Jobs for Philosophers

Jobs for Philosophers

Michelle Herman’s “Jobs for Philosophers” first appeared in the print version of At Length. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.


To begin with: nothing.

That is, a piece of flotsam–an anecdote.  A trifle.  A joke.

Or so it should have been, but wasn’t.  Not at the time.  At the time, it had in fact what Hope in those days called a Profound Effect on her.  (She had a tendency, back then, to capitalize important nouns, adjectives, and verbs.  Now, looking back, she rolls her eyes at her own former, mock-arch self.)

The teller of this anecdote, this trifle, was a young man she liked–or, as she would have said, archly, in an attempt to cover up true feeling (which in this case, she thought, could quite possibly be love, a word she carefully kept lowercase, or its precursor–almost love), “Liked with a capital L.”

She was in art school then.  He was a graduate student in philosophy–as it would turn out, not the only but only the first of a series of philosophers-in-training with whom she would eventually fall in love or almost-love.  Thus she later came to think of him as The First Philosopher (and later still, efficiently, as TFP).

The story TFP told Hope, when they were first dating, went like this:

In his second semester of graduate school, two years before he and Hope had met, he had been a research assistant, working for a professor of metaphysics.  “You know,” he said, “universals, causality, space, time, possibility.”  Hope nodded gravely, not because she knew but because it was unthinkable to own up to not knowing.

“So this guy was interested in time, that was his main gig, and he had me in the library day after day, reading and making notes for him and photocopying journal articles.  There were days, nights, when I was in there for six, seven hours without a break.  I was a veritable time machine.”  He paused, and Hope laughed, on cue (and yet her laughter wasn’t forced: she was genuinely, frequently, amused by him. That he expected her to be didn’t dampen her amusement in the least).  “Then one day I was in the library, working my way through the card catalog.  I’d been there for four, maybe five hours already, searching for some obscure find that would knock the alter kocker‘s socks off, some journal article he’d never seen–something marginal, yet seminal–when I came upon an entry in the catalog for a journal I’d never heard of.  I couldn’t believe it.  Here I’d been searching through Metaphysical Review and The Journal of the Nature of Existence and Ontology and Cosmology and The American Quarterly of German Idealism, and there was one incredibly obvious one I’d overlooked.  I went racing to the stacks to find it.”  He paused again, poked his chopsticks into the single order of cold noodles with sesame paste the two of them were splitting for their dinner, collected a clump of noodles, lifted it and pointed it at her, and grinned.  “And there I was, a few minutes later, with a copy of Time magazine in my hands, utterly flummoxed.  I mean, totally unable to make sense of what I was looking at.”

It was the purity of his abstractedness that did her in.  She felt herself fall hopelessly for him–felt herself step off the edge of a precipice on which she hadn’t even known she was standing.

Time in The First Philosopher’s hands had finished her off.

She’d never fallen so hard, so fast, for anyone.  (Oh, later on she did–and even harder, faster–but not before.  He was not only Hope’s First Philosopher–he was Hope’s first Great Love.  The first of far too many, she thought, looking back.)

She’d been in love before–or what she’d called love–but it was not until then, until what should have been the punch line to an anecdote, that she understood where her most crucial weakness lay.  (Not that she’d thought of it as “weakness” then.  She’d thought: the key to my heart.)

Until that moment, that punch line, there had been between The First Philosopher and Hope a strong tug of attraction, mutual amusement, admiration, and affinity (they liked the same movies, the same books, and furthermore their tastes were just offbeat or obscure enough–Henry Jaglom, George P. Elliott, Natalia Ginzberg–for this confluence to be exciting.  They also liked the same two cheap, too-small, perpetually crowded university-area restaurants).

The Four A’s–affinity, attraction, amusement, admiration–as Hope had in those days described her prerequisites for romance.  (Admiration, perhaps, needs a gloss: she had to admire them.  Their admiring her was helpful but was not essential.  Their admiring her if she did not admire them was worthless.)

It didn’t take much more than the Four A’s, back then.  Wordplay, Jaglom, hard-to-find used copies of Among the Dangs, cheap Chinese, brains (theirs) or talent (ditto), importunate sex against a wall.

But there was more than this, this time.

(The fifth A, Hope realized later, groaning, her head in her hands, at her own compulsively reductive cleverness.  Abstractedness.)

That night, in the dim-lit, noisy Chinese restaurant two blocks from campus, their knees touching under the too-small square table, The First Philosopher’s abstractedness glowed absolute and blindingly.  And Hope, who valued lost-in-thought above all else-so she learned that night-was lost.

The journey from hope to hopelessness, she would later come to call it, thinking then not only of this night, but of them all: of the many times she’d made this journey, and at its end unhitched herself from her own will.  Unhitched herself, it seemed to her as she looked back, from herself.

That night, ten days after they’d met, and on their fourth official date, Hope managed to continue laughing, to finish her half of the plate of cold noodles, to crack open and read her fortune cookie (even now she remembered that the fortunes that night weren’t prophecies but platitudes passing for advice: let a smile be your umbrella, his; look for the silver lining!, hers–which, when she read aloud, she sang, in an effort to charm, and continued, “when you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse”), and to return with him to his apartment, to listen to other anecdotes and jokes, to laugh at them as she had laughed at the fateful one (“You’re an easy room to work, Hope,” he told her once, later on, and although he said it with what sounded like affection, it still stung), and to sleep with him again–for the fourth time–this time, with greatly heightened excitement.

On her part, anyway.  For him, that night and Time had not been the beginning–love!--but the beginning of the end, for even though their romance would last almost seven months, until Hope’s graduation, it was only a matter of days after that before he started lying to her, at first intermittently and then relentlessly, predictably, about where he had been, with whom, and doing what.  And finally, just hours before he would have had to meet her parents for a celebration dinner, he stopped making the effort to lie and broke things off with her instead.

She remembers the aftermath only vaguely, the shock of the breakup mingled with the shock of being out of school, having earned a degree TFP had relentlessly teased her about (“Just think, you’re a Mistress of Fine Arts!  Don’t you feel a little guilty about the anguish you’re causing the Wife of Fine Arts?”).  But it wasn’t long before she met another brilliant and amusing, attractive, like-minded, thoroughly abstracted young man: her second philosopher, one whose area of interest was value theory.  One who was not a liar, but who instead was selfish–selfishness that would come to light, over a period of months, as his most distinguishing feature.  Selfishness raised to an art; selfishness so elegant and all-encompassing that to complain about or even question it would have marked Hope a philistine.

There were two other philosophers in succession after the selfish value theorist–whom she marked in her memory as SVT–and then a gap before the fourth and final one: a gap filled by a pianist and then two poets, after which one witty friend of hers, herself a poet, theorized that Hope would only sleep with men whose work began with P, and suggested that if she could just move on to Q or back to O, her love life would be more successful–and, as if her life really were a joke, Hope proceeded then to fall for a violist who played in a string quartet (“a quadrumvir,” her clever poet-friend pronounced him) and, not six months later, for one of his roommates: not the handsome, easygoing cellist with whom she’d been flirting all along (and for whom the violist suspected she was leaving him), but the wisecracking, skinny oboist; followed by a brooding actor/bartender; a smart, cute, angry writer for the Village Voice who was also the drummer for a rock band called Red Menace, the other members of which all wrote for The Daily World; a smattering of variously brilliant doctoral candidates in disciplines other than philosophy–musicology, math, modern Greek, theology, et cetera; a long empty stretch of numb, perplexing lovelessness;  and a disaster of biblical proportions with a student of military history.  The Last Philosopher, who followed closely on the heels of the historian, was the last boyfriend, too, before Hope met her husband–a painter, like her (back to P, she had observed: so she’d been on the right track to begin with, she would have told her jokester poet-friend. If they’d still been in touch).

Sometimes she lines them all up in her mind.  She marches them along, toy men in a parade of memory.  She watches the parade march by, salutes the little soldiers as they pass, rifles resting on their shoulders, in red jackets with brass buttons and tall, dramatically white-plumed, black hats.  The things they’d said and done that made her fall in love with them!  The things she‘d said and done, in thrall to them–to love!  The things they’d said and done to make it clear that once she loved them, they had little use left for her!

Years have passed now since The First Philosopher.  Eighteen years, to be exact.  A magic number, chai, as Hope’s grandmother would have noted: the magic symbol meaning “hope for life.”  Hope–married now, a mother–believes with all her heart that she is not who she was then.

She often thinks about how grateful she is that she has changed, that she’d shed that Hope so long ago.  Shed all those former Hopes, she tells herself–for when she thinks about the past, it seems to her that she remembers different Hopes, a different one for every boy or man who tramped into her life, and that time has buried all of them, thank God.

The boys and men, however, remain stubbornly above ground.  She has not forgotten even one of them, although sometimes she thinks she has.  Sometimes years will pass without the slightest fleeting thought of one of them.  But then some unexpected reckless thing will turn up and tap at the closed shell of her memory and spring it open, and there he will be, abloom, alive, still breaking her heart.

The First Philosopher came and went this way.  She would forget him for years, her only awareness of him a certain residual bitterness, which she had come to think of as “the usual residual bitterness,” and then, sitting in the dentist’s office–anxious, fearful, exceptionally vulnerable–she will spot a copy of Time magazine.  And then it is as if he has returned–callously and casually, waving, calling out hello as he keeps walking, unrepentant, passing by.

Once, after something like this happened, Hope described the experience to a group of her friends as they sat together on the living room floor of the Hell’s Kitchen apartment into which the playwright among them had just moved.  It was an evening long after The First Philosopher had come and gone, and there was no one in the room who’d known her when she’d been with him except for her poet-friend, who encouraged her to tell the Time story from start to finish.  She was famous by this time among her friends for her bottomless susceptibility to men whose minds were elsewhere–famous, the playwright had once remarked, for longing for attention from men famous for their inattentiveness.  Everyone in the room knew that she’d once fallen for a mathematician after he’d arrived to pick her up wearing one black shoe and one brown one–one slip-on, one lace-up.  (It was the latter detail, really, that had clenched it.  Think how abstracted one would have to be not to have noticed that!)

Hope told the story, made them laugh.  The poet among them sighed, drained her wine glass, lifted the empty glass in Hope’s direction, and remarked, “Just put another notch in the basket case,” which made them laugh again.  Hope, laughing too, thought of laughing back then, in the story she’d just told–thought of laughing as she’d pitched forward, helpless, hurtling through space, in darkness, falling hopelessly in love.


She did not fall hopelessly in love with the man who would become her husband; did not, this time, cast out sense and fling herself blindly into sensibility.  By the time she met her husband, she was worn out–immune, she thought, to enthrallment; incapable of free-fall.  Capable, now, of choice.

The man who would become her husband was unlike all the men who had preceded him.   He was the first gentle, cautious, shy, soft-spoken man she’d ever dated.  He was so shy and cautious that she hadn’t even recognized at first that he was interested in her, and when he asked her out, she was so surprised she didn’t answer, and he had to ask again.

They had chatted pleasantly, if awkwardly–for he spoke in sentence fragments, punctuated by long pauses–half a dozen times, in a gallery at the Arts Center where Hope worked, running the installation and repair department.  The first time they’d talked, she’d had the idea he considered himself her superior: she couldn’t think of any reason he would dole out words in such small parcels other than unwillingness to waste too many on the likes of her, and that he paused so heavily between the parcels, she assumed, meant that their conversation wearied him.  It was not until their second conversation that it struck her that he never looked her in the eye while talking–that this well-regarded painter, a tenured professor at the university, might simply be shy.

And it was only after he asked her to dinner–asked twice, poor man, within two or three minutes–that it occurred to her that he’d been coming round to see her, that he had been courting her in his shy, awkward way, pacing in front of the open door to her office until she noticed him and came out into the gallery to say hello.  She should have recognized this sooner–should have stopped to think about how many times one would revisit an exhibit of “Inaction Paintings: Irony and Nothingness”–but she was worn out, depressed (the result of years of heartache, misery, bone-crushing disappointment–and more specifically, the historian and the last philosopher, back-to-back misfortunes that had nearly undone her).  She wasn’t thinking clearly.

Paradoxically enough, this gave her a chance, for once, to think things through.  Because she wasn’t thinking clearly–because she was so tired and sad–she proceeded slowly.  She made a decision–a series of decisions.  The first one was to abandon the A’s (which, she reasoned, had failed her for years anyway).

The man who would become her husband, it turned out, didn’t like the same books or movies or even painters that she did–and because his conversation tended toward the laconic, it took weeks before she found out what and who he did like: Raymond Carver, Hemingway, Fellini, Terrence Malick, Gerhard Richter, Juan Sánchez Cotán, Jacob Isaaksz van Ruisdael.  He liked things understated or stated obliquely; he liked things terse, deceptively simple, and mysterious.  He liked hidden edifying message about the brevity of human life and the futility of human endeavor.  He disliked too much talk (in movies and life, both).  He liked short sentences and disliked adjectives.

Restaurants?  He tolerated them, and only when he had to.  Otherwise, he much preferred to eat at home.  “Oh, do you cook?” Hope asked.  He didn’t.  He just didn’t care what he ate–eggs, canned soup, a microwaved potato–and he didn’t care to make meals into “you know, events.”  He said this over an elaborate dinner (Indian) on one of their early dates, and Hope raised her eyebrows.

“For you,” he said, and waved one hand–a benediction–over their patna korma and saag paneer and keema matar and shak and masala vangi and besan ki bhaji.

He didn’t make an effort to be witty or to entertain or charm her.  But he was courtly; he was thoughtful.  This was something new to her.  And he was modest, too; he seemed to have no vanity.  Hope could not remember ever encountering a man before who wasn’t narcissistic.  She wasn’t sure what to make of him.

“Look,” she told him bluntly during their first dinner out, “I have a dreadful track record with men.  I have extremely bad taste, terrible judgment.”

He nodded.  That he didn’t offer up a corresponding admission or make a joke baffled her.  Apparently this was a man who was content to sit in silence for as long as necessary–something else that was entirely new to her.  Finally, gamely (in for a penny, in for a pound, she told herself), she said, “I’m serious.  This isn’t repartee, okay?  The sad truth is”–and here she paused, pointing her chopsticksful of Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce at him exactly the way The First Philosopher had pointed his chopsticks at her so long ago, she realized–“when it comes to men, if it wasn’t for bad luck–”

He finished for her, singing softly: “You wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

It was possible that this was when she had begun to love him.

It wasn’t just that he had sung–that he, a man whose shyness and reserve were already well-established by then, had momentarily not been himself; that, despite his temperamental leaning toward forethought and deliberation, he’d allowed himself to be spontaneous–which was, Hope thought, a tribute to her (for once! she thought: a tribute to her).  It was also that he’d recognized the reference to one of her favorite songs without congratulating himself, without turning the moment into one about himself.  And it was also that right after he had sung that line, and they’d both laughed, he’d told her that he’d heard the song performed by Cream, live; that he had been present at one of their final concerts, on the “farewell tour,” thanks to what he called “sheer dumb kid’s luck,” and then told her everything he could recall about the concert (that is, every song they’d played, and in what order–but nothing personal: nothing about who’d accompanied him, or how he’d happened to be lucky enough to be there) instead of asking questions about Hope’s old boyfriends, as anyone else on earth would have done, she was sure.  That he didn’t ask about old boyfriends, though she’d given him the opening, was (she realized later), one of the crucial moments of the evening.  He was the first man she had ever dated who was interested in who she was, she thought, not who she had been.  She was so unused to the idea of this, it made her giddy.

And she had stayed giddy, though their conversation was a pretty sober one, for a first date.  They talked for a long time about their work, and she loved the way she could see him thinking hard, choosing each word carefully, when he spoke of the way he made a painting, the photographs he took, the studies he made, the hours–days–he spent thinking and looking before he ever put paint to canvas.  She had to ask him questions to get him to keep talking, but she didn’t mind that.  She was touched by it.  She was moved by his own humility.  She was moved to giddiness.

When they left the restaurant, she took his hand.

When she took his hand, he sighed.

That was so sweet, she sighed herself.  She squeezed his hand.  She invited him–not home with her, but to her studio.

And in her studio, she watched him walk around and look at everything.  Everything.  Not only the just-finished paintings hanging up on nails, or the ones on drying racks, or her cans of brushes or the tubes of paint or the table where she worked, and even the bag full of rags hanging from a hook beside the table–but all the books scattered around, and all the assorted junk she had accumulated, and the old secretary’s chair she worked in (he actually touched it, spun it around, then sat in it, to test it), and her stereo–he looked at all of its components, one by one!–and the records and tapes on the shelves beneath it.

And then he surprised her again, as he knelt there, for when he found Laura Nyro’s first four albums scattered here and there amidst the rows of records (Hope was no alphabetizer, no organizer at all), he murmured–his first words since they’d arrived!–“A nice surprise,” and drew New York Tendaberry from its sleeve.  He put it on the turntable: Side 2, she noted as she heard the first notes of “Gibsom Street.”  They listened in silence.  Then “Time and Love” came on, and he surprised Hope once more by singing again–this time along with Laura, softly, on the chorus:

Don’t let the devil fool you

Here comes a dove

Nothing cures like time and love.

Hope had never met a man before who knew the words to any Laura Nyro songs.  She hadn’t met anyone, not since high school–and then it had been a girl, Trudy Lebenbaum–who, like Hope, would admit to liking both Cream and Laura Nyro.

Years later, she would think: All right, so it wasn’t as if all the A’s were absent.

By the end of that first date they’d stumbled onto one affinity, beyond both being painters: music they both loved.  That this–Cream and Laura Nyro–would turn out to be misleading, when they discovered later that these were their only points of musical affinity (strangely enough, there was no other overlap at all–his record collection heavy on virtuoso guitarists, blues, and early, noisy punk rock; hers composed mostly of singer-songwriters, R&B, and San Francisco acid rock) was not something she could have known at the time, was it?

It didn’t matter.  What mattered was that everything that night had come together to allow her to open her heart to him.  Or, rather, to allow her not to hold it so securely closed.

A door was left unlocked; possibility began to blow it open.


Later still she understood that all of this had only seemed to be what had opened the door.  What opened it (what opened any door between two people, she would come to think) was complex and mysterious, its roots deep and intricate enough–snaky, curled, crisscrossed, and knotted–so that she couldn’t hope to trace them to their origins.

Or couldn’t hope to yet.  For she kept working on it, and it seemed to her that with each passing year of marriage she uncovered another half-inch of buried, twisted root.

She learned early on not to discuss this with him.  By the end of their first year together, she learned that he was no “pick-aparter” (a phrase he coined one day when she was wondering aloud what it had been about her that had made him return to the Arts Center for a second conversation).  The vehemence with which he refused to speculate astonished her, for this had seemed to her at best a mildly diverting question–not a pick-and-shovel question like “What made you an artist?” or “Why did you stay single for so long?”, questions she had hoped to raise and now knew she never would.

So she proceeded without him.  Bit by bit, shovelful by shovelful.

It was years before she began to see a pattern to the roots, before she could see more than an exposed twist here, a bit of naked uncrossed root there–before she saw that even his periodic withdrawals from her made a kind of sense for her.  The way he slipped from few words to no words at all, the way he made himself vanish even when he was still in the room with her, she came to think, let her recoup a little of her own silence and privacy, let come alive the quiet, hidden self which, once they had their daughter to take care of, sometimes was misplaced for months on end under the stacks of clean and folded laundry on the playroom floor amid the bins of toys and towers of their books and tapes and records, and the daily racket and disorder of a kind of life–family life!–she had not anticipated ever having.

Indeed, it was not until that life was underway that she saw how much he was like her father.  This bit of uncovered root provided one of her greatest surprises, for the surfaces of the two men could not have been less similar.  She could not recall her father, for example, ever being silent.  Some of her earliest memories were of his voice–his voice talking at her, whether she was listening or not.  He talked even in his sleep, talked on and off all night long, loudly enough so that in her childhood it would wake her in her bedroom down the hall.  And then there was her silent husband, so reserved with everyone but her (at least at the start, with her) and later with their child (and then Hope was excluded, as if he could allow just one exception at a time to his general rule), that he sometimes seemed to Hope a living disproof of the adage that no man was an island.

Her father, so expansive and demanding and extreme and sentimental–full of need, noisy with need–was at one end of the human spectrum; her husband was at the other.

And yet, like her father, Hope’s husband passed judgment on everything and everyone around him.  Things were either right or they were wrong: there was no halfway mark, no middle ground, no ambiguity or shading. Like her father, her husband could not be argued with–or, one could argue, but one could not win. In his quiet way, her husband was obstinate.  He was immovable.

He made grand pronouncements, too, just like her father did (though he uttered them softly, and her father bellowed).  Neither of them troubled to provide an explanation or a context–to offer anything at all except their own conclusions.  But they were always worth thinking about, even when they seemed most crackpot.  Her father would anoint or write off politicians, make outrageous claims about historical events or foreign policy; her husband dismissed entire art movements (fauvism, conceptual art, color field painting, cubism, Dadaism) with a single word (unpainterly, or counterproductive, or moronic).

And when Hope watched and listened to her husband with their daughter, she felt herself transported back in time to her own early childhood, by the way her husband taught her daughter things, both patiently and past the child’s endurance and attention span and even curiosity, and by the way he tested her, even when she was a baby.  It occurred to Hope one night that every single thing he’d said all day to their then seven-month-old daughter had been in the interrogative, and already she could see the need to please him on her daughter’s face, hear it in her voice, see the misery that flashed through her when she disappointed him.

Her daughter was three before Hope saw that her husband’s impulse–more than an impulse; his determination–to protect the child was just like her father’s in her childhood.  And it was then that she saw something that she never had before: that she had not felt safe since she’d first left her father’s care (which was not to say when she left home, for she had left his care long before that, when she stepped out into the world that beckoned her, the world of boys and men, of love)–until her husband had entered her life.

Her husband had saved her.

She has thought a great deal about this in the nearly three years since her revelation–has thought about this as one of the central facts of her life.  And that her husband had saved her without her understanding–had saved her, in fact, without her understanding him–that even now she doesn’t understand him–is something she thinks about, if not constantly, then continually.

That she was saved without understanding strikes her as a Christian idea–an idea her husband would approve of, if she were to tell him (which she won’t), if it weren’t blasphemous (which she assumes it would be, to him).  Was she supposed to comprehend her savior, after all?

“And I am not your savior,” he would say, if she told him.  “This isn’t something to be making jokes about.”  But it is not a joke.  It is what, after a discussion in which she would do most of the talking and he would communicate his impatience with monosyllables and a sound that is half-grunt, half-sigh (which maddens her; which he relies on at least once in every “conversation” they have), he would end up referring to as “one of your ideas.”  If she were to say, as she has said so often over the years of their marriage, “What’s wrong with ideas?”, he would say, “In principle?  Not a single thing.  It’s just that you have so many of them, Hope.”

She’d had an idea about him, and one about the two of them, together, years ago, when she’d been trying to decide if she should marry him.  When she looked back, as she was wont to do (she was always looking back, and sometimes she looked forward; it was now that was difficult for her, and sometimes she forgot about it altogether), she saw that she’d made her decision based not on real information but on exactly that: ideas.  One of these ideas had been about their work, the fact that they had this in common, and how pleasant it was that they did.  That they had both come to live in this bland mid-sized city in the middle of the country not even a year before, leaving places they had lived in all their lives–so that even now, after so many years, when they were traveling and people asked them where they were from, neither of them ever thought of naming the city they lived in–gave them something else “in common.”  Both, they had discovered during one of their early, halting conversations, considered themselves exiles; both felt unmoored in the middle of America.  And both were there because they had been offered jobs too good to turn down–his a tenure-track job teaching in the art department, hers at the university’s new Center for Contemporary Arts–after years of living hand-to-mouth.

Thus, from the start, despite their backgrounds being so different they might as well have been from different parts of the world instead of just the country, despite their inability to find a movie they both wanted to see or to point to a book they had both thoroughly enjoyed, they had plenty of “things in common”–which, Hope reminded herself, conventional wisdom said was important to the success of a marriage.

What she decided was that they understood each other in a basic way, in a rough sketch kind of way.  Or like a contour drawing–they understood each other’s shapes and surfaces and caught the general sense of each other.  And they liked each other’s work!  That was no small thing.  They liked it very much.

This mutual regard for each other’s paintings, Hope saw later, helped more than it should have.  It had fooled her.  Most likely it had fooled them both.  And that they both made paintings they called “landscapes” but would not call themselves “landscape painters” fooled them, too, because it looked like something else they had in common.

What they should have seen, Hope now thinks, was that they were painting (living!) in two different universes, his “big and true” and hers “small and made up”–so he sometimes teases her, still (or he calls it teasing; it never feels like that to her, even though his tone is light. What it feels like is an accusation, or worse, an indictment).  In response, she will say, also lightly, “Depends on what you call true, no?  My imagination has always seemed as true to life as anything ‘real life’ can offer.”

There was in fact no common ground between them in their work.  Looking back, it seems obvious to Hope that this was part of what they had admired about each other’s paintings–that neither could imagine how the other could have done what he had done.  And not only how, but why.

His paintings were enormous and imposing landscapes he made in his studio, paintings that began with studies: pastel drawings and preliminary paintings made outdoors, on a battered French easel he had had since high school.  He took photographs, too–dozens of photographs of a single landscape setting–and he blew them up and tacked them to the walls of his studio alongside the studies he had made, and then he pondered them.  “Stared at them” was what he called it.  He stared at them for a long time.  Sometimes he did nothing but stare for hours on end.  And then at last he would begin to paint–and he would paint and stare, paint and stare; repaint, stare; paint out, paint in.  Such a process would have driven her quite mad.  It wasn’t at all unusual for it to take him a whole year to finish a single painting.

And then when the painting itself–oil on canvas, six by nine feet, nine by fifteen feet–was done, Hope would be shocked each time, after all these years: shocked by its beauty, by its majesty (that old-fashioned word!).  But it was the right word.  Her husband’s paintings were majestic.  They made her want to bow–an impulse she resisted, always, because she knew he wouldn’t like it.  Instead she would cry, which only puzzled him.

As did her paintings, although he admired them.  As did her process–which he found as mind-boggling as she found his.  She painted without a plan; she painted as if she were in a dream.  She began a new painting with the first application of paint to the panel she’d prepared and she worked very quickly.  “So composition for you is…what?” she remembered him asking the first time they’d talked about their work, standing in the gallery at the Arts Center surrounded by the blank or mostly blank canvases that comprised the Irony and Nothingness show.  “Simply…intuitive?”

“I guess,” she had told him.  “Like everything else.”

Her paintings didn’t make him cry or feel the need to bow before them (no one would feel that need, Hope knew: they were too small and whimsical).  She painted on postcard-sized wood panels, and her whimsical, eccentric “landscapes” were not only entirely imaginary but impossible.  They were wild inventions, in colors (she liked to say) “never found in nature.”  Kool-Aid colors, she would say.  Jell-O, JuJube, Peeps colors.

“They’re amazing,” her husband told her the first time he saw her paintings–on their first date, when after dinner they went to her studio.  And then he laughed, softly.  “It’s an overused word, I’m afraid.  People use it inexactly.  But it’s the only word for these.”  He looked amazed, too.  It was the look on his face that made her believe him.  He never said, “I like them,” or, “I think they’re good.”  That wouldn’t have been like him.  It was the sort of thing she said (although what she said, about his paintings, the first time he took her to his studio, was, “I love them,” and, “I think they’re magnificent”).  She had to figure out what he thought and felt from what little he did say, how he said it, how he looked when he said it.

And when it came to her work, she could always figure out what he thought.  Right from the beginning.  It was when it came to everything else that she ran–still runs–into trouble.

Back when they were dating, she’d made jokes about the big mystery he was to her, jokes even she did not find very funny.  She knew this was no joking matter.  But what else was there to do but try to laugh about it?

She doesn’t, anymore. After all these years, that her husband remains a mystery to her is no longer something to joke about.  Instead, it’s the puzzle, the hole she tries not to fall into, the dark, deep place she stares down at and sees only that it is dark, deep, unplumbable, at the center of her life.  Why, she wishes she knew, is he so silent and so careful?  Why does he never utter the phrase “good morning” or “good night”?  (And if she asks him this–if she says, “Can’t you say ‘good morning’ when you see me in the morning, the way normal people do?”–he is affronted.  Why is he so easily affronted?)

Why is he–a teacher!–so shy?  How on earth does he manage?

Why are his paintings so expansive when he himself is so reserved?  (And if he has that expansiveness within him, why can he not–or is it that he will not–tap into that vein in life?)

Why is he so stingy with her name?  He almost never uses it, and sometimes, if they are not alone and he speaks to her, she can’t tell that he is speaking to her.

Why then does he often use their daughter’s name when he speaks to her?  (Too often: twice in one sentence, sometimes, which the child herself has wondered aloud about.)

Is this about the name or the name’s possessor?

And why is she not allowed to ask?

(When their daughter asked, he laughed; he didn’t answer.)

Why does he store up conversation and then once or twice a year keep Hope up all night long, talking to her?  Why the stinginess all year, and why the sudden, rare eruptions?  What brings them on?  He astonishes her with references to things she had said or done months before that had irritated or perplexed him–the time she had suggested (no, not even suggested, but simply mentioned) that he might want to change out of his paint-flecked tee shirt to a shirt that buttoned and a tie before a meeting with his Dean, the Provost, and the President of the university; the evening she had tried to take more of an interest in his schoolwork (and the fact that she had called it schoolwork!), asking how his classes had gone, what exactly he had taught that day; the one time (once in their whole marriage) she’d suggested that he call his mother as it had been months since he’d last talked to her.

And this is even more astonishing, she thinks, when one considers that apart from this–this keeping track, for months at a time, of her behavior and offhand remarks–he seems to have no long-term memory at all.

That he never sifts through the past, analyzing and interpreting and reinterpreting it as she does, as she’s done all her life, is another mystery.  It may be the greatest mystery of all the mysteries about him.  (The other possibility–that he does contemplate the past, but never talks about it–cannot be ruled out; but if so, this too is a mystery!  Why contemplate and never speak of it?  Once, long ago, she had accused him of not being introspective, and as he was in a friendly, relatively talky mood, he wagged his finger at her: “Flawed assumption.  It’s just that I don’t talk about it.  If I did, it would be extrospection, wouldn’t it?”)

All the other men Hope has known talked endlessly, even repetitively, about their pasts.  She has always encouraged the people she loves to tell her stories about themselves, to reveal their secrets.  But her husband has never told her any stories; he has made no confessions; he has never made an effort to account for anything he does or feels or thinks.  Hope still doesn’t know, for example, when he first slept with a woman, or when he began to think of himself seriously as an artist.  His past is a blank to her, but for a handful of amusing, unrevealing childhood anecdotes featuring frogs and snakes and flooded riverbanks she has overheard him tell their daughter.  She has even asked his mother–not just asked, but urged her–to tell her about his childhood.  She declined, claiming poor memory and nothing of interest to report.  And this is a mystery, too.  Hope’s parents relish telling stories about her, many if not most of which have very little truth to them, as far as she can tell.  If their memories falter, they invent; if there were nothing of interest (and how, Hope wonders, could that be?), ditto.  They mix truth and wistful daydreams, truth and wishes, truth and half-truth, truth and flat-out fantasy.  They pick and choose, like Hope.  But they have no interest in keeping secrets.  The secrets–or what would have been secrets in some other family–are mixed in with the truth and lies.

“I’ll have to ask your father,” Hope has told her husband.  It’s a joke, and they both know it, because Hope is afraid to ask her husband’s father anything.  She is afraid of him.  He is her father-in-law, she tells herself, with an emphasis on the last two thirds of the phrase: he is legally bound to her, but otherwise he is a stranger, stern and authoritative, remote and cold and . . . mysterious, she thinks.

What must it have been like, growing up with such a father?  Hope will never know.  About her husband’s childhood, she has come to realize, he truly may not remember anything.  Perhaps it is a family trait, forgetting.  He used to look mystified when Hope told him stories of her childhood, and sometimes he would say, “I just don’t see how you can remember that.”

Hope would say, “I don’t see how you can not remember anything.”

She’d never had a man in her life before who didn’t offer up his childhood as if it were a gift he had been saving all his life for her.

She’d never had a man in her life who was so unneedful.  This may explain why he is so poor at coping with other people’s needs: he has no point of reference.  He seems to have no idea how to comfort her when she is feeling bad, not even in the formal, automatic ways that people ordinarily offer each other comfort (a squeezed shoulder, a reflective pat, perhaps an invitation, however insincere, to talk about what’s troubling one–or just an offer of a drink, a cookie, or a cup of coffee).  When their daughter is upset, she goes straight to Hope.  She knows that her father has two means of dealing with her troubles, knows that he will first see if it’s possible to make her laugh, and if that fails (and it always does), he’ll make an effort to distract her with a project.  Hope has tried to tell him that these strategies are bound to fail, that this is no way to give comfort to a weeping child.

“What makes you so sure ‘comfort’ is what’s necessary?” is his answer to this, and it is an answer that has left her speechless, every time.  Is it possible her husband doesn’t believe in comfort?  How can he–how can anyone–not know that there are times when comfort is the only thing on earth that’s necessary?

Only if he’s never been in need of it himself.  Or–more to the point, she thinks–if he has no experience of it to call upon, to remind him that this is what’s needed.

Can it be that her husband has never been comforted?

It is a terrible thought.  It makes her pity him, instead of being angry or frustrated with him–and makes her angry, instead, with her in-laws–and makes her pause to wonder, and to worry, about her own secret, buried needs: she had chosen a man who knew nothing about comfort.

Not only nothing about comfort–nothing about what use other people are for anything.  Their holiday card list (Hope makes the card, a spare line drawing landscape, every year, with tiny Chanukah and Christmas artifacts hidden among the trees and snowflakes) includes his parents and his siblings, two paternal aunts (but this had been Hope’s idea!), his dealers in New York and Memphis and Chicago, and two high school friends with whom he’s talked three times apiece in the last twenty-five years.  Hope also sends cards to his colleagues in the art department, though he thinks this is foolish: “They’re acquaintances,” he says, “that’s all.  Plus I see them in the hall all the time and we nod at each other.  Why would I need to send them Christmas greetings?”  Hope has three hundred people on her list.

But he is who he is, she tells herself.  He is not like her, or like anyone she’s ever known.  He is a one-of-a-kind creature.

This is not a bad thing, she will sometimes pause to remind herself.  This is a good thing.  This is why you love him.

This is why she loves him.  And also this: because what sets him apart, more than anything else, from all the other men she’d known (that parade! There they are, in her mind again, in their tall black hats with chin straps and red jackets with brass buttons) is something it took her a while to name because it was so new to her when she first encountered it: goodness.

What is this? she had asked herself (she’d raised one eyebrow; she had been suspicious) when he’d helped her out in small but consistent, surprising ways–replaced a burned-out headlight bulb in her aging Dodge Dart, went shopping for canned soup and tea and tissues when she had a cold, spent half an afternoon mounting a motion-sensing floodlight over her back door, to discourage break-ins–without making any kind of fuss, without her asking him to do it, and even brushing off her thanks.  She came to the conclusion that he must be crazy about her, crazier about her than anyone else had ever been.  But soon it dawned on her that it was not just her–that he was helpful, generous, kind, truthful, and unselfish indiscriminately: he did things for people, even people who were no more than acquaintances.  He did things for his colleagues, students, neighbors, and later on her friends.  He offered to try to fix (and always managed somehow to fix) whatever someone mentioned had just broken; he gave lifts or casually tossed into someone’s palm the keys to his truck; he handed over certain sums of money, muttering, “Whenever,” when the student (when it came to money, it was always a student) swore he would repay him “right away.”

At first this struck her as a novelty. Then she began to grow accustomed to it, and to count on it.  He was reliable.  He was trustworthy.  She could not believe her luck!  He was incapable of pettiness or meanness, gossip or deception.  He didn’t lie.  He would always do the right thing.  And she had never had a boyfriend before who could even tell what the right thing was.

Then she asked herself: Did I suddenly get lucky, or did I suddenly get sane?

Suddenly didn’t apply either way, was what she concluded.  It had taken her until she was thirty-five to get lucky or sane enough to love him, another two years to be sure enough about this, willing to call what she felt for him love, to agree to marry him.  Before him, every romance she had had was damaging to her in some way–looking back, she sees this easily, and she cannot imagine how she had not seen it then, each time, as it was happening.  Her husband was the first man she had ever loved who didn’t make her miserable–not just in the end, the way all the others did, but from the start.  Well, no, Hope corrects herself: not from the start; the start was always wonderful.  From right after the start.

Not that her husband doesn’t have his faults.  He has faults Hope can catalogue, after seven years of marriage–and she does so, out loud, more often than she should; it’s how she fights with him.  And his goodness itself turns on a dime into a fault, for he’s a moralist, a stern one, which shows itself in his judgmental streak.  The first time he turned his wrath on her (she can’t recall now what it was she’d done: been rude? said something cruel? acted or spoken indiscreetly?), the image that bloomed in her mind was from the stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Chartres–which she has seen only in books, but which nonetheless have made a lasting impression on her–in particular the window that depicts St. Martin of Tours: the central panel, which in the midst of all the kissing of lepers and resurrecting of the dead that surrounds it, shows the saint directing a pine tree to crush the heathens gathered nearby, who are killed by the blow.

She didn’t mention this until the image had returned–not for the second time, but for the seventh; she’d kept track.  When she did tell him, she saw that she shouldn’t have.  “That’s mean,” he responded, softly, and perhaps it was.  Perhaps she was, and is, sometimes.  She isn’t good, she knows that, not the way he is, and she suspects that goodness–true, real goodness–runs so deep that someone who possessed it would not have been susceptible to such a thought.

But whatever she had thought, she should have kept her silence.  She tells herself this often–tells herself that while it isn’t possible to take charge of her thoughts, she certainly can learn to hold her tongue.  Why is this so difficult?  Her husband makes it plain that he wishes she would be silent more often and about more things.  He finds her reliance on and need for talk, as well as how much talking she herself does (even when he doesn’t answer, or responds with monosyllables) as bewildering as she finds his silence.  Her husband believes, she knows, that she talks “much more than necessary.”  The Henny Youngman joke somebody told him on campus one day (“I haven’t spoken to my wife in three weeks; I didn’t want to interrupt her”) didn’t make him laugh, he reported.  “It didn’t seem like a joke to me.”

The longing she feels for ongoing, urgent conversation, threaded through with an exchange of memories and revelations, is sometimes almost impossible for her to bear.  She wants to be talked to; she wants to be listened to.  Can she live without the kind of conversation she so badly craves?  She asks herself this repeatedly, and even as she asks it, she is ashamed of herself.  Is this what’s important?  How can it be? And yet she yearns for it–she yearns for communion.  “For what?” her husband asks.  “For communication,” she says.  She says it quietly, feeling foolish.  “I just want to know what’s on your mind,” she tells him.  “And I want to tell you what’s on mine.”

“Revelations,” he says.  “Memories and revelations.  And feelings.”

“You say that as if there were something hideous about memories and revelations and feelings.”

“Not hideous.  Just. . . .”  He shakes his head; he sighs.  “What’s the point?”

“There has to be a point?”

“Revelations,” he says patiently, “are passing things.  And memories are too uncertain.  I have no faith in them, my own or anybody else’s.  There’s no way to test them, to be sure they’re true.”

“And feelings?”  Does she sound angry?  She may; she feels angry.

“Feelings are fleeting.  They change all the time.  I can’t see the point in pinning them down with words.”

“What about love?” Hope asks.

“What about love?  If you’re experiencing it, what’s the use talking about it?  How does that make it realer, or better or more important or more persuasive, than actions do?”

But he doesn’t always act, either, Hope thinks, and she says, “Actions are as easy to misread as words, and sometimes people think they’re showing something that they aren’t showing at all.”  And now he shrugs, and she’s afraid she’s losing him–he has that look about him that she can only guess signals he’s about to bow out of the conversation–so she finishes, quickly, “I just think that sometimes showing and telling isn’t such a bad idea.  I don’t see why we have to choose one over the other.”  Her husband shrugs again, and then he turns and goes upstairs to wash for dinner.

A mystery, her husband.  How, she wonders, can anyone be so distrustful of language, revelation, feelings, memory? What else is there?  Well, there’s art, of course.  She knows he puts his trust in that.  Which in itself is a complicated kind of trust, for to make one of his precisely and extravagantly detailed, luminous, immense, shockingly beautiful landscapes, he takes photographs from every angle, at every variation of light, at every time of day, at every exposure and shutter speed.  He wants to get at the truth of it, he has told her: he wants it to be real, not the product of his faulty memory or his “inevitably imprecise thoughts” about what he’s seen, or his feelings or reactions or imagination.  And that is all he will say about this.  (If, indeed, he allows himself to get this far, he will have exhausted his small stock of words for hours, even days, and will be silent except for the murmurs to his daughter that Hope overhears as she cooks dinner or pays bills, and they sit on the playroom floor and build block towers or make creatures out of cardboard tubes from paper towel and toilet paper rolls, pipe cleaners, cotton balls, and glitter.)

Her husband’s eggs, she thinks, are all in one basket.  What he reserves for her and for their daughter (and more is in reserve for their daughter than for her, she knows, but she accepts this; it does not displease her) is something other than “eggs,” other than the main thing.  It is essential in its way–the way bread and dairy products are essential–but it is not as basic, nor is it as perfect, as an egg.

Still, she has no doubt that he needs and loves her and their daughter, and that a life made up only of art would not have been enough for him.  And she knows that at one time he must have known this, too, or he would not have asked her (and asked and asked and asked her–for it had taken her some time to finally decide) to marry him.  But she is almost certain that he doesn’t know it anymore.

About this–about this one thing only–Hope keeps silent.


About her husband’s mistrust of, and even antipathy toward, memory, she has much to say.  They began (that is, Hope began) to talk about this right after their child was born, when she heard him singing to the baby as he held her.

Hope listened from where she sat, sprawled out in an armchair in what had then been their living room, before toys took it over and it was redubbed “the playroom.”  She hadn’t had more than an hour’s sleep at a stretch since the night she had gone into labor, and she was so tired she feared that if she were to try to hold the baby and walk around the room with her, as her husband was doing, she would drop her.

He was nearly at the end of the song before she registered, through the haze of weariness (not to mention shock, anxiety, excitement, terror, and heart-stopping love–the state she was in without letup for the next ten or twelve weeks), not just what he was singing (“The Sunshine of Your Love”) but that he was singing, and that this was the first time she’d heard him sing since their first date.  She was flooded with nostalgia.  She’d forgotten how much the sound of his singing voice had pleased her, how it had made her hopes rise, that long-ago night; she had failed to notice, all this time, that he’d never sung again after that night.  Not until now.

So she said this–all of this–and they argued.  It was their first of many arguments about this.  “Come on,” her husband said.  “Just think about it.  Can you imagine me breaking into song, over dinner in a restaurant?”  He sounded incredulous.  But he never stopped walking the baby around the room.

“And in my studio, later that evening,” she said.  She watched him cross and recross the room. “Evidently I can imagine it.  But that’s not what I’m doing.  I’m remembering.”

“You can’t remember what didn’t happen.”

The baby began to cry again.  “I’ll feed her,” Hope said.

“It’s only been an hour since the last time.”

“I know.  I don’t care.”  She held out her arms.  “Give her to me.”

Once she had the baby settled at her breast again, and he’d sat down opposite them on the couch, she sang softly, “I’ve been down since I began to crawl.”  Her husband groaned.  “Please don’t growl at me,” she said.

“I’m groaning, not growling.  There’s a difference.”

“Please, then, don’t growl or groan at me.  I have a two-day-old baby at my breast, my nipples are killing me, and I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since August.”

“Don’t make things up about me, then,” he said.

But she knew she hadn’t made it up, knew it had happened.  Unlike him, she trusted herself to remember things correctly.  That he didn’t remember their first date in the same way she did was no surprise, really.  What would have surprised her would be his remembering–or his willingness to admit that he remembered–anything at all about it.  But she didn’t know what to make of the disjunction between what could have happened (what he insisted couldn’t have happened) and what she knew had.

They argued about this that night, idiotically.  Tired as they both were, and as irrelevant as this was (so he pointed out, and she had to agree) to the upheaval at hand–which had the quality of an emergency, though not a bad emergency (as she pointed out, and he had to agree), they argued as Hope nursed the baby, on and off all night, and through the brief periods in which the baby slept between her feedings, while they took turns rocking her and carting her about first one room and then another.  They continued to argue, in fact, on and off, for days–and they have never, in the almost six years since then, given up the argument, although by now it has the quality of a well-practiced duet, and they can bat the subject back and forth while thinking about other things.

They haven’t limited it, either, to this particular “misuse or mistake” (his phrase) of memory: the starting point for this recurring argument is whatever Hope has just reported recollecting.  Then the two of them are off and running.  Each time he “catches” her in a mistake, each time he can produce a “fact” to dispute what she recollects, he is certain he has won, but Hope, who has long prided herself on her fine and highly detailed memory, has come to believe in the years since they began this argument that one version of what happened is as good as another.  She has learned that she’s not interested in “truth” the way he is, and she finds that instead of mistrusting her memory when something contradicts it, she is only further interested in the memory itself.  There must be a reason she remembers it this way, she thinks; there must be a reason someone else recalls it differently.

This conviction (or was it a theory?) came into sharp relief for her on the morning of her forty-second birthday.  Their daughter had turned three the month before and was almost as excited about Hope’s birthday as she had been about her own (“We have great presents for you, Mama,” she kept promising, “but they’re all a secret until later.  Can you wait?”) and brave in the face of her disappointment that there was to be no piñata, that no one had blown up balloons or hung multicolored streamers, that the “party” would be just the three of them at dinner “in a boring restaurant.”  “We’ll try to have fun anyway,” she told her mother with a sigh, all solemnity and resignation.

She perked up when Hope brought in the mail and they discovered, in a small padded envelope, a beautifully wrapped package from Hope’s parents.  Hope let her daughter strip the silver wrapping paper and pry open the velvet-covered jewelry box.  Both of them gasped with pleasure when they saw the ring within: a diamond-shaped pale blue transparent stone set in a narrow silver band.  Hope’s daughter clapped her hands.  She said, breathlessly, “Oh, Mama!  Is it aquamarine?” and Hope, who was already close to tears, began to cry.

Her daughter wrapped her arms around her neck.  At three, she knew by heart so many of the stories Hope told and retold about her own childhood, she could have recited them herself (and indeed, by now, when Hope told her stories, her daughter often interrupted to remind her of this or that detail she had carelessly left out this time).  The “aquamarine ring story” was one of her favorites–because, she had explained, “it’s such a terrible, sad story, but I know it has a happy ending later that’s not in the story.”  “Oh, does it, now?” Hope had asked, amused.  “And what ending is that?”

“That the sad girl in the story grows up and becomes happy forever.”

The sad girl was Hope, age seven, who had begged for two years to be allowed to wear her mother’s beloved birthstone ring, an aquamarine.  “Water-blue is what that means,” Hope had told her daughter, “but not blue like swimming pool water, more like ordinary water that someone’s put just one drop of blue paint in”–and her daughter nodded; she was used to Hope’s painstaking descriptions of color–“or…oh, this is better, I think: blue as the sea when sunlight falls on it and makes it lighter than it really is, and sparkly”–and her daughter nodded again.  Color, light, she knew about it all.

Finally, seven-year-old Hope was given permission to borrow it.

The occasion was her first–and final, it turned out–piano recital.  The night was important to her mother, who had once meant to be a pianist, and had high hopes for her daughter.  The argument that aquamarine was both of their birthstones (for Hope’s mother’s birthday was in early March, and Hope’s at month’s end), that therefore the ring was “really” both of theirs, was at last persuasive.  It helped, too, that Hope’s mother’s resolve was already weakened by the significance of the evening at hand, and that the stone almost exactly matched the dress Hope’s grandmother had made for her just for this night.  She had satin shoes that had been dyed to match, and a pale blue headband onto which her grandmother had sewn six blue satin roses.

She was playing Schumann’s “Perfect Happiness”–and to this day, although she hasn’t played the piano close to forty years, her fingers recall the pattern they had made for “Perfect Happiness,” playing it from memory.  She even remembers what the sheet music had looked like: the two sharps and all the notes she’d had to hold.

Somewhere in the course of the evening, either before or after she played her piece, the ring vanished.  Hope didn’t notice it was gone until her mother did, when she took her hand in preparation for the trip home.  Her mother said, “Oh, no–Hope!” and Hope glanced down and burst into tears.  For hours her parents and her grandmother searched for it.  They dug in between the seats nearest the stage.  Could the ring have fallen off during her curtsey? her mother demanded.  Upon her entrance or exit?  And then rolled off the stage into the first or second row?

The grownups walked up and down the aisles on the red carpeting, eyes down, and through the labyrinth backstage and back and forth across the polished wooden stage itself–they even peered into the piano–as Hope stood perfectly still, holding the flowers and the miniature piano-shaped trophy given to her by her teacher.

She wept and apologized the whole way home.  Her mother cried, too, but she was as angry as she was sad.  The ring had been a gift from her parents, she reminded Hope.  “I should have trusted my own instincts,” she kept saying.  “I should have stuck to my guns.”

“Is it the same ring come back?” Hope’s daughter asked, wide-eyed, three-and-a-half decades later.

“No,” Hope said.  “But it looks just like it.”

She could not recall her parents ever giving her a gift of jewelry, although surely they knew (anyone would know! You only had to glance at her neck, ears, wrists, hands) how fond she was of anything that glittered.  What on earth had gotten into them? she wondered as she sat with her daughter on the playroom floor, the ring in its purple velvet box between them.

It wasn’t like her parents to be sentimental.  And it must have cost some effort to find–or to have had made?–a ring that was exactly like the one she’d lost.  They weren’t people who went out of their way to make a gesture.

She took off the silver puzzle ring she wore on her right index finger and handed it to her daughter.  “Let’s try this, shall we?” Hope said, and she nodded as somberly as if this were a ritual for which they’d been preparing all her life.

After the surprise of the ring itself, Hope was not in the least surprised to find that it fit perfectly on the same finger on which she had worn her mother’s for those few hours, thirty-five years earlier.

When she called her mother to thank her, she couldn’t keep herself from asking, “What got into you two, anyway?”

Her mother said, “What in the world are you talking about, Hope?” but before Hope could figure out how to answer this without sounding as if she were criticizing every other gift they’d ever given–or not given–her, her mother said, “You really like it, don’t you?  I told your father I was sure you would.”

“How could I not, Mom?  It’s perfect.”

Her daughter, who had followed her into the kitchen, still clutching the puzzle ring that Hope had worn since she was fifteen, echoed her: “Perfect.”

Hope laughed.  Her mother said, “That’s what I told him.  Well, I’m very glad.  I’m thrilled, really.  It’s so hard to figure out what will please you, Hopey.”

Hope let that go.  She said, “Here’s something you’ll like, Mom.  Your precocious granddaughter ‘recognized’ the ring right away from the recital story.  Can you believe it?”

“What recital story?”

“What recital story?  The recital–the piano recital, you know–where I lost your ring.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I didn’t lose the ring?”  Hope blinked at the ring on her finger.  Was it possible that they’d found it after all, and she’d forgotten that?  That her parents had saved it all these years for her?  But why had they waited until now to give it to her?  “How could I have forgotten–”

“No, of course you lost it, darling.  Oh, I was so furious at you!  What could I have been thinking, letting a child that young borrow a piece of good jewelry?  Naturally you lost it.  I knew you’d lose it!”

Mom.”  Hope groaned.  She went to the table and sat down.  Talking to her mother was always a lot of work.  Her daughter followed her across the room and climbed onto the chair opposite her.  “You just got through saying I didn’t lose it.”

“No, I did not.  What I said was that you didn’t lose it at your recital.  I didn’t let you wear it that night, even though you kept pleading with me.  Don’t you remember?  You were relentless.  Which must be why I finally gave in when there was some special occasion at school–I can’t think of what it was.  An awards ceremony?  Some kind of performance, a special assembly?  All I remember is that it was a few months after your recital–that was in June, and this was the first week or so of second grade–and that somehow you persuaded me to let you wear my ring to school.  To school!  What could I have been thinking of?”

“Wait,” said Hope.  “You’re telling me I lost the ring at school?  But I didn’t.  I lost it at–”

“Oh, Hopey, you took it off to wash your hands.  I’d told you you’d better, which I have always regretted.  Oh!  By the way, I don’t want to forget to tell you that it would be a good idea to take this one off to wash your hands.  Aquamarine is a very fragile stone.  If you’re doing anything the least bit–”

Mom,” Hope cut in, so sharply that her daughter looked shocked.  Hope reached for her hand and mouthed the words It’s okay.  To her mother, she said, “In your version of the story, I left the ring in the girls’ bathroom at school?  On the sink?”

“It’s not a version of a story, Hope.  It’s life.  And it slipped off the edge of the sink and slid down the drain before you could grab it.  That’s what you told me when you came home that day.  You didn’t even make it past the doorway.  You just stood there sobbing, holding out your hand so I could see the ring was gone.  Oh–it must have been an assembly day!  Because I can just see you standing there in your white blouse and yellow kerchief and navy blue skirt.  And crying to beat the band.”

“You’re joking.”

“Don’t be silly, Hope.  Why would I joke about this?  I loved that ring.  And I still don’t understand how I could have let a seven-year-old wear it to school.  What a persuasive child you were!  You must have caught me at a weak moment.”

“A weak moment,” Hope repeated, and her daughter, sitting across from her, repeated the phrase, trying it out.  Hope knew the question was on her lips–how can time be weak?–and she put a finger to her own lips, but behind her finger, mouthed the words, Wait.  Later.  I promise.

“We just happened to spot this one at Fortunoff’s last week.  We were there looking for a graduation present for your cousin Lucy–did I tell you we were invited to her graduation party?  It’s going to be at that place on Sixty-second Street that has no sign, that funny little place with all the decorative tiles and flowers and tchotchkes–and I said, ‘Arnie!  Look at that ring–isn’t that almost exactly like the one of mine Hope lost when she was a little girl?’  But you know your father.  He didn’t remember.  ‘What ring?’ he said.  And I said, ‘Oh, you know what ring.  The one she washed down the drain at school.  The one my father gave me just before he died.’”
“Just before he died?”  Hope was confused.  Had she known that part of the story?  Then she felt a trickle of alarm.  “Is Daddy okay?”

“Of course Daddy’s okay.  He just has a lousy memory.  He insists he doesn’t know a thing about any ring and never did.”

Only after she’d hung up the phone, when she had answered the question she’d known her daughter would ask (as best as she could, for transposing the figure of speech to “a moment of weakness” didn’t help at all), then repeated to the child, who begged to be told “every single thing,” all that her mother had told her–and her daughter had responded, looking serious and hopeful, “Could both stories be true?” and Hope, not knowing what to say, had shrugged–did she realize that she didn’t care which story was the true one.  What was troubling her was the question of how she could be so sure of what had happened when her mother was so sure that she was wrong.  And if both versions of the story felt equally true (assuming one could assess how true something felt to someone else–even one’s own mother or child), who was to say who misremembered?

But at what moment, and why, Hope wondered, had the two versions taken hold of their two memories?  The passage of time alone could not account for the discrepancy between the stories.  It could account for a diminishment of details, she supposed–fading memory, time’s theft–but time hadn’t handed them so many fixed and certain, tiny, clear particulars.

Still, time had something to do with the divergence–for the two versions of the story could not have unfolded as the “real” event occurred.  Time had to have passed before the stories formed in their two minds; memory must have begun its work.

As she tried to explain this to her daughter (tried; failed–“too hard,” the child pronounced it finally, and moved on to her plastic bin full of Playmobil Victorian figures and furniture), Hope understood that what she wanted was to make sense of how the two–time, memory–worked together.  How they had conspired to make her so sure she remembered what had happened in the way she did, if it hadn’t in fact happened in that way at all.  If in fact it hadn’t.  Not that she would ever know.

She knew that much: that she would never know.


When Hope was young–a teenager, a girl in her twenties–she was plagued by questions about time, memory, invention, and reality, but she didn’t know it.  She thought what was plaguing her was love.

It wasn’t until she was past thirty that she figured out that what she’d been so troubled by was something only minimally and tangentially related to love.  But even then she didn’t see beyond renaming it infatuation.

She was closing in on forty before she began to understand that she had missed the big picture, and shortly after this, she constructed an equation:

infatuation = memory + imagination.

For a while this satisfied her.  It was the kind of reasonably smart, reductive analysis that could satisfy her for months, even years.

There, I’ve figured that out.

This, at that time–not so long ago–was perhaps Hope’s favorite phrase.  Even now it has a certain amount of power over her.  But as she ages, she has found, she has become increasingly suspicious of her own ability–possibly anyone’s ability–to figure anything out in a way that merits a slap-on-the-table, final there.

It was while watching her daughter play–participating, too, the way an actor participates in the making of a movie: doing what she could with her role as written, and taking direction, patiently waiting between scenes to be told what to do next–that it struck her one day how much more powerful imagination was than memory.  That memory was in fact nothing without imagination; that it was meaningless to speak of the former without the latter.

There was no equation for this–or no equation that she, with her two art degrees and not a single course in mathematics once she passed through tenth grade, was equipped to formulate.  Her friend Trudy Lebenbaum, she remembered, had been the only one in their crowd brave enough to face eleventh grade math, which was called fusion–a tricky combination of trigonometry and advanced algebra.  (And it wasn’t just that Trudy had the courage to tackle what they all supposed would be difficult subject matter, but that she was brave in the face of the teasing that went along with it.  What makes you think you’re so smart?  Who do you think you are? Not to mention that it took guts just to break out of the group you were considered part of–hippies, jocks and cheerleaders, greasers, grinds, et cetera–and venture for an hour a day into what was essentially foreign territory.)

If Trudy were here, Hope found herself thinking, she‘d work out the equation.  Precisely.  All Hope could work out was that infatuation equaled something like memories multiplied by imagination.  Or, rather, memories charged, illuminated, and embroidered by imagination–and replayed endlessly, in a continuous loop one might spend one’s whole life watching in one’s mind.  The way she had.  And by which she had been more thoroughly riveted than she’d been by the movies she had seen repeatedly as a girl–“West Side Story,” for example, which by her fourteenth birthday she had seen twenty-two times, sometimes sitting through three showings in a row, or “Camelot” (just six, but only because it had not played at the local theater long enough for further viewing).

These supercharged and decorated, spotlit memories had always been better, more compelling, more wonderful than any of the actual events involving real-life boys and men.  And not just more wonderful but more real, too: more real when she thought about them than when they were right in front of her.

Her most important high school boyfriend, she realized (years after the fact)–a boy she’d daydreamed about so incessantly, and so insistently, that each real-life encounter with him served only to add another log to the long-burning fire of her imagination–in real life had been a churlish, mean-spirited, chronically sullen sixteen-year-old braggart who had never once offered a single truly kind word to her.  Back then, she recalled, she’d been startled every single time she saw him.  He was not the person she’d been thinking of!  Alone in her room, or on the subway or the bus, or daydreaming her way through her classes, she had gone round and round over the same few minutes of a single sexual encounter (certain touches; a handful of words; the details of the setting, which was usually a friend’s “finished basement,” the friend’s parents having vacated the premises) with him–the boy in her mind.  That boy, the one she imagined, she knew very well.  She conducted conversations with him all day long, in silence.

The real-world boy who tugged on her tee shirt and hip-huggers in someone’s darkened basement, and with whom she cut geometry and French to sit beside on a tall stool in Josie’s Luncheonette and try and fail to have even a fragment of a conversation with–the boy she was actually dating–bore so little resemblance to the boy she thought about all day, every day, he hardly seemed real to her at all.  He hardly seemed present.

What she wondered now–what she had never thought to wonder then–was whether she had actually liked the real boy at all.

And what she wondered too, so many years after she had seen him for the last time, as she sat on the playroom floor and “made the dolls talk” with her daughter–for she had found that she could think between her parts in this ongoing play (another endless loop: the dolls, the stuffed animals, the Playmobil Victorian extended family, even toothbrushes and pencils, sometimes even hands and feet; every”body” in her daughter’s world talked to each other)–she had found that she did very well, in fact, thinking only in short disconnected bursts during the portions of the game when her daughter’s self-assigned characters were speaking to each other–what she wondered was what there had been in that boy that had inspired her to attach her imagination to the scraps of his remembered image.  Or perhaps it was a question of what there had not been.  Perhaps he had been a boy with something blank in him.  Something that allowed her to inscribe him between the lines of what he was.

Oh, yes? she thought.  That’s clever.  If that was what I was after, why bother with the real boy at all?

But–she sighed and stroked the hair of “Anna May,” the doll her daughter had assigned her–she knew the answer to that, and never mind the sarcasm.  It wasn’t even that (or wasn’t just that) it was necessary to have a boyfriend in the real world (the one that passed as real, the one in which one was either a Marlboro-smoker, a Kool-smoker, a Winston-smoker, or a non-smoker; the one in which one either took fusion and was a “brain,” beneath notice of the cool kids, or went to see the Dead play and never mind if it was on a school night).  It was that she had known even then that she had to keep one foot in that world, that she would float away if she didn’t hold on to a bit of what was in the world–if she didn’t hold on to the world itself, even if only by a toehold–if all she had was what was in her head.  It was tempting to let go; it had always been tempting.

But it was only tempting.  She didn’t want to float away; she’d never wanted to.

This, she believed, was why (if there was indeed a true why; if this was not one of her reductive, satisfying whys) she painted landscapes she imagined.  There was the suggestion of the real–references to the real world, its real objects–in a way that pure abstraction would free her from.  She didn’t want to be free.  And yet she had never been in the least interested in making “real” landscapes–in making paintings of real places the way her husband did.

As “Rose” and “Violet,” her daughter’s favorites, traded last night’s dreams (“Oh, and you think that was a strange and surprising dream?  Listen to what I dreamed!”), it occurred to her that all her life she had preferred the suggestion of the world to the actual, factual one.

Even the disjunction between real-but-seeming-unreal boy and half-imagined/half-remembered boy-who-felt-real went farther back than high school, farther back than sex–as far back as her very first boyfriend, the year she turned thirteen.   He was thirteen too; he lived on Staten Island, which under the circumstances might as well have been Utah or Southern California.  They managed to see each other only twice during the eight months they were “going together”: when they first met, at a Catskill mountains bungalow colony where he was staying for the summer with his family and where she was visiting a friend from school for a single weekend in July (though they saw a good bit of each other all that weekend, always in a large group except for one brief private meeting right before she left on Sunday, when they stood in the woods and stared at each other mournfully without saying a word), and then one afternoon in March, when he bravely rode the subway (several subways) and a bus, all by himself, to visit her in Brooklyn just before her fourteenth birthday.  In between, they wrote long letters, at least one a day and often two or three, and sent cute, sentimental greeting cards, and on Saturday nights they talked on the phone for two or three hours at a stretch (midweek, she’d send him the phone number of the family for whom she’d be babysitting, and he’d call at nine, after the children were asleep), talking until she heard footsteps on the doorstep or the scrape of a key in the lock.

They traded photos and locks of hair (the former his idea, the latter hers) and she wore his ID bracelet, which he sent her wrapped in ordinary tissues in a big manila envelope after they had been exchanging letters for three months.  They closed their letters Love!!!!! and put the number of exclamation points they’d used in parentheses, after the final one, trying to outdo each other.  On the phone, each Saturday, they talked about their future–where they’d live (Manhattan, naturally, though she favored the Village and he the Upper East Side) and what they’d “be”: Hope was always going to be an artist; he wavered between medicine (his father was a dermatologist) and being a WMCA deejay–and wrung every last detail they could out of their meeting in the Catskills months before, the minutiae of their days at school since the last time they’d talked, the attributes and deficiencies of their respective friends, and their families’ unbearableness.  They spent hours contemplating what “their song” was–a fertile topic, for the song they liked best changed each week, from Jay and the Americans’ “This Magic Moment” to the Grassroots’ “Midnight Confessions” to just about anything by the Young Rascals–and declared their longing to be together every waking moment.

But when he finally made his way to her in March, and they went to a movie–and it astonished Hope now to think that her parents had allowed this (she looked at her daughter and tried to imagine her in just under nine years walking out the door with a boy on whom she herself had never laid eyes before, even if the “date” was in broad daylight, as it had been when she and her long-distance boyfriend went to the Oceana to see “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”)–and he held her hand and afterwards, as they sat in the dark, the credits rolling, contrived to kiss her, his closed lips felt chapped, he smelled of Clearasil, and she thought, How dare he kiss me? I don’t even know him. On the bus ride back up Coney Island Avenue, they couldn’t seem to carry on a conversation.  And when he did manage to find something to say, his voice didn’t thrill her in person as it had on the phone.  His hand on hers, she considered, had been sweaty.

After they had parted, she wrote him a long, despairing letter, wretched in its hopelessness.  She closed it, this time, without love! but instead, Sorry, I’m really sorry–I hate myself! and, weeping, wrapped up his ID bracelet in four sheets of proper tissue paper, and sent the package out that very night.

You’d think–she thought–she would have learned a lesson from this.

But when she fell in love again (and again, and again), even though the boys she made her own, after this first one, were present in her life in a way the first one hadn’t been, still her remembered and imagined version of them was so far superior to what she saw in front of her that she was always shocked by the gap between what was and what she’d had in her mind.  And her instinct, always, was to doubt the boy or man before her, not her mind’s-eye version of him.

But oddly enough, she thought, throughout these years, she never once felt nagged by the question of why “truth” should be so slippery, or how it was that her mind managed so adroitly to concoct an image or a story she would cherish–and continue to embellish–in the face of continual and indisputable supplies of contradictory evidence.

What she used to ask herself was only this–the questions that lay on the surface: Where did the real person end and the one in her head begin?  In other words, how much was she making up?  And why was the mix of memory and fantasy so much more exciting and more lovable than a real-life human being?  Oh, she understood in her head she was in charge, so he–whomever he was this time–could do and say whatever she liked.  What puzzled her was why it was that this would be more interesting than a living person, boy or man, behaving unpredictably?  You’d think she’d tire of her own scripts, she thought.  And yet she never did.

She embroidered recklessly on A, who lived with a ballet dancer on whom he was cheating, twice a week, with Hope; on B, the boyish, charming, well-read actor whom she used to find kissing other women in the kitchen when he took her to parties with his theater friends; on drunk and crazy, chronically depressed C–brilliant poet–who once worked himself up into such a rage of jealousy he kicked the window out of a parked car on Bleecker Street as they stood arguing outside a restaurant.  Weren’t the real characters interesting enough on their own?

Interesting, maybe, Hope thought as she changed Anna May out of her nightgown and into a tutu, the costume change required so that she could perform her “dancing act.”  (The whole wicker basket full of doll clothes had been lugged into the playroom from her daughter’s room upstairs while Hope sat on the floor lost to her ruminations.)  Interesting but still not sufficiently love-worthy.  Not without some help.

She was married, settled–well out of it, she told herself–before it occurred to her to wonder, casting back, at what point the “help” began: the instant they were out of sight?  Or while they were still in her presence?  Not only did the daydreaming set in again as soon as she had parted from the object of those daydreams, but there were times when she could have sworn she was daydreaming even while she was still in his company: daydreaming a better version of what was occurring as it was occurring, editing reality and tucking it away for later.

And what of the effect of time–the hours and days and weeks that passed after each real-life encounter that she played back in her mind?  Did time help or hinder her embroidery?  And what about phone calls, or letters?  She’d had one relationship, the last before her marriage (Misery! The one she’d later come to think of as The Last Philosopher) that, like the childhood romance that had ended so dismally before her fourteenth birthday, had been played out almost entirely in letters: the purest case she knew of her mind’s power over life itself’s unfolding.

How much reality, she asked herself, was necessary?  How much fuel did her imagination need?  (Or was reality the fuel at all? Perhaps reality was something like the vehicle itself, fresh off the assembly line, the gas tank not just empty but clean, ready–pristine?  It took her mind, it took a fantasy, to fill the tank, to make the romance go.)

As she played with her daughter, Hope reserved a corner of herself for this–for trying to work out the way the vehicle, the fuel, the ride–the real-life man (the whole parade of real-life men) along with what it took to nudge the fantasy about the man along (to bring it up to speed, to take her where she’d needed to be taken)–came together to make up what had seemed so essential to her for so many years.

And what about the men?  She hadn’t been alone on any of those rides.  The men had been infatuated, too–or at any rate they’d been susceptible to her infatuation.  Either way (whoever drove; whoever was the passenger), she had no doubt that any one of them, while the ride with her was underway, would have been as certain as she, every time, that something magical was happening, something life-transforming and transcendent.

A theory blossomed in her mind, and even as one part of her described for her daughter the “dance steps” performed by the doll Anna May (propped up, tipped backwards, against the couch), and Violet and Rose called out, in two versions–one high, one low–of her daughter’s voice, “Bravo!” and “Oh, what a wonderful dancer!”, Hope worked her way through it.  Somewhere in the hearts of all those men for whom she had fallen, she thought, a question beat softly: What does she see in me? And buried somewhere too was a persistent fear that she would find or figure out “the truth” about them.  Self-doubt and fear thus ran in a current right alongside feeling flattered and self-satisfied.

It was possible that letting someone have the pleasure of the thought I always knew that someone someday would see the true me went a long way toward explaining how she’d captured the hearts of so many young men.  But given how much fancy stitchery went into the “true” him in the long series of true hims, it seemed clear, too, why none of these romances had been built to last.  How precarious, how downright rickety, this business of trueness was!

Encore!” cried Violet and Rose.  “Encore!

Still, Hope told herself, her “love” for all those men had not been only wishful thinking and idealization.  She believed that there had been some truth to how she saw them, always–that even as she was investing every one of those old boyfriends with the most magical of powers, she was also seeing them for what they were, substantiating all their secret hopeful thoughts about themselves, appreciating them for what they wanted to be the right reasons.


“Sorry,” Hope said.  “All right, arabesque, then . . . entrechat. . . .

“That’s jumping?”

“Yes, jumping.  With feet crossed, like this.”  She crossed Anna May’s doll feet, then reached for her daughter’s ankles and crossed and uncrossed them, very quickly.  “You see?  And now a grand jeté and one more pirouette. . . .

Really, the fact is, she thought, that anybody can be made to shine–that anyone’s best, deepest qualities, however unapparent in his ordinary life, can be found and irradiated if someone is searching for them with an open heart.

As she always had been.  Always.

“Last sequence,” she warned her daughter.  “Changement, chassé, battement tendu . . . chassé again . . . and that’s it.  The dance is done.”

“She has to bow.”

“Of course.”

Anna May bowed–once, twice, several times (Rose and Violet erupted in a frenzy of applause of cries of “Magnificent!  Fabulous!”)–and Hope announced that it was time for lunch.

Her daughter protested, predictably, ticking off on her fingers a quick, clever list of reasons why she should be able to play “just for one more hour” (including how few calories she’d used up since breakfast, since she had been playing sitting down).  Why was it, Hope wondered as she smiled and shook her head, that other children–she heard them all the time!–asked for five minutes?

“Sorry,” she said, “but we all need a lunch break–dolls, girls, and women.”  Even as she spoke it struck her as that she knew the answer to the question she’d just asked herself.  Or rather she knew why her daughter didn’t ask for just five minutes: because it was too easy to obtain, so easy that it might as well be nothing–so that even if you got it, as children usually did, it wasn’t worth enough to bother with.  For her daughter, asking for too much came naturally, even when–perhaps especially when–she knew in advance that there was no chance whatsoever that she’d get it.

She gathered up her dolls now without being told to and lay them down, side by side, across the top of the basket full of their clothes.  “They’re going to take a nap,” she said.  “They’re exhausted.”

“Who can blame them?” Hope said.  “A performance is very tiring.  For the performer and for the audience.”

In the kitchen, she sliced bread for sandwiches and took cheese and salami, mustard, lettuce, apples, and two kinds of juice from the refrigerator.  She cut the crusts off her daughter’s sandwich–five slices of Genoa salami, one slice of cheddar cheese, no mustard and no lettuce–and began to make a sandwich for herself, still thinking about one thing while talking about another.  She talked to her daughter about what they would do after lunch–go to the park (and use up some calories)?  Draw pictures, perhaps at Mama’s studio, for a few hours?–and thought about how happy she had made all those men.  For a while, she’d made them happy.  Every one of them.  She had been good at it.  And then, bit by bit, she hadn’t made them happy anymore.  Bit by bit, doubts gnawed at them.  The fear of being found out kicked in stronger, as did questions about how smart and desirable she could be if she thought so highly of them.  Happiness dissolved; so did the romances.

That promise of happiness based on something half-seen, half-imagined, had to fail, she thought–was truly bound to fail.  And really she had learned that even before she knew she’d learned it; that is, she knew she was bound for failure without understanding why.  One reason she had trusted how she felt about her husband, early on, was that she was not–had never been–infatuated with him.  She had never had that charged-up sense that she’d invested him with any magic; she hadn’t had to take up her love-flashlight and go digging.  She saw his good qualities–they could not have been more obvious.  He was perhaps the first man she had ever met who was simply himself, through and through, who didn’t need to be dug into.

Of course, that she had never been required to perform her magic with him meant that he could not appreciate–that he didn’t even know about!–what might be Hope’s finest gift.  What he had required instead was only that she pay attention.

She was lucky, she thought, that she had been paying attention when he’d turned up in her life, that she’d thought to look at him, that she was quiet enough inside herself to see and hear and feel what was there before her.  That fleeting, liquid sort of happiness that she’d felt in the old days was not something she had missed.  And now?  She paused, bread knife in hand, about to cut both sandwiches in half.  No, not now, not a bit.  Sometimes she felt nostalgic for the way she used to feel, for that sudden bliss descending–pure joy; felicity.  But nostalgia was not longing.  It was only memory.  She was grateful for the life she had allowed herself to have.

She sliced the sandwiches.  She put a green apple on each plate.  She poured two glasses of juice–tomato for herself, grape for her daughter.  “Straws?” she asked, and her daughter said, “Of course.”

Hope laughed.  Felicity indeed.  “Anything else you can think of, Madam, to enhance the pleasure of the dining experience?”

“Yes,” she said.  “We could have a picnic on the playroom floor instead of eating at the table.  And share our lunch with Rose and Violet and Anna May.”

Hope started to say no, they had a rule–no playing while eating–and that since they didn’t have that many rules, it wasn’t as if it were so onerous to stick to the few they had.  But she paused, a glass in each hand, a hot pink straw protruding from each glass.  She thought about how certain her daughter was that she would say no.

“Oh, why not?” Hope said.

“Why not?” her daughter echoed.  “Really?”

“Why not?” Hope repeated.

Her daughter clapped her hands.  “Oh, Mama!  We can pretend we’re in the middle of a forest.  We can pretend we’re lost.”  She closed her eyes–rapturous, thinking it through.  “We can pretend we’re eating stuff we found in the woods.  And it will turn out to be magical.  And then we’ll be able to fly.  And disappear when we want to.  And. . . .”  She stopped to think again, as Hope set the glasses and plates on a tray.  “And have anything we want, just by wishing.”

“What will we wish for?” Hope asked, over her shoulder, as she headed to the playroom.


Everything! thought Hope, and smiled.  Why not?

And at that moment, she realized, she felt purely, wildly, happy–happy in the old way, or something almost like it.


As a teenager, so hooked on happiness was she that for a while Hope wanted to be called Felicity.  Everyone she knew was fooling with his or her name: Ronnie became Roni, pronounced with a long “o”; James, who’d been called by his proper given name and never Jim or Jimmy since he’d started kindergarten, told his friends he wanted to be known henceforth as Jamie; and Janine, who’d lived next door to Hope since second grade, took on James, since it was now vacant (“It defies the gender stereotypes,” said James herself, serenely.  It was the first time Hope had ever heard anyone say anything even remotely like that; it might have been one of the first times anyone did).  In fact, of all her friends, only one–the girl named Trudy Lebenbaum–didn’t have the slightest interest in changing her name, or, for that matter, in changing anything else about herself.  She was completely confident and self-possessed without being stuck-up or smug.  Hope admired and envied her.

When Hope asked her friends to call her Felicity, they agreed.  Even Trudy, who thought it was funny.  “Sure, Felicity,” she said, and laughed.  Hope couldn’t tell if she approved and was amused or disapproved and was amused.  The limit of that friendship, Hope thought sadly.  As much as she admired Trudy Lebenbaum, how close could you be to someone you couldn’t read, and who didn’t bother to explain? she wondered at sixteen.  (Little did she know, middle-aged Hope told herself.)

Her mother wasn’t nearly as sanguine as her crowd was.  “I’m not going to start calling you Felicity unless there’s a good reason for it,” she told Hope.  “Just tell me what you think is wrong with Hope?”

She was sick of Hope, Hope said.

Sick of hopefulness, her mother asked, or sick of herself?

Exactly, said Hope.  Who can tell the difference?

But why did that seem necessary? her mother wanted to know.

Hope groaned.  Of course it was necessary.  Angrily, she said, “You don’t understand anything, Mother.”  (It was only for the year she was sixteen that she called her mother Mother.  That she knew her mother disliked it–It’s so cold-sounding, Hope!–did nothing to discourage her.)

“Hope was meant to be a gift and not a burden,” her mother said.  She sounded sad.  But she sighed, too, and the way she sighed let Hope know that she’d been expecting this.  And she did not deny it when Hope said as much.

“Still,” her mother said, “I didn’t think that it would come so soon.  You’re so young yet, Hope.  I just wish you could be–”

Please, Mother,” Hope interrupted her.  “Felicity.”


Felicity didn’t stick.  How could she have thought it would?  Why should the name have been any more enduring than the state of being?  The abrupt, cascading brand of happiness for which she’d so yearned, and in which she had so luxuriated each time it descended–and for which she had so grieved each time it vanished–was as quick to disappear, as hard to disentangle from the thrill and risk of seeking and procuring it, and as costly in its way as the drugs her friends sought out and consumed as if these were their true vocations.

But then–to be fair–Roni didn’t stick for more than a few weeks.  Jamie, maybe three months.  Only Janine-into-James took hold and lasted–or lasted for as long as Hope knew her.  James’s parents moved away soon after graduation, and James went upstate to college; Hope stayed in the city.  During college, in fact, Hope lost touch with everyone she’d known before, including the estimable, inscrutable Trudy Lebenbaum–of whom she thought often in the years that passed, usually right around the time she was having her heart broken.  She’d think: Trudy, wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, isn’t letting anybody break her heart.

In her late twenties, under the influence of a boyfriend who was working toward his PhD in French literature, she read Flaubert and was struck by the line, “The secret of happiness is to be happy already.”  She felt she lacked the ability.  The boyfriend who had given her Flaubert’s complete works in paperback was already out of the picture by the time she came across this sentence.  She was spending all her time in bed then, reading, weeping, eating carrots, corn chips and potato chips, and celery (loud, snapping, crackling foods–what she always took to bed with her during these recovery periods; they were all she could bear).

Of course, since the moment she had slipped away from childhood she’d been pretty certain that happiness had something, if not everything, to do with men, with love, and from the start–no, from before the start; when she was still a child–she’d had plenty of problems revolving around love.  Long before The First Philosopher, whom she had considered her first Great Love, she had been in love to one degree or another and made miserable by it (ditto).  She was only six when she fell in love for the first time, with a boy named Jack who insulted her when he wasn’t ignoring her.  Nonetheless she loved him faithfully and secretly, not just all through first grade but throughout the rest of elementary school.  She remembered crying in the rest room during the sixth grade graduation party their teacher threw for them in the classroom, because he’d sat down at the party’s start beside another girl and hadn’t budged and Hope realized at last that he would never “like” her, that he had no interest in her, and that when they went to different junior high schools come September she would never cross his mind.

“Boy crazy,” someone called her when she was a freshman in college.  It was meant ironically–or at least it was said ironically, by a girl with whom she was having coffee at the Sugar Bowl between two classes they happened to be in together.  Hope had just confided in her that there was a boy in each of the classes they were both in whom she liked, one in 2D Design and one in Intro to English Lit (perhaps the real problem was her tendency to confide in perfect strangers–or for that matter her tendency to talk, period, about whatever she was feeling).

She was hurt.  It was the first time anyone had ever said this to her (to her was the key phrase; by then she suspected that people had been saying this about her, without irony, for years).  She didn’t know how to respond, not to mention what she was supposed to do.  Not fall in love?

It was a ludicrous idea.  Even at eighteen, she could not recall a time, since Jack in the first grade, when she hadn’t been in love.  But was that so terrible?

She asked herself this often–was it terrible? was there something wrong with her?–in those days: all through college and the years that followed, during graduate school and throughout the turbulent years after that, in New York and out, right up to the moment that she made the clear and conscious choice to throw in her lot with her husband–with sanity, she thought, with goodness, with decency and calm and trust.  She thought a lot, during those years, about what being in love felt like, what it meant, what it was for.  She thought about it almost constantly, and from every angle she could see (and even then she knew there would be some that she’d leave out, that there were things she couldn’t, wouldn’t, ever see).  She thought about it theoretically; she thought about it practically.  Sometimes she even managed, in the thick of it–the thick of love–to fight her mind’s way out just for a moment and stand back and observe herself; then she was amazed by the force of her desire, the constant thrill and thrum of it.  It wasn’t just her heart that yearned for it, she thought then–for her mind watched the action of her heart and wanted only to jump back in.  Me too, it cried.  Please, wait for me.

Not that her mind quit working when she was in love.  Whether she was lost in happiness or lost in sadness or, briefly, unlost (in that slice of still time when she felt that she was “over” someone and before she’d fallen for someone else), she thought constantly about love’s power over her.  What she’d once called love.  Infatuation.  Need.  Desire.  Longing.

She thought about the shock of the fulfillment of her longing and the way the longing didn’t drain away, for her (the way it did so often for the men, as if the equation were so simple, as if attainment canceled out desire), but inched up higher, until she was overfull: there seemed to be no end to how much she was capable of longing for.  No end to her capacity for love.  Or hope.

Or pain.  She wondered over the almost delicious pain–pain that made her shudder, gloriously; pain that felt like joy–when her beloved wounded her by saying something careless.  The triumphant glory of that pain could not, she felt sure, be traced to a secret wish not to be loved: if what had been said had been some truly dreadful thing, the wound inflicted by it would not have been delicious–would have been only devastating.  What enthralled her was what she could misinterpret, what was merely less than perfectly adoring.  It was her own quarter-twist of her loved one’s intention (or lack of complete enough intention–or attention) that shot this thrill of misery through her.  Her own hurt feelings made her swoon!  And why?  Because they reminded her of how deeply she felt, how much she loved?

Now she would never know.  She never felt this–she had never felt it–this exquisite, awful sensitivity in conversation with her husband.  Indeed, that she hadn’t had gone into the plus column right under “things in common” (but this, unlike the first entry, went into the plus column with a ghost-check in the minus column: was it truly love if she did not swoon in pain over chance remarks?).

Into the plus column went her own serenity: that when she was not with him, she did not feel as if she would die if she could not be with him again soon–that, instead, she felt calm, knowing she would be with him soon, and then again, and then again.  Into the plus column: that she was not afraid he’d disappear forever each time he was out of sight.  That she was not afraid that when he saw her after a brief absence he’d be disappointed by her.  Or that she might feel a flickering of disappointment, daydream downshifting to life, and have to make some hasty rearrangements and repairs, blending the two men, the real and the imagined.  Into the plus column: that each time she saw the man who would become her husband, in that first instant of seeing him, she could observe herself, feel herself, smiling, hugging herself, her arms crossing across her own chest, speaking his name softly, glad to see him.

But the ghost-checks in the minus column, for nearly every plus, nagged at her.  This was where, she knew, she had to take herself in hand.  For the first time in her life, love was quiet, trustworthy, undesperate.  She made a thoughtful, serious decision to refuse to let doubt undermine her.  Desperation–craziness–was nothing to be mourned.

Anyone could see that this was better.  She erased the ghost-checks.  That left just one item in the minus column–something she knew she would miss and could not force herself to rise above or look beyond or endure stoically, something she had been reserving for the men in her life ever since she’d left her teens and her first few love-failures behind (paving the way for more generous, dramatic, vaster, complicated failures), something for which her new boyfriend had no interest or aptitude or patience.

How would she survive without someone to talk to?

So she took herself in hand again, and she went looking for someone to talk to.

At parties and art openings and even campus meetings when there were strangers present, she kept one eye out–in just the way she had once gone to parties in New York, between romances, hoping to meet someone new.  This time she was searching for a friend.

She found her at a meeting of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Arts Center, where she had been asked to make a presentation.  Relations between the Faculty Advisory Committee and the Center’s Director and staff had been cool from the day the committee had been formed, and Hope had expected to be treated with suspicion and hostility, even though she knew the two representatives of the art department pretty well by then, and maintained friendly relations with the member of the dance department who had been appointed by the Dean to this committee (the dancer lived next door to her and they’d been known to chat over the fence, though nothing like real friendship had taken hold).  The mood of these meetings, Hope had been told by her boss, who had twice made presentations at them, was, “Who’s in charge here, anyway?”  He had felt under attack both times.

But Hope’s talk was well-received, and the questions asked were reasonable, interesting, or both.  People laughed at her jokes; nobody was mistrustful or sarcastic (as her boss had claimed they were); nobody challenged her authority (such as it was, she had to admit.  Perhaps the Director’s trouble had been the result of his having so much authority–so much that they knew he could ignore them if he felt like it).

One committee member, whom Hope had liked the looks of as soon as she’d spotted her (two long blond braids and blue jeans and jean jacket and a lacy white tank top and dangling rhinestone earrings and white Keds–enough dissonance to catch her attention), stood out from the crowd by asking questions that were not just “interesting” but strange, funny, clever, and provocative (and well off Hope’s topic and official area of expertise).  “You’re teasing me,” Hope said at last, in answer to a question about what Hope was almost certain was a made-up artist and imaginary exhibition “I’ve heard rumors about” that had to do with dead fish, slabs of meat and rotting fruit strung up on rope, accompanied by poetry inscribed in Braille.

Her name was Charity.  Things happen this way sometimes (and, as Hope and Charity, giggling like teenagers, liked to say to each other as their friendship developed: Life is full of odd coincidences; art better not be]).  She taught in the university’s creative writing program; she was a writer who specialized in memoirs and “personal essays,” although even in what she called her memoirs she mixed fact and fiction so that no one (even Charity by then) could be sure how much was true and how much was flat-out made up.  The first time she and Hope had lunch together–the day after they met (several hours after which Charity had phoned Hope in her office and apologized for teasing her and said, “We ought to get together.  Don’t you think we could be friends?”)–Charity described herself, straight-faced, as “excellent best-friend material.”  Hope laughed out loud.  “The position is still open, as it happens,” she said.  She could not recall the last time she’d had a best friend.

Charity had left her last teaching job, which she had liked, two and a half years before, because she and her husband (eighteenth century lit and creative writing, specialty the novel–“He swings both ways,” Charity said) had been commuting for five years, with teaching jobs at colleges three hundred miles apart.  They had both been offered jobs here.  Her husband was happy, as this was a better job in every way than the one he had had before.  Charity, however, had been having trouble getting used to life in the Midwest.  She was from California, and her teaching job had been in Oregon.  “How can anyone stand being in the middle this way?” she groaned.  “It’s like being stuck sixteen seats from either aisle at the theater.  It makes me claustrophobic.”

Hope sympathized.  “And that’s the least of it,” Charity said.  “What about this pathetic town?  Bad enough not to have an aisle seat, but to be in the center and be bored to death?”

Hope giggled.  She had said it herself, often enough, she admitted: this town of a million people had all the disadvantages of a real city–crowds, crime, pollution, traffic–and none of the advantages.  The Arts Center was the best museum in the city, and that wasn’t saying much.  It was one of only two, and the other was a vanity production–a half-dozen wonderful paintings, the rest filler from the collections of the wealthiest locals.  The symphony wasn’t worth hearing, and the ballet company performed–tired, safe, dull performances–to recorded music.  And then there were the malls.  Hope had never adjusted to them; it made her nervous to go from store to store without going outside in between them.  Charity didn’t mind malls–she’d grown up with them–but high on her list of complaints was fact that you couldn’t get a decent Mexican meal anywhere in town.  And (on both their lists) there wasn’t one Chinese restaurant that served an acceptable dish of cold noodles with sesame paste, goddamnit.

But the worst thing about her life here, said Charity, was feeling isolated and misunderstood.  There was no one in the English department besides her own husband whom she liked well enough for “serious friendship.”

Hope pondered the phrase.  Charity elaborated: “I consider myself a serially monogamous best friend.”  She said she’d been looking for someone like Hope for more than two years.  Hope blushed.

They had lunch, then, at least once a week–sometimes more often.  They had dinner, leaving the men (happily, apparently) at home.  Sometimes on weekend nights they “double dated”–the men joined them for dinner and a movie, or a concert.  They shopped together.  They talked on the phone often.

The long conversations, laden with confidences, detailed memories, microanalysis of every aspect of their lives, and day-to-dayness (How’d you sleep last night?  What did your Chair say when you told him that you wouldn’t be on that committee?  What’s for dinner at your place?), were almost as satisfying to her in their own way as the old unquiet, thrashing, overwhelming fever of a new romance had been “before.”  In her former life, as she said.

Charity expected much of Hope, and Hope was glad to be relied upon.  She had always had a special gift for loyalty, fidelity, devotion, and pure continuity, which, she felt, had never been appreciated.  She was not capricious in her affections: in love, she stayed in love until she was forced to shake herself out of it–a process that had sometimes taken years after a breakup.  Faithful: that’s what she was, it occurred to her one Sunday afternoon, early in their friendship, as they sat drinking tea on Charity’s front porch.  Faithful even more than hopeful.

Hope said, “I should have been called Faith.  It would have made more sense.”

“If you had more faith in yourself, maybe it would have,” Charity said carelessly.  Hope was surprised.  Charity patted her hand.  “But this could be something we could work on.”

Was it a coincidence that things started looking up?  Only a few months after that, Hope finally secured a dealer in New York, and six months after that, her first one-person show was held there.  Nearly everything was sold.  For the opening, Hope returned to New York with her boyfriend, who would soon be her husband, and her best friend, whose husband stayed behind to work.  She held tight to both their hands for the first half-hour, until Charity made her let go, have a drink, and talk to people.

The gallery was packed full of rich clients mixed with everybody Hope had ever known who still lived in New York and for whom she still had or could find addresses.  She’d sent postcards to everyone, old boyfriends included–eight of whom showed up.  Her high school art teacher showed up.  As did her piano teacher (this was her mother’s doing).  And a family for whom she’d babysat when she was thirteen, the two children twenty-six and thirty now, respectively, the older one with his own six-year-old in tow–the age he’d been the last time Hope had seen him.

Hope drank three glasses of wine and talked to people who had bought her paintings, trying not to thank them but instead to look dignified and worthy, and she hugged or accepted hugs from people she hadn’t seen in years.  College friends, and friends from graduate school.  People she had worked with, at one job or another, in the years after she’d finished school, before she’d left New York.  And her own family, of course–not just her parents but her one remaining grandparent and several aunts and uncles, one great-aunt who happened to be visiting from Florida, and a surprising scattering of cousins from Long Island and New Jersey–even cousins once and twice removed.  It was a sobering event.  It was right after this that she decided to get married.

Charity urged her on.  She had been urging her on for months, ever since the question of marriage had first been raised.  Hope had protested that Charity, because she’d been married for so long herself, had a vested interest in Hope’s being married too.  “So what?” was Charity’s response.  “I’m supposed to be disinterested?”

Was she married happily?  Would Charity say that? Hope–who’d never before had a close friend who was married–asked her.  “Just say yes or no–make it as clean as possible.  Leave out all the details.”

Charity grinned.  “A straight answer, huh?  To ‘am I married happily?’”  She shrugged.  “No less than most, I’d say.”  And before Hope could protest, could demand a less evasive answer, Charity reminded Hope (again!) of how much she loved, trusted, and admired her boyfriend.  Patiently, she brought up once more that Hope had told her that this time, for once, love had not turned her life inside out, that she was working better–more reliably and less distractedly–than she had ever worked before.  She pointed out that not only did Hope have the evidence of this first solo show’s success, but she was in her studio most nights–three times a week after she and her boyfriend met for dinner and before they settled down to spend the night together; twice a week after Hope’s dinners with Charity; and twice a week straight from her job, with a sandwich from the deli in a paper bag–and a good six hours every Saturday and Sunday.  “He’s not interfering with your work,” said Charity.  “He’s happy for you, proud of your successes.  He’s loyal and generous”–and  so on, telling Hope the very things Hope had told her.  “All that stuff in the plus column,” she said teasingly, “how can you ignore that?”
Hope protested.  She was not ignoring anything.  Indeed, she said, what about the one still-nagging item in the minus column–her true love’s unwillingness or incapacity to talk to her?  Charity tossed her braids.  “Cross it off.  What am I for, if not to cross it off?”  She kissed Hope’s cheek.  “You have me for that.  I have you.”  She took Hope’s beringed hand.  “Go on,” she said.  “Get married.  Take a hopeful leap over the cliff.”

And so she did.  And later, when Charity left her own husband and left her–left her old life, altogether–Hope tried not to feel as if she had been tricked.  Well, she had not been tricked.  She had done the right thing–she was happy, married.

She was happy; she was lonely.  There was no one to talk to but her daughter.


When Hope was pregnant, and making lists of names for the child, for a while she thought that if it was a girl she might name her Hope–just so that when she reached adolescence and war broke out between them, Hope (the elder) would have the chance to refer sardonically to what was happening as Hope Against Hope.

“And do you think that will help you to bear it better?” Charity asked.  Her tone was gentle.  In those days her manner toward Hope was still tender–never (not yet) mocking.

“No.  I think it’ll make it less boring to talk about.  Titles are very handy for that.”

“Are they?”  Charity cocked her head.  “All of your paintings are called ‘Untitled.’”

Exactly,” Hope said.  “And I don’t talk about them at all.  And it makes it harder for other people to.”

“I see,” said Charity, but the way she said it made Hope think she might be humoring her.  (Later on, Hope realized that she should have read this as a portent.  The trouble was, she’d never been good at reading her own uncertainty.  And even if she had been certain Charity was humoring her, she wouldn’t have been able to read that, either.  Perhaps the real trouble was that she was incapable of being prepared for anything at all that would befall her–that she had no gift for portents, could not read signs.)

If Charity had not shut that conversation down, Hope would have explained that what she meant was that she didn’t want her relationship with her daughter to be mysterious, that what she couldn’t bear was the thought of a relationship that was beyond the grasp of words.  You’d think Charity, a writer, would have understood this.  But in fact Charity had always been amused by Hope’s “fixation on clarity.”  She liked wordplay; she liked poetic devices.  She teased Hope (gently, it was true, but still it smarted) for needing so much narrative.  It was true: Hope put things into words for the sake of meaning.  Privately she thought that Charity’s writing could have used more narrative and less of the lyric.

Between herself and her daughter, she would have told Charity if she’d had the chance, she wanted exposition.  She wanted a story.  She wanted the meaning of it to be clear, unmuddied.  What she wanted was impossible.

What she wanted, she thought, was the same impossible thing everybody wants for her child: what she hadn’t had herself.

“What I think,” was all Hope said to Charity, “is that what will make me able to bear it better–better than my mother bore our war, anyway–is planning for it, knowing it’s coming.”

Still, in the end, she didn’t name her daughter Hope.  Briefly she considered the Russian equivalent, Nadezhda.  Her husband pointed out that it would take years for the poor child to learn how to spell her own name (“and I might never be able to, since I can’t even pronounce it”).  Then she thought about some variant of it: Nadia, Nadya, Nadenka, or even Nadine (her husband kept shaking his head).  She spent a whole day trying to figure out what it meant, in a global sense, that no other language except Hindu seemed to have a name that meant “hope”–and she couldn’t justify a Hindu name, not the way she could insist to her husband that a claim to Russian wasn’t so unreasonable, when all four of her grandparents were Russian Jews.  (“But we aren’t,” he said, through gritted teeth.)  In the end–or near the end–she mentioned her idea to her own mother, and her mother was so horrified, she infected Hope with horror too.  “Jews don’t name their children after themselves!  It’s not only goyische, it’s bad luck.  Name her after somebody you loved who’s gone.  Name her after your grandmother.”

“No, Mom.  I can’t do that.  As much as I loved Grandma, I can’t name my daughter Ida.  Sorry.”

“Use the I, then.  It’s tradition.  Name her Iris or Iona or Ilene.  Or what about Aunt Evelyn?”

“Aunt Evelyn?  I hardly knew her.  She was your favorite aunt.  Anyway, it’s not ‘tradition.’  It’s an American custom.”

“A Jewish-American custom,” her mother said.  “What’s wrong with that?  And don’t tell me you didn’t know Aunt Evelyn.  You were crazy about her–your Great Aunt Evelyn!  She taught you how to draw.”

“She taught me how to draw?  I hardly–”

But her mother was off and running.  “You could name her Ellen, or Emily.  Or Emma.  Emma’s a very popular name these days.  Two of my friends’ daughters named their daughters Emma.”  Hope sighed.  There was no point in responding when her mother got worked up this way.  “Or you could name her after your father’s mother.  Maybe she wasn’t the nicest woman, but she was your other grandmother.”  She said this without conviction.  “L is a lovely letter.  Use the L.  Lisa, Laura, Leslie, Lynn. . . .”

For several weeks, she thought of naming her after an artist.  She dragged books home from the art library, studied reproductions of Lotte Laserstein’s expressionist figures and Irene Rice Pereira’s geometric abstractions and a self-portrait by the baroque painter Artemesia Gentileschi.  But while she liked the name Lotte, she wasn’t entirely persuaded by the paintings, and she wasn’t about to name her daughter for a painter whose work she didn’t admire.  She liked Artemesia’s self-portrait, but to saddle her daughter with Artemesia was almost as bad as Ida (and, her husband pointed out, as problematic as Nadezhda).  And so on.

It was during this search for a name–the right name, the perfect name–that it struck her for the first time that with the exception of Lee Krasner (and no woman in her right mind would name a daughter after her, Hope thought) there weren’t any women artists whose work she truly loved among the dead.  Which made her wonder. There had to have been women making paintings in previous generations that she would have loved if she had ever seen them–women other than the handful reproduced in the books: Sofonisba Anguissola (her husband’s favorite) and the medieval illuminator who signed herself depentrix (“woman painter”), the Nun Ende and the Renaissance painter Andriola de Barrachis, et al. Or had all the other women artists–potential artists–been too busy looking after genius husbands (or genius fathers or brothers–or children, genius or not) to paint anything at all?  (Imagine, Hope thought, if Lee Krasner had had a child as well as her genius painter husband to take care of.  She wouldn’t have been able to do anything, even after Jackson Pollock was dead.)

Thus, when it came to it, she named her daughter Willa, after no one.  She chose it for its beauty–even Charity, who was tired of the subject by then, agreed it was a pretty name–and because her husband raised no objections to it.  But also, secretly, because she could call her Will for short: another way, Hope told herself, of preparing for the inevitable.


Hope, in her mid-forties, is exhausted.  Married, with one child, the daughter she calls Will; employed by a major research university in the Midwest, where she is now Associate Director of the Arts Center; still (still! despite the dire predictions of everyone she knew, when she’d accepted the promotion from Repair and Installation, just before Will’s fourth birthday) painting her small, imaginary landscapes (although her palette has changed over the last decade, particularly since the birth of Will–has become more muted, subtler and narrower, closer in fact to nature’s own; this, in direct contrast to the images themselves, which have grown more complicated and expansive, ever stranger, and more detailed), she is pulled in too many directions, has too much to do in the course of any given day, hasn’t had a night of quite enough sleep since the second trimester of her pregnancy, cannot imagine how she can go on this way much longer.

She is not unhappy.  On the contrary, she is so much happier than she had ever expected to be that she will sometimes pause in the course of one of her astonishingly busy days–days during which there is not a single moment of leisure, not a moment to be bored or lonely or even to turn the pages of a newspaper without really reading any of the articles–and think How could this have happened?

But she is so tired, there are days she falls asleep while sitting at her desk, or, when finally she can make her way to her studio, after working at the Center and playing with Will, cooking dinner for her family and sitting down with them to eat it, then racing out of the house to the studio her husband built for her in their backyard, on the site of what had once been a ramshackle shed, for the two or three hours nightly she has free until Willa’s bedtime, she will be too weary to take up a brush or too sleepy, once the brush is in her hand, to trust herself to put paint to panel.  She is so tired she routinely falls asleep while putting Will to bed.  Her daughter will bend over her then, sitting up in her ballet slipper-print pajamas, her mouth to Hope’s ear, and wake her by whispering, “Mama, the day isn’t done yet.”  Matter-of-factly.  She is serene and confident in a way Hope has never been, and now never will be: it is simply too late to become something other than herself.  She is Hope through and through–she knows that now.

Not that she hasn’t changed in bits and pieces over the years; not that marriage and a child, a good job, a beautiful old house she and her husband own, a gallery on Fifty-seventh Street that shows her paintings every other year–a stable and rewarding life, a life she’d never thought she’d have–haven’t had any effect on her.  She can’t find within herself even a trace of desperation now.  And, oh, when young, she was so desperate!  She’s patient now, too; she had never known before that she was capable of being patient.

Her husband requires nearly as much patience as her daughter does.  Waiting for him to speak requires patience, as does trying to figure out what he is thinking.  Her work requires patience, too–more and more as each year passes: her landscapes have become so painstakingly detailed that a review of her last show called them “exhaustive” as well as the more familiar “enigmatic.”  And they take much longer to make than they used to–nothing like the months her husband’s paintings take, but she finds now that she will have to work for six months on three or four small paintings at the same time, moving back and forth between them.  Sometimes it will be that long–six months!–between finished paintings, which she has not yet grown accustomed to.

Simply living in the Middle West requires patience, too, even after all these years.  She still thinks of herself as a New Yorker in exile and has to remember forcibly and frequently to make adjustments to the pace as well as to the restaurants, the mall-store shopping, the lack of efficient public transportation, and the fact that everyone she knows is married.

In New York, she’d known hardly any married people.  She would have chalked this up to youth–she hadn’t lived there past the age of thirty-four–but the people she’d known then who had remained there were still single.  Men and women both.  The only married friend she could recall she’d ever had in New York was someone who had left his wife for her (then left her, too, just over a year later).  She’d never once been to a dinner party in New York at which every guest was married (well, in New York she’d never been to any dinner parties: everybody met at restaurants instead.  No one she knew had sufficient room, or chairs, to have their friends over for dinner).  Here, she couldn’t think of even one time she’d gone to somebody’s house for dinner when she was still single and there had been other single people there.

Not that there were a lot of dinner parties, anyway.  Nobody had time to socialize.  They were all too busy with their families.  In New York, everyone she knew had time to get together with her friends.  As busy as they were, there was always time to meet for dinner or a drink or lunch or coffee.  And everybody made a lot of phone calls.

Now she too lives within the small and solid-seeming circle of her marriage and her daughter, her own tiny family, just like everybody else.  Charity would have kept this from happening, if she’d stuck around.  But she and Charity–she calls herself Char now–had ceased to be friends before the end of the first year of Willa’s life.  Hope heard, after Charity stopped talking to her, that nearly everyone in the English department had taken sides when Charity left her husband.  Soon after, he found another job, and left–which seemed strange to Hope, since he’d been the one who had been happy here, not Charity.

Charity is tenured now, and Hope has heard that she lives with someone new, someone who teaches elsewhere in the university.  She isn’t likely to be going anywhere.  Hope sometimes sees her in the farmer’s market, or on campus or on the busy street across from campus, but it is always from a distance, and there are always lots of people between them.  It’s remarkable, really, given how small the town is, that they haven’t run into each other in a way that would require conversation or even an exchange of greetings.

The only reason she knows anything about Charity–Char, she still has to correct herself, when she thinks about her–is that the Director of the Arts Center, Hope’s boss, is married to someone in her department, and he knows that Hope and Charity had once been friends and had (in his phrase) “broken up.”

Her boss had been single when Hope had first come to town.  Then, a year later, he was married, too.  It was as if you couldn’t live here if you weren’t married.

But it’s not only that everyone is married.  It’s also all the talk about it.  It seems to her that people here speak endlessly about their marriages.  She’s sick to death of the phrases my husband and I and my wife and I.  She’s sick to death of we.  When she complains about this to her husband, he says she’s imagining it.  “I’ve lived here as long as you have and I’ve never noticed anyone talking about his marriage.”  Hope refrains from mentioning that this is because people don’t talk to him about anything–that he does his best to avoid conversation.  “Maybe it’s just the women,” she says tactfully–but also because it’s mainly women she talks to.  And perhaps the trouble is that all the women she knows well enough to talk to about anything have been married longer than she has, have ceased to see themselves as other than an and I or a part of we.

She’s met a few women, of course, who have not been married for much longer than she has, but they are all too young for her.  They never get as far as conversation.  The real trouble, she thinks, is that she hardly knows any women.  There are women she sees, even women she sees every day–the girls (that’s how she thinks of them; she can’t help it–they are all still in their twenties) who work at the Arts Center–but they aren’t only far too young, they are too cool, and they’re cool in the artsy, Middle Western, Big Ten way: carefully and constantly, in black from neck to toe, even in August, and deeply suspicious of Hope, who wears bright colors and raises her voice when she’s excited and wears too much jewelry and had left New York, when New York is what they all aspire to.  (That Hope had left has to mean that she wasn’t cool enough to have remained there, as if the city were a club–or a sorority, more likely!–and she’d failed to make the final cut.)  They never talk to her except when work obliges them to do so, as if they are afraid that being middle-aged and having left New York will rub off on them.

And even they are married–every one of them, Hope has discovered.  Sometimes she wants to tell them that they have already blown it, that you can’t be married and still be that cool: the concepts are mutually exclusive.

Then there are the women she’s met through her daughter–the playground mothers and rec center mothers and now kindergarten mothers, plus a few leftover mothers from the year between Will’s first and second birthdays, when she’d attended meetings of La Leche League, to which she’d turned for support when both her husband and Will’s pediatrician urged her to stop nursing.  With the mothers, Hope has arguments.  She’ll be sitting in the parents’ waiting room at the rec center with a dozen or more other mothers while the kids tap dance or do “creative drama” or gymnastics behind closed doors under the supervision of someone named Miss Jennifer, Miss Heather, Mister or Miss Kyle, Sidney, or Taylor, and somebody will say something about her plan to get a sitter so that she and her husband can have “a real date” the coming weekend, and Hope–telling herself not to–will start asking questions.  Looking for trouble, she knows it.  She will end up saying that she and her husband haven’t had a “real date” since Will’s birth–or even before, depending on one’s definition of a date.  If it means dinner and a movie, then they haven’t had a date for going on six years.  The last trimester of her pregnancy, they’d gone out together only to buy baby things, usually to the twenty-four-hour everything store that was on Hope’s very short list of the things she liked about this town–liked because they could drive over in the middle of the night if she found that she couldn’t sleep, which was most nights by then, and because, when they had filled the shopping cart, a recitation of its contents read like a found poem (milk, film, blue jeans, towels, cassette tapes, salad greens, wrench, eggs, gorgonzola, cordless phone, extension cord, receiving blankets, sugar snap peas, car seat).  They have never left their daughter with a sitter, she will say.

“Never?”  Looks of amazement–and some of amusement–all around.


“You’ve never left your daughter?  You’re with her all the time?”

“Either I am or my husband is.  Except when she’s in school, of course.  She started school this year.”  And then she’ll add, although she knows she shouldn’t, knows in advance the kind of looks they’ll flash to one another, “And I miss her terribly.  So I can’t imagine why I’d leave her with a stranger during the little time we do have with her now.”

In the playground, at the pool, in the public library, she will find herself involved in different versions of this conversation.  She’ll point out, knowing it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do, that she knows how lucky she is, that her husband’s schedule is almost entirely in his own hands, except for the few hours every day he has to teach.  He can work in his studio at odd hours–late at night or very early in the morning–while Hope is home with Willa, and when she’s out in her studio, after dinner for a few hours every night and sometimes all day long on weekends, he stays in the house with Will–or else she takes Will with her, and they both paint, each in their separate corners.  Plus, if she wants to, in the summertime or if Will has a day off from school, she can bring her with her to work at the Center.

“Doesn’t sound like you see much of your husband,” someone will say.  “Doesn’t that bother him?”

And someone else–waist-deep beside her in the shallowest end of the big pool, as the kids splash and swim clutching their “noodles” or enclosed by inflatable rings adorned with pictures of the Teletubbies; or standing by the swings; or sitting next to her on a bench absent-mindedly eating Flavor-Blasted Goldfish out of a plastic bag–will say that she herself believes that there is nothing more important than “looking after” her husband, that if he starts to feel neglected she will instantly begin to rearrange their lives “to get back on track” in her marriage.

Hope knows she shouldn’t let this get to her, but it does, every time.  She’ll say–knowing that she ought to keep still, knowing that she’s going to be sorry–that she doesn’t “look after” her husband.  He’s an adult, isn’t he?  He can look after himself, can’t he?

Apparently not.  No one ever agrees with her.  Or–and as far as she’s concerned, this doesn’t count–someone will agree in principle that adults should be expected to look after themselves, and then explain why her husband should be excepted.

Hope’s husband never complains about not being looked after, as other women say their husbands do (and it seems to Hope that they are bragging even when they are complaining: their husbands need them more than hers needs her).  Is it possible that he does resent not having more of her attention?  More of her?  She worries over this after each conversation with the other mothers.  Even as she defends herself, even as she argues with them, doubts are planted.  And although she has told herself that if her husband were unhappy she would know it, she cannot be sure.

Even after seven years of marriage, she doesn’t really know him, not in the ways that count.  And what are the ways that count?  He alone among the men she’d cared for in her life had never felt that she “at last” could see him as he really was.  That meant that she had never received any confirmation about what she thought, saw, knew.  If he hadn’t fallen in love with her because he’d felt seen finally for his secret, most essential self, then even while he had been spared–just as she had–from the dread that perhaps she and he were wrong (that exhilaration/fear continuum!), she had never had the chance to make sure she was right.

She thinks sometimes about the road she’d taken toward her marriage, about how reluctant she had been, and the role Charity–her last non-mother-friend, she realizes–had played in moving her along the last few miles of that road, coaching her around each turn and fork, coaxing her until she reached her destination.

She had understood, almost as soon as she was married, that until then she had never really thought she would marry.  That all those romances she’d had were but red herrings in her search for lifelong love.  She had chosen boyfriend after boyfriend whom she never would have, could have, married.

She hadn’t meant to marry, or she hadn’t thought she would–it seems to her these come down to the same thing.  And either way, she hadn’t known, not until she became a wife, that she had not expected or even imagined that she’d ever be one.

She remembers telling Charity, during their months of debate leading up to her wedding, that although she knew she was “the friend of anybody’s dreams–the best friend in the world–hell, the best best friend in the world,” and as a girlfriend, even better (“Why not?  All the benefits of friendship plus the pleasures of romance”), she was sure she’d be a lousy wife.  Charity had laughed at her.  “You’ll be a fine wife.  It’s not hard to be a wife.  What worries you?  Fidelity?”

But that was perhaps the only part of it that didn’t worry her.  Fidelity had always come easily to Hope.  No, it was the day-to-dayness that made her uneasy, she told Charity.  The loss of privacy after living by herself for so many years.  The giving up of hurried solitary dinners of sardines out of the can, or crackers and an apple.  Reading at the table.  Silence in the morning before she had had her coffee.

“I don’t think you have to worry about silence,” Charity said dryly.

“You know what I mean.  Having to deal with another human being before I’ve had two cups of coffee.”

“You’re looking for excuses,” Charity said.  “You two can sit silently together over breakfast.  You can both read at the table.  Why do you think he stayed single for so long?  You two were meant for each other.”

But what did Charity know? Hope wonders, looking back–Charity, who must have once thought this about herself and her own husband, and who’d left him.

It doesn’t matter, Hope tells herself (she isn’t sure if she means fate itself, or Charity’s dethroning–for hadn’t she once been, or put on a good show as, Hope’s own foremost authority on marriage?).  That she had not been swept away was part of why she’d trusted what she felt this time, for she had never been in love before without that furious uplifting force, that turmoil and drama that felt like an undoing.  It was the combination of feelings and nonfeelings this time that seemed to her just what she had been looking for, without knowing it was possible to have.  Was that “fate”?

Fated or not, Hope is certain she made the right choice–not just that she chose the right man for her husband, but that she did right to stop moving through her life like a heat-guided missile.  If she were going to spend her life beside anyone at all, it had to be with someone with whom she did not have high-intensity, all-night-long conversations and who felt moved to press her up against a wall whenever she walked by, or with whom she felt she had to share every stray and quickly passing thought or feeling–the sort of overpowering soulful and erotic connection she had sought, and sometimes even briefly found, for so many years.  She was–is–too distractible and too emotionally labile and high-strung.  She would not have been able to function in a marriage that demanded so much of her.

As it is, her marriage fits into the cracks between her work and her devotion to her daughter.  And her husband’s work and his devotion to their daughter.  They had married knowing that they each would “come in second” to their work; that their daughter turned out to be more important still had come as a surprise.  But they’ve accommodated the surprise; they are in agreement about her place in their lives and have managed everything around it: she is simply more important than they are, separately or together.

Will counts so much more than anything or anybody else, Hope can’t believe she’d lived so long without her, before her.  There is nothing in the world that matters more–not work, which used to be the central thing; not romantic love, which used to fight for prominence with work; not friendship, which at least with Charity had been as crucial to her as what she had with her husband; not marriage itself.

And perhaps that–Will–is why she had needed what she’d needed (and not wanted what she had not wanted) from a marriage.  Without knowing it, of course.  She’d known that she needed to be free to work–but she couldn’t have known that she would require the freedom to be the sort of mother she was meant to be.

She’d had no idea what sort of mother she was meant to be.  She’d had no idea what Will would mean to her.  But the truth is that Will gives her life its meaning.  She’s never once said this out loud to anyone–because it’s a cliché, because it’s sentimental, because it sounds so anti- (or at the very least pre-) feminist–but nothing else would matter, without her.  Not work.  Not love.  Not marriage.


Sometimes Hope thinks of her relationship with Will as the most complex, interesting friendship she has ever had.  But she knows better, knows that this relationship is better than a friendship.  Better than a friendship; better than being in love–like being in love, in fact, but like being in love with your best friend.  No, better than that.  There’s nothing like it, really.  The way Hope loves her daughter is so different from the way she’s ever loved anyone else–the way she knows her is so different from the way she’s ever known anyone else–there’s simply nothing to compare it to.

She has been conscious of this, it seems to her now, since before Will was born, when she felt her moving under her own skin, watched the fist or foot bump-slide across her inside her as she lay in the bathtub, or felt that heave and shift as Will resettled her whole self in Hope’s womb, searching for a more comfortable position, Hope imagined.

It’s better, more compelling, than a romance for a thousand reasons, or if not a thousand then a handful so profound they might as well be many hundred: depth and certainty and endlessness and rightness and rewards that are more tangible and more reliable (but not predictable: there’s never any way to guess what new joy, in what form, is just ahead; there is at least one splendid, frank surprise each day) than any she has ever known.  There is also this: there’s the pure fact that romance, in its early glory, dies.  That the thrill of romance shimmering around its newness, that rapturous first-days or first-weeks–oh, sometimes, at its best, it even stretches out to months–of getting-to-know-all-about-you that lies at the heart of falling in love, wears off every time. The wearing-off is built in; it’s the nature of romance.  But the pleasure of discovery–the ecstasy of discovery–has not worn off with Will because Will changes every day.  She is always new; she is renewably new.

Once she grows up, Hope knows, this will no longer be true.  But that is a long way away.  And even once she settles into her permanent self (her more or less permanent self, for Hope knows from experience that people don’t stop changing; they just change more slowly and in less startling ways), even when that thrill recedes at last, when surprised discovery and its attendant joy no longer fill Hope every day, she has no reason to believe that Will’s full-grown and settled self won’t be as wonderful, as lovable, as complicatedly fascinating and precious as every self-stage she passed through on her way there.  Even then, Hope will have someone to adore.

From the start, Willa was the most adorable and fascinating human being she had ever known.  She had told this to anyone who’d listen.  Which had turned out to be hardly anybody.  Even Charity, her best friend–especially Charity, her best friend–tired of the subject quickly.  Tired of Hope.  Or perhaps Charity was jealous.  If so, Hope couldn’t blame her, not entirely.  Charity had grown used to her full attention, and once Willa came along no one and nothing else could claim her full attention anymore.

At the beginning, Hope had assumed, then wished, that Charity would take Will on–become a sort of godmother, Aunt Charity, the extra adult whom Will would need somewhere along the line, the sort of person Hope herself had yearned for when she was a teenager.  But Charity would not be Aunt Charity.  Charity was angry.  She resented that when she called, needing to talk, Hope was busy with the baby.  That when they got together, Willa was there too, tucked into the sling Hope wore or upright in the Snugli or across Hope’s lap.  “You’re not actually listening to me,” Charity had said that first year of Willa’s life, again and again.  And, “Maybe if you’d put the baby down. . . .”

Of course, Hope’s husband used to say that too.  But he was less direct.  He said, “She’ll never learn to take care of herself if you have her in your arms every single second.”

“She’s two months old,” Hope would say patiently.  “She’s not supposed to take care of herself.”

“You know what I mean, Hope.  Give her some room.  You’re at her all the time.”

He never said, Pay attention to me. He just said–essentially–Pay less attention to her.

But Hope was afraid to pay less attention to Will.  She was afraid the baby would be lonely if she put her down.  She knew she would be lonely, if she did.

And she couldn’t spare any attention for anyone else.  She told herself that she would figure out a way to manage things so that she’d have some time–some of herself–for other people, too.  She told herself that her husband was an excellent man to whom one day surely she would once again begin to pay attention.  But time passed; Will turned one, and two, and three and four and five–and now she is in school each day from nine till three and still Hope can’t seem to find any self left for anyone else.

“I wish you could love the baby, too,” Hope had told Charity, and Charity had said, “The baby’s fine.  The baby’s not the problem.  She’s a cute, sweet baby.  But I’m your friend and a friendship takes two people.  Where are you in this friendship?”

“I’m right here,” Hope said.  “There’s just less of me.”

“There’s nothing, Hope.”

And suddenly there was nothing.  The friendship ended altogether.  Charity vanished from her life.  “There’s no room for me in your life anymore,” Charity had said, and though Hope had protested, later on, after Charity was gone, she thought she’d probably been right: there really wasn’t any room for her, not then.  The place she had reserved for Charity had been given over to the baby.  Like everything.  But that wouldn’t last forever, would it?  It seemed to Hope that if everyone just had patience, she would figure out how to make room enough for everyone and everything.  A place for everything and everything in its place.

For days, weeks, after Charity told Hope she’d had it, Hope found herself following her husband around the house, trying to talk to him.  She’d say the kind of things to him that she might once have said to Charity–she’d tell him a dream she’d had the night before, or mention something she remembered suddenly.  But it had been months since she had talked to Charity this way–since she had talked to anyone in any way at all, really.  It was a kind of panic reaction, she thought later on; it was as if she were afraid she’d never have a chance to talk to anyone again.  But her husband didn’t know what to make of it.  He was at first baffled and then he began to be irritated.

“Hope, I’m trying to think,” he’d say.  “Give it a rest, can’t you?”

And now they began to argue.  Neither one of them was angry, really, she thought.  He’d blow up at her and then apologize.  She’d cry–“But I’m so lonely!” she’d say–and then she’d be ashamed.

Once, she swallowed her pride and called Charity.  She asked her if they couldn’t find a way to be friends again.  “On some new basis, maybe,” she said.  “Starting fresh.”  But Charity was blunt and chilly.  “I think not,” she said.  “You’ve become dull, Hope.  You’re obsessed.  You’ve always been obsessive, but when you were obsessed with memories and narratives of all those men who had paraded through your life, and when you were driving yourself crazy trying to make up your mind whether to get married, at least you were amusing.  You’re not amusing anymore.”

Humiliation.  Humiliated, and once more best-friendless–without a soul to talk to but her mostly silent husband, baffled by her need for conversation and her year-old child (whom she talked to, but whose responses were fragmented, if precocious)–Hope found herself thinking about the first time she’d been humiliated by the person she considered her best friend.  The memory dated to roughly the age of three: lying on her back, on the tweedy black-and-white living room carpet before the TV– “Wonderama,” she thought it had been, that Sunday entertainment marathon (her first crush, in fact, had been on its host, the handsome Sonny Fox)–propped up on a stack of couch cushions, sucking idly on the baby bottle she had still not given up, her mother in the kitchen, when the doorbell rang.  Her mother answered; in walked her best friend: the taller, slimmer, self-possessed, self-confident, six-months-older Nora.  Who, upon spotting Hope where she lay, said with grown-up disdain, “You still drink a bottle!  What a baby you are, Hope!”

She gave up the bottle then, at that instant and forever.  Gave it to her mother with as much dignity as she could summon (her mother was astonished, for she’d been trying for something on the order of two years to coax Hope out of using it) and said, “I don’t need this anymore.”

A phrase she would pull out, time and again, as the years and decades passed.  She pulled it out each time a romance went sour, trying to believe that it was really true–she didn’t need it anymore.  And when Charity abandoned her, she drew it out again, and tried hard to believe it.


When Charity–Char–vanished from her life, Hope not only pulled out the old phrase but brooded anew over Nora, whom she hadn’t thought about since she had left New York.  She’d seen her just before she’d left, after a gap of more than twenty years–she’d tracked her down, which she had thought of doing for a long time.  Suddenly, as she prepared to leave New York for what she feared might be for good, it seemed essential to find out what had become of her old friend.

It was a mistake, a terrible disappointment.  The Nora she remembered, the girl who’d lived downstairs–directly below Hope’s family’s apartment, when they had still lived in an apartment building–had grown up into someone Hope would never have befriended.  How could that have happened?  She had been wild about Nora; she had wanted to be Nora.  Nora was beautiful, she was fascinating, she was talented–she was magical.  She had long, straight, glossy black hair and she was tall and slender and she sang like Barbra Streisand.  Her manner, both with boys who “liked” her–and they all seemed to–and with girls she wasn’t close to, was politely condescending.

She was only six months older than Hope, but she was so much taller that Hope wore her hand-me-downs.  She wore them gladly–wore them with pride, and love–even though they never looked right on her.  Some were too sophisticated; some were simply too outlandish–for Nora’s mother, Dorrie, had a flair for the dramatic that she exercised on her two daughters as well as on herself.  Nora and her elder sister Dolly wore black in the late fifties and early sixties, when no one put a child in black; they wore jumpers made of burlap, red wool dresses that fit snugly and had grown-up looking buttons, large and gold, that fastened up the front, and wild-patterned suits with tailored jackets and ties Dorrie bought in the boys’ section of May’s; they wore berets, leg-hugging boots with high heels, knit neon-colored dresses that came to their ankles.  Hope’s own clothes, picked out by her mother, were pale pink or cream-colored or lavender, had flocking, lace, or little flowers sewed on at the collar; they were made of gingham, seersucker, or, in cool months, corduroy; they had small pearl buttons.  And she wore anklets with them, or thick leggings in the winter–not black dance tights or dark stockings held up with a garter belt, like Nora.  Even at five, Hope knew she looked silly in Nora’s outgrown clothes, but she fought to wear them anyway.  The more doubts her mother had, the harder she fought.

The summer Hope was thirteen and Nora was gaining on fourteen, Hope’s family moved out of the apartment building, into a house of their own.  It was just a mile away but it was in another school district; it meant that she and Nora, starting in September, would have different, entirely separate lives.  But even before the new school year began, things changed.  Nora started dating; that changed everything.  She was not quite fourteen but she looked sixteen, and she was dating a boy who was even older– eighteen, nineteen?  He was out of high school, getting ready to start classes at CCNY in the fall.  By summer’s end, Nora was wearing–two full years before Hope–tattered, multicolored leather-patched jeans and halter tops and suede fringed vests and peasant blouses and crisscrossed-up-the-ankles sandals and long strands of beads and cowbells on a leather cord and feathers and silk flowers bobby-pinned into her hair.

And Hope supposed it was this Nora–the teenage Nora, the Nora she hadn’t really known–that she had had in mind when she decided to track her down two decades after the last time she’d seen her. She imagined their reunion–imagined the two of them laughing fondly as they talked about their childhood, how they used to act out, between the two of them, all the parts in “West Side Story,” taking turns being Maria.  Oh, and “Carousel”!–they’d taken turns as Julie Jordan, though secretly Hope had liked singing Billy Bigelow’s songs more than Julie’s (and how much more fun he had been to be than earnest Tony! What was it that Maria saw in him? she’d always wondered but hadn’t ever dared asked Nora, who was wild about him).  They could reminisce about going shopping at Grand’s for new lunch boxes and thermoses and packs of toy cigarettes that puffed out gusts of powder.

In her daydreams, though, she saw Nora in a ground-sweeping skirt and gauzy peasant blouse, flowers in her hair, bells and love beads draped across her chest; she saw herself, thirteen, still a little girl, in too-new dark-blue bellbottoms and a poorboy sweater, Keds, her hair in two thick braids coming undone–gazing up at Nora in awe and delight and terror, as she had every time they’d seen each other that last August, when she’d still wanted to be her, or at least be just a little like her if becoming her was out of reach.

She’d forgotten, when she daydreamed about their reunion, to age them–she had forgotten all about time.

It took a dozen phone calls to find Nora, who had changed names three times and crossed and recrossed the country with each marriage.  She was on her third marriage and living once more in New York–just twenty-six blocks north of Hope!–when Hope caught up with her, the week before she left New York for the first time in her life to live elsewhere.

Nora roared with laughter–her laugh was raucous, like her mother’s had been, years ago–when Hope told her who was calling.  Sure, she’d love to see her!  My God, she said.  Then she roared again when Hope said that they’d have to meet soon because she was about to leave for the Midwest.  The Midwest!  The Midwest! Nora cried.  What the hell is the Midwest?

Nora’s apartment, or what Hope saw of it–the living room and kitchen–was all white: white walls, white wall-to-wall carpet, white leather sofa, chairs and love seat; there was even a white piano in the corner.  The TV and the stereo were hidden–Nora showed her–behind white lacquered doors in what Nora called “the media center.”  No bookshelves; no art–not even bad art, not even posters.  And in the kitchen, where Hope followed her when Nora offered to make spritzers for them, the white countertops had nothing on them, not even a bottle of vitamins or a sugar bowl.  Everything was hidden away somewhere.

Nora talked nonstop; Hope just nodded.  She told Hope she’d lived in L.A. for five years, during her second marriage.  She’d lived there once before, she said–before her first marriage, which had brought her back to New York.  She’d gone out “to the Coast” in the first place, alone, right after college–she’d majored in theater at New Paltz–to act, but after just a few months she’d met an actor who’d been there for too long without getting anywhere, and he’d persuaded her to return to New York with him.  “He was from Bensonhurst! He went to New Utrecht and then Kingsborough!  Can you believe I had to go all the way to California to met a guy from New Utrecht and Kingsborough?”  Back in New York, he started a business with two of his brothers.   “Which was successful, honestly,” said Nora, “but I got bored.  He was much more interesting when he was an actor.  Even a failed actor.  He was cuter too, when he was still trying to get work in L.A.”  She laughed her mother’s raucous laugh and shook her head.  “So anyway, then I met my second, and we went to L.A. together.”

“He was an actor too?” Hope asked–more politely, she hoped, than she felt.

“No, he was in business, but he was ready for a change and thought California would be fun.”

“Was it?”

“Not so much.  We took a lot of drugs, though.”

Hope nodded.  She had no idea what to say.  But it didn’t matter, because Nora was already talking about marriage number three and her present life, which she pronounced wonderful, glorious–perfect, in fact.  She grabbed both of Hope’s hands and cried, “Honestly, Hope, I’m perfectly happy.  How about you?  Are you happy, too?”

“I’m happy,” Hope said, withdrawing her hands as slowly as she could bear to.  She wanted to pull away.  She wanted to flee.

Nora hugged herself.  “I’m so glad.”

And then she started talking again.  She used the phrase “physical maintenance” to talk about how she spent her time.  Hope must have looked perplexed because she explained, “Oh, you know, tennis lessons–I have them twice a week–and aerobics–that’s every day–and lifting every other day, massage and pedicure and manicure and facial once a week”–she ticked the items off on each finger with its inch-long scarlet-lacquered nail, and shrugged.  “Upkeep of the body.  Danny likes me to stay looking nice.”  She tapped one nail to her cheek and Hope tried to smile.  Evidently Danny liked makeup, too, for Nora’s face seemed hidden.  Hope noticed now that every part of her face was dusted by a slightly different color: beiges, tans, pinks, golds, browns.  Her face, thought Hope, was like a doll’s face–not the kind she and Nora had played with as children, either, but the expensive, lifelike kind Nora’s mother had collected and kept on display in the living room, on shelves, behind glass.

Hope studied her more closely now.  On her white couch, in a tiny white (of course!) sleeveless dress made of something shiny and stretchy, Nora looked very small and shiny herself.  And something occurred to her.  “Hey, stand up,” she said.

Nora jumped up gamely, without asking why.  Hope, who had been sitting in the armchair across from her, stood up too and considered their respective heights.  Nora was barefoot–she had kicked off her high-heeled, backless sandals when she’d sat down–and Hope as usual was wearing sneakers.  They were the same height.  Nora must have stopped growing at fourteen or so, while Hope kept growing a little bit every year until she was twenty-one.

This left Hope feeling shaken.  But she didn’t say anything, and when she sank back down into the chair, Nora still didn’t ask her anything–she just sat back down too.

“Oh, and I almost forgot,” Nora said.  “I see my sister–you remember her–and my mother for lunch once or twice a week.  Danny’s very supportive of that.”

“It’s nice that he approves of your seeing your family,” Hope said, but Nora didn’t catch the sarcasm.  She nodded.  “I know.  He’s a very sweet guy.  You’d like him.”

Hope had seen him–she kept seeing him, in fact.  It was a Sunday, and he was home, but he kept to the bedroom–watching sports on cable, Nora explained–coming through the living room at half-hour intervals and greeting Hope and Nora on his way back to the bedroom every time by pointing his left index finger at them and saying, “Boom lacka lacka lacka, boom lacka lack,” as he passed by with a fresh bottle of beer.  He was wearing sweats and was handsome in a creepy, fortyish, tousled, stockbroker-on-his-day-off way.  Nora told her that he worked on Wall Street.  “He has a fabulous job,” she said, in a tone so conspiratorial that Hope wondered if Nora actually knew what he did.

She couldn’t wait for the afternoon to end, couldn’t wait to get out of that all-white apartment and back out on the street.  She kept trying to think up an excuse to leave early, but she found she couldn’t think.  She couldn’t think at all.  She simply sat staring at Nora, who never stopped talking.

Finally, Nora announced that she had to start dinner–Danny liked to eat at seven, promptly.  Hope refused to think about what “starting dinner” in the immaculate, bare kitchen could possibly mean, and she accepted Nora’s hug and nodded when Nora told her, wagging one manicured finger, that she must promise to call from the Midwest with her new address and phone number (“What’s the area code in the Midwest, do you suppose?” Nora asked rhetorically, laughing her mother’s hearty, crazy-sounding laugh again).  Hope made her escape.

Walking down Second Avenue, she tried to figure it out.  How was it possible for someone to change that much?  Could someone change that much–or, she asked herself as she made her way back to the East Village, walking all the way to clear her head, had Nora always been what she’d become, always had the potential to become this Nora?

But once she returned to her apartment, she put Nora out of her mind.  It was not until a decade later, when Charity ended their friendship, that she thought again about her, and it wasn’t until then that she felt the full force of the disappointment of that Sunday afternoon.  This time–unlike that day, when she had walked off everything she might have felt if she had allowed herself to feel it, and then threw herself into her final preparations for her move–she cried over Nora.  Cried over the Nora she had known from the age of three-and-a-half until just before fourteen–when she’d stopped growing, at five-four–and over the Nora who was Danny’s wife (who might be someone else’s wife already, Hope realized: who knew how many more times Nora might have married in ten years?).   Cried over Nora and Charity, both.  Cried over the fact that people changed.  Cried over the hopelessness of friendship, the hopelessness of really knowing anyone, the hopelessness of certainty and constancy.

She thought hard then about what she might have done to keep Charity in her life.  Could she have managed to make more time, pay her more attention?  She remembered Willa’s infancy the way she remembered dreams–vividly, in detail, but as if the images were wrapped in gilt-edged tissue paper, precious and set apart from ordinary things.  It was hard to reimagine that time and rethink it, to consider what she could have done and hadn’t.  Really, she found that she couldn’t penetrate those memories.  When she thought about that time, she couldn’t enter into it again in her mind in the way she relived other parts of her life.  It was unrelivable because the she who she was now seemed not to have been the one who had lived it in the first place.

But she remembered in a faraway, amazed and dreamy way what life had been like then–before she’d started painting again and before she had gone back to work at the Arts Center, when she was in a baby-haze, enraptured yet exhausted.  She knew Charity had been right when she’d accused her of not being interesting or amusing anymore.  Of course, Char wasn’t much fun either, during that first year of Willa’s life.  From almost the moment Willa came onto the scene, she’d been abrupt and brisk and grim with Hope.  When she dropped by for a visit, she was restless and distracted, critical (“Hope, you’re a mess.  Couldn’t you make the baby take a nap so you could take a shower, wash your hair, or at least brush your hair, put on some clothes?”–for Hope was often in a robe or a big tee shirt and sweat pants, anything to make nursing more convenient and lounging with the baby on the couch or in the swing more comfortable), and after only ten or fifteen minutes she’d announce that there was somewhere else she had to be.  If Hope said, “Oh, stay a little longer, you just got here,” as she always did, Charity would answer, tartly, “I have a life, too, you know.”

And then she’d left that life.  Hope is still surprised by this.   She is at least as surprised by it as she is, still, by Charity’s removal from her life.  That Charity had left her husband without mentioning to Hope that she was going to–that she’d kept her unhappiness a secret (and for how long? Months? Years? Always?)–upended every idea Hope had had about their friendship.  She hadn’t known her–her best friend!–down to her toes, as she’d assumed she had.  Had she known her at all, then, really?  And had Charity known her?

What had their friendship meant, then?  What had it been?

Nothing?  Is that possible?

And how is it possible that even now Hope misses her?  Still misses her, after so long!  Does Charity miss her?  Hope doubts it.  She has not replaced her, as far as Hope can tell, although she has replaced her husband.  A year or so after she left him, she moved in with someone from another unit of the university–someone in an unlikely field (the Arts Center’s Director, Hope’s source of all Charity-related information, could never quite remember: Dentistry, he thought, or maybe Engineering or Environmental Science)–whom, Hope’s boss claimed, she introduced to people as her soulmate.

Charity had been a find–a woman her own age, an artist too (best yet, in another discipline, so competition didn’t trouble them–Charity had been the one to point this out at the beginning of their friendship), an exile like Hope, trying to make peace with the Midwest, with this sprawling campus full of evidently well-adjusted young short-haired blond people in sweatshirts and baseball caps bearing the name of the university (as if they needed to be reminded where they were, first thing every morning–as if otherwise they might not know.  None of them, it seemed, longed to be elsewhere).

Hope knows there must be other interesting and companionable women to be found on campus or in town, but she knows too that she is no longer very interesting, not the way she used to be.  And even if she could somehow summon up the energy to be interesting once again, where would she find the time for friendship?

She realizes, finally, that what she needs to find are some other women–even just one other woman–who had formerly been interesting, too, who now has a child.  Someone who, like her, has no time for friendship.  Someone who is stretched to capacity already, her heart full–someone who is worn out, done in, by love, but still lonely enough, like her, to want or need to make the necessary leap.

In short, she will have to find the friendship-equivalent of her husband.  And she will have to find it soon, she thinks, because she is driving her husband mad.  She can’t seem to stop herself from demanding that he talk to her, or at least stand still and listen to her, and he is still baffled and frustrated by this; it’s not something he has in him to give her.  She reminds herself of this; it’s not news–she always knew it.  A place for everything and everything in its place, she tells herself.  What she needs is a new best friend.

As she sets about her search, she is reminded of her search for love: the difficulty and apparent hopelessness of it, the longing and the disappointment.  This is different from the optimistic, hopeful search that had led her to Charity–this is a tired, battered, disappointed search, one with the smallest expectations.  She is in fact as tired and battered now as she’d been when she met her husband.  This encourages her.  It was just as she had given up all hope that she had found him, wasn’t it?  And indeed, as time goes on, in playgrounds and in waiting rooms and in terrible places that serve pizza and hot dogs and feature robot animals playing instruments–places that are so noisy it is impossible to hold a conversation anyway, and in which the parents of Willa’s acquaintances persist in having their children’s birthday parties–and she wearily eliminates candidates for friendship just as she had once eliminated candidates for love (the parties had been noisy then, too, she reflects, making an effort at a private joke–but she cannot amuse herself; she is too depressed), and she begins to despair in precisely the same way she had once despaired of ever finding lasting love, she tells herself that it’s all right, that she has to hit bottom before someone will turn up.  She has to stop searching.

She tells her husband, “I feel like one of Willa’s puzzles that’s missing a piece.  Not a corner piece, not a solid color background piece, but one that’s supposed to go right in the center, that’s part of the picture, so that all the work you’ve put into it comes to nothing, even though it’s just one little odd-shaped piece you can’t find and the other ninety-nine are in place.”

Her husband starts to say something but then he doesn’t.

“What?” Hope says.  “Go ahead.  Talk.  It won’t hurt you.”

But he looks pained.  “I was just going to say that that’s why we stopped buying Willa puzzles, isn’t it?  Because she’d always lose an important piece, and then she’d cry when she couldn’t find it, because without it the puzzle was worthless to her.”

“You’re overstretching the analogy.”

He shrugs.  “It was your analogy, not mine.  Willa moved on to other toys.  She’s already forgotten all about puzzles.”

Now it’s Hope’s turn to open her mouth and close it without saying anything.  What’s the point?  What’s the point in talking at all when you know in advance you won’t be understood?

And that’s why she needs a friend.  Precisely what she despairs of finding, ever again.

She tells herself that she has given up: she has resigned herself to loneliness.


This is when Trudy Lebenbaum comes back into her life.

Trudy, the girl she’d so admired in high school.  Who has a child Willa’s age.  Who has–miraculously–turned up here in the same dull, mid-sized, Middle Western town where Hope lives.

It is a miracle, Hope thinks.  Or at the very least it is the kind of fortunate, astonishing coincidence that occurs only in bad novels or perfectly good French films.  And it takes only two weeks from the day Trudy and her family arrive before she and Hope, with their respective children (who are in fact exactly the same age: they share a birthday), run into each other in the check-out line at Kroger–which is itself amazing: the town is simply not that small.

This chance meeting takes place just as Hope’s daughter’s–and Trudy’s son’s–sixth birthday is approaching, which seems to Hope a watershed: the age at which her daughter will no longer be a “little” girl, but will instead now simply be a girl (and Hope imagines she has seven years at the outside before Will temporarily becomes a stranger).  It is also just as Hope has made up her mind to accept that she will never have a real friend of her own again–not in the way she once had Charity.  The relationship she has that is closest to “real friendship” is the one she has with Will–but while she can and does talk with her daughter about many things, she is careful not to mention anything that might alarm her.  Her own mother hadn’t necessarily been careful in this way, and Hope–like most mothers, she–is determined not to make the same mistakes her mother made with her.  She means to keep up this carefulness even when Will has grown up, for she is still alarmed when her mother wants to talk to her about her declining ardor for Hope’s father or her sense that her “real life” has passed her by.  Tell someone else, Hope thinks, though she is pretty sure there isn’t someone else to whom she could make these confessions.   Her mother lacks a best friend, too.

Hope has given up, at last, on the possibility of friendship.  She has told herself that she must make some kind of peace with living a much smaller life than she had once imagined living–to keeping most of her ideas and memories and feelings to herself; to limitations, lowered expectations, and a steady buzz of isolation; to fractional, fragmented, compartmentalized relationships.

And then she is on line at Kroger, her cart so overloaded that a bag of wagon-wheel-shaped pasta tumbles off the top–not once, repeatedly–so that Hope has to keep bending down to pick it up, which amuses Willa, who makes up a little song about it: “The wagon wheels keep falling down/And Mama keeps on getting them/I wonder wonder wonder why/The shopping cart keeps shedding them.”  Willa is singing her song over and over between mouthfuls of chips from the bag Hope yanked from a display and tore open after the first half-hour of this expedition, and Hope is at first charmed and then mildly irritated and finally says, “Will, honey?  I don’t think I can take that anymore”–to which Will responds by cranking up the volume–when Trudy Lebenbaum appears: an apparition pushing her own too-tall, leaning tower of canned, packaged, and boxed goods, her son walking alongside her (his own bag of chips in hand, the same brand as Willa’s), her cart full of gallon-jugs of grape and cherry Juicy Juice and packages of rice cakes and cheese sticks and Sprinkle Yogurt and Goldfish and Frosted Cheerios–all of which are in Hope’s cart, too.  Trudy looks just like she’d looked in high school, except that her hair is short now–Hope stares at her for a minute, open-mouthed, too stunned to speak–and apparently Hope hasn’t changed much either, because Trudy recognizes her and speaks before she does.  She says, “Good grief, Hope, what the hell are you doing here?”

They leave Kroger together, Hope and Will, Trudy and Nat.  “It’s Nathan, really,” Trudy says, “but we never call him that,” and then–so she has changed!–she blushes when she adds, “‘Nathan’ means ‘gift’ in Hebrew.  It’s corny, I know, but that’s how I felt when I found out I was pregnant.  It’s how I still feel.”

Hope knows that she has found the mama-friend she has been searching for.

She brings Trudy and Nat home with her and Willa.  They shove Trudy’s perishables into Hope’s refrigerator, and as Willa takes Nat upstairs to show him her room, Hope and Trudy sit together on the playroom couch and stare at each other and hold hands and then begin to talk, both in a rush of words, in parallel monologues, interrupting each other and laughing, telling each other their whole life stories, boiled down to their essential parts–love, marriage, motherhood, and so on, with talk of the work that had been most important to them before Nat and Willa came along (on the same day–too much!) the strand that weaves through all their stories, in and out and back again.  This surprises Hope; it seems to surprise Trudy, too.  For both of them, work had receded–in Trudy’s case, entirely–with the advent of motherhood.  Still, it appears, they find themselves admitting to each other before either of them has admitted it to herself, to be getting ready to move back toward center stage.  Or at least to share that stage with motherhood more equitably.

Just as surprising to Hope is finding out what Trudy’s work has been.  She could not have guessed that Trudy would grow up to be a philosopher.  (Trudy, for her part, is not in the least surprised–she says, “Ha! I could have told you that before you told me!”–that Hope is an artist.  “I would have been terrifically disappointed if you weren’t.”)  She isn’t sure what she would have guessed for Trudy: back then she’d been simply the coolest, smartest girl.  She could have been anything, done anything.

“That was kind of how I felt,” says Trudy.  “I think that’s how I ended up majoring in philosophy.  It was the ‘anything’ factor.”

Trudy had published a book; she’d had tenure at a college in the deep South.  Her husband, a mathematician, had had tenure, too.  They’d met at the college, the first year that she was teaching, right out of grad school; they had married the next year.  And for years it was fine, Trudy says.  “Not great–it’s a sleepy little town–but fine.  Good enough.”  But then Nat was born.

“I tried to do both, I really did.  For me, it was impossible.  I couldn’t bear to leave him with anyone, and my concentration was shot.  So at the end of that first year, I bit the bullet and resigned.”

“Just up and quit?” Hope asks her.  “A tenured job?”  And she laughs, delighted.  This is the Trudy she remembers, the daring, I-don’t-care-what-anybody-thinks girl she had so admired.

Trudy shrugs.  “It wasn’t that hard a decision.  We weren’t all that happy at the thought of being stuck there forever, anyway.  Too gothic, too slow.  And with only one of us trying to change jobs, we knew it would be easier.  A little easier,” she adds.  “It still took years.”

“And you ended up here,” Hope says, still amazed.  “Of all the places in the world.”

“It’s fate,” Trudy says.  “Fate, plus a good math department that recognized my husband’s genius.”

They cackle, become tearful, hug.

And from this day on, they spend an hour or two together almost every day on weekdays, two or three or even four hours on the weekends.  Hope leaves the Center early every day to pick Willa up from school, across town (Nat goes to a different school, though Trudy plans to move him next year, into the same public alternative school Willa goes to), and then she and Willa meet Trudy and Nat somewhere–in the park or at the library or at Hope’s house or Trudy’s apartment.  They say goodbye when it’s time to get dinner ready, except for once or twice a week when they join forces for the meal.  After dinner, Hope works in her studio for a few hours.  Trudy’s working now, at home, in the daytime: she’s writing something–the first thing she’s written since Nat’s birth.

“About what?” Hope asks.

“Justice,” Trudy says.  And grins.  “I’ll let you read it if you want.  I’m trying not to be too boring.  It’s been so long I’ve forgotten how to be pedantic and obscure.  I’m afraid I may be writing it in language appropriate for communicating with six-year-olds.”

These six-year-olds?” Hope says, with a wave of her hand toward the kids, who are playing “museum,” using drawings they have hurriedly made and Scotch-taped all around the playroom (Will’s choice; they have just finished playing Nat’s game, “academic conference,” at which he gave a lecture about imaginary, real, irrational and rational numbers that for all Hope knows made perfect sense).  “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Hope is happy.  She’s aware that this sounds simple-minded, and when she tells her husband this–that she is happy but knows it sounds a little dopey and even absurd, as if Trudy had been all that she was missing in her life–she is embarrassed.  But embarrassed or not, she is as happy as she can remember ever being.  Her painting is going well, and she finds that sometimes she is even having fun at it, which has not been true since she had first begun to paint, long before she’d gone to college and become an art major.  Her daughter is a joy, an unending source of pleasure and pride and amazement.  She likes her job at the Arts Center.  And she and her husband, even if they still don’t see much of each other, aren’t arguing anymore.  The pressure is off him again now that she has somebody else to talk to.  When she makes her confession about happiness, he smiles.  “So you found the missing puzzle piece?” he says (and Willa, listening in, demands to know what puzzle.  “I grew out of puzzles last year,” she says.  “Didn’t I?”).

Can it be that all she had been lacking in her life was what Trudy now provides?  Certainly it seems that way.  For the first time, Hope has someone to talk to who isn’t bored by what she has to say about being a mother, and who doesn’t bristle at Hope’s anecdotes about the brilliant and amazing Will.  Trudy tells her own amazing anecdotes; Hope hangs on her every word.  And the children adore each other–that of course is part of it.  Hope and Trudy talk, their children play, and everything seems right with the world.  It’s almost ridiculous, Hope thinks, how right it seems.

It’s the shared venture of motherhood itself, she realizes.  When pre-Trudy, she had tried to talk to other women who had children, who should have understood, about what it meant to her to be a mother, they seemed to shrink away from her.  Trudy gasps, she shrieks, she laughs.  “I know” is the phrase that’s uttered most often between them.  “Oh, God, I know.”

And think of what had transpired when she’d tried to talk to Charity!  Disaster!  Indeed, Hope sometimes thinks that it had been her fault–the fault of her efforts to make Charity understand what her life was like after Willa’s birth–that Charity shook up her life the way she had, since it was after months of listening, or half- or quarter-listening, to Hope trying to explain the beauty and perfection and completeness of her relationship with Will, that Charity had said, “What if you don’t want to have a child but you still want that sort of relationship?”  “What sort?” Hope had asked, confused.  She imagined that Charity was talking about adopting a baby, a notion that seemed to have come out of the blue.  “Perfect.  Complete,” Charity said.  “A relationship in which you’re capable of satisfying every single need, small and large.  Round the clock.”

When, not long after this, she ended her marriage, and not long after that, Hope heard, moved in with her “soulmate,” it crossed Hope’s mind for the first but not the last time that Charity had gotten the message wrong.  Adults were not supposed to have this sort of relationship with each other.  It wasn’t possible; adult needs weren’t anything like baby needs–they were so complicated!

Hope knows there never will be one person who can be in every way what she requires, no more than she can be to any other full-grown person what she’d been to Will at the start–which is to say, everything.

But how long it had taken her to learn that!  She’d tried and failed for years, with boys and men in turn, to be everything and to have everything.  Boy crazy–she’d given that sobriquet new meaning, hadn’t she?  Crazy is right.  Was right, she tells herself.


Hope and Trudy talk.  They talk and talk and talk.  And they talk about everything, not just about their kids, or about being mothers.  Or their work.  Or their husbands and their marriages.  They talk about the past–their separate pasts and their shared history before that.  “Shared,” but they remember things quite differently.  Of course they do, says Trudy.  “It’s inevitable.  We were each the heroine of every story we remember, and everybody else was a bit player.”

“I wasn’t any kind of heroine, not even to myself,” Hope says.  “If there’s a heroine in any of my stories, it’s you.”

“I don’t mean ‘heroine’ that way,” says Trudy.  “I mean ‘protagonist.  I just mean that in anybody’s memory, the stuff is all from his or her own point of view.  In mine, I’m at the center of all the stories.  So the stories are going to be different from your stories.  The ‘same’ story from your point of view has a different focus, a different start and a different ending, probably.”

“Maybe so.  But you’re still the heroine.”

Trudy grins.  “Your protagonist just happened to idealize me, that’s all.”

“For good reason,” Hope assures her.

Trudy rolls her eyes.  But the truth is that Hope still idealizes her.  She is fascinated and impressed by Trudy’s marriage.  She and her husband have been married for a long time, yet they seem to have a passionate romance.  Hope can see this for herself in everything that passes between them, in the way Trudy’s husband looks at her, the way they touch each other at every opportunity, just the way they talk to each other–bantering, flirting, even when the subject matter of their conversation is mundane: What should we have for dinner?  Are there any clean towels anywhere that I don’t know about? Hope can feel the spark and charge between them and she finds it amazing, mystifying, contrary to everything she’s ever thought about the way marriages work.   Particularly marriage with a small child in the picture.

How do they do it? she wonders aloud.  Trudy doesn’t understand the question.  They’re in love, she says.  They’re crazy about each other.  She confides that they still make love daily.  Daily? Hope says.  Trudy laughs.  Only when Nat was a baby, only for that first year, did their habit falter.  “I don’t even want to know what it faltered to,” Hope tells her, trying to sound as if she is joking, which she’s not.

She finds herself wondering why Trudy doesn’t find her marriage distracting–too demanding; too much–in the way that Hope has always been so sure she would find such a marriage.  But she can’t think of a tactful way to ask the question.  So, she reflects, there are still limits to this friendship, even now.  There are still things she doesn’t understand and can’t bring herself to ask.

Instead of asking questions, then, Hope talks about her marriage.  She talks, too, about the men before her marriage.  Trudy’s love life, after high school, had been the antithesis of Hope’s: before she’d married, she’d had just one boyfriend.  Just one? Hope echoes, marveling, just one, after all those boys in high school? “Enough was enough,” says Trudy.  “I got very serious in college, and I mean serious about everything.  Books, politics, life, boys.”  She fell in love during her freshman year and fully expected she would marry her boyfriend.  They even went on to graduate school together.  “But when he finished his coursework, he quit.  He said he didn’t have the heart to write the dissertation–that he’d never had the commitment to philosophy that I did, that he’d followed me into the major at the end of our freshman year just to be with me!”  Trudy still sounds amazed, two decades later.  “Anyway, that ended that relationship.”

“Were you devastated?”

“Devastated?  I was pissed.”

So she’d been right, Hope thinks, about her old friend not allowing her heart to be broken during all those years that had been so tumultuous for her.

“Then what?”

“I buckled down and wrote.  He ended up in law school.  He became a personal injury lawyer.  Every once in a while I get a sorrowful phone call from him.  He’s still ashamed of himself and wants me to let him off the hook, I think.”

“Do you?”

Trudy stares her down until Hope grins.  “Foolish me,” Hope says.  “What was I thinking?”

“I didn’t even date until the dissertation was finished,” Trudy says.  “I didn’t want to think about anything except what I was doing.  So I put my nose to the grindstone–I finished, I defended, I did the job search, I got the teaching job.  And the first date I went on was with my husband.”  Trudy smiles.  “I picked him out.  I didn’t want to waste any time.”

“Wow,” is all Hope can think of to say.

“And I’ll tell you a secret.  It’s not just that I picked him out.  Even before I met him, I had decided that I wanted to meet a mathematician.  I was systematic about it.  I’d thought and thought about what I wanted in a man, and I made a decision.  Then I showed up where I knew I’d be most likely to meet the person I wanted to meet.  Does that sound horrible?  Cold-blooded?  Too . . . I don’t know, methodical?”  But she doesn’t wait for Hope to answer.  “Obviously, I wanted to be more careful after the big failure with the grad-school dropout lawyer.”

“GSDL,” murmurs Hope.  And then, “It doesn’t sound like any worse a system than the ones I tried.  And I tried any number of them.  Besides, your system worked.  Everything turned out fine.”

This is an understatement, Hope thinks, but Trudy doesn’t mention it.

When Hope tells Trudy about the various men she’d been in love with, and how it was she came to her marriage, Trudy listens.  She listens hard, she listens with what seems to be great empathy, but Hope has no way of knowing whether Trudy understands that when she says she’d made a choice about her marriage, about life, she’s also asking Trudy how she had made hers, how she’d known that she had needed what she’d needed–and how she manages her life when every single aspect of it pulls so hard on her.

Because it’s not just Trudy’s husband and her son tugging on her, stretching her as thin as Hope feels stretched by her life.  Trudy’s talking now about getting a job.  They could use the money, certainly.  Her husband’s salary is almost but not quite sufficient to keep covering the pared-down needs of their small family; she is starting to feel guilty about not pulling her weight.  But there’s more to it than that. Nat’s growing up; he doesn’t need her every minute of the day now.  And she misses working.  But what is she to do?  She puzzles over this, out loud to Hope.  They’re not about to uproot the whole family again–and even if they were, even if she did get a job offer at another institution, her husband would have to be offered a job there, too.  The odds of their ever again finding jobs at the same place are small.  “Plus, he loves his job here.  He even loves this funny little city.  It’s just like the one he grew up in.”  Hope and Trudy shake their heads over this.

“I could probably get something part-time here,” Trudy says, sighing.  “But part-time college teaching is exploitative as hell.  They’d pay me next to nothing, with no benefits–”

“You don’t need the benefits,” Hope reminds her.  “You’ve got them all already.”

“As a wife.  I know, it’s a stupid principle.  But I hate the idea of it.  I hate the way these part-time jobs work.  I used to complain about how my old department treated its part-timers.  It’s hard to swallow letting myself turn into one of them.  Slave labor.  And I’d teach the least desirable courses.  It would almost be worse than not doing it at all.”

Hope mostly just listens, shakes her head, makes sympathetic noises when they hit this impasse.  How much help can she be?  She doesn’t want Trudy to get a teaching job somewhere else and leave town.  She isn’t sure herself that part-time teaching, underpaid, in the department here is much of a solution either.  And when Trudy talks about reordering her dossier, rewriting her c.v., making phone calls to “ease back in,” Hope not only worries that she really might leave, but she finds herself having trouble concentrating on what she is saying, beset suddenly by memories of Trudy in high school, seeing and hearing that Trudy superimposed upon this one–that Trudy, at fifteen already utterly confident, gorgeous, smart, wickedly funny, in her tattered hippie clothes, her big floppy velvet hat and hair that she could sit on, riding on the back of some boy’s motorcycle.  Back then she’d gone through boyfriends at a rate too rapid to keep up with, discarding them, breaking their hearts, leaving them for other girls to nurse back to mental health.  Hope can picture her with one boy after another–always the most confident and coolest and best-looking boys in school.  Trudy never seemed to care that much for any of them.

Hope thinks of her singing along to a record as they hung out together in her–Hope’s–room, listening to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dylan, Cream, The Dead, Quicksilver, Laura Nyro.  The two of them belting out the lyrics to “Mercy on Broadway” or “Poverty Train.”

Where does the time go?

Hope sighs.  Trudy says, “What?” and Hope tells her what she had been thinking.  Trudy shakes her head.  “I was never as together as you thought, you know.”

“No one could have been,” Hope has to admit.  Still, the memory hangs on: perfect Trudy.  Beautiful, cool, clever Trudy.  Cracking shrewd, sly jokes.  Singing, tossing her amazing hair, which she wears cropped now (as she has, she says, since Nat’s birth, when she first cut it off because he kept getting tangled up in it).

Past, present, future.  Sometimes when she and Willa visit Trudy and Nat, Trudy will page through the listings of available academic jobs in her field, and wonder aloud again how she could apply for, much less take, one.  Her husband is so happy here, they’ve all just gotten settled, she has Hope, Nat has Willa, everything is good.  And really, she says, as much as she misses teaching, she doesn’t miss her old job.  She doesn’t miss committee meetings and department politics, bitter fights over what she always naggingly suspected was nothing at all or anyway nothing worth fighting for.  She doesn’t miss tending the fragile, inflated egos of her graduate students.

“Oh, hell,” Trudy says, tossing down the job listings.  “Maybe I’ll be a freelance philosopher.”

“Good idea,” says Hope.  “You could study time.”

Trudy rolls her eyes.  She knows the story of Hope’s first philosopher; she knows all Hope’s stories.  And Hope knows she wouldn’t study time if it were the last subject on earth.  She’s a social and political philosopher.  “I’ve always disliked metaphysics,” she had told Hope, early in their renewed friendship.  “I always graze over it as quickly as possible when I teach an introductory course.  The nature of reality?  Ugh.  Presuppositions of knowledge?  Yuck.  Being?”  She shuddered.  “Can’t abide the stuff.”

She says something along these lines again now.  And adds, thoughtfully, “You know, come to think of it, it’s time in particular I can’t abide.”

Hope nods.  Though she doesn’t feel the same way.  In fact, she confesses, she’s always liked time–the idea of time.  She likes both the orderliness and the arbitrariness of the system that keeps track of it.  She likes the way it seems to shift and slide around, the way it’s so hard to get hold of it.  She tells Trudy this.

“What’s to like about that?” Trudy says.  “I hate that.”

“And I like the way we act as if it all makes sense–we have all these parcels of time, to make it seem manageable–when it’s really something crazy, something fluid, something like magic.  But then it’s not that, either, because it’s something you can count on–it’s something liquid and magical that’s with us always and that’s perfectly reliable.”

Trudy shakes her head.

Hope tells her then about a midrash for children she used to read to Will, from a book they’d read over and over again when she was younger, three or four years old, about how Adam had misunderstood God when He explained how time worked–poor Adam had thought it would come to an end after a year–and how surprised, relieved, and happy he had been when the sun came up again at the beginning of the second year.  “He and the animals just stand there applauding and feeling grateful.  And then God explains about decades and centuries and millennia, and Adam is so glad and grateful.  That’s how the story ends,” Hope says, “with the assurance that God made time ‘way big enough.’”

“Not big enough for me,” says Trudy.

“That’s what Willa says, too.  I mean, she doesn’t say that, exactly.  But she has the same problem.”

“It’s a problem?”

It’s Hope’s turn to roll her eyes.  “Just last night, out of the blue, she started to cry, and when I asked her what was wrong, she said, ‘I just feel so sad.  I can’t keep anything that happens.  I can’t keep it being now. The future doesn’t stay the future–all of a sudden it’s now, and the other now is gone.”

“I know just how she feels,” says Trudy.  “What did you tell her?”

“I said, ‘Sweetheart, this is just the way life is.  It isn’t something bad.  Things happen and then they turn into memories.  You get to keep them that way.  And maybe sometimes it seems as if things are happening too quickly to get hold of, but sometimes things seem to slow down, too–that’s just the way time works.  And this is not something to make you unhappy.  It’s just life.’”

“Doesn’t work for me,” says Trudy.  “Did it help her?”

“She said, ‘Maybe it is, but I can’t stand it.’”

“I think that means it didn’t help.”

“I know.  So I told her I was sorry.  I couldn’t think of what else to say.  And then she said, ‘You know what I feel like when I think about this?  You know why I’m crying?  Because I feel like bits of broken glass.  I feel all scattered and broken up, like small pieces of glass everywhere that just want to be a whole perfect beautiful glass pitcher again.’”

Trudy whistles.  “What did you tell her then?”

“Well, it was late.  She was tired.  I just promised her that she’d be a whole pitcher again in the morning.”

“Was she?”
“I guess.  She wasn’t crying anymore.  She wasn’t talking about time anymore.  Everything passes, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Trudy says.  “So far.”



Trudy has finished her article on justice and sent it to The Quarterly of Legal and Social Philosophy, she says, though she doesn’t hold out much hope, since she’s submitting it as an unaffiliated scholar–“something like a homeless woman standing on the corner with her shopping cart, dispensing tips on homemaking,” she says, so bitterly that Hope is taken aback.

Still, she begins writing something else.  It seems that she has been stockpiling ideas and words for years, sorting and resorting them, and only now is letting them emerge.  She’s writing about war reparations.  She blushes when she tells Hope this, and Hope can’t believe it.  Trudy Lebenbaum, embarrassed by her own ideas?  But Trudy says that she is wandering afield from her own “area of interest.”  She is even less likely to be taken seriously if she lets herself wander along whatever paths happen to beckon her.  Hope argues (what does she know? But she can’t help arguing for the defense of what seems to her the right side) that in fact she will be taken more seriously if she doesn’t confine herself to one tiny bit of scholarly turf, plowing it to death.

“Hell of a metaphor,” Trudy says, and laughs.

Hope’s glad to make her laugh.  She has been very gloomy lately.

But how could she not be?  The path that has happened to beckon her is an awfully dark one.  Trudy, whose doctoral dissertation had been on John Dewey, has drifted away from democracy and toward justice–“rightness,” she calls it: the philosophical principles behind “making things right.”  In the midst of working on her paper about reparations, which begins with an examination of that part of the covenant of the League of Nations that justified the payment of reparations, and ends up with (she reports to Hope; she doesn’t let her read the paper itself–“it would bore you; I’m getting the hang of the old style again”) a consideration of far-into-the-future postwar arrangements for wars as yet unfought (“Imaginary wars?” Hope asks.  “Potential wars,” says Trudy), she finds herself making notes for a seminar she’ll “most likely never get to teach,” she tells Hope, ruefully, on the philosophy of national guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.

Hope has started calling Trudy “Tru.”  Once she coins the nickname, it strikes everybody, even Trudy’s husband, as inevitable, and within just a few months, there’s no one who calls Trudy Trudy anymore–except back in New York, perhaps, when people talk about her (if they do, if they remember her, says Tru, and Hope says, “Are you kidding? You were famous.”  “Only to you,” Tru insists, and Hope has no way of knowing whether this is true or not).  Tru jokes that she’s been born again, renamed, that she has Hope to thank for this.

Hope remembers–she asks Tru if she remembers too, but she does not–when she’d wanted to change her own name back in high school.  “To what?” Tru asks.  And Hope says, “Never mind.”

High school, childhood–New York itself, Hope feels–couldn’t be farther away.  As distant as death, she says casually one day as they watch the kids racing around in the playground after school.  You know it’s out there, but it’s too far away to take too seriously.

And then–several weeks, no more than that, after this stupid, thoughtless, God-challenging moment as they stood together near the big yellow-and-red curly slide–Tru, who hadn’t mentioned that she had been having weird cramps on and off for months and then just on for the past several weeks, goes to the doctor, who can’t find the cause but orders (“though I’m sure it’s nothing–just to be safe”) an ultrasound.  Which shows not “nothing” but “something.”

In the sort of sped-up slide of time that clicks so tightly into place during a new romance or in the first few moments of a tragedy, Tru is slated now for surgery.  Which is called “exploratory.”  Which uncovers what her flesh has kept concealed for months; which reveals the tumor, pressed against her kidneys, that has caused her cramps–the tumor that is only the most recent outgrowth of the cancer that has been progressing silently “for some time,” the surgeon tells her husband.

Before he closes up the flap of skin he has peeled back, the tumors are removed.  As are her ovaries, her uterus, and much of her colon.  About her liver, there wasn’t much that could be done surgically, Tru’s husband tells Hope on the phone–he’s calling her from the recovery room, where Tru is now, although not yet awake.  Hope is at home, in her own house, in the playroom, with both kids–except to “scrape it.”  “Scrape it?” Hope repeats.  Tru’s husband doesn’t answer.  He is talking about chemotherapy, about the port the surgeon plans to insert into Tru’s chest just as soon as she recovers from this surgery.  “Port?” Hope says.  But he’s still talking–he’s repeating word for word what he’s been told, Hope realizes.  He can’t allow himself to be sidetracked by questions, and besides, he has no answers, can’t provide the explanations she is looking for; the only information he has is what he’s been told so far.  And he is repeating all of this the way a tape recorder would–not only without comment or elaboration, but without emotion either (other than the doctor’s, it occurs to Hope.  As if it really were the playback of a tape, what she hears in his voice is what the doctor must have put into his words when he had uttered them himself, so that Tru’s husband’s tone as he tells Hope the news is somber, calm, and sympathetic).  Only when he’s forced to say something of his own–“She’s awake.  I’ll call you back,” and then hangs up with a clatter–does he sound panicked, terrified, about to wail.  Human.  Himself.

By the end of the second day, this transition is complete; he can’t finish a sentence without crying.  There’s no news–the doctor is just waiting for Tru to be sturdy enough to withstand the chemo on which he means to start her as soon as possible–and so there’s no script to follow, nothing to repeat except, “not yet.  Maybe tomorrow.”

Hope is keeping Nat.  Tru will stay in the hospital for her first treatment.  Then they’ll send her home.

The port is put into her chest.  It delivers Taxol, the poison the doctor hopes will keep her alive.  Hope talks to her on the phone during the treatment; she stays on the phone even while Tru drifts in and out of sleep.  Tru’s husband is with her while the poison drips in, but he can’t speak–Tru herself tells Hope this.  And afterwards, when the treatment is over and Tru has fallen deeply asleep, when he comes over to Hope’s house to see his son, he still isn’t speaking.  When he cries, as he stands at Hope’s door, about to go back to the hospital, the tears roll out of his eyes, one after another, quickly, without any of the usual accompanying sounds.

The next day, Tru comes home.  Hope and the children make a big sign, tempera on bristol board, that says WELCOME HOME, MAMA, with a border of lilac branches–Tru’s favorite–and kites and balloons and hearts (Nat’s idea) and musical notes (Willa’s).  Hope takes Nat and Willa out for ice cream–stalling, giving Tru time to get settled, and putting off seeing her, she understands, because she is scared, for herself as well as for the children, about what they will see.  She is almost there when she decides to make one more stop, to pick up balloons–the kids are pleased by this–and flowers (freesia and baby’s breath, because the florist has no lilacs) at a strip mall.

Nat flies through the doorway ahead of Hope and Willa, and Hope steels herself–but Tru, lying on the couch, propped up by pillows, looks the same as ever except tired and a little pale, and she manages a wry smile and a wisecrack in Yiddish when Hope asks about the chemo. “Ven tsu a krenk iz do a refu’e iz es nor a halbe krenk,” she says, and translates for Hope, who knows only a handful of Yiddish words and a single folk saying herself (fun loyter hofnung vert men meshuge–with hope alone you can go crazy), “If there’s a cure, it’s only half a disease.”

Hope laughs.  It’s amazing to be able to laugh.  It’s only when Tru adds, “Vos vet zayn, vet zayn–that’s que sera, sera to you, gringo,” that she realizes that Tru actually speaks Yiddish, and instead of talking about what’s happened and what lies ahead, they talk about Tru’s childhood–for when Hope says, “Tru, love, where’d you pick up so much Yiddish?”, Tru tells her for the first time that until she was five years old it was the only language she could speak or understand.  It was what her parents spoke at home.

Hope had never known, had never even seen, the Lebenbaums when she and Tru were friends in high school, and Tru’s mother and father were both dead by the time she and Hope met again.  Of course, in this second life of their friendship, they had talked about their parents as they never had the first time around–when parents as a matter of course were referred to only when one was complaining about them–so Hope knew, as she had not known as a teenager, that the Lebenbaums were immigrants–survivors.  That it had never occurred to her to wonder why Tru’s mother kept herself hidden away when she visited the Lebenbaum household had shamed her, in retrospect: how could she have been so incurious?  Now she finds that there is plenty more to be ashamed of, that even in middle age it hadn’t crossed her mind to wonder what language had been spoken in that home.

She thinks about it now–about Tru starting kindergarten without understanding anything that anybody says to her.  And she starts to cry.

When she does, Tru turns away from her.  She speaks to Nat, who has been in her arms the whole time, just standing by the couch with Tru’s arms wrapped around him.  She asks him to tell her “every single thing” he did with his pal Willa while she was “away.”  And when he finishes reporting–Hope smiles even as she’s crying, because he takes his mother at her word, even mentioning, methodically, each meal they ate and every bath he took (“and of course twice a day I brushed my teeth, and I brushed my own hair in the morning”) as well as every game they’d played and everywhere they’d gone, including the most mundane errands–Tru pats the couch and says, “Come, sit with me, sweetheart.”  And then: “No, not on me–I’m afraid I still hurt a little bit from where the doctor made me better.  I’ll be okay to sit on again soon.  For now, just snuggle up here next to me.”

Hope stops crying.  She watches Nat.  He seems okay.  He makes his way carefully into the space between his mother’s hip and the couch’s backrest.  Hope looks at Will, who is watching intently as Nat settles himself in the crook of his mother’s arm.

“Willa,” Hope says, and opens her arms to her daughter, who runs into them and starts to cry herself.

Everybody cries, on and off, from that point on.

And time begins to slide again–this time in the other direction: slowing down, slowing down so much sometimes it seems to have stopped altogether.  Days feel as long as weeks.  Weeks feel like months.  The months pass as slowly as years.

Six treatments, three weeks apart.  And now another surgery–a “second look.”   Which reveals that, while Tru’s liver is “clean” now, the lining of her abdomen is not.

A new round of chemotherapy begins–different poisons, in combination this time.  Heavy metals, Tru reports–“You know, Grand Funk Railroad.”

“You’re out of step,” Hope tells her.  “Even the second wave of heavy metal is gone.  And there might have been a third one I missed, too.”

“Inna gadda da vida, baby,” Tru sings.

She is bald now, but she doesn’t wear a wig or even a scarf or hat.  If it’s very sunny out, she’ll wear a baseball cap, but that’s just to keep from getting sunburned; she takes it off as soon as she’s indoors or in the shade.  She has no eyebrows either, these days, except the ones she draws on, with a black eye-liner pencil.  She has never worn makeup before.  Now she wears lipstick–blood-red.  She buys new clothes: short skirts, tight tops with rhinestones at the neckline–clothes meant for teenagers.  Tights with dragons printed on the ankles.  She is defiant.  She is hard as nails.

Will it help?  Will any of it help? Hope wonders, but she doesn’t say the words.  For the first time in her life, she prays.  She wishes she believed–wishes she felt certain that her prayers meant anything, that anyone was listening.  She feels strange, praying.  But she keeps it up, every day.  She prays for Tru and for Tru’s family and for her own family (because who knows? You never know. Anything can happen) and she prays for faith.

Faith is what she needs, she thinks–something more dependable and stronger than sheer hope.  Hope seems like too great a burden to bear now.

Once, when she was still young, she recalls, she’d asked her parents why they’d saddled her with Hope.  “We weren’t saddling,” her mother said, “we were bestowing.  We considered Patience, too, and Verity and Prudence, you know”–but Hope didn’t know, and even when her mother told her this, she couldn’t decide if it was meant to be a joke.  She thought it probably was, since she knew perfectly well she’d been named for her mother’s grandmother, who had been called Henny in English.  But her mother went on, “You might consider yourself lucky.  You could have had it worse.  You could have been named Innocence.  Or Mercy.”

Hope remembers, too, the conversation she had had with Charity, before her marriage, joking (had she been? she wonders now.  Or had she been at least a little serious?) about how she ought to have been called Faith.

Charity.  Funny that her mother hadn’t ever once considered Charity for her.  Assuming that there was a chance that she had not been joking about all those virtues.

She hasn’t thought of Charity in months; she hasn’t even caught a glimpse of her on campus or around town.  But then suddenly, as if thinking about that snatch of conversation with her long ago has summoned up her presence, Hope runs into her on the quad after lunch one day.

This time they actually stop to talk.  But it isn’t easy.  Hope doesn’t know how to respond when Charity asks how she’s been.  First she says, “Okay.”  Then she adds, “An old friend–my oldest friend, I guess–has been pretty sick.”  Then, because it feels strange to be saying this to Charity, to have made this her answer, she says, “Willa’s growing up fast.”

Charity says she’s sorry, but she doesn’t say which thing it is she’s responding to, and Hope awkwardly asks how she‘s been, and Charity says great, everything’s great, and then they part, going off in separate directions–Hope actually going out of her way to set out on the path most dramatically opposite to the one Charity has started on across the grass, even glancing back at her to make sure of that.  They had stood talking for no more than two minutes.

It’s obvious that Charity has no interest in her anymore.  No need of her, certainly.   But why should this make her so sad?  As she walks back to the Arts Center, the long way, from the Union, where she’d just had lunch alone, her eyes are full.  What is she crying for? she asks herself angrily.  Does she still need Charity?  Why would she?  Why should she?  Because Tru is sick?  Can she really be thinking of herself, of her own needs, in the midst of this?

She can be, yes, she thinks.  She stops walking.  She is appalled.  She closes her eyes, shuts out for a moment the students in their baseball caps and giant sneakers, their backpack burdens, their shining blond hair.  Their Frisbees, their dogs, their Greek letters on their scarlet sweatshirts.  You’re only human, Hope, she tells herself.  And wonders why that would make anyone feel better.

In her office, she thinks about how she’d believed for a while that her life was complete–that she was complete.  She had everything she needed: a husband who was a good man she knew would never betray or leave her; an extraordinary child who means the world to her; a vocation–her life’s work, the practice of which she still takes as much pleasure in, and is as absorbed by, as ever; a way to earn a living that she quite enjoys; friendship she could count on.

We’re never complete, she thinks now.  How could we be, when things are always changing?  When what we need keeps changing?  We change, too–maybe not much, maybe only incrementally, but it doesn’t take much to start feeling incomplete again.  And when something big happens–big enough to change your life, to change you in ways that you can’t even pretend are superficial (even if the “change” is just an understanding finally of something that has always been true, but until then has been hidden, even from yourself)–there’s always a chance that it will turn out you need lots of things you thought you didn’t need.  Things you thought you’d never need, or never need again.

And right now, Hope thinks once more, what she’s in need of most is plain, pure, simple (simple? Not to her, apparently) faith.

But how does one acquire faith?

One does not, she realizes as soon as she has asked herself the question.

She thinks about Flaubert’s happiness.

The secret of faith is to have faith already.

All right, she tells herself, then she’ll have to make do with virtues she already has.  Which means–she’s addressing herself sternly now, bracing herself–she’ll have to make damn sure she can tell which ones they are.


She is faithless.  She lacks conviction.  She is certain of nothing.

Certain of nothing, she cannot have faith.  But hope?  That she has.  Still, what’s to be made of it?  Hope without faith, without conviction, without underpinnings?  The habit of hope.  Or (her mother’s intention?) plain, dumb, blind obedience.  Her mother’s dictum–her birthright: Hope.

Hopeful.  Faithless.  Prudent?  No.  Just?  She can’t tell; she has yet to be tested.

Honest?  Yes–that’s one at least that she believes she can be sure of.  (Still, what good does honesty do now?)

Courageous?  Is she?  In some ways, she thinks.  She speaks her mind.  She opens her heart.  She never shrinks from a debate–not with anyone.  But is the kind of courage she possesses useful?  She cannot think how.

Does she have fortitude?  She doesn’t know.  (She’ll find out, she supposes.)  Grace?  Strength?  Moral goodness?

Goodness.  She pauses at this one–the big one, she thinks.  Her husband’s virtue.  What does it mean?  She remembers what she’d meant when she had first had this idea about him, comparing him to other men she’d known and loved, or thought she’d loved.  It was easy to see him apart from them–from selfish, careless, casually cruel, deceitful, thoughtless men.  Self-dramatizing men.  Narcissistic men.  Opportunists.  (She could go on.  She stops herself.)

Her husband, she thinks, might have been of a different species altogether, a species bred not only to believe in right and wrong, but to do (to try to do? Is it possible that he has always done, will always do?) right.

And he is determined, she knows, to have Willa grow up to be like him in this way.  He has accused Hope of trying to undermine his efforts to teach their daughter “the elementary difference between right and wrong,” and she has argued that the difference is sometimes more subtle than he allows.  This infuriates him.  He believes there is a code and body of behavior that can be named good, and numerous wrong ways of acting (speaking, thinking) Will might choose that would be bad.  Hope is not so clear–not about this or about anything else.  She sees context, rationales, situational justifications.  Human complexities.  Frailty.  Shades of–

Explanations don’t make wrong right, says her husband.

But I’m not trying to make wrong right, Hope protests.  I’m just talking about shades of gray.

Shades of gray?  His laugh is derisive.  (Can you be good and be derisive?)  No, he says.  Black is black, and white is white.

But the range, the spectrum–

Is not the point, he finishes for her.

No, Hope says.  It is the point, exactly.

So some things are a little bad?  Or almost good?  Or good enough?

Maybe, Hope says.  I don’t know.  I do know that I don’t believe that “right” and “wrong” are laid out for us quite that. . . .  She searches for the word.  Flatly.  Severely.  Meanly.  As if there’s a rule book.

There is a rule book.

Hope sighs.  So it’s come to this, again.

He’s about to quote the Ten Commandments–or, worse, passages from the New Testament.  Hope has learned not to make any wisecracks.  Once, years ago, she’d said, “Oh, not the goddamned Bible again,” and you would have thought, given his reaction, that she had committed murder–or adultery.

When they had first married, she’d made jokes about religious differences–smart aleck remarks about food (challah versus Bisquick, schmaltz versus fatback) and table manners (his family had plenty, including some she’d never heard of; hers congratulated themselves if nobody spit food on anybody else and nobody was stabbed by a fork reaching blindly–because the reacher was too busy talking to look where he was stabbing–across the breakfast table for “just one more tiny little piece” of belly lox)–but she hadn’t thought it would turn out to be a problem for them.  She could not recall the last time she had been involved with a man who was Jewish–high school, she guessed–although in New York she’d gone out with lots of men who were savvy about Jewish culture, some of whom had professed that they would have been Jewish by birth if they’d had a choice.

And because neither she nor her husband “practice” Christianity or Judaism in a way that would have made sense to their grandparents (even after Willa came, they didn’t join a church or synagogue) or parents (not even Easter morning or the High Holy Days inspire their attendance), for years Hope had been sure that she’d been right: there was no problem here, no Christian/Jewish clash.  They co-existed peacefully.  All these years, they’ve celebrated, full-force, for Will’s sake, both Christmas and Chanukah.  Hope makes a seder every Passover, and each year on Easter Sunday Willa searches the backyard for hidden Easter eggs.  On Yom Kippur, Hope and Willa take a long walk and talk over the year’s mistakes and sorrows, and every single Sunday morning, while Hope works in her studio, Willa and her father read a children’s version of the Bible–so that Willa, without ever having gone to Sunday school the way her father had, knows the stories of the New Testament by heart, and is particularly fond of the ones in which Jesus heals the sick.

But the clash, such as it is, has emerged over time as both subtler and more basic than Hope could have guessed.

The first time her husband read from the Bible to her, to support his end of an argument, she was stunned into silence.  The first time he said, mock-patiently, “We can’t invent rules as we go.  It doesn’t work.  We humans are too weak,” she said only, “I don’t think of us as weak.”

And now he tells her that it is his faith that is responsible for the guiding principle of his life–which, he points out, she supposedly admires: doing the right thing, or trying to.  Being good.  Keeping aware of the difference between right and wrong.

What’s the guiding principle of your life, Hope? he says.  What tells you what to do, and how and why?  What moves you through your life?

He’s taunting her–he’s angry.  He thinks she doesn’t know.

But she does know.  She knows exactly what it is.  And it strikes her suddenly that it works–that it has been of help to Tru: that it has given her something that might be even better, after all, than faith.  Her life-guiding principle–of trying to make sense of things and people, to understand, to make connections–has driven her to know Tru, to understand who she is, really.  Or to keep trying to, until it’s too late to try.

And Tru knows she knows.  Or wants and needs to know.  Tru believes there’s no one who knows her, her essential self, as Hope does.

This helps.  This does her good.

What good does her husband’s goodness do?

But she has shocked herself.  Shocked, and shamed, herself.  Surely goodness is its own reward: surely goodness doesn’t need to do good.

But how is it goodness then? she wonders.  And tries not to wonder.  And wonders anyway.

Goodness without goodness? she asks herself–the question she is certain she should not be asking–but how can it be?


If “goodness” equals “doing the right thing,” and the “right thing” to do isn’t clear, then does that mean that goodness isn’t possible?  Or doesn’t matter?  Is irrelevant?

Making things right is not an option.  Making them better, perhaps.  Piecing things together.  Making repairs.

Can you make right something that’s wrong?

We are at the point, Hope thinks, when we can no longer identify irony, metaphor, coincidence–none of these have meaning anymore.

The Chair of the philosophy department calls Tru and offers her a job.  This occurs during one of her remissions.  That’s how they think of them–remissions.  They’re not going to count on anything, despite the way Tru’s very confident oncologist–to whom she had switched right after her first surgery, choosing him in part because he was so optimistic and determined (the secret of a positive attitude is to have one already) –talks about curing her.

Tru is exhausted; she is bald (she’s had three rounds of chemo, so her hair has grown back and then fallen out again twice more); she’s had two further surgeries; she’s on a diet now of nothing but raw fruits and vegetables.  At first when the phone call from the Chair comes, she cries–cries while she is on the phone with him.  And apologizes.  Then she laughs.  And apologizes for that too.  And she doesn’t even know if he knows that she’s in remission; or, if he knows, how he knows.  She has no idea what he knows, what he thinks.

The job he offers her is a compromise between a tenure-track appointment and a lectureship: a Visiting Assistant Professorship, at a salary that is considerably better than she could have hoped, though not what a full-time, permanent appointment would have paid.  But there’s no “service” associated with it–no committees and no meetings–and she is entitled to full benefits, should she choose to use them rather than her husband’s.  She would get to teach the courses she likes teaching, including a graduate seminar in the philosophy of democracy.  It’s a dream job, really, she tells Hope, and she figures that it’s come along now thanks in large part to her having published that “damn paper on justice,” as she calls it, in the third journal to which she’d submitted it, and which had caused a little furor in the social and political philosophy community.

“There’s a community of you?” Hope had said.

“Not of me,” Tru told her.  “There’s just one New-York-Jewish, daughter-of-survivors, middle-aged old hippie, Meyer-Briggs’-type ESTP social and political philosopher who’s got cancer, as far as I know.”

“If you’re making a list,” Hope said, blinking back the tears that had just snuck up on her, “don’t forget Nat’s mother and best friend of Hope.”

“Oh, right,” said Tru, “of course.  And extended breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and family-bed advocate.  And double-Aquarius.  And PTA rabble-rouser.”

Hope swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.  “Right,” she said.  “And former coolest girl in the whole class.”

“Former?” Tru said, raising one painted-on eyebrow.

The job is for one year, but the Chair is certain he’ll be able to renew it if she is still interested after the first year (“and if I’m alive, he was polite enough not to say,” Tru reports).  There is in fact someone in Tru’s field in the department here, a Full Professor, but he’s just had a big success with a book that crossed over to a general audience, and several grants that will probably take him off duty for at least the next two, maybe even three, years.

Tru agonizes for a while, both with Hope and with her husband, sometimes with them both at the same time, over whether or not she should take the job–whether or not she can take the job.  “I mean, I feel all right this minute, but who knows how I’ll feel or what will be happening next month, never mind eight, nine, ten months from now?”

Finally, however, she throws up her hands and says, “This is nuts.  I can’t afford to worry about this–I have more important things to think about.”  If she gets sick again, she says, she’ll deal with it then.  Right now she’s “clean.”  Why not take the job?  What difference does it make, after all?  And she might enjoy it–why shouldn’t she enjoy it? she asks Hope, and then resorts to Yiddish once again:  “Az a mentsh iz gezunt hot er a sakh dayges, az er iz krank hot er nor eyn dayge–a healthy person has lots of worries, a sick person only one.”

On the first day she goes in to teach, she and Hope make a date to meet for lunch at the one decent place near campus.  Tru has been in her office all morning, making final preparations for–and fretting over, she admits, despite her Yiddish proverb–the first meeting of the upper-level undergraduate course in political philosophy, which has been taught for years by the Big Philosophy Macher, as she calls the Full Professor she’s replacing.  The class meets at two-thirty.  Hope’s mission is to keep her calm and buy her a celebratory lunch.

They hug; they giggle, because it’s so strange to be meeting this way–like grownups, like strangers, like women who don’t have children the same age, who haven’t known each other since they were hardly more than children themselves.  Mrs. Moy, the owner, brings them menus.  She knows Hope; she recommends the dumpling soup.  “Especially good today,” she says.  Both Hope and Tru say that’s what they’ll have, then.  Hope raises her eyebrows.

“Don’t shrug those real-hair eyebrows at me,” Tru says.  “That goddamn all-raw diet was driving me crazy.  I want to live like a normal person again.  Normal people eat shrimp dumplings, don’t they?”
“Definitely,” Hope says.  “That’s why my mother and my husband don’t, probably.”  She giggles again.

Now they smile shyly at each other over their teacups.  When was the last time they saw each other without the kids? Tru asks.  But neither of them can remember.  Abruptly they both look away–they actually do feel shy with each other, Hope realizes–and as she cuts her eyes away from Tru’s, which are suddenly glittering with held-back tears, Hope happens to glance down at her own hand where it is cupped around her handleless tea cup and sees that the stone is missing from her aquamarine ring.  There is nothing but a band and four empty silver prongs.

She bursts into tears.  Then Tru does, too.  They are both sitting in this tiny Chinese restaurant–just six tables, all full–across the street from campus, the TV set above them, mounted on the wall, blaring CNN, and neither of them can stop weeping.  If this were New York, nobody would look at them.  But this is the Middle West, and everybody stops what he or she is doing–eating, talking, watching the TV, where the President is apologizing to the country–and stares.  Still, no one asks if they’re okay–no one, that is, except Mrs. Moy, who hurries to their table to ask if there’s something she can do for them.  Hope shakes her head.

She tells Tru, then, through tears she can’t get under control, why she’s crying.  Tru knows the story–knows both stories–of the ring, and she looks down at Hope’s hand.  Then she reaches for it.  Gingerly she touches the ring’s empty setting.

“I’m being an idiot,” Hope says.

Tru shrugs.

Mrs. Moy brings out two bowls of the dumpling soup.

Hope tells herself how foolish she is being but still she cannot seem to stop crying.  Even after Tru stops, even after both of them begin to spoon their soup into their mouths–and Mrs. Moy was right: it is especially good today–Hope’s tears are still falling.  She cries throughout lunch, cries into her delicious dumpling soup.  Tru doesn’t say a word.  She eats her soup slowly, and watches Hope over each spoonful as she cries over a lost semi-precious stone, a stone like sea water, a stone that casts her back into her childhood–gone now, Hope thinks.  Gone forever.

She finishes her soup, pulls herself together, asks for the check.  Outside, in front of the restaurant, she assures Tru that she’ll be great and kisses her on both cheeks.  She tells her that her students are the luckiest kids on campus.

Back in her office, she calls her mother, who tells her to send the ring to her, she’ll take it back to Fortunoff’s, they’ll fix it, it’s no big deal. “They’re perfectly lovely about repairs.  They don’t ask questions.  They take care of this sort of thing cheerfully and efficiently.  That’s why I shop there.”

Hope thinks about this on and off for the rest of the afternoon.  She can hear her mother, in her head, saying “. . . cheerfully and efficiently.  That’s why I shop there.”  There’s something so soothing about this, she concludes that she should make it her mantra.

Before she leaves the office, she puts the ring in a small, padded envelope and sends it to her mother.

She picks up Will and Nat at the bus stop, as planned, and brings them to her house.  Tru joins them there when she gets out of her two-hour class.  “You actually kept them the whole two hours,” Hope remarks.

Tru is gleaming–there’s no other word for it.  She emits light.  She is so happy and so full of energy–more energy than Hope can recall her having since she first got sick–that Hope doesn’t have to ask how things went.  But Tru tells her.  She tells her every detail of how she’d passed the two hours with her first class in years.  The children listen, too.  They both like exhaustive detail.  “I’d forgotten,” Tru says finally, kicking off her “teaching shoes”–real grown-up shoes, pumps, with a grown-up semi-high heel (Hope doesn’t even own a pair, has only sneakers, cowboy boots, and sandals), instead of the Naot sandals she wears otherwise, all year round–“just how much fun it is.”

“And how good you are?” says Hope.

Tru admits this, grinning.

She has another class to teach tomorrow, just an intro course this time, and she is no longer anxious about this one.  “Truth is,” she says, “I could probably do it in my sleep, even after all this time.”

So–fall quarter is underway.  Tru teaches her two classes, goes to campus four days a week, and on the days she teaches in the morning, she’s in charge of picking up the kids and keeping them amused until Hope gets home–she puts in a full day on those two days–and on the days when she meets with the upper-level class from two-thirty to four-thirty, Hope leaves the office early and is on kid duty.  On Fridays, Tru picks up the kids, but usually Hope can get away a little early, and the four of them all have some time together before dinner.

“It’s a good life,” Hope says firmly.  Tru’s health remains all right.  “For now,” she says.  Will and Nat are in the same class this year, and at recess, the teacher tells their mothers, they hold hands; they are never apart.  “We’re looking after each other,” Willa tells Hope when she asks about this.  “We’re partners.  If any big kids cause any trouble, or if one of us falls down or gets a splinter or anything, the other one can run for an adult.”

“That’s a good plan,” Hope says.

But it makes her sad, too.  Not just because her daughter knows that bad things can happen (and how could she not know? She’s only being realistic: recess involves four hundred kids–every kid in the school, all at once, K through fifth grade–and the playground “equipment,” mostly monkey bars circa 1964, in various configurations, is in deplorable shape; the chances of getting a splinter on the one ramshackle, wobbly wooden slide, or from the cypress mulch that’s scattered under all the faltering equipment, are pretty good, too) and not just because of what her daughter and Tru’s son now know about how shaky life itself can be, how much it helps to have a partner to look out for you, but also because Hope and her own chosen partner aren’t looking after one another very well these days.  In fact, the only time they seem to pay attention to each other lately is to bicker and snap at each other.  She can’t recall a single act of kindness between them in months.  She broods over this, until one morning in October, with Sukkot behind them–she and Tru and the two kids built a shelter in Hope’s family’s backyard; the children ate their after-school snacks in it every day for the full ten days of the holiday–and Halloween approaching, so that they’ve been working (slowly, and with difficulty, since neither one of them can really sew) on homemade costumes for the kids, who want to be the sun (Will) and the moon (Nat), Hope wakes up and the first thing that comes into her mind is that she has been wrong about a lot of things about her marriage.  Either wrong or simply lying to herself.  She can’t tell which.

Was she wrong, or was she lying, for example, when she’d told herself her husband didn’t mind that from the moment of Will’s birth she’d thrown herself into her new role and had almost nothing left for him?  That taking care of Will–doing it “right”–had taken up so much of her heart and her mind, she had barely registered her husband as someone who might need looking after?  Because he didn’t talk about it and she couldn’t (or just didn’t want to?) sense his anger, she’d ignored even the possibility of it.  Now she has begun to notice how he’ll say something a little mean–no big deal, just something he knows is likely to annoy her, and without thinking she’ll respond a little meanly too, and then he can respond to how mean she has been: his temper will flare and he will accuse her of treating him badly–an excuse to let her know how hurt and angry he is.  And how unhappy.

And what about her own unhappiness, her own frustration?  Had she sold herself a bill of goods (cheerfully and efficiently.  That’s why I shop there) about how she could manage without conversation?  At the very least, she’d underestimated how much she would long for it, how desperate she would feel sometimes, when she is full of worries about Tru, and observations about Will, and thoughts about the way her work is going–and even less serious things: stray leftover bits from her day at the Arts Center, or concerns about the house, or something she had heard on NPR on the way home–things she’d like to talk about, or sometimes even tries to talk about, but her husband will cut her off in the middle of a sentence, or wander away, into another room, so that it’s clear he wasn’t listening at all (and perhaps hadn’t even noticed that she had been speaking).  That she can’t talk to the person to whom she has pledged her life is weighing on her now; that she can’t count on being listened to, even when he “lets” her talk, is grinding away at her–eroding her real self.  Could this really be her, living alongside someone whose inner landscape is so hidden from her?  How could this have happened?

They live together without ever talking about anything that matters.  Sometimes they will go for days without exchanging more than a few words of any kind with each other.  She has given up on conversation, on communication, on connection, she realizes.  She used to try to get him to tell her what was on his mind, but it’s been a long time now since she last asked.  When he’s in a bad mood, she tries to stay out of his way.  When she’s feeling especially low, she keeps to herself.  Thus it seems to her that they don’t know a thing about each other’s thoughts or feelings–don’t really know each other, then, at all.

It occurs to her for the first time why she’d wanted so much to tell him what she remembered of her childhood–to tell him stories.  It’s because her memories explain her; her memories are her.  The stories she’d wanted to tell, and didn’t tell–tried to tell at first, then gave up trying to tell–were not just about “things that happened” to her (which, anyway, he’d claimed could not be posited as true: “You only think they’re true; it’s only what you happen to remember or think you remember”).  They were about how she’d felt when they’d happened to her, and about how she felt now, when she looked back at them–what they seemed to mean and what they seem now to mean.  “Only what you happen to remember” suggests that what she “happened” to remember isn’t relevant.  The stories, she thinks now, were–are–about what she remembered, how and why.  They are about which things stuck.

She is seized again now, for the first time since their early days together, with the need to tell her husband things about herself.  She wants to tell him about her friendship with Trudy thirty years ago, and about Nora forty years ago.  She wants to talk about her parents.  She wants to talk about the first things she remembers.  About second grade and the I Hate Hope club Melanie Rae and Betsy D. had started.  About how all through grade school she had made two sets of drawings, and then later–junior high, and even at the start of high school–two sets of paintings, too: those she would show her parents and her teachers and those she kept hidden, for herself.  How, as far as she knows, the only difference between the two sets was their intention.  There was no difference otherwise, or none that anyone could see.  It was a question of purpose, she thinks: how much they mattered, and for what.  She would like to tell her husband this.

She would like to tell him about her old boyfriends, which she never has.  He told her early on he didn’t want to hear.  But now this seems bizarre to her; it seems wrong that he doesn’t know what brought her to him.  She says, tentatively, one night after she’s put Will to bed, “Don’t you think it’s odd that we know so little about each other’s . . . you know, love lives, before we met?”  “Odd?  No,” he says.  He’s on the couch, watching CNN and glancing through Art in America at the same time.  She sits down beside him and says, “Well, don’t you think it would tell you something about me, help you to understand me better, if you knew that stuff?”  He looks at her as if she has suggested they take a Club Med vacation, or score some coke, or watch a sitcom–something so unlikely that he can’t believe his ears.  Still, she doesn’t give up.  She presses on, telling him that if he knew more about what  all those long-ago relationships were like–whom she’d loved and why, and how each one of them had changed her, just a little, “the road I took to you,” she says–he’d know something about their marriage he would never otherwise know.

He closes his magazine, aims the remote control at the TV and clicks it off, and says, “First of all, why would I want to know something about our marriage that I couldn’t ‘otherwise know’?  There’s a reason I don’t know it through our life together, isn’t there?  And second, one prefers to believe that, once married, these experiences you’re talking about would cease to have so strong a hold on one’s spouse that she would feel the need to talk about them.  Or even to recall them silently.”

This leaves Hope speechless.  And not just speechless, she realizes later, but thoughtless.  For she is so dumbfounded by what he has said that it is only after a long time that she is able to think: There is no experience I’ve ever had that has lost its hold on me.

She doesn’t say this to her husband.  She doesn’t say anything at all to him for several days.  He doesn’t seem to notice.

Halloween comes and goes.  The costumes Hope and Tru made for the children are a big success, and afterwards they make jokes about starting a business: Poorly Sewn Things, Beautifully Imagined: Your Children Will Love Them Anyway.  Weeks pass.  The weather turns fiercely cold.  Hope and her husband talk about the weather, about plans for Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas.  Hope wants to have Tru’s family with them for all the holidays; her husband says sure, that makes sense, it’s okay with him.  They invite her parents to join them for Thanksgiving, his parents for Christmas (hers will come, she knows; his won’t).

Her parents bring her ring, the stone replaced, when they come for Thanksgiving.  For once Thanksgiving feels substantial: there are so many chairs around the table.  Nat and Will have made a centerpiece, with autumn leaves and twigs and cut-out Indians and pilgrims–construction paper figures glued to popsicle sticks.  Then fall quarter’s over; the next round of holidays is coming.  Hope works on her Christmas/Chanukah card list: adds her husband’s newest colleague to his side of the list, and on hers tries to cut a few names–but who? No one in her family, or anyone she works with, nor her dealers; what about all those old friends in New York, old boyfriends, the families of Willa’s friends?  There is no one she can cut.  This year, like every year, instead of cutting, she adds another dozen or so new names to her list.

She draws a card this year, the first one she has ever made without a forest: just one bare-branched small tree, a full moon above, no stars or snow.  An angel peeks from behind the tree; beneath her, a tiny dreydl marked with the letter nuntake nothing; receive nothing–lies on its side on the snow-covered ground.

There’s a three-week break before classes start up again.  Tru is to teach just one course next quarter, starting right after New Year’s.  But just before Christmas, she gets sick again.

She has to bow out of winter quarter and the graduate seminar she’d been looking forward to.  She is in the hospital over New Year’s weekend: a bowel resection is performed–there’d been a blockage; that’s what had been making her so sick–and more cancer is found, nothing “huge,” her doctor says, but lots of little bits, here and there, around her abdomen “and elsewhere.”  She doesn’t ask where.  “Why should I?” she tells Hope.  “What’s to be gained?”

Hope asks for some time off–the first few weeks of January, maybe part of February too.  Her boss is understanding once again.  “We’ll figure something out,” he tells her.  “Do what you have to do.”  She doesn’t know how she, who has had so many terrible jobs in her life, has gotten so lucky.  She swears she’ll pay him back sometime, somehow.  He’ll have to do his work and hers, she knows; she can’t officially take so much time off, so he’ll have to cover for her.  She tries to thank him for this and he tells her it doesn’t matter, it’s nothing.  He says it brusquely–ashamed of his own goodness, it seems to her.

She gives him one of her paintings.   For now, that’s the best she can do.

Every morning she picks Nat up and gets both kids to the school bus, then goes back to Tru’s house.  She almost always finds Tru’s husband crying by then.  He’s managed to get Nat dressed, get him breakfast, and shoo him out the door, where Hope waits, but then he collapses.  Hope shoos him out–sends him to campus, tells him she’ll take over–and she makes chicken soup and mashed potatoes and milkshakes for Tru, though mostly Tru can’t eat at all.  She’s started her fourth round of chemo.

After school, Hope watches the two kids while Tru rests.  Sometimes she takes both kids to her house, and Tru’s husband sits with her; sometimes the kids play in another room while Hope sits with Tru.  But before that–between eight-thirty in the morning, when Hope waves to the kids as the school bus rambles off, and three forty-five, when they disembark, swinging their lunchboxes and their bookbags full of papers–Hope is with Tru.  She watches her sleep, or she holds her hand and they talk, or she reads to her–cheerful, distracting, trivial things.  Articles from People about Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts.  The New York Times style section.  A book called The Dolly Dialogues she found in a secondhand bookstore on High Street.  But when she is home, alone, at night after Willa is asleep and her husband has gone to his studio–ending for that day their evening-load of picking at each other–she reads uncheerful, undistracting, untrivial things.  She reads Primo Levi.  She reads William Gass.  She reads John Berryman’s Dream Songs and Rudolf Arnheim’s Power of the Center. She reads instead of sleeping, instead of painting.  She reads J.M. Coetzee, then Milan Kundera–first The Unbearable Lightness of Being, then Immortality.  She thinks about Kundera’s formulation:

What is unbearable in life is not being but being one’s self.

And: Living, there is no happiness in that.  Living: carrying one’s painful self through the world.

But being, being is happiness . . . .

She doesn’t buy it.  It bothers her for days.  How could he have said–committed to paper, put in a novel (and a novel she admires!)–something she’s so sure is simply wrong?  She tells herself it’s hard to know if this is meant sincerely, hard to tell what Kundera “really” thinks, since his tone is so ironic, and his narrator–the dry, witty voice of a “person” who does not properly exist within the story itself, but keeps interrupting it (which reminds her of the way Willa has always insisted, when they are making her stuffed animals or dolls talk, that she and Hope “don’t exist: so don’t talk as yourself and I won’t either.  We’ll just pretend we’re nothing, nowhere, nobody,” but then of course she does talk, to direct her mother about what will happen next or to explain what something that has just passed between the stuffed frog and the stuffed zebra “really means”)–maintains such cool distance from those characters.

She finishes Immortality but she can’t stop thinking about it.  She is pretty sure it is Kundera himself who is speaking through his characters, that he isn’t making fun of them for thinking this way–that he would in fact make fun of her for being certain that living as one’s true self is what makes life bearable, that the search for one’s true self is what matters most. She does pause to ask herself if it’s naïve, or even simple-minded, to believe that “what matters most” equals “what makes for happiness.”

She turns to poetry.  She can’t concentrate on novels anymore, and short stories irritate her, with their planned epiphanies and little, never-altogether-lifelike dramas (and worse are the stories conscientiously avoiding drama: stories in which people soundlessly bump up against each other and then bump away again, without effect, without affect); she has lost patience with reading about life or art, so she can no longer read memoirs or essays.  Poetry suits her now, and she reads only the work of living poets–for she discovers too, as she clarifies her mental list of what she can and can’t do (can’t sleep, can’t work, can’t watch TV or read the newspaper), she can’t bear to read anything by anyone who’s dead.

She takes care of Tru, she takes care of Willa, she takes care of Nat, and she reads poems.  She reads them fast, without trying to understand them.  She reads them for the words themselves–she reads them out loud sometimes, for the satisfaction of hearing the carefully shaped sets of words–and she reads them for the images that they’re stuffed with.  She can’t look at paintings right now, and she can’t think about them–but she likes the lucid, detailed, charged-up pictures poems make for her in her mind.  If she reads enough poetry, sometimes she can sleep a little afterwards.

But she can’t stop thinking of this question of being versus being one’s self.  The poems she reads–even though she scrupulously pays no attention whatsoever to what they mean–make her think about this too.  Each one of these images she carries in her head now comes out of not just being but the being of a singular self: they wouldn’t exist if not for the crucible of self.  That crucible of self, through which what’s “really there” gets filtered, that her husband resolutely wants to keep from getting in the way of “what is.”  Does he, really?  Does anybody?  Is there anything at all that just is?

What’s so terrible about being a self anyway?  She wants to ask her husband this but doesn’t dare.  Is it the wearing away, the shedding of what’s inessential (because the inessential is protective) that seems scary?  (But–she pauses; wonders–if the inessential is protective, is it inessential?)  Certainly as Tru wears down to nothing but pure self, it’s frightening, not just to her but to them all.  Her husband doesn’t talk about Tru–he doesn’t even ask how she is feeling when Hope, back home, happens to bump into him.  Which isn’t often.  He is keeping to his studio, to campus–he’s avoiding her.

Which means they aren’t fighting now, but at what cost?  Marriage, she thinks now–even a good marriage (though what she means by “good” she isn’t sure)–by its nature blocks the search for one’s true self.  Married, one ends up obliged to be less true to one’s own essential nature so as to live peacefully alongside another, inevitably clashing self: how else to manage day to day?  Unless one finds one’s psychic twin–and would anyone want to be married to someone exactly like him or herself?  Why bother, then?

She sees what she and her husband have come to: they avoid each other, and when they are together, each now makes an effort to act–carefully, politely–as he knows the other wants him to.  Her husband asks her how her day has been (even if he can’t bring himself to say, “How was Tru?”) and makes a visible effort to listen patiently when she tells him.  If she starts to cry, he’ll fold her in his arms (but awkwardly; it’s plain this isn’t natural for him, plain that it costs him); he has actually uttered the words, “There, there”; he has patted her back and her head.

She tells herself that she should be moved by these efforts–that the act of making them is an act of love: trying to do right by her, trying to give her what she needs (or what he thinks she needs) whether it comes naturally to him or not.  She has to fight off the impulse to say, Please.  If you don’t mean it, don’t do it. She fights it off because she doesn’t want to hurt him, and because she knows it isn’t really that he doesn’t mean it.  It isn’t exactly that.  It’s that the expression of what he means–whatever he means–isn’t in what he is doing.

When he tries to “be more attentive,” as she so often used to tell him she wished he’d be–when he “spontaneously” hugs her from behind, or grabs her suddenly as she walks by, pulls her to him and kisses her–she believes that he’s both trying to behave in ways he thinks she’ll like (she doesn’t, not really; it makes her uneasy) and to find a way to show her how he feels (it’s just not his way.  But what is his way? she wonders).

For her part, she is trying to be quieter–both to talk less and to keep her voice soft–and to be more subtle, less intense: containing herself (and concealing her self) as she knows he wishes her to do.

But because what they are doing is the opposite of what her deepest instincts tell her one should do, she fears that over time, as they try to be other than themselves, they will become something other than what they were meant or made to be.

She tries to square this with her belief that he had never hidden his “true” self from her–that he alone, of all the men she’d loved, had never seemed to feel that she “at last” could see him as he really was, and thus had never had to fear that perhaps she and he were wrong.  Whose fault is it if he now cannot be himself?  If she has lost her ability to coax trueness out of hiding?  Neither of them are themselves–what they had been, or thought the other was–any longer.

17. LOVE

Love.  Love.  Love. It’s a word she’s stared at for too long, she thinks, until it’s lost its meaning, looks spelled wrong, until it’s not a word at all.  It doesn’t signify.  Broken down, the letters themselves have turned into scratches, tokens of nothing, non-symbols.

She is in a fury at herself.  She hates her own foggy, muddy thinking.

She tells herself to calm down–but she hates being told to calm down.  When her husband says it, and he says it often, it doesn’t help to calm her; it agitates her.  And she has agitated herself now.

Rebelling even against her own authority, she thinks–and distraught as she is, this still makes her laugh.  Crazy, she tells herself.

She is breathing hard.  She cannot catch her breath; she thinks she may be hyperventilating.

Okay, crazy Hope, take a deep breath. That’s it–in and out, there you go.  In and out.

And think about what you mean by love.

All right. In and out.  Again.  Deep breaths.  Here’s what I mean.

That our most deeply hidden selves were just what beckoned to each other to begin with.  That the cores of our being reached out to each other.

And she blushes–even though she is alone, even though it’s just her and herself, having this conversation, so to speak, so what difference does it make if she sounds like a greeting card?  What matters is not how she sounds but only that if she is right, then there has to be a way to make their marriage right.  To make it big enough for both her and her husband, for both of their essential selves along with their accommodations to each other.

Yes.  That’s it.  She knows what she wants–what she needs.  What she doesn’t know, what she feels she can’t begin to know, is how to make it happen.

She wishes she could talk to Tru about it.  Tru’s marriage, it seems to Hope, has been big enough for both her and her husband.  But this is not the time to ask her how her marriage has turned out to be so different from most other marriages–from what Hope is beginning to be afraid marriage is: so confining, limiting, so endlessly difficult, so full of adjustments and avoidance.

Or perhaps it is the time.  Perhaps Tru would appreciate it, would be glad to hear how much Hope envies her and wants to know her secret; perhaps she would be glad to offer help to Hope.

Perhaps she would be glad just to have the subject of their conversation changed–for lately all they talk about, all Tru seems to want to or be able to talk about, is dying.  She wants to talk about what will happen to Nat, and how her husband will manage without her.  She wants to talk about the best way for her to die–that is, where, and whether or not it should be in the presence of her family.  She can’t decide; she wants advice.

And she cannot have this conversation–any of these conversations–with her husband, she tells Hope.  He’ll say, “There’s no point talking about this.  You’ll get better.  It’s just a matter of finding the right combination of things to get it.”  He calls her cancer–delicately, Hope thinks–it.  “We just have to keep working on it.”

He says this very quietly, Tru reports.  He says it without conviction, but he keeps saying it.  He used to say it with conviction, with passion.  Tru had believed it then.  Hope had believed it, too.  They’d all believed it; they’d all said it to one another.  Tru tells Hope she doesn’t argue with him when he says this now.  She just waits for him to finish.  She saves her real conversation for Hope.

Tru reports this wearily.  “Why does he imagine I want to hear these things?” she asks Hope.   “Why does he think this will make me feel better?  And even if it did, that’s not what I want.  I don’t want to feel better.  I don’t want to be soothed.  I don’t want to be condescended to.”

Hope keeps herself from saying, “What do you want?”  Because she knows what Tru wants.

And she knows this is not the time to tell her how enviable her marriage is.

And she knows better than to say, “It won’t happen, you won’t die.”  Not that she’s given up.  She doesn’t believe Tru has either.  But they both know the chances of her making it through this–through it–keep getting smaller.  There’s no point pretending they don’t know this.  So they talk soberly about whether Tru should go into the hospital to die.  “But I hate that idea,” Tru says.  “I hate it almost as much as I hate all of this.”  She waves one hand vaguely around the living room, which smells bad–the whole apartment smells bad–and it’s hard to tell why exactly, though some of the bad smell is nothing more mysterious than the smell of shit, because Tru’s in the bathroom so much of the day, in and out with the runs, one of the results of the newest chemo cocktail.  “But I hate even more the thought of Nat watching me dying, having to see me at the very end.”

They don’t come to a decision.  They don’t have to, yet–it’s not that close–and for a few days they leave it alone before they come back to it again.  Hope talks to Tru about whatever Tru wants to talk about.  She lets her lead, for she has discovered that Tru gets angry when Hope is the one to start a conversation.  Well, of course she does, Hope thinks.  Why not?  This is one of the very few things she can still be in control of.

So she sits with her, carefully following Tru’s lead.  There’s no way to predict, on any given day, how Tru will want to work her way toward the subject of their real conversation: by talking about her husband, or asking Hope the kinds of questions about hers that make it impossible to turn that conversation serious and desperate; or about the kids’ eating and sleeping habits, comparing and contrasting and commiserating; or about the ordinary business (peck peck peck, Hope calls it) of Hope’s day-to-day life–which sometimes, in a certain mood, soothes Tru (“Tell me about what errands you ran yesterday; tell me what you made for dinner”).  Sometimes she wants to trade remembered snatches of their shared past, the shared pasts that don’t always match up.  Eventually, they always get around to talking about death.  It’s the only real subject anymore.  Everything else seems to fall together–the important and the unimportant, the past and the present, the big and the small, all mixed up together as if there were no difference: their English teacher junior year of high school who caught Hope cutting class and either had (Tru’s version) or miraculously hadn’t (Hope’s) called her parents in for a conference, and the black bean soup Hope made last night for dinner, and Poco and Hot Tuna at the Fillmore East and the night Jackson Browne opened for Laura Nyro and what to do with Will and Nat’s best hand-me-downs and long-lost high school friends and trips to the dry cleaner and the post office and the lyrics to “White Bird” and Hope’s job and what she is painting (when she has time and energy to paint, which isn’t often anymore) and certain things Tru has been thinking of from her earliest childhood that she’s never spoken of before and piano lessons for the kids and is their new principal as stupid as he seems and what her parents told her and what she has guessed or figured out about their lives before they made it to the U.S. and old movies and politics and their children and their husbands.

The moment for a real conversation with Tru about love, about her marriage, has passed, Hope understands.  She will have to work it out alone, she thinks, as they sit talking and talking and talking–peck peck peck to death, and Whatever happened to Eileen Shavelson? to death, and their husbands’ promotions to death, and old boyfriends to death, and Bill Clinton to death, and the old neighborhood to death, and All he eats these days are grilled cheese sandwiches and hearts of palm to death, and three decades ago at a Dead show in Connecticut to death.

And afterwards Hope goes home to her husband’s silence.


Then, one day, her husband’s silence ends.

It ends as suddenly as Tru’s illness began–that is, Hope thinks, as suddenly as anyone’s awareness of Tru’s illness began, for hadn’t cancer steadily and secretly been growing inside her for a long time? As suddenly as Charity’s departure, which must have grown and gathered force in silence and in secret for a long time, too.  Longer, Hope imagines now, than Charity herself could possibly have known: without an outward sign that she or anyone could read.  And could she read them afterwards? Hope wonders.  Did it all make sense in retrospect, so that she knows now what Hope never will–exactly how and why it happened?  Or is it a mystery to her?  And if it is, has she resigned herself to it, or is she pondering it still?

I’d still be pondering, Hope thinks.  If it were my life.

And of course she still is, even though it isn’t.

She should know better, she tells herself.  She should know by now that even her best efforts to make sense of the way life unfolds around her are as likely to be futile as the effort that she does know better than to make to change the course of things (to make Tru well) or, as even Will knows, to undo what has been done.  Yet when the deep well of her husband’s silence–so deep, she would have sworn that it was bottomless–evaporates one day, as suddenly and inexplicably as any of life’s great surprises, she can’t keep herself from asking: What brought this on?
She says it out loud.  He looks at her; he blinks.  At that moment he seems reptilian to her.  She almost says this out loud–almost hisses, “Snake.”

He says, “I don’t know what you mean.  What brought what on?”

Hope studies him.  She can’t tell if he’s kidding–if he means just to be funny–or if he’s goading her.  Or (but can this really be?) if he truly hasn’t noticed that he’s changed.

She should have said something when the first changes crept in.  When he tried to comfort her.  Or if not then, then when he tried to be romantic and attentive–or romantically attentive or attentively romantic (it’s all the same to her now, though she remembers a time when she would have sworn there were distinctions between attention, romance, affection, and sex).  He has given up on comfort and on “romance” both, it seems; now he is trying talking.

That’s how she sees it–as if he is trying on each of her longings.  Her old longings, she thinks.  Longings that may have outlived their usefulness.  If they were ever useful at all.

Oh, how she wishes she had stopped him before, before it had gone so far, this trying.  Not because it’s “too little, too late,” because it’s not “too little”–it’s too much, way too much–and it may not even be that it’s too late; it may be that what she had thought she longed for most of all wasn’t ever a true longing.  Because if she had really wanted it, she asks herself, why would she have chosen him?

What brought what on? he asks her, as he talks for the first time about his childhood, about his parents and his grandparents, long dead.  He tells her stories that she not only has never heard before, but that she had no idea existed to be told.  He tells her about the town he grew up in.  People he used to know.  Places he spent summers.  “I thought you didn’t remember anything,” Hope says once or twice, but it’s as if he doesn’t even hear her; he just keeps on talking.

He talks about his teaching job, about his students.  He talks about his ambivalence about his upcoming promotion–news to her, this ambivalence.  She had been under the impression that the whole thing left him cold.  (But then so much of what he tells her now is news to her that she reminds herself that she must stop thinking this way: that anything is news.  It’s all news–all news all the time, like that radio station her father likes so much back home in New York, the constant chatter of which used to drive her crazy.  Or like the daily New York Times that’s slapped down on their doorstep every morning and tossed into the recycling bin each night–most of the time, her husband used to complain, without his even having glanced at it.  “It just keeps coming,” he would say, shaking his head as he hauled the recycling bin out to the curb.  “I don’t know why you don’t just cancel it.”)

About his promotion, this new version of her husband says: “Part of me is thrilled.”  Hope tries to remember if she has ever heard him use this word before (thrilled, it seems to her, does not belong in her husband’s vocabulary.  Not the husband she knows.  Knew, she thinks).  This new husband, not the one she knew–this talking husband who is thrilled–goes on to tell her that he’s proud too, or rather that part of him is proud (and Hope is distracted again; she thinks proud? No, he’d never admit to proud–pride is a sin in his book–and then she thinks, wait, part of him? He’d never admit to having parts), but part of him, he says, is disgusted with himself for being proud, for thinking it has any meaning.   “Everyone in the Academy makes such a big deal out of it, and what does it mean?  A twelve-percent raise?  What is that, four, five hundred dollars a year?  Oh, but it’s not the money–not the forty bucks a month, of course it’s not–it’s the fact of seniority, it’s the power.  Power to do what?  To decide who else gets to be promoted?”

Hope stares at him.  Nothing that he says is so extraordinary–she’s heard it, or something like it, from both Char and Tru–but she didn’t even know her husband thought about such things.  She didn’t know anything about what her husband thought about.

Now she gets to hear everything he thinks about.

He never stops talking.  He talks so incessantly she can’t hear herself think.  She can hardly breathe.

“The stakes are so small,” he says.  And then: “Woodrow Wilson said that, you know.”

She stares at him.

But then already he is off on something else–his work, his “own work” is what he says, meaning painting, meaning not the small-stakes full professorship he’s thrilled by and proud of and ashamed of being thrilled by and proud of.  He talks about his painting in a way he never has before, in ways she never knew he thought about it (all news all the time) and she can’t follow what he’s telling her exactly, although perhaps she’s just distracted, too surprised to concentrate the way she should to make sense of the references to realism as illumination, truth equaling beauty but beauty as irrelevant, humility before the mystery of nature, and fleeting mentions of too many painters–each evaluated and put into context–to keep track of.

He talks about her work, too.  He has ideas about it.  He has a theory, he says, about why she never paints from life.  Does she want to hear it?  “Maybe later,” Hope says, as nicely as she can.  But he has another idea, too; nothing’s going to stop him from telling her what’s on his mind.  He wonders if she wouldn’t “like to think about” what working bigger might do, how it might change the way she sees things.  And what about moving from wood panels to canvas?

Has he always had ideas about her painting that he kept to himself?  Now he keeps nothing to himself.  Not about her work, or his, or how they’re raising Will–he has lots of ideas she’s never heard a thing about before.  Mistakes she’s made.  Things that are going to Have To Change.  No more sitting at Will’s bedside till she falls asleep.  No more asking her what she would like for dinner: “The child needs to learn to be more accommodating, to accept what’s offered to her.”  She needs more structure.  She needs rules.

“Rules?” Hope says.  “We have rules.”

But he’s on to something else.  He wants to move–out of the city, into the country.  “A bigger house.  With studios for both of us right there.  Maybe converted barns.  Or even just one big barn we could turn into two studios.”

Hope knows she should respond to this.  He’s waiting for a response. All she can think of to say is, “We’d have to commute to campus.  Where would we send Will to school?  How would we arrange our lives?”

But it doesn’t matter because he’s off and running again.  He doesn’t stick to any single subject for very long.  It’s hard to tell which things he’s serious about.

One night he says, “You know, we don’t have to stay here forever.  I could look for another teaching job.  Why should we spend our lives in this part of the country, where neither of us belong?  Do we really want to raise Will here?”  But he doesn’t wait for her to answer.  He just keeps talking.

He even wants to talk about their marriage.  About feelings.

Although he doesn’t say it, she understands that he has called her bluff.

Every day, he follows her from room to room, even to the bathroom, talking.  He calls her in her studio, and in her office.  He calls her at home when he is in his studio.  He starts talking to her the instant she walks into the house and he doesn’t stop until she has gone to sleep–and even then, sometimes, he doesn’t stop: she hears his voice following her as she drifts off, the words turning into sounds that have no meaning–blessedly! she thinks–then vanishing into the darkness.

And unlike the year’s worth of stocked-up conversation he used to unleash on her in one long night of rambling monologue, this talk has an urgent, endless, desperate quality.  This talk demands immediate response–immediate, correct response.

But she cannot respond to him at all.  As days, then weeks pass, it becomes more and more difficult for her to speak to him about anything.  She says “Yes” and she says “No” and she says “We’re out of yogurt” or “At six o’clock” or “I don’t know.”  He remarks that she seems to have lost interest in talking to him.

“Come on, Hope, talk to me,” he says at six-twenty-five one morning.  She had been on her way to the bathroom–silently, she was certain, so he must have been awake and feigning sleep, waiting for a sign from her that she was awake too.  She always got up early, to give herself some time alone before she had to wake Will and the morning blurred into activity, to have a chance to drink her first two cups of coffee glancing at the Times–the real Times, the one with news of the world, the one to which she is not expected to respond–which by now would be on the porch and for which she longs.

Her husband pats her side of the bed.  He wants her to return to it.  “Come on.  Will won’t be up for over an hour, right?  You have some time.  Let’s talk.”

Anything she can think of to say will be bitter.  In fact, she can’t think of anything to say; she can only think of how bitter she feels, and how lost, how far gone.  This is how she thinks of it: I am so far gone.

She tells herself she must be kind.  She should be grateful.  She has what she had been desperate for, for years.

And it’s as if he has been storing up this talk–so many words!–for all those years.  Where were they when I needed them? Hope wonders.  But she wonders, too, if it’s the words themselves–the talk itself–that she is finding so unbearable, or if what is unbearable is that what she longed for for so long has turned out to be unbearable?

It may not even matter.  She is worn out, and whatever she’d been desperate for, for all those years, is not what she is desperate for now.  Now what she longs for is silence.  Each day she leaves Tru, who needs to talk, to come home to her husband, who now also needs to talk.  She would give anything, she thinks, for an hour to be alone, in silence!  She is desperate not just to be by herself, but to be just herself.

There is no room for her anywhere.

It’s not just her husband to whom she cannot respond now, she realizes.  It’s herself too.  She can’t speak and she can’t think.  That her husband turns out not to be unneedful after all–that hiding under what she was so certain was an impenetrable cloak of cool, untouchable and touchless silence has been this, this limitless outpouring–has left her speechless for perhaps only the second time in her life and has short-circuited her thinking process.  How can she think, buried as she is under the weight of all these words?  Under the weight of a lifetime’s worth of words?  A lifetime’s worth of feeling, desperation, self.

Her husband never stops talking, but with everything he has to say, he never mentions Tru.  He never asks about her, and when Hope comes home after sitting with her for hours, he begins to speak of other things before she’s even closed the door behind her.

There is no pause in which she can say, “I’m frightened.”  There is no room to be frightened.  No room, she thinks, to be anything.  No room to be.

She sleepwalks through her days, dazed and depleted.  She’s back at work at the Center now–she had to go back; her boss did the best he could, but finally the pressure was on him and she had to start going in to work again or quit her job and let him hire somebody else–so there’s less time, less room, than ever.  Job, daughter, husband, friend.  She recites this silently as she bumps herself back and forth, comes and goes.  She picks the kids up at the bus stop and keeps them with her.  Often now she picks them up and brings them to the Arts Center for an hour or two, while she finishes up what absolutely has to be finished that day.

She keeps odd hours at the Center.  “I don’t know anything about it,” her boss tells her. “As far as I know, you’re here all day long.”  This way she still manages to spend a good bit of time with Tru each day.  And in between–between Tru and her job, between mornings getting Will ready for school and late afternoons with both kids and evening homework-supervising, dinner-cooking, bath-and-reading-bedtime-routine until Willa is asleep at last–she listens to her husband.

She sleeps three or four hours a night.  She hasn’t picked up a paintbrush in weeks, in months–she’s losing track of time.  She’s stopped eating lunch; she uses her lunch hour to visit Tru.

“You’ll look after Nat?” Tru says one afternoon, almost the very second Hope lets herself in the front door at five after twelve.

At first Hope thinks she means after school today, for Tru worries about this every few days, despite Hope’s repeated assurances that she’ll take him home with her or to her office or to the playground or the library–wherever she is taking Will that afternoon–without fail, that she doesn’t have to worry.  But when she says, “Like always, sure I will,” Tru starts to cry.  Then Hope knows.

“Oh, darling, of course I will.”  She goes to the armchair, where Tru is sitting up today, an unopened magazine in her lap (one of the magazines her husband is always bringing home for her, the ones Tru never opens–Mother Jones or The Atlantic or Newsweek or Time).  She kneels on the floor beside her.  “You know I will.”

“I’m sorry,” Tru says.  And she actually manages to sing, through tears, a line from a song on a Laura Nyro album they used to listen to, and sing along with, nearly thirty years ago.  “You don’t love me when I cry.”

Hope is close to tears herself.  “I do, in fact.  I love you when you cry.”

“Oh, right,” Tru says, sniffling.  “I hate me when I cry.  I was confusing us again.”

“I do that all the time.”

They smile tearfully at each other.  Tru sings the line again, and the line that comes right after it.

You don’t love me when I cry

Have to say goodbye.


“Stop,” Hope says.  “Jesus, Tru.”

“You’re right.”  Tru closes her eyes.  “I’m  sorry.  I’m resorting to melodrama, aren’t I?”

Hope strokes her hand, which is very cold.  “No.  I’m sorry.  I was wrong.  You’re entitled.  To melodrama and to song.  Sing any damn thing you want.  Go ahead.”

Tru opens her eyes.  They’re still wet.  But she says, “Nah, you don’t mean it.  You want me to sing something catchy. Something that was a hit for the Fifth Dimension.”

“‘And When I Die’ was a hit for Three Dog Night.  That would be a nice compromise.”

“She was, what, seventeen when she wrote that song?  What the hell did she know?”

There’ll be one more child–” Hope starts to sing, but she can’t do it.

Tru closes her eyes again.  This time she keeps them closed as she speaks.  “I know his father will do all right,” she says.  “I mean, he’s not coping very well now, but he’ll rally.  He’ll do what has to be done–he’ll do a great job.  He loves Nat more than anything.”

“Almost more than anything,” Hope says.

“He’ll do fine, won’t he?”

“Yes,” Hope says.  “He will.  If he has to.”

“If he has to,” Tru repeats.

“And I’d help him.  I promise.  I’ll be here for Nat no matter what.”

Tru is silent for a while.  Her eyes are still shut tight.  Then she says, “Assuming you stay well.”

“Assuming that,” Hope says, and bows her head.

For a little while, then, they’re both silent.  Hope takes Tru’s cold hand in hers. The skin of Tru’s fingers feels loose around the bones, and papery. Hope entwines their fingers–lacing them together slowly, carefully, making sure not to scrape Tru’s fragile skin with her birthstone ring.  She lays her head on her old friend’s knee, beside their linked hands.  She watches her ring sparkle like seawater in sunlight.

There’s still time, she thinks.  Time, and so much love.

“We’ll all take care of him, sweetheart,” she says at last.  “You don’t have to worry.”  But even as she speaks, she thinks, There’s no knowing.  There’s no knowing how anything will turn out.

Tru doesn’t respond, and Hope has no idea what she is thinking.  How could she know?  How could she even imagine she might know?

She keeps her eyes closed, her head on Tru’s knee, their fingers laced together.  She can feel Tru breathing every place that she’s in contact with her.  She can feel her pulse, the beating of her heart.

There’s no knowing anything.

She says this to herself as sternly as if it were something she had told herself a thousand times and then had failed, a thousand times, to manage to remember.  Like you’re supposed to make your bed when you get out of it each morning, and don’t litter and the six times table and the capitals of all the states and exactly where each continent is in relation to the others and wash your hands and always use your turn signal and all you need is love and she can’t bear it, she thinks.  She can’t bear it. She can’t bear that there’s no knowing anything, no counting-on, no this-is-what-it’s-for, no certainty, no sense, no truth, no justice, no American way, nothing, nothing, nothing.

“Hope?” Tru says.


“I fell asleep for a minute, I think.”  She laughs–or Hope thinks it’s a laugh.  It may be a cough.  Or a little sob.  “I just wanted to make sure you were still here.”

“I’m still here,” Hope tells her.

“Stay longer,” Hope thinks Tru says then.

“Sure I will,” she says, but Tru is asleep again.  “Sure,” she says once more, for her own sake this time, but there’s nothing in the world she can be sure of.  Nothing.  Nothing.


Copyright 2005 by Michelle Herman.



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