The Sight Of You
It was ninety-seven degrees and I took my kids to the club for a
swim. Everybody was there, including my lover, Henry, his wife, Marie,
and their two boys, whose name I forget. My husband, David, stayed home
to mow the lawn and read the Times.
from the collection The Sight of You
Henry and I didn't really see each other much during the two years
we were lovers. We could have, I think. I'm a musician; I could have
practiced a little less. Henry ran a construction company; he was his own
boss. All of our time together was shaved off something bigger, slivered
into pieces so thin you could look at them and never even see. Those two
winters I would look out my window at dawn and see his crew plowing
driveways. They were like angels in the snow, their little white and
yellow lights turning softly in the storm, right into my bedroom.
I was watching Henry from the clubhouse deck as he showed the
youngest boy how to swim, his big arms carving runnels in the water,
clearing a path for the little arms to move in. I wore huge sunglasses so
I could watch him. That was all I really wanted, just to watch Henry,
forever. I grew up on the Plains and didn't know how I'd longed for the
ocean until my foot felt the first wave's edge. And I hadn't known the
wordless, leaping power of beauty until I saw Henry.
Marie walked past my chaise looking the other way, and I tried not
to blame her for her bad manners and tight red face. Grief made her ugly,
and I know that she was not always ugly.
I lay back, calculating whether I had time to talk to Henry while
Marie was wherever she was. I thought so and dove in from the pool's
edge, surfacing next to him. Under his littlle boy's splashing, he put
his hand on my waist, watching for Marie, who seemed to have a sixth sense
about us. She worried that we were having an affair, and complained,
obliquely, about my presence. She never saw anything between us. I could
have kissed him on the mouth that day, in front of all the neighbors, and
everything would have been different.
He stood close to me and smiled. We could both look down and see
his erection, even in the cold water. Marie came zipping out of the snack
area, a bag of chips in one hand and a racket in the other.
"Hank, we've got a court. Go dry off and I'll get your sneakers."
Among the club set, she was a serious tennis player. She stood there,
looking down on us, her hands on her hips. She didn't move until Henry
headed for the wall. Then she smiled at me and walked toward the court.
I followed him to the wall, watching the small drops quiver down
his back. I didn't know I was about to speak. "Henry, I don't think this
is working. What about our time together?" We were both surprised. "If
you still want me to leave him, I will."
I swam across the pool and went back to my chaise. Henry was
still standing in the water, looking dazed. He hoisted himself out,
emerging smoothly like a big dark dolphin, all muscle and flex, no visible
bones. He glanced at me and then headed for the court, his tennis shirt
clinging to his wide wet back. I put my chin on the deck's redwood
railing and watched them play.
I always felt powerful with Henry, powerful and grateful. That
day, I felt like God Almighty, holding a crowd of tiny people in one huge
hand. I had wanted to hold just Henry, but somehow another six had
climbed aboard. David had given me the only home I'd ever had, but like
the little mermaid in the fairy tale, I was prepared to cut my true self
in two and walk in pain and artifice just to dance with Henry, dazzled by
all that unfamiliar light.
I thought about the girls and hoped they'd be all right. The
three of us had been a team, and that wouldn't have to change. David had
been a good father, better than most I've seen; he played Scrabble with
them, went to their concerts, picked them up from swim team when I was
touring, hugged them every day, and knew how to braid their hair. I
thought Henry would help out the way he did with his boys, and nothing
would keep David from Rose and Violet. I used to think the girls were
like my arms, I didn't need anyone's help growing them or taking care of
them. When Rose was an infant, she would sleep through my practicing but
wake up as soon as I started to vacuum. I stopped vacuuming. And Violet,
my baby, used to help the ushers at my concerts, tripping over her Mary
Janes and her lavender organdy skirt, but knowing where every seat in the
hall was. I took them most everywhere I went; we all loved music and new
places and hotel rooms. David usually stayed home; he's a psychiatrist
and never likes to leave his patients for too long.
I didn't know what would happen when Henry finished playing
tennis. We would have to talk on the phone, work out details. The girls
would go to music camp for a month, and I could move then if David wanted
the house. Or maybe he'd move out. The house didn't matter much to me as
long as I had my piano and a bedroom for the girls. I have to force
myself to sleep in a bed, even now.
When I got home, I sat down at the piano and stared at the keys,
waiting for a wave of guilt or panic that would tell me to stop.
Henry loved me the way I was taught Indians loved Nature; I was
everywhere for him, in the air, in the light, seeping right into his skin.
It scared me a little, how much he loved me, handing over everything he
had. He would kneel in front of me, big man, putting his hands around my
waist as though to snap me in two, and he'd say, "There is nothing I
wouldn't do for you." And I would rest my hands in his black curly hair.
"Nothing," he'd say again.
And I said, "I know," and he'd relax and lay me on the bed.
It was like nothing else in my life, that river of love that I
could dip into and leave and return to once more and find it still
flowing, undisturbed by my comings and goings. And when we made love, it
was the same. He would wash over me and into me and he didn't need me to
smile, or cry out, or move. I lay there, like the riverbed.
I was orphaned at sixteen, by two lonely, curdled people who had
hoped to divorce without too much scandal when I finished high school.
Instead, their car hit a tree. I was sent off to a boarding school by a
committee of relatives and came home to visit Mrs. Wallace (the one my
father hoped to marry) and Dr. Davidson (the one my mother had in the
wings.) I went on being their memorial tribute to thwarted love and bad
planning until I turned eighteen. I escaped to Julliard and didn't answer
their letters. Being an orphan didn't bother me.
While I was at Julliard, I met David. He was finishing his
residency in psychiatry, and I was one of his guinea pigs. I was
nineteen, he was twenty-nine. My faculty advisor had noticed that I never
went away for holidays, never had the family in the audience, never had
trouble paying my tuition. I told her the highlights of my personal
history, and she turned her face away and suggested that I "talk to
someone" at the Washington Square Clinic. I thought it had something to
do with piano playing, so I went.
It was April, and the big waiting room was still wintry. All the
chairs were gray plastic. As I put my feet up on one of them, I saw two
men talking on the far side of the room. My hearing is acute, and I
"I'll take her," said the tall, chubby one.
"No," said the other one, David. "You're full up this week, and
anyway, you couldn't handle your countertransference."
"My countertransference? Please. All right, you take her. Take
I was smiling when David invited me into his cubicle.
"You have a lovely smile," he said, and then he frowned.
"Thank you. Why are you frowning?"
"I'm not.... I'm Dr. Silverstein and you're ... Galen Nichols?"
"Well." He arched his fingertips together the way they must have
taught him in Practical Psychiatry. "What can I do for you?"
"I don't know," I said, and I didn't say anything else.
We had three sessions like that, and at the end of the third I got
up and shook his hand.
"Thanks for your time," I said. I liked him, he acted just like me.
Two weeks later, he called and asked how I was doing. A few weeks
after that, he invited me to go for coffee. I went, and we sat at the Big
Apple Coffee Shoppe for two hours while he told me that he was married but
just couldn't stop thinking about me. I thanked him for the coffee and
went home and listened to my most recent performance tapes.
After two more dates, he asked me to have dinner with him.
"I can't take a break for dinner these days, we're rehearsing. But
if you want to get something for yourself and come listen, you're welcome
David sat at the back of the auditorium until 1:00 A.M., and he
walked me home.
"You play so beautifully. May I please come in?"
By then, I had figured out that he wasn't really like me at all,
but he was a gentle, sweet man, not like the cowboys at home. He touched
me as if I were made of glass and gold dust. At about 3:00 A.M. he jumped
out of bed and into his jeans, mumbling how sorry he was. I was too tired
to walk him to the door, so I blew him a kiss and told him to take the
"I'll call you," he said.
When he called, though, I couldn't see him because I'd gotten a
grant to study in Paris for the rest of the summer. I gave him my address
at the pension and told him to take care. Three weeks later, Madame
Laverre whispered that I had a visitor waiting in the courtyard. There
was David, unshaven, an enormous bouquet of flowers in his shaking hands.
I was glad to see him.
He said that he'd asked his wife for a separation and that she'd
agreed. I didn't want to talk about it. We found a couple of jars for
the flowers and walked along the river. He took a room down the hall and
stayed for ten days. I'd practice or go to class during the day, and he'd
visit museums and read. At night, we'd eat in the cafe and then have sex
in his room. I slept in my own room. We had a nice time, and when he was
leaving I said I'd call him in September.
I remember how he smiled then. "You've never called me."
"Okay, I'll be in my own place by then, and I'll list the new
number with Information right away so you can get it." He was swinging
back and forth. "Coming to Paris was the best thing I could have done. I
love you, you know."
"I'm glad you came," I said, "Don't miss your plane." And he
stroked my hair and cried for a minute before he left.
When I got back I did call him, and we spent most of our evenings
together. For a year he asked me to marry him and I ignored him. I
thought he'd be dead by the time I was twenty-five, I couldn't see getting
married. One morning David started banging his fists on my kitchen table
and said, "You are killing me. All I want is to love you, and you won't
I got dressed and left him sitting in the kitchen. I bought a
white silk shirt to go with my white jeans and called him from Macy's to
meet me for a blood test. Ten years later, we had two girls, quiet, like
me, but friendly. David is a good person, and I knew that women would be
lining up six-deep, with casseroles, the minute I left him.
I walked into the kitchen, still thinking about the nice, normal
woman who would become David's next wife, and watched him carry a plate of
chicken to the grill, balancing tongs and a fork and a bottle of barbecue
sauce. He had sent the girls to get out of their wet suits, and while I
chopped red peppers and hulled strawberries I kept my head down, wondering
if it'd be better to leave a note. He watched me putter, and after he had
washed and dried his hands, carefully, he rested them on my shoulders for
just a second. Then he went to the living room and put on Vivaldi while I
set the table.
After dinner, we let the girls bike around the neighborhood and we
washed the dishes together. David went to work on an article, and I sat
in the bedroom, in the bent willow rocking chair that we bought when I was
pregnant with Rose, and waited for the phone to ring.
"Hi, it's Hank DiMartino." We were always very careful, in case a
spouse picked up the phone simultaneously.
"Hi. David's in his study." The study didn't have a phone, so
that he wouldn't be disturbed. "How'd the tennis game go?"
"Not bad, considering that I was out of my mind. You looked so
beautiful today, and you've made me so happy. You did mean it? You'll
"I can't believe that I'm going to wake up every morning for the
rest of my life and look at your face on the pillow next to mine. I want
to marry you, as soon as we can."
I was picking dead leaves off the fig tree in our bedroom. "I'll
be yours until the stars fall from the sky, Henry. I don't have any
thoughts about marriage." I also had some doubts about sleeping in the
same bed. David was used to my slipping to the floor during the night.
"I want us to belong to each other."
"That doesn't make any sense. You belonged to Marie, and you're
ready to divorce her. I belonged to David, and before that, he belonged
to Nina. It's really silly, the whole idea."
"Gae, honey, I want to be with you and I want it to be forever."
"I want to be with you too, Henry." And I did.
David came into the bedroom. He mouthed, "For me?" and I shook my
head. He stood in the middle of the bedroom, looking at me, before he
went back to his study.
"I have to go. David's wandering around. I'll drive by the
construction site tomorrow. Columbine Lane, right?"
"Right. That'll be great. I love you, you."
"I know. See you tomorrow."
David came to bed a little earlier than usual, and he laid his
hand on my breast. After a while, he put his hand on my thigh, his sign,
and I shifted my legs to let him enter me. It wasn't quite as nice as
cooking to Vivaldi, but it was really quite all right. I awoke on the
floor. David had put a quilt over me and tucked his sweater under my
I put the sweater on and practiced for about three hours after the
girls went out to play and David went downtown to see patients. This was
one of my favorite times, and I didn't want to cut it short. I practiced
some performance pieces I was having trouble with and threw in a little
jazz at the end. My fingers were getting stiffer as I got older. I
showered and went to meet Henry, wearing a shapeless blue shift that he
hated. I drove over to Columbine Lane, where he was building a house.
His crew was there, taking a coffee break. Most of the guys knew
me, or my car, by sight. Henry and I counted on the fact that most
people, especially men, don't like to get into other people's business. I
came and went freely, undisguised. Usually, I'd just pull over onto the
ridge near his trailer and sit in the car waiting. Henry would come out
after a few minutes and scrunch down by the window to talk to me about our
schedules and try to work his plans around mine. Once in a while, if we
had a chunk of time during the day, we'd go to a hotel. I would have gone
to a motel, or even to the park, but Henry felt we deserved better. I
didn't think it had much to do with what we deserved.
He saw me right away and hopped down from the unfinished patio. I
could watch him run toward me and never tire of the sight, his right leg
slightly stiff at the knee from an old baseball injury, his muscles
flowing beneath his clothes. I wanted that ease, that perfect
unconsciousness, to transform me so that I would never again find myself
in the middle of traffic, paralyzed by the risk and complexity of the next
Once, the summer before, I'd been watching him from the clubhouse
as he did his laps. He felt my eyes on him and he got out of the water,
face turned to me, and came up the stairs to the deck, dripping water
through the building. No one else was around.
"I can't not come to you," he said. "I just don't have any choice
about it." And he gathered up my hair into little bunches and pressed
them against his wet face, like flowers. After Rose and Violet, I loved
that kind of love most.
It wasn't his wanting me that got to me. That was nice, but not
so rare in my life. Men see something in me, or something missing, that
they like. It's that he didn't fight the feeling; a lot of time men want
you and then they get mad about wanting you, whether they have you or
not. He had never been angry with me, or disappointed, or blamed me for
what I couldn't do. And more than that, it was he was so beautiful and
the beauty belonged to me.
When he got to my car, I swung the door open and he knelt in front
of me. I put my hand on his arm, breaking our public display rules, which
now seemed irrelevant. He smiled down at my hand, a sunny, white smile
that was like nothing I'd ever seen in my mirror.
"Ready to take the plunge?" he asked.
"I'm ready to tell David, after the girls go to camp. I can move
out then, or he'll move out, and we can get started."
"Started? Galen, we're a lot further along than 'getting started.'
I really do want to marry you, and I want us to try and get custody of the
Shit, I thought. First of all, Marie does a perfectly fine job
with the boys, it's not like they need to be rescued, and second of all, I
could just see myself spending the next five years of my life trying to
win over the older one. Making hot dogs and burgers when I've trained my
girls to eat French, Thai, Indian, and whatever's put in front of them;
having to wear a robe when I take a shower; going to tennis matches every
weekend; stepping over GoBots and pieces of GI Joe.
"Henry, let's wait and see. Let's give ourselves a chance to enjoy
ourselves, just be together and see how it goes."
He got very dark and his brows drew down. I didn't know what else
"I don't have much choice, do I? If you don't want to take what I
want to give you, I can't make you. But I'm going to keep asking you, and
one of these days you're going to say yes. It's meant to be, sweetheart."
He was smiling again; he believed everything he was saying.
Like hell, I thought. I was touched, of course, but I could never
answer the same question over and over. And I don't believe anything's
written for us, certainly nothing good. I slept on the floor, I lost
track of time, and love and death had always looked pretty much the same
to me. David needed to marry someone crazy; Henry had mistaken me for
He put his big hand over mine, and I watched a little cloud of
plaster dust settle on us.
"I have to go. I'll talk to you tomorrow." I slammed the car door
and drove off, watching him shrink in the rearview mirror.
My arms and legs were cold, driving home through the woods, and I
thought about what I was going home to. I pulled the car off the road,
picturing Henry and his boys, and his kids with my kids, and Marie
bitching about money, and Henry sitting in a studio apartment with
mismatched plates, waiting for me to make his divorce meaningful,
valuable, decent. Waiting for me to make his life beautiful. And when
I'd finally get up to leave, he'd watch me go, letting me know that I was
supposed to stay with him, that I was hurting him.
I got home about ten of twelve and called David between
appointments. He picked up on the first ring.
"Dr. Silverstein here."
"Ms. Nichols here."
He sounded surprised and he laughed. I didn't call him often,
since he was calling home once or twice a day at this point. I used to
hate that when we were first married, and he finally stopped, but that
year he had started again and I didn't say anything about it. He was
right to be afraid.
"I could call Mrs. Stevenson for the girls and we could go to the
Siam, just the two of us," I said.
"Okay, that would be fine. That would be nice."
I hadn't expected more than that. "Good. See you at home."
"Okay. I'm glad you called."
"See you at home."
"I love you," he said.
"I know. See you soon.."
I practiced for another hour, and when the girls came in we took
turns playing duets for a while, and then I had to go lie down. I fell
asleep for about an hour, and when David woke me up I tried to focus and
made the girls stir-fry vegetables and fried dumplings.
Our own dinner was pretty nice, smooth white platters of dark,
peppery food, cold beer, and enough room for me to lie back against the
cold vinyl seats. David kept reaching forward, touching my temples and my
wrists, where my veins are big and blue.
"How do you keep so cool?" he asked. It was an old joke between
"No heart," I said.
He smiled, and I thought, I cannot do this again. I smiled back
I drove down to see Henry the next day, and the guys waved to me.
I got out of the car and went over to Henry and kissed him on the mouth,
and then on both cheeks, and then at the corner of each perfect eye. He
"You're not going to leave him, are you? You're going to tell me
that you can't do it, and I just don't want to hear it. Please, Galen,
please, baby. Don't say it."
"I won't say I can't. That's too easy. I have to say that I'm
choosing not to. I'm so sorry."
He looked up and down me for a minute, and he put his warm face
into my neck. I could feel every bone in his face pressing in, but I
"I had an offer for the business, a pretty good offer. I could go
down to North Carolina, I could go back into business with my dad. Should
I take it?"
"Do you want to?" I could see him going, striding loosely down a
back road, the sun shining on him, wherever he was.
"No, goddamnit, I don't want to. I want to stay here and marry you
and have a child with you, that's what I want. That's all I've wanted for
two years, and if I can't have that, I don't even know what to want."
"I don't know what you should do. Does Marie want to move?"
"Of course. I haven't even told her about the offer. You know
Marie, she'll have us packed before the ink's dry on the contract.
Getting me away from you will make her very happy."
We smiled; Marie had been suspicious long before there had been
anything between us, and somehow that left us feeling slightly less
"I know." And I thought about having him near and him looking at
me like he had a splinter in his heart and Marie looking at me the same
way, only without the love.
"Take the offer," I said. "Move."
"Okay," he said, like a threat.
"Okay," I said, and I kissed him, just one quick time, and I closed
my eyes until he walked away.
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