The Assignation, or The News from Spain
The motel was called The Sands of Time, but it could just as easily have been The Dunes, or The Sea Shell, or The Breakwater, or The Harbor Rest—all of which were the names of other, similar, motels lining the road that led to Plum Point. The rooms smelled of disinfectant and of bodies. Nothing vulgarly specific, not the smell of sweat or feet: just a tired essence of long, hard, human use. The rooms were clean, but the surfaces felt slightly sticky. Outside, the wind was dazzling and salty.
It was a Saturday. July. The Hardings, whose middle daughter Barbara was newly engaged at the age of forty-six, were having a party at their house on the Point, and they had reserved a block of rooms for their overflow guests.
Susanne and John got to the motel just before four. It was the first time they had been away alone together since she had found out, in April, that he’d slept with someone else. It had happened two years before—happened only once, according to John, at the end of an intense friendship he’d fallen into with the woman who owned the Chicago gallery that was putting on a show of his paintings. There had been e-mails; he had flown out to meet with her several times to work out the details of the show; he had not realized, he told Susanne in April, that this kind of danger could sneak up on you. There’d been liking, maybe a little flirtation, although he hadn’t acknowledged this even to himself at the time, certainly there’d been respect on both sides—
“Stop,” Susanne had said.
He did stop, looking sad and troubled and solicitous. He was all those things, Susanne knew. He had done it; doing it had horrified him and he’d never seen the woman again, except at the opening, when Susanne had flown out to Chicago with him. She remembered the gallery owner in a red hand-painted kimono jacket, an attractive mix of animation and steadiness. Susanne, knowing then only that John liked her, had liked her too. She wore the same perfume as Susanne’s best friend at boarding school. “What is it again?” Susanne had asked.
“Chanel Number 19.”
“It’s getting harder to find it,” the gallery owner had sighed, and that had been their whole conversation because someone had interrupted them.
Susanne had found out about it one night this spring. A wifely moment: she’d bought John a wool shirt last Christmas, it had itched and he’d returned it, and now the store was having a sale and she was looking for the credit slip so she could get him something else. She looked through some things lying on top of John’s dresser and then thought to check his wallet, where he often kept odd receipts. She’d pulled out a folded piece of paper, softened and grayed: something he’d been carrying around for a while. A print-out of an e-mail. She’d read it. She’d gone into the bathroom, where he’d been getting out of the shower. After a while they had turned the shower on again, hoping to muffle things—by then he was sobbing, and she was almost screaming—but their daughter, Ella, had knocked on the door and asked what was wrong. “Nothing!” they’d both answered.
They’d been married for twenty-six years. They had loved each other since high school.
Over the past three months since that night, Ella’s presence in the house had been both protection and hindrance. They’d had to keep themselves in check.
This morning they had dropped her off at a friend’s house, where she would spend the night. Then they had driven north, and then out toward the coast, in silence. Susanne drove. John read a book, and then napped. A familiar drive: they used to do it all the time, when Susanne’s father still had his house on Plum Point. They came to the clam shack where they always used to stop. Susanne drove past it and pulled in at a different place, a few miles down the highway. It turned out the clams weren’t as good. She noticed, and she knew that John noticed. She saw him decide not to say anything, and she was annoyed that he hadn’t, because it deprived her of her chance to shrug coldly. She also saw the sadness of all this, the desperately angry smallness of it: the unspoken little spat averted because they both knew he’d lost the right to protest being made to eat at the wrong clam shack.
On the back wall of the motel room there was a sliding glass door. Susanne stood for a few minutes looking out at the harbor. It was almost the view she’d grown up with, but not. You could see the lighthouse from here, the whole fat white cylinder of it, and the ferry dock, the line of cars waiting to get on. From her family’s house on Plum Point, three quarters of a mile up the road, you saw the ferry only in progress, laboring into and out of the harbor, and you didn’t see the lighthouse at all, only the pale wedge of its light sweeping the sky. But from Plum Point you saw the Race, invisible from here, the strange patch of water where the tides and currents crossed and went crazy twice a day. As a child the idea of the Race had thrilled and terrified her: the idea that a benign place could turn treacherous at predictable intervals. And with the dining-room telescope you could see Sinnewisset, where the ferry went, and beyond it the string of small nameless purple islands.
When Barbara had called with the news that she and Barnaby were engaged, and that there would be a summer party at Plum Point, Susanne had thought that coming here would be piercingly sad: she had managed never to come back in the six years since her father had sold the house after his third divorce. But then she had found the piece of paper in John’s wallet; and now she looked out at the harbor impassively, the familiar place from the unfamiliar angle, and went to hang up the dress she planned to wear to the party.
John was lying on his back on one of the beds; there were two.
Susanne surprised herself by saying aloud, “Well, so that’ll be an interesting decision.”
He looked at her and saw that she was looking at the beds. She’d spoken in a particular drawl that in the past had often marked the end of a fight between them: ironic, still a little pissed, but with a clearly sexy edge.
He answered, in the same drawn-out, challenging, let’s-play tone: “Yes, it will.”
But hearing him speak that way—his quick assumption of something shared—made her turn away. She unpacked her things into one of the rickety stale drawers and when she finished she said, “I’m going out for a walk.”
“You can’t just keep holding on to this,” he said. He’d been sitting on the bed watching her. It occurred to her then that the speed with which he’d assumed a truce, which she had read as arrogance, might have had more to do with relief.
She opened the sliding door and stepped outside.
Barnaby was lying on his back on one of the beds in his room, his hands behind his head. He had folded the bedspread down; it looked so dingy and used; he hated the idea of lying on something that so many other people had lain on before him. He looked up at the ceiling, which was rough and swirly. They must have added sand to the paint. Had they done this as an extension of the beach theme, or was it just a standard motel painting practice because it showed the dirt less? It was such a relief to lie there and wonder about this kind of stuff. This kind of nothing.
He thought of his favorite line from one of his favorite movies—Holiday, with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. When the Cary Grant character walked out on Katharine Hepburn’s awful sister, she crowed in a voice of angry ice: “I’m so relieved I could sing with it.” That’s how he felt right now, lying on his back in The Sands of Time motel with the air conditioner hissing and his shoes off and the curtains closed and the phone off the hook and the sandy ceiling and the pictures of big sea shells bolted to the walls. He didn’t have to talk to anyone or be anywhere for another hour and a half, and he was so relieved he could have sung with it.
“But those rooms are for overflow guests,” Barbara had said.
“Doesn’t that crack you up, the idea of an overflow guest?” Barnaby had asked. “It’s actually a very odd concept.”
“Mom’s been assuming you’d stay at the house. She’s got a room set aside.”
“It’s bad luck to have the groom staying in the house.”
“That’s just the night before the wedding.”
“I must have read the wrong etiquette book.” For some reason Barbara’s literalness tended to make him goofy. Maybe he would calm down, living with her. Maybe she would learn to be goofy. The idea of a goofy Barbara was so preposterous that he had actually laughed.
“What’s so funny?” she’d asked.
“Nothing. I’m just tired.”
“Besides,” she said, “you’ve stayed in the house before.”
Her face was a mix of coyness and distressed appeal.
He looked away. He’d stayed with her once in her room, lying next to her in her bed. “Are you attracted to me?” she had asked that night.
“Of course I am, you’re very attractive. I’m just tired,” he had said. He had said this on each of the occasional nights when they ended up in bed together. He didn’t know what he would say after they were married.
He picked up the remote control for the TV, which had been resting on his stomach. Saturday afternoon—there was never anything good on Saturday afternoon. Golf. Golf. Weather. Laurel and Hardy—or was that Abbott and Costello? He could never tell the difference, and all four of them gave him a headache. Golf. Bowling. Fishing, for God’s sake. He stopped here, for a bored moment, to see what there was to see. Nothing. The guy caught a fish, held it, and stretched it out in the shallow water, to show how big it was, Barnaby guessed, though he didn’t see the point of this as the fish was actually quite small; and then the fish was let off the hook and it swam away. He pressed the “info” button to see how long the show was—it ran from four to six. Two hours. He started to laugh, a choked barking laugh. He wanted to say to someone, “Two hours of fishing—can you believe it?” By the time the show was over, he would be standing on the Hardings’ vast lawn in his linen jacket and his gray slacks, smiling next to Barbara, shaking hands and kissing people’s cheeks and saying, “Thank you, thank you, yes, very happy, thank you.”
He tried to think of people whom he’d be glad to see, and thought of Susanne. Barbara had said she and John would be staying at The Sands of Time, too. He picked up the phone and dialed “0” and asked to be connected to her room, trying to prepare some conversational opener that would include the phrase “overflow guest.” But John answered the phone. Barnaby always felt formal with John—he liked him fine, but just never knew quite what to say to him. John told him that Susanne had gone out for a walk. Barnaby said, “Well, please give her the message that I called, and I’ll see you guys at the party.”
“We’re looking forward to it!” John said with what struck Barnaby as slightly weird heartiness, but he knew that a lot of things were striking him as weird lately.
He switched the channel and found a horserace—an hour-long show, he learned by pressing “info” again, which meant forty-five minutes of blabbing and horses walking around, and then three minutes of race, and then some wrap-up.
He hit the “mute” button and left the show on, reading the names of the horses as they came up occasionally on the bottom of the screen. Red Dynamite. Bold Captain. Out of This World. Boring names. He remembered suddenly that at the age of nine or ten he’d been addicted to the racing column in The New Yorker—not because he’d cared about racing but because he’d loved the names of the horses. It had been the year of Majestic Prince, and his favorite had been the horse that kept coming in second. It had had the best name—which he couldn’t now remember. He frowned and closed his eyes; it had been so important to him that year, so indelible, he could see the slim typeface, remember the columnist’s byline (Audax Minor, another great name—he had asked his mother once, “Why didn’t you name me Audax?” and she, with her habitual kindness, had explained to him the concept of a pen name)—but why couldn’t he think of the name of the horse? His parents would have been able to tell him. By that point he’d been the only child left at home, and he and his parents had had long dining room lunches on Saturdays and Sundays. He remembered that room so clearly: the pale gray walls, the sunlight coming in bright and excited through the old diamond-paned windows. Barnaby had brought notebooks to the table in which he’d written lists of racehorse names he’d made up since the previous weekend. “I like that one,” his father would say gravely, and then he’d listen to the next, “but that one not so much.”
“No, it sounds a little cheap,” his mother would add. “Not like a thoroughbred. More like the name of a door-to-door encyclopedia company.”
“Yes, well, you had a different childhood from the rest of us,” his sister Diana, who was closest to him in age but still eight years older than he, had said after their mother had died last year and he’d started crying one afternoon when they were all there clearing out the house. “I think by that point they were atoning. You were like their—it’s like when corrupt noblemen used to give money to the church in their old age, because they suddenly realized they were going to die.”
“You’re right, Diana, that’s exactly what it was like,” Barnaby had managed to tell her coldly. The conversation had enraged him then, and it enraged and desolated him to think of it now. It had been the beginning, for him, of a particular kind of loneliness: the kind that comes from remembering something wonderful, knowing that you’re remembering accurately but forgetting some of it, and knowing that there’s no one left who can corroborate or complete the story.
It bothered Susanne that she and John had to wait at the little guardhouse while the guard looked up their names on the Hardings’ guest list. The guardhouse had always been there, in the middle of the narrow strip of road that marked the beginning of Plum Point, and the guards who manned it—old men, retired policemen—had always known her, always glanced up and waved as she’d walked or driven past. She didn’t recognize this one, and there was no reason why he should have known her, but it bugged her. She felt like saying something loudly to John for the guard to overhear, something that would demonstrate an insider’s knowledge of the place (“Did you notice the Swains have put a new wing on their house?”); but she kept silent. The guard found their names and nodded.
“What’s this like for you?” John asked, as they walked up the road, toward the Hardings’.
“It’s fine,” she said. (And thought: If you know me so well, if you care so much, then how could you, why did you, which seemed to be the destination—rhetorical, exhausting—of a lot of her thinking lately.)
Ahead of them was the party, the sloping green lawns stretching out from the Hardings’ big white house in all directions, clusters of dressed-up people. Susanne and John walked slowly up the driveway, which peeled away from the main road just before the curve that led to Susanne’s old house and which also kept it invisible from here. She was rounding that curve in her mind, the whole time she was walking away from it up the Hardings’ driveway, remembering the tall holly hedges that stopped suddenly so that all at once you saw the house, the rambling angles of it mirroring the curves of the road, its front side low and dull because all the excitement was at the back: the long stone verandah, the lawn, the flowerbeds, the flagpole, the wild roses, all that green, all that color, the flag snapping in the wind, the rope slapping against the flagpole, the pale bright blinding light of the harbor.
They came up to Mr. and Mrs. Harding, standing on the grass below the front porch (“What’s her name again?” John murmured, just before they got there. “Mrs.,” Susanne said. “When we’re sixty and they’re ninety, it’ll still be Mr. and Mrs.”), who peered at them and kissed them and said to Susanne, “So wonderful to see you back here,” and asked after her father. Then came Barbara, in a cream-colored strapless dress. She kissed Susanne, and Susanne, rattled by the dress, which seemed both too bridal and too young, said, “This is just so great!” “We have you to thank,” Barbara said, laughing, and Susanne said, “Really?” And Barbara said, “Remember? We met at your dinner party. You tried to fix us up.” “But it didn’t work,” Susanne said. “Sure it did—it just took twenty years,” Barbara said laughing.
Then came Barnaby. Susanne hugged him and smelled cigarettes and toothpaste. “How are you?” she said into his ear.
“Heavily medicated,” he said into hers.
After a while people stopped arriving, and Barnaby asked Barbara to excuse him for a moment. “Sure! Sure!” she said brightly; this party seemed to be exciting her and making her even stiffer than usual. There were two bathrooms on the ground floor, but Barnaby went upstairs, down the hall past Barbara’s room to the big bathroom that looked out over the bay, which had shimmered earlier but was growing dark blue and rough now as the evening came on. He locked the door—an old-fashioned hook that dropped into a metal loop screwed into the doorframe, just the way the bathroom doors had locked in his parents’ house in Brigantine—and opened the window, sat down on the floor, and lit a Marlboro Light. Even if they figured out later that someone had been smoking in here—a smell in the towels, in the curtains—they wouldn’t know who it had been. He hoped no one out on the lawn happened to look up to see puffs of smoke emanating from the window. A new pope has been chosen, he thought.
When he’d finished his cigarette, he flushed the butt down the toilet and put some toothpaste on his index finger and rubbed it around inside his mouth. He looked at himself in the mirror and saw that his expression wasn’t that different from Barbara’s: hectic and wooden. He smiled, then tried to smile again more naturally and ran his tongue over his teeth to get rid of what was left of the toothpaste, which was pale green.
On his way back down the hall he heard women’s voices coming from the bedroom of one of Barbara’s sisters. “. . . and I said, ‘Why don’t you wait a while, you don’t have to get married right away, maybe you should live together first,’ but she didn’t want to hear it.”
“Do you think he’s gay?”
He kept moving and ducked into the next bedroom, which was Barbara’s. He’d had a feeling they all wondered about that—maybe even Barbara did. But it was awful to hear them actually talking about it. He was breathing heavily, shaking with—what? Rage? Shame? He never looked at men, and the idea of actually sleeping with one disgusted him. But so did the idea of sleeping with a woman. Not just Barbara, any woman. This had not been true when he was younger: he’d had some perfectly nice sex with nice women who, after a while, would want to marry him, which ended the relationships—not because he’d pushed these women away or fled them, but because they got sad and discouraged after a while and left. He’d probably had a low sex drive to begin with, and now that he was older he seemed to have lost the ability to desire, the way people could lose the ability to diet or sing or write poetry. But how long had he felt this way? Since his parents had died, or since before then? His last, lukewarm, love affair had been seven years ago, and his parents had both died in the space of the last three. A diagnosis of grief seemed, Barnaby thought—and was aware of the irony of remembering, just then, his mother’s passion for anagrams—at once too pat and not apt.
John got them drinks. They milled around. Susanne talked to people she knew from Plum Point and people she knew from college, where she and Barnaby had met and become friends. She got into a conversation with a woman who turned out to be the owner of her family’s old house, and who thought Susanne would want to know about all the changes she’d made. At one point during this, she glanced around and saw John talking to a white-haired man in a seersucker jacket—the party was full of white-haired men in seersucker jackets—and he looked back at her. They’d always had this sort of radar in a crowd; they each knew where the other was and could telegraph something that wasn’t a greeting, but more like a checking-in: Still there?
It had all its old sweet power, she found, it was undiminished—but it was accompanied too, by something else: a sadness, maybe a wariness. A kind of gingerly self-congratulation: You see? We can still do this.
Hands came down on her shoulders from behind. She turned to see Barnaby. “You look beautiful,” he said. She thanked him. He said, rapid and overanimated, “No, really. I’ve been standing over there thinking about who would paint you, and I decided Bronzino.”
She smiled, and he said, “No, see, that wrecks it,” and she wanted to say to him, Oh, Barnaby, calm down, what is it? But the very tightness with which he was wound, the thing that was making her worry about him, made it impossible to get anywhere near him. It was the party, she thought, and she said to him, “Do your cheeks hurt from smiling?”
He said, “God, I wish I could sit with you at dinner.”
“But you can’t.”
“I’m at the dignitaries’ table.”
“That’s because you’re a dignitary.”
“A foreign dignitary.”
“Visiting from another planet.”
“Oh. Well, then: welcome.”
People were beginning to move down the lawn toward the big striped tent that glowed in the deep-blue evening with candles and lantern-light. Susanne saw Barbara walking toward them, holding her skirt up off the ground with one hand, picking her way carefully across the grass in high-heeled sandals.
“Listen,” Barnaby said to Susanne, his eyes on Barbara, “let’s have an assignation later.”
“What?” Susanne said, not mistaking his joking tone for anything else but, still, startled.
“We’re both staying in that same shithole place. I’m in room 212. Come knock on my door around midnight, okay?”
Then Barbara was with them, smiling, tucking her hands around one of Barnaby’s arms. “Hey, you two,” she said.
They started to walk down toward the tent.
“It’s a beautiful party,” Susanne said after a minute; the silence had begun to feel like it needed to be broken.
“I’m so glad!” Barbara said.
“Are you cold?” Barnaby asked, looking down at her. “Would you like me to get you a sweater, or a wrap or something, before we sit down?”
“Thank you,” Barbara said. “There’s a wrap on the chair in my bedroom. Light green,” she added, as he headed off.
She turned then, and put both her hands around Susanne’s arm as she had around Barnaby’s. They walked very slowly down the lawn, in a way that was part saunter, part march. They didn’t say anything. Susanne kept expecting someone to come and break in on them with cheery party talk, one of the guests sweeping past them on the way to the tent, but no one did. They just kept moving, separate and quiet. She crossed her other arm over her chest and put her hand on top of one of Barbara’s, which was still clutching her. Susanne rubbed the back of Barbara’s hand in small circles.
“Remember Vikram?” Barbara said suddenly.
“Vikram?” Susanne remembered an angry-looking, sullen, handsome man around whom, for several years, Barbara had built dinner parties. He’d been a political scientist from Oxford, here on one of those fellowships that seemed to go on for a surprisingly long time before ending with what seemed like surprising suddenness. Susanne had found him pompous and difficult to talk to. She also thought he’d been a creep to Barbara, neither returning nor clearly refusing her love, sitting at her table, eating her meals—such elaborate food, prepared so nervously and determinedly to delight him—and being rude to Barbara and only slightly less rude to her friends. Barnaby, Susanne remembered, had always been the extra man at the dinner party, the one invited in case he might happen to hit it off with whatever single woman friend Barbara had invited that evening. He had talked lightly and easily, frowned slightly when Vikram stung Barbara, drawn out the single women without in the least leading them on, praised the food, helped Barbara clear the table. “What about Barnaby?” Susanne had said to Barbara at one point, after Vikram had gone back to England and married someone to whom, it turned out, he’d been engaged for years. “Barnaby? No.” Barbara had actually shuddered. “I feel like he’s hanging around on the ground with his mouth open, waiting for me to finally drop off the tree.”
“Of course I remember Vikram,” Susanne said now.
Barbara held Susanne’s arm tighter, nestling into her side. “Nobody liked him, did they.”
“It just seemed like he wasn’t very nice to you.”
“He wasn’t, really. But—oh, you know.” They kept slowly walking on the lawn. Barbara laughed a little. “I guess he was just the one that got away.”
“Well,” Susanne said, automatically soothing, still rubbing Barbara’s hand, “maybe we all have someone like that.”
They had almost reached the tent. Barbara drew away and stared at Susanne. “What are you talking about? You married the one who should have been the one that got away.”
If they had happened to look up at the bathroom window, they would have seen that another new pope had been chosen.
Bad behavior. He knew this. He was forty-seven. He was an executive vice president in charge of corporate communications for a midsize financial services company.
He rubbed his mouth with toothpaste again, went down to dinner, put the wrap gently around Barbara’s shoulders, and then sat down and took hold of her hand under the tablecloth. The look she gave him—benevolent, relieved—made him want to cry.
At dinner Susanne talked to the man sitting on her left—a conversation that never lifted off from the factual where-were-you-born stuff, made harder by the fact that both of them were trying so earnestly to get it off the ground. “And your wife?” Susanne asked. “Is she from Michigan also?”
Waiters came and took away the soup plates and put down plates of rare beef and two tiny roasted potatoes.
The woman on Susanne’s right turned out to be a college friend of Barbara’s. The conversation began pleasantly, but then suddenly the woman, who’d had quite a lot of wine, said, “So why is she marrying him, do you think?” She smiled at Susanne—she had straight black hair and delicate, deep eye sockets, a weary, cold sort of beauty. “I’ll tell you my theory,” she went on. “She has these two sisters with their marriages and children and their establishments—not just households, establishments. And she’s watched it all for years, and now she’s tired.”
Susanne nodded and looked across the table at John. He was talking to the man next to him, but he saw her look and got up and came around the table and crouched by her chair. She touched his shoulder lightly and stood up, and he followed her out of the tent. The orchestra was playing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Soon people would start dancing.
“This is an awful party,” she said.
“Do you want to leave?”
“We can’t. Not yet.”
Along one side of the Hardings’ lawn, where it sloped down to the bay, there was a tall yew hedge. Susanne headed for the spot where she thought the opening would be, groped, found it, and walked through. As kids they had called this “The Maze.” It wasn’t really, because there was only one possible route through it, but it had felt the way they imagined a maze would: a narrow angled passage whose green walls were too high to see over and too dense to see through. As she and John walked through it she told him about what the drunk woman had said at dinner, and about her conversation with Barbara. For some reason she didn’t mention what she and Barnaby had talked about.
“You don’t do that!” she said, going back to the drunk woman. “You just don’t. You don’t say things like that to a stranger at a party.” (She was a little drunk herself.)
“No,” John said, “but you’re also upset because you think she’s right.” (His own slight intoxication often showed up this way, a concise clear-eyed gravity.)
They ended up kissing each other, for a long time, standing between the high yew walls. Oh God, he kept saying, Oh God. Susanne felt split: kissing him, watching herself kissing him. God, he said against her collarbone.
She didn’t want to walk any farther; the Maze eventually opened onto another flat patch of lawn from which you could see her family’s house, and she didn’t want to see it. They went back to the party for a while and had champagne and dessert—a kind of round chocolate thing with ice cream inside, which looked like a small cannonball and seemed intended to be emphatically not wedding cake and thus to remind people that this party, despite all its eager nuptial trappings, was part of the build-up, not yet the real thing. The drunk woman had disappeared, so John sat next to Susanne and she gave him most of her cannonball. They watched Barbara and Barnaby dancing, correct graceful dancing-school steps executed while smiling into each other’s faces in the way that had also been encouraged, though rarely adhered to, in dancing school. Then, when other people got up to dance, Susanne and John walked back to the motel and got into one of the beds.
For the first time in all those months, she took him in her mouth. She heard him crying, and then realized he wasn’t crying. Then he tried to reciprocate, and she said, sharply, “No!” and they both froze, she because she was wondering, again, what exactly had gone on in that bed in Chicago, and he because he knew what had gone on—and now, suddenly, feeling him tense, so did she. There was a long, still, dangerous moment, but she pulled his mouth to hers, and got her hips against his, and things went on with a roughness that was only partly fueled by rage and sorrow.
Barnaby and Barbara, too, ended up kissing in the Maze. She led him there, after the party had petered out (which it had by eleven—he’d known it would be an early night). She held his hand, she turned her face up to his, and he kissed her, even paying dutiful attention to the places where her skin stopped and the bodice of her strapless dress began. Her flesh quivered; she sighed; he felt sorry for her and angry at himself.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too.”
Was it immoral for them to say these things, to marry each other? So much was missing—not just from his side, he knew, but from hers too, from the way she felt about him.
But they both wanted to get married. They were both tired of not being married. After twenty years of intersecting social life, in some ways they barely knew each other. He’d thought for a long time, somewhat seriously but mainly idly, that from a distance she looked right. This thought had become more urgent in the last year or so, and lately she’d begun to think the same thing about him. They were standing out in the moonlight now and his mouth was prowling around her cleavage, but they were still at almost the same distance.
In bleaker moments he had thought: She could probably, at this point, marry anybody. The problem was that he was somebody—she was marrying a blank, but the blankness was something which, in the close and daily proximity of marriage, he would be unable to keep up.
“You do?” she asked.
John had fallen asleep, sprawled on his back on top of the sheets. He was snoring. Susanne got out of bed and looked at him. She looked at her watch: it was ten minutes past twelve. She pulled on some clothes, the jeans and T-shirt she’d worn earlier that afternoon. She found the room key where John had dropped it on the dresser and let herself out, closing the door quietly behind her. She had started to climb the wooden staircase that led to the second floor of the motel when she saw that Barnaby was coming down it toward her.
“Hey, Susanne,” he said. He seemed startled to see her.
She said, “Did you forget our assignation?”
“Our assignation?” he said blankly. Then he said, “Wait a minute, that didn’t sound very gallant, did it.”
“Barnaby,” she said, “it’s a joke.”
He came down the rest of the stairs and took hold of her forearm. “Let’s have our assignation on the beach.”
They passed out of the margin of light around the motel. The moon was up and the beach was pale and bleached; it was easy to see where they were walking. Barnaby still had on his clothes from the party, but Susanne shivered and he gave her his jacket. It was loose, and warm from him. He put his arm around her, and they walked a little way down the beach. Then they sat down on the cold sand, and Barnaby said, “Excuse me,” and held his jacket away from Susanne’s chest and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the inside breast pocket.
“Want one?” he asked. She shook her head and he lit one for himself while she cupped her hands loosely around his to protect the match from the wind. (They both, simultaneously, had a sudden memory of how, at Barbara’s dinner parties, when Susanne had still smoked and Barnaby had smoked openly, the two of them used to go out on the doorstep together and stand beneath the small porch hood struggling to light up in the rain, in blizzards, that small, innocent, exciting, touch of their hands.) It took him a few matches, but finally he drew in his breath and blew out smoke.
He said, “All right, if you won’t smoke, then what about—” and then Susanne felt his hand fumbling near her hip and he pulled something out of that pocket, something heavy that she’d noticed dragging on the jacket when she’d put it on. A silver flask. She laughed.
“Just that you’re so well equipped.”
“I know. Did I think I’d find myself unexpectedly fox-hunting?” He unscrewed the lid. “Actually, with Barbara’s family, there could be fox-hunting, couldn’t there.”
Susanne drank some brandy, loving the deep stabbing burn of it, and passed the flask back to Barnaby.
“So,” she said.
They sat looking out at the luminous sky, and at the harbor silvered by moonlight.
That was when they would have talked, if they had talked. Barnaby might have told her that he knew his engagement looked shaky from the outside, but that he was counting on Barbara’s discretion and rectitude to make the marriage work. He might have said that he believed that after a point Barbara would stop wanting and stop asking, that she’d decide the marriage was what it was and would consider it a point of honor to uphold it. That he didn’t know anyone else with whom he thought he could build a marriage on honor, and that it was the only thing he thought he might possibly build a marriage on. That he was afraid of being alone if he didn’t marry her, and if he did. That he missed his parents; that no one knew how much; that he knew that even he didn’t quite comprehend how much.
And Susanne might have told him about John. (She hadn’t told anyone, except for her mother, and that had been an accident, something that had burst out of her mouth one day when her mother was going on, as she so often did, about how wonderful John was and how Susanne should appreciate how lucky she was to be in that marriage.) She might have told him that she was tired of being angry at John, that it was fading a little but that she didn’t think it would ever stop. That she wondered if it would always go on this way or would eventually change: this paradox that any moment of happiness between them became a new, incendiary part of the grievance. That the times, like this evening, when it was good again made his having fucked someone else seem even more pointless.
They sat on the beach not talking. In a way they didn’t trust each other. It had nothing to do with thinking the other person wouldn’t understand—he knew that she would have, and she knew the same of him. It was thinking that the other person’s understanding wouldn’t really make any difference. Maybe they were right, maybe it wouldn’t have. There was something comfortable, and symmetrical, about sitting there together thinking they knew just how far their trust in each other—or in anyone—could go, and where the limits were going to be.
After a while Barnaby picked up a big shell, a whelk. “When I was growing up we had a house on the Jersey shore.” He smiled; Susanne saw his tired face relax in the moonlight. “And my father would hand me a shell and say, ‘Want to listen to the news from Spain?’ Because we were roughly across the Atlantic from Gibraltar. I used to love that, thinking that if we went out in a boat the next place we’d hit would be Spain.”
Susanne took the shell from him and held it to her ear. An urgent tumbling whispering roar. A sound unheard for years, but old, instantly familiar. A sound from childhood: you thought that if you could only listen hard enough you’d be able to decipher what you heard.
Barnaby had found another shell for himself, she saw.
And then for a long time—longer than they would have expected, though neither of them said this aloud—they sat and listened to the news from Spain.