Ada liked to drive slightly below the speed limit. The other traffic rocketed by in the left lane, but she had yet to pass anyone; they all passed her. She was on the new highway, with its four lanes and flat terrain, so different from the old hilly two-lane road she remembered from when she and Owen had started seeing each other, and he would drive down to Lawrence and often drive her back to the city on their dates. She had always felt guilty about the amount of driving he'd had to do -- two round trips, over a hundred miles -- but he claimed to like the drive. This new road was faster, but less interesting. It bypassed the little towns -- DeSoto, Eudora -- and the Wakarusa seemed far below her when she crossed it.
This was a day of firsts: the first time she would take the new road to Lawrence; the first time she would drive a car in Lawrence; and the first time she would see Wyatt's house. She had found him through the alumni office. They'd forwarded her letter because Owen was a generous donor. Wyatt had called a week later, and they'd arranged a Sunday to meet. She'd chosen that day of the week so she could attend Oread Friends Meeting first, and perhaps see old friends there. She hadn't attended in years; she went to Penn Valley now, because it was close to her house.
Oread Meeting was very small now, much smaller than its height during and after the Vietnam war, in her youth. Only three people attended, and she didn't know any of them. No one spoke for the entire hour. After Meeting, she took the map of Lawrence from the glove compartment, read the instructions she'd copied down, and charted her route. Finding his house was surprisingly easy. Wyatt lived on 15th, across the street from the nursery in which Ada had whiled away time during her student days, admiring the plants and dreaming of the day she would have a garden of her own.
The trees and brush were so thick they screened the house from view -- a good place for Wyatt. She couldn't see the house until she pulled in the driveway. Wyatt was sitting in a lawn chair, reading a newspaper. A table and another lawn chair were next to him. He raised a hand in recognition and stood. She paused after closing her car door, her hand still on the door, and looked at him. He had changed. Lines were forming in his face, his hair was shorter, and he looked like an adult. He'd always seemed older and more responsible than his age, but now he had grown into his maturity. The heavy cheekbones were still there, somehow more prominent. She saw that he was very lean, and beneath his tee shirt and thin cotton trousers the shapes hinted that he was all bone and muscle. His feet were bare. Except for his light brown, almost blond, hair, he looked American Indian.
She carried the album from the car. He leaned forward, as if to kiss her, and she raised the album to ward him off.
"What a beautiful place," she said. "It's perfect for you."
"Thanks, but you must live in a mansion. Your return address looked like it was on Sunset Hill."
Her house embarrassed her, and she didn't want to discuss it with him. "I like this better. A big yard, but not too big. A funny house just the right size for -- " she caught herself and instead of saying "a single man" said "you". She handed him the album.
He inspected the cover. "This is the original," he said. "There aren't many of these. They changed the cover a month after it first came out." He turned the sleeve and slid the disc out, the edge against the palm of his hand, and inspected the wear. "He's played this a lot," he commented, and slid it back in. "Come in."
The front door opened directly into a room. There was a door on the far wall, and another on the left. Except for the windows every inch of space was occupied by built-in shelves filled with record albums and books. There were three pieces of furniture in the room: a reclining chair, a battered grand piano, and a piano bench. In one corner was a stereo and tape deck. The speakers were in opposite corners. The piano top was closed, and covered with handwritten sheets of music. The room felt crowded.
"I'm not set up to entertain people," he said. "Come back to the kitchen."
She sat at the kitchen table while he rummaged in a drawer near the stove. Finally he went to the basement and returned with a laundry marker, and signed the album in a large scrawl.
"There." He handed it to her. "Would you like to see the house?"
The ground floor, in addition to the kitchen and music room, had the bathroom and bedroom. The door on her left as she'd entered led to them. The room contained a bed and dresser, and backpacking equipment, and such a welter of his belongings that most of the walls, and some of the windows, were hidden behind them. He had a gymnasium in the basement, with weights and an assortment of exercise machines she'd never seen. She wanted to ask about them, but didn't know how to phrase her questions. After what seemed like a minute of silence, staring at the exercise equipment, they returned to the ground floor.
"I haven't been here long enough to get the main work started," he said. "I had a foundation poured and the house moved onto it. I'll knock out this," he indicated the wall separating music room from bedroom, "so it's all one big room. Give it back its integrity. It'll look like it originally did. Then I'll build two stories on top. The back room will have the stairs to the second floor. See how deep the windows are? Log walls. Three feet thick. Floors are pegged. This house survived both times the Bushwhackers burned Lawrence. They overlooked it, twice. I don't know why, I had to have this place. Just had to."
"You need someone to share it with."
"You can't be alone forever."
"Even I found someone," she said.
"Lucky you. Have you eaten?"
They went back to the kitchen.
"This is the biggest kitchen I've ever seen," Ada said. Even bigger than her own.
"It's a strange old house. Not very practical. I think that's part of what I like. That, and the space. Sometimes this room reminds me of the stages I used to play, when I played arenas."
He made two cheese and vegetable omelettes, accompanied by glasses of fruit juice.
They ate at the table in the enormous room, the breeze blowing the curtains against her, brushing her arm and leg. The curtains were old-ivory-colored lace, and Ada wondered whether they were a girlfriend's legacy. She looked out the window at an overgrown hedge, where a young rabbit was peeking out. Then it hopped onto the lawn and began nibbling a patch of clover. She glanced up and saw a bird's nest under the overhang of the roof.
"It's a robin's nest," Wyatt said. "They abandoned it. The eggs never hatched."
She noticed that he ate as fast as always. "That's sad for you. I love to hear the little birds cheep," she said. "I wish I had a nest at home."
"Yes. I was looking forward to it. The house gets a little lonely sometimes. I'm the only living thing."
"Maybe you should get a dog."
"Gone too much. Out of town at least a week every month, usually more... You aren't eating. Don't you like the omelette? Do you want something else? A muffin?"
"No. Everything's fine," she said. "I'm enjoying it. Perfect weather, perfect food, perfect -- " company, she'd started to say. She looked at her plate and felt her face heat up. She knew she was blushing.
"Is this awkward for you?" he asked.
"I suppose. I'll get used to it. Is it awkward for you?"
"No. It feels natural. It feels " -- when he looked directly into her eyes, she looked away, and heard him repeat her word -- "perfect."
When she'd finally finished and he'd stacked the dishes in the sink she said, "I'd better go home now."
"Is Owen expecting you?"
"No." She blushed again. "He doesn't know I'm here. He had a golf date."
"What are you going to tell him?"
"I don't know. I'll think of something. I mean, I'll tell him, but it's -- a delicate subject. He's jealous of you."
Wyatt guffawed. "He's jealous of me? I thought it was supposed to be the other way around," he said. "Never mind. I want to play you some music. While I have the chance."
He settled her in the arm chair in the music room. She expected him to put an album on the stereo, but instead he pulled music from the bench and sat at the piano and launched into something by Beethoven; she couldn't remember its name. She was stunned at the volume of sound, and the passion and sweetness. His back was to her, and for a while she watched his shoulders and head leaning over the keyboard, and his hands hammering away. The music rose, loud, in a crescendo. She closed her eyes. The music came in waves that seemed to last forever, climax upon climax. Even if she had been able to move she wouldn't have wanted to, not because it would break any spell, though spell there was, but because moving would acknowledge that she had sat through it, would admit that she had been a party to this plundering.
It ended. He waited before speaking. "Say something. Did you like it?"
"Oh yes. Too much. If you do that again, I'll have to leave."
"That's ridiculous. I'm in a mood to play. You can leave if you want, but I hope you stay. I think you'll like this." He pulled out some more music and began. She recognized Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
She sat back. This was much safer. At least it wasn't full of naked passion. She pulled the lever and tilted the chair to its fully reclined position. She closed her eyes.
"You're still here," he said when he'd finished.
She spoke without opening her eyes. "Play something else."
He played some Satie next, then something she didn't recognize. When she asked what it was, he said, "Nothing. I'm improvising."
Finally he said, "This is a song I wrote called 'Weightless' ", and began singing as he played: "How did I come untethered, floating here in space, awake at last, but unattached... ", singing the words in a rough, uncertain voice. She knew the song from one of his albums. It was her favorite. But he added a verse she hadn't heard, and a solo section in the middle. When he finished, she opened her eyes. He was scribbling words and notes on music paper. She waited. He wrote for what seemed a long time, then set the sheets of paper on the piano, blank side up.
She had hoped to see the words, but he'd hidden them face down. "Are you working on a song?"
"It's not far enough along to call it that. Just -- say it's an idea."
"Play it for me?"
"Later, if it works. I don't play the failures, not even for you." He stood. "Would you like something to drink? A glass of wine?"
She thought of their picnic, the day they'd first slept together. For her, wine always seemed to lead to more than wine. "No, thank you. Maybe some more of that wonderful juice."
She struggled out of the chair. She wandered the walls for a moment, looking at the titles of the books. His reading was as eclectic as always.
He brought two glasses.
"What's in this?" she asked.
"My secret recipe."
"You haven't called me that in years."
She laughed. "Joker. You put honey in it, don't you? What else?"
"Like I said, it's a secret." He winked. "Maybe I'll tell you later. Let's go out front. It's a nice day and we can read the paper."
The sun had moved, and the chairs were in shade. The air was warm and the humidity, for once, low. They sat in the lawn chairs, the Los Angeles Times and their drinks on the table between them. A white butterfly sat on the table, too, opening and closing its wings. They sat for a minute without speaking, watching the insect until it fluttered away.
"Which section do you want?" Wyatt asked.
"Good. I was worried you'd want the news. I haven't finished it."
"I read the news, but it's difficult. Painful."
"I think I know what you mean," he said. "I feel the same way. It's hard to take, isn't it?"
"All the violence and waste and dishonesty." He shook his head. "I have to make myself read it, sometimes. I feel duty-bound to rub my own nose in -- the raw real world I don't have to live in."
"I feel like I have to read it, but I don't understand why the world is that way."
"Then when I've finished reading it, I think, aren't I lucky? To lead this life, in this place, at this time?" He made an all-inclusive gesture: the house, the yard, perhaps the town, and their time and place in human history.
"Yes! Oh, yes! So lucky. How grateful I am. Every day I give thanks for all of it."
He smiled and handed her the book reviews and opened the front pages.
She started to speak, but stopped with her mouth open, looking at him. He was already reading.
She had wanted to say something like, "How nice it is, to sit here with someone who understands
those things. How nice to be with someone who can be still and quiet." But some ideas flatten
when spoken, or embarrass the other person, or are misunderstood. And why speak at all?
Why say it, when there was no need to? Why interrupt him when he was immersed?
She opened her section and began to read.
"What's this?" Owen demanded, holding the record album by a corner, as if it were something rotten, something he didn't want to touch.
"It belongs to Dougal." At his blank look, she said, "Sarah's boyfriend. He loves that album. He wanted Wyatt's autograph." Ada hadn't tried to be secret again, as with the pills. She was through with that, and the uneasiness it made her feel. She didn't believe in secrecy, she thought it corrupt, and she hadn't hid the album. In this case, she saw, secrecy would have certainly made matters easier. There was going to be an ugly scene, one of those ones that went on forever, or until Owen got his way.
The autograph read: To Dougal. Best Regards. Wyatt Packard. "Tell me you didn't go see him."
"I did. I drove down to Lawrence to get it autographed." She couldn't resist a dig about the newspaper article he'd taken with him, in the hope she wouldn't see it: "You know that's where he lives -- "
He cut her off, saying, "You saw him? You hid it?"
She was startled. She hadn't been open, because she hadn't mentioned the visit, and her secrecy had been self-serving. Owen was right, but she wasn't going to admit it, not to him. He'd only said it to score a point off her. "I don't need your permission. He's my friend."
"You hid it. What else are you doing with him?"
"You know better than that."
"Oh, really? How? How do I know you're not having an affair?"
"Because I'm not. Because you should know that. You should know I wouldn't do that to you. To us."
"You're still in love with him. You want to sleep with him. Maybe you already have."
They talked for an hour, neither of them yielding. Ada's voice grew softer; Owen's became harder and louder, until his words were coming in a scream, and she walked out on him, and didn't reappear until evening. He followed her to the third floor, but she locked the door in his face and refused to open however hard he pounded. She waited, staring out the window until the pounding stopped, replaced by the pounding of his feet as he went downstairs. They hadn't had a scene like this -- when was the last time? Two years ago? And then there had been that other one. She remembered them both quite clearly, but couldn't remember what they'd been about. Thank God they were rare.
She wanted to get out, again. Giving Sarah the album would be a good reason, and it would rid the house of the proximate cause of Owen's rage. She picked up the phone, to call Sarah and tell her Dougal's album had been signed, and that she was bringing it over, but there was no dial tone on the line. She heard a female voice.
"Gina, it's me."
"Hello, lover," Gina said, her voice syrupy. "I bet I know what you want."
"Yes, and I want it now."
"For my man? Any time's okay."
"Be on your knees and naked. Ten minutes." He hung up.
Ada watched from the third-floor window, her hand gripping the phone, as his car reversed down the driveway. He had the nerve to accuse her of an affair? While he was having one with his secretary? It didn't even show any class -- the girl was easy pickings, barely out of high school. If she had brains to match her breasts, she'd be Einstein in a dress. Her bra so big it looked like a harness under those flimsy tight blouses she liked to wear. Should have been an exotic dancer, not a secretary. For a moment Ada had an image of Gina on Owen's lap, pressing her breasts into his face. How was Ada supposed to compete with that? Gina was a cartoon: too much chest on a girl who still had her baby fat.
She wrote her husband a letter, left it on the hall table, and packed what she needed to live for a week. Then she called Sarah.
"Can I stay with you for a while? Owen is having an affair... Only to get away and think it over... Thank you... That's not... That won't help... I'm on my way over."
Sarah met her at the door and tried to hug her, but Ada pulled away.
"Don't," she said. "I don't want to talk to anyone. I don't want to touch anyone. The only thing I want is short hair. Can you cut it for me? Straight across at the nape of my neck?"
"I only grew it long for him."
They set a chair in the middle of the kitchen and wrapped a sheet around Ada, then Sarah cut straight across.
"It looks awful. Please let me even it out."
"No. I'll go to a beauty parlor. Thank you."
"What do you want me to do with this?" She held out her fist, the hair trailing from it.
"Anything. Throw it out. Stuff a pillow with it. Give it to Locks of Love. I'd like to rest now."
"Is the couch okay? It's all I have."
"That's fine. Here, I brought Dougal his album."
She took it in hand. "This doesn't feel right," she said, and pulled the record from the sleeve. Only a half came out. She held it in her hand and looked at Ada. "He did this, didn't he?"
"I'm beyond caring right now." She took the album out of Sarah's hands. "I'll ask Wyatt to replace it."
Sarah handed her a spare key and said, "I'll unplug the phone so that prick can't call."
Dougal let himself in shortly after midnight, and Ada closed her eyes until he'd gone back to Sarah's bedroom and she could resume staring at the ceiling. It seemed like she'd just fallen asleep when she was wakened by Sarah leaving.
"Where are you going?"
"I have an all day shoot. Dougal's gone. Help yourself to anything in the fridge. And if you talk to that bastard you're married to, tell him to stay out of my way, or he'll be speaking falsetto."
"Shame on you." But she had to smile. She couldn't sleep, and couldn't wake up, so she took a long shower. Washing her hair was easier than it had been in years.
Wearing a towel, she called Wyatt. "Do you have an extra copy of that album you autographed?"
"Ada? Is that you? It's customary to say hello first."
"Can you spare a copy of that album?"
"Sure. You want to drive down and get it?"
"Maybe tomorrow, I don't know. I'll call you."
"I've got some errands in the city. I could drop it off."
"I won't be home."
"I have to go now."
The only good thing about driving was that you could think while you did it. At the first stop light she saw Owen's car in the rear-view mirror. She put her car in park and walked back. "Leave me alone. Don't follow me."
"Just listen -- "
"No. I said everything in the letter. I'll call you when I'm ready to talk."
"Ada -- "
"No. You leave me alone, or I won't come back. I'll divorce you." She walked away before he could answer. When the light changed to green, she kept the car in park and turned on her emergency flashers and waved the cars in their lane to go around on the left. Owen's car stayed behind hers. A moment before the light turned red she leaned on the horn and gunned the car through the intersection just ahead of the side traffic, leaving Owen behind.
Now, where to eat? Somewhere Owen would never think to go. One of those awful fast-food places by the medical center. She decided on the Taco Bell. She'd never been to one, and it was even worse than she'd expected, so she left the Number Three half-eaten and drove aimlessly for an hour. When she saw a barbershop she stopped and had her hair cut as short as she'd worn it in college.
Wyatt was waiting on the steps at Sarah's when she returned.
"Your hair," he said. "It was so beautiful. What the hell got into you?"
"My right mind. Why are you here?"
"You said you wouldn't be at home. I looked up Sarah in the phone book. It seemed like the likeliest place. I wanted to make sure you were okay."
"You must have something better to do. Go back to Lawrence."
"The hell with that. I'm not leaving until you tell me -- "
She interrupted, "You still have your gift for saying alienating things."
"You should talk. You call out of the blue, ask for a copy of the album and hang up on me, and now you're trying to blow me off. Anybody else, I wouldn't put up with it. Come on. Tell me about it."
She sat next to him. The space was barely wide enough for two. "I didn't mean to be so rude," she said.
"I know." He put his arm around her shoulder.
"Don't," she said. "That's not appropriate."
He took his arm away.
"Thank you... I need something. Something specific. Like a cigarette. Maybe this is why people smoke, it relieves that... feeling... I'm anxious, so anxious. It's like I'm a towel, and someone's wringing me tighter and tighter, and I'm worried I can never be like I was, all those creases will stay there and I'll have an ugly soul forever and I'll be all twisted and hateful." She told him about the argument, the overheard phone call, the vandalized record album. Then the older, deeper problems: Owen's secretiveness, his need to dominate, the mask he used to keep her at a distance. She was thinking out loud, the way she used to in the lab, when no one was around, until she'd said it all and, with luck, reached the necessary conclusion.
She stared blankly at the passing cars. "Thank you," she said, "I know I talked too long."
"You needed to. But I'm the wrong person for this -- dirty laundry."
He had always been the right person. She had always known how to talk to him, in ways she'd never been able to talk to anyone else. But she didn't say it. She didn't want to give him hope.
"Dump that shithead. He hurts you."
"It's not the way it seems. He loves me."
"He doesn't act like it," he said. Then, "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to give him a second chance. But there are going to be rules. If he breaks them, I'll leave him." She stood. "Thank you," she said. "I'm going home now."
He handed her the album. "If you need anything, if you want to talk, call. Any time."
"No," she said, "I won't. I'm part of the problem. I haven't been committed enough. Don't look so shocked. Owen saw it all along, it's why he's always been jealous of you. After all this time, something still draws me to you. It's simple, it's true, I can't deny it. Just saying your name makes my heart beat faster. All the years of not knowing where you were, or if you'd found someone else, I couldn't forget you, I prayed that you were happy and healthy. But I made my choice and I have to live with it. I have to make my marriage work. I love Owen, and we're making a life together... Don't look like that, you'll break my heart. I know you were hoping to get me back. I know you love me." She smiled. "I can't see you. Sooner or later I'd sleep with you, and then I couldn't face myself. I have to be faithful, I have to keep my promise, and I couldn't do that if... You're like an addiction. The only way to stop it is to stay away. I should have listened to you before it was too late, but I was young and I didn't know any better. The worst part is that I hurt you." She looked at him a long time, then said, "Goodbye. I'm always saying that to you, aren't I? Goodbye," and touched his cheek with the palm of her hand. "This has to be done. You should have forgotten me a long time ago. I'm going to forget you. If you respect what I want to be, how I want to live, then you will never call, and never write. Please. We have to get on with our lives. That's all there is to say. It's simple, really." She smiled at him the way she would have smiled at anyone. "You should go now." She started to turn, then said, "Thank you for the album, and coming to check on me. You haven't changed. You're still generous and helpful, still the Wyatt who saved a hypothermic girl in the snow." She walked up the stairs, leaving him at the bottom.
She left the two albums together, with a note sticking out of one, explaining that the broken one had been replaced with another. Wyatt was gone when she came down the stairs and stowed her case in the car. At home she let herself in and picked up the phone and called her husband at work. Gina answered.
"I don't care if he is on the other line," she said. "This is his wife, and I will talk to him now... Owen, you have an hour to get home... If you don't, I'll be gone, and I won't come back... Good."
She made her preparations and sat down to wait at the dining room table. When he came she indicated the chair across from her, and he sat.
"Don't talk," she said. "If you say one word, I will walk out the door and file for divorce. I'm going to talk and you're going to listen. Nod if you understand."
He said nothing, nor did he nod.
"I can leave," she said.
He opened his mouth, saw her stand, and nodded instead.
"Good. Let's get started." She picked up the phone. "Rule number one. You're going to fire Gina and give her enough money to go away and never come back." She punched in the office number and handed him the phone. "Now. She has to be gone today."
"Gina?" he said. "Gina. I have bad news. I have to let you go."
"Call me when you're done," Ada whispered. She went in the kitchen and closed the door. It was fifteen minutes, and Owen didn't call, but opened the door and beckoned.
"Well?" she asked.
"All right. Rule number two. I will not see Wyatt any more. I want you to understand, I never so much as kissed him, but you were right, I wanted to, and more, and now that I see it, I'm going to make sure that nothing is going to happen, nothing can possibly happen, because he is out of my life, permanently." She took a match from the box of kitchen matches she had set on the table, and lit a corner of the photograph of Wyatt, the only one she owned. The paper and chemicals charred and bubbled and the features vanished one after another, until the fire licked her finger and she dropped the burning paper in the ashtray. She poked at the pieces and burned the fragments until there was nothing left but gray ash and spent matches. She did the same with each of the letters he had sent her from L.A., and the clippings she had saved, burning them above a metal wastebasket instead of the ashtray. "There. That's done. I'll give Dougal all the record albums." She looked at her husband. His expression was stunned and passive. She was tempted to say, "Get a grip." The pleasure she was finding in this surprised her.
"Rule number three," she said. "Separate bedrooms. No sex. You're going to have to find a way to make me trust you again. When that happens, you'll know. You have to do something. If you don't, I'll leave. You have six months, starting today."
"Rule number four. This is the most important one. No more affairs. No one-night stands. Nothing. If you do, I'll divorce you. I will find out. You've had other affairs. I can't prove it, but I'm sure of it. I wasn't paying attention, but now I will be. I may hire detectives to follow you around. We'll have to see. But there will be no straying, not even so much as a kiss. From now on, that's all over. This is a marriage, and we are together, you and I, and there's no room for anyone else. Just you, and me."
"Rule number five. This is the hardest. Stop hiding. You have to open up." She moved around the table and knelt next to him. "Owen, I love you. I loved you because you needed me more than anyone else ever needed me and I could finally stop being alone and be with someone in a way that meant something, I could finally be with someone and make a life together with him. Wyatt didn't need me the way you do. He can live without me. He'll always land on his feet. You saw something in me you'd never seen before. Something you wanted. Something you needed. Something you had to have. You told me so, not with words, but with your actions, over and over again. I don't know what it is, but I want to give it to you. I don't understand myself. I don't understand you, or how you see me. I just know that you need me, and I want to give myself to you. Is this true? Do you need me? Do you want me to stay?"
"Then let go. Let go. Let me in." She stood behind his chair and leaned down and wrapped her arms around him, her cheek resting on top of his head.
"Yes. Thank God. That's all I wanted to say at the stoplight. Just to ask you to stay,"
he said, staring at the table as she tightened her arms around him and he put his hand on top of hers
and felt her cheek press against the top of his head. He felt a vast relief,
and something else, a numbness giving way, like anesthesia wearing off.