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The Disappointment

ISSUE:  Winter 1976

ELEANOR Ostenbach and I shared an apartment in New York City years ago. We were both studying painting, attending classes in beginning design and drawing at the New School on West 12th Street. We lived on York Avenue near 65th in a two—bedroom flat for which we paid what now seems like a reasonable sum. Of course we considered ourselves poor then—at least poor enough that our spirits fluctuated with the price of ground beef at the local market.

In a very loose manner of speaking, Eleanor’s work was representational and mine was abstract—but we agreed about the most important thing: the work itself. With unspoken accord we had arranged our quarters such that each of us had a bedroom for a studio. We crammed our beds and our bureaus into the narrow kitchen-living room. We ate, sitting on our beds, off a table that doubled as a nightstand and breadboard. It was not unusual for me to discover a carrot peeling or a sprinkling of crumbs or a translucent moonslice of onion in my bedsheets. Our laundry hung to dry over the backs of chairs. Bohemian it was. Something our mothers would never have liked or tolerated for themselves; something our fathers did not quite realize they paid for.

Our studios were the representations in physical form of our minds: airy, high, white-walled and cheerfully sunlit rooms, rarely swept of their debris and festooned with colorful impressions. They overlooked a skyline as imposing as the future. We were single. We were energetic. We had faith that the world that did not yet know us eventually would.

Eleanor began to date a man with a princely fortune. His name was Justin Grenouille. Not only was he handsome in a Gallic way, and well dressed and courteous, but also he had about him a certain air of command, as though he were mounted on a difficult, invisible horse. He seemed always to be talking down from a height, while at the same time controlling something powerful and restless that demanded part of his attention. It was a very attractive manner, this combination of politeness and preoccupied strength. I could have loved him too—and did—but he was a man appropriate for Eleanor, my friend who was so beautiful in original ways. For the most part she hid her figure under heavy, baggy smocks, but she conceded to soften these painter’s costumes with feminine ornaments: an array of scarves that bound her hair and a repertoire of necklaces, as numerous as they were varied, which she fashioned herself of pottery beads, glass baubles, bells, pierced shells and pendants of polished stone. She was gamin-faced—the bones of her face sharp and small. Her eyes were lustrous and heavily lashed. Whenever she raised these eyes to me, or turned to look in my direction, she seemed to regard me with tearful surprise. I never felt used to her, never felt at ease with her face. Beauty, a beauty of that sort, is always somewhat shocking.

Whenever Eleanor returned from an evening in Justin’s company—and later, after she had begun returning from whole days and weekends spent with him—she would sit on her bed crosslegged, drinking bouillon, polishing her nails, perhaps flipping through my illustrated volume of Cèzanne, and would discuss tentatively with me her romance. Those were the days before women felt free to be entirely frank about sexual matters. Eleanor was rosy and relaxed in a way that bespoke contentment, and yet she told me a curious thing.

“Do you know,” she said, “my Justin does not like kissing.”

“You’re joking” was all I could think to reply.

“No. He is strange about it. He’s willing to kiss me all I could want. . .” Here she dropped her eyes and smiled. “Yet he forbids me, with very solemn warnings, to kiss him. And so I confess that I have never once kissed this man who means more to me than any other man has or ever shall. It’s implausible, it’s odd—but very true. What do you make of it?”

I lifted my shoulders in a vague and embarrassed shrug. I pretended to be more interested in the watercolor paper which I was soaking in the sink. “Is he satisfied?” I asked.

“I know he’s satisfied,” she said. “And he loves me. I’m sure of that.”

“Of course,” I said.

“But to be forbidden to kiss! It’s such temptation!” Her eyes gleamed. She waved her five fingers to help the nail polish dry. “I always want what I can’t have, and I always do what I shouldn’t.” She blew on her nails.

“People change,” I said. “He might learn to like being kissed.”

She laughed. “Just as I might learn to be abstinent? Or cold?” She shook her head, dismissing the subject, and began to talk to me of something else.

Eventually Eleanor married Justin. He had come into his full inheritance. He had no profession; he was merely a mediocre photographer. Yet even though their talents were widely disparate, they envisioned a life of touring the world together in search of a good life and good subjects. Theirs was a church wedding, designed to please his family, with a panoply of flowers, a queen’s guard of tuxedoed ushers and twelve bridesmaids, among them myself, who were dressed in pastel taffeta and carried lilies. Just the rehearsal took four hours—and the result, so much sweeping down aisles in rustling dresses to the tones of a magnificent organ, reminded everyone that marriage as ceremony alone (regardless of its legal consequences or of its alteration of individual destiny) was “not to be entered into lightly.”

Afterwards I felt quite sad, for I had lost my companion, my friend, and had gained only an empty studio room that would have to be rented quite soon to someone else. I returned to the apartment after the reception and shuffled about, crating some of Eleanor’s books and dishes which she, too busy with preparations for a new life, had left behind. I remember that I was wrapping her Italian pottery in newspaper when the telephone rang. It was Eleanor and she was crying—weeping hysterically on her wedding night. She begged me to come. She would offer no explanation over the phone. Although it was late, well past one o’clock, I assured her I would be there. I was disturbed and baffled, yet felt no qualms about interrupting a honeymoon, such was the torrent of her misery. She had been literally choking with tears.

I was in my bathrobe; therefore, I had to spend a few frantic moments putting on some clothes. My bridesmaid’s dress was spread across my unmade bed where I had laid it after taking it off. The matching silk pumps were lying on the rug, The empty dress and shoes seemed in their arrangement to suggest the ghostly figure of a woman lying supine, awaiting a man to disrobe and make love to her. What had happened between Eleanor and Justin? Just as I was about to leave the apartment, I caught sight of the bouquet which I had carried down the aisle only a few hours before. Already the edges of the lilies were browning. The ferns that framed the flowers were losing their substance, growing limp. I hastily put the bouquet in the refrigerator—then grabbed my handbag and my keys and left.

I took a taxi to the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Eleanor and Justin were staying there overnight, planning to take the limousine to the airport the next morning to catch their flight to Portugal. They would tour Spain as well, then cruise the Greek Isles. Their honeymooning could last a lifetime considering their means . . .and I was considering their means as the taxi drove me up to the hotel’s awning. I could see the Metropolitan Museum across the street, looming in a vast dazzle of lights. Eleanor and Justin and I had spent an afternoon there once, wandering the galleries. Then we retired to the Stanhope’s pretty restaurant with its pink tablecloths and velvet upholstered chairs, its scrolled moldings and mirrors and tinkling silverware, where we had ordered tea and pastries. I had sat between Eleanor and Justin. Eleanor’s perfume was like something unintelligible being whispered in my ear—a fragrance as of a sweet purchased fresh from a confectioner’s shop and left in a springtime forest. Justin had been so deeply in love with her that he would lean toward her and forget what he wanted to say. When finally I got up to leave them there (so they might register for a room and go upstairs to bliss)—they had blushed like children. How could they not be happy?

Quickly I paid the taxi fare, climbed out and rushed into the foyer. Events of that evening were to be so memorable and so appalling that I am still haunted with details I would have otherwise forgotten. For instance, there was a fern-patterned wall-paper behind the desk. The clock read six minutes after two in the morning. A night porter, who had been eating something in a rear room, emerged, brushing yellow crumbs from his face. He appeared startled when I asked the room number of Mr. and Mrs. Grenouille . . .so they must have been easily identified as a newly wedded pair.

“Are you sure they expect you?” he asked.

“Yes. Mrs. Grenouille phoned me at my apartment. But perhaps you should ring the room and tell her I am here.”

I did not wait for him to place the call, but went straight up in the elevator. I was alarmed to find Eleanor, who was bare-foot and dressed in no more than her nightgown, by the elevator doors waiting for me.

“Oh thank Heaven! Thank God!” she said, embracing me at once. I should add here that Eleanor was not usually a demonstrative person.

“What has happened?”

But she could not tell me. She behaved with the abandon of someone watching the ancestral mansion go up in flames, seeming to be seeing something horrible in the distance and wringing her hands. Tears interfered with her words.

I managed to walk her back to her rooms, The lights were turned low there and the large bed, which had been fitted with cream-colored satin sheets, was glimmering under the posh weight of a gold damask eider down quilt. The sheets had been turned back and were wrinkled. The pillows were disarranged. Justin was not there.

“Where’s Justin?”

She pointed to a door. It was the door to the bathroom. A light was on inside. From Eleanor’s incoherent speech, at first I concluded that Justin had taken his life.

But she shook her head—no,

“Should we call an ambulance?” I was standing, holding Eleanor by her arms. She seemed as light as something made of aluminum. She shook her head again, but her eyes were wide.

“Please, Eleanor! Please try to tell me what has happened.” I felt as if I were going to fall into her eyes, they were so open before me, so deep.

“He’s not himself,” she said. “He’s no longer the man I married.”

There was nothing to do but open the bathroom door.

“Does he have a gun?” I thought to ask, But this question brought peals of laughter from Eleanor, who threw back her head and gave herself up to a mania that was truly chilling. “Stop it! Stop it!” To bring her around, I slapped her cheeks.

She gasped. She seemed almost to retch. Then she recovered herself and stood with me.

As I approached the closed bathroom door, its thin slice of light at the jamb seeming to wink malevolently, I clutched Eleanor by the hand. It is never courage that motivates me in such circumstances but curiosity—which I am convinced is a primary emotion, on a par with fear and with love. Curiosity turned that knob—and I opened the door gently, expecting . . . oh, I don’t know what I was expecting. I saw the bright blaze of the toilet, the sink, the bathtub. In accord with the irrelevance of what one perceives in extreme moments, I took special notice of the neatly folded towels bearing the embroidered monogram S. H. And I exclaimed—in surprise and frustration— “Justin? Justin?”

“He’s there,” said Eleanor, pointing, She indicated the floor. On its white tiles was something I had overlooked. A frog,

It sat, full face to us, near the bathmat. It was a large frog. Except for its calm, baleful stare and its poise, it did not remind me of Justin.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“That’s he,” she nodded. “I did what he told me I should never do—I kissed him. And he turned into a frog.”

I stood staring at the frog for several minutes. It did not move away, but sat hunched where it was, blinking. The expression on a frog’s face is difficult to read. “Do you think it—he—understands what we are saying?”

Eleanor did not answer me. She began to weep again. She sank to her knees on the bathroom floor, her trousseau gown all about her, a cloud of moonlight crepe gathered to a bodice stitched with lace appliqués. “Justin!” she cried. “Justin, come back to me!” She stretched out her hands, palms up, to him. But he hopped morosely behind the toilet.

“Get up, Eleanor,” I said. “Don’t humiliate yourself or embarrass Justin.” I pulled her up from her act of supplication and gently urged her into the bedroom, closing the door behind us. Justin would be safe where he was, and I felt I needed to talk with Eleanor privately.

“Now tell me everything,” I said, seated on the marriage bed, sinking into the puffy, golden quilt. Eleanor sat at the headboard clutching a pillow.

“God, it was horrible,” she said. “I was just trying to please him—and suddenly, he turned into an animal!”

“Did you talk with him? Did you try to reason it out?”

“It wasn’t a matter of reasoning it out. We were always honest with each other. Justin did not want to be kissed. I knew that. Yet he had been very reticent about why. He simply wouldn’t tell me why.”

“So you decided a kiss might cure him?”

“Exactly. But how was I to know what would happen?” She rocked back and forth with grief, as if blown by a wind. “We never talked about anything like this. And there was nothing in his family, simply nothing . . . Why, you’ve met them. You know his parents. They’re lovely people!”

I shook my head. “You don’t marry a man’s parents. And you really cannot tell about any man until you’ve lived with him.” I heard myself mouthing these clichés and realized how inadequate they were for a woman in Eleanor’s situation. “Maybe it’s just a passing thing,” I said. “It could be a temporary transformation.”

Eleanor seemed to brighten. “Do you think so? Do you think it could have been brought on by nervousness?”

“Why of course!” My tone of voice was full of the warmth of a reassurance I didn’t feel. “You wouldn’t be the first woman who’s been disappointed on her wedding night.”

Then we talked and talked. Sleep was out of the question for her, though she was exhausted. I had determined to stay the entire night, for I couldn’t leave Eleanor to face such a crisis alone. I rang up room service—and was glad to find it was possible to order hot tea with lemon at four in the morning. I made Eleanor drink several cupfuls even though she was terrified she would have to use the bathroom and confront Justin.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get him to move. I’m sure he’ll understand that you’re in no condition to see him just now.”

“But will he?” She looked distraught. “This is terrible for me—but imagine how he must be suffering. I feel so guilty!”

“Don’t,” I said and went over to the bathroom door, I opened it a crack, and there sat Justin. He had been listening at the threshold. He stared at me with round-eyed reproach.

I slipped inside the bathroom and knelt to speak with him. I kept my voice low so that Eleanor would not overhear, “Listen,” I said, “don’t make it worse for her. She feels bad enough as it is. I admit you’re in an awful jam, but it’s no use squatting there full of recriminations.”

Viewed closely, frogs look very belligerent. Justin was tight-lipped and wordless. Of course, I don’t think it was in his power to say anything even if he had wanted to. But everything in his attitude bespoke an uncooperative bitterness.

“Eleanor didn’t realize what would happen,” I hissed to him in a whisper. “How was she supposed to guess you would turn on her like this? Did you really do your best to warn her?” And with those rhetorical questions, I left him.

I closed the door behind me once again. This time I was afraid Eleanor might catch sight of Justin and be hurt by his expression.

“Well?” she said.

“He’s the same,” I replied.

I began looking for another place to put him. I was very depressed as I considered how quickly their lives had been transformed by tragedy. Their chances for happiness were nil, And the frog bore only a slight resemblance to the well-proportioned, scintillating, wealthy man who had once sipped dry sack sherry from a fruit juice glass and wandered through our apartment laughing at his own jokes. I recalled very clearly the occasion he invaded my studio, uninvited—which had annoyed me—yet won my affection as he stood in front of a canvas saying; “Now here’s what art should be! Here’s a painting I could crawl into and live inside!”

I found a shoebox. I emptied it and made inside it a nest of tissue paper, I wasn’t at all sure I knew how to satisfy a frog’s needs. But the box seemed clean, if not attractive, though it was a trifle narrow. “We’ll use this,” I told Eleanor. “Justin can make himself comfortable here so that you can have some privacy in the bathroom.”

“Oh, but don’t you think he’ll mind?” She had not let go the pillow, even while drinking her tea.

“He’ll be all right.”

“But what will he eat?”

“I don’t know, but he’s got to learn to take care of himself,”

Convincing Justin to jump into the box was difficult, He made his laborious way across the bathroom tiles, creeping away from me, pretending he hadn’t the slightest idea what I was suggesting.

“Come on, Justin,” I said. “You can’t expect to stay here, It would be dangerous for you.” I noticed the webs between his toes and was quite shocked to see how much larger his hind feet were in comparison to his forelimbs. Instead of his powerful knuckles and strong fingers, he had stunted green hands with stubby thumbs, He was about six inches long—whereas once he had stood over six feet. It must have been a cruel blow to his vanity. I tried to be more understanding. “This box will be far more cozy,” I said gently. “I’ll put the lid on and let you get some rest. You’ve had a nasty shock and you should try to sleep it off.”

The frog paused. It seemed to be considering my proposal. Sometimes it did not look at all like Justin. As it sat there, stationary and reflective, I reached over and grabbed it. It felt like a slimy beanbag, and it kicked vigorously as I thrust it into the box. I shut the lid and held the box closed tightly, listening to the gruesome rustling of the frog’s movement in the tissue paper.

“Sleep well,” I said—and went to fetch Eleanor.

Very early we checked out of the hotel. I had copied some addresses of doctors in Manhattan from the telephone directory. We had phoned for an emergency appointment and, thanks to a last-minute cancellation, had managed to secure one. Our plan was to let me return the luggage to Eleanor’s family’s home, squelching suspicions by explaining that the new couple had decided to postpone their flight. They would stay with me a few days and shop in the city before beginning their honeymoon. Meanwhile, Eleanor was to seek medical advice.

Although Justin’s condition was the same, Eleanor had finally got hold of herself. I saw her off in a taxi. She was clutching the paper scrawled with physicians’ names and held on her lap the shoebox, its lid pierced with holes for ventilation. Justin had quieted down. He seemed to understand we were doing everything we could.

After I had dropped the matched leather mountain of luggage at the Ostenbachs’ and had stayed just long enough to assure Mrs. Ostenbach that, yes, it had been a lovely wedding, I returned to the apartment to wait for word from Eleanor, At about four in the afternoon, she called from Bellevue.

“You’ve got to come get me out of here,” she said, “And I don’t even know where Justin is!”

The next few hours were very tense. I managed to convince the institution’s psychiatrists that I was Eleanor’s sole living relative and that she lived with me and was not dangerous. The doctors spoke with concern and interest about her delusion, and I nodded as if I had heard it all before. They finally released her to me, She was beginning to lose control again. At the hospital doorway she nearly got herself committed in spite of my efforts by grabbing an intern by the lapels and screaming, “What have you done with my husband?”

“Calm down, Eleanor,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’ll find him.” She was sobbing in my arms.

“That’s right,” said the shaken intern, straightening his coat. “Humor her, but give her a strong sedative.”

It had begun to rain as Eleanor and I made our way down the steps of the hospital and began to walk the sidewalks. By extraordinary luck, suddenly there he was in a puddle by a garbage can. Frogs have excellent camouflage—they are the color of wet and bespattered things—but immediately I could recognize Justin by his surly expression.

“Hop in,” I said, holding out to him my plastic rain hat—as Eleanor, with remarkable aplomb, accosted a taxi,

The next day we rented a car and drove to Long Island to the office of a mutual friend. Her name was Binkie Feinsod. She had gone to Miss Porter’s with us, and she was a vet. She had established her practice in an attractive cottage in the suburbs just outside of Huntington. Her sign read: “Dr. Beatrice Feinsod: Dogs & Cats.”

“Do you think she can help Justin?” asked Eleanor, who had hardly had any sleep for two nights.

“I don’t see why not,” I said, trying to be optimistic. “A frog could be considered a domestic pet.”

We waited in a cheerfully overdecorated parlor, On the walls were hung needlepoint pictures of poodles. Soon Binkie herself came out of the examining room, holding a reddish hound in her arms. “There you are, Muldoon,” she said, depositing the dog on the floor. “No more ticks.” The hound shook its ears and yawned, as a grateful owner snapped on a leash and left.

Binkie welcomed us with plump opened arms. She pressed us both to her vast and official white coat, and she spent several moments exclaiming over and admiring our clothes. Even in our school days, Binkie never took as much time to dress as she did to eat. “Oh, how wonderfully stylish you both look!” she said. Then she ushered us into a white room that smelled of alcohol and tennis shoes, a most peculiar odor, and asked, “What can I do for you?”

Very carefully Eleanor placed Justin on the table. He looked somewhat alarmed by the sudden bright lights and the cold surface of the stainless steel, but he soon adjusted to his surroundings. I must say that Justin had a great deal of dignity for a man in his condition. One could tell he had been well brought up, for he was not inclined to complain about what could not be helped, Under the lights, his green, mottled skin shone wetly, and I observed his whitish venter and the dorsolateral folds of glandular tissue. His skin seemed to have yellowed at his throat—but this was, we learned from Binkie, entirely normal.

“He’s an excellent specimen,” she said.

At this, Eleanor seemed to forget the seriousness of the situation; I saw she was smiling with pleasure—a wife’s pride in her husband. Therefore, I took it upon myself to explain as briefly as I could the circumstances of the extraordinary transformation. “You can see,” I concluded, “that although Justin is perfectly healthy and normal for what he is, he’s no longer fit to be Eleanor’s husband. He’s quite repulsive. She shouldn’t be expected to live with him.”

“I should say not,” said Binkie. “His species prefers water anyway. He’s definitely aquatic—a resident of lakes, ponds, bogs, sluggish portions of streams, cattle tanks—you name it.”

“But can’t we work something out?” said Eleanor. She assumed a very reasonable expression. “At least we could try.”

Binkie shook her head. “In all probability, he won’t return to his former self. And someone in his condition will find it difficult to make compromises.”

We all looked at, Justin, who seemed to open his eyes especially wide and gulp.

We learned little else from Binkie other than that Justin’s Latin name was Rana catesbeiana and that occasionally he might inflate his vocal sac and make a sonorous sound equivalent to our words: jug-o-rum. On the way back to Manhattan, Eleanor and I stopped at a pet store and purchased a can of very frightening looking frog food; neither of us had the stomach to read the label and discover the ingredients.

After that, there was really nothing more as Eleanor’s friend that I could do.

In the months that followed, Eleanor moved in with her mother and father, who, like the devoted parents they had always been, stuck by her. However, they were not willing to forgive Justin, whom they considered an odious deceiver. But they helped their daughter in every other way.

Eleanor phoned me and related the particulars of her interview with Mrs. Grenouille, who at first had not been willing to admit that her son had changed at all. But when she was presented with the incontrovertible evidence of a frog, she had burst dramatically into tears, horrified at what a monstrous transformation marriage had wrought in her dear Justin. Of course, she blamed her daughter-in-law. “See to what extremes you have driven my son!” she cried, And Eleanor had been completely undone.

There followed an extensive search for a cure for Justin. Few specialists, in New York or on the Eastern seaboard, or, for that matter, anywhere in the United States, handle cases of such radical mutation. Eleanor was ultimately driven to consultations with faith healers and members of occult societies. But there was no explanation and no cure. She herself entered into a period of intensive psychoanalysis. “If I can’t change Justin, I can try to change myself,” she said.

“But Eleanor,” I argued, “why don’t you leave him? Your duty is to yourself first of all. Go back to your work-start painting again. Get a divorce, meet someone else and remarry.”

“But what about him?” she said. “He needs me.”

I thought of Justin’s slick, smooth skin and of his long-legged, narrow-waisted body. “Nonsense,” I said. “You’re both still young. Leave him while you both have a chance for a new life. He’s already well adapted; he’ll make it on his own. You’ll see,”

“You’re probably right,” said Eleanor, but her voice was unconvinced. It was thin and far and tired. Our friendship was waning. Friends, to be close, must share similar problems, similar joys. By that time I had begun to fall in love with the man I would marry.

“Good-bye, Eleanor. Phone when you have the chance. Keep in touch with me and good luck.” I said this with too much strength. Poor Eleanor, poor Justin, I thought.

A year later, I received a letter. Eleanor wrote to me from Italy. She had received a Prix de Rome and was painting at the American Academy. She had rented a villa with a pond in its garden; she and Justin were still together. “I’ve tried to leave him,” she wrote, “but we seem to stay with each other in spite of our differences. The lily pond here is full of female frogs, but Justin ignores them. He spends most of his time on the terrace with me. Here I lead a very quiet life. Imagine fine wine and ripe cheese on a marble table. For lunch I pick figs that are on a tree near my easel. I paint all day.”

The works of the artists she went on to mention were not very familiar to me. I had stopped painting seriously; I was teaching art part time in an elementary school.

“Men do not interest me,” Eleanor’s letter continued. “I guess that my experience with Justin has soured me. He is sitting here now in the shadow of my chair. Often he watches me work, and though we rarely communicate, at least he does not criticize or belittle me.” The rest of the letter went on to describe Florence, Padua and Siena, She told anecdotes of the contemporary painters she had met in Rome. I kept meaning to reply to Eleanor’s letter—but I procrastinated and never did.

Years passed. I had married a professor at Yale, and I was living in New Haven. I never heard from Eleanor directly, but I began to hear of her. I missed her first one-man show in New York. It was downtown in Soho—just the right sort of introduction of her work, with a measured but enthusiastic review by a respected art critic of The New Yor/c Times. She was beginning to live out the dreams we had shared on York Avenue. Had I not been the one who had let our correspondence lapse, had I not felt ashamed, I might have written her a congratulatory letter.

Subsequently, I read that Eleanor Ostenbach Grenouille had been selected for the Whitney Annual. When several of her works were included in a show of young artists at the Museum of Modern Art, I took a train to New York in spite of being seven months pregnant with my first child. There I saw again the style that I had known so well at its inception—but a style made deeper by suffering, bolder by confidence, more skilled by practice. Her paintings were wonderful. I would have loved to have bought one for myself—but they had all been sold to important collectors and each for a prince’s ransom.

By now, anyone at all aware of trends in contemporary art knows of Eleanor’s work. I have read of her in the Art Newson two occasions when I chanced to get hold of the right issues. “Did you actually know Grenouille? I mean did you really room with her when she was a student?” A young artist and friend of my husband simply could not believe it. And, to tell you the truth, for a moment neither could I.

But last week Eleanor came to visit me. She had learned of my marriage, my children and my address from Binkie Feinsod. “How wonderful to see you again, dear you,” she said, still herself, precious to me, as she climbed from the hired limousine.

“You should have let us come get you at the airport,” I said.

She had brought me a bunch of anemones, always favorites since we had had a mad joke about Matisse. So she hadn’t yet forgotten our good times.

After being introduced to my husband, Eleanor leaned into the back of the car and plucked from the wide seat a wicker hamper. “Here’s Justin,” she said, flipping the hinged cover. “He’ll be so glad to see you again.”

I looked into the hamper. It was indeed Justin. He looked fatter and more self-important but essentially the same. He did not seem at all glad to see me.

“He hates to travel,” said Eleanor busily, “He’ll need a cool tub of water later this evening. I hope that won’t be too much trouble.”

She had recently returned from a trip to Turkey and had brought my children gifts—a costume doll made of colored wool for the four-year-old and a pair of carved wooden shoes for the baby. “Darling children!” she said in such a voice that I wished she could have had children too.

We sat on the terrace. Eleanor took Justin from his special traveling case and solicitously placed him on a flagstone. He seemed to feel at home at once. He hopped off in the direction of my lilac bushes, quite content to explore my garden on his own.

“Would Justin like a drink?” I asked. I had remembered he was aquatic.

“Oh, no. He’s fine for now,” said Eleanor. “He’ll get ‘doused’ later! He seems to be admiring your shrubs,”

We paused to watch his dim form jumping erratically through the mulch of the flower beds. My husband was in the kitchen making daiquiris, “Tell me of yourself,” she said eagerly, and I explained that what she saw around her was all I had to tell. “Not like you,” I said. “I’m proud of you,”

And then she described Turkey to me: her ferry trips across the Bosporus, Hagia Sophia in the sunsets, drinks of strong coffee from little glasses. There had been the streets of Constantinople—vendors who sold vegetables, vendors who sold fish and the vendors who sold nothing but bananas. And so many paintings she had done! Slowly in the seesaw of my esteem, I felt my own life was sinking as hers rose. “But your marriage . . .” I said. I brought it up because I was jealous of the rest,

Eleanor was seated at our glass-topped terrace table, sitting in a rather uncomfortable, ornate cast-iron chair. There must have been a coin left on that table—for I remember that she was rolling a coin, either a dime or a penny, rather idly across the glass. It whirred as it rolled and then made a tiny, metallic, spitting sound as it fell over and came to rest, She let the coin roll and fall . . .not answering me, Then, picking it up, she let it roll and fall again. For several minutes she said nothing. When she did speak, she said, “My life has not been easy. Adjusting to the change in Justin and to my disappointment was very hard. But then, my experience in this was not so very unique, because I must tell you”—and she leaned toward me confidentially—”there are not many conventional marriages that I envy.”

And then we looked up, for my husband had brought our drinks.


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