tried to concentrate on the six o'clock news while her husband jogged laps through
their living room, dining room, kitchen, and foyer. Carl Arenson weighed almost
two hundred pounds, though exercise kept him massive rather than fat, and when
his wife watched him bounding by, he brought to mind, with his heavy footfalls
and the bulky musculature of his upper back, a stampeding bison. As he swerved
around the furniture, dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants, perspiration darkened
his armpits and glistened through his thinning hair. He panted harder with every
lap, and the harder he panted, the more vividly she recalled how it felt to lie
naked beneath him, the two of them arching, out of breath.|
She shifted on the living room sofa, turned up the volume on the weather report. Clouds swirled over a satellite map of Southern California and sputtered drops of animated rain, the real thing just then beginning to pelt the awnings and roof. Mrs. Arenson had long ago grown accustomed to Carl's habit of exercising indoors during bouts of bad weather, and now the rain glazing the flagstone patio and the clockwork of her husband's jogging intensified her sense of shelter. Libby and Carl had lived together for thirty years.
The top story that night involved a team of French scientists who'd successfully cloned a mouse. The original and its duplicate were shown on a sea of shredded newspaper. The sight of them, jittery and white, made Mrs. Arenson twist her wedding ring around her finger; life's assumptions were up for grabs. Did they grow the clone in a petri dish? Did the cells turn into a rodent overnight? She called for Carl, a professor of applied science at UCLA, to come quickly. There she sat in a comfortable room, remote control at her disposal, and something as small as a mouse's cell threw everything she knew for a loop. Not until halfway through a commercial for -- what was it for, anyway? There were so many quick cuts she couldn't tell -- did she realize that Carl had missed the story. On her way to the kitchen, she noticed the imprints of his running shoes, fresh spoor, stamped into the carpet. She called for him once more, and when he didn't answer, she figured he's gone upstairs to shower and change for dinner.
The second hand of the old kitchen wall clock faintly groaned as it labored upward, then fell silent as it ticked downhill. A pot of rice began to boil over on the stove, froth hissing as it struck the flame. Mrs. Arenson turned off the gas and set the pot on a back burner, still hearing what she at first mistook for the familiar noises of the kitchen. Days later, when she replayed this moment, she couldn't help but wonder at how stubbornly she'd gone about her evening routine, unwilling to hear a sound that, in retrospect, was far more eerie and urgent than those she usually noticed. Perhaps to drown it out, she'd hummed a song that had been in her head since the clock radio woke her that morning. She rummaged through the freezer till she found the broccoli in cheese sauce, cool fog wafting toward her face. As she read the microwave directions, she heard a rasping and saw, out of the corner of her eye, a man slumped on the floor of the foyer. The overhead fixture cast stripes of light across the floral wallpaper, and it was this camouflaging effect she would later blame for not immediately registering the fact that the man was Carl, his body so imploded from pain that whatever had made him robust and mobile no longer belonged to him. Her stomach clenched at the sight of this stranger. She was about to shout for Carl to call the police, but when she heard herself say his name, it was shrill with recognition and pity.
Carl's mouth, as she swooped close, opened wide, and she understood that the air around him had turned solid. She, too, found herself struggling to breathe. Kneeling on the terra cotta-tiles, she cupped his head in her hands, still icy from the freezer. His cheeks, she discovered, were unusually cool, the heat of his temples slipping through her fingers. Mr. and Mrs. Arenson looked at each other, and there passed between them a gust of surprise -- no less terrible because it was shared -- at how quickly the two of them had grown cold. His eyes, she saw, were flaring with reflected light, but the man who gazed through them was receding into some solitary inner distance, his every need irretrievable: to breathe, or speak, or reach for his wife.
A few days after her husband's burial, as she undressed for bed, Mrs. Arenson heard the voices of her son and his fiancee talking downstairs. Cinching her bathrobe, she crept to the landing, where light from the foyer glowed in the stairwell. That morning, Josh had promised to stay with his mother until she adjusted to . . . he was about to say something like "Dad's death," but was stopped from finishing his sentence by the overwrought sense of tact that tended to get the better of him in a crisis. His protectiveness toward his mother, his ready euphemisms -- "passing" instead of "death," "service" instead of "funeral" -- only added to the unreality of Mrs. Arenson's bleary days and sleepless nights. Not to mention the fact that Josh, his woolly hair thinning, shoulders squared as he measured every word, looked disconcertingly like his father. As she leaned over the banister, eavesdropping, she found herself wishing that Josh and his fiancee would fly back home and leave her with the loneliness that having houseguests only postponed.
"This one," Josh was saying, "is almost like a face."
"Oh, right." Deena laughed. "If you were on drugs."
"No, really," he persisted. "Look."
Silence as Deena no doubt leaned forward to examine one of the hundreds of flowers Carl had been in the process of repainting. Nearly five years ago, Mrs. Arenson had casually remarked that the wallpaper in the foyer, with its repetition of a frail violet, now seemed to her too quaint and old-ladyish. And so Carl had begun to repaint them one by one. Some he merely recolored: "Is a yellow violet still a violet?" he'd once asked her from the top rung of a step- ladder, a sable brush gripped in his fist. Others he'd transformed into knobby roses and radiant daisies. Mr. Arenson averaged six or so flowers a month. Bifocals perched on the tip of his nose, he'd dab at the wall with great concentration, using a scrap of cardboard as his palette. Eventually, he graduated from what he jokingly called "your garden-variety flower" to more exotic blossoms: hybiscus, chrysanthemums, dahlias. These were followed by gaudy, ponderous flora that sprang directly, Mrs. Arenson figured, from an imagination that applied science and school administration did little to stimulate.
"What do you think got into him?" asked Deena.
"I guess it was cheaper than buying new wallpaper."
"That's very insightful for a psychotherapist," teased Deena. "But it doesn't do much to explain his motivation. I mean, you have to admit it's a little weird, for all its charm."
"No," said Josh. "I don't have to admit anything of the sort. I think . . . when a man like my father, an average man, does some-thing . . . out of the ordinary, he . . ."
The more Josh faltered, the more tightly Mrs. Arenson gripped the banister, waiting for some remark that might explain the husband whom, until earlier that night, she'd thought she knew. She fought the urge to call for Josh and Deena to come and look at what she'd discovered in Carl's briefcase, to help her decipher the crimped hieroglyphics. Maybe Josh had had experience with such matters in his practice, though her son was the last person she'd dare to ask. She leaned away from the rising light, told herself that no one must know.
Josh said, "You're being. . ."
"You're right, babe. I'm sorry. It's just that, in a house as suburban as this, the slightest eccentricity gets magnified."
Josh admitted that he'd always found his father's pasttime a little strange. "Dad was big on order and decorum. And then this! He got such a kick out of showing the wallpaper to guests, which he'd do the moment they walked in the door. Mom would throw up her hands and groan, 'Carl, please. Not the hothouse!'"
Mrs. Arenson remembered with fresh embarrassment how Paul Nordon, one of Carl's colleagues, had squinted at the flowers, his silence a not-so-subtle judgment. Regardless, Carl continued to point out each bloom with boyish glee, waiting till Nordon finally gave in and grunted with polite appreciation. It sometimes seemed as if the papered walls were a gauntlet visitors had to pass through in order to earn the niceties of socializing: a seat, a drink, a bowl of salted nuts. Although the foyer was a place of countless reunions and partings, of sentiment's formalities, once Carl began to fuss with the wallpaper, it became a room Mrs. Arenson couldn't quite reconcile with the rest of her house, nor with what the years had taught her about her husband's character. Carl's ability to recite the periodic table or explain particle theory to a layperson had been the very thing about him she'd initially found attractive, certain it testified to a pragmatism that matched her own. But the list she'd discovered among her husband's papers, penned in a tiny, obsessive script, had obliterated in an instant her deepest reserves of certainty. And now the flowers, or his impulse to paint them, seemed to play some part.
Earlier that night, while Josh and Deena had noisily prepared dinner downstairs, Mrs. Arenson sat on Carl's side of the bed, his briefcase propped on her lap. She'd already searched through his nightstand and desk drawers for the documents she'd need in order to settle the estate, and for the utility bills she'd have to pay, though she couldn't help but think that a disconnected phone might not be so bad -- all those kind but awkward condolences cut off at the source. It took only a few tries to find the right combination to the briefcase (3,2,1; Carl was so logical!), the latches springing open with a snap. Inside, she found his bifocals, a few complimentary textbooks addressed to Professor Arenson, memos from Paul Nordon about next semester's lab budget, and a small stack of bluebooks the university provided for midterms. She read the compliments Carl had scrawled in the margins -- "good point;" "clear and concise" -- as well as remarks that betrayed his impatience with shoddy scholarship. She thought how odd it was going to be for the students to have their tests returned, an inheritance of notations.
At the bottom of the stack lay a bluebook marked "Instructor Only," which Mrs. Arenson took to be the key to the midterm's essay and multiple-choice questions. Instead, she flipped it open to find page after page of stuttering numbers and mysterious acronyms she at first mistook for some lengthy, complex formula. The ballpoint had been pressed into the paper with great force, leaving impres-sions on the pages beneath, and before she fully grasped what she was seeing, Mrs. Arenson tensed at the sight of the handwriting, a penmanship so stiff and precise, she suspected the marks had hurt the hand that made them.
Each entry yielded a male name -- Casey, Philip, Mike -- none of which appeared to belong to Carl's students. These were followed by abbreviations for hair and eye color: Bl., brn., blk. There were telephone numbers, estimates of weight and age, and what Mrs. Arenson concluded, after several alarming appraisals, had to be the measurement of each man's penis, followed by adjectives such as "thick" or "uncut." A number of descriptions -- "Portwine birthmark," "Walks with limp" -- were spelled out unmistakably. Carl seemed to have not only noticed but doted upon the way each of these bodies deviated from perfection, a fact even more frightening to Mrs. Arenson than the possibility that her husband had pursued some unattainable male ideal. His desire for men either exempted her from failure (how could she give him something she wasn't?), or meant that she had failed completely, driving him to men. She recalled with momentary relief how Carl had made love while staring at her with the same intensity that claimed him when he painted, but then she wondered if he'd found it possible to fantasize about men with his eyes wide open. Her hands shook, her throat closed. Mrs. Arenson peered down at the pages and felt as though she were falling headlong into the well of her husband's briefcase. When Deena yelled up to ask where she kept the placemats, she found herself saying in a stricken voice, "I don't understand what you're asking."
"Never mind, Mom," shouted Josh. "They were right in front of us the whole time."
Dr. Fernandez swabbed the inside of Mrs. Arenson's mouth, cupping her chin in his palm, his touch a reminder of the tenderness she'd have to do without. "I'm not sure why you're insisting on this, Libby" he said, labeling the sample to be sent to the lab. She assured him she had her reasons, and the doctor, who had treated both her and Carl since they were married, didn't persist. "Use protection," he warned her, averting his eyes. Libby slid off the examination table, the sheet of clean paper crinkling beneath her, and grabbed her handbag.
A few days later she received the call. Her relief at the results was instantly replaced by a fretful investigation of her husband's pockets, his phone and date books, the folders in his filing cabinet. Josh and Deena had been gone almost a week -- the house was hers at last -- but Mrs. Arenson couldn't shake the expectation that she'd come across some sign of Carl every time she turned a corner or opened a door: the spread pulled back on his side of the bed, a dish he'd left to soak in the sink. This reflex at first saddened, then angered her. She retrieved the bluebook from her husband's briefcase, ran her finger down the page, and stopped at a twenty-four-year-old brunet. Her choice was more or less arbitrary, though her wish to ask questions was as strong as lust. Dialing the boy's number, she resolved not to let herself sound aggrieved or vindictive, the put-upon wife. She would remain calm enough to coax from -- she had to double-check the name -- to coax from Casey what insight she could. Although Libby had taken the AIDS test days ago, she swore she could still sense the rough spot in her mouth where cells had been scraped away, and she probed it now with her tongue. While daylight dimmed in the windows, she paced back and forth and listened to the ringing on the other end of the line. Her heart was racing, yet she felt, as Carl must have, that she had an advantage; she knew the boy she was calling by name, knew his intimate, distinguishing features, knew more about him than he about her. She managed "Hello," when Casey answered. She stammered, "This is very awkward." But when a voice, close to her ear, asked, "Who is this?" Mrs. Arenson couldn't speak.
Approaching the glass doors of the Glendale Library, Mrs. Arenson glanced from side to side, worried she'd run into someone she knew. Hidden by a pair of sunglasses, her eyes were swollen from sleeplessness; night after night, she was startled from dreams she could never quite remember. She had tried Ativan, then Ativan and warm milk, then Atavan and brandy, finally sleeping with the T-shirt Carl had worn the night he died, the sour traces of her husband's sweat as welcome and quelling as lungfuls of ether. But the comfort never lasted for long; clinging to a hank of fabric (could she ever bring herself to wash it?) made their bed feel desolate, empty. And who was she mourning anyway? A stranger who went by Carl's name?
Although she'd once worked as a research assistant for Jacob Trevor, her sophomore history professor, Mrs. Arenson hadn't stepped inside a library for years. All around her, people searched through the stacks or thumbed through Books in Print. She approached a computer terminal and told herself she would have to live with whatever she discovered about her husband's secret life, if she discovered anything at all. Libby found herself so mystified by the task ahead, she might as well have lived in a flat, inexplicable world, ready to consult a sibyl or interpret the stars.
She typed in her keyword and hit Find, remembering with swift, involuntary clarity one of the dreams from which she'd recently awakened: she'd been back in college, doing research for Professor Trevor on human cloning, and the drawer of the card catalogue kept coming toward her, inch after indexed inch. She'd spent what seemed like hours of sluggish dream time searching through a foreign alphabet, getting nowhere, certain Trevor would be furious at her incompetence. And so it was with especially dense apprehension that she scrolled through the list of books on the screen, wondering if her dream had been some sort of portent. Libby Arenson was not by nature a superstitious woman -- she had never looked for, nor considered anything in retrospect to be, a portent -- and when she finally located the library's dozen or so books on graphology, she could almost hear Carl chide her for resorting to a pseudoscience.
The librarian glanced at the titles as she swiped the books across a scanner. "Idle curiosity," explained Mrs. Arenson. "My interests are usually more . . . sophisticated." She handed over her ancient library card, frayed at the edges.
"Mrs. Arenson," whispered the librarian, reading the card, "you don't have to be embarrassed with me. A friend of mine is really into this handwriting stuff. If I so much as sign a Mastercard receipt in front of her, she tells me something about myself I don't want to know. 'Nora,' she'll say, 'the tail on that 'A' tells me you're awfully impulsive. You might try reining yourself in a little.'" Tall and long-limbed, Nora leaned confidingly toward Mrs. Arenson. "I mean, if I'm buying lunch, I figure I'm entitled to stay blissfully ignorant about my character flaws."
Libby folded her arms. "Your friend actually believes there's some validity in handwriting analysis?" My God, she thought, I sound exactly like Carl. It was one of those moments (lately, there were many) in which she found herself inhabited by her husband's professorial gestures, or heard his skeptical tone in her voice. If only she could recall him from a wistful distance, but ever since his death, she felt his traits burning her calories, moving her muscles, thriving inside her.
"And I suppose you think this is all a bunch of nonsense?" asked Nora, smiling wryly and holding up three volumes on graphology.
"I keep an open mind," said Libby, struck by just how ungraspable widowhood had turned out to be. She slipped her library card back into her wallet and -- where on earth was her self-control? -- began to cry.
The librarian's smile swiftly faded. "Are you all right?"
Libby tried to wave away the need for concern, but she started coughing and couldn't stop.
"Do you need to sit down?"
Libby pointed toward a water cooler she could see through the window of a back office.
Nora signaled to a young man, who replaced her at the checkout desk. She tucked Mrs. Arenson's books under her arm and led the way. Once inside the office, Nora offered water, pulled out a chair, and pressed a Kleenex into Libby's palm. Libby yielded to the librarian's ministrations, realizing it would take teamwork to stifle her crying. All the weeks she'd spent trying to suspend judgment about her husband, hoping to keep the truth at bay, had finally backfired. Slumped in the chair, trying to catch her breath, she revisited several of her most preposterous rationalizations, including one about Carl perhaps conducting an anatomical study of the urban male, a scenario she had been desperate enough to invent but not foolish enough to believe. As Libby wiped her eyes, she gazed through the glass window overlooking the main desk and watched several people passing by with books, books that would make them -- or so she imagined -- happier, wiser, more alive. She inhaled deeply and blew her nose. "I hate my husband," she announced. Her vehemence could have lit up a city. It felt so good, she said it again.
"The moment you're done crying," said Nora, "I'm going to ask you why. But for now I think you should let it all out."
Encouragement to weep as long and hard as she wanted had the effect of instantly drying Mrs. Arenson's tears. "You're very kind," she said to the librarian, wadding the Kleenex into a damp ball and eyeing the room for a wastebasket.
"I'm nosy, is what it is," said Nora, pointing to a trash can beneath the desk. "But I'll take any compliment, accurate or not."
"I bet you've never had to deal with a grown woman crying in line."
Nora laughed and shook her head. "You don't know the half of it, Mrs. Arenson . . . "
"It's Libby, please."
"I've seen everything, Libby. Teenagers humping in the reserve shelves. A regular patron who claims that extraterrestrials are sending him messages through microfilm. Once, I even found a dead canary on the book cart -- in a Baggie, thank God. You're a day at the beach, comparatively speaking."
Libby took a sip of water.
"So, why?" asked Nora.
"Your husband. You were saying you hate him."
Libby stared at Nora. She loved her husband. What could have possessed the librarian to say such a thing? Then it was over, the brief, cleansing respite that sometimes follows sobbing. Libby reached into her purse and pulled out the bluebook. Maybe it was the librarian's garrulousness, or the muted room, or the view of people searching through books and dredging facts into the light -- Libby decided then and there that Nora would be the first person, besides herself, to see the evidence of her husband's infidelity. Despite her anger, she felt somehow more loyal showing the list to a stranger rather than someone Carl had known. "Suppose you found this in your husband's things." she asked Nora. "What would you think?"
Nora took the bluebook and slowly turned the pages, at a loss for what to say. She towered over Mrs. Arenson, who looked up from her chair and watched Nora's face. Puzzlement crimping the brow. Unease around the mouth. It was almost as if Libby were reliving the night she'd opened Carl's briefcase, standing outside herself and watching her own incredulous expressions.
"I see," said Nora. "I'm sorry." She leaned against the edge of the table, looked Libby in the eyes. "Are you going to confront him?"
"Oh, there's . . . Carl died of a heart attack last month. I found this a couple of days later. Ever since then, I've come to doubt everything I'm able to remember about him, about us. Everything. I'm trying to find out whatever I can." She pointed to the books she'd withdrawn. "There's no one to ask, no other way to know."
In a carrel at the east end of the library, bluebook lying on the desk before her, Libby Arenson began a careful examination of the stems and loops and crossbars of her husband's handwriting. It soothed her to view the words as abstractions, free of meaning. She recalled an art history class in which the teacher had analyzed Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People as a series of formal lines and shapes, barely mentioning the bloody revolution of 1830. This had been the class in which Libby first noticed Carl. She'd found herself gazing across the aisle as changing light from a carousel of slides bathed her classmate's upturned face. How intently he had taken notes, the confines of a wooden desk chair accentuating his bulky male body. He was one of the few students who dressed for school; the creases in his pants were sharp, the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses glinted in the lecture hall's gloom. It was a wonder she'd passed the course, given the amount of time she spent staring, wondering who he was and what he was like. Thanks to her persistence, they eventually met, and when they finally knew each other well enough to study together for the art history exam, Libby discovered that, instead of being a record of Carl's sensitive aesthetic impressions, his notebook contained only those dates and names and details that might show up on the test. If she had been disappointed, the feeling was soon overpowered by the soapy scent and reticent voice of the boy sitting beside her on the lawn of the commons, sharing his fastidious notes, an event that seemed, in memory at least, as epic as a Delacroix.
Nora touched Libby's shoulder and handed her a copy of Revelations in Handwriting. "According to my friend," she whisper-ed, "this book is the best of the bunch." Nora smiled uncertainly. She wished Libby luck and returned to her post at the checkout desk. Libby squinted at the small print on the cover. She reached into her purse and realized she'd brought Carl's bifocals instead of her own, but when she slipped them on, she discovered their prescription was practically the same. "Learn what your handwriting says about you," read the small print on the cover, and, more promisingly, "See others as they really are." Relying on a book to give her insight into a man she'd lived with for over thirty years suddenly seemed like an admission of defeat. How could her own powers of observation have failed her all this time? Which was worse, to question who her husband was, or to question her own perceptions?
Libby's research skills were rusty, but she scanned the index -- "Scroll," "Signature," "Space Between Words" -- and decided to focus on the slant of Carl's handwriting, which leaned neither right nor left, but tended to move up and down on a vertical axis. According to the author, this style suggested "a certain rigidity of character" and, depending on the pressure, could also indicate "the rather unsavory trait of arrogance." Libby noted the inky depressions left by the pen, and considered how opinionated her husband had been when it came to the virtues of science and the superiority of the scientific method. Still, he was genuinely enthusiastic when discussing such matters; you would no more accuse Carl of being arrogant than you would a kid explaining his science project. Besides, with some people, men especially, it was hard to distinguish between cockiness and conviction.
As for "a certain rigidity of character," she as much as Carl had been a creature of routine. As a couple, they'd worked at achieving a circumscribed life, with its unvarying orbit of errands and meals and family outings. This predictability seemed to agree with Josh, who had inherited his father's love of logic, and who, unlike other, more rebellious children, rarely balked at the order imposed by his parents. Mrs. Arenson thought it absurd when Sheila, one of her few single friends ("Single by choice," Sheila would stress), once proclaimed, "Married people live so safely." As far as Libby was concerned, there was no safety when it came to love; the more one loved the more one risked -- an elegant and frightening equation. She certainly didn't need to be told that a house in a good neighborhood and a joint bank account couldn't do a thing to spare her from loss. In fact, Libby thought that good luck, like bad luck, was something that befell her, a phenomenon she often had to prod herself to enjoy, since she hadn't necessarily earned or deserved it.
Mrs. Arenson looked up from the desk and saw a stand of birch trees rising beyond the carrel's slim window. There had been nearly a month of uninterrupted rain, and now a tentative light filtered through the branches, mottling the lawn where people sprawled to read or talk. A shirtless boy had fallen asleep in a patch of sun, a book propped open on his pale chest. Even in sleep, his contempla-tive expression made it seem as if knowledge seeped into his skin, the book rising and falling with his breath.
When Libby glanced back at the desk, she saw her husband's cursive as though for the first time, observing something about it that no book on handwriting analysis could quite describe -- a kind of brittle vigilance, the vertical strokes firmly planted, like fence posts meant to resist the wind. It occurred to her that, if the penmanship of this compromising document were tighter and more guarded than his usual handwriting, it would be even less likely to yield revelations. She'd expected to find some visual evidence of an insecurity (withered "I"'s?) for which his meetings with men were the compensation, or a hint of some unspoken childhood trauma (separated letters?) which had driven him, in a kind of helpless brinkmanship, to risk in adulthood those things he loved most. But after staring at his notes for almost an hour, she began to think that his guardedness, his success at living a parallel life, was the revelation she'd been seeking.
Carl was insatiable, that much was clear from the dozens of names. A need that required such variety to be satisfied was beyond Mrs. Arenson's comprehension. Her own life had been guided by the wish to find one, just one man with whom she could live happily and long. A sweet, singular devotion was the stuff of songs and movies and books, and she'd pursued it both before and after marriage. Although she had little to compare it with, sex with Carl had been tender and energetic, and this made temptation easy to ignore. Once, Paul Nordon kissed her in the hallway at a New Year's Eve party, his tongue darting into her mouth. Sudden lust caused him to lose his balance, and Libby had to help the poor teetering man to a nearby bedroom where he collapsed amid a pile of coats. Buzzing from a few glasses of champagne, flattered by his sloppy pass, she'd flirted with the urge to fall on top of Paul -- until he patted his groin and slurred, "Put 'er here, honey bunch." "Honey bunch:" what a dusty, ridiculous endearment! To Paul's chagrin, she'd laughed out loud, and the spell was broken, replaced by sober reasons to leave.
The boy on the lawn awakened, light finding the cleft of his chest, the creases in his young stomach, and Libby saw him as Carl might: someone to want. If her husband's thoughts and gestures could haunt her, why not his longing? She continued to stare through the window as the boy reached around to brush away blades of grass from his back. The effort stretched his torso, an untanned sliver of hip showing above his belt. The boy's book fell open on the lawn, and he picked it up, sinew moving beneath his forearms as he turned the pages, searching for his place. And when the boy stood up, buttoned his shirt, and walked away, Libby strained to see him through Carl's lenses. Her body, perched on the lip of the chair, had tensed with regret, a regret out of all proportion to the boy's departure.
Mrs. Arenson distracted herself for a while by gazing at famous signatures. Albert Einstein's, practically flat, showed "several compressed arcades and garlands." Tchaikovsky's was all jagged peaks and precipitous dips. The strokes of Oscar Wilde's signature thinned out at various points, a mannerism the graphologist saw as a sure sign of "irreconcilable conflict, a man about whom two acquaintances would offer vastly different impressions." Mrs. Arenson, however, suspected that the irregularities of a quill, or some other Victorian writing instrument, offered a far more likely explanation.
The strain of reading through the wrong glasses caused the pages to blur, the surface of the little desk veering away at odd angles. Libby closed Revelations in Handwriting and removed the bifocals, slipping them, along with Carl's bluebook, into her handbag. She trudged through the library's high-ceilinged main room, past the man who sat at the Information desk, in front of which a line had formed. She went by the checkout desk, but Nora was nowhere to be seen. The library's glass doors swung open to a concrete plaza, where she spotted Nora on a bench, smoking a cigarette and gesturing Libby to come and sit beside her. Libby obliged and, before she could stop herself, asked Nora for a smoke. "Any luck?" asked Nora, holding out a lighter. The flint sputtered a few times before it finally caught, and when Libby took a drag, her first since college, her lungs burned in a bracing inhalation. "Pointless," said Libby. "The whole idea was a waste of time." She tapped the ashes, remembering how worldly she'd felt when complaining with Sherry back in college, the two of them disgusted by a wrong that only the taste of tobacco could right. Cars circled the library's parking lot, the drivers seaching for an empty space. A parade of teenagers walking home from high school made a show of being coupled, plunging a hand in each other's pockets or draping an arm around their partner's neck, easy, raglike entanglements.
Nora asked, "Where are your books?"
"I decided to leave them inside."
"After all that?"
"After all that." Mrs. Arenson's limbs grew leaden, the plaza turning silvery and indistinct. The effects of nicotine offered a welcome taste of the oblivion she'd missed during her sleepless nights. Tossing in the dark, Libby had found herself guessing again and again at Carl's last thought. She imagined a star exploding inside his chest, its heat and debris radiating down his left arm, flaring into his jaw, and she became her husband, looking up at herself from the cold floor of the foyer and trying to explain, in this last protracted second, why he'd led a hidden life. He (she) wordlessly reassured the woman who held his head and hovered above him, her shocked face dissipating, its atoms snuffed like candles.
Mrs. Arenson heard Nora ask something about Carl -- she recognized the gentle inflection of someone hoping not to overstep her bounds -- and realized she didn't know much more about him than she had back in her art history class: a shadowy figure intent on his notes, a vessel for speculation. Now, Mrs. Arenson felt toward Carl a version of that original love, or, if it wasn't love exactly, then the wish to love him, tempered by questions.
"I keep thinking I'll find more clues," she told Nora, "something that might explain who he was, who I was to him. I'm the same person I've always been, with the same son, the same house . . ."
"It's awful," said Nora, "those times when you can't even recognize your life. There must be books about women who've gone through something similar. If you want, I could . . . "
"No," she said. "But thanks."
"What will you do now?" asked Nora.
Libby sighed a cloud of smoke.
While driving home that afternoon, Mrs. Arenson noticed the cloudless sky, every house and tree and car made vivid by unstinting light. When she was a girl, fresh weather stirred in her an almost physical awareness of time, a vastness in the midst of which she'd been unafraid. As she pulled into her driveway, it occurred to her that she hadn't thought about Carl for several minutes. Maybe things were about to change, to clarify like the air. She unlocked the front door and stepped into the foyer. All around her hovered the flowers that -- Josh was right -- resembled faces: inscrutable, painted by hand, no two alike. And once again she began to imagine her husband's encounters with other men.