Issue 209, Summer 2014
Mixed messages, my neighbor continued, as we approached the cove and started to slow down, were a cruel plot device that did sometimes have their counterpart in life: his own brother, the one who had died a few years ago, a dear and generous person, suffered his fatal heart attack while waiting for a friend to come to lunch. He had given the man—who happened, moreover, to be a doctor—the wrong address, for he had just moved into a new apartment and hadn’t yet memorized the full details, and so while his friend was searching for him in a street of a similar name on the other side of town, he was lying on his kitchen floor with his life ebbing away, a life, what’s more, that apparently could easily have been saved had he been reached in time. His older brother, the reclusive Swiss millionaire, had responded to these events by having a complex system of alarms installed in his own apartment, for though he was a man who would never forget his own address he was also entirely friendless and miserly and had never had a lunch guest in his life; and indeed when his own heart attack came—which their family medical history made a likelihood—he simply pressed the nearest emergency button and within minutes was in a helicopter, being whisked to a top cardiac unit in Geneva. Sometimes it was as well, he said—and he was thinking of Theseus’s father here—not to take no for an answer, almost as a point of principle.
I said that, on the contrary, I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying—it seemed to me—was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become—to put it bluntly—anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.
My neighbor was silent for a considerable length of time. He steered the boat into the deserted cove, where the seabirds stood on the rocks and the water whirled in its little inlet, and took the anchor out of its compartment. He leaned over me to cast it over the side, and slowly paid out the chain until he felt it resting on the bottom.
“Has there really been no one?” he asked.
There had, I said, been someone. We were still very good friends. But I hadn’t wanted to carry on with it. I was trying to find a different way of living in the world.
Now that we had come to a stop, the heat had intensified. The sun shone directly on the padded bench where I sat, and the only patch of shade was directly beneath the canopy, where my neighbor stood with his arms folded, leaning against the side of the boat. It would have been awkward to go and stand there with him. I could feel the skin on my back burning. Just then he moved, but it was only to replace the lid of the compartment where he kept the anchor, and he returned to his original position. He understood, he said, that I was still in a great deal of pain. Being with me had reminded him of episodes in his own life he had not thought of for many years and was causing him to revisit some of these feelings himself. His first marriage, he said, had really come to an end on a day when they had had a large family party, a lunch to which all the relatives on both sides had been invited and which they held at their home in the suburbs of Athens, a house big enough and grand enough to accommodate everyone. The party had been a success, everything had been eaten and drunk and cleared away and the guests had finally departed, and my neighbor, exhausted, had lain down on the sofa to take a nap. His wife was in the kitchen doing the last of the dishes, the children were out playing somewhere, there was a cricket match making its slow progress on the television, and amidst this scene of domestic contentment my neighbor fell into a profound sleep.
For a moment he was silent, leaning against the side of the boat, his fleshy, white-haired arms, with their ropes of veins, folded across his chest.
“I believe,” he resumed presently, “that what my wife did then was premeditated, that she saw me lying there and intended to force a confession from me by surprise. She came to the sofa and shook me by the shoulder, waking me up from this very deep sleep, and before I even knew where I was or had time to think, she asked me whether I was having an affair. In my bewilderment I was unable to make a sufficient pretense in time, and though I don’t think I actually admitted it, I left enough room for doubt to confirm her suspicions; and from there,” he said, “grew the argument that ended our marriage and caused me, shortly afterward, to leave the house. I find that I still can’t forgive her,” he said, “for the way in which she deliberately used a moment of vulnerability to extract something from me of which she already had a preformed idea. It still,” he said, “makes me angry, and in fact I believe that it gave the shape to everything that came afterward, to her righteous indignation and her refusal to accept any blame whatsoever for our situation, and to the punishing way she treated me in the course of our divorce. And of course no one,” he said, “could say that she was wrong for simply waking me from a nap, even though there was no reason to wake me and I would have slept on for hours. Yet I believe, as I say, that it was precisely this underhand act that gave birth to her vitriol, for people are at their least forgiving when they themselves have been underhand, as though they would exact their innocence from you at any price.”
I listened to this confession, if confession it was, in silence. I found that I was disappointed in him, and that discovery made me feel, for the first time, afraid of him. Some people, I said, might find that a slightly self-serving accusation. At least she woke you up, I said: she might have just cudgeled you to death then and there.
“It was nothing,” he replied, waving this away—“a piece of stupidity, an office flirtation that got out of hand.”
I saw, as he said this, a look of such naked guilt cross his face that I felt as though the scene on the sofa were being reenacted before my eyes, all these years later. He was, I could see, a bad liar, and it was hard, I said, not to sympathize with his wife, the mother of his children, though that was obviously not the response he wanted to his story. He shrugged. Why should he take all the blame, he said, for the fact that the marriage—which after all had as good as commenced with their engagement while they were still teenagers— had become, if not boring, then comfortable to the point of stupefaction? If he had known what the consequences would be—he tailed off. Well, even then something of the sort would have been inevitable, he admitted. His clandestine romance, insignificant as it was, had beckoned him like the lights of a city seen from far away. He was drawn not so much to this specific woman as to the concept of excitement itself, a prospect that seemed—as he had said, from far away—to welcome him with its largeness and brightness, to offer him an anonymity that might also constitute a re-evaluation of his whole persona, he who was known so thoroughly and yet so limitingly by his wife and before that by his parents, his siblings, his uncles and aunts. It was to be free of their knowledge of him that he sought that brighter world, which admittedly, in his youth, he had made the mistake of believing to be far more extensive than it actually was. He has been disillusioned more times than he could count in his relationships with women. Yet part of that feeling—the feeling of excitement that is also a rebirth of identity—has attended all his experiences of falling in love; and in the end, despite everything that has happened, these have been the most compelling moments of his life.
Illustration: Samantha Hahn.
I said I wondered how he could fail to see the relationship between disillusionment and knowledge in what he had told me. If he could only love what he did not know, and be loved in return on that same basis, then knowledge became an inexorable disenchantment, for which the only cure was to fall in love with someone new. There was a silence. He stood there, looking all at once grizzled and old, his hairy arms folded above his paunch, his swimming trunks sagging between his legs, his birdlike face almost fossilized into its quizzical expression. The silence extended itself, there amid the glittering water and the glaring sun. I became aware of the sound of the water sucking at the sides of the boat, of the harsh cries of the seagulls on their rocks, of the faint sound of engines coming from the mainland. My neighbor lifted his head and looked out to sea, his chin raised, his eyes searching the horizon. There was a certain stiffness in his manner, a self-consciousness, like that of an actor about to deliver a too-famous line.
“I have been asking myself,” he said, “why it is that I find myself so attracted to you.”