Read an Excerpt
"I'm sorry, Hilary," he said, standing with his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans. Two suitcases and a box containing records and books were ranged on either side of the door she had just entered. He shrugged, unable to meet her eyes. "I can't handle it."
Hilary glanced beyond him to the living room, which looked neater than usual without the stacks of records leaning against the bookshelves, without his sweaters tossed on the sectional sofa, without his books on the coffee table. She removed the lightweight jacket of her khaki suit and laid it across the briefcase she had set down when she came through the door. "What is it you can't handle, Jack?"
"I can't handle you and your causes. Look, you know I agree with you about women's rights. I wholly support equality of the sexes, but your damn column..." He ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair before allowing both arms to hang loosely at his sides. "Every day you have to point out some new and outrageous inequity. It's your job. But my job is programming computers, and I work with a bunch of people who give me flak every day about what you write. They make jokes about it, Hilary, and they ridicule me for living with you."
The room felt stuffy. He hadn't bothered to turn on the air conditioner, she realized, because he hadn't thought he would be there that long. "I didn't think their kidding bothered you, Jack. You've never hesitated to tell me when you didn't agree with me. Why can't you tell them?"
He shook his head. "You wouldn't understand. I work with these people. I'm up for a promotion, an important one, Hilary. I've told you about it. If they don't respect me, I'm not going to get it."
"And theydon't respect you because you live with a woman who writes feminist columns in a local newspaper?" she asked, turning toward the kitchen, wondering whether he would even bother to follow her.
Jack came as far as the doorway but refused the glass of white wine she offered. When she poured herself a glass, he said "It's not just the newspaper columns, Hilary. It's the national magazine articles, the speeches you give to women's groups. They assume I'm under your thumb, a henpecked boyfriend."
Carrying the glass of wine carefully, she walked into the living room and flipped on the air conditioner before seating herself on the sofa. He did not join her but stood uneasily just inside the room, as though he were ready to leave at any moment.
"We've worked hard to arrange an equal relationship," she pointed out. "Doesn't that give you some ammunition?"
"I haven't your way with words, and I don't like having to defend myself."
"Then don't, Jack. Our relationship is really none of their business, is it?"
"If they make it their business, I have to contend with their mockery. And I'm tired of it, Hilary." He made a vague gesture toward the suitcases. "We've reached the point of diminishing returns. What we have together isn't enough to counterbalance the negative feedback. You're not here half the time; you're preoccupied with your work. I'm tired of doing my share of housework. I hate housework! I don't care if it's fair, Hilary; it's the pits! I don't like living in your apartment and sharing the rent and the phone bills and the utility bills."
The phone rang, and they looked at each other. Jack answered it and looked questioningly at her before saying into the receiver "She isn't here right now. May I take a message?" With his free hand he felt along the ledge for the pen that should have been there before giving an exasperated snort. "Hold on a second." He covered the receiver and said "It's long distance fromNew York. Why don't you take it?"
If she did, Hilary felt certain he'd leave while she talked, and she didn't want to waste the only opportunity she was going to get to find out why he was leaving. From her purse she dug out a pen and notepad, which she silently handed him. He frantically scribbled down a message which was obviously delivered far too fast, balancing the pad on his knee and grimacing steadily. When he hung up, he handed her the paper, which she set on the coffee table without reading.
"You didn't want to live in your apartment, Jack. We discussed it before you moved in here."
"I know we did. That was my mistake. The whole thing has been my mistake."
She raised startled eyes to his. "In what way?"
"Thinking that I could handle it." He finally came to sit down beside her, not too close but on the same section of the sofa. "I'm not blaming you for a thing, Hilary. Honestly. You know I'm fond of you. When we first met, I knew there was no one like you. I was impressed with your devotion to your work, to your feminist causes, to living a really full life. It was you who didn't want to get married. I would have grabbed you up in a snap."
"It's a good thing you didn't," she interrupted in a neutral tone.
He winced. "Yes, it is. You were right even about that."
"No, I wasn't. Not marrying you wasn't an indication that I thought you would change or not be able to handle it, as you put it. I never doubted that you could handle it. The thought never crossed my mind." It was true, she thought, amazed. When she first met him, this shaggy, intelligent man, she had thought: He believes in women's rights as strongly as I do. He's one of the few men I've met who will be able to cope with my career. Everything pointed to his involvement, his real conviction. Jack had appeared to her as almost a miracle, the one man in all of San Jose who cared so little for the opinions of his chauvinist colleagues that he introduced her to them not only by name but by specific occupation.
His horn-rimmed glasses had settled far down on his nose, endearingly close to falling off. Hilary had to resist the temptation to push them back up since he apparently was unaware of their precarious position, so intent was he on making her understand.
"I don't feel any different about you now than then, Hilary." He spoke softly, almost sadly. Those gentle hands, which had caressed her innumerable times, which had brought untold pleasure, gripped his knees through the faded blue jeans. "And I don't feel any less committed to women's rights. I simply find that I haven't a skin thick enough to protect me from the gibes. Yesterday I found a cartoon on my desk. It was a feminist cartoon, where the man was patting the woman on the head as he took away the Wall Street Journal and saying "When I want your opinion, I'll tell you what it is." Only my name was printed across the woman's face, and yours was above the man's head."
"But that's childish, Jack. Why should something like that bother you?"
"It bothers me because it's symptomatic of the way I'm regarded at work, as your lover and mouthpiece." He held up a hand to halt her angry outburst. "I know, I know. I should ignore the stupid idiots. But it's my career, Hilary. I want that promotion. I need it for my self-esteem. And if the only way to get it is to leave you, I'm sorry. Not sorry for you, really, but for myself. Sorry that I'm not strong enough, or things aren't different enough, that none of this mattered."
Hilary leaned wearily back against the cushions, slipping her feet out of her shoes. "And what are they going to say when you tell them you've walked out? Aren't they going to think that's a little cowardly? Or are you going to waltz in there, grinning from ear to ear, protesting that you've finally seen the light? A reborn chauvinist."
His brows lowered in two shaggy dashes over his eyes. "I don't intend to compromise my principles. I feel strongly about this, and I plan to work quietly for equality in the company. But, Hilary, any move I make with you at my back is seen as something different. I'm regarded as being under your influence. You're so goddamn visible!"
The air conditioner was beginning to have some effect on the room, and Hilary could feel her perspiration-soaked blouse chilling against her skin. Discouraged, she pushed back the glossy brown hair and attempted a smile. "Not that visible apparently. I haven't changed the world yet."
"You know you won't change the world. You've made inroads, good, solid ones. And I hope you'll continue to do it. I'll be following your career." He rose and held a hand down to help her up. When she stood beside him, he said "I'll miss you--us."
"I'll miss you, too." She stood on tiptoe to kiss him softly on the lips. "Not just because of how I feel about you, either, but because you were the end of the road, the only man I've met in the last half dozen years who seemed to understand, who seemed impervious to the slanders of the ignorant. For you, I might even have done the dishes."
The light tone she attempted did not quite come off, but he went along with her anyhow. "For you, I even did the vacuuming." He smiled, but it was not the warm smile he had shared with her in those early months. "It wasn't the housework, Hilary. You know that."
"I would never have thought of asking you to give up your work on the newspaper."
"I'll call you sometime, if that's okay."
She shrugged. "If you feel like it. I'll want to know if you get the promotion."
"I've left my address and phone number in the bedroom. Just in case you need me."
With an effort she swallowed down the current need. "Thanks. I'll be all right."
"I know you will, or I wouldn't leave," he said, very hearty now as he picked up the box of records and books.
When she held the door for him, he set the box in the hall and returned to grab each of the suitcases by a handle. Only then, burdened by the heavy luggage, hands occupied, did he kiss her. "Good-bye, Hilary. Take care."
"I will. You, too."
The door closed with finality, but she stood for some time staring at it, feeling slightly numb. Unable to concentrate on any one thought, she wandered from room to room, opening the medicine chest to see the empty shelves where he had kept his shaving cream and razor, peering blankly into the drawer of the bedside table where he had kept his spare pair of glasses. He had forgotten nothing. Hilary couldn't find so much as a shoestring that belonged to him in the whole apartment.
This wasn't the first time it had happened, but usually some stupid little thing was left behind: a receipt for a business luncheon, an old sweat shirt in the laundry. But it was different this time: She hadn't expected it. This time she had found a man who could cope with her career. He was different from the others. They shared so many things in common. And because of it, she had allowed herself to love him a little more deeply than the others.
At thirty-two she was more skeptical, more suspicious, than at twenty-one. Yet even just out of college she had not expected to find someone so completely in tune with her own beliefs and interests as Jack had been. Hilary had let her guard down considerably. Who wouldn't with a shaggy bear of a man who knew from the start what you did and approved? Somehow it was crushing to find that even when he approved, even when he felt a strong emotional tie, it wasn't enough.
Her own record collection was meager, but she fingered her way through it until she found a suitably heartening selection, Dvorak's New World Symphony, to put on the stereo. Having turned the volume considerably louder than usual, she wandered into the kitchen with her half-finished glass of wine and stood uncertainly in front of the refrigerator. She had intended to make spaghetti, but the meal no longer appealed. Nothing did. Eventually she opened the refrigerator and withdrew the remains of the brie they had served two nights before at a dinner party for two of Jack's co-workers and their wives.
In the microwave it took only a few seconds to warm the cheese to room temperature, and she sat at the kitchen table, in his seat, spreading it on the remains of the crackers. The dinner party, she had thought, had been quite successful. The women had perhaps been a little cautious with her at first. Fearing that some quote of theirs would appear in her column? But she had promised Jack--when was it, six months ago?"that she would never do that. Actually it was her habit to use only chance remarks she overheard from strangers, usually as the idea which inspired the columns. For that purpose she frequently wandered through downtown San Jose and the shopping centers around the city, looking for inspiration. The dinner party, all the dinner parties, might have provided ideas, but if they had, she found some other vehicle to introduce them into her writing.
Jack's colleagues had been curious about her, had sounded her out on her feminist stands, had argued on a friendly level. Nothing rancorous in the evening. Jack hadn't been tense the way she had seen some of her previous male acquaintances react when their associates were thrown into proximity with her. As though I were some sort of pariah, Hilary thought indignantly. As though I had some disease they might inadvertently catch by speaking with me. And the warnings ahead of time. "Now don't get on your hobbyhorse with Mr. Trumbull. Talk to him about real estate or something. And not about whether women are discriminated against by lenders!" Jack hadn't done that. He had never done it. Hilary munched thoughtfully on her third cracker. Probably he had wanted to do it.
If he was able to move out and leave an address, then he'd found an apartment, and probably not just today. Jack must have been planning to move before the dinner party, Hilary realized. But he'd wanted to have it. Why? To get rid of a social obligation before he lost his hostess? That was not in keeping with the man she knew. Much more likely he wanted to show his colleagues that she was a presentable woman, an intelligent woman, even a reasonably domestic woman--with the gourmet meal and the tastefully furnished apartment. Look, fellas, she doesn't sacrifice male egos on her feminist altar. Sort of a parting shot, a last-ditch effort to prove the equality of their relationship, that he was no more her henpecked lover than she was his mistreated mistress.
Against the music from the stereo the doorbell sounded weak and uncertain. Hilary refused to allow herself even the passing thought that it would be Jack returning. If it were, it would be for something he had forgotten that she had failed to unearth. There was no reversing a decision such as he had made. It was as irrevocable as a five yearold divorce.
Her visitor was a neatly uniformed flight attendant who lived directly above her and who now carried her traveling bag--either coming or going. The woman was in her late thirties, with short blond hair and skillfully made-up blue eyes, petite and attractive.
"I could hear your stereo from the moment I walked in the door, Hilary," she complained, smiling. "I'm in from a two-day trip and intend to sleep for the next twelve hours, so if you don't mind..."
"I'll turn it down." Wanting some human contact, Hilary asked "Would you like to come in for a glass of wine?"
"Sure. I never pass up a glass of wine before bed." Mary Lou Meyer negligently tossed her traveling bag in the corner inside the apartment and kicked her shoes in its general direction. "I'm getting too old for this game, you know. More and more I think about retiring."
"What would you do?" Hilary took a wineglass from the shelf and filled it from the bottle she'd left sitting on the counter.
Mary Lou grimaced. "Become a full-time mistress, I suppose. Or a wife. Wayne is making noises about leaving his wife again. Ugh! Can you imagine being married to that playboy?"
"I've never met him, remember?"
"Well, he's all right for a good time, but God knows he'd make a hell of a husband. Look what he's doing to his wife."
"It's never bothered you before," Hilary reminded her as she took a seat on the sofa.
"It doesn't bother me now." Mary Lou stretched her legs out on the other side of the sectional sofa and took a sip of her wine. "Lovely. Look, I don't know his wife, and I don't feel responsible for her. He's a pilot, and he makes a bundle. If he wants to spend some of it on me, who am I to object? I wouldn't marry him, though."
"Because we'd be bored with each other in a month. It's the excitement of the affair that turns him on. I'm not his first, and I won't be his last."
"Then maybe you should tell him not to think of getting a divorce. It could wreck a lot of people's lives. He has children, doesn't he?"
"Three or four. I don't remember. But they're teenagers. I'm not responsible for them either."
"Who are you responsible for?" Hilary asked, exasperated.
"Myself. Only me." Mary Lou twirled the wineglass between slender fingers. "He's not going to get a divorce. Wayne is so dumb he thinks I expect him to say it, that's all. You should hear the rosy castles he builds in the air. He'll come and live in my apartment; he pays for it after all. And I'll be there to bring him his slippers when he gets back from a flight to Dallas, with a bottle of wine and a sheer black negligee. Shit. The man's crazy."
"He's the type of man you always pick."
Mary Lou pursed her lips, her head cocked to one side. "Do I pick them? I always thought they picked me. Oh, you have no idea how many of them I turn down. The businessmen on trips, who want me to go off to Hawaii with them for a weekend, the doctors who promise to set me up in a palatial suite on Russian Hill. I never pay any attention to the ones who want me to quit my job. My job is my security."
"It's also your source of sugar daddies," Hilary remarked dryly.
Mary Lou laughed. "That, too, of course. But none of them lasts. The job lasts."
Abruptly Hilary changed the subject. "Jack left today. Permanently."
"Left? That great teddy bear who adored you? Why?"
"He said he couldn't handle it--my columns and articles and the kidding he takes at work."
"Hey, I'm sorry." Mary Lou reached across and squeezed Hilary's wrist. "I thought he was in for the long stretch."
"So did I."
"If anyone had the guts to stand by you, I was sure he had." Mary Lou set her glass on the coffee table and waved one beringed hand in erratic circles. "What the hell's the matter with men? Does someone whisper in their ears at birth that they can have everything, that there won't be any hard times? They're ready to jump ship the minute some problem comes up that can't be solved by midnight."
Hilary's shoulders lifted slightly. "Jack has his career to think of. He can wield more influence with more power. I don't think it's exactly that he put his career before me. It's more that he was disturbed that he hadn't the detachment and indifference to ignore the gibes. They got to him, and he considered that a fatal flaw."
"It is--for anyone attached to you." Mary Lou drained her wineglass and rose.
"Yes, I suppose it is." A forlorn note had crept into Hilary's voice, and she tried to dispel it with a grin. "Living alone again will give me more time to work at least. I have two articles coming due that I haven't even started yet. Do they ever think about how they interfere with our careers?"