Lyle and Tracy Pine had been married for nineteen years, had two children, a dog, and only ten years left on their mortgage when she found out about her picture on a swingers' website. Within a week, Tracy had the kids and the house, and Lyle had the dog and a motel room. The last thing she said to him, at a cafe they had frequented in their randy remote youth, was, "Have a good time, Lyle." And for a day or two, at least, Lyle thought he just damn well might. A good time was all he had ever meant to have, was something he had not been having for at least a decade, and something he thought he surely deserved now more than ever, now that he had so colossally screwed up his life but still had his hair, still wasn't fat. The problem was, understandably perhaps, sex was not the first thing on his mind anymore.
Tracy had a hard time making it through any day without crying. The only way she could do it was to swear at her children, and she didn't know which—crying or swearing—would do them less harm. After she'd told her thirteen-year-old daughter one day that she might have an easier time finding her favorite socks if she turned on the fucking light, Tracy decided it was time to find a therapist, even though she knew she could not afford one. She asked around (so many friends with someone to recommend!), and eventually settled on a woman who was either a little weathered at 55, a vigorous 70, or someplace in between—a tall German named Ulrike. Tracy hoped Ulrike could help her get through the five stages of grief quickly and efficiently, so that she could get on with her new, single-parent life, which, God knew, did not leave a lot of time in one's day for spiritual healing. Ulrike gave the impression she had never been a fool for love. She had a Saxon bearing. She exuded vigor. Ulrike listened to Tracy's story with the intensity of a general getting a report from the front. But when she finally opened her mouth, all she said was, "You must be very sad."
Gratefully, Tracy wept. "Goddammit! "she said.
Together, they had made enough money to live comfortably but without much extravagance. Exactly how they were going to afford two domiciles, and psychotherapy, she didn't know. If Tracy had spent even one more day thinking about it, she might not have made him go, but she was glad she'd acted when she was still pissed off. Just to have a roof over one's head was not a good enough reason to keep sleeping with a fool. But they had not yet split the checking account, and she hadn't yet paid the month's bills. She was glad Kelly's swim team dues were paid through the next three months and glad, for once, that Chad wasn't interested in much of anything extracurricular. He played computer games, he watched television, he continued not finishing homework, as if his father were away on nothing more than a business trip. She tried to talk to her son about what was going on, but his adolescent cool was impenetrable. Was he stoic? Was he clueless? Who knew? It drove her crazy, but no matter how often Tracy tried to check in on his heart, it always felt as if she were seeking comfort for hers. He was so much like his father that one night she dreamed he came home from school and said, "Mom, there's another woman. There has been for some time."
Tracy didn't even know if Lyle had another woman. Lyle's problem was not infidelity, anyway. It was a more generalized lack of compass. He hated his job, but in five years he had made no effort to find anything else. He took up hobbies and abandoned them as soon as he'd spent a few hundred dollars. He surfed the web with the acumen of a truly unhappy man. She had no idea how long he'd been looking at swinger sites, how many bored, oversexed women he'd chatted up, or how many of them had actually been men. She found herself quite taken with this last possibility—that Lyle might have fallen for some gorgeous, 23-year-old nymph who turned out to be a closeted, middle-aged homosexual husband. Who knew, though, if Lyle weren't a closeted homosexual husband himself? All evidence to the contrary. He did not have much sexual range. He did not seem to Tracy to have enough imagination to be gay. But still she missed him—desperately, angrily, wanting his face back in the house, his arm around her waist in bed at night, the prickle of his chin on her shoulder. She could not imagine a future without him.
And though Lyle could not imagine a future without Tracy either, he expected he was facing one now. He really wasn't sure what he'd been thinking when he'd paid the site subscription, posted his wife's picture, written a bit of saucy copy. What had he wanted? What had he planned? As he slouched deeper into the swamp of his forties, Lyle felt his discernment slipping away. It could have been early onset dementia for the utter disregard he paid the plain facts of his life. One night he just walked away from his computer without dimming the screen. Tracy came into the study looking for a book to read—and there she was, in the strangest company. It was only an idea, he wanted to tell her. It didn't have to be that idea. What ideas might she have? His dick so desperately wanted to be eighteen again, to have something to look forward to that could not be guessed, could not be scripted from the first glass of wine to the last perfunctory shudder. And he knew as certainly as he knew he would soon be asked to give up his dog, too, that it was now too late.
The next day, the manager told him the dog had to go. To keep it, he rented an apartment that afternoon that he'd looked at for months, had pined for the way he'd have pined for a girl, if there had been any girl. It was on the fourth floor of a corner building in a part of town that housed no families but many artists and musicians, many young paralegals. A larger apartment further out of town would have been more affordable, but there was no more time to defer the dream. On credit he bought a futon and a flat screen television. He didn't have much else in the place—a couple of boxes of books and CDs, his laptop. In a room so bare, the new purchases made the place look very sleek, Lyle decided. Sue, the dog, added a homely touch. It wasn't until he turned the television on and got nothing but snow that he realized he couldn't afford cable.
That night he heard thrums of party music coming from the building across the street. He had not been to a loud party himself for sixteen years. Tracy had been two months pregnant but high as a kite on the music and half a joint, showing no compunction to act her age. She'd danced a full hour. Later at home she was alternately vomiting, ravenous, and horny, her hormones so fritzed you could smell the smoke. Lyle himself had just stood around at the party, nursing a beer, feeling old—ludicrously, since he was 33 at the time. But the truth was, you were much younger than that when you started to notice that you were not quite what you once had been: one day the check-out girl puts "sir" at the end of her question; you get winded shooting hoops with your younger cousin. You're probably not even 25 when the first little twinge comes, when you wonder if you're close to being played out. From then on, it's each decade spent ruing the loss of the one just gone by. Life's great challenge, Lyle thought now, was not to mope like a dumb ass. To remind yourself every day that in ten years you will envy the present. Maybe this is what she'd meant when she wished him a good time. Just quit moping, Lyle.
One Friday morning, Tracy decided she didn't really need to get up. The kids did their own breakfasts now, anyway, and they were zombies before going to school. It didn't even occur to them when they walked out the door that they'd dressed, eaten, and packed without their mother once poking her head into the kitchen. Tracy slept until eleven, when she looked at the clock and rolled back into a catatonic curl. She tried without luck to get back into a dream about a horse. There was nothing like riding a horse high on a Western mesa to put things in perspective, especially if you were dressed like a Viking and were the only hope left for a band of child warriors surrounded by giant hyena-monkeys. She finally got up a little after noon.
She washed her hair in the bathroom sink. As she blew it dry, she caught herself staring at her reflection in the mirror. There are two kinds of women—those who stop looking at themselves in middle age, and those who start. Tracy had stopped looking years ago. It was nothing conscious. It wasn't like she couldn't bear to watch the inexorable toll. It's just that other things had come up. She hadn't really thought about her looks in a long time. But Lyle's stunt had thrown her. It was an insult and a compliment at the same time, a description of her that could have been of a prize heifer. She'd worked hard. Made sure she stayed fit, even if she was a long way from 25. There were wrinkles and a little padding, but she didn't look like she was old enough to be her mother. Was this the payoff, then? Take my wife . . . Please.
Tracy's robe fell open a little as she brushed her hair. She didn't close it. She turned a little to the left, then the right. Then she bent down a little bit. She tried a Saucy Grin. Why was she doing this? She turned the light down a little and kept looking. Yes. In the right light, she could still be dangerous. In a his cloddish way, Lyle had noticed. She brought her hand up to her throat and traced the back of her finger down the skin, past the collarbone to the swell of her breast. The skin felt younger than she'd thought it would. After two babies, she'd pretty well stopped thinking of her tits as anything but milk bottles, and then empty milk bottles. It had been twelve years, though. Her dark nipple perked up so fast she actually pulled her hand out of her robe and closed it up. She looked hard at the mirror.
"What shall we do today?" she said aloud.
When Kelly got home at 3:15, Tracy was sitting at the kitchen table in a light shirt and a pair of jeans, freshly scrubbed and smiley, looking through Gourmet. "I want something different tonight," Tracy said. "Come to the store with me." She couldn't believe she didn't play hooky more often. She'd never come close to using all her sick days at the office. With one afternoon like this, she felt she could take on a month of slings and arrows. Kelly was a good grocery partner—she loved to cook, and she loved to shop. She also loved clothes, interior decorating, and horses. She'd recently started to sew. Tracy sometimes worried that Kelly wasn't temperamentally suited to the present age. But still it was nice to have someone along who liked to shop. Even for groceries.
"What about that?" Kelly said, and she pointed to the picture on the front of the magazine, a rack of lamb in some kind of herbed rub, lying on a bed of wilted arugula and currants. A glass of what looked like a fifty-dollar Pinot stood slightly out of focus behind it. Tracy thought that was just about right.
"We'll surprise Chad," she said.
As they walked through the store, though, Kelly had gotten quieter. She carried the magazine, intently reading out the ingredients as she usually did, but her eyes never strayed and she didn't offer the usual commentary. Instead, Tracy gabbed for her, letting her lanky mood run its own course. She couldn't believe how good she felt. This was the first day since Lyle had left she felt like doing something other than swearing. Or crying. She especially liked the feel of her shirt. For some reason, she'd never noticed this before. It was light rayon and made her feel billowy. Maybe she hadn't it worn it as much as she thought she had. Maybe it had been a hassle to iron. Every movement felt so good against her skin that ironing seemed definitely worth it, though. She would take something off a shelf and feel a caress, turn the shopping cart just to have the material slide against her like a lover. Why didn't she remember this? She bent low to reach across one of the low refrigerated islands for some chicken and felt the waft of cold air against her breasts. About the same time that she saw the helpless stare of the man standing across the island, she remembered why the shirt felt so good. Suddenly the blood in her head was deafening.
"Hershey's Kisses," Lyle had called them. Her nipples were as dark as moles, a gift from some Slavic or Arab or even Mongol grandmother enough generations back to be remembered in nothing but the DNA. Only two weeks after moving into his flat, Lyle found himself missing them terribly. Late one night, he discovered that what he'd thought of as just a little side trip in his fantasy life had completely taken over, and he could no longer maintain an erection without thinking of Tracy's breasts.
He also missed his children. He missed them worse than anything.
He decided Chad and Kelly's first visit to his apartment did not have to be a solemn occasion. He especially thought Kelly would like the place, with its bare brick wall and its hardwood floors. Kelly's latest enthusiasm was interior decorating. It might be nice to bring her on in a sort of junior freelance capacity. This meant, mainly, deciding where to put the futon and the television, which were still the only objects in the place. But when he unlocked the door and said, "Voila!" all the two of them did was walk in and look dumbly around, frightened wards of the state. They were as quiet as if they'd been half their ages.
Sue, old and flatulent, walked stiffly over to greet the kids.
"Well?" Lyle said.
"It's pretty empty," said Chad, ignoring the dog.
"It's minimalist. Kelly knows minimalism. Right, Kel?"
"No, I don't," Kelly said. She knelt down, hugged Sue, kissed her on her dry, old nose.
"It's an aesthetic statement. It's—this is minimalist. The bare essentials. Life cut to the bone." Which sounded just a little too close to the truth to be a good conversation starter. "Who wants lunch!"
Lyle had been perfecting a minimalist turkey melt of which he was very proud. The secret was to sprinkle a little dried basil over the Swiss cheese. For a side dish, he had minimalist cucumber in yogurt, also with basil sprinkles. Tracy had always used fresh mint, but Lyle found basil sprinkles a happy substitute. At least he thought they were a happy substitute, but he was interested in Kelly's opinion.
"This doesn't taste right," Chad said.
"What is this?" Kelly said.
"You like it?" Lyle said.
They talked about recipes and interior decorating for a few more minutes, or rather Lyle did as the kids listened, and then lunch was finished. They hit dead air as they cleaned the dishes off the table. The silence had to be quite palpable, because it was finally Chad who broke it.
"I'm thinking of joining the track team."
Kelly jumped. She looked quickly down at Sue, as if it were more likely the dog had spoken English.
"Wow!" Lyle said. "Wow, really? How'd this come up? Coach ask you to try out?"
"Ask me? No! Why would he ask me?"
"I asked him."
"Well, that's great, son. What made you think of this?"
"I dunno. Maybe I need more exercise."
"You're trying out for track because you need exercise?"
"I dunno." Chad said nothing for a few long seconds. Then, without looking up from the dish he was drying, he said, "Why are you and Mom splitting up?"
"Why are we splitting up?"
"Mom said she was tired of waiting for you to grow up," Kelly said.
"I'm only 48 years old," Lyle said. "That's only fourteen in middle-aged-man years."
"Are you going to get a divorce?" she asked. She was like her mom, Lyle thought—not easily distracted. Then Lyle noticed Chad's eyes were shining. He had not seen his son cry since he was ten. This is why they call it wreckage, he thought. This is why it's like cancer.
"I don't know," he said. "I think it's still a little soon to think about—"
"Well, I think you should," Kelly said suddenly. "I'm tired of having a fourteen-year-old father."
Lyle squeezed Chad's arm.
Tracy came home early one afternoon. She'd gotten tired of looking stricken in front of her boss, and she'd gotten tired of her boss. As she walked in the front door, she heard another door close.
"Chad?" she called. "You home, Chad?"
She went upstairs. "Chad?"
This had become Chad's greeting. She didn't waste her worry on what Chad needed his minute for every time he came out of his bedroom, because she needed it for paying bills, for paying her therapist, and for paying attention to many other things. She never smelled a trace of pot, his arms had no needle tracks. Admittedly, the bar had been set low lately.
"You want anything? I'm making a sandwich."
"That's gonna be your nickname pretty soon, you know—'Minute.' "
She threw her purse on her bed, pulled off her shoes and blouse. She grabbed the same sweatshirt she'd been wearing every evening for the last two weeks. She pulled on a pair of feral, frightened slippers, and then she went back downstairs to make something.
"Last call. Otherwise you're on your own."
"Minute," Chad called. But almost immediately he was down the stairs. "What you making?"
"Whatever's here, sweetie, whatever's here." She rooted through the fridge and found that it might be a little more of a challenge than she'd expected. It had been a week since she'd gotten groceries, and when she'd gone she had not been in her right mind. There were three packs of tortillas. There was a bag of arugula. A one-pound log of goat cheese was almost all gone, most of it eaten with a spoon. She pulled out a couple of uncooked chicken breasts. "Hey! Here we go!"
Chad looked at the package. "Just a sandwich, mom. I don't wanna—"
"It won't be half an hour, kid. You watch. I'm a genius with—Ow! Shit!" She'd sliced her finger as she poked open the plastic with a knife. "Damn it. Jesus. Damn it. Ow." Her finger started bleeding as if it had been cut right off. She ran upstairs to the bathroom to find the first aid kit, but all she could do for a minute was keep her finger under cold water, trying to swear enough to keep up with the pain. When she turned off the tap, though, and looked through the medicine cabinet as her finger kept bleeding, she heard something coming from Chad's room. She walked out around the corner to his half-open door. It sounded like there was someone in there, someone in more pain than she was. She pushed the door open and the groans became louder. At first, she thought it was a fighter from one of Chad's awful martial arts computer games. The things became more realistic every year. Was the mayhem and blood no longer enough, did they now have to have the fallen warriors writhe in agony? It sickened her. But when she saw the monitor she noticed it wasn't a warrior. On a doctor's examination table lay a beautiful woman, completely computer-generated, completely naked. She was writhing, but not in agony. A disembodied hand caressed and fondled her, bringing her toward ecstasy and then drawing away as she begged for more.
"What—" Tracy whispered. As her finger kept bleeding, she said aloud, "What in God's holy hell . . ." and then she heard Chad clomping up the stairs as fast as a marine. He almost knocked her down rushing to the keyboard.
"What is that! Where did you get that! Chad Harrison Pine, what the hell is that!"
"Mom! You're not supposed to be in my room! This is my room!"
She walked over to him as he bent over the keyboard and pulled him up by his ear. She turned him to her and his eyes had a terror she hadn't seen for years.
"What is that crap?" Then she slapped him hard across the face. A streak of her blood painted his cheek as tears came to his eyes.
Tears came to hers, too. "What is wrong with this family?" she said. "Someone just tell me what the hell has happened to my family!"
A moan came from the computer's speaker.
"Shit," Chad said. In relief he turned away to shut it down.
Lyle enjoyed his apartment for six months. Then he balanced his new checkbook, and two weeks later he moved out to a neighborhood he could afford.
He had gotten to know a neighbor at the first place, though, and they kept in touch. Her name was Frances. She was an Episcopal priest. Lyle thought she was tall enough to be a bishop. He wasn't even sure he was taller than she was. They had coffee occasionally. Frances wasn't married, and she may have been gay. Tall, middle-aged, single, metropolitan woman priest—maybe he was filling in the blanks too fast. Her hair was very straight, salt-&-pepper gray, sometimes worn loose and sometimes in a short ponytail at the nape of her neck. She didn't wear cologne. Her skin was smooth and wholesome enough for a soap ad. For a cleric, she had a very physical presence.
They talked about many things. Lyle hadn't been raised in the church, and in the beginning, almost all their conversation was about God. He found God was not such an old-fashioned, discredited idea as he had assumed. Frances made no attempt to defend the faith or explain much, so it was strange that Lyle found himself paying so much attention. "It's called faith for a reason, Lyle," she'd said. "It's a leap. It isn't that different from getting out of bed on a day you know you're going to get nothing but grief."
"What does that mean?"
"By nightfall, you've often found out otherwise."
"Not always, though," Lyle said.
"You still get out of bed, though, don't you?"
The spiritual counseling soon enough diffused into more general conversation. They had met at the old place when Frances was taking fly fishing gear out of her car. They talked fishing, they talked politics. They talked housing. Frances had issues with the apartment management and Lyle, now that he had moved, liked to complain about his new neighborhood. One thing they didn't talk about was Lyle's separation. They didn't discuss their sex lives, either. In the nine months since he'd left, Lyle had slept with no one. After a year of steamy on-line chat, it was no longer the way he wanted to meet people. He didn't really know how he wanted to meet people, so he met few of them. The conversations with Frances sort of surprised him. It was strange to enjoy the company of a woman who, for one thing, was not what he thought of as his physical type. In a contact sport, he wasn't sure which of them—himself or Frances—he would lay odds on. He wondered if this gave comfort to her parish. He drank her friendship in like water. And the night he realized this, he wept.
"Hi. I was going to come over and pick up some things."
Come home, she almost said. Instead she said, "Did you know your son had a computer sex game?"
"Just one?" Lyle said.
"I don't understand men. I never have."
"Poor kid. Poor you. Has he looked you in the eye since? He knows you know?"
"I slapped his face and then we had a long talk. I told him I didn't understand men."
"What did he say."
"He said it's a dick thing."
"No way! He didn't say that to his mother."
"You haven't heard the way his mother's been talking lately."
Lyle chuckled, and Tracy keeled like a stove ship. Do that again, she wanted to say.
One night very late—Chad was probably still up, but she knew he wasn't coming out of his room—Tracy got on-line and called up the swinger site. In some odd, inappropriate effort of appeasement, Lyle had given her the password before he left, and just as oddly, Tracy had not immediately cancelled the subscription. Instead, she just changed the password and forgot about it. She wasn't remotely curious about the ad and ignored it for months. When she remembered, she expected the subscription to be expired. But sure enough she was able to log on, and after she did, she gasped. There were 213 responses. Forty of them were from women.
At one in the morning, after reading about half the messages, what impressed her was how little she could tell most of them apart. In fact it wasn't always easy to tell which were from men and which from women. Some had whole paragraphs of boilerplate in common. She'd never have guessed there could be so many interchangeable humans. They were like ants. The only individuality was in the photos. Every third or fourth response had come with a picture, and each of these was different. There was a man in a suit and tie with a look of devastation on his face, as if he had just lost a son in a war. There was a man with Bozo hair. Another sat in a wheelchair and smiled like a killer. A lady who couldn't have been under sixty, with a fresh coif and pearl earrings, smiled sweetly into the camera with nothing else on. All of these people were interested in her, Tracy Pine, 41-year-old mother of two, and—as far as any of them knew—still happily married. Every one of them was ready to get it on with her. If she hadn't seen the pictures, she might have convinced herself it was just one more small, strange slice of humanity. But in the sheer variety in the photos, it was obviously everyone. It was a peek into the mind of every person she'd ever walked by in the grocery store, explained a car problem to, sat next to in a public rest room. How could this have gotten by her? How could she have gone through her life so long without realizing how desperately every human being on the planet wanted to have sex, how constantly it was on everyone's mind? Why hadn't it crept into conversation more often with friends? Maybe it had; maybe she'd missed it. She decided to look at one more message before going to bed. A picture came up of a man who might have been in his mid-fifties. He wore a loose pullover and had short, blond hair that was just starting to gray. He was the best-looking man Tracy had seen all night. He was the best-looking man Tracy had seen all year.
"Dear traceofcuriosity," the message began, "I am terrible at writing these things . . . "
Without reading more, Tracy hit Reply.
He raised his glass of wine and said, "LeChaim!" It was his first dinner out with a woman since he'd been on his own, and Lyle was more nervous than he thought he'd be. He suddenly wished he were typing to her instead of facing her at a table. The dim lights did nothing to soothe him. What did he do if the conversation lagged, if an inappropriate remark was made, if there was a sudden misunderstanding? There was no exit key.
"LeChaim!" said Frances, smiling her Amazon smile. "I wish I knew a toast in Episcopalian." She wore her hair tucked prettily behind one ear. Lyle had forgotten the way you read a woman's mind by her hair. Tracy had done this when they were first going out. With one tuck, one comb placed just so, she showed what direction the evening might go. Or did Frances just enjoy a night out not looking like a priest? Maybe there was church hair and dinner hair. He wasn't sure. He was unsure of everything. The suggestion of dinner had just popped out one afternoon. They were talking about fishing for striped bass, then he'd remembered a restaurant that served it in a ceviche. Then they had a date. Even after they'd set it up he hadn't thought it was a date until he'd gotten to her door, seen her hair. They walked the six blocks to the trendy little bistro, and now, as he sat down across from her, he wondered what they were doing, exactly.
"Tell me about your kids. You don't talk about them much," Frances said.
"Let's see. Kelly's thirteen and she swims like a fish. She can hold her breath underwater for a full minute. Every time she does I worry about brain damage. Um . . . Chad's fifteen. I don't think he's held his breath for anything his whole life. Nothing's worth that kind of effort."
"Both great kids." He smiled at the salt. What were they doing? Frances wore a burgundy dress. She had a classy scarf thing going on, much more stylish than anything he'd ever seen Tracy wear.
"You never told me if you have any."
"Kids?" Frances asked. "Nope."
"I wanted them. I wanted them really bad for awhile. And then one day, I didn't. I never stopped liking them. I just didn't need my own anymore."
"Ever been married?"
The waiter came and they ordered. Frances's husband left when they decided not to have kids. Which was just as well, she said. They'd either have had them and then split up anyway or have had them and kept being unhappy. She'd gone into seminary shortly after. Now she had a parish family that she loved like her own children. Parishioners were not that different from kids, she had noticed. Choir practice could be dismal, for instance, if the director hadn't had his nap that afternoon.
Halfway through the dinner and three quarters of the way through the wine, Lyle told Frances why he and Tracy had split up. Frances laughed—a reaction that had never occurred to him.
"So all you wanted was something a little new and different?" she said.
"I tried to put that kind of spin on it."
For dessert, they split a crème brulée. "Sex," Frances said as she cracked open the crust, "is God's way of playing with our heads. She has a naughtier sense of humor than a lot of people want to believe."
Lyle looked at her. "You must have some interesting sermons."
They talked for another forty minutes, and then Lyle walked her back to her apartment. At the door, he didn't want to let her go but couldn't think of anything to say but, "See you in church."
"See you in church," Frances said.
Lyle couldn't remember wanting someone so badly in a long time. He just wasn't sure what he wanted her for.
After three weeks of nightly online chat and half a dozen phone conversations, Tracy decided to meet julian1951 for coffee. She knew she didn't know him as well as it felt like she did, because he still seemed perfect. He was smart, he was funny, and in someone advertising himself for casual sex, his aura of wholesomeness frightened her. He was the first person she saw when she walked in the café. He was every bit as handsome in real life as he was in his photograph, which made him seem even more handsome and even more honest. He didn't seem to recognize her.
He looked at her as if he were trying to figure something out. "You look a little different."
Bad different, good different?
"But it was just my face," she said. "That picture only showed my face."
"You must have looked farther from the ground."
"Maybe I was hovering," she said.
They talked a long time. Tracy was very nervous. To take her mind off the situation, she had a double cappuccino and a fudge brownie, and then a cup of coffee and a piece of shortbread. She refilled her coffee, but finally stopped when her ears started to ring. She noticed Julian looking at her as if he'd just asked a question.
"Did you just ask a question?" she said.
"No," Julian said.
Tracy stared a moment. "What were we talking about?"
"You'd just asked me if I'd ever been tied up in leather straps."
She was sure she hadn't said this. She'd been mildly curious, but she was sure she wouldn't have asked.
" . . . and I haven't been," Julian said. "Would you like to go out Saturday night?"
"There's a new place . . . "
"No. I mean, really you've never been tied up?"
Lyle finally went to church to see Frances in her element. There were more people than he'd expected—maybe four hundred or more. He'd thought that everyone but the fundamentalists had sort of let church slide, but apparently not. The crowd was as mixed as any theatre audience. There were ladies in hats, young men in jackets and Birkenstocks, doddering people, well-behaved and not-so-well-behaved children. What brought people to church? Habit? Loneliness? Self-improvement? Lyle had been to church perhaps a dozen times in his life, not counting weddings and funerals, and had always felt a kind of free-floating embarrassment, as if he were having to pretend something. Words like miracle and sin—which in most circumstances were purely metaphorical—were used in church with a discomfiting lack of irony.
The congregation stood as the choir entered from the back of the church, singing something holy and plush, and by the time they reached the front, Frances was there to greet them with a young man beside her, some kind of vice priest, maybe. Seeing Frances in her robes was like seeing Clark Kent for the first time in contacts and a cape. It was impressive. She raised her arms and proclaimed, Blessed be God: our Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter. The four hundred responded, And blessed be God's kingdom, now and for ever. Amen, and Lyle suddenly found himself re-evaluating their relationship.
The service lasted a little over an hour. He'd experienced nothing like it before. The few visits he'd made to church in his life had included none with robes and candles. He'd never heard a motet. The vague fascination Frances had held for him began to crystallize into something odd and fierce, not altogether churchly. As he watched her prepare the communion table, as a cappella melodies coursed like peregrines through the roofbeams, Lyle watched his new friend with more and more intimate regard. Her closed eyes, the chant on her lips, her fingers on the chalice. At the end of the service, she stood in the doorway greeting parishioners, just like a New Yorker cartoon. When Lyle's turn came, Frances smiled brightly.
"I saw you," she said, and winked.
"Great sermon," Lyle said. "You have a beautiful voice."
Had anyone behind him heard him say this?
Lyle drove home deep in thought. He felt a looming seriousness he hadn't known since his teens, an intimation of high stakes. As he tried, reasonably enough, to listen for God's voice, he found himself unable to stop thinking about Frances. The idea came to him of making confession, sitting alone with her in closed, spiritual intimacy. Did Episcopalians use booths? He had not seen one at the church. He thought of her sitting in half light, visible only through a wooden screen, the gold embroidery of her vestments catching a dwindling sun. Her hair tucked behind her ear. When he got home he looked through his box of books for something to read. He wanted a Bible but didn't own one. He finally settled on a small, leatherbound copy of Ivanhoe. It was gilt-edged and ribboned. He'd bought it for no other reason years ago and had not looked at it since. Just holding it put him deeper in revery. Why had he never cared for such things? He thought of calling Tracy and suggesting they go to church next Sunday. He thought of calling Frances, asking her if she'd ever read Ivanhoe. He wished he had a pipe.
At about eleven Sunday morning, Tracy rolled across the bed to the phone. After the fourth ring, Chad answered.
"Chad, I'll be home in half an hour."
"Where are you?"
"I'm at a friend's house. I'll explain when I get home. It'll be half an hour." She looked down at the tousled scruffy hair on the pillow next to hers, and then she felt his fingers moving along her calf. "Or so. An hour or so. You've got waffles in the freezer if you want them."