“Updike’s most mature work . . . His writing has deepened, grown wiser and funnier, like a face that is aging well.”—The Atlantic
“It is, quite simply, Updike’s best novel yet.”—Newsweek
Marry Me is subtitled “A Romance” because, in the author’s words, “people don’t act like that anymore.” The time is 1962, and the place is a fiefdom of Camelot called Greenwood, Connecticut. Jerry Conant and Sally Mathias are in love and want to get married, though they already are married to others. A diadem of five/i>… See more details below
Marry Me is subtitled “A Romance” because, in the author’s words, “people don’t act like that anymore.” The time is 1962, and the place is a fiefdom of Camelot called Greenwood, Connecticut. Jerry Conant and Sally Mathias are in love and want to get married, though they already are married to others. A diadem of five symmetrical chapters describes the course of their affair as it flickers off and on, and as their spouses react, in a tentative late-summer atmosphere of almost-last chances. For this is, as Jerry observes, “the twilight of the old morality, and there’s just enough to torment us, and not enough to hold us in.”
i. Warm Wine
Along this overused coast of Connecticut, the beach was a relatively obscure one, reached by a narrow asphalt road kept in only fair repair and full of unexplained forks and windings and turnings-off. At most of the ambiguous turns, little weathered wooden arrows bearing the long Indian name of the beach indicated the way, but some of these signs had fallen into the grass, and the first time—an idyllic, unseasonably mild day in March—that the couple agreed to meet here, Jerry got lost and was half an hour late.
Today, too, Sally had arrived ahead of him. He had been delayed by the purchase of a bottle of wine and an attempt, unsuccessful, to buy a corkscrew. Her graphite-gray Saab sat in a far corner of the parking lot, by itself. He slithered his own car, an old Mercury convertible, close to it, hoping to see her sitting waiting at the wheel, for “Born to Lose,” as sung by Ray Charles, had come onto his car radio.
Has only brought me pain . . .
She brimmed in this song for him; he had even framed the words he would use to call her into his car to listen with him: “Hey. Hi. Come quick and hear a neat record.” He had grown to affect with her an adolescent manner of speech, mixed of hip slang and calf-love monosyllables. Songs on the radio were rich with new meaning for him, as he drove to one of their trysts. He wanted to share them with her, but they were rarely in the same car together, and as week succeeded week that spring the songs like mayflies died from the air.
Her Saab was empty; Sally was not in sight. She must be up in the dunes. The beach was unusually shaped: an arc of flat washed sand perhaps half a mile long was bounded at both ends by congregations of great streaked yellowish rocks, and up from the nearer sets of rocks a high terrain of dunes and beach scruff and wandering paths held like a vast natural hotel hundreds of private patches of sand. This realm of hollows and ridges was deceptively complex. Each time, they were unable to find the exact place, the perfect place, where they had been before.
He climbed the steep dune before him hurriedly, not taking the time to remove his shoes and socks. His panting under the effort of running uphill seemed delicious to him; it was the taste of his renewed youth, his renewed draft on life. Since the start of their affair he was always running, hurrying, creating time where no time had been needed before; he had become an athlete of the clock, bending odd hours into an unprecedented and unsuspected second life. He had given up smoking; he wanted his kisses to taste clean.
Jerry came into the high land of dunes and was frightened, for there was no sign of her. There was no sign of anyone. Besides their two, less than a dozen cars were scattered through the great parking lot. In another month, this lot would be crammed, the boarded‑up snack-bar-and-bathhouse building would be alive with brazen bodies and canned music, and the dunes would be too hot to inhabit. Today the dunes still wore the look, inherited from winter, of clean-swept Nature, never tasted. When she called to him the sound came fluted by the cool air like a birdcall. “Jerry?” It was a question, though if she could see him she must know it was he. “Jerry? Hey?”
Turning, he saw her now, on a dune above him, in the two-piece yellow bathing suit; as she descended, her eyes downcast to avoid pricking her bare feet on the beach grass, she seemed, blond and freckled and clean-swept, a shy creature of the sand that had hidden her. Her arms and front felt hot and her curved back cool. She had been sunbathing. Her heart-shaped face was pink. “Hey? I’m glad you’re here?” She was slightly panting and her voice excitedly lifted each phrase into a question. “I’ve been waiting in this dune with a pack of horrible boys without shirts whooping and yelling all around me; I was getting quite frightened?”
As if his manner of speech kept shifting around an unsayable embarrassment, he momentarily lapsed from hipsterism and spoke in a courtly way. “My poor brave lady. The dangers I expose you to. I’m sorry I’m late; listen. I had to buy the wine and then I tried to buy a corkscrew and these absolute idiots, these Norman Rockwell types in some run-down country store, tried to sell me an auger instead.”
“You know. It’s like a brace and bit without the brace.”
“You feel so cool.”
“You’ve been lying in the sun. Where are you?”
“Up here? Come.”
Before he followed her, Jerry kneeled and took off his shoes and socks. He still wore his city coat and tie and carried the wine bottle in its paper bag like a commuter walking home with a present. Sally had spread her red-and-yellow-checkered blanket in a sweeping hollow bare of any footmarks but her own. Jerry looked for the boys, and saw them several dunes away, watching nervously with the sides of their heads, like seagulls. He stared at them boldly and murmured to Sally, “They’re young and look harmless. But do you want to go deeper in?”
He felt her nod at his shoulder, her nod like a word only she could pronounce, a uniquely rapid and taut jiggle of her head, yes yes yes yes; it was one of her mannerisms he found himself, in situations far removed from her, imitating. He gathered up her blanket and her braided beach bag and her book (by Moravia) and set them in her warm arms. As they walked up the slant of the next dune he placed his hand on her naked waist to steady her, and turned to make sure the boys had witnessed this sign of possession. Embarrassed, they were already whooping off in the other direction.
As usual, Jerry and Sally walked in and out, down ragged paths between scratching bayberry bushes and up slithering slopes, laughing with exertion, looking for the ideal spot, the spot where they had been the last time. As usual, they failed to find it and finally put the blanket down anywhere, in a concavity of clean sand that became, instantly, perfect.
He posed before her and stripped. His coat, his tie, his shirt, his trousers.
“Oh,” she said, “you wore a bathing suit.”
“All the damn morning,” he said, “and every time I felt the drawstring bite into my belly I thought, ‘I’m going to see Sally. I’m going to see Sally in my bathing suit.’ ”
Letting his skin exult in the air, he stood surveying; they were hidden and yet themselves could see the parking lot below, and the tranced arm of sea held fast between here and Long Island, and the little glittering whitecaps hurrying in to break soundlessly on the streaked rocks.
“Hey?” she said from the blanket. “Come see me in your bathing suit?”
Yes yes, the touch, the touch of their skins the length of their bodies in the air, under the sun. The sun made his closed eyes swim in red; her side and upward shoulder warmed and her mouth gradually melted. They felt no hurry; this was perhaps the gravest proof that they were, Jerry and Sally, the original man and woman—that they felt no hurry, that they did not so much excite each other as put the man and woman in each other to rest. Their bodies sought with the gradualness of actual growth to enlarge and refine their fit. Her loose hair drifted strand by strand onto his face. The sense of rest, of having arrived at the long-promised calm center, filled him like a species of sleep even as his insteps tightened upward into the arches of her feet: “It’s incredible,” he said. He turned his face upwards, to merge her with the sun; red flooded his lids.
She spoke with her lips against his neck, where a shadow was gritty and cool. He felt this, though it was her sensation. “It’s worth it,” she said, “is what’s so surprising. It’s worth it, all the waiting, all the obstacles, all the lying and hurrying, and then when you reach it, it’s worth it.” Her voice grew progressively small pronouncing this.
He experimentally opened his eyes and was blinded by a perfectly hard circle smaller than the moon. “Do you mind,” he asked, his lids clamped on a pulsing violet echo, “the pain we’re going to cause?”
As if he had dropped a chemical, the stillness of her body against his changed quality. Her curved feet lifted from his. “Hey,” she said. “What about the wine? It’ll get warm.” She rolled out of his arms, sat up, and brushed her hair back from her face, blinking and pushing the sand from her lips with her tongue. “I brought some paper cups because I knew you wouldn’t think of it.” This tiny possessive insight made her licked lips smile.
“Yeah, I don’t have a corkscrew, either. In fact, lady, I don’t know what I do have.”
“You have you. That’s more than I have.”
“No, no, you have me.” He became nervous and active; he walked on his knees to where he had folded his clothes and pulled the bottle from the paper bag. The wine was a rosé. “Now I got to find a place to break it.”
“There’s a rock over there.”
“You think? Suppose the whole thing goes smash in my hand, like?” On the excuse of a sudden shyness, the hipster had taken over.
“Be careful,” she said.
He tapped the neck of the bottle on the little ledge of striped tan rock and nothing happened. He tapped again, harder; it clinked solidly and he felt himself blush. “C’mon, man,” he pleaded, “break your neck.”
He swung firmly; a spatter of splinters glinted in his eyes before he heard the sound of broken glass; he plunged his startled gaze down through a jagged glinting mouth into a small deep cylindrical sea of swaying wine. She had waded on her knees to his side and exclaimed, “Mm,” like him subtly shocked to see wine this way, so much of it naked in the violated bottle. She added, “Looks great.”
“Where are the cups?”
“Let’s forget the cups.” She took the bottle from him and expertly fitted the jagged glass to her small face and tipped her head back and drank. His heart tripped as if at some danger but when she lowered the bottle her face was pleased and unharmed. “Yes,” she said. “It doesn’t taste of paper this way. It just tastes of itself.”
“Too bad it’s warm,” he said.
“No,” she said. “Warm wine is good.”
“Better than none, I suppose.”
“I said it’s good, Jerry. Why don’t you ever believe me?”
“Listen. I believe you all the time.” He took the bottle and imitated her; when he tipped his head back, the redness of the sun and of the wine mixed.
She cried, “You’ll cut your nose!”
He lowered the bottle and squinted at her. He said of the wine, “It kind of swings.”
She smiled and said, “You did.” She touched the bridge of his nose and showed him a pink blot of blood on her white fingertip. “Now,” she said, “when I see you normally, I’ll see the little cut on your nose, and only I will know how you got it.”
They moved back to the blanket and drank from the paper cups. Then they drank the wine from each other’s mouth; he spilled a little into her navel and lapped it up. In time he shyly asked, “Want me inside you?”
“Yes? So much? All the time?” Her voice was lifting everything into questions again.
“There’s nobody around, we’re really quite hidden.”
As he kneeled at her feet to pull off the lower of the two pieces of her yellow bathing suit, he was reminded, unexpectedly, of shoe salesmen; as a child he had worried about these men who made a career of kneeling and tugging at other people’s feet, and had wondered why they did not appear to feel demeaned by it.
Though Sally had been married ten years, and furthermore had had lovers before Jerry, her lovemaking was wonderfully virginal, simple, and quick. With his own wife he had a corrupt sensation, often, of convolution and inventive effort, but with Sally there was always, for all the times she had endured this before, a priceless sense of her being, yet once again, innocently amazed. Her face, freckled, rapt, the upper lip perspiring in the sun and lifted so her front teeth glinted, seemed a mirror held inches below his own face, a misted mirror more than another person. He asked himself who this was and then remembered, Why, it’s Sally! He closed his eyes and fitted his breathing into her soft exclamatory sighing. When this had ebbed into regular breathing, he said, “It’s better outdoors, isn’t it? You get more oxygen.”
He felt her rapid little nodding flutter on his shoulder.
“Now leave me?” she said.
Lying beside her as she wriggled back into her bathing-suit pants, he betrayed her by wishing for a cigarette. It would have gone so well with the plenitude, the gratitude, the wide sky, the scent of sea. Ashamed of slipping back into a polluted old self, he poured the last of the wine into their cups, and rooted the empty bottle like a monument, mouth up, in the sand.
She looked down into the empty parking lot and asked, “Jerry, how can I live without you?”
“The same way I live without you. By not living most of the time.”
“Let’s not talk about it. Let’s not spoil our day.”
“O.K.” He took up the novel she had been reading and asked, “You dig this guy?”
“Yes. You don’t.”
“Not much. I mean, it’s not untrue, but”—he waggled the book and tossed it aside—“is this really what has to be said?”
“I think he’s good.”
“You think a lot of things are good, don’t you? You think Moravia is good, you think warm wine is good, you think lovemaking is good.”
She looked at him now, quickly. “Do you mind that?”
“I love that.”
“No, you don’t believe me sometimes. You don’t believe I’m so simple. I am simple. I’m just like”—similes were hard for her, she so instinctively saw things as themselves—“that broken bottle. I have no secrets.”
“It’s such a beautiful bottle. Look how the curves of broken glass take the sun. It’s like a tiny roller coaster, around and around.” He wished again for a cigarette, to gesture with.
Whenever a distance between them seemed about to grow, she would call, “Hey?”
“Hi,” he’d answer gravely.
“Hi,” she answered back.
“Sweetie, why did you marry him in the first place?”
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