Roast Suckling Pig

Donald Hall
Black and white floral pattern
Detail from Mary Cassatt, The Coiffure, 1890–91. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

David Bardo was driving his wife, Beverly, to the hairdresser in Georgetown when he took a wrong turn. He apologized.

Beverly was dreamy these days, unflustered by tardiness or disorder. At a stoplight, David glanced at her profile. She remained attractive. Her hair, which had started graying in her twenties, had become a convincing brown, and her hips had amplified little since they married seven years ago. “I met a woman at the Converse Club pool last week,” she said, “who drove all the way to Newark by mistake.”

“Where did she want to go?”

“Pittsburgh,” said Beverly.

David turned left and left again. Beverly went on. “You’d like her, though. She’d made you laugh. Alma Trust. She’s pretty and she’s always doing crazy things. ‘Trust Alma,’ they say. Once she was thawing a suckling pig in her sink but she needed the sink, so she put the pig on the roof of a little porch over the side door.”

David beeped his horn at a bicycle and Beverly paused.

“Well, the pig rolled off and fell onto her driveway. Their next-door neighbor was a snoopy old lady, sort of crazy, and when she saw the pig she thought somebody had thrown a baby out the window. She called the police and told them there was a dead baby in the driveway. A dead baby! Two policemen came knocking on Alma’s door. Well, she was in her housecoat and she still had to roast the pig…”

They had arrived at the beauty parlor and David never heard the rest of the story. He and Beverly had returned last fall from Jakarta, where he held a position in the embassy. It had been a difficult year, 1960, when Sukarno dissolved his parliament. It was not a bad time to leave. They were spending three years in Washington, renting an Alexandria apartment, before going abroad again.

Regina, who was six, enjoyed her new school. William at four attended nursery school three times a week. David, on the other hand, felt transitory and restless at thirty. He missed the strangeness of another culture, the unpredictable daily problems that kept him busy. As he told himself, he missed his real work. Also, in Virginia they lacked servants. Beverly was an indifferent cook and housekeeper, staying at the Converse Club’s pool when the weather was warm, drinking coffee with friends in their kitchens during rainy or cold weather. He felt not only restless but too settled into family and routine; feeling settled made him uneasy. Was this what ordinary life would be like? Surely another foreign assignment would not be ordinary, and maybe Beverly would come alive. Although she remained handsome and agreeable, he missed the lively woman he had married, who was outrageous and made him laugh; he felt put off by Beverly’s tepid lovemaking. When David looked forward in time, he did not look to tomorrow but to his next assignment.

He parked near a bookstore, where he browsed for half an hour. He glanced at books and set them down. The Sot-Weed Factor. Rabbit Run. He noted the attractiveness of the young woman behind the cash register.

Beverly was waiting at the curb, her hairdo as hard as a helmet. When she climbed into the front seat she told David, “They barbecued the pig anyway.”

“What?” said David.

“Alma Trust. I thought of something else. Once on a Saturday she answered the doorbell…She thought she recognized him as a magazine salesman who had rung the doorbell for weeks, that she’d told to stay away. She said, ‘You!’ and slammed the door in his face. Well, it turned out to be her husband’s boss dropping by…”

David laughed. Beverly seemed more animated, telling these stories. “Another thing, she likes to read Gideon Bibles from hotels. Only Gideon Bibles. People bring them to her from all over the country. She has a whole closet full.”

A week later, at a Hay-Adams reception, David found himself looking with pleasure at a blond woman in a black dress who talked with Beverly. The woman laughed brightly, her smile resplendent. In her late twenties, she had a slim figure and small, symmetrical features. She kept patting her hair, as if to confirm her hairdo. Next to her stood a brown-suited man quietly admiring her. Beverly came up to David saying, “That’s Alma Trust. The suckling pig…? I asked Alma and Roger to supper next Friday. I hope that’s all right.”

Roger and Alma were half an hour late. “I lost the car keys,” said Alma brightly. Beside her was Roger, who remained monochrome to Alma’s Kodacolor. At dinner David found himself talking exclusively to Alma. She told him no Alma Trust stories but devoted rapt attention to everything he said. Once or twice, she automatically patted her hair. She was fascinated to hear about work for the State Department and about living in such different cultures. David hoped that he might next be assigned to the Indian subcontinent. There was talk that John Kenneth Galbraith would be Kennedy’s ambassador to India. David spoke more about Indonesia than he had done for months; he felt again that his work had mattered. He spoke with knowledge and concern about forthcoming tasks, wherever he was. Across the table David was aware of less urgent conversation — about Jakarta, about working for IBM, about the Nixon-Kennedy debates, about the Washington Redskins. From time to time Roger and Beverly stopped talking and listened to David as he rose to anecdotal heights in versions of Indonesia or of his two years at Oxford on a Rhodes after Amherst. Alma contributed fierce attention to everything David said; he felt chosen by her concentration. He heard himself bragging about appearing on a recent Meet the Press, “Problems in the Pacific.” Modestly, he allowed that he was a last-minute substitute. “Really I was much too junior. I had to be tactful about Sukarno,” he said.

“I’m so sorry I missed it,” said Alma with a thrilling smile, “I know it was brilliant. Will it be rebroadcast?”

“Um…,” said David, wondering whether he should push things, feeling slight embarrassment over his pleasure in this woman’s attentions. “They sent me a tape recording. A little reel thing.”

“Oh, could I borrow it, please? We have a reel-to-reel machine. You’re going to cocktails at the Willards on Saturday?”

“Certainly,” said David.

“Could you…?”
“If you’re sure,” said David, feeling a sudden tingling in his testicles. “I’ll bring it.”

Before the Willard cocktail party, David slipped the small reel of tape into his jacket’s side pocket. He followed Alma Trust when she went to the bathroom and waited until she emerged. When she saw him she produced another smile, as she lurched a little. David had seen her drink two old-fashioneds. “I brought that tape for you,” said David feeling awkward. “I think you said…”

“Oh, thank you, David,” said Alma. “That’s a lovely tie. Silk?”

“Shanghai silk,” said David, feeling suddenly and ridiculously happy.

“Somebody married to somebody else in the State Department,” Alma continued, “told me you were a rising star. What an exciting life! I’ll put your tape in my handbag.” She took his arm and led him to the bedroom stacked with scarves, topcoats, and purses. Her left breast brushed his right arm, lightly enough so that it could have been inadvertent. She tucked the tape into a leather purse and stood with her face close to him. David’s heart pounded as he kissed Alma for the first time. Just before they pulled apart, he felt her tongue flick quickly between his lips. She pulled back laughing. “Thank you, David. You’re a dear.” She walked from the bedroom without taking his arm.

All week at the office David saw Alma’s face and felt the touch of her tongue, obscuring his attention to the work on his desk. In fantasy he telephoned her and suggested lunch. Would he look ridiculous? The Converse Club provided them with their social set, and on a Saturday afternoon, while he and Beverly played doubles with Jeff Place and Marilyn, he watched Alma on an adjoining court. David could not keep his eyes from Alma’s legs under her pleated tennis dress. In the locker room Roger addressed David, “Alma wants to know if you and Beverly could drop around for a beer.”

David’s heart quopped. “I’m sorry,” he said, “damn it. We have to take one baby-sitter home, then eat and get another baby-sitter.”

“Are you going to the Bob and Mary Cutter thing?”

“Yes. You?”

“We’ll see you there.”

David saw Alma first, in a green dress with gold trim, gold bracelet, green and gold shoes. He drank two Scotches quickly as the guests danced to Chubby Checker. He watched Alma’s bottom twitching to the music, then set down his empty glass and cut in. Her smile brightened. They swayed to and fro. David wished for old ballroom dancing, instead of the damned twist, so that he could touch her. Beverly and Roger were chatting at the edge of the room.

When the music stopped, Alma said, “I love what you said on the tape.”

Thank you,” said David with absurd vehemence.

“I didn’t bring it,” she said. “Can I keep it for a while?” When she asked a question, her brow furrowed and gave her a serious look.

David saw his chance. “You could give it back at lunch. Could we have lunch?”

“I’d love to,” said Alma. “Samuel gets back from school at two-thirty, so…”

“Meet me at twelve-thirty, Monday? The Madison? They do a good lunch.”

“I’ll be there,” said Alma brightly, and as the music started turned her back on David to dance with Roger.

He was working at home on a memorandum for his boss, and it was hard to concentrate. He took William and Regina to the zoo, but he was not thinking about zebras. Still, the children’s happiness — an afternoon with their busy father — pleased and distracted him.

Monday, David stood in the lobby of the Madison at twelve-fifteen. When Alma arrived fifteen minutes late, she said, “I’m sorry,” with her shattering smile. David admired her blue suit and told her so. “I’m always late,” she said proudly, and patted her hairdo.

They ordered omelets and glasses of white wine while they spoke innocuously of friends and children. David looked cautiously around the dining room: no one he knew. He grew impatient with himself, but couldn’t bring himself to make a further approach. He ate half his omelet and drank a second glass of wine. As they finished and leaned back, Alma said, “I brought that little box with your tape.”

“Oh,” said David, “thank you.”

Alma made no move toward her purse. “I want to keep it for a while, if it’s all right.” Her brow furrowed again.

“Sure. Why do you want to keep it?”

“Sometimes I want to hear the sound of your voice.”

They looked at each other for a long time without smiling. “Can we see each other alone?” said David.

Alma’s hand shook as she drank the last of her wine “Roger leaves early Friday for some business thing, a weekend. Samuel will be gone to school by nine o’clock. Do you know where I live?”

David nodded.

“Park around the block,” Alma said. “Come in by the side door, where the carport is.” David paid the cheque. When they parted he pecked her discreetly on the cheek.

On Friday at nine-thirty, when Alma opened the side door, she and David kissed, their tongues writhing together. Alma leaned into the wall of the hallway where winter coats were hanging. A child’s hooded jacket fell to the floor. David pressed into her and felt himself swelling. When they pulled apart, Alma said, “I need a glass of sherry.” They finished their sherries quickly and made love twice.

The following Tuesday they arranged to meet in the parking lot behind the Practical Motel on a two-lane Virginia highway twenty-five minutes from Alexandria. David strode up and down as Alma was twenty minutes late this time. They entered Room 116 through the back door, Alma dropped her purse on the floor, and as they kissed David lifted her blouse to undo the clasp of her bra and Alma unbuttoned his shirt. They sat on the bed’s side pulling off each other’s clothes and made love fiercely.

While they panted and lay side by side, David said, “You’re beautiful, Alma.”

“Let’s always tell each other the truth,” said Alma. “I am pretty. Very pretty. I am not beautiful.”

The notion that they should always tell the truth touched David. How many little daily lies did he and Beverly tell each other? How many lies — even “Fine,” answering, “How are you?” — did he tell every day? His adultery took on the joy of candor. It was David’s first such adventure, if you didn’t count a chance Saturday afternoon encounter with an office worker in Jakarta. Then he remembered also the older woman in a Manila hotel, who clearly came to the bar with one intention. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. I’m tired of pretending.”

Alma smiled warmly. “When we’re together I’ll say nothing but the truth. For the first time in my life. I’ve always been a liar.” Her smile broadened. They spoke of the dinginess and pretense of ordinary life. Interrupting their honest speech, they kissed again. Alma bent over to harden him with her mouth.

As he was pulling on his socks, about time for Samuel to come home from school, David asked Alma, “That story about the suckling pig…?”

“It never happened,” said Alma. “I did set the pig on the roof over the door, and then I thought, what if…?”

David and Alma laughed together, and Alma paused in her dressing to look in the motel’s chest of drawers. “Did you see a Bible?” she said.

David asked, “Why do you read them…?”

“I don’t really read them. It calms me down,” said Alma. “I read where my finger hits the page, once in the Old Testament and once in the New. But I don’t pay attention. People think it’s funny.” She swallowed a pill from a box in her purse. “Shall we come back here? When can you get away? Maybe we shouldn’t come to the same place.”

“Tuesday?” asked David.

“This time let’s get a hotel room in town, say the Carter,” said Alma. “You get to the room at noon and I’ll call you from the lobby and you can tell me the room number.”

David’s anticipation was slightly tempered by Alma’s expertise.

It was easy for David to take long lunches; it seemed to him that his Washington assignment was largely make-work. He already left the office twice a week to play squash with Jeff Place, an arrangement now dwindled to Saturdays. Jeff, whom David had known at college, worked at an obscure unnamable corporation in Langley. “Pretty woman,” said Jeff when he heard about Alma in the locker room of the Converse Club. “Congratulations.” His narrow face grinned while his brow furrowed. “Be careful,” he said, “Alma Trust…”

David rose to extravagant description of making love with Alma. “She says it’s the best she’s ever had,” said David.

Jeff smiled his ironic smile. “Probably it is,” he said, “but did you ever hear of a woman who told her lover, ‘You are wonderful in bed. Actually, you’re the sixth best I’ve ever had.’”

David noted that Jeff’s cynicism might come in handy. He would confide in no one but Jeff. He needed to tell someone, and Jeff had developed the habit of secrecy. Once a week, David recounted to Jeff their latest adventures. After continuing to extol Alma’s lovemaking, he praised her honesty, and their honesty together. Jeff laughed and responded in his usual tone. “Ah, adultery! The country of truth! The temple of sincerity! The costume of nakedness!”

Alma brought picnic lunches to their trysts in Washington’s innumerable hotels. Between fits, they would eat pâté on Carr’s Table Water Crackers, drink half a bottle of white wine out of hotel tumblers, or a Beaujolais with Stilton or Brie. Once she brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “I was making one for Samuel, so I thought…Roger was right there, watching, and he never noticed when I made three, and I used two paper bags!” In her new frankness, Alma’s conversations over lunch were confessional. When he asked her, she admitted to an earlier affair in New York, when she was first married.

“He was nothing,” she said, “but I did a lot of crazy things when I was young. Once I sucked off my sister’s boyfriend in a broom closet. I was mad at her. She never knew about it but I didn’t care, just so I knew.” She talked about the University of Colorado, going to parties with one man and leaving with another. David countered with his two escapades after marriage, episodes at Amherst with Smith students, two strange encounters with Englishwomen at Oxford, a blind date in Rome.

“It wasn’t only about men that I was crazy and a liar,” said Alma. “If somebody asked me when I flew back to Boulder, and I got there at three, I’d tell them four.”

“You never drove to Newark…?”

“No. But I did take a wrong turn. In a history class once I knew the answers to a quiz but I copied down the wrong answers from the girl sitting beside me. I was perverse.” She kissed him. “I still am,” she said, “with everyone but you.” Alma swept crumbs from the sheet and they made love again.

In high spring, almost three months after they started, David and Alma took their picnic to a park twenty miles down the Potomac, knowing that it would be empty on a weekday during school. In addition to crackers and cheese, Alma brought a pitcher, fruit, and a gallon of Gallo to make sangria. The bottle was a third full, and they felt unusually tipsy when they emptied it. Still, they were able to return to a mossy place they had found in the underbrush. Walking back to their separate cars, David was touched to see Alma carrying not only the basket of lunch’s detritus but even the empty jug. No littering for Alma.

An hour after he had turned home to Beverly and the children, David was helping Regina with arithmetic when there was a knock on the door. He was astonished when William on his tiptoes opened the apartment door to confront Alma, who asked, “May I see your mother?” William left to fetch Beverly from the kitchen, and Alma blew David a kiss.

Beverly approached drying her hands. “Alma,” she said, “thank you for dropping in.”

“I’ve just got a minute,” said Alma. She showed Beverly the empty Gallo bottle. “Last week at the pool you talked about wanting to make a lamp out of a jug.”

“How kind of you,” said Beverly, and persuaded Alma to stay for a beer. David sat speechless as his two women talked of bridge and skating lessons, summer vacation and children’s camps. David was stunned with admiration over Alma the trickster; David was terrified and bewitched.

A routine established itself. When Alma’s menstrual flow was heavy, sometimes they canceled a date. Otherwise, David arrived at the week’s hotel at noon to register and pick up the key. Occasionally the room was not ready, but the hotel would oblige while Alma and he had a drink at the bar. He felt reckless sitting in public with her. At first David used cash. After a few weeks he acquired an American Express card, using his office address. When he registered at each hotel he signed the slip, which paid the bill, and when they were done he left the key in the room. After school stopped, Alma found baby-sitters or arranged for her son to visit friends for three hours. She was wholly free when Samuel spent two weeks at a day camp. Cajoling their spouses, they arranged to take their two family vacations at the same time, not to be separated for long. The first day back, they made love three times.

Roger was never a problem, remaining indistinct and brown-suited at life’s edges, admiring his wife and obeying her. If anything, Beverly was even less troublesome — at the Converse Club pool with the children, visiting her women friends, undemanding in bed. David noted that he paid less attention to Regina and William. He tried to make it up by watching Leave It to Beaver with them, laughing when they laughed. Once the Bardos and the Trusts went to see Jules et Jim together. David and Alma managed to touch once. Their love affair seemed stable and perpetual — except that his next foreign assignment lay ahead, seldom mentioned by either of them. They spoke of a marriage after twin divorces but dismissed the notion because of the children. David daydreamed assignments in Ceylon, trips back to the United States for consultation.

They never quarreled, or almost never. At one of their assignations, Alma refused David’s suggested next meeting because it would require her to break a tennis date with friends. It was a week of conferences for David, and Tuesday was the only possible day for a rendezvous. He was hurt, and mumbled that he supposed tennis was more important than he was. Alma retaliated by mentioning the lovemaking athleticism of a college boyfriend, and David’s stomach went hollow. He lapsed into sullen silence, and Alma left after only one time.

A month later, after school had started again, Alma called David one morning at the office, which she was not to do, and told him she was sorry but she couldn’t meet him at the Clinton that noon as planned. An old college roommate, whom she had not seen for years, had a two-hour layover at National, and Alma had to see her. Controlling his fury, David suggested that they tryst two days hence. Alma agreed. David changed the room reservation, and kept his rage intact for forty-eight hours until Alma, smiling sweetly, entered the hotel room. They made love immediately — angry sex for David — and when they lay back to recover he let her know that breaking dates for friends laying over at National was not to be tolerated.

Alma laughed and teased, but David felt underneath her surface a counterrage that she kept under control. “You’re so possessive,” she said. “Try to let up a little. Max was like that.”

“Max?” said David.

“I lied to you once,” said Alma. “It’s the only lie I ever told you. I know we agreed to tell the truth. I’m sorry. I knew it would upset you.”

“Who’s Max?”

“I told you I’d had only one affair, in New York, but really I had one in Washington three years ago with Max Freitas, F-r-e-i-t-a-s. He’s a law professor at Georgetown. Maybe you met him at some party? It didn’t last long. Six months. We met at hotels like this.”

David felt as though his 707 had dropped ten thousand feet in ten seconds. He remembered no Max Freitas. “You lied to me,” he said. Dimly he understood that her lying gave her power over him. He felt possessed, at the same time giddy with rage and with passion. Alma looked at him steadily and seriously with a faint version of her smile.

“I liked him at first but he was so possessive. I couldn’t move without telling him what I was doing. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

“How many times did you see him?” David’s heart thumped in his chest. Alma began to look angry as he asked more questions. She opened a Gideon and slammed it down without reading from it. She dressed quickly and hurried to the door with her head held high. David sprawled naked on the bed, weeping and outraged, calling after her as she left, “Did you go to the same hotels?”

“You’re disgusting,” said Alma. “I refuse to listen…” She slammed the door.

David was heavyhearted and quarreled with Beverly when she left him with Regina and William on Sunday; her friend Eloise had a problem and needed to talk. After she left, William wanted to watch cartoons and Regina the Redskins. The children squabbled until David shut off the TV and sent them to their rooms howling. He read the Times as well as the Post. He tried to study statistics about the Asian economy. When Beverly returned, they ate dinner in silence and after the children were in bed accused each other of having changed utterly since Jakarta.

The next day as David sat at his desk missing Alma, angry at Alma, she telephoned again. She was heartsick, she said, and must see him now. She would meet him at noon at the Practical Motel, their first secret place. She had something important to tell him. Very important.

Despite his anger David’s heart pounded again. Uncomfortably, he told his assistant that something pressing necessitated his departure and telephoned the motel from a box on the street. He was early, Alma was late, but they fell into each other’s arms in the parking lot before he opened the door. She sat on the bed and he tried to kiss her, horny and furious. She pushed him away. “Not yet. I have to tell you something.”

David feared what he would hear. Alma looked him beautifully in the eyes and spoke with calm candor. “David, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I lied to you. It’s the only time, David, and I’ll never do it again.”

David felt bewildered.

“I was angry. I lied to you. I never had an affair with Max Freitas. Never once. I knew him, he flirted with me, but we never went to bed. I promise, promise.” She patted her hair, and David realized that she had mostly stopped patting her hair.

Alma was convincing, but Alma had been convincing the Friday before. “I’ll never lie to you again. I’m sorry, David! And I can prove it.” She reached into her handbag and took out a crinkled newspaper clipping. She did not smile, and her brow was deeply furrowed. “I told you it happened three years ago?” David looked at the photograph of a frowning man, a headline that announced that Dr. Max Freitas would take up his duties as visiting professor in Frankfurt, leaving Georgetown for a period of eighteen months — and the date over the clipping was four years back. “I saved the clipping to give it to him, back before he went away — we saw each other when I took those classes at Georgetown — but I never saw him again, to give it to him. I don’t think I’ve seen him since I stopped taking classes and he went to Frankfurt. I found this clipping a week ago, which is why I thought about him when I was mad at you. See, he was gone just when I told you we were having an affair.”

David read the date again, and the clipping again. “You sounded so sincere,” he said. “I totally believed you. You scare me. Why should I believe you now?”

“I’ve always been able to do it. I scare myself. David, David, I’ll never do it again!” She unbuttoned his shirt.

When David told Jeff this story, Jeff was speechless for once. He shook his head and looked at David. He started to speak and stopped.

As the Washington winter approached, David spoke idly one afternoon as he and Alma dressed in their nth hotel room. “Dark, dark. I wish we could fly off to get some sun somewhere.”

“Let’s,” said Alma.

How?” said David.

“Beverly hasn’t noticed anything. Roger never notices anything. Can’t you take a week away? Sick leave…or something?”

David nodded. “But you…?”

Alma picked up a Bible, leafing through, then smiled as broadly as when she had brought Beverly the gallon jug. “My best friend in college, my old roommate Simone, the one I saw at National?…Her family has a hunting lodge in the mountains near Palm Springs. Without a telephone.”

“You mean, we can go there? Is it warm?”

“Warm enough to be an excuse. We can fly to Key West, which is closer, and call home once a day, saying — or I can say — that I drove to a pay phone. In California.” David had never seen Alma look so pleased. “Of course we could go to California, but it would be more fun to be someplace else.”

He made reservations for early in December at an oceanfront motel in Key West. Suppose they saw someone they knew? He felt mild anxiety over his work, over Beverly and the children — as he thrilled with adventure. What would Alma come up with next? Panic returned for a moment.

He arranged for the time off with his superior and explained to Beverly that he needed to attend a conference rather confidential in nature. She seemed to take little interest. These days, when David telephoned her at home, she seldom answered. Could Beverly also be having an affair? The notion passed, after a flash of jealousy, without leaving residue.

Alma and David flew together into sunshine, a warm pool, and sandy beaches. They played tennis, lay on the sand, visited shops largely empty, ate well, went to see Days of Wine and Roses, and made love three times a day. Southern California would explain Alma’s tan, while David had intimated to Beverly that his conference was taking him south. Their idyll was interrupted by brief separations when each of them talked long distance to children and spouses. These calls left David melancholy at first. “When are you coming home, Daddy?” said William. Regina sounded distant and Beverly more distant still. Then the calls pleased him — as they did Alma — by their fraudulence.

Their long holiday together was perfect happiness, unshaken by the absence of a Gideon Bible. The day before they flew home, Alma had a new idea: each would make the required telephone call, but from their own illicit room while the other listened. Alma went first, dialing her husband at evening when she knew he would be cooking. Samuel answered first, and Alma smiled sweetly as she lay naked beside David, asking about the spelling test. She listened, saying, “yes,” “my goodness,” “she did?” — until she had to interrupt: “Please put Daddy on the phone.” David overheard a Daddy clearly harassed, making hamburgers because Sammy was tired of pizza, and he hoped she was having a good time in that damned hunting lodge. As she talked to Roger, Alma’s left hand reached over to stroke David’s penis swiftly and more swiftly. “Well, I’ll be home late tomorrow,” Alma told him. “Tell Samuel I love him.”

When she hung up she remarked that David would have to wait before he called Beverly.

When Alma and David returned from Key West, David felt more obsessed than ever. Capers were tender as well as aphrodisiac. One day, Alma declared that these hotel rooms made her sick. “Let’s buy a house.”

David gasped. “Well,” said Alma, “we could rent a room somewhere. Where no one knows us. I could make it pretty. We could meet more often, almost every day.”

What Alma wanted, David procured. Once again he wondered whether he was in love or under a spell. He remembered the time, not long ago, when he thrived under the spell of his State Department work. He found a flat, double bed and kitchenette, in a student neighborhood near American University. The landlord lived a block away; students would pay no attention to random appearances of a middle-aged couple doubtless too old for sex. David showed Alma the flat, to ask if she approved. “I’ll make new curtains,” said Alma, frowning. “These are hideous. I’ll put the little Cassatt print there. Roger will never miss it. Let’s call it Love Nest, the way the tabloids do.”

David rented under the name of Leo Pious; Alma was a lapsed Catholic. With a cheque from a new bank account in Leo’s name, David paid the first and last month’s rent. Whenever he did anything cleverly duplicitous, Alma praised him with enthusiasm. Now they met almost daily at eleven-thirty or twelve, made love, ate cheese or pâté that Alma kept in the refrigerator, made love again, and parted. She never patted her hair anymore. “Your hair is so soft,” said David.

Alma smiled. “I never spray it now,” she said, “except sometimes for a party.” She paused. “It feels better when you touch it.”

When she was menstruating, usually Alma sucked David off; at other times, things were a little messy. Sometimes Alma had to meet women friends — or her friends might suspect. David’s long lunch breaks were noted, but he finished the work assigned him, and under the circumstance felt no need to put in extra time.

After Saturday squash at the Converse Club, David talked with Jeff about Alma. Increasingly David spoke less about the lovemaking and more about the escapades, the tricks Alma played. Once, David concluded, “Affairs require trickery.”

Jeff’s slim face smiled with his irony. “Maybe trickery requires affairs,” he said.

The remark puzzled David for a moment. Then he remembered the Gallo jug, Key West, and Love Nest. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m possessed by the secrecy, the danger. It makes the sex better.”

“You’re possessed by something,” Jeff sighed smiling, wiping his creased forehead with a towel. “It reminds me of my business,” he said.

“What?” said David.

“False identities and documents, codes, drop spots. You and Alma are like an underground cell, plotting against the government. Don’t think plotters don’t enjoy their peril. Danger salts the meat of everyday life: surreptitiousness, close calls, getting away with it. It’s no secret that I spent two years in West Berlin, in contact with antiregime people from the East. Maybe that’s why I’m faithful to Marilyn. My East Germans were always conspiring, always in danger. None of them had love affairs.”

Friday and Saturday afternoons, or on Sunday after tennis, Alma and Dennis attended the same cocktail parties. Each of them arrived and left with a spouse, and in between they drank and danced with their social set. Barbra Streisand on the hi-fi. Duke Ellington. These men and women played bridge and tennis together, and their children visited each other after school. They agreed that no one suspected them. Sometimes they managed to fondle in a dark bedroom: once they went down on each other in an attic.

Often two or three couples would begin a Saturday night at one party and drive to another, and maybe yet another. Once Alma suggested that the Bardos and the Trusts switch places for the drive from one house to another. Beverly and Roger drove off together. David opened the car door for Alma, who had forgotten her scarf and returned to the hallway to find it. When they drove off Alma said, “I didn’t forget my scarf.”

“Why did you…”

“I wanted them to get a head start. We drive by Love Nest on the way to Bernie’s.”

“What will we tell them?”

“I’ll say I was navigator and we got lost. Everybody will believe me.” At Love Nest they were hasty.

After two years had passed they began to quarrel. It was six months before the Bardos would fly to Bombay, and Bombay annoyed Alma. They spoke again of double divorces and again dismissed the notion. Alma didn’t want to go to India. David spoke of schemes by which he and Alma could spend a week in Paris or Tokyo and assured her that his work would require a return to Washington at least twice a year. Alma told him that if he took the assignment in Bombay it meant that he didn’t love her. David answered that if he didn’t take the assignment, it would be the end of his career.

“Career!” said Alma. “Roger likes to talk about careers.

Increasingly, Alma canceled visits to Love Nest. Increasingly, she picked up a Gideon Bible she had secreted under the bed. After two absences in a row, David met her at Leo Pious’s door in a fury. Alma raised her voice — about possessiveness, about Bombay — and walked out saying, “That’s that!” David remained in the room — trembling and heartsick. Twenty minutes later Alma opened the door weeping and threw herself into David’s arms. The next day she brought with her the ingredients and mixer for making mayonnaise. David went so far as to inquire of a superior if it might not be possible for him to remain in Washington. As he entered his superior’s office, he found himself remembering the time Alma and Roger came to dinner, the intensity with which he had talked about his work in Indonesia.

It was not possible. A week later, David and Alma broke up again. After two days Alma called him at the forbidden office, teary and contrite. They came back together again, then broke up again. David understood — in panic, and with something like relief — that the affair was going to end. He had to go to Bombay. He told Jeff as much, who shrugged and patted David’s back. “Take it easy,” said Jeff.

To finish it once and for all, Alma confessed to Roger. Roger was nature’s cuckold, as David understood, fated to marry a beautiful woman who would have his child and a sequence of lovers. Roger would know but he would not know he knew. Alma told David over the telephone that when she confessed, Roger was profoundly shocked and made her promise to stop seeing David or he would divorce her and sue for custody of Samuel. The breakup was final. After two weeks without telephone calls, David emptied out Love Nest. He kept the small Cassatt in a filing cabinet. He enjoyed keeping the Cassatt.

A month later, David had immersed himself in studying Hindi at the Foreign Service Institute. On a Saturday night he watched Alma from a distance at an Alexandria cocktail party as she listened intently to a broker of David’s acquaintance who was clearly lovesick. She patted her tight hairdo. Soon enough, he heard Alma Trust stories again — how she locked herself out of the house, wearing nothing but a bikini bottom. He listened as intently as if the stories were history, and felt wistful and enraged. He tried imagining life in Bombay alone with Beverly.

Not long before their scheduled departure, Beverly and David talked on a Sunday night after the children had gone to bed, speaking about the Bombay apartment they would move to, right on the sea, his predecessor’s place. “It’s ideal,” said David, sounding melancholy.

“I’m not going to Bombay,” said Beverly. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t”

Shocked, David asked why.

Beverly looked straight ahead, not turning toward him. She spoke steadily, monotonously, as if she were reading from cue cards. “I’m in love,” she said. “Eloise and I love each other and we’re going to live together. Eloise knows another couple, where the wife left… We can live right here, in this apartment. The children are used to the place. Eloise works at the hospital. I’ll find part-time work. There’ll be the child support…”

This announcement, David understood had required thought and rehearsal. Busy telephones and strangely essential absences explained themselves. He looked at Beverly intently and realized that he had not seen her for months. Her hair straggled loose. She had stopped going to the beauty parlor, David saw, and he had not noticed. He felt angry. “How can you do this to me and the kids! A woman…” Then again, as when Alma had ended the affair, he felt relief.

“I know about you and Alma Trust,” said Beverly. “Everybody knows.” She returned to her speech. “I’ll take the children. Eloise loves them. Eloise says that two mothers are better than one. William and Regina will be just fine. You can’t take them to Bombay, not by yourself.” It was true, David knew — and felt guilty to accept the loss of his children. “They can fly to see you next summer and you can see them in Washington when you’re on home leave. OK?”

Alma did not keep promises. When David moved from the apartment to a hotel, shortly before his departure, Alma telephoned and said she needed to see him. “Trust Alma,” he thought. He opened the door of his hotel room without kissing her. After an argument, in which David’s reluctance mixed with curiosity and the old obsession, they took each other’s clothes off. They made love, David noted, with rancor and with little comfort. When they finished David told Alma that she had fucked him only because she needed to cuckold her new lover, Piers. She laughed. “Is this the man whose wife left him for another woman? Will you sue for alienation of affection? Piers is not my lover.” Alma found a Gideon in a drawer beside the bed. As she turned the pages, stopping to glance at passages, she looked happily at David. “Do you remember that time I met my old roommate Nicole at National, and hurt your feelings?”

“Yes,” said David. “Of course.”

“It was Max,” Alma said, but David knew that she knew that he knew that she was probably lying.

The night before he flew to Bombay, David woke to find Alma standing beside his bed. “You never lock your door,” she said. “I took the baby-sitter home. We have to be quick.” She slipped out of her shoes, pulled down her pantyhose, pulled up her skirt, and hardened David. Still wearing her mink jacket and her blouse, she rode him as he woke up. When she had concluded herself, she left.

Originally published:
April 1, 2002


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