Read an Excerpt
The Axe Boy lived downstairs. We were friendly because he was forever walking an ugly little dog I patted when I bumped into them in the hall.
As you’ve seen from the pictures, he was nothing special to look at. The only odd thing I noticed was his eyeglasses: they were almost always dirty—that foggy, smudged look which makes you want to take out your own hanky and give them a good cleaning.
“A good boy.” Why do newspapers always use terms like that? “Everyone who knew him thought of the murderer as a good boy who loved his parents, was a member of the Eagle Scouts and spent his spare time collecting Asian stamps.”
Even my wonderful husband Danny said that after most of the grisly details came out. “He seemed like a good kid, didn’t he, Cullen? ‘Axe Boy’? Jesus, what a thing to call someone!”
“Danny, our young friend ‘Axe Boy’ Alvin Williams chopped his mother and sister into pieces exactly one floor below our apartment. A good boy he is not.”
Danny had that quality and most of the time I loved him very much for it: the world is to be forgiven. Axe Boys, dogs that shit in the middle of the sidewalk, dangerous drivers…they know not what they do.
I forgive nothing. If you stole my orange crayon in the fifth grade, you’re still on my hit list, buster.
We were eating breakfast and Danny was reading the story to me from the paper. The thought of that murderous creep snoozing below us not long before still made my fanny tingle.
“He says he didn’t know what came over him.”
“Oh, really? Well, I hope the next thing that comes over him is a noose!”
“Cullen, you’ve interrupted me four times since I began reading this article to you. Would you like me to go on, or would you rather do a monologue?”
But he smiled when he said this because he wasn’t really angry. When Danny got angry, he became quiet. Then you ran and hid under the bed for a very long time until he spoke again.
“You can go on, but he doesn’t deserve any sympathy.”
Danny ruffled the paper and cleared his throat. “He said he didn’t know what came over him because he loved his mother and sister very much.” He shook his head. “My God, what would it be like if that was your kid?” He looked at me as if I had the answer. “Whenever you see the parents of a kid like this on television, being interviewed, they always look so hurt and confused. All that time and effort they’ve put in over the years. The new bicycles they bought, trips to the doctor, packages from Grandma…So what ends up happening? Mom borrows his pen and for some reason he goes totally berserk. I wonder if it was this bad in the old days?”
“Danny, please don’t start. ‘The old days’ were probably just as bad as now; people just use them as an excuse to condemn things.”
“I’m not going to ‘star’. It’s just that whenever I read about something like this, I get all guilty. You know what I mean? Why should we be so lucky? We still love each other, the baby’s great, I make good money.…”
He shrugged and drank his coffee. There wasn’t anything I could say because he was right—we were lucky people, and if I could do anything about it, it would stay that way for the next fifty years.
• • •
I fell in love with Danny James when it was unfashionable to fall in love with anything but causes. Spell that with a capital “C,” please. That was back in the 1970s when everybody hated the war in Vietnam and stores sold only incense and tacky Indian clothes by the million. I shouldn’t be so snotty, because I wore too much patchouli perfume and carried my very own copy of The Prophet with me wherever I went. Thank God things change. Is there anyone around whose past doesn’t make them cringe?
We met in college in New Jersey and were introduced by the girl Danny later married—Evelyn Hernuss, who was my roommate in freshman year.
He was in love with her. But at the time I was in love with Jim Vanderberg, so I didn’t pay much attention to Danny James. Jim and I were convinced we were destined to get married and go off to a Peace Corps posting in some ravaged section of the world, where they would desperately need us and we would go around feeling like little saints for a couple of years. But the worm turns!
Jim and I later broke up over an advanced case of apathy. And three months after their marriage in junior year, Evelyn Hernuss James died in a car crash with her mother and father on their way home from one of Danny’s basketball games.
I had taken the semester off to campaign for a Presidential peace candidate and was in Chicago when I heard about her death. There was little I could do besides write Danny a letter telling him how sorry I was. Evelyn was one of the good ones—all the way down the line.
In what seemed a week, I received a thick letter back from Danny, spilling every gut he had on to the page. I wrote back and he wrote back and I wrote back…And when I returned in the winter, he met me at Newark Airport looking like someone who had barely survived Dachau. He looked so bad he scared me.
All of my “Earth Mother” instincts woke right up. Believe me, I had no intention of loving him—I was there to be his friend in need. I had also decided I was going to be “off” love that semester. I was going to be serious, chaste, industrious, unapproachable…and eat only whole-grain foods.
We spent a lot of time together. He needed someone he could cry in front of; I needed someone who would make me feel a little less self-involved. Things worked out fine.
That was the year he set a school record for scoring and, hate sports as much as I did, I went to as many games as possible. At the beginning I sat in the stands and did my homework, but I couldn’t help admiring how smooth and graceful he looked on the court. Soon I stopped doing my homework, became a great fan and knew more about basketball than a serious girl should.
When college was over, Danny was offered two tryouts with professional teams, but true to his Marco Polo nature, he decided to play for a team in Milan instead. I thought it was a nice idea but nuts at the same time—and had no hesitation in telling him that. He shrugged and said he didn’t want to play basketball for the rest of his life anyway, so here was a way he could play and see things at the same time without the pressure and worry of big-time American pro sports.
European pro basketball turned out to be rough and often about as subtle as a brick over the head. The finesse and ballet of the game at its best in the United States is lost. American players who come over are often appalled at the steamroller way they go at it in the “elegant” part of the world.
Danny’s letters to me that first year abroad were full of wonderful descriptions of games played in youth centers, military bases, gymnasiums that doubled as town halls. The team gave him a car that blew up, and just enough money to keep his elephant’s appetite at bay.
I was working for a magazine in New York as a researcher and feeling lonely most of the time. Live in New York when you’re rich or in love, but avoid it when all you have is a job, a smelly apartment on Tenth Street and an empty dance card. That was the year I spent devouring all the books you’re only supposed to read at the beach in the summer. I learned how to cook, and thanked God someone had had the compassion to invent television.
During the day I would call places like Alaska and ask distant-voiced scientists about the mating habits of the musk-ox. I was good at my job because I had too much time on my hands and didn’t mind putting in extra hours, asking a million extra questions and making perfect copies of my research reports.
I dated a bunch of men with names like Richard and Christopher (multisyllable names were “in” again) who, when taken together, didn’t add up to one Danny James. His letters from Italy were full of freshness and life. The guys I was seeing were trying their damnedest to be cool and wise and infallible. They took me to grim Bulgarian movies (in the original language) and then explained the story to me afterward in lousy coffeehouses. Danny liked to talk about the funny mistakes he’d made and how silly he’d looked or felt as a result. He would write a whole letter about a meal of bad pasta that would make me laugh out loud. So many of the sentences had his face. Unfortunately for the Richards and Christophers, I would inevitably receive one of these treasured letters a few hours before a date with one of them and, as a result, I’d be a grump all night.
Yet, just before summer arrived that year, I did something incredibly stupid. Tired of being efficient by day and lonely by night, I went to bed with a beautiful German photographer named Peter (pronounced “Pay-ter”) who made me swoon in my seat the first time he entered the office. Casual affairs had always repelled me, but I had never really experienced lust at first sight. I slept with him on our second date. He took me out for dinner in a very tall building that had a view over all of Manhattan. We ate the most delicious things on the menu and he talked about the ruins of Petra, the game the Afghanis play called bushkhazi, an evening he’d spent at a café in Alexandria with Lawrence Durrell.
He never looked me in the eye once in all the times we went to bed in the next months. He preferred to rest his handsome chin on my shoulder every time we “made love.” He wasn’t good and he wasn’t bad: he was just “Pay-ter” who told wonderful stories and expected you to do more than he did once you were in bed. Since there was little else in my life then besides letters from the distant Danny James, I convinced myself I was in love with Peter.
Psychologists say you should never go food shopping when you’re hungry, because at that point everything you see looks delicious and you buy strictly on impulse. Popcorn, oysters…it doesn’t make any sense because your stomach is saying yes to everything, whether it’s logical or nutritious or just junk. I met Peter when I was hungry and everything he was looked like a feast.
When I found out I was pregnant, it took me three days to get up the nerve to tell Peter. He told me I was lovely and a wonder, but it wasn’t love; he said he had a friend who knew a good abortionist. I said I would do my own shopping around and did. I was too young and sure of my wonderful future to think about losing the child. Somewhere far-off in my mind I knew I wanted to have children later in life, but not now. Not with a man who didn’t love me—and not with my mind full of fear and anger and blinking red lights.
What I remember most about the whole experience was the serene sense of comfort and soft calm I felt when I woke up in a hospital bed late one August afternoon, childless again. I never wanted to leave that bed with its crunchy-white sheets and buttery light pouring in through the window.
I went back to my small apartment and opened a magazine. The first thing I saw was a photograph of a family having a picnic in a bright green meadow. I think I looked at that picture for ten minutes. I had left a child in that hospital. I didn’t want the child, even with that photograph in my aching lap, but that didn’t matter. I felt like there was nothing left—not someone I loved, not a child of that love, nothing.
I didn’t go mad or anything so dramatic, but I did fall into a depression as deep and dark as the sea at night. I became even more efficient at my job and started reading books on advanced mathematics and architecture when I went home at night. I wanted to keep my mind filled with things that were clean and sharp and logical: pictures of buildings that rose straight off the earth like rockets.
I went to a woman analyst who told me I was beautiful and witty and absolutely right to abort because my body was my own. But her feminist pep-talks only made me sadder and less sure of myself than before. I didn’t want to be independent; I wanted to love someone and feel comfortable with my life.
One night I realized that the only person I knew who could come close to understanding my confusion was Danny. So I sat down and wrote him a ten-page, single-spaced letter telling him about my relationship with Peter and the abortion and how it was affecting me. I so vividly remember going to the post office the next day to mail it. After I’d slipped it into the box, I closed my eyes very tightly and said, “Please, please, please.”
A week later I received a telegram from Milan saying:
• • •
WHY DID YOU WAIT TO TELL ME? THE FIRST THING
I’M GOING TO DO IS PUNCH YOU IN THE NOSE.
ARRIVING TUESDAY FLIGHT 60/TWA/KENNEDY.
• • •
I spent the entire weekend rushing around shopping, cleaning my apartment (twice), shaking my head in disbelief that Danny was actually arriving in a few days. What was even more unbelievable was that from all accounts, his trip was in response to my confused letter. Did people still rush to another’s side to help and comfort? My whole spirit clapped its hands at the thought.
Riding out to the airport on the bus, I kept smoothing the wrinkles in my new dress and said again and again under my breath, “Flight 60 TWA. Flight 60 TWA.”
The plane was forty-five minutes late in arriving and by the time people started emerging through the gate, I think I’d gone to the bathroom three times. I waited and waited; had gone up and down on my tiptoes a hundred times before I saw this wonderful, familiar giant emerge behind all the other pygmy passengers.
He bent down and gave me a big kiss on the lips. His smile was like sitting by a warm fire with the best book you’ve ever read.
“That’s the first time I ever kissed you like that, isn’t it? How come I waited so long?”
“And how come you’re so tall? I forgot, sort of.”
We walked toward the exit and I had to take two steps to match his every one. I kept looking up at him to make sure he was really there and not just in my best dreams. I envied no one else in the world.
Outside, waiting for a cab to take us back to the city, he towered over everyone with both his height and his pure calm. People screeched and ran by, buses blatted smoke thick as lead, planes carved the air overhead. Danny stood there and smiled at it all.
“You know, it’s nice to be back in horrible old New York, Cullen.”
I got up on tiptoes and gave him a big smooch on his sandy cheek. “Only you would get a kick out of this mess.”
A shabby Checker cab rambled up and the driver came out so fast I thought he’d been catapulted.
“The city? You goin’ inna city? Hah?”
“We go the meter! What, you think I’m a crook or somethin’?”
Cabdrivers in New York are either autistic or philosophers; there’s rarely an in-between. We’d happened on a philosopher-complainer who kept yakking the whole forty minutes into town. That was nothing new, but Danny yakked right back. The driver’s name was Milton Stiller and by the time we were shimmying over the Tri-Borough Bridge, Danny was calling him “Milt” and asking pertinent questions about his wife, Sylvia.
There are people who will talk to anyone and find something interesting in them. I’m not one of them, but I learned fast that Danny was. People felt comfortable and at home with him, innately sensing he’d neither judge nor betray their confidences, no matter what they were. Our new friend Milton had probably been griping his woes at captive customers for twenty years. But Danny listened and talked and was the kind of human being we all want to kidnap and take home forever and never share with anyone else. Milt invited us over to dinner just before we got out in front of our apartment house. He said he knew Sylvia would love us.
Danny paid and overtipped so much my eyes bulged out of my head. He picked up his bags and moved toward the sidewalk.
“Hey, Colon. Come here a minute.”
I’d never been called “Colon” before. Colin, usually. Even Collar once, but Colon was a new one.
“You take care of that big boy, you hear me? Christ, I wish my son was like him.”
Fast tears came to my eyes and I had to turn away quickly or else he would have seen me with a very wet face.
“I will. I promise.”
Danny stood at the door with his suitcases and his smile. He was waiting for me: Colon.
• • •
The table was set. I brought out the only pièce de resistance I knew how to make well—spinach lasagne. As I walked to the table, I suddenly realized something and would have smacked myself on the forehead if I’d had another hand.
Danny lowered his glass of beer from his lips, leaving a white foam mustache. “What’s the matter? Did you forget something?”
“Oh Danny, I made lasagne! I completely forgot about what you eat in Italy. You must have this three times a day there!”
He shook his head and gestured for me to put it down. Then he bent his head over like a long-necked bird and scrutinized it.
“Cullen it’s…green.” He smiled beatifically.
“Of course it is! It’s spinach lasagne.”
“Yes, spinach. I’m a vegetarian. That doesn’t mean it’s not good.”
“Uh…oh.” He was about to take a sip of beer, but put the glass back on the table very gently.
“What’s the matter with that? This is the first time I’ve felt like crying all day.”
“Don’t do that. It’s just that vegetarians make me nervous.”
“War wouldn’t make you nervous, Danny James. Do you enjoy eating dead flesh?”
“Uh…oh.” He took his fork and poked at my masterpiece as if he were inspecting a minefield. “Is it really good?”
I squinted flame and acid his way and forked him up a piece as big as a manhole cover. It sat firm and proud…and green on his plate.
“You eat that!”
“But it might be hot. Green things stay hot longer, you know.”
His smile fell but he began to eat and three helpings later he was still going strong. He hadn’t said another word, but his face had relaxed and his cheeks stayed full. I know because I watched him like a hawk.
“So how is it, Popeye?”
He patted his tummy. “I stand corrected; spinach lasagne wins! So what’s for dessert, kelp cake?”
“I should feel insulted now, but I’m still too glad to see you. You’re a wonderful friend for coming, Danny.”
He bowed his head my way and pushed a spoon a little to the left. “Are you okay, Cullen?”
“I’m a lot better since I got the telegram saying you were coming. Overall? I’m much better now. I think about the child sometimes, but that’s only natural.”
He put his hands in his lap and leaned forward as if he were about to whisper a secret. “I know it’s easy for me to say it, but I don’t think you should worry about that if you can help it, Cul. You aborted because you had to. You didn’t love the man, I’m assuming. What better reason could you have had than that?”
“Oh, Danny, I know. I’ve run all that through my mind, but it was a person in there. There’s no way I can get around that.” Tears came to my eyes. It seemed I wasn’t over anything yet.
Danny shook his head and looked at me very sternly. Then one of his hands came up from his lap and he placed it on the table in a tight fist. “You’re wrong, Cullen. The seed isn’t the flower. I’m not trying to be facile either. What kind of life would that child have had? Huh? Even if you had wanted it, there would have been so many times you’d have resented the poor thing and your decision to have it. Look at our parents and how many times they wanted to brain us when we were growing up. All my life I’ve heard people say it’s a nip-and-tuck battle for parents to love their kids all the way through. As good a person as I think you are, I do think you would have scarred the kid somehow. It may not be a very nice thing for me to say, but we really don’t need anymore walking wounded on this earth, you know?”
“I’m not saying you’re in any way wrong, Danny, but life just isn’t that simple. If it was as easy and clear cut as you say…If it was as logical as that, I wouldn’t continue to feel as bad as I do. I know what you’re saying, and you’re absolutely right in a way. But logic and rationality only go so far. Then you know what happens? Ha! Then your old heart adds its two cents and everything reasonable goes right-out-the-window.”
I took out a cigarette and lit up. We were quiet, comfortably quiet for a while. Even with talk of the baby, I felt more at ease than I had in ages.
Danny sighed and frowned. “You’re right, Cullen. A hundred percent right. Remember how I was after Evelyn died? Every time I tried to tell myself to just calm down and get back to living my life, my emotions said, ‘Fuck you, Buddy, we hurt!’”
It was not a funny thought, but the way he said it made me grin. He grinned back and I reached across the table and took his hand.
“You know something funny? You almost always blow smoke out of the side of your mouth, Cul. I remember that from before. Are you aware of it?”
“You shoot the smoke out the side; like you’re making a little comment or something. Never in front.”
“Now I’m going to be self-conscious.”
“Cullen, you’re the prettiest woman I know. You have every right to be self-conscious.”
He said that without any hesitation, but wouldn’t look at me when he did. How many good men are there in the world who are both shy and complimentary at the same time? The men I’d gone out with recently were full of both compliments and eye contact, but I often got the feeling neither meant a damn.
He took a coin out of his pocket and did a lovely little trick with it—flash, whoosh, gone!—just for me.
“That’s neat, Dan. Do it again!”
“Nope! Never ask a magician to do his tricks twice in a row. You’ll figure them out and they’ll lose all their magic that way.”
I went into the kitchen to get the dessert—a giant, horrendously gooey chocolate cake that looked great and broke all the rules.
Danny’s whole face lit up as soon as he saw it. That night marked the beginning of our many-year contest to see who had the greater madness for sweets.
When I put it down on the table, he reached over and pulled the whole thing in front of him. “Oh Cullen, that was really nice of you to get this for me. And what are you having for dessert?”
Over coffee and cake we talked about everything. His words were so like his letters; taking their time to get wherever, funny, self-deprecating. It was plain he saw himself as a hell of a lucky guy who had been plopped down in a fascinating, illogical world for no reason other than to have a good look around, hands in pockets and a little surprised whistle on his lips.
Years before, I had taken his “way” for naïveté when I first knew him, but it wasn’t that. It was a healthy, magnificently unpolluted sense of wonder. Life was wonderful—or at least full of wonders—for Danny James. He would look at a junkyard and be thrilled by the weird mix of colors in there. When he prodded me into looking, I would see a junkyard. Not a good or a bad one, simply a junkyard! Yet his wonder was not annoying or particularly contagious either. Most of the time you didn’t even know it was there until you looked up at him and saw those quiet brown eyes staring at whatever it was, a slight, pleased smile on his face.
I grew to hope for that smile; it was really the only way I could tell what was going on in his mind. As I’ve said before, it was very hard to tell when he was mad about something, and only slightly less difficult to tell when he was happy. His wasn’t a stone face, exactly, but rather a handsome one with a set, bemused expression that rarely changed, and kept secrets—both his and your own—like no one else I had ever known.
“Well, Dan, now you’re going to have to spill the beans: have you been gallivanting around Italy with contessas?”
“No, no contessas. Not many of them go to basketball games. There is this one woman.…” His voice trailed off and he looked away. Embarrassed?
“Yes, all right; there’s this one woman. And?” Unconsciously I took out another cigarette. I was smoking up to two packs a day and climbing; before the abortion it had been less than one.
He looked at me, smiled, shrugged. “It’s very hard for me, Cullen. Believe it or not, since Evelyn died I have been very low-keyed with women. I go to bed with some and some go to bed with me—if you get the difference—but a lot less than some people think. Until recently I’ve had no desire to jump into any…pool and get wet. There’ve been other interesting things to pay attention to, like living in Europe for one. I think it’s going to be a very slow process, finding someone else to be with for the rest of my life.”
I had the cigarette in my mouth and was squinting against the smoke that curled up the side of my cheek. “But now you sound like you think you found someone.”
“I don’t know. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, believe me. To tell you the truth, most of the time women make me nervous. Really! I often feel like I’m either saying the wrong thing or acting the wrong way—even when I know they like me. Isn’t that silly? I feel like a kid going to dance class for the first time; which hand do I put where on the girl’s body?”
We smiled at each other and the room hummed with comfort and companionship.
“But you were married once, Danny. You should know all the ropes.”
“Maybe some of them, but really I was only married long enough to know I liked it, Cul. Then it went away.”
“Danny, you’re smart and you’ve got a good heart, so answer me this, will you? Why do all the jerks do so well in life? And why do so many nice people get stomped on? If anyone didn’t deserve to lose their wife, it’s you.”
“It’s not that simple, Cullen. Sometimes it works out fine.” His voice was soft and sad.
“Oh yeah? Well, I don’t think it works out fine too often. Do you want more cake? Say yes, please.”
The new woman’s name was Drew Conrad. Whoever heard of a girl named Drew? But she was a model and that explained a lot about her, as far as I was concerned. Every guy I knew in those days was going out with a model. My definition of a model? Airheads with nice teeth.
“What’s she doing in Italy, besides posing?”
“Are you telling me that you don’t like models? Why don’t you do it, Cullen? You sure could make more money than you do at that magazine. God knows, you’ve certainly got the looks for it!”
“Yeah, I’m pretty, but when people look it makes me extremely nervous. What’s more, I wouldn’t want to spend my life posing on a car hood in a pair of purple underpants. Hey, guys, look what you can have if you buy that Fiat! It’s tacky, Danny. I’m sure not the world’s best person, but I work hard to avoid being tacky if I can. Modeling reeks of tack. Look, I’m sorry if I’m squashing your Drew Conrad. Are you going to tell me what she’s like?”
“She’s tall and dark. We met at a party in Milan.”
“And…well, um, the sex is nice.”
“And?” For the first time, the question of what Danny James would be like in bed crossed my mind. I looked hard at him and imagined he guessed what I was thinking because he quickly averted his eyes and scrooched around in his chair like he had ants in his pants.
But I liked sex. I also liked my aloe plant and the International House of Pancakes. My experiences with sex reminded me of a great new movie that everyone talks about and loves. You go along hoping, hoping it will be everything they said it was. But then it’s over and you walk out of the theater, blinking hard at the sudden light—tired, and sort of disappointed and confused by all the hoopla the thing has received.
Most of my bedroom stories could have been divided into two simple categories: “Bunny Rabbit Sex” and “Blackmail Sex.” I’d had scads of Bunny Rabbit Sex—crazily eager, jackhammer stuff so repetitious and unoriginal that your nose started twitching in frustration after a while.
Or there was the ever-popular Blackmail Sex: do it with me right now or else I’ll be depressed for the rest of my life…or at least the rest of tonight. “Pay-ter” was a great one for that and I fell for it each time.
Now, sizing up Danny in a sexy light, I couldn’t imagine him being guilty of either approach, but like him as much as I did, I still had my doubts.
“Cullen, did I say something wrong?”
“No, nothing, Danny. I was just thinking about sex.”
His eyes smiled and he winked the nicest wink that ever was. “Cullen, I wouldn’t know what to do if you and I went to bed. You know why? I’d be too busy staring at you to think of anything else.”
It was said with such great humor and warmth that the only thing I wanted to do was get up and give him a hug, which I did. He hugged back and the next thing I knew, I was crying all over his gigantic shoulder.
“I don’t want to cry, but I can’t really help it.”
He squeezed me tighter and stroked the back of my head again and again. It was a wonderful feeling. He also had that man’s bouquet of smells—heat, cologne, sweat, summer earth. It made you hot, comfortable; assured you that for a moment or two you would be safe from the snapping alligator jaws of life.
Don’t get me wrong—good smells or not, putting your arms around most men was either like embracing a chimp or a tombstone. Men either “let” you hug them or quickly tried to turn that nicest of things into an orgy.
Not Danny James. His hands ran down my back in innocent rills that I wished would go on forever. Hands are wonderful; they can disappear coins, or they can iron out wrinkles in blue, rumpled souls.
“Are you crying because you’re so sad to see me, Cul?”
I smiled and sniffed into his chest. His words, his hands on my back, his presence there was like someone had opened a trapdoor in the top of my head and poured warm milk in, filling my body, soaking all of my cells, soothing them all with its life, vitamins, whiteness.
I told him this and he chuckled. “I’ve never been called a glass of milk before.”
Jet lag caught up with him an hour later and he started yawning. I steered him into the bathroom and told him that by the time he was finished in there, I’d have the couch made up and he could flop right down and go to sleep. He shuffled out a few minutes later wearing a pair of cute flannel pajamas as big as an Indian tepee.
“The couch is all made up. I’ll get out of here and let you go to sleep.”
“Cullen, I’m going to sleep with you. Don’t say no, and don’t think I’m going to try anything. I came a hell of a long way to see you, so we’re not going to play any games with each other. We’ll sleep and be good, but we’ll be sleeping together. Okay?”
“Okay.” I couldn’t look at him and my heart was beating very fast.
“That ‘okay’ didn’t sound so good.”
“Good. I’m completely exhausted. I’ll see you later. Thank you for dinner, even if it was green.” He turned and started out.
“Danny? I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too.” He half-turned and gave a little tired wave.
I watched him scuff off into the bedroom and lie down, Gulliver-style, on my surprised bed. Then I went into the kitchen and did the dishes with worried hands.
Naturally, nothing happened when I did get into bed. Danny was sound asleep. Rolling over on my side, I smiled into the darkness and listened for a long time to the hiss of his breathing.
• • •
I awoke when I felt a hand on my face and opened my eyes to see Danny looking at me from ten inches away. His face was puffed and crinkled into a sleepy smile.
“I think I’m jet-lagged. It’s nine in the morning where I live so I’m wide awake!”
Without a thought, I slid over and put my arms around his big sleep-warmed body. We lay there for a little while and then fell asleep again.
The next time I awoke I smelled good things in the air, but was disappointed to discover he wasn’t there to smell them with me.
I like men’s shoulders. Always have. The first thing I saw of Danny that morning was his shoulders moving and jumping around as he worked at the stove cooking breakfast. I leaned against the door and watched while he moved here and there amidst cooking sounds and flying hands. He seemed to know exactly what to do. And he had great shoulders. High and broad, they spanned the top of a thin, well-kept body. I had spent the night with that body and the thought made me smile; I had never slept with anyone without fooling around before. I felt like a newly minted coin. What had happened last night reminded me of a story out of the Middle Ages: one of those great ones, where the virtuous knight sleeps with his lady-fair in the same bed, only he’s placed his trusty sword between them on the sheets to keep them both virtuous.
The only part of the story that didn’t fit so well was that Ms. Drew Conrad was Danny’s lady-fair at the moment, while I was just his pal in need.
Had I fallen a little in love with him only because part of me was nasty-competitive, or because everything he’d done since he’d arrived the day before had been supremely adorable?
Without knowing I was there, he turned on the radio to a disco station. Spatula in hand, he started dancing around. He was pretty good.
“Do you have any pictures of you when you were a little girl?”
I was startled that he’d known all along that I was there. He turned around and, flipping the spatula, caught it with two fingers.
“You’re a real bag of tricks, aren’t you? Pictures of me when I was little? Yes, I have a big bunch of them somewhere in a drawer.”
“Terrific! Let’s eat first and then you can get them out for me.”
“How come you want to see them?” I sat down at the table. He’d already taken my usual spot, but I liked to see him sitting there.
“I want to see if you were as pretty then as you are now.”
He said this while putting a plate of scrambled eggs, toast and sliced tomato in front of me. There was even a thin sprig of bright green parsley laid over the eggs. It added an unnecessary, albeit lovely touch of color and care to the whole thing that made it a hundred times better. Danny cared; for the food he cooked, for me…for everything.
“I’m not used to being told I’m good-looking.” Very unprettily, I shovelled a large load of food into my mouth.
“Men don’t tell you because they don’t want to admit your advantage over them. The better-looking a woman is, the more insecure a man gets.”
“Why’s that? How ridiculous! Would you pass the salt?”
“Because it’s hard to walk down the street with someone who makes other people walk into walls when they look. Plus, no one looks at you when you’re with that pretty person. It’s very humbling.”
“Is Drew Conrad pretty?” I stopped chewing and realized my fork was hanging in midair.
He hesitated a moment, then nodded bashfully, but he wouldn’t look at me.
“What advertisements has she done? Anything over here I would have seen?”
“I don’t know—all of the big ones, I think. They brought her over from New York, so I guess she’s known over here too.”
“Do you bump into walls when you see her?”
“Every so often.”
I pushed my plate away a little too hard and it skidded across the table like a hockey puck. “Okay! All right, I admit it—I’m jealous. No, I hate her, Dan! I look at you and I’m thinking there are neat men in the world. Look, there’s one right here in front of me. So where the hell are they? All I ever meet are squeenys and mudballs.”
“What’s a squeeny?”
“Hey, just walk into any Singles’ Bar and take your pick. Computer dating. The New York Review of Books Classified Section: ‘Docile Virgo seeking intrepid Lion to run through the dunes with.’ After some time in that world, ‘Pay-ter’ seemed like Clark Gable.”
A big silence followed. I was beginning to worry that once again I’d somehow put my foot in my big mouth, when Danny finally spoke.
“Cullen, there’s no Drew Conrad!”
“Just what I said. She’s what you might call a figment of my perverse imagination.”
“Danny, what are you talking about?”
“Nothing. It’s just that there’s no Drew Conrad. I made her up. Basta. That’s all!”
My spirit hoisted five flags. “But why? Whatever for?”
“Whatever for, Cullen? Because the truth of the matter is, I’m scared to death of you!”
“Of me? James, are you cracked? Look at me, damn it!”
He sighed and looked at me with the saddest expression in town. “It’s very simple, don’t you see? If I had a woman like Drew to tell you about, then we would be on safe ground. You wouldn’t have to worry about someone else being forward with you. And if I pretended convincingly enough that she did exist, then I was hoping you wouldn’t see how gone I am for you. See, Cullen, I had it all figured out: I would just rhapsodize about you, but call you Drew Conrad, and I’d be all set.”
His face had the calmness of truth in it. He looked me in the eye while he spoke and after a while I was the one who began to feel uncomfortable.
“When you wrote me about your abortion, I realized I had been in love with you for a long time. Maybe even when we were in college, right at the end of senior year! Anyway, when I got your letter over there and I started imagining you alone in that hospital bed having to go through such an ordeal…”
I was a few feet away from him but I could plainly see there were tears in his eyes. Tears for me! Who had ever cried for me? What man had ever cared so much?
My heart turned in my chest, but the tears and obvious depth of his emotion scared me and made me want to be alone so I could catch my breath and think all this over for a minute, an hour, a few days.
“I’m sorry, Cullen. I really don’t want to create any more problems for you. I promised myself I wouldn’t tell you any of this.” He got up tiredly from the table and walked into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
Loving someone is easy. It’s your car and all you have to do is start the engine, give her a little gas and point the thing wherever you want to go. But being loved is like being taken for a ride in someone else’s car. Even if you think they’ll be a good driver, you always have the innate fear they might do something wrong: in an instant you’ll both be flying through the windshield toward imminent disaster. Being loved can be the most frightening thing of all. Because love means good-bye to control; and what happens if halfway or three-quarters of the way through the trip you decide you want to go back, or in a different direction, and you’re only the codriver?
DUMB! You wanted to be loved, Cullen? Loved by a special, wonderful man? Okay, here you are—right in your hand. What happens? What’s your reaction? You get scared. Dumb!
I rubbed my face with both hands and snorted at my stupidity.
The door opened slowly and reluctantly. He stood there stooped in his dandy green pajamas, vulnerable and from the look on his face, expecting the worst.
“Please don’t say anything sweet, Cullen. Don’t be sweet or pitying; I couldn’t take that.”
“Come in here and finish your breakfast.”
• • •
His…I don’t know what you would call it…declaration? Any-way, it did funny things to us. Made us shy of each other, but very intimate at the same time. When we were walking down the street a few hours later, he took my hand, which sent a bolt of flaming orange lightning across my brain. What courage it must have taken for him to do that! To reach right over and take my hand, after what he had said with no response from me one way or the other…I’d wanted to grab hold of his hand too, but hadn’t had the guts to do it in that still, tense interval in our relationship between nothing and everything.
We did too many things that day. Walked everywhere, saw this, saw that, ate everything. Both of us knew the whole time that if we kept good and busy, we could temporarily skirt the issue at hand. I think that’s what we both wanted.
New York is good for that. It has everything to show you and never enough time in any day to do it all. We took a subway to the Brooklyn Bridge and walked along the Promenade, looking at the harbor. We were holding hands by then and both of us held on tight, but made as little eye contact as possible. We were acting like fourteen-year-old jerks, and since both of us were suddenly so shy with each other, it reminded me of how people must have courted back in Friendly Persuasion times.
For the first time, I asked Danny about his family. His father was dead, but his mother and sister lived in North Carolina. This was surprising, because he spoke with no southern accent at all. When I mentioned this, he said he had lived in New Jersey until he was fifteen. Then his father—who was a furniture designer—was offered a job in North Carolina at one of those big furniture firms down there. The family moved to a small town named Hickory which was the home of the factory. Nine months later, Mr. James had a cerebral hemorrhage at work and that was that.
Mrs. James got a job teaching at a local private school and her income—along with her husband’s life insurance money—enabled the family to settle into a comfortable, sad way of life. Danny went to college on a basketball scholarship.
The boats in New York harbor shuffled and steamed and chuffed from side to side in the open water and in their dark berths. Boats that had been on the high seas for months, loaded down with enough bananas or Spanish shoes or Japanese watercolor sets to keep the city going forever. I looked on those boats and realized for the zillionth time that I had never been anywhere in the world outside of Chicago, New Brunswick, New Jersey and New York City. The only Greece I knew was souvlaki and posters of the Parthenon in a tired Greek restaurant I liked on 46th Street. I had never owned a passport, never needed a visa. The only Europe I had ever known was through sleeping with a European. The only adventure I had ever had was an abortion.
“Danny, what’s it like living over there?”
“Like? Well, you always find odd coins in your pockets. You’ll be looking for a hundred lira and you’ll find five francs in there instead. You think you’re giving a guy five schillings for a newspaper and it turns out to be five drachma.”
“Drachma. Have you been to Greece too? God, I hate you. What’s it like?”
“Athens is loud and messy. But the islands are exactly what you’d hoped for.”
“Very clean and very gray. Are we playing ‘Twenty Questions’?”
We were sitting on a bench watching the day’s traffic float by: those boats in the harbor, parents with baby strollers, old men moving slowly and complaining to the air.
“No, but Danny, what’s it like? Is it all that different? Is the world really different over there?”
“Why? What’s the matter, Cullen?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I want things to change, Danny. You know? I want to look out of my window in the morning and see…and see orange streetcars!”
“Those are in Milan.” He smiled and took my hand in both of his.
“All right, see, they do exist! I want orange streetcars, or book-sellers along the river selling books in Italian or Hungarian or some other language I can’t understand. I want to sit in a café with marble tables and eat a real croissant. Oh Danny, I know I’m being a big brat, but I’d do anything to see those things. I really would!”
“Then why don’t you go to Europe?”
“Because I’m a chicken, that’s why! I don’t want to be disappointed. And I never had anyone I wanted to go with, but basically because I’m a chicken.”
He licked his lips and then pressed them tightly together. What-ever he was about to say was going to be hard for him.
“Come and stay with me in Italy, Cullen. We’ll do all the things you want, together. You keep saying you don’t like your job or living in New York. So come to Milan for as long as you want and I’ll treat you to as many rides as you want on orange streetcars.”
“Things sure happen fast sometimes, don’t they?”
“Uh-huh. But you know, I’m totally serious about this. I want you to come, if you want!”
I took hold of him and hugged him, right there on that park bench. Hugged him with all of the strength I had. Not because it was the end of the movie and we were about to live happily ever after. And not because it was his way of proposing to me and both of us knew it. Mostly it was because he had reaffirmed to me that there were such things as orange streetcars in the world and some time soon, no matter what finally happened between us, we would be seeing those things together.
• • •
We didn’t make love until the night before he left. We kissed a lot and touched and slept together, but none of the big stuff until we only had a few hours left. That fact—notwithstanding the happiness and excitement (and speed!) of our new bond—scared us into the final, ultimate act of affirmation.
There’s no reason to go into any detail about that night, but there were a few things he did that knocked me for a loop.
The first was that he didn’t actually enter me for ages. For the longest time he seemed content just to touch and kiss and, true to his word, look at me. I wasn’t used to the slowness of everything. Peter and my other horizontal acquaintances were always hurrying. Hurrying to get undressed, hurrying to get hot, hurrying to begin the “Main Event.” But beside the fact that hurrying often hurt me physically because I wasn’t ready for them, I kept thinking that there ought to be some subtlety in it; subtlety and gentleness, and many minutes invested in an act that could mean a very great deal if you really worked at it, rather than just bounced on it. Too often I had spent my time staring at designs on different ceilings while a hot little human locomotive pounded his way inside me toward…who knows where?
Danny was not the best lover I had ever had, but he was by far the most generous. He touched and stroked me until I was slick with sweat and hope. And when he finally did enter me, I had to urge him to do it. As he did, he asked me two or three times if he was hurting me. The expression on his face said he was very concerned about that. I touched his cheek and said it felt great.
He put his head next to mine and whispered in my ear, “‘It’ doesn’t feel great. You feel great!”
When he came, he arched his back like a driver going off a high board. But he was looking right at me and I don’t think he took his eyes off me the whole time. As he moved very hard up and through me he said, he hissed with a smile on his face a mile wide, “It’s a song, Cullen!”
• • •
The next morning he was leaning up on one elbow and smiling at me when I opened my eyes. I smiled back and reached out my arms for him. He came over and I took hold of him and rocked him back and forth. He was twice as big as me, but right then he felt weightless; as if I could hold all of him in one hand.
“How do you feel, Cul?”
“Terrific. I’m only sad that you’re going.”
“And last night?”
“Sleeping together? It was lovely.”
We lazed around for a while and then he got up. “Stay where you are. I have a surprise.”
A half hour later he came in with a tray full of fresh croissants, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, and coffee in two ceramic mugs I had never seen before. One was red, the other green. Best of all, there was an old book of Italian fairy tales—in Italian.
“See, you don’t even have to go to Europe to get the croissants and books in Italian! The mugs are a going-away present. You get the green and I get the red. If you let anyone else drink from my mug, I’ll poke you in the nose!” His voice was playful, but the expression on his face was the first and last hint he ever gave that said he fully expected me to remain faithful to him. Not faithful so much in body, although that was part of it, but faithful more to the idea of what had been growing between us since he had arrived.
“I know what you’re saying, Danny, but please don’t make little veiled threats like that. They’re not necessary and you make me feel sleazy. I’m not that bad.”
He put the tray beside me on the bed and sat himself down on the floor. We ate in an uncomfortable silence that made me quickly lose my appetite.
He shouldn’t have threatened and I shouldn’t have snapped. The sound of a spoon stirring coffee never rang so loudly as it did in those few long minutes of grim silence. Happiness, contentment, peace: all three of those things balance perched on the point of the thinnest pin. The slightest movement of the earth knocks them off—and boy, how they crash when they hit!
“Cullen, I want to tell you a story because the last thing I want is for you to misunderstand what I’m getting at.
“When I was a little boy, my father took me for a ride in the country one day, just the two of us. We drove alongside a lake for a few miles and then suddenly, out of nowhere, a bunch of ducks flew low out of the trees by the side of the road. My father hit the whole bunch, square on…all of them.”
Both of us had our hands wrapped around the coffee mugs. I looked down at Danny to see what this story had to do with the argument of a minute ago. But he was looking off into space and the steam from his coffee was being blown here and there by the strength of his breath.
“Dad pulled the car over and we got out to see what had happened. It was a mess. Real carnage…blood and feathers were splattered across the whole front of the car. Even as a little boy I knew the sight upset him. He picked up the bodies—there were four of them—and threw them as far off the road and into the woods as he could. We were out in the middle of nowhere, so there was no way we could clean the car, which by then looked as if it had come through some kind of massacre. Our ride in the country was ruined, so Dad turned the car around and drove us straight home.
“But here’s the real macabre part. As we drove up our driveway, my mother was coming out of the house with a load of washing under her arm to hang up on the line. She took one look at the front of the car and started screaming. And I mean screaming, Cul—not little ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ or something like that. These were screams and shouts, real hysteria! Dad and I were so shocked by it that we forgot for a moment what she was so obviously screaming about—the blood and guts that were still splattered across the front of the car! We simply thought she had flipped her lid.
“Dad slammed on the brakes and both of us jumped out. Mom started shouting, ‘Who did you kill? Oh God, who did you kill?’ Then she fell down on her knees and started moaning. Wow, I’ll never forget that scene as long as I live! Sooner or later it dawned on us what she was raving about and we got her cooled down. But for a while it was frightening as hell. She was completely out of control.”
He sipped his coffee and silently I waited for him to go on. The picture of his mother down on her knees and the bloody, dripping car grille made me uneasy and trembly.
“The reason why I’m telling you this terrible story, Cullen, is because my father was a horrendous driver. Seeing all that blood on the car wasn’t the only reason my mother had just gone crazy. For years she had been on at Dad in a nice way to be careful, because he was so bad behind the wheel. He never looked at the road, always drove too fast, never used his indicators.…Even as a kid I knew I was taking my life in my hands when I went out riding with him, although he loved to have us all in the car with him whenever he went somewhere.
“What happened this time was that my mother took one look at the front of the car and all of her years of fearing the worst came together in that one minute. He’d done it: she was sure he’d done what she’d been expecting him to do for years. She was sure he had killed someone. The blood told her everything she needed to know. Do you understand?”
I nodded slowly, still not seeing how all this connected to us.
“Cullen, everything you’ve been telling me these past few days adds up to your being confused and unsure of who you are in the world. The relationships you’ve had in the past—especially with that stupid Peter—have only made you more unsure. Then the abortion thing topped it all off. Whatever self-esteem or conviction you had left went flying out of the window. You want everything to change now, like you said the other day, because you don’t like where you are, either physically or…well, spiritually. Am I right?”
“I don’t like hearing you say any of this, but you’re right.”
“Don’t feel that way. I’m not trying to hurt you. If you come to Europe, things will change. I promise you that. You’ll have your streetcars and you’ll have someone who’ll take care of you. Me! But in the meantime, I don’t want to be like my mother with my father, constantly worrying about you.”
“Worry? Why would you worry about me? What are you saying, Danny?”
“I’m saying that you have got to start knowing that you’re good and smart and capable. You can’t keep thinking you’re a beautiful flunkey who only deserves another flunky like Peter. I’m not worried about your remaining true to me, Cullen; I’m worried about your remaining true to yourself. For God’s sake, you’re a wonderful woman. I don’t know anybody else like you and that’s why I love you. But I also know I think more of you than you do of yourself, and that’s bad. It’s dangerous.
“I don’t think I need to say any more, do you?”
• • •
In April I flew to Athens and on the plane I met a Greek named Lillis, who invited me to visit him on the island of Skiathos. He described how the poppies were just coming into bloom now, and how he would love to take me to Koukounaries beach in his boat to swim in the Aegean. “Koukounaries” means pine cones in Greek and the Aegean was Greece, and half an hour into the flight I realized I was flying to Greece! Greece, as in Plato and Sparta and Henry Miller’s favorite country. Danny James would be there to meet me and after a two-week tour, we would fly to Milan and take life from there. I was so proud and excited to be doing this and I didn’t even mind too much when Lillis got fresh during the movie a few hours later. I told him it was very nice of him, but I was being met in Athens by my seven-foot-tall husband, and that calmed Lillis right down.
I looked out of the window several hundred times, although it was dark out there and you couldn’t see a thing. We were flying over the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. I had quit my job, emptied out my savings account, had several yelling matches over the telephone with my mother, and essentially taken my life in my hands. There was courage in those acts, courage and gumption, and I felt reckless and brave and magnificent all at the same time.
When we landed early the next morning, I saw the sea, old propeller planes painted in camouflage and white buildings every-where. Danny was standing at the gate.
Copyright © 1987 by Jonathan Carroll