STEPHEN MUSTOE - A DISTANT LIFE
A Distant Life
The packing was nearly complete, the boxes mostly filled. The smell of cardboard and dust hung in the air, mixed with the aroma of fresh-cut grass drifting in through the open window. Somewhere down the block a radio was playing, loud, the Mariners game. Chris Morrison straightened up, stretched, and looked once again at his watch. This was good – they would easily be finished by mid-afternoon, would be ready when his brother Phil showed up with the U-Haul van. It had been several days getting to this point but now, after the yard sale, the many trips to Goodwill, the piling of rejected belongings next to the curb for collection, the end was in sight. The once full house was nearly emptied. He and Jamie had dealt with all the big stuff, now it boiled down to trivial cleanup, gathering the last few unallocated items together, deciding their fate.
They were going through his office now, a rat’s nest best saved till last. He couldn’t help it, he might have been tidy and organized throughout the rest of the house but in his own lair it was chaos. The bookshelves alone had taken most of the morning, struggling with whether to keep or jettison volumes he had not opened for decades. His desk was hopeless; that was Jamie’s job, to figure out which of the bundles of papers were worth keeping, what correspondence needed to be saved, how many pens, pencils, and paper clips his father would need in his new apartment.
He had just bent down, rearranging some paperbacks to make room for a larger volume, when he became aware of Jamie’s voice, speaking to him, asking a question he hadn't caught. Chris straightened up again, grunted a ‘huh?’, and looked over at his son. Jamie was walking his way, a puzzled look on his face, a small manila envelope in his hands. “Uh, Dad, I was wondering what you wanted me to do with these?” Chris frowned, not understanding. His son drew closer, stopped awkwardly a few feet away, and offered the envelope. Confused, Chris accepted the package, opened it, then paused, his breath caught up short, his heart pounding. “Who is she, Dad?” his son queried. “She's really beautiful! Is she Chinese?”
Chris felt his hands starting to tremble, a lightness in his head. He looked around desperately for a place to sit, settled on the ottoman next to the door. It had been years. Decades. He had thrown out all the photos when he and Sara were married. How could he have overlooked these ones? He thought he had obliterated any record of her. His first love. His first lover. The focus of his life for far longer than he wished to admit. The one who still haunted his dreams, leaving him to awaken in tears.
Jamie has gone, leaving him alone with a bottle of Aberlour and an insomniac’s dread of the coming night. The apartment seemed larger when he rented it a week ago; now the few belongings he has brought with him seem to choke the place.
Chris finds a glass in one of the boxes stacked in the kitchen, fills it with a hefty shot of Scotch, and walks to the desk crammed in a corner of the room. He stands there for a few minutes, sipping the whiskey, making up his mind. At last he pulls open the top drawer, takes the envelope in his hand, holding it gingerly as if it were something alive, something menacing. I don’t need to see these, he says aloud. No good will come of it. I just survived one loss, I don’t need to relive an older one.
He feels his pulse start to race, takes another slow sip. Thinks of the old wound, wondering if it has healed, if the years have given him strength. Resilience.
Chris drains the glass, walks slowly back to the counter and fills it to the brim. Returning to the desk, he sits carefully in the worn chair. After cleaning his eyeglasses and adjusting the lamp he takes a deep breath and slips the first print from the envelope. It is going to be a long night.
* * *
It is a group photo. Early spring, 1970. Barren trees in the background. A clutter of boxes, strewn about a small white Ford. In front of the boxes a group of students, three women, two men. He is the third, behind the camera, joking with them. Jan is staring straight into the lens, an impish grin on her face. She will share his room that evening. Jim and Brian have enveloped Kathy, arms linked, lifting her slightly. In the close foreground, commanding the frame, looking at him with a radiant smile, is Amy.
None of them offered to help. They just sat there reading the Globe, pointedly ignoring him as he made the dozen or so trips down the stairs, each time with a box in his hands. So this is it, he thought, this is how they're going to be. He still couldn’t see why it was such a big deal, why it mattered that much to the roommates he thought were his friends. He wasn't abandoning them, not in any real sense. He was just moving out, that was all, relocating barely a mile away. They would still see him in classes, would still get together from time to time. If they wanted to. With a grunt of farewell he carried the last box down to the car.
Jan was waiting when he drove up, along with Brian and Jim. Both were casual friends, fellow émigrés from Winthrop House. It was Brian who had introduced him to the world that waited on the far side of Cambridge Common. A year or so earlier he had taken Chris to Hilles Library, where carpeted floors and a snack bar offered stark contrast to the musty, wooden austerity of Lamont. Soon Chris was making the trek to Radcliffe on his own. He quickly found the experience there far more normal and nurturing than the oddly monastic life the Harvard houses offered. When the long-rumored living exchange became a reality, he had eagerly added his name to the list of hopefuls.
Both Chris and Brian looked forward to living in a world where commingling with women was the everyday norm. Jim, on the other hand, had signed up in hopes of getting laid on a more regular basis.
As he switched off the ignition Chris saw Brian’s girlfriend Kathy hurrying to join them. He smiled, gave her a quick wave. He really liked Kathy. She was upbeat, easy to talk with, either unaware of or ignoring any attraction between them. He envied Brian, would have loved to take his place. Not that Jan wasn’t great, of course. She was cute, quirky. A lot of fun for sure, but not a soul mate or even much of a friend. Their bond was a loosely affectionate, temporary one. A snuggle buddy.
Kathy stopped a few yards away and another girl, shorter, slighter, came out of her shadow. Chris’ welcome stuck in his throat as he looked at the newcomer. Later he would try to dissect his reaction, articulate the elements that caused him to pause and stare. At the moment, though, he was simply overwhelmed. Golden skin, jet black hair, bright eyes that pierced through him. And a smile like none he’d seen before.
Her name was Amy Chen. A freshman from Brooklyn, complete with the accent. Living in Holmes, the dorm adjacent to his new home in Moors Hall. He caught himself staring, made himself look away, toward the others.
He popped the trunk, opened the doors, and started unloading boxes. As the group swarmed around his belongings, gathering them up for the slog to his room on the second floor, he stole a quick glance over his shoulder. Amy had just embraced a box of books, looked up as she turned toward him, and smiled. He smiled back, awkwardly, then hurried with his burden to join the others.
Jan was slouching against him, pleasantly stoned, oblivious to her surroundings. Kathy and Amy sat on the bed across from him, so close in the small room he could easily touch them. Brian had returned to Winthrop for a final night, no one knew where Jim had gone. Chris had opened a bottle of cheap wine, watched as it was passed around, was disappointed when Amy declined. Small talk, sharing backgrounds, experiences, likes and dislikes.
There was an awkward pause after he had gone on too long about himself, trying to be nonchalant while gently embellishing a history he hoped would intrigue Amy. A few seconds of painful silence carried the weight of hours. When Amy spoke he almost leapt, eliciting an irritated grunt from the woman in his arms.
“So where did your parents go to college?”
“I’m the first.”
“Of course you would be, aren't you the oldest?”
“No,” Chris explained, "not the first child. The first in the family. Ever. Dad made it through high school, but mom dropped out in the 8th grade.”
Amy looks briefly stunned, quickly recovers.
“Oh. Well, I'm sure they are smart to have a son like you.”
Amy is sitting at a desk in an alcove of Hilles. His favorite place to study, a tall evergreen just outside the window, the one he would gaze upon whenever homesickness caught him. She is looking up from her textbook, slightly backlit, her eyes locked on his. She is irritated to be caught again by his camera, gives him only a half smile. His Mona Lisa.
Chris waited until breakfast was almost over, until she was about to get up from the table, before he finally had the courage to ask. Would she mind if they studied together tonight? He knew she was a regular at Hilles, he was too, maybe they could go over some of their notes from the history class they were both taking? Prepare for the test later that week? She seemed hesitant at first, then said okay, lets go over after dinner. He watched her walk away as he finished his coffee, trying to hide his delight.
That morning he tried to sit close to her in the huge hall, but she was surrounded by a trio of Radcliffe friends; the best he could do was two rows back and far off to the side. He spent the entire lecture watching her, barely taking notes, fantasizing. Tried his best to focus on the lecturer’s dry delivery, came up empty. Skipped his next class and took a long walk along the Charles, doing his best not to think about her, failing miserably.
Chris deliberately sat far from her at dinner, worried now that he was being too obvious, too intense. Promised himself he would be more casual, indifferent. When Jan asked him his plans for the evening he was intentionally vague, to her obvious disappointment. By the time he had disentangled himself from that conversation Amy was gone. Momentary panic, then he remembered she liked to read the Times every evening, wanted to keep up with events in her home town.
He found her an hour later in the newspaper section, convinced her to follow him to the top floor, to his favorite alcove. It was almost dark but the tree was still visible. They sat side by side, going over her notes at first (he lied and said he’d skipped the lecture that morning). After that they each withdrew to their own reading, sat quietly, inches apart, for what seemed an eternity. Once he looked over at her just as she raised her eyes to look at him. An awkward moment, salvaged by her smile. When she touched his arm and asked if he wanted to take a break, go to the snack bar for some tea, he almost yelled his assent.
Back in the alcove, when she reached over and took his hand, he could barely contain his excitement. And later, at her door, when she gave him a kiss on the cheek, he found her lips in return.
She is standing in Cambridge Common, framed by snowy trees, beaming, showing off her new winter coat. From B. Altman, Manhattan, she had told him proudly, as if he knew what that meant, could grasp the importance. She is dazzling in the late afternoon sun, her smile bright. For him. He holds the photo in his hand long after he has looked away, his eyes closed, savoring the image.
“I told them about you,” she offered nonchalantly. “I don't think my mother was too upset. My father, though...”
Chris reached over to pull her closer, gathering the blankets over them, thwarting the evening chill. His radiator had stopped working weeks earlier, was still cold as a stone. No amount of wheedling had been able to restore warmth to his abode. They could have gone to her room. Should have. Except she was uncomfortable, would rather her floor mates not know they were sleeping together. And he, despite his current discomfort, was happy she had made the choice. He did not want to let her go, did not want there to be empty spaces in their time together. In the few weeks since they became lovers he had watched, helplessly, as his universe realigned itself with her at the center.
His newfound possessiveness bothered him, yet he was unable, or perhaps just unwilling, to do anything about it. He did not want her smile shared with other men, was jealous of her girlfriends when they went off together for a cup of coffee, a biology crib session, without him. It worried him, this reaction, this dark controlling side of him, but he would not stop. He knew that.
“So what did you tell them – exactly?”
“Well... that you were smart. And kind. And from a public school.”
“And that you were a scholarship student. That your father was a carpenter. That you were Caucasian.”
A long pause. She turned so her back was pressed into his chest, snuggled into him.
“Could we not talk about this? Could we just be together?”
Yes, he murmured as he pulled her closer, hoping she could not feel his pounding heart. Yes. Let's not talk.
Amy is standing next to the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument in the far background. People are passing by, as oblivious of her as she is of them. She is wearing a bright blue top, short sleeves, blue jeans, white tennis shoes. Holding her sunglasses so her eyes aren't hidden, flashing her usual captivating smile. May of 1970. Kent State. Cambodia. They are in the capital to protest the latest twists in the gruesome plot called Viet Nam. If he'd had a better camera the scene might have made a post card.
Nine hours, five of them crammed into his Falcon, chipping in to cover the tolls. Bad coffee at the Howard Johnson's on the Connecticut Pike. At last they arrived in Bethesda, a short drive from the Capitol. All of them crammed into Michelle’s parents’ guest room, he on the floor with the other two guys, Amy and Michelle sharing the one bed. His joking met with no success, the two women were committed to being bedmates. He was caught up in the chivalrous sacrifice.
The next day dawned bright yet surprisingly chilly. They split up outside the House offices, each on a mission to confront the representatives of their home state. Chris’ was not in his office, was back in Seattle for some reason. His secretary smiled but clearly had no time to listen to this disheveled, bearded student intent on wasting her time. He gave up, left with her the two-page statement he had carefully worded the night before leaving Cambridge. Walked out in the sunshine wondering what to do next.
After a while he found a bench with a view of the office building, sat and reflected on his day so far. The five had agreed to meet at the entrance to the Senate offices prior to their next lobbying attempt. There was still an hour or more before their rendezvous time. Watching the small groups of tourists pass by Chris felt himself nodding off. Just as he was about to slip into the comfort of a well-deserved nap he saw Amy and Jim, a fellow New Yorker, come down the steps together, laughing. She leaned into Jim, who put his arm around her shoulder. Chris jerked awake, seething. The two spotted him and hurried over, eager to share the positive reception they had experienced, the discussion they had been part of. He listened, glaring at Jim, until Amy took his hand, reached up and kissed him on the cheek. The tension evaporated as quickly as it had arisen. They went off in search of coffee.
They are in Maine, spending a long weekend near Bar Harbor. She is leaning against the back fender of his Falcon, a bottle of Mateus rosé in her hand. Her hair is in a scarf, she hasn't washed it for two days. Her irritation shows through her forced smile; tent camping is not something she will ever do again. The small cabin in the background is more than he could afford, but he would sell his blood, his body, his very soul, to keep her happy.
Sometimes when she smiled it was so broad that she squinted slightly, lifting her eyes to meet his. He loved that expression, the childish aspect, the look of pure joy. He lived for the moments when he could make her happy, eager to accept the favors she might bestow. It seemed he was always searching for the comments he might make, actions he might take that would summon that smile.
“I really don’t see what you find so special about sleeping on the ground,” she said. “I feel stiff and dirty. The only time I went camping before we stayed in cabins. Summer camp. At least we had showers. Don’t you get tired of this?”
Chris started to describe a favorite experience, backpacking in the Olympics, a week alone in the mountains, waking one morning to find a small herd of mountain goats just outside his tent. She had stopped listening, was looking out the window of the Falcon at the trees that lined the narrow road.
“Do you think we could stay indoors tonight? Just this once?” she asked.
Sure, he said, reluctantly. She leaned over, suddenly upbeat, happy, and kissed his neck.
Amy is leaning against the gunwale, smiling with eyes closed, backlit. Salt spray forms a halo around her. In the background, his hand on the wheel, grimly looking straight ahead, her father. The mother and sister hover outside the frame, apart from the image. Jamaica Bay. The last visit. The one that turned his world upside down.
Chris didn't look forward to these visits, wished he had enough backbone to escape them. Amy loved the trips to Brooklyn, chattering happily away on the long drive down the crowded turnpike. And as much as he understood her excitement, as good as it felt to be doing what pleased her, he couldn't find a way to share in her delight. He would be bored listening to her parents updating her on their friends’ children’s accomplishments, describing the goings-on in their close-knit Chinese-American community. About the only thing that made his presence worthwhile was the cooking. Li, the Chen's Szechuanese housekeeper, fixed the most amazing spicy cuisine. He had grown up thinking Chinese food was chow mein and noodle soup. Li took great pleasure in putting dish after delicious dish in front of him, basking in the compliments he heaped upon her.
Today was no different. Whole fish, prawns, peppers, something that looked like eggplant. All delicately seasoned, spicy hot yet not uncomfortably so. And dessert yet to come – coconut ice cream with dense sweet cakes, jasmine tea. Way too much food for a Sunday lunch, Chris thought. He was feeling contented, his guard down, daydreaming. When Amy’s father suddenly spoke his name, angrily, he was caught unaware.
“You must leave Amy alone. We do not want you seeing her anymore!”
Startled, uncomprehending, he looked first at Amy, then at her mother, her younger sister. Amy’s mother was staring at him, no expression on her face. Amy’s eyes were downcast, her sister got up quietly and left the room.
Chris started to say something, was cut off by her father’s gruff interjection. “You must go now. Do not try to see her again.”
Dazed, he got up from the table, knocking over the chair in his haste. He strode angrily out of the room, down the hall to the guest room. Grabbed his small bag and walked back through the dining room to the front door. Not a word from anyone, no sound at all save the pounding of the blood in his ears, the squeak of his shoes on the hardwood floor.
He had unlocked the door, was about to slip into the driver’s seat, when a breathless Li appeared at his elbow. “Take these,” she said, her voice breaking as she held out a paper bag.
Halfway up the Merritt Parkway he reached into the brown paper and pulled out the first of several still-warm steamed dumplings. He snacked on them till the bag was empty, the salt from his tears mixing with the yeasty dough. They tasted like cardboard.
This one is not a photograph. It is large, ornate card, elaborately decorated in Chinese characters and artwork. Glued feathers, gilt script. A note inside, Amy's writing. 'I am so sorry. My father doesn't dislike you. It's just that he wants the best for me. He wants me to be happy.' Then, crowded in at the bottom, clearly inserted as an afterthought, 'You know I love you.'
“Why now? Why did your father feel it was so damned important that I stay away from you?”
“I think he’s worried I’ve become too attached to you.”
“And there’s a problem with that?”
She looked away, gathered her thoughts. When she replied he could tell she was carefully choosing her words.
“He worries we are getting too serious. That I might not be considering other options.”
“Options? What the fuck does that mean?” Then it dawned on him. “You mean other men? Is that what this is about?”
She was quiet, ill at ease. At length she answered, her voice so soft he had to strain to hear her.
“His name is Thomas. Thomas Chen. They were joking about how I wouldn't have to change my name when we got married...”
He looked up.
“I mean, if we get married,” she continued, hurriedly. “His parents and mine are close, best friends. I thought I told you that.”
He turned away, stared through the window, focused on a small branch visible there, defiantly alive against a cold background of brick. Watched it twitch in the breeze. Willed his pulse to stop racing. He was almost sick.
Amy was visibly uncomfortable, got up, moved to the far corner of the room, looking away as well. When she spoke he could barely hear her over the pounding of his heart.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said softly. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
She walked across the room and let herself out, pulling the door shut after her.
Crane Beach, near Ipswich. A freakishly sunny day in early December. T-shirt weather. Amy is barefoot, the hem of her jeans wet from running into the ocean and retreating, over and over again, each time barely missing being splashed by the surf. The wind is whipping her long black hair randomly about her face, a beautiful Medusa without the serpents. She is wearing a red top and a smile.
It was too good to be true, but Chris was willing to take the chance. The forecast that morning called for clear skies and sunshine, balmy temperatures in the high fifties, possibly reaching sixty by the afternoon. Maybe not tropical weather, but a real welcome after the cold and rain of the past few weeks. He quickly found someone to take his shift at the library, convinced a rather reluctant Amy to skip town with him after her morning classes were finished. By the time she emerged from Mallinckrodt he was idling outside, a hastily assembled lunch – sub sandwiches, a bottle of wine – in a paper bag on the back seat.
As the Falcon worked its way up Route 1 to the North Shore, windows cracked open to the breeze, Amy seemed unusually quiet. Oh well, Chris thought, she has a lot on her mind. He tried a few times to coax some conversation out of her, asking about her labs, her upcoming biology exam, but her answers were short and indifferent. He gave up, resigned himself to silently watching as the naked trees slipped past, their shadows stark in the crisp light of the late morning sun.
When they pulled into the parking area at Crane Beach there were few other cars around. Amy headed straight for the ocean, leaving him to catch up, slipping out of her shoes to race into the ankle-deep foam at the edge of the surf. She was like a child playing in the water, staying one step ahead of the incoming waves as they rushed onto the sandy beach, laughing when one caught the cuff of her jeans. Shrieking when a sneaker wave splashed halfway up her torso.
After a while she had had her fill of the chilly water, came running back to him, a smile on her face for the first time that morning. Yes, he thought, this was worth it after all. We’ve had so few good times together lately, so little time at all. Once he felt her frozen feet he offered to run back to the car, grab a pair of his wool hiking socks from the trunk. And lunch, of course. She readily agreed, her teeth chattering slightly as he wrapped his jacket around her.
They found a calm nook among the dunes, sheltered from the wind, where they could feel the warmth of the thin winter sun on their faces. He opened the wine, she accepted her usual token amount. As they were finishing the sandwiches he leaned forward to take her in his arms. She tensed, moved away from him slightly. He was about to ask what was wrong when she turned toward him, a look on her face that caught him by surprise.
“You know we can’t do this anymore,” she spat out. “If my father found out he would disown me.”
“Bullshit,” Chris retorted angrily. “The worst he’ll do is yell at you some more, disparage me some more, make you feel guilty some more. Why do you let him do that?”
“You don’t understand. He’s my father.”
“You’re damned right I don’t understand! Don’t you want to be with me?”
A lengthy pause. She looked away.
“Don’t you?” he asked again.
Amy looked back at him, her mouth set. He couldn’t tell if she was angry or just at a loss for words. He waited.
“I saw Thomas again last week. His family was at our house for Thanksgiving.”
“He told me he loved me.”
Chris felt light-headed, his fingers started to tingle. He took a deep breath in a futile attempt to steady his world. When he spoke his voice caught.
“And what did you say to him?”
Amy looked away again. After a few moments she got up and started walking back toward the car.
This one is a newspaper clipping, small and faded. A photo of a smiling young couple. She is resplendent in an ornate white gown, he looks uncomfortable in his tux. The caption below tells the story. Thomas Chen and Amy Chen were married on some date in some church somewhere in Brooklyn. He is a physician, she is a medical student. The couple will make their home in Manhattan…
His gut clenches, even now, even after all these years. He gets up and refills his glass.
Two years had passed since he last saw Amy, since he last spent anguished moments trying to win her back, convince her to choose him. They were living separate lives now, in very separate worlds, he in Washington, DC, she in med school in New York. Chris had left Cambridge at last, having exhausted his options. He’d chosen the life of a low level bureaucrat, a small cog in the massive machine that was the federal government. A dull job, but one he was lucky to have. He had ignored his future, done nothing with his degree after graduation. Was perversely content to keep working part-time in one of the Harvard libraries just to stay close to her. But a sane man, even a lovesick fool, can only look failure in the eye so many times before giving up.
A quiet Sunday morning, settled in with the Times. He was working his way through the paper, saving the crossword till last, when by chance he skimmed the society section. When he came across their wedding announcement he felt his heartbeat falter. This is it, he told himself. It is finally over. I am free of her now, my life is my own.
He got up and left the room, navigating by rote through his tears, in search of something to dull the pain.
* * *
Chris sets the last photo atop the others. A minute passes, another. He rises suddenly, gathers up the images, walks to the overflowing wastebasket. Catches himself before he lets them drop, turns, his face a pained mask. Carefully he puts them back into the envelope, drops it on the desk, and slips from the room.
* * *
The letter arrived one random afternoon, weeks after he had given up hope. Chris had long since forgiven himself for his foolish impulse, his absurd act of reaching out. He thought he'd gotten away clean. The envelope with the New York postmark, addressed in a painfully familiar hand, destroyed that option. It sat atop a small pile of bills and junk mail, challenging him, screaming to be opened.
He had found an address for Amy, wrestled it from the alumni office, concocting a tale that convinced the keepers of all that should be private to grant him passage back into her world. Most likely a stale datum, a relic almost three decades old. Surely she had moved since then, likely more than once. Chris had written the note more as an act of exorcism than a true communiqué, feeling strangely at ease as he wrote it. It was a symbolic act, a ceremonial effort. He never really expected a reply, had grown somewhat fearful should he receive one.
Her note was short, simple, ambiguous. She was widowed, had been for several years. Thomas had been older than her, his heart a problem. Two sons, both grown, both married. Both doctors like her and her late husband. She recalled Chris fondly – that was the word she used – and would like to hear more from him. She signed the note simply Amy.
He had signed his with love.
* * *
Her voice was still familiar, though a bit deeper, huskier, the Brooklyn accent almost nonexistent. Would he like to come for a visit? Spend a few days in the city, catch up on old times? Yes, he agreed, not pausing to think his decision through, yes that would be nice. They talked a bit more, about logistics, timing. After promising to call as soon as he had his arrival pinned down they said their goodbyes. He waited for her to hang up first, listened for a while to the dial tone before putting down the phone on his end.
* * *
The flight from SeaTac was a morning nonstop, touched down in LaGuardia in mid-afternoon. Plenty of time to find his hotel, get his bearings, prepare for the evening. They were to meet for dinner in midtown Manhattan. He hoped he had packed the proper clothing. New York style was still something he was clueless about.
Chris got to the restaurant early, way early, went to the bar where he could watch the door. He sat nervously sipping his drink, playing and replaying alternate scenarios in his head. He was about to order another when she arrived. He knew right away it was her, even before she turned her face in his direction. Not quite as slender as in college, hair cut short now with a sprinkling of gray, but it was Amy. He was already moving toward her when she recognized him and smiled, the same smile, the one that always made his pulse race, his face flush.
“Chris, it’s so lovely to see you,” she beamed. “You haven’t changed a bit!” Neither have you, he mumbled, suddenly tongue-tied. Perhaps she has changed, he thought, the years have done that to all of us. A few wrinkles, a bit less youthful vibrancy, but she still causes my heart to stir. She is still beautiful. Damned beautiful. He caught himself smiling.
She held out her hand for him to take and it was all he could do to simply grasp it for a moment, to not pull her to him, envelop her in his arms. Instead they stood awkwardly until the maitre d’ appeared and acknowledged their presence. She took his arm as the waiter ushered them to their table.
It was a French restaurant, one of her choosing. Not Chinese, much to his disappointment. The irony was not lost on him. For his birthday, the first after they had met, she had taken him to Chez Jean in Cambridge, several steps in formality above the eateries he had known before. It was an uncomfortable evening; Chris had no idea what to do with the abundance of silverware placed before him, could not read the menu, felt helpless and confused. Tonight, at least, he only felt nervous – definitely an improvement.
He ordered a bottle of Bordeaux, ignoring her protestation that she still didn’t drink much. Maybe you don’t, he thought, but I definitely need a few glasses. He felt the sweat trickle invisibly down the side of his torso, had to clean his glasses more than once. I feel like a goddamned teenager on my first date, he thought – then let an embarrassed smile slip out at the thought. Amy was watching him. She smiled back.
Talk was awkward at first, like an engine sputtering and misfiring, but eventually things evened out to a smooth idle, catching its rhythm on the mundane: his flight, his hotel, how New York had changed since their visits there together in the early seventies. Amy was quick to inquire about his life since they parted; he felt ill at ease discussing its many twists and turns. He talked a bit about Africa, Nepal, Alaska, the places he had visited, lived in briefly. Careers he had begun only to abandon after a year or two. He was suddenly aware that he was rambling, dominating the conversation much as he did when they were together in college. He quickly stopped talking.
Amy was not ready to take her turn, would not let the silence prevail. She asked him about Sara, Jamie, his current life in Seattle. He answered honestly. It had been hard these past few months without his wife, his lover. She was taken from him far too suddenly, no time to prepare for her passing, all he could do was try to adjust to her absence. They had met rather late in life, married in their forties. Jamie was a surprise, a blessing. He had never wanted children, had done what he could to avoid them, yet when their son was born his life took on another dimension And now, with Sara gone, Jamie was the bright spot in his existence.
Chris started to say something else, thought better of it, fell silent again. Amy was absently sipping her wine, barely half a glass gone, while he was starting on his third. A long pause, the silence weighing heavily on both of them. He realized it was now his duty to keep the conversation moving.
“And you, how have you gotten on since Thomas’ passing?”
“I’m doing better, much better. The first few years were difficult. He was such a good man, kind, caring. My best friend. A wonderful father. We had so much in common…” She looked up quickly, apologetically, aware of the pain that might be carried by so innocent a remark.
“Yes, I know what you mean,” he said, trying his best to smile. “You were very lucky to meet someone like Thomas. You two were made for each other.” He couldn’t help but inject a bit of venom into that last remark. She noticed, wincing ever so slightly. At once he was embarrassed, apologetic. “I mean, I’m happy you found someone with whom you had so much in common, who could give you the support you needed in your profession, in rearing your family.” He knew he was making things worse, wished he could just shut up. But it was too late. Chris felt he was observing the two of them from some point high on the restaurant wall, watching himself behave poorly yet powerless to do anything about it. Out of body. Detached. He fell silent again, took another sip of the wine.
Their entrees arrived, and they were mercifully spared further conversation, thankful to have full mouths. When they did resume it was once again about the trivial, the everyday. Had he been back to any Harvard reunions? Did he ever see Brian? Was she still in touch with Kathy? With Michelle? How was Carol, her sister, doing? By the time dessert was served they were chatting like neighbors who have been apart a few weeks, carefully avoiding anything that might stir the emotional pot.
Chris picked up the check, asked if he could accompany her in the cab to her place on the Upper West side – then, realizing it was the wine talking, tried to rescind the offer. She just laughed and declined, but invited him to see her for dinner tomorrow at her place. It will be Chinese, she added, a knowing gleam in her eye.
There was never a longer day. He woke early, skipped breakfast at his hotel, opting to stroll the avenues until he found just the right greasy spoon. Eggs over easy, hash browns, thick coffee, served by a huge Greek with heavy stubble and a minimal command of English. Spent the morning exploring the park, the afternoon in a few museums, bookstores, anywhere that would make the time pass quickly, unnoticed. Six o’clock found him ringing the bell to her apartment, a bottle of chilled chardonnay tucked in his arm and a strange fluttering in his chest.
Dinner was delightful, a collection of delicacies from all over China, mostly cold, though she warmed a few dishes in the microwave first. When he complimented her on her cooking, she awkwardly admitted it was all takeout, carefully selected from several favorite spots in Chinatown. She still did not know how to cook, that was always Thomas’ special talent.
Tonight she was drinking one glass of wine after another. They quickly finished the bottle he had brought and she pulled out a riesling that had been chilling. It was too sweet for him; he sipped sparingly, but she relished it. Soon she was tipsy, then downright drunk, having to carefully articulate her words. He had never seen her inebriated before, was uncomfortable with the spectacle.
Once the riesling was gone they adjourned to the sofa, where she snuggled next to him. He could not help himself, found his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. She burrowed in even closer. Soon she was snoring softly. He sat there for what seemed an eternity, finally woke her. “Amy, I think I should be going now.” She looked up at him, startled, then held him tighter. “No, stay with me. Please? Just this once?” Chris fought back the panic that was rising in his gut, softly agreed. He got up carefully from the sofa, took her hand, and led her back to the bedroom.
It was no good. They undressed, crawled under the sheets, began to caress each other. She stopped, sat upright, sniffling softly. “I just miss him so much. It isn’t the same. I wish you were him, but you’re not. I’m so sorry.” He held her a while, as sniffles turned to sobs then back again. When she was calm he gently laid her down on the sheets, covered her with the blanket, and went out to sleep on the sofa.
The next morning he was awake well before she was, found some crusty instant coffee in an ancient jar, had two cups before he heard her stirring. She walked out of the bedroom looking the worse for wear, puffy eyes, wrinkled brow. He offered her a cup but she declined; she was a tea drinker, of course, he should have remembered. Amy filled the kettle, put it on the stove. Sat in the chair farthest from him.
“I really don’t think we should try to see each other again,” she said. He silently agreed. He didn’t think she even noticed he was wearing the robe, Thomas’ robe, that he’d found hanging in the bathroom.
Chris took his time getting dressed, wanting to prolong his departure as much as possible, but at last he was finished. He retrieved his coat from the closet, folded it over his arm, and walked toward the door. As he was about to leave she rushed back into the bedroom, returned with a small envelope and thrust it into his hands. “Please – don’t open this until you are back home in Seattle,” she said, a hint of urgency in her voice. He agreed. They kissed goodbye chastely.
Once on the street he began walking downtown, through the park. It was too nice a day for a cab and he desperately needed time to work away his confusion, to put the night before in perspective. Well before he had reached 59th Street he was calm, accepting. Resigned.
The plane had just reached cruising altitude, the seat belt light winked off. As Chris reached into his bag for the novel he’d picked up the day before his hand fell on Amy’s envelope. Oh hell, he thought, I might as well see what she has to say. Probably a polite goodbye. More likely a ‘don’t call me I’ll call you’ note. He ripped open the paper sleeve and pulled the contents out into the bright light from the plane’s window.
It is an old photo, tightly cropped, the color fading. The two of them on the steps of what must have been Widener Library. He is bearded, his hair nearly as long as hers. They are holding each other tightly, smiling into each other’s eyes, oblivious to the world. He does not recall the photographer, but what has been captured is almost too painful to countenance. He catches his breath, feels the tightening in his throat.
Wrapped around the photo was a small sheet of paper, folded once. He opened it, held it close so he could make out her small, delicate handwriting.
It was wonderful seeing you again. Being with you brought back so many good memories. Though we could never have had a life together, you must know that you will always have a special place in my heart.
He carefully folded the note back around the photo, tucked both away inside his bag. Looked out at the clouds passing below, felt the tears welling. Closing his eyes, he embraced the steady low throbbing of the engines as the big jet hurtled westward, away from a painful past, carrying him home. For the first time that morning he smiled.
She had signed it with love.