Published in Ascent
SHE HAD NOT WANTED TO GO to Ho Chi Minh City–or anywhere else with Roland. Even on the plane, on the way down, Gayle clung to this as if it absolved her in advance, though it was no secret. He was good at indulging her. Her grief, her anger, her unproductive moods. It was what she’d feared, marrying a man so much older; even her father had never coddled her. It seemed Roland never tired of saving her from herself, then expected credit.
The trip was business for both of them; it was his scout but he made the network take her on as a consultant. It had nothing to do with getting out of the city, with her concerned friends, with the beautiful cards consoling her on her loss. Roland tried to pretend it wasn’t her first shoot since it all happened, didn’t mention getting back into things, losing herself in her work the way she used to. In Tokyo he’d given her the window, but now it was night outside, the sea passing black beneath them.
“All out war,” he said, stabbing at the tourist brochures on his tray table. “A revolution, two million people killed, and everything’s still called Saigon.”
“It takes time,” Gayle said. “It’s like a trademark, it has its own value. Saigon, Pearl of the Orient.”
“I hope they’ve changed the signs at least.”
“Before and after. Too easy.”
“The older one–the captain–has a huge collection of snapshots. Luis wants to match him all over the city. Do the tour–the rickshaw, the whole business.”
“Luis is a genius,” she said. “A true visionary. Let me guess: they meet their old enemies and propose toasts.” She tipped her Beefeater at him and drained it, the ice freezing her teeth.
“Come on, Gay, it’s a perfect shoot,” Roland scolded. “We’ve never been, and it’s a great time for it.”
“It’s always a great time for Gayle to get out and do something.”
“Here we go,” he said.
“Here I go,” she said, and reached across the brochures for his gin. He looked at her but didn’t stop her arm. She knocked it back and returned the plastic glass to the napkin. “Face it, I’m dead weight. If you had any sense you would have let me stay home.”
“It’s better you’re here.”
“Where you can keep an eye on me. Great.”
“We’ll have daquiris on the roof of the Caravelle like Michael Herr. We’ll get a balcony and make love in the sun.”
“It’s the rainy season,” she said. “The monsoons. Haven’t you read any of those?”
“What ‘s the difference? It’s raining at home. You’d be sitting inside with the drapes pulled anyway.”
“At least there’s good Chinese.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” Roland said. “The Chinese here will make Hunan Dynasty look sick.”
“Sure,” she said, “but how late do they deliver?”
He laughed–out of courtesy, she thought, pity. Why did she give in to him? So much of love was surrender.
They would have three days and two nights, though, staring down through the mist at the scattered lights, she could not figure out where the extra day fit in. This was it, Roland said. He dragged his laptop out and started tapping away at an itinerary–locations they absolutely had to have, then time to poke through the back alleys, maybe freelance a little bit. They were supposed to have thirty rolls of color back to West 57th by Friday. Next month was the anniversary of the U.S. evacuation. She’d been three, in the suburbs of Tulsa, blissfully unaware. Roland had covered it for Newsweek. He always tried to convey the excitement of the time, the importance of one’s convictions, but she knew the war only by the American dead.
Last year, before they’d found out, she’d done a shoot at the Memorial in Washington for Vanity Fair; it was spring and the lighting was a nightmare, the tourists kept lingering soulfully in frame. “Beautiful,” her editor said, “you nailed it,” but Gayle had seen the same yellow roses and jungle boots and beer cans a thousand times in Life. It was an impossible shot, one you couldn’t bring enough of yourself to. Still, she’d won a prize for it, made a bunch of money, become famous for a day. A year ago she would have been up to any city–the people, the streets, the bustle of the market. Now she had nothing left. Saigon would stand there and deny her entry–turn blank as hospital walls, flat as blood. It was not her fault, she thought, if she had lost all desire for the world.
They were too close to order another gin. The stewardesses were hurrying, collecting headsets. Roland closed up and took her hand. It was a superstition of his, takeoffs and landings. Outside, the lights slid by, drawing even with her window, dizzying. Roland crushed her fingers, and they touched down with a thump, the lights flickering.
“Thank you,” he said, and let go.
They shuffled up the aisle behind a French couple laughing at something she didn’t catch. There was no jetway, only some rollaway stairs. The night was stifling, the air weighted, tinged with mildew, a hint of sewage. She expected gunfire, far-off artillery, but heard nothing but the shrill whine of turbines, the rumble of baggage tractors. Roland paused to take the airport in; she swerved around him, and he had to hustle to catch up.
“They have,” he said.
“Changed the signs,” he said.
At the baggage a driver was waiting with Roland’s name scrawled on a legal pad. He bowed and offered his card. His name was Vinh. He was tiny and childlike, and addressed them as Mister and Missus. Roland had sent the gear ahead, Vinh already had it in the car.
“Come,” he said, “Vinh take you to your hotel.”
Gayle laughed at the cab. It was from the fifties, a convertible with ridiculous fins and a rusty bumper. The trunk was a cavern; she counted their cases while Roland circled it like an artifact.
“My God,” he said, “it’s a Delage.”
“Vinh has very best car in Saigon.”
“I used to have one of these monsters,” Roland told her. “Bought it off a friend in the south of France, a writer–God, thirty years ago.”
He couldn’t get over it, shaking his head as they floated through the neon streets. In the past, his other life worried her, but now–out of desperation, or was it sheer inertia–Gayle refused to acknowledge it. They were here.
The network had them registered at the Continental, but they’d come in late and lost their reservation. There was some confusion at the desk, Roland leaning over the counter with his American Express. Gayle stayed with their cases, picking subjects from the businessmen spread about the lobby. A cherub squirted water into a pool of whiskered goldfish. Though it was not remotely childlike, she caught herself turning away, interrogating the carpet. Christ, she thought, stop it.
“They gave it to some glass people,” Roland explained as they followed the bellboy along the hall. “The whole industry’s going to explode here.”
“So where are they putting us?”
The room was a single with twin beds. It was fitting, she thought. Neither of them would have to come up with an excuse.
The bidet had a crack in it, and there were mismatched knobs for the hot and cold water.
“Very homey,” Roland joked. He grappled with the lock of the french doors, which opened on a vista of the city. In the distance, planes dropped into the airport, blinking.
“What did I say?” he said from the balcony, looking back as if she should join him.
“When are we getting up?” she said. “I’m spent.”
“Five if you want to do the blue hour.”
“Haven’t you done enough of those yet?”
“Not here,” he said, as if to show he was willing to provoke her. All his taunts were so measured, so easily retracted. Why hold back, she thought. It must drive him nuts.
She leaned against the wall and pulled off her shoes, and when she looked back he had lit a cigarette. In his jacket, with the city behind him, he looked half tragic, a man who had given up too much. He’d lost nothing, she thought. Her, perhaps, but what was that?
“Which bed do you want?” she called.
“I don’t care,” he said without turning around.
He knew how to travel; he’d brought water. In the mirror she let the foam rill down her chin. He still hadn’t come inside, as if he were thinking, coming up with a way to tell her something devastating. Was there anything left? It was dull, being untouchable. She pulled her gown on, then stepped out of her underwear. He would be disappointed. He had no right; it was one night out of hundreds. Just last week she’d given in and then hadn’t been able to sleep.
She took the bed closest to the door and lay down. It was not his fault. It was not hers. The whole thing was pointless.
“You’re not reading,” he said.
“No,” he admitted. “How does five-thirty sound?”
“Fine,” she said. She wished he didn’t need her permission.
Later, when he should have come to her, he said across the dark, “Another country for us.”
“Right,” she said, for she really had forgotten. “How many does that make?”
“Oh, I don’t know, but new ones are hard to come by.”
When she could hear his breathing turn to long draws, she thought that he was wrong, that it didn’t count. They weren’t really together.
In the morning she was up first. She took her clothes into the bath and locked the door, and when she came out he was waiting, naked. It was a challenge, yet he said nothing. She would have tossed in a comment, she thought. What a saint, what an angel.
“At one,” he said at breakfast, “I want you to come to lunch at the Metropole. I have an old friend I’d like you to meet.”
“Is this the famous Oskar?”
“This is the famous Oskar. He’s made bureau chief for CNN.”
“Very canny, not telling me until now.”
“It’s my surprise.” He dug a chunk out of his melon. “Are you coming?”
“Do you really have to ask?”
“I’ll be there,” she said.
They went back to the room to get their gear. They would split the list. She traded him the Gia Lam Pagoda for the Botanical Gardens. From the balcony, the light was ugly, a gritty mix of river fog and diesel exhaust from the morning rush. Roland stopped at the front desk to convert a hundred but came back with the bill in his hand.
“American’s still good,” he said, incredulous. “Actually it’s preferred.”
“Old habits,” she said.
The doorman bowed and smiled and flung the door open, then beat them to the curb for a cab.
“Two,” Roland said, holding up a peace sign, but still the man tried to usher them both into the Bentley that pulled in. She gave Roland her cheek and he shut the door, and for the first time since they’d flagged the cab for JFK, she was completely, blissfully alone.
“Reunification Palace,” she asked.
“President Palace,” the cabbie said, looking back.
She had to check the brochure. “Yes.”
The streets were full of workers riding black bicycles. At the lights they crowded around the cab, leaning with their hands against the windows, then dashed off. Scooters blatted past, whining like dirtbikes. One man was ferrying a refrigerator on a makeshift sidecar, behind him a giant billboard advertising Carlsberg. National Geographic, she thought. She’d have to smash through that, she needed to be amazed. Yet as they made their way past the vast plazas, the shopkeepers sweeping dust into the street, she saw nothing. Why had Roland thought it would seem new to her?
The Palace was a French monstrosity, pillared, with heroic bas-reliefs–another goddamn cherub–and a two-tiered clock tower. She expected the facade to be chiseled with bulletholes, but it was smooth, newly painted a dull mustard, the entry hung with the red national flag. She had the cabbie wait.
It would do for a long shot, maybe a zoom to the huge flag atop the cupola. The light was mushy, it was going to pour. Luis wasn’t picky; he’d moved up from Nightline, he wanted everything big and simple. She’d cross the street and shoot it grainy. She joined a crowd waiting at a crosswalk. She’d heard tales of blonde women visiting Asia attracting crowds, astonished children fingering their hair; thankfully these were all adults–shopgirls and businessmen headed for work. Their hair was utterly uniform, the same plain style. She was pondering how pleasant it must be, this anonymity, when she felt the gentle pressure of a hand on her shoulder.
It was a man a few inches shorter than her, expressionless, a commuter. He didn’t meet her eyes but kept his hand there, lightly. Gayle looked to the woman behind him as if for help and saw that she had her hand on the man’s shoulder. It must have been a custom; of all the crowd, she was the only one unconnected.
It was a shot–she could feel it in her hands, already lifting the Hasselblad–but she was stuck, too close to get everyone she needed.
The light changed and they broke and charged across, swarming around a boxy Russian car caught on the walk. As they passed, they slapped the hood, but nothing like Midtown, just a pat in acknowledgement. For an instant Gayle wanted to trail her hand across it, as if she could disappear into them, into this city. The driver reminded her it was not possible, watching her to the curb. She shot him solely out of spite, a throwaway.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Tu Do Street, the Botanical Gardens. There was almost no light to work with. It began to rain halfway through the zoo, the chimps huddling under the concrete lip of their habitat. She told the cabbie to drop her at the Metropole and pick her up again at two-fifteen.
“Very good, miss,” he said, then, when she got out, turned the car off and took out a book.
The restaurant was on the roof by the pool. “Mademoiselle will take the express elevator,” the concierge said, blatant, flaming. On the way up she thought of the city, their apartment waiting in darkness, the vegetables left in the refrigerator, calls she didn’t want to make.
She was twenty minutes early, and the maitre d’ didn’t know Roland’s name. She had resigned herself to the bar when a trim man in seersucker came up with a whiskey in his hand. She’d seen his glasses on some woman in the East Village, and he had a pinky ring, a bright sapphire. His teeth were a horror.
“You would be Gayle,” he said, holding his vowels like a Swede, and half bowed.
“And you would be Oskar.”
He offered her his arm. As he paraded her through the tables, his cologne grew alarmingly strong. Their table overlooked the empty pool, the rain drumming a clear plastic awning above them. Beyond the edge of the roof, the city spread to the river, a pasty gray. She thought of the helicopters on top of the embassy, the fall. All she knew were the pictures, everything else Roland had told her.
“My God but you look like his other one,” Oskar said, then apologized. “I’m sure you get that a lot.”
“I don’t see it, personally,” she said. “Joan always seems so big to me, with those eyes–the eyebrows especially.”
“Not Joan–Moira. You have the same chin, the same–excuse me–heavy-lidded look.”
Roland had never told her of Moira. Probably a girlfriend in the interim, younger, like her.
“Thank you,” she said. “I suppose it’s a compliment.”
“Heavens yes,” Oskar said. “And thank you for rescuing the poor bastard. We all thought he was done in after that business. You seem to have brought him back.”
“I’m afraid I can’t take credit for that.”
“Well, it’s obvious–to me anyway. She never treated him that well, and then to have that happen. It’s not something you recover from without help. I don’t even like to think of it. You’ll excuse me, but I think she was a spoiled little child, no understanding of life whatsoever.” He took a sip of his whiskey and made a bitter face. “But you. Tell me, where did you meet old Rollie?”
“Iceland,” she said, still trying to catch up with it. Moira, Roland crushed. Usually she would have had no interest in their history, but now it seemed mysterious, unplumbed, and she laid it out as much for herself as for him.
Oskar roared at the night on the icefield. “Pure Rollie,” he said, then burst into an almost beatific grin and rose, looking beyond her.
Roland came through the tables and took him in his arms. They wrestled for a second, gripping each other’s shoulders, holding on while they inspected each other, smiling like lovers, near tears. Gayle wondered if she should get up, if she should leave.
“My lord,” Roland said.
“I take it you’ve met Gayle.”
“A serious one,” Oskar prodded.
“How long have you been here?”
“Long enough,” Gayle said.
“I’ve been telling her old war stories.”
“All lies,” Roland said. “I’m surprised he even remembers that far back.”
“It’s the short-term that’s killing me,” Oskar said, and waved a tuxedoed waiter over.
They ate greasy steaks and pommes frites and billed it to the network. Roland had discovered a Cadbury factory, a family living in a rusted tank. She had a scotch, just one, nursing it as Roland and Oskar swapped whiskeys. The conversation turned to Berlin in the sixties, and Gayle checked her watch. She had the cabbie waiting, she had to shoot the Ho Chi Minh Memorial.
“Come, stay,” Oskar said. “No one goes there.”
Roland didn’t second him, and she rose. “You boys want to talk.”
Roland stood to give her a kiss, just a brush, nothing. In the elevator she swore at the numbers.
The cabbie replaced his bookmark and raced for her door.
“Very beautiful,” he said. “The river is there.”
Gayle sat in back, watching the dingy streets pass, nodding to the shuttle of the wipers. So Moira had nearly destroyed him. Where did she fit? How many years had it been? She laughed–once, uglily. It was what he always wanted. He’d finally found a way to take her mind off her problems.
Oskar was right, the Memorial was deserted except an armed honor guard. It was heroic, stone, garish in its insistence. In the distance the river was brown and crowded with sampans, a crane unloading a freighter. She stalked around the monument, the cabbie following with her tripod. The inscription had been translated into six languages. In commemoration of our heroic revolutionary struggle. She was too tired to try anything better than a stiff-lipped guard goose-stepping before the words, but went through two rolls, hoping. They were going to use her shot of the Wall; it was her signature. This was supposed to be its twin.
She wished she’d never taken the first one, never been selected. The judges had praised her empathy, her honesty, her generosity of vision. At the time she’d felt nothing. She had not known sorrow then. A selfish little child. It was spring, the cherry trees littering the Mall. The set-up was rushed; she’d been preoccupied, thinking of how to tell Roland she was pregnant. Later several veterans groups had written her agent asking if they could use it in their newsletters. She banked the royalties and didn’t think about it. Now she wondered if she’d known anything then.
What did it take to bear the weight of another’s pain? Not merely transmit it, as she had with the Wall, but make it one’s own, like Roland, not wish it away. And did she really want to know this?
The guard changed, and across the river a bell announced the hour. The light was dying; it had become her favorite time of day, the sun dwindling over the Hudson, the apartment gone gray and sedate as she flipped through the mute channels. Behind her, the cabbie was dragging the tripod along. She could do the War Museum in the morning, Roland wouldn’t know.
Before they made it back to the cab, she found her shot. The three guards that had just come off duty were sharing a cigarette, passing it between them like a joint and laughing. They were teenagers, buzzcut jocks. She waited until she was almost on them, palming the Hasselblad, thumbing the button of her flash to compensate for the darkness, then spun like an assassin and blinded them.
For an instant they went silent, as if they might attack, then laughed. They made faces, daring her to shoot again, and as penance–or was it just reflex, years of paying for what she’d taken–she did.
In the Bentley she closed her eyes and let the city slide by untouched, unimagined. She tipped the driver double what Roland had told her; he bowed and said he would be waiting for her in the morning. For a second she wanted to follow, to go home with him. It was instinct; she could feel the pictures his life hid–his family, his love of books, the neighbors watching him polish the car in the middle of the night. Her interest in the world returned, but unbidden, and she pressed it down again and headed for the doors.
Roland had left the balcony open. She shut it and took a long shower, then lay on her bed in a scratchy bathrobe, trying to read Paul Auster but thinking of Moira–inventing her. What had she been to Roland that she could break him so? Gayle wondered if she would have the same effect when she left. Who would he go to then, and would she give him what he wanted? And what exactly would that be?
She was dressed for dinner when he came in. Oskar had shown him some brilliant spots.
“Wait till you see them,” he said, “you’ll be jealous.”
“I already am,” she said, but he was in the shower and didn’t hear her.
They were going to Cholon, a little place Oskar recommended. The Officers’ Mess, it was called. It was off an alley in a rusted quonset hut, a beat-up Jeep cantilevered above the door, the valet dressed as an MP, complete with white helmet and gloves. Inside it was lightly air-conditioned, the crystal Irish. Oskar said it had opened a month ago, yet it was seething. They had to give his name to get a table, and still they had to wait.
The merlot was chilled.
“They do that,” Roland said. “I don’t know why.”
“It wouldn’t be the breathing.”
“Who knows,” he said. “The French could never figure them out. It’s the whole colonial thing.”
“Still,” she said, “it’s very good.”
They asked the sommelier when he brought the second bottle. It was the humidity of the region, he said, with such gravity that when he was out of range they burst into laughter.
“He hasn’t the least idea,” Roland said.
He reached across the linen for her hand. “And how is your trip going?”
“Good,” she said, though he’d ruined the mood. Why couldn’t she simply give in?
They left the bottle half-finished. In the cab back, he sighed, but she didn’t bite. They rode the elevator in silence.
“We’re getting low on water,” he called from the sink.
“Okay,” she said, already warming under the covers. “What do we have tomorrow?”
“Hold on.” He had to bring it up on-screen. “I’m off to Long Binh and then Cu Chi to do the tunnels. It’s a tourist trap; for fifty dollars they let you fire an AK-47. I should be back by nightfall.”
“What about me?”
“You’ve got the Thien Han Temple, that prosthetic workshop, and the Dust of Life Foundation.”
“What’s the Dust of Life thing?”
“You’ve seen it. Children the soldiers had with Vietnamese women. It’s considered a disgrace. They’re shunned by everyone, even their mothers.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“Gay, I didn’t even think.”
“They’re not children anymore,” he attempted.
“That should make it easier, shouldn’t it? Don’t worry, I’m stronger than you think.”
He didn’t argue with her, she thought, because it was what he wanted to hear.
He finished brushing and turned the light off and climbed in. The room slowly returned, the wardrobe, the corners of the door. Beneath them the pipes rushed and shuddered, abruptly ceased. The sheets were a rough muslin that scratched when she rolled over. She listened to him in the dark–to the air-conditioner, the thrum of traffic far below–as if waiting for a break in conversation. In the hallway someone shut a door and slipped the chain on.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Moira?” she asked him.
He didn’t turn to her.
“Good old Oskar,” he said.
“Why didn’t you.”
He sighed. “That was the past.”
“That’s such crap,” she said.
“It’s the truth. It’s over. Done with.”
“You don’t think about her?” She waited. “I said–”
“Rarely,” he said.
“You’ll leave that to me.”
“You’ve no reason to. Let’s not make this a big melodrama.”
“Like the baby.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You’re not saying much of anything. How was it with you and Moira, was it like this? She wasn’t Joan, Oskar told me. Oskar thinks–”
“Oskar’s wrong. I don’t pine for her anymore. I don’t think she’s perfect because she’s dead. She was an even bigger bitch than you. I was half hoping the plane would crash–not seriously, but I’d daydreamed about it. It’s normal, I’m told. And then it crashed. It was my first and only wish come true.”
“I’m sorry.” It seemed absurd to her, a plane crash, the true height of melodrama, but this came from a man she knew to undersell the truth, a man who said things like, “The Khmer: tough little gits,” and “Khe Sanh, well, you know . . .” She’d thought it charming once, worldly in a way she would never be, the eternal American girl.
“Seriously, a plane crash.”
“I know.” He shrugged, completely understanding her disbelief, showing it had been his once but that these things did happen. She waited for him to break down, waited for the sobs that would bridge the gap between them, make her take him in her arms. “I didn’t even like her that much. It was a strange relationship. We were too much alike to do each other any good. It was awful, really, a lot of scrapping. I remember a great deal of arguing in cars. It’s long gone now.”
“Where was it?”
“What’s the difference?”
“It wasn’t here?” she hoped.
He paused to let her know she was hurting him. “Hong Kong.”
“Very much like here.”
“No,” he said, but it didn’t convince her.
They lay silent awhile. He shifted, coughed.
“Thank you for telling me,” she said.
“Sorry you had to ask.”
“I’m not,” he said.
At breakfast neither mentioned it. It was officially their last day. He had to catch a tour bus from the Century and left his eggs.
“If I’m not back at seven,” he said at the cab, “go ahead and get dinner.”
“I’ll wait,” she said, and he didn’t contradict her. He hadn’t shaved, and the stubble along his jaw had come in gray. When they kissed, it ripped at her.
Her cabbie had started another book. At the War Museum, as if planned, a guide was leading a tour of schoolchildren through the atrocity exhibits. It seemed unfair to Gayle, showing them the famous pictures of the burned girl running naked down the middle of the road, the general blowing the suspect’s brains out. She shot a wax statue of Richard Nixon, his eyes slanted, his face almost unrecognizable. One wing was given over to the air war, the main attraction an anti-aircraft gun you could sit in and swivel. The walls were cluttered with blow-ups of downed aircraft–ragged sheet metal and smashed canopies. The compositions were dumb, undramatic, secretless. She thought of Moira among the wreckage but failed to imagine herself there. It was too late to trade places. In Hong Kong, Roland picked up the phone. “Hello?” he said.
The Thien Han Temple was impressive, a true beauty shot. Terra cotta tiles, swooping roofs. She could see it fitting in the credits. The grandeur, the mystery of the Orient. It was brainless, this job. It had nothing to do with truth. They sent you out to get what they already had; there wasn’t room for anything new.
She didn’t have time for lunch. The prosthetic workshop was across town, on the far side of the market. She blew a fast roll on the edges of the bazaar, the bright baskets of peppers, pigs hung by their feet. The workshop was full of amputees with mallets, banging out aluminum calves. The man in charge was a vet from Indiana in a wheelchair. He had a handlebar mustache and quoted statistics about how many Vietnamese were missing limbs. The numbers seemed high to her; it didn’t matter, the network could check it.
“There are still mines out there,” he said. “We forget about that. The war’s not over here.”
Another American ran the Dust of Life Foundation, a gray, perky woman in a sweatshirt. She was a Quaker, she’d been there since the sixties. It was a small apartment building. She took Gayle from room to room, introducing her to the residents. They’d been homeless most of their lives, children of the streets. They were her age, and almost all men. She could see their fathers’ faces in them, their unlucky histories. A few were beautiful in a strange rock star way, jaws stitched with scars, missing teeth. She recalled Arbus, her stunned subjects. She thought of refusing to shoot them, but the director convinced her they needed the publicity.
“After the 60 Minutes thing,” she said, “we had this massive influx. And we don’t get any public money, so it’s that much more important.”
They smiled like the guards at the monument, clung to each other in groups.
Back in the cab, she pictured their mothers deciding what to do with them. Was there really any decision? It was not at all the same as her situation. She had not wanted children, that was not the point. Losing it had almost been a relief. Like Roland, she had secretly wished for the worst that could happen. After the miscarriage they’d run some tests, and there was a problem, a cluster of cysts. The doctor seemed pleased that they’d found it in time, as if she should be grateful. It would have to be done quickly, they agreed, and so they had taken everything, left her empty, a hollowed out shell. Roland refused to understand: it was not the possibility of children she missed. She could not say what it was. Just a loss, a part of her life that was gone, roped off like an exhibit.
Now Moira. She held it against him like evidence. After that, how could he possibly not see? She did not want to be saved.
At the Continental she told the cabbie she wouldn’t need him tomorrow.
“Very good,” he said, and she thought she would miss him.
Roland had left a message at the desk saying he’d be late. Before she even checked the machine, she ordered room service–Chinese, to spite him, and a pair of stiff gins. It was heavenly, or maybe she was just hungry. She finished the second gin and turned on the TV; it was the BBC’s version of Cheers, these people in this pub. She clicked over to CNN, and there was a plane crash, rescuers sifting through a field of wreckage.
“Jesus Christ,” she said, and killed it.
She looked at his empty bed. There was one practically every day, she thought. It was a sure-fire human interest story, the lead if the casualties were anything above fifty. What kind had she died in? Was it spectacular like the one in Pittsburgh? Or quiet, a twin engine Cessna clipping a wire? Was there an anniversary, wreaths leaned against a plinth outside a tiny village?
Hers was the first of the month, the baby’s the twenty-second. It was no secret to Roland. As those dates approached she did less and less, withdrew to her room. Even now he tried to entice her out with dinner, videos. How she wished he would quit.
She had the room service menu out, debating calling down for a bottle, when a key crunched in the lock and Roland shouldered in, covered with red mud.
“What happened to you?” she said.
“I had to go in, didn’t I? God, it was awful down there. I don’t see how they did it. Years, some of them. Some wonderful stuff though. Luis is going to be very happy.”
He turned on the shower and peeled off his jacket. “Can you call down and have someone pick this up? How’s the Chinese?”
“Lovely,” she said.
“What did I tell you.”
He loved being done with an assignment. He was singing when the bellboy knocked, and didn’t stop. He came out in a towel and ate at the table. He’d bought a pint of scotch, and poured it into the two bathroom glasses.
“How was the Dust of Life?”
“All right,” she said.
“Good,” he said, overly pleased.
He moved to his bed and stole the remote. The TV was still on CNN. The crash was on again, the searchers roaming over the field. She watched him to see his reaction, and he caught her.
“It goes away,” he said.
He looked back at the crash, the seats ripped out in threes. “Not really. It’s all right, it changes.”
He clicked to the BBC. It was an old Monty Python, and Roland laughed.
“Are we going to talk about this?” she said.
“Let’s talk about you,” he offered, and when she said nothing, apologized and moved to her bed.
They ended up making love–clumsily, after so long apart. It seemed easier than talking, and afterward Gayle felt, in a vague way, that they had settled something. She would give him this for Moira, trade her loss for his, let him save her, if that were possible. Lying on top of him in the thin bed, it seemed it might be, but then he got up–it was much too cramped–and she lay there alone and cold, unsure of herself, afraid she’d given up too much.
“Sweet dreams,” he said, and she echoed him.
In minutes he was asleep, whistling. The plumbing rumbled, the elevator rushed up its shaft.
She couldn’t sleep. She listened to him for a while, then got up and found her robe and went out on the balcony. The rail was cold on her palms, the wind smelled of charcoal. The rain had stopped, a sickle moon riding high above the haloed city. A plane came into the airport, blinking; she could hear the faint scream of its engines. Across the river, the Memorial was lit a soft orange, the guards marching around it. Eternally, she supposed.
That day in Washington, the cherry trees were overblown, cliched. The Wall was flush with the ground, invisible from one side. She set her tripod up in the mud and wiped her lenses off, watching the tourists milling in front of the polished stone, touching the cut surface, leaning their foreheads against it. A number were men Roland’s age, gone gray, in field jackets and khaki trenchcoats and beautiful suits, jeans and leather, sweats and tennis shoes. Mothers, children, friends. The Wall had drawn them from across the country, had fashioned from chance this wounded community, gathered their separate prayers. She’d wondered how many were survivors. All of them, she thought now. All.