A novella-length love story about drugs, language, and the golden years.
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On the afternoon of his eighty-seventh birthday, the Honorable Terence Brett Nichols bullies his walker along New Hampshire Avenue beneath the threadbare sycamores he has known since childhood. He crosses Nineteenth Street to Dupont Circle. There he approaches the dealer known as Esperanto and, for the first time in his life, scores.
"Sense," he announces. "Quarter."
"Can't break that."
But Terence slides the hundred up the sleeve of Esperanto's Redskin jacket. He tilts his walker onto its wheeled front and drives it across the orderly gay chaos of flattened elm and blackjack oak leaves littering the Parisian circle. Halfway around, a woman with red brown cheeks and a voluptuous Wagnerian set of chins and breasts reclines on the inner round of Dupont's chipped black benches. In the lap of her island print dress perches a canvas handbag.
"Rain?" Terence asks, settling beside her. The warmth of her ample hip embraces his arthritic one.
"Could do," she admits, glancing at the Washington sky, as evenly overcast as nature's own office florescence. A moment later, warm fingers, laden with an airy rustling sack of herb, ride Terence's pants pocket. As if in answer he draws from his jacket a zip-lock baggy of yesterday's dinner roll. Pigeons unenthusiastically rally.
"Come now," the woman says. "Not a soul watching."
"Santiago." She turned in surprise and Terence is enveloped in her opulent odalisque smile. He gathers her hand in his.
"Dolores. You are the gentleman who walks."
"And you the provisioner here every afternoon except Monday and Wednesday. Sundays an hour later."
"Wanted to be. Wife laughed me out of it."
A thin white girl in round silver spectacles, existentialist black pants, turtleneck, pulls a two-wheeler loaded with one too many Safeway bags. Terence and Dolores watch a loosely trapped iceberg lettuce nod over the rim.
"Far from Las Minotas Bianco," Terence murmurs.
"I hear waves at night."
"This is my ocean," Terence's hand offers Dupont Circle. "I always return."
Two man approach from 19th Street and New Hampshire Avenue respectively. As they draw close they joust with appraising eyes, straightening backs, their concentration not allowing for the pair on the bench. Dolores inclines minutely right, indicating her favorite--his paysley of sideburn and close beard, cream tieless linen, Conté crayon charcoal suit, shoe leather dimpled and black as an old change purse. Terence concurs with a nod, tosses a confetti of bread crumbs into the air. Irritable pigeons shake the fall from the iridescent shields of their wings.
"Your family here?"
"Barahona. Mother, aunts, cousins." Dolores' fingers indicate as many pecking birds.
"They will come?"
Dolores shrugs. Will this man, too, boast of Aristide in Haiti? How North Americans love to fix little countries! Plastic houses, plastic plumbing, pyrex cookware, new religions, cable television, powdered milk. Embargos, UN resolutions, invasions, grinning elections, international police force jogging the streets like a world cup team of gangly Swedes. That is when Terence surprises her a second time.
"We crush you for a century. We patch you up in a weekend."
The day care parade arrives--a dozen babies past toddling in the charge of two underpaid, transparently contented workers, the woman in that Indian-Indian fashion tongue twister, printed Madras skirt beneath embroidered Navaho blouse, the young fellow in his everyday saliva-and-milk stained vest over laundry blued t-shirt. Babies bunch just beyond the pigeons, then herd off toward the Society for Historic Preservation.
"There could be change," Dolores whispers, hoping to comfort, "if sugar stays cheap."
"Well," Terence says, stands and flourishes his walker one stride forward. Pigeons tumble out of his path, wings flashing like pages torn from marbled books. They flutter to earth and close ranks behind him, heads parrying, cooing mutedly within the balls of their chests. "I must be off."
Dolores studies his calves taut beneath immaculately pressed wool, sturdy flanks, full shoulders. Echoes of his midweight oarsman days.
"Find a water pipe," she calls to see him pauses and turn. He looks. She touches the swan swell of her throat.
"Bong," Terence pronounces. "Head shop next to Kemp Mill."
Dolores inclines her head. Terence records the play of padded knee, baby round chin, surprising narrow waist--all this against the susurrant of her name. Of course, don't look back, he cautions as he continues northwest.
That night he dreams passionately. The rain comes before midnight and Terence attends the coo and purr of the ornate copper gutters of the S Street house. His lullaby since nineteen-oh-three. Terence rocks himself, watches fine dusky leaves tumble shining from patient smooth-cheeked trees--not the elms and oaks of Dupont Circle. No, these the leaves of paper-wrapped birches, buoyant as lanterns dropping to the uncluttered forest floor of the Grunewald east of Berlin, Terence on his cousin Jorn's twelve-hand chestnut bay four years before the war. His marijuana ballasted dream is of his eighty-seven-year-old self and also again that young man on his virgin tour for State, parted from Washington and Caroline only six weeks after meeting her.
There. On the men's staircase at the Press Club. Hull drones on in the smoke filled hall above. Caroline quits early, Terence arrives late. She scouts from the second landing with her air of a safari leader, too tall shoulders, elbows not contained the way tall women wear their shoulders and elbows in those years. Caroline instead challenges all comers, Terence no exception, to step to the bannister or be pricked. Through the pot, eyebrows stirring, Terence watches those elbows sweep toward him as he makes his way upwards. He twists in evasion.
What's he on about? Terence asks. Caroline meets his eyes. Assures him Truman's errand boy has said nothing at all.
For days afterwards, Terence scrutinizes that stairwell moment, reenacting both parts with inflection and gesture. Studies his heart competently. Makes inquiries of friends and they of friends. On the seventh day, begins a lecture series to his family, inexplicably, unstoppably, on the subject of Caroline Gail Taylor, journalist. He speaks of her confidently. He hasn't had another word with her. His analyses are his only solace. She is an engaged woman. She will not answer his calls.
Bit old for kids, Uncle Jack cautions when Terence buttonholes him in his hothouse behind the small mansion on Reservoir Road. Midwestern, his sister Peanut notes as she wraps herself in a translucent black sheath for a Foggy Bottom evening of Chicago jazz and New York drinking. No money, brother Pete predicts, tugging his tie in Father's offices on 23rd Street. Catholic, Father has no opportunity to object, Terence addressing not a single word to him. Only Terence's mother Claire understands that second night, eighteen days after the initial Press Club sighting, Terence triumphantly parading Caroline through the Dupont house en route to Pygmalion and midnight supper, that this is the woman he will marry.
"I see the way you look on her," Claire announces. She pleases herself and her son with her Biblical diction and demeanor. They share the bay window in the front room, Claire pilfering Terence's olive. Caroline, meanwhile, stands with one foot up on the cross bar of the telephone chair in the hall, downing a second scotch as she barters with her editor--tomorrow's drag assignment against the rescinding of today's cuts. Engaged, Terence reminds his mother, tilting his glass her way--engaged to an excellent fellow. Claire squints to consider the way in which this peculiarly completes her son's vision of his conquest. She devours his pimento, licks her fingertips. At least, she tells her oldest, the woman's not engaged to a pumpkinhead.
Fifty-nine years later, Terence crosses his arms on his sleeping chest. He sighs Elizabethan perplexity to the autumn night. He had all but given up hope, he broods beneath the rain four stories above Eighteenth Street, so sure was he Caroline will marry without him. Orange birch leaves with browned edges wend their way to a sparse forest floor. Despair turns the corners of Terence's lips.
In February he runs into Caroline and her fiancé tugging at their mukluks in the door of the Old Ebbitt. The situation is worse than he had calculated. Mark Lipscomb is a man to be reckoned with--principled without arrogance, handsome without bravado, thoroughly in love, several generations prosperous, unruffled by challenge. He is almost kind, Caroline too gracious. Terence wanders wet-footed into the streets of melting snow, one among the throng of soon-to-be-dismissed suitors. He courts Caroline assiduously until the day he ships out. She kisses him chastely the last evening. From London he writes her each midnight--journal, love poem, weather, political news, willingness to become hers at a whistle. After four months, in the midst of a deserted Knightsbridge street in the July doldroms, Terence feels his heart split and sink, torpedoed. Caroline has mysteriously passed from the state of being engaged to that of being nearly married. He composes one last letter in robin's egg blue from the Constance double-nib fleurette on the buff pearl Florentine stationary, as resilient as doeskin, he imagines accumulating beneath Caroline's bed. Goodbye, his hand insists. I will always love you.
Ten weeks pass. Terence works with the fervor of the damned. He listens to himself persuade, watches himself advance, understands that he is now aging at treble time. Suddenly he comprehends the way an unfulfilled life passes, knows why one sees on even the faces of the young a narrow false insistence that all is well. Caroline arrives on the seventh dawn before her wedding day. She hitches a ride from Baltimore's Owings Field on a twin prop Whiting-111, touches down at Blinker outside London at oh-two-hundred hours. Commandeers a Steeler twelve-cylinder staff car to Embassy at Grosvenor Square, demands Terence's whereabouts from the bewildered slumbering night officer, traverses London in the misappropriated vehicle, and penetrates hotel May Fair in Westminster only to find the man she has come to claim with a single triumphant thrust of a Wisconsin state flag in bed with a Highgate girl he, Terence, has been trying unsuccessfully for two months to want to love.
Oh the shame, Terence acknowledges, tossing his hot head to the right. The bad luck. He still hears the knock. Message for you, sir. He flings the door back. Caroline stands a head taller than the red-nosed bellhop. Her idea of a surprise. Terence clutching his trousers to himself, a Molière figure of fun, trading in last shreds of dignity for the exaltation he cannot disguise. Company? Caroline asks. Terence nods. She turns on her heel and tows the tipsy night man away.
The girl--what was her name? Terence pauses in midsleep to ask himself, still unable to grant her the attention she deserves. The girl determined in her English way to make a small scene. She slung polished balanced nineteenth century stones--cad, rake, roué. Allison, of course, with two ls--Allison took her moneyed pinkish self downstairs and onto Stratton Street. She married a railroad director.
Caroline does not knock the second time. Sweeps in one rapid walk through the room to the bed, blouse floating, narrow skirt puddling. Terence justifies with stuttering hands his futile attempt to find happiness without her. Caroline places one, then three fingers, to his lips. Presses his head against the headboard. Do you want me? she demands.
Forty-eight years later, stoned from crown to toes and asleep, Terence's laughter spills across the blue swell of bedding. She chose me, a nothing, a pip. For a fleeting half-century he acted the man Caroline saw in him. Now she is gone and he is again the tailor's dummy, the vaudevillian. He turns his head toward her bed, separated from his by three feet, eleven years alone.
Yes, he tells her. Yes I want you. The words bubble on his lips like baby's milk. His arms reach.
Dolores Laura Castella Martínez de Rivera Merreault unwinds herself from her husband and lies back on two pillows. Crepuscule shadows round the grapes and tug at the vines of the ceiling work. Dolores loves this light. It is the promise of hours before she must try out her feet which, the night before, took a thousand steps up down and across Meskerem, the Ethiopian restaurant with its three levels of crowded tables stretching from Eighteenth Street to Ilwitch Road. She hostesses from six till one, carries menus along narrow aisles, listens curiously to suburban and district whites comment to each other how beautiful are the Ethiopians, such delicate features. Americans, she discovered when she was hired fourteen months before, believe everyone working in the restaurant to be Ethiopian. Dolores' round rose-lipped face, her island accent, cannot deter these good people from placing her in East Africa.
But the elegant old man needed only a dozen words to discover her birthplace. Is he dying, the aristocrat who settled beside her Dupont Circle roost? She feels his firm hand enclosing hers and recalls his beauty, which reminded her at once of Abú, her father's father Carlos Filípe, in whose double-shuttered house in Barahona she and her widowed mother lived until her grandfather was ninety-six. Abú sipped from wooden straw a bottomless maté through the afternoons, in the evenings smoked tapered black puñals. His death was a placid night voyage in the berth of his hammock, guarded by the hundred-and-eleven yellow and grey tigrillo orchids he tended, like tropical fish, through scorching summers.
Why did the American buy? Dolores wonders. Is he an older cousin of the bewildered wasting gays who come to her for pot to settle the nausea that spins their fevered heads? Dolores studies Terence's dancing eyes, again smiles at his bread crumbs and secret agent talk. She lays her cheek on Jean-Baptiste's bosom, wraps his light arm about her. Her husband's ribs widen, narrow with each breath. There are no children. Jean-Baptiste is her boy. He no longer leaves the house, holds a job, speaks the English of the land to which he traveled, or the Spanish of the woman he married. T'es ma petite pigeon, he tells Dolores in Creole. Soon he will sculpt her to the regal dimensions of a Tahitian queen, the two of them will fly to California, he will fashion a raft of hemp and redwood, and with extravagant provisions they will set sail for a Pacific island which is Dolores' rightful dominion. This is his fantasy--a lover, a retired chef.
For eleven years Jean-Baptiste worked six-day weeks in the kitchens of Les Caprices and Marcel's, and in that time banked a fortune his father and grandfather, both educated men, could not in two frugal lifetimes. At forty-four Jean-Baptiste abruptly retired. Assez, he told Dolores. Nous ne sommes pas commes ces américains qui gaspillaient la vie travaillant commes des fous. In retirement Jean-Baptiste demands Dolores' attention for as much of the day and night as she allows him. His life revolves around her schedule. His few indigenous friendships wither on the vine. He sees only his brother Sylvan and step-sister Mireille, both of whom he brought to Washington with his first years' earnings.
Each morning at ten, he serves Dolores' breakfast in bed, never asking what she would like, going to pains to conceal the previous day's preparations. Poached pear glazed with strawberry butter appear on the laquered Japenese tray beside the Italian stove brewer on a ivory tile. Or a high white bowl of birchermuesli dotted with roast pecan, soaked with fresh papaya and topped with blueberry cream. Perhaps a poached eggs in jambon flanked by a length of steaming brioche with a pale mustache of butter. After breakfast they make love and nap, or nap and make love. Dolores bathes and, at three, Jean-Baptiste sends her off to Dupont Circle with casse-croutes of fresh fruit and pinchos--small toasts topped with roast peppers, buttons of sauteed zuccinni. She returns home, has a quick rinse, dresses for Meskerem. There is espresso and a petits gateau of Domenican, Haitian, or Yankee extraction--a sizzling beignet, a pecan brownie still wet and baking in the middle, three isosceles nueves, butter pellets to be cracked in the teeth, adrift in confectioners sugar. She departs.
Throughout the day, Jean-Baptiste keeps Dolores' every bite company. In the evening, dark beer and Haiti En Marche accompany him company as he journeys from table to cutting board to stove. Le grand repas awaits at one-fifty every morning, when Dolore's trembling feet take one last step through the apartment door and out of her gold, black, or beige pumps. Jean-Baptiste eats heartily, but after two years of his retirement attentions, Dolores blooms in a new and splendid architecture of archways, domes, and horizons. Her husband remains Corde-Noeud, Rope-With-A-Knot, as he was called when she met him. Beneath her fingers is the same pouch of a belly with which Jean-Baptiste was encumbered at age nineteen, when a hundred-pound sixteen-year-old Dolores spun through the swinging kitchen doors of Le Grand Hotel in Fort-de-France and deposited a tray of fresh mango, churros, and tepid chocolate on his freshly laundered jacket.
Like all women with retired husbands, Dolores' most precious commodity is solitude. Whatever hour she is home, Jean-Baptiste is in whatever of the three rooms she is--speaking to her about nothing, giving her an insistent kiss. Only the oases of bath and dressing table prepare her for Meskerem where, in gregarious equanimity, she mediates between the pride of the overheated men cooking and the vanity of the overdressed women serving. Four afternoons a week, she works beneath Dupont's circular sky in the center of this overblown colonial capitol. Dupont Circle and Redskins games are her only escape from the dramatic men who dominate her home and work settings. The Potomac basin usually offers muted sunshine--in spring and summer, a curiously unscheduled northern rain shower. She finds in Dupont Circle a distant cousin to the Port Dauphin marketplace where she passed her girlhood Fridays with her mother, her aunts, and her tribe of primas. Americans, Dolores decided after her first Washington year, endure lives of depressed or agitated isolation inside cars, favorite television shows, doctors’ offices. The neurotic natives whom Dolores helplessly befriends impose upon themselves year-long exiles from their own parents, brothers and sisters across town. Best friends are dismissed over trifles, husbands and wives over less, as if marriage in North America were synonymous with childish intolerance, unthinking tantrums, and ruinous abandonment. Dupont Circle offers a greenhouse of civility, of ambling talk and observation, in this land of low skies and sequestered souls.
And the drug job is an economy. Nowadays Jean-Baptiste measures out heroin with the same contentment with which he savors his first café crème of the morning, his last Gaulois of the night. He greets Dolores with a sweet bird kiss when she comes home bearing either that week's H or the threads of saffron, the carton of pistachio butter, she has traveled to Dean and Delucca's to fetch. Merci mon ange, he says, accepting the tidy packages from her hands. That he has all but exhausted his stash, or has carefully annotated Dolores' grocery list that very morning, never diminishes his surprise or gratitude.
Occasionally Dolores returns home late for one of the meals on which Jean-Baptiste has lavished his resources. Then for as long as half a week he is short with her. He is not an obstinate man, but it punishes him beyond civility when she allows a coulibiac au saumon to harden, or the choux of a Saint-Honoré to languish beneath crème Chiboust. She tells him her ride left late, or that a new waitress' tears demanded a sympathetic coffee. He does not deign to answer, serving her with the poisonous aloofness of a Swiss hôtelier.
Neither is capable of admitting regret in words. Dolores' apologies take the form of temporary but determined punctuality, of beseeching looks at table, of an erotic patience that might sate Cronos and Zeus together in the same bed. Jean-Baptiste's forgiveness, when it comes a week later, is manifest in sauces of such airy potency that Dolores scarce finishes her plate before falling from the table to take him in her strong arms. Family disputes are resolved, as easily as the cotton of Dolores' dresses slips from her long breasts, on the generously padded Miro print chair cushions. Afterwards, twenty days may pass before Dolores forgets her resolution never, for any cause, to return late again without calling.
Now, in the burgeoning light, a small motorcycle pings up Swann Street, trailing fragile silence. Dolores wonders with sudden impatience what her morning tray will bear. Her husband's breast expands in minute increments. She sniffs cinnamon and tobacco. She kisses his swiftly waltzing heart.
Terence looked up from the Post. A Jewess in dungarees approaches from the right, as neither Thomas nor any black help would do. She pours before Terence can tell her that the cup he found waiting is at last and to his profound delight cool enough to drink. She raises the level to the brim and the boiling point and then Sheryl Levinson--for that was who she is, Terence recognizes, Sheryl Marian Levinson of East Orange, New Jersey, currently of the Hopkins Center for International Studies on scholarship--turns her back to him. The girl possesses an instinctive absence of common sense that unfits her not only for the job she has undertaken, that of morning maid in exchange for the rooms Claire reserved for guests, but more conclusively from her own professed first ambition, State Department's foreign office. Terence tries once again to imagine Sheryl Levinson in even new State, with its look of a unisex hair salon attached to a travel agency, and its politics of petty merchandizing and cheap Hollywood public relations. He fails.
"Liz called," Sheryl Levinson says. "Should Phil pick you up?"
His birthday party, tomorrow night in Chevy Chase. His son and daughter, the grands, the great-grands--one a fine, soccer playing lad with auburn curls, the other a girl.
"Are you going to cab it?" Sheryl asks.
Why, Terence wonders, does every syllable she speaks bruise him? Does he really, as his one surviving intimate, Clayton Bernard Harper, once accused, wish all Jews in some sturdy, sandy, above all remote Zion, where he will never again have to consider their whereabouts? Or is it just that this child is a fool?
"I'll call Liz now if you want."
"My dear," Terence asks her, overcoming history, caste, coffee, three generations of gap. "How are you this morning?"
A look of impatience clouded Sheryl Levinson's dark face.
She's late, that's how she is. Her period is late, her boyfriend was supposed to have proposed a year ago after he passed the bar, she's eighty pages behind in her reading for Post Cold War Hegemony at noon. Now Nichols won't eat breakfast.
Christ. It looked so good on the bulletin board in Nitze. Only two hours weekday mornings. Self reliant, good health--that meant no Depends. Two rooms in one of those fabulous houses four blocks from Dupont metro. To top it off the man in question was Terence Brett Nichols, diplomat for half a century, Truman's intimate advisor, now a breathing, but not lecturing, fossil. Sheryl would have exclusive access. Her fellow second-year Program in International Studies novitiate Christine Jensen mythologized Terence's career over their cafeteria lunch, conjuring for Sheryl a golden age when diplomacy was akin to chivalry, when a diplomats' wife wore Vionnet gowns, Schiaparelli hats, and high Balenciaga gloves of black antelope. A gentler time when a young officer might reach an understanding with a cosmopolitan counterpart in court French instead of newspaper English, and with the same considered leisure, whether the question was of war or of seating order at table. In August, Sheryl and Christina envisioned elegant leonine Nichols and slight curvy serious sensuous Sheryl side by side in leather armchairs--no he in the armchair, she humbly stationed at his feet on an ottoman--throughout the whole of a rainy winter afternoon. Coals aglow in the grate, Chartreuse sublimating from the older man's palm-warmed snifter to his patrician, from Sheryl's to her she believed undetectably improved, nose. She poses a preternaturally apt question which Nichols acknowledges with a sage nod. They spend the whole afternoon together--where does the time go, the delighted older man wonders? He and the sharp young woman talk Turkey, Beijing, Palestine. They bandy origins of conflict, arenas of change. Wander centuries, survey the globe. Old Thought burnishes its blade against the whetstone of New Thought. The man, the woman, leap boundaries of gender, ideology, as swiftly and freely as Spanish horses exploring the new world.
Do it, Christina tells Sheryl right there in front of the bulletin board in the CIS office. Sheryl has already made up her mind. Bovine first-year students, a whole new herd the two second-years have no interest in meeting, lowed and stamped their clumsy feet all around the pair. It is a week until classes began. Sheryl and Christina's eyes are all for the letter on the bulletin board, penned in runny blue ink on stationary as rugged as parchment. Nichols will bear a two-arm offering of bloodstained patriarchal history. Sheryl will yield to him a seed-grain harvest of the demilitarized enlightened internationalism of which she and Christina are vestal--well, priestesses.
That was August, this is November. Terence asks how she is this morning with an expression of such arrogance that Sheryl thinks immediately of her father--stuck-up unbelievably arrogant controlling intrusive architect. Does Nichols imagine she's spent the night eating bonbons and reading a Harlequin? Does he not guess she's been pounding steadily on her Powerbook until two-thirty that morning, and after three hours of agitated sleep has woken beneath the first nightmarish shadow of a migraine?
"Tired," she tells him in a tone she recognizes with a start as that of her married-with-two-baby-boys sister Margo in Boston. "Paper due." She masters herself with a shudder. "You sleep well?"
"Like a stone," Terence declares, a satisfied gleam in his eyes.
How he longs to confess his delinquency! How he yearns to down a cup of potably warm coffee, then to lead young Sheryl Levinson to the cage elevator he installed for his mother in sixty-one when she could no longer negotiate the stairs. Together he and this girl would ride the cage up the curve of the banister to the second story. He would guide her by the elbow to his father's study where they would stumble, as if by accident, upon his father's father's Strom brier pipe, with its amber meershaum lead, its hand carved walnut stock, its rugged gouged head. The pipe sits in its usual spot on the walnut writing table--paw feet, ormolu-armored front. Today the bowl holds unfamiliar resins, as Sheryl Levinson would no doubt sniff out. He would not confess to her, but rather silently boast, that grandad's puffer had spent the night whoring after pagan gods. He, Terence, remains capable of breaking laws like any other citizen.
But he and Sheryl Levinson are not upstairs in the study. They are in the morning room and the girl, her shoulder coldly turned to him, asks again how he's going to reach his daughter Lizzie's house the next evening. As if that is any of her business. When he doesn't answer immediately, she makes off with the coffee pot and, Terence now discovers hopelessly, the marmalade. The suck of aerobics shoes precedes by three strides the whoosh of the pantry door.
Terence slops coffee into his Liston saucer with its faint ocher pattern of pagoda and mountain. He lifts the dish to his lips, sighs across the surface, and drinks.
Iki se venis, whispers Esperanto.
Terence dives off the P Street curb and fords the first of the trafficked moats that defend Dupont Circle. His walker bulldozes commuters off the walkway. A pizza deliverer, anonymous behind sunglasses and windshield, ignores his green traffic arrow to mutely applaud Terence's progress. With a savage thrust, the old man lands on Dupont soil. Esperanto wishes he didn't recognize the tall figure, his grandfather's senior by twenty years. Terence whips the walker forward like a Nordic skier, breaks the tape of one of his invisible finish lines, straightens and draws breath.
"Coke," he annunciates with a roguish smile. "A gram of your best."
Esperanto blinks. Nichols unfolds another hundred.
"Go home," Esperanto tells him, advancing the seventy-five bucks he's been carrying for two days. "Here's your change."
Terence studies him.
"Tell you what," he says, assuming a military verticality that reveals a two-inch advantage over the lad. "Keep that and hold this. Don't lose track now."
He seizes Esperanto's artificial satin sleeve and deposits the crisp bill in it. He has always known how to pull rank without bluster. He guides the walker down one of Dupont Circle's asphalt spokes. The leaves, layered as thick and gaudy as sodden fashion magazines, cause him to glance to the thinning trees. He wonders where Caroline's would hike today.
Terence worships hills rather than mountains, streams before oceans, and all trees. His paganism was, he believed, crucial to his facile accommodation of his wife's barbaric Catholicism. Of course he would have become Ba'hai or Zoroastrian to marry her. His children, about whom all that fuss would have been made if he hadn't ignored his father's nearly silent intimidation and peremptorily ceded both souls to Caroline the moment each arrived--the children are now past middle age. Daughter securely back in the Episcopal fold. Son hasn't missed mass in forty-six years. Caroline's in heaven.
Terence knows this, though he has no patience for his own afterlife. Many his age, in a tardy religious conviction, occupy their scattered wits in planning paradise. No, Terence will spend his death underground, thank you, with mud up both nostrils and worms tickling his toes. Caroline's whereabouts are a different matter. She must be within scenting range if not plain sight of Wisconsin water. Her hours are measured in miles of trail. Her sky holds birds of appropriate species--she doesn't notice, has always been indifferent to birds. There are no angels and for God's sake no harp music, an instrumentation Terence associates with the slowest Marx brother interludes. He sees Caroline progressing steadily through a circumscribed wilderness of elder aspen ash and spruce on her family land at Stone Lake. It was always young June--days of pale pastels, darker Gauguin tones. Air heady with thin sun, cool with the alloy of the lake. Ferns brush Caroline's taut calves where Terence's lips once trailed.
Dolores has migrated thirty degrees north-northeast in search of warmth. She nibbles an open baguette, her face turned to Dupont's misting fountain. Upon the bread lie five circles of kiwi arranged olympic insignia fashion atop a triple crème and, scattered about, solemn grey eyes of caviar.
"I apologize," Terence bows. Dolores pats the bench beside her. She breaks off one end of the sandwich and hands it to him.
"Delices des Dieux," he reports after a bite. "Osetra."
Her eyes widen. She is about to insist that Terence meet her husband who, at one time, enjoyed nothing more than a discriminating guest. Instead she looks at Terence and realizes with a start that he is even more handsome than her grandfather. In the noon light, she deciphers a faint palimpsest of blond and russet beneath his white locks. His cheeks bear a dawn glow as if, shape-shifting god, he was newborn yesterday and only this morning assumed the playful disguises of time. Her grandfather possessed the same baby skin. To Dolores' knowledge Carlos Felípe never used an ounce of any moisturizing lotion, only yellow shaving soap when he rose at noon, then two palms of eau-de-toilet that made him weep while shrinking and tightening his face like a drumhead. This daily embalming procedure fascinated her throughout her girlhood, just as it startled and perversely pleased her to watch her grandmother, María Constancia, age prematurely and grotesquely. At fifty-two Abuela's cheeks spotted and sank, despite matins and vespers ointments and prayers. At fifty-five her neck eroded into a chicken gullet quivering with rivulets of yellow wrinkles. But it was María Constancia's hands that were her true punishment, Dolores reflects now with something like her untarnished girlish interest. María Constancia could not escape her hands all day, whether she stood in front of her many salt-stained mirrors, walked to and from the Basilica de San Pedro de Macoris, or crossed Avenida de Bonao to meet her one friend, Fatima Angelica. Abuela looked down upon the fingers of a washer woman--short and rounded, knuckles swollen, the skin to her wrists parched and angry as if she had been a scullery maid all her life. In fact she had never known a day's labor, except for her tireless efforts to belittle her son, to drive her daughter-in-law to tears, and to spoil her husband and one grandchild, Dolores Laura, both of whom loved and despised her with fierce guilt.
"Where is your pain?" Dolores hears herself asking the old gentleman now. "Does the sensamilia--"
"No pain," Terence interrupts. "I'm after coke. I gave the boy an advance."
"Esperanto," Dolores murmurs, still in her reverie.
"What did you say?"
Dolores repeats the name but offers no explanation of what she has always taken to be a masculine North American variant of Esperanza. Esperanto directs her in a code like semaphore as to what drug to deliver: for example right hand on hip, left hand to chin meaning he has cashiered for eight ludes, left hand to brow meaning twelve of same. She has no way of knowing that Esperanto--always sober and punctual, always concerned that she was warmly enough dressed--acquired his alias at age eleven from Joshua Ben-Solomon Faimberg, the librarian at the World Bank. It happened this way.
On the eighth day of Tevet in the year five thousand seven hundred forty-five, Joshua discovered that the tall Negro boy who ran errands, fetching cigarettes and delivering documents for a fraction of what the messenger services charged, and who could always be found in the lobby of the building at the corner of K and 11th Streets, northwest, where Mitchell spent his after-school hours with his second cousin the janitor, Evan Arthur Sewell--on the eighth day of Tevet, Joshua discovered that young Mitchell possessed the gift of tongues. Intermittently for forty years Faimberg had carried a battered copy of the Seventh Official Supplement to the Universala Voltero Akademio, hoping in this way to coax himself to brush up on the artificial language without exceptions to rules, with phonetic pronunciation and spelling, and with roots in Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and classical languages. His father, Solomon Ben-Ezra Walter, had placed an absolute faith in Esperanto, convinced that if only people would take the few hours required to teach the rudiments of the synthetic a posteriori encodification to their children, peace would reign--the year was 1923--and thence propagate mildly out across the planet from Warsaw. Joshua had been able to read and write a fair Esperanto as an adolescent but after the war, which he had spent in hiding in the cellar of Boleslovas Gabrilaitis, a Lithuanian barley farmer in Marijampole, Joshua had lost his modest fluency.
The Negro boy asked Joshua that Sabbath, when he was departing precisely at five so that he wouldn't have to walk home after the pre-solstice sunset, what was the book he was always carrying? Joshua had shown the volume to the lad and explained in a few words the nature of Esperanto--its agglutinative grammar, its streamlined vocabulary. Mitchell asked if he might borrow the book for the weekend. Cornered by his departed father's optimism, Joshua reluctantly acquiesced. To his astonishment Mitch greeted him Monday with the phrase, Mi vidas ke sur la jako estas verda stelo, and the undamaged volume.
That same afternoon, Joshua lent Mitchell his tattered copy of The First Book written in 1887 by the nineteen-year-old Bialystok polyglot Ludwik Lazar Zamenhof. Within two weeks Mitchell spoke sturdy Esperanto paragraphs that would have caused Solomon Ben-Ezra to rub his hands and bob his head with glee. Joshua questioned Mitchell who said he had plenty of time, five minutes here, ten there, to learn the spy code as he called it. He just thumbed through the fourteen all-governing rules and the conversation lessons, reviewed it all on the screen of the sidewalk beneath his feet as he jogged to the deli for cigarettes or sandwiches. He packed words together while waiting in line to buy lottery tickets at High's, while standing in the lobby watching elevators descend, light by light, from the tenth floor. He didn't tell Joshua that he spent much of his time creating flowery obscenities such as Smacas min stultulo. Laboras mia vanghoroj for, simila publikulino trinki Pepsi, which no one but himself would ever hear. The magic words buzzed on his lips and across the length of his tongue. His nine-year-older cousin Evan asked him what the hell he was mumbling all day. Mitchell said he was speaking Esperanto, a language that everyone was going to speak soon, even Chinese people, but that right now only him and Mister Joshua, the man who smoked a pack-and-a-half of unfiltered Camels every day even though he worked in a library where he couldn't smoke so that he had to spend ten minutes of every hour in the lounge on the seventh floor smoking as fast as Mitchell had ever seen anyone smoke--a language only he and Mister Joshua spoke right now. Evan told him he was a damn fool, even if he was doing twelve dollars a week messenger work for the old man. What was the point of learning Jew talk? After that, Mitchell tried never to let the words move his mouth. He found this was impossible so he chewed four-inch lengths of Big Buddy to disguise his soliloquies.
Joshua developed lung cancer in the spring. He traveled to a sanatorium in Saint Gallen, Switzerland, where he died after writing Mitchell a letter a week in Esperanto for fourteen months. Mitchell hoped that the sloppy myopic bearded old man, who had worn a baggy black suit like a costume from an old movie and a round black hat indoors and out, might beat the odds. But Mister Joshua died after one last letter, new vocabulary carefully annotated as always, in which he recounted a dream. Mitchell shouldn't worry if every sentence he wrote might not make sense, even in Esperanto. The opiates confused him. The dream concerned chamois goats who lived high in the mountains, so high that there was only sky and rocks and tufts of grass for them to eat. They had blue eyes and white beards. Even the girl chamois had beards, and when they saw people, they all jumped from rock to rock and their hooves banged on the stones. In Mister Joshua's dream, he and Mitchell climbed for a day and a night to visit the chamois who didn't run away, just banged around on the rocks and shook their horns and beards. Mister Joshua roasted chestnuts on a fire under the ground. Their human breaths and the smoke of their fire hung like clouds in the air beside the smaller white breaths of the goats. The chamois nibbled their grasses. Mister Joshua and Mitchell peeled the chestnuts and ate them off the flats of their hands. When the second night fell, Mister Joshua and Mitchell descended the mountain beneath the faint stream of the stars and moon.
Mister Joshua wrote a final paragraph explaining that he was leaving Mitchell three hundred eleven thousand three hundred twenty-two dollars, all he'd been able to set aside. The hospital had been expensive. He himself had been ill for twice as long as his doctors had promised. Mitchell should keep the money, not give it to anyone, not even his mother. He should use it to go to college where he should study whatever he wanted except English literature, which was not a legitimate field. Then he had written Dio vin benias and signed his name, Joshua Ben-Solomon, in that writing of his which hadn't grown shaky but had started leaning further right, as if it was trying to find a place to lie down. The letter, dated March 8, arrived March 30, 1983. Two weeks later a square grey envelope followed from Vizeprasident Herr Mosche Sellschopf of the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt of Zurich explaining in typed English that an account had been established in the name of one Mitchell Lee Potter at the First National Bank on the Avenue of Wisconsin in the Northwest of the District of Columbia. Mitchell would be able to draw freely on this account after the beginning of his eighteenth birth year. Until that time he should contact himself, Vizeprasident Herr Mosche Sellshopf, if he believed his educational needs justified a premature disbursement.
Now Mitchell is a sophomore at U.D.C. on scholarship, majoring in marketing, minoring in communications. No one in financial aid discovered his account which currently holds one hundred fifty-one thousand three hundred twenty-eight dollars eighty-four cents. Mitchell hasn't withdrawn a penny of Mister Joshua's money and hasn't told a soul about it. To relieve the weight of his secret, which at times feels like an itching all over his body, at other times like a balloon swelling his lungs, and which creates in him an almost irresistible need to reveal his noble fortunes through acts of public bravery, kindness, or unforgivable savagery--to relieve the deep sea weight of the secret, when Mitchell finished Deal Junior High and moved on to Wilson High, he told all his new friends to call him Esperanto. They decided the name was Columbian. Mitchell never contradicted the explanation his new best friend Albert McKinney, from neighboring Roosevelt Junior High, invented in one inspired telling on a rainy Thursday in the gym locker room after a crab soccer game--namely, that Esperanto was the name Mitchell's mysteriously absent father, a drug lord of great wealth and prestige, but little moral virtue, had chosen for the love-child he had conceived upon his foxy North American girlfriend, Mitch's mom Brandy. Albert told the pubescent boys as they shyly changed that, one day, Esperanto's dad was going to come and take him home to a drug lord's kingdom of unimaginable opulence, cataclysmic violence, James Bond lovemaking, and chivalric family loyalties.
Now, two years after high school, Esperanto and Albert are estranged. Esperanto knows Albert was the best best friend he ever had and misses him with a sense of frailty and loneliness, as if Albert was a continent instead of a bike ride away. Albert has retreated to his old neighborhood gang and their ways. Esperanto plans to earn his degree in three years plus summer sessions. Then he will draw on his capital and start either a limousine or a restaurant- cleaning business. To pay for books, clothes, and dates, and to help out his mom who, at thirty-six, is studying dental hygiene at night, he continues to work for his cousin Evan. While still a janitor at 234 K Street, for five years Evan's real work has been supervising the most banal and cautious drug trade in the city. He works for Buster T. Julius, who operates the smallest of the fresh fish retail sheds on Maine Avenue and who controls, among other locations, the upscale Dupont Circle drug trade and, at rush hour, the corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue outside the Justice Department. Esperanto hasn't had a soul with whom to speak Esperanto. He tells himself he has forgotten most of the spy language and for months at a time doesn't speak a word to himself. Then suddenly he whispers a swift fluent incantation, or simply an apt phrase, such as sukera o senn heligis, when Selena Rogers from Virginia Beach walks into or out of his Business Writing II class, turns her head his way or any other way, opens the maroon-tipped fingers of her long hands, or breaths her cockleshell breasts upwards against the pale raspberry of the cashmere sweater she wears once a week, usually on Tuesdays, all that fall.
"My daughter's birthday party," Terence now feels obliged to explain. "This evening."
"How old is she?"
"Her party, my birthday," Terence clarifies, but is disinclined to specify his age, which for some time now has struck him as comical, like that bit in Porgy about how livin' ain't livin' after the second century.
"What's the menu?"
"Lizzie salads and caters. Ridgewells."
Dolores wrinkles her nose. Jean-Baptiste was employed by Occasions during the first dark winter she spent with him in Washington. He still has catering nightmares in which wilting endives à la Moroccaine and wasting truffes are stranded in an under-refrigerated blue van on the Virginia side of the George Washington Bridge.
"Why?" Dolores asks. Terence knows she means the cocaine, not the food.
"Birthday present. I asked myself what I'd like this year. Change. Days not my own." He studies the soft swell beneath her chin. Dolores' eyes, hazel flecked with gold. This won't do. He turns away and in the middle distance beneath a pink awning on Massachusetts finds a tall woman dawdling at a window display. She wears a gold jacket taut across her shoulders, sequined and padded, the sort of thing Caroline would not have been caught dead in at a costume party. Still, the lean of the hip, the raised elbow, are Caroline's.
"My wife's idea originally," Terence says. Most men pride themselves on their willingness to listen but Terence has understood since childhood that when one stumbles upon a person of sympathetic intelligence, one has an obligation to open oneself fully. He stays beside Dolores for an hour, explaining that Caroline planned this drug taking twenty-eight years before. The light warms his face but the breeze is cool. He nestles closer as he talks, but tries not to let his glance linger on her--a compromise.
He keeps circling back to birthdays--Caroline's, Lizzie's, Jon's, finally his own. Caroline loved to tell her age. Her first half century's velocity spun her like a midnight carnival ride. She accorded birthdays the same respect in which she held stopwatches which measured a sprinter's arrival to within a hundredth of a blurred second. By her mid-fifties she had became less enamored of precision, learning to track the ricochet of seasons with the sundial of her watching eyes. She possessed an archeologist's pride in the vintage of her bones and took offense when anyone told her she looked younger than her years. She did not.
It was at that time, Terence tells Dolores, that Caroline stopped trying to read all her colleagues' columns, articles, and semi-scholarly books. Her appetite for news turned into an equally desperate thirst for what she called olds. Like a pretentious late-blooming collegian she dabbled among the ancients, plowing through Tacitus, Pliny, Herodotus, along with Keenan, Smith, and Shankoff. The still smoldering world war was emerging as history but Caroline, a foreign affairs journalist, chose that moment to immerse herself in the career of Alexander the Great. Her column took on oracular tones. Let him fire me, she said of her kindly Post editor Kip Lansford. To her surprise but not Terence's Lansford took the prudent course. He let Caroline proceed as she at first successfully and then more glibly contrasted postwar senate races with the affairs of Rome in the third century, North Dakota with Carthage, Iowa City with Thebes, so forth. She became a Washington dinner party byword and learned through the grapevine that she had acquired the moniker The Professor. Lansford knew Caroline had earned her excesses and would rein herself in. After that first six-month spate she no longer allowed her explorations to surface explicitly.
"You're buying coke for your wife."
"She's the bold one," Terence admits smiling into the stubborn north-leaning November sun and missing the point that Dolores thinks Caroline is at home waiting. Instead, he decides the young woman is impatient. He wonders if the elderly really babble and if he has at last joined their ranks or if it is simply that the young misunderstand the proper relation of ideas. He has after all been talking about Caroline, how she threw herself off rooftops to see how far away earth was, initially from a third floor in River Hills as a twelve-year-old, with degrees of metaphoric flourish all her life. Terence by cautious nature climbed incrementally until he reached the limits of his courage, then lowered himself with two ropes, one for insurance. An account of the drug plan depends on understanding this contrast. But Dolores rushes Terence, or he thinks she rushes him, to a description of Caroline’s birthday.
We'll start simple, Caroline told him. They were on the balcony of room seventy-one at the Willard where they had spent every one of her birthdays since they had known each other. This was her sixty-third.
Reefer, she said. A barn full.
In those days the sweet stink of cannabis was ubiquitous. The festive scorched-banana odor greeted one on embassy row weekday mornings, in the lobbies of fashionable hotels at noon. Offerings rose in clouds to the sky from dazzling boys in ragged capes, their hair in lions' manes, from gypsy girls in peasant gowns, sailor's denim, and bronze-age jewelry, who wandered the capitol of the most powerful empire in the world reinventing fashion, love, history, fairly convincingly.
Then poppers, Caroline told him. Reds buttons bennies. Dolores looks askance. Caroline had been reading Jack Kerouac, Terence justifies. Lids loopers smack, he speaks in the deadpan breathless Hepburn style his wife affected. We won't tarry. I'll be a crone, you a scarecrow, she said. No time for creeping addiction.
A ponytailed rollerblader in green shorts and ear-buds swoops from behind the fountain in a backwards figure-eight. He pirouettes in front of Dolores, shoots away. The notion was to wait until the final years of life if that could be anticipated, Terence continued. They would rapidly sample the whole mind-altering palate.
Dolores looks concerned. No my dear, Terence reassures, no one is dying. Does she imagine this is one of those man-walks-into-a-doctor's-office-is-told-he-has-six-months-to-live anecdotes? Not at all. It's just that I am impatient. I’m half-convinced that my final years will never arrive. I've decided to take my little mood safari now.
Side effects? Pshaw, he says after a pause. He and Caroline were not considering another child. They were leaning on the balcony rail five floors off Pennsylvania Avenue in their hotel bathrobes in the middle of a spring workday in sixty-seven. Promise, Caroline threatened, pressing an elbow to Terence's solar plexus, you won't let me flap off any rooftop alone. We'll go down together if we go down at all. Lizzie will swear it's a love pact. Only Jon will suspect I thought I was a butterfly.
Terence did Caroline's tilt of the head, the pucker of her lips. It is how he keeps her with him.
Lizzie? Jon? Dolores asks. Terence finds himself back among birthdays. Caroline loved drug lingo. She longed to take part in whatever Jon was up to. Lizzie was a grown woman then. She had started out a lovely pudgy spinning creature like that fellow there--he gestured to the distant skater. But Lizzie grew into--well, into such a biddy. Dolores raises an eyebrow. Terence lifts a hand.
Lizzie's birthday party, January, forty-six. She three by one day, teetering naked down the staircase of the house to greet her sandbox friends and their Dumbarton Park mums, having forgotten in party excitement to let Caroline dress her. His sweet baby girl. Even today he can hear her friends’ chirping bird-girl voices. They ran and rolled on the carpets through the afternoon, each daughter of the winter bearing her own accent as if from her own far country. Terence the only father in that house, the mothers reclining, patiently rising, Lizzie dressed now, contented. With the confidence of a new father Terence assumed her fearless buoyancy was for a lifetime.
Fourteen months later Jonathan was born and Lizzie became--how could one have known?--startled, wounded. By the ordinary horrors of the world. Cold and heat, ten minutes' hunger, a quarter hour of solitude, crushed her. Caroline neglected Jon from the day she brought him from the hospital, trying impossibly to orient her daughter. He, Terence, spent every evening on his hands and knees drawing horses with colored pencils, dressing and undressing dolls. Only for moments could he coax Lizzie out of the maze of her self. He had always thought of modern psychology as a system of common sense rendered abstruse. Now like a novice to his century he read Freud father and daughter, Klein, Winnicot, with desperate godless hope. He coasted at State on reputation, passed up a post in beloved Berlin so that Lizzie would not be uprooted.
After her fifth winter Lizzie, for months at a time, became a bit her young self. From the day he could walk tiny Jon acted the older brother, enticing her to adventure, protecting her from whatever he could see. Lizzie rallied and collapsed. Change of any kind, a new pair of shoes, a five-minute delay between bath and book, filled her with grief. When she was twelve Lizzie, always heavy, stopped eating. Caroline slept in the bedroom where her daughter starved and vomited. One dawn Terence stole her, chap-lipped, bony, from Caroline's jealous guard. He carried Lizzie to Chestnut Lodge in Rockville where she spent a month in bed, another three months in the ward under the care of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, most prominent of Washington's German Jewish psychoanalysts and the woman whom Caroline begrudgingly acknowledged had rescued Lizzie from death. Lizzie came home. After a miserable quixotic adolescence, she graduated high school and Terence and Caroline drove her to North Hampton where Caroline had a cousin. Lizzie attended Wellesley for two years, then eloped with a tedious Harvard boy with nothing but family to recommend him and, as it turned out, not much of that. The couple settled a hundred-fifty yards from the Nichol's Dupont house on New Hampshire Avenue. Lizzie started having babies.
Terence looks up. Dolores greets a round fellow in plum-colored suit, freckles, computer case, smile, abstract tie. He sits by Dolores' free side.
"Where you been?"
"Right here waiting for you honey. How's Mack?"
"Big. Hates my yard. Wants me to quit my job and just chase him all over Woodley Park."
"Super. Give me twenty. And a couple blazers pretty please. Miss Kelly's dragging Big and me to the Blue Ridge."
"Cabin in the woods. Two-fifty for the weekend."
"Kitchen?" Dolores hands off the materiel. The man jauntily heads toward the boy--was his name really Esperanto?--to settle up and Dolores turns back to Terence as if she is his loan officer and has been momentarily called away. He feels privileged and possessive. He could not endure more than a momentary interruption. He has not felt so understood in years. Dolores wears a wedding band as does he. Terence summarily relishes the havoc that a twilight romance rewritten will fortyish stepmother would have on his children and few living friends. He sees the scandal in its iconoclastic splendor.
At the time of Caroline's sixty-sixth, Lizzie had two children and was feverishly cultivating the society matrons whose mothers Caroline had systematically spurned two decades before. Jon had just finished law school, Terence leisurely resumes, and had returned to the city to join a small tribe of liberal gay pacifist attorneys. When his friends weren't battling the military for free, they were taking drugs and making love to each other. Jon was not and is not by nature bacchanalian, but at the time his provocateur David Ryan Matthiessen led him by the nose as only a first love can. By the way, how much do I--
Dolores picks up and crushes an elm leaf, rolled a few fibers to a ball in her fingers. Will I sneeze? Bear down, Dolores tells him, pinching her nostrils, tilting her head.
He loved his son roundly, he declared, but Caroline gave herself to Jon with a plotting urgency. She never had enough time for the boy, always with Lizzie. That made those later days when she could abandon herself to her son all the more urgent. Drugs were to bind her to him. Jon was taking drugs; Caroline would take them too. To his wife on the hotel balcony Terence promised he would make her bad trip his own, should it go that way. I will be with you, your arm beneath mine, our free limbs flapping, as we step off the rooftop of your choosing. By the way, he asks Dolores. Do you have children?
A boy, Dolores answers.
Sheryl climbs atop her fiancé and begins cautiously stalking her mischievous orgasm. She has been in Manhattan ten hours and this is her third approach. Ed came for the first time seventy-three minutes after Sheryl had plunged into Hell, alias Port Authority, at one-forty-one am, and took a fourteen-fifty cab ride to Jay Street only to find Ed atrociously alert friendly and welcoming. He barely allowed her to pull off her socks before he pushed into her admittedly soaking self and, after only a few minutes, joyously impregnated one of his condoms.
He slept. Sheryl managed a fitful slumber, ghastly vistas of New Jersey turnpike busing past her. Just before dawn her lover's hard-on prodded her lower back like a pike. She traditionally admires his recovery time or rather lack thereof, but this night she was less enthusiastic. I want you to come, Ed sensibly advised as the two sped sleepily through a Monarch Kama Sutra. For what seemed a quarter hour Sheryl was on the verge of what she had awaited all week, refraining from masturbating as she wrote her term paper as if there were a fourth Newtonian law of conservation of horniness. Now she found herself engaged in an inverted test of wills the rules of which were such that, since both Ed and she herself wanted her to come, a second truer Sheryl could assert her being only by holding back. Ed paced himself but at last rocked in slow ecstasy, like a milting seahorse, against her behind. They slept once more, their sweated bodies entangled in shoulder-wrenching knots they untied and retied each hour as saffron light filled the rice-paper blinds above the futon. Now just shy of noon Ed's morning breath is curiously innocuous and his thirty-hour beard rasps her so that, leaning over to kiss him, she searches out the wet bud of his lips like a flower nestled in the folds of a spiny desert succulent. She tries again.
He is supposed to be in Washington. He passed the easy Virginia bar and lined up a job at one of those corporate white-collar litigation trust-and-estates factories they all condemn before law school, then battle like rabid dogs to join as soon as they reach third year. Just to get some downtown experience before teaching and community work Ed said, but rather than temporarily selling out in D.C. as promised he interviewed for a Manhattan circuit clerkship with a judge who was the perfect mentor for him, a feisty Cuban-American with a bust like a crowded bookshelf, a shallow bowl of grey hair dyed saddle-shoe brown, and the usual cornucopia of pioneering civil rights abortion busing antidiscrimination cases in the seventies. Ms. Finkel-Delgado chose Edwin Kiefer with his first amendment journal legal aid in Appalachia Peace Corps experience over two-hundred other applicants though Ed had only gone to NYU and his GPA was 3.8. How could Sheryl argue when Ed announced he was staying in Manhattan for two more years the very week she matriculated to Hopkins and started circling apartments in Citypaper? How could she suggest that it was time their good sex shared values sense of humor two-year-three-month relationship become what she could feel ambivalent about, brag to her friends and complain over, and simultaneously gratify and torture her parents with--namely a ring with a glittering rock-size burial marker to her singlehood and a date for a wedding to a man who wasn't Jewish but wasn't especially anything else. She came close to asking for these small tokens upon this same futon after a dinner they cooked together and complemented with champagne to celebrate their victories in twin cities. She told Ed she thought she was ready not for marriage or children but for a non-transient home and monetary situation in which in a few years children would not be a humorous suggestion. Where was Ed's openness and sensitivity all of a sudden then? He said he loved her. She asked him to elaborate but he again said he loved her with a stamped-visa everything-is-settled I-don't-want-to-talk-about-this-right-now closure that silenced her more effectively than if he had told her, No, I don't think so, I'm not ready, or maybe not with you. Then Sheryl would have attacked with the fearlessness that overcame her when she faced a truly untenable situation, a fiancé who wouldn't propose for instance, or a Lord and Taylor sales clerk who refused a return despite a cash back policy. She would have lambasted Ed if he had come out and admitted he didn't want the next step. Instead he had taken the fifth, setting his love in front of her like a fortress she couldn't scale and couldn't see inside.
A long year of commuting weekends has passed since, a year of daily phone calls that are all well and good but constitute their own relationship as if the Sheryl and Ed who spoke each night for at least twenty minutes had their own faceless sexless homeless affair which prospered, while the Sheryl and Ed who actually met and sat at restaurant tables together, who took walks and made obsessive love like a monk and a nun clandestinely breaking their vows--as if the flesh-and-blood Sheryl and Ed are trapped in a purgatory that is obviously Christian and Ed's idea, and that Sheryl wouldn't tolerate for more than a semester under non-pseudo-engaged circumstances.
Concentrate, she tells herself. She holds Ed captive, thighs pinioning him so that he must stay. As she zeroes in she regulates rhythm with metronomic severity, now stately Cleopatra traveling the desert by camel, now herself at fifteen, riding a sailboat which lightly slapped the waves of Lake Wallenpaupack, aluminum mast trembling on white sky. No. She is driving her father's car with an August learner's permit, free hand on the hot suede seat, Buick lazily swaying, Pocono roads, pines leaning across her.
Why is everything work? Work is work but so is home a stone’s throw from Dupont Circle, where she was a permanent guest worker in another era. Love is work, not like fixing up a house she and Ed choose together and now plaster paint and skylight. No, their work is disaster relief--frozen pipes, shifting foundation. She dimly recognizes it will only get harder. Her sister Margo in Waltham went from busy to crazed, from overwrought to teary and confessional, prone to tantrums more like those of a lonely hyperactive teenager than a thirty-one-year-old mom. No wonder her husband Phil developed the silent dilapidated gaze of toll booth operater. What is the point? Does Ed know, and if so why does he talk about their future as if having children is a boat tour one signs up for because it is the best way to see Life? And why does his easy tourism not translate into a city where they could begin to be together?
He is going to come again, she can tell--easily, like a boy trying out a new toy his penis he can't stop playing with inside her. He grips her where she is not thin and begins murmuring as he rises and rises. Not this time you dick, she hears herself think. Three times and she not once? She ropes him in with her thighs, stands up and walks right out through the Buick window onto the hot hood. I love you, I love you he says, racing with her. She steps onto the cool windshield with one bare foot then up onto the maroon roof toasting beneath the August sun, the pines swimming limb by low limb overhead—she shakes him, strattles like Chagall's bride the wide chassis, legs looping down through the open driver and passenger windows, bare toes finding the accelerator, pressing it stiff to the floor while Lake Wallenpaupack gallops fresh and frothy beside her. She passes her driver's test straight up into the sky.
Terence sees the whirl, a cartoon tornado, before five-year-old arms catch his thigh.
"Shoo." Lizzie pulls Steven off her father as if the boy were a licking dog. But Razz stands trembling on his pillow by the gas fire.
"Birthday boy," Lizzie whispers. Her pouched cheek brushes Terence's.
"Creeper," he says. Lizzie tucks into Terence's long side from hip to shoulderl, head flat on his shoulder, the world's cushioned place. Everyone else disappears.
Always have. Not only Grant Dodd, Lizzie's real husband, her children's father to whom she gave what tattered trust she could muster when she left home at nineteen. Not only her tall speedy mother whom she knew since she was a baby old enough to speak was always about to leave, about to pass through a door behind a wall out of sight. Caroline who one day would not return as she surely had not, dying at only eighty-one before Lizzie had even considered giving her permission. They all leave. The young leave. Their eyes wandered while they were children, while they were still in the room with her. Their shoulders betrayed them, tilting as if Lizzie were trying to hold her own Diana, Leslie, Christopher, Michael for ransom from their father the cruel king. Why did she have babies? They acted put upon, hands on doorknobs, faces averted, thinking about bicycles, jobs, their own future children. Always father the sarcastic tyrant nearby. She had given him sons. Why had he entombed her? He stayed downtown, always just out of sight beyond office or apartment tower walls in the chambers of his officers or the mistresses his royal bitches. Only the baby Michael remained by her side but that doesn't prevent him from vanishing in his heart. Her last sweetly weak son disappears inside himself as he lies on her sofa near her during long Chevy Chase afternoons. He is only twenty-eight and at least has never worked or left. Michael stayed by her but traveled into Tom Clancy, into television, golf magazines, the younger portrait of her own face that he wears like a mask smiling mocking her. Yes her boy has the common courtesy to stay for dinner, to stay actually a week or two a month. But in his heart he has long since abandoned her to her cold wet cell, to the treacherous guards posing as caterers and air-conditioner repairmen. Razz doesn't leave but Razz is a miniature spaniel. That means as always there is only Daddy, Daddy always beside her in his heart, Daddy who never dies. Daddy is Daddy in Daddy for Daddy Amen.
Happy Birthday Daddy! Lizzie whispers settling into him, kneading his chest. In her arms Daddy not moving, Daddy not stirring from his spot, not saying with his shoulders, with the pressure of a forearm, Enough. Let me be. I am arriving. I must greet the court. No, Daddy stands stock still, campfire man, flint lock high above his shoulder, his chest reserved always for the Queen Princess His Daughter Me Lizzie. That is the way he does it and no one, not Michael, twenty-eight now but still respectfully her youngest there beside her in the afternoons, not Richard her pretend husband who has hung around for twenty-four years, Richard whom she found on a Smithsonian tour in Athens and who in his displays of nervous affection makes Razz dignified by contrast--neither Michael nor Richard is a crumb of Daddy. Richard wriggles. Daddy is Daddy.
"Don't just stand in the door all night!" Lizzie orders now in her quavering heartbreaking yearning voice. "Silly! We're having a party! For you!"
She lifts her head and unfits herself from her father. Only then does he--ever so slowly, as if he has been taming a mustang in a Wyoming corral for a year and today's sugar-and-hay seduction has allowed him for the first time to place the saddle blanket on the curve between croupe and nervous withers--slowly Terence allows his hands to slide from his daughter's padded back.
He makes it to the edge of the living room and they all come at him. The great-grands. Steven never retreated but only executed a flanking maneuver and waited out his grandma by the doorjamb. He attacks from the southwest, his body pressing his great-grandfather which, he knows, is like a grandfather only taller more intelligent grand solemn calm humorous unexpected easy-to-climb, better in every way than a pudgy watery-eyed grandfather like Richard who he understands isn’t really a grandfather and whose hands are moist and whose lips stay open. Steven's fierce self presses Terence from behind, his nose burying in grey-wool pants knee, his athlete's arms around the thigh of the man which is a ridged pillar. Terence's hands find Steven's crew-cut head, follow the hot bend of a great-grandson's ear to a flushed temple.
Others. Steven's sister Betsy, two, playing shy, not really shy, smiling, not hiding behind her mother Terence's granddaughter Diana's thin leg. Not hiding but swinging out from Diana like Tarzan coming in for a landing on a leafy perch, both her hands clutching Mum's thin wrist, knees bent, bottom inches from the floor in mid-swing skimming peach carpet, slick party shoes just right for the move, maroon party dress flying over white undies, shy smile not shy really, bangs curtaining eyes unwilling as yet to let too many in, Mum sufficient, Poppa gone of course, her world just big enough now for Mum, Nanny, Stevie, who now releases his great-grandfather and poses, hand on hip, eyes, chin and free hand all suggesting the fluent pintsize authority of a gesturing statesman child in a Shakespeare history. Now, Sir, attend us. Our sister awaits you.
Terence bends from the middle while Betsy, not shy but obliged by the interminable etiquette of girlhood which imposes its exhausting mysterious determined battery at birth and which releases the female from all ritual just after death--Betsy obliged by all of them, women and men including himself Terence grimly supposes, to place finger in mouth, to curl around Mum's very slight thigh, peek out from between Mum's abandoned knees, to smile while pursing lips, to bat and hide eyes behind a wet raised thumb while raising a shoulder Dietrich-style, reappearing on her mother's right, still hanging on the long arm by one hand, stocky feet in patent party shoes and lacy socks turned in, toe pointed, knee bent--obliged to all this elaborate and no doubt tedious choreography mastered by every society girl before she can speak sentences, Terence understands, simply so that she can do what she wanted to do from the moment she saw him come through the door in his overcoat-- to walk to him, say, Hi Gram-gram, place a kiss on his cheek which she reaches by virtue of being lifted straight up in his steady arms, Terence not bending his uncertain knees, just hinge-ing from the back. He returns her comfortably to the carpet, holds the soft top of her head in his palm for a moment before she runs off.
Coke candy snort. New man. Sartor resnortus. So much time to think about extra notions. How did Tom Killigan, his freshman roommate from Hattiesburg, pronounce extra when he was regional after drinking his way through Lacey's and The Raft Room? X-tree. X-tree time for wool-gathering. Second self recording what the eye sees, coach speech-writer secretary. New wonder technology, parallel processing. My, how the young do worship those devices, Terence reflects, taking on the computer age just to see if he can manage it while he sheds his overcoat to the third of the generations, a husband. He greets generation two--his Jon, Jon's husband Peter who has spent the better portion of his life in comfortable stuffy fidelity with Jon, permanently shadowed by Jon's David who left after less than a year, Jon just twenty-eight then, David long since fallen to AIDS. Jon now fifty-four still dreaming David. How Caroline enjoyed the names, a love surpassing the love of woman etcetera. For his part Terence briefly considered playing mad Saul but had never managed the crazed king to his thoughtful boy. Terence too taken in by the harp of David's voice and by his beautiful walk which, fortunately, had traipsed him right out of their lives before he had infected their Jon with anything more than an unquenchable thirst for David, more David, David no matter what, David in spite of everything. David with his incurable Lothario complex. What was he forgetting? Oh yes, the silicon age Terence reminds himself the moment before he takes Jon in his arms and looks past him to the three other grands, Liz's brood, waiting in the order, established sometime since Caroline's death, in which great-grands are followed not by grands but by children, the grands neither elevated in status by infancy nor by proximity of bloodline as the children are, so that the order of presentation of generations is four, two, three to Terence and Caroline's one, he currently in the middle of embracing two, Lizzie of course having broken rank. The problem with the computer age was never space, Terence proceeds, gathering mental notes, pushing down invisible bifocals, not clearing his throat, not raising his hands because he isn't actually going to say anything. Computers compress secretarial pools into cases the size of school atlases. Fine. That’s the ground floor. Now the secretaries are unemployed and the difficult work waits upstairs as always, the blank page. All the wireless modem remote car satellite networks in the world don’t alter what one man or woman can do in a lifetime. One's few friends, family, colleagues, always the blank page, the suspended nib. Naturally Terence knows himself a Luddite. It is all wonderful, the Dick Tracy aery efficiency. The laundry dishwashing sewing machines freed mostly woman from the home to go downtown to do office work. Now the computer has laid her off and she is free to go back home again. Men of course have always been obsolete and are becoming more so. That's why we are pulling old wars out of storage.
Terence feels better, as if he has settled a score. He takes Jon's hand in his two, looks his son square on, thinks as always that Caroline is missing Jon plentifully, her afterlife marred as her before-life had been by her son. He would never forget the look of spent wonder on eight-year-old Jon's face when at Easter mass he sat beside Caroline in St. Matthew's, weeping for Christ. The moment is linked somehow to the summer afternoon six years later when Terence mistakenly blundered upon Jon and his school friend Brian in the boat shed in Wisconsin, their pale bodies on the roll of sailcloth, wet mouths open, arms guiding one another's curved backs. He acquiesced to Jon's love for boys and later men. Jon's ease with girls and women had none of old Adam's need for transgression possession anatomization exploitation reproduction. All fathers fail to imagine sons as other than next year's model of themselves. Any deviation from the form they imagine their own lives to have defined is a loss to be regretted, corrected if possible. Still and all, Terence acquiesced. He instead focused his fatherly heroics on Lizzie--the standing spoon feed, the kill-the-shadow-creature-of-closet, the be-the-most-handsome-fellow-ever, the walk-to-school-with-her-hand-in-his, his-heels-crushing-lawn-like-a-Titan-at-earth's-dawn. So forth. Terence had known he was in this no different than his own father, and that he would inevitably purport himself to be not only open-minded in a modern way that had mysteriously not revealed itself during the fifty thousand years or so since folks had come out of the trees. Terence had known that inevitably he would think he had a new democratic son-to-father rapport until one day Jon would shock disappoint annoy or even slightly surprise him. He understood why his own father had established a kind of lighthouse-crossed-with-telegraph-office-distance-from-but-connection-to the events of the Dupont house. Terence hadn't meant to be such a son to his father but he had announced his intention not to be a lawyer and then to marry Caroline. Until his own son was born Terence imagined he had done fairly well by himself, no Prometheus but a perfectly satisfactory tormenting son. Then Jon had turned out to be not an ineffectual unpopular failed boy, but a kind of homosexual Terence recognized from older sources, antiquity or at least nineteenth century Oxbridge life. Heartbroken girls found in Jon the boy of their dreams--thoughtful, pretty as a lamb, principled, muscular, sensuous, never slobbering on them or clumsily stabbing at them. Jon wholeheartedly steadfastly loved boys, neither casually nor fatalistically, until years later he ran smack into David. Jon loved the others until then without shame masked as pride, unconcerned about the so-called world, a genius teenager having understood with an eerie eastern knowing that life is lived in intimacy and solitude. Jon dwelt happily in his heart and in the family until David came along when Jon was apparently out of danger. Jon had made it through law school, not casting off the great loves of his earlier days, Eric Bernhart, Steven Kennedy from the Walden School, not coldly leaving behind his college Brando-look-alike boyfriend Tony Marciarelle from Bronxville or even his law school professor, Kevin Wexler. Jon had loved and not left but rather pushed sweetly away from each of them, even moody muscle-bound Marciarelle. Yes, Jon was free at twenty-six, law degree in hand, apartment secured, started on his first job at the Legal Defense Fund when David swept down from teaching high school math in Mount Herman, plucked Jon from the vine, and popped him in his laughing dark-bearded ruby-lipped mouth--more like a Goliath really than a David. Jon never had a chance. How had it happened? Caroline insisted her boy was star-struck as Terence had once been when he had made his way into battle for her, small stone in pouch. But Terence had been a plucker not a pluckee, he reminded, and for that matter had been powerless to dislodge Caroline from the vine which held her until she had jumped. No Jon had always been Jon, in charge, luckily not cruel in his loves but frightening even to Terence in his pragmatic unsentimental forward march. Then one day David had swept down and taken all of him away.
A good life? Terence asks himself now in the middle of Lizzie's living room, Jon looking him in the eyes with his own green-and-amber ones. What does he want for this boy become man? He comes up with the same tired self-perpetuating paternity. What else is it he can't help wanting for this son? Why, even now, Jon fifty-four, does Terence wonder against all evidence whether Jon might not be happier with a wife and kids.
"Peter," Terence says over his son's shoulder. Is Jonathan's life a complete one? No baby. That’s the crux of it. Caroline never come closer to stating her fear of sadness--her own, Jon's--than when after Lizzie had given birth to her third, Christopher, and again landed in the hospital in postpartum collapse, Jon had once more taken Caroline’s infant home where he and Peter had raised him for over a year only to have him snatched away without warning, as the first two had been. This time the experience had broken Jon's and Peter's hearts so thoroughly, they having begun to think perhaps they might have Christopher forever, or at least through his babyhood, which they never had allowed themselves to wonder with Diane and Leslie, Lizzie only gone to the hospital for two months after Diane, and a little over three months after Leslie's birth--the return of Christopher had shattered Jon and Peter so thoroughly that, a year later, when the fourth, Michael, was born and Lizzie bravely brought him home to take care of him, convinced she could do it this time, she wanted to so, only to fall into a state of uncommunicative terror after a week, Michael wailing on the floor beside her--that fourth time, Peter persuaded Jon to find another full-time nanny to take care of baby Michael, to let Caroline’s new husband Richard take care of Lizzie, the baby would be all right, and at least Jon wouldn't end up waking at night, his arms in spasms because he'd been clutching an absent infant Michael in his sleep as he had for weeks after Lizzie had sent Richard, grinning apologetically, an expression so unrelated to anyone or anything that Peter had to restrain himself from hitting the man, to fetch baby Christopher away with all his clothes. The closest Caroline had come to betraying her son had been then, when Lizzie took Christopher back on a Tuesday in the end of May, his fourteenth month, and Peter called to tell Caroline she had better come, Jon was thinking seriously of going to court to fight for the baby, which would have been all right except that he would have lost and Lizzie might well have ended up without the baby too once the social workers looked into her health, and then suicide would not have been out of the question as it never quite was. Peter called to tell Caroline that Jon had been making notes and calling custody lawyers, and Caroline had spent the night with Jon and had come home in the morning red-eyed. Ter, she said, our boy needs a baby.
Truth is men are left out one way or the other, Terence recites to himself in the familiar rote that circumvented betrayal as he released Jon and held him for a moment at arm's length. Fine, he thinks, taking in the symmetrical tranquility, the alert ease of his son's athletic self. Jon has always been fine. Men tangential, right from the start. Do their one trick, a good trick all agreed, magic staff levitation abracadabra. But that’s it really. After that one moment a man has to clear out. Woman has so many tricks up her sleeves, skirts, in the tucked weight of her hair. The growing trick, the rounding trick--becoming an envelope, a ruddy waterlogged envelope postmarked from distant lands, addressed to the next age. He sees Caroline pregnant with Lizzie at Dumbarton Oaks, madonna-with-hidden-white-rabbit. Yes, good trick. But only prelude. The next, the birthing, upstages man's strenuous knee-cracking head-butting NFL stock exchange self-punishments, the whole vainglorious parade of his activity, as surely as the day does the night. Birth, trick of tricks. He doesn’t remember Caroline rising up, arching, shouting obscenities, hands and shoulders clenched, face flushed that terrible maroon. Pete Carter the OB wouldn't have allowed Terence in the delivery room had he dared to invite himself. No, he saw that nameless German girl, doubly prisoner on a kitchen table in the Ardennes, a litany of the foulest impersonal Saxon curses bursting from her, the medic, Pentecostal slip of a boy from Iowa City, asking Terence what’s she yelling about and Terence telling him she is praying. Hell of a trick. Show stopper even in the middle of a war.
Not the end, either. Then comes the suckling. Darling, he wants you again, holding the nursery door for his wife. The man outside, hardly a hint of what really goes on between mother and child available to him. At eighteen months Jon could reduce his mother to tears of helpless laughter on sight. Just a look at her son and Caroline was entertained beyond Terence's best hopes of pleasing. She never could explain to him and Terence never gained more than an inkling of what went on between them. What so funny? She could rarely explain. He’s so small and determined. Terence smiled but didn’t get it. Yes, fathers tangential except for certain key moments, conception, discipline of the peremptory damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don't sort. The giving of all one's worldly goods in the middle and especially towards the end of one's days. Paternity itself not in question under certain circumstances but fatherhood always an act of faith. Daughters, it’s true, found more uses for fathers, journeying through the house upon them as horses, confiding in them what horrible uses their mothers put them to when fathers are out of sight. Lizzie at three accused Caroline of beating her for no reason. Beating? Caroline had frowned, as it turned out, mild enough protest since Lizzie had painted a picture on the wallpaper using a tempura of Vasoline and Jon’s shit from a stray diaper. The stain still there on the wall, a dark oval with two long cave-painting horns. Still, Terence likes being the dad. He lets go of Jon’s shoulders.
"I had a dream last night," Jon tells him. "You were on the metro near National. Dressed in an unusual way."
"Not knee socks."
"A sort of spacesuit. Or protective wear. White."
"Bubble helmet?" Terence asks.
"More a surgical mask."
"You were advising the lost metro conductor. Looked like he had wandered in from Tuscany. Leather case, ticket puncher. Everyone held up their magnetic cards. He had no way to read them. You were trying to explain."
"Oiling the wheels. Soothing and cajoling."
"You were emphatic," Jon says. "Damn it, man, you said. You waved your white arms in his face."
"Damn it, man?"
"Happy birthday," Jon adds, passing Terence along the receiving line.
"You don't look a day over eighty," Peter told him.
"Hey," Peter said. "You all right?"
"Topping." Terence is not surprised. Peter Day would see. Always has been sharp.
"Your hand," Peter says. "Jon, feel this." In a moment they are all squeezing him, Peter explaining that Terence's hands are always dry but today they aren’t. Jon and the grands, Diana, Leslie, Chris, Michael, all copping quick feels and agreeing that Terence's hands are not themselves. Lizzie holds the right one. Steven and Betsy pull the fingers of the left one like udders. Peter raises a palm to Terence's forehead, nods okay. Lizzie demands an explanation.
"Cocaine," Terence assures her.
Everyone laughs. Except Peter Day. Sharp.
"Scanners," Warf barks.
He tugs his six gold chains--Malcolm, Mercedes, Jesus crucified, I Love Lydia, and two braided, one flat, the other Venetian. The jacked-up '88 white Eldorado with silver shag rear window bay, spiked chrome covers, dual pipes, and twin antennae floating outsized and quivering over the windshield like a grasshopper's sloughs toward the entrance to the Children of Zion First Baptist Tabernacle of the New Day parking lot.
"Burrning beaucoup oil," brogues Tucker. He strokes his high fade with both hands. He Warf and Data watch blue exhaust pour onto wet asphalt through the purple glow of Jean-Luc's uncle Max's under-mounted uv. With a jolt the stacked rear tilts, hops, clears Twenty-second Street.
"Unless the fusion chamber is near implosion, I recommend against further delays. Captain Picard will no doubt require crullers."
Data jerks his head to the right at uneven intervals as he speaks. He wears a North Carolina State sweatshirt and two pinky-size gold hoops in his mid left lobe.
"Come," Warf calls as the basement door springs inward.
"Gentlemen, scuse," Jean-Luc pleads, ducking in. "Enterprise way the hell down Delacarlia front Chammie IV's. Max had himself una grande Sa'u'day."
"I orbit Max' tired ass," Warf says.
"Our way is peace," Jean-Luc remonstrates. "We be 'splore new worlds. Be boldly go--"
"Where no man," the four unison, standing rigid.
"Excuse me, sir. Might I inquire what it is that we have going down?"
"First and C," Jean-Luc briefs Data and Crew. "Farrakhans on Union Sta like flies on yo stinky. Next stop Jefferson Mo. Salt Lake in them ugly suits spreading bogus word."
"O cap'n," Warf adds. "Let us not forget Planet Dupe. Got to rock my boy Speranto."
He hoists a Puma bag of spiritual weaponry with one former all-district wrestler's arm. Jean-Luc, aka Albert McKinney, tightens his lips at the mention of his once best friend. Turf is turf. Esperanto has long since walked on the greener side. Jean-Luc hopes to hell Esperanto isn't out.
Warf loads the back seat. Tucker drops two squat cases by the cd rack in the trunk.
"Phasers on stun," Tucker giggles.
Warf slams the door.
"Sho' now." He sucks his bottom lip. "We find Speranto, we gonna stun him a whole new day."
Jonathan's Raleigh Grand Prix spins west down Reservoir Road, gears ticking like a heated cicada. He praises and curses the morning sun, which dodges like a faithful dog through the trees beside him. From his father Terence Jon gained piety before the body's strength. From his mother he inherited the satisfactions of whining which Caroline insisted separated the human animal from all others. Everything hurts--shoulder cuff, patched ankle, both hamstrings. Lungs shuffle like dusty decks of cards, heart pads about like a wizened zoo lion, furious to be wakened by peanut-throwing children.
Caroline often accused her son of living only for balance sports. Balance was Jon on his bike skis windsurfer unicycle kayak, every free moment of every season since slightly before he could walk. Balance is life with Peter Day, a love gyroscopic in swooping unwobbling improvised uprightness. Balance, too, is Jon as legal counsel to the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, his undemonstrative self poised between a constituency which believes itself divinely entitled to clout beyond all democratic measure and an electorate which can't decide whether the civil rights movement happened thirty years before or is about to start. The greatest balance act of all is that which Jon performs each day to hold level the scale in one pan of which hangs his boundless adolescent indulgent egotistical self-pity, and in the other the contented interested calm generous even-tempered thoughtful mien he shows the world. He silences a depression which tells him his true love is dead and gone, that he is forever alone. He offers colleagues, relations, especially strangers, the gentle soul of a man of parts in middle years. No one but Peter Day and Jon’s confessor at St. Anthony's know of Jon's tragic melancholy self-absorption. A routine as inflexible as boot camp leaves him only such moments as this one, his carcass usefully in motion, and the first few minutes of the commuter mass at seven-thirty weekdays, to explore his sweet perpetual wretched aloneness.
He glides now like the ghost of love past down Thirty-fourth Street, cars on both sides nose-to-bumper beneath maples which twirl scattered red flags. In the basement of 1253, two houses north of P Street, is the apartment within which, twenty-six years before, David Ryan Matthiessen made Jonathan so exquisitely happy that for four months he had simply not been himself. That remembered moment is nothing he could balance. There is nothing to balance it against. David was a horizon-less sky out of which Jon had tumbled to no comparable earth. His premonition that this love for that man would sooner or later kill him was rendered concrete and superficially false when, fourteen years after David's desertion, gay men started dying all around Jon. He last saw David in the hospice on Camden Street and had been unable to stop himself from sobbing out a redundant confession of love he recognized dimly as having been plagiarized from Garbo's deathbed scene in Camille. David listened in silence. He gave Jon a long looking over as he had that first night in the booth at Henry'swhere they had met. David in his last week was his undiminished unmarked lounging raw-muscled self. Jon, he said, sit down, blow your nose. Don't lay that pathetic shit on me. I haven't got time. Then he got angry.
Jon you’re a fucking martyr, David shouted, daddy’s son, capable only of servitude and suffering which, though fun for a while in a chaps-and-silk-rope kind of way, comes with too high a price tag. Jon's love turned out to be fifties hetero style ball-and-chain. David either had to run around on him, walk right out on him, or settle for marriage to a house-husband waiting by a window, sniffling, full of wheedling dissatisfactions. David on his hospice bed, a pirate with teeth flashing beneath black beard, raged. I may be dying, he told Jon, but that's not why you don't know how to live.
No one is anything, Jon adds twelve years later, climbing through fifth gear and Malcolm Street, except in relation to whom he loves. He had always been the one who said goodbye, who comforted and pointed out all avenues to new happiness. Jon himself had been the one who broke up playfully when possible, efficiently when necessary. He had been the one who looked into boys' swollen eyes, heard trembling lips explain there was no one but him who could complete the world, and it had been he who had explained that this was not so, that the boy was sure to find another who would delight him, that he must not make a religion of the broken heart.
Twice before David, Jon had been left by lovers he had wanted to keep. He had found that he was able to do that too, to kiss them goodbye when they insisted, to give them that one last night of heartfelt fucking they craved as a benediction before gathering their toiletries, untaping their postcards from the refrigerator, marshalling their casually lent media and t-shirts, and walking. Never before David had Jonathan loved secretly. Never had he known the cycle of hiding, choosing not to hide, finally wishing he had hid the depth of his love. If there was one self Jon had been sure of, it was the one who knew how to hold and how to let go.
Not so, he admits, powering himself across Pennsylvania Avenue at a good flat pace, glancing sideways at the gleaming White House, its lawn and spiked fence suburban, its symmetrical depth like that of an ordinary gargantuan white house in Potomac or Fairfax. Jon had no idea who he was when he met David, he acknowledges once again as he rolls toward Independence, the sun in front of him, the night behind, Peter Day just stirring, thinking coffee but not leaving the tangle of cotton sheets. Lazy-assed hippy. If anyone had suggested to Jon that he would spend the better part of his third winter after law school shadowing a man who looked like Brutus in the Popeye cartoons as he went about his amorous rounds, that he Jonathan Bradford Nichols would spend a night or two every few weeks for three months sleeping like a private dick in the back seat of his mother's Volvo so that he could report to no one on which house this monster he loved would emerge from in the deceitful dawn, Jon would have said to that someone, No, I don't think so. That doesn't sound like me. If anyone had suggested to him that, twenty-six years later, he would still be wasting his leisure on nostalgia that had become so abstract as to be indistinguishable from observation, his eyes looking not for David or with David but as David--now for instance craning upwards from the Grand Prix's navy grip-taped handlebars to where the Washington Monument, its head two-toned and bluntly sharpened like an artist's pencil, the mall's nitrogen-green lawn ringed with the first tour buses, two groups of children beside retirees in a short-tall-short line in front of Aerospace, barges of cloud drawing south, oak leaves like tattered brown-paper bags blowing in four-foot tornados over the blue street--if anyone had suggested to Jon that he would have David with him every time he opened his eyes for the rest of his days, he would have said, Sweet Jesus, say it isn't so. But here he was, out for a Sunday excursion with his orphaned David, his forever charge whom life itself abandoned, Jon like an apologetic divorced father with his unwilling impatient eight-year-old riding behind him on one of those Schwinn mountain bikes. Look, see, Jon instructs David, as twenty-six years before he had constantly told him notice, feel--mostly notice, feel me. Yes Jon was still nudging. David had been dead for fourteen years.
His warm-up period over, his thighs mumbling final excuses, Jon strikes out south and east to the waterfront. The drudgery of self-preservation sublimates by degrees into the enduring teenage quest for speed. With the twelve mile-an-hour wind on his shaven cheeks, sun lighting the spaces between buildings in long modern rectangles, Jon daydreams Paris, finish Tour de France, he in American-flag-and-pink-triangle spandex astonishing the world with his dead-heat sprint up the Champs Elyssee, American team blocking for him, casting him off with hoarse cries as he outpaces them and goes after the Spaniard Miguel Indurain, whose buttocks and spindly legs have been taunting the pack for twelve days and eighteen hundred kilometers. The crowd stands twenty deep on the boulevard, enthusiastic but disarmed. Who is this middle-aged American of whom they have not heard? Who is this well, rather handsome possible challenger to the three-times world champion, the so-called Ostrich? Why, look at the young man's determination, his power. Yes he gains, the Belgian glancing back and trying for more but not finding it, the young American--not so young perhaps--taking him as they pull into the last hundred meter sprint to the Arche. Then of course the troublesome inevitable excessive storm of publicity, Time Newsweek GQ Esquire Advocate NY Times Blade Trib Bike Racer SF Chronicle Sports Illustrated Blue Boy and all the networks, frank about his lifestyle breaking barriers in this traditionally homophobic arena, Peter Day wearing a decent suit for once by his side at the awards ceremony on the White House lawn. An honor, Mr. Clinton, long time no see buddy, not since the April 6 meeting to be precise, when you assured me as representative of the Task Force you wouldn't take any shit from the brass. Well, I understand, Sir, the time hadn't come but you won't stop pushing no, one battle not the war, yes Sir, we'll give you eighteen months. Jon rides on toward the Arboretum where he and Caroline spent afternoons after his orthodontist appointments walking the artificial forest at a pace to which he had accommodated his adolescent self only by concentrating. Jon, why doesn't Lizzie have more friends, can't you bring her along with you on Friday nights? Jon, fourteen when he got his tracks, would tell her that Lizzie had friends, she just never did anything with them, didn't go to dances, smoked and drank but didn't know how to talk, and that sure he'd bring her along but she'd feel stupid being out with ninth graders she knew only tolerated her because she was Jon's weird older sister. She's really very lovely, Caroline would say, she just needs to be brought out of herself. I know, Jon reassured, but she thinks she's ugly and that makes her hold her head back and give people the evil eye. Hard for her, Caroline would say, everything that comes naturally to you is work for her, you have to be kind, Jonathan, she thinks the world of you. Yes yes, Jon told her, I love her. I just wish she wouldn't cry with that odd donkey sound, and why does she have to pick her zits? I'm sorry, I know she can't help it doesn't mean to.
But in his heart Jon had always believed that Lizzie did mean to. She didn't have to suffer, miserable, dysfunctional, grotesque, comical. Throughout their lives he glimpsed another sister inside her, a Lizzie thoroughly capable, balanced, hardworking, tolerant. This healthy one burst onto the scene unexpectedly whenever she was absolutely needed, not needed by any market standards, not for instance when Caroline was dying and Terence was for the first time incapable of taking care not of himself--he has never been able to take care of himself, that was Grandma Claire's, then Caroline's, now Jon's job—and of taking care of everyone else. Lizzie chose that month, Caroline's last but one, to go on a meditation retreat to New Hampshire, where she gave up speaking and ate only a form of millet. No, ordinary catastrophe wasn't Lizzie's strong suit. Jon is supposed to handle work-a-day tragedy, not to mention work-a-day work such as raising the infants Lizzie gave him throughout her first married decade. As if she was the good Catholic, not him, he cornered her after Leslie was born and said, Sis, what are going to use? She was on the pill, she told him, and immediately he knew they were way up the creek. Lizzie take a pill once a day? She was as likely to win Wimbledon. He took her to the doctors for an IUD and, thanks be, she refused. There was no reason to doubt the little fishhooks then, but Lizzie with meta-medical intelligence or simple fear of everything she couldn't see, said absolutely not, forcing her will on two doctors and himself. There, that was what he meant, her will. Lizzie's volition was a healthy organ trapped inside a chapter eleven brain. Lizzie got what she really wanted and needed--her husbands, Diana Leslie Christopher and Michael, her Jaguars. No one Jon knew had Jaguars that broke down less than Lizzie's--what, once in two years, before she bought her next? The woman maintained those cars as if they were nuclear reactors parked in her bedroom. She could be in the hospital on lithium, unable to distinguish night from day, and Jon would get a call from her that the new Jag was due for its six-month.
He rode Caroline's route. She had that hiker's economy of motion, horizontal flow as though on wheels. She walked every morning until the metastases in her back ached through the painkillers and her "girdle" as she called the brace no longer cushioned her. There are two worlds, she told him that last month, and one is the world of the dying. They had their moments as always. Fourteen days before her own death, Jon had come in with his best poker face and said, Mother, there's something I must tell you. She was already smiling, as if she had guessed. I'm straight, he announced. She laughed, curling up in pain there on the S-shaped bed.
Soon winter, Jon acknowledges gratefully as he starts home. Washington winter, perfect biking weather. What was it, ten-thirty? Peter Day might be up. Wandering stark naked around the kitchen reading the paper. That ridiculous Maxwell House slurp and squint when he landed his first cup of coffee, hair standing straight up. Great coffee, Honey. It had taken Jon six-months to decide he wanted Peter Day, another six to teach the big fool to make love. Somewhere in their second year Jon had understood that he was married or engaged, that this Peter Day was everything he required, kind beyond expectation, intelligent, humorous both when he wanted to be and especially when he wanted not to be. Not intimidated by Jon's money, gay without trauma, satisfied but not swallowed up by art--successfully showing and selling paintings without delusions of emerging grandeur. Monogamous by preference and habit but willing to talk about it, a lover of children without stroller envy. Decently liberal but not shrill, honest but not literal, neat without gay-male-order-complex, a good cook but no sauce-and-wine snob, well hung. Spiritual, having successfully undergone a modern-art-for-Lutheranism transplant at the University of Chicago without complications. Nice tongue, a little short, very sweet, without those disgusting bumpy things. Remarkably firm bouncy ass both in and out of those eternal jeans. Scary incisors, pretty teeth otherwise. Delicious long curve of a back, wonderful chest, crook of neck, trainable in regards hygiene if not grooming . Yes, in their second year together Jon realized that he was now off the market, that his fellow had arrived quietly while he himself was rebounding like a superball, super-rebounding from David, so that for almost two years he had not considered that a serious relationship, much less the serious relationship, was upon him. But when Jon not only hadn't broken up with Peter Day but hadn't slept with anyone else, two entire years without a sweaty reminiscence with an ex-, a cool foray with a never-was, or a sudden affair with whoever happened to catch him at a particularly low or high moment, when Jon found himself without much interest in anyone else beyond the intoxicating pervasive lust that rose in him whenever he thought about what he wasn't doing--then Jon said to himself, Well, aren't we the little homemaker. Little did he know. Only a few months later, without a marriage proposal or that solemn party-to-annonce-perpetual-coupledom that served as a milestone for their set, Lizzie's children began arriving like the fruits of a straight fertile Catholic union, Lizzie's collapses following each birth. Jon was soon a father, and again a father. Some couples have babies thrust upon them by their bonkers sisters, which in itself is rather nice, fairytale like, stork dropping a little bundle into their Reservoir Road back garden. Lot of work, of course, one's whole life suddenly not so much taken up as dismantled and the pieces scattered around the world impossible to reassemble. Peter not painting a stitch for six months at a time, bottle feeding all night, Jon running from the Hill to the Giant to Washington Psychiatric. On top of all the usual exhaustion, the whole battery of social resistance, looks on the street, endless forms at the pediatrician's--resistance from within the straight and gay fiefdoms. What, everyone asking, are you two doing with that baby? And the endless decisions about who does what, like working out bed games all over again, now of course you're not the mommy, Peter, I'm not the daddy. But Peter ending up with the babymama's part because he didn't have the work schedule except for a few painting classes to teach at the Hirschhorn and his own work which was, well, art. So he got up at night, Jon recognizes, rising from the saddle to sprint up the quick hill at Robertson Street. He’s on his way home now. The parenting worthwhile, glorious even, Jon remembers, one aging every exhausted day. Then the babies were kidnapped not by their mother, who eventually checked out of the hospital and suddenly had to have them with her--Lizzie does get what she really wants--no, the babies kidnapped not by Lizzie herself but always by the husbands, Diane and Leslie collected by that cold bastard Dodd, he at least the girls' father, then one day sweet Christopher stolen away after thirteen months. Richard, not the father, technically the new husband whatever that was, really a travel souvenir from the Pantheon, came and snatched Christopher in midmorning when Jon was at the office, Peter Day having thought it all out as always and prepared, emotionally as well as logistically, for the very worst thing that could possibly happen. He packed up Christopher as he had packed up Diana, then Leslie, before. Had Jon meant for Peter to say, Just one minute, Richard, I'll bring baby Christopher and his things right down, then to have snuck out the back with Christopher in the car-pod, snapped him into his seat in the Mazda and fled the District? No, Jon hadn't meant Peter to go on the run until Christopher reached eighteen. But he had expected a week or two's notice--though why, he wasn't sure, since there had been no such notice with Diane or Leslie. Christopher was theirs. How could Peter just give him away? How could Peter have been so ready?
Not Peter's fault, Jon tells himself. All three of Lizzie's and Grant's kids made it more or less intact into adulthood--Michael, Richard's contribution, fared less well. But though the three children Peter and Jon first tended then looked after through the all those years made it to adulthood with a sense of themselves, with playfulness and daring, that work cost the foster parents, damaged them. Through years of therapy, through Peter's anguish and Jon's depression, the men punished themselves and each other for what they had done and, in the end, had not done. Now they’re middle-aged. They routinely toss money away on things that before they could not understand anyone's buying. They take yearly vacations each of which costs as much as all the trips they made together in their first ten years. Travel is tiring. They finally accept this simple truth and now want to journey in style with arranged ground transportation, carefully screened food. Their love a decade before traditional retirement feels provisional and compressed to Jon. To everyone else, he and Peter are as solid a fixture as the national debt.
He slaloms down his block, swings up his driveway.
Albert is coming for him. Esperanto moves swiftly into the throng by the fountain on the west side, where Mary sells earrings and incense and her man Robby sells ties. Esperanto slips past customers and on around to the west rim of the fountain, where three white fifteen-year-olds scateboard, baggy shorts below their knees, plaid shirts unbuttoned on skinny chests. The tall one skies off the fountain's lip, his feet rooster-tailing behind him, long arm clutching the board to red All-Stars. Esperanto passes through junior high kids watching the show, Nirvana on their box, joints in their fingers, pale faces after-school empty and bored. Albert can’t find him, Esperanto sees. Good. He'll just sit tight. Shit, there’s Mathias, that big wrestler fucker, Albert's protection. Coming from the Mass Ave side, carrying--Esperanto sees the black-wrapped bulge under that meaty right arm which is a cudgel all by itself. Mathias scans the crowd, scratched his crotch, necklaces catching light.
Protegias mia docea culo, preciosa madre del mia miniate bollas, Esperanto whispers to no one.
If Mathias spots him, he’s fucked.
"A shroom," Dolores reflects, "is what you might want."
"Sounds a bit Alice In Wonderland."
She and Terence mark with heliotropic adjustment the slow journey of the surprising afternoon sun. Terence had almost forgotten that he did not know exactly what he has come to buy, so absorbed is he in the discontinuous narrative of Dolores' Barahona days. The afternoon sun warmed this day in an unseasonably cool September and for the first time in weeks Dupont Circle had taken on its fair weather ambiance. Electric music and smoke blows here and there on the mild breeze. A juggler competes with skateboarding daredevils on one side of the fountain. On the other, further from the fountain's epicenter, a dozen teens crowd around a stereo. Their bowed shoulders in open shirts, their pinched waif faces opening suddenly into flowers of red-mouthed laughter.
Terence appeared just before three. He had taken to the streets with only his grandfather's briarwood cane and Scotch cap, a heather plaid lined with pale corn satin, his longing to demonstrate his virility superceding his fear of another knee-cracking fall. When he approached, Dolores held out her palms to him as if to encourage a toddler's first cross-room strides or a lover's impetuous progress toward a hidden bower. Dolores shows mild impatience, Terence observed in the hour since, when teenage customers interrupt their tête-à-tête. Dolores' father, she recalled from a six-year-old girl's vantage point, died from a heart attack, kneeling beside her on the Avenida del Sol on a March Sunday, nineteen sixty-four. They were on their way home from church. Dolores was very hungry for the lavish dinner her mother had risen to prepare before dawn, and rushed home before communion to complete. Her father released her hand and knelt beside her, refusing either to rise again, to answer questions, or to fall flat, until he was quite dead.
Her mother, Anna Domenica, remained in the status of a servant in the house of her mother-in-law. Anna Domenica had brought no dowry from the Creole peasants whom María Constancia did not even deign to scorn. Dolores grew up under a strict interdiction against French. Her father's father, whom she called Abú, often visited the fishing village of Dolores' mother--twenty cottages on a copper rich hill they did not own above la baie de St. Clueze. A mild soul, Carlos Felipé postponed senescence indefinitely so that he could take his son's place as Dolores' father. He led Dolores on day-long ambles to the fishing village by the sea, much like those her father had made when journeying to court her mother. These hoop-rolling, frog-catching, rock-collecting, myth-reciting journeys lasted from dawn until after dusk. In the last tererestial month of Carlos Felipé's ninety-sixth year, he successfully cultivated, introduced to the literature, and most importantly, exported to the two most secure and prestigious foreign hothouses, Sir Reginald Dorfley's in Lancastshire and Fred McIntyre's in Dallas, an orchid which for all time would bear his beloved granddaughter's name--Dolores tigris dulce, Sweet Tiger of Sorrow, distinguished from Tigris dulce by the maroon-tipped petals that gripped the elongated rust-brown stamen in place of pearl white claws. With Solomon’s wisdom, Carlos Felipé bequeathed to Anna Domenica an income sufficient for her to raise fourteen-year-old Dolores in a modest home of her own, realizing that without his breakwater presence, his wife María Constancia would mercilessly torment the young women. Hearing the will, María Constancia threw mother and daughter's belongings into the street. Nonetheless, Anna Domenica brought María Constantia her noon meal each day as always, toting the tray on her wrapped head the quarter mile between her new abode and her old, leaving the dishes beneath their quilted warmer on the patio, where she watered and trimmed Carlos Felípe's orchids. In June of her twentieth year, Dolores married a French-speaking chef, Jean-Baptiste Alain Picard. On the first Monday morning in August, María Constancia's companion Fatima Angelica visited the daughter-in-law's small house. Fatima Angelica had arrived on Sunday evening to find María Constancia's noon meal untouched beneath its cloth. María Constancia had suffered a stroke and could neither walk, lift her arms, nor speak. Anna Domenica returned that afternoon to care for her mother-in-law, feeding her with a small wooden spoon which in his infancy had nourished Dolores' father, Anna Dominica's husband, Thierry.
A ribbon of a man sways before Dolores, his head sculpted into the hourglass concavity of the terminally ill.
"Where's Esp?" the young man panted. "Looked all over. Just want a couple spliffs."
Dolores pointed to where Esperanto has been stationed all afternoon, a sentry beneath a denuded horse chestnut.
"There, Robbie," she said, but Esperanto wasn't there. Dolores casts her eyes hither and yon. Funny. Esperanto always tells her before he goes on break.
"Have a seat." She fusses around in her purse and hands off the herb. "Robbie, Ter. Ter, Robbie."
Terence's heart leaps to Caroline's name for him.
"Robbie's a writer. His books are everywhere," she says, her arms indicating the whole expanse of dun autumn lawn, and further off, Supercrown's, Kramerbooks, Olsen's and down Connecticut, Lambda Rising. Dupont Circle, the literary bull's-eye of Washington, though for fifteen years the brisk café trade has threatened the serious reader with death by social intercourse.
"What," Terence amiably inquires, "do you write?"
"Po-mo gay porn horror."
Terence nods as if he is familiar with all that. What does one ask a writer? To demand plot is simpleminded, to discuss sales figures impertinent. Divining genre has been Terence's cocktail-party and airplane-seat tact for thirty years. Po-mo = Postmodern. Eggheads working themselves into a bit of a corner. What next? Après-futurism?
"Another day," Dolores protests, pushing the young man's ten back into his hand. "Where do you suppose that boy has wandered?"
Terence has spent the afternoon admiring the way the Spanish Sisters and the Creole cousins left their echoes in Dolores' percussives and labials. She places tongue on teeth with a leisurely precision that settles him more deeply into the listening moment. He is falling in love. He realizes that means Caroline has been mourned, that if he were young, he would be ready now to begin again.
"Yall take care," Robbie tells them, rising. Terence hears Eastern shore and wonders what it was like to be dying just as one arrives. When did the man, late thirties at most, find his way to the city, into print? Writing his entertainments had given the lad an ironic self-contained air. Bound pages with one's name and the shape of one's intention. Genius or spirit of the moment haunting that wider future in which literature abides.
"Do you mind?" Dolores asks as Robbie moves carefully away. "Not like Esperanto to run off."
Then she too is gone.
Not sure where he wanted the next phase to take him, Terence had come to Dolores for advice. When awake, he was pleased by marijuana's fluttering melancholy. Asleep, he relished his rich coursing dreams. Cocaine had been hard work, as he had suspected it might be. Ordinary objects wore a burnished gleam. One became ambitious and witty, hungry and aroused, as if one were in love all the time with no one, a state he had experienced throughout his late teens and had no desire to re-experience. Now Dolores has deposited in his pocket a shriveled cork of a mushroom. Terence feels an odd thrill as he fingers it. There is sorcery in the toadstool, not only because it is an entire dried plant and not a distilled compound, but because his great uncle Burton--one of those self-proclaimed mycologists certain he could never mistake a pungent snopsiturondum misticule for a merely lethal terradulus rantasitit--had died at fifty-seven from an omelet. Terence still recalled the funeral, his first at six years old--his great-aunt's collapse, his grandfather, the dead man's twin, standing by the closed casket with a hint of serves-him-right in his dry eyes.
Terence stood and, planting the briarwood before him, heads for CVS formerly Peoples pharmacy. He craves Pepsi. Yes. Then he sees the boy Esperanto backing stealthily from someone, with occasional glances to the left where another threat apparently looms. Esperanto moves with that terrible economy, deadly serious, of the hunted. What he does not yet see is the pair of young men--one with Nefertiti-style hair, expanding cylinder rising with the line of his neck, the other short and burly and carrying a heavy bag--who position themselves along Esperanto's presumed avenue of escape.
Boys will be boys, Terence thinks. He glances at his father's self-winding Baume-et-Mercier, accurate to within a hundredth of a second per year, which caused heads to wag in wonder in the days before two-dollar quartz crystal watches weighed a tenth of an ounce and were accurate to within a hundredth of a second per century. Terence remarks the shifting constellation of Esperanto, his visible stalker, the second opponent Terence can't pinpoint, and the two Terence sees but Esperanto backs towards. Pepsi.
Terence has never enjoyed a can. He savors the give of bottle cap to wrist, icy glass secure in the hand. The pink-nippled plug, curved steel wings with which, before screw caps, one put a bottle to bed for the night. Next day found bubbles and life, waiting.
Tilting his head, he pulls open the frail aluminum can and relished the assault of caramelized sugar and bitters on teeth and gums. Acids at work. Nichols has indestructible teeth. Caroline at thirty-three wore a silver set in her molars. Strange, what one finds sexy. Lizzie inherited the wrong teeth among many frailties. She is at the mercy of a dentist and a periodontist, among the horde of medical and holistic practitioners who rule her calendar.
Terence studies the activity in Dupont Circle, then crosses the northwest pedestrian walk. He perfunctorily checks his watch, and takes a last draught of pop. Yes, he thinks as with a smooth turn of his wrist he arced the remaining third of the soda up and across the back and neck of the shorter of Esperanto's assailants. Uncertainty principle. Keeps things interesting.
The angry boy turns, the weapon he clutches awkwardly along his wrist neither knife not club, but the New American Bible, words of Christ in red, Concordance and Commentary by the Reverend Robert Thomas Waldmann Concerning Everyday Miracles Which Prove That The Lord Jesus Christ Is My Personal Savior and Yours.
"Apologies," says Terence, extending his kerchief. Behind the Bible and the wet boy, two others pressed pamphlets and homilies on hapless Esperanto. A third hangs back.
"Don’t normally interfere with pathetic local life-forms like yourself," says the large fellow with the war chest of gold chains. "But you’re one nasty primitive scum-sucking organism. I personally am gonna evolve yo’ ass from a no account child-corrupting pusher-boy into a useful Ensign First Class in Christ’s ray-monious celestial Starship. Worthless tiny-dick motherfucker."
The big kid seizes Esperanto's upper arm.
"Ers te sheisen," Terence observes from where he stands behind Esperanto's shoulder--they're giving you shit. Esperanto is startled. "Les pondscristians sen avegle des veritasis ambiguos, per exemplum sos credo del dos-verdes," Terence placidly continues--roughly, Evangelists are notoriously myopic when faced with alternative credos, such as the holy pursuit of the greenback. The strong boy resumes, Terence's words crossing his like a sword.
"You’ve strayed from the trajectory of truth-and-brotherly-love. Best set a new course, boy. Final Star Date upon your ass. Last Episode. All Logs will be open to the Commander. Then let those who have neglected their posts kiss their cojones adios amigos. Season Finale, all wrongs will be corrected. Commander will kick your behind warp factor six way up high in the middle of the air. Only righteous Ensigns will be wailing the sweet cosmic groove. Back at Federation, you death-dealing Sinners shall be stripped of rank. Shall be relieved of duty without earth-pay. Shall be given over to an eternity in swamp slime, lifting rocks and licking the slime off. Did I mention that the slime is boilin’? Hell, brother. You’ll go there directly."
"Interoge perque John el Baptisto nosot ont leissen den teres solo e miserocorde. Demoge commo certifien el ariba do messiah si todos homos reposo en ombros profonda."
Esperanto twists to see Terence, who was in fact speaking not Esperanto at all but a stew of component languages which he knows from his two-and-a-half years traversing Italy in the company of Army Intelligence, together with a motley collection of French, Brits, Swedes and Spaniards linguists and mathematicians, works just fine. Any Esperantist worth his salt would find Terence's lingual stew palatable, with its Latin syntax, its German articles for spice, it Romance body.
"Fot-mi la pace, crute," Esperanto answers, reaching up his free right hand and touching his lips in confusion. He has spoken words he has never spoken out loud--Fuck off and leave me in please, you old crust of shit.
"Yo," the zealot chides. "I’m enlightening you, child. Open your ears that you may, before I bust em up. This isn’t a simulation. Disobey directives and there will be an encounter with me. There won’t be any bare-assed angels flying around your head whispering Gloria in excelsius. This right here is your special information. I am your angel of mercy. I’m also Fat Daddy and when I come back out of the sky at the speed of light I’ll squash you flat as a bug at seventeen gravities. Sabby, Ensign?"
"Get the fuck off my arm."
"His vital signs are strong," the boy with the column of hair says. "However, I sense a strong disinclination to attend the Word of God, as revealed to we of the True Generation. As it is written in Confederation Code, Proverbs 12:8, A man shall be commended according to his wisdom: but he that is of a perverse heart shall be despised."
The boy speaks with a robotic tic of the head. Terence sees Esperanto’s arm in the big kid’s grip. He sees tears trickle from the corner of Esperanto’s eyes. With Chaplinesque nonchalance, Terence turns on his heel and flips the knotted head of the briarwood up into the plump basket of the big kid's scrotum, neatly outlined by the sheen of olive trousers. The fellow folds to his knees. At that moment Dolores strides forward without her purse and with a white cop, Steven A.. Holman, in her wake. Officer Holman notes the pamphlets and the big boy bent over the ground.
"I told you Witnesses to stay out of here."
The one who has finished mopping up the Pepsi laughs, a strangled snorting sound, and hands Terence his handkerchief. The fourth boy, who has held his silence, produces a laminated license the size of a wedding reception card.
Children of Zion First Baptist Tabernacle of the New Day Youth Chapter, Terence reads over the cop's shoulder. District of Colombia Religious/Social Solicitation Permit 663925.
"I don't see," the man tells Dolores, pausing to help the large boy to his feet, "any physical intimidation here."
"Our way is peace," the boy with the tall hair said. "Non-interference with native life-forms who accept the Gospel." The silent member of the foursome takes his plastic-coated license back from Officer Holman. The four form a single file, the wrestler walking bow-legged as they cross the busy Circle. Dolores thanks Officer Holman and says she was sure the boys were fighting, that it was just lucky she and Officer Holman had arrived in time. Wishing it to be clear that he is no fool, Holman grunts and walks away with that John Wayne swagger the belts give them.
"Sorry. Go ahead."
"Please," Terence tells the awkward girl, ushering her small form ahead of him though the door with its thick glass panes cut into prisms along the margins. Sheryl stands inside the foyer, surrounded by polished honey-brown wood on three sides, the small head-like chandelier eight feet above her own. She is unsure whether to proceed upstairs, throw herself on her bed, and burst into tears, as she has been looking forward to doing since she collected her graded paper from her mailbox in the graduate studies office, or whether she should see if the old man needs her for anything.
Terence, meantime, glances at the mail fanned on the half-moon rosewood table. The foyer of the old house holds an earlier age intact. He stands for a moment, scanning--monthly print-outs from the brokerage, Pizza Hut offer in vivid color, infuriating demands for yet more cash from a few of the charities to whom he has already given his yearly tithe, a genuine letter addressed to him in a thick arthritic male hand he doesn't recognize but suspects he should, like a face aged and lined and not glimpsed for thirty years. Tax bills from the city, ten in all, corresponding to real estate which Terence once allowed to be handled by his father's, now his brother Pete's law offices, until a secretarial error almost resulted in the sale at auction of three buildings. Now he pays the bills himself.
He looks up. The clumsy girl stares at him, her face in more than usual disarray.
"Nothing for you, I'm afraid."
The poor child receives a letter or two a week.
"Are you busy this evening?" Terence asks when she is still before him. "I thought we might have a word or two about that paper you're writing. Bosnia-Herzegovina, the compromise of ‘78, isn't it? Perhaps a drink. Seven. Front room." Sheryl bursts into tears. She bolts up the long staircase, trips herself, throwing her leather knapsack upwards, rights herself, stumbles on.
Whatever the hell is the matter with the girl? High strung race. Artists. Scientists. Hard to imagine the last century without them. Freud Marx and Einstein. Still, what the devil has he done to set her off? He’s trying to do the expected thing. Friendly drink with a young diplomat-in-the-making, if she gets that far. From the look of her she might should NGOs. Lot of hysterical Jewish girls in NGOs. Not many at State.
He fetches a paring knife from the kitchen. Sliver for starters, Dolores told him before the shenanigans. Seated in the dining room, he quarters the brown button. Prost, he toasts Caroline, chews the bitter morsel with its faint rectal musk, washing it down on a tide of Dewitt Dairy Homogenized Vitamin D Enriched Whole Milk.
Terence floats in front of the sink in the opaque trembling indifferent evening air. Draws a second glass of water. Dolores... Her sweet convex belly brushes his backside as she invisibly sweeps past him. Her rich chambered voice rises to him. Ter.
Too young, but they all are nowadays. Terence shaves meticulously for a night on the town, considers what Caroline often told him--that he's one of those men who wait all their lives to attain full advantage. Before him are the white eyebrows, the long forehead with its thatch of snowy hair, the Della Robia blue eyes, the strong Nicholson jaw and predator's teeth, the Charleton Heston neck and collar bones. That Terence held such sway in what should have been his dotage, Caroline accused those last years, was a crime against her sex. That final April, time like cold honey, stiff in its sudden pauses, Caroline left him as he had always known she would. He only wanted her more deliberately. She comforted him as always, knowing that in their years together he had never once had enough of her. Knowing too that by an unequal bargain she had always possessed just the right measure of him. Now she was leaving. He tried to win her with no greater argument than his old relentless idolatrous longing. She accepted him then as the first time.
The bathroom at dusk is an egg of light and time. Now not Dolores', but baby Jon's feet, patter toward him.
"Don't bump," Terence murmurs to his son. "Daddy shaving." Drops tumble with spinning waterfall sloth from tap to basin. Terence listens, transfixed. He eases the steaming cloth to his face, massages away slick soap. The bones of his own fingers patting the towel are as light and unfamiliar as bird's. He rinses the sink, placing cupped handfuls of water like artillery. Caroline hates nubs. He lopes to the bedroom on stealthy elastic feet. She has laid his things out on her bed, his own still bearing the shell shape mould of her bottom. Screwing all afternoon, he thinks, the melancholy of daytime sex flooding his chest. The lamp lighter passes slowly up 18th Street with the regularity Terence stopwatched as a boy--twenty-two seconds separating one cushioned conflagration from the next. How different the light is from shallow electric glare! Ben Franklin a sycophant and a barbarian. America still reeling from his curse.
Terence dons the grey worsted Cranston, the palest blue of his narrow bow collared Knickerbockers, his Renwick in heathers, which is for the third time in forty-three years the right width. He ties on a pair of earnestly gleaming Marston wingtips, leather the exact shadowed bronze of his father's best cutter Penelope's Panolian saddle. He strides the hall, descends the tiny cage elevator, enters the round balconied breakfast room where he and his brothers weren't allowed until they came back, housebroken in their late teens, from Wooten School in New Hampshire. Father and Mother spent weekday mornings here alone. Ralph, the fastidious mountain-shouldered driver, brought the almost human-expressioned, coffin-black buffed chrome round-fendered single-bed-width running boarded 1910 Desoto around to stoop in front of the house for his father's impatient mounting. Ralph stood by the open back passenger door and waited, sometimes for half an hour, motionless as a hussar, before closing that door behind Lesley Rutlidge Nicholson. Then he drove downtown to the law offices Terence's great-grandfather Jerome Michael had built of white granite, black marble, and blue slate along half a block of L Street at Pennsylvania in 1843. Terence and his three younger brothers had the run of the kitchen, lifted now and again to varnished white pine chairs by black hands, fed a few swift bites of oatmeal with cream and maple sugar, before they straightened their backs and slid their diapered or corduroyed bottoms to the floor to begin running again.
It must have been hell, Terence mildly reflects, to cook and serve with the four of them underfoot. He perfunctorily promises no one living that he has seldom ventured further into the kitchen than the balmy, triple shelved pantry that functions as a buffer zone between the front and the back theaters of the domicile. He settles to his place at the oval table. No, despite all that nostalgic mammy and uncle nonsense he had patiently endured from the white moneyed sons and daughters who were nominally his set--no, even as a child, Terence never much liked the servants' wing. He understood at seven that beneath Lillian the cook's fierce hugs and Thomas the butler's lingering vaudeville smile was anger. He knew too that the reigning negroes held him, the oldest white boy, responsible for the antics of Ben and Pete, and even that bitch Peanut, the baby who, in an unprovoked tantrum before church one Sunday in her third year, drove a fork into the forearm of the guileless North Carolinian houseboy, Andre. Eighty-and-one-half years later Terence wonders truly if he did not bring Caroline, Elizabeth, and John, still nursing, back from Cairo to the Dupont house in '39 to the surprise and mild concern of his brothers, solely in order to know the pleasure of dining with his wife in the hexagonal white curtained front room, their daughter and son tended by the Scottish wet nurse, Mathilde Lea, upstairs.
"My dear," Terence tests his voice. "Sheryl?"
Ms. Levinson is surely going a bit far. Yale professors did not dream of calling him, in his twenties, Mr. Nichols. When they occasionally did so he knew the boom was about to drop. But he is not a professor. Who is he? "Caroline," he says quietly. The name shimmers. When the girl enters the front room, Terence is in the lion-footed Ewert armchair, his cheeks glazed with delicious hot tears. He smiles, steps to the sideboard, lifts two stout stemmed glasses.
"Sweet or dry? Sweet," he answers, "for the sweet."
What is this? Sheryl wonders. She has not made this weeping, flirting old man's acquaintance. He hands her the glass and she forgives and forgets him. She can drink a quart of sweet sherry. Terence takes her lightly by the elbow with his palm, like Bing Crosby in The Ritz leading Laura Crawbourne onto the dance floor as the musicians strike up "Forest of Flowers." Guides her to a funny round-bottomed chair not by the fireplace of her dream and Christina's--the summer graduate-student-of-the-great-man fantasy that led her to this time island of a rustling house. Her chair not by the fireplace, but by the bay window, looking at Eighteenth Street. Cars wedged tightly beneath leafless trees stenciled against streetlights.
"We're a pair," Terence tells her, daubing at his eyes with a mallard duck motif cocktail napkin.
"I'm all right now," Sheryl says. Surprisingly, she is. Her calm voice is not the one she heard all afternoon cursing and weeping through her cell phone onto Christine's shoulder. Christine works afternoon checkout at Thompson Library.
"I miss," Terence explains simply, blowing his nose, "my wife."
Sheryl nods, panicked. Nichols never says anything to her except when he wants more toast. What, Sheryl wonders, is she to offer in return? Suddenly she's talking.
"I don't know why I got so upset. I got a B+ on this paper. I never get Bs. That's a no-no at I-HOP. I mean the Center for International Studies at Hopkins. My friend Christine and I call it International House of Panic. Instead of Pancakes. Get it? "
Terence hears a trembling brown aura. The girl's hair is a deep brown faintly sparkling halo around and through which curves and dive a d-minor triad of fuzzy cello notes. Her small firm breasts--twin hillocks, bounding lambs--participate in the roil as if round youth proclaims one pitch, Sephardic duskiness an inky bass, un-brushed hair in a Bridget Bardot bob the humming fifth. She wears a blue open-necked cotton blouse with sleeves to her forearms. Breakers of lust roll, ruddy and purposeful, from Terence's loins outward to his kneecaps and upwards to his nipples.
"I didn't realize," he says, "that you had turned your paper in."
He prides himself on this ability. No matter how elated or confused, there is always the docent’s voice, the poker face. Invaluable on the job. Caroline called him Redford, whom she claimed employs the same I-am-me screen method.
"I turned in a draft," Sheryl explains. "It's really just a sketch of what I wanted to do for the final. We have to show the professor the work along the way. So they can tell us to work harder."
The paper was to be her grad school breakthough. At Barnard she won a prize for her thesis on the Vialistok Jewish homeland and suddenly the faculty members were recognizing her in the hall, smiling at her. Her Bosnia-Herzegovina piece was to establish her in Tunlow's, and via Tunlow, in the whole moody multi-celled mysteriously intercommunicating international school faculty's critical intelligence, the presence of a hot new student in the second-year class. A woman with a lights-on-somebody-at-home brain. It would be Barnard spring semester senior year all over again. Instead, Tunlow's marginal comments are violent dagger thrusts, fading apathetically to ?s in the last five of fifteen pages. A fatigued scrawl on the back of Sheryl's padded bibliography informs her that her ideas are poorly defined, her assumptions shaky, analysis leaky. Tunlow hints she should begin again with kindergarten, and get a good education this time.
"There are too many people," Terence tells her. She waits. He sips. "Doing everything. There were always too many, but nowadays..." He picks up a handful of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, offers her the bowl, crunches his fish thoughtfully. "There are more."
It's true, Sheryl thinks, feeling the first woofer-peddle effect of the sherry. Not on the planet. We could feed our population easily. There are too many people in international studies in D.C.
"International studies is overspecialized," she tells Terence. "There's no longer room for creative thinking." She could have picked some neat historical topic--that war that started over guild dues for candle-makers in 1742 in Glutsk or where ever. Tunlow would have loved that. Instead, she chose to compare the new-old war in Serbo-Croatia to the hundred year violencia in Columbia. Cultures of civil and perpetual, as opposed to imperialist and cyclical, conflict. God damn it she wanted to write about important things. There were people dying while Tunlow worried about paragraph breaks. The problem with important things is that the trivia of one's own life sticks to it.
Don't worry, Christine told her over the thud of books on the library checkout counter, the chwonk of the date-due stamper. Tunlow's a sad bastard. Some undergrad in his Wednesday seminar probably turned him down for a date just before he graded your paper. Which is excellent work, Christina objectively reminded.
"State in the fifties," Terence muses, "was rats in a cage. Always someone in the way. Everyone guarding his little policy patch. Kennan had the right idea. Snuck off to Moscow. When his tour was up he claimed they'd threaten national security to move him. Drink up," he adds.
But the girl's glass is empty. She rises, fetches the bottle from Claire's wedding gift sideboard, fills her glass to the brim, pours a few drops in his.
"Come now. Don't be a stranger."
How, he wonders, does one make love? When she pours out he takes her wrist in his hand as if to assure a proper fill. She looks at him. Can't hold girls, he reminds himself. Her dark green eyes, brown in the center, are hard to release. Of course he does; she sits down. He still sees the boundless nomad sadness, thousands of years of exile in those eyes, long-lashes better to keep the sand out, he supposes, like a camel's. Arabs bugger the stinkers, has it on good authority from his cousin Reese, who chased Rommel up and down the Sahara for two years, probably humped a few dromedaries himself along the way. That sad girl lives here now. She has written something and that is the proximate cause of her sorrow, he recalls, though he knows too she will always have a reason for sorrow--her nature, not really tragic so much as disappointed, a bundle to be carried on the shoulders and back by whatever boy binds himself to her sad stubborn spirit. She has written something. Someone doesn't like it. Always more painful than one anticipates. As if the sweetest part of one's days has been misplaced--luggage from an exotic journey lost beside a carrousel.
Kennan, Sheryl repeats to herself. Terence Brett Nichols is reminiscing about to her about George F. Kennan. Last year she would have peed in her panties at the prospect. Now she doesn't give a shit. She and Christina aren't going to become secret allies at State and NSC, aren't going to make a little perfect little conspiracy in the service of the higher good. She'll fail the State oral exam, her board will be three pale male pals of Tunlow's. She'll end up in law school after all. Ed will say she's competitive with him, that's why she's there. He won't know she has quit, that law is her way of failing in style.
"Bring it down," Terence insists, "let's have a look."
He wonders as he speaks what it is they are to look at. Something she made at school today? He watches her rise, finish her glass of--what? All Lizzie's friends drink that bubbling wretched stuff. Artificial grape stains Lizzie's blouses when she gets the giggles, spilling down her front. Fizzies. He himself is drinking Claire's sweet vermouth. He pulls half a mushroom from his pocket, pops it in his mouth with a school of goldfish. That ought to take care of the evening.
Lizzie's friend Sheryl bounds to the hall, up the staircase. Dungareed haunches flash over white tennis shoes.
"Let's find a nice spot," Clayton Bernard Harper insists. "See-saws. Springy horses."
They descend the wrinkled bank off 13th Street into Rock Creek Park. Moonlight overcomes fading sodium glare. Washington Irving oaks, with lachrymose faces in double-trunks, raise begging limbs.
"Salud," Terence toasts the hungry trees, hoisting his tequilla.
"Curses. Always something."
"Not the petit-fours?"
"And I was so ready," Terence whines, falling on Clay's long neck. They slide down the steep slope. Humus fills their shoes, cooling the arches of their feet.
"So I tell her," Clay resumes, "she's out. I don't care if her nieces starve. That that was her last chance."
Clay's story is hours long. Terence remembers a self-conscious chanteuse in Ruttinger's putting together a peculiar collection of songs, sounding like everyone and no one. In the style of, influenced by, fusion of--not the thing herself. Once upon a time artists didn't know, just did. Does the bear ask why she paw-swipes salmon from stream? No, she is bear, Terence reasons. He doesn't remember who decided on the picnic.
"Woman won't clean. Fine. Used to that. Doesn't show up. Well. She comes next day. Won't hand wash. Not a problem. I hand wash. Irons holes in my shirts watching General Hospital. Unacceptable."
"You let her go. She called you age-ist."
"She's forty twelve."
Clay drove the old Spitfire up the curb at eleven. The mushroom had turned the good weather inside out--corner mailbox chortling with night purple, a question-mark cat fleeing U Street. Clay popped the dry button Terence held out as casually as a Tic-Tac. Just eighty, Clay's elaborate bachelor repertoire is unchanged. Terence scrunches down in tiny sport seat. About time, Clay says, chewing. He reminds Ter of the peyote, LSD, ecstasy the old fellow has passed over during the last thirty years. But then Terence has never considered keeping up with the Harper. Clayton does everything. Sleeps around on Mary, spies for who knows who, consults OXFAM, dances in and out of State, collects one-of-a-kind Delta blues recordings, is Lizzie's godfather. Even rows, taking the only Waterwasp One-Man still floating, to Terence's knowledge, out from the River Club and around Cape Watergate on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday dawns. Terence is jealous of the spying, the steady fucking, most of all the rowing.
"Donnes-le-moi. Gimme. Damme, damn you."
Clay unwraps his arm from unstable Terence, fumbles through the bags, hands one across. Terence rips away white paper and cold aluminum foil to suck sweet fat from pig's foot. Clay slides down his leg into a mattress of mulch.
"Should have called ahead," he says.
"Jorge always saves our table."
Gnawing, head bowed, Terence sees distant flames. Dread rises in him against the salt wail of pig's foot, the vaporous tongues of tequilla. Renoir fils trees sigh, turn as one to observe him. Then a flash--not lightening, flashcube strength. Terence knows he's lost time, gained space. Caroline has Mark's hair in the spread fingers of her right hand. His face oil-derricks patiently up and down her high quim. Their picnic table is longer than most, their legs youthfully long across it. That's what the dread was about, Terence thinks. Wife buttering the face of the man she didn't marry.
"I'm seeing him," Caroline says.
Her expression is that of the first few minutes of a good sucking. Getting interested in pleasure.
"Seeing him," he repeats. Modern way, isn't it? Caroline orchestrates the first Manhattan visit two respectful years after Mark marries. Terence looks Mark in the eye in the man's Caroline-less home without being struck down. He befriends Mark's Lucy, who chats with Mark's former Caroline. Mark drops by when he and Lucy are in town forever after--Christmases, Lucy's people in Baltimore. He and Caroline have lunches, the odd evening.
"Hostess time," sturdy Clayton tells him. Steers Terence to another picnic table. Jon and Peter are there studying the modest bonfire he saw from the trees. Heat washes Terence's cheek and shoulder as he sits. Caroline makes a short--not a grunt, not a moan--an almost word. Yun or Mun. Declarative of first satisfaction. Word he knows in his balls.
Clay breaks up open a pack of Coconut Cones, tears each in half, hands sticky halves around.
"Says she's going to sue," Clay says. "Not small claims. Get a bunch of domestic engineers together. Class action. Has ideas about a union. Talking to ACLU. Not a bad idea."
Terence thought the cleaning woman story was quits. Isn't ready for dessert. Reaches for the Safeway bags and rummages for savory. Loud smacking sounds from the other picnic table. She likes those sounds and Terence exaggerates them when he gets the chance.
Peter's licks his fingers, stands, goes back to his easel. Forty feet behind him gleaming links of swing-set chain and the tall candy-cane-striped supports of the slide. Peter holds his thumb vertical, horizontal, toward Caroline on the table, daubs with turn-of-century aplomb.
"Hedging," Jon says. "Not free. Why?" His mouth is steadily moving, as if he is speaking a foreign tongue with many words for our one. Dubbed out of synch.
"What Jonathan means," Clay interprets, "is that your marriage is a sham. Caroline loves him, Jonathan, in the sort of way that you think she loves you."
"Ha ha ha," Terence says, waving both arms, bread in his teeth. What he means is that he's been the first to recognize that Caroline's real bond is to her son, that he himself lucks into her on a regular basis. Jon's lips stop moving, then resume. A stick pops in the fire. Peter, brush in hand, picks Terence up from his narrow bench by the scruff of the neck. Leads him to where Caroline is sweating and working her way closer to a lengthy expressive entirely impersonal yet generous conclusion. As if Mark is responsible not for the event only but for the whole machinery.
"Says your love is a pale imitation of the real stuff," Clay says, slipping his arm around Terence as Peter releases him. "A collection of tasks and poses. He and David had the real thing. Caroline and this fellow do. You don't. He and Peter imitating your imitation."
"Wah," Terence says.
He maneuvers behind the easel, leaning on Clay. Peter's retro brushwork threatens but stays put, colors inching toward vulgar. Portrait of a bearded blond in synthetic red-blue-green cross-country ski gear. In a wood filled kitchen, just back, snow melting off boots.
"If you had shown him how," Clay and Jon start in again, "he would have loved. Only knows the forms. Wants you to die."
"Oh, fuck off," Terence says, sitting down next to Jon. Moping as always. Find something to do, boy! Go play outside! He reaches in the biodegradable plastic sack, whatever that means, and pulls out a warm Bud and a box of Cracker Jacks. His prize is a yellow beaver whistle.
Jon mopes. Terence stays put until Caroline stops coming, the contractions rising all the way to her shoulders, then settling back down again to where they belong.
"Haven't seen that in a while," he tells everyone, unstrattling his bench. Mark's work is done. Now he's ready for his turn. His prick is bigger than Terence's ever was. Wider. He looks at Terence with that quiet dignity he manages to maintain in the most unlikely settings, such as the house of his true love and her husband on Christmas Eve. He slips shyly in. Caroline meets Terence's eyes. He lifts her head and inquiringly pours her sips of beer. Always so thirsty. What she really wants is cold water. She nods enough. She pulls him into a small I'm-a-bit-busy-now kiss and turns her attentions to Mark, who gaily fucks away.
"I paid her through the month," Clay is saying. "Generous, I thought. Mary's doubles partner is sending over her Señora Candida. Best of all possible cleaning women."
Yes, yes, Terence tells his old friend, thinking how attached we are to the way we tell our stories. He is ready for more dessert. Double creme Oreos, another Bud from the bag. Jon helps his husband break down the easel.
"A romantic," Terence speaks plainly, with plenty of teeth, in case the language barrier works both ways, "is not a whiner."
His boy must understand. There comes a time. What he has, he has. One makes choices.
King of Beers. Terence leans back and looks past the red-and-white curve to the astonishing way trees end.
Omnivorous earth illuminates pregnant sky.
There are monkeys as small as engineers disguised as squirrels. Monkeys as hateful fat as Southern movie sheriffs hauling other monkeys to smaller cages for crimes they haven't committed. Monkeys who fleet through the cage's sky like screeching bike messengers unable to contain their deliveries for the length of the journey. Neurotic house-bound kitchen-scrubbers working on each other's scalps as if there's no such thing as too clean.
Terence loves monkeys. He is a founding FONZer, 1958.
"Snakes," Terence tells Steven, "don't move."
Steven looks at him with pity.
"I want to see the wiper whose spit kills you in twenty seconds."
"Viper. Venom. He hides."
Steven knows the wiper hides. That's why he agreed to come back to the zoo where his simple great-grandfather has taken him and Betsy only six weekends before. He hopes the Echis carinatus will deign to make an appearance this time. He has dreamt about him, made him out of clay at kindergarten, terrified Betsy with promises that he in fact already owns the little snake--who in the photograph in front of the terrarium looks like an inner-tube wearing all of his sister's plastic bracelets--that he has the deadly guy in the crawlspace next to the basement, and will put him in Betsy's underwear like an ice-cube if she doesn't do exactly what he says every time he says anything. Betsy's not scared anymore. Steven's hoping the sight of the snake will re-terrify her.
"Let's go find you," Terence tells him.
He leads Steven off down another smelly hall. The snake house stinks but in a scary snake way. The monkey house smells like dog poop. Also the snake house is dark and cold. The monkey house is full of noise, hay, and sunlight. Steven doesn't look like Steven anyway. Grapegrampa just says that so he can stare into the cages like he's watching TV for a little longer. Mommy says one day Grapegrampa will die because dying is part of nature like flowers growing or making bms. She says be nice to Grapegrampa, he loves you, he won't always come to visit, but Steven doesn't have to be nice to Grapegrampa. He can do whatever he wants and not worry at all. If he's bad or gets too carried away, Grapegrampa looks at him in that stern way with his eyebrows curled down and up and Stephen stops. Grapegrampa doesn't say I love you the way Gramma and Grampa do and then make Stephen’s face all wet and smelly with his lips. No, Grapegrampa pats him roughly him on the head, suddenly yanks him straight up into the sky and lands him on his shoulders. Grapegrampa will never die either because only cats like Spinks die and then sleep under the rocks by the shed, even when there's snow. Grapegrampa comes to the house whenever Mommy is crying in her room and when he leaves she isn't crying any more, and he and Betsy get little chocolate cupcakes that are yellow inside and have almost black chocolate on the outside.
Stephen is eating lettuce that has brown on it. Stephen sighs. He's not hungry. He wants to see the wiper that makes people die.
"What are you thinking about? You're watching Betsy."
Grapegrampa is looking at all the monkeys. He's just talking about Stephen and Betsy so he can stay. Stephen doesn't answer. Betsy is bigger and hairier than Stephen, which could never happen really. Plus Betsy has breasts and her hands are feet.
"Is Betsy hungry too?"
Betsy is licking her own bottom. Grapegrampa isn't even looking at her. He's watching some really skinny monkeys in another cage. A baby is strapped like a camera onto his mom who's hanging by one arm from the roof. The real Betsy's looking into the big hole where the elephants live outside with Mom. Mom is eating a soft ice cream cone and before that she ate a pretzel with mustard and before that she ate a jeff's salad for lunch at Blimpie's so she's going to throw up in the maid's bathroom in the basement when they get home and Grapegrampa's gone and she doesn't think anybody can hear her, but Betsy and him listen through the laundry chute. Mom says she doesn't want to look like an elephant. She wants to look like a snake. When he comes to see them she calls Daddy a snake and a prick, which is like a peepee only bigger. Then she cries and sometimes he goes in her and his room and stays with her for a nap or sometimes until the morning even though they're divorced, and when he leaves the house Daddy closed the front door extra loud so him and Betsy will know he loves them, Mommy comes and wakes them up and says she's going to make pancakes and cocoa, and she smells like some kind of house--not the monkey house, not the snake house, not the big cat house, but some kind of house, with perfume.
Bob Hope grins at Terence with his hands in what would be vest pockets. What did that man find to say to the troops? His big toes need a shave and his teeth, when his lips peel slowly back after a casual punchline, show receding gums. Not so hard, circular motion, Terence quietly tells him, soft bristle brush and no vertical strokes.
"Wha?" his greatgrandson asks. Terence explains about teeth. Hope shuffles amiably about, monologue on jungle temperatures, pretty nurses at the OC, then something the wife said when she caught him with lipstick on his butt fur. Easy enough to judge looking back, Terence thinks. At the time he was all for limited deployment. Red tide was rhetoric. Line of honor was strategy. Show commitment to turf, they back off. Worked in Berlin. Why not Korea?
How old is Bob in monkey years? Never trust a DeBrazzas Guenon over nine. Caroline when they met spoke of man years. Take a fellow's age, subtract ten, and you have some idea what kind of immature fool he's likely to be. She was trying to decide whether Terence was too young, which he was, and whether he would run if she gave herself to him, which he was incapable of. Lord knows he wanted to flee, as he had from two other perfectly marriageable girls, but Caroline bypassed official channels in his brain. She did away with paperwork and reason and unreason, and he knew the moment he met her that his life had taken over and he was just along for the ride. What did she think of all that, he wonders? Thought you were the only heir to the Washington society crowd she wanted to flirt with and snub all her life, with eight-and-a-half million pre-inflation bananas in the pantry, that a thirty-six-year-old almost alcoholic Catholic journalist with prominent crows feet and unusual sexual appetites was likely to have propose to her at eleven-hundred hours on the eve of her wedding day, Bob throws out, puffing his cheeks confidingly. Touché, Terence concedes across the cement moat. Bob bows minstrel style, arm extended, and traipses across the shit-and-carrot strewn stage to a storm of primate cheers, water from the cleaning man's pressure hose. He reaches for a rope, ascends the rainy-season sky.
Diane and Betsy are giraffe watching. Unsteady wide-hipped lonesome undulants bear his granddaughter an uncanny resemblance. Betsy does her best Pearl Pryn-Goode, dancing demonically all around her mother's wind exposed knees. But Diane is no adulterer. She is overly faithful to a sadist. What weakness did Lizzie communicate, Terence asks, to her firstborn at the breast? What harm did he and Caroline unwittingly inflict upon Lizzie that is visited upon the second and now third generations? He and Caroline coached their hearty four-year-old in all the usual ways before they displaced her with a brother. Offered all the usual prep work--belly listening, kick-monitoring, nursery furniture selection. Half a century of celestial equivocation later, Terence still demands a straight answer. He and Caroline, or God? Who should pay reparations? He put the matter to Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, in almost those terms, the week after Lizzie almost died. Mine dear man, Reichmann told him in that accent. Who are you to Lizabeth if not Gott? Diana mournfully crunches her sugar cone. At least she's eating this fall, Terence tells himself.
The snake house is the color of limestone.
"Do you think I should sell the Abbott?" Diana asks.
Terence tells her she should. They all believe he understands something about the market, and the odd thing is he does. He has made more money in the last decade than in his whole cautious fiscal career. He need only think about a stock, keep his eye on it for a few months, and he knows what bars it frequents, when its going to go on a bender.
The snake is hibernating deadly dreams. Stephen explodes in that violent new way of his since his father's desertion, the tantrum inspired and painful and entirely beyond volition. Terence pins his great-grandson to the floor with a filthy shoe in order to stop him from harming himself. Over the din Diana confesses that she slapped him last week when Stephen was banging his head against the kitchen floor. Through snot and gasped breaths, Stephen demands the wiper.
"All right," Terence promises before he has thought it through. He is not a spoiler, but he recognizes need. He sails Stephen up in the air and into riding position on his shoulders and neck. He glides his walker across the damp cement in search of Ben the snake man. There are few things Terence avoids more consistently than the exercise of privilege, but he finds Ben's room, wakes him from his cot, reminds the man whom he has not seen for twelve years that he is one of the zoo's benefactors, and insists that Ben in turn awaken the tiny striped viper. He hushes the accommodating old man rudely when Ben tries to tell the rich little white boy that the snake isn't dangerous in his defanged state, that the pythons are the ones to watch out for on rat day. A twenty only makes matters worse. Terence leads the garrulous old guy off by the elbow while Stephen, hypnotized, one hand stirring between his own legs, watches the bright snake sleepily wend its way back to the proper siesta darkness of the inner chamber.
Dupont Circle, latticed in bands of the early mid-November sunset. The cane is a pose, Terence acknowledges. He places it as if only one spot on the ground will support him. Needs Clay's shoulder, but Clay dropped him off at five that morning. Taxied to Diana's at eleven. Bits of mushroom all day, tapestry fragments on bare woof.
"Lethe," he tells Dolores. "Oblivion. Sleepy"
She fishes up some ludes, crank.
"Morpheus. A place," he says before he can stop his tired self, "where we can be alone." He is exhausted with waiting and, as always, he gives in. "I want to know you."
She fishes in her purse as if she has just the thing for it. Pulls out a reporter's notebook, scribbles--a prescription? 2501 Swann, he reads, #304.
"Tomorrow," she tells him, smiling. "Half past ten."
"Thank you. "
Caroline loves this, he thinks. Every inch of it.
At ten-forty five Terence lowers the head of the cane he has raised and instead raps quietly with his knuckles. Dolores answers. The tangle of violets and fuschias falls from his hands to hers. She wears rust crepe low on ample shoulders, her hair high and twisted like a candle's animate flame. He is suddenly kissing her cheek and the edge of her lips with cautious head-spun randy wonder. He picks up his Rucci's bag of wines and it occurs to him her boy--how old could he be, twenty at most?--must be somewhere in the flat. Will the lad fly into a righteous Telemachian rage at the sight of this eldest suitor? The boy's father is presumably sailing the Caribbean, patiently searching for the wife and son who were gone when he returned for them after fourteen years at sea. Terence will have to ask her about the husband, the father, before the wedding, when the past is dispensed with and the future assured. For the lad, cooking school in Paris or London. Cordon Bleu is no longer the place, he will advise. For the husband or father about whom she never speaks, for the weary sailor, a secure berth in the port of his choosing or a sailing vessel equipped with the newest Yankee gadgets to assure that he wander all the way into the southern hemisphere of irrelevance.
Dolores is laughing with pleasure. She pulls him and his wine in, runs her palm swiftly from his neck out along his chest and arm, her fingers finding his. She leads him to a low sofa at one end living room, the dining table at the other end. They speak of--what?--it goes so quickly, Terence has forgotten. Her day off walk, his afternoon with the great-grands, how hungry they both are now, how he shouldn't have wine and flowers. Of course she's right. The least of the three bottles is worth its weight not in gold, say, but in pre-sixty-eight solid silver American quarters. He'll be so pleased, he's been cooking all day, Dolores says. Looking forward to it, Terence assures. Dinner will no doubt be delicious to judge from the picnics her young man prepares her. Yes, he is promising, she tells him, dropping her eyes in slight confusion as if she knows his thoughts, has glimpsed the future already--the secret engagement, the post-facto announcement to her own moping son and all of Terence's disbelieving suddenly impoverished dependents, the one small piece in the Post with the inevitable comparisons to William O. Douglas, the honeymoon trip to well, everywhere really, six or eight months, then the peaceful twilight years lining the path towards Terence's second century, the tongue cluckers marveling at this winter-summer romance, Dolores radiantly happy in bed and out, lightly dark children arriving in due time, Terence shocking the old family, playing with the new brood all day long, rolling around on the carpet like a young man. Each May they visit the lake in Wisconsin where Caroline ashes drift, Dolores bathed in tears, she's heard so much about her, she can never take her place, would never try, Terence true in his fashion, a single tear tickling his nose as he rows the two of them out onto the water at dusk, I know you didn't want me to be alone any longer, darling, I never forget you for a moment.
Dolores looks up. She holds both his hands in hers. He leans forward thinking to kiss her properly now--remembering suddenly how that is, to be certain the other is waiting yet not certain, that delicious vulnerable dash when one plunges one's lips forward not knowing whether one will be answered by congruent desire or a sudden catch of breath and sharp slap--How dare you! Go!
No, she is waiting. He breasts entreat him to take them in his hands and for a moment relieve her of their round burden. All the time she is talking to him and he is answering, as if it mattered whether they speak at all. She's recapping the Redskin game. Didn't see it, he tells her. Yes, he agrees, the team does look good this year, giving not a goddamn if the Redskins ever play again, Sonny Jergenson the last quarterback he can remember, the team name offensive, the whole franchise in financial trouble, a toy of another of those nouveau riche profiteers and publicity seekers, Jews most of them, like that pathetic balloon Trump. I never have any shoes, Dolores is telling him, so apparently they've switched to talking about shoes Terence thinks as he falls toward her as if into a field of clover on a summer day, yielding to gravity, to warmth, to certain welcome, his troubadour lips seeking hers with an idea of feast and dalliance, of song and pleasure, his Lifestyle condoms secure in his wallet, lettres anglaises from her very own Dupont Circle pharmacy.
Then he is standing. Shaking the hand of a man in thick black spectacles, not Jonathan's age but the last age at which he can easily remember Jonathan--late forties, sprinkle of grey in his hair which itself shows a bit of high forehead. Terence speaks, in what Caroline called the voice, what Caroline called the words--appropriate remark, in this case about finally meeting. It is as if, Terence's brain scampering to catch up with his mouth--as if, instead of the lover he was at last and again finally to become, he is simply once more the diplomat than in default he permanently is. Jean-Baptiste--this is the man's name--matter-of-factly accepts the third bottle of wine that Dolores ceremoniously hands him. As if the Château Angelus St. Emilion is neither more no less than he, and his meal, require. Terence offers to join him in the kitchen. Dolores pouts as the man leads him off by one arm. She says all cooks fear women, it's not fair, she herself is never allowed near the stove. Terence realizes they are speaking French.
"Même un clin d'oiel blanchisserais mes haricots--Just the sight of you," Dolores's husband, for that is who he is, tells her, "would blanche my greens white."
Esperanto is in the courtyard of Tracks when Pammy spots him. Albert and Pammy have been dancing like big dogs for two hours and it doesn't feel cold, but it is. First cold night of the fall.
"Hey. It's Esper--"
"I know," Albert tells his girlfriend in that ill-tempered don't-ask-questions-a-man-has-his-reasons tone he finds he adopts despite himself. He hates acting high and mean, but it just happens. Makes him feel like his father coming out of the downstairs hall bathroom without having finished doing up his pants, yelling at his mother about nothing, she looking pitiful, her hair in that kerchief, cleaning something that's clean, glad to be hollered at by the man who is at least noticing her to holler. Going steady isn't the same as married but Albert feels himself turning ugly and used up, just for moments sometimes before Pammy lets him have it.
"Cram that shit, I'm getting one of them green shooters."
She's gone. He loves her madly. She's all bitch from her red hair tied up like a tangle of rusted steel wool to her titless chest and that fine little ass, which comes off the deep curve of her back like a red neon sign flashing, Fuck Me Now. She hates church, says Albert's New Generation Christian Warriors are high school hang-on losers who can't get melon and wouldn't know what to do with it split open right in front of their nibblit-size boners. She knows Esperanto from the old days when Albert and him was like brothers at Wilson. She goes over to the tall white cocktail fag carrying the rack of test-tubes filled with green liquor and buys not one but two shooters at three bucks a pop, plus a buck tip, with Albert's Hechinger's overtime which she stole out of his pocket on the way downtown, one hand in his wallet, the other playing with his johnson at a light while he drove Uncle Max's 'Dorado. She drinks both tubes without even looking back his way. All because he said, I know, in that voice. That's why he loves her so much he can't sleep at night thinking about how she might decide he's a pitiful Jesus puppy and marry one of those rich Howard U boys she's always cashiering at the Croissanterie in Tenley Circle, and he'll be alone all his life wanting her. He knows she'll keep him from turning devilish like his father and he can't imagine her putting a nasty old rag on her head, much less cleaning anything with it.
He himself sighted Esperanto during Grandmaster Flash "Hot Potato"--the wail so chill he was like cold and hot at the same time. He could feel the bass coming off those racks through the floor up into his balls, and the lights lasered all over the floor and sirened in rows of red-and-white flashing along the top of the stage and up and down the cage where the girl was dancing with her whole self buck naked except two pink strips velcroed to her tits and slit. Suddenly there was Esperanto with that woman of his so beautiful he couldn't care about the freak child in the cage. Esperanto's date wore a pink sweater in all that heat, a skirt, heels, pearls around her neck and on her ears like some kind of Jet model. He wanted to grab Pammy, dance her right over and reach for Esperanto's hand in the middle of that noise and light storm. He'd yell some bullshit Esperanto couldn't possibly hear but would pretend to anyway, bobbing his head, laughing, introducing his prize trophy-winning runway junior executive, and Pammy would be like, Hey girl, probably give that tall woman an air kiss, while what she'd really be thinking was like, Shit, look at this class light bitch. Don't I look like a cheap Sixteenth Street whore next to her? But Albert didn't rock over, didn't show Pammy Esperanto, didn't do shit, just kept dancing, wondering why he and Esperanto had become so distant they couldn't share a fine coincidental moment of blessing like this one, two creatures on their arms, sweet tune raining down, all because high school had ended and Esperanto had found good money selling drugs to white people for his cousin, while he had discovered that Jesus Christ was his personal savior. He didn't care what Esperanto was doing anyway--it wasn't like he was selling crack to kids. But the Crew--especially Warf, Big Ugly All State Max-Weight Scourge of the Ferenzi--told Albert Esperanto was Alien Life and that Albert couldn't initiate a command for them not to hang with their old friends who weren't Saved, weren't even Academy, if he was going to hold onto all his Planet Homies like it was any other Star Date and not End of World minus five minutes. Albert didn't know how to tell Esperanto he had been unanimously Dissed by the Away Team, so he just stopped calling and told his mother to tell Esperanto he wasn't ever home, which she did once when he was, her eyes and voice full of tears--as if her son's not hanging out with a drug rat was just one more cross for her to bear.
Now look. Pammy walks right over, gives Esperanto a kiss that could be friendly if you count tongue and a long grind that could make a man come if he was concentrating and ready for it friendly. Then she's like extending her hand to the tall sweater-and-pearls sorority sister, How do you do? Yes, so nice to meet you, I fucked your boyfriend years before you met him, even if you do look my mother in her dreams. But she didn't fuck him, did she? Albert suddenly isn't sure, that kiss lasting half the time it takes his legs to stroll himself across the courtyard under the stars, yellow and winky in the uneven blue cloudy moonlit night. Did she fuck him? Esperanto swore he'd tell him when he finally did it, but he had never said to Albert, Yes, I am now a man, and Albert had understood that he wasn't supposed to ask any more after eleventh grade started and the best Esperanto was getting was auto-pogo. It's like the boy was shy or something. He asked Pammy about him and she said they'd all wanted to do him senior year--her, Sally G., Korina, Deb--but Esperanto was with that cheerleader Peggy he met at the St. Ignatius away meet, and he was too righteous to dog around on her. Girls respect that, Albert thinks now. They pretend they don't but they love a righteous stand tall Christian man so much they'll do anything to tempt him, all the time hoping he won't fall.
"Sappenin'," he says to Esperanto as if they'd talked in the hall between Spanish and algebra-trig and now they’re standing waiting for the bus in the shelter on Jefferson and 8th. As if the Chosen weren't in Esperanto's face Monday, and wouldn't have stayed there except that old man took Warf out with his cane and the fat lady brought in the white filth.
"Strolling. Getting the smoke off," Esperanto says, tugging at his Brooks Bro and grinning.
Maybe he knows--Albert thinks with a huge sigh coming up out of him like he's been waiting for a year to be back tight with Esperanto and hasn't know it. Maybe he knows I wouldn't have ordered the Landing Party in, that it wasn't my call, and that he's my main.
"Selena, Albert. Albert, Selena Rogers."
"How are you?" she says to him like a white woman looking for two-by-fours on the ground level. Some lady with a SUV and a stroller who doesn't know where lumber is. Except there's black in it and South too.
"I'm all right," Albert says. "Esperanto been keeping you secret. Where you from?"
"I'm from Virginia Beach," she says, like a book on how to talk. "This is only my second date with Esperanto, so I don't how much of a secret we are."
The voice is low and wide open with that Virginia in it. Extra time, stuck right in between the words, like space between telephone poles at twenty miles an hour. Along with that way she has of saying the whole thing she has to say, as if if she leaves out a word or two, no one will know what she is talking about or even where they are. Esperanto always finds class flip mujares. There were all those sweet homegrown girls starting to come ripe at Wilson and he goes off and finds Peggy, quiet Catholic girl, spooky, who wears a wool plaid skirt with a four-inch gold safety pin in it to school, like she's got to play bagpipe when she gets home.
"How do you like Tracks?" he asks Ms. Selena Rogers. Pammy flashes him a look and he realizes he's staring at Esperanto's date with that whipped look he gets when a woman surprises him. Like he's never met one before and wants to play with her for a while to figure out how they work.
"I'm enjoying myself," Ms. African-America Next Year says. "I haven't danced like this since I don't know when. Since my prom."
"What does she really talk like?" Albert asks Esperanto when they're gone off for drinks.
"Just like that."
The shoulder their way to the bar. "Hot coffee, coming through," Esperanto calls, the way he used to at RFK when they wanted to make it back to their sky seats during halftime.
"You tell her you deal?" Albert asks.
"First thing. Said, Would you care to see a movie with me? Oh, you should know I am a salesperson of drugs."
They ordered and waited, Albert giddy with laughing and being near Esperanto again. It was like he'd been sick and hadn't known it--weak, a little cold. Now he’s warm and strong.
"The Crew is fucked up."
"I'm quitting," Alberta promises. "Pammy calls us Eunuch Crusade."
He and Esperanto formed the original Trek back in eighth grade, still loyal to Kirk and Spock--and there was no Picard, much less Jesus in it. It was just like, Scotty, scan that chem class. No intelligent life, Sir. The language, the humor was primitive, but fundamental new and superior.
"I'm out too. Told Evan January. Going to get a real job."
"Won't get paid shit," Albert warns him.
"Not Hechingers. I said real."
They were in their groove like they'd never stopped. They carried their Coors, Pammy's LI Tea, Miss Right's glass of red wine back. Pammy and the woman were laughing with tears in their eyes and their arms around each other's necks like they've been friends since they bought their first tampons together.
"What?" Esperanto asks. "What?"
But the woman won't talk. They just look at Esperanto and Albert and go off again.
Peter Day paints at night. The light is gone--he likes that. He paints from photographs under artificial light. Halogen lamps were invented for him. When ten-thirty passes and the phone stops ringing, when Jon positions himself in the den recliner with a pile of reading and falls asleep, Peter commutes up to the studio. The lamps blaze off the high ceiling, off the walls. He turns on his music--not Jon's pop crush of the week, that season's wailing romantic teenager endlessly repeating his or her one good line. Jon listens to jazz on vinyl, music that endures and reveals itself to the initiated. The records are in milk crates stacked four high and four wide. Cassettes were, as Peter predicted, a fad albeit a long one. His has no quarrel with CDs. When he can no longer find cartridges, which is getting hard to do, for the turntable he bought as a sophomore at U. Chicago for the then mind-blowing sum of three-hundred-ninety dollars, he'll get himself a cd player. By then many of his albums--but not the obscure ones, his prizes--will be digital.
Peter paints people he loves. Poor people, rich. He doesn't paint for commissions. He doesn't paint families. Children. He did paint infants for a brief few years, infants who were in a way his own. At the end of that period he was unable to work and had to stop himself from thinking about what it would feel like to fall from a certain bridge during the daily walk he took. He is not a restless soul, always attempting the new. He likes to do what he does well. In the late seventies, when he had survived those identity-formation years after college but before Jon and the babies came, he realized he wasn't an abstract artist or an impressionist. He was, as one friend informed him, a graphic diarist. His naturally does what was done most earnestly in the renaissance—portraits of individuals in their homes or offices if that’s where they live.
Kevin is down in the garden dirt, midmorning sun clearing patchy pines, red knees tucked beneath him like the contracted roots of the daikon he's just pried loose. Damn exotic gardener--spuds, 'matoes and lettuce, green stripe of basil, parsley, thyme not good enough for Kevin Porter. No, Kevin has to grow Peruvian ker-gawl, Korean cloud ear, giant flat Dutch cabbage. The man knows every eating plant in the world and whether it will grow in Arlington.
Peter considers the way people are sculpted around their spines and necks. His men, Kevin crouched spiraling in the dirt no exception, are always trying to reveal their rears. Not their asses--there are lots of ass painters out there. Peter's men want to reveal the whole topography of the backside, from nape to knee. The back, Peter feels, is a person trying to get a word in edgewise beside the front. Backs are strong silent types.
His paintings show and sell. For eight years since Roder Gallery picked him up, his work has sold steadily for money that would make a spare living if Peter thought of painting and money that way. But after a decade and a half of inward turning, of asking the world only to let him paint and then look at what he has painted, Peter finds he is unable to change. He proved himself immune to Jon's mother-and-father-lode of cash long before the Roder started sending him those checks. It just doesn't matter that much. Artists don't starve anymore. They take on heavy teaching loads. Peter has always felt teaching is a separate proposition into which he can enter with a passion that matches all but that for painting itself. He teaches now as much as he likes--two afternoons a week. If the world goes to hell, he thinks, he'll teach four.
He works with a photographer, Eric Linder. Eric goes and shoots maybe two hundred slides of a subject or dude, as he calls them. Peter prints thirty or forty of these, sketches from them, then decides whether to send Eric back for more. Then he paints. Two portraits a year--a summer portrait which he finishes in the winter, a winter portrait which he tries to polish and have removed from his studio by Labor Day. Then a month off. Of course it never works out, but that's been the plan for years. Now in November he's ahead. Kevin's falling into place. Peter wanted to paint him two years ago but held off knowing the moment hadn't come. He knows better than to congratulate himself now. Could be the mild weather or Jon's mild mood. Peter is on a gentle roll. Every night Kevin is there waiting for him and the canvas is cooperating. Time flows. He doesn't ask questions.
The phone. After four rings, Jon picks up. He comes clunking up the steps.
"It's the girl. Dad didn't come home."
Peter nods, starts capping tubes.
Jean-Baptiste checks the oven, slips the length of black rubber around Terence's upper bicep. Terence works his fist until his vein worms blue to the surface. Jean-Baptiste gives his double-boiler a stir, tears off the syringe's sterile pouch, draws up the clear liquid he has cooked in the tiniest copper pot of the set--no bigger than a egg cup—beside the rice. In the living room, Dolores is singing along with Frank Sinatra's "I Was Young."
"The President," Terence resumes, "must act Jehovah. Executive power is the capacity for wrath." Jean-Baptiste nods tolerantly, as if really what matters most about the Yankee's invasion of Haiti is Bill Clinton's maturity. "God doesn't wait for an approval rating. He shoots thunderbolts from the hip."
"Quand j'etais petit," Jean-Baptiste interrupts, "my mother gave me a taste for autobiography, my father for revolution. I read Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Che Guevera." He lifts the tiny pot, handle wrapped in a napkin. "My classmate Michel and I planned everything. We invented a bearded messiah, Jean-Michel Dela Gloire who, on Easter morning, would sweep down out of the hills with a people's army, impervious to Papa Doc's bullets, unbreakable. If he is killed he rises again at once because we have ten of him in reserve--simple, patriotic, handsome men. We have educated them in our secret camp. Once they are in power, we write their speeches, plan their crushing of the reaction. We were to be the invisible geniuses of the revolution."
He lifts a feuillêté from the oven and sets it on a tile by the window. When he cracks the window open a baby's complaint amplifies to proximity. Terence occupies a high metal chair by the broom closet. Despite his disappointment he finds himself embraced by the intelligent talk and kitchen smells. Like an evening with Caroline, except for the cooking.
"The Bay of Pigs, when it came, confirmed our views that anything was possible as long as it was inventive. We talked at length about the opportunities and dangers afforded by about North American's electoral cycle." Dolores strolls in, crooning, and hangs by her husband's neck. Jean-Baptiste's eyes behind his black glasses search out Terence over her shoulder. "Not in our wildest flight of fancy, not in our coldest calculation,"Jean-Baptiste manages through a maze of kisses, "did Robert and I dare to invent Aristide."
Ed's Peter Pan NY-DC Express with movie, the woman at the window tells Sheryl, is lost in Baltimore. Sheryl pours another tiny cone of ice water from the cooler, sits again in the row of plastic seats, reads another endless page of Kissinger's White House Years, and wishes once more the man wasn't Jewish, he being so exactly the type Lyndon Larouche would invent--German-accented opportunist, always hired gun for the bad guys, always magically surviving the shoot-out. Still she could understand why Nancy had sacrificed her young body to Kissinger's pudgy self. Henry was so evil and potent. His pleasure in his own role--Look at me, Mommy! I'm a big boys!--always busting through that facade of level-headed advisor.
If Ed's bus doesn’t come in half an hour, Sheryl swears, she’ll--what? Leave in a cab? She and Ed will take a cab home anyway. Metro closes in an hour and the walk to Union Station is suicide. Young black men are not dangerous, she reminds herself, looking at the crowd of brilliantly lit black men in front of the bus station. Yet most violent crime in the DC is perpetrated by them. No, she rebuts, most convictions are handed down to young black men. She'll still take a cab.
She feels a twinge of pre-guilt over Terence. He wasn't in the cavernous Dupont house when she left the house at nine-thirty, didn't answer the call she made from the station at eleven before she woke Jon. If anything happens to Terence, she thinks, she will be doubly damned. First, he's been nice to her this week and she's actually beginning to think of him they way she's been trying to all along--as a mentor, eccentric, self-centered, but generous at unexpected moments and wise. Second, she and Ed have had terrible phone arguments which means their usual mating frenzy tonight will be redoubled in intensity and payoff. Why was the world that way? Why strife before harmony? Why bitter all night near-break-ups over what-he-told-his-mother-about-their-plans-that-he-had-no-business-telling-her, before three-day weekends of good food, heartbreaking good sex, and elaborate promises of permanence and no more childish arguing? She imagines that the truth about her relationship with Ed corresponds, in some floating way, to Christina's Law of Condoms--If they break and you don’t get pregnant, you didn't need them.
Terence can't fall and end up in a hospital tonight, Sheryl decides, because if he does she'll end up looking like the irresponsible babysitter, upstairs necking with her boyfriend, when the toddler stumbles and ends up with two stitches in the middle of his forehead. Her sister Margo had been that babysitter at age fourteen, and the result was that her own children, by Margo's own admission, were over-supervised and later would not know how to set physical limits for themselves. Also on Saturday mornings her husband Phil relearned the meaning of coitus interruptus every time Tommy or the new baby so much as sneezed. Margo knew she was overprotective but couldn't stop herself. Sheryl could. If anything happened to Terence, she wasn't going to take any blame for it. Still, she wishes he was home.
A bus swings off Fourteenth Street, its lights raking the chainlink fence before it angles to the opposite side of the lot. Can't be Ed's bus, wouldn't have made it out of John Waters country yet. Still, Sheryl can't help standing and looking as the women with children and shopping bags in their arms, the men in baseball caps and sunglasses, one twenty-something white guy, not Ed, in Tivas and cutoffs as if no one mentioned to him that it's a cold fall night, teenage boys in balloon pants, girls in tight jackets--all take the last driver-assisted step to street level and stand for a moment taking stock of their bladders, wallets, situations generally. The women gather together the many pieces they are responsible for, handing the smallest bags to the bigger children, steering their armadas in the direction of the cabbies to begin negotiations. Sheryl wonders why all this feels threatening to her, like a foreign country where one can't drink the water. Does growing up in suburban New Jersey unfit her for all other environments? For six years since she left East Orange for Barnard, Sheryl has with all her heart tried to learn to live in cities. But she is always looking at the treeless streets, the parade of many faces, as if through the window of a ranch-style home she carries on her head. She longs for life to seize her the way it has seized these easily maternal women--not the tall teenage girl, her one baby dressed like a little frog in greens--but the two mommas of two and three respectively, low, earth-anchored as barges, rolling past where Sheryl stands at the window of the converted mobile home of a bus station. Children can make a woman real or they can erase her. Sheryl suspects they do both in her case. She wants to travel the world, enter and create history and politics unencumbered. She wants to be instrumental in the creation of a small conventionally armed and policed, but without heavy weapons, Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, with free access to but no territorial claim on Jerusalem. She wants to move back to the Oranges and have a hive full of children--well, two--in a snug five bedroom house, her parents' house actually. Her dad's been talking about Phoenix the last few winters, about taking a condo closer to the city for springs back east, and sharing Uncle Benny's place on Block Island in the summer. Sheryl wants to be the star of her class at Hopkin's, along with Christine. She wants to try out men in her bed the way she tries out hair lengths--short, long, short again with the years, a temporary perm whenever she forgets how Orphan Annie that looks on her, a light henna once in a blue moon. She wants to be with Ed and only Ed, and to build of their relationship a new kind of institution--a marriage she'll call it for lack of a more evocative word--with its own constitution, bill of rights, elaborate legal code. She wants his bus to come.
When the Paris Conference began, Mr. Restrowky and I were determined to create a confederacy of selfinterest that would overcome inertia of rigid position. We found in Mr. Phol Tom an able negotiator with the flexibility we hoped would make accommodation realistic. We drafted Agreement 213, which stipulated that the governing party of the intermediate zones would be created under joint approval of the United Nations, the Special Envoy of the United Democratic Republic of South Vietnam, and the Provisional Delegates of the People's Army of North Vietnam. After two days of deliberation, Mr. Tom returned to the Centre des Affaires Etrangers with CTE 441. Mr. Restrowsky and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The note is neatly penned on the message table beside the telephone in the front hall beneath the stairwell.
"He's at Dolores' for dinner."
"Dolores?" Peter asks.
Jon shrugs. He asked Sheryl whether she had checked the message table, as if this were a locus she and the world recognized. Jon finds it hard to remember, at times, that the Dupont house has its own map and glossary of terms, and that only Terence, Liz, and himself now know their way around the place.
"Call him?" Peter asks.
"No number, no last name. Just an address on Swann."
Jon shakes his head. Dad doesn't like to be checked on. He hasn't had a fall in five years.
They stroke the irresistible polished banister as they climb. Jon's room has been stripped of many vestiges of his tenure. Still, the narrow desk arrayed with slots for letters and papers is there in the corner. The high bookshelf, crammed now with Caroline's withering paperbacks, Jon's pencil sharpener screwed loosely to the top. He loves fucking here, his teenage bed imbued with erotic prehistory. He pushes Peter back, shucks Peter’s pants off. Then he has Peter's for the briefest moment manageable cock halfway down his throat, Peter's hands settling on the back of his head, first one, then very quietly the other, as if to intimate, Well, my, yes, all right--in a code of acquiescence. Peter is always ready, a cowboy sleeping with his gun under the pillow and his boots sticking out the bottom of the bed. Then of course Jon is trying to retreat, Peter's cock stretching his jaw like the proverbial more-than-one-can-chew--or rather, chew yes, suck no. Peter very willing to cause Jon discomfort or even pain. Jon himself a thermometer of conscience. The quietest remonstrance, a protective gesture or sound, drops Jon's dong like a pelleted grouse. Jon has no more talent for mastery than for corporate tax law. Peter is another sort of man, Jon realized early on. Pain, Jon's especially, also his own, makes Peter hard, like almost everything else--unmade beds, made beds, too much sleep, not enough sleep, being asleep.
Jon locks the door and strips while Peter eyes him. Even after all these years he feels a tiny thrill of fear. Sweat heats his crotch and armpits, his forehead. Peter tugs him across the room, kisses him the way Jon taught him for a moment, a thoughtful deliberate kiss with as much Mediterranean pucker as Peter can manage. But then he forgets and attacks with that long sweet tongue of his.
Peter is trying on, as often in the Dupont house, the idea of another life, not his own but Jon's, a nineteenth century life. Jon would have children there. Terence would understand him better. Sometimes Peter can actually see Terence try to master the concept of the childless gay couple, heat rising from his venerable head. Peter's own father is dead lo these twenty-five years, but his mother Kathy, a Minnesota second-grade teacher with two sons older than Peter, has never troubled herself over the matter. Nor did Caroline. Other people's children are enough for almost all elementary school teachers. Caroline took just enough time away from her profession to realize that the problem with staying home with one's offspring is, of course, that one never knows what one isn't doing. One goes about with a vague sense of having forgotten to do something. Not forgotten to have children. Forgotten to do something else.
But certain men, fathers mostly, who spend their days in offices and their evenings trying unsuccessfully to get home early, men who pride themselves on their ability to abundantly provide and on their weekend availability--these men had a habit of telling one, when they were drunk or had just spent a particularly jolly night in one's bed, that really the thing that matters in life is fatherhood. They smile that paternal je-ne-sais-quoi. Peter used to cajole the married men when he was single and they were happily bedding him. Why are you here? Oh, this, they would say, and wave a wedding band in his face. This is fun. No, Peter would tell them. This is where you spend your life. Here and at your office.
But is not where Terence lived and where Jonathan, in another time, might have. Terence was born into Victorian culture Peter thinks, roughly caressing Jon with his right hand, a downward spiral stroking that seemed to offer the poor love some measure of calm--yes, Southern Victorian. Three layers of class and race cohabiting this tall house like a chocolate-and-vanilla-cream cake with separate front and back stairs. Peter had glimpsed the last functional period of that world, Jon's grandmother Claire in her nineties doing her last sewing in her room--coverlets of wool roses, surrounded by thornless greenery, backed in clay satin. Claire, he remembers from a few afternoons, had that class unselfconsciousness about not only who she was but what she was. Prelapsarian Dupont Circle, her family by marriage the Nichols, one of four great estates, with the McIvers, the Plackersons, and the Littles.
It is time, he thinks, rolling Jon over on the bed and straddling him, his long legs and cock a surveyor's tripod with Jon's asshole as zero point. He places himself and waits patiently. It's like playing knock-knock. Who's there? Mr. Feel-Good. Mr. Feel-Good who? Mr. Feel-Good You Right Now if you just relax and let me in. That's better, Peter praises Jon, who is making grateful sounds as Peter lifts him backwards and up against him. Through Jon, Peter knows the dissolution of the Dupont house, which accelerated in the sixties. Jon describes in ambivalent detail the servants not leaving so much as metamorphosing from the quietly walking, sibilantly whispering collective of his childhood--an efficient band presided over by Thomas, the by then ancient butler, and the equally aged Lillian the cook, Thomas teetering about the house, nearly blind, Lillian planted in her low chair in front of the high white radiator off the front left corner of the stove Peter has coveted and painted quite out of context, a magnificent Whetmueller with a rabbit's-wool-grey enamel finish, eight burners, griddle, double ovens, warmer and pot-and-pan bins--Lillian stationed there winter and summer, directing her granddaughter or grandniece with small motions of her fingers and smaller anglings of her head, perfectly round, silver-haired—this tribe of servants of Jon's childhood metamorphosing into a collection of individual young employees. By the time Jon and Peter married there were five Afro-Americans, as Caroline taught everyone except Claire to call them, working in the house. Lillian's granddaughter Evelyn grew out her hair and wore colors--dashikis, sometimes just t-shirts--to Caroline's alleged satisfaction and Terence's undisguised disapproval. Rob, Thomas' inheritor, wore the black suit and polished shoes but left at eight, dinner party or no dinner party. Nor did he want Thomas' old room on the top floor with a lovely view of the alley. He didn't work those dinners for twelve, less frequent every year, which Caroline still gave from time to time when she and Terence "owed" their friends. Caroline said he was absolutely right, she fully approved of his protecting his "home life." But Jon heard her cursing when she spent hours on the phone trying to line up help for the four course dinners on Claire's mother Eleanor's Lisbon china--three plates plus dessert, three forks, two knives plus fish, white and red wine, water glasses plus highballs and snifters, saucers and cups, ash trays. Evelyn had been well trained to handle the cooking, but she had never lifted a finger to serve.
When he turns Jon over, Jon smiles up at him as if he knows who Peter is, and whether he himself is sixteen and getting fucked by his first love Adam, or fifty-six and entering with his husband the quiet years. Peter hands Jon his own knees--here, Jon, hold these. He takes Jon all at once, relishing the moment of uncertainty followed by the flush of pleasure that darkens Jon's cheeks and forehead. Jon reaches for his own cock.
Help, yes, the help. The house didn't leave with the help. It is, Peter tells himself, still entirely here, even if Terence is out visiting. The Dupont house survived the emancipation of the sixties. Terence himself survived Caroline, though he has become a bit more vague with each passing year. The house without Terence would crumble into the earth like the house of Usher in the un-scariest of Poe stories. The House of Nichols, which is why, Peter thinks, Terence could never quite fathom that children just wouldn't fit into his and Jon's lives. It isn't the uncertainty of contemporary life that Terence can't grasp, nor the scale of modern fortunes, the condominiums of the undistinguished rich. It isn't the anonymity of Washington society that disintegrates and reforms continuously, the dismantling of the great families--the second marriages, face-lifts, and late-careers of the parents, the dropping-out, permanent vacationing, downwardly mobile children, who pull those families apart much faster than they can be reproduced or financed. No, all that Terence understands. What the old man can't get a handle on is much simpler--the way time has changed.
Amazing, really, how long Jon takes to come. Deliberately draws it out, Peter is sure of it. Not that one should rush. Rush to do what? Still, there are places to go, paintings to paint. Jon, salaried working stiff with an office life, can't understand that there is no time when Peter shouldn't be painting. There are only times when Peter isn't painting. Now, for instance, Peter knows Jon wants to come. He’s got that beatific look, Florentine school, and besides his prick is doing that little dance in Peter's hand, that twitchy, tight-balled, sweating dance. But Jon won't come, just to be contrary, Peter knows. He adjusts his rhythm accordingly.
The do-it-yourself quality of the end of the second millennium, he thinks. That's what Terence won't reckon with. As if an entire population has decided to become low-rent Leonardos. Each one thinks himself a specialist drafted into one corner of one small field, Jon for instance a policy analyst and lobbyist for social reform legislation--not a litigator, not a campaigner. Peter himself an oil portraitist, not a watercolorist, not a landscapist. Yet while working in ever more narrow professional niches, each man in fact learn to do everything badly. He and Jon cook, garden, plan their finances, are travel agents, are their own doctors most of the time. None of this had been Terence's work, and another generation back Terence's mother Claire had made only two dishes: a ricotta cheesecake, and Brunswick stew, lord knows why. That was her kitchen craft. She had never changed a diaper, gone alone to the bank, driven a car. Perhaps that was why she sewed and embroidered on a level that today one might call marketable.
But what is he asking himself? Peter wonders, thoroughly lathered now, his cock bobbing in and out. Right on schedule Jon pulls Peter's head down and kisses him frantically, sucking on his tongue as if it alone might save him from the unspeakable torments of feeling so good for so long. Five minutes, Peter calculates, arching back, accelerating his hand, his haunches a notch. Yes, despite the world's turning, Jon fucks like a rich boy. As if there were no work to be done and someone else will make the bed. In Terence's time, or just before it, Jon would have led a gentleman's life--that's where Peter had started, with Jon's other life. Working a bit, fraternizing, disappearing to his men’s club, to his avocations. Hunting perhaps, riding certainly since that requires balance, possibly exploring as they called extensive travel in those days before ecotourism. Jon might have had a wife and children, and men lovers. The good old days. Instead Jon has a job and Peter to love, which he does now, his fists flailing about, occasionally connecting, like a heroine resisting an assailant in a melodrama.
How pretty it is--the streetlight through the milky curtain, the old desk waiting patiently for another generation in the corner, the wet hair pressed flat at the base of Jon's cock, the medial line separating muscle left and right in his belly, the dark lip of his asshole which Peter can just see if he cranes back, embracing the width of his cock on the draw, the patient chalky blue wall beside them, the grey white ceiling like heaven above, the young face inside the older face of the man he loves, Jon opening his eyes to see, then closing them to see again. Peter, his patience quite at an end, throws himself forward and down.
Dolores wonders now whether she should have invited Terence's wife Caroline. From Terence's talk, she gathers that the woman is as active as he is. No, that would not have been appropriate. She admits, furthermore, that she likes it this way--herself at the head of the narrow table, her husband on her right, her admirer on her left, their heads almost touching as they bow over their plates. Yet what an ordinary supper Jean-Baptiste has chosen to serve! Spears of asparagus in lemon dill. Three small tarts with tumbling crusts, one leek, one gorgonzola, one chanterelle. He could just as well have put out bologna, white bread, and French's mustard. Terence, as if to draw attention to the insult, opens the La Tâche Grand Cru and fills the taller glasses beside the Bordeaux.
Terence is in heaven. He has never held that the fare maketh the feast. No, too oft, he muses, he has found himself miserable and alone at tables heaped with delicacies. Yet with Caroline, with a few friends and, once upon a time, other lovers, Terence has found himself in dives any health department in the world would board-up after a cursory inspection and left the table content. He imagines now the conjunction of a perfect love and such a nightly repast as this. The supper Jean-Baptiste offers calls Terence's whole heavy-is-the-head philosophy into question. Perhaps he has simply never had it so good. Perhaps, too, conversation, marriage, require three. Mormons onto something. Pity he and Caroline didn't taken on a third who could cook.
Across from him, Jean-Baptiste is seized with shame. How could he have been so lazy? Dolores does not drag home strangers every week. He should have known this Terence would be a man of charm and discrimination. He blushes at the thought of the turbot he is all but ready to serve. He might as well bring out a coq au vin. The salad and cheeses were equally prosaic. And the dessert--tears of contrition start to his eyes. A mocca buche with glaces of marron and Cointreux. What has his jealousy driven him to? It is an economy-class tourist menu. For a moment as he lifts the glass to his lips, he is at a loss for what to do. How can he meet his wife's eyes now--how will he be able to face her in the morning? Then it comes to him. Breakfast.
Albert swings up in the Enterprise. The car is a night creature. For a moment, Esperanto and Selena--around whose waist his arm somehow now is--hold their breaths.
"What kind of header does that mother have on it?" Selena asks. Esperanto doesn't know shit about engines. All he knows is the 'Dorado is fly. The purple lights beaming down onto the street. The car rocking high and slow like a baby carriage. Before the doors opens they hear the sound system loud. Pammy hangs over the front seat, her skirt riding up until there's just a strip of black panty between her and the night, and when she opens the back door for Selena the sound battles the techno coming from the white side of Tracks.
"Where did you find this magnificent automobile?" Selena asks when they're in back heading down past the seafood barns on Waterfront.
"My uncle," Albert tells her, cutting the volume from nuclear to conventional and scoping the rearview. After a minute Esperanto has moved close to Selena. He has has no memory of having placed his hand high on Selena Rogers raspberry cashmere belly to where his fingers are kind of nibbling at the bottom of a breast which he knows for a fact had a bra on it an hour ago and now feels like the edge of the tide tugging at his blood in his palms. Did Selena put his hand there?
"Your uncle Max must have done a custom chop," Selena says, cool as a bean.
"What the fuck you talking, girl?" Pammy says, swinging up over the seat, her perfunctory symmetrical ass in the air for just long enough that Esperanto to be sure those black flower panties aren’t there anymore. He isn't high. He thought he better observe the priorities with Selena and he is, or thought he was, clear in the head. Now he doesn't know much except that as soon as Pammy's laughing somehow wisely knowing face is out of his, he and Selena are sliding down along the smooth white leather seat until they are near the humped middle shag floor. Far away, over the woof-woof of the woofers which are pretty serious loud down here at sea-level, he thinks he hears Albert telling Selena about Uncle Max's engine, but in the middle of saying Rolls Royce or Roy's joyce or something-or-other, Albert launches into a high squeal that if he didn't know Albert--who makes that noise whenever he talks about getting some--he would have sworn was Pammy herself.
"How do you know about engines?" he says into the ear of the woman with whom he thought he was on a date. He's definitely on a date--he just wonders with whom.
"I like to know," she tells him as her long cool fingers lift up the band of the Calvin Klein's he didn't know his pants were no longer covering and firmly grasp him, "the way things work. Don't you?"
He starts kissing her fast. He knows the question is what-do-you-call-it. The kind you're not really supposed to answer.
The meter-less cab smells like cat piss. Ed doesn't care. For one thing they'll save money. For another, he's been rolling in one smelly environment or another since three that afternoon when he caught the F-train from Carroll Gardens. Now at least he's rolling with Sheryl, who smells fine. His mother hates her. Sheryl doesn't know. She thinks his mother doesn't like her.
"Are you in a bad mood?" he asks.
"Do you want to talk to me?"
He means do want to kiss me. He tries instead to kiss her but she does her corpse. Very effective. Makes him feel like a funeral home director on a basement date.
"I just need a few minutes," she says, "to get to know you again."
"Well, let me tell you a little bit about myself."
She has this theory that after each separation they have to remember who each other are. Talking on the phone isn't the same, she says. She needs to get used to the real him. This means, in practice, that two months out of three, there is a significant period of negotiation between the moment of his or her arrival and when they start making love--a kind of two-hour mini-engagement during which he must prove to her that he doesn't just want her for sex. Of course at first he does, and she's right, he has the same curious do-I-know-you? feeling she has. Kissing her, touching her, is like coming on to a stranger. Difference is he likes that.
"Shut up," she tells him. He's been monologuing like an interview candidate about his work experience such as it is, his goals and aspirations.
"Just shut up," Sheryl says again and this time he does.
"What is it, sweetie?"
She's glowering out the window. Not a generic bad mood.
"Terence wasn't home when I left."
"The old guy."
Talking to Sheryl takes two forms, Ed finds. Either she talks a blue streak, occasionally asking him questions and getting angry when he doesn't answer, though she has already made up her mind about whatever it is they are ostensibly talking about, which is why he doesn't answer. Or she says nothing, as now, waiting for him to pry basic information out of her, Perry Mason with the attractive close-mouthed witness.
"Did you call his son?"
"What did he say?"
"He was going to look for him."
"At the house."
"He said there might be a note."
"Did you see a note? "
As he speaks this last, Ed realizes he's pissed Sheryl off. She turns away further until she's facing directly out the window away from him. He's being what she calls not understanding. I just want you to be understanding, she says. He prefers understand the verb or understanding the noun to understanding the gerund. As in, Yes, I understand, or We have reached an understanding. He finds being understanding a slippery attribute to hold onto.
His father doesn't hate her. When he finally let them meet her, for a carefully circumscribed pla-and-dinner four hours in Manhattan last spring, his father said, "interesting woman." Interesting meant smart, woman meant sexy. As opposed to nice girl. His mother said squat. That meant war.
From the day he arrived at Columbia, Ed kept ending up with Jewish girls or women. Not that he minds. It's a pattern, that's all. For a while he thought he was sowing his wild oats, a phrase he knew he'd heard his mother use on the phone when he was in high school and she was talking about her friends' son’s relationships that weren't serious. He thought he'd end up back in the fold with a New Canaan girl or maybe Bridgeport. Then he realized the girls he went to high school with were boring, which meant nothing since everybody's boring in high school. At least in Connecticut. But the girls he knew in high school stayed boring. He had met some of them after living in Rachel Lambert's room freshman year, learning more about literature, politics, history, labor, and his own religion, let alone sex, than he had in his first eighteen years. He still met his high school friends in the city. Twenty-one kids from New Canaan were at Columbia/Barnard. Rachel looked at them as if they were children. They looked at her as if she was a six-foot-tall Jewish grandchild of a Latvian dockworker, and the daughter of a famous, in certain circles, Chicago commie, which she was. At the end of that summer, just before sophomore year when she left him for her friend Karen Becker, he tried dating the Connecticut girls. They thought he was a pervert; he thought they were asleep. In September he started up with Rachel's second best friend, Karen Levin's ex-, Sarah Zimmerman.
Sheryl knows all of them. They all know her. When she and Ed got together senior year, the Jewish women had a party. There were five of them by then talking about Ed and giving Sheryl advice and cautious encouragement. He and the Jewish boyfriends watched the Nicks. He felt as if he was about to leave the upper west side to join a kibbutz in Brooklyn. Two years later, Columbia was a cozy corner of Manhattan to which none of them ever returned, the law school not progressive enough and anyway, who would want to be back there? It would be like wearing rubber pants. Sheryl headed off to Washington to become Golda Meyer crossed with Hilary Clinton, both of whom, astonishingly, she manages to resemble with her blown-dry blondish wings and her sad smile. Ed's mother loves Hilary Clinton. When the reactionaries in the Kiefer's limited subdivision gather at mail delivery hour to talk politics, when the republican ladies say things about Hilary having the Man by the balls, Marilyn Kiefer, New Canaan League of Women Voter's Outstanding Member for several years, smiles and says nothing at all. She closes the mail box, waves her stack of mail, and walks across the Kiefer's atrocious lawn, the most visible expression perhaps of his father's libertarianism. Our day, Marilyn's calmly wagging retreating sweat-panted bottom tells her neighbors in no uncertain terms, has arrived.
Which is why Ed knows her mother is competitive. As much as he worries about the implications of finding a girl like the girl dad found, Ed has. Both women knew it. It was as if they were twins in parallel universes and if they touched, numerous suburbs would be destroyed by the cosmic blast. That's what his father proudly acknowledged, Ed knows, when, chuckling and wringing his extra stubby dick gently out while he did that ridiculous butt samba in the men's room of the theater district Italian place after the play last spring, he said, "Interesting woman."
Was his young mom, Ed wonders, as unbelievably moody, difficult, and irrational as Sheryl? He has always assumed it came on her gradually as a result of raising him and especially his older sister. They are pulling up in front of the old house where Sheryl insists on living in exchange for work, as if she can't afford an apartment. Why? What is she saving for, the next Diaspora? Yes.
She pays while he gets his bags out of the trunk. He travels with twice as many clothes as she does, but half the emotional baggage. She wants to prove she can make it without her dad's money. Why? The man sells glasses and contact lenses. Levinson money isn't blood money. How far does this need for independence extend? Can one prove one's independence for ten years, then cash in? Ed hopes so. They'll need it.
He wants to marry her, he knows that. He won't admit it to anyone because of how it sounds, but he's wanted to marry her since the first night they spent together. There’s no one who compares with her. Well, maybe Rachel, but Rachel is bi and doesn’t take him seriously. Problem is Sheryl dimly suspects how much he loves her and puts him through all kinds of weird tests. Will she test him more, he wonders, or less, once he proposes? Sheryl is having a long friendly conversation with the cab driver. She feels a need to build bridges--no, it's more than that. She thinks black people are slightly more real that she is. Which, it occurs to him, is probably why he gave himself up for adoption to the Jewish bisexual women when he got to Columbia. Jews are to him what blacks are to her--a little bit more real, a little bit less Connecticut.
By the kitchen sink, three plates, Terence's hungrily bread-mopped to streaks of sauce, Dolores' bare but not scrupulously so, a scrap or two articulately neglected as if in threat of a hunger strike, Jean-Baptiste's turbot nervously nibbled on all sides as though ringed by the vindictively darting piranhas of conscience. His sauce of mussels, shrimp in rouille, his sides of snaps in and steamed turnip, all lie untouched. The salad plates repeat the tale--one clean enough to array and serve again, one bearing a reproving sprig of arugula, a ruffled collar of frisée, a pale protest of endive, while the third plate is untouched, its blooms weary with oil, vulgar with raspberry vinaigrette.
At table Terence sits back from his polished dessert plate, right hand atop left in his lap, head tilted thoughtfully forward as if Jean-Baptiste has once again, in their discussion of the New Theologians, given him pause. But Jean-Baptiste is on his hands and knees caressing Dolores, and Terence's eyes are lightly closed.
Terence is Caroline taking off her faintly sinister one-piece in the shadow of the boat house. A rubbery thing, it always frightened him with its blue flower at the cleavage. Mads gave it to Caroline two Christmases back--only reason she wears it, she tells him.
"Lizzie?" he hears "himself" ask.
"Mads has her for the morning. They’re going to the store and Lizzie gets a treat."
Madeleine off for supplies. Jon fifteen hundred miles away in North Chatham with the Millard's. That gives them at least an hour. They leave their sandals on the dock. "Terence" dives, Caroline--himself--sits in the sun, reads an editorial about the "new" Africa. Caroline thinks first of course that she should have written the piece, which she will in a few weeks--Terence knows this, she of course doesn't--because she has always had a tendency to assume that her own mark on any topic will be distinctive and useful. This writer ignores the pre-colonial history and supposes that all was well once upon a time, she's grumbling while she nerves herself up for the water. How can Terence do that? he wonders as her, and must admit that from her perspective his headlong plunge into the deep is theatrical. As himself he knows that it's plunge now or lose the will to swim. He's just got to do it. As himself, he's also sympathetic to this editorial--a trifle smug but accurate enough. She--he--goes to pee on the ferns. Always wondered what this feels like, Terence thinks as the wee splashes out, undirected but basically the same from the pressure-valve side. Why Caroline doesn't just wait until she's in the water he can’t imagine. Too cold, she claims. She makes her way to the shallows where her feet press sodden leaves and raise a mud storm through which tadpoles flee through wide diagonals of sunlight. Oward to where colder mud squitzes up through her toes, tentative fearing not just a slimy rock or two but something sharp in the tender cradle of one's arch. He suddenly comprehends the piss dilemma. Cold as bathoscopic death two-feet down. The water climbs past her his knees into their crotch, and Terence realizes just what Caroline's been up against all these years. His cunt feels like an person without a proper coat. The water's wends its way like the arbitrary hand of fate. It climbs her his belly and pushes breasts skyward like tiny ineffectual life preservers. Near the surface the lake is woven with surprise bands of warmth. Terence concentrates on those. "Terence" is now out past the raft, shoulders tilting, head mechanically ticking off strokes. Asshole. Caroline can only agree. Auditioning for Tarzan? She dives and screams bubbles, waiting for the worst shock to pass, breath frozen, limbs flailing. She surfaces, rolls onto her back. It is a new day. It's my lake for three generations damn it, Caroline declares. I'll be damned if Terence is going to out tough me. She goes after him. Terence understands her attitude. As Caroline he feels like his own little brother Pete trying to catch up with himself. If only she knew what it was to be the poor bastard trying always to keep swimming ahead.
Caroline gives it all she's got, battling the water to keep "Terence" near. The man is a machine. He's neither racing nor dawdling. He never alters his pace. She parallels him. Her arms start to fill with weight. Her lungs ache. The reach the far shore and turn back. There, you bastard! Dizzy and flailing, she heads for the raft. The ladder squeaks and her weight, transferred from the water to rung, is immense, as if she is Jacques Cousteau in full regalia. Is this what it is to be a woman? Terence wonders, or simply to be my wet-and-winded wife? She lays on rough wood, closes her eyes, waits. The world spins. She opens her eyes. Sky. She is almost dry when the raft rocks against the pull of "Terence" ignoring the ladder like Johnny Weismuller, standing there dripping. He settles beside her, panting. He doesn’t touch her, waiting to warm up. She dozes, hears what could be voices speaking French beneath the raft. They are arguing, or rather a man's voice is protesting, the woman’s accusing. I had no idea--aucune idéa, she hears the man say. I cannot introduce you to my friends, she answers. Then Caroline is awake, not dizzy but curiously heavy. She handles "Terence's" still cool parts. He grunts obligingly but she he knows he can barely feel her fingers. She leans across one sun-warmed thigh and takes his penis in her mouth, feeling illicit because of how tiny he is, as if she were seducing a boy. Terence feels odd. It is, after all, his own penis. It flickers and swells along his tongue. "Terence's" moan takes on a note of sincerity. The raft lazily rocks. Two voices are speaking French, the woman saying that meal was a deliberate insult, the man apologizing. For a moment the lake is still. He is wet between his legs and confusion wells in him until he realizes that he's Caroline and that women suddenly find themselves wet, with blood, with desire. "Terence" strokes her him quite ineffectually, missing really by a mile the clit that feels plain as the nose on her his face, Terence thinks, impatient. God lord, haven't they been married for some fourteen years? You'd think by now he'd but it's not that simple, he recalls, looking at "Terence's" earnest expression--too earnest, he's not concentrating or he'd have it--remembering for a moment just how tricky it is, the way a clit, even a friendly front-and-center model like mine Caroline's he thinks, dodges about, ducking, changing sides as if unsure of its own mood. Then "Terence" is on to it for a moment and he and Caroline catch their breath and pull their knees wide and up in affirmation. Pleasure all swirly and fast, the earth not moving but the raft rocking and her his eyelids fluttering, heat coming on now, not circles you idiot, keep it simple, a simple march, up down, up down, nice, nice, good, good. At last "Terence" earnestly kneeling between her legs why is the raft rocking so ah yes the wind is up sun out again now warm, the man replacing its shadow with his pelt not momentous the moment of penetration Terence coolly observes a nice glove-over-hand fit, things in their proper place, but no gasp and strain what with two children I suppose. Still he's disappointed not as Caroline so much as on his own behalf, his belief that he was so impressive all those years. Why moan now? he thinks he and Caroline moaning and then understands of course that's why he or rather she preserved his illusion through the decades. What is that sonnet? I lie with her and she with me And by lies we flattered be? Then "Terence" lifts her knees and slides up up and she moans again not kidding much this time tilting herself back, pulling at "Terence" his silly well-meaning face securely parked in her collar bone, his hands under her, one finding the small of back, the other the two shoulders, yes, yes. He's got it now, like a magic handkerchief invisible then suddenly filling space with color and motion yes he's onto it good boy if he just doesn't stop Caroline and Terence thinks we can make of this a thing. Caroline pulls Terence’s head to her upward stretching nipple taking a handful of Terence’s damp hair as Terence’s lips find her and pull in a good mouthful of breast--steady, lad, keep the works running, twenty-four hour production, that's it, don't lose sight of the main Jesus that's nice chewing sucking right on the edge of pain working in and out like something dependable and suddenly Caroline is loving Terence her gratitude her heat spilling molten over him it’s not just that he's useful he's lovely why feel him so thoughtful he's holding that wet nipple in one mitt now and giving consideration to the other one our right his left and that's the good one anyway not only a cup-size bigger but more mature, more clever since puberty. Ouch don't get carried away, what's with the incisor, what if I just give your prick a playful bite sometime nearly drew blood why do men think they can do that to nipples? But all is forgiven lo the sucking is past and Terence anticipatory and obedient rolls to his back not bothering to stay inside her which is a silly trick even in a bed and ill-advised on a raw plank raft Terence thinks as Caroline mounts--rising for a moment high into the sky placing Terence inside her and then looking about her as if suddenly cognizant of being under God's sky even if in the middle of a two-acre lake on private land. Come to think of it Terence thinks why are his flanks not chaffed by the wood? Why aren’t their knees worried by the wood? Where's the towel he always swam out for such occasions against splinters? Then he sees it and it's a table cloth he dimly recognizes on the dock which is rocking back and forth rather than vertically. The voices below are no longer speaking French and there is the smell of lovemaking is in the air, cunt musk and man armpit and a perfume he knows but knows isn't Caroline's she's burrowing in now her back muscular and rounded to the day. There's our clit Terence congratulates all three of them yes there it is she knows how to do this, stoking the thumb length of it against him somehow not his cock exactly nor his mound but rather the idea of the place where the two meet there. Yes and bow strokes, cello sweep up, virtuoso down, her back curved and strong. She he wishing Terence would do a bit more, Terence keeping as it were a stiff upper lip but that's about it, she he now butting quickly against Terence driving herself forth and back, forth and back, faster until just forth forth forth as far as he can tell. He could never fathom that velocity, being in the driver's seat clarifies nothing, especially with his eyelids involuntarily batting and Terence bless his ass is up and at it again working his limited angle for all its worth getting one hit in for our three hopelessly outfucked but valiant, in for the duration, and she he loving him again but do we have time now? he wonders. She he loving every hair on his chest, his strong arms across her kidneys his hands urging our charge in and in, loving his jaw set with concentration against the light of the day against the tablecloth, against the rocking dock. Loving him in blindness her his eyes against Terence’s ear, her clit's perfect oar against him. Loving his insistence on existence in our locale, the way he ages, his exact limitations, the round muscles of his breasts, the children that he distractedly causes. Beneath there is tender cursing, the table swaying, and a woman giving voice.
"What about this one?"
Ed reaches across their coffees to highlight Citypaper. Mount Vernon I bedroom, kit alcove w/ new appli’s, 1435 w utils 1 yr min, 1 m depo. Sheryl struggles to catch up. It was around three in the morning when Ed told her he wanted them to get an apartment so they could live together in DC when his clerkship ended. Christine can take over with Terence, he told her. Christine has been wanting a piece of Nicholson all year anyway, Sheryl admits. Ed hasn't said anything about getting engaged but when he came inside her that morning he cried a little bit. She knew better than to ask why.
"Here," Sheryl tells the tall man, who looks like a young Aretha. "Thanks. God that looks great."
Ed looks up. Sheryl is being kind to a waiter. She often speaks to waitpersons in a way that gives Ed the chills--I'll take that, Put it here, You can go--that sort of thing. This is somehow the effect of having been the pet in her uncle's steakhouse in New Jersey, where her mother parked her for three hours every Thursday afternoon of her girlhood so she could get her hair done in peace. But despite the numerous shrimp cocktails and Shirley Temples of yesteryear, this morning Sheryl is being civil. She and the tall thin guy are bonding.
"Let me get you some more coffee," he says.
"I’d love that. Alcove?" she says to Ed.
"Bigger than a breadbox. But not much."
"We should just look at the place. Where’s Mount Vernon."
Sheryl shows him on the map. She's sleepy, not because by the time she got over her Kissinger-induced stupor and she and Ed started making love it was almost two, so it couldn't have been before three-thirty that she first closed her eyes. Not because she spent a few hours listening for Terence and when she thought she heard him, got up only to find Jon and Peter leaving the house, where they had apparently been all night, at nearly six. And not because they called her from a payphone forty minutes later, waking her so thoroughly that she only fitfully dozed until Ed woke up at ten, she dividing her time between a irritating persistent dream, neither fulfilling nor frightening, of herself delivering a colloquium paper in Hart Hall to an audience composed primarily of her undergraduate professors.
Why's Ed reading the personals? she wonders. He chuckles, highlights. She doesn't read what he finds. She feeds him. His food may never come. Her coffee's been refilled twice. Today she is beloved of everyone. They are taking care of her. They know. She is Mary in search of manger--nothing fancy, a duplex with a garden in Adams Morgan. She knows Adams isn't what it used to be, but she's loyal to its past. Well, Takoma Park if she gets a porch with a swing. Ed takes her free hand and squeezes it hard. Her hollandaise kiss lasts and when they look up his omelet has landed and the waiter is pouring coffee.
"My wife and I have been separated," Terence tells Dolores, "for eleven years."
Dolores doesn't budge from where she woke, naked, curled around the man's knees and hip like one of Solomon's virgins. Her clothes are under the table in the living room. She remembers Jean-Baptiste offering her a hand and seeing, when she stood naked in the light of the one long candle still burning, Terence rising at the same moment from his chair and coming toward her. He took her arm, they started down the hallway toward the front door, he will take a cab, he said. He turned to thank Jean-Baptiste once again, and suddenly his legs were not beneath him and Dolores traveled instinctively with him to the floor, catching him. They rolled together, smiling, Terence neither apologetic nor surprised, graciously accepting Jean-Baptiste's insistence that he stay, but insisting for his own part that he does not want to bother them and wishes only for a towel. He emerged from the bathroom naked and smelling of Jean-Baptiste's soap. Dolores showed him the bed—there’s only one--where the three of them spent the night peacefully. Dolores barely noticed when Jean-Baptiste rose at five. It was early to begin preparations, but they have company. Terence is, Dolores is quite certain now, the lover she imagines. One knows, doesn't one, from the simplest caresses and evolutions of embrace. He takes her head in his hand, runs a soft finger over her cheek and brow. His erection tents the sheet that covers them without urgency. She kisses the smooth collar-bone V at the top of his chest.
"Did you leave?"
Terence lifts Dolores higher on him and settles his fingers in her hair. He has forgotten how well her head fits there, just as it did in the Circle.
"Does she see the children?"
"All the time."
Jean-Baptiste himself sees Jon and Peter in the morning, coming to the front door to meet the two men, one tall, one handsome. Yes, Terence stayed the night he tells Jon. He will be home late in the morning or perhaps in the afternoon.
At ten-fifteen Jean-Baptiste prepares the coffee tray. The first of the breads cools in the window. In her second sleep, Dolores is with her mother and father, walking the last stretch to the market at Port-Au-Prince. Her father guides her mother beneath one arm and holds Dolores' own small hand. An ancient tractor rumbles toward them towing a wagon of produce, its wheels twice her height. Flakes of rusty yellow earth tumble from the deep tread to the street.
Dupont Circle jets kick on. Roostertails of water climb the sky. Filtudo madre de una svester dobleculido Esperanto whispers, leaning back over the edge of the fountain to stare through the first falling drops of the day into the predawn sky. The wind heaves his way and Esperanto gets wet. Circle is as close to empty as ever--Daniel Boone and his grey-headed dog sleeping under parka and garbage bag on the uptown benches, Little Richard not singing but not sleeping either, his blue jumpsuit catching the straight-up breeze where he sits on the metro vent. White jogger working his way around sidewalk, arms pumping. Is this love, Esperanto wonders, or what?
He should have been asleep hours ago. Albert nodded off in the middle of Esperanto's long telling about what had happened with him and Selena, then gave Esperanto a big hug that neither of them would do anywhere with anybody looking. He staggered to the Enterprise and squealed off. Last thing he said was, Sorry, Kirk. I'd hang but Pammy depleted me. Esperanto knew that was true and it was no mystery why Albert would fall asleep with what Esperanto was telling him. After Pammy there weren't too many surprises that could come in the form of stories about sex. Still, Albert had to admit Selena was a puzzle and a babe, with that way she talks and what she does. Albert thinks Pammy put her up to it while he and Esperanto were fetching liquor at Tracks. Remember, he told Esperanto while he was still walking and talking, how when we came up to them they were laughing and shit? They had just met. They were bugging. Plus Pammy did that kiss on you. That would get Selena fired up, Albert reminded him, even if she was Saint Popsicle della Chastity Belt. But Esperanto knows that hello kiss of Pammy's, which was like a Vulcan brain probe except it went straight to the trousers, had been Pammy's way of telling Albert to stop acting like a church hood and come talk. Still, he had a point. What had Pammy told Selena? That she was going to have to make the move if she wanted to get busy with Esperanto? That he was probably still a virgin? That as soon as the 'Prise was out of Tracks’ orbit, the both of them should turn into like total freak creatures?
Esperanto sniffed the middle finger of his right hand, then the index finger and the middle finger, and shook his head. How had it happened? He still couldn't figure out what came after what. Clothes were suddenly not wearing people. He remembers holding that cashmere against his face in confusion, as if the sweater and not that incredibly beautiful long girl, had been his mission all evening. He remembers his finger slipping in so easily, as if it belonged not on his hand but inside the woman in his Communications class who he'd only had lunch with once. Damn. Sweet. Dolce et nectura es su frente bajas los estallas, he says and remembers asking Mr. Joshua about his wife who had died and his parents who Hitler and had killed and his wife's parents who had been cooked in ovens and he wondered now whether Mr. Joshua's wife's pussy had been like that, and his mother's pussy when his father first touched her in Europe before television, and his own mother's pussy which he'd seen once when he came home from school sick and she was just getting out of the shower before she went to bed from nightshift--whether his mother's pussy had felt like that when his father, who wasn't a Columbian drug lord but Jim and Felí's dad Mr. Guttierez, or else why was he always looking at me the way he is, and asking me if I need anything?—had first gotten down with her. Maybe all pussies feel like that no that's impossible he knew his old girlfriend Stacey’s didn't because when he touched her under the boardwalk in Ocean City on the fourth of July she was kind of dry and stretchy--she said it was the salt water, but Esperanto knew it was because they weren’t all the way in love. Selena loves him. That's why she's so beautiful and feels and smells the way she does, but what if she loves somebody else down in Virginia? She sure knows how to do everything. He'll kill himself. No, he'll kill the guy. No, he'll kill her. No, he'll ask her to break up with the other guy, who's probably like a tobacco farmer anyway, and be his girl. They'll get married as soon as he graduates. Total commitment. She's the one.
He's bugging, he knows it. Should of let Albert drive him home but he wanted to be alone to think about her. He'll talk to Albert about her tomorrow. Albert will know what he should do. He knows he shouldn't call her for at least a day. Well, at least not until the afternoon. He'll call Albert and if Albert says it's cool, he'll call Selena after lunch. Or maybe he'll get Pammy to call her and ask her what she thinks of him, and then when he's talked to Pammy he'll call her.
He walks N Street to 11th, shrugging and talking to himself against the morning chill. When he gets home he doesn't know whether to open the door loud to reassure his mom or quiet to let her sleep. He leaves her a note in the kitchen saying he's sorry, hopes she didn't worry, and forty bucks. Then he takes the pad up to bed and sits there under the Julius Irving poster writing a poem for Selena's birthday, whenever that is. He knows she'll like it because for her optional essay in class she wrote a really long poem about her cat Trifle in Virginia Beach. He starts writing in English but everything sounds Hallmark. He writes Lengine del swarod melista cocora in Esperanto the way he hasn't since the last time he wrote to Mr. Joshua in seventh grade, and as soon as he sees the words are on the page he knows they're in the right language. He'll tell her what they mean. The sun comes through the window beside the bed and fills the whole piece of paper and the end of his pen with gold.