Editor's Note: Anne Tyler’s 19th novel is, not surprisingly, set in Baltimore, so its geography and overall feel will be familiar. But the book contains some surprises, including a quasi-supernatural element, that will raise a few eyebrows as she explores notions of love, loss, and recovery. Tyler selected this excerpt and personally edited it for Baltimore readers, who have gotten sneak previews of her last four books.
Next month, Tyler travels to London to accept The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence, a lifetime achievement award she can put on her mantel next to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle awards. Andrew Holgate, The Times’s literary editor, noted that “readers the world over treasure Anne Tyler for the profound way she seems to peer into their hearts.” That’s certainly true, and no one feels that profundity more than we Baltimoreans.
It makes me sad now to think back on the early days of our courtship. We didn’t know anything at all. Dorothy didn’t even know it was a courtship, at the beginning, and I was kind of like an overgrown puppy, at least as I picture myself from this distance. I was romping around her all eager and panting, dying to impress her, while for some time she remained stolidly oblivious.
By that stage of life, I’d had my fair share of romances. I had left behind the high-school girls who were so fearful of seeming freakish themselves that they couldn’t afford to be seen with me, and in college I became a kind of pet project for the aspiring social workers that all the young women of college age seemed to be. They associated my cane and my crippled hand with, who knows, old war wounds or something. They took the premature glints of white in my hair as a sign of mysterious past sufferings. As you might surmise, I had an allergy to this viewpoint, but usually at the outset I didn’t suspect that they held it. (Or didn’t let myself suspect.) I just gave myself over to what I fancied was true love. As soon as I grasped the situation, though, I would walk out. Or sometimes they would walk out, once they lost all hope of rescuing me. Then I graduated, and in the year and a half since, I had pretty much stuck to myself, taking care to avoid the various sweet young women that my family seemed to keep strewing in my path.
You see now why I found Dorothy so appealing.
First, I invited her to a movie. She said, “I don’t know,” and then she said, “What movie were you thinking of?”
“Whichever one you like,” I told her. “I would let you choose.”
“Well,” she said. “Okay. I don’t have anything better to do.”
We went to the movie—a documentary, as I recall—and then, a few days later, we went to another one, and after that to a couple of meals. We talked about her work, and my work, and the news on TV, and the books we were reading. (She read seriously and pragmatically, always about something scientific if not specifically radiological.) We traded the usual growing-up stories. She hadn’t been back to see her family in years, she said. She seemed amused to hear that I lived in an apartment only blocks away from my parents.
At that first movie I took her elbow to usher her into her seat, and at the second I sat with my shoulder touching hers. Leaning across the table to make a point to her over dinner, I covered her hand with mine; parting at the end of each evening, I began giving her a brief hug—but no more of a hug than I might give a friend. Oh, I was cagey, all right. I didn’t completely understand her; I couldn’t read her feelings. And already I knew that this was too important for me to risk any missteps.
In April I brought her a copy of The Beginner’s Income Tax, which was not really about taxes but about organizing receipts and such. She was hopelessly disorganized, she claimed; and then, as if to prove it, she forgot to take the book with her when we left the restaurant. I worried about what this meant. I felt she had forgotten me—easy come, easy go, she was saying—and it didn’t help that when I offered to turn the car around that minute and go retrieve it, she said never mind, she would just phone the restaurant later.
Did she care about me even a little?
Then she asked why I didn’t have a handicapped license plate. We were walking toward my car at the time; we’d been to the Everyman Theatre. I said, “Because I don’t need a handicapped license plate.”
“You’re bound to throw your back out of whack, walking the distances you do with that limp. I’m surprised it hasn’t already happened.”
I said nothing.
“Would you like me to fill in a form for the Motor Vehicle people?”
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Or maybe you’d prefer a hang-tag. Then we could switch it to my car if I were the one driving.”
“I told you, no,” I said.
She fell silent. We got into the car and I drove her home. By this time I knew where she lived—a basement apartment down near the old stadium—but I hadn’t been inside, and I had planned to suggest that evening that I come in with her. I didn’t, though. I said, “Well, good night,” and I reached across her to open her door.
She looked at me for a moment, and then she said, “Thank you, Aaron,” and got out. I waited till she was safely in her building and then I drove away. I was feeling kind of depressed, to be honest. I don’t mean I’d fallen out of love with her or anything like that, but I felt very low, all at once. Very tired. I felt weary to the bone.
Pursuing the theme of let’s-see-each-other’s-apartments, I had planned next to invite her to supper at my place. I was thinking I would fix my famous spaghetti and meatballs. But now I put that off a few days, because it seemed like so much trouble. I would have to get that special mix of different ground meats, for one thing. Veal and so on. Pork. I didn’t trust an ordinary supermarket for that; I’d have to go to the butcher. It seemed a huge amount of effort for a dish that was really, when you came down to it, not all that distinctive.
I gave it a rest. I told myself I needed some space. Good grief, we’d gone out six evenings in the past two weeks—one time, twice in a row.
She telephoned me on Wednesday. (We’d last seen each other on Saturday.) She didn’t have my number and so she called Woolcott Publishing, and Peggy stuck her head in my door and said, “Dr. Rosales? On Line Two?”
She could have just buzzed me, but clearly she was wondering what a doctor could be calling me for. I refused to satisfy her curiosity. “Thanks,” was all I told her, and I waited till she was gone before I picked up the receiver.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi, Aaron, it’s Dorothy.”
“I haven’t heard from you in a while.”
This was more direct than I was comfortable with. I felt partly taken aback and partly, I have to say, admiring. Wasn’t it just like her!
“I’ve been busy,” I told her.
“A lot of work piling up.”
“Well, I’d like to invite you to supper,” she said.
“I would cook.”
I don’t know why this was so unexpected. Somehow, I just couldn’t picture Dorothy cooking. But trying to picture it made me see her hands, which were very smooth across the backs in spite of her raspy fingers, and golden-brown and chubby. I was swept with a wave of longing. I said, “I’d love to come to supper.”
“Good. Shall we say eight o’clock?”
“I’ll be there,” I said.
Later—much later, when we were making our wedding plans—Dorothy told me all that had gone into that supper invitation. She began with her reason for issuing it: how she’d grown aware, in the four days when I didn’t call, of the extreme quiet and solitude of her existence. “I saw that I had no close friends, no family life; and at work they were always complaining about my failure to ‘interact,’ whatever that means. . . .” She described how she’d rearranged her apartment before my arrival, frantically shoving furniture every which way and stuffing books and papers and cast-off clothes into closets, into bureau drawers, wherever they would fit; and how she’d racked her brains over the menu. “All men like steak, right? So I called the Pratt Library’s reference section to see how to cook a steak. They suggested grilling or broiling, but I didn’t own a grill and I wasn’t all that clear about broiling, so they said okay, fry it in a pan. . . . And then the peas, well, that was no problem; everybody knows how to cook a box of peas. . . .”
But did she give the same amount of forethought to what we would talk about?
Oh, probably not. Probably that was just happenstance. After all, it was I who started things, when I commented on the size of her apartment. “This place is huge,” I said when I walked in. It was shabby but sprawling, with an actual dining room opening off the living room. “How many bedrooms do you have?”
“Three,” she told me.
“Three! All for one person!”
“Well, I used to have a roommate, but he moved.”
I accepted the seat she offered me, at the end of a jangling metal daybed covered with an Indian spread. On the coffee table she had already set out wineglasses and a bottle of wine (Malbec, I saw), and she handed me the bottle along with a corkscrew. Then she sat down next to me. This close, I could smell her perfume, or her shampoo or something. She was wearing a scoop-necked black knit top I hadn’t seen before, along with her usual black trousers. I wondered if this was her version of dressing up.
It seemed her mind was still on her roommate. She said, “He moved because I wasn’t . . . doctorly enough.”
“For instance, one time he said, ‘Everything I eat tastes too salty. Why do you think that could be?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ He said, ‘No, really: why?’ ‘Maybe it is too salty,’ I said. He said, ‘No, other people don’t think so. Is there anything that could be a symptom of?’ I said, ‘Well, dehydration, maybe. Or a brain tumor.’ ‘Brain tumor!’ he said. ‘Oh, my God!’”
I missed her point at first. She stopped speaking and looked at me expectantly, and I said, “What an idiot.”
“He would ask me to palpate a swollen gland,” she said after a pause, “or he’d wonder what his backache meant, a perfectly normal backache he got from lifting weights, or he’d want me to write a prescription for his migraines.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous!” I said. “He was your roommate, not your patient.”
Another pause. Then she said, “Actually, he was more like a . . . We were more like a couple, actually.”
This shouldn’t have come as a shock. She was a woman in her thirties; you would wonder what was wrong with her if there’d never been a man in her life. But somehow I had flattered myself that I was the very first one to appreciate her properly. I said, “You were a serious couple?”
She was following her own tack. She said, “I see now that he probably thought I wasn’t enough of a . . . caregiver.”
“Ridiculous,” I said again.
“So I said to myself, ‘I have to learn from that experience.’”
She still wore her expectant look.
This time, I got it.
I said, “Oh.”
“I wouldn’t want a person to think that I’m not . . . concerned.”
I said, “Oh, sweetheart. Dearest heart. I would never need you to be concerned for me.”
And I cupped her face and leaned forward to kiss her, and she kissed me back.
I could tell that people found Dorothy an unexpected choice.
My father said she was “interesting”—the same word he used when he was confronted with one of my mother’s more experimental casseroles.
My mother asked how old she was.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” I said.
(In fact, Dorothy was thirty-two. I was twenty-four and a half.)
“It’s only,” my mother said, “that I was thinking Danika Jones would have been closer to your own age.”
“Danika at work, Aaron. What do you mean, ‘Who?’”
Danika was our designer, the designer preceding Irene. My father had hired her as his final act before handing over the business, and all at once I thought I saw why. I said, “Danika! She wears toenail polish!”
“What’s wrong with that?” my mother asked.
“I always feel uneasy about women who polish their toenails. It makes me wonder what they’re hiding.”
“Oh, Aaron,” my mother said sadly. “When will you understand how attractive you are? You could have any girl you wanted; someday you’re going to realize that.”
My sister said Dorothy was okay, she guessed, if you didn’t mind a woman with the social skills of a panda bear. That just made me laugh. Dorothy was a bit like a panda bear. She had that same roundness and compactness, that same staunch way of carrying herself.
Only I knew that underneath her boxy clothes, she was the shape of a little clay urn. Her skin had a burnished olive glow, and there was a kind of calm to her, a lit-from-within calm, that made me feel at rest whenever I was with her.
We were married in my family’s church, but just in the minister’s private office, with my parents and my sister as witnesses. Surprisingly, Dorothy had told me that it would be all right with her if I wanted something fancier, but of course I didn’t. The simpler the better, I felt. Simple and straightforward. And we didn’t take a honeymoon, because of Dorothy’s work schedule. We just went back to our normal lives.
It was early July when we married. We had known each other four months.
My cousin Roger once told me, on the eve of his third wedding, that he felt marriage was addictive. Then he corrected himself. “I mean early marriage,” he said. “The very start of a marriage. It’s like a whole new beginning. You’re entirely brand-new people; you haven’t made any mistakes yet. You have a new place to live and new dishes and this new kind of, like, identity, this ‘we’ that gets invited everywhere together now. Why, sometimes your wife will have a brand-new name, even.”
Dorothy still had her old name, and we were living temporarily in my old apartment, but in all other respects, what he said was true. Everything we did together in our new life was a first-time event, as if we had been reborn. On weekends, especially, when we didn’t go to work, I felt almost shiny, almost wet behind the ears, as we ventured forth upon the day. We ate breakfast together, we went to the supermarket together, we discussed whether we could afford to buy a house together. Could this really be me? Gimpy, geeky Aaron, acting like a regular husband?
And if I was surprised by myself, I was surprised even more by Dorothy. That she would consent to go shopping for something so prosaic as a vacuum cleaner, for instance—that she deigned to consider the merits of canister over upright—came as a revelation. As did the fact that she made a point of using the phrase “my husband” when speaking to strangers. “My husband thinks our vacuum should have a hypoallergenic filter.” That tickled me no end.
Also, she turned out to be a cuddler. Who would ever have guessed? She stayed nestled within the scoop of my body all night long, although you might suppose she’d be the brisk type once the sex was over. She kept close to me in crowds, often taking my hand surreptitiously as I stood talking with someone. I would feel those rough, pudgy fingers slipping stealthily between mine and I would have to struggle not to break into a smile.
I’m not saying that we didn’t encounter a few little bumps in the road. Every couple has to make some adjustments, isn’t that so? Especially when they’ve been accustomed to living on their own. Oh, we experienced our fair share of misunderstandings and crossed signals and faulty timing. On any number of occasions, we disappointed each other.
For one thing, I hadn’t completely comprehended before that Dorothy had zero interest in food. Zero. Not only did she almost never cook, which was fine with me, but she failed to appreciate what I cooked, which wasn’t fine at all. She would arrive at the table with a sheaf of mail that she opened and read between mouthfuls. “What do you think of the fish?” I would ask her, and she would say, “Hmm? Oh. It’s good,” without lifting her eyes from the letter she was reading.
And she lacked sufficient respect for physical objects. She gave no thought to their assigned places, to their maintenance and upkeep. She didn’t—how can I put it? She didn’t properly value things.
If she had properly valued me, for instance, wouldn’t she have taken more care with her appearance? It was true that I had been charmed at first by her lack of vanity, but now and then it struck me that she was looking almost, well, plain, and that this plainness seemed willful. As the months went by I found myself noticing more and more her clumsy clothes, her aggressively plodding walk, her tendency to leave her hair unwashed one day too long.
And Dorothy, for her part, seemed to find me unreasonably prickly. She’d say, “You’ll probably bite my head off, but . . . ,” and then she’d finish with something innocuous, such as an offer to take a turn driving when we were on a long car trip. I’d say, “Why would you think that, Dorothy? Why would I bite your head off ?” But unintentionally, I would be using a biting-her-head-off tone as I asked, because it irritated me when she tiptoed around my feelings that way. So, in fact, I’d proved her right. I could see it in her expression, although she would carefully not say so. And I would observe her not saying so, and I would feel all the more irritated.
It kills me now to remember these things.
I felt she expected something that she wouldn’t state outright. Her face would fall for no reason sometimes, and I would say, “What? What is it?” but she would say it was nothing. I could sense that I had let her down, but I had no idea how.
Once, she had a conference in L.A., but she said that she was thinking she might skip it.
She didn’t like leaving me to manage on my own for so long, she said. (This was fairly early in our marriage.) I said, “Don’t skip it for my sake,” and she said, “Maybe you could come with me. Would you like that? They always have guided bus tours and such for the spouses during the day.”
“Great,” I said. “I could bring my knitting.”
“Oh, why be that way? I only meant—”
“Dorothy,” I said. “I was joking. Don’t worry about me. It’s not as if I depend on you to take care of me, after all.”
I meant that as a statement of fact. It wasn’t an accusation; who could read it as an accusation? But Dorothy did. I could tell by her face. She didn’t say anything more, and she got a sort of closed look.
I tried to smooth things over. I said, “But thanks for your concern.” It didn’t do any good, though. She stayed quiet throughout the evening, and the next day she left for her conference and I missed her like some kind of, almost, organ out of my body, and I think she missed me, too, because she phoned me from Los Angeles several times a day and she’d say, “What are you doing right now?” and, “I really wish you were here.” I wished I were there, too, and I couldn’t believe I had wasted that chance to be with her. I made a lot of promises to myself about being more easygoing in the future, not so quick to take umbrage, but then, when she came home, the very first thing she did was get mad at me about this thorn I had in my finger. I’m serious. While she was gone I had cut back the barberry bush that was poking over the railing of our balcony, and you know how barberry thorns are so microscopic and so hard to get out. I figured it would just work its own way out, but it hadn’t yet, and my finger had started swelling and turning red. She said, “What is this? This is infected!”
“Yes, I think it must be,” I said.
“What is the matter with you?”
“Nothing’s the matter with me,” I said. “I have a thorn in my finger, okay? Sooner or later I’ll see this little black speck emerging and I’ll yank it. Any objections?”
“Yank it with what?” she asked.
“Tweezers, of course.”
“Yank it with what hand, Aaron? It’s in your left index finger.
How are you going to work a pair of tweezers with your right hand?”
“I can do that,” I told her.
“You cannot. You should have asked someone for help. Instead you just . . . sat here, just sat here for a week waiting for me to come home so I’d have to say, ‘Oh, no, I’m so sorry, how could I have left you on your own to deal with this?’ And everyone would say, all your family and your office would say, ‘Look at that: she wasn’t even there to take his thorn out and now he has a major infection and maybe even will need an amputation, can you believe it?’”
“Amputation!” I said. “Are you nuts?”
But she just reached for the matchbox above the stove and went off to find a needle, and when she came back she leaned over my finger, her lips turned disapprovingly downward, my hand squeezed tightly in hers, and she pierced the skin one time and the thorn shot out like an arrow.
“There,” she said crisply, and she dabbed the wound with disinfectant.
Then she bent her head and pressed her cheek against the back of my hand, and her skin felt as soft as petals.
Well, we survived these little glitches. We papered over them, we went on with our lives. It’s true that we no longer had quite the same newborn shine, but nobody keeps that forever, right? The important thing was, we loved each other. All I had to do to remind myself of that was to cast my thoughts back to the moment we met. To my lonesome, unattached, unsuspecting self following the receptionist down the corridor of the Radiology Center. The receptionist comes to a stop and raps on a half-open door. Then she pushes it farther open, and I step through it, and Dorothy raises her eyes from her book. Our story begins.
Copyright © 2012 by Anne Tyler. Published by agreement with Jesseca Salky, c/o Hannigan Salky Agency as agents for the author.