VIEWS: 27 PAGES: 7 POSTED ON: 12/26/2009
KNOWING There are, as Laura would put it, moments in time which are remembered with scrupulous precision. The millions of housewives who were washing dishes when they heard the news bulletin that President Kennedy was shot can tell you the dish they were holding. Drivers remember vividly what spot they were stopped at or passing. It is not a voluntary act, this kind of recall. There are other moments we would freeze if we could. But these seem to trickle away, details blur, disputes about the names of restaurants and what dress she was wearing abound. Dates, even the exact time of momentous life passages must be figured out ("that was the year we went to the Cape," "that was the year Billy was born"). Some few events in a lifetime have an intrinsic power. Everything is captured in the moment. Whatever follows, grief or joy, the first emotion, the one fixed in time, is shock. It is that, the utter incomprehensibility of the news which delivers the first blow. More follows, of course, the details. By then, the body is ready to receive the rest, or else to give way to a heart attack; barely ready, still reeling from the first blow, resisting, denying, praying it isn't true. On Tuesday, February 11 at 9:45, Carol Greene was throwing out the Sunday "Times." Tuesday was her late night at the store, and she didn't go in until four, allowing her to attend to the apartment, a task she very much enjoyed. Aaron read the "Times" all over the house. The sports section was in the bathroom, the financial section in the living room, the magazine he saved for more careful reading during the week. She was wearing a yellow print house dress that zipped up the front. She only zipped it to her chest, just below her breasts, for comfort. She wore it whenever she cleaned house. Her routine rarely varied, the first task was to pick up the papers. WQXR was playing Vivaldi's "La Notte", one of her favorite pieces of music. She was in the bedroom when she found Laura's letter. She was bending from the knees, as she had been advised to do by her Doctor, sorting through the newspaper and some typed papers Aaron had left on the floor on his side of the bed. The papers looked to her like early drafts of an article he was writing, and she wondered if she should save them. She was holding them in her right hand when she noticed a page of thick yellow vellum mixed in with the rest. She read the salutation, "Darling," written in a bold script. She straightened up, dropping all the papers but the letter, which she continued to hold in her right hand. She folded the letter and took it into the kitchen. She put it down on the table and boiled some water for tea. She sugared the tea, two teaspoons, and used a china cup, not her mug. She stared at the letter, sipping her steaming tea. The tip of her tongue was very slightly burned from its initial immersion. She rolled it over her lip for comfort. She found her mind wandering, back to her housecleaning chores. She had planned to drop in at the Metropolitan Museum on her way to work. She had been looking forward to today. It was to have been a pleasant day. "Damn him," she said aloud. How did it get there, she wondered. He must have been reading it when the phone rang, he forgot and dropped it. Something like that, he would never do it deliberately. When she was first married she and three newly married friends talked about what they would do if they discovered their husbands had been unfaithful. In those early days it was so improbable, so ludicrous, it was almost fun to try and imagine it. As these four brides evaluated their own husbands, they secretly evaluated the husbands of their friends. The only husband who received all four votes of confidence that of his wife, and her friends, was Aaron. The other husbands did not fare as well; the next highest score was two. As it turned out, all these husbands were unfaithful, although one was just a one night stand in Atlanta for which he paid dearly, believing he had contracted a venereal disease. When it was Carol's turn to answer, two others had gone before (one said she would understand if he promised never to see the girl again, the other simply said she would kill him), Carol said "I'd leave him on the spot." Her voice was very cold; her friends were impressed with the intensity of her reaction. They had been kidding around, Carol was taking this seriously. They were impressed as well because they all knew Aaron and not one of them, in her private evaluation, thought he would ever screw around. In part because he had evidenced no interest in these three girls, and in part because he was too intelligent, too cerebral. And he had already had two wives and all that grief with Susan, his first wife, dying. Carol had taken the question seriously indeed. She felt she had some special standing. She, among all her friends, knew what it felt like to sleep with a man, knowing he had the memory of a particular woman with which to compare her. Wondering all the time, how she felt to him. And did she make too much noise; did she smell the same, better? Carol had married her dead sister's husband. She had not been Aaron's first choice, but she had him now, and she knew for sure then that if Aaron ever touched another woman, she would leave him flat. Years later, when other friends would speculate on why Carol Greene didn't leave her philandering husband, they agreed it was, at least in part, because she was afraid she wouldn't find anyone else. By that time she had gained the cursed weight which would follow her around the rest of her life, no matter how much she starved, no matter how many pills she took. But Carol never gave that a thought. If she had, she would have been quite confident that she could attract another man. After all, Aaron had married her. No, it was not fear of being alone, not then, or self doubt about her charm. It was Aaron. She loved Aaron. And by the time she first realized he had been unfaithful, before Charlie was born, she knew she would never leave him. That first time she found no letter. She thought she could detect something in his attitude, some wandering in his thoughts. He wasn't all there. So she asked him one day, just boldly, "Are you having an affair?" He denied it, was indignant at her suspicion. Something in his denial confirmed it for her. His disavowal was altogether too emphatic. Of course, she couldn't be sure then, not absolutely sure. And she was not interested in finding any evidence. Shortly thereafter, to their great surprise, she discovered that she was, at aged thirty-eight, pregnant with Charlie. It was a difficult pregnancy. Aaron was around all the time, rushing back between classes, spending time with Justin, calling several times a day, marketing, even cooking once in a while. She had never been happier than she was during those months of her pregnancy with Charlie. Whatever doubts she might have harbored about Aaron did not disturb her serenity. Carol and Aaron had never had an active sexual relationship. In the early years of their marriage, this disturbed Carol. She was curiously more interested in the frequency than the quality. Carol had fairly rigid ideas about what fell within the normal range. She had it fixed in her mind that the average couple, after two years of marriage, had intercourse three times a week. Of course, average means sometimes more, sometimes less. She and Aaron were less. Much less. Carol had a lively, but not lusty, sexual appetite, frequently initiating sex. Aaron was compliant, when he wasn't too tired or preoccupied. He gave an appearance of gusto, in his work, in his political quarrels. He was an animated conversationalist, a galvanizing lecturer. It was odd, therefore, that he was so passive in bed. Something was missing for Aaron in sex. She tried to talk to him about it. He refused, it was all deeply embarrassing. He didn't seem to like sex, she even wondered once if he might be a latent homosexual. For years she went through stages where she alternatively blamed herself, then him. Once during a terrible argument, when she had again accused him of having an affair, she screamed at him, "Living with you is an indictment of me as a woman. You never want me, you never touch me, you're a cold man, Aaron, a cold man." "It's not you," he said, "It’s something in me. Call it neurosis, repression, whatever, it's too late to fix it. Sweetheart, it's not you, I promise. I'll be better, I will." And shortly thereafter, she became pregnant with Charlie. After Charlie was born, their sex stopped completely. It seemed inevitable that it would, she had her baby for comfort. And Aaron sometimes held her in the night, and if she moved in a certain way, or guided his hand, he touched her, loved her with his hands, relieved her momentary urge. And she would do the same for him, touch him, suckling him until he too turned hard, for just a moment, and came. She thought he had some classic problems, wife into mother, that sort of thing. Or perhaps he had been traumatized by Justin's birth, by Susan's death. She surreptitiously read books and articles; she knew the correct names and diagnosis of a dozen types of sexual dysfunction. Eventually, she stopped blaming herself. Aaron was in every way a good husband, her best friend. For her, what they had was enough. She wished, from time to time, that it was different. That he would take her with a brutal passion. But that, she knew, was the stuff of romance novels, of movies, of fantasy. A good marriage was something else. It was just this, more or less. Best friends, and in the night, learned tricks, sexual sleight of hand. She had relied on the intimacy, nourished by their secret, the poignancy of his failure. She was sure he told her everything; he came home with such long-winded tales of university politics and conspiracies in the UJO. They shared a love of books, although he read philosophy and she liked mysteries. Often, he would call and say "How about Chinese tonight?" just as she was thinking of an egg roll. He told her of his female students who flirted, who left him notes and invited his attention. Carol Greene had married her sister's husband, raising their child as her own. She was overweight and generally fearful of trying new things. She was acrophobic. A therapist would have a field day with her. About how she shielded herself from sex with fat, felt profound guilt about Susan's death (had she wished it? Certainly she had been in love with Aaron for years before). Even Charlie, coming so late, after they had accepted they would not have a child. Coming just as Justin was preparing to leave for college. Was she so frightened of losing Aaron she willed that conception to hold him? It was enough she knew the questions. About herself, about Aaron. She did not require answers; she did not see they would enrich her marriage in any way. And now she was about to retire. In a few months she would be treated to punch and cookies in the executive dining room of Lord and Taylors. The president of the store would speak in gracious tones of her superior administrative abilities, her keen eye for fashion trends, her contribution to the store. She was looking forward to it, to the party to retirement. She deserved it; she had paid her dues, as career woman, as wife. She picked up the letter, as if to judge its weight, to see how many stamps it needed to send it on his way. Out of here, out of her kitchen, her life. It was very slight, it hardly weighed an ounce, nothing at all really. I can just not read it," she thought. Why should I read it, a letter addressed to Aaron as "Darling." It's pointless to read it, some love sick student, at worst a brief flirtation. Throw it away; he'll worry so about where it is that will be enough punishment. She wished the phone would ring. She considered another cup of tea, the first was cold. Her tongue was still a little raw, and she felt some pain in her toe, the one in which she frequently got an ingrown toenail. And if it's more, she thought. Suppose it's more. Just suppose he's having a real affair, a full-fledged affair, a midlife crisis affair in spades. And she remembered her own voice, so sure, so cool all those years ago. She almost laughed out loud, "Leave him flat--my God, I was young." The very idea of leaving Aaron flat was so silly, so theatrical; she didn't give it another thought. It was entirely possible that she and Aaron would laugh over tonight, her bad moment when she saw the word "Darling," her foolish suspicions rather flattering to an old man. The issue, should the letter be really bad, was not separation, it was confrontation. And for that she needed to know what it said. Her hands did not tremble when she unfolded the letter, she did not have tachycardia or a seizure when she read it. She did not even cry. Darling, Thank God for Mondays. Even one day without you is too much. I thought a lot about what you said on Saturday. You said I was "insensitive," but really I'm not. I know how hard it is for you to leave Carol. "A little more time," you said, but it's been so long already. Don't we, don't you, deserve some happiness too? Sweetheart, I love you, I know you love me, and in an odd way I know we'll be together before too long. I do have faith in that, I do trust you. So take a little longer, if you must, protect her as long as you can. Only know that I'm waiting, and that, in the end, it's your choice to make. Thursday, Thursday, my darling. Think about Thursday for strength. I love you, Laura Carol was sick with humiliation that Laura would write of her this way. She did not mind so much about the sex. It happens, monogamy is stupid anyway. But this, that Laura should write so condescendingly of her. That Aaron and Laura discussed her, that she was laid bare before this stranger by her best friend. She sat there at her kitchen table for a long time that morning. The phone never rang; she did not make another cup of tea. She knew she should call somebody, a friend, a psychiatrist, a lawyer. Someone who would give her advice, comfort, counsel. But most important, she knew she mustn't panic. Years ago, she had swum out too far while she and Aaron were vacationing in the Caribbean. Aaron was reading on the beach, and Carol took her snorkeling equipment and went to investigate a reef. It was the first year she had snorkeled; she was captivated by the world under the sea. And she was proud. Aaron frequently accused her of not trying new things, of being too timid. This looked easy enough; she got the hang of it in a few minutes. It engaged all her senses; she even liked the sounds of her breathing through the tube. She had been snorkeling for about forty minutes when she looked up to see where she was. The beach was far away, too far. It looked small, just a curve of sand. She could not see any people on the beach, just some black figures. I'm out too far, she thought, No one knows I'm here. The ocean, which had been so friendly only a minute before, now seemed ominous. The waves looked darker, the water felt colder. She started to swim. In a couple of minutes she looked up again, she had been swimming the wrong way, further out. She realized then that the tide was very strong, she would have to watch very carefully as she stroked if she was to make it to shore. She abandoned her snorkeling equipment, let it fall, watched it sink, regretted it, tried to dive for it and got a nose full of water, just missing the end of the breathing tube. She treaded water. Perhaps Aaron would look up, see she was in distress. The idea of calling, shouting was clearly futile. She knew it was up to her. She was either going to make it to shore on her own, or drown. This is the way it happens, she thought. TOURIST DROWNS OFF SUN BAY BEACH Mrs. Carol Greene from New York City drowned while snorkeling yesterday. Her body was washed ashore sometime during the night. Her husband, Aaron Greene, Professor of Law at Morningside University, could offer no explanation for his wife's untimely death. "She had just learned to snorkel on this trip," he said. An autopsy is being performed to determine if Mrs. Greene suffered a heart attack. She leaves two sons, Justin and Charles. Visitors to Barbados are reminded that the waters off shore are dangerous and the markings for safe water should be strictly observed. She told herself not to panic. Panic would kill her. If she could keep her head, she might be tired, but she would make it. Panic was the only enemy. And she started swimming, this time keeping the shore line in sight. It was arduous; she was exhausted in just a minute or two. The shore didn't seem as if it was getting any closer. Don't panic, she thought. She cleared her mind of everything but the need not to panic, and a plan to reach the shore. She found that if she breathed every three strokes, checking the shore line, she made better time than taking a breath every stroke. When she was tired, she rolled on her back, and did a backstroke, keeping the sun in the right position so she was sure she was swimming towards shore. And all the time, she refused to think about anything except that she would make it, that she must not panic, that she could do it. She swam for forty minutes, until finally her feet grazed the sand. Even then, she was far from shore, but safe. Aaron was standing, his hands cupped over his eyes, looking out at the water. He spotted her and waved, then dropped back down to his mat. Later, she said to him, "I swam out too far," and he said, "You were out pretty far. You know, you have to be careful in these waters." There was after all, no point in talking about it. She had kept her head and saved her life. She would do the same now. On the kitchen table, the magazine section of the New York Times was open to the crossword puzzle. She and Aaron had a system. He would begin it, putting in anything that was obvious to him, not reaching for any words. Then she took over, and did her best to fill it in. Sometimes he finished it, most often, she would get it back with a few holes. In their dresser drawer were their tickets to the opera. They had the same subscription for twenty years. They subscribed as well to a couple of off Broadway theaters. Each September, Carol and Aaron would have a culture conference and select together what they wanted to see for the coming season. In the desk were their savings books. Each entry was a cause of celebration. Each withdrawal denoted some setback, an illness, Charlie's braces, the long weeks of her convalescence after gall bladder surgery. Laura had no crossword puzzles, no tickets or savings books. She had his sex. So what, sex hadn't been the point of their marriage anyway. It wasn't so important before, why should it be so important now. So, Laura had gotten his attention, caught his eye for a minute. She wondered if he was hard for her. Maybe, maybe. But Laura didn't know that for thirty-three years both of them took off the first day of spring and drove to the country for lunch. It was, Aaron said, a time for renewal, and neither of them had ever missed a year. And did Laura know that when she fell asleep reading, as she often did, Aaron would gently remove her glasses, fold them and put them in the drawer next to her side of the bed. She looked around her kitchen. Aaron's vitamins were lined up on the counter. He took twelve different vitamins each morning, and bran mixed with orange juice. Did Laura know that? The evidence of her marriage, the documents, the certificates, the memories, the sheer weight of their shared years, the children, the secrets, were all hers. Laura had no part of that. She loved Aaron Greene; she wanted to keep him as husband. What he wanted would have to matter less. And what Laura wanted, not at all. She knew she must not panic, and she knew, too, that no one must ever know she had found the letter. She could bear anything, as long as no one knew. She was astounded at her ferocity. This letter stirred a passion for her husband long dormant. They, Aaron and Laura, had their secrets. She had hers. She knew him well, he might betray her, but he would never let her down. Of that much she was sure. And then, at last, she cried. She was bitterly disappointed in Aaron, and shamed to her core. She fought a sense of total waste, of the years all having been a sham. But most of all she cried because she knew nothing would ever be the same between them. She cried for all the years to come that would now be transmuted, in some small way contaminated because she knew.
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