Authors: Glen Duncan
Now, after four hours of twitchy sleep and chiseled sobriety he stands at the bottom of his front yard thinking it all went too fast. His cynic's available, asking in a voice like Harper's whether she
scars that first morning with Maddoch. Don't put the light on. Which is an instruction to do the opposite. Young girls are always smarter than you think.
He doesn't care. This is something he can go into for a while whether she's ingenuous or arch. The conclusion doesn't matter. That feeling of corruption when he passed her on the way to the bathroom, what was it if not the acknowledgment that in spite of everything there remain traces of loneliness in his bloodstream?
elina and Augustus got married in secret at City Hall, a brisk civic ceremony presided over dyspeptically by a registrar who looked like Edward G. Robinson. I can't deal with them freaking out right now, Selina said, “them” being her parents. I know we're going to have to go public sooner or later but I just want to get through the first trimester without having to duck crockery. It'll fuck the kid up. With an effort Augustus managed not to sulk about it. Pretty soon she was going to start showing, at which point the precious parents would have to accommodate the monstrous fact whether they liked it or not. Get that nigger brat out of here, his grandfather had said. No doubt they'd be hearing the like again. They'd made no other decisions. Selina was still taking classes at NYU though she'd established that deferring her final year wouldn't be a problem. Augustus too only had a year to go. With Selina's permission he'd taken his mother and Cardillo into his confidence. After their marriage Juliet had moved into the restaurateur's Upper East Side apartment. To everyone's surprise and Cardillo's chagrin she'd insisted he teach her the business, and within a year she was a familiar face to suppliers, chefs,
wait-staff and regularsânot to mention Cardillo's connections, who had “an interest” in all six restaurants. I like working, she told Augustus. Who would've thought? All those years living like a slob. Jeez, I'm sorry I was such a lousy mom, kiddo. Yeah that's great, Augustus said. Just make sure you don't get
. Augustus still gave Cardillo a hard time, but with an air of self-satire and an increasing understanding of how much his mother cared for her husbandâThe Comedy Husband as they referred to him. Cardillo didn't try too hard with Augustus but chose his moments. Her old man going to give you two trouble? he'd asked one night at the 14th Street restaurant. (A rare dinner foursome. Selina and Juliet had never been close but the imminent baby had inclined them to make an effort. Hence dinner together. The women were in the ladies' room.) Some, Augustus said. He's a big wheel. You know Northrop Aircraft? Cardillo wasn't impressed. You want this guy leaned on it's not going to matter who he works for. Augustus smiled, shook his head. I'm just sayin', Gianni said, he's a man, right? He likes his ankles better when he can walk on them, right? Am I right? Augustus couldn't keep a straight face. Neither could Cardillo. It was the way they played his Mafia connections, as if they were a harmless fantasy, indulged occasionally but never taken seriously. It was part of the man's charm, Augustus had come to see, the clownish front with behind it real power. Gianni, believe me, if we need to apply pressure you'll be the first to knowâthen when he saw Cardillo needed to know the offer was understood as genuineâI promise, seriously. I know we can count on you. I appreciate it. Here come the girls.
Money wasn't, immediately, a problem. Selina's father had cut off her allowance when it became obvious the relationship with
Augustus was more than just the latest stick to beat him with. This ought to have been devastating, but in fact Selina had for two years been diverting her father's stipend into antiwar organizations, literacy programs, Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Don't give me any credit, she said. I'm only doing it because there's other money. If I was busting my ass waiting tables these do-gooders wouldn't see a dime. The other money was a legacy from her grandmother she'd come into on turning eighteen. It wouldn't last forever but it would get them into an apartment and might tide them over until Augustus got a job. (He'd thought, vaguely, of becoming a journalist, but hadn't done much about it.) Cardillo and Juliet both spoke privately to Augustus, made it known they'd make sure all was well. I know your little witch thinks I'm a grifting old whore, Juliet said. But talk to her will you? Tell her we love her. We don't, but tell her anyway. If she wants to finish college this year Gianni and I will look after the kid. Talk to her.
Selina had moved out of the shared apartment into a second-floor studio on East 6th Street, which because neither Virginia nor her stuff was in it seemed palatial. There was a sitting area with a pull-out and a fireplace overlooked by two windows. A breakfast bar sectioned off the small white tiled kitchen. Overnight Selina had abandoned slovenliness. Augustus, astonished that he was legally entitled to do so, moved in with her. He did it in the low-profile manner he'd made an art formâunnecessarily, since the building was full of aspirant bohemians who, if they thought about it at all between performance verse and body collage, claimed it as a countercultural victory.
Pregnancy was rough on Selina. She threw up every morning,
went in and out of nausea all day, suffered headaches, insomnia, constipation. She and Augustus began referring to her breasts as the Grenades of Tenderness. He might forget and cup oneâthe result was what Selina described as “white light detonation.” Naturally prohibition re-eroticized them. It's just as well, Selina said. You were beginning to take them for granted. It wasn't only her breasts; he was newly crazy for her. You're doing something, he said. You're doing something with your pheromones. Selina, whose libido had all but disappeared, said: Baby, let me make this unequivocally clear. I'd rather eat a leper's sock than have sex right now. I'll jerk you off and you can look at my boobs but it'll basically be a tedious act of charity. I don't knock charity, Augustus said, unzipping his pants. Holy mother of God I don't knock charity.
Then at around ten weeks Selina's mood changed. Abstracted silences and vicious lashings out. Nightmares woke her in a sweat. She wouldn't talk about them. Twice in the small hours Augustus found her sitting on the can in the brightly lit bathroom staring at the floor. Everything he did irritated her. The tedious acts of charity stopped. He absorbed it for a couple of weeks without complaint. Then one night much against his inclination they went to see a rerun of
, which they'd missed first time around. When they came out of the theater Selina said, Don't say anything. Especially don't say,
Wow, that was a hot idea
. They walked the eight blocks home in silence. When they got back to the apartment and it appeared she was ready to go the rest of the night without uttering a word, he said: What the fuck is wrong with you? She was at the sink with her back to him, had begun putting away the washed dishes without even taking her
coat off. Oh nothing's wrong with me, she said, not turning to face him. Nothing at all. What could be wrong? I'm twenty-two and having a black man's baby and not graduating and throwing up the whole time and crucifying my fucking parents and killing my brother and wondering what it's going to be like trapped in a fucking apartment waiting for you all day and thinking it's only a matter of time before everything starts to feel Sylvia Plathish and something like a door handle or a lamp says yeah baby this is your life. Jesus fucking
Augustus stood still behind her with his hands full of useless life. The kitchen countertops were white Formica and the breakfast bar stools were stainless steel with pink vinyl cushions; everything shone. He thought again of how she'd gone at a stroke from mess to order. A baby arrived in a woman and she could do these things, snip off habits as if pruning a bush. He made himself keep his mouth shut.
Selina turned and moved past him, leaning away so as not to touch. She stood in the middle of the room for a few moments, then sat down on the edge of the bed. I had a letter from Michael, she said.
In the years that followed this was one of his abiding images of her, sitting hunched forward in her fawn woolen overcoat, hands thrust into its pockets, her face's confidence gone. Michael had gone back to Vietnam in January and written her a cri de coeur. Didn't she know she was what he carried between himself and death? She was lying to herself. The lifeâany life other than their life togetherâwas a lie. He had power over her. That was the letter's refrain, that he had power over her. Augustus didn't like her voice's edge of fascination. Selina looked at the floor. He's
not wrong you know, she said, quietly. He does have power over me. With him I don't ever have to be better than I am. He's like a palliative darkness. I don't think you know how much I disgust myself.
Augustus wanted to lie down. For the first time in the three years he'd been with her he wondered if he had what it took to keep her. One of her soul's voices never tired of telling her she was rotten,
stained with sin
, as she satirically put it. The cosmic fairy-tale world shivered under the real one with its appealing absolutes and paradoxes. We always know what the right thing to do is, she'd said. We
I wrote back to him, Selina said, then looked up.
If you could see your face.
Full of doubt.
Yeah I guess I shouldn't have a shred of doubt.
He wanted to fight because there was something worse than fighting. It was in her eyes, the concession that there was no
in fighting, a look that said she'd resigned herself to the gulf between them.
I wrote back to him a while ago, Selina said. She lifted her toes, balanced on her boot heels, lowered them. He'll have had the letter by now.
She'd written and told Michael everything, that she was in love with Augustus, that they were secretly married, that she was having his child, that what had happened the summer she was fifteen would never happen again, that she loved him still in the wrong way, didn't blame him, felt the deep, awful connection, but
was absolutely resolved on making a life, family and future with Augustus. There was a different love, she said, one that called you out of your weaknesses, like Christ commanding Lazarus to pick up his bed and come forth. In a life with him, Michael, too much of her would be stuck at fifteen. The morality was neither here nor there; it was that between them love would be a kind of stasis, a force against growth, a willful deafness to the call forward into uncertainty. He must find someone else, make an adventure of his own, let her be his sister once and for all.
That's why all this, Selina said, meaning the moods, the bad dreams,
They'd remained in the same places, her hunched forward on the edge of the bed, him standing behind the breakfast bar. Augustus had registered that the apartment's heating wasn't working properlyâthe studio was freezing.
I'm going to have a bath, Selina said. I'm sorry about everything. Tomorrow we'll go see my parents and tell them and they'll just have to deal with it or keel over dead if that suits them better. I'm sick of all this sneaking around. You should go have dinner. I'm not hungry. Just bring me back a maki roll from Tomoko.
They'd got through practically all of this without looking at each other, but now they did look, and she said: Assuming you still want to do all this. Assuming you still want me.
Later, Augustus would remember the bounce with which he went out that evening. A new bar had opened on the corner of Eighth Street and First. He went in and had a drink, chatted with the bartender, watched the band set up, exchanged smiles with a couple of white hippy girls at a corner table, all with an energized benevolence, an alert love for the ordinary world. It was
five below outside. Sidewalks glimmered, he felt his shoulders packed with strength, thought goddamn it he should've boxed. He wasn't hungry either but stayed out an hour for the pleasure of going back. He kept seeing her in the bath, hair pinned up, face moist. You forgot the beauty. Then you watched her soaping her lifted leg. There was a flower stall open next to Tomoko. Realizing with a surge of panic that he'd never done it before he bought an armful to take home for her. Why hadn't he ever covered her with flowers? What was wrong with him? He was insane!
When he got back to the apartment she was naked on her knees throwing up into the toilet. The bath was full and quietly crackling with foam.
Tell me you didn't forget my maki roll, she said.
Augustus dumped the flowers and takeout in the kitchen and joined her on the bathroom floor.
I'd rub your back but I don't think you want hands this cold on you. Did you get in the tub yet?
While she lay in the bath Augustus found a vase for the flowers (given her pronouncement that she felt “like death” he didn't think it worth strewing them on the bed) and ate a few mouthfuls of sushi. The heat came on.
I don't want food, she called. But how about a peppermint tea?
He wondered where Michael was at that moment, pictured him in waterproofs under a dripping tarp rereading the letter. There's a love that calls you out of your weaknesses, like Christ commanding Lazarus. Assuming you still want to do all this. Yes, he wanted to do all this. Pouring her tea he realized (with, he thought, staggering belatedness) how much living with her evoked the best
moments of living with his mother, and how awful that would sound if he told Selina. Juliet had been crazy and unreliable but she'd known how to make boiling a kettle or sending him down to the store or reading a dumb magazine an adventure. (He wasn't kind enough to his mother these days, he knew, had never forgiven her for being a woman beyond her motherhood. It was still shocking to consider that your mother when you were six or ten or fourteen was just as much in a phase of her life as you were in a phase of yours.)