Did Etna Bliss hesitate just the one second before accepting my hat and gloves? Yes, I am sure she did. I remember distinctly the sensation of holding out my things and for a moment having no taker. What did she see in me that made her pause? The vast hunger that had shaken me to the bone? And would she have recognized this hunger for having seen it before on the faces of other men, or was she merely prescient, already intuitive about human want and greed?
(And why, why, I have often asked myself, was it that woman and not another? Why the curve of that particular cheek and not another? Why the gold of those eyes and not the blue of others? I have in my lifetime seen a hundred, no a thousand, beautiful women lifting skirts to step over piles of snow, fanning long necks in restaurants, undressing in the dim electric lights of rented rooms but none has ever had upon me the effect that Etna Bliss had: a sensation quite beyond that which can be explained by science.)
She took my coat then and hung it on a hat rack in the corner. She turned slightly toward me.
"Etna, I wonder if you would . . ." William Bliss began, not unkindly but perhaps suggesting the nature of Etnas place within the household. There was no further need to elaborate, for already she had turned toward the kitchen to tell the cook that tea was needed.
What relief it was for me to see her retreating form! The respite allowed me some moments to collect my wits and speak to Bliss in the manner to which we were accustomed, the manner of men who do not know each other well but are regarded as colleagues and thus have immediately a common vocabulary that must be respected before any dislike or love can form.
I did not often encounter William Bliss at school, since he was married and therefore did not reside in college rooms; nor did we ever have occasion to work together, coming as we did from separate disciplines. Also, Bliss was older than I by a good twenty years, and thus I regarded him as from a different generation. He directed me to the front parlor.
I cannot exaggerate the feeling of claustrophobia that room produced, the claustrophobia of months spent indoors, of oxygen seemingly sucked from the air by the plethora of ornate pieces and dozens of objets, each demanding the eyes attention, so that one felt not only breathless and oppressed, but also as though a migraine were imminent. It was a room that with its rosewood spool turnings and carved oak trefoils, its gilded mirrors and marble-topped tables, its serpentine tendrils of overgrown plants and cast-iron lanterns, its stenciled stripes and floral motifs, its flocked wallpaper and glass curtains, its oriental rugs and Chinese vases and fringed tablecloths and its iron clock not to mention the dozens of daguerreotypes in silver and wood and marquetry frames that seemed to cover every available surface leached the vitality from the body. (A mans body, at least, for one deduced immediately that the room reflected a womans taste; even Moxons rooms, at their very worst, might have been considered spare by comparison.) Because of all the plants in the windows, only the dimmest light entered the room, and how Bliss had been able to read a newspaper there, I do not know, though perhaps he had been reading in his study. It was evidence at the very least that William Bliss must have loved his wife very much to put up with so much excess.
"Van Tassel, do sit down."
"There might be good. Oh, let me move that for you."
"No, I can do it."
"You know, I cannot thank you enough. My wife says you were a hero."
"Nonsense, it was no more than any man would have done."
"You are too modest. Is the college abuzz?"
"I daresay. I have canceled my classes."
"Have you indeed? What a splendid idea."
From All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Little, Brown & Company.
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