With and Without You

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Published Date:31-07-2017
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W I T H A N D W I T H O U T Y O U a novel by Lowry Pei With and Without You by Lowry Pei Licensed under a Creative Commons license (attribution-noncommercial-no derivative works). Some rights reserved. This work may be freely copied, redistributed, and retransmitted, as long as you attribute its authorship to me. You may not use it for commercial purposes, nor alter, transform, or build upon it without my express written permission. You may view the full license via this link: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc- nd/3.0/ PART I W I L L When Susannah and I were lovers, the fact that she was married seemed irrelevant to me, except it limited our being together. I knew she could not love me any more than she did, husband or no husband, that he could not matter in the same way, that if she made love to David in the morning and me at noon it subtracted nothing from the truth of our love. She did do that, at least once; she told me so. But not to make me jealous, or threaten me in any way, simply as a curious, unexpected event in her life that she knew I would be interested in. Entertained by. We were complete, we were a world and though this world of ours was tightly bounded in time and space, nothing could make it less than whole. At the time when I met Susannah, I sold anesthesia equipment, blood gas machines and the like. I was at Children’s Hospital in Boston to replace a faulty gas chromatograph in a diagnostic lab, and I was passing through a waiting room and in a space off to the side of it, I saw this beautiful woman kneeling with four small children around her, one of them buckled into a contraption that was somewhere between a stroller and a wheelchair. Later I found out she was doing play therapy. I stood on the threshhold, uninvited, and watched her. She seemed to be as oblivious to her own beauty as the children were, but seeing her had cut the thread of my life and I could not move until its continuity was restored. After a minute she felt me looking at her and turned to look back at me; she didn’t seem offended or even surprised that I was standing there staring at her. It was as if we had an appointment. Finally she said, “Would you like to join us?” 1 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei W I L L On the day when I first kissed Susannah, we had known each other two months. We had lunch together in a different neighborhood, away from the hospitals (where David also worked), and we were walking up a side street toward my car. Abruptly I stopped walking and she stopped with me, as if we had gotten our cue from a prompter offstage. I put my hand up to her cheek as if I was brushing away something that threatened to get in her eye. I was like a teenage boy using a transparent pretense as an excuse to touch a girl, and she saw through that too and was beginning to laugh at me, but before I could complete the gesture or she could laugh we were kissing. The world fell away, there was no more pretense, only truth; when we could think again, we both knew what was going to happen between us. I was twenty-eight years old when we met. I liked my body then. I felt, I see now, secretly superior to men my present age. The natural arrogance of flat-bellied youth. Not that I am, I suppose, repellent now, but I can no longer imagine that I’m attractive either. I feel I am sexually just a blank space. I provoke no response. When I was that age, the desire I felt for a woman was a joy in itself, independent of its fulfillment, which I didn’t realize at the time because of what I took for granted: it was not unimaginable that she might desire me. And if she did, I knew I would be able to give her intense pleasure, sometimes more than she imagined I could – it sounds self-deceived, but I know what happened between Susa and me. No one can contradict that. I wasn’t heavy around the middle the way I am today, and I was lighter still because I was single, unencumbered except by myself. That, of course, was no small exception when the loneliness would set in. And yet even when I was the most lonely and horny there was some part of me thinking, This can’t go on forever. I masturbated often and hopefully, imagining a future lover. When I saw myself in the mirror, it did not seem impossible there would be one. My fantasies were nothing compared to Susa herself. I never wanted anyone as much as I wanted her. When she and I were lovers, if I thought about her as I walked down the street, I started to get hard. We still share having been those two people, and though I don’t know if I want to say it’s always enough, I imagine it’s more than many people have. Her body is different too now, of course; the suppleness is gone from her waist, replaced by a formidable kind of solidity. She was always strong physically, but now you can see that strength from twenty feet away. 2 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei W I L L The first time, she rang the buzzer of my apartment in the costume of a suburban wife, her hair in a purple ribbon, flat shoes, tennis shorts, wedding ring, pink cotton sweater over a lavender T-shirt, cloth handbag with leather trim, her invincibly innocent disguise. Most of those clothes and most of mine were on the floor before we left the living room. She never took her ring off. It was she who fucked me first, she who straddled me as I lay reaching up to caress her breasts and her sides, to bury my fingers in her heavy hair and fan it out around her head, she who did the irrevocable when she guided me into her, devouring me with her eyes as she took me in, savoring how she had me in her power. It was I who surrendered first and, it seems, forever. An “other woman” is known as a mistress, but the “other man” is no master. I was at her disposal and she knew it. Not that she never could be the one to surrender; there were afternoons where she would loll naked for hours to be stroked and tickled by me, photographed, fucked, cuddled, licked, adored, slept with, whatever I wanted. To caress herself and have me come on her. There was hardly even an “I” and a “she” at those times, our souls were so in tune. Once we had a naked weekend never leaving my apartment. I loved all aspects of her; I loved that her breasts were not identical, and that she had a crooked finger because it got slammed in a car door when she was twelve, and that she snored sometimes when we slept. The only thing I didn’t love about her was that she was married to someone else. But I didn’t hold it against her, either; I just wanted to sleep with her every night and make love to her every morning. It was inconvenient of her to be married, but if that was the price I had to pay, it was more than worth it. As for Susa, it was only a belief in being considerate when possible that made her hide our love from anyone. She really was innocent of it: not guilty, ever. She had no doubt that she was entitled to her loves, to her desires and their satisfaction, entitled to husband and lover both, and though I accepted that, she knew David never could. I had no idea, of course, how final this was, no idea I was choosing, or being chosen by, the rest of my life. Susa’s blue gaze was always candid, no matter what, and it was as clear and direct as ever when she told me she couldn’t see me anymore. I had never understood that she was entitled to do that also. She ended it because she got pregnant and she wasn’t sure whether it was by me or David. Not that she didn’t love me, but now that she was pregnant – well, didn’t I see? 3 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei W I L L “What if it’s mine?” I said, though I knew she didn’t want me to ask that, and the thought of having a child scared me at that moment. “He’d never have to know. Even if it were. It could just as well be his.” Or mine, I wanted to insist, the child of our love, we have to know, I have to, but the clarity and stillness of her already-made decision silenced me. There are turning points in life, but only a few. Maybe half a dozen moments when one can take action and it makes all the difference. I should have resisted, I should have been ungraceful, uncooperative; but I loved her, as she knew, and I did as she wished. I was the extra of her life, it seemed, the cherry on top, and she loved me but there is love and then there is the other thing. I came face to face with it right then, and apparently it had nothing to do with me. I didn’t know what loss was until Susa left me. After she closed the door behind her for the last time and, a few seconds later, I heard the outer door of the apartment building shut, the loss of her hurt so much it bent me double. Which is so odd to think about, since we’re together now and I expect we will be until one of us dies. I know now we could never have stayed those two people anyway. But the loss is permanent too, as irreversible as the affair itself. I married Connie a year after Susa told me we couldn’t be lovers anymore. The decision to marry her is one I don’t like to think about. It looks like a cliché, like “on the rebound,” but “on the rebound” would seem to mean I at least thought I was marrying Connie because I loved her, and I’m not sure that in my heart of hearts I thought that. Which is something beyond stupid, truly culpable, a heartlessness that I don’t want to know I’m capable of. Maybe I thought it would send a message to Susa: if she had the other thing, if it meant so much more to her than what we had, then so could I. I did send her an announcement when I got married. Perhaps I thought that would seal off our shared past, close it safely for good, but it didn’t work. I tried not to remember our time together, but trying not to think about someone is thinking about them. I sent her another announcement when Amy was born. She didn’t write back. I tried to interpret her silence and failed; finally I called her and we had an awkward conversation in which I was unable to say any of the things I had silently said to her many times, within myself. When Jocelyn was born, a couple of years after Amy, there seemed to be no point in contacting her again. 4 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T A M I start the car and as I drive away on automatic pilot, past the dubious used-car lot on the corner, past the tire store and the Star Market, memories besiege me. Everything Evan and I have ever done together rushes upon me, since the first time I spoke to him, six months after my father died. I shouldn’t dwell on the memories, but it’s impossible not to, now that I’ve seen his face again, and touched his hand, and kissed him whether I should have or not. I wish I knew the word to use to name this unnamable bond between us. And what will come of it. I wish I knew anything at all besides the fact that I will see him again, but I don’t. God knows I’ve always tried too hard to reach into the future and make it be what I want, and I’m going to have to stop. Especially if it’s all about karma anyway. Evan seems to really believe in that now, a secret orderliness below the messy surface of things. I don’t think it’s just an idea he’s playing with. I have to admit something in me believes in that, too, which could be a reason why we loved each other in the first place. I saw the invisible harmony for myself, just for one moment when I was an eight-year-old kid, and that seems to have been enough to make it stay with me forever. I was in the third grade, it was February and the teacher, Ms. Korder, was having us take turns reading aloud. Janie Kalishman, the worst reader in the class, was reading and while she puzzled over the words, the wait was driving me crazy. I had already finished the book and it didn’t have much to offer. The PA system crackled and came on, which was some relief, and the principal asked if some fourth-grader would please – It was like walking upstairs in the dark and miscounting and putting my foot on empty air. Everyone knew the next words were “come to the office” but just then the PA cut off. So did the lights, so did 5 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T A M the heat that always blew too hotly out of the vent under the chalkboard, and the air pump that supplied the aquarium filter. Ms. Korder walked over to the light switches and flipped them, frowning. “What now?” she said to herself, as if we were trouble enough all day and then this had to happen. Latisha Wallace, who had allergies, sneezed, but nobody said “God bless you.” The red second hand on the clock was not moving. Our door opened, and Mr. Castillo from the fifth-grade room across the hall leaned his head in, looking up at our lights and then at Ms. Korder. “Yours are out, too?” he said to her. She nodded. “What about...” she said, but she didn’t finish the sentence. She moved toward the door, but on the way she remembered us; she gave us her strict look and said “Stay in your seats, please.” She went into the hall with Mr. Castillo and because I was on the end of the first row, by the windows (we were arranged alphabetically and that was A), I could see the two of them, but no one else could. They stopped in the middle of the hall between our classroom and his. She took his hand and stood there holding it for a second; they spoke to each other quietly. She stopped being a teacher; she let herself float up, and kissed him on the mouth, so quick and astonishing I could have convinced myself it never happened. They looked both ways, up and down the hall, but only after the kiss. They said something else to each other, and then she turned back into a teacher on the way in the door. She looked at me and I thought she realized that I had seen what happened; I even thought that in that one glance we made a silent agreement that I wouldn’t tell. “That’s enough reading aloud,” she said to the class. “Keep your books out, please, and we’ll have quiet reading time now until lunchtime. I’ll tell you when to line up, if there’s not a bell. And you can go to your cubby and get a different book, if you want. Quietly.” “Can we sit on the cushions?” Charlotte MacDonald said in a whiny voice, as if she expected to be told No. “Yes, but remember, no talking.” I got up and went to my cubby and took out The Trumpet of the Swan, which was too hard a book for me at the time but I was a bit of a show-off. Instead of going back to my seat I rested the open book on the windowsill and stood there wondering if Ms. Korder would make me sit down. She didn’t pay any attention to me; I was sure she was busy thinking about what just happened in the hall. I know I was; seeing the two of them made me think of my father coming in the door of our apartment. My mom hadn’t gone back to work yet, because my little 6 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T A M brother Terry was only six months old, so she’d be at home when my dad got there. Sometimes when he came in they’d kiss, and when they did, she would float up the same way Ms. Korder did. But that was a domestic kiss. This was a kiss happening in the wild, and it was the first time I had ever seen that. Why would she kiss him in the hallway where anyone might see them, in the middle of a school day, with her class on one side of the hall and his on the other, probably waiting to erupt as soon as they were left alone? I thought I had the answer: they could hardly wait to kiss, and when the power went out, it unexpectedly gave them permission. After a couple of minutes my best friend at the time, Ann-Lee, came with her book and stood beside me looking out the window without even pretending to read. After a bit she tapped me on the back of the hand and then pointed at something outside. It was sunny and cold out, there was unbroken snow in shady spots, and in front of the school, where the ground showed through, there were dark patches of beaten-down grass. The sun was shining on the slates of roofs, reflecting off windowpanes, off the chrome on cars and the brass knocker on a red front door, the same as any other sunny day but I could see it better with the lights off in our classroom. Ann-Lee was pointing to a tree in a front yard across the street. At first I didn’t know what she meant, but she took my hand and silently aimed my finger and then I saw: the green bird was there. We hadn’t seen it in weeks. It was about the size of a starling, except with a longer tail, sitting on a branch as if it belonged there. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a decoration until it ruffled its feathers and settled down again. It looked like a parrot, only smaller, with a little curved red beak and a glittering eye. It was as green as summer and it belonged somewhere that was always summer, not sitting on a leafless branch in February, but by now, after seeing it half a dozen times, all Ann-Lee and I could think was that it must live in the neighborhood. Either it escaped from a cage or its owner let it out to fly around once in a while, but that didn’t seem likely. Was it happy to be free, or was it lonely and cold? A group of starlings flew up and lit in the tree where the green bird was perching, and it took off, flew up around the top of the house and came to rest on the peak of the roof. Maybe that was its home, I thought, and when it wanted to, it would go inside. I watched it sitting on that high roofpeak, looking around, and I felt I knew just how it was to be up there – how the top shingle on the roof felt under the green bird’s feet, and what the street looked like, or what I looked like staring straight into its bright bird eye. It took off again and took me with it as it flew higher and circled, so that I felt I was lifted into 7 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T A M the air without fear, and I looked down and saw the way to my house like a line drawn through the city, from the front door of the school down one street to the next and the next, joining that part of my life to this part. There were other lines – my mom’s way to work, to the hospital where Terry was born, to the other hospital where my dad’s office was, the way to Ann-Lee’s house, and from her house to school, and all the other kids’ lines leading to school, and all of their parents’ lines, and all of their friends’. I could tell that everything was perfectly planned, so that things, or people, always coincided exactly at the right moment for whatever was going to happen; but there was no planner. Later on that night, after I was in bed, I made the second part of the discovery. Something without a name made the lights go off, so Ms. Korder and Mr. Castillo could kiss in the hall, so Ann-Lee and I could see the green bird, so everything that happened at that moment could happen then, which included my seeing that that was how it worked. And the thing without a name didn’t go away when the lights came back on. That was the rest of what I learned: I could feel it was still in the room with me. It was as if a cat was lying asleep on the rug not making a sound, and it was night so I couldn’t see it, but nevertheless the room felt different because I knew the cat was there, alive with me. Before that night, there was no cat, and afterwards, for a while, there always was. 8 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei W I L L Some time after Susannah broke it off between us, I started selling X-ray equipment; then I moved into working mostly with MRI and CT scanners. The high end. I became more of a consultant than a sales rep, which meant I had gotten to the top of my profession, if one can dignify selling medical equipment with that name – unless I move into management, and I don’t want to do that. I met David, Susannah’s husband, in the course of my work, and he seemed to be a completely admirable man. I might even admit he deserved her. But so did I; at least, I deserved her as long as she felt I did. He was a doctor, an infectious disease guy to be exact, who was doing some kind of research on tuberculosis. I met him when I was setting up a CT scan suite at his hospital; but of course I did not tell him that this glorified salesman was his wife’s ex-lover and possibly his daughter’s father. I no longer wanted to admit that possibility even to myself; that further loss, if I let myself feel it all the way, would have been too great. I had a daughter of my own by then, I understood what that meant. Even if my particular gamete went into creating his child, she was his now and forever. If I was trying to even things out between me and Susa by getting married, it didn’t work; I ended up divorced and she did not. Afterwards, I saw my daughters, Amy and Jocelyn, far less than I would have liked, and Connie hated me a good deal more than she had ever loved me, unless I was unable to perceive the love at the time. That’s admittedly a possibility. Ostensibly she hated me because I had an affair with another woman (who in any case proved less magical than I wanted her to be); in fact, she hated me because she needed to. She would never admit this, but I understood how she worked. She cultivated a cold rage because without it, her post-divorce self, which 9 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei W I L L frankly was a rickety construction, might have lost its so-called self- esteem. She would actually have had to look in the mirror and ask herself if it was right to move our children to Chicago, so that they could only see me on certain rigorously negotiated holidays and during the summers. She’d have had to ask herself if it was right to make them go to a new school, lose all their friends, lose everything familiar, just so she could have her revenge on me. That would not have been a pleasant question to face, so instead she had to hate me because it justified everything she did. I understood that. I hated her too, of course. But at some point I decided to quit fighting her at every turn, because Amy and Jocelyn were the ones who mattered. Not us. If Connie and I couldn’t get what we wanted out of each other, that was really beside the point. Dealing with the intermittent flare-ups of border warfare was only one of the many aspects of our remaining job on this earth, which was to do the right thing by our children. We weren’t married anymore, but divorce is marriage on different terms: we were still forever their parents. Amy was ten and Jocelyn was seven when Connie took them to Chicago. Amy was a serious little girl with her mother’s light brown, flyaway hair. She would get excited about something, quietly, and then deliberately set out to study it – that’s the only word for it. I worried sometimes that maybe she felt she had to impress us that way, but it was also, unselfconsciously, what she really wanted to do. I remember her once, when I took them to the shore, spending half an hour with a certain green bug in some tall grass. Watching it crawl up and down stems, offering her finger to catch onto, transporting it to another grass stem to see what it would do there. Another kid would have gotten bored with that game in two minutes. Jocelyn, who was only six at the time, eventually came over and knocked the bug away and Amy was very upset. Jocie was always the rambunctious one, the sassy and distractible one. Amy made rules when they played together and Jocie broke them. It never failed. 10 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T A M My father died one morning when I was fifteen years old. He was on his way to work, crossing Mass. Ave. There was a truck parked too close to the intersection, and when he stepped out past it, a van that was running a red light at thirty-five miles an hour hit him and killed him. One second he was alive, and the next he wasn’t. At least he didn’t see it coming. We know that because people saw it happen. He definitely had the walk light, the van definitely ran the red, he didn’t look before he took that step and so he died. A woman who was crossing the street towards him saw the van coming, but before she could yell “Look out” it was over. I wasn’t there that morning, but I have been, many times. When I was in the second and third grade my dad and I crossed at that same spot every school day, together, because he would walk me to school on his way to catch the bus to the medical area. The same thing couldn’t have happened then, because I would have been with him, holding onto his hand, pulling him one way and another, probably talking away as usual and telling him everything that went through my head, and when we got to that intersection he would have looked. Because of me. Being my dad, thinking he was protecting me, though I would have been the one protecting him, as it turns out. But when I was fifteen, I wasn’t there, he was absorbed in his thoughts, and once he saw he had the light, he stopped paying attention and walked the last few steps to his death. A woman in a blue suit came and interrupted my English class that morning, put a hand on the teacher’s shoulder and turned her away from us and muttered to her. Their two heads were close together and bent forward. Then Ms. Lipkin turned around and pointed me out to the interloper. She walked straight to me, everyone watching, and said “Tamara Aller?” 11 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T A M “Yes?” “I’m Ms. Costantino, I’m the assistant principal. I need you to get your things and come with me. Your mother’s coming to pick you up. There’s a family emergency.” “What is it?” I said. Her eyes avoided mine; she looked guilty. “I can’t be the one to tell you,” she said. “I’m sorry.” “It’s that bad?” “Please come with me.” I caught Ms. Lipkin’s eye as I left the room and in her look I saw it was that bad. I tried to think out what it must be as I followed Blue Suit Woman down the hall. It wasn’t my mom, she was picking me up. Who, then? Did Grampa Tom die? Was that it? Or Nana, my grandmother I seldom saw because she lived in Milwaukee? She and Grampa Tom were the oldest in my family. My grandmother on my dad’s side had died when I was twelve. It could have been Walt, Nana’s husband. Selfishly, I hoped it was Walt because he wasn’t my mother’s father and I cared about him less than anyone else. But something told me it was one of the things I was deliberately not imagining. Waiting for the awful news to come and not knowing – but knowing anyway, as we walked down the empty halls past the trophy case and the bulletin boards, as I waited in the office for my mother to come – was like being pushed off the roof of a high building, and the helpless falling knowing how it would end. If worse minutes of my life are coming, I don’t want to know about it. But there’s part of me that’s always living that day. It feels like that part won’t ever grow older or leave that moment, as long as I live; it’s not a helpful way to be, but it’s the truth. The driver was convicted of motor vehicle homicide, not that it did us much good. My mother and I went to the sentencing hearing and he cried and apologized to us before he got two and a half years in prison, which is nothing by comparison, but it was the maximum sentence. He was an ignorant loser stuffed into a too-tight black suit, like a hog dressed up. He blubbered, wretchedly, and so did his obese mother. His father sat there looking stunned. I would just as soon never have seen their faces. I hated him, naturally, but our pound of flesh, if that’s what it was, didn’t make me one bit happier. A couple of months afterward an especially tactless kid asked me if I wished he’d gotten the death penalty. It took me a while to discover what I really wished, and still do: I want him gone from my world forever. I wouldn’t care whether he was alive or dead, if only I could be guaranteed that for the rest of my life I’ll never have to be within a thousand miles of him. 12 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T A M Preferably not even in the same country. Exile for life was not on the list of available sentences. This is what I’ve wanted to know more than anything, ever since my father died: what was he thinking about at the last moment, and in the moments leading up to the last? What was the dream of his heart that morning, the secret one he wouldn’t have told anybody? I’ll never know for sure, but I have always tried to imagine it, because ever since, I’ve felt I am his unfinished thought. That is my job in life: I have to complete it. We were lost after he died. What were we then? Not quite a family. There were three of us – me, my mother, and Terry, who was only seven – and even though we lived together, we were all separately lost when my father never came home again. The chair he always sat in was still there in the living room, and I couldn’t stop expecting to see him there too. Nobody ever sat there, except once I saw Terry try it when he didn’t know I could see him from the kitchen. He lasted about thirty seconds. I wanted to ask him how it felt but I didn’t dare. It seemed as though we didn’t have enough to offer each other, but there was no one else in our house to try to give it. At the hospital my mother was probably working with children who were going through the same things we were, but she couldn’t do therapy with us. She didn’t have a husband, Terry and I didn’t have a father, we suddenly didn’t have enough income and my mother was trying to make what we had stretch as far as it would go. I think she would have liked to curl up and hide from everything, including us, but she couldn’t. She was beyond exhaustion and she still had to get us to school and go to work and come home and do something about dinner and put Terry to bed. I’m sure her heart was broken, but people don’t always have the luxury of giving in to heartbreak. I think what really got us through the first six months was my dad’s father, Grampa Tom. He mattered a lot to me then, and he has ever since. One thing I secretly like about being called Tam is that it’s only one letter away from his name. I know he helped my mother pay some of the bills, but nobody could help her with what she should say to us or do for us. I know it wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t do for me what I needed. The most that my mother could do, it seems, was to try 13 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T A M to keep functioning one more day, and then one more day after that; I haven’t been in her position, so there’s no reason for me to say I could do better. But I felt pushed away. Or possibly she did. She made me go to a therapist we couldn’t really afford, who told me it was okay for me to be angry with both of my parents about what happened. But what my mother didn’t understand was that I didn’t want anybody telling me what is and isn’t okay for me to feel. Not her, not anybody. People used phrases like “had to grow up too soon,” but I haven’t lived another life to compare this one to. I was fifteen and if anybody thought I was acting grown up about all of it, that was an excuse, if you ask me, for not taking a closer look. 14 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei W I L L I was thoroughly alone and unattached – except to Amy and Jocelyn, of course – on the day I was reading the paper and saw that Susannah’s husband had died in a traffic accident, hit while crossing a street. Amy was twelve and Jocie was ten. They had been living in Chicago for two and a half years. My loneliness was like an uninvited guest who wouldn’t go home, watching me as I prowled among my possessions. I never consciously tried to pile up so much stuff, but I owned a house, and houses tend to fill up. I had high-speed internet, premium cable, a gas grill, a leaf blower, a weed whacker, a mulching lawn mower, a few hundred books, more CD’s than I could listen to, subscriptions to the Boston Globe and the New York Times, a mountain bike, a sea kayak, downhill and cross-country skis, call waiting, instant messaging, a pager, a fax, and a cell phone. More stuff than I was able to use. What it amounted to was clutter and distraction, which may be why I came to own all these things, because when I wasn’t distracted, I was lonely. Even the memory of Susa was faded and scratched. When you use the same memory too much, and I had, it wears out. It had been sixteen years since she told me we could no longer be together. The good days at my house were those when Amy and Jocie were with me: some weeks in the summer, every other Christmas and Thanksgiving, sometimes during school vacation weeks. I saved up my vacation time for them. If people invited me somewhere while they were with me, they had to invite Amy and Jocie too, and I only went if I thought the girls would enjoy it. I never hired a babysitter. I loved the way the house felt after they’d been there a few days and settled in, loved seeing their coats and boots and scarves heaped by the front door, picking up their books and toys from wherever they’d dropped them. 15 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei W I L L Even hearing them squabble in their room was a joy as far as I was concerned. Jocie woke me up early in the mornings and demanded pancakes for breakfast. They got them; we were in no rush. But I missed never having a routine life with them, days of getting them off to school before I went to work. I was afraid they’d think of me as a kind of holiday entertainment, a Dad theme park. It was almost good when they got bored; it meant they were with me long enough to start feeling this was actual life. It was never long enough for me. When I read the obituary I knew at once that I would call Susannah; the only question was how long I would wait. I tried to imagine how she felt; by then I knew a lot more about loss and about having a way of life torn to pieces. But my divorce had not come as a surprise. I couldn’t fathom losing the person I loved (I had to believe she loved him) without warning, between one minute and the next. Or what it must be doing to the children – two of them now, the obituary informed me – he left behind. Now Susa was in a place I had never been, forced to be someone other than the woman I knew. I couldn’t take the measure of the crisis in her life, but it reverberated in mine; behind the scenes of my everyday world, I was in a secret turmoil I couldn’t mention to anyone. I knew Susannah’s grief would be as direct and genuine as anything else about her; and I knew that after some time she would go on with her life. I was still alive, too, trying to go on with mine. Hardly ever fully alive except when Amy and Jocelyn were with me, and middle-aged at all times, but still here on earth with her, still unable or unwilling to forget. Even so, why should I imagine that she would care whether I ever called her or not? Why should I, and our love, not be far behind her in vague and infrequent memories of that time of life which ends, irrevocably, when one becomes a parent? The only possible reason seemed to be that she was not so thoroughly consigned to the past for me, and since we had shared so much, why should we not share this? Such is the logic, if one can call it that, of a man who spends his nights alone. I had waited a very long time, and I waited longer, more than another year, before I finally did call her. At first it was easy not to call: I knew it was too soon. But when would it not be too soon, and when would it be too late, those were the impossible questions. I had time to think of every way the call could turn out, time to play out every possible consequence, time to get used to every scenario I could dream up. Time, even, to date a woman I met through a friend and then lose 16 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei W I L L interest in her. Time to almost forget, and then remember: oh yes, I have to call Susa. After it reached that point, one night I at last picked up the phone. 17 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei T O M It was the beginning of winter when David died. January. I went back to work about ten days later and was useless. I accomplished nothing for a month or more. No one seemed to care or even notice, because the city had already obligated the money to pay me and they assumed, foolishly, that consultants are worth what they get paid. I was supposed to be working on some kind of policy paper concerning regional water use patterns and thresholds for declaring water emergencies. That was the type of thing I did at that early point in my supposed retirement. All I was really doing was staring at my computer in an office building in East Cambridge. I accessed some kind of database but couldn’t bring myself to care about searching it. FEMA would not give a damn what I wrote on behalf of the city. I didn’t have the words “civil engineer” on my résumé and that was what they cared about. I didn’t have “free-lance dilettante” either, but it would have been closer to the truth. People believed I knew something and I let them think it. I sat there and fiddled aimlessly under the maddening subliminal hum of the fluorescents, filing my e-mails into folders, cleaning up the desktop on my computer, and outside it snowed. The partition of a cubicle was between me and the windows, but I could tell from the gray light that it was coming down hard. After a while an announcement was made that the office was closing early because of the storm. I got up, looked over the partition; people were standing up, making predictable remarks about how long it would take them to get home. I tried to make an appropriate face when my cubicle neighbor complained about the traffic on 93. I put my coat on and walked down the stairs and out of the building. The snow was blowing and swirling, fat heavy flakes, a real show-stopper. People were using the word “blizzard,” inaccurately. The 18 With and Without You, by Lowry Pei

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