Monday, October 10, 2011

House On Fire

Time raced and stalled. Every Wednesday Zach and Duncan ate dinner at a different little restaurant with spicy food and terrific beer. Otherwise, Zach struggled with unruly emotions, writer’s block, and amorphous dread. While Duncan enjoyed his new-found niche among the university’s well-adjusted gay professors.

(Click here for the first episode; here for the previous one.)

When Zach first confessed to neglecting his children, his teaching assistants, and his so-called work, Duncan offered a gentle aphorism about life being unpredictable.

“Well said.” Zach nodded, downing another beer. “Is that some gay thing?”

“Maybe,” Duncan said. “Before last New Year’s, I avoided ‘gay things’ except for furtive, anonymous sex.”

Prepared by now for Duncan’s references, Zach blocked the images from appearing in his mind. Yet who better to sympathize with the strain of living a double life? Zach’s experience here matched almost anyone’s. Before he had fallen in love with Vida, he had taken routine relief in sexual flings that, if not anonymous, were close to it. These off-trail wanderings seemed like good sport, compared to what he and Beth were doing these days.

Each week a little more summer brightened the air and lengthened the evening. The school year hurried to its finish while Zach sat motionless for hours at his computer. He tapped a few phrases beneath his title: “Initiative for Policy Dialogue” and then deleted them. He listed chapter headings and bookmarked references. He sat in his chair until his eyes burned.

Eventually, he rationalized that stepping away might allow a wisp of inspiration to float up and he began to take breaks. At first, he diligently marched to the gym and punished his heavy body on a treadmill. But now that the air was warm and the breezes soft, he strolled through Riverside Park for hours, taking in the birds and trees, the boats on the Hudson, and the sunlight filtered by bright green leaves.

Morningside Park, which was closer, filled him with too many longings. Even one nanny with one toddler slowed his pace and stopped his heart. Usually he saw a happy throng of little ones playing on the rubberized climbing equipment, while nannies of all colors and ages found compatriots who spoke the same language. He ventured there once or twice a week and trundled back to his office to phone Vida.

“How are my three girls?”

The first time he attempted this greeting, he had cringed but Vida laughed and offered a full report. Her health and the twins’ surpassed predictions. Last month she had attended the opera with one of the Institute’s donors, all of whom apparently adored her. She confessed that they had only tolerated Zach while Vida was in love with him. Now that she had redefined her affection, the Institute and its contributors naturally preferred that Zach stay away. He wasn’t surprised. Vida alluded to ways she might pry open a door or two but Zach’s pride, while much diminished, had not yet died.

He knew all too well what he had done to land so far outside the inner sanctum—nothing. For years he had contributed nothing of his own. Even if he had played his hand differently and married Vida when she was interested in that, the Institute would have viewed Zach as a lay-about son-in-law.

Approaching her seventh month, Vida reported that the girls were nearly equal in size and progressing beautifully. She emailed him a copy of that week’s sonogram.

“When can I visit?” Zach asked. “When can I take you to concerts and dance programs?”

“Have you told your wife?”

“I will, Vida. Very soon.”

“You can’t keep it a secret forever, Zach, unless you want to be an anonymous father.”

“I’m not going to be anonymous and you know it. But I can’t tell Beth until it’s feasible.”

Vida didn’t ask the follow-up question. Instead, she described the homes she had toured online. After comparing school districts, population percentages, and landscapes, she told Zach she liked Potomac, Maryland better than Chevy Chase. No rush, however: She and the girls would move into a country-style home around their first birthday. The Institute’s endowment managed Vida’s portfolios so that her personal fortune thrived, recession or not. Zach didn’t care to learn the details any more than Vida wanted to know what he meant when he said the word “feasible.”

“Don’t for a minute presume I’m not prepared to pay full financial support and then some.”

She laughed. “Whatever you wish, Zach.”

The reason Zach hadn’t told Beth that Vida was carrying his twin daughters was that their shared resentment continued to foment a grotesque lust between them. More mornings than not, he honked outside the fitness spa or her pottery shack. He honked especially long and hard in the driveway, giving Wren time to escape. Beth invariably dropped whatever she was doing for their furious, humiliating sexual interactions.

Despite the remote chance that one or even both of their adolescent children might arrive home unexpectedly, Zach took his intolerable wife on the dining room table. Or he positioned her on the living room carpet, and once, with summer coming, in the backyard. If Beth had her way, their rancorous intimacy would play out behind the locked door of “her” bedroom. But the way she had altered its every detail annoyed Zach. She had covered the off-white walls with expensive, embossed peach wallpaper; replaced their solid oak bed with a rickety cast-iron antique, covered with an heirloom homemade quilt bought from a famous auction house, and smothered in many tiers of elaborate throw pillows.

Afterwards, Zach fled. Yet, before he had buttoned his shirt, before she had slid into her slacks, they were already yelling: everything she considered wrong with him versus what he knew was wrong with her. A few phrases said it all and so half-dressed he ran as as if from a house on fire.

(go here for the next episode) 


Dan Leo said...

Brutal. And superb. Brutally superb.

Old 333 said...

'slid into her slacks' - awesome.

Dan, you got it right.

kathleenmaher said...

Thanks both of you.