Fiction and Drama
The Summer Before The
One night Diana finds herself thinking: One night while her husband was sleeping . . . The easiness of the thought surprises her, as if you could just start writing a novel, no permission or even decision required, just some pulse toward the truth, so you could know it and say it, or maybe know it in the saying. With these no doubt highly improvable first words in mind, she could get up and move to the dining room table that she uses as a desk, and open the laptop and type. Instead she remains on the green divan where she does her not-enough reading. The light pale blanket is pulled over her knees. One night in Brooklyn, while her husband —
Not that you’d want to say Brooklyn, when it can seem like all writers except Adam live here. And Dan isn’t her husband, either. But if it turns out to be necessary to hurt him, then calling it marriage might lend the breakup some dignity or narrative heft it would otherwise lack. Diana wouldn’t want to produce yet another document of the disposability of contemporary relationships.
In the event, she gets up, goes into the dining room that she thinks of as her office and shuts the door behind her, softly. She sits in a chair facing the door. On Skype a green-bordered bubble glows beside Oliver’s name.
DIANA: you up?
OLIVER: for you
Even if she’d guessed, in high school, at the possibility of video sex, she would never have imagined herself the type. Putting a hand inside her shorts, she watches Oliver fumble at his belt buckle.
OLIVER: too many clothes
DIANA: dan upstairs
Dan, as part of his residency, works nights. But tonight’s a night off and not three hours ago Diana and her boyfriend were having dinner, in the faintly despicable coupley way, at a bistro with tea lights on the small wooden tables. She feels Dan’s hours are partly to blame for what she’s been doing. Of course there’s no excuse.
She looks at Oliver’s appealingly smug expression and the rapid repetitive motion of his hand and wonders whether she would dare include a scene like this. Then she forgets the would-be novel and closes her eyes. She focuses, not deliberately, on an image of love, true love. The vague notion is also precise and familiar, like an object of unidentified substance that you’ve handled in the dark a thousand times. Adam’s name treads, simultaneously, at the rim of her mind.
Oliver doesn’t like when she closes her eyes. Like everybody, he wants to be seen. She opens them again. Bald with unspectacular bones but somehow attractive anyway, Oliver has leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the desk, possibly to make his penis look bigger.
This is the image on-screen when Dan walks in.
She yanks her hand from her shorts and pulls down her shirt. With her right hand she shuts the computer. Irrationally she quakes at her mother’s response.
“Uh, hey,” Dan says.
Always a blusher, Diana has gone red. She is flooded with a shame that feels final and, a second later, is fading.
“Babe it’s OK.” His warm smirk shows a tolerance maybe born of the Bellevue psych ward. “I know porn exists.”
Diana goes to him and puts her tongue in his mouth. Your life makes no sense. Now she is saying, in a husky fake voice: “I thought you were sleeping.”
They’ve never discussed pornography, they are maybe a few years too old for the subject to be inevitable. But the idea of her looking must excite Dan, who is leading her upstairs by the hand. He pushes her onto the bed and strips her shorts off. The sex is too fast but not, a dose of simplification.
“Kind of curious what you were looking at in there,” he says afterward.
“Do you mind if I don’t say for now?”
“Can I ask man or woman? Or — ?”
“Both. Together,” is not entirely a lie.
It’s only minutes before Dan, a gifted sleeper, is out again. With his sweeping brown hair that’s hardly receding, a superheroish jaw, and especially the violently shapely nose like some French leading man’s, he could easily get away with being less intelligent, competent, and kind — and what a woman’s-magazine or TV-show cliché to be punishing this highly decent man, from Wisconsin no less, for his decency, if that’s a part of what she’s doing. There are too many parts.
Diana will be spending the middle half of the summer on the Vineyard, directing college kids in A Doll’s House at the Barnacle. Dan, with a real job, will remain here in her duplex. Their relationship will be phone calls and long weekends, and then come fall maybe things can be sorted out or put back on track, or whatever it is that needs to happen.
“What’s that way you’re looking at me?” she asked her friend Rich at the Public Relations party, where he was also so rude about Oliver. The look had distaste or disappointment in it, and possibly some sadness that’s Rich’s own.
“I just kind of wonder what your life is about right now.”
Diana asked what anybody’s was about, including Rich’s, and his answer to the obviously rhetorical question was that at the moment he was trying not to act like a sex addict or still think of himself as a writer. What offended her here was the flicker of pride in his supposed giving-up.
Still, not a bad question, it occurs to her, with the summer-loosened air breathing through the window and the scissory dilating chant of insects or frogs outside. Because isn’t that what a novelist would have to figure out, what are these people’s lives about? And which events, of all the stray incidents, make up the story? Another question, this one probably to be answered in advance, is which characters amount to the main ones.
At the same party a nervous girl with an equine face who works at another magazine declared that the novel form, as she called it, ran out of steam once adultery and monogamy stopped mattering. “But still people keep writing these books,” the girl said with anxious disdain.
Diana had drunk enough to ask: “Do you practice monogamy?”
“I have.” This was one of those girls who in spite of the Ivy League talk like they’re chewing gum. “Pretty exclusively actually yeah.”
“Everybody practices monogamy,” Oliver drawled. “Strangely no one gets better at it.”
Later on, in the back room, Diana met for the first time, or at least saw, the admittedly gorgeous Harriet, who had just arrived — returned, that is — from Buenos Aires and didn’t say a single word.
Kneeling in the shade beside the house on the Vineyard, Diana yanks another weed from the ground, and another. Not even Dan, much less her father or brother, has said: Those flowers, so beautiful, you must have planted them this spring. What are they? Daylilies, poppies, and hydrangeas, since you don’t ask. The dryish ones ticking against each other in the breeze obviously are daffodils, which bloom early.
The men are all out on the boat.
She seems to be letting a sense of neglectedness generalize and spread. Her gardening! Her directing! Attention must be paid. The punctual source of her complaint is that she still hasn’t heard whether Major Barbara will be transferred to St. Louis, a development that actually might signal a viable career. Her iPhone is tucked in the back pocket of her cutoffs, although what ever happens on a Friday in July?
“Don’t they need to figure out their season pretty soon?” she asked Frank Dolan last week.
“Pretty soon they do,” said her once TV-famous lead, somewhat miscast as Undershaft, with his handsome ruined bulk. “Sit tight.”
Her second call in as many weeks seemed to annoy him and she wanted to say: You snuck away from your wife and kids and drunk-dialed me on Easter to say I was beautiful and if only you were 30. (Diana herself isn’t 30 anymore.) I’m allowed to call to see if we’ve heard.
A few minutes later, uprooting another weed, she for no apparent reason loses her balance, and when she grabs hold of the trellis to steady herself this causes something already torn inside her left shoulder to tear more deeply. Diana lets go, and in extending her unhurt arm crushes a moist detergent-blue hydrangea. For a second it’s as though if she doesn’t react nothing will have happened. But the sensation in her shoulder swiftly declares itself pain, and with a short affronted cry she gets to her feet.
In her parents’ bathroom she finds some codeine-supplemented aspirin that may date from Mom’s time. With a palmful of water she swallows the pills, then slumps against the tub. She looks at her knees, dirty as a child’s, and her pale pinkish thighs, intimate yet alien.
A torn labrum is Dan’s diagnosis. He and Dad and Sam have returned to find Diana in front of the TV, a bag of ice on her shoulder. Evidently the labrum is the ring of cartilage in your shoulder socket.
“So what do you do about a torn one of those?”
Dan frowns. “Maybe surgery. Maybe not. Depends how bad.”
There’s no cause for the emergency room, she insists. She can wait till Monday for a doctor. This also puts off explaining what happened to her shoulder with Adam a year and a half ago, which she thought had healed. Only, the place in her arm seems the same.
About the injury or possible re-injury she feels strangely guilty, as if a punishment has come due, and at the same time somehow betrayed, like the universe had promised that she was special and would be protected.
At dinner in the old low-ceilinged dining room — where she hardly sets foot when she has the place to herself — the combination of pain, analgesics, and a little wine puts her at a once-remove from the scene. Dad, impressed by Dan’s medical knowledge, is saying merrily: “You know all about a body too! Not just the mind.”
How would you do his dialogue to catch the subtle strangeness of usage, not to mention the foreign warble that others describe and Diana has to make an effort to hear? Undeniably Dad would make a good minor character, with his mirthful eyes and apple cheeks, the caterpillar eyebrows and fringe of white hair — it’s the face of a comic actor — and his relentless cheeriness. But Diana can’t quite perceive someone so close to her.
“Of course the mind’s just one more part of the body,” Dan is saying. “Just the part we don’t understand.”
Except for when they first met she hasn’t seen Dan happier than since he started on the psych ward, as if the mind’s ingenuity in getting the world wrong were a ratification of his own tremendous sanity.
“Dan loves crazy people,” she puts in, maybe oddly.
“To me they are fascinating.” He starts telling a story Diana has heard about a Swedish girl, psychotic on the subway, who took off her clothes, complaining the whole time about the male voices bidding her strip.
“Women . . .” Diana murmurs ironically, without anyone’s seeming to hear.
The discussion among the men is declamatory and discontinuous. “We’re all psychotics at night, in our dreams,” Dan is saying. Oil shocks, her father says, triggered the recessions of ’73 and ’79 and it could be happening again. (So masculine, this relishing of doom . . .) But in inflation-adjusted terms, says her brother who is also in finance, oil prices aren’t as high as they seem. (An opposite masculine approach is to claim everything is fine.) “It’s absurd,” Sam goes on, “to think we’re going to run out of oil.”
“It’s not about running out.” Diana has surprised them. “The idea is that you hit a peak — of production — and that’s the most you ever have. The next year it’s only a little less. But then it’s less all the time. Even if you need more. Plus the extraction costs” — she believes the phrase is — “go up, like per barrel.”
In fact Diana thought Adam’s long article on peak oil was so-so, something someone else could have written. She seems to prefer romanticizing him as some genius. Now, however, she is glad to have read it.
“Even then, though, come on.” Sam is flustered by his older sister trespassing into the boys’ club. “It’s not like there’s a lack of energy. Even just the tides — there’s all the energy we could want.”
Diana says nothing about the difficulty there must be in making the least use of the waves. She just says: “I don’t know.” The complexity of the world sometimes feels to her like an index of its fragility, and a tremor of very ill-defined social or political dread flutters through all these leaf-cluttered summer days, with the flags asleep on their poles.
“So long as we don’t need to feed our spirituous liquors to the engines,” Dad says, wineglass in hand.
Dan, a quick study and good with his hands, is dismantling his lobster with skill. A year ago he was stymied by the task. Chewing and tightly smiling, he meets Diana’s eyes with a classic boyfriendly look, at once conspiratorial and frank. Nor is Dan’s “goodness,” Diana observes, or recalls, as simple as that. It combines generic Midwestern humility with an awareness, patent but never confessed, of his personal excellence. Possibly Diana was attracted to the idea that he had selected her as his fitting reward.
On Monday the diagnosis of a torn labrum is shared by a doctor at the Oak Bluff hospital, and on Tuesday an MRI confirms it. The slender white-haired physician, whose thinness seems not elegant but stingy, tells Diana in tones of complete indifference that she might see how she is managing in a few weeks, what her strength and range of motion are like, then decide about surgery. “But this injury doesn’t heal on its own. Repairing it would take an operation which we can expect would deprive you of full use of the arm for six to eight weeks.”
Robby drives her back to her mother’s house, as she’ll always think of it.
Pink, fair, and wisp-haired, Robby looks in his fifties pleasantly like a gigantic toddler, and has been running the summer theater program at the Barnacle for years. “Don’t skip surgery on our account,” he is saying. “What do you need two arms for? You think these college boys wouldn’t kill to be your valet?”
Because Robby is gay and sweet and in spite of his energy a defeated person, Diana permits herself a note of self-pity. “I hate having something broken in me.”
“Honey, parts break. Did you never blow out your knee skiing? What kind of WASP are you?”
Diana flourishes her right hand. “Remember I was mutilated playing field hockey.” The ball shattered the tip of her ring finger and the top joint had to be amputated. She wasn’t even starting squad.
“Besides I’m only half WASP anyway.”
Her Jewish father, a boy in Budapest during the war, ran with his brother across the Austrian border in 1956, and she has sometimes wondered if his rather maddening cheerfulness isn’t the attitude of somebody for whom America, after all that, which he never discusses, could only ever seem like a lark. This would include the larky life of his daughter.
“I think they upgrade you to full WASP after a gardening accident on Martha’s Vineyard. Extra points if you were drunk.”
Diana murmurs a laugh. People have said her seriousness can make her seem unfriendly.
A week into A Doll’s House the extent of her injury seems clear. She can perform ordinary daily activities like bed-making and shoelace-tying, but her left arm remains a weak constricted limb. One night she Gchats Oliver. Unlike her father and brother, he asks after her arm.
DIANA: obvs I can type. can drive now. yoga poses or chopping vegetables diff story
OLIVER: but can you get off?
DIANA: when the mood strikes
She is in no mood, however, and generally hasn’t been. Rashly she makes a confession.
DIANA: I’ve been thinking about writing a novel
OLIVER: The Girl with the Torn Labrum?
The new editor of Public Relations, Oliver seems to disdain all writers he doesn’t publish and some that he does. It was dumb to say anything. What response did she expect? A novel! In exchange for sleeping with me I’ll make you a star in the dimming constellation of American letters.
In fact she hadn’t considered giving the main character her injury. Nevertheless, alone midweek on the Vineyard, with rehearsals at four and the day to herself, sitting at the picnic table with a ruled notebook before her and the surf cannonading at a distance, she finds that the shoulder thing has become, in defiance of Oliver, a feature of the character, almost an emblem. This is despite Diana’s not knowing what it means. Unless its meaninglessness — intrusion of accident into your life — is more like the point.
So maybe an account of the torn labrum can wait. A more typical opening, anyway, would describe the rambling old house with its many small rooms, and say how, in its calm gray-painted way, it looks out across a ragged lawn tumbling down toward the little bay that has always solaced you, or your character, with a feeling of protection, some impression of ultimate harbor. On the other side of the sandbar and outer bank lies the ocean, obviously, dumping load on load of emptiness on the sand, is how you seem to hear it. The sound is harsher than in the past, maybe because you know the bank is eroding and the Town Council can’t decide what to do. Or else the motionless, driving ocean just seems more violent now because you’re older. Up against this mystery, Diana sets down her pen, though for a moment she’d felt on the brink of fluent composition.
A few days later she decides, definitively, to postpone surgery. Not that she exactly needs both arms to speak to the cast and crew about pacing, blocking, lighting, et cetera. And, having worked once upon a time at the New York Review of Books as an assistant for the lovely, formidable, and mysteriously one-armed Barbara Epstein, she knows it’s possible for a capable woman to have only one hand to deploy. Still, it might undermine her already precarious authority as a youngish woman attempting to give direction to kids not so much younger than herself to be also a girl with her arm in a sling. The operation can wait till she’s in between jobs again. Which may be soon enough.
“Still no word about Major Barbara,” she probably says to Dan every third day. Most afternoons they Skype, without video, before he leaves for work with the lunatics and she for work with the aspiring actors.
“They’re all delusional in their own way,” she says one haze-tarnished afternoon in what’s already late July. “It’s the happy kids who want to act. Look at me! Aren’t I cute and so funny? And you want to say: You’re all going to be poor and sad and underemployed.”
“It’ll be good when you’re working with more professional people again,” Dan says.
One day when it’s pouring on the Vineyard and who knows about New York, he turns on the video feature to display the towel rack he’s just installed in the bathroom. Their two lives are coming together while on another set of tracks they invisibly diverge.
With no umbrella or raincoat, Diana sets out through gusting curtains of rain. There is no car at the Leyendeckers’ place, though you’d think that one of them would come more often since the divorce. So nobody sees her walk past barefoot, with madwoman hair and wet shirt. She stands at the end of the Leyendeckers’ stubby dock getting soaked. The sandbar is a furious shallowness boiling with rain.
“Torvald,” she tells Scott from the floor that night. “Remember you saw none of this coming. You haven’t read the play. This is not something that can happen to you. And it’s happening.”
Remarkably this bemused jockish boy from New Jersey, a natural to play some narrow big man, locates something new in himself, or already there, and in his next and last lines you can hear that he understands, and hates understanding, what’s going on. He knows his wife, why she’s leaving. This is his surprise. Accidentally and terribly he did come to know her over the years.
“Ah Torvald.” Diana’s hand is at her heart. “Yes. That is it. I almost think she should take you back.”
She is idly checking the St. Louis Rep website one afternoon when she sees that Major Barbara has been scheduled for a run starting in November. At first she shivers with pride. Then she discovers that while the cast list is identical and Terry is still doing lights, Gabriel Tenant, who runs the theater, has been listed, confoundingly, as director. Diana’s name is nowhere.
She calls Frank Dolan and in a brisk controlled voice leaves a message to call her back. Possibly it’s all an error. Diana tries him twice more before rehearsal.
The cast are practicing the curtain call when her iPhone trembles. She excuses herself to the parking lot and paces along the weed-fringed perimeter as Frank explains. “They dig the show but they wanted a more experienced helmer, is the pretentious word they use.”
The strange viscosity of the moment, thickened with worry, gives unforgiving definition to everything in view, from pebbles and license plate numbers to shingled rooflines and flat-bottomed clouds ranged overhead.
“Frank, who do they imagine directed the show they dig? Who do they think cut down this impossible text so it’s not like seventeen hours long?”
“Don’t use that Harvard voice with me. It’s not like you won’t be mentioned in the program. You will be. Prominently. Maybe consider it an honor that someone wanted to steal your baby.”
“Did you not protest at all? Without you there’s no show.”
“Absolutely I registered my discomfort. I’m your champion. But they feel like you’re a little green.”
“I had no idea they’d put it out there so quick.”
“Oh you’re a worm.”
He laughs in his brutal authoritative way. “I didn’t know people said that anymore. Worm.”
“And for my part I didn’t know that even cavemen like you had started saying mealymouthed shit like I registered my discomfort.”
“That’s good. You can be very good. Maybe things are too easy for you too much of the time.”
She is infuriated into irrelevance. “What would your wife say if she — you basically propositioned me, Frank. More than once.”
“Nobody could complain about my taste.”
Has Diana ever hung up on anyone before? Mom would be appalled. Or might cheer. Of course now you can’t know.
Inside the Barnacle, she assures everyone that no one has died, no one is sick. She has only received some professionally disappointing news.
A problem with being humiliated is to suspect some obscure justice at work, and Diana feels too ashamed over the next days to call Dan or Dad or even Oliver and rage and vent or cry. She might call Rich, who as a discreet and slow-motion disaster himself has often been a good listener. But they haven’t spoken since that night in May at the PR party.
“I’m just a little out of sorts,” Diana says when Dan asks. Her eyes linger, as they talk, over the sun-faded jacket of an old hardback, The Summer Before the Dark. She’s noticed the title before but never pulled it from the shelf. In fact she’s hardly read any Doris Lessing and has for years put off The Golden Notebook, which Mom praised so much. Sometimes you’re maybe afraid of finding in books something too directly addressed to you.
“Love you too.” She hangs up. Nor does she get in touch with any girlfriend, not even Francesca. Strangely it’s Adam she wants to talk to about her rejection or failure — Adam to whom success came easily enough that he could run away to South America. But she doesn’t even have a number for him, or know for sure that he’s single again. With a flash of scorn, she defines him as the type of guy who says his favorite book is Walden and never lacks a girlfriend.
Dan is resting his hand on her thigh. He nods slightly, with a judicious sympathetic frown, at the arrival of each of the play’s staggered crises. She has observed him watching TV in the same curious, actually adorable way, as if to reassure the device, and really in this case for her to say: It’s not you, it’s me might not be so untrue.
Next to Dan sits her father. Only Sam, who pleaded work, is strictly missing.
Torvald’s last speech is not what it was the one time. Still, at the end you do feel his world shatter like a windshield no piece of which actually comes loose, and though Dad makes no sound Diana can see his eyes film and shine. Then the door famously slams and we all clap, in the perverse custom, at the spectacular unhappiness of the bourgeoisie.
Nora forgot some lines but the rest went fine, and Diana has acquitted herself well enough on what may be her final opening night. I’m done, she’s been saying, so far only to herself. No more summer stage stuff, she’s been thinking with down-on-your-luck grandiosity, no more waiting upon the favors of washed-up actors or provincial tyrants with regional theaters under their command. Live theater is so not alive anymore anyway. Revivals in particular aren’t life.
At the cast party the kids get efficiently drunk like the college students they are. Diana, not much of a beer person, nevertheless drains a second limp transparent cup while Dan stands proprietarily close. They observe a knot of actors getting hilarious, spurting when they laugh. Laura the understudy has a story about meeting a man called Ron Jeremy in Las Vegas.
“Porn star,” Dan informs her discreetly.
“He’s kind of so ugly it’s cute,” the girl is saying.
Pressed together in a dorm for six weeks and soon to scatter to separate lives, the kids have become affectionately abusive with each other in some barracks style, and now Laura who met Ron Jeremy is mocked knowingly by another girl for her apparent taste or experience in chubby men. Without malice, Laura rejoins: “All’s I know is I never came to rehearsal with gravel marks on my knees.”
“They are so incredibly horny,” Diana says. She and Dan are walking to the car, the last of the adults to leave but well ahead of the truly young.
He says: “Does that sound kind of envious?”
Because of the beers she asks him to drive. They are already passing between the dark and slowly threshing leafy margins of the road — and how the night does seem larger in summer — when Diana says: “I consider myself pretty horny.”
“Could have fooled me. I’m kidding. When you’re basically apart all summer, what were we going to do?”
“Right,” she says. “I am when there’s something to be it about.”
Except when a boy is visiting she has always slept on the Vineyard in her own room, with its little girl’s bed painted white with stenciled pink flowers and the identically painted dresser that creaks, these days, with age. The room does not invite sessions with your Hitachi wand, which anyway she left in New York.
The car wheels crunch the driveway gravel, and the headlights rake the bushes as if — this lifelong impression of the phenomenon — in search of something escaping or lost.
No speaking wistfully of the sex drives of college kids without right away climbing on top of your boyfriend . . . And the sex is good. Almost always it’s a healing thing and you do read in stupid lifestyle articles, probably smarter than you are, that frequency of intercourse is the best predictor of relationship success. Nor is Dan into nonmonogamy or taking drugs or promulgating ecosocialism or whatever, and if Diana had more sense, she thinks, after she’s come, she might let herself be contented with a good and possible thing.
Dan’s warm solid arm is draped over her side when she breaks the news about Major Barbara. He is loyal enough to be furious. “They can’t do that to you.”
Still, she may detect another element in his response. “Do you ever worry I won’t have a career?”
“Di, it’s one job. Let’s not generalize. You know how talented you are.”
“It was my only job.” Of course a more disciplined person might have applied for others.
“I honestly can’t believe these people.”
“They’re not even people, they’re men!”
Dan half-laughs. “I’m a man.”
“I’m not claiming I’m a person either!” she says a bit wildly. “I feel like the theater is a bunch of nonpeople pretending to be people. It’s like: I’m not a human being but I am involved with portraying them onstage.”
Dan is amused. “What are you talking about?”
“I have no idea.” She has only some inarticulate apprehension of the rudimentary quality of most contemporary people, not exempting herself.
“The bright side is it’s not like we wanted you in St. Louis for six weeks. Besides, New York is where all the theaters — ”
“Oh Dan New York is also home to such an overpopulation of directors.” An association suddenly crosses her mind with the elk in Colorado, another overpopulation, at least where she and Adam were. Supposedly they have no natural predators anymore, and after Dan has said: “But none of those directors is you,” and Diana’s replied: “I know. Thank you,” she is still thinking, with Dan asleep beside her, of how elk-hunting season was in progress and gunshots would occasionally crack through the very still air that afternoon they put on orange vests and orange caps and walked until it started getting dark along a dirt road banked by yellow and orange leaves that flashed like tumbling coins, was her impression, though there was hardly a breeze. She had concerns that were financial, political, logistical, geographical, and also sexual about everything they were talking about. And she was frightened that even if the project, as they were calling it, happened and improbably worked out, she would become strange to the other people she knew. But she also felt some dry exhilaration or gladness that seemed like it might become gatheringly factual about her life. Which isn’t much fun to remember, possibly because you don’t totally disbelieve in all that bullshit even now.
Nearly her first thought on coming to in her hospital bed and paper gown is: Too many men around my bed. They are in this case her father, brother, Dan.
“Fellas,” she says in an effort to be plucky, her first postoperative words.
In exchange she receives solicitous inquiries, kind smiles.
“I feel fine.” She adds that while the sensation in her shoulder is different there isn’t any pain yet.
Sam, his fraternal duty accomplished, heads back to work. Dad sits in the chair beside the TV, his face obscured by the salmon-colored expanse of the Financial Times, a paper Diana has read maybe twice. Evidently there is some terrible worldwide banking crisis going on that she has been too self-involved to notice. Dan for the most part looks out the window into the river-doubled brilliance of a day without clouds.
“Some flowers came this morning,” he says. “From your editor guy.”
Diana hears no suspicion in his voice. Even so, she is impressed and guiltily pleased by Oliver’s audacity.
“I haven’t asked,” Dan says. “Did you ever send him another draft?”
Diana had all but forgotten the short story she showed Oliver. “I kind of abandoned that,” she says. “Kind of as in completely. I’ve been thinking about a novel. To tell you the truth.”
Dad lowers the paper and looks at her with mirthful skepticism. “Diana is writing a novel?”
An hour later she’s cleared by the surgeon to go. Dad waits outside the room while Dan, careful of her arm, helps her into her balloony dress. He steers her wheelchair through the dingy anonymous hallway, and inside an elevator finished in stainless steel like a medical implement the three of them descend to ground level. Diana anticipates a surge of relief on escaping the nonplace of the hospital into the humid tidal roar of the city. It doesn’t happen. Some alkaline residue of oblivion from the general anesthesia lingers unpleasantly on her soul all day.
Across the bridge in Brooklyn, Diana lets Dan bathe her. For now she’s incapable even of that. His erection, inside chinos, batters softly against her good shoulder as he scrubs. Like any boy, he dwells on her breasts. “Take it out,” she says, perhaps exchanging charity for charity. She reclines in the cooling water until the semen, not unlike hand soap, has squirted onto her chest.
At three he leaves for work. Diana sits on her divan, then paces about the living room with her arm in a sling while the afternoon expires. Unusually, she can’t even read. Everything repels her identification. This writer is too much a bad girl, and that one’s heroines, so lucid and retrospective, know too distinctly how they feel. It seems that nothing would satisfy her except for a sympathetic, stern book about a woman just like her. The woman would be intelligent but no genius. Sexually she is neither wild nor demure, only erratic and intense. Morally, we see her recent bad acts but also sense, let’s hope, some basic goodness. (The backstory might allow how she nursed her mother, or weighed each line of Adam’s book, or went door to door in Florida in 2004 for useless John Kerry.) Nor is our heroine’s life any great disaster yet. She has the protections of her class and nationality, her education and relative youth. Nothing too momentous is even going on, except that by imperceptible degrees her life miscarries.
There is a kind of sickness in failing to act the moment you know. Yet because it would be crazy to blurt out: This needs to end, the first time it occurred to you, you wait. Only, having failed to honor your insight at its annunciation, why act now? Life always obliges cowards with an excuse. Dan’s birthday is next week, you tell yourself. Or: Tonight is opening night. Or: I need someone to take care of me the first few days.
Don’t spoil it, you think. In this way your life swiftly spoils.
On officially the last night of summer Francesca comes by with a potted orchid and fancy-looking bottle of wine. There is something queenly about injury or illness. People pay visits, bring gifts. Already Oliver has dropped by with some books.
She hands over the corkscrew, her right hand unfamiliar with its leading role. “I’ll let you open it.”
“To your recovery,” Francesca says, when the glasses are full.
“Oh but . . . To your film! Your movie!”
Francesca’s second documentary is about women, some of them actual nuns, who have chosen celibacy.
The idea is inconceivable to Diana. A joint women’s studies/English major in college, she dislikes remaining so boy-crazy at 32.
The Spanish red is sort of cruelly good. Francesca is a generous friend. Success in lots of ways probably improves your character.
Diana says: “I told you I’ve loved reading the reviews.” This is even true. Envy is not her sin.
“Oh . . .” Francesca’s tone is perfect, not proud, not humble.
“I’ve always wanted an orchid.” Also true. Though they are sinister. This one has a solitary milk-white blossom with a scooping mouth like an adder’s.
“You look gorgeous,” Francesca is saying. “I think you should always wear unstructured things and no bra.”
“I can’t wear a bra unless somebody else puts it on. The gown is Mom’s. There’s this one and a sort of a peach-colored . . .”
“Ooh, Flaming June.” The reference escapes Diana. “Can I see you in that?”
Upstairs in the bedroom Francesca slips her out of one silk gown and into another. She has Diana turn a slow circle. “That is stunning. Don’t ever leave the house.”
Diana sits down on the bed.
Francesca joins her. “Oh Diana what’s the matter?”
“I think I want to leave — or to have Dan leave me, the apartment. I don’t know how to explain it to him.”
Francesca has this wonderful slow way of blinking that seems to clap your condition into her mind. “Just say how you feel, maybe. Tell him the truth.”
“Which is what, though? Was I in love — do you remember? — or did I just go: Handsome? Check. Doctor? Check. Kind, funny, smart? Check check. And after I spend so much time pretending I’m an individual . . .”
“Dan is very handsome.”
Diana laughs. “Maybe men have taught us to pay too much attention to looks.”
“We shouldn’t blame boys for too much.”
“It’s so hard to blame them in just the right amount.”
Francesca blinks away the comedy. “Maybe just say you don’t love him. If you don’t. It’s the one thing that always works. I know from both sides.” Francesca is almost four years older. “You can’t discuss ‘I don’t love you.’”
“You’re wise,” Diana says. “When did that start to happen?”
Alone again, later, she tries to think clearly. From Mom she inherited enough that through a combination of investment income, as Dad and Sam call it, and part-time work — and she does have grant-writing experience — Diana could probably live decently, on her own, in Brooklyn, for an indefinite period of time definitely shorter than a normal life span. Or she could stay with Dan and have kids and let herself depend to an extent, forever after, on what will surely be his good salary. She might even write for a few hours in the morning, and who could say for sure that she’d be only a dilettante? That would be a reasonable course, and Diana is sure of nothing except that she will not follow it.
“You never drink whiskey,” Dan tells her as she’s pouring some in a tumbler.
Out of cowardice or compassion she has postponed the necessary conversation until the first of his nights off. This will give him almost forty-eight hours before returning to the hospital.
“I know.” The taste is both too sweet and too harsh, but the idea and color of Scotch promise some helpful recklessness and stoicism she must have bought into.
Dan replaces the olive oil on the shelf and Diana motions him to the couch. She meets his eyes. “So I’m not sure how to say this.”
He looks straight ahead, like a driver returning his eyes to the road.
We all know, Diana thinks. We know everything all along.
“Will you get your legs off me?” he says, with a shove.
Her feet drop to the floor. “I’m sorry.” Haltingly, as if awkwardness might vouch for sincerity, she says she doesn’t know what has happened, but she feels constrained around him. With an effort, she says that the relationship hasn’t seemed to know how to accommodate either her pride in herself or her . . . She should maybe call it shame.
Dan is unimpressed. “Uh huh.”
“Or by pride I mean more like belief in my life.” Dan probably thinks she’s intellectualizing. “I guess I hear that I don’t say our life. That seems important.” There needs to be some ritual protocol for breaking up — you just cut a ribbon in two, or put sunglasses on indoors — so we don’t all have to keep doing this.
Silently Dan is working up something to say. Diana is struck by the lability of the present moment. Things could still go a few different ways, and she hasn’t even been sure whether she will mention Oliver until she is saying out loud that she has cheated on Dan, several times, with the same person, since May. (In fact things started in April.)
Dan lets the admission hang in the air. “Fuck you,” he says with decision, almost his first use of these words with her. They have both been too polite. “It’s that guy Oliver would be my guess?”
Diana nods miserably. She half expects to be slapped, as in an old film. But Dan merely gets up from the couch and starts toward the stairs.
“I don’t love him,” she calls out.
He turns around. “Of course not. I’ve met the guy.” He is climbing the stairs. “You used condoms I hope? He seems like he might be a rich source of STDs.”
“Of course.” Maybe by concealing something she meant to convince herself she had inner riches to hide: “I don’t know why I did it!”
Upstairs in the bedroom Dan has taken a carry-on bag from the closet. Diana is still attempting an explanation: “I think I just wanted — oh it’s like because it wasn’t the kind of thing I would do I almost felt like I wasn’t doing it at all . . .”
“Fascinating.” He is tossing T-shirts and underwear into the suitcase. “Maybe put it in your novel.”
“Don’t be mean.”
“You have no experience of mean.”
When she asks where he’s going to go, he says: “I have a bunch of friends. Whose numbers I have in my phone.”
“You can stay here while I’m gone.”
“Where are you going?”
It seems that unconsciously she’s known for weeks. “I want to go back to the Vineyard.”
“Not with — ”
“I mean for a while. Alone.”
Before long Dan is zipping his bag. “I’ll give you a call up there.”
“You’re being so dignified!” It is almost a complaint.
“Just to be clear . . .” There is the start of a crack in his voice, which he plasters over. “I don’t know if cheating is the deal breaker.”
After a moment Diana says: “What is?”
“Nothing. For me.” He smiles slightly, unbearably. “I’m not going to tell you right now what I’m pretty sure I still think about you. I’m pissed. Yeah. Very. But.”
Inconveniently, the mystery of what she felt at the beginning is dissolving as the broad familiar back dwindles down the stairs. She hears the door shut, with ordinary force. Once on the Vineyard, years ago, she was driving to the bakery at maybe seven-thirty in the morning and saw a boy of maybe 10 in an enormous T-shirt walking beside the road in the opposite direction with tears streaming down his face. When she calls Dan’s cell, he doesn’t pick up. Her fingers pecking out from the sling, she texts a plea to come back. She hasn’t yet hit SEND when she notices the smoke.
Oil in the sauté pan is popping and hissing downstairs, and she runs down the stairs, pulling the blanket from the couch and draping it from the crown of her head to her waist. She approaches the stove and from her woolen shield extends a clumsy hand to turn off the flame and switch on the fan. The windows are all open already.
When Dan returns her call, she won’t in fact say: Come back. And because she is alone now she doesn’t need to know why.
She and Dad have decided to meet halfway, in hideous Chelsea, where it’s like the glass-walled condominiums have sprouted up from the ATM-terraria of the bank branches on the ground floor. Inside the restaurant everyone is shouting over the shouting of others, in a parody of enthusiasm.
“On the Vineyard you need a car,” Dad yells. “And for driving you need hands! How will you go there, Diana? I suppose your thumb works to hitchhike!”
She halfway shouts that her friend Oliver Green will drive her. In truth she hasn’t yet asked this favor.
“And this nice boy will stay to be your chauffeur?”
She will walk to town for what she needs, she says. She’ll take a backpack for groceries.
“Do you know in New York that they deliver the food?”
“I need some time alone.”
“A one-armed girl on an island — that’s really alone!”
She boasts that Oliver will not only drive her to the ferry but in a few weeks bring her back to the city. She asks whether Dad saw the profile that ran in the Style section last year. She must want to show off some prestigious man’s devotion to her. But either Dad hasn’t understood the question or is baffled to be thought to consult the Style section.
“This boy sounds like a very good friend. Or a very reasonably priced driver. Not a boyfriend?”
“Of course he’s not a boyfriend. Dan and I just broke up.”
Dad shrugs with his eyebrows, while chewing, and Diana is somewhat offended on Dan’s behalf that her father can so lightly discard him.
“I thought we were re-entering the Great Depression,” she shouts. Dad doesn’t understand. “It’s so crowded,” she explains. “And expensive.”
“Shouldn’t the last supper be tasty?” In fact, he tells her, it’s not so ruinous, the family’s finances could be worse. “We lose nothing until we sell! But I sold. Some. Of you too. I wanted to tell you face-to-face. Don’t call me half the man I was. You can say three quarters.” In spite of the jokes, he is apologizing. Apparently Diana’s assets have shrunk in a similar proportion.
“Would we ever think of selling Mom’s house?” she asks.
“No one wants to think of it.”
Oliver opens the door to his apartment with smoke leaking from an upturned corner of his mouth. “Helplessness does suit you,” he says. Long and pale in skinny tailored clothes, with a blunt bald skull and a wall-eyed expression behind plastic frames, he is jointlessly smooth in his campy sophistication and charm. “I’d be your footman anyway.” He actually winks at her. “But with the sling?”
Facetious flattery should not be effective. Still, before her drink is finished he is snuffling her crotch with a suggestion of self-abasement that excites her more than the standard stuff that follows. Afterward, she turns aside and asks if Oliver would like to drive her to the Vineyard and stay for the long weekend. Right away she realizes her mistake. You ask this before, not after.
“What could sound better than a dirty weekend? But you’re my mistress. The magazine is my wife.”
“I thought I’d ask.” She is unreasonably hurt. “I don’t mind taking the bus.”
“I’m sorry, I know the bus is awfully proletarian for you.”
Diana goes hunting for her clothes on the floor. Resentful audible muttering isn’t like her. “Excuse me?” Oliver asks.
“I was just wondering,” she says, “if deprived of the contrast with Dan, you become a less interesting and sympathetic character.” Stepping into underwear held with a single hand is awkward. “I was thinking that you do.”
“What a strange thing to say.”
Her laughter and shrug feel sincere, and quite good. She doesn’t deprive him of a big kiss goodbye. Maybe everything you do is necessary.
Seated the next afternoon on the starboard side of a Peter Pan, with her old camping backpack stowed in the aluminum bay below, Diana leans against the window and through tinted glass, darkly, watches the tracts of roadside commerce, efficient, anonymous, and in the scheme of things ephemeral, thicken and thin, in great loose spasms, between the thrilling stretches of high indifferent green.
From a novel in progress.