“GIVE ME A MINUTE, Ms. Lang,” said the porter. “I think he left a message for you.” In the background she heard a girl’s voice, her inaudible words punctuated by the merry ring of a bicycle bell. Then the porter was back. “Can you meet at the bookshop at four p.m.,” he read, “Wednesday, or Thursday?” After a hasty calculation—school, excuses, buses, enlisting Moira—she said Thursday but not until five.
As soon as she stepped into the brightly lit shop and caught sight of him, standing beside a table of books, she knew something had shifted; he was pleased to see her, but not entirely. “David Hume is one of my heroes,” he said, holding up a history of the Scottish Enlightenment. “Shall we get some coffee?”
“Can we go to your room? I don’t have to meet Moira until ten.” She held on to his hands, swinging them gently, and widened her eyes, both flirting and playing at flirting.
He made excuses—he wanted to talk; he hadn’t tidied up—and when she said, “Please. We can talk there,” yielded. In the street he seemed to forget his doubts. As they passed a shop already garlanded for Christmas, he told her about the Amish communities near Cedar Rapids, some of which celebrated Old Christmas on January sixth.
“They’re very devout,” he said. “Most of them won’t have anything to do with technology.”
“That must be hard,” Zoe said. She was still trying to decipher his hesitation.
In his room the vase on the windowsill held red tulips. Again, she wondered who had bought them, but he was unzipping her jacket and his own, and they were in bed, having another kind of conversation, first tumultuous, then peaceful.
“Zoe, Zoe, Zoe.”
He reached for the bedside light; the small room glowed around them. “Zoe,” he said, sitting up in the narrow bed, “I’ve fallen head over heels in love with you.”
Did she speak? Later she couldn’t remember because he was still talking, and he was saying that he should have told her. He had a girlfriend; she was living in Paris this term. He was going on Sunday to visit her. So when he had claimed, weeks ago at the café, that he wasn’t looking for a relationship, it was because he already had one.
“For how long?” she said.
“Ten days. I’m sorry. At first, we weren’t going to do anything, and so there was no need to tell you. I meant to, that day we went for a walk—I should have; I knew where we were heading—but I was afraid I’d never see you again. There’s no excuse. I was a coward. I swore I wasn’t going to go to bed with you again without telling you. When I saw you in the bookstore, I couldn’t stop myself.”
Then she asked all kinds of questions. How long had he been with Renée? Was she American? Did she have other boyfriends? What did she do? He’d been seeing her for the last year. She’d never mentioned having other boyfriends, but he’d never asked. She was married to a rather eminent physicist and was doing research at the Sorbonne into Simone Weil. She lived in Chicago and had started an organization to provide tutoring in inner-city schools.
“Will you tell her about me?”
“Yes. She has to lie to her husband—right from the start she made it clear he would always come first—but we’ve always agreed there’s no point in having an affair if you can’t be honest.”
“So she won’t mind?”
Once again she sensed his hesitation. “In theory,” he said, “she believes that jealousy is a symptom of the male patriarchy, the long history of men owning women, and women’s resulting insecurity. In practice, she’s a very passionate person.” He looked down at her, lying beside him. “Don’t you want to yell at me, tell me I’m a son of a bitch for deceiving you, say you’ll never see me again and storm out?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
She remembered her mother’s mysterious suggestion that feelings were optional. Now emotions were leaping up, swirling around, volunteering, vanishing, some dimly recognizable, some barely apprehended. Any number of postures seemed possible; none, so far, insisted. She knew she didn’t want to shout. She knew she was already, even as she lay beside him, missing him. Was she jealous? Angry? Sad? Stunned? Bewildered? Outraged? She couldn’t tell. She felt reluctant to single out one from among the throng; whichever she chose, perhaps seized almost at random, would begin not just to describe but to dictate her response. She pictured him in Paris, gazing up at the doorway of Notre-Dame and its carvings of the Last Judgment, walking by the Seine, wandering through the Latin Quarter, sitting in the Place des Vosges. She pictured him holding hands with a tall woman with long, tangled brown hair and a wide smile.
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WAS IT BEING the only one without a job that made him feel becalmed? Matthew was working extra shifts at the Co-op; Zoe was working Saturdays at the butcher’s; his mother wore her busyness like a tightly buttoned coat; his father claimed projects and deadlines. Day after day he waited for his parents to suggest what he, or they, must do to try to find his first mother. On Saturday morning, after Matthew and Zoe left, he cleared the kitchen table and spread out a dozen sheets of colored paper. At supper the night before they had studied his sketches for the family Christmas card and chosen the partridge in the pear tree perched on a sleigh, drawn by two geese. He was outlining the tree when his mother came in; she had to make a carrot cake for her ancient Greek party. As he drew the branches, she peeled the carrots, the muddy skin slithering off to reveal the bright orange. A tricky color to use in a painting; maybe if one chose other colors from that end of the spectrum—glowing pinks, searing reds—it could work.
“I phoned directory inquiries for London,” she said. “All the different areas. There’s no listing for your mother, but I made a note of everyone with the same surname. I thought I could call and ask if they knew her.”
“Can I call?”
The peeler paused. “I worry people may think we want to find her for a bad reason, to hurt her, or get something from her.” It was her job, he knew, to think of the worst thing that could happen, and guard against it. “But we don’t want to hurt her,” he said. “We just want to talk to her.”
“You sound like a teenager.”
She began to grate the carrots. What was she trying to tell him? Could he ask? Or would that detonate another of those little bombs he’d been setting off recently? He drew a pear, then a second smaller pear.
“People will wonder,” she went on, “why a boy your age wants to speak to a woman her age. We might inadvertently hurt her. Hurt her,” she explained unnecessarily, “without meaning to.”
Oh, he thought, she’s trying to say I’m a secret. “You phone,” he said, “and I’ll listen.”
“Quietly,” she insisted.
“Very quietly. Can we call now?”
“Give me fifteen minutes to get the cake in the oven.”
He picked up the drawing of a goose and began to cut it out, trying to make each bite of the scissors flow into the next. In twenty minutes he might know where his first mother lived. He carried the hall phone up to the study and, keeping a careful distance from the cactus with its stingers, stationed himself beneath the windowsill. His mother headed for her desk. Then she stopped and came to kneel beside him. “You’re very brave,” she said.
“Not really.” The little mermaid had cut off her tongue to reach the prince, danced on swords.
At her desk his mother opened a notebook. “Here we go.” Slowly and deliberately she pressed the buttons on the phone; he heard the sound of ringing; after six rings a message began to play. Not a single syllable uttered by the growly man’s voice was familiar. “He must be speaking Turkish,” his mother said, and made a note in her notebook. She dialed the next number. It rang ten times; neither a human nor a machine answered. Again she made a note. The third time she dialed, someone picked up the phone.
“Hello,” said a woman, her voice surprised, hopeful.
Everything stopped. He pressed his palm even more tightly against the mouthpiece.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I’m trying to contact Esmeray Yildirim. Do you know her, or know how to reach her?”
“Who is this?”
“My name is Betsy Lang. I’m a solicitor. I’m trying to find Ms. Yildirim for one of my clients.”
“So why does he want to find her?”
His mother gave him a warning glance. “He has some information for her. Good news.”
“You have the wrong Esmeray,” said the woman. “Our aunt is still living in her village near Izmir. She’s nearly eighty-four and almost blind. No one has good news for her.”
“You’re right. I’m not trying to reach your aunt. Do you know another Esmeray Yildirim, living in London, or nearby, aged around thirty?”
“I don’t.” The phone went dead.
“Goodness.” His mother pressed her hands to her face. “This is harder than I thought.”
“How many names do you have?”
“Let’s do one more and take a break.”
The next number yielded a man. No, no. He did not know of an Esmeray Yildirim. Had never heard of her. Sorry, sorry.
THE STENCIL OF THE FIRST goose was sleek and handsome, a little arrogant. The second goose, he determined, would be plumper, nicer. He was drawing the neck, trying to capture that goose-like straightness, when a ringing broke the silence. His palms, instantly, were slick with sweat. How had his body done that so quickly? And why, when it was just the phone ringing? His mother had gone off to her party. She had not left a number during any of her calls; there was no way Esmeray could know he was trying to find her. Yet even as he reached for the receiver, he imagined a woman with a faint Turkish accent, saying, “Am I speaking to Duncan Lang?” This was the season of miraculous encounters: people guided by stars, angels, coincidences.
“Hello,” he said hesitantly.
A woman’s voice, equally hesitant, no Turkish accent, returned his greeting. “I’m trying to reach Hal Lang.”
“He’s at the forge. He usually gets home around five.”
“Are you Duncan?”
He admitted that he was. Before he could ask if she wanted to leave a message, she said goodbye. He tried to go back to working on the goose, but the phone call had left him restless. For the first time he thought about his search from his first mother’s point of view. She had her life, good or less good, in which he played no part, and here he was, after nearly fourteen years, trying to walk into it: your son! Perhaps the room he had visited in his dream, the room he thought they shared, was hers. He was an intruder, trying to force the door. Perhaps hearing from him was the last thing she wanted. He might, as his mother had suggested, hurt her. He retrieved Lily’s lead.
Outside dampness rose from the pavement, fell from the sky. Before they reached the end of the street, Lily’s ears were pearled with droplets. At the crossroads she suggested the park but gracefully accepted his decision to go to the forge. He didn’t need to talk to his father, only to make sure he was there. Passing the Co-op, he saw a familiar figure, arranging cans of soup. Matthew didn’t notice his wave. Soon he and Lily were turning into the street that led to the forge. The large double doors were shut, as usual in colder weather. They walked round to the side door. As he read the modest notice one more time—Blackberry Forge. Prop. Hal Lang. Hours: 7:30-4:30, or by appt—he heard his father say, “It’s not like that,” and then a woman’s voice. At once he was certain it was the woman he had just spoken to; she had come rather than phoning. He turned the knob, and the door, like every door for which his father was responsible, swung open, silent on its well-oiled hinges. With Lily at his heels, he stepped inside.
On the far side of the room, thirty or forty feet away, his father and the woman were standing by the workbench, facing each other across several yards. She was very still, her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her jacket. Such stillness, he knew from the afternoon he’d waited for Karel, took resolve. His father had his arms outstretched, as if he were trying to reach her but did not dare take a step closer.
“I thought you were happy with what we had,” he said.
“I thought so too, but something changed after that weekend in Wales. I started to have fantasies of whole days together, whole nights, of not having to hide, or make excuses, or feel like a bad person. Then, when I had the accident”—she stared off in the direction of the anvil—“ I couldn’t call you.”
“Your brother came to the hospital. You’re better now.”
“Exactly. I’m thirty-five, and my next of kin is my brother, who has his own lovely partner and two children.”
His father let his arms fall by his sides.
“The baby is due on July third,” she went on, “but my doctor says first babies are often late.”
Why was she talking about a baby? She stood there, looking at his father, waiting. Her sentence seemed to reach him very slowly, then all at once.
“Oh, my god.” He stepped toward her, stopped. “How could that happen?”
“The usual way.”
In the street outside a horn hooted, tentative and plaintive. “How long have you known?”
“I’ve suspected for a while. Known for a week.” Her forced calmness was slipping.
“So at the pub, when you said you had a headache and wouldn’t have a glass of wine ...” He trailed off. “What are you going to do?”
“Take my vitamins, do yoga, avoid alcohol, hope that other people congratulate me.”
“You mean you’re going to have it?”
She moved her head fractionally. She’s waiting, Duncan thought; she’s giving him one more chance. His father backed away and sat down on the stool he used when he was working at the bench. He picked up a small hammer and hefted it from hand to hand.
“I know what you want me to say.” He spoke as if he were being slowly crushed in one of his own vises. “But I can’t. There have been times I thought I could, that I could have a new life with you. I know you sensed that, and I know it was misleading. We both began to talk differently, to forget what I said the first time we had a drink: that I could never leave my family. That was true then, and whatever I feel for you”—his voice faded, rallied—“it’s still true.”
“So when we talked about going to see Monet’s garden, and walking the Pennine Way, and learning to scuba-dive, you were lying.”
Her accusation flew through the shadowy space.
“In a way. Yes. I thought of doing those things with you. I truly wanted to. But I knew the chances of us actually doing them were very, very small. It was so much nicer to pretend we had a future.”
“And, like it or not, we do. Touch wood”—she reached for the workbench—“we’ll always be connected, even if we never see each other again.”
His father hit the bench with the hammer, a dull thud, once, twice. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what to say.”
“On the contrary, you know exactly what to say. You’re saying the baby doesn’t change things. You’re saying you wish I’d get rid of her or him. You’re saying you don’t want to have another child, that you won’t be a father except for DNA.”
She spoke evenly, but Duncan could tell that each sentence was filled with pain. Stop hurting her, he wanted to shout. At the same time he dimly grasped that if his father did not hurt this woman, something terrible would happen to his mother, to Matthew and Zoe, to him. His father had begun, once again, to apologize when Lily, who had been standing quietly beside him since they came through the door, stepped forward.
The woman caught sight first of her, then of him. “Hello,” she said.
He gave in and followed. “Hello. I’m Duncan. This is Lily.”
As they approached, the woman bent down; Lily went to her and offered a paw. The woman shook it. Still kneeling, she looked up at Duncan. “I hear you’re a fabulous painter. Do you have favorite artists?”
“I like this Italian painter who paints five bottles over and over.”
“Morandi. He’s sublime. When you’re older, you’ll have to visit the museum in Bologna.”
“Have you been?”
“No.” The woman’s hair rippled pleasingly as she stroked Lily. “But I’d like to. You can see the studio he had in the house he shared with his sisters.”
“I paint in my bedroom. Do you paint?”
“Not really. I’m a graphic designer. I met your father when some friends asked me to help them design a coffee table.”
While they talked, his father had risen to his feet. He was watching their exchange as if they were tossing a burning torch back and forth; any moment one of them would drop it.
“Dad, I wanted to ask if I could go over to Will’s. I’ve got the Christmas card under control.”
His father made a noise, neither yes nor no.
“I’d better be going,” said the woman. “Nice to meet you at last.” Before either Duncan or his father could say goodbye, she was gone, leaving the two of them alone.
When Will’s little sister was born, Duncan had spent hours lying beside her on the rug, watching her eyes focus on a butterfly mobile or a stuffed animal. “You watch her like she’s a TV,” Will had said. Duncan had not corrected him, but TV was only sometimes interesting. Bethany was like the sky, interesting even when she was boring.
He took a step toward his father and found his path blocked by Lily. She was emanating one word: No.
No to what?
No to staying another minute, saying another word.
“Dad? I’m going to take Lily for a walk and go to Will’s.”
Pulling up the hood of his jacket, he followed Lily through the rainy streets to the park. What had just happened? A woman telephoned the house and then went to the forge, where she told his father she didn’t want her brother to be her next of kin and that she was going to have a baby. She wanted his father to be happy about the baby. His father wasn’t.
In the park Lily kept close. Because of the rain, there were no other dogs. He picked up a stick and threw it. She dutifully retrieved it and set it at the foot of a chestnut tree. Not today. He knew that married people had what were called affairs, that they were unfaithful, but those words didn’t seem to fit. The woman was nice, he and Lily could both see that, and somehow his father had ended up hurting her, and hurting himself.
He walked across the sodden grass and took refuge beneath his favorite cypress. The thickly needled branches formed a canopy above him. A seagull landed nearby and began to peck at an abandoned bag of crisps. Watching it stab the bag over and over, he thought, The woman is like my first mother. Some man started me growing inside her and then wanted no part of us. Or perhaps she wanted no part of the man. The gull stabbed the crisps bag one more time and, stiff-legged, strode away. On or around July third he would have a brother or sister, and some day perhaps that brother or sister would be standing under a wet tree on a wet afternoon, wondering desperately about his or her father. At last he understood the lesson of the little mermaid. You could want and want and want and still be empty-handed.