Ancestral spirits waver above the most abstracted woman in the room. She is pretty in the way of peasant girls painted by the pre-Raphaelites. An ideologue is speaking to her about his “powerful impact on the Brooklyn political scene.” Listening, the abstracted woman silently revises his sentences in the manner of her laptop offering predictive text: “did you mean fictional impact?” His chin juts uncomfortably close to her left tit. On the table beside her prepared foods give off discordant odors while snatches of conversation wash around her. “We should go out some night after work.” “Did you hear? He transferred to the Singapore office.” “There’s plenty of vodka.” A tide of menace flows in and out of the room with each of the hostess’s entrances and exits; she describes herself as “accomplished.” Evading the hostess, sipping sweet wine, the most abstracted woman in the room wonders what her great great grandmother felt when first arriving in New York. And did her hair smell of the sea? The woman lifts a hand to touch her own hair, soft and hazy about her face. She wonders, briefly and a little sadly, when her heart will next swell with overwhelming emotion.
Glancing across the room, the abstracted woman, Hester is her name, finds her attention snagged by a tall man standing beside a woman who is petite and precise and wearing a critical smile. The man throws Hester a meaningful look she can’t quite interpret — did they meet here before? (This is the second time she has attended this annual Thanksgiving party.) Hastily, she returns her attention to the Brooklyn ideologue. He is saying: “… and presumably the city council has veto power.” There is some kind of abnormal passion in this man’s strangely pale eyes; he frightens Hester and bores her at the same time. All at once the man from across the room is standing beside her, dipping a single shrimp into red cocktail sauce. When he smiles, peering into her eyes, she sees ocean blue. A distant, circling fin appears on the dark waters of her memory. Squinting she says, “Have we met some—?”
Briefly the feeling behind his eyes intensifies. He lifts the dripping, fetal-curled shrimp to his lips, consumes it, then turns and returns to the others across the room. Swirling the wine in her glass, inhaling its warm scent, a memory surfaces: she fooled around with him once. Reddening, Hester nevertheless glances back across the room at him (at Jason, she reminds herself of his name) and now he is nodding his head, commiserating with the hostess, while the small, precise woman beside him is staring directly at Hester. In a brilliantly swift perusal, Hester assesses the woman, notes her “tasteful” neckline, her slender wedding band, the possessive and presumably cool hand she places on her husband’s arm. Just then Jason glances down at his wife and smiles in a way that appears forced. He has changed, Hester thinks: unexpectedly gaunt now and somehow slowed-down. Yet he retains an echo of laughter in his oh so beautiful eyes.
At that moment, a former colleague bursts into her reverie with talk of sudden, ecstatic departure from a Hell’s Kitchen walkup and, gratefully, Hester rejoices in her friend’s exciting news. Nearly an hour after this, it is time to say goodnight, to wish the hostess well. Hester’s gaze sweeps the room but she does not see Jason, her former…
Partner? Friend? Acquaintance? The subway is strangely crowded and, leaning against the door as the train speeds through the dark, Hester wonders: Who was I then? Glancing around at the other subway riders, noticing only the guys, she feels excitement, dormant yet familiar, spike within her. Outside again, she walks through a chilly, splattering rain. Entering the apartment, she watches her husband’s cat sidle along the wall. Hester stamps her boots, removes her wet coat. The foyer painting, an abstract cliché in yellow and blue, hangs crookedly but she doesn’t notice; she’s still high from the glasses of wine, the sighting of Jason, the oddly provocative subway ride home. She greets Dan with a brief, though real kiss; his mouth tastes familiarly sour, as if he’s been puttering about the place without speaking for hours. (He has.)
“Was it fun?”
“A little.” She smiles, an unconscious mimicry of her husband’s habitually “wry” expression. “Saw a friend—”
Briefly, Hester’s pulse speeds. “I don’t think you ever met her. She and I worked together before we met. She just moved out of the city and seems happier.” As Hester speaks, the look of interest on her husband’s face continues; in fact, he appears enthralled by her and she preens so very much like his cat. As her spirits rise, her face tilts gracefully within this light-without-being-too-bright room, which is unmistakably that of a couple who still have no children. It has all the signs: a laptop sleeps on an open desk; books, CDs and DVDs alphabetically line shelves; “art” not only hangs on walls but sits on tabletops; and two recliners are placed diagonally within conversational range.
“So how did your day go?” Hester’s face is most appealing when registering concern. She sinks into the plush comfort of her chair.
“Okay. Got some stuff done.”
“Were you at the studio all day?”
“Umhmm. It was very, very busy.”
His martyred tone works as a Pavlovian bell within Hester’s psyche. She responds in the same way each and every time she hears this note in his voice: she stiffens. “It’s great so many people request custom jobs.”
“Even when those jobs keep me from my real work?” He gestures expressively, his strong and callused hands vaguely threatening, he is a potter who refers to himself as a “ceramic artist.” He earns a living by teaching as well as making custom bowls and large, elaborate serving dishes, as well as the occasional complete dinner set. Sometimes one of his pieces will appear in a group show at a gallery in Brooklyn (as opposed to one of the galleries on Fifty Seventh Street, where he’d really like to see his masterfully-glazed craftwork exhibited).
Avoiding his eyes, Hester says, “But you like the income.” She is breathing shallowly, sitting unnaturally tall; deep within, somewhere close to her heart, unknown muscles constrict. She knows all too well that he would like to give up the teaching and commercial work—the parts of his occupation that pay. Poised, waiting, Hester remains motionless yet her eyes move around the snug home they have created together. In Hester’s mind, his oblique complaints raise a fist against this: her hard-earned comfort. Dan would like her to support them both. Although she earns a decent salary as a pharmacist, her paycheck is not exorbitant, and she fears, even dreads carrying the entire financial burden for the two of them.
Taut silence follows another of his sighs.
Then Dan mentions an article discovered on the web. He quotes, “In 2009 China had the second-largest economy in the world. Yet in per capita terms the country is still lower middle-income.”
Hester nods her head, wondering once again at his fascination with statistical China, pleased with his perverse interests since it seems to distract him from his discontent.
“And how will they register on the world economy when the average person in China is living at a middle-income level?” He says as if offering a challenge. Hester merely smiles, she has no intention of arguing… why would she rise to such unappetizing bait? Minutes later, she is laughing easily at his story of an averted kiln disaster. As they ready themselves for bed, she is humming some snatch of familiar melody she can’t quite place. Their sex is a hurdle routinely but barely cleared; nevertheless closed-eyed intimacy is achieved and along the way Hester recalls the tune (if not the lyric) she’d just been humming — an old pop-song, ever-present in the bodegas, the gym, she’d hear it in the street on her way to and from the subway around the time of her hook-up with Jason.
Afterward, as she twists her nightgown back into place, she is thinking: But what are the words? Hester senses Dan also awake, but continues to feign sleep. A carousel of memories revolves in her mind; of all the painted, prancing ponies, Jason most persistently returns to view. Seeing him, remembering him there at the party, an unexpected jolt shoots through her. (“I’m like a bird, I’ll only fly away, I don’t know where my soul is, I don’t know where my home is,” the forgotten lyric fills her head.) Yet now she feels a pang of remorse recalling the period of her life in which she met him. Her time of sine wave libido, when promiscuity and celibacy alternated like a current during the three years following her thirtieth birthday.
Her twenties had been demarcated by distinct boyfriends, only randomly satisfying relationships that sustained her in conventional ways: Saturday nights occupied together, birthdays and holidays shared, friends and families introduced then entertained. Each ended once the boyfriend began discussing marriage, breaking the spell of Hester’s vague dissatisfaction. Each time she unpredictably revolted, bolting as soon as “forever” came into view.
In fact, she most definitely wanted to be married but first she wanted love. Love: an obscure, unscientific notion yet also the drum beating her heart. And with this thought, came others; that love-making constituted more than either discontent or bedroom commandeering… didn’t marriage mean everything finally came together for once and worked? (Even in her thoughts Hester adhered to euphemisms.) And wasn’t she still discovering how to do that—make things work?
Although she had hoped to be married by then, on her thirtieth birthday she remained alone. Months before this crucial birth date, she’d once again failed to agreeably agree during a discussion of marriage, in this case one inspired by her boyfriend’s impending transfer to a new job, a new city. She couldn’t help it, she had misgivings about him. Her wannabe fiancé sometimes interrupted her when she spoke, corrected her in conversations among friends. But worst of all, when he touched her, she clenched. She’d lie in bed thinking of all the women’s magazine articles she’d ever read and feel inferior. Frustrated. After Hester rejected his offer of marriage, he left town hurling a single insult behind him: “You think you’re nice. But deep down you’re a cold bitch.”
Hearing his words, something shriveled inside her. Unwilling to repeat this scenario with another guy, she more or less gave up. But giving up did not look like what she imagined. She’d go for months alone, gradually becoming more and more depressed, and then she’d burst out, get drunk and fall into bed with some stranger. Unafraid, she’d go try someone else. Disgusted by her own behavior, she’d withdraw again into celibacy until another outburst occurred.
And then on a Thursday night this changed:
Having stayed late at work, Hester walked the few blocks west to Hudson Yards and drank a round with her co-workers. A tall guy, lit within a constellation of his own colleagues, smiled when she happened to look over at him. As she left, squeezing past sodden regulars, he followed her outside and offered to buy her a drink. A single pinpoint star within a sliver of dark sky showed beyond his right shoulder. She suggested they take a walk instead. Companionably, they strolled toward the Hudson and looked out across it, listening to its gurgling waves, inhaling its sea scent underscored by decay. They came to a pause beside Intrepid. Never had anyone kissed Hester like this; sensation tingled throughout her body. Un-drunk yet confused by all the new that was happening, she had no thought, no worries. And then, releasing her, Jason confessed to living with someone, a girlfriend he’d dated for years. “I’ll leave her for you,” he said before he disappeared into the now dark night.
The next day, noon temperatures survived into the evening and Hester decided to walk home from her garment district office to her concise apartment near Lincoln Center. On Eighth Avenue, she waited on a corner for the light to change. Her head overflowed with memories of Jason; she believed she could still smell his cologne, feel his warm exhalations against her face. There on the corner, a woman of the streets leaned into the open window of a car with Connecticut plates. A masculine shout came from inside the vehicle, an unusual and vociferous refusal: “You’re immoral!” The car lurched forward with a squeal and the woman stumbled; falling backward, she landed at Hester’s feet, knocking a garbage can onto the sidewalk. With a “fuckin’ jackass,” the woman picked herself up and unceremoniously straightened her tits in the small harness-like halter top she wore. Coolly she approached another car, glancing back at Hester, who still stood among the trash, self-consciously pulling down the hem of her own skirt. Her eyes, Hester thought, appear no more hard, no more depraved than my own.
In that moment within dusk’s fading light, something inside her shifted. Hester felt strong and sudden remorse; she needed to stop her compulsive search and simply stay put with one solitary guy. She needed to make things work. Arriving home, she pulled Jason’s card from her purse. Memories of his kisses overruled her reason but then the cascading doubts—about his sincerity, about competing with another woman—tripped her up. She ripped up the card. When he called her a week later, she told him she was dating someone else now and turned off her phone without saying goodbye.
The fact is, in the interim, a married friend had proposed a blind date for her and she had unwillingly agreed. Although she’d found their first date awkward, refusing a second seemed impossible; Hester feared her well-meaning friend would be offended (judgmental) if she so quickly brushed him off. So she dated Dan again and once more after that, not particularly caring for the way he bit off his words, the way his eyes moved across her body, the way he kissed. And then she didn’t say “no” to another date and this time they slept together and she allowed him to satisfy her with earnest and prolonged effort and it held none of the excitement of kissing Jason but it was… functional, she said in the euphemistic language of a former roommate (a Biologist).
Time passed, she continued to date Dan and although still uncertain, Hester felt herself to be in too far to end things diplomatically; wouldn’t her friends thing her too picky—too full of herself? Besides, had trying to meet guys ever been enjoyable? “No relationship is perfect,” she repeated, unconsciously mimicking her mother’s voice for the Biologist. Deep down she knew she just couldn’t be out there searching again. Now she knew exactly what it looked like: drunk sex with random guys. Bile rose in her throat at the memories.
And so she married Dan, beneath her veil her eyes as wide as those of a muzzled dog, and then she sank into comfortable, if never passionate coupledom with him. Each morning she woke first. She would remain in the shower for an unusually long time, scrubbing her skin with exfoliating soaps then rush to her job where she buried her disappointments in work. She and Dan liked the same movies and food. Sometimes he brought home African daisies, placing them in a favorite vase beside his own chair.
After re-meeting Jason at the holiday party, Hester has been overly quiet for a few days running (as she is from time to time). And as he does from time to time, Dan cautiously questions her, he is a bloodhound on the trail. Nevertheless, a shadow continues to darken the space between them and now Dan has become disagreeable, disparaging the spices she chose for the twin omelets she has cooked for their supper. Wanting to avoid a fight, Hester repeats a joke overheard at work. Something in Dan’s face goes tight as it does whenever sex is mentioned. Hester backtracks:
“It’s not about us. We aren’t like the couple in the joke.”
“From what you’ve told me, you were once quite the slut.”
Stung, Hester turns from him and faces the wall, which is smooth and blank and white, the vision of the perfect past she believes he believes she ought to possess. Instinctively (unconsciously wishing to hurt him back, make him think), she puts words to the ill-formed thoughts in her head: “At least I was honest then, back when I was a slut.”
“And you’re lying now?” Peering into her face, his hazel eyes narrow and silently Hester makes an unfortunate comparison to Jason’s laughing gaze. “You’d never abandon this,” he gestures awkwardly all around, “and all your familiar routines. You think there’s no honesty in comfort?” He moves from the room with unhesitating step and Hester thinks how transparent he has become to her: she knows he’s hurt by the discordant sound of his steps. It is only when they are getting ready for bed — she has emerged from the steam of the bathroom, her skin moist with lotions, she wears her usual abstracted look when she is thinking too much about herself— he says, “I can think of so many worse ways to live than the way we do.”
“What?” she says before understanding she has in fact heard what he said. Distinctly, she heard his words.
Patiently, with great effort, he tries again to reach her: “Our life together may not be perfect, but I can think of worse. And I know you can, too.”
She is silent as the verbs line up in her mind. “You don’t understand me. ‘Think’ is exactly what I don’t want to do.”
“But that’s what you always do.” He smiles at her in his ironic way and within his smile she sees his patient love, his effort, his need, and recognizing these traits in him she feels them in herself and this is enough to close this discussion and prevent her from voicing what is in her mind: I can’t help thinking all the time — it’s because I feel wrong all the time.
Three years pass. Once again, Hester attends the Thanksgiving party in which a forgotten apparition from her past briefly appeared (eating shrimp) then swiftly vanished. Wearing a modest charcoal-colored dress, the hostess, who had canceled last year’s party due to a brief, though triumphant encounter with one of the milder forms of cancer, welcomes Hester with a most sincere smile. And perhaps because of this, this annual reunion of acquaintances surrounding the accomplished hostess has begun to feel truly neighborly. Warm. Oh, yes, hello, how are you! Once again here is the political ideologue from Brooklyn, and there, right over there is Hester’s former colleague. Each has changed, greatly or ever so slightly, just as in the passage of time Hester has changed, too.
In fact Hester has transformed in a significant and substantial way; unexpectedly, for she is far too young for what has happened, her body has hurled itself into early menopause. So what had been a theoretical half-decision meant to be considered more deeply at some later date—to not yet have a child of her own—has suddenly and irrevocably become an accomplished fact. The signs of this change, this new detail of her singular, mortal life, are at once everywhere and nowhere apparent. She maintains her slim dress size, her hair is no more and no less brown, and her moist skin continues to glow. Still, there is a new and peculiar cast to her eyes, a previously unseen expression to her face that seems most obvious at dusk when the sky begins its daily shift from cerulean to indigo. During that perplexing, uncertain hour, Hester’s imploring eyes suggest portraits of the female saints at their hour of martyrdom.
This annual party, though, occurs long past dusk, and after greeting the hostess, Hester, who is looking extremely pretty in a somber shade of green, turns and finds herself staring directly into Jason’s gaze. He stands across the room talking (more accurately, listening) to the Brooklyn ideologue. Jason’s mouth forms the merest and meanest of smiles. Hester knows, she absolutely understands that this malicious mockery of the ideologue is intended for her benefit and when Jason’s eyes turn to hers once again, she is laughing. Within an eye blink, he stands beside her and just then the hostess appears next to her as well to compliment him on his tie. A gentleman, he offers the cancer-surviving hostess a neat ode to her figure (his eyes travel the length of her dress). The well-flattered hostess then says, “Have you two met? Oh, the ice bucket! Excuse me a moment.”
And abruptly Hester and Jason are alone within the whirling motion of a party.
Jason speaks, but Hester, who is entranced by his presence, does not hear his words, she simply says, “I was hoping you’d return.”
“I wasn’t able to get here last year.” With a cocky smile, Jason touches the silk fabric of his Merlot-colored tie.
“And I couldn’t make the one before that.”
“How do you know our most accomplished hostess?” Jason’s eyes move all over her face; Hester feels their touch.
“We worked together years ago. What about you?”
“My brother dated her.”
“Is he here, too?” She is prettily looking around.
“No, he lives in Seattle. I ran into her at a Duane Reade three years ago and for some reason she friended me. Since then I have received endless announcements for dance recitals and cultural activities of every stripe, none of which I ever attend.” His gently mocking smile is thrilling to Hester and she makes some obligatory comment about the food, the bountiful shrimp, to cover her nervousness.
Quietly Jason says: “You’re just so beautiful, you know?”
Tears fill Hester’s eyes, she is moved and somehow saddened by this astonishing gift. She stands before him without speaking as Time hangs suspended like a sparkling ball on a Christmas tree. Her face reflects her memories as moist longing rushes through her. Somehow the taste of his mouth is on her lips. Dazed, succumbing to a kind of trance, she reaches forward to prevent collapse and her fingers graze the warm skin of his face. Static electricity creates a spark; instantly she withdraws her hand.
“Not here,” Jason grasps her receding hand and speaks in an intimate voice unheard by others: “Can you leave?”
“I just got here but I’m sure I— ”
“Tell her,” he nods toward the hostess, “you feel sick. I’ll be waiting outside.” Gripping her hand, he speaks once again in a natural voice, “Nice meeting you,” before turning to make his final farewell to the ice bucket-wielding hostess.
Left alone, Hester’s smile is tremulous, she wonders if her nerve will fail. She briefly sidesteps a political discussion then moves down a narrow corridor lined with bookshelves. (In bold typeface, The Scarlet Letter pops out at her as she passes.) In the bathroom mirror, she studies her face. The lines in her brow are few. Lifting a hand, she plucks a new strand of gray from her hair. Dan gave up the money-making aspects of his craft just after her early menopause began. These days she carries the full financial weight of her household. Returning to the party, she contrives a sudden headache and begs leave of the hostess in a shaking voice.
Minutes later, she descends in a crowded elevator. Once in the street she glances left then right. Seeing no one, panic begins, a ripple along her spine, then she steps forward, starts to walk, her rhythm jumpy. Footsteps sound behind her and before she can turn, a hand is placed on her shoulder.
Gasping, she says, “I felt like Eurydice. Or was it Orpheus who could not look back?”
A question lights Jason’s smile. She begins to answer then shakes her head to dispel thoughts, thinking, words and just then Jason reaches for her and kisses her mouth and the experience is sweeter than she could have imagined. She clings to him there in the street as he kisses her again and again.
Eventually he is murmuring, “We have to go.”
He has stepped away yet still she leans like a flower toward the sun of his face. “Where?”
“I know.” Jason leads her away.
The Brooklyn ideologue crosses the street within a few feet of them.
“Did he see us?” Hester whispers.
“You’re not worried?”
Jason shrugs. “It happened.” Flagging a cab, he gives the driver an address in Queens. As the car races through the streets, he simply holds her hand as he stares through the window on his side of the back seat. When they arrive, Jason insists on paying; grateful tears begin in her eyes once again. When they enter the small hotel, Hester is careful to note whether the woman at the front desk knows him. (She appears not to, much to Hester’s relief.) Again Jason pays (in cash) and they rush upstairs to a viewless room with a double bed.
Slowly, Hester loosens her coat as she glances around the small, imperfectly clean room. The color of the bedspread is the same orange as the plastic subway seats on the F line. A clock radio, identical to the one she shares with her husband, sits on the bedside table; the time changes from 7:59 to 8:00 as she stares. Infinity, she thinks tilting her head slightly sideways at the figure “8.” In silence, Jason touches her arm; the warmth of his hand, this small gesture meant to soothe, reignites the flame within her. Together they sink onto the gracelessly sagging bed. The creaking springs evoke a shared laugh and soon they begin to kiss. His touch is somehow familiar yet also eloquent as his hands move along her flesh and she feels that her body, her strange and unaccountably barren body, which has so cruelly betrayed her, is for the first time truly being loved. When it is finished, she lingers within the warmth of his arms and no words, no phrases, not a single thought travels the surface of her mind.
For a long time Hester remains there. Trucks rumble through the street below, a siren wails someplace far, far away. Jason shifts on the bed. Looking up at his smiling face, Hester understands that he, too, is feeling euphoric, maybe just as astonished as she. Without speaking, he lifts and kisses her hand and she responds to his touch and this time it is so very slow and so unaccountably tender and together they find their way back. When it is done, Hester is not laughing but crying.
“We’re both married now.” Jason’s voice is mournful.
“Yes,” Hester answers, vaguely conjuring Dan in her mind.
“I have a son.”
“Oh.” She wonders for a moment. “I’m surprised you’re here.”
He says nothing for a long time and she wonders if he regrets what has been done. Finally, he says, “Has marriage been good for you? Or is he…”
After a pause, she says, “Not bad. I think marriage has been more or less exactly what I expected. I’d been a little wild before that and couldn’t stand to live that way, it just— ”
“Yes.” His eyes flare with understanding. “I married for pretty much the same reason.”
She nods her head, remembering, regretting. “That woman I saw you with.”
“My husband doesn’t like parties.”
He laughs. And then it is over—they have safely skirted this conversation and are free to begin a discussion of anything else, why not their most accomplished hostess? “Did she serve her famous latkes again?”
“You didn’t get any?”
“No they were gone by the time I arrived. I was so upset.” Looking around the room, which now feels cozy, Hester says, “Speaking of which, I’m hungry.”
And so they dress and leave the hotel and walking along the streets of Long Island City, they discover a Greek diner where they order salads with feta cheese and grape leaves and they laugh with the waiter who brings them ruby wine in water glasses. They talk in a way that is remarkable to Hester; they each, in turn, give an accounting of their lives without embellishment, without self-pity. And then it is nearly midnight and both awaken, once again, to what they’ve done. Such thoughts quickly accumulate in Hester’s mind and looming, they diminish her. Her voice is childlike when she speaks: “I need to go.”
“Will you be all right at home?” This is whispered.
“I’ll make an excuse.”
“Me, too.” With an automatic gesture, she fishes her wallet out of her purse. “Let me get this, please.”
“Are you taking a cab back to Manhattan?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll take the subway.”
They say goodbye. Outside the diner beside plastic bags of neatly piled trash, Hester’s eyes briefly express a new pain, a suffering without saintliness, as well as fresh joy. Alone in a taxi, Hester immediately invents her excuse for Dan; after the party she went out with a former work friend. She believes he will never suspect a thing. She relaxes against the backseat of the cab, which smells of another woman’s perfume.
As the taxi approaches the bridge, weathered steel and concrete rise up before her eyes, she sees the aging, looming infrastructure of her city, her home of many years. Failing to trust her instincts all those years ago, she made a choice and went with Dan instead of Jason. Nothing she can do will alter the magnitude of that mistake. Jason is tied to a wife and child now. As the cab on the bridge rises above dark and churning waters, she tells herself all the worst things she can imagine: that it is possible she may never see Jason again and, at best, their love will be an illicit, barren thing. Suspended above the islands of the city, this haunting spirit of time run-out, one more ghost of uncertain repose, the abstracted woman presses her burning brow against the freezing pane and wonders if her great great grandmother ever loved or was loved for being exactly this — a losing cause, though one with full heart and eternal soul?