Not that he hadn't cared about her, he told himself. He had cared. Deeply. But it was, after all, the end of summer and youthful indiscretions and all that. Viewing it in this way confirmed for Harold that the decision had been the correct one. Of course, he was not "youthful"--that was her -- but he liked the word ‘indiscretion' and turned it about in his mouth like a pleasurable delicacy. If he leaned close to the train window, he could see his reflection and he watched how his lips moved when he mouthed the word, over and over, like an incantation. It was a measure of pride that he was still of the generation that would say ‘indiscretion,' quietly, rather than apply a more crass or flip name for what he considered a serious matter. Not a Fling, not a Roll in the Hay, and certainly not, A Good F___k. Of course, Tryst and Rendezvous were lovely words but failed to encompass the size of it. Affair? Yes, that would do.
Harold mused over these things as the train powered him further from the city, and her. He permitted himself to muse on his week-end train trips in summer to his estate at the shore. He never found a satisfactory description of the freedom he experienced on this train ride—unmoored, adrift, beyond the buoys. Behind lay the clotted web that ensnared his mind in survival—at his oversized desk, in the marauding traffic, at home with servants. Ahead lay the pretense of frivolity and social connection, of marriage. His wife Violet--who long ago learned her part so precisely that she needn't even be present for it--would say, "Hello dear. How was that awful train? I'll fix us martinis." She was still lovely in her way. Still a flash of his bride's sparkle when reverie and dusky light and alcohol coincided for him. He wondered, for a moment, if a specific incident informed her that she no longer loved him, or had the awareness grown gradually like the rust on the boathouse pumps, or had love diminished daily as invisibly but surely as the shoreline beaten back by waves.
Week-end guests would be at the house, aging cousins and city friends and perhaps his sister Denise with some young woman or other. Two decades ago, Denise had belatedly exited the closet and announced her sexual preference over the gin and tonics at the July 4th gathering. Harold had willed himself to speak up for her but instead had sat mute, a stolid stone jetty indifferent to the approaching storm. Their father ranted, their mother cried, and as fireworks boomed over the inlet, Denise smashed some 30 bottles of aged fine wine that had been nestled like precious children in racks in the cellar. A fatal stroke followed the next week for their father. Perhaps coincidence. Perhaps not. The Hawthornes were not without a talent for overstatement when the occasion called for it. Denise's suicide attempt the following month had failed, their mother resumed her charity causes, and the stars remained fixed in the heavens.
Harold switched on the overhead light and pulled the cell phone from his briefcase--no messages--and then the coin purse, a small beaded circle of gold and black set off by a large azure ‘K'in the center. He stared at it. And Mr. Harold Hawthorne, to his dismay, began to experience an unpleasant sensation. His inner sanctum invaded by unfamiliar feelings, he scrutinized the coin purse for a reassuring message. There must be meaning to her leaving it behind on the table. Freud. No accidents. He fingered the beads, intimately, finally tracing the initial ‘K' with his index finger over and over, as a ritual of grieving or perhaps even a talisman against the loss, and he sought like a fearful child to escape through magic: The 15th time I circle this ‘K,' she will call me. On the 25th circle of this ‘K,' she will call me. She'll make me change my mind. She could do that.
He pictured Katherine at this moment sprawled across her queen-sized bed sobbing, or curled and broken as a fragile fawn hit by a truck, unable to move—to live or to die. But then he pictured her hurling those puffy silk pillows and pacing her loft like a lioness, caged, until finally she would roar and escape into the boom and bedlam of the city below. Gone, the echo of his distressing words. Gone, the allegiance to silent waiting. The fact that he could not draw a final conclusion on the matter of What is Katherine Doing In This Moment told him how much the relationship had been about him, not her. He heard Violet's voice now, "Can you ever see or hear anyone else inside that cave of yours?" His grown children had said as much.
He ached with the self-absorption of his life, lately discovered. He ached with guilt, the gift from his parents that kept on giving. Above all, Harold ached for the undone man he had become. He was a cliché—the balding businessman of The New Yorker cartoons. And now, an ‘indiscretion' with a bohemian woman twenty years his junior. Sad salve for paunch and banality. But still, her voice, her laughter, her view of him as something beyond trappings. At least that's how she had felt. But now, with his awkward speech to her--and it had been that--about responsibilities, and difference between them, and Catholic and divorce, and career and grandchildren, and her life still before her, and so on and so on. A damn cliché.
Harold sat upright. He must call her. Now! No. It was done, needed to be done. But had she missed the coin purse yet? She'd fled the restaurant so quickly. ("Always break up in public places," he'd heard). Why was it out of her shoulder bag? He checked inside again---just a few quarters and a subway token. Perhaps it mattered to her, as a souvenir from a trip or a gift from a friend. He lifted it to his nose—no scent of Shalimar. And if beads had a scent, what would it be? And would the color of the beads determine the aroma? Harold's mind was askew seeking distraction. Harold's mind was a wild creature pawing at anything for nourishment in a deep forest.
And so it went and the miles went and distance grew. Once again, he fumbled and found the cell phone in his brief case and checked it. Yes, still on.
He disliked the cell phone. First of all, it was smarter than he but he felt this not to be so much evil as mocking. And it was yet a further intrusion into one's privacy of thought and a disruption of the simple rhythm of moving from one location to another without the insistent demands of an outside voice. Could one be lost in one's thoughts, undisturbed, ever again? Still, the phone had been her idea, to protect their connection, and it was a good one.
Actually, many things annoyed Harold; the list had been growing daily. He recalled last spring driving himself somewhere for a change, and he stopped for gas. How horrifying to discover Muzak at the Exxon station, to be subjected to I Write The Songs while he pumped gas. The memory of it made him winch. Ah, a further end to civilization.
That was her phrase, "Well, there's the end of civilization as we know it!" It was always sarcastic but never unkind, and always accompanied by a wry smile at the absurdity of attaching such a grand phrase to the tiny surprises of the outside world—a dog in a cat suit in the park, the maitre'd who refused a bribe for a better table, pastries shaped like genitalia.
She made him laugh. From the first time he had met her at an art gallery on a Thursday night last June, she'd made him laugh, and it had been an odd sound to his ears. Now Harold closed his eyes and found comfort in recalling the first time he heard her voice, behind him as he studied a painting. The voice had not been sultry but definitely was alto. "Well, that's interesting." He'd turned to find a petite brunette dressed in khakis and a black t-shirt reading, "Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost."
He stared blankly but she offered her hand and said she was Katherine, and though he only muttered that he was Harold, she shouldered on with conversation: "I think it's a tiger in there somewhere, all that black and orange fused. A tiger of a different stripe! Hey, know why tigers don't eat clowns? They taste funny." So silly. So guileless she was. And there, in the presence of her green eyes and lop-sided smile, he acted out of character, as he would later think of it. Abruptly, he had volunteered an intimacy, "I used to paint, a long time ago, but I gave it up." She studied his face kindly, "For Lent?" She smiled, he smiled. And she shared that it was her painting he was studying.
The train screeched and slowed. Harold could see nothing out his window but some pin-point lights. He put the phone away, deciding to bury it deep under the piles of paper. Before he closed the briefcase, his eyes fell on the city subway map. How long it had taken him to learn to read that damn thing because he was "Taxi Man," as she called him. She told him that she suspected he thought the subway was ‘beneath him,' and she added with a laugh, "You're right!" And finally, the annoying powerlessness he felt in the traffic snarls getting from his Penthouse to her place, not to mention the lost time, had convinced him. They had plenty of time, though, because it was summer and Violet had moved herself and the maid and cook and several trunks of clothes to the shore. She existed only on week-ends now.
He'd phoned from work one Monday to tell Katherine, "I'm going underground today. I thought about doing that in the ‘60's!" With her, he had learned to make little jokes, tentative as whispers but presented with the courage of an inelegant child blessed with undemanding parents.
The map unfolded easily, creased in familiar places, and he drew comfort from moving his finger along the route he took to be with her. Two subway changes. He'd felt proud, felt deserving of the hero's welcome he received from her, felt a self-satisfied happiness with each step of the three blocks to her place. Often as he reached the corner of the last block, he could see her framed high in her window, watching for him. Perhaps as Voltaire's lover had watched from her salon window in Paris. Of a summer, when the windows were open, could she close her eyes and know the sound of his steps on the sidewalk along the Seine, distinct from all others? Did Katherine know his steps?
He re-folded the map and stuck it in the train seat pocket. He snapped the briefcase closed, with what he hoped was finality, and drew a deep, deep breath.
"Mr. Hawthorne, more coffee before I shut it down?"
"No, Sam. I'm fine. Fine. Just fine."
"You staying out to the shore past Labor Day?"
"I'll be staying until Wednesday. We're closing it now for the season. Won't be back these ways for awhile," and he offered Sam a sideways grin as if they now shared a secret, the bare bones of it unexposed to people poking about in his words for crucial clues to his life. Why should anyone on this train car, or in the universe, know he was not shutting down the summer home at all? That he wouldn't ever be coming ‘these ways' again.
Harold's self-involvement had at least provided him with certain insights he trusted: He was a private man, a man who was weary of the struggle for heroic fortitude, a man who could not abide a sappy story, even if he created it. So there was no angst; it was logical. And everyone would be gone on Tuesday but him—packed up and gone back to the city! The badgering, vacuous, clogged city.
He traced the ‘K' again. Wondered if he should mail the little coin purse to her–it would fit in a regular envelope. Or mail it with a letter or a check; throw it away; have it delivered with flowers; send a short note saying she had left it at restaurant but he'd lost it, so he could keep it (Great! A lie, and a selfish one at that). Or ask if she wanted it back? Or he could give it to his granddaughter Katie. All courses seemed too painful, some for him, some for her.
The coin purse rested in his palm more comfortably than the cell phone. It fit. He closed the other hand over it carefully, as if it were a captured butterfly, one so beautiful that a pain rose in the throat at sight of its soaring, and brutal hands trapping its innocent soul must surely be a sin. The tiny flutter against skin an incarnation of life's breath. Its wings knowing only this even in a dark and selfish grasp: Fly!
As a child he had killed a butterfly. A summer of childhood when garden parties at his parents' estate were as predictable as relatives at the liquor cabinet. A small boy could wander about freely, could cavort and chase butterflies. It had not been hard to catch, its wings pulsating atop the lavender. He had wanted only to touch it, but then he grabbed hold of the beauty, to possess it and keep it with him to press against his heart in the dark night and feel a beating promise of protection. Its fluttering tickled his palms and he laughed and closed his palms together more tightly to deepen the pleasure. Then, the flutters had stopped. As he grew older, Harold found a lesson in his sad memory: If you hold it too close for too long, it will die. Struggle is sometimes futile, not heroic. Placing a dead butterfly between the pages of a favored book, even lovingly, is futile for it cannot be pressed to return to life. It cannot but crumble, by your own hand.
Five minutes out from arrival, he breathed deeply again and rose to retrieve his new raincoat from the overhead. The lightness of it, the jaunty cut, pleased him still, though he first noted it was not suitable to his style. Katherine had said, "It's you!" And he had relented.
As the trained squealed and hrumped to a stop, he wrapped the coin purse in his handkerchief and slid it into the coat pocket. He did so with studied gentleness, as if it were a treasured robin's egg, so fragile it might crack under thoughtless pressure; or a Promise hard and sure, but precious as a diamond.
In that moment, Harold decided that he wanted to be buried with this coin purse. He would place it in the pocket of his pre-purchased burial suit with a note inside: Do not remove. And he'd sign his name. Perhaps this coin purse would become Citizen Kane's ‘Rosebud' for the family: ‘I never even saw it before!' The pre-arrangements for the funeral had been Violet's idea and she herself had chosen a mauve Dior for her final display. So much fuss and so much to do when ‘it happens,' she'd said. Why not just take care of these details ahead of time?
Harold smiled and shook Sam's hand.
"Good-bye now, Sam. You take care of yourself."
"Goodnight, Mr. Hawthorne. You have a nice holiday!"