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Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, Rabbit Remembered

Women Who Got Away

Pierce Junction was an isolated New Hampshire town somewhat
dignified by the presence of a small liberal-arts college; we
survived by clustering together like a ball of snakes in a desert
cave. The Sixties had taught us the high moral value of copulation,
and we were slow to give up on an activity so simultaneously
pleasurable and healthy. Still, you couldn't sleep with everybody:
we were bourgeoisie, responsible, with jobs and children, and
affairs demanded energy and extracted wear and tear. We hadn't
learned yet to take the emotion out of sex. Looking back, the
numbers don't add up to what an average college student now manages
in four years. There were women you failed ever to sleep with;
these, in retrospect, have a perverse vividness, perhaps because
the contacts, in the slithering ball of snakes, were so few that
they have stayed distinct.

"Well, Martin," Audrey Lancaster murmured to me toward the end of a
summer cruise on a boat hired out of Portsmouth in celebration of
somebody or other's fortieth birthday, "I see what they say about
you, at last." The "at last" was a dig of sorts, and the "they" was
presumably female in gender. I wondered how much conversation went
on, and along lines how specific, among the wives and
divorcées of our set. I had been standing there by the rail,
momentarily alone, mellow on my portion of California Chablis,
watching the Piscataqua River shakily reflect the harbor lights as
the boat swung to dock and the loudspeaker system piped Simon and
Garfunkel into the warm, watery night.

My wife was slow-dancing on the forward deck with her lover, Frank
Greer. Audrey had materialized beside me and my hand went around
her waist as if we might dance, too. There my hand stayed, and,
like the gentle buzz you get from a frayed appliance cord, the
reality of her haunch burned through to my fingers and palm. She
was a solid, smooth-faced woman, so nearsighted that she moved with
a splay-footed pugnacity, as if something she didn't quite see
might knock her over. Her contact lenses were always getting lost,
in somebody's lawn or at the back of her eyeballs. She had married
young and was a bit younger than the rest of us. You had to love
Audrey, seeing her out on the tennis court in frayed denim
cut-offs, with her sturdy brown legs and big, squinty smile, taking
a swing and missing the ball completely. Her waist was smooth and
flexible in summer cotton, and, yes, she was right, for the first
time in all our years of acquaintance I sensed her as a potential
mate, as a piece of the cosmic puzzle that might fit my

But I also felt that, basically, she didn't care for me, not enough
to come walking through all of adultery's risks and spasms of
guilt, all those hoops of flame. She distrusted me, the way you
distrust a competitor. We were both clowns, bucking to be elected
Funniest in the Class. Further, she was taken, doubly: not only
married, to a man called Spike, with the four children customary
for our generation, but involved in a number of murky flirtations
or infatuations, including one with my best friend, Rodney
Miller-if a person could be said to have same-sex friends in our
rather doctrinairely heterosexual enclave. She had a nice way of
drawling out poisonous remarks, and said now, to me, "Shouldn't you
go tell Jeanne and Frank the boat is about to dock? They might get
arrested by the Portsmouth fuzz for public indecency."

I said, "Why me? I'm not the cruise director."

Jeanne was my wife. Her love for Frank, in the twisted way of
things back then, helped bind me to her: I felt so sorry for her,
having to spend most of her hours with me and the children when her
heart was elsewhere. She had been raised a French Catholic, and
there was something noble for her about suffering and self-denial;
her invisible hairshirt kept her torso erect as a dancer's and
added to her beauty in my eyes. I didn't like Audrey mocking her.
Or did I? Perhaps my feelings were more primitive, more stupidly
possessive, than I knew at the time. I tightened my grip on
Audrey's waist, approaching a painful pinch, then let go, and went
forward to where Jeanne and Frank, the music stopped, looked as if
they had just woken up, with bloated, startled faces. Frank Greer
had been married, to a woman named Winifred, until rather recently
in our little local history. Divorce, which had been flickering at
our edges for a decade while our vast pool of children slowly
bubbled up through the school grades toward, we hoped,
psychological health, was still rare, and sat raw on Frank, like
the red cheek he had been pressing against my wife's.

Maureen Miller, in one of those intervals in bed when passion had
been slaked but an awkward half-hour of usable time remained before
I could in decency sneak away, once told me that Winifred resented
the fact that, in the years when the affair between Frank and
Jeanne was common knowledge, I had never made a pass at her.
Winifred, sometimes called Freddy, was an owlish small woman, a
graceful white owl, with big dark eyes and untanned skin and an
Emily Dickinson hairdo atop a plump body that tapered to small and
shapely hands and feet. If my wife held herself like a dancer, it
was her lover's wife who in fact could dance, with a feathery
nestling and lightness of fit that had an embarrassing erotic
effect on me. Holding her in my arms, I would get an erection, and
thus I would prudently avoid dancing with her until the end of the
evening, when one or the other of us, in an attempt to persuade our
spouses to tear themselves apart, would have put on an overcoat.
Otherwise, I was not attracted to Winifred. Like the model for her
hairdo, she had literary ambitions and a dogmatic, clipped,
willfully oblique style. She seemed in her utterances faintly too

"Well, I won't say no," she said, not altogether graciously, one
night well after midnight when Jeanne suggested that I walk
Winifred home, through a snowstorm that had developed during a
dinner party of ours and its inert, boozy aftermath. Couples or
their remnants had drifted off until just Winifred was left; she
had a stern, impassive way of absorbing a great deal of liquor and
betraying its presence in her system only by a slight lowering of
her lids over her bright black eyes, and an increase of pedantry in
her fluting voice. This was before the Greers' divorce. Frank was
absent from the party on some mysterious excuse of a business trip.
It was the first stage of their separation, I realized later.
Jeanne, knowing more than she let on, had extended herself that
night like a kid sister to the unescorted woman. She kept urging
Freddy, as the party thinned, to give us one more tale of the
creative-writing seminar she was taking, as a special student, at
our local college, Bradbury. Bradbury had formerly been a bleak
little Presbyterian seminary tucked up here, with its pillared
chapel, in the foothills of the White Mountains, but it had long
loosened its ecclesiastical ties and in the Sixties had gone coed,
with riotous results.

"This one girl," Winifred said, accepting what she swore was her
last Kahlúa and brandy, "read a story that must have been very
closely based on a painful breakup she had just gone through, and
got nothing but the most sarcastic comments from the instructor,
who seems to be a real sadist, or else it was his way of putting
the make on her." Her expression conveyed disgust and weariness
with all such trans- actions. I supposed that she was displacing
her anger at Frank onto the instructor, a New York poet who no
doubt wished he was back in Greenwich Village, where the sexual
revolution was polymorphous. He was a dreary sour condescending
fellow, in my occasional brushes with him, and disconcertingly
short as well.

These rehashed class sessions were all fascinating stuff, if you
judged from Jeanne's animation and gleeful encouragement of the
other woman to tell more. A rule of life in Pierce Junction
demanded that you be especially nice to your lover's spouse-by no
means an insincere observance, for the secret sharing did breed a
tortuous, guilt-warmed gratitude to the everyday keeper of such a
treasure. But even Winifred through her veils of Kahlúa began
to feel uncomfortable, and stood up in our cold room (the
thermostat had retired hours ago), and put her shawl up around her
head, as if fluffing up her feathers. She accepted with a frown
Jeanne's insistent suggestion that I escort her home. "Of course
I'm in no condition to drive, this has been so lovely," she said to
Jeanne, with a handshake that Jeanne turned into a fierce,
pink-faced, rather frantic (I thought) embrace of transposed

Winifred's car had been plowed fast to the curb by the passing
revolving-eyed behemoths of our town highway department, and she
lived only three blocks away, an uphill slog in four inches of
fresh snow. She did seem to need to take my arm, but we both stayed
wrapped in our own thoughts. The snow drifted down with a steady
whisper of its own, and the presence on the streets, at this
profoundly nocturnal hour, of the churning, scraping snowplows made
an effect of companionship-of a wider party beneath the low sky,
which was glowing yellow with that strange, secretive
phosphorescence of a snowstorm. The houses were dark, and my porch
light grew smaller, receding down the hill. In front of her own
door, right under a streetlamp, Winifred turned to face me as if,
in our muffling clothes, to dance; but it was only to offer up her
pale, oval, rather frozen and grieving face for me to kiss.
Snowflakes were caught in the long lashes of her closed lids and
spangled the arc of parted dark hair left exposed by her shawl. I
felt the usual arousal. The house behind her held only sleeping
children. Its clapboard face, needing a coat of paint, looked
shabby, betraying the distracted marriage within.

There was, in Pierce Junction, a romance of other couples'
houses-the merged tastes, the accumulated furniture, the framed
photographs going back to the bridal day and the premarital
vacation spots. We loved being guests and hosts both, but preferred
being guests, invasive and inquisitive and irresponsible. Did she
expect me to come in? It didn't strike me as at all a feasible
idea-at my back, down the hill, Jeanne would be busy tidying up the
party wreckage in our living room and resting a despairing eye on
the kitchen clock with its sweeping red second hand. Tiny stars of
ice clotted my own lashes as I kissed our guest good night, square
on the mouth but lightly, lightly, with liquor-glazed subtleties of
courteous regret. Of all the kisses I gave and received in Pierce
Junction, from children and adults and golden retrievers, that
chaste crystalline one has remained unmelted in my mind.

When I returned to the house, Frank, surprisingly, was sitting in
the living room, holding a beer and wearing a rumpled suit, his
long face pink as if after great exertion. Jeanne, too tired to be
flustered, explained, "Frank just got back from his trip. The plane
into the Manchester airport almost didn't land, and when he found
Freddy not at their home he thought he'd swing down here and pick
her up." "Up and down that hill in this blizzard?" I marvelled. I
didn't remember any car going by. "We have four-wheel drive," Frank
said, as if that explained everything.

Excerpted from LICKS OF LOVE © Copyright 2005 by John
Updike. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, Rabbit Remembered
by by John Updike

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345442016
  • ISBN-13: 9780345442017