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WASN'T IT MIRACULOUS, THAT she could feel this way after so long? Desire, she meant, and its fulfillment. Ivan lay collapsed on her, slipping out in a protracted slowness. She made no effort to keep him. In a moment she would open her eyes to the bedroom ceiling, an off-white marked by grainy, old imperfections of the surface. She would repossess identity, a structure chiseled by circumstance. Till then she would yield to this larger existence: the breadth of oceans, the reach of continents! A dupe, of course, yet what a fine geographical extravaganza, sponsored by Ivan. Caroline smiled.
He moved, and left her. They lay side by side for a while, till Ivan sat up and announced, "I have to go jogging."
Caroline sighed. "I suppose it's only fair that you should exercise other parts as well. Legs."
"It's heart and lungs, actually."
"I see. So you'll have taken care of the reproductive, circulatory and respiratory systems. Very thorough. Then you can come home and eat, for the digestive."
"Come on," he pleaded, and aimed a feinting blow at her jaw. She stretched flat so he could climb over her to get out of bed, and observed his body vaulting through space.
"I should be back in a half hour or so," he said, "I'll ring. Will you hear me?" How discreet he was, this lover. Decoded, the question meant, was she going to get up or go back to sleep? Ivan felt that too much of life's precious time was spent in sleep. He rang because he claimed the weight and jingle of keys would disturb the delicate euphoria of his jogging.
"I'll hear you. I'll be out of the shower by the time you're back."
Just the other day she had found some lines about love quoted in the morning paper. "'Love,'" she had read to Ivan, who stood soberly before the glass pane of the china closet, holding his tie, "'Love is the word used to label the sexual excitement of the young, the habituation of the middle-aged, and the mutual dependence of the old.'" She paused. "Is that what we have? Habituation?"
"We're still in the young category," Ivan said with a smile, his eyes, not his head, veering in her direction. A pleasant leer. Good. She didn't care for the writer's attitude anyway. She leered back and bit into her bread and cheese with a youthful appetite. Ivan flipped the long end of the royal blue tie over the short, pulled it up from under, and negotiated the knot with pained jerking motions of the neck, as though his head, dark and pensive, were striving to escape from captivity. He hated business clothes and maintained he would be most happy living in a loincloth, but he was going to meet with the sources of money. He was in a position of power at the Metropolitan Museum, where at last his particular virtues had found their niche: impeccable taste, a learned eye, and a brilliant, apparently artless diplomacy in regard to the sources of money. Watching the manoeuvres of the tie, Caroline thought impassively, He makes this sacrifice of comfort to earn our daily bread. She earned it too, but the higher mathematics could be taught in slacks and pullover, so innately elevated were they. Ivan worked his way into a suit jacket.
"Beautiful," she commented from the kitchen table. "They'll never guess you abhor the corporate structure."
He grimaced, ran a finger under his collar and left the room.
Were they? Were they really among the young?
She was out of the shower and halfway through her exercises when she realized Ivan was not back. He always came straight home after jogging since he was too sweaty to go anywhere else. She had never been possessive about his time—freedom was part of their tacit pact, their longevity. But she feared the dangers of the park, especially on deserted weekdays, gray mornings. It was a gray Tuesday. Ivan was on vacation and would have dismissed her fears as nonsense. Probably he had met a neighbor and been enticed into one of his errands of mercy, fixing warped keys for helpless children, pulling shopping carts up the street for elderly widows, sweat notwithstanding.
She forced her attention to the exercises, strenuous ballet warm-ups to keep her body young and pliant. (For whom? she occasionally wondered. Herself? Ivan? Some future imperative?) She had the notion that the exercises could hold back the incursions of time, as a disciplined army holds back a destructive horde. She also believed in the story of the boy who could lift a cow. He began the day it was born and lifted it daily. There could be no one day when she would wake up old and find it impossible to do the lifts and swings and balances she had done easily the day before. In Zeno's paradox, which boggled the minds of her freshmen, the arrow never reached its mark, the intermediate steps being an infinitely divisible succession. Speeding by, time moved in tiny increments. Caroline was forty-five, but as her friends sometimes told her and she believed, she looked years younger.
When she was finished she checked the kitchen clock. He had been gone more than an hour. Suddenly, overlaid on the clock's square face there came to her a vision of Ivan attacked on an abandoned lane by three swaggering boys with knives. That he carried no money enraged them; they cut him up and left him bleeding on the limp July grass. Transfixed, she reran the scene in greater detail. They approached him, skinny dark boys in dark clothes walking close together with their shoulders almost touching, and blocked his path. How poignant was Ivan's surprise, he who lacked the imagination of disaster. They surrounded him, pinned his arms back, felt his white shorts for money. When he tried to break away, as he surely would, they pulled out their knives and slashed at him: face, arms, chest. Few people walked down that lane; he would bleed to death, slowly. Or else be discovered and brought back to her breathing his last. Perhaps he would live on, an invalid. There was a man in the next building in a wheelchair. He stopped neighbors to tell jokes and they suffered his advances out of pity, for he had been mugged and was paralyzed as a result. The vision flashed again, Ivan lying on his back on the lonesome path, stretched out as if crucified, this time the front of his white shorts a bloody hole. Caroline pressed her fists to her eyes in a surge of self-hate. How could she even imagine such a thing? Dead would be better than that. For his own sake, she would rather have him brought back to her dead.
She shook herself as if to throw off a web. He disappeared, he had no sense of time; that was his way. Last summer he took the girls to the beach and didn't reappear till nine-thirty at night. She had pictured trawlers dragging the ocean floor for their bodies, if it was possible to drag ocean floors, especially in the dark. When they walked in, brown, sandy and laughing, she blanched as if at a trio of revenants. She had vowed that minute to waste no more of her ebbing vitality worrying over him. Very well, then. Back in the bedroom she pulled her jeans from a bottom drawer and tugged them up with satisfaction. You didn't have to run to stay young, she thought savagely as she reached for the hairbrush.
It was a terribly hot day. Just last week a neighbor, fifty-two, a mere couple of years older than Ivan, dropped down on the tennis court, stone dead, after three games in extreme heat. Precisely. Ivan was not the mugging-victim type: too big and arrogant. He might be sprawled in the same pose as Jeff Tate, felled by heat exhaustion and heart failure. She should have warned him not to go—Jeff's wife said she had warned him, not that it helped—but Caroline tried to avoid a wifely tone, even in middle age. That was part of their tacit pact too, never to adopt the mannerisms of "husband" and "wife." Besides, given the nature of Ivan, solicitude would evoke a contrary response. So out of their joint perversity, he was dead.
The children, away at camp! How could she possibly tell them? They were too young for such a loss—Greta a mere baby and Isabel nearly full-grown in body but a child still when it came to grief. Poor Greta—her first summer away. Ivan had been so devoted to them. When Isabel was small a glow surrounded the two of them, as if they were lovers. Then Greta was born, and he found he could be in love with two girls at once, the lithe pre-pubescent and the rosy infant. Caroline had had to accept the dispersion of his love. Isabel at fourteen pretended to a coolness she thought was mature; her grief would be enormous but restrained. Caroline would writhe inside with the need to see her weep. Greta, transparent as glass, would be all tears and talk, defying any attempts at distraction. Caroline would look at her and see straight through to the shattered heart.
She laid down her hairbrush with a sharp bang. This was carrying the game too far. He would return safe. He had to. Fate might be cruel and thoughtless—her own life, God knows, had been buffeted by time and chance—but there were some things that simply could not be permitted to happen, even in fantasy: the suffering of children...And yet it happened all the time, in real life. She herself had been barely older than Isabel when her mother died. She remembered the torment vividly, though she no longer felt it. Why should her children be exempt?
Sinking into the enveloping easy chair in the bedroom, she closed her eyes and recalled the odious packing ahead of her. They were setting off tomorrow for a three-week camping trip in Canada. A vision of cold mountain lakes and the soft splash of canoe paddles with an arc of droplets gleaming off their length transported her into a shaded green peace. This hour would be forgotten. Any second, Ivan would ring the bell. They would pack up, go to bed early, and rise at dawn to slip into their jaunty white car, its motor humming a promise of space and solitude. She jerked to her feet. The car! He had mentioned last night, just as she was falling asleep, that he needed to bring the car in this morning to have Angel look it over before the trip. He had forgotten to remind her as he left. Ah well, that was Ivan. Her relief was immediate, like an inner flood of light.
She ought to make sure, though. She approached Ivan's desk drawer with a faint sense of violation. They were very careful about privacy: regarding desk drawers, mail, telephone calls, a minimum of questions was asked. Discretion had helped them stay married. But this was different. She pulled open the drawer. The car keys lay there, splayed out like an open, three-fingered hand. Never mind, he must have taken her set again. Like a child, he liked using her things—towels, fountain pens, scissors, camera. She reached up to the high shelf where she kept them. Her fingertips touched the jagged edge of cold metal, and she fell back in the chair, numbed at this horrible betrayal by her own emotions, by life itself.
He had simply vanished, like Gauguin. She allowed the crazy notion to settle over her gently, like a blanket. Like someone dragging about with flu, who finally surrenders and goes to bed, she felt the relief of giving in. Yes, after all these years, and yes, in his white jogging shorts, idiotic as it seemed. He could always borrow clothes from his younger brother Vic, who was the same size and lived only a mile downtown. There was a streak of the unpredictable in Ivan; it was one of his charms. From the beginning, he had had the yearnings of pioneers, explorers, adventurers. He longed to discover landscapes and make them his own by striding through them and imprinting his foot. Were he living in another age he might have driven stakes into the ground or hoisted his country's flag. She, rooted to the spot, adventurous only within the confines of her self, was what held him back. Something within him had finally revolted.
Why, after all, should Ivan want to spend his entire life joined to her? He had thought at first that he would want to, but now he had changed his mind, and with good reason. She was difficult. Though no more so than he—their difficulties, alas, were perfectly complementary. And she was not astonishingly beautiful, nor brilliant (except in her own obscure and narrow work), nor even particularly kind. There was nothing spectacular about her. Though there had been moments, with him, when she felt spectacular, so illumined she might glow in the dark. But in truth even the common glow of youth had left her. Wasn't it true despite all the exercising, hadn't she seen but pretended not to, that in certain bends and twists the skin on the outside of her upper thighs crinkled like parchment? She squeezed her eyes shut in resistance. Of course she had seen, this morning, and the morning before, many mornings before, but she had made believe it was nothing, an accident of the light that could happen to anyone in those contorted positions. But it would not happen to Isabel, or to Isabel's taut friends. Ivan was a courtly lover; he would have pretended not to notice. He knew she could not forever remain as she was the day he first saw her. He had also grown abstracted—he might indeed not have noticed. Other men would. Eventually she would become like Blanche DuBois, making love only in the murky shade of lanterns.
This was no time for levity. She crouched deeper in the uncritical embrace of the chair, her arms huddled round herself though the room was warm. He was gone, then. She would have to accept it somehow. What she would never accept was his timing. Just after they made love—that was the most unkindest cut. Had he been planning it all along? This is the last time, baby, you better enjoy it! No, no, Ivan could not think like that. More likely it was with lordly benevolence, condescension. I grace you one last time...
It was not any failing in her that had decided him. He was quite aware of her flaws, and abundantly tolerant: they had both tolerated a great deal. What he could tolerate no longer was his own love of a flawed object. A secret perfectionist: not from her but from love, from his own vast and undiscriminating devotion, had he run in his white shorts and blue shoes, run out of the park to the tip of the island, across a bridge to the mainland, out to the hinterlands, out, out, away from love. Love the dark victor whom no one outwits, as a young poet said. Ivan would outwit it. At the very start, in Rome, he had tried to outwit it. He was more skilled now, at evasion. Oh yes, she could see it radiantly, tall broad Ivan against the flat morning horizon, running steady and swift towards a purer region.
Well, it was a pretty picture, but it could not soothe the fury pervading her like bloat. Who did he think he was, running out on her after so many years, running out on their children for some metaphysical indulgence? Had he coerced her into marriage, then, only to desert her? Had he weathered the strife of two decades only to leave now when they were more calm? Of Isabel and Greta she could not even think any more; a ring congealed around her heart at the unspoken sound of the names. Who did he think she was, to have spent years of her life accommodating him in more ways than she wished to remember, and then be left bereft in middle age, so that no one else could ever see her as she once was, in her beauty. And the perversity of him, to leave on the very eve of their vacation. All winter, through the grease fire in the oven and the breakdown of the plumbing, through Greta's broken arm, her own bitter fight for the Women's Studies program, the theft of the Volvo—through all the abominations they had dreamed of a time alone. He had made a mockery of their dream. Of their whole lives.
Excerpted from Rough Strife by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Copyright © 1980 Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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