After a love affair that fizzled and popped like a bubble, Steven Axelrod wonders what went wrong.
We had talked every night on the phone for three nights running and the phone calls weren’t enough and Sophie was leaving for Canada in less than 24 hours.
I needed to see her before then.
One of those nights, near dawn, I said to her, “Think about this situation—the two of us falling in love, the bad timing, one of us involved with someone else, flying off to see them and figure things out … it sounds just like 20 years ago.”
“But I couldn’t handle it, and you can.”
“I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about the two of you together in the Canadian Rockies for a week. It sounds way too romantic—long walks in the snow, drinks by the fire, the big bed, the room so warm you sleep naked—”
“Sorry. That was bad. Writers’ imaginations are grotesque. It’s an overdeveloped muscle—like a tennis player’s forearm.”
“Nothing’s going to happen.”
“If you knew that for sure you wouldn’t have to go.”
She said nothing.
I pushed on: “Look … when you paint window sash, you line them at an angle against a wall, so that they lean against it, parallel to each other, like louvers on a door. It looks stable, but it isn’t. If one falls over it knocks all the others down, like dominoes. All you need is someone stomping into the house, or a gust of wind from the front door. It doesn’t take much.”
“Do they break?”
“Just the last one. But that’s the only one I’m worried about.”
“We’re not going to break.”
“Have some faith.”
“Not my specialty.”
“Then trust. You can do that. Trust me. I love you.”
The phone lines breathed between us for a few seconds
“All right.” I said finally. “I love you, too.”
We hung up on that comforting note.
But I was still worried.
The next night, she called late and said, “I just had this horrible dream. I had to choose—either we could get married despite the fact that I didn’t really love you and break your heart forever, or I could be absolutely irrevocably in love with you, but you had to die.”
I almost laughed. “But you’re awake now. And there are other options. Like, we just go our separate ways. Or we stay friends. Or we just love each other. We’re hot for each other and make each other laugh and like each other’s cooking, and feel privileged to wake up next to each other every morning. Simple stuff. We like the same books and movies—with some bizarre exceptions. Like … I don’t know—you snoozed through The Color Purple. I hated The Piano. But that shit doesn’t matter. We have fun together. We travel. But even if we’re just going out for coffee or walking the dog, it’s a little adventure. It’s a treat. We have a thought and we say it, and we understand each other, we kiss and it’s always the same kiss and it’s always great. No one’s heart gets broken. No one dies. That’s what I dreamed.”
There was a strange wounded silence across the phone lines, then she said, “Yours is better.”
“Take it, then.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“So we’ll fight sometimes. OK? We’ll annoy each other, is that better? You’ll be moody. I’ll flirt with your friends. We’ll fight and have make-up sex.”
“That sounds good.”
“I know it does.”
“I’m going back to bed. Maybe I’ll have a better dream now. And, by the way—I loved The Color Purple.”
We hung up and then it was the next day. Sophie was leaving for Canada tomorrow. The whole phone call option was used up. More words, without action, would just stifle both of us. I almost called her that morning—I had the phone in my hand, but it was like that last cup off coffee that turns the buzz sour in your blood. If you’re smart you pour it down the sink and eat something. Or in this case, you drop everything, get to Northampton, track Sophie down, grab her, and hold on with all your strength, before the connecting filaments between you stretch white and snap with distance and travel and security checks and airline potato chips and arctic air and Northern Lights and the doting attentions of a boyfriend on his best behavior because he knows he’s in trouble and he has to step up.
So that’s what I did.
I called my friend Byron and negotiated another flight to Northampton. He gave me half-price and let me split the gas, as if we were driving home from college.
“I thought this was going to be a lot harder after last time,” I said. “I know you were pissed off when we showed up late.”
“Yeah but something else happened that night, Cap. I saw the girl.”
“She’s your type?”
“I’d say she was anyone’s type, studly. So I’m rooting for you now. Bring champagne and lobster, that’s my advice. I think I have a couple of nice ones in the traps. We’ll drive out to the jetty and take a look later. I’ll pick ‘em for you. Ya can’t beat fresh lobster.”
“As long as we’re back by midnight,” he said. “My plane turns into a pumpkin at midnight.”
No other arrangements had to be made—Lisa had the kids, and I wouldn’t be staying over-night. By 7:30 p.m. we were taking off, and the island, reduced to a few patches of twinkling lights floating on the darkness, was falling away below us.
Byron said. “You oughtta drive this trip sometime. Two hours on the ferry, and another two and a half on the road if the traffic is moving. But 495 is always fucked up and the Mass Pike aint much better. Call it three, three and a half hours on top of that boat ride. That’s a reality check for ya—helluva commute for a booty call.”
“She might move to Nantucket.”
“Oh yeah? Walk away from her life, quit her job, sell her house, and show up on your doorstep ready to move in? She charges at you that way, you’ll be running for the hills, Romeo. Trust me. But it would never happen anyway. She’s not turning her life upside down based on a couple of days with a guy and some old memories. Anyway, unless I got this story wrong, you’ve never even fucked the girl, pardon my French. So you got some boxes to check before anyone starts over from scratch.”
“I could move there. We could spend time together without the pressure.”
“Right. Because you just won the lottery. Come on, Steve. Jesus. It took you ten years to build up your painting business to what it is now, with customers that trust you and guys like me who can jump in and help you meet a deadline. Ten years to get to the point where you’re just barely scraping by and you never know if you’ve even gonna be working in six months. You got anything lined up for August? How about a big inside job for next winter? Didn’t think so. And that’s on Nantucket where people have the money to do high-end paint jobs. You gonna trash all that and move some place where you get 15 bucks an hour for work no one wants you to do anyway? I don’t think so. And you aint qualified for anything else—except being a best-selling novelist on the talk-show circuit. But you gotta finish that book before you can sell it, Chief. Besides even if you were Stephen King, one of those guys—John Grisham, whatever—you aint leaving those rug rats and wifey would never let you take them, anyway. Face it—You’re stuck on the rock, just like everybody else.”
The plane droned on and the reality Byron laid out settled over me like sanding dust on a brick sidewalk.
“So this is impossible?”
He laughed—a brutal humorless grunt. “It aint easy. That’s for damn sure.”
“But you’re forgetting—love conquers all. Virgil said so. In his Tenth Ecologue—‘Omnia vincit amor’.”
“Yeah, well. That was a long time ago. He’s dead and so is that fucking language he spoke. His whole empire got conquered, and it wasn’t by love. More like the Huns and the Turks, all right? And they knew how to conquer some shit. Unlike love. Love conquers nothing, buddy. Maybe back in Rome, I don’t know. These days love gets its ass kicked on a regular basis. Just like a fat kid at recess. And I was that fat kid, so I know what I’m talking about.”
“You never know—love might surprise you this time. We might surprise you.”
He reached across to jab my shoulder. The plane dipped a little. “That’s why we’re here, buddy. That’s why I’m running the Byron Clark air taxi service. Level the playing field, give love a shot.”
It was unseasonably mild when we topped the dark hill and landed at the sparsely-lit Northampton airport. Climbing out of the plane the air felt soft and summery, close and intimate. Byron called us a cab, and I dropped him off at Spoleto with 50 bucks for dinner.
Alone in the cab I sat back. The driver had some oldies station on—Joni Mitchell singing “A Case of You,” a song I knew would always bring me back to this moment
“I drew a map of Canada / O, Canada / With your face sketched on it twice”
I closed my eyes, and let the high sweet voice and those squeaky guitar chords crowd out my thoughts. The frost-heaved road jolted past. The sense of being in exactly the right place and doing exactly the right thing flowed over me in a steady rush, like the cool air from the open window.
When we got to Sophie’s house I could see immediately that there was no one home. The big rambling house was dark, except for one light over the front door. I paid the cab and walked up to the porch. The door was open, and I could see the big Bearnese poking the screen with his nose, tail wagging. I let myself in, happy to get off the porch and out of the spotlight. I knelt down in the dark hallway to pat the dog, feeling like an idiot, feeling the night close in on me and the clock ticking. So many bad ideas: the surprise visit, just assuming Sophie would be home, the refusal to get a cell phone, which would have made this moment so easy: hit one button, let it ring and just talk to her, wherever she was. Then I noticed her cell phone on the front hall table. I had to smile—that pretty much defeated the purpose, though people probably did it all the time.
I forced myself to think—where would she be? A friend’s house? The movies? Out to dinner? I could never find her in a dark theater; I didn’t know any of her friends. Their numbers were probably filed in the cell phone, but I had no idea how to access that information, and I would have felt weird calling random strangers anyway.
Still, I did have one piece of information: I knew a restaurant Sophie liked. It wasn’t much, but it was the only idea I had. Why not give it a try? It beat just standing there. I turned on the hall light and walked into the kitchen, with the big dog trotting behind me. I could see the neighbor’s lights through the big window over the sink. I stood for a second, just absorbing the place, the smell of dust and old wood, cinnamon and coffee. The dog lay down on a hooked rug and rested his head on his paws.
I noticed a land-line phone on the wall, with a phone book on a stool below it. I looked up Spoleto and dialed the number.
After two rings, a harried woman’s voice said “Spoleto.”
I could hear the clatter of dishes and conversation behind her. Someone shouted “I need another carpaccio!”
“Hello,” I said. “I’m looking for one of your customers … I think she may be eating there tonight—it’s kind of important—”
“Look we’re busy tonight and I don’t—”
“Her name is Sophie Zambarano.”
“—have time to—what? Who did you say?”
“Hold on a second.”
I waited, listening to the faint jangle of the restaurant, a siren somewhere in the streets outside, the thump of the dog’s tail on the floor. He had perked up at the sound of Sophie’s name.
“We’re tracking her down, buddy,” I said.
Then I heard her voice, breathy and musical, like a torch singer setting up the next song.
“Sophie? It’s Steve. Steve Axelrod? I have to see you tonight and I—”
“Yeah, listen, we have to—”
“Where are you?”
I winced as I said it: “I’m in your house.”
But she laughed. “You’re out of your mind.”
“Maybe. But you’re out of your house. Which is much worse tonight.”
“I’ll be right there.”
And she hung up.
I put the champagne in the freezer and the lobster in the fridge. She might have already finished dinner, but the lobster would keep, and there was always room for champagne. I walked back out onto the porch, leaned against the railing, waiting. A few cars passed. Clouds crowded the moon; I could feel rain coming.
Finally the old Volvo pulled into the driveway. I straightened up and leaned against the post, absurdly aware of the figure I cut, trying to look composed and casual when she first saw me. Then she was leaping up the steps, and I was twirling her in a concussive hug and the self-consciousness slipped away, like my wedding ring in the ocean, lost after a long day surfing, so many years ago.
“Did you eat?” I asked. “I brought lobster. We could make a salad.”
“I hadn’t even ordered. I was on my second glass of wine.”
We went inside, arms still around each other, slithering round the half-open screen door, unwilling to disentangle. In the kitchen I pulled the bottle from the freezer.
“She was already drunk, Your Honor,” I said. “I had nothing to do with it.”
“He said, opening the Veuve.”
She found glasses, and I poured the wine. We clicked rims: “To impulsive behavior,” she said.
“May it always be welcome.”
We drank, and she said, “How did you find me?”
“I don’t know … you were out, it was the night before you left. I figured you might be at dinner somewhere, and Spoleto was the only restaurant I knew you liked. Lucky you were there.”
“No, no—it’s better than that. We were supposed to go to a different restaurant, but I made them change the reservation. I wanted to be somewhere you knew, in case you were trying to get in touch with me.”
I finished my champagne and she poured out some more.
“Do you think we’re psychic?” she asked.
“We don’t have to be psychic. We’re thinking the same things.”
We made the lobster salad and took it out to the porch.
“Eric called this morning,” Sophie said. “I must have sounded weird. He said ‘Are you still mine? You don’t sound like it.’”
“What did you tell him?”
“That I hated the question. I hate phrases like that. They’re like some bizarre leftover from the days when women actually were chattel. He wouldn’t want to own me anyway. Over-priced, a hundred thousand miles on the odometer, needs new clutch, no warranty. I’m a bad deal.”
“A hundred thousand miles? How do you figure that?”
“I don’t know. It feels that way sometimes.”
I took her hand; she squeezed back.
“Your clutch seems OK to me,” I said.
“Very funny.” But she did smile a little.
“Did you tell him all this?”
“No, no—I didn’t want to get into it. I just said I hated the phone and we’d talk everything over when I saw him. I’m dreading that. The serious relationship conversation.”
“Then don’t go.”
She took her hand back, picked up her fork. “I’m going. The tickets are bought, his family is flying in to meet me. I have to do this, anyway. I have to see him and—and deal with things. Make a decision.”
She poured out the last of the wine and we ate quietly for a few minutes. Cars passed on the street. A light drizzle had started, blowing out of the north east. The breeze shifted her hair, lifted the napkins on the little wicker table. She shivered a little and I moved closer to her on the little bench, slipped my arm around her shoulders. She leaned into me.
“It can’t decide what season it is today,” she said. “It felt like spring this morning. By afternoon, it was summer. Now it’s fall again.”
“That’s my favorite season anyway. Maybe it’s all those years of starting school in September, but it always feels like a new beginning. It’s especially nice on Nantucket. The air is so mild. They say it’s because of the Gulf Stream. But you can swim in the ocean in October. You’d love it.”
“I can’t move to Nantucket.”
“Sure you can—rent this house, pack a few boxes and go. You could get a job teaching at NSD or the high school. People do it all the time.”
“What about your kids?”
“They’d love you.”
“The strange new step-mother who appears out of nowhere and yells at them for leaving their dishes in the sink? I don’t think so.”
“No need to yell. Besides, they’re startlingly tidy.”
She reached across her body to put a hand to my mouth, just touching my lips with her fingers. “I can’t deal with the future tonight,” she said.
She arched up to kiss me. I pulled her closer. When we eased out of it she said. “This all seems so easy. I always thought we were star-crossed.”
“Well, maybe something a little less dramatic. Like rain-delayed?”
“Come on. When you got married, when your kids were born, you weren’t thinking about me.”
The rain intensified on the roof of the deck, a dense rattle that subsided again as the worst of the storm moved on. It was cozy on the little bench.
“You know what I regret?,” I said after a while. “It’s the moments I didn’t understand when they were happening. Like the day I left for Los Angeles—back at Hampshire. If I had just been smart enough to turn around that morning—”
“We would have lasted about six months. That was all I could handle, then.”
“I suppose. But I blew those six months, and I want them back.”
“Well, you got tonight. You made that happen.”
“It sounds like a lot of work, though.”
I shrugged. “The best things in life are definitely not free. Who said that anyway?”
“It’s an old song from the 20s. Something about flowers and sunbeams.”
“Written just before the crash, I bet. Nowadays, roses are five dollars a stem, and sunshine gives you skin cancer.”
“What a romantic.”
“I am romantic. I just accept the fact that I have to pay for stuff. Free is con job. I figured that out when I was a kid. Remember those cereal box offers? ‘Get the Decoder Ring FREE with five box-tops and two dollars for shipping and handling.’ Handling. What is handling anyway? It ought to be included. I mean, you can’t really ship something without handling it.”
She lifted herself up to kiss me. I felt it in my blood like a drug, pushing through every vein and capillary, rousing every nerve. She reached between my legs to feel where the blood was going.