Only when Rebecca moved in with me did I discover that one person, in the course of daily living, could create so much noise. When Rebecca entered a room, she seemed to arrive by crashing through the door; leaving, she invariably slammed the door behind her. Coming into the house, she sounded an auditory alarm of sorts by tossing onto the kitchen counter a hefty ring of keys, keys that, thus tossed, then slid along the counter until they ran into the facing wall. There was that same sense of abandon—a wanton celebration of noise, in fact—in the way Rebecca banged shut the doors of cupboards and closets. Other noises she made, not that loud in and of themselves, rippled out to create other sounds. Her tread when she climbed the stairs in the front hallway was muted somewhat by carpeting, but her step was so heavy that it would cause two vases on a table in the hallway below to bounce.
More irksome to me than the noises themselves was Rebecca’s blithe disregard for the clanging and clatter that accompanied her every move. A number of times, I asked her, quite gently, I thought, if she could please try to be more quiet. Her response was a look, a blank stare really, that indicated her disinterest in the subject. I upped the ante by carefully keeping track, over a two-day period, of the noises Rebecca made. Then, the next night, at dinner, I read the list to her, trying as best I could to recreate the sounds I had catalogued. Rebecca’s reply—her voice purposefully flat, her manner bored—was that I was beginning to remind her of her father. I had heard enough stories from Rebecca about her curmudgeonly father to know that wasn’t her idea of a compliment. The following night, as if to mollify me, Rebecca presented me with a gift, a neatly wrapped package containing a set of ear plugs.
Rebecca could not as easily dismiss the other habit of hers that I found so annoying, her tendency to drive too fast. Not only did she ignore my pleas to slow down when she drove through the quiet residential area of Cambridge where I lived, but she persisted, for instance, when entering my driveway, to wait until the last second before aiming the gizmo at the electronic eye that opened the garage door. My cautionary warnings repeatedly ignored, I decided one day to have a speed bump installed in my driveway, but did so without warning Rebecca about it beforehand.
Rebecca spotted the speed bump in time to slam on her brakes just before she reached it, but rather than ease her car over the bump, she backed up a short distance and then drove at a diagonal across my carefully tended lawn to the entrance of the garage. It was early spring, and since two days of intermittent rain had left the ground a bit soggy, Rebecca’s detour left two deep tire tracks across an expanse of grass that was just beginning to turn green.
When Rebecca entered the house. this time intentionally slamming the door so hard the entire house shook, she was already shouting about how she had come this close—holding her fingers an inch or so apart—from ripping the bottom off her car.
I was as vehement as Rebecca in defending the speed bump. All I was trying to do, I said, was to slow her down enough so that she wouldn’t crash through the garage door. I lowered my voice, however—and introduced a bit of menace into it, too—when I warned her never again to drive her car across my lawn.
I seemed to have prevailed for the moment since Rebecca, rather than answer me, went directly upstairs, leaving in her wake the two vases on the table in the hallway tingling. Moments later, having changed into a work shirt and jeans, she returned to launch a retaliatory strike. Her target? The assorted clumps of newspaper clippings, folded over magazines and books, with post-it slips peeping out from their pages, which were scattered throughout my house. This was reading material I set aside because of a habit I developed when I was still writing my twice-weekly column on the business page of The Boston Globe. These scraps of information, I maintained, were all grist for my column, often in ways I couldn’t even imagine. True, I used only a tiny portion of the material I collected, but there were those triumphant moments when I would pluck from one of my piles a news clip or a government report that helped me demolish the extravagant claim of some bumptious politician while at the same time driving home the point of my column. Therefore, a cardinal rule of the Rowland household: None of my piles were ever to be touched or trifled with in any way.
Rebecca occasionally complained about the clutter I created (as opposed to my former wife, Marion, who never did), but that night, in a rampage of housecleaning, she marched around the house, gathering up my reading material, and proceeding, each time she had an armful, to the garage, where she dumped the stuff into a plastic recycling bin.
The shouting match that took place while Rebecca disposed of my piles was of little purpose, except that it allowed both of us to restate our respective positions about the speed bump. That was followed by an awkward hour or so of silence, a cooling off period of sorts when Rebecca went to her office off the dining room and I retreated likewise to my study upstairs. I was the one, finally, who made a conciliatory move, going downstairs and admitting to Rebecca that, yes, I should have warned her in advance about the speed bump. I even announced my intention to have the bump lowered a bit. Rebecca, in turn, relented enough to begin retrieving my reading materials from the recycling bin, but the whole time she was doing so she continued her argument against the need for any speed bump at all.
In the week after the speed bump incident, I made amends by corralling most of my piles and moving them into my study. Rebecca must have had something similar in mind. Not that she drove more slowly or made less noise, but she agreed to accompany me two weeks hence on a trip to San Francisco to visit my daughter, Miss Susie, my five year old granddaughter, Tracy, and my son-in-law, Kevin.
The trip to San Francisco was a notable concession on Rebecca’s part. As head of an organization that set up family planning clinics in the underdeveloped world, she traveled constantly and maintained a schedule that didn’t leave much time for trips of a personal nature. But Rebecca’s peace offering, if that’s what it was, came to naught because, three days before we were supposed to leave for San Francisco, she informed me that she wouldn’t be making the trip after all.
Ecuador was Rebecca’s one word explanation for the sudden change in her plans. I matched the brevity of Rebecca’s announcement with a stone-faced silence that caused Rebecca to explain, somewhat frantically, why she needed to fly off to Ecuador. A newly appointed Catholic bishop was pressuring the ministry of health to curtail the opening of new family planning clinics, she said, and the minister—naive, but politically ambitious nevertheless—was bending over backwards to maintain favorable relations with the church. It was Rebecca’s fear that without her direct intervention the minister might even try to close the clinics already in operation.
My response, delivered after a short pause, was in the form of a question, but one designed not so much to elicit information as to make a point. Was the situation in Ecuador, I asked, all that different from several other countries where Rebecca’s organization had established their clinics?
"As of today," Rebecca replied, "we’re in danger of losing Ecuador."
Rebecca could not have sounded a more mournful note if she had been the American Secretary of State, at the height of the Cold War, expressing his fear that a valued ally might soon join the Soviet bloc.
Once again, I greeted Rebecca’s remark with silence, mostly because I was trying to restrain myself. My anger was not so much Rebecca’s last-minute change of plans as it was for the either/or situation she had laid out before me. How could I possibly argue that a visit to Miss Susie was of greater importance than the life and death consequences of family planning in Ecuador?
"Didn’t I mention to you last week the problems we were having in Ecuador?" she said.
"No," I said, "not that I can recall. I’ll only say this—what is it, forty or so countries where you have programs? Now, since there’s bound to be an emergency in one country or another each quarter, I imagine you’ll get to visit little Tracy with me just about the time she’s going off to college."
Rebecca, who had barely begun to eat, pushed her plate away.
"You’re free to think what you want," she said. "but I wasn’t aware that I had to check with you before deciding what trips I took and why. Or when either."
"That isn’t quite what I said."
"No, but you came close to calling me a liar. Perhaps you’d like to find out some day how much fun it is to spend a week in Ecuador. Let me remind you of something else. Never in my entire career have I spent a penny on travel unless it was absolutely necessary. So don’t think I’d gin up a reason to fly off somewhere simply to avoid visiting with your Miss Susie."
Rebecca then left the table and went to her office where she began making her way through a pile of paperwork. A few minutes later, having also lost my appetite, I picked up both my plate and Rebecca’s and brought them into the kitchen. I had no intention of backing away from anything I had said. At the same time, I knew it would be difficult to find out whether Rebecca’s trip was, in fact, as necessary as she claimed it was. And even if I did, what could I do about it if Rebecca would rather travel to Ecuador than visit Miss Susie?
When I came out of the kitchen and was on my way upstairs, I stopped in the doorway of Rebecca’s office and told her that I still planned to make the trip to San Francisco.
"Please explain to Miss Susie why I had to cancel," Rebecca said, looking up from her work. "And when you do, refrain if you can, from any editorializing."
I was not going to reply, but I was unable to stop myself from making a parting comment as I turned to go upstairs. "This may be an instance," I said, "when any editorial comment I made would be superfluous."
My riposte was a lie since I had every intention of explaining to Miss Susie that Rebecca had been called to Ecuador to resolve a humanitarian crisis of the first magnitude. Miss Susie, in turn, would do her best to go along with my deception, maybe even express sympathy for the difficult task Rebecca was facing, but all that was pretense, both on Miss Susie’s end and mine.
Our polite fiction dated back to the day, two years before, when I called Miss Susie to tell her that I was in love with Rebecca and Miss Susie greeted the news with utter silence. I hadn’t expected a congratulatory whoop, but I was surprised enough by her reaction to shout into the phone, "Hello, hello," and even, as I recall, to shake the receiver to and fro, as if I could coax from it a reply.
Seconds later, disregarding any phone problem, I asked Miss Susie if there was something wrong with what I had just said. Her reply—"Oh, no"—was not particularly convincing.
"Is it because I’ve sprung this on you without any warning? Or was it the word love? That isn’t a word I use lightly, you know."
On her second try, Miss Susie, managed to extend her congratulations to me, but she did so with the feeling and conviction of someone who could think of nothing else to say just then. That only made me all the more intent on making Miss Susie understand what a fortunate man I was to have met Rebecca.
"I’ll guarantee you one thing," I said. "you’re going to change your mind about Rebecca once you’ve met her. And for the record, she’s a widow and she’s my age."
Miss Susie was apparently unmoved by the news that I hadn’t made a fool of myself by taking up with some woman who was half my age. More puzzling to me was her lack of curiosity about who Rebecca was or how I had met her.
I then made the mistake of trying, in one headlong rush, to explain all those things about Rebecca that attracted me to her. But overly anxious, I mixed together the grisly details of the freak skiing accident in which Rebecca’s husband was killed with a gushy report on how brilliantly Rebecca could deliver a speech. In the middle of my spiel—I knew I was speaking too fast, but couldn’t stop myself—I circled back to tell more about Rebecca’s husband, who had been a young surgeon of exceptional promise. Her husband’s death, I said, was so devastating to Rebecca that she had stopped writing—literally in mid-sentence, I emphasized—her doctoral dissertation on early American landscape artists.
My delivery improved—I was more coherent at least—when I told of how Rebecca had recovered from her husband’s death by taking an entry level job with the International Red Cross and her subsequent rise to a position where she directed teams that delivered aid to victims of natural disasters all over the world. I was in the middle of ticking off the commendations bestowed on Rebecca by various foreign governments when Miss Susie interrupted me to ask if I intended to marry Rebecca.
"Of course," I replied, a bit perturbed at being interrupted just as I was boasting of the invaluable work Rebecca had done two years before as head of a Presidential commission on homelessness. I sought right after that to impress Miss Susie with Rebecca’s role as a spokesperson for the pro-choice movement.
"I was with Rebecca last week in Chicago when she appeared on a television show, debating some blowhard pro-lifer," I said. "By the time she was done, she had eviscerated the poor fellow."
Miss Susie’s response to that was to ask when the wedding was going to take place.
"I guess that depends on when Rebecca can fit it into her schedule," I said. "This week, however, she’s moving in with me."
That didn’t bring our conversation to an immediate end, but Miss Susie seemed to have discovered rather suddenly that it was time for her just then to pick up Tracy from her nursery school.
Later, when I reached my son, Mitchell, it was obvious he had already heard from Miss Susie. Mitchell, the junior partner in a Silicon Valley startup, had always been more exuberant and outgoing than his older sibling, but that day he stalled out after saying how surprised he was at my announcement. When he had twice said the same thing about being surprised and seemed as if he was about to repeat himself, I interrupted him.
"Please," I said. "don’t pull a Miss Susie on me."
"It might have gone better if you had given her some warning," Mitchell said.
"No, it’s just Miss Susie once again acting as if she has veto power over other people’s lives. It’s that damned social worker mentality of hers. She’s dedicated herself to helping people, but her help comes with one condition—you do as Miss Susie says or else."
"This will require an adjustment for Miss Susie and me," Mitchell said. "I think you should grant us that much."
"Well, it’s an adjustment neither of you will have any trouble making once you get to know Rebecca. She can be charming and refined, but she’s a scrapper, too, a real dynamo. Other women her age might be letting up, but she’s out there, day after day, giving speeches, attending conferences and raising money. All the while, of course, she has to tiptoe through mine fields of religious prejudice and petty politics. But let someone cross her and she’ll engage in hand-to-hand combat if that’s what it takes to save poor women from having children they can’t afford to feed."
Mitchell’s answer to that—a simple "Wow!—left me wondering what it was that impressed him, Rebecca’s accomplishments, or the unusual passion with which I expressed myself?
Rebecca, almost as if she sensed my children’s reaction to her, was as wary of them as they were of her. When we first met, she would ask questions about them, but her curiosity came in fits and starts, almost like someone who had to remind herself that it was a subject about which she should express some interest. The one time Rebecca and my children met—it was a dinner at Miss Susie’s house—the gathering amounted to nothing more than one long evening of cocktail party chitchat. The only levity and spark came from little Tracy first reciting for us, word for word, all the songs and rhymes she had learned in kindergarten and then doing a run through of the routines she was learning in her dance class.
Later, when we were driving back to our hotel, Rebecca asked me why Miss Susie resented her.
"How can you say that?" I said. "I heard her tell you a number of times how much she admires the work you’re doing."
"Oh, she can be nice enough," Rebecca said, sounding as if she didn’t want to press the point. But a moment later, unwilling to drop the subject, she blurted out the word, "Intuition." Then, elaborating, she said, "It’s so damned obvious she’s holding back on how she really feels."
"Miss Susie is a very serious person, perhaps too serious," I said. "But that’s what makes her so good at what she does."
"That may be so, but why did she ask me—three times, I believe—whether I liked your house? And what was this, ‘Do you find it comfortable? Have you settled in?’ That was a dead giveaway. She obviously feels I’m an intruder—and in ways, I think, that go well beyond my physical presence in your house."
"I should have warned you," I said. "Both my kids, whether they know it or not, have yet to recover from Marion’s death."
"If that’s so—and for now, I’ll take your word for it—I’ll try not to be bothered by their indifference towards me."
In practice, however, Rebecca met indifference with indifference. She was friendly enough if she answered the phone when Miss Susie or Mitchell called, but she would quickly turn the phone over to me and she rarely asked, once I hung up, what my children and I had talked about.
It was left for me to maintain the uneasy truce that existed between Miss Susie and Rebecca. I barely averted an outbreak of hostilities, for instance, when I told Miss Susie that I had bought new furniture for the living room and dining room and was converting the den off the dining room into an office for Rebecca.
"I’m surprised at you," Miss Susie said. "I thought you would have put up a better fight than that. All that furniture was so tasteful."
"Tasteful perhaps, but also faded and frayed if you looked closely."
"There’s something so primal about this," Miss Susie said. "The nest must be done over and all traces of the previous inhabitant expunged."
"Oh cut it out. Furniture is furniture. Don’t try to make it into anything more than that. Frankly, the whole place was in need of freshening up."
"The abruptness of it—and its finality. That’s what gives it its meaning, whether you think so or not."
"Tell me something. Do you really think it makes sense for me to ship second hand furniture 3000 miles just to soothe your feelings?"
"Don’t put words in my mouth," she said.
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I promise never again to make any interior decorating changes without first clearing them with you."
In the middle of the furniture dispute, I came close to reminding Miss Susie that she was the one who had repeatedly urged me, for therapeutic reasons alone, to begin dating not long after Marion had died.
"You can’t let grief morph into guilt," she had once told me, sounding somewhat gruff yet solicitous. "You must try, even if you don’t feel like it, to be future oriented. You’re a healthy guy, you look ten years younger than your age and you have a terrific house. Why, if they offered you as a prize in a raffle, half the women in Boston would line up to buy tickets."
I usually responded to that kind of advice by doing my best to change the subject. I didn’t like the feeling that Miss Susie was treating me as if I were one of her clients, and I was particularly uneasy, after a lifetime of monogamy, of discussing with either of my children, even in a theoretical vein, the pros and cons of dating other women. I was as reluctant—self conscious really—about trying to explain to them (or to well-meaning friends and relatives) the indescribable loneliness that afflicted me after Marion had died. Could any of these people understand what it was like to pour a cup of coffee and then discover a half hour later that you hadn’t drunk the coffee—and didn’t have any idea what you had done while the coffee grew cold? Mourning for Marion, in my view, was not a spectator sport.
I was as withholding—now there’s a Miss Susie word for you—about my visits to two different cardiologists, hoping to find out why at times I seemed short of breath while at other times my heart was racing even though I was sitting in a chair, reading a book. And I certainly never revealed to anyone that neither doctor, while finding me healthy, could explain why I still felt, on certain days, as though a tiny bird, its wings fluttering wildly, was trapped inside my chest cavity.
Oh, I could just imagine Miss Susie’s reaction to that and the dozens of questions that were sure to follow. So instead of trying to convey to Miss Susie the true dimensions of my grief, I told her one night, when she was pressing me to get out more, that for the time being I wasn’t fit company for any woman.
"And what exactly do you mean by the word fit?" Miss Susie asked.
"Let’s just say that being antisocial seems to suit me right now," I said.
"Can we assume, then, that you might be more ‘social’ at some point in the future?
"When and if, you’ll be the first to know," I said.
I thought that settled the matter for the time being, but Miss Susie wasn’t about to give up that easily, not even when I changed the subject to the massive shake up taking place in the managerial hierarchy of The Boston Globe. I wasn’t sure by the time it ended, I told her, that I would still have my column.
"My sin was being born when Harry Truman was still president," I said, "Around the Globe these days that’s like having a bull’s eye painted on your back. Oh, they call it a ‘buyout’ and they give you some money as they ease you out the door, but what they’re saying, in effect, is that they can run the place just fine without you."
Ordinarily, Miss Susie liked to be kept up to date on "global politics," her term for infighting among Globe editors, but this time she simply asked if the possibility of cataclysmic changes at the Globe had anything to do with my antisocial policy. Specifically, she wanted to know if that accounted for my absence, the week before, at the annual Fourth of July cookout hosted by my neighbors, the McElroys? Seconds later, she asked me, while I was at it, to explain why I hadn’t attended, the week before that, my sister Jennie’s seventieth birthday party.
"I was busy," I said, realizing that Miss Susie would then want to know what I was so busy at. But Miss Susie was more interested in letting me know what she thought of my behavior towards people who, as she put it, seemed to care much more about me than I did about them.
"Some of these people might even say that you’re being a bit boorish," she said.
"And other people—namely me—might say that I’m only trying to preserve my privacy."
"What a classic case you are," Miss Susie replied. "If only everyone would leave me alone, then I could really concentrate on how miserable I am. It’s all so infantile. Good God, I’d expect better than that from my little Tracy."
I didn’t appreciate Miss Susie comparing my behavior to that of my granddaughter, but it bothered me even more to hear my grief likened to a simple case of self pity.
"I ran across something the other day that might be of interest to you," I said. "It was in a book by C. S. Lewis—and before you ask, he was an Oxford don and literary critic. C. S. Lewis was surprised, he said, after his wife died, to discover something he called ‘the laziness of grief.’ Work, perhaps out of habit, he could do, he said. And so can I. But I know exactly what he meant when he said that his wife’s death left him without the desire to do anything that would take him out of himself."
"That takes us right back to where we started, doesn’t it," Miss Susie said, just before hanging up on me.
Miss Susie and I might have remained forever fixed in our positions, but for the outcome of the managerial scrum at the Globe. As expected, I lost my column, mostly, I believe, because I became a bargaining chip in the wheeling and dealing that allowed Walter Simsbury to emerge as the paper’s new editor. But Simsbury, an old friend, offered me a consolation prize by cooking up a new job and new title. I was now the paper’s senior national correspondent, which made me, as Simsbury put it, "our resident futurist."
"We spend too much time in this business telling people stuff that’s already happened," said Simsbury, who always sounded like a football coach giving a pep talk. "My point is this: Let’s try to detect the shifting of tectonic plates before, not after, the earthquake hits? I’m taking trends, the long view, looking over the horizon. Go where you have to. Talk to experts. Chat with the man in the street. Plumb the depths. Kick over rocks and logs. Turn out stuff that’ll make my eyes pop."
I never cared all that much for Simsbury’s backslapping exuberance, but I realized as soon as I began my new assignment that Simsbury had come up with the curative Miss Susie had been trying to prescribe. For all the hard work I put into them, my columns had become elaborate exercises in score settling and the arguments I won often turned on something so petty (and so irrelevant) that it seemed as if I was writing primarily for my own amusement. But now, roaming the country, unfettered by subject matter and freed at last from the 850-word confines of my column, I turned out three and four-part series that were a mélange of dire prophecy and hopeful prognostication, with a heavy overlay of expert opinion, that tried to bring balance between these two extremes.
Reader response, I gather, was generally positive, but most important, my stories elicited in Simsbury the optical response he had asked of me. Once, he even admitted, (quoting a Globe higher up whom he refused to identify) that forced retirement in my case would have been a terrible mistake. Compliments from Simsbury (and unnamed higherups) were always welcome, but it was apparent to me that spending time away from home—and away, therefore, from constant reminders of Marion—may have helped extricate me from "the laziness of grief." There was this bonus, too, that came to me, courtesy of Simsbury: It was not as easy now, because I traveled so much, for Miss Susie to check up on me.
Now and then, of course, my forays into the world of tomorrow failed to provide me with stories of any value. That was the case when I went off—at Simsbury’s suggestion—to Los Angeles for a conference of world health experts. I searched diligently for Simsbury’s proverbial "big picture," but in the first two days I was in Los Angeles, I felt as though I had happened in on a gathering of experts who were interested only in speaking to each other—and in code at that. If that wasn’t bad enough, the conference in which the hotel was being held was so new that even the help didn’t quite know how to negotiate its maze-like corridors. Since the hotel’s designer had also made lavish use of mirrored surfaces, I ended up wandering corridors that seemed to lead nowhere while seeing images of myself coming and going as I searched in vain for a speech or panel discussion that might yield the germ of a story.
Late on the second day of the conference, finding myself in a mirrored cul-de-sac—and frustrated as to my whereabouts—I pushed opened the one door that did not have a mirror on it and literally stumbled into a darkened room. I managed to keep my footing, but found myself staring into the beam of light from a slide projector. I immediately crouched down so that I would not obstruct the images being projected on the screen and then scurried, bent over at the waist, a la Groucho Marx, to a row of chairs some fifty feet away. Thus, my distinct, if not very graceful entrance into the room where I met Rebecca Casselman.
Rebecca was just then in the midst of excoriating the American government for its puny support of family planning in underdeveloped countries. Her presentation backed up her main point, which was the effectiveness of family planning in combatting poverty and disease. In the course of her talk, she mentioned her recent move to Boston, where the organization she headed had set up a new office.
I was instantly transfixed by Rebecca. I admired in particular the way she so effectively used her anger and indignation to underscore the arguments she made. Every sentence she uttered was built on the previous one, and the structure of her talk, overall, was so carefully organized that she didn’t have to raise or lower her voice to emphasize the points she wanted to make.
From my vantage point, Rebecca looked to be fifty or so, of average height and build and dressed in a no-nonsense business suit that was enlivened by a brightly colored scarf draped around her neck. The small light on the podium revealed a women with the presence—her shoulders squared and her jaw tilted up slightly—of a soprano about to break into song. That wasn’t at all surprising once I learned that Rebecca had been trained to stand erect and enunciate correctly by her mother, who had been a professional singer.
As soon as Rebecca finished her talk, and the lights went on, I introduced myself to her. I saw then that her hair, cropped closely, had more gray in it than was evident when the room was darkened. Fine but discernible lines on Rebecca’s face also indicated that she was probably closer to my age than I first thought. Her facial features, in fact, struck me as the kind of visual trick designed to test perception. The downward cast of her mouth and her dark, deep set eyes, framed by coal black eyebrows, gave her the look of a woman who had spent a good part of her life dealing with death and disease. But seconds later, the frown lines would disappear and her eyes glistened when she let loose with the intermittent bursts of laughter that brightened her conversation.
At first, Rebecca was a bit curt with me because she felt, as she later told me, that I hadn’t listened closely enough to what she had said. But once she reiterated the points she had made in her talk, she and I began swapping stories about the difficulties we had had in finding our way around the hotel. Soon, we were chatting and laughing as both of us—widow and widower, we discovered—entertained each other with accounts of less than desirable hotel accommodations we had encountered in our travels. It was Rebecca who suggested that we have a drink together.
Both Rebecca and I were astonished at how quickly we went from being two people who were intrigued with each other to a couple who found it painful to be apart. One moment I would scold myself for thinking I could fall in love with someone I hardly knew. Seconds later, I had convinced myself that there was no other way for anyone anywhere to fall in love.
Likewise, Rebecca talked as though it were someone else, some stranger completely lacking in common sense, who had pieced together the connecting flights that enabled her to get back to Boston (and dinner with me) one hour earlier than if she had waited for a direct flight from Seattle. Once, only a month after we met, she called me from London, to say she was going to have three free days there due to a mix up in the scheduling of a meeting she was on her way to in Indonesia. Within the hour, I had booked a flight to London, and two hours later I was airborne.
Because both Rebecca and I traveled so much, ours was a courtship conducted long distance. I would nap early in the evening so that I was awake and alert when Rebecca called me after midnight from a time zone where it was already early morning. From hotel rooms that were thousands of miles apart, we would talk to each other for an hour or more, only hanging up because one of us needed to rest or had work to do. Fifteen minutes later, one of us would call back so that we could continue where we had left off. Both of us, phone charges be damned, were intent on sharing with each other everything that had ever happened to us, our early lives, our marriages, the progress of our careers, and most of all, our mutual experiences in grieving for our respective spouses. Nothing about these calls was as explicit or as tawdry as phone sex, but there was an erotic charge to these conversations. We were like fevered lovers, frantically shedding garments and baring ourselves as we sought to share with each other details and intimacies that, until that very moment, were known only to ourselves.
In the first weeks after we met, when we were together in the flesh, Rebecca and I would punctuate a bout of love making by laughingly giving thanks to the mirror-crazed hotel designer who had unwittingly brought us together.
It was a Thursday night when Rebecca told me that she was unable to make the trip to San Francisco. We didn’t see each other on Friday because she was up and out of the house to get to a meeting at her office in Washington and I went off later that morning to a weekend retreat for Globe editors at a hunting lodge in Maine. I called Rebecca on Sunday morning, just before I returned to Boston (and my flight, that afternoon, to San Francisco), but our conversation was quite brief since Rebecca’s cab was at the door, waiting to take her to the airport. Only when I hung up did I realize that Rebecca had forgotten to tell me how I could reach her in Ecuador. I assumed, however, that she would be calling me at Miss Susie’s house.
It was odd, then, when Rebecca didn’t call me on Monday, and odder still when I didn’t hear from her on Tuesday. I was preoccupied, of course, with entertaining (and being entertained by) Tracy so I didn’t wonder as much as I might have at Rebecca’s failure to call. But on Wednesday, just before Rebecca’s Boston office would be closing for the day, I decided to call there, assuming someone on her staff could give me Rebecca’s number in Ecuador. Surprisingly, the only person in Rebecca’s office was a temp who seemed not to know who Rebecca was and who sounded as if she was reading from a cue card when she told me that the best way to contact Ms. Casselman was to call her office in Washington. I tried to explain that I was a close friend of Ms. Casselman’s, but the temp only repeated what she had previously told me. Irritated by the woman’s robot-like response, I slammed the phone down when she was halfway through her scripted remarks.
But, once I hung up, I was no longer certain exactly what the temp had said. Was it that only the Washington office knew how to contact Ms. Casselman, or did she really mean that I should call the Washington office if I wanted to talk to Rebecca? And what was all this business about calling Washington anyway? Why didn’t she just say that Ms. Casselman was out of the country this week, or more specifically, that she was on a mission to "save" Ecuador?
Angry with myself over my lapse in memory—and bothered, too, I suppose, that Rebecca hadn’t called me—I put off calling Washington for the time being. By the next morning—having thought about it all night—I concluded that the little exchange Rebecca and I had had about her trip to Ecuador may have left her more upset than I realized. I had no direct evidence of that, except for Rebecca so abruptly ending our call on Sunday morning, supposedly because there was a cab waiting for her. I say, supposedly, because I couldn’t recall Rebecca ever caring that much whether a cab she had summoned was forced to wait for her. I have seen cab drivers, their engines idling, their meters clicking away—grab a short nap while Rebecca finished last minute phone calls or went back upstairs to change her clothes.
The phony cab excuse—and phony was how I thought of it—renewed my initial suspicions about Rebecca’s Ecuador ploy. For all I knew, she was probably spending the week in Washington. True, I could have called Rebecca’s Washington office and asked for her, but no doubt she had someone there who was screening her calls. I could even imagine Rebecca, once she knew I had tried to reach her, calling me back and even filling me in on everything that was going on in Ecuador. No, I was not going to be manipulated in that way. I would wait until Rebecca and I were back in Cambridge to learn whether her trip to Ecuador was a bit of fiction.
On Saturday afternoon, when I returned home, I was so tired that I wanted to go straight to bed but hesitated at doing so because Rebecca was due to arrive within three hours or so. That gave me enough time to take a shower and freshen up and then unpack and go through the mail that had been held for me by my neighbors, the McElroys.
As always, Rebecca’s return was accompanied by the sounds that made it seem as if an Army brigade was marching through the front door. Our welcome home embrace, somewhat less fervent than usual, was also quite awkward because Rebecca suddenly realized that the cab driver, who helped carry her bags to the door, was still standing on the front steps, waiting to be paid. Professing some embarrassment at her forgetfulness, she broke off from me to settle with the cab driver, but then, as soon as the cab driver left, she began digging through a suitcase, all the while making pro forma remarks about how tired she was.
For a moment I thought Rebecca was about to bring out some gift for me—something that made up for her failure to call perhaps?—but when she found what she was looking for it turned out to be a brightly colored woolen shawl she then draped around her shoulders.
"Isn’t this the most colorful thing you’ve ever seen?" she said.
I agreed that it was indeed colorful, but was somewhat puzzled at Rebecca’s urgency in showing off her new shawl. Nothing became any clearer to me when Rebecca stood in the middle of the room, with her arms outstretched and twirled around three times, in a halfway decent imitation of a ballerina.
"Impressive," I said, though that hardly conveyed how I really felt.
All I saw before me was a woman who was trying very hard—and not very successfully—to put off any discussion about why we had just managed, to go an entire week without talking to each other. Neither that shawl nor her dance made me forget that Rebecca, in my experience at least, rarely took time to shop when she was away on business. In fact, her shawl was not terribly different from one Rebecca could have purchased at a half-dozen stores in Harvard Square on her way home from the airport.
Rebecca’s dance brought her from the middle of the living room to the sofa across the chair in which I was sitting. Reaching the sofa, she let herself fall into it. Now, with her head thrown back and her arms spread out wide, she added a bit of ersatz melodrama to yet another comment about how thoroughly exhausted she was. A moment later, as if a chill had come over her, she wrapped the shawl around her shoulders, and asked if I had had an enjoyable week in San Francisco.
Until that very moment I was ready to recount every clever thing Tracy had said, but quietly, and in a somewhat offhand manner, I said, "I didn’t go."
I had this sudden thought that my announcement might cause Rebecca to admit that she, too, had not stuck to her original plan. Caught off guard, she might confess, then and there, that, yes, Ecuador was a problem, but one, it turned out, that could be dealt with from Washington. Or maybe she would forego any explanation of the circumstances that caused her to spend a week in Washington and simply apologize for having misled me. But Rebecca, letting the shawl fall away, and pulling herself up from her half sitting, half lying down position, said, "You’re kidding."
"No," I said, "why would I do that?"
It took me only a few sentences to explain that Simsbury, just as I was leaving the meeting in Maine, had a story idea he wanted me to pursue, right then, without any delay.
"You know Simsbury, he thinks every idea he gets might spoil if we don’t act on it at that very moment. In this case, it was all about how prisons in this country are filling up with people who are serving life sentences without parole. That means, in a few years, when all these lifers grow old and senile, prison guards are going to be doing double duty as nursing home attendants."
That idea, in fact, had come to me, on the spot, thanks to a story I had seen (and cut out) from The New York Times just before Rebecca arrived.
"Well, that’s better than telling Miss Susie I was the one who caused you to cancel your trip."
"You’re not the only one with a busy schedule you know."
"Oh my gosh. Something tells me that Miss Susie heard, nevertheless, how I crumped out on you."
"I’m not sure why you keep dragging Miss Susie into this. I had work to do so I spent the week talking to penologists and prison guards and anyone else who knows something about this subject."
"Oh, forget it then," Rebecca said. "I just figured you were so tied up out there that I didn’t even call."
"The same with me," I said. "Plus, I didn’t want to interfere with anyone who had the responsibility for saving Ecuador. Did you succeed by the way?"
"I did what had to be done," Rebecca said. "As for results, we’ll just have to wait and see.
"Damn. And all along I thought your presence alone would have caused that bishop to wave a white flag."
"I don’t know what you’re driving at," Rebecca said, getting up from the sofa and tossing her shawl aside. "And I’m too tired to care—or to take your bait. I’m more interested in a hot bath and climbing into bed."
Rather than follow Rebecca upstairs, I sat at the dining room table and finished reading that morning’s Times. I was only half concentrating on the paper, however, because I was trying to decide what to say if Rebecca learned that I had indeed gone to San Francisco. I could, of course, call Miss Susie and ask her to back up my story about having to delay my trip, but I wasn’t sure that Miss Susie would agree to provide me with an alibi.(And alibi, I was sure, would be the word Miss Susie would use for what I was asking her to do.) I was hesitant, too, at having to answer the questions Miss Susie’s was bound to pose, questions that might not stop until she had explored every facet of my relationship with Rebecca and also determined why I uttered such an egregious lie about not visiting with her.
In the end, I chose not to involve Miss Susie in my deception. I would deal with the matter myself if and when Rebecca discovered that I had deceived her. I had the sense, though, that Rebecca was too preoccupied with her own affairs to pursue the issue. Then again, that pathetic little dance of hers indicated to me a woman who was uneasy with having deceived me and that sooner or later she might admit that she had spent the week in Washington rather than travel to Ecuador.
When I finally did go upstairs, I found a note that Rebecca had propped up against the faucets of the bathroom sink. "I’m feeling a bit fluish so I’ve decided to sleep in the guest room," her note said.
But the next morning, I was the one who awakened with the dull ache across my forehead that presaged sinus problems. I could hear Rebecca downstairs, but a sudden chill caused me to pull the blankets up around me. At noon, I tried once again to get out of bed, but I knew now that my sinuses were acting up because I felt as though there was a Sumo wrestler sitting on my forehead. I finally got out of bed and made it into the bathroom where I took the pills that would help unclog my sinuses. I then went to the top of the stairs and called down to Rebecca. When she arrived at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at me, I told her that I was going back to bed.
"It’s my sinuses," I said. "I’ve just taken my pills, which work like a charm, provided I don’t mind being knocked out for a day or two."
Rebecca asked if she could get something for me, some tea or juice perhaps.
"No thanks," I said. "The only thing I want right now is to get back under the covers."
"I wouldn’t do this if you were feeling better," Rebecca said. "but I’m going into my office for a bit so I can get caught up."
Halfway through the afternoon, I awakened again. This time I went downstairs and forced myself to eat a soft boiled egg and a piece of toast. That left me so exhausted I fell back into a deep sleep as soon as I returned to my bed. I was awakened much later by the sound of the garage door opening and then closing. Moments later, I heard Rebecca come up the stairs, this time more quietly than usual. She even showed great care in opening the bedroom door, and when she stood in the doorway, her body silhouetted by the light from the hallway, there was something soft, and tentative too, when she said, "Yes?" Something about her, yes, reminded me of the tinkling of a bell above a shop door.
"Yes, what?" I replied, regretting that my voice, quite raspy, made me sound as if I resented Rebecca’s intrusion.
"Yes, how are you feeling?"
"Slightly better, but not great," I said. Having cleared my throat by then, I didn’t sound quite so much like an old grouch.
"Do you need anything?"
"Not now, but thanks for asking."
"If you don’t mind," she said, "I think it’s better for me to stay in the guest room again tonight."
I gave my assent with nothing more than a wave of my hand, which was filled just then with tissues because I had begun a sneezing fit.
In the morning, when I woke up and slowly got to my feet. I was still groggy from the aftereffects of my medicine, but my headache had dissipated somewhat. Leaving my bedroom and heading towards the bathroom, I noticed that the house was silent. That was a surprise because it was 7:30, just when Rebecca should have been finishing breakfast and getting ready to leave for her office. Perhaps, as a favor to me, she had tried to be more quiet than usual. but when I leaned over the banister and yelled Rebecca’s name, there was no reply. I called out again, and this time, when there was no answer, I took a few steps in the other direction, checking to see if she was still in the guest room. All I found there, when I looked in, was a bed neatly made up. Rebecca, somewhat mysteriously, had got dressed, had breakfast and left without waking me up. Any other time I would have welcomed the consideration she had shown, but I was perturbed to think she hadn’t cared enough to check on how I was feeling.
Ah well, fifteen minutes later, after a steaming hot shower eased slightly my clogged up sinuses, all that mattered to me was doing something about the hunger pangs in my stomach. But when I had prepared a bowl of cereal and sat down to eat, I found a note Rebecca had left on the kitchen table.
Yesterday afternoon I called Miss Susie, just to make clear that I would have indeed accompanied you to San Francisco, except for the situation in Ecuador. But before I ever got to that, she told me what a delightful time she and Tracy and Kevin had with you last week. That led both of us to discuss at length why you claimed not to have gone to San Francisco. Alas, we came to no firm conclusions about your need to fabricate some story about how you were also too busy to visit with Miss Susie. In the course of that conversation I came to regret that I never got to know your daughter better. She turned out to be a far more charming and perceptive person than I had originally thought.
That last sentence should tell you what’s coming next. For a number of reasons, beginning and ending with the organization’s finances, I’ve decided that it doesn’t make sense to have offices in Boston and Washington, too. Therefore, we’ll soon be consolidating our operations in DC.
That brings me to my next point. I intend, while I’m in Washington this week, to find a place to live. Soon after that, I’ll arrange to move my belongings from your place. I’d prefer, if at all possible, to do this when you’re out of town, or at least out of the house. In my experience, these things work better that way.
By the way, I’m not a big believer in postmortems—you know, the dog barks, the caravan moves on. So let’s leave it at that.
P. S. I owe you an apology. You did "editorialize" when you got to San Francisco, but on my behalf. Miss Susie couldn’t have been more sympathetic towards me about the situation I had to deal with in Ecuador.
It was too late, obviously, for me to call Miss Susie. It might be wiser, too, to let some time past before I subjected myself to her questioning. I felt a greater urgency just then to call Simsbury and tell him of my plans to take an in-depth look at the graying of this country’s prison population. I could begin, right after that, to line up some interviews, and maybe by afternoon I would be at the airport and heading out of town.
Rebecca was entitled to her opinion about postmortems, but I was already planning later that night to call her at the hotel she usually stayed at when she was in Washington. Who knows, separated by a few hundred miles, Rebecca and I might end up having one of those lengthy phone calls we used to have when it was painful for us to be apart. If that didn’t work out, I was fully prepared to ask Miss Susie to function as my go between with her new-found friend, Rebecca.