by Caroline Arden
The Montreal Review, February 2011
"Un instant éternel au fond de ton oeil" by Jaques Payette (2008, encaustic on linen, 48'x51', Galerie de Bellefeuille, 1367 Greene Avenue,
Montreal, Quebec, H3Z 2A8)
In early January, Catherine was pulling laundry from the dryer when she discovered her swimsuit balled inside a sleeve of a cardigan. Static crackled against her fingertips as she pulled out the suit and smoothed it on the cool lid of the washing machine. She'd bought the suit on a whim the summer before, in Aix-en-Provence. There were ruffles across the chest and a thin strap that was anchored between the breasts and tied behind the neck. What had made her buy it was the fabric's design: white with strawberries, some in green baskets as if in the supermarket. Although she did still admire the pattern, the suit seemed now like a coquettish, even tacky, affair.
She'd worn it only once, on the day her husband had died of a brain aneurysm. July, she thought-almost exactly six months ago. John had just completed his PhD in European Medieval History with a focus on German reliquaries. That was why they were in Aix, for him to present a paper at a conference on newly excavated French and German medieval religious art. Since she'd met him at Harvard-when she was dropping out of her PhD program in literature, and he was setting out on his-his career had determined where they'd lived. Four years in Cambridge for course work, then two years in Cologne for field research and dissertation-writing. They'd planned to move after the conference to Amherst, where he had a post-doc and she would, she hoped, finish a book of poems before they began trying for a baby. Although Aix had been near sea level, she'd felt on a hill with a view of her future.
She looked to the narrow window above the washer and saw the light was beginning to fade. John usually arrived at nightfall-the most ghostly thing about him, she thought-and so she wondered what to do with the suit. Not that he knew its meaning, but she did. She could donate it, she thought, but maybe Goodwill considered bathing suits underwear. She looked to the trash and imagined burying it under the handfuls of lint, but that seemed too depressing. Goodwill, then. For now, she tucked the straps inside and jammed the suit on a shelf between two boxes of Christmas decorations, neither of which she'd opened that year.
Her golden retriever, Molly, who'd been dozing at her feet, perked up hopefully. "Not yet," Catherine said. Her parents had left Molly with her a few months ago when they'd retired to Miami Beach. To keep her company, they'd said, although so far Molly had just kept her busy.
The ruffles, she thought. That's what had made it tricky to name.
She'd been wearing the suit when John had been at a lecture and a slim, tanned man had sat in the deck chair next to hers by the hotel pool. His name was David, pronounced Da-veed. From Paris, he said, although currently working in Hong Kong as a reporter. At the university for a conference on media coverage of natural disasters. So many conferences, she said. He didn't look more than thirty, her own age. You? he asked. With my husband, she said. I'm sorry, I don't have much French. In Cologne, she'd begun saying "have German" or "have French." A pretentious effort to sound less American, embarrassing yet somehow involuntary.
He studied her suit with an investigatory yet nonplussed expression, something she'd come to associate with the French. "What is its name?" he asked. "Your maillot. Or-"
"Suit!" she said with the same pride as if she'd become fluent in French. "Swim suit."
"Some clothes need names," he said. "Like"-tapping a finger against the air, searching-"a wedding dress. Something amazing." She noticed his hazel eyes, angular nose, and lean, muscular limbs, so tense with vitality she wanted to touch them and have the energy transfer to her own body. He told her about China. He lived alone, except he had a driver during the day.
They decided on Marie-Claire because it could be either young or old, a little girl's ruffles or a middle aged woman's mistake-she, not David, said "mistake"-and the next night she kissed him on a balcony while, across town, John was being hoisted into the ambulance.
Once she'd hidden the swimsuit, Catherine pulled out her work clothes. She creased a pair of khakis, buttoned a red blouse, and smoothed the placket with her index finger, more carefully than necessary. She knew laundry was a flimsy replacement for control over larger matters-loneliness, guilt, things unresolved-but her rituals satisfied her nonetheless. After John would leave, she'd pack her lunch. His graduate stipend hadn't been much, but it had allowed her to work part time, at the Harvard book store when he'd been doing coursework and then tutoring English in Cologne; but now she worked forty hours a week at the Longfellow Historical Society composing its newsletter and fund-raising materials. Every weekend she tried to write poetry but usually quit after reading old drafts. John had been a purist of a historian, all evidence and no speculation, but a relaxed writer, able to admit holes and ambiguities in the historical record without panicking.
She finished the work clothes, carried them across the basement to a low ceiling pipe, and began hanging them on wire hangers she'd found when she'd moved in to the bottom floor of the clapboard house. The house was divided into four apartments, the ones besides hers rented by students. What did they think, she was always talking to herself? At first she'd thought seeing John was crazy, too, but eventually concluded death and consciousness were so absurd, anyway, ghosts were no more preposterous. In fact, now she couldn't imagine the world without ghosts. At supermarkets, she noticed women with wedding rings and cross-eyed stares of fresh devastation and knew they were returning home to the dead, if not already walking with them. Catherine and John had arranged he only visit after dark because, if he accompanied her everywhere, she became too aware of his limitations. He couldn't explain exactly his days. Similar to sleep but without intrusive worries, a dissolving into a dimension behind the ordinary world.
As she hung a blouse, she looked out the glass door that led to the yard, and she saw the sky had turned from mauve to navy. The basement was cooling, and the smell of must and cold cement reminded her of John's churches in the rural areas outside Cologne, structures so simple they seemed like tents. On their first date at Herald's Ice Cream in the Square, he'd asked if there was a poem about churches being barns or if he was imagining it. If he'd known it was Philip Larkin's "Church Going," she liked to say, it would've annoyed her, but that he remembered only the barn-the best, smallest part-made her marry him two years later.
She'd been unhappy before she'd met him, failing to find a dissertation topic but too full of self-doubt to write poetry. Her malaise lifted when she'd met John and, with his encouragement, she wrote well and even published a few poems in good journals. But in Cologne, she became lonely and lost faith in her work. John offered to switch research topics and go home, but she knew this would mean another three or four years of school. She saw a therapist, an American, who suggested law school.
When Catherine was halfway through folding, John floated through the glass door, and Molly rose, hit her head on the table, and bounded to him. "Hi, Miss Dog," he said, rubbing her muzzle with a translucent hand. Catherine walked to him, and he leaned towards her cheek, their substitute for a kiss now that his body was fog. Although details were well defined-eyelashes, shoe laces-the overall impression was of watercolor, and she preferred to look out the corner of her eye.
She turned back to the dryer, and he asked how she was.
"Well, my main men are still dead," she said. "You, Longfellow."
"Ah, but we live on," he said grandly and perched on the ironing board, swinging his long legs over the side.
"Well, Molly certainly thinks you do." Molly dropped a busted-open tennis ball at his feet.
Catherine rambled about work, their few friends who remained in Cambridge, and the dog's recent antics. As usual, she did most of the talking.
From the start, he'd loved her seriously. She'd had plenty of boyfriends before, but his love was more expansive. He paid fastidious attention to each part of her and accepted it all: her poetry, shoulders, cooking snafus, silly bedtime conversations. He listened to her analysis of every self-doubt, childhood memory, or rush of ennui. She came to conclude he wasn't smarter than she but could focus longer and more deeply on topics other than himself. And of course this ability to love, in addition to his beauty, curiosity, and everything else, made her love him back, and so why she'd pursued David-and pursuing was different than going along-was hard to explain, even to herself. This confusion was part of why she'd never told John about David.
That, and John was so good. But maybe that meant he would forgive her.
"I think she wants to go out," said John.
"What?" asked Catherine.
The dog was scratching the door. Catherine set down the gym shorts she'd been folding.
"Thanks," said John, as if there were a choice who'd take out the dog.
Catherine opened the door, and Molly charged into the shadowy bushes. Although Catherine let Molly off leash in the yard, Catherine always kept an eye on her, and so now Catherine stood by the edge of the grass, listening to the dog rattle leaves and branches. Catherine shivered in her thin sweatshirt, folded her arms against her chest, and tucked her hands into her armpits. It hadn't snowed since before Christmas, but a few piles, brownish with mud and car exhaust, separated the yard from the driveway's weedy pavement. Again, she thought of Larkin. There'd been a line about that-weeds growing through the floor of a church. She hadn't thought of the poem in years, and she felt the recollection was as physical an intrusion as the bathing suit.
She raised her gaze from the cement to a row of empty planters lining the driveway. Maybe in spring, she thought, she'd plant tomatoes. She liked the idea of boxes to measure and fill, a math project with problems and solutions.
Molly scampered out of the bushes, made a lap around the lawn, and began sniffing the base of a tree and waving her blonde plume of a tail. What was she looking for? Catherine wondered. No-what was she looking for? Why was she thinking so much about David? After replaying the kiss so many times right after John's death, she'd decided to stop thinking about it, but now the suit, such a silly thing, made her recall how it all began. That first flirtation, the rush of possibility. She didn't need absolution for the kiss but her motives, vanity and restlessness. She'd wanted to prove, even for a moment, she wasn't John's unsuccessful, unfocused wife. That she still had power, if only to attract men. But she hadn't meant to kill him. She thought this often, that she'd killed John. Not literally, of course, but how could David not have had something to do with John's death? A man dies while his wife is kissing another man and wishing her husband won't come home? She hadn't articulated it to herself like that-that she hadn't wanted John to return-but she'd wished it nonetheless. A wish in the form of curiosity about a different life.
Tonight, she was after something simple, she thought. Reassurance she hadn't done anything bad, or at least not unforgivable. She whistled, and she and the dog went inside.
"Did you have a good time?" John asked Molly, kneeling and rubbing his nose against hers. "Did you go potty? Were you a good girl?"
Then looking to Catherine, he asked: "She's a lot of work, isn't she?" Catherine felt water collect in her eyes. He was a good man. He would tell her what she'd done was all right.
She walked to the dryer and steadied her weight against it. As John resumed his perch on the ironing board, she forced herself to talk. "I kissed someone," she said. "The night you died." She said it fast, mechanically. A beat passed before he widened his eyes. "I didn't mean to," she said. "I'm sorry-"
"What happened?" he asked coolly.
Of course. What happened. She hadn't planned anything to say. What had she expected, that he would just say "no problem"? But he wasn't yelling or crying. She just had to explain.
"You were having dinner with what's-his-name-"
"Seth," he said indignantly, as if forgetting Seth was as disloyal as kissing another man. "You think of the night I died as 'when I was having dinner with Seth'?"
"No," she said, wincing. "Of course not." Her thoughts began running in a loop and jamming into each other, like toy trains on circuit. She tried to organize the basic facts, as if breaking the story into pieces would make it less overwhelming for John, and perhaps herself. "I drank too much wine," she said. "We kissed a few times outside, and that was it. We didn't have sex."
"We?" John asked, as if teasing someone about their new boyfriend, but John's tone was snide, almost hateful.
Catherine felt stung but also defensive. People usually said "we" when talking about having-or not having-sex with someone. She was going to point this out but remembered he deserved to be angry. She tried again with the facts. "His name was David," she said, immediately regretting pronouncing it the French way, as if she were flaunting his exoticism. "I met him by the pool, we kissed, and that was it."
"That was it," John repeated.
"We just went out for a cigarette," she said, but regretted this, too. John had always hated her smoking, even though she only did it rarely. Thinking now of a cigarette, she wished she could go smoke in the driveway. Already, the fight was making her claustrophobic.
"You kissed him by the pool?" asked John.
"No," she said. "We met by the pool, but we kissed on the balcony off the hotel restaurant. So we were in public, it wasn't like we were sneaking off or anything." She remembered David lifting her blouse and dragging his index finger from the waist of her skirt to just above her belly button. He'd stood between her and the restaurant. She'd faced the waiters, lighting candles and balancing their trays.
"I wanted to tell you," she said.
"Okay," John said.
"Say something," she said.
She pulled in a breath. Be calm, she thought. He's surprised, but he's going to understand. He's right here. He's listening, and you'll work it out. She reached for a dish towel. She folded all the napkins, kitchen rags, and began matching socks.
Finally, he asked: "Did anything else happen?"
"No." What did that mean? She'd lifted her skirt and pressed David' palm to her underwear. She worried she'd sober up. She worried his room would smell too much like smoke, or his underwear or socks would be wrong, too French. She thought about how much less she'd want to live in Hong Kong than Amherst, the irony.
"Weren't you attracted to me anymore?" John asked
"Of course I was," she said. "I was always attracted to you." This was true. He approached love-making with as much intensity and devotion as he did their emotional relationship.
"Then why?" he asked.
"It felt like the right thing," she said. "Not the right thing, but a thing." She wadded a sports bra in to a ball. What was she saying? "I'm sorry. I don't know how to explain it."
She looked at him, pleading for him to respond, but he was studying the ceiling again, seeming more and more deflated, turned in on himself. She creased a t-shirt with her fingernails as if a sheet of paper. The longer he didn't respond, the more she felt she had to keep talking, as if enough effort could reverse her mistake. "It was a terrible thing to do," she said. "Terrible, and immature, and selfish. I know I can never take it back, but if I could, I would. I love you. I love you more than anything else in the world."
Her movements were becoming frantic, and as she grabbed a t-shirt, she jostled a sock onto the floor. "Damn," she said, and went on her hands and knees under the table where Molly was chewing it and batting it with her paws. "Give it back," she said, jerking the sock. "Give it!" She pulled, and the dog bit harder and shook her head as if playing a game. "Give it," she hissed, and pried open the dog's mouth. Holding the spitty sock in her fist, she stood up.
"It was impulsive," she said. "It was just a mistake. It just-happened."
"Who made the first move?"
"He did," she said. "We both did. I don't know." She'd invited him to get drinks and pressed her knee against his under the table. He put his hand on her thigh. She drank too much on purpose and kissed his neck before his lips.
"How long? Were you kissing him?"
"I don't know." She didn't, really. "Ten minutes. Twenty."
He shifted his gaze across the room as if studying something on the wall behind her and tightened one hand into a fist in his lap. She stared at him until he looked back at her. "What do you want?" he asked.
"For you to forgive me."
"Oh!" he said with mock revelation. "Sure! No problem."
His flippancy annoyed her, and that she was having to pull the words from him. After replaying her sins-not just now, but over all the past months-she felt owed something. If not absolution, then at least a response.
"There were reasons," she said. "You were working all the time, I was stuck in Germany, then France, about to follow you again, so I felt-trapped. My poetry sucked, you were successful, and I needed something for myself." The swimsuit, she thought. Any small triumph.
He closed his eyes, folded his hands into a prayer position, and pressed his index fingers to the bridge of his nose. "So first you say this was random, and now you're blaming me?"
"You wanted to know what happened!" The acidity of this accusation felt good. She felt the beating, building resentment that suggested a compelling case for herself if she could only articulate it.
She dragged a hamper of dirty bed linens to the washer. She hoped he would say something, but he didn't. She mashed dirty pillow cases, an elasticized sheet, and a duvet cover around the center cylinder and piled on two towels until she had surpassed the overfill line. Standing on her toes to reach a high shelf, she yanked down a jumbo detergent box, but-because she hadn't closed it-an avalanche of powder fell onto her face. "Ah!" she cried, and off balance, she dropped the box into the washer. With her eyes half-open and soap running into them, she dashed to the old fashioned sink and pushed the stiff handles until water flooded her eyes. The detergent burned, and her throat tasted like chlorine. Yelping and panting, the dog beat her tail against Catherine's legs. Water flooded her sinuses, and mucus rose in the back of her mouth.
"Are you all right?" John asked, but she couldn't answer him under the faucet. She turned off the water, spat, and swore. "Are you okay?" he repeated. As she dried her face on her t-shirt, he hung awkwardly at her side as if a guest.
"No," she snapped. The detergent stung her eyes, and tears swelled.
"There's the little scooper," he said, pointing to the detergent measuring cup, half-tucked under a shelf.
"Thanks," she said. Soap grit crunching under her feet, she picked up the scooper and removed the now-empty box from the top of the washer. White with blue crystals, the detergent had settled into the towels like snow into valleys. She ladled some powder back into the box, although as she did so, more powder fell deeper into the washer. Still, she wanted to refill the box, and so she leaned into the washer and dug under the sheets for the detergent.
"What am I supposed to do?" she asked John. Yes, this was her case against him. He had to forgive her because she couldn't go back in time and undo her mistake. "It's done," she said, "and there's no chance for me to make it up to you now. What am I supposed to do, be loyal to you for the rest of my life and regain your trust?" She avoided looking at John and flicked a handful of detergent into the box.
"You're right," he said. "There's nothing you can do."
"There's nothing you can do! You're gone!"
"You can't pull that right now, Cath," he said. "This is on you." Especially early on, she'd screamed at him for dying, and he'd let her, told her he understood. But tonight he was cutting her no slack. "Even if I were alive," he said, "what would you want me to do?"
"Stop being so mad," she said.
"I've had what, fifteen minutes? I'm supposed to be over it?"
"No." She sniffled and smeared snot and soap across her cheek with her sleeve.
"What if I hadn't died?" he asked. "Would you have seen him again?"
She'd considered this, of course, and truly thought she wouldn't have. "That's the problem," she said. "I did love you. I do love you. That's why I felt so trapped. My future was all wrapped up. A college town, snow, babies, strollers, bad poetry, no poetry, but I'd always be so in love with you that it'd all be enough. And that enoughness-well, wasn't going to be enough."
"And so you kissed someone."
He drifted to the door and turned his back. "So are you free now?" he asked.
"Screw you." She slammed her fists on the washer, more violently than she'd meant, the reverberations as loud and metallic if she'd hit the washer with a cookie sheet. The dog growled and barked at the middle of the room, as if there was someone to blame besides Catherine.
"Look at this," she said to John and swept her hand through the air. "Everything's the same but worse. No real poetry, no real job, no real home, and no real you. All I am is free, just drifting through space."
"I shouldn't have said that," he said.
She closed her eyes. The basement was freezing now. Her skin was prickled with goosebumps, her nipples so shriveled they itched. "I was stupid," she said. "I didn't know what I had."
John was still facing the door. Be patient, she thought. He's still getting over the shock. He'll calm down soon. She made herself finish the last of the folding, jeans and corduroys with buttons and zippers long cooled. As she smoothed the final pair of pants on top of the basket like a lid, she decided she'd given him enough time. "Say something," she said.
"Stop saying that!" he shouted, turning. "I don't have anything to say!"
That can't be true, she thought. He must be thinking something. Maybe he just didn't want to give her the satisfaction of talking. Still, she felt desperate for reassurance. "But will you forgive me?" she asked. "Eventually?"
"I don't know," he said. Now he seemed tired, his anger weakened into exasperation. "If I forgave you right now," he said, "I'd be lying. And if I really did feel forgiveness in a week, or tomorrow, who knows-maybe I'd be angry again a year from now. It's not like you had a year-long affair, but still, it's not as simple as on, off."
"Fine," she said, although nothing seemed fine.
"I'm going to go," he said.
"Don't-we haven't finished."
"I'm finished." He walked to her and stroked the air above her cheek with the back of his hand. If she could've, she would've grabbed it, but he turned, drifted to the door, and dissolved through the glass. The dog chased him as far as the doormat and barked at her own reflection. Catherine wondered: what was the part from "Church Going," from Larkin? About the fate of churches, about looters? Ruin-bibbers, randy for antique-that was it. She'd always loved the words for their tawdriness, but to have imagined, the first time she'd read the phrases, that someday she'd apply them to her dog, and herself.
"Come on," said Catherine and propped the hamper on her hip. Together she and Molly climbed the stairs. In the kitchen, Catherine switched on the lights and set the hamper on the table. She pulled down the blinds. She turned up the heat. She picked up a wine glass from the table, carried it to the sink, washed it, and as she reached for a dishrag, remembered the swim suit. And the hanging clothes and wet sheets. But she was too tired to go back down. She wiped the glass and put it away. In the sink, rice and Chinese take-out clung to a bowl, and she scraped the scraps down the drain, scrubbed the bowl, and wedged it, hot, in the drying rack. Now that she'd begun, she sponged crumbs and coffee grounds from behind the toaster and under the fruit bowl and scoured the stainless steel sink until the emptiness shone like a blade.
Caroline Arden has an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in The New Delta Review and Disclosing Intertextualities, and she has been a finalist in Narrative Magazine's "30 Below" contest and Glimmer Train Stories' "Family Matters" and "New Writers" contests.