In late April, the newspapers are full of news of a strange illness. The journalists try to blunt their alarm by exoticizing it, naming it Spanish Influenza, La Grippe. In Switzerland, it is called La Coquette, as if it were a courtesan. In Ceylon it’s the Bombay Fever, and in Britain the Flanders Grippe. The Germans, whom the Allies blame for this disease, call it Blitzkatarrh. The disease is as deadly as that name sounds.
Americans do not pay attention. They watch Charlie Chaplin and laugh until they cry. They read the sports pages and make bets on when the war will be over. And if a few healthy soldiers suddenly fall ill and die, the Americans blame it on exposure to tear gas.
L. has gone tomcatting with his writer friends only twice by the time spring rolls into summer. The second time, he has only had one martini when he pushes one very familiar redhead from his lap so roughly that she hits her head on the table and bursts into tears. G. T. Dane comforts her. When Dane is leaving, the indignant redhead on his arm, he raises an eyebrow and frowns at the steadily drinking L.
From that night on, his friends talk about him. “What’s eating old fishface L.?” Tad Perkins will ask anyone who will listen.
Finally, someone says, “He’s writing a novel. It’s like having a mistress. Once he’s through with her, leaves her on the floor, weeping for more, he’ll be back.”
The friends laugh at this. They raise their glasses. “To the mistress,” they cry.
Aliette’s cheeks grow plump, and her legs regain many of their muscles. By May, L. is being driven crazy by the touches, leg sliding against leg, arm to knee, foot sliding silky across his shoulder. He immerses himself in a cold-water tub, like a racehorse, before coming out to greet her.
Their flirtation slips. Dawn is pinkening in the clerestory window, and L. is lifting Aliette’s arm above the water to show her the angle of the most efficient stroke, when his torso brushes against hers, and stays. He looks at the dozing Rosalind. Then he lifts Aliette from the water and carries her to the men’s room.
As she stands, leaning against the smooth tile wall and shivering slightly, he slides her suit from her shoulders and slips it down. To anyone else, she would be a skinny, slightly feral-looking little girl, but he sees the heart-shaped lips, the pulse thrumming in her neck, the way she bares her body bravely, arms down, palms turned out, watching him. He bends to kiss her. She smells of chlorine, lilacs, warm milk. He lifts her and leans her against the wall.
When they re-emerge, Rosalind still sleeps, and the pool is pure, glossy, as if nobody has ever set foot in it.
Who, in the midst of passion, is vigilant against illness? Who listens to the reports of recently decimated populations in Spain, India, Bora Bora, when new lips, tongues, and poems fill the world?
And now, when they don’t touch, they share the splash and the churn, the rhythm of the stroke, the gulps of water in the gutter, the powerful shock of the dive, and a wake like smoke, trailing them.
Aliette leaves her wheelchair behind and begins to walk, even though the pain seems unbearable when she is tired. She loves the food she loathed before, for the flesh it gives her. She eats marbled steaks, half-inch layers of butter on her bread. She walks to the stores on Madison, leaning against a wall when she needs to, and returns, victorious, with bags. On one of her outings, she meets her father coming home for lunch. As she calls to him, and runs clumsily the last five steps, his eyes fill. His fleshy face grows pink, and the lines under his mouth deepen.
“Oh,” he says, holding out his arms and nearly weeping. “My little girl is back.”
In the hot days of the summer, the pool sessions are too short and the day that stretches between them too long. In his anxiety to see Aliette, L. writes poetry. Those short hours of relief aren’t enough, so he walks. But on the streets everything sparkles too brightly: the men selling war bonds smile too much, the wounded soldiers seem limp with relief, their wives too radiant and pregnant. He hates it; he is drawn to it.
To forget her need to be with him, Aliette keeps herself busy. She takes tea with school friends at the Plaza, goes to museums and parties, accepts all dates to the theater that she can. But when her dates lean in to kiss her, she pushes them away.
Five times in the Amsterdam before July: that first time in the men’s room; in the lifeguard’s chair; in the chaise longue storage closet; in the shallow end; in the deep end, in the corner, braced by the gutter.
All this time, Rosalind sleeps. The days that Aliette suspects she won’t, she fills her nurse’s head with glorious evocations of the cream puffs that are the specialty of the hotel’s pastry chef. Rosalind, she feels certain, will slip out at some point during the lesson and return a half an hour later with a cream puff on a plate for her ward, licking foam from her lip like a cat.
The second wave of the illness hits America in July. People begin to fall in Boston, mostly strong young adults. In a matter of hours, mahogany spots appear on cheekbones, spreading quickly until one cannot tell dark-skinned people from white. And then, the suffocation, the pneumonia. Fathers of young families turn as blue as huckleberries, and spit a foamy red fluid. Autopsies reveal lungs that look like firm blue slabs of liver.
Aliette slips away on a day that Rosalind is off, visiting a cousin in Poughkeepsie. She takes a cab to the dark and seedy streets where L. lives, but is so thrilled she doesn’t see the dirt or smell the stench. She gets out of the cab, throwing the driver a bill, and runs as quickly to the door of L.’s close, hot bedroom as her awkward legs will allow.
She comes in. He stands, furious to suddenly see her in this hovel. She closes the door.
It is only later, sitting naked on the mattress, dripping with sweat and trying to cool off in what breeze will come from the window, that she notices the bachelor’s funk of his apartment, the towers of books and notebooks lining the walls like wainscoting, and hears the scrabble of something sinister in the wall behind her head. That is when she tells L. her plan.
That night Mr. Huber is chaperoning. L. pays his friend W. Sebald Shandling, starving poet, to sit by the pool. Shandling is foppish, flings his hands about immoderately, has a natural lisp.
“Watch me like a jealous wife,” L. instructs him.
And his friend does watch him, growing grimmer and grimmer, until, by the end of the session, when Aliette comes to the wall and touches L. on the shoulder, he is pacing like a tiger and glaring at the pair. Mr. Huber looks on with an expression of jolly interest.
In the cab home that evening, as the horse’s hoofs clop like a metronome through the park, Aliette asks her father if L. can come live with them, in one of the guest bedrooms.
“Daddy,” she says, “he told me how disgusting his room is. But he cannot afford to live elsewhere. And I’ve decided to train for the New York girls’ swimming championships in September, and need to add another session in the afternoon, at the Fourteenth Street YMCA. It will just be easier if he lives with us.”
“You have become friends?” he says.
“Oh, we get along swimmingly,” she laughs. When he doesn’t smile, she adds, “Daddy, he is like a brother to me.”
And her father says, without much hesitation, “Well, I don’t see why not.”