By PETER ORNER
Always hard to believe the ways details vanish. Even what John Cheever once called the marvelous skulduggery of illicit love, time chips away and scatters, and what you’d thought would be seared for life? Reach for it, it’s gone.
We were still in our 20s though she was already married, a weird novelty. My first conflict with that specter: husband. Society’s great, dull bulwark. We met at another wedding. She was a friend of the bride’s. I was an old roommate of the groom’s. The husband hadn’t joined her. I’d come alone also. We were both in the wedding party and had been assigned to walk down the aisle, arm in arm. She wore a lemon dress. It was my first time in a tuxedo. We got drunk and happy and a lot drunker and a lot happier.
We ended up, as you do in Chicago in July: in Lake Michigan. I think of the dark water, that glorious floating, her dress like a little parachute blooming. Stumbled back to someone’s room, hers or mine, I wasn’t sure. Woke up to the open blinds, afternoon light. On the floor, the sandy wreckage of our respective uniforms. We’d missed breakfast. We’d missed brunch. We’d missed the bride-family versus groom-family softball game. Another bridesmaid was pounding on the door. Must have been her room. Bridesmaids are indentured servants, serfs. Groomsmen get drunk. Easy to say now that we were in our 20s and didn’t have a clue. Fact is we were already making plans.
“Remain here,” she said.
“I’m rooted to these sheets,” I said. “Where are the sheets?”
I slept. She came back a couple of hours later and fell asleep next to me in her clothes. At some point I woke up and gave an impassioned speech about fate and destiny to the hotel-room ceiling. I toasted Mr. Marriott for bringing us together. She slept through it. She was small and blond and wore big glasses. When she was awake, she laughed a lot. She already had a master’s degree. She spoke Basque to her grandmother. She subscribed to the Utne Reader. What more did I need to know?
She lived in St. Louis. I lived in Boston. She worked for an accounting firm and traveled a lot. Three months later she came to Massachusetts for work. I remember this. Walking very slowly, as slowly as possible, down the corridor toward her hotel room. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled. She must have felt my presence because she opened the door and saw me and laughed and got down on her hands and knees and crawled my way. Had it not been for a startled maid and her big cart of sundries, we’d have torn each other to nothing out there in the corridor.
Things get hazier. The single bed in my dog meat apartment in Allston. Her putting lotion on her feet. A walk in Boston Common. Milkshakes at J.P. Licks? A rented car and a drive down the Cape to a bed-and-breakfast. How easily she laughed. A kindness in her always wet eyes. Tears waiting all the time, though I never saw them drop. Her braininess. The fact that she paid with her corporate credit card because she knew I had no money.
I was working at the Cambridge Y.M.C.A. on Mass Ave, in the after-school program. I played Ping-Pong and yelled at little kids. And I was writing short stories. She read a couple of them and laughed though I can’t imagine I was trying to be funny. My aim was extreme solemnity. I wanted everything, even then, to be a dirge. But everything delighted her. The clam shack by the Bourne Bridge. Boiled clams were hilarious. Drinkable embryos! At one point, I remember, in the Common, I showed her the statue Robert Lowell wrote about in “For the Union Dead.” I said, Come and live with me. I watched myself. I was gallant. I pulled her close with my poor, artistic hands. In the Cheever story, the guy’s a jewel thief who meets a woman on a cruise. So I worked in day care. Did this mean I couldn’t be a hero?
“In Boston?” she said.
“Technically I live in Allston, which is an independent entity, but it’s also part of Boston.”
“So it’s a neighborhood?”
“Yeah, but sort of more. It’s hard to explain. It’s a little like Kosovo.”
“Or Vatican City.”
“Exactly. Allston’s like Vatican City.”
We walked on, hand-in-hand, swinging arms. I wasn’t going to press the issue, what was obvious was obvious. It had everything to do with time. How you didn’t notice it. How you didn’t even need it. Could be 3 in the afternoon, could be midnight. I remember the silence of the drive back from the Cape. I remember the milkshakes. I remember walking backward, again, very slowly, doing a little backward shimmy, down the same hotel corridor as she stood at her door like an actress, wagging at me with her index finger. A beckoning and goodbye at the same time.
Two weeks later she called. Her husband, she said, was on the line as well. They both had something to say. She wanted to make clear that there wasn’t going to be any more to this. That we’d had our time together. She had no regrets. Did I understand? No more phone calls at work, no more letters sent to work. The husband spoke up: “You all right with this?” His voice was pleasant and considerate. “Look, it’s cool. I know she’s awesome.” She laughed a quick laugh, but stopped. She asked if I wanted to say anything. I said I didn’t think I did.
Part of me wants this to be a sad recounting, not a pathetic one, but I see I’m failing. I’m trying to stay close to the facts as best as I can remember them, but as I say, facts disintegrate. For days, weeks, I mourned around the city. I rode the T and read. I went to work. I shouted at kids to line up for snack. “If you guys don’t line up, there will be no snack, period.” At night, in Allston, I considered the nature of self-pity, how it’s not unlike masturbation in the sense of how satisfying it can be in the short term. And the long term is just a linked chain of short term after short term. Then I’d die.
A few years ago I found myself teaching, briefly, in St Louis. This was at Washington University. (It’s neither here nor there, but my mother had long thought that my life would have turned out better if only I’d been accepted to Wash U for college. She was quite proud that at last I’d made it as a visiting professor.) I thought about calling her or sending her a message. All I had to do was reach out to my friends, the ones whose wedding we met at and who were still together, and ask how to get ahold of her. But it felt more like an obligation to a defunct emotion than something I actually wanted to do.
Still, maybe I’d run into her buying groceries at Schnucks or we’d both be pumping gas on the same island. I’d sit across from her at a cafe and listen to her talk. I’m always interested in the way people edit the details of their lives, the way they compress all the years into sentences.