Susan Moore stood in her bedroom wearing only a bra and underpants on that first shining day of summer. Her dark brown hair, still damp from the shower, fell just past her shoulders. Her sharp, dark eyes instantly conveyed a commanding intelligence. Her chest and hips were full and soft, the flesh bulging just slightly around the top of her underwear and the side straps of her bra. Outside the window of the high-ceilinged room, down the hill, past the palms and the terra cotta rooftops of Santa Barbara, a tiny white sail glided silently across the glistening Pacific.
On her way to the closet, Susan stopped and picked up the wedding photo from the dresser. She and Will were thinner then. She remembered the moment the photo was taken, and how genuinely she meant that smile.
Will had found her at just the right time in her life; or perhaps, as she now thought, just the wrong time. Fifteen years ago, in the weeks before her parents' accident, she was waiting tables at The Evening Star in Los Angeles. Will had seen her there before, but he felt no particular interest in her until she waited on him. When she approached his table that evening, he thought, Ah, the unsmiling one. She was quiet and introverted, and had the placid, slightly distant expression of a daydreamer.
When she introduced herself and described the day’s specials, she stood with her shoulders square to him, looking directly into his face with an open, unguarded expression. Behind her eyes was a deep sea of feeling and imagination. Part of her was somewhere else. The dark, lively eyes and the direct simplicity of her manner drew him in like a whispering voice. When she spoke, he felt as if they were the only two people in the room.
Throughout the meal, Will watched her come and go among the tables. Her face occasionally showed hints of emotion that had nothing to do with what was going on around her. She’s responding to her thoughts, Will realized. And there’s a lot going on in there.
When she waited on him again two weeks later, it was clear she didn’t remember him. He tried without success to engage her in conversation, then watched with jealousy as a huge smile spread across her face in response to a little whisper from the bartender.
Her face still bore a trace of that smile when she brought his check a minute later. The sight of her so far removed from his feelings of envy and desire filled him with a sense of hopelessness. She asked if everything was OK.
“Oh. Yeah. Everything was fine,” he said, though she could see it wasn’t.
He signed the check, adding a generous tip, and then got up to leave. Two steps from the table, he felt a touch on his shoulder, and turned to see her looking up at him with an expression of gratitude.
“Thank you,” she said.
The powerful swelling he felt in his chest in response to this recognition was as disconcerting as it was uplifting. His heart was not the organ that normally responded to women.
A few days later, she left LA and returned to San Diego to care for her parents, who had barely survived a collision on the freeway. She didn’t show up for the beginning of her graduate program, and when she failed to return the university’s calls, she forfeited her scholarship and the future she had planned.
When her father left the hospital with a cane, his mouth hung slightly open. The words that had once come easily to the avid reader and bookstore owner now eluded him, and he had trouble making sense of simple newspaper articles. In the middle of a sentence, he would sometimes stop abruptly, searching silently for the next word before giving up in frustration and dismay. Over time, he talked less and less.
Her mother, who bore the brunt of the impact, was in and out of the hospital for eight months before pneumonia finally took her. Susan was at her bedside with her father when he pointed to the oxygen tubes in her nose and said with unusual clarity, “Don’t let me go like that.”
Those words unnerved her. Where was he going? He was all she had left. But after losing his words and his books and his wife, he found less and less to draw him out of bed each day. Susan knew he was giving up, but she couldn’t bring herself to admit it. Gentle as he was, he was the model of strength in her life. If death took him by force, there was no shame in that. But if he gave in willingly, why should anyone continue? He died less than a month after her mother.
She never quite got over the abandonment and betrayal she felt at his death. Mentally and emotionally, she felt as if she had been stripped down to nothing, and she would have to rebuild her life and herself from the ground up. But she had no ground to build on, except the wound of her loss.
And so, as an oyster builds a pearl around the irritating grain of sand, she wrapped layer upon layer of defenses around her wound. Over the years, a strong mind, a quiet pride, emotional depth and a natural reserve gave the pearl its luster, and men and women alike admired her. Now, at forty, she was just reaching the peak of her beauty. A younger face could not express the depth of her character.
She didn’t remember meeting Will at the restaurant. In her telling of the story, she first saw him in LA a little more than a year after her parents' death. She watched from the window of a coffee shop as two men argued over a parking space. It looked like the larger man was going to hit the smaller one when Will strolled casually into the scene and said something she couldn’t hear.
The big man replied to Will with some menacing words, and the little one took the opportunity to get away. Will stood his ground and kept talking, in a casual, almost playful way, and gradually the big man relaxed. In a minute, they were joking with each other.
When Susan returned to the bookstore where she worked, she replayed the scene in her mind, trying to fill in the words she couldn’t hear. In those days, she had a vague, persistent fear that some new disaster was always just around the corner. The little scene in front of the coffee shop impressed her because Will had intentionally walked into a dangerous situation and then took control of it. She kept asking herself, How can a person approach the world that way? But she couldn’t answer that question.
Two weeks later, Will walked into the bookstore. She recognized him right away, and watched from the register as he browsed the business section. Her curiosity overcame her shyness, drawing her silently forward until she stood beside him.
When he turned to find the eyes from The Evening Star looking up at him, the expression of surprise on his face caused her to say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
She wondered as his look of surprise melted into recognition: Do you know me?
“Can I help you find something?” she asked.
He had already found the book he came for, and he watched her quietly as she rang up the purchase. She kept her eyes on the register and didn’t look up at him until the sale was complete, although she could tell he was admiring her. As she folded the top of the paper bag and handed it to him, she finally raised her eyes to his and looked at him with the same open, unselfconscious expression that had enchanted him twice before.
Her eyes took in everything, feeding the mind that churned visibly beneath, and he could not help falling into them as they studied him. But her face showed nothing of what she felt. He wanted to say something, but he couldn’t find the words.
Then she startled him with a simple question. “Are you going to ask me out?”
If she had asked this with a smile, with a hint of excitement or annoyance, he could have gauged his chances right away. But she asked it as a simple matter-of-fact inquiry, as if she just wanted to know, Am I reading you right?
“Because if you are,” she said at last, “I’ll say yes.” Her brow softened. The flesh on her cheeks moved upward almost imperceptibly as the hint of a smile appeared on her lips. Beguiled by these little changes that transformed her, he struggled at first to speak, and then stammered, “Would you like… Would you like to go to dinner?”
She answered softly, “Yes.”
At dinner that night, she asked him about the incident in front of the coffee shop. Will didn’t remember it until she fed him some details.
“Oh, that,” he said, with a dismissive wave. “I don’t know what that guy’s problem was.”
“Why did you get involved?” Susan asked.
“I thought he was going to put his fist through that little guy’s face.”
“So you volunteered your own face? You don’t mind getting hit?”
“Oh, no,” Will said. “I do mind getting hit.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I asked him if it was really worth getting that upset over a parking space. He kind of looked at me and sized me up, like he was wondering if he should hit me. I could see he didn’t really want to take on someone his own size.
“He was wearing a Clippers shirt, so I said, ‘You know, the real reason you’re so pissed off is because you’re a Clippers fan, and they suck.’ He didn’t know quite what to make of that. He said, ‘Are you a Lakers fan?’
“I said, ‘Not really. But if you’re going to pick a loser, why not shoot the moon and go with Golden State?'”
When Susan asked him to explain, Will said, “The Warriors lost sixty-five games this year. They finished dead last in the NBA. Anyway, he thought that was funny, and he started to loosen up.”
“And you kept talking to him,” Susan said.
“Yeah,” Will shrugged. “He started getting friendly. Whenever I see an opportunity to bring someone over to my side, I take it. Maybe I’ll never see him again, but I know there’s one more person in the world who bears me goodwill.”
Susan interpreted this statement in the best possible light, as a sign of Will’s desire to spread friendship and make peace. Looking back now, after many years of marriage, she was able to interpret the words more accurately. “An opportunity to bring someone over to my side” said a lot about Will, the opportunist who divided the world into his side and the other side.
At the end of the evening of their first date, on the sidewalk in front of her apartment, she stepped forward and kissed him on the cheek. When she stepped back, he looked disappointed.
Oh, I didn’t do that right, she thought. He wanted a real kiss. She looked down at the pavement, and then back up at him, thinking, Please don’t give up on me. It takes me a long time to warm up to someone. But I’m worth it. I swear I am.
Watching her eyes as these thoughts passed through her, Will thought she looked like a stray dog in search of a home. “Can I see you again?” he asked.
Her whole face blossomed into the magical smile he had seen that day in the restaurant two years earlier.
The first time they slept together, his passion was clear, and the experience she had feared might be awkward was deeply moving instead. It shook her out of her depression and re-awakened her to life.
That was thirteen years ago. They married within nine months, and for a while she travelled with him everywhere as his business grew. Throughout those early years, his devotion to her was unwavering. She could see in his eyes and feel in his touch that no woman was as beautiful or as interesting to him as she was. At the parties and fundraisers they attended, he made sure she had everything she wanted. When she was stuck in conversation with some bore, he moved in to relieve her. He could see before anyone else when the introvert began to tire under the strain of socializing, and he took her home.
She enjoyed watching him interact with other men. He had an instinctive sense of people’s spatial boundaries. He knew exactly where the line was between friendly and uncomfortable. In business interactions, he would slowly maneuver himself into position just an inch inside that boundary. Then he would put his hand on the other man’s shoulder, gripping it just a little too tightly while he continued to speak cheerfully. The ambiguity of his touch was calculated to make people confused about whether they should feel reassured or threatened. He was at once their friend and capable of hurting them.
Will could tell a great deal about a person from their reaction to this treatment. The trusting, naive and unsuspecting showed insufficient alarm at these minor trespasses. The fearful shrank back almost imperceptibly. The strong pushed back. The ones in whom he inspired passion and trust leaned into him. From these reactions, he could gauge whether a person would be motivated more by threats or by generosity, whether he should appeal to their loyalty or their self-interest, and how far he might be able to push them.
Each of these interactions was, in its own way, a reenactment of that first scene Susan had witnessed in front of the coffee shop— Will was slowly and subtly taking control of the situation. And though he was tall, physically strong and imposing, he ruled by confidence and charm instead of force. His employees respected and admired him, and Susan admired him too.
So long as the food and sex were good, he was an easy man to please. The predictable rhythms of his appetites, along with his confidence, money, and easy manner, gradually transformed her perception of the world from a place of terrifying uncertainty to one of safety and stability. As the foundation of their marriage solidified, her confidence returned.
With friends and acquaintances, she spoke more freely. Her once placid and unexpressive face began to show more clearly the warmth of her character and the liveliness of her mind.
By the sixth year of their marriage, she was outgrowing her husband. She had tired of the ports of Asia, and of playing the wife of the wealthy importer to an audience of businessmen who appreciated her in broken English. She travelled with him less and less, and spent more time at home in Los Angeles, raising money for the arts and charities with the wives of other wealthy men.
After nine years, she stopped travelling with him entirely, except for vacations. She convinced him to buy a house in Santa Barbara, where she could have a quieter life, in fresher air, away from the traffic and the egos of the city. Will’s business was running smoothly then, with the day-to-day operations in the hands of a few trusted managers.
Susan expected him to work less after the move. Instead, he travelled more, scheduling six days away to conduct three days of business. And something in him changed in the past two years. She had a sense of what it was, but she didn’t want to admit it to herself until just recently, when news from the doctor forced her to confront what she had been avoiding.
She looked again at the wedding photo with sorrow and regret. If only I had been a year older when I met you, she thought. If only I had been year wiser. A year further removed from that awful time. I might have known better.
The phone rang as she put the photo back on the dresser. “Hello?”
“Hi Leila,” Susan said as she walked into the closet and began to browse through the hanging dresses.
“Are you coming to book group tomorrow?”
“No,” said Susan. “I don’t even know what book you’re reading.”
“Victory,” said Leila, “by Joseph Conrad.”
“That’s not really a book group book.”
“You’ve read it?”
“A long time ago.”
“It’s so slow. Is it even worth finishing?”
“Of course,” said Susan. “All of his books are. You have to be patient with Conrad, but if you’re willing to slow down, he rewards you.”
“Well I’m choosing next month’s book,” Leila said. “The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers.”
“Ugh. That’s an awful book.” Susan walked into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror, examining with disapproval the flesh that bulged around her bra straps.
“He won a prize for that!” Leila protested. “He should have been punished.”
“I hear an echo. Are you in the bathroom?” “Yes, just looking in the mirror.”
“Well I hope you’re dressed,” Leila said.
“Oh, Susan, don’t stand in front of the mirror without clothes.
No good can come of that.”
“I didn’t used to be so… soft.”
“You didn’t used to be forty. Seriously, Susan, don’t stand there looking at yourself.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t do the same thing,” Susan said.
“I hung a curtain over my mirror.”
“No,” said Leila, “but I should. Every time I get out of the shower, I catch a glimpse of myself and think, ‘Put some clothes on, you cow. You can’t walk around my house like that.’ Of course, I’ve had four kids, so I’m a bit worse for wear. How’s Will?”
Susan took a deep breath.
“Oh,” said Leila. “Bad subject?”
“Bad subject,” Susan said. “I don’t know how Will is. He’s probably fine.” She leaned toward the mirror and examined the little wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“Are you two going through a rough patch?” “I guess you could call it that,” Susan sighed.
“Eddie and I have been through some tough times, but they pass. You can get past this.”
“I don’t know anymore,” Susan said.
“Have you considered counseling?”
“There’s no point,” Susan said. “He’s seeing someone else.” “Oh. Oh… I didn’t know that. I’m sorry, Susan. I’m so sorry.
Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Susan said.
“Oh, that’s terrible. How long have you known about this?”
“I don’t know. In my heart? At least a year.”
“Oh, Susan. I never would have guessed. That has to weigh on you, but you never show it.”
“If I seem composed,” Susan said, “it’s because I work really hard at it.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No, Leila. But thank you. I have an appointment this morning.”
“Someone who will help me out of this mess.”
“Well I hope it does you some good. Call me if you want to talk. I miss you. We should talk more often.”
“I know,” Susan said. “I’m out of touch with everyone these days.”
“Well don’t be. Call me.”
“I will. Bye, Leila.”
Susan walked to the closet and chose a simple black dress that suppressed her curves. She brushed her hair until every strand was in line, then filed one polished, manicured fingernail. The others passed inspection.
In the kitchen, she placed several items into a large envelope: two photos of her husband, a photo of his silver Mercedes that showed the license plate, a page printed from Google maps that pinpointed his office, and some papers with his name and age and a description of his furniture business.
Her composure was slipping, but her resolve was not. As she walked to the front door, the tapping of her heels on the stone floor echoed through the empty house, and she refused to release the tears from her reddening eyes.