L. stops the cab a half a block from Aliette’s father’s house, and leans close to her. Their kiss is long and hungry. If they knew how often they would remember it, for how many years it would be their dearest memory, this kiss would last for hours. But it ends, and she climbs out, wincing with pain, and he watches her walk away, so lovely, the feather of her hat bouncing.
When Aliette walks back into the house, her father is sitting in the parlor, head buried in his hands. When he looks up, he clearly does not recognize her. She looks at the mirror above the mantle, and sees herself: pale and skinny again, hair dun-colored, her face above her fur looking a decade older than her age. When she looks back, Rosalind is in the doorway, and the tray she is holding is chattering. Her face is pinched with unhappiness, while a broad, bright smile spreads across her father’s red face.
After the doctor visits Aliette, she is forced into bed rest. She sleeps while, across town, L. holds Compass and sees Aliette in his son’s small face.
Only years later does Aliette trace the pieces of her loss in the evidence scattered through her fever. Her father’s expression when he looks at her as she first walks in, a mixture of hurt and relief. How the doctor asks probing questions about her delicate parts until she admits to the pain, and allows him to examine her. How her father’s expression changes after conferring with the doctor, how he looks at her angrily. And a year later, she will hear him shouting at Rosalind one night when drunk. “Nobody, nobody abandons a Huber,” he’ll say. “We were right to do what we did.”
Two nights after L. has returned Aliette to her father’s house he is feeling a little restless, anxious to hear of Aliette’s health. He decides to take a walk in the wintry streets, to kick through the snow and work off his anxiety. He leaves Compass in his mother’s lap, and hurries down the dank stairwell and into the night.
He does not see the shadows detaching from the alleyway, or how they steal close to him. He feels the sudden grip on his arms, then the handkerchief with the sour stink of chloroform pressed over his nose and mouth. The gas lamps flicker and darken, the street becomes wobbly, and a snowbank catches him as he falls.
Much later, L. can see a golden light growing between his lids. His head is bound with pain. His eyes open slightly. He is on the hard wooden floor of what appears to be an office, a vast mahogany-paneled room, bookshelves, paintings of ships. His fingertips lie on what feels like rubber.
Two unfamiliar faces loom over him. “He’s waking up,” one says. The men back away, and in their place stands Mr. Huber, transformed and dangerous with rage. Beside him is Rosalind’s brunette head, in her mask, eyes filling with tears. Suddenly, L. feels cold. He is naked, he realizes, a window is open, and snow is pouring in and powdering the rug.
“You deserve this, and more,” says Mr. Huber.
L.’s lips move, but he can’t say anything. He closes his eyes.
“Rosalind,” says the fat man, “give it to me.”
When L. looks again, Rosalind’s eyebrows have come together above her mask in a frown. But she hands Mr. Huber what he wants, something that appears to be a blade, glinting. Aliette’s father stoops closer. Through his numbness, L. can feel hands grasping his legs roughly and pulling them apart.
“Bastard,” Aliette’s father breathes in his face. L. has only a moment to smell his sour breath before he goes out of L.’s line of vision.
He hears a thunk. Then such pain, and so impossible, that L. blanks out again.
Time runs fluidly through the rest: the discovery of the fiercely bleeding L. in the snowbank by a police officer on patrol. The rescue and delivery to the hospital, the doctors unveiling his wound, vomiting, the cauterizing of the hole between his legs. And, at last, the fever that makes him delirious, and lasts for months.
His literary friends come to visit him, and out of kindness they do not bring the newspapers lurid with the story of his gelding. When L. seems unlikely to survive, W. Sebald Shandling visits L.’s mother. He finds her holding Compass. The baby is chewing on his father’s most recent poems. In an act of uncharacteristic selflessness, Shandling persuades a publisher to take the collection, to provide something for the baby in the case his father dies. And L. rages while the world shifts into treaties and recovery, while President Wilson is struck by influenza but recovers in time to sign at Versailles.
Just when his fever begins to dissipate, L. catches one of the last strands of the flu.
For three days the only thing he can hear is the gurgle of water in his lungs. He doesn’t think he’ll live. When the worst is over and he can sit up again, a young doctor whose face is prematurely lined comes to see him. He looks as if he might begin to cry.
“Mr. DeBard,” he says. “I am afraid your lungs are so damaged you will never swim again. They’re so bad, you won’t be able to walk far unaided. You will wheeze for the rest of your life.” Then he gives a curious half sob, and says, “I followed your swimming, sir. When I was a boy, I admired you greatly.”
L. looks at the doctor for some time before closing his eyes and sighing.
“Frankly, doctor,” he says, at last. “Of all the many things I do extraordinarily well, it is not the loss of swimming that upsets me.”
The doctor frowns and is about to say something. Then, remembering, he flees.
By the summer, L. is still recovering, walking around weakly. His mother leaves Compass with a neighbor when she visits, but brings a photograph of the boy that L. stares at for hours, and keeps in the breast pocket of his pajamas when he sleeps.
In all the time L. is in the hospital, Aliette does not come to see him. She is paying dearly for her transgressions, supervised day and night, only allowed to go to the pool with her female coach. She is not allowed to see Compass, though two or three times she tries to slip out at night, only to be collared each time by her coach or her father. She is not allowed to keep the baby blanket she had taken with her, and is not allowed to send money for his care. Rosalind and another nurse follow her everywhere, even to the bathroom. She spends her rage in the water, holding her breath until she almost drowns.
L. comes home from the hospital on the day his new book sells out in one hour. Though his enemies claim it is the shock of his story, the scandalous tale, they cannot explain why it continues to sell long after the story is forgotten. Compass cries when he sees this strange man, but slowly grows used to him, and in a fortnight he tugs on L.’s reinstated moustache and touches his cheek in wonder.
At last, after its third time around the globe, the pandemic burns itself out. By the end, whole villages have been wiped clean from history; in a single year, more Americans have died from it than from all of the battles of the Great War. In one small part of its aftermath, the plague will be linked to an encephalitic state in which patients can walk, answer questions, and be aware of their surroundings, but with such vagueness that they are described as somnambulists, or sleeping volcanoes.
L. and Aliette never meet again. She will hold her breath every time she sees a man walking a little boy down the street, and go home so agitated she will be unable to speak. She will begin letters that she will never send, and with every new one she tears into confetti she will hope fervently that L. and Compass understand.
But at first L. doesn’t understand. Her absence is an ache. He knows that if they were to meet, they wouldn’t be able to look at each other, hot with shame and loss, but he doesn’t understand how Aliette could give up her own son; it seems a horror. Then, Compass begins to speak and to develop his own little grave personality, and on the boy’s fifth birthday, as they sit on the glowing grass of the park and eat cake together, L. looks at his son, who is kicking his legs at the sky, and in the fullness of the boy’s presence and his delicious joy, L. finally knows what Aliette has done. She has released Compass to him, an exculpatory gesture, a self-sundering. He imagines her in the city somewhere, staring out the window on her son’s birthday, and knows she is dreaming of their child.
By then, though, no other life is imaginable, and Compass will never tell L. he missed having a mother, for the older he becomes, the more his father will depend upon him. And L. will still be drenched with sweat every time he smells lilacs or sees a tiny blonde from afar.
L. reads about Aliette’s few, small, rebellions in the newspapers. How she is arrested for nude bathing at Manhattan Beach after removing her stockings before swimming, and how through this act and its subsequent uproar, women are liberated from having to wear stockings when they swim. He reads of how she goes, with an escort of four strong matrons, to bombed-out Antwerp for the 1920 Olympics, and wins every gold medal in women’s swimming, breaking world records in that estuary, more mud than water. He saves the papers for Compass, for when he is older. And L. is there on the opening night of her water performance in the Royal Theatres, but leaves when he sees the falseness of the smile pasted on her face. When he wakes up the next morning, his heart still hurts.
And in the papers he notices her one last rebellion: she is arrested for swimming at night in the pond in Central Park. But the mayor intervenes, and from this incident comes a good thing: New York’s first public swimming pool. She sinks quietly back into her life, coaches a few women swimmers to the Olympics, and has no more children, as far as he can tell. He hopes, from his spacious apartment on the East Side as he watches Compass grow, that she is happy.
Aliette watches him, too. She follows him as he grows famous, and reads every one of his new books. She leaves them strewn so conspicuously in her home on nights when she holds soirées that her high-society guests, most of whom have never read a line of poetry, cite him in interviews as their favorite poet. She reads the profiles of him in the papers and watches Compass grow and become his father’s amanuensis, his nurse, his friend. Compass goes to Harvard when his father is offered a lectureship there, and lives with him during his college years. He graduates with a degree in English, and holds three school records on the pool’s walls. Later, when the interviewers can induce the boy to speak, he smiles his serious smile, and says, “I can’t imagine a better life than the one I live with my father.” Aliette snips this quote and carries it in a locket that hangs from her neck.
One night she turns on the radio and hears L.’s dear voice reciting some of his oldest poems, the ones from Ambivalence. He gasps slightly with his troubled lungs as he reads the lines, “I have dreamed a dream of repentance / I have known the world eternal.” She listens, rapt, and when she switches off the radio, her face is wet.
She sees him only once, in all this time. They are both old, and he has just published his twelfth book of poems. He stands on a stage, behind a lectern. His hair is white, and he is stooped. He reads deliberately and well, stopping after each poem to catch his breath.
He does not notice the plump woman in the gray cloche and chinchilla coat in the back of the auditorium. He doesn’t see how she mouths with him each word he reads, how her face is bright with joy. Later, after he has shaken the hands of his admirers, and is alone with Compass in the theater, she is long gone, in bed with a hot-water bottle. But though she is nowhere around, he has felt all evening the change her very presence makes in the air.
He walks on the arm of his handsome son onto the cool New York street glistening with rain. Out on the sidewalk he tells Compass to halt. L. lifts his face to the drizzle and closes his eyes, breathing deeply once, twice. When he brings his face back down, he is grinning.
Then he tells his son, “This feels like that breath you take after coming up from a long swim underwater. The most gorgeous feeling, that sip of air you feared you’d never have again.” He looks at Compass, and touches his cheek, gently. “Surfacing,” he says.