A woman whom I had loved, at one time deeply, and whose husband I had some years earlier accused wrongly of racism – hoping to demonstrate the tyranny of the man she had chosen over me – this woman, pink with wine, led me late one night to the edge of a lake in Michigan, both of us drunk, though she more so, and lay on the dock and asked me to wrap my body around hers.
Her husband, a man I admired and pitied for his overweening ambition (he hoped to be president of a small Eastern European country and now traveled abroad with bodyguards) was up at the house, asleep in their bed. Earlier this same evening, the evening of the dock, he had received word that his business had been purchased for $40 million and wept like a child, and spoke to us with the fragile grace of a dictator and now slept, peacefully, while his wife, my friend, a woman long accustomed to shaping her life to his coups, curled under a tarp and pressed her bottom against me and announced how important it was that I was friends with her husband, how he needed good friends, then suggested we take our clothes off and swim in the lake.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Nothing’s going to happen. This is not what you’re thinking.”
We had spent much of the evening discussing his fabulous successes (as we always did) and made no mention of her dark moods, her failed efforts to paint so much as a self-portrait, her assorted alternative therapies, which had come to seem, to both of us, without acknowledgment, elaborate self-deceits.
The lake showed the sheen of wet tar. The canoes tied off nearby made hollow thuds as their hulls hit. I was shivering cold, but refused to rub myself against her body, not because of any moral qualm (if anything the iniquity appealed to me) but because I had lost desire. This was my new secret, which replaced the old secret of my lust for her. I felt ashamed. I had wanted her for so many years, dependably, every time I saw her. And now I could think only of the wine, sour on her tongue, her lips seeming thin and stingy, her hair once dyed a vivid blond, now drossy and threaded with gray, so that when she coaxed me finally into the water, it was as a tribute to her vanished allure, to the capabilities she once held, though now, under the thick stars, her breasts hung like udders and her backside appeared broad and waxy. We let the cold water stir around us, shrivel us, and emerged as if we had passed some mandatory test.
Is there no sadder transfer than desire given over to pity? Which of our rituals accedes so neatly to sorrow? An image hangs here in my head of this woman who might have been my wife, a blue spirit chained to a man of bright red assurances, staggering over mossy rocks, the bottoms of her feet tender against the edges, and slipping, away from herself, away from me, and I am seized by a terrible thrilling secret: she will not be happy, not for the rest of her life.