Good-bye, My Love
When Ted Hollander first agreed to travel to Naples in search of his missing niece, he drew up for his brother- in- law, who was footing the bill, a plan for finding her that involved cruising the places where aimless, strung- out youths tended to congregate— the train station, for example— and asking if they knew her. “Sasha. American. Capelli rossi”— red hair — he’d planned to say, had even practiced his pronunciation until he could roll the r in front of rossi to perfection. But since arriving in Naples a week ago, he hadn’t said it once.
Today, he ignored his resolve to begin looking for Sasha and visited the ruins of Pompeii, observing early Roman wall paintings and small, prone bodies scattered like Easter eggs among the columned courtyards. He ate a can of tuna under an olive tree and listened to the crazy, empty silence. In the early evening he returned to his hotel room, heaved his aching body onto the king- size bed, and phoned his sister, Beth, Sasha’s mother, to report that another day’s efforts had been unsuccessful.
“Okay.” Beth sighed from Los Angeles, as she did each afternoon. The intensity of her disappointment endowed it with something like consciousness; Ted experienced it as a third presence on the phone.
“I’m sorry,” he said. A drop of poison filled his heart. He would look for Sasha tomorrow. Yet even as he made this vow, he was reaffirming a contradictory plan to visit the Museo Nazionale, home of an Orpheus and Eurydice he’d admired for years: a Roman marble relief copied from a Greek original. He had always wanted to see it.
Mercifully, Hammer, Beth’s second husband, who normally had a volley of questions for Ted that boiled down to one very simple question, Am I getting my money’s worth? (thus filling Ted with truant anxiety), either wasn’t around or chose not to weigh in. After hanging up, Ted went to the minibar and dumped a vodka over ice. He brought drink and phone to the balcony and sat in a white plastic chair, looking down at the Via Partenope and the Bay of Naples. The shore was craggy, the water of questionable purity (though arrestingly blue), and those game Neapolitans, most of whom seemed to be fat, were disrobing on the rocks and leaping into the bay in full view of pedestrians, tourist hotels, and traffic. He dialed his wife.
“Oh, hi hon!” Susan was startled to hear from him so early in the day— usually he called closer to dinnertime. “Is everything okay?”
Already, her brisk, merry tone had disheartened him. Susan was often on Ted’s mind in Naples, but a slightly different version of Susan: a thoughtful, knowing woman with whom he could speak without speaking. It was this slightly different version of Susan who had listened with him to the quiet of Pompeii, alert to lingering reverberations of screams, of sliding ash. How could so much devastation have been silenced? This was the sort of question that had come to preoccupy Ted in his week of solitude, a week that felt like both a month and a minute.
“I’ve got a nibble on the Suskind house,” Susan said, apparently hoping to cheer him with this dispatch from the realm of real estate.
Yet each disappointment Ted felt in his wife, each incremental deflation, was accompanied by a seizure of guilt; many years ago, he had taken the passion he felt for Susan and folded it in half, so he no longer had a drowning, helpless feeling when he glimpsed her beside him in bed: her ropy arms and soft, generous ass. Then he’d folded it in half again, so when he felt desire for Susan, it no longer brought with it an edgy terror of never being satisfied. Then in half again, so that feeling desire entailed no immediate need to act. Then in half again, so he hardly felt it. His desire was so small in the end that Ted could slip it inside his desk or a pocket and forget about it, and this gave him a feeling of safety and accomplishment, of having dismantled a perilous apparatus that might have extinguished them both. Susan was baffled at first, then distraught; she’d hit him twice across the face; she’d run from the house in a thunderstorm and slept at a motel; she’d wrestled Ted to the bedroom floor in a pair of black crotchless underpants. But eventually a sort of amnesia had overtaken Susan; her rebellion and hurt had melted away, deliquesced into a sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it urgency and shape. He’d presumed at first that her relentless cheer was mocking, another phase in her rebellion, until it came to him that Susan had forgotten how things were between them before Ted began to fold up his desire; she’d forgotten and was happy— had never not been happy— and while all of this bolstered his awe at the gymnastic adaptability of the human mind, it also made him feel that his wife had been brainwashed. By him.
“Hon,” Susan said. “Alfred wants to talk to you.”
Ted braced himself for his moody, unpredictable son. “Hiya, Alf!”
“Dad, don’t use that voice.”
“That fake ‘Dad’ voice.”
“What do you want from me, Alfred? Can we have a conversation?”
“So you’re what, five and eight?”
“Four and nine.”
“Well. There’s time.”
“There’s no time,” said Alfred. “Time is running out.”
“Is your mother still there?” Ted asked, a bit desperately. “Can you put her back on?”
“Miles wants to talk to you.”
Ted spoke with his other two sons, who had further scores to report. He felt like a bookie. They played every sport imaginable and some that (to Ted) were not: soccer, hockey, baseball, lacrosse, basketball, football, fencing, wrestling, tennis, skateboarding (not a sport!), golf, Ping- Pong, Video Voodoo (absolutely not a sport, and Ted refused to sanction it), rock climbing, Rollerblading, bungee jumping (Miles, his oldest, in whom Ted sensed a joyous will to self- destruct), backgammon (not a sport!), volleyball, Wiffle ball, rugby, cricket (what country was this?), squash, water polo, ballet (Alfred, of course), and, most recently, Tae Kwon Do. At times it seemed to Ted that his sons took up sports merely to ensure his presence beside the greatest possible array of playing surfaces, and he duly appeared, hollering away his voice among piles of dead leaves and the tang of wood smoke in fall, among iridescent clover in spring, and through the soggy, mosquito-flecked summers of upstate New York.
After speaking to his wife and boys, Ted felt drunk, anxious to get out of the hotel. He seldom drank; booze flung a curtain of exhaustion over his head, robbing him of the two precious hours he had each night— two, maybe three, after dinner with Susan and the boys— in which to think and write about art. Ideally, he should have been thinking and writing about art at all times, but a confluence of factors made such thinking and writing both unnecessary (he was tenured at a third-rate college with little pressure to publish) and impossible (he taught three art history courses a semester and had taken on vast administrative duties— he needed money). The site of his thinking and writing was a small office wedged in one corner of his shaggy house, on whose door he’d installed a lock to keep his sons out. They gathered wistfully outside it, his boys, with their chipped, heartbreaking faces. They were not permitted to so much as knock upon the door to the room in which he thought and wrote about art, but Ted hadn’t found a way to keep them from prowling outside it, ghostly feral creatures drinking from a pond in moonlight, their bare feet digging at the carpet, their fingers sweating on the walls, leaving spoors of grease that Ted would point out each week to Elsa, the cleaning woman. He would sit in his office, listening to the movements of his boys, imagining that he felt their hot, curious breath. I will not let them in, he would tell himself. I will sit and think about art. But he found, to his despair, that often he couldn’t think about art. He thought about nothing at all.