I took Nora away from Aaron, so to speak, which made our separate past lives with the man who was no longer a part of our present circle a touchy subject. If I saw a book on her shelves I learned not to ask how she came to have it; on two occasions it had been a gift from Aaron, whose tastes had been fully-formed when he’d arrived on campus from his high school in New York six years before. Those were conversations that stopped as soon as they started, as I would drop the subject once it became apparent that the book meant more to her than just a good read.
Aaron was a nice guy with a quick smile who—in the phrase we picked up in faculty sherry hours and tossed around in jest—wore his erudition lightly. That was how it was with the kids from New York. They dropped names like Kurosawa and Leslie Fiedler and Renata Adler they knew from reading the papers and going to movies, and debated them freely and easily. The kids like myself from the sticks—even small towns in Connecticut, like Nora’s—didn’t have the same feel for culture, high or low. If we had some background in the arts it made us seem puffed-out, like a stuffed turkey. In my case, I was far behind; I’d written a couple of short stories in high school but that was it. I tried to catch up, and I appreciated Aaron’s suggestions, but I resented them at the same time.
Once I had a couple semesters of Conrad and Faulkner and Fitzgerald under my belt I started to have opinions of my own, which I tried out on Aaron and others, and defended as best I could, with a little more vehemence that I actually felt. The Beats were second-rate; Vonnegut was shallow stuff; Gertrude Stein was a fraud. I came by my views by looking at the tall mountains on the horizon, though, and wasn’t as good at judging the dirt and pebbles at my feet. My perspective left me when I had to examine things at close range. This was where Aaron, whose sister was a Communist and who had taken the subway to high school, had it all over me. It was no wonder that Nora had fallen for him.
She’d grown up on the Connecticut River with a shabby genteel father—he worked in a piano factory–and a mother who smoked and drank too much. She got a taste of sophistication from the New Yorkers who moored their boats there, or who drove up on fall weekends to shop for antiques and to stay in the local houses that had been turned into bed and breakfasts. It must have seemed that she was missing something in her life, something glamorous that was just out of reach, every time she returned to her little home back in the woods after a day as a waitress at an inn.
And so she got together with Aaron, and as far as anyone knew they were happy, although Nora didn’t follow him to grad school on Long Island when she could have. She seemed rootless, and having a regular boyfriend didn’t change that. He lived his life and she lived hers. Everybody knew they were a couple, just not intensely so. You’d see them together on weekends, or she’d show up when people shared a summer cottage or ski house.
I know when it was that I fell in love with her. It was one of the infrequent reunions of the old gang from college, everybody getting together in one place, this time out in the Berkshires, where a couple who’d taken the step of getting married lived in a cabin way up high on a hill. We were on a walk in the snow—nobody ever did that where I came from—when she reached in her coat pocket and took out a little jar of jam. It might have been beach plums from the Cape, it was pale pink.
“What’s that for?” somebody asked.
“We’re going to make jam on snow,” she said. Rachel, a woman she’d grown up with was in on the game, and picked up a handful of snow with her mittens. Nora spooned some jam on top and the woman began to eat it. It was something they’d done together growing up in the woods of Connecticut.
“Want to try some?” Nora asked no one in particular, and all the women said yes. The men hung back except for one guy, Rachel’s boyfriend, who was considered to be the most sensitive male in our little floating village. It didn’t sound very appealing to me. “Here,” Nora said as she came up to me with her hand extended, catching me off guard. “Try it.” It tasted just like you expected it to, nothing special, but maybe it was the remembrance of childhood that made it special to her. She looked me in the eyes like she had something she wanted to share with me, more than the jam on snow, that is. It was like she was letting me in on her innocence, or her whimsical way of recalling it.
Then something happened and she and Aaron broke up. I didn’t find out until much later, after we’d been living together for six months, that she’d had an abortion, which had presumably been an occasion for friction between them. You don’t agree it’s a good idea if you plan on staying together forever.
Anyway, she was at loose ends so I asked her out. She had moved back to her hometown—to do what, exactly, wasn’t clear at first. She bought a harpsichord kit and, with her father’s help, managed to get it about three-quarters of the way finished. When I drove down to see her it was spread out all over the floor of the living room of her childhood home. Then her dad moved out and she was left with just her mother, who had no interest in the thing. She’d started to drink more and her face had that wafer-like look that smoker’s skin gets.
Nora wanted out of that situation, so after she had turned me down when I asked her to move to Boston with me, she came back and said she’d changed her mind. I don’t know why she said no at first, and I never asked. Maybe she wasn’t over Aaron yet, but I’d already gone and gotten a room in an apartment with two other guys. She moved in but the roommate whose name was on the lease didn’t like the extra traffic for the lone bathroom, so he asked us to move out.
We found a place by ourselves—more than we could afford, but it was just what she wanted; a one-bedroom on Beacon Hill, the bedroom and bath in the basement, the kitchen on the ground floor along with a parlor that overlooked the Common. It was tiny and cramped. We each had a bookcase in the basement hall; she had her books, I had mine, and never the twain did meet.
She started to take violin lessons, a project without a point since at her age the competition had been playing since they were three or four years old. When I asked her what she was going to do with her new skill she had said simply “Play.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For art’s sake.”
She was like that—the impractical artist—a streak that had appealed to me at first, but not after we’d been living together for a while. We had rent to pay, and she didn’t have a permanent job. She liked to temp so she could take time off whenever she wanted; to read, or practice the violin, or go home for a weekend and try to make some progress on the harpsichord. It occurred to me that she wanted it both ways; she wanted me to share all the housework and cooking, but when she didn’t have her half of the rent she expected me to pick up what she lacked since I made more money.
We would argue, peacefully but bitterly, about that and other things. Since she didn’t have a regular job to come back to, she wanted to go away on weekends when I wanted to be home and rested for the workweek on Sunday. I wanted to save money to buy a place, she said you had to live while you were young, you couldn’t just work like eager beavers all the time. That was her way, mangling the most common clichés, this the woman who would, in a final misstep, suggest I should read “Too Far to Go,” a short story by Updike, after one particularly heated dispute.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you might learn something.”
“How to keep things civil when we disagree.”
“I doubt that it’s intended as a guide for living.”
“You probably shouldn’t project yourself and me into works of fiction. It’s not a good way to appreciate them.”
“You can use them for other purposes,” she said with a finality that meant she was done talking to me, and marched upstairs with a heavy tread, no doubt to sulk on the couch.
She didn’t know, she couldn’t have known, that I had had a similar conversation with Aaron six years before; he had recommended Updike’s “Couples” to me. I’d had enough of what, after a long winter as roommates, I now took to be condescension on his part and after reading the back cover told him I didn’t think the promiscuous adventures of a bunch of suburbanites would make for great literature, thanks. I wanted to finish all of Shakespeare first, I said, going him one better.
So if I was too brittle and harsh with Nora that time it was because I suspected her of being a collaborator, many years after the fact, with Aaron. Maybe he’d given her the book of short stories—maybe she’d read it and loved it. Maybe she hadn’t, and he had educated her tastes, the way he was always trying to reform mine. I didn’t know, but that was the end of that.
I told her I’d had enough—she could move out or I would. We were both on the lease—it was expensive–so we had to find somebody to take it over, and hope they’d pay the full rent. The landlord—an old Belgian guy–had made a big deal about the sanctity of contracts when we’d sat down with him to sign the papers and given him our check for first and last month’s rent and security deposit.
“You are married?” he’d asked. We had had the foresight to buy cheap rings at a department store because we’d heard he wouldn’t rent to unmarried couples.
“Sure,” I’d said.
“Unh-unh-unh-unh?” he’d grunted as he made the sign of the cross. I knew what he was doing since I’d been raised a Catholic—Nora did not.
“Right,” I said, then crossed myself. “Unh-unh-unh-unh.”