A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — Georges Seurat. Art Institute of Chicago
A Grand Adventure
by Gina Willner-Pardo
Her elderly mother’s death left Laila Rayburn untethered, a condition she had never experienced. She had only herself to consider: She had no children, her friends were the sorts of people who were always on book tours or hiking through Tuscany, and her ex-husband—with whom she’d cultivated a distant cordiality after he left their twenty-year marriage—was living in Florida. She and Marcus, her partner — “boyfriend” seemed undignified when applied to people their age — kept separate houses and prided themselves on the extent to which they accorded each other space and privacy. She was free from Elsa’s rageful sovereignty at last. Secretly, without shame, she’d long prayed for her own deliverance.
Of course, Marcus’s sons were at the service: Ian, an adjunct professor of English in Oregon, had flown in for the day and Dale requested bereavement leave from the bank. Laila marveled that they were so clear-headed, sure of themselves, politely pontifical, forward-moving. She felt she often dithered in their presence, contradicted and second-guessed herself, and occasionally startled them with particularly implausible and indefensible stances that (she was embarrassed to admit) she had taken in a misguided effort to impress them.
After the service, Marcus wrapped her in his arms. “You okay?”
He was taller than she, but not tall, exactly. His sweater scratched against her cheek. Fleetingly, she considered collapsing.
“Fine.” She raised her head. Over his shoulder, she surveyed the room. “There’s almost nobody here.”
Only the boys and a couple of the caretakers she had hired to help get her mother in and out of the tub.
“Just people who love you.”
He kissed her, gently hooked a long, graying strand of curly hair behind her ear. “What do you want to do? Dinner at home? Take the boys out?”
“Home,” she said, not sure if he meant hers or his, wishing he had just decided without asking her first.
That night, swiping at her eyes with makeup remover, she saw her phone light up. A text from an unfamiliar number: Hi, Laila, I’d love to meet you to get some signatures on a few documents. Thanks. Paul Evans (Elsa Rayburn’s attorney) P.S. We know each other. Do you remember? 🙂
I’m sorry but I don’t, she texted back.
Logan High, he responded, and then she dimly recalled the name. Forty years ago, he’d been the school’s star basketball player, a ringleader of boys, a renegade disliked by teachers who wouldn’t admit susceptibility to his considerable charm.
I remember you, Paul texted.
The thought filled her with alarm. In high school, she had been bookish and quiet, hanging out in the art studio behind the auditorium, haunting the de Young. She had kept to herself, seeking invisibility, which sometimes worked at home.
Lunch sounds fine, she wrote. A nice break from cleaning out Elsa’s room, crammed with thirty years of peevishly hoarded newspapers, dolls, clothing, and still-boxed Christmas ornaments. Watercolors Laila had painted and given as gifts were stacked in a corner. “It’s my house and this is a fire hazard,” Laila complained often enough, but Elsa would only say, “So you’ll sort through it when I’m dead. Throw it all out. It’ll be a grand adventure for you.”
Lunch was hamburgers at a Palo Alto sandwich shop. Paul looked largely as Laila imagined he would: tan and well-built for a middle-aged man, with unkempt hair that seemed not to go with the expensive suit. She learned about his life post-high-school: college and law school chosen for proximity to beaches, a disastrous divorce, the study of Buddhism as a way to cope with unreasonable demands and lost opportunities. She liked the way he talked about his three daughters, crowing about their achievements as if they were his own. He always wanted daughters, he said, not the least bit surprised he had had them.
The shop was crowded with tech workers: young, multi-cultural, device-attached. “They make me feel old,” Paul said, scanning the room from their table. “It’s a different world. The phones, the access to information. All the knowing. But not really knowing, you know?”
“I’m amazed at what I don’t know,” she said. Just watching these kids order sandwiches — demanding gluten-free bread, requesting condiments not on offer, fearlessly holding up the line — made her feel like someone from another country who didn’t know the local culture or how to behave. Always, she took what was readily available, never thinking to ask for anything behind the counter.
“It’s their way of being in the world. Sure of themselves.” He shrugged. “They’ll get the shit kicked out of them. Then they’ll figure it out.”
He went on, something about karma, about life being circular and everything returning to where it began. She thought of her mother, somewhere else now, restored to health, presumably. Settling in, critiquing other dead people’s hair and weight. It was hard for Laila to imagine Elsa in Heaven: Her persona was earthly, grim, remorseless. She thought, I don’t have to beg anyone to love me ever again.
“The world revolves around us. Each of us. And all of us, together,” Paul was saying. “It’s so clear to me. I can see it.”
He seemed to glow with an almost otherworldly light. Serene, a self-appointed mystic, full of answers to questions she hadn’t known to ask.
She took a breath. “My partner doesn’t think about spiritual stuff much. He’s the kind of person who believes that when you die, you take a good, long nap and are grateful for it.”
It seemed only right to bring him up.
“He’s a risk management guy, right? I saw on Facebook.”
She blushed, knowing what that meant.
Lunch again the next week. No pretext of documents (which she knew could have been signed electronically). Still, she told herself, he was a friend, someone from her past, however tangentially.
On the third floor of the parking garage, he kissed her hard. She gave herself over to the experience of his foreignness: the smell of skin unique to him, arms around her exerting a new pressure. She was intoxicated by the way he drew her into an unfamiliar rhythm and taught her to move to it.
When he deftly turned her around and pressed her thighs against her car, she allowed it, reveling in her limpness, the relaxation into wanting. His urgent directions, whispered into her neck, elicited full, ecstatic compliance.
Driving home, reliving it over and over (as if in so doing she could forget about it later while she and Marcus made chicken parmesan and then went out for ice cream), she found herself lingering over one moment in particular. They had heard voices: a couple disembarking the elevator at the other end of the garage, bickering over a purchase, walking toward them. Without a word — their rhythm unbroken — Paul put his hand firmly over her mouth. It was the sort of gesture she would have believed herself offended by.
But she was not offended at all.
They began to meet weekly: in hastily procured motel rooms, for picnics in parks where they would not be recognized. She waited for these rendezvous in a state of feverish yearning and confusion, bewildered by her desperation. Marcus was an accomplished lover, expertly tender. They had sex often; she always looked forward to it, grateful for his proclamations of love and desire and the carefulness of his attentions.
But Paul had a way of deeply seeing her. She felt it in some of his gestures, small and yet galvanizing. A prolonged stare, the definitive pinning of her arms over her head. He knew what she needed, even if she couldn’t quite pin down what that was.
Within the love-sick delirium, she experienced an odd serenity. Something about this was familiar to her, known.
Her work began to suffer. It was difficult to clear her head enough to concentrate, to see anything other than the images she replayed over and over in her head. But she spent time in her studio every day, a creature of habit, hoping that surrounding herself with things associated with work — good natural light from the north, brushes and pencils arranged in pots like flowers, photographs of possible subjects — would inspire her. She breathed in deep the smell of mineral spirits, which she associated with spotlessness and being rinsed clean.
On a Saturday in May, several weeks after her first lunch with Paul, she sat at her drafting table, sketching from a photograph she’d taken at the base of Telegraph Hill, looking up. Marcus lay on the worn couch across from her, engrossed in something on his tablet. She snuck a look at him, bathed in soft spring light, reading something she felt no need to know about, and her heart swelled with tenderness. The intimacy of separateness.
Without looking up, he asked, “You ever think about getting married?”
She was shocked. “Not really.”
“Once in a while?”
“Maybe.” Did he sense she was pulling away? See something she had not meant to show? “Do you?”
He let the tablet lie face-down on his chest. “The other day, at the mechanic’s, Ricky asked me if anyone else drove the car and I said, ‘Just my wife’. It slipped out. I don’t know. It felt good, saying it.”
“It’s a lot of planning, and then the money,” he said.
She felt he was waiting for a response that would steer them both in one direction or the other. She felt a flash of anger. She wanted him to know what to do.
“Your kids will be getting married in the next couple years. Maybe it’s their time,” she said.
“Yeah. Maybe we shouldn’t be stealing their thunder.”
He was quiet for a moment. Then, “How would you want me to propose? If I ever did it?”
“I have no idea,” she said, her voice sounding heated in her own ears.
She did not understand herself, how she was able to feel connected to Marcus in all the usual ways. She didn’t feel guilty, at least not as far as she could tell. She wondered if she knew what guilt was. Because I was the girl teachers loved, with good handwriting and most of the answers. The woman who married the first man I ever kissed, sold my paintings for almost nothing so no one would think I was greedy, watched my husband grope his admin assistant at an office Christmas party and never said a word. Changed my mother’s diapers. Followed the rules.
She pondered all of it endlessly, hoping for revelation long after she became convinced that none was forthcoming. She found herself a mystery.
Sitting on the edge of the sink in the bathroom down the hall from Elliott, Evans, and Ginsburg, Attorneys at Law, she leaned back against the mirror. Her hands found Paul’s, fingers splayed on her bare thighs. Pinning her. Even though, without his hands, she wouldn’t have moved. But she loved the way he made his desires known.
Then he rose and brought her forward, close to him. He kissed her. “Laila,” he murmured into her mouth. “You know that I want you.”
Her pounding heart slowed. She felt close to rapture.
I want to wake up in your bed at midnight and know I have hours to lie next to you, want to make you breakfast, want to watch you shave and cut your toenails. Want to have a stupid fight and then make up and spend the rest of the day in bed. Want to sleep in a tent with you, want to get lost in the desert and have to spend the night in one of those terrible motels where the guy at the front desk might be a murderer. Want to be alone with you in a faraway country: Iceland, Norway in deep winter, a village in the Amazon rain-forest. Want you. I want you.
“Tell me,” she breathed, but he only kissed her harder.
“I want you, too,” she finally said, hoping it might encourage him to say what she frantically needed to hear, but he only knelt again, kissing down her chest, where her blouse had been unbuttoned and pulled aside.
“I am,” Paul said when she asked him if he was seeing anyone else. “Someone I met a few weeks ago, actually.”
She didn’t understand how this could be so. Hadn’t he said he wanted her?
He was staring at her quizzically, a smile half-formed on his lips. She felt he was daring her to say more.
“A little, I guess.”
Above them, the leaves of the tree under which they’d laid their picnic rustled in the hot July wind.
“Did you think I was just going to sit home every night? Pining for you?”
He had every right to ask. She had no rights to anything, not the way things were.
“Maybe you’re a little jealous?” he asked, his eyebrows arching.
“Maybe a little.” A lie. Jealousy coursed white-hot in her veins.
“I’m not jealous of Marcus,” he said easily, leaning back on his elbows, looking up into a shaft of flickering sunlight. “Jealousy is a fiction of the self.”
She felt a flash of irritation, attended almost immediately by misery as she considered this other woman: who she was, how they’d met. If he’d told her he wanted her.
Βut she couldn’t bring herself to question him further.
It took her a week or two to realize she was thinking of leaving Marcus. Carefully mulling it over, weighing the pros and cons, imagining the conversation they would have to have. Wondering how upset he would be, how he would take the news. She knew he thought she was creative and smart, an accomplished painter, a desirable woman. “I can’t get enough of you,” he said often. “It is never enough for me.”
She knew his love in her bones.
She tried to itemize dispassionately what she would miss. Their routines: Saturday farmers’ market, Wednesday night ice cream, trips to the nursery to buy seedlings for their summer gardens. His frank and tender adoration of her body. The peace and pleasure of celebrating holidays year after year, the sense of racking up time, of building a past to remember later, in old age.
But she couldn’t forget what she had come to know: Paul cornering her in the by-now-familiar motel, pulling her skirt up in back, mauling her like a fifteen-year-old. Whispering insistently in a language she now craved, a language that was, on its surface, ungentle and raw, shocking, but which she knew belied the sentiments he could not bring himself to utter. How was she supposed to resume her old life and forget that this had ever happened?
It wasn’t really leaving. She and Marcus didn’t live together, after all. It was really just an ending, a finalization she was considering.
Paul, on hearing her shy confession, rolled onto his back and stared up at the motel room’s popcorn ceiling. “I don’t want to have anything to do with you leaving him,” he said.
She felt her chest cave in. A sinkhole, the ground beneath an exploded mine.
“Really,” he said, glancing toward her. “That’s not what I want.”
“You said you wanted me,” she whispered, her voice inaudible in her own ears: bombs falling, detonating around her. And then she realized she hadn’t said it aloud, had only thought it, because it was too hard, too dangerous to say. She knew that all too well.
“Nothing good ever comes of a relationship that starts like this,” he said.
That wasn’t always true! What about her friends Esme and Lyle, who’d worked in the same office and shared stories of their unhappy marriages? They’d been together fifteen years now. They were, Esme said, soulmates. And Eleanor and Dwayne, who had both ditched long-term relationships and moved to Alaska together.
Everywhere, there were people who’d found each other amid the ruins of attachments that no longer worked, love that had died.
She pleaded a headache, pulled on her jeans, shimmied into her t-shirt. Shoved her sandals into her purse.
“At least put on your damn shoes,” he said, laughing, but not really.
She shook her head, not wanting to fiddle with the buckles. Desperate to get away.
Her body hurt, actually ached, as though she had been in a terrible fight. Punched in the gut, then kicked. Still bleeding. Too old for this, she told herself again and again. She decided this sort of grief could only be endured by the young, who were used to disappointment, not getting what they wanted, being rebuffed no matter how much effort they put forth.
Marcus was befuddled but understanding, un-grudging of her wish to spend a few nights alone. On those nights, she lay in bed, tears soaking the pillow, thinking of his patience, his goodness and decency, and wondering why such obvious manifestations of love did not move her.
They met a week later, at her request. Paul seemed surprised when she suggested a bench on the outskirts of their favorite park. “No picnic?”
“Maybe after,” she said uncertainly, afraid that sitting on the frayed plaid blanket he kept in the back of his car would end in the usual way.
She worried he wouldn’t come, but eventually she saw him, striding across the leaf-strewn grass in chinos and a blue sweater, the folded blanket under one arm, as though he hadn’t even noticed her hesitancy.
He sat beside her on the bench, put his arm over her shoulder, and kissed her on the temple.
She took a breath. “Did you mean what you said last week?”
“What did I say?” He grinned, and she knew he knew full well.
“About not wanting to have anything to do with me leaving Marcus.”
“Come on,” he said. “We never said this was anything other than what it was.”
It escaped her lips before she could think it through. Now he would know who she really was: angry, demanding, needy. Unlovable.
His brow furrowed in bemusement. “What?”
“You fucking asshole!” Years of silence, decades of unspoken rage, and now, it seemed, she couldn’t stop herself. “Why did you say you wanted me!”
He paused. “That’s what you say.” He shrugged and spread his arms in an effort to look Zen-like, reasonable. “Come on. You know that.”
A foolish woman, inexpert in matters of sex, who’d never learned to read the cues. That’s what he thought.
“So you don’t want me. Is that what you’re saying? You never wanted me?”
It was important to make him say it.
A knowing smirk. “Not like this,” he said.
She rose. “Go to hell.”
Shaking, she thrust her hands into the pockets of her coat. She’d heard the answer she’d always dreaded and known to be true.
Walking across the grass toward her car, she was surprised to feel no urge to look back.
Within a week — faster than she’d thought possible, given how she loved him — she resumed her normal life. She began painting. She and Marcus returned to their routine, even as she thought to herself, I’ll leave him anyway. I’ll start again. I can do it. I have enough money, I have my work, friends. I will meet someone else, someone who’s really right for me. Someone I can really love.
It occurred to her that what she really meant was Someone who will break my heart.
She didn’t leave. Gradually, she stopped thinking about it. She’d had an affair, and it wasn’t something she was proud of, but it was over, Marcus hadn’t found out, hadn’t been hurt, and everyone got to go on with their lives. There had been no significant upheavals, no blame-filled arguments, no tortuous adjustments to make to the status quo.
An escapade. That’s how she would come to think of it.
Later that year, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Marcus gave her a ring. He didn’t propose, exactly. “When the time is right. When you’re ready,” he said, handing her the box. And then, kissing her, he added, “So you’ll always know what’s in my heart.”
The diamond sparkled in the dim light thrown by candles he’d set out on his kitchen table. He took the box from her, removed the ring, and gently slid it onto her finger. She imagined her mother grabbing her hand, peering over her glasses, saying, “That’s the best you could do?” — as though Laila were settling for something inadequate, her meager charms insufficient to attract the sort of man who might give her better jewelry. Really love her.
That was when she felt it, at long last: A wave of joy — rare as unearthed treasure, answered prayer, longing finally assuaged — broke over her, thunderous, drenching her to the bone.
About the author:
Gina Willner-Pardo has written short stories published in Berkeley Fiction Review, Bluestem, Pleiades, Origins Journal, Mad River Review, The South Carolina Review, Five on the Fifth, Streetlight Magazine, Summerset Review, and Whetstone, which awarded her short story ‘Accident’ the John Patrick McGrath Memorial Award (1999). She has also written seventeen books for children, all published by Clarion or Albert Whitman. Gina’s novel Figuring Out Frances won the 1999 Josette Frank Award, presented by the Bank Street College of Education to honor a book of ‘outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally.’ Gina has a B.A. in English from Bryn Mawr College and an M.B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. She has studied with James Fry. When not writing, she enjoys running, hiking, kayaking — and she makes a mean blueberry custard pie.