Eight days later Paula phoned my office. "He's back and I owe you an explanation."
I pretended not to understand: "Who's back?"
"You know. Is it too yucky to meet me at the coffee shop on 19th around 3:30? I'll tell the secretary I've got a doctor's appointment."
"Why should it be yucky to meet you? Unless you're bringing you-know along."
"The weather, silly, you know what I mean. It's sleeting out and the sidewalks are awful."
I slithered through the ice and slush and muck to find her already seated in a dark corner, shoulders hunched forward, hands clenched around a wide mug of hot chocolate. Though her attitude suggested a need for serious warming and comforting, I wouldn't make things easy for her. After a peck on her forehead, I made a production of removing my coat and gloves, stepping to the counter to order a latte, adjusting the angle of my chair, etc. etc., forcing her at last to blunder into the topic.
"You've seen, he hasn't written any more, but he turned up back at the house."
"If you mean the exhibitionist blog, I haven't seen, I stopped checking it. You didn't want me interfering."
"Oh." She looked smaller, older, paler, the way we all do in winter but worse. Her chin seemed more prominent and bony. Faint bluish outlines traced her eyelids and jaw.
"I did appreciate your concern," she went on, speaking to her cup, "but it was difficult for me to handle, since I felt kind of partly responsible for the situation."
"Kind of partly ... I kind of don't know why you'd feel at all responsible for anything such a moron would do. At least Herself was rescued by her possibly money-grubbing nephew. Is she still okay, by the way?"
"I think so. When I called there to check, Merle answered, and at first he pretended there was nothing unusual. He was just getting her ready for bed, he said. When I told him I knew he'd been away, he changed his tune. Bit by bit I wormed a few facts out of him."
"Omigod, he's in charge of her again? What's he gonna use on her next, a chainsaw? Why did Raymond let him back in the house?"
"Raymond's gone home, I guess, they've worked it out somehow, though Merle waxed sarcastic about 'fake sincerity.'"
"I can't believe he didn't have Merle arrested! Leaving her tied up was a crime!"
"She wasn't tied, Raymond found her locked in the bedroom. Merle likes to exaggerate, you know -- you've called him a drama queen -- and I'm beginning to put together what he was doing with that blog."
"Trying to earn a certificate from the Marquis de Sade Institute of Human Relations."
"No. Look, Rick, he did have second thoughts, he did come back to her."
"I'm so impressed. Where had he flown to -- his scrumptious Pinot Grigio boyfriend's house?"
"It sounds like he'd gone all the way to Raleigh. With a friend who was planning to open a flower shop there. But things didn't work out."
"I bet they didn't! The boy-toy got fed up with his little blossom."
"That's more than I know. But this attempt to ditch everything and run away -- he's tried it before, way back before our kids were born. I'll tell you about it if you promise not to be nasty. Then maybe you can help me figure -- "
"Me, nasty?" I was getting annoyed again, even angry, but since she was granting me a role here, I held my tongue.
Haltingly, with many stops and starts and frequent resort to the cocoa mug, Paula gave me a long narrative about her days as a young woman in the upstate college town. The gray sleety afternoon grew even dimmer, and in our corner of the coffee shop, lit by weak imitation-antique floor lamps, her face blended with its faint shadow on the wall. When she fudged a significant detail, my imagination filled in the gaps.
It seems her marriage to Ken (whom I know only slightly, and have never thought worthy of her) was rockiest in its early days, with him in the frenzies of graduate school and her struggling to find use for her training as a graphic designer. (With a 23-year-old's idealistic arrogance, she refused to waste her skills on wedding invitations or bar menus.) It was the classic situation of young marrieds having time for each other only when exhausted, frustrated or mad at the world. When she got pregnant, after half a year of trying, her spirit was happier but her body rebelled, treating her to morning sickness for four months instead of the typical six weeks. She gave up all efforts to work, or cook, or read; she lay around the cottage in the long winter months watching soap operas and feeling sorry for herself. Merle's wife Betsy was also pregnant but felt great, and never missed a day at her university office job. Merle, on the other hand, fell on the ice one day and tore a tendon in his knee, so that he was laid up at home for a couple of weeks. Paula walked up the street one afternoon to see if he needed anything and stayed awhile to "commiserate" about their mutual discomfort. It turned out that her favorite (least detested) soap opera was also Merle's, and she found his comments on it so funny that she returned in the following days to watch TV with him. They leaned against the poofy sofa cushions, he nursing his swollen knee propped on the coffee table, she her queasy stomach, while he entertained her with scandalous stories about soap actors and actresses that he had culled from gossip magazines. By the second week they discussed more personal matters, including trouble with spouses, Paula relating incidents of Ken's savage grumpiness, Merle complaining that Betsy lacked imagination: "She can't see why I'm saving for a vacation in Greece. 'What's wrong with Florida?' she says. Florida! She'd make me go to Disney World and buy tacky souvenirs!!"
One frigid day when the air sliced the skin like scissors, Paula arrived at his house numb and nauseous. To avoid having to hobble around, he had left the door unlocked for her, and she ran right to the kitchen to fix them both hot tea, which she brought to the sofa along with a hand-sewn quilt from the closet. "Betsy won't mind if we use this to keep warm, will she?"
"It's a family heirloom," Merle sniped, "and Betsy won't notice if you burn a humungous hole in the middle. She prefers synthetics. She worships the great god Acrylic."
(Of course I'm interpolating here. Paula didn't remember their dialog so exactly -- or didn't tell me -- but my jealous mind heard it, note by note.)
After she spread the quilt over both of them, he muttered, "The draft in this room is horrid. We should get away from here. I can't stand these winters anymore."
"You're in a wonderful mood today."
"I mean it. Let's go tomorrow. Load me and my bum knee in the back seat and start driving south. Anywhere but Disney World."
"Just the two of us? What about Betsy and Ken?"
"They can comfort each other. They're equally uncreative."
Laughing, she shook her finger at his cattiness. "Slight problem: I'm pregnant with Ken's baby, in case you haven't noticed, and Betsy's having yours, remember?"
"For moi the trade is gorgeous. Ken may be dull but he's tall and dark and handsome, and you're beautiful. What else could I want for my offspring?"
"Thank you for the compliment, I think, but let's watch the program, okay? Drink your tea. Did I put enough sugar in?"
"This story line is dead." He snatched up the remote and clicked off the television, then leaned into her and wrapped an arm around her. A spot of tea leapt from her cup onto the quilt. "Oh no!" she cried. He took the cup from her, reached awkwardly to set it down on the coffee table, and placed his mouth firmly on hers. At first she refused to kiss back, but then she did.
Tongues interlocked. Her desire flared. She discovered that, for the moment at least, she wanted to sleep with Merle, punish Ken, perhaps dump her entire life and start a different one.
"You're not kidding," she gasped when Merle released her.
"I never kid about love or antiques."
"You can't really want me, with my baby," she whispered. "And you'd give up your own child?"
"Try me, sweetie," he growled.
She ran to the kitchen for a wet paper towel to soak the tea stain from the quilt. While there, she vomited in the sink and spent several minutes cleaning up after herself. When she returned to the living room, she mumbled, "Merle, I don't like the way we've been talking. It's stopped being funny." When he groped at her arm, she grabbed her coat and dashed out of the house.
The next day she didn't return to him. He phoned and said, "My heart feels like a cracked kewpie doll."
"No, it doesn't. Be sensible," she told him.
"The only sense in life is to follow your greatest passion."
"Come with me to North Carolina."
"Why? What's in North Carolina?"
"I don't know. Warmer weather. Whatever else there is, we'll discover together."
Since he wouldn't change his line, she hung up on him.
* * *
It was dark outside when she finished her story. Beyond the fogged window, street and shop lights dissolved into blurs on the snowy sidewalk. She excused herself to go to the bathroom, and when she returned I had another steaming cocoa waiting for her. Pewter-colored lamplight glinted from her cheekbones as she slid into the chair.
"You know, I've heard of wife swapping," I noted. "But combining it with unborn-baby swapping is new to me. You weren't seriously tempted."
"I don't know. I was really unhappy then."
"You're miserable now. Would you run away with me?"
"What are you offering?"
"I think I can manage Tuscany, how's that? For a few months at least, till our credit cards max out. We'll rent a villa. Much classier than North Carolina."
Though I smirked through this banter, I was miffed by her dismissal, and my hatred for Merle burned deeper. After a pause I said, "All right, tell me why your refusal to be an idiot with him almost two decades ago makes you 'kind of partly' responsible for him now, which is what you seem to think."
"Well, you know, we've kept in touch. I mean, he's always written me these long, chatty letters -- in fountain pen, no less -- about his life and loves and his worries about Denny, his disgust with his job, so on and so forth ... "
"And you answer them?"
"It's -- having what you might call a pen pal, who's sensitive, who sympathizes when you're hurt, someone who's known you so long, I guess it's kind of, what would you say, comforting, liberating ... "
"When you have me to talk to?" Wounded, I tried to joke. "What a two-timer you are! Or three-timer. Does Ken know?"
She ignored the question. "And then, you see, it came up again, his ... proposition, and I turned him down again, obviously. But I wasn't very sensitive about it. Last fall when we were up there and he made dinner for us and we met Arlene."
"Proposition? What was he proposing this time, a motel in New Jersey?"
"He didn't name a place. We were alone in the kitchen a few minutes putting the dessert together -- he'd made a pound cake with fresh strawberries and whipped cream -- and he started this fast, crazy whispering, and shuddering head to toe. He was going mad, he couldn't stand to hear her voice one more second, he'd cut out his heart with a steak knife, he'd drive them both off a cliff into the ocean, he'd build a homemade bomb and blow the house sky-high, he was going to do something desperate unless I took him away this instant. We wouldn't be in this predicament, he said, if I'd done what was right years ago. He could tell that Ken and I had been arguing that weekend, so he declared I didn't love Ken, maybe never had, and my kids were old enough so I couldn't use them as an excuse anymore. On and on like this, hissing in my ear. Naturally I told him," she paused and took a slow sip of the cocoa, "I told him he was being absurd."
"But," I objected in a harsh undertone, "you were tempted again, weren't you? To jump in the car and drive off while Ken gallantly tried to make conversation with poor impaired Arlene. You're, how shall I put it nicely -- still curious! About what it'd be like! With a man who's half woman."
"No!" She lifted her finely molded chin and squinted at me, startled, through the steam from the mug, as if she'd forgotten for a moment who I was. "Rick? It wasn't like that at all. I laughed at him! And I said, look, I've just met Arlene and I think she's sweet, she adores you, and how do you know her mind won't improve over time? I chattered about how doctors can never predict the way the brain recovers from a trauma, they're learning new things daily, he should never surrender hope ... all that kind of thing. I was spooning the strawberries onto the dessert plates -- his great-grandmother's best Wedgwood -- while he danced around me, whipping the cream with a hand mixer. When I finished, I picked up two plates to carry into the dining room, but he was glaring at me so hard my knees buckled. His face was bright red. He hurled the mixer across the room into the sink. It sounded like an explosion. Whipped cream flew everywhere. Juggling the plates, I ran into the dining room and clattered them down on the table. Even Ken, who's usually oblivious, realized something was wrong, and Arlene stared around in panic. 'Is that on TV?' she asked. Merle delayed in the kitchen, and when he brought in the other two plates he was still fuming. Up till then he'd been polite to Arlene, but now he started to make fun of her, insult her, coax her to speak so we could see how confused she was. Ken was appalled and made excuses for her, and Merle sneered at him: 'Kenny, you're such an old dear friend, for fifty cents I'll let you have her, I'll sign the papers tomorrow, you can keep her in your basement as a pet.' We gobbled our dessert and Ken practically ran out the door. The next day I wrote Merle a letter begging him to get counseling. He never answered, and I haven't written him since."
By this point I truly wanted to throttle the man. To me, the way he tried to exploit Paula was almost worse than what he did to his wife. With chocolate smudges at the corners of her mouth, she looked as vulnerable as a child. I couldn't help it, I reached across the table and touched her face with a napkin. She gave me a wry pout.
"He knew in advance," I surmised, "you wouldn't do what he wanted. That rubbish in the kitchen, he was playing his -- excuse the expression but it fits -- drama-queen role one more time, for sympathy. And then he took it to the blogosphere, which is even more disgusting, instead of merely pouring out his rotten heart in purple fountain-pen letters."
"The blog is a cry for help. You said that yourself."
"And you responded. You e-mailed him right back, but he chose to pretend he didn't get the message. And then you phoned."
"No, I didn't phone until Raymond was there, and I didn't speak to Merle himself until yesterday."
"And so? So? Tell me why this problem doesn't belong to Raymond and/or the local authorities, who could get him psychological help."
"Because I've let this go on too long. I think he's doing this for me in some weird way, to impress me or make a point. Or hurt me. Because for so long he was close to me -- in the letters, I mean -- and then he thought I'd rejected him. But I don't know how, I don't want to encourage -- "
"You haven't encouraged, have you? No, he's doing this for himself, because he's a theatrical asshole. He's craving attention and he's smart enough to know people won't care unless he gets really cruel to her. He's turned his self-pity into vile performance art. Excuse me again, I'm being blunt. Your feelings are wasted on him."
She flinched. Worried that I'd gone too far, that she'd snatch up her coat and leave me once more, I took her hand. Her fingers were frigid on top but damply warm inside where the cup had heated them; I pressed hard enough to feel the small throb of blood.
"No," she mumbled, "I'm convinced it's, what he writes is mostly made up, to shock me and anybody else who happens to see it. The problem is, I don't know what he'll do next."
"He did abandon her when the blog announced he was going to. So if he writes that he's been raping her, we're supposed to think he's merely -- ?" She pulled her hand away, and I changed tack. " ... Okay, look, you don't want to call the police, and this Raymond, who could sue him for custody, apparently isn't good for much. So let's analyze the remaining options. On the phone yesterday, what impression did you get? Is he ready to fly off again?"
"No, he just came back. He sounded extremely devoted to Arlene, concerned that she didn't eat right while he was away, worried that Raymond didn't let her listen to the radio station she likes. He was baking her favorite dessert for her, yellow cake with coconut icing. He said he knew it was a mistake to leave, it was his last silliness of that kind, he was resolved to be the best caretaker she could ever have, this was his new number-one goal in life. He even cried a little."
I suppressed a snicker. In my ruthless view this guy was a Hollywood starlet-wannabe trying on outfits in a dress shop, preening in front of the mirror.
"But I'm wondering," Paula went on, "whether I should go up there for a long talk. Make him stop pretending. Explain that I'm here if he needs help but I can't always -- "
"Pretending -- good. At least you realize this is one performance after another. I'm afraid, though, if you see him again, he'll take his act up another notch."
"But before, you talked about an 'intervention.'"
"Not you by yourself. God, no! You'd be rewarding him for his stupidity." An unbidden image of his tongue in her mouth made me shiver. I wondered where else that tongue had been recently. Not for the first time, I wanted to kill the jerk.
"Is there any chance," I asked, "of finding what's-his-name, the son, and clueing him in?"
"No. Denny's evaporated, apparently. And at this point Merle's so bitter about it he'd probably just quarrel with the boy."
I exhaled loudly. So did she.
"Then," she went on, "what do you think I should do? Or what should we do -- because I saw that comment you posted on his blog." Her coffee-brown eyes gleamed wetly across the table. She bit hard on the tip of her index finger.
"Does Ken have any suggestions?"
She took several deep breaths. "Ricky, you know you're hearing more than I've told Ken. I wouldn't subject him to -- That last time we saw him, he decided that Merle had gone off the deep end and we should keep our distance."
"I, I'm touched by your confidence -- honored," I said, more stiffly than I meant to. A thrill coursed through my chest. But I was upset that, after all the evasion, she did expect me to help her -- upset because there wasn't a single good idea in my head.
"Do you know any psychiatrists in that area?"
"No. Anyway, Merle thinks psychiatrists are a con game." Her gnawing had progressed from fingertip to knuckle.
"He ought to know. Then how about calling some domestic abuse agency up there? The county must have social workers, right? A family crisis hotline?"
She frowned at her reddening knuckle. "Once you get bureaucrats involved -- "
I sighed and went on. "All right, then, what if you call him once a week? Check in, ask how things are going, how Arlene has been. Maybe he'll put you on but you'll be able to sense if he's telling whoppers. And we'll watch the blog for warning signs."
"You think that's enough?"
I shrugged. "You've ruled out the other logical solutions."
Unconvinced, Paula studied the finger that she had abused. But there was no way I'd recommend her seeing him again, and without my support her attraction to that idea faltered.
When we parted she kissed me on the cheek. It was too late in the day to return to the office, so I went straight home and spent the night mulling things over. Years ago, I guessed, she must have been closer than she admitted to taking Merle up on his escape plan, and now she worried about falling under that spell again -- hence her uncertainty, irresolution. Or, after that last scene with the whipped cream, she feared the relationship was out of control, or that Ken would find out more than she wanted him to, or that she'd learn too much about herself -- or all of these.
But I couldn't begin to fathom the essence of it all, what had made her susceptible in the first place to Merle's weird brand of campiness. Maybe that there'd been nothing else like it in her orderly life? Or she had needs that Ken -- and I -- never imagined?
* * *
Herself must re-experience the World. As I have been remiss in engaging her with the beauties of Nature, today we visited the mountains and woods and lovely frozen streams of our surrounding native habitat. For a luxury vehicle our Cadillac handled remarkably well on the snowy park roads. After climbing a steep rocky path, we sat on Lovers' Rock and admired the grand view of the valley spread like a brown and gray quilt below. I recalled how, once upon a time long ago, one brought the wayward Son hiking to such environs. Herself smiled at my reminiscence, sipping hot tomato bisque from a thermos and laughing at the squirrels who cautiously ventured from their nests in quest of sandwich crumbs.
There were a couple more paragraphs along the same lines, posted ten days after my last conversation with Paula. Since this entry appeared at least 35 percent sane, I didn't rush to the phone to call her. I shrugged to myself. Maybe Merle was settling into his limited life and making the best of it. Taking his damaged wife to a park seemed a compassionate gesture, and there was no hint of tying her to a tree or having her accidentally slide off a cliff. If he kept this up, perhaps he'd earn his sobriquet SoTender. It sounded, too, like he was struggling with his son's departure as we all do with such rejections. I felt a modicum of generosity and pity for him as well as his wife.
Perhaps, I thought, I ought to respect the complexities of this character. If Paula liked him, maybe there was something valuable there. Still, he deserved the worst for trying to steal my girl, and if I'd been Clint Eastwood ...
* * *
Two more weeks passed. March began with sudden crisp brilliance followed by icy rain, followed by a soggy warmth that coaxed thumbs of growth from gardens and window boxes. On Friday I phoned Paula's office: "You free for lunch today? Doobie's?" We met at 12:30, chatted about everything and nothing and lingered as the place emptied after the lunch hour.
Though Merle's name had come up once or twice, we'd avoided discussing him until I asked specifically what she'd heard. She sipped her coffee. "Last week I phoned like you suggested. Everything sounded fine. Since then he hasn't been answering, maybe I've been calling too late at night, I decided to try during the day but I get so busy at work -- "
"Call him now, I won't eavesdrop," I joked. "Yes I will, but you don't mind."
"Actually ... I hate making personal calls from the office, and when I'm with Ken or the kids it doesn't seem -- ." Reaching under the table for her purse, she pulled out her cell phone, glanced through her lashes at me, peeked around to see who else might overhear, and punched one of her saved numbers.
I grinned at this half-hearted discretion. She was looking much better than a few weeks ago -- more color in her face, more flash in her eye -- and I enjoyed watching her quick fingers tap the phone, her slender wrist cock as she brought it to her ear, her neck curve gently into it. And I loved that she'd let me listen. The blood flowed to my ears, which expanded in gloating triumph.
"Hello? Who's -- is that Raymond? Oh hi, this is Paula, we spoke a few -- . Yes, yes, the friend from -- No, I didn't hear, what, what happened?"
She listened, and over a space of five seconds her eyes expanded, her temples contracted, her jaw went slack and blue and her lips parted loosely, she turned to the side and slumped forward as if she'd taken a knife to the stomach. I leaped toward her and grabbed the phone away. "Raymond," I barked, "this is Paula's friend Rick. What's he done?!"
I listened, and my diaphragm double-clutched, my eyes went hard and dry. It was like stepping out into a subzero night -- your lungs fill with scouring cold air.
After hanging up, I whipped my chair around next to Paula's and lifted her shoulders till she inclined across my chest. We sat that way for three, four, five minutes, the only sound a whistle of breath through her nose. A waiter looked at us curiously.
Merle had taken Arlene for another drive on country roads. Snow melt slicked the tarmac. Approaching the intersection with a four-lane highway, the Cadillac careened through a stop sign into a passing tractor-trailer. With its nose jammed under the truck's rear wheels, the car was dragged two hundred feet. Arlene suffered five broken ribs, a splintered arm and critical internal injuries. Merle was, in Raymond's savage words, "splattered like a plum" under the steering wheel.
The truck driver, who emerged with scrapes and bruises, claimed he hadn't seen the car. Either it was speeding and slid on the slick pavement, he maintained, or the driver never tried to stop.
When Paula was able to move, I called a taxi to take us to her house in the northwest of the city. I made tea and brought it to her on the sofa; I spread a blanket over her. Only later did it occur to me, with revulsion, that in these respects we re-enacted a scene between her and Merle.
Again and again I told her it wasn't hers or mine or anyone else's responsibility, though I didn't believe myself. A voice kept telling me we should have intervened. Meanwhile she sat immobile on the cushions with her knees locked. Her responses were meager, spoken to the coffee table:
"I'm all right," she said.
"It's over," she said.
"Poor Arlene," she said. "If she recovers, she'll have to go on suffering."
"Drink some tea," I urged.
"I hate green tea. It's insipid."
"You want some whiskey?"
Finally she turned her head toward me and whispered, "That night, Ricky -- I told you -- he talked about doing something desperate."
"So you're wondering if this was ... on purpose?"
Stiff fingers jammed into her sunken cheeks.
"With a person like Merle ... " I hesitated, "always performing in some way ... I'm not being critical, but I'm not sure what 'purpose' would mean."
She frowned and shook her head, but perhaps she saw my point.
Because her kids had after-school activities, it was 5:30 before the door clanged open. It was Ken who poked his nose into the living room. "Hello?" he called. "Oh -- Rick? Hi!"
Quickly I backed him into the hall for a briefing. "Oh, that's a shame" was his response. When I mentioned Paula's deep shock at the news, he seemed puzzled; then he wanted to know why we hadn't phoned him to leave work early. I had no excuse. Of course I thought his presence wouldn't have helped, nor would I have wanted to share her.
Going back to the living room for my coat, I bent down and murmured to her, "Honey, take a sleeping pill tonight. Get some rest. There's nothing you can do, or could ever have done. I love you. Please take care of yourself."
For a second her eyes grew wide, dense and sticky-moist. Then they narrowed and her jaw tightened. "You're a liar, Ricky. A sweet fucking liar. But don't worry, I'll be fine."
I refrained from tossing the epithet back at her. Letting myself out the front door, I knew we'd hit a note that was both poignant and phony. How fitting for all of us.
-- Sam Gridley