Kris Willcox | Fiction
In my junior year of high school, an English teacher, with whom I was in love, had a breakdown and left just before the end of the year. Paul Sorbin was a veteran of Korea, and divorced. This last fact counted as something exotic in a small, New Hampshire town in 1957. The hint of trouble in the ordinary life of a teacher was enough to stir my affection. That, and an off-hand remark I heard between two teachers: he’d had a bad time in Korea. The term embarrassed me—a bad time was a rained-out football game—but I pocketed the information and treasured it.
At Weston High School, I belonged to the semi-invisible. I kept a few friends, and put in the necessary effort to appear friendly, but I preferred books to people, and between classes I kept to the hallway’s edge. More than once, I walked into a door. My mother said we were decently middle class, and I understood my part in upholding that decency was to avoid being smart-mouthed or sullen. I dressed sensibly, alternating three wool skirts and two sweater sets that I hand-washed each week, along with a single crinoline slip that I pinned to fit my narrow hips. My skin, while clearer than some, shone no matter how thoroughly I cleansed it with stinging witch hazel.
Removed from the chatter of other girls, I had room to consider Mr. Sorbin’s situation and by thinking of him, connect us. I knew only a handful of men who’d been to Korea. My father was too old, and my older brother Victor had stomach ulcers. A man named Saul who worked in my father’s shoe store had lost an arm in Korea; I’d seen his wife showing my mother her method for pinning the empty sleeve of his shirts below the shoulder.
Mr. Sorbin wore Oxford shirts in pale blue and green, with a maroon or navy tie. He was tall and broad shouldered, with blond hair and a slight hitch to his walk that seemed sometimes like a limp and other times just the uncertainty of a large body in crowded rooms. One of the girls seated near me in Honors 11 said he was “horse faced.” Hearing him teased, even gently, made me broody. It was my job to observe what those girls didn’t. My loyalty sprung from the simple fact that he smiled at me sometimes as I took my seat, or said, “Thank you, Esther,” when I handed in my weekly papers.
In the spring, he assigned us sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay—a New England girl, like me, who pushed herself from nothing to fame. In my mind, this made us sisters. I couldn’t bear the stifled laughter while Mr. Sorbin read to us, Let all who prate of beauty hold their peace, and lay them on the earth and cease / To ponder on themselves. He closed the book, and smiled. I loved Millay, and him, and was mortified for all of us.
My interest in Mr. Sorbin began with the discovery that he’d graduated from Dartmouth three years before my brother. My arrival, when Victor was nine, was a surprise—no one thought to call it a pleasant one—and by the time I entered high school he was married and living in Maryland. He and his wife, Martha, wrote for a newspaper. Martha was older than Victor and, my mother told me, too career-minded for children. Their visits were punctuated by scenes at the dinner table between my father, who thought women ought to stay out of politics, and Martha, who found this amusing. They argued while my mother fretted between them and Victor went to the garage to smoke and thumb through his Dartmouth yearbooks.
I was as unobtrusive as the gravy boat at these meals, unless Martha’s attention turned to me. I adored her. She was stylish and brash and treated me as a conspirator. Victor was cordial to me, but since I’d grown too heavy to be carried on his shoulders, he didn’t seem to know what to say to me, and I was shy of him, too. Martha thought our awkwardness was a lark. “You two get along so well,” she said. “My sisters and I fought like cats.” What Victor and I knew is that it’s perfectly easy to get along with a stranger.
Sometimes, Martha caught me in the open with a teasing question I couldn’t answer.
“Why must you dress so plainly all the time?”
“There’s nothing wrong with Esther’s clothes,” my mother said, quietly. Her interest in my appearance took the form of correctives: shoulders back, chin up, stop hiding in that book. Martha gave me a gentle kick under the table, and winked.
During one of those long dinners, the summer between 10th and 11th grade, I was the one who left the table. I was at loose ends, tired of my mother’s company and the small orbit of her housekeeping which seemed to keep her in a constant state of preparation for guests or cleaning after they’d gone. When she served apple cobbler, I excused myself and went to the garage. In an open box was one of Victor’s yearbooks. I opened it to a center page and there, seated at a roll-top desk in a blazer too small for his long limbs, was Paul Sorbin. Younger and with thicker hair, but unmistakably him. I could just make out a nib of a fountain pen under his fingers. But it was his smile, not quite suppressed, that interested me most. Some private, funny idea had made its way into a serious picture, and not everyone would have noticed, but I had.
The caption identified him as a senior, Class of 1950, member of Sigma Nu and editor-in-chief (the title impressed me) of The Black Ribbon. What this publication contained was not identified, but I decided it was a journal of poetry. When we read Hopkins “Spring and Fall” in Mr. Sorbin’s class that year I thought about The Black Ribbon, which I was certain contained his own poems. It occurred to me that I might mention this to him but its value was its secrecy. I kept it to myself.
He assigned Honors 11 a paper per week, three pages with strict guidelines in form. There was to be an introductory paragraph, four to develop the central idea, and a conclusion that did not restate the introduction. In February, Mr. Sorbin copied the first sentence of my paper on Silas Marner onto the blackboard. I had wished for attention, but his praise, in front of everyone, made me feel mocked. It was a demotion from the place I’d begun to imagine myself. That day was the only afternoon I went to see him outside of class. He was at his desk, grading papers, hair spiked as if he’d been running his hands through it. His jacket and tie were hung over his chair. After I’d been standing in the doorway for several seconds, unable to advance, he looked up.
“Hello.” There was a pause in which he seemed search for my name. “Esther?”
“I didn’t get my paper back.”
“You’re right.” He pushed through the pile in front of him until he located mine. “Didn’t mean to keep this.” He handed me the paper. “That’s clear writing.”
“Thank you.” As I turned to leave, he said, “Your brother. Victor, isn’t it?” I didn’t know if this was a question he meant for me to answer, so I said nothing. “I’ve been reading his column. Dartmouth?”
“Yes,” I managed. He smiled.
“Tell him, mighty good work.” I nodded, and he nodded back. “Good night, then.”
I walked home in a fury with myself. As a distraction from the embarrassment, I imagined where he lived: apartment, or the upper floor of a house. Maybe his former wife lived nearby, and they still spoke occasionally, by phone. About what? Bills. Parents. A dog that lived sometimes with him, sometimes with her. I could hardly imagine a man living alone—cooking, eating, making up a bed in clean sheets—but I tried hard to put it together and make a picture of that life, as if my attention to those details could make them grow roots.
It was April when things began to go wrong. It was unusually warm, and the teachers propped their classroom doors open to keep the rooms cool. Cross-breezes gave the building a vacant feel, the mustiness of old winters flushed out. Weston High was stone, in the same classical revival style as the library and the town hall, with enormous windows that had to be muscled open. None of the female teachers could budge them; they enlisted the largest boys, who pushed them open with such force that the wood split. There must have been smaller boys, too, but it’s the brutes I remember. The ones who’d spin the seat of a metal stool until it flew off like a discus and snap yardsticks over their knees. When Mr. Sorbin told Honors 11 to read Millay’s “Being Young and Green” and copy it out, one of those boys copied the poem, then tore it to bits and ate it, while his friends laughed. Mr. Sorbin ignored them.
I moved to an empty desk at the front that day—a difficult place for the shy, but it kept me from seeing the mockers behind me. I copied carefully, Oh, me, invaded! And sacked by the wind and sun! Sacked: something that happened to the quarterback, but now, a lovelorn body, blown sideways. At the kitchen table I read that day’s assignment, imagining his voice. Let geese babble and hiss, but heroes seek release from dusty bondage into luminous air. When I got to massive sandal set on stone I thought not of gods but of the former Mrs. Sorbin, pretty and laughing, striking a vacation pose for his camera, her bare arm against a stone column. But why oh holy terrible day? What was Millay moaning about? I imagined the Sorbins arguing: him, shouting and her, storming away from him in a field of chipped monuments and tall grass.
In April, he returned our papers on The Tempest unmarked.
“Do them again,” he said, with no further instructions. At the back of the room, the boys were play fighting, and one of them tipped over desk. Mr. Sorbin said nothing.
“But what do you want us to say about it?” a girl behind me asked.
“Anything. It doesn’t matter. Would be nice if it made sense.”
He stood at the blackboard, holding the chalk. Then he turned and walked to the back of the room, righted the desk, and returned to his desk. “Three pages. You know the drill.”
Some days he was unshaven. On others his hair was lank and he wore the same, unwashed shirt as the day before. Our papers on The Tempest came back without comments, just grades dashed at the top. I felt a startled, new affection and wanted to cheer him, but I could only smile weakly. Honors 11 was just before lunch, when the day reached its full heat. The windows, wrenched open, could not be closed and the breeze, which smelled of pine trees, made me hopeful. We weren’t trapped. Despite his absent staring and the bags under his eyes, Mr. Sorbin was all right. Then he shouted at Louise McMasters for turning in two pages instead of three. Louise, who was regal and popular, was stunned.
“I’m not used to being spoken to that way,” she said.
Mr. Sorbin laughed, too long, and too loud. We waited to see if it was a joke. What could he mean, speaking to Louise like that? I wanted to give him a medicinal smile but I couldn’t seem look at him at all. Louise picked up her paper, and walked back to her desk, slowly enough to show her rage. In the hallway after class, Darryl Smith said a man had to be crazy to laugh like that. Then he pretended to be Louise, priggish and graceful, sashaying back to her desk.
“Well, I think it’s awful,” Louise said, quietly. “Someone needs to deal with him.” We watched her sweep down the hallway; Darryl minced after her, hands on his hips.
By mid-May, he’d grown a beard, and smelled of sweat. Then a girl named Judith knocked a stapler off his desk while he was writing meter on the board. She’d been up to sharpen her pencil, and when she grazed the stapler with her hand, it fell and made a sharp, cracking sound on the floor. We raised our heads. Mr. Sorbin turned to Judith and called her a stupid little bitch.
No one moved. It did not seem possible that he’d said it. We would have been less surprised if he’d slapped her, which it seemed he actually had done.
“Can you see I’m giving a lecture?” he said. “Or are you simply too ignorant to care?”
She took small, quaking breaths but didn’t move. And then two boys at the back of the room—football players—stood up and moved toward the front. I thought they were going to fight him, or take him by the arms like bailiffs. It was the only time I’d seen either of them looking serious, and now they appeared frightened but seemed to understand that by virtue of their size they had no choice but to protect us until other help arrived. Mr. Sorbin put his hands up.
“I’m going, boys.” He brought his hand to his mouth for a moment, and then he left.
Judith began sobbing noisily and several girls rushed to comfort her. Kat Miller, who would be next year’s valedictorian and always moved as if she were carrying a clipboard and a whistle, went to find the principal. The football players stood on either side of the door, apparently ready to block Mr. Sorbin if he returned. The other girls petted and consoled, but I was folded up with shame because he’d done something awful and would be fired, but I loved him and that meant that his shame was also mine. I wanted to put my head on the desk but I didn’t dare draw attention from Judith or the Florence Nightingales who surrounded her.
Mrs. Marshall took Mr. Sorbin’s classes for the remaining days of the year. There were no more three-page papers, or poems to copy. He was simply gone.
I heard him, on the afternoon that he left, behind the closed door of the school’s main office. I was hovering nearby in the stairwell, pretending to search my book bag, afraid I might see him but unwilling to leave. I heard his voice, low and steady, then rising and a woman said, “For God’s sake, Paul, see a doctor.”
We had Miss Price for Honors 12, and Emma and A Tale of Two Cities. I marched in the papery graduation gown my mother had painstakingly ironed, and we all sat through Kat Miller’s stultifying speech. Miss Price coached me in my college applications until I could no longer discern her words from my own. I won a scholarship to Vassar, like my pretend poet-sister Millay, but found her derided there. The Vassar girls—I mean, the ones who belonged there and knew it—treated her as little more than a minor, family embarrassment.
In the English Department we read Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot but in the library, I found Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. The waves are running in verses this fine morning. More than poetry I sought a job description: the poet’s life, which seemed to me both private and populated. Neither wife nor spinster, but a person who saw the world made of words, the way fabric is made of thread.
One of the librarians—a tall woman who patrolled the study carols for talkers and wore the same checkered wool suit in all seasons—noticed my reading, and placed a volume of Denise Levertov on top of the other books I was checking out.
“You may find that interesting,” she said. I waited for her to say more but she pushed my books across the reference desk and turned away.
My classmates’ dismissal of Millay was a lasting sting. I was prepared to learn that my own taste was bad—that was half the reason for Vassar to a girl like me, but the slight to his judgment has never left me. It’s there in the toughest, deepest root, where affection and regret are braided so tightly, they are one thing.
After he left Weston, I tried not to think of him but the habit stayed. I imagined his ex-wife, packing his clothes in a large steamer trunk, as if he were off to sea or to war. She filled the trunk carefully, shirts and pants on one side, socks, underwear, and pajamas on the other, while he sat on the edge of the bed watching, more child than husband. She looks the same to me now when I think of her, in a peasant blouse with blue and red embroidery, scarf over her hair. But I am collapsing the years. It was a decade later that we wore those things, the timid beatnik fashions of young faculty wives. It isn’t her, folding his shirts, and the woman I think of sometimes, leaning against a bluish outcropping of rock, waiting for him to take her picture—that isn’t her, either. It’s me.
My husband, Richard, suffered a bout of depression the year he completed his dissertation. He survived it by holding on tightly to the pattern of daily living. Of waking before our two little girls and I were awake, drinking his coffee in our tiny kitchen, writing at his office, and coming home at seven or eight in the evening. He survived it because I was there to cook, care for the girls, and make small talk at parties with the other research fellows and their wives while Richard stood in a corner, examining the backs of his hands.
That was the year of the minidress. The year we all tried to make coq a vin, swearing at our failures in apartment kitchens hardly big enough to turn around in. At a party, when Richard’s committee chair referred to the only female faculty member in the department as a vicious bitch, I laughed. It earned me some respect among the men, and some of their wives, but it made Richard sink further into himself. We didn’t attend any more parties that year.
Victor had a syndicated column and was working on a book. Dartmouth selected him for a visiting writer’s fellowship and Martha called to invite us to the awards dinner. “I know it’s a lot,” she said, “but if you and Richard could come…” It was understood my parents wouldn’t go. My father was becoming more argumentative, and forgetful.
“Of course we’ll go,” I told her. We hired a babysitter to come in the afternoon and stay late—a fortune for us at the time—and we drove from Cambridge to Hanover. I was wearing a sheath dress and box jacket that I’d made, in yellow poplin, but Martha, who met us on the steps of the lecture hall, was wearing a deep green silk dress and matching pumps. I started to apologize for my dress, but she took me by the arm and steered me into the lobby. “Victor’s a nervous wreck,” she said. “Go talk to him, so he’s not just stewing.” It was cool and echoing inside the building, the same granite style as Weston High School but built around a single lecture hall. Part of the lobby had been set for a reception with small tables and a bar. Victor sat in a corner, looking ill and shuffling a stack of index cards. When he saw us, he stood up and shook Richard’s hand. “I write great speeches,” he said, apologetically, “but giving them petrifies me.” Martha made her way from the bar to our table, nodding at friends along the way, and set a highball in front of Victor. “Down the hatch,” she said. Then, more gently, “You’ll do fine, Vic.”
After accepting his award, Victor read an excerpt from the book he was writing on war reporting in Korea, stopping frequently to cough or clear his throat. Martha kept her eyes closed for most of it, but they flashed open at the end when he mentioned her. “And I’d like to thank my editor, Martha—also my wife.” There was some gentle laughter and Victor shook the hands of the ancient men of the alumni committee. We were invited to the reception, where the tables were now set with candles and students were struggling to set up a record player and speakers. Martha took charge of us again, placing her hand on my back or Richard’s as she introduced us to their friends, journalists and writers who’d driven up from New York and Boston. She introduced me to her friend Peggy, who worked at Dartmouth, and when I turned to meet Peggy’s date, it was Paul Sorbin.
“This is my sister-in-law, Esther Hoyt,” Martha said “and her husband, Richard.”
“Good to meet you,” he said, shaking Richard’s hand.
He was a tanned and less rumpled version of the man I remembered, not slouching but standing up straight in a suit that fit him perfectly. His smile was impersonal, and I was too surprised to say, I know you. Maybe I was mistaken.
“Wait a second, Paul,” Martha said, giving him a small push. “You taught high school up here, didn’t you?” She turned to Peggy. “Did he ever tell you that he taught high school? At Victor’s alma mater. Isn’t that funny?” Peggy seemed flustered, unsure how to turn this information into small talk. And then I saw that Paul was smiling, kindly, at me. “Yes, I did,” he said. “English. Esther was one of my students.”
I thought I’d never see him again after Weston. In Hanover, we were new people. I was a grown woman with a husband and two daughters, Paul was an adjunct professor of English at Dartmouth. Peggy was not his wife or fiancé, but she kept a possessive hold on him that night, turning her face up to his when he spoke. He seemed less aware of her. I watched his attention drift to Martha, to Victor, even to Richard who perked up after a cocktail. Peggy was a dean’s secretary and told a long story about broken mimeograph machine. While she talked, Paul looked at me—I don’t think I imagined it. We were all trying to listen to Peggy’s rambling story and laugh in the right places. Finally, there was an announcement about dancing, the scrape of tables being moved. It was all Richard could take. “I’ll get the car,” he said. “Meet me outside.”
When I told Martha we were leaving she gave me a quick, hard kiss on the cheek and said, “To hell with you two. I knew you’d leave early.”
“I’m sorry—” I started, but she waved it away. “Go. I can tell Peggy doesn’t like the way Paul’s looking at you.” She put her arm around my waist. “You were sweet to drive up. And God knows, no one wants to see Richard dancing.”
It started to rain while I waited for Richard on the steps of the lecture hall, under the portico, between stone columns. Paul found me there.
“Richard’s not big on parties, I take it.”
“No. And we have to get home to our girls,” I said.
“Three and one.”
Paul put his hands in his pockets and looked at the rain. I wanted look at him, but was afraid to find him looking back.
“That was a lovely event,” I said. He nodded again, then shook his head, very slightly, a gesture to himself more than to me.
“I came to say goodnight. And make an apology, if I might.” He straightened his back, and squared his shoulders. “It’s been quite a few years since that business at Weston.” He paused. “I am sorry about what you witnessed.”
“There’s no need,” I said quietly.
“That was someone at his lowest. Must have been terrible to see.”
I made myself face him. “You don’t owe any kind of apology.” I struggled to make my words firm. “I’m sorry for what you went through.” Richard was taking a long time with the car, and the rain was coming down harder.
“It sounds as though things are going well for Richard,” he said, making that gentlemanly turn so deftly that I smiled with relief.
“Yes, the writing is better now, and he’s just teaching two classes.”
“He told me. And you live in Cambridge?”
“Right on the river.”
“That’s nice. I’ve been going down to Harvard quite a bit. They have Emily Dickinson’s papers. I’ve been looking into some of her letters, for a paper.” I knew he was waiting for me to say something, about Cambridge, but I could not think of a way to do it—to say, I’d like to see you.
And then Richard was running up the steps, the shoulders of his suit wet. He’d left the car idling and in just a moment he’d open the passenger door for me, and we’d head for the highway. What I said to Paul was so clear it made me flush with surprise: “I take the girls for walks in the afternoon. After Sharon’s nap.” Richard was already at the car, pulling the door open against the wind. “We go right across the Yard sometimes,” I said, looking at Paul. “Wednesdays. Three o’clock.”
We met a few times that fall, in Cambridge.
Richard and I were renting the top level of a three-family on the Charles River, and every morning, Richard crossed the bridge to Boston University to teach American history. I watched him from our kitchen window, head down, briefcase in hand. Once the girls were dressed and fed, we went to the park or the library, depending on the weather. Sharon rode in her carriage, and Martha, who was nearly four and as determined as her namesake, walked beside me, refusing to hold my hand even at street crossings.
That afternoon—the first Wednesday after Victor’s award in Hanover—we crossed through Harvard Yard and Paul was sitting on the steps of the library.
“There’s our friend,” I told Martha, pointing. “Maybe he’ll walk with us.”
“Aren’t we going to the playground?” she asked.
“Yes, we’ll go there too,” I said, pushing the carriage faster. Paul stood up when he saw us, and came to the bottom of the steps, slowly. He was using a cane. Martha stared, as if he might perform a trick with it.
“Martha, this is Professor Sorbin. Can you say hello?” She was silent. Paul held his hand out to her and she touched his fingers, quickly, then stuffed her hands in her pockets.
“Do you like feeding ducks?” he asked. It was a willed smile, the enthusiasm of someone not used to children. He opened his satchel and pulled out a paper bag of hardened heels of bread. “I told them at the bakery I had some ducks to feed and they gave me all this,” he told her. It was his preparation—thinking ahead about what he could say to Martha—that made me realize what I was doing. Had already done.
We walked to the river along smaller side streets. We might have been two strangers who happened to be walking in the same direction, except for the curbs where Paul helped me maneuver the carriage. When we crossed Memorial Drive, he put his hand on Martha’s shoulder and I saw Sharon look up at me from the carriage, curious and cautious. We stopped at a bench where the grass sloped down to the water. Paul took a bread crust from the bag, showed it to Sharon, and threw it toward the ducks who were milling near the bank. As soon as the crust landed, the ducks began waddling toward us, beaks jutting forward.
“It’s all right, darling,” I said to Martha, when she shrank back. “They want our bread. You can just throw it from right here.”
“Dah!” Sharon shouted and held out her hand for bread. Martha had moved a bit closer to the ducks, and was tossing bread at their feet. She began throwing harder, and hit one of them on the beak with a piece of bread crust.
“Easy now,” Paul said. Sharon strained for the bag, whimpering.
“No,” Martha said sternly. “There isn’t any more.”
“I’m sure we can get more,” Paul said.
Martha looked at him for a moment and then said, “Do you know us?” He was kneeling beside Sharon’s carriage but when Martha asked this, he stood and brushed the mud and dead grass from his trousers.
“Well, let’s see. I know your father and your mother. And suppose I know you too, now. Don’t I?” Martha frowned, then turned away from us. “I’m cold,” she said. “I want to go home.”
The next time I met Paul, I left the girls with a neighbor, telling her I’d be at the doctor, then the grocery store. The snow was gone but there was slush on the streets. As soon as I saw him, I knew we’d passed the point of explanations. When his hand brushed mine, a few blocks away from Harvard Yard, I didn’t startle. There was something that wanted completion. A chance to know, and I took it. I cannot say that I’m sorry.
We walked to a diner and ordered pie and coffee.
If I’m honest, he kept saying.
“If I’m honest, what I really remember is that you were quiet and I appreciated that, with all the loud-mouths.”
“If I’m honest, those weren’t the worst days. When you first come apart, it’s a relief. Later, it’s worse.”
He told me that after Weston, he went home to Maine, saw a psychiatrist and drank too much. Eventually, he returned to the doctoral program at Dartmouth that he’d left before coming to Weston. “An old fraternity brother helped me mend some fences. I’ve been steering straight since then.”
It’s hard to say what surprised me more: that Paul Sorbin had such a long wake of disaster in his life, or that he was here now, talking about it calmly, and looking quite well. I wanted to tell him about my life, but my life was the girls and they were Richard’s and mine. I told him about Vassar, the poets I read, and the Ivy mixer where I met Richard.
“We got married right after I graduated,” I said, embarrassed by how plain it seemed, yet also not willing to say the truth: that I was relieved not to be going home. My parents were happy when I told them we’d be moving to New Haven, so Richard could start his doctorate. And I liked how my mother treated me, while we considered dress patterns and fabrics. As if I’d demonstrated a new competence. As though, at last, she recognized me.
“I was married for a little while,” Paul said.
“I know.” He looked surprised, so I explained, “The girls thought it was kind of interesting. That and your service.”
“Well, I hate to puncture the mystery, but I was a disaster at both. Though I suppose that was well known, too.”
“All I knew was gossip. I made up the rest.” A distracted waitress came to our table and asked if we’d be having anything else. Before we could answer she took the plate and forks and slapped a check on the table.
In May, I told Richard that I needed to spend the weekend with my parents, a partial truth since my father was recovering from his first stroke, and tasks were accumulating—the heavier housework and gardening—that my mother couldn’t do while he needed so much tending.
On a Friday morning, I put an overnight bag into the car. The girls ran circles around Richard in the driveway. They were having an adventure that would likely include burned cheese sandwiches and ice cream and late bedtimes. Richard had never spent the night alone with them, and I’d never driven on the highway. He leaned in to check, again, that the tank was full. At the end of the street, I looked back in the rearview mirror and waved. Richard smiled, and waved back. Then he turned back to the girls, hands in his pockets, while they whooped and screamed.
I left our car in Hanover and we took Paul’s tiny, green convertible to a cabin on Post Pond that was owned by another faculty member. “Cabin is misleading,” Paul told me on the drive. “It’s what you’d call a real New England camp. I go up to write sometimes.”
His thesis was on Whitman, he said, and he’d written about Millay, or tried to, but no one was interested. “I’ve had to make more fashionable choices,” he said. That year, he taught 19th century American poets, and a Whitman seminar.
In the small space of Paul’s car, I considered us for the first time as two adults connected only to each other. Elsewhere, we were divided, but here we shared the close, leather interior and a plan to be together, that night, before we returned to Hanover, and I drove to my parent’s house in Manchester.
My appearance was much as it had been at Weston; I was thicker since having babies, but still small. My hair was shoulder length, not colored or styled in any particular way. Before we left Hanover, I’d used the bathroom in Paul’s apartment. In front of the tiny mirror, spotted with shaving soap, I put on a slash of lipstick. I was too frightened to look at myself for long.
The drive was short, but he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, partially straightening one leg, then the other. When we reached the turn off and a sign to the boat landing, he pulled over, and touched my arm. “We can go back, if you’d like. I won’t mind.”
I pressed a hand to my stomach, and breathed. “No,” I said, firmly. “I want to be here.”
The cabin—the camp—was the width of a single room with a moss-covered roof and a porch that had largely rotted away. Paul located the key, tucked under a stone beside the spongy front steps. “I’m afraid to find out what might be living under that porch,” Paul said, holding the screen door open for me. The front room contained little beyond a wood stove, a couch draped with wool blankets, and a bookcase with volumes of poetry in stages of decay, their pages swelled and fanning like the gills of mushrooms. Paul sat down on the couch. At his feet were our two bags and his cane.
“You saw that,” Paul said, and nodded toward it.
“A walking stick.”
“No. A cane. See, it’s shaped differently, to take weight.” He held the curved handle toward me. “My hips don’t balance correctly.” He motioned for me to sit next to him and I did. “I don’t want to upset you.” He reached down and carefully removed his shoes, then the rubber inserts in each shoe, and then his socks. The big toe of his left foot, and two of the toes on the right, were gone. “You’ve heard of the Frozen Chosin?” he asked. I nodded. Victor had written about it; a terrible battle around the Chosin Reservoir, in the dead of winter, with thousands of men lost and thousands more injured by the cold, hunger, exhaustion. “They shipped me home after this. The cane is because of nerve damage in the legs.” He put his arm around my waist and said quietly, “It’s just what happened.”
While Paul started a fire in the wood stove, I looked at the bookcase. Between A Fisherman’s Guide to New Hampshire and Camping in the White Mountains I found volumes of Frost, and a disintegrating copy of Millay’s A Few Figs From Thistles.
“What have you found?” he asked. I handed him the book, and he smiled. “Good old Edna.”
The stove was slow to light, but once Paul had a fire going the room became unbearably warm. He banked the fire and we went out to the fire pit beside the cabin, where there were two Adirondack chairs, splintering but sound enough to sit in. He made a new fire, and wrapped me in a wool blanket from the couch.
“Better,” he said. “More like being in the woods.”
We talked about the state of the cabin, his love for the car despite the constant trouble it gave him, his students’ terrible prose. I made him laugh with a story about Martha’s kindergarten fieldtrip to the zoo. As it grew dark and the circle of firelight, smaller, our talk slowed until there was a long silence, and he asked me if I could confide in anyone.
“I can talk to Richard about most things,” I told him. “And my girls. It’s funny, you can tell a baby anything, but they’ll take the marrow out of you, if you let them.” That admission made me want to say more, not of my present days, but earlier. About Vassar and my loneliness there. Of my relief to finally fill out in hips and breasts. Of the body’s mortifying truths, its shameful, exciting strangeness. About marriage, and discovering in the winter after our wedding that I was pregnant and that Richard was not as strong as I’d believed him to be.
“Are you happy?” Paul asked.
“I think so.” I lived in such an intensity of caring for my family I hardly thought about happiness, just things I needed to do. “I’m a good mother,” I said, “but I don’t know how I compare as a wife.” He laughed.
“Compared to whom?” I pulled my blanket closer.
“Well, what about Peggy?”
He seemed surprised by her name. There was a pause of snaps in the fire and insect life around us. “She doesn’t like to be alone. And I’m using that against her.”
“You don’t think she loves you?” I asked.
“I think she could be happier without me, if she were brave.” He was silent for a moment and then he said, “You love Richard the same as he loves you, I imagine.”
I had no answer. And saying their names violated an unspoken agreement. I struggled out of the chair, brushed the ashes from my blanket and went inside to make our supper: potatoes and eggs in a battered, aluminum pan.
Behind the front room was a tiny bedroom, with two beds and an infant cot wedged between them. The arrangement was clear to me—parent on either side, baby within reach for feedings—but Paul stared at the beds, confused. “Why push them all together like that?” Beside the wider of the two beds was a cracked window. Earlier, while Paul struggled with the stove, I’d removed the motheaten blanket from it, replaced it with clean sheets and a quilt that I’d stuffed in my bag. When the fire outside was smothered, and the dishes dried and returned to their shelf, I led him there, to that bed by the window.
In the morning, we could see water damage on the ceiling and the walls. Across the plaster and flaking paint were the shorelines of countless leaky seasons, flood overlapping flood. “It’s like a map without markings,” he said.
We dressed and went down to the pond with a thermos of coffee. Paul took pictures with the same German-made camera that Richard bought when Martha was born, which required a tedious amount of estimating to set the focus. He leaned his cane against a tree to take the distance between the camera’s lens and me, sitting on a large, flat rock.
“How many feet, would you say?”
“Ten? I don’t know. Take the picture.”
“I want to get you and the rock.” He looked down at the camera, then back at me. “There. Got you.”
When we left, he locked the door and we stood on the wooden step, a spot too small for two people, but something needed to be observed, so we stayed there, arms around each other. We were like visitors to a museum, leaving nothing of ourselves, not a dishtowel out of place. To keep the future undisturbed the cabin had to stay just as it was. A world without a name.
I did not see him again.
To my astonishment, he mailed copies of the photos at Post Pond, a dozen black and white images, with me or part of me in each one. I was so angry at him for sending those pictures that I nearly threw them away. Instead, I tucked them in a box. If Richard ever asked, I’d tell him an old friend from Vassar had taken them.
Not long after that, Richard got a tenure-track job in Oregon, so we moved across the country. Later it was Michigan, then Ohio. There were always difficulties, but Richard softened as he got older. The girls grew. I found my poets again, in books passed among the faculty wives and retired professors who were my closest friends. Sometimes I read poems to Richard. We had our favorites—Maxine Kumin and her horses, Mary Oliver and her dogs. Their plainspoken love.
It’s June now, the air rose-scented and warm, even past sunset. Now that Richard is gone, Martha and Sharon have found me an apartment in a retirement village, as Victor and I did for our mother, when she couldn’t live alone. Like her, I intend to go without a fuss. My grandsons ask me what I’m planning to do when I get there, as if I’ll be boarding a cruise, and I tell them: card games. Happy hour. Laps in the pool. It makes them feel that it’s the best thing for me, which I suppose it is. But there are so many people here, and I tire of questions. Where do you want these, Mom? Can I have this? Which one do you want to keep? They never let me answer one before asking another. This afternoon, Martha came into the sun room with a packet of photos, which I could see she’d already opened. Black and white.
“What are these?”
“I haven’t the foggiest,” I said, putting my hand out. But Martha didn’t hand the pictures to me. She slipped her glasses on, and flipped through them.
“I don’t remember these at all,” she said. “Where were they taken?”
I wanted to snatch them, but I stood slowly, and walked to her. “Let me see,” I said, and took the first photo in the stack.
It was me in my peasant blouse, sitting on flat rock at the pond’s edge. Knees pulled under my skirt, sandals beside me. I must have taken them off to keep them dry.
“Did Daddy take this?”
“Well, he must have. We only had the one camera.” I put the photo back in Martha’s hands as calmly as I could manage and returned to my chair. “Oh, I remember now,” I said. “That trip to the lake.”
Martha, stubborn all her life, kept staring at the photos so I asked, “Did you find the mortgage papers?” It was enough. She left to find Sharon in the office. I waited until I heard them talking, and then I tucked the pictures into my purse. I fell asleep there, in the sun room, with my purse in my lap, and woke to voices in the kitchen.
“It’s enough for today. She’s tired.” I shifted but didn’t get up, hoping if I stayed quiet, they’d finally go, with their heavy footfalls and noise and questions.
Years ago, Richard built a patio with a fire pit at the far end of the garden. Deliberate as a snail, I carried things one at a time from the house: chair, cushion, shawl, matches, pages of the morning paper, my purse. On the last trip, my neighbor—a cheerful, nosy woman—called to me, but I pretended not to hear. It didn’t take long to get a fire going. I pulled my chair close and opened the envelope. It’s not the things that matter to me, it’s the choices over what to keep, and what to throw away. Those I intend to have to myself. A stretch of sand. A hand holding stones. One at a time, I fed them to the hungry fire.