Authors: Barbara Michaels
I had no intention of writing. Joe was no more than an irritating memory, an episode long past. If I had stopped to think about it I would have marveled at the ease with which I had shoved Joe into a dark closet in my mind and slammed the door.
Now I did stop to think about it. It was another beautiful day. From my comfortable bed I could see sunlight and blue skies and hear the birds singing. A muted purr in the background told me that Bob, or Mike, or someone of that ilk, was mowing the lawn. I might have pondered all the pleasant things I meant to do that day—tennis, swimming, finishing my crossword puzzle and the Chinese lady’s background of pale-turquoise wool. But something was pounding on the door of that locked closet in my mind.
Joe wasn’t the first man with whom I had fancied myself desperately in love, but I had never gotten so deeply involved as I had with him. Every other love affair had ended in pain and regret and long weeks of suffering. How could I have forgotten him so easily? And why the devil was he struggling out of his prison now, to haunt me? The dream was already fading. All I could recall was a feeling of danger and a frantic, desperate struggle to do something, or reach some place, before it was too late. I had seen Joe’s face, distorted by anger or fear, his mouth wide open, screaming.
It was no use. I couldn’t recapture it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Like a big comfortable feather bolster, the thought of the hours ahead embraced me. Father Stephen was coming to tea. That would be nice.
Yet some nagging prickle of discomfort must have jabbed at me, because as soon as I had finished breakfast—a meal at which we fended for ourselves, since our schedules varied so—I went to the library instead of to the rose garden.
We usually spent our evenings in this room. Despite its size, it was more livable than the formal reception rooms. Bea had taken over a little parlor for her own use, but by tacit consent this was left to her; sometimes she entertained people Kevin and I did not care to see, and we felt she was entitled to her hours of privacy.
Chairs in a semicircle around the hearth and the big table before them were mute witnesses to our hours together. Bea’s needlepoint and mine—I had two projects going now, the second a more complicated pillow—my crossword-puzzle book, a scattering of animal hairs on the hearthrug. Kevin and I had each taken one of the big library tables as a desk, covering the gilt-stamped leather tops with blotters to protect them against ink stains. At first glance the desk-tables looked impressive witnesses to our labors, covered with books and papers and writing implements, including Kevin’s portable typewriter. Something impelled me to run my finger over the surface of the typewriter. The cleaning team had been told to leave this room alone unless we specifically requested their attentions. A little pile of fine white dust followed the path of my finger.
A closer look at the books on Kevin’s desk showed me that few had anything to do with literature, and those few were at the bottoms of the piles of volumes on medieval history and architecture. I turned to my own desk. When I looked through my notes, my sense of disquiet increased. I had not accomplished much since…Had I really been at Grayhaven for three weeks?
At that moment Kevin’s voice calling my name reminded me that I was late for tennis. I replacedStudies in Contemporary Literature on my blotter and hurried out.
We usually met for lunch in the kitchen, which was one of the pleasantest rooms in the house, with its beamed ceiling and big fireplace. Bea had placed pots of scarlet geraniums on the wide windowsills and gay woven mats on the table. After we had finished Kevin murmured, “I’ll be in my room, if anybody wants me,” and wandered out. I had heard him say that before; for the first time I wondered what he did during those early-afternoon hours. Surely he didn’t need to nap. He was looking very fit, better than I had ever seen him.
I had acquired the habit of helping Bea with the lunch dishes. Her protests were, by now, purely mechanical—another part of the routine. Today, however, she was not her usual chatty self, and I noticed that she avoided my eyes. I was about to ask her what was wrong when she said, in a rapid, rather prim voice, “I thought you might like to know that I am going to change rooms this afternoon.”
“Really? Something wrong with yours?”
“It is next to Kevin’s, you know.”
“We share the balcony.”
“These warm summer nights…I leave the French doors open.”
“I hope you do,” I said, wondering. “What’s the matter—does Kevin snore?”
Bea’s face was half turned away as she concentrated with unnecessary attention on the cup she was washing. I saw a wave of dull, ugly red move up from her neck over her cheek. She blushed easily and prettily, but this was not her normal pink flush of pleasure; it was embarrassment, raw and uncomfortable. She turned completely away from me and spoke in a quick monotone.
“I’m not making judgments or condemning you; you are both adults, it’s entirely your affair. I guess I’m more conventional than I thought. Kevin is like my son, I’ve watched him grow up, and most mothers would find it uncomfortable to actually hear…”
I should have seen what she was driving at long before I did. The idea had been so far from my mind that it penetrated slowly. I started to laugh, then hastily checked myself. It was no laughing matter to Bea.
“Bea, believe me, Kevin and I are not…” I dismissed the first verb that came to mind and tried to find a euphemism that would not increase Bea’s embarrassment. “We are not sleeping together. You know I would have no hesitation about admitting it if we were.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” Bea’s voice was more normal, with a touch of wry humor. She turned. The angry red had subsided, but her cheeks were still flushed. “Forgive me. I’m ashamed of thinking…”
She spoke as if she had falsely accused me of murder, or embezzling the life savings of little old ladies. I had to remind myself that to her generation the accusation was almost as bad! And indeed, it would have been thoughtless of us, knowing Bea’s attitude, to carry on an affair so close to her when there were a dozen unoccupied rooms in the house, and acres of grounds. I thought of making love with Kevin on the billiard table, or the hearthrug in the library, or in the potting shed, and had to stifle another laugh.
“Forget it,” I said magnanimously. “The only thing that surprises me is how you could have supposed Kevin and I had that kind of relationship. Even with our depraved generation, sexual intimacy usually implies a certain degree of emotional involvement. Kevin treats me like a sister.”
Bea’s eyes were still troubled. “I did think of that, Anne. I was disappointed, because I had begun to hope that you two…But that really is none of my business.”
“I can assure you that if we do decide to—uh—get more friendly, we’ll do it in private,” I said. “You don’t have to change rooms.”
“You don’t understand.” Another wave of red suffused her face. “I hear things. I can’t help hearing them. Anne, if it isn’t you, who is it?”
The words hit me like a slap in the face—especially the word “who.” She wasn’t referring to an ambiguous collection of noises—a “what.” With deliberate intent she had chosen a personal pronoun.
A number of explanations flashed through my mind. None of them made any sense because I did not have enough data. I thought of asking Bea to describe what she had heard and dismissed the idea immediately; her tongue would never be able to form the right words. Nor could I be sure that her description would be accurate. How could I know what neuroses or sexual hangups vexed Bea’s subconscious mind?
“Who?” I repeated. “Damn it, Bea, what are we talking about—vampires, or succubi? I can’t see Kevin smuggling some local charmer into his room, even if he knew any. Is there some girl on the cleaning team?…”
I knew the suggestion was absurd even before Bea’s emphatic shake of the head denied it. The cleaning team consisted of men and unglamorous middle-aged women. Dr. Garst’s niece had called a few times, but Kevin had consistently refused her invitations and ignored her broad hints about how she hated to swim alone.
“Then he must be talking in his sleep,” I said, after we had canvassed the possibilities. “It may be as simple as that.”
Bea’s mouth set in a stubborn line. “If he is,” she said, “he’s using two different voices.”
After Kevin had finished his nap—or whatever—and gone to the pool, Bea and I made the transfer—her things to my room, mine to hers. She wasn’t enthusiastic about the latter part of the program, but I managed to convince her that I was not motivated by idle curiosity or perversity. It would have been easier to convince her if I had told her I had been worried about Kevin anyway, but I couldn’t do that. It would have been vicious to mar the new serenity of Bea’s life, so welcome after months of unhappiness, with vague forebodings. They seemed unfounded and irrational even to me.
The most logical explanation for the sounds Bea had heard was that she had imagined them, or blown up some harmless noises into something sinister. I wouldn’t know about that until I had heard, or not heard, for myself. But I didn’t really believe that was the explanation. If I had, I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of moving into a position where I could spy on Kevin. I was uncomfortable with the idea, but I was even more uncomfortable about certain other things. Bea’s revelation had been like a beam of light shining into dark corners, showing the true shapes of the shadowy objects that lurked there.
It was almost impossible for me to get Kevin to do any work on our book, which was, after all, the reason for my being there. He always had some graceful excuse, some other pressing chore. His disinclination, I told myself, accounted for my own failure to concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing. “There isn’t any point starting work now.” How many times had one of us said that, how often had I thought it—and then proceeded to waste hours playing with one of the many entrancing toys available?
Not only was Kevin not working on the book, he was spending great amounts of time on other research; and all that research somehow centered around the house.
I would have felt like a fool mentioning this sort of thing to Bea as evidence of a dramatic change in Kevin. It was all so harmless and so understandable. Why should Kevin slave at dull work when he no longer needed the money? Why shouldn’t he be fascinated by the beautiful old house and its history? But one of the qualities I had always admired in Kevin was his honesty, with others and with himself. He was wasting my time. If he had decided to abandon the project we had been working on for almost a year, he would have told me so, flat out.
Kevin didn’t seem like the same eager, idealistic man I had met eighteen months earlier at a political rally on campus. It was one of those cases of a local jury freeing some character who had, quite by accident, of course, shot and killed a young black man who had been a friend of his daughter. Kevin had banged me on the head with the sign he was carrying—really by accident—and had offered to buy me a beer by way of apology. Sitting with his elbows on the table, ignoring the puddle that soaked into the sleeve of his faded shirt, he had talked nonstop, first about the case, then, after discovering that we were in the same field, about his ideas for a really good, really useful textbook. The picture was as clear in my mind as a photograph. Next to it I placed Kevin as he looked now—tanned and fit in tennis whites, or drinking brandy in his manorial library after dinner. Physically he looked a hundred percent better. But I missed the sallow, shabby man whose hair always needed cutting and whose shirts never had all their buttons.
There was another thing, but I had a hard time admitting it to myself; it made me sound so stupid. All the same, in those early days, before Joe came on the scene like a bomb exploding, I had begun to think that Kevin might be getting interested in other parts of me besides my brilliant brain. I suppose it is obvious that I am not particularly secure about my physical attractiveness. I was even less secure then, and there were so many other women in Kevin’s life—women with straight, shining hair and perfect white teeth and pneumatic Playboy-bunny bodies and twenty-twenty vision. But now I had the advantage of proximity. So why not the billiard table, or the hearthrug in the library? Why hadn’t the thought occurred to me, if not to Kevin? There must be something wrong with me—or with him.
If I had only pursued this thought, I might have reached the truth sooner. (But I have already admitted that I don’t know whether there is such a thing as truth, haven’t I?) I knew something was amiss, but I knew it through instinct, not logic, and in my attempt to find a logical excuse for my concern, I picked Kevin as the fall guy. I’m all right, Jack, it can’t be me.
We finished moving my things, and Bea, looking grave, went off to make goodies for tea. Father Stephen was going to get the full treatment—watercress sandwiches and little frosted cookies, and, for all I knew, scones and clotted cream. I decided I would join the party after I had had my swim. Bea’s cooking was too good to pass up.