Read Sophie's Choice Online

Authors: William Styron

Tags: #Fiction

Sophie's Choice (33 page)

BOOK: Sophie's Choice
13.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

it was--appeared to exhaust him; he turned pale and I urged him to go upstairs to bed. This he reluctantly did, stretching himself out on one of the twin beds of the room he had reserved for the two of us five floors above the noisy avenue. I was to spend two restlessly insomniac and (largely because of my continuing despair over Sophie and Nathan) demoralized nights there, awash with sweat beneath a humming black spider of an electric fan that dispensed air in puny puffs. In spite of his fatigue, my father kept harping on the South. (I realized later that at least part of his visit was in effect a subtle mission to rescue me from the clutches of the North; although he never let on in direct terms, the old slyboots had surely dedicated much of his trip to an attempt to preserve me from going over to the Yankees.) That first night his last thoughts before he went off to sleep had to do with his hope that I would leave this confusing city and come back down to the country where I belonged. His voice was faraway as it mumbled something about "human dimensions." The several days were spent just as one might imagine a twenty-two-year-old youth would while away the hours with a generally discontented Southern daddy during a New York summer. We visited a couple of tourist attractions which both of us confessed to never having visited before: the Statue of Liberty and the roof of the Empire State Building. We took a sightseeing boat trip around Manhattan. We went to the Radio City Music Hall, drowsing there through a comedy with Robert Stack and Evelyn Keyes. (I recall how, during this ordeal, my mourning over Sophie and Nathan enveloped me like a shroud.) We looked in at the Museum of Modern Art, a place which, rather condescendingly, I thought might offend the old man, who instead seemed thoroughly exhilarated--the clean bright orthogonal Mondrians bringing special delight to his technician's eye. We ate at Horn and Hardart's amazing automat, at Nedick's and Stouffer's and--in a fling at what in those days I deemed haute cuisine--at a midtown Longchamps. We went to one or two bars (including, accidentally, a gay joint on Forty-second Street, where I watched my father's face, as it confronted the smirking apparitions, turn gray like oatmeal, then become actually disfigured with unbelief), but each night retired early, after more talk about that farm nestled amid the Tidewater peanut fields. My father snored. Oh God, how he snored! The first night I was somehow able to drowse off once or twice through those mighty snorts and gulps. But now I recollect how these prodigious snores (product of a deviated septum, they had been his lifelong bane, and their cannonade through open windows on summer evenings had been known to arouse neighbors) became during the last night part of the very fabric of my insomnia and formed a turbulent counterpoint to the hectic drift of my thought: to a fleeting but bitter seizure of guilt, to a spasm of erotic mania that swooped down on me like some all-devouring succubus, and finally to a wrenching, sweet, nearly intolerable memory of the South which kept me awake through the whitening hours of dawn. Guilt. Lying there, I realized that as a boy my father had never punished me severely except once--and then only because of a crime for which I sublimely deserved reprisal. It had to do with my mother. In the year before she died, when I was twelve, the cancer which had been devouring my mother began to filter into her bones. One day her weakened leg gave way; she fell and broke the lower bone, the tibia, which never mended. Thereafter she had to wear a brace and walked haltingly with a cane. She disliked lying in bed and preferred to sit when she could. Whenever she sat it was with her leg outstretched in its brace, propped on a stool or an ottoman. She was then only fifty, and I was aware that she knew she was going to die; I sometimes saw the fear. My mother read books incessantly--books were her narcotic until that time when the intolerable pain began and real narcotics replaced Pearl Buck--and my strongest memory of her during that last period of her life is of the gray head above the gentle, bespectacled, wasting face bent over You Can't Go Home Again (she had been a devoted fan long before I had read a word of Wolfe, but she also read best sellers with ornate titles--Dust Be My Destiny, The Sun Is My Undoing), a portrait of absorbed and placid contemplation and as domestically commonplace in her way as a study by Vermeer, save for the wicked metal brace propped on its footstool. I also remember a certain venerable frayed and patterned afghan which in cold weather she used to cover her lap and the imprisoned leg. Truly low temperatures almost never beset that part of the Virginia Tidewater but it could become briefly, achingly cold in the nasty months, and because it came rarely, the cold always surprised. In our tiny house we had a weak coal-burning furnace in the kitchen, supplemented in the living room by a toy fireplace. It was on a sofa in front of this fireplace that my mother lay reading on winter afternoons. As an only child, I was classically though not immoderately spoiled; one of the few chores demanded of me, on afternoons after school during the winter months, was that I hurry home and see to it that the fireplace was well fueled, since although my mother was not yet totally incapacitated, it was far beyond her strength to throw wood on a fire. There was a telephone, but in an adjoining room, down steps she could not negotiate. Already it must be easy to guess the nature of the outrage I committed: one afternoon I abandoned her. I was lured away by the promise of a ride with a schoolmate and his grown-up brother in a new Packard Clipper, one of the swank cars of the day. I was mad for that car. I was drunk with its vulgar elegance. We streaked with idiot vainglory through the frosty countryside, and as the afternoon faded and evening fell, so did the mercury; at about five o'clock the Clipper halted somewhere far from home out in the pinewoods and I became aware of the sudden descent of windy, vicious cold. And for the first time I thought of the hearth, and my deserted mother, and became sick with alarm. Jesus Christ, guilt... Ten years later, lying in bed on the fifth floor of the McAlpin and listening to my father snore, I reflected with a stab of anguish upon my guilt (ineffaceable to that very moment), but it was anguish mingled with a queer tender gratitude for the grace with which the old man had confronted and dealt with my dereliction. Ultimately (and I don't think I have alluded to this) he was a Christian, of the charitable variety. That gray late afternoon--I remember the pinpricks of snow which began to dance in the wind as the Packard rushed homeward--my father returned from work and was at my mother's side half an hour before I got there. When I arrived he was muttering to himself and massaging her hands. The stucco walls of the modest little house had let winter enter like a foul marauder. The fire had hours before died out and he found her shivering helplessly beneath her afghan, her lips bitter and livid, her face chalky-dry with cold but also fright. The room bloomed with smoke from a smoldering log she had tried futilely to shove onto the fire with her cane. God knows what Eskimo ice-floe visions had engulfed her when she sank back amid her best sellers, all those bloated books of the month with which she had tried to barricade herself against death, propped her leg up on the stool with the onerous two-handed hitching motion I remembered, and felt the rods of the metal brace slowly grow as chill as stalactites against that wretched, useless, carcinoma-riddled limb. When I burst through the doorway, I recollect, one impression captured my soul so completely as to seem to envelop the room: her eyes. Those hazel bespectacled eyes and the way that her ravaged, still terrified gaze caught my own, then darted swiftly away. It was the swiftness of that turning away which would thereafter define my guilt; it was as swift as a machete dismembering a hand. And I realized with horror how much I resented her burdensome affliction. She wept then, and I wept, but separately, and we listened to each other's weeping as if across a wide and desolate lake. I am certain that my father--so ordinarily mild and forbearing--said something harsh, scathing. But it was not his words that I ever remembered, only the cold--the blood-congealing cold and darkness of the woodshed where he marched me and where he made me stay until long after darkness fell over the village and frigid moonlight seeped in through the cracks of my cell. How long I shivered and wept there I cannot recall. I was only aware that I was suffering exactly in the same way that my mother had and that my deserts could scarcely be more fitting; no malefactor ever endured his punishment with less rancor. I suppose I was incarcerated for no more than two hours, but I would willingly have stayed there until dawn or, indeed, until I had frozen to death--so long as I was able to expiate my crime. Could it have been that my father's sense of justice had instinctively responded to this need in me for such a fitting atonement? Whatever--and in his calm unflustered way he had done his best--my crime was ultimately beyond expiation, for in my mind it would inescapably and always be entangled in the sordid animal fact of my mother's death. She died a disgusting death, in a transport of pain. Amid the heat of July, seven months later, she faded away in a stupor of morphine, while all the night before, I pondered over and over those feeble embers in the cold smoky room and speculated with dread on the notion that my abandonment that day had sent her into the long decline from which she never recovered. Guilt. Hateful guilt. Guilt, corrosive as brine. Like typhoid, one can harbor for a lifetime the toxin of guilt. Even as I writhed on the McAlpin's damp and lumpy mattress, grief drove like a spear of ice through my chest when I recaptured the fright in my mother's eyes, wondered once again if that ordeal had not somehow hastened her dying, wondered if she ever forgave me. Fuck it, I thought. Prompted by a commotion next door, I began to think of sex. The wind rushing through my father's deviated septum had become a wild jungle rhapsody--monkey cries, parrot yawps, pachydermous trumpetings. Through the interstices, so to speak, of this tapestry of noise I heard two people in the next room making whoopee--the old man's archaic term for fornication. Soft sighs, the noise of a thumping bed, a cry of slippery unclothed pleasure. My God, I thought, thrashing about, would I forever be a mere solitary listener of lovemaking--never, never a partaker? Racked with misery, I recalled how my first knowledge of Sophie and Nathan had come like this: Stingo, the hapless eavesdropper. As if he had become an accomplice to the suffering provided me by the couple beyond the wall, my father rolled over with a sudden grunt and fell momentarily quiet, allowing my ears access to each nuance of that bliss. It was sculpted sound, incredibly close, almost tactile--oh, honeyhoneyhoney, the woman breathed--and a rhythmic liquid slurping (which my imagination amplified like a loudspeaker) drove me to glue one ear against the wall. I marveled at the grave colloquy: he asked if he was big enough, then if she had "climaxed." She said she didn't know. Worries, worries. Then there was a sudden silence (a shift, I imagined, of formation) and the peeping prism of my mind tried out Evelyn Keyes and Robert Stack in a breathless soixante-neuf, though I soon gave up the fantasy as logic forced me to repopulate my mise en scène with characters far more likely to be clients of the McAlpin--two horny dance instructors, Mr. and Mrs. Universe, a pair of insatiable honeymooners from Chattanooga, and the like; the pornographic pageant which I let unfold in my mind became alternately a cauldron and an immolation. (Impossible for me to imagine then--nor would I have believed it had the millennium been foretold to me--that in a matter of scant decades the steamy cinema bazaars on the avenue below would allow me, for five dollars, freely and without anxiety to view sex like the conquistadores beheld the New World: glistening coral-pink vulvas as lofty as the portals of the Carlsbad Caverns; pubic hair like luxuriant groves of Spanish moss; ejaculating priapic engines the size of sequoias; jumbo-sized dreamyfaced wet-lipped young Pocahontases in all conceivable and meticulously detailed attitudes of suck and fuck.) I dreamed of darling dirty-mouthed Leslie Lapidus. The humiliation of my barren time with her had forced me these last weeks to blot out her memory. But now, conjuring her up in the "female superior" perch recommended by those two famous family love consultants (Drs. Van de Velde and Marie Stopes) I had clandestinely studied at home a few years before, I let Leslie romp astride me until I was smothered by her breasts, half drowned in the dark torrent of her hair. Her words in my ear--words importunate, unfake now--were exaltingly obscene and satisfying. Ever since puberty my sessions of autoerotism, although fairly inventive, had in general been conducted with the firm hand of Protestant moderation; this night, though, my longing was like a stampede and I was virtually trampled beneath it. Oh Lord, how my balls hurt as I synthesized stormy lovemaking not only with Leslie but with two other enchantresses who had claimed my passion. These were, of course, Maria Hunt and Sophie. Thinking of all three, I realized that one was a Southern WASP, one a Sarah Lawrence Jewess, and the last a Polack--a gathering distinguished not only by its diversity but for the sense that all three were dead. No, not truly dead (only one, luscious Maria Hunt, had gone to her Maker), but in effect extinguished, defunct, kaput, so far as each of them concerned my life. Could it be, I wondered in my nutty fantasia, that this craving was so intolerably inflamed by the knowledge that all three of these lost china dolls had slipped through my fingers out of some tragic failing or deficiency of my own? Or that indeed their very final inaccessibility--the realization that they were all gone forever--was an actual cause of this inferno of lust? My wrist ached. I was stunned by my own promiscuity, and its recklessness. I envisioned a quick switch of partners. So somehow Leslie was transformed into Maria Hunt, with whom I lay tangled on a sandy beach of the Chesapeake Bay at high noon in summertime; in my fancy her frantic eyes rolled up beneath the lids and she chewed through the lobe of my ear. Imagine, I thought, imagine--I was possessing the heroine of my own novel! I was able to extend the ecstasy a long time with Maria; we were still going at it like minks when my father with a primitive strangled sound

BOOK: Sophie's Choice
13.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Bravo Homecoming by Christine Rimmer
Torture (Siren Book 2) by Katie de Long
The Crooked God Machine by Autumn Christian
Newbie by Jo Noelle
Redemption by Sharon Cullen
Material Girl 2 by Keisha Ervin
The More the Merrier by Stephanie Barden
Switched by O'Connell, Anne