Rusty, March-April 2007
Four days after becoming lovers, Anna and I meet again at the Hotel Gresham. Her place is out. Her roommate, Stiles, arrives unpredictably. More to the point, her East Bank development of redbrick midrises is only two blocks from the state supreme court, where Nat is already putting in a few hours each week.
Appearances being paramount, we have agreed through several cryptic e-mails that she will put her credit card down for the hotel room. I sit in the lobby, pretending I am awaiting someone else. When the registration clerk turns away, Anna’s eyes find mine. I slip my hand inside my jacket and touch my heart.
When you have looked at a woman for months with the imagination’s desiring eye, a part of you cannot accept that it’s really her naked in your arms. And to some extent, it isn’t. Her waist is narrower than I’d realized, the thighs a trifle heavier. Yet the essence of the thrill is having jumped the wall into my fantasies, an experience as otherworldly as crawling between the bars and romping with the jungle animals in the zoo. At last, I think, when I touch her. At last.
Afterward, as she works the tail of her blouse back into her skirt, I say, “So this actually happened.”
Her smile is blissful, innocent. When Anna enjoys something, she feels no self-consciousness.
“You didn’t want to, did you? I could feel you weighing this every time I stepped into the room. And deciding not to.”
“I didn’t want to,” I say. “But I’m here.”
“I only think about something once,” she tells me. “And then I decide. It’s a gift. About three months ago I realized I wanted to sleep with you.”
“And you’re like the Mounties, right? Always get your man?”
She smiles, smiles for all the world. “I’m like the Mounties,” she says.
In my chambers, at campaign events, as I walk down the street or ride the bus, I go through the gestures of a normal life, but inwardly I’ve moved to a new location. I think of Anna constantly, obsessively reviewing the incremental steps we took over the months on our way to becoming lovers, still stunned to have escaped the hard limits I’d fixed on my existence. At home, I have no impulse to sleep, not merely because I am reluctant to lie down beside Barbara, but because more vitality has entered my body in the last week than I have experienced in decades. And without the display case glass behind which every female but my wife has reposed safely for a generation, there is a tactile thrill in the presence of virtually any woman.
Yet I know at all moments that what I am doing is in every colloquial sense insane. Powerful middle-aged man, beautiful younger woman. The plot scores zero for originality and is deservedly the object of universal scorn, including my own. My first affair-twenty-plus years ago-left me so racked by conflict that I started seeing a shrink. But I have no thought now of finding another therapist, which has been a loose agenda item for years, because I don’t need someone else’s advice to know this is simply crazy, hedonistic, nihilistic, and that most important “istic”-unreal. It must stop.
For Anna, discovery would be nowhere as cataclysmic as for me. It would make for an embarrassing start to her career. But she would never shoulder most of the blame. She has no wife to whom she’s vowed fidelity, no continuing public responsibilities. At the court, the fact that we restrained ourselves until she was no longer employed might save my position, but N. J. Koll would become the instant favorite in our contest.
And those would be the least of the costs. Barbara’s rage is lethal and at this stage is most likely to make her a danger to herself. But by far the worst would be facing Nat and his new look, empty of any respect.
One revelation of my first affair was that I carry around a lot of baggage from the dark, unhappy home in which I was raised. Until then, I had naively thought I was Joe College or Beaver Cleaver, someone who had been able to convert himself, the son of a sadistic war survivor and an eccentric recluse, into a better-than-average normal American guy. I still yearn in some ways to be a paragon, master of an elusive regularity. But I am haunted by the shadow who knows I am not. No one is. I know that, too. But I am far more concerned by my shortcomings than anybody else’s. Vice has that attraction. It means embracing who I am.
Anna is like many people I knew in law school, not intellectual but brilliant, so agile with the lawyer’s tasks of mating fact and law that it is as thrilling as watching a great athlete on the playing field. Now suddenly peer to peer, I find her brightness engaging at an elemental level. But our conversations involve little sweetness or murmuring. It is lawyer to lawyer, almost always a debate, half-amused, but never without an edge. And what we debate is a truth that had to be clear to both of us from the start: This cannot possibly end well. She will meet someone better suited to her. Or we will be discovered and my life again will lie in smoking ruins. Either way, there is no future.
“Why not?” she asks when I say that casually on the second afternoon.
“I can’t leave Barbara. For one thing, my son would never forgive me. And for the second, it’s unfair.” I explain some of the history, even detailing the pharmacopeia in Barbara’s medicine cabinet as a way to make a point: My wife is damaged goods. I took her back knowing that.
Anna’s look flutters somewhere between sullen and hurt, and she flushes.
“Anna, you understood this. You had to understand this.”
“I don’t know what I understood. I just needed to be with you.” Tears are crawling down her bright cheeks.
“Here’s the problem,” I say to her. “There is a fundamental difference between us.”
“Age, you mean? You’re a man. And I’m a woman. I don’t think about age.”
“You’re supposed to. You’re starting and I’m ending. Have you noticed that men my age lose their hair. And that it starts growing from their ears. That their guts soften. What do you think that’s about?”
She made a face. “Hormones?”
“No, what would Darwin say? Why is it advantageous for the old men to look different from the young men? So the fertile young women can see who they should be mating with. So some lounge lizard my age can’t get away with telling you he’s twenty years younger.”
“You’re not a lounge lizard. And I’m not a bimbo.” Offended, she throws back the covers and stalks, in naked glory, to the desk for a cigarette. I had never seen her light up before and was a trifle taken aback that she booked a smoking room. I kicked when I left the reserves, but I have never stopped finding in the smell of a burning cigarette the aroma of blind indulgence. “What do you think?” she asks. “This is just an experience for me?”
“That’s what it will end up being. Something crazy you once did so you could learn better.”
“Don’t tell me I’m young.”
“Neither of us would be here if you weren’t young. We would hold far less fascination for each other.”
Standing behind, I turn her to me and run my hands the full length of her torso. Physically, she is glorious, a power Anna enjoys and works hard to hold on to-manicures and pedicures, hair appointments, facials, ‘routine maintenance,’ as she calls it. Her breasts are perfect, large, beautifully belled, with a broad, dark aureole and long nipples.
And I am fascinated by her female parts, where her youth somehow seems centered. She’s waxed there, ‘a full Brazilian,’ is her term. It’s a first for me, and the smooth feel provokes my lust like a lightning bolt. I worship, drink, and take my time as she alternately moans and whispers directions.
In this state of amazement, life goes on. I do my job, write opinions, issue orders, meet with bar association groups and committees, settle the ongoing bureaucratic combat within the court, but Anna, in various sultry poses, is always warring for my attention. Koll’s change of parties, which he made within a week of my birthday, has sucked the urgency out of my campaign for the moment, although Raymond continues to schedule fund-raising events.
Anna and I talk several times a day. I call only from work, wary of the detailed cell bills that are mailed to my house. Alone in my chambers, I will phone Anna’s private line at the firm, or she will dial my inside number. They are hushed conversations, always too quick, an odd mix of banalities and proclamations of desire: “Guerner put me on this bitch of a document case. I’ll have to work all weekend.” “I miss you.” “I need you.”
One day on the phone, Anna asks me, “What happened with Harnason?” Anna’s last official act as law clerk was to draft my dissent, and she is concerned about the case, as well as many others she worked on. I have largely forgotten about Harnason, like so much else in my life, but I summon Kumari once I put down the receiver. Responding to my dissent, George gallantly exercised the right of every judge of my court, circulating Marvina’s feisty opinion and my draft to all chambers, asking if the case seemed appropriate for en banc review, in which all eighteen judges would decide the case. Several of my colleagues, reticent about offending the chief, have chosen the diplomatic alternative of not responding at all. I set a deadline of a week and end up thumped roundly, 13 to 5-counting Marvina, George, and me-in favor of affirming the conviction. This all but guarantees that the supreme court will also refuse to hear the case, on the theory that eighteen judges can’t be wrong. Relishing victory, Marvina asks to rework the opinion one more time, but in no more than a month John Harnason will be returning to the penitentiary.
My mind is on Barbara almost as often as Anna. At home, I am entirely beyond suspicion. The nights before Anna and I are to meet next, I scrutinize my naked bulk in the full light of the bathroom. I am old, lumpy, bulging. I trim my pubic hair with a nose hair clipper, eliminating the long, unruly wires of gray. I should worry that Barbara might notice, but the truth is that she does not remark on my trips to the barber or serious razor burns. After thirty-six years, she is attached to my presence much more than my form.
When I had been with Carolyn, decades before, I was impossibly distracted. But Anna has made me more appreciative and patient with Barbara. Escaping to pleasure has emptied that bitter storehouse of resentments I keep. Which is not to say it is easy to carry on with the deception. It undermines every moment at home. Taking out the trash, or having sex, which I cannot entirely avoid, seems to be enacted by a second self. The falseness is not simply about where I was or the highlights of my day. The lie is about who, in my heart of hearts, I really am.
My impossible desire to be loyal to two women takes me repeatedly to the highest pinnacles of absurdity. For example, I insist on repaying Anna in cash for the hotel rooms. She laughs it off-her salary is higher than mine, and with a raise of 400 percent over her clerkship, she feels as if she is under a waterfall of money-but an old-fashioned chivalry, if you can call it that, is offended to think I can sleep with a woman twenty-six years my junior and have her pay for the privilege.
But raising the money is more daunting than I had first considered. Barbara is paymaster in our house and, as a PhD in mathematics, takes numbers as the principal relationship in life; she could tell you without so much as blinking the exact amount of last June’s electric bill. While I can pass off a couple extra trips to the ATM as losses at the judges’ poker game, raising several hundred dollars extra every week seems impossible, until almost by divine intervention a cost of living adjustment for all the judges in the state, long held up by litigation, suddenly comes through. I stop the direct deposit of my pay on April 17 and instead bring my check to the bank, where I deposit the same amount that used to appear electronically, while taking back the COLA in cash. That includes the two-and-a-half-year backlog, nearly four thousand dollars, that comes with the first check.
“I’m glad this is a secret,” I tell Anna as we lie in bed one early afternoon. We meet now two or three times a week, at lunch or after work, when I can claim I am at a campaign event. “Because that way you won’t hear from millions of people telling you you’re crazy.”
“Why am I crazy? Because of the age thing?”
“No,” I say, “that’s only normally crazy. Or abnormally. I’m referring to the fact that the last woman I had an affair with ended up dead.”
I’ve caught her attention. The green eyes are still, and the cigarette has stopped midway to her lips.
“Should I be afraid you’ll kill me?”
“Some people would point out the historical pattern.” She still hasn’t moved. “I didn’t do it,” I tell her. She probably has no clue, but this is the greatest intimacy I’ve allowed her. For more than two decades, as a matter of principle, I have never bothered with any reassurance even to the closest friends. If they harbor suspicions, despite knowing me well, those will never be allayed by my denials.
“You know,” she says, “I remember a lot about that case. That was the first time I thought about becoming a lawyer. I read about the trial every day in the paper.”
“And how old were you? Ten?”
“Thirteen,” I say, heavy-hearted. I am beginning to realize I will never get used to my monumental stupidity. “So you have me to blame for the fact that you became a lawyer, too? Now people will really say I corrupted you.”
She whacks me with the pillow. “So who do you think did it?” she asks.
I shake my head.
“You don’t know?” she asks. “Or you won’t answer? I have a theory. Do you want to hear it?”
“We’re done with this subject.”
“Even though you just told me I’m in mortal danger?”
“Let’s get dressed,” I say, making no effort to hide the fact I’m annoyed.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to push buttons.”
“I don’t talk about it. Veterans don’t talk about wars. They just get over them. It’s the same thing. Not that you haven’t made me wonder.”
“Who did it?”
“Why you’re here. Given my dangerous history.”
She has put on her undergarments but now removes her bra with the flourish of a stripper, hurling it toward the walls.
“Love,” she says, falling into my arms, “makes you do crazy things.” We are both late, but this attitude of abandon parches me yet again with longing, and we fit together once more.
Afterward she says, “I don’t believe it. I just don’t.”
“Thank you,” I say quietly. “I’m glad it didn’t stop you.”
She shrugs. “Maybe the other way.”
I peer curiously.
“I mean, you’re still kind of a legend,” she says. “Not just for lawyers. Why do you think nobody sane wants to run against you for the supreme court?”
The supreme court. My heart flips around several times. In the meantime, she looks off, not fully here.
“You know,” Anna says then, “sometimes you do things you don’t really understand. You just have to do them. Sense or no sense-it doesn’t matter much.”
This conversation intensifies a question I already ask myself all the time. What is wrong with a young woman, whom in almost every other regard I know to be gifted and refreshingly sane, that she would be interested in someone nearly twice her age, let alone somebody married? I have no illusion she would be drawn to me if every lawyer, judge, and flunky did not address me as “Chief” whenever I walk into the Central Branch Courthouse. But what does it mean to her to be sleeping with the chief? Something. I realize that. But I will probably never understand the secret part of her she hopes I might fill in. Who she wants to be in the law? Who she wishes her father was? The man she craves to be in her secret dreams? I don’t know-nor, probably, does she. I sense only that she needs to get as close as possible, since whatever it is she seeks can only be absorbed skin to skin.
Here is what I have forgotten: the pain. I forgot that an affair is constant torment. Over the falseness at home. Over the anxiety we will be discovered. Over the suffering I know is coming at the inevitable end. Over the agony of waiting to be with her next. Over the fact that I am truly myself only for a few hours every several days in a hotel room, when those sweet moments, as close to heaven as we know on this earth, seem to make all the other anguish worthwhile.
I rarely sleep through the night and am up at three or four a.m. with a glass of brandy. I tell Barbara it is the court and the campaign that concern me. I sit in the dark and bargain with myself. I will meet Anna two more times. Then stop. But if I am going to stop, then why not stop now? Because I cannot. Because the day I give her up is the day I accept that this will never happen again. That I have, in a few words, begun to die.
Despite habitual precautions, I find myself growing somewhat cavalier about the dangers. They are ever-present, but when you go undetected two times, then four, then five, part of the extraordinary thrill becomes beating the odds. One day when Anna and I are meeting at the Gresham, Marco Cantu, a former copper I’d known when he was on the street, sees me sitting in the lobby with no apparent purpose and comes by to say hello. He now heads the hotel’s security operation. Something about the way I tell him I am meeting a friend for lunch sounds wrong even to me. I therefore feel half electrocuted by panic a week later when, as we are headed down, the elevator doors open on an intervening floor to disclose Marco, who has the stature of a miniature sumo wrestler. It is a bad moment, Anna and I still nuzzling and splitting as the car stops, our movement surely visible to Marco.
“Chief! We’re seein lots of you.”
I do not introduce Anna and can feel Marco looking straight through me. The next week, I spot him as I’m coming into the hotel and pirouette to go back through the doors until he’s vacated the lobby.
“Time to change the scene of the crime,” I tell her as soon as I am safely in the room. “Marco was on the street a long time. He was lazy, but he had a great sense of smell.”
Anna has undressed by now. She is in the fluffy hotel robe but has closed it not with the belt, but with a thick red satin ribbon tied in an elaborate gift bow.
“Is that how you think of it? A crime?”
“Anything that feels this good has to be wrong,” I answer. I have hung up my jacket and am on the bed slipping off my shoes before I recognize that I was far too flip. She is staring.
“You could at least pretend to think about being with me.”
“Anna-” But we both know she is close to the truth. I have spent no nights with her. On Friday of the third week, I told Barbara I was going to a bar function and dared to come home at one-thirty, even then having left the hotel with Anna begging me to stay. She talks often about somehow getting away for a weekend, waking up with each other and walking together in the open air. But I don’t freely imagine us at large. I am fiercely attached, but to me our relationship belongs in the captive space of a rented room, where we can shed our clothes and grasp the different things we are each so desperate to obtain.
“Seriously. You’d never marry me, would you?”
“Duh. No. If Barbara wasn’t in the picture? If she dropped dead. Or ran away?”
Why is my first instinct evasion? “I’m too poor for a trophy wife.”
“There’s a compliment.”
“Anna, people would laugh in my face.”
“And that’s why? Because people will laugh?”
“Because there’s a reason to laugh. A man married to a woman young enough to be his daughter is flying too close to the sun.”
“I’d say that’s my problem, wouldn’t you? If I want to push you around in a wheelchair at high school graduation-“
“And change my Depends?”
“Whatever. Why can’t I make those choices?”
“Because people usually have a hard time keeping deals where all the benefits are on the front end. They end up feeling sharp resentments later on.”
She turns away. These conversations always bring her to tears. We are in a room today almost entirely consumed by the king bed. It looks out on the air shaft from which the clatter of the hotel kitchen rises.
“Anna, there is someone out there who will die to marry you.”
“Well, he hasn’t shown up yet. And don’t tell me about somebody else. I don’t want a consolation prize.”
“I won’t lie to you, Anna. I can’t. I’m lying everywhere else. I have to tell you the truth. There’s no reality to this. Am I supposed to change my campaign slogan? ‘Vote for Sabich. He’s on top of his staff.'”
She laughs out loud. Blessedly, her sense of humor never fails her. But her back is still to me.
“Anna, I would marry you if I was forty. I’m sixty.”
“Stop telling me I’m young.”
“I’m telling you I’m old.”
“They’re both pretty annoying. Look, you’re not here by accident. You fuck me, then give me these speeches that imply you can’t really take this seriously.”
I turn her to me, bending very slightly so we are entirely eye to eye.
“Does that make sense to you? What you just said? That I don’t take this seriously? I’ve risked everything to be with you,” I say. “My career. My marriage. The respect of my son.”
She breaks from my grasp, then abruptly faces me again, the green eyes intense.
“Do you love me, Rusty?”
It’s the first time she’s dared to ask, but I have known all along the question was coming.
“Yes,” I say. From my lips, it feels very much like the truth.
She wipes an eye. And beams.
After the last encounter with Marco Cantu, our meeting places are governed by the whims of hotelrooms.com, where it always turns out one of several Center City establishments has space at the last minute at rock-bottom prices. Anna handles the bookings and e-mails me the locale, then arrives ten minutes before me to register, sending the room number to my handheld. We depart at the same ten-minute intervals.
And so I am on my way out of the Renaissance on a splendid spring day, with a clean sky and the smell of everything opening, when I hear a voice, more or less familiar.
“Ah, Judge,” it says. When I pivot, Harnason is there. It is an awful moment. I realize at once he followed me here two hours ago and has been waiting like a faithful dog tethered to a lamppost. How much does he know? How many times has he trailed me? As happens so often these days, I am nearly knocked to my knees by the magnitude of my stupidity.
“Imagine meeting you,” he says without a hint of sincerity, so I know my guess is right. I beg my heart to settle down while I calculate what he could have possibly observed. He knows I go to hotels at lunchtime, that I sometimes stay too long for a normal midday meal. But that’s all he’s seen. If he was on my heels, he would not have caught sight of Anna arriving ten minutes before me.
“Imagine,” I finally answer. Harnason is not above blackmail, and I await his threat. It will be pointless. There is not a thing I can do to change the outcome in his case. But instead, as we stand about ten feet apart, Harnason’s red face darkens to a sunset shade.
“I can’t stand it, Judge,” he says. “Not knowing. When I got bail, I was ecstatic, but it’s not like being free. It’s like walking along, waiting for a trapdoor to spring open under me right here in the sidewalk.”
I look at Harnason, whom I condemned once for the wrong reasons, and whose fight I’ve fought, out of his sight.
“The opinion won’t be much longer,” I say, and turn away. At once, I feel his hand on my sleeve.
“Please, Judge. What’s the difference? If it’s decided, what does it hurt to tell me? It’s terrible, Judge. I just want to know.”
It’s wrong. That’s the correct answer. But some faint scent of Anna’s perfume pervades my skin, and I still have the drained, fucked-out stardust feeling emanating upward from my dick. Who am I today to cling to principle? Or more important, to deny him now the compassion I owed him thirty years ago?
“You should prepare yourself for bad news, John.”
“Ah.” It is a sound from the gut. “No hope?”
“Not really. You’re at the end of the road. I’m sorry.”
“Ah,” he repeats. “I really didn’t want to go back. I’m too old.”
Standing here on the street, with the shoppers and business folk swirling around us, many electronically transported to their own universes by their cell phones or iPods, I have a hard time with my feelings. I am strangely sympathetic to Harnason but also impatient with the way he’s preyed on me and wheedled information, and I know I need to draw a hard line to prevent further intimidations. Most of all, in the moment I’m a bit galled by his self-pity. As a prosecutor, I always had some respect for the guys who went off without batting an eye, who lived by the watchword ‘Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.’
“John, let’s face facts. You did it, didn’t you?”
He does not take an instant to answer. “So did you, Judge. And you’re here.”
No, I am about to say, violating my longtime scruple against answering.
“I was acquitted,” I reply. “As I deserved to be.”
“I deserved it, too,” he says. He has his handkerchief out and blows his nose. He is blubbering freely now, crying like a child. A few of the people brushing past us to get into the hotel turn as they go, but Harnason doesn’t care. He is who he is.
“But not because you didn’t do it,” I say. “How was that, John? The month you knew you were killing that man?” I’m not sure what I mean to accomplish by confronting him this way. I suppose I am asking this question: Where is the line? How does one stop? Once I’ve fucked my clerk and betrayed my wife, once I’ve thrown everything I’ve ever accomplished to the wind, where is the point of restraint?
“Do you really need to ask, Judge?”
“It was hard, Judge. I hated him. He was going to leave me. I was old and he wasn’t. I’d been his meal ticket and he was grateful at first, but now he was tired of me. I’m too old to find somebody else, somebody like that. You understand that much, right?”
I wonder again how much he knows about Anna, as I nod.
“But I didn’t actually believe I was doing it at first,” says Harnason. “I’d thought about it. I admit that. I went to the library, did some research. There’s an appellate court case. Did you know that? From Pennsylvania. It talks about arsenic not being screened.” He laughs a little bitterly. “The prosecutors never seemed to remember I was trained as a lawyer.”
“And where was the arsenic? In the drinks?”
“I baked.” Harnason chuckles the same way, at his accusers’ expense. Prosecutors are historians, engaged in a reconstruction of the past with all of history’s perils. They never get it completely right, because the witnesses are biased, or blame shifting, or wrong, or because, as in this case, the investigators never asked the right questions or put together what they already knew. “All those people who testified I never cooked were right. When Ricky was home, the kitchen was his. But I baked. And Ricky had a sweet tooth. The first few times, I told myself it was just for fun, just to see if he would notice or how I would feel, if I could do what I’d read about. I may have done it five times and still thought it wasn’t for real, that I was going to stop. You know, I’ve told myself that a lot,” Harnason says suddenly. “That I was going to stop.” His wizened eyes go off to many other places. “But I never do,” he says morosely. “I didn’t stop. Somewhere, day seven or eight, I realized I wasn’t going to. I hated him. I hated myself. I was going to do it anyway. And you, Judge. How did it feel when you killed that prosecutor? Act of passion?”
“I didn’t do it.”
“I see.” His look is cold. He got gulled and beaten on this deal. “You’re better than me.”
“I would never say that, John. Maybe I got better breaks. Nobody is good by himself. We all need help. I got more than you did.”
“And who’s helping you now?” he asks. He chucks his pink face toward the hotel. Here we are, sinner to sinner. I feel belittled by my own predictability.
There has been too much truth told in this conversation for me to lie. I just shake my head yet again and turn away.