A Woman Run Madby John L’Heureux
“Breathtaking . . . one of the most intense reading experiences I’ve had in recent memory . . . Impossible to put down.” –The New York Times Book Review
John L’Heureux is a consummate stylist and entertainer and in A Woman Run Mad, he delivers a novel that is part comedy of manners and part psychosexual thriller. Blocked writer, accidental scholar, inattentive husband, all J.J. Quinn wants is peace, and he has gone to buy his wife an expensive handbag to accomplish it. As the bag in question walks out the door under the arm of a beautiful, aristocratic shoplifter, Quinn’s curiosity leads him deep into mystery and danger. The Shoplifter is Sarah Slade, a Boston Brahmin attempting to ditch a past as bloody as Medea’s. Compated to Quinn’s hypercompetent wife, Claire, the unhinged Sarah is an alluring breath of fresh air–but of course, Quinn has no idea of the Pandora’s Box he’s opened. Acclaimed by Newsweek as “witty and literate . . . Grand Guignol for grown-ups,” A Woman Run Mad is an unsettling, deeply satisfying novel.
“Breathtaking . . . one of the most intense reading experiences I’ve had in recent memory . . . Impossible to put down.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Unless you have no interest in passions, the edge of madness, forbidden obsessions, runaway libidos and dangerous desires, A Woman Run Mad will fascinate you. . . . A thinking man’s Fatal Attraction.” –Chicago Sun-Times
“Normality – as our time understands the word – and monstrosity are L’Heureux’s poles, and he joins them with extraordinary dexterity. . . . The ending is not to be revealed.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A superior suspense story . . . that might well have appealed to a writer like Patricia Highsmith, a drama of interlocking obsessions.” –The New York Times
“What a wonderfully hideous, gruesome, grueling horror-marathon of a book! A cross between a Henry James novel and the Texas chain saw massacre. I loved it.” –Carolyn See
“Terrifying and disturbing. Will keep you turning the pages late into the night.” –Cosmopolitan
“[A] master storyteller . . . [L”Heureux] is elegant, cunning, and wickedly funny . . . a shocking, shocking denouement.” –The Washington Post
“A Woman Run Mad had me in thrall all the way. L’Heureux has written a taut, terrible story and done it superbly, mixing intelligence and wit with a strong dose of the macabre.” –Maxine Kumin
“A wicked and wickedly good novel to read . . . It’s about the wages of sin and everyone knows what those are. . . . L’Heureux is a wild man who takes narrative risks few writers dare even consider, and pulls them off.” –Milwaukee Journal
“It is L’Heureux’s literary skill that brings together these seemingly unrelated insights into horrifying conjunctions. . . . L’Heureux serves notice that, pagan or not, modern man ignores at his peril the truths about human nature that lie behind traditional Judeo-Christian values.” –Newsday
“An intelligent, captivating suspense story that leads to a frightening ending full of passion and surprise.” –San Jose Mercury News
“More than merely a tale of good against evil, A Woman Run Mad is an intellectual thriller and a good book for a rainy evening.” –The State
“Some books ought to include warning labels on them to alert readers that once they are sucked in by the good writing and the crisp plot, at least in this case, they’re going to be walloped emotionally in the end. A Woman Run Mad is such a book.” –Palo Alto Weekly
“A stunning climax. We alternate between wanting to read faster to get to the end and wanting to read slower so that we won’t.” –Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Needle-sharp . . . A wicked, witty novel that is both introspective and exhibitionistic. Seemingly quiet and controlled, the story slides surreptitiously along, compelling and shocking the reader all the way.” –Topeka Capital-Journal
“The damned thing is amazing. . . . Question: Is there any rule L’Heureux doesn’t break? Answer: Probably one or two. But it doesn’t matter since he gets away with everything. He ought to be shot. We like our geniuses dead.” –David Bradley
A New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year
All Quinn wanted was a little peace. And some money, a lot of money. And a job. And to write a novel that would make all those smug bastards at Williams choke with envy. Fame and money, that’s what he wanted. But right now all he wanted was a little peace.
He and Claire had fought again last night and went to bed mad. When he got up this morning–late, because after their fight he’d had a few more drinks–he found a note from Claire on the hall table. “I love you,” it said. That was all. So Claire was one up on him, and now he’d have to find that damned bag she wanted, and buy it.
Quinn was moping around Bonwit Teller looking for the handbag department or leather goods or whatever they called it. If he could just get that bag–brown, small, rectangular–and have it waiting for her when she got home at five, then they’d have peace again. It was a special brown, not reddish brown or cocoa brown or anything brown. It was chocolate brown–Godiva bittersweet–and the only store in Boston where you could find that brown was Bonwit Teller.
Quinn stood in the makeup section and looked around. Everywhere there were glass cases full of gold and crystal jars, tubes of lipstick, mascara, moisture creams, astringents, cologne. And everywhere the scent of expensive perfumes, mingling. This was a money store. The shoppers looked bored. The clerks were overdressed, made up like mannequins. The mannequins looked sexless, anorexic, poisonous. Quinn took all this in and decided the plain brown handbag was going to cost him a bundle.
And then, two counters away, he saw an array of handbags and right in the middle of them he spotted a small rectangular bag, Godiva brown, the exact thing Claire wanted. But before he could get there, this woman placed her hand on it proprietarily. She bent before a mirror on the counter and examined her lipstick. She pursed her lips, tipped her head from side to side. It seemed to take forever and the whole time she kept her hand on the bag.
Quinn stood beside her, at a discreet distance, and watched.
She gave the bag her full attention. She opened the flap and looked inside; she removed the tissue paper and closed the bag, holding it at arm’s length; she put it on the counter and caressed the leather.
She was going to buy it, Quinn decided, and looked around for another one in the same size and color. No such luck. And there were no clerks that he could ask for help. All the clerks were over in the makeup section, getting beautiful. Quinn glanced at the woman again.
She was trying the bag for size in her hand, weighing it. She tucked it beneath her arm. She opened it and put the tissue paper back inside. She tried it in the other hand. She was going to buy it, that was certain. But then she put it down and moved a foot or so away, interested now in something else.
Quinn edged along the counter a few inches closer to the handbag.
The woman bent over to look at a display of tiny beaded purses. She kept on looking. And looking.
Quinn decided to wait her out, the bitch.
But she never moved. She kept right on staring into the counter as if she were hypnotized by the gold and silver and purple beads.
To hell with her, Quinn thought, and moved in the other direction. He stepped behind a glove display where he could see without being seen. Of course. He knew the kind. Rich. Spoiled. Nothing to do but shop and meet for lunch and then shop again. She wore a tan linen dress, a little nothing Claire would say, that probably cost her hundreds. She was thin, emaciated almost, with long blond hair wound in a knot, and a horsey face that came from generation after generation of ancestors who married only the best stock. A Wasp face. No Catholic had a face like that. Quinn’s stomach filled with acid as he thought again, always, of those Williams bastards denying him tenure. They had the same faces, the same money. It made him want to kill.
She moved back, as he watched her, and touched the brown bag lightly. She picked it up, absentmindedly, and returned to her study of the beaded bags, bending before the counter.
Well, this was ridiculous. He would ask her directly, straight out, was she going to buy the damned bag or not? Because if she wasn’t going to buy it, he was, and he didn’t have all day. He wanted to get the bag and get out of Bonwit and get on with his life. He wanted a little peace; was that too much to ask? He came around the glove display and moved toward her just as she stood erect. Up close, she was much younger than he had thought, and kind of pretty.
She looked at him blindly, as if she saw somebody but not really him, and she gave him a frozen half-smile. Surprised, Quinn raised his hand to cover the scar on his lip, and then he took his hand away, quickly. It was an old habit, automatic whenever he was caught off guard, and he had grown to hate the gesture, and hate himself for making it.
He could feel himself blushing. In Bonwit Teller. In mid-afternoon. He indicated the beaded purses and, clearing his throat, he bent to examine them. Like a damned fool.
When he stood up, he discovered she was gone. He looked on the counter for the handbag, and saw that it was gone too. So she had bought it after all. But she couldn’t have. There was nobody at the counter to sell it to her. And anyhow, it took a good half hour to ring up a sale at Bonwit. Still, the bag was definitely gone. He looked around. Everything was just the same. There were some bored shoppers in cosmetics, a bunch of clerks becoming beautiful, a short man in a gray suit who seemed to be lost. But the Wasp had disappeared.
And then he caught a glimpse of her tan linen dress. She was three counters away, then four, five; she was moving toward the front entrance. She walked slowly, but with purpose, looking neither right nor left. She had the handbag beneath her arm.
For one second it occurred to him that she was stealing it, that she was a shoplifter. But of course that was impossible; she was beautifully dressed, her clothes were expensive, she was rich. The rich don’t shoplift.
She was approaching the entrance; in another second the thief-proof tag attached to the handbag would set off the alarm. Quinn stood, waiting. But nothing happened. There was not a sound. The woman pushed open the door and descended the stairs, disappearing from view.
Quinn took off after her. He walked quickly to the front entrance and–on the run–pushed open the huge glass doors. He skittered down the long flight of stairs to the sidewalk. He saw her at once, She was crossing Newbury toward Commonwealth, going toward the river. He started to jog after her, but at the corner the light was against him and he had to stop. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, anxious, sweaty. It was a very hot day. June, in Boston, was not a beautiful thing.
He saw himself saying, “Excuse me,” and then explaining about the handbag, and he saw her confusion and embarrassment, and he saw her smiling, grateful, saying how kind he was and how foolish she felt. And then? They would walk back to the store together to return the bag? Yes. And later have coffee. A drink. Why not. And they would get to know each other a little, and perhaps, sometimes, they would meet for lunch, a long lunch, with wine, a good white wine, and then perhaps they’d go back to her place and fool around a little bit.
Well, that’s how a real man would do it, Quinn figured. But not a wimp like himself. Not somebody who couldn’t even get tenure at Williams. Terminal Tweed Williams. He was a virgin, practically, if you didn’t count screwing Claire.
The light changed and Quinn trotted across the intersection, reaching the far side of the street just in time to see her turn left, going up Commonwealth away from the Public Garden. He continued to follow her at a distance as she crossed the Commonwealth greensward and kept on going toward Marlborough. Suddenly she turned right, going back toward the Garden again. She was making a square. He had nearly caught up to her when she stopped, unsnapped the bag, and tucked the tags and labels inside it. She continued along the sidewalk.
Quinn slowed down when he saw her conceal the tags, and he stopped in his tracks when he realized what it meant. She had taken the handbag deliberately. She was a shoplifter. He flushed again, embarrassed, and raised his hand to his lip. A man in a gray suit passed him, looking at him quizzically. Quinn only stood there, blushing, confused. The man in the gray suit stepped in against a wrought-iron fence and lit a cigarette. Abruptly Quinn made a decision: keeping a little distance, he continued to follow her.
And, at a little distance, the man in the gray suit continued to follow Quinn.
The woman had crossed to the left side of Marlborough, Quinn’s street, and he walked behind her, excited and a little confused. As he passed the old brownstone where they had their apartment–Claire had found it for them, Claire was paying for it–for just a moment Quinn saw himself as ridiculous, an idiot. Following a shoplifter. Snooping, really.
Claire had said once that when Quinn died, it would not be from natural causes; he would die because he’d got caught staring into somebody’s windows, not out of malice or prurience, but just to see how the table was set and how many people there were and what they were having for dinner. Claire had scolded, but she had been pleased; his curiosity was just another proof he was a born novelist. Claire was wonderful in her way.
And Claire would love this. It would be a story to bring home to her tonight, better than the handbag really. An adventure; something they could share, and laugh about, and talk about without having another fight: the Criminal Wasp from Beacon Hill.
The woman had turned up Mount Vernon Street now, the richest part of the Hill, and obviously–it would make the story perfect–she lived in one of those tall, skinny, breathtaking houses in Louisburg Square.
Quinn slowed his pace as he climbed the steep hill behind her. She crossed to the left side of the street and turned into the Square.
As Quinn watched, the woman went up a flight of stairs, felt in her pocket for a key, and without looking either way disappeared through the tall black door. Quinn walked quickly to the foot of the stairs and stood there looking up. There was a brass number 17 in the center of the door and, beneath it, a mail slot. But there was no name that he could see. He thought of going up the stairs when, suddenly, he became aware of someone standing behind him, to the side. He turned. It was the man in the gray suit.
The man took a long pull on his cigarette and tossed it into the street. He stared at Quinn. Quinn, flustered and guilty, stared back, watching the smoke the man blew at him in a thin gray stream.
“You want a blowjob?” the man said.
Quinn only stared, raising his hand to his lip.
The man took off his tie and undid the top button of his shirt. A gold cross hung at his throat, half-concealed by the black hairs curling around it.
“Well?” he said. “The choice is yours.”
Still Quinn said nothing.
“If you ever decide to come out, let me be the first to know,” he said, flashing Quinn a hard white smile. He pointed to a brass plate at the side of the stairs; 17-A, it said, and a little arrow pointed to a narrow stairway, leading down. ‘my name is Angie. Angelo.”
He continued to look at Quinn for another moment and then he turned and disappeared down the stairs.
Angelo closed the door and stood facing it, listening for footsteps on the stairs. A minute passed and nothing happened, so he took out a cigarette and leaned against the wall, waiting. He planned to give the guy as long as it would take to finish the cigarette, but after only a couple drags on it, Angelo shrugged, and went into the bedroom to get undressed. He stood close up to the full-length mirror and blew a slow stream of smoke at himself the way he had at that guy on the sidewalk, and then he said, “You want a blowjob?” He said it again, studying himself carefully. Well, it should have worked; it looked pretty good to him.
Angelo undressed quickly, not looking at himself; his face interested him, but not his body. He put on his pale green shorty robe, cotton, Cardin, not bothering to belt it. Then he dialed the number for Slade, Winthrop, and Slade, Investments.
By the time the switchboard operator gave him Porter’s secretary, Angelo was sprawled on the bed, pillows at his back, ready for a nice chat.
“Mr. Slade’s office,” a woman said. Angelo did not recognize her voice.
“I’d like to speak to Porter, please?” he said, adding, “This is Angelo.”
“And may I tell Mr. Slade what you wish to speak to him about, Mr. Angelo?”
“This is Angelo Tallino. I’m his brother-in-law. Just put me through, please.”
There was a pause, and then the woman said, “I’ll see if he’s in, Mr. Tallino.”
Almost immediately Porter was on the phone. “Angie,” he said eagerly. “Angie, hello.”
“What is this anyhow,” Angelo said softly. ‘since when do I have to give my I.D. to get through the secretary? This is a little bit more than embarrassing, Porter.”
“Angie, I’m sorry,” Porter said. “I’m really sorry about this. It’s a new girl we’ve got.” He lowered his voice. “Maria’s idea.” Maria was Angelo’s sister, Porter’s wife. Porter lowered his voice further. “Or maybe your father’s. I don’t know.”
“Why? What was the matter with Helen or Ellen. Ellen, I guess.”
“Well, you know.” There was only silence on the other end of the line. “Ellen was too… young, maybe. You know Maria. She worries.”
“You mean she thought you were fooling around? With the secretary? That’s rich, Porter. That’s funny.” Angelo laughed, and then laughed again. “You don’t think it’s funny? Come on, Porter.”
There was silence on both ends of the line and then Angelo said, “You’re busy? Okay. I’ll be brief. I’m calling because there’s a small problem with your sister again. A pocketbook. At Bonwit Teller.”
“Oh, God. Oh, my God.”
“Nobody caught her, don’t worry; there was no alarm-tag on it. But you should know she’s doing it again.”
“If you’d care to stop by after work, say five, five-thirty, we could talk about it with perhaps more privacy.”
“You know I want to. But Maria expects me””
“Maria will understand, Porter. Just tell her it was her baby brother you were seeing, not your secretary.” Angelo smiled, waiting. “It’s your choice, of course.”
“I’ll see you at five.”
“Yes, indeed.” Angelo hung up the phone and stretched, arching his back and pushing out with one leg and then the other. Good old Porter. Poor old Porter. He could never enjoy anything without feeling guilty about it.
Angelo yawned and, rolling to the far side of the big bed, he glanced through the mess of books on the floor where he kept his current reading. There was an old novel by Murdoch, a new one by David Lodge, Paul Bowles’ Collected Stories, Camus’ The Plague, which he was reading for the tenth time, and there were his old paperback Kierkegaards that he had decided to reread: Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, the diaries–his favorite reading when he was at college–The Present Age, The Works of Love, and The Concept of Dread. Beside these, in a neat pile, were his television magazines: People, Newsweek, The New York Times Book Review, The National Enquirer. He picked up Fear and Trembling and opened it at random. He read what he had scribbled in the margin. When? Eight years ago? Nine? ‘man is doomed to freedom.” He’d been with O’Brien then. He flipped the page and read, ‘man is doomed to the freedom of choice.” Choice was underlined twice.
From upstairs Angelo could hear the sounds of Sarah’s stereo, playing Schubert’s Winterreise. So she would be all right now, in a while.
Poor Sarah. He loved her in his way, but that way did not include the physical. He did not desire her. He desired her brother, Porter. He closed his eyes and saw Porter by the side of the bed, taking off his tie, his shirt, turning away a little to take off his pants. Porter was nearly forty, but he worked out three times a week, and all that iron-pumping had paid off. Angelo liked big men with good bodies. Blonds. Porter was all this, and shy as well. Angelo sighed, pleased. He was getting horny again. He was getting hard.
He put Fear and Trembling back on the floor and lay there on the bed, listening to the distant sounds of Schubert, waiting for Porter. In Porter he had chosen very well indeed.
Sarah Slade, on returning from her day’s shopping, had closed the door behind her and had gone immediately to the living room to stand in the bay window looking out over the Square. As she suspected, someone had followed her, but one glance told her that he was not Bonwit Security. Who was he then, this man at the foot of her stairs? He had his hand to his mouth so she couldn’t really see his face. Medium height, medium weight. He was average. He was nobody. As she watched, she saw Angelo approach him from behind. The man turned to look at him. Angelo said something and after a moment he took off his tie. Sarah knew well enough where this was going. She dismissed Bonwit Teller from her mind.
She had turned from the window then, and gone back to the entry hall, testing the front door to make sure it was closed, and she had started up the stairs. But suddenly she was exhausted, unable to move another inch. She sat down where she was, on the carpeted stairs, and waited for her strength to return. She had plenty of time now; she was almost done. A man on the street–Quinn, for instance–who happened to see Sarah Slade at the moment would have thought her a wealthy woman of thirty or so; well-groomed, well-dressed; perhaps a little retiring; a normal, ordinary, everyday resident of Louisburg Square.
A doctor, or even a social worker or a clever teacher, might notice that she was in something like a fugue state: her eyes were glassy and fixed, her lips slightly parted, her hands crossed, palms up, in her lap. If you spoke to her, she might not hear you. She seemed lost.
Angelo would have noticed–but Angelo knew, of course–that the real Sarah was gone, that she was traveling back in time to what she had once been for a few hours, for a day, for two days, when the shoplifting had been the least of it. But that was safely over now, and could not occur again. Ever. This was only a momentary setback, this temporary fugue state, a reminder to be careful. In a moment she would pull herself together, ascend the stairs, and sleep. And in the morning she would wake, once again the real Sarah–healthy and sane and practical. Angelo had been through all this before.
With a great effort, Sarah pulled herself to her feet and went back down the stairs. She le ned against the stereo for a moment and then flipped on the switch. Schubert’s Winterreise was already on the turntable and Sarah listened, expressionless, to the chaste opening bars. Then she went slowly up the stairs to her bedroom.
But on the landing she remembered about the handbag. She crossed the corridor to the spare bedroom, the one the nurse had occupied in the old days when Sarah had to have somebody with her all the time; it was her studio now, littered with paints and paintings and abandoned sketchbooks. She ignored the mess and went straight to the closet and pulled open the bottom drawer. Inside there were two other handbags, new, stolen; she let this one fall into the drawer with the others. She pushed the drawer closed with her foot.
She crossed the landing to her bedroom and, fully clothed, crawled onto the bed. She could hear the Winterreise playing in the room below. She fell asleep at once. She would sleep now all through the night, and when she woke, the memory of this day would still be there, but not the feelings or the compulsions. They would be gone–the way of shoplifting and shock treatments and things too horrible to remember.
Aunt Lily was standing at the side door waving good-bye as Claire backed the car out of the old lady’s driveway. “Have a nice bath!” she called.
Claire braked the car and rolled down the window. She couldn’t have heard right: have a nice bath?
“Quid?” Oh, dear. “What?”
“Haul it off!” Aunt Lily said, heading inside. “Get going or you’ll hit all the traffic on Ninety-three.” The screen door slammed behind her.
Claire pressed hard on the accelerator and the little Ford, spitting gravel, lurched crazily out into the street.
This had been their plan: Claire would spend weeknights at her great-aunt Lily’s home outside Hanover and her weekends in Boston with Quinn. From Aunt Lily’s, it was an easy drive back and forth to Dartmouth, where Claire was teaching for the summer. And living with her aunt would give Claire a chance to help the old lady with her shopping and cooking and cleaning. And of course she would be living free. Best of all would be the long weekends with Quinn in Boston.
Claire’s great-aunt Lily was a woman in her eighties, a little hard of hearing, but active as ever. She liked to do her own shopping, and she had never bothered with cooking, and she did not really see the point of cleaning. Moreover she didn’t need company, and didn’t much want any. Still, Claire was no trouble. And, as a matter of fact, not much company either: whenever she was home, she always seemed to be in the bath. But if Claire wanted to stay with her–free–on weeknights, that was okay with her.
Claire had been with her Aunt Lily for two weeks now, and on several nights when the old lady had gone to bed, Claire had taken a quick bath, popped her two No-Doz, and had driven down to Boston to spend the night with Quinn, getting up before dawn and driving back to Dartmouth in time to teach. The classes themselves were exhausting, direct-method Latin, taught as if it were a modern language that could be spoken. Her students were all high school teachers, ecstatic at the chance to study at Dartmouth and relentless in their demands on Claire’s time. She kept up a pace that would have crippled anyone, and she seemed to do it with ease. She managed, moreover, to look terrific all the time: relaxed and even glamorous for Quinn; trim and efficient and perfectly groomed for Dartmouth. Claire was indestructible.
Indeed, Claire had reason to pride herself on being indestructible.
As a fat, unlovely teenager, she had put herself through college, working half-time and caring for an invalid mother; her mother died a week before Claire’s graduation, and for a while it seemed that Claire herself would collapse. She had no reason to go on, she said; she had no one to work for. But with the help of her parish priest, she pulled herself together and went on anyway. Learning, the priest told her, could be an end in itself, a kind of salvation. Claire was not sure she believed him, but she had seen the alternative to going on, and she was not ready for that.
And so Claire put herself through graduate school at Georgetown. For five years she lived in a D.C. ghetto, ate at McDonald’s, dressed from Turnabout Shops, but at the end she got her Ph.D. in classics and landed more job interviews than anyone else in her class. When none of the jobs materialized, her adviser, a Jesuit who knew these things, leveled with her and told her she would never get a job, any job, as long as she was so fat. Claire recognized the sound of truth. She spent the next year working as home help for a dying old lady, meanwhile starving herself down to 135 pounds. That winter the old lady was still alive–indeed, she was flourishing under Claire’s expert attentions–but Claire found a replacement and took herself off to the MLA convention; she got three job offers and accepted the one at Williams College.
Claire had come into her own. She had a job and she had some money and, if she did not actually have friends, she at least had colleagues. Ravenous with hunger, she nonetheless kept her weight down and her spirits up and she was dynamite in the classroom. She had her entire department to dinner, in shifts. She said and did the right things politically. She worked on her book, publishing the first two chapters as articles. Tenure was a sure thing.
In Claire’s third year, J. J. Quinn joined the faculty. He was in the English Department and she was in Classics, but they met at the dean’s annual reception for new teachers, and at once Claire fell in love with him. She had never been in love before and so it did not occur to her that he might love her back. She was content to be with him whenever he wanted, and when he did not want to be with her, that was fine, too. So long as he was happy. Quinn, unaware of her feelings, responded very well to this arrangement.
They were the only faculty members who worked in their offices on Saturday and Sunday, and they began taking their breaks at the same time: at eleven in the morning, at three in the afternoon. They talked literature. They talked Williams. Eventually she found Quinn confiding in her: he could not bear to be called anything but Quinn; J.J., or John Joseph, or even John made him furious. They were names that screamed of the Irish immigrant, of ghetto Catholicism. “Of paranoia, of xenophobia, of hydrophobia,” Quinn said, his voice rising. Claire laughed, clenching her hands in delight, because she had never known anybody who could make fun of his own deepest seriousness. Quinn confided his plans to her: he was going to circumvent the scholarship requirement for tenure; he was writing a novel instead. And he told her, finally, how he felt about his lip.
The accident that scarred him happened on his fifth birthday. He was marching around the kitchen, blowing air across an empty Coke bottle to make a foghorn, and after a while his mother told him to go do that outside, go show your father. At the door there was only one step down, a cement step, and though it shouldn’t have happened, and–logically–couldn’t have happened, nonetheless it did. He tripped, the bottle shattered, and his upper lip was torn so badly he needed twenty stitches. The scar was hideous. At school the kids called him Bunny and Peter Rabbit and J. J. Quinn, the dog-faced boy. It was five years before he had the plastic surgery that repaired his lip. The scar was tiny now. “But apart from that, how was your birthday party, Mr. Quinn?” he said. She didn’t laugh. He told her that even now he sometimes felt as he had then. That he looked like a rabbit. A fool. He still had nights when he awakened and got out of bed and looked in the mirror, terrified of what he might see.
“But it’s beautiful,” Claire said simply, and meant it.
They went to poetry readings. To concerts. To films. It was late winter by the time Quinn began to notice that there were very few single women on campus. Or men. Anybody not married was gay, or thinking about becoming gay. He was lucky, he thought, to have this intelligent woman for a friend. Not a girlfriend, of course, but somebody to be with, to confide in. Somebody who cared. She was attractive in her way. And the most attractive thing about her was that she found him attractive. Nobody ever had. As the year went on, Quinn began spending evenings at Claire’s apartment, reading, then after a while having drinks, and–by spring–kissing and groping in a rather tentative way. This must be, he figured, how normal guys had spent their adolescence. Making out. Getting it on. Well, getting it on lay somewhere in the future, but for the first time he began to think it might be possible for him to interest some girl. Some nice girl. Gorgeous. Brilliant. Some day.
In summer Quinn left for London, ostensibly to research British attitudes toward American Catholicism of the late nineteenth century, but actually to work on his novel. He had decided to break it off with Claire. They were getting too serious too soon. Their relationship, whatever it was, had happened by chance; they didn’t really know anybody else; Quinn wanted to play the field. So a summer separation would be good, he told her. He could meet other girls, and in the fall he and Claire could start out on a whole new footing.
But his summer was a disaster. It was sweltering in London and he didn’t know anybody and suddenly the novel looked foolish. He went to plays, but going to plays by himself was a bore. He missed having somebody to talk to about the performance. He missed having somebody to meet for a drink. He missed Claire, he realized.
He left London a week early and returned to Williams College. Claire’s summer, he discovered, had been a triumph. She had completed her book, Enterprising Women: The Heroine in Euripides, and she had found a publisher. Princeton.
Quinn proposed to her and they were married at Thanksgiving.
In her fifth year Claire was promoted to tenure, and for the next two years she taught her classes, worked on a new book, and spent–it seemed to outsiders–all of her time shoring up Quinn’s notion of himself as a writer. He had abandoned the novel for the time being; he was going to do stories, he said. Claire typed them. She sent them out. She waited for the mail with hope, with despair. And when the stories were rejected, often with thoughtful cover letters, she complained with him, bitterly. The publishing world was a closed circuit, she said, a cabal. It was rotten. It was unfair. And when Quinn finally published a story–to everyone’s astonishment–in The New Yorker, it was Claire who Xeroxed it and put copies in all the faculty boxes. She carried on for months; it was a publishing event.
Nor did she care that they had become something of a joke to the rest of the faculty, who referred to them out of their hearing as ‘mr. and Mrs. Indignant.”
Through all this, they had grown closer. And as The New Yorker rejected Quinn’s next story, and his next, and his next, they grew closer still. They never fought. They never even disagreed. And Quinn, to his surprise, discovered that he loved her.
He depended on her for advice and approval. Her silence after reading one of his stories would send him into depression. Anything less than total enthusiasm convinced him he had failed. “You’re all I have,” Quinn said. “Without you, there’d be no point to any of this,” and he gestured at the English Department, at Williams, at the world. “We have each other,” Claire said. “We have everything.”
In his fifth year at Williams, Quinn was told that he had been denied tenure. He was distraught. He had seen it coming; he had even tried to head it off by applying for an NEH research grant–for a study, yet again, of nineteenth-century American Catholicism. He got the grant, and Williams was duly impressed, but still they denied him tenure.
Claire was ready with a plan of attack. Quinn wanted out. Out of Williams College, out of academe. And she could see the point to that. She proposed that they rent an apartment in Boston for the coming year; Quinn could work on a novel; she would commute on weekends. There was enough money, or almost. Her salary, his grant. And she had been asked to teach at Dartmouth during the summer. That would mean extra cash. They would have plenty. Would he do it? For her? For both of them? In a single weekend, she found the apartment at 65 Marlborough Street and moved them there from Williams. The building was an old converted brownstone, one apartment to each floor, and she had fallen in love with the little lobby and the winding stairway and the carefully preserved woodwork throughout. The apartment itself was large and luxurious, a foretaste of how they would live later, when Quinn’s book was done, when money”
But she knew that money was not the problem, not really. Something had happened to them, something she couldn’t explain. They fought a lot. She could never please him. He seemed to blame her for everything. Even when she agreed with him, she was wrong.
Well, she loved him, and that was all that mattered. They had each other. They needed each other. It was Claire and Quinn, Quinn and Claire. There simply wasn’t anything else.
She pressed harder on the accelerator as she hit Route 93. Aunt Lily had been right; the traffic was impossible. But Claire weaved her way artfully from lane to lane, fast and–as always–careful. She would be with her husband soon, her lover, her other half, her very life.
It was 6:00 P.M. in Boston and everyone was in bed. Claire and Quinn had just made love in their perfunctory way and were lying side by side, recovering.
“Wow-eee,” Claire said.
“Hello,” Quinn said, in his special voice. He knotted his right hand in her left and they lay in silence for a long while. Claire’s stomach grumbled and Quinn patted it with his free hand. “Poor tummy,” he said.
“I’m not even hungry,” Claire said. “How was your day? Did anything interesting happen? Did you work on your novel?” And then she bit her tongue.
This was just why they had fought last night: Claire had been insisting that Quinn should write his novel, that he had no obligation to the NEH people. Quinn had insisted that he couldn’t work on his novel because he had taken NEH money for research. They went round and round like this, until finally Claire had said, “But you aren’t doing either; do one or the other. Do something!” And by that time the fight was fullblown.
Now she had done it again.
The refrigerator clicked on, humming dimly in the kitchen, and a cat screamed somewhere outside. There was silence in the room.
“Yes,” Quinn said. “I wrote the first page. A page and a half.”
“Oh, sweetheart, sweet adorable thing, I’m so happy for you. Oh, I’m glad. Quinn, that’s wonderful. That’s just wonderful.”
And so he had lied to her, for the first time, ever. He had not told her about going to Bonwit Teller, about the criminal Wasp, about following her home to Louisburg Square. He had not told her what Angelo said; he would never tell her that. He had told her a lie.
Claire was on top of him, teasing the tiny scar on his upper lip with the tip of her tongue. She looked into his eyes with trust, with love. “Can I read it?” she said. “Will you read it to me?”
“Soon,” he said, “not now.”
“I’ll wait,” she said. “I can’t wait, but I will.”
She got out of bed and took a shower while Quinn lay looking at the ceiling.
He had lied to her.
How easy it was.
In another world, distant from Quinn and Claire by no more than half a mile, the clock struck six in Louisburg Square. Porter, propped on his elbow, gazed at Angelo’s perfect profile and said, “I am the luckiest man in Boston.”
“In the world,” Angelo said.
Porter ran a finger across Angelo’s brow, and then down the length of his nose, and then across his lower lip. Angelo nibbled at his finger.
“Oh,” Porter said. “Oh, Christ.”
Angelo continued to nibble at the finger, then he licked it, and then he nibbled it again. Porter moaned. Angelo went on nibbling. ‘ready?” he said.
“Please,” Porter said, feeling the darkness close in on him, feeling Angelo’s busy tongue tickle and thrust and manipulate him in ways that still astonished him. Finally he came, with a short deep cry, strangled almost, and then with a long series of gasps. Angelo was gasping, too, and afterward they lay in silence, Angelo’s head on Porter’s chest as he listened to the wild racing of his heart.
“What are you thinking?” Porter asked.
Angelo laughed quietly. He had been thinking of Kierkegaard’s “Anguish of Abraham.”
“What?” Porter said. “Tell me.”
“I was thinking of what perfect shape you’re in. I was thinking of your perfect body.”
Porter leaned forward and kissed the top of Angelo’s head. “We’ve got to get down to business,” Porter said. “We’ve got to talk about Sarah.”
Upstairs, two stories above them in the ancient house on Louisburg Square, Sarah lay on her bed, fully clothed, while the stereo turned and turned in silence, the Winterreise having played itself out. Sarah slept the sleep of the dead, or so she had once described it to her psychiatrist.
She was dreaming. And in her dream she ran, naked, through the rain. And the rain was blood.