The Longest Ride. Занятие 38

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There is a bone-chilling cold in the car, the aftereffect of the window I opened earlier. Frost glitters on the dashboard now, and every time I breathe, a cloud forms beyond my lips. Though I’m no longer thirsty, my throat and stomach remain chilled from the snow. The cold is inside and outside, everywhere, and I can’t stop shivering.


Beside me, Ruth stares out the window and I realize that I can see starlight beyond the pane. It is not yet light, but the moonlight makes the snow on the trees glow silver, and I can tell that the worst of the weather has passed. Tonight, the snow on the car will crust as it continues to freeze, but sometime tomorrow or the next day, the temperature will rise and the world will shake off the white embrace of winter as the snow begins to melt.


This is both good and bad. My car may become visible from the road, which is good, but I need the snow to live, and within a day or two, it might be gone completely.


“You are doing fine for now,” Ruth tells me. “Do not worry about tomorrow until you have to.”


“Easy for you to say,” I reply, sulking. “I’m the one in trouble here.”


“Yes,” she says matter-of-factly. “But it is your fault. You should not have been driving.”


“We’re back to this again?”


She turns to me with a wry grin. She is in her forties now and wears her hair short. Her dress is cut in simple lines, in the bright red hues she preferred, with oversize buttons and elegant pockets. Like every other woman in the 1960s, Ruth was a fan of Jacqueline Kennedy.


“You brought it up.”


“I was looking for sympathy.”


“You are complaining. You do this more now that you are older. Like with the neighbor who cut down the tree. And the girl at the gas station who thought you were invisible.”


“I wasn’t complaining. I was observing. There’s a difference.”


“You should not complain. It is not attractive.”


“I’m many years removed from being attractive.”


“No,” she counters. “In this you are wrong. Your heart is still beautiful. Your eyes are still kind, and you are a good and honest man. This is enough to keep you beautiful forever.”


“Are you flirting with me?”


She raises an eyebrow. “I do not know. Am I?”


She is, I think. And for the first time since the accident, if only for a moment, I actually feel warm.


It’s strange, I think, the way our lives turn out. Moments of circumstance, when later combined with conscious decisions and actions and a boatload of hope, can eventually forge a future that seems predestined. Such a moment occurred when I first met Ruth. I wasn’t lying when I told Ruth that I knew in that instant we would one day be married.


Yet experience has taught me that fate is sometimes cruel and that even a boatload of hope is sometimes not enough. For Ruth, this became clear when Daniel entered our lives. By then, she was over forty and I was even older. It was another reason she couldn’t stop crying after Daniel left. Back then, social expectations were different, and both of us knew that we were too old to adopt a child. When Daniel disappeared from our lives, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that fate had conspired against her for the last and final time.


Though she knew about the mumps and had married me anyway, I knew that Ruth had always clung to a secret hope that the doctor had somehow been mistaken. There was no definite proof, after all, and I admit that I nurtured a slim hope as well. But because I was so deeply in love with my wife, it was seldom at the forefront of my thoughts. We made love frequently in our first years of marriage, and though Ruth was reminded every month of the sacrifice she had made by marrying me, she wasn’t initially bothered by it. I think she believed that will alone, that her profound desire for a child, would somehow make it happen. Her unspoken belief was that our time would come, and this, I think, was the reason we never discussed adoption.


It was a mistake. I know that now, but I didn’t know it then. The 1950s came and went and our house slowly filled with art. Ruth taught school and I ran the store, and even though she was growing older, part of her still held out hope. And then, like the long-awaited answer to a prayer, Daniel arrived. He became first her student and then the son she had always longed for. But when the illusion suddenly ended, only I remained. And it wasn’t quite enough.


The next few years were hard for us. She blamed me, and I blamed myself as well. The blue skies of our marriage turned gray and stormy, then bleak and cold. Conversations became stilted, and we began to argue for the first time. Sometimes it seemed to be a struggle for her to sit in the same room with me. She spent many weekends at her parents’ house in Durham—her father’s health was declining—and there were times when we didn’t speak for days. At night, the space between us in the bed felt like the Pacific, an ocean impossible for either of us to swim across. She did not want to and I was too afraid to try, and we continued to drift further apart. There was even a period when she wondered whether she wanted to remain married to me, and in the evenings, after she’d gone to bed, I would sit in the living room, wishing that I were someone else, the kind of man who’d been able to give her what she wanted.


But I couldn’t. I was broken. The war had taken from me the only thing she’d ever wanted. I was sad for her and angry with myself, and I hated what was happening to us. I would have traded my life to make her happy again, but I didn’t know how; and as crickets sounded on warm autumn nights, I’d bring my hands to my face and I would cry and cry and cry.


“I would never have left you,” Ruth assures me. “I am sorry I made you think such things.” Her words are leaden with regret.


“But you thought about it.”


“Yes,” she said, “but not in the way you think. It was not a serious idea. All married women think such things at times. Men too.”


“I never did.”


“I know,” she says. “But you are different.” She smiles, her hand reaching out for mine. She takes it, caressing the knots and bones. “I saw you once,” she says to me. “In the living room.”


“I know,” I say.


“Do you remember what happened next?”


“You came over and held me.”


“It was the first time I had seen you cry since that night in the park, after the war,” she says. “It scared me very much. I did not know what was wrong.”


“It was us,” I say. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to make you happy anymore.”


“There was nothing you could do,” she says.


“You were so… angry with me.”


“I was sad,” she says. “There is a difference.”


“Does it matter? Either way, you weren’t happy with me.”


She squeezes my hand, her skin soft against my own. “You are a smart man, Ira, but sometimes, I think you do not understand women very well.”


In this, I know she is right.


“I was devastated when Daniel went away. I would have loved for him to become part of our lives. And yes, I was sad that we never had children. But I was also sad because I was in my forties, even though that might not make sense to you. I did not mind my thirties. That was when I felt for the first time in my life that I was actually an adult. But for women, older than forty is not always so easy. On my birthday, I couldn’t help but think that I had already lived half my life, and when I looked in the mirror, a young woman no longer stared back at me. It was vain, I know, but it bothered me. And my parents were getting older, too. That was why I went to visit them so often. By then, my father had retired, but he was not well, as you know. It was difficult for my mother to take care of him. In other words, there was no simple way to make things better for me back then. Even if Daniel had stayed with us, those still would have been hard years.”


I wonder about this. She has said as much to me before, but I sometimes question whether she is being completely truthful.


“It meant a lot to me when you held me that night.”


“What else could I do?”


“You could have turned and walked back to the bedroom.” “I could not do such a thing. It hurt me to see you like that.”


“You kissed my tears away,” I said.


“Yes,” she says.


“And later, we held each other as we lay in bed. It was the first time in a long time.”


“Yes,” she says again.


“And things started to get better again.”


“It was time,” she said. “I was tired of being sad.”


“And you knew how much I still loved you.”


“Yes,” she says. “I always knew that.”


In 1964, on our trip to New York, Ruth and I experienced a second honeymoon of sorts. It wasn’t planned, nor did we do anything extraordinary; it was more akin to a daily celebration that we had somehow put the worst of the past behind us. We held hands as we toured the galleries and began to laugh again. Her smile, I still believe, had never been more contagious in its joy than it was that summer. It was also the summer of Andy Warhol.


His art, so commercial and yet unique, didn’t appeal to me. I found little interest in paintings of soup cans. Nor did Ruth, but she was taken with Andy Warhol at their initial meeting. I think this was the only instance in which she bought something simply due to the force of the artist’s personality. She knew intuitively that he would somehow be an artist who would define the 1960s, and we purchased four original prints. By then, his work had already become expensive—it’s all relative, of course, especially when considering their value now—and afterward, we had no money left. After only a week up north, we returned to North Carolina and went to the Outer Banks, where we rented a cottage at the beach. Ruth wore a bikini that summer for the very first time, though she refused to wear it anywhere except on the back veranda, with towels draped over the railing to block others’ sight lines. After our trip to the beach, we journeyed to Asheville, as always. I read her the letter I’d written as we stood by the lake, and the years continued to roll along. Lyndon Johnson was elected president and the civil rights law was passed. The war in Vietnam picked up steam, while at home we heard much about the War on Poverty. The Beatles were all the rage, and women entered the workforce in droves. Ruth and I were aware of all of it, but it was life inside our home that mattered most to us. We led our lives as we always had, both of us working and collecting art in the summers, having breakfast in the kitchen, and sharing stories over dinner. We bought paintings by Victor Vasarely and Arnold Schmidt, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly. We appreciated the work of Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz and bought paintings by them as well. And I will never forget Ruth’s expression as she picked out every one.


It was around that time that we began to make use of our camera. Until that point, strangely, it had never been a priority for us, and in the long span of our lives, we filled only four albums. But it is enough for me to turn the pages and watch as Ruth and I slowly grow older. There is a photo Ruth took of me on my fiftieth birthday in 1970, and another of her in 1972, when she celebrated the same milestone. In 1973, we rented the first of the storage units to house part of our collection, and in 1975, Ruth and I boarded the QE2 and sailed to England. Even then, I couldn’t imagine flying. We spent three days in London and another two days in Paris before boarding a train to Vienna, where we spent the next two weeks. For Ruth, it was both nostalgic and painful to return to the city she had once called home; though I could usually discern what she was feeling, I spent much of that time wondering what to say.


In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president over Gerald Ford, who’d replaced Richard Nixon. The economy was in the dumps and there were long lines at the gas stations. Yet Ruth and I hardly heeded these developments as we fell in love with a new movement in art called Lyrical Abstractionism, which had its roots in both Pollock and Rothko. In that year—it was the year Ruth finally stopped coloring her hair—we celebrated our thirtieth anniversary. Though it cost a small fortune and I had to take out a loan to do so, I presented her with the only paintings I ever bought on my own: two small Picassos, one from the Blue Period and another from the Rose. That night, she hung them in the bedroom, and after making love, we lay in the bed staring at them for hours.


In 1977, with business at the shop nearly at a standstill, I began to build birdhouses in my spare time from kits I purchased at the hobby shop. This phase did not last long, maybe three or four years, but my hands remained clumsy and I eventually gave it up, just as the Reagan era began. Though the news informed me that debt wasn’t a problem, I paid off the loan I’d used to buy the Picassos anyway. Ruth sprained her ankle and spent a month on crutches. In 1985, I sold the shop and started collecting Social Security; in 1987, after forty years in the classroom, Ruth did the same. The school and the district threw a party in her honor. During her career, she had been named “Teacher of the Year” three times. And in that time, my hair went from black to gray and then to white, thinning with every passing year. The lines on our faces grew deeper, and both of us realized that we could no longer see near or far without glasses. In 1990, I turned seventy, and in 1996, on our fiftieth anniversary, I presented Ruth with the longest letter I’d ever written. She read it aloud, and when she did, I realized I could barely hear her. Two weeks later, I would be fitted with a hearing aid. But I accepted this with equanimity.


It was time. I was growing old. Though Ruth and I never again experienced darkness in our marriage the way we had after Daniel disappeared, things were not always easy. Her father died in 1966, and two years later, her mother died from a stroke. In the 1970s, Ruth found a lump in her breast, and until it was biopsied and found negative, she thought she might have cancer. My parents passed away within a year of each other in the late 1980s, and Ruth and I stood over each of their graves, sobered by the realization that we were the last survivors in either of our families.

About the Author

Диана Семёнычева

Диана Семёнычева