Good Night, Mr. Knightley – Part 2

departure 2

Jean visited us for several mild rainy days in late November, back from Africa for the holidays and a rest before heading to Europe, and gave us her blessing. Her last assignment had changed her, as if she had pushed herself through some wall and come out the other side intricately etched and worn—less transparent, but also less prickly; her bristles, her irritating air of superiority frictioned off. She was happy for us now. Jean had from the very beginning given me a hard time about my work with HRI, and I’d thought for a while she was annoyed at my stepping on her turf. Or that she couldn’t stand the fact that I was no longer unhappy. ‘How long will this last?’ she had sarcastically asked. The night she broke down on the couch, I had assumed, was some catharsis, some breakthrough, but that was forgotten, never spoken of. After further futile attempts to understand her, to get beyond the arrogance and be given some credit, I’d finally gotten fed up with her and our leave-taking had been cold and superficial. But our time apart was transforming. After the silence, the absence traveled, neither one of us had anything we cared to prove.

We took several long walks along the beach together in the fog, two women talking about what was important to them. It was the first time we spoke as equals. I broke off our conversation at one point to push the wet hair out of my eyes, patting my cheek and declaring, “This mist is good for your skin.” Just a little quip to say, yes, the world is full of loss and the worms are waiting blind and open-mouthed, but we can appreciate the small senualities now and again, can’t we? Had said it knowingly, almost sarcastically, yet I immediately sensed its irrelevance to Jean, and I came to understand on those walks, understand with an unrelenting certitude, the limits on the bond that could form between us—she could not connect to my underlying nature—to foresee how she would spend and end her life alone.

But her stay was sweetly nostalgic for the most part—we remembered the night at Tilden when lightning blew out the TV; I trashed Karen’s many dates. A friend, Isbal Ahmed, and a colleague of Jean’s, Dr. Philippe Ngom, joined us for Thanksgiving dinner. Neither guest, one Pakistani, the other visiting from Senegal, had a totally firm grasp on what the holiday entailed. I gave them a long-winded explanation (the Macy’s parade, huge balloons, football . . . ) ending with “It’s a harvest thing,” which seemed to make the most sense of it. Jean and I had baked two pies the night before; Isbal brought with her a huge casserole of rice pilaf and Dr. Ngom a baba ghanoush-type-of-thing; we had sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, lots of good bread and a big salad, so our table was indeed appropriately bountiful. “Are you going to carve the bird?” I asked Ross as a joke as we stood in the doorway between the dining room and kitchen. I handed him a nicely roasted chicken on a platter, but he sulkily refused to take it, eyes stern at the infraction, the mouth curved downward in a pout.

“Just put some on a plate and bring it out,” he said in a low but annoyed voice. “It’s stupid to have chicken on Thanksgiving. Really stupid. I can’t believe you didn’t get a turkey.”

“You know the other three don’t eat meat.” He made a face at me, like how would I know? “I wasn’t even sure you’d be back in time,” I continued, getting in my own dig. “I’m not gonna cook up a huge turkey for two people—we’d be eating it for months.” Still holding the platter, I jerked my head in the direction of our guests. “They don’t care. Why are you being so rigid?”

“I’m not being rigid,” Ross countered in his most annoying I’m-rational-and-you’re-hysterical lawyer voice. “I have nothing against roast chicken; you make excellent chicken. Just don’t try to pass it off as a proper Thanksgiving dinner. You need a turkey with stuffing . . . real stuffing . . .” His mother’s stuffing, I thought. I knew enough not to go there.

“Ross, Amy. Come and join us. Don’t stand there arguing. Come and eat,” Isbal called out.

Jean and Dr. Ngom declined wine, so I drank for them. Philippe was gracious, praising everything except the cranberries (they were too tart). The wine went to my head, but I handled it well, I thought, for someone saddled with a brilliant but mean fiancé. I attended to Philippe on my right and Jean on my left with aplomb, listened attentively to Isbal, all the while casting injured, provocative glances at Ross across the table. Our eyes met several times. Emboldened, prodded by the look I found there, I picked up the platter of chicken, holding it unsteadily in one hand. “Ross.” I spoke loudly, cutting off all other conversation, all heads turning towards me. “Would you like some chicken?”

Later as I was cutting the pies, Jean serving the coffee in the dining room, Ross came into the kitchen, silently putting his arms around my waist from behind and resting his face on the top of my head. “Watch it, mister,” I said. “I have a knife.”

“I’ll settle with you later,” he promised in my ear. He released me, successfully stealing a chunk of crust before I shooed him away.

“Get outta here.”

“Just remember,” he added, coming back and pulling me against him again, “public drunks are never as amusing as they think they are.”

Mildly chastised and only marginally more sober, I retired to the living room with our guests after dessert. Ross and Jean had started a “discussion” over the pumpkin pie as to whether it was better to work within the political system or remain outside and thus unsullied by the inevitable corruption therein; Jean at one point opining that HRI was losing its street credibility. (Them’s fighting words!) They got so volatile they were “volunteered” to clean up, basically told to take it out in the kitchen, Jean minutely inspecting each glass and plate as she washed and argued, scratching at invisible specs of food with her fingernail; Ross, towel in hand and irritation flickering over his face, putting them away half-wet and in the wrong place. Jean’s voice wafted in toward us as we tried to ignore the galley debate (“Isbal, did you know that Philippe . . .”), rising higher and higher, the caffeine, sugar kicking in (she had had several cups of coffee and also had split a second piece of pie with me), her stream of dogma increasingly flecked with tiny barbs and insults. Ross refused to give ground, eventually just talking louder and louder. She had parked her car, metaphorically speaking, in front of him and wouldn’t let him pass, so he just walked right over it, stomping on the hood, roof, trunk. I trotted out now and then to make sure they didn’t come to blows.

On leaving us a few days later, Jean said to me as she was gathering up her scant belongings in the small bedroom, grabbing hold of my hand, “Ross is a good guy.” She gripped my hand in hers for a few minutes, patting it, the two of us sitting silently side by side on the bed in the bright white light, the first sunny day since her arrival. “I’m proud of you,” she finally said. She was making life statements, talking as if she expected never to see us again, and it was making me nervous. We drove her to the train station in New Haven. As the train pulled in and people pushed around us, she kissed me goodbye, her face wan and tired-looking above the gauzy, garnet-colored scarf I had bought for her, her earrings fluttering, her eyes semi-circled with wrinkles I hadn’t noticed before. Turning to Ross, she poked him in the chest with her finger, saying in a strangely proprietary tone, “You’re lucky; I hope you realize that.” As the train pulled out, I had an eerie, at-a-loss feeling that the headmistress, not without emotion, had handed me my diploma.

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