Alice is no fool: this absence is different. The Shepard girls are used to their father's comings and goings, but their mother who used to instinctively reassure their unasked questions, of when and how long now, says nothing. They're children of the military, they know the big words like "discipline" and "duty", and "for one's country". Alice, though, senses that this recent separation is only partly mandated by NASA.
There's a school play; Julie and Alice have speaking roles. Their mother sits and watches them, proud, then later that evening before they say goodnight they find her in her armchair, with needlepoint in her lap, which is normal, but her hands are idle and her eyes are red, which is not.
Upstairs, just before switching off the light, Julie says, "Maybe something bad happened. Maybe something happened to dad and she just doesn't want to tell us."
Naming this fear, so old it's like their own shadows, should make them pause, but Alice's hands keep steady on her hairbrush.
She says "If dad was killed, she wouldn't be afraid to tell us."
Then trots out enough comforting phrases to calm Julie enough for sleep. Alice, awake against her own pillow, considers all the things in the world that her mother might be afraid of.
They go for a trip out East, land of Louise's youth. The initial plan is framed as "a couple weeks", which flows imperceptibly into "a few weeks" before opening up into total uncertainty. Louise takes them first to visit old family, then days with old friends, and after the hotel rooms they rent a little beach cottage for a fortnight. Golden from the sun, they wind up in a compact but classic house, temporarily vacant of owners - connections from Louise's DuPont days who are summering abroad.
Louise makes sure she's alone when she shuts the empty suitcase and moves it to the very back of a closet. Two times, she brings the suitcase out into the room to match the ones in the girls' rooms, standing in expectation of being filled and going back to Texas, but then says just one word to herself like an instruction in a fairy tale: enough. The thud of the suitcase's final move into hibernation is quiet in the warm afternoon, but it sounds like now you really have to think for yourself.
Their astronaut sometimes speaks to them on the phone with his old familiar rasp. The girls, when they remember, ask about their neighbors, their friends, from hundreds of hours of watching rockets on television together and screaming through backyard after next door backyard. Alan can't give them the details - he sees the other children about as often as he did before, which is to say barely at all - but he tells them he loves them with so much force it makes them giggle, embarrassed. Louise gets the phone last; the girls always leave at this point. They never overhear anything that sounds like an argument, but the conversations seem to grow shorter and shorter.
Somehow, incredibly, it becomes autumn and the girls start new schools. This, at least, they are old hands at, and Alice's new school is surprisingly tolerable. There's some minor murmuring over her family name, a little extra cache to being her friend. She can live with it.
The days pass and then one afternoon when Alice gets home early, her mother is unexpectedly gone. A car pulls up, her mother gets out and walks swiftly to their front door, but the car doesn't move as quickly and Alice standing at the window can recognize the driver. That Life guy. Are we getting another article? floats across her mind, but the way he's watching her mother through the windshield sends a strange feeling down her spine.
She remembers his glasses; she remembers he was nice. He smiled when she sat down and spelled out, key by key, "A-L-I-C-E" on his typewriter. He drives away; Louise steps inside and meets her daughter's eyes, then looks away.
After dinner, after Julie withdraws to her room for schoolwork, Alice and Louise have an argument that turns into a fight that begins about something Alice wants to wear, and ends when Alice says "you're just the same as dad".
She doesn't know what she means until she's said it.
Louise is afraid it's true.
It isn't very true, though, not yet.
What Alice hasn't seen is that Max has actually come by a few times, and driven Louise around more than once. But they can't seem to break from an interview pattern.
They sit, looking respectable enough, in cafes, and Max can't help but have his notepad on the table next to him, Louise's arms drift into stiff positions. They ask each other questions, constrained to low voices by the presence of old men sipping coffee nearby. He wants to ask about Alan, but he knows better than to try lifting anything other than Louise's cold dead hands off her grip on propriety. She wants to ask him if he is here, at this moment, with her because he knows she wants him here.
Instead, he asks "Have you ever had the best reuben sandwich in the world?"
She says, "Can't say that I have, Mr Kaplan."
He says, "Would you like to?"
Two weeks later.
The girls go on a weekend camping trip with some family friends, the kind where everybody sings songs and fall asleep in piles of unruly suntanned limbs and cowboy boots. Louise is alone.
She decides she, too, can conquer the great unknown.
The train takes her straight into New York City.
He offered to pick her up, but Louise, with her usual dignified touch of iciness, declined. Instead, she goes to find him. She changes out of her traveling attire in her hotel room, and turns the key over and over in her hand, trying not to think about the likelihood she might not need to use it tonight. She thinks about walking by the Time-Life building, looking up at the place that held up so many mirrors to her life, inside and out. Somebody in there makes the big decisions, someone once decided Astro-wives and that led to more decisions that led, eventually, to a journalist who saw her at a moment when she couldn't pretend. Somebody who witnessed her weakness and wrote her strong.
Louise walks to this restaurant - if one could call it that - by 5th and 41st. Outside, though it's not like her to peer through windows like a spy (maybe just a little bit), her eyes move faster than her feet and she can spot his back, slumped over at that writer's angle over a notepad. He's wearing one of his usual boring writer-y blazers, the kind he packed over and over on every journey with his Astro-Victims. She always wondered what the material would feel like if she ran her fingers over it.
"Mr Kaplan," she greets him, sitting across the booth.
His voice, quieter than hers: "Louise". Under his smile, she can see he's struggling to hide some disbelief that she actually came. He, at least, is a man who doesn't expect her behavior to conform to his. In some disbelief of her own, feeling a certain holiday giddiness, she says, "You promised me the best reuben in the world. I guess this is where I'm supposed to find it?"
"This..." he's still so delighted and still trying so hard to be less obvious about it- "...this is the place! Incidentally, also the greatest pickles in the world."
"I'm sure." She eyes the trace remains of some spilled salt sparkling on the windowsill next to them.
After the food he talks her into a root beer float.
They go walking, awkwardly spaced, trying to maintain the distance of mere acquaintances but pulled apart and pushed together by the crowded sidewalks. Compared to the tidy noise level of family neighborhood streets, the roar of sound fills Louise with at least a little more faith in her city-side anonymity. He has to come close to her - so she can hear. "Busy, but not quite as crazy as your parade, huh?"
She remembers riding down in a long chain of astronauts towards Battery Park, streams of paper filling the air like snow. She was happy that day, one small part of a large body, a piece in a system she put her belief in.
Her feelings today are occurring in her alone, like a private miracle.
"Not much like the parade at all", she concurs with him.
They keep walking; dusk gathers around the corners of the streets and ushers them into the glow of evening lights coming on in all the endless windows around them.
He's taking her to some little hole in the wall in the Village. There is something in the lively atmosphere and political signs she spots on the walls here and there that would have made her think of Max even if he wasn't at her side that moment. After an unusual amount of hesitation on his part, he leads her to a place called The Red Deer or White Fox or something. He tells her why he is worried, after they find a seat at the tiniest wooden table Louise has ever seen: "I hope we don't run into any of my friends here."
"You have friends?" she asks, her face deadly, deadly serious. Max is pretty sure, as he laughs at himself, that he has never, ever, liked her so much.
His fears prove true, in fact, and two writerly types spot Max and come over. The younger one stares at Louise, buttoned up in her grey dress, a generation older than most of the girls in the smoke-filled room. The other one chats to Max about some mutual buddy writing about the riots down South - but his eyes slide to Louise more than once with a coy but confused smile. At last, he breaks. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your lady friend?" The younger one, with a slight drunken sway, agrees: "Yeah, who is this lovely lady classin' up the room?" He's oblivious; the other man has a glimmer of recognition that hardens into astonishment as he gets a closer look at her face. He turns to Max. "You're fucking kidding me!"
Louise's stomach drops like a stone in a lake, but Max doesn't panic.
"Whoever you're thinking this is, you're wrong," he says.
"Looks an awful lot like Mrs Alan Shepard you got there," comes the reply, "you know, the astronaut's wife!"
Louise opens her mouth to say something, though she's not sure what, but Max is fast.
"You might think she looks like Louise Shepard, but she's not."
"That's not Louise Shepard?"
"No, I-" he shifts in his seat, fiddles with his fork, "I had a bit of a thing for Mrs Shepard, so I scoured the chorus girls for somebody who, uh, bore a resemblance."
The two writers burst out laughing. This is the most ridiculous thing Louise has ever heard (probably, though she's heard some things in her time), but she's distracted from Max's sarcastic smile by the next thing out of the the older writer's mouth.
"That's right, I remember, you called me from Texas that one time. You wanted me to get a note to Wainwright and you were drunk and you started yelling about how hot it was and how you hate big Texas hats and you said something stupid to one of the wives..."
Now Max's eyebrows have shifted ever so slightly from sarcastic to embarrassed. Louise doesn't give herself a chance to think twice, and extends her hand.
"Pleased to meet you gentlemen. I'm... Shulise Leopard. No relation to Louise Shepard." She winks. They shake her hand, mouths not quite closed. Max is staring at her. She calmly takes a sip of coffee.
Half an hour later the smoke in the air is too thick for Louise (and she's growing to suspect there are many kinds of things being smoked), so they stumble out, narrowly avoiding a young man entering with a guitar
he's clearly intent on using to serenade the room at large.
"Did you see that? We can't leave now! We're gonna miss the concert of the century, Louise!"
They laugh their way down to the street; the cool night air fills her lungs and brings her back closer to reality. Are you going to be using that key, Louise? He leads her towards Washington Square Park.
He knows they're approaching the moment of staying together or dividing, and that he doesn't really need to
say the words out loud, because she knows. And Louise feels, as a certainty, that whatever she decides, he will gracefully concede. It's both wonderful and terrible to have the burden of the decision on her shoulders. She puts it off a moment longer as they cut through the park, the arch gleaming in the dark off to their left. They pass a young couple entwined on a bench, too lost in each other to notice the world around them. Their previous jokey mood can't quite return after that, as much as they both wish it would revive and fill the silence. At the end of the park, Max is just launching into a cautious, questioning "So..." when Louise interrupts crisply.
"You know, you've seen the inside of my home, many of my homes, in fact. But I've never seen the inside of yours." She draws herself up, each layer of protection she's grown over herself over the years, every cold process in her mind, all now holding her up when she feels like collapsing in anticipation and, yes, fear. "Doesn't quite seem fair to me. Does it seem fair to you?"
He knows he can never be proud of himself for this moment. Beyond common decency, his writer's mind can only frame this in a way to leave him consciously ashamed, no matter how he retells it to himself. But still, there's an awe - for Louise, for stepping over this edge on her own.
"You... you are correct, Ms Shulise Leopard." Somewhere, a siren races to make it to a fire on time.
"Would you like to even that score?"
His building is nicer than she imagined, even if it's better days are probably decades behind it. It strikes her, not for the last time that night, that he doesn't seem to entirely belong here in the midst of such old money. Despite it being relatively early in the evening for New York, the off-white-painted brick lobby is next to deserted. She follows him to the elevator, uneasy passing her reflection in a hallway mirror. I already decided, I'm already here, she scolds herself. He would let you leave if you asked him, it's not too late, you can still go back comes a reply from deep within. Any action she could take seems fraught with complications, like spiderwebs of trouble. She has to catch her breath a little as he opens the elevator, ushers her in, and closes the iron bars of the doors. It starts to rise, slowly and steadily. She lifts her eyes in curiosity to ask which is their floor, and finds his already on her face.
Where she always find them, whenever she looks.
He's leaning his shoulder along the side of the elevator as it rumbles higher. He lifts his eyebrows and nods
significantly down towards the lobby area. "What a dump, huh?"
"No comment to the press at this time" she says primly. He looks away and smiles, at once so boyishly shy that the world suddenly doesn't seem so complicated after all, inside these four tinywalls, and then it's easy for her to walk one step, then two, across the space between them. Two steps is all, and her arms are winding their own way around his neck. From the corner of her eye she sees one arm lift the glasses off his face, and feels the other arm gently circling her waist. She kisses him, uncertainly at first but gaining confidence from the way he's kissing her back (oh, does he kiss her back), until awareness filters through to them, gradually, that the elevator has stopped. He leans back, but Louise tilts forward to rest her head against his warm shoulder.
Eyes closed, she can hear his voice through his chest, murmuring a suggestion they exit.
He lets her enter first, and she stands in the pool of light from the door as he goes around the room to turn on the lamps. It illuminates his apartment - small to her eyes, even considering the city, but with large windows. The view appears mostly to consist of the curtained windows of the brick building next door, but there is a small slice of the night sky visible. Max clears his throat.
"Welcome to Chez Max... such as it is..." he says. Louise tries not to be too obvious about examining every corner with her housekeeping eyes, but despite some obvious effort there remains a vague air of neglect as though the apartment is often unoccupied. Max is not a soldier: the lines of the room don't stand to attention but lean, amiably, broken by the mountain ranges of books stacked all around.
"You must not be able to spend much time here," she observes.
"Is it really so obvious?"
"I just mean... you travel so much..."
He smiles at her. "I know what you mean." He clears his throat again. "It's really more of a place to put the things I collect from other places."
She steps slowly through the room, hand trailing over the top of a couch, noticing a newspaper that's been placed neatly on a little end table, but folded up the wrong way, with an article relegated to the back pages facing up at her. There's a picture of a group of young black men, sitting in a segregated restaurant, refusing to move. The world is changing so fast, if Louise tries to look the other way (Louise avoids messy things), she's starting to feel she'll no longer be able to understand what the new things are built on. She doesn't know if Max is obstinately heading for trouble, but she's beginning to understand his empathy for others can't be shoved down and locked away the way she controls her unruliest thoughts.
In the meantime, Max is trying to read her face but to his continuing regret and fascination it remains mostly a mystery to him. Casting about for something else to say, he offers her a drink, but she just shakes her head with a
small twitch around her lips. He pours a small one for himself at least, and sips at it while she continues around, picking up a book or two from his shelves, replacing them with care. Playing it cool doesn't exactly work for Max at this moment; he shuffles a bit, fidgeting with his glass, filled with a nervous energy. Louise is pleased he isn't rushing her - and besides that, deep deep down she's flattered by his excitement. She stands by the window now, her face an inch from the glass, looking down at a street populated with husbands and wives, children, smokers, pilots, writers, loners, lovers. She touches the window. It's cold and solid and crystal clear. She turns around.
"Am I getting the full tour?"
In this way she gets them down the hall to his bedroom. In a moment of automatic memory, he turns a light on, but she reaches out and turns it off. Playfully, she flicks it on again, glimpsing his face touched with amusement and affection, then off. She laughs just a little, soft and low. "On or off, Mr Kaplan?"
"Off" he says with finality, and then she doesn't have any more time to fiddle with the light because he's found her in the dark and her hands are better occupied.
Finally, finally, Louise feels like nobody is watching her, not even herself. At first she's melting, losing her
center of balance with each item of clothing he gently tugs off of her (when they can stop kissing long enough). She isn't made of ice though, not after all: she remembers standing at the window with the whole world spreading itself out before her like the tracks of a train heading for the horizon. She remembers, while his fingers ruin her beautiful hairstyle (not that she minds), how he kept striking their conversations off the record, over and over again, making a space, not written, for the two of them alone. This is that silent space again, and they are surrounded only by simple darkness but she knows there are stars there too, somewhere, so close. She wants to show him.
They half-trip clumsily onto the bed, but Louise doesn't feel awkwardness. She only feels strong.
Later, in the dark, Louise suddenly speaks into the now peaceful night.
"Do you think you'll ever have children?"
He can't see her face, half-veiled by hair, tucked away in the blackness somewhere against his shoulder. He
shifts, slightly apprehensive of the question (particularly after that). He's exposed though, in all the important ways now, so eventually he has to answer.
"I don't know," he says at last, and it's the truth. Louise doesn't move at all.
She murmurs, "I'm thinking about my girls." He finds a patch of skin, along her shoulder blade, and rubs it with what he hopes comes across as reassurance. "I had children," she continues, "and I told them everything will be okay. That's what you do for someone when you love them. I've told them when everybody does things right, and you work hard, things come out okay if you have faith they will."
She swallows, hard.
"There isn't anything else you can say to a child, really. Even when you know you're lying, they deserve those words. But the world isn't really like that. I wish I could keep them from finding that out."
Another long silence.
"I don't know if this day could ever arrive, but... I wish I could tell them they shouldn't settle for being second best. They should always be first. To the person who loves them. They ha-haven't always seen that. We haven't... I haven't been a good example for them. Not for my daughters."
She hopes he isn't offended, that this sadness in her has bubbled up when she was so happy moments ago, but his circle around her shoulder blade doesn't waver.
"Still. They might not ever understand their mother. Or even want to. Their parents will be ripping their lives into two pieces. And I don't want them to hate him. I don't want them to hate me, either."
He doesn't have an answer to that, but squeezes her in a one-armed hug. Louise's face edges into the
faint slice of nighttime light through the curtains that falls across the bed. One sharp look straight into his eyes, and then she shuts hers securely. Everything else they could say to each other tonight, they don't need to open their eyes or lips to communicate.
Morning arrives and Louise is off early, refusing Max's offer of a shower or breakfast. She wants to get back to her things at the hotel, she says, and he has to let her go without attempting to extract any promises of return.
He tries to write for five hours, does actual writing for about forty-five minutes, and fights the urge to dial the number she left in her precise handwriting on his little notepad. Though his concentration is already shot to hell, he still jumps when the phone rings. Louise is coming back.
She's made herself up immaculately again, a picture-perfect housewife, but she brings with her a small bag.
"Did you... check out?" he asks, allowing a flicker of hope in his chest. She shakes her head, and reminds him, "I still have people to explain myself to. Officially, I'm there all weekend."
"Of course... what's that, then?"
"It's my Go-Bag." She looks off to a corner of the ceiling, smiling with some private joke. "For emergencies. Like this apartment."
"Hey." He's defensive; grinning. "Is it just me or are you absorbing some New Yorker rudeness?"
"You know what they say, you are the company you keep." She drops the bag on the floor.
She goes back home. That week, she invites him to dinner with the girls. It's very strictly as friends, but when she repeats this twice over the mashed potatoes, the girls become suspicious.
She comes to the city again a few weekends later. He tells her his two friends who met her have nicknamed them "Mr and Mrs Leopard." There's a moment, late at night again, walking through a park, when she puts her hand in his. Briefly.
Time passes. Max starts to win the girls over. Julie gets a carved wooden rabbit he picked up down south. For Alice, he ghostwrites a school paper on the subject of "what it means to love your country."