The Sound of Young Laughter
A Vassar graduate and the mother of three children, MAY DIKEMANmade her first appearance in the ATLANTIC in May of last year with her short story “ The Tender Mercies,” which won second prize among the Atlantic “Firsts.” Miss Dikeman lives in New York City and is finishing work on her novel.
WHAT is wrong with him?” Victoria asked in a whisper when their hostess went up to look in on her husband.
“I don’t know,” murmured Kenneth. It was true, but he had the professional student’s tightlipped way of expressing ignorance as if only being discreet. Victoria shrugged her shoulders, which were so luminously tanned that they looked wet, and stared off down the terrace.
Sometimes this was all it took to get Victoria sore at him. Ordinarily, it didn’t get Kenneth down too much. From his mother, he was conditioned to nerves in women. And it was a sign of sensitivity. Also, he believed it could be that the more surface misunderstandings, the deeper the basic relationship, and that their getting married (it was set for fall) would relax Vicky. Besides, after a fuss, Victoria always gave in and told Kenneth she wasn’t good enough for him, and that he was a much, much better person than she was, although Kenneth’s roommate, Joe, who had called Victoria a terrific-looking tomato who would be hard to handle, said, “I do not regard it as a good sign when a girl tells me she is not good enough for me. When a girl tells me I am a much, much better person than she is, I say, man, watch out.”
But Kenneth had banked a lot on this weekend at the Voerds’. He wanted to show Victoria and Erika Voerd, his philosophy chairman, off to each other. He wanted to get Victoria into the atmosphere of what he believed, although he hadn’t met Axel Voerd yet, to be a mature marriage. Knowing that Axel Voerd was supposed to be convalescing from something, he had demurred a bit when Mrs. Voerd invited them, but she insisted it would do Axel good. “So come,” she had exclaimed. “Bring Victoria, your fiancee — she is a good creature, your Vicky!” This description was so inept that it struck Kenneth as a possible unique insight.
Now, as he looked across at Victoria’s narrow, bronzed, shield-shaped kneecaps under a tennisanyone sort of getup so white it looked combustible in the sunshine, the very dazzle made him dread a fiasco — a quarrel the Voerds would notice, or even Victoria calling it off with him. The last idea gave Kenneth a joint-locking fear that made his own body seem constrictive, as if he were tied up. However, it was by this feeling, which he’d never had before, that he knew he was really in love with his fiancée.
Fiancée was a word he never expected to be throwing around, but Victoria, as he sometimes sang to her to “My Sugar Is So Refined,” was the fiancee kind of girl. She was an ash-blonde, with an ash-blonde’s gray eyes, so light that the pupils seemed set for distance, as if she were spotting a boat, the evening star, or the guest who just came in. Her suntan didn’t give her that bumptiously sturdy look it gave some girls; it gave her eyes bigger shadows and made her arms and legs look fracturable as well as sinewy, so that Kenneth had to admit to all kinds of phony parlance involving thoroughbreds and so forth. She looked so weekend-in-Connecticut now; she had this quality of gracing the occasion, making the immediate present as nostalgic as a chorus of “Aurelie.” And if this were a thing that went along with belonging to the when-daddy-overexpanded set, Kenneth felt that it was, as they said in the humanities, “valid.”
Kenneth had real reasons for insecurity. The big one was that he was privately, helplessly aware, as if of impotence, that he was committed to never making any money in his life unless by fellowships or grants. This wasn’t even as manageable as a case of deceiving himself, but rather as if some outer, obdurate self were deceiving him. Then, there was an almost cubist discrepancy in his looks. Front view he was handsome, theatrically so, because of bushy eyelashes; his protile was weak. If he had been integrally homely, he would have adapted, handled it with flair. As it was, caught by a side-view mirror, he would think, Here I was being Byronic when I was looking like an ostrich swallowing a golf ball. Finally, it had been while he was hospitalized (it turned out to be mononucleosis) that they got engaged. Joe,whose field was mechanism, electronic and female, once remarked that lookers like Victoria had an instinct for being in at the kill. And in rare bad moments, Kenneth wondered if the disappointment Victoria sometimes showed in him was that he hadn’t died.
SO FAR, except for the delay in meeting Axel Voerd, the weekend seemed to Kenneth marvelous in its simplicity. They played a little croquet, and Erika Voerd baked; she baked kuchens, tortes, and strudels. The house was a push-button colonial, and Kenneth found something very gracious in this scholarly European couple’s impartial zeal for American gadgets, both antique and modern, although ordinarily he held the correct derision for both. But their apparent equal pleasure in rush candle dippers and automatic dishwashers made them seem more vital than if they’d bought a ruin and furnished it with old Hapsburg-style pieces. “They’re unselfconscious,” he would describe it, back at school. “They’re not snobs about conveniences. No tearing out the central heating. It was an experience of royalty in the kitchen, so to speak.”
“Axel again apologizes, he says how he welcomes you,” cried Erika Voerd, lugging the oil paintings she had promised to bring out, her astronomer husband’s hobby. “He hopes maybe to be well to come down for dinner.” Her resolute diminutiveness, strident voice, amenable smile, the elegance of ideal balance between frills and butchiness, her flag-blue eyes and swan-blonde hair aged to the shade many younger women bleached to, made undergraduates ask, “Terrific?” and their girls cry, “Isn’t she the great old end?”
“I was just saying to Vic,” said Kenneth, “I love the way you don’t affirm a kind of FreudStrauss synthesis in Connecticut.”
“Oh, we don’t like to do that,” said Mrs. Voerd, surprised, “because why.” Like an ordinary suburban matron, she talked decor on the conventionally rueful note. She told them how she had been penny-wise, pound-foolish, trying to put the expression into American money, and enjoying their laughing at her. “So I made for the entrance hall the economy of the pattern of daisies. It is too moving.” “Busy,” suggested Kenneth. “Busy! Busy!” Mrs. Voerd thanked him. “And the decorator had told me, for a house of scale, baronial, sumptuous, a pattern of” — she made gestures of drawing thread from a needle — “high leathers.” “Plumes?” Victoria offered, timidly, and they all exclaimed triumphantly, “Plumes! Plumes!”
Mrs. Voerd stood her husband’s paintings against the low stone wall of the terrace. They were very small canvases showing tiny, globby cadmium-yellow suns and nebulas on scrubbed-in ultramarine backgrounds. “They’re certainly very interesting,” said Kenneth, swallowing. “They’ve got a certain very definite quality.”
A special sweetness of Mrs. Voerd’s (in her work, she was such a mordant critic) was that she took social remarks at respectful face value. “I think they are!” she said. “I think they do!”
Victoria said, “He must be a terribly good astronomer.” Because she appeared cool and poised, these faux pas of hers sounded intended. Kenneth murmured, “Oh, Victoria!”, which made her give him a resentful blink and look away.
“But Axel is authority!” agreed Mrs. Voerd, in a fierce tone of joy. She pronounced it o-tor-ity, so that it sounded like a classical title. She told them things Axel had done with azimuths and asteroids and equinoctials. Kenneth loved the way she said the word “colure” in a deep purr, pursing her mouth in a kiss. Victoria, in the rather flat voice in which girls talk to older women, remarked, “I thought it was all radar now.”
“It is all radar now!” Mrs. Voerd agreed, still more proudly. “Stars is not practical! Axel always says, is not practical!” She propped up a little canvas. Suddenly she looked up, shading her eyes. Although there hadn’t been a sound, Kenneth realized that Axel Voerd was actually with them. But how had she known? The man in the living-room photograph, in seamanlike black, so close up he seemed larger than life, was out on his sundeck, almost directly above them. Kenneth heard him give a short cough and take a breath. They weren’t noises of a sick old man. Even in these solitary, respiratory little sounds, the voice was alert and virile. Mrs. Voerd’s upraised face constricted in the sunshine and looked powdery, as if it could flake into the air. Kenneth felt a pang like jealousy, the feeling he got at a concert with a musician. “This is senseless,” he thought. “She’s a woman who loves her husband. Which is very marvelous.” But as if to throw himself between them, he said, almost in a shout, “I love the way he isn’t afraid of color”
“I was saying to Ken,” said Victoria, also throwing her voice, “your husband looks like Tolstoy. Or — or some Baltic captain.”
“Oh, the picture, that is by the Stamford Yacht Club,” explained Mrs. Voerd. She indicated another canvas. “That is Betelgeux.” She lingered lovingly over the geux. “I think Betelgeux.”
As he recalled some cataclysmic perception from Mrs. Voerd’s last book, her refuge in her husband’s tiny, crudely painted heavens seemed to Kenneth her source of power; instead of relaxing by playing four-hand arrangements for pipe organ, or championship chess, this scholarly old couple got lost in the stars.
Mrs. Voerd turned the talk to the young couple’s plans. With the rapt smile of a classic mother, as if these held a glory they were unaware of, she questioned Victoria, ducking her head to follow the girl’s face as she would shift to knock her cigarette. “Well, Ken, of course, will go on with his doctorate, and I’ll have to get some sort of job” Victoria laughed and added, beseechingly, “I majored in history sort of by accident
“How? How do you mean this, you major in history by accident?” Mrs. Voerd asked eagerly, as if told of an academic distinction, and Vicky told her the story, probably slightly doctored, but cute, about how she told her deaf major-field adviser she was crushed over her D in a physics quiz, and he understood her to have announced she wanted to major in history. Most of Victoria’s anecdotes described her fulfillment of misapprehensions she had accidentally given people. But she got the story off charmingly without making herself sound like a dimwit, and it brought up her vulnerable quality. “She’s so vulnerable,” Kenneth often explained to Joe. Joe replied, “Man, you’re hooked.”
Mrs. Voerd went up again to look in on her husband, and from the windows, they heard the rich, gargling sounds of German. Neither of them knew any German except for some philosophy, cookery, and operetta words, it sounded to Kenneth as if the Voerds were intensely and joyously planning weltschmerz, sauerbraten, and gestalt for Die Fledermaus. He and Vicky had to look at each other, and they started to laugh silently, whispering “Shut up!” One word kept recurring in Axel’s talk, which sounded like Nutsy, or Mootzie, and they realized that this was some kind of pet name he called his wife, which shocked them.
“Axel is so disappointed !” reported Mrs. Voerd. “He is much better, but not yet for tonight, but tomorrow for surely! He wishes again I should tell you once more how he welcomes you, it does him good that you are here, your presence in the house, and the sound of your young laughter.”
Until dinner, she showed them her Early American collection, which looked to Kenneth like discarded plumbing parts. As she showed them jagging irons and jagger wheels for doing things to pastry, the idea of people’s forging weapons for dealing with pastry, and of a great modern philosopher hunting them in barn auctions and paying big prices for them, gave Kenneth a sense of the majesty of the mundane. He looked at Victoria, who was examining a silver-luster Toby with a bemused expression, and thought, “Ancestors! We’re going to be ancestors.”
THAT night Kenneth got a few minutes alone with Victoria. It had the stolen savor most of his times alone with her had, with her telling him her mother’s warnings. Tonight she told him her mother said not to stay up with Kenneth after the Voerds went to bed because “it would look so bad.” “You know, never mind if I got pregnant, just it would look so bad,” said Victoria. The reference to pregnancy she tossed off, but her bitterness about her mother’s concern for appearances was passionate. Am I jealous of her mother? thought Kenneth. That’s senseless, “My mother wouldn’t worry about my getting you pregnant,” he said, consolingly. “She’d worry about my not getting my eight hours. We must face it, honey. Our mothers trust us morally.”
Even saying good night, they had two short fights and reconciliations. Victoria didn’t want Joe to be best man. “I think Joe is a marvelous person with marvelous qualities,” she said. “It’s just that he just isn’t terribly presentable“I’m afraid I don’t pick my friends on the basis of how they look in cutaways,” said Kenneth, stiffly. Then Victoria said his loyalty to his friends was what she loved about him. She said, “I just was brought up in these phony, disgusting criteria, and it makes me hate myself and hate everybody.” Kenneth felt that she wanted him to rake her mother over the coals with her, but that this would be getting on dangerous ground. Also, from his own mother, he knew how to handle this dressy, girl-sized, hypertensive type of matron. You just kidded them along.
They lounged back on his bed. The white mattress in the screened sleeping porch had a movie-safari look. Victoria’s suntan in the golden, insect-repellent-bulb light made her look anointed. Her neckline V of tan made all the white below it seem doubly bare. She smelled like the main floor of a fancy department store, like new ironing. Over their breathing and the bumping of white millers on the screen, some kind of insect kept pronouncing, “Nanette, Nanette,” and another made fast irregular clicks like a typewriter. She giggled and whispered, “But, darling, this looks so bad,” and he said, “My eight hours! I must have them! I must have them tonight!”
From upstairs, they heard the Voerds talking. The distance blurred it so that the German all sounded like indignant noises of strangling, “Hoot, oot, woot, woot!”, and they started to giggle, shushing each other. They got pensive about the Voerds. “I hope to God we get to meet Axel tomorrow,” said Kenneth. “You know, they’d be terrific material for a profile. A double profile hasn’t been done too often. I see them as a kind of transcended latter-day Sidney and Beatrice Webb. But,” he added sternly, “I’m not a journalist.”
“Of course, if you regard it as prostituting yourself to compromise at all, how are we going to support our children?” said Victoria.
“Would you want too many children?” asked Kenneth. Victoria, jerking upright, in an angular, tomboyish position, and yanking back her hair, so that her clear features shone like a fourteen-yearold boy’s, said rapidly, as if reciting, that to her marriage was meaningless if it did not contain children, and Kenneth pointed out that you should not have children in a marriage that was otherwise meaningless. Since this was an abstract problem, it did not interest them long, and Victoria did one of her passionate about-faces which Kenneth had come to depend upon and said his dedication and single-mindedness were what she loved about him. “I loathe gray-flannel rat-race types,” she said. “My roomie’s mahogany magnate would drive me mad. Just from his letters to her I know he has fat hands.”
They said another good night, standing at the screen. The country darkness seemed cubic, as if the sleeping porch were a golden cage blocked up by the night. A white miller, the beanlike bug body and Kleenex-scrap wings, bumped in front of their eyes. “Betelgeux!” Victoria whispered, pointing to the dark. They laughed and clutched each other. Kenneth said. “Darling, we’re going to be ancestors.” She gave a submissive little shudder that he felt run down her legs.
After she went up to her guest room, Kenneth was too jumpy to sleep. He started a letter to Joe, but it was a “You should see me now” letter, and he destroyed it. The frustration of a sense of exaltation was that friends received it apprehensively, as if they knew you were going to die. The night had a crisis quality before he did get sleepy, and then he slept hard till morning.
Set on a tray on Axel Voerd’s desk in the office adjoining the sleeping porch Kenneth found juice and coffee cake for himself and Victoria, the car keys, a locker key, and a note from Erika propped against the celestial globe which asked if he “would mind to” drive to the deep-freeze lockers and get a couple of nice broilers for lunch, before it got too hot. She had drawn a little road map of the route to the lockers, with the turnoff on the highway and the lockers marked by stars.
Exultantly Kenneth got Victoria, and they went out through the breezeway to get the car. “Hey,” said Kenneth. “We’re eloping!”
“I never knew dew got things so wet,” said Victoria.
To Kenneth this was the best part of the weekend, the chance to drive Victoria in a good car in the early-Sunday country. The car handled so powerfully it seemed to burn its own swath and compose views no one had ever seen before. The country looked like a garden, the scrubby trees of the low second-growth woods singled out like ornamental plantings. Under this annunciatory A.M. glaze, it became an ordered setting, a full palette of greens shone in deliberate probity, little Fra Angelicos with beveled wings and nimbuses seemed possible, and only expressions like “grand design” and “creation” seemed to apply. The morning was proclamatory; if later would be glaring and humid, this present was all the more — Kenneth could only think valid. Down an open swath he saw oil-white patches of houses against the blue Sound, calendar art come true at both ends in a chronicle writing in him and Victoria. “Why not settle, ultimately?” he thought. Being city-bred, to settle was the most radical adventure. “What’s so impossible?” Because she was his partner in this freedom, he felt deeply tender for Victoria, and her moodiness got through to him very faintly at first.
But she was in one of her most difficult moods. She got on the subject of British accents. She said British accents did something fantastic to her. In a tone of desperation, she said, “I forget British accents exist, and then I hear a British accent and I get weak in the knees.” She suddenly asked Kenneth what his neck measurement was. He told her dryly he could probably cultivate a British accent and a bull neck, but then he looked at her and thought she looked like one of those weddingstagefright girls in the newspapers who ride a crosscountry bus and sit through six movies. She had bride nerves, that was all. And being a delicatefeatured ash-blonde, her getting a little massy looked touching. The rising heat had fuzzed her hair slightly at the temples, deepened the shading of her eyes, and creased her gray dress across her narrow groin. “She’s so vulnerable,” he thought, again.
They drove past an ivy-grown small stone church as the bell was ringing. “Oh,” cried Victoria, as if wounded. “I wish I could go to church.”
“I’ll take you to church!” said Kenneth. He slowed the car and felt at the open neck of his sport shirt. “I’d need to go back for a tie.”
“No, I don’t have a hat,” she said.
“A scarf?” suggested Kenneth, but evidently this was loo stupid to get an answer. With the sun fuller, the morning got weightier, the trees rose out of darkening pools of shade like the landmarks that ratify in the memory the bad news that came just then.
Then, as usual after being difficult, she switched to her mother. “Ken,” she asked, in an almost entreating voice, “does your mother embarrass you to absolute tears?”
“Well,” said Kenneth, “I mean, I just wouldn’t take her to a party for Allen Ginsberg —”
“No, no, no, no, no!” Victoria interrupted. “I mean, when she says you don’t love her. I mean, when she wants to go deeply, deeply into — oh —”
“My mother is essentially a materialist,” said Kenneth. “I mean, my eight hours is the extent —” Victoria didn’t seem to listen, and for a while she didn’t talk. Kenneth reached his right hand across the car seat and gently gripped her thigh. As if his caress prompted her, Victoria burst out again. “I’ve got something figured out about my mother. My mother’s got a myopia neurosis.”
“Oh?” said Kenneth. The interrogative oh was a mannerism he knew annoyed her, but it still came out. She started to expound her theory. This broke the flow of the country drive more jarringly than all the capricious business had. She sat forward and talked against the hum of the motor. Concentrating on her vulnerable quality got harder and harder for Kenneth. “Mother was, of course, the celebrated beauty of her day, unquote, and she would not wear glasses. I seriously doubt that my mother has ever in her life seen anything beyond her own manicured hand before her celebrated face. I really and truly believe my mother almost literally doesn’t know other people exist!”
“I had an uncle who was very deaf—” said Kenneth, but to his relief, they got to the turnoff for the lockers.
He parked in the gravel area, and they went up a flagstone walk screened by a beachy translucent turquoise plastic partition. The factual intimacy of this bathhouse connotation made Kenneth only able to think about touching her. He had the burdened feeling he ought to straighten out a lot of things with her, but now it seemed a waste of this privacy. When he kissed her she kissed back, and when he touched her she seemed the smoother through the scratchy gray summer-suit stuff. She smelled like surf swimming, of lotion and washed hair. After all the little complications that seemed to beset her, the idea of physical love appeared to Kenneth as vastly healing, like glorious weather, and he could believe that once they really got together everything would be all right.
Driving back in now drilling sunshine that dug the landscape in shovelfuls of shade and glare, they got very gay. They talked about some of the same things as before, but now they laughed at them. They imitated their mothers complimenting each other’s hats by saying how terrible they themselves would look in the hat. “I look like a clown in a high crown,” squealed Victoria. “I look like death in a veil. I look like a racehorse in flowers. I’d look as if I’d had a few too many!” “I’d look like a whore!” yelled Kenneth. “A corpse!”
They were laughing when they drove into the Voerds’ driveway. Two cars were parked in the circle. “Sunday hordes!” said Kenneth. “This early. Damn. Buzzards.” He took the package of frozen broilers, and they went up the path to the front door, which stood wide open.
THE hall was as bright as outdoors. All the daisies on the wallpaper, Mrs. Voerd’s penny-wise daisies, looked as if they were growing. The house looked turned inside out, for painters, movers, or for sale. Sign-shapes of sunshine stood on the stairs. Kenneth saw that the sunshine came from the two open doors at the top. Both of Axel Voerd’s doors, the two doors to the master bedroom suite, stood wide open. “They’ve taken him to the hospital,” thought Kenneth. For some reason he was ashamed of himself and Victoria. The real-estate brightness of the hall resounded; it struck him that haunted houses were sunny, bright, and open.
Then, from the dining room he heard Erika Voerd’s voice say, “But it is my young guests.” She came along the hall. The sunshine made her face a drawn-up mask of the type in which the features are cut out of the metal. Even while already trying to change it to dismay, Kenneth felt his face smile in involuntary response to her own smile. “It is all over for Axel,” she said. She held her hands as if offering them a treasure, in the gesture with which people tell their loss. At his side he heard Victoria give a low cry, but as if repelled by a story of sadism or a disgusting sight. “But it is all right!” said Mrs. Voerd. “Only you must forgive I make your errand, because I know you would feel, and what could you do. But it is all right, it is all right! He was made glad hearing your voices, and your young laughter.”
A man who looked like some kind of professional family friend, a doctor or lawyer, came up. Silently he shook hands ceremoniously with Victoria and Kenneth and said, “You don’t speak Hungarian?” It became apparent that this was the only English he knew. A brazen-haired woman in slacks so tight her hips looked crisscrossed by many cords underneath came up and made Erika Voerd sit down on a chair. With her voice breaking for the only time, Mrs. Voerd said, “But my young friends have had no meal!” The woman made a crooning noise and started to rub Mrs. Voerd between the shoulder blades like a masseuse. She had the almost drunkenly sullen expression many people wear in the presence of bereavement. Kenneth thought how roundshouldered Mrs. Voerd looked. Her upper back formed a small dome. What had her husband called her, Nootzie, Mootzie? She looked to him so diminished that he got the feeling that it was he who was growing, maladroit as a clown on stilts, and might at any moment hit his head. This sense of a ludicrous disparity of size struck him dumb. To speak was so impossible he Held his teeth set.
Soon the people started to come. A son and daughter, with the wife and husband, arrived, but Kenneth didn’t know which were the real children and which were the in-laws. The bleached woman in the slacks turned out to be the wife ot a great poet. The Lutheran pastor from Westport came, explaining, as if this were his reason, that the Voerds hadn’t “belonged.” Everyone ignored Kenneth and Victoria. Erika was borne away among them all. There was a lot of mention of “heavy sedation.” The poet’s wife started to tell Kenneth that Axel had had his previous heart attack at her party, but when someone spoke to her, she dropped Kenneth and her story. After a while, Kenneth and Victoria got their things together, called their cab, and left without anyone speaking to them.
As they tore at country-taxi speed down the shining blue highway with the green banners of countryside flying off on each side, Kenneth said, “Ultimately, the question is what will this do to Erika Voerd as a thinker.”
He addressed this to the heavy neck of the cab driver. Also throwing her voice for the benefit of the driver, Victoria said, “She seems to have transcended terrifically.” The driver immediately spoke. Kenneth lurched in his seat before he realized that the driver was talking into his phone. “Party to the station,” he said. “No, I’m still working on it.”
They came up against a huge ink-brushed cancan girt on pink, a poster for a Broadway show, over a big empty luggage cart. A desertlike sun isolated the station. The train came in in a jet of steam that smelled like a men’s room. “I’ll have to notify people,” said Kenneth, a little cheered. “The entire faculty. I’m obligated. I’ll have to call their homes even though it’s Sunday. It’s a responsibility.” Just as they boarded the train, he got a strange impression of a deadly flash of her eye and the words, “Fun, though!”
IN THE train, she got impossible. If he had wanted to say it, been the type who could, what would have been the Noel Coward sound of “Victoria, you’re a bitch” almost made tears conic into his eyes. He prayed that soon she would stop and say she didn’t know what was the matter with her, and say she was sick. A few other times, after being bitchy, she pleaded being sick, or, after a party, not remembering what had happened, and these were certainly shabby tricks he disliked, but now he prayed she would pull all her shabby tricks.
She did takeoffs of him telling about the tragedy. Like many shy, aloof girls, she was an abandoned mimic when the mood was on her. Seeing himself played by someone he had been so close to, like seeing his profile in a side mirror, made him sit so still that small twinges and tickles of circulation needled his body all over.
First she did him doing the story for the grotesque. “So we come in with the frozen chickens. A lawyer comes up and asks if we speak Hungarian, The chickens are defrosting all over the floor. —’s wife (what a tramp!) starts a masseur job on the widow. Mrs. Voerd says it’s all right because he was happy hearing our young laughter.”
Then she did his mood change. She shifted position and wrinkled her forehead as she did his trying for powerful effect with understatement. “It seems she had been occupying the same bed as himself. (It was a double bed.) They were a terrifically devoted couple. So in the morning she wakes up. She finds him. I mean, it was kind of rough. But it was essentially ritualistic the way she preserved the forms. Admetus, so to speak. I mean, it was an essentially Greek experience.”
Exploratory horror, as if he had gotten a wound he had not been able to look at closely yet, made Kenneth feel a fullness of dread; something had happened in which the only certainty was that it would be worse when he looked at it.
She didn’t say she was sick; she cried, trying not to (mastering herself completely when the conductor came through), and said she was sorry, she was sorry she couldn’t marry him. In a terrified whisper, as if she were confiding that she had had an abortion or a prison record, she said she actually somewhat doubted that she had ever actually been really and truly in love with him.
Kenneth kept his eyes fixed on their two red tickets clamped in the seat-back slot at a thirtythree-and-a-third-degree angle apart, as if from the patness of this image he could draw a counterpoison. He realized he hadn’t believed he would really get away with marrying Victoria; he had hoped they could push it through before she noticed the mistake. He would marry a wool-haired little girl named Yetta or Blanche, in a drawstring blouse falling off and a skirt painted on, who would support him by researching for Wilfred Funk, and not the idea of marrying her, but the idea that he would come to want to, made him shut his eyes; that the compatible would become desirable made death seem real.
Probably his and Victoria’s mothers would remain friendly. It made him cold to the quicks of his fingernails to think that matrons’ rapport over hats would flourish when grand passion had drowned to a tear in the beer over a closing-time chorus of “Sunshine came along with thee, and swallows in the air.”
In a child’s reciting voice as she talked against her crying, Victoria said the self-excoriating banalities. She said again that she wasn’t good enough for him, and this time Kenneth knew immediately that this had always meant she didn’t love him. She also said. “I very, very seriously doubt that I have ever in my life really loved anyone except myself,” and this second banality now seemed to Kenneth simply literally true, and equally true of himself.
He wanted Victoria, the idea of it, and having everybody know; but the things that bothered her, her mother-tiling, her apparent yen for a nineteen-inch-neck Britisher, didn’t move him, and the idea of things ever happening to her looks, to her bronzed miniature-shield kneecaps, or her conical breasts, was an affront. He knew his pang at the sight of Erika Voerd’s face, as she looked up toward her husband’s sundeck, knowing she couldn’t see him, was jealousy of her ability to love.
But, even now, he thought, there was a chance for him and Victoria, if he could get rid of caring about himself, if he could say to her, “It is all over, but it is all right!”
With a cold feeling, as if facing noble danger, he wondered if he could get rid of caring in the least how he himself felt, if he could possibly stop mattering to himself at all; but it all stuck to him, fear of getting hurt, as he was hurt now, and wanting her, the strongest self-love of all, desire, the centaur’s blood that soaked Heracles’ cloak — it burned through him as he tried to tear it off and think only about her herself. He tried to concentrate on how all of this was tough on her as well, on her problems, on her mother-ambivalence thing; but he thought of what she did to him and of what she had done to him, and the more he tore all that away, the more it stuck to him, the Deianiran robe, it burned into his flesh.
Only when a lot of time had passed, he thought, and he looked through the funeral-lace dirt of the window at the flying green country as if the trees were milestones, each sword of shade knighting him with a year’s time, only after many stunning accolades of age, might he know this love which could say, “But it is all right! It is all right!”, on the very morning of death.