The Women Who Got Away
Pierce Junction was an isolated New Hampshire town somewhat dignified by the presence of a small liberal-arts college; we survived by clustering together like a ball of snakes in a desert cave. The Sixties had taught us the high moral value of copulation, and we were slow to give up on an activity so simultaneously pleasurable and healthy. Still, you couldn’t sleep with everybody: we were bourgeoisie, responsible, with jobs and children, and affairs demanded energy and extracted wear and tear. We hadn’t learned yet to take the emotion out of sex. Looking back, the numbers don’t add up to what an average college student now manages in four years. There were women you failed ever to sleep with; these, in retrospect, have a perverse vividness, perhaps because the contacts, in the slithering ball of snakes, were so few that they have stayed distinct.
“Well, Martin,” Audrey Lancaster murmured to me toward the end of a summer cruise on a boat hired out of Portsmouth in celebration of somebody or other’s fortieth birthday, “I see what they say about you, at last.” The
“at last” was a dig of sorts, and the “they” was presumably female in gender. I wondered how much conversation went on, and along lines how specific, among the wives and divorcées of our set. I had been standing there by the rail, momentarily alone, mellow on my portion of California
Chablis, watching the Piscataqua River shakily reflect the harbor lights as the boat swung to dock and the loudspeaker system piped Simon and
Garfunkel into the warm, watery night.
My wife was slow-dancing on the forward deck with her lover, Frank Greer.
Audrey had materialized beside me and my hand went around her waist as if we might dance, too. There my hand stayed, and, like the gentle buzz you get from a frayed appliance cord, the reality of her haunch burned through to my fingers and palm. She was a solid, smooth-faced woman, so nearsighted that she moved with a splay-footed pugnacity, as if something she didn’t quite see might knock her over. Her contact lenses were always getting lost, in somebody’s lawn or at the back of her eyeballs. She had married young and was a bit younger than the rest of us. You had to love
Audrey, seeing her out on the tennis court in frayed denim cut-offs, with her sturdy brown legs and big, squinty smile, taking a swing and missing the ball completely. Her waist was smooth and flexible in summer cotton,
and, yes, she was right, for the first time in all our years of acquaintance I sensed her as a potential mate, as a piece of the cosmic puzzle that might fit my piece.
But I also felt that, basically, she didn’t care for me, not enough to come walking through all of adultery’s risks and spasms of guilt, all those hoops of flame. She distrusted me, the way you distrust a competitor. We were both clowns, bucking to be elected Funniest in the
Class. Further, she was taken, doubly: not only married, to a man called
Spike, with the four children customary for our generation, but involved in a number of murky flirtations or infatuations, including one with my best friend, Rodney Miller–if a person could be said to have same-sex friends in our rather doctrinairely heterosexual enclave. She had a nice way of drawling out poisonous remarks, and said now, to me, “Shouldn’t you go tell Jeanne and Frank the boat is about to dock? They might get arrested by the Portsmouth fuzz for public indecency.”
I said, “Why me? I’m not the cruise director.”
Jeanne was my wife. Her love for Frank, in the twisted way of things back then, helped bind me to her: I felt so sorry for her, having to spend most of her hours with me and the children when her heart was elsewhere. She had been raised a French Catholic, and there was something noble for her about suffering and self-denial; her invisible hairshirt kept her torso erect as a dancer’s and added to her beauty in my eyes. I didn’t like
Audrey mocking her. Or did I? Perhaps my feelings were more primitive,
more stupidly possessive, than I knew at the time. I tightened my grip on
Audrey’s waist, approaching a painful pinch, then let go, and went forward to where Jeanne and Frank, the music stopped, looked as if they had just woken up, with bloated, startled faces. Frank Greer had been married, to a woman named Winifred, until rather recently in our little local history.
Divorce, which had been flickering at our edges for a decade while our vast pool of children slowly bubbled up through the school grades toward,
we hoped, psychological health, was still rare, and sat raw on Frank, like the red cheek he had been pressing against my wife’s.
Maureen Miller, in one of those intervals in bed when passion had been slaked but an awkward half-hour of usable time remained before I could in decency sneak away, once told me that Winifred resented the fact that, in the years when the affair between Frank and Jeanne was common knowledge, I
had never made a pass at her. Winifred, sometimes called Freddy, was an owlish small woman, a graceful white owl, with big dark eyes and untanned skin and an Emily Dickinson hairdo atop a plump body that tapered to small and shapely hands and feet. If my wife held herself like a dancer, it was her lover’s wife who in fact could dance, with a feathery nestling and lightness of fit that had an embarrassing erotic effect on me. Holding her in my arms, I would get an erection, and thus I
would prudently avoid dancing with her until the end of the evening, when one or the other of us, in an attempt to persuade our spouses to tear themselves apart, would have put on an overcoat. Otherwise, I
was not attracted to Winifred. Like the model for her hairdo, she had literary ambitions and a dogmatic, clipped, willfully oblique style. She seemed in her utterances faintly too firm.
“Well, I won’t say no,” she said, not altogether graciously, one night well after midnight when Jeanne suggested that I walk Winifred home,
through a snowstorm that had developed during a dinner party of ours and its inert, boozy aftermath. Couples or their remnants had drifted off until just Winifred was left; she had a stern, impassive way of absorbing a great deal of liquor and betraying its presence in her system only by a slight lowering of her lids over her bright black eyes, and an increase of pedantry in her fluting voice. This was before the Greers’ divorce. Frank was absent from the party on some mysterious excuse of a business trip. It was the first stage of their separation, I
realized later. Jeanne, knowing more than she let on, had extended herself that night like a kid sister to the unescorted woman. She kept urging
Freddy, as the party thinned, to give us one more tale of the creative-writing seminar she was taking, as a special student, at our local college, Bradbury. Bradbury had formerly been a bleak little
Presbyterian seminary tucked up here, with its pillared chapel, in the foothills of the White Mountains, but it had long loosened its ecclesiastical ties and in the Sixties had gone coed, with riotous results.
“This one girl,” Winifred said, accepting what she swore was her last
Kahlúa and brandy, “read a story that must have been very closely based on a painful breakup she had just gone through, and got nothing but the most sarcastic comments from the instructor, who seems to be a real sadist, or else it was his way of putting the make on her.” Her expression conveyed disgust and weariness with all such trans-
actions. I supposed that she was displacing her anger at Frank onto the instructor, a New York poet who no doubt wished he was back in Greenwich
Village, where the sexual revolution was polymorphous. He was a dreary sour condescending fellow, in my occasional brushes with him, and disconcertingly short as well.
These rehashed class sessions were all fascinating stuff, if you judged from Jeanne’s animation and gleeful encouragement of the other woman to tell more. A rule of life in Pierce Junction demanded that you be especially nice to your lover’s spouse–by no means an insincere observance, for the secret sharing did breed a tortuous, guilt-warmed gratitude to the everyday keeper of such a treasure. But even Winifred through her veils of Kahlúa began to feel uncomfortable, and stood up in our cold room (the thermostat had retired hours ago), and put her shawl up around her head,
as if fluffing up her feathers. She accepted with a frown Jeanne’s insistent suggestion that I escort her home. “Of course I’m in no condition to drive, this has been so lovely,” she said to Jeanne, with a handshake that Jeanne turned into a fierce, pink-faced, rather frantic (I
thought) embrace of transposed affection.
Winifred’s car had been plowed fast to the curb by the passing revolving-eyed behemoths of our town highway department, and she lived only three blocks away, an uphill slog in four inches of fresh snow. She did seem to need to take my arm, but we both stayed wrapped in our own thoughts. The snow drifted down with a steady whisper of its own, and the presence on the streets, at this profoundly nocturnal hour, of the churning, scraping snowplows made an effect of companionship–of a wider party beneath the low sky, which was glowing yellow with that strange,
secretive phosphorescence of a snowstorm. The houses were dark, and my porch light grew smaller, receding down the hill. In front of her own door, right under a streetlamp, Winifred turned to face me as if, in our muffling clothes,
to dance; but it was only to offer up her pale, oval, rather frozen and grieving face for me to kiss. Snowflakes were caught in the long lashes of her closed lids and spangled the arc of parted dark hair left exposed by her shawl. I felt the usual arousal. The house behind her held only sleeping children. Its clapboard face, needing a coat of paint, looked shabby, betraying the distracted marriage within.
There was, in Pierce Junction, a romance of other couples’ houses–the merged tastes, the accumulated furniture, the framed photographs going back to the bridal day and the premarital vacation spots. We loved being guests and hosts both, but preferred being guests, invasive and inquisitive and irresponsible. Did she expect me to come in? It didn’t strike me as at all a feasible idea–at my back, down the hill, Jeanne would be busy tidying up the party wreckage in our living room and resting a despairing eye on the kitchen clock with its sweeping red second hand.
Tiny stars of ice clotted my own lashes as I kissed our guest good night,
square on the mouth but lightly, lightly, with liquor-glazed subtleties of courteous regret. Of all the kisses I gave and received in Pierce
Junction, from children and adults and golden retrievers, that chaste crystalline one has remained unmelted in my mind.
When I returned to the house, Frank, surprisingly, was sitting in the living room, holding a beer and wearing a rumpled suit, his long face pink as if after great exertion. Jeanne, too tired to be flustered, explained,
“Frank just got back from his trip. The plane into the Manchester airport almost didn’t land, and when he found Freddy not at their home he thought he’d swing down here and pick her up.”
“Up and down that hill in this blizzard?” I marvelled. I didn’t remember any car going by.
“We have four-wheel drive,” Frank said, as if that explained everything.