The Affairs of Others: A Novel (19 page)

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
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SHAPE-SHIFTING

I
WATCHED HER SLEEP
. I watched her wake and reach for me as if she were a child and I reached back and took her warm hand in both of mine as she went under again, her body tensing and going slack with her dreams and, I supposed, with deciding to return to the day and me, and twice at least, choosing not to, turning away, back into sleep.

I did not begrudge her it. I slipped out of the apartment before she could ask me to go, but I came back with a book or two, one in particular that had balanced me and my husband, a prized something to share if asked to; and I came back with my watchfulness.

I couldn’t complicate matters, or further complicate them, from a lack of resolve, so I waited until she decided to wake, as she finally did, and to look blinking at me as if I were made of dust that had gotten in her eyes. She sat up, pulling her head up last, the afghan I’d laid over her shrugged off and exposing her breasts. She searched for and then covered herself with the silk robe that had become balled up under her. There was no panic in her gestures, but still I stood up to give her room to decide how our story would go now. I shook all expression from my face. It was not easy because I’d already admitted, and allowed to travel all through me, in an instant, less, the electric joy of her in my arms, having transformed her and so having been transformed, knowing something of what my husband felt when he’d made love to me and then things I had never known and might never again. Yes, I admitted to having loved her as I took her skin on the couch, and in less than an instant also allowed there’d be no more, that she’d turn away from me again, backwards to Les or something or someone else or forward, out the door and gone, just as I’d requested.

I sat on the wingchair that wasn’t George’s, stiffly, telling myself I could take it all with me. I was a collector, a conjurer, had been since I’d become a widow. I’d had practice—in this way I told myself I was protected.

“I’m so hungry,” she said dreamily, after she’d tied her robe to cover her and the soft nearly transparent hairs of her torso and neck, the brown upturned nipples on breasts that had known the sun, that pointed slightly to either side of her, yes, that hung but were dense and full in the hand, not flaccid, not empty, bigger than my own, and more generous in every way, unshy of how they’d been used and would yet be.

“I’d like to cook us something. It always makes me feel at home—” She interrupted herself to look at me, to consider me there. I heard myself swallow and held my breath because I wasn’t certain whether she had determined what to make of me and my hands and even my mouth on her, how I had insisted on all of it, despite my speeches. I was prepared to explain why there was no reason to be ashamed, to tell her things I’d never told anyone so she could better fathom it and maybe me, when she suddenly smiled at me. No, it was more: she shined at me, from her cheeks and eyes and the wide shape of her open mouth, and then laughed at me. “Why are you way over there?”

I had a rash of replies, full laughter of my own, but I wouldn’t open my mouth to any of it.

“Sit beside me,” she said, gentle flirting in her voice.

I did, but she did not touch me and I did not touch her.

“I haven’t been able to shop. Maybe we could order some food in?” she ventured.

“Sure.”

“And I have a prescription to fill.”

“I can go get it.”

“I can call someone.”

“I’d be glad to go.”

“I’ll order something to eat for delivery. It will be here waiting for you when you get back.”

I dove into a day outside the building that was gray but roughed open with wind and fat clouds tumbling to outpace the sun. I hurried and stalled, set off again, arriving at her pharmacy on Court Street, doing what I’d come for, as a friend or a nurse or a neighbor might, nothing beyond the ordinary after all, and back into the wind of a day I could not remember encountering as I was encountering this one, dragging sensation over me, loosening my face, the muscles of my legs. I did not know what we would say to one another when I returned, and when I imagined our conversation I became embarrassed from what was in turns excitement and dread, but I went back more eagerly than I’d done anything in years.

“My husband used to like to be read to, when he was ill,” I told her as I passed back into her, the door of the apartment shut and locked behind us.

“No one has read to me in a long time.”

She’d laid out a city of cartons on the coffee table—Indian, Chinese, Italian. “I didn’t know what you liked,” she said, finding her smile for me again. “I went for everything.”

“Oh, it’s all lovely.”

And it was. How rare it was for any one of us—to be found, without warning, freed from the rigors of disapproving of someone, of wanting to, and for your desire to please to be met in equal measure, with the same readiness. I didn’t know how long it would last, but while it did, it was like what I imagined singing well with someone was like or walking with someone, with the same length of step and rhythm of stride.

I took up one of the plates there and served myself as large a helping as the plate would allow as she talked of food—how Louis XIV had at least four hundred cooks working to make his meals and how in New York we have the same, more, thousands of restaurants, dozens of cuisines at our disposal. How do we decide? Good oils, the quality of the meat or proximity, price, impulse? “You walk down a block in this town and suddenly you’ve spent twenty dollars and filled your stomach with something you had no idea you were hungry for.…” She talked for both of us with her voice alert and soothing—she talked, in fact, about wonder. I ate and watched her pick and chew while she chatted on, about suckling pig in Chinatown and then truffles to be had here—I remembered something about truffles from her journal, yes, truffle oil she’d described like heaven poured into her, and then, as if someone had passed a cold hand over her, she faded, her energy gone, like that. “Whoa,” she said. “All of a sudden…” She sat back. “I’m wrung out.”

I took the antibiotics from the bag, refilled her water glass.

“Take this.” She held one hand under mine as she took the pill from my palm. “Do you want to lie down?” I readied a throw to cover her with.

“In the bedroom,” she said, “not on this couch again.”

“You should rest now.” I would go if that was what she needed. I could teach myself to be satisfied with what had happened. A surprise still.

She let out a sigh. “Would you—”

Would you mind leaving
was what I heard already, was prepared for. Yes, I was ready to do whatever she most needed.

“Would you come with me?” is what she said instead.

“In there?” I asked.

She laughed. “Lie down with me.”

*   *   *

On clean sheets, we talked of the hospital, the noise and the nurses, and of our George and agreed we missed him. The room had been tidied, the windows left cracked so that we could hear the wind speed and whistle outside, but neither of us got up to let more of it in. We lay side by side, an inch or two between us, but I did not touch her, or she me; we were close enough to know the heat the other generated and in this way we were joined and it was enough. The book I’d brought up from my apartment,
Lady into Fox,
freed from its seal, still did smell faintly of soup. I told her the book was a fairy tale for adults, about a marriage and miracles, though not the sort that delivers you necessarily or solves any human concern, that it was originally published in 1922, and that it wasn’t long. I did not tell her why I’d kept the book sealed away; it was enough that I’d preserved it and that I had it here with her.

There may not be one marvel to speak of in a century, and then often enough comes a plentiful crop of them; monsters of all sorts swarm suddenly upon the earth, comets blaze in the sky, eclipses frighten nature, meteors fall in rain …

“I like it,” she whispered.

“You can fall asleep.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I’m too exhausted.” With her pinkie finger, she hooked a strand of my hair away from my face. “I’m too excited. No one’s read to me in years.”

… But the strange event which I shall here relate came alone, unsupported, without companions into a hostile world, and for that very reason claimed little of the general attention of mankind. For the sudden changing of Mrs. Tebrick into a vixen is an established fact which we may attempt to account for as we will.…

The sprouting of a tail, the gradual extension of hair all over the body, the slow change of the whole anatomy by the process of growth, though it would have been monstrous, would not have been so difficult to reconcile to our ordinary conceptions, particularly had it happened in a young child.

But here we have something very different. A grown lady is changed straightaway into a fox. There is no explaining that away by natural philosophy. The materialism of our age will not help us here.

“Is this a happy or sad story?” Hope asked me.

“Maybe melancholy. About the way things go. We anticipate one story and we get another.”

“Is the woman cursed?”

“No, that’s just it. When the couple is walking along in the woods, they hear a fox hunt in the distance and then suddenly she changes. There’s no clear reason and the author doesn’t ever really provide one.”

Hope nodded: “Well, fantastic or not, life is like that, isn’t it? We are all shape-shifting, whether we want to or not. It’s shocking; you blink and…”

I went on with my reading, yes, through outward change of a woman into fox, through Mrs. Tebrick nonetheless dressing in her elegant gowns and eating at table much as the lady she believes she yet is, will be again, through the gradual inward change, as she becomes a fox entirely, when she begins to feel caged by their house and their walled garden, and even bites her husband when he assays to correct her behavior and remind her of who she was, of her propriety, what he took to be her humanity.

“You were married?” Hope asked me, a finger briefly on my wedding band.

“I was.”

“He passed?”

“He did.”

“So young.”

“Yes.”

“What was it?”

“That killed him?”

“Yes.”

“Cancer. Caught too late.”

“I wish mine were dead,” she said.

“Do you?”

“Maybe, yes … no … Sometimes definitely.”

“Tell me about him, if you’d like,” I said.

“Oh, god. There’s too much. Tell me about yours first.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?” she asked, rolling on her side and dropping a hand lightly on my hip.

But I’d already gripped the book to me, and my body had gripped its bones. I closed my eyes to tell her the truth, as I’d understood it all these years: “Because he’s all mine.”

She rolled away from me then. She was quiet a long time. She’d wanted to barter, that’s what was expected, made for confidences, but she didn’t know how practiced I was, and how careful, at preserving him, just as we’d agreed, his voice reading
Moby-Dick,
his hips moving in a slow circle, as he danced into me, making love, the gold in his skin all year but especially when the days grew longer, how warm it became suddenly all over him, as if he were blooming too, from the inside out, and when I could feel my heart shifting into the endless expanse of him, as it did, she said: “And my cheating, lying husband is all mine, my life, my history, and then in a blink, not mine at all anymore. Not now.”

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t—”

But she couldn’t stop herself, for the wonder of it all again, how relentlessly monotonous a long marriage could be, no matter how comforting, how respectful, and then something, a smell, a song, the color in a late-day sky could bring them back to each other, the why of their days. Or a suit in the closet.
How crisp he always looked in suits,
she said.
And this one blue suit, the one he walked home in on 9/11, covered in dust. Many of his colleagues and friends gone while he walked back to our life, the house in Cobble Hill, the children, in that suit. He asked me to throw it away, but I wouldn’t. I got it cleaned. I restored it. How many times can something be restored? As many times as you’re willing to do the work, right? Or that’s what I thought.… But maybe that’s when I lost him, when I put my bid on how things can survive, how we could, when what he wanted was to forget and let go and know new things, a new woman.

With some violence she shook her head as if to be free of a gnat assailing her and rolled over abruptly to straddle me. She, taller than I, older and more beautiful. Was she making all the same calculations I was? That she’d been able to live more, risk more, and for what? Me? Here, now? She ran a fingertip over the planes of my face—my forehead, my cheekbones—as if drawing it into something she understood and then moved her hand heavily between my breasts down to the rise of my belly to where my pants were resolutely fastened, stopping there. “Can I kiss you?” she asked, and I consented with a nod, though I wasn’t sure I should have or wanted to. But there was a wife in a story I’d just read, one whose husband ultimately loved her more as a fox than he had when she was a woman—I’d not had a chance to read that part to Hope yet—that Mr. Tebrick devoted himself to her in ways he hadn’t ever imagined when she became something other than the woman he’d married, than the woman the wife had planned on being, and there was that blue suit left in the closet, more men’s clothes abandoned or waiting or perhaps gone now, a ghost already in Hope’s house, and so she gave me her lips, at first tentative and formal, exploring, then looser, fitting her lips above, between, and over mine, then hungry, then lushly wet and unconscious. A woman who became a fox like that. No explanation. And Hope and I, stranded with one another, orphans remaking our world.

*   *   *

She fell back into the bed after having answered her phone at last. It had been going off at intervals throughout the afternoon into evening. I supposed she’d listened to her messages, too, and now, her eyes on the ceiling, her hair loose and swallowing us, she said, “I’ll go.”

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
6.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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