Her husband had slept with their daughter. Even years later that fact preceded her like a breeze, an odor both unpleasant and compelling like the smoke from a marijuana cigarette. When she entered a room, there were whispers and nods and glances, which she simultaneously ignored and assessed. She had learned how to exploit, even enjoy the enduring scandal, the speculation, the gossip. It aggrandized her, elevated her, separated her from the pack. It had happened when she still lived in Europe. She was thirty-seven then, her daughter fifteen.
Now she was in her mid-fifties, though she claimed early forties and often passed for it. She wore things that led attention away from details that disclosed age—the hands, the throat—and directed it to areas that recalled the ache of youth. Tonight, at a party given by the widow of a famous writer, her backless dress scooped down to the lowest lumbar, offering then withdrawing glimpses of her buttocks, depending on her posture and one's angle. The guests, male and female, even the caterers, lingered half-steps behind her, their eyes darting downward.
Her name was Eliza, Eliza Birtwistle, née Craven. In England, in her late 20's, she had married Lord Birtwistle, and though Lord Birtwistle had slept with their daughter, and then died several years later off in his wing of the castle, and though there had been several husbands since, she still used the title that that marriage had conferred.
In the summer of 1986, on Long Island's East End, Lady Birtwistle was the most photographed woman over thirty.
He was finalizing an early draft of the famous writer's authorized biography, and were it not for Lady Birtwistle's backless dress, his work would have been easy: all the principals gathered in one large house. He was tall, lanky, soon to be divorced. An academic, he'd made a name for himself writing the bios of tough guys. He was Irish, Pat Gildea, working class from Queens, but his accent was Philadelphia, it was Harvard, it was closer to Lady Birtwistle's, actually, who'd grown up in a hill station in India in the twilight of the Raj, than it was to the accents of his childhood. Geographically, she had come far from her childhood, but he, by the sound of it, had come farther. Apart from a rigid propriety, he was the perfect choice for the famous writer's biography: both had run, then hidden, from their pasts.
He would be dead in seven years, at 64, and Lady Birtwistle would not be his last lover, but she would be his last love.
They were on a third story balcony extending off the dead writer's studio. The moon had risen over the potato fields. Steam clouds hung over the blue-lit pool that people in their twenties splashed in without any clothes. She had been telling him about her days as a model in Paris, about intersecting with Kenneth Bray, the famous writer, and with the Kenneth Bray set. She alluded to an affair they may or may not have had; everybody was having affairs, everyone suspected them. She became fast friends with Victoria, the famous writer's wife. They lunched together, gambled on the horses, attended soirees thrown for visiting Black Panthers. It was all very Left Bank, she told him.
She omitted, the biographer in Gildea noted, any reference to her husband, but Gildea was at best only half-listening. He stood at an angle behind her, peering down over the rim of his wineglass. The hipline of her dress, just where the buttocks rose, alternately discovered then concealed what appeared to be a diamond-shaped birthmark.
"You can pull it back a bit if you like," Lady Birtwistle told him. She straightened her posture, her spine forming a perfect valley between the smooth hard slopes of her back. "The last one to check said that there was nothing underneath."
He begged her pardon.
She took the fingers of his free hand and guided them to her coccyx just below the fabric of the dress. "I said pull it back."
His son, Douglas, was a problem. The boy would soon turn sixteen. He was curious, judgmental. He was fiercely loyal to his mother, who had recently introduced him to photography. He was in the process of developing a portfolio, as one was continuously reminded. His initial reticence around Lady Birtwistle changed to fascination. He filled rolls of film with her image: reading, applying make-up, waving away flies. What was it like, he wanted to know, to be a model during the sixties?
"You know what they say, darling," she told him.
Douglas shook his head.
"If one remembers the sixties, one wasn't there."
In preparation for his senior year he read Willa Cather and Scott Fitzgerald, but Lady Birtwistle insisted on giving him Henry Miller.
"I knew Miller, darling," she said.
"Miller," Gildea snorted. "Miller wasn't a writer." His nose curled as if at an unpleasant odor.
"Oh? And what was he, professor," Lady B said, sipping her wine, "in your vastly experienced and educated opinion?"
She appeared unflappable. Aside from the firm buttocks, it was the quality that had drawn him to her most. Now he experienced it more as an annoyance. They'd been sharing a beach house for three weeks. Douglas had come out at week two.
"At best," Gildea said, "a diarist."
Douglas said, "You keep a diary, don't you?"
Lady B arched her eyebrows.
"That's hardly the point," Gildea told his son.
"What is the point, professor?" Lady B asked him. "I think Douglas should know and then Douglas, dear, would you come to the beach and explain it to me. I'm going for a swim."
She swallowed off the rest of her wine, stood, and dropped her wrap to the floor. Her thighs were thick, but hard, like the rest of her body. Like her head, Gildea thought. Like her heart. A Botticelli, but hard as a statue.
"I hate the way she says 'professor,'" Gildea said. "As if it's some kind of curse."
Father and son watched her drop down into the dunes. Douglas gathered his camera and tripod and kit with lenses.
"Where are you going?" his father asked.
Douglas inspected the contents of his equipment bag. "Do we have any Henry Miller?" he asked.
"Certainly not," Gildea said, "but if you must read him we can find a copy, I'm sure."
Douglas said, "Where?"
Gildea pushed himself up from the patio chair. "In the gutter," he said.
Inside his study he was too distracted to work. He found his thoughts trailing to Lady B, to her diary habits. Did she keep one? and if so, what had she written about him? About them? The incest scandal that never appeared on her lips but whispered through everyone else's—how had she responded to that? That would be intriguing to discover.
Through a pair of field glasses that had come with the cottage Gildea checked on Lady B's whereabouts. He spotted her just out past the surf zone executing mechanically precise backstrokes. Douglas bent like a surveyor at the viewfinder of his camera, the legs of the tripod sunk into soft sand a foot or so into the tideline—not a safe place for a camera. Gildea resisted going down to the shore and cautioning Douglas; he'd have to learn for himself.
As Gildea had suspected, Lady B carried no journal, no notebook, there didn't even appear to be an appointment book in her belongings. She was the busiest, most sought after woman Gildea had ever been involved with; she was also the least reflective. She maintained investment portfolios in London and New York. She owned nothing. She lived out of suitcases.
First there was the incest, then there was the acrimony, then the threats. She never carried out the threats, as Lord Birtwistle had predicted. You can get used to anything, he'd told her, and he was right. The incest hadn't lasted long. A year perhaps, no longer. Ingrid was institutionalized, there were rumors, and then Lord Birtwistle's premature death in suspicious circumstances. More rumors.
She moved in with an elderly Jewish man who appeared to be in robust health. He was obscenely wealthy, he sailed, he raised Giant Schnauzers. He promised her everything, boasted to company that Lady B restored his youth. For two years she had nothing but anal intercourse. He left her nothing, not even a puppy.
The next one, the son of a famous Hollywood producer, left her everything. But everything wasn't a whole lot—there had been staggering medical bills, the man had been ill, then invalid. But it was enough to keep her in motion, then good company.
Gildea, she felt, was the silliest man she'd ever met.
"A man of six-foot-five," she reported to the famous writer's widow, "is supposed to cast a shadow, not be one."
"He's a biographer," Victoria Bray said. "That's his job."
They sat alongside the Bray pool drinking Bloody Mary's at a round table below a Campari umbrella that one of Victoria Bray's daughter's friends had stolen from a sidewalk café.
"He's incapable of real insight," Lady B said. "He's in awe of the fame and the money."
"Exactly," Victoria Bray said. "That's why we hired him."
"He's going to make us all look like a pack of dullards."
Victoria Bray said, "Good. We were."
Some mornings Gildea worked at the Bray's. Victoria Bray stood at the kitchen window looking out past the grape arbor into the yard, the drive, the woods, which her cats had turned into a graveyard for anything smaller than they. 9:30 a.m., a tumbler of scotch or a snifter of cognac on the counter at her hand.
"For the wind," she would explain, although Gildea never asked.
"The wind?" he'd say.
"It affects my breathing." In front of her enormous chest she rolled her hand, suggesting a respiratory maelstrom in the pulmonary region.
Discreetly, Gildea glanced out into the windless yard—the scientist, the biographer in him. The oak and sycamore leaves hung leaden as ornaments under the blanket of East End August humidity. "Well," he said, pointing to the staircase leading to his work up in Kenneth Bray's studio.
"Yes," she told him. "Go work. Go understand us. Tell Grace if you need anything."
From the studio's balcony he'd watch the pool area fill up with the Bray house guests. The daughter and her friends, other local luminaries without pools. The ocean was less than a mile away. On the half hour Grace carried out a tray with ice and cans of beer and fresh glasses. She placed used glasses on the tray, emptied ash trays into the used glasses, and carried them back across the lawn, sweat shining on her dark skin. These were frivolous people, Gildea thought. They were lucky and careless. Is that what made them so appealing? Is that what drew him to Lady B? Often he'd bring that conflict back with him to his own studio.
"This is wrong," Lady B told him one morning, holding up a sheaf of his manuscript. She wore a towel around her waist and a bikini top. Her blond hair hung straight and wet at her shoulders.
Gildea lowered the glasses on his nose. "It's in progress," he told her, "it isn't wrong. And I've asked you not to look at it until I ask you." He took the papers from her hand and slid into his desk chair.
"Well I looked," she said.
"OK, you looked. Please don't look anymore."
"Is this really what you're going to write?" she asked, leaning at his desk, riffling more pages of his manuscript, half the diamond shaped birthmark above her buttocks peeking out from the towel.
He tried to ignore her, the fresh clean scent of her. She took long aromatic baths following her morning walks, or swims, or yoga.
"Baby?" she said, her tone softened. She laid a hand on his shoulder.
"All right," he said, removing his glasses. He rolled back the desk chair and patted his lap. "Tell me what's wrong with it."
Lady B looked toward the door. "Is Douglas here?" she asked.
One day at lunch Lady B told him, "You write about tough guys."
Gildea waited. "And?" he said.
She blew out a cloud of smoke. She'd taken up smoking again that summer, she said to keep away the mosquitoes.
"And I find that rather piquant."
"Piquant," Gildea said.
"For a man…what is it you Americans say? For a man so in touch with his feminine."
Gildea shifted uneasily. As a boy he'd been called "Patsy." It drove him to take up boxing, and then books.
"I don't think that's true," he said.
"No," she told him, "it's true. Douglas, don't you think your father is in touch with his feminine?"
Douglas looked up from the chaise longue. He was reading Tropic of Cancer. "What choice does he have?" Douglas said.
"Marvelous," Lady B said. She applauded. "Touché."
Douglas called his mother from the IGA in town. It made him feel disloyal to call from the beach house his father shared with Lady B.
"I know he's living with someone, Douglas, you don't have to lie for him."
A Schubert piano sonata blasted from the record player. Between that and the traffic, it was difficult for Douglas to hear. But since the troubles between his mother and father, it wasn't really necessary for him to hear his mother's words. He just needed to be on the other end.
"I'm not lying," Douglas said.
"You're not lying?" his mother said. "You're not telling the truth."
He pictured her sprawled on the couch in the living room, the blinds dropped against the afternoon, the TV on mute, her hand dangling against a chilled bucket of white wine on the carpet, the ashtray on the coffee table spilling butts. It hurt him to compare this image in his mind's eye with the ones he retained of Lady B, who was actually a bit older than his mother. "What is it that she does?" he'd asked his father, when he'd found Lady B becoming a fixture in his own imagination. "Eliza?" his father said. "Eliza is the answer to the question." "What question?" Douglas wanted to know, and his father said, "Ah," nothing more. Douglas pictured how delighted his mother would be if she could see what a fool his father had been reduced to by Lady B, what a slobbering puppy, what a pathetic get.
"There's just the two of us, Mom, I told you."
Lady B came out from the IGA. Douglas felt his heart—he was falling in love. What had she meant, he wondered, recommending Henry Miller? And the incest rumors—she had seen everything, she was capable of anything. Lady B pointed to the car and a black teenager in a red apron wheeled a grocery cart past the phone booths over to the car's trunk.
"Just the two of you," Douglas's mother said, "and what whore?"
"Don't call her--," Douglas said, then caught himself.
His mother told him to enjoy the rest of his vacation.
Douglas returned to the city six days later, on his sixteenth birthday. His father had given him an annotated edition of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lady B gave him an album of photographs by Man Ray. They promised to visit him in the fall.
That November, Douglas had a showing of his photographs at a campus studio. "Tropic of Campus," he called it, and it had been written up in the local newspaper and treated like an event of artistic magnitude by the school's own journal. The school paper declined, however, to print any of the most representative photographs, the bulk of which were nude self-portraits.
Gildea and Lady Birtwistle were living in Sag Harbor by then. They traveled by ferry to Shelter Island, then Orient, then over to New London where they drove north to Douglas's school. They had reached a point of petty squabbling. Territory had already been staked, but the habit of bickering sustained. He argued for the symphonies of Sibelius on the drive, she wanted to hear the Beatles. The season had been late in changing, the trees were still a riot of color.
Gildea gestured toward the cassette deck. "Dear Prudence" was playing. "I don't see why we're listening to this, this music," he sneered. "It has nothing to do with the season, with us, nothing to do with autumn at all."
"Yes, professor, yes," Lady B said, "and you are nothing but autumnal, isn't that true?"
They checked into a B&B that Gildea found quaint and she squalid. She hired a taxi and told Gildea she would call from a pub. Two hours later he found her in a bar called Smitty's, a strip mall dive alongside a pizza place. Smitty's stunk of thick smoke and damp flannel. Douglas and his roommate were teaching Lady B to shoot pool. Leaning over to take her shot, more than half her breasts fell exposed. On a nearby table was a pitcher of beer and three glasses. Douglas was smoking.
Lady B looked up from her pool stick. "The Professor, boys. Look like you're not having fun."
The boys laughed nervously. Douglas dropped his cigarette and said hi. He introduced his roommate, Gavin. Then the three of them snickered.
Gildea ordered himself a scotch and water. From the bar he pointed to Douglas. "That's my son," he told the bartender. "He's sixteen."
"Sixteen?" the bartender said. He looked like a recently retired cop, the lumberjack forearms, the hard spread of his gut, the mustache an idea, an experiment he probably still heard jokes about. "But his mother--"
Gildea cut him off. "That," Gildea said, "is not his mother."
The bartender squinted at the pool table. "Got you, chief," he said, nodding slowly. "You want him out of here now?"
"I'll take care of it," Gildea said.
The bartender promised it wouldn't happen again. He held up a hand when Gildea reached for his wallet. "On me, big guy," he said.
It was Douglas's shot, an easy one, but he scratched. Gavin laughed. Lady B sang along with the jukebox. "Giant steps are what you take…"
Douglas's show hung on temporary walls angled into a corridor outside the art studios. It was divided between black and white self-portraits in which his body was contorted into various cramped shapes, as if he were stuck in a box, the muscles in his arms and legs and torso straining against imaginary confines. Gildea found these surprisingly artistic. They disturbed him. He wasn't comfortable with the idea of his son as a sexual being, and these were photographs of a sexual being. Perhaps it was the undisclosed nature of that sexuality that disturbed him. There was something amiss in them, something queer.
The color shots were abstracts—nudes like Stieglitz nudes, Weston nudes, Man Ray nudes. Some included Douglas, or parts of Douglas, but most used an unidentifiable model, a woman. The valleys between breasts and ribcage, the crevice of the pelvis as one leg curled over another. A hand held palm out against a pair of buttocks.
These Gildea found inappropriate for a preparatory school exhibit. They were of the "Look, Ma, I'm taking photography" school. Some men might consider them graphic support of a son's masculinity, Gildea found them discomfitingly exhibitionist. Even perverse. The facelessness of them, the abstraction. These impressions were just forming when Gildea recognized a diamond-shaped birthmark on the model's buttocks.
Over a year passed before Douglas spoke again to his father. And Gildea kept all their interactions from then on strictly business. He offered advice on colleges, then graduate schools, but he was more like a guidance counselor obligated to perform an unpleasant function; there were other students he cared for more. Douglas understood that he had done irreparable damage. Lady B was never mentioned.
Lady B herself called Douglas the day after the exhibition.
"I could have had your father arrested," she told him.
Back at the B&B, after Gildea had dragged her from Douglas's campus by the wrist, leaving behind her coat, she had called him a middle-class boor, and he had slapped her, resoundingly. Then slapped her again.
"Darling," she told Douglas, "you wouldn't have known the man had such strength. I saw stars."
She needed Douglas to bring her her coat—she couldn't very well visit his school with a bruised face.
At brunch she ordered champagne. Douglas thought he might get one more afternoon with her, but she refused. "I can't go back there, darling," she said. "Not after what he said."
She ordered a second bottle, she wasn't making sense. His father may have made some public declamation about the incest, Douglas couldn't be sure. But in his father's biography of the famous writer, published two years later, Lady B is referred to only as a fashion model from the early sixties whose husband had slept with their daughter. He had utterly reduced her to that fact. Victoria Bray, the famous writer's widow, had raised no serious objections. She'd fought fiercely, however, over Gildea's characterization of her and her husband as alcoholic. That, she insisted, was a gross misrepresentation of their habitual drunkenness. "I ran a salon," she'd said, "not a saloon." Neither Gildea, nor his editor, could be moved. The misrepresentation stood—exactly the kind of misrepresentation Lady B had been expected to prevent. Lady B had failed her. Their friendship was seriously affected.
The only woman at Gildea's funeral was a secretary he'd had at Princeton the sixteen years he'd taught there, the four years he'd been Chair of Non-Fiction Studies in a graduate writing program. She was a plain woman, Douglas thought, the kind of plain woman who forms friendships with plain people in order to be seen on occasion in public having friendships. Douglas drove her back to the campus following the brief service.
"Your father was a well-loved man," she told Douglas at the pub she and Gildea used to stop in for cheeseburgers and a pitcher of beer. She picked at a plate of soggy French fries and sipped at a dark draft. "Ask anyone from that time," she said, "they'll tell you."