In the bedroom of the cottage on Stearns Lake white curtains swayed in the occasional breeze from the open window. It was our honeymoon, in July.
After breakfast Elizabeth and I walked along a path in the woods. In the shade of massive pines she told me about a job she'd gotten when she was in her early twenties, as an au pair for a high-energy stockbroker, Ted, and his pregnant wife.
One afternoon Ted came into the kitchen while she was making a peanut butter sandwich. After some innocuous conversation Ted said, "You know, little lady, when a guy's wife gets pregnant things get pretty tough in the sex department. And a guy has needs, you know?"
Elizabeth said she finished making her sandwich and was frozen in silence because she had no idea what she was supposed to say. Finally she told Ted in so many words that she wasn't there for that, really, and what’s more she wasn't interested. And she quit a week later when she got a line on another job at Symphony Hall.
Some months later she called the au pair agency to see if there might be another position she might take since she liked that kind of work, but the manager, when she recognized it was Elizabeth, said coldly, "Oh yes, I remember YOU."
She said Ted had gotten very angry because Elizabeth, in violation of the terms of their working arrangement, left the job without sufficient notice, and that was outrageous, considering how nice he and his wife had treated her, and therefore he could not in good conscience give her a good recommendation, and so forth.
Elizabeth couldn't believe that a man would flat out lie the way Ted did, just out of spite or vengeance. Toward the end of the story Elizabeth wept and I put my hand on the back of her neck and massaged it gently, and planted a soft kiss on her cheek. She said she didn't know what prompted that bitter memory.
We continued walking through the woods, catching the glimmer of the lake through the pines. I felt her pain and surprise and outrage. I felt my own anger rising. I resented all those men, in a steady succession, who had hurt her. One after another they came into her life, did their damage, then insouciantly moved on.
One September morning Elizabeth called in sick. I made coffee and we talked, which we did almost every morning. She was sniffling and coughing but nevertheless energetic. Enthusiastic. We talked for three, four hours straight, at the kitchen table. Books, movies, politics. Then she said she was ready for a nap. We went to our bedroom, crawled under the covers. She turned off the light on her side and I turned off the light on my side, and she nestled into my arms. I felt her naked legs against mine.
"Do you want to snooze,” I said, “or are you in the mood for some fooling around?"
"Oh, I wouldn't mind a little," she replied.
Afterward I told her she was perfect, absolutely everything I ever wanted in a woman, and I was grateful she'd allowed me into her life. And she replied that I was everything she ever wanted in a man. She said it was just the two of us against the rest of the world. I marveled at my good fortune. Here I was, in the middle of a fully realized dream.
That evening we turned on the TV and watched the Phillies. In the seventh inning, she ran her hand down my belly. Grasped me. "Hey,” she said, “what’s this?”
One morning she reported what she thought was an enigmatic dream. That she was somewhere on the west side of New York, in one of those brownstones overlooking Riverside Drive, having sex with Raymond Burr. I said nothing. But after mulling it over for a while, feeling my stomach tighten, I said if she didn’t mind I didn't need to hear about her sexual exploits—real or imagined.
She said she couldn't help what she dreamed, it just came on its own.
Being easily offended, I fumed. I sulked. I hated hearing about the other men in her life. And here she was, in effect insisting I figure out exactly what meaning the dream had for her.
All right, Raymond Burr. A much older man, obviously a stand in for her father. Electra issues, and all that. Despite his being in a wheelchair, he’s a lawyer who never loses a case. No big surprise there, she has always been drawn to powerful men. Like for instance her former lover, what’s his name. Burt. An alcoholic, a drug addict, an ex-Navy man, a biker. Who did with her precisely whatever he wanted, then tossed her aside. No, wait. Before he did that, he got her pregnant, and she had to give up the baby for adoption because she couldn’t bring herself to get an abortion.
“Other than the obvious, I have no clue what the dream means,” I finally said.
She looked at me closely. Did she know how twisted up my guts were at that moment?
“Oh, well,” she said. “It was just a dream.”
A few months after the divorce I watched a PBS documentary about women who were struggling with their mothers' terminal illnesses and subsequent deaths. Each of them in turn spoke about growing up being loved, nurtured, encouraged, accepted. Such profound attachments, they all said, made saying goodbye so difficult. But because they had love imprinted on their psyches, these women were nevertheless confident, self possessed. They knew they belonged in the world, have always belonged.
When Elizabeth came home from a long day at the bank, she lamented that it was so hard pretending to be like those dreadful, boring suits. She was not one of them, but had to disguise it. To get along, to keep the job, she had to be an actress. And I told her, yes, I knew exactly how that felt. I, too, have always been an actor, reciting from a script, following stage directions.
This is how a professional photographer acts. This is how a lover acts. This is how a husband acts. This is how a divorced man acts. None of it has ever come naturally, from within, because I’ve never had the slightest idea what normal is.
On the cinder path in Fairmont Park the other day I saw a mother kneel down next to her perambulator, and go through all the mommy motions. Oh, what a BEAUTIFUL little girl you are! Yes! Just perfect in every way! Oh, I could just eat you up because you are so wonderful, here, let me kiss your darling chubby little cheeks!
On and on and on like that, mommy just couldn’t get enough of her precious little baby.
I suddenly got the sense that I shouldn’t be there on that path, even though it was in the middle of a public park, open to everyone. I was a trespasser. I didn’t belong.
None of it was mine to enjoy. Certainly not the mother and child. And not anything else, either, like the sky full of slowly moving W.C. Wyeth clouds, the tall trees with swaying branches and rustling leaves, or the scents of cut grass, blooming tiger lilies and honeysuckle.
I stopped by a wide, shallow creek bordered by weeping willows. The water flowed smoothly over submerged rocks. A speckled trout was in shadow, motionless, near the opposite bank. It turned slowly.
“Go away,” that fish said. “And don’t bother coming back.”