Jackson made a pot of espresso. He was afraid to drink any more wine because of the Lyme disease, but Claire kept topping off her glass. Ray tried to slow her down without being too obvious about it, offering to clear her plate and glass. But she was not about to let the glass go. Or the second bottle of white Burgundy, which was still half full.
Later on, in the kitchen, as he was getting some clementines out of the hydrator, he had one of those inevitable refrigerator moments: You stand up and close the refrigerator door, and there she is, someone who wants to know how you really are. Someone you've been trying to avoid being alone with. You've been trying to avoid this moment. She's unsteady. Glass in hand, she mouths her words: "You know I still love you, Jackson. Nothing can change that."
Claire was handsome at forty, just starting to look matronly. She wasn't dressing her age, and to night she'd drunk too much wine and was looking blowsy. Jackson wanted to say that plenty had changed "that." But he didn't say anything, because he remembered Claire. The way she used to be. So young, so full of hope. A different Claire. His first real love. His third, actually, after Sibaku in the Forest, and Suzanne Toulon in Paris. Would she have become a different woman, he wondered, if she hadn't dumped him for Father Ray? And would he have become a different man?
What had happened was, Claire and Jackson had come to Thomas Ford the same year. Both had been rising stars. Jackson had published a popular account of the four plus years he'd spent with the Mbuti, and Claire had an NEA fellowship under her belt. She also had a manuscript and a New York agent. She and Jackson soon became an item. Three years later they were still an item, but Claire's novel, The Sins of the World, had been rejected thirty-nine times. Her classmates from the Iowa Writers' Workshop were publishing novels, winning prizes, getting reviewed. Claire's agent dropped her - there were no more publishers left - and Claire had to start submitting it to contests. She was suicidal. Jackson was afraid she'd throw herself off the roof of her building. He told her not to worry, that nobody read novels anyway, but this was her vocation, her calling. She couldn't just walk away from it. She started attending the Episcopal Church - Grace Church, on Broad Street - and she stopped going to bed with Jackson. She needed to be chaste for a while. She turned to Father Ray for spiritual advice, and he told her about God's love and she told Jackson about it. Then the news came. The Sins of the World had won the Donner Prize. It didn't matter that no one had ever heard of the Donner Prize. The book would be published. Claire sat on this news for quite a while. Jackson wanted to have a party, off ered to throw a party. But Claire thought it was a time to be quiet. Thankful. Prayerful. The romance was over. Claire married Father Ray.
She still came to see him now and then, when Father Ray was out of town or had a vestry meeting, and they'd make love on the big leather sofa in the living room. She thought she was doing him a favor, and he thought he was doing her a favor, and so it was never very satisfactory. But it was better than nothing.
"You don't need to say anything," she mouthed. Putting her finger to her lips. Then out loud: "I'll go with you to pick up Warren's niece - what's her name?"
"You shouldn't have to face that alone."
The clementines were in a mesh sack. Jackson tumbled them into a glass bowl. "Would anyone like an espresso?" he shouted.
Excerpted from Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga. Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hellenga. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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