Part II: The New World, 1-3.
By the time I met Emmanuel Fox III, my dreams were turning to ash. I was starting to believe I would never see the Promised Land. In spite of my supposed genius, no editor thought much of the book of poetry I'd compiled at eighteen. The two hundred pages I'd gathered told my parents' lives in sonnet sequences. Alfred loved it; I decided against showing most of the poems to my mother. And, after five years of rewrites and rejections, I filled a pot with water, placed it on the stove, and boiled my manuscript like a piece of ham. There was something pleasurable about watching the pages ball up into pulp. I stirred it every few seconds and cursed the men who'd told me it was worthless, laughing bitterly at my own naivete. Louise came home while it was on the stove and tried to salvage it when she learned what it was. But it was too late for that. Alfred didn't speak to me for five days when he heard about it. When he was speaking to me again, he admonished me with stories of my father's patience when he too had been faced with rejection.
"I'm not my father," I said.
"You're certainly not," he told me, as close to rage as I'd seen him in a long time.
I shrugged. I was tired. I told him to leave me alone.
My yearning for beauty and adventure had not dwindled. I'd lived away from home when I'd taken my undergraduate degree; but, at twenty-four, I'd stopped being on the alert for miracles and decided to settle for second best. I'd get my teaching certificate. Louise told me I was wise to go into teaching and that she'd never regretted it. She told me I was following in her footsteps. Her words made me shudder. Teaching had changed her from a woman on the edge to a woman who didn't even seem to remember where the edge was. It had rubbed her smooth. She was like other people's mothers, and all she seemed to be able to focus on was the trivia of everyday life.
When Alfred heard I was going to follow my mother into teaching, he told me I should travel instead.
"Only people with vocations should teach," he said. "Your mother has a vocation, but I don't sense one in you. Travel for a while. It will be good for you."
But where would I go? Money was still tight--though Louise's teaching position at an elementary school in Brixton meant we could pay the bills. But the roof needed to be fixed, and the plumbing and wiring in the old house needed repair. After graduation, I worked at a bookstore in the West End. I was like the people I used to despise along the Sweep: exhausted on Fridays, half dead on Saturdays, comatose on Sundays, and depressed on Mondays. I'd been to Europe at nineteen and had fallen in love with Rome, Venice, and the Greek islands. I went again at twenty-two, using up all my savings in the process. After that, it was difficult to save for a trip that could make you comprehend the paucity of your own existence, so I didn't bother. Alfred told me I was spoiled. I had a mother who loved me, he said, a roof over my head, beauty and talent. Sulking about small rooms or a small wardrobe was absurd, what with all the people starving in the world. What I didn't tell Alfred was that I was scared. So scared, in fact, that I was paralyzed. I always thought I'd continue to forge ahead and that education would be the key to everything. But there were too many young women with degrees in English literature--three other women in the bookstore where I worked, for example, all wanting more glamorous careers in publishing or writing, none of them able to escape the shelves of books and the cashier's register. I looked back to the past. When I'd made bold moves before, they'd resulted in tragedy: Louise's madness, the death of Alison Bean. Perhaps it was better not to act at all. Safer anyway. "The worst is not so long as we can say 'This is the worst.'" I could still say it. I hadn't gotten there yet. I didn't want to push my luck.
Life had not turned out to be grand after all. The thought of teaching kids who didn't want to learn for the rest of my life made me feel ill. Yet it was better than working at the bookstore and, perhaps, once I got the graduate degree in education, I could teach reasonably well. It had been three years since I'd graduated from Nottingham. I'd done nothing with my life. After I boiled my manuscript, I didn't write a poem for two years. I was finding prematurely gray hairs in my hairbrush. Soon men wouldn't be waiting on the doorstep for me. No one would bring me roses or tell me how beautiful I was. And even though it had transformed itself now that she had found her vocation, my mother's face haunted me. Perhaps, I reasoned, teaching provided a way out; and if it was a slow road to adventure, at least I would he pointed in the right direction.
There were men, of course. Men who said I was exotic. Men who wanted sex. Men who said I was frigid. Men who wanted mothers. Men who claimed I was too clever for my own good. Men who told me I was gorgeous. Men who asked me to lend them money. Men who tried to love me. One or two men I should have loved in return. But Maurice's tongue was still in my mouth. Whoever I loved could not be anything like Maurice. My prejudice against white Englishmen increased as the years went by. I dated West Indians, Africans, Pakistanis, and Irishmen. Alfred said I had courted the United Nations by the time I was twenty-one. He told me to be careful. "Of course I will," I said, always in control. I didn't want to love anyone who was as hemmed in by race, class, and circumstance as I was. I longed for someone who could make my head spin the way Little Joe had on Bonanza. Louise had been a palpable example of the depth of passion. Even Alfred, with his occasional stories of Lipton and unrequited love, let me know there was something on the other side of reason that could set you on fire and never let you go. I was terrified of it and drawn to it at the same time. I wasn't about to go out and find it, but if it came along, I had a feeling I'd be ready.
I met Emmanuel Fox III in London in February on St. Valentine's Day. We ran into each other at the National Gallery. I went there at lunchtime whenever I could, escaping from the student union at the University of London to find beauty in the high-walled rooms of the gallery. Emmanuel was studying African history at the university too; I'd seen him once or twice in the cafeteria. He was lean and petite, and only a few inches taller than I. I'd noticed him because there was something urgent about his movements that made you believe he had important appointments to keep. As we walked around the gallery looking at Rembrandt and van Gogh, daVinci and Monet, he told me his field was history but his passion was language. A writer from America! I swallowed hard and looked into his eyes. They were a blue-green, and they were oddly empty; they were the kind of eyes you could fill with small kindnesses. Over lunch at the National Gallery, he told me it was love at first sight.
"I'm in love with you," he said. "I have been ever since I laid eyes on you in the student union. Didn't you see me staring at you? I asked about you. No one seemed to know much about Jacinta Moses. It was fate that we both came here today. We were destined to be together. We shouldn't fight it."
I laughed, but inside I was alive with expectation. Supposing it were true, that this small, intense American was in love with me? What would that mean?
"How do you know you're in love?"
He just shook his head.
"You don't know me."
"It doesn't make sense to love someone you don't know."
"Who said love had to make sense? DaVinci's Madonna--does that painting make sense? Think about it. There she is in the middle of what looks like a Gothic nightmare, completely oblivious, bouncing a ninety-pound savior on her lap, surrounded by refugees from Rossetti ..."
"Rossetti came later."
"Don't interrupt. I mean, I ask you, does that painting make sense, Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses? But you love it anyhow, right? Love never makes sense. Period. Never."
"I never say never. Or not often anyway. It's dangerous."
"Well, I'm a never kinda guy. I never eat before eight in the morning; I never watch second-rate movies; I never read novels by white males; and I never get tired of looking at the wealth of beauty in your eyes."
"You're a white male."
"That's my misfortune."
"Don't you like yourself, then?"
"Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses, I love myself to death. I think I'm positively gorgeous."
I looked at him. He was right. His features were perfectly aligned on his classically molded face. His manicured hands moved like dancers. I'd seen women around him, many much taller than he, desperate for him to look at them, to woo them with his soft American accent. I could see the attraction. There was something untamed in this man. His face was full of promises.
"The thing is," he moved in closer to me as if he were telling me a secret, "the thing is, no one else seems to have noticed the fact that I'm Superman. What do you think, J.L.B.M.? Am I gorgeous or what?"
His breath was sweet when he was up close. He'd laughed when I told him my full name. He said I was several women all at once. He asked me why no one had cottoned on to that fact. He told me he knew I'd have a name to fit my uniqueness. No one else was like me, he said. I was indescribable.
"Well? Am I gorgeous?" he repeated. "You can tell me the truth. I can take it."
I looked down. I didn't want him to know my heart was pounding.
"So!" he continued when it was clear that I wasn't going to respond. "We've had lunch. I have the whole afternoon before I need to get back to writing the major Western tome of the twentieth century. How about I give you a tour of my estate?"
"You have an estate?"
"You don't believe me, Jacinta Louise, but it's the truth. I'm living in an estate of mind. A darling little habitat off Clapham Common."
"Clapham Common! That's not far from my house!" I hadn't meant to sound so excited. I'd shown my hand. He moved in closer.
"Well, whadya know! We're meant for each other. Take me home to meet your mother. I'm ready."
He stood up and brushed himself off. Then he took my hand, kissed it, and bowed low. "Emmanuel Fox III at your service, madam."
Just as we were leaving the cafeteria, he took my hand in his again, fell onto one knee, and dramatically wiped a tear from his eye.
"I can't help myself," he cried, "I must say it!"
The people looked up over their cups of tea. One woman was obviously offended. The others smiled wanly. The cashier gave me the thumbs-up sign over her head.
"Get up, you idiot! Everyone's looking!"
"Ask me if I care!" he cried. "This is love. For love you must never hold back. You dare everything. You risk everything. And if it doesn't work, what are you? A mere absurdity. A mere speck in the cosmic wheel of continual misfortune. But still you persevere, and you know why, Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses?"
I was laughing too much to answer. My heart had just begun to grow wings.
"You persevere because there is WOMAN. And she is where it's at. O, milady. Lovely, lovely Jacinta Louise. When you are old, your hair will be streaked with gray, which men will take for comets flying through the midnight of your hair." An old man in the corner clapped. "Bravo, young man!" he said. "Bravo!"
"O, Jacinta Louise. I've only known you a short time--"
"Thirty-three minutes actually," I said, glancing at my watch, trying hard to seem unaffected by his hyperbolic declaration of love, hoping he wouldn't feel my fingers trembling.
"But what's in an hour, Jacinta? What's in a second, for that matter? A second is like an egg. As Shakespeare would have said, it's full of meat. I've tasted your beauty, Jacinta, and it has set me afire. Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses--glorious name--will you marry me?"
The man who had applauded before stood up shakily, brandished his cane in the air, and shouted "Hurrah!" The offended woman in the hat snorted in disgust. The cashier nodded at me vigorously enough to shake loose one of her plastic pear earrings.
I looked down at Emmanuel Fox III. For two decades, ever since Simon's death, I'd been waiting for someone to ride into my life, swoop me up and make me into the Potential Jacinta rather than the Actual one. His blond hair, caught in a gash of sun streaming down from the cafeteria's skylights, looked like gold thread. The room sucked itself in like an intake of breath. I remembered the high windows in the hospital where my father died. They'd allowed the light to enter too, scarring the white ward with whiter ways of seeing. My father's hand had waved to me before taking its leave. My mother had walked down the aisle of the ward in her high heels--click, click, click--and I had noticed the mole on her right ankle and the seams in her stockings running a path down her legs. She'd walked toward him and away from me. I'd stood in the doorway and watched love play out to devastation.
Emmanuel looked up at me. Something in the corners of his green-flecked-with- blue eyes said this was important. I'd seen that look before. Alison Bean had it when she asked me if I was her best friend. Second best, I'd told her before the bus had come and crumpled her up like a doll in the middle of a road far away from Kingston.
"If you promise to take me to the New World, and if you promise me riches beyond belief, and if you promise to love me past the stars in the midnight sky you see in my hair--yes. I will marry you. If you want me enough."
The cafeteria broke into spontaneous applause. The cashier behind Emmanuel was crying. The blond stranger in front of me was shaking when he took my hand to go out.
It wasn't until we got outside that we realized neither of us had paid for our food. I told him to go back. He only laughed. "Let them sell a van Gogh for our lunch!" he cried. "Banality is not my concern from this day forward. I've found the love of my life! We will populate the earth with beauty and bring the sun up with the sheer force of our joy! No more bills, receipts, or humdrum anything. It's only love from now on!"
He lifted me up and twirled me around. My hair caught the wind and spanned out stiffly behind me. I caught a glimpse of it as it lashed out against the wind. Comets, I thought, and midnight. My tangled African hair changed to poetry. I threw my head back and let him spin me. I'd found a man who could make the world turn faster. I didn't know whether or not I would marry this man. I didn't love him. I barely knew him. But I loved what he represented. He could be the key to the jail. Perhaps we could unlock the door together? Dear God, I prayed, please let him be real.
Alfred didn't like him. From the first time he met Manny, Alfred said he was not what he seemed to be. The feeling was mutual; I put it down to jealousy. I prided myself on my ability to make two men envious of each other. Wasn't that what women with power were supposed to do? When Alfred pulled me aside that day and asked me if it was all a joke, I was taken aback by the urgency in his voice.
"What are you doing?" he hissed. "This is some kind of prank, isn't it? You don't really plan to marry this man, do you?"
I shrugged. "Perhaps. I think he's rather remarkable."
"How long have you known him?"
"Two hours and twenty-two--no, twenty-three minutes precisely. I met him at the National Gallery over da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks. He asked me to marry him half an hour later."
"I rest my case. The man's a complete and utter nincompoop."
"Why? Because he fell in love with me? Thanks."
"No! Of course not! For goodness' sake, child, be reasonable. You've only known the man for a few hours. He could be ... anyone!"
"That's exactly why he intrigues me," I said.
We were standing off to one side in the front room. My mother no longer slept there. Now, recently repainted white and clean, it was a living room like everyone else's. I was grateful we'd done it in time. With any luck, Manny wouldn't notice how weird we were. He was speaking to my mother about African art over on the other side of the room. She was listening intently. Suddenly it occurred to me that they looked like mother and son.
I turned to face them.
"They look like mother and son," I said.
Alfred glanced over at them. "Jacinta, I'm warning you, this is not a good idea."
"Alfred, I'm telling you to mind your own bloody business."
I didn't wait to see his face crumple. I didn't care what he thought. He wasn't my father. He wasn't anything. Just a friend of the family. I walked over to Manny and Louise.
It was clear that my mother liked him. She didn't take our engagement seriously, but she had obviously taken a fancy to Manny, and he to her. Over the past few years she'd become increasingly obsessed with her teaching career. Whenever she found anyone who would listen, she spoke for hours, barely taking a breath, about little Gregory Porsino or Lettie Halibut. Sometimes she focused on her headmaster, Mr. Pod, who had a passion for all things potted. "His office is a greenhouse," she told Manny, not missing a beat when I came up beside them. "Of course, he hates the children. When I talked to him about Gregory Porsino's father--the way he looks at those young girls in the playground--and the rumors about his misdemeanors in that respect, all Pod did was giggle and water his nasturtiums. Titter, really. And when I mentioned Lettie's head lice he told me to get a metal comb and get on with it. The man's evil, of course. Quite evil. Wears one of those nylon toupees. You can never trust a man who does that kind of thing, can you? So deceptive."
I studied my mother. When had she turned into this woman? How was it that someone who had kept her mouth closed for nearly a decade opened it up one day and never closed it again? Why wasn't she who she had once been? I'd become so used to the new Louise I hardly ever thought about the old one. Louise the Tragic Lover had become Louise the Dotty Schoolteacher. She was like everyone else. Ordinary. Perhaps she hadn't loved my father that much after all. The little primary school in a blighted part of London had become her main focal point, the pivot around which she turned. Often she was bitterly angry with other teachers--an anger that was shocking because of its force. It came from nowhere and seemed to be premised on some historical injustice--perhaps my father's death, perhaps her years of poverty--which her opponents never understood. Sometimes she decided to take the younger teachers under her wing. For the few chosen ones, there was nothing but praise. She became their champion. Until they let her down somehow, and then she could never forgive them. Yet for all that she loved the children. All of them. No matter how bad they were, how snotty, how much they stank, she loved them. When they picked their noses, she told them that children of seven needed to behave like ladies and gentlemen. When they scratched their bottoms, she told them to find work for busy hands. Each and every one, whatever their learning disability, was able to read by the time they left her class. Each of them loved her in return.
But right now she was infuriating. On and on and on about herself and her petty loathing. The room was closing in on me. This had been my life. Now I made the daily commute from home, either to the university or to the bookstore. I had stayed to watch my life leak out from me, one drip at a time.
I took hold of Manny's hand. He seemed surprised at first, then pleased. "We need to go, Mum," I said.
"O stay. Won't you stay for supper? I've got a nice bit of cod--"
"No. We really need to get back to the university. I've got a study meeting on the philosophy of education and Manny has something or other on James Joyce. Sorry. Wish we could stay, Mum, but there you are." My voice was frantic. Like a claustrophobic, I had to get out. Now.
Manny looked at me strangely, then just shrugged. "She's the boss," he said. "And I sure would hate to miss my class on Joyce."
Alfred was still standing over in the corner. I think he waved to us, but I didn't stay around to find out.
On the way downstairs, Manny asked me why I'd lied.
"She can go on for hours about that school. I didn't want to subject you to that."
"I thought she was pretty fascinating. Gorgeous face. Bet she was a stunner when she was younger."
"So they say."
I hurried him down the stairs to the front door. The carpet with the fishes' hands had been replaced a long time ago. We sank into the warm brown tufts of nylon. Yes. The house looked like other people's. I'd done it! I'd actually made a good impression! Alfred had been odd, of course, but then I'd explained to Manny before we'd arrived that he was an actor. Actors are always eccentric, I'd told him.
We were about to escape without incident when I opened the front door. There on the step, in all her glory, was my worst nightmare.
Mary Beadycap was sprawled out on the doorstep with a bottle of wine in her hand. When her family had moved to a council house years ago, Mary had decided to make occasional pilgrimages back to the Sweep to see her "good mate" Alfred. So, once in a while, Mary would walk the four miles from their terraced council house in Wandsworth to sit, splay-legged on the front step, reminiscing about the good old days. Today of all days! I could have killed her. I blamed Alfred. He encouraged her by giving her cups of tea and ham sandwiches. I pleaded with him not to do it, but he couldn't seem to help himself. He seemed to have forgotten how much she and Maurice had plagued us. He didn't seem to care that she had mocked his masculinity and called me a wog to my face. She was the child who had tried to fill my school hat with vomit, but who had been forced to settle for spit. She was the one who, together with her brother, had brought evil into my life. Her teeth were mustard-yellow and her clothes looked three sizes too small. Her breasts rose above the tight sweater she wore, and she shivered once in a while in the cold. Her nose was red from booze and from the chill. Her hair hung down around her face in long greasy strands.
"Mary! What are you doing here?" I said in horror, staring at Mary's hunched form and smelling the cheap wine she was guzzling straight from the bottle.
She swiveled around, then swiveled back like a reptile. I tried to step over her as fast as possible. I shouldn't have called attention to myself. Perhaps we could have escaped without notice. Alfred said I should have more sympathy for Mary. But all I could see when I looked at her was a pair of blue knickers in the rigid black fingers of little Alison Bean. Her face echoed her twin brother's. Same eyes. Same nose. I'd worked hard to scoop Maurice out of my memory. Mary wasn't going to insert him again. I needed to get away. Manny had to like me. What if he rejected me now? I tried to leap over Mary's legs but I wasn't swift enough. She grabbed my ankle and held on. Manny thought it was a joke.
"Who's your friend?" he asked.
Mary stood up, wobbled a little, regained her balance, and held out her hand. Manny took it in his and kissed it. I looked on in consternation.
"Well! A proper English gentleman, at last!"
"Alack, not English," Manny said. "A mere colonist from the United States of Americky."
"Well, now, ain't that sweet? And I s'pose you're here courtin' little Jacinta Moses?"
"Yep. That's about right."
"We should go. It's getting late," I urged.
"Not so fast, lovey-dove," Mary warned. "P'raps I need to let your beau in on a few little details about your former boyfriend, just so's he'll know what he's up against."
"She's drunk, Manny. Let's go."
"Because I swear to you, Mister Manny ... er ... what was the name?"
Manny began to edge away. Mary's breath was overpowering. "Emmanuel Fox."
"Emmanuel Fox from ...?"
"Virginia! How lovely. I swear to you that my twin brother was truly, as they say, incomparable. The two of them were tight as tight can be. Loved to have him play with her tits, didn't you, Jacinta?" She reached over and squeezed my breast. Manny batted her hand away.
"What the hell--" he said.
Mary threw her head back and laughed. Several teeth were missing. There was an ugly bruise on her throat. "Loved to play games with Maurice on Clapham Common, she did. Remember that time--"
"Let's go, okay?" I said, taking hold of Manny's arm and pulling him down the front path. Mary continued the conversation, until she was shouting after us.
"He put the screws on that one, O yes he did. HA-HA-HA!" Her voice did a U-turn into melodrama. "Then he just went pool. Off. Just like that! Can you credit it? He was my brother, he was. And a twin too." She held up the wine bottle. It had a Sainsburys supermarket label on it. Burgundy it said. "Blood should be thicker than some little bitch's ... should be thicker than that. We was kids together. On this street. On Lavender Sweep. Not her. Too snooty. The convent school tart. Just him and me. And then gone. Lit out like a light. No light left without Maurice. The boy was a genius, he was! Me mother's pride and joy. Not a word. All these years, not a soddin' word!" She swept herself up and back into accusation. Her voice echoed through Lavender Sweep like doom.
"It was her fault! Jacinta Moses! She made him do it! And me. I didn't use to look like this. No, sir. I was beautiful too once. She'll get hers. She'll pay! Maurice'll find her, you mark my words. He's still in the background, he is. Remember that, little Miss Uppity. He'll haunt you yet. Maurice never lets go. I should know. Once he's got you he gets what he wants and he ain't never letting go! She and that little wog, they robbed me of my chas ... my chas ... they RAPED ME!"
The charge was so outrageous it hit me in the gut like a bowling ball. I couldn't turn around to face her. She was several doors down by now, shouting her filth out over the streets. I could see the Wall of Cruelty looming in front of us. We had to get past it, then turn the corner onto Lavender Hill. I ran. "It's not true," I called behind me to Manny, who was running to catch up. "She's lying. She did it. It was Mary who raped us. She killed my friend. So did Maurice. The two of them together. They were the evil ones."
Alfred must have come out then because I heard his voice in the background imploring Mary to go inside. Then I heard her bawling like a baby. Then the door closed behind them and we were left in the wake of pain.
Manny was gripping me round the waist. I must have stopped dead by the Wall of Cruelty because he had me in his arms and he was holding me up. My voice came out in gulps, as if I were drinking tears at the same time as I was speaking.
"This was where they found him. Right here! By this shitty wall. That's all it amounted to in the end. An ugly wall in Battersea covered in broken glass."
"Who, Jacinta?" he asked, stroking my hair.
"Simon! Simon!" I cried. "After that ... nothing ... years of grief. This bloody wall has been slicing us up for twenty years! Ugly. I hate Ugly. I dre-dreamed of something ... grand."
I hadn't made the right impression. After all my efforts to make us look normal, Mary Beadycap had exploded the myth and I'd seconded the explosion. I'd never see this man again. I'd be stuck in South London in the 1980s teaching secondary school children about a culture I would never be a part of. I'd never be the writer I'd tried to be. I'd be a teacher like Louise. By July I'd have my teaching certificate. My life would never be filled with beauty after all. I'd be just like all the other women who didn't have money or privilege or good luck: disappointed and weary.
I leaned into Manny's small, tight body. His arms were strong. He had a firm grip on me; I couldn't fall.
"You need to sit down. Is there somewhere round here we could go for a drink?"
We found a wine bar at the trendier end of Lavender Hill. We sat in a booth and Manny ordered a bottle of burgundy. Beyond the glass, people hurried by us. Londoners in a hurry to get home. Where did people store their dreams in this country? Up their sleeves? In their back pockets? Under the clock on the mantelpiece? Where did black people go when their dreams came down upon their heads as drizzle? Did the Jamaicans still dream about the turquoise ocean and the extraordinary orange of the mango? Did their fruit taste the same when they bought it in the Northcote Road or in Brixton? Or did its bitterness sting the roofs of their mouths?
I looked at the man opposite. He was beautiful. Petite and perfect like Alison had been. His features were small and his gestures strangely fastidious. What he said didn't appear to be exactly what he meant. But no man knew what he meant--apart from my father, who died, and Alfred, who was, in some ways, as much a woman as he was a man. I drank some more wine and thought briefly about Mary.
We talked, or rather, I talked. He kept filling my glass, and I gave him an edited version of my life with Simon, Louise, Alfred, and Maurice. I said I didn't know what she meant about rape. I'd never hurt anyone. I left out the part about the knickers, the part about Maurice's accusation and his tongue. You don't tell men everything; it was too dangerous. Manny said he believed me, that he could tell I was the good one. "Who did they kill?" he asked.
"A good friend."
He didn't pursue it except to say, "I could be your good friend, Jacinta Moses. Why don't you just lean back? I'll be there to catch you. I've been waiting for a woman like you all my life. I can protect you from those people. I'd never let them hurt you."
"Why are you saying all this?"
"Listen, Jacinta. There are moments in life when a door is opened up. That's the best way I know to describe it. The door just opens and you can either walk through or close it. If you walk, you could find
there are no stairs beyond the door--just a fifty-foot drop, so you hesitate. But if you close the door, then all you have left are what-might-have-beens. And your whole life you spend wondering what the hell was behind door number seventeen. Get it?"
"I'm door number seventeen?"
"No. You're the great treasure behind the door."
"What do you want from me?"
"The key, Jacinta. That's all. Let me in. It's cold outside. All you need to know about me is that I've been where you are now. Waiting to get out. Waiting for the miracle. That's why I came here. To find the miracle. And to write. I need to write about all this. No American has really done it yet. Passion is too hard to catch hold of. Men are afraid. So they write on the peripheries of experience. I want to break love open like a nut. I want to tell people how crazy and how glorious it can be. I want you to be my subject, Jacinta. Because you're the only woman I've met who I know in my heart would never bore the pants off me. Do you know how rare that is? Please. Please. We can be great together. I know you don't trust me now, why should you? But you will, if you just give me time."
I let him kiss me. He leaned over the table, knocking over my empty glass, and I tasted the wine he'd been drinking. He'd seen my home; he'd seen Mary; still he wanted me. My spirits rose. I could do this. I could really do this. I could see the country I'd dreamed of saving. I could work with the poor. I could become a millionaire. I could ride horses across the prairie and go to Canada for weekends. I could be free at last, free at last, with this small blond man called Emmanuel.
He sat back in the booth and looked at me.
"Where exactly do you live in America?" I asked.
We were married in St. Vincent de Paul's Catholic Church in Battersea. I wanted to be married there; it was where I'd first sung about Emmanuel the Savior who had freed His people Israel, so it seemed appropriate. At last, a prayer I'd sent up to God had been answered.
The courtship was a rushed affair. Manny had to go back to the United States by July. We both had to get our degrees by then too, so there wasn't much time to get to know each other. Manny studied every night; I had to prepare to practice teach. We never really made love before the wedding; Manny said he wanted to savor the experience on our honeymoon--a five-day package trip to Paris. I was glad. He could satisfy me in other ways, and I could put off a remembrance of Maurice until later. With other men I'd often had to grit my teeth and pretend I was somewhere else. If that were the case with Manny, I'd rather wait to find it out.
Paris was my mother's gift to us. Simon and she had wanted to go there together, she said, but there wasn't enough time before he died. Her gift moved me. Manny bought her roses and chocolates and took us out to eat at an Indian restaurant in Streatham. He regaled us with stories of his time in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. I'd learn later that he'd only stayed for two months, but in the restaurant, listening to him with Louise was like going back to the Ned Sea Hour with Simon. Manny made us laugh. He could impersonate people, and he did a wonderful imitation of Alfred. We laughed until we ached. Louise said he should be in the movies. She pointed out that Manny was exactly the same height as Simon had been. She said it was a sign.
Because I needed a visa, we spent much of our time at the embassy, waiting in line. It looked as though I'd have to leave after Manny because there was so much paperwork to be approved; but, when I got a place in the same writing program where Manny had been accepted, they relented and gave us the necessary papers so that we could travel together. I was leaving for America in July! I was to be married two weeks before we were to leave England for good. A calmness came over me. I had done it after all. Nothing could stop me now.
Alfred reconciled himself to our union and agreed to give me away. He wore a dark suit and looked quite dashing after I'd blow-dried his wispy hair and covered it in hair spray.
"I'm a star in the firmament," he said, impersonating the blond movie star in Singin' in the Rain.
"You don't hate him too much, do you, Alfred? He's nice, really. He has high aspirations. He really does. He wants to go back to Africa and help the people there. He was in the Peace Corps, you know. Only he had to drop out for personal reasons. Once we've got our MFAs we'll head back to Africa to teach the children. We've got it all planned. So you mustn't hate him. He's the kind of man I thought you'd want me to marry. He's an idealist like you."
"I don't hate him, child. If you love him, that's good enough for me. I just have this gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something tells me there's someone better out there for you, that's all. I always hoped you'd find someone tender, truly tender. Someone who'd put your happiness first."
"Manny does that all the time! Yesterday he got up at five A.M. and skipped his writing time just so he could get me to college in time for the finals."
"You still don't like him, do you?"
"Jacinta, why do you keep asking me that? You know how I feel. It's not fair."
"Okay, okay. Don't start bawling, for God's sake. Look, I don't mind. We can't all love everybody. Just don't spoil this for me, okay? I need this day. There. It looks great. I've covered up the bald spot, see?"
"My Lord! How did you accomplish that feat?"
"Mascara. I put it on the hair shafts. Just don't stand out in the rain, okay? It's not waterproof."
"You're a genius. My own mother wouldn't recognize me."
I put down the comb and pulled up a chair in front of him. Above us we could hear my mother and Mrs. Butcher vacuuming the rooms in preparation for the reception. Hubert's desolate cry of "One more lemon cupcakie" echoed through the house.
"Why doesn't she just give the boy a cupcake?" Alfred said. It was unlike him. Usually he had infinite patience with Mrs. Butcher's son. It was a warm summer day and everything in the house had been either washed, starched, bleached, or ironed, including my hair, which Louise had attacked with a hot comb at six-thirty that morning. Alfred said it was too straight now. He liked all the waves, he said. Reminded him of the seaside. I told him I'd wear my hair however I wanted. He said he would do the same thing. I had to relent then and wash it all over again. Under my veil, it was as wild as ever. Alfred called me Titania when he saw me in my veil. "You're a midsummer night's dream," he said. "He doesn't deserve you."
I took his hand in mine and looked at his long fingers.
"You've been biting your nails again, Alfred. I thought you were going to try to let them look halfway decent for the wedding."
"I'm all nerves." He absentmindedly put his fingers in his mouth and began to chew.
"Look, Alfred, you don't have to be nervous. You don't have to say much. Only two words. When the priest says, 'Who gives this woman,' etc., you say, 'I do" It's easy."
"Should we practice the walk again?"
"We've practiced it a million times. Okay, okay, we'll practice it."
So I took his arm and we pigeon-stepped the wedding march in his tiny room. He stood up straight and walked like an automaton. I could feel him trembling through his sleeve. I squeezed his arm and told him he was doing fine. We sang the wedding march in unison, and I was momentarily afraid that he'd do that during the ceremony. I caught a glimpse of his enormous nose in profile. There were four or five hairs protruding from his left nostril.
"Alfred, I think you need to pluck your nose."
"O dear, not again!" he cried. "I did that only last week. What is going on in my orifices?"
I didn't want to touch that one, so we continued to practice for another few minutes. When we sat down again, Alfred said he felt much better about the whole thing. "I've got the rhythm now" he said. "I'll be free"
He leaned back into the bedsettee and closed his eyes: "I wish the Chief could see you now. He'd be so proud of you."
"Even though I'm marrying the wrong man?"
"Hush. I didn't say that. I'm just an old man with particular preferences, that's all. Look. I've written something down for you."
He handed me a card with a dried flower pressed onto the front.
Inside, in Alfred's handwriting were these words:
No one knows anything about the future, Jacinta. Not really. We think we do, but we don't. The few brave ones make a small space for themselves and for the ones they love; then they fill the space with treasures. I'm not talking about hoarding jewels or mansions or things like that. I'm talking about real treasures--the look a mother can give her child when she knows he's not who she thought he'd be and still she loves him; the snippet of sky a man sees from his small tenement window that tells him there is beauty in the world. I'm talking about treasures like friendship in the face of tragedy and kindness in the face of death. I'm talking about things--gestures--that stay with you and give you peace. It's those you keep in your chest of drawers. You keep them hidden and take them out in times of need. And these are the treasures that help you get through life. Because sometimes life is hell on earth. It can chew you up so badly that the only thing left of you is a hungry mouth and empty hands. It can make you feel worthless. And that's a terrible feeling. Don't let anyone, not anyone, make you feel that way. You are an extraordinary woman. If anyone tells you you're not, spit in their eye! I love you, Cinta. You are the child I always wanted, and the best friend I have. May you be blessed forever. And may you live wisely and generously and be a credit to your sainted father and your beloved mother. May people see in you that racial differences can be reconciled into beauty, and that black and white are not opposites but complementary shades of the same spirit. Love always, Alfred
"Thank you," I said, embracing his thin body. And then I couldn't speak, so Alfred covered for me.
"Fair enough. And now, for the gift," he said.
He stood up and walked over to the bedsettee. He pulled it out gently and reached down behind it. The package he pulled out was small. Wrapped in silver paper with a large white bow, it was obvious he'd wrapped it himself.
"Alfred! You didn't need to get us anything. You know that."
"Of course I did. It's your wedding day! You'll only have one, I hope. Besides, it's for you, not him. You know what I mean."
He handed me the package and I undid the bow. The paper was hard to unwrap. Alfred said he'd used half a roll of tape because the paper refused to behave itself.
Inside was a box. Inside the box was another box on top of which was a note. It read:
When we're apart, you'll have my heart.
"Alfred, this is lovely! Your handwriting is beautiful!"
"It took me forty-five minutes to get it right. You know how bad my handwriting usually is. Even I can't read it."
"Go on. Open it."
I carefully opened the lid. On a tiny white satin cushion lay a gold key.
"My God, Alfred! This is real gold, isn't it?"
"Eighteen carat. Nothing but the best for you. Well? Do you understand the symbolism? It's the key. The key to my heart, Jacinta. One of the treasures for your chest of drawers. Whenever you're lonely or sad, take it out and hold it to your heart. I've held it to mine for a long time so my love is ... fused ... fused to it now. Then I can be there for you even when I'm not. Do you understand? Don't cry. I'll look after your mother. Don't cry."
"Who'll look after you?"
"You're such a twit, Alfred. But I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the gift and for the card. I'll never get anything more precious than this."
We tied the key on a blue ribbon and I wore it round my neck--something new, something blue. My mother had given me a tiny photograph of my father as a boy with his parents. I wore that up my sleeve--that was the something old. Something borrowed were the pearls Vera Butcher let me wear. Her husband had given her those on her wedding day some forty years before, the day after some major World War II victory. The pearls had an antique sheen to them. They put me in mind of the depths of the sea.
There weren't many people at our wedding. Probably thirty, forty tops. When I entered with Alfred I was taken aback by the empty pews. Surely I have more friends than this, I thought. Why didn't I invite them? The answer upset me: I didn't have many friends. I shoved the realization into the background. Who needed friends when I had Manny? But then I banished those regrets because Manny had no one at the wedding at all. Later I learned he hadn't even told his family he was getting married. He stood there at the altar alone. No best man. No mother or father. Vera Butcher and my mother took him under their wing. They claimed him as their own and made a point of telling him how handsome he looked. Even Alfred must have felt sorry for him. He placed Manny's hand in mine when we reached the altar and squeezed our hands together to stop Manny's trembling.
Things speeded up after that. Manny took me, Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses, to be his lawful wedded wife. I took Emmanuel Robert Fox III to be my lawful wedded husband. We signed the register, we sang hymns, and I received communion with those guests who were Catholic and a few who weren't who didn't know any better. Hubert sounded off about cupcakies until Vera had to remove him from the church. She boxed her middle-aged son's ears on the way out, and the slap resounded round the church just as Father Moth blessed us and wished us peace.
When we turned round to walk down the aisle, I noticed that my mother wasn't crying. Brides' mothers are supposed to cry. I wanted to ask her why she wasn't, but then I caught sight of Alfred. He had a huge polka-dot handkerchief scrunched up to his nose and his shoulders were heaving. The people in the rows behind him were laughing. He'd been complaining about gas for several weeks, ever since we'd finalized the date of the wedding. As he tried to stifle his tears, he went off like a small firework. The children sitting behind him covered their noses. I tried to restore order. This was my wedding; I was married now to the man of my dreams. Look at me! I've done it! I've found the one I was looking for! But it was too late. Even my mother was beginning to titter. I shoved my train back with my left foot, fervently wishing I'd had the sense to include bridesmaids. But who would I have chosen? I never saw the girls from school anymore; I didn't like them much anyway. Alison was dead and the women at college hadn't impressed me. I looked down. All over the train were footprints. It was easy to tell whose feet they were. When I got home, I'd kill Alfred.
The reception was subdued. Apart from Hubert Butcher, who brought his single roller skate into the house in an attempt to freewheel it down the stairs, everyone else adopted a British reserve. My mother wore her funereal face--which meant that she sucked her cheeks in as though she had lemon peel in her mouth and tried to smile. I overheard Ruskin asking her if she had constipation.
We hadn't seen Ruskin Garland for a while. He said he'd been busy with the latest book on Mayan archaeological findings. He said he liked the wedding and the "boy" I'd married. Manny got on well with Ruskin. They spent much of the reception huddled together in a corner talking about Africa. I came upon them in mid-conversation trying to decide whether African or Western art was more nihilistic. Ruskin said African art deified nihilism. Manny said it was Western art that had made a fetish of negativity. I found the whole conversation unsuitable for a wedding reception. Manny patted my bottom when I came up to greet them. Ruskin said he was a lucky man to be able to take such liberties with a woman like me. I glared at the old man so hard that he began to stutter. When I left them, they'd returned to their argument.
I went upstairs to the kitchen in the sky and plopped down in the rocking chair we'd bought so that the place would look charming. It wasn't really a kitchen now that we had the Beadycap rooms too, but we'd kept the sink in there and the stove and tried to give it a festive air. Bedsits were all the rage, and I'd tried to persuade Louise to turn the whole room into an attic bed-sitting room for me. But she steadfastly refused, saying there'd be no beds in her kitchen. I backed off; there was a small part of me that was still fearful of her temper. So we left it pretty much as it had been when it was first built over a hundred years before. People at the reception liked it; they called it "quaint."
Things were quaint when you didn't live in them. Quaint went down the tubes when it had to be endured on a daily basis.
I tore off my veil and flung it on the floor. This wasn't what I'd hoped it would be. I hadn't orchestrated it correctly. In the back of my mind a voice said, "It'll be better next time." I was shocked. There wouldn't be a next time. This was it. I was married now. A sacred vow.
No going back.
I went to the window and looked down over the back. The line extending down via pulleys into the back garden was empty. For weeks it had been heavy with curtains and tablecloths. But now the festivities were almost over. The frantic wash was done. The minuscule garden was flanked by other people's tiny plots. The concrete air-raid shelter was still intact. It ruined the efforts Louise and Alfred had made to prettify the view. Louise had bought two dozen potted plants--some from her headmaster, who'd told her he'd let her have them at a discount. She stuck them in the ground, not bothering to check to see whether they'd endure outdoors. Some of them wilted that afternoon. Our neighbors, in typical British fashion, had walled themselves off from each other. KEEP OUT! said the walls and fences and privet hedges. Strange to think that there was so little beauty in this city that people were migrating to Battersea in hordes. "What would your father say?" It was Louise. She'd come into the room without my noticing.
"O, Cinta! What would your father say about you? Pretty as a picture standing there by the window all grown up."
"What are you doing up here, anyway?"
"It was hot down there, and the silly veil was getting on my nerves. I'll go down and change."
She stopped me at the door.
"You are happy, aren't you?" she said, her hand on my arm, her tone full of concern.
It was what she wanted to hear--the only thing she would accept. She sank back into platitudes.
"He's such a nice boy, isn't he?"
"He's great. And he's a man. He's nearly thirty, you know."
"It's such a shame his family couldn't be here."
"You are happy, Cinta, aren't you?"
She let go of my arm and moved over to the chair. She sat down heavily and kicked off her shoes.
"I remember when your father and I got married. Auntie paid for the wedding. It cost two pounds altogether. I wore one of her old dresses. I jazzed it up with flowers and a pretty belt. I borrowed a hat from my friend Cynthia Huggett, and I bought a pair of shoes for two and sixpence from Woolworth's. Your father said I looked like an angel." She giggled like a girl. (Manny hadn't said anything about my gown. He was downstairs talking about nihilism with the dirty old man who'd tried to molest me.) "We had bacon sandwiches. I wanted a nice bit of back bacon but your great-aunt Jessie said streaky was fine for a wedding. No need to make a fuss. So we had streaky. Your father said the sandwiches were the best he'd ever tasted. Someone brought a bottle of champagne with them. We shared it out between twelve guests. That was a good bottle of champagne. I never thought I'd see my own daughter having such a fancy wedding. Yet here we are. You know what your father would say? He'd say 'Swap me for a piece of cheese!' because he always said that if he was shocked by something."
"So you've told me. About a million times."
"What is the matter with you?"
"Nothing. Look, I need to go downstairs and check on people."
"Most people have left. Ruskin, Alfred, of course, Vera, and a few others are still here, but most of them have gone."
"Great. We didn't throw the bouquet or the garter."
"Shall I get them?"
"Mum, what is the point? Everyone's gone. Who'll catch the garter?
Hubert? Alfred? Give me a break."
"All right, young lady, why don't you tell me what's bothering you?"
"Okay. You want to know what's bothering me? I'll tell you, then. I'll go ahead and tell you." And I almost did. I almost stood there and told her I had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, just like Alfred did. I almost told her that I'd married the American downstairs to escape the terror of a racist island filled with Beadycaps and squalor. I almost told her that she was the one to blame for whatever I did next. Her insanity had left me with a big hole in my chest and someone had to fill it. Someone who would take me far away and make me forget what it was like to be me. But behind me the filled-in hole in the wall announced itself, reminding me of how far we had come. The woman in front of me needed to believe it had turned out all right in the end. If she wanted to believe that, I should let her. What right did I have to take her single dream away? Alfred's voice in my head, the best conscience I knew, told me I had no right.
I decided to blurt out the first thing that occurred to me.
"I suppose I'm just a bit upset that no one seems to give a damn that I probably won't ever set foot on this stinking island again. You seem to be quite happy to be rid of me and--"
"Jacinta, sometimes, my girl, you're an absolute fool. It's about time you grew up. The moon doesn't follow you, Jacinta Moses. You have a lot to be thankful for--much more than most. You have a husband who loves you, a wonderful degree from one of the best universities, your health, what else do you want?"
I looked over at her. "I'd like a guarantee," I said.
"Of fidelity. Of health and happiness. A warranty that would let me return him if it didn't work out."
"Well, my lady, there's no such thing, so you'd better get that notion out of your head. It'll work if you make it work. It's up to the woman to see that the home is a happy one. I always had a nice dinner ready for your father when he--"
"What about the man? What is he supposed to do?"
"If you're lucky, Manny will be a good father and a kind husband. He won't do much around the house. In spite of all this women's lib nonsense, men are much the same. They do as they please because they can. They don't bear the children or cook the meals. Even your father wasn't much good around the house. That was my job. But he loved us both with all his heart. You can't ask for any more than that."
"Yes I can, Mum. I'm not putting up with that male rubbish. I'm not. You can suck on that lemon if you like, but it won't change a thing. Times have changed. Women don't put up with that kind of treatment anymore. We'll both work at this marriage; we'll both do the housework. Manny's nothing like the men you describe. He keeps his own place spotless; he'll do the same thing now that we're married. We'll share the housework and the child rearing. And if we don't ... Well, we're married and that's that, but I tell you, there will be hell to pay!"
"We'll see, young lady. In a few years with a few toddlers round your ankles, you'll be singing a different tune."
There was bitterness in her voice. It struck me for the first time that perhaps marital bliss had been more elusive for her than I'd been led to believe.
"Would you and Daddy still be married?"
It had slipped out. I hadn't meant to say it aloud.
Instead of pouncing, my mother looked out of the window and sighed.
"Who knows?" she said. "Simon Moses was the most wonderful man I've ever met. But people change. And emotions ... emotions change too. Don't expect too much from life, Cinta. It will crush you if you hope for too much."
"I'm going to hope for whatever I want. People have to have dreams. They have to."
She shrugged. The conversation was ended. That was all she had to tell me. On the way out, she started up again.
"And do you know that Mr. Pod is thinking of making all the teachers do double lunch duty. Can you believe it? I told him it would be over my dead body. The man's positively evil ..."
Ruskin drove us to the train station. It was slow going because Ruskin's reactions weren't what they used to be, and so he drove like a snail to compensate for errors. Manny talked to him about digs the whole way there. By the time Ruskin let us out at Victoria, I was ready to burst.
I didn't speak to Manny all the way to Dover. On the ferry, he realized something was up. By the time we got to Calais, though, he'd made me laugh. When we pulled into the Gare du Nord in Paris, he'd made me forget all about our sad little wedding--something about him during the early days took all the pain away and made things whole. When Manny was in the mood, he could make me believe that life with him could be a storybook. America rang in my head like a song of celebration. We'd be going there soon. Back to Virginia. Back to where he lived. I'd meet his family; we'd study writing together at the university. We'd be happy. Just the two of us.
That night in the hotel room not far from the Sacre-Coeur, we made love. It was like making love to an idea. Manny wasn't the man on top of me; he was more like a projection of something we both wanted. He'd rest for an hour or two and then he'd start again. And I'd let him because I'd never been caressed in that way before. Sometimes it seemed to me that he didn't really want to do it--he was compelled, addicted. He couldn't help himself. Sometimes he seemed to have found in me all the keys he'd been searching for; at other times, he couldn't even find the door.
The white sheets became damp with sweat in the heat of the summer night. My breasts were sore and between my legs was a burning sensation, but still we made love. He called me by my names; he nibbled my ears and stroked my thighs. He said I was all women at once. He carried me to the bathroom and told me to step into the bathtub. He filled the tub with water and washed me with a special perfumed soap he'd packed in his suitcase. He rubbed and rubbed until the soapsuds turned to cream in his palms, and the water clouded up to opaqueness. He poured wine into plastic cups and we drank until I was dizzy with it. The warm water lapped me up. I dissolved into it like bath crystals and opened myself wide to his hands. At one point, I opened my eyes to find him looking at his hands, an expression of what amounted to anger on his face. When I asked him what was wrong, he smiled, but only with his mouth. He took his glass of wine and poured it into the bath. The water turned a pale red. "You're bleeding," he said. He bent down to taste me.
"This is your body." He ran his finger from my neck down to my navel.
"This is your blood." He scooped up the rosy water and poured it over my head in a kind of baptism.
Then his hands were everywhere. My body gathered itself up to a crescendo. I was ringing with the feel of him. I didn't know where he began and where I ended. We were one note sounding out into the dark.
Later he helped me out of the bath and patted me dry. His gentleness reminded me of my father; he'd dried me off after a bath once. I could only have been three or four. I had a rash. Louise and Simon soaked me in a tin tub we kept behind the curtain under the sink. They'd made a fuss of me late at night, and my father had dried me off while my mother made me some cocoa. I relaxed into contentment as the soft towel turned the palest pink. "I love you, Emmanuel Fox III," I murmured, and it was the truth.
"I know," he said.
We went back to bed and listened to the faint sounds of the nighttime. I had no desire left. Everything was appeased. Manny fell into a deep sleep. Once he called out: "No! Help me, Jesus!" I held him tighter until he was quiet again. Who was the man who had taken me to the other side of my body and left me there? I hardly knew him. He could be anybody. I had given myself over to him without saving a part of me for later. No going back now, even if I wanted to.
No one had ever made me feel the way Manny did. At the intersection between passion, hope, fear, and pain, he'd emptied me out like a cup. There was nothing between me and consciousness. The outline of my body had been taken up by shadow. I merged into him and into the night. I didn't know whether I was blissful or terrified. Whatever this man had, he was going to give it to me. I didn't know whether courage or foolishness had led me to him. I did know I'd fallen in love on the first night of our honeymoon in Paris. At some time, that love would cost me. Alfred was right. In the perfumed hotel room in France, I knew he had been right to be wary, yet I had to know what drove this man to frenzy. I had to find out what it was so that it could always be me who satiated him.
Manny woke up with a start and began to fondle me again. When I said no, he covered my mouth with kisses and made me forget the objections I'd had. I kept thinking there was something I was forgetting--a clue of some kind. But then his will became mine, and there was nothing left to do but relinquish my hold on who I was and give my names over for Manny to claim them.
At nine A.M. there was a knock on the door followed by footsteps. A maid dressed in a black skirt and blouse stood at the end of our bed. She must have been close to my age. Manny and I were uncovered. His leg was clamped over mine and his pretty blond hair was damp to the touch. My skin looked even darker against the whiteness of his arm. He was sleeping again--breathing softly into my ear. The nightmares were over. He was finally satisfied. The woman at the end of the bed stared down at us. She ran her eyes over each part of our bodies and smiled. Then she said something in French about black and white. Then she smiled again. She placed new towels at our feet and left us. For all I knew, I could have dreamed it.
The next night was a repeat of the night before. For three nights in a row, Manny fought with me as if he were on fire. Sandwiched in between those nights were oddly innocent days of museum visits and church tours. Paris became a blur. It existed on the hems of our bodies. It was far less real than we were. Paris was the negative space in the background of our passion. It only existed because we allowed it to. No one mattered but we two. The night opened up around our play like curtains. Each morning while we were still in bed, the maid came to look at us. I didn't wake Manny up. I liked her there at the foot of the bed with the warm towels in her hand. Sometimes I fancied she was Death come to claim us. Had I died then, I would have been happy to let go of the world--not because I didn't love it, but because, finally, it had given me all I wanted.
On our last morning, I tried to ask her, softly so that Manny wouldn't hear us, whether she was real. But my French was terrible, and I must have said something funny because she began to giggle. Then she chatted away in French, softly interrupting herself with laughter. I laughed too, and Manny turned over and began to wake up. When I turned back to the foot of the bed, she'd left.
"She's gone," I said.
"Who?" Manny asked, yawning.
"The woman in black."
"Mmm," he mumbled, and went back to sleep.
I tried to remember what she'd said. My convent schoolgirl French was terrible. Something about men. Something about angels. Was she saying Manny was an angel? He was beautiful enough to be one. Is that what she'd meant? She'd said something about black and white too, just as she had before. And I could have sworn she talked about children--though the word I kept coming up with in translation was "woman" or "lady" or something. How could a baby be a woman? Did she mean girl? Perhaps Manny and I would make an angel child--a girl. With blond hair and dark skin. A face that featured Louise and Manny and Simon and me. I reached over and stroked Manny's cheek. He woke up smiling. He took my thumb and put it in his mouth. We'd both found Beauty. We would never let it go.
A short time after we returned from Paris, we were at Gatwick Airport, ready to board a plane for America. I'd flown only once before--the second time I went to Europe. My heart fluttered in my chest, and I kept opening and closing hand luggage to check to see that we had all the things we'd need if our bags were forever lost.
Louise, Alfred, and Ruskin all came to see us off. Luckily, we'd been able to take the train to Gatwick so we didn't have to endure Ruskin's driving. We said we had too much luggage for his car. He seemed relieved.
Manny was in a bad mood. His brows hung over his eyes like a cloud, and he stuffed his hands in his pockets like a man trying to hold himself back from killing something.
My mother kept telling me to be good. I told her I had no intention of being good and winked at Manny. Manny pretended he hadn't seen it. Alfred had bought five different sets of notelets so that I would write to him. He asked me every ten minutes whether or not I'd packed them all. Ruskin was barely there. The journey had been rough for him. He held on to my mother's arm and leaned into her with age. Spider veins clustered round his nose and cheeks; the remnants of his hair fluttered like wisps of smoke even inside the airport. There must have been a moment when Ruskin Garland finally relinquished any claims to being a dashing, middle-aged warlock to stand forever in the company of selfish old men. Perhaps it had passed by unnoticed; or perhaps he knew it every morning when he looked in the mirror and saw what had become of him. It occurred to me that I would never see Ruskin again. I wondered how it felt being old. It was a brief thought. Old age couldn't touch Manny and me. Not for a long time.
I was in a hurry to leave; Alfred was desperate to keep me there.
"You could still change to another plane, you know," he said. "It's not too late. You could fly tomorrow. The thirteenth isn't the best day to take to the sky, you know. Did you hear about that awful crash in Siberia?"
My mother told him to be quiet. He gulped back his words and looked down at the floor. The top of his head was huge--a giant baby head. I took his hand.
"You know I love you, don't you, Alfred? And you know you've been a father to me since Daddy died, don't you? Our house is your house, okay? Even when we're miles from here it will be the same. You and me. I have the gold key now, remember."
My mother held us both for a long time.
"Be good to each other," she said, which was a distinct improvement over imploring me to behave.
"Jacinta, don't forget to ..." She stopped in mid-sentence. "O dear. I've forgotten what it is you're supposed to remember."
We all laughed except for Manny, who had moved off already and was gesturing to me to follow.
Ruskin had brought a camera. "One last photo," he said.
So we all stood there together and had our picture taken by a kind Japanese man who happened to be passing by.
Then it was time to leave.
After I passed through security, I looked back at the three of them. My mother was in the middle, Alfred was waving his polka-dot handkerchief, and Ruskin had lifted his cane into the air and was in danger of knocking himself out with it. My mother blew me a kiss. I pretended it hit me on the head and almost knocked me over. Manny called to me to hurry up, for God's sake. So I picked up my hand luggage with the five sets of notelets in it from Alfred and walked away from England and everything I'd known for twenty-five years.
We sat in row twenty-three, seats A and B. I sat by the window. Manny said he didn't want to look at London. It's one of the ugliest cities in the world, he said. Thank God we're leaving. Though it was the kind of thing I would have said, it didn't sound good coming from him. I opened my mouth to defend it, looked at the solidity of his expression, and closed it again. The engines on the jumbo jet began to churn; the huge machine began to move. I must have squealed with delight, but Manny told me to be quiet.
It began to rain outside. Drizzle at first, then a heavy downpour.
"Can we still take off?" I asked.
"Won't it be too slippery?"
"What? In the air? I don't think so." His voice was mocking. I decided not to speak to him at all until he could be civil.
I put my nose up against the window to try to see into the airport itself. My mother had said she'd stay there until the plane took off. I thought I caught sight of a polka-dotted handkerchief once; but then the rain washed the image away, and we'd trundled on to another part of the runway by the time it eased up a little.
Taking off terrified me.
I sat back in my economy class seat and felt my back boring a hole into the fabric. Up, up, up. A steep incline up a hill that wasn't there. I was in the belly of a winged whale. I'd never been good at science. As far as I was concerned, there was no logical explanation for what was happening. I gripped the arms of the chair and accidentally pressed the button that reclined the seat. I screamed as my head jerked back.
"What are you doing? Look, we had two hours of sleep last night by the time Alfred had finished with his damn stories," he said, helping me straighten the seat.
"I like Alfred's stories."
"Maybe they're okay, but not at three in the morning when you've heard them all before and you have a plane to catch in the morning. I need to get some sleep, okay?"
"Aren't you just a bit sad to be leaving? I mean, won't you miss anyone in England? You've lived here for two years. Won't it make you sad never to see them again?"
Soon after that he was fast asleep. I didn't wake him when they came around with a snack. I just ate his too. I used his stereo headset and mine so that I could check on some of the music channels while listening to the movie. I got wine and spirits with my lunch and, once again, ate Manny's because he was still snoring and I didn't like him very much at the time.
When he woke up, we still had an hour and a half of flight time left.
"That felt good," he said, yawning all over everyone. "Where's the food?"
"I ate it."
"What the hell for?"
"I was hungry. Glad you're awake. I need to pee. 'Scuse me."
He didn't speak to me again until we reached Washington, D.C. But I didn't care. I was landing in America. I'd been given a chance to start all over. I'd never have to see South London again if I didn't want to. I'd flown away.
I turned to Manny as the wheels hit the runway.
"Yippee!" I said. "We made it!"
"Look, did you bring any money? We've got time for lunch in D.C. before the next flight."
"I thought you had the travelers' checks."
"Yeah, but we need to hold on to those. Money's going to be real tight for a while. Grad assistants don't get much, you know."
I handed him a twenty-dollar bill. My mother had given me several hundred pounds from her savings. I'd changed some of it into American dollars last week.
He didn't thank me. What was mine was his. He stuffed it into his pocket.
We went through customs, ate in D.C., and passed the time looking at all the people in the airport.
"I'm in D.C.! I'm in D.C.!" I cried.
Manny warmed up to my excitement. He squeezed my elbow and told me I was the best thing to hit America since pizza.
The next plane we boarded was the size of a poor woman's bank account. It bounced up and down on the air currents and made Manny feel sick. I spent the time watching out for flocks of birds in case they got stuck in the propellers. I would shout out "Flock ahoy" if I saw any approaching. (The pilot would certainly hear me as what separated the twelve passengers from the cockpit was eighteen inches
and a shower curtain.) In spite of my fear, I was excited. I was flying over the New World with my new husband! My story would not be the same as my mother's. I had escaped.
Mrs. Fox was there to meet us at the airport. His parents were divorced. He wouldn't say much about his father, and I didn't pursue it. I had felt abandoned by parents too, and there was nothing more devastating. Mrs. Fox was friendly enough, though she was quiet, and she seemed to be somewhat afraid of her son. She did everything to please him, including carrying one of his heavy bags. She invited me to call her "Morn," but it seemed like a betrayal to do so, so I tried to avoid calling her by name at all. She didn't live in the college town where we'd be living, but she'd made the two-hundred-mile drive up from southwest Virginia because Manny had told her to find us an apartment. She'd found one three blocks from the university, she said. When Manny seemed pleased, she brightened up considerably. Lydia Fox's chatter was nervous, and her eyes were fixed on Manny's face when he wasn't looking and averted from him when he glanced over at her. Like Manny, she didn't talk about his father. As for the racial difference between us, she told us that if Manny loved me, that was all that mattered. But her tone when she said it was mournful, and I got the sense that she would have preferred a pale English rose to the African wildflower she'd gotten. I didn't much care. Manny and I would make a world of our own. What happened outside it would not affect us.
The distractions in America soon made me forget about Lydia's misgivings. The next few weeks came and went too fast. I was interested in everything. I wanted to travel around the U.S., I wanted to learn to drive. I wanted to watch every movie on at the mall; I wanted to eat tacos and burgers, ice cream and pizzas. I gained twelve pounds. After we made love one night, Manny told me I was getting fat. "You're getting bloody rude," I said, turned over, and didn't let him see that I was crying. The following day, I began dieting.
I'd never seen anything like America before. For a claustrophobic like myself, it was heaven. I couldn't believe how much space there was to roam around in: houses had dozens, sometimes hundreds of feet between them; rooms even in apartments allowed for generous pathways between furniture; cars were able to do U-turns, and parallel parking was the exception rather than the rule; trees edged the skylines and the skylines ran for miles uninterrupted by buildings. I could see the moon! At night I'd go out onto the balcony and watch it come up. I hadn't known it could vary as much as it did, nor that it could determine someone's mood. Mine changed whenever the moon was full. Manny said I was imagining things, that the moon's influence on women was a myth. In his dismissal of the supernatural, he reminded me of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. When I told him that, he mumbled something about me and Bottom. When the moon appeared as a pale lemon-yellow plate, and when shadow pools gathered in its face, or puddles of light etched a pattern across a disk of luminescent white, I knew that Beauty could be purchased cheaply in America, for it was everywhere. Parks were not ten or twelve acres, they were two thousand or more. National forests were the size of small countries! I tacked a map of the United States to our bedroom wall and stuck flags in all the national parks. I told Manny we'd visit every one. He said it would take us centuries to do that. I told him we'd choose the biggest and work down from there. The university was huge too, and it made me laugh when students complained about being overcrowded. Americans were spoiled. They took everything for granted. I wrote poems about their selfishness and showed them to the few students we met before classes began. They accepted the criticism with such good grace that I was taken aback. Much less sensitive than the British people I'd grown up with, the young Americans I met were confident enough to delight in occasional castigation. I began to think that perhaps Americans were not as bad as Manny made out. Some of them expressed a desire for all things alien. They adopted me as proof positive of their lack of prejudice. They spoke in eulogies about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. They wrote about their travels to India and mocked the middle-class homes that had produced them. When they heard about my father, they tried to find copies of his work. They called him a master of deliberate naivete. They complimented the rhythm in his sentences. I told them he was a great dancer too and that he munched daily on watermelons and fried chicken. "You're a riot," they said.
Manny didn't like Americans even though he was one. He said they were vulgar. He said he was an American by accident of birth, not by inclination. He claimed to have an African spirit. "We'll go back there after we finish up here. You'll love it."
"But I only just got to the United States. There's so much to see."
"Don't you want to learn about your heritage?"
"Yes, of course. But--"
"Don't worry. You'll love Africa. I promise."
"I know. I know I will, Manny. I've always wanted to see where my father grew up. But I'm excited about this country too. About your country. About writing. We're going to learn how to write in this MFA program. Aren't you excited about that?"
"You poor, deluded girl," he said, stroking my cheek. "No one can teach anyone how to write. You're either born with it or you're not. Most of the guys in this program can't write themselves out of a paper bag."
"What are we doing here, then?"
"Playing the system for all it's worth. Networking. Making the right contacts. After I've been introduced to editors and agents, we'll be free to go back to Africa and be ourselves."
"What about me? Won't I meet them too?"
"O yeah. Sure, honey. But it's different with poets. Not likely you'll be making much writing sonnets. Fiction's where the money is. But don't worry. I'll be generous. When they turn my novels into movies, I'll take you anywhere you want to go. You can see this whole damn country, if you want. We'll pile the bambinos into the station wagon, and head out West." Manny never expected me to take the program seriously. It was true--I'd applied on a whim, just because he was going there. I knew nothing about MFA programs or what it would mean to the rest of my life if I took writing seriously. I knew nothing.
When Manny made comments I found disturbing, I convinced myself he was being ironic. I had to be right about Manny because it was too late to be wrong.
We enrolled in the MFA program so that my husband could network. I didn't understand exactly what networking meant, but Manny said it was what America was all about: self-promotion. I caught on quickly. It was easy. I watched Manny and copied him. He was very pleased with me. We had quite a routine going. When Manny was asked by other students how much he'd published, he'd say, "A little. Here and there, you know. Nothing big." Nobody asked him to be more specific; they were intimidated by him. He'd read everything and wasn't shy about letting you know it. Even though he was small in stature, tall men backed away from him and gave him room, as if the very breadth of his knowledge required breathing space. I didn't say anything about publishing because I hadn't published a darn thing. Manny advised me that there was no need to mention my old manuscript and how often it had been rejected. "Let's keep that little morsel under wraps," he said. I wrote sonnets again and strange little allegories in rhyming quatrains and fourteeners. The professors we met with during orientation said they'd been delighted by my application. They seemed to think I was charmingly eccentric. No one paid that much attention to me until I began speaking about Africa, then they all listened intently, knowing that, as writers, they were supposed to appreciate the divinity of the primitive. I didn't mention the fact that I'd never set foot on the continent; Manny hinted that it wouldn't be in my best interests to admit it. When they asked me about Africa, I implied that I had been very young when we left. They seemed satisfied. Lying began to come easily. Manny said that as long as the lies weren't whoppers, they were a good way for writers to stretch their imaginations. I didn't think Alfred would agree, but his voice was waning in my conscience. Manny's was taking over.
The night before Mrs. Fox left for the tiny southwest Virginia town where Manny was raised, she cooked a pot roast. I'd never had an American pot roast before, and I wanted to sample one. All three of us were sick of being cramped up together in the tiny apartment for the summer. I don't know why she stayed for so long. She often seemed listless, and Manny made her jump whenever he spoke. Money was tight and feeding three was hard. Manny assured me he didn't have a penny to his name; and Mrs. Fox had taken an unpaid vacation from her secretarial position to "help us move," so it fell upon me to use my mother's savings until we began as GTAs at the end of August. In fact, I'd been surprised by Manny's circumstances. I had assumed he was fairly wealthy and that's how he'd had the money to study in England; but it turned out that a scholarship had afforded him the opportunity to go abroad. His family fortune was as small as my own. But I wasn't resentful about it. In this country, if you worked hard, and had a little luck, you would be successful. We would be wealthy soon enough. Manny told me he'd give me the moon when his writing took off. I would give myself the moon too, I thought. Two moons for the Jacinta-in-the-Story. Not bad.
After we'd eaten the pot roast, Manny told stories about Africa. He was his old self--the man I'd fallen in love with in Paris. The man with the dreams as large as my own. He was very relaxed, very much in control. He reminded me of Simon, although he didn't try to make a pattern out of anything he'd seen the way my father had. Manny's gift was journalistic; he could make you see details as though you were watching a documentary on the BBC. We saw the bread men carrying their loaves of bread in huge wooden trays on their heads; the kerosene boys in their tattered clothes singing out their poignant call to the evening--"Kerosene! Ten cent for de pint, kerosene!" We saw the "gara" fabric worn by the dark-skinned women, the poda-poda vans that carried passengers along roads alive with potholes. We saw Manny in the light of the kerosene lamp as a young Peace Corps volunteer from a town near Martinsville. We heard about his bucket shower, the ant-infested outhouse, the snakes, the banana trees, the rice field, and the invasion of a horde of rats.
When Manny spoke about Africa, there was something in his tone that said it could all be so much better if only the guys over there would get their acts together. He talked about going back to "fix things." I wanted to go too. Not to fix anything. Just to see this land that had been in my father's bones and that was lighting up my husband's eyes.
"There's so little perfect beauty there," he said. "I mean, it's gorgeous, don't get me wrong. But it's full of contradictions. One minute you think you're in paradise, the next you're sure you're in hell. Lithe, beautiful women, magnificent landscapes, all flanked by squalor, leprosy, cholera. You don't have time to filter any of it. You can't. If you try doing that you go mad. The smart thing is to immerse yourself in it--forget about your own criteria for beauty and just let Africa exist in her own right...."
Even in the light cast by the ugly yellow lamp we'd picked up the day before at my first yard sale, I thought he looked beautiful sprawled out on the green vinyl sofa that had come with the apartment--too beautiful, in fact, to disagree with. So I kept my thoughts to myself and listened to Manny's version of Africa that was so different from my father's.
I caught myself wondering about the kind of children we'd have. How could they not be beautiful, looking at Manny's exquisite features? I felt the ache rise in me--the ache to make replicas of us and watch them grow. I wanted to make amends for my own childhood, to raise a child who would shine in the certainty of her own beauty. A nagging sense that there wasn't much time told me that we had to move fast if we were to keep up with our dreams and make our future perfect. If I had a child, I would never be lonely again. Even if Manny turned away from me, the child would be there, loving me the way I'd yearned to be loved by Louise. Manny made it clear he didn't want children yet, but I knew he'd love them once they came along. You saw that all the time. Early on in our marriage, I began to think of ways to catch him by surprise before he could remind me about my diaphragm.
I was planning a strategy as Manny finished his narrative and stood up. Our audience with him was over.
"The page awaits," he said.
I was dismayed. "You're not writing tonight, are you? It's your mother's last night, for God's sake! I thought we could go out for a walk, or get some ice cream or something."
Manny's mother stood up quickly and ran her nervous hands up and down the apron she was wearing. She was real content, real content, she said, just to spend time with me that evening. She suggested we do the dishes while Manny wrote.
"Writers work on a different schedule than the rest of us," she said. When I reminded her that I was hoping to be a writer too, she pretended not to hear me.
I did the dishes because it was her last night, and I didn't want to argue with anyone. We couldn't drive anywhere because Manny had only found time to give me two driving lessons so far, and Lydia never' drove "after the sun had set in the west." I'd asked her once what happened if it set in the east. She'd blinked a few times and then changed the subject.
We sat down to play cards after we'd finished the dishes, but the furnished apartment had a dismal atmosphere, and Manny's typing grated on my nerves. My father had typed well into the night, and the tapping had acted as a lullaby. Now, however, it didn't soothe me at all.
"Let's go for a walk," I said to Manny's mother. Obediently, she put on her walking shoes and we stepped out into the evening.
Something about the Virginia summer night cheered me. We walked down to the north end of the campus. It was still hot--close to eighty degrees. I felt warm in my T-shirt. Mrs. Fox, in her hose and heavy walking shoes, must have been very uncomfortable, but she didn't complain. I felt as though I were taking a pet for a walk. She stayed at my heels and waited for small favors.
"Let's sit here," I said, taking pity on my mother-in-law, who would probably have walked ten miles if I'd made her.
I wanted to love my mother-in-law, but it wasn't going to happen. I'd grown up with Alfred and Louise. They saw the world the way poets do--at least Louise had before she'd found Mr. Pod and her classroom. Lydia, however, was an ordinary woman. At that time in my life, I didn't have patience with the ordinary; I failed to understand that the ordinary could yield something extraordinary if only you gave it some space in which to perform. Lydia's disdain for our way of life was clear, even though she never made it explicit. A slight incline of her head, a barely imperceptible furrowing of her brow, and I knew that she was infuriated by our behavior on Sunday morning. People went to church on Sunday; they didn't laze around in bed, or watch television shows. Lydia sighed when she sat down. She wiped her forehead with a Kleenex.
We sat on a bench under a tree. Ahead of us were some stately university classroom buildings and a high stone wall that enclosed one of the old gardens. The lawns were perfectly manicured and the late summer blooms punctuated the earth with color. I leaned back in the bench and closed my eyes. The first few months hadn't been easy, but soon Manny and I would be alone at last. We'd have time to live as a couple and get acquainted with each other. I couldn't wait for Lydia Fox to leave.
Lydia began speaking. Perhaps it was being away from her son that made her bold, or perhaps it was the calmness of the evening. She spoke like a woman who'd been wound up with a key, but not allowed to unwind until now. She spoke quickly and furtively, looking around to see whether we were being overheard.
"He's a genius," she began, glancing over her shoulder. "Like his father." Another glance to the right. A handful of students, one or two professors strolled by. The students were laughing. Their American accents made me happy. In their pronunciation were the wide, bright spaces of their country. My country now.
"What's his father like? I mean, Manny never talks about--"
"From the beginning, that's the way he was. A genius, like his father. Always artistic. His father is too--very artistic. Thought he'd paint. We both did. Never without a paint box. Watercolors. Then there was that episode with Sophie and..." Mrs. Fox put a hand over her mouth. "Slipped out," she said. "Don't tell him."
"Don't tell him what?"
"What about Sophie? Was she a girlfriend?"
Mrs. Fox began to giggle. It was the first time I'd seen her do that. Her face was suddenly girlish and I could see traces of her son's energy in its expression. I warmed to her. We were bonding at last. "No," she said, still giggling, "Sophie was his pet."
"So Manny had a dog?" I suggested.
"No. A fish."
"A goldfish?" I was disappointed. I'd already pictured him leaping over the green Virginia fields with Lassie.
"Not exactly." She seemed afraid.
"She wasn't a goldfish," she said. "O no. She was huge. Much bigger than that. A beautiful fish. I can't remember what those fish are called now, but she was big. Not one of those tiny fish. Big as your fist." She made a fist. Even in the gathering dark, I could see the veins in her hand.
"What happened?" I asked, trying to stifle a yawn. It was the only cue she needed.
"I got back from work one day. Not long after his dad left us. We have a small house. Real small. Soon as I came in I could hear him. Swearing."
"How old was he?"
"Ten. But he didn't act ten. He acted like a little man. Like he was all grown up. He came out of the womb like that. Childhood didn't interest him. Being a genius was hard, I guess. But I could hear him. Swearing and cussing up a storm. I peeked round the door and he was splayed out on the carpet with a pad and pencil and he was drawing like a child on fire."
"Circles and swirls and fins and gills. Looking up at the tank and cussing at poor Sophie. He got up and jiggled the tank and made the water swish like this." She moved her hands to show the effect of the water. "I wanted to go in and stop him, but I knew I couldn't. He's like his dad. He does what he pleases and you don't cross him. He kept on drawing. And he'd bang on the floor with his hand and stamp with his foot and say, 'Sophie, you damn fool! What is wrong with you?' But Sophie wasn't the one drawing, was she? So it struck me that perhaps the boy had a fever. But I bided my time and kept on peeking. And by now he was pressing down hard on the paper and going right on through to the carpet! And I didn't know what to do. His father would have beat him. But I never did believe in beatings. So ! just kept on peeking and hoped for the best.
"Now you have to understand about that fish. It wasn't an ordinary fish. No, ma'am. It was a special tropical fish. Real expensive. Cost me most of the savings I'd put away for his microscope. But he wanted it when he saw it in the pet store. And there was no crossing him. If Manny took a liking to something, you got out of his way. And he loved that fish. Adored it. Kissed the side of the tank each night before he got into bed. Prayed for Sophie too. 'Dear God, bless all those I love. Especially my beloved Sophie.' He made that up at nine years old. Anyhow, he loved that big old fat fish. And so did I. She wasn't green and she wasn't gold. She wasn't copper and she wasn't red. It was like she was every color of the fall with a shimmer added. And you'd look at her one large eye and see ... see ... what things must have been like before we came along to spoil everything. So I couldn't believe it when Manny stormed over to the tank again and reached his hand in. She didn't want to leave. Sophie knew what he was planning and she didn't want to leave. You'll think I'm crazy, but I thought I heard her scream. It was a wail. Soft and far away. Like one of the whale songs you hear when you watch those underwater movies about the sea and how we're destroying it. I froze. Manny's hand was in the tank grabbing for Sophie. Water was sloshing over the side onto the carpet. It sounded like the splat of vomit when she landed on the floor. Splat. Then he had her in his hand and she was still in her death throes. He watched her die. He stood there and watched her die in his hand. Then he carried her back to his place on the floor and laid her at the top of his drawing pad. 'There,' he said. 'Now you'll be good and still.'
"Then he began to draw her. Like nothing had happened. Like she'd always been as dead as a doorpost. And then I crept away. Because there's some things about your children you shouldn't know. And I'd seen them."
I swallowed hard. I didn't know this woman. Maybe she was trying to frighten me--make me as pathetic as she was. Perhaps she was jealous of her son's love for me and was trying to turn me against him. She began to talk again.
"Forty minutes later he came out with this picture in his hand. It was Sophie and she looked just like herself. He showed it to me with pride. I pretended I hadn't seen a thing. 'How did you get her to keep still?' I asked. 'I killed her,' he said, calm as you please.
"I asked him why.
"'She wouldn't keep still, Mom.'
"I told him she was a fish. Fish don't know when their portraits are being drawn. He just shrugged and asked me to throw Sophie out. 'She's getting stinky,' he said.
"I flushed the poor old fish down the toilet. She left this trail of glitter gold round the bowl. Broke my heart. Then the toilet got plugged up and I had to call a plumber out. Cost me a fortune."
We sat in silence for a while. I was angry. She shouldn't have told me that story. It was deliberately cruel. What did she want me to do with it, anyway? I was married to the man, for God's sake. She answered before I had a chance to ask the question.
"I told you because I want you to be careful."
"How do you mean?"
"I want you to be careful," she said again, whispering this time. "He's dangerous."
"O for goodness' sake! He was a child."
"And now he's a man," she said.
She stood up the way her son had earlier, indicating that my audience with her was over. I stood up too and we walked back to the house in silence. I thought about the fact that I'd married a man I barely knew. Don't let Manny be Maurice! I couldn't live with a man who was violent. But Manny wasn't like that. Joy lit up his face when he swung me around outside the museum. I was the treasure behind the door. I saw a side to Manny that Lydia could only guess at. What did she know, this ordinary woman from rural Virginia?
When we got home, Manny had his feet up in front of the television. A beer was in his hand.
He ran over to us and embraced us both.
"The muse was awake!" he exclaimed, laughing at himself. "The story is finished."
"May I read it?"
"Not yet, Jacinta. I need to rework a few things. Soon. Soon. How was your walk?"
"Fascinating," I said. His mother blanched.
"Mom tell all kinds of stories on me, did she? Always does. Most aren't too flattering, are they, Mommy dearest?"
Mrs. Fox tried to laugh.
"I'll go on to bed," I said. "I'm tired."
"It's too early. How about a game of cards? It's Mom's last night."
We played cards until well past midnight. Manny was happy. He won almost every hand. I could see the boy in him as he slapped his thigh and laughed with his mouth wide open. If her story was true, it could still have a happy ending. I'd been lonely too as a child--lonely and desperate. Perhaps that's what brought us together. Manny's mother, Alfred, they were both jealous--both trying to ruin things for me. But he was the man who had said that gray would streak my hair like comets; he was the man who had bathed me in wine in Paris and made the woman in black say we would have an angel-child. He was Emmanuel. He was the child his father had beaten. I was the child my mother had tried to kill. We could save each other. I smiled up at him; he blew me a kiss.
"Isn't she gorgeous?" he said.
His mother pretended not to hear. She screwed up her mouth until it was zipper tight and dealt us our cards.
Manny made love to me that night. I didn't try to be quiet; I wanted his mother to hear us. She needed to know that her son had moved on; that she couldn't try to control us with her stories.
He rolled off of me and fell into a deep sleep. His profile in the relative darkness looked boyish, innocent. He could be anyone. I shivered. Yet didn't I know all I needed to know? I knew he loved me enough to die for me. He said so, and I believed him. I knew his name. I knew he was a writer. I knew he had a large mole on his left shoulder, a fear of lightning, and a greater fear of drowning. I knew he thought Faulkner and Joyce were the only writers worth emulating. I knew he'd begged me to marry him and bathed me in wine in Paris. I knew he would be the father of my beautiful children. I knew I could touch him; I knew he was real. I knew he'd never let me go.
I was sore. Manny had been in a hurry. I hadn't been ready, but I forgave him. It didn't matter that his father had been white and mine black. It didn't matter that we'd grown up on different continents if we had the same dreams.
I wanted him to make love to me again, not because of desire but because of need. I decided against waking him; instead, I lay in the dark and imagined what his sperm looked like on their long journey inside my vagina. Were they tired by now? How many thousands upon thousands of them were already dead? I imagined the congestion around the cervix. The pushing, the shoving. Only the rude would survive. I pictured them marching on relentlessly--tadpoles in hard hats and work boots with a few strands of blond hair and dimples where their chins would be if they'd had them. I thought about the miracle of childbirth. I imagined Manny holding my hand, breathing with me, telling me it would be okay, crying when he saw how beautiful the baby was. We wouldn't be like our parents. We would give our children room to be happy in.
I smiled. He hadn't remembered about the diaphragm.
Everything was going to he much easier than I'd thought.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
|Previous Article:||Part I: London, 9-10.|
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