Read an Excerpt
"Maggie was right about you," Emma Roth says, breaking a silence that has gone on for too long. She gazes through the windshield at the flat gray ribbon of road that unfurls before her. The city is at her back. Ahead lays territory uncharted on her internal map: the sort of wilderness designated by ancient cartographers with dragons and sea serpents. With every passing exit sign, she feels herself shrinking, curving in on herself. This, she thinks, is not agoraphobia but suburbaphobia, the fear of losing oneself in a maze of identical ticky-tacky houses and strip malls.
"What did she say?"
"That you weren't really adapted to the city. That one day you'd revert to your roots." This is the expurgated version, Emma's sister having majored in sociology and minored in mouth.
"And carry you off to the boondocks?" Roger Koenig gives the matter a moment of his formidable attention. "True but trivial. You knew when you married me you were marrying a hick."
"And you knew you were marrying a city rat."
"Rats can live anywhere. They happen to be extremely adaptable animals; not that I accept the comparison."
They lapse into silence. Roger flicks the radio on, and Charlie Parker fills the car. Another exit sign appears, but Roger keeps to the middle lane, maintaining a steady sixty-five. He likes driving and does it well, a good thing for Emma, who hates it.
"And that's another thing," she says.
"Out here people drive everywhere."
"It's not like city driving."
"I'd have to drive. Every day."
"But not trivial," she says, and in her tone there is reproach.
Roger hears it and hardens his heart. To prevail in this matter he will need to overcome a great many reproaches, he will need to break the rules that govern their marriage. The reason Emma hates to drive belongs to the class of things not talked about, a class that has ballooned in recent years. He says carefully, "That might not be such a bad thing."
"Ha," she mutters, more or less under her breath. Roger stretches his long arm over the seat back and rubs a knuckle into the base of her skull. He feels sorry for her, for in his mind the deed is already done. Emma, mistaking his gesture, leans back into his hand and narrows her eyes. "Roger," she says, her voice cajoling.
"Can it, babe. You promised me two hours of slavish obedience, and I am calling in my marker."
"Extracted under false pretenses. I thought you had something very different in mind."
He flashes the old boyish grin, and Emma's stomach lurches. You'd think, after twelve years of marriage and all they've been through....But wanting him is an involuntary reaction, like a child's helpless laughter at being tickled a reflex deepened by habit.
"You hussy," he says. "I'll make it up to you."
"You wish. You had your chance and blew it, bud."
Another green exit sign appears in the distance. This time Roger glides into the right lane of the Long Island Expressway. Emma says, "And don't imagine slavish obedience extends to making any kind of offer on this house."
"All I ask is an open mind."
"Don't have one. Never claimed to. You're the scientist."
After leaving the expressway they drive north along a winding road bordered by oaks in full spring foliage. Roger leans over the wheel, taut with anticipation. He's seen the house once, for an hour, long enough for him to make up his mind. Emma has never seen it. She sits back, arms crossed; her expression aims at tolerant amusement but falls short on both counts. He glances at her, sighs, but does not speak.
At a fork in the road, he pulls over onto the shoulder of the road and unfolds a map of Nassau County. Roger can chart the course of an atom whirling through a centrifuge, he can map the path of a comet through infinite space, but to Emma's perpetual bemusement, he can't navigate his way out of a paper bag. She unrolls her window and a warm, salty breeze sweeps into the car. The kind of air people leave the city in search of, but Emma thrives on city air, dense and oily, each neighborhood with its own smell, so you can shut your eyes and know just from sniffing where you are. She tries it now. "I smell the sea."
"The Sound, actually; this is the north shore. If my calculations are correct, we should see it in a moment." He sets out again, taking the right fork. The road, which had been climbing steadily, takes a sudden twist and suddenly the Long Island Sound comes into view. A hundred feet or more below them the land curves inward to form a rocky cove. Two stone jetties jut into the water, framing a small harbor. Farther out, there's a smattering of boats, a mix of trawlers and pleasure craft. Then the road takes another turn and merges with another, and they enter the village of Morgan Peak.
An old fishing village, she thinks, tarted up for the tourist trade, straddling the hills above the cove like a harlot on a two-humped camel. The image pleases her and she files it in the section of her brain marked "For future use."
Seeing her smile, Roger allows himself a mild gloat. "It's an artists' colony. You were expecting maybe Levittown?"
"I can see why you like it," she says. "Pure chaos." In fact, the village looks like something that has grown at random out of the hills. There is no flat ground, every building occupies a different level, and if the village has a building code, it must stipulate that no structure may resemble its neighbor in size, shape, or color. On the side streets bungalows rub elbows with mansions, frilly Victorians consort with sleek contemporaries. Morgan Peak is a jumble though not, Emma reluctantly and silently allows, a displeasing jumble.
"Pretty," she says.
"Pretty, nothing. It's the real thing."
"I wouldn't mind spending a day or two. We could come out this summer, with Zack."
"Three bookstores." Roger speaks softly, as if trying to implant the information directly into her subconscious. "Jewish deli, Italian bakery, top-ranked public schools."
"Get thee behind me, Satan," she replies. But absently, her nose pressed to the window.
"Wait till you see the house," he says, and there is something in his voice, a muted intensity that snags her attention. Stealing a glance at her husband's face, Emma raises her hand to her mouth and gnaws a well-chewed thumbnail. Roger doesn't want many things, but he can be ruthless about getting those he does.
Gordon Bass has the key and could have waited inside the house, but he chooses to pass the time on the shady front porch. The realtor is a portly man in a beige linen suit and a red tie loosened at the throat. It's not the sad business of old lady Hysop that keeps him outside; Bass isn't the superstitious type, wouldn't pay to be in his racket. He just doesn't care for the place, grand as it is with all those gables, the octagonal tower, and arched roof. Give him a nice, vinyl-sided split any day, to live in or to sell. In a village where houses rarely last longer than one month on the market, this old Victorian has lingered eight months without attracting a single offer. Doesn't surprise him, considering it started out with two strikes against it. First strike is its reputation, which knocks out your local buyers. Second is shaky curb appeal. Too bad the old lady's heirs refused to paint the exterior they were quick enough to clean out the furnishings. The fish-scale shingles that cover the house would have looked charming with a fresh coat of some light-colored paint and a contrasting color for the trim. As it stands, though, even people who claim to love old houses are intimidated by this one; daunted, too, by its location, which in real-estate-speak is termed "private," though strictly between himself and the lamppost Bass would call it downright isolated. The house stands sentry on the farthermost end of steep, unpaved Crag Road, where the cliff falls into the sea; there is no other house in sight save the little roadside carriage house that comes with the property.
The house's isolation didn't bother Roger Koenig, but in Bass's experience, nine times out of ten it's the woman who decides on a house. Now the wife is coming to check the place out. Bass, a born optimist, isn't holding his breath on this one.
He hears the car before he sees it, a big old Buick chugging up the hill. They'd do better with a four-wheel drive if they buy this place, Bass thinks. The car pauses at the foot of the drive beside the small clapboard carriage house, then continues up the drive. Bass descends from the porch, smiling. Roger Koenig parks beside Bass's car and gets out. The men exchange greetings while the woman remains seated, staring through the windshield at the house. Her husband opens her door, reaches in and hauls her out.
"Emma," he says, "Gordon Bass. My wife, Emma Roth."
Gordon Bass has a system of rating women. The unit of calibration is time: how much of it he would lop off the end of his life to nail them even once. Michelle Pfeiffer tops the scale at a year. Movie stars aside, though, Koenig's wife is right up there. Midnight-blue eyes under dark, slanting eyebrows, a hybrid mouth long and thin upper lip, full, sensual lower. Taut olive skin that stretches over high cheekbones like canvas over a frame; luxuriant black hair you can't help but imagine wrapping around your hands. He can't see much of her body; she wears the American woman's version of the chador, jeans and an oversized cable sweater that covers her down to her thighs. She's tall and slender, though, with a coltish figure, like a young Lauren Bacall. She moves as if her limbs are lubricated.
She casts a clarifying light on the husband. Koenig dresses in classic professorial mufti of tweed jacket over jeans, but moves and speaks with an air of unconscious presumption that smells to Bass, who has a nose for the stuff, like very old money. The wife sews it up: not the sort of woman you'd aspire to on a professor's salary.
He holds out his hand. "Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Koenig."
"Actually," Roger says, "my wife uses her maiden name, Roth."
"Emma's fine," she says. Her handshake is firm but perfunctory; she meets his gaze for just a moment before turning back to the house. Bass, striving to see it through her eyes, is struck anew by its defiant asymmetry, the multiplicity of angles, and the fierce effect of the overhanging eaves topped with wrought-iron castings. Impressive architecturally; though what she thinks he cannot tell. Bass prides himself on his ability to read faces, but he hasn't the key to hers.
Roger puts his arm around her shoulders. "Isn't it amazing?"
It is a setting that could support the most idiosyncratic of houses. The parking area is downhill from the house, which from their perspective appears to float between sky and sea. Gordon Bass looks at the house, then at the woman's profile, and impulsively says the words that come into his head. "You were born to own this house."
Which is not at all the sort of remark he is accustomed to making. "First win their trust," he tells the young agents who come and go in his office, "and eventually you will sell them a home." It doesn't do to let buyers feel you are invested in any particular property, and indeed this is the last property he would think of foisting on any client. Nevertheless the words seem true to him: She was born to own this house.
Emma turns her cool gaze on Bass. He sucks in his gut and smiles hopefully.
"Really," she says. "Who do I look like to you, Mortitia Addams?"
They climb the five steps leading up to the porch and pass between spidery trellises to enter the house. Emma shivers; on this balmy spring day it is cooler indoors than out. First thing she notices in the wide entrance hall is the streaming light, which comes as a surprise, for despite the abundance of windows she has somehow expected gloom. The second is the gleaming, wide-board oak floor. Emma loves wooden floors, though not enough to sell her urban soul.
The broker leads them into the living room, a large rectangular room whose length runs along the northern wall of the house. With no furniture to distract it, Emma's eye is drawn first to the burnished wood parquet floor, then to the windows. Bass is talking about the age of the house, pointing out the original Victorian detail, crown moldings, woodwork. She's not listening; she has drifted away from the men and come to rest before one of three floor-to-ceiling windows along the exterior wall. Outside, the land rises for some twenty yards between the house and a windbreak of old pines that limns the cliff's edge. The landward portion of the cove is obscured from this vantage point. Farther out, where the bay merges with the sound, the waves are capped with white and the water ripples in complex patterns. It is the kind of irregular regularity that entrances her husband, the only adult Emma knows who can spend hours on his back staring up at clouds. The sky above the water looks like an unmade feather bed, piled high with fluffy white cumulus clouds.
She notices then that the middle window is not a window at all but a pair of French doors leading out to a small terra-cotta terrace just big enough for a little table and a couple of wrought-iron chairs. Suddenly Emma has a vision of herself sitting alone on that terrace, watching the bay as she drinks a cup of coffee. The vision, though vivid, almost hallucinatory, lasts but a moment before she whisks it away.
Yet its effect on her does not pass unobserved. Gordon Bass sees it and is heartened. You never know, he tells himself, a phrase that sums up much of what he's learned through his profession.
"Shall we move on?" he says.
She turns, her face restored to indifference. "Might as well; we're here."
He leads them through the parlor and the dining room. Koenig's questions about the house, the village, and the schools are clearly meant for his wife's edification, since he asked them all before. But Emma listens with polite indifference, as silent as he is voluble. She asks no questions, gives nothing away.
There is tension between husband and wife, and Bass swims between them, testing the currents. More and more he comes to focus on the wife. The husband is sold; she is the holdout, but Bass is not without hope. He saw the look on her face as she gazed out at the living room terrace: dreamy yet possessive, the look of a woman taken by a house.
Taken, yes, it can happen that way. In the common course of events, of course, people choose houses. Sometimes, though, it doesn't work that way. some- times houses choose people. They reach out, they whisper, they entice and enfold. It's strange, spooky, hardly the sort of thing you'd bring up at sales conference but more than once in the course of his career, Bass has seen it happen.
Something about this house moves Emma; something speaks to her. Bass understands why she resists. It makes sense to him that anyone who likes this house would like it against his will.
They come to the kitchen. Except for the living room, it is the largest room in the house. Built of stone and brick and oak, it features a walk-in pantry and a sitting nook with built-in benches and a fireplace. No woman accustomed to city kitchens would be likely to resist this one, Bass figures, and Emma does smile wistfully upon the stone hearth, but she doesn't do the things women do when they're serious about a house: open cabinets, pull out drawers, eyeball the plumbing. Roger does those things, while she sits on the bench beside the hearth, waiting as women wait for children to finish playing.
Bass leaves the husband to join the wife. "I believe Roger mentioned that you're a writer."
"Good for you! Published anything yet?"
There is a slight, sticky pause. Roger, who's heard her answer this question before, quits poking about the cupboards and looks with trepidation at his wife. The expression on her face nostrils flared, one eyebrow arced he knows well. For a woman without pretensions, Emma tolerates condescension remarkably ill.
She gives Bass a frozen smile. "I understand you're a realtor."
"Yes indeed, going on twenty years now."
"Sold any houses?"
A prickly sort of woman, then, Bass thinks as he leads them up the L-shaped staircase, pointing out the hand-carved banisters as they climb. One of those who keep their own names after marriage. Call him a chauvinist, but Gordon Bass would not have married a girl who wouldn't be proud to take his name. Although Emma is admittedly the sort of woman for whom exceptions are made.
Times change, and as Bass often says, you've got to go with the flow. Nowadays most of his buyers are two-career couples. Have to be, the price of houses these days not like when he was a kid, when Mom stayed home and Daddy brought home the bacon. Nevertheless, it is a source of pride for Bass that his own wife has never worked; he's supported her from the day they married. Better that way, he feels. When both husband and wife work, the marital balance of power shifts. Bass still isn't sure where the fulcrum lay between this couple. Perhaps it is in flux.
He shows the four bedrooms, suppressing his own dislike of the quirky, odd-shaped rooms, each with its own gable and assorted unexpected nooks and crannies. If there is one thing twenty years in real estate has taught him it is the truth of the adage that one man's cramped and inconvenient is another's charming and cozy.
He saves the master bedroom for last. The wife responded to the view downstairs; he watches her closely now as he throws open the door and stands back. The room faces north and has twin gables. The views are living seascapes, framed in the gable windows. Once again Emma is drawn to a window. This time Roger stands behind her, his hands on her shoulders. They don't speak for several moments. Bass, recognizing a decisive moment when he sees one, keeps his mouth shut.
Roger brings his mouth close to Emma's ear. "What you're observing," he says, "is the intersection of three basic elements: land, water, and air. Total volatility. All these forces interact to generate a series of inherently unstable situations. Place is a petri dish for chaotic phenomena."
"You want us to live in a petri dish?"
"Above it, actually. All the action's down below. This house is perched on the lip of chaos."
"Can we go now?"
He doesn't move. He's not, she sees, even close to moving. "You realize that from this window, you would never see the same view twice?"
"I like seeing the same view twice."
"Tell me this isn't an amazing house."
"Tell me Zack wouldn't love it," Roger says.
Now he's definitely stepping. She gives him a scalding look, then turns to Gordon Bass with an air of finality. "What an unusual house. Thank you so much for showing it to us."
"Oh, but wait," Bass says. "You must see the library. And of course the carriage house."
"There's a library?"
"Yes, indeed. It's the most dramatic room of the house. Perfect for a writer, I should think. You'll have noticed from outside the octagonal tower on the north side of the house?"
Emma turns accusing eyes upon her husband, to whom she has entrusted the secrets of her heart. He wears a look of studious innocence. "You didn't mention a library."
"Slipped my mind," he says.
Bass leads them down the hall to a door Emma hadn't seen before. The door opens into a short, drably carpeted corridor that ends in an ascending spiral staircase. Both sides of the corridor are studded with cabinet handles and drawer pulls: hidden storage with easy access. She can't help thinking of the stacks of boxes that line the walls of the converted laundry room she calls her office not precisely what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she prescribed a room of one's own for every writer. Cartons of galleys and manuscripts and author's copies of her books, material she needs to keep but has nowhere to store. There is more storage space in this short corridor than in the whole of their apartment. For that matter, the pantry is larger than their kitchen, and their entire apartment could fit into the ground floor of this house. Roger must be mad, she thinks. No way they could afford this house, even if she wanted it, which of course she doesn't.
At the foot of the spiral staircase Bass stands back to let Emma proceed. She climbs the winding steps and emerges through the floor of the most astonishing room she has ever seen. The tower's octagonal shape produces a kind of sectioned openness. The arc of the ceiling is repeated in the windows, one to a section. The afternoon light, pouring in from all directions, creates an air of heightened lucidity. The view is panoramic. Pale ash paneling and built-in bookcases on four of the eight walls anchor a room that might otherwise float off into space.
Perfect for a writer, the realtor had said, and he was right. It is perfect. It is a room that cries out for a writer. A room any writer would kill for.
Emma sees her books on those shelves. She sees where she would place her desk and where the armchair would go. She pictures the room as hers and feels the bolt of desire snap into place as surely as the lock on a cell door. She wants this tower. She lusts for it. She feels an immediate conviction that she must own this room, followed instantly by the certainty that she never will.
And who has done this to her? Who has brought her in a few short minutes from perfectly reasonable contentment to this wretched state of never-to-be-fulfilled desire? She turns to her husband, who watches her with a smugness he doesn't trouble to disguise. "You devious bastard!"
Roger's face splits with delight. He winks at the broker. "She loves it."
Emma cyclones down the winding stairs, dealing her husband, in passing, an unplayful punch in the gut.
"She really loves it," he gasps, clutching his stomach.
"Lucky for us," Bass says.
Although Emma as a child marched to her own syncopated drummer, she has in recent years become a creature of decided habit. Little routines have sprung up like hedges about her days. Spontaneity is reserved for her work; in her personal life she finds safety and comfort in repetition. Of course Emma is not fool enough to believe that any amount of ritual can protect her from misfortune, which by its very nature falls where it will, when it pleases; but what profit is there in tempting fate?
Two days after their expedition to Morgan Peak, Emma rises at six o'clock to see Roger off. She does this because she always does it, it is part of her routine; she does it even though she is tired and her head aches from fatigue and tension. They've been battling for two days, breaking off whenever Zack comes near, resuming at once in his absence. Emma is unused to such vehemence in Roger; ever since the accident he's shied away from confrontations. On this matter, though, he will not give in. The house is perfect for them, he insists. It is time for a change. Why a change should be necessary is another in the class of things not discussed. Thus is Roger trampling on the central conceit of their marriage: that the past is the past, dead and buried. When she punishes him with silence, he responds by upping the ante. "Zack would love it," he says. "Any kid would. The sea, the space, the freedom."
As if that were an inducement, as if she wants Zack to have more freedom. If accidents happen when they're least expected, then constant vigilance is the key. In the city Zack goes nowhere unescorted by a parent; Emma sees to that. But in the suburbs kids have wheels of their own, bicycle wheels. They ride away from you and then anything can happen, anything at all. What goes around comes around is Emma's greatest fear.
Last night she purchased a twenty-four-hour moratorium on discussion of the house, but at a steep price: a promise that she would not rule out the house, that she would consider it seriously. This morning an eye-of-the-hurricane calm prevails. Roger keeps his word and says nothing about the house. They drink coffee together, sitting on opposite ends of the table. Then he kisses her and leaves the apartment.
Her routine continues. At seven o'clock she wakes Zack, at eight-fifteen walks him to the bus stop on Columbus Avenue. She waits at a discreet distance until the school bus comes not discreet enough for Zack, who hates her hovering. "None of the other moms wait." He is ten years old and bursting with frustrated independence. Emma hates to cramp him, but on points of safety she is inflexible. Doesn't she know how quickly accidents can occur? Not to mention all the other childhood hazards of large cities.
On the way home she stops at the corner bakery for The New York Times and her usual croissant. Back in their apartment on the sixth floor of a prewar building, she pours her second cup of coffee, puts it on a tray with the croissant and the paper, and carries the tray into the living room. She scans the Times and turns to the crossword puzzle Monday's puzzle, the easiest of the week, which she fills in quickly. Then, with unusual reluctance, she goes into her office.
A funny little room, she calls it to friends, though for Emma the charms of coziness have long since worn off. Her desk and printer stand occupy the space once filled by a washer and drier. At the end of the windowless room is the deep, chintz-covered armchair where she writes her first drafts in longhand before transferring each day's work to the computer. A shallow bookcase holds essential reference works, whatever books she is currently using for research, and office supplies. A narrow room made narrower by the stacks of boxes that line the walls.
Normally Emma's tunnel vision blocks out the room and focuses on the work. This Monday, though, she sees it with new eyes. What a dreary hole it is. She sits at the computer and conjures up a program of card games. The second cup of coffee, the crossword, the computer game all part of the morning ritual she thinks of as booting up her brain. A few hands of hearts and then she will settle in to work. From the gallery of talking heads she chooses her favorites: Grandpa, Gambler, and Southern Belle. They have other names, but that's what she calls them. Usually Emma beats the computer, but today the cards are stacked against her. Twice she ends up eating a solo queen of spades; she loses the game in six hands. "Too bad," says the perky Belle. "Maybe you'll win next time." Emma exits the game and boots up Word.
Last week's pages await her in a leather binder beside the computer. She carries them over to the armchair and settles in to read. Feeling her way back into the story, editing as she goes, her protagonist this time a young journalist writing a series about local haunted houses. Faith Mercer is a sensible, down-to-earth sort of person who doesn't believe in ghosts until she actually meets one, which is just about to happen. Meanwhile Emma has left her on the threshold of her first haunted house, a deserted mansion to which she has finagled the keys.
What has to come next is a description of the house. Notebook in hand, Emma pictures the mansion in her mind. Almost at once certain details begin to emerge. She writes quickly, not pausing to think, just letting the words spill out. Later she will cut and edit ruthlessly, but not now. First drafts are playgrounds where anything goes.
Suddenly she is finished. The description covers three sides of paper. But when she reads it over, she receives a sickening jolt. The house she has described is in all essentials the house in Morgan Peak. She groans. This is awful. Bad enough the house is roiling her marriage and ruining her sleep; now it is invading her work, the last bastion. Emma crumples up the pages, tosses them into the basket.
She tries again, gets nowhere. The room is oppressive, the air stale. She cannot settle down, cannot get inside the story. Her characters read like stick figures, no life at all to them. She turns to a fresh page of loose leaf, folds it lengthwise, writes "Pro" on one side and "Con" on the other. Like most writers, she thinks best when she's writing, so it's not surprising that when she is most stressed, she makes lists. Itemizing pros and cons is no doubt a primitive mode of organization, but surely better than none at all.
Under Pro, Emma writes "library." Her pen falls idle as she pictures the room that would have been and still could be her own. How beautiful it was; what books could be written in such a room! It would affect her writing, no way that it couldn't. One would have to live up to a room like that. Emma likes to claim that she could work anywhere, and perhaps she could; writing is that essential to her well-being. But that is not to say she is impervious. There is a mutual confluence of life and fiction; each exerts a gravitational pull on the other's orbit. Lately Emma has been troubled by a perception of sameness in her work, a feeling that she isn't so much writing as rewriting.
Oh, the words flow easily enough; they always have. But the ideas don't. For her, it seems, there is only one idea, though many permutations. She writes always of women who are haunted, who try and fail to escape their past. Even when she sets out deliberately to write a different sort of book, she finds her story veering back to the same old theme; she is like Alice in the looking-glass world, who discovered that the path away from the house leads directly to it.
It worries her. Last time they had lunch, she put it to her literary agent, Gloria Lucas. "Was the last book too like the one before?"
Caught off guard, Gloria hesitated a moment before responding. "Ghost stories are a classic genre," she said at last. "They're supposed to follow traditional lines. Nobody wants a sonnet with fifteen lines."
Her true answer, Emma knew, lay not in her words but in the pause that preceded them. "It was, then."
"What are you asking, Emma? Okay, sure, I'd like to see you push the envelope, grow as a writer. But if you're asking me as an agent are you hurting yourself, the answer's au contraire, babe. Consistency's a real virtue when you're trying to build a solid base of readers."
All very encouraging, except that consistency is not a quality Emma aspires to or even admires. Prison bars are consistent, pudding is consistent. The writers she admires take risks, try things, dare to fail now and then. Emma doesn't read the kind of book she writes, and this fact troubles her greatly.
But that's what happens when you write in a laundry room, says a voice inside her head. She ignores it and goes on with her list. Under Con she writes "L.I."
A bit of a snob is Emma, possessed of the innocent arrogance of born-and-raised New Yorkers who imbibe with their mothers' milk the words of the city's anthem: "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere..." She knows the city better than most cabbies; she owns the streets; she has never been mugged. When people she knows flee the city for the suburbs, she thinks of them with pity but also disdain, as having either given up or sold out. How will she see herself if she follows suit? For Emma, it must be said, is prone to a feeling of diminishment. In certain subtle but important ways she is not quite the woman she used to be, and she knows it. Surely burying herself in a small village would be another step on the road to disappearing not only personally, but professionally as well. In her mind there are two sorts of American writers: those who live in New York City, and those who live in the provinces. In that respect Long Island is as far from Manhattan as Idaho.
Under Pro she writes "public school." Emma has been raised to believe in public education; her parents were passionate on the subject, and both she and her sister received very decent public-school educations, thank you very much. But Roger is determined that his son's education will not be sacrificed to a political principle, and in this instance Emma is content, perhaps even relieved, to be overruled. Zack attends a private school on the Upper East Side. Maggie disapproves, of course, but Maggie would. Emma is troubled more by her own misgivings, which resurface with every gathering of the well-heeled PTA. In Morgan Peak Zack would attend public school. According to Roger, who's done his homework, the district is ranked among the top ten in the nation. Classes are small, they boast an exceptional program for the gifted, and the high school has produced more Westinghouse finalists than any school on Long Island.
Under Con she writes "cost." Her first line of defense, and the first defeated. The night after their excursion, Roger told her the asking price of the house: a hundred thousand lower than her lowest estimate. Amazing that such a large house could cost less than a three-bedroom co-op in a decent Manhattan neighborhood; even so, it is more than they could possibly afford. Of course, when she said so, Roger pounced. Not only could they afford it, he declared with the air of a magician producing a rabbit, they would actually reduce their living expenses.
Nonsense, she replied. Their apartment was rent-controlled; how could a house possibly cost less? Roger was, as always, appallingly well prepared, as befits a man who proposed marriage by presenting her with a mathematical proof of its logical necessity. (Which she still has somewhere. "If E = Emma, and R = Roger, and H = the function of happiness...") He produced a small notebook from his jacket pocket and opened to a page covered with figures. He showed her what they would save in tuition and income tax, and what they would realize in rent from the carriage house, which had proved on inspection to be a very nice little house; eminently rentable, the realtor assured them.
It's true that looked at in this way the house is surprisingly affordable; but the down payment would consume practically all their savings, so Emma still feels justified in listing cost as a drawback.
Under Pro she wrote "space; light." The light an unalloyed good, the space a mixed blessing, lack of it having served her well. When Roger says, "We'll have more room," he means more room for children. She knows it, he knows it, but neither says it out loud. These are waters even reckless Roger scruples to disturb.
Under Con she writes "friends." When people emigrate from the city they always swear they'll stay in touch, and at first they do. Gradually, though, they drift away. It would happen to her.
Under Pro: "Roger wants it."
Oh, how he wants it. Roger grew up on Long Island, and feels he is cheating his son by raising him in Manhattan. All the things that Emma loves most about the city its cultural largesse, ethnic stew, ever changing human landscape, even the unwritten rules of city etiquette, the delicate grammar of social intercourse he values less than a Sunday game of soccer on his own front lawn.
Under Con she writes "Maggie." Then underlines the name three times. Maggie is the antidote for what ails her; Maggie is the cure. Maggie will shake her back to her senses. Emma closes the notebook and reaches for the phone.
"That is, without a doubt, the stupidest fucking idea I have ever heard."
"So you're against it," says Emma. They are strolling through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, Maggie's arm taut as a strung bow in Emma's. It's warm for May; the meadow is dotted with groups of office workers eating lunch, children in strollers, shirtless young men playing Frisbee.
Maggie says, "Are you kidding? Mom and Dad would spin in their graves."
"I don't think so," Emma says. "Considering they were cremated."
"In their urns, then. Jesus, Em, why do you have to be so literal?"
"Occupational hazard. Anyway, I didn't say I've agreed."
Maggie stops dead. She is the younger sister but in personality the more forceful, and this is reflected in their choice of careers. Emma is a writer, a solitary profession. Maggie teaches at Columbia and lectures all over the country on class structure in the United States. She has a doctorate in sociology and is half a dissertation away from a second Ph.D. in economics. In her spare time she serves on half a dozen political and aca-demic committees. Emma has built a career out of daydreaming; but Maggie dwells in the world.
"What scares me," Maggie says, "is you're even considering it."
"Roger really wants it."
"Fuck Roger! That bonehead, who does he think he is?"
Emma smiles. "He thinks he's my husband."
"In sickness and in health; I don't remember anything in the vows about in city or in suburb. He can't make you, you know."
"He wouldn't try."
Maggie shoots her a look of utter disbelief. "That bastard. Wait till I get my hands on him."
"No, Mags," Emma says firmly. She reclaims her sister's arm and they walk on. Their progress across the great lawn creates a ripple of male attention, a moving thicket of second looks. Anyone could see they are sisters, with Maggie the smaller, more intense package. Sharp as a tack, their mother used to say; sharp as a chainsaw, Roger later amended. It's a wonder they've grown up to be as close as they are, for they'd little enough in common as children. Emma played house, Maggie war. Emma read, Maggie played stickball on the street. They were so different that there was never any question of competition.
At the far end of the meadow they come upon an unoccupied bench and grab it. Emma rests her arms along the top rail and raises her face to the sun.
Maggie runs a hand through her black curls, tugging at the roots. "Did I call this? Did I say one day he'd pull this number? The man is a solid bourgeois brick. You move to Long Island, I guarantee you within one year he'll be playing golf and bitching about property values. Don't laugh! Can't you see where this is heading, Em? You tucked away in some godforsaken little pit stop, cut off from the world, waiting like a good little wifey for hubby to come home; him scampering off to the city every day, free as a bird."
"Roger's not like that."
Maggie sniffs disdainfully. "Roger is as Roger does."
"Trust me: That's not what this is about."
"Oh no? What is it about, then?"
Emma stares across the meadow. A gentle breeze carries the distant strains of a calliope. "The house," she says. "It got to me, Mags."
Maggie groans. "Spare me."
"I can't help it. I keep obsessing over that library, the view. You can see in all directions, three hundred and sixty degrees. I have this weird fantasy that a person who lived there and worked in that room would become sort of a real-life omniscient narrator. You must think I'm nuts."
"Of course you're nuts. It's just a house! Who would your friends be? What would you do with yourself?"
"I know. You're right, I know."
In unspoken accord they rise and head back the way they came, more purposefully now, for Maggie has a class to teach and Emma a son to meet. On the pavement outside the park they kiss good-bye, but as Emma turns away, Maggie catches hold of her sleeve. "You asked my advice, take it. Home ownership is a sinkhole, a trap. The minute you sign that mortgage you're invested in the system. You'd be doubly invested, a landlord as well as an owner. You might think it won't change you, but it absolutely will. Socially it would be a disaster. Long Island teems with Republicans. You'd be surrounded, isolated; in short, the whole idea sucks. But I have an even stronger objection."
"I'd hate it," she says in the small, tight voice that Emma knows of old as the sound of Maggie refusing to cry. "You're all the family I've got, you and Zack and bonehead Roger. I can't afford to lose you."
Emma puts an arm around her sister's shoulder. "You'd never lose us. Even if we did buy that house, Long Island isn't Siberia."
"Yes it is."
"Tell me you're not serious about this house, Em."
"I'm not," Emma says. "It's a ridiculous idea. I'm dead set against it. Except..."
"Except I can't get it out of my mind."
Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Rogan