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Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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Dr. Crewes started to put a cigarette between her lips but it slipped out of her grasp and rolled along the waxed floor. Paul retrieved it for her. “It seems to me,” she said, holding the burning match, “that your one ‘success,’ as it were, in overpowering a woman has made you very ... skittish, so to speak, and your attitude—towards me, for example—is colored by it.”

“Okay, you know you turn me on. I’ve told you that before. What does it have to do with anything? Listen—my family is living through this—this nightmare. Are you going to help me or aren’t you?”

Dr. Crewes puffed and blew smoke at the ceiling with apparent concentration. “I’m trying to, Paul. All right, let’s get back to the violence. After your phone conversation with your father about the piano, did any alternatives occur to you, any possible responses other than going to his apartment and attacking his mistress?”

“Mistress! Jesus, I thought that was only in books.” He reflected, and answered thoughtfully, “The way I saw it, it was going to be the piano or her that got it. Something had to get it. But I realized that if I broke up the piano I’d be sorry later. Self-defeating. You see, I thought it out logically. So it had to be her. Now, considering everything we’ve been dealing with all these years, I think that was progress. Don’t you?”

She stubbed out the cigarette with sharp taps of annoyance.

Paul arrived home before his mother that afternoon, feeling almost lighthearted. Certainly he had been flippant during the session, but maybe that was a good sign. There was reason to hope. He was impatient to hear how things had gone between them. He was also starving, he had realized on the way home, and so he stopped to buy a real dinner: two large steaks, a box of spaghetti and a can of clam sauce, a head of lettuce and two ripe tomatoes. He had the water boiling for the spaghetti and was trimming the steaks when his mother entered. Paul rushed to the door, the carving knife still in his hand.

“Well, how was he? What happened?”

Nan squeezed his hand with her chilly gloved fingers. “Oh, Paul. Oh, so much happened. Let me get my coat off. Would you make me a strong Scotch? I’m worn out.”

She collapsed in the nearest chair, Richard’s leather recliner.

“Well, tell me, for Christ’s sake.”

“First of all, he’s sending back the piano tomorrow. I wanted you to know that right off. He realized how horrid and selfish he’s been about that.”

“Great, but I mean what really happened?”

“I thought you’d be so excited about the piano. He told me, by the way, how much it meant to you. That is, precisely how far you would go. ... She frowned for an instant. She was looking more like herself, Paul noticed. “But we won’t go into that now. No more guilt and recriminations. I guess we’ve all been overwrought and irrational. Still, Paul, really! ... Well, anyway, he’s sick, as I thought. He’s a man who’s sick and needs help badly. While I was there I made an appointment for him with Dr. Jonas for tomorrow morning.”

“But what happened, about you and him?”

“Shh. Don’t yell. And don’t wave the knife around like that, you’ll hurt yourself. This whole Cheryl episode was the working out of a psychosis. I’m mixed in, his mother, the works. Classic.”

Groaning with impatience, Paul went to the kitchen and got out the Scotch and ice cubes.

“Anyway,” she went on, “we talked and cried, and he was different. Like he used to be, not with that cold surface. Oh, Paul.” Her face eased for a moment. “I wasn’t wrong all those years, was I? I mean, we loved each other, didn’t we?”

“I thought so. Here’s your Scotch.”

“Thanks.” Nan took a short swift drink, tossing her head back expertly. “Ah, that’s good. He was heartbroken at what he’s made us all go through. He said he was even afraid to call, he was afraid I wouldn’t want to see him. Of course I’d see him, no matter what. He’s totally bewildered and mixed up. But I think he’s past the worst.”

“How about you?”

“I don’t know. I’m glad, I’m hopeful. Anxious, too. I’ll know better how I feel after I talk to Dr. Steinberg tomorrow, and hear what happens with Dad and Dr. Jonas. Meanwhile we’ll just have to wait. How did it go with Dr. Crewes today?”

“The usual. I’m cooking steaks. We’ll celebrate.”

“Oh, Paul, that’s sweet of you. For the first time in a week I feel like eating.”

“Will he be home for dinner?” he asked hesitantly.

“Oh, no, not yet. We’re not ready to face that yet. We’re both still too—too sore. It’s better to wait a few days till we figure out what to do. Maybe he’ll come Saturday. But don’t count on it. Don’t count on anything.”

“Oh. I guess I had this silly idea that it would all straighten out overnight.”

She came over and stroked his head. “No. It’s not that simple. There’s still a lot of struggle and pain ahead. We’ll have to change the whole structure of our relationship. Everything out in the open.” Nan drank some more, her eyes bright with zeal. “I’m going to change. It won’t be easy, but—”

“All right, all right. Let me get back to the kitchen.”

He went to bed peaceful, with only a few nagging doubts that mutated into strange dreams in which a pack of women chased him up and down a beach, half threatening, half in play. He raced up and down the concrete path bordering the shore of the lake, darting into a grove of trees to elude them, enjoying the game, but afraid too. Then he found that if they got too close all he had to do was wave his erect penis at them and they retreated in a tight cluster, backing off with round gazing eyes. He awoke suddenly on sticky damp sheets. Claudia would love this one, he thought, as he rolled over to a dry part of the bed.

He rushed directly home the next day, Friday, to see if it had arrived. School hadn’t been too painful. Refreshing, almost. He had forgotten the minor comfort of having a warm, predictable place to go each day. Of course there were problems, as he had expected. For one thing, Paul was informed that he was failing American History because he had handed in no work for two weeks. A failure would mean being dropped from the basketball team, unless he had a very good excuse. Also, the teachers were waiting for the spring term’s program choices: if he really wanted medicine later on, maybe he should take chemistry now and drop music. This was a decision he wanted to talk over with Richard and Nan. He hoped desperately that Richard would come to dinner tomorrow. They would all sit in the living room and discuss things calmly and peacefully, as they used to. He would have to tell them how he hadn’t been in school—they would find out sooner or later. His home room teacher, naturally, was demanding an explanation of his absence all week. Nan and Richard would ask where he had been. On the streets. But then again they might be too preoccupied even to ask.

He paused before opening the door, trembling. Then he rushed in. The piano was home, back in place, where it should be. Tears of relief came to his eyes at the sight of it. So it was all right to have trusted them, this time. He touched the keys hesitantly, awkwardly, as if he hadn’t touched them for weeks, then wiped them off with a damp rag. He took out his Beethoven, his Joplin, his folk song books, and rearranged them on the rack where they belonged. Then he played till Nan returned, running through nearly every piece he knew, one after the other. It was the beginning of good times again. For they had been good—he hadn’t appreciated his life before. Even Nan’s and Richard’s old, dull, suffocating ways would be welcome now, anything after this week.

“Oh, I see it’s back,” Nan called from the hall. “I’m glad.” She came over and kissed Paul. “At least one thing is in place again.” She was almost in place again too, Paul saw. That brisk, self-assured everyday coping, Nan’s distinctive note, was returning. He watched as she stepped into the kitchen, where she washed her hands and immediately began to slice onions for her special chili with avocado and sour cream. She seemed to know exactly what to do; it was a relief. Still, it was odd how he missed the wan, weepy Nan, strung out on the taut threads of her agony, or that other strange, sensual Nan, with the nighttime voice and undone hair.

“I called him today,” she chattered from the kitchen, “and asked how it went with Jonas, and he said all right. That was all he said about it. I think we should relax for a couple of days and let things take their course. Oh, he will be here for dinner tomorrow night after all. Sort of a phased re-entry.” She slid the onions into a frying pan and a hot sizzle arose, like the sizzle of Nan’s energy returning. “He asked about you. Also, I saw Dr. Steinberg again this morning.”

“Oh. What did he have to say?”

“Well, for one thing, he said to act spontaneously, out of feeling, not from a predetermined script, you know, with built-in expectations. Why don’t you play something till it’s ready, Paul?”

He chose ragtime, an ironic beat. His father would be home tomorrow night; that was all that mattered. The rest of it was puzzling. He clung to the one stable fact: Richard would come tomorrow; they would talk calmly about his problems in school; things would be normal again.

Paul went out early the next morning while Nan was still asleep, leaving a note saying he would be at the library. He had phoned to cancel his eleven o’clock Saturday morning appointment with Dr. Crewes, explaining to her tape machine that he had urgent school-work to make up. Restless with energy, lying sleepless in bed as a gray light dawned, he had formulated a practical plan. He could work all day, getting as much of the history done as possible, and hand it in Monday along with a note from one of his parents pleading family difficulties, some crisis or other. They would know what to say. With luck he would catch the teacher in a sympathetic mood; then he could remain on the basketball team.

He sat over his books for hours, surprised that he was able to concentrate. Throughout, the prospect that Richard would be there at night sustained him like a snug life jacket. By five o’clock he was weary and pleased with himself. When he got in from the bitter cold, he saw Nan’s coat thrown carelessly over a chair, her open pocketbook hanging by its strap from a doorknob. A half-empty coffee cup rested on the carpet near the couch. That was unlike her. Paul hoped she wasn’t sick. Nothing could go wrong tonight. He had been through enough—it had to end now. His back and chest broke out in a cold sweat. He had done all that homework; he had controlled himself; now he needed to talk to them. As he turned the lights on he felt a twinge of pain and remembered one more detail that demanded attention: the school nurse had told him last Friday that he might need glasses; the glare of the fluorescent bulbs hurt his eyes. This week they had been aching more than ever, especially today in the library. Paul had felt the pain but not registered it as a discrete fact, it had been so merged in the larger pain.

There was no answer when he called out, so he knocked on Nan’s bedroom door, then opened it. She was lying fully dressed on the bed, one arm shielding her eyes.

“Mom, are you sleeping?”

“Paul?” She raised her head. “No. I didn’t hear you come in. What time is it?”

“Twenty after five. Are you sick?”

“No. I’m not sick.”

He had never heard that voice before. It was low, not sensual but vacant, and sounded like it came from the marrow of her bones. He rushed over. “What’s the matter with you?”

“He called this morning. He’s decided after seeing Dr. Jonas, the high priest, that what he needs is a complete separation, even though he’s not going back to his girlfriend.” Her face was totally motionless except for her lips, which barely moved as she spoke.

Paul sat down on the bed. He hardly grasped the sense of her words, so stunned was he by this new, hollow voice coming out of her. It must be Nan, he thought wildly, yet it was not Nan. In panic, he hunched his shoulders and made a supreme effort to sit still and speak quietly.

“He’s not coming back?”

“No. I told you. He’s—uh, let me see, what does he have now? Oh, it’s a midlife crisis, the doctor said. It’s so hard to keep up with the diagnoses.”

“Are you being funny?”

“Yes, I think so. Isn’t it funny?” She didn’t laugh or smile, though. “He wants control over his own life, he wants—um, let’s see, what else—he wants to change his patterns of response.” She spoke in a dull, singsong manner, almost demented, almost like a chant. “There is allegedly a whole phase of early development he never went through. And of course he needs to get in touch with his true feelings. That, by all means. Who could quarrel with that?”

“Mom, should I call a doctor for you? I mean, a regular doctor?”

“No. I’m quite well. I am in touch with my feelings at last. I have no feelings.”

“Please!” he shrieked, his voice cracking high like a much younger boy’s. “Stop it!”

“Sorry,” she said in the same flat way. “That wasn’t true. The truth is—what is the truth? Can you believe, I think I love him. But how can I love that bastard? It’s an obscenity.”

He got up. His veins were throbbing with blood again. It was himself he would hurl this time, knock himself out cold to lose consciousness. Bang his head on the wall till it broke open and spilled like a coconut oozing milk. The roots of his hair prickled; he felt a falling, thudding drop in his intestines.

She half sat up, leaning on her elbows, and gave him a stabbing, menacing look. “If you do that,” she said slowly in her hollow tone, “if you throw anything or touch anything, I swear I will tear you to shreds.” Her fingers bent stiffly and curled up.

She was hypnotic. He wished he could go to her and cry on her breast, but she had become too awesome for that, a terrible, mythical creature.

“Thank you,” she said, relapsing into herself, and lay back again.

Paul went to his room, sat on the bed, and shook. Everything shook, inside and out. He watched the shaking hands with a removed fascination. Soon he heard a key in the lock and he jumped to his feet. The door opened and closed, then a shuffling sound, then the bumping of wooden hangers in the front closet.

“Paul? Are you home?”

He tried to answer but nothing came out of his throat, which had locked shut. He walked to the living room.

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
4.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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