“Clare hates men,” Sandra told the Columbia College boys. As they fled to the kitchen bar, Clare laughed in relief; she was tired of taking flak when they shot themselves in the foot. Her sex life felt like ancient history, and she wanted it that way; Clare thought she loved knowledge too much to know love.
She would have gone to the university library until it closed at ten, then worked in the basement computer room until dawn, when she could safely walk home alone to 107th Street. But Sandra had insisted her old roommate come to her party the Friday before Thanksgiving.
“Your assignment is to talk to Robert de Falco,” Sandra said, pushing her through the living room. She knew that Clare had read his memoir in the library, then hidden in an empty women’s room to cry—Clare had confided that she’d thought no one could do that to her anymore. A bullet had severed de Falco’s spine in Vietnam and he’d written the book in a V. A. hospital. When a small press finally agreed to publish his story, the war was no longer fashionable, and few cared about Robert’s argument against violence.
“Nobody in the United States of Amnesia remembers him except you,” Sandy whispered to Clare. “And now that everyone but Robert knows what a man-hater you are, they’ll leave you two in peace.” Then she pushed Clare until her shin hit Robert’s wheelchair.
“Sorry.” Clare twisted her light hair into a rough knot.
“Robert, this is my friend Clare. She wrote her master’s thesis on Vietnamese political theory,” Sandra told Robert. “I didn’t think they had any, but apparently there are more theories than shoes in that country.”
“Maybe because they have so few shoes,” Clare cut in.
“That’s what our army should have taught us, how the Vietnamese thought, instead of putting old men behind desks who tried to help them with bombs,” Robert said, looking up at Clare.
“Or open Payless shoe stores.”
Clare kicked Sandra’s high heels.
“You can’t help what you can’t understand,” Robert said.
“Vietnam seemed so impenetrable,” Clare told him. She’d been a chilled when he’d fought. “Far away in space and time. The Vietnamese seemed to live in another century.”
“I still can’t believe those peasants beat us,” Sandra commented.
“At least they proved that will can overcome all our weapons,” Clare said, then remembered Robert fought on the other side. “Anyway, the Viet Cong didn’t win. They just outlasted our interest.”
“No one ever wins at war,” Robert said.
“I think Clare should pay more attention to the connection between food and fighting,” Sandra said as she placed a dish of food on Robert’s lap, then left to answer the doorbell.
Clare bent awkwardly, looking down at de Falco; she spoke to fill the empty space but wished she could stop. Unused to men, she felt compelled to keep something between herself and him, if only words.
“I want to study the connections between war, drugs and whores, how each makes the other seem necessary.”
“War is a drug,” Robert answered.
“Why do men do it?” Clare asked.
“Slaughter each other.”
Clare chewed her fingernail. Robert took her wrist and pulled it down with a strength that shocked her.
“Don’t bite yourself. Listen, you’re the kindest, most intelligent woman I’ve met in this town.”
Clare laughed too fast, then tried to rub the shell-shocked expression off her face.
Hadn’t he been listening? She’d thought wounds made one tougher, but they only seemed to have made Robert more vulnerable. Was he brave or just naive? Where had he been all his life? Then she remembered: the army, its hospital in the Bronx. Clare tried to untangle the knot in her hair but couldn’t.
“You don’t know me yet. And if you’re lucky, you never will,” she said, then realized he would never be considered fortunate.
Robert turned toward the dancers in the next room.
“I know I could never win you, Clare. But I’d like to be your friend, if you could—”
“I’m not trying to put you off. I’m just nothing much.”
“Yes you are,” de Falco said.
Their eyes met; Clare glanced quickly at her boots.
When Robert left Sandra’s party at nine, Clare waited with him on the corner of 113th and Broadway as empty cabs sped past their raised arms.
“Maybe they’re all going back to the garage,” she tried.
He sat quietly.
After ten minutes, a taxi stopped and its driver walked quickly around the car, helped Robert onto the back seat, folded the chair into the trunk, then asked, “Where to, sir?”
Another Vietnam vet, Clare guessed from his silent kindness. The two men recognized their bond but neither spoke.
“So, good-bye,” she said, starting to close the front door on Robert; he held it open.
“How do you think you’re going home, young lady?”
“It’s just six blocks,” Clare said.
“I still can’t let you walk alone.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
“How do you know?”
She slowly lowered herself onto the back seat.
When the cab stopped in front of her run-down building on 107th, de Falco peered up skeptically and said, “We’ll wait until you wave from the front window.”
“My room’s in the back.”
She shook Robert’s hand and ran up the five flights to her apartment. The answering machine flashed red in the dark; she hit it hard.
“Hello Clare, it’s your mother. Remember me? I live thirty blocks downtown? Thomas and I hope you’ll share Thanksgiving dinner at the club. The reservation is for four, so we’ll have to pay if you come or not. Aunt Edith wants to see you.”
Clare called back. Her parents picked up from their separate studies.
“So will you eat with us? They have vegetarian food in the buffet,” her mother said.
“Three is so awkward for Thanksgiving.”
“Can I bring a man?”
“You’ve got a man?” Her mother tried to keep her voice from rising too high.
“Tied up?” Clare’s father asked.
“Another body for my side of the battle line?” he asked.
“Yes, but I killed him.” Clare laughed alone.
“Did you get caught?”
“So we have something to give thanks for this year, Ginger.”
Clare hung up and thought of all she should give thanks for. Clare felt she’d been given too much, so she expected more of herself than her parents did. For them, opinions were like the family jewels: classic, impeccably tasteful, paid for but displayed only occasionally at parties in glittering flashes of wit. Clare wanted to put belief into action.
Then Clare wondered what de Falco had to be thankful for.
In the morning Sandra phoned and asked, “So did you go home with Robert?”
“Of course not. What if something happened?”
“It already has. The best thing that could happen is your staying with him. For both of you.”
“I’m not a nurse,” Clare whined.
“He has help. Robert doesn’t need you. Don’t worry, he just wants you.”
“What a relief,” Clare said, scraping paint chips off her wall with a nail file. “Is this a conspiracy?”
“Too much history reading has made you paranoid,” Sandra chided. “No pregnancy worries, no erections, and he’s one man you can be sure won’t run around. He’ll just give you a lot of he—well, you know, and love. You aren’t scared, are you?”
Clare pressed her forehead against the peeling paint. Love scared Clare more than war, but she was too proud to admit fear.
Tuesday, as Clare passed her mailbox after her morning run, an ivory envelope showed through the rusted grill. She tore the note open and out fell a key and calling card with “writer, anarchist” engraved below “Robert de Falco.” His address was an old building on Central Park West, right across from her parents’ home off Fifth. She turned the card over and read, “You could use the guest bedroom. I hope you’ll come, if only to return the key, though you can just throw it out.”
Clare sat at her desk and laid Robert’s key aside. She shoved papers around and wondered if she could just lose the thing. Then Clare laughed at how he’d said she was nice. But could she possibly be kind? A new concept. She shuffled the papers again; the key fell into her lap.
Then Clare tried not to leave her desk chair; she wheeled on its casters to the edge of the kitchen but couldn’t roll over the lintel. The sink, stove, dishes and counter would have been out of reach, anyway. Like a dog, she drank from the bathtub faucet and looked up when the wall phone rang out of reach. By noon she wanted to scream. She couldn’t go to the toilet. The books she needed lay stacked over her head on a shelf; to get them, she tugged at the pile until the whole stack crashed onto her head. She bolted from the chair to the bathroom and splashed water against her face.
“Damn,” she muttered. She’d told her parents that the question of whether she could have a man for Thanksgiving was just theoretical, but they’d grow suspicious if she arrived on Thursday with a bruised forehead. Clare tried to scrutinize her skin and could only think of Robert’s gaze. How did he stay so calm, confined to a chair in the most vertical city in the world? She decided to visit him since he could never get to her, up five flights of stairs. His place would be on her way home from Thanksgiving dinner.
When Clare arrived at de Falco’s apartment, he introduced the three men eating take-out burgers on the living room sofa—a Louis the Fourteenth, reproduction, she noted then hissed slightly, annoyed to find herself assessing possessions like her mother. The men lowered their heads over their plastic containers; Clare saw they thought the hiss aimed at them. Unable to apologize for something she hadn’t meant, she sat awkwardly on a far chair. But Robert came over.
“Please, I haven’t touched this.” He held out a plate of chicken and mashed potatoes.
“So how do you know Bobby?” one man asked, pushing French fries toward Clare.
How could they call him Bobby, she wondered.
“I don’t know him, really.” She clasped one hand with the other to keep from biting a nail. “Yet,” she added, so no one else could make a joke of it.
Robert passed a box of cookies toward Clare. She waved them off. He wheeled to the refrigerator and opened it.
“What about eggplant parmesan?”
Clare shook her head.
“Salad? Wine or beer?”
“Thank you, I’m full.”
“All right.” She came to the kitchen to help.
“Milk?” He reached for the carton on the high shelf; she tried to help but knocked it from his grip.
They looked down at the white splashed on his pants and floor.
“You should have a cat. Milk is bad for adults, anyway,” she said.
“It’s all right. There wasn’t much left,” Robert said, toweling spots off.
Clare knelt and with her shirt hem wiped his shoes, out of date but unscuffed. She walked back to the living room. Robert waited for the coffee to brew and watched her as she stood, the key he’d sent clutched in her palm. When he brought a cup and saucer, she slipped his key into her shirt pocket and his eyes followed it, resting there for a minute while the other men discussed football.
Clare glanced around; the continental lines of the old hotel, French windows with white curtains and geraniums in the alcove made the solid room feel lighter. Beside her stood a table with books and a vase of dark roses; their soft scent took her back to the apartment of Madame Chaumont. The elderly woman had hired Clare, the year she studied in Paris, to help with errands and dinner. The Frenchwoman quickly found that Clare didn’t know the proper way to boil water; Madame spent the fall teaching her haute cuisine. Back in New York, Clare reverted to her diet of brown rice and tea. She admired the Viet Cong’s spartan regime and tried to imitate the invincible simplicity of the soldiers who had cost her government one million dollars a head to kill.
Over her year abroad, Clare grew to know Madame Chaumont and her daughter, when she swooped in for occasional visits between social events. One evening at dinner, Clare spoke of studying the Second World War.
“I remember a Jewish woman lived upstairs,” Madame said. “I never knew she was a Jew until one day on the steps I saw the yellow star carefully sewn to her coat with a piping of gold braid. My neighbor shrugged and smiled as if to say, ‘Isn’t this ridiculous.’ Then she disappeared.” Madame Chaumont waved her arm to show the way time rushed past, so close it almost slapped one in the face. Just then, the doorbell rang twice, her daughter’s signal.
Mademoiselle Chaumont breezed in and bent to kiss her mother. Madame drew her head back and asked, “What’s that?” pointing to the gold star pin on her daughter’s jacket.
“Oh, I thought this old blazer needed something. The cut’s so boxy,” she said.
“Am I too late for dinner?”
Madame Chaumont had bowed her head and looked at her full plate.
Before Robert’s friends finished their beers, they stood up, muttered excuses and left.
“Did I scare them off?” Clare asked Robert.
“Scare them?” He looked blank, then showed her around the apartment. She peered into a study with a low campaign bed.
“I use this room.”
She followed him down the hall.
“This is yours, if you want.” He opened the door to a larger room.
Clare looked at the double bed with white matelassé coverlet and thought, what if I bled?
“It’s too good for me,” she said.
“How am I supposed to sleep, thinking about you on that dangerous street?”
“I live in the library, anyway.”
“You can’t sleep in the stacks.”
“Who says?” Clare laughed, then pressed her lips tight as she recalled some recent scares. He wouldn’t find the latest one as funny as she did. Last week, on the lower level, she’s studied Irish famine papers while a man had moved the musty volumes on the other side of the shelf. He coughed a few times, then left. Later she heard that he’d exhibited himself to women through gaps in the books. But Clare hadn’t looked up from hers.
“I don’t sleep well if this whole place is empty,” Robert said. “One gets used to company in the army.”
She thought of training barracks, field tents, medical centers, veterans’ hospitals.
“I’m sure I’ll be dishonorably discharged in a week.” Clare walked to the window, her back to him.
“People say I snore. And mutter in my sleep.” When this provoked no response, she turned to him and warned, “I even grind my teeth.” Sometimes her jaw clacked so loudly it woke her.
Robert shook his head in a mock shiver.
“You have to do more than that to disturb me.”
“I’ll work on it,” she said and rubbed her hands.
That night, Clare lay on the large bed and tapped her pencil against the blank page as she listened to the quick clicks on Robert’s keyboard. After a few hours, she heard water run in the bathroom. As he passed in the hall, he paused at her open door. Clare waved him in. Robert came to her side, took her pencil and turned it so the point faced the page.
The next afternoon, when Clare came back from class, roses bloomed in a vase by her bed. She took the flowers to the living room and stacked her textbooks on her nightstand, wondering why people bought things that died so fast.
She found Robert at a small weight machine where the bathtub had stood.
“You want to work out?” He raised the key and wheeled backward. “I’ll spot you.”
“Who’s your favorite author?” she asked as he watched her lift.
“You’re joking,” Clare asked, letting the weights drop.
He shook his head. She rested while Robert bench-pressed. Clare couldn’t imagine him even reading a fop who had brooded his whole life over his mother’s failure to kiss him one night.
Robert watched Clare complete the circuit, then asked her to lean her whole weight on his shoulders so he could pull down twice his weight. Proust, she thought, that spoiled, lazy frog, could hardly lift his teacup. He’d lined his study in cork because he couldn’t stand the slightest noise, and he seemed a whiny hypochondriac. What if he’d had to lie quiet with a bullet in his spine, the way de Falco did to save himself in a three-hour firefight?
“Is this exercise so one can last a long time on the cross?” Clare asked.
The next afternoon, Clare ran in the park. Afterward, she walked through the Metropolitan Museum to a small gallery at the heart. She stared through the glass at a small centaur of gilt enamel with his proud chest of baroque pearl. The delicate gem was her amulet, her anchor, a still point in the swirling world.
Back in his apartment, she ate, then lay on the bed, unused to the quiet; she stared expectantly at the silent telephone. At Philip’s suite, the line rang every few minutes; he and his girlfriend ignored it as if it were their bawling child.
Robert passed her open door that night and asked, “How’s your back?”
“Like it’s got metal in it. Come here a second.”
He ran his hand over the throat of a cut glass decanter on the window behind her. She took his palm and laid it against her neck.
He drew one finger down her spine.
“If you refuse to breathe, you’re going to die.”
She turned and placed a palm on his hand.
“I’m afraid I’ll hurt you,” she said.
“How could you hurt me?”
With his strong torso and legs as small as a boy’s, Robert reminded her of a centaur. Why, she wondered, were there only male centaurs in myths? Clare touched his thigh.
“Can you feel that?”
She brushed her fingertips across his lap.
He shook his head.
Needles shot through her head. Clare knew if she hurt him, he wouldn’t say and might not even know.
In the morning, Clare left the apartment with him at ten; she walked behind the wheelchair to Broadway, surprised by the fear in strangers’ stares. But the Vietnamese grocer on the corner smiled and called.
“What can I get for you Mr. Robert?”
This man exiled from his homeland had reason to hate a veteran who’d helped kill millions of his countrymen. But when Robert asked for fruit, the grocer carefully chose each one. Then he resumed rebuilding the tall pyramids of food, smiling as if the shoppers did him a favor by toppling his monuments.
Clare said goodbye and walked to Philip Fox’s apartment on Central Park South. Two years ago, after graduating from Yale, she’d told her parents of her job hunt; they’d laughed. Then her mother had called Fox and arranged for Clare to work as the author’s assistant. He paid so well that six hours a week covered all the expenses her fellowship didn’t. And she could deal with Fox; he reminded Clare of her father. She knew that Philip detested himself more than Clare ever could. And it was one job where she didn’t have to keep her wicked self bottled up.
While she helped Philip open stacks of mail, his girlfriend entered the living room with a glass of orange juice and mixed in vodka from the bar.
“Morning sickness,” she said when Clare looked up.
After the girlfriend closed the bedroom door, Clare turned to Philip.
“So she’s preggers. Are you going to marry her?”
“I don’t know,” Fox answered as he tossed a stack of invitations into the wastepaper basket.
“Do you think you could be monogamous?”
“Minutes at a stretch.” He laughed and Clare had to smile; she was glad for this break to slip in her own indiscretion.
“In case you need to reach me at night, I spend it at his place.” Clare handed over Robert’s card.
Fox stared, his mouth opened, but nothing came out.
“Your eyebrows almost caught up to your receding hairline,” she said to discourage questions.
“Don’t tell me you’re living with a man.” Philip clutched his forehead. “I thought Moscow would fall to the Germans before you fell for a male.”
“I didn’t fall for him. I feel for him. Anyway, the Russians fell to the Germans when they went for Marx,” Clare replied.
“What am I being unfaithful to?”
“Do you have a problem with me seeing Robert?”
“As long as you’re not really serious,” Fox answered.
“I’m always dead serious.”
“Look, you must be two decades younger than de Falco. He’s been through things that make you look innocent.” Philip laughed and she couldn’t help but join him. “You’ll end up hurting the poor man.”
Clare felt annoyed that he was probably right. Hadn’t Vietnam dispelled the American hope that one could help those one didn’t understand? But ignorance was a chasm; many fell in and died. Clare wanted to bridge that.
“War is easy.” Fox moved to the window and lit a cigarette. “Men aren’t afraid of each other; they’re afraid of women.” “And Robert is braver than you, Philip.”
He spun back to face Clare.
“What the hell does he see in you?”
“The nicest girl in New York.” She giggled nervously.
“I know what he sees in you, Clare. Like Vietnam, you’re another thing he can’t win.”
“Maybe he can.”
“Are you his consolation prize, or is he yours?”
“Mine, for having to work with you, Fox.”
“Maybe I’m jealous.” Philip surveyed the park below. “Maybe I admire Falco immensely. Do you think he’d join us for dinner as a favor to me, or to you?”
“I don’t think we should.”
“The war’s over,” Philip told Clare.
“I thought it had just begun,” she said, grabbing another stack of invites. “Let him decide.”
During the war in Vietnam, Philip had bummed around the country with draftdodging beats who preached, “Drop acid, not bombs.” Most of them died before the war’s end; Fox’s book about his lost friends brought him fame as instant as Jell-O—and as enduring.
“Think how it must make Robert feel, that you dodged the draft by claiming your Buddhism forbid killing sentient creatures, and now you want to go out with him for steaks. I don’t think you worship anything except yourself.”
“It’s no fun. The self is an awful god.” Fox ran his silver letter opener idly across his wrist. “I never asked society to like me. I never even said I liked them.”
“What do you expect of an age that fawns on crooks, rewards the selfish, worships killers and chooses cowards as heroes?” Clare hissed.
“If only I could live in a different time.”
She thought that might be one wish the two men shared. Maybe neither wanted to be a writer. If not for the war wound, Robert would probably work in construction or at best coach high school sports near his hometown in New Jersey. Writing was his last resort. For Fox, fiction was amusing resort, a social game; he played with the devil Robert fought. While society loved Fox, most feared de Falco.
“Don’t worry, Philip.” Clare tapped her watch and walked to the foyer. She paused by the Warhol portrait. “I’m waiting for Robert to make one false step. Then he’s history.”
“He won’t make it. He can’t walk.” Fox locked the door behind her.
When Clare returned to Robert’s for her textbooks, he was out. She went into his room, looked at his desk and read the top page, the story of a family whose youngest girl died; her brother fought a God he hated for taking her away. While his parents slept, the boy slipped into her room and played with the dolls until his father found him there. Then the dolls disappeared. That Sunday the father took his son out to the woods and taught him the right way to tie knots in rope.
Until late at night, Clare searched shelves of old books in the library. She spent hours reading the histories, mouthing their words, trying to breathe life back into the dead. Clare thought if she went back into the past she could gain the same distance on the present. But everyone was a prisoner of time. The more she read, the less she understood anything at all; the past became as great a mystery as the future.
Clare thought history would kill her spirit if she didn’t hold onto the anger. The will to fight seemed carved in her bones like the relics that survived from her Nordic ancestors, who thought paradise an eternal battlefield.
She felt trapped in the library the way as a child she’d been confined in the Metropolitan while her mother worked. Clare had tried to occupy herself in the period rooms, but she could only play the sheltered woman among the refined furniture.
Real history was written in blood, a language only its authors understood—it seemed easier for men to pass on knowledge through wounds than words. War narrowed the distance between soldiers, even the enemy’s, to the breadth of a bullet, while the distance between those at war and the ones left behind grew infinite.
At ten-thirty, Clare abandoned the books scattered across her desk and ran down the west side of the park.
Robert waited with dinner. Even after the salmon and Chardonnay, Clare had trouble falling asleep. The line between life and dream frightened, a battle line. The fight against rest, like all lost causes, had to end, and she found herself trapped again in nightmare: Robert and Clare were locked in separate cages, each with the key to the other’s, but out of reach. And Clare knew she was to blame; he’d given her his key.
She sat up in bed and saw Robert’s silhouette in the doorframe.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Did I yell in my sleep?”
“What could you be afraid of in your dreams?”
Clare reached out a hand and he came to her side.
“Myself,” she said.
Clare saw through the dark the change in his eyes after she’d lifted a sheet off her soul, for a moment.
Christmas Eve, the wind blew so cold that Clare didn’t want to go out for groceries; they ordered Chinese. The boy who brought the two large bags bowed and limped back to his bicycle with her three dollars. She turned away, ashamed at the small tip, after seeing his handicap.
“Just before the firefight,” Robert said, “I saw a boy. I don’t know his age—youths so frail they seem eight turn out to be eighteen, until you look in their eyes and realize they’re eighty inside. The young man asked me for food, and though I saw he had the butt of a Kalishnikov instead of a leg, I didn’t give him anything—maybe I was scared and angry at the sight of my enemies’ gun. The bullet in my back that night was punishment for my not helping the boy. If I couldn’t see that child, how could I be alive? All I wanted then was to survive, but we weren’t made to survive. We were meant to live.”
“I’m glad you didn’t die,” Clare said.
“While I lay wounded, I saw a great archive, all cool marble and quiet except for the distant typewriters tapping—that must have been guns. And as I walked through its entrance, I knew I was safe no matter what happened.”
Clare understood then that in the crowded veteran’s hospital, Robert had written the book to get part of his life in a library, to balance all he’d lost in the Vietnamese forest.
She ran a hand down his arm. Clare saw how the wounds to the soul drove in furrows one traced over and over. And though Fox might be right to avoid war, every wrong—even Robert’s mistaken belief that he deserved his wounds—made one stronger.
It struck her that the body was the one way nature had ever made to keep the past alive. And if one could make peace, it would be a temple of memory. The mind was the only weapon against time. But all memories were only borrowed like books from a library; no one could keep them long. Knowledge was the most powerful possession and the most fragile. War destroyed knowledge, first of the enemy, then of one’s own side, until the soldiers didn’t know why they were fighting, or even why they were alive.
But Clare could fight violence by taking up wisdom the way soldiers took up guns of those who had fallen. Nothing was lost as long as it wasn’t forgotten, though it changed as one carried it, like sand in an oyster shell. And those singled out to have some grain of time stay painfully with them had at least something to show that would remain long after they died. And by a strange magic, each loss left more to give. Memory and desire resided in the same part of the mind, she’d once read.
Clare remembered the pearl centaur locked in the dark museum. What great storm had blown so much sand into one mollusk’s shell? It must have suffered a long while in silence to create the large gem. But now she was sure there must also be a distance from which pain looked as beautiful and suffering was valued as highly as the pearl in her world.
Christmas morning, Clare gave Robert a fountain pen she’d found in an antique shop her mother loved. The seller said Proust had once owned the pen; though probably fiction, the tale seemed enough. Robert turned its dark curved body over; the inlays of mother of pearl glinted in the candlelight.
“The point’s broken,” Clare said. “That’s why I could afford it. I’ll go to the pen hospital after the holidays.”
“It’s fine just like this.” Robert kissed Clare’s cheek and she brushed her face along his until their lips met, then tongues, slowly tracing all the petals of a rose.
After New Year’s, Clare thought they could afford to see Philip, she and Robert were so happy. She sensed that Fox hated the holiday, as he glanced anxiously back at time’s scythe; he’d probably lost more friends to alcohol, drugs and demons than Robert had to the Viet Cong.
“By the way,” Clare told Robert, “Philip Fox wanted to take us to dinner. I said I didn’t think so.”
“Why? I’d be glad to meet him.”
“But he’s your opposite.”
“And better, for refusing to fight.”
“He was just a coward.”
“Cowardice is better than honor if it saves people from dying.” Rob looked up at the bookshelves and asked, “Fox made half a million on his last book, didn’t he?”
“But it wasn’t any good.”
“Still he keeps turning them out.”
If only Robert knew how fortunate he was not to be Philip, Clare thought. Maybe if she let them meet, Robert would see.
Clare wore the blue velvet dress Robert gave her for Christmas; he made her sit on his lap while he brushed her hair and carefully wove a French braid.
“There,” he said, stroking her shoulder. “A gold epaulet for the commander.”
Outside the Plaza, Philip came up and kissed Clare before she could elude him.
“Well, well, Beauty and the Beast,” he whispered in her ear.
Afraid to turn back and face Robert in case he’d heard, she walked off for a moment to toss a small paper into the gutter. She looked back and thought of Hephaestus, crippled but still divine, forced to watch his wife, Aphrodite, flirt with Ares. The love goddess preferred the god of war to her adoring husband. Was it because the war god wasn’t impotent? Or because she couldn’t hurt Ares they way she always wounded her husband? Maybe love and war need each other, Clare thought. Was love part war?
As she walked back, Philip turned to Robert and asked, “Don’t you love Clare?
Here’s this blonde American bombshell with everything and she’s so damn angry.”
Clare clenched her jaw and tilted the chair up the steps.
In the Oak Room, Robert and Philip each held a side of Clare’s chair as an older man at a nearby table said, “This is heaven.”
Clare muttered a laugh and whispered, “To me, it’s hell.”
“What separates heaven and hell is just a matter of time,” Fox replied, sitting down after her. “Heaven and hell are like a two-book deal.”
For which Philip got a Faustian amount, Clare thought. Robert got a one-shot deal.
“What do you know of hell?” she asked Philip.
“Myself.” He downed a few glasses of whiskey with dinner. He’s nervous, she thought. Good. But it wasn’t.
Philip talked of movies and other writers’ book deals until their crème brulée came.
Then he blurted out the question.
“So Robert, can you do it?”
“Do what?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Clare told Robert, brushing the air across her face. She turned to Philip and mouthed, “Don’t you dare.”
“Clare, you don’t have to protect me,” Robert said, turning back to Fox. “What do you want to know?”
“Can you fuck Clare?”
“Yes,” she said.
“No,” Robert answered.
“I’m sorry,” Philip said.
Clare threw down her spoon.
“Feel whatever you want, but not sorry for me,” Robert said calmly.
“Maybe there’s a way, medically—” Clare started but knew that wasn’t the point. She wanted to slip in a nasty remark about Philip’s impending fatherhood, to wound him, but the news would only hurt Robert more. They finished dinner quickly, in stiff silence.
Clare wiped her lips, stood up and gripped the wheelchair. Robert stretched out a hand to Fox, and she saw how much Robert wanted to make peace with Philip, who would never care about peace, since it had come to him so cheaply.
Clare kept Robert between them when Philip said good-bye on Central Park South and walked the few doors to his apartment. As Clare held out an arm and watched taxis cruise by, the cold metal chair burned through her angora glove so she let go—how had soldiers in winter battles held on to their guns?
Red and green holiday decorations glittered, obscuring the streetlights as New Year’s shoppers struggled with large bags. Holding Robert’s hands between hers because he never wore gloves, Clare felt as much an outsider as he, even from her own family; the world beyond the two of them seemed held together by silence; break it and the charade would become a thousand swords.
Clare went into the street to try to flag down a cab. She turned back to him during a lull in traffic and saw it.
The cat writhing silently in the gutter.
Robert’s gaze followed Clare’s. So thin it seemed a kitten, the animal tried to drag itself back under a limousine for shelter.
Clare ran to a payphone and called 911, which said to call the ASPCA; they didn’t answer. She asked the operator for a nearby animal hospital but no one picked up there, either.
She slammed down the receiver. The tortoiseshell struggled, its hind legs flailing like a doll’s; with its front paws it dragged the rest of its body a few inches at a time toward the dark underside of the car. Clare and Robert both knew what they should do.
“I’ll take care of her,” Robert said, moving toward the cat, but it struggled away, spurred by terror as the wheelchair approached—clearly wheels had broken its back.
“I’ve got him,” Clare said and knelt against the limo to catch the cat, triggering the car alarm which scared the animal further off. When Clare caught the soft tail, she turned her back to Robert.
In the shadow of a dark entrance, she took off her gloves, felt the soft fur ruff of the cat’s throat and grasped it tight. The animal didn’t cry as she twisted the head until it snapped. Its eyes stared straight ahead as Clare looked around for a place to lay it down. She couldn’t dump the warm body in the trashcan to be eaten by rats, and all the bins already overflowed with stinking garbage. She crossed the street into the park, going farther and farther in until Robert called her name. Clare laid the cat behind the entrance wall and came back to Robert. The limousine still screeched, and every wind-swept piece of litter seemed a wounded animal trying to run from them. The air felt colder, more distant; though de Falco sat inches away, she couldn’t have touched him. Her arms hung heavy as lead, and numb.
Back in his kitchen, Clare could hardly bring one hand to touch the other as she tried to wash, nor could she feel the hot water running over her cold skin. She felt bound by the killing, though not to anyone, only bound in her own separate shroud.
Robert wheeled through the living room, avoiding her eyes the way the cat had. He took the roses from the vase and threw them into the trash.
“These are dead,” he said.
She lifted the flowers out of the bin, cut their stems, soaked the tips in warm water and pulled off the dark, scarred petals.
Robert said, “I know I can’t love like a man—”
“You’re better than them,” Clare cut in. “But you wish you were just an ordinary