Charlotte Holmes' stories and essays have appeared in many journals, including Epoch, New Letters, The Antioch Review, and The Sun. "After" is from the book-length group of related stories on which she's now working. Another story from this group was recently included in New Stories From the South: The Year's Best 2009, edited by Madison Smartt Bell. She teaches fiction writing at Penn State University.
Henry didn't write, he didn't telephone. In time, I believed he rarely thought of me. For thirty-five years, he's occupied a room in my imagination, where the lights have gradually grown dim. Instead of me, I have him think about the harbor lights twinkling faintly in the distance, about mistakes he might have made. In silence, Henry turns from the black window and walks to his small kitchen, where he pours a glass of wine. Under the floor lamp there's a wooden chair with cushions so old it's impossible to tell the color, and he sits there, placing his wine glass carefully on the floor. He reads a dog-eared copy of Art News, turning the pages slowly, looking at the photographs, the columns of type, the opinions that occupy page after page. Sea wind rattles the windows, but he doesn't close the curtains.
He's tired, a full day in the studio and now it's nearly midnight. When the wine is gone, he reaches up and turns out the lamp. His wrists are narrow, tanned, and his hands chapped from the cold. In memory he is as he was when I last saw him—thirty, blond, a fine-boned unlined face and kind eyes, a startling dark blue. The eyes are still what I notice first, every time.
For a few minutes, he sits in the dark room, fingers laced behind his head, listening to the wind try the windows. Though snow's unlikely on the Carolina coast, he finds himself wishing for it anyway. He stands and walks into the unlit bedroom, where he removes his clothes. Even after so many years, I recognize his body, surprisingly sturdy, not willowy at all. An ordinary body, human, imperfect. Beloved. He lies on the wrinkled bed, pulls up the blanket, and closes his eyes. Never one to share his dreams, he wades into a scene of perfect peace, a blue landscape spilling down a hillside, and in the distance a ridge top black with trees.
It was the only house he ever mentioned; though I never saw a photograph, he described the rooms, the view, the smell so vividly I sometimes used to dream of it. When I think of Henry, I put him there among the dunes, the cottage brown-shingled, with blue trim around the windows, a stone's throw from the sea.
“The islanders believe blue keeps away the haints,” he explained as we walked the woods together. Headed back to our borrowed cabin that frigid afternoon, the sky like silvered glass, I laughed, and said, “In Poland, the farmer paints his cottage blue when his daughter's old enough to marry.”
“Ah,” he said, and smiled. “The same color keeps away and entices.” Beneath the edge of the black watch cap his eyes wrinkled at the corners. In silence, I put my gloved hand against his cheek, thinking, If you leave me, you'll regret it all your life.
How arrogant I was. I believed my love gave me a moral right to Henry. Though I was three years married, I knew so little about love—the ache in my chest when we were apart I couldn't imagine would become as natural as breathing, or that this pain would be the thread that laced my life together.
When the telephone rang this evening, I let the machine pick up as usual, but after the first few words I was across the room with the receiver in my hand. Miss Landowska, you don't know me. My name is Ben Tillman and my father was a friend. . .
The voice sounded so like his father's, Henry himself might have been speaking.
October 1968, 57th Street, New York. At a gallery opening for a photography show, Henry's in jeans and a soft brown jacket and I'm in something black I made myself, my usual uniform back then. Kevin introduced us, and told me later that the way we looked at one another, he knew he had a crisis on his hands.
For all I knew, when I met Henry, I could've been standing in the sea and a wave had just broken over my head. Even after so long, I can summon it back, the way our eyes met, how I was aware of his body angling toward mine as he reached out to take my hand, and the feel of his palm dry and calloused against my fingers. I don't recall what we talked about as we stood drinking wine in a far corner of the room, or even whose photographs we'd come to see.
I know it wasn't long before we stepped outside to share a cigarette, and then another. The night was cold, filled with the peculiar sound of leaves scuttling up Lexington when the traffic lulled He suggested we get coffee, and I said, “I'd rather have a glass of wine.” We were walking downtown, trying to find a good place, when he said he'd like to see my work. I said, “We can be in my studio in fifteen minutes if the train cooperates.”
My studio was just another room in my apartment, the bedroom with the most favorable exposure. Riding the train in silence, our bodies swaying against each other slightly, I realized my young husband was at a conference, something I'd forgotten. I mean, I literally forgot him. In the couple of hours I'd known Henry, Edward had been temporarily erased from my mental map. When the train slowed coming into the station, I said “This is our stop.” Henry looked at me, his face serious, and in that moment I had a very visceral realization that my life was about to change.
In the studio I moved the paintings out so Henry could see them, then went to the kitchen, uncorked a bottle of Cabernet and brought back the bottle and two thin-stemmed glasses. I stood in the doorway, watching him.
I've learned a lot over the years about people by the way they look at paintings. Henry sat in the old wooden chair I'd pulled out for him, elbows on his knees, a look of pure concentration on his face. Occasionally he'd stand and move closer to a painting, crouch to see it better, move it here or there to better catch the light. This went on for ten or fifteen minutes, until I handed him his glass and he said, “I knew from talking to you that they'd be good, but I had no idea how good.”
“And?” I said.
Instead of answering, he went on to tell me what he saw in them, how they made him feel, what he imagined when he looked at them. He said, “I'm a painter in only the loosest sense of the word. Basically, I'm an illustrator. But Agnes, you're going to be a really great painter.”
I smiled. I had the good grace to look down and say, “Thank you,” and not what I was thinking, which was, “Going to be?” One thing I've never lacked is confidence in my paintings, though nearly everything that was in my studio that night would eventually be destroyed as I kept pushing myself further, sometimes literally cutting the paintings into pieces, collaging them onto other canvases.
We finally left the studio, and sat on the sofa drinking wine, smoking, telling each other about our lives. When I think of it now, I see that we were sketching in the rough outlines of what we were getting into. He was also married, also childless. But those lives seemed so much less interesting than painting, and so mostly, painting's what we discussed—whose work we liked, whose was over-rated, whose work we were trying to understand. Near daybreak, somewhere in the middle of my telling him what I liked and didn't like about Fairfield Porter's work, Henry leaned across and kissed me.
In the bedroom I pulled the lace curtain over windows that were already lightening to blue. He took my hands. He kissed inside each palm. We looked at one another and it was as though we'd been wandering all our lives to be together in that room, at that moment.
Two days later, he took the train back to Philadelphia, and I began to know the numbing sprawl of emptiness, going through the motions of routine, welcoming Edward home, painting every day, seeing friends, but how dull this life seemed after I'd been with Henry. My first mistake was believing his marriage was a wrinkle I could work around, a minor inconvenience, like my own.
Kevin's cabin in the Poconos became the midway point where Henry and I stole days together when circumstances would allow—the imaginary weekend retreat, week-long residency, sometimes even a fictional trip to see Kevin, a safely wrinkled gay man who inspired jealousy in neither of our partners and provided us both with an extra key. Outside those woods, how to stay in touch was a constant worry; letters could be intercepted, phone calls overheard. Had Edward ever bothered looking at the phone bill, I'd have been hard-pressed to explain sixteen calls to Philadelphia in a single month. Had Henry not kept a studio separate from his home, communication might have been impossible altogether.
I should say that secrecy was in neither of our natures. The advice columnists insist He cheats on her, he'll cheat on you. She strays once, she'll never be faithful. Perhaps it's true for some people. Edward, for instance, couldn't remain faithful if his life depended on it. How many lovers did he have in the five years of our marriage? I know for sure of three. And his lovers were probably like roaches: for every one I saw, a dozen more lived behind the walls. I won't say I complied with this life, but neither did I care passionately what he did with himself once he left the house.
Especially after I met Henry.
We indulged an urgency to share, to discover, to know. Once when Henry answered the phone, my first words to him were, “Did you have nightmares as a child?” I've never had it since, the need to learn someone so completely as I needed to know Henry.
And what did I find? A man afraid, like many others—afraid of hurting those he loved, of being hurt, of wanting more than he could afford. A man generous and tender, but when the time came, he was colder than glass and his edges twice as sharp. He kept all the promises I was prepared to break—he did not write, he did not telephone—he unlaced his fingers from mine, he said I will not leave her, because I was stronger and would ultimately survive. Not for the last time, I saw that strength must be its own reward. A mistake to keep my silence, to let him think I swam perfectly at ease in the empty blue-black sea of my own loneliness.
In a house surrounded by woods, I nurse a bedtime glass of wine as I walk from room to room. I have the place entirely to myself, no one to bother about except a brindled mutt named Cleo, who snuffles at my footsteps, her wrinkled brow heavy over her cataract-clouded eyes.
On the table by my favorite chair there's a photo of my daughter Molly, dressed in lace, her dark blue eyes looking out behind the glass without a trace of irony, so determined was she to be someone's lovely bride. When I suggested she might want to wait until she was more than twenty, she turned on me with the temper that she got, unfortunately, from me. Molly had her church wedding, her string of bridesmaids, her handsome groom who fizzled out in time. I put the photo in a drawer when Molly visits, but I like her look of unguarded trust—an expression that, do I need to say?, has long since stopped appearing on her face. Even in his twenties the man she married was a cold fish, a husk.
He was nothing like her father, but then, what man ever was? Even now I think of Henry's smell, like leaves and sea wind, the taste of his mouth like wine, or coffee, which he drank black and strong all day. A man of substance, often impenetrable. If I could bring him back, I would. Our bodies fit together perfectly from the start, two halves of something broken and rejoined, if briefly. I think of Henry one particular November midnight, the first time we met at Kevin's. We're shivering in the cabin's doorway, watching snow dust the hemlocks on the hill. I lean against him, take his cold hands in mine and hold them against my breasts. In that silence, there's nothing we can't share.
Another mistake was wanting him outside the narrow window of the moment. The last time we were together, a week in early April, his wife's sixth sense began to show: Lisa phoned, a different time each night, but always just after we'd made love. She must've heard in his voice that something wasn't right. He closed the bedroom door behind him, took the phone into the other room, so all I heard was low murmuring—faint music if I'd had more wine and hovered closer to the edge of sleep. In something lace, I lay in the wrinkled sheets, instructing myself not to listen, not to think beyond my body in the bed, momentarily cut free of all its moorings. Some nights that week I watched stars glint through the black glass, on others saw spring snow fall. Empty with the certainty that I was losing him, I felt a bit at sea. Henry came back to bed, cold, and wordlessly we lay close, no lies turning us from one another. What could we have said? We were at the far remove of each other's lives even as we lay skin to skin, pages of a story we already knew the end of. My fingers timed the blood beating in his wrist, each second an increment of years we wouldn't spend together. In my body, Molly had already taken hold.
The next winter, in a black mood, I hunched my shoulders, narrowed my eyes at the icy wind. I hung wet diapers on the line until my fingers chapped, looked down the stretch of brown grass running empty to the wind-break—the overgrown yard of my new home. The same wrists Henry touched his lips against the morning we said goodbye were tired from reaching overhead, clipping white cotton to the line so it could freeze in the crackling wind.
I thought He doesn't write, he doesn't telephone, because he keeps the only promise he ever made to me. The mail came to Connecticut now, but Edward and I still kept the apartment in Manhattan. If he'd written, I would've known.
Shivering, I entered the house where my infant daughter slept a few precious hours every afternoon, the only time I could reliably be alone. I lit the burner under the breakfast coffee, bitterness wafted through the room, not even the cup between my cold hands could warm them. The old chair scraped across the wooden floor, and on the table were newspapers and magazines. Vietnam was everywhere, the grainy photographs showing my suffering for what it was, personal, therefore unimportant. Even young as I was, I knew I was luckier than most: I had my work, I had Molly, in whose round face Henry's blue eyes shone. I had a successful husband, Edward, whose eyes were also blue but pale, narrow, and not at all like Henry's.
That afternoon, if I'd phoned him, Henry might have said, “Agnes, what do you want from me?”
I would have said, “This,” and listened to him breathe, listened to whatever words he could push across the wire. Some afternoons I came so close, but knew I'd be struck speechless, unable even to say I'd called the number by mistake. After going so long without hearing Henry's voice, I think I might have shattered.
There's a photo of me, taken in this time, a tall, bony woman in dark sweater and jeans, sitting on the bed with Molly, who can't even sit alone. Edward took the picture, accounting for the wrinkles in my clothes, the sea of papers visible on the floor, the lace unraveling from the spread. My house has never been untidy, but if something needed repair or was out of place, Edward had the gift of zooming in.
If I could point to the thing most out of place in that picture, the thing most desperately in need of repair, it would be me. I looked older than I was, haggard, shell-shocked, a plume of gray visible in my dark hair. I'd made several choices that seemed more or less irrevocable: to bear a child, to keep her father ignorant of her birth, to allow my husband to believe the child was his. I had some strange sense of nobility, as if by keeping the heartache to myself, I had proof that I could survive anything life would ever throw my way. I took grim pride in the difficult life I'd constructed. Some days in the studio, I painted while Molly screamed in her playpen, and I thought This is what a woman does, she picks up the pieces and puts them back together in a semblance of a whole, and if there's something missing, only she knows, and carries on without it, without sympathy, without consolation. Nothing but the sheer force of her will gets her through each bloody moment, day after day, until the blessed end.
I wondered, if I spent so much time thinking of him, surely mustn't his mind wander occasionally to me? But to try to lace my own peculiarities into his was undoubtedly a mistake. For years in fact, I didn't understand that if he'd loved me more, he'd have made a different choice. He weighed his options and my side of the scale came up light. Who ever wants to believe they've been passed over? And knowing it, who ever feels quite the same again?
In my sea of despair, I made an impulsive choice, something I can't mention now without a sense of shame. I'd gone into the city to see my dealer one afternoon, and walking back downtown from the gallery, stopped in to see someone who named herself a psychic. She told my whole story, and when I asked, “Why can't I be with him?” she shrugged and said, “Life has other plans.”
I was curled up under a quilt in bed when Edward came home. He picked up the empty glass from the table beside me, and sniffed. “You're drinking wine?” he asked, his voice heavy with disapproval, as if we didn't have wine with supper every night.
He scowled. “Why are you in bed?”
I murmured that I must be coming down with something.
He slammed around the kitchen that night, getting his own supper, and waking Molly. Nursing her back to sleep, I hoped that the life wasted between her father and me might at least bear fruit within her own small body. When Edward came to bed that night, I couldn't let him touch me.
Not the beginning of the end for us—that was the moment I met Henry. Not the end, either—that wouldn't happen for another year. The day I learned that life with him was never in the cards was just another stop along the way.
I sit by the window in near darkness, candles flickering on the far side of the room. In my lap is the small wooden box where for thirty-four years I've kept the wrinkled page with the black-ink scrawl telling of the life that I would not share with Henry. There's room for a photograph, but no photograph exists. There's room for the few letters I prudently destroyed.
Henry would've laughed at me for putting faith in hocus-pocus. “We make our own reality, Agnes,” he used to say when I cursed fate or luck. Consult a psychic? I might as well have read the tarot, charted our horoscopes, thrown the I-Ching. And yes, in my despair, I learned to do all that, too.
The wooden box holds stones, an iron hinge, a shard of broken blue pottery, a button from Henry's black winter coat, an empty cigarette pack folded into a red and white square, topped with silver foil. Where did I collect this detritus of our sliced-up life? In the moments between his leaving and my own. Mornings when he was in the shower.
Afternoons when we climbed through the evergreen woods, our fingers laced together like two ordinary people with a lifetime opening out ahead of us.
The box contains my silence. It contains the cold glass I leaned my head against the morning I watched him walk down the gravel drive to his car, my last sight of him his palm raised behind a rain-splashed windshield.
Complete idiocy, I think now, not to have opened the door and run outside, and when he stopped the car, told him that together we'd drive to his cottage by the sea, where we'd write the necessary letters, make the necessary phone calls that would allow us to begin a life together. And why not? Many people have done things just as difficult, looked into the eyes of the person they swore they'd spend their one life with and said, I take it back, I made a mistake, it's someone else I love.
Love moves along its odd trajectory. One has this and so desires that. Once that's achieved, one wants more. Even in love, we're hard-wired to progress—love's more river than pond.
I woke one morning and found myself in a new place, knowing neither customs nor language. Leaving Edward asleep in the same high wooden bed where I had first made love with Henry, I made my way through the cold late spring darkness, down the hall to my studio. I made a pot of tea, and while it steeped, I mixed paint. I stood beside the window as I worked, occasionally glancing up at the smudge-colored sky that would eventually brighten to gray. The city at this hour, in its relative silence, gave me the closest thing I knew to peace. I looked at my reflection in the black glass, and beyond it to the windows in the building opposite, at the few bright panes. I felt some consolation, knowing that anyone looking out could see me painting by the window. In that way, I knew I continued to exist.
As I lifted my first cup of tea to my lips, a sea of nausea caught me in its undertow. I didn't have to wrinkle my brow, calculate dates, suspect I had the flu. I knew the source immediately, and that the child I'd conceived had not come from my occasional late-night grapplings with Edward.
As I worked on the painting and wondered what would happen next, I allowed myself to envision a photograph that contained all the pitiful schoolgirl's dreams—a baby dressed in lace, an adored, adoring husband, and me standing right beside him—even though I knew I'd never dress my child in lace, or allow such a photograph to be taken. When Edward finally left the apartment, I went immediately to the telephone, and dialed Henry's number in Philadelphia. I tried again another hour, then another day, then every day for the best part of a week. Nobody ever answered. Finally I called Kevin and asked if he knew where I might find Henry.
“I assume you know about the fellowship,” he said. “He's already left for Paris.”
“Paris?” I said weakly.
“Mm,” Kevin said. I'd interrupted him at lunch, which he was eating at his desk at that fancy magazine he helped edit. Resisting the urge to break in with a flood of questions, I listened to him chew and swallow. He said, “They'll be gone for a year. I saw them off at Kennedy.”
I hadn't known about the fellowship, but what I knew about fellowships is that nothing about them is instantaneous. He'd applied for it months before, and known about it when he last saw me. And now he was safely out of reach.
In that age of primitive communication—no cell phones, no email, nothing private between lovers in that way—I fell into a deep sadness. I won't call it depression—I was simply sad. After a week or so of feeling smashed to bits, I picked myself up and told Edward I was pregnant. He was delighted, at least until the baby came.
And when Henry returned from Paris, Kevin phoned to say he'd met him at the airport. It was late afternoon, our old house in Connecticut bathed in blue winter light. Outside it was snowing again, and I was sitting in the rocker nursing Molly, who was nearly two months old.
“Henry looks very well,” Kevin said, and hesitated.
“And. . .?” I said, and waited.
When he spoke again, Kevin's voice was pitched higher, and quavered a little. “Did you, ah, know that, ah, he and Lisa had a baby?”
I didn't know. Benjamin, the child was called. Henry had named him for his grandfather, and I savored the detail.
“How old is he?” I managed to ask, and when Kevin said, “Not very. A couple of weeks,” I could think of nothing more original to do than hang up.
Poor humans. We tell ourselves stories, how the lives that eventually become ours are the way life was meant to be. How could we otherwise go on?
As Ben speaks, Henry's life assembles itself like a collage. “My folks split up when I was twelve,” he says, and clears his throat. “My mom moved to California. Dad and I stayed in Pennsylvania.”
I let the detail soak in: Lisa, the fragile one who couldn't survive alone. And then late, late in Henry's life, he had a new wife, a baby girl. . .I don't cry, I don't say much of anything as I sit looking out the window into the darkness, listening.
For so long, we moved in different circles. With Kevin dead of AIDS in the 1980s, and others gone, people who might have known us both were scarce. People who knew we'd been together were almost nonexistent. But Henry evidently knew I was right where I'd been since not long after he left me.
“I want to make sure of the address,” Ben says. “Dad said the letter was important and. . .” he laughs nervously, “he said he'd haunt me if I didn't get it to you.”
With a kind of horror, I realize he's about to entrust the letter to the mail. “No,” I insist, “FedEx it. Bring it to me. I'll pick it up.”
“Okay, sure,” he says, his voice soothing in a way I know well.
But it's what he says next that cuts me to the core. “My dad and I used to talk about your work all the time. I'd bring home books and we'd go through them together. He loved the paintings, too. But he never said he knew you until I visited him at Christmas and he gave me this letter to mail after he'd passed away.”
After. The word sticks like a stone in my throat. When I find my voice again, I tell his son, “We were lovers.”
“Yes,” Ben says, calmly, making a space for me to walk to. “I know he cared for you. He cared for you a lot.” I realize that for him, it's no big deal. If his father was unfaithful—well, it happens all the time. Just one of those things. . .
Chalk it up to passion. Chalk it up to youth, long since dead. We'd know better, in time.
I lean my forehead against the cold window. I feel an urgency to share the color and texture and temperature of my memory, as if it will disappear should I fail to speak this time. “We had a handful of beautiful, gray afternoons and mornings, some frozen midnights. You should have seen the way the snow filled the trees.”
I hear Henry's son waiting on the other end of the line. I swallow hard.
“Dear heart,” I say. “Can you understand this? At the moment, I wish he'd never been born.”