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About Love


ISSUE:  Autumn 1990

Going-on 13, Rose is a small but adult height and weighs 97 pounds, most of it hair which descends in a pyramid from a center part and reaches below her waist. A daughter like Rose is a terrific responsibility; almost all she has to do is look at me, wise-eyed and unfocused as a meditating yogi, and I begin to worry how I’ve failed her. It’s not that way with the other children, all boys, younger and normally devoted without that unsettling knack of being inside me. It’s Rose’s knack that leaves me sleepless all night wondering, when I’ve done something, What will Rose think of this? Once I heard a psychologist on a talk show say that people get married for the wrong reasons, then stay married for some of the right ones. We have five right ones. James teaches at Cropps Hill, one of New England’s venerable lesser known prep schools: he is the entire Classics department. At 40, he is strikingly stern and handsome. He carries his neck stiff and shoulders high, and though it doesn’t make sense he backs up when I talk to him as if he fears I’ll ask him a favor. I’ve never called him Jim.

Love is something I hope for, for Rose, when she gets old enough. As for myself, it didn’t enter my mind Decoration Day weekend, when we drove to Cape Cod and hired a house for August.

It’s an old house. The rental agent calls it quaint, which seems to be the regional euphemism for sloping floors and chain pulls on the toilets. But there are four bedrooms under the eaves, it is two broken streets from the beach, and the rent is quoted in a whisper.

As James unscrews his fountain pen and writes a decisive check for the price of deposit, I ask at his elbow, “You don’t think we ought to look a little more first? I’m not sure I want to be here alone.”

He winces as if I am his dim-witted pupil. On the oilcloth rug in the dining room four boys in Red Sox caps are sliding home. “I’ll be here weekends,” James says, “and during the week you’ll have Rose. Rose will play Scrabble with you. Won’t you, Rose?”

Rose is standing almost unnoticeably in the sudden shade beside the open door. She grins. Rose’s grin, it seems all right to mention here, is protected by gleaming metal like a high voltage transformer.

August first is Saturday, and very hot. We arrive from Middleburgh with the Volkswagen bus bulging, but all day I have the feeling we’ve forgotten something, like one child.

James disagrees: “I think we took some who don’t belong to us.”

The next two days it rains. Rose and I unpack—everything but the clothing, which have to wait until the dresser drawers unstick. We light a smoky fire in the living room fireplace and sit on the creaky wicker reading Charlotte’s Web. It would be fun to pop corn, but the corn-popper turns out to be something I’ve forgotten. “Put it on the list for dad,” I tell Rose, hoping that by some miracle the party line will ring, and a deep teachy voice will say, “Without you to anchor me, I keep rolling off the mattress.” It is like hoping it will never rain in summer.

Tuesday, we venture to the beach, a small crescent protected by rock jetties that plunge bravely into the uneven sea. On the line of the horizon triangles pop into sight like targets in a shooting gallery. But the beach is deserted—like the sheet-smooth sand of the Sahara, the only marks are ripples left by the wind. At about three o’clock children of assorted sizes begin arriving. They come in twos and threes with identical bleached heads and browned bodies, flying flapping towels and falling languorously onto the hot sand. Not long after, the mothers appear. They unfold low chairs at the water’s edge, signaling the start of the swim. The children rush to the sea.

“I think I’ll sit in the damp sand, Rose. I can watch the boys better from there.”

“Never mind the boys, they’re relatively harmless. Watch the sharks.”

“Keep your mouth closed,” I say, getting up. “Your metal is molten.”

Not much later a shadow falls to the sand at my side. I look up to see a strikingly beautiful black woman in a filmy cerise caftan. “Hi there, I’m Pat Morris.” She subsides in a heap. Wiggling a silver fingernail at two children dribbling mud on a sand castle, she says, “Mine”; and I show her which ones belong to me. Very nearly immediately I learn that they will be in day care in the fall, when Pat Morris starts the second year of law school. She asks me, “What are you planning to do with yourself next winter?”

“Keep house—same as summer.”

She asks where my husband is.

“Middleburgh. He’s teaching summer school.”

Her shinning eyes, painted and lined like Nefertiti’s, squint past me into the sun. I turn. Beneath the visor of my hand sit two conversant groups of mothers and an adolescent baby sitter, who is reading a paperback while the peaceful baby hangs harnessed over the side of the carriage. Rose hasn’t stirred, and even from this distance her skin looks fiery. The only man on the beach is a stocky, bald-head Black man, as black as an African in National Geographic. He is wearing baggy trousers and no shirt, and kneeling in the sand, laughing, while Pat Morris’ children climb all over him.

That night for dinner Rose bakes a cake. She serves it for dessert with two candles stuck in the middle. I wish for good health for everyone—what else do you wish for?—and blow. And then I am 35.

Later, I walk down to the beach leaving Rose to babysit. The wind has abated, and the air is hot and still. There is no moon, and ocean and sky are fused in one vast blackness. At the water’s edge I hear rather than see the small waves before their warm wetness spreads over my bare feet. I can’t stop remembering that I’m half finished with living. I try to count my blessings and think of what I have done that will make me remembered. I think of ways I am needed, so far the boys require not much more of me than peanut and jelly sandwiches. I retrace the years of my marriage but can’t recall where we misplaced tenderness. How did it come about that James and I have no feelings in common, only habits and children? He is a careful storer of information; I am a hapless squanderer of emotion. All I have is Rose. Yes, Rose may be my one contribution, evidence that a dependable, hopeful, fortunate person has lived. But have I done what I should for Rose? How will she ever know, seeing me and James, what love is?

A feeling of dread creeps over my heart just as the water creeps over my knees. Lifting my skirt, I wade out, sinking into the warm welcoming mud of the bottom. The voice coming out of darkness startles me: “It’s dangerous to swim alone at night.”

“I’m not swimming,” I call back. “I’m wading.” Somebody takes hold of my elbow and doesn’t release me until we stand on the shore. Then Pat Morris’ husband sits down on the sand and takes off his shoes. “Did you think I was committing suicide? Goodness—your shoes, they’re soaking wet!”

“They’re old shoes.”

Laughing, I say, “I wouldn’t do that to Rose.”

As we walk along the beach, I tell him about Rose and the four little boys. About James, who married me although—he never lets me forget—I had only a year of college. I tell him about Cropps Hill Academy where I sew buttons for the younger boys, feed Agamemnon, the cat, and mix martinis when the chapel bell strikes five. I tell him that we keep our TV in the closet, and only James says when it can come out. I tell him about my birthday, tonight, even my age. Why not? Mr. Morris is a stranger; we have no relationship, past or future, nothing between us to protect and no consequences to fear. And a dark beach is as good a place as any to open up the heart.

“Where’ve you been?” Rose demands when I walk in at 11. “I’ve been worried sick.”

“No need to worry about me, Rose. You should have gone to bed.”

“Where were you so late?”

I hesitate, I’ve never lied to Rose before. “I ran into the woman I met on the beach, and we took a walk.”

A funny look comes on Rose’s face. She pushes her long hair behind her slightly protuberant ears. “Pat Morris phoned to invite you and dad to a barbecue Friday night.” She waits, her expression of trust very nearly spaniel-like, for an explanation. I offer no explanation; she turns away, and I watch her skinny legs scramble upstairs.

There is a heady scent of flowers blooming along the fence in beds of rich black loam. Where we in our rented yard have scrub pine and a slippery floor of needles, the Morris’ trees are white birch and the grass is like a putting green. Pat Morris has on a floor-length gown that proves, as she moves toward us, to be cullotes with an opening from throat to navel of bare molasses middle. I hand her a jar of put-up blackberry jam and exclaim over the flowers. She propels me toward the rear of the yard. “Ask Alden the names,” she whispers. “He has the green thumb in the family.”

Alden Morris is bowed over the coals of the barbecue pit. The bald dome of his head deeply gleams. He has on a white shirt and trousers that look as if they were bought when he was inches taller.

Wandering over, I say, “Looks like a good fire, Mr. Morris.”

He raises up his face, and immediately I like the way he looks, the smooth wide bones of his cheeks and the stead-fastness of his regard. “Alden,” he says. He mixes me a drink from a bar on wheels.

“How are your shoes?”

He gazes down blankly at his feet.

“Aren’t those the ones you rescued me in?”

“Yes, they dried out fine. Stiff as new.”

From across the lawn, come snatches of Pat and James’ conversation. James’ voice, coldly pedantic: “. . .affirmative action . . .another term for a lowering of standards . . .40 percent of the student body’s on the dole. We recruit them, then there’s . . .no money left to pay the faculty.”

Meanwhile Mr. Morris is attending to his cooking. To fill the silence between us, I ask, “Do you walk the beach often at night?”

“Every night. But I don’t save people from drowning every night, only if it’s their birthday.” His no-color eyes glance up shyly, anticipating my amusement. They are shrewd eyes but there is no intimidation in them; only sadness and caution, it seems. I ask what he does days.

“Electronics,” he says. “I have a plant.”

When he mentions the name, I recall seeing it off Route 95: a gigantic windowless groundcover, the sort of plant that seems to spring up overnight from a gaping crater. “Goodness!” I say respectfully. “You do have a green thumb.”

As the pink sky turns purple, we sit at a tablecloth that appears to be floating. Colored lanterns magically ignite. For dinner there is grilled salmon, two kinds of wines, and a salad of raw mushrooms thin as wood chips. The candle flames stand up stiffly in the windless dark, and Billie Holliday wafts down from treetop speakers. At the same time mosquitos float upward—attracted by electronic devices to their own demise.

Walking home, James mutters, “Wasn’t that awful?”

“Yes,” I agree. “I felt sorry for the bugs.”

“I don’t mean the bug traps,” he says. Gripping my arm, he swings me around to face him. His eyes glitter and his voice trembles with the unfairness of it all. “Who does he think he is, with the black mannequin law student and computerized jazz in the trees?”

“Let go of my arm, James! You’re hurting me.”

Releasing me, he moves along. But he has lapsed into an aggrieved silence, intensified, I know well, by 12 years’ pursuit of academic tenure, held out like a carrot for him to run after, and five children to support on a salary so small he sees it as an insult. And fear, nurtured furtively as a flat of marijuana in the basement, that as an academician he has become an anachronism in his own time. At our own house, he pushes past me, ridiculing, “Alden Morris is riding the crest of society’s decadence—like some goddamned acid-head surfer!”

The image of Alden Morris—massive chest and bowed legs—riding a surfboard makes me giggle. James turns and stares.

The fact is, I don’t find the Morrises in the least daunting. Days, Patricia Morris sits on the sand like all the other mothers—only more glamorous with her turbaned head, while her fairy-tale children shave her legs with a razor clam shell. She rarely speaks to Alden, who spends his time with Rose, a short distance away, tirelessly combining the sandy Scrabble tiles.

Nights, Alden Morris stalks the beach in his stiff old black shoes.

So it happens, through the deepening dark with the moon keeping pace, I walk beside him in the huge shadow he casts on the sand.

“I’m nearly 50,” he tells me one night. “Too old to be their father.”

“You’re not too old. Rose says you’re cool.”

He looks at me, appraising my thoughts as if panning for gold.

“She’s very attached to you, in fact. Really, I should thank you for keeping her occupied.”

“I enjoy her company,” he says seriously. “She’s a good Scrabble player, hates to lose. Sometimes she’s a little sassy, but I like her spirit.” He smiles. “Rose is more ingenuous than she lets on. You’re her ideal, Mary.” His words send a flush of surprise through me, that Rose might think that I’m perfect. A moment later, he adds, “I wish I could teach my kids that independence doesn’t mean selfishness; it means taking responsibility for yourself, but caring.”

Tonight again, I feel drawn to Alden Morris. I see in him a loneliness matching my own. In each of our marriages a rift has appeared, a gulf too wide to cross, a mountain too high to climb. And it is too late now to walk around. I think of his intense, accomplished wife and sense the fathomless emptiness between them. And I think, too, of James, with his possessiveness toward his children but no spirit of generosity, not an inkling of available love left for others.

Suddenly Alden stands still, hand on his chest.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ll be all right when I catch my breath.” Unmindful of my panic, he walks slowly to the next rock jetty and sinks down.

For a long time we sit without speaking in the unending dome of darkness. I listen to mosquitos circle my head with the high-pitched drone of a dentist’s drill, and wait resigned and defenseless for them to pick their spot. I see the moonlight seesawing on the black water. But right beside me, I can barely make out the still shadowy shape of Alden Morris, and only know he is there by the agonized rattle of his thick, rapid breaths. Touching his arm, I say finally, “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. Thanks for your concern, Mary.”

By the time we get back to our own beach, he seems more himself. Taking his hand, I ask, “How do you feel?”

“Will you meet me tomorrow night as usual?”

“Of course.”

“In that case, I feel fine.” His smile is that of an exhausted elf.

In this way the weeks pass, and only the weekends seem to interfere with the unreality of that easy, steamy August. But once we’ve waved James on his way, Monday mornings, Rose and I can slip into something more relaxing in the way of routine. Days end late, with the shrill voices of the younger children still ringing in the still air at 10 at night—and start late; often nobody stirs until 10 in the morning, so drugged with heat and sleep are we. But weekends are different. James rouses us at 7, so as not to miss a minute of the sun he is paying for. We have proper meals and have them on time, and conversation at the table is instructive. He is always improving us, my husband the professor. With that strained and righteous cast to his eye, James runs things for everyone’s benefit—and we hardly have a moment’s peace.

Almost with relief, Monday afternoons, I sink my chair beside Patricia’s at the beach. Her rapid-fire voice starts up where it left off, as if the weekend has been a momentary interruption like putting on a child’s bathing cap and tucking the hair inside. Pat knows all the gossip from Hollywood to Washington, D.C. She regularly breathes romance for Jackie O. She knows of the whereabouts and antics of Michael J. and Henry K. and Warren B. (this last seems to be her favorite). But I can’t help thinking that if I were to ask her unexpectedly one day, “How’s Alden?”, she would she look at me, puzzled, and answer, “Alden who?”

Of course I don’t test her. Don’t I know how Alden is? Don’t we travel the beach together every night—his black shoes and my bare feet, breathing in the starlight? When it is high tide, we walk in the deep sand, alongside the motionless sea of marsh grass. When the tide is low, we leave our footprints in the damp sand, and muddle across each rock jetty holding hands—carefully, clumsily, like two blind mice in a maze. At the same place every night, when we reach the wooden dock with crumbling piles, we turn back. The whole circuit never takes us more than a few hours, and I never mention to Rose that I don’t walk alone.

One night as we are approaching the old dock, its silhouette listing against a full, misty moon, it starts drizzling. “Never mind,” scoffs Alden. “It can turn an exercise into an adventure.” Jogging ahead of me to get under, elbows flapping and face tipped to the sky, he looks like a lead-footed seagull trying to fly.

Then the deluge begins. Heavy drops make a drumming noise on the boards above our heads. There are loud cracks and deep rumblings of thunder, and silent flares of lightning reveal us to each other in all the sad triumph of our mismatching. “I hope Rose isn’t worrying,” I shout.

“Oh, she’ll figure you found someplace to stay dry.”

“Think so?”

“Sure. She’s smart—you don’t give her enough credit. You’re afraid of her, Mary, if you didn’t mind my saying. She’s got a good head on her. Leave her be, let her grow up. Her own instincts will tell her what’s right. The two of you don’t have to watch each other so close; you know?” He ducks for a moment into the night, and comes back in dripping and laughing. He does a clownish soft shoe, “”It isn’t raining rain, you know. . . . It’s raining vi-o-lets.” I love the rain, he howls happily, “it smells good.”

I sniff. “Oil spill.” We both laugh. I’m sitting with my back against a pile, trickling sand between my crossed legs. Alden has stretched out on his back with hands clasped under his head like a boy supposing. The only sounds—they are fearful—come from the dinning planks above. But there is no necessity for talk, we are at ease like dear friends.

After a long time I hear Alden sigh, it seems for both of us. “When are you going home?”

“Saturday. James wants us packed when he comes up Friday night. We’ve started putting things in cartons.” The storm has quieted, I feel very emotional. “I wish it weren’t so soon,” I say softly. “It’s been a summer I’ll always remember. It sounds silly to say, but you’ve made a big difference in my life, Alden.”

He raises his head. “You getting wet, Mary?”

Above me, drops run between two weathered planks to form a glistening string of water. “A little.”

“It’s dry here.”

I move beside him and he puts his arm out to make a pillow for me. Being close, I feel a sense of belonging, the two of us against the storm. We are shipwrecked sailors on a desert isle, Hansel and Gretel in the forest, Tom and Becky in the cave. Innocents, defying nature.

Maybe I’ve dozed, but it seems much later when I become aware of Alden’s breathing. I turn my head and can see nothing for a moment in the dark. Suddenly, his arms close around me and he clings to me as a dying man clings to life, as a drowning man clings to some object floating by. And it comes to me then, with an urgency that shakes the ground I live on, my place in life—I love this man.

As if I have glimpsed the edge of the world I push him away and roll on my back. Getting to his knees beside me, he asks, “What’s the matter? Why did you move away?”

I take a long time answering, and when I do my voice is so low and lost in the beating of the rain that he can not catch my words. But he takes my hands and holds them against his breast like a wounded bird, and I can feel the flutter of his heart from safe inside his cupped hands; then he raises them to his lips, and when he opens his hands, mine fly away. “Something stopped me,” I say a little louder.

Getting to his feet and brushing his pants, Alden says, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to let that happen.”

It is raining hard now, and we go home single-file, in silence. Alden doesn’t take my arm to cross over the rocks and we don’t stop on the way to rest. At our own beach, he turns. “Will we see each other again, once we’re back home? I could come up to Middleburgh.”

We stand facing each other with the rain running between us like rain running down a window pane, and the dark secluding us, and the soft summer’s end wind hardly stirring the air so heavy with the heat and rain. All I know, and that remotely inside my soggy head, is that if I say I’ll meet him after we go home, I will be agreeing to a relationship of a kind I know nothing about—except that adultery is something I could never explain to Rose. Alden keeps shifting his weight back and forth between his black old shoes. “They’re getting soaked again,” I observe at last, stupidly. “I doubt that they’ll dry out this time without being ruined for good.” The two of us stare at his shoes as if we are waiting for them to speak. Then I watch, with my hair plastered cold and wet to my head, as he sits down and pulls them off without untying the laces. He empties a mountain of caked sand out of each, and standing, flings them into the ocean. “No sense keeping them,” he says, “if they’re ruined for good.”

Perhaps in sympathy for his ruined shoes, perhaps because I have the feeling now that I will never see him again, I step forward and take his face in my hands and kiss his lips. Then I turn and run home through the rain. And all I can think of all the way home in the rain is, What will Rose think of this?

The next morning Rose brings me tea with lemon. “Drink it while it’s hot,” she orders.

“Listen, Rose—who’s mother here?”

Sitting down on the edge of my bed, she pushes her hair behind her ears. Then a far-away expression makes Rose very beautiful. “Know what I think?” she addresses the ceiling. “I think that the Morrises are the most perfect couple I’ve ever met. Pat Morris is gorgeous and shining on the outside, and Alden Morris is gorgeous and shining on the inside.” She gives me a look of eye-crossed desperation. “So how can I go back to Middleburgh and live my life without ever seeing them again?”

By nightfall, a steady drizzle has developed. In the muggy kitchen, while Rose and I play Scrabble, I can’t help but wondering whether Alden is waiting for me on the beach, waiting with drops of rain beaded on his bare head, all gorgeous and shining on the inside. And if he is waiting, and I feel sure that he is, I wish there were some way to send him a message: Alden dear, I want you to know that last night was the best night of my life. And if it should happen that we never see each other again, I want you to know that it is not because you are black and I am white, but because you are married and I am married . . .and I have a conscience to account to, called Rose.

Friday at the beach, she drops her Scrabble board on the sand and lets out a wail, “Where’s Alden?”

“Drying out, I suppose, from yesterday.”

“Everybody in!”

Personally a dog-paddler, she gives the boys their swimming lesson. Nearby, I bob in the shallows under the delusion that I’m drowning out my cold. Rose’s voice penetrates the silence inside my cap:

“Everybody out!”

She completes her constitutional, a water-churning crawl to the raft and back, and comes shivering up on the beach like a reeled-in fish. “Mom, is it okay if I invite the Morrises to a dinner tonight? I’ll make Julia Child’s poulet au vin.”

“Better check with dad when he comes—”

Rose has taken flight. She kicks up sand running head-up, hair flying, in sunlight so strong she shimmers in and out of focus.

Fifteen minutes pass. “Don’t go near the water while I’m gone,” I warn the boys. “I’m going to rescue the Morrises from your sister Rose.”

From the top of the ridge, I see Rose. She is walking slowly on the rutted street with dust billowing around her like smoke. Her thin arms are hugging her body and she looks frail and childishly small under the open sky. She’s hurt, I think, feeling panic. “Rose,” I shout, running towards her. “Rose!”

At the sound of her name, she looks up; her hair sways and parts. Reaching her, I see her pinched and tormented face. I hug her and she leans her small weight against me, wrapping both arms around my neck and dragging my head down. With her lips against my ear, she whispers, “Their house is empty. They’re gone. They left without saying goodbye.” There is no comfort I can give; the loss, unmitigable as the passage from life to death, hits me and I clutch Rose closer. She pulls back. Her eyes are enormous with shock. We stand on our noon-stunted shadows, hands linked. Lifting one arm, taking mine with it, Rose wipes her nose on her shoulder. Then all at once she begins to run, and I run after her.

She splashes into the ocean and swims to the raft, then back again without stopping. Her strokes are swift and furious. She comes back up on the beach panting, hair streaming, eyes streaming. “How could you do this to me? You knew he was going home!” she accuses me loud enough for the boys to turn up astonished faces. “You had finished with him, what difference did it make to you?” She gives me the withering look of pity that children of that age reserve for their parents, because parents are incapable of comprehending passions, and have no emotions save those necessary for making money and war; because parents have lost the capacity for feeling deep feelings like love and grief. “Do you care—” Rose shrieks, “—does anybody care if they never see him again? No. You have him for the summer like the . . .hired house— and then you pull the chain, damn you! And he disappears. But that’s okay, isn’t it? You didn’t have to hang out with a 13 year old.” Rose starts to sob uncontrollably. “Nobody in this f-f-fucking world cares about Alden Morris, but me.”

Now suddenly, a sweet, spent, hangdog look comes on Rose’s face. She realizes that she is standing on a public beach screaming at her mother and terrifying her little brothers. “Whoops.” She claps her hand to her mouth. “I don’t know why I’m yelling at you guys. It’s not your fault he’s gone.” Briskly, she starts gathering up the items on the beach that are ours—the pails, the spoons, the inner tube. Then putting two fingers in her mouth, she issues a shrill, unladylike whistle. “Come on, you kids. Shake out the blanket, let’s leave a little sand for the next guys.” Looking down, she jabs one foot into the sand. “Summer’s over anyway,” she says disconsolately. “No sense sticking around here.” And she starts toward the path, four little boys like ducklings trailing.

“Wait a minute, Rose.”

Catching up, I stand looking into her flushed, miserable, child-woman face—until, seeming unable to bear witness any longer to my pain and inadequacy, she loosens her eyes from mine and hangs her head, I reach out to smooth her hair to the sides, fastening it behind her ears, trying to say in the gesture everything I know about being a mother. I want to say something profound. My impulse is to tell Rose everything that happened between Alden Morris and me. To say to her, so she will understand, that what he and I felt for each other is possible between two reasonable and unselfish people, and there’s nothing wrong in it because love is a big word and it doesn’t cover only one person and one family and one color skin. But I don’t know how to explain to my daughter that I cared about Alden Morris, very much, and that we have given each other love. Because the words once said can never be unsaid, and I will never be the same again in Rose’s eyes. After all it is true, one starfish carried home in a bucket doubtless causes the universe to rearrange. Rose is watching me now with the waiting, attentive expression of a flower facing into the sun. It is at this moment that I see—I can’t have seen more certainly—a readiness-to-open about her that no act of mine can impede. I see with relief, and something like fantastic pride, Rose knows about love.

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