The phone rang early Monday morning. I didn’t answer. “I’m selling the house,” announced Catherine. “If you want any of your father’s books, come take them.” After she hung up, I decided to drive down to New Jersey that morning, while Catherine was at work. It’s not that I don’t like her. I do. When I was a child, she was more of a typical mother to me than my own mother was. I just didn’t want to hear her tell me again that I look exactly like my father, although he never needed glasses and I’ve worn them since I was seven. My father wanted me to become an ophthalmologist, like he was, since I was always interested in eyes. “Why do I need glasses?” I asked him when I got my first pair. “Why don’t you?” He explained to me how the shape and curve of the cornea and the lens of the eye affect vision. I was intrigued, and for a few months I examined his eyes with a penlight that had no batteries. I didn’t want to deal with patients, though. I didn’t want to tell an old man that he had glaucoma and would never regain his peripheral vision. I didn’t want to tell an old woman that she had macular degeneration and would be blind in a few years. I didn’t want to get beeped in the middle of the night to operate on eyes that were beyond repair. I would rather bring good news. I work for a small lens company, here in Connecticut, called Clari-Vision. I’ve been developing equations for a progressive lens that has more fluid intermediate, near, and distance components than other trifocals on the market. Instead of placing the add-on power on one or both sides of the lens, I’m trying to cut the power completely through the lens. Not everyone knows that in myopia, the eye is too powerful, not too weak, for what it sees. I want to create a lens that relaxes the eye and lets it see more clearly.
This morning I’d drive down to New Jersey and sort through my father’s books. Julia, my girlfriend, would love to own them all, but she’d settle gracefully for however many I brought back for her. My father had hundreds of books—not just medical books, but novels and poetry and biographies. He bought whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. I wasn’t much of a reader, and neither was Catherine, but my father could spend hours in a bookstore. He’d stop at one bookstore or another almost every day. Sometimes Catherine called him and said in a lighthearted way, “That’s enough! Buy it now and come home!” Julia also read constantly, especially novels and short stories. She was always trying to get everyone to read more.
My mother isn’t a reader either. A small woman with a sharp chin and eyebrows arched like gull’s wings, she and my father met, and married, in medical school. After they graduated, she wanted to return triumphant to the city of her childhood, where she grew up poor. Now she lives in a gated development of leafy cul-de-sacs ringed by golf courses. They got divorced when I was four. I remember the evening my father left. It was early April, and it had been raining steadily for days. My father knelt down and put his arms around me. His face was wet. I said,” You have rain on your face!” I didn’t realize that his face was wet with tears. I had never seen him cry, although I had seen my mother cry many times and heard my mother and father fighting. I leaned against my father, who that evening smelled like dill and wet earth. He told me that he wasn’t going to live with my mother and me anymore but that he would see me very often. You see, my mother was having an affair. Other doctors and nurses knew this long before my father figured it out. I knew only that my mother was happy again. She stopped asking my father to pay attention to her. She sang in the shower and put on lipstick with delicate, careful strokes.
After my father found out, he told her he was leaving unless she stopped seeing her lover immediately. My mother didn’t want my father to leave, but she didn’t stop seeing the other man. My father left. The other doctor returned to his wife, and then, one evening when my father came to pick me up, my mother asked him to come back to her. “It’s over,” she said to him. “It certainly is,” he agreed, and my mother went crazy. By day she went to the hospital in her white coat and stethoscope, acting calm and knowledgeable. At night she sobbed and screamed and pounded her fists against the wall. One morning she broke all our dishes. On her days off, she drove by the house my father rented and threw garbage on the front lawn. She’d call my father late at night. She’d lean against the refrigerator and howl into the phone. She promised him she would kill herself if he didn’t come back. I lay in bed, listening to my mother scream and threaten, understanding long before she did that no matter how much she wanted my father to come back, he wouldn’t. Somehow, my mother managed to finish her residency and pass her boards. She found a job. I started kindergarten. Between what my father and mother earned as doctors, I never lacked for things.
When I was six, my father married Catherine. Catherine once told me that when she saw my father walk into the realty office, she jumped up before anyone else and asked, “May I help you?” My father was a handsome man, but he was impatient with being handsome. He bought the first condominium Catherine showed him and asked her to have lunch with him. After they married I still lived with my mother, but I spent as much time as possible with my father and Catherine. Catherine took me to buy clothes and school supplies. She came to my soccer games and school concerts. She baked me cakes. It was Catherine who asked me if I had any questions about anything or if anything was troubling me. She was the one who told me why my father left my mother. Catherine was good to me. I don’t know why my father and she never had a child. Perhaps she couldn’t. Perhaps he wouldn’t. My mother had my father’s child but not my father. Catherine had my father but not my father’s child. My father had his work and his books—and Catherine and me, of course.
My mother continued to call my father in the evenings, although less often. Sometimes she’d make lists or idly rearrange the contents of the refrigerator while she wept into the phone. When I was in high school, my father and Catherine moved east, and I decided to apply only to colleges in the east. This did not sit well with my mother, who hoped I would stay in the Midwest. I chose Tufts. I came home on holidays and called my mother every week. It was during one of those Sunday night calls when she said, “And has she cheated on him yet? Or doesn’t Ms. Realtor need affection and sex?” I didn’t call for almost a year after that.
My father reminds me of a man who works at Clari-Vision who is obsessed with basketball. During the playoffs, nothing can distract him from watching the games. “My wife stripped naked and stood in front of me during one game, and I just shooed her away,” he told me proudly, reenacting how he had craned his gaze around her and motioned her away. He could have been describing my father, although what my father craned his head to see was medicine, not basketball. I believe my father loved me. I think he loved my mother. Why marry her otherwise? I’ve thought about the dates, and she wasn’t pregnant when they got married. I think he loved Catherine, too, or at least he liked her enough to marry her. It’s just that he considered love and passion to be leafy and suffocating, akin to living on a cul-de-sac. It’s not where my father wanted to linger. For years after he left my mother, she banged her head against the gate of my father’s heart, hoping to be readmitted. Catherine understood my father in a way my mother never did. She never seemed to mind that he was always working or reading. “Of course she minds,” Julia said. “She just doesn’t show it.” “Or maybe she’s just glad to be married to someone smart, rich, and handsome,” I answered.
I drove to New Jersey through early-morning mist. After a while the sun shone through, but my thoughts wouldn’t clear. Empty boxes jostled each other in the back seat, like quarreling children. Julia and I had argued the night before. She wanted to give up her apartment and move in with me because we spent almost every night at my apartment anyway, but I wouldn’t let her. I knew it was sometimes hard for her to make ends meet on her salary, but I still didn’t want her to give up her apartment. Besides, I paid for most of our expenses. We met in college. After we graduated, she followed me to Connecticut when I got the job at Clari-Vision. She found a library assistant job at the university while she tried to write the Great American Short Story. She wanted to marry me. I didn’t want to marry anyone. What was the point of my telling Julia that she was the one for me and I for her? This way, when we broke up, there would be less turmoil.
When I pulled up outside the house where Catherine still lived, Catherine’s car was gone. A yellow For Sale sign rose from the wet earth. There were no chrysanthemums here this fall. Last fall Catherine had planted masses of dark red, yellow, and rust flowers along the front walkway. In the spring she had planted pale pink and ivory tulips. All those colors looked good against the pale gray stucco. Inside, I poured myself a glass of orange juice and headed for my father’s study. Catherine had already taken down the curtains, and I looked across the lawn to the woods beyond. There were books everywhere—on the desk, in bookcases, and on the floor.
I filled one box with medical textbooks and journals for the library at Clari-Vision. Then I started placing books for Julia in the remaining boxes. I took fiction and poetry by authors with minimalist Asian names; ornate, unpronounceable Russian names; melodious Indian names. I was surprised that I recognized as many names as I did. Julia would be happy.
After I had filled three boxes, I turned to the nonfiction books. I pulled down a biography of an American doctor who traveled to underdeveloped countries to correct facial deformities. It seemed like a book my father would have, because he had always dreamed of opening his own eye clinic. But to do so, he needed a tremendous amount of startup money. When he and Catherine moved east, it was to accept a high-level job at a biotech company. If one of the drugs he was shepherding through development received FDA approval and the company went public, he’d make millions in stock options and bonuses. Then he’d leave and open his eye clinic, to run as he wanted. Catherine was holding her breath. She probably thought it meant she’d see more of him. I knew it meant she’d see less of him.
When I took the book off the shelf, an envelope fell out. It wasn’t sealed. Several handwritten pages were folded around a small photograph of a middle-aged woman with reddish hair. I turned the photograph over. The back was blank. I turned the photograph over again and put my index finger on the woman’s cheek. “Who are you?” I whispered as I traced her face from cheek to jaw. “What’s your name?” I sat down at my father’s desk to read the pages.
Happy birthday! This seems like a book you’d like. Perhaps you can read it on one of your many long flights to medical conventions.
It has been 30 years since you left me for Christine. Losing you so abruptly—and by telephone, no less—was terrible. It was an amputation. I sometimes think that your leaving me has been the pivotal moment of my life. I used to believe in pure happiness and straight lines. Once you left me, I became a different person—wary of happiness even when it beckoned. But what could I do except go on? I went on. I fell in love again, married, had a child, went back to school, bought a house…the usual things in the usual order. And then, one day, there you were online, answering a reporter’s questions tersely and looking frantic to get back to work. I picked up the phone.
As I asked the receptionist to put me through to you, I imagined you and Christine, happily married after all these years. Why not? I’d still be married to my husband if he hadn’t gotten sick and died. He was a good man, and we had a good marriage. I have a wonderful daughter whom I have always taught to break hearts instead of waiting to have her heart broken. “You never thought about me,” I whispered to myself as I waited for the receptionist to connect us. Or maybe you did, in some vague way. “Oh yes, I think I remember her, but that was all so long ago.” I was wrong. You had thought of me, and often. You had left Christine years ago. But you never called me. You married someone else instead. Why didn’t you call me?
There’s something I want to tell you now. That last year, when you were already in medical school, do you remember that I flew out to visit you several times? After the last visit you called me to tell me it was over between us. You had slept with Christine. You were in love with her, not me. I could only babble on about the set of plates my grandmother had promised us when we got married. My grandmother died a few years later. I don’t know what happened to those dishes. I still wish I had them. I still wish I had you. At the very least, I wish I had had you longer.
I should have realized during my last visit to you that things were very wrong between us, but I was too young to realize anything. I was also pregnant. When you called me to tell me it was over, I didn’t yet know. Several weeks later, I found out. I had the abortion near the college. Of course it was much too early to know if the baby was a boy or a girl, but I always imagined a boy, with your dark hair. He would be almost 30 now. He might have a family of his own. Sometimes, when I’m pinioned at the border of memory and sleep, I see him. He never speaks. I wave to him. He never waves back. When I call to him, he vanishes. Would you have married me if you had known? That’s why I didn’t tell you.
I never reconciled my loving you with your leaving me, as if those two facts were a mathematical equation. I still find it difficult to accept that although I am single once again, I will travel the rest of my life without you in it.
It was wonderful to talk with you after so many years. One part of me would like to see you again. I imagine us having one of those intense, desperate, middle-aged affairs, all seedy motel rooms on the highway shot through with secrecy and tears. I’ve never done that, but I can imagine it well. Another part of me thinks that you should leave your second wife and run away with me. Would you? I think not. But that second option is the only one I’m offering you—your third chance now, after 30 years, to be with me. Oh, it’s easier for me, I know. I’m a widow. I don’t have to break anyone’s heart. But you had no problem, and no qualms, about breaking my heart 30 years ago. Perhaps you’ll break someone else’s heart this time, and mend mine. I hope you enjoy the book. Perhaps we’ll talk again.
And there the letter ended, without a name. I looked at it until the black letters blurred. I put everything back in the envelope and put the envelope in my pocket. Did Catherine know? Had she found the letter? Had my father told her? Had anything happened? Had they met? Did they have an affair? Had she called my father again? Did he write to her? Did he call her? Was he planning to leave Catherine for her? I had always thought of my father as a victim and my mother as a villain. But here was another story. Julia says there are always many stories, of lovers and mothers and fathers and sons, of love and pain and grief and despair, of longing and lust and memory and youth and age. It was the kind of story she loved to read.
I loaded the cartons into my car. As I backed carefully out of the long driveway, I took one last look at the house. It would sell quickly. I would never see it again. I didn’t care. It wasn’t my home.
I called Julia to tell her I was on my way. I didn’t mention the letter or the photograph. As I drove back to Connecticut, I thought about the woman. What was her name? Did she know my father was dead? I decided not to tell Julia about any of this. I would find this woman on my own and give her back the book, the letter, and the photograph. Then I might tell Julia. Or maybe I wouldn’t.
“These books are fabulous,” Julia said. She was lying on my bed surrounded by dozens of books in various stages of invitation—open, shut, stacked, splayed, upside down. She was wearing gray sweatpants and one of my tee shirts. Her face was bright with the taste and touch of words. She blew me a kiss and turned back to the book she was reading.
I felt what I always feel when I look at Julia: desire mixed with longing mixed with sadness, as if we have already lived our lives together and are old friends, or as if we are characters in a book—the girl loves the one boy who won’t marry her. I kissed Julia’s cheek quickly, too quickly for her to turn and respond, and went into the living room. I felt like being alone and listening to music. What music did the woman in the photograph like? What was her name? Where did she live? Tomorrow, I’d call a few of my father’s doctor friends and ask them if they knew of her. I lay down on the sofa as the room darkened. At some point I slept. When I awakened, I was still on the sofa and Julia had left for work. She had thrown a blanket over me and put my glasses on the coffee table. As always, I reached for my glasses before I sat up.
While I drank the remains of Julia’s coffee I left messages for several of my father’s friends. The pediatrician in Boston didn’t know anything, and neither did the rheumatologist in Toledo, but the radiologist in Kansas City told me what I wanted to know. “She was your father’s girlfriend when he was a senior and she was a junior,” he said. “No one could believe he finally had a girlfriend. She was going to go to graduate school and write the great American novel while your father was in medical school.” He wasn’t curious about why I was trying to find her. “Sorry to hear about your father,” he added, before we hung up.
I did an Internet search; she worked at a library in New York City. I decided to take another day off from work and take the train down. If she were the right woman, I’d give her back everything and hope she wouldn’t start weeping. Did she know my father was dead? If not, would she figure it out without my having to say anything? Maybe the alumni newspaper had published something. My father had been in a Japan for a medical convention. A train derailed as it flew into the station, killing several people on the platform. He was one of them. At Catherine’s birthday dinner, he had squinted at the menu and complained that it was getting hard to read small print. He seemed distracted and fidgety, which was unlike him. “You’ll have to invent a pair of glasses just for me,” he said. “You? You can pick up a pair of reading glasses at any drugstore,” I retorted. “You’ll never need the incredibly sophisticated and advanced kind of lenses I develop.” He laughed and closed the menu. Then he ordered the same thing he always ordered I don’t know why he bothered looking at the menu. We came here every year for Catherine’s birthday, although I don’t think she really likes steak.
I called Julia from work and told her not to come over that evening. “I’ve got an early meeting in the city tomorrow,” I lied. The next morning I was on the 7:10 to Grand Central, arriving a little after 9. It was a glorious morning—crisp and cool, with white shreds of clouds in a hard blue sky. I bought a pretzel and ate it as I walked. Leaves crunched under my feet and salt stuck to my fingers. The book was in my backpack. The letter and the photograph were in the envelope, inside the book. Every so often I’d reach behind me to make sure my backpack was still zipped and on my back. As I approached the library, I imagined my father and his girlfriend at college. He must have looked exactly like I look now, except for my glasses. I could see the two of them walking on campus, but I couldn’t hear them. When I thought about my mother and father, what I remembered most was sounds: screaming and weeping and rain hitting the window and singing in the shower. When I thought of my father and Catherine, I remembered quiet and waiting: Catherine leaning over to check a pie or cake in the oven, or tilting her head in the dusk to hear if the garage door had finally opened.
Here was the library, and here were revolving glass doors to enter it. I had been frightened of revolving doors as a child until Catherine showed me how to maneuver them. So this woman was a librarian. Perhaps my father got his love of books from her. Or maybe a love of books brought them together at college. I pushed the front door open, nodding good morning to the guard who sat on a stool near the entrance-and-exit turnstile. “I’m looking for her,” I said, and showed him the name I had written down. “She’s a reference librarian,” the guard said. “Second floor, first office on the left.”
I thanked him and began climbing the stairs. At the top I turned left, as directed, and almost immediately I saw her in her office, behind a desk piled high with books and papers. The office was small. The window faced an alley. The blinds were raised, and sunlight splashed in. The woman was pretty in a subdued way. Her reddish hair was mixed with gray. Her glasses were similar to mine—titanium oval frames with a coppery sheen. If I wasn’t mistaken, and I rarely was about glasses, they were progressive lenses that my company had developed a few years ago—not the ones I was currently working on, but an earlier generation. So she was highly myopic, like me.
She was talking softly on the phone and writing on a yellow pad. Although she gestured at me to come in, she didn’t really see me. I stood in the doorway, watching her and looking around the office. Still without looking at me, the woman held up a finger and continued to speak and write. I suddenly felt uneasy. Could I really just put the book on her desk and leave without a word? When I imagined this moment, I thought I’d have her undivided attention from the second she saw me. Her mouth would open; I’d smile and put the book down; I’d turn around and leave. But the longer I stood there, the more awkward I felt.
I looked at the window and then back at the woman. With a soft flurry of final instructions, she said good-bye and put down the receiver. Her eyes met mine, and her face whitened. Her mouth opened. “Please don’t say I look exactly like my father,” I thought. Neither of us spoke. I took the book out of my backpack and placed it near her hand. She put her hand on the book. “I sent this to him,” she said. “For a birthday present.” She cleared her throat. “Then I read that he died. Obviously he received it. I don’t know if he read it. The letter, I mean. Not the book. There was a letter inside the book. And a photograph. The letter was sealed. I’m sorry. I’m not making sense, am I? Are you a doctor, too?”
“No, I’m not a doctor,” I said. “I make lenses. I think the company I work for made the glasses you’re wearing. The letter was unsealed. He must have read it. I read it, too. It was in the book. It wasn’t sealed.” My backpack felt heavy. My throat was dry. I took off my backpack and put it on the floor near her desk. Then the woman threw the book at the wall. It fell on the floor. We both looked at it and at each other. She seemed to be memorizing my face. After a few minutes she stood up and walked around the desk to stand next to me. “Take off your glasses,” she said. “What?” I said. “I can’t see a thing without them! I never take them off.” “I’m exactly the same way,” she said. “But take them off anyway. Humor me.” I shook my head in exasperation as she carefully took her own glasses off and put them in the middle of her desk. “Please take off your glasses,” she repeated. “OK,” I said. I suppose it could have been worse. She could have started crying, or fainted, or told me stories I didn’t want to hear. I put my glasses next to hers. For a moment I wondered if she were going to kiss me, and how that would feel, and would I want to kiss her back, but she was staring straight ahead. She had stopped crying. “Give me your hand,” she said. I held out my hand, and she took it. Hers was cold. We stood side by side between the desk and the window, holding hands and looking toward the window. She began walking, and—still holding her hand—I followed her. We walked toward the window, which took about four steps because her office was so small. We looked out at the city. “He had so much passion for medicine and his patients,” she said. “I didn’t really expect him to leave his second wife and run away with me. I just wanted him to say he wanted to! I called it a subjective road map. I just wanted him to want to. I just wanted him to say so. I wanted him to say that he loved me. That he had loved me. I thought I’d marry him. I thought we’d have children. He had three chances in life to choose me, and he didn’t. It’s like some tiresome old fairy tale that never turns out differently. I’m so tired of seeing it. I want to stop seeing it. I want to see something else.” I nodded, even though I know she couldn’t see me clearly. I couldn’t see anything but blurry shapes and colors, even when I squinted. I was sure she couldn’t see anything clearly, either. If anything, her glasses were thicker than mine. The expression “the blind leading the blind” crossed my mind. I sighed. I continued staring out the window as we held hands. Her hand had warmed itself on mine. How strange the city looked this way, like something an Impressionist would paint at the end of his life, when he had given up trying to make sense of how things were and moved on to how things might be or have been. The blurred colors and shapes were beautiful. Who needed to see everything clearly at every moment? Without speaking, and still holding her hand, I tilted my face upward toward the sun. Even through the smeared window I felt its warmth. What a relief it was to shut my eyes. “I did what you wanted me to do,” I whispered to the woman next to me. She was still holding my hand. “Now do something for me. Shut your eyes. Please shut your eyes. Just for a moment, shut your eyes.”
Published by The Plentitudes. January 2021.