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Cool, practical, and deliberate, John is dreamy Arlyn’s polar opposite. Yet the two are drawn powerfully together even when it is clear they are bound to bring each other grief. Their difficult marriage leads them and their children to a house made of glass in the Connecticutcountryside, to the avenues ofManhattan, and to the blue waters of Long Island Sound. Glass breaks, love hurts, and families make their own rules. Ultimately, it falls to their grandson, Will, to solve the emotional puzzle of his family and of his own identity.
ALSO BY ALICE HOFFMAN
The Ice Queen
The Probable Future
The River King
Here on Earth
The Drowning Season
(with Wolfe Martin)
SHE WAS HIS FIRST WIFE, BUT AT THE MOMENT when he first saw her she was a seventeen-year-old girl named Arlyn Singer who stood out on the front porch on an evening that seemed suspended in time. Arlyn's father had just died and the funeral dinner had ended only hours earlier. It was a somber gathering: a dozen neighbors seated around the heavy mahogany dining-room table no one had used for over a decade. Now there were pans of macaroni and cheese and a red velvet cake and a huge platter of fruit, food enough to last a month if Arlie had had an appetite.
Arlyn's father had been a ferryboat captain, the center of her world, especially in his last years; the captain had burned brighter in the grasp of his illness, a shining star in the dark. A usually silent man, he began to tell stories. There were tales of rocks that appeared in the dark, of mysterious reefs whose only purpose seemed to be to sink ferries, of the drowned men he'd known who had never come back. With a red crayon, he drew charts of stars that could lead a lost man home. He told of a tribe who lived on the other side of the water, in far-off Connecticut, who could sprout wings in the face of disaster. They looked like normal people until the ship went down, or the fire raged, and then they suddenly revealed themselves. Only then did they manage their escape.
On his night table there was a collection of stones the captain said he had swallowed when he was a young man; he'd gone down with a ship and had been the lone survivor. One minute he'd been standing on deck, and the next, he'd been above it all, in the sky. He'd fallen hard and fast into the surf of Connecticut, with a mouth and a belly full of stones.
When the doctor came to tell the captain there was no hope, they had a drink together and instead of ice the captain put a stone in the cups of whiskey.
It will bring you good luck, he'd told the doctor. All I want is for my daughter to be happy. That's all the luck I need.
Arlyn had sobbed at his bedside and begged her father not to leave her, but that was not an option or a choice. The last advice the captain had given her, while his voice still held out, was that the future was an unknown and unexpected country, and that Arlyn should be prepared for almost anything. She had been grief stricken as her father lay dying but now she felt weightless, the way people do when they're no longer sure they have a reason to be connected to this world. The slightest breeze could have carried her away, into the night sky, across the universe.
Arlyn held on to the porch banister and leaned out over the azaleas. Red and pink flowers, filled with buds. Arlyn was an optimist, despite her current situation. She was young enough not to see a glass as half empty or half full, but as a beautiful object into which anything might be poured. She whispered a bargain, as though her whispering could make it true.
The first man who walks down the street will be my one love and I will be true to him as long as he's true to me.
She turned around twice and held her breath as a way to seal the bargain. She wore her favorite shoes, ones her father had bought her in Connecticut, leather slippers so light she felt as though she were barefoot. Her red hair reached her waist. She had seventy-four freckles on her face — she had counted — and a long, straight nose her father had assured her was elegant rather than large. She watched the sky darken. There was a line of ashes up above, a sprinkling of chimney soot. Perhaps her father was up there, watching over her. Perhaps he was knocking on his casket, begging to be let out. Or maybe he was here with her still, in her heart, making it difficult for her to breathe whenever she thought about her life without him. Arlie felt her aloneness inside her, but she was hopeful, too. The past was done with. Now she was made out of glass, transparent and clear. She was an instant in time. One damp evening, two stars in the sky, a line of soot, a chattering gathering of neighbors who barely knew her in the dining room. She had convinced herself that her future would arrive on the street where she'd lived her whole life if only she'd wait long enough. If she trusted in fate.
In the living room, people spoke about Arlyn as though she had died right along with her father. She wasn't a pretty girl, after all, just plain and freckly. She had a high-school diploma and, as far as anyone could tell, no particular skills. One summer she'd worked in an ice-cream shop, and in high school she'd had a dog-washing service, shampooing basset hounds and poodles in the kitchen sink. An ordinary girl all alone in a house where the roof might blow off in the next big storm. People felt pity, but as everyone knew, that wasn't an emotion that lasted long.
A low horn sounded as the ferry came across the water from Bridgeport; the fact that there would be fog tonight was discussed as the women cleaned up, wiping off the table, putting away the pound cakes and the casseroles before going out to the porch to say good night to Arlyn. It was a heavy, salt-laced fog that had settled, the kind that circled lampposts and street signs and made folks lose their way. A damp, soft night. The neighbors assumed that once they'd left, Arlyn would go inside her empty house. Surely she would walk along the hall where her father's coats still hung on the rack, then take the flight of stairs the captain hadn't been able to manage for the past six months. She would edge past his silent room. No more coughing all night long. No more calls for water.
But Arlyn stayed where she was. She was so cold her skin felt like ice; still she remained on the porch. Her father had said to prepare for the future, and Arlyn was ready and willing. Her destiny was sure to come to her in her darkest hour. That was now, this damp, sad night. It took some time, but after three hours Arlie's faith was rewarded. By then the fog had turned to a light rain and the streets smelled like fish. A car stopped; there was a young man inside, lost, on his way to a party. When he got out to ask directions, Arlyn noticed he was taller than her father. She liked tall men. His hair was combed back. He had beautiful pale eyes, a cool gray color. As he approached he shouted, "Hello." His voice was not what she expected — flat and nasal. That didn't matter. Anything could happen now.
Arlyn took a step back in order to study him. Perhaps the young man thought she was afraid — a stranger stopping to talk to her in a banged-up old Saab his dad had given him. He could have been anyone, after all. A murderer, an ex-con, a man who would rip the heart from her chest.
"I'm lost," the young man explained. Usually he would have kept on driving; he had never in his life stopped to ask for directions. But he was late, and he was the sort of person who was usually on time. Veering from punctuality made him anxious; it made him do stupid things. For instance, he had circled around this particular block twice. Before leaving, he'd forgotten to check to make sure his gas tank was full and now he worried that he wouldn't be able to find a service station before he ran out.
The young man's name was John Moody and he was a senior at Yale studying architecture; he recognized Arlie's father's house as an Italianate worker's cottage, built, he would guess, in the 1860s, common in these North Shore towns on Long Island. Not kept up, of course — the roof looked like flypaper, the shingles were badly in need of paint — but charming in a run-down way just as the girl with the long red hair was charming despite her dreadful clothes and the freckles scattered across her pale skin.
Arlyn was wearing an overcoat though it was April.
"You're freezing," John Moody said.
Arlyn took this as concern rather than mere statement of fact. The truth was, she was shivering in the cold light of her future, the light that had been cast by this tall young man who had no idea where he was.
Arlyn felt faint. Fluttery, really. Her whole life had been spent in a cocoon; she had been waiting for this hanging globe of an evening. This is when everything else begins. Whatever happens next is where my life will lead me.
John Moody came up the porch steps. Rickety. In need of repair. John took a moment to catch his breath, then spoke.
"I've never met the person having the party. My roommate Nathaniel's sister. I don't even know why I'm here."
His heart was pounding uncomfortably hard. His father had had a heart attack earlier in the year. Was he having one, too? Well, he'd never liked speaking to strangers; he'd never liked speaking at all. John Moody was a champion of quiet and order. Architecture meant rules one could depend upon. He was a devotee of the clean line and of truth in form, without frills or complications. He didn't like messes of any sort.
Arlyn looked over the directions John's roommate had given him. They were all wrong. "If you want to go to Smithtown, you turn at the corner by the harbor and keep going west. Four towns over."
"That far?" John Moody had been working hard at Yale throughout the semester, trying to distinguish himself; all at once he felt exhausted. "I didn't realize I was so tired."
Arlyn understood. "Sometimes you don't know how tired you are until you close your eyes."
There was no rush, was there? Time was suspended; it wasn't moving at all. They went inside and John Moody lay down on the couch. He had long legs and large feet and he fell asleep easily. He could not remember the last time he'd had a dream. "Just for a minute," he said. "Until I get my second wind."
Arlyn sat on a hard-backed chair, still wearing her overcoat, still shivering. She watched John fall asleep. She had the feeling that whatever happened next would be the true test of whether or not they were meant to be. John's eyelids fluttered; his chest rose and fell. He was a beautiful sleeper, calm, unmoving, peaceful. It felt so right to have him there. The room was littered with chairs that had been pulled into a circle by the visiting neighbors. When Arlyn's father had been at his worst, in such pain he had to be sedated into sleep, he had moaned and thrashed in his dreams and tore at the bedsheets. Sometimes Arlyn would leave him, just for a short time, for a breath of air, a moment alone. She'd walk down to the harbor and look into the darkness. She could hear the water, but she couldn't see it; she couldn't see anything at all. All she'd wanted, then and now, was a man who could sleep. At last he was here.
Arlie left John Moody and went into the kitchen. She hadn't eaten for three days and she realized she was famished. Arlie went to the refrigerator and took out nearly everything — the tins of baked beans, the homemade strudels, the ham, the sweet-potato pie, the last piece of red velvet cake. She sat at the table and ate three days' worth of food. When she was finished she went to the sink, filled it with soapy water, and cleaned the pots and pans.
She was so full no one could accuse her of being light-headed. She was rational. No doubt about it. She knew what she was doing. She took off her coat, her black dress, her slip, her underwear, even the soft leather shoes her father had bought her. She turned out the light. Her breath moved inside her ribs like a butterfly. In and out. Waiting. If he walks through the door, my life will begin. And indeed, when John Moody came into the kitchen, time hurtled forward, no longer suspended. He was walking to her, shocked by his good fortune and by the dreaminess of the evening, the extreme weirdness of setting out from Yale as a bored college boy and ending up here, in this kitchen. Arlie looked like a ghost, someone he'd imagined, a woman made of moonlight and milk. The neighbors who thought she was too plain to notice would have been surprised to know that all John Moody could see was Arlie's beautiful nakedness and her long red hair. He would never have imagined they thought of her as ugly and useless.
As for Arlyn, if nothing ever happened to her again, this would be enough. The way he circled his arms around her, the way the dishes in the dish rack fell to the floor, the good white china in shards and neither one of them caring. She had never been kissed before; she'd been too busy with bedpans, morphine, the practical details of death.
"This is crazy," John Moody said, not that he intended to stop. Not that he could.
Would he hold this against her, years and years later, how waylaid he'd become? Would he say she tricked him with a rare beauty no one had noticed before? All Arlyn knew was that when she led him to her bedroom, he followed. It was a girl's bedroom with lace runners on the bureaus and milk-glass lamps; it didn't even seem to belong to her anymore. The way time was moving, so fast, so intense, made her shudder. She was about to make the leap from one world to the next, from the over and done to the what could be.
Arlyn went forward into time and space; she looped her arms around John Moody's neck. She felt his kiss on her throat, her shoulders, her breasts. He had been lost and she had found him. He had asked for directions and she had told him which way to go. He was whispering, Thank you, as though she had given him a great gift. Perhaps she had given him exactly that: her self, her future, her fate.
HE STAYED FOR THREE DAYS, THE ENTIRE TIME SPENT IN bed; he was crazy for her, hypnotized, not wanting food or water, only her. She tasted like pears. How odd that was, that sweet green flavor, and even odder that he should notice. John didn't usually pay attention to people, but he did now. Arlie's hands were small and beautiful and her teeth were small and perfect as well, but she had large feet, as he did. The sign of a walker, a doer, a person who completed tasks and never complained. She seemed neat and uncomplicated, everything he admired. He did not know her name until the first morning, didn't learn of her father's death until the second. And then on the third morning John Moody awoke suddenly from a dream, the first dream he could remember having in many years, perhaps since he was a child. He'd been in the house he'd grown up in, a renowned construction his architect father had built outside New Haven that people called the Glass Slipper, for it was made out of hundreds of windows woven together with thin bands of polished steel. In his dream, John Moody was carrying a basket of pears along the hallway. Outside there was an ice storm and the glass house had become opaque. It was difficult to see where he was going at first, and then impossible.
John was lost, though the floor plan was simple, one he had known his whole life. His father was a great believer in minimalism, known for it, lauded for his straight lines stacked one upon another, as though a building could be made purely from space and glass. John Moody looked down to see why the basket he carried had become so heavy. Everything was odd: the way his heart was pounding, the confusion he felt. Stranger still: the pears in the basket had become flat black stones. Before he could stop them the stones arose without being touched; they hurtled up through the air as though they'd been fired from a cannon, breaking the windows of the Glass Slipper, one after the other. Everything shattered and the sky came tumbling into the house. Cloud and bird and wind and snow.
John Moody awoke in Arlyn's arms, in a room he did not recognize. There was a white sheet over him, and his chest was constricted with fear. He had to get out. He was in the wrong place; that was all too clear to him now. Wrong time, wrong girl, wrong everything. Next to him, Arlie's red hair fell across the pillow. In this light, true morning light, it was the color of the human heart, of blood. It seemed unnatural, not a color that he, who preferred muted tones, would ever be drawn to.
Arlie raised herself onto one elbow. "What?" she said sleepily.
"Nothing. Go back to sleep."
John Moody already had his pants on and was searching for his shoes. He was supposed to be in class at that very moment. He was taking conversational Italian, planning to travel to Florence during the summer between graduation and his advanced-degree program in architecture. He would stand in great halls, see what the masters had accomplished, sleep dreamlessly through still, black nights in a small hotel room.
Arlyn tried to pull him close. But he was bending down, out of reach, retrieving his shoes from beneath the bed.
"Go back to sleep," John told her. All those freckles he hadn't noticed in the dark. Those thin, grasping arms.
"Will you come back to bed?" Arlie murmured. She was half-asleep. Love was stupefying, hypnotizing, a dream world.
"I'll watch you," John said.
Arlyn liked the sound of that; she may have smiled. John waited till she was asleep, then he left her. He hurried along the stairs Arlyn's father hadn't been able to get down, then went through the empty hall. There was dust in every corner, black mourning ribbons still tied on the backs of the chairs, bits of plaster trickling from the ceiling. He hadn't noticed any of that before; everything fell down and fell apart once you looked closely.
Once John got outside, the fresh air was a jolt. Blessed air; blessed escape. There was a field behind the house, overrun with black-eyed Susans, tall grass, and weeds. In daylight, the cottage had very little charm; it was horrible, really. Someone had added on a dormer and an unattractive side entrance. The paint was a flat steamship gray. Disgraceful what some people thought of as architecture.
John prayed his car would start. As soon as it did, he made a U-turn and headed back to the ferry, counting to a hundred over and over again, the way men who avoid close calls often do. One, get me out of here. Two, I beg of you. Three, I swear I will never stray again. And so on, until he was safely on board the ferry, miles and leagues away, a safe and comfortable distance from a future of love and ruin.
When Arlyn woke all she heard was the silence. It was a while before she realized he was truly gone. She looked through the empty rooms, then sat on the porch, thinking maybe he'd gone to the coffee shop to fetch them breakfast, or to the florist for a dozen roses. No sight of him. No sound. At noon she walked down to the harbor, where Charlotte Pell in the ticket office was quick to recall the man Arlyn described. He had taken the nine-thirty ferry to Bridgeport. He'd been in such a hurry, he hadn't even waited for his change.
It took two weeks for Arlyn to think the situation through. Another woman might have cried, but Arlyn had cried enough to last a lifetime during her father's illness. She believed a bargain was a bargain and that things happened for a reason. She was a planner and a doer, just as John Moody had suspected from the size of her feet. She found out where he lived by calling the Yale housing office and saying she was a shipping service ordered to deliver a basket of fruit. It was not a lie exactly; she planned to bring pears with her. John had said she tasted like pears, and she imagined just the mention of that fruit was now meaningful to them both.
Arlyn was not a liar by nature, but she was a dreamer. She believed there was an ending to all stories, a right and proper last page. Her walk back from the ferry ticket office was not the ending. Not yet.
It took two weeks to settle matters. She cleaned out the attic and the basement, selling odds and ends at a yard sale, then put the house on the market in order to pay off her father's outstanding medical bills. In the end she had very little: a thousand dollars and so few belongings she could pack them into a single suitcase. Her neighbors threw her a good-bye party at the coffee shop across from the ferry terminal. Those same neighbors who had imagined she had no prospects were happy to drink to Arlyn's new life. She was a good girl, after all, and everyone deserved a chance, even Arlie. Over a lunch of oysters and macaroni and cheese and egg-salad sandwiches the neighbors all wished her luck. Exactly where she was going, no one asked. That was the way the future worked. People often disappeared right into it and all anyone could do was hope for the best.
ARLYN TOOK THE FERRY TO BRIDGEPORT, THEN THE TRAIN to New Haven. She felt sure of herself at the start of her travels, anxious by the time she reached the university. When she got out of the taxi, she went behind some rhododendrons and vomited twice, then quickly put a mint in her mouth so that her kiss would be fresh. There was nothing to go back to, really, so being nervous wasn't an option.
John Moody was studying for exams. He had the feeling Arlyn might track him down and he'd had the jitters long before his roommate Nathaniel came to tell him he had a red-haired visitor. Ever since John had returned from Long Island he'd been dreaming. That in itself was a bad sign. He couldn't get rid of his nightmares; therefore, he refused to allow himself to sleep. He was flat-out exhausted; if he wasn't careful he'd ruin his grade-point average. His dreams were filled with disasters, wrong turns, and mistakes. Now one had come knocking at his door.
"Tell her I'm not here," he said to Nathaniel.
"You tell her. She's waiting in the hall."
John closed his books and went downstairs, and there she was, shockingly real, flesh and blood, nervous, freckled, carrying a basket of fruit.
"John," she said.
He took her arm and led her away. They stood in the hallway, near the mailboxes. "Look, I've got exams. I don't know if you understand how difficult my courses are."
"But I'm here. I took the ferry."
John thought she really wasn't very bright. And she had a suitcase with her. John picked up the suitcase and signaled to Arlyn. She followed him outside, around to the rear of the dormitory, so no one would see. The fact that she wasn't angry with him made him feel he was the one who actually had a right to profess some injury. If you looked at the situation from a certain point of view, he was the wronged party. Who the hell did she think she was, appearing this way? Screwing up his study hour?
"I haven't got time for this," John said, as though speaking to a cat that had strayed into the yard. "Go home, Arlyn. You have no business being here."
"We're supposed to be together." Arlyn tilted her face up. She had such a serious expression. She hadn't yet turned eighteen. There was hope all over her; she smelled of it.
"Oh, really? How did you come up with that one?"
In the shadows of the rhododendrons John could barely see how freckled her skin was. She was so young, after all, and it was flattering that she'd come after him this way. She'd chased him down, hadn't she? She had that lovelorn look on her face. He couldn't remember ever having seen such certainty.
"Only until tomorrow," he said. "Then you have to go home."
She picked up the suitcase and followed him back inside. She didn't tell him she had sold her father's house and everything in it. She didn't announce that all of her belongings had been packed into that one suitcase. All right, John didn't seem as happy about their future together as Arlyn had thought he'd be, not yet. But he wasn't the sort to be rushed into anything.
Once in his room, he did let her sit in the easy chair and watch while he studied. She understood he needed quiet; she even went out to get him some supper, a corned-beef sandwich and some hot, black coffee. When he was through with his books, she was there for him in bed, so sweet, so much like a dream. He gave in to it one last time. A good-bye to her, that's what it was. The sex was even hotter; he was in a fever, he was acting like a man in love. But as soon as he fell asleep there were those nightmares again, houses falling down, broken windows, streets that never ended, women who held on and refused to let go. Nothing good could come of this. John got out of bed and quickly dressed, though it was dark, hours before his classes. He didn't care whether or not his socks matched. The basket of fruit on his desk smelled overripe, rotten. He left a note on his desk — Gone to take exam. Have a good trip home.
Frankly, when he did go to class later in the morning, he did terribly on his Italian exam. He could not think of the word for water or book or bowl. His heart started pounding again — the heart-attack feeling he'd had the last time he was with Arlyn. Maybe it was panic. He simply had to get away. He was afraid she would be waiting for him, there in his bed, and that somehow he'd be mesmerized into wanting her again. Because of this he never went back to the dorm. He went straight from class to his car. He stopped at a bar on the way out of town and had some beers; his hands were shaking. He'd made an error in judgment, nothing more. Nothing he had to pay for for all eternity. He got back into the Saab and headed toward his parents' house, outside Madison, counting all the way: One, no one will find me. Two, I am free. Three, I owe her nothing. Four, it will all disappear like a dream.
The roommate, Nathaniel, was the one who told Arlyn that John often went home on the weekends. Nathaniel had found Arlyn back in the hall, late in the day, her suitcase beside her, in tears when she realized John had disappeared. Arlyn explained that she'd sold her father's house and had nowhere to go. Nathaniel had never liked John Moody, he thought of him as a selfish, spoiled prick, so it was a pleasure to give Arlyn a ride to John's family's house. In fact, they made such good time taking back roads that Arlyn was dropped off in the driveway half an hour before John Moody arrived, a bit more drunk than he'd thought.
Arlyn was in the kitchen with his mother, chatting and cutting up carrots for the salad. John spotted her as he walked across the lawn. It was just the way he had dreamed it. The glass house. The woman who wouldn't let go. He felt as though everything that was now happening had already happened in some dark and dreamy otherworld over which he had no control. There were thirty windows in the kitchen and all he could see of Arlyn was her red hair. He thought of pears and he was hungry. He hadn't eaten all day. Just those beers. He was tired. He'd been working too hard and thinking too much and he'd hardly slept. Perhaps there was such a thing as fate. Perhaps this was all part of the natural order of things, the rightness of the future, a grid of devotion and certainty. He went around the back, just as he had when he was a little boy, in through the kitchen door, shoes clattering on the tile floor, shouting out, "Anyone home? I'm starving."
THEY LIVED IN AN APARTMENT ON TWENTY-THIRD STREET
- On Sale
- Jan 11, 2007
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown and Company