by James P. Hanley
I knew when I saw Helen everything we agreed would be disregarded. I held her until the familiarity of her closeness and the clean smell of her hair stripped my will as rapidly as we undressed. Later I looked at the clock on her nightstand and got up to leave.
That wasn’t the ending, not then. Our agreed interruption in seeing each other collapsed and I reasoned that this was simply part of the process—the push and pull until we were certain either way. Only when I arrived at my house and nearly ran over my daughter’s bike in the driveway did I stop thinking about her.
Our relationship began eight months ago. I’d been to a meeting of account managers for the large retirement services company I’d joined in early winter. I left into the hallway outside the massive meeting room, took the elevator down and walked to the grassless park between the street-long buildings of lower Manhattan. Gray cement blocks were shaped into circular seats.
I saw Helen there and she looked familiar. I approached her and said hello.
She stared suspiciously and then asked, “We're at that meeting on the twelfth floor? I don’t recognize you.”
When I said yes, she seemed to relax. Later I would replay her initial words and identify the caution, the deliberateness that was so much a part of her.
She slowly rose from the slab seat, extending her hand, her slim body perfectly erect, her smile framed in an oval face, all in combination forming a startling image of the beauty I’d come to know in detail. I would say to those I could talk about her, perhaps exaggerating, perhaps not, I was hooked at that moment.
We talked for a while, mostly facts. We learned a lot about each other in the hour or so we talked, but approached the knowledge of each other differently. I asked questions; she encouraged me to talk by her deep attention and interested gaze. She asked about my wife. Later she told me she wanted to see if there was love in my tone as I spoke of her.
I phoned Helen the next day and left a message on her voice mail. Her recorded voice affected me and I looked at the caller id on my phone for her number all day.
When she returned my call, I invited her to lunch that Friday. She didn’t answer at first and I expected her to decline, but she accepted.
She was waiting for me at the restaurant when I pushed through the crowd overflowing from the bar near the entrance. Our table was in the center and the swirling coats of customers rushing in and out often brushed us.
“I should have asked you to pick the restaurant,” I offered as an apology.
“No, this is fine.”
“Are we having lunch as friends or is this a date?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said, “what’s the difference?”
"Potential,” she answered.
We met whenever we could. The time together elevated me. The conversations, the good-humored bantering, even the mild arguments were like the well-scripted dialogue of a TV relationship drama. Her memory was exceptional—things I said to her were later recalled accurately. She was deliberate in what she said; there was always a pause, and looking into her eyes, I could see the momentary shaping of response like a computer processing a command. She was serious and guarded, but each time I saw her I sensed a loosening of the restraints.
“Are you holding back?’ I asked her once.
“Do you mean holding out?” she said smiling; we had yet to make love.
“That’s a whole different topic!” I answered.
“You are becoming too important to me, maybe because nothing else interests me—there is no intensity. You could be a passion in my life, and I’m not sure I want that.”
We were meeting in the city when she said that and afterwards I drove her to her apartment in BrooklynHeights. She invited me in and held my hand to take me around. The hall was a simple passageway of wood flooring and white walls. There was almost a geometric orderliness to the living room: the couch and matching chair seemed delicate and subdued in color; the end tables were wire legs with a glass top and an Andrew Wyeth print—a stark winter scene—hung above the couch. Her bedroom, next on the tour, was an odd contrast. Clothes were clustered in mounds around the overflowing hamper, and the bed was unmade. I re-formed the images of those rooms later but as I stood in her bedroom, I only thought of making love to her. Each movement, the unloosening of clothes and the positioning for penetration, was awkward, but then a rhythm fell into our motions until we leaned back, parting, wondering.
“Making love for us is like committing murder. We’ve done something that has consequences and we can’t undo them.” She could blend humor with seriousness in a way you could miss both.
I joked, “Not quite the reaction I was hoping for.”
I coped by segmenting—dividing my days, my life into unlacing components, separated by time, distance and association. When I worked near home, I’d drive around, releasing the frustrations and images of work like a smoker exhaling out of the open car window. So too, I gave Helen a period of attention carved from the free time between home and work. By confining time with her I was limiting the relationship, controlling how much she could mean to me. But she began to cross over her bordered time. She was a distraction to me at work, and at night I retreated into memories of being with her. Helen eventually became the measure of time: days and hours away from her, stretches with her.
“We need to spend whole days together,” she said while we walked after lunch one warm June day.
“There’s an annual Company meeting after the Fourth of July—business with a lot of down time. It’s on Long Island this year, at the North Fork. The Company booked rooms off the Long Island Sound and the meeting is at one of the wineries—a vineyard with large rooms for wine tasting, seminars and even weddings.”
On the morning of the meeting, Helen took the train to Huntington, Long Island and I picked her up there. It was odd—a ten-minute drive from my house and I was waiting for someone who I’d never associated with the setting. I would be with her in places that were a part of the life I would have to give up for her. But when she got off the train, she kissed me with such natural, comfortable affection, I lost all perspective.
When we arrived at the beachfront motel, the sun was at its zenith. The waves were soft, sapped of strength by the surrounding landmasses of Long Island and Connecticut; the tide did little more than ripple and kick up the stones on the edge of the coarse sand. My room in the motel was on the third floor, hers on the first. “You’ll stay with me, won’t you?” I asked her.
That afternoon we were on the beach, lying on a blanket we’d borrowed from the motel. I was drowsy and periodically reached out to touch her arm as if to stay awake by the gesture. Eventually, a storm stained the tranquil, pastel sky and we went back to my room.
Darkening by late afternoon and overburdened, the clouds released hard rain that penetrated the wide puddles around the motel like small-caliber bullets, forming half-globes of bubbles that were burst by the following harsh drops. The wind pushed the relieved cumulus formation, stretching it so that the outer edges lightened and shreds of cloud like chimney smoke blew across the horizon. In corners of the menacing storm, sunlight speared through and hints of clearing gleamed from the wet windows and polished surfaces.
We were making love on the wide bed, inspired by the anger of the weather. Now, without concerns for time, we reveled in each other, exploring, reacting without awkwardness until exhausted, and we fell into a pleasurable sleep.
When I awoke, she was no longer in bed. The sun, now back in control, was shining through the high windows. I heard a soft sound and walked toward the balcony. Soaked in sunlight, the small extension of concrete and railing looked out over the water. Helen was sitting on the only chair, staring out, humming. She turned her head around to look at me, still humming, until I asked her, “Happy?”
Over the next two days we were together whenever we could be, attempting to be discrete—failing and unconcerned. At times we attended meetings and acquiescing to propriety, arrived separately and sat at opposite ends of the room. But we caught each other staring like high school sophomores in blatant puppy love. One afternoon, from the corner of my eye I saw a folded piece of paper being passed diagonally until I could see my name was on the front. I opened the note. I’m giving you time to come up with a response. I love you, Helen. There was an asymmetric heart drawn around the declaration.
The next day there was a late afternoon cocktail party at a local vineyard. In the time between, we drove to Greenport, a town that was once a crusty seaport, now was designed with deliberate charm and ambiance to draw visitors to the shops and restaurants. The streets were crowded; residents walked their pure-bred dogs along the edge of the curb and tourists flowed from one shop to another, carrying colorful shopping bags. We strolled oblivious to the bright storefronts and the impatient shoppers stepping around us in our slow pace.
“We need to talk about your marriage,” she said as introduction to a conversation I’d avoided. The question was anticipated: “Why did you begin with me?”
“I’m not sure. There is no compelling lacking in my life. Perhaps I was flattered by a beautiful woman’s interest, or feared no longer being able to attract. It’s not out of comparison to my wife. I imagine so much in people, assigning complexity and depth to them and I’m invariably disappointed, but not with you. Does that make sense?”
“Do you love your wife?”
“Yes, but it’s a love I think has plateaued.”
She asked what my wife was like and I described Andrea’s features, her personality and distinctiveness. I told Helen my wife was a capable, loving mother, wise and perceptive. “My mother described her as a ‘person of breeding.’ Andrea is someone you strut with, boasting of her clear-skin beauty and genteel manner. Those are very alluring qualities, you know. I was crazy in love with her but couldn’t sustain it. Marrying her seemed an accomplishment. ”
“You’ve outgrown her?” she asked, trying to understand.
“No, it’s the opposite, she’s matured, and I was still rummaging around in this naïve search for indefinable love.”
“How do I know I’m what you want when you grow up?”
I laughed; “I’ve aged considerably since I’ve known you.” But it wasn’t the time for humor. “I know this sounds like I’ll know it when I see it but I could sense everything I value in a relationship unfold in you.”
At the hotel, we changed and went swimming in the softly churning water, lulled by the lapping waves and the cry of scavenging gulls. The sun was nearly extinguished at the western horizon of the ocean when we went back to the room.
“I’ll shower first,” she said as she went into the bathroom.
When I’d finished showering, I came out to find her lying face down on the bed, naked.
“Rub my back,” she said sleepily.
Her back muscles were soft, relaxed. I pressed gently with the heels of my hands then kneaded her shoulders with the edges of my fingers. She soon fell asleep. I stayed seated on the bed beside her, rubbing her in wide, soft circles. I felt fortunate to have access to that sleeping, lovely form, struck by her unclothed beauty. The fan spun lazily over the bed, the air conditioner was off and a cool breeze fluttered the curtains. This was, I thought then, the closest to a perfect moment I’d known.
That afternoon just before check-out time, we packed our bags slowly. On the road back Helen sat near the car door farther from me. For us, the adventure ended when we were on the Long Island Expressway.
I didn’t see her for a few days after we got back. I always dreaded time we were apart, especially when I knew she was thinking about our relationship. I was afraid that she would think through to conclusion and I would have no influence. She was still affectionate and good-humored, but now, more often than ever before, she spoke to me about my wife. She wanted to know what she was competing against, she explained, but it ran deeper. I knew that from a deliberately eloquent letter of questions she handed to me when I was leaving her apartment the next day.
Is our relationship wrong? Are you ever ashamed of your feelings for me?
Do you love different women, or love them differently?
Do you respect me; how can you; isn’t trying to steal your committed heart, a heinous crime?
Where am I listed in the ranking of the great loves of your life?
Are we, she and I, interchangeable to your lust? Do you ever see my image when you are on top of her? Can you feel the difference of being inside her as compared to me? Does she touch you in the same way I do? Do you ever feel you are betraying me when you make love to her? I won’t ask if you think of her when you are in my bed.
Have you ever stopped yourself just before you called her my name? Have you unconsciously grabbed her hand, thinking it was mine? Have you ever been some place with her and wondered how I would enjoy being there?
Is there hope? Am I the one who can help heal the wound of a broken marriage or am I to be marked as the one who pricked the wound and made it bleed deeply and visibly so as to leave a scar? Will I eventually lose you to someone who was not part of the hurting?
Am I insane for loving you, expecting more? Will I regret the lost time? Will I be left distrustful and disillusioned?
I love you so much. I think of you more often than I take in breath.
I want you to answer every question but I also want you to stop and destroy this letter after you’ve read the first words: this is the kind of sweet conflict you’ve brought to my life, but I can’t live without it.
On the following day I had to travel to a client in Trenton, New Jersey. I told my wife I was leaving from work and wouldn’t arrive at the hotel until very late. In truth, I wanted to spend the early evening with Helen. I needed to tell I loved her, that I wanted to be with her, not knowing fully what that would bring.
I was inside her apartment for a few minutes when the phone rang.
“Hi, Mom,” she answered to the greeting on the other end. “I’m here with Edward.”
Their talk was on topics unfamiliar to me and I gradually shifted my attention until she hung up.
“Your mother knows about us?”
“Yes, we talk about everything. She disapproves; she doesn’t say so, but in any relationship she tries to measure my vulnerability. She knows I’m at high risk with you.”
“Does that matter to you?”
“I want my mother to confirm what I’ve chosen for my life. But you matter more than her affirmation. You can’t know what that means, but it’s significant.”
“Then how can I convince her? Can I meet her?”
“If you meet her she’ll be gracious. At night she’ll try to pray you out of my life. She’s very religious. It was a comfort to her when my father died but blinded her to my stepfather.”
“You don’t like your stepfather?”
“I never warmed to him. He didn’t have the capacity to love us; we weren’t his children. I saw that, because I was the oldest. My sisters didn’t. My mother signed his name to every gift, every card.”
I changed subjects because I knew talking about her stepfather made her unhappy. I’d learned that you could not press Helen for detail on close to the heart subjects. You had to be patient, content with learning scattered pieces of her life, and assemble the sprinkled facts until it was fully clear. “Are you religious, like your mother?” I asked.
“I was, but I’m not a very good communicant since I’ve taken up with you.” She touched my face.
“Why did you call me, Edward?” I asked, remembering how she referred to me in conversation with her mother.
She laughed; “My mother started that. By elevating your name, you become a bit more acceptable to her. But I think I’ll call you that too.” She stood in front of me and kissed me.
I did meet her mother; she was at Helen’s unexpectedly when I arrived one time. She was delightful and had the same blend of sweetness and determination. I almost expected her to ask me my intentions toward her daughter but Helen stood sentinel and ensured we never strayed in that direction.
After she left, I asked Helen, “How do you think it went with your mother? Did I win her over?”
“She likes you, no doubt, but it’s a hesitant affection.”
“Will she ever like me without reservation?”
“Not for a while, if ever. It’s her moral requirement to discourage me.”
On the way home, I felt frustrated—I had to win over two women.
My wife and I had planned a vacation for August at a rented college on a lake in New Jersey. The rental house was on the northwest corner of the lake. Trees rimmed the property and shaded the porch and back rooms. Inside, the furniture was beige, stained by careless spilling.
I woke up early the next day and sat on the splintered dock. My wife walked from the house and sat beside me.
“I love this time of morning. It’s so peaceful.” Her arm was around me but I didn’t feel it until she squeezed my side as she got up. “I hear Michele.”
I turned my head to watch her go back inside. She was wearing a low-back, single-piece bathing suit. A dormant yearning came over me like a memory triggered by a fragrance.
“Honey, I’m going to feed Michele and then we’ll be down for a swim,” she called out to me later.
I thought of Helen in this placid, rustic setting where there was no image of her. I knew this was a test, perhaps a time of decision—arduous work out of phase with the tranquility of the lake rhythmically stroking the dock and graveled shore. I envisioned Helen waking, going through her routine of preparation as I’d seen in our time at the East End of Long Island. What was she thinking or imagining about what I was doing?
Andrea and Michele came out, holding hands. I saw my four-year old daughter from my sitting position. There were still marks on her pretty face from sleeping. She smiled and let go of her mother’s hand to come to me. Perhaps because I was at her height, or not wearing the business suit that represented formality, she wasn’t shy with me as she could often be.
“We’re going in the water,” Andrea said, “you come, too.” Michele, wordlessly, but with a greater look of pleading, pressed me to join them.
“In one minute, after I change” I said to Michele.
When I came back out, they were jumping off the dock into the waist-high water. Splashing and ducking beneath the lake surface, their heads bobbed like balloons. I watched the natural actions of a mother and daughter. Both were beautiful, one in her promise and the other in her fulfillment. For a moment I felt detached, an observer with no right to intrude or share. But then they both caught sight of me, waved frantically for me to jump in, and I was suddenly immersed.
By early evening we were all exhausted. Michele was nodding in her seat at the table; I lifted my child from the chair and carried her to her bedroom.
Andrea was clearing the table with anxious energy. At first, I was afraid that she wanted to talk, to ask what was on my mind. But instead she was rushing to have our time, when, without Michele, we could be alone. The sun was a dying disc and the lake absorbing its colors, changed from pale blue in its deepest part to an unblended mixture of shades. The wind had shifted direction and dragged along white clouds that hung over the lake like huge cotton balls. We sat on the porch, saying little until darkness, taking in the beauty of the star- splattered sky and the moon that was in full face, frightening off the puffy clouds.
“Let’s come here every year, always.” Andrea said, breaking our unspoken pact of absorbing quiet. “It will always be special, always memorable. And if you agree to come every year, I will always have you.”
We went to bed, expecting. I undressed while watching her slip out of her clothes and go into the opened-door bathroom to scoop cooling water on her sunburned face. When she was beside me I felt an unaccustomed need for invitation. She reached across to hold me; I circled her and pressed her tightly against me.
For the remaining days the weather stayed perfect. We were darkly tanned and reluctant to leave. Except for a few times when we went to town for dinner, we stayed at the cottage, seldom dry, seeking the slightest excuse to dunk or to push one another into the tempting shallow edge of the lake. I drove twice alone to buy things we needed, and called Helen, left a message the first time, and didn’t the second call, discouraged by a picture I had of her sitting on her couch, ignoring the ring.
Inflamed clouds appeared on the morning we were to leave. The brief thunderstorm came like a clearing sweep of water and forceful air, and we left just as the sky cleared for the next tenants arriving late in the day.
When I called Helen from work her voice was cool. “I can spend time with you tonight. Andrea expects me late, catching up on a week’s work,” I said.
“How was it?” I thought she’d wait to ask.
“It was nice,” was all I would offer. I knew there wasn’t time for detail, and if I said I’d talk to her later, she’d attach an unintended weight to it.
“I really missed you, Ed; imagination can be intolerable.”
“I missed you too, and don’t worry.” I knew she believed differently, as did I. I was much more conscious of the conflict. I’d been with Helen for days at a stretch and thought of Andrea at times. I’d been with Andrea and thought of Helen, more frequently. But more than ever I saw them in comparison and in contrast. Michele, before a bystander, now part of the drama, made the sides uneven. But I’d been away from Helen for a week and I needed to see her and everything would be as before.
“Did the old love return?” she asked me after I was in her place a few minutes. It was an anxious question with a facetious edge.
“No, but I feel the guilt more, the burden of knowing I can hurt someone, by doing something, or by doing nothing.”
“I’ve lost, haven’t I?”
“No,” I held her and continued, “I needed to fully understand the choices. They don’t deserve the heartache that will come. It was a wonderful week but it could be a closing.”
But the answer wasn’t sufficient. There was an increasing tension, and a sense that, despite our constant conversations, unspoken apprehension and doubt formed.
“You need time to think, without me, if possible, without her. You don’t have the option of doing nothing. Regardless of the pressure I put on you, or the unconscious push by your wife and daughter, you can’t stay in a directionless relationship.”
That was our first effort to stay apart, and, as I’ve written in the beginning of this telling, we failed, but I thought we came back to the relationship with a conviction that we wouldn’t accept life without the other.
I still recall the date, the hour and even the weather –an unusually hot spell at the end of October—when she called. I’d returned from a three day trip to Chicago and went to her apartment. She looked tired and agitated.
“My sister called yesterday, she’s at Mom’s house. My stepfather left for someone else.”
I was filled with questions.
“She said my mother was distraught, ‘crushed’ was her word.”
“Did you talk to your mother? Is it irreconcilable?”
“I talked to her briefly, and no, it won’t change; he was very emphatic with her. He said some unkind things, the bastard.”
As upsetting as her stepfather’s leaving was, I knew there was more when she began to sob deeply. I might compound her sorrow but I had to ask to get at the core of her distress. “Why didn’t your mother call you? You’re nearer, and, as you once said, you’re the one she always goes to.”
“Because I can’t be a comfort to her. I can’t console her because I’m in the same sin as him.”
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Why do I have to forgive you?” I was vindictively not going to make this easy for her.
“Without you, I can be forgiven, and can help her.”
“So you don’t really need me to understand, to accept…”
“I do, but I can’t see my family hurt, I can’t be part of your family’s hurt.”
“This will pass and everything will go back to the way it was. We’ve tried to stay apart and failed, doesn’t that tell you something?”
“It’s different,” she said. “They—your family, my family—have always been a presence in our relationship, always threatening. But this is the kind of crisis that would always cause us to choose, and it could come again, for me or for you. If we get through this one, how will the next go? ” Her eyes began to fill again. “My sister said my mother is sinking into depression as she did when my father died. And she’s much older now, not strong enough to overcome it alone.”
“You’ll be absolved; what about me?” I must have sounded pathetic.
Whatever weak defense I was planning was defeated by her final words to me, “You know in your heart that there is a small part of you that is relieved.”
The next morning, I had a voicemail message at work. She said she was going with her mother to their summerhouse. I wanted to talk to her to say the things that formed in the hours after the shock of her words. I angrily reasoned that you couldn’t convince someone to stay in a relationship, you can only argue out of it. I thought of her words shortly after we met, when she jokingly said I would never fully understand her. I didn’t doubt her sincerity when she spoke of our love, and was certain that only that deadly mixture of family ties and religion would derail us. Yet I didn’t know her completely; there were corners of her life, her thoughts that she kept from me, but I believed there was time to explore, time when her trust of me would be so complete that I’d know all about her, never tiring of her, appreciating her anew with maturity and insight, like the art admirer glorying in the refreshed wonder of a great painting filled with imagery. It was core to why I loved her.
I grieved the loss of that potential for a very long time.