Read Museums and Women Online

Authors: John Updike

Museums and Women (7 page)

Drinks yielded to dinner, dinner to dancing. Gamely they tried to Frug (or was it Monkey?) to the plangent anthems of a younger generation. Then the rock music yielded, as their host dug deeper into his strata of accumulated records, to the reeds and muted brass and foggy sighing that had voiced the furtive allegiances of their own, strange, in-between generation—too young to be warriors, too old to be rebels.
Too tired to talk, Tom danced. The men with whom he had shared hundreds of athletic Sunday afternoons had become hollow-voiced ghosts inhabiting an infinite recession of weekends when he would not be here. His field was computer software; theirs was advertising or securities or the law, and though they all helped uphold the Manhattan tent pole of a nationwide canopy of rockets and promises, they spoke different languages when there was no score to shout. “If I was John Lindsay,” a man began, and rather than listen Tom seized a woman, who whirled him around. These women: he had seen their beauty pass from the smooth bodily complacence of young motherhood to the angular self-possession, slightly gray and wry, of veteran wives. To have witnessed this, to have seen in the sides of his vision so many pregnancies and births and quarrels and near-divorces and divorces and affairs and near-affairs and arrivals in vans and departures in vans, loomed, in retrospect, as the one accomplishment of his tenancy here—a heap of organic incident that in a village of old would have moldered into wisdom. But he was not wise, merely older. The thought of Texas frightened him: a desert of strangers; barbecues on parched lawns, in the gaunt shade of oil rigs and radar dishes.

“We’ll miss you,” Linda Cotteral dutifully said. Mouselike, she nestled when dancing; all men must look alike to her—a wall of damp shirt.

“I doubt it,” he responded, stumbling. It surprised him that he didn’t dance very well. He had danced a lot in Connecticut, rather than make conversation, yet his finesse had flattened along one of those hyperbolic curves that computers delight in projecting. Men had been wrong ever to imagine the universe as a set of circles; in reality, nothing closes, everything approaches, but never quite touches, its asymptote.

“Have you danced with Maggie?”

“Not for years. As you know.”

“Don’t you think you should?”

“She’d refuse.”

“Ask her,” Linda said, and left him for the arms of a man who would be here next weekend, who was real.

Maggie liked living rooms; they flattered her sense of courtesy and display. She had spread herself with her sleeves on the big curved white sofa, white on white. Lou’s voice tinkled from the kitchen. Lou always gravitated, at parties, to the kitchen, just as others, along personal magnetic lines, drifted outside to the screened porch, or sought safety in the bathroom. Picturing his wife perched on a kitchen stool, comfortably tapping her cigarette ashes into the sink, Tom approached Maggie and, numb as a moth, asked her to dance.

She looked up. Her eyes had been painted to look startled. “Really?” she asked, and added, “I’m terribly tired.”

“Me too.”

She looked down to where her hands were folded in her white lap. Her contemplative posture appeared to express the hope that he, like an unharmonious thought, would melt away.

Tom told her, “I’ll never ask you again.”

With a sigh, then sniffing as if to erase the sigh, Maggie rose and went with him into the darkened playroom, where other adults were dancing, folding each other into the old remembered music. She lifted her arms to accept him; her wide sleeves made her difficult to grasp. Her body in his arms, unexpectedly, felt wrong: something had unbalanced her—her third drink, or time. Her hand in his felt overheated.

“You’re taller,” she said.

“I am?”

“I believe you’ve grown, Tom.”

“No, it’s just that your memory of me has shrunk.”

“Please, let’s not talk memories. You asked me to dance.”

“I’ve discovered I don’t dance very well.”

“Do your best.”

“I always have.”

“No.”

“Don’t you believe it was my best?”

“Of course I don’t believe that.”

Her hot hand was limp, but her body, as he tried to contain and steer it, seemed faintly resistant, as perhaps any idea does when it is embodied. He did not feel that she was rigid deliberately, as a rebuke to him, but that they both, once again, were encountering certain basic factors of gravity and inertia. She did not resist when, trying to solve their bad fit—trying to devise, as it were, an interface—he hugged her closer to his chest. Nor, however, did he feel her infuse this submission with conscious willingness, as lovers do when they transmute their bodies into pure sensitivity and volition. She held mute. While he sought for words to fill their grappling silence, she sniffed.

He said, “You have a cold.”

She nodded.

He asked, “A fever?”

Again she nodded, more tersely, with a touch of the automatic, a touch he remembered as intrinsic to her manner of consent.

Surer of himself, he glided them across waxed squares of vinyl and heard his voice emerge enriched by a paternal, protective echo. “You shouldn’t have come if you’re sick.”

“I wanted to.”

“Why?” He knew the answer: because of him. He feared he was holding her so close she had felt his heart thump; he might injure her with his heart. He relaxed his right arm, and
she accepted the inch of freedom as she had surrendered it, without spirit—a merely metric adjustment. And her voice, when she used it, swooped at the start and scratched, like an old record.

“Oh, Tom,” Maggie said, “you know me. I can’t say no. If I’m invited to a party, I come.” And she must have felt, as did he, that her shrug insufficiently broke the hold his silence would have clinched, for she snapped her head and said with angry emphasis, “Anyway, I
had
to come and say good
bye
to the Bridesons.”

His silence had become a helpless holding on.

“Who have been so
kind
,” Maggie finished. The music stopped. She tried to back out of his arms, but he held her until, in the little hi-fi cabinet with its sleepless incubatory glow, another record flopped from the stack. Softly fighting to be free, Maggie felt to him, with her great sleeves, like a sumptuous heavy bird that has evolved into innocence on an island, and can be seized by any passing sailor, and will shortly become extinct. Facing downward to avoid her beating wings, he saw her thighs, fat in net tights, and had to laugh, not so much at this befuddled struggle as at the comedy of the female body, that good kind clown, all greasepaint and bounce. To have seized her again, to feel her contending, was simply jolly.

“Tom, let go of me.”

“I can’t.”

Music released them from struggle. An antique record carried them back to wartime radio they had listened to as children, children a thousand miles apart. Maggie smoothed her fluffed cloth and formally permitted herself to be danced with. Her voice had become, with its faint bronchial rasp, a weapon cutting across the involuntary tendency of her body
to melt, to glide. She held her face averted and downcast, so that her shoulders were not quite square with his; if he could adjust this nagging misalignment, perhaps by bringing her feverish hand closer to his shoulder, the fit would be again perfect, after a gap of years. He timidly tugged her hand, and she said harshly, “What do you want me to say?”

“Nothing. Something inoffensive.”

“There’s nothing to say, Tommy.”

“O.K.”

“You said it all, five years ago.”

“Was it five?”

“Five.”

“It doesn’t seem that long.”

“It does if you live it, minute after minute.”

“I lived it too.”

“No.”

“O.K. Listen—”

“No. You promised we’d just dance.”

But only a few bars of music, blurred saxophones and a ruminating clarinet, passed before she said, in a dangerously small and dreaming voice, “I was thinking, how funny … five years ago you were my life and my death, and now …”

“Yes?”

“No, it wouldn’t be fair. You’re leaving.”

“Come on, sweet Maggie, say it.”

“… you’re just nothing.”

He was paralyzed, but his body continued to move, and the music flowed on, out of some infinitely remote USO where doomed sailors swayed with their clinging girls.

She sniffed and repeated, “You’re
nothing
, Tommy.”

He heard himself laugh. “Thank you. I received the bit the first time.”

Being nothing, he supposed, excused him from speech; his silence wrested an embarrassed giggle from her. She said, “Well, I suppose it proves I’ve grown.”

“Yes,” he agreed, trying to be inoffensive, “you are a beautifully growing girl.”

“You were always full of compliments, Tommy.”

Turquoise and pink flickered in the side of his vision; his shoulder was touched. Bugs Leonard asked to cut in. Tom backed off from Maggie, relieved to let go, yet hoping, as he yielded her, for a yielding glance. But her stare was stony, as it had been in the hall, except that there it had been directed past him, and here fell full upon him. He bowed.

The minutes after midnight, usually weightless, bent Tom’s bones in a strained curve that pressed against the inside of his forehead. Too weary to leave, he stood in the darkened playroom watching the others dance, and observed that Bugs and Maggie danced close, in wide confident circles that lifted her sleeves like true wings. A man sidled up to him and said, “If I was John Lindsay, I’d build a ten-foot wall across Ninety-sixth Street and forget it,” and lurched away. Tom had known this man once. He went into the living room and offered here and there to say goodbye, startling conspiracies of people deep in conversation. They had forgotten he was leaving. He went into the kitchen to collect Lou; she recognized him, and doused her cigarette in the sink, and stepped down from the stool, smoothing her skirt. On his way from the bedroom with their coats, he ducked into the bathroom to see if he had aged; he was one of those who gravitated, at parties, to the bathroom. Of these Connecticut homes he would remember best the bright caves of porcelain fixtures: the shower curtains patterned in antique automobiles, the pastel towelling, the
shaggy toilet-seat coverlets, the inevitable cartoon anthology on the water closet. The lecherous gleam of hygiene. Goodbye, Crane. Goodbye, Kleenex. See you in Houston.

Lou was waiting in the foyer. A well-rehearsed team, they pecked the hostess farewell, apologized in unison for being party poops, and went into the green darkness. Their headlights ransacked the bushes along this driveway for the final time.

Safely on the road, Lou asked, “Did Maggie kiss you goodbye?”

“No. She was quite unfriendly.”

“Why shouldn’t she be?”

“No reason. She should be. She should be awful and she was.” He was going to agree, agree, all the way to Texas.

“She kissed
me
,” Lou said.

“When?”

“When you were in the bathroom.”

“Where did she kiss you?”

“I was standing in the foyer waiting for you to get done admiring yourself or whatever you were doing. She swooped out of the living room.”

“I mean where
on
you?”

“On the mouth.”

“Warmly?”

“Very. I didn’t know how to respond. I’d never been kissed like that, by another woman.”


Did
you respond?”

“Well, a little. It happened so quickly.”

He must not appear too interested, or seem to gloat. “Well,” Tom said, “she may have been drunk.”

“Or else very tired,” said Lou, “like the rest of us.”

The Corner

T
HE TOWN
is one of those that people pass through on the way to somewhere else; so its inhabitants have become expert in giving directions. Ray Blandy cannot be on his porch five minutes before a car, baffled by the lack of signs at the corner, will shout to him, “Is this the way to the wharf?” or “Am I on the right road to East Mather?” Using words and gestures that have become rote, Ray heads it on its way, with something of the satisfaction with which he mails a letter, or flushes a toilet, or puts in another week at Unitek Electronics. Catty-corner across the awkward intersection (Wharf Street swerves south and meets Reservoir Road and Prudence Lane at acute, half-blind angles), Mr. Latroy, a milkman who is home from noon on, and who is also an auxiliary policeman, directs automobiles uncertain if, to reach the famous old textile mill in Lacetown, they should bear left around the traffic island or go straight up the hill. There is nothing on the corner to hold cars here except the small variety store run by an old Dutch couple, the Van der Bijns. Its modest size and dim, rusted advertisements are geared to foot traffic. Children going to
school stop here for candy, and townspeople after work stop for cigarettes and bread, but for long tracts of the day there is little for Mr. Van der Bijn to do but sit behind his display windows and grieve that the cars passing through take the corner too fast.

There have been accidents. Eight years ago, around eleven o’clock of a muggy July morning, when Susan Craven had been standing on her sidewalk wondering whether she should go to the playground or Linda Latroy’s back yard, a clam truck speedily rounding the corner snapped a kingbolt, went right up over the banking, swung—while the driver wildly twisted the slack steering wheel—within a foot of unblinking, preoccupied Susan, bounced back down the banking, straight across Prudence Lane, and smack, in a shower of shingles, into the house then owned by Miss Beulah Cogswell. She has since died, after living for years on her telling of the accident: “
Well
, I was in the kitchen making my morning
tea
and naturally thought it was just
another
of those dreadful sonic booms. But,
when
I go with my cup and saucer into the front parlor, here
right
where my television set had been was this dirty windshield with a man’s absolutely
white
face, mouthing like a fish, the carpet
drenched
with shingles and plaster and the corner cupboard three feet into the room and not one, would you
believe
it, not a single piece of bone china so much as
cracked!

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