Authors: Scott Spencer
Tags: #ebook, #book
Rose and Arthur explained as simply and calmly as they could that the letters were gone and I, to prevent making a fool of myself, tried to look as if I believed them and, at the same time, to prevent myself from losing all hope, told myself they were clearly lying.
Later that evening we sat in the kitchen over a light supper. Rose and Arthur yawned frequently from exhaustion and tension. No one was hungry and with the topic of the letters having been instantly elevated to a taboo, there was nothing anyone cared to talk about.
Rose was the first to leave the table. Then I went into the living room and turned on the TV. Arthur followed and sat at a respectful distance from me on the sofa.
“Did you talk to What’s His Face about a job?” Arthur asked.
I nodded. A White Sox game was on, tied 6 to 6 in the fifteenth inning.
“You know there’s no rush,” said Arthur. “You don’t have to get a job. I hope you know that.”
“I’ve got to get a job. That’s what they told me. It has to look like I’m getting adjusted.”
“You’ll adjust. It doesn’t have to happen right away. I told you what it was like for me when I came home from the Army.”
I nodded, but Arthur went on.
“I was of course glad to be back. The war was over and I was alive. I had people I wanted to see and places to go. The whole country was celebrating. But I couldn’t do it. Everyone thought your mother and I were having a little second honeymoon but the truth was I couldn’t leave the house. It was the damndest thing. I was just stuck here as if I was paralyzed.”
“I know, I know,” I said. And then, looking away from the TV but not quite at my father, I said, “But there’s a big difference between coming home from World War II and coming home from a fucking insane asylum where you’ve been sent because you burned your girlfriend’s house down. No one wants to see me.”
Arthur shook his head. “Stop it. With an attitude like that you can’t expect very much.”
“That’s fine. I don’t expect anything.”
“Don’t you understand? Everyone is willing to grant that what’s behind you is behind you. Look at all the people here today. I know you don’t care very much about them but that’s not the point. They were all happy to see you again. It was almost like you’ve never been gone.”
“Right. I noticed.”
“Now it’s your turn, David. It’s time for you to realize to yourself that what’s in the past is in the past.”
“I don’t think I know what the past is. I don’t think there’s any such thing.”
“You want to know what the past is?” said Arthur. “It’s what’s already happened. It’s what can’t be brought back.”
“The future can’t be brought back, either. Neither can the present.”
“I’ll show you what the past is,” said Arthur. He clapped his hands together once, waited a moment, and then clapped them again—the sound was hollow, forlorn. “The first clap was the past,” he said with a subdued yet triumphant smile. If we had shared the sort of life that Arthur had wanted for us it would have contained hundreds of conversations just like this one.
“Then what was the second clap?” I said. “That’s the past too, isn’t it? And right now, while I’m saying this, isn’t this the past too, now?”
Rose came in holding that week’s
She wore a light blue robe and her summer slippers; she was smoking her nightly Newport. “I’m going to bed now,” she announced. It was something she used to say to hurt Arthur, to make him feel he was being avoided and to emphasize the point that they wouldn’t be making love. There had been a time when Rose had felt she could protect her position in the marriage, and protect her privacy, by simply (and it
simple) withholding her love. But now that her love was no longer sought there was no advantage to be gained in rationing it. It was clear that the power she once had was not real power—it had been bestowed upon her, assigned. It had all depended on Arthur’s wanting her, depended on his vulnerability to every nuance of rejection. He had, she realized now, chosen her weapon for her. He had given her a sword that only he could sharpen.
Arthur checked his watch. “OK,” he said. “Good night.” Then, to me, “I think we’d better turn down the TV so we won’t keep your mother up.”
I sat forward quickly and turned off the set. “I’m going to wash the dishes.”
“There’s a million dishes,” said Arthur. “Save them for the morning.”
“I don’t see anything wrong in doing them now,” said Rose. “It’s about time people started pitching in around here.”
“It doesn’t have to be done now,” said Arthur.
“What do you care?” said Rose. “You don’t lift a finger around here. You’re like a rabbi sitting around for people to wait on you.”
Arthur forced a burst of air through his lips, to signify a superior laugh that supposedly just happened to escape, and then shook his head to signify patience wearing thin.
I went into the kitchen. At the party, plastic forks and paper plates had been used, but still nearly every dish in the house was soiled. Ordinarily, they would have put them into the dishwasher, but even after the rain the night was too hot and they couldn’t run the air conditioner and the dishwasher at the same time. I felt relieved to be alone and felt somehow clever for not having retreated to my room.
I turned on the water, hot and loud, and stared at the window over the sink. (The window looked out on an airshaft, which my mother found depressing, so she had pasted on the window a picture of Leningrad, clipped from
magazine.) I squirted some emerald soap onto a big tawny sponge, then picked up a flowered cake dish, washed it clean, and ran it beneath the hot water. As the water touched my hands I felt my eyes go molten and then I bowed my head and cried. Before, when I had wept, I thought of Jade, and wondered where she was and if I would ever see her again, or I thought about all the time that had been lost, or I thought about how absurd and awkward I felt, how out of place and helpless, or I just remembered past happiness—happiness that had been mine and no longer was. But now, standing before the sink in a cloud of steam, I thought only of those letters, picturing the ink upon the page, recalling the endearments. Those letters were all that I had that wasn’t invisible. They were the only tangible proof that once my heart had wings. I had known another world. It is impossible to give it a name. There are words like enchantment, words like bliss, but they didn’t say it, they were stupid words. No words really said it. There was nothing to say about it except that I had known it, it had been mine, and it still was. It was the one real thing, more real than the world. I was crying steadily now, aware that I wasn’t really alone, trying not to make too much noise. I felt myself sinking, literally falling to pieces. I tried to direct my thoughts toward anger with Arthur and Rose for separating me from those letters, for destroying them in a panic, or hiding them, or for whatever they had done, but the anger, even the hatred seemed thin, insignificant. I tried to turn my thoughts toward my own helplessness, my inability to get on with life, to begin again. But the truth was that I had no will and no intention to begin life again. All I wanted was what I’d already had. That exultation, that love. It was my one real home; I was a visitor everywhere else. It had happened too soon, that was for certain. It would have been better, or at least easier, if Jade and I had discovered each other and learned what our being together meant when we were older, if it happened after years of tries and disappointments, rather than that vast, bewildering leap from childhood to enlightenment. It was difficult to accept, and it was frightening too, that the most important thing that was ever going to happen to me, the thing that
my life, happened when I was not quite seventeen years old. I wondered where she was. I thought about those letters, in a trashcan, in a dump, or in a fire. My hands were paralyzed beneath the hot-water tap and they were turning red.
“Do you need some help with those?”
It was Arthur. I didn’t dare face him; I tried to stop crying and I shook with the effort.
“I’ll grab a towel. You wash and I’ll dry,” Arthur said. He was standing next to me now. His shirt was open and the long dark hairs on his chest glistened with sweat. He glanced at me briefly—then dried the one dish in the drainer.
Desperately, I tried to compose a sentence in my mind: I guess I haven’t made much progress with these dishes, is what I came up with. But I couldn’t say it. My tears had become familiar to me yet I couldn’t control them. They had a life of their own. I washed another dish and handed it to my father and he dried it.
“David,” he said. I shook my head and he fell silent. We were silent for a few dishes, for all of the dishes, and then I began on the glasses. I was getting myself under control; my breathing was regular again. I glanced over at my father. His eyes were cloudy and his lips were pressed until they looked ivory and transparent. Oh God, I thought, with a flash of annoyance, he’s worried about me, he wants me to take him off the hook.
“I’m exhausted,” I said. It wasn’t much of an excuse but at least it was true.
He nodded, keeping his eyes on the hot glass in his hand. He turned the dishtowel around and around inside of it, until it cracked a little. “Talk to me, David,” he said, in a voice full of holes.
I knew how to avoid the curiosity—or even the concern—of others and could do it as easily as a cheat can deal off the bottom of the deck: it was basic, rudimentary, and sometimes I did it even when I didn’t altogether want to. I watched myself doing it. “What do you want to talk about?” I said.
“Anything. Whatever’s on your mind.”
I shrugged. I was going to start bawling again and I didn’t know how to stop myself—I didn’t know how to want to. I placed the sponge and a soapy glass on the side of the sink and pressed my hands over my face. I felt the tears running through my fingers, warm and oily.
“I wish I could help you.”
“I’m just very tired,” I said, though I don’t know if it was understandable. I was sobbing heavily now and speech was washed away.
“Is it the party?” Arthur asked. “Did you feel strange with all the people here?”
I shook my head.
“Tell me, David. Talk about it with me. Let me in.” He leaned forward and turned off the water.
“I’m in love,” I said, through my hands and tears.
He touched my shoulder. “I know, David,” he said. “I know.” Then—and I don’t know how to explain this—I heard something that he didn’t say, I heard, “I am, too.”
“What can I do for you, David?” my father asked. “Please. What can I do?”
I heard my mother come into the kitchen. I waited for her to say something but she felt excluded and shy. I turned to face her, with my red ugly eyes. She stepped back and touched her face, looking at me open-mouthed, both embarrassed and ashamed. I turned back toward the window. I felt the misery radiating inside of me, going deeper, getting fiercer and more immense, and I was suddenly very afraid that I wouldn’t be able to stand it. I rubbed my forehead; I clenched my teeth; and then, suddenly, horribly, without even a moment’s warning—or perhaps just
moment, a freezing, sweating instant—my insides contracted and sent spewing up the day’s gin. My vomit splattered onto the sides of the sink and sunk into the soap bubbles.
“Oh God,” said Rose, only half in disgust.
My father grabbed my elbow to support me if I were to swoon. “Press your tongue behind your bottom front teeth,” he said, urgently. I heard a scraping sound behind me. My mother was pulling a chair away from the kitchen table.
“Sit,” she said, in that stern, bossy voice some people adopt when they want to sound reassuring and which has never reassured me.
“I’m all right,” I said, hoarsely.
“You’re not all right,” said Rose.
“If he says he’s all right then he’s all right,” said Arthur, squeezing harder on my elbow.
I turned on the faucet and drank from it, shamelessly squishing the water around in my mouth and then spitting it into the sink. Then I ran some water on my wrists, filled my cupped hands with water, and threw it inaccurately onto my face.
“Are you sick, David?” Rose asked.
I leaned against the sink. Staring into the dark, stinking water, I said, “Why did you throw my letters away?” I waited for an answer but there was silence. Their silence somehow encouraged me—I didn’t want an easy answer and now they seemed to be struggling with my question, my accusation. “Why did you do it?” I said, my voice getting steadier. “I mean, why? That’s all. Why?”
I stood up straight. The sickness was gone. Arthur was looking at Rose, he seemed to be demanding that the answer come from her. I followed his eyes to her guarded face and now both of us were staring at her.
“We did what we thought was best,” she said, calmly, but with an unstable, evasive quality right at the center of her voice.
“Best for who?”
“We didn’t want them around,” she said.
“Then best for you?” I said. “You threw them away because getting rid of them—my letters—was best for you?”
“Why do you want them?” she said, gripping the back of the chair she’d pulled out for me. I thought: I am that chair. And I watched her fingers go white from squeezing it. “Why do you want to repeat every mistake you made, to, to…
in something that just about ruined your life?”
“Wallow?” I said, my voice rising in volume and pitch.
“I don’t want to argue over words,” she said. “You know what I mean.”
“I don’t care what you mean,” I said. “I want
to know what
mean. Those letters were mine. They were all I had. I just want you to know that I’ll always want them, I’ll always know that you did this. Nothing will make this memory go away. What’s happening right now, in this room, happens forever.” I stared hard at her; my eyes colored the air between us. It seemed for a moment that she might cry but she clamped her mouth shut and tried to think of how to answer me.
“Don’t you speak to me in that way,” is what she finally said.
“We try to do what we think is best,” Arthur said.