Zach’s confidence and winning style, once so abundant, had vanished. He couldn’t think straight: Beth or Vida; Vida or Beth? All the years he’d imagined he had possessed them both, their different but limitless loves and loyalties, he had forgotten about the inevitable changes through time. What he couldn’t control, he thought he could ignore. But not anymore. Beth or Vida, Vida or Beth? No doubt he had lost them both. A day, a night, another day and another night, and Zach stood alone.
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The third morning after he had sneaked out of his own house like a craven beast, he decided to return—and find out what was next. When he was certain the children would be at school, he drove home. Beth wasn’t there and he speeded across the railroad tracks to the pottery studio she rented at the edge of town, a shack really, set up with two others in a fifty-yard strip beside the Hudson River. He parked and his feet sank in the soggy grass. He knocked on the first door, no answer. On the next door, he knocked and although Beth didn’t answer, he entered. Beth, dressed in clay-caked, faded denim, jumped from her pottery wheel, dashed forward and slapped him so hard the impact caused her to fall sideways. Her hands sticky with slurry, she grabbed his shirt to hoist herself up.
Apparently, he didn’t understand her ethical foundation as well as he had imagined. Yes, forgiveness was her first principle—her dirty, furious face communicated this much. But blanket, automatic forgiveness? No. He had to ask for forgiveness. And promise: No more lies.
So he begged her and promised her in the tiny, muddy shelter, making his hard face go slack and keeping his mouth gentle.
“You think I’m stupid. I’ve always known that. But the question now, Zach, is how stupid?”
He froze. Any response here increased her accusation’s power, because they both knew he had believed her easygoing and naïve manner bordered on stupidity. Now his manner was under scrutiny. If he shook his head, meaning, you were never stupid, or came right out and said that, she might well use her new, rueful laugh; she might point out that his insensitivity made him stupid. And he certainly couldn’t say what he was very close to barking: “Are you serious?”
Obviously, she was serious. If he wrote her off as silly that didn’t make her silly: he wasn’t God. And so, she wanted to know: Just how stupid did Zach imagine her to be?
Within her enraged perception, Zach became idiotic. The longer he stood there, allowing this—Zach the idiot—the angrier he grew. But today, Beth matched him there. A disturbance in the air prompted him to look up. He could see her thoughts writ large: How stupid he was not to have listened to her most heartfelt understanding; how stupid to dismiss emotional priorities; how stupid, in fact, to dismiss almost all emotion; to suppose that logic held a greater truth!
More aroused than he could remember, he kissed her mud-smeared face and matted hair. He tugged at her oversized shirt so it unsnapped. While kissing her mud-caked palms, he yanked the shirt off and caressed her naked shoulders. He held up her wrists and bent to lick the inside of one long arm slowly but avidly, and then the next. His fingers had released her bra and moving his face from her arm, he sucked one breast and then the other. He held her breasts tightly and tipped her backwards to slide his tongue along her extended throat.
Egos at war; their bodies caught and submerged in currents of pleasure. Their physical selves lifted and fell in waves. With their life together immersed in darkness, anxiety, and loss, the sexual heat between them reached a heretofore undiscovered crest.
Afterwards, they each drove back to “their house.” But between her studio and their front door, Beth and Zach in their separate cars shared a boomerang resentment. How dare she! How dare he! How grotesque he was—she was!
Inside their house, occupying the same area provoked each to gasp in indignation. They stepped apart and started to turn away from each other only to be hurled into a baffling but fervid embrace. They rolled together, frantic in the living room, leaving the fine Indian rug smeared with muddy clay.
Beth showered first and Zach cleaned the rug with something from an aerosol can and the vacuum cleaner. Barefoot, his pants rolled up, so as not to muddy anything else, he paced back and forth while Beth fixed her hair and put on lipstick and whatever else she slathered on her face. He waited, noticing how full of light the room was, tree branches tapping the windows. The decor and layout, the contrived arrangement of furniture and ersatz art, including Beth’s amateur pottery, assaulted his intelligence. Why live like this? Why act out a middle-class life in a middle-class suburb surrounded by people the same age, with similar educations and families? Within nearly identical confines, they all worked, ate, fucked, and slept, trying to maintain an equally banal standard. If Beth expected him to pray for forgiveness and strive for demonstrations of—what? soul-searching? Zach needed to live elsewhere. His still muddy hands in his pockets curled into fists, which he deliberately flattened.
She pattered down the stairs in her L.L. Bean loafers, jeans, and turtleneck. But when he turned to face her, she paused on the landing. She modulated her voice and he winced at her caution. “Want some lunch?”
“No, thank you. Let me shower and change clothes first.”
That achieved, he found her waiting for him at the dining room table, which increased his already terrible annoyance. Rather than stay inside their fabricated domicile another second, he suggested they go out to lunch.
He said they needed to discuss some necessary things. Did she know a place where they were unlikely to encounter anyone who knew them?
“Oh, I see. Your approach confused me, Zach. But yes, if that’s what you want.”
“We need to discuss where things stand.”
Getting a jacket, Beth rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You want to eat in public to keep the discussion civil. How could I fall for your same old tricks?”
“Let’s go to that Indian place. The one owned by the guy who wears a red turban.”
“He’s Sikh. And if you’re thinking of that restaurant in Connecticut, fine. We’ll take separate cars.”
“That much, Beth, I assumed went without saying.”
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