Cole Richards was a pilot who flew for one of the big airlines. But he was also in the Reserve, and the summer I turned seventeen he buzzed the neighborhood at least once a week in his Army surplus jet. The air would rumble, the houses would shake, and cowering souls up and down the block would look to the sky, shake their heads and say, “There goes Cole, that crazy sonofabitch!”
Cole, of course, would never say what it was that inspired him to such reckless stunts. But according to my mother, who at various turns knew both more and less than people gave her credit for, they were love letters. Cole, she said, was a little boy trying to get the attention of a lady, and every time he flew low over the neighborhood he was blowing kisses.
My father thought this a crackpot theory and told my mother so. “Cole’s a hot dog,” he scoffed. “I’ll give you that. But for Christ’s sake, Barb, he’s a married hot dog. Why is it whenever a guy acts like a guy women feel the need to find some sign of the mating ritual in it? As if we’re perpetually rutting? Don’t you think you’re being just a little judgmental?”
“You wait and see,” my mother said. “I’ll bet you a nickel to a donut he’s got a girlfriend on the side. And I’ll double that wager by saying it’s probably someone we know.”
It was a debate that raged between my parents the entire summer, and while I had no particular interest in seeing either side declared the vic- tor, I sometimes lay awake at night speculating as to who would come out on top.
I was between my junior and senior years in high school that sum- mer, and I’d taken on odd jobs as a way of putting away cash for college (I wanted to go to veterinary school). So when Anne Donati, our neighbor, began calling around, trying to locate a pinch hitter to replace her regular babysitter (the girl had quit without notice), I couldn’t say no.
The Donatis had three famously incorrigible boys, Mark, Joe, and Nicky. But because their parents were inclined to offer large amounts of money to anyone insane enough to look after the little monsters (and because I’d been raised with three older brothers of my own, all of whom were sadistic assholes), I had no fear of taking on the job.
Paul Donati, Anne’s government-goon husband, grinned broadly the first time we met, nearly dislocating my shoulder as he yanked me through the front door into their foyer. “What do you go by,” he demanded, gripping my hand and giving it a good, solid pump. “Jenny? Jennifer?”
“Jen it is, then!”
Donati was a compact man with wavy black hair, blue eyes, and a
rocklike physique. I wasn’t sure what sort of work he did for the Defense Department, or the CIA (all the young husbands in the neighborhood worked for the government in one capacity or another), but from the moment I laid eyes on him I knew I was in the company of a dangerous man.
“I see you smoke,” he said, nodding to the pack of Eves I’d tried to hide in my hip pocket. “It’s okay to light up in the house if you want. “Just don’t burn the joint down, okay?”
He patted me on the back, working his arm around my shoulder in a confidential embrace. I could hear the boys upstairs, thumping and shouting, but he made no attempt to call them down to meet me. “Never mind those yahoos,” he said, eyeing the ceiling with a frown. “You’ll be thrown to the wolves soon enough. We’re setting policy here.”
He led me down a set of stairs into a garden level family room, and directed my attention to a narrow closet door near the stairs. When he opened the door and flicked on the light, I saw a tall white shape that I mistook for some sort of oddball water heater until I noticed it was fitted out with a chrome stem and carved wooden tap.
“There’s a keg of Heineken in here,” he said, giving the appliance an affectionate pat. “If you make it through the evening, you can help yourself to a draught.”
“I’m underage,” I said.
He turned, gathering me in with his eyes. “Yeah, well. So was your predecessor. It didn’t stop her.”
“I’ve only got two rules around here,” Donati said. “Don’t get plowed, and don’t touch the stereo system. You touch the stereo, you die. Understood?”
He led me back upstairs where his wife, Anne, was standing before a full-length mirror combing her hair. She turned and caught me staring. She was without exception the most divine creature I’d ever laid eyes upon. The sort of woman who knew, instinctually, she possessed the power to turn men into swine.
“Well hello, Jennifer,” she said, laying the silver brush on the hall table and shaking my hand. “How are you?”
“Fine. Call me Jen.”
“So nice to meet you. Finally.”
She glanced back at her reflection. Brought the tip of her little finger to the corner of her mouth and dabbed at her lipstick. “Did Paul tell you about the stereo?”
“He told me not to touch it.”
“One of the boys touched it once and Paul nearly strangled him. Didn’t you Paul?”
“I did strangle him,” Donati said. “Just not enough to kill him.” Anne Donati pressed her hands to her skirt and straightened it. She had long, sculpted legs that made themselves instantly understood through the tight black linen.
“We’ll be back a little after midnight,” Donati said, picking up his wife’s glittery little handbag from the table and handing it to her. “Is that all right?”
I told him it was.
He called the boys down from their bedroom and lined them up against the wall like a band of ragtag insurgents, introducing them to me one-by-one. I shook three sweaty, sticky little hands, endured a long bashful look from the youngest, Nicky, who seemed mesmerized by me, then stood by as they charged back up the stairs to their bedroom in a flurry of shoves and punches.
“Well,” Donati said, “you’ve got your hands full.”
“We’ll be fine,” I told him.
He opened the door for his wife, but before walking out turned and smiled. “I usually like to exercise caution when delegating responsibilities, Jen. But you seem like a good egg, somebody I can trust, so I’m going to make an exception tonight.”
My eyes widened.
“If the boys give you trouble?”
“You have permission to use deadly force.”
Babysitting for the Donatis was the best summer job I’d ever had.
Or should have been. I made ungodly sums of money, had free license to smoke and drink around the house, and best of all, I got to steal deep longing glances, twice a night, at the most gorgeous man on the planet.
But then, halfway into the month of July, things began to change. Anne Donati began calling the house during the middle of the week, asking if I could drop by on short notice, explaining that Paul had gotten a big promotion (a new job that had him traveling on agency business, leaving her desperately short-handed) and could I please please please help out and give her a break?
“I’m in an awful bind, Jen,” she’d say. “Can you come by tonight and lend a hand?” (Some weeks later, Paul Donati would say the identical thing to me, although under very different circumstances).
I told her, yes, of course I could help. But even as the words were leaving my mouth, I felt a tired, uninspired sort of eh find its way into my heart. I didn’t realize it then—or rather, I hadn’t yet admitted it to my- self—but I was falling in love with her husband, and knowing he wouldn’t be there (to look at, or flirt with) killed the buzz of what would ordinarily have been a romantic evening for me.
Anne stayed out late enough that first night after Paul’s promotion that I fell asleep on the living room sofa waiting for her to return. I never even heard the door when she walked in.
“Jen?” She shook my arm. “Jen, honey, wake up.”
The reek of stale cigarettes and hard liqour had followed her home. I smelled them before I even opened my eyes.
“You slept,” she said, running her small, delicate hand down my arm. “Good.” She smiled and said she felt guilty at having stayed out so late. She said she hoped she hadn’t ruined me for the next day. “It’s past eleven,” she said. “Far past, I’m afraid.”
I rubbed my eyes and sat up. “Don’t worry about it. Really.”
“You wouldn’t have a cigarette, would you?”
The question surprised me because I’d never seen her smoke before. But when I handed my pack to her and she took one and raised the filter to her lips, it was all the convincing anyone would have needed.
“Were the boys good for you?”
“Yes,” I said, offering her a book of matches. “They were fine.”
She laughed, as if my answer astonished her.
“How come you and Mr. Donati always seem surprised when I tell you the boys are good?”
She lit the cigarette and sent a thin stream of blue smoke through her lips. “Because we’ve never heard anyone say that before.” She fanned out the match and looked at me. Held my eyes, tenderly, as if they were breakable. “Up until you came along, our baby sitters were honest.” She smiled, half-lidded, and ran the tip of her tongue against her upper lip as if to chase a fleck of tobacco that wasn’t even there. “—honest, sneaky little bitches.”
I pulled back, surprised, but caught myself. “Well, everything went like fine china here.” I summoned a smile and asked about her evening— not so much because I cared, but because it seemed the polite thing to do.
She closed her eyes and opened them, taking a long delicious drag.
“Oh,” she said. “It was what it was.” She looked over, dreamy-eyed. “A near miss, I’d call it.”
She picked up her little silver purse from where it lay on the coffee table, opened it and said, “Will twenty dollars do this time? I know it’s not as much as usual, but it’s all I have.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Paul always overpays me. Why don’t we call this one even?”
Though I babysat the Donati boys on a good number of occasions the rest of that summer, Paul was usually away on business when I did. It was disappointing not seeing him—worse than disappointing, really—but whenever he wasn’t around I found ways of softening the melancholy, usually by wandering through the house after I’d put the kids to bed and immersing myself in the fantasies of a woman separated from her lover.
I’d go to the closet and bury my face in his shirts. Or rub his aftershave on the back of my wrist and close my eyes and fan it beneath my nose. But it was never enough. So on the evenings when I knew Anne was going to be especially late coming home, I’d undress, sometimes, and slip into a pair of Paul’s boxers and make love to myself on their bed.
Paul had a workshop in the basement where he messed around (his words) with a mind-numbing menagerie of homemade electrical inventions, the likes of which, he admitted with a satisfied smile, would have left most men scratching their heads. I’d assumed that the devices were custom components to his beloved stereo system, but I discovered otherwise when I ventured downstairs one night to have a look for myself.
There were gadgets, yes, just as he’d said. Boxes and boxes of them. But what caught my eye—what stole my breath and heart all in the same instant, making me realize that Paul Donati was the most beautiful, complicated, perfect man I’d ever known—wasn’t the metal and wire and odd-looking bundles that lay scattered across his workbench. It was the squadron of paper airplanes I noticed suspended from the wooden rafters.
They hung down over his workbench from fishing lines. An entire fleet of them. All elegantly constructed of balsawood and rice paper. Each painted in the manner of its original, down to the most clever detail. There were transports and fighters, crop dusters and bi-planes and spy planes— and seeing them there, I suddenly imagined the unimaginable. That a man married to the most beautiful woman in the world—a man as gorgeous as Cary Grant—might, in his own way, be as lonely as I was.
I grew up that summer, but more quickly than I’d wanted. And never faster or more painfully than the day in late July when, while strolling home from the drugstore on an old country road, I was chased from the pavement by a pink sports car that streaked past me with two vaguly recognizable people inside.
I spun around in the draft as the car clipped by, its engine thundering, a spume of dust chasing its tires, and I knew without looking twice that it was Cole Richards’s convertible, and that the woman his arm was around was not his wife.
“Long time no see,” Paul Donati said to me as I stood on the steps outside his house some days later. “How’ve you been, kid?”
He swept his upturned palm toward the threshold, inviting me in.
“You okay?You look a little, what? Khaki?”
“I’m fine, really.”
The place seemed quieter than usual, and I looked around trying to figure out why. “Anne’s off on a trip,” he said nonchalantly, noticing the expression on my face, and lowering his eyes to my hands, which, thankful- ly, were no longer trembling. “She’s out of town, visiting her sister. I guess I forgot to mention that when I called.”
The words sent a buzz through me, a jolt of low-grade electricity when I realized we were alone, and for a long dreamy moment I forgot all about how scared and angry it had made me to see his wife out joyriding with Cole Richards.
“I put the boys to bed early,” he said. “Nicky seems to be coming
down with something.”
I stood there. In the quiet. Looking at him. “But you still need
He searched my eyes as if he were raking them for some long lost
“Yes, of course.” He smiled and squeezed my arm and went into the kitchen to find his sport coat. When he came back he said, “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine.”
“Maybe you should sit down.”
He had a small white card in his hand. An invitation to the party down the block at Colonel Belson’s house. It was the same invitation I’d seen on the kitchen counter back at my own home, written in the same cusive hand. He dropped the card in my lap and tugged at the cuffs of his shirt. “Your folks’ll be at this shindig,” he said, turning his wrist and fiddling with his watch. “Right?”
“Good. I like your old man.”
He straightened his gold cufflinks. Stopped and smiled. “I expect he finds all of this pretty damned amusing.”
“Living in a neighborhood with so many young families. He’s been through it all. He’s done his time. He’s probably looking forward to retirement so he can pull up stakes and move someplace quiet.”
“I don’t know about moving,” I said. “But quiet? Yes. He’d love that. Especially if it meant getting rid of Cole Richards and his stupid early morning flybys.”
His face darkened. “Richards.”
My own face went red then, and I tried to look away. But it was too late. He saw the embarrassment in my eyes.
“Well,” he said, recovering his smile. “Some people have to make more noise than others, I guess. It’s their way of getting attention.”
I wanted to tell him about his wife riding around in that stupid pink convertible behind his back. Insulting him by allowing Cole Richards to put his arm around her shoulder. I wanted to tell him he deserved better, that he was too smart and funny and gorgeous to be with a woman who didn’t appreciate him. But I didn’t, of course. I didn’t breathe a word about any of it.
“You’re sure you feel all right?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m fine. Go and have fun. Say hello to my mom and dad for me.”
When he left, I stood there staring at the door. Still seeing him. Wanting him. He was so beautiful when he was saying goodbye—especially when he was saying goodbye—that I wanted to wrap my arms around the image of him standing there, smiling, and hold it until I had no more strength to do so.
It wasn’t an hour before he was back.
“The party was a drag,” he announced, loosening his tie. “All these little get-togethers are beginning to take on the same sour taste. You know what I mean? You’d think the drinking would smarten things up a bit. Maybe make them a little less predictable. But I’m beginning to believe the opposite’s true.”
I didn’t know what to say. Or whether I should say anything at all. In the movies, women listened. They lit cigarettes and made with sophisticated, half-lidded glances, and were strong for their men by way of their silence. That was how I wanted to be.
“You want a drink?” he asked blandly. “A glass of wine or something?”
“Yes.” I knew it wasn’t right, but I accepted instantly, not wanting to give him time to reconsider.
He slipped out of his jacket and tossed it over the back of the couch and went into the kitchen. When he came back, he was carrying two glasses and a bottle of red wine.
“I didn’t see Cole,” he said, pouring. “So there was no chance of my telling him off for you.”
I forced a smile, but said nothing. The wine was strong and I drank it more quickly than I’d intended, and when I set the glass down, he poured me another.
He sat back, looking at me in a way he’d never done before. A strange, searching way that made me wonder if he wanted to kiss me. Or- take me to his bed. We spoke for a while, almost as if we were friends, and then he rose with a smile and fetched another bottle.
“Cole thinks he’s some kind of hotshot,” I said, trying not to appear as tipsy as I felt. “That’s why he does those stupid stunts with his plane.”
Paul looked at me, oddly, and sat back with his wine. He seemed to consider the remark for the longest time, then he leaned forward and shook his head. “No,” he said, quite sure of himself. “That isn’t it.” He gazed into the glass, hesitated a moment and lowered it. “He does what he does,” he said, “Because he’s in love with my wife.”
A clock ticked somewhere in the house. It was the only sound I heard. Everything else went deathly silent.
“He wasn’t at the party,” he said, calmly and handsomely and confidently, “because he’s off somewhere with Anne.”
“Her sister’s covering for her,” he said. “She has been for some time.”
His eyes went cold. So cold. “Jen,” he said, “some people are of the opinion that when a man’s wife is unfaithful, he should lay the blame for that indiscretion at her feet alone. They say he should ignore the insult handed to him by the man who seduced her. But, you know, I’m not one who holds to that opinion.” He looked down and straightened the crease in his khakis. Looked up again, gesturing. “I mean, yes. She should have rebuffed his advances. But even so, I blame Cole.” He drank from his glass. Lowered it to his knee. “Anne is a beautiful woman, Jen, and men lust after beautiful things. But placing the blame on the thing itself, the object of beauty, seems as ridiculous to me as blaming a painting in a museum when a thief runs off with it. Don’t you agree?”
I tried not to answer. But the look he gave me demanded I say something. “What if you’re wrong?”
“Why ask me?”
He pursed his lips and nodded as if this seemed a reasonable
question. Then he picked up the wine bottle and poured. He sat, comfortably, after presenting me with yet another glass. “No,” he said, crossing his legs. “I’m not wrong. I’ve been looking into the matter for months now, and while I don’t like to admit it, Richards not being at the party tonight proves I’m right.”
“There might be—”
“Extenuating circumstances?” He seemed amused. “I’m sure there are. I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons why it happened. But back to my point. I’m right, and you know it. Don’t you?”
I wanted the conversation to end, and agreeing seemed the best
way to finish it. So I said it. I said yes. I told him he was right. That his wife had been seeing Cole Richards.
He thanked me, and patted my leg.
“Paul—” My head began to pound, and I went red with embarrassment. I told him I wanted to go home, but he wouldn’t allow it.
“Finish your wine, why don’t you.”
He gestured for me to drink. I raised the glass and clutched it between my breasts with both hands.
“There’s no point in questioning Anne about this,” he said, “because it would only keep us from moving forward. Toward the truth. Toward what needs to be done. Besides—” Here he gave with a forlorn smile. “She’d only lie.”
He said these words without malice, or bitterness, or irony. If anything, they were spoken with a strange sort of love.
I felt sick to my stomach, and I didn’t want to hear anymore. I knew as much about his wife’s affair as I wanted to know. As much as I would ever need to know. All I wanted now was to go home.
The room began to teeter and spin. “I’m going to be sick,” I said. I stood up, feeling the color drain from my face.
He pointed casually toward the bathroom. “How often did she ask you to baby sit when I was out of town?”
I hurried to the toilet. He followed.
“Three? Four? Six times?”
My eyes were streaming, tears spilling down my face. But being
the gentleman he was, he held my hair and waited for the sickness to leave me.
“Yes,” I wept. “Seven. Seven times! Seven or eight. I can’t remem-
He patted me on the back. Ran a washcloth under the faucet and wiped my mouth with it. Then he rinsed the washcloth and wet it again and pressed it to my forehead. “How about another glass of wine?”
I told him no. But he put his arm around my shoulder and directed me back to the sofa anyway.
I closed my eyes to the spinning room.
“You’re sure it was eight times?”
“You’re absolutely certain of that?”
“Yes,” I insisted. “Absolutely. But why should it possibly matter!” He crossed his arms and looked down at the carpet. I could feel him thinking. His mind sifting through the facts and circumstances, gather- ing and discarding information like a computer in an underground crime lab. Finally, he looked up.
“Why? Because numbers don’t lie. They add up, even when everything else is chaos.”
He was building a case against his wife and Cole Richards. A wall of evidence he hoped to stand before them, then topple over and bury them beneath. He stacked his complaints higher and higher with this tower of words, speaking only of what he knew was true, or believed to be true, intimating great losses lay ahead for all involved.
“She doesn’t deserve you,” I said. “That’s all that matters. That and your three little boys.”
“I know,” he said.
He looked like a statue someone had defaced. The ruin of something that had once been beautiful. But even though he knew what I’d wanted—even though he knew I was prepared to give him anything he wanted, or needed to kill the pain of what he’d learned that night—he never touched me. He never even tried. He put a blanket over me and told me to rest, and woke me later and sent me home with fifty dollars in my pocket.
I dreamed of his paper airplanes when I went to sleep that night. Then I dreamed of his wife, Anne, speaking to Cole Richards from a public telephone on some noisy street corner downtown. Her head rested against the booth-glass and her hands were trembling. The receiver was pressed to her ear, and as she spoke she cast about, nervously, with her eyes.
Cole was trying to calm her. What is it? he demanded. What’s wrong?
There was a long silence, then she came out with it. The thing he feared even more than going down in a fiery crash.
Darling, she said. Why don’t we put it out in the open? Can’t we forget the lies and sneaking around and just admit it? Admit that we’re in love.
Early the next morning a thundering blast shattered my sleep. I bolted up in bed, awake, and when I realized what it was—that Paul Donati, the government goon and electronics wizard, had followed through on his threats—I fell back against the pillow again and stared numbly at the ceiling.
It was over, I thought. Cole Richards had blown his last kiss. My mother had won her bet, and all that was left of the high-flying affair between the pretty young housewife and the hotdog pilot were a handful of scattered memories and the deadly wreckage of a smoldering pink convertible.