Sightings of Loretta
(honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2002)
Death’s intrusion left Bennett a widower in his mid-fifties. An awkward age. Too young for the slow fade, but on the late side to contemplate a fresh start, even had he been one for fresh starts. An age to make your peace with what you have, some would say. Bennett had made his peace early on. He had watched others of his generation wrestling with their lives, locked in the grip of shadowy alternate selves, and felt lucky that he wasn’t prone to restlessness. Except with Susan gone his settled life was in rubble, like those sturdy old buildings that implode in a matter of seconds, with one quick astonished shudder.
He attended a meeting of the grief group his friends urged on him. “I buried my husband a month ago,” a red-haired woman said. Others referred to losing their mates, as if through carelessness, though they still spoke to them now and then. Bennett listened politely, but felt he had had nothing to do with what happened. He had not even buried Susan; she was cremated, by request. She had done it all while he watched, handling her illness in the efficient way she handled everything, until one day her hold loosened and she said, “I’m going,” as if announcing a trip, then closed her eyes and spoke no more.
My wife left me, would have been the truthful words to say when his turn came—words he’d been vaguely afraid he might have to speak while she lived. He didn’t say them, and he didn’t return. Instead he set about going through her things—Susan was a prodigious saver. He used to wince at the mounds of catalogues, magazines, souvenirs and quaint flea-market gleanings cluttering every surface. Over the years he’d nursed fantasies of sweeping away the clutter, and those images gave him a voluptuous pleasure of which he was quickly ashamed. He didn’t want her gone. He only longed for clean, bare surfaces. When he saw that his fantasies might soon become a reality, he felt no pleasure at all. Let her live, with all her mess, he murmured, staring up at the ceiling.
Maybe to chastise himself for his thoughts, he didn’t attack the most visible piles first, but went for the closets and drawers, where the results would yield less satisfaction. Remarkable what she’d kept: a Campfire Girl manual with cookie recipes and instructions for the proper angle to wear the feathered beret. A forty-year-old certificate for excellence in archery? She’d never mentioned that talent. Susan had been a commercial artist; her oversized files spewed pre-computer detritus. Bennett expected he might brood and weep as he fingered the crackling transparencies and stiff boards with designs for book jackets and brochures. But working his way through her remains (evenings and weekends—he couldn’t neglect his job at the newspaper) did not conjure up thoughts of Susan. Rather, he fell into reveries of his first girlfriend, the one he’d loved when they were six. Loretta.
Ten years ago, he thought he’d lost her. He knew something was on his sister’s mind by the way she curtailed her usual phone rituals. Helen, who’d never left their childhood neighborhood, would call every few weeks to “keep in touch”; she considered this fitting for brother and sister, though clearly her heart was no more in it than Bennett’s. Instead of asking about Susan and the boys, she said, “I heard some bad news. I thought you might want to know.”
“What?” He thought of their remaining old uncle, then, senselessly, of his two sons. From the next room, as if to reassure him, they let out a whoop for the basketball game on TV. Tomorrow they would all be driving up to New England for Richard’s college interviews.
“Loretta. She was in a freak accident.” Helen’s tone wasn’t contemptuous, as it usually was when she mentioned Loretta. It had the piety reserved for tragedy. “A taxi jumped the curb and she just happened to be there. In that exact place, that exact time. Of all the bizarre—”
“No. But it’s pretty bad.”
He sank down on the bed, shoving aside the clothes Susan was folding. He could have sworn Helen enjoyed that moment of suspense, letting him think she was dead. It was intolerable, unacceptable, that Loretta might be dead.
“Her parents are in shock. What a thing to happen, I mean at this point in their lives . . .” Now the words rushed out as if she couldn’t bridle her eagerness.
“What about the child?”
“She’s fine. She was in school. And she has her father, of course.” Helen paused to let this information register. “Good thing, too, I’d say.”
“You never told me she was married.”
“I guess I thought you knew. It was last year. Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.”
He could hardly jot down the name of the hospital, his hands were trembling so. When Susan asked what was the matter, he stared in her direction but saw nothing. “A childhood friend,” he muttered. “I should go see her.” He went to the closet for his shoes.
“Bennett, it’s ten-thirty. You can’t visit a hospital now.”
“Oh. Tomorrow then.”
“We’re leaving tomorrow, remember?”
He went into the bathroom and locked the door, and Susan knew enough to let him be.
During the trip north he drove so slowly that Susan persuaded him to let her take the wheel. While the others went exploring the campuses, he lay limp on the motel bed. She could die. He was assailed by waves of missing, in advance, her erratic appearances in his life. They were like those rare moments of grace that descend out of the blue, on a crowded train, or on the beach, or when the mind wanders from a book—unsought, exhilarating, swiftly gone. But in an obscure corner of the soul, you waited for them. They gave meaning to everything else.
* * *
They grew up on a street of attached two-story row houses, each with a modest brick porch and five steps skirting a narrow strip of grass, where some mothers—not Loretta’s and not his—planted rhododendrons. It was a mild New York backwater, in the city but not quite of it, just after the war; the mood was relieved and placid. That would last barely a decade, but everyone lived as if it would last forever. The children on the street were known to all, and the romance of Bennett and Loretta amused the neighbors. They must have looked sweetly absurd, he imagined, walking to school with heads bent in earnest conversation, their mothers taking turns accompanying them. Only his older sister mocked. “Bennett has a girlfriend, Bennett has a girlfriend,” Helen sang out, hands on her hips, tossing her head so her long braids twirled. “Are you going to marry her, Ben?”
What on earth they might have talked about, he couldn’t remember. What do six-year-olds talk about? At that age, his own boys talked about TV heroes and rocket ships; they stood at construction sites transfixed by massive machines rising to claw at the air or kneeling to dump dirt. He couldn’t picture them feeling about anyone as he had felt about Loretta. His memories of their time together were more palpable than anything that had happened since, as if carved in high relief against a flat surface. Prowling for treasure in the empty lot on the corner, before they were called in for supper. Squeezing into one swing in the playground. Forbidden forays off their small block. Her changeable face, with its blue-gray eyes and halo of rampant dark hair, was superseded now by the faces she took on later. But he remembered her steady tantalizing gaze: a promise to carry him off somewhere new and exotic, a landscape more glorious than what surrounded them. Come away, it beckoned. Come with me. Together they floated in a bubble of excitement and ease. They weren’t imitating their parents; their parents didn’t hold hands and whisper in the twilight, or lick the same ice-cream cone. And they had seen few movies. They were inventing romance.
The intensity faded—they were scolded for some escapade, their idyll shattered—and soon they were simply friends. Special friends, with the neural bond of those who grow together into consciousness. And with unquestioned trust, a trust that wrapped Bennett like a shield as they ventured out. The summer before high school, he confided his fears. The school was huge and forbidding; the kids would come from distant neighborhoods; how would they fit in?
“It’ll be fine, you’ll see,” she said. “There are bigger things to worry about. Like what’ll we do with our lives.”
“What do you mean? What we’ll be?”
“No. I mean what to do. How to live right. How to be not like our parents and everyone else around here. Dead inside.”
“You think they’re dead inside?”
“Look at them. They’re not aware of anything, they just want to be safe and comfortable and have things never change. That’s not a real life.”
He laughed uneasily. “Okay, maybe. But we’re only fourteen years old. First we have to get through high school.”
“Everyone does that somehow. It’s what comes later that’s hard.”
She was right. Everyone does it. They found their separate paths. Loretta ran with a crowd of girls who smoked and wore too much make-up and disappeared into spare rooms at parties. Bennett took a more studious route. When they met walking home from school or over math homework, they were like family members from far-flung branches: they might veer apart, but the roots stay entwined. He defended her when other boys told crude stories. “She’s not like that. I know, I grew up with her.” “Ever get any?” they asked with a smirk. If they only knew the fantasies she spun when they were alone—but he wouldn’t dream of telling. She longed to be an anarchist heroine like Rosa Luxembourg—a history teacher had told her story and Loretta became entranced. She wished she’d been born an Amazon. Maybe they could run away to Paris and sit in cafés drinking Pernod. What was Pernod? Bennett interrupted over the trigonometry books. She wasn’t sure herself, but it was what artists drank in cafés. Bennett didn’t know how serious she was, but he liked listening and understood that she needed him to listen. “Cut it out,” he told the boys. “I don’t believe any of that crap.”
At the senior prom she appeared in a navy blue slinky dress—he thought it didn’t suit her lanky, big-boned body—while most of the girls wore pastels with wide skirts. Bennett’s date, in peach-colored taffeta, was a pert blonde he’d invited almost at random; had she refused, he would have asked another who would do as well. He knew he was good looking in a conventional, even-featured way, and while he wasn’t a star athlete or a fast talker, he was generally liked and could produce enough quips to keep a conversation going.
Loretta danced with one boy after another and let them pull her close and grind their hips against her. While his own date chattered with her friends near the punch bowl, Bennett claimed a dance. “Why are you acting this way?” he whispered. “They’re all looking at you.”
“Because it’s fun.” She laughed with her mouth wide open, teeth flashing, the braces she had hated long gone. Her lipstick was a shade close to purple. She looked him straight in the eye—she was nearly as tall as he. “Why, you jealous?”
“Don’t be silly,” he said automatically. “I just mean, remember who you are.” Those were words his mother often spoke in a stern voice. They puzzled him—who was he? And why must he unremittingly remember? But if he wasn’t sure what they meant, he knew when they should be used.
“I’m finding out. How else can you find out if you don’t try different ways?”
He frowned, and Loretta gave another teasing laugh. “Remember in biology, Mr. Cargill said all the cells in the body replace themselves every seven years? You really become a totally new person. That could happen, I don’t know, ten times if you live long enough.”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” he told her, “like when a bell rings. It’s staggered. So you’ve always got some of the old and some of the new.”
“I didn’t mean literally. God, Benno, I should really teach you a few things.”
Provoked, he wondered if he too should pull her close and grind his hips against hers, but that would feel all wrong. No matter what she said, she was the same Loretta, almost like a sister. No, more than a sister. There was no word for what she was to him. This new, gaudy girl was just a pose.
They went to college on different coasts—Bennett stayed close to home, Loretta headed west. He wished her well, hoped she wouldn’t get into trouble finding out who she was, and moved on. The tide of life claimed him, and in time Susan, blonde and affable, did too.
* * *
A year after they were married, Susan lay on the couch with a magazine balanced on her huge stomach and said, “I just can’t move. It’s too hot, and I feel like this is going to pop any minute. But you go.” Some of her old college friends were giving a party, a send-off for volunteers going to Mississippi to work on voter registration. “One of us ought to be there, at least.”
“If it’s popping any minute, maybe I should stay home.”
“I don’t mean literally. Anyway, I can always call. Go on, Ben. Please?”
When he reappeared, ready to leave, she said, “Oh, not a tie, sweetie. It makes you look like Clark Kent. It’s not that kind of party.”
He was glad, when he arrived, that the scorned tie was in his pocket. No one else wore one. Several of the men were in shorts, and the women wore flowered shifts and sandals. The apartment was so crowded that the air-conditioning, if it existed, had no effect. Bennett was drifting around with a can of beer in his hand when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Could that be my old Benno?”
Loretta threw her arms around him. It was ten years since he’d seen her, and her gestures seemed larger. She herself seemed larger, occupying space with authority—maybe it was the mass of hair piled on her head, or the gleaming bare shoulders, or the clunky beads and long silver earrings. Her body had density, her face glowed.
She introduced the black man standing beside her as Jim. Bennett hadn’t realized they were together. “We’re leaving tomorrow morning,” she said, and slipped her arm through Jim’s. He was very dark, with a bushy Afro, small wire-rimmed glasses, and a mild, inquisitive expression. He wore a green and black dashiki and heavy wooden beads that matched Loretta’s.
“You’re a reporter? Well, we might need some good coverage.” Only half-joking, Jim was very self-possessed. Older than he looked, probably. His obvious possession of Loretta gave Bennett the same uneasy feeling he had had at the prom, although this time he could find no fault with her. She was splendid, grandly confident without the arrogance he disliked in other would-be activists. His mother, maybe even his sister Helen, would have approved of her manners. Except of course for the arm linked through a black man’s.
“I wish I could, but I’m just on the city desk. Local stuff.”
“Local stuff’s been interesting these days,” Jim said.
“It has,” Bennett agreed. “I wanted to get the Board of Ed story, but my most exciting piece lately was the subway strike.” In their first year of high school, he remembered, still the placid decade though there must have been underground rumblings too faint for common ears, Loretta was the only girl in the class who said yes to the English essay assignment: Would you marry a person outside your race or religion? The teacher had her stand up and read her essay aloud, and afterwards she faced a barrage of challenges, some of them insulting. Bennett felt for her, even tried to support her with a few placating comments. At first her voice had the familiar tinge of defiance that always hid her fears, but she quickly mastered herself. In the end, the incident won her friends and a reputation for boldness. He wondered if she and Jim were married.
She started to pull both men off into a corner. “We must have a real talk!” But others kept crowding around—she knew everyone, it seemed, black and white. Bennett was captured too, first by Susan’s friends, then by a voluble girl who wanted to know how to get a start in journalism. Loretta caught his eye and gave a hopeless, amused shrug. Toasts, speeches, and the party broke up.
“Good luck,” he managed to say. “Let me know how things go.” He scrawled his address on a cocktail napkin.
“If I can. Happy new baby.” She was off with a flourish, Jim’s large hand planted on her shoulder, leaving Bennett unsatisfied. He wanted more. Not to take her in his arms; there were other women at the party he’d prefer for that—paler, less intense, self-contained women like Susan, though he hadn’t reached the point in his marriage when he would do more than notice them. He wanted only to be in Loretta’s presence. He felt renewed, restored to possibility, energy, adventure. But what was he thinking: he was twenty-nine years old, on the brink of fatherhood.
* * *
Two months later, her voice on the phone was raked with anguish.
“I need to see you, Ben. Right away. Please.”
“Sure. What is it? Do you want to come over now?” Susan was out, he almost added. But why should it matter?
“I don’t think so. Can you meet me someplace?”
“I can’t get out. I’m sorry. The baby’s sleeping.” It was a Saturday afternoon, his turn to care for Richard. Susan was struggling to work part-time, and he had pledged to do his fair share. She was in a consciousness-raising group and gave cogent arguments for why he should. Bennett agreed in principle. Beyond principle, he dreaded his failings being aired before a roomful of women.
“Oh, right, your wife was about to have a baby. Congratulations. What kind?”
“A boy. He was born the day after that party.” In the flash flood of changes that swept him along, he’d almost forgotten meeting Loretta. “How about tomorrow morning? Coffee? Are you okay?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
He expected that she would be late, but she was there waiting for him. It was Helen who called her flighty, he reminded himself, but in fact she had always been prompt and prepared at school. An orderly child. He could still see her homework marching forthrightly across the notebook pages in that firm up-and-down writing. She sat at a table far from the door, drab and wretched in old jeans and a faded tie-dyed shirt. Thinner, sallow, her eyes stained a darker gray.
“What the matter?”
They’d been seen around town together, she told him, and the locals didn’t like it. Jim was driving a pick-up truck with three of the other men, late at night, in the rain, and they had an accident. The others, who had minor injuries, swore that a car forced them off the road, but they had no proof, no witnesses, no license plate. There was nothing to be done. She cried as she told the story.
Bennett was horrified. He knew such things happened—his colleagues came home with stories that never made the papers—but they had not touched his life. He leaned across the table to stroke her cheek. That’s what happens, he could hear Helen say, when you start putting your nose in other people’s business. “I’m so sorry,” he said, too loud, to drown Helen out. “But there must be something you can do . . .”
“They told me I’d better leave or I might get hurt too. It was two days ago. I just . . . I had to leave him there.”
“It’s awful. Were you married, Loretta?”
She looked startled. “Married? No. What difference does that make?”
“None. None at all. I just wondered. . . ”
“Bennett.” She stared at him as she had as a child, the gaze that had made him feel singled out, transcendent. It was both claim and offer. A promise to transport him to vaster places where unpredictable things happened. But something was expected of him in turn. “I need money for an abortion. Can you lend me some?”
“Oh . . . Are you sure . . . ?”
“Well, of course. Do you have someone . . . reliable to do it?”
“Yes, yes, it’s all set. I just need the money.”
“What about your family? I mean, I’m glad to help you out, but don’t you want anyone to . . . ”
“I came to you because I thought you wouldn’t ask so many questions. You’d understand. Look, I’m sorry to lay this on you, Ben. But you’re the only one.”
How could he be the only one, after so long? And what was he supposed to understand?
“So. You’re a daddy.” She managed a smile. “What’s it like?”
“Very different,” he said, embarrassed by his luck.
She didn’t want him to meet her at the doctor’s—only give her the cash, which he did the next day on a street corner near his office.
“Will you let me know if everything’s okay? Call me at work. Here’s the number.”
He was out on assignment the next two days—a midtown water main break paralyzed traffic and sent hundreds of people to temporary shelters. When he returned, a message on his desk said, Loretta called. Everything’s okay. No phone number.
* * *
“Guess what your old friend’s up to now?”
He moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Why do you always use that tone for her, Helen? You don’t even know her any more.”
“I know what she is. You should too. She started early. She practiced on you.”
“That’s absurd. We were infants.”
“Bennett,” Helen said with a sigh. “You’re such an innocent, still. You used to let her lead you anywhere.”
Wrong, all wrong, he thought, but how foolish even to discuss it at this point.
“Her mother tells me she’s going to law school.” Helen offered her nugget with sneering relish.
Bennett was relieved to imagine her sitting still, bent over her books. Was she still grieving over Jim’s death? Upset by the abortion? He longed to know. Then one autumn day, in brilliant light, he glimpsed her, or someone who looked just like her, from a Fifth Avenue bus window. Her hair flying free, she strode aggressively down the street with four or five people—fellow students?—laughing and gesturing, absorbed in talk. She wore leather boots and a black leather jacket and hauled a large tote bag. He wanted to call to her, but couldn’t get the bus window open. He rose to get off, but the bus was crowded; by the time he reached the door she’d vanished around a corner.
* * *
Everything was changing so fast. Half the couples Bennett and Susan knew were getting divorced—a rite of passage, it seemed—and it was the wives who led the exodus. Sometimes he feared Susan might join them. Or was she just too busy? He didn’t dare ask. She didn’t always laugh at his quips lately. She could be acerbic when she was pressured by too many demands. A few times she remarked that he never asked any questions. “I’m glad to hear whatever you want to tell me,” he said. “Yes, but you don’t ask.” He tried to remember to ask more questions, but found it a curious effort, not tangible and specific like remembering to stop for groceries or pick up the children’s toys.
On a typical Saturday afternoon—Susan spooning puréed carrots into the new baby, Bennett scooting toy trucks along the floor with Richard—the phone rang. Not Helen, he prayed.
“Bennett? Me again. Always calling you to bail me out.” He sensed fear behind the throaty, combative tone. Shouting and clattering sputtered through the wires. “As a matter of fact, I am calling you to bail me out. I was arrested.”
She’d been in an anti-war demonstration and the cops had dragged her limp body to the van. “You’re my one phone call. Can you do something? Like come down and bring a lawyer? I’ve got to get out of here. It’s a madhouse.”
With all her new friends, why me? But he didn’t dream of refusing. His job had occasionally brought him inside a police station, but never to post bail. Would he need to sign forms asking for personal data? It might not go over well at the paper.
“I’ve got to go out,” he told Susan, grabbing his jacket. “An old friend’s in some trouble.”
“Who? Anyone I know?”
“No. I’ll tell you later.”
Helen’s husband was a lawyer, but that was out of the question. Anyway, his specialty was insurance fraud. From a street phone, he called a Legal Aid lawyer he knew through the paper who owed him a favor and would know how to handle this discreetly.
An hour and a half later, he sat opposite Loretta in a coffee shop, still edgy from the raucous scene at the station. He sympathized with the demonstrators—he sent checks to their cause—but did they have to go to such lengths? They were a rowdy, unkempt bunch, quite different from the earnest group at the party years ago. What had become of her zeal to transform Mississippi? Did she lose heart after Jim’s death? Or was it all the same zeal, free-floating, seeking a cause? Still finding herself?
Her patched denim jacket with the peace symbols crookedly sewn on was torn at the sleeve; her skirt trailed on the floor. She was missing an earring, her hair was straggly, her face shiny with sweat and triumph. “Thanks so much,” she said. “You’re a real friend.”
“And you’re a mess.” Clean up your act, he wanted to say. What do you think you’re doing? You used to say we had to figure out how to live right—awareness, choice, responsibility. But the hectoring words stuck on his tongue.
As if she could read his mind, she reached out to put her hand on his. “Listen, I know what I’m doing, Ben. It’s important.”
“It is important. But there are other ways—”
“They don’t work as well. This’ll be in the papers, you’ll see. You of all people must know that. The bigger the stink, the better the coverage. From now on, that’s the way to go.”
She was right. The placid time was long over. It had been an anomalous blip in history, a slack loop on the time line; even those who lived through it could hardly believe it had been real. The time of his childhood was discredited, and Bennett was willing to relinquish it. But he felt bereft and unprepared. His adult life was a crash course in reality, and he’d always hated cramming. He caught a glimpse of them both in the mirror beside the table. In the glare of artificial light, the outlines of his face looked dim, blurred by confusion.
“I heard you were in law school.”
She jerked her head back in surprise. “I was thinking of applying but I changed my mind. How’d you hear that?”
“Probably my mother told her. Wishful thinking. No, I wouldn’t have the patience. Right now we need quicker measures.”
“Are you working? Do you need money?”
“Thanks, no. I work on and off. Anyhow, I still owe you. I haven’t forgotten. You’ll get it back.”
He waved that off. “Where are you living?”
“I share a place downtown with a bunch of people. Hey, you’re not a spy for my mother, are you?” She tilted her head and smiled, and again the lush eagerness enveloped him like a perfumed mist, restoring him to himself. So what if she wasn’t the same girl he had loved? He was the same. It was as if he’d entrusted his soul to her long ago for safekeeping, and repossessed it only when she appeared. Yes, this was what he loved: not the person but the feeling she gave him. But how could they be separated?
“Of course not. I’m just concerned. You need to think of the future—”
“I am thinking of the future. That’s what I was doing out there. What about your future?”
“I’m so busy with the present, I can’t even see it.”
“I’d love to meet your family some time. Can I come over?”
“Sure. Today’s not a good day, though. Another time.”
“Fine, I’ll give you a call.”
* * *
In time an envelope with no return address arrived at his office, containing hundred-dollar bills folded into a sheet of paper: “Thanks again for being such a good friend. Love, L.” That lucid, good-natured, upright handwriting: here I am, nothing to hide. Didn’t she know how risky it was to mail cash? What kind of people send so much cash through the mail? People without a checking account. People who don’t want to put a return address on a money order. And where did she get it? He didn’t want to speculate. He’d never expected it back, and was more irked at her carelessness than grateful. The money hardly mattered now. With the boys in school and Susan working fulltime, they could afford to hire help. The simmering tension over household tasks had subsided. They’d never really worked it out, they agreed in a melancholy mood. “The problem went away,” Bennett said. “No,” said Susan, “we evaded it.” “Okay, whatever.” “I hate that word, you know?” “But you do support freedom of speech?” Bennett joked. “All right, you get the last word, Ben.” “I didn’t know we were quarreling.”
Their rare skirmishes were like that, so attenuated, so offhand, that he hardly recognized them until they were over. All in all, he felt fortunate. They’d managed better than many others. They were getting through, as if these frantic years were an obstacle course on the way to an earned serenity.
“Do you ever dream of the foreign desk?” Susan once asked.
“Not especially. Anyhow, how could I disrupt the kids and all? And your work.” She accepted in silence this tribute to the seriousness of her work. He would be faulted for a tactical error, Bennett thought, but got no credit for right thinking. “Why? You think I need a change?”
“Well, not if you’re happy with what you’re doing. I just wondered. You never talk about it.”
“I’m fine as I am.”
“It might be nice to see the world,” she said tentatively.
“We could take a trip this summer. The kids are old enough.”
“I guess. I meant like try living someplace really different. I don’t know, India? Morocco?”
He had no longing for India or Morocco, but now and then he too was puzzled at how he had reached this stasis. Then he would think over his luck: early on, he’d landed a job that was still the envy of his journalism school friends. More than luck by now: he’d kept the job and done it well. By starting high, more or less, he was spared the hassle of rising.
Still, it pleased him that his next assignment was a change from his usual beat of natural or technical disasters that brought predictable, remediable chaos. With local elections coming up, the mayor was paying a visit to a notorious downtown park: no doubt he would vow to clean it up and reclaim it for innocent pleasures. Bennett was among the crowd of reporters trailing after him. The park was a mess, a littered shantytown of refrigerator cartons and corrugated metal held together by duct tape. Marijuana scented the air. Half-naked children played in the stubble or wailed for attention. Men and women in tie-dyed rags or long velveteen dresses sauntered about, some cooking over open fires. At least they weren’t handing out flowers, Bennett thought. It was a bit late in the day for flowers. Friendly at first, even hospitable, as if entertaining in their living rooms, the squatters began heckling the mayor as soon as he opened his mouth. Someone lit a joint and offered it teasingly to the reporters. Bennett jotted down notes in haste, excited and repelled by the scene. The police, on good behavior in front of the TV cameras, prodded a few nodding figures draped over benches, lumpy shapes wrapped in shawls though the day was warm. As one of them raised her head, a scarf fell to her shoulders. Her hair hung in clumps, her face was puffy and smudged with dirt. The mayor wagged his finger. “We want to get help for people like this. No way is this liberation. This is a public health hazard.” Bennett wrote down the words, planning how he might frame the quote. The woman slumped back down and the cop pulled her up again. She shook him off and opened her eyes wide.
Bennett’s every muscle clenched in denial. Transformed, yes, but not beyond recognition.
He should do something, but what? Go over and speak to her? Take her home? Give her a new life? How could he explain her to Susan?
The police began leading the more vocal squatters into a waiting paddy wagon. They tried to drag Loretta off, but the others formed a barricade in front of her. An ugly scene might have erupted—the bigger the stink, the more coverage, as she had said. But one of the mayor’s aides gestured at the cops and they retreated. Bennett had almost made up his mind to go to her, but the mayor was rushing off to the next stop on the expedition, mouthing words the other reporters were writing down. He had no choice but to follow.
It gnawed at him that she might have seen him. That he had denied her and she knew it. His dearest friend. No, he protested, she’s not your dearest friend any more. She hasn’t been your dearest friend since you were six. Or twelve. Eighteen at the most. The cells had replaced themselves several times over by now; that grotesque crone was no one he knew. Enough rescue work—let someone else take over. One of her hippie friends.
But he couldn’t wholly believe this. He didn’t know what to believe. He only knew he couldn’t crawl out from under the weight of guilt. Had he needed help, she would have rushed to his side. He would stake his life on it. Sure she would, he thought bitterly; it would be a new adventure for her. At least he didn’t mention her in his article, which by rights he should have done.
He’d have to go back and do something for her. But the next day Richard fell off his bike and sprained an ankle, and Mark came down with the flu. Schedules had to be rearranged. Even without accidents or illness, there was never enough time. He was forever behind, a lagging, panting runner in a race headed nowhere. Nights, he and Susan fell into bed late and exhausted. His parents and their neighbors had never been so overtaxed. They had time to sit on the porch and read the papers and play cards, swatting lazily at mosquitoes. Sure: it was that placid, dead time when no one did anything. Dead inside, Loretta used to say. Nowadays everyone said it, so it must be true. Such placidity wasn’t meant to last. It was insidious. It lulled the privileged, at the expense of others they never saw, or if they saw them, they didn’t notice them, which was worse. Bennett knew the ideology inside out. But he was so weary.
By the time he returned to the park she was gone. The squatters were still there, despite the mayor’s speech. Moving through the clumps of people playing guitars or stretched on the ground and smoking, Bennett asked for her by name but no one knew any Loretta. He described her as best he could—as she’d looked on that awful day. “Oh, you mean Lulu,” said a tattooed man with a harmonica. “Gone, man. Who knows where? She comes and goes.”
He should have pressed further, but he was too angry. All right, so now everyone was alive, in perpetual motion. And her perpetual motion had brought her to this—a drugged, collapsed lump on a park bench. Was that better? he wanted to shout at her. Dead inside. He didn’t want to find her. Lulu!
* * *
He continued at the newspaper, valued for his competence, even if it was somehow understood he wouldn’t be given the major stories. They moved to a larger apartment where Susan used a spare room as a studio—she had more designing work than she could handle. She took to working late in the evenings after the boys had gone to bed. Bennett ambled in.
“How’s the new computer working out?”
“It’s amazing.” She seemed pleased that he asked, and began demonstrating its wonders. It could juggle images and typefaces in a flash, could isolate elements of one image and transfer them to another. Even the human face was fair game. Playing around with magazine photos, she put Gorbachev’s bald head above Ronald Reagan’s wrinkled brow, then by a series of deft clicks transformed Woody Allen into Clint Eastwood. “There! A total makeover. It’s like dressing up paper dolls. Everything’s fluid. You can doctor old photos so in a way you’re changing reality. That could be dangerous, you know, politically. But it makes things so much easier. Stuff that used to take me hours, I can do in a minute. Watch what I can do with these headlines.” With her fingers dancing avidly over the keys, she was remaking history. The administration was toppled by the Iran Contra scandal. Peace came to Northern Ireland. Famine in Africa was averted by swift UN measures. Bennett stood bemused. Perhaps life was really like that. Written not in stone but in flickering images never meant to be grasped and held firm, relied on, or even remembered.
Watching her, he felt a surge of love. He touched her hair, which showed faint streaks of gray. Her bare arms were taut, the skin smooth; she found time to lift weights and take long runs in the park. “It’s fantastic. But maybe you’ve worked enough for one night.”
“Are you listening, Ben, or just lusting?”
“A little of both. I’m not like Gerald Ford. I can do two things at once.”
* * *
Months, even years, could go by without any thought of Loretta. And then there she’d be: holding up a sign in dripping blood-red letters, “Hands Off Our Bodies,” when the abortion clinic two blocks from his apartment was destroyed by arson. He thought he’d tumbled into a time warp: traffic diverted, pedestrians funneled to a narrow path, demonstrators shouting slogans behind police barricades while counterdemonstrators shouted back. He was transfixed by the sign and hadn’t even noticed the person carrying it, when she said, “Hey, Ben. Don’t tell me you don’t remember me!”
He had to stare for a good few seconds, she was so changed: lean and angular in a man’s sport jacket and white shirt, her cheekbones jutting, the once-lavish hair lopped off in a severe cut. Then he was levitated by joy. “Hey, Loretta!”
“What’re you doing here? Covering the story?”
“No, just passing by.” A moment ago, as he glimpsed one of his colleagues, a newly hired young woman, flashing her press pass and elbowing through the crowd, his face had darkened. But on second thought, of course it made better sense to have a woman cover this story.
“Can you believe those lunatics?” Loretta said.
“At least no one was hurt.”
“Not this time. Ben, this is Faith.” She turned to the woman beside her, similarly dressed, her hair cropped the same way. Chunky and graying, Faith eyed Bennett warily.
“Pleased to meet you.” He held out his hand.
“Faith is my partner.” A challenge.
“I’m still pleased to meet you,” said Bennett, and both women smiled, Faith grudgingly, Loretta with a trace of the old glow. In truth he was not pleased; he was only pleased with himself at having brought off the moment well enough. His Loretta? She should know by now who she was.
“Can you take a few minutes for a cup of coffee?” No, she didn’t want to miss the action. “Then let’s just get out of the crowd for a second, okay? I need to find out . . . I’m so glad to see you looking well. I heard you were in bad shape.”
“Strung out. It was so awful, I can’t tell you. I met Faith at the rehab center, and she saved my life.”
Aha. It wouldn’t last long, he thought. He even felt a stab of sympathy for Faith, soon to be jettisoned. “I must tell you something. I’ve had you on my conscience. I saw you once, when you were . . .”
“I wasn’t totally out of it. I did open my eyes.”
“I’m so sorry. I’ve felt rotten about it ever since.”
“It’s okay. What could you have done? With the mayor there and all.” She gave a mischievous smile. “Anyhow, it wouldn’t have helped. No one could’ve helped me then.”
“I should’ve tried. I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess I’m—”
“It’s over. Let it go, okay? How’re you doing? More kids?”
“No, just the two. How about you, I mean when you’re not standing here with your sign?”
“Working at a shelter for abused women. Going to business school at night.”
“Why not? I was always good at math, remember?”
That was true. Without her patient coaching, he would have flunked trigonometry.
“I’d better get back,” she said.
“Why don’t you come over some time? We haven’t had a real talk in, I don’t know, years?”
“Sure. I’ll give you a call.”
* * *
And last sighted in the lobby of a midtown hotel at a conference for journalists. A total makeover, as Susan might say. Now she was the business manager for a slick fashion magazine and was dressed accordingly. Rosa Luxembourg was long forgotten. Faith, ancient history for sure. Bennett could tell by the way she moved—he’d looked at women long enough to know.
Impaled by her gaze, he felt an odd rush of pleasure at having kept his good looks. “So what does it all mean?” he teased. “Have you finally found yourself?”
“I was never lost. Well, except that one awful time. Look, it’s a new era, we’ve got to keep up. But seriously, there is a reason.” She dug a snapshot from her wallet: a Chinese girl about three years old, holding a stuffed green elephant and beaming at the camera. “My daughter. Tina.”
“Congratulations. How did this come about?”
“I adopted her when she was six months old.”
“Does she have a father?”
“Not at this point. Maybe she will someday. Why should she have to wait for some notion of the ideal family? I heard about all the babies in orphanages and decided to do something about it.”
This is the last straw, came a voice in his head. Helen’s or his own? Bennett couldn’t tell.
“I see what you’re thinking, Ben. But this is different. I’ve been doing it for three years. Besides the months of arrangements. I can hold a job if I make up my mind to.”
“Where is she while you’re at work?”
“Day care, where do you think? What is it? You think I’m too old, is that it? I’m not too old. I could even get pregnant if I chose to.”
“I know how old you are, Loretta.”
“Never mind. Let’s get the packets and see what’s in store.”
She slipped away in the crowd, and he was left stinging with remorse. Two years later, when Helen called about the accident, he stung all over again.
* * *
“If you’re so upset, then phone the hospital,” Susan said when she found him still lying on the motel bed. But he wouldn’t. Not till they got back home. As long as he heard no news, she was not dead yet. Miracles happened. She’d pulled through before. Besides, what right had he to this crushing sense of loss? He’d barely spoken to her in years. Not for the first time, he wondered why he had never desired her, or at least pursued her and waited for desire to catch up. He had an eye for women. He’d been drawn into two brief and secret affairs over the years, attended by such ravenous guilt that they were hardly worth it. Or maybe they just seemed so in retrospect. But Loretta had always seemed out of bounds. Now he thought: she would have. I bet she would have. His life might have been vastly different: he had a glimpse of such breadth and iridescence that his eyes teared. Then he shuddered. To live daily in that glow, with that gaze on him? No, he couldn’t have stood it. It had been enough as it was. He had even enjoyed missing her between sightings.
Now all her guises were erased, and what he saw with perfect clarity was the real Loretta, his: the small child. The two small children, holding hands, murmuring in the twilight. If she died, they would be dead inside him. Her old phrase, dead inside.
Susan tried to distract him. “Do you think you’ll mind the boys leaving? The so-called empty nest?”
“I don’t know. It’s not for a while yet. Mark’ll be around for two more years.”
“There might be more time for us,” she said.
The motel air between them seemed to stiffen. Time for us? What would they do with the extra time?
* * *
The intensive care nurse said he could see her for a moment. She lay swathed in bandages and hooked to paraphernalia. How cruel that all her efforts should come to this, he thought. But even as he summoned up the trite words, he knew they were mired in the tight grooves of a time dead and gone. Loretta wouldn’t think that way—if she were able to think. She hadn’t seen her life as a series of guises, nor would she think a life need add up to anything, like compound interest on mouldering capital. A life is whatever it is all along, she would say. He could hear her. He imagined he knew what she would say about everything. He understood—had always understood—that she was responding to what called her moment by moment. That was a way of making a life, a self, as good a way as any other. It was the life she had found, at any rate, and it was distinct from his. Only some fixed perversity in him had pretended not to understand. Some hanging back. Or envy. The Helen part of him.
Her eyes opened, clear and knowing. The steady gaze.
“You!” she whispered.
“Talk to me, Ben.”
He opened his mouth to speak. He didn’t know what he would say, but trusted that words would come. Now, finally, he could be a true friend to her. Now he could do everything he wished he had done. Brought her to meet his family. Gone to see her child. Written something about Jim’s death, pressed for an inquiry. Stood beside her at the clinic demonstration. Gone to her side that day in the park. Now he could do it all. And if he could live it again, he would not betray her as he had when they were six. Seeing her powerless under the white sheet, he remembered how their childhood idyll had ended. They had gone too far, far out of the neighborhood, and eaten crushed ice with fruity syrup. They were out on the street on a sweltering August day, and Loretta wanted to walk. They ventured around the corner and down a block of row houses identical to their own. They’d done that before, but this time she wanted to go further. They weren’t supposed to cross the street, he reminded her, but she didn’t care. “Come on,” and she tugged at his hand. They were careful to wait for the traffic lights. On and on they walked, while Bennett grew ever more anxious. How would they find their way back? But Loretta said it was easy, she knew the way, and he followed. Soon they were in a neighborhood of shabby apartment buildings with rows of garbage cans at cellar doors set in the pavement. Lots of people were outside. Dark men sat at a table playing a game with tiles. Dominos, Loretta said knowingly—her grandparents played it. Women on plastic chairs fanned themselves with folded newspapers, and children like themselves, but darker, played dodge ball in the street. When a car appeared, the women called out strange words, and the children dashed for the curb. Spanish, Loretta said. People smiled at them as they passed. It got so hot that they sat down on a curb, and a fat old woman tried to talk to them in a friendly way, but they couldn’t understand her. Loretta talked anyway. She counted up to five in Spanish—the weekly cleaning woman had taught her—and the fat woman and her friends clapped. After a while they got up and walked some more, to a stand where a thin young woman in shorts and a red halter was selling ices. “Let’s get some,” Loretta said. “We have no money.” “Maybe she’ll give us some anyway.” They watched as the woman scooped crushed ice into white paper cones, then squirted colored syrup on top from an array of huge upside down jars. The colors were dazzling—red, green, purple, yellow, and blue. They stood staring until at last the woman did offer them some. Loretta nodded eagerly. The woman pointed to the jars of syrup to ask which color they wanted. Loretta chose blue, Bennett red. Thank you, they said, and everyone standing around laughed. Gracias, the woman said, and they repeated it after her. The ices were delicious, cold and sweet, the syrup thick and gooey. They sat on the curb sucking at the cones until there was nothing left, then they turned and headed for home. But they couldn’t find the way. Soon they were crossing streets at random. The streets were broad, with hurtling trucks and buses. Nothing looked familiar. Loretta tripped and cut her knee and they wiped her blood with their shirts. She didn’t cry but Bennett was nearly in tears—he thought they’d never find their way home. At last he spied something he recognized, the huge plate glass windows with bright new cars inside, and then he was able to guide them back. A block from home they met his mother, leading Helen by the hand. “Where’ve you been?” she shouted. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Bennett thought she’d slap him, but she didn’t. “What’s that stuff all over your faces?” They told her about the free ices, and she said, “You ate that garbage? You’ll be sick from it, wait and see!” Loretta’s mother was hunting in the other direction, she told them. They were very bad to make everyone worry. “Whose idea was this?” She glared at Loretta as if she knew already. Bennett pointed. “She wanted to go for a walk.” His mother shook her head at Loretta but all she said was, “Look at you, you cut your knee.” “It doesn’t hurt,” Loretta said.
Loretta was kept in the house for three days as punishment. Bennett’s mother told him not to play with her. “She’s too wild. There’re plenty of other children. And you don’t have to go wherever people tell you. You could’ve gotten into trouble. You could’ve gotten really lost.” But we were really lost, he thought. Of course he still played with her—he knew his mother said things in anger that she didn’t really mean. But it was never the same. “Were you punished?” Loretta asked when she was back on the street. “No, she just yelled.” “You’re lucky. But it was fun getting lost.” “It wasn’t. I didn’t like it.” “You liked the ices. And we got them for free.”
He wished he had been a bolder boy. He wished he could have told his mother that he wanted to go too, that he loved Loretta because she urged him on. That without her he would lack the courage or the will to move out into the world. But the past was irreparable. Now he could do it all. At least he could talk, if that was what she wanted. Just at that moment, though, a heavy-set man with a bald spot walked up to the bed. Loretta strained to smile, and gazed at him the way she used to gaze at Bennett. The man shoved aside the tubes and bent down to kiss her. The husband. He had forgotten about him.
“The doctor says you’re going to be all right,” he said, stroking her hand. “You’ll walk, you’ll talk, everything. It’ll just take some time.”
Bennett stepped back to leave them alone. “Tina?” he heard her breathe. “She’s okay,” the husband whispered back.
At dinner that evening, Susan asked how his friend was. “Who is this anyway? Some great love of yours I don’t know about?”
“When I was six, I was in love with her. I’ve hardly seen her since high school.”
“Six? I wouldn’t have thought you were such a romantic boy.”
Had she asked more, now he might have told her. But Susan did not ask more. Way back, she’d complained that he didn’t ask many questions, was not curious, and in time she had become that way herself. He’d heard that long-married couples often take on each others’ traits.
* * *
Now, with the task of clearing out her things, he wished she had taken on his orderliness instead. He emptied shelves and mused about his meetings with Loretta, and the more he mused, the more indistinct they became, as if each scene, once sharply reconstructed, degenerated into blurring fragments. After a while she was hardly more than a cloud that changed shape as it meandered across the sky. A shadow, a breath, a trace of something essential but indefinable. A name to which he attached feeling and longing, a memory diminished to a color or a vapor, a muted phrase of music in the mind. But without it there was no life to speak of.
Finally the shelves in the closets were nearly empty, and what little remained was stacked in neat piles. Near the door were four black plastic bags of trash. He was about to take them down in the elevator, pondering whether to do it in one trip or in two. Or maybe leave it for morning—it was past midnight. Surprising himself, he sat down on the floor and opened a bag stuffed with lists and notes in Susan’s loopy artist’s hand. He studied them. Her handwriting. She used black, thick-tipped pens and her writing was bold and arresting, quite legible, except when the idiosyncratic r’s ran into the next letters. The capital T’s had a peculiar flourish at the upper right tip. The capital S’s were slim and snaky. He brought a page to his face and sniffed it. Nothing—the ink was too old. There was an ancient Chinese silk robe, almost in tatters, that she liked to wear, with a red and turquoise dragon on the back. He had joked that she could treat herself to a new one, had even bought her one in Chinatown while he was doing a story on immigration, but she was devoted to the old robe and wore his gift only once in a while, no doubt for his benefit. He brought the robe to his face, and the scent hit him with force. Susan. There was a tiny make-up brush, stained beige from use. Those tiny hairs had swept her face. A pencil, for her eyelids, he supposed, worn down to a stub. This had grazed the liquid of her eyes. There was a half-used box of Tampax he had unearthed in the depths of a closet. It was some time since she had needed those. He took one out and stared at it. Strange to think of putting that unlovely, utilitarian thing where he had been.
He began walking around the house touching surfaces she had touched: the kitchen counters, her drawing table, the computer keys, the handles of the dresser. Since her death they’d been dusted several times—it was an illusion to think he would find any trace of her fingertips, but he touched them anyway. From the bedroom, he dialed her studio number to hear her voice message, then remembered he had erased it after she died. Maybe even before, in those last weeks when she couldn’t possibly use the phone. He went into the bathroom, but nothing of her was left—for an instant he’d thought of using her toothbrush. Back in the bedroom he stared into her mirror and tried to envision her face there, but saw only his own. His pleasant, squarish, aging face. Women would look at it and want him, and someday, later on, he might go with whoever made the most effort. He recalled Susan’s concentrated expression as she brushed her hair at the mirror. So intensely serious—she might have been puzzling out a mathematical problem. Maybe all women at the mirror had that look. He couldn’t recall if the two women he had loved in secret did; he hadn’t often watched them dress, and in any case had not paid much attention. Not to Susan either.
He sat on the bed with horror seeping through him. He was ready to pay attention now. There were questions he needed to ask. Many questions, all the ones she said he never asked. What do you think? What do you feel? What is it about string beans that makes you hate them? How did you get so good at archery? Did you ever fire a gun? What was it like, giving birth? Why do you never wear green, or use it in your work? Did you really go around selling those Campfire Girl cookies? Did you ever love anyone else, after me? Did your mother ever hit you? Your father? What age did you learn to swim? He knew these things, or things like them, about Loretta. He had lived as if knowing them about her was enough. It wasn’t. A vast curiosity, dormant for years, rose to choke him.
Why had Susan stayed, to be dragged through this wasteland? Love? Convenience? Could she have loved him that much, to subsist on the next to nothing he gave? It didn’t seem possible. Did you live this pallid life because you loved me, he longed to ask, because it was a shadow of what you wanted? Or did you give up? Maybe you were the same as me. He would never know. The people in the grief group were right; he had lost her. He had given himself to a vaporous dream, to nothing. He stretched out on her side of the bed and studied the blankness of the ceiling. He understood now why people talked to the dead. But he didn’t know how to begin. Susan, he whispered. Tell me.