Oh how I loved her! my father said on the plane back to the States. But he said it was over now, his affair with the girl at the Institute, Clara Springel. How she had wept at my grandmother’s book party in London, what a scene she had made.
The boy I was with wanted to know who the redhead was. That’s Clara Springel, my father’s lover, I said.
My mother wrote to say she had big welcome home plans, had arranged for another doctor to be on call so she could pick us up at Kennedy and we could all go out to eat. My father handed the letter to me. Now isn’t that nice of her? he said. She doesn’t have to do that. I was planning. . . . I had hoped you and I could just take a quiet ride home in a taxi.
My mother was a pediatrician in New York. She kept toy whistles in her pocket and passed out sugarless gum at the desk.
In the crowd at the buffet table, I stuffed myself with something fried in tempura and watched my grandmother, whose nose was as red as her garden gnome’s, hug an older man in the book business around his neck. Impossible to imagine, I actually had to see my English grandmother having a good time. My mother’s mother, an Italian Mama from Far Rockaway, never stopped laughing, her fat neck and great bosom, everything jiggling at once. My mother was beginning to take after her, her bosom already hung low, and she wore polyester pants with elasticized waists and flowered tunic tops. The boy I was with, something my English grandma had arranged, loved to hear me talk Long Islandese. He really wanted to get to the States someday, he said. He held a copy of my grandmother’s new gardening book. From Aubergine to Zucchini with Mrs. Slipper, waiting for her to sign it for his mother as a birthday present. “I say,” he said, “I wish I’d met you earlier, Liz. And what a lovely party. That girl’s your father’s lover? She looks rather unhappy. My father doesn’t have a lover.”
Yes, Clara Springel. The one hanging onto the arm of the man with the big head of steely curls, my father, whose shoulder looks good to lean on. That’s her, turning her face into his shoulder when someone comes up and wants to talk to them. Because he can’t introduce her as his wife, he calls her his “friend,” and she says the word frightens her, but she understands. “Oh why do you have to be married? It must be something to have two women love you at the same time,” she says. My father scoops up a glob of chick-pea pate on a piece of toast and guides her to a tattered pink love seat. The boy I’m with, named Jasper, suggests a look at the Parliament building by night and leads me away from the food to the balcony of the hotel. He puts the book down. I let him kiss me, and then see my father looking for me inside at the party. It’s time to take Clara back to her hotel, crying in the taxi.
My father, a geneticist, is somewhat of a celebrity in scientific circles. My grandmother is proud of him, but she still said sternly to me, “There is nothing wrong with being ordinary, Elizabeth.”
Clara would say the same thing when I told her I was not cut out for science and doubted I would write books like my grandmother. “I like you just the way you are,” she said. We stood in the park at the edge of the duck pond, in the town of Bath, on her break from the Institute, where she sat at a Bunsen burner all day. I’d met her before my father did, feeding the big, sloppy ducks pellets from a paper cone. We met in the George Lillo Park. It was named for a minor 18th-century English playwright in my literature book, with its muddy duck bank and groups of boys who liked to call to Clara and me over the water and push each other into trash cans. Clara’s red hair always attracted attention.
Then when I told her whose daughter I was, she was flustered. Her hand flew up to her identification badge on her breast. “Dr. Slipper’s a great man. How lucky you are.” I was amused, but then everyone here thought he was wonderful. Clara asked me his first name.
“George,” she murmured. “Such a refined name. Does it fit him?”
“Except when he’s playing the saxophone,” I said.
Every Wednesday morning, my father and I would leave Oxford on the six a.m. bus for his lecture in Bath at the Institute. Out of the dusty, rattling windows at the back of the bus I’d watch dawn break over Oxford’s spires. Below us, students huffed up the streets on their bicycles, oblivious to the roar and soot from our tailpipe. My grandmother said the air in Oxford was unbreathable with its exhaust and factory smoke. I thought worse of the damp chill that the ancient stone gave off.
I was always glad for our weekly excursion to Bath, though it meant an encounter with my grandmother in her garden. Since 1954, her eggplants had won first prize at the Bath Fair, and last year the London Times had sent a photographer to immortalize her spading around the foxgloves. The first day we met, in late August, she gave me a present of gardening gloves, and together we ripped out the dying annuals. She had the hands of an Irish potato farmer, and for a writer she didn’t talk much. I did all the talking and told her about home, our unmown yard, and the wild woods so different from all this English order. At home, we swam in a private cove in Cold Spring Harbor. I did my homework upstairs at my window overlooking squirrels’ nests and my dilapidated treehouse. When my father wasn’t working in his lab down in the woods, he blew his cheeks out on his saxophone in the basement. “Road Runner” was his showpiece, but I liked better the bluesy improvisations that sounded like a big fish undulating in the current. The Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery was only a mile away from our house. We would leave a block of my mother’s frozen spaghetti sauce out to thaw for dinner and walk down to see the bass in their concrete houses. We fed them Purina Fish Chow you could get out of a gumball machine for a dime and watched them flip and dive for the pellets.
My English grandma didn’t understand how my mother could live in the city during the week and only come home on weekends. My mother was now five years into building her pediatrics practice. “But she should be home with her family,” Grandma said to me in an anger so strong that she tore a five-foot rope of mint out of the ground and went tumbling backwards.
She knew the Springels of Bath. Clara’s father was a butcher. They were a little too High Church for my grandmother’s blood but still very nice. Clara was their only child, born the year my father left for his freshman year at Oxford. If my grandmother could have predicted that there he would meet Anna Maria Multari from Far Rockaway and run off to America with her, she would have done anything to stop him. She would have welcomed the saxophone in a Blackpool jazz band over the microscope and months of silence from overseas. When he did write, she said, they were the letters of a lonely man, swamped in the chores of maintaining a household while his wife went off to medical school. “Baby doctor!” she said. “Why didn’t your mother want to stay home and tend to her own baby?
”. . .but your father was marvelous. He didn’t complain. He kept your boopy clean and your fingernails cut and in the meantime made a name for himself. A great man, he is. The great minds of England appreciate him.”
Clara Springel wasn’t everything she could have hoped for for his mate either, but at least she knew Clara’s parents, and Clara was an English girl. Clara wasn’t brought up having her diaper rash rubbed with olive oil. And Clara’s mother, the butcher’s wife, could vouch that she was ambitious, yes, but basically a good, ordinary girl who mainly wanted a family of her own.
The fact that my father still had a wife in the States while carrying on an affair with Clara didn’t embarrass my grandmother. Her best friend, Mrs. Feeney, had a nephew who was a convicted bigamist. And my grandmother’s deep kinship with the natural world also enhanced such freethinking. She had the butcher’s wife agreeing with her that the artificial bonds of matrimony would not make the crows or foxes lead more happy lives.
Clara, the butcher’s daughter, my father’s lover, threw a handful of pellets to the ducks and leaned back next to me on the bench. “My mother ought to stick with slicing sausage,” she said to me. “And my father, he’ll like it when your Dr. Slipper leaves for the States again and I marry a nice local boy.”
Their lovemaking took place in Oxford, most of it clandestinely in the house we rented on Beaumont Street, after I had gone to bed. But some of it in a punt on the river in broad daylight in the pious presence of the swans. Clara left her flat in Bath to move in with us, but the commute every day to the Institute was too exhausting, and she and my father quarreled. Clara would accuse him of having an easier life than hers because all he had to do was teach one Monday afternoon tutorial at Oxford and present a Wednesday lecture at the Institute. Seeing the newspaper in the bathroom would send her into a rage because he’d had the luxury of sitting there reading. He, in turn, roared about her wet stockings hanging in the shower. He insulted her television shows. When my mother telephoned, Clara was difficult to talk to for days afterward. Although my friendship with her began before she became his lover, I found myself barely able to tolerate her moods. My attitude—I could not seem to help it—was that if she were going to make my father unfaithful, she had better make him happy. I didn’t think she had any right to demand that same happiness herself.
After a long winter of rain and quarreling, she moved out. Spring came, and sunlight broke across the pocked stone and shot through stained glass windows. My father’s students brought him daffodils. Clara sometimes telephoned before breakfast with a breezy “Good morning” and then an intense interest in what my father had prepared himself to eat and what we had done the evening before. I finally realized who she was, a girl only seven years older than I, hopelessly locked in a situation sordid even in the eyes of my father. By spring, he still would not consider divorcing my mother for her. I certainly did not want that either, and Clara, wisely, never asked my help in the matter.
In the spring, we resumed meeting at the George Lillo Park on Wednesdays during her break from the Institute. When my father couldn’t get away to join us, we had a better time because Clara would let herself relax. She never acted silly when he was around, but if it were only me, she would bend over the fence at the ducks and insult them, calling them cows, sluts, ignoramuses. Still, they waddled up to her and let her stroke their sleek heads. When she was sad, she called them her beauties. I told her she’d love the fish hatchery at home. There was nothing more beautiful than a school of big brown bass swimming in perfect synchronization along the slippery walls of their tanks.
In some ways, it would have been fun to have Clara come home with us. She thought my father’s saxophone improvisations exquisite and encouraged him to practice on the roof. She would love the cove and the woods. I could show her around New York. When June came, my father’s tutorials at Oxford would end, and we would be going home. Thinking there might be something more she could have done, Clara permed her hair and bought a tailored suit to make herself look older. She took French cooking lessons and wore the opal ring my father gave her on her left hand. He still introduced her to his acquaintances as his friend. Or worse, his “daughter’s friend,” which would make her inconsolable.
London. The dim corridor of her hotel which stood across the Thames from ours. We had moved into London for a week before our plane left for New York. My grandmother’s book party. My stomachache from the rancid mayonnaise in the seafood dip. That boy Jasper trailing me on and off buses and leaving messages at the desk. Clara refused to board at our hotel, let alone sleep with my father. It was part of breaking away, she said. I shouldn’t have even followed him to London. In the excitement of seeing London for the first time, I dreaded Clara’s brave, buttoned-up face every morning when we met for breakfast, either at her hotel or ours. She put up a fuss if my father offered to take her out somewhere alone. In the booth, she insisted on sitting across from us. If my father ordered coffee, she would order tea.
Our last day, we stood at Piccadilly Circus. My father told me as I fed the pigeons some popcorn that if you stood here long enough you always saw someone you knew. Not five minutes later, I saw my third grade teacher from home. And not ten minutes after that, I saw Clara edging her way off a bus with a crisp paper shopping bag. Two teenage boys barged past her, and she lost her balance at the curb. A little crowd milled around her, and someone helped her up. Then I caught sight of her again, bag torn, glumly looking at a menu in a cafe window. If she turned her head but a few degrees, she would see us. My father yanked me up by the arm and pulled me down the steps, through the traffic circle, away. He explained later, as I examined my arm in the taxi, that no matter how pathetic Clara looked, he must now try to think only of my mother. Because he would be going home to love her just the same as before he left.
Our first Saturday back home, the three of us went for a sail at my mother’s instigation in my little boat. While we’d been gone in England, she’d sent it to the marina for new tackle and bottom paint so that I might get interested in sailing again. “Take advantage of your last free summer,” she said. Once I entered college, I was to get a summer job to help pay. I’d value my studies more that way. She hung her beeper in a plastic bag from the mast, we stowed away a motor in case she should get called, and off we set. She opened a thermos of tomato soup and passed around mugs. She was very pleased at having us home.
Then the wind picked up as we left the lee of the land, and we flew in sleek elegance toward a public beach across the harbor. Elegant until I forgot to head the boat into the wind as we approached, and scraped us along the rocks. She said nothing about the bottom paint, but rolled her pants as I held the boat steady, and slowly lowered herself over the other side. We fastened a line, and my father took the anchor to dig into the sand up the beach. I helped her over the shells and slippery rocks. Summers ago, my mother had worn a bathing suit with a little pleated skirt that my father used to flick up in back to annoy her. Now he seemed to prefer to be alone, thinking no doubt of how Clara would look in a bikini.
Clara sunned herself in my grandmother’s eggplant patch that summer and wrote him letters, parts of which he read aloud to me when I walked down to the lab for a visit. As I looked at the pages in his hand, I saw not one crossed-out word. Obviously, she had toiled over her letter on scratch paper and copied the whole thing over to please him with her neatness. I learned she had joined a badminton team and had to have a tooth filled. She wrote like a child and not a very clever one. Her letters came in scented pink envelopes to the post-office box he used in town for his scientific correspondence.
Barnacles attacked the underside of my boat where the paint had been scraped. One hot August morning, I dragged it up onto our beach and cracked at them with a kitchen spatula. Chips of calcium flew, but after an hour I’d made no significant progress, so I heaved her back over and pushed her into the water on her tether. My mother would have stayed at it until the job was finished.
That same August, one of her patients got leukemia, a five-year-old boy named Daniel who was now being kept alive with transfusions. My mother was sleeping at the hospital, most weekends included, so determined she was to be with him when he died. Talking to me one night on the phone, she said she’d never had a patient die before. It was terrible but a great relief in a way. She’d known that eventually she would have to face it with one of them, but which one would it be? When it didn’t happen and didn’t happen, she began to dwell on any idiosyncrasy and wrote pages of notes after each child she examined. Daniel had been with her since she’d opened her practice, a 9½-pound healthy newborn. She’d given him his first examination in the delivery room and swore now that she remembered his trembling tongue inside that screaming blue mouth, and how her gloves felt on his slippery skin, and that the mother had said to her from the table, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with another boy. Please doctor, tell this one he has to be good.”
My lack of interest in the boat aggravated her. Here was a five-year-old fighting for his life, who tried to slap a hockey puck down the hospital corridor from his wheelchair. Daniel had become her child for the summer.
On a Sunday when my father and I had risen late and were having newspaper and coffee at the bottom of the stairs, the phone rang. My father grumbled and rose to get it, the sash of his bathrobe trailing into the kitchen.
“Oh hello, Baby,” he said. It was my mother. There was a long stretch of silence after which I heard him hang up, but he didn’t come back. “What did she want?” I called. I walked into the kitchen and saw him looking into the refrigerator.
“Do we have any eggs?” And then, bump, he shut the door and leaned back against it. “Oh dear. Oh what have I done?” he said.
And then my heart took a leap. She had found out about Clara at last.
My mother had called to say that she had had lunch yesterday with an old friend of hers from Oxford, Lavinia Stewart. “She’s a widow now, your mother told me. Poor, dear, prying Lavinia.”
Lavinia was in Oxford last April for a reunion of her class and stayed over to browse in the bookstores. “And crossing Magdalen Bridge in her widow’s weeds, whom do you think she saw in a punt? And whom else do you think she saw in that punt? And what do you think these two people were doing?” my father asked.
But an hour later, a towel around his waist, he was laughing at himself in the mirror. He had called me in to powder his back before he dressed. “Your mother’s going to make me sweat it out, but I’ll win her over, don’t you worry.” As my fingers slipped over the moles and gray hairs that grew out of them, I wondered how Clara had overcome such a sight during their lovemaking. He was going into the city to deliver a confession and apology to my mother over lunch. He asked me if I thought he ought to wear some aftershave.
“She can’t be won over that easily,” I said.
“You make me sound like a buffoon.” He ordered me downstairs to the kitchen junk drawer to find a Long Island Railroad schedule. I opened my mouth to say, do it yourself, but I wanted him to go through with this. He needed to give Clara up before things could go back to normal. One evening recently, I had brought his supper to the lab and saw him hastily shove a pink letter under some magazines. He was supposed to be injecting duck eggs with mutant cells. But ducks reminded him of Clara. I told him I was sick of his absurd passion for an assistant lab technician. I didn’t care if he now hated the cancers he’d manufactured and loved the duck eggs. The great minds of England who so appreciated him were waiting for the genius to do something.
So now I ran upstairs with a train schedule, with all my will trying to muffle my excitement, when I heard him call, “Elizabeth!” He lay on the bed clawing at his tie. I loosened the knot and tore it off. “I can’t breathe!” he said. He grabbed his chest, his nostrils snorting for air. I called an ambulance and then my mother’s office. But it was Sunday. I only reached her answering service. She was on her rounds at the hospital. What was the nature of the call? In an emergency, here was a number I could call. I beat his jacket pocket for a pencil. I looked in the nightstand. “I don’t have a pencil!” I shouted at the woman. “Look, just tell her to call home right away.”
“Am I going to die?” my father asked.
“No. Just keep calm. Try to breathe normally.”
“It’s beating again.”
“I was thinking of Clara when it happened. Did she ever say anything bad about me? Anything to make you think, even for a moment, that I was disgusting?”
“No. Will you shut up and save your breath?”
“I wouldn’t blame her if she had. It was wrong. It was wrong.”
The ambulance arrived before my mother called back. We shot to the local hospital, siren and all. Sitting next to his stretcher, I watched the road rip away through the back window. Cars pulled off at odd angles. People coming out of a church heard us and were riveted there on the marble steps. The pristine steeple reminded me of Oxford’s sooty spires and gargoyles. I heard Clara’s midnight giggling. My father’s eyes held on to me. His cheeks felt like stone.
His heart attack turned out to be nothing more than palpitations, something everyone under stress feels now and then. But it took all morning to convince him of that. He ran a treadmill test to prove there was something wrong, as if he thought my mother would go easy on him if she saw him in a hospital bed. But his heart pumped beautifully. The doctor said he had the heart of a 20-year-old-man.
“Get me out of here,” my father said, and I rushed off to call a taxi while the doctor removed the wires from his chest.
While we waited outside the hospital, my father paced the walk from the flagpole to the brick wall where I sat. “When we were in the ambulance, I knew you were worried. What were you thinking?” he asked.
“I was in a trance. You know the way you feel in an emergency. I wasn’t thinking much about anything other than that I didn’t want you to die.”
“Were you thinking that I deserved to die, maybe just a little, for my behavior with Clara?” He looked hard at me.
“No,” I said. Yes, the old bitterness had flickered in me for a moment in the siren’s screaming.
A breeze came up, sending a paper cup clattering across the hospital drive. It blew my hair in front of my eyes and obscured his image. And I pretended for a moment, the way I sometimes did when I watched them together in Oxford, that I wasn’t connected to him, not connected and therefore not responsible for an opinion.
Sometimes when I would first look into a tank at the hatchery, the brown fish blended so well with the water, I couldn’t discern that anything was down there at all. I saw mostly my reflection and the sky behind me. The fish saw me, of course, and were waiting for their food. And I used to wonder what I looked like to them. Did they think I swam in the light on the other side of the water? If I waited long enough, one of the fish would try to dive at me, and the surface would break into a thousand ripples; and in between the shattered pieces of light I would see them all swaying in harmony down below. I would have to throw them their food then, because they had revealed themselves.
I heard a motor. “Taxi’s coming.”
Inside the car, in the stuffy air which open windows didn’t seem to help, I told him for the first time how I had hated him for his unfaithfulness. Sometimes I had hated him so much I had wished him dead and that was what I was remembering in the ambulance. But I hadn’t been glad when it looked like it was truly happening. Then Clara seemed insignificant in the scope of his whole life. I remembered the crowd of doctors at the Institute nattering him with questions. I saw him once again locked in awesome concentration over his microscope. The way it had been before Clara.
The taxi passed along the same route the ambulance had taken. My father leaned forward and spoke through the dingy partition at the driver’s ear to give directions to our house. Soon the taxi turned into our dirt road. Sunlight flashed through the trees; the jouncing car sent up graceful plumes of dust in its wake. As we climbed the hill, my father said that in the ambulance a picture had come to his mind of a crab apple tree in his mother’s garden that blew over one spring. It had never bloomed more profusely; its brilliance took your breath away, and it seemed that that day the color was at its peak. “It was windy,” he said, “and my mother and I were eating a lunch of buttered potatoes in the kitchen. We saw it topple. She stood up and screamed, “It can’t be!” She had shown far less emotion when my father died.
“So I was glad to see your worried face in the ambulance, Elizabeth.” The taxi stopped with a jolt. He paid the driver, and we walked across the tall grass toward the front door. A rabbit skittered for the woods.
The air always smelled good here in summer, with the sun on the dry grass and a salty breeze blowing up from the water. Why hadn’t we ever spread out our lunch here? Or my father practiced his saxophone and sent the rabbits running? Maybe it would have made things too heavenly, to tap the beauty here, and we would have fallen like the crab apple from the weight of too many blooms.
“I’m going to go upstairs to change,” he said, “then try to pull the day together at the lab.” Pull the day together. That was what you did. When the water’s surface broke and gave you glimpses of the harmony below, of how we could all have gently swum together like a school of fish, it only made you realize such beauty wasn’t in you. It might have been beautiful if I had run up the stairs after him, butted my head under his chin, and we had held each other close. The inspiration did set my foot on the stair, forgiveness was in my heart, and if he had turned around to look at me, some speck of loveliness inside would have set me free. But I stopped on the second step. Sometime later. Let me pull my day together first. At some other time I’ll tell him I love him.
So I got a spatula and rubber gloves and walked to the cove. All afternoon until high tide, I chipped and scraped at the barnacles on the bottom of my boat. The ambulance and my father’s stone-cold cheeks on the stretcher all seemed to have happened years ago. My jeans were slick and green with algae. Flies crawled among the ruined barnacles all afternoon. When my gloves became cut in too many places and began to tear, I left the boat beached and walked up to the lab.
Through the window I saw my father injecting eggs. It sounded like Bartók on the radio, but I could hear it only-faintly. Leaf shadows played over the film of dirt on the window and made it hard to distinguish much else besides his silhouette as he held each egg up to the tensor lamp like a jeweler looking for flaws.
Judging from the row of eggs in front of him, he still had a lot of work to do, so I left and walked to the house for a shower.
Out front in a lawn chair, in the din of the crickets, I picked at a cold breast of chicken. The sky was wild and red, but it was one of those summer nights that portended autumn in the chill as soon as the sun went down. I set my iced tea in the grass and warmed my fingers inside my shirt. And then tires rumbled as a car entered our driveway. I saw headlights clear the hill and bounce as the car strained to keep up its speed over the ruts. Her left parking light was out. She drove halfway up the lawn when the drive ended, got out and stood against the car. I put my plate in the grass and stood, too, looking away where the drive became a scrappy path to his lab, where I could just make out a light in his window, as if my father could know she were here and come help me explain.
“Dad’s all right. I guess you know by now,” I said trying to sound breezy. “I guess we forgot to call you back.”
“I checked with my answering service when he didn’t show up for lunch,” my mother said. “They told me you sounded upset, but no word about ambulances. No explanation. If I’d been given a hint, I could have called Dad’s doctor and found out what happened.”
For the first time I noticed she wasn’t wearing polyester pants, but a skirt and blouse, a bit tight across the bosom, but a pretty blue silk with a bow at the neck. When she was piqued, her chin and cheeks burned. It looked better than makeup. “It turned out to be only palpitations. They did some tests. He was fine,” I said.
“Oh I know . . . now. His doctor kindly phoned me this afternoon. I’d been trying to reach you for hours.”
“I’m sorry. I just wasn’t thinking. I got really involved scraping the boat.”
She didn’t seem to hear me. She bent at her reflection in the car window and retied her bow. “The Expressway was hell tonight. I did look a little crisper at lunchtime.”
I tried to smile, but inside I was bucking against being blamed. It wasn’t all my fault. He was her husband, and he could have remembered to phone.
Then she looked over the roof of her car at his light in the woods. “Maybe I’ll just walk down and surprise him,” she said. Fireflies flickered in her wake as she plowed through the grass toward his path.