The eroticism of train travel. For Brennan it went back to the movies, to Hitchcock and North by Northwest. That final cut to the Twentieth Century Limited plunging into the tunnel at the very moment Cary Grant plunged (off-screen) into Eva Marie Saint. It was his first double entendre, and if he hadn’t grasped its mechanics—not then, not yet—he could tell by his father’s soft chuckle that it was about something more than trains.
Half-a-century later, he stood on the outbound platform above Charles Circle, his back turned to the hospital he’d just left. His doctor had referred him to a specialist there, and to forego the arterial tangle surrounding the hospital, he’d taken the train. The specialist diagnosed a bleeding disorder, a malformation of the capillaries, which magnified the risk of what she called “a cerebral event” but about which she could do nothing. As he weighed how and how much to tell his wife Beth, his attention was drawn to a slender woman walking away from him into the wintry sunshine. She looked about his age and wore a short jacket, jeans, and high leather boots. The effect was unexpectedly pleasing. He looked around the platform and realized that most of the women waiting there wore these same tall boots; and whether or not the afternoon’s diagnosis had simply heightened his susceptibility, this seemed a sudden miracle to him, and as the train pulled into the station, he was heartened not only by this discovery, but by the chance that other such discoveries still awaited him, even at his age, by a death-defying sense of sexual possibility.
He took a seat at the east end of the compartment. The doors hissed shut and as the train moved along the river and then descended under Cambridge, he counted clockwise all the pairs of boots, and when he reached a pair at the opposite end of the car, he looked up and there she was. Moira. Moira Craig. Blood rushed in his ears, flooding his fragile capillaries. He glanced away and wondered if she’d seen him.
Nearly twenty years had passed since he’d last seen her; it was a wonder he recognized her at all. He was approaching sixty now, which meant that she was, too, and like his, her hair had gone gray, but in a striking, silvery way. In their time together, she’d been almost zaftig, luxuriously ripe, and given to referring to herself as “a big girl.” Now she looked lean, reduced, as if the older woman had been carved out of the younger one, like Michelangelo’s angel released from in its prison of marble. She’d become, he realized, rather like Beth. Yet one of the things he’d most adored about her was the pleasure she took in her body, how much she’d enjoyed herself. And though her new shape was, no doubt, better for her and made the world an easier place, he couldn’t help but take it personally, as if she’d cast off not only her old self but him along with it.
They’d met in court. Both had been summoned for jury duty and wound up on the same panel, one assigned seat apart. Something in her full frank mouth and the direct way she answered the lawyers’ questions drew him to her, and it seemed strangely urgent that she know how beautiful she was; he suspected she didn’t know, and he wanted to give this to her, bestow it upon her. After questioning by the court and counsel, they were both excused—she because she was a lawyer, specializing in “family law,” and he because his wife had once been treated by a partner of the defendant doctor—and together they walked to the elevator. When the doors shut, he took a breath and said, “You’re very beautiful.” She turned to look at him, skeptically, appraisingly. Then she said, “Well, I wouldn’t kick myself out of bed for eating crackers.” They rode the rest of the way down in silence—having said what he said, he had nothing left to say—but as they stepped out of the elevator and toward their regularly scheduled lives, she asked, “Would you like to?”
“Eat crackers.” She stared at him bluntly. “Would you like that?”
It was a game he’d never played outside his head, and he moved tentatively, intoxicated by the notion that this woman, this beautiful stranger, could be attracted to him, much less bold enough to make her desire known in this most public of places.
“I’m married,” he said.
“Yes, that was established in court.” She didn’t blink. “So what about it?”
“Why me?” As in a dream, he let it play out.
“You’ve just been vetted by two very thorough lawyers.”
“And they threw me out.”
“But what makes you think—” He paused. “I mean, how do you know I’m not—”
“A creep? A wolf in sheep’s clothing?”He nodded.
“Because I know. I knew right away. I saw it. Something in your face, your eyes.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
That was a Monday. Mid-afternoon Wednesday they met at a restaurant in the city to negotiate the ground rules. They were the only customers, and in lieu of lunch, she went straight to dessert: a slice of carrot cake topped with a tiny carrot fashioned out of orange and green icing. She said she had neither the taste nor the time for marriage; if she wanted to be married, she’d be married. There’d be no strings attached. All she required was not to be taken for granted. That was her sole condition. His was that no one get hurt, that no damage be done. As they banged out the terms, the rules of engagement, they held hands on the tabletop, the pads of their thumbs pressed together. With her other hand, she whittled at the edges of her cake until all that remained was a thin wedge with the little carrot on top, and when she’d finished that, she asked, “Do we have a deal?”
They walked from the restaurant to her apartment. She led him through the building, until they reached a glass door. He followed her past a security guard, a gurgling fountain, and a health club. She opened another set of doors with the swipe of a plastic card. They stepped into an elevator, all gilt and mirrors, that took them up and up to the eleventh floor. He didn’t know where to put his eyes; wherever he looked, there they were, the two of them, still bundled in their winter coats. He imagined unwrapping her, imagined her body under all those layers, imagined how she’d move and sound and taste. She led him down a carpeted hallway. Her key turned in the lock with a metallic crunch.
The sudden fragrance and humidity of her apartment. She went into the bathroom. He took off his shoes. A Georgia O’Keeffe calendar hung on the kitchen wall; a dark labial iris hovered over the month of January where she’d circled the day with a purple felt-tipped pen. A floor-to-ceiling window ran the length of the living room, where he watched the steaming city spread out below until she was ready for him.
The surprises of her body. The wealth of her. Her elegant throat, the arch of her foot, the muscle in her back. A magnified sensuality, fleshy and fleshly. As they lay on her bed, facing another big window and the darkening sky, she catalogued her favorite features—the curve of her hip, the dip of her waist, the roundness of her breasts—and as his fingertips traced what she described, her voice, her sensible, demure voice, registered every touch. Slipping inside her, he watched her face, her lips cinching into a tight little o, then relaxing into a broad, open smile. Outside of bed, she would never allow her mouth such vulnerability. She shimmered with sweat, slippery under his hands, in his arms, and as he moved to meet her movements, she reached a great letting go, a long, full-throated scream, a freeform aria. It was something beyond his experience or understanding, a phenomenon like a fit, a seizure, a current running through the afternoon.
He didn’t delude himself. He knew there was nothing peculiar to him or what he did that evoked this response, no blessings of anatomy or talent or technique. He was merely its occasion, the way the twenty-fifth of December is always Christmas, whether or not it snows, and he felt lucky and grateful to connect to this current. He was awed by it, by her, and afterward, trudging back through the city, his chin and cheeks rubbed rosy between her thighs, he carried the echo of her scream in his head. It seemed separate from the woman in the jury box, the divorce lawyer, foreign yet somehow the truest thing about her.
They met like this half a dozen times and always in the afternoon. On his sixth visit, everything changed. Now there were pictures. Her bedroom walls were crowded with old family photographs—a mélange of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and blurry pets; baby pictures; tricycles and training wheels; First Communion dresses and braces. She stepped out of her skirt as if nothing were different.
“What’s all this?” he asked, pointing past her.
“All this?” She glanced over her bare shoulder and back at him. “My family is what all this is. It’s where I come from, who I come from, who I am. You have a problem with that?” For the first time, she looked hurt.
“I didn’t say it was a problem,” he said quickly. “I just wonder if maybe there’s a better place, is all.”
“A better place for what? For them? For us?” She took off her bra while, behind her, her parents forked wedding cake into each other’s mouths. “Where else did you have in mind?”
He had no answer. Uneasily, he undressed. He suspected that she’d put these pictures back where they’d always been; that she’d stashed them away in anticipation of his first few visits; that he’d yet to earn that level of intimacy, an intimacy that went deeper than sex, but that now she felt comfortable enough to restore them to their places and he to his place among them. It was like taking him home to meet the folks. He felt their eyes upon him.
In bed, his attention snagged on a picture propped up against a lamp on the nightstand, and he went soft inside her. It was a color photograph in a fraying red and green cardboard frame: a little girl, maybe four years old, sitting on the lap of a department-store Santa Claus and looking displeased, not with Santa but with something or someone outside the frame. She stared past the camera with a wary expression, and her sudden presence ignited a panic in Brennan, the realization that the woman he was fucking was a person with a history and inevitable emotional expectations, notwithstanding her protests to the contrary, and he knew that if he didn’t end this now, he’d do greater harm than he was sure he’d already done.
He wrote her a letter, taking great pains to choose the right stationery, the right ink, even the right postage stamp. He said he thought it best—kindest—to quit while they were ahead, before any damage was done and anyone got hurt. He made no mention of her photos.
She phoned the next day and asked to see him—one more time. They met at the restaurant where it all began, where they’d come to terms, gotten to yes. Again, it was mid-afternoon, and again, they had the place to themselves. When the waitress came to take their orders, Moira told her they needed more time. Left alone, she said she didn’t want to hear his reasons, she hadn’t come to argue. She simply wanted him to tell her to her face that he didn’t want to go to bed with her anymore.
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” he said. “It’s that I can’t.” She watched his face, quietly incredulous, as if he’d turned up an unbeatable poker hand and she knew, but couldn’t prove, that he was cheating. Then stupidly, he said, “We can still be friends.”
“Oh, my God.” She performed an open-mouthed double take. “Don’t you know that’s the girl’s line?” She was crowding forty, a partner in one of the city’s largest law firms, and still she called herself a girl. A big girl.
He said, “We can be and we are.”
“You want to be my friend?” He knew she was saying that he was either a child or a criminal, but he couldn’t tell which until he touched her hand and she snatched it away. She looked horrified. “Don’t you dare.”
“Moira,” he said. “Don’t be this way.”
“What way?” She sat with her back to the entrance.
She leaned closer to him, gripping the edge of the table. “What is it you want? You want me to admire your character, your nobility, your kindness? Is that it? ‘Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done? Something like that?”
“No, Moira, that’s not—”
“Tears then? You want to watch me cry?” She sat back and it occurred to him that he’d never seen her cry, never seen her parallel park, whistle, get drunk. “You wouldn’t know what to do with tears.” Her chair scraped the floor and she stood up. “Remember: it was you that walked away.”
She started for the entrance. He called her name. Halfway to the door, she stopped and slowly turned to face him.
“It was you who said no strings,” he said.
She did another double take for the benefit of some invisible audience, and he heard laughter coming from the kitchen, women’s laughter. “And you believed me?”
That night, in bed, he told Beth. She listened as if he were describing some movie, engaged purely on a plot level. She plied him with questions, mostly mechanical, practical, logistical. When did they do it? Where did they do it? How often? How? He told her about everything, everything but the scream. Yet she seemed so detached from the enormity of the event that he was almost disappointed by her reasonableness—until she asked, “Are you in love with her?” No. “Were you in love with her?” No, he was in love with her. She didn’t respond. Her breathing was measured and deep, and he thought she might have fallen asleep. Then she said, “You can’t even do a cliché right.” She turned to face him in the dark. “You child. You call that an affair?”
“I didn’t call it anything.”
“That’s not an affair,” she said. “An affair is passion. An affair is the irresistible impulse.” She spoke with unnerving authority. “An affair is silky afternoon fucking in some pay-by-the hour motel room, the blow job in the parking garage, the hand job at the tango palace, the foot job under the dinner table.”
“All these jobs,” he said. “You make it sound like a fucking career.”
“I’ll tell you what it’s fucking not,” she said. “It’s not ironing out the fine print over carrot cake. That—” She lay her head back down on her pillow. “I don’t know what that is.”
Neither spoke for a while.
“You know, there’s something to be said for deception,” she said, calmer now. “I mean, there’s a certain chivalry in deception, discretion.”
“Would you rather I hadn’t told you? Is that what you want? Would you rather not know?”
Softly, almost inaudibly, she uttered a grudging “No.” Then she said, “Christ, it’s after two and I’ve got to go to work in the morning.”
“I do, too,” he said. “It’s been a long day. A long night. A hard day’s night.”
“Well, it’s been a hard day’s night for me, too, and I didn’t get to fuck anybody.”
He offered no reply to this.
Then she said, “Tell me about it.”
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me everything.”
“I told you everything.”
“Tell me again,” she said. “From the beginning.”
And so he told her, as he would tell her again and again from time to time over the next twenty years and always at her request. With each retelling, it seemed less real to him, a bedtime story, a fairy tale. The princess on the eleventh floor. The labyrinthine palace. The four corners of the room and the four corners of the bed. The landscape of the bed and the landscape of her body. Rapunzel, Rapunzel. Over time it became less about the affair and more about them, about their marriage and their own brand of intimacy. Yet without the scream, the story held no shape for him, made no sense, but to share it would be an even greater betrayal; by its very rarity and hiddenness it was precious to him.
Now here, on this train, deep underground, he regarded his hands, his opposable thumbs—what separated him, Moira, and all their fellow passengers from the rest of the animal kingdom. He looked down the length of the car to where she sat reading, one leg crossed over the other, one boot rocking in rhythm with the ride. The thrum of blood in his ears got louder, and as they bumped along, a strange nostalgia overtook him. The miracle of her presence, a cerebral event, a sort of afterlife. He had to speak to her.
At Central Square, the doors opened with a sigh, discharging passengers on either side of her. Brennan stood and moved down the aisle. Moira lifted her face from her book, a Penguin paperback of The Portrait of a Lady, and frowned, but it was too late to stop now. He had to complete the gesture, wherever it might lead.
“It is you,” he said. The train began to move and he grabbed hold of the high metal rail.
“Last time I checked, yes.” As with their first meeting and his first words, he didn’t know what else to say and left it to her to fill in the blank. “And you still seem to be you.”
“I was afraid you wouldn’t recognize me,” he said. “I went and got old on you.” “On me?” She slipped the book into her big black leather purse. “It’s got nothing to do with me. You just got old, is all.” Perhaps sensing that this was too harsh, even for her, she added, “We both did.”
“No,” he said. “Not you. You seem to have gotten younger.” No reply. He nodded toward the empty seat beside her. “Would you rather I didn’t?”
“I said, would you rather—”
“I heard you,” she said. “Would I rather you didn’t what?”
Again, she frowned. “It’s called public transportation.”
He sat down, close enough that he could feel the warmth of her thigh against his. “You’re traveling in the wrong direction.”
“And how would you know that?”
“Because you live back there.” He gestured toward the other end of the compartment. “Remember?”
“That was then,” she said. “This is now.”
“You know, I think of you.” He looked down at the floor, at the pointed toes of her boots. “From time to time I think—”
“Your wife,” she said, and he lifted his eyes to hers, but where he expected to find the old steel, he saw something like hurt, a twinge of sympathy. A note of concern, even tenderness, entered her voice. “I’ve forgotten her name. How is she?”
“Beth,” he said. “Beth’s still Beth.”
She smoothed her palms over her denimed thighs. “Well, then, that makes three of us.”
As the train braked for Harvard Square, he felt a pressure behind his eyes, a throb, and he was afraid he might cry. He shut them, and as in the elevator plunging down through the courthouse two decades earlier, the gravity of the compartment increased and he was again overcome by the urge to tap into the current that ran through their half-dozen afternoons together, jumping space and time to here and now and always. “Oh, you are beautiful,” he murmured. “You are.” When he opened them, she was watching him with the same wary expression as the girl in the Santa Claus picture, and he realized that the girl had, of course, been Moira, and in the alchemy of the moment he saw himself as the figure standing outside the frame; her gaze had been trained on him—in this moment, in all their moments—and he felt a sickening sense of failure and shame.
“Forgive me,” he said and lifted a hand to her face
She screamed. It poured out of her in a torrent, bleeding into the screech of the brakes, so that he couldn’t tell where one began or the other ended, flooding the compartment, squeezing out all other sound, eating up the air, and leaving him breathless.
The subway ground to a halt. She was on her feet and then she was outside, walking alongside the train, taking long confident strides in her high boots, staring straight ahead. When she was out of sight, he looked down the aisle at the remaining passengers, maybe a dozen of them, who regarded him with the bland curiosity of the faces that had crowded Moira’s bedroom walls, only this time he could feel their eyes on him long after he’d left the train.