I never caught exactly what was said about us and could only imagine the vicious forms the rumor took as it started at the church and jumped from house to house along the river, somehow making the two-mile leap over Tallman Mountain State Park as it headed to the town of Piermont where the Dickersons lived, and then from Jenny Dickerson’s mouth up the river several blocks, skipping the Morrison house (she was rarely home), most likely to Sue Carson, and then from her mouth to Andrew Jensen, the rector at St Anne’s, who, I still liked to imagine, spiced the rumor with some biblical flavor, somehow couching his comments in theological terms, mentioning the fall and temptation and the sins of adultery and so on and so on as he passed it to Gracie Gray, who tasted all the possible ramifications, twisted it even more to make me into a villainous antihero, unaware that both of us, Sharon and I, had betrayed each other, and then held the story in her mouth for several weeks, where it sat until I turned from the window at our annual holiday cocktail party to find her looking at me.
In a teal dress, tailored square to her shoulders, cut low in a rectangle, framing pale flesh and her pearls, which swayed as she moved gently to the music, Gracie winked at me and then turned away coyly, rotating at the waist and letting her legs – I swear I remember this! – swing around in an afterthought, as if she were resisting a magnetic pull. Then, in exactly the same way, she slowly turned back and reconnected with my gaze and, while the midnight cold from the window behind me brushed my neck, we seemed at that instant to share an exchange.
Her side of the exchange seemed to be saying: in your public retaking of vows a few months ago, you and Sharon exposed a crack in the facade – the happy couple! Ha! The perfectly wonderful family! – and although that crack has been sealed in a ceremony with new vows, it remains a crack.
While my part of the exchange went: I understand that you think the seal might still be weak, Gracie, but it’s not, not anymore.
Then she squinted her eyes at me and gave me a look that seemed to say: don’t flatter yourself, jerk. You’re a creep. I’m simply offering you a little holiday gesture of flirtatious cheer to warm your lonely, pathetic soul, and, anyway, after hearing the rumor, and then passing it on to Stacy Sutton, telling her how you betrayed Sharon, I’ll be the first one to pry you two apart, to weaken the seal. On the other hand – she widened her eyes and then winked – perhaps sometime in the future on a night like this – crisp and clear outside, with an almost artificial-looking rime of frost in the corners of each windowpane – with all of this good fortune in the air, well, who knows? Is there anything more dangerous than a full-blown sense of good fortune?
Looking back, I think that we might’ve had a similar exchange – if you want to call it that – at the church, after Sharon and I kissed, as I swept the sanctuary from pew to pew to make sure everyone got a chance to witness the frankness in my face, because after we sealed our new commitment with a kiss I got a sense in the late-day light trying to come through the stained glass overhead, in the big brass cross behind me, in the way it felt to stand on the altar, that Sharon and I were being held up to a judgment that hadn’t existed before the ceremony.
Before the renewal ceremony began there had been a new sense of mission between us, an eagerness that had disappeared as soon as we started reciting our vows. When we turned to each other, with Reverend Woo between us, and began speaking, it was in the subdued, somewhat feverous voices of two people who had reconciled after one final, devastating argument that had lasted several months, beginning one day at the beach in Mystic, Connecticut, with the Thompsons, who were down near the water when I turned to Sharon and said, All this pain will pass. We really can work this out.
And she said, I no longer care what Dr Haywood says. The middle ground doesn’t seem to be available for us.
And I said, quoting Dr Haywood again, Gunner must be kept front and center. It’s our duty to him to do everything we can to build a new life out of the ruins.
Down the sand, Gunner yelled, What did you say about me? Hey, hey, you guys, what are you talking about?
Sharon’s face was soft, lovely, tan. Her eyes were pooling a sadness that I found attractive. Near the water, Carol Thompson, who at that time didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on, was lifting her son up by the hands, swaying him over the water and dipping his toes into the surf.
Her husband, Ron, was a few yards down the beach, holding himself at a remove, shielding his brow as he serenely scanned the water. For a few seconds there was a shift in the air, Sharon was gazing out at the water and we both felt a stasis, a place where we could rebuild our marriage, and then the feeling disappeared – and Gunner called again, waving his blue shovel – and she leaned in and whispered, Fuck you, and I whispered, No, fuck you, and then I lay on my side and watched out of the corner of my eye as Carol lifted her son up and down (she had strong shoulders and long, elegant arms, and I felt, watching her, with the sand against my legs, the soft seep of ardor coming again).
Ardor was a word I used a lot back then when I talked to myself. Ardor’s taking over, I said. The air is loaded with ardor this afternoon, I said to Gunner as I watched him, day after day, in the backyard. Ardor’s radiating from those trees, I said in a mock-British accent, pointing at the pines along the edge of the yard. Then he scrunched his face and gave me a look that said: You’re strange and silly, Dad. Whatever you’re saying, it’s dubious.
His look seemed judgmental in the purest sense, as if he knew somehow that his mother and father had betrayed each other, parted ways, heading off into distant blissful worlds.
On the beach that day in Mystic I rolled over and kept my face down and admitted to myself, as I do now, that it had been in the end inevitable, considering the amount of ardor – or ardor-related gestures generated – that the lust, or whatever, would congeal, or perhaps the word is incarnate, into an act of adultery on my part and, at almost the same time, on Sharon’s part.
Sharon had confessed to me about her lover, the Banker, and I had confessed to her about Marie, whom she called the Teacher, and in those confessions we had each allowed carefully curated details in – the Standard Hotel on Washington Street, a few drinks after a long session briefing a client, a clandestine meeting in Piermont on a lonely, sad day in the fall when she was out in Los Angeles, time zones away. A Lorca poem memorized in Spanish. Funds transferred into an account managed by the Banker. The rest was left up to our horrific imaginations. I imagined her eating lunch with him, down the stairs, in one of those older Upper East Side establishments, with ivory-white tablecloths and candles flickering in the middle of the day. Outside the windows, I imagined the legs and high heels and shoes of those walking past while they whispered sweet nothings to each other, and felt the beautiful, clandestine joy of holding a secret together in Manhattan. What she imagined I can only imagine, but I’m sure she built images of me with Marie, images of her face drawn from parent–teacher conferences: the two of us leaning back on a blanket somewhere deep in the state park, looking up at the sky, smiling in postcoital quiet, watching the clouds meander over the river. I imagined that she imagined – as I did – lips hovering, dappled with sweat, just before a kiss. The faint, citrusy smell of her neck. The sweet moments between touch – a finger hovering just over the flesh. Exquisite pain, of course, came from these imagined moments because they were pure, clear, drawn from the mind’s own unique desires.
At the beach that day in Mystic, with my cheek against the sand, I felt a keen injustice in the clichéd nature of our situation, that thinking it was a cliché was also a cliché, or maybe bringing it up as a cliché is even more of a cliché, and even more of a cliché to bring up the fact that a cliché is a cliché.
What are clichés but the reduction of experience into manageable patterns, Dr Haywood told us a few weeks later, during a counseling session. You call it a cliché, but the brain can only process so much.
That day in her office – on the ground floor of an apartment building on 96th Street, not far from the park – Dr Haywood explained that the brain’s attention can only be drawn precisely to one thing at a time, and only those things the brain deems worthy. You catch a flick of movement in the grass, near the water’s edge, and then you draw your attention to it if you deem it worthy, or else you let it float away and think: that’s just a bird alighting, or flying off, and I’m going to keep my attention on that boat, the leader of a regatta, tacking around a buoy, catching the wind in the belly of a sail. Cliché, she explained, is the brain’s way of speeding up cognitive analysis.
I lifted myself up and brushed the sand from my arms and leaned towards Sharon and said, Well, Sharon, we need to go back to our original vows and start from scratch, and she said, Honestly, I’m sorry to say but in retrospect the original vows didn’t cut it in the first place. The original vows were obviously batshit silly.
She kept talking until Gunner came up along the sand, walking with his side-to-side sway, looking suspicious. For several days he’d been listening carefully as we spoke in a weird manner, keeping everything – as far as we could – cryptic.
Betrayal doesn’t go away, Sharon said.
I’d like to find a firm footing. Something we can stand on.
What are you talkin’ about? Gunner said. What about my foot?
Mom and Daddy are talking adult-talk. Sometimes adults have to talk adult-talk, Sharon said.
Then he began to pressure and pry and make us both deeply uncomfortable but also – it seems to me now, sitting here alone with my drink, watching the water – even more eager to find a language that might, without exposing our plight, also prove magically useful. We had to blur the details and speak in code and we ended up speaking in a kind of neo-biblical lingo.
I’m not sure we can make it up this hill.
The hill is made of your frickin’ ardor.
No, no, the hill is a big-shot banker in Manhattan. We both climbed hills. We’re both equally guilty.
What hill can’t be climbed? I want to climb the hill with you, Gunner said, and in-between our words there would appear a hint of solace, of the reconciliation that would arrive if we simply continued speaking in code for the rest of our lives with our son between us, asking suspicious questions, redirecting our pain into his pale blue eyes, his tiny ears.
Anthony’s Nose, one of us said, referring to the beautiful mountain north of the Bear Mountain Bridge. We’re talking about taking a climb up Anthony’s Nose.
I wanna climb the nose, Gunner said. His eyes were wide and resolute and sparked – it seemed – with a keen knowingness, a sense of playful desperation.
That afternoon with the Thompsons on the beach in Mystic, we began an argument that continued into fall, taking any number of forms: me in support of the original vows; Sharon against; vows dead and dried up and scattered forever in the dusty winds of our infidelity. Vows broken to begin with, tried, simplistic and never powerful enough to determine our future; vows subsumed to the weight of dead traditions, symbolic claptrap uttered from youthful throats that had been eager, ready to say anything (any fucking thing, Sharon cried) in order to instill a sense of permanency in the world. We fought and eventually – in that strange way that one argument can lead to another and then to something that resembles silence – we reached the endpoint, at which point action is the only recourse.
But before we got to that point we had to go through a fight that night, after our trip to the beach, with our skin still salty and taut and Gunner asleep in front of the television set. While I argued in support of our original vows, taken years ago on a crisp, clear fall afternoon in the city, Sharon made the case – her voice deepening, shifting into her attorney mode – that those vows were dead and gone, used up, depleted, scattered forever on the cold wind of our infidelity.
A week later, at the top of Anthony’s Nose, keeping Gunner close at hand, standing there with her hands on her hips and her chin up as if speaking to the sky, she explained that she thought our commitment had been flawed anyway, silly and traditional. We were just kids. We didn’t know what we were doing.
On Anthony’s Nose we were rehashing previous fights, looking down at the river where it went north past West Point, buried in the haze.
Sharon pointed out, her voice getting soft and gentle, that we had never really discussed (‘had a sit-down’ was the phrase she used) the wording of those original vows and had instead entrusted their composition to Reverend Moody ( Judson Church in Washington Square), the same man who had married her parents back in Cleveland. We had seen him as a kind of good-luck token, because his words had sealed the covenant – I remember she argued that that was a much better word – that had led to her conception and then her existence and, via her existence, to our meeting by pure chance that day in the Boston Common, sitting on the same bench and reading the same book (Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov).
We bickered and fought and then finally renewed our vows at the little Presbyterian church in Snedens Landing, New York, about twenty miles north of Manhattan, on the west side of the river, tucked amid expensive estates – Baryshnikov lived back there, along with Bill Murray.
The Reverend Woo presided, leaning forward in her vestments, quoting Merton on humility (my contribution) and Robert Frost on roads not taken (Sharon’s contribution), while Gracie Gray, John and Sue Carson, Joanna and Bill and Jenny Dickerson, Bill and Liz Wall, Karen Drake and Janet Smith, Jillian and Ted Wilson-Rothchild, and Sharon’s mother Anna Rose, who had flown over from Tralee, Ireland, looked on as I repeated Woo’s words back to Sharon – for eternity, ever after, we renew these vows in the great spiral of time itself, the dark matter of our particular, unique love, tucked in the folds of the universe, marking our small minutia of time here out of the random chaos, uniting our love to a semblance of form, tightening ourselves against the timescape of our lives – until it was my turn to listen to Woo speak Sharon’s part of the vows and I tried to stay focused as she recited her part back to me, something about the renewal of the original impulse of our love, returning to the original pulse of desire that is on this day consecrated (I’m pretty sure she spoke both those phrases: the original impulse and then on this day consecrated).
Her side mentioned Gunner – something along the lines of between us, shared, our devout love of our son, Gunner, stands.
She listened to Woo speak a few words and then to me as I repeated those words, and then I listened to Woo speak and then to Sharon again and then we kissed each other with honest eagerness and stood arm in arm while out in the pews, next to Sharon’s mother, who was dressed in a lime-green blouse and a pleated herringbone skirt, looking weary and jet-lagged after her flight across the Atlantic, Gunner stared at me with blunt blue eyes that seemed to say: you have betrayed me, father, insofar as you had a part in my creation.
Please don’t think I’m trying to say, as I sit here alone enjoying the warm summer evening, alone in the house, and once again, for perhaps the thousandth time, studying the Hudson River, that we didn’t renew our commitment with the most devout sincerity, or that retaking our vows wasn’t the right thing to do at the time, or that it wasn’t a pleasure to leave Gunner with Sharon’s mother and drive away from the front of the church, in the verdant spring air, trailing a ridiculous string of rattling cans all the way through Queens to the long-term parking at JFK. But the look my son gave me, or at least the look I imagined he gave me, seemed to reveal that even he was aware that the renewal ceremony revealed, or rather exposed, a rending to our friends, to the public, to the world at large.
Please, will you stop about the look Gunner gave you, Sharon said that night in Dublin. You’re being ridiculous. He has no idea. If anything, he’s happy for us.
She was at the window of our room in the Gresham Hotel, her back turned to me, looking down at O’Connell Street. It was a lovely evening with a breeze blowing through the window, brushing her hair around her shoulders. (Oh God, Sharon had the most beautiful auburn hair with natural highlights! And, oh, and those eyes, mercurial, quicksilver eyes that shifted with mood and light! Even now I can recall the look she gave me earlier that day in Dublin as we stood on a bridge and looked down at the Liffey – solemn and dark water below, which seemed to hold centuries of stonework and old barges and history going back to the Vikings, coming back up into her eyes as she gave me one of her sidelong glances, flirtatious and judgmental at the same time, and then she gave me her wonderful smile.)
At the window with her hands on her hips she was swaying gently, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Come to bed, I said. I won’t ever say that word again. It doesn’t need to be said. I promise.
Vows, I said.
Oh, honestly, I said I don’t want to hear that word ever again.
I stayed silent as we lay together in bed. We had walked aimlessly to stay awake, to fight off the jet lag, drinking coffee, surprised at the clean modernity of the city, arm in arm as we stood at Trinity Gate, which was closed, and then strolled down Grafton Street – like any other mall in America, we agreed – to St Stephen’s Green, where we found a bench and sat for a while and held hands like proper newlyweds. Then, as we meandered back in the direction of the hotel, we lucked upon Oscar Wilde’s house, or at least I insisted, before we crossed the street, that it was Wilde’s house. In reality it was his father’s house. The confusion sparked a short, brisk argument – the first of our renewed marriage! – as we waited for the light to change. Sharon’s voice had tightened and became litigious, resolute and pristine in a way I admired and loved. The argument began on one side of the street and ended when we got close enough to read the round plaque that described an eye surgeon and folklore expert, Wilde’s father.
You were right, I told Sharon, feeling incredibly happy.
Then we had made our way back down O’Connell Street, stopping here and there to look at the shops, laughing and teasing each other about Oscar Wilde, and we ended up at the bar in the touristy pub next to the hotel, sitting shoulder to shoulder, still weary from jet lag, leaning like regulars into our pints and sipping together in unison, sharing for the first time a mutual loneliness (a kind of blissful isolation, a sense that we were united in our new bonds) that would – I now see – last for years, until we held hands in the hospital room and prayed softly together while outside the sky over the river charged up with particles and produced, somewhere over New Jersey, a bright flash of lightning.
Was it a cliché to have a second honeymoon in Ireland? Sure. Is it a cliché to link that one drink together in the pub, after our first fight at Oscar Wilde’s father’s house, with our relationship after our renewal ceremony? Is it a cliché to make the leap from that moment – when we were first feeling the deep unity between us that would last for years and years – to that final night in the hospital along the upper western edge of Manhattan, when I held her hand and felt the faint bud of pulse in her wrist and then pulled her hand to my mouth and began to weep?
Yes, perhaps. But what Haywood said to us that day in therapy stuck. To push further, as I sit here today I am sure that in the hospital – with blue sawhorses in the street set up by the police, and a summer thunderstorm brewing over Jersey – with our hands cupped gently, we both felt the beauty of our commitment to time itself, to something vast and eternal and, above all, secretive. It was ours and ours alone. Whatever rumors and hearsay and conjecture floated around our story, whatever people made of it from gathered fragments, could only intensify what we had together.
On a family trip out west years after the ceremony, watching the road taper into the horizon outside of Bismarck, North Dakota, I began to wonder if we had completely nullified each other’s vows by renewing them. I theorized that Sharon’s vows had simply canceled mine out, creating a different kind of void. Gunner was sixteen at the time, lurking in the back seat with his headphones on, and the sight of his bobbing head, with a halo of hair puffing around his headphone band in the rearview mirror, had been disconcerting. Looking drunk back there, with his eyes loose and formless, lost in his music, he could’ve been anywhere.
Next to me, Sharon slept with her head back and her mouth open. That’s what I recall from our Grand Canyon trip. Sharon sleeping and my son, with his adult bones eagerly hardening beneath his muscles and his muscles pushing against the fabric of his sleeves, in the back seat, lost in his beloved death metal. Even at the rim of the canyon, looking down, taking in the vast expanse, all he did was nod his head slightly to the music in his headphones and casually brush off the sublime vista.
On the way home, I think, this theory of a complete nullification of vows came to mind.
As I drove, I balled the thought up – the theory of complete nullification – and threw it out the window. That’s a meditation technique I was using at the time: take a thought, write it down on some mental paper, hold it, turn it around in the mind, center on it and then ball it up and throw it away.
Somewhere along a road in North Dakota, I tossed that thought out the window.
Now, sitting here, I imagine it’s still out there, curled in the scrub and dust, waiting to be discovered and unfolded.
One night, standing over my son as he slept, while the snow swirled around outside, it struck me that if we ever had another renewal ceremony, a kind of third-time-is-a-charm deal, we’d have to simply act as our own authority before God and avoid all the formal trappings. (Those are the fun parts, Sharon said, her voice light and happy, when we were planning the second ceremony. The trappings are the part you’re required to forget the first time you get married. We were too young, and uptight, and we forgot them. The point of a renewal ceremony is to have a deeper awareness and enjoyment and focus so you actually experience the trappings, she said. I said, I don’t like the trappings, but you might be right. You’ve got to have some kind of sacred space overhead, some sense that the vows are being taken in a holy environment. Even if you get married on the beach, there has to be a consecrated vibe in the air, and she said, Yeah, right, with an edge to her voice, not bitter but not sweet.)
Sharon and I are still uncomfortable with each other, I told my friend Ted one afternoon, before the renewal ceremony. We were out on the back patio, smoking cigars, facing the river. As the sun came in and out of clouds, the trees blazed with color and faded and blazed.
We’re like a couple of crooks locked in a cell with a warden who looms over us to make sure we get along for eternity. We’re both in for the death penalty, I said.
You’re in for death, and so am I. Each meal is a last supper, he said, and we laughed. He and his wife Jennifer were astonishingly good cooks, master chefs, and their dinner parties were legendary. They weren’t foodies. Their respect for food went beyond trends or fads. They cooked simple, elegant meals and knew how to set up a perfect party. Brisk fall nights with a hint of woodsmoke and harvest in the air. The windows of their house above the road, tucked in a notch in the palisade, flickering candlelight. Silver on white linen. Always perfectly balanced company, a few light-hearted guests, a sullen guest (Hal Jacobson, whose wife had jumped from the bridge), a blend of intellect, jest and despair brought together, drawn around a sense that the next dish would top the last, bringing all attention to the mouth and tongue.
No matter what was being said, no matter how happy the talk, no matter what grievances were exposed, the next dish brought the conversation to a satisfying lull.
Before the dish arrived, we’d be complaining about the town’s new sidewalk design, or someone would bring up the so-called nunnery that was, at that time, proposed for the empty meadow lot up near Hook Mountain. (I would keep quiet about the fact that I owned the small parcel that was necessary for an easement. It would come out soon enough. One way or another, if the proposal moved forward and went through the planning-board review process, the need for an easement would come to light and, with it, the fact that I owned the land. Then the fact that the New York diocese was negotiating with me to purchase it would come out, too.)
I’m only kidding about prison, I said to Ted, who looked at me, took a deep draw, and released a cloud of smoke.
Ted was a federal judge and played the role even when he was off the bench, relaxing with a cigar in hand. He was the type who prepared his cigar in an old style, popping a nub out of the end of the cigar with his thumbnail, rejecting my clippers and then my expensive butane lighter – the flame powerful and invisible until it hit the tobacco and bloomed like a blue orchid – in favor of kitchen matches. Even when he was relaxed, he seemed to have the straight-backed reserve of a man who was withholding judgment, sticking with procedure. He took another draw on his cigar, kept his lips lightly around the wrapper leaf and spoke with firm authority, You’re not in prison. If you’d rode the blue bus and then went through the security check at Rikers Island, you’d understand what it means to be in prison. But I get your point, he said.
Well, you should, I said. I knew he had gone through some serious marital problems of his own. On the porch – this was late fall, a cold wind coming from the north, hunched in our coats with our collars up, enjoying the feeling of smoking outside, as if we were in the Klondike, two rugged explorers stopping for a smoke, he knew and I knew at that instant, sitting there, that the next thing out of his mouth – or mine – would be a comment about the quality of the cigars, and then one of us would say something about the quality of the Cubans, and then one of us would tell a smuggling story. His that day was about how he once hid cigars – purchased in Europe – in his wife’s tampon box to get them through customs, and I told him about replacing the bands, turning Montecristos into Dunhills, something like that, and then we settled into a deep ritual that betrayed time itself, turning the moment into something utterly simple and meaningless.
Years later, at his funeral, up on the hill across from the hospital, with the river broken gray slates through the trees, I’d remember that moment on the back patio and how he drew the attention away from my failure and allowed us to go back to the ordained pattern of our friendship, which had started with our weekly tennis matches. You want to play with a judge? I know this judge, and he’s pretty good, someone told me. He’s federal so he pretty much sets his own hours and can play with you in the afternoon, someone said.
In the years after the renewal ceremony the judge came to know the full story of my marital problems with Sharon. His son was at West Point for a few years, and I remember that he talked often of him, saying things like – my son is a plebe, and right now, as we play tennis, he is, most certainly, being tortured into adulthood. His son would become a captain and die in his second tour in Iraq, killed by an IED, but of course we didn’t know that at the time.
On the night of the party, months after the ceremony, Ted’s loss of his son in Iraq was five years away, still up in the vapors, and he had no idea that it was ahead of him, and I had no idea that someday I’d look back and see both of us as we’d be years later and filter our friendship through that particular moment. Dare I say that as I turned and had that exchange with Gracie, and the judge glanced at me, we both sensed that in the future we’d look back at that moment? Ted’s face as he held the cocktail shaker in his hands, had the placid look of authority, a look I had seen after one of his fantastic tennis serves, standing with his legs apart and his racket at his side, gazing over the net with honest humility. The ball had zipped past. The air was brighter, cooler on his side of the net and duller on my side. All of his efforts – the toss-up, perfectly placed, his racket going back to touch the crook of his massive back, his swing down to meet the ball, were gone, lost, and the serve manifested itself in the tink of the ball against the chain-link behind me and then disappeared into silence as it sat alone in the corner, nestled in leaves. That was the look he had when he turned to see me at the window, at our annual party, years ago.
Then he came over to where I was standing by the window and asked if I was okay. He had his hand on his shoulder and was leaning forward and his face seemed to be saying: Yes, I’m holding you in judgment, old friend. I’ll give you my verdict in a few years.
True love is, when seen from afar, a big fat cliché. It is a glance from the side while looking down at deep water. A fight on a beach. A sweaty brow covered with sand. Lips between kisses. Betrayal eased into grace.
(Let it go, Sharon said. You theorize too much about these things. How many times have I heard a witness claim that they told themselves to remember what they were seeing when the truth is they were too freaked out, or too scared, or even, in some cases, unaware that a crime was even transpiring.)
All I can say now is that I stuck to my word. I don’t think we ever discussed our vows again. We settled into life. We shared everything together. After that night in the Gresham Hotel we went on finding places, situations, where we could simply sit side by side, shoulder to shoulder, lifting a glass in unison.
One evening, years later, we walked up Lexington Avenue after dinner with Gunner and his fiancée, through a hazy, dusky midsummer evening at the end of a preposterously hot day. The streets baking with heat. A giant sinkhole had opened in Queens. An unbearable glaze hung over everything. Cars dragging themselves through the glaze of Park Avenue. With sunset, a breeze had arrived, fragrant with the smell of hot pavement and something that smelled like cotton candy. We were walking hand in hand, sauntering, and after the dinner – the cute formality of Gunner across from the love of his life – we were relishing a sensation of success. We had raised a gentle soul, a man who tended to his lover’s needs and had found someone who would tend to his, and that fact alone seemed sufficient.
Before meeting Gunner and Quinn at the restaurant, Sharon and I had gone to a museum, stood before a Picasso painting of a lobster fighting a cat, and then moved on to examine a Franz Kline, a few wonderful thick blue brushstokes splayed in cross-hatch, and then, downstairs in the cool lower level, a Van Gogh, a small, secret scene of a shadowy figure of a lonely woman, or a man, passing out of (or into) a pedestrian tunnel in the glow of dusk.
As we walked south that evening at a leisurely pace towards Grand Central, we were feeling a contentment that came from the fact that we had passed from the cool, secretive moment together before some of the finest works of civilization, out into the blazing heat, and then into a restaurant on Lexington, and then, two hours later, back out into a cooler dusk alone together.
Years after the fact, I can still feel the vivid sensation of seeing my own situation within the one that Van Gogh had selected for his painting, out of an infinite set of possibilities, and the feeling would linger with me for the rest of my life.
That night, somewhere in the sixties, or perhaps farther south in the fifties, we glanced to the right and saw what remained of the sunset, framed by the length of the street all the way to the Hudson, a slab of pure lavender light, gloriously perfect, combining with the cold, concrete edges.
That’s as beautiful as anything Rothko painted, I said to Sharon.
(Oh dear, wonderful Sharon. Oh Sharon, love of my life. Oh beloved sharer of a million eternal moments. Oh secret lover of secret situations. Oh you who day by day shared a million intricate conversations.)
That vision has stayed with me. It illustrates how the window looks right now as I sit here with my drink, with the hazy deep blue light edged with the serene, pure black of the window frame, as I sit alone in a room, a year after that night in the hospital, thinking about my wife, about our life together while the river out beyond the window quivers and shakes with the last sunlight of the day. I have come to believe, in this time of mourning, that only in such moments, purely quiet, subsumed in the cusp of daily life, can one – in the terrible incivility of our times – begin to locate a semblance of complete, honest, pure grace.
In an average life lived by a relatively average soul, what else remains but singular moments of astonishingly framed light?
Photograph courtesy of Bridgehampton Tennis and Surf Club / John-Paul Teutonico Photography