Fish

I poach a strip of plaice no bigger than Al’s middle finger for Marilyn who fights the current in her living room lap pool. In the two years I’ve been coming to her apartment to cook and clean, the phone has never rung. It’s 1:00 p.m. on a gray Vermont November day. I can’t help wondering what Marilyn is swimming towards.

Al and I are in love again, after all of these years: her name is Ngyuan. Barely five feet tall. A gap between her front teeth. Only sixteen, but a senior at Burlington High. She came from Vietnam via Thailand with other stops along the way. If, in our middle age, Al and I could imagine a child into being—conceive of her in this way—Ngyuan would be our girl. As it is, she has her own parents, in the far reaches of Thailand, waiting for her successful return. The fish is almost ready. I lean on the counter and cross my arms.

About Ngyuan ‘s future success I have no doubt, but am more reluctant to picture her leaving. I can’t remember the first time she came to the lake last summer, but it must have been one of those long July evenings, nine o’clock before the sun goes down. We were sitting in our lawn chairs eating corn—me, Al, and the assortment of strangers Al attracts: retirees, young mothers itching for freedom, other dreamers. Al seems to draw students motivated by subterranean longings unlikely to be fulfilled by the courses he teaches. Ngyuan is the exception. She had just come to Vermont to attend high school in the fall. She had it all planned out: better English, high school degree, four-year college, medical school. Champlain Continuing Ed. fit into the picture, and I can only be grateful that it did. Somehow this girl, relentlessly curious and oddly conservative, has got something Al and I need.

Ngyuan was surprised to learn that we aren’t married and even more surprised when Al told her the house we live in belongs to his ex-wife. Al explained that when his wife left him after less than a year, he could only hope she would return. In the mean time, he thought it best to stay where she could find him—in the summer cottage that had been in her family for generations. And as the years went by (now 15) he began to make improvements. I can see how he slowly, sloppily laid claim, winterizing and expanding until the shell became the drafty two bedroom sprawl we live in today with the spiders and the mice, just a stone’s throw from Lake Champlain. “And if she comes back?” Ngyuan asked. “After your waiting all these years?”

Al shook his head, “I wish you both could see how completely I loved her. I wish you could see it, like a slow, sad movie.” He tossed my hand between the two of his. “Of course, when Christine does come she’ll be bringing her husband Jean-Benoit.”

Ngyuan pretended to be shocked. “And Dorrie?” she said, pointing at me.

“What’s another guest or two,” I said. “There’s always the pullout couch.” In fact, I doubt anything we could say would shock Ngyuan. We are too foreign, maybe too old. But I can see she plans to build on firmer foundations.

Marilyn’s allergy tags jingle as she towels herself down. When she pushes a button, the current in the pool subsides. Set in the middle of the living room floor, it’s like a roomy, watery casket. Miraculously, after twenty minutes of swimming in place, she has the tired satisfied look of a person who has gotten somewhere. Or maybe it’s all about stopping herself from slipping backwards. Except for her bathing cap, Marilyn swims naked, and although her skin is pale and smooth, I would judge that she too is in her forties. I turn off the flame under the fish and the carrots.

* * *

Next month Ngyuan will move into our living room. Her host family cannot keep her. “It’s a hard time in our lives,” the husband said to Al and me one evening last month when he stopped by the lake. He had come directly from work, still in his jacket and tie. He was younger than I remembered. In fact, at first we didn’t recognize him, although we’d shaken hands one of the nights we dropped Ngyuan off. He had to tell us who he was, and then we sat him down and tried to give him a drink, but he stared ferociously at the brown shoelace hanging from Al’s ponytail and would take nothing. “My wife doesn’t know I’m here,” he said, as if it were our fault. We all knew what was coming, and Al was waiting to see how this guy would manage it. But it made me sick watching the struggle, so I told the guy we’d take her, that Ngyuan could live with us. He frowned, and slumped further in the old armchair. We weren’t part of their church that had brought Ngyuan to Vermont and clearly he didn’t want to be beholden to us. I don’t know how or when the evening would have ended if Al hadn’t suddenly laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder. It was a soft, paternal gesture, and I think we were all a bit surprised. But before the young man could respond, Al had taken his hand away and was wiggling his big fingers in the air like a marionettist, and we watched him swing a blond spider, kicking like a baby, to the safety of the window ledge. Al then wiped his hand on his shirt, worked out the details of Ngyuan’s stay, and the matter was resolved.

* * *

I hear Marilyn’s shower running, and it reminds me to take one of the blue bottles of spring water from the refrigerator and put it on the table in the dining room. I can see out to the Burlington Waterfront. We’re only on the sixth floor, and yet the pier, quiet and gray this time of year, seems so far away. The room is modern, the furniture simple. There’s a stark metallic fireplace on one side of the room and a half table with a lamp and a telephone on the other. The agency handles the logistics of schedules and paychecks. I’ve never been given Marilyn’s number and I don’t feel sure that if I were to pick up the receiver I’d hear a dial tone.

I know almost nothing about Marilyn and the rules that she lives by. I do know that for the daughter of one of the richest families in the country, she keeps a very low profile. Marilyn’s picture never appears in the local society pages that my other clients love to thumb through. It’s hard to imagine her mingling and nibbling at the mixers on sailboats, or in the renovated horse barns. It’s hard to imagine Marilyn doing anything but swimming in the lap pool and eating the food I prepare for her.

Three days a week I steam fish, carrots and turnips, cut up lemon and peel an apple. After her meal, I run the few dishes through the machine, put them back in the cabinets, empty the garbage pail and close the door behind me.

Every now and then, we talk a little. To be honest, I don’t know yet whether it’s depression or buoyancy that makes Marilyn talk. Sometimes it’s no more than a polite request for another napkin or bottle of water. A few times she wanted to know about the weather and listened very seriously, as if I were a meteorologist. Another time, I think we talked about the fish; I’d warned her the fillet might be bony; she thanked me and told me that when she was a girl, a fish bone had nearly done her in. That was probably all she said, but I imagined a little girl choking in a California mansion’s empty playroom.

As I set Marilyn’s table for lunch, I think of the cottage on the lake, as if I were a newlywed. Will Al remember to wash the sheets for the pullout couch? Will he get around to hanging the curtain in the living room doorway? We mean to give Ngyuan a little privacy—she told us that privacy was one of those American things she could learn to love. Last week we fit in a chest of drawers next to the stereo. Al emptied one of the living room bookshelves. Suddenly we are a team, Al and I, like we’ve never been in the course of our six-year association. It makes me happy and uneasy at the same time.

Al should be home preparing for next week’s classes but most likely he’s a mile up the road at the convenience store talking to P.J. and whoever stops in for gas. During the year he lectures at the community college—Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Introduction to World Religion. He says he likes the mix; it keeps him interested. It surprised Ngyuan to learn that Al doesn’t go to church, since he wanted to hear all about hers in Thailand. Does he believe in God? I told her she should ask. It’s the sort of question that a man in his fifties would enjoy answering and that a sixteen year old can still ask.

Ngyuan didn’t ask me whether I believe in God; she wanted to know how Al and I met. Had I been one of his students? In fact, I met Al through his mother, who was dying. I’d known Avis for over a year, as more than an acquaintance but not quite a friend. For over a year I’d cooked for her and cleaned her little bungalow.

When she had a stroke, I went to see her at the Mary Fletcher and found a balding man with a ponytail wearing Madras shorts and a Brooklyn Botanical Gardens T-shirt stretched over his enormous stomach. He took more space in the room than I could have thought possible. Earlier, when I’d asked whether she had children, Avis had mentioned a son, who at fifty was stuck, and seemed to think, even after all these years and at least one marriage that someone else would fix that. “It would be better for Al if people liked him a little less,” she said.

She herself had none of Al’s ease with strangers. In my work there are some people who want you to know who they are and where they’ve been, and some who are happy for the company but never tell you much.

At Avis’s memorial service, a month later, I learned she’d been a Quaker (Al’s middle name is Friend). I also learned of her great passion: Blatta orientalis. The simplicity and availability of the cockroach won her heart when she was a graduate student in the lab of the man who was to become her husband. Later she and he had worked together in universities all over the country, with their son Al tagging along. When I asked Al whether his parents’ work life had affected him, thinking of the moves from coast to coast—eight schools in thirteen years—he told me he’d never had “a scientific bent,” exhibiting the direct evasiveness now so familiar.

When did I first begin to notice Al as more than a man who took up a lot of space? I think it was one of those afternoons the three of us spent at Mary Fletcher; Avis was talking and dozing between sentences. Al kept up his end of the conversation and managed to tell us about Rudolph Steiner and the soul—where it goes while we sleep.

Soon afterwards it occurred to Avis that I might be interested in her son. It hurt my feelings that at a time when everything she did took such effort and was imbued with importance, she expended energy discouraging me. One afternoon when Al wasn’t there she said to me, “Romances kindled around the deathbed are all very well, but where will it get you?” When I drove home that afternoon I felt out of sorts and decided to stop in at Ele’s place on Prospect Hill. In the three years Ele and I’d been dating we’d talked about my moving into the brick house she shared with her two dachshunds, Henny and Porter; but it was the way some people dream about a trip around the world—we knew it would never happen. That evening Ele must have been in the middle of correcting student essays. She taught German at UVM, and always had a stack of papers waiting for her. I never got used to how tall Ele was. Even sitting down, she towered over her papers as she ran her hand through her thick gray hair, cut short like a little boy’s. Her desk was set up in front of the picture window that looks out on the lake, and she was staring in front of her, although it was dark and there was nothing to see. She can’t have been expecting me that evening, but she didn’t look over her shoulder when I opened the door with my key, and the little dogs barked at me the way they always did. I walked around her desk and stood blocking her view of the nothing she was staring at.

“Ele,” I said. “Tell me something. Are we happy?” Henny barked. It was before Al and I had even kissed.

“Happy?” she repeated, smiling sadly like her father the rabbi. “What does happiness have to do with it?”

A few months later I moved into Al’s cottage on the lake.

* * *

Marilyn has returned to the dining room wearing a T-shirt and yellow paisley shorts that zip up the side, the sort of clothes the right fourth-grader could love. Sometimes I wonder about Marilyn’s clothing. When she could have any outfit in the world, why this?

I set down her lunch—the same thing she eats at least three times a week. I put the plate down carelessly and when it bangs on the table she looks up and smiles in my direction. Now that she sees me, she waves with enthusiasm as if she were passing a friend on the beach. I do not wave back. It’s not that I begrudge her; if only it were as simple as envy. But when I begin to wonder, why this shirt? why this table? then I go on to ask, what kind of life would I live with nothing in my way? And the sheer weight of possibility flattens me. Maybe we’re lucky we have to compromise, buy someone else’s table at a yard sale, develop a convenient passion for the readily available cockroach, make the sacrifice of a failing medical practice in Saigon for the sake of a child’s American education. But again the specifics needle me, why this pair of shorts? why this bottle of water? What would I choose if I weren’t settling? A relationship built from the foundation up that could stand on its own? A 16-year-old daughter, or maybe just her lovely adamantine sense of self?

Marilyn leaves the room for a moment and when she returns she has a paperback novel pressed to her thigh and is angling a pair of plastic half glasses on her nose. She sits in the chair with one leg tucked underneath her and pins the book open with a fist; with the other hand she puts a forkful of carrots in her mouth. Her eyes move across the lines and after a moment she remembers to chew and swallow. She turns the page hungrily, and I realize that I am the one privileged to witness both appetite and contentment.

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