“Don’t do it,” Margaret says quietly. My concentration must have been so intense that I wasn’t aware she’d stepped into the foyer a few feet behind me. I feel her generating sharply negative feelings toward my back. She’s in stiletto-Margaret mode. It’s all I can do to steel myself against her.
“I have Sally’s permission,” I say, my voice just as low and controlled as Margaret’s. I don’t turn back toward her—that would be to concede too much. Margaret respects firmness, but not much else. My only real defense against her is my ability to read her thoughts and feelings a little quicker than she can read them. For instance, it was years ago that I came to understand how Margaret’s subconscious had taken on the mission of making me her little pet husband. Years from now she herself may realize it, though I have my doubts.
“It’s okay, Margaret.” Sally’s voice strains for a sociable tone. “He has my permission.” She’s had late supper with us, and now we’re saying good night. Sally and I are standing about an erection’s length away from each other. With her words I suddenly catch a whiff of her soaring anxiety cutting through the minty fragrance of her bath soap. Or body lotion. Probably with Sally it’s body lotion. The thought of her applying the lotion arouses me more than I’d wish in this situation. Margaret may not realize this either, but she has her own singular powers of perception. Her stealthy move from the kitchen out here to the foyer reminds me that she has an acute sensitivity to even my slightest state of arousal. I suspect her of having a wireless link to my prostate gland.
“Creston’s in denial, Sally,” Margaret says, her voice as professional as a therapist’s. “I advise you not to allow it. Just say good night to him, and let that be that.” I believe Margaret has stretched up on tiptoe to address Sally over my shoulder. Maybe she’s put on a conspiratorial smile. Maybe she’s even winked. Margaret and Sally are tennis friends with years of acquaintance between them. Twice a week they play in a women’s doubles group—sometimes they’re partners, sometimes opponents. Tennis-wise they know each extremely well. I’ve heard each of them profess love for the other, but their voices suggested to me that maybe they can’t stand each other.
Even so, love has everything to do with this situation. Love is the fizzy liquid spewing out of my feckless heart. I’ve got an old man’s crush on Sally, and of course I’m afflicted with my doggish, tolerate-everything variety of love for Margaret. We’ve spent thousands of hours inhabiting the same dwelling place, breathing the same oxygen, collaborating on the couple-specific scent we produce in our sheets and pillowcases. I’m an old married codger with the romantic maturity of a high school sophomore.
Sally’s smart enough not to take Margaret up on her contention that I’m in denial. Sally’s breathing has only slightly quickened—she’s fearful but not unduly so. After all, she knows Margaret as both tennis ally and tennis enemy. The ladies of their group won’t admit it, but the fact is, when they’re at the net, they enjoy scoring direct bruising hits on each other’s thighs. Sally’s silence I of course translate to mean that she’s not backing away from granting me the favor I’ve asked. And this is the aspect of Sally’s character that first interested me when Margaret told me about it. “She’s fearless,” Margaret said. “Skinny little thing won’t stop chasing a ball even if it means running straight into a cinderblock wall. I’ve seen that woman dive for a shot, take a hard fall, and scrape half the skin off the back of her racquet hand. And that was trying for a ball that might have been called out anyway.” It was that information that piqued my interest in Sally. Again and again in my mind I saw a thin, determined, no-longer-young woman running all out to save a point in a pointless game. I didn’t understand it, but I liked her for it.
All three of us are over 60, but not one of us has the social grace to move us past this moment. We’re eerily quiet, like painters working together to coat the walls of our foyer with the texture of this excruciating stillness.
In this chamber of anxiety I receive an illumination: My feelings for Sally are not unrequited. Oh, what welcome news! But it’s also a bolt of light that should strike me down with fear. If I know it, Margaret must know it, too, and Margaret has a dimension of ruthlessness that’s beyond Sally’s imagining.
For example, against my will, Margaret and I have been cheating on our taxes significantly. Ten years ago she informed me of what we were going to do and assured me there was no way in hell we would ever be caught. So she and I have cheated the government out of tens of thousands of dollars. Every year I argue vigorously with Margaret about it, but she is not to be deterred. “They have no business taking that money in the first place,” she says. “It is ours because it came down to us from your father and your grandfather. Who would be appalled to know that we give it over to the government.”
I’ve threatened to report us to the IRS. “You won’t,” she said to me, almost gleefully. “I know this about you, Creston,” she said almost as if she were on the verge of beating me at arm wrestling. “If federal agents knocked on our door, you would pee in your pants. Just thinking you might be penned up with men who would mock you and abuse you would disable you for a week.”
Margaret doesn’t win every battle we have, but she won that one. Every year when she completes the tax forms, she brings them into the dining room and insists that I stand beside her as she signs for us both. I could refuse to be present, but for some reason I don’t. Well, I should at least be honest about this: I take some pleasure in being an accomplice to a criminal act. The tax form signing ritual gives me a little thrill—which I keep to myself. There are certain dimensions of my character that might surprise Margaret.
“Sally,” Margaret says, her voice maybe half a tone higher in pitch, “I’ll say it again. Don’t let him do it.”
Suddenly a silence falls upon us that seems to me as vast as outer space. Both Sally and Margaret drift away from me and out toward the distant stars. I’m occasionally afflicted with a nightmarish sense of tumbling through black nothingness. I used to talk with Sally’s husband about this. Until he died, Barry Mansfield was my therapist, a person who was so essential to my well-being that I haven’t even tried to replace him. And I remember telling Barry that what this affliction felt like could only be described as metaphysical hysteria—as if I’d been reduced to a speck of raw consciousness hurtling through the galaxy without nourishment or comfort, frozen in a state of extreme and permanent agony. Even the relief of death was clearly unavailable to me when I entered this state of mind. And Barry, bless his heart—instead of asking questions, or dismissing what I’d described as just a bad dream, Barry leaned forward in his chair, patted my arm, and said in his most liquid baritone voice, “Oh, poor bubsy.” He was a dear, dear man whose spoken words often sounded like Frank Sinatra singing one of the old easy ballads.
Among other things, Barry helped me break free of some of my isolation. “I think you’ll be surprised at what kind of slack people will cut for you if they trust you.” When I told him what a person like me needs in order to feel close to someone, Barry laughed, and while he did so I’m pretty certain he took off his glasses. “Well, Creston,” he said, standing up, “let’s give it a try, and I’ll tell you what I think.” I stood up, too, and he allowed it. After the help Barry gave me, I knew I really didn’t need another therapist.
Sally clears her throat. Then she says in this voice that I’ve never heard her use, as if she’s reading words carved in granite, “Margaret, I want him to do it. And you can’t stop him.”
She’s right! But she’s right only because she said those words aloud. The fact is that in our marriage Margaret does have absolute veto power—the tax business being just one instance of her ability to exercise her will over me. But now all three of us know that she can’t stop me. Sally’s right here—and the fragrance of her excitement raises my own heightened sense of freedom and power. I’ve known Sally only as a middle-aged woman edging toward her senior years, but now my blood is responding to her as if we’re high schoolers who’ve just agreed to go somewhere and make out for a while. Which is to say that I feel absolutely refurbished. I’m a boy again, and a willing girl stands here with me in intimate proximity. The human race will endure.
“Don’t,” says Margaret, again very quietly but doing her best to match Sally’s tablets-of-stone tone. “Don’t,” she says again, but this time it’s almost a whisper.
I raise my arms. I move my hands toward where I’m certain Sally’s head is. I certainly don’t want to jab her in the eye with a stupid miscalculation. Her voice has conveyed the information I need. My thumbs make contact with her cheekbones, then move up to her temples. My palms lightly cup her cheeks for an instant. Her skin is a little damp and slightly cool. My fingertips slide into her hair and find her ears, where they linger some moments trying to map out their configuration. Then I move the first and middle fingers of each hand to the sides of Sally’s nose. These fingers possess their own intelligence as they smooth their way down her nostrils to the little groove in her upper lip and then back up beside the bridge of her nose to the lower rims of her eye sockets. Both Sally and I are trying hard to stifle our breathing, but of course Margaret must be hearing it anyway. Now my thumbs are brushing upward from the lower center of Sally’s forehead along her eyebrows, and these thumbs seem determined to repeat this brushing over and over. The idea occurs to me that if skin could purr, that’s how Sally’s forehead would be responding to my thumbs.
“Stop it!” Margaret shouts. “Both of you!”
“Go on, please,” whispers Sally in such a precisely directed whisper that it reaches my ears and my ears alone.
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