It isn’t a new sensation. For the past many weeks, Clara Feinberg has found it harder and harder to paint human faces, her bread and butter task. Increasingly, she is struggling with what feels to her like a repugnance to the act. Though it’s all very sophomoric, she believes.  Her own thoughts on the subject sound to her like the voices of pretentious but earnest youngsters debating the meaning of life.

    It’s morning—again—and Clara is perched on the side of her bed, as though undecided about whether to stand or lie back down. Her hands grip the edge of the mattress, maybe to push her up and maybe to hold her there. She can see herself in the dresser mirror if she lets her eyes drift that way. It’s not her favorite sight, her own face, not normally of particular interest to her. As drawn as she is to study others’ faces, she would be perfectly happy to go through life without ever seeing herself.  Not because of anything amiss about her appearance. For a seventy year old woman, she looks better than well, straight and a bit stern and more handsome than ever. Age suits her. But she knows too well what a face can reveal.

    As a child, if she caught a glimpse of herself when alone, she would stick out her tongue; and to her own surprise, she does it now. It’s an odd sight. An old woman making the face of a spiteful little girl. An upsetting sight. She closes her lips and looks away, looks to her feet, hanging bare and gnarled just above the floor. She still can’t quite force herself to stand. Not yet. Can’t quite force herself to dress, to leave the apartment, to walk among the living. Go to work, step into her studio. Smell the paint, the turpentine. Populate the blank canvases waiting there with her people, her creations.

    The prospect pins her where she is.

    It isn’t that she has tired of studying faces—other than her own. Not at all.  How could she have? She still thinks daily about how it felt thirty years ago, how like learning a precious secret it had been when she first discovered her longing to sit for hours and ponder another person’s features, to study their particular texture. It was as though she had found a hidden primal drive in herself, something to align itself with hunger, thirst, sexual desire, the instinct to stay alive. And this drive has never flagged.

    But the paintings themselves upset her now. The act of painting them upsets her now.

    She forces her eyes again to her own image, holds her face steady, drains it of what expression she can.  It’s this same eerie stillness she detects in her portraits now. A kind of death. Death, which used to seem so remote, now feels to Clara as though it is everywhere, like the universally disliked relative who arrives early to every gathering and shows no discernible sign of ever going home. She can sense it turning her against her own work, lurking in the notion of permanence surrounding portraiture, skulking around the very idea of catching a person at one moment and documenting them, just then. This is what death does, she thinks, stony-faced, staring right into her own eyes. Catches us all. Stops time.

    “Pull yourself together,” she says out loud. “You still have a living to make.”

    And finally, that gets Clara to her feet. She is paid preposterously well for those paintings of hers, and so this recent repugnance must be overcome; and the day, the new clients, must be faced.

As if revealing a precious secret, Katherine Parker states that she and her husband—John—have been married for fifty-one years. Not that Clara has asked. She’s asked them very little since they entered the small sitting room adjacent to her studio. And when told how long they’ve been married, she doesn’t offer up much of a reaction. Divorced herself for nearly three decades, she can think of too many reasons, good, bad, and indifferent, why people might stay married half a century to assume that she knows the appropriate response.

    “We didn’t make very much of our fiftieth. But then when this one came around, I realized I would like to have a portrait of John. That’s the gift I want. John, immortalized.”

    Katherine Parker is a small woman with surprisingly short hair, entirely white. The wrinkles that web her pouching cheeks run without a break or variation across her pale lips, as though a veil of lace has been etched into her face. When she speaks, her eyes blink rapidly, seeming to seek refocus every time. And the truth is, Clara realizes, she would rather paint her than him. It might be interesting to try to capture this topography of time and the sense of urgency that seems integral to her.

    “Not of you both?” she asks.

    “Oh, no. I had mine done years ago. I’d much rather be remembered that way. Young, and elegant. Not like this.”

    Clara nods, skipping over her own arguments with this view. The point, it turns out, isn’t youth or beauty. The point is happiness. And to the extent that happiness ever came to her, it came to her late.

    She looks over at John Parker—the subject—on the sofa beside his wife. He hasn’t spoken. Not a single word. Nor is his face particularly expressive. His skin has an odd smoothness to it, a yellow tinge, his eyes are round, brown and moist.

    He’s dull, she thinks, that word stepping out of line, as if louder, bolder than the others in her thoughts. And, sitting there, Clara recognizes this as something with which she’ll now have to contend. Often, with her subjects, there’s a first impression that dominates her ability to see clearly. And here is one, again. This quality of dullness she perceives will have to be continually questioned and examined. In the end she may conclude that it does define him in some way that deserves expression in the work. Or she may not. But for as long as she is painting him, she knows, she will be in a continual dialogue with this word. Dull.

    “Do you want your portrait painted?” she asks and he startles a bit. Then looks over at his wife. Then he nods.

    “Yes,” he says.

    Clara sits back in her chair and she begins to describe the process. How many sessions; how much time she’ll need; how much warning if a session is to be missed. And then she names a very high figure, to which neither of them reacts.

    “And I’ll need to see you alone,” she says to him, sensing in herself a slight annoyance at his silence.

    “Oh.” It’s a small sound that Katherine Parker makes, but an expressive one, an objection. “Is that necessary?”

    “Yes, it is,” Clara says. She could go into an explanation—she could talk about the relationship between subject and artist, she could talk about any number of things that might justify this, some real, some made up. But she prefers simply to state the condition and not discuss her reasoning. Too much in her life has had to be justified.

    “Well, then,” Katherine Parker says. “Then I suppose that’s what we’ll do.”

    They have only the scheduling left. This is Monday. They’ll begin on Wednesday.  As the Parkers leave, each shakes Clara’s hand, and the wife declares herself so excited, so grateful that Clara has time for this. It’s a gift she’s giving herself, she says. She rarely does that. But this one is different. This will be something very special.

If George Cooperman could tell this story, he would doubtless start with a description of those portraits that Clara paints. A psychoanalyst, he would sneak up on the events by walking through an exhaustive analysis of her work, which would lead naturally for him into an exhaustive analysis of her character. She paints like this, he would say, she invariably sees other people in this particular light. It doesn’t matter who they are. The portraits all share these characteristics. And you see, he would say, you understand, that is because she herself is this kind of woman. Her work is consistent with who she is. It is the key to who she is. It explains everything that she has ever done. That is how George Cooperman would start.

    If Harold Feinberg were telling this story, he would unlikely make much mention of Clara’s work, largely because he’s never really thought all that much about it, not the work itself, not the way she sees and recreates the people whom she paints. And also, he still resents the work a bit, still smarts at the way it seemed to make her happier than he ever did. So, Harold would doubtless talk first about the early days of their marriage. He would say that in the beginning she had seemed intent on having what he thought of then as a proper home. It was 1966, he would say, and things were just beginning to loosen up; but not Clara. Not then. She had her trusty copy of the The Settlement Cook Book out and opened every night. She had her hair done once a week, so it looked more like a wig than hair. And whatever happened afterwards, whatever she later felt or said, she had wanted the children, wanted them as soon as she and Harold were wed.

    Oh, and the sex with her—if he’d had a couple of drinks, and odds are he would have, he would go into this—the sex with her was efficient and somewhat businesslike, but not prudish. He’d been with a few prudish women in his time, and that was never her. But there was an element of practicality to the act that always left him a little unsatisfied. It was all a little too hygienic for his taste. And then he would say that maybe that had something to do with what got into him back in the seventies. All of that infamous cheating that he did. He was just looking for something a little more exciting. Not that that was any kind of excuse. Just the truth. He was bored.

    But the funny thing is, he would say, the thing he has thought about a lot, is that he probably wouldn’t have been bored by the woman she became after everything blew up. That was when she went a little wild. And of course that was when she started in with the painting seriously. That was when he would come by the house to pick up the children and see her in overalls and a man’s undershirt, braless as far as he could tell, bits of paint clinging to hair. Something changed in her, he would say. Something changed, and it wasn’t for the worse. Once or twice he even asked her if she would consider trying to make a go of it again, but the answer was always no. It wasn’t an unusual story, he would say. At least not in the beginning. Boy meets girl. Boys cats around. Boy loses girl. 

    In Clara’s mind, the story begins January, 1979, with George Cooperman giving her a lift to pick up her car.  It begins with the odd realization that she might as well be sitting in the front seat of her own Volvo station wagon rather than his, that the cars are identical inside. Though she then remembers that in her own car she wouldn’t be in the passenger seat, not anymore, because since the separation in November, she has always been the driver and never the passenger when in her own car. This is where she used to sit when she was married to Harold.

    It starts then for her with this odd mixture of familiarity and unfamiliarity, with a chain of thoughts set off by a particular shade of beige, and by the sensation of being back on the passenger side of a vehicle—riding shot-gun, in the dead man’s seat, the wife’s place—and by the oddness of it being George Cooperman and not Harold at the wheel of the car, beside her, driving to the garage where she has had snow tires put on her car, though it’s probably silly this late in the season, another chore that got lost in the mess of the marital collapse.

    It starts there, and then it shifts very quickly into discomfort, the scene being almost something she knows so intimately. It’s that unbidden intimacy that slips in. George has pulled into the wide oil stained drive outside the garage and they are facing each other to say goodbye. She notices the precise shade of brown of his eyes. She sees how his upper lip is so much thinner than the lower. She understands exactly how she would paint that lip. Having known him for so many years, she is learning too much about him, in only seconds. As though she is seeing him for the first time now.

    She hears herself mention Janet’s name. I’ll call Janet in the morning, she says. And he says, I’ll let her know. And as he speaks, she notices the different tones of darkness in his mouth. He asks her if she wants him to wait and be sure her car is ready, just to be certain she isn’t left here alone in this sketchy part of town. But she says that she’s already called and checked. The car is ready. She says, Thank you, though, and opens her door and feels the coldness of the air outside. Here, he says, reaching over. Don’t forget this. And he hands her the pocketbook she’s left in the car.

As she makes her way down Locust Street, after meeting the Parkers, Clara thinks glumly about the husband, John, about his silence and his evocation of that word dull. The truth is, she isn’t relishing the job. He doesn’t seem like a very interesting subject, to her. But then maybe nobody would at this time.

    It’s a familiar route from the studio home, one she can walk with her mind entirely occupied, one she suspects she could walk in her sleep. Clara has lived for well over twenty years in her townhouse off Rittenhouse Square.  After the children moved out to college, first Jason, then Ellie, she spent a few years on her own in the big house out in Bryn Mawr. But it never felt like her own home, even then. It belonged to them all, to Clara, Harold, Jason and Ellie; to them and to the way their lives had unfolded there, intricately wound together, then pulled apart, in small and larger ways.

    Family life. Looking back, it seems like a dance, a four person minuet comprised of steps towards and steps away, approaches and retreats, ending, finally, with each of them standing entirely alone. By the time she was the sole occupant, the big, cold fieldstone house was more museum than home to her. Even the rooms themselves bore names that no longer applied. Harold’s study. The playroom. The au pair’s bathroom. Phrases, like old photographs, offering remnants of a different time, relics, and evidence.

    When she left, she took almost nothing. The children could have whatever they wanted. Goodwill could have the rest. A few boxes of papers, albums, some keepsakes from her own childhood, her mother’s candlesticks, her father’s pocketknife. Her own paintings, of course. Even the ones she no longer liked. That was all. It didn’t occur to her until after the move, everything long gone, that she might have offered Harold a pick at what he wanted. But when it did occur to her, the thought came without regret. Harold wasn’t her problem anymore.   

    The Bryn Mawr house had been done up in a somber, traditional style, the new bride following the old rules. But Clara drenched the place on Spruce Street so it was giddy with color, as though all that mattered was a sensation of abundance. Too much. Too bright. It hardly looked like the home of a well respected artist. Certainly not of the creator of the careful, muted portraits for which Clara was becoming known. No. It looked more like the set of a children’s television show.

    “God, it’s like a paint store threw up,” Ellie said the first time she visited, and then apologized. “I shouldn’t have said that. I just don’t think I’d be able to sleep in this. That’s all I meant.”

    “To each her own,” Clara had said. “It doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks. I find it cheers me up.”

    But now, as she enters her home, Clara herself finds all that imposed cheerfulness jarring. She stands still in her doorway for a few moments—as though there’s an obvious next move to make, and she just can’t remember what it is. This is a familiar sensation, since George’s death. She waits and nothing comes to mind. Nothing ever comes to mind. It is the sensation of absence, she knows, disguised as an impulse to act. There isn’t a damned thing to do, except see it for the trick it is, wade through the illusion.

    She hasn’t eaten all day, and decides to make herself a tuna sandwich—the perfect, semi-conscious kind of task. The body moving almost on its own. Bread in the toaster. Can opener from the drawer. Simple, simple, simple. Drain the tuna of its water in the sink. Take out a bowl. Find the mayonnaise, and check the expiration date. Unscrew the lid. Look for a lemon, and throw out the slightly shriveled one in the fridge. Just enough thought required. The brain occupied, but not challenged in any real sense.

    This is the best way to get through these days, she knows. Stay active. But not too active. Stay busy.  But not frenetic. She is familiar with the routine. George Cooperman, old friend, lover too, isn’t her first loss. Not by any means. This isn’t even the first time she’s lost George Cooperman, though now, of course, he can’t come back. Still, she well understands that grief must take her as its plaything for a while—like a kitten with a mouse. A hopeless matchup.

    Clara Feinberg doesn’t believe in God; she never has. She believes in time. Omnipotent, surely. Friend and foe, both, as deities of all religions seem to be. Determining everything about one’s life, from the sudden absence of a man like George to the expiration date on a jar of mayonnaise. For now, time will be an ally of a kind, she knows. At the very least, it will soon take care of this sense of disbelief, this punch to the gut when she thinks of George and remembers again that he’s died. Given time, she knows, that will fade. A day, a day, another day, another day, and soon, she’ll be used to the idea. She won’t like it, but at least she will know it without having to keep remembering again.

    She slices the sandwich from corner to corner, and corner to corner again, making four triangles on the plate; then she brings it into the other room, over to the window, and she stares outside. Snow is falling, the first snowfall of the season, not yet sticking on the ground. It isn’t quite dark, but it will be soon.

    She’s always loved this time of day. George also loved this time of day. Some of their best hours together had been passed sitting in this room, her living room, both of them reading, waiting for the sun to drop from view, the daylight to fade, staying there, in that early darkness together, not switching on a lamp, not yet. Tacitly agreeing to fight the evening off. Fight every ending off. Live within all transitions for every possible second. But then as true darkness fell, they would be forced to look up from their books, forced into conversation, into each other’s company.

    It had all been a great big tease, she thinks now. Fighting off the moment of conversation had been like fighting off an orgasm, the delay designed to increase the pleasure.

    A streetlight comes on. Clara waits to see how long it will take another to join it. A minute passes, two minutes. Nothing. They must have different levels of sensitivity, she thinks. They must believe different things about what darkness is.

     Turning away, she leans back against the window glass, feels the cold there and also the heat of the radiator below, on her thighs, on her rear. At this moment, there is a perfect absence of consensus in the world. The streetlights busily debating among themselves over definitions of night and day, while these parts of her own home argue over whether she should be warmed or chilled.

    It’s close to ludicrous, of course, imagining things in conversation. Things having arguments. But it’s true that she sees the world around her as animated. Spirited. Nothing truly dead. Nothing truly dead, except the dead.   

Arguably, it began when Clara kept the Coopermans in the divorce. The house, the car, the dog, the children—for the most part—and the Coopermans who said there was no real decision to be made at all. Not after what Harold had done to her. He was no great loss to them.

    Janet had been particularly vehement on the subject. She called him a cad and a scoundrel and a bounder. She swore that she would never speak to him again, unless of course it was to tell him what she thought. Clara, listening in their living room, sipping none too judiciously at her scotch, had found herself irritated by the vocabulary with which Janet dispensed her loyalty. Janet sounded to her as though she had stepped out of some drawing room comedy.

    Harold was not a bounder. Harold was not a cad.

    “He’s an asshole,” Clara said. “He’s a prick.”

    It had felt important to her at the time. This wasn’t some dinner theater Noel Coward production, for God’s sake; this was her actual life. It deserved a coarse kind of discourse to match the coarseness of events. “He fucked all those other women,” she said. “Fucked them for years and is fucking them still. And not just strangers, but women I know. He’s a shit.”

     It was only a small annoyance, but it heralded more to come. Maybe it was inevitable, Janet still living the life that the four of them had shared. Married, with children. Married to George. Stability personified, George. No shattered hearts to sweep up and throw away in the Cooperman home.

Wednesday morning, the Parkers arrive on time and without Clara having to prompt her, Katherine Parker volunteers a hesitant “Well, I suppose I have to go.” She’ll just be down the street, she says. She’ll shop a bit. She may have some coffee. She’ll be back in two hours. She looks at her small silver watch more than once. She blinks toward her husband, and then at Clara. She lists a few more things she may do during this time. She finally leaves. 

    It’s now time to get to work.

    Clara has already decided that she’ll be damned if she’s going to try to make John Parker speak. If it’s his habit to be silent, she’ll paint him silent, then. And she’ll even view his silence as a relief. It is often the most trying part of her profession—the chatter. Portraitists and hairdressers, both are expected to talk about irrelevancies when they should concentrate.

    In thirty years, Clara has not befriended a single subject. Not really. Nor has she painted her own family or friends. She never drew George, much less attempted a full portrait, not even a sketch, for which she’s now glad. She never drew him and she has no photographs of him, and the degree to which he exists only in her memories comforts her. Nothing left of their history, outside herself.

    In the studio, she seats John Parker on the red velvet armchair. “I’ll just be sketching odds and ends,” she says. “You don’t have to sit still. Not today. I may take some photographs as well.”

    His hands are resting on the arms of the chair, loose not gripping. And his head is turned away, so she sees him from a three-quarter view. Clara spends some time, fifteen minutes or so, trying to understand the nature of the line that runs from his jaw, down his neck across his shoulder and then through his left arm. It’s oddly difficult. There’s a sense of elongation to him that she hadn’t noticed on Monday, and it’s hard to capture without exaggerating it.

    “The woman who brought me here. . .?”

    It startles her. He’s still looking away.

    “Yes. Your wife.”

    “Yes. My wife,” he says. “That’s right. We’ve been married more than fifty years.” Clara waits to hear more, but nothing comes. He shifts slightly, so one hand falls away from the chair arm. After a moment, she gives up on the exchange, and decides to start acquainting herself with his face. The smooth skin, the pointy chin. A small round nose.

    The word isn’t dull.

    It’s dulled.

    This quality she’s sensing—much like the lines criss-crossing his wife’s soft lips—seems like something he’s acquired. Something imposed. This is her instinct, that time has played a role here in blunting the man somehow. Something has changed him. Her mind is wandering now, not wandering away, but winding its way through this problem’s labyrinth. To capture each quality in equal measure or at least with an equal degree of acknowledgement—this is her challenge.  Dulled. A process. There’s a contradiction she wants to display. Or maybe a conversation she wants to depict. The debate between who he appears to be and who he appears to have been.

    It would be good to discuss all this with George.

    She’s written George two letters since his death. Two letters in seven weeks. The first was angry. How could you leave me. . . The second, contrite. I know it isn’t your fault. . . As she works, she thinks she may write him another one, this evening. Since your death, I am obsessed with time. . . There’s no one else with whom she wants to share any of this. No one else who will understand how important this business is of trying somehow to combat the static, still quality of her work. To not capture a particular moment in a life. To give up on that attempt. No; to fight it.

    It does indeed sound sophomoric, she thinks, as she draws. It sounds as though she is playing word games in the territory of third-rate philosophy. But then George would see past that. He would. He would recognize that underlying all these musings on time and death and portraiture, pretentious as they might seem, she is struggling.

    The two hours quickly pass. It is a luxury indeed to work in silence, she decides.

However it began, it didn’t go on for long. Not then.

    George made his decision in early August of that year. August, 1979. He would stay with Janet. He would end the affair.

    Only six months in. That was it. No amount of time at all.

    But long enough. Long enough to have given Clara Feinberg a glimpse of joy.

     For the good of the children.

    The phrase had covered her heart like a shroud.

That afternoon, heading home, Clara spots Harold in the bakery where she’s stopped to buy bread. Harold, of all people. It shouldn’t be a shock. He’s lived fairly close for years. But it is a shock and the sight of him brings on a kind of exhaustion. Here is something else to do, another piece of history to navigate.

    She taps his arm, tugs gently at the navy cloth of his storm coat. He turns toward her, a look of confusion in his eyes; and then surprise, then something strangely like gladness.


    “Hello, Harold.”

    Leaning in, he kisses her on the cheek. Like an old acquaintance, she thinks. As though there had never been any passion, nor love, nor rage, nor anything much, just some traces of innocuous familiarity between them. Live long enough, it seems, and every fire can burn itself out.

    His narrow, gaunt face looks thinner than ever. His cheekbones jut out under ruddy skin, mapped with purple capillaries. Drinker’s skin. How long since they’ve seen each other? More than a year. Since the newest grandchild arrived, and they stood together, side by side, compatibly squeamish and tipsy at the bris.

    “How are you, Harold?”

    “Oh, you know. Not bad. I’m doing fine. Not bad at all. Given everything.”

    “That’s good,” she says. But she wonders. He looks like an old man, to her—every day of his seventy-four years. Much older than George ever did. His posture seems a bit crumpled. And his brows have grown so bushy that if she were still his wife, she decides, she would insist that he deal with them—somehow. If necessary, she would cut them herself, in his sleep. She finds it ridiculous the way they trail down over his eyes, so one must look at him as though through an upside down, overgrown hedge. She wouldn’t be able to live with them, she’s sure. For a moment, she is sure. But then something else occurs to her. Maybe she would love them, she thinks. If she still loved him. Maybe she would want him as he is.

    It’s a painful thought. The ravages of time rendered irrelevant by love. It’s something she will never find again, she understands.

    As she and Harold exchange fragments of information about their children, each buys a baguette—his sourdough, hers not. Did she hear that Ellie’s youngest won a statewide spelling bee? Does he know that Jason is considering a move back east? Yes. Yes.  It seems they’ve been told the same things. This is their peculiar mix of intimacy and distance. In many ways, it is the opposite of the mix she shared with George, their families separate, themselves so intertwined.

    In the bakery doorway, as they part, they chat a little more about the children before he mentions George. “Terrible news about George, wasn’t it? George Cooperman? You heard, I assume?”

    Clara nods. “Yes. I heard.”

    Her voice is steady, though she feels many kinds of unease. Not only the opened wound; there is an ancient, weary guilt at work here, too. Because Harold never knew a thing. Not back then, and surely not when she and George started up again. It was always Harold in disgrace, Harold who had cheated, Harold who had skulked around the outskirts of her life, hangdog for years and years. Clara was the injured party. Always. Clara was deserving only of sympathy and only Harold deserving of contempt. It’s a hook she’s never let him off—in part because she’s never trusted him with the information, and in part because she’s never quite wanted to let him off that hook.

    “Poor old George,” Harold says.

    “Poor old George,” she echoes. 

    “I don’t suppose you’d have dinner with me sometime?”

    “What?” But she’s heard him, of course. “Dinner? When? What’s the occasion?”

    He frowns, and the eyebrows lower, threatening to obscure his eyes entirely. “No occasion,” he says. “Just feeling a bit lonely. Everyone seems to be dying. Maybe that’s the occasion.”

    After a moment, she nods. “Yes. We could have dinner, I suppose. I don’t have my book with me, though.”

    He’ll call, he says. Maybe they’ll find a night next week. And then, somewhat awkwardly—a peck on her cheek, a few more mumbled words—they part at the doorway, walking in opposite directions toward their homes.

    The weather has turned, and freezing rain begins to fall, stinging Clara’s face, a typical November sensation, a time of disheartening weather, disheartening events. It was the month of her wedding, back in the dark, dark ages. And also of her miscarriage, between the children. And then of her divorce—not the final papers, but the true dramatic end, Harold’s two suitcases stuffed with random underclothes and shirts, his McArthur-like stance on their front porch. I shall return! Oh no. No, you will not.

    As she turns onto Spruce, hurrying past the brownstones, she wonders what it would be like to tell him everything, finally. She could write him a letter now that she’s taken up letter writing. Dear Harold, There’s a little something that you don’t know . . .

    He would hate her, she decides. It might be the generous, right thing to do. It would even up a score in a way. She’s no better than he. She and George both. Not just years ago, but then again, their shared secret life, for the past five years. Harold would hate her—not for the love affair, but for the smarminess with which she’s treated him all this time. He would be entitled to. He might even tell the children. He might tell Janet, drinker that he is. He wouldn’t be able to keep it to himself.

    It would do more harm than good, she decides.

It began again, the second time, with a chance encounter at the funeral of an old friend. Millie Davidson, a woman in the same set back in the suburbs all those years ago. Clara attended alone, but sat in the church beside Harold, and soon spotted the Coopermans a few pews away.

    It was hardly the first time she’d seen them since the summer of ’79. There had been years still to get through of living close by, of having their children sing in school concerts together, running into one another at the grocery store. There had been one high school graduation they had all attended—Ellie and the middle Cooperman boy.

    The encounter, inevitable, took place in the vicinity of the receiving line. The four of them stood in a group—she and George, she and Harold, George and Janet—the four of them and the weights of history and secrets and judgments and of so, so many forms of love now abandoned, all crowded in together in the cool of this church.  

    She didn’t look at any of them, not really, just in a fleeting, disconnected kind of way. She listened to the words that seemed to float among this uncomfortable quartet, and contributed a few. She engaged only enough to be attuned to the proper moment to say her goodbye, not so soon as to be rude, not long enough for ancient pains to surface. She made her excuses and walked alone outside, into the air and light. 

    But then he called her that night. More than two decades after the fact. He called to say he’d like to get together for lunch, that he expected her answer to be no, that he knew she would say no. But then look at poor old Millie, he said. Look at them all. How much time did any of them have? He had decided it was a call he had to make. He had to try.

    He said nothing about his emotions during that call. The word love did not come up. And if it had, she might well have said no. That word would almost certainly have angered her after twenty-one years. But he didn’t say love; he said lunch. And she said yes.

John Parker is wearing a soft gray suit and a pale blue tie. This is the outfit in which his wife wants him immortalized. She’ll probably have him buried in it too, Clara thinks. It’s the third session, the third week, and she’s almost finished with the initial oil sketch.

     She’s asked him to look toward her, to stare directly at her as much as he can. It isn’t often that Clara paints a subject with their eyes engaged like this. She’s never been all that interested in portraiture that results in a viewer trying to read the expression, the wow, it really looks like he’s looking at me pictures as she called them to George. This is part of what George found so characteristic of her, about her work, this slight sense of disengagement. “You see, they’re always looking someplace else. Because Clara herself prefers to keep her distance from most of the world.” But in this case, she early on decided that the only route through that dullness she detected in John Parker, back to whatever had preceded it, is through his gaze.

    Fifteen minutes or so into the session, his stare shifts away, just as she’s working there. “I’m sorry,” she says, “Could you just look here again? It won’t be long.” And obediently, silently, he does.

    She’s become quite engaged in this portrait of John Parker. There’s a challenge here that interests her, in large part because she’s become convinced that there’s something wrong with the man, something desperately wrong. He’s lost, and growing more lost by the moment. That’s what the eyes of her painting will show, she hopes, a man in the process of becoming lost. 

    Possibly, she thinks, this is just another portrait George would characterize as disengaged. The direct gaze there, but the response it will elicit, not: It really looks like he’s staring at me. But: Where has he gone?

    Alzheimer’s, maybe. Some other form of dementia, perhaps. The wife has said nothing, though Clara suspects she knows. Or perhaps she herself suspects and doesn’t want to know. It explains the protectiveness, and also this late in the day desire to capture him in oils.

    He himself has spoken very little, silence remaining his dominant mode, and what he has said has had a fragmentary, illogical quality to it. The early comment about his wife, a couple of sentences about a case on which he worked when he practiced law God knows when.

    Behind her easel, Clara is distinctly clinical in her response to him, her sympathies taking a distant second to her interest in capturing the image of someone so caught up in a process. To convey that sense of transition and not merely try to characterize the man seems to her to be an infinitely compelling task. She has had other subjects whose bodies and faces seemed defined by sadness, but this is something else. This has become, for her, a portrait of time itself. The past, represented in the identity he is losing. The present, there in the glimpses still of someone trying to remain. And the future, well, the future is all too evident in the man.

    The desire to talk with George about this particular portrait has grown strong, strong enough to be painful. In these last two weeks, it has become the focus of her missing him. His absence is woven throughout her life. It is there, of course, in her bed, where they made love, and talked for hours on end. In her living room, as well. On certain streets where they would walk together. In the restaurants they frequented, to which she doubts she will return. But the pain of losing him, finally, this time, not in some way that can itself be fixed by time, has coalesced around her longing to talk to him about this.

    John Parker’s gaze shifts again, but Clara says nothing. She has had enough of it herself for today, enough of that unmoored stare of his.   

When it began again, it was as though no time had passed. And yet, in some ways, those twenty plus years had changed everything. He would leave Janet now, he said. He didn’t like the thought of hurting her, but he would do it. He would marry Clara. Maybe too little, too late, he said. He would, though. He was serious.

    But Clara said no. She listened, noted his sheepish demeanor as he spoke; a marriage proposal, after all these years, the articulation of her own fantasies from the past. And then she said no. She had no interest in getting married. She preferred to live alone. She had come to value her independence. She now needed more solitude than a marriage would allow. The whole discussion took less than ten minutes. How funny it was. The very thing that had broken her heart, now no longer wanted. A trick of time.

    It was time too that made them able to justify all of it, to themselves. Time and death. Life so short, eternity so long. That and the decision that what Janet didn’t know, et cetera, et cetera. He had looked at Millie’s coffin, that April day. He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t face eternity without having this. Without having her.

    He was late getting there. But he wasn’t too late. They could have something still.

Harold has chosen a restaurant Clara doesn’t know, somewhere dark and clubby, up near Market Street. He’s a regular it seems. The waiters call him Mr. Feinberg and suggest foods they claim to be certain he would like if he would only try something new.

    She watches his banter with them, and she tries to imagine herself as his wife. It would be forty years. Forty years this very month. She tries to imagine that they are married and they have gone out to dinner in this place where he is a regular. This is the life they had planned, after all. They took vows, swearing to live this life. So, they’ll meet for this dinner and talk about their day apart. And then they’ll leave and head together to their home, where they’ll switch on the lights, read their mail, share a nightcap, perhaps, brush their teeth. Then they’ll undress. They’ll climb into bed. Their bed. Maybe they will make love, and if so, they will see each other forgivingly, as she and George had. Eyebrows and all.

    Harold orders steak and the waiter smiles, teasing that someday they’ll get him to change his predictable ways. Someday. She orders lamb. They’ll both have Caesar salads, an afterthought. Each of them already has a hefty scotch on the rocks, not an afterthought at all.

    “Health,” Harold says, lifting his glass.

    “Health,” she responds, and they clink. It sounds a little bleak, she thinks. The bar has surely been lowered, if health is now the most for which one can ask.

    “This last one was the worst,” he says, and she has no idea what he means. She raises her own brows in a question. “George,” he says, then takes another sip. “Jesus, I’m seventy-four years old. I should be used to people dying. But I’ll miss him, that’s all. And it was so fucking sudden. Now you see ’em, now you don’t. Hell of a game we’re in.”

    Clara looks down at her drink, and at her hand wrapped around it. There’s a speck of light blue paint on the knuckle of her index finger, a trace of John Parker’s tie. The ice cubes, hollow cylinders, are melting quickly, the whiskey near them at the top lighter in color than that below.  “I had no idea that you and George were in touch,” she says, as she shakes the glass gently, so the amber of the liquid evens out.

    “George and I? Oh, yes. For some years now. We were close, I’d say. I suppose that after enough time, all that ancient business, well . . .”

    She had kept the Coopermans in the divorce, but apparently something else happened after that.  “And Janet?” she asks, looking up. “Are you and she also close?”

    He shakes his head. “No. No, indeed. Janet would never have a thing to do with me. I attained permanent pariah status, there. Loyalty to you, I suppose. I was never welcomed back. Didn’t even go to the funeral. Didn’t think she’d want me there. You?”

    “No,” she says. “I didn’t go. She and I haven’t spoken in years.”

    The waiter has appeared with their salads. It takes some time for him to leave, as Harold decides on a glass of wine, and Clara declines one.

    It’s ridiculous for her to feel anger at George, she knows, to feel betrayed. But she does. How could he have rekindled a friendship with Harold, after what Harold had done to her?  She wants to ask him—to ask George. How could he have said nothing to her? She wants to dial him up and have him explain this, have a fight about it, if it comes to that. 

    “They make a good Caesar here,” Harold says. Lifting her fork, Clara forces herself to take a bite. “The thing about George,” he says, “the thing I’ll really miss, is that clarity of his. You remember? That way he had of just seeing a thing for what it was.” He’s chewing as he speaks, wipes a bit of dressing off his lip with the back of his hand. “Maybe I’m just a grouchy old man, but it seems to me there’s even more bullshit around than there used to be. But not with George. Clear thinker. Straight shooter. It always surprised me, because in general I think of psychoanalysts as slippery characters. But not George.”

    It is unbearable.

    “Harold,” she says, putting down her fork. “There are things you don’t know.” He is looking directly at her. “Things about George.” she says. “He and I were . . .”

    We were lovers. Twenty-six years ago, after I threw you out. And then, again, for the past five years. He was, he is, the love of my life. He was, he is, the only possible reason a woman of my cynical nature would ever think to use a phrase like that.

     “He was a good man, Clara. Wasn’t he?” Harold lifts his wine glass. “To George Cooperman.”

    “We were lovers.”

    And so. It is done. She sees that Harold’s face has stilled. He is as still as a portrait, as though she has painted him with this news. Seconds pass.    

    “When?” he finally asks.

    When? It is always about time, she thinks. Why does it matter, when?

    Because it does. “After you and I separated.”

    “You and George?” he asks. “Right after? Back then?”

    “Back then. Briefly. And then again. For the past five years.”

    His face is mobile now, but in small, twitchy ways, the mouth twisting and shifting, the eyes looking down, then off to somewhere else, closed for a moment, open wide, looking at her, not looking at her. He is struggling to absorb what she has said.

    It’s revenge in part. She knows that. He revealed his renewed friendship with George, and she has rendered that disclosure piddling. But she has also given him a gift. He’s off the hook now. She is no better than he. George too. Look at what they both did to Janet. Just another pair of sinners. Harold can stop feeling inferior. After how many years? She has finally given him that.

    “I don’t know what to say, Clara. I should ask questions. Or I shouldn’t. I don’t know what to say. You and George?”

    “Yes, me and . . yes. But please, no questions.” What other memories of her own might be revealed as illusions?  Might be taken from her as casually as Harold has just taken from her a part of George she thought she held? As effortlessly as she has just rewritten decades of Harold’s own life for him? At this table, with this man—her husband once, father of her children, her future at one time—she feels her own history sliding away from her.

    “Clara, I don’t know what to say.”

    “We don’t have to talk right now, you know,” she says. “We can just eat our food. It’s entirely possible that we’ve both already said enough.”

    He looks at her for a moment, as though he might be ready for a fight, but then he nods.

A month in, and she’s on to the real canvas now. An art student has primed it for her, and Clara’s done a little preliminary work on her own, using only the sketch, but now John Parker is sitting there, staring at her. She’s told him he doesn’t have to, she’s only blocking things out, just broad strokes. But still he stares, and for the first time in all these weeks, she finds herself unnerved. The other times, she had insisted he look at her, but now, he seems to be looking for himself. She doesn’t like being looked at. Clara is her eyes, she is what she observes. Before, his eyes had seemed sightless; now she feels exposed.

    She avoids his gaze, stepping all the way behind her canvas. She works a bit on the area below his jaw. George used to say she had a therapist’s instinct for invisibility. “I am often whoever my patients needs me to be,” he’d said. “Which is rarely me.”

    “I’m not even that,” she’d replied. “I’m not even in the room.”

    She is absorbed in the canvas now, actual brushstrokes, the movement of paint, when she’s startled by a sound, and looks over. John Parker is sobbing. His head is down, his body heaving. He is consumed by sobs.

    “What?” she asks. “What?”

    He doesn’t respond. There’s no sign that he has heard.

    She puts the brush down and walks toward him, only a few feet, only a few seconds. He’s still turned toward the easel, his elbows on the one arm of the chair, his head lowered into his hands, so all she can see is the yellowed skin of his scalp, the brown spots, the veins, the few strands of remaining hair. She kneels beside him, not knowing what she should do, or what she can bring herself to do, and kneeling there, is filled with something new, something like guilt. She reaches out and wraps her arms around his body. Shhhhhh. She says it many times, each time she exhales. Shhhh, with every breath.  

    His head is heavy on her shoulder. He bleats against the cotton of her shirt. He trembles against her flesh. As she holds him, it comes to her, gradually. She knows why he is crying, and she knows why she feels guilty.

    John Parker knows. He sees himself leaving, understands about time—as she does. What it is doing to him. And he is grieving, for himself.

    While she, for all these weeks, has found it interesting, only interesting, to observe him as he disappears, relishing this opportunity, for herself, treating him as a convenient vehicle for her own philosophical inquiries. She moves her hand up and down on his back, feeling the knobs of his spine poking through the shirt, through the wool jacket. She presses her palms firmly onto his body, But she isn’t calming him at all. It isn’t her touch he needs, it seems.

    What does he need?

    “Shhhhh,” she says.

    He had been calm, she remembers, while staring at her. Before she stepped away, hiding from him, leaving him alone. Perhaps it is now unbearable for him to be alone. 

    She moves her hands to his face, tries to lift his head.

    “Look at me,” she says. “Look at me.” It takes her a moment to remember his name. “Look at me, John. John. Look at me.”

    He does, only inches from her eyes. He looks at her, and she is startled by the gaze that she has learned so well, startled to find a living man there, a feeling man. “I know,” she says. “I know.”

    He stares at her, still, and it is hard not to read his sorrow as a wisdom of a kind, in this era of loss when knowledge and pain seem intrinsically linked. She thinks that maybe here is someone to whom she can speak all those thoughts, explain what she has been trying to do, what has upset her so, about her work, since George’s death. What stillness means. What time itself means, how it rules us, how it flows away, away.  How unkind, how dispassionate it can be. How, in the end, for all that we’re given, we are all robbed blind. Of everything. John Parker understands, she’s sure. He won’t think her sophomoric or pretentious. He’ll recognize her struggles. He’ll know that she, like he, is at war.

    But his gaze belies her thoughts. He is too dulled already, too absent to hear her out. John Parker is as unreachable as George. But he is still alive, still needs the comfort he cannot give. His face is drenched with tears and snot, his lips quivering still. She pulls the cuff of her sleeve over her hand and rolls it into her fist as she used to when the children were small. She wipes him clean, careful not to drop her gaze from his for long. “I know,” she says again. “I know.”

    Time, she thinks. Both foe and friend. It will destroy John Parker, but it will also soon relieve him of the knowledge that he is destroyed.

    It isn’t long before she stands, reaches for his hand, gentles him up and walks him out into the small sitting area, where they sit, still holding hands, silent, on the couch where he and his wife sat weeks before.

    An hour or so later when Katherine Parker walks, in carrying a few small shopping bags, Clara only says “Your husband isn’t well,” and after a moment, the other woman nods.

    “I know,” she says, and she too sits. “I shouldn’t have done this.”  She touches her forehead with one hand, her pale polished nails brushing against the fringe of short, white hair. “I’ve upset him. It was too much. I should have known.”

    “It can be difficult to know what’s right.”

    “I wanted. . .” Her voice is now quivering, threatening to break.

    “You wanted to immortalize him,” Clara says. “You told me that.”

    The other woman looks over, blinks and nods. “That’s right,” she says. “As a present, for myself.” 

    It can’t be done, you know. Not with any of us. It’s a false hope. A parlor trick. You’ll think you’ve done it, you’ll think you can hold on, but it’s always just a trick. She doesn’t say it though.  “You’ve had him for fifty-one years,” she says, thinking of George, of course, of the twenty-one years they didn’t have, of the miracle of the five they found, of all the pictures of him she never drew, of her attempt to hold him entirely within herself, to preserve him that way, of how Harold proved that impossible, of the legacy of mystery every person leaves behind.

    “I was seventeen when we met,” Katherine Parker says.

    “It’s your whole life, then.” 

    It isn’t right, she knows, to tell her how lucky she has been, not at this moment, as her husband quivers beside Clara on the couch. It would be unsympathetic to call her blessed, to rush her through grief and insist on the silver lining. Clara won’t do it. But she does envy her. Despite it all, she envies her. It doesn’t matter about the many reasons, good, bad and indifferent, why one might stayed married for half a century. Right now, she can only see all the years.

    “I should take him home.” Katherine Parker is sitting straighter now. Clara notices again that veil etched into her skin over her eyelids, her lips. Beside her, John Parker sighs out an almost musical tone.

    “If you like,” she says. “I could try finishing it. Without him, I mean. I have enough sketches—I think. I could do it. Not the same way, but something.”

    Katherine Parker frowns. “But it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?” she asks. “It’s too late. Isn’t it?”

    Clara thinks about the stark clarity with which she has been depicting John Parker’s decline. Is it too late? Yes. It is. Of course it is. But arguably, it is always too late.

    “No,” she says. “It’s not too late.”

    “Oh, it’s terrible. I feel like such a fool”

    “Time makes fools of us all,” Clara says. “Every single one of us. It’s possible we need to ignore that fact. And get on with our lives.”

    It is another moment before Katherine Parker nods. “Yes,” she says. “I would like it, still. I would.”

    “It will take a week, maybe two. I’m not sure how long. ”

    It won’t be the same picture, of course, not the one that so interested her. She’ll have to give up on the notion of depicting time itself—as a kindness. She’ll have to pick a point along the continuum of John Parker’s life and stop the clock there, search the evidence of her own observations and try to recreate him, as he was—as though that man were more real than the man he is now, as though there’s a moment in anyone’s life that is the truest one. As a kindness, she will pretend to this belief.  A death mask? Perhaps. But also a token thrown to weigh in on the side of love.

    Katherine rises, takes a few unhurried steps, then reaches for her husband’s hand, and Clara, who has forgotten that her fingers and his are still interlaced, misses a moment before she thinks to let it go. She watches their hands clasp together, loose skin, knobby knuckles. She sees him respond to the familiar, gentle tug, rising easily, as though sensing safety in the air around his wife.  The couch cushion exhales, the dent from his weight disappears.

    “Let’s go home, John. Let’s take you home.”

    They begin to walk away. She will never see John Parker again, she knows.

    When Katherine glances back, Clara gives her an encouraging look, a look that promises her the portrait that she wants. Clara will do it. She will turn back the hands of time.

    Katherine Parker smiles at her, seems almost to laugh, then turns away. The couple moves as one through the glass-paned door, their images visible only briefly, a bit distorted. Gone.

Robin Black’s story appears in her first collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, forthcoming from Random House in 2010.  Her fiction and essays have previously appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, One Story, Colorado Review and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007).

Back to Freight Stories No. 6


Robin Black

Immortalizing John Parker