When I was 27, Abbie was seven. When I was 34, she was 14. This is something I play with, although I know it’s not constructive. She is more mindful than a lot of 30-year-old women I’ve known. More mature in some ways than my ex-wife, who sells cosmetics for a living. Abbie is comfortable with herself. She’s comfortable with me, and still, I see myself meeting her at a playground when I’d just married Lynne and started my life. Abbie’s in overalls standing near a swing set and I’m in a tuxedo, watching her. What could I have known—that a seven-year-old would someday be sharing my bed?
For about two months, she’s been living with me, and we keep inside unless we really need to go out. I teach a painting class at the college on Saturdays and build furniture out of my house and Abbie’s looking at grad schools. Anthropology or psychology. She wants to get out and see the world, which we’re going to do when I save up enough cash to get away for a while.
It is frigid here in Ithaca, and the streets, which climb like Adirondack paths through College Town, are iced solid. We have not seen the sun for 17 days, which has me thinking of things we can do to survive the rest of the winter. Like backgammon or making tapes or dinners from the Moosewood Cookbook. Or inventing games. We tell parts of stories and pick up where the other left off. It’s a game I tried to play with other lovers but it never worked the way it does with Abbie. She sees so much.
She is only 19, but there are times I think she’s lived another life, or maybe just doubled her knowledge by staying up so late all the time, reading, talking into her tape recorder, drawing still lifes of things in my house: my bookcase, a wine bottle, a haggard pair of tennis shoes. She is nocturnal like an owl. Daylight scares her. If she goes out in the morning, she wears my wide brimmed straw hat, tipped over her forehead, and a pair of sunglasses.
Abbie says its me who gets her talking about her past, which is full of hurt and unbalance. She says I open her up. We start our talks usually when it’s been dark a few hours and we’ve eaten dinner, drunk some wine, maybe fooled around a little. Then she says something that sends me spinning; never fails.
One night last week, Abbie made some tea and put a Rickie Lee Jones tape on and told me a story about a crazy aunt who lived in Montana, painted landscapes, and drank herself to death, and she caught the woman’s voice and gestures like an actress on stage, shaking like an old lady, then easing into a calm, low-voiced drawl. And I sat silently, stupidly in awe, not knowing where we were headed.
Her body is so taut and natural; I should say young. No one looks like that past the age of 25. Her skin is dark and smooth, almost laquered. I watched her speak and she moved her arms in drunken brush strokes and when she looked up at me she fell silent, like she was sorry she’d told me anything. Again, I felt like a voyeur.
“Go on,” I said. “Keep going.”
She said, “I don’t want to. Let’s go to bed.”
Another night she told me she spent a summer living on a beach. Not in an apartment or a house or anything. In a sleeping bag with her sister and her mother on the beach in Isla Vista, California. And they begged food.
Picture this. We’re eating this huge meal of eggplant and tomato sauce and she’s telling me about begging food, because her mother figured she could store up the welfare checks and take a trip.
“We got taken in a few times, and we snuck into a house once for two weeks,” Abbie said. “It was furnished and everything, with a big color TV, and art on the walls, but we didn’t turn anything on unless we had to. We snuck out the back door when we heard a car pulling in, and that was that.”
She showed me a Polaroid picture of her and her sister, about seven and eight waking up in a big blue sleeping bag, with their hair matted against their faces and their mother sitting next to them, wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigarette.
Abbie was talking about that summer, and I started thinking of where I was then: 27 and finishing my last college courses and meaning to start grad school in Albany. I worked that summer painting and rehabing houses with my father, cutting lawns and landscaping when someone gave me the. chance.
But I was thinking if I’d taken off out West like a lot of people did, what if I’d seen these three on the beach like that, what would I have thought?
That was the summer I fell in love with Lynne and locked myself here in Ithaca for another four years.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked Abbie. “Where would you go now if you could go anywhere?”
“Somewhere warm and cheap,” she said. “Somewhere like Mexico.”
Like someone’s grandfather, I wake at 8, and I start in cutting and shaping wood. I’m building a rocker this week; I’m smoothing the spindles with a sander and I’m setting the headboard on the stiles, which are probably too thin. This was supposed to be for a Cornell professor but I’m thinking of giving him a different one I made over the summer. This one I’m giving to Abbie.
Mostly I make tables, dining room tables of oak and pine with enough leaves to sit a dozen, or I make cedar chests. I’m making a clock for an old couple who live in one of my father’s rental houses, a grandfather clock with an oak hood door and long intricate crests stretching over it. But rockers are my thing.
The room I work in is long and drafty, with hard wood floors covered in wood chips, paint and dust—you can see it in the air, which lights thick like gauze. My father built this house, along with 10 or 12 like it in this town, big rambling things with front porches, fireplaces, and shingled garrets on top and long living rooms with high ceilings and mullioned bay windows, the kind of places that look instantly old and cost a bundle to heat every winter. My place is a mess now with articles we’ve left around, but that’s part of being comfortable.
While I work, Abbie sleeps, eight feet up, 20 feet away on my loft. She snores. She’s the only woman I’ve known who does. I can hear her sometimes in the kitchen, but I don’t say anything because I know why she snores. Her mother broke her nose five years ago in a fight, a few months before she died. I’m the only one who knows that.
Abbie says sleeping with an older man ages you. She says it spoils you for good, which I hope is true. Our sex, when things work up well, is wonderful; it is also sad. There is patience, uneasiness, and tension. Tension because it can happen anywhere, anytime: in the attic, the dining room, the floor of the kitchen, on the drift of mattresses in the corner of my workroom. She will always outlast me, never complaining though that I’m slow and not 19. We sink sweaty, hugging each other tight, like lost friends.
Friday night, we have been kissing and working things up for about an hour. Abbie is rubbing my back and then reaching under my T-shirt to stroke my chest. She pulls at the end of my belt and then lets it drop. We’re on a futon in my living room.
“You think we could go through a night without doing this?” she asks me. “Cold turkey. A whole night.”
“A whole night?” I ask and I reach back to touch her thigh.
“I’m serious,” she says. “Let’s see if we can. Let’s see if we can sleep in separate beds.”
“What would that prove?”
“That we don’t need it,” she says. “I want to prove to myself I don’t need this.”
“I need you,” I say. I spin around and put my hands on the sides of her head and I run my nails lightly over her scalp. As soon as I’d said those words I wished I hadn’t. In truth it’s not the sex I need.
Abbie sinks under her hair. She stares down. She is wearing a plain white T-shirt and cut-off army pants, and she is beautiful.
“Maybe that’s not so good,” she says. “Maybe it’s not so good we’re putting everything on this right now. Maybe I should stop missing classes.”
“Let’s not play this,” I say. “I mean, I want to be with you and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t.”
“Let’s just go one night, one lousy night without sleeping together and then we can go on every other night doing whatever we want.”
For a minute I’m angry. I’m asking myself why I’m with a teenager; why I’m giving my life to a teenager when I should be married proper again, maybe with some children, and a wife I can walk around with without everyone staring, or asking me if she’s my daughter or my niece or my cousin. And me defensive. Yes, we are lovers. She lives with me, yes, is there anything wrong? I have the answers ready although, to tell the truth, I haven’t had to use them.
I see she’s afraid of me; afraid of us and I tell her she can have the bed, I’ll sleep right here.
“It’s just one night, okay?” she says, and she kisses me on the ear. “We’re not going to die or anything. My God. We’re not going to die.”
From 2 until dawn, I pace by the loft watching Abbie sleep. It is like being dead, being unable to touch her. I watch her knees bend to her chest and her face brush the pillow. Her nose, curved and long, is dormant above her mouth which is open to let her breathe. Her lips are chapped, and her hair is wild across the top of the bed. She’s wearing the same T-shirt she wore the last three nights, a long College Town Bagel shirt with a picture of a bagel.
I’m thinking about how many places she’s slept in, growing up around California and Boston and upstate New York. Her father died when she was two, and her mother was a little crazy. No one lives on a beach with her kids, or moves ten times in four years unless she’s crazy. The time Abbie’s mother broke her nose was when Abbie moved her stuff into her friend Vicky’s house. Abbie said she’d forgotten most of what the fight was about, but it had something to do with her mother’s boyfriend.
When her mother found her, it was ten days later, and her mother was so drunk she embarrassed Abbie in front of Vicky’s parents, slurring words and cursing and then breaking down in tears. She just lost control is what she did, and she knocked Abbie straight on with the base of her palm. Abbie said it felt like her nose’d been pushed back through her head. Blood poured over her T-shirt and her jeans and her bare feet, she said, more blood than she’d ever seen, and she couldn’t breathe.
“Other people’s mothers don’t act like this,” Abbie said. “Other people don’t have mothers who break their noses.” She was 14 when it happened.
I felt so sad and empty when she told me that, and I felt something like shame for bringing Abbie to bed. I wonder what her mother would have made of me, 20 years older and all. She probably wouldn’t have cared.
I want so bad to climb into the loft with her. To be with her. But she has taken control. It is my house, and she is running the show. I cannot for the life of me sleep. I am watching Abbie, and the sky is lighting up outside.
Saturday, I pull her out to see Suzanne Vega at Cornell. It’s strange to think about all the people that will be dressed up there and talking about nothing, but this is someone Abbie listens to a lot, and I’m hoping it will be like taking a trip.
We drink a bottle of wine before leaving and Abbie is real physical, running her hand over my leg while I drive through the lights on State Street. Last night is forgotten. The sidewalks are saffron from the streetlamps and Friday’s snow. Not a star to see, the sky is gray and fierce. The cold freezes moisture on the insides of my windows and my heat fan is fading in and out, and I feel packed into a tight shell with Abbie.
She pushes her chin out from the neck of her sweater, a thick crudely made South American looking thing, and smiles like a small girl, like the girl in the sleeping bag.
I can hear her wheezing hard through that broken nose, and I try to get my breath to match hers. For minutes it is just the human noise of one breath, one imperfect breath, two bodies working together. I feel warm through my head.
“What are you thinking?” she says. I stop at a light behind a van filled with kids staring out the window. One presses his nose into the glass and turns his head sideways, which Abbie doesn’t see. She is looking at me.
“I’m thinking about you,” I say.
At the theater we play the overview game. Abbie and I eavesdrop or spy on people and try to size up their lives from their faces, their arguments, their clothes. We sit at diners and watch old couples arguing, or new lovers awkardly ordering breakfast after they wound up somehow in bed together. That’s what we’d figured anyway.
We walk along the second floor railing, looking down on people buying drinks, posturing, talking. People are young here, high school and college, baggy clothes and infant faces. There are a few, older earth types and the teaching crowd but I’m on foreign ground, that’s clear.
“He’s driving her crazy,” Abbie says.
“That guy in the gray jacket. He’s driving that woman crazy.”
The two are talking to another couple.
“Look where she’s standing. Look at her hands,” she says.
They’re clenched in balls, okay. And the man in the gray jacket has his shoulder just past her so he can’t really see her while he speaks. Yes, I can see that. We stand watching. The woman from the other couple touches the man’s shoulder while she speaks to him. He laughs.
“What do you think she’s telling him?”
“She’s complimenting him on something, it looks like,” I say.
The woman, the gray jacket’s date, pulls up closer to the other woman, leaning forward like a runner pushing for a lane. Then the two guys started talking, like they can’t see what’s going on.
Abbie looks at me as if to say Can you believe this? And I realize I know those people. I don’t say anything. The guy in the gray jacket, I think his name is Daniel, says something to the nervous woman and then walks over to the line by the bar. Abbie takes my hand and squeezes it. And then, this is what amazes me. From the bar, Daniel looks straight up at Abbie and smiles.
She smiles back and then turns away.
“That was strange,” I say. “You know that guy?”
“I don’t think so,” she says, but a chill rushes through my chest. What does that mean: I don’t think so? Daniel’s smile is the kind a guy gives someone he knows, maybe slept with. I look down and watch him order his drink and rest his elbows on the bar, and when I turn toward Abbie she is walking slowly away.
When Suzanne Vega, waiflike and pale, takes the stage, I drift into a funk—torturing myself about Daniel. I cannot hear the music; I just see him. I remember where I know him from. From high school. He was three years behind me, bright, loud, into politics. He played in a band, I think, and his father taught at one of the universities, which is what I think Daniel’s doing now. That and getting a Ph. D. in something. It’s amazing what you can remember when it comes down to it. I don’t know if Abbie knows him, but his looking at her makes me quiet.
I imagine him meeting her at a Cornell party. She’s wearing ripped jeans and an old sweatshirt and he’s talking about art and music while people dressed in black drift and dance around them like floating sculptures. There are tapestries on the wall and the smell of pot and patchouli oil. He takes her to bed, and they share the things we’ve shared. That’s what kills me—they talk in our voices.
In bed I dream I’m with Abbie, and we run into Lynne. She’s carrying a plastic, beige sack of cosmetics: lip glosses, eye shadows, mascara, color sticks, compacts. She has a child in tow, another on the way—things have panned out for her—and she looks at Abbie and says “My God, Willie, She’s beautiful. She’s young, but that girl sure is beautiful.”
She seems to grow as she speaks, and her hair is streaked with a blonde tint. I say “I know, we’re living together now,” and Abbie turns her head away like she doesn’t want to hear me bragging. I say “This is what I always wanted” or something like that, and Lynne’s kid starts untying my shoe. I’m telling him to stop and Abbie starts drifting, walking away. I run after her, diving on her and when I wake up I’m kissing Abbie and holding her tight, even though she’s still snoring and smelling like sleep.
I shift on top of her, with my legs tight around her stomach. She opens her eyes.
“Don’t worry,” she says, but so soft she might still be asleep. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I’m thinking about Daniel when Abbie tells me her friend Carl is having a breakdown, and she’s thinking of spending the weekend at his house, do I mind?
“What’s the problem,” I ask, trying not to sound suspicious. I can’t imagine that analyzing Carl is what she really wants to do.
“He’s just got a lot of pressures. Too much to live up to. He’s got no one else to talk to.”
I know Carl. Carl was in the painting class I taught last fall at the college. The one where I met Abbie. He is stick thin and pockmarked on his face, and he drew ghetto scenes of New York, where he grew up—long-bodied blacks with exaggerated features. He is someone who I imagine has crises all the time.
“Well, why don’t you ask him to come here,” I say.
“Sure, if that’s okay with you,” she says.
“Let me think about it,” I say, but there is no way I want him. “Give me a chance to think.”
“I’m losing my friends,” she says. “I’m losing my friends because I’m not seeing them ever. It’s starting to get to me—being here all the time.”
“Let me think,” I say. “Sure. Do what you want.” I’m pouting. I’m 40 in three months.
I go back to work at the rocker and I listen as Abbie dials the phone.
“Hi, Carl,” she says, and she tells him she doesn’t know about the weekend. She laughs a lot and tells him to eat well and take care of his body, and she gives him a list of breathing and relaxing methods to work on, rib cage out, shoulders back, and some yoga chants that she’d taught me, “Rama, Rama, Rama,” and then, I couldn’t believe this, she starts singing to him on the phone. The voice is like a 10-year-old’s, singing high pitched, third grade songs: the Muffin Man, Frère Jacques, the Brady Bunch theme, and I feel like I’ve caught her in bed with someone. I feel betrayed and ashamed for listening.
Last summer I saw an announcement in The Ithaca Journal about Lynne’s getting married. It had a picture of her in her white gown, looking pretty, like it was her first time, and a shot of a stout, long haired man in a morning coat, a real estate salesman from Syracuse. And I wondered how our lives had taken off in such different directions. It was as if we’d both died and been reborn, seeing her starting out new.
Lynne was high strung, doting, and determined to make relationships work, she always said, and it was true, determined to talk about things until they burned up like a housefire, as if that’s what it took, and I never saw the point. We stayed together four years, two of which I stayed true and never went out much and the other ones where I just about never came home before 2 a.m., and I’d sleep on the living room sofa. It was the period after we lost our baby and everything seemed to shut in on us.
She got pregnant in our second year, and for a while it brought us close; it really did. I built a crib and a high chair in my work room, and I thought about ways in which we could make more money as she got bigger and went to sleep early every night. Things weren’t perfect between us, but there was the thought that being parents would ground us in a good way—rid us of the threat of possibility. I am not good when I have too many options.
I read in a book that only 2 percent of pregnancies that make it past the 16th week, end in miscarriages. Hers happened in the 23rd. The doctor at University Hospital said our baby just died, “aborted,” was his word. He spoke like a man who has had children, and he said there would be nothing to keep us from having one “down the road.”
Then he put his arm around me, and told me Lynne would be fine, we would have each other and that’s what was important, which is what people have to say.
It was the start of a period in my life in which I stopped paying attention and walked around dreamy and not in myself. I thought about trying again, about talking about things other than our pregnancy, which had so much dominated our life. I grew quiet, and I found ways to get out of the house. I did this, although I never blamed Lynne for anything.
When I stopped sleeping with her, she left me notes and cassette tapes, which I was supposed to listen to, and she asked me to go with her to a counselor she’d been seeing at the college.
I went once. He said it seemed like we wanted different things out of life, and I agreed. He scheduled us for a Flexibility Workshop he was holding that weekend, and I drove instead to Albany, where I stayed with my friend Neil for a week. Neil has never married.
When I came home again, Lynne had changed the locks, which is what she should have done. It took about two months to set up our wedding, and four years to work out a divorce. We fought a lot but I think we ended well; no hate or anything—just piles of paper to sort through.
I thought of calling her up to congratulate her, to surprise her, to make her remember me, and I thought, No, that’s going backwards. Don’t go backward, move ahead, stay with what you’ve got.
I tell part of that story to Abbie—the part about not moving backward—by way of saying I want her to spend the weekend with me and not Carl. I tell her it isn’t her fault but Carl should know not to call her like that.
She says he’s my friend that’s all. She says he needs me like you need me. I say I’m sorry, but that’s the way I feel. She says she’s failing school. She says she’d spent so much time at my house she is failing three out of four classes at school, do I care?
“I care more than you could ever imagine,” I say.
“No really,” she says, “I’m losing myself with you. I’m giving so much and I’m not getting anything back. I look at someone or talk to someone on the phone and you freak. You change, just like that, and you don’t talk about it. We talk about me, what my problems are but I feel like I don’t know you.”
And while she speaks, I watch her hands move and her eyes flare and her chest push forward in breath. I can see her knees and part of her thigh beneath her ripped jeans. I imagine us in 20 years. I’ll be 60 and she’ll be my age now, teaching at a junior college or a high school, somewhere like California. Would we have kids? Would people think I was their grandfather? I’d have white hair and my beard and jaw would have dropped a few inches and Abbie’d have the look of someone who’d earned a few degrees: small round glasses, maybe a Danish bookbag.
“Really,” she says, and she backs away. “Tell me something. Tell me something personal you never told anyone.”
So I tell her a story about stealing money from my dad because I wanted to go to New York and how he found me out and decided to take me down there himself on a Greyhound bus, which makes her happy and soft again though it isn’t true; I never stole a thing.
Before I take Abbie to Carl’s house, I take her to a thrift store on Buffalo Street to buy a pendulum rod and bob I saw there. If she’s going away a couple of days, I tell her I am going to finish a grandfather clock, something I want to do before I’m 40.
“I’m not going for a month or anything,” she says. “I’ll probably be back Sunday night.”
She has my jeans jacket on, my sunglasses and a pair of my sweats, and I’m thinking about my house and what it has become. We haven’t done a dish in two weeks and the sheets are thick with dust and sex, which is all right really, it’s not as if we have something to prove.
The sky is gray and low as I crest the knoll by two small farms down from Buffalo Street: silos decaying, empty of corn, two bales of hay sitting like junked cars. It is gray for so long where we live, you can forget what spring is like, that it will even come at all.
When we turn onto College Avenue where Carl lives, Abbie rests her head on my shoulder.
“Thank you,” she says.
She has a pair of ice skates tied together at her feet and when I look ahead at Carl’s house, a jaundiced two story student building, I see him sitting in front with his own pair.
I pull the car into his driveway and Carl walks to Abbie’s side.
“What’s up, Willie?” he says.
“Nothing, Carl,” I say. “Nothing but clocks and snow.”
He looks at me puzzled, and then hugs Abbie hello.
As Abbie walks into Carl’s house, I’m thinking about sticking around, about hanging out with Carl and his roommates around a bong and some music. We’d order out a pizza, maybe watch a basketball game, or talk about politics, which I know a little about. But my sense is that Abbie doesn’t want me there.
I’m starting the car and driving toward Homer through the thick gray air, which has frosted now with light snow. I pass two trucks and a Saab, which I know belongs to someone at the university.
Five miles out of Ithaca, the college scene ends. Money gives way to ragged, hillocked farmland. A 20-mile straight stretch of empty cow and horse pasture. No summer smell of manure, just cold, wet air.
The further I drive, the clearer it gets.
I’m thinking of driving a half hour and then heading back. Down the hardened playing fields to the hockey ice which is empty now because the team is away.
They’ll be swirling and spinning, holding hands maybe, making circles in the dim light of the rink. They understand each other, that’s clear. I’ll be in the stands like a fan or a parent, my hands in my sleeves keeping warm, and they’ll be skating, crashing through the musty air into each other like kids. She’ll be singing those songs, baby songs, like a music box with a skater on top that you wind and wind and then let loose.
It will feel like waking at dawn, cold and alone, and I will be apart from her and the boy down there who knows by heart every sound she makes.