Back in the City
Annemarie Morris melted into the new buttery-soft red leather couch and sipped her coffee. Then, as she examined the rest of the recently installed furnishings in her spacious sun-drenched living room, she smiled and sighed, thinking, A long time—25 years. Good to be back.
She noticed a smudge on one of the floor-to-ceiling windows and started to stand. Then she decided that it could wait until the cleaning woman came later in the week. She ran her fingers over the smooth, pliant leather. Closing her eyes, Annemarie smiled with satisfaction as she thought about all of the things she would do now that she was back in New York. When her cell phone rang she checked the name on the display and said, “Hi, Gina. All settled in. I can’t believe I’m finally back.” She and her friend talked for a while. After Annemarie said good-bye and clicked off the phone she walked to the kitchen and was about to open the refrigerator when she remembered that it was empty. I’ll go shopping tomorrow or maybe I’ll order online and have them deliver or maybe I’ll never eat in again. After all, this is New York.
She looked at her watch. It was 3 p.m. Too early for dinner, but that was fine since she did not feel like getting dressed up and dining in a restaurant, so she threw her full-length mink over her sweater and jeans and took the elevator to the lobby. She walked out to the street and down a block to a coffee shop that she remembered from years before.
After a quick bite she decided to walk to the park. Even the air smells right. Not like that antiseptic desert air ... Buena Vista. Ugh.
She had lived in Arizona for 25 years. At first, it had been wonderful, as had been her marriage. However, after a few months on the isolated ranch, Annemarie decided that her life had become as arid, monotonous, and suffocating as the surrounding desert. When Mark made it clear that he would never leave, Annemarie decided she had to run to save her life, but that was not really an option. For one thing, she knew that if she decided to leave Mark he would fight her tooth and nail for full custody of Roger, and he would probably win. Besides, how would she survive? A clause in their prenuptial agreement would leave her with only pocket change if she were to terminate the marriage or even separate from Mark. In addition, she had nothing and no one to return to in New York or anywhere else. She certainly had not been interested in going back to the degrading knock-around, just-barely-hanging-in-there lifestyle that she had endured before she met Mark: an endless string of heartbreaking love affairs and short-lived hook-ups and one dreadful, dead-end job after another. She always ended up reaching the final stage of her latest romantic relationship and losing her job at around the same time. Then she would be too depressed to look for a new position or hunt for a new man. She would stay in her apartment until she reached the point at which she was just a few dollars ahead of living on the street. Then she would force herself out of bed, work magic with cosmetics as she squinted into her bathroom mirror, put on a slinky, short skirt, and plant herself at the bar of a high-end cocktail lounge. Sooner or later, a man would sit on the next stool and buy her a drink. Depending on how desperate she was and based on what she perceived to be the likelihood of the man being interested in a long-term relationship, at some point that night or the next or the next, she would ask if he would lend her some cash because she was “just a little short on my rent this month.” Several were very handsome, decent men; with just a few, she hoped the relationship would last, but none of them ever did. Of course, she turned down the sleazy-looking ones and the scary ones, but most of them were actually very nice. They got what they wanted and she got what she needed, for a while, at least. Not quite a party girl; not the same thing as a hooker—after all, I never actually walked the street.
Annemarie’s longest relationship was with an accountant, Frank Berger, who said that he was in love with her. Although she did not love him she was pleased with their relationship; he was affectionate, steady, generous, and charming. She felt secure, thinking that, in time, she might be able to love him. For that reason, despite the fact that she was falling behind in her rent again and the only food in her apartment was a box of spaghetti—not even a jar of tomato sauce to go along with it—she promised herself that she would not ask him for money. Then she torpedoed it all. One evening when Frank would not be available to see her because he had a late-night business meeting, she decided she had to get out of her apartment, so she took the subway to Swinging Jimmy’s Corner, a mid-town establishment. She had nothing in mind, other than enjoying a cocktail or two, but three martinis later she was blissfully buzzed, but then she realized she had only a couple of dollars in her purse, not enough to pay her bar tab. She decided she had to meet someone nice who would be willing to pay for her drinks, so she smiled at a man wearing a black suit and nice shirt and tie. He returned her smile and then he sat on the next stool and bought her a martini, which led to another and another. By the time they left, a little past midnight, she was so impaired that the man had to hold onto her arm as they walked. Each time she told him that she wanted to go home alone, he just held her tighter. He pushed her into a cab and got in next to her. Although she was only semi-conscious, she saw that he was rifling through her pocketbook. She chuckled because she had only a couple of dollars and some change and no credit card. The next thing she knew, he was shaking her awake and helping her out of the cab in front of her building. How did he know where she lived? He asked her, “Which apartment?” She vaguely remembered mumbling, “Three B ... that’s me.”
Something seemed odd. Frank was there, outside her apartment door. Was that good or was that bad? Annemarie was happy to see him, but he looked sad, beaten, stricken. Why was that? He did not smile back at her. With downcast eyes, he shook his head and walked toward the stairs. After the man in the black suit had pushed Annemarie into the apartment, she asked him why Frank had left. He didn’t say anything as he helped her out of her dress, led her to the bed, eased her down, and pulled off her shoes. She lay there, her head pounding. The man asked whether she needed to use the bathroom. She did. He walked her to the toilet and stood next to her as she urinated. She smiled up at him in gratitude. When he led her back to bed she felt chilled, so she pulled the covers over her. Before she dozed off she realized that Frank had looked upset and walked away because he had seen her with the man. She would call him in the morning to explain that the man was … what? She needed to sleep. In the morning she would think about what to say to Frank.
She felt chilled again. The covers were no longer there. The man was. He was next to her on the bed, pulling off her bra and panties. He was kissing her and fondling her breasts and then he put his hand between her legs. She was tired and her head was spinning. She did not want this man touching her. She pushed him, but he was strong. She felt weak and confused and did not remember where she was. He climbed on and held her down and plunged into her. She tried to push him off, but she had no strength. She cried out, but her voice sounded like that of a small child. Then she knew where and when she was: she was not in her apartment and the man was not on her; no, she was engulfed in a familiar fever dream from her childhood in which she was crammed into an overheated train compartment. She felt crushed and weighed down by the heavy, stale air all around her. She was choking. The train was going too fast, rocking from side to side; she tried to stand up to tell the conductor to do something, but she could not move because of the dense air, and she had no strength and was unable to speak. She felt uncomfortably hot and confused. She wanted to get off the train, but she did not know how. Then she understood that she was not dreaming. She wanted the man off her, but he held her down with a vice-like grip and ground into her. It lasted for a seemingly endless time, during which she wanted to scream, call for help, ask him to stop, but she was voiceless. At some point, as she moaned, feeling suffocated by his sweaty body on top of her, she passed out. When she regained consciousness, he was still on her, still thrusting into her. It went on and on. He was holding down her arms and she could barely breathe. She knew what was happening: it was the overheated train again. No. It was not. Then she fell into unconsciousness again.
She awakened in the dark. The man was next to her, snoring. As she slowly sat up she felt dizzy, so she waited for a few seconds before she unsteadily put her feet on the floor. Then she felt a hand, two hands pulling her down. He climbed on her and forced himself into her again. She tried to call out; she managed to ask him to stop. He put a hand over her mouth and continued thrusting into her. Again, it lasted for an agonizingly long period of time. Finally, it was over. She lay very still. Even though she attempted to remain awake so that she could creep out of bed, she fell into oblivion again.
Daylight peeked through the spaces between her window shades. She turned her head. He was still there, next to her in bed. She moved slowly toward the edge of the bed. He put an arm over her again. She tried to break free, but he held tight. This time, she was sober enough to firmly tell him to stop. He held her wrists, mounted her, and pushed into her again. She tried to break loose, but he was too strong. When she called out, he covered her mouth with a hand. She got one hand free and tried to push him off, but she was powerless. She raked her fingernails across his back. He slapped her face and told her to “be good and don’t try to stop me.” She did not pass out this time. She looked at the clock on her nightstand. It read 6:05. At 6:25, he groaned and shuddered. Then he rolled off her and said, “Thanks. That was nice.”
Hours later, the man was gone. After washing and rinsing and scrubbing and rinsing again in the shower and after she had thrown up, not because of the liquor she had consumed, but because she was sickened by what the man had done to her, she forced herself to drink a cup of reheated black coffee from the day before. She decided not to call the police. Instead, she called Frank at work. He did not return her “hello.” She explained that she had been out with her friend Gina and they both had too many martinis and the man who had accompanied her home was Gina’s brother. “He paid for a cab, and then, after he dropped off Gina, he took me home because he saw I was in bad shape.”
When Frank remained silent, Annemarie began to cry. Then, in a faraway, broken voice, Frank said, “All night, at that stupid meeting, all I could think of was seeing you. All I wanted was to cuddle up next to you in bed. I waited by your door for two hours. I didn’t mind, although I was becoming worried that something had happened to you.”
“Nothing happened, other than the fact that we drank too much. That guy, he drove me home. He helped me into my apartment, and then he left.”
“I really liked you. I loved you, Annemarie.”
“And I ... I care about you, Frank. What’s the matter?”
“I can’t get it out of my head.”
“That guy with his hands all over you, and you leaning on him and smiling at me as he walked you past me to your door. And then he led you into the apartment and closed the door.”
“I told you—I was drunk. He was a gentleman. He waited outside the bathroom as I threw up and washed myself. Then I fell into bed and he left.”
“Why? Why didn’t you tell him to go home when you saw me?”
“I was drunk. After I went to the bathroom I felt better. He made coffee for me and then I went to bed. I’m sorry. I just ... he didn’t stay long. I looked at the clock when I got into bed. He left after a few minutes. I asked him where you were. He said you left. I fell—”
“I waited in the crappy lobby of your building. I wanted to believe he was just a friend. I kept hoping he would come down right away and leave. After two hours, at almost three a.m., I left.”
“He ... I. ... It’s not what you think.”
“I loved you. Now it’s too late.”
Now, sitting back on her sumptuous sofa in her splendid, airy new apartment, Annemarie wondered why she had thought of that horrid incident from so many years before. After that phone call she had fallen into the deepest depression of her life, a cold, dark crevice from which there seemed to be no way out. More than the actual violation, she had cried hot, bitter tears over the end of her relationship with Frank. Then, as gloomy, lonely hours turned into mournful days and then weeks, she knew she had reached the end of the line. She did not look for a job. She could not put on make-up or dress nicely. She showered and washed her hair only when she felt too dirty and uncomfortable to put it off another day. When she was hungry she stole packages of potato chips or candy from convenience stores or bodegas or she ate in busy cafes and luncheonettes far from her apartment and, after using the bathroom, walked out without paying. Then she began to shoplift; first it was small items such as lipstick and nail clippers and chewing gum. Then she began taking more expensive things—high-end clothing and good costume jewelry—most of which she sold on the street to come up with cash to pay her rent. Then there was that day in that bookstore. As she looked at all of those beautiful books with their stunning, vibrant covers, she felt an electric shock of joy, thinking, If people can create such incredibly lovely images with words and pictures, then some version of life, somewhere, sometime, can still be wonderful and beautiful.
She knew that those books would change her life, so she chose two of the loveliest and, when the store owner was not looking, slipped them into her oversized bag. But he had been looking. When he stopped her at the door, she was overwhelmed by icy, black dread. Then the man did the most wonderful thing: he told her to keep one of the books. She gave him one and kept one, and then she moved quickly down the sidewalk, afraid he would change his mind and call the police.
When she reached her apartment that day Annemarie felt transformed. She was about a month away from eviction, but for the first time in weeks she had hope. That man, Howard Roark Fox—she had seen his name on the West Side Booksellers bookmarks that were on the counter—had brought her up from the depths of despair, from the cold darkness of her icy crevice of existence. He looked like a nice man: handsome in a lazy, peculiar way, and gentle and kind. She knew there was a wonderful, serene, spiritual connection between them. He was a solid, if somewhat unusual man with whom she would be able to develop a joyful, unbreakable bond of sincere and otherworldly friendship, mutual respect, and ... love? She did not know how it would turn out, but she understood that whoever or whatever force or forces directed lives and fates and the joys and sorrows of existence had compelled her to walk into that store on that day and pick up those books during moments in time when that man, Howard, was looking. Because this had been a good thing she knew that he had to be kind and loving and understanding. This was a man who would be her anchor, a warm soul whose presence would serve as her real home, the home about which she incessantly dreamed and which she had never known.
Now, looking through one of the dazzling windows of her new apartment, she shook her head in sardonic amusement, remembering how much time she had put into showering, dressing, fixing her hair, and applying make-up that night so many years ago. She thought about how awkward Howard had been during their three times together. The first was that night in her old, ratty apartment when, filled with an absolute belief in the inevitability of their otherworldly spiritually-ordained connection, she had put on her most sultry look and seduced him. He had been inept and distant, but exceedingly aroused and, once they started, he thrust into her with an abundance of indefatigable animal sexuality. He had not been a good lover, but, with time, she could have taught him how to be tender and caring and responsive.
The second and third times, when they shared food and conversation in his store, Howard had been aloof and indifferent. In fact, it was clear—it was devastating for Annemarie to realize—that he did not want to have anything to do with her. She remembered that, as she stumbled out of the store that last time, first sobbing, then crying hysterically, she felt dizzy and then everything was hazy and then completely dark, as if she were engulfed in the thick black, choking smoke of a fire or had plunged into a narrow, unlit tunnel. She stopped walking and remained rooted in place on the sidewalk for a minute or so. Then she blindly felt her way to a storefront and leaned against it, until a man—she did not know who he was or what he looked like because she could not see clearly—asked her whether she needed help. She cried and shook and did not answer. After a while, she calmed down enough to stop crying and reach into her shoulder bag for a tissue, but could not find any. The man held out a handkerchief to her. She took it and then she squinted, attempting to focus on the man. For a second, she thought it was the one who had attacked her. She backed away. Then, through her somewhat clearer field of vision, she saw that this man was taller, older, and more heavily built. In a gentle voice, he asked whether she wanted to sit down somewhere. She shook her head, and then, looking at him, she explained that something awful of a very personal nature had happened to her in the bookstore and that she felt dizzy and unable to see clearly. When he asked whether she wanted to go to a hospital, she said no. He told her that he had heard of cases like hers, where a severe traumatic event causes dizziness or temporary blindness or some other physical reaction, and then he assured her that she would be fine once she had calmed down.
“If you want, I can stay with you for a couple of minutes. I have time before my meeting, and you should not be alone.”
She was so upset and disheartened and confused that, throwing caution to the winds, she asked him to walk her home, saying it was only a couple of blocks away. He placed a hand under her arm. Neither one spoke until they reached the front of her building. She thanked him and then, as she reached for the door handle, she stumbled and fell, bumping her forehead on the glass and landing hard on the palms of her hands. He helped her up and said that he would walk her to her apartment, adding that he had a daughter around her age. He held her gently and said, “You need to rest.” From his voice and the hazy image she had of him, she imagined he was in his fifties. She allowed him to walk her up the stairs, feeling confident that since it was the middle of the day, other tenants would be around. When they reached her floor she told him that she was fine. At the door to her apartment she thanked him and repeated that she would be okay, but he remained there, next to her. Feeling apprehensive, with great effort, she fished around in her pocketbook until she found her key; she tried to insert it in the keyhole, but missed over and over again, and then she dropped it. He picked it up, unlocked the door, and put the key into her hand. She thanked him again, opened the door, and stepped into her apartment, immediately tripping over the bag of dirty laundry that she had left there before she had gone out earlier that day. She hit the floor hard, landing on her elbows. When she felt the man’s arms on her shoulders, she lashed out and frantically struggled to free herself, but he held tight and wrangled her off the floor. Then, although she tried to make her body stiff, he led her to the sofa and helped her to sit. He walked away. She felt cold and lightheaded and fragile. She tensed as, a minute later, he returned. She saw his hands reaching for her. Then she felt cold-wet on her face, and realized that the man was dabbing her bruised forehead with a wash cloth. He gently pushed her back on the sofa and told her to hold the cloth firmly to her head; then he washed and dried her scraped elbows and applied antiseptic to the abrasions. She scrutinized the man; he was, as she had thought, in his mid-fifties, handsome, solidly built, balding, wearing an expensive blue suit, nice shirt, and stylish tie. He soothingly asked, “Are you all right?” She said she was. Then she looked around. The apartment door was open. When he saw her looking at it he said, “I didn’t think I should be in here alone with you with the door closed. If you’re all right, I’ll leave. I have to meet a client.” She said she was fine, but she wanted him to stay. He was safe, like an uncle or an older friend of the family.
He knocked on her door later that day. Hoping that he would return, Annemarie had cleaned the apartment, refreshed her makeup, and waited. He said his name was Mark Morris, 58, widowed, an attorney. He lived on the Upper East Side. “If you’re feeling okay, I would like to take you out to dinner. I’m not expecting anything. I’m surely twice your age, but you seem to need a friend, and I’m a good listener.”
They married a month later. Only Annemarie’s friend Gina and Mark’s son and daughter, who were around her age, attended the wedding ceremony at City Hall. They went to Paris for their honeymoon. It was her first trip anywhere, not counting her years of wandering before she moved to New York.
Annemarie was deliriously happy. For the first time in her life she was totally in love with a good man who loved her in return and who provided the home she had never had. They lived in an exquisite nine-room apartment in a luxury building on Central Park West and she had more money in her own checking account than she knew how to spend. She almost immediately became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, who they named Roger. She and Mark agreed that one was enough. After interviewing a dozen applicants, they hired a full-time nanny.
Even though Annemarie loved her baby and was free to go out whenever she pleased, after a while, she felt weighed down by a nagging melancholy. Her shopping trips and museum visits did not satisfy her. When Mark was at work the huge apartment felt less like a home than a strange, cold habitat. She was bored and lonely and nervous for hours each day. However, when Mark was home he doted on her, seeming to believe that his role in life was to make her happy. He said he felt younger and more vigorous now than he had when he was 20 and that, although he now had a reason to live another 25 years, he would consider himself lucky to live another ten. He told Annemarie not to worry about what would happen to her when he died because she and his children would each inherit a bundle. He also said that he wanted to retire soon so that he would be able to spend more time with her and Roger and in order to give life to a long-deferred dream—to buy a horse ranch in Arizona, a place where he would be able to stretch his legs and indulge in two great passions: riding and hunting.
Although Annemarie felt sick at the thought of leaving the city, she knew she would follow Mark anywhere, even to a remote ranch in the hot, dry southwest. After all, she thought, if we love each other, life anywhere at any time will be wonderful as long as we’re together. He is my home. He is my time and place, not the four walls that enclose me or the furnishings in it.
A year later, Mark retired, sold the apartment, and settled his affairs in the city. Although Annemarie said that she was unhappy about leaving New York, she did not complain when Mark announced that they would be moving to a newly-refurbished ranch in an isolated area at the edge of the desert in Arizona. Once they were there, Annemarie was pleasantly surprised to find that, even though she still missed the city, she liked the wide open spaces and the dry fresh air and perpetual sunshine. She was happily, completely in love with Mark. Although he was now 60, he had the needs and stamina and passion of a man 30 years younger. Some days, they made love three or four times.
During the first few months on the ranch, when Annemarie made it clear that she did not like horseback riding or hunting, she assured Mark that he should feel free to engage in those long-denied pursuits. He rode every day. With her blessing, he occasionally made solitary all-day and then overnight forays into the surrounding hills. Then he made friends with four men around his age who regularly went on three- and four-day journeys by horseback into the desert. Since they camped far from civilization, Mark was unable to call Annemarie when he was on those rugged adventures, so she was completely on her own except for the new nanny, the housekeeper, and the ranch foreman. Little by little, she became used to her days of solitude, which she filled by caring for Roger, watching television, experimenting with new recipes, and reading. Each afternoon, as she scanned the desolate horizon, looking for Mark, hoping this would be the day he would return from his latest expedition, she longed more and more for New York.
By the end of their first year in Arizona, Annemarie had decided that she disliked living on the ranch and she began to feel oppressed by the surrounding barren, arid landscape. She now resented the fact that Mark had made the move in the face of what she remembered as her strenuous objections.
One day, she realized that when Mark was away and she thought of him, it was only with warm affection and not fiery passion.
A year later, she knew in her heart that this was not what she wanted and that if they remained on the ranch for much longer she would go insane. Each time she told Mark that she wanted to move back east he smiled and said that she had to take a bit more time to get used to their home. Then he would pat her shoulder.
One day, bitter and angry, she shouted, “This dried-out shithole is not my home!”
He assured her that it was, saying, “You know I’ve cut all of my ties to New York. This is where I want to live and where I want to die.”
“What about my ties? I agreed to move here because of you—”
“And that was the right thing to do.”
“I sacrificed because I love you. I thought, I hoped I could be happy here, anywhere with you, but I’m not. I’m miserable.”
“You’ll get used to it. We’re not moving. Give it time.”
“I’ve given it two years. I hate it! If I stay here much longer, I’ll go crazy or I’ll move away without you or ... or ... I don’t know what.”
He took her hands, kissed them, marveled at them. He had often told Annemarie that her smooth, silky, tapered fingers and the satiny skin on the palms of her hands were her nicest features. Then he said, “You won’t move out. You love me and I love you and you’re mine forever.”
“No!” she said, pulling her hands from him. “I’m mine. Of course, I love you, but this place makes me so unhappy, it’s killing my feelings for you and it’s slowly sucking the life out me and our marriage.”
“An important part of a marriage involves making compromises.”
“Oh? And what compromises do you make?”
“I don’t have to make any right now. I accepted you when we met. I’ve never held it against you for the kind of life you lived.”
She caught her breath. Then she thought, Thank God I never told him everything I did, everything I was forced to do, everything that happened to me. So what that I slept with lots of men and asked some of them for money. Then she said, “I see, and I suppose you’ve always acted in the most moral way.”
“As far as that is concerned, yes. I’ve told you. I was faithful to Rose for the 30 years we were married. I was celibate for years after she died. Before we got married … I’ve told you: I was ... untested.”
“You mean you were a virgin. Big deal!”
“You sure weren’t. As I said, I accepted it. ”
“Very nice! Even though I did things I wish I had never done, they do not define me. I’m a good person. So what that I went to bed with lots of men!”
“As I said, I’ve never held that against you.”
“You’re a smug ... I don’t know.”
“We’re married, Annemarie. We’re going to stay here. After I’m dead, if you want to move back east, you’ll have the money to do it.”
“I don’t think I can wait that long.”
“You don’t know how long it will be, and I don’t either.” Then, with his face darkening, Mark continued: “If you run out on me, you won’t get a dime and you’ll never see Roger again. Remember that. I have the money for lawyers, high-priced ones. You don’t.”
She was speechless. They ended the argument that day, but they returned to it again and again. At one point, Mark asked Annemarie what would happen to Roger if she were to run away with him, saying, “He loves it here and he loves his horse.” She told him that children adapt to changes very easily and that he would love New York and would have a better education there. “And,” she said, “he’d be a better off if I wasn’t so damned unhappy.”
“Give it another year, Annemarie.”
“And then what? Another year? And another year? Another year of you going off to play cowboy while I dry out and turn into dust here?”
“You’re my wife. This is the home I’ve dreamed about for years. I bought it with my hard-earned money. I’m staying, Roger is staying, and you’re staying here. You should join a group, maybe a prayer group.”
She looked at him as if he had just spit at her.
Then came the afternoon that Annemarie was sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, reading, when Mark returned from an especially long outing. He happily waved his sweat-stained Stetson as he walked his horse to the stable. Later, holding his hat in one hand as he slowly clumped up the porch steps, his leather jacket, jeans, and boots filthy and his three-day stubble gray and rough, Annemarie shuddered. She could not help but stare in disgust and resentment at the fact that his waistline was two sizes bigger than when she had met him and his now completely bald head was shiny with sweat. Annemarie thought, It’s Father as he looked when he returned from a day in the fields. How did that happen? She stiffened when Mark embraced her and she turned her face when he tried to kiss her. “Oh. I guess I smell kind of rank,” he said with a smile. “I’ll go in and clean up right now.”
A few minutes later he called her but she pretended not to hear. How things change and putrefy, she thought, and then she laughed bitterly. She tried to remember how many times, over the years, she had kept silent naked vigil outside of the bathroom while he showered, waiting for the right moment to throw open the door and jump on him while he was warm and wet. She attempted to remember, to feel her heart-thrumming sense of anticipation and excitement as she luxuriated in a warm, bubbly bath, hoping he would walk in when she least expected it and slide in and embrace her. She could almost feel his hot, slippery-soapy muscular arms and chest against her. Almost, but not really. Now, even if he had washed off the rancid odor of the horse and the trail and himself, even if he had shaved off that old man’s stubble and dried his hairless scalp, she could not. No. She would not. Not now. Maybe later, but not now. No. Not now.
Later that night, in bed, when he lifted her nightgown off her and kissed and touched her, even though she kept her eyes closed and tried to remember how he had looked, how he had felt at the beginning, she pictured, she smelled Father. Again, she remembered her childhood fever dream of the oppressively crowded, overheated railroad car as she felt his heavy weight on her chest, as she forced herself not to resist, as she prayed for it to be over quickly.
Three years later, as Annemarie became increasingly depressed during the times she was left alone for days in their cavernous, frigidly air conditioned ranch house while Mark and his friends camped in the desert and did whatever they did and when she finally gave up trying to feel for him what had died, she wished she could go back to an earlier time and place. She closed her eyes and concentrated, willing her mind or spirit or whatever to transport her back to New York, but not to the life in which she was poor and hungry, slithering from bar to bar, from man to man, always on the knife edge of desperation. She wanted the where and when of her city life, but with a better financial situation than she had back then. Her soul ached because she had to get away from the dusty loneliness of her sun-baked gulag and once again walk along a gritty, bustling city sidewalk on a brisk fall day with a refreshing wind, stare in wonder at the tree in Rockefeller Center during the Christmas season, wander through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a rainy spring afternoon, and stroll along the leafy, fragrant paths of Central Park in the summer. She laughed bitterly and shook her head as, for the hundredth time, she came to terms with the fact that she was living a version of her past life, except that in this rendition of it, rather than being involved in serial short-lived affairs with men who gave her money for rent, she reluctantly made her body available to one very wealthy man who reminded her of Father.
She was alone in the house, so she screeched, “Not my home!”
Her stomach turned and her face burned and she was wracked with regret; after all, she had agreed to this life. Still, she wanted to leave and start searching, once again, for her real home, but she would not do that. If she were to run, Mark would give her nothing and he would fight for full custody of Roger. Besides, even though she hated the ranch, she knew that Mark loved her and had treated her well. Despite everything, the thought of hurting him filled Annemarie with hot shame and cold remorse, and she knew she would never leave.
One day two years later, only hours after Mark had happily trotted off on his favorite horse, Zephyr, for what he said would be a two- or three-day jaunt in the surrounding hills with his saddle buddies, Annemarie showered, dressed, packed an overnight bag, and drove the two hours to Phoenix. She checked into the Clarendon and, after freshening up in her room she went to the restaurant for a bite to eat and a glass of champagne. Then she ambled through the luxury boutiques in the streets around the hotel. An hour later, she returned to her room, put away her costly purchases, refreshed her make-up, and took the elevator down to the lounge. It was filled with young executive types. As she took a seat at the bar she knew she was attracting a lot of admiring looks, but she had not come here for that. When a well-dressed man with thick swept-back gray hair sat next to her, she ignored him, and when he asked whether he could buy her a drink she politely said no. After she had done the same with three other men she was left in peace. She smiled as she imagined that those four men had marked the back of her bar stool with chalk or spread the word in some other way: “Don’t bother; she’s a cold-hearted tease.”
Two days later, after a leisurely late lunch, feeling refreshed and recharged, Annemarie drove back to the ranch, happily singing along with the cowboy music playing on her radio. As she brought her car to a stop in the long circular driveway out front she suddenly felt oppressed and tired and old. And trapped. After a moment of somber reflection, Annemarie forced a smile onto her face and went into the house, assuring herself that a solitary glass of wine on the porch would help her to become more settled, more able to muddle through the rest of her day.
However, when she walked into the bedroom, she froze; Mark was under the covers, smiling, a detective novel face down on the bedspread. He said, “Hi. I just got back. Roger’s at a friend’s house. I already showered. Come here, sweetie.” The glow of the reading lamp next to the bed reflected harshly off his smooth scalp. She tried to look happy, but ended up making a face that was a cross between “Oh, no. I don’t want this” and “I know what’s expected of me; I’ll do my job.” She ducked into the bathroom and, as she sat on the bowl she tried to decide what to do now and the next time and the next. She had thought, hoped she would have a few hours before he arrived home.
She emerged from the bathroom, quickly stripped off her clothes and slipped into bed. As he kissed her, she kept her cold lips tightly closed. Then she turned her head to the side as he gently moved onto her; she tried, but she could not relax or feel warm or loving or even embrace him. She held her hands lightly on his back. He kissed her silky cheeks and delicate neck and held her tightly. Then, with difficulty because she was not warm and moist and receptive, he entered her. As he moved up and down, up and down and ground his body against hers, she felt her muscles growing tighter and stiffer, transforming what had started out as an uncomfortable experience into a painful and, little by little, a degrading one. She tried to soften and become tender and loving and passionate, and yet she did not want to do that.
In the midst of his burning, powerful need, his three-day pent-up hunger for her, Mark knew he could no longer ignore the gnawing, upsetting fact that she was cold and stiff. This had happened more and more often during the past few months. He hoped that if he held her close and tenderly kissed her and moved in just the right way he would find what they used to refer to as her “sweety spot.” Then she moaned, but it was not the right kind of moan, not a “Yes!” or an “Mmmmm” moan, but one that clearly indicated distress. He suddenly felt chilled; he was an intruder. He slowed down, hoping that a gentler, lighter movement would loosen her up and warm her and enable her to enjoy their moment of intimacy. Then she asked what she had only thought on other occasions recently: “Are you almost through?” Her words, although whispered, reverberated painfully in his ears and sent a sizzling shock wave through his brain. He froze and pulled his head back to look at her, but she kept her face turned from him. He moved down to her again and held her tight and resumed his thrusting, but now at a faster rhythm and with a specific goal in mind. He pushed himself to hurry so as to quickly reach the time and place that would be defined by that special and excruciatingly exquisite sensation, because it was clear that she was not enjoying, in fact, was not sharing in this moment with him, was acting only as a reluctant receptacle. Because, as he thought of her, he pictured her face contorted by an expression of unhappiness and revulsion, he forced into his mind images of other women he had talked to or seen from afar, but had never touched. That helped. He reached his moment—it was his moment, only his moment—and even as his senses reveled and rejoiced in those few blindingly aching seconds of sizzling delight, in his very core he grieved. Then he moved off her. They both lay there for a few silent minutes.
After a while, he gently asked, “Is something wrong? Is something wrong with you? Are you ill?” When she did not answer, he said, “That’s okay. We don’t have to talk about it now.”
The next night, when she was stiff, cold, and immobile and pushed him away, he insisted they talk about it, saying, “If you have a medical issue you should take care of it. If it’s me, we have to talk about that.”
She cried. He held her. She nestled against him and wanted to say, “I’m so sorry, Father. I do love you, but not in that way anymore.”
They never did talk about it, but she made a point of no longer rebuffing him. He understood that she was simply allowing him to mount her and enjoy the pleasures of her body, but not touch her soul. He knew he could not rightly refer to it as making love, but he still had that need and, each time, he hoped that he could resuscitate what he thought of as her dormant love for him.
During the next few months, Mark found it frustratingly difficult to become erect, and so he stopped making the effort. Once in a while, because Annemarie still did care for him, she endeavored to picture Mark as he had looked and felt and smelled when they first fell in love; then she would surprise him by ardently kissing and touching him all over and using all of her senses and all of the warmth and all of the vigor of her alluring body to arouse him, and they would join together as they used to, although, not really. They coupled—that is, their bodies joined together and he experienced that peculiar set of exciting, exquisitely pleasing, electrifying sensations and that riotous, excruciatingly pleasurable release—but they were not together. He was alone and she was adrift in another place and time. On those occasions he endeavored to be satisfied with the pleasure of sexually possessing this beautiful woman who used to vibrate in tune with him, and not expect, not need anything more. They both knew that beyond the specifics of the sexual act, nothing had happened. Afterward, as they lay next to each other, not touching, they both wished they were somewhere else.
Little by little, during the next few years, as they drifted further apart and spent less time together, Mark transformed from a fit older man to an individual who spent a great deal of time fondly recalling the past and thinking about the end; she became cold and rock hard and bitter. He complained that he could no longer spend long periods of time in the saddle and said that he was unable to tolerate the heat, so he rode less and less often, spending many days at a time in the house, reading, snacking, and sleeping, but he refused to move, saying he wanted to live out his final years in the desert. He mournfully complained that she rarely touched him anymore, saying, “I don’t even mean sex. I know those days are over, but you hardly ever touch me anymore.” Then, looking at her hands, he said, “You know how much I love the feel of your fingers on my face.”
Annemarie made a point of driving to shopping malls, museums, or theaters several times each week. Then she began stopping at distant cocktail lounges or hotels in the late afternoon or early evening, generally returning home well after midnight and silently slipping into bed next to Mark. He was always either asleep or turned away from her, pretending to be. She felt the weight of a heavy rock on her chest and asked herself why she was doing it. She was not looking for love, thinking, God forbid! She was not participating in anonymous liaisons to satisfy her sexual needs; in fact, at the end of each one-night stand she felt empty and grievously dissatisfied. Neither was she longing for the feel or the scent of a different man. She sadly admitted to herself that she was once again engaged in her search for a home, the one she had never had, the one she had thought she had with Mark, but which turned out to be cold and empty and joyless. She tried to hide the harsh truth from him, making sure she treated him kindly and with consideration, forcing herself to touch him lovingly on occasion and give him gentle kisses. She assuaged her guilt by saying she always returned to him. He always made sure to stop crying when he heard the house door open.
She noticed that he had begun to walk a bit unsteadily and to slur his words, so she made an appointment for him with a neurologist. Days later, when Dr. Wexler discussed the test results with them he explained that, at some point, Mark had suffered a TIA, a transient ischemic attack, a mini stroke. Some days, Mark did not leave his bed. He called his attorney to make sure his will was incontestable, and then he had a long discussion with his ranch foreman, telling the man that he now had a free hand in terms of running the place, but that he should keep Annemarie informed and watch out for her.
Annemarie hired the foreman’s sister, Margarita, to help her care for Mark. A year later, with Margarita still providing primary care, Annemarie hired a nurse practitioner who specialized in geriatric patients to check on Mark three times a week. When it was clear that he was suffering from cognitive loss, perhaps the beginning stages of dementia, Annemarie hired two sisters, licensed home health aides, to take turns caring for Mark around the clock. Annemarie, feeling closer to her husband now than she had in years, stopped meeting other men. She shopped and went on day trips to the theater and local museums, and was home with Mark every night. She thought it ironic that she was there with him, but he was too confused to take comfort in her presence.
Now, 27 years after marrying Mark and 25 years after they had moved to Arizona, Annemarie, newly widowed, was back in New York, looking forward to the delicious pleasures of the city. Their son Roger, who had graduated from Harvard and had lived in Boston for a few years, now worked for a hedge fund on Wall Street. He had recently moved to Hoboken, New Jersey.
Annemarie was alone in her new apartment. She looked at her hands. They were no longer as smooth and supple as they had once been. As she slowly ran them along the yielding, warm leather of her new couch, she sighed, thinking, Too old—54—to start over, but that’s ok. I’m a comfortably set widow. Very nice. I deserve this. I did not do anything wrong.
One more time, she thought about the journey she had traveled: from the Missouri farm on which she had been raised and abused, through her time hop-scotching from town to town across the Midwest, to her years living alone and bed-hopping in New York, to her long marriage to Mark and their time in Arizona, and now, back to New York.
She looked through one of the tall windows at the outlines of the buildings in the slowly darkening city.