have remained endlessly arguable. Now they both felt impotent and guilty. In a narrow biological sense, one of them was responsible for this disaster, but Marie bore the burden. The responsibility wasn't theirs to take. Elliot couldn't stand the idea of death, and even Rodney-who didn't give a damn-did not want to think about it too damn much. They felt as bad as they knew how to feel, perhaps, but their loss was theoretical, hers was visceral. They didn't have to lie down on the stainless steel table, she didn't have to wonder whose baby it was.

After the abortion, Marie was restrained-polite, but easily irritated. She didn't want anyone to get too close to her, and her frozen smiles froze Rodney's heart. He wanted to believe that he was imagining it, but Elliot felt it too. Elliot was fatalistic. Rodney was frantic. Dr. Raskolnikov, who heard only the bare details and was presumably unaware of who was being discussed, suggested that it was postpartum depression and that clinical-sounding phrase seemed to relieve Rodney. Putting a name to it made the enemy discernible. It allowed him to blame her hormones instead of her.

Some time later they began to make love again, but it was different now. She was distracted, not entertained, by his conversations. Perhaps she only wanted to make love. He tried to shut up, but his desire to know her kept pounding jealously at her interior space. She felt more and more invaded. He felt her slipping away.

There was no escaping it. Time and complication bore down on Rodney's love. He suffered from his peripheral position in Marie's life, her dominant one in his. She spoke several times of him finding another lover, saying that he deserved more than she could give him.

"You need someone who can give you more time," she told him impatiently, "don't you see that?"

So-there were the dreaded words at last-words that had been lying in wait for him since the day he'd met her. Now, suddenly, they were real. He was beginning to see what was and was not possible. His love for her would become a burden that she could not carry. She wasn't going to last. She wasn't going to be his.

"What will we be when we are no longer lovers?" he wrote.

He looked at the words on the page and felt an aching dullness in his chest. He had always wanted to think that they would be best friends, but the vivid speed and terrible wrath of his imagination would not allow it. His mind raced forward, played out all the permutations. His analysis spoiled the present, and his anticipation consumed their relationship faster than time could wear it away. He was stained by need and resentment. He had lost the grace that love had given him. What at first he had not been able to conceptualize with his friend Marie was now what he could not live without: sex and possession. He still called it love, but in fact he had begun to hate her. She could leave him, but he couldn't leave her.

Marie couldn't bear it that his love had become so suffocating. She told him so more than once, but without effect. They were walking near her home one day when she finally said, "I want us to stop seeing one another for a while, Rodney. I want to call a truce to this tension and resentment."

"I don't think that I can do it," he answered.

"We've got to do it," she insisted. "Please, darling, don't you see how close we are to-to an explosive end? Can't we back off before our friendship dies completely? Isn't it worth it?"

A decade later, in a faded blue notebook, Rodney tried again to answer her question:

"Certainly it was worth it," he wrote, "but such wisdom is only of use to wise men. Life would have no meaning without her, I thought-and that was all I thought about."

Rodney sat down on the curb and said nothing. His heart was beating far too fast. He wished his brain could work as fast. At length he spoke.

"I know what you want. You want me to go away and find someone else, and then it might be safe for us to be friends. If I could do it, I would, but my knowledge of you obscures every attractive woman that I meet. I don't know what they're saying and they don't know what I mean."

"Don't be ridiculous!" Marie said in exasperation.

"I can't help it. I can't see anyone else, I wish I could. You're not just the woman that I love, you're the only woman I see who deserves my love." He flinched, then added, "God, what egotism."

"What egocentrism, that's what you mean! And what a terrible case of self-depreciation as well! If you have learned anything good from loving me, the notion that I'm the only woman in the world isn't one of those things. Damn it, why can't you see that the only point in all of this is that You are attractive, that You can win love, that You deserve it! That's the goddamned moral lesson you're always looking for. I'm not the first one to love you and it's silly for you to think that I will be the last-for God's sake, how can you keep thinking that?!"

"I know you're right," he said without conviction.

After a fashion, he still had her, but he had already lost his faith. She understood his tone and it made her furious. For a moment, something made the corners of her constricted mouth twitch nervously-to Rodney it looked like grudging compassion.

"She still loves me," he thought, "and that gives me a chance. But she isn't sure that she likes me any more-and that's the risk I take."

No matter how low he'd fallen, he was still possessed of an implacable cunning. He could move her, he felt, if only he could find the right button to push. Marie gave him a long hard look, her eyes narrowed in concentration. Suddenly a curtain of grim determination descended over her face.

"Look," she said, "we're just not going to see one another for a while, and that's that. You've got to stop thinking that you can't live without me, you've got to stop trying to win me back. You're driving me crazy. You don't leave me any sense of space!"

She stepped away from the curb, then turned back to him and gently, tiredly asked, " What sense can it make, what good can it do, if we just stay together and fight. Why can't we be friends?" She walked away, slowly at first, then briskly. Perhaps she thought she'd done some good.

Rodney showed up at her door again far too soon. Elliot seemed to understand what was transpiring. Unobtrusively he went to bed, though perhaps he didn't sleep. It was late and Marie wanted Rodney to go, but he used every trick he knew to delay her. He played on her sympathy, her guilt, her dignity, her vanity. He played on her love and exhausted it. He argued vehemently, but his logic was twisted and she refuted it. He played for time, but it wouldn't play. The time for his last despair had come.

"I'm afraid," he said at last.

"You're just trying to manipulate me like you do with everyone else!" she screamed.

"You're killing me," he pled.

"I don't care! I'm going to bed and I don't care what you do. You can leave, you can stay, you can go to hell!"

Marie left the room in a rush. Rodney just stood there. Ten minutes later she came back in her dressing gown, folded her arms carefully and leaned back heavily against the doorframe. She seemed to be addressing herself to some sentient spot on the floor when she sighed and said, "If you're really afraid tonight, you can sleep on the sofa. But please don't be here in the morning-and don't come back again like this. It's over. There's some champagne in the refrigerator if you want a drink to help you sleep."

Panic filled him and he closed his eyes. He heard her robe brush softly against the wall, the swift diminishing sound of her footsteps in the hall.

"Goddamn you!" he spat at the empty doorway, but the words came out in a stifled whisper. No one could have heard those words that strangled him so.

Soon the house was dark except the room in which he stood. He tried to leave, but got no further than the porch. He sat rigidly on the swing and stared for a while into the darkness. He went back inside, found the unopened bottle of champagne and drank it quickly, almost all at once. In the living room, he leaned drunkenly against the cool marble mantle of the fireplace and stared into the mirror.

"That's a very stoic face," he said to himself, "or else there's nothing in it." He turned out the light.

Sitting on the arm of the sofa, he thought about trying to sleep, but his heart would not stop pounding. Between alcohol and terror, Rodney's memories of that night remain blurred but vivid, like hectic images from a dream. He writes,

"I remember only a wine bottle flung in the darkened room at a mirror full of moonlight; a frantic dash from the house, the screen door unhinged behind me; a hurried circling walk through empty streets at midnight."

Gradually his crazy concentric path led further and further from the house where Marie lived. By early morning he was home again.

Had the bottle broken the glass or not? He never knew. He had flung and run in the same wild instant. More than that, he had screamed. He could not have heard that irreparable sound over the sound of himself breaking.

Love was dead, murdered with such finality that he couldn't dream of turning back. He hated her now, he thought, as ardently as he had ever loved her. He needed to think of her as an ordinary woman that anyone might desire, anyone might forget. He tried to dismiss her as a cold-hearted bitch who'd betrayed him. Such bitter accusations wouldn't quite ring true, but he could not stop himself. His love had become as loathsome as some suspended anonymous specimen in a clouded jar that he couldn't throw away.

For a long while, it was hard for Rodney to go to work, and when Marie quit her job at Bio-Search he thought that things might get easier. He was wrong. He saw her several times on the street and she wouldn't even look at him. In the hardness of her face he saw the force and flaw of his own unbridled will. He had all but compelled her to hate him, and now he saw the horror of it. If he had quarreled with God and lost, he could hardly have felt more desolate or more at fault. Marie was sick to death of him. He was sick of himself. He prayed that they would never meet again.

Many months passed, but Rodney continued to nurse his despondency as if it were something of value. He avoided his friends. He slept too much and nearly lost his job. He tried to forget, but remembered instead. One day he went out and bought a copy of the record with the song that Marie had played for him, "Apre un Reve" by Gabriel Faure. There was a translated lyric sheet with the record that he hadn't seen with the other record. He turned on the lamp by his desk and slowly read out loud the first two lines:

"In a dream graced by your image,
I dreamed of happiness, passionate mirage..."

That was all it took. Perhaps because he often took both art and life far too seriously-sometimes he couldn't tell where one ended and the other began-that translation had a curiously cathartic effect on him, and he broke into hysterical laughter.

"Dear God," he sighed, "I still admire her!"

He read the song through several times and when he was through, he copied the last lines into the blue notebook, printing carefully in large letters:

"Alas! Alas! Sad awakening from dreams!
O night, I beg of you, give me back your illusions.
Come back, come back in radiance,
Come back, o mysterious night!"

For a while he sat over the diary, looking grim. But then he bent and wrote beneath the lyrics, more swiftly now,

"No. It was an illusion that I could have her, but she was real."

There was moisture in his eyes, but not from sorrow. This was mere exhaustion. Time had wearied him of the brunt of his despair, yet Marie's vivid image had survived. And though somewhere Marie herself was alive, he was still shut off from her, as certainly as if by death. In the notebook he wrote:

"Though death is expected, we are never prepared."

Now, as in the aftermath of his father's death two years earlier, he saw that he had been clinging piteously to his guilt and remorse, yet all the while devoured by an intense, a consuming need to let go, just let go! Marie's death was as real and as implacable to him as his father's-he could not apologize, he could not be forgiven, he could never say Goodbye. She was out of reach, and he had gone too far. Now each time he felt his longing for her, he laughed softly and muttered, "What a goddamn fool I am!" But no longer a fool in love, he felt, just an ordinary one.

That should be the end of this story about Rodney and Marie, though there seems to be no end to Rodney's story of Marie. At the bottom of an old box of books he found this year that old blue spiral notebook and was amazed to see how little was actually recorded there. More than a decade later, he began to write in it again. This brings us up to date (at last) at a very late point in the story. Tonight he has written:

" "Dear Diary: This afternoon when Ralph phoned, I was very glad indeed. I had lost track of him for a long time, and now it turns out that he's with some new firm in Galveston, not so far away. I told him about the notes I'd been writing lately about Marie and asked if he remembered her. He said he remembered that she had 'an attractive smile, a handsome face, a manner that was more shy than anything your descriptions would suggest.' While I thought that over, I heard that old familiar snort at the other end of the line as he added, 'Listen, Cathcart, I hope I'm not bursting any balloons?'

But, no, how could he? Outsiders never see what people in love see in one another. They just have to take our word for it.

"Only a few close friends knew about that affair at the time, and to none of them did I confide everything. I see now that there were things I did not want to know about it myself, things I still don't want to know. And yet it seems so compelling, like something that happened to someone else, a story from a long time ago of wild poetic obsession-an obsession played out to a hard prosaic end."

He speaks of her as one might speak of some important work of art, something which has had an immeasurable effect. In the absence of any evidence or mementos-for there were no love letters, no gifts that survived, not even a photograph of Marie-remembrance alone preserves the image of that mysterious night: the fullness of their hearts at love's beginning, a fullness greater than its loss.

"I never wanted anything so much," Rodney writes, "nor had so little expectation of getting it. It saved my life and it ruined me. It taught me what was possible, and it set my standards for love painfully, impractically, exquisitely high. The grace and the wonder and the gratification of the discovery that she loved me can't be measured, or compared, or lessened. Whatever happened, it was worth it.

"That night I tried to say Goodbye to her and she fell into my arms instead-that was, and perhaps always will be, the best night of my life."


21st draft:03/03/03
©1988 Ronald C. Southern