Selfish, selfish — at first she could have killed him herself.
How like him, Claire Klein thought.
And yet, not careless. On reflection the will had not surprised her. Though selfish he was neat. He hadn’t wanted the children to hate him. Stacks of fat brown envelopes, cash, notes, sheaves of bonds.
Look at this, exemplary for her of time’s collapse, a souvenir check for $28.08, void now for almost two generations, their share of the settlement in a class-action against the phone company when it was still known as Pacific Bell.
It was as if her own life, too, had vanished. The honey-bunny, the radiant bride. Who cared about that now except for her? What you got was what you saw, what you held in your hands.
She stood in the mirror and struck a pose. Hubba hubba?
There should be hag cotillions for broads like us, she thought. Low-light revels. The drug companies could sponsor them.
Naturally people humored her, she would have to get used to that. At the chapel they’d assumed she was struggling to be businesslike. Something in suede for the lady? An open toe? Had she been beside herself doubtless they would have accommodated that, too. It didn’t matter. The real funeral hadn’t come until later, when she couldn’t find anything of his in the laundry hamper. No socks? No T-shirts? What was the bastard walking around in? No briefs?
Well, let me be pleasant, Claire Klein smiled. I’ll be comfortably retired, languishing, but with interests to absorb me. Manageable ailments. Children who visit. She just needed to develop that assessing look, that sweep of eye like a reaper’s knife. Where’s the manager, who’s in charge here!
She looked at the small, jeweled travel clock on her makeup table and thought she might have tea. Also she needed to organize the refrigerator. Picking through the shelves, clearly things were getting out of hand.
Did we need anything? What did we need?
We, no less. Maybe it would be better if We stayed in today. We could even have popcorn for dinner. Who would know?
It reminds her, she could use some new friends. Strangers. People who knew how to mind their own business.
Did they think she was crazy? It made you wonder what mattered in the end.
For suddenly there were men in her life— to protect her, they said, to care for her. As if all had studied the same mating manual. This worked, it assured them, like changing shampoos. Women wanted to be held, to be treasured. “I want to watch you sleep,” one of them had told her, and on the spot her insomnia had gone to another level. “Thank you, I can look out for myself,” she had told him.
And why would they care for her? It seemed so arbitrary. It wasn’t their fault, but it was as if each comprised his own revelation of loss for Claire Klein. What did it accomplish? How many times could a man die? When she laughed brokenly at their attempts to amuse they assumed it was because her sense of humor was uncertain. Its nervousness touched them. She was still uneasy with pleasure, they thought. She didn’t feel comfortable enjoying herself yet.
But she wasn’t ambivalent. She wanted to go home. Being pleasant to these men seemed an exercise in hypocrisy.
That was at dinner one night with another developer, when she realized, listening as he went on about himself, that these were all the things she had never needed to talk about with Teddy—his practice, his golf game, his partners, his charities. Instead there had been the common ground— the kids of course, the house, the cabin, the investments, the trips, the parties, the quarrels, the families, the plans; inevitably the changes in the plans. “What do you do for relaxation,” the man had asked, and since she had no interest in seeing him again, she told him the truth. “I mourn. It comforts me,” she said.
In time though she learned to embroider those awkward moments with a more maidenly diffidence. I’m not ready, she would say. I want to be fair with you. I’ve decided to get some counseling first.
They liked that, she discovered. It made a flattering picture.
“You may be selling yourself short,” one of them said.
“Well, you may be right. I just need some time. Can I call you?”
Still, most simply wanted to know how she slept by herself, like the Hun who had had the audacity to advise her that they weren’t children, so could dispense with the formalities.
But it was the formalities she wanted, she told him — manners and napery, candlelight, opened doors to a flagged terrace.
“I like a good sport,” he had told her.
Yes, well, she would have to be, wouldn’t she, Claire Klein thought.
That had been the one who owned a fleet of limousines. “I’m not a complicated man,” he shrugged. “There are things I like and there are things I don’t.”
Also a believer in love at first sight if she could believe her ears. Age seemed their permission to dispense with gesture, with courtesy in effect, in favor of something they called common sense, in effect barbarism, laziness, tantrum tactics. God knew she was not self-important, but God knew she had not lived this long to be treated indifferently.
He shrugged at this, then waited irritably while she let herself out of the car.
“Why do you wanna give me such a hard time? What does it get you?”
“What would I get for putting up with you?”
He had to laugh. “Well, I can see this is going noplace. Probably I ate too much anyway. Listen,” he said, feathering the gas pedal, “Call me — we’ll go someplace.”
They suggested being friends to her, but they took their illusions too seriously for friendship. They weren’t even lonely in a recognizable way. What did they need her for, some pretense of vitality? Were they more alive for themselves this way? What did they see when they looked at her, her dead husband’s money? Someone to keep their prescriptions straight?
Maybe one day she would simply stop eating, Claire Klein thought. It would be neat that way. It wouldn’t have to involve anyone.
As his wife these were the lives her Teddy had spared her, she realized.
She was getting a reputation, Claire Klein was informed. At last, a reputation.
But men considered her a ballbuster, the women complained. It wasn’t funny anymore.
No, that was true. Claire Klein agreed. It had never been funny.
But she enjoyed that crestfallen way the men looked her over. The slow realization that she didn’t need them was satisfying for Claire Klein. Their belligerence was hollow with nothing desirable to offer, foolishly argumentative, as if they had spent years in violent confrontation with themselves. Finally certain decisions had been reached, they knew what they wanted now, what all men seemed to want as far as she could see, the papa’s praise, the mama’s breast, or, failing these, unconditional acceptance. They had paid their dues, now they wanted some service, “an orderly home,” as one of them put it, mama’s boy code for a one-guest hotel. Claire Klein, a woman not given to excuses, who had always prided herself on showing up, now suffered nauseating headaches and lancing muscle spasms in her lower back.
“It’s not you, it’s just people. I don’t like strangers touching me.”
This was true enough. Even in dressing rooms she was squeamish.
Nevertheless they would want to come over. To talk, to have coffee. What am I, a cafeteria? It was not her pleasure to be unkind, but what did she need this for? What do I get, she asked. It seemed a reasonable question. What do I get?
One man continued to bother her as though her distaste for him had only gilded her desirability, one of those charmers who described himself in personal ads as 70 going on 50 yet seemed not to know his own neck size. He showed up one afternoon fairly strangling in his collar, with the wormy veins writhing in his head.
“Why do you keep calling me? You know I don’t like you.”
But she had class, he said. “What are you going to do, sit home?”
Those were her choices presumably, nothing or less than nothing. Was she supposed to be grateful for these attentions? How could you be touched by men like these? The fool had kept calling for almost a year before he got the message. Hoping to get lucky? Hoping she would make things easy for him? She had never imagined such woefulness sustainable. Probably he too was dead now, Claire Klein thought.
She saw then that it must have taken a certain bitter courage for Teddy to live as selfishly as he had done. Rat that he was, it would have pleased him to know that she remembered his weight.
She had understood him, that was the travesty, she had truly known him, while for him it was always as if she were too complicated to engage. Why bother, that’s what it came to in the end. “Look,” he would sigh, “just tell me what you want,” and as a result she had lacked for nothing except possibly the knowledge that she might have been worth a bit of trouble.
But that too was manly in its wretched way. Ultimately even marriage was a zero sum, a negotiation, a cut to the chase, while for her a choice between love and reliability. Respect when it came, came from other women.
She tried to think with his mind now, with that tough, funny brain, carelessly, rapidly. It had been an artist’s brain. He should have been an architect, she would tell him.
“You can hire architects,” he would tell her.
That was him, that contempt for the ephemeral, the abstract notion. In that way he would dismiss such people, yet whose ephemera were being contested? Facts killed you, he would complain to her. You asked for answers and instead people gave you cooling loads, the cost of light.
It summoned his obduracy, his inability to consider alternative viewpoints, yet memories like these seemed moonlit compared to the tedious men her girlfriends sent over. Is this what her Teddy would have lived to become? But there was no correspondence between her husband and these querulous, quirky guys. It had been her parents who socialized with men like these. Lodge brothers, gin rummy players. This was the dull greed her Teddy had saved her from. A hundred years separated her from these spoiled, belligerent men. They were courteous and attentive for a while, but then they would tire and begin asking questions about his bankers, his sources — assuming they could sustain the conversation this way? Perhaps get to her?
“Where’s that waiter,” one had demanded, as though it might be her responsibility to see that his supper was put on the table.
“Maybe you should go see,” she had told him.
That was another thing about Teddy, he respected himself, she could listen to him.
She understood boredom perfectly then. Or was it depression, this knowing what came next? She had never been a bouncy type but nothing seemed urgent to her now. Had she become intolerant in her old age or merely indifferent?
Yet there were small things now which suddenly and absolutely she could not endure— inanity, gossip, rudeness, glibness, dirt, vulgarity, noise, carelessness. When had it become such a labor to be cheerful? She resented the way people who should have known better seemed to take her patience for granted. Men expected her to chatter, to engage them, and when she didn’t they would complain that she was difficult to know. So they were not her husband, whose fault was that? Why go out if she was going to act this way? You were never alone with a woman like this. How did you vie with the flawless dead? Now even his infamies were lovable, a tribute to his virility.
Yes, they had heard of him, they could understand why she missed him. They, too, missed their dead. But did she imagine that time had stopped for her as well? Who did she think she was?
And finally they didn’t like her. They didn’t like the way she looked at them. Examining them, counting their guns? Screw her, they decided. Women like this were welcome to their privacy.
Well, she thought, let them know about it. Let them know how it felt. She only hoped Teddy knew what she was suffering for him.
“I miss you very much, Teddy. I’m glad you can’t hear me say it.”
But she was babbling now. She didn’t know what she wanted. It was as if she might be developing a speech disorder. She could feel it in her mouth.