In the spring of 1937 my sister Colyeranne Pettis suddenly disappeared three weeks before her marriage. She had been on a picnic with Sam Reilly, her betrothed. He had left her presumably to collect a few scraps of firewood, and when he returned she was gone. It caused an officially mild ripple until she appeared three days later, acting as if her disappearance had been the natural perrogative of a bride-to-be. Actually, she had walked home three blocks from the park, and, because parents then were scandalized rather easily by the idea of rebellion, our parents had remained silent, pretending to Sam Reilly and his family that they had no knowledge about their daughter or her whereabouts. Of course, it was understood, as everything was understood in those days, that she was holing up at home and would be out presently with a suitable accounting of herself. This explains, I suppose, why the police were not called in and why Sam Reilly appeared only slightly perturbed. If the police were alerted to every case where a spoiled Southern girl has second thoughts, they would have no time to keep law and order.
As I recall, there were some mundane circumstances surrounding the disappearance. Sam Reilly had recently returned from a theater tour in London under the auspices of his alma mater Vanderbilt. Mine was Southwestern of Memphis, by the way, but no matter. It was common knowledge that the theater tour was Sam’s last bachelor fling before marriage to Colyeranne. I should point out that I took mine to Barcelona with minor stops in Naples and Rome, not because I am less current than Reilly—we were both on and off readers of American history and biography—but because 10 plays in a fortnight right before marriage seemed at the time a bit too escapist for a single man on the verge of a life-long commitment. This was 50 years ago, so I have no motive for lying any longer about the facts of the past. I wish I could remember a picture of Colyeranne as a young lady, waiting wretchedly for her Sam, while he was off in London laughing his head off over one of those feeble bedroom farces the British are so fond of; it might make this story half-interesting. Anyway, I deliberately chose Barcelona for my last fling because there I thought I would be reminded of how fortunate I was. But, of course, when I returned I was filled for the first time in my life with nagging doubts and kept seeing even during my marriage ceremony the blasted image of an Apache dance, which I had witnessed by accident in a courtyard in Barcelona. On the other hand, Sam Reilly had returned to Colyeranne, brimming with self-confident vows of fidelity, and it was my sister who suddenly was filled with reservations.
A week or so after her “disappearance,” when her senses had returned somewhat, she stopped me under the leaded glass in the stairwell of our old house and asked me point-blank, “Who is this Sam Reilly, really?” It’s the type of question sane people avoid at all costs. And they certainly don’t ask a brother! She appeared very calm, as far as I could tell, and had been assuring everyone since her “return” that she intended to marry Reilly, which, in fact, she did right on schedule. I was never certain what she wanted me to say, so I said what any man would say about his oldest friend and future brother-in-law, “My word, Colyeranne, he’s the same good egg you fell in love with.” I can remember distinctly using the term “good egg,” although it was not part of my parlance, and I am sure I have not used it since. It was just a phrase in use, then. She had never given me reason before to question my remarks, but this time she regarded me silently in a way that made me very uncomfortable. I am convinced now that it wasn’t because I had said the wrong thing; I had said precisely what she expected me to say. Yet what else could I say? Really!
I mention this episode for its salutary qualities, partly; looking back at my age, one likes to imagine that there are moments in life which could have served as turning points, if one were so inclined toward melancholy. I regret nothing, I like to think, and therefore this story occurs to me again in this rather split-screen manner as an old man remembering some excess of his youth. But isn’t youth itself an excess to an old man? Of course it is. At times like this with infirmity just around the corner, so to speak, one needs to confirm the control of one’s mind over even vagrant memory, as ephemeral as it is.
I think I have always had the capacity, even as a young man, to see this moment of advancing age when I would be able to look back amusingly at my limitations and regret nothing. In that respect it might have appeared to those without this quality of perspective that in my youth I was too wise for my own good, too removed from the pain around me. Certainly, Colyeranne felt this way. She felt she was alone, and I couldn’t appreciate her dilemma with Sam Reilly as she did. But I maintain that she took things too personally at the time and refused to see over the edge, so to speak, and therefore made herself miserable. Afterall, if one is going to reduce life to the essential questions, without assuming that one’s perspective is going to change for the better, then certainly all moments do become turning points of undiminished regret.
I could have easily told her what I thought of Sam Reilly, what I knew of Sam Reilly, and how incompatible they would be together. They had nothing in common, not a thing; yet what is so unusual about that? Marriage is intended as an adjustment between essentially private souls, isn’t it? Those who do not acknowledge their privacy—yes, even their selfishness—expect marriage to serve as some timeless ideal. The ignorance of the young is quite remarkable and causes constant anguish. Even I as a young man with my ability to put things in perspective had pestering doubts about marriage, especially after my return from Barcelona. Now I can see what those doubts essentially were, and I can smile. But back then I had the good sense, while I knelt at the altar of St. John’s and the Apache dance was going on in the robes of Father Pennyfeather, to quell myself for my own good. In ten years, I kept reminding myself, in ten years. In ten years, what? I didn’t know; only that I placed an inordinate amount of belief in the passage of time to make things right.
Kneeling beside me was that curious creature, Virginia Ruth Mulcorn, who in a short while would be my wife. And beside her stood the matron of honor, my sister, then Colyeranne Reilly, married for a year to my best man, Sam Reilly, the most insufferable bore in Memphis. There was a delectable irony to this pattern of renewal. I felt propped up by it; it was bigger than anything I had ever encountered. When people talk, usually fatuously, about the moral support lent by formal ceremonies such as this, what they often think they mean, of course, is that such occasions confirm the efficacy of shared values. If they only knew! A public marriage of the caliber of ours establishes the prison which we are meant to share with other strangers like ourselves. It is a narrow place, joined with cells, all visibly occupied with acquaintances, until one has no choice but to imagine an illusionary world of like-minded individuals all habituating happily.
The cell next door to the one Virginia Ruth and I would prowl was already occupied by Colyeranne and Sam, whose faces during my nuptials peered out absently through bars, it seemed, and gave me the most peculiar sensation of expectation. I don’t know how else to explain it. I felt I had joined some quiet, enduring wait, which, however long it did take, would produce a calm of certainty. Not that I was uncertain, what with my ability to suspend judgment, but occasionally one can be so certain of how things will turn out you literally become depressed with how unsurprising things are. The result is something like uncertainty—or at least has the same appearance.
While I was kneeling beside Virginia Ruth at the hem of Father Pennyfeather, my hand went out for hers willfully, and when I felt its soft, useless plumpness in my palm a wave of perverse and unexpected hope spread through me, and I thought briefly I might actually love this stranger. Love Virginia Ruth Mulcorn! I immediately dropped her hand in the most casual manner possible. I would like to think I realized, of course, that I would pay hell later for this smallest act of uncontrolled presumption; I would like to think I knew this woman and that is why I was marrying her, that is why my hand strayed to hers. I can smile now at my ignorance. Virginia Ruth is dead, and I can smile again. Strange how time works.
Like all women with her congenitally romantic disposition, Virginia Ruth Mulcorn had a terrifying memory, one that filed and cross-filed all manner of ephemera, even this innocuous bit of hand-holding, under insupportable headings like Acts Of Kindness. How long had her hand been in mine? Five seconds? Ten at the most? Time is of little matter to a mind which reads incidental acts as veiled truth. She had shamanistic powers when it came to examining the minutes of life. She remembered conversations we had had—small talk, really—and years later out of the blue she would clear her throat while I dozed over a Civil War volume in the evening and say, “Do you remember when you—” and then like an unstoppable dreadnought, she would summon back some remark I had made off-handedly which to her had the solidity of granite. It made no difference that I could not remember it—I remember very little, actually—or that it sounded nothing like me. I simply assumed that it had been me speaking like an ass when I had not been thinking clearly. That is one of the unfortunate side-effects of having a character which is always looking ahead to the solace of time: the moments of the past are hardly worth remembering. They are not, as Virginia Ruth seemed to think, acts which defined me. I think I know myself better than she remembered me, yet it seemed foolhardy to deny her memory. I do not trust my recollections, and that is why I acceded to hers and allowed her to believe in me as someone else.
Now isn’t that strange? She has been dead nearly 10 years now, and I used to shudder each time she cleared her throat because I knew that what was to follow was a brief image of me that even I had forgotten. And yet secretly I felt flattered that I could be so perceptive or so concerned or, yes, even kind, for that is what Virginia Ruth remembered me being. Not that I am unaware of these qualities in myself; I am as normal that way as anyone, by which I mean most of us fall far short of being paragons of unselfishness, and, therefore, we selfishly crave the flattery of others. After 10 years without flattery, without Virginia Ruth’s memory of me, I have grown to miss myself, so to speak. I have started looking back myself, as inexperienced as I am at doing that, and trying to locate that stranger Virginia Ruth knew. There were so many times when I was neither concerned nor kind. I remember those easily. It’s as though I see a familiar map of myself, and I have taken every road on it thousands of times. The roads never change, no matter how many times I go over them, and there seems to be no one else who can drive.
I still see Colyeranne every week for lunch, this strange sister of mine, fumbling with her hickory cane in the new Summit Club. Despite her abused liver, despite her diabetes and petite strokes, despite her severe bouts with forgetfulness and despair, despite, despite, despite, she remains lucidly confirmed in her rights as a hopeless ingenue. Her approach to life has not changed in 50 years, although she has lost her memory of most important details and depends on me—her fatuous brother from youth—to tell her what “good eggs” we were once.
She insists on being served by an elderly black waiter named Monser Nims, formerly from Chicago, who has the advantage over us of pretending he knows who we are and acting toward us accordingly. He has constructed a likeable, though totally erroneous, picture of us based upon fabled rumors, no doubt fed by Colyeranne, of an immense old antebellum fortune. Age has its corruptions, too. There aren’t many of us left—untouchable rajahs of the middle South— and so Colyeranne and I are doomed to live out our remaining years as extravagant illusions of baser imaginations. At our age it is not an unpleasant situation to be remembered in any fashion, let alone as the last of a fictional breed. I think it amazes Colyeranne, especially, that we have both outlived our better halves—our mundane, mortal halves—and are now the recipients of this servile respect. Neither of us deserved this fate, and yet who better to pull it off. Our lives for so long revolved around the unhappiness which comes from mixing with earthly types: the stolid, kindly, slow-witted Sam Reilly and the sentimental, victimized Virginia Ruth Mulcorn.
We are really quite content, or as content as humanly possible for us, sitting at our table, as the deferential eyes of a younger and richer crowd fabulate our regal mysteries, and Monser Nims, the chosen one, sternly signals with his hand for our water to be brought from the last reserved stock of the Fountain of Youth. Our small talk is limited, as it has always been. We are both habitual musers. Still habitual musers. The commonality of age has not lessened our discomfort with everyday life nor with each other. I can only assume that Colyeranne’s paralyzed expression is due to chronic poor health and not because I missed an opportunity years ago to be honest with her. She would not have liked my honesty anyway, and I am not sure how capable I was of giving it. For Monser Nims, hovering in the background, our solitary silences are coded responses, which I’m sure he relates later to the busboys as being a classical language they are not meant to understand. A dead language, surely.
Finally, after the third sip of water, I clear my throat and say, “Do you remember that night, Colyeranne, just after the end of the war when old Sam wanted me to help him ask you for a divorce? Do you remember that?” It’s a cruel memory to bring back, perhaps, but not for people like us. Colyeranne’s eyes are implacable, her mouth fixed like a prune. “He was too frightened to ask you alone, and I think he thought that our friendship was stronger than my loyalty to you.” I pause here and imagine a younger Colyeranne across from me, smiling. No good; even a younger Colyeranne would not have smiled at me. “He said that your marriage had gotten out of hand. Those were his exact words. “Our marriage has gotten out of hand.” I thought it was hilarious. So did you. We both laughed ourselves silly. And then do you remember what you said? About me. I’ll never forget it. There were just the four of us. You and Sam, Virginia Ruth and myself. The radio was playing something like We’ll Meet Again, and Virginia Ruth kept after me to go so she wouldn’t have to remember me compromising my good side. You remember now, don’t you? She was chattering away about how we had to get home, and suddenly you jumped up and told her to shut up. “Shut up for once!” you screamed. “All you think about is yourself. You put on this big act, pretending how fortunate you are being married to my brother. Are you blind? Don’t you see what he is? He’s a monster of sanity!” you said. Do you remember saying that, Colyeranne? You were wonderful. I never told you this before, but secretly I wanted to do a very unPettis-like thing. I wanted to rush over and put my arms around you. Do you understand that? Of course you do. We both started hating who we married because they ignored who we were and loved us anyway.”
Colyeranne’s expression has not changed; I never expect it to. It’s the contemptuous look she gave me 50 years ago in the stairwell of our parents’ house shortly before she married Sam Reilly. Now I feel warmed by it in a strange way. It’s the calm certainty of her contempt for me, which time has not eroded nor adapted for convenience. It’s the coming to pass of how I have always imagined her to be. “You are a bastard,” she says.
I quickly reach over and pat her hand before she can withdraw it. Monser Nims appears at our side and tips ceremoniously at the waist. These are lovely lunches.
Actually, her exact words that evening were that I was “habitually sane,” but I like the intent that the word monster lends to my characterization now that I am too old to care. And I am sure Colyeranne, with her memory lapses, would not quibble over terms. I believe that by having her call me a monster I have captured better the true spirit of her remarks. To me a monster of sanity is incapable of falsifying his selfish life, whereas Colyeranne’s description of me fudges a bit, I think, and gives me a rather ordinary deceptive air, as though I have chosen deliberately my distances from others. I am not sane to a fault the way some are kind to a fault and others unreasonably blithe. We do not call such creatures monsters, do we? To be monstrous at anything, but especially sanity, you must appear to others as a mythic figure of consistency. No one should be able to lay your blame on mere conscious choice; that would be insane. No, you must be a frightening paragon against a banal backdrop of transparent good-will. Those who think they know you must whisper behind your back rumors about your futile efforts to change yourself; otherwise, they cannot pretend they are normal.
I’m afraid we monsters of sanity are not constituted like other men. Something in our intrepid nature by design turns us away from others at the crucial moment, and we are left with our brilliant rationalizations. All we can do is carry on with ourselves, living out our imprisoned characters and behaving as if everyone else were a happy lot of self-deceivers.
I recall how foolishly solicitous Virginia Ruth was toward me after Colyeranne’s outburst about my character. She would not acknowledge that she had been attacked also. The evening had ended not after Colyeranne’s curtain-closing remarks but a few minutes later when Sam Reilly, my best friend, for no discernable reason struck me in the face and walked off.
“And after all you have done for him,” Colyeranne gloated, while Virginia Ruth blotted my nose with a towel. “So much for lasting friendship.” I think she suddenly loved Reilly for the first time, was willing, then, to defend him at all cost.
What she didn’t know was that I had grown to respect her husband over the years. It took an incredible suspension of disbelief in one’s own confidence to so convincingly marry an unhappy woman like Colyeranne. If I pride myself on being able to put up with Virginia Ruth and her fantasy of me, it is nothing next to the amazing self-denial of Sam Reilly. He had to overlook Colyeranne every few feet of his life. Even asking for a divorce was an act of contrition, doomed from the start. He hadn’t walked out of his house after striking me. He had gone upstairs to his bedroom, changed into his pajamas, and waited so he could apologize profusely to Colyeranne and beg for another chance to change himself into a cruel demon she could love.
His boring stability was remarkable for its consistency, neither too overbearing nor too facile. And even though he had struck me without warning, I could not imagine anything was different between us. Down the road a bit I saw us laughing this off, this moment of ridiculous passion. My sanity was too complete to take seriously a momentary lapse like this. Of course, I couldn’t speak for Colyeranne. I had tried years before, remember, when Colyeranne had asked me, sister to brother, what I thought of Sam Reilly, and I had answered to the best of my ability. I still don’t know what she wanted me to say. I assumed she understood that, for whatever reason—habitual sanity, perhaps, or maybe because a mind like mine refuses to be disturbed while it is waiting for time to pass—I had to answer the way I did. And it’s ironic that at this moment when I finally might have said what Colyeranne wanted me to say—that her marriage to Reilly was just coming into its own because of this outburst of uncharacteristic realism—Virginia Ruth dabbed my nose a little too helpfully, and I. pushed her away against the coffee table and said something which I can’t remember now so that she stumbled a second time and burst into tears.
I’ll never understand women, you see; or, rather, I understand them all too well, and they instinctively rebel at a moment like this against any attempt to sort out rationally their emotions.
“All right, Virginia Ruth, stop the theatrics,” I said.
I could feel a trickle of blood pooling on my lip. I did not think I was being particularly pointed with her. Over the years I had developed a jocular sarcasm towards her which she, I imagined, interpreted as a rare intimacy between us. And at times I felt joined to her by the opportunities she provided me for commenting upon her inanities; she seemed almost too eager for me to qualify her at every turn. A lesser man, I began to think, would have been overwhelmed by the regularity of her silly thoughts. A lesser man would have been worn down in a year or two to brooding silence by her constant vulnerability. A lesser man might have recanted and converted in her presence. Not me. Imagining the two of us years down the road, settled into our cell, adjusted to each other’s constant nature, had a salutary effect upon me; it kept me fresh, on my toes, so to speak. I began to think how we are all fated to find our complementary matches, someone who will provide each of us with a part we are missing. This was not an unpleasant perspective to have on life. It freed me from the needless worry of having to apologize for myself. As long as Virginia Ruth loved me, she was bound to me, bound to forgive me, bound to ignore my slights, bound to find the kindest man in me.
I was convinced that this was already a moment being cast into oblivion by Virginia Ruth, even as it happened. Several weeks later Colyeranne, drunk and mean at the Cotton Carnival Ball, would try to revive the evening for Virginia Ruth, and my wife, hanging rock steady on my tuxedoed arm, will smile pitifully back at her, as though what she remembers—the insults, the nosebleed, the innocent push—were mere figments of someone else’s obsessive imagination; they happened, perhaps, but not to the degree Colyeranne remembered them. Colyeranne had to drink persistently to gain her rotten perspective; Virginia Ruth just thought of me.
She was thinking of me that evening after I pushed her, perhaps, as someone who never raised his voice arbitrarily. She never told me what she was thinking as she stifled her sobs. I can only report, as far as I can remember after so many years, what I saw and heard. I saw her get a grip on herself. She did not want to disappoint me, the good man she remembered me being. Other times she had disappointed me in so many trivial ways—not that she could help it. I never told her I was disappointed. I didn’t have to. Today we would call her condition a lack of self-esteem and flatter ourselves obscenely that we can so easily dismiss the miseries of others with so much hocus pocus. Yes, perhaps Virginia Ruth did make it seem that she depended upon me for her own sanity; yet, what was the alternative? Trying to please me was a small price to pay for security. When she looked at Colyeranne, she no doubt saw an aspect of herself—the woman she might have become if she had not married someone like me and instead had married a Sam Reilly, a weak, likeable sort. A good egg. Colyeranne may have hit the nail on the head when she said Virginia Ruth was putting on an act. But if she was it was such a consummate job of acting that no one, not even myself, was able to separate her from the role. Pretenses, after all, are a way of life—life itself—when maintained over the long haul. Colyeranne had always been jealous of Virginia Ruth, of her capacity for illusion, for her ability to see a side of another human being no one else could ever remember seeing. But, then, what is attraction, finally, but the most private illusions dressed up as life? Who else but Virginia Ruth could make of me a secret worth loving?
“You unmitigated bastard,” Colyeranne hissed at me. She balanced herself, for she had been drinking her usual dose, and carefully wove her way over to Virginia Ruth, who was smiling bravely now. I dabbed my lip with the towel, ignoring the flagrancy of the scene. I knew Virginia Ruth would be thankful for that moment of isolation when she could gather her wits without being under my curious eye, and she would probably remember it, I thought, as another remarkable moment showing my true concern.
Colyeranne was steadying herself against Virginia Ruth, trying to pretend valiantly that she was the one in control, she was the one able to dispense an air of security.
“I’m all right. Really. I’m fine. I stumbled is all. It’s nothing,” my wife said, squirming in my sister’s grasp. And to be fair, Colyeranne was sober enough not to say back, “But he pushed you. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” A response like that would have only contributed to her futility, because, then, Virginia Ruth would have denied it, or said the push was inadvertent. It was inadvertent. She knew I could not stand being fussed over. If I pushed her with more relish than was justified, I did it with her complete knowledge of me. She knew the kind of man I was.
As much as I pretend a reasonable sort of logic for the way things turn out, I could no more understand Colyeranne staying in her unhappy marriage than she could understand why Virginia Ruth stayed with me. Time creates its own inertia, its own web of attachments and feeble excuses. That is why I remember this evening in particular, I suppose. Not that it occurs to me now, nearly 50 years later, as so different from other evenings I experienced, most of which I have conveniently allowed to go dark. Yes, it was unusual, now I think of it, for Sam Reilly to be suddenly left with only one unsuitable response, that of striking me, his oldest friend. But time would heal that. A week later he would apologize lamely, telling me that he was so drunk he couldn’t remember at all the details of our dispute. Since we had not disputed, I told him that I assumed his blow was an accident. He was greatly relieved. He and Colyeranne were happier than they had ever been, he said, beaming. “So, it’s back in hand again, is it?” I smiled. He blinked slowly, his lower lip pushed out dully. I didn’t try to explain my remark. I only said it to show him that while I remembered his confession of a week ago, would always remember it in some fashion, I saw that it had no more importance than any other secret he would inevitably share with me. We never mentioned it again.
What might have been an evening that changed the course of our lives—his, anyway—dribbled away, much to Colyeranne’s disappointment. Sam could never live up to the irrational being he was that evening, although that aspect was in him, just not to the extent that Colyeranne could continually be soothed by it. She was always looking, it’s clear to me now, for a moment of transcendent certainty, a respite from her own expectations, some sentimental plot device which would bring us all up short and change forever the way we looked at ourselves. It is my experience that such moments rarely exist; we wait inside the characters we find ourselves in. It’s as simple as that.
She couldn’t convince Virginia Ruth that she should feel humiliated by the events of that evening, and I couldn’t resist chuckling inside at her efforts to gain an ally. With my usual perspective, I saw this ludicrous comedy of errors being performed by innocents who were always finding themselves chastized by their regular habits and their inability to see beyond the moment.
Virginia Ruth ended up comforting Colyeranne, who had begun to sob inconsolably. I knew Virginia Ruth was in for another tedious hour of self-pitying recriminations. I left to pour a small brandy. My nose had stopped bleeding, and I was feeling vaguely bouyed up by my unruffled circumstances. I have always contemplated time in terms of anniversaries, those formalized occasions of memory which, if we didn’t celebrate them, would cease to exist. No doubt I had already converted this evening into its essential and timeless tense, where a year from now or 10 years or 50 years, for that matter, I could see this same evening without remembering a single new or startling detail. There was a mirror in the front hallway. I raised my snifter to it and toasted the stranger.
I went out and walked around in the front yard in the dark. A bedroom light was on upstairs, Reilly’s light, and I stood back staring up at it, almost nostalgic. “Sam Reilly,” I whispered, not loud enough that he could hear. Was he packing a few things for the second-act denouement? Was he sitting beside the bed, turning a revolver over in his hands? Was Reilly capable of such an act? Please, give me some credit, I told myself. He wasn’t my oldest friend for showing me a life-time of surprises. My eye reached up and parted his curtains. I saw old Sam reclining easily on his side of the bed, skimming the second volume of Grant’s memoirs for another drunk’s transparent regrets.
I drank off the brandy, then stood waiting in the dark beside a huge magnolia, toying with an impulse to throw the snifter into the street. I wanted to mark this moment in some way. I don’t know why, other than it began suffering the tedium of most moments. There was quiet, sonorous breathing around me, and when I tilted my head all the way back I saw the stars as a cool sheet descending upon me.
I don’t know how long I remained in that pose, deadened to time, my head thrown back, my mouth fallen open. I must have gone to sleep. A voice, familiar but not immediately recognizable, was speaking somewhere near me, as though I was not the one being spoken to. Later, I would think that if I had not been caught at that moment in a helpless twilight state I would riot have stood so mute nor listened so long. That was my excuse.
“I saw you first at Molly Gabriel’s house,” the voice was saying. “Do you remember? I had just broken up with Jack Figge. He was so sweet to me. He kept saying, “You don’t have to love me.” “I know,” I said, “I know.” His mother raised irises, those beautiful burnished ones, and he would take me into her garden with a lantern after she was asleep and pick whichever ones I looked at twice. They were all one of a kind. He knew I wouldn’t talk about us there. His hands were always so sticky from the sap, and I would have to say, “That’s enough, Jack, that’s enough.” But he wouldn’t stop. “Just one more,” he’d say, and he’d just continue breaking the stalks and handing them to me. “You love this one, don’t you?” he’d say. “You love this one, don’t you?”“
It slowly dawned on me, of course, that the voice was Virginia Ruth’s, and she was speaking from somewhere behind me. I knew I should probably say, “That’s enough, Virginia Ruth. It’s time to go home.” She expected me to say it. I saw Colyeranne’s figure in the bedroom window pass behind the curtain, then pass back the other way. I listened for a sound from there, some kind of alarm which would end the waiting, but it didn’t come. Then I heard Virginia Ruth stepping softly toward me through last year’s dried leaves. She was directly behind me. I could feel her breath on my neck.
“”It’s so hopeless, Jack,”” I finally told him. I didn’t really know if it was or not. He was so sweet to me, and I was so young that I thought love was—I can’t remember what I thought it was. His hands were always so sticky. He destroyed his mother’s garden for me. “You love this one, don’t you?” Yes, Jack; no, Jack. I couldn’t even dislike him properly.”
I hadn’t known about Jack Figge at all until that moment. If I had known him, I would have remembered such a futile type. But, then, it had never struck me to ask Virginia Ruth what kind of a love life she had before she met me. Her life seemed too fixed to have any past.
“He was so devastated,” she was saying, “and I was so foolish. I thought he might actually die because he couldn’t have me. Can you imagine?”
This was the line, I am convinced, she said for my benefit, as though she wished to be remanded for saying it and brought back to her senses. I think we were both surprised when I made no quip. She hesitated, then she expressed a little musing grunt—huhn—at a useless memory of herself. I felt her hand brushing idly against my arm. Did she mistake my silence for the distance between us? I wish I could remember my feelings better. Did life suddenly appear more ominous to me? I can’t say. I was not as concerned, I think, that she had once been loved as I was that she had rejected love. She had rejected someone who loved her for someone who couldn’t love her. I think of all the lies she must have told herself to remember me kindly, to remember me at all. Turn around, lover, I told myself. Turn around now! But it was the kind of command that already seemed too silly to act upon, an empty expression that only someone else could follow.
And then she proceeded to tell me how we had first met at Molly Gabriel’s. Well, not exactly met, she qualified herself. How we had seen each other for the first time. No wonder I hadn’t remembered it. She said our eyes had touched and that she could see in mine that I had been searching, as she had, for a solution to something. But she could also see, she said, that I was unaware I was searching for anything. I tried to laugh when she said this, but I could only manage a couple of gasps.
“You might have loved me, then,” she said, “but you wouldn’t have known it. Your eyes were so open when you saw me, so hopeful, I knew I had to meet you. Otherwise, you never would have realized how much you needed me.”
Even for Virginia Ruth this was a preposterous claim to make about me. I was speechless. I turned to face her, my mouth still open. In the dark with only the soft light penetrating from the Reilly’s bedroom window her face was like the moon reflected on the surface of a black lake which I was looking down into. I did not love her. I had no intention of loving her. She put her hand upon my face and smoothed it back.
“I don’t remember,” I said more coldly than I expected.
“I know,” she whispered. “I do.”
“I don’t—” Her fingers went over my mouth before I could tell her the truth. When she dropped her hand, I could have set the record straight between us, but what good would that have done? I kept telling myself that she was incapable of facing the truth. She had never known me, as well as she pretended to. I thought, I have to accept that and go on. I must keep demonstrating to her my control, because, otherwise, we would be as helplessly lost as Sam and Colyeranne; and as much as she pretended to remember me the way she wanted to, did she really want me coming out, sticky fingers and all, like hopeless Jack Figge? No, she didn’t want that. She knew that when she married me; she knew it that night at Molly Gabriel’s when we supposedly saw each other, two sets of pathetic eyes accidentally locked on each other.
She reached up and brushed my cheek with hers. She was careful this time to avoid my nose. She felt satisfied with that, I told myself, despite the fact her happiness was always a lie. But it was not a lie she understood, was it? I was sure of that. As she drew back, the light in the window went out.
“Happy as clams, again,” I said.
I touched my nose tenderly. Sam Reilly had broken it I would learn from a doctor later. I had never had a sinus infection before, and now I would be plagued with them year after year for the rest of my life. How could I keep blaming Reilly for what would turn out to be a life-long discomfort, a returning symptom of a single, unmemorable night’s frustration, which we both had accepted as an accident?
“They love each other,” Virginia Ruth said lightly. “They just have to keep remembering that.”
Now I could laugh, and I laughed like an insane man. She said it was so good to hear me laugh. I had such a warm laugh. I should laugh more often. I used to laugh all the time, she said. The best things that happen, she said, always sound so stupid. I thought she was about to clear her throat, but she didn’t. Instead, she grabbed my arm in both hands, and we carefully worked our way through the dark to the car. I can still feel her blind grip 40 years later. It’s not something you think you’d remember.