A man and a woman on the telephone, he in Los Angeles in a film production office in Beverly Hills, she in New York in an apartment on the West Side. He is her former husband. They have been apart for 15 years, divorced for 13. His second wife, the one he left this first wife for, has just left him, taking their son with her and moving to a second house they owned together further down the beach in Malibu. The first wife, to whom he is now talking on the telephone, to whom he is saying, “I assume you’ve heard, etc. etc.” is saying: “Yes. I did. The children told me. I’m so sorry.” He is replying: “It’s probably all for the best. We haven’t been happy together for a long time,” and she is saying: “Yes, but still these things are hard. Even when you’re not happy together, it’s not that simple. It’s complicated,” she is saying, “and painful. I remember,” she says, wanting to say no more than that,just enough to let him know she remembers, but has recovered. She would never want him to think she hadn’t recovered.
She has heard this story already, of course, pieced it together from their three children. Not wanting to appear too interested she has had to be cagey and wanting to appear sympathetic she has murmured, “Oh, how awful,” and, “What a pity.” She tries to remember at all times that their children—their son Adam and two daughters, Beth and Kate—love him. He is their father. But she has gotten the story. The older daughter, Beth, says that he has cried to her. Once he cried to her in a hotel room in Paris on a trip he took them on, Adam, Beth and Kate. He cried that he has been punished for what he did, punished for leaving them. She has tried to imagine his tears—the closed bedroom door of the hotel suite in Paris, the friends, French and Americans, making small talk outside the closed door as they wait to go to dinner, her ex-husband crying that he has been punished. She hears him crying, sees him in her imagination, a man in expensive clothes, a shirt from Jermyn Street, a cashmere jacket, his face red, a man with a small paunch, his eyes red rimmed, making hollow, muffled choking sounds, being cradled in the arms of his 22-year-old daughter repeating over and over, “I’ve been punished for what I did to all of you.”
Once at a distance, 10 years after they parted, she saw the second wife crossing Fifth Avenue, leaving Bergdorf Goodman late on a winter afternoon. She was with Beth, who pointed the second wife out to her. She searched in the crowd but in the pale, late afternoon winter sunlight caught only a flash of long, blonde hair spread out on the back of a fur coat. The glimpse was so fleeting that she barely saw it and remembers only the fanning pattern of the hair. She has also seen photographs where the second wife appears with the children. In these photographs taken on the deck of the house in Malibu, the family is dressed in evening clothes, white dinner jackets on the husband and Adam, then 13, and filmy evening dresses of coral and white on the second wife and Beth, then 16. Kate, the lanky younger daughter, is wearing a tuxedo and black tie, hands in her pockets, long brown hair falling like a silken curtain. The family is smiling. “It must have been the end of the day,” she thinks as she looks at the photographs, just before they went out for the evening to the Academy Awards in Santa Monica where the husband will win an Oscar for producing the best picture that year. The Pacific sky behind them is awash in pinks and purples, the water a blue, green haze. A son, two daughters, a handsome husband and a beautiful young, blonde second wife, dressed in evening clothes, posed on the deck of an ocean front house in Malibu, like royalty, young and healthy with plenty of money and beauty—and they are all smiling. They have spent the day on the beach swimming, playing volleyball and tennis on their own court. Perhaps the second wife and Beth and Kate have driven to Rodeo Drive to have their hair done while their dresses hang upstairs on closet doors or spread out on the beds while the breeze from the Pacific ripples through the bedrooms of the house.
Looking at the photographs, she has studied the face of the young, blonde second wife. She has studied it many times over the years. There is the bright red lipstick, a bit too much makeup covering what she suspects is the imperfect skin of the young face, the thin straps and filmy, gathered top of the coral chiffon dress, the blonde hair, the thin body mostly hidden by the three children in the front row. She has tried to memorize this face. She has studied the eyes, the mouth, the nose, the expression. She wants to remember what the second wife looks like. She has stared at the photograph many times thinking that now, at last, she knows what the second wife looks like, only to have the image evaporate when she puts down the photograph.
A few weeks after the phone call in which she tells the husband how sorry she is to hear of the end of his second marriage, she has lunch with his partner’s wife. The partner’s wife telephones from Los Angeles to say she’s going to be in New York, that it’s been too long since they’ve seen each other, why don’t they meet? Because they weren’t especially good friends before, when she was a legitimate one quarter of this partnership, the telephone call surprises her. She’s in the kitchen one evening after teaching a class, sipping white wine, eating a sandwich. There are Helios, How are yous? and How are the kids? “I hear you’re a professor now,” the partner’s wife says. “Not exactly,” she answers, downgrading her adjunct job although, in fact, she’s proud of it, proud of what she’s become. Still, when the invitation comes she’s not prepared and notices that she answers quickly, automatically, as if she is pulling a lever in a voting booth. She says: “Yes. What a good idea! Let me get my book.” She feels a deadness, a wish that she had said no, didn’t for whatever reason need or want to.
The partner’s wife has thin white skin, the kind that wrinkles easily, and short, curly blonde hair, not a pretty woman but with a neat body and good legs. A large diamond sparkles on her finger. “I got it five years ago,” she says, holding out her hand and arching the fingers over the tablecloth. “He was a very bad boy that year. This is how I made him pay for it.” The diamond catches the light, sparkles over the clear, white tablecloth and the water glass. They are in the Cafe des Artistes with murals of nude women on the walls, beautiful nude women painted in the 1920s. The partner’s wife says: “When I first knew you I couldn’t understand why you were unhappy. I thought there was something wrong with you. But then, when I saw how he was with her, I began to suspect there is something about this man that brings unhappiness. Did you know about the miscarriage?” The partner’s wife still smokes and she inhales deeply on a whisper-thin cigarette and taps it gently with the finger on the hand with the sparkling, blue-white diamond. “She was just a kid. This was her first pregnancy. She was frightened. She had been spotting. She begged him to stay home that day. He said he couldn’t. He said she was overreacting, that it was just a little bit of spotting, that she should stay in bed. He said she could call him at the office if anything went wrong, that he could be home in 45 minutes on the freeway. She had a miscarriage. She bled all over the bathroom floor. The police came and took her to the hospital in Malibu.”
Listening, she imagines the second wife on the bathroom floor, a white nightgown rolled up around her thighs, the blue and white Mexican tile floor spotted with blood, the California sunlight playing on the Mexican tiles, dappling the walls and hanging plants, the sunken tub and wooden bathroom cabinets. She imagines a residue of last night’s lipstick still outlining the second wife’s mouth, the long, blonde hair fanning out on her shoulders, a small pimple with a whitehead on her back as she curls up on the floor, bleeding and waiting for the police and the ambulance. The partner’s wife picks up her fork and dips into her Eggs Benedict. “After that,” she says, “when I heard him call her darling, my flesh crawled. There is something about the way he says the word darling that makes me shrivel.”
The partner’s wife pauses, swallows her eggs, sips her Perrier.
“Why did you marry him?” she asks.
“I loved him. I was young. What did I know? I thought this was the way things were. Do you really expect me to answer this question? How about you? Why did you get married?”
“Same reason,” says the partner’s wife. “But it worked out much better for me.”
“You were lucky,” she says, secretly enjoying her response. “It was a crap shoot. And you lucked out.” She pauses. “Some people are just lucky,” she says, smiling.
Kate is home for a weekend from Bennington and in her bedroom on a Saturday night when her father telephones to tell her the news that his second wife, her stepmother, has left him. Across the hall of their West Side apartment, in her own bedroom, the first wife knows that something has happened. She doesn’t spy on her children, read letters from their friends, listen to their conversations, but she has an antenna for this other family. Being divorced with children who are in contact with an ex-husband is like having a chronic disease, she often thinks. You have to learn to live with it. Stay alert for current developments. Information can change your life.
She is propped on her bed, reading student papers, has just taken a bath, going out that evening to dinner and to see a film and hears from across the hall the low murmuring of Kate’s voice, a long conversation of muffled, silvery murmurs, up and down, melodic, like water or the sound of a bird punctuated by random high notes. This is a different sound from the conversations Kate has with friends, no bursts of laughter or talk-to-you-laters. She catches words, phrases, questions, “The night before?” “What happened?” “You think she planned this?” The murmuring continues. On her bed, warm from a bath, wrapped in a Turkish towel robe, one leg shiny from the bath oil balanced over the other, the lights of Broadway visible through the window, she feels a quickening. Her mouth dries. Her face is hot. She can feel her heart pounding and thunder in her ears.
“Poor Dad,” Kate says. She is sitting now on the end of the bed, telling how it happened. “She is such a bitch! The way she did it. She was supposed to meet Dad in San Francisco. He was there for the weekend. She was supposed to fly up on Friday night. She never came. Did you know he had bought this smaller house for her because she said the one they had was too big? So just for her he bought this house even though he hadn’t been able to sell the big house yet. It belonged to an old movie star.”
“I can’t remember. So she just secretly takes her stuff and Harry and moves into it while he was away. Then she has her lawyer telephone to tell him she’s gone.”
Propped on her bed, she imagines this too, the way it happened, the message light blinking in the San Francisco hotel room, the husband picking it up, loosening his tie, sitting down on the side of the bed to telephone the lawyer in L. A. It would be after business hours by then. The lawyer would be at home, on his tennis court. His wife would call him from the court and he would come across the terrace, through French doors to the study, a towel around his neck, wiping his forehead as he picks up the phone. “I’m sorry to tell you your wife has left you,” he would say, calling the husband by his first name. “I’m taking care of her affairs. I anticipate that you will want to see your son, Harry, so if you’ll have your attorney telephone me Monday morning we can set that up for you.” She imagines the husband then. She has always thought of him as a man in control of his emotions. He does not act out of anger. His politeness is part of his power. But now she sees him rise from the bed. “Are you in the habit of advising your clients to break up their homes in this manner?” he will ask. “Tell me,” he will say. “Is this your idea of ethical behavior?” She hears his voice cracking. She sees his face reddening. He has pale, white, freckled skin and she sees it growing redder, the fingers of the hand at his side curling and uncurling.
Kate leans to kiss her goodnight, smelling of perfume, a soft leather jacket, her hair the color of honey, her skin smooth. “Poor Dad,” she says. “He sounds like shit.” “Yes,” she murmurs. “What a pity!” kissing her daughter’s cheek. “Have fun! Don’t stay out too late,” she says, modulating every gesture, as if there are weights tied to her arms and legs. Careful! Careful! She does not pull Kate to her, afraid her daughter will feel the heat on her face, the wetness of her palms, or sense the quickening of her pulse.
“Merle Oberon,” Kate says, sticking her head back inside the door. “It was once her house. Did you know her?”
Now there are more phone calls. The husband begins to telephone her more often. There are phone calls as well from his office, Lisa, his assistant, and Mary Jane, an actress now working “in development.” “She’s looking for properties,” he tells her. “I told her you were a writer.” “I can’t write properties,” she says. “I write essays, autobiography, maybe an occasional short story or book review. And I teach.” “But you might want to have lunch with her. You never know. She options scripts for a lot of money. Her husband is a big agent too. They just did a deal for Paul Newman and Anjelica Huston. They’re connected with major studios. What do you have to lose?” “It won’t work out,” she tells him. “I don’t belong in that world. I don’t have a clue how to talk to those people. I’m doing what I should.”
Mary Jane is tiny, her hair wild and streaked and curly. In the dentist’s office on Central Park West, waiting for a root canal, she spots her peering from the pages of Vogue, perched on a desk in a silk suit, a thigh-high skirt. “Hollywood women . . . crashing the studio system . . . storming the power base,” she reads. “Your husband is responsible for my career,” Mary Jane says when she telephones. “He’s brilliant! The best! But you want to know what impressed me most about him? He’s real. You can talk to him. So Ivy League. Those tweeds. He should be smoking a pipe. Just between you and me. I shouldn’t tell you this but these actresses out here . . . they’re so insecure. He handles them so well. He props them up. You should hear them talk about your husband.”
“Of course,” Mary Jane says. “You might want to think about that. He’s lonely now. And needy. Of course he can have anyone he wants. Anyone. But you’re on an inside track. He’s so proud of you, of what you’ve accomplished. And the children, too. You teach in a college? Have you written anything I would have read? Just give me a title. My assistant will track it down. The guy is like a bloodhound. He can find stuff that was flushed down the toilet 40 years ago. Your husband says you’re a good writer . . . just unrecognized. Look, it happens. I want to meet you. I feel a story here. I have great instincts. I am never wrong. I’ll let you know when I’m going to be in New York. We’ll do lunch.”
There are other phone calls too; not a week goes by without one. Lisa, his assistant, the California voice. “Hi there. How are you doing?” An invitation to a screening, a preview, Forest Hills, the tennis matches, a couple of seats to the opening of the Sam Shepard play? Would she like them? Could she use a case of champagne? A little known French brand that’s a great buy right now. He just ordered a case for himself, he’ll have one sent to her as well. How about a new raincoat? He heard from Beth she wanted one. He just saw one in Paris at a shop not far from the Eiffel Tower. Just what she would like. The perfect shade of green. Flowers on her birthday, an arrangement, freesia, anemones and tulips in a blue and white china bowl. How come they managed so few telephone calls in the years past, but now so many she thinks. What is going on? His mother too, Florrie, in Boca Raton. “Just a social call, Honey. To say Hello. How’s Mother? And Dad? Does he get to play any golf now after his stroke? Did mother get some help? Give me their phone number. I get up to Sarasota every now and then to see my sister. I’ll call them,” his mother says.
In the beginning, when it was over, after he left, they never spoke. She asked him, please, don’t call me. Speak to my lawyer she said, just the way the second wife is doing now. In his phone calls he tells her how the second wife refuses to speak to him. He wants joint custody, but the amount of money she wants is absurd. “It’s unbelievable!” He doesn’t want to talk about it. “It’s crazy,” he says. “Unreal.” She wants more than he has. Merle Oberon’s house and the house in Lake Tahoe and the apartment in Paris and the cars, the Mercedes and the BMW. “This is California,” the partner’s wife says when she calls. “Community property. She has him where she wants him. Unless, of course, he can hide it. But he would have had to be doing that all along, stashing money away out of the country. If he says he has less than he does, she’ll accuse him of perversion, with the kid,” the partner’s wife says. “She has it planned. I heard it from a friend of mine out at the beach. She has some photographs of their son naked that he had taken and hung in the bathroom. She’ll get him on that. I hear her new house is beautiful. Not like that barn they were living in, that monstrosity of bad taste. Enough art deco to float the Chrysler building.”
In one of their conversations, on the telephone, gazing out the window down the canyon of Broadway, she asks him, casually, oh so casually, just a passing thought about the second wife.
“What’s going on with her? Is there another man do you think?”
“No. No.” he says. “That’s not it. As a matter of fact, if you want my opinion, I think she’s a lesbian.”
“Yes. There was this woman, her therapist, Blanche. She was very attached to her. They spent a lot of time together. Near the end Blanche was practically living in the house. Frankly, I blame Blanche for a lot of this.”
“Haven’t you heard? They’re calling me a pervert.”
She says no more than that, imagining the therapist, seeing her immediately, the flash of Indian jewelry, turquoise and silver, the straight, dark hair, the sandals and Mexican blouse. And there would be two lines etched deep alongside her mouth, stretching from her nose to her chin. She is holding the hand of the second wife, childlike, in white pants and a white sweater, the blonde hair fanning out on her back in the Malibu sunshine.
“Grandma Florrie thinks you and Dad should go back together again,” Kate says, telephoning from Malibu. Kate is visiting her father. The phone calls have been going on for six weeks now, since the second wife left. In New York she has just come upstairs and put down the Zabar’s bags. “Really?” she says. “Yes,” Kate giggles. “But she doesn’t think you should get married right away. She thinks you should live together for a while, just to see how it goes.”
That same evening Mary Jane takes a taxi from the Sherry Neth-erland up to West End Avenue. Her flight came in that afternoon. She and her husband are going out to Quogue for the weekend but she wanted to come here first. “I had to meet you,” she says. “The first thing on my list.”
Mary Jane sits back on the nubby white cushions scattered with Turkish Killim pillows that have sat on the white platform in the living room since the 1970s. She is smaller even than imagined and wears a black silk pants suit and a small black quilted handbag that swings to her hip on a chain. She runs a hand through the curly, blonde mane of lion’s hair and settles it on her shoulders. A spring wind whips around the corner of the building and rattles the old windows. Outside, the windows of the Broadway apartment building across the street stare like eyes. Down Broadway, towards Fairway and Avis Rent-A-Car and the Beacon Theatre, slow moving traffic plies its way towards Lincoln Center. It is a view she has come to think of as perpetual winter in Warsaw. Mary Jane looks around, sips Perrier, places the glass on a white cube. She is very small, makes not a dent in the cushion. “You ought to get out of here,” she says. “Come out to L. A. Write a screenplay! Go after your husband! Do something!”
“I teach. I have a job, a contract!”
“Well,” Mary Jane says, sighing. “If you’re going to stay here, at the very least hire a decorator.”
A pervert? A lesbian? But wasn’t it sex that brought the husband and his second wife together? Back then, in 1968, when he met her, didn’t she look like a flower child? Didn’t she tell him she would do anything just to have sex with him, that she would live in his house, be the au pair to his children, that they could do it late at night in the kitchen or on the back stairs? Didn’t he tell the first wife during those long months before he made the decision to leave that this was about being with the flower child “the way a man is with a woman?” Didn’t he say that he couldn’t imagine the rest of his life without that passion? Didn’t he describe to her how he had gone to the flower child one night and she had come downstairs from her apartment to meet him at the subway? Didn’t he describe to her how he had seen her running to him, hair flying as she sped down the silent, late night streets. Didn’t he say that breaking up this marriage was killing him, that he loved her, that he couldn’t imagine life without her either, that no one had known him this long, that she was his best friend? But this was about sex. He wanted to have sex with a girl that looked like a flower child. Sex with the flower child with the long legs and straight blonde hair falling to her waist and the love beads and the long dresses made him happy. She remembers once being with him at a party when he pointed to a young woman in a long dress with long hair and said, “That’s what she looks like, that’s the look.” She remembers him tugging on her arm to tell her this, to point it out to her, to show her what the girl he is having an affair with looks like. She was drinking a vodka and tonic. This was before the days of white wine. She remembers the coldness of the glass in her hand, the bitter taste of quinine, the bubbles at the back of her throat, the bright greenness of the lime, even the dress she was wearing. It was one of those 1960s dresses, Italian. She had been so proud of it, the printed geometric forms in bright colors as light as a handkerchief. She remembers saying nothing, doing nothing, standing very still in the room, surrounded by people at a party and concentrating on letting nothing change on her face, not a single expression. Not her eyes or her smile or her conversation should miss a beat. Now, to learn that his second wife is calling him a pervert and he is calling her a lesbian. They must despise each other, she thinks.
What should she wear to lunch? She doesn’t own lunch clothes, suits, well-fitting pants, silk shirts, small quilted handbags that dangle at the hip on chains, hoop earrings, Italian shoes. She owns a three-quarter length Japanese foxfur jacket paid for with the check from a 1978 magazine story, two cashmere sweaters, a silk shirt and a Burberry raincoat bought on a binge also in 1978, a good year for magazine stories. She is in the bedroom examining them, the burgundy silk shirt embossed with linked circles, the white turtleneck and deep red cable knit sweaters. She holds them up to her, pulling them in at the waist like dancing partners. They are ball free and still soft, but narrow in the wrong places. She shakes her head and drops them on the bed. When she bought them the saleswoman said, “These are classics!” But now she thinks their passport has expired. They have crossed the border from classic to frumpy. For what she does, and where she lives, for the 104 bus, dinners at Teachers, a beer at the West End, for dusty classrooms and conference tables decked with cardboard coffee cups, old clothes, army jackets, turtleneck shirts, down coats—writer’s outfits are what she chooses. She cultivates the image of the outsider. But now that’s not what she wants. She wants to look comfortable in the world of lunches. Not a clone, but comfortable, as if she was suddenly dropped into the family photograph it would look as if she belonged there, in an evening dress on the deck in Malibu, smiling, her head thrown back against the rosy California sky. There must be something to wear in this apartment?
Most of Beth’s clothes are gone. A rainbow of leaded stained glass dangles from the closet door knob. Inside, a purple suede jacket with fringes hanging from the hip and pockets, a T-shirt that screams “Rocky,” an embroidered Indian shirt gathered at the neck with a tasseled drawstring, an orange and red bag glittering with small mirrors, a Granny dress printed with tiny flowers and another, Scandinavian, with bold blue and white stripes labeled “Marimekko.” On the floor, a pile of records; James Taylor gazes sweetly from the top one. Behind the scarred and deeply creased Frye boots as if Beth’s feet are still in them, a watercolor painting is propped on the closet floor, childish, restricted and careful, a shingle house they once rented for two weeks on Martha’s Vineyard. The pencil lines are still visible beneath the thin water color. Beth’s tight, neat signature is in the right hand corner. She picks up the painting for a moment and feels her throat contract.
Kate’s closet is fuller, smelling of perfume, thick with jackets, skirts, shirts with Polo ponies on them, bought for her by her father on carelessly expensive strolls up Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive. There are old dresses from East Village thrift shops, unworn plaid flannel nightgowns (gifts from cousins at Christmas), and avant garde sacks from Japanese designers, made from burlap, torn in strange places, closed with large safety pins. Unzipping a plastic bag embossed with Brioni of Rome she discovers a vest, jacket, pants and slim skirt, of black silk and wool, custom tailored for Kate on a trip to Europe. Moment of recognition: she tears the plastic bag from the closet and cradling it to her, runs down the hall to her bedroom. She shimmies into the skirt, examines herself in the mirror, frontways, sideways, rising and turning from a sea of clothing on the floor. Quickly, out the door to 72nd Street near the corner of Columbus, a shop she can’t afford but often browses wishfully. She rifles through the racks. The tall, gay man, Darryl, weedy with black curly hair and a full pink mouth, leans across the counter on his elbows, cupping his chin in his hands. “Let me know if I can help you,” he says.
He holds up to her, twirling it on its hanger, a silken gray and black tweed jacket. He pulls out with one hand a creamy white silk shirt. When she’s slipped it on with Kate’s skirt, he drapes around her neck a black and white and gray-flecked scarf, the fringes dangling casually. “So ‘30s,” he says. Her image in the mirror pleases her. She looks at herself sideways, smoothes her belly and hips, tilts her head, runs a hand through her hair. She feels a burst of love for the clothing in the shop and has an image of pulling it all from the racks and burying her face in the silken shirts and soft skirts.
“So what’s this for?” Darryl asks, removing tickets, folding the clothes, slowly, artfully, inserting bursts of white tissue paper.
“Oh. Lunch. OK. Where? Versailles?” Slipping her credit card into the little machine, sliding up the runner with a click.
“I’ll let you know.”
She signs the tab, the ball point pen fluttering imperceptibly in her hand, a flush of heat on her face, small needles dotting her forehead and lower stomach. “Easy come, easy go,” she says, shrugging at Darryl. “You’ll wear it forever,” he says. “This is an investment!”
At home she hangs the jacket and shirt on the closet door, runs her hand down the soft tweed fabric, comes back, does it again.
“This lobster salad is very good. But not as good as the lobster salad sandwiches we used to have at . . .” He names a restaurant they used to stop at getting on and offthe boat to Fire Island. “Do you remember those lobster salad sandwiches?” he asks. “Of course,” she says.
They are in an East Side restaurant, at a banquette, at lunch. A hard to get reservation, on East 63rd Street off Madison Avenue with a woman chef lately in all the magazines. When she met him at his hotel, picked him up in the lobby, she ran into an editor she knew whose eyebrows lifted when he heard where they were going. “I’ve been meaning to get over there. How’d you get the reservation?” he asked. “A telephone call,” the husband says, shrugging, a quizzical look, smiling, shaking hands. “For lunch it’s not so difficult,” he adds. “Shall we go?” he asks, taking her arm.
“Those were the best lobster salad sandwiches I ever ate,” he says. “Here, try this.” He holds out the fork to her. The lobster salad is a rosy pink, not quite as white as the lobster salad she remembers from the days when they were going to Fire Island, getting on and off the boat with the children, bags, diapers, bottles, baby seats, or having left the children with the Jamaican woman, sitting alone together and sharing a lobster salad sandwich and a beer on the dock. Those lobster salad sandwiches were so thick she remembers it was impossible to fit them into her mouth. The lobster dripped from between the two slices of bread onto her clothes. She remembers an army green khaki summer dress she used to own, a pair of white summer pants. She feels a lump of lobster salad fall onto her lap, staining the fabric.
“No thanks,” she says.
She picks up her fork. She has in front of her an arugala and endive salad. A glass of Perrier.
He lays the chunk of lobster salad on the side of her plate. “Maybe you’ll change your mind,” he says. “It’s really good. Not as good as the one we used to have at. . .” He names the restaurant again. “But pretty good.”
He picks up a carafe of white wine, offers it to her. She holds up her hand to gesture ‘No,’ as she places the fingers across the top of her glass. He pours the wine into his own glass, puts it down. There are murals of trees in all four seasons on the walls of the small restaurant. “You look good,” he says. “Thanks,” she says. “How’s your business going?” she asks, although she knows what he will say. “It’s changing,” he says. “I think I’m going to get this next picture off the ground, but the business is changing. And, I’m going to have to make some money to pay for this divorce.” He shrugs and smiles. “What will be will be,” he says.
Halfway through her swordfish she asks, “Have you spoken to Beth?” “Yesterday,” he says. “We have to talk about this. You tell me. I don’t know what to do.”
“I want her to go back to school.”
“She won’t go. I’ve tried. What should I do? You give me a solution.”
“Stop giving her money to live in Europe.”
“I’ve tried. She becomes hysterical. I can’t just leave her with nothing. I have to support her.”
“I never know where she is. Paris? London? Is she starving herself? Who are her friends? She’s always at a party. That’s all she talks about. She’s always just back from the Cannes Film Festival or a villa in Tuscany. If I say anything, she hangs up. Why shouldn’t she? I’m not paying her bills.”
He reaches out and puts his hand on top of hers. “She’s OK.” he says. “She’s in my apartment in Paris. She’s OK. I agree it has to change, but it’s not so terrible. She’s just having a good time.”
“Do you think she’s anorectic?”
“No. Young girls do this. She’s just very thin. It looks good. It’s attractive. The last time I walked down the street with her, I could see heads turn.”
“We don’t agree on this.”
“Please,” he says. “You used to starve yourself.”
“That was then. I can’t talk to her,” she says. “It’s so awful.”
She feels an impulse to cry. She does not intend to do this. She pours a glass of wine. He puts his hand on top of hers, calls her “darling.” With just the slightest motion she could lean down, her head could graze his chest, brush, for just a moment against the cashmere jacket, the striped shirt. She wipes her eyes with her fingers, takes a deep breath. She sees two women watching them from another table, remembers what Mary Jane said, “He can have anyone.” She orders dessert, something called a Chocolate Ganache. He promises her he will speak to Beth. He puts his hand on top of hers, calls her “darling” for the second time. “We can speak to Beth together,” he says.
“Her background was horrible . . . Dickensian,” he is saying, describing the second wife as they walk up Madison Avenue. “She was an orphan. She has a sister, married, living in Canada, a brother-in-law. Nice guy. But that’s it. That’s her family.”
“That’s where you took Adam salmon fishing?” she asks.
“Yes.” He says, “Those are the people. I tried to get her to finish high school,” he says. “I even offered to go with her. But she wouldn’t.”
The sun is shining on Madison Avenue. Yellow tulips are blooming in the boxes outside the restaurant. Mannequins in spring clothing, linen and silk, pose in the shop windows. In the bright sunlight she thinks of the second wife. Does she do anything, she once asked and Kate said “she gives tennis parties.” She sees the second wife in a tennis skirt and visor, hitting a forehand shot, the short skirt flipping above her thighs, on the court with three other women all playing tennis for several hours every Thursday morning while nannies collect their children from nursery school. After the game there would be lunch at a glass table in dappled sunlight and gossip about weight loss, love affairs, the movie business.
“She was very insecure,” he says. “There was simply nothing I could do to help her with that. You know,” he says earnestly, “When there’s early deprivation of that magnitude, so much loss, it’s impossible to make it up.”
“Yes,” she says. “But, for a girl without a high school education she’s not going to come out so badly, is she?”
He laughs, not a full throated laugh, but a low chuckle, as if he can’t make up his mind whether to laugh or not.
“Don’t remind me,” he says. “She’ll be able to buy this street.” There is a gust of wind. He cocks his head sideways, looking at her. “That’s a nice jacket,” he says. They are in the upper 60s now.
“I bought it for this lunch.”
“Did you?” he asks.
“Well, it’s great looking,” he says.
As they turn into the entry of the Whitney Museum she asks, “How much does she want?”
“A lot,” he says.
“What does that mean?”
“More than half of what I have. Much more.”
“How much have you got?”
“What is this? An investigation?” He smiles, tilts his head, but she senses a knife edge of impatience.
“How much? It’s a simple question.”
A shrug, charm, boyishness. “You know,” he says, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”
“Oh come on. Surely you have some idea what you’re worth.”
“No,” he says. ’Ì don’t. I really don’t.”
They are at the desk where a woman with a velvet headband glances at the membership card she’s pulled from her wallet and drops two tin discs into her extended palm. She hands one to him, looks at him, rolls her eyes looking upward as she clips the other to the edge of her scarf.
“Something on your mind? I wasn’t making much when we split up. I gave you what I had. I was broke for years after that.”
“Oh please. I was 32 years old. I didn’t know anything about money. I wanted it over fast. Those were the years of women’s liberation rhetoric. I thought I’d be all right. “They are walking toward the uniformed guard, the words are coming quickly, she feels them coming with a life of their own. “I signed away my community property rights in the state of California. I brought up three kids alone. You’re a rich man.”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” he says. “This is unproductive.” His hands clench at his sides, as if he is holding himself back from hurting her, she thinks. That way of his, that way of standing, arms awkwardly held, elbows slightly bent, the fingers opening and closing, his body slightly turned away.
“You’ve gotten a check every month. Have I ever skipped a month?”
“Lets drop it.”
The elevator doors slide open and they slip inside the carpeted box.
Upstairs the museum purrs with a mid-day, mid-week regularity. Well-groomed women, a group of Japanese students, a thin man in dark blue jeans, a leather jacket and a pony tail, probably French, she thinks, stroll through the galleries. The work of a contemporary painter, young and male, is on view. His first big New York show takes up a floor. They roam through the paintings, large canvases of a sleazy, perverted Los Angeles. Naked men and women are everywhere in strange combinations; women with dogs, naked sisters, mothers with sons, fathers with infants and adolescents. No one is ever where they belong. The pictures are eerie, she thinks, ambiguous and discomforting. They make her anxious. Her fingertips grow cold. A naked man on a lounge chair behind his white stucco house, flaccid penis resting on his thigh, presses his naked 3-year-old baby girl to his bare chest. There are two naked sisters in a bathroom, one squatting over a bidet, pulling a white towel between her legs while the other looks on. A teenage boy stands holding his penis with both hands and masturbating in a baby’s swimming pool. A naked father and son eerily alike, differentiated only by the older man’s baldness and the hair on his chest, sleep in identical positions in a king size bed in an expensive white room. A young boy, hand propped under his chin, hair falling into his eyes, gazes between the straddled thighs of an older woman on the rumpled king sized bed in a generic, contemporary room.
As their heels brush the cement floor she watches him for his reactions, wondering what they’ll be. He is amused by the paintings. He laughs, shakes his head, looks at her, clicks his tongue. They stop in front of a painting of a naked woman asleep, dreaming, stretching seductively, legs splayed, sexually inviting. A younger man, a boy almost, his back in the foreground of the painting, clutches behind him the woman’s stolen purse.
He begins to laugh, a high laugh in a rising register. He laughs and laughs, catches his breath, his fair skin blushes. “Oh God,” he says turning to her. “That is funny. That is really funny. I don’t know whether he’s a good artist or not, but that is hilarious.”
She doesn’t find it funny. She feels an echo of resentment, familiarity, a sorrow for the woman in the painting, offering herself, being robbed. She wants to scold the exposed woman, cover her, tell her to stop behaving stupidly She wants to grab the handbag from the boy and punish him; smack him hard and send him to his room.
What should she say? This is us? This is what we did? This is what we have become. Or should she say, this artist is a man; this is his view? No, she thinks. What purpose would it serve? Why open this box? She clears her throat. “This painter is one of the new wunder-kind,” she says. “Building a career on outrage.” She pauses. “I think the paintings are about the death of family life,” she says.
“Perhaps,” he says, disinterested in discussion.
“All boys feel that way,” he says, still smiling, pointing at the painting.
“Yes you, but all?”
He laughs. “OK. Maybe not all. But plenty. It struck a chord for me.”
“That’s what art does,” she says, aware that she is being the instructor. “It brings things to our attention.”
Outside the museum he leans to kiss her cheek. “It’s been wonderful seeing you,” he says. He stands awkwardly, his slender fingers, open and close alongside him in the familiar gesture. One of the things she found attractive about him when she first knew him was this awkwardness.
“I’m thinking of buying an apartment here,” he says. “So maybe we’ll get to see more of each other.”
“You? Here? How come?”
“Why not? I could use it weekends. I’ve heard of a couple of good buys.”
“I’ll call you about Beth,” he says as she steps into the cab. “We’ll see what we can do?” He shrugs. “Who knows?” he says. “We’ll see.”
An apartment here? Does it have something to do with keeping his money from the second wife? Why else would he want to be here? Can there be any other reason? Does it have anything to do with her? No. Whatever thoughts they had—he or she—of anything between them have shifted. A door has closed. The fantasy was tempting, seductive—but impossible to live. Too much has happened. There are couples who reunite, she knows, but they will not be among them. She wonders why he began calling her—courting her in a way—and decides the failure of this second marriage must have hit him harder even than she thought. He needed to see her again, to settle something inside himself, to view the damage and discover what . . . that she’s still whole?
But an apartment here? She doesn’t feel comfortable having him in the same city. She has grown accustomed to thinking of him on the other side of the country, far away. She doesn’t like the idea of running into him unprepared on the street or in a restaurant and has always avoided people who might tell her they have seen him, spoken to him, heard of what he’s said or done. It’s too close. The news makes her anxious, dries her throat, sets off a lightness in her head. Riding crosstown in the lowering afternoon light, the sun a ball of orange behind the park, she thinks again of the second wife. Divorce puts an end to tennis parties, she thinks. People disappear. Other wives and their husbands drop away from a wife who is no longer married. People reshuffle themselves, resurface on opposite sides of an unbalanced equation. She imagines the second wife in Malibu, on the terrace with her therapist, the therapist s hair grazing the second wife’s shoulder as they lie naked alongside each other, open legs and breasts exposed on a large canvas hanging in the Whitney.