Helen often thought of the summer the dogs kept getting stuck. A hump gone wrong: Tam mounted the puppy, Molly, and then couldn’t pull out. No one knew Molly was in heat—Tam got to her before she’d been spayed. And Tam wasn’t neutered because Helen’s father, browbeaten by a household of women, had insisted that the dog—his only male companion—remain intact. Helen watched Tam turn around, try to pull away, and fail. The two border collies were still attached, but trying to walk in opposite directions. They were trapped like that, butt to butt like a two-headed beast. Tam was smart enough to feel shame. Helen could see it in his face. And poor miserable Molly, who never asked for any of this sordid business, would try to walk, dragging Tam one awkward step at a time.
“You have to pour cold water on them,” her father said, but this seemed cruel.
“Let’s give them some time,” Helen said, trying not to stare. Didn’t they deserve privacy?
Helen was nine. When Molly got pregnant, Helen found a veil among the costumes in the basement and used her grandmother’s Bible to perform a wedding ceremony. A neighbor’s golden retriever was leashed in place as bridesmaid. Helen’s sister, who was five at the time, walked Molly down the aisle of lawn. There are Polaroids of Phoebe, in Sunday dress, clutching some backyard tulips. Later Helen made a “maternity ward” out of a huge cardboard box and an L.L. Bean dog bed. Her mother, at home for once, stayed up all night to help deliver the puppies. There were just two of them—sickly, sorry things. “Premature mating is risky,” the veterinarian said. One died the next day. The other survived and went to live with cousins in Tennessee. Not long after that, both dogs were fixed. There would be no more humping in the house.
Twelve years later, Helen was spending Thanksgiving in New York. Andrew wanted her to meet his parents. They’d come down from New Haven—after spending much of the morning arguing about who would drive—and hit such terrible traffic that it was nearly eight when they arrived. They were staying with Andrew’s father on the East Side because Andrew’s sister, Caroline, and her boyfriend (“such a meathead,” Andrew said) were at his mother’s on the West Side. His father’s apartment, with its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, Oriental rugs, and views of Central Park, filled Helen with longing. She had always imagined herself in New York. She had always wanted a claim to that city’s streets. Part of what attracted her to Andrew in the first place was the fact that he was from New York. Like most New Yorkers, though, he’d been slow to learn to drive. They were seniors in college and he’d just gotten his license, which was why Helen still didn’t trust him behind the wheel. It was her car—a battered Peugeot, handed down from her parents—and had a manual transmission, so rather than endure his clumsy shifting, she insisted on driving the whole way to the city.
In the car, Andrew had said he dreamed of going west. “Montana,” he said. “Or Idaho.”
“Idaho?” Helen asked.
How could Andrew dream of Idaho when he had all this?
Andrew’s father wasn’t home. He was a writer, and Andrew said he was brilliant, but he’d only published one book. A collection of stories, called Sirens, lauded in its time. Helen studied his bookshelves. Alphabetized: the complete works of both Eliots, T. S. and George. Multiple copies of Faulkner’s novels. Two whole shelves of Nabokov. Three devoted to Wodehouse. This was, she thought, the way a literary life should look.
“Are we allowed to stay in the same room?” she asked.
“Of course,” Andrew said. “My dad’s room is on the other side of the apartment. He won’t hear a thing.”
That night, she wanted him badly, but Andrew was tired. He slid halfhearted fingers inside her, but couldn’t give her anymore. Afterward, she lay there in the dark, waiting for she didn’t know what.
After a while, she pulled on her pajamas and made her way to the kitchen, thirsty.
“You must be Helen,” Andrew’s father said. He must have been fifty. A head full of thick, dark hair, barely flecked with gray. Collar open, loosened tie. Tortoiseshell glasses, larkish eyes. He looked like a man who was accustomed to finding women in his kitchen late at night.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
“My son has always been a very heavy sleeper,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, and then wondered if she should admit her familiarity with his son’s sleeping patterns. She would never have told her own parents that she had slept, repeatedly, beside any boy.
It was nearly two. He offered her a glass of wine. The wine was red, but she didn’t know enough about wine to know anything other than that. Helen was good at masking her ignorance. She was good at acting familiar with expensive things. She had always been good at fitting into this milieu. It was partly her cheekbones—her face looked at home in settings like this one. More than one man had told her she looked like a character out of Jane Austen or Henry James. Her family didn’t have this kind of money, but she was known for her prompt and gracious thank-you notes.
“So let me guess,” Andrew’s father said. “You’re staying here because Caroline is at their mother’s.”
“I gather this is routine?”
“Caro won’t stay here. She’ll never forgive me for leaving her mother.”
Helen liked the way he drew her so quickly into his confidence. It made her feel like an adult. “That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?” She’d heard the story. Andrew’s father was never faithful.
“The kids were in elementary school. Their mother and I were not a good match.”
“That is a conversation for another time. Your parents are still married?”
“They are. But not so happily.” The wine went down easily. She was warming up. She could feel herself succumbing to the buzz. “Are there truly happy marriages?”
“You’ve got it all figured out, have you?” He removed his glasses to wipe his eyes. She realized he was laughing at her.
“Maybe I read too much Tolstoy,” she said and knew she was trying too hard.
“I doubt my son has ever read any Tolstoy. See if you can fix that, will you? I paid for all those years of private school and I’m not convinced he learned anything.” Even his voice was rich. A baritone he’d probably inherited with all the property in Massachusetts. Helen knew that Andrew’s father had never had to work for anything. He was a man who seemed eternally at play. “And tell me this, since you’re obviously bright: How did my hapless boy persuade such a beautiful, well-read young woman to come home with him?”
“I didn’t intend to meet you wearing my pajamas,” she said.
“They are very attractive pajamas.” He moved close to her and unbuttoned her top, opened it like drapes. He stepped back and studied her breasts, as if auditioning a model for an art class. Helen felt a creeping dampness in her underwear. Andrew’s father had beautiful hands. She knew she should button her shirt, but she couldn’t move.
Helen had slept with exactly three men. Boys, really. Her high-school boyfriend, who was such a good parallel parker; the editor of the college literary magazine that published her first story; and Andrew, who didn’t realize, until junior year, how good-looking he was. He’d been chubby as a child; he still thought of himself as the fat kid. Helen discovered him before other girls could.
She couldn’t explain why she allowed herself to be led into Andrew’s father’s bedroom. Or why she allowed him to take one of her nipples into his mouth. She’d had two glasses of wine, but alcohol could not be blamed for her lapse in judgment. Andrew had always been tentative, waiting for direction, but his father lifted her onto the bed with certainty.
“My God, your body is perfect,” he said. “I bet you hear that all the time.”
“Maybe,” she said. The truth was, she had never heard it before. That was the sort of thing people said about her sister. Phoebe had always been the pretty one, the one born to wear a bikini. Helen hated feeling so susceptible to compliments. She hated the part of herself that thrived on praise. She liked thinking about her body as perfect, though. Perfectionism had always been her problem.
“You want to know why Andrew’s mother and I were not a good match?” he whispered. “She didn’t like sex.”
This suggested, of course, that she, Helen, did like sex. Was that true? She wondered if her libido was unusually strong. She wondered if, like Phoebe, she was an object of desire. She wondered if, like her mother, she could surprise herself. She had begun to understand that her mother was a woman full of contradictions. Helen didn’t feel like a woman, though. She still thought of herself as a girl. She closed her eyes. The fucking—for it was fucking, not collegiate fumbling—was deliciously fierce. Andrew’s father put his fingers in her mouth and she bit them to keep from screaming, it was so good. She slipped back into Andrew’s bed before dawn. It was Thanksgiving Day.
Later that morning they pretended to meet for the first time. “Dad, this is Helen,” Andrew said with so much pride it made her want to cry.
“I gather you want to be a writer,” Andrew’s father said. There was a copy of the New York Review of Books on the kitchen table, next to his coffee mug. There was a half-eaten slice of toast on a plate. Helen fixated on a lump of unmelted butter on top.
“She’s really good, Dad.” Andrew squeezed her hand. His fingers seemed doughy and unformed.
“I’m always interested in a good story,” Helen said, and realized that it got her in trouble, this wondering where the story would lead.
Over Christmas vacation, when Helen told Phoebe what happened, she said, “I must be crazy.”
“You know I am,” Phoebe said. They had crawled out on the roof in the dark, so Phoebe could smoke.
“I mean, I felt like a crazy person. Because what kind of sane person would do such a thing? I let Andrew drive all the way back to school, just so that he couldn’t look at me. I was sure he could read the guilt in my eyes. I wanted him to keep his eyes on the road.” She’d broken up with Andrew shortly after Thanksgiving. “He loved me too much. I don’t deserve it,” she said.
In church on Christmas Eve, Helen contributed her soprano to all the hymns. She prayed for forgiveness, from whatever being could grant it. They were Episcopalians, not Catholics, but she was ready to confess. She had been a pious child. At thirteen and fourteen, she’d been an acolyte. She’d felt the eyes of the congregation burn into her as she carried the cross down the nave for the reading of the Gospel. She loved her duty, the ceremony of it. She loved being backstage, watching the rector compose himself before they entered the church. Now, next to her in the pew, Phoebe wasn’t singing. When Phoebe was seven, she’d fallen asleep during the Christmas Eve service with her head in Helen’s lap. She’d drooled all over Helen’s green velvet dress. All love is messy, Helen thought. There was always spillage of bodily fluids.
At home that night, she crawled into Phoebe’s bed. They curled up like puppies, the way they used to do when they were young. “Pheebs, I think I broke his heart,” she said of Andrew. “That’s the last thing I wanted to do.”
But she didn’t tell him about his father—“how could I?”—and when she finally went back to Yale in January, she was resolved. That semester, she would do nothing but study. No boys, no men. No distractions.
But then Andrew’s father wrote to her.
The letter was on fine blue paper, composed with a fountain pen. She studied his anachronistic flourishes. Helen knew that Andrew’s father was a cad, but she couldn’t resist. She spent weeks composing a reply—she couldn’t find the right tone. She kept throwing half-written pages in the trash.
“Dear Win,” she wrote, and sometimes that was enough to stop her, because she still thought of him as Andrew’s father.
But “Dear Win,” she continued,
I must admit that your letter took me by surprise. What happened in New York was so unprecedented, in my life anyway, that I wasn’t sure it happened at all. Perhaps you know that your son and I are no longer seeing each other. How could I stay after betraying him so? He will make a better girl than me very happy.
I realize that this is the sort of thing a character in a book would write. There is something mannered about it. If this were a Chekhov story, we would have eaten watermelon after we got out of bed.
I hope you can forgive my transgression.
I hope you believe me when I tell you that
I was always one of the good girls.
It was true that Helen had spent her life following rules. She was winning prizes while Phoebe was causing their parents to fret. She was getting As while Phoebe broke hearts.
“My darling,” Andrew’s father’s reply began.
Am I darling? Helen wondered.
There were perhaps nine letters total, four from him, five from her, before she graduated that spring. She moved to New York and took a job at a magazine, checking facts. She didn’t tell Win where she was. Let it be, was what she told herself. She lived with two roommates in a cramped walk-up on the Lower East Side. She rarely had cause to go uptown. Andrew was no longer speaking to her—it was too painful, he said, to try to be friends—but she heard that he was in Montana. She tried to picture him under those big skies.
One Saturday, late in her first summer as a college graduate, Helen took the C train up to the museum of natural history. She liked spending afternoons in grand galleries, visiting scenes from the life she had dreamed of having in New York. And there, under the whale, was Win.
“Helen,” he said. “Your face could launch a million ships.”
It was too easy to accept his offer of a drink—“we’ll go to the Century,” he said, guiding her into a cab—and after three gin and tonics, she agreed that she was hungry. She let him take her to dinner—“a little Italian place I know”—and then, before she had a handle on the evening, she was back in his apartment. It was as she remembered it. While Win fetched scotch, she went to Andrew’s room. It was neat and cold. She sat on the edge of his bed, ran a hand over his duvet with its cover of crisp ticking stripe.
“I was at your graduation,” Win said from the doorway. “But I didn’t have a chance to say hello.”
“Andrew was avoiding me that weekend,” Helen said. And then, as she stood: “How is he?”
“Oh, Andrew. Directionless as always.”
That was the last night Win undressed her. And this time, with no one sleeping in the bedroom down the hall, it was less exciting. This time Helen noticed sagging flesh, gray pubic hair. Folds of skin she hadn’t seen before. She was sorry that he couldn’t stay hard longer. “I drank too much,” he said.
She didn’t even pretend to come. He drifted off, clutching her in a clinging embrace that reminded her of his son. She thought of the Teddy Roosevelt quote on the wall of the museum: “Character in the long run is the decisive factor in a life.”
In the morning, as she dressed, she said, “I feel like a whore.”
“Nonsense,” he said. He had pulled on a navy-blue polo shirt, but wasn’t yet wearing any pants. She could see his veiny middle-aged balls dangling below the cuff of his top. There was something boyish and sweet about the way he’d put on his shirt first. She liked seeing him so vulnerable and strange. She could fall in love with him, if he weren’t the father of his son. He was still naked from the waist down when he said he had a present for her. It was a box of stationery. The same elegant paper he ordered for himself from London. “Because you write such wonderful letters,” he said. “And because you have a pretty pussy.”
In the next four years, Helen fractured and drifted, through various editorial jobs, through various apartments in neighborhoods she could afford. What happened with Win was a gateway to other murky situations. There was the colleague whose jeans she unzipped in the bathroom of a bar. She sat on the toilet and took him in her mouth, right there, on a drunken dare. There was the old high-school friend—a boy three classes ahead of her on whom she’d had a hopeless crush—who bumped into her in Union Square. He was newly married to a woman he’d met in law school, but he and Helen spent the afternoon sitting on a bench and then, as dusk approached, he confessed: “I used to think about you all the time.” He’d always liked the way Helen carried herself, he said.
“You make me sound like luggage,” she said. She imagined herself on a conveyor belt, waiting to be picked up.
He escorted her to her apartment and she offered him a beer. It was all very innocent. On his wife, he would never cheat. “But it’s a relief, isn’t it,” he said, “to get these feelings off our chests?”
Yes, she said. Confession created intimacy. Or intimacy inspired confessions. She wasn’t sure which came first. But she liked the way layers peeled away, leaving people exposed.
And then he said, “Instead of averting my eyes and pretending I’m not attracted to you, I’d like to drink you in.”
“Drink me in?”
“I just want to look at you.” His eyes were green, the color of money.
“I’ll just sit here, then,” she said, mocking him.
“Will you take off your dress?”
“That’s not fair,” she said. “I get nothing out of that.”
“It’s true that I can’t touch you.” He crossed his legs, folded his hands. His left hand, with his platinum wedding band, was on top. “But maybe I could help you get off.”
She raised a brow, playing femme fatale. If she were a smoker, she would have lit up and blown a ring.
He said, “I can tell you what I would do to you…”
“If you weren’t a married man.”
She used to be a girl who prayed. A girl who could write. But now she was a woman who liked sex. So she took off her dress, and then her bra, and then her underwear, and then she was masturbating for him right there on the couch, while he sat across from her, telling her how much he’d like to fuck her, if he could.
Helen didn’t know why these scenes turned her on. She should have been turned in, to some authority, she should have been found out. Found lacking morality and sense. She’d always thought of herself as a person averse to risk. She used to be so shy. “My shrink would say you keep getting entangled with unavailable men because you’re afraid of attachment,” Phoebe said. Phoebe knew a lot about shrinks; she’d already seen half a dozen of them.
Helen took long, punishing runs. All the way up the West Side Highway, as far as Harlem, and back. She ran in all weather, even rain and sleet. Her legs turned sinewy and she decided she’d run a marathon. She bought a book with a training plan, prepared to rack up miles. She denied herself mascara and lipstick. She kept her hair pinned up. She started going to church again, in turtleneck sweaters and pleated skirts. On Saturday nights she stayed in, reading Emily Dickinson. She wanted to contain her life in meter, to relegate her curiosity to the page. She wanted to put the sordid episodes behind her.
Meanwhile the old friend from high school kept calling. “Can’t I drink you in a few more times?”
“Am I a cocktail?” she asked.
“I like it when you say the word ‘cock,’” he said.
She hung up.
Helen began to think she should move away from New York. Away from ambition and vanity and money. She imagined herself in Vermont, in a small town where everyone ate local cheese. She could devote herself to charity work. She’d take long hikes, she’d learn to cross-country ski. She pictured this celibate life in sepia tones.
But then one Sunday night, it was Andrew on the phone: “I didn’t know who else to call,” he said. “My father’s dead.”
A heart attack. Andrew’s sobs were like a child’s, punctuated by hiccups, and for a long time, Helen just let him cry. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “What a terrible loss.”
“My dad loved you,” he said. “He kept telling me you were the best thing that ever happened to me.”
So Helen was beside him at the funeral. She wore an inky suit from Bergdorf’s. It was important that she look like the sort of woman who knew how to dress. It cost far more than she could afford, but she charged it and decided that debt was another penalty she deserved. Andrew read T. S. Eliot and did it well. His father would have been proud. That’s what Helen told him.
Afterward, they all went back to the apartment for a reception. Andrew’s sister, Caroline, was in charge. She was tall and broad shouldered and moved as if she were on a tennis court, darting forward and back to try to make a point. Helen tried to say hello, but Caroline looked right through her. She remembered that Caroline had insisted that they all play charades on that fateful Thanksgiving. “My sister loves structured entertainment,” Andrew said at the time. Now the rooms were overflowing, with relatives and friends, Win’s old editor—“I kept trying to get a novel out of him,” the man said with a soggy laugh—and literary agent. Helen stayed near the bartender in the dining room.
“Are you the famous girlfriend?” asked a man in a bowtie waiting for his gin.
“Which famous girlfriend?” Helen felt a knot of panic: What if Win told friends about her?
The man raised his glass, rattled his ice. It seemed less like a toast than a threat. “Win said Andrew was in love,” he said.
But what if Andrew found her letters among his father’s papers? Somewhere in this apartment, her missives were waiting to cause a scandal. Inside her sentences were glimpses of the person she wanted to be: a woman who was graceful and refined. But there were also hints of a less careful creature, one consumed by something out of her control. I’d like to have you in an elevator, to let you push my buttons, take me up.
“Excuse me,” she said.
She made her way through the crowd, as politely as possible, and back to Win’s study. His desk was a rolltop. There were boxes of his stationery stacked in the corner. She rifled through the drawers. She had to find them. She had to burn them. She looked through the file cabinet next to the desk. There were tax records, but no letters of any kind. In his closet, she found boxes of yellowing photographs—a young Win at Princeton, Caroline and Andrew as toddlers on a beach—but no letters. It was possible that Win threw them away long ago. Perhaps he had similar letters from dozens of women. Perhaps he wasn’t sentimental about such things. But she couldn’t be sure. Her reputation was at stake. She couldn’t relax until she knew they’d been destroyed.
When all the mourners had gone, Andrew pulled Helen onto his lap. “Stay with me?” he asked. “Just for tonight? I can’t bear to be here alone.”
His hands slid up her legs. It was the first time he’d touched her in five years. His grip was newly rugged. Perhaps he’d spent his time out west wrangling horses. Or women. He’d become a wrangler. She kicked off her shoes. “Take off your stockings,” he said.
She peeled off her tights and surveyed the room, looking for places where Win might have stored her pages. Were they tucked inside his books? She’d wait until Andrew fell asleep, then check the volumes of Tolstoy.
Andrew was leading her across the room with more purpose than he’d ever had. But they were going the wrong direction. “Your bedroom is that way,” she said, in her most consoling voice.
“My dad’s bed is more comfortable,” he said, pushing open his father’s door.
“I don’t want to be in a dead man’s bed.”
But Andrew was already carrying her over the threshold. “I’m going to move back to New York,” he promised. She knew then that she was marooned there. She would stay until she found the letters. She would stay as long as it took to revise the past.
Andrew removed her clothes and tossed her overpriced suit on the floor. “God,” he said, pressing his mouth to her ear. “I’ve missed this.”
“Maybe we should have a moment of silence for your dad…”
“There’s no better way to honor my father than this,” he said. He couldn’t possibly know how true that was. So Helen closed her eyes and opened her legs.
After Andrew fell asleep, she climbed out of bed, naked and sticky, and crept into Win’s bathroom. There was a beautiful claw-foot tub. There were navy-blue towels, with his monogram, folded on the rack. On the counter, she spied his toothbrush, unused for the past week. Win had been cremated, so his teeth were reduced to ash. In the shower, Helen turned on the cold water, and then stood, until her teeth were chattering, beneath the stream. She was freezing, but she couldn’t get out. Win once wrote, “My darling, your secrets are always safe with me.”She pressed her bony cheek against the white subway tile. This was the style of bathroom she’d always loved.