FOUR YEARS AGO NOW, summer came to Washington suddenly one SUnday in the middle of May. It was a glorious and patriotic day. Whole families came down to the Mall from city and suburbs to browse among the sun-stricken presidential monuments and sail toy boats in the Reflecting Pool. Integration worked perfectly that day.
I was basking on the fat unmown grass beside the Reflecting Pool, bare-Chested and half in a dream, when I saw a lady coming my way. I way "lady" - she looked a little stiff for a day like this, in her dotted blouse and pleated white skirt, an dher blonde hair yanked back in a bun. But she was coming through the grass barefoot, and her white shoes were dangling from one finger, and they were jiggling little tricks, the way she walked. She had a child's sweater hanging in the other hand.
She sat in the grass, not far away. I smiled; she smiled. She spread her legs out rather lavishly.
We started talking, and I movaed over to where she sat. She told me her name was Molly. She was about 30 or so, my age. She said she was divorced, and I said so was I. She was more refined than I was, by a good deal - we both knew that. But wasn't that the fascination? I had the sure impression that Molly was out to find some momentary excitement, and I was it.
I was between partners, had no plans. It was one of those heady change-of-season days.
At that time in my life, everybody talked about "opening up relationships," which usually meant divorce. Marriage and divorce: That's what Molly and I talked about - guilt and shame, liberation and visiting rights, and how everything worked out in the end.
But it bothered her, Molly said, that her ex hardly ever came over to see their son. "I don't understand it," she said. "It's all right that he left - it's all right now - but he could show Aaron some love. Aaron's his child too, and he's Aaron's father. Which is strange," she said, kind of laughing, "because David came over just this morning. It had been two whole months, but he did - he came over, and he took Aaron to the park, and they came back and played in Aaron's room . . .and David was very good with him. And when he left, right at the door, he even kissed me, on the cheek here . . . which is strange."
We were sitting on the edge of the Reflecting Pool now, and Molly was swishing her toes through the water.
"But it doesn't bother me anymore," she said.
"It doesn't bother me at all. Why . . . I've got a wonderful life now. I've got friends, I go to the opera, I go to the theater, I paint, and I've got Aaron, who is simply the joy of my life, and I've got my apartment. It's the most beautiful apartment. . . you really should see it."
"Did you read the book 'The Heartbreak Kid'? Or see the movie?"
"It's about a couple that takes a vacation at the beach, and another girl steals her husband. That movie's about David and I." She acted almost proud of it, as if she'd been the victor somehow instead of the victim.
At this point a toddler came lurching and wobbling along the edge of the pool like a tiny fat drunk on a tightrope, threatening at any moment to plunge into the water, giggling idiotically. The child finally tripped PLOP into Molly's arms. She rolled him in a ball and squeezed. "This is Aaron," she said.
I told her I thought she was a good mother. "I liked the way you let him go. You let him take the chance of falling in. To me," I said, "That's real loving - letting go."
I do love him," she said simply. "I love Aaron."
A few minutes later Molly was asking if I'd like to see her lovely apartment. It wasn't far, she said.
We walked through empty Sunday downtown streets buttery with the day's last radiance. She clacked a smart rhythm on the sidewalk with her heels; I clomped alongside in my cowboy boots.
Molly went on and on about her apartment. It was the same one she and David had shared, she said - and then she was talking about that again: "We were married for eight years, and we did everything. We went out for dinner whenever we wanted . . . we went to the concerts . . . had lots of friends . . . we traveled - to Europe and to . . . other places too. And we did have everything, and for eight years we were madly in love. But then it all changed - as soon as I got pregnant and Aaron came along. It all changed then. David said nothing was wrong, but it was.He just lost interest. He didn't care about us any more. Then one weekend when Aaron was two months old, we left him with my parents and got off for a weekend by ourselves. We went to Rehoboth, and that's where it happened - the Heartbreak Kid."
She said it all in a way of breezy curiosity, as if still wondering what did happen after all.
We walked through Dupont Circle, around the fountain, out the other side. We stopped at one of those sidewalk cafes on Connecticut.I had a beer; Molly had a cup of tea; she paid.
As she was recounting the blessings of divorce again - her evenings at the theater, her painting, her apartment, her adorable son - she turned to me earnestly. "I tell you what," she said."If you'll shave off your beard and that long hair of yours, I'll take you to the opera next Wednesday."
"Oh come on!" was all I could manage.
"I will. I have two tickets." She was utterly sincere, wide-eyed. "I let it drop.
Aaron was getting fidgety; it was time to take him home for his cap.We left the cafe and walked over to a small old Georgetown mansion. "I've got the second floor," Molly said. We climbed the back stairs. I really didn't know what to expect.
The door opened into Aaron's room, which was decorated like an ad in Baby Talk magazine - bright stripes racing up and down the walls, stuffed animals suspended from the ceiling, toy chests and dressers from Scandinavia. Aaron's crib sat right by the doorway gaping into the next room.
We walked through, and this was Molly's room. Her own double bed looked back into Aaron's room. Molly stopped the tour at the bureau and took a snapshot from its wedged place at the edge of the mirror. "David and I in Europe," she said.
The bedroom was dim, the curtains drawn, the bed unmade. Molly led me into the dining room - brownish and somber - and finally to the living room. This did have an elegant air. . . the high corniced ceilings, abstract canvases on the wall, mod glassy-'n'off-white furniture. Tall citified windowns let the struggling daylight in.
"Very nice," I said. I was standing by the windows looking down through the newly leafed treetops at the antique scene of old-town Washington. It was a shot from a movie - me the U.S. Senator pondering something grave, gazing through the bald-eagle door knocker on the row house across the street.
Molly was back putting Aaron to bed.She was quitae a pretty woman, and it felt right to be here. She thought I was much younger.
As soon as she returned to the living room. I could see something was wrong. Her face had fallen flat, and she dropped limply into an easy chair. I sat in the chair next to her.
She was inspecting her hands. The baby rustled noisily in back. There wasn't anything to say right now. Darkness was taking over the room.Molly kneaded her fingers, pinched the loose skin around her knuckles. Her hands were yellowy and shiny - old hands. She was biting her lip, and then she quivered over and broke:
"I CAN'T DO ANYTHING!" she shrieked.
"Hey . . .easy . . ." I leaned forward and touched her hand.
"I can't do anything!" she screamed. "ANYTHING! He's always there wherever I go! He's always here. AARON! Oh Aaron . . ." She had her fists boxed against her temples. "I can't even have a glass of wine in the middle of the day! BECAUSE AARON'S HERE!"
"Hey . . . easy . . ."
But she wasn't listening. "I can't even have a glass of wine with a friend! Oh maybe with dinner, but I can't even . . .I can't even -"
"Yes you can!" I shouted back. I kind of kneeled down and put a hand on her arm. "Hey, you can do more than you think. Aaron's all right - believe me, I know. I've got kids too. He's all right . . . it won't hurt him . . . you're a wonderful mother. Hey look! How about if I go out and get us a bottle of wine, okay?"
Her china face, bowed and running with tears, nodded yes.
I scrambled to my feet before she could change her mind. "What kind?"
"A dry white."
"All right. Now you just stay here . . ."
She looked up with melted eyes. "It's David's middle name," she pleaded. "David . . . Aaron . . .Worth."
"It'll be all right," I said. And I knew I could make it that way, if she'd give me the chance.
I rode her bicycle to the store. I picked out a dry white for her and pop wine for me. Riding back I smoked a jay. Gliding through the old elm tunnels, under the yesterday streetlamps, I was moving on an escalator through brand-new moments never known before.
I found Molly sitting in a corner, in the dark, in Aaron's room. She had the boy in her lap, holding him.
"YOu got him up," I said, but she didn't answer. I figured maybe she was using him, the way mothers can do, as protection against a man's advances; she didn't have to do that.
We went back to the living room, the three of us. She seemed happier now. She said she'd try my kind of wine, so I poured the fizzy stuff into two of her long-stem glasses. We sat on the couch and clinked a toast, and she said:
"Do you realize you're with somebody famous?"
"Don't you recognize me?" She had a droll cat-that-swallowed-the-mouse look.
"You're famous? No . . . tell me."
"I've been in the movies," Molly said. There's been a book written about me, and a movie made about me, and there's another movie being made right now."
"No kidding! What movie?"
"The first one I already told you about - "The Heartbreak Kid.' He wrote it about us."
Aron was crawling across the glass coffee table, mindlessly knocking off magazines, books of matches, cigarettes, and finally kicking over Molly's wineglass. Unperturbed, she picked it up, refilled it, and let Aaron go on exploring.
"What's the other movie?" I ventured.
"Oh you've heard the name, I'm sure. It's a documentary. You'll hear about it soon, if you haven't already."
"What? Tell me."
"Look," she said. "You're a writer. YOU just remember everything that happens today, here, and go home and make a story out of it, and the story will make you famous."
"Come on," I said, trying to keep it light. "This is getting weird. Tell me about the other movie."
"It's being filmed at this very moment," she said. "It's a documentary. You see, last month Aaron and I took a trip to the coast - we wanted to visit a friend of mine, and we had a wonderful time. But while we were gone, David and his friend sneaked into this apartment and they set up cameras there, behind a sheet in the dining room, and they put all the sound equipment too. And everything that's going on . . . everything we're saying now; this whole day . . . is being recorded."
I shot a quick look into the dark dining room, almost expecting to see a sheet.
"The movie is all about me and Aaron," said Molly, matter-of-factrly. "But now you're in it too."
"But why would anyone -"
"Don't you understand? It's David. He wants custody of Aaron. He's gathering evidence."
"No," I objected. "I thought you said David didn't care about Aaron. He hardly ever comes over to see him. . ."
"That's all part of the smokescreen. No, David wants custody. That's why he's making this movie - to show what a terrible mother I am."
"You're not! You're a fantastic mother!"
She walked over to the windows and stood looking out. A streetlamp, just below window level, cast a harsh corona around her silhouette. This was crazy.
"Has David told you he wants custody?" I tried.
"No. But he's got it all arranged to happen on June 19th. I hate this place!"
"What's June 19th?"
"I hate this apartment!"
"Hey take it easy. What's June 19th? "It seemed the right thing, to keep her talking.
"Father's Day. That's when he'll get Aaron. The movie will be out by then, and that's when they'll go to court and take Aaron."
"But that's a Sunday," I pointed out stupidly. "Court's not open."
"No," she said, "it doesn't matter, because they have the evidence - it's all right here." She swept her arm to take in this scene - the pilled wine . . . the incriminating hippie stranger . . .Aaron rampaging out of control. "And I didn't tell you abouta the frie," Molly said.
"My friend's apartment next door - she had a fire, and David's friends set it, but they blamed it on me. They'll bring that up too. It's all arranged."
Molly sat in a chair and gathered up Aaron. The boy burrowed eagerly into her flesh.He seemed an uncommonly happy child. Molly stroked his hair into a part, and I said:
"Look, why don't you go to California. You liked it there; you could stay with your friend. YOu could just take off, you and Aaron. You don't belong in this apartment, Moly - too many memories, you know? You could fly to San Diego - tomorrow morning! - and get a fresh start." I was up on the edge of my seat.
Shelaughed it off. "They'd get me at the airport."
"The FBI," she said. "I saw them last time. I had to sneak in the airport the back way. They'd never let me get away again."
I poured another glass of wine.
"Do you like steak?" she said.
"Sure . . ."
"Then tell you what!" She sat up brightly. "I'll fix streak and baked pocatoes and we can have a nice dinner here, and then I'll put Aaron to ded, and then we can meke out on the couch for awhile, and then you can leave."
She was so thoroughly innocent. I said. "Okay."
We ate sitting on the couch, chinaware in our laps. It was all small talk, as if nothing had gone on before. As soon as we'd finished, Molly cradled Aaron ever-lovingly and carried him back to his room.
I put the dishes in the kitchen and went back to the couch. It was very quiet, and I wondered if I ought to leave. I couldn't help thinking of the wife that I had left behind, of the woman that I'd left her for, and still longed for, and the awful irrational complications all around. I'd never imagined life could be so deadly serious or so much fun. The woman I loved was like this too: Desire all shut up inside, and me not having the key.
Molly came back through the dining room and stood in the archway before me. Oh God. She was wearing a baby-jane nightie - just a brief little film of spring yellow, curtseying open at the bottom. I sat up on the couch.
When she spoke, the voice was stone-dead: "I'm going to bed. YOu can sleep on the couch if you want. Goodnight."
She turned and went back through the hall. Her hair, unfurled now, was combed to falling silk down over her shoulders, and it kind of waved back at me.I sat there dumbstruck.
Then ther I was, walking down the hallway too. I listened to my boots clomp one by one on the hardwood, melodramatically, as if I really were just acting out a role in Molly's film, and watching from outside myself.
I sat on the edge of her bed. I don't think I surprised her. She lay curled on top of the open sheets, her back turned. The only light was the shallow glimmer of the clock-radio on the nightstand. The radio issued a dreamy symphony. I put my hand on her temple and smootahed back her, hair."It was hard to leave," I said. "You seemed so sad."
Aaron squealed from the next room, through the open doorway.
"Or maybe I just want you," I said. "You're tough on a guy, wearing that little thing, and then . . .you know."
"That's Beethoven," she said. "One summer David and I went to a Beethoven festival in Vermont." I could feel the bastard's photo-face staring down from the bureau behind me.
"Forget David," I said. "I'm here now. We can have fun."
"Forget David," I said. "I'm here now. We can have fun."
Do you want me?"
"Yes," I said, respectfully.
"All right," she said, and rolled onto her back.
Starting to undress, I heard a wild gurgling form the next room. I looked, and there was Aaron trampolining madly at the end of his crib, grinning in at us with his absurd little funnyputty face. I suppose I should have shut the door, but instead I eased back into bed.
I tried to make some warmth between us. Molly stayed stiff as a plank, staring at the ceiling. Aron's crib was squeaking feverishly.
"What's wrong, is it Aaron?" I said. "Let me close the door."
"No," said Molly, and with that she was up and skipping through the doorway to the nursery. She grabbed the squiggling kid, came back in, and sat him upright on the bed. "There," she said, kissing him on the cheek. Then she rose up on her knees and gaily flung off her nightie.She fell back on the pillow and fluffed out her hair, in B-grade imitation. "Yes," she whispered, "let's."
But it was strictly mechanical, like the labor of old marriage - two skeletons rattling together in ritual, to satisfy whatever primitive purposes we each might have had for coming together here this way. I finished quickly.
Lying next to her, staring at the same patch of ceiling, I said, "You didn't have to do it."
"I wanted to," she said. "It was good."
I lit a cigarette. The flare of the match broughta whoop of hilarity from Aaron. Aaron, angelic like the devil, the flame flashing in his eyes - More! More!
"List," Molly whispered., "Franz Lizst." The radio melody enveloped her.
I rested the cigarette, half-smoked, in the ashtray and started getting dressed.
"Remeber." said Molly, "I've got two tickets to the opera Wednesday."
"Do I have to shave off my beard and hair?"
"I don't think so," I said.
"There's not much time."
Dressed and ready to leave, I sat back on the bed. "Time for what?"
"Till June 19th."
"Maybe it won't happen," I said. "Maybe they won't take him away at all."
"No, not that," she said. "I'm not going to live."
"Hun? No really, I think it'll be alright."
"That's what's going to happen in June."
"Hey, take care . . .okay?"
"Go out the front door if you like," she said. "Click it behind you."
"Maybe I'll give you a call. Take care."
Walking down the hallway, through the dining room, I could still hear Aaron googling and twittering away in Molly's bed. Aaron was everpresent. Aaron the flesh of David, the living spirit, the shame.Aaron was the camera!
This place was haunted, and I didn't feel I could have the slightest power over what would happen. There was nothing I could do. When I reached the front door I heard a wail from the bedroom:
"AARON GO TO BED! IT'S TIME TO GO TO BED! GODDAMMIT IT'S MIDNIGHT GO TO BED! Oh Aaron please . . ." I clicked the door behind me.
The night air felt indescribably fresh to my face. All around me the air - a sweet air, a tepid midnight breeze - the space all around me, in all directions, was open and boundless. What a wonderful feeling: There was nothing I could do to make her happy - to make Molly happy, or Carol, or Linda, or anyone. It was out of my hands. My own life suddenly offered such billowing possibility, and summer just begun: I wandered into the lobby of the Hilton, and everything was fresh and colorful, touchable, velvety, alive.
The next morning I thought of calling David Aaron Worth and telling him. But what could I tell him that he wouldn't already know.
Father's Day came and went. The next week I tried to call Molly, just to see. There was no answer. I tried the next day; still no answer. I got a neighbor's number out of the crisscross telephone directory and called that number. The neighbor said, yes, Molly and Aaron lived next door, as always.
We get only the briefest glimpses, only once in the most enormous private passions being spent away beyond our comprehension, behind closed doors. Four years later, from 2,000 miles away, I wonder if that movie could still be going on in there.