By Marge Piercy
PM Press Copyright © 2012 Middlemarsh, Inc
All rights reserved.
"No, thanks" Vida placed her hand over the top of the tulip-shaped wineglass.
"No more for me. Thank you."
"This is a good Vouvray. Louis in the wine store recommended it" Hank tried to nudge her hand aside with the cold dripping base of the bottle.
"It's lovely. I've just had enough." She made herself smile. It felt like a date, a bad date. She had to keep smiling across the debris of the dinner for two. "The chicken was wonderful!"
"Recipe from one of my books. Skinny-Dipping, or How to Eat Yourself Slender"
"You wrote a cookbook?" Keep him talking. She nibbled another olive, although she felt bloated with the best and certainly largest meal she had eaten in weeks.
"I produced it. For Family Day. Supermarket package" Catching her as soon as she lifted her hand from the glass, he poured more wine. "Of course, what I'm really doing is the oral history of the '60s"
Annoyed she pushed the glass away. "How's that going?"
"Come on, Vida, you used to love wine. Remember when I got Hill at Random House to take us out to lunch, and you startled the shit out of him by ordering the wine. A Montrachet."
"A Puligny-Montrachet. Even I wouldn't have had that much nerve ... I wonder if you could remember to call me Cynthia?" It was not the name on her current I.D., but the name she used when she didn't quite trust enough to expose her present cover. "I don't drink much now, Hank. Really, the wine's lovely." She felt a headache starting behind her eyes.
"That's when I was producing that tome on Students Against the War. You SAW stinkers tried to hold me up" He grinned, fingering his goatee. He had had a full beard then. Every time she saw Hank, every couple of years when she needed shelter in New York, he had a different arrangement of facial hair: moustache, goatee, sideburns, muttonchops. He was very fair and the ornamental borders never produced an abundant crop — a pale brown darker than his straw-colored scalp hair but, like it, skimpy.
"Bit of a cut-and-paste job, I recall," she said, and wanted to bite her tongue. Don't anger him. He can take his revenge all too easily.
"Had to get it together in six weeks. Catch the public mood on the wing ... SAW didn't last much longer"
"Till '71. Four years, actually ... I'm not feeling up tonight. My period started, and I'm having cramps" She was not, but the wine, the tête-à-tête supper made her wary enough to start building an excuse. Hank had wanted her in the old days. She'd forgotten. In the Area Coordinating Office of Students Against the War, everybody had joked that Vida could always handle the straight media johns. She rose with the wineglass and walked to the window, away from the little table between his kitchenette and his white-wooded Venetian living room. "May I open the draperies?" She dribbled the wine covertly onto the soil of a spiny purplish plant on a plinth.
"I don't imagine anyone can see you unless they're in a helicopter over the river" Hank rose and strode after her, looming at her elbow. He was wearing one of those leathery male perfumes and Ivy League clothing: soft-shouldered tweed jacket, faintly striped shirt. His clothes had come full circle in the eleven years she had known him, from Brooks Brothers through suede into leather and studs into denim and back to Brooks Brothers. Welcome home, Hank Ralston! She waited while he pulled the cord on the traverse rod. "God!" She let her breath out painfully. After a while she roused herself to say, "It's so beautiful. I forget. Manhattan! ... You must have the finest view in the world."
"The apartment's still a bargain. Don't come back to New York much, do you?"
Near and unreachable. Might as well be looking at constellations; might as well be gawking at Betelgeuse in Orion as across a river at the lit buildings. Towers of a forbidden world. Leigh in one of them. The WBAD studios were in Midtown, actually, and he could be taping there; he could be home on the Upper West Side in their old apartment on 103rd Street; he might even be on the air right now. She did not know his current working schedule. She would have liked to ask Hank to turn on the FM tuner to WBAD, but she did not want to mention Leigh. She did not want to prompt Hank to ask questions about whether she ever saw Leigh. She would lie, of course, but lying about her husband was especially distasteful.
"Not often," she said, moving up to the glass. Light seemed to form clouds over the buildings. The sky was no longer clear.
"Er ... what're you in town for?"
"Just some business to take care of"'
Now he stood away from her, rubbing the back of his neck. "It isn't some ... bombing, is it? It isn't that?"
"Come on, Hank, I don't do that kind of thing anymore. I've given it up for miniature golf and origami." She wanted to stand and stare at the towers studded with brightness; she wanted to feed her eyes on them. She had fallen for New York the first time she had seen it. When she had escaped from her first marriage, she had come straight to New York where her sister, Natalie, was living, and there she had stayed. "I never come into Manhattan" she said softly. "Never"
"Why not? They don't guard the bridges."
"Too much heat. Too many people've been caught there. Angela Davis. Joan Little. Linda Evans. At 110th and Broadway, an FBI man sits all the time in a car reading a newspaper. He's got our pictures on the seat beside him, and he waits."
"After all these years?" Hank laughed skeptically, bringing up the wine bottle and pouring more.
"After all these years" She sipped her wine pro forma and put it down on an antiqued white table. Except the rare times she felt safe, she never permitted herself to blur at all, not even to get a little high. "How beautiful it is. Cliffs like galaxies" She could see herself striding up a canyon of skyscrapers to meet Leigh, strolling arm and arm with Natalie along Broadway to buy delicatessen. "Look, a freighter's docking."
"Do you wish you were on it?"
"What for? I've had chances to leave the country. I don't want to go into exile. Exiles are so ... ineffectual" "Are you getting a lot done?"
"I keep busy," she said dryly. She almost asked him if he had heard of their pirate TV broadcasts in L.A., but 'the Network' had not claimed that action publicly. "I keep them busy, too." As she slipped past him, he held out his arm.
"Where are you going?"
She put in a fresh tampon, last in her purse. Have to go to the drugstore. Not too smart. Her cheap Timex said ten thirty-five. She had never been able to replace the good watch Leigh had given her for her twenty-seventh birthday. It had broken when she was scaling a tall wire fence, the time the Network pipe-bombed the Department of Corrections. She saw it plucked from her wrist by a protruding coil of wire, watched it smash on the concrete below. That had been 1973, and she still mourned it. The watch had been a gold wrist alarm with large clear numbers and old -fashioned curly black hands. In her head Kevin snarled, "I'm glad it's busted! Toy from your bourgeois past." She had not bothered to argue with Kevin that her past was no more bourgeois than his, a fact he had used often enough when they were on the same side. That was already rare by '73. Where was he now? Thinking of him brought a wave of corrosive anger through her, an acid aftertaste.
She washed her hands, staring deliberately in the mirror. She had not examined herself for a few days of hard traveling, and she looked with a defensive wince. Surprise, she looked good. She smiled then. Yes, she was looking good — a little thin, but she was making that up here. Hank didn't mind treating her, though he might be expecting something he wasn't getting. Lowering her chin, she flirted with herself and then abruptly moved closer to the mirror.
Damn. That was why she was looking good. Her hair was growing in. It was suddenly livelier in color. Her own red-gold hair was showing at the part, and the brown was losing. She counted on her fingers. Let's see, she calculated: she had dyed her hair last in L.A., where she had been living, and she'd been five weeks on the road. She had been visiting the little clusters of fugitives that made up the Network, politicking, taking political readings, and holding workshops in the pirate TV technology the L.A. cell had developed. She had been working her way East to see her own people, somehow, and to get ready for the big annual meeting of the Network Board that set the year's priorities, that would be held — clandestinely, of course — sometime in the fall and somewhere in the East.
Wistfully she touched the inch of her own hair at the part, spreading like brushfire. Sunrise-colored, Leigh had called it in a romantic moment. She could hear his voice: Butterscotch. Cognac. Tomorrow with luck she would see him. Tears stung her eyes from the inside. In the mirror she saw she was hugging herself. Whatever stickiness, she would not sleep with Hank the very night before she saw her husband. Hank had ripped off Students Against the War for a long run of money with his instant bookmaking; he had given interviews on them, casting himself as a bearded expert. He could put her up for a night now and then without exacting payment in flesh.
She wanted to spend the night on the lumpy plush couch where she had collapsed when she arrived at dawn, before Hank left for work. She wanted the insomniac pleasure of allowing herself to feel how much she missed Leigh, to be full and empty at once with wanting and to know it would be lessened briefly by a meeting. Always she was forbidding herself to think of her family, always controlling her pain. Only at times did she let down her longing as she used to let down her hair, the huge burnished coil unwinding ...
She came into the living room with her face twisted in a smile of entreaty. "Hank, I'm going to have to ask you to do me a little favor ... I need a couple of things from a drugstore"
"Best thing to do is walk down to Montague. Then turn left"
"I was asking if you'd go out for me"
"I'm tired. Go on, Vida, you can't be scared to walk a couple of blocks!"
"Why can't I be? What do you want me to do with a rapist, show him my Wanted poster?"
"If you can't take care of yourself, who can?" He raised his eyebrows, shrugging with an exaggerated heaviness. Wasp imitating Jewish mannerisms. Sitting in the plush armchair, he raised his feet onto a matching hassock to demonstrate his rootedness.
She made herself smile again, a smile like a large plaster ornament on her face, a cupidon, a wreath of grapes decorating the old cornice of this room. "Violence against women is a fact I have to take into account, just like any other woman. I don't carry a gun, Hank."
"Why not? Armed and dangerous. What would you do if you saw a pig?"
"What would I do with a gun?" She controlled her voice, talking to a spoiled child. All a televised drama to him, the blood wiped off and the body good as new. "Actually, I carry a bomb at all times in my purse. Plastique. Set to detonate if I scream. Like this" She opened her mouth.
"Shhh! Don't scream in here. The neighbors will call the police. There's been a lot of break-ins ... Really, I think it's a riot. You playing the helpless female. Who'd ever believe Vida Asch is scared to walk to the corner drugstore by herself, scared of the dark?"
She flinched at her name, never spoken now. "Every other woman fugitive I've ever known. Hank, if I'm raped, I can't even go in the hospital"
"What do you think the odds are you'll be ravished between here and between the corner?"
"Pretty good, I'd bet ... Are you going to help me?"
"If you're so scared, wait till morning."
"I need tampons and I need hair coloring. My period won't shut down for convenience and I can't put off dyeing my hair. I have business to conduct tomorrow, and I need my hair a nice dull brown."
"You imagine I'm going to sashay into the drugstore and buy tampons and hair dye? I live in this neighborhood. I've lived on Columbia Heights for ten years. You imagine I'm walking into the drugstore where I buy the fucking Times every Sunday and my razor blades and tell them, Well, I want to dye my hair and stick a tampon up my ass?"
"It's after eleven. Come on. Hank. You have to help me. I need the damn stuff"'
"You sound like a creeping junkie!"
"Look, please" Crawl a little; he wants you to crawl. "I'm dependent on you for help. For survival. I have nobody else I can turn to. I'm alone here. Please help me."
"Why do you want to turn your hair that dead color anyhow? You must be trying to make yourself ugly. Like that crazy dyke sister of yours"
The sweet crisp pleasure of breaking a lamp on his head. "Are you meaning Natalie? I don't think you know her."
"We were on Channel 13 together one time ... You were really a beautiful girl, Vida, you know that? Sure you know it" He snapped his fingers. "Thought you were Queen of the May"
Were beautiful. Tomorrow she had to see Leigh, and she could not afford to be someone who had been beautiful ten years ago. Hank was out to cut her, but she could not take offense. Ignore all references to Natalie, who at least could not hear them. "Look," she said gently. "I need the dye for security reasons. Walk with me. Please. I'll go in. You can wait outside."
"Suppose somebody recognizes you? Suppose they call the cops?"
"I'd be happy to wait outside while you go in."
"But I don't want to go in!" He writhed in his chair, petulant. "I worked all day while you were lying around here eating up my food. I'm tired. I cooked dinner."
"I'll wash dishes the moment I finish my hair ... What would you do if you were living with a woman?" Once he'd been married, she remembered. He had married an editor, an arrangement lasting six weeks. Maybe his wife had asked him to buy her a box of tampons.
"Any woman I'd have around would do her own fetching and carrying" But he got up, making a sour face. "All right, all right, I'll walk with you. But I'll stay outside. And if anything happens, you don't know me. I'm splitting"
The night was cloudy and cool, a touch of rain in the wind. She wanted the next day to be sunny. She had not seen Leigh since early April when they had celebrated their birthdays together, meeting at the end of the subway in the Bronx. Leigh had given her two hundred dollars and a blue challis dress that fitted perfectly. She weighed only a few pounds less than she used to when she lived with Leigh on 103rd Street: 132 pounds, now maybe 127. She had the blue dress in her pack to wear tomorrow. She had not seen him since, the longest time they had gone without meeting after the first desperate months underground.
As they walked. Hank would not talk to her. He strode very fast, making her hasten to keep up, but he got out of breath before she did. The hole in her boot was getting bigger. The cold pavement nosed her as she stepped. She would have liked to walk on the promenade and stare at the lights of Manhattan, where she longed to be, to watch the freighters on the East River, to take in the Brooklyn Bridge, but she was always wary in New York and must stay inside as much as she could. This walk had sharp edges enough, that sense of danger in things. With brown hair and glasses she did not need, any friend, any old acquaintance could still recognize her. It had happened. It must not happen tonight.
"That's the drugstore" He stepped into a doorway, actually turning from the street to conceal his face. "I'll stay here. If you aren't out in five minutes, I'm leaving."
"Do give me ten, Hank. They might be waiting on somebody else." She went in. What had she been using? Warm chestnut it was called. If only she dared auburn. Anything but mouse brown. Ruby dyed her hair auburn and looked wonderful. Ruby's hair hadn't begun to turn gray till Vida and Natalie were in college, but when Ruby started coloring it, she didn't stick with her own rich brown. Ruby said, My daughter has red hair, why not me? Oh, Mama. She was staring at the Clairol boxes, with the same woman's face repeated forty times on the shelves and they all swam. Ruby was much harder to meet than Leigh or Natalie, for she was no political activist and it was next door to impossible for Ruby to learn to follow instructions exactly and evade surveillance. Vida breathed haltingly, controlling tears as the packages swam. Missing never diminished, not a bit. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Vida by Marge Piercy. Copyright © 2012 Middlemarsh, Inc. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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