I was shocked when he turned up at my rooming house. The low-watt bulbs revealed a weary man, hat in his hands, his skin a little ashen, his elegant necktie loosely knotted. He claimed, years later, that he couldnt even remember what he or I wore that night: Was it the green dress? No, Holland; it was black roses on white; its pattern is framed and hung in my memory alongside our honeymoon wallpaper (pale green garlands). I thought he might be drunk; I was afraid he might collapse, but he smiled and offered his arm and after the film took me to a nice restaurant out in North Beach. At dinner, he hardly ate or spoke. He barely looked at me, or noticed the stares we got from other patrons; his own gaze was fixed on two cast-iron dogs that sat before the unlit fireplace. So after we had taken the streetcar to my corner, and it was time to say good night, I was surprised when he turned very quickly and kissed me on the mouth. An electric jolt of happiness passed through me. He stepped back, breathing quickly and buttoned his jacket to go. I have to see a friend, he told me sharply.
Holland, I said. He looked back at me as if I had jerked a string. Holland, I repeated. He waited. And then I said the right thing. It was the only time I ever did: Let me take care of you.
His deep eyes awakened. Did he think I meant to remind him of our time back in Kentucky, that I offered the soft threat of the past? A dark line appeared between his eyebrows.
He said, You dont know me, not really.
I told him that didnt matter, but what I meant was that he was wrong; I knew him, of course I knew all about him from that time in our constricting little hometown: the grass behind the schoolyard we used to poke with a stick, the path from Franklin to Childress cluttered with witch hazel and touch-me-nots and railroad vine, the ice shivering in a summer pitcher of his mothers lemonadethe lost world that only I remembered. For here we were so far from home. The one we could never regain. Who could know him better than I?
I acted instinctively. All I wanted was to keep him there on the shining streetcar tracks. Let me take care of you again.
You serious? he asked.
You know, Holland, Ive never been kissed by any boy but you.
That aint true, its been years, Pearlie. So much has changed.
I havent changed.
Immediately he took my shoulder and pressed his lips to mine.
Two months later, by those same cable-car tracks, he whispered: Pearlie, I need you to marry me. He told me that I didnt really know his life, and of course he was right. Yet I married him. He was too beautiful a man to lose and I loved him.
Excerpted from The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer. Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Sean Greer. Published in April 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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