(Excerpt from One Hundred Open Houses)
Easter came exactly when it should that year, on the second Sunday of April. My two older children, Max and Ben stayed in Europe where they were backpacking before starting new jobs. The younger two, Maggie and Harry, were going to visit their father with my blessing. I had toyed with the idea of baking an entire Easter meal and taking it to my mother (a “cooking at 5 a.m. and schlepping “ marathon I had practiced during my Mother Teresa phase) but wisely I settled on a candy and flowers delivery. It was odd having a holiday without all the usual preparations. I had a new understanding about buying food. Food that had to be prepared brought with it responsibility. What good was it to go out of your way to select Swiss chard with gorgeous voluptuous fronds from the greengrocer if they were going to wilt and wrinkle in the crisper drawer? I didn’t want to dispose of an entire Smithfield ham but I did select four Empire apples to bake in the toaster oven.
During the days of Holy Week - Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday and Holy Thursday, Father O’Connell announced that there would be communal confession and a general absolution after mass. On Holy Thursday, I stayed after morning mass to be a part of the general absolution. It seemed to me this was an opportunity to clear the debit column on my character. They had a sign at the entrance that invited all prodigals to return to the church, no questions asked. Almost exactly the same sign they had at the supermarket about bringing back unsatisfactory food. The idea of erasing decades of mortal and venial sins with a sweep of the hand was irresistible. For once the Catholic Church had marketing smarts. I thought we would all stay in our pews remembering our sins or murmuring under our breath and then there would be a general absolution and we’d go home.
That was not how it happened. Father O’Connell leaned against a wall near the altar and to my surprise, a line formed. Each person walked up to him and recited what they had done in a soft voice. I certainly wasn’t going to recite a forty-year sin catalogue of adultery, hateful thoughts, hateful deeds, cheating, stealing, sloth, gluttony, indecent thoughts, murderous thoughts in front of that line of sincere parishioners. I prepared a little speech, as if I were going to receive a People’s Choice Award. Father, I’ve returned to church after a long absence and my most serious transgressions are the sins of criticism and judgment. As if he knew I was holding back a wheelbarrow full of worse sins, Father O’Connell responded like the prince of the church he was: I absolve you of each and every one of your sins. Go in peace and God bless you. He had already told us the penance: the penance I’m giving all of you, he had announced earlier, is to say: Lord, remember me. Like the good robber on the cross next to Jesus. I kept chanting, Lord, remember me, lord remember me, for the rest of the day. It was a good mantra. I left the church of St. Paul the Apostle more lighthearted than I’d felt in a long time. I like St. Paul, the Apostle. He was the one that gave up a complicated and sophisticated lifestyle to do God’s work. The other apostles just gave up fishing. I love the dramatic way Paul saw the light. It’s a way we all wish we could see the light. One big whoosh of understanding came upon him while he was walking on the road. It was so strong, it knocked him down. His teachings are often so comforting as to seem untrue. He wrote letters to entire communities like the Corinthians and told them that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. What an idea!
Even though technically, I was supposed to repent, I felt no remorse about the adultery. If the man called today, I might still do whatever he said. It was an attraction that was outside the boundaries of common sense, decency or loyalty. It was the kind of “what in this world could keep me from experiencing this” attraction that went on in the movies. It would have been hypocritical to confess, father I committed adultery a long time ago and I’m deeply sorry. The lover had superseded my husband and could have been my husband had he not been distracted by success.
Responding to my wedding announcement the man had sent me a note congratulating me and saying, get this: it would be wonderful to get a glimpse of you. No one had ever said that to me before or since. Could we have lunch? He had put his private number in the letter. We met at the Café des Artistes, a sophisticated restaurant and bar near Columbus Circle. After three-hours of picking at our food but guzzling our wine, we stayed put long after the lunch hours were over. I visited the ladies room four times because of the wine. He too, left the table repeatedly. Because he was well known, the maitre d’ left us alone. When he went to the men’s room, two couples lingering at the next table asked me if it was really he and I said it was. I was wearing a fur bonnet that tied under my chin. That sounds excessive but it was just right for my face during those years. It made me look glamorous for the one and only season in my life. A big fur bonnet framing the eyes of someone with a high fever had a Dr. Zhivago kind of drama. I was dressed in a black wool gabardine suit with a short double-breasted jacket and an a-line skirt. I had bought the suit to look business-like and reliable for an appearance before the design board in the village where we were seeking a variance for our new home. Those Presbyterians would have been surprised to know the same suit was being used to unbalance a former lover. What a suit!
“What are you doing now?” he asked when the second bottle of wine was opened. “Recovering,” I said. I thought it was just a clever answer but that’s exactly what I was doing. Recovering from the shock of marriage. Recovering from twenty-three days in Tuscany with a moody stranger.
“I mean job wise? What are you working at?”
“I write ads for a department store chain.”
“Really? What kind of ads? You mean clothes? Tell me an ad you’ve written,” he said smiling.
“I just wrote an ad yesterday for very thick carpeting and the headline was, ‘your friends will think you’ve struck it rich’.” I had been ashamed of that headline but now it seemed the perfect thing to engage him. The wine and the occasion acted like a truth serum.
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “What else?”
“I write Z ads, too, that are very callously directed toward people who don’t have a lot of money.”
“Z ads? Tell me a Z ad.”
I was thrilled to tell this very cultured man every nuance of my hard sell copy and I knew it made me more precious in his eyes. “Just the coats you want for spring,” I said slowly and deliberately, as if reciting poetry. “Real wool, with generous balmacaan sleeves. On sale now. Just when you need them most.”
“Why do you say real wool? Is there fake wool?”
“There’s reprocessed wool. The buyer said so. And knowing him, it’s probably reprocessed wool.”
“Do people still buy Spring coats?” he asked.
“Older, ethnic people do.” I was memorizing the way his hair fell over his forehead in one silken swath. “ They wear them to church and also when they have to go to a luncheon. Maybe to play bridge.” I had no idea why people bought spring coats and where they wore them but I felt like a little facile information girl, with good facts streaming in to my brain like ticker tape. “Some people buy them as regular winter coats because they’re not so heavy when you drive a lot.”
This seemed all the information he wanted on Z ads and he stopped talking and looked at me. In the movies there are long close ups of people looking deeply at each other but in real life it’s hard to hold someone’s gaze. I thought he was going to ask me about my new husband and I would just have said, He’s at work. That’s how overwhelmed I was by this encounter. We held the gaze and after a while it became so intimate I could feel my body going limp. He asked for the check.
“You’re a Z ad whiz,” he said and I knew we were going to go to bed that day. Who would have guessed that a callous headline would result in my committing adultery? Now I believed the lesson I had heard that we never know the fragile threads that lead to our desires. In the cab to his apartment, we kissed repeatedly and then, just as we had done in the old days, when he was an ordinary man and not the celebrated man of letters, we melted into each other in an embrace that held all our wistfulness over how things had worked out for us.
I returned to my marriage apartment like a zombie. I knew that had he asked me to leave that day without a backward glance, I would have done so, but he had to go to California the next day to speak at an event.
I was doing freelance work at home and had a typewriter that I used pushed against a wall near one of the living room windows. I typed facing the wall all the next day. I typed ad copy for miniature-electroplated charms depicting the signs of the zodiac and summer vegetables. Choose all twelve signs, I wrote in the copy. Choose adorable miniature corn and carrots, celery and tomatoes, too. The perfect stocking stuffers and at this price, you will want them for everyone on your list. I wrote really well all day. I felt a new freedom that allowed the words to flow out and did a week’s work in a few hours. The psychiatrist who had his office one floor below came to my door and asked if I could type somewhere else because he could hear it in his office and it was disturbing his patient. He said he could hear every key go down. “Why do you type so hard?” he asked. His voice came from far away. Okay, I said, not knowing what I had agreed to. Fifteen minutes later he came up again and said he could still hear it.
“Hear what?” I asked.
“Hear the typing. Hear you typing very hard. Could you possibly move to another part of the apartment?”
“Of course.” I finally got it. But there was no place else to move so I stopped typing.
At one time, in popular song and literature, women expressed their love obsession by saying they “ached for his touch.” I wouldn’t have believed that was possible but it happened to me. I felt a complete ongoing ache that was almost paralyzing. It was as if my arms were configured in a phantom embrace and I was stuck in that yearning and nothing but the actual embrace could ease my limbs. Nothing as thrilling or interesting had happened before or since. We met several times over the next few months, once at Ruby Foos. Another time at the Four Seasons. He went away again for an extended work-related stay. By the time he returned, almost a year later, I had been carried by circumstances to an expensive suburb. I finally settled down and turned to the first page of The Joy of Cooking.