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Essay: Tangled

by Laurie Stone

edited by Brian Joseph Davis

Richard and I were in Maine visiting our friend Josey, who had restored a building beside a swing bridge. The building had at various times been a dance hall and a bowling alley, and you could see faded lettering and brickwork from its past. The windows framed boats, water, and sky, and you felt skipped along on a tide. Josey saw beauty where other people didn’t see anything. It was how she had found her house.

One night she invited another couple to dinner. We were all in our 50s or early 60s. It was August, and the air had a sultry feel against your skin. Veronica and George weren’t exactly a couple. They were friends or an on-again-off-again couple. Some people grow into each other like trees planted close together. Their branches and roots get tangled, even if they have not planned it. George knew about such arrangements. He worked as a landscape designer, getting down in dirt with knee pads. Josey had not met him before. Veronica was her friend.

Veronica was a child psychologist, a large-boned, blond woman, who moved slowly, in contrast to Josey who was slender and quick and walked with the splayed feet of a dancer. When Veronica entered, she took my hand in both of hers, and early in the conversation she said she had an aptitude for pain. It sounded too intimate for strangers, but I liked it. I like when people sweep away reserves, even if later I come to regret it. Veronica had straight little teeth that looked like they could make quick work of a bone. I asked her, What sort of pain? She said, I see a glass as half full when it's half empty. I don't have to work at it. At first I didn’t see what this had to do with pain until she looked at us with practiced drama and said, I was betrayed by my analyst when I was twenty-six.

We were sitting on stools in the kitchen, drinking margaritas and eating chips. The living room, dining room, and kitchen were open to each other. Veronica said that she and the analyst had had a sexual relationship for two years, and after the affair ended her world had crumbled. She was a person whose world could crumble, and I wondered if this was owing to positive thinking.

Richard topped up his glass and volunteered that I, too, had had a sexual encounter with an analyst. It startled me he would say this. Usually he takes his time with people, but he wanted to reach out to Veronica, so she wouldn’t feel alone. It is one of the ways he makes a success socially. I didn’t mind him taking my story. We had been together for three years, and it seemed a sign of trust to be easing up on who owned what. Josey was cutting cucumbers and tomatoes so fast no one could jump in, but she stopped her preparations to listen to the conversation, and her nose twitched. It was as if she was recording the conversation with her nose.

When Richard said I had had a sexual encounter with an analyst, I thought, Oh, right, I did, as if it had slipped my mind. In the early 1960s, André Glaz had treated my mother, my sister, and me—as well as several aunts, uncles, and cousins. If anyone in my family had thought this unorthodox, they didn’t say. André had earned a medical degree in France, where he trained as an analyst. He published essays in analytic journals, and authors in the field inscribed books to him. You can Google him, André Glaz.

When I was 14, he took me into his bed. I was at his country house for the weekend. I was in the backyard, watching birds play in a fountain and listening to cello music drift through an open window when he came out and said, Come inside, and he ushered me to his bed before my Uncle Zev and Aunt Kate arrived. I rose to the ceiling and saw a girl stretched out with her arms by her sides. Next to her was a white-haired, fat man who pushed up her sweater and slowly circled her breasts with his fingers. He asked, Does it feel good? his breaths growing faster. I do not remember what I said. What could I have said?

Veronica asked about the analyst, and I said he was a European Jew who had escaped a Nazi death and made his way to the United States. I said he had helped members of my family and also used us in various ways. She asked how I had recovered from the experience, and I realized I hadn’t. Her face was a mask of sympathy, and it felt like I had become her patient. I didn’t take it personally. This was her job. I wondered if André had bet I would keep his secret because of something in my nature. Maybe my curiosity or enviousness. My sister and mother had gone to him first, and their whispering had made me feel horribly left out, until I asked to go, too.

After my aunt and uncle arrived that night, André announced the sleeping arrangements and appointed me to his bed. I was sitting on a blue velvet couch, waiting for someone to intercede on my behalf, but my aunt and uncle acted like this was fine. André was bolder with me the second time, and I was stimulated. I had made out with boys, but I didn’t want to be touched by an old man, and I said, Stop. Eventually, I said, Stop. I said stop in the voice of a tired child. I said, I’m tired and I want to go to sleep, not in the voice of defiance.

It was like speaking a language I didn’t know, although maybe I did know it. Maybe it was the language of achieving what you want. Looking back, I think, How cautious the girl is, how concerned with keeping the secret of what she and André are doing. He rolled off me and left the room. I don’t know where he slept. The next day he did not look at me, but before I went home he took me aside and said, Don’t tell your mother. He didn’t mention my father. His face was tilted up. He was looking at a drawing on the wall behind my head. Riding the train home, I wondered if Long Beach would still be there, and when it was I saw life goes on and you really don’t have anywhere else to go.

George listened to Veronica and me, sipping his drink, and I noticed a spider web tattoo on one elbow. He was patient as a spider, and he was smiling. I asked about his work. I like gardening. I associate gardening with joy—also juggling and sleight-of-hand magic. He said he had started out as a lawyer but 20 years ago had quit and become a Buddhist and a gardener. He knew the flowers and trees of New England. He described a public garden he’d designed with different colored tulips set to bloom over several weeks, and I imagined the flowers standing at attention and saturating the landscape.

Sailboats raced behind him, but his eyes drew me back. They were intense. He wanted you to look at him, and there was that enigmatic smile, as if he were catching something funny out of sight. His belly was round, his hair thinning, his arms and legs untoned, despite his labors. He looked like an aged cherub, like Cupid after a bender, and he gave off an air of self-assurance or arrogance. Not real self-assurance. He wanted you to think well of him, and I found myself going along.

My stool had no back, and my shoulders slumped. Absently, I massaged my neck. I wasn’t stretching enough. I’d spent most of the past three years in Arizona, where Richard was a professor. He taught museum studies, and he had work he loved after a series of frustrating jobs. Our connection was spurring him on, and it was spurring me, too. I was happier but also a little directionless, and it reminded me of the time after André when I lost my footing. Some confidence was lost. Maybe I would have lost it, anyway.

George asked if he could massage my neck, and I said, Yes, shooting a look at Richard, who sent back a wordless, Sure. I was wearing a halter top. My shoulders and back were bare. What did George want? Maybe massage was something he practiced along with gardening, a Buddhist offering. My mother used to say, Nothing is free, there is always a catch, and when George came over, he stood too close. I could have risen for a drink and said I was okay, but I wanted him to work on me, and when his hands moved across my skin, it felt like the world was rolling toward me, as if I deserved it or could get away with it. Gently, he asked if it felt good. I said, Yes, and I meant it. His hands did feel good. He kept working, and I closed my eyes. He was silent for several minutes, and then he asked if he could kiss my shoulder. I opened my eyes, and he looked at me without emotion, as if he were a doctor asking if he could remove a splinter from my finger.

I felt a familiarity in the gesture that goes too far, and it made me wonder about the times I had made a fool of myself. I would know, right? Not necessarily. Every so often you learn about a time you have made yourself scary or hateful that has lodged in everyone’s memory but yours. By asking to kiss me, George was detaching himself from the group. Veronica winced. Maybe George was one of those glasses she had seen as half full. Josey stopped cooking and stared at George with a skeptical grin. Richard wore the hypervigilant look he gets around danger or challenge. He is a slender, boyish-looking man with spiky light hair and green, square-framed glasses. He smiles easily, but he can be hard. He stayed back. I wanted him to.  

When someone asks something of me, I feel an impulse to oblige. Desire, itself, works a kind of power over me. I said, Okay, although I did not want George’s kiss. I was embarrassed for him and embarrassed for me, which made me feel we were in something together. He was smiling. He kissed my shoulder softly, and I disliked it. If he had asked to draw a mustache across my upper lip or sip milk from a saucer on the floor, I would have known what to say, but a twist of aggression in the form of a kiss is disorienting, and I’m not sure he meant to insult me as much as instruct me. He said, These shoulders don’t know they are loved.   

He was making claims, like a tarot card reader, in such general categories they were unlikely to be entirely false. He and Veronica circulated in the culture of recovery, where you are advised to love yourself more. Who couldn’t use more love? People who have been targeted wonder if they are responsible. I wondered if I’d given André permission to advance. I felt recognized by George, as if the faded lettering of my past was showing through. At the same time, I felt misidentified. It was like seeing yourself sweeping by in a revolving door. The figure is yours but not the hair.

I did know my shoulders were loved, but I didn’t correct George. Abruptly, Josey called us to the table, and we clinked wine glasses and talked about her. I had met her one summer when she was handling publicity for a theater in Massachusetts and I was reviewing plays. She had put me up in the country for a few weeks, and at night we had rendezvoused at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge and told each other stories about our lives. She was raising a child by herself without apologies or complaints, and I admired the way she took risks. I thought I hadn’t done that enough, and, looking back, I wonder if André scared me off a little from life.

In bed that night, Richard asked, Why did you go along? I didn’t know what to say, and the incident has stayed with me, the feeling that washed over me when George asked if he could kiss me. I felt suckered and maybe as if I deserved to be suckered for wanting the massage. Which is what had happened with André.

The next morning at breakfast, Josey said she did not want George in her house again. I wondered how often he had been banished. I have sometimes been banished for being combative, and I was glad it wasn’t me this time. Josey said Veronica and George were staying up in Maine another week and if they wanted to see her, she would meet them at the beach or at a café.

We were drinking espresso she had made, and I was struck, as I often am, by the beauty and simplicity of her surroundings—the large, abstract paintings on the walls, the couches by the window with their soft, colorful cushions, the coffee table made from an old, green door, the slashes of granite for counters. The food here tasted better than anywhere else. These days Josey was working as an interior designer at the firm where her son worked as an architect. The clean, unencumbered look of her place contrasted with the churning inside me.

She leaned in and said, How did it feel when he kissed you? She crinkled her nose and laughed. I said, I was so surprised, I didn’t know what to say. Her arms shot up from her sharp elbows. She said, He’s a man looking for victims. You talked about André, and he thought he had found another victim.

Richard was holding a piece of toast. He said, If he wanted to show Laurie he knew more than she did, she didn’t give him that satisfaction. If he wanted to show he could kiss her in front of me and get away with it, then he did. I thought Richard was feeling implicated for having set the scene in motion, but he needn’t have. The Georges of the world and the Lauries of the world find each other. Richard said, Ultimately, in a situation like that, you can’t know who is the winner and who is the loser. You can’t know who got what they needed and who felt denied.

I think this is part of the reason the incident has stayed with me, although it happened three years ago. Some events keep exposing new rooms you don’t at first see. Maybe every incident would turn up fresh information if we retrieved it, although mostly we don’t care if the past sinks like sediment to the bottom of us or floats off like foam in a wave.

Josey didn’t put George off. As we were finishing breakfast, he called to thank her. He praised her cooking and her enjoyable friends, saying she had a fascinating life and he wanted to treat her to dinner at a restaurant known for its giant lobsters. She said okay. After she got off the phone, she looked at us with her eyes wide and said, What did I just do? She blinked and said, I’ll make an excuse and cancel. But she wound up going, and the burden of George, if burden is the right word, was transferred from me to her, as it had probably been transferred from Veronica to me.

When I think about George, I am struck by my passivity, but there it is, the same thing for the first time. And it will happen again. For many parts of life, there is no recovery because, maybe, nothing is broken. Some things simply are startling or they taste bitter because that is their taste. Mostly in moments of danger, no one comes to your rescue. Once you discover the off-kilteredness of life, the only thing you can do is keep being who you are, and sometimes when you let life roll over you, you get Josey or Richard. Really, ahead of time, how can you know?