Why had she said she enjoyed this? Not said, exactly, there was some defense in that. Merely ticked it off in the box provided. Still, it wasn’t at all her type of thing. Never had been. Yet there she’d gone, blithely ticking it off. Enjoy reading? Movies? Theatre? Yes, all true enough. She’d checked each off in its accompanying online box without a moment’s hesitation. Opera? Perhaps a moment’s there, but she’d gone ahead and placed a check in that box as well. It didn’t hurt to be seen as accommodating. Hiking? Spectator sports? Travel? Sure. Why not? Three ticks in a row. Men liked accommodating women. And one could, she thought, men and women alike, learn to accommodate just about anything. But this? Driving golf balls down a range on a Hudson River pier with a man she’d known as soon as she’d exchanged two full in-person sentences with wasn’t the one didn’t lend itself to accommodation.
Her back was aching. Her hands burned from the unfamiliar grip.
“Hold it tight,” the man had instructed. “Hook the pinky finger of your right hand over the index finger of your left. Line up your thumbs straight on the shaft of the club.”
Of course he would deliver instructions. He was an old hand at this. Played actual games on a rolling green course in Westchester on fine weekends, and on those not so fine too, throughout the year. Walked eighteen holes around that course in the blazing sun and drizzling rain. Never would she do such a thing. Her powers of accommodation didn’t extend that far. Didn’t even extend, if she were being completely honest, to this.
I’ll be completely honest, she had promised herself, approaching the survey. But she hadn’t kept her promise. She had ticked it off in the box, so for now she would have to submit to his instructions.
“Keep your head down. Follow through on your swing.”
Four levels of heated, weather-protected outdoor hitting stalls stretched precariously over the river. Theirs was on the top level. Nothing but a long narrow plank of wood bordered by sheets of tall transparent netting. Water everywhere. She couldn’t see the ground. Balls teed up at her feet automatically. The lack of control troubled her. Stepping up to the ball, she’d experienced a feeling of vertigo.
She couldn't see the ground. Balls teed up at her feet automatically. The lack of control troubled her. Stepping up to the ball, she'd experienced a feeling of vertigo.
“Don’t think. Just swing.”
By his own account, he was something of an expert. So of course he’d brought her here to demonstrate his expertise.
“Watch me,” he’d insisted.
She’d had no option but to watch.
Feet firmly planted, head down, club stretched before him at a forty-five degree angle, he swung back and gracefully followed through. Eyes not lifting to gauge the projection of the ball until the club had come around and sailed well past his left shoulder. She stood before him at a safe distance, admiring the arc of his thin, flexible body, the obvious strength of his arms. Another ball appeared from nowhere and teed up before him. He studied it in silence for several seconds. Some sort of communication seemed to pass between man and object. Finally, he raised his club. His salt-and-pepper hair was thinning, and at the very top of his head, facing her dead-on like a target, was the distinctive circle of male-pattern balding. She thought about swinging her club while he went on silently communicating with his ball. Thought about connecting its bulbous, wooden head with the center of that balding pattern. How the blood would flow. How it would spurt from the top of his head, a gushing red fountain, and pour down over his face and shoulders. How it would slide down his body and come eventually to seep into the artificial turf beneath their feet on that fourth-level stall overlooking the river.
They had walked through a demonstration to get here. Disorder in the streets. People singing and shouting. Slogans in Portuguese she couldn’t understand.
“It’s in solidarity with the general strike in Brazil,” he told her.
“You speak Portuguese?”
“I read about it. I know the circumstances.”
Outrage at police brutality in São Paulo and New York. Cries of protest in foreign languages. Global condemnation of racist and repressive police forces. Pockets of demonstrators surrounded them as they walked toward the pier. Frightened and excited, she took his arm. Her fingers rested on his bulging muscle, yet even so she understood he’d never be the one.
After the driving range they had dinner. Duck á l’orange and two bottles of Bordeaux. He’d never been married, he told her between bottles, though he’d come close, he added quickly. Almost a year with a likely prospect. Neither had she, she’d told him when it was her turn, and not even close. Not a year, not six months. Saying it, she saw in his face a look of veiled contempt, as though it was all right for a man of his years, seven or eight more than hers, she estimated, never to have succumbed to matrimony, but for a woman her age never to have done so was somehow reprehensible. She ignored his look and took him home. It was important to be seen as a good sport. And into her bed. On the first date, no less, and possibly just for that reason—to be seen as a good sport.
So, technically, they were lovers already, though hardly intimates. And she hadn’t permitted him to spend the night, hadn’t even determined if she would see him again.
And then she had. Forty-three years of a life in which she’d never come close being the determining factor. His phone call the next day, reassuring as a morning-after pill, weighed in his favor. His silence for several consecutive days following did not.
She went about her life. Her life. Nights in front of the television screen. Days at the charitable foundation, reading the requests for money that kept pouring in, passing on less than one-tenth of one percent for further consideration, declining all others. I regret to inform you…she did not regret it. She rather enjoyed her authority to turn down these organizations, worthy as some of them were. As worthy as your project is, it does not fall within our priorities.
Just as she had determined she wouldn’t mind if she never saw him again, he called. Out of the blue, though not entirely. A part of her had known all along he would.
“It’s John,” he said, and suggested another dinner, this time at a small café in Battery Park, overlooking the harbor.
He has a thing for water, she decided, and replied: “That would be lovely.”
It was a Friday evening, balmy when they set out. All she had taken was a light shawl to pull over her arms left bare by her dress, which was in reality hardly more than a sundress and admittedly in a style somewhat too young for her.
“Don’t you think you’ll need more than that?” he’d said. “It can get quite cool by the harbor.”
She’d been annoyed by his statement and then by the stance he adopted throughout the evening, exhibiting a kind of ownership of the waterfront, the restaurant, and her as well, declaring more than suggesting what she might like to eat and drink—“The risotto here is very good, the pasta, too, you’ll like it.” At moments, sitting at the table across from him, she would let go of her annoyance, finding she quite liked his proprietary attitude toward his environment, as if he were reaching out his arms to own all the world before him, and she allowed herself to envision being drawn into those arms, even being married to such a man. But at other times, looking away from him and out across the choppy waters toward Ellis Island in the far distance, she would feel her annoyance return, borne back to her on the reverse currents forming a little ways out and swirling back chaotically toward shore.
John told her about his day, spent as all his workdays were mediating organizational disputes, deciding in favor of one company or another. A mediator, that’s what he was. Had he told her that the first time they’d gone out? He must have, she decided, for that’s the sort of information people exchange on first dates, but she couldn’t remember now if he had or hadn’t. A mediator. It might come in handy.
“I have a knack for it. Making purely arbitrary decisions. Nothing personal. Still, it takes its toll. At the end of the week, I’m done.”
She thought she could live with that. Decisions made on the basis of the greatest good for the greatest number. Nothing personal. A man returned to her, drained, at week’s end.
She told him about her work at the foundation, though she thought she must have done so already. He asked if she had many friends, and she said she did not. She could be honest about that, at least. Nor did he, he admitted. They weren’t so far apart when it came to friendships, or the lack of them. But she might have had friends, she believed. People seemed to like her when she gave them half a chance. Often, say at a holiday party surrounded by colleagues, after a glass or two of punch, she’d feel overcome by the thought of what truly dedicated people they were, how committed to their cause, and the notion would intrude, we could actually be friends. Upon the thought something would drift away within her and in its place something cold and treacherous, like the waters of the harbor before her, would seep, and she’d know at the bottom of her heart she didn’t care if she never saw any of them again.
I could give you other things. I could give you love.
He regretted never having had children, he told her, and she understood here, too, given her age, she was a disappointment to him. Throughout the evening, his eyes came to rest on her shoulders at just those moments when, a breeze having picked up, she’d drawn her shawl closer about them, and she couldn’t help but think he was comparing her to other women he’d known and also found lacking.
I could give you other things. I could give you love.
She could if she made the effort. Women did it all the time. It wouldn’t take more than casting a blind eye on all that she found objectionable in him to turn him into the one.
“As it happened,” John continued. “She was a liar and a thief.”
The woman he’d been with for almost a year, the likely prospect, she understood him to mean.
Still, she had been everything to him, he insisted, and went on with his story.
“We had an understanding.”
Even before he knew her well he knew it was there. When they went for walks she put her hand on his arm and through his sleeve he felt the understanding that was there.
“It’s what makes me good at my job, sensing how things stand between parties. Know what I mean, Agnes?”
Agnes. It came as a shock, hearing her name. Returned her to herself as from another world.
The way he asked the question implied he wouldn’t have blamed her for not suspecting he possessed such sensitivity. But she did suspect it, and the suspicion gave her hope.
“A liar and a thief and everything I ever thought I would want in a woman.”
As he spoke he poured the olive oil into the little porcelain dish provided for that purpose, broke off pieces of bread, dipped the bread into the oil.
He put the bread into his mouth, passed the tip of his tongue around the rim of his lips to catch the oil.
“She was pretty, too. A bonus that. Though I’d have loved her without it.”
Love. The mention of it took her by surprise.
Gazing out over the harbor once more, she studied the swirl of the eddies, created when the water hit a rock or other obstacle, split in two, traveled around the obstacle, and met again on the far side. She thought if she and this man were deposited into the harbor, dropped by weights committing them to the depths, the water would go on and on encountering the obstacles their bodies had become, splitting in two, and creating eddies like those she was studying now as they traveled around them to meet again on the far side.
“Eleven months we were together. Almost a year. And all that time things went missing.” He paused, then added: “Eleven months and three weeks.” He paused again as if considering those three weeks, then returned to what went missing. “Little things. Items of no consequence. The anniversary of our meeting was coming up. A fitting date it would have made. I’d already bought the ring.”
He never knew, he said, for how much of those eleven months and three weeks she’d been seeing the other man. Not long, he didn’t think. Preferred not to think.
“Oh, John,” she said, for the first time now using his name. She reached across the table for his hand, remembering those two people in her bed a while back, almost strangers to her now, people she didn’t know at all, making fumbling approaches toward one another.
“A whirlwind thing, she pronounced it. Completely swept her away. It was over, she swore, begging me to forgive. But when is a thing like that ever over?”
“You couldn’t have known,” she told him, although she thought he could have.
“I’m known for knowing,” he replied, and drew his hand away. “It’s what I’m known for.”
They ate in silence for a while then, he sampling the chilled gazpacho, she the radicchio and avocado salad. From time to time, the sound of the water, splashing in the distance, a helicopter passing overhead, laughter abruptly rising and just as quickly subsiding at nearby tables reached them where they sat.
“A string of paperclips was the first to go. The jumbo kind, different colors. I only noticed because I’d strung them together the night before, thinking to attach them to some papers I’d be needing for the job the next morning.”
“It occurred to me the colors made a good way of ordering things. I’d left them on the bureau top, and then that morning, two months into our relationship, they were gone. It didn’t matter, of course. I had plenty of others.”
She nodded as though she could see how little the paperclips would matter. Cheap as they were, and certainly he had others. Although that they were colored and strung together, already in his mind to be put to a specific use, seemed to say they mattered some.
“Had you told her?”
“Told her what?”
Or greatly. Their absence in the morning seeping afterwards into the interstices of all the time they still had together, all nine months and three weeks remaining, blackening their brightest days.
“How you intended to use them. To put the papers in order. Arrange them by color. Had you told her that?”
No, he hadn’t, he said. Why would he? It wasn’t important. “Completely unimportant,” he insisted. “All of them, all her little thefts, completely unimportant.”
A book of matches was next, two months after the paper clips. He’d brought them home from a restaurant they’d been to.
“They were there on the table, although smoking wasn’t allowed, and she fiddled with them all through dinner, turning them over and over in her hand.”
Three months after the matches, it was loose change out of his coat pocket.
“I might not have noticed, except that I did.”
And, noticing, he’d been hurt.
“It’s a habit of mine, counting the change in my pocket. I always know within thirty-five cents how much is there.”
During their final weeks together, she escalated to more personal items.
“A striped tie. Socks. A blue one. A black one. Never the pair. Still, items of no consequence, though I was rather partial to the tie. I asked her, of course, but she always said she didn’t know. I slept with a thief. I slept with a liar.”
And then she came clean and told him about the man.
“I’d already bought the ring.”
And then she came clean and told him about the man.
“I’d already bought the ring.”
A sensitive man, unforgiving, easily hurt. She’d glimpsed it on the first date when, to prove that she was amenable, a good sport, was that it? she’d taken him home and into her bed, but hadn’t allowed him to spend the night. She’d been embarrassed about the room, not having vacuumed for more than a week, or even properly made the bed, which she hardly ever did now, only fluffing the pillows and pulling the quilt up over rumpled sheets.
I’m sorry, she’d started to say, then decided against it. Less on account of not wanting to call attention to the state of the room than not wishing to apologize to a man she barely knew and was unlikely to see again. So of course there was no question of him spending the night.
He’d laid his clothes over the arm of a chair where there were already clothes. The nightshirt she’d neglected to hang on the hook on the back of the bathroom door, its usual resting place, a bra she’d discarded at the last minute in favor of a more comfortable one when dressing for work that morning. She hadn’t turned on the lights, and in the darkness thought perhaps he wouldn’t notice, for she didn’t know then he was the sort of man who always knew within thirty-five cents how much loose change lay in his coat pocket.
In the semi-darkness of her room where no man had been for longer than she’d care to admit, nor none expected, explaining in part her lack of interest in cleaning it, he was more like the memory of a man than an actual man moving about among her things, tripping over her running shoes, bumping up against her bedside table, wobbling the unlit lamp.
She had hardly been able to see his face and earlier, on the driving range, his features were largely hidden from her, his head positioned downward in studious contemplation of the ball, or his back turned as he swung the club, and then later they were blurred by the Bordeaux. A sharp nose, a long chin. The bald spot on his pate, she recalled, but not the color of his eyes or the shape of his lips. She wouldn’t know him if she bumped into him on the street the next morning. Not that she was considering ever seeing him again.
She’d pulled back the quilt, exposing the rumpled sheets. Perhaps he would think he was crawling into a bed recently used for just this purpose by another man. She didn’t care if he did. In fact, she rather hoped that was precisely what he thought.
Then his arms were about her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “For the room, the sheets.”
“Never mind,” he replied.
“I’m not much of a housekeeper.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he told her, his voice so low it seemed a hum.
Still, she wouldn’t allow him to spend the night.
“You have to go,” she said when it was over.
It had nothing to do with him, being more about her, an image of herself she wanted to project. A woman in control of her life, someone not given to loneliness, to neediness. She understood he’d sensed that even before he touched her, and was hurt by it. His performance had betrayed his hurt. Holding back as if unwilling to give her a greater portion of himself than she’d indicated a desire for. A tentativeness about his movements as though no lasting impression were to be left. When they’d finished it was as if they hadn’t made love at all. Or had made the opposite of love. Each retreating as to a separate corner, leaving nothing revealed between them, no intimacy breached. It was the way she wanted it, or thought she did, fearing anything more would lay her before him as on a piece of parchment so thin he could poke his fingers through.
“The man was a theft, too,” he said, pressing his napkin to a corner of his mouth. “Of my trust.”
His bowl, emptied of its gazpacho, her plate with only a wedge of avocado left, had been cleared away.
“You go to bed at night thinking things you had laid out on your bureau top or left in your coat pocket will be there in the morning. It’s a matter of trust. You don’t need to think about it. They’re yours. They belong. They shouldn’t disappear. By the same token, things that don’t belong, human beings who have no business in your life, shouldn’t suddenly materialize. That also goes to trust.”
His error, he called it.
“An error of trust.”
“You mustn’t fault yourself,” she told him.
When the wine arrived and she’d finished her second glass, she allowed as to how she didn’t think trust was ever entirely an error.
“Of course you can make a mistake. People do all the time. Misplaced trust, they call it. But to have had it originally, to have placed it in another person, that isn’t wrong.”
“You don’t understand,” he replied. “I would have married her.”
But she did understand. The last man before him she’d taken into her bed, many years ago now, hadn’t pulled back the quilt to the sight of rumpled sheets. Things had been different then. She changed the sheets every week, pulled them tight across the mattress, even made hospital corners as she’d been taught in childhood. She vacuumed twice a week, cleaned the bathroom and kitchen every other day. She did it for him and was happy to do it, felt satisfaction, even joy, in doing it.
“She was trying to warn you with the paper clips and the change, the tie and the socks. She was trying to be honest.”
A breeze picked up, and she felt a chill on her arms and felt his eyes there, too, and drew her shawl closer about her. Didn’t I tell you it would get chilly out here? She heard his words as if he had spoken them aloud. Didn’t I warn you?
“Actually, I did come close,” she told him then. “I came very close.”
Less than six months together, but she’d known from the first that he was the one. The way on the morning after they’d first made love he’d turned up the collar of her shirt, the smile on his face. Who dresses you? The tenderness in his voice. There never had been any doubt, in her mind at least. His gentle stroke on the back of her hand. His fingertips against her cheek. Their little ways of possessing one another. Until death do us part. And then it did, and there was no more reason to clean her place.
“We were absolutely right for each other. I knew it before he did, but then he knew it too.” She was telling him the truth now. She was being honest. “There was nothing said. The question hadn’t been popped.” The man across the table from her, the man called John, looked into her face. “But I knew it as surely as I ever knew anything in my life. All I had to do was give him time.”
“So, what happened?”
“Time took him by surprise. He was crossing the street. Never saw it coming. Time sped away and stole him from me.”
“I’m sorry,” said John.
“So I know about thievery too.”
In her case time, not a lover, was the thief, taking more from her with each passing year, leaving her now at her age, childless, a widow before a wife.
They finished their meal. She had no memory of its taste. They finished the wine, and he walked her out into the street.
He draped an arm about her shoulder.
“I told you it could get chilly out here, didn’t I?”
Yes, he had. He had warned her.
“You did,” she replied.
Pockets of protesters were still scattered about. People shouting, chanting slogans in foreign languages. Disorder in the streets.
His arm about her was a comfort. He was a man who decided questions of vast import to major corporations. A mediator. A necessary man. The uncertainty of human life, its essential fragility, demanded mediation.
“The car never stopped,” she told him. “The driver was never apprehended.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
Everything was at risk. Everything could be whisked away at any second. It was a basic fact of life.
“We’re not in control.”
He stopped her then and embraced her. The reflection of their embrace, though neither saw it, was caught in the rear view mirror of a passing car, a fleeting, miniaturized image of what, one day, might yet come to be.
Everything was at risk. Everything could be whisked away at any second. It was a basic fact of life.
But when he held her in bed that night the old anxiety returned. It was she, not he, who was at fault. Something inside her prevented love from ever taking root. It was what she had always feared. He could not get in. He pressed himself against her and made every attempt. He called to her in silence, but no one answered his call. She knew it. She had always known it, and if the love of her life had not been stolen from her, he would have come to know it too in time. All this man’s pressure, all his exertion was for naught. He struggled and shriveled. It was no use. He shrank into himself.
She pulled away from him and she who never wept, wept then.
“It isn’t your fault,” he tried to assure her.
But it was. She knew it was. She could not be loved.
“It happens sometimes,” he said. “It’s usually the woman saying that to the man. It’s no one’s fault. Maybe the man finds the woman overwhelming or frightening. He falters. He fails. The woman can too. It doesn’t matter. We can try again.”
She turned back toward him and permitted herself to be consoled. Perhaps he was right, she thought. Perhaps they did have time, and perhaps in the time that was left to them, she could recalculate and see if there wasn’t a way to make him add up to the one.