“Plumber,” he says.
His Panama hat is an odd touch, shadowing dark glasses. A blue work shirt and jeans. Cowboy boots, very tooled. But the grin is center stage.
“I didn’t call a plumber.”
He takes a notebook out of his shirt pocket and looks in it.
“Plumber,” he says, “nonetheless.”
He smells delicious, like lemon grass and eucalyptus bark, fresh from California. I breathe him in.
“You’re not a plumber,” I say looking him dead in the eye. “You don’t have any tools.”
He leans into the screen door. An amethyst glints in his left earlobe, a dimple in his left cheek.
“Maybe they’re in the truck. We could go take a look.” He grins again.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
He inspects the toe of his boot for scuffs. “So,” he says. “Are you saying I’m not a plumber?”
I nod carefully.
He looks over his shoulder at an ancient Toyota truck in the drive. I notice the tendons in his shoulders, how they reach up into his neck like gnarled vines. “This is a drawback,” he says, his California accent minty, with overtones of diffidence. “This is a serious drawback.”
“Yes it is,” I say.
“I’ll just have to return at a later time with my credentials.” He tips the Panama. “Until then, ma’am.”
I let myself watch his walk to the truck, gravel scattering under his boots. He looks improbably young, a gypsy cowboy with shiny black curls bouncing around his hat. Was there a streak of gray or not? His jeans are tight. When he reaches the truck, he looks back at me. One, two, three, I count and shut the door. Three is as long as I can look without looking too long. My hands are shaking. Nothing happened, I tell myself. But my hands are shaking, and there’s no denying it.
The Incredible Appearing Man is back.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Burdowski comes to take care of five-monthold Alex, while I go to work. She gives him my breast milk out of plastic nursers and complains he ought to be eating cereal by now. She tells Alex I’m depriving him of pablum. But I like the way she holds him in the crook of one arm, so he can always see her face. He adores her weird Polish interpretations of Cole Porter songs and tries to sing along. Because of Mrs. Burdowski, I feel all right about leaving him two days a week, so that I can keep teaching at St. Catherine’s College for Women. There aren’t that many teaching jobs in Cleveland, and I’m anxious to keep this one, at least part time.
Today I’m teaching Ovid’s The Metamorphoses to the senior women—something I’ve never tried before. It somehow ended up on the recommended reading list, a predictable stew of Shakespeare, Whitman, and Frost—with Alice Walker and Toni Morrison tossed in for color. I thought Ovid might be an enjoyable way of introducing them to Greek and Roman literature, without dragging them kicking and screaming through Homer or Virgil.
I dismissed The Metamorphoses when I first read it in college. The stories seemed embarrassingly stilted, like old episodes of “Love Boat.” Now I see them differently—voluptuous, witty tales of love, sex and death. Creation and destruction on a Spielbergian scale. Someone in Hollywood should take a look at Ovid.
Earth, Air, Water heaved and turned in darkness,
No living creatures knew that land, that sea
Where heat fell against cold, cold against heat—
Roughness at war with smooth and wet with drought.
Things that gave way entered unyielding masses,
Heaviness fell into things that had no weight.
I wonder if I can explain it to my students. The drama of metamorphoses. How we change. Anthropologists now admit that major advances in certain species thought to have occurred over thousands of years probably happened within the space of a few generations. Why not, when you consider what can happen in the space of a lifetime? How an ideology, inspiring at twenty, turns relentless by forty. By then, for example, you tire of embossing your every deed with its corresponding psychology. I did it because I was insecure. I did it because I was feeling self-destructive. Sometimes you want to say: It just happened. You want to say: I don’t know. Maybe, to your grown son or daughter, you will someday say: I loved your father. Then I didn’t. So what?
How to explain that you grow tired of raking up all those spinners of regret that whirl down year after year? You let a sapling grow once in a while, without pulling it up. You say, I don’t know how it got there. It just grew.
In class, Ovid bombs. They say he is D.W.M. Dead, White and Male. They say he is B.G.S. Before Gloria Steinem. Yet another weary example of phallocentric text.
My black leather-skirted, Doc Marten-grommeted smart girl is not amused by the story of Apollo and Daphne. She wants to know, what gives Phoebus Apollo the right to stalk Daphne in the woods below Parnassus, turning her into dead wood?
“He chews on her like she’s some kind of squirrel,” she whines. “It’s disgusting. ”
Nods around the room. My worst student, who probably hasn’t read the assignment, agrees. “How can you force us to read this?” She tosses the book on her desk and sulks.
I point out that The Metamorphoses is a relatively feminist book for 8 A.D., and that more than half of Ovid’s stories feature heroines, which, at least, is an embryonic form of feminism.
They glower. I don’t know how to steer them past this obvious trap. They glare at me like demented raccoons with their kohlringed eyes and shaven heads. They want to know, how can I justify the fate of virtuous Io, raped and sentenced to life in the body of a cow by adulterous Jove?
And then there are lines like these, in Gregory’s 1958 introduction to explain:
His many heroines are set before us in dramatic moments of their indecision. Actually they do not meditate; they waver between extremes of right and wrong. They live and act within a world of irrational desires which are as vivid to them as things that happen in a dream. They act in heat and are caught up in disaster.
“We can’t accept this,” they insist.
“I’m not asking you to,” I say, in a small, scared, English teacher voice. “I’m asking you to read it. ”
I hear an ominous chorus of complaints as the class files out at the end of the hour. I feel like sulking too. Defending Ovid is difficult these days. I understand their moral outrage. But the longer I live the more I find myself susceptible to irrational desires and instant transformations. A baby, for example, is as irrational and vivid a desire as any heroine could conceive. A baby transforms you, body and soul. The moment you give birth, your mind is instantaneously filled with styrofoam peanuts. Your past is trashcompacted to make room for all the peanuts. As the baby grows, you add more peanuts and the little tin can of your past gets more compressed. But it is still there, underneath all the peanuts. The smashed cans of your past never entirely disappear. That is where the Incredible Appearing Man belongs. But he refuses to stay there.
On Wednesday, I’m working out to an exercise video in front of the living room television. Alex rides on my stomach during the abdominals, his fat cheeks jiggling as he bumps up and down. I’m on leg lifts when the truck pulls in. The door slams. It’s him, dragging a machine and a short coil of black hose across the lawn. I plop Alex in the playpen with plastic keys to chew and step outside.
“Hello, plumber,” I say.
He’s crouched in the window well, prying at a window casement with his bare hands. After a moment, he looks around. Mirrored glasses today.
“Radon gas,” he says. “No homeowner can ignore it.” He waves the black hose at me. “Air sampling is the first step.”
I stare at his cheap cotton painter’s cap, on which he has scrawled “Radon, Inc.” in black marker. He keeps on prying, until I realize he actually might break the window. “Hey” I say. “It opens from the inside.” He slides his hands slowly down from the window and stands.
“This is Cleveland,” I point out. “We aren’t afraid of radon.”
He doesn’t answer.
“We even smoke out here. Especially in restaurants.”
He climbs out of the window well and stands over me. He is six-feet three. Black jeans. White t-shirt, taut across his chest. Turquoise in the ear.
“Well,” he says. The grin is enchantment. “I guess we have to sample from inside.”
The machine is between us in the grass, its black casing mottled with beige mold. The mold is vintage 1950s. I presume the machine is even older. I stare nervously down at it until I suddenly realize what it is.
“So,” I say. “You can detect radon with an army surplus Geiger counter?”
He stoops slowly and picks up the black hose.
“You’re a stickler for details, ma’am.”
“I like to be convinced.”
“Of what?” We watch each other. He turns the hose in his hands. I see now that it isn’t even part of the machine.
“Authenticity,” I say. “I like that in a radon man.” I sound tough, but I can’t stop myself from looking at the dimple in his cheek, and he notices.
“You don’t like spontaneity?” he asks, moving closer.
He smells heady and ozonish, like the punk after lightning strikes bare earth. “You look like someone I used to know,” he says, eyeing me behind the shades.
“I don’t think so.”
“You look a lot like her.” He moves with deliberate slowness into the buffer zone Midwesterners like to keep between themselves and strangers. He takes my chin in his palm and moves my face from side to side. It’s an odd feeling, as if his fingers are wired to some internal circuitry in my brain. I slide my eyes across the street, to see if my retired neighbor Caroline is out in her yard pulling weeds and watching this radon man touch my face. Her garage door is open.
He observes me, dreamily. “She had a way of looking disappointed in me, especially when she smiled. Just like you.”
“What did you say her name was?”
He doesn’t answer, but aims the full beam of his grin down upon me. Every time I look, I see my double reflection, skittering across his glasses.
“Actually,” I say, “we had the house tested for radon when I was pregnant.”
“Is that so?” he says, clearly surprised.
“Last year, when I found out I was pregnant,” I say, redundantly.
Alex begins to wail on cue.
“Congratulations. Boy or girl?”
“You can’t be too safe with a baby in the house.” He bites down on the words to hold back something in his voice he doesn’t want me to hear. We stand in silence and watch a dingy cloud roll over us and mash out the sun. I can tell that he is stricken as he hoists the machine onto his shoulder and carries it to the truck, the silly black hose dangling at his side.
I wave when he clears the drive. He doesn’t wave back.
Then I run to rescue crying Alex, lift him from the playpen and bounce him in my arms. We swing-step over to the front door and look out the screen at the empty driveway. “Look baby,” I say. “The Incredible Appearing Man is gone.” Alex swallows his cries and begins, enthusiastically, to hiccup. I hold him close, grateful to be tethered to my life by his birth.
A baby’s magic is the power to charm a single day into loops. Each day with Alex is a Mobius strip of devotions to his animal needs. Today, I do everything in a state of grace. I feed him. I change him. I shove great wads of baby laundry into the washing machine. In between, I stand at the window and stare beyond the spot where the Incredible Appearing Man held my chin, down at the scrap of lake just visible from here, my mind bright and empty as a new Kenmore. I wish for what? I don’t know. I wash dishes. My secret desires float down the white tile wall behind the sink like barges down a river, long and slow, their contents revealed, the viscous ooze of fossil fuels. The Man and I surface in various states of sexual abandon at the center of each one.
Around five, my blond and temperate husband rides his bike home, half dismounting as he flies along our sloping drive. He drops his satchel in a chair and sits on the sofa with Alex.
“Okay, buddy, this is how you hold the bat.” He holds a finger up for Alex to grasp, then swings it. “Strike one,” he says. Alex makes a snorting noise, a precursor to a laugh. “Strike two,” Mitch looks worried. “Concentrate,” he says. Alex squeals with pleasure. I look at him and burst into surprise tears of relief.
“What’s wrong?” Mitch says.
“Just tired, I guess.”
“Take a nap. I’ll take the kid.”
The nap stretches into evening. Mitch brings me a plate of frozen tortellini he has prepared with Alex on one hip and gives me a sip of his beer. We eat on the bed while Alex rolls between us on the quilt, working himself into a fuss about his next feeding. Mitch humors him, offering a juicy chunk of cantaloupe to suck.
“Anything happen today?” Mitch asks.
“Nothing happened yet.”
I stop chewing.
“What did you say?”
“I mean, nothing happened,” I say. “Yet. I mean, with Alex. Alex didn’t crawl or learn to read or anything. That’s all.”
Mitch smiles at me. He takes a sip of beer. “Well,” he says, sweetly, “Keep me informed.”
That night in bed, I feel guilty about not telling him about the Man. According to the rules I’ve made for myself, I should tell him. It’s a profoundly familiar, criminal feeling. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation. I don’t honestly know if there will ever be a last.
Here is the truth about the Incredible Appearing Man: I met him two weeks before college graduation. He appeared underneath a colossal ginkgo tree on the campus green, handing out flyers for a meditation lecture. I stopped to take one because of his grin. It was rife with the stuff with which a young man’s grin should be rife: bravado and sexual innuendo and courage or stupidity, depending on your view. Maybe it also contained cruelty, but I missed that at the time. His hair was black and hung in corkscrew ringlets to his shoulders. His nose was slightly bent. There was something thrillingly unpresbyterian about him. His eyes were yellow with flecks of fire, as if they had been gilded by a Florentine jeweler. I found myself looking in them for too long a time, and without modesty.
I kept the flyer he handed me that day. Finals were nearly over. Everyone was packing up to leave. I went to the guest lecture it advertised in the basement of the Asian Student Center. The teacher, corpulent and robed, kept repeating: “love yourself,” between, what seemed to me, short naps. After a half an hour, he opened his eyes. “Repeat with me,” he said, “I love me. I love me. I love me.”
The Incredible Appearing Man was in the front row chanting on pink cushions with the most devoted students. Afterward, they presented the teacher with a single rose, floating in a crystal bowl.
Something went wrong for me that night. Instead of falling in love with myself I fell in love with the Incredible Appearing Man. I told him so a few days later. We were drinking twig tea from bowls in his rented room. The window was open and the room was rank with the scent of lilacs. Bees came and went through the window while we made love on a mattress on the floor. When I lay on top of him and pressed my face into his warm skin, I realized that the lilac smell was coming from him.
“What’s that smell?” I asked, shyly. “Soap?”
”I’m not real sure. It happens when I meditate a lot.” He stroked my arm and looked apologetic. “It’s sort of like stigmata.”
He asked for my phone number, but my phone had been disconnected. School was over, and I was planning to leave for home in a day or two. I didn’t want to move back in with my parents in South Bend, but I hadn’t come up with a job. He stroked my hair. “Please don’t go,” he said. “We were strangers yesterday. Now we are lovers. It’s impossibly erotic, don’t you think?”
I spent most of another week on his mattress, going back to the dorm only to bathe and change clothes. On Friday morning, I stepped out of the shower and found the Residence Hall Coordinator standing by my bed.
“Do you realize that this dorm is officially closed and that your key should have been turned in two days ago and that your presence here constitutes illegal entry?”
I adjusted my skimpy institutional towel.
”I’m standing here until you move everything out of this room,” she said, slapping her big wooden pass key against her palm. “Pronto.”
I drove to his rented room that afternoon, the back of my Gremlin wedged with clothes and dorm room paraphernalia. We made love on the window sill and on the mattress and up against the wall. I nearly choked on the smell of wild honeysuckle emanating from his skin. We made so much noise that the Chemistry post-doc who lived upstairs banged his broom on the floor and cursed. Flakes of plaster floated down and stuck in our hair. We were giggling at him when the Incredible Appearing Man’s eyes suddenly welled up with tears.
“Don’t go home, Lora,” he said. “Come to California with me.”
I sat up and looked at him.
“Don’t answer yet.”
He walked naked out of the room, through the shared kitchen and up the stairs and apologized to the post-doc, who wouldn’t speak to him, and came back with a serving bowl filled with tap water, in which we immersed and tenderly washed each other’s hands. “Our destinies are bound together,” he said. “With this water, I wash away our separate pasts.”
I was a girl from South Bend, Indiana, whose destiny had never been pronounced at all, much less by a naked man with yellow eyes flecked with fire. I said yes. I said yes. I said yes.
We left for California a week later, sold the Gremlin for cash and put our stuff under a canvas in the back of his blue Toyota truck and drove away. I called my parents from a truck stop in Iowa. On the telephone, my father’s voice was icy. “Four years of education,” he said, “and now you are more ignorant than ever.”
I hung up the phone and walked away.
In California, everything came easily to the Incredible Appearing Man. The first day we arrived in Noyo, he rented a cabin from a blond Buddhist monk who worked part time at a gas station. The monk had moved out of the cabin and into a burned-out redwood tree trunk two miles up a logging road nearby. He rubbed the blond stubble of his shaven head and said, “You can have it for twenty-five dollars a week, unless you think that’s too much.”
“Is it more like a cabin or more like a house?” the Man asked. “I don’t like houses.”
“That’s cool,” the monk said. “You’ll love it.”
The cabin was filthy with soot from the wood stove. The chinking was all gone, and morning glory vines had worked their way between the logs, blooming inside on sunny days. We ran a heavy utility cord down through the woods about fifty yards to a storage shed on logging company property and stole enough electricity to run my beat-up stereo and a few old lamps. We made love every morning. His body took on the smells of the redwood flora: rhododendron, orchids and five-finger ferns.
After a few months our money was gone. He carved gray whales and boxes shaped like yin-yang symbols out of fancy hardwoods scavenged from lumber yards and sold them at art fairs up and down the coast. I was a substitute teacher once in a while and a waitress sometimes, looking for a permanent job which did not exist in that place at that time.
When he made money, I never saw it. If I made some, it went for essentials. We were perpetually behind on the rent. We argued constantly.
When there was nothing to eat, he would admonish me for saying so. “I can’t participate in your anxiety. I’m already beyond it,” he said frequently. Then he would walk out and disappear into the woods. Sometimes he brought home a bag of rice, borrowed from the monk. When I asked why he wouldn’t try to get a job, he said he did not wish to define his life in terms of occupational experiences. So, I chopped up a plot in a clearing behind the logging company equipment shed and tried to make a garden, but the eggplants withered and the tomatoes were riddled with fat green worms.
“If you learn to meditate, the garden will thrive on your energy,” he said. “I’ll teach you.”
We sat naked on the cabin floor. He sat across from me and stared into my eyes. “Think nothing,” he said. “Be nothing.” Then he would vanish. His body was still present, but there was no one home behind his eyes.
When I tried to think nothing, I saw pages and pages of job applications in fine gray print. Lines and lines to be filled in. Education. Experience. Expertise. When those disappeared, I saw Dumbo and the Seven Dwarves, my notes from Chaucer class, old episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” At twenty-two, my mind was already a landfill, stuffed to capacity by television and college. There was no emptiness inside me. I could not meditate.
“It just isn’t working,” I’d say, near tears.
That night, when we made love, it was odorless and sad.
After a week of this, he disappeared into the forest each evening, to meditate with the tree monk. They spent the month of August building a Zen garden behind the cabin. I lost whole afternoons reading on a blanket in a small clearing, while they rolled mosscovered rocks out of the forest and winched them into the bed of the truck. Inexplicably, I agreed to spend two hundred dollars sent by my worried parents on a huge brass gong. Then I broke the strap on one of my sandals shoving the thing into its new pine alcove, and realized they were my last pair of shoes. I threw the broken sandal at the gong. It trembled sourly. I sat down on a rock and cried.
“It’s a shoe,” he said. “‘Don’t you see how silly it is to care that much about a shoe?”
“Why do we have to live like this?” I yelled. “I love you, but can’t take this Zen crap anymore.”
“You love me,” he said. “Who knows what that means?”
After a while, he wasn’t always meditating when he went into the woods. There was a pretty Norwegian woman named Skye who braided chamomile blossoms into her hair and lived in an old shredded camp tent up the logging road, just beyond the monk. She was a drop-out from Berkeley who made little poultices out of mud dauber nests and sold them as charms in head shops. She came by all the time and shared her stash with us. About once a month, she and the Man would sit at the kitchen table and drop acid. They would sit there all afternoon and all evening. When they arrived at a certain point in their trip, they would toss back their heads and laugh for hours. They couldn’t make eye contact without laughing until they cried.
“What are you laughing at?” I asked one night.
“Who knows?” Skye said, between giggles. “Why does everything have to have a reason?”
And they would laugh on, until three or four in the morning, while I lay on the bed and tried to sleep, through the music and their private hysterics.
One day, when I had just been paid for substitute teaching, I bought groceries and set out to surprise him by cooking a real meal. I was making scalloped potatoes when he came in the door smelling like moss from his hours with the tree monk. He kissed me and asked what I was doing, and when I told him, he smiled. Then he began undoing each of the buttons on my shirt with such tender concentration that I froze, mesmerized into compliance. “Don’t move,” he whispered. He dashed around the cabin assembling his old Nikon while I stood there, bare breasted, knife in hand, over a bowl of half-peeled potatoes.
“It’s so incredibly quaint, Lora,” he said. “It’s so you. Here you are, two thousand miles from home. We have to pack in water. We shit in the woods. But you’ve found a way to make scalloped potatoes. God, I love you,” he said, and snapped the shutter.
“You hate me,” I said. “You humiliate me.”
He wound the film advance and shot again. “I love you and hate you equally,” he said.
“I hate you,” I said, noticing how good it felt to say it.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “Our relationship has equilibrium. It’s a form of perfection.”
But mostly I loved the Incredible Appearing Man. His thoughts were like strange fruits dropped from incomprehensible trees. I turned them over and over. I split their skins and put them to my tongue, but I was never sure if they were safe to eat. There was nothing in my background that could have prepared me for him, yet everything in his had apparently prepared him for me.
He never spoke about his parents. “They’re not here,” he would say when I asked for details. He told me only that they were struggling with their materialism and that he recognized it as a legitimate struggle. His father, it turns out, was a vice-president at a textile corporation and his mother a principal at a private school out east. I learned this much from the tree monk one day, when I gave him a lift to town. He never called them in my presence, but he must have been in touch, because they sent him money orders from a New Hampshire address. I found them every once in a while, folded up in the pockets of his dirty jeans.
My parents worked in a factory. They wanted me to go to college, but not to take anything I learned too seriously. I majored in education for a while and switched to English against their will. I read and read and tried not to listen to their lectures about my doomed financial future. I planned to go to graduate school and figure everything else out later.
Instead, I fell in love with the Incredible Appearing Man. And by the time the flowers gave out and the cool winds blew in off the Pacific that first year, I did not immediately recognize myself in the restroom mirror at the gas station in Noyo, where I had stopped to drop off the tree monk and fill up the tank and to enjoy the indoor plumbing. I was someone new and strange, a tall girl with a wild mop of hair in a pair of worn jeans and a man’s shirt, living hand-to-mouth in a mostly chopped-down redwood forest. A girl gone backwards in time, washing clothes in a tub and putting them up to the fogged-out sun on a line between two trees. A girl cooking rice on a cast iron stove. Someone unlearning herself, unraveling herself from things taken for granted, while her hair gnarled itself into mats in the Pacific wind, somewhere up above Mendocino. It could have been all right. It could have been good, if the Incredible Appearing Man had not been like a black hole in space: I moved toward him like a captured asteroid in a slow tumble.
It was five-thirty in the morning when I came home on the dawn after the summer solstice, which also happened to be my birthday, from a Grateful Dead concert in San Francisco and found him naked on the bed with Skye, soaked with sweat and smelling like a eucalyptus grove. They didn’t notice me at first, they were so entwined, their minds spun off into some vast blue inner space.
And that is why, seventeen years ago, I ended up on a friend’s porch in Mendocino on the Fourth of July, breaking up with the Man. I was waiting for my ride to Oakland, where I would live the next four years of my life. I had finally had enough. He insisted nothing had changed. We argued one last time. Then we just sat and watched the fireworks sear the edges of muddy clouds somewhere down the coast. I didn’t see him again for three years.
When the first episode occurred I was in San Francisco, standing alone in a friend’s kitchen, watching my own wedding reception. I don’t know how he knew. I kept in touch with my friend in Mendocino, but she claimed she hadn’t seen the Incredible Appearing Man in over a year. I had just come up to peel off my pantyhose, when I realized I could see the festivities below from the window over the sink. On the lawn in black tie and blue jeans, my new husband Mitch laughed at something being sung by a woman in a Valkyrie helmet. Twenty or so of our closest friend sprawled around him on the grass, with plastic cups of wine and plates of brie on their laps. We had been married about forty minutes. The doorbell rang, and I went to answer it. On the stoop was a white cake box tied up in string. I looked at the box and then down three long flights of broken concrete stairs to the street, where the Incredible Appearing Man stood staring up at me. He was wearing a green uniform and a matching cap. When he was sure I recognized him, he blew a solemn kiss and jumped into a green bakery van, double parked, and drove away before I had time to react. My hands shook as I carried the box inside and untied the string. The cake was iced in marzipan and edged with pale green and lavender morning glories. In the middle, someone had written Congratulations! The dot on the exclamation mark had been made into a peace sign. Underneath, in an odd and shaky script, someone had added:
Pure logic is the ruin of the spirit—Saint Exupéry
My shock wilted into inexplicable guilt. I felt caught. On the back stoop, I looked to see if anyone was around before I stuffed the cake, box and all, deep into a garbage can. Then I went back to the window and watched Mitch and his best man play guitars. A tidal wave of ambivalence rose up in me and kept on rising. I knew my life was down there, under the willow tree with a straightforward man to whom I had made all the usual promises. And I knew that part of me was frozen and would never thaw, except under the gaze of the Incredible Appearing Man’s golden eyes. I watched, disconsolate, until someone was sent up the stairs to see what had become of me. When I heard my name called up the stairs, I flew back into myself. That was the only time I’ve experienced true detachment.
The second episode took place in Madison, Wisconsin. We were graduate students, I in Comparative Literature, Mitch in Landscape Architecture. I had managed to get a teaching job—a summer session of Intro to Western Lit for extra money over break.
On the first day of class, I stood at my desk opposite a wall of windows watching Lake Mendota pitch against the lightning slashing from above. The students shifted in their seats and looked relieved when the department secretary tapped lightly on the door, waving an updated copy of the final enrollment roster and a mimeographed page of faculty announcements.
“Oh,” she whispered. “I almost forgot. This came for you.”
It was a letter addressed to me, in care of the department, written in the peculiar slanted script of the Incredible Appearing Man. The return address was a student boarding house I vaguely knew on Broom Street. I studied the envelope too intently and too long, and when I looked up, the students were watching me with interest. I shoved the letter in my notebook and cleared my throat and asked them to resume reading sections of Homer aloud.
“Today we’re only listening. Listening to our past. It’s right here,” I said, brightly. “In the room with us.”
When class was finally over, I locked myself into the enormous handicapped stall in the women’s restroom down the hall and opened the letter. It was written in pale gray ink on a tissue thin sheaf of paper, sealed in a blue airmail envelope, as if his thoughts had flown a vast distance.
I was wrong. Now I see I had been completely suspended in your love, as babies are in wombs, and in my consummate satisfaction, could not imagine otherwise.
If you need to know, there wasn’t anything wrong with Skye, but a sort of brutish magnetism. Anyway, it had been happening on and off for a while, and so, hadn’t mattered all along. It was an “aside,” as they say in the theater, and I suppose I regret it.
I don’t expect you to forgive me. But I expect you to be honest with yourself. You married Mitch out of practicality and sadness. Go further in your mind. How long shall we continue this diet of compromise and regret, when we could feast on love?
I will remain on Broom Street until you decide.
“How did it go?” Mitch had asked when he picked me up after class.
“Crummy,” I’d said, watching the wipers cut away the rain, only to have it instantly rush down again.
“The students were damp.”
“They were dull. Unresponsive.”
“You said they were ‘damp’.”
“Maybe I did. Dull and damp.”
“That’s undergraduates for you,” Mitch said.
It was easy to shun him at first—I was angry that he had accused me of marrying Mitch out of practicality and sadness—though I conjured an excuse to drive by the dilapidated house every other day or so. It looked misused and sad with its broken porch furniture and dented garbage cans. There was never any sign of him.
But I was touched by his gesture—the distance he had traveled without hope, waiting in a boarding house on Broom Street. It was the most outrageous act anyone had ever committed on my behalf. For the entire month of June, I moved through my life in a constant state of distraction and arousal.
Then, one hot night in mid-July, Mitch and I were deep in our books when the doorbell rang. It was him, in a Domino’s Pizza shirt and cap. He looked uncomfortably thin as he held out the box to Mitch. “Small cheese and sausage,” he said. “Six seventy-five.” He took out his change pouch and looked expectantly at Mitch.
“I didn’t order a pizza,” Mitch said, confused.
“Did you order a pizza, ma’am?” He gazed boldly past Mitch to where I stood nailed to the carpet, three paces back. I shook my head.
“Damn,” he said, grinning at Mitch. “It must have been a prank call. Happens all the time.”
Mitch looked relieved. “Sorry,” he said and held out the pizza, but the Incredible Appearing Man waved it away. “It’s on me. It’s against the policy, but we’re so busy tonight no one will notice.” He tipped his hat to Mitch and then over Mitch’s shoulder, to me. “Bye for now,” he said.
I scrambled to the window to get another glimpse of him, but he must have sprinted down the block. Mitch was busy with a slice of cheese and sausage, and didn’t notice how unnerved I was. I couldn’t bring myself to eat so much as a bite of the pizza, but I hugged the empty box for a moment, before I tossed it in the trash.
Then, on my way to the library one morning in August, I passed up the parking garage and drove instead to the Incredible Appearing Man’s boarding house on Broom Street and climbed the stairs to his room. He came to the door with the book he had been reading, open to the page he had been immersed in when I knocked. He looked at me calmly. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t expect you. Come in.” He wore only a pair of loose green army fatigues. His hair curled damply around his ears and his beard had grown heavy in the night. He looked softer and more real than he had looked in his pizza guise.
The room was a disheartening replica of the one he had lived in when we were first lovers—a stack of books next to a tattered reading chair, a small brown teapot with two cups and a mattress on the floor. The walls were painted cheap landlord white, a heartless color, colder than snow. There were bits of yellow tape stuck to them where someone’s posters had once hung. It was impossibly hot. I studied the view below from his grimy window—a dumpster next to a small plot of crumbling asphalt marked by a sign with bleeding, hand-painted letters: Residents Private Parking ONLY.
“Do you really work at Domino’s?” I asked, looking for his truck among the rusted foreign-mobiles parked haphazardly beneath.
“God, no,” he said. “I drive a cab. Once in a while.”
“Deliveries are your vocation, seems to me.”
“I have no true vocation,” he said. We stood in silence. Sweat ran down my temples and around my ears, into the hollow at the base of my neck.
“I suppose a man with no vocation can’t be expected to own a window fan.”
“The kitchen is down the hall,” he said. “I can make us some iced tea.”
As he turned to go, I reached out and placed my hand in the warm, wet notch between his shoulder blades. I was somewhere up above myself, floating, letting things happen. “Forget the hospitality,” I said. “I came here to make love.”
After a week of such meetings in the room on Broom Street, we began, inexplicably, to laugh, and the longer we laughed the longer we could sustain our lovemaking. He gave off bouquets of wild rose and bergamot, sweet as the Wisconsin prairie. After a while, I found a way of transforming the guilt of adultery into a sort of sluiceway, riding it down to the gates of a kind of fierce, unmanageable ecstasy.
One late afternoon, bathed in sweat from the sun dead level on his western windowsill, I awoke at the sound of a Badger Line bus rounding the corner. I stood up and began to dress, slightly nauseated from the smell of wild onions he had begun to manifest.
“Onions?” I asked when he opened his eyes.
“I don’t know,” he said sleepily. “I suppose I’m hungry.”
Fearing nothing, we went around the corner to a small Italian restaurant and bathed our wet skin in air conditioning. The restaurant was cool and reassuringly empty—too early for dinner, too late for lunch. After devouring a plate of thick fettuccini, he suddenly put down his fork.
“Come back to California with me,” he said.
I looked at him.
“I made a little money,” he said, without explanation. “I bought a house in Mendo.”
I had a feeling I shouldn’t ask how.
“You don’t like houses,” I said.
“I was thinking of you.”
“I can’t,” I said, “for obvious reasons.”
The waiter took our plates. Without plates to look at, we looked nervously at each other.
“I have a life,” I said.
“You’re not living with the truth, Lora,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I’m living with a man. He’s kind and reasonable. He lets me breathe. I like him.”
“You like him,” he repeated, then said nothing more, allowing me to absorb my own words. They hung in the chilled air between us until they transmogrified into an argument in his favor.
“I love you,” I said, “but I can’t live with you. I disappear.”
“We disappear into each other,” he said. “Yin-yang.”
“I don’t see it that way.”
“Then how do you see it?”
“I see passion on one hand,” I said carefully. “And everything else on the other.”
“We have the only true marriage,” he said. His eyes filled with tears. The waiter looked up from the bar and then discreetly down again, rubbing a wine glass with a large white cloth.
And so we sat, the Incredible Appearing Man and I, who had haunted each other for nearly eight years, right back where we started.
“Don’t answer yet,” he said, wrapping his hands around a glass of cheap Chianti, feeding it to me and to himself in a furtive communion.
While he finished his wine, I went to the restroom and cried for a few minutes, from terror guilt or both. I don’t know. I would be twenty-nine in a week. I could see the trajectory of my future—a stainless steel arrow soaring straight toward an interesting, reasonable life. I didn’t want to see it lose telemetry and plunge. I washed my face and tried to shake off the panic I felt at the prospect of going home to Mitch. He would be cooking dinner now. I would walk in and he would give me a goodnatured hug and a cold beer. “Here’s to a long day in the stacks,” he would say, trusting and earnest to a fault.
When I returned, the Man had gone. A note on the back of the green paper Guest Check, which he had left for me to pay, read:
Meet me at Broom Street on Saturday, no later than six a.m. We will leave early and in haste. Until then, my Beatrice regained.
On Saturday morning, before dawn, I sat on the edge of my bed and watched my husband sleep. In a coat closet by the door, a small blue American Tourister held a few changes of clothes and the contents of my savings account tendered into travelers’ checks. In ten minutes, I planned to walk down the street to the mini-mart, where I would climb into a cab I had already called. But for the moment, I sat still and watched. Overnight, Mitch had sprouted a soft, reddish beard. He looked—and was—truly innocent. I felt monstrous, doomed by an act I had not yet committed. It had burrowed deeply into my psyche and taken up residence, as if it were a kind of imprint, a map of my fate.
This thought coincided with the arrival of little puffs of magenta clouds on the horizon, like smoke signals spelling out hope. I realized then that I didn’t just like Mitch, as I had told the Incredible Appearing Man. I truly loved Mitch, but for a lot of reasons I couldn’t bring myself to admit because the Man would have found them utterly contemptible. I loved Mitch because we could go for months without arguing. I loved him because we could argue without making up in bed. I loved him because we could do our laundry on Friday night and call it a date. I loved him because we could fuck matter-of-factly, without olfactory or other manifestations of the Buddha Nature invading our bed. I loved him because it was easy.
And when I allowed myself to accept this, I felt transformed. Out of the range of his golden eyes, I had broken the spell of the Incredible Appearing Man. At six o’clock, I watched the sun break free of the horizon and aim itself straight at me. I kissed my sleeping husband and granted myself reprieve.
A few days later, when I found the courage to drive by the house on Broom Street, I saw the “Room for Rent” sign and told myself I would never see him again. I was wrong, of course. A few years later there was the episode in Seattle, where we lived briefly while Mitch worked for a landscaping firm. There was a shameful episode at a college reunion weekend in Indiana, too embarrassing to describe.
I finally confessed to Mitch after the episode in Chicago, where we lived for a time before Cleveland. I was shopping at my favorite flower stall at a farmers’ market in Old Town. I looked up and there he was, wearing a white vendor’s apron, running the stall. I hadn’t noticed at first. He was holding the biggest bouquet of dahlias I had ever seen. “I saved this one for you, lady,” he said. “You want?”
After the market we drove north into the countryside. The bed of his truck was loaded with unsold flowers drooping in buckets. We sat on the gate and kissed and undressed each other in the middle of an abandoned apple orchard. The smell was unbelievable.
At home, I stopped talking to Mitch. I stood over the sink once or twice a day, rearranging day lilies and black-eyed Susans, my market bag permanently slung over one arm. Mitch would come into the kitchen, watch me without a word, shake his head and go out again.
When it was over, as it always was, I felt I couldn’t keep on without offering Mitch an explanation. One night I told him everything. I told him about the cabin and Skye and the smell of honeysuckle and eucalyptus corning from the Appearing Man. I told him about the wedding cake in San Francisco. I told him about the pizza, about Broom Street and Seattle and the Old Town farmers’ market. I told him I had no excuse. I told him I was scared, that I had begun to suspect I had willed the Incredible Appearing Man to appear each of the times he had come. I told him I understood that a therapist would say the whole sordid affair was a kind of giant Field Museum of Self-Destructive Behavior, complete with Historical Diorama. I told Mitch that I loved him. I told him I was sorry.
Through all this Mitch sat patiently.
“Will it happen again?” he asked.
“In all honesty,” I said, “I don’t know.”
Mitch got up and went outside. He sat on the front steps of our house in the dark. He sat there all night.
That fall we lived precariously on the outskirts of each other, spending whole evenings without words. We politely waited for each other to finish in the bathroom in the mornings before work, instead of barging in, as was our usual custom. I counted the money I could honestly say was mine and made my plans, expecting that he would ask me to leave. Then one Friday night he walked in whistling. I looked up from my book. There was a bottle of good wine under his arm. He put it on the table with two glasses and set to work on the cork.
“Look,” he said. “I refuse to be a jerk about this. You say you love me. Is that true?” He looked directly at me for the first time in weeks.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “that’s good.”
“Yes,” I said.
He pretended to study the label. “If you can will him to appear, maybe you can will him to disappear.”
“Maybe so,” I said.
I watched him pour the wine. For months I had waited to be treated with the contempt and sarcasm I felt I deserved. Instead, he offered me forgiveness and a glass brimming with expensive Merlot.
“It’s your decision.”
“I’ll give it my best,” I said.
And that’s where it has stood for seven years, long enough for me to finally believe that I had willed the Incredible Appearing Man to disappear forever. Until now.
On Thursday, Mrs. Burdowski arrives. Seeing that I am running late, she follows me around during my last-minute preparations, flapping her arms. “Go,” she says. “Teach these young girls something else besides the sex.”
When I walk in my classroom, the students are standing around my desk with pens and note pads. “We are writing a petition to seek removal of Ovid from the recommended reading list,” a senior in a laced leather halter and wrap-around sunglasses informs me.
“On the grounds that it is offensive to women,” says another.
“We ask that you suspend your lectures on Ovid until the curriculum committee has prepared a decision,” says my best student. I see, for the first time, a badly executed skull and bones tattoo, which mars her perfect arm just below the shoulder.
I put down my books and sigh. We have had, at this point, only the one brief discussion about Ovid. I have not had a real opportunity to convince them of his merit. I have been distracted and unprepared. I want to reassure them that they are right on one level, but that they are missing something they will someday wish they had learned, even if from Ovid.
If nothing else, they should learn about seduction: an impossibly quick and painful magic, a spell one might find oneself bound up in for ten or twenty years, maybe forever. I am thirty-nine. The Incredible Appearing Man is forty-one. Who knows what lies ahead?
Today we would have talked about the ancient newlyweds Deucalion and Pyrrha, whose marriage gift from the gods was a flood that washed away everything in the known world, except the boat in which they drifted. Anyone paying more than scant attention could have learned something important about marriage from Ovid:
It was a world reborn but Deucalion
Looked out on silent miles of ebbing waters.
He wept, called to his wife, “Dear sister, friend,
O last of women, look at loneliness;
As in our marriage bed our fears, disasters
Are of one being, one kind, one destiny;
We are the multitudes that walk the earth
Between sunrise and sunset of the world,
And we alone inherit wilderness.”
But I look around and see that my students are young and hard as pinioned steel. I see that their hearts have been clear-coated, that they are temporarily encased in their youth and buffed to a glinting shine. I see that they think they have won something and that I have lost something, and the thought makes me laugh out loud. They stare at me, appalled.
“Okay, okay,” I say. “I respect your position. Let’s go on to something you might consider less controversial.” They look at me suspiciously for a moment, then slink off to their desks. I ask them to open their anthologies to page thirty-eight, Emily Dickinson. “Who wants to read the first poem aloud?” Hands go up around the room. I offer them my most mysterious smile.
Friday morning, I’m rinsing coffee cups in the sink. Alex is bouncing happily in his swing. I take a moment at the kitchen window to watch a red-capped woodpecker drill at our gnarled sassafras tree. Then I notice a ladder propped against the cherry tree and two boots on the top rung. The boots are attached to legs in jeans. Beyond that, branches.
After a minute, a branch loaded with cherries falls from the tree. Then another. I stand at the window and laugh. The baby laughs too. I kiss his cheeks, wind up the swing and head for the back porch.
I stand at the base of the tree and cross my arms. Three more branches bright with cherries fall against my feet. I clear my throat.
“Good morning,” he yells down. “Tree trimmer.”
He’s wearing the Panama and underneath it a blue bandana, pirate-style, and a sleeveless black t-shirt tucked in tight. His arms are brown and taut with muscle and bone. I stare at the dark stripe of sweat between his shoulder blades as he descends the ladder.
“You don’t prune when the fruit is ripe,” I say.
“That’s not a professional opinion, is it lady?” His grin is bright and dangerous.
“You’re using a hacksaw,” I say. “That’s not customary.”
He steps up close to me, tips the hat and uses the bandana to wipe his brow. “No ma’am,” he says. “Not customary at all.” He wipes sweat from his forearms in careful swipes. The glasses are impenetrable.
He bends between our legs to pluck a doublet of cherries off a fallen branch, removes the stems and places one gently to my lips, the other to his own. We split the cherries with our teeth. I take the pit from my mouth and toss it down, and when he reaches for my hand, I see the dark stain of fruit where our fingertips meet.
We kiss and the wind commands the leaves to swim and flash around us like a school of airborne fish. We hold on in the commotion, until our kiss finds its compass, and when it does, the depth of my regret strikes me cold in the heart like the shock of an off-the-dock plunge. We sink to our knees in the soft green grass. He removes his sunglasses, and folds and pockets them. I see his yellow eyes have grown soft and the skin around them creased with care. I see, after all these years, that he is changed into someone capable of real compassion.
The yard is fenced. The neighbors off at work. We kiss again. I lay my head on the altar of his chest and feel the secret force of blood pound against my cheek. “I have to go,” I say. “Alex needs me.” But even so, I stay and greet each contour of his body with a gasp of recognition. He reaches for my breasts. My milk comes down hard, and with it, the weight of my heart’s true allegiance. Without looking, I know two dark rings have appeared on my shirt. I rise up in fear and crouch over him, one knee on his chest.
“Who are you?” I ask for the first time ever.
“Just someone,” he says, “between here and there.”
“Are you stuck?”
“Not stuck,” he says. “Blessed with the power to move back and forth.”
“Between California and Cleveland?”
“Between McDonald’s and the Interstate. Between the wide, unfinished pyramids of personal history.”
“Here is here and there is there,” I say.
“No,” he says. “Actually, that’s not how it is.”
I force myself to get up and walk to the back door and peer in at Alex, slumped over and fast asleep in his rapidly unwinding automatic swing. Then I stride back down the hill and stand over the Incredible Appearing Man, lying quietly in the grass.
“You must go,” I say quietly. “I promised you would not come back.”
“Myself,” I say. “I promised myself.”
He nods. The air smells singed. Thunder or a detonator blast sucks the air around us toward the lake.
“You love me,” he says. “I love you. So what?”
He blinks at me uncertainly. “We have the only true marriage,” he says.
“The only true marriage,” I repeat. “Who knows what that means?”
We kiss once more. We kiss until we’ve kissed in all the rooms in all the houses we’ll never live in, we kiss past all the arguments we’ll never finish, past all the betrayals we will never suffer, past the white faces of children we will never make, floating before us like somber ghosts. We kiss past longing. I stand up and look down at the lake.
“It wasn’t ordinary,” he says.
“No,” I say. “It wasn’t.” Then I turn around and walk into the house.
In the afternoon, while the baby naps, I sit on the back porch and pick cherries off the fallen branches, wash and pit them, letting the dark juice run down my wrists. In the kitchen, I knead pastry dough and sweeten it with confectioner’s sugar, cut a generous crust and ladle a great portion of cherries doused in sugar into it. I lick my fingers and pinch the corners of the dough around the circumference of the pie.
Alex fusses all evening. Mitch and I take turns jiggling him in a zig-zag pattern—the only thing that works when his stomach is upset. Dinner is pathetic little trays of microwaved Chicken Almondine and salty vegetables, served accidentally scorched and eaten fast, so that I can nurse Alex once more before bed.
I forget the pie until the smell curls out around the edges of the oven. It emerges puffed and radiant, stained with the juice of cherries pushing out the vents in the pastry.
When the baby finally sleeps, I bring two big slices on plates and forks and glasses of milk on a tray and place them on a coffee table. Mitch is sprawled wearily on the couch with a smattering of papers from his briefcase strewn around the floor beneath him.
Mitch cannot believe his eyes. “How did you find the time to pick cherries?”
“Alex took a long nap. I felt like doing something different.”
“This is other-worldly,” he says, rolling a bite of warm cherries around in his mouth, as if it were a brilliant beaujolais.
“Have another piece,” I offer. I watch him eat.
The smell of warm cherries haunts the house, though Mrs. Burdowski has cleaned the oven twice in the weeks since I baked the pie. Each time she cleans it the smell grows inexplicably stronger. She mutters about poltergeists. Most days it seems to have no particular point of origin, but once in a while it seems to waft from me. I am beginning to think we are just going to have to live with it. I know Mitch wonders, but he is too kind to ask. As these things go, it could be worse. Some days, I look out at the lake and think it’s rising. Some days I think it’s not.