Read an Excerpt
What is the opposite of losing?
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and we were playing chess. Felicia Blumenthal had invited the strays to her home on Francis Avenue—an old habit, hospitality to strangers, made urgent for her generation by the war. He was her cousin, “much removed,” she said, laughing, as she brought him over to where I was standing in the blue dining room balancing a plate of turkey, and when I asked him what he was thankful for, his eyes registered surprise and he said, “This,” meaning the lunch. He had come in from London the night before, he was leaving the next morning for Chicago. I had come from my studio wearing a long black skirt and white shirt. He stepped back and looked at me. “A flutist or an oboe player?” he asked. I had always wanted to play the oboe. He asked if I was cold, the dining room shaded on the north side of the house, Felicia too European to turn up the heat. We left our plates on the sideboard and crossed the hall into the living room, skirting the group standing around the fireplace —men in gray suits, a woman in a red sari—and gravitating instead to the sunny bay window. He sat on one antique blue-velvet chair, I sat on the other, the marble chessboard on the table between us.
I reached into the diagonal of sunlight, my hand momentarily translucent as I moved the white knight into position to capture the black bishop.
Andreas looked, saw, and moved his bishop away. The black bishop glided to safety, the inner recesses of black and white squares. Instead he would sacrifice a pawn: out of the many, this one.
“Your turn,” he said, looking up, his eyes blue-gray, the color of river stones.
My half brother, Anton, had taught me to play, long afternoons at the table in front of the high window looking out to the sea, his face grim. He was the child of our mother’s brief early marriage, the half in half brother a splinter under his skin. “Checkmate,” he would say, explaining that it came from the Arabic sha¯h ma¯t, meaning the king is dead. I said it meant he was her mate, the queen more elusive, more inventive, the one who moves freely in all directions. Who invented this game, I wondered, Andreas waiting. I touched the castle, its evenly chiseled turrets saying harmony, symmetry, even as its straight-line moves—up, down, across—concealed the darker purposes of alignment, the closing in of castle and knight on the unsuspecting (did she know, how did she know, why didn’t she know) queen.
Andreas leaned forward, the lines of his face deepening in concentration, and then he swept his queen across the board. “Check.”
The sun, horizontal now, ignited the yellow leaves on the maple tree outside the window.
He sat back, watching my face.
“Do you know how green your eyes are in this sun?” his voice quiet, as if to himself.
I looked at him, surprised, and at his hand at the edge of the board.
“What is the opposite of losing?” I asked him.
“Finding,” he said.
And so it began.
The next morning it snowed, unexpectedly. Huge flakes hung suspended in a yellow-gray haze, revealing the air, its density, and also gravity, as tumbling slowly and then for a moment resisting, they were pulled inexorably down. The leaves of late fall mingled with the snow of oncoming winter as I crossed the yard holding the university buildings apart, each building standing alone, discrete. This was Puritan New England. No touching, no leaning on one another. It was more or less how I’d been living since Simon was killed, my husband shot by my half brother. I stared at the buildings, stony like Anton’s face, memory rising, anger propelling me through the iron gates and out onto Quincy Street. The morning traffic was stalled, drivers peering through half-moons of windshield, marooned in their iron shells. I threaded my way between the cars, crossed Broadway, and headed for the concrete overhang of the Design School, my wet footsteps trailing me up the stairs to my office, where the phone was ringing.
“I found you,” the voice triumphant.
It took me a moment: “My chess partner,” I said, dropping my keys on the desk, my bag puddling on the floor beside me. Wasn’t he going to Chicago?
We had left Felicia’s together, he saying he wanted to walk, his legs still stiff from the overseas flight. He wanted to know how I knew Felicia, he wanted to know what I was doing. I told him I was an architect, working on a project to design a new city, on a small scale, on an island. It was something of an experiment, I said. He was trying to do operas in a new way, also on a small scale. He had trained as a conductor, was working mostly now as a director. The light faded across the river, the traffic picked up, people returning after the long weekend. We went into Harvard Square looking for coffee. Not much was open. We settled into the bar at Casablanca, at a table in the far corner, relieved to be out of the dankness that had set in with the end of the day.
We talked about our work, how we each were trying in our own way, he with operas, I with cities, to wrest a tradition into the unexpected, so people would actually see what they were seeing, hear what they were hearing. The island, Nashawena, off the coast of Massachusetts, was the site of my project. Richard Livingston, whose family owned it, had been taken by the idea that the structures people live in shape their lives. Andreas’s face lit up, his dark hair and black sweater accentuating the color in his cheeks. I couldn’t quite place him. Felicia was Viennese. He said he was Hungarian. Someone from the Lyric Opera had seen his production of Lulu in London, and he was on his way now to Chicago to meet with their board.
A loud noise from the kitchen. I jumped. I felt him watching me, puzzled. I looked around, no one seemed perturbed.
I told him I had been born on Cyprus, and except for university had lived there until the summer of ’75. I left at the beginning of the civil war, I said, if such a term makes sense.
He raised his eyebrows. It doesn’t, he said. He knew about war, he said.
Suddenly it was late. We ordered steak sandwiches from the bar menu.
Finally I said, “I really have to go.” I stood up and reached for my coat. He stood as well. “It’s been . . .” I began. Our eyes met. “Let’s leave it there,” he said softly, his long face creasing into a smile, then shadowed by a look of concern.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. He didn’t know that a woman professor had been murdered in Longfellow Park, a few blocks away. Or that a graduate student in anthropology was killed just around the corner, in her apartment on Mount Auburn Street, red ochre on her body suggesting a ritual slaying. But I was going in the opposite direction, and anyway, in my life it wasn’t the women who were slain.
I came back to the apartment, saw my face in the mirror, the flush on my cheeks, and said, “I’m not doing this.” I threw my clothes in the hamper, showered quickly, turned off the light, and closed my eyes.
“Where are you?” I asked now, peering through the horizontal pane of plate glass that in this office passed for a window. The snow fell thickly.
“I’m at the airport,” he said, “standing in a phone booth, calling you.”
I retrieved the new drawings from the clutter on my desk and rolled them into a tube, cradling the phone.
“All the flights have been canceled,” he said. “There is no way for me to get to Chicago in time for the meeting. So I was wondering. Do you want to play chess?”
Snow batted against the not-window. Who designed this Design School? A honeycomb of offices stretched out on either side of mine, the concrete walls radiating dampness. I had come in just to pick up the drawings, I was on my way to the island. I checked my watch: twenty to eight. I was wearing old jeans and a black sweater. I ran my fingers through my hair.
“Look,” I said, “I have to meet the surveyor on Martha’s Vineyard, and then we’re going to Nashawena, but why don’t you come. You can see the site, and then afterward, we can get oysters.” What was I thinking? But the answer is, I was thinking just that. He was intrigued by the project, he would like the adventure, I was sure he liked oysters. Why not?
I picked him up at the Aquarium stop on the Blue Line, he wearing a leather jacket, Italian loafers, and gray slacks, his bag slung over his shoulder. He was born in Budapest, had lived with rivers, studied in conservatories, a tall man at ease in his body, impervious to the weather. He threw his bag in the backseat and folded his long frame into the front. The smell of leather infused the car.
We drove south along the expressway, snow gusting against the windshield, erasing everything except a small stretch of road. The intimacy of the car was unsettling, lending a gravity to what had seemed a lighthearted adventure. I turned on the radio—Mozart in the morning. The slow movement of a piano concerto vied with the whirr of the defroster. Andreas took out his handkerchief and wiped the windshield. “Can you see?”
“Much better.” I found myself telling him my dream about driving blindly. In the dream, my eyes are literally shut, but my hands are on the steering wheel, my foot on the gas pedal, and the car is moving forward. I realize in the dream that this is wildly dangerous. I’m bound to hit something, kill someone. And yet nothing bad happens. The car moves ahead, the road goes uphill, the light is dim, sometimes it’s night. Farmhouses line the road. It’s somewhere in the country. I keep having this dream.
“Do you want to interpret it?” he asked, clearing the windshield again.
The news came on. Snow light, snow bright, first snow—I decide it’s a snow day, which made this all right.
We turned south onto Route 24 and then east on 25 heading toward the Cape, the sky lightening, gray arms of road surrounded by forest. As we approached the canal, the air became denser, snow drifting now through a haze of salt water, and then on the other side of the bridge the snow stopped.
Andreas took off his jacket and put it in back. I reached into my bag and retrieved an orange, handed it to him to peel.
“We had a lemon tree in our backyard,” I said. “It’s one of the things I miss about Cyprus, the taste of those lemons.”
He placed a section in my mouth, a burst of sweetness.
Tall trees lined the road like sentinels. Beneath them, smaller ash and beech still held their leaves, white-brown, the color that chocolate turns when it’s too hot, when it’s too cold. I could never remember. Mid-morning sun flooded the car. I unzipped my coat, Andreas holding it as I freed my arms from its sleeves. A strand of hair fell across my face. I pushed it back; I felt him watching me. And then we were there.
He took his jacket and his bag, leaving his briefcase in the car. “Do you think it’s safe?” he asked. I said sure.
We bought coffee in the lunchroom of the ferry and took it out on the deck as the boat headed through the channel into the Vineyard Sound. The line of the Cape receded to the left, the wind sweeping everything behind us. We rode in silence, standing at the rail.
As the string of islands appeared off to the right, he said, “Tell me about these islands.” I turned, my hair blowing across my face. “Or tell me,” his voice quiet, “is this as strange for you as it is for me?”
I didn’t want to put it into words, this feeling of being carried, like a riptide sweeping you out from the shore, and if you grow up by the sea, you know to let it take you, and then when its force subsides, you can swim back to safety.
“Do you know the Beckett novel,” he asked, seeing I could not respond, “where one character asks another, ‘Do you feel like singing?’ and the other says, ‘Not that I know of’?” I laughed, and we split the turkey sandwich that Felicia had insisted I take home with me, the rye bread, only slightly stale, rescuing the turkey from blandness.
Kevin was waiting at the dock in his red truck, his face impassive as I introduced Andreas. Kevin glanced at him, but he wanted to talk about site lines and wetlands, the new restrictions passed by the commission having necessitated changes in the plans. The three of us crowded into the front seat, the gearshift pressing on my left, Andreas’s leg on my right, my body registering his long bones, tensile muscles. I had grown up on Cyprus, where touching was commonplace. He was Hungarian. I rested my leg against his and talked with Kevin about the new location of the building at the north end of the site—an eddy where the design flowed back to the periphery. We stopped at his office, went over the wetland restrictions, examined the drawings to be sure they complied. Then we drove to Lake Tashmoo, where Frank, Kevin’s assistant, was waiting, tripods and flags loaded into the Boston Whaler for the trip across the Sound.
The harbor on Nashawena is on the north side, shallow, rocky, facing the Massachusetts coast. A strip of farmland lines the shore, rising sharply to pastures with low stubby growth, boulders laced with lichen, meandering stone walls. I tell Andreas the history, how the islands, once part of the mainland, were separated when the Ice Age receded, inhabited by the Wampanoags, members of the great Algonquin nation, who called them Nashanow, meaning between. In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold sailed into the Vineyard Sound. He named them the Elizabeth Islands for Queen Elizabeth, although some claimed it was for his sister. These small islands were included in the territorial grant of the king to the Council of New England. When the Council dissolved, Thomas Mayhew bought them, along with Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. He paid two coats for Naushon, the island now owned by the Livingston family, who also own Nashawena and Pasque.