Millie Zook! Millie, Millie, Millie, Joyce thought over and over as she watched her sister. Why can't you forgive me for what has never taken place? Why do you fear what can never happen? Why do you relentlessly compete with me for the prize I'd always have conceded -- gladly have conceded -- if there'd actually been any contest? And on top of that, Joyce reflected, the poor girl's malentendu had led her to assume a way of life whose outcome would have left Joyce utterly powerless. Even if Joyce hadn't loved Millie more and more as the years passed! Even if Millie hadn't become the nexus of the only genuinely good moments in Joyce's own crummy life!
'My precious little sister,' Joyce wanted to up and say many a time, 'Love is cooperative; competition diffuses it.' But Millie wouldn't have known what Joyce was talking about. And Millie competed. The child, of course, was no bodkin- wielding minx. Millie's maxims were womankind's muliebral mightiest: be beautiful, be pregnant. Always the former, Millie was often the latter. Her body had filled the Zook household with a swarm of darlings. Her soul had restored music and laughter to the house's echoes. Her being had regenerated purpose in Elwood Zook's life. That alone guaranteed the foolish girl a place only Millie Zook could ever occupy.
"Look at him out there, Sweetdoll," Ray was saying to Millie as Joyce tuned back in on the world. "Regular old Grossdawdy now, he is," Ray said pointing in the direction of Mr. Zook. Ray let the chair ease onto the deck, slowly rotated his legs off the railing, stood, came to the swing and knelt before Millie and the baby. The baby released her mother's nipple and cooed at Ray, and he kissed its forehead. Then he pressed its tiny hand against his lips, and looked at Millie, who'd been looking at him. In a moment, he released the hand and slowly stood up, Millie's gaze tracking his ascent. He cradled Millie's head in both his hands, adjusted her gaze to his and smiled for several seconds. Then he squatted, nuzzled the interface between the baby's silky crown and the bare of Millie's breast and simultaneously kissed them both.
Doesn't she know? Joyce thought as she watched them: I sit beside her but am a universe away. Ray returned to the porch railing. Millie looked at Joyce and attempted a weak smile. Her expression was like the plea of a child who clutches a rag doll, fearful that her older sister will snatch it away. Joyce felt guilty for just being alive.
It was very true. Joyce and Ray were friends. And it was also true that the caveat "just" would have had the same inanity as "just" before mother and babe. Ray was not the kind of person who could love and not show affection. And he and Joyce were close -- kissing close, hugging close, touching close. They admired, trusted and enjoyed each other. Admittedly, Joyce had had a fleeting desire for him (and was sure he'd had the same for her); but that passed quickly. No! That was not the precise way to put it: The desire had redirected itself and had become part of the energy of a sister- brother bond. A bond that can endure anything. Anything but incest. Once, when it was obvious that Ray's hand on Joyce's shoulder was torturing Millie, Joyce considered openly discussing the subject. But it was too, too complex. Something would surely be spoiled, misunderstood, dislocated, transfigured, or just plain fucked up in the telling. Then, for a while, Joyce tried not visiting. Ray soon called. "Are you all right, dear?" She couldn't out- and- out lie to him. Nor could she attempt the preposterous truth. She had no alternative but to resume her trips to the farm, in spite of Millie's betise.
And Joyce didn't kid herself, either. The precious hours with the Zooks were virtually the only moments when knew any real joy. For her life plain stank.
Joyce had been right about her talents for the law and for politics. "My brain was invented for just this profession," she once confided to an aide. But she'd badly underestimated the trenchancy of sexual discrimination. Law school had been to her realworld what the County Jail is to Devil's Island. Nor had her father's warnings really prepared her for the spiritual sinkholes she found at the courthouse, state legislature and party conclaves. Once, after the slime pit sickened her, she deluded herself into thinking that maybe being Mrs. Roger Winfield was the most she could expect. She flew off to Marseilles, met his ship, dragged him down to the Spanish Riviera and got pregnant. After she miscarried, she considered divorce. But she didn't push it, at first because the bother didn't seem worth it and, later, because she found that a wedding band could help talk a colleague's hand out of her dress without inducing the concomitant withdrawal of his political support.
When Roger's ship went to Korea, she sold her interest in the law firm, resigned her seat in the General Assembly and went to Tokyo. When he wasn't at sea, they sometimes even had fun. After he returned to the comparative safety of the Mediterranean, she moved to New York, worked as the political editor of a woman's magazine, and then the woman's editor of a political magazine. She had a short, torrid tryst with a New York Giant football player, a long tepid assignation with a Wall Street banker; and she started out one evening on what held the exciting promise of a one night stand with a Brooklyn homicide detective; but which ended abruptly when he begged her to handcuff him to the bedstead and beat his bare buttocks with an ironing cord he said was his mothers; and which he said he always carried with him. (A month later he shot the top of his head off with his service revolver.)
After Roger was transferred to Pearl, she joined him and tried to practice civil law. After her practice flopped, she volunteered to teach Victorian and Edwardian literature evenings at the university. But no one signed up for the course. Still she and Roger were almost happy in Hawaii. She didn't fool around, not even while he was at sea. When he transferred to the Pentagon, she established residence in the district where the Zooks live and made a run for Congress.
Unopposed in the primaries, she won the party's nomination, ostensibly because "The Lady" gave the ticket "class" (most authentically pronounced over a mouthful of cigar juice). The political reality, though, was that the multi- termed incumbent seemed invincible to her party's pols. Nor did Joyce suffer any illusions, herself. Her objective (aside from fighting ennui) was to accomplish two things. First, build a base among the district's untapped and nonvoting female constituency. Second (Every good Lady should come to the aid of the...) she could use her oratory prowess to gain visibility within the state party (where ne'er an eye ever missed the glint of a comely pair of legs, either).
Then events took an interesting and complex series of unforeseeable turns. First, the incumbent dropped dead (on the Capitol steps, no less) just as the formal campaign season started. Second, the opposition substituted a sheriff who ('shucks folks') forgot to mention to his party's moguls that he was under federal investigation for conspiracy to violate the narcotics act. The sheriff at least had the decency (eventually) to pull out of the race. The Lady, among her own party pros, suddenly became prime political meat, if not on the hoof, certainly on the spiked heel. And with the smell of a freshly unlidded barrel of political pork in the air, no one in the state machine wanted to be left out of the landslide victory the Lady was rapidly approaching, come November. And with a view to the future, Joyce used her campaign not merely to win the upcoming election, but to create a machine in her own political image. Of course her original supporters, the gasconade and wet- ended cigar boys, were entitled to due recompense. And after Joyce handily won, she demonstrated to all who beheld that she fully understood the value of paying off legitimate political debts.
Washington sure did rid her of boredom, oh boy! She found little time for self- pity. And for the first time in her life, she wasn't merely a cute little ass and a nifty pair of knockers. True, her new world very much belonged to men. True, it was a domain of urinals and cuspidors and cigar lighters and shoe shine chairs. And, true, she found herself at the far end of things in the House. But she was also a novelty. And if you were a five- term congressman from Saginaw, it did not escape your notice that posturing yourself next to the newsworthy new toy in town was one way of getting your picture to the voting folk back home. For the first time in her life she could fortify suasion with force. Command was implicit in her pleasantly put requests. Her soft gloves covered brass knuckles. Of course, her power was limited. But it was real power. Wow was it power! "Washington is [and in the privacy of her office she'd kick her shoes high in the air, extend both arms out to the sides and, shaking her head, wrists ankles and hinny, sing out] my kind of town."
The hurly- burly let her accommodate to the void of her inner reality. Yet on occasion, in the lull after a very long day, in the pause from the world at large, during the five- minute smoke and water break from the double- time march of her way of life, Joyce would steal off, alone, find a bed or a couch, throw herself face down and permit herself one brief tear. For what Joycey? Why? And her mind would answer, not with words but with a picture of a suckling babe and a strong man knelt in devotion to his wife's motherhood.
The morning had been fairly typical: one little crisis saltatorially following the next -- pop! pop! pop! -- like a string of fire crackers, no one by itself a significant distraction, but the collectivity threatening to... "Shit!!!" First came a phone call from a desperate father whose son was at Parris Island. Yes the commandant assured her, he'd personally see to it that the boy wrote home. Next came a roll call vote. Then an aborted roll call vote. Then a hundred American Beauty roses to figure out how discreetly not to accept from the lobbyist for the fishing industry ("Bob, while I cannot accept your gift, personally, I am forwarding these lovelies in your name to the...") Then a fist fight to break up in the hallway between the chairmen of two of her important subcommittees. Then another roll call vote. Then a bourbon- sipping tête- à- tête with the assistant majority whip (whom she truly admired). Then a thank- you note to Eleanor Roosevelt (hand written, of course). Then the new administrative assistant suffering from the mumps who had to be cajoled, and, finally, downright ordered to Bethesda.
Over a club sandwich lunch at her desk, Joyce finally managed to write the first page of her speech. She was just beginning to get into it, just starting to discern the first rushes of excitement in her phrases, just sensing her mind quicken, just appreciating a new clarity in her words, just...And the intercom cackled. "Jesus Christ," she declared, inaudibly except for a hiss on Christ.
"Yes dear?" she responded to her receptionist's voice.
"I'm real sorry to disturb you again, Mizez Winfield. But your sister is on the line, long distance."
Omygod! Something's happened to one to the babies. Ray's fallen from a ladder. I just know it, I just know, I just know it! "Hello, Millie?" Joyce gasped into the receiver.
"Hello Joyce. I hate to bother you in the middle of the day like this. But I just got a call from Ray's brother. From Asa. I was talking to him just before I called you, in fact. He's coming home this weekend. Something about having to be in New York next week. And he especially asked about you. About seeing you, I mean. I said I'd call right away and ask if maybe you and Roger would like to come up?"
Wants to see me? Asa Zook wants to see meee, Joyce tried to ask. But sound would not come out of her.
"Are you there, Joyce? Have we been cut off? Operator, operator!"
Joyce took a deep breath. "I'm still here, dear. Why yes. Yes, of course I...I don't know what Roger's plans are. But, yes. I can be there. I'll have to look at my calendar. And I don't know specifically for how long. But, look, I'll have Pam Peterson call you with details, okay? And Millie." Joyce wanted to say, I love you, I love you, I love you. You're the most darling, considerate, precious, sweetest, understanding, lovable sister any woman ever had, ever, ever, ever! But she added, "Thank you very much dear," exchanged good- byes and hung up.
Joyce took a handkerchief from her purse and mopped cold sweat from her palms and lips. Asa Zook. Wants to see me? My Asa Zook? Now Joycey. No romantic fantoccini today. And no inveigling plots, either.
She lifted her pen to resume the draft of her speech. But her desultory notions would not coagulate into ideas. What thoughts she did form were quickly sucked down a drain in the floor of her soul. The only morphemes her consciousness willing held were those that added up to "Asa Zook." Pam Peterson would have to write the speech.
Roger didn't care, truly, not at all, he insisted when Joyce said it wasn't his kind of gig but that she simply had to be there. He'd wanted to do some extra flying anyway, he said. And by all means she should go and think not another thing about it. He could be such a darling when the occasion called for it. And this was such an occasion.
It was sprinkling lightly in Georgetown when Pam Peterson picked her up, but the skies had cleared by the time they reached the airport. The line for the shuttle was short. Good. Joyce disliked bumping lines. In Newark, a reporter spotted her at the Hertz counter, and she granted him a brief interview about her children's mental health bill while the car was on its way around.
Driving along, she started to wonder. What does one talk about to an Asa Zook? Civil rights? Child psychology? Joe McCarthy? She knew he was a doctor and taught at a medical school somewhere, but Ray still referred to him as a philosopher. What can a philosopher do in medicine?
What did he look like now? Fat? Bald? Would it matter to her? Or had he become suave. Had academic life turned him urbane?
Why did he want to see her after all these years? Maybe he wants to get into politics? Maybe just into my pants? Shame on you Joyce Page! Then she giggled. "I don't have any on."
Could I make him want me now? She adjusted the rear view mirror and examined her face. Would he take me? Or was he still a prisoner of that philosophical horseshit? Toasted marshmallows. The fool. The blessed fool. My Asa Zook.
Come on Joycey, you've got a road to watch. And you're hatching monsters for yourself.
She shifted her attention to the blighted country she was passing through. What a shame. But the ugliness didn't hold her attention. How will I be spending this weekend? Sitting around, little children climbing all over, bringing Teddy bears and pet toads? Expounding on the cost of atomic submarines? Listening to Millie's recipe for stuffed peppers? Asa favorites, Ray had once remarked. Maybe rocking the baby (and dying to suckle it)? Wondering when her sister would be carrying another watermelon under her dress? Admiring Zook men? Suffering unrelieved horniness for one Zook man?
Quit it with the sex talk, Joycey. She jabbed the selector buttons and made the radio yield news.
Anyway, maybe he was married. Maybe he'll be smoking a pipe, wearing Harris tweed and sporting a Radcliffe Aphrodite on one arm. The bitch! I'll scratch out her eyes. Joyce laughed. A police siren caused her to glance at the speedometer. "Mygod," she slowed and pulled onto the shoulder when she realized that the cruiser was after her. The state trooper recognized her at once. She apologized, admitted being indefensibly in the wrong, and insisted that he cite her. He flatly refused, said he'd voted for her, would again, and extracted the promise that she not exceed seventy.
It was after lunch as she turned into the west end of the Zook's U- shaped driveway, and (careful for kittens and children! ) slowly eased around back. Millie's oldest son Timothy ran to the car and hugged her. Mr. Zook followed, shook her hand and took her suitcase from the back seat. Millie, surrounded by tots, uncharacteristically animate, appeared on the porch waving a wooden spoon and blowing kisses of hello. (Was she pregnant so soon?) Ray emerged from a work shed and shouted something (presumably sweet) over the whine of a power saw. Where is Asa, Joyce almost blurted. Then she saw a man on his way from the woods, crossing the field. When he reached two large mounds at the back of the garden, she saw that it was...it really was Asa Zook. Her Asa Zook.
At Asa's suggestion, Joyce had changed into jeans. Millie let her borrow a pair of boots. But no one, except Joyce, seemed at all surprised when he'd asked her to take a walk in the woods with him.
"Poppa is working the farm again," he observed as they strode through the plow- softened field. "Millie has picked up where my mother left off. Love and life have returned to this land." She was startled when he took her hand. "A freshly plowed field can be tricky on the ankles," he advised. Damn it, she thought. The hand was an offer of philosophy, not romance. But it was still the firm gentle hand she'd once briefly held And had never really forgotten. She was at least holding it again.
He looked much older than his years, she'd apprehended right away. A thin streak of gray passed through the front of his hair. Crow's feet were already evident at the corners of his eyes. He was ten or twelve pounds too thin for his clothing. Pale, veritably sallow, he showed the wastage of punishing, sustained fatigue, and she wondered if he ever slept. Yet he seemed very well rested today. And very cheerful. Much more so than she would have imagined possible for him. And he talked freely, although not casually, to his father, brother, nieces and nephews, and -- most surprisingly of all -- to Millie, whom he clearly accepted as a full- fledged member of his immediate family. Joyce felt left out. Oh well, at least she was here.
"I wanted you to see something I discovered this morning," he said as they crossed the wood line. "There was a time when I gauged the progress of spring by them."
Wanting to keep the surprise intact, but needing to participate, Joyce asked, "When was that, Asa?"
"When I was growing up."
They forded a brook, tiptoeing over rocks, he catching her by the waist when she nearly slipped, she wanting in vain for him to kiss her when they reached the other side. In a small clearing, they came to a pond less than ten feet wide and hidden by a tall stand of last year's grass.
"Here we are," he announced. He pointed down at the clear water. Joyce looked. At the bottom were several clumps of what seemed like submerged snowballs.
"What are they, Asa?"
"Salamander eggs. Most clutches are opalescent. But here, let me find a clear one for you to examine." He took off his jacket, rolled up his chambray sleeves, got down on hands and knees and peered over the bank. After a moment he said, "There's an excellent one." Joyce looked but saw nothing. Asa reached in and brought up what at first seemed like a dripping hand, but which soon turned out to be a quivering mass of clear jelly. Embedded in the jelly, Joyce could see tiny, brown something- or- others.
"Here Joyce, you take them." She cupped her hands, and he poured her the tremulous mass. "Ooh, it's cold," she said. as the gelid treasure registered in her perception.
"Pass them slowly from hand to hand until your skin adjusts to the temperature change," he advised.
In the jelly she could see that the brown things were actually elongated. And curved. Then she realized..."Oh, Asa. It moved. Yes they all move. Oooh! But what keeps them curled...Wait! I think I see. They're in a clear little shell inside the jelly, aren't they?"
"Yes. They are separated from each other, each embryo in its own egg casing." Asa reached into his pants pocket and produced a collapsible magnifying glass. "Here, Joyce let me hold the mass so that you can take a closer look."
Joyce exchanged prizes. With magnification she could see that, yes indeed, "Oh they really, really are darling little creatures. They have eyes! When will they hatch from the jelly?"
"It depends on the weather. I'd judge in about three weeks. By then their natural food will also have hatched."
"Natural food? What do they eat?"
"Virtually anything motile and small enough for them to swallow. In this pond, mainly daphnia and mosquito larvae."
"Daphnia are very beautiful under the microscope, Joyce. It's almost sad to see one vanish into a salamander's mouth."
"Daphnia. It's a beautiful name. Asa, are these little fellows hungry now?" ***
"No." He held the mass high between his spread fingers, and gestured for her to peek at them from underneath. "Look at their ventral surfaces, Joyce." Why didn't he just flip the mass over, she wondered, momentarily, and then realized that the little fakers slid right side up no matter how you held them. She crouched and followed Asa's instructions.
A soft material seemed to distend the salamander's abdomen. What was that, she asked. "Yolk," he answered. "It fills their intestines. They're using it up rapidly now to fuel their growth. They won't hatch until the yolk is gone and the alimentary canal is entirely hollowed out. Their hunting instincts and feeding reactions will appear coincident with that. Their development is coordinated with the world they will be swimming out to greet."
"Asa?" She looked at him. "How does something as magnificent as this actually happen? I mean, how is it all orchestrated?"
"Until a few short days ago, I could not have given you a satisfactory answer. It is Nature's memory at work, Joyce. At least that is what my investigations have recently led me to conclude."
"Remembering to come alive again because spring is coming back to life." Joyce astonished herself. Asa should have made the observation, she thought, not the likes of me. "Does it make you feel as though there must be a God, Asa?"
"It makes me feel that Nature loves life very dearly, more so perhaps than any other attribute."
"It's a symphony of love, Asa. It means very much to you, I know. And...And you're extending its importance to me. That's why you brought me out here, isn't it. To share with me what's most precious to you."
"That is partly true," he answered.
No, she thought. He really shouldn't spoil it. Not here in front of...of their babies. They should wait at least until...
"Let us return the embryos to the water, Joyce," he said, pouring the mass back into her hands.
She almost asked him to do it, then almost asked for advice about where to replace them. But no! He was honoring her in some way. She'd been promoted to tenderfoot and was obliged to carry out her role in the sacred ritual. She slowly dropped to her knees on the bank. Her sleeves were not rolled up, she realized. Too late Tenderfoot Joyce, she thought. The act is in progress. The show must go on!. What's a wet sleeve in the name of the cause. She looked among the submerged snowballs, transferred the viscid cargo to her right hand and slowly lowered it to its cold, aqueous nestling place. She withdrew her dripping arm and blew their babies a kiss.
She turned and looked up at Asa, proud of herself, seeking his approval. He smiled, and she knew she'd managed somehow to do the right thing. "Let's walk out into the sunshine and allow your sleeve to dry off," he suggested. He took her hand, led her through the woods, over an outcropping of rock and into a pasture. He senses my anticipation, she thought, for he gently squeezed her hand. And she squeezed back. And now she did want him. Badly. Even right here in the open, if that's what he decided.
They soon came to an ancient rail fence. "This was here before my father and mother moved onto the land. It is cedar from the woods just over there." He pointed.
He gave her his hand and helped her climb the fence. A few yards into the thicket, they came across another small pond. It also contained salamander snow balls. "They are not quite as advanced in development as the others. But I used to imagine that the fence rails we just negotiated came from right here where we are standing. It was a postulation, of course. I used to imagine that a fallen tree had dammed up the brook, created the pond and thus made a new breeding place for salamanders. The tree's death had contributed to the new life here and thus to the regeneration of springtime. Of course, my speculations were for amusement, not enlightenment."
They returned to the pasture and sat under a lone tree.
"It's a darling story, though, Asa. Its poetry makes it true for me."
Now he took both her hands. "I am wise enough now to grow old, Joyce. I love you. I have since the moment we met. And I shall through my last instant of life."
"I love you, too, Asa." She moved close to him.
"I do not mean in the carnal sense, Joyce." He gently held her away. "I mean the love of soul upon soul. The essences of what we are."
Joyce felt the words register in her brain. No, not register!. Bounce around inside her skull like spilled ping- pong balls. And in her head, her brain suddenly went into a severe cramp. It was the beach all over again. Her choked throat refused let air pass freely in and out of her lungs. She could see her hands trembling, but her arms were so devoid of feeling that the hands might as well have belonged to somebody else. What sensations she did feel were hot tears streaming down her cheeks. And she could hear some other Joyce Page emitting sobs. Then he was drawing her close to him and holding her head tightly against his chest and kissing her hair.
"I know. I do know," he was saying. "I understand. And I too have powerful desire for you. I do. But we must carefully parse our emotions and not confuse one for another. We must avoid being overwhelmed by the intensity of the moment."
She relaxed against him and let him comfort her. She was an animal with its leg caught in a trap, hopelessly clamped between the need to scream in protest against this ridiculous insanity and the fear that if she did she'd be rejecting the most love this man could possibly offer. She put her arms around his waist. "I understand, Asa," she lied.
Joyce rolled over and faced the unseen wall. The rest of the day had been a swirl of unlistened- to prattle and pissy kids crawling all over her and her voice on automatic pilot. And uncertainty. Now she didn't even have tears. If there were some way of activating the forces of the universe and running time back to the beginning of her life, she'd do so and intervene to make herself never happen at all. But she wasn't lamenting. She wasn't analyzing. She wasn't trying to sort anything out or understand anything at all. She'd reached out for life, for the offer to give and receive love, and her hand had come back clutching pure void. Her soul was in a vacuum. "Help," she heard her detached, weak and weary voice utter in the darkness.
And then she was turning to the edge of the bed. And her bare feet were finding the cool floor. And she was pulling on her kimono. And she was opening the door. And she was moving down the hallway. And she was twisting a knob. And she was looking into a strange black space.
As an unexpected slap in the face, on flashed a light in one corner of the unfamiliar room. Her sensibilities became moribund when a voice called softly, "Joyce." It was Asa Zook calling from his bed.
Joyce covered her mouth and whispered through her fingers. "Oh. Excuse me." She was about to lie, about to say that she'd been looking for the bathroom. But her sanity wasn't obeying. For she did not lie. She did not step back out of the doorway. She entered the room, closed the door behind her, went to his bed and sat down.
"I would get up," he said. "But I am naked." He laughed lightly, and that helped her to talk.
She spoke in low but not whispered tones, unemotionally, as though rendering a deposition of the facts, as if acting in the capacity of a disinterested friend of the court, here merely to bring the case to a factual and equitable conclusion. She described her life, chronicled the highlights of the past years, elaborated on her marriage. She went back to her girlhood. And she revealed for the first time to anyone her nights in her room with Sandburg and Whitman and Browning and Keats; of her love of them; of her fantasies. And of her personification of human decency with a fictional Asa Zook. She discussed Millie and Ray. And she described the bleak, total loneliness of her life after she met the real Asa Zook; of the unrelieved emptiness even after she no longer consciously thought of his name. She'd given herself totally and thoroughly to her career in the manner of one who turns the radio up to blaring in order to avoid what is really being said. He had, after all, called her. He had, after all, initiated the current chain of events. Platonic love -- and she used the term correctly -- she could not comprehend. Know of it, yes, intellectually and even intuitively. But she could not fully or truly give or receive love with words alone. As a boy on a beach, he had presumed, and thereby hurt her deeply, almost mortally, she realized now. As a man, the selfsame fallacious premises had virtually stripped away her desire to exist.
Asa listened without comment, question, gesture or sound; listened as though her words were empirical data to be carefully taken in, circumspectly set into logical order and minutely analyzed for theoretical validity. She expected no reply. And when she finished, she sat for a silent moment, merely to collect herself and let her weary brain shift smoothly from the talking to the walking mode. Just as she was about to rise, he reached up behind him and turned off the light. She felt the bed give slightly beneath her, and then the touch of his hand. Even now he misunderstands, she said to herself. For she had not come here for this. She wasn't even sure if she could ever want him again. Or if she'd ever have another desire of any kind for the rest of her life.
Before she could stand without obviously tearing herself away, he was holding her. Ah, what the hell! Let him fuck me and get it over with. What do I care any more. No! Maybe I should shove him off. Let him know what it's like. But she hadn't come here for spite, either. Just merely to say an honorable good- bye. Good- bye to fantasy. Good- bye to the inventions of childhood. To Sandburg words from an imaginary Asa Zook's mouth. To Asa Zook. To her Asa Zook.
She was beginning to cry. The warm tears and his gentle caresses registered through her numbness.
The warmth of his body began to thaw hers. What was tolerable now became pleasant. Pleasant gave way to enjoyable; enjoyable became pleasurable; and pleasurable became desire. He was kissing and caressing her, and in ways and places where she'd never been kissed or caressed before. He was seducing her, bit by inexorable bit. And she was being seduced chunk by inexorable chunk. He was undressing her. He was exploring her. But not until his lips and hands and tongue had transmuted willing to wanting, and passion to all out lust, not until then did he take her.
Nor was the taking sudden or violet, but progressive, and in perfect counterpoint with her own continuously elevating pitch. She felt what she took to be her first feeble orgasm. Then another of greater intensity. Another. Another. Another. And just as she was anticipating his violent male explosion, a sensation began deep within her; a sensation that, if she were turned inside out, would have been an excruciatingly itchy back. It grew in intensity. Grew until she wanted to...no until she actually did scream out. And try to escape. No. Not get away. Yes/no! Do/don't! Then without warning, every muscle in her body went into contracture and she convulsed as though she'd been transformed into a giant vacuum cleaner whose sole purpose was to suck his entirety into herself. And then a spasm of pure spastic paralysis. And an explosive release of something inside her she was sure were the walls of her immortal soul being blasted to the far reaches of kingdom come. Then she fell limp and semiconscious.
Asa was holding her when That passed. He kissed her gently on the lips. For a moment she lay flaccid in his embrace. Then...
Joyce awoke in Asa's arms. He kissed her lightly and asked, "Was that your first orgasm, Joyce?"
Is that what That was? How do I reply? With truth, of course! "Yes, if that's what That was, Asa."
"It was an orgasm, Joyce. I suspected from your reactions that the experience was new to you. And therefore, I held back on my own on the chance that you might want another." She explored herself and found, indeed, an absence of the usual disgusting male wetness.
"Is it possible, Asa?"
"For you, yes. After you have rested."
She'd take his word for it. He was obviously the expert. Say, where did he learn all this? Not in medical school, surely. She smiled. Am I jealous? So this is what ails Millie. She knows what it's like. And it's what makes her radiate, too. I never had any idea! Her smile broadened. And I thought I'd have to be the one to teach him what to do. Joycey, who was the presumptuous one? Asa Zook, Asa Zook, Asa Zook. Maestro of all you do, if you do it at all. Even loving a woman. Now she searched out his lips and gave him a powerful kiss. Then she went back to sleep.
It was near dawn when she awoke again. He was out of bed, at the window. He turned when the bedclothes rustled, said nothing, but walked back, crawled in and via a wholly different erotic route (totally new to her), took her to the same paroxysmal end. And when she was awake the next time, the sun was shining, the birds were chirping and he was fully dressed over at the desk writing furiously.
"Good morning," she sang out. He turned, grinned and came to the foot of the bed.
"You look radiant this morning, Joyce."
"I feel radiant, Asa."
"Are you hungry?"
"As a matter of fact...Oh my god, Asa. It's morning and everybody's up. How can I sneak out of here without..."
"They know you are in here."
Joyce covered her mouth with both hands. "How will I ever face any of them?" She giggled. It was a delightful predicament, really. But! "Asa, your father...."
"They will all share our happiness, Joyce, my father more so than the rest."
Joyce went for a shower wearing Asa's bathrobe instead of her kimono. (Since she was found out anyway, she may as well relax and enjoy it all, while it lasted.) He'd said he would shower with her but wanted to get a few notes together for a lecture he'd give in New York tomorrow. On her way back to her room to dress, she paused at the stairwell to listen to the laughter and music coming from downstairs.
My this was a spacious house, she thought while combing her hair. Asa had said something about a hike. She started for her jeans. Maybe a skirt would be easier. "Sex fiend!" On second thought, she'd better wear the jeans. Sonofagun, though, she was already starting to get horny again. She'd had absolutely no idea!
Millie and Asa were alone in the kitchen, he at the table drinking black coffee, Millie at the work counter wrapping sandwiches in wax paper. Millie turned. "Good morning," she sang out in the warmest greeting Joyce had ever received from her sister. Ever! And even in her housecoat, Millie seemed aglow with utter beauty.
Joyce walked to her sister and kissed her. "Thank you, Millie," Joyce said. Millie stopped what she was doing, placed her arms around Joyce's neck and smiled as she'd never smiled at Joyce before.
"You're beautiful this morning," Millie said. Then she kissed Joyce and added, "It's this house, dear. It's as though there's a magic spell cast over it. It makes a woman feel truly beautiful."
"It is the cumulation of love," Asa said.
"A spell of love," Joyce decided.
Ray entered carrying the baby. Soon Mr. Zook came in, entrained by the rest of Millie's brood. "Who's going to church with me?" Ray asked.
Everyone else had had breakfast hours ago. Mr. Zook started to pour himself a cup of coffee, but Millie insisted she wait on "Poppa." Mr. Zook said he'd sit down a couple of minutes and get a little better acquainted with "Joyce." (It had always been Mrs. Winfield before.) Joyce wondered if she might have the privilege of calling Papa Zook, Poppa. "Mr. Zook," she started to ask.
"Call me Elwood, if you'd like."
"I'd rather call you..." Poppa's face became animated as he awaited the end of her sentence. "...Poppa. May I?" And before she could restrain herself, she was holding one of his great hands in both of hers.
Poppa spoke. "You and Millie remind me of my wife, Loretta." He did not have to add, for his face said it all: and we've restored what Loretta originally brought to this sacred place, what the Loretta Zooks of the world always bring to all places such as this. And Joyce could not shake the thought that the knowing face she now beheld was also communicating: And you too Joyce Page. She leaned forward and kissed Poppa Zook on the cheek.
Joyce was winded and her legs had become weary. Asa must have sensed it, for he asked, "Would you like to stop for a rest?"
"I'm afraid I'm...just...not used to this sort of life, Asa." She eased to the ground and rested her back against a tree.
"I am out of shape, too, I discover," he said, easing down beside her.
"What about us, Asa? Specifically? There are several complications. Roger, for one. I can't just amputate him like a gangrenous toe. And I don't want to damage his career or hurt his ego. Nor my own career. It isn't ambition with me, Asa. Not any more. I'm very good at politics. And I think what I stand for is good. One person can count, if the person wants to count. And...I'm almost ashamed to mention this. I must avoid a sordid scandal."
She was beginning to appreciate the pragmatic side of his previous position, she said. But to plain hell with pragmatics. She was a romantic, in the end, she asserted. Her effectiveness as a politician issued from her brand of romanticism. Snuggling close to him, and horny, and having loved and been loved for the first time in her life, she sensed her full capabilities not only as a woman. "But as a total human being." Because of this precious thing they'd consummated, finally, she thought, she had an infinity of herself to give to the world. And she could not, as the logicians say, both/and: both give up his love and also love the world. Take him away from her now and she'd fast become "just one of the old Hill Boys." Nor could she simply chuck the world, transform into his squaw and still deserve her Asa Zook. "What do you think, Asa?"
He saw no basic conflict between their love and her work. "Our love exists, immutably as long as we are." They would meet when, where and how they could.
"I don't see how I'll be able to stand it when we're not together," she said.
"You will find it possible when you resume your daily routine."
"Will you, Asa?"
She recalled a piece of verse she'd found handwritten on the flyleaf of a library book back at Bryn Mawr and recited it for him. "Their lives were suspended between the moments when they met."
"I would not like to think of us in this way, Joyce. For the emphasis in the verse is on the physical side of the union. Our love, Joyce, we carry wherever we go. We are our love."
She raised their interlocked hands and kissed his fingers. She hoped he was right, prayed he was right. But she thought of Millie and Ray and the children and Poppa. Of what Joyce Page would not have. And she thought to herself, Asa Zook is wrong once again.
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved. May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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