The Story of a Million Years

Overview

In his first novel, David Huddle tells a delicately nuanced story of relationships between men and women that is as old as human history itself. It begins with a startling secret affair between fifteen-year-old Marcy and the husband of her mother's best friend. Years later, the emotional fallout from the affair still echoes in unexpected ways through the lives of the people closest to Marcy: her husband and the couple who have remained their friends since high school. A multilayered tale unfolds through their ...

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1999 Hardcover 1st Edition New in As New jacket 0395966051 As New/As New. First Edition. Hardcover.

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Overview

In his first novel, David Huddle tells a delicately nuanced story of relationships between men and women that is as old as human history itself. It begins with a startling secret affair between fifteen-year-old Marcy and the husband of her mother's best friend. Years later, the emotional fallout from the affair still echoes in unexpected ways through the lives of the people closest to Marcy: her husband and the couple who have remained their friends since high school. A multilayered tale unfolds through their eyes, in which each character seeks to recapture a kernel of long-forgotten goodness. In the tradition of John Updike and John Cheever, Huddle renders these complex relationships with clarity and depth. "For grownups with brains," said Richard Bausch of Huddle's earlier work. The same is true of The Story of a Million Years, a novel written with poetry, wisdom, and a masterly sense of humanity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Story of a Million Years filled my heart with crazy agitation—so many memorable scenes, so perfectly balanced a story. How Huddle orchestrates such complex emotions and powerful incidents of young-adulthood is knock-you-over proof of his genius. He's such a splendid writer—this novel rewards you in the utmost pleasing, disturbing, and yes, perhaps mysterious ways."—Howard Norman, author of THE BIRD ARTIST and THE MUSEUM GUARD

"David Huddle's first novel is masterful and often stunning, so carefully written that the words shimmer with purpose and necessity. Essentially the tale of two couples who have known each other since they were all teenagers, The Story of a Million Years follows Marcy and Allen, Uta and Jimmy as they try to keep going through storms of nostalgia, grief, manic lust. The foursome have been together so long that they all know the same songs. Sometimes Uta dreams about Allen, and Jimmy has long been convinced he loves Marcy, but as time moves on, these hushed-up desires become smooth and polished, like stones. Moving back and forth through and instances, Huddle brilliantly captures the sense of marriage as a system of secrets, in which certain memories and infidelities are held close like shields, talismans that protect the self from being subsumed altogether by the structures we build around love, the houses we build to contain our impulses. Like someone playing a song over and over again at different speeds, the author recapitulates key moments until they break apart. For Uta one such moment happens when she's in college, lost in Manhattan after her friends ditch her, wandering back to their apartment at dawn. She doesn't push the buzzer to wake her flaky friends. Instead she sleeps in the front hallway in a Uta's attachment to this moment is beautifully rendered in her down-to-earth, Lutheran-raised, sad-hearted voice. She remembers vividly "the crazy little bit of goodness that came into me in the front hall when I was standing there all by myself with my finger about to press the doorbell, when I knew I was safe, and when I decided not to disturb the sleepers. That was the closest I'll ever come to knowing what it feels like to be one of the really decent saints, like Saint Francis, or Saint Teresa of Lisieux. It was the only time I've ever had that feeling..."—Emily White Amazon.com

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Already an accomplished writer of short fiction Tenorman, Intimates, etc., Huddle applies his story-writing skills to this shimmering debut novel, which traces the protracted, subtle fallout of an affair between 15-year-old Marcy Bunkleman and 41-year-old Robert Gordon, the husband of her mother's best friend. As the book opens, an adult Marcy recalls the relationship years after it has ended, in a voice so clear, so sure of itself, that readers may be jarred when in the second chapter Marcy's point of view is abandoned for that of her husband, Allen Crandall, who knows nothing of the affair--or indeed, of much else concerning his wife. Subsequent chapters unfold like short stories or brief character sketches, with first-person narratives from the perspectives of other people linked to Marcy: Robert, his wife, the Crandalls' daughter, their best friends from college. Huddle effortlessly creates seven distinct voices, inhabiting each character convincingly and completely. Few of these people have any knowledge of Marcy's secret past, leaving them free to meditate on their own disappointing loves, but the affair nevertheless becomes a kind of powerful black hole, exerting its gravitational pull on everyone's perception of Marcy whether they realize it or not. The shifting viewpoints can make for a fractured, glancing narrative--a significant death and a significant divorce both occur offstage, for instance--but the multiple voices also create surprising dimension and texture in a slender novel. Like a shattered mirror pieced painstakingly together, every shard captures a different angle. Huddle sets the narrative in Cleveland, where Marcy grows up, and in D. C., where she settles, but the setting is really incidental; the real action takes place internally. It is this inner terrain to which Huddle is most sensitive: the ways we reconcile or fail to reconcile ourselves to our moral lapses. His view of the human condition brims with wisdom, compassion and a rare grace. Agent, Bill Clegg. Author tour. Sept. FYI: The first chapter, "Past My Future," appeared in Best American Short Stories 1996. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Actually, this is the story of some 20 years, told through seven discrete voices about lives intertwined, often intimately. The first narrator, really the pivotal character, is the beautiful and focused Marcy; others are her eventual husband, the vain A.B.C.; her best friend, Uta, who shares a dance-floor intimacy with A.B.C.; Uta's husband, Jimmy, who is A.B.C.'s best friend and is deeply in love with Marcy; businessman Richard, who had an affair with the teenaged Marcy while he was in his forties; Richard's wife; and, finally, Marcy's daughter. It could be argued that this first novel from award-winning poet/storywriter Huddle isn't a novel at all; plot is minimal, and the chapters although sharing a theme about moments of selfless goodness could stand alone. Still, the shared experiences and the different "selves" that the varied voices bring to them build to a rare complex reality, and the faceting and near-perfect prose give this reality a lustrous sheen. Highly recommended for quality fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/99.]--Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This tightly focused study of two marriages and its partners' carefully guarded inner lives is the first full-length novel from the veteran poet and prose writer whose earlier fiction includes several story collections and the novella Tenorman (1995). Huddle tells the tale through the reminiscences of seven different narrators living at various times in a Cleveland suburb: the result is a kind of suburban midwestern, domestic Rashomon whose finest sequences offer disturbingly candid revelations of how even the most intimate and trusting relationships are fraught with misunderstanding and secrecy. Beautiful Marcy Bunkleman, for example, will never confess either to her parents or her husband the affair she conducted, when only 15, with her mother's 40ish married friend Robert. Neither Marcy's self-absorbed husband Allen (nicknamed "A.B.C.") Crandall nor her best friend Uta will reveal that their friendship led them to a single (shabby) sexual episode—nor will Uta's deferential "house-husband" Jimmy Rago (who's also Allen's old college buddy) let on that he's guessed their secret, or attempt to act on his lifelong love for the amiable though indifferent Marcy. The emotional gyrations these four push themselves (and one another) through are cast into vivid relief in single sequences that are narrated, respectively, by the aging Robert, who even years afterward cannot come to terms with his feelings for Marcy and memories of his "seduction" of her; by Robert's unhappy wife Suzanne, who understands her wayward husband's psyche far better than she knows her own; and finally by Marcy's adult daughter Suellen, whose climactic view of her mother alone (after Allen has left Marcy)hauntingly underscores the several ways these people have isolated, second-guessed, and, ultimately, both served and cheated themselves. An old story (comparisons to Updike and Cheever are inevitable), but Huddle makes it fresh by giving his characters vividly distinctive personalities—and the rueful honesty to see themselves as the flawed people they have somehow become.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395966051
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.03 (w) x 8.57 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

David Huddle's fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in Esquire, Harper's Magazine, Story, the New York Times Magazine, and The Best American Short Stories. Among his books of short fiction are Tenorman, Intimates, and Only the Little Bone. The recipient of two NEA fellowships, he teaches writing at the University of Vermont and is on the Faculty of the Board Loaf School of English. The author currently resides in Burlington, Vermont.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Past My Future


A FEW WEEKS AFTER my fifteenth birthday, a friend of my parents, a Mr. Gordon, asked me — quietly and directly — if I would like to have an adventure with him. He asked his question on a sunny afternoon while he and I sat together at the edge of my family's swimming pool, splashing our feet and talking. Mrs. Gordon sat with my mother a few yards away; they were tanning themselves and chatting. I appreciated how quietly Mr. Gordon spoke. Only I could hear him. Of course I knew that if I wished, I could brush his question aside as more of his teasing. But I knew, too, that if I let my mother and Mrs. Gordon know what he had just said, he would be in trouble.

    I told him yes — a yes just as quiet and direct as his question. There came a pause in our conversation — and in our kicking of the swimming pool water — during which he and I kept looking at each other. I noticed Mr. Gordon had shaved closely and recently. It pleased me to think maybe he'd done that for me.

    He said, "Well." And I said, "Well?" And he said, "Well, Marcy, I shall be in touch with you."

    Thinking about that day and those few minutes of conversation beside the pool, I ask myself if I understood exactly what he had in mind. I wasn't an infant. And I was very well aware that he was married to my mother's friend. But to be perfectly frank, I wanted my adventure with Mr. Gordon to be a sexual one.

    Not long before, I'd read some magazine articles that my parents had given me and parts ofthe books that they'd hidden away from me. One night, months earlier, I was supposed to be attending a country club dance; instead, I was walking around the golf course and smoking cigarettes with a boy. He and I had some very exciting kissing, which led, logically, to his putting his hand on my breast.

    If he hadn't gotten nervous and laughed about what we were doing — which I took to mean that he was laughing at my breast — that boy could have gone a lot further with me than he did. Had he whispered that he wanted me to take off my clothes, I would have taken them off. I'd had no experience with that kind of intensity; it took only a few moments for me to reach the point of being vulnerable to the boy. When you're older, you learn to stop short of that point or else to move to it as quickly as possible; that night I was intoxicated by what l hadn't ever felt before. The boy was a year ahead of me in school, but the next day, when I thought about what we'd done, I understood that he had no more experience than I and probably even less knowledge.

    I would have tried whatever he knew enough about to ask for. Instead of a request, I got his inane whinny of a laugh.

    I was still trying to get used to my breasts. One seemed to be ahead of the other, which, for all I knew, made them comical. But I felt certain that even if they were, Mr. Gordon wouldn't laugh. He had always paid reserved attention to me, had brought me presents, had once even called me from Singapore to wish me happy birthday. Whereas someone my own age would casually humiliate me, Mr. Gordon had for years been offering me careful respect. So I said yes.


When you go into a room with one other person and lock the door behind you, you are momentarily free of every principle by which people ordinarily speak and act with each other. How you're going to be — what you say and do, what you think and feel — with that person is entirely up to the two of you. You may legislate as you wish. I learned that from spending a number of afternoons in a seventh-floor view-of-the-lake sublet in Marsden Towers. Because I was on the track team at school, my parents didn't question me about how I spent my afternoons. I actually had quite a bit of time available to spend with Robert in the apartment he'd rented for us. In those rooms I felt free and strong, which was why I kept wanting to go back there for as long as I did.

    The world would have me feel that what Robert and I did was wrong. As if he'd committed a crime against me beyond even what is considered acceptably criminal. I refuse to feel that wrongness. Robert harmed me no more than I harmed him.


I realize now that my mother worked at being friends with Suzanne Gordon. I realize now my mother had a very restrained crush on Robert — a little like the one she had on Jack Kennedy. Robert was accustomed to being flattered by others. To my mother, he made himself entertaining, as he probably did to anyone who courted him. My mother and Robert had grown up together in Shaker Heights; in the past, whenever they were together, they had enjoyed discussing the lives of their childhood acquaintances. Robert and my father had a formal relationship that was played out in terms that amused my mother and me. We teased my bookish father about the stilted conversations he and Robert carried on when they were required to chat. Mostly they discussed tennis, which Robert played regularly but didn't keep up with, and which my father didn't play but kept up with. My father had no real interest in tennis; it was just that every day of his life he read the Plain Dealer very thoroughly.

    There was a subtlety to the way my mother and Suzanne Gordon related to each other, a warmth that was half real and half pretended. To me, their conversations always sounded nervous. Having thought about her all these years, I've decided that Suzanne was never able to locate herself properly in life, though she was an astute and able person. When I was growing up, I remembered things Suzanne said, and I thought about her a lot. She had no job; she had no children. Though she volunteered at the hospital and the library, she made no friends among the other volunteers. Her manner was too distant, and her conversation was probably too peculiar. My mother said she thought Suzanne spent hours of her life paging through books from museums. I've come to understand that what fascinated me about Suzanne was how alone she seemed — and how it didn't, apparently, bother her that she had no real friends.

    The interest she had in Robert, however, she was able to share with my mother. Each knew where the other stood, though I believe that neither ever spoke frankly. As a young child, I'd studied the way my mother and Suzanne talked. They sat with their backs straight in their chairs, their ankles crossed and their hands in their laps, their faces pleasant. Such a formal pose perfectly suited Suzanne; I still have vivid memories of her sitting like that in our living room, with the light from our bay window catching the reddish highlights of her hair. I could sense the awkwardness of her talk with my mother when they took up certain topics they felt obliged to discuss — such as my father, whom my mother wasn't comfortable discussing and in whom Suzanne had no interest. But when they managed to bring the conversation around to the subject of their mutual passion, they became animated, witty, and amused, even slouchy and unladylike in their postures.

    "Robert actually laughed at that joke?" my mother might ask, sitting forward in her chair.

    Suzanne's laughter would lilt through our house. "Not only did he laugh at it. Last night he told the same joke to Nick Shelton in this disgusting ..."

    I took these exchanges as the proper way for grown-up women to converse. They put on little shows for each other. I didn't want to be like that, but I thought it probably happened as you got older — you gradually became more artificial. It made me cringe to think that out in my future I had similar conversations awaiting me.


As I imagine most men do, Robert struggled to balance his appetite with his stamina. He was, however, a master of sustaining the illusion of vast possibility within the circumstances of sexual intimacy. He and I did nothing especially strange or hurtful or even, for that matter, adventuresome. I was fifteen. He was forty-one. For a while, that alone was adventure enough for each of us. At first, Robert liked to say that if it weren't for those twenty-six years between us, we'd have no interest in each other. He seemed to be practicing a joke he might tell people if he and I ever went out together in public: "You know, if Marcy and I didn't have that twenty-six-year difference ..." I was glad when he stopped saying it to me.

    We did not go out together. Ever.

    The project we undertook was informing each other about ourselves. He didn't say so, but I think Robert hoped I would teach him how it was to live in my mind and my body. He anticipated the questions I wished him to ask me. He knew when to be quiet and let me talk. Or when to let me think through what I had just told him aloud until I came to the next thing I wanted to tell him. He knew when to interrupt me, to get me excited, to make me try to answer four questions at once. Whatever he wanted to know about me, I was eager to tell.

    Once he asked, "So do you think you'll want to have children?"

    I didn't have to think for even an instant. "Of course I will!" I blurted. The moment I spoke those words, I knew them to be true. But it struck me as odd that Robert had to force himself to smile and that he didn't ask how many I wanted or whether I'd prefer boys or girls.

    "Let the commerce commence," Robert liked to say in his booming voice upon entering our little foyer at Marsden Towers. I understood him to mean both our talk and our sex. Mostly, Robert asked questions and I answered them. During these conversations, we undressed, we kissed, we nuzzled, we stroked; after a while I understood that we were talking as a way to extend the sex, to stretch it out, make it last. Like Robert's fingers, our words and sentences brushed over my skin. Or maybe instead of Robert's fingers. When I let myself actually watch his fingers moving across my breasts or up along my thighs, I didn't like it nearly as much as keeping my eyes shut while we talked and his hands did what they did. I liked that part more than I ever told him. So the talk, for me, became the best part of the sex. The commerce could also change into the silences we let pass when we were simply breathing with each other in the afternoon sunlight that shone on our bed. We concentrated on not talking, because the silence had become what would make the sex last. There were times when that, too, was exactly what I wanted.

    Though his curiosity about me was his first interest, Robert also wanted me to know how it felt to be him, to live in his mind, his body. These topics weren't anything I had a natural curiosity about; what I most wanted him to talk about was his wife, but he was reluctant to do so. If I asked a question about Suzanne, he would answer so carefully that I could almost feel him searching for the most neutral phrasing. Sometimes he'd finish up his answer with "Why do you want to know?" I hated that. I always told him, "Oh, just because ..." I'm not sure I knew it at the time, but I know now that I wanted Robert to describe making love to Suzanne — what little things she might say, what she liked, even how she might sigh or whimper. I wanted to compare myself with Suzanne. But that, of course, was exactly the kind of information Robert wasn't about to give me. And I didn't want him to know I had such a squalid curiosity.

    So I asked questions about "the adult world" — as if it were a scientific topic. I did have a vague curiosity about being grown up, or perhaps I had a need to vent my complaints about grown-ups. Robert listened to me; sometimes he agreed; sometimes he sided with the teacher or the parent I was criticizing. He asked me not to categorize him as "an adult."

    One afternoon he told me, "Think of the bodies of human beings as cars. We can't see each other's interiors. Cars see other cars. I'm a station wagon. You're a sports car, but you have your top up so that I can't see who's driving. All I see is this little red MG streaking past me on the turnpike. I think to myself, My goodness, I wish I could be like that MG. But the thing about it is, I'm exactly like that MG. Except that I got put behind the wheel of this station wagon — this middle-aged body with a middle-aged male mind under the hood — and I can't get out. I have to keep driving the equipment I've been given. But who's driving each one of us is this androgynous blob of a creature, one per car, each the same as the others. The driver of my car is exactly like the driver of your car.

    "These creatures don't age. They're neutral creatures, and they're impatient with their cars for having such limited equipment. Mine thinks I'm silly to worry so much about you getting home on time. But it understands that I'm given to worrying. And yours probably wishes you'd keep your eye on the clock so as not to risk having your parents quiz you about where you've been. It knows precisely how flimsy that excuse of yours is — `Coach made me stay late.' If my inner being could talk to your inner being, the two would immediately recognize that they're identical. Right away they'd start criticizing us to each other. Mine would say, `I'll swear, Robert is so damn middle-aged sometimes. He just about drives me nuts.' And yours would say, `I know exactly what you mean. The other day Marcy went shopping with her mother, and you wouldn't believe how she spoke to ..."

    We were always engaged in whatever we were talking about. I've come to know he was quite an imaginative man, though when I was with him, he did not seem remarkable in that way. It was that he so much liked talking with me that he made our conversations interesting. He found ways to do that. And the ways he found came about from his figuring out what would entertain me or interest me or pique my curiosity. He didn't ever condescend; I had a sense of conversing with him, as if the two of us were talking our way toward some destination.


Here is something Robert told me he thought a young woman should know: if you think a man might be interested in you but you're not sure, find an occasion to sit close to him. Go with this man to a lecture, say, or a reading, something in an auditorium, preferably not a movie or a play, both of which can be distracting. Unobtrusively fix yourself not to be touching him but to be very nearly so. If possible, align your upper arm with his upper arm, not touching, of course, but approximately an inch apart. It's simple. If he has no interest in you, there will be nothing to notice. If he's interested, you will feel a certain warmth coming from his body. If he's extremely interested, you'll be surprised that his body would so overtly and crudely give him away.

    In a man's mind, even when it's clear that he wants a woman to be thinking about him, he would prefer her not to know the extent of his liking her. His body, however, will always reveal how much or how little interest he has. Arranging the appropriate seating is the only difficulty. The man who knows this secret may, even as you're trying to find out about him, easily measure your own interest. Robert even claimed to be certain his own body had given him away once when I was fourteen and he and I were alone in my parents' living room. But of course I couldn't have known that at the time.

    And whether or not his little lesson was a useful one, I couldn't say. I've never had an occasion when I thought to test it.


We ended because of a boy. I shouldn't be ashamed of that, though I think of this as the way I betrayed Robert. A boy my own age. I began talking to Robert about this boy. For a while I wasn't aware of what I might be revealing. I was simply telling him about school, and Allen Crandall kept coming up in my conversation. I heard myself say his name, again and again. And I watched Robert as I said it.

    My saying it so often must have made me realize I liked Allen Crandall. He was an athlete who moved through the hallways with a swagger. Allen wasn't afraid to disagree even with those teachers who got mad if you disagreed with them. Sometimes I saw Alien looking at me as if he knew something amusing about me, though I knew he didn't. As I talked more and more about him to Robert, I began to notice a hardening of Robert's face, so I tried to hush myself up. By that time — or well before — Robert had sensed my interest in Allen and began to question me.

    A sadness came into Robert's voice — even into his body — that I hated.

    The sadness actually became Robert's oldness. For more than a year, I hadn't paid much attention to his age, but now it seemed evident in everything about him. His face, his clothes, the way he talked and combed his hair and rubbed his temples when he was tired. Even the way he smelled. He had an expensive cologne-deodorant-soap fragrance about him that I'd loved from back in my childhood, but now it began to bother me. When he bought me presents, usually clothes that no one my age would ever wear, they embarrassed me. Everything about Robert seemed inescapably sad. He made me think of my father, alone in the house on Sunday afternoons and listening to one of his classical records turned up loud the way he liked.

    The commerce had become almost completely conversation — and conversation that neither Robert nor I seemed to enjoy. Quickly after I started talking so much about Allen, the commerce had changed.

    "Let the commerce commence!" I called out one afternoon when I burst into the room, exhilarated from my day at school. As I came in, Robert was walking toward me in the little foyer. I knew he had in mind to give me one of his sad hugs, where it felt as if he was trying to wrap me up with him in his suit jacket. That day I was standing close enough to him to notice his wince the instant I'd made my joke.


To his credit, Robert managed to stay just far enough ahead of me to know how I felt. One rainy afternoon I walked to Marsden Towers, thinking I had to make myself tell him I wasn't going to be coming back anymore. Just as I set my hand to knock, he swung open the door. He was cheerful, teasing, impeccably dressed in a new suit and shirt and brightly striped tie. Usually he took his suit jacket off while he waited for me to arrive, but not today. He wore it buttoned, and for a moment or two he was as dazzling to me as when I'd been a young girl looking up at this grand visitor to our house. When he kissed me on both cheeks and then my forehead, I noticed that his shoes had been freshly polished.

    "I'm setting you free, my dear," he said. "Our adventure has reached its conclusion." He had fancy glasses on a tray and champagne for himself and Perrier with a dish of lemon slices for me. He poured the glasses full, handed me mine, and lifted his to me. "This has been lovely, Marcy," he said. "I can't begin to tell you."

    He planned to say more, and I wanted to help him say it I lifted my glass to him, too, and our glasses made the little tink that seems so celebratory when you're in a happy mood. Though he opened his mouth to go on, he couldn't. Just before he turned to the window, he began swatting the air in front of his face. I thought he might be about to sneeze or that he was trying to wave away some insect buzzing at him. Then, with his back to me, he made a noise. Or I saw his shoulders move, and I imagined that he made a noise.

    I knew.

    "All right, Robert." I set my glass back down on the tray. "Thank you," I said. When I tried to think of more to say, I found nothing but what the kids say to each other in the halls at school — See you later. I'll call you tonight. Take it easy. So I kept quiet and touched the back of his suit jacket. I brushed my hand down his back just a bit. Just enough to feel how much he didn't want me to touch him.

    And I knew, then, to leave the room.


As a child, I was sometimes awakened by my parents making love. My room was across the hall from theirs, and often what woke me was one of them getting up to close their door. I could hear only faint noises, their voices more like humming than talking. But even with the door muffling their words, I could distinguish something different in their tones, a new sound, a quality that I didn't hear in their ordinary conversation — like a sound each made especially for the other, as if softly singing.

    Sometimes either they forgot about the door being open or they thought it was too deep into the night for me to be awake. At any rate, they'd leave it open, and I could listen carefully. I was greedy to hear them. I don't know how old I was when I realized what they must be doing. When I was very little, of course, I must have had no idea what they were up to. But I don't remember that. I remember only knowing what the noise meant and wanting to hear every single bit of it.

    I've read about children being drawn to the sounds of their parents' love-making, but I wasn't ever tempted to interrupt them. I stayed very quiet, because I wanted them to reach their conclusion. That was marked by my father's restrained shout — into the pillow, I suppose — "Oh, oh! Oh, my darling," he'd say. I loved that. I loved his calling out. My father is long dead now, but remembering his voice like that still makes me smile.

    As an adult, I've thought about what I heard. I've wondered, for instance, about the extent of my mother's satisfaction. None of the noises I ever heard suggested she reached orgasm during their intercourse, though the sounds she made did suggest that her intercourse with my father was something she liked. And she always seemed to me to be aware of her sexuality. So what did she do? Masturbate when no one was around? Go without orgasms altogether? In those days there wasn't much sex, I'm tempted to say, but of course that would be wrong. Enlightened sex is what there wasn't much of. And I could be wrong about that, too. Publicly, she was a bit of a prude; it's possible she faked not having orgasms. I suppose it's rude to wonder very much about your mother's coming.

    Also, I wonder what effect eavesdropping on their love-making had on me. Did it make me overly interested in sex? Had my parents awakened me and insisted that I listen, that would have been sexual abuse. But of course it was very nearly the same experience, my listening to them so carefully from across the hallway. Did it, for instance, make me vulnerable to Robert when he posed his question to me by the pool? Would I have so readily known what Robert meant if I hadn't had this education, so to speak? Would I have said yes so readily?

    Not so long ago, when my friend Uta and I were talking, we came to the topic of our parents' sex lives. I told her I'd often overheard my parents doing it. When I asked Uta what effect she thought that may have had on me, she said, "I don't know, Marcy. I can tell you that never in all my life did I see or hear any evidence that my parents even had sex lives. If you ask me, that was much worse than what you're talking about. I sometimes wonder how I ever got my feet on this planet. At least you know how you got here. At least you know your parents cared about each other enough to do it."

    I told Uta she had a point.


A few afternoons when he thought I would be home by myself, Robert called and attempted to chat, politely, about how things were going for me. This was after our last meeting at Marsden Towers, and though I didn't wish them to be, these calls were awkward occasions. Neither of us was able to relax into conversation.

    On an afternoon when Allen Crandall had come home with me, ostensibly to study for an exam, Robert called.

    It was spring, near the end of May. Allen and I were full of ourselves and more than a little silly, with the end of the school year approaching and with our discovery of each other. I was just finding out how it was to be with somebody that way, with our moods and our voices so perfectly matched. We were gossiping about our classmates and mocking them and laughing a great deal while we walked around my house, drinking soda and munching on chips and crackers from the kitchen. I was catching on, then, to the way Allen talked, a clipped, half-joking way of saying everything. When the phone rang, I had no doubt who the caller was. The instant I heard myself say hello — with the fun still in my voice but also a bit of the dread I felt at having to carry on even a short conversation with him — I knew Robert would know that Allen was with me.

    There was the slightest pause. Then Robert's voice came through the receiver: "Hello, Marcy. I hope you're well. I'll call you back another time."

    I said, "All right." The line went dead.

    And of course Allen asked who it was. Instantly, I had to make up something to tell him. "My mom," I said. "She wants me to ... set out some eggs." I went to the refrigerator, removed a tray of brown eggs, and set them on the counter.

    When I turned to him, Allen was looking at me with his head tilted. He gave it a little shake and said, "Speaking of eggs, you think we ought to crack those books?"

    I said, "Nah." And I went toward him, meaning to tickle him. I wanted to recover the mood we'd been in before the phone rang.

    "Weird over here at your house," Allen said, dodging my attack. "Your mom calls and you get sad. You say `All right,' hang up the phone, then go to the refrigerator and set out a tray of eggs. Weird."

    I stopped trying to tickle him. "You haven't seen anything yet, my dear," I said. "My dear" coming out of my mouth made my face turn hot; it was Robert's phrase, not mine. But I was determined not to let Robert's phone call ruin my afternoon with Allen. I began picking up things throughout the house and setting them in odd places. I carried a magazine from the living room to the kitchen, where I put it in the refrigerator; I plucked down my father's ski hat from the closet and arranged it as the centerpiece of the dining room table; I asked Allen to take off his loafers, which I then ceremoniously carried back to the kitchen and placed in the sink. Allen was kind enough to overlook my desperation in trying to amuse him. He let himself be amused, and soon we'd recovered the spirit of kidding around.

    That day I decided I wouldn't ever, under any circumstances, tell Allen about Robert and me. Why that day? I suppose because I saw myself taking a great deal of trouble to disguise the fact that my former lover had called me. I realized that even having a former lover, no less a man almost three times as old as I was, wasn't something I wanted anybody my age to know. You'd think — since I married him — a time would have come when I could tell Allen all about Robert.

    Such a time did not ever arrive.

    The swimming pool, the commerce — the way we ordered take-out food brought to us and ate it while the commerce went on — how Robert and I were with each other was this intricate and intense part of my life. I wouldn't give it to Allen. I wanted to hold it entirely to myself — whether from embarrassment or selfishness, I have never been able to decide.


For many months I kept expecting to see Robert. I knew he was having to maneuver to keep from encountering me when he socialized with my parents. He did manage that. If he and Suzanne came to our house, it was at a time when I wouldn't be there. And somehow he kept those occasions to a minimum. When my parents saw the Gordons, it was at a party at someone else's house, at a restaurant, or at the Gordons' house. My mother was aware that Robert and Suzanne weren't at our house nearly as often as in previous years, but it wasn't something she chose to discuss with me. I knew she was keeping it to herself, and I might have been a little irked about that. I do recall a conversation between my parents; my mother said, "We don't seem as close to them as we used to be," and my father said, "Oh? I hadn't noticed any change." Since they'd been talking about something else at the time, they let the topic of the Gordons drop, which suited me well enough, because my pulse had picked up in a way that made me uncomfortable.

    I've always had trouble giving it a name — affair, relationship, arrangement, liaison. I still don't know what to call it. At any rate, in the first months after Robert and I ended whatever it was, I dreaded seeing him. And I thought he might try to see me. When it became apparent that he didn't want to see me, I began wanting to see him. I wasn't sure why.

    I certainly didn't want to talk with Robert; the telephone conversations we'd attempted made me feel as if I'd done something awful to him. So even though talking had been what I most valued about being with him, I knew I wasn't after any more talk. But now I did want to see him, and not just his face, but the whole of him. As if my eyes had to take hold of him.

    Maybe, more truthfully, what I wanted was for him to look at me and for me to see what his face would tell me about who I had become.

    For a while I entertained a fantasy that Robert came into our house one of the afternoons when I was alone. He simply walked in. From the living room, where I sat, I saw him and wasn't surprised or frightened. He was dressed as he was when I'd seen him last, in one of his dark business suits, with a white shirt and a bright tie. With his hands in his jacket pockets, he stood in our foyer, looking at me, neither frowning nor smiling. I returned his stare. Then he took his hands from his pockets and made that downward movement, fluttering his fingers, as if he were miming the way leaves would fall from a tree. In our rooms at Marsden Towers, that gesture meant that he wished me to take off my clothes.

    By that time — I was sixteen — I knew more about my body and had come to think that how it looked didn't have much to do with who I actually was. I was thin, and my legs were perfectly muscled, but how they could move was what really mattered. For my school's track team I did the 100- and 220-yard dashes. My body's strength and quickness were what I loved. I became irritated when people made so much of how it looked. So in this fantasy, I said, "No, Robert. That isn't possible." My voice had a sternness I had never used with him. I remained sitting. Robert said nothing. He merely nodded, looked wistful, turned, and left the house.

    When I knew he was gone, I tiptoed quickly to the door, locked it, and stood with my back braced against it.

    This moment of my back against the door felt like something that was really going to come to me, a little treasure. For months, I found myself moving through this daydream, refining it, taking a peculiar comfort from it.

    One evening my parents invited Allen Crandall to join us for dinner at Forlini's, a noisy place that had taken over the bottom floor of one of the city's old department stores. The dining area was so enormous that on a busy night it was like a circus tent. Waiters and waitresses ran, busboys and busgirls ran, even the two hostesses ran and smiled and shouted among the tables of people as if they were running an obstacle course for clowns. My parents liked Forlini's because the crowd was young and stylish; my father said it gave us a preview of the people who would be running the city in another ten years. My mother and I enjoyed the spectacle, seeing so many people all at once, not to mention the zipping back and forth of the waiters and waitresses, who all wore khaki shorts and red T-shirts and must have been hired for their lively appearance. Allen had never been to Forlini's before; ordinarily, he would have concentrated on practicing his conversational skills with my parents, but this evening he was nearly overwhelmed by the thick hum of voices, all those bodies, and their laughing, talking, feeding faces. The four of us sat at our table, gawking at the people around us.

    "Is that Robert? Isn't that Robert and Suzanne?" my mother asked my father. She was sitting up straight in her chair and squinting across the room.

    A splash of ice water down my back might have been less shocking. And some part of me was oddly angry that my mother had addressed her question only to my father. To her, my acquaintance with Robert meant so little, she didn't think to ask me. That angry part of myself seemed a distinct and dangerous person at the moment. She was a Marcy who wanted to smack the restaurant table hard enough to make the flatware clatter. She was a Marcy who wanted to make a speech to her parents, to Allen, even to the diners near us: "Is that Robert Gordon? Well, Mother, why don't you ask me? I'm the one whose fingertips have touched every square inch of that man's body. I expect I am the one you should ask whether the man you're looking at is Robert."

    What that Marcy wanted to prove with such a speech was beyond my knowing. As quickly as she'd come close to bursting into the open, she withdrew to my prudent self. I was, in fact, being so prudent that I couldn't make myself turn directly toward where my mother was straining to see. Then she must have remembered I could recognize Robert, too, because she said, "Right there, Marcy." Since she was sitting beside me, and I wasn't looking the right way, my mother actually pulled my chin to turn my head in the proper direction.

    So I saw him.

    My mother continued to hold my head turned toward Robert as if she thought she had to help me see him. My sight seemed to soar across the room and cast light on him. So clearly did I see his face that I noticed a ripple of tension pass from his temple down along his jawline. I saw him squint to make out what peculiar thing my mother was doing to my head. I saw him half lift one hand toward us, as if to wave or signal my mother to loosen her hold on me. His other hand stayed on Suzanne's upper arm as they moved toward the steps that led up and out of the restaurant.

    What disturbed me was how Robert's body and Suzanne's body were so well matched. Robert had dressed down for the evening, in a dark golf shirt and chinos. His thin chest and thick waist were much more visible than when he wore a suit. Suzanne's dress somehow accentuated how age had softened her figure. Anyone else looking at the couple leaving the restaurant probably wouldn't have noticed their bodies at all, but I couldn't help it. The two of them were connected by how their bodies were placed in time; I saw that as clearly as when I suddenly realize I've been watching the male and female in a pair of birds. In Robert and Suzanne, this was not something I wanted to see. My stomach went into a spasm, as if I were watching them undress.

    Red-capped and bandana-ed cooks shoved pizzas and casserole dishes into wood-burning ovens while they shouted to each other and to the waiters and waitresses. Robert and Suzanne were far across the cavernous room, which swelled and echoed with the raucous voices of hundreds of people. A woman at a table near us laughed at a very high pitch; she seemed unable to stop herself. Near Robert and Suzanne a man stood up and waved both arms to get someone's attention. An Edith Piaf song played stridently over the sound system. Even the ceiling lights appeared to flicker.

    He was much paler than I'd ever seen him, which made me suspect that during the months of our meetings at Marsden Towers he'd been using a tanning lamp. I wondered why I hadn't noticed it at the time.

    Robert continued to move away from me even as he kept his face turned toward me. It looked as if he was almost pushing Suzanne to the exit. Though he knew me well enough to know I would never make a scene, he must have been terrified that I'd approach him in front of his wife; terrified that I might say hello to him.

    A fury lit up inside me — and died almost immediately. Had I been close enough in that single instant, I would have spat on him.

    I've tried to forgive Robert his cowardice of that evening. I don't think I've managed it. I saw, in his pale face, eyes staring at me across the room, that with his wife beside him he couldn't stand to speak to me.

    So he ran from a child.

    Of course he had to turn his face away from me. When Robert did that — when he gave me the back of his thin shoulders to see — I felt released. I felt as if I had just beaten him at something, and suddenly became aware that I'd half risen from my chair and that my parents and my boyfriend were staring at me. Easing back into my seat, I turned and found three frozen faces. Allen had even paused in chewing his food. I knew our lives depended on what I did next. It took all my strength to smile at Allen and resume eating.

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Table of Contents

Contents

1 Past My Future....................................................1 2 Past Perfect.....................................................22 3 A.B.C............................................................33 4 The Story of a Million Years.....................................60 5 Goodness.........................................................93 6 The Lesson......................................................107 7 Girly-Man Recapitulates.........................................124 8 Summer Afternoon................................................148 9 News............................................................170 10 Silk Dress.....................................................173

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