Reddened Blackfish

          I heard the door close down the hall. It was from my apartment. I waited, but when that was all the sound I crossed my office and looked out. The hall was frigid, dusky. Nat stood there in his sagging overcoat. His arms were dangling. He's a poet but he looked more lost than usual, like he'd forgotten where he was.
           I pulled him in the room and sat him down. He hugged his chest. I looked at the long thin fingers I remembered, blond-tufted, bony, not hands you could forget. He said mumbling things like he had to get back home, but he didn't move. No matter. I could listen to the radiator hiss as well as he could.
           It was me who'd staged this meeting. We were middle-aged, Nat and Suzannah and me, and I'd set up their reunion in my place in Manhattan. I built them a fire. I made them Russian tea. I put on gamelon music Suzannah called her find. Yesterday she'd croaked out schmaltzy Broadway lyrics from the piano so I should have put those on instead but I didn't think of it. Still, they had their privacy. In this city's wall-shifting way with old buildings you couldn't get to my apartment from my office, you had to go out in the hall and down. That at least meant I could hide here—in the name of working up my Monday lecture on Lord Jim—and leave the two of them in peace.
           Of course this piece of theater was lunatic after thirty years but so what. That kind of dementia landed us in New York in the first place—Southern expatriates who call ourselves artists. I teach these days, but that's because I'm a failed novelist, failed wife, failed mother, failed African adventurer. Suzannah de Loach (who is my cousin and who as a matter of fact lives in L.A. but that supposes the same expatriate idea) is merely failed actress, failed daughter. And yes we're both failed Southerners. Nat Urquhart's the anachronism. If he's failed it's with a shiny style of deficiency, which shows up well in poetry. I only knew to plan this get-together because one morning I open to "Readings" in the New Yorker and see Nathaniel Urquhart is not only reading but is poet in residence at NYU.
           So I show up at Washington Square. I listen to the poet. I recognize the old Suzannah in one poem about a pixie girl in a man's faded shirt and guess I'm the true insider in the audience. The poet is bearded now. His face is elegantly cavernous. But (sadly for me, stirring like it crazily does the old chaos of my feeling) he is better looking than I remembered. His hair is still blond. It's straight and longish and flopping over the edges of his glasses. When I push up to speak after the reading he twists around, hair spinning, eyes sparking—he's quipping to some woman "make it reddened blackfish." He sees me, goes still, says, after thirty years he says, "Is Suzannah with you?" I end by promising I'll let him know when Suzannah is with me. I promise him I will not warn Suzannah.
           The radiator clanked to quiet. It made me feel exposed, sitting with Nat in blank silence. I pictured what had been happening. I see Suzannah stretched on the sofa. Nat's bent over her. She takes the Camel out of her mouth but it's not to let him kiss her. If it's expected—Suzannah won't perform.
           Suzannah is the ur-exile of us Southern-artist exiles. In high school she made the student-council trip to Mexico and starved herself, spent her money on a carving one teen-age wit dubbed "riffraff buddha." And Suzannah got notified that South Carolinians did not hive off to the New York Theater Wing instead of college. So of course now, thirty years later, Suzannah was starving in Hollywood, the of-course-we-always-knew Carolinians barking somewhere in her head. Naturally Suzannah never went home except when her mother had to nurse her, haul her back from her botched-up suicide attempts and alcohol detoxes. Soap opera roles, dinner theater—that's been it for her art.
           Nat the writer-would-be-lover, in this latest scene, would have spotted Suzannah's roundish arm scars from the cigarettes she jabbed in her flesh, and he would have quietly noted the welts from her razor slashes, and okay he would have taken in the cheeks are sunken and the voice is extra rusty. But still she'd be a magnet for him. Still she has green eyes—her irises circled with the black shock of a rim—still her chin is square, her nose fine-boned, her eyes pure play. Suzannah was a Southern girl who mocked the social smile at the very time she gave it, but when she looked at you, you mattered, and still when Suzannah looks at you, you matter. And now the voice scrape sets you off voyeuring for who-knows-what's down under.
           Nat stirred. He said, "It's 'Go away.'" He couldn't bring himself to say her name, but he cut straight to her meaning.
           I flushed, but I came up with good Southern mincing. I said, "Maybe she was just surprised."
           He glanced at me. His grey eyes focused—it was the first genuine look. He checked how serious I was. He said, "She wasn't surprised. She said what she said thirty years ago—my feelings would suffocate her. The two of us would suffocate each other."
           Of course I'd guessed. I'd guessed a lot of things about Suzannah. Consummations happen on the trains we never catch and didn't this sexy beauty of a poet know that—him sitting there watching snowflakes the way they hit the windowpane, the way they made us hear the cold, him sitting there hugging his chest and living—in the twentieth century in New York City—some perverse and Dante-esque fidelity.
           It was cold when he first saw Suzannah. It wasn't winter, it was the morning cold you get in the mountains. Suzannah and I were fifteen. Nat was seventeen. It was a music camp in the Blue Ridge called Cairn Craig and we were up at a ghastly hour. The sun was weak. We were lined up on the raw-wood porch waiting for breakfast and Suzannah started in on throaty chanting "Here we stand like birds in the wilderness." Nat saw her. She was a pixie girl. She wore, always, a man's faded shirt, but she was cocky and from that cold morning on Nat Urquhart watched Suzannah, never mind it was me and every other girl on the mountain who fell in love with him. He trailed after Suzannah with his guitar. He played to her around the fire at night and in the daytime under the scrum of oaks when the white heat stifled the cows and the cicadas. But after that one summer—without much heavier action than sliding with her down the waterfalls—the times Nat had with Suzannah were a handful of hours a year in spite of his thumbing his way through Tennessee hollows and over Carolina mountains just to get to her.
           I foundered. I couldn't manage the one thing this man asked of me. I wanted to tell him, Never mind, I'm here. I'm here—me, Poke. Can't you see I'm here with you? But I toyed with something possible, like: Never mind. Joy is the business of artists. Not joy for a respectable reason any commonplace person can see like because you get the woman you've loved all your life which is truly a hackneyed situation—but joy from a riffraff buddha you find, or you turn "blackened redfish" upside down. I know, sweet Nat, so don't pretend that this is death.
           Nathaniel Urquhart wasn't waiting on my thoughts. Nathaniel Urquhart, when his phrase slipped out, was watching white birds out the window. He said, "You knew she was a lesbian." Like that. Like that he said it. Like that he slashed my protection, cut to some unSouthern blood-soaked raw.
           Of course I knew. In a way I knew. I'd never had to tell myself I knew but it was clear it was me Suzannah followed and not Nat the poet. It was clear I was the reason she'd come to New York. We were always close, Suzannah and I. My name even. My real name is Anna but a few ancient people still call me Poke because Suzannah named me Pocahontas a hundred years ago. She said the hospital got confused. She said I was Katherine Hepburn's baby but that would go to my head so maybe I was Pocahontas. The same, she said—high cheek bones were high cheek bones.
           This man meant to force me, a Southerner, to confess out loud I knew Suzannah was a lesbian?
           And didn't all her friends know? I meant separately, isolatedly, know. Not know in a manner mentionable in South Carolina not even if you overheard somewhere when you were in high school in the fifties that there was such a thing as a lesbian. But that instinct for silence, who was to say it wasn't the right instinct? Who said you should nail souls down? And later when we thought about Suzannah it was that California was another country and our lives were molded on keeping our eyes closed and didn't we only hear vaguely of an older woman living with Suzannah and maybe another older woman but wasn't one of them her psychiatrist and didn't the other one die recently and why make anything of all that anyway? We never had a smidgen of Suzannah's courage. We never dreamed of making the guillotine choice she made, that women had to make back then between marriage and the work they loved. Not fifties us. Suzannah made the full-blown choice and of course a woman's got to pay for courage, pay heavy. Me, I was in awe of Suzannah, and Suzannah'd seen me, since then, as the person she could come back to. I was the only one who picked up on her tongue-in-cheek remarks first time and it's true we laughed together easily. And maybe Suzannah knew I got what it was to fall in love with a woman and I assumed every woman understood that even if she never acted on it. A person could will herself to act or not to act but she couldn't will herself to feel or not to feel and it was monstrous that people still stuck tags on souls. If anybody knew all this it had got to be the poet. So I left it open. I said to Nat, "I wasn't sure."
          He said, "Then let's just say she's never loved me and she never can love me."
          He took his glasses off and squinted at the floor. He slid his foot back, as if he meant to get up and leave, as if he was disgusted, as if he had no intention of tangling himself in Southern scrims around the obvious. But he didn't have the energy, or he forgot what he was doing.
          His black mood was inescapable. But then so was the lovely sharpness of his profile and the jut of his cheekbone over his beard and the angle of his hand in his coat pocket. I said (me tasting him so vividly)—I said the one thing that made sense to me. I said, "That's impossible."
          He glanced at me quizzically. Then he frowned. He settled his glasses and pronounced, "You know. And I know."
           I frowned too. He couldn't be accusing me of setting up some trap. He knew his Suzannah as well as I knew my Suzannah. He must have known as well as I did, there are things that override labels—like loneliness, like memories, like the underground connection poets can hold. Still, to defend myself I was on the point of wading in with all my thesises on sex, on its shiftiness, on its ninety-nine percent imagination.
          He said, "I want to tell you why I came here." He stopped, rubbed his eyes, and went on. "You know I'm divorced. I'm divorced for many reasons. But the one I want to believe—we could not go on with the owning—me owning her or she owning me. Suzannah—it's pretty obvious Suzannah isn't ownable. So Suzannah I have kept desiring. It hasn't kept me faithful but I dream of her. And something I've accepted about myself over the years—I'm not capable of knowing a thing that I don't feel. It's all I do own, stabs at a kind of honesty. Without that I give up. And the wound of Suzannah sits there at the source of things. It's as if it's what I stem from."
          I had no answer. I merely nodded. I was moved that he would say these things to me.
          Fat snow clumps caught across the pane. A cat halted in his slide along the window, stared at us. Nat didn't notice. He said, "I've known Suzannah's an alcoholic, known she's suicidal. I don't care. I want to be where I can see her. I want to look after her if that's what it means. I would not own her soul and I would not own her body. That's what would be seen as the perversity, not owning her body. But it's not outrageous. These arrangements have their precedents.
          I said, "With Carolinians?"
           We both smiled, but we dropped it abruptly and stared at the door. "Poke, Poke" was ricocheting in the hall. I looked at Nat and called "Here, Suzannah."
           We didn't go the length of that bare room to meet her. We sat and watched the door get wider, watched her sprite of a self appear. She was dressed in black. A cigarette was on the point of burning her fingers. Her hair was an unnatural black around the fine-boned beauty of her face. The dark triangles under her eyes were a near match to her hair but that added focus to her green-blue eyes. "Oh God" she rasped when she saw Nat sitting with me.
           The moment wasn't long. Suzannah was an actress. She threw her arms out. She commanded, stagy, throaty: "Oh come now. This is woooonderful. This is old times—the three of us. This is cafe time. We're going out to find the warmest smokiest bistro in New York. I'm getting my coat. Don't sit there and stare."
           I demurred—I was not horning in. Nat demurred.
           We bundled on our scarves. We tugged on our gloves. We came out on a hush, on a silent snowdrift of a Twenty-first Street. The white was undivided. It seemed to be undulating. All the lumps and points of garbage cans and old bedsprings were rounded snow. Our footsteps disappeared. Our words trailed out so weakly that we cut them off. Our cheeks flushed blood. In Nat and Suzannah I felt the cold air cleaning out the corpse-taste of their meeting.
           We looked through wrought-iron fences. Windows were lower than the sidewalk. They were banked with drift and through them we glimpsed unmade beds and puddlings of lamplight on the rugs and we saw cats and cactuses and books and once a grand piano and a mammoth painting of a clown and I thought this was the city where you lived like people ought to live and maybe that gladness wasn't just in me because Suzannah started to sing. She sang "Try to remember that day in December, and follow, follow, follow, follow, follow." A minute she smiled up at Nat. It wasn't to flirt. It was more to say she did remember, and she hoped he would forgive her so they both could keep remembering the way they wanted, like this right now that suddenly came right.
           The smoke-warm place I wanted was nailed shut. We ended in the Empire Diner. The spot was steel and glass and steamy with the smell of coffee and they didn't mind us dripping in. Suzannah crossed her arms. She stretched her elbows out across the white formica and shook her hair. Drops of wet splashed us and she reached out to dry us both and laughed. She rumbled in her bag, lit up. She cocked her head—always, with Suzannah, things happened at a slant. With the cigarette in her lips she said, "This is as it should be. The world is meant to be in threes, not sorry twos. Oh when will the world grow up and be sane enough for threes!"
           She yanked her cigarette away, waved her arm till the inch-long ashes flew on us, said: "Who can live without an audience? People mildew without jealousy. Two by two kills culture. Culture needs thickness. It needs movement. We act like sheep. We pretend we know how people have to live and it serves us right for turning out suicidal bums like me."
           The waitress wore a black elastic suit. She laughed at Suzannah. Suzannah caught her eye, said she was sure nobody with her style would live with just one person. The waitress was up to Suzannah, said one man would be enough to fix her lamps. Nat laughed but he was looking down, conscientiously folding, unfolding, refolding a napkin. His beard was flaked with snow.
           Suzannah put her chin on her hand, concentrated on Nat's folding occupation. For minutes she held still, leaning over, letting her ashes hang and fall. Her mood had gone quite vague by the time she said "It wouldn't be so bad, would it, if we went up the mountain to The Cairn. We could live in bunks. Miss Stew could drag us out of bed at 6 a.m. to go muck out her chicken coop. We could get an early practice in, and it wouldn't be half bad if Amy Pritchard would play Fur Elise on her ukelele." We were at formica, but Suzannah put us on that mountain. We saw early sun, smelled evergreens, stirred coffee and bit doughnuts.
           Nat abandoned his napkin, concentrated now on stirring coffee. He looked up at Suzannah, went back to the circles with his spoon, looked up again, went back, said: "So. So it's the three of us who have to live together, never mind it's not a mountaintop."
           Suzannah frowned crazily for some time, and then she turned around to me. I must have smiled because I felt the smile start up on Suzannah.
           The snow was at Nat's back, through smudgy glass. Now he was holding his spectacles midair, waiting and watching. His other fist he'd folded up against his mouth. Over the fist, his eyes picked up the smile.
           I was telling myself this was a joke. But it didn't feel quite like a joke, and the more I watched the more I forgot it was a joke. I began to try it out for real. I told myself that after all of course this was nothing out of the ordinary. I told myself three grownups getting together on some space in a simple noncommittal way was the way people made it in New York. It had been done. It was almost normal. It was almost moral. It was only because we were Southern and middle-aged that I suspected it had to be illegal. But maybe it wasn't illegal. I had to think it wasn't, because I saw where we were going.
           It was my Chelsea spot—I had a year's sublet—where we set up. Nat was animated—he found a desk job for Suzannah in a Soho theater. I sat on my squalid fears, but then Suzannah up and signed herself on to AA—she'd failed at it before but she said the stars had come right. She quipped about diving into a mayhem of a commune but her charts said dive on in, so we reached the point of staring, shy as children, at our common living room.
           Our styles wouldn't be called meshible. Take Suzannah's bedroom—a technicolor face looked down from her walls. The portrait was one of the less-well-known Krishnas with his long smooth Jesus curls, and her shelves held scrolls and maps of zodiacs. Or take Nat's fruit-and-grain diet and his pacing sleeplessness. But these were nips around the edges. We three could talk. We argued about Polish films and the clashing discord Nat called music and what Krishna was about and something called amor fati. Sometimes it went on late, with Nat's students or excess disciples, sometimes around the kitchen table, sometimes poking at a fire. But it was never harrowingly late since Nat kept watch that it was tea, not alcohol. More hopeful even than the talk, though—we each were used to going our own ways, alone.
           Then calls, any hour, started coming for Suzannah. All were her AA acquaintances, mostly young—Suzannah's scratchy beauty appealed across the boundaries. Her focus started shifting. She began to slip away and I was left in the evenings with Nat, and yes, with the Schubert and fires and vodka we ended in my bed. But underneath we were highly conscious, each in our own way, that it was because Suzannah was away with who knew who.
           It meant no change in what Nat was about—though he needn't have been so bleakly honest announcing such to me.
           A night came, though—after we fell quiet in bed—when Nat forgot to bolt up to his room. I could not have bolted. My body had been lighted and it would not go out. He had to have known too, because we fit. We slipped too easily to lying limb against limb, night against night in the simplest unassuming warmth.
           In the day of course I knew this abject life was insupportable—he would start, hesitant, to say something. I would hold my breathe in hope, and it would be "Suzannah isn't home—I'm going looking." Or when he looked up from a book, or from staring in the fire, his eyes went straight to Suzannah. I felt him register the way she moved her ankle or her knee, even below his consciousness.
           In the over-long years I'd been around I'd tinkered, like people have to eventually, with how to be, how to get through time with some little grace intact. I had grasped you had to live with pain, get to be at ease with pain, grow comfortable curled around the pain, because it was underneath most things. But inviting pain to come inside the house and stay like this no end in sight was not a wise decision—no wonder this wild-threes notion of Suzannah's was no household model. I would break up this menage.
           And as soon as I resolved, no turning back, I got assaulted by my own bungled self. I remembered I'd been botched from the womb, remembered I hadn't managed to keep loving anybody long, not for more than a few months or so especially if a man had graciously loved me. I'd kept this sticky bit of truth where I mostly couldn't see it but I knew, when I pressed the matter, that I'd been shoddily assembled. So how now was I thinking I could unearth something better? It was a cretinous delusion. I did now love a person, and that was that.
           I chose sweet nerves instead of thinking any more, and I lay in his arms. He slept. I pressed my nose in his neck—I could smell him strongest with my nose in his neck and I meant to hold off sleep so I could feel this happiness, the bedrock fact of which happiness my daytime mind had trouble grasping. It was then I put things together: Of course. Of course this massive rift in life, down the middle of happiness—of course this chasm was the only way. This was THE one way where a person could not own another person. This was the only way no mildewed expectation had a chance. Suzannah'd known it, with her threes. Maybe it hadn't played out precisely like she'd meant, maybe we were more than three with Suzannah's hangers-on but Suzannah was in the middle of this circle. Suzannah kept this circle so windily open we had to breathe cold air sometimes—no choice. Of course I would have snapped the circle shut if I could have. But I couldn't. My happiness was manufactured by Suzannah.
           My second jerry-built insight—the second way it came to me that I could wrench my mind into fitting with my body—didn't come in bed. It came in the night yes, but not in bed. I was sitting in the window seat. Undoubtedly there were better mind-soothing analogies but being a teacher I was in the habit of stealing what I taught and at the moment it was Lord Jim's Stein. Stein, the old and isolated European in the jungles of Malaysia, gave and gave and gave to Jim, who'd lost himself. Because, said Stein, an unknown Scot on a far-off continent a thousand years before had given and given and given to him when he had lost himself, and it was for him to pass on, when the hour came, that gesture, which was civilization. He must give where there wouldn't be recompense. That was what mattered.
           I pictured Stein and Jim. It was a dusky too-large house I pictured. Hazy light came through bamboo and hit the floor, which was black and waxy. I saw those men like geometry, like a special figure. I'd call it "interrupted line," which I deduced was not too far from "opened-up circle." I sat in that icy window seat and I determined I had to keep this open kind of figure in my mind if I intended to make sense of things. I'd been loved in my life, and in a way—my charms not being Nat's, and not at all Suzannah's—I was loved right now, by Suzannah. I had to give that love back out somewhere, and I gave it to Nat, and Nat gave it to Suzannah, and it persisted, and it didn't change overmuch in the shiftiness.
           This arcane geometric wisdom came on an evening Nat was out. It was snowing. Suzannah'd begged off from her friends and her AA meeting. She wanted to stay with me, at the kitchen table—the kitchen being warm and huge and wonderful with Renaissance-face postcards Nat had stuck up all around, and with the Empire State Building bright green-red and visible across the fire escape, the flaw being Suzannah started drinking, and didn't stop. She kept mumbling at me "You'll never understand—of course it isn't Nat—you'll never understand."
           She fell asleep at the kitchen table. I managed to lift her to her bed, and then, in my own room, I perched myself in the window seat and wondered what would happen now. Snow kept coming down on Twenty-first Street. It stuck to the windowpane. I was so close to the pane that I could smell the cold outside and pulled my sweater closer. I let my forehead drop against the glass, ignored the ice-stab, and watched street lamps. The snow was sifting around the posts, and the light made hazy pools of yellow on the snow. For maybe half an hour I listened for Suzannah, and waited on Nat, and stared at shifting half-lights, and it was then I called up my jerry-built analogy of Stein, and my interrupting lines and my opened-up circles, and it all began to make a kind of sense. For maybe half an hour, before the morning let the rusty bedsprings poke up through the snow, I looked down on snow-hush, and on a rounded smoothed-out city, and it made a kind of sense to see the evened-out lines and know the jaggedness was there below the surface, where such pain was meant to be. For a moment it made perfect sense, and I was happy with the leveled down-soft curves across the tops of things.

Rosa Shand's novel is The Gravity of Sunlight (Soho Press). Her work has appeared in Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and The Massachusetts Review. Gravity of Sunlight was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.