Collected in The Age of Grief|
Winner of the 1984 O'Henry Award
J U L Y 1 9 8 4
by Jane Smiley
CAREERING TOWARD LILY STITH IN A GREEN FORD Torino were Kevin and Nancy Humboldt. Once more they gave up trying to talk reasonably; once more they sighed simultaneous but unsympathetic sighs; once more each resolved to stare only at the unrolling highway.
At the same moment, Lily was squeezing her mop into her bucket. Then she straightened up and looked out the window, eager for their arrival. She hadn't seen them in two years, not since having won a prestigious prize for her poems.
She was remarkably well made, with golden skin, lit by the late-afternoon sun, delicately defined muscles swelling over slender bones, a cloud of dark hair, a hollow at the base of her neck for some jewel. She was so beautiful that you could not help attributing to her all of your favorite virtues. To Lily her beauty seemed a senseless thing, since it gained her nothing in the way of passion, release, kinship, or intimacy. Now she was looking forward, with resolve, to making the Humboldts confess really and truly what was wrong with her -- why, in fact, no one was in love with her.
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A few minutes later they pulled up to the curb. Nancy climbed the apartment
steps bearing presents -- a jar of dill pickles she had made herself, pictures of
common friends, a cap knitted of rainbow colors for the winter. Lily put it on
in spite of the heat. The rich colors Nancy had chosen lit up Lily s tanned
face and flashing teeth. Almost involuntarily Nancy exclaimed, "You look better
than ever!" Lily laughed and said, "But look at you! Your hair is below your
hips now!" Nancy pirouetted and went inside before Kevin came up. He, too,
looked remarkable, Lily thought, with his forty-eight-inch chest on his five-foot-
nine-inch frame. Because of Nancy's hair and Kevin's chest, Lily always treasured the
Humboldts more than she did her current friends. Kevin kissed her cheek, but he
was trying to imagine where Nancy had gone; his eyes slid instantly past Lily.
He patted her twice on the shoulder. She cried, "I've been looking for you
since noon!" He said, "I always forget how far it is across Ohio," and stepped
into the house.
That it had been two years -- two years! -- grew to fill the room like a thousand balloons, pinning them in the first seats they chose and forbidding conversation. Lily offered some food, some drink. They groaned, thinking of all they had eaten on the road (not convivially but bitterly, snatching, biting, swallowing too soon). Lily, assuming they knew what they wanted, did not ask again. Immediately Kevin's hands began to fidget for a glass to jiggle and balance and peer into, to turn slowly on his knee. Two years! Two days! Had they really agreed to a two-day visit?
Although the apartment was neat and airy, the carpet vacuumed and the furniture polished, Lily apologized for a bowl and a plate unwashed beside the sink. Actually, she often wondered whether cleanliness drove love away. Like many fastidious people, she suspected that life itself was to be found in dirt and disorder, in unknown dark substances that she was hesitant to touch. Lily overestimated her neatness in this case. The windowsills, for example, had not been vacuumed, and the leaves of the plants were covered with dust. She began to apologize for the lack of air-conditioning, the noise of cars and trucks through the open windows, the weather, the lack of air-conditioning again; then she breathed a profound sigh and let her hands drop limply between her knees.
Nancy Humboldt was moved by this gesture to remember how Lily always had a touch of the tragic about her. It was unrelated to anything that had ever happened, but it was distinct, always present. Nancy sat forward and smiled affectionately at her friend. Conversation began to pick up.
After a while they ate. Lily noticed that when Kevin carried his chest toward Nancy, Nancy made herself concave as she sidestepped him. Perhaps he did not exactly try to touch her; the kitchenette was very small. Jokes were much in demand, greeted with pouncing hilarity; a certain warmth, reminiscent of their early friendship, flickered and established itself. Conversation ranged over a number of topics. Nancy kept using the phrase "swept away." "That movie just swept me away!" "I live to be swept away!" "I used to be much more cautious than I am now; now I just want to be swept away!" Kevin as often used the word "careful." "I think you have to be really careful about your decisions." "I'm much more careful now." "I think I made mistakes because I wasn't careful." Lily listened most of the time. When the discussion became awkwardly heated, they leaped as one flesh on Lily and demanded to know about her prizewinning volume, her success, her work. Nancy wanted to hear some new pieces.
Lily was used to reading. Finishing the fourth poem, she wondered, as she often did, why men did not come up to her after readings and offer love, or at least ask her out. She had won a famous prize. With the intimacy of art she phrased things that she would not ordinarily admit to, discussed her soul, which seemed a perfectly natural and even attractive soul. People liked her work: they had bought more copies of her prizewinning volume than of any other in the thirteen-year series. But no one, in a fan letter, sent a picture or a telephone number Didn't art or accomplishment make a difference? Was it all invisible? Lily said, "I think Kevin was bored."
"Not at all, really."
"I wasn't in the slightest," Nancy said. "They're very good. They don't have any leaves on them." Nancy grinned. She rather liked the occasional image herself.
Now was the time to broach her subject, thought Lily. The Humboldts had known her since college. Perhaps they had seen some little thing, spoken of it between themselves, predicted spinsterhood. Lily straightened the yellow pages and set them on the side table. "You know," she said with a laugh and a cough, "I haven't gone out in a month and a half. I mean, I realize it's summer and all, but anyway. And the last guy was just a friend, really, I -- " She looked up and went on. "All those years with Ken, nobody even made a pass at me in a bus station. I didn't think it was important then, but now I've gotten rather anxious."
Kevin Humboldt looked straight at her, speculating. Yes, it must be the eyes. They were huge, hugely lashed, set into huge sockets. They were far more expressive and defenseless than anything else about her. The contrast was disconcerting. And the lids came down over them so opaquely, even when she blinked but especially when she lowered her gaze, that you were frightened into changing any movement toward her into some idle this or that. Guys he'd known in college had admired her from a distance and then dated plainer women with more predictable surfaces.
"Do you ever hear from Ken?" Nancy asked.
"I changed my number and didn't give him the new one. I think he got the message."
"I'll never understand why you spent -- "
"Nine years involved with a married man, blah blah blah. I know."
"Among other things."
"When we were breaking up, I made up a lot of reasons, but now I remember what it was like before we met. It was just like it is now." Kevin thought of interrupting with his observation. He didn't.
"Everyone has dateless spells, honey," said Nancy, who'd had her first dateless spell after her marriage to Kevin. She had always attributed to Lily virginal devotion to her work. Nancy thought a famous prize certainly equaled a husband and three children. Love was like any activity, you had to put in the hours, but as usual Kevin was right there, so she didn't say this and shifted with annoyance in her chair. "Really," she snapped, "don't worry about it."
Kevin's jaws widened in an enormous yawn. Lily jumped up to find clean towels, saying "Does it seem odd to you?" Kevin went into the bathroom and Nancy went into the bedroom with her suitcase. Lily followed her. "I have no way of knowing," she went on, but then she stopped. Nancy wasn't really listening.
IN THE MORNING NANCY BRAIDED AND WOUND UP HER hair while Lily made breakfast Kevin was still asleep. Nancy had always had long, lovely hair, but Lily couldn't remember her taking such pride in it as she was now, twisting and arranging it with broad, almost conceited motions. She fondled it, put it here and there, spoke about things she liked to do with it from time to time. She obviously cherished it. "You've kept it in wonderful shape," Lily said.
"My hair is my glory," Nancy replied, and sat down to her eggs. She was not kidding.
When Kevin staggered from bedroom to bathroom an hour later, Nancy had gone out to survey the local shops. Kevin looked for her in every room of the apartment and then said, "Nancy's not here?"
"She thought she'd have a look around."
Kevin dropped into his seat at the table and put his head in his arms. A second later he exclaimed, "Oh, God!" Lily liked Kevin better this visit than she had before. His chest, which had always dragged him aggressively into situations, seemed to have lost some of its influence. He was not as loud or blindingly self-confident as he had been playing football, sitting in the first row in class, barreling through business school, swimming two miles every day. Thus it was with sympathy rather than astonishment that Lily realized he was weeping. He wiped his eyes on his T-shirt. "She's going to leave me! When we get back to Vancouver, she's going to leave me for another guy!"
"Is that what she said?"
"Did she say so?"
"Look, sit up a second and have this piece of toast."
"He's just a dumb cowboy. I know she's sleeping with him."
She put food in front of him and he began to eat it. After a few bites, though, he pushed it away and put his head down. He moaned into the cave of his arms. Lily said, "What?"
"She won't sleep with me. She hasn't since Thanksgiving. She never says where she's going or when she'll be back. She can't stand me checking up on her."
"Do you check up on her?"
"I call her at work sometimes. I just want to talk to her. She never wants to talk to me. I miss her!"
"What do Roger and Fred say?" Roger and Fred were friends from college who also lived in Vancouver.
"They don't understand."
Lily nodded. Unlike Lily, Roger and Fred had wavered in their fondness for Nancy. Many times she had been selfish about certain things, which were perhaps purely feminine things. She thought people should come to the table when dinner was hot in spite of just opened beers and half-smoked cigarettes or repair projects in the driveway. She had screamed, really screamed, about booted feet on her polished table. Roger and Fred especially found her too punctilious about manners, found her slightly shrill, and did not appreciate her sly wit or her generosity with food and lodging and presents (this liberality they attributed to Kevin, who was, simultaneously, a known tightwad). And they overlooked her capacity for work -- willing, organized, unsnobbish bringing home of the bacon while all the men were looking for careers and worrying about compromising themselves. Lily and Kevin at least agreed that Nancy was a valuable article.
"Okay," Lily said, "who's just a dumb cowboy?"
"His name is Hobbs Nolan. She met him at a cross-country ski clinic last year. But he's not really outdoorsy or athletic; he just wears these pointy-toed cowboy boots and flannel cowboy shirts. Out there guys like him are a dime a dozen.... "
"You know him?"
"I've seen him. He knows people we know. They think he's a real jerk."
"You blame him for all of this, then?"
Kevin glanced at her and said, "No." After a moment he exclaimed "Oh, God!" again, and dropped his head on his arms. His hair grazed the butter dish, and Lily was suddenly repelled by these confidences. She turned and looked out the window, but Nancy was nowhere in sight. The freshness of the morning was gone, and the early blue sky had whitened. She looked at her watch. It was about ten-thirty. Any other morning she would already have sat down to her work with an apple and a cup of tea, or she would be strolling into town with her list of errands. She glanced toward the bedroom. The blanket was half off the bed and a corner of the contour sheet had popped off the mattress. Nancy's and Kevin's clothes were piled on the floor. They had left other items in the living room or the kitchen: Nancy's brush, a scarf, Kevin's running shoes and socks, two or three pieces of paper from Nancy's purse, the map on which they had traced their route. But hadn't she expected and desired such intimacy? He sat up. She smiled and said, "You know, you're the first people to spend the night here in ages. I'd forgotten--"
"I don't think you should worry about that. Like Nancy said, we all go through dry spells. Look at me, my -- "
"Oh, that! I wasn't referring to that."
"My whole life was a dry spell before Nancy came along."
Lily sat back and looked at Kevin. He was sighing. "Hey," she said, "you're going to have a lot better luck if you lighten up a little."
"I know that, but I can't." He sounded petulant.
Lily said, "Well -- "
"Well, now I'd better go running before it gets too hot." Kevin reached for his shoes and socks. But Nancy walked in and he sat up without putting them on. Nancy displayed her packages. "There was a great sale on halter tops, and look at this darling T-shirt!" She pulled out an example of the T-shirt Lily had seen on everyone all summer. It said, "If you live a good life, go to church, and say your prayers, when you die you will go to OHIO." Lily smiled. Nancy tossed the T-shirt over to Kevin, saying, "Extra extra large. I'm sure it will fit."
He held it up and looked at it and then said, glumly, "Thanks. "
"Are you going for your run now?"
But he didn't make a move. Everyone sat very still for a long time, maybe five minutes, and then Lily began clearing plates off the table and Nancy began to take down her hair and put it back up again. Kevin seemed to root himself in the chair. His face was impassive. Nancy glared at him, but finally sighed and said, "I got a long letter from Betty Stern not so long ago. She stopped working on her Chinese dissertation and went to business school last year."
"I heard that Harry got a job, but that it was in Newfoundland or someplace like that," Lily said.
"Who'd you hear that from?" Refusing even to look in Kevin's direction, Nancy combed her hair.
"Remember Meredith Lawlor? Did you know she was here? She's teaching in the pharmacy school here in Columbus. She raises all these poisonous tropical plants in a big greenhouse she and her husband built out in the country. "
"Who's her husband?"
"She met him in graduate school, I think. He's from Arizona."
"I'd like to raise plants for a living. I don't know necessarily about poisonous ones." Nancy glanced at Kevin. Lily noticed that she had simply dropped her packages by her chair, that tissue paper and sales slips and the halter cops themselves were in danger of being stepped on. In college they had teased Nancy relentlessly about her disorderly ways, but Lily hadn't found them especially annoying then. Kevin said, "Why don't you pick that stuff up before you step on it?"
"I'm not going to step on it!"
"Well, pick it up anyway. I doubt than Lily wants your mess all over her place."
"Who are you to speak for Lily?"
"I'm speaking for society in general, in this case."
"Why don't you go running, for God's sake?"
"I'd rather not have a heart attack in the heat, thank you. "
"Well, it's not actually that hot. It's not as hot as it was yesterday, and you ran seven miles."
"It's hot in here."
"Well, there's a nice breeze outside, and this town is very shady. When you get back we can have lunch after your shower. We can have that smoked turkey we got at the store last night. I still have some of the bread I made the day we left."
Kevin looked at her suspiciously, but all he said finally was, "Well, pick up that stuff, okay?"
Nancy smiled. "Okay."
Still Kevin was reluctant to go, tying his shoes with painful slowness, drinking a glass of water after letting the tap run and run, retying one of his shoes, tucking and untucking his shirt. He closed the door laboriously behind him, and Nancy watched out the window for him to appear on the street. When he did, she inhaled with sharp, exasperated relief. "Christ!" she exclaimed.
"He doesn't seem very happy."
"But you know he's always been into that self-dramatization. I'm not impressed. I used to be, but I'm not anymore."
Lily wondered how she was going to make it to lunch, and then through the afternoon to dinner and bedtime. Nancy turned toward her. "I shouldn't have let all these men talk to you before I did."
"Kevin, Roger, Fred."
"I haven't talked to Roger or Fred since late last winter, at least."
"They think I ought to be shot. But they really infuriate me. Do you know what sharing a house with Roger was like? He has the most rigid routine I have ever seen, and he drives everywhere, even to the quick shop at the end of the block. I mean, he would get in his car and drive out the driveway and then four houses down to pick up the morning paper. And every time he did the dishes, he broke something we got from our wedding, and then he would refuse to pay for it because we had gotten it for free anyway."
"Fred always said that being friends with Roger showed you could be friends with anyone."
"Fred and I get along, but in a way I think he's more disapproving than Roger is. Sometimes he acts as if I've shocked him so much that he can't bear to look at me."
"So how have you shocked him?"
"Didn't Kevin tell you about Hobbs Nolan?"
"He mentioned him."
"But Hobbs isn't the real issue, as far as I'm concerned. Men always think that other men are the real issue. You know, Roger actually sat me down one night and started to tell me off?"
"What's the real issue?"
"Well, one thing I can't bear is having to always report in whenever I go somewhere. I mean, I get in the car to go for groceries, and if I decide while I'm out to go to the mall, he expects me to call and tell him. Or if I have to work even a half hour late, or if the girl I work with and I decide to go out for a beer after work. I hate it. I hate picking up the goddamned telephone and dialing all the numbers. I hate listening to it ring, and most of all I hate that automatic self-justification you just slide into. I mean, I don't even know how to sound honest anymore, even when I'm being honest."
"Are you -- "
"No, most of all I hate the image I have of Kevin the whole time I'm talking to him, sitting home all weekend with nothing to do, whining into the phone."
"I think Kevin is mostly upset because you don't sleep with him."
"Well -- "
"I really don't see how you can cut him off like that."
"Neither does he."
"Why do you?"
"Don't you think he's strange-looking? And everything he does in bed simply repels me. It didn't used to but now it does. I can't help it. He doesn't know how big or strong he is and he's always hurting me. When I see him move toward me, I wince. I know he's going to step on me or poke me or bump into me."
"Well, you could go to a therapist. You ought to at least reassure Kevin that you're not sleeping with this other guy."
"We did go to a therapist, and he got so nervous he was even more clumsy, and I am sleeping with Hobbs."
"Why are you surprised? How can this be a reason for surprise? I'm a sexual person. Kevin always said that he thought I was promiscuous until I started with him, and then he just thought that I was healthy and instinctive."
"Well, Nancy -- "
"I have a feeling you aren't very approving either."
"I don't know, I -- "
"But that's all I want. I realized on the way here that all the time I've known you I've wanted you to approve of me. Not just to like me, or even respect me, but to approve of me. I still like being married to Kevin, but all of us should know by now that the best person for being married to isn't always the best person for sleeping with, and there's no reason why he should be." She glanced out the window. "Anyway, here he comes." A moment later the door slammed open. Lily thought Kevin was angry, until she realized that he had simply misjudged the weight of the door. Sweat was pouring off him, actually dripping on the carpet. Nancy said, "Jesus! Go take a shower." Lily wanted to tell him not to drip over the coffee table, with its bowl of fruit, but said nothing. He looked at them with studied ingenuousness and said, "Four miles in twenty-five minutes. Not bad, huh? And it's ninety-three. I just ran past the bank clock."
"Great." Nancy turned back to Lily and said, "Maybe I should try to call Meredith Lawlor while I'm here. We were pretty good friends junior year. I've often thought about her, actually." Kevin tromped into the bathroom.
Copyright © 1984 by Jane Smiley. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1984; Lily; Volume 254, No. 1; pages 76 - 86.