[….continued from previous post.]
Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.
Florence was not the ideal partner for this kind of analysis. Her lack of interest in style and grooming blinded her to the wife’s shortcomings in dress and makeup. Worse, she didn’t find Couteau as attractive as Clara did; his unfavorable report on her work in the Shakespeare seminar had jeopardized her scholarship and she’d had to write two more long papers over the summer to get it reinstated, understandably weakening her susceptibility to his charms. “It can’t be easy being his wife,” she observed. “I bet he’s a difficult man to live with.” Also she didn’t think his drinking out of Clara’s glass was going to lead to anything. She agreed it wasn’t what the typical don would do with the typical donnee’s wine glass, and further agreed he likely found Clara attractive, especially in that sophisticated corduroy outfit, or he wouldn’t have done it. That said, she was inclined to view the sip of wine as an error of judgment.
Here, Clara had to concede, Florence was the expert. Sloven or no, she had lost her virginity to a much older man almost as soon as she’d arrived at college three years before. Clara’s knowledge of her deflowering hardly constituted a confidence; she’d told at least six other people, all of whom had thoroughly discussed it with one another. He’d done it on the floor of his 57th Street art gallery, beneath a Picasso, the Saturday she went to New York to apply for a weekend job. It turned out there was no job. Just instant mutual attraction and a long affair. Even now they still connected from time to time, if their respective schedules permitted. (She checked her diaphragm in a Grand Central locker whenever she went home on school breaks.) Clearly her views on Clara’s future with their mutual don were entitled to deference.
“Look,” she said, “it was only your glass. If he really wanted to go to bed with you, why didn’t he kiss the back of your neck, or put his arm around your waist, or his hand on your tit? He could have done any or all of that while the two of you were looking out that damn window for so long.”
“No, he couldn’t,” Clara insisted. “You were there.”
“He didn’t care about me being there or he wouldn’t have done the thing with the glass. Besides,” she added, “you didn’t exactly encourage him. If you wanted to make something of it, why didn’t you turn around? You just stood there, for God’s sake. He must have thought you’d report him if he went further!”
So now it was Clara’s fault. “You really think nothing more is going to happen?”
“Not before he gets back to school,” opined this woman of the world who owned a diaphragm. “What do you expect him to do? Write you incriminating love letters? Call you on the house phone and explain to someone else why he needs to speak to you?”
“Then what can I do?”
Florence was buttoning her coat to get back to her own off-campus house. Behind as usual, she needed the Thanksgiving break to catch up on assigned reading. “Invite him over to lunch next term, after he’s back. Make hamburgers or something. This is a neat house for stuff like that. You could even serve it in your room. And see what happens then.”
Clara paced restlessly after she had left. Did she really want to steal him away from the wife in socks and become the wife herself – stepmother to his unseen little girl and slavey in his kitchen? Not really. But the delicious unhappiness of an affair with a married faculty member who couldn’t resist her: how could she not yield? Was it too dangerous? Would it jeopardize her degree? What should she do? What could she do? If only it had been a regular don-donnee dinner, without any of these troubling problems! She wished she’d eaten more of the wife’s cooking.
Taking Florence’s advice, Clara invited Couteau to lunch a few days before spring break. He seemed surprised, but accepted. In town, she bought a pound of freshly ground round, lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, and also a few hard rolls in case he needed bread. Everyone else in the house agreed to stay away for this momentous occasion. Clara cleared off her desk, borrowed a second desk chair from another room and laid out two place settings, napkins, salt and pepper, the ketchup bottle, a basket of the rolls and two glasses. Couteau arrived just as the two half-pound patties of ground round were nearing completion in the frying pan. (A half-pound was what Clara’s mother had always made for her father.) Clara slid the meat onto plates already decorated with lettuce and tomato slices, and led Couteau up the stairs, each of them carrying a plate and an eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. When he saw they were to eat in her room he hesitated momentarily, but then courageously crossed the threshold. Clara left the door open, to reassure him. “Where is everybody?” he asked.
“Why, at lunch!” she laughed gaily.
It was an awkward meal. Clara asked if the meat was sufficiently well done. He said yes, it was very good but a lot of food. Flushing with embarrassment, Clara said she thought that was the amount men ate. (This did not explain why she too had half a pound on her plate.) He said he had a class to teach that afternoon and would fall asleep if he ate it all. Hurriedly, she changed the subject and asked about his wife, his child. He said they were fine. He asked what she thought she might want to do next year. If she were applying to graduate school, he’d be glad to write recommendations, her last paper was really remarkable. She said she was putting grad school on the back burner for a while to see what real life was like. He nodded, and pushed his plate away. Half the hamburger was still there. Clara had finished all hers. He didn’t drink from her glass. He didn’t drink from his own glass either. Maybe he didn’t like Coca-Cola? He thanked her for the home-cooked lunch and got up to go. “We’ll have to do this again,” Clara said. “When you have more time.”
“When do I have more time?” he asked pleasantly.
As soon as he was out the front door, she hurried back upstairs. Damn him. Had he forgotten Thanksgiving, the heavy breathing, the sip of wine? And if he was regretting all that, if he had realized in the interim that a love between them could only come to naught, why did he agree to come to lunch and put her to all this trouble? He hadn’t even offered to help take everything downstairs! Well, of course not, why would he? That slavey of a wife did everything for him. She poured ketchup on the remains of his ground round and ate it angrily before stacking the plates. She had to make two trips because she had no tray, and had just managed to finish cleaning everything up, including the greasy frying pan, when some of her housemates returned from their own lunch in the dining room. “How was it?” they asked, curiously. They didn’t know about the heavy breathing and sip of wine.
“I’m certainly not doing that again,” Clara said, loss and indigestion throbbing in her midsection.
“Pretty awful.” She laughed hollowly. “And I thought I was being so nice. It just goes to show….”
And then it was really over. Parents began arriving for the commencement dinner. They sat on folding chairs on the small lawn in front of Clara’s off-campus house and exchanged polite remarks while waiting for it to be dinnertime. Photos were snapped. Couteau came looking for Clara in the dining room. How gracious he was to her parents, whose conventional views of life he had worked so hard, with only partial success, to eradicate in Clara. Although he sat at their table through the appetizer and entrée, chatting lightly of this and that while she hoped for a private look in her direction, he excused himself before dessert to join Florence and her parents at another table.
Following dessert and coffee Clara’s parents left too – because, said her father, it was a long drive home and they would have to get up early for commencement at eleven. Dutifully she walked them to their new Pontiac and then hurried back to the dining room. By then the dinner was breaking up. Some of the other parents were now calling taxis to go into town for drinks with each other. Clara made her way around clusters of people she didn’t know, past deserted tables littered with dirty cups and crumpled napkins, looking for Florence and Couteau. “Oh, they’ve left,” someone told her. “Her parents weren’t able to come after all, so he took her into town to the Spoon.” The Greasy Spoon was a drinking hangout. Clara had never in all her four college years been there. He took her? On the very last evening they could ever have together? Sloppy disheveled her? She swiped the last four brownies from a tray near the kitchen, wrapped them in two napkins and took them back to her room, where she ate them methodically at the desk which was no longer her desk, brown crumbs falling on her new yellow cotton dress.
The next morning the sun shone. Alphabetically by last name, the graduates lined up in black caps and gowns rented for the occasion, to sit in the first two long rows of folding chairs arranged on the broad front lawn of the administration building. Florence was two seats away. Clara leaned over the girl between them and poked her. She turned. “What happened at the Spoon last night?” Clara whispered.
“Nothing,” Florence whispered back. “He drank a lot. He looked pretty drunk by the time the place closed.”
“What then? I went back to my room.”
“He went home. At least he said he was going to.”
The girl sitting patiently between them suddenly made shushing noises. The faculty, also in caps and gowns, were filing solemnly out of the building to sit on a dais set up on the front portico. Ah, there was the college president, followed by the dean. Clara tried to make out Couteau under one of the black caps. Sour brownie rose up in her mouth, the taste of failure and gastric reflux. She swallowed hard and choked everything down, stomach acid burning her throat. A name was called, a diploma presented, hands shaken. She heard clapping from parents, families and friends of others coming from the seats on the grass in the rows and rows behind her. Another name. And another. The clapping grew slightly less enthusiastic. Too many names. It seemed to go very fast all the same. Soon she tensed. There. Her name. Up she went. Diploma. Handshake. A scattering of claps.
Afterwards there was some milling around, but everyone was anxious to get on the road. Couteau approached. Stay in touch, he said. She nodded. He walked away, out of her life. A few of the others from her senior house waved to her. Goodbye, goodbye. Stay in touch. She nodded again. You too. It was hard to say more without crying.
Clara kept the Neilson and Hill, but although Couteau had covered only eight of the plays in class, she never again opened it to read another. At first she feared she wouldn’t be able to duplicate her interpretive success with All’s Well That Ends Well. Later, dipping into Shakespeare slipped further and further down her to-do list. But when she was sixty, her two children grown and gone from the nest, her career as a patent lawyer settling into four unpressured days a week at a small boutique firm, she began to look back at her life and it crossed her mind she’d like to see Couteau again before he died.
Having obtained his present address and telephone number from the college and made arrangements for a visit, she discovered he now lived in a modest two-story house at the top of a very steep hill in Kerhonkson, a small town in the Catskills. Margaret Couteau opened the door with a warm smile. “He’ll be so glad you came,” she said. Although quite wrinkled, she otherwise hadn’t changed much, except for white hair and the extremely thick cataract lenses in her glasses that enormously enlarged her eyes.
Couteau, heavier and looking much older than his wife, sat hunched sourly in an easy chair before a television news channel with the volume turned up high. Two canes leaned against the chair. He made no effort to get up, but did switch off the television with a remote. Then he stared at Clara for a moment, as if unsure of who she was, before extending a cold gnarled hand.
“His arthritis is very bad,” explained Margaret.
“Hello, Charles,” said Clara, as cheerfully as she could. “You do remember me, don’t you? Clara? From the class of ’52?
He continued to stare. “I remember you used to be angular and sharp,” he snapped suddenly. “What happened?”
Clara said nothing. It had been forty years. I was only angular and sharp for about two weeks as an entering freshman, she thought. Is it my mind he’s remembering?
“Margaret says you’re some kind of big shot lawyer now. So you sold out too. Like most of the others.”
They had lunch in the adjoining kitchen. He needed the two canes to maneuver himself to the table. It was fillet of sole, peas and carrots. Clara noticed Margaret had actually shelled fresh peas and scraped fresh carrots. Couteau complained the carrots weren’t sweet enough. Clara had brought a good Bordeaux and the most expensive single malt Scotch she could find in her local liquor store. He nodded when Margaret showed him the bottles, but otherwise took no notice. When he had finished eating, he rose with help and stumbled painfully away for a nap on a sleeper sofa in the living room. “He can’t get up the stairs anymore,” explained Margaret when he was out of earshot. “He has to live down here now. We put in a downstairs bathroom.”
Clara helped her clear, wash up and dry. There was no dishwasher. Then they sat down at the kitchen table again. “This must be very hard for you,” said Clara. “Alone here at the top of a mountain. How do you manage?”
It seems Margaret did all the driving up and down – to get groceries, reach the drugstore, fill the tank of their fifteen-year-old Buick. Genevieve, the daughter, lived with another lesbian woman in Western Massachusetts. She did speak with her mother every week, so there was that. “But Charles is very disappointed Genevieve turned out the way she did,” said Margaret. “He feels it was some kind of failure. Unnatural, he calls it. He doesn’t want to talk to her when she calls.”
“How can that be?” exclaimed Clara. “His views about how to live were so liberating!”
“I don’t know about that,” said Margaret. “Charles was always quite a conventional man. He even made me stop working after we married. He didn’t think a wife should go out to earn money. You can see where that landed us.” Then she noticed the expression on Clara’s face. “He did talk a good game, though,” she added kindly. “You weren’t the only student who found him inspiring.”
“You’ve got to get off this hill,” said Clara. “How much longer can you go on like this?” She wasn’t just thinking of the cataracts.
“Tell that to Charles.”
Couteau woke up in time to see Clara leave. He appeared somewhat anxious for her to be out of the house so he could turn on the television again. There was a program he wanted to watch. Only Margaret seemed sad to see her go. Before she came, Clara had imagined she might make a little joke about that sip of wine on Thanksgiving Day so long ago. All things considered, it was just as well she hadn’t.