Gone. He's gone. Can't be gone. Where?
God damn! She was a new, shy bride. So the world perceived her and the world was not mistaken. At the hotel registration desk she'd signed, for the first time, Mrs. Ariah Erskine, and her cheeks had flamed. A virgin, twenty-nine years old. Inexperienced with men as with another species of being. As she lay wracked with pain she didn't dare even to reach out in the enormous bed for fear of touching him.
She wouldn't have wanted him to misinterpret her touch.
Almost, she had to recall his name. "Gilbert." No one called him "Gil." None of the Erskine relatives she'd met. Possibly friends of his at the seminary in Albany had called him "Gil" but that was a side of him Ariah hadn't yet seen, and couldn't presume to know. It was like discussing religious faith with him: he'd been ordained a Presbyterian minister at a very young age and so faith was his professional domain and not hers. To call such a man by the folksy diminutive "Gil" would be too familiar a gesture for Ariah, his fiancée who'd only just become his wife.
In his stiff shy way he'd called her "Ariah, dear." She called him "Gilbert" but had been planning how in a tender moment, as in a romantic Hollywood film, she would begin to call him "darling" -- maybe even "Gil, darling."
Unless all that was changed. That possibility.
She'd had a glass of champagne at the wedding reception, and another glass -- or two -- of champagne in the hotel room the night before, nothing more and yet she'd never felt so drugged, so ravaged. Her eyelashes were stuck together as if with glue, her mouth tasted of acid. She couldn't bear the thought: she'd been sleeping like this, comatose, mouth open and gaping like a fish's.
Had she been snoring? Had Gilbert heard?
She tried to hear him in the bathroom. Antiquated plumbing shrieked and rumbled, but not close by. Yet surely Gilbert was in the bathroom. Probably he was making an effort to be quiet. During the night hed used the bathroom. Trying to disguise his noises. Running water to disguise . . . Or had that been Ariah, desperately running both faucets in the sink? Ariah in her stained ivory silk nightgown swaying and trying not to vomit yet finally, helplessly vomiting, into the sink, sobbing.
Dont. Dont think of it. No one can force you.
The previous day, arriving in early evening, Ariah had been surprised that, in June, the air was so cold. So damp. The air was so saturated with moisture, the sun in the western sky resembled a street lamp refracted through water. Ariah, who was wearing a shortsleeved poplin dress, shivered and hugged her arms. Gilbert, frowning in the direction of the river, took no notice.
Gilbert had done all the driving, from Troy, several hundred miles to the east; hed insisted. He told Ariah it made him nervous to be a passenger in his own car, which was a handsomely polished black 1949 Packard. Repeatedly on the trip he excused himself and blew his nose, loudly. Averting his face from Ariah. His skin was flushed as if with fever. Ariah murmured several times she hoped he wasnt coming down with a cold as Mrs. Erskine, Gilberts mother, now Ariahs mother-in-law, had fretted at the luncheon.
Gilbert was susceptible to sore throats, respiratory infections, sinus headaches, Mrs. Erskine informed Ariah. He had a "delicate stomach" that couldnt tolerate spicy foods, or "agitation."
Mrs. Erskine had hugged Ariah, who yielded stiffly in the older womans plump arms. Mrs. Erskine had begged Ariah to call her "Mother"as Gilbert did.
Ariah murmured yes. Yes, Mother Erskine.
Thinking Mother! What does that make Gilbert and me, brother and sister?
From The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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No Man's Land
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