So what did you think?” Todd said, taking the book from Becky and hefting it, as if instead of reading she might have torn out some pages.
Becky stood a while holding back the hotel drapes, looking at the ocean. She turned up the AC. She picked up the remote and turned on the TV.
“Ugh,” she said.
Becky liked her husband’s face and how tanned and intelligent it looked, but she hated that thing he did with his eyebrows sometimes. Like how a teacher looks at you when you tell him you think you deserve a higher grade.
She made a face that was supposed to mean We’ll both be happier if we don’t talk about this. But Todd never picked up on faces like that.
“It’s not really my thing,” Becky said, leaning forward as she pretended to search for something under the bed. Her robe fell open a little, and she left it like that, even tried to reveal a little more, because if there was one thing guaranteed to stop Todd talking about books and history, it was a naked boob. Which could be annoying, but not as annoying as when he said things like “What’s not to get?” or “Let me try and explain,” or “Take a little time and think it through.”
Becky gave a wrench of her shoulder and bounced on the bed, exposing a whole breast.
Todd looked at it, blinked. He looked back at his book.
“What’s not to get?” he said.
Becky sighed and turned down the volume on the TV. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s like, first of all, she’s about twenty, and he’s almost forty. That’s gross. Then it’s like, so she’s got this little dog. Who cares? I mean, I get that it’s a symbol and everything, and it’s in the title so you’re supposed to think about it,
but . . . it’s as if he didn’t even do anything with it. The whole story’s like that. It just didn’t really seem to go anywhere.”
“It’s Chekhov,” Todd said, as if that would be the end of the argument. Chekhov, master of the short story, what else is there to say? “It’s a classic. ‘The Lady with the Little Dog.’”
And there it was: Chekhov. A classic. Who could disagree?
“I know,” said Becky. “I know who Chekhov is. I’m just saying, it didn’t work for me.”
“But the details,” said Todd. “All these lovely, delicate little moments.”
He began to read out loud, slowly, looking up now and then, as if reading to an audience.
“‘Yalta was barely visible through the morning mist, white clouds stood motionless on the mountaintops. The leaves of the trees did not stir, cicadas called, and the monotonous, dull noise of the sea, coming from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep that awaits us.’”
Todd stood for a moment with his hand up, looking at the book.
“I love that the sea is described as dull and monotonous,” he said. “It’s a romantic moment, but this . . . this monotony is a part of it. I think that’s so perfect, so well observed.”
“See, to me?” Becky said, “To me that part just sounds pretentious.”
Todd didn’t say anything. He was still looking at the book, reading silently. He shook his head as he read. She could guess what he was thinking. Oh, such wonderful prose, he was thinking. Oh, the monotony and eternity. Oh, how sublime it all is, being able to appreciate something as perfect and well-observed as a story by Chekhov.
Becky kept the volume on the TV down, waiting for him to go on and explain how great the short story was and how he just didn’t see how she couldn’t see it. But all he said was, “Ah, well,” as he tossed the book onto the bed and left the room.
All of Becky’s friends had said, when she decided to marry Todd, “Well, as long as he makes you happy . . .”
They always trailed off, as if there were more to be said, so Becky filled in the silence. She explained that Todd had super abs, that he was really funny when he wanted to be, that he could be really patient and understanding—which for her, with her issues, that was important. But Becky’s friends just looked puzzled. They’d never seen Todd’s abs. They’d never seen him be funny, because as Becky said, he was only funny when he wanted to be. And, really, they’d never seen him be patient, unless you thought patience was the same thing as silence. At parties, Todd went straight for the wine, and when he had his wine he went straight for the bookcases. When he was done with the bookcases, he moved on to shelves, bibelots, hanging art. When he was done with the art, he looked out the window. He could spend a whole party with his back to the room.
“What’s up with your boyfriend?” Becky’s friend Cheryl said, the first time they went to a party at her place. “Does he, like, hate us?”
“He’s kind of a wallflower,” Becky said. She’d been dating Todd for two months. At that time, they hadn’t gone to any parties together before. Mostly they went to museums. Todd seemed to think she liked museums. Or they went to Central Park, after he got out of his job at the New School. They spread out a blanket on the lawn by the Dairy, watched the Midtown buildings change color in the sunset. Becky liked the Central Park days, because Todd said things that made her push him away and pull him back and laugh and lean her head on his shoulder. The funny things Todd said weren’t jokes, really, just silly things, nonsense words, illogical statements that reminded Becky of her grandfather.
Becky and Cheryl looked at Todd, who stood so close to the window that he seemed adhered to the glass.
“More like a wall lichen,” Cheryl said.
That kind of thing was bad enough, but when Becky told her mother she was marrying Todd, her mother said, “Is this something you’ve really thought through?”
“Mom,” Becky had said, “we’ve been dating for, like, a year.”
At which Becky’s mom had lifted her chin, lifted her eyebrows, lifted her whole thin body into an attitude of alarmed attention. This was news to her. “A year,” she said. “A year is not very long.” And that meant A year ago you were in college.
“A year is longer than you and Dad dated,” Becky said.
“There was a war on.”
This was what her mother always said when Becky mentioned anything—anything!—that had happened before Becky was born. As if all of history until1992 had been one long orgy of guns and flags and swords. Which, in some ways, Becky supposed, it had, but that didn’t explain why her mother had rushed into marriage with a rich guy who crashed his car and died on the way home from the hospital after Becky was born, leaving them a big house on the Hudson that was far away from everyone and everything. Nor did it explain why Becky’s mom sat in the kitchen all day, smoking, or why, when Becky was six and started crying because she was afraid of death, her mother said, “Well, get used to it.”
Except, maybe, in a way, it did explain those things, but the point was—
“There’s a war on now,” Becky said.
Her mother sniffed, meaning I’m surprised you even care about that mess in Iraq. She said, “And this is something you feel sure about? This boy? What’s his name? Tad?”
“You know, Mom,” said Becky, “maybe this is why I’m so messed up.”
“Are you messed up? I wasn’t aware you were messed up.”
“I am messed up. I’m seriously depressed. I’ve been depressed since I was, like, ten.”
Her mother’s nose and chin and eyebrows went up, up, up—they were aimed at the window, at the mountains across the Hudson, searching the distant hills for some explanation, some coherence to all these astonishing revelations.
“I’ve been telling you that since forever,” Becky said. “Maybe I wouldn’t be so depressed and messed up if you didn’t question everything all the time.”
“Is that what I do?”
“Oh my God!”
“So you’re depressed,” said Becky’s mother. “I’m aware of that. You’re depressed and you’re getting married.”
“Well don’t say it like that.”
“And how did I say it?”
“Like it’s connected. You make it sound like I’m getting married just because—”
“But you don’t think it is? Connected, that is?”
“Mom, stop doing that.”
“I’m only saying, if marrying Todd is going to make you happy—”
And Becky realized she’d come as close as she could get to having her mother’s blessing. She went out of the big smoke-filled kitchen, through all the rooms of her mother’s enormous house, down the long white gravel path that crossed the lawn into an overgrown garden, and when she was alone with the old beech trees and river views, she began to get back a little of the feeling she wanted to have, the feeling that made her want to marry Todd. It was a feeling that, if she jumped, she would soar . . . off this hill, over the river, away from this house . . . until one day, maybe years from now, her mother would look through the rooms and realize Becky was gone, married, truly in love.
This is happening, Becky reminded herself. This wedding, my wedding, it’s really happening.
But why did everyone have to use those words?
As long as he makes you happy . . .
They were married five months later, in the park up the river, near the power plant. There were thirty guests. Todd’s family was small, and neither he nor Becky had many friends. But Becky had demanded luxury, and her mother was as free with money as she was parsimonious with her emotions. There were four main entrees, and expensive cheeses for favors, and the floral centerpieces came in three different styles and heights, to create what the florist called “movement.” A mound of peonies brought further movement to the gifts table, an arrangement of cherry branches to the reception table, and bowls of floating lilies to the tables of hors d’oeuvres. Garlands climbed the poles of the tent; baskets of hyacinths hung from hooks; a flower-boy, Todd’s nephew, crouched behind a chair eating rose petals. Amid this floral bustle, Todd and his parents and friends stood immobile as garden statues, and even to Becky’s eye it was odd to see so much movement in the plant world, so little in the human.
But she had been looking forward to this day for ten years, and she danced and laughed and bestowed enough hugs and kisses for a thousand people as Todd and his family—college professors all—struggled through the terrors of polite conversation. The interfaith minister read the poem Todd had selected—something weird and long by Robert Browning—and Becky and Todd read to each other the vows they’d written. His were long and abstract, and contained at least two words she didn’t know, and he seemed to be defending his love to a Ph.D. board instead of proclaiming it under heaven. But when he looked at Becky, there was wonder in his face. More than wonder—awe. Becky knew she was as big as the sea to him. She was eternal; vast; he was humble in her presence. They kissed, and the applause sounded far away, and all the rich flowers at the borders of her vision seemed like trivial objects they had pushed aside in their passion to come together.
As the lawns of the park went dark and the lamps came into yellow prominence, the DJ at last dispensed with the obscure songs Todd had asked to have played, and began the romantic songs Becky had asked to have played, and the couples moved onto the portable dance floor held at its borders by rubber mats to the grass. The cooling of the spring day necessitated the use of heaters. One heater stood at each corner of the dance floor, and so there formed four, widely separate groups of cramped and unsociable people. Becky’s mother and aunts and grandmother stood in one corner, lifting their noses higher at each song as if something unpleasant had surprised them. And Becky’s friends danced in another, waving their arms and singing out of key. In the third corner, Becky’s uncle was teaching her other uncles a strange and ugly dance, or maybe telling them about a boxing match. And in the last corner, Todd’s family and friends stood huddled and somber, their milky faces all turned outward to the night, like a clutch of figures by Edward Gorey. Everyone he knows is right there, Becky thought, everyone he’s ever mentioned—right there in that somber little pack.
But this retreat to four heated corners, this division of their party, left more room for Becky and Todd to dance. They swung around the floor in wide circles, doing the box step they’d learned in their pre-wedding lessons. They danced fast, fast, until it seemed their speed was all that held them together. With the general retreat from the floor, there was room for him to spin her, despite their clumsiness. Each time she spun back, she found Todd staring, like his family, out into the night beyond the tent. He looked thin, solemn, handsome in his vest. I did it, Becky thought, spinning away and back. Since the time she was twelve and first felt the suck and drag of unhappiness on her soul, all she’d wanted was a beautiful wedding. And now she had made it happen. She had found a man—not a bad man—and put him into a suit, and put notions of eternity and fidelity into his head, and put him here, under this tent, amid the commotion and excitement of several thousand dollars’ worth of flowers.
The honeymoon in Hawaii was two weeks long, and by the end of the first week, Todd had read three books. Did anyone, Becky wondered, ever read so much on his honeymoon? They weren’t fun books, either, they were things like Orwell and John Cheever—college books—and afterwards he always wanted to drink wine and talk about alienation.
At the start of the second week, Cheryl called. Becky was shopping for pearls in Lahaina.
“So?” said Cheryl.
“So?” said Becky.
“How is it?”
Becky asked the lady in the jewelry shop to open another oyster. They had a gimmick here where you paid a funny old lady behind a counter to open oyster shells for you, and sometimes there was a pearl inside, and sometimes two, and sometimes a black pearl like a trembling little eye. If you got two pearls, the lady opened another shell, and offered to make you a pair of earrings and a necklace, on the spot. Every time a pearl was found, the lady rang a bell and sang in a keening voice, “Lost at sea, found by thee!”
It wasn’t much of a song, and it wasn’t much of a bargain; in fact, this silly game with the oysters was more expensive than buying pearl jewelry in New York. But it made Becky feel giddy and tipsy, peeking into the shells, and hearing the brassy jubilation of the bell, and seeing this fat old lady sing, without any hint of irony, her quaint rhyme.
“Is he there?” said Cheryl. “Is he with you right now?”
The lady’s bent fingers split a shell, the bright point of a pearl shone out, and the bell began its insane celebration . . .
“Lost at sea, found by thee!”
“Oh my God,” said Cheryl, “what the hell are you guys doing?”
“I’m buying jewelry,” Becky said. She felt as if she should be laughing, but she just handed over her money and took her pearls. “They have this sort of
game . . . no, Todd’s not here. He went on a historic walking tour.”
“For reals?” said Cheryl. “A walking tour?”
Becky thanked the woman, who smiled like she really had enjoyed singing and ringing her bell, like this wasn’t something she did a hundred times a day.
“You’re on your honeymoon,” said Cheryl, “and he’s on a historic walking tour? What kind of history is there? You’re in Maui. Eight hundred years ago it was beautiful. Now it’s still beautiful.”
“Well, he loves history.”
“I’ll bet,” said Cheryl.
Becky didn’t mention that Todd got up early every morning and went down to the hotel coffee shop to read the New York Times, or that he walked by the sea while she was tanning by the pool, or that when she turned on the TV at night, he put in earplugs and read short stories on the hotel room floor. It seemed like the sort of stuff that might inspire Cheryl to say, Well, as long as he makes you happy . . .
“Shouldn’t you guys be, you know, doing it?” Cheryl said. “Night and day, around the clock? How is that side of things, anyway?”
Becky walked to the main drag, by the sea, where people with ice cream and baseball caps were pointing at a half-sunken ship. A parapet of coral divided town from water, and on the wall a couple sat “doing it,” as Cheryl would have said, or at least very nearly. From far away, the dazzle of the water made the couple look like a travel ad, but when you got close you saw the energy of the guy’s tongue, the girl gulping and concentrating, the muscles jerking in their necks.
“It’s fine,” Becky said. “It’s great. I don’t know. I mean, we’ve been doing that forever.”
“So it doesn’t feel different? It doesn’t get—you know—more fun when you’re married? Isn’t there something you’ve been waiting to try?”
A bell was ringing, somewhere out at sea, but the wind and voices and excitement of the street swept the sound here and there; it came from everywhere and nowhere.
Lost at sea, found by thee!
The stupid rhyme of the jewelry shop had gotten into Becky’s head. Hearing the bell, she found herself imagining that a girl somewhere had found a treasure, lifted out of the surf a lucky and monstrous pearl.
“I better go. I see Todd coming.”
“Put him on,” said Cheryl. “I can congratulate him. I’ll tell him all the dirty little things you enjoy, so you don’t have to tell him yourself. Hey? Becks? Is he there? Becks? Are you there?”
But Becky had forgotten she was on the phone, and when she remembered, she ended the call.
When Todd reached Becky, he wanted to talk about the colonial prison he’d visited, and the ruined houses of Hawaiian queens, and the journals of lonely and homesick seamen he’d browsed in the lobbies of old hotels. Becky took his hand three times as they walked down the shore to get in line for the dinner cruise, but he kept pulling it away to make the professorial gestures with which he always accompanied his speech.
“The incredible thing,” Todd said, “is how recently it happened. The extirpation of a people, here, a society, a view of life. Two hundred years ago, people looked at this coast, this sea, and saw it in a very different way. Of course, we see traces of that culture all around us, the language, the food. But those are revivals, reconstructions. It’s all very determined. Like Europe reviving the classical world. What struck me, as I went on this tour, comparing the colonial experience to that of the islanders, was their very different relationships with the sea . . .”
He was always eager to talk, you could say that. And the sex was pretty great—though, granted, Becky didn’t have much to compare it with.
So why had she found it so hard to laugh at the old woman with her rhyme and her bell?
Todd was waiting, watching her eyes.
“Yes?” said Becky.
“Well, what do you think about that?” said Todd. “This old journal I was reading, this whaler from Nantucket said that the kanakas—that’s what they called the natives—that they experienced the sea in three dimensions, whereas a European or American visitor only experienced it in two.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Becky. “I mean, that seems kind of ridiculous.”
He nodded, watching her. The answer had been judged insufficient.
“Well, okay,” said Becky, sitting on the coral wall, “so these Western guys come in, and they build this town, and take over everything, and they’re
probably, like, raping people, you know, and killing off the leaders, and things like that. . . and . . . I mean, even if they’re not, they’re probably spreading disease and stuff, and—”
“And introducing rats,” Todd said. “Invasive species.”
“Right. And it’s like . . . I’m not saying they were all bad people or anything, or that they meant to do all this awful stuff, it’s just—”
He nodded, waiting.
“Well, that’s basically it,” said Becky. “That’s all I’m thinking.”
“So you feel there’s a kind of . . .” His hands moved busily, taking up her thoughts, trying to connect and mold them, turn them into other thoughts, more interesting thoughts. “That there’s a kind of hypocrisy to this notion, the white man presuming to theorize about the cultures he’s destroyed . . . even though those cultures, obviously, would have had their own way of theorizing, their own ways of making meaning . . .”
“But I’m saying,” said Becky, “how would they know? I mean, two dimensions, three dimensions . . . I don’t know, it just seems sort of . . . what’s the point?”
“So you would argue it’s a projection. A false romantic notion. Captain Smith and Pocahontas. This tendency to impute some quality to primitive man that Western civilization, for whatever reason—”
“Primitive man?” Becky showed with her eyebrows and lips that she was teasing him. Todd stopped his hands mid-gesture, a juggler whose balls had fallen to the floor.
“I don’t think people really say that anymore,” Becky said, showing her teeth. “Primitive man.”
“Well, yes, but these European observers I’m talking about—”
And he was off again, juggling ideas, his hands and eyes and lips all moving with a fervor she saw only at one other time . . . only when she stripped off her clothes before bed, and like a cat at the sound of a can opener, Todd’s fingers and eyes and lips came for her.
In the beginning, there hadn’t been much but sex. Becky’s friends all assumed Todd had been her professor, that they’d hooked up through the classic arrangement, an ardent student, a lusting teacher, a meeting of young tits and aged wisdom. Because it was college, because Becky was known to be desperate, because Todd talked and moved like an older man . . .
But he was only a graduate student, and they met through friends, and the sex was youthful, a collision of equally powerful and undisciplined passions. Back then, Becky liked it when Todd talked about books. She thought he was showing off. She wanted him to show off. His use of words like anomie andbathos, the teacherly movements of his hands—she knew it was all for her. He was playing the role of a man, and as a man, he would grab her arms, put her body where he wanted it, and bathos and anomie alike would be exposed as means to an end.
They were resting one afternoon between sex and dinner when Todd began to talk about love. Like a young scholar, love had entered the library of his brain, where it wandered through the stacks of literature, picking out bits of Shakespeare and Byron and Anne Sexton. Lifting his hands, he showed her what love was to him, a collection of quotes and intellectual reflections to be woven together like a veil. Becky began to cry, and when Todd asked her what was wrong, she was eager to bring her tears to him and dab them from her eyes onto his shoulder. She cried because the fun part was over; it was serious now, a real relationship. They were talking about love, and that meant he was going to find out who she really was and lose interest. He asked why she would say that, and she told him about her depression, how at twelve she had suddenly become an unhappy person.
“That’s terrible,” Todd said.
Becky grabbed his hand then, because no one else had ever said a thing like that to her. When Becky talked about depression, her mother and friends always said they knew the feeling, that every teenager went through the same thing. And when Becky insisted that couldn’t be true, that her mother and friends couldn’t possibly have felt the way she felt, her mother said she was being immature and her friends just got annoyed.
But Todd took her seriously. He was thoughtful. His hands rose up and resumed their intricate movements.
“I’ve always thought depression is a tricky word. That people sometimes use it to refer to emotion in general. So if you share emotions people find uncomfortable, or thoughts people don’t like to think, you’re stuck with that label. But sometimes that suppresses all the meaningful stuff in life. Sometimes—” He lifted a curl of hair away from her cheek. “Sometimes bad feelings are interesting.”
Becky lay across his chest, and he put his arms tightly around her. When she asked him what he was thinking, Todd said he had often been depressed himself. When he was a child, Todd told her, his parents had moved him from school to school, searching for a place where he wouldn’t be so depressed. They tried drugs and therapy, they tried splitting up and getting back together, they had special meetings with teachers, but still Todd kept to himself and wouldn’t eat and stuttered whenever he spoke. The other kids saw that Todd was weak and alone, and with a childish passion for repetition and consistency they did their best to keep him weak and alone. Todd hadn’t gotten over his stutter until college, and until now, at the age of twenty-nine, he’d never had a long-term girlfriend. But he’d always had books. There was no stammering in books. And he had museums, where paintings showed that for centuries people had been feeling the same things, suffering from the same fascinations. And he had music, and news, and solitary walks, and other experiences in which his loneliness seemed to meet with a kind of validation.
“People have always said I was depressed,” Todd said. “Like there’s something wrong with me. But I think that’s just their way of saying they don’t like who I am.”
“Yes!” Becky wrapped her arms around him, wanting to hold, firmly, the person, the mind that had so neatly described her own thoughts. That’s what it felt like, when her friends and mother blew her off, failed to take her seriously. Like they refused to see who she really was.
It didn’t seem important that when Becky was depressed she didn’t read books or go to museums, but ate a lot and watched TV. And it didn’t seem important that Todd’s parents had cared enough to take him to therapists, whereas Becky’s mother always said, “If you think you know what depression is now, just wait.” It especially didn’t seem important that, unlike Todd, Becky had dated plenty of guys and gave the impression of having plenty of friends. Becky’s depression wasn’t about loneliness or awkwardness or even sadness, really. It was a kind of stifling, paralyzing defiance, a determination to prove that her mother wasn’t the only one who never felt like leaving the house. For twenty years Becky’s mother had sat at the kitchen table, smoking. For eight years, Becky had sat nearby, defying her mother with all the silence of rage. Well, now Becky had hauled herself out of that pit of torpor and defiance, her home. She had fought free and flown away and fallen in love.
So it didn’t seem important that Todd and Becky never got depressed in quite the same way. All that mattered was that he was looking at her as if she were one of those paintings he’d mentioned, a picture of the pain and beauty of the past, and that when he told her for the first time, outright, that he loved her, he stuttered as he had as a child.
The dinner cruise from Lahaina wandered the bay among whales and porpoises, returned to the town after sunset, and offered the prospect of looking at one’s lover through eyes narrowed by a strong sea wind. It was supposed to be a romantic experience. But the cocktails came in plastic cups, the music came from speakers by the floor, and the plastic tables reminded Becky of accommodations at a water park.
Afterwards, Becky and Todd wandered through gift shops, pointing at ugly hats and sunglasses and wives who tugged their drunk husbands down the aisles. The foundered ship still lay in the harbor, the placeless bell was still tolling, and the young couple who’d perched on the wall that afternoon now sat on a bench by an ice cream shop, continuing their aggressive osculations. They gasped and clutched, tongues thrusting, fishing each other’s throats. Becky almost expected the girl to draw something out of the boy’s interior, a foreign object or secret prize, to lean back, triumphant, a pearl on the tip of her tongue.
At the resort, no effort had been spared in the maintenance of a pure mood. The swimming pool, chopped and divided by fake rocks into interesting channels and coves, cast a dancing luminosity into the branches of monkeypod trees. Along the paths flared insect-repellent torches, and beyond the grounds, past a mass of plumeria and ferns, drifting white lines showed the movement of the sea.
From their balcony, Becky and Todd looked down on couples who appeared and disappeared among the torches, intermittently flame-lit. Becky wondered why he wasn’t saying anything, until she remembered that all day she’d hinted that she wished he’d stop talking. On the dinner cruise, a dolphin had swum ahead of their ship, wavering glassily under the water, and Todd had said that dolphins were among the few animals on earth known to practice intergroup homicide. Afterwards, he’d wanted to take her through the town, telling her the things he’d learned that day, showing her the porches of houses where missionary families had died of fever and isolation.
“Are those new earrings?” Now, Todd came along the railing, reaching for her ear, lifting a pearl on the tip of his finger.
Becky began to laugh, painfully, stupidly, choking on the smell of salt. “Lost at sea,” she said, “found by thee.”
“What’s that?” He drew close, seeming to think it was real poetry.
“Nothing. This stupid thing the lady at the jewelry store kept saying.”
“I like it.”
“It’s stupid. It’s just this thing they say when you buy a pearl.”
“No, but I like it. I find that evocative, somehow. It reminds me of us.”
He looked at her so earnestly, so sweetly, that she had an intimation of how his childhood classmates had seen him, a boy trapped in sadness. She walked away along the railing, unsteady like a person on a ship. The roll of the sea had gotten into her head, a pounding confusion.
“Like we were both lost at sea,” said Todd behind her, “and then we found each other.”
At the end of the balcony, Becky turned and held up her fists. Her own anger surprised her. Why couldn’t he always be like this? Why couldn’t he always say silly things, sweet things? Why couldn’t he feel about her the way he felt about stories, history, ideas?
She remembered a time, a few months back, standing with Todd and Cheryl in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For ten minutes Todd had stared at a single painting, and Becky had gotten so bored that she’d memorized the nameplate: Joan of Arc, by Bastien-Lepage. While Cheryl rolled her eyes at Todd’s back, he talked about plein air art, brush technique, the blurry border between realism and impressionism.
“I don’t know, but the background of this picture . . . it’s natural in style, and yet, the sheer busyness of it . . . all this commotion of leaves and
branches . . . it suggests to me a kind of altered perception . . . like a projection of the internal state of a lonely mind.”
Inevitably, Todd turned to Becky and Cheryl, to ask the question that Becky had been dreading.
“What do you guys think?”
Becky and Cheryl had looked at each other. What did they think? What did anyone think about Joan of Arc? A peasant girl. . . she led a Crusade or something . . . they burned her at the stake . . . there was that movie with Milla Jovovich . . .
Becky said all this, but Todd seemed dissatisfied. And so Becky was compelled, as she’d been so often since Todd entered her life, to keep talking. She talked about Milla Jovovich, The Fifth Element, how models were too skinny these days, how it was stupid to say Joan of Arc was a feminist movie . . . She talked until talking became a tribulation, a punishment Becky was inflicting on herself. Trying to satisfy Todd, she laid her mind before him, vomited out its contents, and seeing her own mind exposed, open to review, she began to despise it.
But still she rambled on, and while she talked, Todd nodded. Faster and faster he nodded, as if by nodding he could flip through Becky’s thoughts like the pages of a boring book. When she was done, he struggled a moment, silent, searching in himself for a kind and wise thing to say about all the talking Becky had done. Finding nothing—nothing worthy of response in all she had said—he smiled weakly and wandered away.
Cheryl whispered, “So, about your boyfriend . . .”
“I don’t want to say this the wrong way. But doesn’t he seem a little. . . ?”
“Pretentious,” Becky finished, and frowned, and Cheryl frowned.
“It’s like, I’m not stupid,” Cheryl said. “I know who Joan of Arc is. I know about painting. I was a painting major, I mean—” She made a face at Todd’s back. “I just don’t like to show off about it.”
But that was the thing, Becky thought. It wasn’t showing off when Todd talked like this. He honestly enjoyed these conversations. He’d read a ton of books, he spent a lot of time alone, and the truth was—however ridiculous it sounded—the truth was, he’d never pretended to be anything but who he was.
The noise of the sea blew between them now, surging against the hotel wall.
“Listen,” Todd said.
Becky listened to the beat of the water, the breaking advances of foam and salt.
“There’s a poem—”
“Oh, God!” Becky hit him, two fists on his chest. His face, its earnestness, its confusion, made her feel again as his classmates had felt, she imagined, made her want to push him off the balcony, hurt him, make him sad.
“No more poetry,” Becky said.
Todd laughed. “I know I can get a little—”
But if she let this go now, he’d never see.
“People laugh at you, you know. My friends laugh.”
He seemed confused.
“When you talk this way,” Becky said. “About paintings and books. You know, it sounds to most people . . .”
“I don’t care how it sounds to most people.”
“Well, I care!” It felt so healthy to shout this, so much truer than anything she’d ever said—certainly much more to the point than any quote or idea Todd had ever presented to her—that Becky said it several more times. “I care! I care!”
She pushed past him and opened the sliding glass doors. As she crossed the hotel room, she glanced back to see Todd standing at the balcony rail, chin on his fist. So this, too, this moment, had become simply another thing for him to think about . . .
On the grounds, the sea was louder, each rumble of waves echoing off the hotel towers. I care, I care, Becky thought, the repetitions rolling through her mind. Though she had chosen to storm off, she felt driven away. He was just like her mother, it turned out, like her friends. Like all the other people who thought she was childish and shallow and stupid.
And it had been such a perfect wedding. That was the awful part. There had been no talking that day, no hunting in Becky’s soul for profound ideas, no rambling nonsense about symbols and paintings. They had stood still and quiet, and the flowers had spoken for them, that great commotion of petals and tendrils, cherry branches bobbing in an evening breeze.
While the tipsy guests were staggering away into the twilight, Becky remembered, she had slipped outside the tent to find her mother standing on the lamplit lawn. As always, her mother was alone, smoking and talking to herself.
Unexpectedly, Becky’s mother had turned and hugged her—a true, loving, powerful hug.
“What’s that for?” Becky had said, as her mother pulled back, waving the cigarette in front of her eyes as if to conceal her expression with smoke. “What are you doing out here? Are you talking to yourself?”
Her mother smiled. “Oh, you know—me and my bad habits. But I want to congratulate you, sweetie. It was wonderful—a beautiful wedding.”
And it was. This was how life was supposed to be, Becky thought: flowers, gifts, a mother’s tears.
“But what are you doing? Who are you talking to?”
Becky’s mother flicked her cigarette into the dark. Her smile lightened, softened, became a smile of something like acceptance, as if she were thinking of moments far in the past.
“No one. Well, the truth is . . . I know it’s silly, after all these years . . . but, well, I guess I was talking to your father.”
The waves were quieter now, regular and slow. Becky walked away from the hotel and stumbled down a path to the beach. When Todd found her there, two hours later, she was seated in the sand, thinking about the sea before them, ending only at the horizon.