“Who is blessed?” ask the program notes. I am in a concert hall on a Saturday night in Winnipeg, and the choir, dressed in long white robes trimmed with red, is singing the first movement of a new Canadian piece called “Blessed.”
“He who is content with his lot,” the program notes answer, with thanks to Benjamin Franklin. “And who is content with his lot? Nobody.”
Then, in an effort to be more contemporary, they also quote Simon & Garfunkel: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit. Blessed are the sat-upon, spat-upon, ratted-on. Oh Lord, why have you forsaken me?”
Blessed are those like Ruth, who was loved loved loved. Who glowed with love, looking up open-faced to everyone and anyone. Who knew so little of shame that she never even shut the bathroom door. What for? Her body wasn’t dirty, there was nothing about her to be ashamed of. Pure, like loved light.
Every Saturday afternoon her mother braided her hair and tied the forest green sash on her plaid dress into a crisp big bow at the back. She did this with thoughtless love, like tying a bow on a gift before giving it away. (She was preparing to give Ruth to her father, the conductor of our local symphony, who took her along with him on Saturday afternoons to the Young People’s Concerts.) I watched her tie Ruth’s bow, and saw Ruth, with a thoughtlessness equal to her mother’s, accept the gift in the bow: the love buried in it, like the music waiting silently in the bow of a violin when it isn’t being played.
I watched, wishing Ruth’s mother were my mother. Wishing she would braid my hair.
But I was seven years older, and only a kid in the neighbourhood who babysat for them from time to time. Her parents loved me a little bit, with what was left over from loving their own. (There was only Ruth when I met them, but I know there was an older daughter somewhere who had run away and no one ever talked about.) Still their love was something: a huge grey sweater urged on me as I left their house at night, its scratchy warmth against my skin as I walked the two blocks home in the cold darkness. And my favourite cheese that they sometimes bought for me when they knew I was coming over to babysit: a wheel made up of twelve little triangles, each one individually wrapped with a picture of a cow on the front. Also the gentle way Mrs. Barron asked at first after my sick mother’s health; then when she died, how she said lightly, almost casually, “Don’t be a stranger, you just come on by any time you feel like it. We’re always happy to see you, and Ruthie loves you so.”
Ruth looked up to me, and she trusted me with the simple naivete of the loved person, never suspecting anything but love. She liked me because she liked everybody; but also she admired me because I was seven years older, in high school, and already going out with boys. She came to me as to a big sister when, at the age of eleven, she had her first kiss. We sat on her bed, and she opened up her diary to where she had recorded the big event. On the left side of the page, she had written in huge capital letters MONTY, and on the page facing it, a fierce black scribble that had slightly ripped the page. “Remember,” she asked, “that party I went to at Melinda’s?” I nodded. “That’s where Monty kissed me. My first kiss!” Then she laughed and blushed, a proud and pretty blush.
She came to me as to a big sister, to one who understands the ways of the world and can protect. I looked down into that trusting face as she showed me her diary, the closest she could come to a secret. I was amazed at her openness, and envious, too; but I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to her when she went out into the world. I thought, panicking, Someone needs to watch out for her. Someone would need to shadow her through all her days, hiding a few feet behind her in bushes, like Miriam hid in the bulrushes to watch over Moses. I thought, with my teenage sophistication, that it would be me, that I would look out for her, I would be her guardian angel. I would extend my wing over her and protect her from harm.
But it has never been necessary. In all these years nothing bad has ever happened to her. She was blessed, she was loved from the day she was born. Life itself has been her angel.
I am at this concert, back home after five years away. I come back only for deaths: for my uncles, and their wives, and my father. And now for my father’s only sister, my Auntie Phaedra, the last of them all. I was never particularly close to her, no one was; but she never married and there is nobody else, so it has been left to me to sort through her affairs. In her will she referred to me as her goddaughter, which is true, though I’d forgotten that – maybe because we never had any special connection. Though there is one thing: like me, she always loved music, and she’s the one who took me to my very first concert when everyone else said I was still too young. It was the Saturday afternoon concert with Ruth’s father conducting, and five singers in costume were singing excerpts from The Magic Flute.
Yesterday was the funeral. Today I saw the lawyer, and then paced senselessly around this town that once was home to me, going up and down once-familiar streets, feeling lost and stunned. I have no friends here anymore (they are all in Vancouver, like me, or Toronto), and now I have no family here, either: next time I come back, if I ever come back, I will have to stay at a hotel. This trip I am staying at my aunt’s, in her musty-smelling, death-filled house; and just to not have to go back there, at about five o’clock today I bought a paper, looking for somewhere to go. Then I saw the ad for this concert, and came right down to the theatre and got myself a ticket. It is not wrong, I tell myself. After all, it is a concert of sacred music: the next best thing to a funeral.
“Blessed” ends, thank God, and the mediocre red-and-white choir departs from the stage. Fortunately, this was only the appetizer: the main course of the evening is a prayer cycle, the latest composition by Tom Combes, the prodigious young composer whose name seems to be everywhere at once. His new piece, “God’s Love Revealed,” is dedicated to the great contralto, Greta Himmelfarb, who will be performing it tonight for its world premiere. I smile to myself, remembering Tom as he was before he was anybody famous, when he and Ruth first started going out: two kids, very young and innocent, a first love for them both. Tom was skinny, and shy, and as pale as a saint. He had come to Winnipeg from a small Manitoba town, the son of a choirmaster, to study composition at the Conservatory. Back then he went by Thomas, not Tom: a Catholic boy struggling with his faith, something that I, with my secular background, found ludicrous (what was there to struggle with, after all?). But his brilliance, his tormented brilliance, was immediately recognized by Ruth’s father, the head of the Conservatory at that time. He took Tom under his wing, and the young protégé began to spend evenings at the Barrons’, then weekends, and after that, virtually all his spare time. Within a few months, however, he was coming not to sit in the living room with his mentor, listening to him pontificate with his feet up on a stool, about their shared love, sacred music; he was coming for Ruth. To go for walks with her. To hold her hand. Then to ask for it in marriage.
Now Bruno Barron sweeps on to the stage, thunderously impatient as usual, as if he is far too busy for this kind of trivia; and frowning, he bows curtly to the audience, as though even this small gesture is more than we deserve. But then from the right, Tom joins him on the stage, and the old lion smiles a real smile, beams at his son-in-law, extends a hand to him, and when Tom takes it, holds it up in the air, like indicating the champion in a boxing match. Tom has changed: his body has filled out. He is still tall, but slim rather than skinny, and the gangly awkwardness is gone. Success has done well by him. Or maybe it is Ruth’s love that has given him his confidence. Whatever… He is a man now. (He looks around thirty-five, which is about right: he’s one year older than Ruth.) Then Tom and his father-in-law bow to each other ceremoniously, and the audience goes wild clapping and cheering. One misguided man shouts “Bravo!” as though they have already played Tom’s piece. (Or maybe it doesn’t matter to him; maybe he loves it on principle.) I have forgotten, being away, what a cult figure Ruth’s father is, and it is my first exposure to the worship accorded Tom, as to the heir-apparent in a dynasty. Suddenly I am weary, terribly weary: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. My mouth tastes pasty and I remember the funeral – the dust of the earth, the hardness of the earth, as the spade tried to bite its first bite. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Tom’s new piece is not bad at all, in contrast to the others I’ve heard: two on the CBC a couple of years back, and one performed in Vancouver last fall. They were cold, as cold as death. “Cold fire,” Steven Sandbagge once wrote in the Vancouver Sun: a nice turn of phrase but, like “passionately religious” (also in Sandbagge’s review), meaningless to me, not something that I can understand. I never could see what others saw in Tom’s music – why everywhere he’s gone, it’s been nothing but praise, praise, praise. “He has the power and purity of a modern young prophet,” gushed a review in The New York Times two months ago, after his choral suite was first performed at Carnegie Hall. “Combes’ music makes accessible to the contemporary listener all the agony and ecstasy of the religious life. He has truly created an ascetic aesthetic.”
But now through this piece I can see a little of what they mean. Or maybe it is just Greta Himmelfarb and her incredible charisma and artistic power. Her eyes are closed and she seems completely entranced as she sings, “God Himself has kissed each blade of grass.” She has a wonderful, throaty, melodious voice (the “Himmelfarb texture”), and at forty-five is at the peak of her powers and celebrity: just last month she was awarded the coveted Deutsche Grammophon Gamma, and was the unanimous first choice of all the judges. Through her voice you can feel Tom’s religious longings straining against, then breaking through, the restraints of the traditional form. She is also beautiful to look at. Her chestnut hair is piled up on top of her head, and she is wearing a tight, strapless silver dress completely thatched in shiny metal sequins, like hundreds of tiny gills; the way it flares out at the bottom around her feet, she looks like a shapely and voluptuous mermaid, half of this world, half of another. She is nothing short of magnificent.
She finishes singing: the piece is over. A standing ovation, howls of “Bravo!” and “Bis!” and then three encores, the last one a replaying of the final movement. Greta and Barron each bow; then Barron beckons to Tom, who comes on stage again to thunderous applause. Then Barron and Tom both reach out to Greta, she takes their hands, and with her in the middle, the three of them bow together. Barron then goes over and shakes the hand of the curly-haired first violin, whom I recognize suddenly as Henry Hailik from my high school days. Again enthusiastic applause (someone whistles); and in a dramatic gesture, Barron has the whole symphony rise to its feet, and bow.
During the intermission it is crowded backstage, and although I can see Tom, I can’t get anywhere near him. He is surrounded, almost crushed, by five layers deep of admirers and fans, and all I can see of him is the short tawny hair at the back of his head. Over near the door another fan cluster is fast forming: the Maestro has entered the backstage area and is instantly surrounded. I have to get out of here, I think, panicking, almost unable to breathe. I turn around quickly and crash right into Henry Hailik. The people he is standing with glare at me, but Henry only laughs.
“It’s you!” he cries, facing me, and turning his back to the others. “I thought I saw you in the audience. What a gorgeous dress.”
I feel myself flush all the way up my neck. I am wearing a joyous springtime dress, full of reds and oranges and pinks. Not at all the thing for one day after a funeral, but it’s what I put on when I got up this morning. To make matters worse, he then asks,
“What are you doing in town?”
I tell him about my aunt.
“Not again,” he says. “You and your funerals. Is that the only way we can get you back home for a visit?”
I remember now that a couple of visits back (I think I was here for my father), I ran into Henry in the park with his little boy, and we chatted briefly near the swings. Suddenly I am overcome with longing, longing for my past here, for an old friend: for some ring of intimacy, some evidence that I did indeed pass most of my life here. That my childhood, my growing-up, my formative years did happen, that I do have a past to remember. Henry smiles at me, and suddenly I feel a physical rush of warmth and happiness. I feel like I am with an old friend, and for the first time during this visit, things feel a little bit right.
“You’re first violin now, I see,” is what I say to Henry. “That’s great.”
He shrugs and smiles. “I can’t complain. And you? What are you doing these days?”
“I’m still at the Vancouver Museum,” I say. “I’m head now of Contemporary Exhibits.”
“That’s right, I think I heard that from Mick…”
He starts telling me about my cousin Mick, who lives in Ottawa, and how Mick came backstage a few months ago when Henry was at the National Arts Centre performing with the symphony. They hadn’t seen each other since high school, they used to play hockey together… I am beginning to feel vague again, he is drifting away from me; where is that vivid, real feeling of a moment ago?
Then the lights start flashing, and Henry leans toward me.
“Listen,” he says, “what are you doing after the concert?”
“What do you say we go out for a drink – continue our conversation, catch up a little bit? It’s been so long.”
I hesitate. Then I shrug. “Sure, why not?”
“Great,” he says. “Meet you here when it’s over?”
I am still nodding and already he’s gone, running inside.
The second half of the concert I can’t even tell you what they are playing. I rush back to my seat and do not even have time to pick my program up off the floor and see what I will be listening to. I hardly hear the music, anyway; all I am aware of is Henry, whom I stare at unapologetically: I’m allowed to be watching him. People come to concerts to watch the musicians play. He must be used to it by now. I notice how Henry’s hair still flips upwards over his ears, the same as it did back then; and all of a sudden he looks eighteen years old again – the age when he graduated and disappeared off to college, and I was still in high school two grades behind him. We all knew he was talented, but he wasn’t weird or anything, he wasn’t always rushing home to practice like Abner Moser, whose mother wanted him to be a child prodigy. Henry was normal: he played hockey after school like all the guys, and he looked and acted like everyone else. Not awkward or deathly pale like Tom. Though Ruth never seemed to mind; to her these were marks of Tom’s sensitivity, his specialness. That’s how it is with a girl in love: even the defects, the thorns, become jewels in the crown.
I remember the first time I heard Ruth speak Tom’s name. It was on one of my first visits back (I think that time it was for my Uncle Harry), I was already living in Vancouver where I was doing a Masters in Fine Arts; and I was over at Ruth’s parents’ for one of their afternoon musicales. They had a young up-and-coming tenor there, who was passing through town on his first national tour, accompanied by a nervous friend with a straggly red beard. The tenor sang for us in a strong, unsubtle voice – some of Schubert’s Lieder, and the drinking song from Das Lied von der Erde, which we all very much enjoyed. Then we moved into the dining room and sat around the table for coffee and pastries and fruit and cheese. As if I were still their babysitter, or an adopted daughter, I helped Ruth’s mother serve the two guests, carrying in milk, and sugar, and cups of coffee, and replenishing the apples and grapes.
It was a soft spring day with the late afternoon sun splashing all over the table. On my left, past Ruth who sat in the last seat, were two glass doors opening out onto the porch, and I felt suddenly imprisoned, longing to be free and outside on this beautiful day. From the porch came the sounds that since childhood I have always associated with spring: drilling and hammering, the sounds of construction. But this time the drilling was very loud and disturbing, like the drilling at a dentist’s, and the conversation around the table was like the meaningless, fearful small talk before the dentist begins to drill.
Because always, always in this house, the guests were drilled.
“So,” said Barron to the tenor, when everyone had had something to eat and drink. “What are your plans after Winnipeg?”
The young man talked about the remainder of his tour. Barron tore apart the conductors he would be working with in each of the coming cities.
Then the tenor said, “After this is all done, I’m going to look into learning some contemporary repertoire. Have you heard of Pete Porter’s work out in Victoria? It sounds like he’s doing some interesting stuff.”
Barron looked down at his plate. There was a short pause like a pause note.
“Nonsense,” he said. “A waste of your time.”
The tenor looked up at Barron surprised, as though he couldn’t believe he had heard quite right. But even so he blushed and his voice was a little unsteady when he answered.
“I think that some of what’s happening in contemporary music in this country is really quite important. We owe it to ourselves to take it a little more seriously, to try and understand it.”
“We owe ourselves nothing,” said Barron contemptuously, staring down the tenor. “We owe the past, we owe the great masters. To know them and play them as they deserve to be played. We don’t need new scales, and tricks, and ‘musical languages’. What was good enough for Schubert is good enough for me. Or perhaps you are saying, young man, that you think Pete Porter superior to Schubert?”
“I’m not saying –”
“Enough!” shouted the conductor, his face suddenly red. “Enough!” And he brought his hand down on the table like the final note of a symphony.
There was silence. The tenor did not try again. His hand trembled as he raised his fork halfway to his mouth and then set it down again. His friend’s face began to twitch. My heart was pounding, I didn’t know where to look. Staring into the white tablecloth, I felt myself being swallowed up into the endless silence, sucked deeper and deeper into its vortex. Helpless, I waited for the silence to end, for words to return things to normal.
And then a voice piped up, innocent and cheerful: “Does anybody know a good movie? Tommy and I are going out tonight, but we don’t know what to see.”
Astonished, I turned to my left and looked at Ruth. She was sitting at the end of the table, bathed in the sun flooding in through the glass doors. She sat in the midst of this destruction, in the midst of a kind of terror, oblivious to it all. Her chin on her hand, she added dreamily,
“Something nice. Something romantic…”
That face, I will never forget it as long as I live: the face of the quintessential girl in love – glowing, knowing, knowing nothing but love. The tenor’s friend answered her, and I watched his lips move as he spoke; but it was like watching a movie with the sound turned off: I couldn’t hear a thing. All I heard, over and over, was Ruth’s childish, hopeful voice: “Something nice, something romantic.” As if I could, by repeating her words over and over in my head, learn, like her, to see only love.
Ruth and Tom were married within the year. Of course. If Ruth loved, naturally she was loved back: it was as inevitable as the theme of a sonatina returning at the end. None of the longing and yearning and fractured love that formed the emotional core of my young womanhood. The wedding took place in a charming old chapel on the outskirts of Winnipeg, and everybody who was anybody in Manitoba music was there. As they stood before the minister, Tom and Ruth looked remarkably like the wedding picture of her parents that Ruth kept on her desk: the hopeful, brilliant young prodigy looking off into the future; and his tender trusting bride looking up at him. I attended the wedding without an escort, wandering around at loose ends, trying not to look lonely. The older sister, and unmarried. I ate and ate and then went home. That night I slept with the man I had been too embarrassed to bring along: a simple, good-hearted man named Bob, the carpenter who had come to fix my bookshelves. And because I’d been ashamed to be seen with him, I was also ashamed when we slept together, as though I had been unfaithful to everyone who mattered to me, all in one single night.
I married a year later in Vancouver, an engineer from there named Darrell; and in about the third year of our marriage, around the time I was starting my job as assistant to the curator at the Vancouver Museum, Ruth and Tom passed through town. Tom had a conference on sacred music, and Ruth came along because she had never been to Vancouver. I remember being nervous that they wouldn’t like what I had prepared (hamburgers on the barbecue, a macaroni salad, and strawberry pie). Darrell laughed at me for being nervous, and we had a huge fight just before they arrived. But it all worked out fine. They did like the food, and much to my relief Tom and Darrell hit it off, in that male competitive sort of way. Afterwards Ruth and I cleaned up together in the kitchen, and without meaning to hurt me (I’m sure she didn’t mean to, how could she know I was having trouble getting pregnant?), she said that she wasn’t a “career woman” like me, she just wanted to have a lot of kids. When I saw her again, for the last time, three years after that, she already had a one- and a two-year-old. I was back home for my Uncle Arthur’s funeral, and that time, for the first time, I took Darrell home with me. It was a hot summer afternoon, and he and I sat with Ruth and Tom on their patio, sipping lemonade and eating canapes off a tray, while their two daughters played quietly beside us on the grass. At one point we were interrupted by a student of Tom’s coming around the back to drop something off. Tom was annoyed at being disturbed on the weekend: “You could have left it at my office,” he said sharply, and the boy started to stammer and left in a hurry. I looked at Ruth, but her face was placid, untroubled. She was standing, so pretty in a white summer dress, holding out a platter of canapes to Tom, and he helped himself while continuing to talk to Darrell without even looking up at her.
That was seven years ago, and I’ve had no contact with Ruth or Tom since. Except for the time I called them from the airport, when I was switching planes in Winnipeg, just to say I was passing through. But I have, of course, heard over the years of Tom’s meteoric rise. I have also heard about the Maestro, whose affairs by now are common knowledge: he has become so open about them that last year he even showed up on opening night with his mistress of the month on his arm. This morning’s gossip column noted that every day this week he has sent a dozen red roses to Greta Himmelfarb’s dressing room – as embarrassing to me as if he and I were related. And in my own marriage, no affairs but no happiness between us, either: a vast emptiness, a well that can’t be filled. Maybe children would have helped, who knows? But one is blessed or one isn’t, and there is nothing one can do about that. It is years now since Darrell and I first recognized and acknowledged our unhappiness out loud to each other; and it has lain between us ever since, like a smelly yellow dog half-asleep on the floor between our two chairs, as we grow old in front of the fire. It is relatively undisruptive, just unwilling to move; it will be with us forever, I suppose.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, when I can’t stand the loneliness any more, when I am sure I can’t survive one more day without love, I wonder what I would be like, what my life would be like, if, when I was a little girl, I had been loved. Really loved, the way a child is supposed to be. And of course I think then of Ruth, with her round glowing cheeks and her ribbons and her bows; and also of her brilliant, charismatic husband and her patio and two daughters on the grass. At these times, when I am scared or lost, and fear that really there is nothing, nothing one can really believe in or count on, nothing that continues, I think of Ruth and Tom. And then I know that the world does go on: that at least on one little island, something makes sense, things are the way they are supposed to be, it has all worked out.
After the concert Henry says, “Let’s go for a walk,” and he takes my elbow in the old-fashioned way, and we walk arm-in-arm through the almost-empty theater, like a couple strolling on a boardwalk somewhere in old Europe on a spring day before the war, on Somethingstrasse. But when we get to the door of the theatre, we see it is raining outside, so we hurry into Henry’s shabby green car, and just drive back to my aunt’s house for a drink. The rain runs down the car windows in rivulets; they join together at the bottom like fingers connecting to form a hand. Henry fiddles with the radio once or twice, but because of the rainstorm nothing comes through but static. I don’t feel much like talking, and apparently neither does he; so we drive in silence, watching the rain.
My aunt’s house is old and Gothic, and has always felt a little spooky, even when she lived there. But now as we approach it, turrets and all in the middle of a thunderstorm, it looks like the setting for a horror movie; and the front door actually creaks when I open it to let Henry in. Once inside the hallway, I am still shuddering from the chill of the rain; I shrug off my coat, its wet wool smelling like a half-drowned sheep, and throw it carelessly over the bannister. Henry does the same with his, imitating my gesture exactly, and his coat lands on top of mine. We grin at each other. Then he notices the gargoyles and cuckoo clocks and red china devils on the shelves above the doorways, and then past them, all the way up, the high gabled ceiling.
“Some house,” he says.
“Yeah, I know. Come, let’s have a drink.”
I lead the way through the living room to my aunt’s liquor cabinet, with Henry following close behind and looking up and around at everything as he walks. My aunt drank primarily “ladies’ drinks,” so in the cabinet there is plenty of Amaretto and creme de menthe and peach liqueur. Henry points to the creme de menthe; I pour it out for him into an ample brandy snifter. I drink peach liqueur myself, picturing my aunt, becoming my aunt as I drink it, drinking her, drinking up her lonely life. And then I do something my aunt would never have done. I take Henry’s hand and lead him up the stairs to the bedroom, to my aunt’s room, which I have been using for my own. We sit on the edge of the soft old featherbed, on a down quilt with a picture of a butterfly on it, and with my legs tucked under me, and Henry’s stretched out straight in front of him, peacefully we sip our drinks. It all feels very high school, maybe because our drinks are syrupy green and orange, which reminds me of “going for a soda”; maybe because I suddenly feel terribly self-conscious about my body in a way that I haven’t for years. I don’t feel at all like I am forty-one years old, or the chief curator of the Vancouver Museum; and especially not like someone who has been married for sixteen years. I am a young girl again: not really like I ever actually was; more the way I could have been, should have been, if I hadn’t been so busy taking care of my mother and my dad. Now they are both dead, anyway; and so is my aunt. The very last one of their generation, the last death, the final death, the death of deaths. Now, finally, I am sixteen and free. Sitting next to a boy, happy that he likes me. Hoping to be loved.
Henry finishes drinking and puts his glass down on the floor. Then he takes my almost-finished drink out of my hand and places it gently next to his. He takes me in his arms and we lie back on my aunt’s bed, and he kisses me very softly on the lips, like testing them, testing their softness. Then a harder one, like testing for strength: his tongue opens my mouth, and he kisses me passionately everywhere inside. Then he kisses me one more time: this time as gently as a butterfly.
I just lie there in a kind of trance. It has been so long since anyone but Darrell has kissed me, I had forgotten (I hadn’t really thought about it at all) how different Henry’s kiss would be from Darrell’s. How every man’s kiss is different from every other man’s, more unique than a snowflake. As soft as a snowflake Henry’s closing kiss: a snowflake melting at the corner of my lip.
“I always liked you,” he says to me, stroking my hair. It feels so beautiful, it makes me want to cry.
“I liked you, too,” I say, trying to keep my voice normal, and failing. “But you were older, I thought you didn’t even notice me.”
“I noticed you. I used to see you at the Saturday afternoon concerts, but I didn’t have the guts to come over.”
I stare at him in amazement, but he has said this with a perfectly straight face. “You used to wear this red pleated skirt,” he adds.
I haven’t thought of that skirt in twenty-five years, but I remember it perfectly. It had a matching red jacket and was the only outfit that I had for concerts. I look at Henry, and strangely moved, I reach up and touch his cheek.
“I want to make love to you,” he whispers.
I lower my eyes, frightened by his directness. What am I afraid of? I wonder as I lie there, and tenderly, respectfully, he kisses my ear, my neck, my shoulder. Is it losing my virginity I’m worried about? Is this part of feeling sixteen again – this return to high school morality, with its bourgeois good-girl stuff? All that anguish over “To fuck or not to fuck”! I don’t believe that nonsense, or at least I don’t think I do. After all, I am forty-one years old, and a feminist. And yet maybe I still am a virgin, in a certain sense: despite all the unhappiness in our marriage, I have never yet been unfaithful to Darrell. Henry kisses my mouth and runs his fingers lightly over my breasts. It feels so wonderful. And I am getting older: in a few years, perhaps, I’ll have no more interest in sex at all. I could even be dead. Why deprive myself of pleasure now? It won’t hurt anybody; and I deserve some tenderness, some love.
I love the way he is touching me: softly, shyly, like a boy touching a girl for the very first time; and it makes me feel like it is my first time being touched. As if it matters, like it mattered back in high school, to touch somebody, to touch their body.
I want to tell Henry how I feel. I try to catch his eye, but he is intent on unbuttoning the buttons of my blouse.
“Henry?” I ask; and he answers by saying my name, echoing exactly my pleading tone, like a musical phrase repeated on another instrument. I laugh in spite of myself, even though I know that he is mocking me. That this is probably what he does whenever a woman tries to get close to him by saying his name in that wheedling, hopeful way. He wheedles her back, he throws her back onto herself, like throwing a shoe onto a mountain of shoes.
He has succeeded in opening my blouse, and now his hand is inside my bra, and he is doing the most exquisite things to my nipple. I arch my back and moan; and at the same time, I feel mild surprise at what is going on. That really, he really is expecting me to take off my clothes, peel everything off, including my underpants (even the doctor lets you keep your panties on) and let him, a complete stranger (because that is what he is, even if he feels familiar) put his hand there, on my clitoris, and touch it; and then I am supposed to spread my legs and let him stick his penis in.
“Henry,” I say.
I touch his hand and then take it out of my bra. He smiles down at me – sweetly, like a child, as if he expected to be stopped, and just wanted to see how far he could go.
“Could we talk a little?” I ask.
“What?” he says teasingly. “You can’t talk while I’m touching you? You can’t concentrate?”
“No,” I smile.
“All right then. What do you want to talk about?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” I think for a moment. “Tell me what you think of Tom Combes. Do you think he’s talented? Did you like his latest piece?”
“Oh, he’s talented all right,” says Henry.
But there’s something in his tone, something he’s not saying, that makes me curious.
“What else?” I ask. “Come on, tell me what you’re thinking. Tell me the truth.”
“Well, it doesn’t hurt that he’s Barron’s son-in-law,” says Henry. I smile appreciatively. “Or,” he adds, “that he’s Greta Himmelfarb’s lover… What is it? What’s wrong?”
I have spun over to the other side of the bed, and I am lying curled up like a baby, with my back to him.
“I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
Tom. Greta Himmelfarb’s lover. Tom, Greta’s lover. Tom has a lover.
“I was sure you knew. Everybody knows.”
Everybody but me. Everybody but Ruth. Someone must tell her, someone must let her know. I am panting, I can’t seem to catch my breath.
Ruth and Tom. Tom and Greta…
A voice, far away, has said something, but I didn’t hear what it was.
“You and Tom, did you have a relationship?”
“What?” I say again. I roll back over and face Henry, who is looking at me with concern. I understand his question now, and I look back at him to answer without trying to hide the pain that is flooding me, that I’m sure shows in my face.
“No,” I tell him. “I knew Ruth growing up. She’s like a little sister to me.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…”
I nod dumbly, unable to speak again.
Ruth’s trusting face as she showed me her diary. What will happen to a person like this in the world?
Henry reaches out and touches my arm. I am numb: I can see that he is touching me, but I don’t feel a thing. I can’t feel anything because nothing means anything. Nothing makes any sense. Then Henry takes me in his arms again, but I am like a rag doll: I don’t resist but also I can’t participate. It isn’t the same as before. Nothing is going to be the same ever again.
After Henry is gone I lie in my bed, naked, for a long time, watching the rain and the lightning, counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. At around two-thirty I realize I am not going to fall asleep, so I get out of bed and climb the rickety winding steps to the attic. The lawyer has said that my aunt’s “personal effects” are up there; that I am free to look through them and see if there is anything I want to keep. The attic is panelled entirely with planks of miscellaneous wood, in all different shades, from yellow to almost black, and it is so dusty that I begin to sneeze. I am about to go back down when I notice over in the corner an old steamer trunk, the kind my cousin and I used to imagine was a chest of buried treasure, full of pearl necklaces and rubies and gold. I kneel in front of it and push back the heavy lid. Inside there are three piles of neatly stacked clothing. (How like my aunt, I think, to bury her treasures like so much folded laundry!) From the left-hand pile, I pull off the top garment: something light blue and long and lacy. But like a magician’s scarf, it seems to have no end: I pull and pull at it, whatever it is, and it unravels and unravels until I finally reach the end of it and the whole first pile in the trunk is gone. It is a strange, old shawl: I stand up and fling it over my shoulder with flair, as if I am Isadora Duncan and this, one of her romantic, deadly scarves. But then, because it is so long, I keep winding it around my neck and scalp and face; and by the time I finish, this ancient thing is covering my whole head, like the bindings of a mummy – even my mouth. As if my aunt’s voice has soaked into it over time, and is mutely whispering: “Don’t let anyone kiss you, dear.”
I make a space for my eyes, and kneel again over the contents of the chest. Then I reach inside and touch something white on the top of the middle pile. I am surprised, even shocked, knowing my aunt as I do, at the soft feel of satin. The satiny thing unfolds into a negligee, innocent and pure and white – except for a small pink embroidered rose where the fabric dips into the v of the breasts – as translucent as the moon on a quiet night. Something for a wedding night, or a young girl dreaming of love. What is this doing in my aunt’s chest? I realize suddenly how little I really know of my aunt, how little any of us knew. Did she have a lover – or lovers – that nobody knew anything about? Romantic dinners, long nights of love, right here in this Gothic house? It’s possible, I suppose. Hard to imagine after all these years of seeing her the way I did. But possible. She could have worn this negligee – why not? anyone can wear a negligee – and it obviously belonged to her (what else would it be doing here?).
Then again, maybe she bought it but never wore it – she might have been saving it, hoping that the time would come when she would need it? (I can see her buying it on sale, thinking, Well, sooner or later I’ll have occasion for something like this.) Perhaps she tried it on now and then in front of her mirror, just to feel its softness, just to feel beautiful, here where no one could laugh at her, my big-boned, unloved aunt. Or maybe all she did was finger it once in a while, stroking its smoothness with secret longing but never daring to try it on.
I unwind the long blue scarf, drop it on the floor, and try on the negligee. It fits almost perfectly. Underneath, remembering Henry’s fingers, my breasts still feel alive and sensitive, especially the left one, which has always been bigger than the other, but now is swollen to even larger than its usual size. Lightly I stroke it and watch the little nipple rise, showing rose-like through the milky satin.
I wish Henry were here to see.
Like Tom watching Greta: I can imagine her modeling her negligees for him. But none of this sweetness and innocence for her: red satin, with a bodice as tight-fitting as a bathing suit and red lace around the breasts. Tom stares at her. Then he reaches out his right hand and with half-shut eyes, places it over Greta’s left breast, which is voluptuously protruding from the lace. If he closes his hand and turns it sharply to the right, it will be the exact same gesture as picking an apple off a tree.
Someone must tell Ruth. I must warn her: she must know. I see myself rushing over to her house, standing with her in her front yard near the apple tree and the little picket fence, earnestly telling her The Truth. But will she be happy, grateful? Will that make us like sisters again? Of course not. She won’t believe me; she will suspect my motives. Why would I say such a horrible thing to her, why am I trying to hurt her? And of course she’ll ask: “Where did you hear this? Who told you?” And then what am I supposed to say? “I heard it from Henry Hailik, while we were in bed together almost-making-love”? “Who is Henry Hailik?” she’ll ask, even though she knows him from the symphony. “What does he know? Did he see them together in bed?” No, she won’t say that. She’ll tell me she knows her Tommy, and he would never in a million years do anything like that. He is a spiritual man, anguished by his alienation from God, a composer of sacred music.
She will tell me to go away, and never to darken her doorstep again.
All right. I strip off the negligee and sit down naked on the attic floor. Fine. I, too, will be complicit. I, like everyone else in Winnipeg, will know and keep silent: will watch Ruth come and go, live her life, and I will say and do nothing. As silent as a cloud.
But then I am suddenly furious at all these people, laughing at Ruth behind her back, while to her face they treat her with respect: Bruno Barron’s daughter, Tom Combes’ wife. And she, oblivious, struts around like a princess, pitying others less fortunate than herself: lonely women like my aunt, and women in unhappy marriages, like me, and divorcees. By comparison we all make her glow. She walks around thinking that she is blessed, that as the sun shines down on her, she shines down on other people. When really no sun shines on her at all; just the thin, false light of a sixty watt bulb.
It’s all Tom’s fault. And I hate him, I hate him, I hate him. I hate his hypocrisy: the holy man, the bringer of sacred music to the soul-starved secular world. The liar. The phoney. And I hate how men can do this, how men have the power to do this, to do whatever they want with women. Sure, the odd woman does it too, like Greta; but how are such women usually looked at? Sluts. Whores. But not Tom, or Barron, when they are found out. On the contrary, other men grudgingly, some even openly, admire them for it. “Didn’t know he had it in him, the bugger,” they would be saying now of Tom. “A real man. Not some wimp, like most of these musicians.” And even some women would approve: to them he would suddenly be more exciting, more attractive. The great composer. Needing comfort, needing love…
And I am furious now also at Ruth – for being so naive, so sexually inexperienced, so virginal. So pure. Damn her innocence, damn her goddam purity. What is wrong with her that she doesn’t know how to keep her man from wandering off? Why doesn’t she know how to keep him happy? And why the hell can’t she see what’s going on?
I hear a tearing sound, and with surprise I look down at my lap. Without knowing it, I have picked my aunt’s shawl up from the floor, dug my fingers into it, and yanked. The fine lace is ripped now, ripped irreparably like a huge gouge in the middle of a spider’s web, so that there is no way ever to repair this antique and priceless thing. I look at the shawl, and scream. I scream and scream, a madwoman in the attic, and when I am all screamed out, I start to cry. I cry for a long time, curled up on the floor, clutching the torn part of the shawl to my cheek. He shouldn’t have told me, Henry, as though it was nothing, just a minor piece of gossip – when really it was the end of something, the breaking off of a piece of my world. Nothing is ever going to be all right again, nothing will ever be intact. I bring a lot of the shawl up to my nose, and inhale its comforting, familiar smell: the smell of musk, and old age, and my Auntie Phaedra. I doze off to the smell of once-was, never-again-shall-be.
I wake up cold and aching from sleeping on the floor and, like an old woman, edge my way backwards down the attic stairs, like climbing down a ladder. At the bottom, the clock on the nighttable says five. My teeth are chattering and my feet are cold on the linoleum floor. Quickly I crawl under the quilt with the butterfly on it, and pull around me its downy softness. Then I turn onto my right side and stare at the empty half of the bed. There is room there for a couple. For Tom and Greta. I can imagine them lying under a butterfly quilt like mine, touching and kissing each other on the hair, the face, the neck. Then they kick the quilt off, and I see them naked. Their bodies are glowing and golden, their legs are intertwined, and they are beautiful, knowing nothing but their own desire. His hand runs down her breast, over her hipbone, down her thigh. She trembles. He caresses her between her legs, and she moans; he climbs on top of her and slides inside her and quickly, within seconds, they both cry out. Then he falls into her arms, and like this they are instantly asleep.
I wish they were here – then I would roll over to their side of the bed, and snuggle up between them like a baby or a pet dog, just to feel against me the warmth of their sleeping skin. But as it is I get out of bed, go down to the kitchen, and make some coffee. This takes a while, since I have barely used the kitchen these last two days, and now I have to find where my aunt keeps things. (No, I correct myself, kept, where she kept things). And she doesn’t keep (she didn’t keep) things where I would: her mind works (worked) differently. An old metal coffeepot with a dent in the side, the kind I only see nowadays on camping trips, is located among the pots and pans. I pull off the top. It still smells of fresh coffee as if she brewed some just a few days ago, maybe enough for me too, hoping I would come for a visit. But I didn’t. Well, here I am now, ready to drink. (But where are you, Auntie Phaedra?)
I find the coffee, and a spoon, and measure the coffee out into the coffee pot, and add the water, and place the pot on a burner, and turn on the gas flame. Then, while it is beginning to bubble and perk its way into life, filling this old yellowed-walled kitchen with its strong brave smell, I sit down at the table – exhausted as though I have also gathered and chopped wood, and done all the work of building a fire, instead of just turning on a stove. I place my forehead straight down on the table’s cool oilcloth, like a Moslem hitting his head on the ground in prayer: Accept it. Power runs the world. All those other things – gentleness, goodness, love – they’re nothing. Oh, they’re nice, they’re sweet, but don’t deceive yourself: they are just toys – the toys of children like Ruth who have never grown up, who don’t want to see the world for the way it really is. Power is everything. People with power do whatever they please, they take what they want from the meek and the weak. That’s all there is to it.
I stay with my forehead on the table for quite some time, as if this humble posture will help me to accept what I know to be true. It also feels good to rest my head, to let go of its weight, knowing there is nowhere lower that it can fall.
Then I hear my aunt’s voice.
“All right, that’s enough of that,” she says briskly. “Come on now. Snap out of it. Stop being such a baby.”
Automatically I sit straight up, with the reflex of a reprimanded child.
“It’s not the end of the world,” she says. “Adults do this. They sometimes sleep with someone they’re not married to. They’re lonely, they need love – and they take it where they can find it.”
“But it’s wrong.”
My aunt sighs. “Wrong. Right. Who knows what these things mean? I always did the ‘right’ thing, I was a good girl, I did what I was told (not like your father, may I add). But how does that saying go – ‘You only go ’round once.’ I didn’t learn that till it was way too late.”
She pauses. I feel confused hearing this from my aunt, and can’t think of anything to say.
“Life is hard,” she adds, and sighs again. But then she speaks up brightly, as if ruled even now by the conventions of a lifetime: You don’t leave someone with a sad taste in the mouth. In a perfect hostess voice, as though she is one more time helping out at a symphony fundraising tea, my Auntie Phaedra says to me:
“Would you care for some coffee?”
And then she’s gone.
I get up and pour myself a cup. There is no milk, so I drink my coffee strong and black and bitter. And almost instantaneously, my eyes jerk open wide. With the clarity of caffeine, I can see exactly what my aunt was driving at.
He’s still wrong, Tom. And I still hate him for what he’s done. (I’m sure I always will.) But also I can see that, in a way, this thing with Greta is probably the best thing that ever could have happened to him. I can feel for him, knowing a little bit about him from things that Ruth has let drop. So hard to be a good Catholic boy. To grow up with strict parents who never kissed or held you – never even a touch on the arm. The loneliness of it: for all your childhood to know no body but your own. And then in adolescence, to be painfully shy: to walk a girl all the way home and then not even dare to ask for a kiss. To know that the girls all laugh at you behind your back. Then, miraculously, you find love: a lovely girl, a warm and pretty girl, the daughter of a famous man, returns your love, and you marry with hope. Only to discover that she is just a person, just a woman; and that sooner than you would have believed possible, her body becomes so familiar it feels almost like your own. And that loneliness comes roaring back, that craving for more, for closeness, for contact with another. You begin to think about making love only to this one woman for the rest of your life, and it feels to you like a kind of poverty, a return to something you thought you had escaped.
Years of disappointment, and longing, and shame, and inner struggle. Finally Tom gives in. Half-believing that for this he will burn in eternal flames, he makes love to another woman. Afterwards he lies in Greta’s soft white arms, overcome with gratitude and joy. He had never known such sensations before, things he had only caught glimpses of through movies and magazines, wondering if he would ever experience them himself. His Ruth, so good and affectionate – I can see exactly how she would make love to him: in a warm, wholehearted way, just like giving one of her daughters a hug. But sensuality? Sexuality? Knowing her own body, and his, and their potential for pleasure when brought together? Ruth knows nothing about this. Or how to create desire, the way Greta does, running one long fingernail, slowly, down the length of Tom’s body. Then touching him all over, missing nothing (not an elbow, not the back of a knee), and kissing him everywhere too, in many different ways. Leisurely at first, then speeding up; pausing a little, then again building up the speed. Then, when he can’t possibly want her any more than he does, she draws it out, she makes him wait, like pulling back a taut slingshot one inch more. He thinks that he is going to die. “I am going to die,” he whispers to her; and only then does she lightly, elegantly (as elegantly as lifting a finger and letting a stone fly) release him.
Then he lies in her arms, trembling, and he thinks: Now I am alive. (He was only half-alive before, he sees that now: all these years he has been asleep, just waiting.) And to feel like this again, so deeply, truly alive, he will do anything. Anything. Including lie to Ruth, which he has done with gradually increasing regularity, until now it is almost easy for him to do – he who as a boy was caught and whipped whenever he told a lie, because he couldn’t lie without his voice cracking. Sometimes he thinks of confessing to Ruth, just blurting out the truth to her. But what would be the point of that? he argues with himself. It would only hurt her, and for what? (He is going, of course, to keep on seeing Greta; there is no real question about that.) And he still loves Ruth; in a strange way this has made him love her even more. Gone are the resentments for all the things she can’t give him, for the dullness in her (not only in her body, but also in her mind), especially since the girls were born. Now he feels a particular tenderness for her. He is kind to her, the way you are kind to someone when you know you have the power to destroy them, and you decide, daily, not to.
Four years ago, that time I called them up from the Winnipeg airport, Ruth answered the phone. A few seconds later she said, “Wait a sec, my other line.” When she came back she told me it had been Tommy, he was stuck at the airport in Boston, “all snowed in.” Snowed-in in Boston? I remember thinking. Here I am in Winnipeg, and there’s no snow here! (With one hand Tom is holding the phone to Ruth; with the other hand he is holding onto Greta’s, who stands next to him, smirking and sophisticated, in a cool silk suit the colour of canteloupe. His lover, his teacher in the ways of the world. Tom doesn’t let her laugh at Ruth; but they agree, smiling at each other, that Ruth is Good. A Very Good Girl. “Not like you,” he says to Greta, desire thickening his voice, and suddenly he is kissing her neck behind the ear, where it is warm and fragrant from her hair. Greta is not good; Greta is powerful.)
“No,” says Tom to Ruth when he finally gets home and she offers him some hot chocolate. An egg. A little something. He’s already eaten; but more than that he knows that if he says yes, she will sit across from him, and look at him affectionately, admiringly, adoringly: her lord, her darling lord. And he will have to find some way, some pretext, for eating his scrambled egg and his roll and his tomato without looking back at her. Without too obviously rejecting her, without showing how bored he is with her sweet simplicity, how she annoys him with her adulation.
“Thanks anyway,” he says, and goes upstairs. Ruth nods understandingly, and with slow sadness, puts away the food.
I can see how it happened the very first time. I can see how it all started. Tom and Greta were together on a North American tour with the Winnipeg symphony, showcasing his first oratorio The Voyage of Hope. Everyone was staying at the same hotel, and one day, walking out together from the group breakfast in the lobby, Greta told Tom that she had to stop by her room for a moment before going to rehearsal, she had forgotten her score. He agreed to accompany her so they could continue what they were talking about. They reached her room, and stepped inside, and suddenly somehow her arms were around him, and his were around her, and they were kissing. Then he, shocked and moral, pulled back, his pallor even paler than before.
But she like a mother soothed him. “Ssh sshh,” and she stroked his cheek. And then with affection (but also mocking him, the way he hated to be mocked), she whispered: “You really are a good Catholic boy, aren’t you?”
He had spent the whole previous year collaborating with her husband Pietr, the celebrated poet, turning Pietr’s allegorical prose poem, The Voyage of Hope, into an oratorio. Collaborating with Pietr sent Tom’s career soaring, it propelled him and his work into the public view like a new bird visible for the first time in the sky. Pietr was gracious, too, giving Tom top billing whenever the work appeared, and when he was interviewed for the newspaper or the radio, he spoke with unreserved enthusiasm about Tom and his talent. Greta loved seeing them together: her husband and this young man, awkward, shy, and intense, so like the son she imagined she might have had if she had ever had children. For a year she has hovered nearby as the two of them worked at the dining room table. Sometimes she joined them, folding her legs under her on the dining room chair and just listening to them, chin in hand. Then she’d rise and serve them big mugs of tea: Tom liked his with lots of milk (like a child, she thought) and she bought milk just for him, they usually didn’t keep it in the house. On two or three occasions, when they were working late and looking quite grey, she cooed and clucked them into taking a break. She unplucked them from the hole they were trapped in, the black hole of creation, and deposited them into the clearer, simpler air of a pretty meal: a cheese souffle with pink and yellow nasturtiums on the top, and fresh warm bread, and leafy salad with a lemony vinaigrette. Then like good boys they drank their warm tea, and got back to work refreshed and smiling. Greta beamed after one such meal when she overheard Pietr say to Tom, as the two of them walked off toward the study: “Tom, I am one lucky man.”
And now, alone with Tom at last, Greta took him into her arms as if comforting him, and began to teach him how to be a man, how to be a man with her. She could feel his surprise at things that, ten years his senior, she took for granted: for instance taking his tongue into her mouth and sucking it slowly in and out many times. He gave a kind of sob and pulled her tight against him, his hand on one of her buttocks; but he almost didn’t know what to do after that. She had to help him, touching him here, and there, and even taking his hand and moving it for him when he became paralyzed (with fear? with pleasure? with the pull between right and wrong?). But then after that everything happened very quickly, and suddenly it was over, and he was embarrassed and afraid, but also he wanted her again, and he was ashamed also of that; and she ran her fingers down his cheek, again soothing him:
“It’s all right. It’s all right, sweet boy.”
“I’m not a sweet boy,” he growled, and like a boy responding to a dare, he climbed on top of her again. This time, emboldened, he took her by surprise with his passion and his fierceness, and made her cry out, over and over, her cries growing steadily louder. After that there was no embarrassment between them; they were free with each other and didn’t hold anything back. They didn’t restrain themselves in public either – although for the first two days Tom was mortified about being seen together, and in anguished tones begged Greta for propriety and caution. But she just laughed at him, ridiculing with witty ruthlessness his bourgeois morality as well as the hypocrisy of those who would presume to judge them. Then she ran her finger along his lip and spoke of the imperatives of love. Soon they were eating their breakfast at a table for two, separate from the others, right in the middle of the lobby; whispering together during the breaks at rehearsals; and disappearing for dinner to restaurants outside the hotel, sitting fearlessly, shamelessly in front of the window, where any passer-by could see them eating and holding hands, clinking and drinking their glasses of wine.
The kitchen is filling up now with early morning sunlight, pale but insistent through white eyelet curtains. The clock says five after eight: time to start my day, my last day here, I fly this afternoon at five. Suddenly I am filled with a great, sweet sadness: how fleeting the whole thing is. My dear Auntie Phaedra, her life as dark and chilly and hollow as a wine cellar filled with unopened bottles. And all of a sudden there is nothing real to me, nothing really real but death, and that terrible loneliness of humans: two people in the dark reaching out for each other. They want to be naked together, they want to cling to each other, that’s all that they want – and what’s so terrible about that? Soon enough they will be nothing but dust, their bones dissolved into fine pale powder: they can be as righteous and moral as they want six feet below the ground. A little warmth in this world, a little comfort and love – a human being deserves it.
I think of Henry, and suddenly there is a craving in me, a longing and a loneliness in my body so intense and vivid that it is like a physical pain. I rise abruptly as if, like a cramp in the leg, you can shake it off by changing positions; you can – if you force yourself to stand up and walk – scare it away. I make my way over to the sink, and deposit on its once-white, now rust-stained, bottom my empty coffee cup, pale blue with a thin brown crack down the side.
Go up, I tell myself. Go upstairs and try and see Tom and Greta again in your bed. There is love there. Or if not love, at least some tenderness.
“Good,” says my aunt, as I start up the stairs. “You’re coming off your high horse a bit. Welcome to the human race.”
I run the rest of the way, but when I get to the bedroom, all I can see is the empty bed. I begin to rush around madly, trying to get dressed, as though it matters what I wear, as though I have anything to rush to, as if it will make any difference at all what I do between now and five o’clock. I stand in front of my aunt’s full-length hand-carved mirror, trying on all kinds of clothes: one after another I put them on, look in the mirror, rip them off and hurl them onto the floor. Nothing feels right. I become frantic, trying on three, four garments a minute: I couldn’t be moving faster if I were running from death itself.
“Slow down,” says my aunt. “What are you rushing for?” But I don’t have to listen to her any more. She’s dead, the ultimate failure after all, so she couldn’t have been right about everything. I turn my back on her and her mirror, and without looking at what I’m wearing, I run out of the house.
Outside it is a cool spring day, and everything smells damp and fertile from last night’s rain. For a moment I stand at the end of my aunt’s walkway, where it almost meets the sidewalk. There is perfect visibility today: without squinting I can see clearly all the way down to the river. I begin walking towards it without thinking about where I am going, and within minutes I find myself in a park.
My park. The one I played in almost every day of my childhood: where I learned to swing myself high on the swings, where I first saw a chipmunk chomp on a nut. Everything looks exactly the same as it used to: the winding path, the patches of sky between the tops of the trees, the mottled shade under the maples. Walking over toward the swings and the slides, I retrace my childhood steps, where I walked not only with my Auntie Phaedra, but with all of them: my uncles, my parents, my grandparents, all my ghosts. Even Henry flashes past me as he was back then: a young man full of dash and promise. Then out of nowhere I hear music. Surprised, I look around for it in the deserted park, and find it on a spruce tree, coming out of a loudspeaker. Now I recall seeing in yesterday’s paper that, as part of an educational program (“Sundays in the Park”) sponsored by the municipality, they now play “light classical” music here every Sunday between nine and six. I listen for a moment and smile: Mozart’s Requiem. Someone must have told them Mozart was “light.”
I continue my walk feeling jaunty, almost happy, even though I have gone nearly a whole night without sleep. A blue brook runs through the park, and as I cross over it on the little foot-bridge, it gurgles and skips underneath me. I think with pride, as one might think about one’s own child: I am growing up. It may have taken me longer than everybody else, but now, finally, I understand what others have known for years. That life is short. That if you’re lucky enough to find a little warmth, or love, or kindness, you’ve got to be crazy to pass it by. Seize it with both hands, because this moment will never come again. I look up and see Henry’s face smiling at me in the leaves of a tree. Suddenly, terribly, I want to see him again. Maybe we can meet one more time before I fly. We could go for lunch, and then a walk; maybe we will stop walking, and under a tree he will kiss me…
Suddenly this park, although it is the same as it always was, is no longer mine: it belongs only to the past, and I will not be returning to this place. Instantly I feel as light and free as a ghost. I can do anything I want: anything is possible now. Like a visitor from another world, I float invisibly through the park, which is just now starting to fill up with people. I observe them with detachment as they pass me: the miserable-looking couples, the men and women looking in opposite directions, like scales played in counterpoint; the runners in their neon-coloured track suits (running running running from what?); and the slow-walking loners, their faces dazed with loneliness. The human condition, and once again I hear the somber, funereal tones of the Requiem emanating from a tree.
Why is there not one single couple in this park joyfully making love on the grass? Just then I see a woman waving toward me in a stiff-fingered wave. I try to ignore her – of course she can’t be waving at me – but she keeps on smiling, and waves more and more energetically, as she and someone with her draw nearer. I look behind me, there is no one there, she must be waving at me. But I can’t understand how she can be: how can she even see me, if I’m a ghost? And how can she possibly know me? I don’t know anyone here. Then the woman stands several feet in front of me, still smiling, with a girl by her side, and I see who it is.
Her eyes, looking at me, are the same startling ochre they always were; her hair is still dark, though longer than I remember it; and her bearing, as usual, regal yet friendly. I recognize the eyes, the hair, the way of carrying herself, even the style of dress in her high-waisted flowered frock. After all, I have seen her every few years. A person doesn’t change overnight. Yet I feel that I am looking at a stranger, someone I don’t know, as she flutters her hands at me in nervous greeting.
She is with a girl of about eleven: this must be Naomi, her oldest. Ruth’s arm is clamped around the girl, and she squeezes her tightly to her every ten seconds or so in a convulsive gesture of which she seems unaware. The girl has her father’s eyes – pale gray in very deep sockets – and Ruth’s heart-shaped lips. Not pretty, but she has that stamp on her: of blessing, of love. For no logical reason my heart begins to pound, as if with guilt. But what have I done to Ruth? Thought about her husband, picturing him in bed with his lover? Been silent, complicit, by not phoning her up last night as soon as I heard, and telling her what I know?
Of course I’ve done nothing. But anyway my smile feels forced as I greet her:
“Ruth! What are you doing here?”
“Oh, just going for a walk. We like to do that, eh, Naomi?” she says, turning to the girl. “You know who this lady is? She used to be my babysitter! Just like you have Bernadette…”
That is unfair, and ghost or no ghost, that hurts. As though that is all that I am, all that I ever was, to her. She, who I’ve worried about, on whose behalf I’ve been angry at total strangers and actually hated her husband Tom. She, who in a crucial moment came between me and Henry, my lover-to-be.
She doesn’t ask what I’m doing in town, or how long I’m staying. She just chatters on and on about herself, intermittently clutching the girl in a gesture that is affectionate, but also anguished like the wringing of hands. She doesn’t linger long, she doesn’t invite me home with them for brunch, which is where she says they have to rush off to. But that’s okay: something about her makes me tremble inside, makes me want to get away from her as fast as possible. Maybe it’s her laugh, which is no longer the one I remember, but more like her mother’s now: phoney-sounding and shrill, on the edge of losing control, like a singer sliding out of her range. But also it’s the way she talks and talks about herself, as though I have been put on this earth solely to be her audience: to be her witness, to bear witness to her and her life. And the way when she laughs she looks away – Where is she looking? Who is she looking to? To the mountains, whence cometh her help? There is nothing near us but the old brick building which now houses the toilets of the park – and where once, long ago, I lined up with the other children in front of the northern wall, and through an open window in the brick, bought French fries and ice cream cones with nickels sweaty from my palm.
I know suddenly, and with absolute certainty, that Ruth knows about Tom and Greta. I can feel it: her core is gone, her insides are hollow – like a tin soldier that keeps on marching because someone once wound it up, but resounding through its every movement is the echo of hollow tin. Ruth goes on chattering away charmingly, meaninglessly, gesturing stiffly with her one free hand. I watch her perform, and I feel the way you feel when you see a shattered bird lying in the middle of the street. Someone’s run over it. There’s nothing you can do. But anyway (although you know it’s pointless, and even a little bit foolish) you sometimes get out of your car and go over and take a look. You stand for a moment in silence and watch it. You admire the final fluttering of its wings.