the letter

I’m looking for my husband’s lover in the MoMa sculpture garden. I’ve been carrying her letter with me everywhere, and from what I can piece together so far – what she likes, what she’s like - she might very well come here on a summer evening just like this one. It’s in what she wrote, and also in her handwriting: which is frank, billowy, flying without hesitation along the plain blue paper. Once you begin to look for someone, you can't miss even the smallest chance. When we ran into her at the Night Café two months ago I wasn’t paying attention, and I won’t make that mistake again. The last information was that she’s out of town. But I’m keeping an eye out. That young woman for instance, chatting with two men: dark shoulder-length wavy hair, casual, fitting right in. She listens in a relaxed, self-confident way I almost recognize. Yes, that could be her.

Last night, finally, I was inside her house. You won't believe how beautiful it was. After weeks of looking at it from park benches, powerless to go through the door, imagine the excitement of entering as one of many invited guests. She was nowhere to be seen. The house was much bigger than it looks from the outside. It was dark and deep, baroque, intriguing. We marveled at the silky, night-mantled windows, and through them at the banks of the Hudson, its masses of trees embroidered with lights. I rose in a velvety elevator, in which swung a chandelier made of black drops. I found her bedroom, saw her tapestries, her jewelry. But I couldn't get near any of them. Caryatids with suffering faces held up the walls. “There’s a body inside each one,” a fellow guest confided. “Think about it. All those women buried alive.” When I woke up I sat at the head of our bed, watching him sleep: a peaceful rosy boy. He doesn’t know that I know. The other day while we were walking under the trees on Riverside Drive he let it slip. “The houses around here are lovely,” he said. “I've been to some of them.” He was remembering hers, of course. So I began to try to imagine it.

I’m in La Rosita, where we come every Sunday to read the Times over café con leche, keeping an eye on that woman sitting over there looking so much like her. A charming heart-shaped face, long wavy dark hair. I watch her laughing. It's too much. I want to kneel at his feet, beg him to let me go. He was my bread, my flower, a mountain I wanted to climb step by step. Our sleeping together was like that of birds folded safely in leaves. I drag my gaze away. A hungry man stands outside the window. On opposite sides of the glass we both stare at the bright, painted cakes in the display case going round and round. On my way out I give him a dollar. “God bless you,” he says. His blessing is a food I press against my lips.

Every time I sleep I dream: my husband has left me behind. I follow him into the 1920s ballroom. It’s a hot summer day. Not many people are dancing. Two flappers in pretty dresses, a blonde and a brunette, wait against the wall. They giggle and smile. Which one? I wonder. My husband, impeccable in a white linen suit, drops a 78 on the phonograph. A waltz cranks up, scratchy in the still afternoon. His eyes move over me with indifference. He chooses the brunette. She smiles with pleasure as he takes her hand. Her creamy white skin, long wavy black hair hurt me. Just as I begin to savor her beauty he wakes me with a kiss. “I'm going,” he says. “I'm late.” I follow him out. We kiss over and over, tenderly by the open door. I watch him disappear down the stairs. He's gone, and he loves me. So in gratitude my incantation wends its way upward: What else is there but you, evening over the light streets, walls glowing their last, sky and leaves?

I've been tracking her footsteps, and it tears me apart that they’re all over our neighborhood, in every place we’ve been together. It’s so random. You can’t prevent other women from existing, and from having made love to your husband. I would give anything for another shot at noticing the clues - carnal, precise, legitimate - I overlooked the night he introduced us. There she was, right next to the jukebox we’ve played a million times. So available. I saw a heart-shaped face nestled in wavy dark hair, a vivid smile. Behind her was the pool table, where, it turns out, I might have run into her during any given happy hour, just like any other grad student. She existed then in a space as familiar and unremarkable as the red neon of the Night Café sign spilling through the leaves of the gingko tree onto the Amsterdam Avenue sidewalk. If only I had stayed, faced her beauty, her desire to please, I might have seen it coming. Instead I let her go right by me. So now I’m hunting her, all over our house, on the street, remembering incidents – an invitation to an opening, a message on our answering machine - trying to sketch a chronology of the submerged river that carried me, oblivious, to this day. Already I feel summer's majesty leaving us. Last year at this time I was shut away in rooms. I feel it flowing over me, and I'm killing myself wondering if there will be another opportunity. Because I can’t stand it that she’s been here all along. That I didn’t know.

Happiness, out here on Watch Hill where the memory of what happened is not anchored to any specific building, or café or stretch of sidewalk, comes in little spurts. The sea flows like a river, glittering between its banks of sand and sky. Inside the shining water I forget myself. But as soon as I lie down the singsong of failure starts up again. Last night in my dream I told my husband quietly, “If you don't stop I'm going to break every single thing in the house, down to the littlest plate.” Ahead of me on the train back to the city two young women are talking loudly, self-confidently. Even without looking at them I can tell that they wear pastels; that they are silky, groomed, and their world is full of certainties. They are more versions of her, whose reality flows smoothly between well-tended banks. The thought of her pierces me again, so powerfully that I no longer understand what she represents, and feel only a blind hatred. Then I remind myself of what I’ve discovered. For example, the cool wind flowing from the river early in the morning. It's taken me all this life just to be able to sit quietly under summer trees. It should be enough.

This much I gather from what she wrote: that she is beautiful, optimistic. That she really tries. She’s not the type of woman to get obsessed, or to make difficulties. She lives her life in the light of day. Her apartment, on the top floor of a yellow building facing the river, is six blocks away from our house. Her doorway anchors me among the leaves.

In the restaurant on the island a month ago a woman turned to look at him. Her smile was complete, majestic, a ship's prow sailing calmly in the night. She had a heart-shaped face, framed in long wavy dark hair. A face that hurt me. Afterwards we walked home on the straight narrow road under the delicately ornamented sky, drinking the rosary of wild scents. They were beads I told off in my island prayer: jasmine, rosemary, olive, hibiscus, chamomile, bamboo. During the time in which the night wind was pouring itself over the leaves I found her letter. It was vibrant, fanciful, written in many colors. It had a drawing of a sea goddess, her marvelous totem body made of shells, each one representing a call to romance. In the dream I hoarded it, fought with him over it. “I found it with all your other love letters,” I whispered accusingly. The next day, though, I was back at square one. What I had been able to utter freely in the dream I could not now say to him out loud. Losing him was still a blank wall beyond which, I knew, all life would cease. The fact that she had been here, in his arms, meant that she lived on now in his memory, where I could neither reach, nor experience, nor annihilate her.

The phone rings. It’s late afternoon. A storm is coming. “How are you?” he says in the next room. “Where have you been since I last talked to you?” They laugh and joke together. “Well you're the one who hasn't been returning my calls,” he says joyfully. The sky is flame-colored above the silver 107th Street sidewalks. In our windows the tower of St. John the Divine has turned to opal. I close my eyes. She’s telling him a story. I listen to his listening. It’s happening, I think. She came back. Of course, she still has his number. He laughs again, inside a relaxed, intimate circle of their own making. At last she's here, she's really here, with us. They’re making arrangements. “Where can I call you?” he says. My eyes open finally and with great effort to witness the thunder, the first autumn freshness of rain. I’ve been so worn out with the thought of her being somewhere close by.

Today the sun lies over the city like a cool bright sea. Leaves turn to seaweed, hang in the light. The street, the benches, the yellow building on the avenue facing the river: all of it still belongs to her. Does it matter who is the hunter, who the quarry? I need to know her. It’s the only way I can control what happened. It’s exhausting, but this is how it has to be.

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