The most wanted, p.2
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       The Most Wanted, p.2

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  Of course, I can’t ever know whether that would have happened to Dillon and me. Whether we’d ever have had fights or got divorced or started to hang around with different crowds. We never passed each other on a street or even held hands. We never got anywhere close to getting ordinary. It wasn’t ordinary how quickly he became everything to me. It wasn’t ordinary how quickly he had to become nothing. It wasn’t natural: I only knew Dillon a handful of days. Most of the time Dillon was growing up and going to school and even making love, I never knew him. Maybe that was the real Dillon, and the Dillon I knew hardly real at all.

  When I was a kid, the one time I ever got farther away from Avalon than the half-hour bus ride to San Antonio was when Mama and Grandma and my brother and sister and me went to visit my aunt Debbie Lynn in Galveston. I was almost six, and I didn’t even know there was an ocean alongside Texas. No one ever told me.

  Debbie Lynn took us to the beach in her car. The end of it was invisible, it was so long. And the white strip was so much a contrast with the green Gulf, water that seemed like a huge soft mattress, that I couldn’t take it in all at once. I had to look down at my feet. Down there was this whole carpet of tiny shells, no bigger than my thumbnail, with colors I’d never seen before except in a church window—rose pink and gray and shiny black. I started to scoop them up and stuff them in my pockets and even my undershirt, peeking around at everyone else on the beach and wondering why they weren’t doing the same thing. How could anybody keep from wanting them, these beautiful things just sitting there, free for the taking?

  But later on that night, when those shells dried off, I almost cried. They still had their tiny fan shape. But they didn’t have their colors anymore. They were dull. You could barely believe they could be those same ones that lay gleaming, washed in the sand.

  I remember asking my aunt, Which are the real colors?

  But she was like my mama: nothing drove her more nuts than a child asking questions. So I decided myself about those shells, the way I had to decide most things when I was little. I studied it without the information a grownup could give you.

  And I decided that both colors of the shells were real.

  It just depended on where you were.



  THAT MORNING, I had crawled in to work, my pressed white cotton blouse already damp and crumpled at the waist just from the ten-minute drive to the office. I was beat from the heat and sapped from a major wee-hours bicker with Stuart. We didn’t fight, Stuart and I. I don’t think we ever really had a fight—not a blowout of the kind my sister and her husband have twice a month and laugh about later. Don had such a habit of hurling the contents of a cup or a bowl at the ceiling during his rants that one year, for their anniversary, Rachie hired an artist to paint a mural of stains—from coffee to ketchup—on the kitchen ceiling, so Don’s outbursts wouldn’t show. “He’s just loud,” Rachael said, “not dangerous.”

  Don loved the mural. He beamed at Rachael and said, “That’s why you’re my best girl.”

  “Enshrining their dysfunction,” Stuart commented when I told him about it. “Well, to each his own.”

  What Stuart and I had instead of fights were long, tortured, semantically dissective chats, in which each of us would try to out-lawyer the other—as if anybody ever prevailed in a personal disagreement through the use of logic. The night before Arley Mowbray turned up in my office and overturned my life, the chat had been about our marriage, which either was or was not imminent, depending on which of us you talked to. Stuart had been pulling cruise folders out of the Sunday paper and leaving them on my nightstand for months, as well as speculating aloud about getting La Casita to cater its famous ranch eggs for a brunch. But I, for my part, was not picturing a beige linen frock and a straw hat in my near future—though that was actually the only sort of wedding outfit I thought I could endure.

  Stuart especially thought it would be fun to fly to Las Vegas and get married early in the day so we could spend the night at the blackjack tables.

  “Don’t you think that would be cool?” he’d razzed me that night, as I rinsed the leftovers of Greek salad from the Fiesta ware we’d just bought. “We could get one of those heart-shaped tubs. Like those old ads for the Poconos.” I had to laugh, picturing Stuart and me in a red enamel tub, disporting ourselves among the suds. I wonder now whether Stuart felt the boat rocking for us, that fall, long before I did. He had ratcheted up his suitor act a couple of notches, though at the time I couldn’t imagine why.

  People always say they know their lovers better than they know themselves, but when Stuart said that, it was literally true. Three days before I’d get a cold, he’d predict it by noticing a change in my eyes—and he was never wrong. He could gauge how bad my day had been by how long it took me to turn the key in the front door, and he’d be ready to offer a back rub (which, unlike another man’s, would not turn into a front rub within the first three minutes). My parents loved Stuart from the moment they met him, but I forgave him that, even though he sometimes teased me by urging my mother on the phone to exercise her parental rights: “Miriam, she won’t set the date. Why can’t you just give me her hand? I thought that was how this worked.” Long silences afterward, during which Stuart would simply smile and nod, made me assume my mother had launched into her own visions for my wedding. Marrying off the plain older sister would, for her, represent a major victory. Given her way, Mom would have the lamps on the dinner tables encrusted with pale-pink furled rosebuds and would fly little second cousins in from Chicago and Flagstaff to strew petals. I would hate this, but Stuart wouldn’t have minded. He was a real person in that respect, adaptable and forgiving, and he proclaimed himself up for any kind of ceremony, large or small, that would end with my being his one and only. As for me, I’d never thought seriously about Stuart and me being married. Or about our being apart. Both things had always seemed excessive.

  Since we’d met in Chicago, where we were both public defenders and Stuart was just beginning his novitiate as a capital punishment abolitionist, we’d marveled at our easy, undemanding fit. Displaced New Yorkers greet each other with pathetic relief no matter where they wash up, but almost instantly, it was clear that Stuart and I had a shared sense of things that went way beyond a common city of origin. We agreed on things no one else even considered. We both thought Dionne Warwick could sing rings around Whitney Houston. Locked in separate rooms and allowed to make only one phone call, we would each order pizza with green peppers and pineapple, easy on the cheese. We both thought Jack Nicholson was the world’s most overrated actor and Jackie Gleason the most underrated.

  “You can have all of them,” Stuart said the night we met. “You can have Chinatown. You can even have The Godfather, Part Two. There is only one real movie. The Hustler. The Hustler is my life.”

  I could count on him never to say “presently” when he meant “currently.” He could count on me to be able to sing all the Belmonts’ parts if he sang the Dion parts on “Run-around Sue.”

  Ten years later, our routine was still just as predictable and satisfying. We worked all week like dogs and then gave ourselves over utterly to our daylong Sunday date, which only an execution, or the threat of one, could derail. A long, late breakfast and then a drive to one of the hamlets sprinkled around San Antonio. Thirty minutes by car, and you’d feel time had dialed back thirty years—that’s how small those towns, like the towns Arley and Dillon grew up in, really were. People sold Miz Stern’s settee or Miz Brainard’s quilts for the equivalent of East Coast pocket change. Not that Stuart and I bought anything much. The rare tchotchke aside, our antiquing journeys mainly amounted to wishful foraging, in the spirit of a more roomy and prosperous someday we somehow never really articulated. “We should just keep the furniture we have, Anne,” Stuart told me once. “By the time we get around to a house, this stuff will be antiques.”

  Do I remember the words and thoughts I had the night before I met Arley so clearly
only because it was the night before? Do things seem more meaningful because subsequent events etch certain cues into a framework that has more weight? I remember rinsing the plates and listening to Stuart sketch increasingly weird motifs for our wedding, and I remember that I suddenly thought, Who will get the Fiesta ware? Why did I think such a thing?

  It scared me. “Well, Stuart,” I’d said finally, “at least it’d be a story to tell the grandchildren. Except there wouldn’t be any grandchildren.”

  And that started it, not a new discussion but a thinly disguised variation of a debate we’d had six times, this one distinguished only by its more urgent tenor. I could make Stuart see all the reasons why I didn’t want to get married unless we were going to have a child, and I could even get him to understand them. But I couldn’t get him to feel the same way. A child was beside the point, he would insist. The point was that “living together” at our age was just laziness or perversity—trying to prove something to an audience of people who were either dead or no longer gave a damn.

  I, personally, thought that it was Stuart who was trying to prove something. Despite all his stalwart cheer, what I really sensed in Stuart about getting married was a great giving up, like the big get-it-over-with sigh he gave every morning as he got up off the couch to run, after lying coiled in the fetal position, his shoes unlaced, for fully ten minutes. He seemed to believe that marriage, like running, would be healthy for a person, even if initially strenuous and cumbersome.

  “Stuart, you don’t regard getting married as an adventure,” I told him that night.

  “You don’t regard it as an adventure, either,” he replied.

  “But you shouldn’t get married after ten years just because you’ve run out of other things to do.”

  “I haven’t run out of other things to do. I assumed that we’d get married one of these decades, Anne. We’re the oldest living cohabitators in America.”

  “Not so,” I told him, picking up a bolster to throw at him. (I hate this trait in myself, this willingness to cut the tension in a debate with jabber and slapstick when I should say nothing and let the frosty silence work my will, the way other women do.) “Your uncle Stan and Missus LePollo are.”

  “They’re trying to avoid losing their Social Security. Pretty soon we’ll be doing the same thing. So how about it, schweetie? What’ve you got lined up for a week from Saturday? Or Sunday, if you’re busy? Let me make an honest woman of you, even if you are a lawyer.”

  “You mean that’s what you want to do? Just mosey on over to the Bexar County Courthouse and lasso up a judge?”

  “I already said it would be romantic to just elope.”

  “To downtown?”

  “Well, you didn’t seem to like the Elvis Chapel idea. So what do you want to do? Rent the back room of Mister Allegretti’s in Hoboken? Or did you want a chuppah, and a light-bulb to step on?”

  It was kind of entertaining. And because of that as much as anything else, I didn’t want to rev up the child thing. It wasn’t that I craved reproduction with every waking breath. But I was thirty-nine that winter night, and I figured that if I was going to give the matter an honest chance, it would have to be soon. In fact, I’d been sort of madly dicing around with our birth control in recent months, not really taking any reckless chances, but not covering every base, either, just to see if anything happened. Nothing had.

  Unlike virtually every one of my single friends, I’d never had an abortion or even a serious pregnancy scare. My period marched in unremarkably every month, took off its cardigan, and stayed for the exact same four days it had since I was thirteen. Was I that careful? Or that sterile? In the past few years, the distinction had begun to matter. And so I dithered around that night: I wasn’t ready to have a child right now. I wasn’t ready to say I never wanted one. I didn’t spend my days at Women and Children First spinning fantasies about my own nestlings, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to see what reasons I had for choosing not to be a mother.

  “Stuart, I think the way it goes for most people who stay childless is that they’re tempted to have children but they know they have good reasons not to. I just don’t have those good reasons.”

  Didn’t that sound sensible?

  “A person doesn’t have a child because she can’t think of a reason not to, Anne. And you do have reasons not to. You have a demanding, draining job—”

  “Which I don’t even want half the time,” I interrupted. “I could do fifty other things. Part time, even.”

  This was the major difference between us: I found my work interesting and even compelling, but it was not a calling, as Stuart’s was for him. This often made things easier: when Stuart got the chance to work in Texas (the equivalent of Jerusalem for a death row lawyer), I could tag along, certain I’d find a job. And I did. I could even see myself working in private practice one day. It would not put my soul in jeopardy to make more than thirty thousand dollars a year, and I was still a doctor’s daughter: I liked my sheets to have the two hundred thread count, and I bought new running shoes twice a year, while Stuart wore his until they were as thin as ballet slippers. Capital punishment, the Knicks, and I—in that order, I sometimes felt—were the reasons Stuart got out of bed in the morning.

  “You’re getting to a dangerous age,” he’d told me that night, making his opening argument for the prosecution.

  The defense objected: “People have kids much later now, Stuart. You know that.”

  “And there are already too many children in the world. . . .”

  “There are too many lawyers in the world too.”

  “Anne,” he pleaded, “you know what I am. You know what I do. When I think of that mix with a child in it . . .” It wasn’t just the hours, the strain, the pitiless economic pasting they took (Stuart and his colleagues at the Texas Defense Center made salaries that didn’t seem horrible on paper, until you factored in days that lasted seventy-two hours, none of them billable). All that did make for a fragile personal life, true enough. But the real reason death row lawyers didn’t have children was that life was incompatible with death.

  For Stuart’s clients, everything that could go wrong with life had. “The mental slowness we pleaded was no stretch. The guy was a rock—he was plant life with a tongue.” So Stuart’s best Texas friend, Tarik, once said of Willert Styles, a spree killer Tarik had battled three years to save, whose date with fate (Stuart and his friends called an execution “dinner and a movie”) took place just a couple of months before. “He was a bag of lawn clippings with legs, and his parents would have treated lawn clippings better.”

  “If they’re so worthless,” my girlfriend Jeanine used to ask Tarik, “then why is it so important for them to live?”

  “It’s only important for them not to die,” Tarik would tell her.

  I’d heard it all so many times. I even believed in it. I was proud of Stuart’s convictions. Still, an overwhelming lassitude seized me whenever Stuart pulled the “what I am” card in one of our discussions. From that moment on, it would be like running in cold syrup. We’d pirouette around the impasse like smart people: Stuart would say his work was just like having a baby; it ruined his sleep and trashed his social life. But it never grew up, I’d respond, it never got smarter and made you a valentine.

  Back and forth. Back and forth.

  Point, Stuart. Advantage, Annie.

  The unspoken fact was that there was no way to compromise: one of us would have to blink. It was inevitable that we’d eventually wash up on the place where there was nothing left but to consider what would happen if we couldn’t get married. Would we go on as we were? Break up?

  I knew that for Stuart, remaining the kind of loverly pals we’d always been, in bed and out, was a life goal. But I didn’t know if it still was for me.

  So that night I started to feel really sorry for both of us. How poignant it was that, despite neither of us really being wrong, nothing could really be all right. Sad, even contrite, Stuart
began nuzzling my shoulders: another of his life tenets was that a nice sexy interlude could bridge all human spans. I didn’t exactly disagree with this prescription, usually. But this time, unlike other times, neither of us could even summon the will for sex. Looking back, I see that sense of something beginning to end must have prepared the ground for what took root between Arley and me. Of course, if you had asked me then, I would have told you that Arley’s kind of trouble was the distilled essence of everything about Women and Children First that could grind a lawyer to a stump. Some nights, my junior colleague, Patty Flanagan, and my friend Jeanine—an adoption social worker—would end a just-girls night at our favorite haunt with a toast to Louise Marker Drew. Mrs. Drew was the Texas whiskey heiress who stunned her kin twenty years earlier by bequeathing her entire estate to found a legal support center for women in trouble. “To Missus Drew,” Jeanine would say, “defending the sacred right of women to make piss-poor life choices!”

  Patty and I didn’t really feel that way about our clients, not usually, not any more than Jeanine believed in chastity belts for her serial-birth mothers. Some of my clients squeezed my heart with their courage and gallantry. But others . . . you did get weary. A young woman would show up with a fat lip and a big belly, and you’d get her sorted out—a training job, a place to live—and eighteen months later she’d be back, with the same fat lip and big belly. After seven years, burnout was not just a concept. At first—in fact, for a long time—I fooled myself into believing that my involvement with Arley was so intense because it constituted a career crossroads, either a new beginning or a last hurrah. It was never that. It was, from the beginning, a person-to-person call, a near-biological obligation. I hadn’t had such an experience before—how could I have recognized it?

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