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By Hilma Wolitzer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Hilma Wolitzer
All rights reserved.
One night in August, understanding all at once why I'd been so sad, I decided to leave Howard. This was the real thing, not just the fireworks of battle or some transient post-battle blues. We hadn't even had a decent argument for months. And I wasn't giving Howard up the way he kept giving up cigarettes. I mean that I meant it. But do we ever know what we mean? Light-years before, when I still believed we had mated for life, like wolves, Howard left and went to live with another woman. After a while he came back, and the children and I made room for him in the kitchen and the bedroom, ready to forgive, if not forget.
I wish I could say that I had fallen in love this time, that I was rushing from the house with my skin on fire, and that Mr. Wonderful was going to roll me across the lawn and put out the flames. It wasn't like that, though. Howard and I were getting ready for bed, as we'd done for most of more than twenty-four years, moving through our old ballet of dropped shoes and emptied underwear. I realized that we didn't look frankly at one another's nakedness anymore. Waning interest made us glance away, and shyness of how we were changing. I guess Howard saw me the way I saw him, in hasty flashes of softened flesh before the lights went out.
"Good night, Paulie," he said, yawning hotly on my shoulder, making me shiver. "Whatever you do, don't wake me up tomorrow."
It was Saturday night, about ten o'clock. We used to laugh our heads off when our parents went to sleep that early, all worn out from the effort of their indifference. "Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week," I sang, but Howard was already gone, snoring lightly, his hand a ballast on my hip.
He'd always hated waking up to Sunday, especially if he'd played a late gig the night before. Sometimes he would fall into bed as the room was getting light, still wearing his tuxedo trousers, his starched shirt front bruising my breasts. A few hours later I'd have to rescue him from the gloom of Sunday's Hopper stillness. It was my job, my very mission. I would clear the static from a radio sermon or an opera and turn the volume up high enough to startle the dead. I would dump him out of bed like a rowdy nurse, lure him back to life with waffles and coffee, and with a restorative drive into the countryside.
Lately I just let him sleep. For one thing, we lived in the country now, or at least in that purgatory, the Long Island suburbs. If he wanted to look at flowers and trees, he could go to the window and open his eyes. For another thing, I'd learned to be moody on Sundays myself, and I didn't have the heart to cheer him on anymore. In the old days, when the children were young and still in captivity, it was a family project to make Daddy happy and whole again. I tended to get carried away at times, and Howard would become headachy from the commotion of my zeal. "Calm down, for God's sake," he'd say. "You're not waking Lazarus." But when he said it, he was upright, and almost resurrected from his depression.
For several months before that August night, I'd suspected he'd been seeing someone else. But until then I was only going on intuition. I wasn't the ardent girl detective I'd once been, sniffing out sexual scent, tuned to his metabolic rises and falls. He wasn't even acting nicer to me than usual, which my friend and colleague, La Rae Peters, says is always the first sign. That night I simply knew that what I'd suspected was true, and that I'd known it for a long time. But like Scarlett O'Hara, I had put off thinking about it until tomorrow or the next day. As I lay there, random repressed clues fell into place with fatal clicks. Those phone calls with nobody there when I said, "Hello? Hello?," not even a breather. The crazy diets Howard started—the Protein Purge, the Wheat Grass Fast—and broke with bouts of gluttony. (That very evening, right after supper, he'd stood in the light of the open refrigerator eating a whole pound of sliced ham, as if he were feeding coins into a slot machine.) The scratches he'd had all over his neck once, that he said was a rash, an allergy to the laundry detergent. Those long showers he took after working late, the water pounding and pounding against my denial. And when had we last made love with rapture and invention?
The terrible thing was, I didn't care very much. There were pangs of something like jealousy, an itch in my throat I couldn't scratch, and that was all. I missed my lost, crazed self, the indulgence of genuine rage and grief. When Howard went away that time, I went after him armed with murderous love, and he came back. Now he lay beside me in our bed, where he belonged, and I made up my mind to go. Why not? I wouldn't miss this house, in which I'd always been a sort of visitor. And my friends and I would never lose one another, no matter where any of us lived. Katherine, La Rae, and I would travel by dogsled, if we had to, to sit in somebody's kitchen and talk and eat.
I could be a part-time clerk in some other library, and I could write my column anywhere at all. I mailed it into the paper, anyway, since they'd moved their offices to Westchester, just as I used to mail my poems to famous and obscure magazines. Was "Paulie's Kitchen Korner" the culmination of all that literary ambition? I hadn't written a poem in ages, but sometimes I broke up a few lines of copy before I sent it in: To remove those white / Rings from your favorite / Table, try applying / Toothpaste, the abrasive / Kind, with a damp cloth, and / Later, polish clean. And I still kept the big box of rejection slips. It had once held a pair of Jason's fuzzy sleepers, and blue lint clung to all of the slips, like mold.
A few years ago, I'd seen a picture in the newspaper of a seventy-year-old woman graduating from college in the same class as her twenty-year-old granddaughter. Never too late, the caption read, and under it the article said that they both planned on entering law school in the fall. Reading that, and looking at their smiling faces, made me want to try and finish the education I'd interrupted to marry and raise a family. That afternoon, without telling anyone, I drove to one of those schools that give you credits for life experience and let you work quickly and independently toward a degree. I sat next to a plumber's helper who wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, and filled out the forms, listing housework and child-bearing, all the jobs I'd ever held, and the two years of college I'd completed. Suddenly, it seemed pointless—I'd wanted to be a poet, not a lawyer or an engineer. I knew that learning enriched poetry, but there was no law against being self-taught, and I had thousands of books at my disposal at the library. I even managed to read between the stacks as I was shelving them. And if ordinary life experience—preparing hamburger a hundred different ways and nursing sick children—was good enough for college credit, its ultimate worth to a writer was infinite. I would join a poetry workshop, instead of matriculating, and I'd carry my notebook everywhere again, in case of inspiration.
I never got around to any of that, though. La Rae and I took the Great Books course at the library, and that was about it. If you didn't become what you'd expected to be, it had to be someone else's fault. Howard never said that he blamed me for the breakup of his combo, the loss of his free and jazzy night life, but I knew that he did. And I blamed him for one thing and another. How coldly I reasoned everything out, while he slept on in guilty innocence. Our twenty-fifth anniversary loomed ahead, next June. Although we both disdained all those greeting-card occasions, we observed them, anyway. Children trap you with their pure faith in sentiment, with the valentines made secretly in school for their first loves. I can still feel the heft of the construction paper, the hidden clumps of damp paste. Howard would hand me the requisite roses in exchange for the requisite tie, the transaction taking place over the children's heads. "Now kiss Mommy," Ann would command Howard, and he would. She'd never let any anniversary go by uncelebrated. She and Spence traded gifts a few times a month, to mark the day they'd met, became engaged, got married. The possibilities of this milestone year would drive her to extremes. I had to get out before Hallmark unfurled the tinfoil in a roll of thunder, before the mockery of a party with everyone jumping out of closets yelling "Surprise! Surprise!," bearing gifts of silver we'd have to return before they'd had a chance to tarnish. Who could be more surprised than Howard and me that love, along with lust and eternal friendship, could ever escape our vigilance? Hi-yo Silver, away, away.
Never mind, we had set the right examples for our children already, had shown them the value of anger and of conciliation. Now they were on their own. Jason was living in the Bronx with Flame, his rock group's lead singer. That wasn't her real name, of course—it was Sara Lynn Bartlett. I'd caught myself thinking of Sara/Flame as my actual child, she reminded me so much of myself at her age. She was half beast, half tamed creature, with both halves dying to please Jason. Her pulse was probably synchronized to the beat of his drums. I understood her obsession—hadn't I followed the golden notes of Howard's golden saxophone all the way into this life? When Flame sang with Blood Pudding, in her affecting, croupy style, she clutched the phallic mike as if her hand were joined to it by an electrical charge, and her pink, spiky hair stood on end.
Despite their talent, she and Jason didn't earn very much, and they seemed to take turns getting mugged in their neighborhood. I sent them a few dollars whenever I could—for taxis, I said, for the treat of dinner out. Young love needs to be spared the false romance of poverty. Mimi dies of it, in La Bohème, and Rodolfo has to throw his manuscript on the fire just to keep warm. In real life, nobody would have been singing. And nowadays his manuscript would have been backed up on a soft disk. From what I could tell, Jason and Sara only bought pot with the money I gave them, but she would send little thank-you notes, decorated with those inane, noseless smile faces. "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Flax, Jason and I want to thank you very much for your thoughtful and generous gift. We will enjoy spending it on something special, and think of you when we do. Fondly, Sara."
Jason looked a lot like Howard. They both had the swarthy, redeeming beauty of gangsters, and what my mother once disparagingly called "bedroom eyes." Jason had experimented with various guises, including the current modified Mohawk that didn't quite work with his ringlets. He wore a tiny gold hoop through one earlobe, which Sara had pierced for him with a sterilized sewing needle. At fifty-two, Howard had developed a Kennedy jowl and Onassis pouches under his bedroom eyes, and he sucked in his gut whenever he surprised himself in a mirror.
We could work out the finances of separation—Howard was doing well at the studio, and a few months before, my column had been picked up for syndication. We'd made some good investments in the past, and Ann's wedding was almost paid off, our only debt beside the dwindled mortgage. She and Spence were married a little more than a year. They lived in Larchmont, along with their Swiss housekeeper, in a house about twice the size of ours—only a few miles and several worlds away from Jason and Sara. Spence was a junior partner in his father's brokerage firm, and Ann was in the M.B.A. program at Columbia. She had insisted on having one of those horribly lavish weddings, like the coronation of the Shah. God, the fittings we'd suffered, the agony over the color scheme, the menu, the type style on the invitations! How had we raised such a shallow little materialist? But I wept on cue when she appeared in the doorway of the chapel on Howard's arm—our blond darling, our confection of light. As she glided in slow, triumphant motion toward her blood-drained groom, I wiped my eyes and wondered if she'd ever get there. I'd never taught her to move like that. Howard and I had hurried breathlessly to the altar, with Jason our invisible witness. Howard had to force the ring over my swollen knuckle, but I practically shouted, "I do! I do!" I wouldn't think about any of that now, I wouldn't be sidetracked by nostalgia. There was nothing to hold me back.
I certainly didn't have to stay married for my mother's sake. Divorce was no longer a stigma in her crowd. Most of her friends' children had been through it at least once. And she didn't live with us, the way La Rae's father lived with her and Frank, so there'd be no awkwardness of eviction or custody. My mother was still in Brooklyn—that borough of widows and yuppies—dead-bolted inside her apartment, wearing her Med-Alert beeper. My news would only confirm what she had known from the moment I'd burst in with that other news, twenty-four years ago—that it wouldn't last. It just took longer to end than she had expected. She would have loved to tell my father she'd been right all along, but it hadn't happened in his lifetime. Over the years, though, she'd grown grudgingly fond of Howard, or used to him. He changed her burnt-out light bulbs, moved her furniture back and forth across the room, and praised her heavy-handed cooking.
We would have to let the dog choose between us.
It was a hot and humid night, and the crickets must have been carrying on out there, but we were sealed in, with the air-conditioner going full blast. I began having one of those aural hallucinations I'd often get in that maddening hum. It was an old Harry James number that Howard's combo used to scramble into riffs and flourishes. I heard the melody straight this time, and started to silently mouth the words. You made me love you, I didn't want to do it, I didn't want to do it, you made me—
Next to me, Howard stirred and groaned. His hand slid upward from my hip to my breast. He muttered something. Oh, no, I thought, not now. It wasn't like him to become horny in the middle of the night. Not recently, anyway. I turned carefully away until his fingers were merely grazing my spine, and thought that maybe we should make love this last time, as a ceremony of conclusion. La Rae had something about that in her lonelyhearts column a few weeks ago. What was the heading? Regrets Sex With Ex. No, this was different—I was still married to Howard, even as I planned not to be.
"Paulie," Howard said, and I whispered "No!" into my pillow as fervently as I'd once cried "Yes, yes!" into his hot and hectic mouth. Then he said, "This pain. Boy."
"What pain?" I asked, and he took so long to answer I thought he'd spoken in a dream or had gone right back to sleep. I turned to look at him. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness and I could see that he was on his side, facing me, his errant hand on the fur of his own chest. "Here," he said. "Wow."
"Howard, wake up," I told him. "You're having a bad dream." And then I saw that his eyes were open. I put my lamp on and looked at him more closely. He hadn't moved at all, not even the hand, and he was frowning. He seemed about to make a heartfelt speech. "What's wrong?" I said. "Are you okay?" But it was clear that he wasn't okay. He was moon-pale and there was a sheen of sweat on his face and torso. The room was freezing; the music in my head had stopped.
"Oh, shit," he said, and belched deeply. "I shouldn't have eaten that lousy ham."
I got out of bed and brought him some Gelusil, thinking that Howard's father and grandfather had both died of heart attacks, and that profuse sweating was a sure symptom. Wasn't nausea, also? Men Howard's age, even those who ate sensibly and didn't smoke, dropped dead every day, playing tennis or just sitting at their desks. I didn't know how to suggest any of this to him; mortality is Howard's obsession, but it's not his favorite subject.
"Listen, Howard," I began cautiously, "maybe you should see somebody ... maybe it isn't indigestion."
He looked at me in terror.
"Just to be on the safe side," I said.
Excerpted from Silver by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 1988 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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