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THE WOMEN WHO GOT AWAY

John Updike

web | The Sun Is but a Morning Star

Pierce Junction was an isolated New Hampshire town somewhat dignified by the presence of a small liberal-arts college; we survived by clustering together like a ball of snakes in a desert cave. The Sixties had taught us the high moral value of copulation, and we were slow to give up on an activity so simultaneously pleasurable and healthy. Still, you couldn't sleep with everybody: we were bourgeoisie, responsible, with jobs and children, and affairs demanded energy and extracted wear and tear. We hadn't learned yet to take the emotion out of sex. Looking back, the numbers don't add up to what an average college student now manages in four years. There were women you failed ever to sleep with; these, in retrospect, have a perverse vividness, perhaps because the contacts, in the slithering ball of snakes, were so few that they have stayed distinct.

"Well, Martin," Audrey Lancaster murmured to me toward the end of a summer cruise on a boat hired out of Portsmouth in celebration of somebody or other's fortieth birthday, "I see what they say about you, at last." The "at last" was a dig of sorts, and the "they" was presumably female in gender. I wondered how much conversation went on, and along lines how specific, among the wives and divorcees of our set. I had been standing there by the rail, momentarily alone, mellow on my portion of California Chablis, watching the Piscataqua River shakily reflect the harbor lights as the boat swung to dock and the loudspeaker system piped Simon and Garfunkel into the warm, watery night.

My wife was slow-dancing on the forward deck with her lover, Frank Greer. Audrey had materialized beside me and my hand went around her waist as if we might dance, too. There my hand stayed, and, like the gentle buzz you get from a frayed appliance cord, the reality of her haunch burned through to my fingers and palm. She was a solid, smooth-faced woman, so nearsighted that she moved with a splay-footed pugnacity, as if something she didn't quite see might knock her over. Her contact lenses were always getting lost, in somebody's lawn or at the back of her eyeballs. She had married young and was a bit younger than the rest of us. You had to love Audrey, seeing her out on the tennis court in frayed denim cut-offs, with her sturdy brown legs and big, squinty smile, taking a swing and missing the ball completely. Her waist was smooth and flexible in summer cotton, and, yes, she was right, for the first time in all our years of acquaintance I sensed her as a potential mate, as a piece of the cosmic puzzle that might fit my piece.

But I also felt that, basically, she didn't care for me, not enough to come walking through all of adultery's risks and spasms of guilt, all those hoops of flame. She distrusted me, the way you distrust a competitor. We were both clowns, bucking to be elected Funniest in the Class. Further, she was taken, doubly: not only married, to a man called Spike, with the four children customary for our generation, but involved in a number of murky flirtations or infatuations, including one with my best friend, Rodney Miller-if a person could be said to have same-sex friends in our rather doctrinairely heterosexual enclave. She had a nice way of drawling out poisonous remarks, and said now, to me, "Shouldn't you go tell Jeanne and Frank the boat is about to dock? They might get arrested by the Portsmouth fuzz for public indecency."

I said, "Why me? I'm not the cruise director."

Jeanne was my wife. Her love for Frank, in the twisted way of things back then, helped bind me to her: I felt so sorry for her, having to spend most of her hours with me and the children when her heart was elsewhere. She had been raised a French Catholic, and there was something noble for her about suffering and self-denial; her invisible hairshirt kept her torso erect as a dancer's and added to her beauty in my eyes. I didn't like Audrey mocking her. Or did I? Perhaps my feelings were more primitive, more stupidly possessive, than I knew at the time. I tightened my grip on Audrey's waist, approaching a painful pinch, then let go, and went forward to where Jeanne and Frank, the music stopped, looked as if they had just woken up, with bloated, startled faces. Frank Greer had been married, to a woman named Winifred, until rather recently in our little local history. Divorce, which had been flickering at our edges for a decade while our vast pool of children slowly bubbled up through the school grades toward, we hoped, psychological health, was still rare, and sat raw on Frank, like the red cheek he had been pressing against my wife's.

Maureen Miller, in one of those intervals in bed when passion had been slaked but an awkward half-hour of usable time remained before I could in decency sneak away, once told me that Winifred resented the fact that, in the years when the affair between Frank and Jeanne was common knowledge, I had never made a pass at her. Winifred, sometimes called Freddy, was an owlish small woman, a graceful white owl, with big dark eyes and untanned skin and an Emily Dickinson hairdo atop a plump body that tapered to small and shapely hands and feet. If my wife held herself like a dancer, it was her lover's wife who in fact could dance, with a feathery nestling and lightness of fit that had an embarrassing erotic effect on me. Holding her in my arms, I would get an erection, and thus I would prudently avoid dancing with her until the end of the evening, when one or the other of us, in an attempt to persuade our spouses to tear themselves apart, would have put on an overcoat. Otherwise, I was not attracted to Winifred. Like the model for her hairdo, she had literary ambitions and a dogmatic, clipped, willfully oblique style. She seemed in her utterances faintly too firm.

"Well, I won't say no," she said, not altogether graciously, one night well after midnight when Jeanne suggested that I walk Winifred home, through a snowstorm that had developed during a dinner party of ours and its inert, boozy aftermath. Couples or their remnants had drifted off until just Winifred was left; she had a stern, impassive way of absorbing a great deal of liquor and betraying its presence in her system only by a slight lowering of her lids over her bright black eyes, and an increase of pedantry in her fluting voice. This was before the Greers' divorce. Frank was absent from the party on some mysterious excuse of a business trip. It was the first stage of their separation, I realized later. Jeanne, knowing more than she let on, had extended herself that night like a kid sister to the unescorted woman. She kept urging Freddy, as the party thinned, to give us one more tale of the creative-writing seminar she was taking, as a special student, at our local college, Bradbury. Bradbury had formerly been a bleak little Presbyterian seminary tucked up here, with its pillared chapel, in the foothills of the White Mountains, but it had long loosened its ecclesiastical ties and in the Sixties had gone coed, with riotous results.

"This one girl," Winifred said, accepting what she swore was her last Kahlua and brandy, "read a story that must have been very closely based on a painful breakup she had just gone through, and got nothing but the most sarcastic comments from the instructor, who seems to be a real sadist, or else it was his way of putting the make on her." Her expression conveyed disgust and weariness with all such transactions. I supposed that she was displacing her anger at Frank onto the instructor, a New York poet who no doubt wished he was back in Greenwich Village, where the sexual revolution was polymorphous. He was a dreary sour condescending fellow, in my occasional brushes with him, and disconcertingly short as well.

These rehashed class sessions were all fascinating stuff, if you judged from Jeanne's animation and gleeful encouragement of the other woman to tell more. A rule of life in Pierce Junction demanded that you be especially nice to your lover's spouse-by no means an insincere observance, for the secret sharing did breed a tortuous, guilt-warmed gratitude to the everyday keeper of such a treasure. But even Winifred through her veils of Kahlua began to feel uncomfortable, and stood up in our cold room (the thermostat had retired hours ago), and put her shawl up around her head, as if fluffing up her feathers. She accepted with a frown Jeanne's insistent suggestion that I escort her home. "Of course I'm in no condition to drive, this has been so lovely," she said to Jeanne, with a handshake that Jeanne turned into a fierce, pink-faced, rather frantic (I thought) embrace of transposed affection.

Winifred's car had been plowed fast to the curb by the passing revolving-eyed behemoths of our town highway department, and she lived only three blocks away, an uphill slog in four inches of fresh snow. She did seem to need to take my arm, but we both stayed wrapped in our own thoughts. The snow drifted down with a steady whisper of its own, and the presence on the streets, at this profoundly nocturnal hour, of the churning, scraping snowplows made an effect of companionship-of a wider party beneath the low sky, which was glowing yellow with that strange, secretive phosphorescence of a snowstorm. The houses were dark, and my porch light grew smaller, receding down the hill. In front of her own door, right under a streetlamp, Winifred turned to face me as if, in our muffling clothes, to dance; but it was only to offer up her pale, oval, rather frozen and grieving face for me to kiss. Snowflakes were caught in the long lashes of her closed lids and spangled the arc of parted dark hair left exposed by her shawl. I felt the usual arousal. The house behind her held only sleeping children. Its clapboard face, needing a coat of paint, looked shabby, betraying the distracted marriage within.

There was, in Pierce Junction, a romance of other couples' houses-the merged tastes, the accumulated furniture, the framed photographs going back to the bridal day and the premarital vacation spots. We loved being guests and hosts both, but preferred being guests, invasive and inquisitive and irresponsible. Did she expect me to come in? It didn't strike me as at all a feasible idea-at my back, down the hill, Jeanne would be busy tidying up the party wreckage in our living room and resting a despairing eye on the kitchen clock with its sweeping red second hand. Tiny stars of ice clotted my own lashes as I kissed our guest good night, square on the mouth but lightly, lightly, with liquor-glazed subtleties of courteous regret. Of all the kisses I gave and received in Pierce Junction, from children and adults and golden retrievers, that chaste crystalline one has remained unmelted in my mind.

When I returned to the house, Frank, surprisingly, was sitting in the living room, holding a beer and wearing a rumpled suit, his long face pink as if after great exertion. Jeanne, too tired to be flustered, explained, "Frank just got back from his trip. The plane into the Manchester airport almost didn't land, and when he found Freddy not at their home he thought he'd swing down here and pick her up."

"Up and down that hill in this blizzard?" I marvelled. I didn't remember any car going by.

"We have four-wheel drive," Frank said, as if that explained everything.

 

Maureen could be a raucous tease. Her rangy body was wide but not deep-she had broad hips but shallow breasts-and all summer she bore around the base of her neck a pink noose of sunburn, freckled and flaking, from working in her garden in a peasant blouse and no sunhat. A redhead, she remained loyal to the long, ironed hair of the flower-child era years after the flower children had gone underground or crazy or back to their parents. When I described these events to her, leaving out the odd physiological effect which holding Winifred in my arms always produced, Maureen laughed and tossed her mane as if about to devour me with her prominent white teeth. "Jeanne is incredible," she said. "Imagine setting a date with your boyfriend at one in the morning in the faith that your husband would be off sleeping with the guy's wife! It sounds as though the snowstorm held everything up-that's why she kept egging Freddy to stay."

"I can't believe," I said, as primly as I could while wearing no clothes, propped up in her bed with a cigarette and a glass of red vermouth, "that things are as cold-blooded and as, as set-up as that. My guess is he swung by because he thought the party was still on."

"But he could see there weren't any cars!"

"Ah," I said, in modest triumph, "Freddy's car was out front, plowed in."

"Plowing, that's the theme," Maureen said. " 'If ye had not plowed with my heifer'-what?-'ye had not found out my riddle.' " She and Rodney had met at a summer Bible school, and Rodney still retained the well-combed, boyish shine of a future missionary. "Anyway," she went on gaily, giving the bed such a bounce that I spilled vermouth into the hairs of my chest, where-damn!-Jeanne might smell it, "I can see you feel you let Freddy down, but don't. She's screwing that odious little New York poet, everybody at Bradbury says."

"I wish you wouldn't tell me all this. I'd like to keep some innocence."

"Martin, you love it, you love knowing everything," she told me, and nuzzled at the spilled vermouth with a faceless, thrusting, leonine seriousness that rather frightened me. I fought her off by finding her ears in all that hair and using them as handles to pull her head up from my chest. Her face, thus tugged back, with uplifted upper lip and slit eyes, reminded me of Winifred's held to be kissed in the snow, and of a death mask. Maureen's was not a female body that hid its bones, its lean doomed hunger. Laughing but hard-eyed, spiteful though playful, she said, "Rodney says you're just like a woman, you're so nosy."

This hurt me and aroused me. Rodney and I were severely discreet, talking about nothing but our chaste sports-golf, poker, tennis, skiing. We didn't even talk politics, at the height of Vietnam and then through Nixon's prolonged downfall. Yet it was stirring, to think of Maureen and Rodney talking about me, in their marital intimacy. "Like a woman, am I?" I said, growling and wrestling her under, to reverse our positions in the bed, that guest-room bed I knew so well, a mahogany four-poster, with a removable pineapple topping each post. Maureen's shrieks of resistance and amusement rang through the oak-floored rooms of her Victorian house and out, I feared, into the street.

Pierce Junction was a town of secrets that kept leaking out, like sawdust from a termite-ridden beam. There were all these tiny wormholes, with a flicker of life at the end of each. When Jeanne learned of my affair with Maureen, she reacted with a surge of fury that surprised me, since I had been putting up with her and Frank for years. Unforgivably, she demonstrated her anger by storming over to the Millers' and telling Rodney everything. Maureen, with her pious streak, worked Wednesdays and Saturdays at a Methodist home for delinquent children in Concord, and it was the telephone company's efficiency, listing non-local calls by town and number, that had given our liaison away. When I try to recall our passion, it comes not with X-rated images from our hours in bed but with a certain dull taste, the madeleine of an especially desolate minute in an idle day, the longing that made me, of a dull and hollow afternoon, insatiably crave the sound of her voice-lower and huskier over the phone, more thoughtfully musical, than it seemed when we were face to face. Her voice momentarily pushed aside the sore dread in which I lived in those years; her voice and its quick inspirations of caustic perception painted the world, which seemed to me rimmed with a vague terror, in bright fearless colors. Hearing Maureen reassuringly laugh, as if we were all caught in a delicious, precarious joke, slaked a thirst that weighed in my throat like an iron bar. Without her in it somewhere, at least as a voice over the telephone, the world lacked a center. I had to talk to her, though the phone bill did us in.

The hunger was not only mine, but pervaded our circle with the pathos of unsatisfied need: poor Jeanne and Frank, stealing that silly half-hour in the blizzard. Maureen for me was like a campfire whose light makes the encircling darkness seem absolute, and whose heat becomes a sharp chill a few paces from its immediate vicinity.

Jeanne didn't come back from her interview with Rodney for hours. Not immediately, but after some days had worn us down to skeletons of weary honesty, she confessed that, Maureen being absent, she had slept with him, in some delirium of revenge, though he had been reluctant.

"One of Maureen's sadnesses," I told her, "was always that he was so faithful, so satisfied by her. Or so she thought."

"How funny of her. You remember that period when Winifred and Frank were just breaking up, and Freddy was wildly on the make? I was terrified she was going to seduce you, that snowy night. Well, Rodney was the only man around here who didn't disappoint her-who lived up to her self-image. Apparently she is very sexy. Rodney said he was rather put off by his sensation that at that point in time-I sound like Nixon-she would fuck anybody. I wish he hadn't told me-even Frank doesn't know, and I hate having a secret from him."

"Such beautiful scruples," said I.

"Go ahead, mock. I deserve it, I guess."

"My martyr. My Jeanne in the flames," I said, hardly able to wait until I could take her to bed and discover how her new knowledge, her fresh corruption, had enriched her.

Yet we did divorce, in painful piecemeal, as did Maureen and Rodney. I moved to Nashua, but would return to Pierce Junction to visit the children, take Jeanne's temperature, and play my old games. One poker night, rather than let me drive back to Nashua full of beer, Rodney insisted that I sleep in his bachelor shack, up in the hills, at the end of a mile of dirt road. While waiting for my turn to use the bathroom, I saw a note carelessly left on his cluttered desk. The rounded upright handwriting, with its "a"s oddly like "o"s, struck me as momentously familiar; Audrey Lancaster had been the secretary of a conservation committee I had once served on. Another fool's errand, it read. Did I misunderstand, or has Friar Lawrence goofed again? Now my van is dusty and my legs full of mosquito bites from an hour on your porch. Some damn bird in your woods was trying to deliver a message in clear English but couldn't quite make it out of birdsong. Yours, sort of. Yes? Unsigned. A blue-lined page torn, with an anger visible in the tearing, from a college notebook. A thumbtack hole where it had been pinned up outside. It brought me thrillingly close to Audrey, as close as we had been the night I had rested my palm on her haunch. She had come up that gloomy dirt road through the forest like a big smooth salmon upstream, and ignominiously driven back down again. Her literary allusion seemed more like Winifred, somehow.

When Rodney emerged innocently from the bathroom, wearing little-boy cotton pajamas and a fleck of toothpaste on his chin, I hated him as never in those years of entering his big house near the college, past the lawnmower and the oil cans in his garage, through the kitchen where he gobbled breakfast every day, past the shelf of his golf trophies, toward the mahogany guest bed. While some of us burned on the edges of life, insatiable and straining to see more deeply in, he sat complacently at the center and let life come to him-so much of it, evidently, that he could not keep track of his appointments.

Down in Nashua, as the Seventies dwindled into Jimmy Carter's inflation and malaise, I lost track of the ins and outs of life in Pierce Junction. The possibility that Maureen and I might get together on a respectable basis had been early dismissed by her. Too many children, too much financial erosion, too much water over the dam. "Don't you see, Marty?" she told me. "We've done it. We'd look at each other and all we'd see would be evidence of our sin!"

The quaint last word shocked me with the possibility that she-and Jeanne, and all the women-had been suffering in our sexual paradise, stressed and taxed by the divergence from monogamy. I felt insulted. So it was with, among other things, a pang of vengeful satisfaction that I heard of her sudden death, in a car driven late at night along Route 202 by, of all people, Spike Lancaster, a beefy, loud, hard-drinking restaurateur whose plain deficiencies had given Audrey, in our little set, a halo of forbearance. Spike and Audrey had nothing in common but bad eyesight. Maureen died, and he, the driver, came out of the crash with minor injuries and a rakish reputation that probably didn't hurt business in his roadside restaurant-called, actually, the Lucky Shamrock.

I could hardly believe that, after sublime us, Maureen could have taken up with this brute, this simpleton. Served her right, getting her neck broken, that slender neck springing with its pulse from a circle of summer sunburn. These ugly, unworthy thoughts lasted only a second, of course-a lightning flicker of amoral neurons before the gentle rain of decent sadness began. But her death, and this final scandal, with its black skidmarks and shattering of safety glass, did shut down Pierce Junction for me.

Jeanne and Frank married, and I edged into a second life, with a second wife and new children. My own children continued to grow, went to college, married, and moved away. I had fewer and fewer reasons to return; when I did, the town's geography, little changed, seemed to contain the same old currents, but the wires were different. The faces, and the old wormholes, if they still existed, were out of sight, running through younger lives. When I thought back to our hectic, somehow sacred heyday, it was, as I say, less in terms of the women closest to me than of those in the middle distance, relatively virginal, who had taken the siren call of the unknown with them as they disappeared over my horizon.

A mall had sprung up between Nashua and Pierce Junction, on the site of a dairy farm whose silver-tipped silos I still expected to see gleaming at that particular turn of the highway. Instead, there was this explosively fragmented glitter-chain stores in postmodern glass skins, and a vast asphalt meadow paved with cars. Intending to buy a grandchild a birthday present at one of those toy emporia with the queerly reversed "R," I was traversing the insistently musical reaches of an enclosed arcade lined, in its parody of an old-time Main Street, with windows of name-brand goods and dotted with underpatronized kiosks offering tinselly jewelry, exotic herbal teas, and candy and yogurt-coated pretzels in cloudy plastic bins. Suddenly I saw in the middle distance an unmistakable walk-splay-footed, wary, yet determinedly forward and, to my eyes, enticingly youthful.

I ducked into a Gap outlet and, concealed amid shelves of softened denim and earthtone turtlenecks, gazed out as Audrey, plumper and gray but still supple, passed. The contact lenses that she was always losing had given way to cheerfully clunky thick glasses. She was squinting and smiling and talking with animation, moving that flexible murmurous wide mouth of hers.

Her companion, wearing trousers and a feathery short white hairdo and a quilted down vest, for a moment seemed a complete stranger, a solemnly pouting small man. But then, with a stab of recognition that set off a senile stir of excitement behind my fly and jumped me a step farther back from the window, I saw; there was of course no mistaking the barrel-shaped owl body, the hooded dark eyes, the dainty extremities. Winifred. She and Audrey moved with the dreamy mutual submission of an old married couple. They were holding hands.

2000

 

 

© John Updike
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© E-publisher LiterNet, 28.08.2010
The Sun Is but a Morning Star. Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Albena Bakratcheva. Varna: LiterNet, 2008-2010