Humphrey wants more from me, would like to be the brother I never had, but we both sense that we can't top our first conversation, when I wandered into town, lost, looking for someone to talk to about my wife, who was hunched over a corner table in Humphrey's bar talking to his wife, Jan, whom she'd just met. We closed the place down and spent the night with them, and the next day Anne drove back to L.A. and I started teaching at my new job. Now, six months later, when Humphrey and I talk it always comes down to women, but the story about Anne isn't as edgy as it was. It sounds boring to me, and worse, predictable, something you'd want a friend to censor, out of mercy. And now there's Chase.
At the mall I'm thinking about Chase, who spoke in class today for the first time, when I see a retail art director with big hair undressing a mannequin in the window of Victoria's Secret. The guy has his hands on her breasts, which are razor-sharp, fitting a purple wired bra over her simulated nipples, and there's a crowd of kids booing. He dips her, lays her out flat, and when he kisses her there's an enormous clap of laughter.
I search the mall until I find a hair place, and ask for a shampoo. A woman with a name tag that says "Charbe" leads me to a back room and motions me to a chair. When she puts her hands to my hair I shudder, startling her. Charbe asks if the water is too hot. I shake my head, embarrassed, and tell her I've been cold for three months. She smiles and tilts my head back further, so that the warm water pours over me, then trickles lazily into the sink. I cross my arms around myself in a hug, trying to get warm, and smile back at Charbe. I want to tell her about Chase, but when I start up she puts a pretty finger to my lips and says, "Sorry, I don't do girl advice anymore." She bats her eyes a few times, then says, "Oops. I'm not reading from the script, am I?" I tell her it's O.K., I'll figure it out, and she says, "Sure you will." Then she lifts my damp hair off the back of my neck and starts to blow it, waving the drier back and forth like a wand so that the warm air hits my neck, shoulders, and ears as well as my hair. As I turn to leave she gives me a top to bottom look, hands me her card and says, "For later. When you need this mess cut."
Later, I sit in bed and re-play the day's events. Before today, Chase hadn't said a word for seven weeks. There had been plenty of looks, and once, walking around the classroom as I lectured, I had glanced down and seen my full name in her notebook, with two dozen question marks arranged neatly around it in a square: North, east, south, west. Then today, she hands in her mid- term and says, "So. You got your coat and hat at Nick's, right? I shop there all the time. Nick's a friend." Her voice is whiskey and soda, sexy. I turn towards her but she's already gone. It's confusing, with students swarming all around the desk trying to hand in exams, and I have difficulty recalling more about this non-conversation. There's the voice, sure.
I live alone. "Freelancing," Humphrey calls it. When it's not crowded in the bar Humphrey sometimes pulls the Springsteen tape from its place next to the Frito stand, picks up his four month old kid, turns him upside down like a guitar and plays him while The Boss does "Born to Run." The kid wails but what's he going to do? About then Jan will come up and give Humphrey one in the gut, tell him to put the kid down. Which he does. She kicked him out once, and he spent a week camped out on some land his father owned. When I came in the next day he told me that Jan was busting his balls again. "She's pissed because we didn't do mega-thousands on the Femme promotion, so now I'm freelancing."
It's an eight block walk from my apartment to the Humanities building, but the blast of cold that blows off the lake adjoining campus is pitiless. On the way is Humphrey's bar. Mid-mornings, I stop there to get warm. I help him set up, he gives me a shot of Bushmills. We talk. To be fair, he does most of the talking. Anne calls the bar a lot, usually late, and if I'm not there she'll talk to Jan or Humphrey, then call the apartment. The next day the three of us hash out what it all means. Two of us have positions.
Humphrey thinks I need to go back out there, claim what's mine. "Show up during one of her rehearsals, rock her socks," he says. Jan's skeptical about this. "What's the hurry?" she says. "You do that, she'll know you're desperate. Anne's cruising, she's trying out her new girl stuff. This guy Dominic's necessary to her now, he's Transition Man. Let' em dance the dance, it'll make a man out of you. Besides, what can you do?" Dominic is Anne's producer, a guy with a gold Mercedes and big teeth. Anne says he's been hanging around rehearsals, looking hungry, but that she can handle him. "You want my advice?" Jan says. "Get a divorce, then give her a call. Marriage is a beast, it's ruined otherwise normal people. It's totally overrated, everyone knows that. See if she wants to date. After you get a job out there, of course."
All of this tends to depress me, so then I walk to campus. Jesuits dart in and out of offices in darkened hallways. They look at me like maybe they should know me. Sometimes they ask if they can help, thinking I'm somebody's student. It's a huge department, and this is my first job. I was lucky to get it. Tenure seems, at the moment, unthinkable.
Anne didn't want to leave L.A. We argued about it some, said things we'd come to regret, and finally I just left. We didn't talk for a month, and I made no travel plans. Not even for the holidays.
I'm from California, and this is my first winter in the Midwest. On Christmas Eve I bought myself a black coat at a thrift shop, along with a gray scarf and a gray Greek fisherman's cap. That night Anne called. Scattered on the bed were letters from the big journals, with much white space, telling me that the projects I was working on weren't what was wanted. I had them arranged, these letters, according to style, from mildly interested to vaguely hostile. When Anne called I was getting set to burn them. I had a Windex bottle in my hand, filled with water, in case things got out of hand. It was midnight in L.A. and she was calling from a pay phone at the theatre where one of her plays was being mounted. The play was called "All Those Crazy Sweaters," and had Evel Kneval's son in the lead role, with sisters fighting over him and swapping clothes a lot. I asked what she was wearing, and she said, "You mean right now? Mmmmm. Panties, white. Black bike pants over a black lace leotard. There's a skirt with that, maybe eight inches worth of skirt. Silver on the wrists. My orphan boots, you remember, the Oliver Twist ones? A black Doors T-shirt I made with gold glitter letters over Elmer's glue."
"What's it say, this T-shirt."
"Fuck Oliver Stone," she said.
"Cute. So, how's Dominic," I asked.
"He's still got the teeth, if that's what you mean. He's being separated from his money. Theatre-wise, of course."
"Of course," I said.
I light up one of the letters. It breaks into fiery pieces, moving upward in a dozen directions. I blast them with the Windex bottle and in the process drop the phone.
"Tom? What was that."
"It's O.K., I'm back. Small fire crisis here, some flames, possibly some burn damage, nothing serious."
"He likes it. The theatre, I mean. He's in real estate full time, so this is a new venture, here, for him. The arts thing, he calls it. He tells me he's starting to feel a little human."
"Great. I mean, considering the alternatives"
"He reads all my shirts. He can read."
"Maybe I'll send him a card," I said.
I don't hear from Chase Whitney again until two weeks later when I find a note in my campus mailbox: Professor Cioffi: Can we talk? Today? Especially today. 6 PM. Your office.
It's signed simply Chase, but it needn't have been. I know it's from her. I'm expecting it. I say that because at the end of that mid-term, two weeks earlier, after answering the essays on skepticism and the mind-body problem, she had written on the last page, in tiny handwriting, You who never arrived in my arms, Beloved, who were lost from the start, I don't even know what songs would please you. I have given up trying to recognize you in the surging wave of the next moment. All the immense images in me--the far-off, deeply-felt landscape, cities, towers, and bridges, and un- suspected turns in the path, and those powerful lands that were once pulsing with the life of the gods-- all rise within me to mean you, who forever elude me. I remember thinking at the time: This is a bit much, no? The professorial moment. Then: O God! O shit! O shit! This was pretty much the sum of my thinking at the time, as I recall. Luckily, I had assigned a grade to her essays before I found Rilke's poem written in that cramped, childish hand. I closed the booklet and placed it with the other W's. Strict alphabetical order.
At five minutes after six Chase knocks lightly on the door of my office. She's wearing a ripped up pair of Guess jeans and a heather ski sweater that brings out her eyes. She's blonde and deadly.
"Look," she starts out, "I don't know why I'm here, exactly. Shit, that's not true. Shit. This isn't going to work. Did you read the poem?"
I check it out with the part of me that approves, then silently I rehearse Rilke's poem, looking past Chase to a point over her left shoulder, to a spot I imagine myself sucked into, without remainder. Then I give her the second stanza, in a voice that sounds as though it's coming from the other side of the room.
"You, Beloved, who are all the gardens I have ever gazed at, longing. An open window in a country house--, and you almost stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced upon,-- you had just walked down them and vanished. And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back my too-sudden image. Who knows? perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us yesterday, separate, in the evening. . ."
What happens next is what I'm still thinking about, what makes me think. It's like a test. I wait to see how she'll do. If she speaks too quickly. If she makes a sound. If she talks about how she really likes Rilke, how she can't get enough, how he speaks to her directly, how he is poetry, or anything like that, I'll be embarrassed for her, for us, I'll lose interest, there won't be room to audition even one more word.
What happens is she reaches across my desk and grabs my keys. Then she stands and takes my coat off the peg, grabs my hat and scarf, turns off the light.
Most of my life I've spent waiting. Not waiting for something-- a taxi, or the waiter to come to your table--no, just waiting, like whatever the wait was for would soon be announced. Was coming soon. Before long. A vocation of waiting, then. This is what I'm thinking as we walk out on the frozen lake, trying to keep our footing on the sleek black surface. The northerly wind at our backs blows us faster and faster. We're holding on to each other in a half-run when my feet go out from under me. I know right away that Chase is going with me, we're falling, falling, and there's this exquisite moment when we're both suspended over the surface of the lake, in movie time. I think we're never going to hit, we're going to stay up here for as long as we want, for as long as it takes. But of course we don't. We land heavily, and the unyielding ice feels malevolent and sinister as I turn my head to look, seeing it really for the first time, this element of life gone cold, undrinkable, suddenly strange. The ice is scarred from the blades of skaters. I place an ungloved finger in the wounded, glassy surface and feel a chill pass all the way through me. Just then Chase laughs. I turn in the direction of that laughter and see her small white teeth fully exposed, the pink gums gleaming, the tip of her tongue tilted upward against the roof of her mouth. I imagine her mouth pressed against my ear, firing hot moist pockets of air into the cold, warming me, those teeth closing on the skin of my neck, spitting out gray and black thread till they find human flesh. It is snowing. In the silvery winter air we sit there on the ice, mute and expectant. We haven't said a word since the office.
"Is there a word for this?" I finally say.
"Selection," she says. "I've selected you. It's really out of your hands." She studies my face, sees how I'm taking this, then says, "Hey, you're a lucky guy."
Humphrey's Amstel neon gives a softness to the street below that I hadn't noticed before as we climb the three steps to the bar, stomping our feet clumsily as we enter. Chase's green mittens are clumped with snow from when she made a snowball and hurled it at a stop sign, hitting it from twenty feet between the S and T. She doesn't throw like a girl, the result, she tells me, of playing shortstop in the Whitney infield with her father and two older brothers. This would be Nantucket. It's a close family. She's Dad's girl. Too late I try to steer her to the left, into the restaurant part, but Humphrey's quick, in a Ralph Cramden way, and he's on us before we can sit down. He peppers me with questions about the Bulls-Lakers game and makes furtive glances at Chase. Finally he pulls himself into his full butler pose and goes, "Ahem."
"Oh, uh, Humph, this is Chase. Chase, this is Humphrey. He owns this dump."
"With the claw," Humphrey says. "Over there."
"With Jan, he means." I give Humphrey a look, but it must have been too professorily correct because I can see him tugging on his ear diamond, which is our code language for "Listen to this shit." Humphrey wears a large red button on his XXL rugby shirt that says, "Sounds Like Bullshit To Me." I try not to think what Humphrey would think about my Rilke quoting earlier. Not pretty.
"I've been in here once before," Chase says, smiling. "For the turtle soup. Can we get some? With some brandy, maybe?"
"My mother's recipe, three generations. She cooks it herself in the back room," Humphrey says. He looks pleased. "Mom!" Humphrey bellows, "get your elderly ass in gear, these people want the soup!" and waddles off. As he turns the corner I catch Jan with hands on hips, making this impossible-to-imitate face at Humphrey. She's radiant. The bar is humming. People are in their whimsical blizzard mood. It reminds me of a scene from Little House. I expect Pa to come in next, maybe with Victor French, singing Old Man Tucker.
Jan delivers our order herself, waving off the waitress. She looks at me, maybe a little too tenderly, then puts the food down. We drink a pitcher of beer with the meal, follow that with Irish coffees, then shots of Frangelica with hazelnut Hagaan Daaz. It's snowing fiercely when we leave. We fall into the street, laughing like children, and walk a block to Chase's BMW. It won't start. We blow back into the bar. Humphrey is only too willing to help. He grabs his parka and steers us back out into the storm. Parked outside is his car, a hearse with a Ghostbusters insignia on the rear window, and an orange sticker on the side that says "Vacancy." I look at Humphrey, then at Chase. She says to Humphrey, "I'm going with him. To his place."
The hearse is roomy and dark inside, with the faint smell of honeysuckle. It is unbelievably cold. The three of us huddle together like soggy scouts in the front seat while Humphrey fumbles for the ignition. Snowflakes melt on Chase's lashes, and her snow- whitened hair falls on her shoulders in disarray. Humphrey drives slowly through the narrow, darkened streets, aiming the hearse through deep troughs of snow on the straightaways like a slalom skier, then crossing through the wake on the corner turns.
"What are you thinking?" Chase says.
What am I thinking? I'm thinking of Rilke. How he loved Clara, his artist wife, and Rodin, his mentor. How he slipped the knot of his marriage within a year, unable to work. And the letters they exchanged, letters about solitude and art and news about little Ruthie, whom they had abandoned to the care of grandparents. I'm thinking how dumb that was, how little of anything seems to connect to me. I'm thinking how maybe I'm wrong, about this, about everything. I'm thinking of an alternate Ulysses, one loosened from the mast to chase the sirens, to chase the voices of a thousand distant fires.
"Do you know Rilke's definition of love?" I finally say, leaning into her so Humphrey won't hear.
"I know about Anne," she says. "Jan told me, when you were in the bathroom."
"I wasn't in the bathroom," I say. "I was on the phone to L.A., to Anne. And I'm the one that asked Jan to tell you."
Humphrey is strangely silent. He stares straight ahead, trying to pick out my apartment in the swirling snow. Buildings that shelter strangers rise suddenly from the whitened sidewalks, which are empty of people. An abandoned car sits with its rear end jacked up, its grillwork grinning.
Humphrey steers the hearse to the curb. We get out. Wordless, we watch the hearse's taillights glow fainter, then disappear. The traffic light on the corner flashes yellow in what seems a miraculous way. Snow fills the mock Bernini fountain in the courtyard, giving it a false, fugitive beauty. Everything shines with a queer, antique light.
We climb the stairs to the apartment and shake ourselves off at the top of the landing. I find Chase a clean towel and an old flannel shirt and direct her to the bathroom. I hear her in there, showering. I turn on Letterman. He's got some woman on the phone, live, in her office. He asks about her boyfriend, wondering how serious they are. Is there a chance, does she think, for him, for Dave? She laughs, plays with her hair, tells him she can't believe he's calling her. He says, "Look outside your window." She does. He's got a high school marching band in the street playing Happy Birthday. "How did you know!" she squeals.
Chase comes out of the shower. The tails of my shirt hit her mid-thigh. Her smooth brown calves are beaded with water. She sits beside me on the couch, curling her long legs beneath her. I nuke Letterman.
"Rilke's definition of love is neighboring solitudes that border, protect, and greet one other," she says.
"You're young. You're supposed to say dumb, wrong stuff."
"Is that what you want me to do? And you're young, too."
"What I want doesn't matter. What I want you to do is sleep in my bed tonight," I say. "I'll sleep out here."
"What'll happen to you and Anne, do you think? I mean, what's the plan here? Jan says you guys are complicated."
"Jan only met Anne once, the day before I moved into this place. We stayed with them one night. It's amazing the business women can transact in one night."
"Will you get a divorce?"
She asks this with a perfectly even tone, mild inflection at the end. I choose to hear it as a child's question.
"My parents almost got a divorce, I think. Last year," she says.
"When in America."
"How did you meet Anne? I want to know."
"Anne was a theater major at UCLA. I went to see a play on campus one night. Anne played Cher in Nicaragua. I went backstage looking for Cher and found this woman in a Belinda Carlisle T-shirt and black jeans with a buzz hair cut sitting splay-legged against the wall, lots of cheekbone. I was dressed in black. She asked me who I was. I told her. She told me she used to like philosophy but that now she thought of it as 'Socrates, Inc.' I told her I thought pretty much the same thing. Then I said I know a place where they play the Go Go's all night, not a contra in sight. She did this squinty thing with her eyes and hands, like she was sighting me along the barrel of some dangerous but still secret military weapon, then said 'Sure.' We spent the night in my car out in the desert, listening to the Ramones."
I stop there. I don't know how to continue, or if I should. It feels like I've been talking for a long time. I hadn't expected to tell this story again. The family voice in my throat sounds strange. My words seem suspended in the air between us, as frozen as the fountain outside. Beneath them, the space of memory.
I look over at Chase. Her eyes are clear, her gaze steady. She listens like this is the most natural story in the world, like if there's more and I want to tell, then she's the one to hear. Everything passes softly through us.
"What do I call you? I mean, it's awkward, isn't it. Can I call you by your first name?" Chase says.
" Look, Chase, I'm sleepy. What time do you want me to get you up in the morning?"
"It doesn't matter, silly. It's Saturday."
I get up and walk into the kitchen. I run water from the tap, then try to find a glass, searching all the cabinets until I find a blue one that I like. I put the glass under the stream and try to understand why I feel so lost, why I have trouble locating the simplest things. Listening to the water run, overflowing the glass and spilling out over my hand, I think about the playful way Charbe had tousled my hair after telling me she didn't do girl advice any more. Her girlish giggle after she said that, and her smoky, bubblegum smell, but mostly her touch. Two weeks ago. I start to think about Anne, try to imagine what she's doing or what she's wearing, but decide to kill that thought before it gets going. I turn the water off, draw the edge of the curtain aside and try to look outside. The window has frosted, and I have to scratch a spot clear with my fingernails to see the snow, still faintly falling. Covering everything, what wants covering and what doesn't. I let the curtain fall back and feel the draft circle my wrist. Shivering, I go back into the living room with my water. Chase hasn't moved.
"Anne? She loves you, you know. I promise."
I put the glass of water down. I lift her, sliding my hands under her back. Her legs stick out over my outstretched arms. She laughs, and tucks her knees into my chest to keep from knocking pictures off the wall of the hallway as we head to the bedroom. I smell my scent on my shirt, on her. I lay her down on the bed, pull the covers up to her neck, fan her long hair out over the pillow. She sighs contentedly, smiling up at me. I turn off the light.
In the night, what will happen is this: She will get up to use the bathroom and get disoriented in the strange space. She will grope for the hall light. I will look at her, startled, the harsh white light framing her shadow on the wall. I will get up and go to her, watch as she sits to pee, then guide her solemnly back to bed. Neither of us will say anything. Minutes later I will return to the bed, stand over her, and study the line of her legs beneath the thin cotton sheet. I will crawl into bed beside her, noiselessly. Breathless, I'll put my hands to her hair, raise it to my face, feel it tickling my skin. The perfect ends I'll put in my mouth. I'll curl up alongside her till we're shaped like spoons in the chilled night air, my stunned fingers resting in the small of her back.
All rights reserved.
The first story I ever wrote, years ago. I had a lovely letter of rejection from Roger Angell at the New Yorker, who praised what he called the "beautiful writing," especially the ending, but called a "high cholesterol romance." I laughed out loud when I read that. Of course, he was right. It was subsequently published, considerably downstream. I'd like to think I learned a few things, though who knows. I saved the letter.