On Walden Pond
Annemarie spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how to convince Howard to close his store so that they could have a three-day weekend in New England. She knew he would respond to that suggestion with a dozen reasons why it was not possible, so she sat, notepad in hand, writing down as many of those reasons as she could think of and a rebuttal for each one.
Wide-eyed, Howard said, “I can’t shut the store for that long.”
“My customers depend on me and I would lose a great deal of business and a lot of money.”
“Didn’t you tell me you made up much of what you lost once you reopened your store after staying in your apartment for months?”
“Yes, but not all.”
“This will be for just three days, maybe four.”
“Four? I don’t think—”
“Okay, three. By the way, didn’t you tell me you have a ‘very sizable nest egg’ and really no longer have to work so hard?”
“So, you can close your store for three days. It would make me happy to go away with you. Here’s the plan: we leave Friday morning, really early, and arrive at this gorgeous little inn right outside of Concord, Massachusetts, in time for lunch. You’ll love it.”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s near Walden Pond. Bring a couple of Thoreau’s books. I’ll leave you alone for hours each day so you can read. Imagine: sitting by Walden Pond and reading Thoreau.”
“It does sound nice, but—”
“And, of course, we’ll take separate rooms at the inn—it’s a great place: bucolic, quiet, lovely. Or we can take a room with two beds.”
“When would we do this?”
“This week—Friday through Sunday. We’ll be back in the city that night. Put up a Closed for Inventory sign. Here—I happen to have one. Here’s another one: Closed for Inventory. Open on Tuesday. And I have Closed for Inventory. Big Sales When We Reopen.
“I can’t believe you went through all of this trouble.”
“I mean ... I don’t know.”
“I know, Howard. I really really want to do this … with you.”
Howard remembered how he had never understood Faye’s feelings and had only occasionally done things to make her happy. Annemarie had counted on Howard thinking of that. After a bit of further discussion, he agreed to the plan. On the morning of the trip Annemarie arrived at the apartment building in which Howard lived at 6 a.m. She double-parked. Howard was waiting in the lobby, overnight bag in hand.
Howard was surprised by how much he enjoyed the first part of the ride. They stopped for breakfast at a place in Ansonia, Connecticut. The five plus hours that he and Annemarie drove was the longest he had ever spent in a car. They talked, listened to music, and enjoyed the scenery.
Lunch at the inn was delightful. When they finished eating, all Howard could think about was walking through the deep, fragrant woods and then sitting at the edge of Walden Pond, connecting in a small way with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Annemarie walked with him, admiring the tall, ancient oaks and basking in the glow of Howard’s animated, happy face. Then, when he seemed to be lost in thought, she quietly slipped away. He returned to the inn after dark, looking very pleased. They talked in gentle, cheery tones during dinner. On two occasions she reached across the table and gently touched his hand. He grasped her hand in return and smiled warmly. Afterwards, they sat on an old sofa, luxuriating in the warmth of the blaze crackling in an enormous stone fireplace. She sipped brandy. He drank tea.
When she said she was tired they climbed the uncarpeted staircase to their room. Although when they had checked in earlier in the day Howard had been surprised to see that the room contained only one large four-poster bed, he had not commented. Now, feeling tired, relaxed, and serene as a result of his long walk, pleasant dinner, and time before the hearth, Howard was looking forward to falling into oblivion. However, when he looked at the bed he felt surprisingly aroused. Then he told himself that they might hold each other, and nothing more. He had not yet resolved his feelings regarding Faye and Annemarie, Annemarie and Faye, and whether or not he deserved another opportunity to experience carnal love and passion and that kind of joy.
In bed, Howard, wearing cotton pajamas and Annemarie, garbed in a silk nightgown, kissed gently. He stroked her face while she pushed her warm fingers through his hair. Then he turned from her, but sought her hand. They lay in bed, fingers intertwined, for only a few minutes before they both fell into unconsciousness. He dreamed of daffodils and the blue blue sea; she dreamed of tall, tough oaks and acorns flying from them in a blaze of sizzling energy.
Howard awakened just as slivers of sunlight slipped into the room. He looked at Annemarie asleep next to him, and thought, She is still a lovely woman, better than I deserve. Slowly, so as not to disturb her, he slid to the side of the bed, sat up, and put his feet on the chilly floor. She said, “Don’t go. Please hold me.” He turned to her, saying, “I don’t know.” How long had it been since he had experienced the exhilarating sensation of naked bodies intertwining and the dynamic warmth and that kind of pleasure? He felt foolish to be thinking about it now, but then, as if some irresistible force was propelling him, he slid over to her and held her and then he was on top of her. They held each other tightly and kissed deeply and hungrily, as if they had to do that in order to breathe. Then she pushed him off and grasped him through his pajamas. He sighed and moaned and pulled her down on top of him, embracing her and kissing her and pressing her body against his. She freed herself, sat up, and pulled her nightgown over her head. For a brief instant, he thought of other times she had done this—with Mark and with other men. He knew he had no reason to be jealous, but there it was. He pushed those thoughts from his head and admired her for a few seconds, thinking it rather silly that, at his age, he was about to, once again, share in the joy and the perils of lovemaking. He tried to remember the last time with Faye so many years before, but the recollection was hazy. Annemarie looked down at him and seemed to be reading his thoughts, seemed to be silently saying, That’s long over, a remnant from another time and place. I’m here, warm and alive. She said, “I care about you more than you know.” He still did not know how to reply, which words to use. He decided that his scorching animal hunger for her at that moment would dictate what he might say, and that would be false. He wanted to wait until after, when he would be cool and satisfied and in control of his mind. Then he would think of which words to use.
Annemarie bent down to him and kissed his lips and nuzzled his neck and pressed her fingers into the muscles of his shoulders. He pushed her off and then he pulled off his pajamas and dropped them to the floor. She grasped him. Her hand was hot. He was electrified and throbbing. It was a thrilling, powerful sensation that he had not felt for so long; it was as if he had never experienced it before. He climbed on top of her and she welcomed him. He moaned with pleasure and she sighed and then they moved against each other in a slow, steady rhythm. They embraced tightly and kissed and tried to absorb each other. And then, seconds apart, as they shuddered and moaned and he held her closer and tighter and pressed his body more deeply into her and she grasped his back more tightly and held him down to her and pushed herself more unyieldingly up against him, he thought, This is where I belong. She thought, I think I’ve found what I have long wanted.
Afterward, she whispered, “Don’t move, please.”
He was cooler now, relaxed and spent, and he still wanted to be there with her, and no place else. After a long while, he moved off her and lay down on his side.
“That was a long time coming,” she just barely got out before she broke up in gales of silly laughter. He wanted to say something, but what? He still felt this was the wrong time for words. They should come later, during a meal, a walk, a singular moment in front of the blazing hearth. She reached for the box of tissues on the night table, placing some between her legs and then handing the box to him. He dabbed. Then he dropped the tissue into the bedside trash can.
She talked about their plans for the day. Then she said, “Oh. No. That’s not good.” He awakened, surprised that he had dozed off. He looked. There was a red splotch on the tissues she held in her hand. He looked in the trash container. The tissue he had thrown in was spotted with blood too. He checked himself. There was a small dried blood stain on his penis. She dabbed again, coming up with fresh blood.
“Do you want to go to a doctor?” he asked.
“I will when we return to the city.”
“Are you sure you want to wait?”
“Probably nothing; just a little post-menopausal weakness in my vaginal wall, I guess.”
“You should have it checked.”
“Yes, sir. I will let the doctor lift the hood and examine the inner workings. I’m overdue for my 50,000 mile checkup anyway.”
He smiled uncomfortably and said, “You sure you don’t want—”
“No. I worked so damned hard to get you here, I’m not going to spoil this lovely weekend. It can wait.”
“Did it hurt? I mean when we … when we made love?”
“Nope. No pain. All good.”
“Okay, but promise me you’ll go. I ... I care about you.”
That day and the next, each time he thought he was ready to say those other words he hesitated, picturing Faye, her brother, her parents. He realized he was just finding excuses, so, late on Sunday afternoon, he said, “I want to say something. I should have said it to you yesterday.”
She put a finger to his lips and said, “You don’t have to say it. I know. I also know how difficult it is for you to say it. Wait until you feel really ready.”
“I am, but I’m not sure I know how to voice the proper words.”
“Don’t worry about getting it right. Just say what’s in your heart.”
“I love you. I’m whole now, or at least almost whole. I feel more like a human being than I have ever felt in my entire pitiful life. That’s because of you. I love you for that. I love you for being who you are.”
“I love you. Now, do you want to make out right here, in front of all these proper folks, or do you want to go up to our room?”
“Are you sure? You say it doesn’t hurt, but I don’t—”
“It hurts only when I think of how many years I’ve wasted. I want to be with you for as long as we have. Let’s go.”
He took her hand and led her to the room, to the four-poster bed, where they had found each other, where she had found her home, and he had finally been able to establish his real place and time.
She did not want to tell him over the phone, so she waited until they were together for dinner the following Friday night. “Instead of going out, let’s eat in. Just salad and dessert. Is that okay with you?”
“Absolutely,” he said.
After they greeted each other in her apartment later that night, Howard asked, “Haven’t you heard from the doctor yet?”
As Annemarie’s smile melted and her eyes welled up with tears she told him that the results of her Pap test were indisputable: cancer of the cervix. The doctor had scheduled her for surgery on Monday. Howard held her. Then he brought her to the sofa, sat her down, and took his place next to her. He pulled her head to his chest. She cried, first softly, then with loud, choking sobs. When he attempted to stand to get a box of tissues she held even tighter to him, so he did not move.
“Was it our lovemaking? Was that a bad thing?”
“No, but I’ll be out of commission for a while.”
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters, other than your being well. I’ll go to the hospital with you. I’ll stay with you. I’ll take care of you.”
“It’s not that bad—the recovery, I mean—but thanks.”
“I wish I could do more than that. I wish I could protect you from harm and take the pain for you.”
“That’s a wonderful thing to say. I feel good knowing you’ll be with me. I was hoping you’d say that. I have Roger, of course. I haven’t told him yet. I will, but I don’t think a son should have to bear this kind of burden. I need you. I can’t face it without you.”
“You will never have to face anything without me again.”
“Are you sure? It may be a lot to handle. You don’t owe me anything.” She smiled as she said that, and then she sobbed.
“I owe you my life and I owe you for all of the happiness you have given me. But, more than that, you are part of me and I am part of you. I want to be with you.”
She smiled again, but then a grimy image from years in the past came to mind. She had never told Howard about her night of repeated sexual assaults or about Father or any of the other miseries she had experienced. Neither had she told him about her final night in that horrid house with the Herndons—packing her belongings, stealing their money, slashing the tires of the pickup truck, and what came after.
“Tomorrow, I’ll bring over clothes and other things I’ll need, and I’ll move in here with you. I mean if you want.”
“Of course, I want you to move in here, dummy, but you don’t have to go to your apartment. We’ll go shopping for clothes tomorrow. Just stay. I would love for you to move in here full time.”
“I will. Would you want to ... I mean would you marry me?”
“I’m sure. And, just so we’re clear, I don’t want any of your money. I’ll sign a pre-nup so nobody has any anxiety. All of your assets should go to your son and to Mark’s children, but we’re not going to have to worry about that for a long long time.”
Just before she succumbed to the anesthesia, Annemarie, suddenly overcome with panic, tried to remember whether all of her papers were in order. Then she had a flickering recollection of what she had seen after she ran into the woods on the night she left the Herndons: the orange and red flames consuming the house with savage fury and Father, framed by the window, aglow, with his arms upraised to the night sky.
When she awakened, groggy, bewildered, and cold, she saw, with surprise, that she was in a room with light blue walls. How can that be? I was just in a room with green walls. That was a second ago. Then she was worried that the doctor had not performed the procedure. She felt pressure on her arm and she heard a voice. It was Roger. Howard was there too. She thought she smiled at them, but she was not sure.
Since Annemarie had stage 1A2 cervical cancer, the surgeon had performed a radical hysterectomy. Annemarie felt drained and sore and incapacitated. She smiled and attempted to act lighthearted and playful with Howard, who kept his bookstore closed for the first two weeks of her recovery and did not leave her side. He joked back, but he did not relax until Annemarie’s surgeon told her that she was cancer-free.
“He says he wants to test me again in a few months, but the margins were clear. You know, this bout with cancer was my payback for, well, all my years of screwing around.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do. Some cases of this kind of cancer are caused by human papillomavirus, HPV, and that comes from sex. The more times a woman has sex with men who’ve screwed around, the more likely it is she’ll contract the virus. The doctor said you should have yourself checked.”
“I will. I’m not concerned. Now we can get married.”
“You still want to marry me? I’m not sure when we’ll be able to make love again, and it might not be the same.”
“If that’s the case, then I’m grateful we did make love when we had a chance.”
“That’s a very sweet thing to say. You know, as crappy as I feel, when I think of us in bed together, I almost become excited.”
“Good. You’re a fiery woman and I’m a lucky man.”
Annemarie felt the skin on her face transform as she went from serene and happy to sad and remorseful. Howard, observing the shift, tried to lighten her mood by repeating a joke that Roger had told him when they had talked on the phone one night, but she put up her hand. “There’s something I have to tell you. It eats at me, and now, because I could have died if the cancer had gone undetected, I have to tell you.”
“Tell me only what you want.”
“It’s hard to say. It may be difficult to listen to.”
“Nothing you say is going to change my feelings for you.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do. Whatever you say, I’m going to want to marry you.”
“You may change your mind.”
“I won’t; we belong together. In fact, if we hadn’t made love you might not have bled and not have found out until it was too late.”
“Oh, so you think your penis is a medical device? Don’t you dare think about using it to diagnose other women,” she laughed.
“No. I promise. You are all I want.”
“I hope you’ll feel that way as I begin to fall apart and look like a piece of dried fruit.”
“If you do, which I doubt, I’ll look worse. I’m older.”
“Two years! That’s nothing. You’ll be in great shape when I’m a bent-over old woman.”
“I think it will be nice to grow old with you.”
Becoming serious again, her eyes narrowing and her lips tightening, Annemarie thought about how to frame her next words. In a hoarse whisper, she told Howard about the “sacred times” with Father in the barn and how much she hated it and how it caused her to feel deeply ashamed and worthless and soiled. She grimaced as she told how Father had beaten her. With a smile of triumph, she explained about being taken from the Herndons after her broken arm had been set in the hospital and how wonderful it had been to live in the shelter for women. As Annemarie told her story, Howard watched her mouth move, stared into her eyes, and tried to follow what she was saying. He heard the words, understood their meaning, but what she said was not from this world, not from his world of understanding. Finally he said, “My heart is breaking for you, for that young girl you were, for what you endured.”
Then, in a hesitant, quivering voice, Annemarie told about Father shooting Nat, the deputy, saying, “I never want to see such a terrible thing again. Nat looked at me and said he was going to take me back to the shelter, and then there was the shotgun blast. When I looked up from the ground, Nat’s face was gone; it was all blood and blackened torn-up flesh.” Grasping Annemarie’s hand, Howard wished he could have protected her from her years of mistreatment and misery. “That night I hid in the woods for hours. Then I slipped into the house and packed. I stole the family’s money and I took a big carving knife. He was sitting there—Father—asleep, with his shotgun, the one he used to kill Nat, next to him. I wanted to cut his throat, to butcher him, but I didn’t. When he went to bed, I walked out of the house and used the knife to puncture all four tires on his pickup truck so he couldn’t follow me.”
“Good. I’m glad you did that. You did nothing wrong.”
“There’s more. There’s one more thing.” She looked Howard straight in the eye and said, “After the pickup truck, after I had slashed the tires, I started to run to the woods. Then I turned back to the house. I thought about how horrid it had been. It was not my house, my family, my home. Father made me strip naked and kneel and pray and reflect on my sins, while, behind my back, he masturbated. I was just a little girl when he started. I didn’t understand. Then, as I got older, I did. He turned me into a tramp and a crazy person. He ruined my life. I hated him so much! I hated Ma and my so-called sisters for pretending that nothing bad was happening.” She sobbed. Then she took a tissue and dabbed at her eyes and nose.
“You did what you had to do to survive.”
“I did. But then, I looked at the barn. I saw the gas can, the one the girls had used to burn the blood and brain matter from Nat that had been in the dirt in front of the house. They had left the can against a wall of the barn, along with a pile of newspapers tied with a cord. I knew there were matches in the barn.”
Howard, his eyes downcast, said. “Don’t say anything else.”
She held up a hand and said, “You have to know what I did. I grabbed the matches. I pulled loose a bunch of newspapers and took the gasoline and brought it all to spot a few feet in front of the house. I stood on an old crate and forced open a front window. Then I got down and doused the newspapers with gasoline. I struck a match. I wanted them to smell the fire, a kind of going-away message. But the match wouldn’t light.” She flitted one finger against the palm of her other hand in imitation of how she had tried to light the match. “I tried every match in the box. They were damp. I felt it was a sign that I shouldn’t light that fire. I turned to walk to the woods. Then I looked at the barn again, that place where he did what he did to me over and over again for so many years. My blood boiled.”
“Stop, Annemarie. It happened so many years ago. Stop.”
“No. You have to hear. You have to know me.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “Even though he never touched me—not in that way, I mean—I had felt raped over and over again and I had a sore, an open wound on my soul that I knew would never heal. I picked up the gas can and newspapers and walked into the barn and let the cow and the horses out, and then I poured what was left of the gasoline there, right on that place where he used to force me to kneel. I took a match from another box in the barn. The first one I tried lit, and so I held it to a bunch of newspapers and threw them at that spot. It exploded in flames. I ran. You know what I did then? I climbed that same tree in the woods—the big oak. I looked at the barn as the fire spread, as the flames—orange and red with pitch-black smoke—were all I could see. That old dry wood just exploded as it caught fire. I believed the heat, which I was able to feel up in that tree, and the sooty smoke that was clogging my nose, were cleansing me at least a little of his filth.”
She stopped talking and rubbed her eyes. Then she went on: “I sat there, in that giant tree, feeling tall and powerful and invulnerable for the first time in my life. After all those years of being treated like a weakling and a tramp I was looking forward to seeing the old bastard run from the house and stamp his feet in anger as he stared at the barn burning and turning into cinders. I hoped he’d figure out I had lit the fire. I screamed, ‘Goddamn you! I hope you burn in hell!’ I was kind of disappointed that he and the others weren’t out there watching the fire.
“Then, out of nowhere, the wind kicked up. One violent gust after another, a sudden valley windstorm, shook the tree I was in. I had to hold on tight to the branch where I was seated. I knew, I just knew what was going to happen—after all, I had lived on that farm all my life, and I was aware of how powerful a windstorm could be. The wind blew pieces of burning wood from the barn high into the air. In the darkness they looked like fireworks. A few hit the house and bounced off. But some of them must have blown into the parlor, through the window I had forced open. In a flash, something in that room—the drapes or the old rug or something—caught on fire. The room was engulfed in flames almost immediately and heavy black smoke poured out. Then there was a whoosh and a kind of popping sound. Then—I couldn’t believe this was happening—the fire jumped to the second floor, where the bedrooms were. It must have shot up that old staircase. I saw an upstairs window open and I heard shouting and screams. I saw Ma and my sisters jump from the window. They hit the dirt and didn’t move for a few seconds; then they got up and limped away from the house.
“Then, with flames behind him—dark orange and red—and with smoke pouring out, Father was there, in that window. It was like he was in a picture frame. He looked out. I think he saw me or else he just stared in my direction, at the tree, imagining I was in it. Even though he was becoming obscured by black smoke I thought I saw his face; it was angry. He didn’t look down. He just stood at that window. I saw the flames, snake-like, behind him. Then they were on him. He raised his arms and just stood there, looking like some kind of—I don’t know—like a horrible creature from some old myth or like Moses and the burning bush, except he was the bush. He stayed there. He didn’t move! It was like the flames didn’t hurt him or he wanted to burn. And then something blew up, and the house became a giant ball of fire.
“The fire company came, but the men just stood around watching what was left continue to burn. After a while, the flames died out and the wooden frame of the house smoldered and then, little by little, it fell apart. Then I climbed down the tree and made my way through the woods in the dark to the highway.”