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ODD made a delicious macaroni-and-cheese supper for Sandy and Jenny, miles beyond the Kraft dinner they sometimes shared on busy days. Rattrap cheese, tender pasta elbows, real grated onion, salt and pepper, all this baked slowly in cream until crisp. Ordinarily Sandy didn't keep cream in the house. This cream was left over from the veal recipe she'd cooked for Todd on the weekend.
"Can we eat in front of the TV?" Jenny asked.
"Why not?" The beginning of a whine.
"Because we should use the time to talk. You haven't told us what you did at day camp."
"We did a folk dance -- I told you already. What Irish people do."
"That sounds very interesting," Todd said. "Some of those dances go back hundreds of years."
"Yes," Sandy said. "That's true."
"Courting dances," Todd said. "Or, more primitive still, dances that celebrate signs of fertility -- the beginning of menses, for instance."
"So we did this folk dancing and then we did woodwork and then we had lunch and then we did birds and wild flowers and environment and then we waited for the bus to come."
"Well, maybe a little TV won't hurt. But only for half an hour."
"I know we agreed not to plunge into each other's history," Sandy said later to Todd, "and we've been pretty good about observing that pledge. But did you and your ex ever have children?"
"No," Todd said. "We thought about it a lot and we talked about it a lot. But it didn't happen."
"That's what I thought," Sandy said.
ORE and more, Sandy's men friends tended to be talky types, but perhaps they always had been. Her ex-husband, Jenny's father, Stephen, was a case in point: a man of bursting garrulousness, a physicist now employed at a research institute in Kansas City -- thundering at his staff, no doubt, and filling the sedate laboratories with his galloping cadence. He was descended from a line of Missouri farmers who expressed themselves not sparingly, as country people are assumed to do, but colorfully, rapturously, endlessly, about crops, weather, and sports, and who exchanged the effervescent kind of quips that spin off from a more laconic tradition or else lean on common male assumptions: salesman jokes, penis jokes, beer jokes, jokes about city slickers or women's lib.
On the other hand, Stephen hadn't believed that every single issue under the sun warranted prolonged debate. The promotion of argument for its own sake sprang from a buried need for drama, according to Stephen. Talk should be a diversion, a pleasure, a pursuit, not something that spilled out of confession or declaration, so that the self was placed on trial. For instance, he, Stephen, did not plan to be in the labor room coaching Sandy when their baby was born. He wasn't at all frightened of the phenomenon, or repelled by it. He simply wasn't interested, period. Yes, he loved her and yes, yes, he would love the baby when it emerged, but he was not up to what he termed "the medical side of things."
His reluctance had seemed a big thing to Sandy at the time, a major betrayal that came to represent a number of other, smaller failings. Later she wondered why she had made such a big deal of it. Shouldn't she have appreciated the honesty of his response? "He's got a tongue on him," her mother had said, "but he won't ever bring you real trouble."
Later Sandy and her little Jenny lived for two years with a man named Christopher Swift, who sold computer stock. His was the kind of calling that demanded a quick phrase, a smooth delivery, a word-tumbling manner that forestalled interruption. The trouble was, he couldn't shut it off. He hovered over Sandy in the evenings, showered her with words on weekends, entertaining her, persuading her, pressing against her common sense, talking her into ridiculous ventures -- a time-share in Hawaii, a hiking trip to Thailand, where Jenny nearly died of diarrhea and then dehydration.
There were others. Some lasted a matter of days. Mike Something-or-other and his philosophical divagations. He was a man who could turn a glimpse of an ordinary tree or shrub into an instant thesis on the insularity of the soul or the hermeneutics of regeneration. Toby Shawn (six months) was given to meditations about his grandfather's incivility, his mother's spite, his brother's fecklessness -- a circle of incrimination that widened endlessly and came to include, to no one's surprise, Sandy and eight-year-old Jenny. There was no refuge.
On lonely nights Sandy would head for the neighborhood video store, where she rented old movies, particularly those from the forties, a time when her parents were children growing up. She would make a pot of tea, hunker down on a pile of cushions, and sit up half the night, eyes stuck to the screen, eager for the fiction of how men were once believed to behave.
She was particularly drawn to that American icon known as the strong, silent type, and a hopeful part of herself prompted her to believe that such men actually existed off the screen. Didn't Hollywood effusions, for all their carelessness, persist in the refining and sharpening of our vision of ourselves? That period creature the silent male did not babble or condemn or theorize or hold forth. He might open his mouth from time to time and speak when required, a dense, manly rumble in his throat introducing a terse, tender monologue of withheld energy, but he was not at any point bent crooked with the weight of his opinions. Instead his bone marrow quietly tapped into the world around him, the suppressed words subtly infantilizing his sexual bulk, so that you wanted to hug him like a baby and at the same time bed him down for a night of breathless, wordless, stunned satisfaction.
That was how it was in the old days, if you chose to believe it.
ANDY got a postcard from Chloe and Bernard, who were in Maine, stating, in Chloe's private cryptography, "Hope you're well out of the claws of Mr. Clause."
Everyone was surprised that Todd hung around right up until early September, when classes began at San Diego State, and that the usually impatient Sandy was not altogether exasperated by his presence. He fit in, more or less. He took Jenny to a dinosaur movie and out for pizza afterward. His theory about the slippery self, its detachment from any fixed point of proof, had its own virtues, and even its comforts -- at least for Sandy. Why should we be tethered to our inherited packet of DNA and to the tyranny of our mothers' and fathers' good intentions -- what they might have done, what they could have said, if only they had been smarter, kinder, more feeling, less selfish? Does anyone apprehend human vibrations when they are filtered through choked time waves and genetic matter? How much can we know we know?
She had work to do at the end of the summer, lectures to prepare, her office to set in order. While she was out of the apartment, Todd busied himself reading about Matthew Hooke. He did this on the sly at first, working his way straight through Sandy's shelf of Hooke literature and then, finally, reading her book, Matthew Hooke: Silent Visionary. He restrained himself, he later told Sandy, from making his usual marginal notations.
"What kind of notations would you have made?" She was surprised at how nervous she suddenly felt.
But all he said was, "Just the usual queries. Like 'Is this statement supported?' Or 'More information needed here.'"
She decided not to take this as a criticism. She decided to imitate the evenhanded, nonjudgmental woman she aspired to be. "Well, you've probably noticed that there isn't a lot of hard information about Hooke's life."
"Yes, I did notice."
"The only thing to do was to fill in around the edges with the historical background."
She looked at him. "Eccentrics don't often leave complete records. They don't think they need to be forever explaining themselves."
In fact, his botanical journals aside, almost nothing was known of Matthew Hooke, nineteenth-century botanist, other than that he seldom spoke.
"Good day," he is believed to have said when presented to the Royal Court and honored for his accomplishments in crossbreeding peas and, some years later, broad beans. He delivered his minimalist greeting, according to Sandy's text, not in the innocent manner of a rustic but in the full knowledge that his accomplishments released him from heavier forms of tribute or obeisance. He never married, never had children. He appeared to have lived without the consolation of sex -- he who dabbled so happily, so tirelessly, with the tender male and female parts of plants.
Others who inhabited the same southwesterly English village as Matthew Hooke, a place called Little West Nutley, or sometimes simply West Nutley, knew him as a man of silence. Was he perhaps even simple, they might have wondered -- a man so stretched by intensity and so out of joint with other human creatures that he misread the demands of common intercourse? The comments of his neighbors regarding his taciturnity were, of course, apocryphal, as was almost everything about poor Hooke's life: how he discovered his bent for natural science, how he overturned contemporary ideas of hybridization, how the tug of his thought moved ever toward the useful and practical, without losing for a minute the undertow of biological miracle.
"The kissing part took me by surprise," Todd told Sandy.
"Of course, we don't know quite how to read that aspect of his life," Sandy said. "I mean, we don't really know how weird or non-weird that kind of behavior was."
"I'd say it was very, very weird," Todd said.
The kissing part was revealed in a single sentence inscribed by an unnamed West Nutley vicar who had undertaken to write a sort of village history. "Good Mister Hooke speaks to no one excepting his pea blossoms," the vicar wrote, "but does love to kiss the ladies whenever an occasion is given."
"The guy was a pervert," Todd told Sandy. "A rapist manqué."
"I don't see it that way," Sandy said crossly.
"Leaping out of the bushes at ladies! Come on, now. Admit it."
"There's nothing in the text about leaping out of the bushes."
Sandy felt sure that Hooke's advances, if that's what they were, amounted to an innocent hunger for women's flesh -- quick, dry kisses, aimed at the cheek or perhaps even the lips, shyly stolen, timid yet assertive, silent pressings, silken, a curious mouth seeking forbidden tenderness, requiring that fleet conjunction for its own sake and not for where such a kiss might lead or even what it might declare. A Hooke kiss would be enclosed by its own small muscular effort and release, and by the impossibility of an explanation outside the momentary refreshment that it offered. Its savor would break through the common parochial strictures like a new form of cloud and be permitted, even smiled over. Touch me, touch me, let me touch you in this simple, explicit way -- that's all it would say. (Sandy had read somewhere that earthworms kiss, their frontal parts briefly waving, nodding at each other. Mosquitoes, too, and houseflies, if the evidence could be believed. They caught each other in midair -- a fraction of a second only, but a connection nevertheless.)
"You and your friend Chloe would have him up for sexual abuse if he wandered around Halifax stealing kisses."
"Maybe not. Maybe I'd like one of those stolen kisses myself. Maybe I'd feel honored to be a recipient. Or maybe I'd think it was just, you know, sort of hilarious, but at the same time okay."
"So you believe that Matthew Hooke's personality was outside the margins. Psychologically speaking, I mean."
"Maybe. But not because he kissed ladies." She gave the word a cockney spin: lie-dees.
"What about his not talking?"
"I think I can understand that."
"Really! You! So you don't think he was even a little bit weird?"
"Well." She wanted to be fair. "There is that business about living with his mother."
"No particular business -- just that he lived with her."
"Why shouldn't he live with her?"
"A grown man living with his mother. It's just -- "
Sandy felt the conversation running out of control. She didn't know what it meant or who was defending whom, but she'd been here before often enough to understand how the most intricate arrangements can be dismantled by a single uttered phrase. Something hovered in the still air between Todd and her, a cloud of unbreathed thought, no bigger in size than a cantaloupe, or a human fist.
Then he said, "I live with my mother."
"Oh." Another skipped beat. "You didn't mention ... I didn't realize."
"And I'll probably go on living with my mother."
"I didn't know it would matter to you. Or maybe I did know, and that's why I didn't bother to mention it."
"It doesn't mean a thing, not at all, really. You've completely misunderstood me, Todd. I have nothing against men who live with their mothers."
"Tell me about it." He said this as though his mouth were full of bitter coins.
This discussion took place on their last night together. For hours afterward they lay silent on Sandy's bed, neither one of them really sleeping, and in the morning they rose to an even deeper silence, a silence she found painful but also dignified and somehow admirable. They moved politely around the apartment, two civilized adults, one of them preparing for an early flight, closing his suitcase, checking his ticket, attaching his E-mail address to the fridge with one of Sandy's rubberized fridge magnets. She made him toast and coffee, and then drove him, in silence, to the airport. The idea of an embrace seemed obscene. Shaking hands would have been ludicrous. All he said in parting was "Be sure to say good-bye to Jenny."
And give my love to your mother.
This is what Sandy told Chloe when they were having lunch a week later. "That's what I almost said to him -- Give my love to your mother. The words were just about to hop off my tongue."
"What stopped you?"
"I don't know. I was afraid I might laugh. Or else cry. I mean, I'm a woman who doesn't know where her next kiss is coming from."
Carol Shields is the chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. Her book The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1995. Shields's most recent novel is Larry's Party (1997).
Illustrations by Julie Delton
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; The Next Best Kiss; Volume #283, No. 1; pages 79 - 86.