December 12 Dear Mr. Bentham:
I hope you and Mrs. Bentham are having a pleasant winter in Truro. How I wish to be there with you to spend summer the same way I spent it in the past with both of you. For when I think about you and your place 1 always get a special feeling, the feeling you get for special places and people you have loved and trusted and found happiness with once, just like the feeling I get toward my home in Japan and to my family.
I just come back from the concert hall. I give exact information about your performance to the all of my friends because it gives me a sheer pleasure, Mr. Bentham, of being your friend that I always feel so proud of. Yes to tell to the truth I wanted ticket to send Jon as a gift. It’s sound romantic, isn’t it? And I think I am, as I were sometimes. Anyway I have already invited him for your concert because I wanted him to meet you and I wanted you to meet him because I like him a lot and I like you a lot. Also, to me it is the only chance to ask him openly to be with me and it is the only chance he can accept the concert in a casual way. So would you please meet him for me? I met him at the Pub Club where he was playing piano as a member of the young music band. And there was no special relationship between us except he as a music player and singer and I as a one of fan among the many of his fan, at least I made it clear to him and myself. And I think he understand it.
But it’s me who failed again in a game of love. Problem is that when I become to like someone I could not play it as I should. I play it too seriously, I think. It is foolish to feel hurt when I know the reason why I was attracted to him is only that he is so beautiful and charming and young, 26 years old, and although he care for me enough to come up to my table on a recess whenever I go there sometimes, half of it are out of courtesy. And I wish we were once lovers and strangers again the next morning rather than purely platonic. And worse of all we are not even in platonic love either. Yet I can’t ignore him.
Anyway, he will be gone again soon and we might not see each other any more. So I would like to make a last chance of togetherness with him and first reunion in live years with you to be a perfect one. So please help me make it wonderful one for three of us. That means I would like to have pleasant night with most smile and laughter that is only possible between true friends if we can only see you for a few moment at the back stage after concert. But I wish we could find some time to talk. He is young but not like hippies although he has a long hair but it is beautiful so he won’t make you feel any embarrassment. That’s I can promise about him.
By the way what time will you arrive here on Monday? If you are not tired and don’t mind to listen to the music they play which I am afraid you might say that it is not music but loud noise unless you find in it something personally attractive, and personally I think they play pretty well, I am mostly happy to come to his place with you. In any case please write me as how I can see you if you have still got a time but if not please call as soon as you are in Halifax. And please leave a message if I was not in. Although I will be careful not to miss your telephone all day.
I wish you safe trip. Again I wish Mrs. Bentham will be here too so you will help me with my trouble and then everything will be settled in nicest way.
See you soon. P.S. I enclose telephone and address. In hastly.
“Are you going to see her?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“How long has it been?" Helen asked. She gave the letter back to him, and he left it on the table.
“Five years,” Richard said. “I would have thought she’d be in Tokyo again.”
“Tokyo was where she worked, remember?”
“I wouldn’t remember.”
“Come off it, Helen. You do.”
“Yes, I suppose so. There’s so much to remember.”
He paused. “Her visa—working papers. They must have been renewed.”
“She found some other happy family. Some other cultural exchange program.”
“I don’t have to see her,”Richard said.
“She’ll find you, anyhow. Those hands of yours will be caressing keys on every lamppost in Halifax. Has she written before?”
“"Mr. Bentham,’ it says. Only ‘Mr. Bentham.’ She could have included us both.”
“I’m the one who’s going, right? She’s got another pianist.”
“Younger this time.”
He looked at his hands. “Not so famous.”
“No. Not yet, at any rate. That’s why she wants you to meet him.”
“A rock ‘n’ roll band? She wants me to listen to some third-rate pianist at the, what’s it called . . . ?”
“The Pub Club,” Helen said.
“Yes. Why don’t you come with me?”
“Please. I could use the protection.”
“You’re dying to meet them. Her. Anyhow, it’s the most beautiful month here.”
He pocketed the letter. “Why don’t you join me for once?”
“Just overnight? There’s a darling little pub club.”
“Please. I don’t want to talk about it. You know 1 can’t come.”
He changed his tone, dropped mockery. “1 never really know, now do I? What’s so marvelous about December here alone?”
“The privacy,”she said.
“We’ll miss Christmas together. You wouldn’t have to leave the hotel.”
“It isn’t overnight. It’s the first in a series of concerts—two weeks.”
“You could come back.” He raised his hands. “But have it your way, Helen.”
“Don’t wheedle. You’re the one who booked this tour.” She said this with the intonation he had used before—a practiced self-pity soliciting praise. “It’s your way too. Ours.”
“She was a good gardener. You said so yourself.” “Snow-peas,” Helen said. “On those tender little knees of hers, picking up the weeds with her fingers like tweezers. One by one. So terribly attractive.” “She did help with the house.”
“She’s crazy if she thinks I’ll let her back.”
“She doesn’t think that.”
“So find out what she does think. What she’s after. Go to her.”
“I’m going to Halifax, remember? Not to her.” “The Oriental mysteries. A massage parlor for the maestro’s fingers. ‘Oh, please, Mr. Bentham,’ ” she mimicked, “ ‘let me chop the callots. Don’t hurt your hands.’ ”
“It’s not all right.”
“I can’t cancel.”
“No. I know’ that, darling. You couldn’t help it, could you?”
“If she wants to come,” he said, “I’ll see her. But I won’t try to find her.”
“It’s a flee countly,” said Helen. “You do what’s best to do.”
That week he drove to Boston, trying to assess the winter colors of the Cape. His windshield was tinted, and the sky’s blue had depth. The pine trees were less green than in the summertime, and the sand less brilliant at the edges of Route 6. He was forty-three years old and had been thirty-eight when last they met. He wondered, as often before, if she were truly displaced or would seem at home in Tokyo. There, he imagined, she’d know her directions—knowing in the signless streets which way to turn for the theater or where to purchase fish. He made the plane at Logan with little time to spare, carrying his music in his briefcase. His itinerary looked this month, he’d joked, like a primer course in foolishness: name sixteen towns you’ve never heard of, and Richard Bentham will be there, introducing Eskimos to Bach.
It had been more disconcerting than he’d dared acknowledge. He had not seen her handwriting in years. The perfectly wielded pen, the black precision of her script stood in such startling contrast to the mutilated language as to appear nearly purposive—as if she mocked his exactness by both aping and burlesquing it. Or as if she’d wanted, after all this time away, to show that she’d learned nothing since she departed their house. Or as if she wrote him in an agreed-on code— but one that he’d forgotten how to read.
Yet there remained her habitual grace. He’d not been wrong in urging her to make a career of transcribing; there were few enough by now that you could trust with scores. Instead—what was she doing?—receiving unemployment, probably, in some backwater street in some town in Nova Scotia. He ordered bourbon, neat, and sat back and kicked off his shoes.
More and more successful, he’d been less and less at home these years. A performing career has its own sort of logic, he’d say; you play until they stop inviting you. At first, and even when they could barely afford it, Helen traveled with him. She delighted in the bustle and applause. While he practiced in the windy halls, gauging the piano’s action, she would roam whatever place they’d come to, finding the museums or shopping arcades or bistros or fountains that later, alone, he would never quite manage to find. Then they’d meet at the hotel at three. They would shower and nap and make love, his mind empty of all but that preparatory hush he needed for the sounding silence of the concert yet to come.
Things changed. Helen grew more needy but appeared to need him less. They bought a summer house in Truro and had it winterized. They kept their rent-controlled apartment in New York, and she began referring to it as their West Side pied-a-terre. She painted—badly, he thought. She took yoga and dance and recorder lessons. Impatient with any but demonstrated expertise or professional ambitions, Richard found himself humoring her. They had no children. In what they agreed was a predictable seven-year crisis, Helen said, “It’s just too much. Keeping the home fires burning. I do need help with the place.”
So he found the thirty-year-old cousin of the daughter of his recording engineer: a Japanese. They sponsored her arrival and guaranteed employment. They fetched her at Logan—a pale, mute person wearing jeans, with two straw suitcases she’d tied together at the handles. That summer, he had promised Helen, he would stay at home. And with the exception of a master class or two, with the exception of recording dates in Amsterdam and the Festival at Bath, he did remain in Truro. He was, he told himself, attempting to shore up collapse.
They painted the house. He had heard somewhere that Jung had cured a patient by telling him to stop analysis and purchase an acre of land. So he had truckloads of topsoil delivered, and they staked out a garden on the southern slope. City people, the Benthams were clumsy at first, but he reveled in the amateurish frenzy of it—cutting stakes for fence posts and digging and forking and hoeing with such glad abandon that Helen feared for his hands.
The flight was rough; Richard stared at the clouds. Mishiko had been patient, practiced, and she tended the garden with care. She liked to do the marketing. and she cleaned their spattered paint. They gave her a portable radio for her birthday. She acquired a broadbrimmed straw hat also, and would accompany them to the beach, sitting in her own created shade with an ear-attachment, nodding. For her sojourn in the garden, she would turn the volume up. “It frightens the rabbits,” she said. Later, when he pictured her, it was always in that hat, on her knees in front of the pole beans or corn, being crooned at by some caterwauling, indecipherable Englishmen, rapt.
He would emerge from his day’s practice, blinking in the sun. The two of them would greet him—Helen dark and seeming heavy by comparison. He would propose a sail or swim, and they would proffer the harvest, and Mishiko would turn down the sound. She seemed like some ancient retainer or servingwoman to him then—three steps behind him where they walked, a gliding presence perfectly located in their lives. When Helen left for New York—to see her doctor, she said, and to deal with the rubble that the upstairs tenant’s overflowing bathtub had made of their diningroom ceiling—it seemed merely proper that he enter the guest room bed.
Mishiko accepted him. A woman, he maintained, should take modesty off with her clothes. Yet she was clothed in passionate demureness for the nights that they made love. In the morning she had served him tea and buttered toast, the radio already on, as if nothing could have altered the pattern they’d set up that June. She left the following week. He accepted her departure with relief. Though she’d become his mistress, she attempted to explain, Helen was still mistress of the house.
Dear Mrs. Bentham:
I can’t tell you enough how glad and happy I was to seeing Mr. Bentham again. On Monday we had few hours to talk and laugh together as we used to did and I can’t believe that there is five years between us to meet again. I can picture it clearly when Mr. Bentham says that “Everything is same in Truro,” even though I have heard all news, including the some of sad news that had happened to the people I knew of. But back to the first night I must tell you that, in spite of Mr. Bentham’s busy schedule, he was so nice to accept my wish to come and see my “wish-to-be-my-boyfriend" and I was so happy with seeing two man-friend I like so much talking together. However, in spite of Mr. Bentham’s cooperation, I think it was the night I had really put Jon into difficult situation and made him really hate me. If I hadn’t a pleasant time with Mr. Bentham I would have been so unhappy and depressed for the result of coming to the concert with Dave instead of Jon. Yet I am glad whole situation seems turned out very nicely for every one. The concert was beautiful as always and Dave, my former employer who gave me the first job in Canada to do airbrushing on T-shirt and I still work for him occasionally when he needs, enjoyed it immensely and Grace, who was my roommate and nice friend enjoyed it too.
There was another enjoyable time when Mr. Bentham took me to the Japanese restaurant. It was a restaurant I worked as a cashier for four weeks in September. There it was snowing. I must thank you again for most pleasant time. One thing I regret myself is I failed to call Mr. Bentham this morning to say one more time “Thank-you” and “Good-bye” and “Wishing you a nice trip,” etc. I called all right but it was too late. Hotel-man said that he left five minutes ago. I called two airline to find out if . . . but by the time I find out right airline I gave up to call because I thought it might give Mr. Bentham a only trouble to get it if he was not nearby telephone.
I do hope Mr. Bentham will be continuing safe trip with successful musical performance. And I do hope you will not be too lonely while Mr. Bentham is away and not be too tired or bored. Love.
The mystery, of course, was how she had stood it at all—not how she had withstood it for so long. Her grandmother had turned one hundred in November. Helen journeyed to the nursing home and attended a party the other inmates—she couldn’t help it, she thought of them as inmates—put on. They had ice cream and cake and party hats and favors, and her grandmother wore a corsage. When the singing was over her grandmother stood and clattered on her water glass for attention. She looked so prim but nervous that Helen by her side had straightened also, straining. Then she delivered a speech. In her singsong, high-pitched whisper, the celebrant said, “Life is not what you make it. Life is how you take it,” and fell back to her chair as if released.
The jingle stayed with Helen through the holidays. She found herself repeating it in front of the news, or drinking coffee, or in the intervals she paced by her easel, considering a Wyeth-like series of gulls. She heard no music those weeks. Richard’s records bulked beneath the stereo system like a dusty, pinched reproach; he’d made so many lately that the space she allocated to her husband scarcely could contain him. She put out suet and sunflower seed. The chickadees and jays and grosbeaks clustered to her feeders, and she watched them through the picture windows, unafraid. When Mishiko’s letter arrived on December 24, she called Bill up to wish him Merry Christmas, and to ask if there were some sort of party she might attend or make. He said, “But gladly, gladly,”and came down from Provincetown that night with a bottle of Bushmills. She had had trouble with the fireplace, and he pointed out to her—gently, not making it a joke or an occasion for scorn—that first she had to open the flue.
Then he built a fire, mixing in pitch pine and oak and warming the living room so that they elected to lie down in front of it, no other lights on in the house.
Bill stroked her back. He blundered on about the possibility of change, how she should come with him to Provincetown and maybe San Miguel de Allende, where he taught in the Art Institute, and he’d show her turkey buzzards to sketch instead of gulls. “Xopilotes,” Bill said.
“That’s what they call them there.” The mystery was how to make the world of art and privilege seem anything but grown-up games, be born again, was how to pry free his fingers as they closed upon her arm. Bill said she kindled flame in him, but Helen fell asleep. She heard the language of seduction go up the chimney, weightless, incorporeal as smoke.
When Richard called the next morning, she told him that a family of pheasants had settled by the junipers beyond the porch. That seemed the most important thing; she had nothing to ask or report. He said, “It’s hard to be apart,” and she agreed. He said, “1 wish you’d come with me,”and she answered, “Yes. That would be nice.” He had his affairs to tend to, however, as she had hers. He’d be home the following Sunday by eight. She read the Sunday Times. She left The Tale of Genji with a bookmark in it by their bed. She wondered if the nastiness that had invaded her these months (the word for it was nastiness, this chill propriety and prejudice she’d thought of as her mother’s curse) might dissipate and lift. She made a New Year’s resolution that such brittle rigor would go. The problem was just how to make it go. The issue was where to locate that shivering delight she’d known at twenty or thirty or even last year, at thirty-nine, when listening to Richard perform the Schubert Impromptus. Or in some tavern with him, dancing in a circle dance with sweaty men with handkerchiefs; the question was where pleasure fled and hid.
Helen studied herself in the mirror. It was not unkind. The flesh that had been soft was firm, the planes of her face more pronounced. She dressed herself attentively, pulled out but did not play his record of the Goldberg Variations, and settled in to wait. She made canapés. The few cars passing by their house seemed self-propelled and pilotless; their headlights lit the pine trees at the driveway’s end.
Then Richard arrived. He rumbled down the driveway and she heard his brakes complain. She listened to him, motionless, hearing the engine roar and cease, hearing him open the car door, then the trunk. She heard him stamp and shuffle up the steps she had remembered to light, and opened the front door in for him as he opened the storm door out. The mystery was how he did not notice, as she greeted and embraced him and took off his overcoat, how she’d traveled so far to return.
“Welcome, world traveler,” she said. He said the house looked lovely, and so did its mistress, his wife.
After he’d unpacked, given her the perfume and a Hudson’s Bay blanket (blue, with a dark L. blue stripe, and doubling the size of his luggage and not as good as blubber anyhow for igloos, he said), after she’d told him that seals were in the harbor here, and asked about the Allisons in Montreal, the cousin who came to Toronto to hear him, told about the New Year’s celebration where they’d gotten so falling-down drunk that William pretended the dunes were a ski-slope, and said the Witherecks were sweet, were utterly insistent that she dine with them, two times, and that she’d therefore asked them to dinner tomorrow and hoped he didn’t mind; after she’d asked for and seen his reviews, complimented his haircut, asked about the weather in Vancouver and said they did have snow for Christmas but it didn’t last, she brought out cheese and rum and said, “I got her letter.”
“Hers. About the nights in Halifax.”
“And what did she tell you?” he asked.
Then Helen stretched and watched him watching her; her breasts rose with the motion and she locked her hands behind her head, leaned back.
“Do you want to see the letter?”
“Not especially. Not yet.”
“Her grammar’s no better,” she said. “It must have been some scene.”
“The nightclub. The boyfriend. The three of you wrestling.”
“Do we have to discuss this?”
“I’ll have another drink, then.”
She covered her glass with her palm. “No thanks. Not yet. I want to discuss it.”
“Oh, Helen . . .”
“Oh, Helen, what?”
Richard sighed. He topped his drink and watched the liquid rise above the level of the glass. It adhered to itself, and he hunted the word for such molecular adherence.
“Oh, Helen, what?” she repeated.
Meniscus—that was it; he drank, absurdly pleased. “Oh, Helen, I’ve just gotten here. So let’s not squabble over lunatics, all right?”
“Like those two. Cheers. Your health.”
“To us,” she said. “Someone cut a blue spruce from the driveway. I’d been to Provincetown shopping, and I’d anyhow decided not to buy a tree this year. But up there by the parking lot I noticed something missing. And I knew it right away—the spruce that you planted, the middle one, the best. We’ve got a wreath on the door. It doesn’t seem fair.”
“I’ll talk to the police.”
“For what? Because they cut a Christmas tree? He never made your concert, did he?”
“Jon? No. But Dave did, and the airbrush gang.”
“You spent two nights with her.”
“The first at the nightclub, the second at the concert hall. We called.”
“Not very often.”
“Often enough. You weren’t home.”
“Look, is this some sort of inquisition?”
“I rather thought it was,” said Richard.
She stretched again; he had the menace of strangeness about him, always, after such trips. She set herself to elicit his threatless familiarity. “I do like that haircut,” she said. “Where did you get it?”
“The airport. I can’t remember which one now. Somewhere we had to wait.”
“I did cry, darling. About that tree. I stood there with my groceries, watching the place where the sap still leaked, just feeling so sorry for us . . .”
“There are enough trees,” he said.
“I’ll go with you next tour, maybe. To France?”
“Yes, and Italy. It would be fine.”
“I’ll tell you what her letter said,” he said. “If there’s anything else in it then she lied. I got to Halifax that evening, and got to the hotel. She was there; she’d been waiting by the desk all day, she told me, but it didn’t matter, she was pleased to find the right one. Grinning, speechless. She wondered if I’d go to the Pub Club—hear her little rinky-dink ragtime pianist Jon. I think they called themselves the Wolverines. Yes, Bishop and the Wolverines, that’s what they called themselves. Jon Bishop. From Ireland, can you beat it? A Bishop?”
“They’re Catholic there,” Helen said.
“Well, anyway, we went.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“I know. That’s why I’m doing it. He must have been appalled to see me—this ancient, earnest person come to check on his intentions. Whatever. Stride piano, that’s what he played. Not all that badly either, I have to give him that. And Mishiko would sit there, nodding, beaming, drinking milk, and he joined us between sets. We talked about Rachmaninoff. He’d learned the name to impress me, I think, but he said he always thought Rachmaninoff was just the nuts.”
“He didn’t!” Helen laughed.
“Yes. He used that expression—the nuts. So I agreed with him but said that I believed Fats Waller was just the nuts also, and Willie Smith, and we discussed the respective merits of Rachmaninoff and Waller and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. Then I paid and said I had to get some sleep, and thanked him. Said I hoped he’d come to my concert tomorrow, and left them there, and left.”
“We’re being condescending.”
“He didn’t come.”
“What did he look like?”
“Red-headed,” Richard said. “A Vandyke beard, more or less. Short and thick and wearing sequins and one earring. Just her type.”
“Is she happy?” Helen asked.
“I wouldn’t be,” he said.
“That’s not my question. Is she?”
“Would you be? With so little?”
Richard gestured at the tasseled rugs, and at the marsh outside. He turned the floodlights on and it seemed as if they saw the bay, down beyond the flagstone path: boats raised on blocks at the edge of the visible, all they surveyed and owned. She spread out their thick new blanket.
“I want to be happy,”said Helen. “It’s my New Year’s resolution.”
“Do please take your shoes otf. I’m trying.”
He did. and she embraced him and felt him rise against her. The contours of their flesh fused in practiced opposition. Richard lay on top of her, and she on the Hudson’s Bay blanket. But as their bodies meshed she felt such unslaked hunger for some further kind of fusion that she wept; she could not halt the crying that he took as love’s approval and excited him; he plunged inside her fiercely while she formulated words like “condescension”; “Murasaki"; “sea.” She tried to make a pattern of them, but they would not scan; she tried to find a rhythm in them but they did not fit. Her husband’s weight was as an anchor; it kept them together yet kept them apart. He stood. He said, “I love you,” and transferred his clothes to the hamper. She was not endangered, not adrift. Still, she fought to play out line.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bentham:
I have finally got the photograph to be developed and enlarged, and I am very happy to be sending you now. I hope you would love it as much as I do. You and Jon looks so gorgeous in the pictures. This is the first time in my life I get complete satisfaction out of pictures I have ever possessed. I would cherish it and admire it always and every time I look at it I will remember all the beautiful memories those beautiful people, you and Jon, have brought to me.
There is one more thought for which I also need your help for securing a job. I would like work as stagehand or paint stage props at a theater. What I am hoping for is your influential assistance to get some steady connections with people in theater management. Since you are performing I thought you have access to the people even though yours is a musical society. I was tempted to apply for it here but I dare not try because I know the results before start. If I apply for it all by myself because I would never get the job when at mere sight of me the interviewer will say that it is not a woman’s job. I do hope you have someone in mind who can help.
By the way I would like to tell about the letter I had received from Jon. It was letter of apology and he explained in it that he sent his apologies to the theater to you backstage about 8 o’clock on concert night. I don’t know if you really receive it or not.
Whether what he is saying is true or not please forgive him for what he meant to. He has left for his home country after his last performance. He will be coming back in April and will be playing 6 weeks from 5th of April and maybe in May too. Ever since he left to his home in Ireland he has sending me nice letter explaining why he had to acted with me like he had been. I think we will remain as a best friend for each other for the rest of our life since it is the best and only way we could find our happiness. I think we both knew there will be no other way. Now he says he is going to send me a record which will be released soon. That is all we are now at the moment. I am also sending him a picture, and I am happy.