Published in Playgirl Magazine, 1987
Kate goes to do the dishes again, grateful to escape the noise from the other room. Rock music. Her children's voices. She presses her belly against the sink and makes the suds rise with foam. Her hair will soon be the same color as the foam, she notices. She'll be 50 in two years.
What she feels now is a kind of dizzy heat that comes right up out of the middle of her body, the way volcanoes come right up out of the middle of the earth. Sometimes she thinks of herself as a volcano, a human volcano, about to erupt and cough black smoke.
She has a bad temper, her children tell her. She hears her own voice rising often, as she yells at them. But what else can she do, when there's a football left on the hall table? Clothes unwashed? Nothing ever gathered from where it was discarded on the fuzzy rug? And always the heat comes, rising out of herself, making her damp and dizzy, making her voice rise.
So she presses her belly against the sink, watching the soapsuds which are almost the color of at least some of her hair. And the question has been at the back of her mind for years.
Is this all?
Someone once told her an interesting bit of gossip--that some famous woman had asked that after her first night with a man.
You mean this is really a ll? Isn't something else supposed to happen?
She's grateful to be alone in the kitchen, escaping the noise from the other room, angry voices, the beat of music, the debris of dinner. There are mounds of dishes stacked before her. The suds die beneath her touch, leaving a thin gray scum on the water. Her shoulders shake with her own, irritable heat.
The advertised pleasures of middle-and-then-old age suddenly seem very stupid to her. Retirement. Grandchildren. Somebody else's babies, indolent and pink and smelling of talcum.
My children will probably never have babies anyway, she thinks. Children have changed in this generation. The bomb. Television. Small wonder.
Her belly pressed against the sink, Kate stops and breathes deeply and laughs at herself, glancing into the pane of the darkened window.
A woman with hair the color of soapsuds, 50 in two years, laughs back at her. On the sill is a yellow poppy. One of its petals falls suddenly into the dishwater and lies there, a yellow velvet tongue; for an instant the floating petal seems unbelievably alive. As it falls and glides into the water she too feels suddenly alive; she fills with gladness as she lifts it out delicately, thanking whatever made its brilliance and its beauty, thanking whatever made it fall.
Alfred, waiting with the children in the other room, is also laughing at himself. It's impossible to deny what's happening to him, but why he desires this particular woman and only her is a mystery he can't explain, not even in the paternal inner voice he uses when lecturing himself. It's only happened, something that he can't explain, or lecture on, or be clear, cold, paternal to himself about. Kate. Kate and no other. Away from her he feels disenchanted, bored. With her, although not soothed, some itching inward hunger is appeased.
But Alfred has never been a man who can't explain things to himself. He's a successful architect at 38; a bachelor in a North Shore town. There have always been women for him since he was very young and they let him take them to dances wearing tulle gowns that resisted his touch like built-in chaperones. Now there are Long Island mermaids with straight sun-bleached hair; there are exotic New York City flowers with black eyes and grasping ivory hands. He has even discussed them with her sometimes, soliciting her advice, pretending to take it all quite seriously.
"This woman likes me, Kate. What should I do?"
"Oh, whatever you do, don't hurt her," she always says, automatically treating all his girlfriends like adopted daughters. Perhaps she even thinks of her own daughter with him--the girl is almost old enough.
But he was friendly with her husband before the divorce, and this desire must have always been there, subtly, first as a kind of jovial envy, then later as something more.
"Oh, don't hurt her, whatever you do." Would she say this even if he told her that he's been thinking about herself?
"I like this girl, Kate."
"Girl? I've got three children. But whatever you do . . ."
Sometimes they spend long evenings together, quietly drinking beer, sitting around her house while the children go out, which they do now most of the time, banging the doors, shouting as they leave.
A football abandoned on the hall table, the boys' things everywhere. The daughter, though, at 17 has already become a calm witch, hiding billet-doux and perhaps birth control pills in the folds of her punky garments, leaving no clues to her existence besides a vague cloud of sensuality, like a spoor, to let her mother know how and when she comes and goes. At this point, she, or somebody, Alfred notes, has left a bra on a living room chair.
"Stone rot! Damn," Kate says now, wiping her hands on her jeans. No vague spoors for her. "I never even knew stone rot existed."
She bends to switch the record on the stereo from the Ramones to Joan Armatrading. "Get this out of here," she murmurs, doing so, talking to no one in particular.
"What is it?"
"Joan Armatrading." Kate curls in the brassiere-festooned armchair and taps her thigh to the rhythm of this new music, which she likes.
"I meant stone rot. What is it?"
"Oh. It's on the statues." She looks over at the statues which line the mantelpiece about the empty grate. For some reason, Graves, her husband, neglected to remove them when he left; he had taken almost everything else of value that could be carried out of the house. Perhaps he already knew about the stone rot. In any case he has left the statues for Kate and she loves them. They're Indian statues; wonderfully full-breasted goddesses frozen in dance, pairs of lovers gazing slyly out at artist and observer like mating birds. She has decided to sell them only out of desperation, which finally arrived on the heels of Graves' last, inadequate check.
"They're no good, you see. They're worthless. I can keep them until they fall apart. It's apropos." She laughs briefly. "Apropos really, I mean. We stole them, Graves and I. Almost as if we had sneaked into the temples ourselves in the middle of the night and carted them off. What we really did, however, was to buy them with green American dollars from a merchant of ill repute. We knew it was illegal to even think of taking them out of India. We took them anyway. Wrapped, if I remember, in my underwear."
He looks at the face of an Assamese Buddha, svelte and wise-eyed and astute, which has come to its fatal nest on her mantelpiece through a series of thefts; she follows his eyes.
"I feel like one of them," she says.
"Right. That one looks just like you."
"I mean because of the stone rot. That's what I mean. I almost blew it when I was doing the dishes just now."
But she remembers the petal and she smiles, sipping her beer. At this moment she looks happy, or at least relaxed; her hair is in her eyes, her shirt is loose and slightly soiled.
"Alfred," she says. "You're working too hard."
Alfred is a short, haggard, handsome man with hollows under his eyes, the result of perpetual overwork. He tried once, briefly, to live with a woman, a mercurial bright writer who had resented him staying up till all hours drinking cognac and working; much, he images, as Kate must have resented Graves working 18 hours a day. All for a few tall ugly buildings with their names on them. Or rather, the name of their firm. For Graves there had been a few years in Asia as well, being made much of in a jungle city, designing skyscrapers that didn't fit and air-conditioning systems that didn't work., buying stolen carvings.
"You're right. I am working too hard."
"Bane of man's existence. Look at me. I don't work at all. That's why we're so damned poor."
"Doesn't Graves send money?"
She shoots him a look. Her eyes are black and as slanted as the eyes of the stone Buddha. Her body, too, is elongated, like the Buddha's body; gently curved. She hasn't aged at all, he thinks, except for her long dark hair which now turns gradually gray, a tide of silver washing down from the roots. Beside her he feels little and square.
"Kids coming back soon?"
"God knows." She presses the glass against her right temple. "I think I'm becoming an alcoholic." Opening her eyes, she gazes at it, expressionless. Norwegian beer. God. A beeraholic, I mean."
"I want you."
He says it softly, trying hard not to sound ridiculous. For a moment, his stomach tightening, he wonders whether she has even heard.
She waits what appears to be a long while.
"What do I say now?" she asks at last, breaking the silence.
"You say, 'Why Alfred, so do I.'"
"With the kids coming back any minute?"
"There's always a motel."
"For heaven's sakes, Alfred. A motel?"
"I'm saying no. Don't think it's because I don't like you."
"Why did you think I kept coming over here?"
"Really? I had a different impression. You know. Friendship? Warmth?"
"Of course it's friendship. And warmth. Of course."
"And anyway, I'm too old for you. Didn't you know I was old enough to be your mother?"
"My mother is sixty-six years old. A very nice woman, but nothing like you. I'm thirty-eight, by the way. You were ten when I was born."
He smiles. The smile is characteristic of him, she thinks; a self-deprecating shrug, a down-drawing of his lips.
"We're such interesting beings, aren't we." Her glass empty, she reaches behind herself for the bottle, left opened on a table. "Sometimes I just wake up in the morning and I say to myself, 'Human beings. Human beings.' You know, the way you talk about children who've been bad? I mean myself too, naturally. I'm one of them." She pours and swallows foam.
"I should hope so. Would you like me to leave?"
Awkward with him now, in the brightly lit, disordered room, she also feels that if he goes away he might never come back. Fear washes down with the drink. Nine percent alcohol, this beer. Mild but very effective.
"You think it's you," she says to her glass. "You think I'm rejecting you."
"I don't know."
"Oh, sure. What's happened is very different. Changes come. You feel suddenly that you could never again be involved in any of the ordinary things. All you're interested in are the things no one else notices. The rest seem foolish, almost frivolous. You push them aside."
"What about your kids, Kate? Do you push them aside too?"
"There's not so far I can push them. They keep me going, you know? But still--how can I put it?--they still don't pull me all the way back. I don't seem to care any more about what other women care about. Or men, for that matter. Love affairs. Money. None of it."
"You worry about your hair turning gray."
"I comment on it. It's different."
He reaches up and kisses her. She worries, while he's pressing himself against her, that one of the children will come into the room and catch them together. She smells his shaving lotion, she smells his skin. She feels vaguely repelled, but at the same time an ache fills her chest and she wants to hold him, the way she might want to hold an infant or an animal.
And the fear goes, not because of drinking.
"It's all because of the way it ended with Graves," he explains heavily when he lets her go. "It's always hard to start again. But you're going to have to do it. That's living, Kate. With me or with someone else."
She doesn't answer.
"I hope with me," he says.
She doesn't answer. She sits there, in silence, letting him think what he wants to think.
Kate, in the rain, wishes it were true.
Sometimes, now, when she walks down roads alone, she looks into other people's windows. She watches families sitting down around their dining room tables, parking in their living rooms before huge color television sets. It's been months since she sat down at a well-laid table with her own children. She was once very concerned about it all; about the Belgian linen and the German china and the French crystal glasses. Now all of it has gone. She has only what's left of the children before they quit the house for good. The shell of her home. The carvings, slowly dissolving with their mysterious and irrevocable rot.
At first it felt like a penance, this difference from everyone else in the he world. She remembers when it first happened, the first winter of her aloneness, which left her stunned and breathless.
I'm alone, she had thought. And even later, when she made friends with other women like herself, new women different from the friends she had made in the thick of her marriage and her earlier schooling, she had still thoughth, everybody's alone. We're all alone. All the rest is make-believe, is sham.
This awareness, which had first come to her as pain, now feels like a source of strength and freedom. It has become the center of herself, the core. But she never speaks of it to anyone. She's afraid her kids know it too well anyway. And there's no one else to share it with, no one who isn't frightened by it, even her new woman friends. No one who doesn't shy away.
Kate loves the rain, especially after days of sunshine. It's a pause, a punctuation. The heat is temporarily held at bay, held in by a thick gray fence of fog, which floats in from Long Island Sound. Few people venture out. She wears her oldest jeans, a shabby raincoat. Her hair and feet get wet.
Alfred lives in a beautifully proportioned gatehouse, far more presentable than her own. Inside, on the whitewashed walls, he has hung a collection of Navajo rugs and baskets, probably as priceless as her Indian carvings once were. Men like Alfred and Graves always seem to have precious things around themselves, as part of their style and charm. She doesn't trust it any more; she could never possibly trust it again.
Her hair drips, and when she comes through the door the first thing he does is to offer her a towel.
"Have you been thinking about me?" he asks, helping her mop her hair, worrying (she thinks) about the water stains on his parquet floor and antique rugs.
"Anything you want to say?"
The rugs saved, he begins to make tea, a homey innocuous drink for a wet day.
"What do you want, anyway, Alfred?" Her voice is very low.
"You're a beautiful woman, Kate. Still very beautiful. People must have told you, all your life."
"Not so often, lately."
Alfred fiddles with the teapot, trying to make up his mind to be honest. "I've never really been sure of loving anyone. Thought I was, sometimes, but never been sure."
"I'm sure you don't love me," she says softly. When he asks, as she knew he would, "Why not?" it's easy for her to respond, "Because I don't think human love, or any love, is quite as simple as wanting to be in bed with someone else's body."
"What an awful way of putting it." His disapproval shows in his face. He believes in the body; he believes in touch and the honesty of the senses.
"I don't know if I could, any more. Want someone so much, I mean." She looks at him, wanting to be understood.
"I think it's wrong for you not to start living again." Again he becomes all brisk and knowing. "You can't mourn your marriage forever." He pours tea.
"It's not the marriage. Oh, no. Not at all."
She hesitates for a moment. Then, making a quick decision, she pulls her shirt over her head and stands, her eyes closed. He looks at her for a few moments. The tea grows cold.
How odd it is, he realizes later. The thought of it might have made him ill if someone had told him about it, but after the first shock, the reality is very simple. It's almost like the body of a boy. Not even any particularly ugly scars, just two small cuts in her chest, two lines, well-healed. Her chest seems like the chest of an Amazon woman, except the Amazons, he remembers, had at least one breast, and Kate has none. No breasts at all.
"And so you mourned," he says to her softly, after some time.
It turns out to be the right thing to say. She opens her eyes.
"And in your mourning you turned away from men. From Graves, and then from everyone."
"No. It was Graves who turned away from me."
But he himself has managed to say the right thing, and she can sit now, gingerly, her chest still bare, watching him from the sofa. He makes no movement towards her, but he takes her hand. She sits quietly, expressionless an calm as someone who inhabits a cold star, all alone.
"I'm here for you now," he says after a while. "The worst is over."
"Oh. Is it?"
She leans back against the sofa, trying not to feel, again, the fear that has filled her almost all the time. His voice is too soft, seductive.
"They give you five years," she decides to say. She measures her words. "Five years to watch and wait. At the end of that five years, if you're all right, then it may be over. But not before that."
"How many more do you have?"
They both sit still, thinking about that.
Well, he thinks. I've always loved a challenge.
She slips her shirt back over her head. "That's the first time I've ever done that," she says, safe again inside its folds.
And he, who has never felt certain about loving anyone, feels, for the first time, certain. And why this woman, why this one and no other? For a moment, during a brief, quiet flash, he feels that he, too, inhabits her empty distant planet, her cold star. Removed from ordinary things.
Human beings, he thinks. Human beings.
He bends towards her, reaching out gently, wondering whether he doesn't even somehow admire her too much; she, after all, is the one whose wounds are at least visible, identifiable, real. Whereas he has felt this distance all his life, and with no first cause, no outward scars. And he has not, until this moment, known.