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Adultery

Patricia Traxler

YES, PAULIE, I'm leaving you, he said bravely. It was the bravely that got me. How dare he show off that way? My pain.

Like most voluptuous pleasures, crying can ruin your looks and age you prematurely -- same with sunbathing, drinking, and most really good food -- which is why this time I did not cry when he told me it was over, after all these years. Four. Again.

The other three times I cried so much that I developed semi-permanent pouches under my eyes. The third time, when I ran home to cry on my mother's shoulder, she pointed out the pouches and said, No man is worth that. My mother is serious about such things -- she sells Lâncome cosmetics at Saks. She sent me home with some stuff in a tube to shrink the pouches, a gel mask with an extract of seaweed in it.

If it weren't for my mother, I wouldn't even know David Gold, so in a way this could all be laid at her feet. He was her eye doctor, the one who did the laser surgery for her glaucoma. She insisted I meet him before the surgery, just to see if he was okay. I thought he was nice, and my mother's advance work had convinced him that I was Georgia O'Keeffe. We had coffee later that afternoon, his idea, and he asked me about my work, said rather shyly that art was his first love, but medicine paid the bills. Said he was a sculptor. Mentioned that he was married, looked down as if in apology, then up, then down again. Why should I care? I thought. I do not look at married men. In fact, I stopped looking at him that moment. At least so far as he could tell. Especially those eyes. Not to mention his hands, which were strong and lean.

That was five years ago, when sculpture still came second to his practice. A few months after that I ran into him at a Longo exhibit, and then the following month he turned up at my first one-woman show, Profluence 10, a series of large acrylics which, except for the hotcha title, I still like today.

He happened to walk in at a moment when I was hostage to a critic from BayArt, a guy who was undertaking to explain my work to me in a rapid nasal monotone, something about how in the '70s my work would have been "outside the whole ballpark of art discourse," but that now its time had come. I could see David out the corner of my eye, standing in front of Profluences 9 and 10 for a long time. I wondered what he was thinking and I cringed, which is a natural reflex for me. Suddenly all I wanted was to talk to him, but for a lot of the evening he hung back while people swarmed around, and every time I tried not to look at him I found him watching me.

Finally, when the crowd began to thin, he walked over, handed me a glass of wine, and said hello. We moved to the empty end of the gallery where he stood opposite me, shook his head and smiled, You.

What, I said, feeling a little awkward.

Just you, he answered. It's so good, Paulie. The way the pieces gather intensity, one by one. What a shame buyers are breaking up the series.

That's easy for you to say, I told him, though secretly I felt a little sad about it. Still, I needed the money, and the five paintings that sold that night would mean $6,250 after the gallery took their fifty percent.

You're so talented, he said, I wish I could use color that way to make light.

I thought of all kinds of rejoinders like If I'm so talented, how come I still work eight to five in an office? but finally I just said, I'm awfully glad you like it. And I was.

After the opening, he drove me to see the warehouse work space he shared with a guy who made Segal-like sculptures of ordinary people doing irritating things. That side of the place felt cavernous and eerie in the semi-dark: filled with florid middle-aged men in leisure suits playing pocket pool, and dumpy women waiting for buses and scratching their bellies and thighs. As we walked across the pitted floor, David let me in on his big secret: he'd begun to apply the tools of his medical practice -- laser beams -- to his art. He showed me around his side of the place, and explained that he was making sculptures using light, shadow, time, and movement as materials. He walked me over an entire floor of jumping light to a small dark space where an eccentric laser rotated across shapes suspended from the ceiling, illuminating only the edges of things, keeping their essence in the dark. He kissed me there, just then, and once the revolving laser light illuminated his cheek through my eyelashes. We didn't kiss again, and we didn't mention the kiss. Later when I thought of it, it all seemed of a piece, the lumpy objects suspended above us, the blooming edges of things, the kiss, the darkness, the transient light. I wasn't entirely sure it had even happened as a part of what we two were together, or seemed to be, at that moment. Sometime after that he was invited to make a presentation at Ars Electronika in Linz, Austria to talk about his laser sculptures. He asked me out to dinner to celebrate. At Chez Panisse. He was thinking of quitting medicine altogether. Phyllis, he said, was not of a mind to celebrate this possible turn in his career, and had in fact gone off to the Golden Door for the week, to calm down. And probably to be rolfed and waxed, I thought. While I was dressing for our dinner date, I kept thinking Married man, Married man. But from time to time I said aloud What's wrong with having dinner with a friend? A friend you met through your mother, for God's sake.

Still, that whole day I knew what was going to happen.

We came back to my place after dinner and stood first in the kitchen and then in the bedroom, staring at each other. I guess people are always nervous when they're about to sleep together for the first time, but I was more than nervous, I was immobilized. Even looking back, I can't see why I should have been such a ninny -- I'm 35 years old now, was 31 then. And after all, I was married for six years, so I do know which way is up, though I haven't been with a great number of men in my life. Four. Counting David. He looked nervous, too.

After we'd been standing there a few years on the dhurrie rug at the foot of my bed he smiled a little, starting with the eyes, and said, Are you going to take that dress off or am I?

It was a new silk dress, size six though I often wear an eight, and I wasn't sure how to get it off gracefully because it had no actual zipper.

I said, It doesn't come off.

When he came into me -- this is after somehow we got the dress off -- I felt the shock of utter familiarity. He moved in me large and sure, so naturally, like a husband.

Of course, he was a husband.

But that was the farthest thing from my mind. I came so hard he thought he'd hurt me and he kept asking Are you Okay? What happened? and I couldn't stop spinning inside, spinning like a starfish, couldn't stop spinning long enough to explain that no he hadn't hurt me a bit, I was fine thank you, but just coming right now, no problem, I'll be through in a sec.

This was his first adultery. All weekend he watched me strangely, almost gravely, touching me again and again like some surprising toy and once, walking up Mission Street, we stopped to hug and just as our bodies pressed together in our huge coats in the San Francisco wind, I came again in a big shudder and felt my face go hot with embarrassment and desire and My God! he said, because by this time he recognized my coming as such, and I looked at him without a word, trying to keep my dignity.

I've never seen anything like it, he said, and I knew right then he'd never leave me.

Which he did, yesterday. For the fourth time. I'm not a bad habit, I told him, I'm a person. Make up your mind.

From the beginning, he was wracked with guilt, so I should have been more wary. Of course, guilt is a relative thing -- this was easier for me than for him, because I didn't have anyone in my life to lie to, so I didn't have cause to feel false in exactly the same way he did. And anyway, I never could remember that he was anyone else's. From the first time we made love, it seemed as if he were mine. It's not like I had any prior experience with married men, but once David and I had slept together he seemed irrevocably a part of me. (You certainly have taken to adultery like a duck to water, my mother commented early on, her voice a little like the late Selma Diamond's. The word startled me. Adultery. What could I say? I'd always thought of sex as a baptism of sorts, the confirmation of union. This wasn't something I was prepared to think about objectively.)

And though I can honestly say I didn't chase him, I can't pretend I ever resisted much either, when he came after me. And I did allow him to catch and keep me, once I started loving him. Once love happens, sex doesn't feel wrong in the least, even when it could be called adulterous by your mother. And others, if they knew about it.

What I've learned about sex is that as long as you're in love it feels like a sacrament. (I only hope my daughter's not turning into a tootsie, my mother said.) Soon after that and her adultery comment, I started asking David things. About his marriage. It's hard to talk about it, he said. Here I am, 44 years old . . . I've got two grown kids who think their parents have got the perfect marriage.

Have you? I asked.

Well, we don't argue much.

Do you talk?

Not a lot.

Do you love her? I asked, feeling that really it was none of my business, but still I needed to know.

History is a very powerful thing, he answered.

That night at home alone in my bed, I lay awake for a long time picturing him asleep with her, and I thought of all the men in novels who say, My wife doesn't understand me or I haven't loved her in years. A week or two after that, late one afternoon at a seafood place on the wharf, I asked him again. I'd been thinking about it a lot, and it was something I had to know. so. I asked. Do you love her?

We've been together since we were practically kids, Paulie. We raised two children together.

Suddenly I realized that his evasiveness on the subject hadn't been because he was trying to convince me that he didn't love his wife, the way married men in novels do when they talk to their lovers. It was the opposite. I didn't ask him again. It was too sad. I just ate my fish. We sat there picking flakes of white flesh from the fishbones on our plates, nibbling and looking out the windows onto the dark teal water. After a while, he just started talking again, out of the blue.

I feel responsible for her, he said -- I care about her. He looked at his plate, then up. I -- look, Paulie, I never knew about this. I didn't know a man and a woman could be friends like this and have passion too. Now I don't know if I, if I ever did. Love her. Now that I love you. But that's not her fault, is it?

No, I said. No, it's not.

We sat there for a long time, till the sky and the water went dark. I would like to cry about all this, but I keep hearing my mother telling me, You're 35 -- you've only got about five good years left -- keep crying and I'll give you two and a half. But crying is such a pleasure at times like this, a sensual swim, a relinquishment of caution. What a gyp.

I can think of three pleasures of the flesh that won't devastate you physically -- the three S's: sleeping, shitting, and sex. Not only will they not deplete your youthful vitality but in fact, two of the three -- lovemaking and slumber -- can actually make you younger and more beautiful. Of course, some people believe that moving the bowels keeps one's skin clear, but by and large it is the one of the three which does the least for your appearance, either during or after the act. For example, many men will tell you later how beautiful you looked while asleep or during sex, but no one claims that a woman's face takes on an ethereal cast while she is planted on a toilet, concentrating. Which is not to say one doesn't become more beautiful during that act, but I don't know anyone who invites her lover to witness it and we do not tend to watch ourselves in the mirror then either, so who knows what we look like at that moment? All we can say, really, is that it is a great pleasure which does not adversely affect one's looks.

One man who may know more on this subject than most is Chuck Berry. I read yesterday in the Chronicle that he is being sued for allegedly planting video cameras in the ladies' room at his restaurant so he could film women peeing and emptying their bowels, they all the while unaware that he would soon be finding his perverse gratification, as the suit calls it, watching their solitary moments. I happened to see the article just after the fateful phone call. I was trying not to hate David, and I guess I transferred all my anger to Chuck. For taking advantage of unsuspecting women.

It's not something I like to mention, but when David broke the news this time I was sitting on the toilet, having just experienced one of the three sensual pleasures that will not age you. To say the least I was dismayed by the timing, caught there astride porcelain while his words stumbled over the wire and ended with his halting explanation of how he'd feared he wouldn't stick to his resolve if he told me face to face.

In retrospect, I'm disgusted with myself for the fleeting relief I felt that he couldn't see me right then, on the can; that he would not carry that last image of me away into his future. Why should I care how he remembers me? And anyway, why deny him the full range of my beauty?

Since I couldn't cry, eat, or drink -- and since sleep and sex seemed beyond reach -- I did what any thinking person would do. I turned on the TV. To submerge my grief. It was a cold night, the bedroom clock was stuttering, and I thought maybe I heard my upstairs neighbor, Fidel, trying to break through my bedroom window. Fidel has been arrested six times for breaking and entering -- and burglarizing -- and then let go, pending trial. I've read it in the paper. They printed our address. So far he's been smart enough to break and enter in the good parts of the city where no one knows him.

I would like to move from this neighborhood -- maybe even out of the Mission entirely, like to that nice apartment my friend Sue is vacating on Chenery Street next month -- it's a calm, clean neighborhood, and I already know the couple in the other side of the house, but the rent is way higher there and anyway it costs a certain amount just to move. I'm a little short on money right now. I used the last of my savings to go to Italy with David last spring. He offered to pay, but I didn't want to be a tootsie.

Besides, I had a pretty fair amount saved up from works I'd sold. But of course I was between jobs and living on those savings by then, too, having just quit a job as secretary to three liver transplant specialists. I had to quit -- it had begun to seem as if organs were seeping into my art. Everything I painted was a deep puce, a wet-looking red or brain gray. An artist has to think of those things, even if it hurts the pocketbook. And I know it was right to quit, because since that time my work has taken a real turn and I've begun what I think may be the best stuff I've ever done: figurative oils, all showing the same woman in a series of red rooms, looking out a window.

I realize that it was a little reckless to spend my savings on travel when I was out of work, but it seemed as if everything was telling me to go. For one thing, he asked me. David had never invited me along on one of his trips before -- he was always too worried that he would feel guilty once we got there, and that would ruin it all. Also, since I was between jobs it was the first time in ages I was actually free to go away. And besides all that, I wanted to be with him, really wanted it.

Anyway, David invited me along, saying he needed me with him and would have to adjust to being in love sometime. He had to present a paper in Florence about how technology is changing art. Maybe someday I'll be invited to speak on the impact of organ transplants on art.

We found a room in the Pensione Rosalena, which had been converted from a 16th century convent. It was evening when we arrived, and the owner, Signora Calderoni, thought for a while before allowing that she could give us a room. She had no vacancies, she said at first, but then she seemed to sense our disappointment and said maybe she had one room, not fancy. We followed her wide hips through wide and narrow tiled halls and saw sculptures everywhere we walked, all clearly the work of one artist. Later we heard that she was the widow of a sculptor, and it was his work all over the place, nude studies of women in bronze and marble, all of them with sizeable asses and a smile somewhere between shy and sly. Signora Calderoni led us to a small cluttered bedroom, and wished us buona notte. She had a knowing look on her face as she turned to leave, and when she stopped at the door and looked back at us for a moment, I recognized that smile. Then she walked out, closing the door softly behind her.

We're here, David said then, and he looked so funny -- proud, in a way, as if he'd overcome a lot of fears and anxieties to get us there. And of course I knew he had.

It seemed, for the first time, as if we were a real couple, with a place of our own.

Of course, it wasn't our own -- even beyond being a rented room in a pension in Florence, Italy, it was no ordinary room for rent -- it was clear that our room must belong to the widow's son, because it was full of someone's clothes and personal things, and the walls were covered with Communist posters.

I carried my overnight bag into a tiny dark bathroom with an uneven tile floor and harsh, raspberry sherbet-colored toilet paper. The shower was a primitively rigged affair over wooden slats -- I wondered if hundreds of years ago the nuns had used a basin and a pitcher in this same little space. I stood beneath the puny stream of lukewarm water and let it drench my hair, run over my face, soak into all of me. I could hear it drumming the wood beneath me, and when I opened my eyes I watched the water disappear between the slats around my feet. It's me here, I thought. I dried myself hurriedly, suddenly eager, aware of David waiting in bed for me.

At first I felt shy making love there, thinking of the widow, of her revolutionary son, thinking of the nuns long ago saying their evening office in the lavender air, but then sudden purple lightning in the night sky through the window above our bed, his mouth so gentle and wet on me, the smell of the old quilt beneath us like the smell of my Grandma Irma's old trunk of mildewy dresses kept in the garage for dress-up all through my childhood, that cool cool smell of history, that breath of past and future, and all the while his tongue pushing in and the iron bed creaking sweetly, rain thrumming the windowglass, somewhere a woman's voice calling.

The next day while we waited for the travel agent to reconfirm our flight to Rome our names came up on the screen, and that's when I saw it: Phyllis Gold. Just beneath my name. His name, my name, her name. He'd apparently been unsure until the last just which of us he'd be taking along. I looked up at him in some confusion and then saw tears in his eyes and I'm sorry, he said, I just feel so false.

He started feeling terribly guilty then -- I think just seeing her name there on the screen had a powerful effect on him. The funny part is, I was actually glad to see he felt that way -- I'd even be worried, I guess, if he didn't. But still I felt sad, alone, left out all of a sudden. Even after we got to Rome the mood persisted in both of us. On at least one occasion James Joyce persuaded Nora Barnacle to defecate for his erotic diversion. And though I can't relate to that at all, anyone would have to allow that maybe Nora's face was transformed before her husband's eyes during the act, but it's too late now to ask him and I sincerely doubt that his heirs would know or say. Anyway, come to think of it, I believe that he was stationed at her rear the whole time watching, and she wore clean white bloomers, which according to his letters was the point. Pulled down around her thighs. So let's forget the face theory. Obviously we still have no witnesses, at least none who will come forward.

I will always wish I'd been in a bubble bath or on a mountain when we broke up, so at least I could have a beautiful mental picture of that moment to keep with me. In lieu of him, whom I cannot keep with me. Because he is a married man who loves me but who feels too guilty to tell his wife the truth after all those years. 21. As opposed to these years. Four.

I feel responsible for her, he told me. She was so young when I married her. So were you, I reminded him. I didn't mention the fact that she never did support his decision to quit medicine and pursue his art. I didn't mention that she spends the money from that laser art faster than the speed of light. The fact is, that's not the point. The point is, well, I don't know what the point is. But that's not it. I'm pretty sure of that.

The doubleness really gets me, he said, and yet I don't seem to have the courage to leave her. I'm afraid of hurting her, afraid of what my kids will think, afraid of going through all that pain.

Why did you pursue me then? I asked him, and then couldn't seem to stop asking him. Do you think I wanted to love you? Why did you make me love you? What's the deal with you? Why'd you come after me anyway?

I couldn't help it, Paulie, once we talked to each other for an hour. I already loved you by then. You can believe it or not. I couldn't help it. Now the worst thing is, I know I'll never be happy without you -- now that I know what it is to have you.

Then why be without me?

I can't take the falseness, he said, can't tell Phyllis the truth.

There seemed to be nothing left for me to say at that point. My mother has seen Phyllis in Saks having her face done at the Orlane counter several times. She's very beautiful, my mother says. My mother is a pain. What will I do without you to talk to? he asked me just before he hung up. As if this weren't all his own idea. That's what gets me sometimes, the way he creates his own drama and then revels in it as if it had been visited upon him. I didn't know how to reply to him so I just said someone was at my door. He offered to wait while I got it, but I knew that he was just wondering jealously if it was another man so I thanked him, signed off, and let him stew.

Last night, by coincidence, Chuck Berry was on the Tonight Show. Angry as I was with him for the alleged camera in the toilet, I had to admit it took a lot of courage for him to go before the American public so soon, singing and duckwalking like that, when all anyone could see at first had to be an image of him watching those poor seated women on film, a bottle of Taittinger chilling in a bucket beside him, a sweet leer on his face. He got a standing ovation. At about midnight, my mother called to say Hey Paulie, I just remembered the cutest thing -- when you were little you came to me one day in the kitchen and said Mama I know what adultery is -- it's when little kids try to act too grown up.

I'm sure she was just checking to see if I was okay.

She'd already called me earlier to see if I wanted to accompany her to bingo tonight. My mother drives all the way across town once a week for Ladies' Bingo Nite at the Mission Dolores. My Jewish mother. When I declined to go along, she said For God's sake, Paulie, you're still young, you've got your whole life ahead of you.

And? I said.

And so you should be having fun. Come to bingo with me, it's a ball.

I could picture it, and somehow I didn't think I'd feel all that young, my whole life ahead of me and all that, with a bunch of old Catholic women and one bossy old Jewish one, pressing numbers on bingo boards while ice skating music blared over the P.A.

Sorry, Ma, I have to wash my hair, I told her, knowing full well that my mother didn't just fall off the turnip truck.

If all those boys didn't believe that excuse when you were growing up, she said mildly, why should you expect your mother to believe it now?

I don't, I said. Funny thing about Chuck on Tonight: I was all prepared to hate him for the toilet thing, and then when Jay Leno asked him who he would cast as himself in a movie of his life, Chuck answered without pause or hesitation, Oh they'd have to go and dig up Burton, 'cause no one else could play me as good as Richard could. The Chuck Berry Story starring Richard Burton. The late Richard Burton. How could I hate him after that?

My father was a Welshman, like Burton was. He died eight years ago, but my mother never dates. She has a homosexual friend about her age at Saks -- James -- who takes her anywhere a man is required. James is a saint. The rest of the time she goes out with the other cosmetics ladies or just stays home. Except for bingo. I asked her once if she'd missed having a man in her life since Daddy died, and she rolled her eyes and said Your father was plenty for one life, thank you very much. It was hard to tell if that was her highest compliment or her worst insult. I didn't feel up to pursuing it at the time. Still don't. Chuck Berry is 63 years old, and he can still do the splits onstage while playing his guitar. And he is so good looking, has the most beautiful skin. It's hard to say exactly when youth is over. Maybe we should go ahead and ask Chuck about the faces. He may be the only man in America who knows. I woke up in a low mood this morning. Didn't even try to paint today, first day in years I can remember not painting. It's been an uphill struggle all these months anyway, trying to get out from under the weight of those organs. Now my heart is broken and I can't cry. Who needs this aggravation. I watched every single thing on CBS tonight. Starting with Dan Rather. He said woof. I couldn't believe that Dan Rather, an anchor on a national network news show, would say woof, but he did. It was his intro to a story about wolves in the timberland of the United States: We've been conditioned to regard the woof as our natural enemy, he said. At least four times he said woof. Timberwoof, he said. Little boy who cried woof. Wooves. It just goes to show, you can do anything at all with your life, can rise to any heights, if only you want something badly enough.

David called to say he is trying not to call me.

Mother was at Ladies' Bingo Nite, so I didn't hear from her.

After Dan Rather, I watched everything else on CBS until the Star Spangled Banner, in search of more inspiration. But nothing came up to Dan saying woof. That, I'd have to say, was the high point of my day. It was a ray of hope.

Maybe in a couple of days it would be okay to call David and let him know that I, too, am trying not to call. But no. I guess not. Because all that would be, really, is just me trying to find out what's going to happen to us.

I was thinking, if anyone is going to ask Chuck Berry about the faces, they'd better think to do it now, while he's alive. But maybe it would be wrong to know, to see those women's secret faces angelic, enlivened by the thrill of impending certainty that shivers up their sphincters, the clarity of that one moment of delivery. Even then. Especially then. After all, there are some things we may not be meant to know right now on the earth. Maybe it's better simply to wonder. 

Originally published in the June/September 1994 issue of Boston Review



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