Authors: Susan Minot
hey came in one after another, up the stairs on the pale-green nailed carpet around the flat top of the landing past the prints of ships sailing through icebergs and ships aflame at night, past the black framed photographs in the hall of Ann Katz on a zebra banquet wearing satin straps and thick bracelets, Margie and Constance in bathtub suds, the twins holding fishing poles, Ted stepping out of a plane cockpit, Ann in riding boots by a tent, Oscar and Ann on the terrace, little Paul with a parrot on his shoulder … they glided into her room and stood underwater holding their breaths watching her breathe water staying very still till finally they could leave, get out and gulp air.
They entered fearful, some were better at hiding it than others.
Mrs. Storey brought her dog who set his head on the bed next to Ann Lord’s limp hand. Hello old girl, she said coming in, and Good-bye old girl, when she left.
Mrs. Roland, Elsie’s eighty-eight-year-old mother, came up with a cane wearing a purple skirt above her stick legs. You’re beginning to look Oriental, she told Ann. You’ll be fine, she said, and thumped her knee. Ann said, I know.
They came to her bedside and talked about what was going on downstairs, out the door, out on the street, in other houses, out in the world. It had been hot that weekend, it didn’t rain in Dover but did in Beverly Farms. The beach was glorious. Camilla Shepley was getting married again, Penny Montgomery’s wedding in New Orleans was going to be enormous and she was organizing the whole thing. Nina was arriving on Friday, she had the second lead in this play, something about kids on the street in Brooklyn. Lila Cutler hoped to get down from Maine but her back was bad. The traffic on the way over was terrible, the Square was a mess. The Eastmans had telephoned and so had Mrs. Beegin and Mrs. Brocaw and Mrs. Weld and Dan Shepley.
There was an interesting article, they’d seen something stupid on TV, what was the movie they wanted to see? They’d had dinner at the Whites’, they were still not talking to the Brocaws, Peach Howe was visiting from Florida, she’d definitely had a lift, Ollie Granger had won the race with the Hallowells, they’d brought her a pillowcase from Kit Eastman’s store, Jared Brocaw punched out the starter at the golf course, there was a wonderful Winslow Homer exhibit at the MFA they’d not been to yet. Ann Lord listened propped against the pillow following the movement when a person entered and put down a vase on a surface which up until then had never seen a vase or picked up a newspaper before sitting down in a chair or leaned a briefcase by the door or turned on the lamp in the corner when it started to get dark.
Someone held the cup while she tried to clamp her lips onto the straw but the straw swiveled away. A hand came forward to help and she waved it away, what else did she have to do but fumble with a straw? Everyone went silent and she had to say, Go on I’m listening, and continued fumbling, as if nibbling air. They did their best to talk on
what else? let’s see
but kept watching till her lips clamped onto the straw and she drew up a sip of lemonade and
they could heave a sigh of relief.
It was important that someone always be talking otherwise the silence took hold like a Virginia creeper invading a garden and darkened the air with what was going on in the room, the battle with pain, the downhill journey. It was not discussed that they were all here to see her off. They brought in bits of the world and when there was silence the absurdity of conversation was too apparent.
They knew how to get up in the morning and drive the car to work, to organize carpools, roast a chicken, cut back the roses, have a baby, dress the children, mix a cocktail, hoist a jib, dance a foxtrot, order in French, balance the checkbook, but they did not know so well how to do this. Sometimes she looked at them and thought not unkindly they’re just jumping over puddles.
He must have a girlfriend. There must be someone back in Chicago. There was no one she could ask but Carl and she didn’t want to ask Carl. She could have asked Harris Arden himself as they stepped into the night. The moon passed in and out of clouds and the grass was wet and her sandals were wet through in the thick grass. A path cut into a field of high grass making edges like a box. She went first and he followed, she did not turn around or ask him anything. She felt him behind with his light-colored eyes and his half-light hair and his skin blending in with the night. She didn’t want to know more. They arrived at a place where the stones made steps leading down and she gestured with her arm and he grabbed her hand and pulled it to his ribs tucking it under, clamping down his arm and not letting hers go. They took careful steps pretending to concentrate on their feet but she was thinking of their arms and their hands. She floated in the darkness on his arm. They stepped awkwardly and slowly. She took a step too short and laughed and he steadied her. They inched along, feeling their way through the darker trees, bumping into each other.
She smelled marigolds, she smelled pine. The grass sloped and her eyes grew accustomed to the dark. They reached the clearing at the end of the path, she could make out the shapes of light-colored
rocks and light-colored flowers in clusters and the darker edges near the ground under bushes. She let go of his hand and he kept his arm on her shoulder loosely. She stayed near him to keep his arm there sort of balancing so he wouldn’t move. She felt odd standing in the center of the rock garden lawn not moving.
He was relaxed touching her and must be used to girls, she thought, and therefore he must have a girlfriend. If there was a girl she was probably a strong independent girl back in Chicago, strong-minded, a girl who made something of herself. Some great girl. But did the girl slice into him? If Ann asked and found out about a girl there was a good chance he would take his arm away, his arm which she liked having there. There was a good chance she would then step aside which she did not want to do. If she learned about some other girl it would stop the thing mounting between them, and to Ann this mounting thing felt colossal.
She ought to do something. What should she do? They were standing in the middle of the garden on the grass. Any minute he might remove his arm. She didn’t want that, didn’t want his arm to move away. She took hold of his hand dangling from her shoulder. Holding his hand like that felt peculiar as if someone else were doing it and after a moment she let go. There’s a bench here somewhere, she said, and turned and when she turned he pulled her back toward him. Ann, he said. His other arm came up so both arms were around her and her face was close to his chest. Ann, he said over her head. Ann. The way he said her name sent a thrill through her. It was even more thrilling than the way his arms felt. Her cheek was against his shirt and she could feel the warmth of his skin through the cotton. He was running his finger under the gathered elastic of her shirt at the neck and he pulled it back and bent and kissed her skin. Wait, she smiled. What? He didn’t stop and she felt his lips. They made small noises. It’s just—she began, still smiling and he buried his face in her neck making her smile more. She pulled back slightly, wasn’t it too fast? this is where they were supposed to be going but her heart was beating too fast. Wait, she said, and put her hand on his chest. What is it. He was not worried,
he was already further than she, he was already further along. Nothing, she laughed, but do I know you? He kissed her neck, his hair brushed her face. Yes, he murmured. He pulled her up to him. You do. I do? His hair went across her lips, she reached up to touch his head and was surprised how soft his hair was. You don’t mind, he said. Do you. She could not answer. A force whirled through her. Who is he, she thought as a warm languor swept through her. Who is this Harris Arden? What was the house like where he lived. What did he think of and where were the streets he walked every day. What were these arms. Who did he know and what other girls did he kiss and where did he go.
Do you know, he said, how good you feel.
His hand at the back of her neck slipped under her shirt and slipped down her back. His hand on her skin. Do you mind? he said. He was smooth, he knew how to touch. She realized it with a little contraction inside, someone so smooth might not know how much it means, his hair in her face was darker than the night, the sky was light above the trees, all of it formed around the two of them, encasing them. He was taller than Ann and needed to crouch around her and when he stood up straight he lifted her in a tight grip nearly breaking her. She felt weak, she relaxed against him, his arms held her up. She had a sudden overpowering urge to lie down.
Still it seemed fast. His arms around her were lovely, but she didn’t know where she was, his hand was reaching down her spine. Harris, she said. What? His hand moved further down.
She pulled back and looked at him. His face was so close. Isn’t this strange?
Is it? His fingers tidied her hair.
Yes, it’s strange.
No, it’s nice, he said. You’re nice.
The sky was grey stone with blurred clouds and the dark hill across the water was a sleeping animal stretched out. Her sandals were wet, she felt his skin under his shirt. How long did they stand there? Around them flat shapes had no color, only shades of grey
and black. He pulled her shirt down off one shoulder then off the other and looked at her shoulders bare.
Stay like that always, he said.
He held out his jacket wing-like and enveloped her in it. Ann Ann Ann, he said. She was full of words but couldn’t speak, she thought without fear, where are we going? feeling her shirt off her shoulders, huddled against him, waiting, knowing there was something dangerous. He had not even kissed her mouth. She waited, protected by his coat, thinking, he is taking me somewhere, where will it be? She went along.
Other embraces came vaguely back to her. It happened involuntarily, she was not thinking of other men but they appeared, others she’d touched, conjured up by this touching, the others she’d kissed in dark city living rooms with a yellow light glowing in the sky, the ones she’d hugged at the bottom of her stoop, Frank Fallon’s head was being cradled in the front seat of his car, Malcolm’s arm was around her in a cab. The faces appeared alongside this swooning feeling, lips on her neck being a most particular sensation and therefore recalling the other particular feeling of other lips. The images kept coming, vague and scattered, and she thought, how could one’s life keep going this way? with more and more images piling up in one’s heart and crowding and swelling like music. How was one to make room and to keep all of them? The answer which Ann Lord knew now having lived a life was that one did not. Things were forgotten. An astonishing amount of what one had known simply disappeared.
You said it would always be there, she said. How could it?
He didn’t answer right away. Once something’s happened it is there. It can’t be taken away. Nothing can change that.
Even if it doesn’t last?
It lasts in your memory, he said. Is that nowhere?
It will be soon enough. She smiled.
Don’t say that.
I can say anything. That’s one thing about this. I can say anything now.
And you couldn’t before? Were you so careful?
I didn’t think so, she said. But it looks as if I was more careful than I thought.
He did not speak.
One thing though, everyone suddenly looks so brave.
Yes. They know it doesn’t last and yet …
And yet what?
They all carry on as if it did.
She removed the sharp black teeth imbedded in her side. It’s where the cancer was.
She’d not had a great deal of physical pain in her life, it had been saved up for the end. Childbirth had been overwhelming and like nothing else but she got the babies out of it, the babies who looked at her with a complete look, rolling on the grass slightly damp with spring, lying across her chest like a prize. She felt their tiny heartbeats, their fine hair against her lips, rubbing their fingers going a little cold, closing her eyes to the sun bright on her eyelids.