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.