Authors: Susan Minot
What are you doing?
It’s going to storm. I’m closing the windows.
No, leave them open.
It will drench the rug, said the nurse, turning back, leaving them up.
I want the air. Nothing like the air of a storm.
The suitcase had belonged to her mother, it had a smooth shellacked surface with yellow stitching underneath the glaze. The
locks snapped and the corners were rounded, hollow and shell-like. Ann Lord could almost taste the surface of it at the back of her throat.
A warm July wind, the smell of a fish cannery. She stood beside him as the water went by. His shirt collar was bent under, but she didn’t untuck it. His hair was wheat-colored and unruly and shook like cotton tufts in the wind. The engine of the ferry vibrated through the railing and Ann Grant felt it in her hands and chest. Being a doctor he was not a lot outdoors and his face didn’t have the same color as the other passengers’. He told her about the emergency room being busy on full moons, he told her people trusted doctors more than they should.
Ann felt the excitement of the wedding, of the people traveling, of the suitcases opening and cheeks kissed and the new dresses and the cocktails and dinners and suits needing to be pressed. She’d first visited the Wittenborns’ when she was fifteen after meeting Lila that winter at skating class in Boston and knew well the flowered chairs of the living room and the routine of taking picnics made by Mrs. Babbage to Butter or Fling or Coleman’s Island, traveling in crowded motorboats and landing with care on rocky beaches and while it had been new and different to her at first she now felt a part of it. The man beside her added a new element. She did not know what to expect from him and everything he said surprised her. She imagined he would always surprise her.
As they came in the channel he asked her about the island and she pointed to the boathouse moving past them on the shore and told him she’d first kissed a boy there. It was not the sort of thing she usually told anyone and immediately tried to cover it up by telling about the parties they’d go to with bonfires and people falling from rafters and the time Buddy drove an outboard over the floats. They came in sight of town and she saw the grey general store with the bulletin board encased in glass and the stone wall where the island boys smoked and the gas pumps on the next dock
with the fishing boats and the ferry landing where people stood now waving.
She spotted Lila wearing pigtails and little white shorts and Carl beside her, solid in big white shorts. They already looked married the way they stood side by side waving, not needing to look at each other or to touch.
Ann waved back, Harris Arden didn’t. She glanced at his mouth and from this angle saw a split in his bottom lip which gave her a pleasant rattled feeling which did not go away when the ferry docked and they bumped the pilings and Harris Arden picked up her yellow suitcase along with his bag and was still there when they kissed Lila and Carl hello.
Gigi Wittenborn came running forward, barefoot, sunburnt, giving off a whiff of alcohol when Ann kissed her. Lila’s sister Gigi was just twenty but taller than Lila.
They’ve been picnicking with the Holts, Lila whispered. You get the picture.
Two strapping Holt brothers hovered near Gigi, there were usually a few boys hovering around Gigi and her scattered beauty. Ann saw Harris Arden shake Gigi’s hand and was relieved to see he didn’t seem overly intrigued. Buddy peered over Gigi’s shoulder looking into the cup she held, took it from her hand and drank the rest of it. The excited feeling increased in the gathering.
Ann had had feelings with a few other boys and with each there was something particular to the person which was unique and it seemed that the particular feeling around Harris Arden was more unique than usual. There was something larger in him, in his stillness, in the way he moved. She watched him carry the suitcases to the car not hurrying but purposeful and intent and sort of angry. He’d been playful with her during their drive but the way his body moved was not playful, it was big and impatient and final, like another continent. They loaded into the old station wagon. Harris Arden pulled off his sweater and his stomach showed. Ann saw it from where she was sitting in the back—his head was cut off by the roof, and the skin of his stomach was smooth.
Carl drove. The island roads were unchanged, always with a little curve, sometimes with a dip like a rollercoaster. Lila facing forward in the front related the news. Her mother was doing her utmost to drive her insane, the Slaters were having them for a cookout, her father was pretending nothing unusual whatsoever was going on. Ann was staying in the guest cottage where the ice box was filled with flowers, Harris Arden and Ralph were in the main house. The tires rumbled over the wooden bridge at Bishops Harbor then skidded at the unpaved turnoff to the Wittenborn compound and clanged over the cattle guards ridged in the dirt. They were packed into the car closely and Harris Arden’s arm was pressed alongside Ann’s. The world was perfect and tight and balanced and as they drove past the sheep on the tilted field it seemed that the trunk of each cedar tree was perfectly shaped and had been set down in precisely the place it belonged.
A club thumped her back and a little fire burst into flame and smoke ran through her. The smoke was orange.
Mother, they said. Mother.
She was being summoned, they were waiting downstairs. But she hadn’t prepared her statement. She pretended not to hear. It was as if a thick bandage were wrapped over her eyes but she could still see through. She heard them and heard herself but it was much smaller what they said. Each word seemed sort of whittled down while she felt oddly added onto. Her brain felt as big as the ceiling. Meaning was slipping but she saw now meaning had always been slipping off to the side only she hadn’t noticed it before. She stopped using certain words.
Sometimes she woke in the middle of the night and was struck with a panic and dread so sudden and overwhelming her heart stopped and she feared her nerves had seized up for good, then somehow the moment passed and she was able to breathe again.
She felt his presence in the room as she showered before dinner. There was no one like him in the world. She thought of his doctors hands.
The boys she’d been seeing in New York were fast-walking boys who held restaurant doors open and because there was so much to look at swiveled their heads around. They talked about themselves boldly or shyly and at the end of dinner would focus on her. Sometimes they reached for her hand. Sometimes she walked home with her hand still in theirs.
Ann Grant had had three beaux by then. Frank Fallon from Gray Gable Road was six years ago, and Malcolm Flynn in New York was the first real grownup. She’d been in love with Malcolm Flynn, at least she thought so till now. Now with this new feeling she looked back on Malcolm Flynn and wondered how she could have endured him for so long.
, said Fiona Speed, rummaging through her purse. She turned to the man at the bar beside her and asked in a sweet high British accent for a cigarette then turned back to Ann with her low real voice.
, she said. And Lila at the breakfast table behind Mr. Wittenborn’s blooming orchid screwed up one eye, puzzled at Ann’s fascination with this man. It doesn’t sound as if he’s being really fair. They didn’t even know the extent of the humiliating scenarios, prone beside the unringing phone, consoling
for canceling the weekend at a Massachusetts inn. She could no longer confide in her friends, ashamed for needing his intermittent attentions and believing that the wind which blew down the icy sidewalks was more precious for being around him as he hurried along. She lost weight, drank coffee for lunch.
, they said.
It doesn’t look as if Malcolm is going to get married for a long time
He’d been a change from the boys at home who were good-natured and fun on the beach and kept you dancing all night but looked frightened when you wanted to talk. Frank Fallon was a dear and even fascinating for a while after she’d licked snow off his hot cheek. But Frank didn’t have a clue about her, he went on to marry Kathleen McNamara and they already had five children.
She met Malcolm Flynn at a cocktail party. He walked right up to Ann and afterwards with a group out at dinner Malcolm sat beside her and spoke near her face and was lively and abrupt and slightly taut and when they slipped their coats on by the cashier he pulled her away and said, Now I want you all to myself, nearly carrying her out the door. He hailed a cab and whisked her downtown to a bar crowded with men in sleek haircuts and women in little black dresses and gloves. He knew the bartender, he knew people inching by, but his attention didn’t stray from her beyond a stiff salute to passing figures. He ordered her a gimlet. He didn’t talk overly about his job, the business side of magazines, but about trips he’d taken and ones he wanted to take. He asked her what she thought about things. She had never been the object of a campaign of this sort and within two weeks Malcolm Flynn had her in his thrall. The first night she stayed at his apartment she lay awake watching a red ambulance light loop across the ceiling, feeling grownup to be in New York sleeping in a man’s bed. He had made her feel silly for holding onto her virginity and she saw now he was right. She’d needed to be coaxed. The next morning back in her tiny flat on Sixty-eighth Street changing out of her evening clothes for work she was aware of something darkening her sense of satisfaction. Soothed from the physical contact she dimly glimpsed through the haze of pleasure and vanity an image she didn’t want to inspect too closely, an uneasiness about Malcolm Flynn’s character. She wondered if he wasn’t a little spineless. After those first weeks he never flooded her again with quite the same attention but maintained just enough exuberance now and then to keep her attached. Doubts about his character persisted. The trip to Florida to meet investors turned out to be the trip to Florida with the lingerie model from Bendel’s. There was an episode with his best friend’s sister during the Christmas holidays in Pittsburgh, which Ann wouldn’t have known about if the poor girl hadn’t rung her up in tears. But Malcolm’s apologies came so sweetly in the new special quiet of their shared dark pillow and she thought this is what was meant by compromise in love. It was two years before Ann could extract herself.
Attempting to get away from him she often spent weekends visiting Lila in Cambridge and that’s where Vernon Tobin appeared. Ann had always known Lila’s cousin but suddenly he was five years older. He was working in a bank. His attitude to Ann was respectful, unlike Malcolms. When she finally broke off with Malcolm, Vernon was there.
Vernon presented his own dilemma, one he suffered from more than Ann. He was good, but she did not love him.
Someone banged over the hollow threshold. It was Gigi, bright-eyed, with a slash of sunburn across her cheekbones.
Ann Ann Ann, Gigi said. Tell me who he is.
Ann blushed knowing right away whom she meant.
She felt better knowing he was there in the room.
Just give me your hand, she said. We wasted so much time.
I’ll wait till he comes down, said Teddy’s wife Lauren, sitting on the porch steps. Her twin daughters were asleep in the car and she positioned herself so she could keep an eye on them.
She’s sleeping most of the time, Margie said.
He says she talks in her sleep.
She mumbles a lot, Constance said.
He says it’s interesting.
Aunt Grace said she’s quoting Carole Lombard movies or Duke Ellington songs.
Teddy thinks it’s about her boyfriends, Lauren said.
Husbands is more like it, Constance said.
He says he’s hearing more about her life than he ever did before. Lauren went taut, thinking she heard a sound from the car. No, she said to herself, and relaxed.
Like what? Margie said looking at Lauren with interest.
Constance hit Margie’s chair. I doubt Mother has any deep dark secrets, she said.
n June the leaves were thin and light green and by August they would be dark and thick as fur
let’s just say you won’t see the leaves change this year
. Now it was July. She thought of the house beneath her. The marble table in the hall with the silver communion dish on feet and a drawer tangled with keys, a clay head sculpted by Margie. Then the hooks under the stairs and coats hanging. More coats in the closet. A row of flower prints on the wall. In the living room the fireplace mande had a wooden crucifix from Mexico from her honeymoon with Ted and the twisted silver Stackpole candlesticks, one with a dent from the time Ted threw it
goddamn it Ann
and the French clock of Oscar’s. On the floor a wire basket filled with magazines, on the bookshelf framed photos propped against crimson leather, gold letters, tides sideways, books in shelves up to the ceiling. With the lights out the living room hushed. The dining room, grey and white floor. Teddy and
Paul used to hide in the elephant ear plant, playing jungle. Once Paul bit a leaf. The chairs pushed tight around the table, the china basket in the center. In the pantry the cabinet latches painted thick, the cocktail glasses behind the glass, a glass ashtray with bubbles. No that was somewhere else. Then Ted’s green coupe popped into her mind, it was in the driveway in Connecticut and she thought of the Connecticut house with the chestnut blossoms like suds on the gravel in the spring and the lawn littered with yellow leaves in the fall
let’s just say you won’t see
in the spring daffodils clustered down the sloping lawn then summer with the boats humming. They were eating under a pergola, but the light was European, there was bougainvillea and dappled shadows. A plate of red peppers in oil. The French nanny had a polka dot bathing suit and wore a ponytail. Little red flowers like trumpets poked through the trellis outside their bedroom. Ted was late coming back, he’d stopped for a drink. The water threw off a white light on the white sidewalk by the shops on the Riviera. Clouds blurred into pale blue. She had a straw bag and blue espadrilles. The children were eating dishes of ice cream with wafers pointing up. They were playing tag with the waves. She was waiting for Ted in the bar.
You are too lovely to sit alone
the man said. Ted was late.
Where were you? not this again
the white beach, the rusted hulk of the shipwreck on the shoals. She unfolded canvass chairs, Ted opened the umbrella. He stood at the bar with a towel around his waist. Constance wore a straw hat. Margie held a mainsail. They were in Maine, those were New England clouds. The beach was of stone and the picnic basket wicker. Cold chicken legs, lemonade from a thermos, Mrs. Babbage’s cookies, the Cutlers’ boat with the green cushions. Carl was pulling in the anchor. The boys were skipping stones. Someone passed out plates of cake, it was leftover birthday cake. Then her mother was standing in the doorway at Gray Gable Road. Her face powdered white, her lips purple. Ann sat on her father’s lap, it was her birthday, the candles came in shining. Everyone was shining. She held the button of her father’s shirt, he smelled like smoke. Other Grants were there, Aunt Joy and Uncle
Donny, and Mrs. Futter from next door in a flowered apron, the Jurgins with Lisel in a party dress. Ann was five, she felt it on her cheeks, sitting in her father’s lap. They clapped when she blew out the flame. It was July. She turned and kissed her father. She had on a white dress of dotted Swiss! Her mother yanked her arm and pulled her up and sat her down in another seat.
Never kiss your father on the mouth
Do you hear? Never