Complete Strangers (Excerpt)
That night, as they did regularly on Friday evenings, James and Elizabeth made love before going to sleep.
Their bedroom, which Elizabeth had done up, was timidly, tastefully decorated. Next to the window that faced the bed hung a reproduction of a Van Gogh which Elizabeth had purchased after an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. Next to it, in silver frames, their son Adam’s grammar-school efforts were arranged vertically, and a photograph of Adam standing naked with a wiffle bat in his hand stood on James’s dresser. There was a fire place, seldom used, and an electric heater because Elizabeth was frequently cold at night. James kept a night table next to the bed, in which were birthday cards from Adam, old batteries, scraps of paper on which he sometimes wrote down his dreams (“Dad slips on the ice and I just let him fall”), and all of the other indicators a man accumulates which show what he has done and what he has failed to do.
Atop the nightstand was James’s bedside light. He switched it off. Now the room was quiet, dark, the bed inviting and warm. Wordlessly he reached his arm across under the covers, where he knew her body would be waiting for his fingers, his hands, his legs and belly and cock. For this was the baffling wing which kept their marriage aloft—the outboard motor that growled them to harbor each night when sails ripped: no matter what happened during the day, they were in one another’s arms each night with the same passion. Of course he had desired younger women—what man his age hadn’t?—and he had, it was true, sometimes fantasized about his patients. But not the way he desired Elizabeth. And now, with his hot hands cupping her breasts and his lips against the soft, cool skin of her cheek, he was reminded once again of the complexity of the whole situation. That, and how much he looked forward to the sex, complexity be damned.
Gently, skillfully, he kissed down her neck. Did he think about how her body used to be, these evenings when they lay together, a man of 66 and a woman of 55, and made love? How could he avoid remembering? And it was true: he readily made pictures in his mind of his wife’s younger body, the harder belly, firmer breasts and lighter-colored nipples, the wetness between her legs which had come sooner and more completely. Yet he forced himself to be reasonable. His own body no longer worked in the efficient, forceful way that it had when he was young. That was what happened: age set in like a hard, hard frost. You watched yourself get colder and weaker, watched your once-strong limbs wrinkle and lose their agility, were kicked and beaten like a dog, until finally, towards the end, just when you couldn’t believe it would get any worse, any less bearable, it did: and that was death. Boom. Just like that.
“Lizzie,” he said. “Have you been waiting for me to come to bed?”
“I may have been,” she said. “I may have gone to sleep if you hadn’t come in when you did.” They both laughed. All of the things that were ponderously difficult in daylight -- teasing, competing, being vulnerable -- were pure ease when they were in bed together. Sex was easy between them.
“Is that so? I guess you really make the rules around here,” he said.
“Mmmm,” she murmured, and then she took him in her hand. Rather than hurry, as they had when they were younger, James and Elizabeth made love with dilatory patience, they had learned to enjoy the details of each other’s bodies, even though, James thought, their bodies were fast becoming flabby-assed and worthless. How nice it felt to slip himself uncovered into his wife of 28 years! They made love traditionally, with Elizabeth lying on her back and he on top of her. That way, there were no decisions to be made when they went to bed. She pressed her body into his, and with her hands she worked the skin of his back. When he bent his head to lick the impression between her collarbones, he tasted salt, and he could smell his own smell, too, coming from underneath his arms, when he turned his head, and he liked it—the salt and the sweat—because, well, he wasn’t certain why. As a boy, in the schools he attended near his father’s air force bases, he would bathe himself meticulously; he was not one of the boys, even at nine or ten years old, who had to be reprimanded for failing to clean behind his ears. (In fact, he liked it—in the whirling sequence of homes and schools that had made of his boyhood an endless learning and relearning, it had been his body, his own, compact body, which had come to be consistent and familiar. Perhaps this was why, when he showered, he never deviated from his washing routine.) Elizabeth made a wonderful, whimpering sound; he spoke her name.
Sweat. The smell of it, the feeling of it. Flag football outside bases in Virginia, Colorado, the hot wind cold against his damp face as he rode his bicycle through blooming, fragrant fields in optimistic martial towns. Again he brought his lips to her throat, and again the saltiness exhilarated him. They began to crush into one another quicker and more closely, until, without warning, he felt the familiar feeling, the atavistic whorl in his belly which told him that it was about to be over. “Lizzie,” he said. Begging, ragged hat in eager hand, his body shivered against hers. It was happening, he could feel it, and he could feel her own orgasm gathering itself together like summer wind whipping at hot air. Here it came again, that knock-out sound!
As a young woman, she had come self-consciously, as though surprised by the way her body responded to his. Now she was older, the shame didn’t matter. And god, that sound, that sound. The whorl in his belly tightened, until, finally, it raveled unbearably and, just as quickly, unraveled; everything ran out of him. A moment later, Elizabeth drew her breath deep into her lungs, cried out, and fell back against the bed, her muscles loosened and her eyes closed. “Oh, baby doll,” he said.
In the bathroom afterwards, washing his face and fixing his pajamas, he felt in his hands a kind of blood-spun throb. Again they were no longer the hands of an old man, but the powerful implements of a youth, filled and animated with marvelous liquid from his old, pathetic heart.
One week later he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He received a call from Adam, who sounded concerned.
“Hi, Dad,” said Adam.
“So. Mom told you what’s happening? My goddamn prostate is eating me alive.”
“What are you talking about? When did you find this out?”
“I went in for a PSA last Thursday, because my cardiologist recommended it. I am sixty-six, you see, so I am at elevated risk. Now the cardiologist, having nothing to do with my prostate, did some blood work, and the PSA came back higher than it ought to be. Four days later, here I am. They’re doing another blood work-up, then I have an MRI this afternoon. Dr. Blumenthal says he should know by Wednesday morning whether it’s wise to operate. He said it doesn’t seem to have spread, so a short surgery should take care of it.”
Adam knew his father’s medical history as a cautionary tale against which doctors annually compared the workings of his own body. But in crisis his father always chose the most clinical language possible, which led Adam to feel, when James talked about his heart problems or, now, a high PSA, as though they weren’t talking about James’s body or even Adam’s but about a third, hypothetical body, which contained cholesterol plaque rather than a heart and produced seminal fluid rather than come.
“And if it has spread,” Adam said, “what then?”
“Well, then we’ll deal with that problem. It really is an easy surgery, you know. They remove the prostate in what are called ‘frozen sections,’ making biopsies as they go.” James had a deep and longstanding appreciation of advancements made by the medical profession, even though he himself had practiced psychology and knew nothing of the human anatomy. “If it hasn’t spread beyond the prostate itself, then they take it out and I survive.”
“Listen, dad, I’ll be on the next bus to Sweet Haven.”
“You will not come home for this. In two weeks, when I’m all better, Liz and I will come to Montreal, like we planned. That’s when I want to see you, and not before. What’s going on here is not really life-threatening surgery.”
“Are you sure? I would come down in a heartbeat.”
“I’m sure,” James said. His voice sounded confident, comfortable.
“I love you, dad. Can’t wait to see you in a few weeks.”
“Love you too, champ. Thank you for calling.”
James put the phone back in the breast pocket of his sport jacket, along with his money clip and his two-by-two-inch leather book of photographs. It was only six in the evening, still too early to go to the bar for a drink, and so he spent an hour rearranging furniture in the small office that he’d made for himself in the back room of his house. He switched the Matisse collage with the print of Paul Klee, then switched them back. He gave the squat Moroccan cushion a kick with the tip of his shoe, to move it further from the armchair, then sat down on the floor with his back against the wall and put his head in his hands and wept inconsolably for half an hour, brushing the tears away roughly, angrily, with the heels of his hands.
At this moment, James wanted nothing more deeply than the company of his son Adam. How truly stupid he had been on the phone a moment ago. If he died in surgery, and Adam heard of it over the phone from Elizabeth, what then? To what end would he have prevented his only son from returning to Sweet Haven to see him through departure on what might be his final journey into anesthesia? Yet if he made it through alright, and really did come to Montreal in only three weeks’ time, how proud he would feel to have exhibited such bravery and composure before his wife and son!
Inside his the closet hung a full-length mirror. Now he rose and went to it and lifted up his shirt. A thicket of black and white hairs sprung into view. He had seen the diagrams in Dr. Blumenthal’s office; he knew that four inches back from the root of his penis cells were dividing maniacally at fantastic, exponential rates. Hating his body, and frightened of it, he had the urge to reach his hand through his stomach and rip the bloody red gland out with his fist. James wondered whether every sick man felt this way about the horrible organ which was the source of his affliction, and it occurred to him that surgery was simply the realization of the desire to bite off the trapped paw, to rip out the failing liver or lung or kidney and once more be uncontaminated by disease.
Inside his desk drawer, his copy of Anna Karenina waited for him. He had only made it half-way through before giving up, but he remembered a particular passage which he had been wanting to consult since first hearing the diagnosis. James took it out and flipped to page 461:
He knew that for this, for the very fact that his heart was torn with grief, they would be merciless to him. He felt that men would crush him as dogs strangle a torn dog yelping with pain. He knew that his sole means of security against people was to hide his wounds from them, and instinctively he tried to do this for two days, but now he felt incapable of keeping up the unequal struggle.
This had struck James hard. He agreed with Tolstoy when he said, “His sole means of security against people was to hide his wounds from them,” but then he disagreed when he said, “He felt incapable of keeping up the unequal struggle.” Wasn’t everyone hiding their wounds from everyone else? What was so goddamn unequal about it?
Even thinking rationally like this calmed him. There were other things in his office as well which took his mind off his traitorous prostate. For instance: the keys to Adam’s 26th birthday gift lay in the drawer next to Anna Karenina. A strong, beautiful stallion emblazoned the head of the silver key, and in James’s garage the red 1967 Mustang awaited its hour. He’d found it online for only $19,700 – not too bad now that Elizabeth’s restaurant was doing well. For months he’d spent afternoons with the car, redoing the paint job entirely by himself and fixing the roof and cleaning the engine. Nearly every day he considered keeping the car for himself, but a Mustang in the hands of a young man who was just starting out was a powerful thing. He wanted Adam to have it, with no strings attached, and be free.
When he came home from his walk, Elizabeth was waiting for him in the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee with two hands.
“Adam called me today,” he said. “I told him that I didn’t want him to come home.”
“I think you’re being silly,” she said, “but if that’s what you want…”
“What I’m afraid of is that when I’m in surgery they will find cancer cells on the surface,” he said. “Then I’ll wake up and hear the bad news. It sounds as though that hormone therapy is really a death sentence. He said that some people decide to do nothing, they just do ‘watchful waiting.’ There’s a euphemism if I ever heard one.”
“Either way, I will be there next to you when you wake up.”
“I think the surgery is the best thing. Radiation has too many side effects. I’m old fashioned, Liz; I said to him, ‘Let’s just go in and get it out.’”
“That’s what I would do too, honey,” she said.
“Do you want to eat something? I made a roast chicken.”
When they had eaten, and finished a bottle of wine between them, James and Elizabeth went upstairs to the bedroom. That night they made love as though it were the last time. It would really be a shame, he thought, never to feel this way again.
On Wednesday morning Elizabeth woke him up at four and drove him to the hospital. He was hungry, because the doctors had prohibited him from eating dinner on Tuesday, and he sat upright in the passenger seat with his hands in his lap, trying to keep his breathing even. What happened next he would remember only in shreds, in the feeling of the blue gown tied around his back and the look of the florescent lights above him when the anesthesiologist administered the shot. Then nothing. The operation would take four hours.
When he came to his mouth was dry, and he asked for a glass of water. Elizabeth was there, smiling. “Everything is fine,” she said. “They got it all.”
But everything was not fine. Though he may have been, as Dr. Blumenthal told him, a very lucky man, he had not escaped prostate cancer entirely unscathed. The in-surgery biopsies had revealed cancer cells dangerously close to the surface of the prostate, and the urologist had decided to remove both neurovascular bundles rather than only one, as they had discussed before the operation. James Loveland would be impotent from now on. “Both?” he said. He was still groggy from the anesthesia but his eyes sprung open and he drew a hard breath. He could barely get it out: “More water, please. Cold water, if you have it.” But he was thinking: no, no, no, no, please, no.
What is there to do in a hospital bed, such as the one in which James found himself for three days after his surgery, when you’ve turned the lights out for the night? What is there to do if you can’t sleep? If, even when you can, your terrible dream comes back, same as it was when you were a young man? James Loveland woke at 2, 3, 4, 5 a.m., furious with himself for arriving late and missing the train. It took him a moment, whenever he woke up, to remember where he was and why he was there. It took him a moment to remember that he would never know what sex was like again. What would he have done differently if he’d known that sixty-six was to be his unlucky year?
James tried to remember the women he’d slept with as a young man. The list with pitifully small, and he found it difficult to retrieve details -- particular beds, bodies, smells. He’d always assumed he would have more.
In November, Adam went to visit his father. It really was an incredible inconvenience; Zoe, his girlfriend, hadn’t wanted him to come.
The taxi shivered up the driveway, crunching down leaves from the oak, elm, dogwood, beech and maple. He slammed the door and shouldered his overnight bag, then walked up the curving brick path to the front door. It was after ten in the evening. He pressed the gold button. From inside its white plastic housing on the kitchen wall, the electric doorbell rang. It had been one of Adam’s first lessons in carpentry and electronics to replace, as an eight-year-old boy, the family’s old tube-and-hammer doorbell with a speaker box.
A moment later, light spilled from the old iron fixture beside the door. James always turned the outdoor light on first, in part because he liked to identify his guests before being identified himself, and in part because he mistakenly considered it a courtesy to blast them with light while the vestibule was still in darkness. Adam imagined him standing in his slippered feet on the cold blue tile of the vestibule, cinching his robe more tightly around his waist. “Coming!” he called from inside. More lights came on. “Coming.” His voice was louder now, and the deadbolt burrowed into the side of the door. Adam was determined to stay only one day. He knew that if he lingered in Sweet Have too long, he might return to Montreal and find Zoë gone. His father’s voice called again. “Adam Sidney?”
It opened. “Adam!” His father’s arms had some of the old strength back, Adam could feel it when they embraced. “Boy, it’s cold out here. Come inside. I’ll make you a drink.”
The house was cold, too, because James, to save money, refused to run the heat higher than was absolutely necessary for the survival of biological organisms. It seemed to Adam that a man recovering from cancer might want his house heated to a reasonable temperature in autumn, but he resolved to say nothing; it had been six years since he’d lived in Sweet Haven—it was time to let the setting on the thermostat go unremarked.
“Why don’t we visit in the kitchen,” James said. “It’s cozy in there.”
“Is mom home?”
“She’s at work. What would you like? I’m having bourbon.”
“We have so much to talk about! Here; I know you take ice. Sit down. So, tell me what’s up.” James pronounced “what’s up” as two separate words.
“Dad. I’m sorry we didn’t have much time together in Montreal. Is everything okay? It’s only been two months since the surgery.”
His father shifted in his seat. “That long? It feels like ages ago now.”
Neither man wanted to laugh; both laughed.
“Not ages, dad, only a little while. What do the doctors say?”
“Well Blumenthal refuses to say I’m cured, you see, he says we need to wait years to be certain. But I feel fine. Everything works almost like normal. Lizzie told you about what happened, I bet.”
“Mom didn’t tell me anything.”
“Of course she didn’t,” James said. The kitchen windows were black mirrors; Adam could see himself, holding his drink, reflected above his father’s head.
“What’s wrong? Did it spread?”
“No, no, no, no. They got it all.” His father shivered underneath his robe. It was too much for Adam: “Will you please turn the heat up, dad? If you don’t turn the fucking heat on then I’m going to leave.” Then, thinking his father might be more likely to act if he could preserve his dignity, he added: “I’m really getting cold.”
James shuffled across the room and turned the dial reluctantly to the right. In the basement, the furnace gasped. Then, rather than return to the table, he busied himself with an unnecessary inspection of the thermostat while he said, “They took out both neurovascular bundles. My”—he paused, looking for words, facing away from Adam—“my evening schedule has been considerably freed up.” James looked up from the thermostat. “It may take a few minutes before we get the benefit of it,” he said. “Would you like to make a fire with me? The living room can be much cozier with a good fire going.”
“Sure. Let’s make a fire.”
“We have plenty of kindling,” said James, leading the way to the living room.
When they had it burning, they sat close to the wire screen. Adam was gratified to see that his father no longer shivered. “I’m sorry, dad,” he said.
“Me too. It’s a hell of a thing.” He repeated, more to himself than to Adam: “A hell of a thing.”
“What time will mom be home?”
“She may be out late tonight,” said James. “But hey—now that you’re warm, I have something to show you. Something to give you.” He rubbed his hands together with eagerness, got up from the couch and left the room. So his own father—the father whose genes he carried—couldn’t make love. And now his mother was out at work? At 1am? Then James’s quick, slippered steps.
“This is something I’ve been working on for a long time. I know your birthday is still two weeks away, but who knows if you’ll be home for it, so tonight’s the night.” From across the room, he tossed Adam a small black box. Adam caught it in one hand. “Open it,” he said.
It was a silver key with a stallion on the head. “Come. I’ll show you what it does.” The garage was separated from the house by a small cobblestone path, which, like the driveway, lay under leaves. “Wait here,” said James, and raised up the overhead door. A shining red Mustang—probably 1966 or ’67—crouched in the dim light. “It’s for you. Isn’t it something? I’ve been restoring it. Start it up: listen to it!”
Adam had never owned a car before. When he turned the key, it purred beautifully.
“Dad, this is incredible! I can’t believe you did this.”
James was obviously pleased. “You see?” he said. “You can go anywhere. And this way you can come and visit me anytime you want. If you want, that is. No buses, no planes—you just get in and go. It’s a beautiful drive through New Hampshire if you cut through the White Mountain pass.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Adam. “We’ll have to go out in it sometime.”
“I thought tomorrow we could take a drive.”
“Tomorrow I can’t; I really have to get back to Zoë. I only meant to come for a night, to make sure you were doing okay.”
If James was hurt, he hid it well. “Yes, go back, definitely. Another time. And by the way: when you do go back, give this to Zoë. She’ll like it.” It was a photograph of him as a baby, which he had seen a thousand times, blown up the size of a postcard. “You want me to give Zoë a photo of myself?”
“Trust me,” said James. “She’ll love it.”
“Dad, are you sure you feel well? If mom isn’t going to be around that much, maybe you should get someone to come in once in a while. To clean up and all that.”
“I’m only sixty-six years old, Adam,” James said. “I’m not dead yet. So tell me more about Zoë.”
Adam told his father. It took a long time to explain everything; at four in the morning they were still going, talking and drinking together as though they were brothers. They stayed up until Elizabeth’s car came up the drive. Then they went upstairs and said goodnight, like brothers do.
Adam knew that his lover would be there for him when he got back to Montreal.