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Authors: Katherine Hill

The Violet Hour: A Novel

BOOK: The Violet Hour: A Novel
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for my parents

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,

Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see

At the violet hour . . .

—T. S. Eliot,
The Waste Land

The rarer action is

In virtue than in vengeance.

—William Shakespeare,
The Tempest

Prologue

F
or a moment that afternoon, it was only woman and water, the bay in all its sickening glory squaring itself for a fight. The waves flexed before her, muscly and ultramarine. The wind taunted her, whapping strands of hair across her Vaselined lips, where they stuck, and stuck again, no matter how many times she brushed them free. Spray flew, the shoreline canted—the whole scene smacked of chaos—and above the sails, large plates of cloud shifted tectonically, exposing a lethal sun.

Cassandra was no seafarer. That was Abe, who’d loved the water since childhood. They’d bought this boat because he’d always wanted one, and because she felt compelled to make concessions. It was only her second time joining him, and though the first had passed without incident, she was still in the process of gaining her sea legs. For now they seemed to work best when they were idle. So with a gin and tonic sweating anxiously in her hand, and an invisible coating of sunblock thick as paint across her face, she reclined on the cushioned bench in the stern, her feet crossed, then uncrossed, then crossed again at the ankle.

She tried to suppress her nausea, even tried to enjoy the nodding of the boat on the water, the congratulatory slapping of waves on its
back. When they passed beneath the Bay Bridge she looked up into its belly, where triangle trusses pointed toward land like floor lights on an airplane, illuminating the emergency exits. As long as they sailed during the day, with the shoreline always in sight, she knew she could be strong. The open sea was another story, wider and deeper than all of human civilization, with levels ever rising. There was a time when the mere proximity of the ocean had thrilled her, its color and moisture a fresh discovery, as though she were a pioneer at the end of a punishing journey overland. She used to love the way the water merged with the sky, blue asserting itself as the most dominant color in nature. It used to make her feel very powerful. Now it only made her feel frail.

Of course these days, she saw her weaknesses everywhere she went. They leapt out at her from newspaper stories of distant atrocities she’d done nothing to prevent, and from the dusty, neglected corners of her studio at home. And the truth was, she
was
frail. Not yet in body. Her body still worked quite well. But in judgment. How else to explain Vince Hersh: thirty-one and broad, if not quite handsome, a rambunctious clown in bed. She hadn’t intended to sleep with him, at least not the first time. Yet through some weakness she’d given in, then through some other weakness gone back for more. Even breaking it off had been a weak decision, made in fear of getting caught. He owned a fashionable gallery in Oakland, a slick place where Cassandra never felt she really belonged. But he’d chosen one of her pieces, and then he’d chosen her. She gripped the rail now as they bounced through choppy water, amazed at how life had surprised her. She’d been an adulteress, a slave to sensation. With her husband she owned a sloop.

The affair was beyond her comprehension but she was trying her best to understand the boat. Abe’s white, perpendicular pet, with all its funny parts: fairleads, halyards, jib, boom. On this late June afternoon, she wore mirrored sunglasses, a canvas hat, and a thick belted cardigan to keep her shoulders warm. In a brave attempt to relax, she left her shoes belowdecks.

“Elizabeth!” she called as they neared shore to drop anchor for a while. “Come take some more sunblock!” She set her glass in a cup holder and reached for the tube in her bag.

Her daughter climbed down from the prow in a bikini so red it was almost patriotic. As a child, she’d been fair like her mother, but now, at eighteen, she’d suddenly managed a buttery tan. Cassandra hardly recognized her. “I don’t need any more,” Elizabeth said, checking an arm. “Daddy’s genes have finally reported for duty.”

Cassandra looked at her husband, who was bronze, and always seemed to need less than she did—less sunblock, less affirmation, less risk. He had the wheel in one hand, his gin and tonic in the other, and a volume of Borges waiting on the bench. He liked his drink, and occasionally his dope, but really he was addicted to reading. He spent hours at it every night in bed, illumined by a slim, bending lamp, growing melancholy as he neared a book’s end, as though some part of him were ending, too. He was now almost done with the fatly collected Borges, yet this time he appeared unfazed, as though he hadn’t really been reading it, only giving each page some air. Something was bothering him, something he probably had to work out for himself. She’d learned years ago not to pester him when he fell into one of his moods.

“I’m not sure it works like that,” Cassandra said to Elizabeth. “I think it probably has more to do with the ozone and the time of year you got your first exposure to the sun. You were in Mexico in March.”

“Then here’s my other theory. Beer. I’ve had more beer this year than any other. I think it might’ve altered my body’s chemistry. Made me more susceptible to tanning.” She couldn’t suppress her laugh—rational, honest Elizabeth.

“That’s ridiculous. It’s the ozone.”

“Mom. It was a joke.” She shook her head and went off to assist with the approach.

Elizabeth knew a few sailors at her school, blond, beach-club types in polo shirts, their collars popped unnaturally toward the sky. She found them vaguely preposterous, and was likewise suspicious of
sailing. It’s not about who does it now, Abe had told her, it’s about how it used to be: John Smith, Columbus, Odysseus, Noah! So what? she’d protested. Everyone in history sailed, from the famous to the forgotten. Exactly, Abe told her, his point.

Nevertheless, as first mate, she’d learned gamely, scrambling for the lines according to the wind, and lowering the anchor as she did now, according to her father’s direction. Already she was a pro. The anchor secured, Elizabeth began to circle the deck, checking on various knots.

In the welcome calm, Cassandra allowed herself the pleasure of marveling at her daughter, as adept at sailing as she seemed to be at all things. How different she was—what complete faith she had in herself. Cassandra could hardly wear a bikini when she was her age, much less buy one, yet here was Elizabeth in magnificent tatters, apparently not even cold. She was going to college in the fall—Harvard. The word still gave Cassandra a little thrill every time she saw it printed on a piece of their mail. She’d done it. She’d given her vocationally trained parents a Harvard-bound grandchild, the icing atop their second-generation American cake.

Elizabeth’s tan legs returned now and walked up the deck. They stepped onto the port gunwale, then up to the guardrail above it, balancing precariously as if on a tightrope, and an instant later, had sprung, splayed and fearless, into the bay.

“Your sister’s a regular circus artist,” Cassandra whispered to Ferdinand, the Portuguese water dog, who had come to rest his brown head in her lap.

“An artist?” Abe asked from his bench.

Over the years Cassandra’s art was one of the few things that had given him hope when doctoring turned gloomy. It was incredible, the things she could make for no other reason than she wanted to. Abe was a rheumatologist, and his patients, beset with lupus, osteoporosis, and debilitating strains of arthritis, were people in great pain. They came lumbering in with walkers wide as doors, fat ankles spilling out over their shoes like muffin tops. They had hunch
backs and butterfly-shaped rashes across their cheeks and bodies as brittle as glass. After two decades of approximate science—“How much does it hurt, on a scale of one to ten?”—inconclusive labs—“Your blood work shows no evidence of the rheumatoid factor, but of course twenty percent of patients never do”—and infinitesimal changes in dose yielding negligible changes in pain, he was encouraged that his wife saw a different future for their daughter. At least with art, it was possible to lose yourself in beauty, to forget for a moment that life was mostly brutal and unfair. At least with art, one did not have to look a thirty-three-year-old mother of four in the eye and tell her that thanks to some inexplicable, overzealous urge of the immune system—genetic, hormonal, he couldn’t say why—she had suffered irreversible damage, the cartilage having almost completely worn away, the pain destined only to increase.

“I’ve just been thinking about Elizabeth,” Cassandra told him, caressing Ferdinand’s ears. “Everything keeps coming so naturally to her. She’s a teenager; she ought to be tormented. But she’s not. She’s a regular magician.”

“And that makes her an artist how?”

Cassandra looked out over the wrinkled water, which seemed as fruitless in its journey as they sometimes were in conversation. Abe awaited his wife’s response, his finger calmly marking his page.


Circus
artist,” she said, hearing this second time how stupid her comment had been.

“Ah. Because of the way she was standing on the rail . . .” His voice trailed off. “Remember that play she did in the hall? With Jessica? And those togas they had to keep gathering at their knees to keep from tripping? It was very witty.”

Cassandra remembered the play for other reasons, but in many ways she preferred Abe’s version of the past. “She was in middle school. Can you believe that’s already five years ago?”

“Good God, what happened?” he asked. “How did we let her get away with this?”

She laughed, and in that moment of sweet understanding, she felt
she ought to tell him about Vince, that he’d forgive her and pull her to his chest as he’d so often done when they were young. If there was one thing she’d loved about their marriage back then, it was the freedom they’d felt to be honest. She could tell him when he’d been hurtful, and he would hear her, and try to change. She could confess her own transgressions, and be forgiven and even understood. It would take more effort to be honest with him now, and Cassandra couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. She shook the ice cubes in her glass as he stood to fuss with a line.

Most things about her husband now were firm: his reason, his resolve, his rules. Even, at forty-seven, his body, with its extraordinarily durable bones. He knew and sometimes overestimated his strength, imagining himself armored by his scrappy layered heritage—German Jewish, Italian, Scotch-Irish, African. Abe himself was inscrutably tan, which seemed to give him permission to disappear in any crowd. He watched the white sails ahead of them shrinking toward the bowing bridge and wondered how many outings it would take before Cassandra would be ready for the ocean. It still disappointed him that she, who’d never really lost someone, could be so frightened of the truest, greatest things.

BOOK: The Violet Hour: A Novel
4.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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