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The Love Object
He simply said my name. He said 'Martha', and once again I could feel it happening. My legs trembled under the big white cloth and my head became fuzzy, though I was not drunk. It's how I fall in love. He sat opposite. The love object. Elderly. Blue eyes. Khaki hair. The hair was greying on the outside and he had spread the outer grey ribs across the width of his head as if to disguise the khaki, the way some men disguise a patch of baldness. He had what I call a very religious smile. An inner smile that came on and off, governed as it were by his private joy in what he heard or saw: a remark I made, the waiter removing the cold dinner plates that served as ornament and bringing warmed ones of a different design, the nylon curtain blowing inwards and brushing my bare, summer-riped arm. It was the end of a warm, London, summer.
'I'm not mad about them either,' he said. We were engaged in a bit of backbiting. Discussing a famous couple we both knew. He kept his hands joined all the time as if they were being put to prayer. There were no barriers between us. We were strangers. I am a television announcer; we had met to do a job and out of courtesy he asked me to dinner. He told me about his wife – who was thirty like me – and how he knew he would marry her the very first moment he set eyes on her. (She was his third wife.) I made no inquiries as to what she looked like. I still don't know. The only memory I have of her is of her arms sheathed in big, mauve, crocheted sleeves and the image runs away with me and I see his pink, praying hands vanishing into those sleeves and the two of them waltzing in some large, grim room, smiling rapturously at their good fortune in being together. But that came much later.
We had a pleasant supper and figs for afters. The first figs I'd ever tasted. He tested them gently with his fingers, then put three on my side plate. I kept staring down at their purple-black skins, because with the shaking I could not trust myself to peel them. He took my mind off my nervousness by telling me a little story about a girl who was being interviewed on the radio and admitted to owning thirty-seven pairs of shoes and buying a new dress every Saturday which she later endeavoured to sell to friends or family. Somehow I knew that it was a story he had specially selected for me and also that he would not risk telling it to many people. He was in his way a serious man, and famous, though that is hardly of interest when one is telling about a love affair. Or is it? Anyhow, without peeling it, I bit into one of the figs.
How do you describe a taste? They were a new food and he was a new man and that night in my bed he was both stranger and lover, which I used to think was the ideal bed partner.
In the morning he was quite formal but unashamed; he even asked for a clothes brush because there was a smudge of powder on his jacket where we had embraced in the taxi coming home. At the time I had no idea whether or not we would sleep together, but on the whole I felt that we would not. I have never owned a clothes brush. I own books and records and various bottles of scent and beautiful clothes, but I never buy cleaning stuffs or aids for prolonging property. I expect it is improvident, but I just throw things away. Anyhow he dabbed the powder smear with his handkerchief and it came off quite easily. The other thing he needed was a piece of sticking plaster because a new shoe had cut his heel. I looked but there was none left in the tin. My children had cleared it out during the long summer holidays. In fact, for a moment, I saw my two sons throughout those summer days, slouched on chairs, reading comics, riding bicycles, wrestling, incurring cuts which they promptly covered with Elastoplast, and afterwards, when the plasters fell, flaunting the brown-rimmed marks, as proof of their valour. I missed them badly and longed to hold them in my arms – another reason why I welcomed his company. 'There's no plaster left,' I said, not without shame. I thought how he would think me neglectful. I wondered if I ought to explain why my sons were at boarding-school when they were still so young. They were eight and ten. But I didn't. I had ceased to want to tell people the tale of how my marriage had ended and my husband unable to care for two young boys, insisted on boarding-school in order to give them, as he put it, a stabilizing influence. I believed it was done in order to deprive me of the pleasure of their company. I couldn't.
We had breakfast out of doors. The start of another warm day. The dull haze that precedes heat hung from the sky and in the garden next door the sprinklers were already on. My neighbours are fanatic gardeners. He ate three pieces of toast and some bacon. I ate also, just to put him at his ease, though normally I skip breakfast. 'I'll stock up with plaster, clothes brush, and cleaning fluids,' I said. My way of saying, 'You'll come again?' He saw through it straight away. Hurrying down the mouthful of toast he put one of his prayer hands over mine and told me solemnly and nicely that he would not have a mean and squalid little affair with me, but that we would meet in a month or so and he hoped we would become friends. I hadn't thought of us as friends but it was an interesting possibility. I remembered the earlier part of our evening's conversation and his referring to his earlier wives and his older grown-up children and I thought how honest and unnostalgic he was. I was really sick of sorrows and people multiplying them even to themselves. Another thing he did that endeared him was to fold back the green silk bedspread, a thing I never do myself.
When he left I felt quite buoyant and in a way relieved. It had been nice and there were no nasty after-effects. My face was pink from kissing and my hair tossed from our exertions. I looked a little wanton. Feeling tired from such a broken night's sleep I drew the curtains and got back into bed. I had a nightmare. The usual one where I am being put to death by a man. People tell me that a nightmare is healthy and from that experience I believe it. I wakened calmer than I had been for months and passed the remainder of the day happily.
Two mornings later he rang and asked was there a chance of our meeting that night. I said yes because I was not doing anything and it seemed appropriate to have supper and seal our secret decently. But we started recharging.
'We did have a very good time,' he said. I could feel myself making little petrified moves denoting love, shyness; opening my eyes wide to look at him, exuding trust. This time he peeled the figs for both of us. We positioned our legs so that they touched and withdrew them shortly afterwards, confident that our desires were flowing. He brought me home. I noticed when we were in bed that he had put cologne on his shoulder and that he must have set out to dinner with the hope if not the intention of sleeping with me. I liked the taste of his skin better than the foul chemical and I had to tell him so. He just laughed. Never had I been so at ease with a man. For the record I had slept with four other men but there always seemed to be a distance between us, conversation wise. I mused for a moment on their various smells as I inhaled his, which reminded me of some herb. It was not parsley, not thyme, not mint but some non-existent herb compounded of these three smells. On this second occasion our love-making was more relaxed.
'What will you do if you make an avaricious woman out of me?' I asked.
'I will pass you on to someone very dear and suitable,' he said. We coiled together, and with my head on his shoulder I thought of pigeons under the railway bridge near by, who passed their nights nestled together, heads folded into mauve breasts. In his sleep we kissed and murmured. I did not sleep. I never do when I am over-happy, over- unhappy or in bed with a strange man.
Neither of us said, 'Well here we are, having a mean and squalid little affair.' We just started to meet. Regularly. We stopped going to restaurants because of his being famous. He would come to my house for dinner. I'll never forget the flurry of those preparations – putting flowers in vases, changing the sheets, thumping knots out of pillows, trying to cook, putting on make-up and keeping a hair brush near by in case he arrived early. The agony of it! It was with difficulty I answered the doorbell, when it finally rang.
'You don't know what an oasis this is,' he would say. And then in the hallway he would put his hands on my shoulders and squeeze them through my thin dress and say, 'Let me look at you,' and I would hang my head both because I was overwhelmed and because I wanted to be. We would kiss, often for a full five minutes. He kissed the inside of my nostrils. Then we would move to the sitting-room and sit on the chaise- longue still speechless. He would touch the bone of my knee and say what beautiful knees I had. He saw and admired parts of one that no other man had ever bothered with. Soon after supper we went to bed.
Once he came unexpectedly in the late afternoon when I was dressed to go out. I was going to the theatre with another man.
'How I wish I were taking you,' he said.
'We'll go to the theatre one night?' He bowed his head. We would. It was the first time his eyes looked sad. We did not make love because I was made up and had my false eyelashes on and it seemed impractical. He said, 'Has any man ever told you that to see a woman you desire when you cannot do a thing about it leaves you with an ache?'
The ache conveyed itself to me and stayed all through the theatre. I felt angry for not having gone to bed with him, and later I regretted it even more, because from that evening onward our meetings were fewer. His wife, who had been in France with their children, returned. I knew this when he arrived one evening in a motor car and in the course of conversation mentioned that his small daughter had that day peed over an important document. I can tell you now that he was a lawyer.
From then on it was seldom possible to meet at night. He made afternoon dates and at very short notice. Any night he did stay he arrived with a travel bag containing toothbrush, clothes brush and a few things a man might need for an overnight, loveless stay in a provincial hotel. I expect she packed it. I thought how ridiculous. I felt no pity for her. In fact the mention of her name – it was Helen – made me angry. He said it very harmlessly. He said they'd been burgled in the middle of the night and he'd gone down in his pyjamas while his wife telephoned the police from the extension upstairs.
'They only burgle the rich,' I said hurriedly, to change the conversation. It was reassuring to find that he wore pyjamas with her, when he didn't with me. My jealousy of her was extreme, and of course grossly unfair. Still I would be giving the wrong impression if I said her existence blighted our relationship at that point. Because it didn't. He took great care to speak like a single man, and he allowed time after our love-making to stay for an hour or so and depart at his leisure. In fact it is one of those after-love sessions that I consider the cream of our affair. We were sitting on the bed, naked, eating smoked-salmon sandwiches. I had lighted the gas fire because it was well into autumn and the afternoons got chilly. The fire made a steady, purring noise. It was the only light in the room. It was the first time he noticed the shape of my face because he said that up to then my colouring had drawn all of his admiration. His face and the mahogany chest and the pictures also looked better. Not rosy, because the gas fire did not have that kind of glow, but resplendent with a whitish light. The goatskin rug underneath the window had a special, luxurious softness. I remarked on it. He happened to say that he had a slight trace of masochism, and that often, unable to sleep at night in a bed, he would go to some other room and lie on the floor with a coat over him and fall fast asleep. A thing he'd done as a boy. The image of the little boy sleeping on the floor moved me to enormous compassion and without a word from him I led him across to the goatskin and laid him down. It was the only time our roles were reversed. He was not my father. I became his mother. Soft and totally fearless. Even my nipples, about which I am squeamish, did not shrink from his rabid demands. I wanted to do everything and anything for him. As often happens with lovers my ardour and inventiveness stimulated his. We stopped at nothing. Afterwards, remarking on our achievement – a thing he always did – he reckoned it was the most intimate of all our intimate moments. I was inclined to agree. As we stood up to get dressed he wiped his armpits with the white blouse I had been wearing and asked which of my lovely dresses I would wear to dinner that night. He chose my black one for me. He said it gave him great pleasure to know that although I was to dine with others my mind would ruminate on what he and I had done. A wife, work, the world, might separate us but in our thoughts we were betrothed.
'I'll think of you.' I said.
'And I, of you.'
We were not even sad at parting.
It was after that I had what I can only describe as a dream within a dream. I was coming out of sleep, forcing myself awake, wiping my saliva on the pillow slip, when something pulled me, an enormous weight dragged me down into the bed and I thought: I have become infirm. I have lost the use of my limbs and this accounts for my listlessness for several months when I've wanted to do nothing except drink tea and stare out of the window. I am a cripple. All over. Even my mouth won't move. Only my brain is ticking away. My brain tells me that a woman downstairs doing the ironing is the only one who could locate me but she might not come upstairs for days, she might think I'm in bed with a man, committing a sin. From time to time I sleep with a man but normally I sleep alone. She'll leave the ironed clothes on the kitchen table, and the iron itself upright on the floor so that it won't set fire to anything. Blouses will be on hangers, their frilled collars white and fluid like foam. She's the sort of woman who even irons the toes and heels of nylon stockings. She'll slip away, until Thursday, her next day in. I feel something at my back, or, strictly speaking tugging at my bedcovers which I have mounted right up the length of my back to cover my head. For shelter. And I know now that it's not infirmity that's dragging me down but a man. How did he get in there? He's on the inside, near the wall. I know what he's going to do to me and the woman downstairs won't ever come to rescue me, she'd be too ashamed or she might not think I want to be rescued. I don't know which of the men it is, whether it's the big tall bruiser that's at the door every time I open it innocently, expecting it's the laundry boy and find it's Him with an old black carving knife, its edge glittering because he's just sharpened it on a step. Before I can scream my tongue isn't mine any more. Or it might be the Other One. Tall too, he gets me by my bracelet as I slip between the banisters of the stairs. I've forgotten that I am not a little girl any more and that I don't slip easily between banisters. If the bracelet snapped in two I would have made my escape, leaving him with one half of a gold bracelet in his hand, but my goddam provident mother had a safety chain put on it because it was nine carat. Anyhow he's in the bed. It will go on for ever, the thing he wants. I daren't turn round to look at him. Then something gentle about the way the sheet is pulled down suggests that he might be the New One. The man I met a few weeks ago. Not my type at all, tiny broken veins on his cheeks, and red, actually red hair. We were on a goatskin. But it was raised off the ground, high as a bed. I had been doing most of the loving; breasts, hands, mouth, all yearned to minister to him. I felt so sure, never have I felt so sure of the rightness of what I was doing. Then he started kissing me down there and I came to his lapping tongue and his head was under my buttocks and it was like I was bearing him only there was pleasure instead of pain. He trusted me. We were two people, I mean he wasn't someone on me, smothering me, doing something I couldn't see. I could see. I could have shat on his red hair if I wanted. He trusted me. He stretched the come to the very last. And all the things that I loved up to then, like glass or lies, mirrors and feathers, and pearl buttons, and silk, and willow trees, became secondary compared with what he'd done. He was lying so that I could see it: so delicate, so thin, with a bunch of worried blue veins along its sides. Talking to it was like talking to a little child. The light in the room was a white glow. He'd made me very soft and wet so I put it in. It was quick and hard and forceful and he said, 'I'm not considering you now, I think we've considered you,' and I said that was perfectly true and that I liked him roughing away. I said it. I was no longer a hypocrite, no longer a liar. Before that he had often remonstrated with me, he had said, 'There are words we are not going to use to each other, words such as "Sorry" and "Are You Angry?"' I had used these words a lot. So I think from the gentle shuffle of the bedcovers – like a request really – that it might be him and if it is I want to sink down and down into the warm, dark, sleepy pit of the bed and stay in it for ever, coming with him. But I am afraid to look in case it is not Him but One of the Others.
Excerpted from The Love Object by Edna O'Brien. Copyright © 1968 Edna O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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