By David Updike
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 David Updike
All rights reserved.
He would live, the woman told him, at the back of the house, in the two small rooms which, now that one of her kids was away at college, they no longer used. As they went up the back staircase he followed a step or two behind her, so that his eyes fell on the ruffled blue and white fabric of her seersucker shorts, and below, the smooth tanned skin at the back of her knees, burnished brown by the late-summer sun.
"And sometimes we use this room, too," she was saying with a sweeping gesture of her hand, gliding through the dusty beams of sunlight that fell through the window nearby, "but you'll have this part of the house pretty much to yourself." She was neither young nor old, fortyish, halfway between his parents' age and his: her hair was a frazzled reddish brown, and her eyes a pale iridescent blue with a faint latticework of lines fanning out from the corners and dissipating on the flushed bloom of her cheeks. The rooms were small but had a beautiful view of the oaks and the lawn and the river beyond, and he knew he would take them, and live there, and through the windows he would watch the seasons changing, leaves turning yellow, then brown, and then falling, only to be covered by a blanket of snow which, melting in the warm April sun, would give way to green grass and yellow flowers before the whole lovely cycle repeated itself again.
"And there is an apartment above you, where Hope Hilliard lives, and another below that Peter Veen rents out as a studio — he's a painter. Have you met Peter? Well, he's very nice. We're having the gutters redone and the entire house painted this fall, so there might be some banging around for a while, but that should be over by Christmas."
He moved after Labor Day, and true to her word he was woken each morning by the good-natured sound of workmen going about their business — ladders clanging, buckets being dropped — their manly banter as they stood around sipping coffee in the first liquid rays of the sun. It was a beautiful fall — soft days of sunlight, leaves tumbling past his window, and beyond, ships gliding back and forth on the smooth broad belly of the river. At dusk he would walk to the end of the lawn and watch the sun set, and on his way back to the house catch occasional glimpses of domestic life within — Mrs. Charters gliding through the kitchen with an enormous salad bowl, her kindly husband washing dishes at the sink, their adolescent son procrastinating in the rooms above, pacing past the window like a caged animal.
He had always been attracted to families, drawn to the emanating warmth of domestic life, and was always cheered by the sounds that seeped under his door — someone thumping up the stairs, Mrs. Charters's tinkly laughter, the muffled din of familial banter. He was, in fact, between families himself — the one which produced him and the one which, in theory, he would produce, and he was also, for once, between girlfriends, a bachelor in fact as well as spirit, and perhaps in consequence his thoughts sometimes drifted toward the languid figure of Mrs. Charters — "Lauren," as she suggested he call her — as she went about her daily routine: in jogging clothes when she returned, lightly sweating, from her morning run; in worn dungarees with a red kerchief wrapped around her head as she raked leaves on a Sunday afternoon; with briefcase in hand when she returned home after a day of work, selling houses to the rich. One morning he looked out the window and saw her at the end of the lawn in something like a bathrobe, her hair still wet, her head held high in a moment of contemplation so deep he could feel it a hundred yards away. And then her reverie was broken by the sound of a slamming door, and there was Mr. Veen, hands in pockets, striding toward her across the lawn: she turned and smiled, as in a movie or Victorian novel, speaking words which made Veen laugh but Michael could not hear. And then they strolled down the lawn together and disappeared into their respective sides of the house.
Mr. and Mrs. Charters were about the same age Michael's parents had been when they were last married, a decade or so before: she was as beautiful as he was handsome, and both had reached the stage, a kind of epiphany of adulthood, when, though "middle-aged," they were still capable of things spontaneous and athletic, possessed of a lingering spark of youth, a sense of themselves as vibrant sexual beings. She had turned forty the previous spring, she told him one day on the driveway, but then added, "I don't feel forty — not at all. I feel I could do anything, still!"
Michael's downward neighbor, Veen, was a pleasant, cheerful man who would arrive each morning before seven, announced by the crunch and crackle of gravel, and then the slamming of his door just beneath Michael's window. He would remain until almost midnight, working, presumably, on his meticulous landscapes, or on someone's tax return, by which, he had confessed, he earned his "bread and butter." He was a sturdy, kindly man with soft blue eyes and a beard on the verge of turning gray. And although he was friendly, and eager that he and Michael "get to know each other," he always seemed to be walking backward, away from him, as if anxious to get back inside and out of sight. Another thing Michael never understood: why he never had paint on his hands. One day he asked.
"Well, you're not supposed to, are you? I guess it's left over from my banking days — neatness. Plus, toxins — that paint has lead in it: I need all the brain cells I have left!" He looked tired, as though he had thought too much and slept too little, and was turning to go when, almost as an afterthought, he said, "Gee, Michael — do you know how free you are? No kids, no house, no college loans to pay. You could pick up right now and move to China if you wanted."
"And do what in China?"
"Whatever — live! But I can't do it — not without affecting the lives of other people — my wife, my kids — defaulting on the house." He seemed to be working toward some sort of confession, then retreated. "But I guess the grass is always greener, and all that stuff — every sword has two edges. Ah, well, too much philosophy for this early in the morning. It's nice to have you around," he added with a faint smile, and walked slowly across the driveway and into his rooms.
A few nights later Michael returned to the house to find the driveway filled with cars and the house surrounded by loitering teenagers, and on his way upstairs he ran into Mrs. Charters as she hovered upstairs, superintending from a distance this party thrown by her son.
"Do you think it's all right?" she said. "We told them they could drink, but they can't drive home. We have car pools — only the sober ones can drive." She was wearing a black evening dress and her hair fell in wispy strands down her neck, and she seemed giddy as she peered down into the room of teeming teenagers. "Do you want a beer, Michael?" she asked, and before he could answer she called down to an idle redhead who seemed relieved to have something to do and bounded up the stairs with a Rolling Rock.
"Thanks, John," she said, and ruffled up his hair. She was the kind of mother one loved doing favors for.
As Michael stood and sipped his beer, she bummed a cigarette from a girl and coolly, calmly smoked, and somehow got started talking about marriage. "I mean, in the sixties," she said, "it was wild. Tom and I were your age — younger, really — and we all had children — two, three, four. We would just bring them along to parties. They would just sleep through it. And later," she said, her voice lowered to a whisper as she glanced over her shoulder, "we were all having affairs. We almost divorced — I left for a week, but I couldn't stand being away from the kids. And, of course, I still loved Tom. It was different back then. We were just kids." She was interrupted by the sound of something crashing below, and suddenly clutched Michael's arm. "I have to go down," she said. Michael watched as she glided down the carpeted stairs, and then, his beer finished, he snuck back to his room.
That winter he worked at night and would get home after ten, stepping in through the side gate and crunching across the frozen snow, and would sometimes catch glimpses of Mr. and Mrs. Charters as they went about their ablutions upstairs. One breathless moonlit night he paused under a canopy of bluish stars, then hid in the shadow of an enormous oak to watch as Mrs. Charters, framed in a lit window, exchanged one garment for another, arms raised high above her as her dress fell away and a diaphanous nightgown collapsed around her like a parachute. He was too far to really see but, from his shadowy lair, was moved, and shivered both with the cold and with this pale intimation of nudity.
Spring finally came, and after a year of bachelorhood — the longest he had gone without a girlfriend since high school — he became friends with a pretty Indian woman named Sashi who taught bilingual education in a nearby town. Their courtship was mercifully brief: they kissed on the second date, and made love on the third, and soon thereafter she was spending weekends at his house, sleeping late, reading in bed, taking long walks through the quiet, blooming streets of the town. He was overwhelmed that April by the lushness of the place — the deep green lawn, yellow forsythia bush, purple lilacs, flowers that sprouted from the damp earth.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Mrs. Charters said one morning, surprising him when he returned from town on a bicycle with a quart of milk. She stood up from the dewy flower bed where she was working, her face flushed from her exertions. She was wearing her gym clothes, and her small pale hands had been stained brown by the loamy earth; her face was flushed, and beads of sweat clung to her skin like dew. "We planted all this last fall, but we had no idea it would look like this. By the way, Sashi is wonderful! We had a conversation the other morning — and she really is very beautiful."
Just then a door slammed, and Veen came bounding out of his apartment wearing overalls and new work gloves. "Good morning, Michael!" he all but shouted. "Are you a gardener too?"
"No, not really," he answered, but Veen didn't seem to hear him: he was already hard at work, kneeling among the weeds, nattering away to Mrs. Charters. Michael said goodbye to her and slipped inside.
"Now, why is Veen gardening with her?" Michael asked Sashi later, peering out the window to the garden, where the two had spent the better part of the morning. "And where is Mr. Charters?" Sashi was lying in bed, reading a week-old copy of the Delhi Times.
"Maybe he doesn't like gardening," she proposed, in her soft, mellifluous voice.
"Maybe he doesn't like Veen — I wouldn't if she were my wife."
"Luckily, she's not."
"And what does he mean by 'free, free'? A couple of months ago he gave me this big spiel about how free I was, and could do anything — fly off to China if I wanted. And do what there? And what is he so shackled for if he spends eighteen hours a day down here painting? I wonder what his wife thinks."
"Oh, leave the poor man alone — he's probably having a midlife crisis."
"And I'm going to have a pre-midlife crisis if he keeps slamming the door every morning."
"He slams the door? I never hear it."
"And then stomps around afterward in case that doesn't work."
It was on one of those mornings that, by chance, Michael looked out the window in time to see a peculiar thing: Veen, at the far end of the lawn, crouching down into the garden, lightly plucking a red rose from among the flowers, and, holding it gently between two fingers, sprinting across the lawn with it, almost on tiptoe, to the other side of the house and the Charterses' back door. Later that day he looked for signs of the rose in the window, but it was nowhere to be seen.
"They're probably just friends," Sashi said.
"Yes — the kind of friends you give roses to. And why was he half running?"
"Hmm ...," she said returning to her book. "What do you care, anyway?" She was naked under the mountain of covers, giving off the languorous aura of a woman made recently love to. "I think you're just jealous, because you wanted her for yourself."
"Perhaps — briefly, before we met. But that's no excuse for him — they're both married."
"So — maybe they're unhappy. In India, it's quite acceptable for a man to have an affair, as long as he's discreet about it."
"And what about a married woman?"
"Less acceptable," she said, climbing out of the bed and stretching in the sunlight, her wonderfully naked body rising before him. "Sometimes they light them on fire."
"Be careful, they'll see you," he said.
"So let them. I have nothing to hide," she said with a sly smile, and went off to shower.
It was true — he had no real case against them: only the rose, and the morning in the garden, and the rambling speech about being free. But Michael was finely attuned to the signs and signals of infidelity, having observed through the tinted glass of childhood the symptoms of his own parents' transgressions, and witnessed, after his father had taken up with another woman, the evolution of his mother's "friendship" with Mr. Thorn — spontaneous visits to borrow a ladder or return a saw, a hurried cup of tea, the flushed cheeks and whispered words as they sat together at the kitchen table, the hurried walk back across the yard and the cloud of dust his car left in parting, the distant growl of its little engine settling down across the yard. In Veen, in particular, he thought he picked up the scent of emotional distress.
Spring faded slowly and summer swelled up from the south, the high arching oaks filled with leaves that made soft lowing sounds at night, and thunderstorms rolled up the river and violently broke over the house, cracking and thundering and drenching all in sheets of rain before moving on, leaving the house and the garden a glistening sodden paradise. For a month they had gone away to his mother's house, and when they returned the lush green lawn had turned brown, and the leaves had begun to fade and fall under an amber August sun.
From his window, Michael thought Veen looked invigorated, happy, and his suspicions were confirmed when he met him one afternoon in the drive. "I like the fall — get back to work, paint a few pictures; no taxes to do. Cool night, warm days." Mrs. Charters's beauty had turned up a notch, heightened by a tan and perhaps by a new job she had taken up in a neighboring town. Rather than spying, Michael was trying to think of other things: his relationship with Sashi, for example, had continued its inexorable course, and to his private astonishment they now spoke of marriage as something natural and inevitable. Although he had long since lost his appetite for bachelorhood, his capacity to endure lonely nights at home, he was reluctant to part with his sense of himself as a roving, predatory being, and could not quite accept the notion, sweet as their lovemaking was, that Sashi would be the last woman he would ever sleep with. He had even shared his anxieties with her, but they didn't seem to faze her: "I mean, it's not ideal, is it?" she had said. "But people are people. It doesn't mean you have to destroy a marriage because you got into somebody else's knickers. Americans are so silly that way — one affair and it's all over. And who knows," she said, with her sly smile again, "it could be me who transgresses!"
And so he slowly adjusted to the sight of her belongings intermingling themselves with his — a bra joining his pajamas on a bathroom hook, a pair of high heels next to his muddy boots, bottles of perfume and other agents of female enhancement. He tried to prove himself in small, domestic ways — cooking, doing laundry, taking her to dinner and always paying the bill himself — concessions to commitment he had hitherto resisted. He sometimes wondered if being with her, a woman from a different country and culture, was liberating for both of them, had released them from the patterns and expectations of their own, released them to live in a world of their own choosing. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Old Girlfriends by David Updike. Copyright © 2009 David Updike. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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