Read Twilight Child Online

Authors: Warren Adler

Tags: #Fiction, General, Psychological, Legal

Twilight Child (2 page)

 She had no
one to confide in, of course. No one to whom she could express her fears and
doubts, or even to merely report her conversations with Peter. There had been
relationships with young couples at the beginning of her marriage to Chuck, but
with Chuck's long absences, those had gone out the window. She had felt like a
third wheel, which also considerably dampened her enthusiasm for socializing.
Then bringing up Tray alone became a more acceptable excuse for her isolation.
The easy way out was to fall on the mercy of her in-laws, whose agenda was a
lot different from her own. Charlie would, of course, be appalled by her
growing friendship with Peter. To him, widows mourned, especially Frances, who
had married his golden-haired prince. It wasn't just a matter of wearing black,
which she had dutifully done for a few weeks, it was also a question of wearing
an appropriate expression of inconsolable grief. She was not very good at that.
For Charlie, she knew, the tangible symbols of her mourning would never, could
never, be enough. And yet, he might have prevented Chuck from leaving home and
dying. But he had not raised a finger to stop him. He hadn't even tried.

 She might
have confided in Molly. Between them had always lain the possibility of real
friendship and understanding. But the opportunity always fell short of the
wish. Molly, after all, had given her life to Charlie, and one could never be
sure how one's confidences might be distorted.

 But when
Peter asked her out for the evening, she invariably refused.

 “It's my
son,” she told him apologetically. It was only partly true. She could always
have dropped him off at her in-laws'. But then they would be curious about her
absence, and she was not very good at telling lies.

 “What about
weekends?”

 “I really
can't.” Of course, she wanted to. And she hated the burden of fear and guilt.

 “Why?” After
a while, it became his refrain.

 “Bring your
son, then,” he had begged her.

 That would
hardly have been a solution. Tray would spill the beans to Charlie in two
seconds flat.

 “It's just
too soon, Peter.”

 She didn't
explain about Charlie and Molly. Perhaps Peter would think her too weak, too
dependent. He just might be right about that. Then, of course, there was the
chance of familiarity breeding contempt. It was nice and safe to have these
cozy little lunches in the cafeteria. She could keep herself guarded so that he
might not truly know the dimensions of her inadequacy. In that way, she could
avoid disappointment.

 “Then when
would it not be too soon?” he had asked.

 “I'm really
not sure.”

 “Just to go
out. A simple date. Maybe just a walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon.”

 “You don't
understand about Sundays. Sundays are with my in-laws.”

 “Tell them
you're with a friend.”

 “There aren't
any,” she admitted with some trepidation.

 “Yes there
is,” he protested. “Me.”

 “I can't tell
them that.”

 “So make
someone up.”

 She hadn't
answered. But he had triggered her resolve. Despite her inability to be a truly
good liar, she did make someone up, a friend at work, and she gave her a name.
Sally. A nice innocuous name. When she was with Charlie and Molly, she would
make sure to talk about her friend Sally. She had even given her a bit of
history, a widow with one child, like Frances. They had a lot in common.

 “You must
bring her around,” Molly told her. “It's nice for you to have friends.
Especially now.”

 “Do you
good,” Charlie had agreed. “Keep your mind off things.” How could she explain
to him that her entire life was not absorbed by grief?

 But the
lunches continued. Then, as Sally became more real and her friendship with
Peter deepened, Frances would spend an hour after work with him in a bar, which
meant that either Molly or Charlie had to pick Tray up from school, a chore
they both welcomed. There were other worries in that. Charlie never missed an
opportunity to mythologize his golden prince to Tray. By then, Chuck had become
a heroic figure in Charlie's view and surely in Tray's mind, a man of true courage
who had risked his life and limb for his loved ones and died covered with glory
in a foreign land. What protection could she muster against that? Certainly not
the truth—that Chuck had been a neglectful father who had not wanted his own
son, who had wished to be as far away from family responsibility as possible.

 “Why can't
you stay?” Peter would press. “We can have dinner.”

 “I've
explained that.” Actually her explanations had been sketchy, but he hadn't
pressed her for more than she was willing to tell. She had not, at that point,
painted an unflattering picture of Chuck. He was simply her young husband who
had died far away from home and had left her a $20,000 life insurance policy
and in-laws who doted on her son and treated her with a little too much
concern.

 “You have
your own life.”

 “It's not as
simple as that.”

 It wasn't
exactly an argument. They had already begun to hold hands under the table.

 “Is it me?”

 “Of course
not.”

 “Then why?”

 “I have
obligations, responsibilities.” It was much safer to be vague and general.

 He was far
less reticent and much more specific than she. His ex-wife, a professor of
mathematics at Syracuse University, the area where he had been brought up and
where his parents still lived, had not wanted a family, had preferred childless
independence. He had thought that was an idea that time would dissipate. It
hadn't, and soon she was advocating open marriage, which, to him, had been a
devastating suggestion.

 “Imagine
that,” he had told her. “She had absolutely no concept about the meaning of
marriage as a commitment, a solemn bond. I mean, you don't just
lend
yourself to the institution. The lines are very clear, honed by years of
societal acceptance. Could you imagine advocating a group marriage? It's
humanly impossible.” He had winced, showing the residue of pain.

 “Did she give
you a bad time of it?”

 “To put it
mildly. One day, I came home and there she was, in bed with a student.”

 “How awful.”

 “Neither of
them made any attempt to move. You know what she said? ‘Stop being a child.'
Imagine that.”

 “Did you love
her?”

 “I thought I
did.”

 “And then?”

 He had looked
at her for a long time before answering.

 “It's another
thing you just don't lend yourself to. If it's there, it's there all the way.”

 There was no
mistaking his intensity, and she had sipped her beer to avoid any further
references to that subject. There was no question about his intentions. It was
her own that were confusing. Despite her widowhood and the long months of
loneliness before, she still felt married, and the daily proximity to her
possessive in-laws reinforced the feeling.

 “There's
nothing worse than being alone,” he said.

 “Sometimes
you can be with somebody and still be alone.”

 “I wonder
which is worse.”

 “They're both
pretty terrible.”

 She watched
Peter turn the steaks and cough away the smoke. Although he was smart enough to
be an engineer, he was not an expert at barbecuing. But he was tenacious, and
although dinner at his place had taken her by surprise, she was determined to
be sophisticated about it, whatever that meant.

 She sipped
her martini, which was already making her slightly light-headed, listened to
Mozart, sat back in the soft leather chair, and raised her feet to the hassock,
continuing to observe him.

 Peter Graham
was wiry, smaller than Chuck, no more than an inch or two taller than she. His
face was round and a bald spot was spreading on the top of his head, which was
impossible to hide because of his tight curly hair. He wasn't ruggedly handsome
like Chuck, but attractive in a neat, spare way.

 She watched
him come inside in a swirl of smoke and poke around in the dining room, where
he had set an elaborate table. Earlier, he had opened a bottle of red wine to
“let it breathe.” She had had no idea that wine breathed.

 “Are you sure
I can't help?” she called from the den. He had given her explicit instructions
to be a total guest, that it was his party all the way, and she had obeyed
them. Besides, a sense of euphoria was taking possession of her, and the music
and candlelight created the illusion that a magic carpet had spirited her away
from the sober realities of her predicament.

 He came into
the den, bowed, and made a courtly theatrical gesture, offering his arm. She
laughed, rose, felt slightly dizzy for a moment, took his arm, and let him lead
her to the dining room.

 Sitting
across from him, she sipped the full-bodied red wine and ate her charcoaled
steak. She watched the flickering candles cast shadows over his face.

 “This is
beautiful, Peter.”

 He lifted his
wine glass.

 “You're
beautiful,” he said.

 She could not
remember if Chuck had ever told her that. Besides, she hadn't felt beautiful
for a long time.

 “And you're
exaggerating,” she joshed. To her mind, she was far from beautiful. Maybe
pretty, in a well-scrubbed sort of way.

 “Take my word
for it.”

 “I hadn't
expected this, Peter. Your place is wonderful.” It was certainly a long way
from her own cramped little apartment in Dundalk.

 “To tell you
the truth, I was afraid you wouldn't come. I know you said that you would. I
trusted that, of course. But I felt that some unknown force would intervene at
the last moment. Is it really you?”

 “Really me.”
She felt a lump form in her throat. “Whatever do you see in me?” she asked.

 “The future.”

 “Nobody can
see the future,” she told him honestly. She did not yet want to put it into
words.

 Earlier, she
had told Molly and Charlie that she and Sally were going to take in a movie.
They volunteered, of course, to take Tray overnight. “It will do you good,”
Molly had told her. She felt a sudden stab of guilt, which annoyed her. How
dare they intrude? she thought.

 “I'm so happy
that you came,” he said.

 “Bet you say
that to all the girls.” The remark seemed shallow and stupid, which triggered
the old worry about her inadequacy.

 “No. No,
really,” he protested. “I'm not very good with the ladies.” She knew he felt
uncomfortable about having her to dinner at his house. She had assumed that
when he said dinner, it would be at a restaurant. “Please don't feel
pressured,” he assured her. “I just want you to see me on my turf.” A test, she
knew. For her, as well.

 “The steak is
marvelous,” she said, sensing the intensity of his inspection.

 “I can't take
my eyes off you, Frances,” he blurted, the words expelled as if with regret.
“Not from the beginning, from when I first saw you.”

 “Well then,
you need glasses.” She wondered if she had gotten into the habit of
self-deprecation.

 “I wear
contacts,” he said.

 “Really?” She
took another sip of wine and sliced into her steak.

 “I can't
think of anything else,” he said, momentarily confusing her.

 “You can't?
But what?”

 “But you.”

 “Me?” She
smiled. “You have your work.” Her hand swept the room. “Your music. Your books.
Your paintings.” She had none of these.

 “Entertainments,”
he said. “To make up for what's missing.”

 She shrugged,
secretly flattered but suddenly cautious and guarded.

 “Some people
are crazy,” she said, deliberately choosing the light touch. She concentrated
on chewing her steak.

 “Why do you
do that?”

 “Do what?”

 “Put yourself
down.”

 “Do I?”

 “All the
time.”

 She felt a
tingle of belligerence.

 “You do,
too,” she said. “Telling me how bad you are with the ladies.”

 “I am. I'm
all thumbs.”

 “Not with
me.” It wasn't quite true. He blushed often in her presence, and he sometimes
seemed vague and uncomfortable, although she was always catching him looking at
her, following her with his eyes.

 “You're
either very kind or very unobservant.”

 “Maybe a
little confused,” she said. It was, of course, more caution than confusion. Not
to mention being frightened.

 “About what?”

 “You,” she
said, quickly averting her eyes. She finished the wine, and he started to pour
more, but she put her hand over the glass. Her eyes darted around the room, as
if seeking protection. She was beginning to feel defenseless.

 “Do you want
to get me drunk?” she asked.

 “Not so you
don't know what you're doing.”

 “I always
know what I'm doing,” she said. She laughed suddenly. “Now there's a fish story
for you.” She didn't elaborate.

 “God, I'm
happy you're here.”

 “Happy to be
here.”

 Across the
table, he watched her.

 “I'm crazy
about you, Frances.”

 He couldn't
be that, she told herself. Crazy about her? She repeated the words in her mind,
wondering. To put your trust in someone required an enormous act of faith. She
wanted to trust him, yearned to trust him. Hadn't she lied for him about Sally?
Or had it been for herself?

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