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Robert Wexelblatt

Love Without His Wings

            It can be agreeable when friends come into money, so long as they don't scorn the less solvent. So it was with Jennifer and Jules.   She was not likely to get rich working with autistic kids, but Jules made a tidy pile by writing the score for an animated movie, an unexpected smash. Three puerile rainbow trout get lost in a river and have to make their way back to their home stream, assaulted by brutal fishermen, rapids, voracious pike on the one hand, abetted by witty frogs, salamanders, and turtles on the other.  At the premiere, Sandrine, who likes to wear her learning heavily, professed herself delighted and called it “un Anabasis enfantin.”  The six of us had gone as a claque and afterwards celebrated on sushi and Australian Shiraz.  It was fun embarrassing the man of the hour, shouting our bravos during the credits.  Everyone found something to praise about the movie, while assuring him nothing could equal his score.  “It leminds me of Craude Debussy,” Tomiko had charmingly said, “Ra Mer.” That was back in frigid February.  Now it was torrid July.  Jen and Jules had rented a house in the Berkshires for the month and invited the four of us for the weekend, but Tomiko had just decamped for Nippon. Oliver's heart was bruised, his pride pulverized. 
           “Fabulously humble, like a cassoulet,” I said. “Fetchingly quaint yet poignantly palatial,” said Oliver.  “Handsome as a cart horse, pretty as a milkmaid,” Sandrine chimed in. 
            We had dreamt up these little appreciations during the last ten minutes of the ride.  Oliver didn't want to play but Sandrine forced him.  He grumbled and called her Sardine, a thing she can't bear.  Though the traffic wasn't bad I wouldn't call it an easy trip.
            Jen and Jules were delighted with our little routine and proudly showed us over their house and acres, specifying their favorite details.  Jules was delighted with the shingled, converted barn which he used as a studio, also the semi-circular drive.  “Just like the ones on Masterpiece Theater,” said Oliver acidulously.  Alone in the back seat, he had begun the trip by merely sulking but over the last hundred miles or so had turned acerbic.  Sandrine and I had alerted Jen about Tomiko, of course.  She very properly ignored Oliver and drew our attention to a field grandly calling it “our meadow.”  She rattled off the birds she'd spotted in it.  There were big trees, including a huge copper beech, and small trees, spruces and alders, a row of dark hemlocks and somewhere a brook Jen swore was you could hear at night.
            “Any underage rainbow trout in it we can eat?” muttered Oliver.
            Jules invited us admire the flagstones sunk into the earth and the small, square windowpanes.  Sandrine said they reminded her of Hansel of Gretel.
            Oliver was a chef—well, a sous-chef—and his mood picked up when he saw the kitchen.  It was vast and neat, with one of those so-called islands in the middle of a sea of red tile.  “It's like a Zen garden,” said Sandrine. There were real oak cabinets, trendy granite counters, top-of-the-line pots and pans dangled from brass hooks. “These people,” Oliver sighed covetously.
            “They're at their place in Brittany for the month,” said Jules, who knew Oliver didn't mean him and his wife but the people with real bank accounts and impeccable taste.
            “Where else?” I said.
            We watched Oliver open the two doors of the elephantine refrigerator, tap the granite counters, run his hands over the half-dozen gas burners and peer under the overhanging hood.  “Ever use any of this?”
            Sandrine snapped at Oliver in her New Wave way.  “Manners, Oliver.  Please remember: one, it wasn't we who sent Tomiko running back to Japan; two, nobody here can rival your attention span when it comes to food.”
            “Personally, I think Jennifer's cooking is marvelous,” I observed gallantly.
            “Thanks, Benjamin,” Jen laughed, “but Jules does the cooking up here.  I just wash the dishes, scrub the floors, and haul the bottle to the dump.  It's our mountain division of labor.”
            “Jules cooks?” Oliver was aghast.  “No offense, Jules, but you hurl bits of dead cow on a grill and call it barbecue.”
            “That's right,” Jules chuckled.  “You gave me a lecture, didn't you?  Barbecue's slow like ragtime, grilling's fast, like Scarlatti. Well, I like Scarlatti.  Vacations are exhausting and we can use the extra time.  Jen's office emails her about forty times a day and I'm trying to finish this damned piece; I think it's going to be a quintet, or maybe an oratorio.”
           “Well, I'll be cooking tonight,” Oliver declared.
            “A busman's holiday?  Nope.  Won't hear of it.  Didn't you see in the fridge?  I've been marinating flank steak all day.  And there are Vidalias, too.  And beans vert.”
            “There you are.  I'm useless,” whined Oliver, comically deflating himself.  “Just keep heaping on the rejection, why don't you?  Look, I'm giving you all fair warning.  If you're not gentler with my pulverized ego, I might just sink into self-pity.”
            Oliver's life had been going splendidly, even enviably, until two days before.  He had his lovely Tomiko and a dream job as second-in-command of an unpronounceable three-star restaurant in Tribeca.  However, without Tomiko, the job proved inadequate.  I sympathized with him and was willing to overlook his sullenness on the drive up.  It was plain that Oliver was trying out attitudes, though all of them were annoying. Convincing him to come was my big idea.  He phoned to let Sandrine and me know that Tomiko had split and said he'd wanted out of the weekend. “I'll just be a fifth wheel,” he sniveled.  “Better I should stay here and work.” What really bothered him, of course, was being un-paired.  Missing Tomiko was bad, but that sort of sorrow is private. Oliver felt socially unmanned.  Social life is conducted two-by-two, like Noah's Ark. Sandrine said she didn't care if Oliver didn't want to come with us but that it might be good for him to do so; persuading him was my doing. “It's much easier to be alone in company,” I insisted.  I claimed it wouldn't be the same without him, that he already had the weekend off anyway, and that looking at nature is famously healing.  Wouldn't it be gratifying should a repentant Tomiko call and he wasn't there to answer?  “Let her get your voice mail.  Let her imagine you with a blonde,” I concluded.
            Tomiko left Oliver owing to an avaricious miscalculation on his part.  Seeking all, he lost what he had.  Tomiko, a woman both whimsical and methodical, never struck me as content with her life in New York. Her plan was to join a rock group but she found a job with a Korean plastic surgeon. It can't have been very edifying for her to see a parade of Asian women seeking to make themselves look less Asian, let alone those ripe beauties who came in for the “vaginal rejuvenation” procedure Tomiko clinically described for us one evening over Coronas.  But Oliver convinced himself he adored her and that he had to marry her. Before proposing, he suggested they take a trip to Japan so he could see where she came from and meet her family.  Then he would pop the question in Tomiko's favorite temple, he confided.  Oliver believed that because Tomiko was Japanese her parents' permission would be essential, maybe even her grandparents'.  Tomiko was willing to go, since he was paying.  Oliver was never able to make his intentions clear to Tomiko's parents so he procrastinated and the only consequence was that Tomiko came back homesick and changed.  She turned more and more Buddhist, took up calligraphy, started folding paper and arranging flowers.  She grew more serene and also more discontent and, in the end, she went home, leaving a elegantly written and carefully folded but curt note for Oliver.  She wrote that her new plan for her life was to move back in with her parents, find work in a bar, and volunteer her services to tend the garden of her favorite temple.
            Oliver had lost Tomiko but I still had Sandrine, or vice versa.  When I first asked her which half of her was French she replied tartly it was the had that had chosen the name Sandrine.  The early disintegration of her parents' intercontinental marriage meant a childhood divided between France and Great Neck. Sandrine and I had been together nearly a year.  We had met the previous September in the bicycle shop I manage.  She needed a new chain for her old Univega and wanted a new seat as well.  The intimacy of the seat selection process overwhelmed my imagination, already inflamed by her distinctive accent.  Like my friend Oliver, I was aroused by the exotic, or, in Sandrine's case, the demi-exotic.
            Sandrine was athletic.  We began riding together by the Hudson and through Central Park.  She enjoyed going fast and so do I.  Sandrine could be sweet at times, even vulnerable; however, she was not an empathetic person. Perhaps a certain hardness suited her profession; she pulled down an intimidating salary trading international debt for a multinational institution, which I sometimes called the First Un-National Bank.  I was never able to grasp how profits were made by trading debts and said that her banks directors and said the bank's directors should probably all be serving long stretches in a minimum-security prison.  This amused her.  “You're naïve but you haven't bored me yet,” she said then added that pointless, uninformed conspiracy theories protest reminded her of the bitching in the cafés of the Rive Gauche.  Sandrine was widely traveled and so well read that everything reminded her of something else, as the window panes had of the witch's gingerbread house.
            Unlike Oliver I entertained no daydreams of matrimony, let alone of enchanting Sandrine's parents whom intended to avoid as long as possible, though Sandrine had half-heartedly suggested we visit them. Sandrine concisely described her mother as “brittle.”  She was now married to a retired financier and lived a queenly life in Florida, which I object to as too flat and hot.  Her father had a duplex in Paris, among other addresses.  Paris I dismissed as too expensive and haughty.  “You have a point,” she allowed.  “Parisians are ludicrously vain.  Everybody checking their reflections in the plate-glass windows along the Boule Mich.”  In fact, Sandrine had little to do with either of her parents but was attached to her sister, Anna, a doctor with M.S.F.  “She's the good one,” Sandrine explained.  I had never met Anna, who was whom Sandrine called “an habitué of the Third World.”
            Sometimes in the night Sandrine cried on my chest.  I took pleasure in comforting her, though I was never could tell what provoked her tears.  “Benjamin,” she murmured on one occasion, “you aren't nearly so good as Anna but you'll do.”  Sandrine's endearments always had a provisional quality.
            Oliver she didn't like, or didn't think she did, or pretended she not to.  There were moments when I wondered if the antipathy that lay between them could be sexual tension, whether theirs was the sort of combat that only ends in bed.
            Oliver, Jules, and I had been three musketeers in college.  As freshmen, Jules and I shared a double; Oliver was in the single next door.  The strength of our bond was in direct proportion to the misery of that year.  There was a double suicide in our dormitory.  Even back then we all promised we'd live in New York, friends forever.  But now my friends were motoring along in their careers, while I was stalled.  As Oliver said, not unkindly, I still hadn't lost the air of an English major.  The bicycle shop was hardly a life's calling, like haute cuisine or composing music. Of course my ambition was to ascend Parnassus.  I wrote mediocre plays and, when I couldn't help myself, worse poetry which I didn't dare show to Sandrine.  I did give things to Jules, whose remarks tended toward the meaninglessly encouraging. He shared some of it with his girlfriend.  It was Jen who actually took an interest in my work; she actually asked to see more of it and gave more than a thumbs up or down.  It is a pleasure to have such a reader and I often found myself writing with Jen in mind.  Perhaps her sympathy for my work arose from the qualities that made her succeed with her inarticulate autistic kids.  What were they like?  They could move her but, like Aristotle's God, remain themselves unmoved.  Anyway, it made a connection between us and I was as pleased for myself as for Jules when he asked me to be his best man.
            Jules compartmentalized so flawlessly that Jules was almost two men.  When he wasn't writing music he was stolid and middle-aged, no-nonsense as the building where Sandrine traded other people's debts.  Wherever we went, he played the role of host, of daddy.  Whatever his anguish and insecurity, he kept it from us, though I imagined he shared his self-doubt with Jennifer who was, in a sense, a faithful muse to us both.
            After the flank steak, fresh corn, and green beans, we spread out beneath the cathedral ceiling of the refurbished living room; Sandrine brought out the three bottles of Sauterne she'd bought, and we set about emptying them.
            In a lull I said, “I think I can just hear your brook, Jen.”
            Oliver snickered.  He hadn't been behaving well, hanging over poor Jules' shoulder as he grilled, telling Jen he thought Asperger's Syndrome was just another way for parents to let themselves off the hook.  At dinner, he asked how my new play was going in a tone that was almost belittling.  Sandrine he left alone because she scared him.  Nevertheless, he didn't escape.  “The Japanese are a level-headed and hygienic people.  Stop wallowing, Oliver, or I'll tell you exactly why Tomiko was right.” 
            Jules put on some woodwind music by Milhaud, not too loud.  “Summer music,” he said.
            We listened for a while, full from dinner and a little spaced out on sweet wine. 
            Sandrine became impatient.  She has the European passion for music but, like an American, dislikes sitting still for it.  In general, she lacks repose.  Oliver slumped in a wing chair, hair falling over his forehead, hands hanging down.  Sandrine pointed at him as though he were an emblem.  In a voice  so soft it surprised even me, she said, “The very first thing Venus does is get Mars out of his armor.  That is, love can be terribly calculating.  Let me tell you about these people I used to know in Paris. Milhaud must have made me think of them.”
            Sandrine's narrative style has the velocity of Truffaut.  We all enjoyed her stories more for her manner than the matter.
            As was her custom, she began rather formally, as if doing a school exercise.  “Though the best of friends, Jacques Feverel and Fabien Boigné liked to compete with one another.  They always had, at sports when they were boys, and still did, even at their jobs, selling bonds.  Apropos of nothing Fabien would challenge Jacques to name the last five winners of the Tchaikovsky competition or Jacques would bet Fabien that he couldn't life a Deux Chevaux as high as he could.  One day they found themselves outside a skating rink.  Though neither could skate, it was irresistible.  They rented skates and bounded clumsily onto the crowded ice.  'I can spin,' bragged Jacques, failing to do so. 'Just look at this leap,' answered Fabien, and promptly sprawled on the ice.  A young woman fell on top of him.  As he had both caused and broken her fall the young woman didn't know whether to be indignant or grateful.  This confusion enchanted both men.  Jacques hastened to help her up but Fabien shot him a warning gesture, comme ça.” 
            Sandrine made an angry face and held up a minatory digit.
            “The pretty girl was named Jacqueline Molinier, the daughter of a customs inspector. She was studying Egyptology at the Sorbonne.  Fabien invited her to have a hot chocolate with him.  She agreed and made a helpless face at Jacques who was left alone on the ice.  Jacques was not well pleased.”
            Here Sandrine made an odd sort of moue at which we all laughed, even Oliver, whom she told me later she had meant to imitate.
            “Did Jacques fall in love with Jacqueline or did he merely resent that Fabien had done so?  Did he feel that he was destined to be with her because of their names?  Was he jealous out of habit?  Who can say?  Soon Fabien and Jacqueline moved in together.  They often met Jacques for dinner at a little bistro named Artemis, but always there lay between the friends that warning finger.
            “Jacques was watchful and patient.  He took note that Fabien also competed with Jacqueline.  It was Fabien's nature and, perhaps, Jacqueline's as well.  Who could name all the provinces of Canada?  Which of them could make a spoon stick to his or her forehead first?  Which of them kissed better?  On their wedding day, Jacques presented the happy couple with a puppy, one of those dachshunds with long hair.  They were delighted.  Jacqueline wanted to name the puppy Feverel, after Jacques, but Fabien objected.  'The dog must have a proper German name,' he insisted, and suggested Kleist.  'The writer?' Jacqueline asked.  'Yes,' said Fabien.  'He killed himself in a suicide pact with a woman he didn't know.  It's romantic.'  Jacqueline was not persuaded.  'It was a Kleist who led the panzers into France in 1940,' she said.  'No, certainly not Kleist.  It would unpatriotic.'  And so the puppy went unnamed for two whole weeks when they compromised on Schnitzl.  Jacques kept his distance, though he phoned from time to time when he was sure Fabien would be at work.  Meanwhile Schnitzl became a—what?  The puppy became a cause between the couple, only a small protuberance, to be sure, but one against which they rubbed every day.  That's how it is in marriages, isn't it, Jules?  Jen?  Which did the dog love more?  To whom would it waddle if both called?  Jacques increased the frequency of his phone calls to Jacqueline.  He listened with sympathy to her complaints whose number began to rise.  They met for a drink.  He gave her a small reproduction of the Rosetta stone. In the end she moved in with him and Fabien kept the dog.”
            “A cruel story,” Jules observed.
            “Yet true,” Sandrine maintained, “and absolutely French, like Satie.”
            Oliver got up, stretched and yawned.
            “You turning in already?” I asked.
            “ A good cook must be calm, equable, alert—in short, thoroughly rested.”
            “And pure of heart,” said Jules.
            “Pure of heart?”
            “Are you pure of heat, Oliver?” Sandrine asked.
            “Purer than your treacherous friend Jacques.”
            “Touché,” said Jules to put an end to the matter.
            “Don't go to bed yet,” Jen pleaded with Oliver.  “It'll make a hole.  We'll all feel guilty.”
            Oliver's eyes grew wide.  “You want me to spare your feelings?”
            It was not a happy moment for us friends. Oliver paced back and forth in front of us, stepping over our legs like a caged panther—unhappy and unfree. 
            To calm him down I suggested that he tell a story, as Sandrine had.
            “About love or dachshunds?”
            “Of course love,” Sandrine commanded. 
            Oliver, still on his feet, looked down on Sandrine, who took my hand almost in alarm.  “And should it be as cynical as yours?”
            “Ah,” she said, rallying, “but Jules says you're pure in heart.  Comparatively.”
            Jules replied but to nobody in particular.  “ Beethoven said only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
            “Then Galahad must have made a first-class bouillabaisse,” quipped my encyclopedic Sandrine.  “Remember Tennyson?”  But no one did.
            “Come on, Oliver, tell us a story,” urged Jen from the couch, cuddling up against Jules.
            Oliver sat back down, the picture of discontented resignation.  I thought how we couples must appear to him, each the other's shield and buckler, each with a flag planted in the world.
            “All right,” he said a little spitefully.  “My story's a little like yours, Sandrine.  Some dirty trigonometry.”
            “Congruent triangles?”
            “More or less.  I'll dedicate this story to that poor Fabien, my brother, who wound up with just his dog and his bonds.
            “There was once a little boy named Trevor whose parents divorced.  Like you, Sandrine, his time was divided between his mother and his father.  A year is an awfully long time for a boy Trevor's age.  He spent the endless school months with his mother and the two lazy months of summer with his father.  Now, Trevor's mother adored him and built her life around him; she pampered him though without entirely spoiling the boy.  Why wasn't Trevor spoiled with such a mother?  It was because he sensed that she was using him as a barricade against the world, that he was a kind of substitute for his and that his mother therefore resented him even as she lavished love on him. She spoke caustically about men and Trevor knew that someday he would be a man.  To have been spoiled Trevor would have had to trust completely in his mother's love, and he didn't. As he saw it, the absence of men from her life just put more weight on his narrow shoulders.  Trevor's father, on the other hand, quickly remarried. In fact, it was to marry his second wife that he got rid of Trevor's mom.  So far a rather tediously familiar story, isn't it?”
            Everybody agreed but nobody said so.
            “Okay.  The summer after the divorce Trevor's father rented a house on Martha's Vineyard.  He wasn't there very much and when he was he played golf, went out fishing with his cronies, talked business on the phone and generally consigned the boy to his new wife, a very pretty woman he had met at a yoga class, which she led.  The yoga instructor had been thinking of herself as a gold-digger and a homewrecker, but, to her surprise, now discovered a soft vein of maternal feeling in the anthracite of her soul.”
            This metaphor provoked an appreciative giggle from me.  Sandrine giggled too, but with a different intent.  She didn't know Oliver had been born near Reading, Pennsylvania.
            “As for Trevor, he tumbled head over heels for his stepmother.  They swam, made up games, told each other stories. Trevor, he tumbled head over heels for his stepmother.  They were inseparable.  When Trevor returned to his mother in August, she was exasperated by his reluctance to say much about his time on Martha's Vineyard and especially by his one-word replies to her many questions about her successor.  One day she overheard him telling his best friend Carson about his wonderful non-wicked stepmother.  His superlatives cut deep as razor blades.  The jealousy she'd managed to suppress by smothering her son now broke out.  Her husband's betrayal she could bear, she told herself, but not her son's.”
            “Poor woman.  she needed to meet someone,” said Jen.
            “No doubt, but she didn't.  All she wanted was to win Trevor back from her husband's new wife and to do it she ramped up her already stifling possessiveness.  This didn't have the desired effect.  It hurt that Trevor began to treat her with studied politeness, submitting to her overcooked caresses but not returning them.  When his father called, she could see how joy convulsed his body.
            “Well, Trevor's mom was not a forward  woman, but despair and fury made her audacious.  She dieted, exercised, had a make-over, bought a low-cut dress and new lingerie, even read a couple of books.  Then she procured one of those little video cameras people use to check on their nannies. She practiced by recording what Trevor got up to while he was alone in his room.  When she was thoroughly prepared, she sent Trevor to her parents for the weekend and called her ex, claiming she had to see him to discuss plans for Trevor's education.  She would be coming to the city anyway, she said, to see a show.
            “They met at her hotel, in the bar. The light was dim.  Seducing him was not difficult. After all, he was not a faithful husband.  She had already set the camera up in her room and turned it on as casually as she had Trevor's father, pleased to know the tape would automatically record the date and time.  Her husband's wife would want to know.
            “It was years before Trevor  discovered how his mother had deprived him of his beautiful stepmother, the heroine of a summer that still showed up in his dreams.  He gave it his best shot, but he was never able to forgive her.  Nor, for that matter, could Trevor's mother forgive him.  Only her possessiveness survived.  The End.”
            “Another unpleasant story,” said Jules, taking Jen's hand in his.
            “At least it isn't French, like Satie”
            “Or Japanese, like Tomiko,” said Sandrine.
            I extricated myself from Sandrine then the couch and stretched.  “That story reminds me of another, another one with a triangle in it.  Actually, it isn't even a story, just a sentence from a piece I heard on the radio about a year ago.  It's stayed with me.  It wasn't even the subject of the report.  You know how things get started.”
            “Heads up, everybody,” Jules announced as he went to shut off the CD player.  “This could wind up on Broadway.  Or in Hollywood.  You want maybe a soundtrack?”
            “It's nothing.  And I won't embellish either, not yet anyway, though it really does tickle the imagination.  Well, mine, at least.”
            Jen leaned forward and filled the glasses on the coffee table with the last of the wine.  “Go on, Ben.”
            I remained on my feet, leaning against the fireplace.  This wasn't going to take long.  “It's less a triangle than a see-saw. What interests me is the fulcrum.  A woman.  The news report was about a colonel from the Balkans.  He was on trial at the Hague for war crimes, one of these marathon cases.  The reporter mentioned that the colonel's wife, normally in the front row sending him good vibes, had been absent from the proceedings for two days.  The rumor was their teenage daughter had gotten into some sort of scrape in London.”
            “What sort of trouble?”
            “Drugs, shop-lifting, car theft, something bad, something wild.  An adolescent orgy, an abortion.  I don't know.”
            “So, what happened?”
            “That's all, really.  All I know.” 
            Dead silence, everyone thinking, “And he wants to be a playwright?”
            I took refuge by sitting down beside Sandrine.
            “Well,” she said a little drunkenly, “it's not much of a story, darling.  Not Madame Bovary, hardly even Cats.”  She gave my neck a therapeutic rub.  “But I do think I see what you mean about the colonel's wife.”
            “Torn?” suggested Jen, sipping.
            “Between two—what would you say, Ben—two rascals, two miscreants, two monsters?”
            “Rascals would mean comedy, miscreants a thriller, monsters melodrama.  All I see is this woman, conventional and decent and rather thoughtless. She's suddenly faced with this parade of her husband's enormities and then her daughter's self-destructiveness.  She loves them both so what does she do?  She shuttles between the rebellious, spoiled child they thought was safely stowed away at school in London and the hubby who turns out to be a mass murderer.  The daughter denounces her, says 'Just look at what he did.'  The husband hands her ideology, denials and detailed instructions, expecting to be obeyed.  She's disillusioned.”
            “Devastated, I'd think.”
            “You think she'd crumble?” asked Oliver.
            “I don't know.”
            “Let's see.  Nice recognition and reversal. A couple big confrontation scenes.  Quacks like tragedy to me,” said Jules with a grin.
            Jen put down her glass.  “I think, well, she's built her life on loving her husband or at least respecting him, and on her daughter—her only child, an angel of purity.  Would it matter that they're unworthy of her loving them.  Love can be stronger than reality.  I mean would it matter to her?  If Jules did something really awful—plagiarized, let's say—”
            “Now, now,” Jules protested.
            “I'm only saying.”
            Not to be left out, Sandrine observed that my story reminded her of something by Heinrich Böll, or perhaps it was Giraudoux.  She'd had too much wine to be sure.
            From deep in the couch, Jen piped up.  “I've got a story too. A ghost story.  Well, a poem, actually.  Anyway, another triangle.”
            “Aunt Abby?” Jules sounded exasperated.  The temperature in the room dropped.
            “Yes, Aunt Abby,” Jen said huffily.  She pushed against Jules' thigh as she got up.  “Nobody move.  I'll be right back.”
            Jules explained. “My wife's parents have this screwball friend named Abby.  She writes verse.  Apparently her husband went nuts and—”
            “Abby's published two books,” said Jen, back from the bedroom, clutching an envelope.
            “Chapbooks,” Jules scoffed.  “Anyway, a couple weeks ago Abby sent Jen this poem and a letter.  Jen thinks it's sublime.” Jules left little doubt that he was not of the same mind.  All this was painful.  I had never seen Jen and Jules like this, and I recalled what Sandrine had said about little bulges against which married people rub.
            Jen looked down on each of us then took her seat back on the couch. However, I noticed that, as she settled, she inched away from Jules.
            “Uncle Joe lost his job about a year ago.  He's an accountant and was laid off. He didn't take it well.  He and Abby are almost fifty, you understand, with two kids in college and a second mortgage. Joe didn't handle it well at all.  Who would?  That's the most tolerable explanation, anyway.  When my parents mentioned that Abby and Joe were in some trouble I phoned.  I've known Abby all my life. Obviously, Jules doesn't care for her, but she's been kind to me; she always encouraged me. I love her, so I called.”
            Jules sat up straighter, the mildest protest available to him, like Jen's inch.  This tiny drama of distance alarmed me.  Evidently Abby was what Sandrine called a “cause” between them.
            “Joe couldn't sleep or eat, then he began to have hallucinations.  Well, one hallucination, if that's what it was.  Here's the story.  When Joe was thirteen he had a crush on this girl in his class, Hillary.  And Hillary liked Joe back, as they say in junior high.  First love, you understand.  It would have run its course but Hillary was killed in a car crash.  Joe got over it in time.  He never even mentioned it to Abby. But now he claimed Hillary was paying him nightly visits, standing by the bed, begging.  She was still thirteen, he said, and as pretty as ever.  She said she wanted to be kissed because she'd never had the chance. And that wasn't all.  She wanted him.”
            “And did he kiss her?” inquired Sandrine.
            Jen didn't know how to answer, so she didn't.  “Abby kept her head. She talked Joe into seeing a shrink.  After a few sessions the doctor said the usual things.  But Hillary's visits didn't stop; they became more frequent.  She started showing up during the day as well as at night. In the bathroom, in the car, wherever Joe was alone.  It got so all he could talk about was Hillary.  Joe stopped sleeping with Abby.”
            “Preferred sleeping with Hillary, did he?”
            “Don't be idiotic, Oliver.”
            “All right.  So Abby had this idea.  She told Joe what they needed was to get away, that she was going to take him on a vacation.  Just for a weekend, nothing expensive.  But she didn't tell him where they were going.  Joe didn't want to go away.  He said it was okay with him but he couldn't bear leaving Hillary, that she'd miss him and that made him sad. Abby just packed the suitcases.  She got Joe into the car, shut up the house and drove to Joe's hometown in Pennsylvania.  She'd found out where Hillary was buried and drove straight to the cemetery.  Joe was agitated, Abby said, but she spoke to him calmly, and led him by the hand right up to the girl's tombstone.”
            “Ju-jitsu,” said Sandrine slyly.
            “You know.  You use your opponent's momentum.  Right, Jen?”
            “Maybe.  Anyway, Abby had written this poem and she read it out loud in front of the tombstone, read it to the girl but really to Joe.  It's called 'Grave Poem.’”  Jen opened the envelope and took out a piece of paper.  She read the poem to us very slowly, with feeling.  I doubted she'd ever read any of my own poems with such tenderness.


        My dear, you are a child still, young
        Forever by default, stalled above
        The pit of puberty; you exist among
        Rainbows, unicorns, and dreams of love
        While we grow dry and old.  And as we do
        The world turns complex, forgetful too.
        Its wisdom and our ignorance join hands,
        Press cheeks, and stagger through a clumsy dance
        To time's fast foxtrots and slow sarabandes.
        You were cut down; you can only long
        While we run through our drawn-out song.
        Our banal days, our undistinguished nights
        You shouldn't despise; they're all we have to
        Return to from our escapes, our flights
        Through the empty latitudes of dreams.
        With routine rhythms punctuating years
        Our tedious tune may weary your ears,
        But this anthem is sweeter than it seems.
        So leave us be.  Rest here where you belong
        And let us sing the last note of our song.


            “See what I mean?” said Jules.
            “It's sappy.  I'll bet she made the whole thing up. Pretty little Hillary.  I mean if anybody's going to see ghosts it's Abby, not the accountant.  She's way, way romantic.”
            “You set those Byron songs yet you don't approve of Romanticism?” asked Sandrine.  She said “Romantishism.”
            “Romanticism's wonderful.  Not a word against it.  But the freshest milk goes off after a few days.”
            “I believe every word,” said Oliver sarcastically.  “Your Aunt Ab
by's a genius, Jen.”
            “She's a humorless sentimentalist,” Jules insisted.
            “Nothing spoils romance like a woman with a sense of humor. Oscar Wilde,” mused Sandrine, who was not too drunk to be reminded of something.
            “Well, I think it's beautiful,” said Jen defiantly.  “What do you think, Ben?”
            What I thought was that I didn't want to get between Jennifer and Jules. 
            “It's like Yeats,” I said.  “Remember all that mystical stuff in A Vision?  Gyres and things?  His wife's automatic writing?  Just a source of metaphors, Yeats said.  The poem's the building; could be the ghost story's just the scaffolding.” 
            I hoped this was sufficiently evasive, but, just in case, I pointed out that Jules was obliged to finish off the evening with another story.
            Jules slipped  his arm behind Jen's head and broke into an ironic smile.  “You want yet another story about love, and from me, the most happily married person in the room?”
            Jules had not said man, which would have been light-hearted, but person, which was unsettling.
            “Happy marriages haven't inspired many love stories or good poems.”
            “Weddings are the happy endings of love stories,” said Oliver.
            “Sure,” said Jules.  “The happiest of endings, the best life can offer us, beyond mere consolation.  A lucky escape.  But, in the interest of suspense, I won't tell you how my story comes out.”
            “All happy families are happy in the same way,” mumbled Sandrine drowsily.
            “Okay.  The hero of my story 's a composer, young, ambitious, and almost as chock-full of fine feelings as Aunt Abby. At twenty-two he was fresh out of school, supporting himself as the assistant conductor of a second-tier orchestra and trying to compose in his spare time.  I say trying because composing's the easiest thing in the world.  Anyone can do it.  What's difficult is not composing when you want to.”
            Sandrine, one last time:  “A composer's a person for whom composing's more difficult than it is for other people.  Thomas Mann, sort of.”
            “Thanks, Sandrine.  Precisely.”
            Sandrine laid her head down,  “Don't mention it.”
            “The story begins as our composer falls in love with an oboist, a terrific oboist.  She had black hair, pale skin, wore glasses, and her face, like her conversation, was terribly serious.  Devoted to her art, she nevertheless carried on a series of affairs that were the talk of the orchestra.  Her lovers were chiefly, but not exclusively, other musicians.  Falling for this woman was, so to speak, commonplace.  These affairs, however, left her untouched, virginal, and this was important because a man, a young man at least, wants to be first rather than last.”
            Here Jen made a little noise and crossed her legs.
            “The beautiful oboist was unmoved by our hero's staring at her.  However, she was no less indifferent to other staring men, including those with whom she happened to be sleeping.  Her lovers often came to pick her up after rehearsals and the composer was a keenly interested observer.
            “His lovesickness got worse.  It demanded either satisfaction or sublimation.  He set to work on a concerto for oboe.  It went quickly at first, especially the first and last movements, but the middle movement, an adagio, was trying.  It was to be the work's center of gravity, a lyrical confession of love even this impregnable, bespectacled oboist couldn't disregard.”
            Here Jules surprised us by humming, or rather chanting, a lovely melody.
            “Nice, huh? Well, it was while he was still working on the adagio that he asked the oboist if he could have a word after rehearsal.  He told her that he was writing a concerto for her instrument.  Would she mind looking it over?  Perhaps, if she was willing, she could to play the solo part for him?  She consented and he handed her a copy of the first movement.
            “The oboist was delighted.  She made some technical suggestions for which the composer was sincerely grateful.  One evening, after hours, they played the allegro through in the concert hall, the composer taking the orchestral part on the piano, as if what he had written were a duet.  Which, of course, it was.  The latest boyfriend simply had to wait.
            “A week later, he gave her the finale, a rondo.  This she liked even more than the allegro; but still the composer held his fire.  He had come to feel that to speak of his love too soon would be fatal both to his hopes and the concerto. He was still working on the adagio which he considered his secret weapon.”
            Jules' story interested me but it was Jen I kept my eye on. Had she heard all this before?  Was she thinking that Jules had come to husband his feelings rather than his wife, that all of them went into his music, leaving nothing for her?  Her face was impassive, as serious as the oboist's.
            “At last our hero completed his adagio.  The fullness of time.  The moment of truth, the die cast, the Rubicon crossed.  Again, he asked the oboist to stay after rehearsal.  By now the other musicians smiled and smirked.  The oboist, however, was oblivious to the gossip about them and this did not please the composer.
            “He asked if she would consider giving the first performance of his concerto.  She said of course.  Then he asked if she would consent to have the work dedicated to her. She nodded.  Only then did he ask if she would go out with him.  'Why?' she asked.  He was confused.  'Because…because I'm in love with you,' he said.  'No, I won't go out with you,' she said promptly.  He was shocked but not into silence.  'If you don't go out with me, then I won't show you the second movement, even though it's all about you.'  This goes to show that the psychology of a man of twenty-two is no different from that of a boy of six.  The oboist was unmoved.  'I like your music,' she said, 'and I couldn't respect you more.  But I don't want to date you.  I'm sorry.  Keep your adagio, if you like.'
            “Well, that was it, wasn't it?  Nowhere to go from there.  He held on to the adagio.  What else could he do?  The concerto went on the shelf.  Soon after, the oboist took a job as first chair of a European orchestra.  Two years later, the composer in the flush of his first success, contracted what is called a happy marriage.  There, you see?  It's another triangle after all, and it has a happy ending.”
            “It doesn't feel all that happy,” said Oliver, yawning.
            Without a word, Jen got up and disappeared into the bedroom.  Jules stood too, wished us good night, and followed.
            Sandrine had fallen asleep.  She lay on her back, legs extended, one arm across her chest.  No noise came from the bedroom.  I tried to hear Jen's brook then got up carefully so as not to disturb Sandrine.  Oliver rose also.  Uncertain what to say, not wanting to look at each other, we gazed down at her.