He could not remember whether it had been in her apartment in Lawrence, the one they’d shared for two weeks after their marriage, or in the tiny one-room apartment in the back of the house where the old Italian couple lived, that summer on Staten Island, or in the third-floor row house apartment in Baltimore, after he’d been accepted to graduate school that fall—he could only remember that it had been sometime that first year of their marriage when she had suggested the agreement.
“If either of us is thinking about having an affair,” she’d said, “I mean, seriously thinking about one, not just fantasizing, we’ll tell the other one first, so we have a chance to talk about it.”
He had not hesitated; perhaps he had even laughed at her for thinking such an agreement would be necessary. But it had been the mid ‘60’s, when one strove to be kind and honest, and when it had been possible to believe that one could promise to be kind and honest forever. Her reasoning, which she had shared with him, was that she wasn’t completely sure he loved her, despite his belief that he did.
The problem, which he had freely admitted, was that he wasn’t in love with her—not then, anyway, or not in that passionate, destructive way of being in love which he’d decided to put behind him forever. After the last one had ended, he’d decided never to go through that agony again, never to feel lust or jealousy or the suicidal depression that followed the inevitable breakup. He had understood that it meant putting aside the manic joy as well, but he thought it a good trade. He had set out to live a life in the middle range—a happy life, if possible, but without those highs and lows.
Specifically, he had told himself that from now on he would seek friends, not lovers, and he had accepted that that might mean a lifetime alone, except for friends. He had worked on getting used to thinking of himself that way, just in case. But in fact things had happened so quickly and easily after that it had Seemed obvious to him that this should have been his strategy all along. They had become friends, and then lovers, so smoothly, so naturally, that it felt like something that had been waiting to happen to him, whenever he would agree to allow it. He had congratulated himself on finally wising up.
It seemed obvious to him that she was someone with whom he could spend his life quite happily—partly because he recognized that she was in love with him, though he was not in love with her, a new experience for him. He insisted, however, that he loved her, a different thing altogether. “Loving is an active thing, a matter of will,” he had told her, more than once, to reassure her. “Being in love is passive, something that happens to you whether you want it or not. It doesn’t last. Love lasts.”
He knew that it troubled her that he was not more passionate, that he didn’t seek to spend every moment with her, write poems to her, try to drag her into bed whenever they were alone. “This will be better than that,” he told her. “This will grow, not die. This will last forever.”
Nevertheless, he remembered at least one moment shortly before their marriage when, sitting in her third-floor apartment while she was in another room, he had looked down through the window, through branches and wires, at the campus intersection below, where a nighttime wind swirled dead leaves in yellow circles of street-lamp light, and imagined himself down there, by himself, the way he had begun recently to think of himself, his hands thrust deep in his jacket pockets, pausing for a moment in the dark at the corner to look up at this square of light, into the face of someone who was getting married, after all, who had chosen to love someone forever. Whatever doubt he had felt at that moment had not been about that love, but about himself, about which one was the true him, the one who really knew what he needed.
So perhaps it was to be expected, 20 years later, when she invoked that old agreement, proposing a new one in its place, that he found there was a tiny part of him—perhaps all that was left of that boy standing in darkness by himself—that was not surprised.
“You’ve got me for life,” she told him, sitting at the kitchen table over cooling cups of coffee, while he stared out the window at the empty backyard. “You’ve got my heart, my soul, my mind, my love, everything important about me. You’re the only man I would ever want to live with and I’m going to stay with you forever. And I don’t intend to hurt you. If you say no, I’ll go along with that, but I’ll resent it, I think, and eventually it may come between us. Because it seems to me such a small, inconsequential thing, I can’t understand why you won’t let me have it.”
He didn’t say he wouldn’t let her have it. He didn’t say anything yet. He went off to work without saying anything and sat in his office at the newspaper, staring at the computer screen, still trying to think what to say.
She didn’t have anyone specific in mind, she said, but there were always offers, opportunities. She was still an attractive woman. And she had turned them down for 20 years, but now she was thinking she might not want to anymore, that her chance to see what it might be like was disappearing. She wanted his permission in advance; she wanted not to have to tell him anything until it was over, without feeling that she was cheating. She wanted not to have to think of him there by himself, alone, knowing where she was.
He himself wanted very much to be rational about it, to be fair. He was surprised by how close beneath the surface the old emotion was, still waiting to engulf him, to make him miserable. That emotion urged him to cry no, no! But he did not see how he could do that and keep on being the man he had been for 20 years. Yes stuck in his throat, but finally he could not figure out how to say anything else to her.
And when at last he agreed to a new arrangement—the two of them sitting on the front porch steps in the evening, cooling off from a walk around the neighborhood, the cat weaving in and out between them, talking softly of its own desires—it seemed to him that he was not really saying, “Yes, you have my permission,” but “Yes, I see. That’s how it is now,” that the only decision he had really had to make was to find a way to live with it. And immediately afterward he felt aged, creaky, as if his acquiescence marked some rite of passage from the meaningful part of his life, so that he would only be filling time from here on out. At the same time, she seemed to him young again, as if the best of her life were only beginning.
In fact, in the days afterward, she spoke that way to him, talking of the future and of her plans, of doing new things, going places, getting out of the traps they had gotten themselves into with jobs and ownership and debt. She talked of doing and making, not of maintaining, and she talked of doing it all with him, of the two of them together, renewing the vague purpose with which they had set out, 20 years before, to be companions, having adventures together. He nodded and smiled, chilled by an image of the young, energetic woman striding forward while behind her crept an elderly man who had already used up the chances he had been given.
Part of it was that she was changing physically. She had begun working out with weights at a fitness center in the city, was growing slimmer and stronger. Increasingly, beside her, he felt heavy and slow and over-large, although he had been the athletic one during most of their marriage. She had been like most of the women of her generation, soft and unmuscled. He had played the usual sports in high school, intramurals in college, and then had done nothing for a few years until, just past 30, he had found himself pining for that remembered activity and had begun going to the Y and playing basketball at noon three times a week. He had done that in the years since, not losing much weight, but regaining a sense of his body, a feeling of grace and strength. But in the last few years, he had noticed also the stiffening of joints, the increasing frequency of little injuries, pulls and sprains that seemed to last for months at a time, the slowing of reflexes; his body had begun to make him feel old even before she had begun growing young. When she spoke to him now excitedly of the pleasures of the body, of the things she learned in the gym, he smiled and thought sourly that not every message the body sends is good news.
Another difference between them was that she loved her job, not least because it sent her traveling, spending days away from him on behalf of the company she had gone to work for after their daughter left home. He had traveled that way, himself, when he had been assistant managing editor, responsible for hiring, but he had quickly tired of the hotel rooms and restaurants and had gradually eased himself out of it. There had been plenty of others, enthusiastic about it like her, eager to take his place. Thinking of her traveling, he did not superimpose memories of the trips he had made—lonely, boring, vaguely uncomfortable, always with a faint nausea from the plane ride, the smells of airports and taxis. Instead, he pictured her with someone—someone faceless, younger, taller, more successful than himself—enjoying it all, enjoying his absence.
While she was gone, he spent his evenings at home, drinking and watching television. He had been a reader once—had a master’s degree in English literature, in fact, had even thought once of going on for his doctorate, though that seemed puzzling to him now, when he thought about it. Working on the newspaper, he had gotten out of the habit of reading anything but news, except for an occasional thriller. He had gone to the library once, over a lunch hour when he had not felt like eating but had still wanted to get out of the office, and had browsed among the books of his adolescence—Dickens and Twain and Kipling, books he had read even before going to college—but he had found that there was no going back, not for him anyway. Looking into these books was like looking deeply into a photograph of lost loved ones, of a cherished object that had been set aside and misplaced over the years. So he had settled on the bottle and the television set instead.
He became increasingly afraid—not only when she was gone but when she was around: afraid to speak to her, to hear what she might have to tell him, to see something dreadful in her eyes. When they were alone together, he sat in silence, listening to her talk excitedly of her work, her travels. When she grew impatient with him and asked, “Why don’t you talk to me?” he shook his head or shrugged, telling her he had nothing to say, that nothing of interest had happened to him, that his work went on as it always had, year after year. He was afraid of starting anything.
He became afraid in other ways as well. Driving the 20 miles to work on the freeway, or home again in the evening— the road he had driven for nearly 20 years—he would imagine a head-on collision, or a wheel falling off his car. In his mind’s eye, he would see the car flip end over end across the lanes of traffic, himself bouncing inside like a pinball. He remembered stories he had read of people trapped inside burning cars, the doors jammed shut, the rescuers listening helplessly to their screams and pleas, unable even to touch the blistering metal. They had run a story once about a truckdriver who had gone blind suddenly in the midst of traffic—hysterical blindness, a psychiatrist had called it—and who had been saved by another trucker, with a CB radio, guiding him to the edge of the road. Because it had happened, it was possible, something that might happen to him at any time, and he had no CB. If it happened—if any number of similar, possible things happened—he would simply die. Once or twice, driving at night, thinking of such things, he stopped by the side of the road and walked around on the grass, his back to the highway, trying to calm himself enough to get back in the car and go on. Other times he awoke at three or four in the morning, thinking inexplicably of death, unable to chase the thoughts away and fall asleep, imagining himself being gone, his part in things being over. On such occasions, he remembered but could not recapture the fearlessness he had once felt, his easy acceptance of a solitary life. Sometimes, even driving, he felt an echo of that old bravado, when he heard one of the old songs on the radio, songs from a time when people had looked to the unknown with a kind of longing, when they had spoken of revolution as though it might be an endless summer vacation. Now the songs on the radio—the current songs—all sounded alike to him, devoid of melody, the words incomprehensible, and he shook his head, remembering other old people saying exactly the same things about the music of his youth.
Another thing that baffled him was that he had come to think of himself as indistinguishable from his job. He had never cared about it the way she cared about hers, had thought of it at the outset only as a way of making money, of meeting his responsibilities; but somehow, in the years between, he had grown afraid of losing it. For the first few years, even while he was rising in the newsroom hierarchy, he had thought of his job—even talked openly about it—as something temporary in his life, as if he were still hoping to discover the permanent thing he would do with his life. Now he knew that the job was it, all there would be, the thing he had spent his life doing. And because of that, for some reason, he no longer felt confident, as he once had, that he could find another with little trouble, if need be. At some point, unnoticed, he had stopped being the person who might grow into anything, and had become the person who had already grown to be what he was. And he supposed she must think of him that way as well—without the job, after all, what would there be to value in him? Growing thus timid with worry, he began to perceive, or imagine, the impatience of his superiors, perhaps their contempt, and to be afraid of them.
Still, above everything else, it was her he was afraid of—afraid not simply that she would do what she said she might, but that she would go beyond that, in spite of herself, in spite of her promises that she wouldn’t—that she would fall in love and leave him, In retrospect, it seemed to him that there had never been any doubt about her ability to leave him, given sufficient reason. Now, when she reminded him that the bargain went both ways, that he, too, was free to explore, under the same conditions, he laughed and shook his head. She took it to mean that he didn’t want to—and he didn’t—but what he actually meant by it was that he couldn’t, really, not only because he was old and fearful and unattractive while she was the opposite, but more to the point because he did not believe the bargain was truly symmetrical, or that it would be in practice. “What would you do, really, if I had an affair?” he asked her once, and she told him that, like himself, she didn’t know, couldn’t promise. It was the one time he suspected she was lying—or perhaps deceiving herself—for he knew the answer: she would leave him, immediately, without a second thought. It might be true that she didn’t know that. Perhaps it would be a surprise to her; perhaps she would even see the inconsistency in it. But none of that would make any difference. She would leave.
What finally happened was even worse than he expected. She fell in love but did not intend to leave him. “I love both of you,” she told him. “I can’t give either of you up.” Anyway, the other man was married and had no intention of leaving his own family. She had flown to New Orleans with the other man, a co-worker. The other man had been encouraging her to sleep with him for some time, and she had finally decided to test her new-found freedom. She had regarded the other man as a safe experiment, someone she could spend a few days with without investing any more than that. But she had had fun in New Orleans, had found the other man more interesting and charming than she had expected from knowing him in the office, and had decided that she wanted to see the other man again, to continue seeing him.
He felt numb when she told him about it. He could not locate the pain he knew he must be feeling, and he did not hear everything she said because he was looking inside himself, trying to see what was going to happen. But he still could not tell. There was no epiphany, no revelation. It was clear that she was frightened by what she was doing, afraid of losing them both, of him leaving her and the other man dropping her, and of finally being alone, and she wanted him to reassure her, to comfort her, and so he did, unable to sort out any other response.
Later, however, there were days when he felt intense anger and days when he felt pain that was tangible and seemingly endless, when everything he was or heard or thought of seemed to hurt him, as if every part of him were laid bare to the nerve. Oddly, there were also days when he was full of joy and energy, days when all the old fears were gone, and he felt as free as he had in years. Their daughter, visiting with her children during one of those times, said, “I’ve never seen you so happy, Dad.”
He had thought, before it happened, that he might never want to sleep with her again, but he found instead that it improved their sex life. There was an urgency, an intensity about it that had been lacking. They talked more, talked endlessly, of her feelings, of his, trying to explain to one another, building theories of what was happening to them, and then refuting them and building new ones. There were times when he felt he was near to understanding it all, calmly and rationally, to making peace with it, and other times when he felt trapped in a situation that was impossibly irrational. There were times she seemed almost to attack him, to blame him for the pain she herself was feeling, and other times when she seemed to want to defend him from the other man. “He knows he’s not to say anything bad about you,” she told him once, speaking fiercely. The talk was often painful, but it brought them closer together, as the sex did—they would talk and make love and then talk again, getting up half-dressed to stand in the kitchen and drink coffee, and then go back to bed again then lie awake in the dark and talk some more, and on and on—and it was that, in large part, that accounted for the manic times. He felt that everything had been thrown up in the air and he had no idea where it would all settle, but the talking about it gave him a sense of being in control somehow, of having a hand in shaping his own life. It seemed also that they were reshaping their own relationship from scratch, that everything was on the table now—unmet needs, hidden fantasies—and that anything might be possible.
She agreed to see the other man only in distant places, on trips, to make things easier, but when she told him that she was actually going off again, to San Francisco this time, he was devastated. He discovered then that he had been dealing with it only in his mind, that he had been thinking of it as something that had happened, not as something that would happen again. He found that he had believed, without acknowledging it to himself, that the talk and the sex and the excitement would hold her to him, would fix everything between them, make the other man unnecessary. He had been trying to win her back, he saw, and he had failed.
Yet almost at once, even during the first agony of understanding, he began to search for ways to accommodate himself to it, not because he wanted to but because he saw no alternative. He knew immediately that the hard times would be the nights while she was gone, the nights when he would know, and that he would have to find some way to get through them. He promised her he would try. She wanted him to promise that he would be there when she got back, but he refused. He believed that he would, and told her so, believed there was almost no chance he wouldn’t, but he refused to promise, as if that were the last thing he had to hold on to. Despite her fear of being alone afterward, she would not give it up, saying that she knew she would always regret it if she did, that she would never know things about herself she needed to know, what sort of person she was, perhaps. He tried to imagine it for himself, tried to reverse their roles in his head, to think of himself feeling that way, but all that he could imagine was the old business of being in love with someone, wanting to see the other woman again—and in thinking that way about it, he realized that he was in love with her now, after all. That seemed a kind of joke on him—that and his certainty that she would never be listening to his explanations as he listened to hers now, if he were to fall in love with someone else, that she would never be preparing to spend a long weekend at home alone while he was with his lover, that she would long since have been gone. He felt resentful about that, but he also understood that it wasn’t her fault, that it was just the way things were, the kind of people they were.
Anyway, there were other times when he felt as though he hated her, when it seemed to him that his anxiety was despicable, no more than a fear of losing something he was used to, like the job. But when he tried to pin it down it went round and round in his head, like something without a beginning or an end. He hated the thought of going on with it for the rest of his life, living this way; it made him seem small to himself. Yet he could not force her to choose; he would not do that. Somehow that was a matter of pride to him, although he did not quite understand why, and there were times when he wanted to say, “Make up you mind. You can’t have it both ways.” He supposed he wanted her to come to that without his saying it, though he did not think she ever would. It seemed to him that there were only two futures stretching away from the moment when he might say that, and that neither of them was tolerable.
He went back to the library the day she left, drove straight there after dropping her off at the airport, not waiting to see the plane leave. He had not planned to go to the library, had not known he would, but he went there in preference to anywhere else, and spent a long time there, wandering up and down aisles, pulling down books nearly at random and leafing through them, reading a bit here and there and then passing on. He read about covered bridges in Vermont, about the life of Lorenzo di Medici, about the killings of coeds in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. He worked his way slowly to the fiction section, and came away at last with half a dozen books, three he had read long ago and three he had once planned to but never gotten around to. Now, he thought, when his life might be beginning again, in some sense, he might be able to go back to these books as well. What he hoped was that he might be able to lose himself in them, as he remembered doing, taking himself out of himself. He hoped they might be better than the television that way.
They were, and they weren’t. Once he began reading, sitting in an armchair in the living room, with a glass and bottle on the table beside him, he fell into the story—it was Madame Bovary, a book he had never read—as readily, as deeply as he remembered, but there was something in it, too, that reminded him of possibilities he had put away, of things he had forgotten about himself, so that he came to himself from time to time, rising out of the narrative to find himself in the world he lived in now, which seemed to him no different, really, from the world he had been living in all along, since he had put the books and the rest behind him.
One of the things she had told him, explaining her need for the other man, was that she had fun with him, that she thought of her times with the other man as adventures, and that adventure was something she needed. She didn’t say that he was no fun, that she could expect no adventure with him, but the implication was clear, and when he tried to suggest that he might be able to change somehow, she protested that she didn’t want him to. “I don’t want you to be him,” she said. “I want you to be who you are. I love you for what you are, and I love him for what he is. I don’t want you to change.” That seemed to leave him with no way to say that he might want to change, for himself, that he too wanted fun, adventure, that they were not things he had put aside intentionally but things he had lost somehow—things that had once, in fact, been a large part of what he had believed the two of them to be about. When they had first set out for the East Coast, after their marriage, he had had no real idea how or where they would end up, and he had liked it that way, had felt excited and confident; it had been enough for him that they would go through it all together and come out the other side, wherever that might be. But when he mentioned those days, she said, “Yes, but we were young then. You’ve changed. We both have. You’ve settled in. You like to be comfortable. I don’t blame you. It’s just the way you are.” It seemed to him that there was no way to disagree with her without sounding as though he were lying in order to influence her.
Toward midnight of that first night, he went out onto the front porch, where they had talked so often recently, and sat on the steps by himself, looking into the dark, wanting not to think of her in San Francisco, as he had wanted so many times recently not to think of death, but wondering in spite of himself whether she might not be asleep by now, whether he might not be able to go to sleep himself, but then remembering that it was two hours earlier there, that there was more night than he had thought to get through.
It had been raining, apparently, for the bottom of the steps and the walk were set, and the could see moisture glistening in the dark lawn between himself and the street. There were maples on either side of him, and when he looked up through their branches he saw faint shadings and ripples in the sky, the edges of clouds massed against the blackness, with the moon lost behind. Looking carefully, he saw that the clouds moved, slowly, past the branches of the trees, shepherded by some high, purposeful wind that could be felt where he was only by the faint, aimless breezes that touched his arms and face.
His car sat in the driveway where he had left it, only a few yards away from him, and, looking at it, he thought for the first time—not truly for the first time, but for the first time with conviction—that he might go, simply go. That was as far as he thought about it, thinking not of a destination or what might happen tomorrow but only to have everything ahead of him again, to be starting out by himself. He rose unsteadily to his feet, feeling the drink, and then stood still, unable to make himself move toward the car, but unable to let go of the idea of it.
He remembered, then, a time when he had stood on another porch, in the summer after he had finished graduate school, when they had been living with her parents, in this same small town, 20 miles from the city where he now worked. They had come back there with no plan, with no clear idea of the future. They had lived together for a year in apartments, while he got his master’s degree; and then that was over, and she had flown home with the new baby and he had followed in their car, with their belongings. He could not remember now what he thought would happen next, although he was sure that he had had no idea of living with her parents beyond the summer. He remembered distantly that there had been possibilities—grants, teaching jobs—one way or another, he supposed, he had expected to be back on a campus in the fall, perhaps working on the doctorate. He remembered that he had sent letters here and there, inquiring about the possibilities, and that he had not been much concerned about any of it, that he had been looking forward to finding out what would happen next in his life. He remembered that with pleasure.
But on the particular day he remembered, he had gone into the city for something, and when he came back she had met him at the door, not exactly blocking it, but not letting him in either. He had stood on the porch; she had stood just inside the screen door, holding it partway open with one hand—had she carried the baby in her other arm? He could not remember, nor could he remember where her parents had been, only that he had had a sense of them massed behind her somewhere, backing her up. They were concerned about his being out of work, she had said. They didn’t see him making any real effort to find a teaching job for the fall, and they wondered how he was planning to support her and the baby. He couldn’t remember whether she had actually said those things, or whether he had simply known them to be true.
It hadn’t been cool and dark, as it was now, he remembered. It had been hot and bright. There were white, chalky stones in the driveway beside their house, where his car had been parked, and he had picked up a couple of them, turning them over in his hands, feeling the heat in them, while he tried to see what to do. He hadn’t been able to think of what to say to her. He remembered his silence then, the wanting to say something but not knowing how to put it, as if it could only be explained in a language she didn’t understand. They—her parents—had thought it would be a good idea if he went back to the city and stayed there until he had found a job. There were friends he could stay with until then; when he had found work and a place to live, they said, through her, she and the baby would join him.
He had wanted to laugh, to make her laugh with him, at this idea of their not being together, but he had not seen any laughter in her eyes, and that had been one of the things that made it impossible for him to say anything at all. Standing at the edge of the porch now, his face turned toward the dark shape of the car, he saw instead the unexpected, implacable look he had seen in her eyes that day. He had turned away from her, bewildered, then turned back again thinking he had something to say after all, but he was wrong—there was nothing—and he had turned away again, unable to speak but still unable to leave it at that, and so he had turned back to her a second time, and then away again. He could not remember how many times he had turned this way and that, never saying anything, feeling it equally impossible to leave or to stay.
It seemed to him now, standing motionless in the dark, that all that had been only a moment before, that all between had beeri an illusion, that he had only just now turned away from her again, for the last time perhaps, to find that he had grown old and tired, and the world cold and dark, while he had spun there speechlessly, hopelessly.
Yet he remembered, too, the drive back to the city, to the first day of the job he feared now to lose, and how the heat had fallen on him like a hammer, walking back to the car, and how the white highway had burned in front of him, making him blind, and how the city had risen around him at last and how he had sunk into it like a stone, forever.