She always insisted that she could remember every detail of the very first evening we were together; how, for example, there was snow falling, and how the taxi meter, a little yellow glow above it, ticked, and how she felt, excited, in the interior of the heated cab, touching hands, but sad too, sad inside, the way you feel when you like a man, and when you know that with him it will happen, and you’ve made up your mind even before it happens so that he doesn’t really have to ask you, it’s something (she explained, explaining how a woman in so representative a circumstance feels) you feel and he feels, a pleasurable tension between you, a silken tightness, waiting to get to a place, his apartment or yours or a friend’s room or a hotel or even a deserted country road, so that you sink into a trance of waiting, a deliciousness that’s somehow sad, too, and you feel, because of the sadness, both there and not there, inside the cab and holding hands and not inside the cab at all and not holding hands at all.
* * *
Ah, the roles I played, sitting there in the green armchair of that dwarfed living room, that tiny birdcage with the fruit rotting on the expensive coffee table! For now I was the oracle on sex: experienced, objective, clinical. One had always (this with my serious face) certain difficulties due to such and such; there was a girl in Chicago (height, weight, general characteristics) I’d known during a tour; she had had exactly the same experience, in her case an uncle who owned a laundry; and, of course, I had cured her. Naturally. One always implied that there was nothing like a series of treatments, administered by the doctor at this fortunate moment so near one, this most tender of healers, with the miraculous touch, to cure one of a slight inability to enjoy what was really (of course it was!) the simplest, the most available, the nicest of human pleasures. Or again, I was the charming boy, the rosebud who had grown up in a tough neighborhood; or now, the misunderstood or the too much understood; and now, putting my head into her lap, I’d be grateful for the warmth of her flesh, for I was the tired man then, the exhausted hunter home, now love, like a warm laprobe, covered me, and my weary mind relaxed in this simplest of baths. Alternately, I was moody—what was I doing here? Or gay—let’s do the town! Or loved her—ah, baby, there’s nobody like you! Or mercurial again, did not love her—ah, honeybun, why kid ourselves? Or retreating, like Hamlet, the distance of her arm, found her an enigma—who are you, after all? A stranger… we are all strangers, live, die, breed, stranger with stranger, the unknown copulating with the unknown, mysterious Mr. X, the local man in the iron mask, kissing on her palpable mouth the enigmatic Miss X, the beauty nobody knows!
And was this, we say, later, when it’s over, really us? But it’s impossible! How could that fool, that impossible actor, ever have been us? How could we have been that posturing clown? Who put that false laughter in our mouths? Who drew those insincere tears from our eyes? Who taught us all that artifice of suffering? We have been hiding all the time; the events, that once were so real, happened to other people, who resemble us, imitators using our name, registering in hotels we stayed at, declaiming verses we kept in private scrapbooks; but not us, surely not us, we wince thinking that it could ever have possibly been us.
And I suppose that she, too, in some obscure and difficult way, experienced, in spite of everything, the feeling of her own reality. She, too, knew the words that came easily or fumblingly were never the true words; everything may have been for her, too, somehow suspect. And yet, by all the orthodoxy of kisses and desire, we were apparently in love; by all the signs, the jealousy, the possessiveness, the quick flush of passion, the need for each other, we were apparently in love. We looked as much like lovers as lovers can look; and if I insist now that somehow, somewhere, a lie of a kind existed, a pretense of a kind, that somewhere within us our most violent protestations echoed a bit ironically, and that, full fathom five, another motive lay for all we did and all we said, it may be only that like a woman after childbirth we can never restore for ourselves the reality of pain, it is impossible to believe that it was we who screamed so in the ward or clawed so at the bedsheets or such sweats were ever on our foreheads, and that too much feeling, finally, makes us experience a sensation of unreality as acute as never having felt at all.
* * *
And it seemed then, with the affectionate gesture, the reassuring smile that accompanied it, the pleasant walk home, that the episode was closed, the incident over; but what incident, where flattery, even of a dubious nature, is involved, is ever over for a woman? What episode, in which she’s admired, however obliquely, is ever really ended? She will reopen what seems to you a finished chapter, and manage, somehow, to add a disconcerting epilogue to some drama you assumed was done with some time ago.
* * *
[I]t is hardly natural for a woman to dispose of a man until accident or design has already provided her with the promise of another. […] Of course a woman always seems to choose, with a dismaying instinct, the god-damnedest moments to end a love affair. Her dismissals always seem to come the way assassinations do, from the least expected quarter. There will be a note on the kitchen table, propped up against the sugar bowl, on exactly the day when most in love with her you arrive carrying a cellophaned orchid; or walking along the avenue, arm about her waist, and talking with great enthusiasm about a small house you saw for sale cheap thirty minutes from New York. They seem timed to arrive during birthday parties, when you are apparently happiest, or relaxing in a hot bath when the house is most peaceful, or taking a short walk in the garden, enjoying what promises to be a beautiful evening. She waits until that precise moment you are bending down to sniff the roses, and thinking that, after all, she is a wonderful girl, and you are really absolutely sold on her, and that the life between you has been, for all the small quarrels and differences, really fine, when bang: she fires from behind the rosebush.