Though they had parted and now lived in different cities, he only remembered one quarrel of all the years and travels. They’d been through Europe together, of course, when they were young and she’d been sunburned in France and fond of the wine, the first she’d ever liked, a thick red wine from a vineyard twenty minutes from their campground above the beach, and she’d taken off her bikini top like everyone else and browned herself, and one day at the campground she’d quickly pulled him into the women’s shower room where they had to be very quiet in the big shower stall, but brown and soapy she had laughed and laughed and became known as the American woman who thought washing up was very funny. And they’d been to Tokyo, a city he remembered as a city of nights, the lights of the Ginza as they sat in the backs of taxis knowing not to kiss because their first cab driver had stopped and shaken a finger at them and said, Not in Japan. They said that every night in the hotels they found along the river in Scotland as she came into his arms or he came into her arms. Not in Japan. They’d lost luggage and he’d lost his wallet twice and found it again once; it was still on the roof of the cab at the taxi stand at the Gare du Nord on their second trip to Paris, a magical lump which saved that day. But they’d had years of staying home too, and three houses, each newer than the last but not as nice or made as well: a brick house, a block house, and then a frame house with stucco, which went to flinders in a Midwestern hour under an unnamed tornado, but all three had been great houses with their paintings on the walls and their bare feet padding in the kitchen, and they’d raised three children, two girls and then Charlie, all of it intense and permanent, the infinite schooldays and the impossibility of seven times eight and then the magical answer, and the sudden projects for school, the poster for Magellan and the maps, and then all the lessons, cello and horseback riding, and the injuries, no broken bones, but Dora burned at camp and the scar on her forearm, and Eleanor, two years as a spacey teenager, riding her bike into the back of a parked car, the dental work, and later the acrid season with her boyfriend Matt or Catt or Ratt and his tattoos and the night she showed them her tattoo, the Chinese characters, and they sat quietly looking at her thigh, neither asking, and finally their daughter Ellie looking up from the blue mark on her leg and saying, “Well dears, it will then be always a mystery until the next person sees it and when he does there’s going to be a party!” and she got on her hands and knees on the couch knowing that he and his wife could not even move and she crawled over and kissed them each. And then two years later she was right about the party as it accompanied her entire wedding, and it was Wesley, the groom, who told them that she’d told him about Ratt and that he had now seen the tattoo all right and he smiled and said: it’s the character for Patience, and Ellie says she chose it for you two.
And then the two of them walking around the last house, the only one that was ever empty late at night, carrying half a glass of wine and listening, putting pans away and magazines, and collecting the dropped towels and being able to hear the children sleeping: three, then two and then one and then Charlie at college and his internship in Richmond (their baby is a speechwriter!) and still with the same half glass of wine they circled the house looking for a shirt draped over a chair and crossing by each other with the ache of the empty house in their hearts and asking “Are you still up?” And he couldn’t remember a quarrel from any of it.
Later, living alone and coasting on the memories that substituted for sleep, he’d work his way back through the seasons of their life and he knew there wasn’t a time that someone stood angrily and left the table or slammed a door or any of it. He remembered tears in the car, but what were they ever about, some night driving around the lake coming home from a party and him crying or her, the reasons long lost. He remembered vividly her saying his name sharply as he parked the car one wheel over the curb when they’d raced back after their one tornado, but then as they stood on the littered lawn and looked at most of their house, torn open like junk mail, as if the brown wind had also been looking unsuccessfully for their children, their hands flew out separately like ridiculous magnet toys and found each other. There were shingles driven into the walls of the upstairs hallway which was now open to the world like something intended, the rosevine wallpaper finally right in the cloudy open air of day.
The quarrel he remembered was ancient, but he saw it as clearly as anything he’d known in the last week of his life now. It was the first year they’d begun to see each other. They were in college and had met in a small honors history class in which you could smoke it was so long ago, and a girl in the class always smoked her Salems and a shed into a tin Band-Aid box that she’d painted gold, and it was her performance of smoking that they both remembered as much as their project, an analysis of the New Deal and the political fallout from the Civilian Conservation Corps and how it became a fundamental step away from the farms, from agricultural America. The girl in their class always lit a cigarette before she spoke and she could handle and maneuver the cigarette and point with it and then look down and tap the ash during her remarks, and they both laughed about how unfair it was for her to have that advantage, and his wife said she was going to win that battle and open her fist while defending the Democrats and reveal a pair of her underpants. Later in class, she had done it and he saw it coming and still gasped until he saw it was a lace handkerchief with which she wiped the corner of her mouth and then smiled at him gloriously, his shocked open eyes, and that was actually the last beat in their terrific courtship and it led them to her bed that night after her roommate had gone up to campus for the underground film society which was showing “Woman in the Dunes.”
So they were involved, and everything good in his life doubled in a way that he knew was permanent, his schoolwork and his ability to leave her apartment at eleven or twelve at night and kick through the comically leaf-strewn streets like a movie set that fall up to the campus and across the soccer fields to the dorms in the cold wind and by the time he pushed through the oak door of his room, he knew what he would say in his paper about the poet Robert Browning or the poet Percy Shelley and he sat at his old manual typewriter close enough to the window to hear the ghost of the fall wind carrying the legions of leaves down from the mountain canyons and gathering them against the brittle fences of the residence hall tennis courts and he typed the nine-page paper through top to bottom and then at four a.m., he cruised the sleeping corridors of the dorm and finally out into the dark morning claiming the world in long strides the way love had claimed him.
It was in the middle of December when they quarreled. …