With and Without Youby Lowry Pei
W I L L
When Susannah and I were lovers, the fact that she was married seemed irrelevant to me, except it limited our being together. I knew she could not love me any more than she did, husband or no husband, that he could not matter in the same way, that if she made love to David in the morning and me at noon it subtracted nothing from the truth of our love. She did do that, at least once; she told me so. But not to make me jealous, or threaten me in any way, simply as a curious, unexpected event in her life that she knew I would be interested in. Entertained by. We were complete, we were a world and though this world of ours was tightly bounded in time and space, nothing could make it less than whole.
At the time when I met Susannah, I sold anesthesia equipment, blood gas machines and the like. I was at Children’s Hospital in Boston to replace a faulty gas chromatograph in a diagnostic lab, and I was passing through a waiting room and in a space off to the side of it, I saw this beautiful woman kneeling with four small children around her, one of them buckled into a contraption that was somewhere between a stroller and a wheelchair. Later I found out she was doing play therapy. I stood on the threshhold, uninvited, and watched her. She seemed to be as oblivious to her own beauty as the children were, but seeing her had cut the thread of my life and I could not move until its continuity was restored. After a minute she felt me looking at her and turned to look back at me; she didn’t seem offended or even surprised that I was standing there staring at her. It was as if we had an appointment. Finally she said, “Would you like to join us?”
On the day when I first kissed Susannah, we had known each other two months. We had lunch together in a different neighborhood, away from the hospitals (where David also worked), and we were walking up a side street toward my car. Abruptly I stopped walking and she stopped with me, as if we had gotten our cue from a prompter offstage. I put my hand up to her cheek as if I was brushing away something that threatened to get in her eye. I was like a teenage boy using a transparent pretense as an excuse to touch a girl, and she saw through that too and was beginning to laugh at me, but before I could complete the gesture or she could laugh we were kissing. The world fell away, there was no more pretense, only truth; when we could think again, we both knew what was going to happen between us.
I was twenty-eight years old when we met. I liked my body then. I felt, I see now, secretly superior to men my present age. The natural arrogance of flat-bellied youth. Not that I am, I suppose, repellent now, but I can no longer imagine that I’m attractive either. I feel I am sexually just a blank space. I provoke no response. When I was that age, the desire I felt for a woman was a joy in itself, independent of its fulfillment, which I didn’t realize at the time because of what I took for granted: it was not unimaginable that she might desire me. And if she did, I knew I would be able to give her intense pleasure, sometimes more than she imagined I could – it sounds self-deceived, but I know what happened between Susa and me. No one can contradict that. I wasn’t heavy around the middle the way I am today, and I was lighter still because I was single, unencumbered except by myself. That, of course, was no small exception when the loneliness would set in. And yet even when I was the most lonely and horny there was some part of me thinking, This can’t go on forever. I masturbated often and hopefully, imagining a future lover. When I saw myself in the mirror, it did not seem impossible there would be one.
My fantasies were nothing compared to Susa herself. I never wanted anyone as much as I wanted her. When she and I were lovers, if I thought about her as I walked down the street, I started to get hard. We still share having been those two people, and though I don’t know if I want to say it’s always enough, I imagine it’s more than many people have. Her body is different too now, of course; the suppleness is gone from her waist, replaced by a formidable kind of solidity. She was always strong physically, but now you can see that strength from twenty feet away.
The first time, she rang the buzzer of my apartment in the costume of a suburban wife, her hair in a purple ribbon, flat shoes, tennis shorts, wedding ring, pink cotton sweater over a lavender T-shirt, cloth handbag with leather trim, her invincibly innocent disguise. Most of those clothes and most of mine were on the floor before we left the living room. She never took her ring off. It was she who fucked me first, she who straddled me as I lay reaching up to caress her breasts and her sides, to bury my fingers in her heavy hair and fan it out around her head, she who did the irrevocable when she guided me into her, devouring me with her eyes as she took me in, savoring how she had me in her power. It was I who surrendered first and, it seems, forever. An “other woman” is known as a mistress, but the “other man” is no master. I was at her disposal and she knew it. Not that she never could be the one to surrender; there were afternoons where she would loll naked for hours to be stroked and tickled by me, photographed, fucked, cuddled, licked, adored, slept with, whatever I wanted. To caress herself and have me come on her. There was hardly even an “I” and a “she” at those times, our souls were so in tune. Once we had a naked weekend never leaving my apartment. I loved all aspects of her; I loved that her breasts were not identical, and that she had a crooked finger because it got slammed in a car door when she was twelve, and that she snored sometimes when we slept. The only thing I didn’t love about her was that she was married to someone else. But I didn’t hold it against her, either; I just wanted to sleep with her every night and make love to her every morning. It was inconvenient of her to be married, but if that was the price I had to pay, it was more than worth it. As for Susa, it was only a belief in being considerate when possible that made her hide our love from anyone. She really was innocent of it: not guilty, ever. She had no doubt that she was entitled to her loves, to her desires and their satisfaction, entitled to husband and lover both, and though I accepted that, she knew David never could.
I had no idea, of course, how final this was, no idea I was choosing, or being chosen by, the rest of my life.
Susa’s blue gaze was always candid, no matter what, and it was as clear and direct as ever when she told me she couldn’t see me anymore. I had never understood that she was entitled to do that also. She ended it because she got pregnant and she wasn’t sure whether it was by me or David. Not that she didn’t love me, but now that she was pregnant – well, didn’t I see?
“What if it’s mine?” I said, though I knew she didn’t want me to ask that, and the thought of having a child scared me at that moment.
“He’d never have to know. Even if it were. It could just as well be his.”
Or mine, I wanted to insist, the child of our love, we have to know, I have to, but the clarity and stillness of her already-made decision silenced me. There are turning points in life, but only a few. Maybe half a dozen moments when one can take action and it makes all the difference. I should have resisted, I should have been ungraceful, uncooperative; but I loved her, as she knew, and I did as she wished. I was the extra of her life, it seemed, the cherry on top, and she loved me but there is love and then there is the other thing. I came face to face with it right then, and apparently it had nothing to do with me.
I didn’t know what loss was until Susa left me. After she closed the door behind her for the last time and, a few seconds later, I heard the outer door of the apartment building shut, the loss of her hurt so much it bent me double. Which is so odd to think about, since we’re together now and I expect we will be until one of us dies. I know now we could never have stayed those two people anyway. But the loss is permanent too, as irreversible as the affair itself.
I married Connie a year after Susa told me we couldn’t be lovers anymore. The decision to marry her is one I don’t like to think about. It looks like a cliché, like “on the rebound,” but “on the rebound” would seem to mean I at least thought I was marrying Connie because I loved her, and I’m not sure that in my heart of hearts I thought that. Which is something beyond stupid, truly culpable, a heartlessness that I don’t want to know I’m capable of. Maybe I thought it would send a message to Susa: if she had the other thing, if it meant so much more to her than what we had, then so could I. I did send her an announcement when I got married. Perhaps I thought that would seal off our shared past, close it safely for good, but it didn’t work. I tried not to remember our time together, but trying not to think about someone is thinking about them. I sent her another announcement when Amy was born. She didn’t write back. I tried to interpret her silence and failed; finally I called her and we had an awkward conversation in which I was unable to say any of the things I had silently said to her many times, within myself. When Jocelyn was born, a couple of years after Amy, there seemed to be no point in contacting her again.
T A M
I start the car and as I drive away on automatic pilot, past the dubious used-car lot on the corner, past the tire store and the Star Market, memories besiege me. Everything Evan and I have ever done together rushes upon me, since the first time I spoke to him, six months after my father died. I shouldn’t dwell on the memories, but it’s impossible not to, now that I’ve seen his face again, and touched his hand, and kissed him whether I should have or not. I wish I knew the word to use to name this unnamable bond between us. And what will come of it. I wish I knew anything at all besides the fact that I will see him again, but I don’t. God knows I’ve always tried too hard to reach into the future and make it be what I want, and I’m going to have to stop. Especially if it’s all about karma anyway. Evan seems to really believe in that now, a secret orderliness below the messy surface of things. I don’t think it’s just an idea he’s playing with. I have to admit something in me believes in that, too, which could be a reason why we loved each other in the first place.
I saw the invisible harmony for myself, just for one moment when I was an eight-year-old kid, and that seems to have been enough to make it stay with me forever. I was in the third grade, it was February and the teacher, Ms. Korder, was having us take turns reading aloud. Janie Kalishman, the worst reader in the class, was reading and while she puzzled over the words, the wait was driving me crazy. I had already finished the book and it didn’t have much to offer. The PA system crackled and came on, which was some relief, and the principal asked if some fourth-grader would please –
It was like walking upstairs in the dark and miscounting and putting my foot on empty air. Everyone knew the next words were “come to the office” but just then the PA cut off. So did the lights, so did the heat that always blew too hotly out of the vent under the chalkboard, and the air pump that supplied the aquarium filter. Ms. Korder walked over to the light switches and flipped them, frowning. “What now?” she said to herself, as if we were trouble enough all day and then this had to happen. Latisha Wallace, who had allergies, sneezed, but nobody said “God bless you.” The red second hand on the clock was not moving.
Our door opened, and Mr. Castillo from the fifth-grade room across the hall leaned his head in, looking up at our lights and then at Ms. Korder.
“Yours are out, too?” he said to her.
She nodded. “What about…” she said, but she didn’t finish the sentence. She moved toward the door, but on the way she remembered us; she gave us her strict look and said “Stay in your seats, please.” She went into the hall with Mr. Castillo and because I was on the end of the first row, by the windows (we were arranged alphabetically and that was A), I could see the two of them, but no one else could. They stopped in the middle of the hall between our classroom and his. She took his hand and stood there holding it for a second; they spoke to each other quietly. She stopped being a teacher; she let herself float up, and kissed him on the mouth, so quick and astonishing I could have convinced myself it never happened. They looked both ways, up and down the hall, but only after the kiss. They said something else to each other, and then she turned back into a teacher on the way in the door. She looked at me and I thought she realized that I had seen what happened; I even thought that in that one glance we made a silent agreement that I wouldn’t tell.
“That’s enough reading aloud,” she said to the class. “Keep your books out, please, and we’ll have quiet reading time now until lunchtime. I’ll tell you when to line up, if there’s not a bell. And you can go to your cubby and get a different book, if you want. Quietly.”
“Can we sit on the cushions?” Charlotte MacDonald said in a whiny voice, as if she expected to be told No.
“Yes, but remember, no talking.”
I got up and went to my cubby and took out The Trumpet of the Swan, which was too hard a book for me at the time but I was a bit of a show-off. Instead of going back to my seat I rested the open book on the windowsill and stood there wondering if Ms. Korder would make me sit down. She didn’t pay any attention to me; I was sure she was busy thinking about what just happened in the hall. I know I was; seeing the two of them made me think of my father coming in the door of our apartment. My mom hadn’t gone back to work yet, because my little brother Terry was only six months old, so she’d be at home when my dad got there. Sometimes when he came in they’d kiss, and when they did, she would float up the same way Ms. Korder did. But that was a domestic kiss. This was a kiss happening in the wild, and it was the first time I had ever seen that. Why would she kiss him in the hallway where anyone might see them, in the middle of a school day, with her class on one side of the hall and his on the other, probably waiting to erupt as soon as they were left alone? I thought I had the answer: they could hardly wait to kiss, and when the power went out, it unexpectedly gave them permission.
After a couple of minutes my best friend at the time, Ann-Lee, came with her book and stood beside me looking out the window without even pretending to read. After a bit she tapped me on the back of the hand and then pointed at something outside. It was sunny and cold out, there was unbroken snow in shady spots, and in front of the school, where the ground showed through, there were dark patches of beaten-down grass. The sun was shining on the slates of roofs, reflecting off windowpanes, off the chrome on cars and the brass knocker on a red front door, the same as any other sunny day but I could see it better with the lights off in our classroom. Ann-Lee was pointing to a tree in a front yard across the street. At first I didn’t know what she meant, but she took my hand and silently aimed my finger and then I saw: the green bird was there. We hadn’t seen it in weeks. It was about the size of a starling, except with a longer tail, sitting on a branch as if it belonged there. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a decoration until it ruffled its feathers and settled down again. It looked like a parrot, only smaller, with a little curved red beak and a glittering eye. It was as green as summer and it belonged somewhere that was always summer, not sitting on a leafless branch in February, but by now, after seeing it half a dozen times, all Ann-Lee and I could think was that it must live in the neighborhood. Either it escaped from a cage or its owner let it out to fly around once in a while, but that didn’t seem likely. Was it happy to be free, or was it lonely and cold? A group of starlings flew up and lit in the tree where the green bird was perching, and it took off, flew up around the top of the house and came to rest on the peak of the roof. Maybe that was its home, I thought, and when it wanted to, it would go inside. I watched it sitting on that high roofpeak, looking around, and I felt I knew just how it was to be up there – how the top shingle on the roof felt under the green bird’s feet, and what the street looked like, or what I looked like staring straight into its bright bird eye. It took off again and took me with it as it flew higher and circled, so that I felt I was lifted into the air without fear, and I looked down and saw the way to my house like a line drawn through the city, from the front door of the school down one street to the next and the next, joining that part of my life to this part. There were other lines – my mom’s way to work, to the hospital where Terry was born, to the other hospital where my dad’s office was, the way to Ann-Lee’s house, and from her house to school, and all the other kids’ lines leading to school, and all of their parents’ lines, and all of their friends’. I could tell that everything was perfectly planned, so that things, or people, always coincided exactly at the right moment for whatever was going to happen; but there was no planner.
Later on that night, after I was in bed, I made the second part of the discovery. Something without a name made the lights go off, so Ms. Korder and Mr. Castillo could kiss in the hall, so Ann-Lee and I could see the green bird, so everything that happened at that moment could happen then, which included my seeing that that was how it worked. And the thing without a name didn’t go away when the lights came back on. That was the rest of what I learned: I could feel it was still in the room with me. It was as if a cat was lying asleep on the rug not making a sound, and it was night so I couldn’t see it, but nevertheless the room felt different because I knew the cat was there, alive with me. Before that night, there was no cat, and afterwards, for a while, there always was.