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A Satisfactory Life

ISSUE:  Spring 1980

Eva had come to know her house so well, each room of it, that on Sunday morning she knew when the church bells were ringing even though, with the windows tightly shut and the snow muffling every sound, she did not hear them. As she sat at the table, she registered automatically the slightly tremulous quality of the air as the reverberations shimmered over the glass of the windows and trembled through the vast rooms. She knew without thinking of it or even turning her head to see, that the leaves of the potted fig tree quivered minutely at the end of each branch. In fact, Eva could anticipate all the slight changes and alterations within her house in the space of a day and even with each season. But she didn’t think she regarded her house with undue sentiment; it was only that she lived quietly, and she thrived in the spaces marked off for her by these large rooms leading one into another and enclosing her here in the New England countryside. Solitude had become Eva’s forte.

But this Sunday morning she came down to the dining room, where she had set a place for herself the night before, and found that the paper had not arrived. She sat in her chair fiddling absently with the silverware and watched the driveway for the arrival of the paperboy, because she could only enjoy Sunday breakfast with the Times before her. She sat looking out at the still, winter landscape—there was no sun yet this morning—and thought of the day ahead. It was not exactly that she had mastered pleasure in solitude, but she found that now, in any case, pleasure was no longer what she anticipated day by day, no more than she anticipated melancholy. Her life had come to this just as it was bound to; she had not been surprised into any poignant state of regret and wistfulness. She had many comforts and small delights in each day, and she was content.

Even so, she was finding that that air of purpose, peculiar to Sunday mornings, was oppressive just now. The neighborhood lay beyond her windows in utter stillness and quiet save for an occasional family departing for church with a muted slamming of car doors and the sound of the engine fading into the distance. As she stared out at the yard distractedly, a flash of color caught her eye, and she saw in the top of the maple tree what she took at first to be intricately ruffled scarlet blossoms clustered against the bare branches, but with a sudden flurry they transposed themselves into a pair of cardinals that had been huddled there in the cold. Their abrupt flight startled her and even sent an unexpected prickling of alarm over her bare wrists and lower forearms as they lay on the dark table. That the cardinals had come to a mutual agreement and had taken their leave, left her sitting there in her dining room abandoned. She went up to dress and then drove to the newstand to get the paper for herself.

She discovered with relief that a mild desperation had gripped any number of people this Sunday morning when the Times had failed to come in from New York. At the newstand she found a dozen or so people milling about with grim faces, and she was pleased with herself that she seemed to feel less anxious than most. “Can’t I reserve one, though?” A young man was asking, leaning over the counter almost in an attitude of supplication, with his hands splayed flat on the display case.

The proprietor was a heavy man, broad across the middle, and his condescension seemed inherent, not dredged up just for this occasion. Eva thought that he would not really be a man with the perception to recognize his own power this morning. He leaned back against the wall and crossed his legs at the ankles. “It won’t make any difference. There’ll be plenty when the truck gets here.” The young man wandered away looking doubtful and depressed. The newstand was a small shop like a little pocket tucked into the row of buildings that lined the street, and today it was crowded, and the air was thick with agitation. The man behind the counter remained as he was, though, settled easily against the wall. He was not invigorated in the way his customers were by this shared deprivation. A sense of celebratory commiseration permeated the atmosphere as people drifted in and out. “Not in yet,” a departing customer would tell a newcomer with glum satisfaction, and the newcomer would seem regretful at having to turn on his heel rather than discover the news for himself and share his disappointment. Eva bought a Boston Globe and left the shop. She was cheered and went home to have her breakfast.

She did not linger on, though, over her toast, or have a second cup of coffee. It had grown late enough so that she didn’t even read all the way through the magazine section, because she had already planned to spend the afternoon at the museum. One of the few pleasant surprises of widowhood had been the satisfaction she derived from such a solitary outing. In fact, there was very little she liked less than being accompanied at a museum, because she always felt compelled to assume an attitude of tactful appreciation, and, in company, she could scarcely put a mind to what she was seeing. When George had been alive, she had found that in a museum she was intolerant even of his company. In thinking back over her marriage she thought that the worst moment—the only moment in which she felt the marriage was really imperiled— had been when they had taken the children to a gallery in Boston, and she had turned suddenly and caught sight of her husband and two sons standing rather pompously across the room in front of a canvas. Regarding it so seriously, all three of them. She had been overcome all at once by a sensation of fury and suffocation, a longing to be disconnected. It seemed odd to her in retrospect; now she yearned for such an absolute connection. But all sorts of politics are involved in museumgoing, people’s tastes being so various, and no one was ever at their best there.

Now her life had leveled off a little; she rarely exercised such strong emotions these days. Eva’s friends had begun to fall ill and die, a few of them, and those who remained—oh— the effort of incorporating their mutual histories, hers and theirs, the long years of intimate knowledge; well, just the maintenance of such complicated relationships required more energy than she felt she could muster. That was when she began to isolate herself: when she had grown too weary of the demands of sociability. In fact, shortly after George had died, she had made a decision, in an instant, just one flash of an image about the pattern in which she could bear to continue her days. She had been standing at a party, having just entered the room, and she had been greeted by an old friend, a woman with whom she had for so many years sustained a friendship that it had by now become as complicated, in its way, as any marriage. Christina had embraced her and then stepped back to just hold Eva’s shoulders with the tips of her fingers while she looked her over fondly. “Oh, Eva! How good to see you! I’m so glad you’re here.” And she drew Eva to her again in a loose embrace. “But,” she went on, rather loudly, and with an expression of mocking reproach, “you know, Mark and I have plans for you! We think—both of us—that the first step in getting you back on your feet is to get you out of these clothes you wear. Get you back into some color!” And she plucked at Eva’s sleeve in disapproval while Eva stood placidly amid the small group of people at the doorway who were now, inescapably, all quietly considering the pale gray dress she was wearing.

Eva had known two things in that one moment. She knew that this was the last exchange of that sort she ever wanted to endure, and she knew with a horrifying clarity as she stood there facing Christina that she would never be done with her grief, that she would always be lonely. She would suffer less and less with each year, she could expect that, but she would never be entirely disburdened. At that party, then, it was only a variation of fatigue that had overtaken her. She had smiled back at Christina and agreed that, yes, it would be a good idea to go shopping together. Perhaps they could go into New York some Saturday.

But Eva had uncommon tact, and she was aware that the delicate relationship of herself to her peers was based on a tender deceit. Well, a diplomatic not a malicious deceit. In the eyes of her contemporaries her apparent tolerance, and the gratitude with which she appeared to receive the most impertinent or trivial advice, made her a much sought after guest and companion. So, after that party, she had gone home and written on an index card that she found in a kitchen drawer, “Well, it’s very kind of you to ask me, but I really don’t go out much these days. Thank you so much for thinking of me, though.” She taped the card next to her telephone, and although she never read that message off word for word she had managed, with some intricate maneuvering, to remain aloof without abandoning society entirely. She was never in the least rude.

When she had visited Christina in the hospital this last time, Eva had just made as if to embrace her, as was natural between them, a light embrace, only a gesture. But Christina had repelled her by a slight stiffening of her shoulders which continued in a rippling effect along her limbs so that suddenly she lay rigid beneath the sheet. It had long ago been admitted between the two women that Christina was beyond simply being ill; in fact, the illness had become her life. Now she would not get better, only worse. But Eva found her sitting upright in bed with her thick white hair pulled severely back and pinned at the nape of her neck. Even though her body had thickened with age and medication, her face, suddenly so exposed and hard boned, seemed stark in the dim room which was furnished with such timorousness that to Eva it was the most blatant of euphemisms. She sat down, and they talked a little. There Eva had been, though, once again open and receptive to Christina’s despair now that it must be so grave, and Christina would have none of it. She asked for nothing and refused to call forth any sympathy from Eva who was now so anxious to give it.

Eva had left the hospital thinking that this was not quite fair, but she understood that she had been rebuked in a way for her own self-indulgence. Because Eva had begun to think these past few years that her friends had no right—not so late in the game—to lead unsatisfactory lives. And if, after all, she no longer had the patience or the ear for the everyday, petty trials of Christina’s life why should Christina share with her what might be a final, significant event? But still, Eva had gone away irritated for the most part, almost despondent in her pique, because she thought that if this is the way things are summed up, then friendships amount to very little one way or another.

And today Eva gloried in her solitude as she approached the museum, but this Sunday was so clear and lovely, though cold, that the parking lot was filled, so she pulled her car in behind a tour bus from New York parked along the drive.

As always, the museum acted upon her almost as a soporific. The building was not handsome, but it had about it an air of voluptuous solemnity; it invoked in her a feeling that would suffice in the absence of religion. She was, as usual, filled with a sense of humility and power, just as she had been as a girl sitting in the cavernous Episcopal cathedral, entranced by the idea of her own uniqueness among the multitudes. She could never account for the fact that the museum called forth these same feelings; perhaps it was only that the somber, echoing sounds of the two buildings were alike.

At first she merely idled away a half-hour or so by following a tour group through the first few galleries. But then she found her way to the room filled with Renoirs, and she walked around looking at them with the most sensual pleasure, and in fact, they made her hungry. The canvases put her in mind somehow of peaches or the smell of peaches in the sun. But also, just then, the luxury of the room weighed heavily on her delicately balanced expectations. She was so careful, was Eva, that she did not want to wander from painting to painting in this room and finally be confronted with the image of herself standing spare and aloof in mute contemplation. Without really considering it, she got herself away and browsed first among the Turners and then down a long hall hung on either side with Dürer prints on loan from a private collection. They were very absorbing and required close attention, and she soon began to feel weary of standing.

She turned the corner at the end of the hall and wandered into a long rectangular room with dark bisque walls, but which was lightened by tall windows along one side looking out onto a snowy meadow with a pond where some children were skating. She watched the skaters for some time and then turned to take in the room itself, which had been rearranged since her last visit. As she had come into the room, she had noticed an ex-student of George’s, a girl they had both come to know fairly well, but the girl was sitting on a low bench in the center of the room as if stupefied, and Eva had courteously ignored her. Now, though, she wanted to sit down and rest a bit herself, so she joined the girl there on the bench since it was the only seat in the room. Besides, she had thought right away that it might be pleasant to speak to Alice; she looked so neat and compact in her jeans and sweater.

“Hello,” she said, settling onto the bench beside the girl and lightly touching her arm to gain her attention. Alice looked up blankly for an instant. “I’m Eva Stewart, but I’m sure you couldn’t remember after so long. You had a course with my husband, and I think you were over several times for dinner with his seminar.”

But Eva had seen recognition settle over Alice’s face even as she was explaining all this. “It’s nice to see you again,” Alice said, smiling. “How have you been? Are you still living in Williamstown?” Alice had a broad face with features not quite large enough for her wide bones, and Eva remembered that she had always had a stern look about her, but when she had turned to speak to Eva her face had taken on an open look of genuine inquiry, and Eva was surprisingly flattered.

“Oh, yes. I don’t think I could move away after all these years. But what about you? I thought you had graduated . . . well. . . would it have been three years ago? Are you working somewhere in town?”

“No . . .” Alice’s face became reserved once more. “You probably know Frank Ticotta. We share a house up in Pownal.”

“In Pownal. Well, I know Frank, but not very well. He came here about the time George retired. I haven’t seen him for a long time. How is he?”

Alice seemed to have lost interest in the conversation, such as it was, or not to have heard Eva at all, but finally she answered in a softer voice, “Oh, he’s fine. He’s out of town this week. He’s visiting his kids.” And then she began to look around the room with intensity. “Don’t you like this room?” she asked Eva with enthusiasm. “I’ve always thought it was the nicest place in the museum. And it’s so warm in here with all the sun.”

Eva looked around the room and agreed with Alice. It could be like any room, a room to live in, if only one could come into it unaware that it had been arranged and appointed as it was with an eye toward each object’s being appropriate. Their bench sat facing a Fragonard portrait, “The Warrior,” and the warrior himself had always seemed to Eva to be a most valiant man in his own way. He looked so weary, though not from battle, Eva felt sure; his was a more mournful fatigue. She thought he had grown tired simply from staying on in whatever capacity. Beneath the Fragonard was a high, narrow table, and flanking it were two matching Regency arm chairs with small fragile feet. They were covered with gold cloth interwoven with flowers of blue, fuschia, and peach, and a subtle tracery of pale green vines. Eva had never inspected the chairs, and she wondered how she could have failed to notice them; she thought they were beautiful. “This is a lovely room; you’re right. I’d never payed it close attention.”

Alice sat by her silently for a minute or so, and then she said suddenly, “Well, I’ll take the Fragonard.”

Before Eva gave any thought to what she was saying she had already replied. “That’s all right. But if you have the Fragonard I’ll take the two chairs. That’s only fair.”

“The chairs! Both chairs?” And Alice got up to look at them closely.

Eva felt awfully pleased with this girl. She felt she knew just the sort of girl Alice must be. Years ago Eva had been crossing the campus and had happened to fall in behind two students discussing the reading for her husband’s class. They had spoken of him quite matter of factly as “Stewart,” and it had irritated Eva excessively. She was sure . Alice would never have done that, and she thought that Alice would probably not say “HoJo’s” for Howard Johnson’s. Eva no longer pretended to herself that these were matters of little consequence. She had hated it when her sons had indulged themselves in slang briefly, as teen-agers, and had bantered back and forth with an unmistakable edge in their voices of superiority and self-congratulation—of exclusiveness—that had grated so on her nerves. Alice looked like the kind of girl who had had a calm adolescence; she would never have had the need of slang.

Even so, she wondered about Alice and Frank Ticotta. He had come here as a young professor with a family who had soon left him, and Eva had always thought he looked as though he was forever pouting about it. He was attractive in an abrasive way that always put Eva off. But there was Alice, overly sturdy in her snug jeans, moving around the room appraising each object with a broad, frank stare. Eva couldn’t imagine that Alice could ever have a very complicated life. Not complicated enough, anyway, so that she would become the victim of someone else’s self-indulgence.

“Well, if you take both chairs then I should get the two small paintings right above them.”

“Alice! You’ve got the Fragonard already.” And they began a peculiar little exercise, Eva and Alice, in the large room. It had begun so suddenly, with an unacknowledged agreement, that this game made Eva think of the precisely mutual flight of the two cardinals from the tree in her front yard. The two women sat together bargaining in a happy suspension of reality as the sun shining evenly through the windows suffused all these objects with an aura of the commonplace.

“But if you have the writing desk,” Alice said, “then I ought to at least get the Sevres cups and saucers—the blue ones.”

And they bartered with real intensity until finally they sat together at ease on the bench with all the things in the room divided between them satisfactorily. It was a contented silence, but then Alice straightened up a bit from her comfortable slouch. “Since Frank’s out of town I’ve got to get back, because I left Sally in the house. That’s my dog,” she said, explaining to Eva. “She’ll be miserable by now. She adopted me, and every time I leave she thinks I’m never coming back. If I leave her outside, though, she follows the car for miles.” Eva rose with her, and they both began to put on their coats and gloves. All at once Alice seemed surprisingly downcast, and Eva remembered how it is to be alone after being accustomed to companionship. She thought that must be what was the matter.

“Look Alice,” Eva said, “why don’t you come over this evening and have dinner with me. It’s been so nice seeing you, and I’d love to have you come. It might do you good, too, to have some company.”

Alice looked absently back at her as they both stood buttoning their coats. “Are you sure that would be all right? You wouldn’t mind?”

“No, of course not. Please do come. And bring your dog with you if you like.” She told Alice what time, and reminded her how to find the house. On the way home Eva stopped once more at the newstand, and this time the Times had arrived, so the rest of the afternoon stretched out in front of her well filled.

She felt an uncommon elation at the prospect of having company for dinner, and she set about preparing a good meal. She took two chicken breasts and meticulously skinned and boned them, then cut them into long, narrow strips. She melted quite a lot of butter in a large skillet and sautéed chopped onions and apples until they were slightly transparent, so that their different textures could scarcely be discerned, and then she added the slivers of chicken. She watched carefully over the stove in the small cloud of rising steam as the chicken lost its translucency and became opaque, and finally she added the spices: coriander, turmeric, cardamon, ginger, and so on. She relished these intricate preparations and watched with satisfaction when she added some cream and the whole melange turned a glorious yellow, the color of pollen. She tasted it carefully and thought that it was very good, so she turned the heat to warm and left it on the burner to let the flavors meld.

Tonight she set the table in the small room she called the study, because it was more suited to dinner for only two people; the dining room would have been intimidating. She arranged everything with unusual deliberation, putting out damask napkins and the heavy silver. She did this for herself; Alice wouldn’t notice, but Eva felt a certain complacency as she observed the table from the doorway.

She thought Alice might like a salad too, so she washed each piece of Romaine with care and tore it into small pieces onto a tea towel which she gently rolled into a sausage shape and placed in the refrigerator. She cut a small tomato into eighths and then into sixteenths and took eight Greek olives and cut each in half so there would be a bite of olive for each piece of tomato. She left the olives in the bowl to marinate in the oil and vinegar, but she turned each tomato wedge on one side in hopes that it would drain a little. She knew that tossing tomatoes in a salad was frowned upon these days, but Alice might not be so sophisticated, and this was a salad Eva loved.

Alice arrived just as Eva was reading the Book Review, and when Eva opened the door Alice was letting a brown dog out of the back seat of her car. It was a medium-sized dog that looked to be something between a Spaniel and a Collie. “I hope you really meant it about the dog,” Alice said. “She can wait for me outside. If she knows I’m in the house she won’t run off.”

“Oh, let her in. She won’t be any trouble. I like dogs,” Eva said. The dog padded docilely up the steps behind Alice, and when they sat down in the living room she lay quietly at Alice’s feet. “Can I get you a drink? I’m having one myself,” Eva said.

“Well, if you have a glass of wine or some beer I’d like that.” Alice sat there placidly just like her dog, and even her face resembled the dog in its expression of earnest well-meaning.

As Eva mixed herself a drink and poured some wine for Alice, she could look through the adjacent dining room and into the living room, and she saw that the dog had rolled over on her back and that Alice was biding her time by tussling the dog from side to side in mock battle. She heard Alice singing a silly song to her dog in a teasing, familiar manner:

“Lay down Sally
Rest here in my arms
I been trying all night long
Just to talk to you.”

Eva liked this song; it was one she often heard on the radio in the mornings while she washed up her dishes. It was a nice song of innocent and straightforward seduction, and it made her smile. “Well, Alice, tell me what your plans are. Or what you’ve been doing,” Eva said gently as she put Alice’s wine down before her with a sudden air of solicitude that she hadn’t intended. It was an attitude she found she often drifted into unawares, simply out of habit.

“Oh well,” Alice said, “right now I’m just living with Frank. But I guess that’s not much to really be doing, is it?” she said with mild irony and mostly to herself. “I may go to U. Mass, next year. To grad school . . . I’d still be in the area.” She paused, sitting there in her jeans with her knees apart and her elbows resting squarely on them while her hands dangled over the dog’s head where it lay between her feet. “There are places I’d rather go though,” and in the dusk Alice raised one of her hands and rested her head on it as though she wanted a respite from her thoughts.

Eva had an inclination to close her eyes against an intimacy she did not want to hear, in fact, was not interested in, but she found that the years and years of practice at being such a splendid listener had led her body to betray her. She found she had leaned forward ever so slightly in sympathy, and her eyelids, rather than lowering wearily in boredom, had widened with an intimation of interest.

“I don’t know if I’m going to stay with Frank,” Alice said at last with what Eva grudgingly thought to be a familiar note of almost gluttonous despair. Eva sat motionless and made no response, but Alice went on, “Well,” she said, “it’s hard to explain. Well . . .for instance, we had some friends and their kids out one day—out to our house—and all of a sudden one of the little boys ran up behind Frank and covered Frank’s eyes with his hands.” She looked up at Eva. “You know how kids do. And then he said, “Guess who!” Well, Frank snatched his hands away and turned around and said, “Look, if there’s one thing I really hate it’s playing Guess Who. Okay? I really hate it!”“

In spite of herself Eva felt a twinge of concern for Alice. She thought of Frank’s face as she had last seen it. From the front he was even featured and well enough boned, but in profile the flesh of his chin ran a bit slack along his jaw, which somehow gave him a look of pampered arrogance.

“I said to him one day,” Alice was saying, “that if only he weren’t the kind of person who would have said something like that . . .well, he wasn’t paying any attention. He didn’t know what I meant, and I was expecting too much, anyway, I guess.” She looked over at Eva all of a sudden, “I don’t mean that just because he said that . . . I mean, anyone can have a bad day; it’s just that he didn’t see. . . .” She seemed to be afraid that she had been entertaining herself with her own reverie, but Eva shook her head and made a motion with her hand to indicate that she understood what Alice was getting at. Eva did not take up the subject of Frank, however; she turned instead to the question of graduate school. And they talked a little and had another drink.

Eva seated them at the table when the living room grew too shadowed, and she paced between the kitchen and the study giving Alice more wine and seeing to the rice. The dog followed them, but wisely got herself out of the way while Eva was moving about. When Eva finally served dinner and sat down at her place, she looked across the table at Alice’s serious face and felt very tired all at once, physically worn out. It had been a long time since she had entertained.

“What worries me most,” Alice was saying, “is what will happen if Frank brings his own children back here for good. He thinks he wants them.”

Eva nodded as she ate her curry. She had discovered that she was overcome by hunger.

“He’ll have to teach, of course. Well, I don’t even know if I’ll be here next year. Do you see what I mean?”

“Is that curry too hot for you?” Eva interrupted. “You know, I should have thought to ask. Some people really can’t eat it.” Alice’s plate was clean except for the yellow curry which looked especially unappetizing now that it had cooled and the butter had congealed somewhat in the sauce. But she had eaten every bite of rice and chutney.

Alice looked down at her plate apologetically. “No, I should have told you; you’ve gone to so much trouble. But Frank and I are vegetarians. I just didn’t think to mention it. I’m really sorry.”

“Oh Alice, don’t worry about it a bit. Please! But why don’t you let me fix you an omelet. It would only take a minute, and I’m sure you haven’t had enough to eat.”

“That’s so nice of you, but . . . well, you see, we don’t eat eggs either. But I’m fine. Really.” Alice seemed terribly anxious to explain. “It’s just that animals that are raised to be eaten have such a horrible existence! Maybe if I raised them myself. . . . Well, even laying hens. Have you ever been up to that poultry farm in Pownal? They don’t even have real chicken coops! Just wire cages, even the floors. . . .” Alice stopped dismally.

“At least let me get the salad,” Eva said, and left the room with both their plates. In the kitchen she greedily ate almost half of Alice’s abandoned curry, not allowing her imagination to make the leap from breast of chicken to living bird. Besides, she perceived Alice’s vegetarianism as a perverse form of compassion. Eva was irritated in a half-hearted way at the futility of it, and she was also irritated by the sudden notion that there were things she could say to Alice that might make Alice’s life easier to lead. Eva, too, had thought when she was young that the atmosphere possessed these things: earth, air, fire, water, and mercy. She had thought, as Alice must, that the earth was murky with it, that it lay dusky over the ground. She had had a chaotic upbringing in a house, like most, fraught with small cruelties. But the air had hung heavy with guilt and apology. Empathy ran thick through the family’s veins, and she had grown up oblivious to the indifference of the natural world. As she became less and less sequestered, she had thought her own exceptional empathy was a great gift, and then finally she began to feel that it was exhaustively burdensome.

She rinsed the plates and returned to the library with the wooden salad bowl.

As she stood listening to Alice and tossing the salad gently with the wooden tongs, bringing the olives and tomatoes up from the bottom of the bowl with care, it dawned on her that she had never for a minute intended for Alice to be sitting in her house sharing this meal with her. And as Alice lingered over her salad, chatting as she ate, Eva stared morosely down at her own empty plate. She could not possibly have had the idea that Alice would materialize here at the table, because as it happened Eva had not had nearly enough olives to go with her tomatoes, and she watched as Alice combined two olives at once in a single bite.

Finally Eva sat in the study with Alice over the cleared table and dropped pieces of left-over buttered bread to the dog on the rug. She was beginning to grow drowsy and cross and suddenly possessive of these familiar walls. She thought about the electric light falling through the open doorways upstairs into the empty hall, lying in patches on the cold floorboards. She chatted on with Alice while she really only had in mind her house, her bed, this dark red room with its white book-lined shelves. The dog was very easy to have around, and Alice was a nice and unusually pleasant girl, but Eva had grown so very tired of conversation.


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