The Confession Club, page 15
“But you know what? That boy did not touch anything but the side of my face and my neck, and it was so gentle, how he touched me. On the way home, realizing how close I had come to going all the way, I thanked him. I said, ‘Thanks for not taking advantage of me,’ and he laughed and said if he wanted that, he sure enough knew where to get it. And I got jealous! I got jealous of whoever it was who would do things like that with him. When he dropped me off, he asked if we could go out again the next night and I said, ‘Yes, pick me up at seven.’ But my parents were waiting up for me and they gave me the third degree and then said I couldn’t go out with him again. ‘But why?’ I said. ‘Because of his car? That’s just a joke!’ But my dad stood up and said, ‘You’ll not go out with him again,’ and left the room, and that was that.
“He came the next night and he rang the doorbell and I had to pretend I wasn’t home. I looked out my bedroom window and there he was, standing on the front porch, his hands in his pockets. He rang the doorbell one more time and then he just walked away and got back in his car and drove off, very quietly.”
“Wow,” Gretchen said. “You never told me that story. So ‘Leader of the Pack.’ ”
“It was!” Joanie said. “And I never felt the way I did for him for anyone. I still wonder sometimes what would have happened between the two of us if I’d followed my heart. He was not like anyone I’d ever met, and I just liked him so much. I wonder how he turned out. I wonder how all those wild kids turned out. I’ll bet they were fun to hang out with. Oh, I know some of them came to no good and there were always rumors about how the nasty girls ended up in homes for unwed mothers. But I’ll bet a lot of those kids turned out to be real creative—artists, maybe. But mostly I just still think a lot about how he might have turned out. I’d google him, but I never even learned his last name. Just his first name. Raleigh.”
Joanie laughed. “You know, after my divorce, I used to fantasize that he’d come into the library someday, and he’d be older, but I’d recognize him right away. And he’d walk up to me sitting there at the checkout desk, and there would be a line of people waiting—more romantic if there was a line—and when it was his turn, he’d say, ‘Hello, Sheila. Remember me? I’d like to check you out and take you home and keep renewing you.’ Wouldn’t that have been clever?
“Oh, shoot, now I’ll probably dream of him tonight and whenever I dream of him I wake up so sad and lost-feeling.” She sighed. “He’s just this memory, you know, this kind of encapsulated, sort of…emerald-green memory, of the road not taken.” She took a big drink of wine, and the table was silent for a while, until Rosemary deigned to speak, asking, “What do you mean, ‘emerald-green’?”
“For Christ’s sake, Rosemary, it’s poetry,” Dodie said.
“Well, I think she’s mixing metaphors or something,” Rosemary said, and then Dodie heaved herself up and held her wineglass over Rosemary’s head, tipping it dangerously.
“Go on and do it—I dare you,” Rosemary said. “I need to wash my hair anyway. And then you can pay your fine to the Whoops! jar.”
* * *
From downstairs, Iris hears Maddy and Matthew come in. They’re speaking quietly. It would probably be nice if she gave them some space.
She calls John, who answers his phone sounding out of breath. “Hey,” she says. “Would you like some company?”
There is a long pause, and just when she’s ready to reneg, he says, “Sure,” and it sounds like he’s smiling. Or maybe she just wants him to sound that way. In any case, she’s going. She changes clothes, puts on some lipstick, runs a brush through her hair.
On her way out, Iris sees Maddy in the kitchen, standing in front of the open refrigerator. Matthew is in the living room, sitting in an armchair with his head back, his eyes closed, smiling.
“I thought I’d go out and see John for a while,” Iris says. “I’ll be back late, or maybe tomorrow morning, in plenty of time to set up for class.”
Maddy turns around. “Okay.”
Her voice sounds like she has a cold, and her eyes are red.
“Are you okay?” Iris whispers.
Maddy moves closer. “Matthew told me that when Nola was on Link’s phone with him the other day, she asked if he’d like to move back here, because she and I both wanted to live here again. Guess what he said? He said, ‘Of course.’ That simple. I never even asked him. I was afraid to ask him. I just assumed he wouldn’t want to be back here. But it turns out he loved living here, he just moved to New York for me, so my photography would have a better chance to get noticed. So we’re staying. I don’t know why I can’t stop crying. Too much good news lately, I guess. Bad news I can handle. I expect bad news. I’ve dealt with bad news all my life. Good news makes me cry.”
She laughs. “I’m getting as sentimental as Arthur was; maybe it’s from being in his house again. What a lovely old softy he was. He’d tear up over the littlest things. Right after Nola was born, he was so weak, but he used to rally enough to hold her a little. He’d run his finger down her cheek so gently and he’d tear up and have to blow his nose after he gave her back to me. But then he was so strong about the hard things, so measured and calm. I never met a man so completely comfortable and open with his feelings. I wish he’d have been my father. I guess he did become my grandfather. I think I came back to Mason in part because I feel closer to him here. Sometimes I go out to his grave and talk to him. I sit with my back against his headstone and I feel…I don’t know. Home.” She shrugs. “Anyway, I’m here for good!”
Iris hugs her. “I’m glad for you, Maddy.” And she is glad. She’s also thinking, Uh-oh. I’m going to have to move. She’ll tell John about buying the farm tonight. She’ll get things going. In the car, she fashions her hair into a loose braid; she thinks he might like it that way.
After Iris calls, John lights the big candle on the kitchen table. He straightens the few supplies he keeps on the kitchen counter. He opens the window, then closes it. Then opens it. Then he sits waiting, but his knee won’t stop jumping up and down, so he goes outside.
It’s a glorious night: a clear sky, no clouds, the stars out in abundance. It’s neither warm nor cold, it’s that perfect temperature for…well, for anything. He lies on his back, his hands behind his head. Since he saw the photo of Laura, he can’t get her out of his mind. He’s never been one to go back to anyone or anything, but now he feels he must. He has a wish for something he can hardly admit to himself.
Up above is a glowing body so clear and bright that, at first, he thinks it’s an airplane. But no, it’s not moving; it’s probably Venus or Jupiter. He stares at it, and the memory of watching Pinocchio comes to him, the scene where the cricket sits on the windowsill and sings, When you wish upon a star…His mother had taken him into town to see the movie one cold and rainy day, and since the weather was so bad, they’d decided to watch the movie twice. What was he, six? Seven? They’d had popcorn for dinner, and his mother had said, “Won’t your father be jealous, though?” His father had not been jealous, he’d been angry about coming home to a note on the kitchen table in place of a hot dinner. When they got back, John watched his mother move quickly past his glowering father, who was sitting at the kitchen table with his paring knife and blood sausage and beer. She said not one word to him, she only went upstairs and drew a bath, and John sat outside the door to try to protect her, though he knew quite well the odds against his being able to do that. But that night, his father left her alone, and John thought it was because he had wished on a star on their way home, asking for his father to be nice to his mother. If it worked for a cricket, he’d reasoned, why wouldn’t it work for him? And then, apparently, it did. His mother emerged from her bath smelling of rose oil, her one indulgence. She kissed John and sent him to bed and then went to bed herself, and when his father joined her, John listened carefully but th
Now he regards the bright star above him and sings softly, “When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are.” It makes for a sudden ache in his chest; it is a revelation, the idea that somewhere it doesn’t matter who you are. Or were. And he makes a wish upon a star again, for the first time since that night when he was a little boy.
He hears a car pull in, and he rises to his feet to begin walking back to the house. It will take a while; he’s walked out farther than he ever has before, past the hollowed-out oak where the owls congregate, past the stand of wild blueberries, darkening now, but not at the point where if you touch them, they fall into your hand—that’s the time to gather them, when there’s no resistance at all. That’s when they’re ready.
He quickens his pace; he doesn’t want Iris to think he’s not here. Though he won’t be here for much longer. He knows where Laura lives, thanks to the Internet. He knows she’s retired from being a nurse. He knows she volunteers at the VA. He knows she has an old yellow Lab named Preacher. He believes that if he shows up, she won’t slam the door in his face. Thinking of that, knocking at her door, makes his knees nearly buckle beneath him. Him knocking, her opening the door, staring blankly at him at first, then saying only, “John.”
When he gets to the house, he sees Iris in the kitchen with her back to him, sitting straight and still in the chair, her hands folded on the table. She is wearing blue jeans and sandals and a white off-the-shoulder blouse with red and blue embroidery, birds and flowers. She is such a beautiful woman, but that’s not what John finds best about her. He loves that she is so kind, that she is a straight shooter, that she laughs in bed. She is the kind of woman who gives freely, without entering a mark on her side of the ledger. And isn’t it heaven, those desserts she makes, isn’t it a poor man’s heaven.
When he comes in the door, he can tell she hasn’t heard him. He walks up behind her and puts his hand on her shoulder. And without turning around, she puts her hand over his.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he says. “I might have scared you.”
“I know you by your hands,” she says.
She turns to face him and smiles.
He kneels before her. Kisses her hand. Lays his head in her lap and closes his eyes. “Iris,” he says, and she says, “I have something to tell you.”
The Value of Pie
After teaching her Creative Birthday Cakes class, Iris climbs the stairs slowly to her bedroom. A nap, she’s thinking, before she heads over to Rhonda House’s office later this afternoon for the closing on the farmhouse. She had expected this day to be so joyful; now it’s not. She still wants the place, but living there isn’t going to be quite what she thought it was.
Last night, she had a look at John’s journal. She knew it was wrong, but while she was waiting for him, an ominous feeling suddenly came over her. Never mind her deep feelings for John, what did she know about him, really? And there was his journal, which might tell her something she needed to know.
She went to the window by the door to see if she could see him coming; there was still a bit of light. She figured he’d gone out into the fields to get a bouquet of fresh wildflowers. The stems of the ones he had out on the table now were bent over the edge of the jar, and pink and white petals dotted the table. She went to the other window: no sign of him. She sat back down, picked up the journal, and turned to the most recent entry, dated today, written with a fountain pen in beautiful script:
On a night when I need to prepare myself for leaving tomorrow, Iris calls. I’d been remembering Laura in a way I have not permitted myself to do for so long: I saw her on our wedding day. I saw her weeping in my arms after a sad movie, singing Joan Baez songs to me while she played her beat-up guitar, making dinner in a way that always looked like making art. I remembered how we read to each other, how we relished our early-morning walks, I remembered my hand on the swell of her belly where our child grew inside her, I remembered our son’s outraged entrance into the world, Laura quieting him with a touch and a murmur. My fear at seeing her again is matched by my need; I am at war with myself.
But then there is Iris on the phone, her voice a lasso, and my thoughts of Laura disappear and I say yes to Iris coming; yes, I say, come ahead.
What came next was:
INVITING A FRIEND TO SUPPER
by Ben Jonson
But, at our parting we will be as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board,
Shall make us sad next morning or affright
The liberty that we’ll enjoy tonight.
Those lines were his goodbye to her.
She closed the journal and put it back exactly as it had been. Her chest ached; she could scarcely breathe. She clasped her hands upon the table, and waited. And then he was there, his warm hand on her shoulder, and then his handsome head in her lap. And when he said her name, she told him that she’d heard from her ex-husband. He lifted his head and looked up at her and said what a coincidence; he was headed out tomorrow to go and knock on the door of his ex-wife. His face was twisted with feeling. And she made it easy for him. She told him it was good he was going, of course he should go, she was glad he was going, safe travels. She kissed his mouth, which was beautiful, all of him was beautiful, and she went out the door. On the way home, she turned off the radio and rolled down the window to feel the night air and to hear the night sounds. She loosened her braid and let her hair blow free. Just before coming into town, she pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car. She walked out into a fallow field and lay down and appealed to the stars, which offered nothing but a dome of dispassionate beauty. It occurred to her to weep. Instead she went home and put her stained peasant blouse in the sink to soak. Everything came off; she’d caught it in time.
Now she lies on her bed and closes her eyes, but she can’t sleep. She’s thinking of the email Ed sent her. Maybe she should see him. Maybe he’d like to come to see this town she’s moved to. Or maybe she’d like to go back to Boston. Maybe it’s not too late to adopt a child with Ed. That was why their marriage failed, after all; and she knows that he now understands why she wanted a child.
She gets up and goes to her computer.
Ed. What a surprise to hear from you. And a surprise, too, to hear that you’re divorced again. I know enough about divorce to know that no one who goes through it emerges unscathed, and I truly hope for the best for you, your former wife, and your child. What else can one say under these circumstances? Perhaps that I wonder how and why it all came about.
You ask about our getting together.
She sits thinking, the cursor blinking. In her mind’s eye, she sees Ed at the kitchen table in his blue plaid flannel pajamas and handsome tortoiseshell glasses and the slippers she got for him from L.L.Bean. He’s reading stories to her from The New York Times and The Boston Globe as she makes them stuffed French toast, and she is finding comfort in their shared outrage over the stupidity and cowardice of politicians. He’s inside her, moving slowly, pushing her hair back from her face, telling her she’s beautiful. He’s opening the car door for her, he’s presenting her with a triple-scoop cone from Park Street Ice Cream in Natick square, he’s yelling “Oh, come on!” at the Red Sox. He’s holding her hand as they sit in the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; they’re browsing for books at the Harvard Coop; they’re sharing a cannoli at Mike’s Pastry after dinner at Giacomo’s in the North End; they’re driving up to Rockport for some new watercolors; they’re visiting the Arnold Arboretum on Lilac Sunday, listening to the BSO play in the midst of the hickory trees.
She closes her eyes, rubs her fore
When she arrives, she sits at the counter, the station where Monica is working these days—less running around for a woman as pregnant as she, and she escapes sitting all the time, as she must do when she’s the cashier. When Monica sees Iris, she comes over with a cup of coffee. She puts the coffee in front of Iris and says, “What can I do you for? After I bring it to you, I’ll sit with you.”
“Got any crumb-topped cherry pie?”
“Sure. Do you want it à la mode?”
“I want it double à la mode.”
“Be right back.”
Monica returns with a huge slice of pie covered with ice cream. Iris says, “Do you have Boston cream pie today, too?”
“Yeah, we’ve got that. You want to switch?”
“Nope, I want both,” Iris says.
Monica hesitates just a moment, then brings out the Boston cream pie. She sets it before Iris and says, “I’ve done that. Can’t decide, so I get them both. I always tell myself I’ll just eat half of each, but nope, I eat everything. Sometimes I’m just in the mood to do that. And Tiny—well, he’s always in the mood to do that.”
“But he’s losing weight,” Iris says. “I saw him the other day and his face looks so much thinner.”
Monica moves from behind the counter and sits on the stool beside Iris. She drinks from a huge tumbler of water she brought out from the kitchen with her. “Yup, we are the water-drinking champions of the world. I do it to keep hydrated; he does it as part of his diet. He wants to be in shape for the baby. I told him, ‘Hon, you get up with him at night and you’ll lose weight all right. ’Fact, just get up with him every time he cries—how about that?’ And you know Tiny. He said it would be his pleasure. He said it would be his honor. Oh, that man is so in love and he hasn’t even laid eyes on that baby in the flesh, he just sits staring at the ultrasound photos for what seems like hours. Isn’t it a miracle, Iris, the things a baby can do?”