It was the lawn that brought her the young man named Mark.
She said to him on the first day, "I've done the lawn for years myself, and I know how to operate this—" She was pointing to a tractor mower. "—as long as nothing goes wrong with it. But could you—? I mean, would you know what to do if something were to go wrong?"
"How wrong?" He smiled. He had his thumbs locked into the top of his baggy shorts. He had a mop of black curls and a Portuguese surname. She was to mispronounce this name for more than a year before he corrected her.
Marjorie Pell was perceived as successful. Lucky and industrious, she had the substance of success that comes with middle age, that involves accomplishments. Her two drug-free and well-educated daughters were living in distant cities, with their levels of crisis manageable and their need for their mother intermittent. Her husband, often absent, was a credit to his profession. He could be reached on his various telephones at any time.
The house was not so neat, and not so manageable, as it looked from the outside. It had been refurbished the instant the grown children left, yet piles of unsorted debris, stuff still-useful or quasi-important or half-beloved, collected in it, and these piles required of Marjorie many difficult, firm decisions. She was often in a throwing-out mood. And though the house's structure was solid, made of thick wood beams that commemorated a forested America, fissures would open up in its protective shell. Often she felt she was doing nothing with her life except overseeing repairs.
The house was situated on the town's best hill—"best" meaning its slope was gentle enough that, when iced in wintertime, it did not skew cars; yet pitched enough that it gave its owners a fine view of the college town. There were gigantic trees on the property, a file of looming, big-shouldered presences. During strong winds, they dropped limbs the size of saplings. There was also the big lawn.
In his second summer working for her, Mark never needed instructions. He knew the lawn as well or better than she did, and he maneuvered the machine expertly over the weedy patches, the parched rises, and the sometimes water-logged depressions. He cut fallen limbs into firewood with the chain saw. Borders and hedges he trimmed with expertise.
Marjorie's husband expressed no interest in meeting Mark, or giving him orders, or even remembering his name. "That student who mows for you" and "the lawn boy" were the infrequent references to Mark that had cropped up in conversations. Gradually Marjorie admitted to herself that she liked it that way.
On the same weekday morning each week, at what was almost their agreed-upon time, she heard Mark's arrival in the tick of his mountain bike. Something in the gears would tick as he led the bike under her window. His black curls vanished as he propped it alongside the house or by the side porch steps. Seated at her desk upstairs, she averted her eyes to keep on with her writing, but listened.
He whistled hauntingly as he went to the garage. He never whistled idly, never struck silly or banal notes, for he loved music; he sang in a rock band. So he whistled full tunes, tunes that were cut short by the mower's burping start and the deep, continuous drone of its motor.
She fed Mark lunch at noon.
This was his last semester. Six more credits to go, two rather lightweight summer courses, then he'd be done. His afternoon schedule allowed him at least an hour and a half for lunch. Weekly during mowing season, he had spent long enough lounging in her kitchen that he became someone who could announce to her, "I don't know what the fuck I'm doing"—meaning with his life—and spell out why. "My weekend? It was car problems, school problems, and woman problems. Not in that order."
"But related problems?" She was busily preparing food.
"Just an overall sensual too-muchness. You know, a lot of joy. But joy, so far, is different from happiness." There was a pause. "I guess I mean drugs." He laughed.
"So now I'm supposed to be shocked?"
He shook his head. "Nothing shocks you much. I think it's because you once lived in California."
She nodded. "Life there installed shock absorbers. Now I can hit any bump and continue smoothly." She was lighting the broiler. "I hope you still eat meat."
He said he did. "Free meat, though. It has to be free."
She unpackaged the little steaks. "I have no idea if this animal enjoyed its life. Is that what you mean?" She had recently been made aware of egg carton labels describing the superior health of "free range chickens."
"Free," he said, "—as in no money required. It's so easy to just exist that you forget about living. Yet living can be so unfairly tied to cash. Not for luxuries—well, yes, for luxuries—and yet I know that life isn't a simple pursuit of pleasure. Or maybe it is. I mean, what's luxury for me might not be for you, right?"
She laughed, shredding lettuce for a salad. There was still enough that was beautiful about her that he was sometimes at a loss and got tangled in his words. They both understood what this meant without speaking of it directly.
He tipped back in his chair and leaned into the wall. He might or might not have remembered that she didn't like for him to do this. The chair wasn't particularly steady on the polished tile. Yet she said nothing. She did not like to remind him of too much or to criticize him much, for such hectoring, she knew, was unwelcome. If he crashed to the floor, then so be it. She would soothe and comfort. To soothe and comfort would be her business, not to warn or scold.
"I've heard from Stephanie," he said. Stephanie was his enduring love, who lived four hours away in New Hampshire. "She's forgiven me."
"We knew she would, yes?"
"We hoped." He shook his head. "As soon as I got her letter, I was put in touch with how worried I've been. You told me I shouldn't be worried, and I told you I wasn't worried. But I'll admit it now—the relief was awesome!"
"You see!" Marjorie checked the steaks.
"She's back in school now and really up for her classes. I'd say our relationship is still pretty healthy. We're nearing our second anniversary."
"Of what? Of your meeting?"
"No, actually of our sleeping together." He paused, then seemed to feel his admission needed further explanation. "Of fucking, I mean."
"Isn't that the usual inference of "sleeping together"?" Marjorie, serving the plates, motioned him to take his place.
He wrenched the chair around to sit at the kitchen table. "You can sleep with each other in the same bed. But that doesn't mean much else happens. Or rather there's a whole range of things that can happen. People like me, we may be wild but we're cautious. Gotta be. We're living in a dangerous age."
"AIDS," she said matter-of-factly. "But still, wouldn't you consider counting an anniversary from the first kiss?"
Some days, Mark took a shower after his work. On those days, Marjorie saw his clothes lumped before the door in the hallway and wondered why he hadn't stripped inside the bathroom. Finally, over a lunch on the patio, her curiosity impelled her to ask.
He looked up, chewing a large mouthful. He swallowed and said, "The clothes might get splashed if they're in there when I've got the shower on. And sometimes—no, always—I forget where they are, or even that they're there, and step on them, dripping, and get them wet."
She watched his immediate return to the food. He ate ravenously, like a bear. It fascinated her that, despite his pose of practicality, it did not occur to him—in fact, had obviously never once crossed his mind—that he could put his clothes neatly on the toilet seat, rather than leave them as they fell, wadded on the floor. Then he wouldn't step on them or splash them. She suggested this.
He merely nodded, continuing to eat.
Here, surely, was a glimpse of why Marjorie's friends who mothered sons believed that she, with daughters, had had it easy.
Today Mark was explaining why it was better that he and Stephanie went to separate schools and lived in different states. "Definitely we have to distinguish ourselves from our joint self. The minute I'm with her, I dive in, smother myself, and then I have to crawl up from a whole avalanche of secure feelings, sexual and otherwise."
"Is being buried alive how it is? Is security so bad?" Marjorie felt mystified. "I mean, wouldn't a person in love want to feel secure?"
"Not necessarily." His look was earnest. He was the warmest, golden color, with his fresh tan. His eyes were jet. "I've got the need to strip and dive into the more neurotic, crazed, on-the-edge kind of person I sometimes like to be. And I feel partly that security is a costume, something false, and then I start doubting the whole wardrobe, you know? I feel that school and maybe someday marrying Stephanie and having a money job and all this "get real" crisis—it's getting to me. Besides, being neurotic is good for my music."
She surveyed him when she rose from the table, going to fetch the dessert. He looked more rested. His eyes weren't as red-rimmed as they had been the week before. The bad scrape on his leg (where he'd fallen from his bike) was healing fast. Certainly he was eating with an appetite.
While she fixed herself some coffee, she called out from the kitchen by way of reply, "I don't think "being neurotic" is anything I'd seek out." She was thinking of how avidly she used tasks to keep herself from backing over the edge. "But we may be speaking of different states of mind. Neurosis isn't quite as much fun at—" She was about to say "at my age" but did not want to distance herself too far. After all, she felt close to a confusion that could match his own.
What she actually said was: "Perhaps it's not as much fun at the point I'm at, where you look back and start wondering what it all meant."
Through a panel of the glass door, she saw him nod his agreement. He said, "Yeah, and you can lose it. A person can just—" He held his hand in a fist and opened it "—like explode. And then what?"
"Well, then the dust settles." She was out on the patio again, plate of cake in hand. "And something's left." She sat down with her coffee. "I think they call it "maturity"?"
One week he didn't come and she phoned. "Mark?" It wasn't Mark but some other young man, who dropped the receiver with a clunk and moved through space as a voice. Footsteps returned. It was a young woman's voice that said, "Hello? Who's this?"
"It's Mrs. Pell. Is Mark there?"
"Yes, but sort of no. He's asleep. Can I have him return your call, would that be okay?"
Not ten minutes later, he rang up. "That was Stephanie. You should have introduced yourself."
Should she have presumed? Marjorie resisted reminding him how uncertain it had once been who the woman he was with might be.
He said, "I meant to tell you I couldn't make it. But it skipped my mind."
"I'll mow Saturday? No, I can't, Sunday then?" "No. When my husband's home, he doesn't like the sound." This was something they'd already discussed. Weekend mowing was out.
"Well, next week?"
She said she didn't mind doing the lawn herself, but she needed to be told this was the way it would be. "I need to plan for it, that's all. I don't mind when you don't show up, but you should always tell me." Her voice wasn't irritable, yet she was aware of being stern.
"Marjorie, I'm sorry. Can't it wait, though?"
"It's a. It needs to be mowed in sections, regularly. Because if you fall behind— No, it's really all right. I'll do it. I did it myself for years."
"But I don't like to think of you doing it."
He gave a light laugh. "You might mess up."
Seated on the mower, with its roaring hum beneath her, she roved back and forth over the familiar terrain, noticing tiny changes. A clutch of mushrooms had sprouted where she'd never seen any before, and there were deadened runnels, vestiges of a mole, up in a part of the back garden where she hadn't recently walked.
She loved cutting long, clean swaths, and she was good at it. So why had she ever stopped? What most mystified her about aging was the defeat of joy. The lift that mowing had always given her had abandoned her abruptly. In full surrender, as if some battle had been lost, suddenly the lawn had become a chore to her. One day she'd been looking forward to all of it, even to hauling the huge plastic sacks of grass clippings down the drive; yet the very next day—or so it seemed—she couldn't bring herself to touch the mower. Her idea had been that she couldn't cope, that the little tractor was teetering on the edge of mechanical failure, that someone was needed who could tinker with its motor, to fix it should it cough to a stop.
Mark had been an odd choice, for it turned out he had no knowledge of machinery—in fact, none whatever. He knew electricity, especially as it related to guitars and "amps" and theatrical lighting, but, without help, he couldn't even find the dip stick for checking oil. She'd liked the way he admitted what he didn't know, meanwhile looking carefully though the gritty, brittle paperback she had found for him, the tractor's user's manual.
After her long stint of mowing and then her long shower, she sat on the patio, barefoot and cool, sipping a tall iced drink. Soon her husband would be home to share her satisfaction, to admire the grassy velvet in the twilight.
She was cooking something elaborate. Its smell mixed with the cut lawn's sweet pungence. She felt surprised with herself. She felt content.
In the next week, Mark came early on his appointed day. He had brought as a present for her a half-used box of grass seed. "I found this in the basement of the house we rent. Whaddya think?"
It was seed for shady areas. She thanked him warmly, all the while being certain the seeds wouldn't sprout.
"Should I spread it now?"
"I don't think so. Maybe later."
He seemed anxious to make up to her for the day he hadn't come. After mowing, he helped her espalier a vine against a trellis, which required his standing on a ladder, spreading his arms, and holding steady for the length of time it took her to lean from a window and secure the tendrils.
"Crucifixion work" he called it later as he sat in the kitchen. "It gives me respect for the cross and all. Definitely my mom would be pleased. She's always wanting me to get back in touch with Catholicism, you know, which I'm not about to do. In fact, I'd be about the last person to do that. But I gotta say—" He moved his arms vigorously back and forth, flexing his hands. "—Jesus was a dude!"
She fixed waffles for lunch, because Mark had seen the waffle iron and been intrigued by it. He'd never had waffles homemade. He wasn't even sure he'd ever eaten one of the frozen kind that could be heated in a toaster.
Her reaction was slightly amazed, because it seemed to her that he often knew all that she knew and more. "What about ordering a waffle at a diner? —when out to breakfast, say. Didn't you ever do that?"
"No." His parents hadn't taken kids out to breakfast. "That would have been a lot of mouths, and most of us were used to corn flakes. As for going out to breakfast now—" He grinned. "Marjorie, you still don't understand my hours. Places stop serving breakfast at eleven." Wasn't she aware of the fact that, by his own measure, he got up early to mow her lawn?
According to him, what he did so late at night was not so much "party" as sing. "You should hear me sing," he said.
"I'd like to."
"Would you? It means going to a bar and standing around with people who're busy getting drunk. Or going to a party with lots of hammered students."
"Is there dancing?"
"Oh, yeah. Always."
"And you'd be singing?" She pushed more maple syrup toward him. "I don't see why I'd mind."
She could see he was pleased she would even consider venturing out, and doing so for him.
He mentioned the name of a local bar where he and his band were listed for Saturday. "We usually get started at around nine thirty or ten. We'll play sets till the whole thing breaks up, like about two thirty."
It struck her how her relative wealth, as well as her age, made her remote in his eyes. He seemed liable to be shocked at the thought she'd ever been to loud, crowded parties, or ever seen people dancing half-naked, reeling down staircases, or vomiting. He was not capable, she was sure, of envisioning her as she had been when she wore the battered clothes she had laundered in coin-operated machines. Now she was chic, well-dressed, and dry-cleaned.
"And if you do make it," he said, "if you do happen to come hear me, don't just stand at the door. I mean, make sure you come over and talk to me—okay?" He grinned. "Make sure I know."
He leaned back with a hand on his flat belly. The stack of waffles was gone.
"Now where did you put them, Mark?" She laughed. "And where do you put the effect of them after you digest them?"
"I was just wishing," he said, "that I'd had some Portuguese sausage. And I bet you've never tried any. That's what I should have brought you as a present."
The bar was in a cellar.
Marjorie was alone. Her husband had stayed home, having declared he had better things to do with his time. And he did. That there wasn't a friend Marjorie could imagine bringing with her made her reflect that her circle of friends was too narrow. Yet to have said to either Jackie or Ann, the two who might have been both willing and available, "Come with me to listen to the young man who mows my lawn"—no, it sounded unseemly. They would have been too curious as to who he was, why he meant anything to her. And how could she admit that, in some inexplicable way, her current best friend or closest confidant was a boy of 21?
There were a few brief announcements at the microphone, made by a somewhat breathless redheaded woman in a mini-skirt. Then Mark came up and took his place, greeting the audience in warm, confident tones, his magnified voice sounding deeper, all his consonants bluntly percussive.
Then he brought down an arm, the guitar wailed, and the drums crashed and thumped into life.
His singing was his great talent. Passion surged in every note. He had a lucky voice, God-given, beyond the benefit of rehearsals and practice. It was a voice blessed with a timbre that delivered feeling the way a hypodermic needle can deliver sleep. She stood holding a shot glass of brandy, conscious she was unable to stop smiling. She was happy he was brilliant. She had worried that she loved him despite some woeful mediocrity. Yet here he was, the person everyone was here for, and the reason there was hardly any room to dance.
While listening, she watched the stage, yet was aware simultaneously of the swaying, shaking bodies all around her with their beers balanced in big plastic cups, and of his lean figure above them, agile and golden, pumping out the rhythm. In the harsh light of the stage, his dark hair looked blue-black, and its length, so often ponytailed as he mowed, was now loose, alive, beautifully unruly. His refusing to cut it, despite his parents' wrath, made perfect sense.
On his appointed day soon after, Mark came to the house in spite of a pouring rain. Marjorie hadn't expected him, for the sky had been low all morning. Pelted, he didn't even bother to stow his bike, but let it fall with a splash and leapt to the porch.
"Hi!" He stood drenched before her. She had opened the door. Why had he come? He could not possibly mow. Yet his smile was not the expression of anyone being vexed by the terrible weather. Nor did he look as if he expected to have to turn around right away and ride home.
"Please come in and wait it out," she said, aware that he had come to do just that.
"I guess I'm bothering you. Maybe you've got other things planned. Do you? Really I shouldn't be here." Yet quickly he stripped off his shirt in the kitchen as soon as she had brought him a towel. Droplets clustered and sparkled all over the coils of his hair. He rubbed the towel vigorously until the countertop shone with spatter. There were puddles where his shoes stood. His jeans were water-dark.
"How could you have gotten so wet?" She was genuinely astonished. There was nothing else to do but bring him a blanket and put all of his clothes in the dryer. Even his leather belt, with its bronze head of Jimi Hendrix for a buckle, was in need of wiping, so she wiped it.
At first, when he emerged from the bathroom, he hid his nakedness entirely and wore the blanket around his shoulders like a buffalo robe. With it trailing behind him, he strode out of the well-lit kitchen into the gloom of the living room and sat down on a hassock. Yet by the time she had made tea and cut wedges of lemon and put mugs and a pot on the large brass tray, he had transferred himself to the couch and was using the wet towel as a loincloth. The blanket, having been cast aside, was lying—of course—on the floor.
She did not let herself meet his eyes. His torso was a smooth anatomy the color of caramels. His elbows sank deep in the plush of the cushions.
"Oh, thanks," he said, nodding at the tray. His making a move to help her was hampered by what they both perceived was the danger of his letting the towel slip.
"Stay put," she said. "This isn't very heavy. I'm placing it right here beside you. How's that? Would you prefer milk?"
"No, lemon's great."
"Mugs, you see. Aren't I thoughtful? I've guessed you're not a china-teacup-and-saucer sort of guy."
"Is your husband?" he asked evenly.
Just as evenly she replied, "No."
She stooped and retrieved the blanket and folded it. She went out of the room to stow the blanket and returned with a dry towel. As she stood before him, he didn't get the hint, so she said, "You're making a wet spot."
He gazed up at her, and she could see a deep blush spreading through his tan.
"The couch," she explained. "I'm sorry, Mark, but its upholstery shouldn't get wet."
He left the room to switch towels. On his return, he looked indulgent of her and pleased with himself, the dry towel secure. His remarkable hair was already unmatted, bouncy again.
"Basically," he said as he drank his tea, "I have no ties to reality. And don't want any really. I live as it comes and keep on living. I am happy, I've decided. In fact, you should remind me not to get self-piteous when I'm talking to you. That sort of attitude makes me hate myself, when I get all down on life. You know, every time I'm discussing my plans, I can hear myself saying "I wish I could—' or "I hope to—" but the thing is I'm sick of dreams."
"I feel exactly the same."
He appeared surprised.
She laughed. "You think I've already arrived somewhere and I'm completely satisfied—or should be, don't you? You think I look down on your struggles from a height. But it's really not so." She held her mug in her hands only for warmth. She didn't want the tea.
"What do you feel?" he said, and his look was so deeply concerned that it struck her at once as ludicrous and moving.
"Well, exactly what you said," she said, ""I'm sick of dreams. " But with mine it's slightly different. You're scared yours won't be fulfilled, while I'm grieving that mine already have been. Yet how can I complain? Should I complain my dreams came true? (Or at least a lot of them did. ) What's sad is that now the verb is in the past tense. I have to accept they "came" true, not "are coming" true. So the particular anxiety you feel is an anxiety that's over for me. And I wouldn't want it back. But—well, this is awful news to give you, and I probably shouldn't—but there's another anxiety for you later. It's on its way."
He looked reflective. "Stephanie doesn't want to listen to me thinking the worst might happen. Or that nothing will happen. It seems to her, you know—weak."
"It's just that she doesn't like being told about pain she can't alleviate. Any spouse is like that."
"Stephanie sometimes wonders if I've got something going with you." He tossed his head and looked proud of himself for having said it.
Marjorie's response was gentle, barely audible. "Well, that's easy enough for you to deny, isn't it? Haven't you told her my age?"
"She's seen you."
He paused as if to let this information register. Then with enigmatic satisfaction he added, "Once we caught sight of you down on Church Street. You were shopping." He raised himself on an elbow in an awkward but emboldened manner. "Stephanie knows what's what, even before I do. She knows me all too well."
Marjorie looked away. "But do I? Do I know you?"
She made herself turn back to him. The grin they were sharing faded. Mark was visibly repressing what he had been about to say. He sank back onto the couch and gave a despondent sigh. "I tell you things I don't tell anyone else."
Marjorie nodded. "Funny enough, same here."
"Last night I reread some of my notes from that course in the Romantic poets. Keats has got a poem about illusions of grandeur, the palace of shadowy pleasures, and how it disappears before his eyes. You remember it? I'm beginning to think poetry can cripple people. I can't get the stuff out of my mind. And I didn't even like it when I first read it."
"I think I recall your telling me you were going to drop the course."
"That's right. I almost did."
They were silent. It was not a suspenseful moment, but she was now aware of a move she could make or some words she might speak that would remove his towel. Strange how different this protracted opportunity was from the rowdy moments she had had, fending off possibilities in her youth. Mark as he reclined—dark, impetuous, up from a neighborhood in urban Massachusetts where the dreams weren't usually of college—was aggressive and experienced, or so he had described himself and certainly so he seemed. Yet here with her, in his half-nakedness, with no one else near them and the rain drumming heavily on a huge old house arched above them, with fresh sheets taut on all its beds, he was passive. Everything was hers to decide. He was being as sweetly obedient as a dog or child.
And she couldn't decide. Not yet.
So she said, "I recently got a long distance call from a Mr.
Travis. It was actually a message on my message machine." Her voice shook.
Mark looked at her blankly.
"I think he wants me to recommend you for something. Have you volunteered to do his lawn?"
"Oh, that guy Travis! Yeah, I forgot. I'm negotiating to paint an apartment house this fall, down in Lowell. And he wanted a reference."
"Of course I'll say you're the best."
Mark laughed. "The best at eating, drinking, and talking your ear off?"
"Just the best," she said, smiling at him. "Do you think I should be more specific?"
At that moment the telephone rang.
The call was from a company selling something and was a trivial interruption. Yet as Marjorie walked back through the dining room, she caught sight of the wet towel Mark had flung over the back of one of the chairs. Her discovery of it—of the bleached stain it had left on the antique wood— made her take a sharp breath. She was not annoyed so much as frightened by his carelessness. In that instant she decided to pretend that the call had been important.
She was holding Mark's clothes, warm, fresh from the dryer, as she returned to the living room. She stood in the doorway to say, "I'm sorry. Someone's called. I've been reminded I have to be somewhere else. And soon."
A look of disappointment flashed across his face, but only that. She tossed him first his shirt, then his jeans and briefs. He caught them all, grabbing them out of the air as handily as baseballs.
The moment he stood up, loosely clutching his clothes, his hurt look vanished. By the time he rejoined her, dressed, his expression was oblique and sardonic. Only when she led him to the door did she dare to reach out and put a hand on him. She touched his shoulder, turning him to make him give her a direct look straight to the face.
"Mark?" Then she forced herself to say more than a simple good-bye. "You catch me at a bad time, Mark. A time when I can't bear loss."
His words of reply, whatever they were, were inconsequential. It was his eyes she would remember. His eyes understood.
There were subsequent afternoons of his mowing, and he'd gotten another job as well. His selling sandwiches at noon from the back of a truck kept him from joining her for any more lunches. He told her, "I hate sandwiches, I'd rather have waffles" and grinned at her and still whistled his tunes before the motor started, yet seemed always too much in a hurry to talk. He was pleasant. She was devastated.
He graduated, then moved. When he thanked her for her graduation gift (which had been a check), he sent her a postcard. Only late in the fall, months after his departure, did she get a letter.
"I'm writing on a bench between two white pines in a park, in the company of a black dog, Sheba, a new phantom of security for me. I write because my hand tells me to, my insides saying it's time. I've been on a detour, maybe an excursion into the power of silence. But all bullshit aside, I'm writing to see how you've been, how the lawn's shaping up under new management. My painting boss down here, enemy of truth and righteousness, finally fired me for my "lack of respect" and my "aggressiveness. " Then soon enough the crew finds out that all the power sanding we'd been doing (high speed, to burn off the paint) was done on heavily lead-based paints. . .and he never even mentioned it. So we have to get blood tests, etc. The whole scene is still kinda nasty.
"Living here is impossible, but I can't just move back there having broken the tie. The band has experienced severe cardiac arrest. It seems we've done our last gig in the old tried-and-true combination. Everyone's all undecided and completely uncreative. I think society is sucking it out of me—I can feel it physically, with all this loan repayment business and my parents asking for justifications and the whispers saying "come on, invest, buy in, sell out, bite the fucking apple. " Satan has actually presented hiself to me on several occasions. (No, I'm not losing my mind. )
"I know this is sophomoric trash, but I'm infuriated by the structure of society. I don't know how to apply for jobs. I freak out and give the person a weird look or I stumble on my words. I can't present myself. Dedicate myself to music? —forget it! Romantic pipe dreams from this little boy. I don't want to present myself to any authority figure. I feel like I'm walking to the gallows, for chrissake! I feel weak and insolent and spoiled. And now I'm hanging on you, Marjorie, burying my face in your sleeve."
She would have called Mark had she known his number. She would have written him if his return address on the envelope had not been indistinct. She refolded the letter and held it.
Thoughts of his unhappiness unleashed her sexual fantasies, which had become rapturous scenes. In them she gave him all that she had wanted him to want. She also replayed the rainy day moment at the door when their eyes had locked and she had broken off whatever might have happened between them. Her self-denial, in retrospect, seemed absurd. Why had she renounced a chance for outrageous pleasure, except that it had seemed, too excruciatingly, her final chance? The rain hadn't quite stopped falling as he had left, and she remembered having lent him a poncho that somehow he had never bothered to return. This image of him was painfully distinct: his conical, poncho-clad shadow against the grey, and a miserable drizzle dimpling the wet driveway as he mounted his bike and rode off.
She told herself, I cannot bear it.
In fact, she knew she could. Yet she felt as if she were being forced to apply for the low-wage job of living the rest of her life. Like Mark, she did not wish to submit herself. She supposed that eventually she would tire of her self-propelled anguish and become resigned to whatever was next. A disgust with the inconsequence of stormy feelings would overtake her, as it would overtake Mark. Even him.
All around her in her massive house crowded the sinister majesty of many, many possessions. They reinforced in her a lassitude that was nibbled at every edge by restlessness. Yet had she wanted an affair so much? She was beginning to doubt what exhilaration there would have been in an attachment to a frantic youngster rich only with promise.
Still her body wanted to make love to Mark's, to touch the sleek flesh of someone not so much younger than herself but more free. She looked closely again at his fierce penmanship, then reinserted his letter into its envelope.
When the front door opened, she was still looking down from where she sat at the top of the carpeted stairs. Below appeared the handsome head and shoulders of her husband.
It was evening. The light in the hall had turned gold. The window-square of sunset flared red. Mr. Pell, glowingly busy, with packages under both arms, happened to glance up at his wife and ask, "What's wrong?" His tone of voice conveyed love, but also his hope that any answer she gave would be brief.