Among the Deadby Michael Tolkin
“Forceful . . . moves forward relentlessly like a very commercial film or a very hungry shark.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
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‘stunning . . . provocative . . . a terrifyingly beautiful book.””Albert Mobilio, New York Newsday
Michael Tolkin’s acclaimed second novel, Among the Dead, is an arresting examination of public and private grief in the wake of unspeakable disaster, a slow-burning tour de force of psychological fiction.
When Frank Gale writes a passionate letter to his wife confessing an affair, he hopes all can be forgiven on the warm beaches of Mexico. But the farewell kiss of his girlfriend causes him to miss the flight carrying his wife and daughter, and when he learns that their plane has crashed in a crowded city, his life changes in the course of seconds. Soon Frank’s letter is discovered among the dead, and suddenly one man’s struggle to comprehend his loss and grief becomes consumed in a media circus of legal drama, family quarrels, and public scandal.
“An amazing novel . . . startlingly original . . . morbidly amusing . . . truly terrifying.” –Allen Barra, Los Angeles Times
“Forceful . . . moves forward relentlessly like a very commercial film or a very hungry shark.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
‘serious . . . chilling . . . nightmarish . . . terrific . . . a necessary shot in the arm for literature.” –Fay Weldon, The New York Times Book Review
‘stunning . . . provocative . . . A terrifyingly beautiful book.” –Albert Mobilio, New York Newsday
“A harrowing novel of alienation . . . Among the Dead brilliantly and chillingly explores the interior life of a man estranged from his work, family, and society.” –Carol Anshaw, Chicago Tribune
“Vivid . . . nightmarish . . . A pungently witty and entertaining read . . . A perceptive denunciation of contemporary life . . . Tolkin proves himself a master of black comedy.” –Francis Stead Sellers, The Washington Post Book World
A Long Lunch
The night before everything changed, Frank Gale wrote a letter to his wife. She was asleep in the bedroom, upstairs. There were so many things he wanted to tell her, but in a certain way, the right way.
Before he thought of saying it all in a letter, he had thought of taking her to an expensive restaurant and telling her at dinner. Was there ever, he thought, a plan with more drama or elegance? The attention to the details of the evening would require from him such concentration that he would enter a state of pure meditation, without fear, without stage-fright, in which nothing he said would be awkward or out of place, and by the example of his grace in this terrible situation his wife could only forgive him. They would hire a babysitter for Madeleine, and he would reserve a quiet table, or a booth. They would drive to the restaurant, and he would gently ask Anna questions about her day. He would be nice to her.
How else but through the right performance of mundane actions could he hide how uncomfortable the pressure of his feelings made him, when Anna, so sensitive, would know something was wrong? Unless he solicited her feelings, she would ask him what the trouble was. If he were to let Anna see his unhappiness, this would provoke from her a flow of understanding and compassion, and then he would be tricking her away from the right to be angry without constraint.
But there were problems with setting the confession in a restaurant. What if his trance broke, and he hesitated in the middle of a sentence? Anna would wake up and suddenly realize what he was saying, and what if she screamed at him? How much farther away from her mercy would he have pushed her? He wanted to be fair to Anna. If she needed to be angry, and he knew she would, he wanted to help her. She needed to be someplace where she could expel her grief and her rage without hurting herself, or anyone else, where the humiliation would have no audience. When he had the brilliant idea of taking her to Mexico, he had at first pictured telling her while they were walking on the beach, where the sand would slow her down if she wanted to run from him, or even on a late afternoon swim in the ocean. Madeleine would be with a Mexican babysitter, one of the maids working for a few extra dollars, a grandmother. Frank would take Anna for the swim, and then, bodies attending to the business of floating, their minds and their emotions at a gentle null, Frank would say what was finally impossible not to say. But the water would hardly give Anna the advantage. Why force her to swim and listen to him at the same time? What if she choked on her unhappiness, what if she drowned while he was telling her? And what was that advantage? And why did Frank want to concede the advantage? Because he wanted to be fair. And justice demanded of him that he concede to Anna her right to leave him, never to see him again. And when it came to him that he should write a letter, he had the answer to his problems.
For a few days he composed it in his head, and it made him think of Mozart working out a symphony before taking up a pen, and he felt great peace, the relief of someone who has given up fighting for a bad idea. For how long had he been so sick of himself? When he considered how close he had come to confessing in a restaurant, he could have fainted from the shame of what he had almost done, as if he had done it, as if the impulse to make this piece of theatre for himself and Anna so demonstrated this basic moral weakness that acting on it or not made no difference, since someone heroic would never have such stupid thoughts flitting across the mind. How can you hope for a reconsecration of your marriage if it begins with your wife’s public humiliation? The restaurant confession would force Anna to behave in a well-mannered way; she couldn’t scream or cry if she felt the wound deeply. The meditative grace that he had planned for himself would have been a weapon. And while swimming? No, the water is another kind of manacle. And so the letter. And nothing could be more dignified, nothing could better protect her dignity, or his, than an elegantly composed letter, handwritten, not typed. Out of the decision to write the letter it came to him that there was only one way to deliver the letter. He would let Anna read the letter while he took their three-year-old daughter for a walk on the beach, or into the town to buy her something. When Anna read his letter, she would be alone in a hotel room, she could react however she wanted. She could leave, she could stay, the choice was hers. She could break every window in the room, she could tear the sheets with her fingernails, she could throw his clothing into the hall, she could smash the mirrors and she could burn the carpet, and then, because he would make no protest, she could see that he loved her, and she could forgive him.
After he knew he had to write a letter, he knew that if the letter was true they would need time to recover from its effect, which would be to push her away from him. Mexico would heal them. There would be a moment, a few days after the letter, when she would look at him and say, “I love you,” and she would mean it, and he would say, “I love you,” and it would all be over.
He had alarmed Anna with his frantic enthusiasm for this trip. There had been vague talk about going away, and then, with three days’ warning, Frank showed Anna the tickets.
For six months Anna had told him that she felt an empty space in the house whenever he came home, and that he was becoming mechanical in all of his attentions and responsibilities. She would wake him up and tell him about her bad dreams in which she saw him with other women, or with another family, and he would help her analyse the dreams in a carefully thoughtful way. For some time Frank had been unhappy at work, and with his wife’s encouragement he had pursued an early ambition, to produce records. He told Anna that her dreams of other women showed her ambivalence about this pursuit, since success in the music industry would probably lead to temptations he never had to confront running the business he shared with his brother.
“You have to tell me the truth,” she would say. “It isn’t fair to me if you don’t.”
Then he would lie to her. “The dreams about other women are symbolic,” Frank told her. “You’re worried I’ll be married to the music business.”
This would keep her calm for two or three days, and then she would say to him, “I think I’m going crazy. I feel paranoid about everything and everybody.” He recommended therapy. He told her that he loved her.
It hurt him every time he denied her intuition, and he wanted to throw the whole problem at her feet and beg her to help him with this demon that made him cheat and lie, but he didn’t want to take from Anna the right to be the one who was hurt. He could so easily say, “Help me, Anna, help me get over this disease which makes me do nothing but tell lies.” Against the impulse to degrade himself, he felt sucked down by a terrifying weakness, which he took to be the first tremors of the muscular dystrophy that waited for him if he continued to steal the attention from his wife’s right to hate him. Unless he could tell her the truth in the right way, so Anna could hate him, so there would be no other issue than his lies, and not his feelings about his lies, he would rather keep on lying. How could he confess without pride? How could he make amends? Each lie gave Anna more reasons to punish him, but what punishment could erase the memory of the fun he and Mary Sifka had ripped from each other’s bodies? Unless she left him, he wondered what she could do to him that would finally make him feel the pain he had caused his wife.
He sat at his desk and took out his diary. This was not a journal of events, but each day he tried to write down a few words that summed up whatever the day had meant to him. He hoped, some day, to go back through the diary and fill in the spaces between the words, but as time passed he usually forgot whatever it was that had inspired him to write down whatever words he had written down. Yesterday he had written, HOPE BRIGHTER LETTER. Now it was time to write the letter itself. He would compose it in the notebook, and then, when it was ready, he would copy it on to a note-card he had bought at the County Museum’s gift shop. It was a Mexican painting, of a woman carrying a basket of flowers. He began:
Dear Anna,This is difficult.
Or is that already begging for mercy?
I’m on the beach now. I know you’ll be upset when you read this.
Still not direct. Don’t presume to know her feelings. Maybe she’ll be relieved. Maybe she’s been having an affair and can at least leave me, now that the masquerade is over. Do I believe she is seeing someone else? She would have to be a better actor than I am, and I don’t think she is.
I love you. You asked me why I was so desperate to take this vacation and I said that I needed to get away from the office for a while, and that’s true, but there’s more. For a few months
No, this was a denial, a few is not enough; he had to tell the truth.
For six months you’ve noticed that I’ve been distant, and I have been. I had an affair. It’s over now. Completely. I wanted to take this trip so that we could find a way to heal ourselves. I don’t know how you’ll take this, and all I can say is that I beg you to forgive me, but if you don’t want to, I will understand.
He crossed out the last sentence. Somehow he thought the letter was stronger if he didn’t ask Anna for anything. Saying that he didn’t know how she would take the news implied that he had already anticipated a set of possible responses. If she studied the sentence and the letter with the intensity with which it was written, how could she miss the strategies that lay behind each measured word? He wanted her to think that the letter came out of his heart, quickly, a confession for his heart alone, not for hers. If he left off the last sentence and ended with the two words “heal ourselves’, how could she feel anything for him but pity? In the “heal ourselves’ was a plea for his wife to join him in work they both needed to do. The subtle gravity of that phrase pulled his wife, her behaviour, her attitude to him, into the reasons for the affair. So he was that much more sure that he should drop the plea for her understanding. In “heal ourselves’ he forced her to be his equal. The sacrifice of those two words granted her a position superior to him. Would she appreciate the gift? Perhaps some day, he thought, I can show her the early drafts of this letter. No.
He knew that Anna’s first question was going to be, “Who was she?” or, more likely, “Who is she?” He couldn’t say, “That doesn’t matter, it’s over now,” because of course it did matter. Unless he gave her the answer to the question without her provocation, how could he defend himself against the charge that he was protecting the other woman, and if he was protecting her, how could he say the affair was over? He went back to the letter and copied it over one more time, keeping the sentence that ended with “I will understand …” Now the letter read:
I love you. You asked me a few weeks ago why I was so desperate to take this vacation and I said that I needed to get away from the office for a while, and that’s true, but there’s more. For six months you’ve noticed that I’ve been distant, and I have been. You asked me if there was another woman, and I said no, but I was lying. I had an affair with Mary Sifka. It’s over now. Completely. I wanted to take this trip so that we could find a way to heal ourselves. I don’t know how you’ll take this, and all I can say is that I beg you to forgive me, but if you don’t want to, I will understand.
He reread the letter and cut out the word “completely” because the emphasis, the word as a sentence by itself, called attention to his style, it was a useless rhetorical flourish. If he’d already said that the affair was over, how could the word “completely” help him? Either it was over or it wasn’t, and if it was over, then it was over completely. Satisfied with the letter, he took the note-card out of its envelope. The card opened sideways, like a book. The other card he had considered, of a Rothko, two large fields, one black, one muddy red, above a smaller field, dark green, had opened from the bottom, to rest like a tent on whatever mantel where it found a home, and now he wished he had bought that card, since it would have been easier to write from the top of the card to the bottom, instead of on the two sides of this card. And the choice of the Mexican art now seemed sentimental and predictable, although at the time the Rothko, with its brooding sense of something final, seemed to him also pretentiously serious. Wasn’t he giving Anna flowers? And a woman. She would think about the woman, and her burden. But he didn’t want to write across the two sides. If he wrote carefully, and slowly, and if he didn’t dedicate the letter to her, ‘dear Anna”, but just began at the top of the card, with narrow margins, then the letter could fit on one side.
Something in the letter made him happy as he copied it. He was pleased with the choices he had made, and if the care he took meant that he hoped to tilt Anna’s attention away from his adultery towards something general, something about the two of them, he was sure that she would know that he was, finally, sincere. It was important that Anna not stumble over a single word trying to make sense of his writing. Usually he wrote in a scrawl, but now each word was separately crafted.
When he finished copying the letter, he took the card upstairs.
He went to the bedroom and undressed. Anna always slept deeply. He was not afraid of waking her up. The luggage for tomorrow’s trip was open on the floor. He took his letter to her and slipped it into a pocket inside his suitcase.
He was thirsty and went back down to the kitchen. He drank from a bottle of grape juice, leaving enough for Madeleine. He wanted more and drank it, with the excuse that in the morning she could have milk or water, and her mother could buy her juice at the airport.
Then he regretted this theft, and he went upstairs, to see her sleeping. She was on top of the sheets, and her hair was damp. What made her sweat? he wondered. Dreams of exercise, or just the heat of growth?
Perhaps he should have written “heal the family”. Certainly he needed time not just with his wife, but with his daughter. He was afraid that she hated him. She was three now, but how long did they have before her character was so formed that part of it would always be made of contempt for her father? If it wasn’t contempt, it was something close to it, not all the time, but when he talked too much, say, if he drove through an area he didn’t know and stopped to look at the map, and he told her everything he was doing, she would tell him, from the baby-seat in the back, to stop talking. Whenever she told him to stop talking he could suddenly hear himself, and what he heard was the tiring drone of a bore. And if I sound like this to a child, he asked himself. No wonder I have so few friends. He talked so much to her because he thought she would like the comforting sound of his voice, and that she would grow up to be a better person if he paid her the respect of explaining what he was doing. He thought he was being helpful, a good father. She had no interest in his explanations of things.
He would look at her in the rear-view mirror, and he would see her distance from him, and he would tell himself that the little bit of detachment of hers in which he saw himself was a reflection of his detachment from his marriage. He blamed himself for what he thought would be the foundation of his daughter’s general misery when she was older, estranged from the world, unsure of love. She would finally understand, probably through a long and expensive analysis, how it was her father’s example, and the forces driving that example, that moulded her character.
Now she was asleep, and smiling, her favourite white teddy bear under her arm. Those seeds of future misery were tucked deep inside. What would he change in her if he could? A few times they had been to the mountains, and when they walked in the forest she screamed to be carried. She was happy only indoors, or on the beach. She was afraid of trees. It was a small fear, and he told himself all the obvious reasons why a child who loves to run through airports would hate the terror of trees, shadows, trails. She was born into a world of right-angles.
So was that all he despised in this daughter who despised him, her fear of trees? He was willing to say that he loved her hatred of him, a feeling so precocious that she might escape a family trait to hang on to people rather than to know when to leave, that she would become a woman who demanded respect. The trip to Mexico was as much to help him find a way to win her love as it was to win his wife’s.
He showered and then got into bed beside Anna. He rolled a leg over her hips, and when she didn’t move, not that he expected her to, he rolled away. But it’s the honourable thing, he told himself, to leave a space between us until she allows me into her embrace.
In all the months of the affair, he had never spent the night with Mary Sifka. She was the assistant to the insurance agent who handled the business that Frank shared with his younger brother, Lowell. Together they owned twenty music and video stores in California. Lowell was homosexual and had never been married, and because Frank had a family, and wanted to stay in Los Angeles, Lowell was in charge of the stores outside of the city. Although he kept a condominium in Santa Monica, now he was living in San Diego, where they had three stores. It was part of the family mythology that Lowell always went to the city with the newest stores because he was homosexual, and could more easily travel than Frank, but it was easier for everyone to agree on that story than on the truth, which had nothing to do with Lowell’s homosexuality. Lowell watched over the business’s expansion because he was the better businessman. Everyone knew this, but no one ever said it, because to admit this might allow everyone to reflect on Frank’s incompetence in business. It was possible that the family had accepted Lowell’s homosexuality because of the convenient excuse it gave for Lowell’s position. In a bad moment one night, when Frank came home after Lowell had yelled at him for some kind of mistake in the way he had managed an inventory, Frank wondered if he would have been a better businessman if he also had become homosexual, or whether Lowell would have been so good if he had been straight. But there are plenty of good businessmen who are straight, Frank cried to himself that night. And there must be incompetent homosexuals.
Lowell always took care of insurance, but on a day when Lowell could not fly back to Los Angeles and something had to be signed by one of them, Mary Sifka came to the office with the papers. She was married too. Her husband was a lawyer. She had no children. She didn’t want them.
Frank was in love with Mary’s bitterness. Had he ever kissed a woman with so clear a philosophy of the world? Anna was a casual optimist, like everyone he knew, and if she thought the world might end in her lifetime, she buried the idea quickly. Mary was different. He was ready to grant that her sense of global doom might not be the sum of an equation whose every clause represented logic and reason, and that the world wore the colours of her own dark spirit because the world had been brutal to her, but he didn’t want to diminish the achievement of her unhappiness by finding the location for her view of things in psychology, because he needed her to be smart and strong. He liked her because she had a dull job that she took seriously. She worked hard because she was afraid of falling quickly into a state of decay. She worked harder than he did, and they both knew it, and he paid himself in three months what she made in a year.
Now it was time to not love her. He would miss her, but the woman beside him was more important to him, and so was the little girl down the hall.
He went to sleep with the feeling that he had prayed, and in that meditation had made a true offering of his heart; there was nothing left. He had been generous.
The flight was at three in the afternoon. He was going to meet Anna and Madeleine at the airport. Anna asked him to take the day off, but he told her that since he was taking off a week and a half, he had to go to the office. He would take a limousine from the restaurant where he was meeting Mary Sifka.
At breakfast Madeleine asked to sit on his lap while he fed her cereal from his bowl. He thought about the breakfast the next morning, in Mexico, a big buffet with fruit, cheese and pitchers with fresh juices on a long table in the dining room of the hotel, one wall open to the ocean beyond. Madeleine would ask for jams and jellies, and he would let her have them, even though he tried to keep her from eating sugar at home. These treats would come in little stainless steel bowls, three or four on a rotating trivet, with little spoons. There would be other families at breakfast, and Madeleine would find, as she always did, a boy or girl three or four years older, and force this child to be her friend. The parents would talk, the usual chat about children’s ages, schools, habits good and bad, and Anna would make a date with them for dinner that night, both families together. After she read the letter, there would be no other families at the table, but he would allow her a day and a night before he gave her the surprise, before she knew about Mary Sifka. They would be in Mexico for a week and a half. He owed her one day of peace.
If she didn’t leave immediately, and he expected her to forgive him, there would still be two or three days of terrible sensitivity. Yes, and there was something even to be happily anticipated in the prospect of suffering, an exhaustion, a bath in strong feelings that would leave both of them raw, open, and then, with a little help of a few more good days, they might even be tender with each other. If Anna demanded proof of his love, he would tell her that it was time to have the second child he had always refused her. What more could he offer her? And when she asked him, when she told him to look her in the eye and promise fidelity, would he mean it, in his heart, what he promised? Or would he say, “I hope so’? And if he equivocated, no matter how much hope was carried on his sincerity, would that be too clever a way out of the pledge? If he wanted her forgiveness, if he wanted the marriage to last, he would have to swear his faith, and he knew that he would have to make this oath in the court of eternity.
Besides, he was tired of seeing his family through gauze. He wanted to be a man, and if being a man is doing more than what is expected, he would tell the truth. He would tell his wife the truth all the time, otherwise how could it be the truth? Something in the threatening power of this vow made him drunk; he saw himself standing on the mountain of truth, hands joined with the righteous. And then he felt the tug of a wonderfully happy thought, that the reward for this perpetual exposure, this unveiling, would even lead to an increase in their passion. Was that selfish? No.
He said goodbye to Anna and Madeleine after breakfast.
“Where are we going today?” he asked his daughter.
“Where are we going?” she said. They had shown her pictures of Mexico, and she had chosen the bathing suits she wanted to take.
“We’re going to Mexico,” he told her.
“We’re going to Mexico,” she said. Was she repeating what he said because she was learning to talk, or was she making fun of his condescension? He patted her on the head and then bent down to kiss her nose. He kissed Anna goodbye.
“I’ll see you at the airport,” he said, and he was out the door.
It was such a dreadfully mechanical moment, three robots brushing their electrodes for a data exchange. Everything will be different in a few days, he thought. We will be alive.
At work in the morning he spoke to his brother about their store in La Jolla, and whether the manager might be stealing. He looked at the plans for an expansion of their Palm Springs store. He spoke to a friend at a record company. These are the things I do during the day, he thought.
On the way to lunch he worried about what he would tell Mary. The affair had a boundary: Mary knew that he wasn’t going to leave his family for her, and he knew she wasn’t going to leave her husband. Why were they together like this? It continued for the excitement, he supposed. It was fun to be naked with a new person, but he pursued this affair with the same flat affect that he felt with his family. He was going through the motions of lust. He would have to tell her the truth just as he had to tell Anna the truth. If he lied to Mary, then whatever he told Anna would also be tainted by that lie.
Mary was already at the table in the restaurant. He thought that she looked ordinary and tired before she saw him. She was drinking a glass of grapefruit juice, or orange juice from yellow fruit, and he wondered if, knowing that she was going to hear him say what was inevitable, Mary had ordered something with vodka in it. She was staring at the table, and her skin looked loose on her face, but when she saw him, she smiled, and it bothered him to know that he made her happy. Her feelings for him made her beautiful. Of course, she was probably scared to be in public with him, even though this was not a restaurant where anyone from their lives usually went. They had never run into friends here. Once they had kissed at the table, but neither was happy when the kiss ended. Their fear of attention reminded them of their guilt. Had she thought of her husband at that moment? During the kiss he imagined his wife and daughter coming into the restaurant and seeing him with Mary Sifka. He probably did love her. But what could they do with that love? If he left Anna for Mary, and Mary left her husband for him, would they get married and stay together until they died? Or would they leave each other, and then end their lives with a third, or a fourth, marriage, or no marriage, end their lives single, alone? And could he leave his daughter?
He kissed her on the cheek and she didn’t seem to expect more. They ordered their food.
“When is your flight?” she asked.
“You’re cutting it close.”
“I’ll make it.”
“It should be nice there.”
“Yes.” It was dangerous territory under any circumstances: they didn’t talk to each other about their families; neither complained that home was insufficient. He didn’t really know anything about her husband.
He wanted the opening line to be right, but the impulse to say, “This is going to be difficult,” was almost impossible to resist. Maybe it was the right thing to say, and it was the truth.
“This is going to be difficult.”
“Oh dear.” She knew immediately what he wanted to tell her.
“I think …” He stopped. Already he was proposing the breakup in terms of a debate. If he thought they should break up, she could say that she thought they shouldn’t, and they could argue about it, and perhaps she could persuade him. There was no other way to say this quickly, and be done with it. He checked his watch, a gesture she observed, and now he was ruined for her, he had revealed to her his new attitude towards her, that she was an expedient, something in the way. Of what? His wife, or a new mistress, the woman who could be perfect, the woman he had not yet met.
“I’m going to Mexico so that I can connect with my family again. I’ve been feeling all wrong for the last few months. I love you, but I didn’t know how hard it is to split the heart between two women. Three if you include my daughter, and I do.” Writing the letter to Anna had given him a new sense of pleasure of words, and it was easy to talk, it was a pleasure to talk. He could have gone on, but it was only fair to give her a chance.
‘so it’s over? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I guess it’s for the best.”
“There’s no good way to end something that’s probably wrong to begin with.”
“I probably love you too, you know.” She said this defiantly, as though it was something he might have overlooked, her feelings, that he could hurt them, that she would miss him, that she needed him.
“What are we supposed to do?”
She smiled. She was letting go of him. “We’re supposed to say that it couldn’t have lasted for ever, we had fun, whatever it was that we needed we got, and now it’s time to eat, and not talk about it any more.”
The food was at the table. He asked for a sak”; it didn’t matter if he got a little drunk since he was taking the limousine to the airport. It was time for the vacation to begin.
They were so comfortable with each other that he thought they might now be able to continue as friends, but he knew that Anna would never permit this. Why not, though? No, the temptation would always be there. Would it, really? Yes. Was it there now? Yes.
It was time to say goodbye. The conversation drifted along. The relief he felt when she let him break it off and what had he expected, what scene, what tears? had followed its own course and now he looked at Mary and knew that he could leave her and not miss her. So perhaps he had not loved her either. The letter he had written to his wife, for all that he meant it as he put it in his suitcase, had been composed in a spirit of some fraudulence, since he had not yet told Mary Sifka that he was ending the affair. He should have broken with Mary first, because the letter, as he wrote it, said that the affair was over.
What if he had died of a heart attack in his sleep, last night, before he had been able to say goodbye to Mary, and Anna had found the letter? She would have assumed that he had said his goodbyes to Mary, but Mary would not have known about his change of heart unless Anna showed her the letter, and would Anna think of doing that, something so cruel, while she was grieving? Or would she show Mary the letter so she could understand just who it was she had shared a child with? But when would she have discovered the letter? It was in a pocket in his suitcase, not hers. If his heart had stopped that day, she would have unpacked the case, or someone else would have done the job, maybe his mother, and would they have found the card slipped into a pocket with nothing else? It might have stayed hidden for months, or longer, or for ever. Perhaps on a vacation years later, perhaps with a new husband. Perhaps she would remarry, and her new husband would pack the suitcase she had never thrown away, and at the hotel, when they got there, she would have unpacked both her suitcase and his, and found the letter. This was an interesting scenario, thought Frank. Anna reads the letter two years after I am dead, but does not realize the note is from me and thinks that her second husband is making this confession. She confronts him, she screams at him, and he says he doesn’t know what she is talking about. She shows him the letter. “But I didn’t write this.” “Then who did?” she says. “Look at the handwriting.” She looks. “Frank,” she says. “Frank?” he asks.
Perhaps she remembers a woman at his funeral who stood in the back, and lingered at the grave as the family walked away. And that was Mary Sifka. Does she remember when he had packed the suitcase?
Does she remember the trip to Mexico cancelled by my death?
But if she found it, he trusted Mary to behave well, not to embarrass him, even if he was dead. After all, this was why he had loved her. And his wife, when she found out about the other woman after he was dead? How could any woman, reading the letter he had written, not love him even more? He was happy that the letter was so careful and transparent. In a way, he thought, I should die now, tonight. Then I would fulfil my obligation to her, to make things right.
He said goodbye to Mary on the sidewalk. He wished now that he had, not now, but earlier in the affair, bought her something precious, a necklace or earrings. But a gift on parting would have been vulgar, a kind of severance pay. Yes, it was part of her attraction that she wanted nothing from him and anyway, how could she explain an extravagance to her husband? but now he regretted never having given her a relic, even something small and insignificant, for her to treasure secretly. So they had their memories. So be it.
She gave him a shy, patient smile, and when he saw that the moment saddened her, he hugged her and kissed her on the lips. His tongue left his mouth and flicked her teeth. So she was opening herself to him too. They stopped. He knew he was cheating a little, already bending his resolve to be pure for Anna for ever, but he decided to forgive himself. He would even tell Anna about this goodbye if she asked him; it was here that his problem, his weaknesses, could be brought into their life; after they had repaired the marriage, why couldn’t he tell her about his temptations and his struggles? He couldn’t expect himself, or he couldn’t imagine Anna expecting him, never again to look at another woman, or even meet a woman and fall a little bit in love, and have her fall a little bit in love with him. What was to be expected was self-discipline, and an eventual cessation of uncontrollable desire. Why that? Because as the years passed, and there would be years, the attention to only one person, the devotion to the other, would focus the heart, and in the end become an obsession. This would be love, he told himself, the great project of his life, now that he was rich, what other work was more important? Charity? Yes. I will give to good causes, thought Frank. And not only the popular charities. I will give money to the library. I will give to the poor.
It was two o’clock when he left the restaurant, and the traffic was slow. He hated himself for taking so long to say goodbye to Mary. And he could still taste her, still smell her. Well, if I get there just in time, Anna will be angry with me for almost screwing up, and she won’t want to kiss me, not on the mouth. She won’t taste Mary. She might smell her. He thought of asking the limousine driver to smoke, to cover Mary Sifka’s scent, but he would have had to leave the back seat and sit next to him, and how could he ask for that?
Frank asked the driver for a cigarette. The driver gave him one, and Frank lit it. He had once smoked for a few years, in college, and he took a few puffs, and let the cigarette burn near him, for the smoke, or the ash, to settle on his jacket and in his hair. He didn’t want the cigarette on his breath, but Anna, in the frenzy of getting ready for the flight, would not likely feel romantic. He was sure she suspected something; the rush to take the trip had betrayed a necessity greater than the need for relaxation.
He took another puff of the cigarette, and the little charge of the nicotine, a pleasant dizziness, bought him a moment’s happiness. This is a drug, he thought. No wonder people still use it. He took a few more drags and put the cigarette out. Will I smoke again? It was impossible to say.
The traffic was slow, and the plane was leaving at three o’clock. At two-thirty he knew he would never get to the airport in time. At 2.45 he was still a mile away. He would never make it. This was going to be a mess, since Anna had his ticket and his passport. He would have to ask her to find someone at the airport to hold them for him, and who knew if that kind of request could be honoured? There was a phone in the back seat of the limousine, and he called Information for the phone number of the airline. There was no number for the terminal, but the reservations clerk gave him another number. He asked to have his wife paged, and explained why, although he wasn’t asked for a reason.
Anna was on the phone quickly, in less than a minute.
“I have your ticket and passport, and you’re going to miss the plane,” she said, without any introduction. It bothered him that she didn’t even ask how he had found her. How had she known it was him? Who else could it be? People knew they were going away, but nobody knew which airline they were flying.
“It’s the traffic”
“Where were you, why couldn’t you leave earlier?” She was angry and suspicious.
It was still time to lie. “I tried. I couldn’t get away. It was important.”
“Nothing you do is important, Frank.”
“Anna, please, what are you saying?” Something awful was about to happen. She was saying something to him in a voice she had never used with him before, but it was the voice she used with people when she had lost all patience, when she stopped trying to see things their way.
“Oh, Frank, now what are we going to do?” Was she backing off from this frightening rage? And what was he scared of? That she would drown Frank in a flood of insights into his failings, that she would finally tell him who he really was?
“You take this flight now, and I’ll take the next flight. Can you find out when the next flight is leaving?”
She was gone a moment. “There’s a flight to Acapulco at six. What if it’s sold out?”
“It won’t be. If I can’t fly coach I’ll fly first-class. There’s always an empty seat in first. And if I can’t come today, then I’ll come tomorrow.”
“Are we going to lose money on your ticket?”
“A little, yes.” He had bought the ticket at a discount, but it couldn’t be exchanged. Though they had enough money for first-class they always flew coach, no matter how much they spent on a room. Although they never said this to anyone else, there was something about this frugality that they thought of as charity, that the money for first-class was a silly waste, and better spent on other things, or given away to people who needed it. They would have a suite in Mexico with a private swimming pool for six hundred dollars a day, and still they looked for the cheapest seats. Paying the extra money for the first-class ticket was a tax on today’s bad behaviour, he knew, a tax for licking Mary Sifka’s teeth. It was turning into an expensive lunch.
‘do I need a reservations number when I get to the hotel?”
“I’ll give your passport to the gate agent.”
“And the ticket,” said Frank.
“And the ticket,” she said, with a note of something in her voice, what was it, impatience, annoyance.
He heard Madeleine in the background. She wanted to speak to him. “Is that Madeleine?” Why did he ask if he knew? “Put her on.”
She wouldn’t come to the phone.
“They’re calling us to board now.”
“Have a good flight.”
“I told you I was sorry.” Why was she swearing at him? He could feel something awful was about to happen.
“No you didn’t.”
“I’m saying it now.” He said this in a way to calm her down, as though he was rational and she was insane, and he hated his tone of voice, it sounded rehearsed and out of scale with Anna’s rising anger.
“There wasn’t enough room in my suitcase for all of Madeleine’s clothes, so I had to put some in yours.”
Something in the universe was tearing. He couldn’t think quickly enough to sew it back up.
“Oh?” he asked, but he knew what was coming.
“I read the letter.”
He could only say, ‘so you know I love you.” He was disturbed with how quickly this came to him. Here he was, taking from her the right to be angry. He wasn’t being fair.
“I don’t know anything any more.”
“You were supposed to read it tomorrow. I was going to give it to you while I took Madeleine for a walk. The beach or something. Maybe to town.”
This is good, thought Frank, I am acting like someone bewildered by his sins.
“Why are you late? Were you with her?”
“If you read the letter, then you know I love you.” He said this slowly, talking her down from the window ledge.
“We’ll talk about it in Mexico.” There was a hopeful sound to this; she wasn’t ready to leave him. It seemed to him that she was also puzzled by the affair, that she wanted to understand it, clinically.
“I’ll see you tonight.” His relief might have been premature, but he said this in a way that assumed the amnesty she would grant him.
“Frank, you’re an asshole.”
“I want to have another baby. Let’s have the baby.” Why did I say this now? he asked himself. How much uglier can I make myself?
“You don’t want another baby, Frank.”
“Yes, I do.” I have to say this.
“No, Frank, you don’t want another baby, you just want me to think you love me now, that’s all.”
“But I do love you.”
“No you don’t.”
She hung up. The flight was leaving in five minutes, but he was at a red light half a mile from the airport. He could never catch the plane.