It all went to hell when the doctor came in. He was an officious little bastard with a salt-and-pepper mustache and an intimidating bedside manner. Sophie and I had been on the fence when it came to knowing the baby’s sex—something in the way she carried (high or low, I can’t remember) convinced her it was a girl, and I’ve always been a sucker for a woman’s intuition—but almost as an afterthought, a last-ditch conversational lubricant, I asked the doctor if it was a he or a she.
“What are you, blind?” he said. “The kid’s hung like a horse.”
And just like that, my own manhood, still throbbing in my trousers, shriveled to the size of a cashew.
By bedtime, things hadn’t picked up. My get-up-and-go had got up and gone; the lead had left my pencil. When Sophie had had enough of my pathetic version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, she said, “What seems to be the problem, Fletcher?” I bluffed. I told her that the ultrasound had spooked me, that I was afraid of poking the baby in the eye. She told me not to flatter myself, but I took a rain check—night after night—and as the week wore on the situation only got worse.
One evening stands out as a particular low point. Sophie and I rented the top half of a two-family house at the west end of Gun Barrel Boulevard, wedged into a neighborhood of near-identical two-families. A staircase led from a spare bedroom off the kitchen up to our bedroom. A window at the landing looked directly into the bedroom of the woman who lived behind us. On the night in question, whether out of an excess of passion or want of discretion, or maybe out of pure spite, she hadn’t drawn her shades. I was coming up to bed and about to shut my own blinds, when she entered her brightly lit bedroom, wearing only her boyfriend’s long white lab coat. He was some sort of scientist and was already stretched out naked on the bed. The lab coat dropped to her feet and slowly, slowly, she impaled herself upon the scimitar of his prick. I couldn’t move. It wasn’t just voyeurism, it was nostalgia, and I stood transfixed before the window, until Sophie called, “Are you coming, darling?” I carried the image of the cowgirl-next-door into bed with me, and while this got me through the preliminaries, I soon saw our sex as an absurd parody of the neighbors’ and started to lose it.
What was my problem? Was that my heart or my son’s tiny fists furiously drumming against my chest as if to say, “This womb ain’t big enough for the both of us”? Would it be too highfalutin to say that, for the first time, I’d become aware of my impending displacement, the germ of my own extinction flourishing there in Sophie’s fertile crescent, a seed that I myself had sown? Say what you will, I couldn’t keep it up. My libido packed up its tent and left town, and I spent the rest of that night in the spare bedroom, though I did not sleep.
When the cold war between Sophie and me had reached the freezing point, détente arrived in the form of two moving vans parked at opposite ends of the Boulevard. Sophie’s Great-Aunt Isabella had passed away the year before, and in her will she’d left Sophie a piano, blandly described as “a Steinway Model K52 upright.” One Friday in early October, a quartet of Irish movers—three men and a well-muscled young woman wearing a man’s white tank undershirt, commonly referred to as a “wife-beater”—pulled up in a black moving van marked “Death Wish.” The movers couldn’t get the piano past the first landing, so they had to hoist it up through the living room window via a network of ropes and pulleys and levers. Once in, the piano was there to stay, like a ship in a bottle. They removed its quilted protective cover, revealing a yellow piano decorated with a tableau—an orgy really—of men and women in engaged in a cornucopia of sexual positions, painted in a faux-naïf style over it entire surface. I cracked open five congratulatory beers and we hunkered down around the piano in dumbstruck wonder.
While the movers and I were wrestling with Aunt Isabella’s piano, Sophie was down at the opposite end of the Boulevard helping supervise the unloading of another moving van, this one packed with all the worldly goods of her sister Annie. Annie was in the thick of an ugly divorce. She and her husband Roger had been teachers at the prestigious Playfair School for Boys in Underbrink, Connecticut, until a scandal involving Roger and a student forced his resignation and, for all intents and purposes, hers. The marriage exploded, and Annie and her five-year-old daughter Flora landed in the top half of a two-family house down the Boulevard from Sophie and me.
Though the Greenleafs were one of those families enamored with the idea of being a family—and, in the process, alienating anyone outside the immediate gene pool—Annie had always gone out of her way to include me, seizing upon whatever we had in common: the same unfortunate birthday (February 29), a penchant for Alsatian wines, Blossom Dearie, and the early novels of Aldous Huxley. I had no family to speak of—I never knew my father, and my mother was killed in a car crash when I was Flora’s age—but Annie insisted that she and I were siblings under the skin, spiritual twins separated at birth.
The day after Annie’s arrival, a rainy Saturday afternoon, a harem of Sophie’s friends and colleagues threw a baby shower in our apartment, and I found myself sharing the newly installed piano bench with Annie, as upon a life raft floating on a buoyant ocean of estrogen. A year-and-a-half older than Sophie, and a head taller, Annie had startled blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and wore no make-up; but what impressed me most were her hands—or rather, her fingers: long, tapered, and ringless. At Playfair, she’d taught music, and she made no bones about her disappointment over the distribution of Aunt Isabella’s estate. She herself had been bequeathed a Bonnard bather, which upon appraisal proved to be a forgery.
“God knows, I have no quarrel with Sophie,” she told me for the umpteenth time that afternoon, “but if anyone should have gotten this piano it was me. For God’s sake, Fletcher, music is my life. Granted, I already have a piano, but it’s a joke. I mean, really. Old Isabella must have been non compos mentis. If it had been anyone but Sophie I’d have taken them to court.”
Determined not to let her bitterness bring me down, I poured each of us another glass of gewürztraminer from the bottle I’d brought to the bench.
“But what really irks me,” she continued, “is Isabella’s leaving the harpsichord to Charles of all people.” Charles was the baby of the family, a prematurely bald mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer. “Charles wouldn’t know a harpsichord from a Jew’s harp. Charles can’t carry a frigging tune, for God’s sake.” The fingers of her right hand had clenched in a fist over the keyboard, threatening to come crashing down in the vicinity of middle C any second now. “I mean, I spent a whole summer in Florence studying harpsichord with Gordon Vickers.”
“Vickers,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Gordon Vickers.”
“Well, he just so happens to be Mister Harpsichord. Il miglior fabbro. A colossus astride the harpsichord world.” Her hands flew together in a silent, rapturous clap. “Oh, my wild Florentine summer.” But then her mouth turned down, as if she’d bitten into something rotten. “It’s where I met Roger.”
“In Florence, Fletcher. Have you been listening to a single word I’ve said?”
“Does Roger play the harpsichord?” I asked.
“God, no. Roger doesn’t play anything. He plays the slide guitar.”
“Well, that’s something.”
“No, Fletcher, the slide guitar is nothing. It’s the last refuge of the untalented, a notch above whistling or playing the kazoo.” Then, brightening, she said, “So Sophie tells me you’ll be naming the baby after Grandpa Alexander.”
Until that point, I’d been taken with the notion that I carried the sole y chromosome in the room, and only then did it occur to me that this was not the case, that there was, indeed, another male presence lurking in the shadows, and my raft began to founder. I excused myself and slipped into the spare bedroom—soon to be the baby’s room—where Flora lay fast asleep among the raincoats heaped upon the bed, her bare legs dangling off the edge. The Ingmar Bergman version of The Magic Flute was playing on the DVD player, and I sat cross-legged at her feet to watch the rest of it, but soon I too was asleep. When I woke up, the last of the guests were gone, all but Annie and Flora, who were staying for dinner.
Annie uncorked another bottle of gewürztraminer and poured out her sad story. Many were her griefs; long ran her catalogue of loss: the humiliation of Roger’s misconduct, their resignations, the movers’ bill, the lawyers’ bills—and since the separation, little Flora had been a basket case: crying jags, nightmares, bedwetting, urinary tract infections, you name it.
“I just don’t get it,” she said. “We were humming along like some happy little baroque trio, you know? Only I was the continuo. And then—”
“Continuo?” I said.
Annie looked to Sophie for assistance. “Come si dice continuo?”
“Oh, you know,” Sophie said. “It’s kind of like the defining ingredient in baroque music. You got your melody up top and then your strong bass line supporting it below—your continuo. It’s usually some keyboard instrument, like a harpsichord or—”
“You know, Florence is the birthplace of the baroque,” Annie said, “the birthplace of my marriage.” She shook her head, sadly. “Nope, Roger was sure as shit no continuo.”
“Now, now,” Sophie said.
“You’re so blessed,” Annie told her. “Your house is in such harmony. You’ve got yourself a real continuo here.” She put her hand over mine.
On and on she talked, glass after glass. She would reinvent her life. She would make this town her own. She would become a regular in some restaurant. She would patronize the local merchants. She would become one of them. She would give piano lessons out of her home.
As Annie had no car, I walked her and Flora home—driving was out of the question—and it was upon my return that Sophie broached the subject of my taking piano lessons.
“She needs the business,” Sophie said. “And besides, we’ve got this piano and someone ought to learn to play it.”
“Then you learn to play it,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” She smoothed her hands over the globe of her belly. “I can’t even reach the keys.”
“What if we just lent her some money?”
“It’s not about the money and you know it,” she said. The Greenleafs had money, the old kind, though it was considered bad manners to mention it in mixed company. “It’s about dignity, self-respect, self-worth. And it would do you some good as well. Consider it an act of sublimation.”
“Let’s face it, Fletcher: you need an outlet. We all need an outlet.” She flipped her hand wanly where her lap used to be. “You need to channel your energies somewhere.”
The blood rushed to my face and I went to the window. She came up behind me and rubbed up against me.
“Come on, darling,” she said. “If you won’t do it for yourself, then how about doing it for me?”
My first lesson was the following Thursday evening. Annie’s apartment seemed narrower than ours, but deeper. A flight of wooden stairs led up to a book-lined sitting room. Adjoining this was a larger room Annie called “the music room,” where a serviceable Krakauer upright squatted under a framed photograph of Annie and a man she identified as Gordon Vickers, both smiling against a backdrop of terra cotta rooftops and domes. The music room opened onto a little dining room, then a kitchen, and beyond that another staircase led up to Annie and Flora’s bedrooms.
At first I found the transition from brother-in-law to pupil awkward and disorienting, but then we got down to business. My first piece was “The Mexican Hat Dance” from Book One of Gilbert’s Basic Adult Piano Course, which I’d already begun to tackle on my own.
it! Play it! Play the famous hat dance!
“Splendid!” Annie clapped her hands together. “Are you sure you haven’t taken lessons before?”
It felt good to please a woman again, even if only through the medium of a Krakauer upright, but after a couple weeks of the Hat Dance, I wanted to move things along. Gilbert’s Book One just wasn’t cutting it for me.
“Then what do you want to play?” Annie said.
“I want to play—” I looked up at the photo of Annie and Vickers. “—baroque.”
“I want to play Bach.”
“Golly,” she said, “you don’t waste any time, do you?”
And so, with some hesitation, Annie started me on the rigaudon in F from the second notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, a composition exercise knocked off by Frau Bach’s youngest son Johann Christian before he’d reached the age of ten. I practiced the piece all week, whenever Sophie wasn’t around. Rounding the turn into her final trimester, Sophie kept the apartment steamy as a sauna, bullying the poor landlord into weather-stripping every window, caulking each crack, so that by Halloween the ceiling was turning to Gorgonzola. The bookshelves sagged in the Amazonian warmth; the piano was forever straying out of tune. Sophie moved about the rooms in her panties and T-shirt, the button of her navel pushing out against the white cotton. In those halcyon days before the ultrasound, the sight of such ripeness would have excited me to no end, but now it worked all the aphrodisiacal magic of an autopsy, and I just couldn’t play worth a damn with Sophie on the premises. As soon as she was out the door, I’d crack open the windows and practice like a man possessed. Driving to and from work, I’d listen to a recording of the rigaudon—all thirty-eight seconds of it—on compact disc, over and over again. Even in my office, I’d shut the door behind me and sneak the sheet music out of my briefcase, pouring over the page, humming along, working out the fingering on the edge my desktop, and penciling in my own notations, like Hansel dropping a trail of bread crumbs to guide himself back home.
But come Thursday evening, I lost my way through that forest of sharps and flats, following the trail to a vanishing point somewhere between the bass and treble clefs. I couldn’t understand it. I’d played like Liberace when I was alone. Weren’t these the same eighty-eight keys? As I sat beside Annie on her black piano bench, my fingers felt anaesthetized, flaccid, lifeless.
“Maybe it’s the—” I struggled for the word.
“Yes,” I said, “that must be it. The action’s different.”
“Listen, Fletcher,” she said, “I told you before: it’s no Steinway, but it’s the best I can offer.” We were both defensive now, sullen and testy, and neither of us spoke for a minute. Then she said, “You’re expecting too much too soon, silly,” and laid her hand over mine. “Gordie used to say that the black is the notes and the white is the music.”
“Well, it sounds pretty Zen-like and all,” I said, “but how’s that supposed to help me?”
“Think about it, Fletcher,” she said. “Just think about it.”
I did think about it, but after two more excruciating lessons, and at Annie’s gentle urging, I abandoned the rigaudon for a British book of Christmas carols, its price tag marked in pounds. She told me to pick a carol, any carol, and I settled on “Good King Wenceslas.” Over the following week, I threw my heart and soul into it, and by the time Thursday rolled around, I was ready to knock her socks off.
“Fletcher, you’re early,” Annie said when she opened the door. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable while I finish up with another pupil.”
I plopped down on the loveseat in the sitting room, but I could hardly sit still. I was raring to go. From the next room came a familiar tune—the rigaudon—played fluidly, steadily, masterfully. The feet of the piano bench scraped the hardwood floor, and then Annie appeared in the doorway.
“Fletcher,” she said, “this is Alexander. Alexander, this is Fletcher.”
Alexander emerged from behind her and offered his hand. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, and as we shook hands, his impossibly long fingers made mine look like five stubby breakfast sausages.
“Alexander, you were smashing,” Annie gushed, “simply smashing.” He took my place on the loveseat and waited for his ride. I followed Annie back to the piano.
“Now, where are we with ‘Good King Wenceslas’?” she said, and I could swear I heard a high-pitched guffaw coming from the sitting room. I propped open my book of Christmas carols and sat stock-still.
“Fletcher?” Annie said softly.
“I can’t,” I croaked.
“Is there something wrong, Fletcher?”
“Of course, there’s something wrong,” I said. “How can I possibly follow that?”
We sat there in silence, side by side. A car horn honked, and Alexander called goodbye, but Annie and I didn’t move from the bench. Finally, she said, “You know, Gordie used to say—”
“If you’re about to tell me that Kung Fu shit about the black being the notes and the white being the music, you can save it.” My eyes burned. A sob knotted in my throat. We sat for what seemed like a very long time. Then I gave her my twenty-five dollars and left.
That was my last piano lesson.
The following Thursday was Thanksgiving, and Annie and Flora came to our place for dinner. Notwithstanding Sophie’s displeasure over my having thrown in the towel on the piano lessons—not to mention the fact that we hadn’t had made love since the autumnal equinox—we had fun, we all did. Because she said that dressing a turkey hit too close to home, Sophie cooked spaghetti carbonara instead. Annie made a chocolate mousse and I whipped up a bowl of eggnog. We laughed a lot and drank a lot—at least Annie and I did—and no one mentioned the piano. I was determined to rinse away the bad taste I was sure I’d left in Annie’s mouth the week before, and perhaps I tried too hard, for midway through dessert, Flora cast her sober gaze upon me and asked, “Are you in love with her?”
“Am I in love with whom?” I said.
“With my mummy.”
“With your mummy?” I said. “Whatever makes you ask that?”
“Because you’re only talking to her.”
Annie turned red, while Sophie went white.
“Fletcher’s not in love with your mummy,” Sophie assured Flora. “He should have such good taste.” Annie and I both laughed, nervously. “As it happens, Fletcher’s ga-ga over some whore from our Lamaze class.”
I said, “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a five-year-old at the table.”
“You’re telling me?”
“Besides which, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about the one with the tits and the overbite. Ginny, Joanie, Jenny—”
“Jessie,” I said. “But why would I be attracted to her of all people? I mean, for Christ’s sake, Sophie, she’s eight months pregnant.”
“I’m eight months pregnant,” she cried and stormed into the kitchen, with Annie close behind.
Flora and I stayed put and cleaned our plates in silence, until she looked up at me and said, “I think you hurt her feelings.”
I picked at Sophie’s abandoned mousse, at a loss for words, but Flora was relentless.
“You should tell her you’re sorry,” she said.
“There’s rum in this,” I said. “She shouldn’t be having rum. You shouldn’t be having rum.”
The sisters returned to the table, giggling now, with fresh mischief in their eyes.
“What’s all this?” I said.
Sophie said, “I’m lending you to Annie for an evening.”
“Really?” I turned to Annie. “My place or yours?”
“Don’t be a pig,” Sophie said.
“Lighten up, sis,” Annie said. “You know, among the Pawnee Indians, it was considered a husband’s duty to sleep with his wife’s unmarried sisters.” She waggled her eyebrows Groucho-like. “Marry the bride, you marry the sister.”
“Now you behave yourself,” Sophie said, slapping the back of Annie’s hand, and all of us laughed, even little Flora.
“But seriously, Fletcher,” Annie said, “it just so happens that Gordie’s performing at Harvard Sunday afternoon.”
“Gordon Vickers, silly,” she said. “At Sanders Theatre.”
“And I don’t think Annie should go alone,” Sophie said.
“No, I don’t. It just wouldn’t be proper. So I told Annie you’d be happy to take her. Wouldn’t you, darling?”
The theatre was like an enormous roll top desk. Annie and I sat cheek and jowl on a varnished pew. She had on a red Tuscan dress—and make-up. I’d never seen her wear make-up before. She was so excited, she practically threw off sparks.
The houselights dimmed and out came Gordon Vickers, dressed in an oversized sweater patched at the elbows, threadbare corduroys, and a pair of black high tops. He looked much older than in the photo over Annie’s piano, older and shabbier, his dashing dark hair gone gray and grizzled, with eyebrows bushy enough to hide a pick-up truck. He hunched over the keyboard and played ninety minutes of brittle Bach, humming along tunelessly here and there, much to his audience’s amusement—especially Annie’s.
After his final bow, Vickers stationed himself behind a table in the cavernous lobby, hawking and signing compact discs. Annie tugged at my sleeve. “Buy something,” she hissed, and we fell into line. When at last it was our turn, I handed over my cash and Annie spoke up.
Coyly, she began, “You won’t remember me, but . . .”
Vickers looked up at her from under his twitching eyebrows. “Should I?”
Annie’s aplomb collapsed like a fallen soufflé, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t confess to experiencing a sudden and delicious rush of—of what? Satisfaction? Schadenfreude? Misery loves company? Then, just as suddenly, that feeling faded, replaced by an acute sympathy—empathy really—for it was in that instant that an even stronger bond was formed between us, forged in the furnace of our twin humiliations, and I wanted nothing more than to get her out of there pronto, to take her in my arms and spare her this indignity, this embarazo, to shield her from the slings and arrows of outrageous harpsichordists and ex-husbands.
“Annie,” she went on. “Annie Greenleaf? I was your pupil. In Florence.”
Vickers regarded her, blankly.
“You remember me,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. “You must remember me. Florence? Firenze? Al Conservatorio di Musica? Luigi Cherubini?”
“Sorry.” He handed back the CD booklet, showing a younger, jauntier Vickers, smirking behind the scribble of his autograph. “But thanks so much for coming.”
Annie started to speak again, but his attention had already shifted to the next paying customer.
I pushed open the heavy door and Annie slipped out under my arm. It was dark now. Briskly, she bisected the Yard, heels clicking, fists shoved deep in the pockets of her black Cossack coat. I caught up with her at the southeast gate.
“It’s been a long time, Annie,” I said, breathless.
“A long time?”
“A long time since Florence.”
“Seven years is not a long time,” she said. “Seven years is nothing.”
“He’s getting old,” I said, “absent-minded. He must see hundreds of faces a week. That’s a whole a lot of faces for one old harpsichordist to remember.”
“Oh, he remembered all right.”
“You can’t take it so personally.”
“So personally?” She stopped cold in the middle of the Mass. Avenue crosswalk. “Being forgotten is like dying, Fletcher. And so forgetting is like killing. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.”
“Don’t you think that’s a tad extreme?”
“No, I don’t,” she said. “It’s not extreme at all. The man’s a fucking killer, sitting up there with his shaggy eyebrows and his baggy pants and his Lee Harvey Oswald sweater.”
A car horn sounded in front of us. Annie’s mittened fist came down hard on the hood of the car. “Don’t you dare!” she shouted, and the driver withered behind the wheel.
We continued walking to my car. As I opened the door for her, she turned her face up into mine.
“And all that Glenn Gouldian grunting and humming and huffing and puffing—”
“Well, he’s a—”
“He’s a shit,” she snorted, wiping her runny nose with the back of her mitten. “I mean, really.”
That was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Three weeks later—the first night of winter—I was working late. I worked a lot of long hours those days—to escape the hothouse atmosphere of our simmering apartment, but I suppose mostly to avoid Sophie. I was alone in the office when the telephone rang. It was Annie.
“Fletcher, I need you.”
“What is it, Annie?”
“It’s—well, it’s a bit intimate for the telephone.” I’d barely seen Annie in the twenty-three days and nights since Vickers’s recital. Why? As witnesses to one another’s’ disgrace, perhaps maybe we’d avoided each other. But tonight her voice sounded different to me, husky, ravaged, desperate. “Just come, Fletcher—please.”
“Come?” I said. “Where?”
“Home,” she said, “my home.”
“Now, Fletcher, come now.”
It snowed on the way to Annie’s, big wooly flakes riding piggyback down from the sky. I listened to Vickers’s CD as I drove, and it seemed to me that Bach had surely written this fugue to accompany this snowfall, this very moment of my life, for the timbre of Annie’s voice told me that I was headed toward something seismic and irrevocable.
When I got to Annie’s door, she was waiting for me with a plastic sippy cup sloshing in her hand.
“Pee,” she said. “Flora’s pee.”
She explained that Flora was in bed with yet another bladder infection and a temperature of 103?. She needed to get a urine sample to the clinic as soon as possible. Could I take it there or could I babysit Flora while she borrowed my car? I handed her the keys.
Upstairs, the radiators rattled, the rooms were full of ticking. Outside, car wheels slipped and slid up and down the Boulevard. I explored the apartment, beginning with the bookshelves. I pulled out book after book, searching out all the little evidences of Annie’s having traveled through their pages: a penciled exclamation point here, an underlined sentence there. I tried to imagine what occasion had prompted this or that bit of marginalia. Hmmmmm in purple felt tip alongside a paragraph of Eyeless in Gaza; Yikes!!! above a description of Dora Carrington’s suicide in Volume Four of The Diary of Virginia Woolf. The rooms were ablaze with her. I was locked inside the Annie Greenleaf Museum after hours, with free run of the place. I examined the pictures on the walls—old family photos her parents, of Annie, Sophie, and Charles as children; more recent ones of Annie and Flora, with Roger clumsily cropped out, throwing each composition off-kilter.
I moved to the music room and Annie’s desk. The desk appeared to be a gutted upright piano, its hammers and strings yanked out and replaced with an assortment of pigeonholes, drawers, nooks, and crannies. Every surface of the desk was covered. A bundle of bills. A long, unbroken spiral of orange peel. A sand dollar, a little worse for wear. A pinecone. A torn blue envelope stuffed with cancelled stamps. A stack of envelopes from a high-powered law firm—doubtless, her divorce attorneys—a piece of stationery embossed with same letterhead. “Dear Ms. Greenleaf . . .”
I jumped. Flora stood in the doorway in her yellow Doctor Dentons, looking like a marshmallow Easter chick.
“Mummy had to go out,” I said, “to get some medicine.”
“Is she coming back?”
“Of course she’s coming back.” I lifted her up and carried her upstairs to bed. The corner of a photograph peeped out from between the mattress and the wall. I pulled it out. It showed the three of them, intact: Roger, Annie, and Flora holding hands in a brief chorus line before a Christmas tree, like Scott, Zelda, and little Scottie in the famous photo, their right legs extended at identical angles.
“Don’t tell Mummy?” Flora said.
“No, of course I won’t tell Mummy.” I gave her back the picture and sat with her until she was asleep. Then I kissed her sticky forehead and returned the sitting room.
Snow continued to sizzle against the windowpanes. Up and down the Boulevard, a man’s megaphone voice declared a snow emergency. I stood at the window, cursing myself. If I were any sort of gentleman, I’d have driven to the clinic myself. But then I wondered if had Annie driven to the clinic at all. How long could it take? She’d been gone for nearly two hours. Then it occurred to me that it was all a trick. Surely, she knew me well enough to appreciate that there was no way in hell I would brave a nor’easter to deliver a sippy cup of my own urine, much less someone else’s. I imagined her in the car—my car—with another man, the windshield ferned with frost, and I paced the floor like a father waiting up for his teenaged daughter hours past her curfew.
A key scratched in the lock at the bottom of the stairs. Annie entered, shaking beads of water from her hair.
“The snow’s turned to sleet,” she said.
“It’s a snow emergency.”
“The driveway’s a mess so I left the car in front.”
“Have a cup of tea, Fletcher?”
“Fletcher.” She regarded me frankly, her eyes red-rimmed and forlorn. “Have a cup of tea.”
And so we sat at the kitchen table drinking tea and eating gingerbread men: blobby, misshapen, hydrocephalic, not recognizably male—gingerbread deep-sea divers, gingerbread elephant men.
Annie touched my hand across the table. “You’re too good to me, Fletcher.”
I shook my head and changed the subject. Had she done her Christmas shopping? What did Flora want for Christmas?
“Flora doesn’t want anything.” Then darkening, she said, “That’s not true. She wants her father. But I can’t give her that, can I? I think she hates it here with me. Oh, Fletcher, it’s so hard. You have no idea how hard.”
“But you don’t know. You couldn’t possibly, not really.”
I finished my tea. I had to work the next morning. We lingered in the foyer as I buttoned my coat and wrapped my scarf around my neck. Annie pressed a gingerbread man into my hand—one more for the road—but I couldn’t move. The snow had created a kind of cocoon around us, soft and protective, in which we were nestled like twins, and I didn’t want to leave.
I brushed a cluster of cookie crumbs from the down above her lip.
“Gingerbread,” I said. She smiled. My fingers sank into her hair, still damp with snowmelt, and when I kissed her, she spat my tongue back down my throat with such force that I might have swallowed it. She stepped back and her face was a mask of undisguised disgust.
“Do you realize what you’re up to here?” she said.
I couldn’t think of what to say.
“I’ll tell you what you’re up to. Incest is what you’re up to.”
“I don’t think that’s quite it,” I said.
“Incest and adultery.”
“Adultery?” I said. “You’re not even married, Annie, not really.”
“You’re married,” she said. “You are. To my sister you’re married.”
“Remember the Pawnee?” I said. “Marry the bride, you marry the sister.”
She backed even farther from me and wiped her mouth.
“I’m not like that,” she said.
“Not like what?”
“Not like you.” Each word came down like the rap of a gavel, and what I wouldn’t have given for a trap door to open under me and remove me from the sentencing phase of these sorry proceedings. Still, I somehow made it down the stairs and out the door. I heard the key turn in the lock behind me, punctuated by the clunk of the deadbolt and the chain sliding in its slot, and then halfway to the car, I saw that Annie had left the headlights on.
I got in and turned the key. The dashboard dimmed, the engine killed, and the Bach on the CD player dissolved in a blizzard of static, as if scissors had clipped the staff and a sizzling shower of shiny black notes slid off ten limp strings and onto a griddle. The porch light went out, and as the rest of the houselights blinked out, one after another, I saw myself as Annie saw me, as Sophie must have seen me too: a monster of selfishness, a spoiled little boy desperate to retain his title as Only Child—if not hers, then any woman’s. I rested my forehead against the cold steering wheel. It was clear to me that now I was really out in the cold.
It was too late to get a jump and, besides, there wasn’t time. I had to get home before Annie spoke to Sophie. In the space of three hours, the world had grown voluptuous, zaftig. Snow had feminized the Boulevard. I stumbled across the undulant landscape in a race against time—the time it would take for Annie to telephone Sophie and regale her with God-knows-what Grand Guignol version of our burlesque of a goodnight kiss. Would Sophie up and leave me—or cast me back out into the storm? I couldn’t lose her. I needed her now like I’d never needed any woman since my mother blew that stop sign thirty years before, needed to crawl in and curl up inside her. On and on I lumbered, through plump hillocks and plush furrows, a monster, yes, but repentant, oh, repentant. Sleet lashed my eyes and cheeks, accompanied by my blood pumping and thumping in my temples like a throbbing bass line—continuo, continuo—and I approached the house freighted with desire and dread.
Though lights burned in the foggy upstairs windows, the stairwell was dark. I opened the front door and the air hit me like a blast of steam. As I climbed up through the womb-warm dark, my legs wobbly as a toddler’s, the walls seemed to contract around me. My chest was heaving, and I could hear the gallop of my heartbeat, a stampede pounding in my veins and my brain. I paused at the landing to catch my breath, and sure enough, I saw Sophie’s plump little traveling bag packed at the top of the stairs, joined by her booted feet. Slowly, my eyes moved over the length and breadth of her, up and up and up—and she was smiling, cheeks flushed, pupils dilated, teeth gleaming.
“Hurry, darling,” she said, releasing a deep, cleansing breath. “It’s time.”