June 10th, 2010

When Alice King sat at the piano in this subdued light her soft auburn hair carried just the suggestion of a gentle halo. Her playing, too, had a radiant, ethereal quality, and her cat, Midnight, curled up on the chair next to the piano, seemed mesmerized by the music, like a creature privileged to share life in a magic circle. Everything in that little apartment, where Alice had moved while her divorce from John was being attended to, bespoke harmony, a world comfortably under control. But, she was pleased to think, here freedom reigned as well, the freedom of a peasant blouse or sweater, of ranging barefoot across her own deep carpet, the freedom to go out, to a concert or play, on her own single impulse, and, best of all, the delicious freedom of privacy, of uninterrupted hours for reading, or for improvising on a favorite piano piece this way. She wondered why she had married John in the first place. Midnight was her proper companion. She looked at the cat and smiled.

Yes, John was as tempestuous and unpredictable as she was calm and serene. She liked to have things scheduled for a week in advance; he hardly knew what he’d be doing an hour from now. And why, she wondered, was she even thinking of him this particular night? There was nothing in the piece she was playing, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, to bring him to mind. Its tranquil rhythms would no doubt have made him restless. She had seen a play earlier in the evening, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood—perhaps that was it. But how could it be? None of the characters, as she passed them in the fond review of recent memory, resembled John in the least.

Ah, maybe . . . there on the lowest shelf of the bookcase, next to the piano, so close she could have reached out and put her hand on it, so close that it must have been catching the corner of her eye as she played, was the book she had laid there while looking for her copy of Thomas’s play to read before going to the performance that evening. It was the paperback edition of The French Lieutenant’s Woman that John had given her, months ago now. After they had seen the movie together he had told her that Meryl Streep reminded him of her, and that he’d like to read the book. He had even bought this copy, for the picture on the cover he said, but had given it to her, since she might actually read it, saying that he might then borrow it from her, when he had more time to read, and would just like to look at the cover in the meantime. But then came the separation.

Alice stopped playing and looked at that picture on the cover for a long moment, with Meryl Streep staring back at her like the image in a mirror. Then she picked up the telephone and dialed the number, glancing at the clock as she did. It said 11:15.

The phone rang repeatedly; then came a disgruntled, “Who is it?” She remembered how John sounded when he was just awakened from sleep.

“John,” she said, “that book you wanted to borrow . . . when you had more time to read. Can you come over and get it now?”

She looked at the cat, who was staring at her just as the woman on the cover of the book had, as if mysteriously reading her mind, then added, “Could you make it exactly at midnight?”

* * *

Published in Inscape, 1986; KAC Yearbook, 1988; Potpourri, October 1991

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