A successful photographer, his career using traditional film and processing techniques decimated by the digital revolution, has his privacy ransacked by his much-younger wife, hoping to discover evidence of an affair so she can leave him. What she does find is absolutely mind blowing--rocking her world, like, for-ev-uh.
Esta vida e mas larga de comprida.
Life is wider than it is long.
“And it snowed and it snowed and it snowed….” When she murmured this dreamy phrase it resonated in him like his happy childhood, deep with longing and as unfathomable as the love he felt for her. But he never told her this. Nor did she ever tell him what she was feeling when the phrase first came to her, of her unhappy childhood and its crippling hold upon her. There are so many things we don’t tell each other, oftentimes don’t know how to tell each other until it’s too late.
* * *
It was 2001, a new century, and after twelve years of marriage Winter was so unhappy she wished her husband was having an affair so she could leave him. His body disgusted her. His old, almost fifty year old body. Being near his hairy, stinky body made her thirty-four year old body feel old. His feet were orange.
His bedroom smelled like a fart. He farted in his sleep. Short sharp blats. Long, undulating trumpet tones from his flesh wind instrument. Tired bellows. Deep, dark, thunderous rumblings of disgust. Thank God she had her own bedroom.
All he did was complain and criticize her. She never criticized him. He was an angry, unhappy person. He was sour. His life hadn’t worked out the way he’d hoped. Did that mean he was he supposed to take it out on her?
He was smothering her. She made her email address: TotalAnoxia@hotmail.com. It was a very cool address and it was how she felt—oxygen deprived to the point of permanent tissue damage.
Cliff had to be having an affair. She could tell he didn’t enjoy sex with her. He had to work like a hammer just to keep himself semi-erect, and even then he petered out—until he turned her over and took her from behind and asked her if she’d like to fuck somebody else. Then he could get hard and come. That was the only way.
Two years ago, she’d almost had him, but she’d jumped the gun. Was he fucking the Spanish librarian now? The very girl her one real boyfriend in college had dumped her for. The one with big boobs. Wouldn’t that be the worst! How ironic! If only the email she’d made him open had said it outright! She was so sure she’d had him when she’d snooped his email and seen her name in his inbox, and then saw that he’d PGP’d the message. It bothered her that she even knew the name of encryption software. She’d made him decrypt it in front of her so she could read it. It turned out he was asking to meet her for lunch.
“Why would you want to meet her for lunch?” she’d shrieked, he not knowing her hysteria was coming from realizing he wasn’t having an affair. “It’s a good thing I found this email,” she said. “Otherwise, you would have ended up sleeping with her.”
She knew that was true, and he knew it too, so at least she had him on the run…for awhile.
He’d gotten more careful after that. But now he was slipping again, getting a little too caj about his coming and goings. Men were so easy to read. It was their happiness that betrayed them. If their enthusiasm was rising, they were getting laid. And if it wasn’t with the wife, it sure as hell was with somebody else.
Winter intensified her search. She had an extra motivation now. She was in love. With Jonathan. He was smooth and supple and twenty-seven and he loved her. He told her it was an honor to run with her. An honor. She could see his broad face and soft brown eyes when he said that.
The stage was set: she was making terrific money at her new job, Jonathan was panting for her—but she wouldn’t let herself sleep with him until she was free of Cliff. She wanted her own place so she could have Jonathan over and they could spend the night together. She was getting desperate. She was getting wicked headaches. She was forgetting to do things. She needed to find some way to leave Cliff without telling him the truth. The truth would destroy him. The truth would make her suffer more guilt than she could handle. She needed something simple. An affair. That’s when she found the condoms in his jacket pocket. Even though they used condoms for birth control, she knew they weren’t meant for her.
She would catch him off guard, when he least expected it.
* * *
Cliff traveled back in time thirteen years, to 1988, when he first met Winter. He was driving over to Butler Hospital to pick her up after her Wednesday afternoon appointment with Nidra. On the way, he stopped at Set’s Restaurant and had some hot vegetable soup packed up.
She stood on the front steps, straight and still, her black hat and black wool coat collecting snowflakes. He leaned over and pushed open the car door.
“Have you been waiting long?”
“No. I just came out. I like standing outside. They keep it so overheated inside.”
She wore black tights and the old-fashioned, black “dead lady” shoes, as she called them, with square buckles on the front. She’d unearthed them at her favorite store, Sal’s; her name for the Salvation Army. He found it dear, the funny little terms she had for things. She brought him back to his own youth—before he’d become a thirty-six year old pack-a-day Camel straight smoker, twice married, with enough girlfriends over the years to disgust even himself. Winter was only twenty-one, drank half a dozen Diet Cokes a day and had tried one cigarette in her life. Her love life had so far consisted of a boyfriend in high school and another, sophomore year of college who’d dumped her for a Spanish girl with big boobs. She gave Cliff a peck on the mouth and they drove out.
“What’s this?” she asked, spreading open the mouth of the bag with one monstrously long fingernail.
“I picked up some soup. I thought we might go over to Swan Point and have a little nosh. With the snow, it’ll be pretty. Can you do that?”
“OK,” she smiled, and pushed back into the deeply cushioned seat of the big square Land Rover. “But can you drop me back at my studio after?” It was just a shared student studio at RISD, but she referred to it as if it were her professional studio, the same way students are trained to address each other as “Doctor,” even when they’re still in medical school.
“Sure,” he replied. “I hope you don’t mind that I picked you up in this. I just figured with the snow and all….”
“No. Let the Heartbeat rest. This was a good idea. With the snow. Do you have it in four wheel drive?”
“Yeah baby! We be four-wheelin’! Where’s my baseball cap with the brim on the back? Scootch over here baby, so’s I can see ya betta!”
Winter smiled. She thought Cliff was funny. She also thought he was kind and smart and extremely handsome. She was in love with Cliff so much it made her stomach hurt.
Next door to the stone wall boundaries of Butler Hospital rolled the peaceful acreage of Swan Point Cemetery, and they wended their way through the deserted avenues until they were deep inside a forest of monuments. Snow blanketed the windshield while they ate their soup and bread. When they were finished, Cliff popped open a secret compartment down near his feet and removed a camera. “A little stroll, Cupcake?”
Between the wings of an angel he took pictures of Winter, who stood straight and unaffected. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever known.” She smiled despite herself and he depressed the shutter button. Tchik was the sound the mirror and the shutter inside the camera produced, in that fraction of a second when the mirror flipped up and out of the way and the shutter opened to allow the image to reach the film.
“Oh, but you are—to me.” Tchik. “And that’s all that matters.” Tchik.
“No, I’m not. I look like Shelley Duvall. Kids in high school used to call me Olive Oyl.”
“Kids in high school know squat. They are cruel monsters.” Today, she looked like Madeline in the children’s book of the same name, he thought. Oh, but one must be very careful when, to a woman’s face, comparing her to anything. So, he said nothing.
“My best friend, Stacy, was a cheerleader. She used to try to get me to dress like her so I’d be more popular. I told her I didn’t want to be popular.”
“Why Winter—that’s downright un-American.” Tchik.
“You’re camera is loud.”
“The cemetery is quiet.”
“It’s a loud camera.”
“It’s a brick.” He placed the strap around her neck. The big black camera looked huge in her pale hands. “It’s a Canon F-1. All mechanical. Built in 1973. It was my first serious camera. It still takes wonderful pictures. I love holding it.”
“Until you get used to it.”
“Can I take your picture?”
Winter asked him to sit on a marble bench that had the family name, Sweet, carved into the backrest.
“Is this really how you think of me?” he asked.
“Hold still,” she said, the camera nearly covering her face. Tchik. “Can I take another one?”
“Take as many as you want.”
Winter took several more, and when she lifted the strap off her neck and handed the camera back to Cliff she said, “You really know something’s happening with this.”
“Yeah. Even if there’s no film in the camera, the sound alone is worth it.”
“Is there film in the camera?”
“My dear—there is always film in the camera. You never know when that killer shot is going to present itself.”
* * *
Now, in 2001, looking back thirteen years to that happy day so immaculate, so full of hope, Cliff shuddered as the sweet memory dissolved into a dark and depraved fantasy of ravishing Winter’s mother. Damn! The very thought of it forced the breath out of his mouth in a huff and he thrust his hips forward into the conjured phantasm’s plump derrière. No-no-no-no. Stay away from that! Best to stick with Plan A—little Noreen—and he shrugged the backpack over his big red parka as he got ready to leave for work.
Winter stared pensively out the window over the baptismal font. The falling snowflakes looked big as rose petals. She turned to Cliff, her usually placid countenance a raging fireball.
“Who are you fucking, Cliff?”
He started. Quickly composing himself he turned and cast her a quizzical look. Had her already acute levels of perception reached new heights? Was he now to be denied even the privacy of his own fantasies?
“Do I need to repeat it?” she shrieked, tears cresting in her eyes. “Is it too complicated for you to grasp? Just tell me—who is it?”
“I must tell you,” he replied with calm disdain, “this is very weird.”
“I find this is very weird!” And she held up a foil condom package. “Why are you carrying these around?” she demanded, flinging it into his face. “If you love me, you will tell me the truth. And if you do not tell me the truth,” her voice quavered, “I promise—I will leave you.”
Ambushed like this as he was getting himself together to head downtown, the best plan seemed to be to keep on moving.
“This is crazy,” he mumbled. “I’ve gotta get going. We can talk when I get home. I will see you when I get home—if you are up.”
“I want the truth, Cliff.”
“I will be up.”
With both hands he twisted the iron ring and opened the door.
“I wish I had drowned in Florida!” Winter screamed, tears dripping off her face. “Then you could have your affairs, write your love letters to…librarians and not have to come home to an unhappy, nagging wife!”
Bent into a kind of paralysis, Cliff bowed his head, backed out onto the front steps and pushed the door closed. Winter threw herself against the inside of the door, wailing and pummeling it with her fists.
Christ—the librarian thing again. Would that he was doing Little Miss Reference Desk. No, the condoms were meant for Noreen at work. Maybe. He was hot for her. He was hot for somebody…so best be prepared. He no longer trusted his resolve to keep his hands off other women. Damn—Who would’ve thought she’d be going through his jacket pockets!
Cliff stood on the top step and watched the thick flakes stream through the light of the street lamp. He sighed so deeply a dog trotting down the sidewalk across the street stopped to look over at him. He could go back in, but to what avail? Having nothing brilliant to say at the moment, he hefted his bicycle down the steps and out into the street.
The side streets were deep with snow and he wiggle-woggled ahead, fighting to stay in the troughs cut by automobile tires. “Aaah!” he retched. A half hour ago he’d been humming a little song, getting ready to leave for work. “Now, I am to lose my wife?” he howled.
“Cliff!” It was bony old Rita Tavanian walking one of her six “rescue” dogs, long wool coat wrapped tight about herself and something on her head that looked like one of her dogs curled up. Was this going to be him in another few years?
“Rita!” he shouted back and kept working through the snow.
“What are you doing? Ha!” she demanded with a sharp laugh. Boy, for an old bird, she sure projected with a lot of authority. Craziness can do that.
“Enjoying the snow, Rita!”
“Say hello to Winter for me, will ya!”
Everybody liked Winter. She was young and sweet…never critical—like ol’ sourpuss here, churning away on his bicycle. Crap. What was he doing on this stupid bicycle anyway? Avoiding another fight, that’s what. If the old Land Rover was low on gas, he’d have to ask Winter for money. And what if she needed to use it? Twelve years ago could anyone have thought his life would come to this? When Cliff first met Winter she was a senior at Rhode Island School of Design—RISD—a goddamn art student for chrissake! And he was cruisin’, his commercial photography business a big success with the best accounts in Providence and Boston, some out of New York and even several national accounts. Then, overnight, the digital revolution destroyed his career. Instead of clients paying him thousands a day to do high-quality work, companies were now happy to buy stock images on CD’s and have them tweaked in-house. He was Photoshopped out of a career by computers and finished off by dippy little art directors Winter’s age, sporting tattoos and bad haircuts and fucking pieces of metal jammed through their eyebrows! Kids wanted to work with kids their own age. He was an old man to them.
By the time Cliff reached the gleaming asphalt of well-plowed Broadway he was drenched, both in the sweat of physical toil and the soul’s torment; to say nothing of the fear of losing Winter—the most terrible thing he could imagine.
“Aaaaah!” he let loose again in frustration, not caring who in hell heard him.
* * *
Backing away from the front door, Winter drifted unsteadily from the foyer back into the vastness of Cliff’s studio, which occupied the entire first floor of St. Agatha’s, the church Cliff had converted into a place to work and live. She accidentally knocked over a light stand, then deliberately shoved another, sending it crashing to the floor, the bulb smashing to bits.
“Goddamn you!” she screamed, her anger bouncing off the stone walls, ricocheting off the stained glass window of the Christ child and Joseph and Mary and the little lamb. How could she have been so stupid to stay with this creep for so long? From her parent’s house, to college, to Cliff’s house! She’d given him her whole youth! And what had he given her?
Sure, he didn’t know he had it, but still, he’d ruined her for anybody else. Then he let his whole career slide into the toilet so she had to take this goddamn computer art director job. “I hate it! I hate it! I hate it! I HATE IT! Goddamn you, Cliff! I’m gonna find out who your little fuck-buddy is, then I’m going to leave you!”
Reeling from the studio, she spun into the kitchen and grasping the large chef’s knife with both hands shrieked, “Yaah!” and plunged it into the cutting board where it stuck straight up, quivering.
Staring at the upright knife handle and biting her finger, something flew into Winter’s mind she’d never seriously been tempted to do before. She climbed the narrow spiral stone staircase at the back of the first floor kitchen, up to the second floor living quarters. Doing, their black and white cat was sitting on a ledge in front of a casement window built into the outside wall of the staircase. Winter paused to kiss his head.
“I love you, Winky,” she said, and you would think from the way she said it, she hadn’t a care in the world. Poor Doing had fallen from the high branches of the Norway maple alongside St. Aggie’s when they’d first found him, three years ago, paralyzing the right side of his face. He couldn’t close the outer eyelid on that side, and when they’d discussed what to name him, Winter wanted to call him Winky.
“No way,” scoffed Cliff. “We’re not going to call this little guy Winky.”
“Why not?” asked Winter, trying to hide her hurt.
“Why not? Because it sounds…disabled.”
“But he is disabled,” protested Winter.
“Maybe only temporarily. You don’t want to give him a complex.”
A week or so later, Cliff came up with the name, Doing, because Winky was always doing things, and Winter went along with it. But privately she called him Winky, and he never did regain the feeling on the right side of his face. Sometimes, he was able to close the outer eyelid, almost.
Reaching the second floor, she walked quickly down the hallway, pausing only to look through the open doorway into her ivory bedroom. The snow glistened on the French doors that opened out onto her bedroom balcony. Snow outlined the thick wisteria vine that coiled and wove itself through the balcony railing. She loved her room and wanted to stand out on the balcony and feel the snow on her face but dared not, that she might lose the nerve for her mission.
At the end of the hall was a door that lead up a narrow set of stairs to the third and topmost floor. This third floor was entered through an ancient oak door, riven and scarred yet so thick that it remained sturdier than any modern door. Looking at it in the dim light a shudder went through Winter and she felt suddenly afraid. An ominous sound—just her ears ringing from the intense silence?—seemed to be warning her away. She turned around and looked back down the hallway. What was she supposed to do—retreat meekly to her former life?
“No way!” she exclaimed, her voice echoing up the staircase, and she marched resolutely upward. On the small landing she grasped the scrollwork doorknob and gave it a hard twist. Locked!
“Freak,” she muttered. But Mr. Security had shown her a long time ago where he kept the key—“In case I suddenly bite the big one or get hit by a bus.” Next to the door was a niche in the wall in which sat the bronze head of a young girl. Cliff had bought her at auction years ago at the closing of the old Shepherd’s Department Store downtown. Her life had been spent as a hat display. Slipping her finger into the girl’s small mouth, she slid the key out from the back of her tongue. It occurred to Winter that she and the bronze bust resembled one another.
* * *
On the wide stretch of gleaming Broadway, Cliff pedaled along easily. The bike tires sizzled over the wet asphalt and the speed cooled his face. Snow was stacking up on the tree branches reaching out over the road. A jet flew overhead above the clouds, and Cliff thought of his father.
Henry Hall was buried on a bright, hot September morning in Pensacola, Florida. After a packed mass at St. John’s Church, the motorcade stretching a half mile long drove to Barrancas National Cemetery, on the grounds of the Pensacola Naval Air Station. There, beneath a shady canopy of naval live oaks festooned with hanging clumps of gray Spanish moss, his father’s flag draped coffin rested beside the grave.
A male and female Marine Honor Guard lifted the flag from the coffin with precise ceremony, folding it into a triangle and presenting it to Cliff’s mother who sat in the front row with Cliff and his brothers. Father McIlvane (“Mackerel Brain” to many a young parishioner), the Monsignor of St. John’s, stood solemnly in his vestments behind the casket and sprinkled holy water upon it. He recited prayers and finally intoned in his soft Irish brogue: “May his soul and souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.” There was a dead silence. It was over. But then suddenly, the leaves overhead began to stir and a gathering, shattering force burst over the scene. One!…Two!…Three!…Six fighter jets roared overhead in succession just above the treetops, obliterating every stray thought, every imagining, everything. Then, and only then, in the dying fall, in the pulverized air that sifted down like invisible snow, was it over. And to this day, Cliff could not hear an unseen jet passing overhead without remembering his father and his last words:
“Be satisfied with yourself.”
(End, Chapter One)