"There she is,” Walter called from the kitchen.
Hester frowned and kicked off her clogs on the mud porch. She would have preferred to linger in the zinnias. Or lie in the hammock and watch the sun go down. She wasn’t up for another evening of knock yourself out, yackety-yack and clean up afterwards.
“What’s the plan for dinner, Hess?”
She passed her husband in the doorway. Hester wasn’t fond of the guests Walter had invited. Susan was impenetrable and Tom drank too much.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It was your idea to have them over.”
“Should I cancel?” Walter asked. “Is that what you want me to do?”
“That would be friendly.” She pulled the pins out of her topknot and let her hair fall down to her shoulders, shiny and black with a few strands of gray nudging her temples.
“Actually,” she said, “I was thinking of taking a nap.” She knew that Walter expected her to cook dinner. He tended to be cranky if he didn’t eat enough and at regular intervals. At fifty-eight, he burned calories like a much younger man.
“I think a nap’s a wonderful idea,” Owen said. He was standing barefoot at the sink, eating grapes. Owen Mulvaney, the poet. Visiting again from Boston. The same age as Hester—forty-one—everything about Owen screamed poet: his ruddy beard, the flowing, brindled hair curling over his ears, the contemplative cock of his head while listening. Hester owned all five books of his poetry.
“I could start a piecrust,” Walter said, taking a step towards the oven to feel if it was warm, and Hester almost laughed out loud. Poor Walter. She hadn’t made a tart as she usually did on Saturday. Maybe there’d be time to whip up a clafouti after her nap. An eggy custard with cherries would be nice, she could do that. Walter loved her cooking. The way to a man’s heart and all that. She had brought it on herself.
Hester met Walter when she was designing the interiors of the new library at BU, where Walter was principal architect. Awed by his aesthetic and godlike reputation, she’d been flattered when he noticed her. She remembers one night in particular, early in their courtship, when Walter was working late at the firm that bears his name (she was soon to discover that he always worked late) and she showed up with a picnic supper of caviar, homemade blini, champagne and strawberries. After wiping his mouth with a dainty napkin, she climbed up onto his lap and seduced him in his swivel chair, right next to the blueprints for the New Hampshire country house she was standing in now—fifteen years and thousands of meals later.
“What can I do?” Owen asked. “Chop an onion or something?”
Walter threw open the fridge with a little too much force.
“You go upstairs, Hess,” Owen said. “We’ll figure something out. Look how much food there is.”
“What’s in the white paper?” Walter asked, shifting things around on the shelves. “A fish?”
Hester wandered away from the kitchen towards the airy front rooms of her house. She loved the clean lines of the place, its open, two-story structure inspired by the old barn that had stood on the site. Walter had rescued a good bit of its clapboard siding then augmented this with specs drawn from the originals. The living room was illuminated by diagonal stripes of late afternoon light where dust motes turned and swirled. This was Hester’s favorite time, when the hard sunlit imperatives of the workday gave way to a golden-tinged atmosphere more suitable for dreamy thoughts—or melancholy. She hummed the melody of a Chopin étude.
Would she ever realize her potential? Walter’s work was all about permanence; he built monuments to his ideas. Hester was more interested in change, how light played in a room throughout the day, for instance, or how color and furnishings might work in tandem with its shifting variations. She’d been the first designer to use color images on photo vellum as window treatments. She’d popularized felt panels pierced in patterns, a functional design solution that allowed pinpricks of light to shine through. She’d hoped Walter would embrace her as a member of his design team, but that partnership had never worked out.
Maybe it had been a mistake with Walter, “a father thing,” as she had confided to a friend last spring. Hester’s dad had left the family the year she turned seven and never returned. Her subsequent boyfriend résumé read like a who’s who of dating disasters: bad boys, artist types, coke freaks. She’d been hardwired to avoid the stability Walter represented until she wound up pregnant with his baby. Julia had turned out to be a blessing, her darling girl, so grown up already, almost fourteen—gone this whole month at sleepaway camp. It was incredible how time was measured by Julia’s growth; it was all going by so fast.
Hester climbed the stairs to the second floor, stopping to wipe the lines of dust with her sock where each tread met the riser. She didn’t regret giving up her career to take care of Julia, that was absolutely the right decision. Motherhood and making money didn’t mix if you didn’t want the child to suffer; and besides, Hester had felt the pull. Walter certainly hadn’t changed his work habits because he’d sired a child. When Julia was a fifth grader and more independent, Hester had opened a small high-end home-design retail shop near their home in Harvard Square. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but when the Nasdaq crashed and the store tanked, she fell into limbo again. Her thwarted creativity felt like a swollen river; if she didn’t figure out something soon, she was going to drown.
She pushed open the doors to her bedroom, and the walls she had hand-rubbed herself radiated with the soft color of repose: a creamy Tuscan yellow, which was really ten different shades mixed to replicate the farmhouse in Italy she’d visited in grad school, where the kitchen walls had looked like they’d absorbed a century of afternoon light.
She sat down on the bed and gazed out the window to the fields. Big, round, honey-colored bales of hay dotted the landscape like a postmodern earthwork. Who needed art when you lived in the country? Or at least lived in the country part-time. Every day last week, she’d set up a lawn chair at the edge of the field to watch the farmer mowing the fields. “Like a Medici noblewoman,” Owen had commented when she told him about what she’d done. “Eating tea cakes and watching the peasants work.” Owen had promised to write a poem about the hay. Maybe he’d read it tonight at dinner.
She picked up the hand mirror with Lucrezia Borgia’s portrait pasted to the back, and the unmistakable signs of waning youth were on display in the glass. Her eyelids were beginning to sag a little at the outside corners, just like her mother’s, and the healthy glow she’d thought she could depend on was beginning to fade, too. Hester sighed. Summer was almost over.
Noises from the kitchen came up through the heat register: the faucet running, cabinet doors shutting, the men assembling dinner. She drew the shade and a cozy late afternoon darkness enveloped the room. It felt decadent to nap while the sun was out, but she lay down on the bed anyway, pulled the cotton coverlet up to her chin and closed her eyes. An image of Owen popping a green grape into his mouth appeared in her thoughts and she could almost taste the cool oblong jewel on her own tongue, feel it between her teeth. Maybe after the guests went home, after Walter was asleep, she and Owen could rendezvous in the hammock. The sky was lousy with shooting stars this time of year.
Her eyes were pulled across to the window shade’s pinpricked pattern of a snowflake. Around its central axis, six smaller crystals were fixed to the tinier star at the center, the one with a hexagonal line drawn around its perimeter. Six points, six angles, six, six, six. Small things perfectly rendered made her happy. Snowflakes, études, seed pods.
Light seeped through her eyelids, thought fragments drifted and crisscrossed until she couldn’t register what she was thinking or the exact moment when her muscles gave way and she relaxed under the covers, finally sinking into a dreamless sleep.
Downstairs, Walter had settled into that blessed state where everything found its place and he was in charge of the arrangements. One of his favorite tasks involved washing plates under a stream of sparkling water, drying them with a linen towel, then stacking them on wallpaper-lined shelves; the progression relaxed him. One thing he could say about his wife, she had organized the kitchen very well, even if she hadn’t finished decorating the rest of the house. Hester was punishing him with that refusal, but for exactly what, he wasn’t quite sure. Hester was a mystery he’d never unravel.
“Oh well,” he said out loud as he carefully put away the last of the teacups. Things could be worse. Hester could have bolted like Owen’s wife. Finn had run off with a swami.
Owen looked up from the cutting board where he was chopping fennel. “What’s that?”
“Oh,” Walter said. “I was just thinking about Finn. You haven’t mentioned her this weekend.” Walter had always liked Finn. She was gorgeous and wild, if a bit over the top about toxic waste. He’d deemed her a “crunchy ex-hippie type,” and Walter should know. He’d lived on a commune back in the day.
“Olivia spoke to her before I took her to camp,” Owen said. “Apparently she’s happier than she’s ever been. Or so she told Livy.”
Finn met her guru in Rome, where Owen’s fellowship had moved the family. Olivia had been in the fourth grade when they’d left, a seventh grader when they returned last fall, sans mama.
“You seem better,” Walter said.
“Do I?” Owen walked to the sink to wash the knife he’d been using.
In Cambridge, since he’d gotten back from Europe, Owen would show up unexpectedly on Walter and Hester’s doorstep. He’d ease himself into a comfortable chair in the kitchen and keep Hester company while she made dinner. Walter often didn’t get in until quite late.
“Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross . . . ,” Owen intoned against the rush of the faucet.
“Hmm?” Walter was beginning to lose his hearing a little in the left ear. “Nothing, just quoting the Bard,” Owen said with a wistful smile, obviously enjoying the sound of his own voice.
“Sonnet 90. Apropos of Finn.”
“Right,” Walter nodded. He wasn’t up on the Sonnets. A clammy chill wound its way through the screens, and Walter lifted his shoulders and briskly rubbed his upper arms to warm them.
“No matter how hot the summer,” he said, “the New Hampshire ground stays dead cold.”
He opened the pantry doors and rummaged around the shelves. “I wonder if there’s polenta. We should have something warm and comforting on the menu tonight, don’t you think . . . I don’t see anything that looks like cornmeal . . .
“You see?” he said, turning to Owen. “This is the problem. I tell Hester to stock things we may need in the future. Why can’t she do that? Is it so hard?”
“Ah,” Owen said meaningfully, but Walter wasn’t exactly sure what Owen had meant by this comment.
“If you stuff the snapper,” Walter said, “I’ll light the grill.”
I really should do a flower piece, Owen thought as he strolled in the garden, reading the plant markers dotting Hester’s beds. Every single name was pleasing. Bergamot or bee balm. Love-lies-bleeding. The cabbages looked like giant blue-green roses. And the zinnia heads were enormous, like antic Dr. Seuss characters showing off colors as vivid as their names: Envy—for the strange and wonderful green variety. Scarlet Passion. Crimson Rage. He imagined saying to Hester, “A little de trop, don’t you think?” And she would throw back her head and let loose with one of those deep-throated belly laughs. Owen took a deep breath. The air was so sweet. Like honey, he thought. Clichéd but true.
Out of sync with nature, Owen wasn’t taking care of himself, but that was understandable. He was a bachelor again, unwillingly so. A single father of a teenage girl, an abandoned husband, a cuckold, for chrissakes. He needed these trips to the country, was always grateful for Hester’s invitations. Summer weekends in the city were depressing by definition, and then to be alone with no classes to teach, and Olivia away at camp, it was too much.
“Thank god the summer’s almost over,” he sighed to the rosa rugosa, absently snapping off one of its hips.
He hadn’t written a word since June, but why start now? He couldn’t write in the country, nature was too crushing. He needed to feel himself the biggest force in the room when he wrote. Thunderstorms, sunsets, the rosy dawn, he couldn’t think under the weight of all that eternity and mortality crowding down his brain. In town, he’d been too busy chasing a little solace to write. Suitable women were hard to find. A university-salaried poet wasn’t exactly what married-minded, single women were in the market for. All he wanted was a good throwdown with a firm-bodied damsel. Other men’s unhappy wives were often the best bet, sweet and sworn to secrecy, infinitely full of yearnings their husbands didn’t satisfy. He might marry again, if he could find the right woman. Another student, perhaps. One of the misguided, starry-eyed youngsters who aspired to poesy; one special miss who could be trained to nurture a real poet instead of pursuing her own immature muse. God knows it wouldn’t be the first time a coed married her professor. But maybe he wasn’t the marrying kind. He’d failed Finn and the resulting upheaval in Olivia’s life had chastened him. But then again, Olivia would be off to college soon, and he’d be free to do whatever he pleased. Didn’t he deserve some care? Owen was so hopeless at domestic things.
He looked towards the house and up to Hester’s window, edged in roses. “The Fairy,” she’d called them. “A floribunda.” Floribunda was such a good word. Many-petaled, many blooms. Hester was a floribunda. A woman of many talents. She’d make him a good wife. Except maybe she was too talented. Moody and headstrong, too. He certainly wouldn’t want to deal with that. He’d felt her need, though, and had chosen to restrain himself. He really should be commended for his temperance. Those big brown eyes, her coltish body, she was itching for it. He’d seen how she looked at him. He imagined her hair splayed out on the pillow, wouldn’t mind threading her on that four-poster upstairs, it was just the right height. She’d lean back on her elbows and wrap those gorgeous legs around his waist . . . good God. She was a superb designer. Or maybe it was Walter who had built the bed. No, there were some relationships he shouldn’t compromise. It would be a shame to lose Hester’s companionable dinners. Or incur Walter’s wrath—enduring his pique was bad enough.
Owen strolled the grassy path abutting the hay field and felt wonderfully sorry for himself. He picked a bouquet of wildflowers for his hostess and when he got back to the house to wash his feet and dress for dinner, the sun’s long descent against the cloud-streaked western sky had begun in earnest, and he was still thinking about Hester.
Sitting at her dressing table at eight o’clock sharp, Hester heard two car doors slam in the driveway. She quickly clamped a barrette around the thick tassel of her hair and jumped up to take a final look at her figure in the full-length mirror. The violet dress skimmed her legs just above the knee, and she thought she still looked pretty good: her cheeks were rosy, she wasn’t old yet. She sprayed vetiver cologne on her neck and tore downstairs and out the side porch to meet Tom and Susan in the privet. “Hello, hello,” Tom said as he kissed Hester on the cheek. She could smell gin on his breath.
“Good evening,” Susan said. She was wearing a perfectly pressed linen shirt, the color of a ripe pumpkin.
“You’re looking bright,” Hester said. Susan smiled without opening her lips. Hester always felt Susan was holding something back. Her conversation was reasoned and four-squared, admirable in its precision. Like a lawyer, Hester thought, but in fact, Susan was a doctor, an internist with a practice in town.
Tom scanned the garden and said, “Well, it’s big, anyway,” and they all laughed.
Tom and Susan were year-round residents and liked to tease Walter and Hester, calling them “urban gardeners.” Hester didn’t find their jokes all that funny.
Bats swooped from tree to tree just above their heads. It would be dark in an hour. Tom went in to “find the menfolk” and Susan and Hester walked to the west porch to admire the gathering sunset.
“Evan’s at . . . ?”
“Camp Tokanga,” Susan answered. “Sailing this week. Walter said on the phone that Julia’s still away. How is that brilliant man? Where is he?”
Right, Hester thought, she doesn’t want to talk to me. She prefers Walter. He’s the star.
“Looks like somebody lit the grill,” Susan said and she strode ahead of Hester into the house.
Tom and Walter were in the kitchen making rum and tonics. Old friends, they had grown up together, graduated in the same class from UNH. Walter joined the Coast Guard during Vietnam to avoid combat. Tom had enlisted voluntarily.
“Oh, good, you’re here, Hess,” Walter said just as Owen appeared. “I couldn’t find the polenta.”
“It’s August, Walter,” Hester said. “I buy polenta when it’s cold out. Say hello to Susan.”
“Oh, I forgot,” Owen said. “I brought you a present of arborio rice.”
“Cheers,” Tom said and he and Susan clinked their glasses against Walter’s.
“Owen, you remember Susan,” Hester said. “You guys met at the pool in June.”
“Yes,” Owen said, bowing slightly to Susan. “Pleasure.”
“Likewise,” Susan said.
“Hester, did I ever tell you about that dish we had in Venice?” Owen continued. “Risi e bisi.”
“I’ve heard of it,” Susan said. “Rice and peas, right?” Tom said, his eyes pleading for his wife’s approval. Susan turned away and Hester watched Tom wilt.
“Not exactly risotto and not exactly soup,” Owen said. “It’s Venetian comfort food.”
“I have chicken broth,” Hester said. She pulled out a quart container from the freezer. “Shall we make it?”
“Is it homemade broth?” Walter asked.
“Yes, Walter,” Hester said, turning towards the sink to hide her irritation. “It’s homemade.” She ran hot water over the container of stock. “Look in the freezer for peas. Oooh, and pancetta would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“For what?” Walter said. “Pancetta’s not in the traditional recipe.”
And that, Hester said to herself, is the difference between us.
“Oh, Walter,” Susan said, “I meant to tell you, the coals looked ready."
“The grill, right you are,” Walter said. He picked up the platter of fish and vegetables and Tom and Susan followed him out to the porch. Hester was glad to see them go. She slid a samba tape into the boom box and returned to the stove to pour the broth into a saucepan, setting the burner on high.
“I won’t use pancetta if you don’t want me to, Owen,” Hester said, pouring a little olive oil and butter into a heavy-bottomed pot.
“I love to experiment,” he said. “I’ll cut some.”
He pulled the chunk of pancetta from the fridge while Hester chopped the shallots. When she scraped them into the oil and butter, the kitchen steamed up with their arousing aroma. Hester’s earlier reticence towards the demands of the evening had given way to the more gracious sense that everything good in the world was bound up with food and cooking.
“Not that the memory of Venice is a completely pleasant one, you understand,” Owen said, mid-thought. “Oh, but I’m forgetting everything.” He ran over to the harvest sink and returned with his wildflower bouquet. “A humble tribute to wisdom and beauty, m’lady,” he said, flourishing a courtly bow.
“My goodness,” Hester laughed. “Thank you.” She filled an old tin coffeepot with water and set the flowers next to the sink where she could look at them. “Did you see the mullein?”
Owen furrowed his brow and cocked his head.
“That enormous phallic thing in the garden with the tall seed shaft. We used to call it Indian toilet paper when we were kids. The leaves are so soft.”
“Ah yes, I did see it,” Owen said. “Quite the male metaphor. Have I chopped this small enough?”
“Perfect, yes. Slide them into the pot.”
The pancetta sizzled and sprayed its fat with little pops. Hester jumped back from the stove.
“Careful,” Owen said, grabbing an apron from the counter. “You’ll ruin your dress. Here.”
Hester took the apron and slipped it over her head.
“Let me,” Owen said and he looped the ties in back into a knot. “Too tight?”
Hester blushed. “No, just right.” She emptied the rice into the shallot and pancetta mixture.
“You didn’t get a libation,” Owen said, lifting the rum and pouring some into a tumbler. “I got a head start when you were napping. Yes, so anyway, risi e bisi . . . Finn and I were happy when we were in Venice . . . we were still a family at that point.” He topped off the drink with tonic and sat it down on the counter next to the stove.
“I wish there was something I could do,” Hester said. She stirred a ladle of broth into the rice.
“Oh, but you do. It’s so restorative to be here in this beautiful place. To be around such a healthy marriage, it gives me hope, it really does. You and Walter wrote the book on how to do it right.”
“Really?” Hester said with a laugh. “I guess I never read that book.”
Owen stroked the length of Hester’s ponytail and curled it around his fingers. Hester held her breath.
“You’re such a wonderful woman, Hess, a kind of modern Juno . . . ”
Hester’s pulse pounded all over. Just one kiss, that’s all she needed.
“Juno was Jupiter’s wife, wasn’t she?” she managed to say.
“Right,” Owen said, “but ‘juno’ also means ‘feminine spirit.’ The equivalent of ‘genius.’”
“No kidding? I’m flattered.”
Tom stumbled into the kitchen, calling over his shoulder to his friends back on the porch. “And don’t worry about Agent Orange, either.”
Owen cleared his throat and stepped towards the sink. He turned on the faucet and picked up a dish to wash it. Hester continued to stir the rice, annoyed with Tom’s phenomenally bad timing.
“There aren’t any side effects from that stuff,” Tom continued. “No one dying of cancer, nah.” He turned to Owen. “Don’t you just love the lies? I do. I just love ’em. Smells good in here.” He walked over to Hester. “I’ve come for more rum, dear.”
Hester watched Tom pour himself another tall one. She had recovered her composure somewhat, but if she’d been thinking about one kiss, wasn’t she hoping for a hundred? Things would progress quickly to the inexorable conclusion. Maybe she should hold Owen off a bit. Giving in too quickly had never worked, she’d learned that much in her wilder years. She’d make him wait.
“Tom repaired airplane engines in Vietnam,” she explained, but what she didn’t say was that he was tormented about not having seen combat.
“That’s right,” Tom said. He put his arm around Owen’s neck. “I’m the sonovabitch who either got you in or I fucking got you out of the jungle. Cheers.”
Hester noticed how thin Tom was compared to Owen, how his shoulders were bony, how his hip bones poked through the stiff denim of his jeans. Everyone hoped Tom would get sober, he was a great guy when he wasn’t drunk, but so far his habits hadn’t changed.
“You were necessary,” Owen said, still held in Tom’s grip. “Of primary importance.”
“Damn straight. But try telling that to the assholes down at the VA.”
“Fish is ready,” Susan called from the porch, and the two men standing in Hester’s kitchen ambled outside.
Everybody took his or her place around the table. While Walter poured the wine, Owen cleared a space for Hester to set down the hot saucepan of rice.
“A toast to our lovely hostess,” Tom said, raising a glass.
“I didn’t really do very much,” Hester said. “It was all Walter and Owen.”
They clinked glasses in the middle of the circle and sipped.
Susan inclined towards Walter and said, “How nice to have a husband who cooks. Hester’s lucky.”
Hester bristled. She would think of a saucy retort later, when it was too late. Was Susan trying to woo Walter? Had they ever . . . in college?
“And here we have the two-hundred-dollar tomato, ladies and gents,” Tom said, exhibiting a juicy red slice on the end of his fork.
“Tom,” Susan said, “don’t be rude.”
“Our hosts have spent a frigging fortune on their organic project, that’s what I mean, dear,” Tom said.
“Not at all,” Walter chimed in. “Hess grows most everything from seed. Our real problem is the Japanese beetle. They’ve practically destroyed the evening primrose.”
“Use the sex lure things,” Tom suggested. “Stick ’em in the ground and bag the suckers.”
Owen laughed loudly. He was amused by Tom. Both of them were already quite drunk.
The conversation meandered, and Hester knew that most of it would be a wash for Walter after he lifted the lid on the risi e bisi. If the day didn’t come down to a good dinner, her husband considered the previous twenty-four hours a waste. When they were fighting, Hester didn’t withhold sex, she withheld pastry. She had a good biscuit hand, as bakers would say, which meant she had a light touch, didn’t overknead. Her apple tart was legendary, as were her profiteroles and the Reine de Saba. Walter took pictures of her creations then tucked them inside their cookbooks as reminders of dinners past. She hadn’t gotten to the clafouti after all.
Walter doled out a generous portion of rice onto her plate, and she lifted a spoonful to her lips. Each kernel was coated by bits of the caramelized shallot with the occasional green pea dotting the white hills of the rice. The texture was perfect, al dente. She’d been correct about the pancetta, it lent its heft in just the right proportion, even if it wasn’t traditional.
“Ummm,” Walter moaned. “The peas are like little farmers.”
“I don’t know why,” he said. “They just are.”
Hester watched as each guest tasted the rice. Susan didn’t register a reaction. She never gave Hester credit for anything. Tom was ranting about something, oblivious to the food. Walter was happy. She caught Owen’s eye and he mouthed the words, “Ambrosia, thank you.”
Trying a little too hard, perhaps? He should have said something out loud about the risi e bisi; that would have been the polite thing to do since she had made the dish especially for him. Owen was a poet, after all; he should be able to muster a few words. He was a bit of a put-on, actually. She had noticed this quality in him before but had never registered the trait with annoyance until that moment.
She narrowed her eyes, wouldn’t return his smile and Owen lifted his eyebrows in confusion.
Tom’s voice rose tight and loud. “Who cooks all your meals and cleans your house, lady?”
Susan looked at her husband calmly, accustomed to his outbursts. “You do and I appreciate it.” She turned to Walter. “Tom quit his job.”
After years of restaurant work and odd carpentry gigs, Tom had finally managed to land one of the few good jobs their small, struggling community had to offer—shipping manager at the industrial sprocket plant. He hadn’t worked there ten years yet.
“Why did you quit?” Hester asked.
Tom enunciated each syllable carefully. “To explore more meaningful employment, dear. They’re all idiots, in an idiotic system.”
“Workin’ for the man,” Owen said.
“Bingo,” Tom answered, fixing his watery eyes on Owen, his new best friend.
“Let’s change the subject,” Susan said.
“I heard,” Hester said, “that Owen wrote a new poem. About the hay in our fields. Maybe he could read it.”
“Oh dear God, no,” Owen said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t finish it.”
“Oh,” Hester shrugged and hoped she covered her disappointment.
“Actually, I didn’t even start,” Owen said, draining his glass.
“I’ve got a poem,” Tom said. He stood up and cleared his throat. “Scotch and soda, mud in your eye. Baby, baby, do I feel high.”
“Bravo,” Owen applauded.
Tom reached over to clink Owen’s glass. When he sat down again, his elbow brushed his fork, knocking it to the stone terrace next to Susan. When the two of them reached for it at the same moment, their heads clunked.
“Oops, sorry,” Susan said.
“Now she’s resorting to physical violence,” Tom growled. “I think my wife has forgotten that I paid for her medical degree.”
Hester started to stand, saying “I’ll get you another fork,” but Tom pushed her back down into her chair.
“All gone,” Walter said, moving the bottle under his chair. “Sorry.”
“Money is a tricky subject between couples,” Susan said. “Tom feels a little threatened, you know, by my . . . ”
“You don’t know jack, sister,” Tom said. “I’ve been to places in my mind you’ve never even dreamed of.”
“Would anyone like more rice?” Walter said.
“I know what you’re doing,” Tom said, turning towards Walter, “but it won’t work. I’m on my spot and I’m steady to it.”
“I’ll have some more rice,” Owen said, lifting his plate. “The fish is delicious, by the way.”
“Actually,” Hester said, “speaking of degrees and such, I’ve been thinking of going back to school, maybe.”
Hester watched a patronizing look cross Owen’s face.
“Have you, Hess? To study what?”
Nobody but Owen Mulvaney had anything worthwhile to do in the world.
“Watch out, Walter,” Tom said. “She’ll fuck some poetry professor and leave you in the lurch.” Tom pronounced the word “poetry” like he was spitting out a mouthful of tacks.
Owen winked at Hester and said, “Never fear, Walter, Hester will be safe. We like our wenches young and nubile.”
“So we’ve heard,” Susan said.
Owen belched. Hester felt Walter’s eyes on her as she moved rice grains around on her plate. How could Owen have said such a thing—young and nubile. And the horse you rode in on, pal.
Whenever talk of Owen’s reputation had come up in public, Hester had been the one to defend him. “A poet is a romantic figure,” she’d say to his accusers. “Impressionable female students are forever falling in love with their professors, aren’t they?”
“I think I’ve offended our hostess,” Owen said. “My apologies, dear Hester, we all think you’re wonderful and adorable, don’t we?”
Walter lifted his chin to acknowledge Owen, but his eyes returned to Hester who met his gaze with a shrug that she hoped would communicate that she couldn’t be held responsible for the behavior of her guests.
“To women,” Tom said, holding up his glass. “We love ’em, even though we can’t stand ’em.”
“Here, here,” Owen said. “Present company excluded, of course.”
“That’s enough,” Susan said, pushing back her chair. “It’s time to go.”
Owen stood and ducked under the long limbs of the maple. He swaggered to the middle of the lawn. “Look,” he said, pointing to the west. “A shooting star.”
Tom staggered over to join him, and Walter followed. Hester and Susan remained at the table.
“Tom,” Susan called. When he didn’t answer, she looked at Hester and said, “You don’t know how good you’ve got it.”
“Susan,” Hester said, annoyed that the subject of luck in marriage had come up again, “we can’t know what goes on in someone else’s marriage, can we?”
Susan sniffed and was about to say something in response when Owen distracted them.
“Go, and catch a falling star . . . ” he said loudly, with dramatic intention, his arms outstretched to the sky. “Get with child a mandrake root, Tell me, where all past years are, Or who cleft the devil’s foot, Teach me to hear mermaids singing, Or to keep off envy’s stinging, And find What wind Serves to advance an honest mind . . . ”
Tom applauded and Owen stopped his arm. “Wait, it’s not finished yet . . . ”
“Whose poem is that?” Walter asked.
“John Donne, of course,” Owen said. “Look. Another one, up there.”
Tom threw his head back to see the star with a bit too much force. He stumbled, but Walter caught him before he fell.
“Make a wish,” Owen said.
“Respect,” Tom called up at the sky. “I want respect!”
“And I would like to write like Donne,” said Owen with a sigh. “But alas, it’s already been . . . done! Hahahahaha.”
Tom turned towards Owen and said with a straight face, “Puns are the lowest form of humor, you know.”
Hester stifled a laugh. A star streaked off to her left and dissolved out of sight. An hour earlier, she would have known what to wish for. She turned towards Susan but Susan had wandered off.
Hester quickly cluttered the dishes and went inside. Susan wasn’t in the kitchen or the bathroom. Maybe she went upstairs to lie down, but Hester couldn’t find her anywhere. Their car was still parked in the driveway. Maybe she walked home. This will be on my head, Hester thought. Walter will blame me.
“Come inside for coffee, guys,” she called through the screen, and when the men straggled in, Hester pulled her husband aside to tell him that Susan had vanished. Walter frowned and walked back to the kitchen.
“There’s a Godard retrospective in Cambridge this fall,” Owen said. “Shall we all go?”
“Fuck God,” Tom said. He had sunk into the dark phase of his drunk.
“Where are your keys, Tom?” Walter said. “I’m driving you home.”
“I’ve got my car.”
“Right, we’ll take your car.”
“I’ll walk. It’s a beautiful night.”
“Yes, it is,” Tom said. “It’s a fucking beautifulnight. Where’s my wife?”
“We’ll find her,” Walter said, putting his arm on Tom’s shoulder. As the light hit the side of Walter’s face, Hester saw that his eyes were blurred. “I’ll be right back.” He led Tom through the back door and out to the driveway.
“Well, that was like a bad play,” Owen said, as he struggled to stand still without swaying.
“Oh, yeah?” Hester asked. “And how does the play end?”
“It probably closed out of town during the Boston tryout,” Owen said with an impish nod, expecting appreciation for his witty rejoinder. “But before we get into that, let me share with you a little revelation I had, a sort of Joycean moment of clarity out there under the stars. I’m so full of feeling, Hester, dear. You undoubtedly know, it’s a well-known fact that I’m selfish and proud—my ex-wife would be the first to agree—but the thing is, you see, it turns out I’m not so bad off as your friend, Tom, that’s what’s new. I’m really not so bad after all. Other people’s pain can make you feel damn good about yourself.”
Hester snapped on her yellow rubber gloves and filled the sink with water. “But let’s get back to your original question,” Owen continued. “Could you shut off that gush, dear heart, I can’t hear myself think. Let’s see, how will the play end, that is the question. I think we’ll have Dr. Susan run off with her anesthesiologist at the end of the first act. She’s not a very interesting character. You don’t like her, do you?”
Hester pursed her lips and said nothing.
“And Tom will go back to Vietnam to revisit his past where he’ll take up with a lovely young Vietnamese orphan, of whom he’ll make an honest woman and they’ll live happily ever after.”
Owen leaned over the sink and lowered his face next to Hester’s, and she fought the urge to smack him.
“And by the way, this play must be performed in a dinner theater because didn’t you think the risi e bisi was the best dish of the night?”
Hester continued to scrub the pot the rice had been cooked in. Owen slid his arms around her waist and cupped her breasts in his palms. Fast work, Hester thought. Second base without so much as a kiss.
“Ah, the beautiful, silent scullery maid,” he said, nuzzling her neck.
“I thought I was a modern Juno,” Hester said. “Now I’m a scullery maid?”
Owen pulled her around. “Well, the goddess has many guises.”
Hester didn’t want Owen to kiss her, but to honor her previous wish, and out of a certain curiosity, she stood still and accepted his tribute. She thought about holding her wet rubber-gloved hands out beyond his body so they wouldn’t drip on him, but then she would have had to wipe up the floor afterwards, so she laid them on his shoulders, soaking his shirt clear through.
His breath smelled sour from the wine. The skin on his lips was chapped, it was like kissing the scratchy outside of a coconut. She pulled her head back and frowned.
“But, darling,” Owen said, “I thought this is how the play ended for us.”
“Did you? I’m flattered. Really.”
“Well,” Owen said, staggering back and flapping his wet shirt at the shoulders, “I think I’ll retire then.” He pulled himself up to his full height, just like every other jilted guy since the beginning of time, and said, “I feel a poem coming on.”
“Good,” Hester said. “Poets should write poems.”
Owen threw her a filthy look and staggered out of the room.
“Good night,” she called after him, but he didn’t answer.
She looked around the kitchen but didn’t mind the mess so much tonight. She exchanged the samba tape for Brahms intermezzos and when her favorite parts came up, she swayed and twirled around the room. She appreciated Brahms now that she was older, especially the piano pieces. How they began with simple, bittersweet melodies that developed into tempestuous middle sections. When the melody returned at the end, it sounded different somehow—either because of a few changed notes that marked the new passage, or from the relief of surviving the tumult of the middle section, Hester wasn’t quite sure which, but she was always moved, her heart pulled a little, she would feel nostalgic and sad.
By the time Walter walked in, the kitchen was tidy. He threw off his jacket and the force of the gesture made Hester feel guilty and faithless. Thank God I came to my senses with Owen, she thought.
Walter walked over to the sink and absently wiped the sponge across the counter, which was already clean. “How did this happen?” he said, his back to his wife. “After so many years. And a child.”
Hester’s stomach turned over. She picked up his jacket and draped it across a chair.
“Things happen,” she said. “Marriages can withstand minor disturbances, can’t they?”
“Not in this case.” He pulled a glass from the cabinet. “They’ll probably get divorced.”
“Tom and Susan.”
“Yes,” he said, turning around. Hester avoided his eyes and opened the silver drawer. She straightened the forks. She’d always thought that forks were the women of silverware. Knives were the men and spoons were the children.
Walter poured two fingers of Scotch into his glass. “Are you going to leave me, too? It’s what all the wives are doing these days.”
“Why would I leave you?” Hester asked, moving behind the chair for protection. “Because you’re difficult and remote? Because you think I never do anything right? Would those be good reasons?”
“Is that how you feel?”
“The correct question would be, Is that what I do, Hester? You should say, ‘I’m sorry, Hess, forgive me.’”
She was surprised that her voice was breaking, that she was so upset. She sat down.
“I hate these fucking chairs.” She looked out the window at the dark. “I should have never bought them, but you’re always pressuring me to finish the goddamned house and I can never please you and that’s all you care about.”
“No, it’s not. And yes, you do please me.”
Hester’s face felt hot as she held it between her hands. “Why don’t we have any polenta, Hester? Is it homemade stock? Pancetta? For what?” She stopped. It all sounded so petty said out loud.
“I didn’t know,” Walter said.
“The hell you say.”
“Okay. But don’t cry.” Walter handed her his handkerchief.
“I’m not crying.”
“What should we do?” he asked. “I could say that I’ll change but we both know that’s probably not going to happen.”
“Oh, so it’s up to me?”
Walter knelt down in front of her and kissed her knees. “I love you. Does that still matter?”
In her mind, Hester was running in the fields, out on the west hill. She was wearing that old peach nightgown she loved so much. What ever happened to that? The breeze was warm on her arms, and she saw their house in the distance, its windows lit from inside like golden eyes, like fires burning. She wanted to live like that, like melodies and fire. She wondered if she could.