Del was in the kitchen, opening the bottle of wine his second wife Catherine had given him earlier in the day. The cork kept splitting, the sign of a true amateur, he thought, except that he was an amateur in few areas of his life these days, unless you counted the endless pursuit of happiness—or rather, the achievement of that happiness—as one such minefield. But perhaps this time happiness was just around the corner, in the literal and figurative form of Juliana.
“What are you doing?” Juliana’s voice drifted in around the corner of the living room, coming to rest finally in his willing ear. He had left her on the green chintz couch with the cat, reading Ovid.
“Opening some wine.” The cork split a final time and Del pushed it down into the bottle with a jab. He poured two glasses, fishing out bits of cork that floated around like miniature driftwood. Tea leaves maybe, he thought absently, taking a first drink straight from the bottle. Though didn’t they sink? And portending what? These happy bobbing bits of cork, then, a good sign — nothing indiscernible, dark and submerged.
He opened the fridge searching for something to eat and finally popped a few olives into his mouth. In the living room, Juliana waited with the cat, her lovely body, and the transforming Ovid.
Juliana was twenty-one years old. In a few days, much to his dismay, Del would be fifty. They had met three years earlier, when she was a slouching, pouting student in his Literature of the Ancients class where she had caused a ruckus when she’d refused to memorize Homer. Talk about your dead white males, she’d said. He gave her a C in the class. Somehow she’d managed to graduate and had travelled around Europe for a while before going to college and dropping out after an uneven year of trying to find herself. All along she had stayed in touch with him, though, and eventually she returned to town. They got together, first for coffee (when she had surprisingly asked to borrow his copy of The Odyssey), then lunch, then dinner, then sex. Now it appeared that what she had been looking for all along was love, pure and simple. Six weeks ago, she moved in.
“And why in God’s name not?” Del had said to his best friend Harry.
“You don’t really want me to answer that, do you?” said Harry. Harry had nursed him through two weddings and three divorces, to say nothing of the various affairs cushioning the long lonely gaps in between. Yet, in a way, it was Harry who was responsible for the current thing with Juliana. Del had moved from Virginia to this small town in upstate New York at Harry’s invitation when the classics teacher had suddenly dropped dead while vacationing in Florida. The small boarding school was desperate and had offered Del an outlandish salary along with a house; they gave him considerable leeway with his schedule. His old job had been easy to leave—adjunct faculty, even after all these years; cordial colleagues and decent benefits—but he’d felt like he was dying on the vine there, personally and professionally. His year as a substitute teacher had extended to a second year, then a third and now, here he was, still residing in chilly New York at the start of another winter, this time with Juliana.
Despite her current enthusiasm, Juliana was having her troubles with Ovid but Del knew he could make her understand – or in any case, see the beauty in – Ovid or Sophocles or Hesiod or Euripides or any of the others… their beauty and their relevance. They were embarking on the classics for starters – his old favorites – but soon would be tackling the Bible, eventually Shakespeare. Proust was on the list. Dante. Milton. All the greats. It had been her idea, this tutoring, and he had initially been a little embarrassed at the reprisal of his professorial role in his very own living room, but now he was actually enjoying himself. Just the week before she’d suggested they include a few women on the list. Sappho, he was thinking. She seemed genuinely interested, and though not brilliant, was bright—a quick study. What did it matter that she couldn’t spell for beans?
“Home schooling,” Catherine said when they met for lunch that day. Obviously she’d been talking to Harry again. “Don’t you need a license for that?”
They were sitting in his favorite booth at his favorite restaurant being served by his favorite waitress. Catherine was in town for a few days delivering a lecture at the college on 19th century French literature. She’d just published a book on George Sand; she was very good at her job. Their separation and divorce had been ultimately amicable—not true of the others—and he usually enjoyed seeing her. She was looking down at the menu, fingering its edges with the long pale fingers he’d once known so well. Even now he could feel them kneading his shoulders, clasping at his back. She had always taken very good care of him, up till the end. She was a handsome woman, better looking now than when they’d first met. Juliana might not fare so well, her small fine features giving way eventually to a sort of delicate mousiness, if the faces of the beautiful women he’d been studying over the years were any indication. Oh well. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it. If he lived that long. The future, just now, was of no particular concern to him.
“She’s a very sweet girl,” he said. “Very eager to learn.”
“I’m sure.” Catherine reached down onto the seat beside her and pulled a brightly wrapped bottle out of a brown paper bag. “Here,” she said, setting it on the table between them. “Happy birthday.”
When he looked surprised, she said, “Well, don’t you have a birthday coming up?”
He nodded. “Thanks,” he said. “You shouldn’t have.”
“If one more person says that to me, I’ll scream,” she said, but she was smiling. He pulled the bottle closer and began unwrapping it. She pushed her hair behind her ear. Diamonds sparkled at her lobes. Given to her by whom, he wondered. “I figured you could use a little bolstering,” she said.
He looked at her, eyebrows raised, but she just watched him pull at the ribbon around the neck of the bottle. He was touched at her thoughtfulness – he’d not kept up that way. It had been hard enough remembering their three children’s birthdays and graduations, all the other anniversaries. But he also felt a creeping annoyance. He pulled off the last piece of red paper and glanced at the label on the bottle.
“Isn’t that the kind you like?” said Catherine. “Or maybe your tastes have changed… “
“No,” he said, “this is it. It’s great. Thanks very much.”
She watched him as he clumsily rewrapped the bottle. He wanted to get it back down onto the seat and out of sight. It seemed overly festive somehow, a gaudy monument to their past failures.
“Well,” he said, when he’d gotten the bottle settled. “What’re you going to have? The steak chinoise here is especially good.” He read the menu over a third time. “Though I don’t eat much red meat anymore.”
“Huh,” she said, looking up from her side of the table. She studied him a moment. “The things we do for our health.” Then she said, “Listen, Del. I’ve been thinking.”
He looked up then too, antennae twitching at the tone of her voice. He saw that she was faltering and he thought he detected the hint of a blush, unusual for her. For an instant, her confusion charmed him. He flashed on some trouble with the kids, problems with her love life. He hoped it had nothing to do with money, or her job. They had handled the children well, he thought; all three seemed to be thriving, with promising jobs and solid partners. At their daughter’s wedding a few summers ago, Del, full of champagne, had complimented Catherine on the fine job they’d done raising their children, and she had said, “We did do a good job, didn’t we? Though there were times I felt as if they were sucking the lifeblood right out of me. At the end of the day, early in the morning, they’d be so full of energy, ready to go, and I’d be dragging around half-dead.”
They were standing in a quiet corner of the ballroom, reception swirling around them. There were tears in her eyes and Del had felt his heart give a small leap. He’d given her a hug and a quick kiss. This was a year or so after the breakup of his third marriage and he remembered feeling particularly tender. But he remembered too being surprised at what she said: never had he felt that caring for his children had drained him of anything but time, and a considerable amount of cash. Catherine had never complained, and he had always assumed this business of raising children came as naturally and easily to her as writing books. Never assume anything, she once said to him, more darkly than he’d thought necessary. They’d been hashing things out with her sharp-tongued therapist.
Now he watched her sip her wine. He caught a glimpse of the waitress hovering off to the side, waiting for the perfect moment to descend. “This is hard for me to say,” Catherine said, leaning forward. Her eyes were very blue and he almost commented on that, but then she said, “I’ve been thinking, or rather wondering lately, especially when I heard about Juliana moving in— ” Here she paused. “God, Del.” She shook her head sharply, and sighed. “This thing with Juliana seems so… desperate.”
Del was silent, waiting for he knew not what. He could do without his second wife’s pronouncements over his handling of his love life; he could do without hearing about hers, too, if that was what was troubling her. They’d always drawn the line when it came to discussing their personal lives. Short of her becoming involved with a hit man or a junkie, he didn’t want to hear about it. It still pained him, after all this time, to imagine her on intimate terms with other men, and though he had long since realized he would always love her, there was no way on God’s green earth he had been able to see clear to marching or stumbling or slouching his way gamely toward middle and old age with her. She had tended toward expressing the truth, however brutal, at such inconvenient and surprising moments that after a time his heart just couldn’t take it, couldn’t process the shots of clarity without feeling they were slowly but surely puncturing him full of holes, mortally wounding him.
“Sorry,” she said. He shifted in his seat, swirled his wine. “But in the face of all this stuff with Juliana, the timing seems a little more critical. She pushed her hair away from her face again, and back behind the ear. “For one thing, Jason and I have called it quits.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Del said quickly, interrupting. Jason was a real dolt, of course.
“This actually has nothing to do with him, I don’t know why I even brought it up, but what I’ve been wondering is, have you ever thought about trying to work things out with me—with us—again?” She gulped at her wine. Her face was flushed. She turned to look out the window where the snow was beginning to fall and he prayed that her flight back to Virginia would not be delayed. “There,” she said, turning back to him, “whew. I’ve said it. Now I think I’m ready to eat.”
He stared at her. Good Lord. The blow to his head and heart felt like it had been administered with the precision of a sledgehammer. Not in his wildest dreams had he ever imagined he’d live to see the day when she’d be making such a proposition. After all this time and when she was the one who had left, that they should try to rekindle something new! They were beyond all that, way beyond all that. Even if he wanted to, he could never go back.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. The waitress materialized at the edge of the booth, frowning slightly as they fumbled through their orders. She cleared away their unnecessary utensils. When she was gone, Catherine said, “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, and wouldn’t have said anything except that when I heard about Juliana…”
“What does Juliana have to do with it?”
“Well,” she said, and the way she tipped her head, he saw that she was edging toward anger, “when I heard she was living with you, I thought I’d better make my move before you did anything rash.”
“Like marry her, for God’s sake. She’s so young, Del. I mean, I know it’s none of my business, but how serious are things with you two?”
“Very serious,” he said, though he had been expressing precisely the opposite whenever Juliana pressed him about their future together, which was often. “Incidentally, you’re beginning to sound like a social worker. Or worse, a shrink.”
The waitress brought their water and salads. Del asked for a lemon wedge for his water, something he’d picked up from Juliana, along with a taste for music that threatened permanent damage to his aging ears. Such delicate senses, Juliana would say, laughing, but kissing him, always kissing him. He speared a lettuce leaf; he could feel Catherine watching him, ready with her quick, smart remarks.
“Pardon me,” she said, “but you yourself said marriage—in your case, anyhow—was the kiss of death. You might consider taking your own advice.” She toyed with her arugula. Del poured her more wine. “I have had younger boyfriends—“ Del felt himself wince—“and actually some I’ve loved very much.” She sighed again. “What I’m trying to say is I know you better than anyone. Our connection is deep—“ here she clenched her fist—“and I think we could get a good, solid thing going again.” She paused and shivered a little. “And it’s so cold up here. Nothing green and viney. Don’t you miss the honeysuckle and the Virginia creeper and the poison ivy and the kudzu?”
He knew she wanted him to laugh, but he just couldn’t. She tipped her head back and stared at the ceiling and for an instant, Del resisted the urge to leap across the table and cover her neck with kisses. He watched her swallow, and now he thought he detected the glint of tears and prayed he’d not be called upon to soothe her. “Besides which,” she said, eyes bright, “it just wears me out to consider starting all over with someone else.” She reached across the table to put a cool hand on his arm.
He looked down at her hand, noted the expensive weave of her suit. He put his hand over hers. “Are you offering yourself as the sacrificial lamb?” Their waitress approached with their food and for the first time, she laughed. “It would be a disaster,” he said. “You know it would.”
She watched him with the tortellini, didn’t touch her bisque. They sat for a time in silence; his chewing sounded loud and boorish. She drank her wine. Finally he heard her breathe in. “Well,” she said, “I’m not convinced it would be a disaster. Obviously.” She paused. “But do her a favor. Teach her everything you know and then let her go. Don’t marry her, Del.”
Del poured himself the last of the wine, and drained his glass. “I can’t let her go just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers on that. “And anyhow, she loves me. It goes both ways.” He reached for his water, breathed in lemon.
“The poor girl,” Catherine said, shaking her head.
“She’s not the least bit poor.” Del gestured to the waitress who came quickly over. “Two coffees and the check,” he said. She moved off, looking concerned. “And don’t worry about Juliana,” he said to Catherine. “She can take care of herself.”
“Here we go.” Del held out a glass of Catherine’s wine to Juliana. She was sitting on the couch with her feet curled up under her, cat in her lap. Beyond her the fake leopard-skin blanket she’d contributed to the household furnishings seemed to snarl and leap at him from its resting place on the wall. She reached out one hand for the wine, pulling him down onto the couch with the other. Ovid fell with a thud to the floor. The cat looked annoyed. It was her cat, overfed and spoiled. Juliana had recently cut her hair very short and she looked especially… fetching, is the word that popped up like a cartoon bubble when Del looked at her. Mildly European. He felt a familiar stirring and forced himself not to consider just what it was she saw in him.
She sipped the wine. “Hmmm,” she said. “This is good. What kind is it?”
“Ask Catherine. She gave it to me,” he said, and immediately wished he’d kept quiet. They’d had dinner together before her talk and it had gone smoothly. Everyone exceedingly civilized.
Juliana frowned. “When?”
“We had lunch today. It’s a birthday present.”
“Your birthday isn’t till Tuesday,” she said. “I’m surprised she still remembers.”
“Well, she knew she wouldn’t be seeing me Tuesday, so…”
“Oh,” said Juliana. She shifted, turning slightly towards him. He smoothed the hair that refused to settle down at the back of her neck. “Actually,” she said, “I have an early birthday present for you too.” She got up and went into their bedroom, returning with a small, package. She held it out to him. “Happy birthday,” she said. She leaned down to kiss him, then returned to her spot on the couch.
“Well,” he said, “thank you, darling.” The present was wrapped in the Sunday comics. He saw a bit of Rex Morgan M.D. and Prince Valiant, topped with a bulbous bow. He felt the glimmer of a headache coming on. One pretty woman too many this day, watching him, wine in hand.
“It’s not your real present,” Juliana said. “It’s a prequel.”
Del pulled off the paper and crumpling it into a ball, tossed it across the room for the cat to bat around. Then he tried to identify the small, silver, trumpet-like gadgets resting in his hand. Juliana sipped her wine, waiting.
“Deer alerts,” she said finally. “I bought them for you after you almost hit that deer the other night. It worries me to think of you driving home in the dark on these winding back roads.”
The cat jumped off the couch and went over to the huge picture window where it leapt onto the sill to watch the snow that had begun falling again. It had snowed every day for the past three weeks. They were breaking all sorts of records but in New York, snow didn’t stop things. Not like in Virginia, when a few flakes meant early closings and countless fender-benders.
“Thanks sweetheart,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “That’s very thoughtful of you. But do you really think they’ll work? I read somewhere that nothing can keep a deer from running into the path of a car once it gets going. And especially during rutting season.” He held the deer alerts up. They twinkled in the candlelight. “It’s hard to imagine these could actually do the trick.” He did not mention the deer he’d hit one dark night as he had sped from Richmond to Charlottesville to meet his soon-to-be third wife.
She pulled away from him. Her face was pale and perfectly oval. Her eyes darkened. “The man in the store says they’ve perfected the design. He said the old ones don’t work, but this is a new model. The state troopers use them on their cars, if that tells you anything.”
“Well,” said Del, “far be it from me to cross a New York state trooper,” and he put the alerts on the table in front of the couch where they glittered and winked at him in a way not altogether soothing. He leaned toward Juliana and pulled her to him. She nestled herself into his side.
“’Here is a life that of all is the lightest for earth-born mortals,’” he said. “Homer’s description of the Elysian Fields.” Juliana frowned. “’Here comes never the snow, nor a violent tempest and rainstorm.’” He closed his eyes, not wanting to witness the reception by his beloved of those bracingly beautiful lines. He had exhorted her more than once, now that they were out of the classroom, to memorize lines from Homer, or Ovid – in case you had the misfortune, he’d said, to find yourself marooned on a deserted island, far from home. Or taken hostage and shut up in a closet with nothing to sustain you but bread and water delivered in the dead of night by some foreign-tongued, ski-masked thug. Just those tiny shreds of nourishment to keep you alive, plus all the vague memories and verse that would have taken up residence by then in your poor head.
She’d looked at him as if he had finally, inevitably, lost his mind. You’ll thank me for this one day, he’d said. Gruesome, she had said. Is that what you think about when I’m not around? And he’d been too embarrassed to say, Well yes, as a matter of fact, I do, so he’d laughed it off. She hadn’t memorized anything, of course, not one word, which pained him but which he also found fascinating – her ability to live a full life without the aid and assistance of those who came before. Present company excluded, he always made a point of telling himself. Catherine had teased him mercilessly about his preoccupation with things ancient, though here she was, trying to pull him back to Virginia and their past. How he yearned for the magic of Homer’s light lovely Fields!
And how unbearably close we are, at all times, to losing the fragile lightness of life!
“Homer wouldn’t have liked upstate New York,” Juliana murmured. She leaned her head on his shoulder and together they watched the snow fall. And now he remembered the one and only time he’d seen deer alerts. He’d been stuck in traffic on the way home from work and had sat for what seemed like hours but was actually just twenty minutes. Snow was falling, as usual. Bored, listening to the news, he found himself studying in the rearview the driver of the battered blue Dodge pickup wedged in behind him – an old man’s face, lined and weathered, staring straight at the back of Del’s head. He remembered overalls, an orange vest, CAT hat. Shaggy grey eyebrows, crooked specs. Just that morning, Del had spotted a few white hairs of his own during his morning inspection which he’d plucked out instantly. Staring at the old man’s reflection, he heard Catherine, for some odd reason, chanting singsong, It is coming, It is coming. When they got moving again he spotted the tiny silver bugles stuck to the Dodge’s bumper. They looked whimsical and musical, angelic. They looked poised to herald to all concerned the arrival of this old lumbering Dodge, this potential desecrator of nature, this killer of deer. Run for your life! As if anything can save anyone from anything, he thought as Juliana kissed his ear.
“As a further contribution to saving your life,” she whispered, “and as part of your early birthday present, I will personally install the deer alerts onto the bumper of your car. Have no fear,” she said. “I take full responsibility.”
“I have never,” he said, “doubted that you would,” and sliding his hands under her sweater, he pulled it off over her head, and leaned her back along the length of the couch by way of thanks, and to usher in another New York night.
And he thought of the deer alerts lying on the table near them, cat poking at them, distantly amused. And he thought of Juliana, and of her concern. And he imagined for a split second that he was the deer—twelve-point buck—springing over honeysuckled hedges, streaking across fields, and that Juliana was the one behind the wheel, sonic shriek of the alerts piercing the chilly air, assaulting his ears, warning him. He saw himself caught in the glare of her lights. Brakes squeal! Rubber burns! He might even have heard her scream. And just before impact, just before the end—Homer ringing in his ears, Juliana warm and alive against him—he felt his heart expand helplessly, irresistibly, when suddenly he asked her to marry him, and when, just as suddenly, she said yes.
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