Chapter 18

There were no more Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays... All days were the same, filled with small, repetitive tasks: nursing the child, changing diapers, doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, listening to the radio, reading. Nothing intruded, all the friction from the outside world had vanished. There were plenty of minor annoyances, especially when Clover was cranky. But Ada lay esconced in a web of the quotidian, of the simple and safe. She knew she was extraordinarily fortunate, to have a husband on whom she could rely for money, so she could stay home and do as she wanted. Then, that thought thought, and a small thanks given for her luck, she promptly forgot, and resumed whatever she was doing or had to do next. She was happy. If this was a dream, let her not wake.

Then autumn came, the days shortened, and Owen was spending three days a week in Atlanta or New York. Perhaps these were the trigger, or perhaps she simply staled, but what she had been contented with closed around her, and she felt caged.

"I was terribly sad for a year after each of my children was born," Nina told her. "You need to get out. One of my friends has been looking for a Spanish tutor for her son. I can look after Clover for you."

The tutoring dispelled her pall. She gained an average of more than one new student a week -- Nina's friend's grandson wasn't the only one struggling in Spanish class. Parents called and begged her to take their children on, and she began, guiltily, to ignore messages on her answering machine when she didn't recognize the caller's name. Saying no was too difficult; not answering was much easier. Ada wanted to restrict the tutoring to Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings (the days Owen travelled), and Saturday mornings. Those times, Nina tended the baby, and Ada took herself off to the Corinth library.

"I'm thinking about going back to school," she announced to her husband.

Owen was trimming his mustache in the bathroom mirror. "Not again," he said.

"Only a B.A. in education. For teaching."

"It's never 'only' anything. When you get wrapped up in something, you get completely wrapped up."

"Speaks the man who was going to work less and cut back on travel."

"What's bugging you? You're mad that I'm away?"

"You have a daughter now. You should spend more time at home."

" 'Should'? I have obligations. They're written on a piece of paper. It's called a contract."

"What's sauce for the goose... Don't begrudge me. I want to teach. I've finally found the thing I'm led to do."

He checked the evenness of his mustache in the magnifying mirror and said, "Mmmm".

"I might as well talk to the wall. It would listen better," she muttered. She went to check on Clover and found her inspecting her feet. Clover never cried for attention when she woke up. She always had something to do. Full of happiness, always smiling. Clover beamed at her and waved her arms.

Ada leaned over the crib and smiled. "Yes. How's my good girl? But you're like your father, aren't you? You don't want me away at the library, do you, sweetie? You'll understand when you grow up. And there's your Gamma. She plays with you. She loves you, doesn't she? Everyone loves baby Clover." Ada picked her up. Clover gave her gurgling laugh and grabbed her lower lip. Ada pried the little hand loose. "I'm only gone a few hours, angel. There's nothing to be jealous of. You still come first."

But, guiltily, she knew that when she was with her students, Clover was nowhere in her thoughts. She liked to hear these boys and girls talk about their lives, their friends, their families, so unlike her own had been. Sometimes, listening, she understood things about the culture that she had never noticed, or always found confusing: the importance some students attached to sports; the strong emotional charge of the American flag; the confusion some of her students felt about sex, and the omnipresent mixed messages about it; the way families adopted political affiliations, and the narrowness these imposed on their opinions -- it was as if they'd closed their ears. She had insolent students and polite ones, shy ones and confident ones, bright and slow ones, jocks and nerds, beauties and one girl so homely she was painful to look at, rich children and others whose parents could barely afford the ten dollars an hour she charged. To help her with her students Ada kept a journal, writing her observations on what seemed to work with each of them, and the student's strengths and weaknesses. Under the pretext of teaching colloquial Spanish she spent the last ten minutes of each session having them talk about themselves, translating what they said back to them and having them repeat the Spanish. She wanted to spend the hour simply listening, but she had to provide their money's worth to the parents. There were times she would have paid the students to remain, and talk further, but she had a schedule to keep, and always someone waiting, and at the end, Clover to go home to.

After a conversation with a student about the differences between Spanish and Portuguese, he brought an album of Brazilian music. "I like this," he said, and blushed.

"Thank you." She accepted the album. "I'll bring it back next week."

"That's okay. Keep it. Just don't tell anyone I listen to that. They think you're weird if you don't listen to rock."

She remembered the album that weekend and put it on the turntable and was surprised at the joy, and the catchy rhythms. Clover was playing on the floor and Ada picked her up and spun around and dipped and shuffled and sang along wordlessly while Clover giggled at this new game. When she set the baby down, Clover cried to be picked up again, then urged Ada on, waving her arms and babbling, until she danced again. When half an hour had passed, Ada was tired and Clover was fussy. They fell asleep together on the sofa.

They danced every day, at first to sambas and bossanovas and then to various other Latin and Caribbean music, and sometimes to African drums, or zydeco. Mostly they stuck with Latin rhythms. She said nothing about this new habit, afraid that Owen would laugh at them.

She danced late with her daughter one evening, trying to forget the signs: Owen's mask, and his translator, were back in place. Ada felt marooned in the house, tending the child while her husband drifted away from her.

She had put dough in the breadmaker and made a mousse and was dancing with Clover, who smiled and laughed without stopping.

"Happy girl! Happy girl!" Ada sang.

The music was loud and she didn't hear Owen arrive. She twirled with the baby and saw her husband in the doorway, looking puzzled. Clover reached for him and he took her in his arms. But Clover waved her arms and exhorted her father in gibberish.

"She wants you to dance," Ada explained.

He danced as if he didn't want to, with self-restraint and self-consciousness and no spontaneity.

Ada urged him on. "Don't be afraid. I won't laugh. Move!" she commanded. "She likes to be swung around and bounced up and down." Ada demonstrated.

Owen imitated her movements. Clover cooed.

"Follow me." She lifted the needle and start the record over on the first track. "Come on!"

He danced in his socks, but his feet were soon sore from the bare wood and he handed Clover to her mother and sat on the couch and watched Ada dance and sing wordlessly with the music. Her face, often as absorbed as a chess player's, was open with a pure joyful thoughtlessness.

How she loved that child. How she forgot herself for that child. She had never felt that for him. His eyes stung. Ada didn't notice, wrapped up in looking at her child. Their child. Clover was his child, too. He'd never expected to be jealous of his own daughter. Ada loved that girl more than she'd ever loved him. To his wife he'd become a bank account, and the sire of her offspring.

"I'm going to change," he announced. Ada nodded without looking at him. He went upstairs to get out of his clothes. He hung up his suit, then sat on the floor. She wasn't his. She always loved someone else, never him. She'd never been his, and now she never would be.

When he'd finished weeping, he went in the bathroom to wash his eyes and instead took off his socks and underwear and turned on the shower and stepped in. He let the water run over his head for a long time and remembered Sarah, back in college.

He had bumped into her and her girlfriend somewhere and gone home with them. He'd been too drunk to get it up until the women began to entertain each other. The other one had been enormously heavy-breasted and he remembered the way her breasts had hung down as she straddled Sarah naked and leaned down to kiss her on the lips. Sarah. God, she was sexy. Still sexy now. That day she'd sold him the photographs. She wasn't beautiful, wasn't even very pretty, but she gave off a sex vibe, always had. Several of his friends had commented on it, back when they'd all been young enough to think that what they thought of a girl actually mattered.

The other woman that night. She was the one who wanted the threesome. Sarah had been reluctant. She'd only wanted to please her girlfriend. Barbara. That was it. Barbara.

He was getting an erection now. He pumped himself as he remembered entering Barbara from behind, then Sarah from the front, as Barbara lay on top of Sarah, swivelling on her. Then, oh God, Barbara had raised up onto her knees and spread them out and pointed at her cunt and pulled on Sarah until Sarah had moved around and the women were sixty-nining each other and Sarah guided him into Barbara and then he fucked Barbara doggy style while Sarah used her tongue on him, too, on both him and Barbara together as he slid in and out. God. He'd never imagined such a thing, never had it that way before or since. The sensation.

"Are you hungry?" Ada asked, and he shot his load. She sounded like she was standing in the bathroom door.

The glass of the shower was opaque with moisture. If he couldn't see her and the light was brighter on her side then she couldn't see him, thank God.



"Dinner will be ready soon."

Perfectly bad timing. He turned off the water.

Downstairs, she was startled when he walked up behind her at the stove and kissed her on the neck.

"Is the baby asleep?" he asked

"Yes. Dancing tires her out."

"Is that why you've been buying all those -- "

"Bossanova albums? To tire her? No. To have fun with her."

"That's hilarious."

"It's embarrassing. I wanted it secret."


"I'm not sure." She glanced at him. "Inhibitions? The way I was raised?"

He left to watch the evening news while she cooked.

Dinner was all his favorite things -- asparagus, brie, steak, a complicated salad, warm bread fresh from the breadmaker, wine, and a mousse for dessert.

"What have I done?" he asked at table. "This wonderful dinner. Everything I like. Did I do something nice for you, or what?"

"Nothing. You don't have to do anything to deserve pleasure. And I wanted to talk, and I thought ..."


"I should have said, 'I wanted you to talk'. I haven't been paying enough attention to you since the baby."

Paying enough attention? The bread went down wrong and choked him. He tried to cough it up but it wouldn't come. He struck himself on the breastbone.

"What's wrong?" The little crease appeared between her eyebrows.

He pointed to his throat. She looked blank. He was going to die, right here at the dinner table, because his wife didn't understand. He put both hands on his throat, as if strangling himself.

"Are you choking?"

He controlled his panic enough to nod.

She hurried around the table. "Stand up."

She tried the Heimlich maneuver, but he was too tall. She pounded him on the back with the heel of her hand.

He leaned forward. Harder. She had to do it harder. Why wasn't she hitting? He tried to speak, but no words emerged.

She gave him an enormous whack. The bread came flying out and hit his wine glass, knocking it over and staining the ancient linen tablecloth purple. He took a huge, relieved breath.

"Oh, love. Say something." She was next to him now, leaning on the table and looking into his face.

"God. I thought it was all over. That was close." He heard himself gasping, almost sobbing.

"Owen. Oh my dear, dear Owen." She reached for him.

"Watch out." He dammed the wine with a napkin before it dripped off the table onto the carpet. Then he turned and embraced her.

"I was so frightened," she said.

"So was I." He laughed. "What a coward. So was I."

She held him for a long minute and then said, "I want to get rid of this stain." The cloth was an heirloom. "Will you be all right? Should I stay here?"

"Yes. No. Go ahead."

She returned with sponge and paper towels, and a glass of water for him, and sopped up the worst of the wine. Then she removed the tablecloth and took it away. Owen sat down to dinner at the bare table, alone. He was finishing the food and had drunk all the wine and three Scotches by the time she returned, and he watched as she ate. It was very odd, her mentioning the distance the baby had put between them, when he'd been thinking that same thing shortly before. If only she hadn't mentioned it exactly when he was swallowing the bread.

When she returned he asked her about the tablecloth but she seemed neither to hear nor to care. He tried then to draw her out about her students, but she answered in distracted monosyllables and short sentences that didn't leave room for followup.

She put down the knife and fork. "Take me to bed."

Though not as modest as when they had married, she still preferred the lights out. Now, for the first time in years, she came to bed naked. She kissed him.

"I need you," she said. "I was afraid I'd lost you."

She grasped his penis. It didn't respond. He shouldn't have jerked off in the shower. Or drunk all the wine and Scotch. Or maybe it was her unexpected forwardness. Whatever the reason, he wasn't up to the job.

"What's wrong?" she asked.


"Then what is it? Why can't you?"

That was the problem with always being ready -- she seemed to think he had mastery over his sex drive, when actually he was its servant. And his master was on holiday at the moment.

"I don't know what I'd do alone," she said. "What if you'd died? Leaving me alone? Clover with no father? But no, not those things, just ... without you ... I was terrified." Tears in her eyes.

"It worked out okay. Okay?" Women. Everything had to be such a production. It was over and done with, so why couldn't she forget it?

"You don't understand! Everything is getting away from me, even you. I need you to need me, Owen. Please, please make love to me. You've always been ready before."

"I can't right now." He moved his lips to her breasts and the flow of milk started and he suckled for a few minutes, her hands gently holding his head, her breathing heavy and ragged. He moved his lips to her navel, then to her hips, her thighs, the insides of her knees. She was moaning, trying to steer his head. He circled the target until she begged him to stop teasing her. She was slippery, she had that funky musky salty smell. Her lips became almost molten. Soon, much sooner than usual, she arched her back and the pungent smell, the signal that she was about to come, was in his nostrils and he heard that strange sound she made occasionally, halfway between a whimper and a cry of relief.

He'd finally achieved an erection. He moved up and inserted it. She lay as if drugged, unmoving. She was wider since she'd had the baby, and his erection wasn't enough. The sizes didn't match, and he wasn't getting enough sensation. He thought about the threesome again, and it firmed him but not enough. He pushed and pushed, but everything was staying the same: the erection, his detachment. He watched the minutes go by on the clock beside the bed. How long was this going to take? His back was starting to hurt. Now Ada began to grunt with his thrusts. He remembered screwing a half-conscious girl once. She'd made the same sound. He was harder, but her walls still didn't hold him snugly enough. He couldn't come.

He rolled her over and entered her from behind, Ada flat on her stomach. Deeper, but still not enough friction. She was gasping in rhythm now. His strokes were too long, and he fell out. She started to rise, probably thinking he'd finished, but he pushed her down. There was another target, and it would be tighter. He pressed his penis between her buttocks.

"No!" She slapped sideways with her left hand, her body rocking from side to side, trying to rise.

He trapped her left elbow under his. He trapped her upper right arm under his right elbow. He pressed her head into the pillow with his right hand and rested all his weight on her. It had been a long time. He'd forgotten how different this felt. He'd only done it a few times long ago with -- what was her name?

He felt the orgasm coming gradually, from far away. Ada was screaming something, over and over, but he didn't understand the word. He couldn't stop: his body was moving of its own volition, and he was only a passenger on the ride and then he came and felt nothing but a great ringing in his head.