“Love, O Careless Love,” Susan Lark’s clock-radio bleated and sobbed in alarm, awakening her with a start from the sound sleep she had nearly talked herself into believing she would never know again. Batting at the noise with a sleepy hand, nerveless as an oven mitt, she sat up with a yawn and stretched out her arms into the spring sunlight that poured through the window to warm her knees.
I feel good this morning, she thought in surprise, looking out at the high, clear sky and listening to the chatter of the songbirds squabbling with their mates. With a sudden flit a blue jay, flashy as a gangster, perched on the telephone cable outside her window and peered in with cocky curiosity.
“Why do I feel so good today?” she asked him with a grin as he tilted his boyish head and gave her a sideways, impudent look.
“Oh no, no,” she whimpered, remembering with a sudden sickening slurp why she felt so fine this bright Monday morning in May when even the birds came swooping down to see her. Flinging herself back down on the bed, pulling her pillow tight around her ears in despair, she beat her heels against the mattress, squeaking, “No, no, no, no, no,” and sending her showy visitor away in search of less conventional sights. Susan Lark had fallen in love.
Why is everyone so afraid of melodrama, when it happens to be true? Those old melodramatic plots had to come from somewhere. Poetic justice, the sense of an ending, a tale with a moral like the clicking shut of a well-made box: We don’t look for them in life because we found them in stories; we look for them in stories because we saw them first in life. Forget ambiguity. The entire universe wants a neat and happy conclusion. Creation is God’s own cliff-hanger, the Perils of Pauline in six hundred billion installments, played across the stars.
Susan Lark was young, pretty, and sufficiently inexperienced to be outraged by the suggestion that she was any less experienced than a combination of Mata Hari, Susan Sontag, and the absinthe-sodden madam of a New Orleans bordello. She worked for the administration of St. Aloysius University, in Washington, D.C., and she was engaged to a prig.
Oh, her fiance David Bowers, was handsome enough in certain dim lights, and he was undoubtedly rich–or rather, not exactly rich yet, but well on the merchant-banker, arbitrageur, does-something-or-other-with-money-in-an-office-downtown path to wealth. But he was nonetheless a prig. So the question was: How do you get rid of a prig? I mean, get rid of him with justice? Especially a soon-to-be-rich prig with world-class stock options? Precisely because he’s a prig, you won’t catch him doing anything you could use as a plausible excuse: kissing someone else, for instance, or ordering extra-hot instead of mild, or even forgetting to return your library books.
An ordinary young woman can always say, “I’ve changed my mind.” But a heroine–ah, well, a real heroine–can’t just pop in and say, “Thanks for dropping off the drycleaning, dearest. Oh, by the way, cancel the wedding and tell your brother-in-law who works for the airlines to return the tickets he got us to Jamaica.” A heroine has to act with honor. A heroine has to have a reason. The job of any half-competent providence is to hand her the right reason, arrange for her to know the right mate, and see her at least partway down the right road to happiness.
As it happens, there was a rising young English professor with an office across the quad from Susan’s. His name was Jack Corbis, and he too was unhappily engaged, to a woman named Melanie Flyte. A great deal of scene-shifting would normally be required to sort all this out and arrive at the necessary conclusion. But providence has at its disposal a vast stock of literary tropes, narrative conventions, and mythopoeic figures to help streamline the process. In other words, it cheats.
This is how the story began, three days before: On a warm Friday in early May, up on the third floor of Loyola Hall, back behind the elevators and down a long hallway carpeted in what looked like light oatmeal, Susan sat in Room 362, failing to read the reports on which she was supposed to make a report. Outside, on her door, were mounted two bright plastic signs. The upper, in the mangled English even small bureaucracies seem to manage effortlessly, read “Office of Environmental Liaisonship,” while the lower, she couldn’t stop herself from noticing with a blush of self-consciousness each morning, read “Susan Lark.” Environmental Liaisonshipmanship had been her profession for almost a year, ever since she finished college in Ohio the spring before.
I’m bored, she decided. Bored with work, and bored with David. Especially with David. He always wants to do the same boring things, see the same boring people–wear the same boring clothes, for God’s sake. She leaned back in her chair with a sigh and watched through lowered eyelids the Friday morning sunlight that slanted through the office blinds and illuminated in sharp, striated slices the dust motes’ gentle dance above the dark-oatmeal couch. Brownian motion, she thought unexpectedly, that’s what it’s called: the soft, random motion of the suspended specks, slowly swirling, falling,
pirouetting, rising through the angled beams, light, dark, light, dark, fascinating, mesmerizing, sleepy, slow.
The screech of the telephone jerked Susan from her self-hypnosis and brought her awake with a painful smash of her elbow against the desk.
“Ow,” she howled into the phone.
“Hello?” it responded doubtfully. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, I’m–” she began angrily, twisting her arm to examine her bruised elbow and dropping the receiver with a clatter over the side of the desk. Hauling it back by the cord, Susan snarled and yanked impatiently as it snagged on the desk’s overhanging edge–and then ducked as the phone catapulted into the air, rebounded off the computer monitor, swiped the lamp-shade, and skittered noisily across the desk, scattering her papers. The teetering lamp, placidly ignoring Susan’s slowmotion grab, toppled onto the couch, where it rocked gently back and forth before rolling off onto the light-oatmeal carpet, breaking its bulb with a soft, last-minute pop.
Susan put the receiver gingerly to her ear. “Hello?” she whispered.
“Are you there?” the voice on the other end returned.
“Hello?” the terrorized Susan repeated.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, hello, hello,” said Professor Adam Stamper, shifting the phone to his undamaged ear. “Are . . . You . . . All . . . Right?” he demanded peevishly.
“Hel . . . ,” Susan began again, and swallowed. “Yes, I’m, I’m all right, I mean, I’m fine. I just knocked something over. I mean, um, there was just a little accident here, but I’m fine, now. Everything,” she said, closing her eyes on the wreck of her office, “is under control.”
“Yes, well, good. This is Adam Stamper.”
“How are you, Professor Stamper?”
“Now Susan, I’ve told you before: Call me Adam. I bounced you on my knee when you were two years old. I knew your father long before he started appearing on television on Sunday afternoons to babble about pine trees, and he asked me to look out for you when you came to work here. In fact, that’s why I’m calling. Pandy and I were just talking–“
“Pandora Mettleman. Small woman. Wears pink. Teaches Classics. She’s only your father’s second-oldest friend from college. Are you sure you’re feeling well?”
“Oh, right. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Remind me,” Stamper chortled, “to tell you someday about the senior cotillion when your father and I were undergraduates here, and Pandy was up at Trinity.”
He snorted again. “And how Bob Murphy spiked the wrong punch bowl.”
Susan stared at the paper-strewn carpet. The only thing more annoying than the reminiscences people told were the reminiscences they only told about, but Susan imagined a deeper source for her discontent. She had been received kindly at the university, she was convinced, because of her father–not so much because he was a semi-famous naturalist who had parlayed a book on the lifecycle of forests into an occasional public-television program about nature, but because he had gone to school at St. Aloysius and was still somehow deeply connected to the place. No one takes me seriously, she
thought in self-pity. No one takes me for myself.
“But that’s a story for another day,” Stamper added, in the tones of a professional time-waster annoyed to discover that someone has lured him into wasting time. “Pandy came to see me and said you need to get out more, meet new people. So I want you to come to dinner tonight.”
“I had plans to go out with David–or not exactly plans, but we usually eat together on Friday nights.”
And always at the same boring restaurant, she thought.
“He’s that gray-suited banker you introduced me to? Call him and tell him you have something else to do.”
“He’s expecting me,” Susan complained. “Can’t we make it another night?”
“No. On Monday there’s the faculty convocation, and then exams start, and after that I’m going away for the summer. Besides, this year’s visiting professor, Walther Vormund, the biochemist, is coming tonight. I knew him years ago in Zurich, when I was on my Fulbright fellowship. He’s bound to win the Nobel Prize one of these days, and this is your chance to get to know him. Pandy will be there, too, along with a few other people. And there’s someone else Pandy and I want you to meet.”
“I really shouldn’t.”
“Good, then,” Stamper said. “That’s settled. My house, seven o’clock.” He hung up with a bang.
How do you like that? thought Susan as she put the phone back in its cradle. How do you like that? she thought again as she walked around the desk, picking up the broken lamp and gathering the tumbled papers. Recently Susan Lark’s life had become uncomfortably full of slapstick and pratfalls. The parked car left in neutral to roll down the driveway and knock over the fire hydrant, drenching the neighborhood. The champagne cork that ricocheted off the wall, the bookcase, and the ceiling to hit her between the eyes. The lurch in the cafeteria that tumbled her spaghetti down into a stranger’s lap. Why is this kind of thing happening to me? she wondered.
Finding at last under the desk the photocopies the provost had sent her that morning, Susan lowered herself cautiously onto the couch, tucking her legs beside her. They were nice legs, it must be observed, and Susan knew it. She settled down to review again her report on the environmental impact of the new student center. Well, she decided, at least Stamper’s dinner will be something different.
“You have to admit,” said Jack Corbis, “that was something different.” But Susan Lark, sharing a drink with him in his apartment much later that night, insisted Adam Stamper’s dinner had been a success. True, the food had been inedible, the conversation libelous–“slanderous,” Jack corrected with slightly slurred pedantry, “libel has to be printed”–the conversation slanderous, as Susan amended with a nod, and the company peculiar. All this might be true, but–she held up an admonitory finger and wove gently on the sofa–the overall scene had been easily worth the price of admission. “Standing room only,” Jack agreed, and the tipsy pair collapsed in laughter.
Susan had been the last to arrive at Professor Stamper’s house. At seven that evening, as the dinner party was getting underway, she was still in her own apartment, half-naked in front of her closet, running indecently late. “Why don’t I have anything to wear?” she demanded as she pawed along the hanging rod that sagged under the weight of her clothes. “There’s nothing here that makes me look good.”
Settling at last in desperation on the dark blue dress her mother had insisted on buying for her (simple yet elegant, as the women’s magazines always said; simple yet insipid, as Susan always answered), she looked wildly around the apartment for the flowers she had bought that afternoon, before remembering at last that she had forgotten to take them from her briefcase.
“I’m sorry, they seem to be a little wilted,” she told Adam Stamper as she offered him the shriveled clump of exanimate daisies. Susan was not at her best with understatement.
“Um, yes, well, thank you,” he said, taking the flowers with some reluctance. “But what am I doing leaving you standing on the doorstep? Come in, come in, I’m glad you’re finally here.” He herded her down the hall, saying, “You look wonderful, all in blue. I think you know most everyone, but there are two people I especially want you to meet. Ah, and here’s one of them, Jack Corbis. Jack, this is Susan Lark, the woman I was telling you about.”
Rolling around her in the living room were snippets of conversation, the howl and bark of faculty lapping at alcohol.
“So how come he gets the best parking place on campus?”
“Surely reform of the prayer book in 1928 made ecumenical dialogue with the Anglicans more difficult, not less.”
“It’s not the heat so much, Bob. It’s the humidity.”
But Susan caught almost none of it. Jack Corbis was long and dark, with malapert hair and a ravening smile, and his fingers were warm as he took her hand to say, “Adam has been telling me about you–your father’s television show, your coming to St. Aloysius, and all the rest of it.” Susan was unable to hear what she answered. She had a tightness in her throat, a small carillon in her ears, and a failing in her knees. It wasn’t so much love as spinal injury at first sight.
Who can say what creates that oomph, that spark, that electrical something one wants to break into French to describe? Some people seem to have it for everyone. We call them Cary Grant. Others have it only for each other. We call them lovers. You could have stuck balloons to the wall, made cat’s hair stand on end, and lit fluorescent bulbs with the galvanic field that leapt up between Jack and Susan. Susan actually crumpled under the weight of it, falling backwards a step and stumbling against the hatstand poised inconveniently behind her.
A hatstand? Who has a hatstand anymore? she couldn’t stop herself thinking as she turned to watch its timbering fall. Already she could see the implacable Rube Goldberg syllogism taking form: The eight-foot hatstand would tumble across the footstool into the standing lamp with the Tiffany shade, the standing lamp with the Tiffany shade would swirl like a jousting arm to sweep across the mantel, and the cut-glass vase that looked so pretty–and expensive–would plummet off the mantel to smash the even more expensive-looking glass table set delicately beneath it and holding a platter of semi-soft cheese and caraway-seed crackers.
She was snatching her hand from Jack’s, too late, to grab at it, when an arm slipped suddenly into view, neatly catching the hatstand just before it struck. “Fate is a comedian, yes?” the small man in the brown suit said as he set it gently back in place. “Sometimes I think there are catastrophes the universe wants to happen, and we must halt them before the humor grows undisciplined.
I am Walther Vormund, at your service.”
But even with the dampening effect of Herr Doktor Professor Vormund, the evening passed in a blurred glow for Susan Lark. She was seated next to Jack Corbis at the dining-room table, and all through the gluey carrot soup and the honey-flavored salad, the soggy chicken and the burnt potatoes, she consumed hungrily his conversation about the book he was writing, his interest in her environmental work, and how much he liked blue.
Still, Susan had been well brought up by good if somewhat peculiar parents, and guilt at last made her twist around to speak to her left-hand neighbor, Vormund. She found him involved in an argument across the table.
“Perhaps people are precisely who they seem to be,” he suggested.
“What do you mean, ‘precisely who they seem to be’?”
Pandy Mettleman snapped. “Most members of humanity aren’t who they seem to be. They made a mistake, drifted into some commitment, and got trapped. Why, if we could find a way to set everyone free to show their real selves–“
“They would return most immediately to the way they were before.”
“That’s simply untrue,” she pronounced decidedly.
“People often don’t see what’s best for themselves in time. If we could show them something that fits them better–show them how it fits them better–they would never betray their real selves by accepting an inferior choice. The only problem is to do it early enough to save them.”
“So,” Vormund said with a sigh, “you are wiser than I about people, and perhaps I am wrong. But let us imagine an experiment. Let us pretend I have something that would do what you desire.”
He paused to look thoughtfully around the table. “In fact,” he said, “I have what we might use for our illustration. Here in my pocket is a bottle I must take back to the laboratory. It is filled with a formula of, oh, Alethesium, let us call it.”
The classicist Pandora Mettleman, who knew bad Classical Greek when she heard it, looked at Vormund with suspicion as he set on the table before them a small, corked vial of red liquid.
“Now,” he continued, “I imagine a dose of, say, half this tincture would have an interesting effect on a human being. It would break down certain inhibitions–certain conscious desires and schemes, perhaps–and allow the person’s real self, as you call it, to shine through. I picture it working like a great deal of alcohol, without the additional effect.”
“What, being drunk?” asked Jack, laughing a little nervously.
“Yes, that also,” Vormund agreed pleasantly, “but I was thinking of what you call the hangover.”
“So,” Vormund added, turning back, “I ask you, Professor Mettleman–I ask you all–do you believe that this Alethesium would fundamentally change your personality? Do you think your inner self, brought into the open, would prove entirely other than your outer self, so thoughtlessly abolished?”
It is a curious thing, but none of us believes that we ourselves are particularly divided, inside from outside, though we are convinced that nearly everyone else in the world is. Adam Stamper’s guests burst into an uproar around the table, declaiming, as only college teachers can, about the unfairness of Vormund’s proposed experiment, the necessity to try it out on students first, just to be safe, and why someone on the other side of the table seemed to be hoarding the wine.
Jack Corbis was the first to break the conversation, saying his car was being repaired and asking if he could use the phone to call a cab.
“Of course, of course,” Stamper said. “Unless someone else is going your way.” He glanced at Pandy Mettleman before turning to Susan. “You wouldn’t mind dropping Jack off,” he asked with slightly forced avuncularity, “would you?”
Later, Susan couldn’t recall quite how she had gotten up into Jack’s apartment. He was so easy to talk to. She told him about her fiance David, he told her about his fiance Melanie, and somehow their camaraderie in the ranks of the engaged made it seem appropriate–even commendable–to come up with him for a drink instead of simply dropping him off.
“So,” Jack asked, carrying into the living room her wine and his own bourbon, “what did you think of our famous dinner guest, Warmonger or whatever his name was?”
“Vormund. That means”–Susan’s college German had dissolved in the alcohol–“um, something like fore-mouth.”
“Yes,” Susan agreed hazily. “Like a lawyer or a guardian, maybe. I was so grateful when he caught the hatstand, I decided to love him forever. So many disasters have been going on around me lately.” She hesitated, took a gulp of her drink, and plunged into explanation. “You know how in a movie, when there’s a car wreck, a flaming wheel always comes rolling out of the fire? I mean, if you see a burning car up there on the screen, you just know that one of the wheels is going to roll out?”
“Ye-es,” Jack said, in the voice of someone who doesn’t get it, but is willing to play along.
“Or if you see a rake left out on the lawn, you know someone is going to step on it and get bonked on the nose? Or if there’s a car chase, there has to be two guys crossing the street with a sheet of glass? Well, something like that is always going on around me these days. I feel like I’m being stalked by the Keystone Kops. All of a sudden, around every corner, there’s slapstick waiting. Piano stools nscrewing from their bases. Spilled drinks. Banana peels. Pies in the face. Everything,” she said, looking down in despair, “is going wrong for me.”
But Jack was already coming around the coffee table to join her on the sofa. He lifted her chin and kissed her gently. It was a kiss, I’m afraid, that promised a great deal. It tasted of spice (and bourbon), and it whispered of ocean voyages, starlight on sandy beaches, and wonderful places different from any she had ever known. Later, Susan couldn’t recall how she had gotten out of Jack Corbis’s apartment. As she rested her head on his shoulder, they talked again about their fiances, and how they must be faithful, and the sadness made it seem even sweeter. Susan drove home on a cloud.
“Unbeknownst” is a word one rarely has an opportunity to use, but it is the only fitting word in the circumstances, for back at Professor Stamper’s house, unbeknownst to Jack and Susan, the dinner conversation had gone on.
“She is engaged to a pig, you say? A schwein?” asked Walther Vormund.
“No, no, a prig,” answered Pandy Mettleman. “Um, langweiliger, I think.” Her German, although more professional than Susan’s, had also gotten a little wet in the course of the evening. Jack Corbis is far better for her. That’s why I asked Adam to help me throw them together.”
“It is a dangerous thing you do, this matchmaking.”
Vormund said, looking down at the glowing coal of his cigar. “I believe I once saw the langweilig, the boring young man, crossing the quadrangle with your Miss Lark. He seemed most suitable. Still,” he added kindly, “perhaps you know best.”
It wasn’t until later, while she was helping him clear the table after all the other guests had gone home, that Pandy Mettleman said to Adam Stamper, “Oh, look.
Vormund forgot to take his vial of Alethesium with him.”
On Monday morning, having forced herself at last to face the day, Susan Lark stood before her bathroom mirror, studying dispassionately the contortions of her face as she brushed her teeth. I shouldn’t worry, she told herself. All people hate the way they look. Catherine Deneuve thinks she’s ugly. Mel Gibson thinks he’s ugly. Greta Garbo, Rupert Brooke (she had nursed a passion for the handsome, doomed, and sappy young World War I poet all through her freshman year in college), and Cary Grant thought they were ugly.
Ignoring the unlikeliness of these delusions, she gestured with her toothbrush toward her face in the mirror. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” she frothed. “You look just the way a heroine should.” Susan laughed and rinsed her mouth, squishing the water from cheek to cheek, irresistibly reminding herself of an irresolute chipmunk.
As she padded back to the bedroom in her bathrobe, she thought about Jack Corbis and how to explain to him her decision that they mustn’t see each other anymore. Her date on Saturday evening with David Bowers had not gone well. David had been his usual thoughtful, considerate, boring, gray, puritanical, fuddy-duddy self. He had been his usual, that was all, and she had had a headache. In fact, she had felt queasy all day, she couldn’t think why. Perhaps it was the food Stamper had served the night before.
While she looked hopelessly through her overladen closet, she considered her phone conversation with Jack on Sunday, which had gone a little too well. If David was usual, Jack Corbis was unusual–and that was the trouble. He certainly wasn’t what you’d call a nice man. He had kissed her, after all, while engaged to another woman, she thought, and if that didn’t prove something, what did? He had a predatory air that put her back up, and she swore that when she saw him again she wouldn’t take his advances lying down.
“So why did you get engaged to this Melanie Flyte?” she had asked.
“I thought she was rich.”
“I’m just kidding. That was a joke. I actually did think for a while that she was part of the Flyte family–you know, the people who make the airplanes–but that turned out to be a great-uncle she’s hardly ever met. Now you tell me, why did you get engaged?
“Oh, I don’t know. I mean,” she added hurriedly, “I love David, of course. And he’s very, well, nice, I suppose.” Then Jack had laughed, and she had laughed, and they had talked, and talked, and talked, until Susan agreed to see him in the library the next day after lunch.
But now that next day was upon her, and here with all these clothes, she had nothing right to wear for meeting a man to tell him that she wasn’t going to meet him anymore. She slammed the closet door in vexation and then listened resignedly–as though it were only what she expected–to the sudden loud crack and subsequent slow cascade as the tortured hanging rod and crowded shelves collapsed. “Of course,” she said in a dangerously reasonable tone, pinching the bridge of her nose, “of course.”
When the noise stopped, Susan stared at the suspiciously mute closet for a moment before pulling open the door. Tumbling out around her ankles came mounds of blouses, skirts, and sweaters; dresses, slacks, and shawls; wool blazers that had proved too hot for office work, a tie-died sarong she had repressed the memory of buying, the old yellow sundress she had never brought herself to give away–tangled up in wire drycleaner hangers, wooden suit hangers, padded pink cloth hangers, kilt clips, pants presses, hat boxes, and shoe bags. And there on top, as though displayed to
best advantage by an insistent salesman, was the spring suit, in robin’s-egg blue, she had nearly forgotten she owned.
It is worth noting that by this point Susan was almost radioactive. As she walked to work in her bright blue suit, she seemed to cast a spell across the campus. All around her, professors were sitting down on park benches while the painters were off rooting through their vans for “Wet Paint” signs, administrators with arms full of paper were turning corners and crashing into other administrators with arms even fuller of paper, students in the cafeteria were having their chairs snatched away just as they sat down, and strangers calling out for Chinese food were misdialing and getting the provost’s office. As Susan mounted the front steps of Loyola Hall, a garbage dumpster broke free and rolled down the hill, forcing two graduate students and a Frisbee-catching dog to leap into the fountain. Her stopping in the hallway to say hello to the dean left three people stuck in a susceptible elevator for most of the morning and the dean with an inexplicable impulse to squirt someone with a soda siphon. Susan Lark’s melodrama was shaking St. Aloysius University to its core, and the entire campus seemed to sigh in relief when she finally reached the Environmental Liaisonship office, turned on the light, and shut the door behind her.
Now, Pandora Mettleman wasn’t really spying, or so at least she would try to claim later that evening as she stood with Adam Stamper and Walther Vormund amid the wreckage of the spring convocation. It’s just that on Monday afternoon, from the window in her library carrel, she happened to see Jack Corbis striding across the quad toward the library, and then, glancing out again a few minutes later, she saw Susan Lark slipping out the side door of Loyola Hall and heading in the same direction.
And she was, she insisted, merely curious whether Jack and Susan were planning to meet.
She found them together among the Victorian novels, PR4557.A1 to PR4969.R6. And that is when she made what must be called, in moral terms, an error, for instead of greeting them or returning to her carrel, she ducked back down the previous aisle, PR3325.A7 to PR4556.W5, to browse with assumed interest among the dusty tomes of Robert Hugh Benson, Sir Walter Besant, and the estimable Augustine Birrell.
Jack was looking through a copy of Our Mutual Friend when he felt a light-blue presence beside him, and a small hand reached up to pull another book off the shelf.
“Hello,” he said in a tone of mock indifference.
“Hello,” Susan replied, standing next to him, absorbed in Great Expectations.
“You’re well?” he asked after a moment, turning a page.
“Yes. Fine,” Susan answered with matching unconcern. She also turned a page and studied it carefully before adding, “And you?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” he rejoined. He turned the book sideways to look at an illustration. “Lovely weather, don’t you think?”
“Very lovely,” Susan returned. Only a deep love of books kept Pandy Mettleman from pelting them with the collected works of Sir Walter Besant, one by one.
Susan, too, seemed to have had enough of the game. She replaced Great Expectations on the shelf and turned to face him. “Jack,” she began her carefully rehearsed speech, “We can’t see each other anymore.”
He closed his own book and answered quietly, “I know.”
“This will be hard, but, over time, you and I will come–what do you mean, ‘I know’?” Having primed herself to do the brave and noble thing, Susan was a little put out to find her role usurped.
“It isn’t fair,” said Jack. “Not to you, or your fiance David, or even Melanie, I suppose, although that’s . . . well, that’s over for me, I’m afraid. But you have your life–your famous father, your rich friends–and you don’t need me to complicate things.”
“Oh, Jack,” said Susan, melting.
“Kiss her, you idiot,” Pandy Mettleman wanted to shout. She put her foot on the bottom shelf and raised herself up to glare at them through the Victoriana, before noticing the library cart that had materialized beside her. Behind the cart loomed a librarian, furious in his enormous glasses, snarling in an outraged library whisper, “May I help you?”
“I was just, er, trying to find a book,” Pandy answered, reaching up at random and coming down with Augustine Birrell’s Essays About Men, Women, and Books, a classic of 1894 taste that hadn’t been checked out of the library since approximately 1895. “Um, yes, this is it. I’ve been looking for this for ages. An important volume, well worth the effort to get it down, don’t you think?” she added, retreating before the library cart that chivvied her down the aisle and back toward the stairs. “That pair of boobies will never get together,” she grumbled as she returned to her carrel, clutching her
What Pandy Mettleman missed, however, is that Jack Corbis seemed willing to follow her unvoiced advice. He turned to face Susan–so slowly and deliberately that the frightened Susan took a step back. At least, she intended to take a step back and couldn’t quite explain how she had, in fact, taken a step toward him. He took her gently by the robin’s-egg lapels and kissed her, while Susan, it must be confessed, slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him back, deaf to the dreadful hiss of
the scandalized librarian.
Perhaps the events of Monday night’s convocation would have been avoided if Susan had worn blue again, as symmetry demanded, instead of changing to black, for it doesn’t do to interfere with even the trifles of a story once it has begun to roll downhill. But probably nothing could have prevented the avalanche. Providence, bringing at last the neglected David Bowers and Melanie Flyte on stage for a look, seemed to be feeling a little guilty about the cavalierness with which they were being treated–and when a melodrama begins to care what happens to its secondary characters, the result is always disaster.
David and Melanie were at the faculty convocation only because Susan and Jack, wrapped up in each other among the library stacks, had decided to wait until the next day to have with their fiances that awkward conversation about why they are no longer fiances. It wasn’t fair to spoil the party for David, Susan explained. Melanie had bought a new dress, Jack added, and she had said she had a surprise for him.
So there David and Melanie were, standing with Susan beside the buffet table crowded with platters of shrimp, salmon mousse, and stray bits of vegetables and meat rolled up in unnaturally colored tortillas. Finally clothed, animated, and presented to the public, they proved to be young, silly, and every bit as deserving of their own stories as Jack and Susan. David was a small and pleasant man in a gray-striped suit, with thin blond hair and an agreeable smile. Melanie was tall and darkhaired, dressed in a strapless, scallop-bosomed cocktail dress that seemed supported only by the faint suggestive power of modesty.
While the faculty shed their academic robes and complained about the heat in which they had made their spring procession across campus to the reception hall, Susan, David, and Melanie waited for Jack, talking about money. Or rather, David and Melanie talked about money. Susan drew listless circles in the onion dip with a piece of celery.
“Don’t tell Jack–I’ve been planning all day how to surprise him–but my great-uncle died this weekend,” Melanie confided.
“I’m sorry,” said David, looking away, a little shocked by how well she was bearing up under her grief.
Melanie gave a pretty shrug, threatening, Susan noticed sourly, to break completely free from her dress and irresistibly drawing David’s eyes back to her. “Oh, I hardly knew him,” she said. “I went to visit him only once, when I was eight, and he was so nasty, I wouldn’t write a thank-you note even when my mother said she’d spank me if I didn’t.”
She laughed. “But it turns out I was the only family member who didn’t bombard the old tightwad with fawning letters, angling for a piece of the money he made building airplanes. So he decided I was his only financially worthy relative, and he left me part of his estate, everything he didn’t give away to the Humane Society and a fund for unmarried mothers.” She laughed again. “And are my cousins ever mad.”
She leaned toward David and added, “Shhh. Here comes Jack. Maybe I can come see you and get some financial advice. Jack has always wanted to quit teaching, you know, so he can concentrate on writing. And now, if I invest the money right, we can get married right away. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Once Jack joined them at the buffet table, however, dreary seemed a better word than wonderful. Melanie bubbled brightly, and David smiled agreeably, but Jack and Susan stared at their shoes, drearily, and listened to their temporary fiances laugh about the food and the assembled faculty whose animal roar was beginning to fill the room.
“Those ninnies,” said Pandy Mettleman to Adam Stamper as she watched in disgust. “Nitwits, numskulls, nincompoops, noddies.”
“Jack Corbis and Susan Lark,” she said, pointing with her chin at the silent pair across the room. “They’re madly in love with each other, and they won’t admit it. We have to find a way to get them to open up.”
Stamper looked at her curiously. “What do you propose, doping their drinks or something?”
Pandy Mettleman smiled. “Funny you should say that. Look at them standing over there, without a drink, the poor dears. And here in my purse I just happen to have a little something that might do the trick.”
She held up a familiar vial of red liquid. “Now suppose . . . ,” she began, but Stamper was already gleefully turning to the bartender to order a tumbler of bourbon and a glass of wine.
This was the moment that Susan Lark’s story finally saw within its grasp the conclusion for which it had been reaching ever since Walther Vormund had produced his vial of de-inhibiting Alethesium at Adam Stamper’s dinner table on Friday night. Across the room, even David and Melanie were feeling the melodramatic tension that enveloped Jack and Susan.
“Er, I’ll just go get something to drink,” said David, unsure why he felt so strong a compulsion to leave them alone.
“I’ll, um, go with him,” said Melanie, even less sure.
Alone with Jack for the first time, Susan drew a frowning face in the onion dip with her celery stalk. “Why didn’t you tell me,” she asked, “that you wanted to leave St. Aloysius?”
“Did Melanie say that?” Jack answered. “Well, it’s true. I’ve always hated teaching, and I need time to write my novel.”
“What will you do for money?”
“Something will come along. Besides,” he said, leaning his shoulder against hers and smiling his trademarkedly wry smile, “you have plenty for both of us, with all your father makes from television.”
That this was a mistake, Jack realized as soon as he said it, for Susan stiffened like an angry bird beside him. He might have passed off the awkward moment with a laugh if Adam Stamper had managed to reach them in time. But just as Stamper was rounding a knot of quarreling mathematicians and bearing down upon them, Walther Vormund stepped out and bumped his arm, spilling the drinks Pandy Mettleman had so carefully doctored. The unhindered Susan took a step away from Jack, rammed her celery down in the onion dip like a banner of defiance, and turned to face him.
“Oh, my father’s famous, in a small way,” she hissed. “But I’m not, and neither of us has any money. What do you think they pay part-time naturalists on public television? Anyway, all of his friends are here at St. Aloysius University, and now they’re my friends, too. So if you want to go off somewhere and be a writer, you’re welcome to it. I’m going to stay.”
She gathered volume as she gathered steam, silencing a widening circle around them as the fascinated faculty turned to listen. “If it’s money you want, why don’t you ask your fiance,” Susan sneered, infuriated by Jack’s hushing gestures as Melanie and David came up behind her. “Or didn’t you hear? Her rich great-uncle just died and left her a fortune.”
“You rat,” Melanie cried, grabbing Susan’s arm and yanking her around. “How could you tell him? You knew it was a surprise. I bought a bottle of champagne, and I spent all afternoon making a cake, and now you’ve ruined everything. What are you trying to do anyway, steal Jack away from me?”
Dropping Susan’s arm, she twirled in anger and took three rapid steps away, scattering the fragile faculty like dry leaves as her bosom heaved in fury. It would have been an impressive exit, if she hadn’t barged in blind lability past Adam Stamper and Walther Vormund, who were looking down at the ice and liquor they had spilled on the predictably slippery floor.
Melanie Flyte didn’t exactly fall as her feet began to slide out from under her, but that proved, in the event, to be a pity. Rearing back to catch her balance, then snapping forward like a gymnast, she burst out of her bodice on the backswing and sprawled face first into a buffet table on the frontswing, burying herself to her ears in a platter of fresh salmon mousse.
In the awed silence that followed, Melanie rose, like Venus from the waves, bare-breasted from the buffet. She looked, in a curious way, quite stunning, though the effect was lessened by the mask of pink fish speckled with bits of parsley that coated her face. David was already stepping forward when Jack Corbis brushed him aside, slipping out of his jacket to drape it over her and lead her away, his arm wrapped protectively around her shoulder.
“That young man seems to have made his choice,” Walther Vormund observed with interest as they passed through the door. “You see,” he said, turning back to Adam Stamper, “all things work out for the best if only one leaves them alone.” As Pandora Mettleman stepped over to join them, he added, “It is a sorrow that shortly I must return home. Faculty convocations are never this enjoyable in Zurich. Sometimes I think we Swiss are too serious a people.”
“Tell me,” Stamper asked him, “what would have happened if they had drunk it?”
“Drunk what, my friend?”
“The Alethesium, the liquid you left at my house on Friday.”
“Oh, is that what became of it?” Walther Vormund nodded, looking down at the wet floor. “Nothing much, I imagine. It was, you understand, only an illustration, a hypothesis for conversation. The vial contained merely a little red wine. I intended to give it to a chemistry student to analyze for his final examination.” He smiled, and the three professors, by common consent, drifted off toward the bar.
“Are you all right?” David Bowers asked his once and future fiance.
Susan Lark sighed. “Yes,” she said at last, taking his arm. “I’m ready to go home.”