I've been working 9-5 on this, only on the wrong side of the clock. Only one more installment left.
The Saturday before Melly came home, Malcolm wrapped his thin jacket tighter around himself as he stood on a street corner in Brooklyn. The non-stop hustle swirling around him was pleasantly alien to one steeped in the simmering gumbo of Louisiana life. There seemed to be life for the taking. Park Slope bohemians and stroller-wielding couples were out doing their holiday shopping on the first weekend of December, and the cupcakeries and the vintage boutiques and the record shops, capitulating to the bourgeois charm of Christmas lights, looked almost like places normal people would shop. These were Alys’s stomping grounds, and Malcolm was here to offer her comfort in her time of need. She hadn’t told him that she needed comfort after her brother’s disastrous affair with Malcolm’s sister, but he assumed that she must need it because he did, so very badly.
He was exhausted. He’d spent almost every weekend since Dick’s accident up in Dallas with Richard and Cheryl, visiting Dick in the hospital, listening and listening to fears and sorrows, grievances and regrets. Of course he was glad to do it; he was in the outermost circle of grief and it was only right that he should support those more sorely wounded without expecting them to shoulder his own burdens. But he did have burdens of his own, soul-bruising burdens. Work was crushing him. Traveling every weekend to be the sole emotional support of his parents and brother was crushing him. He didn’t realize how much he’d been counting on Olivia to take her share of the load until that hope had been crushed. Everyone was in chaos, everyone was in some kind of pain, everyone clutched at him.
Some support was simple enough. Cheryl brightened up every weekend at his arrival, not just at the sight of her second son, but because Malcolm on site meant that she could cede all the week’s emotional baggage to him, along with the handling of Dick and Richard. She was on the roller coaster of grandparenting now, and so far the climb was sky high. The tidings of Olivia’s unexpected pregnancy wrapped up her other cares in a warm snuggly blankie, preferably pink. All babies brought Cheryl joy, but her very own grandbaby restored her hope in humanity. She had installed a pregnancy countdown on her email signature and was researching flights to Brazil, though she tried to be unobtrusive about it so as not to agitate Richard further.
Malcolm sighed as he considered his father. Richard had too much gravitas to be described as “a broken man”, but he seemed to be on hold, in some distant place waiting for something, a decision, a sign, something to give him direction now that so many familiar paths had been bulldozed. It was painful to see him unmoored, and it was painful to have no solutions to offer him, and and though Malcolm kept making efforts to reach him, it was growing more difficult to keep pouring energy into what felt like a one-sided relationship.
The truth was that Richard was suffering a profound crisis of fatherhood. He’d raised all his children to adulthood and now they were making adult choices, but so many of those choices cut across everything he thought he’d raised them to think right. Maybe Dick’s accident was mostly a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Dick had chosen both the place and the time. Olivia had never seemed like the sort of girl to get pregnant before she was married, but when Richard examined himself, he had to admit that he’d never given much thought to the preliminary issue of whether his daughter was likely to be having sex with her boyfriend. He hadn’t even paid enough attention to her friendship with João, or to her Brazilian sojourn, to realize that João was her boyfriend, or likely to become so. Olivia had been his low-maintenance girl, the one he could trust to take care of herself. But how had he, her father, equipped her to take care of herself? Of course children had free will. It was hardly unprecedented for a child to make moral choices that her father would disapprove. But would Olivia even have known that he thought it was important that she get married before having sex? Had he ever discussed the topic openly with her? He had dumped buckets of money into a pricey Catholic education for his children and assumed that by doing so, he was discharging his obligation to pass on his values. Now he was realizing that it was ridiculous to expect his children to absorb his beliefs by osmosis, without the necessity of having awkward personal conversations.
But Sophia’s actions cast his parenting in an even more damnable light. He never would have thought that a daughter of his would commit adultery, bust up her marriage, and flaunt it on network television, but recent events seemed to suggest that he didn’t have any idea what his daughters were likely to do. His illusions of control, of a carefully managed family life, were being peeled back layer by layer to reveal the ugly truth: he’d never taken the time to get to know his children, and his children had never felt comfortable enough with him to reveal themselves to him. And because of that, he’d never learned which of their virtues needed to be nurtured or which vices needed to be uprooted while the soil of their hearts was still soft and arable.
Malcolm paused by a fragrant coffee roastery to adjust his backpack and listen to the soothing impersonal melange of traffic and chatter and acoustic carols blending into one big humming chorus of reinvention. It was so peaceful to stand here, an island in a sea of activity, with no one making any demands on him. Back in Dallas, Dick, who when able-bodied had never lost a chance to tweak him, now was almost pathetically eager to keep him around, and his neediness tried Malcolm’s already threadbare patience. Dick was obsessed right now with dredging up old memories, but since they were mainly memories about stupid stuff he’d done with stupid friends, Malcolm could only sit quietly as Dick rambled on in long digressions about why he’d been thinking, and what his friends had probably been thinking, and what those friends were doing now. And he would be frustrated when it seemed like Malcolm wasn’t paying attention, and then he’d tell his story all over again. Malcolm couldn’t tell if Dick was trying to shock him or impress him or just didn’t know how else to make conversation, and he didn’t know how to respond when Dick started in on him.
“Hey,” Dick had said last weekend, as Malcolm had been ready to walk out the door. “You remember before you went to seminary, when you were supposed to go to Rome?”
Malcolm had needed a moment to place the allusion: the money for the trip had gone to pay off Dick’s debts.
“Yeah,” he said, poking experimentally at the memory. The old resentment had burned down, and even stirring up the ashes didn’t raise any sparks.
“That was all right? You didn’t really mind?” Dick’s fingers plucked at the bed sheet. The fidgeting wore on Malcolm’s nerves, but he turned away so he wouldn’t focus on it.
“It was a long time ago,” he said.
“I mean, it turned out okay. It’s not like you’re a priest now.” Dick managed a shadow of his old leer, and Malcolm wondered why he kept pushing. After all these years, did he still think he could goad Malcolm over it? Was it the only form of power he felt he had anymore? Malcolm felt disinclined to get riled anymore, especially when all he wanted was to go back home.
“Maybe the trip would have strengthened my vocation.” He shrugged as he pulled the door open. “I guess I’ll never know.”
Dick had been watching him carefully and now he let his head drop back onto the pillow. Why did he wear himself out with his old teasing? It didn’t make him happy, and it didn’t make him endearing. But then, Dick never had cared what effect he had on other people.
For once, Malcolm was mistaken about Dick’s callousness. Dick was actually in the throes of his own existential crisis. Death had hooked him and then thrown him back, but his security was shattered. Trapped in a hospital bed with nothing to do but examine his own life choices, he felt his parents’ distress flick on the raw of his newly tender conscience. Sophia’s affair had devastated them; Olivia’s pregnancy had blindsided them. Had he given them grief too? He’d always shrugged off all his antics with the vague conviction that people who loved you didn’t judge. But now he began to see that the whole fabric of family life was so densely interwoven that one little tug on any thread could warp the texture. What if everything was interwoven? What if every little thing he’d ever done had some effect on someone else? What if one day he would be held accountable for his actions? These were deep waters for Dick, and he was no philosophical swimmer. He clung desperately to Malcolm and his seminary education that used to seem so pointless, but like many drowning men before him, his panic was dragging his rescuer under as well.
After six weeks of this, Malcolm could feel himself cracking. He had not expected how deeply his brother and sisters’ troubles would grieve him. The Spencers had never been a particularly close-knit clan, and Malcolm had always felt like the odd man out among his siblings. In his more cynical moments, it had been no stretch to imagine several scenarios along the same fantastic lines of the current family drama. But it turned out that the hard, messy reality of your sister burning up her marriage and your brother relearning how to walk after being stupid collateral damage in someone else’s family implosion, and your other sister getting pregnant without being married — your real, body-and-soul siblings, not abstract fantasy constructs — well, it hurt like hell. He wished that he could have taken a less painful route to discover that he really did want the good for Dick and Sophia and Olivia.
When he heard that Chris Dalton had filed for divorce, he had changed his weekend destination from Dallas to New York, even though he knew his parents would need him. This was the final heartbreaking, stomach-aching blow to his illusions of self-sufficiency. He wanted a safe place to mourn, and he hoped he might find it with Alys because she of all people could understand the agony of the past week. And if she were only half as weary and grieved as he was, she too would yearn to be with someone who knew.
In the tiled foyer of her brownstone, he pushed the button marked “Alys Winter”.
“Hey, Malcolm, is that you? Shut up! No, I don’t mean you should shut up. I’m trying to get Flora off the phone. Come on up.”
Her voice, even through the intercom, was pure Alys, bright and supple as a strand of the silver wire she twisted into her jewelry. The week-old knot in his gut began to unwind and even turn to a warm fluttery expectation. As he climbed the stairs, the rich burled wood of the bannister and the patterned carpet runner had the same historical comfort that Stillwater gave him, a sense of connection to the past. For the first time it actually seemed possible that there could be a future here for him and Alys after all. Perhaps he just hadn’t been flexible enough to see it before. Perhaps this miserable business of Ian and Sophia would draw their siblings closer together in a bond of sympathetic love. With Alys’s support, he might start afresh in this strange new world and let his family cares float away into the big city ether.
Alys opened her door and beckoned him in with a smile and an apologetic gesture at the phone pressed to her ear. He hadn’t seen her since before Dick’s accident, when she’d been playful and standoffish. Now everything about her seemed warm and inviting: her soft golden hair, fixed in some mysterious way that combined the best of up and down; her blue eyes and her Christmas red lips and that dress wrapped around her. Malcolm was torn over the dress. As a man, he approved. As a man from Louisiana, he thought she must be awfully cold.
“I have to go, Flora, he’s here.” Alys cast an expressive glance at him and whispered, “Come in. I’ll be off in a second.” She ushered him in, shaking her head as if to rue the politeness which kept her from just hanging up, and stepped into another room, lowering her voice. “Don’t be appalling, Flora. Of course I didn’t forget. When have I ever been careless about that?”
Malcolm unslung his backpack and looked around him, feeling the discordance between the substantial prewar facade of the brownstone and the homey grandeur of the hall, and the deliberate neutrality of the sitting room. The space was as elegant as Alys herself, but it was a curiously monochromatic elegance, angles and textures taking the place of any vulgar splashes of color, and everything curated to the point of severity. The room reminded him of a catalog of Esther’s he’d once flipped through: 200 pages of ridiculously expensive furniture and curtains in the same four shades of beige. It was the style now, he supposed, and Alys was nothing if not in tune with the zeitgeist. He sat down in a very comfortable chair which had been expertly distressed to look like a centuries-old family heirloom. Having a lifetime of practice with the awkward proportions and horsehair cushions and carefully preserved finishes of real heirloom furniture, Malcolm was not fooled, but he did wonder whether the people with the enviable job of scarring up these pieces could just bring their work home with them and be done with it.
He stood up quickly as Alys entered again, a jolt of life in the pale room. She laughed in her Alys way, and Malcolm felt his smile broadening out to a silly, joyous grin. If she had been within arm’s reach, he would have seized her and kissed her.
“How crazy is all this?” she asked, crossing over to him. “I’ve spent all week watching my door, waiting for Ian to walk in so I can kick his ass from here to Sunday. I tell you I thought I would die when I saw those two idiots on the morning show. Their faces had to be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
She had taken his hand, but he did not immediately press his advantage. Her easy humor threw him off balance.
“Didn’t it upset you at all?” he asked hoarsely.
“Of course it did! I can’t think of any more foolish way they could have managed it.” Alys threw herself onto the couch and curled up in that way she had. “To sit in a TV audience with Uncle Carson on the stage? That is amateur hour right there. You almost deserve to be humiliated when you’re that foolish.”
Malcolm sat too, but more stiffly. “You say ‘managed it’. What do you mean?”
“This whole relationship, start to finish. God, I could slap them for being so stupid.”
“Did you know that Chris Dalton filed for divorce?” Malcolm hoped that she didn’t know. Of course she didn’t. She couldn’t be so cavalier otherwise.
“Yeah, that’s terrible.” Alys assumed a grave mouth for a moment, perhaps in deference to the famous Catholic position on divorce. ”But he shouldn’t have bothered on Ian’s account. He doesn’t like to feel hustled into anything. That was Sophia’s problem. She just kept rushing things. Okay, so they spent the weekend together. If she’d played her cards right, she would have kept it that for a while, just fun on the weekends, and they could have gotten to know each other better and then decided what they wanted to do about it. But because they were so stupid as to let my uncle show them up in public, Sophia panicked and pushed too far. Why did she cut ties with Chris and trigger the divorce and put that kind of pressure on Ian? Did she think he loved her? They’ve only just had sex, and now it’s as if they’re expected to get married.”
Malcolm had the strangest sensation of floating outside himself. He had come to comfort her, but it was plain that the only thing she found distressing was that Ian and Sophia had been dumb enough to be publicly humiliated. He had come to receive comfort, but she had none to give because it had never occurred to her that an innocent little affair and divorce might hurt anyone. A family had been ripped apart, and Alys was docking points for style! If it were only that she were trying to hurt him by acting as if none of these things mattered… But Alys wasn’t naturally cruel. She wouldn’t have said these things if she thought they would hurt, and that meant that she couldn’t conceive of Malcolm feeling any differently. Alys genuinely thought that she and Malcolm agreed on everything. Malcolm now wondered if they agreed on anything.
The turmoil in his mind must have shown in his face; Alys eyed him with compassion.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I hope you don’t think I’m trying to put all the blame on Sophia. She’s your sister; of course you want to defend her. It’s really as much or more Ian’s fault. He’d put so much time and work into managing Melly, and I really think he could have been happy with her, even on her terms, but no, he had to go bang Sophia just to prove he could.” She uncurled and stepped over to her phone to pull up a series of texts to show Malcolm. “I tried to stop it, you know. That night at the party, when I saw Sophia practically daring Ian to start something by playing hard to get, I immediately tried to convince her to let us take her to Dallas, right then. Even at that point Ian would have walked away from Sophia, for Melly’s sake. But now…” She sighed. “Have you heard anything about it from her? I guess he’s blown his chance there.”
“His chance… with Melly?” Every time Malcolm thought he had defined the parameters of this conversation, whole new levels kept unfolding. “You mean the job offer?”
“Well, that too. Ian’s a pretty persuasive guy, but even he can’t delude himself that Melly is going to take him on after this. She at least has some standards; she’d never trust him. And no offense, but she’s a better woman than Sophia will ever be.” She gave a wry little laugh. “That’s what’s so frustrating. You know, I blame Melly, I really do. She knew she had influence over Ian - he told her so, several times! - and someone as good as she is has an obligation to use her influence for good. She could have shut Sophia out from the beginning by having Ian the first time he offered. It would have been a win-win situation. Melly would have made him a better man, and Ian would have made her… Cinderella.’ This time Alys’s laugh was pure Alys. “And Sophia would have been the stepsister flirting with the prince at the family reunions.”
The cold sick feeling in Malcolm’s stomach was transforming, warming, as the little tendrils of flame at the edges began to flare up.
“You believe that it’s Melly’s obligation to keep Ian’s lust in check?”
“Lust is just part of love, isn’t it?” Alys was puzzled by the attack in Malcolm’s question, but she refused to raise her own stakes. “If you love someone, you want to take all of her. ”
“If you love someone, you want to give all of yourself to her.”
She threw up her hands in mock surrender. “You’re the professor, but it sounds like the same thing to me.”
“Alys, it’s not the same thing at all.” Malcolm paced to keep himself from alarming her with his urgency. “To take someone, out of lust, is to use that person. That’s the opposite of love. To give yourself, completely, for the good of the other person — that’s true love. Having an obligation to love isn’t the same thing at all as having an obligation to let someone use you.”
“How is one person supposed to give if the other person can’t take?” Frustration crept into Alys’s voice. This was not the way Malcolm’s visit was supposed to be, all bogged down in word games and concepts.
“Receiving love as a gift isn’t the same thing as taking it.”
“That sounds like a pathetic kind of life, only getting what someone else feels like giving you. It turns everyone into a beggar. Every time you give love, you’re really just asking for some love in return.”
“To be human is to seek love. Only God can give love without asking for a return.”
“Oh, goody, you’ve worked in your theology lesson for the day. You must be so proud of yourself.”
The silence stung like the bite of winter air. Malcolm took a few aimless steps, ran his fingers through his hair until it crackled, and then took up his jacket.
“I can’t seem to go right these days,” he said, with no rancor. “I made the wrong choice this weekend to come here, and I apologize.” Alys sat still, her cheeks pale with shock, looking at her hands in her lap. She did not look up as he took up his backpack.
At the door he paused, weighing his words before he spoke.
“Before I go, I have to apologize again because I used you. Not intentionally, not even consciously, but I used you all the same. I wanted so much for you to fit a certain template of “woman I loved” that I crammed you into my mental Alys box. When I thought about you, it was the imaginary Alys I pictured, someone who would always think I was right. I rationalized any differences we had because I didn’t want to lose my ideal friend. Perhaps I never knew you at all, and for that I’m sorry. Maybe we’d actually hate each other, but maybe I missed a chance to make a real friend.”
He walked resolutely into the hall. Behind him, the door opened behind him.
“Malcolm,” Alys said. “Malcolm. Please.”
He turned. She made a tragic attempt at her normal smile. Then she fumbled with the tie of her dress and with a shuddering breath, she let it slide down to the floor. After a second she stepped awkwardly out of her shoes as well, and stood almost completely exposed in the slight chill of the doorway.
“I want to give myself,” she said.
This moment was so far off-book that Malcolm had prepared no defensive emotion to stand between him and Alys’s body. His mind, bereft of human armor, received this new image of her unadulterated by his own constructs, forcing him to see with pure eyes the way she stood pigeon-toed and vulnerable, the fine hairs on her arm that prickled more from terror than cold, the tears brightening the blue of her eyes until they mirrored the Madonna’s robe. He was caught in the hold of a choking, burning tide of pity, a tide too overwhelming for anyone to contain, for this other person, Alys Winter, beautiful and wholly uncreated by himself, so desperately seeking from a flawed creature a perfect affirmation.
He stepped back into the apartment and shut the door against the draft.
“I love you,” he said to her. “But I can’t give myself to you that way right now.”
“Now or never.”
He shook his head. “I can’t make that false choice.”
“Then you don’t love me.” She was stiff with tragic pride.
He set down his backpack and held out his hand to her. She stood, undecided, picked up her dress from the floor, and turned it over. But the humiliation of reclothing herself was too bitter. She wadded up the dress and hurled it at him with a great sob that rent her being.
“Go back to the seminary,” she said.
Once again he was almost suffocated by a overflowing of pity for the anguished woman in front of him. He stooped down and retrieved the dress, smoothing out the wrinkles and folding it neatly. Then he set it on a little table by the door and shouldered his backpack as heavily as it if contained the weight of her sorrow.
“Goodbye,” he said, and turned toward home.