Delicate Wives John Updike
نسخه قابل چاپشناسه : OL0532تاريخ ارسال : جمعه 01 اردیبهشت 1385
Veronica Horst was stung by a bee, and it should have produced no more than a minute of annoyance and pain, but she, in the apparent bloom of health at the age of twenty-nine, turned out to be susceptible to anaphylactic shock, and nearly died. Fortunately, her husband, Gregor, was with her, and threw her fainting body, all but blood-pressureless, into their car and speeded careening through the heart of town to the hospital, where she was saved. When Les Miller heard about the event, from his wife, Lisa, who was breathlessly fresh from a session of gossip and women’s tennis, he was stung by jealousy: he and Veronica had had an affair the previous summer, and by the rights of love he should have been the one to be with her and to save her heroically. Gregor even had the presence of mind, afterward, to go around to the local police and explain why he had been speeding and careening through stop signs. “It seems incredible,” Lisa innocently told her husband, “that here she’s nearly thirty and apparently has never been stung before, so nobody knew she would react this way. As a child I was always getting stung, weren’t you?”
“I think Veronica had a city upbringing,” he said.
“Still,” Lisa said, hesitant in the face of his ready assertion, “that’s no guarantee. There are parks.”
Les, picturing Veronica in her house, in her bed, where an elongated pink-tinged pallor had been revealed to him, like a Modigliani or a Fragonard, nestled in rumpled fabric, said, “She’s a pretty indoor kind of person.”
Lisa was not. Tennis, golf, hiking, and skiing kept her freckled the year round. Even her delft-blue irises were dotted, if you looked, with tan specks of melanin. She insisted, “Well, she nearly died,” as if Les had been wandering from the point. His mind had been exploring the abysmal possibility of Veronica’s beauty and high spirits being removed from the world by a chemical mischance. In her moment of need, had her care passed to her lover the previous summer, he might have proved less effective than Gregor, who was small and dark and spoke English if not with an accent with a studied precision, as if locking the sense of his words into an iron case. She found him repellent, Veronica had confessed—his fussiness, his dictatorial streak, the cold assertiveness in his touch—but Les, by breaking off their affair at the end of the summer, had possibly saved her life. In Gregor’s shoes he might have panicked, doubted what was happening, and fatally failed to act. As it was, he saw gallingly, the incident would be rolled into the Horst family annals, as a pivotal and eternally ramifying moment—the time Mommy (and, as she would become, Grammy) was stung by a bee, and funny foreign-born Grampa resourcefully saved her. Les was so jealous that he nearly bent over as if with a stomach cramp. Had he, sweet dreamy Les, been there, instead of scowling, practical-minded Gregor, her emergency would have acquired and forever retained a different poetry, more flattering to her, more congruent with a doomed summer love. For what was more majestically intimate even than sex but death? He imagined her motionless profile, gray with blood loss, cradled in his arms.
Veronica had a favorite summer dress, with a wide oval neck and half-length sleeves, of orange, orange distributed with a tie-dyed unevenness. It was not a color most women would wear, but it brought out the reckless gleam in her long straight hair and the green of her eyes. Remembering their affair, Les seemed to squint through a wash of this color, though it was no longer summer but September when they parted, the grass in the fields going to seed and the air noisy with cicadas. Veronica’s eyes watered, her lower lip trembled as she listened. He explained that he just couldn’t face leaving Lisa and the kids, who were still almost babies, and unless he could they should break it off while it was still secret, before things got messy, and all their lives lay scattered and ruined. Through her tears Veronica appraised him and determined that indeed he did not love her enough to rescue her from Gregor. He was not free enough, was how he preferred to phrase it. They wept together—his tears made a gleam on the skin of her shoulder within the wide oval of her neckline—and agreed that no one but them would ever know.
And yet, through the fall and winter and into the next summer, he felt cheated by this secrecy; their affair had been something wonderful he wanted known. He tried to rekindle her attention. She ignored his longing looks, and rebuked his confused attempts to single her out in a crowd. Her green eyes glared, under the frown of her long reddish eyebrows. “Les dear,” she said to him once when he cornered her late at a party, “did you ever hear the expression ‘Shit or get off the pot’?”
“Well, I have now,” he said, shocked and offended. Lisa would never have said such a thing, any more than she would have worn splashy tie-dyed orange.
His concealed affair with Veronica burned within him like an untreated infection, and as the years went by it seemed that Veronica, too, suffered from it; she seemed never to have quite recovered from the bee sting. Weight loss, making her look gaunt and stringy, alternated with periods of puffiness and overweight. There were trips to the local hospital, about which Gregor was adamantly mysterious, and spells when Veronica was hidden within her house, suffering from complaints that her husband, showing up at parties by himself, refused to name. Les, in his inert, romantic way, imagined her, having in a fit of treacherous weakness confessed their affair to Gregor, being held captive by him. Or else regret over losing Les was gnawing at her delicate constitution. Her beauty did not greatly suffer from her frailty, but gained a new dimension from it, a ghostly glow, a poignance. After years of sunbathing—all women did it back then—Veronica developed photosensitivity, and stayed pale all summer. Her teeth, as her thirties wore on, gave her trouble, and the orthodontics and periodontics specialists she regularly consulted had their offices in the nearby middle-sized city, in a tall building across from the one in which Les worked as an investment counsellor.
Once, he glimpsed her from his window as she reported, preoccupied and solemn in a dark, wide-skirted cloth coat, for treatment across the street. After that, he kept looking out his window for her, mourning the decade they had let slip by while married to other people. Lisa’s outdoor bounce and freckled good nature had become somewhat butch; her hair, like her mother’s, turned gray early. Gregor was rumored to be discontented and having affairs. Les imagined these betrayals as wounds Veronica was enduring, within the silent prison of her marriage. He still saw her at parties, but across the room, and, when he did maneuver close to her, she had little to say. During their affair they had shared, along with sex, concerns about their children, and memories of their parents and upbringings. This sort of innocent exposure of another, eagerly apprehended life figures among the things lovers lose, a flow of blameless confidences that, halted, builds up a pressure.
So when he spotted Veronica leaving the dentists’ building, unmistakably her although he was ten stories high and she was bundled against the winter winds, he left his office without bothering with a topcoat and ambushed her on the sidewalk a half block away.
“Lester! What on earth?” She put her mittened hands on her hips to mime exasperation. Christmas decorations were still in some shop windows, gathering dust, and tinsel rain from trashed evergreens glittered in the gutters.
“Let’s have lunch,” he begged. “Or is your mouth too full of Novocain?”
“He didn’t use Novocain today,” she primly told him. “It was just the fitting of a crown, with temporary cement.”
The detail thrilled him. In the warmth of a booth in his favorite weekday lunch place, he marvelled at her presence across the table. She had reluctantly removed her dark wool overcoat, revealing a red cardigan and a necklace of pink costume pearls. “So how have you been these many years?” he asked.
“Why are we doing this?” she asked. “Don’t the people in here all know you?”
They had arrived early, but the place was filling up, with noise and little sharp drafts as the door opened and closed. “They do and they don’t,” he said, “but what the hell, what’s to be afraid of? You could be a client. You could be an old friend. Which you are. How’s your health?”
“Fine,” she said, which he knew to be a lie.
But he went on, “And your children? I miss hearing about them—there was the rough-and-tumble one, and the sensitive shy one, who you couldn’t stand some days.”
“That was ages ago,” Veronica said. “I can stand Janet now. She and her brother are both at boarding school.”
“Remember how we used to have to work around them? Remember the time you sent Harry off to school even though he had a fever, because you and I had a date set up?”
“I’d forgotten that. I’d prefer not to be reminded; it makes me ashamed now. We were foolish and heedless, and you were right to break it off. It’s taken a while for me to understand that, but I do.”
“Well, I don’t. I was crazy to give you up. I exaggerated my own importance. Kids—mine are teen-agers now, too, and away at school. I look at them and wonder if they ever gave a damn.”
“Of course they did, Lester.” She cast her eyes down, toward the cup of hot tea she had ordered, though he had pressed her to have, like him, a real drink. “You were right: don’t make me say it again.”
“Yeah, but, right now, it feels desperately wrong.”
“If you flirt with me, I’ll have to leave.” This threat provoked a long chain of thought in Veronica that led to her saying solemnly, “Gregor and I are getting a divorce.”
“Oh, no!” Les felt as if the air had thickened, pressing like pillows in his face. “Why?”
She shrugged, and grew very still over her cup of tea, like a card player guarding her hand. “He says I can’t keep up with him anymore.”
“Really? What a selfish, narcissistic creep! Remember how you used to complain about his icy touch?”
She repeated the almost imperceptible shrug. “He’s a typical man. More honest than most.”
Was this a dig at him? Les wondered. In their game of reopened possibilities, he didn’t want to overplay his own hand. Rather than say nothing, he said, “With winter here, you don’t seem as pale as in summer. How are you doing with sunlight?”
“Since you ask, it makes me ache. I have lupus, they tell me. A mild form, whatever that means.” Her grimace he took to be sarcastic.
“Well,” Les said, “that’s nice it’s mild. You still look great to me.” The waitress came back, and they hastily ordered, and passed the rest of the lunch uncomfortably, running out of the small talk, the innocent sharing, that for so long he had felt deprived of. The small talk had come, however, in bed, in the languid aftermath of erotic occasions. Veronica was less apt now, Les sensed, to be languid; she carried her wide-hipped, rangy body warily, as if it might detonate. There was something incandescent about her, like a filament forced full of current. Before the waitress could offer them dessert, she reached for her coat and told Les, “Now, don’t tell Lisa any of this. Some of it’s still secret.”
He protested, “I never tell her anything.”
But he did tell her, eventually, that perhaps the time had come for them to divorce. His reacquaintance with Veronica—the older, more fragile, and needy Veronica—filled him night and day with her image. In her pallor she had become the entryway to a kind of hospital radiance, a blur of healing, of old wounds repaired. Breaking off their affair had never sat right with him; now he would take care of her for the rest of her life. He saw himself bringing her broth in bed, driving her to tense appointments, becoming almost a doctor himself. The affair was not exactly resumed; their contacts were confined to her dental appointments, since risking anything more might imperil her legal status as a wronged wife. In these lunches and stray drinks she more and more came to resemble the mistress he remembered: carefree in manner, lively and light-voiced in her conversation, with an edge that somehow cut through to his real self, the heroic, debonair self his dull and dutiful life concealed.
“But why?” Lisa asked, of the divorce he vaguely threatened.
He could not confess Veronica’s revival in his life, for that would entail confession of the earlier liaison. “Oh,” he said, “I think we’ve pretty much done our work as a couple. I can’t keep up with you, frankly. All your sports. You’ve become self-sufficient, maybe you always were. Think about it. Please. I’m not saying we should start with the lawyers tomorrow.”
She was not fooled. Her blue eyes, their gold freckles magnified by small shells of tears, stared. “Does this have anything to do with Veronica and Gregor splitting up?”
“No, of course not, how could it? But they are showing how to do it—sensibly, with mutual respect and affection.”
“I don’t know about affection. People say it’s shocking of him to leave her, when she’s so sickly.”
“Is she sickly?” He had thought that the bee sting had opened only to his eyes the extent of her vulnerability, her lovely old-fashioned faintingness.
“Oh, I think so,” Lisa said, “though she puts up a good show. Veronica always did.”
“See, that’s it, show. That’s how you think. That’s what we’ve become, a show. All our married life, we’ve been a show.”
“I never felt that. I must say, Les, this is all news to me. I’ll need time.”
“Of course, dear.” There was no hurry; the Horsts were hitting snags, about money. The radiant portal would keep.
And Lisa, that good sport, did seem to adjust, day by day, as the house filled up with the dusty feeling of impending abandonment. The children, peeking in on vacations from school, smelled the difference and took refuge in skiing trips to Utah or rock-climbing expeditions to Vermont. Lisa, on the contrary, seemed to become less and less active; returning from work, Les would find her at home, listless, and when he asked about her day, she would reply, “I don’t know where the time went. I didn’t do anything, even housework. I have no energy.”
One drizzly weekend in early spring, instead of going off to her usual Sunday-morning foursome in the indoor tennis facility, she cancelled and called Les into their bedroom. He had been sleeping in the guest room. “Don’t worry, I’m not seducing you,” Lisa said, lowering her nightie to expose her breasts, and lying back on the bed with not desire but a kind of laughing fear in her face. “Feel here.”
Her pale fingers led his to the underside of her left breast. Instinctively, he pulled his hand back, and she blushed at this rejection and said, “Come on. I can’t ask a child to do it, or a friend. You’re all I’ve got. Tell me if you feel anything.”
Years of faithful exercise and wearing a jogging bra had kept her body tone firm. Her nipples, the color of watered wine, were erect with their unceremonious exposure to air. “Not just under the skin,” she coached him. “Down deeper. Inside.”
He didn’t know what he felt, in that dark knit of vein and gland. “A lump,” she prompted further. “I felt it in the shower ten days ago and kept hoping it was my imagination.”
“I . . . I don’t know. There’s a . . . an inconsistency, but it might be just a naturally dense place.”
She put her hand on his and pressed his fingertips deeper. “There. Feel it?”
“Sort of. Does it hurt?”
“I’m not sure it’s supposed to. Do the other in the same place. Is it different, or the same?”
He puzzled, shutting his eyes to envision the interior nub, to search out the dark invader. “Not the same, I think. I don’t know; I can’t tell, honey. You should get to a doctor.”
“I’m scared to,” Lisa confessed, and the blue of her eyes showed it, anxious and bright amid her fading freckles.
Les hung there, one hand still cupping her healthy right breast. It was soft, warm, and heavy. This was the bee sting, the intimacy he had coveted, legitimately his at last; he felt befouled by things of the body and wanted merely to turn away, but knew he could not.
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