By Jessica Hungate, Gr. 12
This story was selected as the third place winner in the 2020 NTCI Creates Contest. Congratulations, Jessica!
The More Loving One
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them say
I missed one terribly all day
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky,
And feel its total dark sublime
Though this might take me a little time.
The More Loving One, W.H. Auden (1957)
Kate followed the buzz of a plane, reverberant so as to flatten everything over which it passed on its westward trajectory, until it finally sloshed into waves that frothed around the scumbled body. Adjusting to the return of familiar sounds, she listened to the methodical thud of nails, the hammering of the roof next door. It was turning out to be a quaint place, and its provincial sensibility, aside from the two stone lions keeping watch outside the front gate, a tad gauche, she thought with the faintest hint of a smile, made her blush to think of her own sunset castle.
The bedroom she shared with her husband opened onto a charming balcony overlooking the water, large enough for two deck chairs and a table, and so it was there, watching the gulls plunge and swoop into the rolicking waves, reduced to pearly comets under the sun, that Kate sat, resplendent in a green bathing suit, surveying the bay with her opera glasses: newly minted royalty taking careful stock of her court. Brassy cylinders traced a clean line across the shore and saw a vision of nature that like Emerson’s circles, radiated infinitely outwards, with a circumference widening, widening, widening until it encompassed everything, trees reaching dark necks higher, walnuts abandoned beneath limp hollyhock on mossy beds, and all the wildlife chattering, chirping, stretching over great spans of land and sea towards a distant olympian boundary; somewhere, unknown circles were being drawn one after the other in smooth, unbroken lines, every action outdone by the next, and the next thereafter, and in the end she realized, gasping, there are no ends, only a series of penetrable beginnings.
Kate drank some of the lemonade she had made earlier that morning, the lemons stinging her jaw while granules of sugar rushed over her tongue and the pulp, too much pulp, she thought, collected between her teeth. Her eyelashes carved the landscape in dark, longitudinal strokes, as she lingered in this sweet respite, from what Kate could not say, and once she felt quite herself again her gaze meandered back towards the Langford property which appeared by all measures deserted; a boat, cocooned in a calfskin tarp with silver snaps lolled in the water, while blinds had been drawn on every floor, although, she thought, might they be trying to keep out the sun?, and it could be observed that a padlock had been added to the patio doors. The sun's glare hooded her eyes, dark curtains shuttered across a full stage, and Kate resolved to take another bath and linger in the house until Nick got back, for that was the summation of her existence, she realized, a permanent lingering permitting neither permanence or absence; instead she allowed herself to sample the frame, explore the infinite flavors of conversation, enjoy the colorful tones of visitors, without import or expectation, a lilted life that took comfort beneath the shade of another.
The tub sat beside wide french windows that, like the balcony, overlooked the water and all the cottages set back from its shores. Great slabs of sunlight ran expansively across the tiled floor, barely tickling the baseboards, as Kate lay suspended in the lukewarm bathwater feeling her full heft, a regard which seemed just then to amplify the act of breathing and looking down, she felt strangely removed from her biological apparatus; the naked body, suspended and separated by the clear liquid sheet, was suddenly foreign, something to be deconstructed and shrewdly observed. Kate couldn’t help it, and she, who insisted upon hoarding those emotions which would make her vulnerable behind a porcelain mask, ogled her dimpled thighs, veiny calves, splotched feet. The door creaked downstairs, and she could hear Nick pad up the steps. He called out for her, again and again, the gravely timbre of his voice skittering across marbled walls. She felt like a goddess then, Venus in the half-shell, submerged in an earthen womb now exposed, no, not exposed, for she was not a carnival sideshow, but presented: a blossoming siren. When before she felt heavy like a rain cloud, sopping and full, she was now light and invincible and called out that she was upstairs and would he like to join her in the bath? Basking in the warm breath of youth, Kate stretched to extend an angular limb towards the tub’s porcelain edge, lifting a chrome cigarette case Nick had pawned in Argentina. Methodically, she withdrew a thin cylinder and placed it between her lips where it hung moodily. The cigarette was rimmed with coral by the time Kate struck a match, now erect, aflame with the sudden friction. She giggled nonsensically, for the match brought back memories of Mathilde, the stick-thin Irish girl from boarding school whose violently orange bush crawled out of her head and cascaded down her back in a tangerine plume.
Nick retreated into the bedroom instead, wanting something more from her but not knowing quite what to call it; he worked at a bank in the city on weekdays, and felt a justifiable insouciance towards these frivolous escapades, in which he saw neither purpose nor satisfaction, and since he did not know how to explain these feelings, whose rank had become so inescapable and foul as to penetrate, present in even the tiniest of ways, his every expression and gesture towards her, resigned himself to a sigh and a whiskey.
Kate emerged from the bath, refreshed by the cool air which electrified her damp shoulders. She walked into the bedroom, eyes muddied by steam and heat, to find Nick sprawled facedown on the mattress. Kate asked if it had been a difficult day at the office (she hoped that was all), he groaned (it wasn’t). The summer sun fell slantwise into the room, covering the tile in a milky sheen, and on the balcony a pot of peonies flourished aloft their last pastel blossoms of the season. Kate tittered sweetly around him until, as a chickadee realizes it staccatoed cries can’t coax all the world's beauty from unfurled leaves, and hurls itself instead into an unmatched devotion of its nest and young, she perched next to him on the bed, clean and full of goodness. Through her murky eyes she saw a shell of a man, his tie the noose of industry, a final fitting tethering the rest of him to this corporate uniform: the crisp, starched button-down, the suit-jacket with its princely elbow patches, straight-leg trousers wrinkled near the crease of his knee; even the forest-green chevrons on his socks, at the time a playful deviation from banality, seemed like a calculated move furthering his entrapment. Happiness did not come naturally to Nick, which was something Kate had always known, had known it even as she married him, perhaps had married him because of it, because of some grumpy wisdom she assumed was forthcoming but never materialized. His mind was clouded, she knew, by mistakes and grievances, anxieties sprung from wells that pitted his mind in varying depths.
After some time in their strange tableau, two stoics completely at the mercy of the inscrutable interior life of each, yet adamant in their refusal to interpret this dynamic as prophetic of future unhappiness, the lawyer rolled over, heaving with the effort of a pot-bellied 50 year old instead of the athletic 30 year old he was, Kate momentarily annoyed by the creased sheets he left in his wake, and stared at the ceiling, letting pale sunlight from the glass dome above them illuminate his features. His skin looked lumpy and waxen then, like churned butter, but his sallow cheeks were flushed and his grey eyes bright and wise. The lawyer sighed. It was a deep, expungatory sigh, from which the slightest hint of a groan could be deduced. Air sprayed from his lungs in a kind of resigned frustration, and it was vaguely interesting to observe the translucent particulates of his sadness mingling with the jovial sunshine that poured in from above. Kate looked at him lying there, and his quiescence frightened her. The grey eyes were speckled with brown, as if something alive had gotten caught and fossilized in the irises. He reminded her of an artifact that had begun to decompose, majestic once, now crumbling under the weight of time, its former splendor atrophied painfully from the mottled remains. And what was to be done with his spent frame, his spent soul? Neither wished to meaningfully acknowledge the glaringly obvious and so both let the cords in their stomachs twist into impossible knots, and suddenly it was their inability to express, not the tie, that bound them to relive the same domestic tension day after day. Not knowing what else to do or say, and feeling a little silly perched there on the bed, Kate got up to put on a sundress and resume her position on the balcony.
A gust of wind ruffled the lake’s emerald surface, tinged now with the earthen hues of algae and trembling silver bodies of minnows, sending weathervanes into a manic waltz. The arid mountains loomed desolate beyond the shaggy crests of wayward pines; sometimes Kate liked to imagine prehistoric villages hanging on the pinnacles of these sun-blasted rocks, hunting game and foraging for blackberries. It was a serene frame and in that second Kate became passionately convinced that the fate of the world and all those who came before and after her, depended upon the preservation of this moment: the rocks, the sun, the water, the trees, all of it, but of course, she realized, who am I to interfere with the natural continuum of things, lend my mere mortality to all that which remains. Her lashes were strung with watery pearls when Nick finally joined her. She sensed his presence behind her, saw his looming shadow, felt the large hand on her shoulder, the resting hand which seemed to encompass generations of kindness in all its calluses and rivulets, and with it those tender feelings that are perhaps better left to ambiguous expression.
A small galaxy of freckles ran underneath his hand, and, embarrassed by his sudden intrusion into her small universe, gently withdrew it. He walked over to the railing, bleached by the heat of many summers, and looked into the bed of flowers that sat above the scrubland that led to the water. They called it their marriage-garden when, during that first summer, when everything was still sweet and fresh, Nick decided it would be nice, downright respectable, to litter the backyard with bulbs of all shapes and sizes. When moisture seemed to pour from every slab of wood, each mound of dirt, when the sun appeared on the lake as a tantalizing mirage from Saharan fever-dreams, and the rabbits descended into the cool interiors of earthen burrows and the velvet petals of roses turned yellow and sickly sweet, Nick and Kate often delighted in the steaming floral bouquet that wafted into their bedroom. Everything in the garden was dramatic now, though, ripe for the eyes of Monet or Renoir, the flowers that were so like his wife, enigmatic and suspended in their own beauty, impenetrable except to the occasional bee or butterfly who greedily lapped up their crumbled golden offerings. A loud bang reverberated across the lake, a momentous noise that startled the bluejays nestled in a nearby bird feeder. Cobalt feathers momentarily obscured Kate’s view as her eyes darted east, in time to see Eliza, the Langford girl, slink around their wooden gate and make her way towards the dock. Kate was startled, for she assumed the cabin empty, shuttered as it was, and raised her pince-nez. Nick watched her watch the girl. He vaguely remembered meeting her at a barbeque in Long Island a few years back, pretty, he remembered, and was mildly disturbed by his wife’s interest which seemed more than anything an attempt to harness the girls energy and carry it within herself, spectrally, energy to steady the yolks of uncertainty that glistened and jiggled inside, plump for puncture.
“Put those things down Kate, you look ridiculous.” Nick’s annoyance briefly overtook him, and his ears flushed crimson. Embarrassed, Kate meekley returned the glasses to their case, and lowered her thick sunglasses; she wished she could always see the world like this, through the greenish sepia hue of these lenses, where everything appeared cooler, calmer; her little world now a shard of sea glass, bottle-green and totally undisturbed. She thought of the Czech glassblower her father had taken her to see in the Berkshires. Kate’s eyes were marbled with color and amazement as the old man, sweating profusely and caked with dust, spun his fiery rod in and out of the searing flame. Struck through metal prongs, he expertly moulded the translucent sphere into an ovular shape, poking and prodding it’s surface. He picked up flakes of dried acrylic from a nearby workbench, sprinkling them atop the ooblong glass, letting colours bleed seductively over the slick curves, eventually coagulating near the base in a tricolour meld. They’d left soon after, her father complaining of a headache brought on by the heat, but the memory stayed with her; the ductility of the thing, it seemed, lent itself to a kid of ruthless exploitation over which she felt powerless to exert any influence, trapped as it was, in the glassblowers steadfast grip, wincing at each violation as a snake wrangled into capture. She pitied herself then, for being so emotional, so affected. But then, wasn’t that the affliction of women, wasn’t that what her father said?
After a few feeble attempts at conversation, Charlotte’s baby shower on the fifth, a bakesale on the fourteenth, Nick drifted into sleep. Kate never knew how to arrange her face during these conversations, always contemplating which expression would convey the most convenient reaction, for she hated to upset her husband who she knew looked at her every feature to better situate himself in their stream of banter. Kate once again picked up the opera glasses. The girl had set her towel on the wood, glass beside, filled to the brim with an unidentifiable brown liquid swirling around a single ice cube. She stretched, scantily clad in a red bathing suit, and, kneeling first then circling her slender legs ‘round, reposed fully on the red terry cloth; it was in this supine position of perfect tranquility that Kate came to observe her.
She had met the girl, Eliza Langford, at a birthday party a few years ago, and remembered being irritated by the way her husband had watched her, long after they had been introduced. Kate had to admit, the girl was a glorious creature, emanating the kind of youthful nonchalance of someone with little responsibility and endless resources. For the rest of the evening Eliza seemed distracted, hardly acknowledging Kate’s presence save for their brief introduction, and even then there was a flaw in her demeanor, a fleck of irreverence, of distraction; that willful vagueness which infuriated Kate was made more unbearable by the notion that it might not be willed, and that regular people, padding around the periphery, simply faded to transparency in her gaze.
Like the splayed blush of a sweet pea in bloom, Eliza’s features betrayed her every passion and, looking at her now, vulnerable and exposed, her stomach a soft white slab, the pads of her upturned heels yellow and wrinkled, Kate felt intensely, impossibly jealous. Just then, Eliza got to her knees and, putting her hands in front of her, lowered slowly in a plank position, ribs sloped and taunt, eventually settling on her belly to resume the novel. The two lank strands of blonde hair that her fingers kept curving behind her elvish ears and that kept falling forward again, were slightly darker than the rest of her hair and had the slightly greasy hue of oiled oak. Her beauty was transactional, Kate surmised; every time she searched out that face, she felt more porous, her curiosity more transparent, as Eliza became impenetrable, a rigged labyrinth revealing its secrets only to an invisible inner circle. Suddenly she was the centre of the scene, the magnet to which everything had been drawn, with subconscious intention, suddenly it was she for whom the shadow and light had been artlessly arranged: the pearly gulls diving into polished waters, the arching blue-green tree, the frilled petals, even the little clouds, hooked and fibrous, high up in the limitless sky.
Eliza’s features set her apart, for it seemed she had been made in the image of a monarch, or someone comparably regal; her face glowed, and the sun's light shone through her freckled features even as it absorbed each ray in broad strokes. Her eyebrows were filled with fine, hazelnut hairs and formed two lean arches that pitched generously across almond eyes and completed the jigsaw of her face. Eliza had a book and, when she wasn’t reading it or using it to block the sun, an exquisitely manicured hand drove a slender pencil across the lines of print, underlining sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, making marginal notes. The long, spear-shaped nails were lacquered a plumby red, and the hand itself, slender and white, was weighed down by three rings, alternately set in ruby, sapphire and lapis lazuli. She held the book aside for a moment and surveyed the bay. Her eyes lit upon Kate, to whom she gave a small smile as if to say, I know you’ve been watching. [Eliza would drown in a boating accident two years later; everyone agreed this was tragic, nobody deserved happiness more. Kate, invited, did not attend the funeral]. Steeling herself against the urge to avert her gaze, Kate smiled back. It was lopsided, guilty, an open admission of her tactless voyeurism.
After regarding the rest of the bay for a few minutes, arresting her gaze here and there to assert that the attention she had paid to Eliza was merely coincidental, lest the girl watch, Kate returned the baroque cylinders carefully to their case. She settled a little deeper into her chair and, after glancing once more at the girl, her pale skin now a series of disconnected splotches against the red towel, tried to settle her trembling eyelids into sleep.
Looking past her reflection, a hunched figure with knotted fingers, the outline of a leaf visible amidst thinning hair, she could see the asphalt on the driveway remained tacky from the day's heat. There were only a few clouds tonight, wispy crescents drifting in from the north. The road, curving across low hills, reminded her of a river slick with tar, lashing out across the hilly trail in venomous strokes. She thought of Eliza then, and all time spanning the distance between this precise moment and that innocent summer day many years ago. It seemed that an entire lifetime had passed between that space, or several, and watching her reflection now, saw the scrolled corner of her lips slant upwards, meaningless at this stage: nobody to woo, no one upon whom she could impose her aged expressions of melancholy, or entice with tragic mystique. Kate wondered suddenly which was more real: the girl reading in the gloss of memory, or the scattered marrow that is all the earth would ever retain of her. Would it matter? In the dusk of her life now, she realized, inner and outer lives cannot be lived in synchronization, cannot benefit from the stillness of a unified personality. The boundary between the two, amorphous as it was, defined only by fuzzy feelings of detachment and responsibility, was where Kate had spent most of her ill-fitting life: suffocating in some places, sagging in others. She stepped back from the glass and watched her reflection dissolve into the darkness.