Morton Vickery needed a friend. Not a wifely friend, he had one of those, nor a soft-handed friend for discussing the market, there were columns of those in his accountancy firm. What Morton dreamed of, as he stared in the mirror and pressed palms together to make his pecs quicken like tiny mice scurrying beneath paper skin, was a got your back, take no prisoners, rough and ready, tough yet tender, red blooded, sensitive, manly-man friend–the kind he’d not had in forty-five years of life.
“You need to come to bed, Morton.”
“I’ll come to bed when I’m ready, Mother.” The sharpness of his own voice surprised Morton, and surprise turned to shock when he grew fully conscious that it was not his mom but his wife who had just spoken to him in the chilly tone which his mother had utilized to subdue him during his brief rebellious phase at age twelve. Morton directed his gaze beyond the half-closed bathroom door at Millie, who looked spectral in the dim light of the bedroom in her loose-fitting, full-length pioneer nightie with its dull white glow. This time, for once, Morton held her dark gaze, and set his jaw against a small scowl that conveyed menace along with something new: there, glimmering in the depths of his wife’s black eyes like a remote star, Morton discerned a pinprick of fear. Millie thrust the point of her chin at her husband and withdrew from his presence like a frightened wraith fast-fleeing a torch. Morton turned a wry smile to the mirror and stroked his smooth chin, and, like an adolescent just beginning to discover himself, admired the clean, sharp line of his jaw. There would be no sex, but that was the norm, and the certainty of the knowledge freed Morton’s mind. Thus when Millie snapped off the bedside lamp and pointedly turned her back to her man, Morton felt empowered to keep the laptop humming despite his wife’s preference for a womb-dark, silent room, and stared into its campfire glow.
Camping. That was it. The way to meet men. Morton (“Mort” never) had not camped since Boy Scouts, had rarely hiked even; but you never forgot the skills, he decided. Nor, he realized, could you forget the bad parts: the loathing he’d felt for his spindly teen legs exposed by khaki shorts, the shame of padding past neighborhood toughs in those awful green woolen knee stockings, the discomfort and isolation he’d felt mouthing prayers with fading reverence in the fellowship circle, and the ache in his gut when he caught the pastor’s reproachful glare.
“Camping,” he said. He said it aloud, for the tension that cut through the darkness revealed that Millie was awake. “I’d love to go camping. I’d love to, dammit,” the uncharacteristic expletive uttered awkwardly in a low hush. There was no answer but the snap of bedsheets being pulled tight. “I should ask Hank, Bill’s contractor friend.” Morton waited for Millie to invite herself along; she remained still as stone, and as silent. “He’s a nice guy,” said Morton, “an interesting guy,” the interesting a coded challenge. “I should call him. I will.”
“Hank,” Mille sneered without turning.
“Right, “Morton answered. “I’ll call him.”
Morton usually went to bed long after Millie. It had been so for years, the gap ever increasing. Years ago, when their matrimonial ship reached the doldrums, he had sounded her by deliberately leaving the bills for late at night, and she had responded with a lone token sigh before diving into her Agatha Christie’s, celebrating the completion of each chapter with a chocolate from the box hidden from Morton’s view on the bottom shelf of her nightstand. Then, in the heady days of the bull market, he’d convinced her that he needed to study the market late at night to get a jump on the next day’s trading; she’d agreed to that too. The payoff had been the Lexus, private schools for their daughter (who now went to Brown), the designer hilltop home with the view of Mount Tam. So much discomfort avoided this way: Was it he? Was it she? Who was to blame for the awkward lovemaking, frustration, confusion?
They’d married in college, in the church they’d grown up in. Each was the first lover of the other, and neither could carry half of the load. Although she had tried once. In a burst of enthusiasm two years into the marriage, she’d experimented with new perfumes, new hairstyles, lingerie just as daring, and not a jot more, than would be allowed by the hard disembodied voices and disapproving gazes of parents and priests. It made no difference, for work and money were all his delight.
Nevertheless the baby had come. He had joked that it had been an immaculate conception, and she had bristled at both the sacrilege and the breach of their tacit taboo against alluding to the infrequency of their lovemaking. At this point he had taken the lead in addressing their problem–though “problem” was a forbidden word–for he loved the child, and so loved the woman who had brought her forth. With the tentativeness of a bomb squad technician, he’d mumbled something about new positions; she’d gritted her teeth until he was done. Then he discreetly obtained a book about sex–overly clinical, not too much fun–and muttered half-hearted incantations to the air about “pelvic muscles” and “Kegel exercises,” and she’d tearfully thrown the book at the wall and spitefully muttered “You try it, too.” After that he’d retreated to his home office, where he studied the market until long after midnight while she prayed that he was not looking at porn. Finally, one soft Sunday afternoon after church as they sat on a bench on the elevated redwood deck outside their bedroom, they looked as one at a parting of silvery clouds overhead. Contrary to custom they remained on the bench, leaving undisturbed the wedding cake-white bedspread on their king-sized bed even though this was their usual time for conjugal relations. They gazed at the clouds as if of one mind and watched their sex life drift softly away. Thereafter he had traded stocks in peace, and she had busied herself with handiwork of all kinds, exchanging with some giddiness the silk pajamas she had purchased at Nordstrom in the flush of new wifehood for the ankle-length nightie she had worn in high school, adorned with puff balls, and white like surrender.
“What are you doing in there Morton?” Millie’s voice rang with alarm, for the bathroom door this time was all the way closed.
“You know Millie, it’s amazing how much you sound like my mother.” The excitement of conflict electrified his voice.
“And what were you doing in the bathroom when she said that, Morton?” Her forced effort at laughter rattled like bones.
“Jesus, Millie, why don’t you just come in and see?” The blasphemous note sounded strained even to himself. He thrust the door open, revealing himself in pajama pants but no top, and he resisted the impulse, ingrained at adolescence, to cover his hairless chest with his arms. She gaped like a teen unexpectedly glimpsing a teacher half naked at a pool or beach, and he focused his gaze on a full lower lip that had driven him wild in church at sixteen, now hanging like fruit to be picked, and picked hard.
“Is that how your new friend talks?” Maternal disapproval dominated but did not obliterate a note of intrigue.
“Maybe.” He set his jaw, turned again to the mirror, curled the dumbbells with increased vigor.
Millie studied his frame. Thin, yes, but possessed of enough strength to make him a serviceable carrier of groceries, backyard gardener, and power-walking companion on the leafy roads that entwined their house. She was grateful that he had never gotten fat, did not smoke or drink, would not likely die early and leave her alone. She was grateful too that he gave the church ladies no basis for gossip.
“Why so obsessed with your body all of a sudden?” More bone rattling laughter. “Trying to look good for your new friend?” .
“Yes, Millie. I’m trying to look good for my friend.”
He camped at first with both Bill and Hank and then with Hank only, returning energized with a wisp of a beard and the scent of wood smoke and pine clinging to his body. The aroma aroused his wife’s sense of smell even as it alarmed her like the perfume of The Other Woman. Morton kayaked with Hank on the Russian River, hiked the woods of Sonoma, climbed rocks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. While he was gone, Millie resisted, then yielded to, the gnawing urge to search her husband’s computer for porn and his emails for hints of an affair. In a secret place she could not understand she was mildly disappointed not to find either, though the pictures of Morton with Hank had clutched at her heart with falcon talons. This, then, was Hank: a huskier, heartier version of Morton with sun-burnished skin and gleaming eyes narrowed as if sighting a hawk, and an iron beard that was full but well trimmed. In one picture, Hank wound a thick woodcutter arm around the narrow shoulders of Morton, whose broad smile, unfamiliar to Millie or maybe forgotten, seemed to his wife that of a giddy girlfriend.
“Have you seen this movie?” she asked with rehearsed nonchalance as her husband dragged his duffle into the house late at night. “Brokeback Mountain.” She did not look up lest her face signal the ruse.
He was clever as an accountant, clever as an investor, and clever now in discerning her motive. “No, Millie, but I’d like to. Two men getting it on in the wild. Sounds awesome.”
“I think it’s disgusting,” she said with fear and conviction, clicking the film off as he passed her by.
She sought solace in cleaning. Their home was built of rectilinear hardwood cut into a hillside, and the entire south wall of the living room was a floor-to-ceiling picture window affording a view of wooded hills and valleys and the peak of Mount Tam, which legend and Millie’s own anxious imagination affirmed to be the profile of a flowing-haired lady lying on her back. The view was her glory, and though she had kept it clean always she now cleaned it daily, stretching, reaching, bending in her cotton sweats, glorying in the litheness of long slender limbs tracing graceful arcs upon the glass. The sunlight glinted diamond-hard off the glass while a redtailed hawk cruised a valley for prey. An impulse jolted Millie to clean in the nude, stretch her limbs to the sky, to the sun, to the hawk, but the impulse was as astringent as the ammonia in the window cleaner, and stomach acid rose up and gagged her; she lowered herself onto the clean, thick, white pile carpet and sat there lightheaded and pressed her eyes shut, feeling as if her head would explode from the guilty thoughts that screamed through her cranium like enraged harpies. She gathered herself, reviled herself for having the impulse, and reviled herself for hating the impulse. Moreso the latter. So, with the daintyness of the virgin bride who twenty years before had lifted the bedsheet to glimpse her newlywed husband sleeping in the nude, she peeled off her socks, and clutched with her toes at the luxuriant carpet.
She sought solace in batches of cookies she baked for church and the book club, reserving dozens for solitary times when she’d fill her mouth with sweetness and warmth and softness like thighs. She chewed thoroughly but denied herself the satisfaction of swallowing, instead disgorging a chunky brown sludge into paper bags she buried in the compost bin like murder victims. Sometimes she’d gave in and swallow a bite and then a whole cookie, and then she’d stick a stiletto finger down her throat to purge herself of vomit and mucus and tears of self-loathing, kneeling at the toilet like a wretched penitent enfolded in the arms of self-abasement.
Even though she was thin, even though the house clean, her husband continued adventuring with Hank. In early spring the two rafted for three days, and Morton returned with coppery cheeks and a proud, boyish smile framed by a thin growth of beard. She had often teased him for his inability to grow a full beard, but lacked the will to do so now as she sat deflated on the couch staring through the TV, her knees hiked to her chin, her stocking feet resting on the chrome-and-steel coffee table, her pioneer p.j.s riding up slender carved calves above white sweat socks. Her nose bunny-quivered at Morton’s musky scent, and though she did not look up at him, she sensed him staring down at her. He walked over on hardened legs and squeezed her big toe and chuckled with derision at the sweat socks. Then he took a long steaming shower during which he sang spirited rock songs in a croaking, flat voice that was just as flat but much less subdued than it had been at church before he’d ceased the charade and stopped going. She glided to the door, leaned her back up against it and rubbed up and down on it like a cat until the croaking was done, and then she flitted away like a finch.
There was a cat, feral, that haunted the deck. His coat was smoky grey, his maleness signaled by supreme confidence and the intimation of superior knowledge in a gaze that seemed to Millie mocking–and his haunches and shoulder muscles rippled when he sauntered along the wooden rail surrounding the deck. She had shunned this cat in the past, had retreated inside even when her spirits were frail. Now one misty morning with Morton at work, she glimpsed the cat through the kitchen window, and on an impulse cut a huge chunk from the raw steak she intended to cook that evening. She opened the glass-paneled door slowly, and the cat rotated his head with an “it’s about time” haughtiness in his eyes. She approached like a supplicant and laid the offering on the rail and withdrew a respectful distance without turning her back on her lord. The cat appeared to have done this before; so comfortable was he with the human’s ritualistic deference. He waited poised upon his haunches until the time was right, then strolled to the morsel, poked at it as if at a bloodied mouse, licked the moist red flesh with a sandpaper tongue before sinking his fangs in and bending his sinewy neck over the flesh until it was consumed. Without a glance at his benefactress, the cat sauntered to the edge of the rail and leapt upon the bare trunk of a tree, caught it with digging claws, climbed up into the boughs and disappeared from view.
She disappeared in a riot of lavender, teal, and turquoise scarves she purchased later that morning in downtown Mill Valley. Alone in the living room before the great window overlooking the hills, she grabbed at the thick carpet with her toes, swirled with eyes closed to a CD of Spanish guitar also purchased that day and twirled the long scarves like a rhythmic gymnast although she felt awkward, lost her balance at times, set her jaw and furrowed her brow, became vexed by her tenseness and tried to relax, did relax finally, and danced for an hour.
Drained, drenched, elevated, lightheaded, she stole into the bedroom and searched her husband’s bedside oaken book chest seeking Iron John, for she hoped to dismiss her man’s trips to the woods as the desperation of a white-collar, middle-aged, “New Age” Marin County cartoon seeking his lost manhood at a campfire drum circle with like-minded dolts. She found not Iron John but everything else, scores of books piled high like multicolored treasures, all recently purchased. There were bird and tree encyclopedias, books by the “New Atheist” trinity of Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens, philosophy books by the pound, hiking and outdoor adventure guides, London, Hemingway, Emerson, Plato, Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul, The Voyage of the Beagle, Twain’s Letters From The Earth, several dozen more. She examined each cover like a puzzled archaeologist, dug deep through the layers in the hope of finding something on investing, on the financial crisis, on something, anything partaking of the safe, reliable, mundane husband whom she knew well–but when she reached bottom, Morton had not been found.
She sat on her husband’s side of the bed and breathed deep like a safecracker to steady herself, for she had resolved to crack open the books. With courage and resolution she pried open the jaws of God Is Not Great, skimmed a highlighted passage besmirching The Scriptures and dropped the book like Moses’ staff turning into a snake. Emerson seemed safe. It was heavily bookmarked, and on one bookmarked page, highlighted in green, was the Arabian proverb: “A fig tree, looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful.” She read onward, the bright greenness of the highlighter exciting her somehow, the thrill of transgressing tickling memories of the fourth grade and Lillian Fried–the one friend of whom her parents had disapproved–who had showed her it all, human anatomy, all of it, in full glossy color from multiple angles in her college brother’s physiology book. She’d shied away from Lillian after that, and her parents had served double fudge cake to celebrate.
She read about witches, the modern kind, pagans who worshiped nature and the female form and danced in the woods, just as she imagined her husband did wild and mysterious things in the woods with his roughhewn warlock leader. She closed the book thoughtfully, checked her recall against Leviticus and saw that her recall was right: “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.” She shut the Bible, placed it with a mischievous grin in one palm and the book about witches in the other and weighed them as if in a balance, then clapped them together and rubbed them like wet slabs of clay melding.
She sketched female nudes in a sketchbook she had not used since college and hid it beneath the mattress.
She sketched herself in the nude with detached craftsmanship and respect for the contours molded by time.
She drove across the Bridge to the Legion Of Honor museum and the female nudes of Renoir and the Renaissance, admiring their fleshy fullness and their comfort with their abundant flesh. At the edge of her vision she noticed a gentleman smiling at her; she smiled inwardly but did not turn.
Morton Vickery waited at home. Taut, tanned, his hands on his hips, he surveyed the valleys through the great picture window facing Mount Tam and was a sea captain, the Colossus of Rhodes, a football coach surveying the field from the sidelines, a general overlooking the field of battle, a camp counselor issuing instructions. He heard the door open but did not turn around, but gazed at the sunlight glinting off the Sleeping Lady, his hands-on-hips posture thrusting elbows outward. She glided towards him as softly as a stream, and he felt her arms intruding like vines through the crevices formed by his elbows, climbing up his back, winding round his neck; he felt her warm breath on the mossy hairs of his nape, and fell back into her.