Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Profiles in String 22

Again with the late night. 38455 words. I have listened compulsively to the Jane Eyre soundtrack, for hours on end. I will be a bit crazy by the end of November.



Every part of Emma’s bedtime routine that evening was managed very carefully. I was meticulous in caring for her feet. I smoothed and folded and hung every item of clothing. I stalled and fussed until I felt ready to go out and face Martin coolly.
He was sitting quietly in the very center of the couch, hands resting on his knees. I sat with ladylike poise in the very center of the cushion to his right and folded my hands in my lap.
“How are you?” he asked, neutrally.
“I’m well, thank you,” I replied.
“I’m glad to hear you say that. Earlier you called yourself a leech, which seemed to suggest that something was bothering you very much.”
I flushed. “I suppose I didn’t really mean it.”
“I’m glad to hear that as well,” he continued, looking directly at me with this new and dangerous reserve. “It troubles me that you would treat yourself as caustically as you treat me.”
“I don’t...” I swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
“Why would you consider yourself a leech?”

“I have no job. I don’t support myself. I’ve never supported myself. I’m tied to my family’s apron strings, just like I’ve always been. It’s as if I’m still a child, depending on my parents’ generosity and my meager allowance. I have an impractical degree and a handful of useless accomplishments, none of which move me any closer to being self-sufficient.”
“I’ve never seen you do anything useless.”
“That’s because you always seem to catch me at my most pragmatic. Do you know I took ballet until I was twelve? I even danced in pointe shoes once or twice. I can play most of ‘Fur Elise’ by heart. I broke the grade-school jump rope record for number of skips while singing ‘Cinderella dressed in yellow’. You can see that I’m set to go far in life.”
“And you think that it’s worthless to have spent time learning these things? It seems to me that these useless accomplishments and your impractical degree make you a fascinating and well-rounded person to spend time with.”
“Then perhaps I should consider supporting myself by running a literary salon and turning tricks on the side.”
“You’re being acid again, Emma.”
“A lot you care!” I blazed. “You make a great deal of money, Martin. You come and go as you please. For you to sit here lecture me about being content with my financially negligible talents is as infuriating as listening to the college professors who used to pontificate about how I was too focused on getting perfect scores to the detriment of my education. Maybe they were right, but it was also unhelpful when they were the ones assigning the grade.”
There was a pause, and I dared to cast a sidelong glance at him. He was regarding me with a fixed and indecipherable expression.
“I’m not free,” he said softly, but in his voice some indefinable emotion smoldered. “I can’t come and go as I please. You think you’re confined by your inexperience? Your horizons are open. What do you have to reproach yourself about? That your parents love you? That you’ve freely taken on a heavy responsibility and spared your family a great deal of expense? You speak as if these were shameful things. You don’t know the first thing about  how heavy remorse can be. It’s as if you were to go through life dragging an anchor permanently fastened to your soul. Is that what you would wish for yourself? To be chained forever to some fleeting pleasure of the past?”
“That’s precisely what I want to avoid: becoming some fleeting pleasure of your past. “
“I’d like to know what you mean by that,” Martin asked. He had grown very white.
I sat very straight and studiously considered my hands  and let my words spill out in one rush. “It’s not true that you’re more eager to see me than I am to see you. Your opportunities for amusement are often and varied. What do you know about the relentless boredom and loneliness of this house? All day I see no one, talk to no one, touch no one, but Emma -- except on the days you waltz in, and suddenly everything comes to life again. But it’s never serious with you, and one day you’re going to become tired of this little flirtatious diversion and seek greener pastures without the inconvenience of crazy old aunts or their shrewish caregivers. If I let myself get too emotionally invested in this unequal relationship, what will be left for me when you go? Beggars can’t be choosers, but I don’t want to put myself in the position of choosing to beg.”
He stood stiffly, as if every joint in his body ached, and looked down at me as I huddled on the couch in misery.
“I guess I lack your natural caution, Emma,”he said bleakly.  Then he turned and walked out of the room, and I heard the front door open and softly close.

I was sick with anticipation all the next day, but Martin didn’t call. I left the door unlocked until 11:00 at night, but he didn’t breeze in and throw himself into a chair. The emptiness of that day stretched into the next, and the next, and each moment I waited with strained nerves for a step in the front room or the jangle of my phone. Emma and I wandered the house, circling each other in the kitchen or browsing at opposite ends of the library. She could sense my agitation, and finally in my wretchedness I began to speak to her as the only other sentient being in the house.
“Aunt Emma, do you remember Peggy Harriman’s nephew Martin?” I asked her as she stepped from one book in the library to the next. “He’s a nice young man, do you remember?”
“That nice young man?” said Emma. “What’s he up to these days?”
“That’s just it: I don’t know,” I confided, following her as she ran her fingers along the spines of her oldest companions. “He left, Emma. I was unkind, and he left, and I don’t know if he’s coming back.”
“Sometimes they don’t come back, honey,” she said understandingly. “How long did you wait? Ten years? Fifteen years?”
“He was here five days ago, Emma, and he won’t call or come over. I was hurtful, and he left.  I know I’m too sharp. I say these things, and even as I say them I realize I’m drawing blood when I only mean to prod a little.”
“Oh, I was a one for speaking my mind,” Emma reminisced. “I used to tell Howard what I thought, believe me! You can bet I threw him out on his ear, and I don’t know but he deserved it.”
“Martin didn’t deserve it,” I mourned. “Emma, I was wrong.”
“He was wrong,” she snapped. “Taking my books, like that!” She slammed a pile on the table, and began whipping through them.
“Martin didn’t take your books, Emma,” I cried desperately. “You’re talking about Howard So what if Howard stole books? If Martin wanted anything of mine, I’d give to him freely. You should have given Howard the books. Why would you let him go?”
“He stole my books!” she shrieked at me. “They were mine, and he sold them! For what? A chintzy little trinket, a cheap hotel room, a kiss? My own husband, tasting like her perfume, drunk on her kisses, smelling like her touch! My books, for some hussy who could barely read! You can imagine I told him what I thought. He didn’t dare show his face in my library again, or hers either.” She stacked her books vindictively.
I leaned against the bookcase under the weight of my whirling thoughts. “Emma, are you saying that there was another woman?”
She laughed scornfully. “There’s always another woman, honey,” she informed me as she swept out of the room.
I crossed mechanically to the table and sat woodenly. There on the table was China Court, a gift from Howard to Emma. What had he thought in 1961 when he’d chosen this for her? Was the book a gift with some deeper significance? Was he trying to allay suspicions or keep them from developing? I pulled out the photo of Howard and examined it closely, staring at it in a vain attempt to illuminate his personality and their marriage, until the black and white shadows blurred into Rorschach blots in the fading light of evening.
That night I put Emma down early and sat watching the moments tick away on the little clock by my bedside table. 8:05. 8:12. 8:17. 8:23.  The second the minute hand clicked on 8:30, I took my phone in hand, took one deep breath, and dialed Martin’s number.
The phone rang four times, and then he said, “Emma.”
“I know why Howard left,” I said.
He didn’t speak.
“It did have to do with the books. He was stealing them. He wanted the money because he was keeping a mistress. She caught him, I don’t know how. She mentioned perfume and trinkets and cheap hotel rooms. So she told him exactly what she thought of him and threw him out, and he didn’t come back.”
“Did she want him back?” he asked.
“I don’t know. She said that she spoke her mind, and he probably deserved it, and that he didn’t dare show his face in her library again.”
“Was she angry because he was cheating, or because he sold her valuable books for money to buy such low-brow pleasures?”
“You’re becoming as cynical as me, Martin.”
“There doesn’t seem to be much chance of you becoming as easy as I am.”
There was silence.
“I speak quickly,” I said, speaking slowly now in order to fight past the lump in my throat, “and I don’t weigh the consequences of my words. I mean to be biting, but I wound. But I do not deliberately strike at the vulnerable, if I know that there is vulnerability. I was wrong to say what I did of you, Martin, and I’m sorry. And I don’t find you loathsome. I’ll be a beggar now, and beg your forgiveness.”
There was still silence. I counted to ten, hung up the phone, and sat in bed with my head pressed against my knees.
The phone rang, and my anxious fingers could barely manage to answer the call.
“I wouldn’t trifle with you, Emma. I told myself I wouldn’t bother you this week, and I haven’t. And it’s been the longest and most taxing week of my life. Everyone else is tiresome and dull and ugly. I miss you. I even miss Aunt Emma.”
“You miss Howard,” I shot back, automatically. He laughed, and the sound of it fell on my ears like water on a parched land.
“Howard can go to hell,” he declared. “I would like you to come over and have dinner with me tomorrow,” he said.
“But Aunt Emma...”
“Bring her. She and Grace can amuse each other.”
“What time?”
“5:30, and don’t think of being even a minute late.”

1 comment:

the other Sherry said...

I want the next chapter! And the next.... I guess I can't out-late you, though; I'll have to wait until tomorrow.