Another House, Another Home
Once again it was happening to Richard Demens. He realized it over dinner, actually over the soup, which was an excellent homemade vichyssoise. He looked across the dining room table at his wife Jessica and he knew he didn't love her anymore. He hadn't loved her for some time. He couldn't pinpoint the exact failure of his affection, but he did recall a day last week when glancing up from a book he had caught her scowling out the window at the stunted azaleas. He had noticed how pinched and rigid the lines of her profile had become. At the time, there had been no clear emotion linked to the perception.
Now as he looked across the table at her--the way her spoon skimmed the surface of the soup, the way she swallowed with her head cocked to one side and dark eyes turned inward--he understood that the gestures and expressions he had once loved only bored him. And yes, soon they would begin to annoy. Richard sighed inwardly as he realized what he was going to do. Each time he swore it would be the last.
"Is everything all right?" Jessica asked.
"Just fine. Delicious," Richard answered, returning to his bowl.
After only a few mouthfuls he found himself staring down the table at their two daughters: Kimberly, thirteen, and Sonya, eleven. Having informed their mother earlier that they thought cold soup was "yucky," they were merely toying with their spoons while they whispered back and forth and giggled at one another. Catching their father's eyes upon them and taking it as a reprimand, they both fell silent. In the last several months, just as Richard was expecting to see them blossom into womanhood they had become pudgy and hesitant children. The hesitant part puzzled him. The pudgy, he understood.
Even though he took time off from the office to play racquetball and spent a good part of every Sunday riding his ten-speed up and down Marin County, his own middle was steadily thickening. At home they never ate supper, they always dined, and they dined in style. Jessica was a gourmet cook. Beef bourguignon. Lamb curry. Sherried crabmeat. This was the one thing about her he was going to miss. Tonight it was chicken with white wine and cream, wild rice, braised asparagus. Richard watched as Jessica loaded the girls' plates and then his own. She took a smaller portion for herself.
They ate for the most part in silence, as if any distraction from the food were out of place. As the girls were clearing, Jessica once again brought up the subject of their education.
"It wouldn't hurt them to attend public school for just one year," she insisted. "They could meet new friends, get a broader perspective on things. Wildwood is so small and narrow."
"All right," Richard answered.
Jessica looked at him strangely. "You mean it's all right? They can go?"
"Whatever you and the girls think is best."
"But you've always protested so much before."
"It doesn't really matter," Richard told her.
After dinner he retired to the living room couch and lit a cigarette. He could hear voices from the kitchen, Sonya and Kimberly helping their mother with the dishes. Now that his decision was made Richard hoped to make this, their last evening together, special. But the pattern of their life was set. The evening progressed like so many others.
By eight o'clock the children dominated the living room and the TV, watching one mindless sitcom after another, all of which they laughed at earnestly. Jessica, amazingly enough, also seemed to enjoy these shows. Richard was suddenly acutely aware of the way his three women often excluded him, with their talk and laughter, with looks which seemed to imply that they shared some feminine secret he could never comprehend.
Since Jess had promised to take the girls to the city for a Saturday morning shopping spree, she sent them off to bed early. Richard was still on the couch when she returned to the room. He glanced up. She was wearing a nightgown, the robe belted loosely across it. Her eyes seemed too familiar, even in the shadows of the doorway.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
He was hoping she wouldn't notice. Most often they didn't. "It's nothing," he told her, "just a bad week at work."
"Would you like a nightcap?"
"Yes," Richard sighed. "Make it a double."
After she mixed the drinks, Jessica came to sit by his side. She placed the palm of her hand against the back of his and leaned toward him. Her touch was warm and slightly damp. "If there's something troubling you, darling, I want you to tell me about it." She paused, searching his face. "Things always seem better if you can talk to someone."
"It's nothing, Jess, I'm just tired." It was very quiet outside. For some reason Richard expected to hear a clock ticking, but there was only the hum of the refrigerator. He smiled and hefted his drink. "Why don't we finish these upstairs?"
He wasn't sure if he wanted to be with Jessica one more time, but once they were beneath the covers and he felt her warmth against him, familiar desire stirred within. The inevitable followed. At the height of their lovemaking, her face below him, he remembered a day they'd spent at Stinson. The blue dome of the sky, the sand very white, the seawater beaded on Jessica's lean thighs and the girls playing somewhere down the beach. Life had seemed very complete.
Yet once they finished, side by side and the sweat drying upon them, reality asserted itself. Resolve hardened like a stone within his chest.
Richard waited, feeling the minutes pass in the even measures of his wife's breathing. Once he drifted off himself, to come awake suddenly, his mind startled by some instantly forgotten dream. When he was sure that Jessica was asleep, he sat up and lowered his feet into his slippers. He closed the bedroom door silently and made his way downstairs in his pajamas. Without turning on the light, he fumbled in the far back of the hall closet until he found the overcoat. He slipped it on and checked the pockets to see that nothing had been disturbed.
Outside it was warm, too warm for the coat. Richard left it hanging open. To the west the bulk of Mt. Tamalpais rose steeply to shadow the horizon. It was a clean starry night and a full moon hung high in the eastern sky. If he had been a more superstitious man, he might have attributed his decision to its pull.
Richard turned at the end of the front walk to survey his house for the last time.
A two story white frame with green forest trim, a wide front porch, a generous rectangle of neatly trimmed lawn. It was the kind of house one expected to find on the quiet back streets of some small Midwestern town. It resembled the house in which Richard had grown up, just as Jessica resembled his mother in her youth. Or at least she had at first.
Here the house stood alone, nestled in a hollow of the hills, with knee-high grasses and patches of scrub oak rising on every side. Except for the narrow dirt road on which he stood, which wended its way south to the highway and eventually San Rafael, they were completely cut off from the world.
Richard reached into one pocket of his coat and brought out a piece of chalk, not schoolroom chalk but the kind tailors used, a large irregular chunk, soft and crumbly enough so that it would adhere to any surface. He moved quickly now, afraid that Jessica might wake and find him missing. He knelt down on his haunches and began to draw a line in the dirt. Scooting along, supporting himself with one hand, he drew with the other. When he reached the driveway he continued across its smooth concrete. At the edge of the garage he turned, angling back along its length. Turning again past the azaleas, he encompassed the backyard in a wide V. He was breathing heavily and he could feel the dampness of his fingers sinking into the whiteness he held. At one point he stood momentarily, his knees trembling from the strain. Finally he angled in sharply to avoid the old oak which stood outside the living room windows. Back at his starting point, Richard stood again. The figure he had outlined was irregular, but it had the five points. That was all that mattered.
Richard reached into the other pocket of his overcoat and drew forth a sheet of paper. It was yellow with age and tattered at the edges; one creased corner fell away and tumbled to the ground as he unfolded it. He'd had the paper nearly twenty years, and suspected that the writing on it was far older than that. During his last year of graduate school the paper had been bequeathed to him, along with instructions for its use, by an uncle he'd barely known, a childless recluse of a man. It had changed Richard's life completely. As it no doubt had his uncle's.
The moon overhead illuminated the words he didn't understand, had never understood, didn't even know for sure in what language they were written. Yet he'd used the paper so many times in the past eighteen years, ever since he'd purchased this isolated plot of land, that by now he knew them perfectly.
At first his voice trembled as he began to read.
Soon the incantation took over and he centered his mind on the task before him. All at once the moon seemed to glow brighter and in the far distance a dog began to bark, faintly yet fiercely. Richard heard the strange foreign words upon the night air as if someone else were speaking them. It was over in minutes. He watched as his house rippled and grew insubstantial before him, as the moonlight began to penetrate its walls and ceilings. And then in a soundless rush of disintegrating tables and chairs, of couches and pictures and children’s' toys, it flew upward into the sky. All that remained within his awkward pentagram was a patch of rock-strewn dirt and the gaping hole which had held the half basement.
Richard turned the paper over. Once more he began to read the words he knew by rote. And as always, he looked to the future with anticipation and hope.
This time he'd try something entirely different, he thought… something more modern. A sprawling ranch style house and perhaps a blonde. He hadn't had a blonde in nearly three years. He'd make her a modern emancipated woman, an artist and intellectual and no more daughters for now. He'd go back to an only child, a teenage son, bright and athletic. There would be tennis courts out back and they could play together on Saturday mornings...tomorrow morning...while Marilyn, that would be her name, sketched their bodies in motion.
This time it began from the roof down redwood shingles, dark brown stucco, and aluminum awnings. Richard folded the paper and slipped it back into his pocket. He still believed in his heart of hearts, in the farthest reaches of his soul, that if he kept trying, sooner or later he was bound to get it right.