This time it was Em who was choking up. Too much wine and afternoon sun were the culprits. The Chablis had blushed her. Made her words run hot.
"Nobody will every love you the way I did. Do you understand that? Nobody!"
An intricate web spread across her throat.
Adrian shifted in his seat. Ten years in Arizona had taught him well. His was the rock face, the wind-swept mesa with brown sandstone. But across the white linen lay the great divide, the rain forest with its exotic jungles and damp fertility. She was moist. Each green eye filled and ran over, making sudden, quick lines. He shifted again and crossed his legs.
They were nearly alone. Across from them an Orson Wells look-alike prepared himself with morose delectation for the leg of lamb. Napkin tucked, carving forks ready, he hovered.
The server had promised them some time alone. Adrian pulled out his handkerchief, and unfolded it.
"Here take this," he said softly.
"Fuck you . . ."
That's the spirit! That's what he was after!
She took the handkerchief and blew a loud squeaky sound. Outside the large bay window the spectacular view went largely unnoticed. Little Traverse Bay, the regatta, the gaily-colored sails piercing the white-capped waters and the concave of the earth stretching toward the horizon. He had carefully arranged all the details months in advance. Everything was in place. Even the gods were cooperating.
They were in this old Victorian, renovated to a five star restaurant, every room a private dining area. She should like this. She was old Detroit money. There was something inherently nineteenth century in her sense of propriety, dress and manner; something not quite Jamesian, a subliminal lingering of that spinstress queen, with shades of Puritanism; something longing to be terribly WASP and snobby, yet decadent. She loved to dress in those executive blacks, and chalky pinks. Gold was her metal of choice. Even the shabbiest apartment would be adorned with her cache of antique this-and-that's, which she hauled from location to location. Ah, but Isabel Archer never piped a song such as this.
"This is bullshit, you know," she said.
"Yes, it is," he agreed.
"No, I really mean it this time."
"I know you do."
"Damn it! No you don't. Stop agreeing with everything I say, and listen. This is the last time. This is fucking it."
Fucking. Her word of choice. Always said so lustily but also with such savoir vivre. Adrian drank off the last of his gin and hummed the Stones' tune to himself.
She always made this threat. They had been meeting like this for years. There was nothing physical anymore, no more wild thing. Hadn't been for quite some time, though that wasn't totally out of the question. They just had these little reunions every three to four years, a dropping in by each to check barometric pressures and altitudes. They always began pleasant enough, but inevitably events would swing low before they parted. The day we ever part amiably, thought Adrian, is the day our relationship is over.
She blew her nose again. "I mean it. This is the last time. I'm not going to play this game any longer."
He too sometimes wondered. What was it that made them come back?
She smiled that smile, the one that would melt you down.
"I gave you everything, do you realize that, everything." She was whispering now, but her words cut the air.
What was it that made them come back to each other? Was it the pain?
"You've got a wife. You chose her."
She was starting to take aim. Yes, he had a wife, and she had a name. Beth. They had been married for, how long was it? Seventeen years. Childhood sweethearts. All of that small town stuff that she never failed to rail against. He had heard it all before and knew it was probably true. He raised his empty glass.
"Here's to the security blanket. The ultimate taboo."
She finished off her Black Russian and sloshed the remains round and round.
"I wanted to have your baby."
And now this, the final passageway, the slit in the sky, the opening that led toward dark night. He took one last pull off his drink just to be sure and ordered more. She was going down the list, hitting all of the vulnerable points. She had used them well against him in the old days, chipping away.
Her voice became dreamy. She fingered her glass, round and round in the rim. "We tried to have a baby. Nobody can say we didn't try. I wonder why we couldn't have a baby?"
This was old stuff too, old assaults on the citadel. Ancient wounds that had mostly healed, but that had once oozed anxiety and worry. Virility, potency, manhood, fatherhood, fertility—all that shit. Caused him go to a Mormon doctor when he got back out West, one who ordered him to whack off in a bathroom, a task that had become second nature for him, even at that late date, and empty the remains into a test tube, which he did, and self consciously handed to a female nurse at the lab. He called two weeks later for the results.
"Fertility isn't your problem," he told him over the phone. "There's enough sperm in this sample to keep your wife and a few others pregnant."
The tears were beginning again. This was certainly unlike her to carry things out this long.
"Maybe you don't know how to love. Maybe that's the problem." She gave that same old smile, the one that always went straight to the center of things, the one that made him wish they could somehow be friends. "Maybe you're trying to do the impossible. Ever think about that? Wouldn't that be sad, if you didn't know how to love someone, or that you simply couldn't. Think about it."
This was totally new. She had never said that before.
"You've never known pain. Things always go your way. Some day all of that's going to change. It has to."
He got out his handkerchief again, and she said, "I'll be all right." She wiped away the tears with her fingers. Everything was beginning to look real, too real. Her nose had become congested. "You know, it occurred to me, that after all of these years, we don't even really know each other."
She leaned across the table. "You think you're fooling me don't you with all of this quiet routine. I know the old Adrian is still in there. You will never change." She reached over and touched his shirtsleeve, up by his biceps, where he had worked so hard for the past few months to make everything tight.
He carefully folded his handkerchief and put it back into his jacket pocket.
"I guess it was just my fate in life," she sighed. "I fell in love with Adrian Adonis." The tears flowed freely now. She managed to smile through them. "And what did I get in return?"
She took a crumpled piece of worn yellow paper out of her purse and held it up to him. "A note. I give you my life and I get a note," she whispered. "Not a bad deal, right? Do you believe this? I still have it."
He looked at his watch. He had promised to call Beth.
"Stop worrying about the time!" she shouted.
From across the room, the morose man looked up suddenly from his heaped on plate, like a startled animal over his kill.
She continued just as loudly. "You're just like a little kid. Always worrying about when you have to go."
In the old days he would go to her, and immediately upon arrival, begin planning his departure.
"When are you going to grow up?"
There had always been something threatening about her. He would go to her and then flee.
"You were always afraid of me, weren't you."
He began to realize, vaguely. Beneath Beth, the children, beneath it all, there was something. Something he clung to. What was it? Why did he always seek her out and then go back to it?
"You need a pacifier. Something to suck on."
Her voice grew quieter. "I trust you gave her a good alibi. I mean, it's not like she's right here or anything. You did leave her back there, didn't you?"
She carefully unfolded the note and began reading.
Just wanted to tell you that I am moving to Arizona.
I would have told you in person, but this probably is best. This is what you really wanted anyway.
Everything was just a dream.
"You were always trying to put everything off on me." She wadded the note up and threw it at him. It bounced off the lapel of his jacket and hit the floor. "I gave you everything. Everything, and then you say—" She stopped in mid sentence.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"You were always good at saying that."
She got up and walked to the bathroom. He listened as her footsteps trailed off in a slow unsteady manner over the hardwood floors.
Things had been going wrong all day. There was the expensive bottle of wine he had bought for their trip to the beach. He had an awful time getting it open. No corkscrew. Then he cut his finger trying to pry it open on the car door, spilling it all over the van.
"I remember when I was lucky if you bought me a bottle of Boons Farm Apple," she told him. He had looked at her sitting over there on the driver's side. He knew it was the wrong thing to do, but he did it anyway. He looked straight at her.
He had brought along some tapes. All of the old ones that they used to listen to. "Go ahead," he said. "You pick one." And she looked through the selection and chose one and he eagerly pushed it in, only to hear it come to a slurring halt, eaten by the deck player. He blamed it on Arizona. "Back there the dust gets into everything." He tried to get the tape out, but it was irretrievably tangled in the inner mechanisms. He wrapped his finger in an old tee shirt and felt the throb of pain. He shot another glance over at her. Her smile reflected in the car door's window.
He had brought some pot along, the best money could buy. Large green buds, shaped like exotic feathers with little orange whiskers coming out. Strong stuff. But they had no papers, so he improvised with a pop can. Now vast gaps and silences were created between them.
White sands ran empty along a wide sweeping curve of water. They sat on her blanket, a quilt of intricately stitched designs. The waves made a steady rhythm and out across the water was the long dark arm of North Port peninsula.
"Was the divorce painful?" he asked.
Her eyebrows went up. "Sure was."
He was lying on his stomach, his cheek resting on his forearms. "Were you scared?"
He closed his eyes and let the sun play its images, large undulating red circles running into one another. "What was it like?"
"I just couldn't stop dwelling on it. It was with me day and night for about two years."
"And then it went away?"
"Then it went away."
"Now you feel better?"
"Was it you or him?"
She began dumping handful after handful of cool beach sand on the small of his back. He could feel every grain intimately.
"I am burying you," she whispered.
Once again, footsteps approached on the hardwood floors, this time in a casual, easy manner. Em slid into the seat across from him. Her make up was freshly done and her eyes were less swollen and the exotic smell of excess Shalimar went straight through him.
"Stop frowning," she said.
This time there was another set of steps, a nervous switching sort of walk. The server arrived. Her dark hair was pinned up on one side of her head and down her neck on the other; and it was as if her eyes were too large for her lids, so they remained half-opened and lazy looking, yet alert. "We're having a celebration," Em told her. "We haven't seen each other in four years. I think that calls for something special, don't you?" Adrian heard the old familiar ring to her words, a ring that had always made him sit up and feel uneasy.
"Definitely," she said. "Is this an anniversary?"
Em laughed. "In a manner of speaking. It all depends on how you look at it. It could be an anniversary or it could be a starting point. Four years ago he dumped me."
The server looked at Adrian. "You'd better order champagne, then." She placed the wine menus before them.
Em took the wine list and opened it. "Well, actually, I had something else in mind. Bring us the Chateau Lafite from 1970. Do you think we need one or two bottles darling?"
Adrian was looking out the window again. "Hmmm?" He looked at the wine list. Lines formed across his forehead.
"How much is that?" he said.
"That's $350 dollars a bottle sir."
Em laughed. "I'm worth it! And then to server she said, "He makes a lot of money now. He's a lawyer. I can see his spending habits have not changed. Remember all of those free dinners I gave you!"
The server kept her eyes on him.
"He's not talking much today. Bring us the wine."
"The Chateau Lafite?" The server looked at Adrian.
"Don't ask him. I'm paying for this, and she opened her purse threw out a credit card.
"Put your money away," he said.
"Bring us the Lafite." She pushed the card out into the middle of the table. "This is a celebration, and I'm buying."
Adrian rocked back in his seat. "Em. Don't be ridiculous."
"I will let you two fight it out over the tab," she said, and away she walked, the nervous switch of her step fading off into nowhere.
"You certainly are being the quiet one," she said, sipping the tall tulip stemmed glass. "What do I have to do to get you to talk?"
In the nether world beneath the table, Adrian felt the thrilling ripple of her hand, as it slid up his thigh. For the first time he allowed their eyes to meet.
"You know why I loved you?" she whispered. "Because of your passion."
He beheld her. The dark French features, the small keen eyes with their perpetual hint of bemusement.
"It's good to have you back," she murmured. "Don't you try to hide from me. You have always been afraid of me. Because I know the real Adrian. I know what he likes. The shy quiet little farm boy that likes to have his privates fondled. I know. I know." Her hand was sliding farther up his leg.
From across the distant way he could hear them approaching, softly at first, through the many-corridors, gaining momentum with each passing second, the nervous, switching walk.
"You think I have forgotten what it is you're after?" she whispered.
Thunderously they were descending upon them. He rubbed his temples. He closed his eyes. "I remember," he said.
"Yes, remember. Remember."
He looked down at her left hand, which still lay on the table. It was large and wonderful looking, with the longest fingers, and nails painted artfully and skillfully red. My hands look like lobster claws, she used to say, so self deprecatingly. They both knew it was a lie.
"You used to play." His throat was dry. He cleared it and sipped some water. "You used to play the most beautiful piano."
The footsteps were nearly upon him, now, pounding down, heading, as it seemed, straight for the heart.
"Do you still play the piano?" he whispered.
"I play you," she murmured, and she took him into her hand, just as the waiter arrived.
"Here are your salads!"
"And not a moment too soon," Em said, using her gayest voice.
"I'll be right back with your dressing," she said, and her footsteps trailed off, this time stopping intermittently along the way.
They were tremendous looking specimens, heaped high with fresh green lettuce, garnished with boiled eggs, radishes, various cheeses, and fresh scallions.
He picked up one of scallions and looked at it curiously, turning it end for end in his hand.
But she was not through.
"I used to sit in a bath for hours after you had gone. Just sit and soak." She finished off her glass and held it out to him with her free hand for a refill.
"Em, let's not."
"Close your eyes," she whispered.
"Em." He looked around. The large, obese man was just settling into his main course, a slow, feast that would probably take him hours to finish. "Don't you think we should . . ."
"Close your eyes."
Slowly, he did as he was told. He tried to open them up again, but she squeezed him under the table in certain manner, and said, "Keep them closed. I want you to dream with me for a little while. You always used to dream with me. Remember?"
He still had the scallion in his mouth. His tongue began to burn. It had a strong hot flavor that soon spread out over his entire mouth and penetrated upward onto his nasal passages, till it reached his eyes, making them water.
"Remember all of the things I used to do to you?" she whispered. She had a full grip on him now, reaching under the table as she was, as if they had reached some kind of a secret agreement. "Remember how we used to make love for hours and hours?" Slowly, ever so slowly, she began to work the leverage back and forth that she had gained over him.
"I can still see the old rented farmhouse," she continued, "and how it had become all overgrown and wild on the outside with lilacs and rhubarb, and the those apple trees clustered around the old broken windmill. Can you see it?"
He did not respond. Then she did something else under the table. "Can you see it?"
Adrian cleared his throat.
She did it again. "Come on darling. You must play along."
"Yes, I can see it, Em."
"That's better. Now close your eyes real tight."
"Don't you think we should . . ."
"Do you remember how I always used to hate it when you left?"
Adrian tried to respond, but his voice was caught up in his throat again, and the best he could do was make a noise. The scallion was still in his mouth, poised between his two incisor teeth like a prisoner on the guillotine, awaiting the final moment.
"I learned something in the last three years." Her voice took on lighter tones, a trace of laughter lingering in the distance. "And you know what that was?"
"It was something I learned from another woman. It was something that no man had ever taken the time to show me."
He cleared his throat? "Another woman? Who?"
"Sylvia?" He said the name over to himself. He was really having difficulty thinking now, so she slowed a little. "Yes Sylvia," and the image formed in his mind. Jean-Paul-Sartre Sylvia, he used to call her. Short clipped hair, pale, milky complexion. "Yes, I remember. I think I do."
"Remember, she was always wearing military fatigues."
"I remember." His voice was cracking.
From far off in the distance the nervous footfalls approached.
She squeezed him tightly. His eyes came open, and there she was looking straight at him, except hers seemed to be slightly out of focus, as if each were looking outward.
"You'll never guess what I learned from Sylvia."
The footsteps were boring down upon him. Realization began to flood him. Everything all at once. He suddenly began to shift from one leg to another on the seat. He grabbed a fork and stuck it down on the tabletop as his neck and face suddenly filled with color. "Go on. Say it for Christ sakes! Do it!"
"All those times that we made love together."
The footsteps were pounding down. The whole place seemed to be shaking. The strong burning taste of scallion filled his skull. He could hear them coming, from the soft of the carpet to the hard knock of the floor. Over and over again, they were coming, heading straight for the heart.
"All of those times that we were making love . . ."
He dropped the fork with a loud clatter and gripped the table's edge. His knuckles were white. "For God sakes!" Would they never arrive?
Then her hand went hard, like the frustrated writer crushing a page of not-right script.
"All of those times that we made love, and it was only Sylvia," but her voice was drowned out in the thundering stampede.
"And here we are," said the server, right on cue, right on time.
Em brought her hand out and grabbed the napkin. "Your timing couldn't have been better."
At the center of a scallion, Adrian noted, is the most delicate part. One inserts the bulb into one's mouth, and then clamps down on it with one's incisor teeth only to discover this other little miracle within—this other little bulb within the bulb. It is not uncommon for this other little center to become disengaged from the other bulb, especially if it is bitten upon in the most ferocious manner. It can even become a projectile of sorts, capable of lodging in the most deadly manner in one's trachea.
There is a common belief among people that when one is suddenly faced with the distinct realization of one's own immediate extinction from this world of tears, that the senses become acutely activated in the most extraordinary way. Adrian found there to be much credibility in this theory, as he sat there plugged at the throat on that glorious afternoon in the summer.
He could not believe how cool she was during all of this. After checking her make-up in one of those little mirrors, she scooped up the credit card and stuffed it into her purse.
"Don't take it too hard. I was married for eight years and my husband never did either."
There was a crash of a plate hitting floor, as the fat man slid out from his table, knocking a half eaten lamb chop to floor in the process.
"Can you talk?" he wheezed? All ready, he sounded out of breath, after moving only ten feet.
Even as Adrian sat there choking to death, his eyes could only focus on her now, as she slipped out of her seat and walked through the gathering crowd. Everyone just let her pass. He thought, they are letting her pass because they think she is going for help.
The fat man picked him up by the armpits. He was strong as an ape. With amazing quickness he spun him around, slipping his arms around behind him. Now I can't see her, he thought.
Then came the first squeeze. Adrian thought he felt a rib pop. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
The second one was even more violent, and he felt the onion break loose along with a sizable passage of gas from his lower tract. Two teenage boys, who had gathered at the head of a growing crowd of onlookers, began to laugh.
The onion flew in a fairly even trajectory across the room.
"There," said the fat man, slapping him on the back, "you're gonna be just fine now."
Now he could see her again. She was passing through the doors out onto the parking lot. A strong wind suddenly came up just as she stepped out. An old man grabbed onto his hat, as the maples swayed and bucked and filled the air with a wild, thrashing sound.
She jumped into her little sports convertible. Left.