Extract: Comet by James Salter
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Philip married Adele on a day in June. It was cloudy and the wind was blowing. Later the sun came out. It had been a while since Adele had married and she wore white: white pumps with low heels, a long white skirt that clung to her hips, a filmy blouse with a white bra underneath, and around her neck a string of freshwater pearls. They were married in her house, the one she’d gotten in the divorce. All her friends were there. She believed strongly in friendship. The room was crowded.
“I, Adele,” she said in a clear voice, “give myself to you, Phil, completely as your wife . . .” Behind her as best man, somewhat oblivious, her young son was standing, and pinned to her panties as something borrowed was a small silver disc, actually a St. Christopher’s medal her father had worn in the war; she had several times rolled down the waistband of her skirt to show it to people. Near the door, under the impression that she was part of a garden tour, was an old woman who held a little dog by the handle of a cane hooked through his collar.
At the reception Adele smiled with happiness, drank too much, laughed, and scratched her bare arms with long showgirl nails. Her new husband admired her. He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt. She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried.
They settled into life together, hers mostly. It was her furniture and her books, though they were largely unread. She liked to tell stories about DeLereo, her first husband—Frank, his name was—the heir to a garbage-hauling empire. She called him Delerium, but the stories were not unaffectionate. Loyalty—it came from her childhood as well as the years of marriage, eight exhausting years, as she said—was her code. The terms of marriage had been simple, she admitted. Her job was to be dressed, have dinner ready, and be fucked once a day. One time in Florida with another couple they chartered a boat to go bonefishing off Bimini.
“We’ll have a good dinner,” DeLereo had said happily, “get on board and turn in. When we get up we’ll have passed the Gulf Stream.”
It began that way but ended differently. The sea was very rough. They never did cross the Gulf Stream—the captain was from Long Island and got lost. DeLereo paid him fifty dollars to turn over the wheel and go below.
“Do you know anything about boats?” the captain asked.
“More than you do,” DeLereo told him.
He was under an ultimatum from Adele, who was lying, deathly pale, in their cabin. “Get us into port somewhere or get ready to sleep by yourself,” she’d said.
Philip Ardet had heard the story and many others often. He was mannerly and elegant, his head held back a bit as he talked, as though you were a menu. He and Adele had met on the golf course when she was learning to play. It was a wet day and the course was nearly empty. Adele and a friend were teeing off when a balding figure carrying a cloth bag with a few clubs in it asked if he could join them. Adele hit a passable drive. Her friend bounced his across the road and teed up another, which he topped. Phil, rather shyly, took out an old three wood and hit one two hundred yards straight down the fairway.
That was his persona, capable and calm. He’d gone to Princeton and been in the navy. He looked like someone who’d been in the navy, Adele said—his legs were strong. The first time she went out with him, he remarked it was a funny thing, some people liked him, some didn’t.
“The ones that do, I tend to lose interest in.”
She wasn’t sure just what that meant but she liked his appearance, which was a bit worn, especially around the eyes. It made her feel he was a real man, though perhaps not the man he had been. Also he was smart, as she explained it, more or less the way professors were.
To be liked by her was worthwhile but to be liked by him seemed somehow of even greater value. There was something about him that discounted the world. He appeared in a way to care nothing for himself, to be above that.
He didn’t make much money, as it turned out. He wrote for a business weekly. She earned nearly that much selling houses. She had begun to put on a little weight. This was a few years after they were married. She was still beautiful—her face was—but she had adopted a more comfortable outline. She would get into bed with a drink, the way she had done when she was twenty-five. Phil, a sport jacket over his pajamas, sat reading. Sometimes he walked that way on their lawn in the morning. She sipped her drink and watched him.
“You know something?”
“I’ve had good sex since I was fifteen,” she said.
He looked up.
“I didn’t start quite that young,” he confessed.
“Maybe you should have.”
“Good advice. Little late though.”
“Do you remember when we first got started?”
“We could hardly stop,” she said. “You remember?”
“It averages out.”
“Oh, great,” she said.
After he’d gone to sleep she watched a movie. The stars grew old, too, and had problems with love. It was different, though—they had already reaped huge rewards. She watched, thinking. She thought of what she had been, what she had had. She could have been a star.
What did Phil know—he was sleeping.
Autumn came. One evening they were at the Morrisseys’—Morrissey was a tall lawyer, the executor of many estates and trustee of others. Reading wills had been his true education, a look into the human heart, he said.
At the dinner table was a man from Chicago who’d made a fortune in computers, a nitwit it soon became apparent, who during the meal gave a toast,
“To the end of privacy and the life of dignity,” he said.
He was with a dampened woman who had recently found out that her husband had been having an affair with a black woman in Cleveland, an affair that had somehow been going on for seven years. There may even have been a child.
“You can see why coming here is like a breath of fresh air for me,” she said.
The women were sympathetic. They knew what she had to do—she had to rethink completely the past seven years.
“That’s right,” her companion agreed.
“What is there to be rethought?” Phil wanted to know.
He was answered with impatience. The deception, they said, the deception—she had been deceived all that time. Adele meanwhile was pouring more wine for herself. Her napkin covered the place where she had already spilled a glass of it.
“But that time was spent in happiness, wasn’t it?” Phil asked guilelessly. “That’s been lived. It can’t be changed. It can’t be just turned into unhappiness.”
“That woman stole my husband. She stole everything he had vowed.”
“Forgive me,” Phil said softly. “That happens every day.”
There was an outcry as if from a chorus, heads thrust forward like the hissing, sacred geese. Only Adele sat silent.
“Every day,” he repeated, his voice drowned out, the voice of reason or at least of fact.
“I’d never steal anyone’s man,” Adele said then. “Never.” Her face had a tone of weariness when she drank, a weariness that knew the answer to everything. “And I’d never break a vow.”
“I don’t think you would,” Phil said.
“I’d never fall for a twenty-year-old, either.”
She was talking about the tutor, the girl who had come that time, youth burning through her clothes.
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“He left his wife,” Adele told them.
There was silence.
Phil’s bit of smile had gone but his face was still pleasant.
“I didn’t leave my wife,” he said quietly. “She threw me out.”
“He left his wife and children,” Adele said.
“I didn’t leave them. Anyway it was over between us. It had been for more than a year. He said it evenly, almost as if it had happened to someone else. It was my son’s tutor,” he explained. “I fell in love with her.”
“And you began something with her?” Morrissey suggested.
There is love when you lose the power to speak, when you cannot even breathe.
“Within two or three days,” he confessed.
“There in the house?”
Phil shook his head. He had a strange, helpless feeling. He was abandoning himself.
“I didn’t do anything in the house.”
“He left his wife and children,” Adele repeated.
“You knew that,” Phil said.
“Just walked out on them. They’d been married fifteen years, since he was nineteen.”
“We hadn’t been married fifteen years.”
“They had three children,” she said, “one of them retarded.”
Something had happened—he was becoming speechless, he could feel it in his chest like a kind of nausea. As if he were giving up portions of an intimate past.
“He wasn’t retarded,” he managed to say. “He was . . . having trouble learning to read, that’s all.”
At that instant an aching image of himself and his son from years before came to him. They had rowed one afternoon to the middle of a friend’s pond and jumped in, just the two of them. It was summer. His son was six or seven. There was a layer of warm water over deeper, cooler water, the faded green of frogs and weeds. They swam to the far side and then all the way back, the blond head and anxious face of his boy above the surface like a dog’s. Year of joy.
“So tell them the rest of it,” Adele said.
“There is no rest.”
“It turned out this tutor was some kind of call girl. He found her in bed with some guy.”
“Is that right?” Morrissey said.
He was leaning on the table, his chin in his hand. You think you know someone, you think because you have dinner with them or play cards, but you really don’t. It’s always a surprise. You know nothing.
“It didn’t matter,” Phil murmured.
“So stupid marries her anyway,” Adele went on. “She comes to Mexico City where he’s working and he marries her.”
“You don’t understand anything, Adele,” he said.
He wanted to say more but couldn’t. It was like being out of breath.
“Do you still talk to her?” Morrissey asked casually.
“Yes, over my dead body,” Adele said.
None of them could know, none of them could visualize Mexico City and the first unbelievable year, driving down to the coast for the weekend, through Cuernavaca, her bare legs with the sun lying on them, her arms, the dizziness and submission he felt with her as before a forbidden photograph, as if before an overwhelming work of art. Two years in Mexico City oblivious to the wreckage. It was the sense of godliness that empowered him. He could see her neck bent forward with its slender nape. He could see the faint trace of bones like pearls that ran down her smooth back. He could see himself, his former self.
“I talk to her,” he admitted.
“And your first wife?”
“I talk to her. We have three kids.”
“He left her,” Adele said. “Casanova here.”
“Some women have minds like cops,” Phil said to no one in particular. “This is right, that’s wrong. Well, anyway . . .”
He stood up. He had done everything wrong, he realized, in the wrong order. He had scuttled his life.
“Anyway there’s one thing I can say truthfully. I’d do it all over again if I had the chance.”
After he had gone outside they went on talking. The woman whose husband had been unfaithful for seven years knew what it was like.
“He pretends he can’t help it,” she said. “I’ve had the same thing happen. I was going by Bergdorf’s one day and saw a green coat in the window that I liked and I went in and bought it. Then a little while later, someplace else, I saw one that was better than the first one, I thought, so I bought that. Anyway, by the time I was finished I had four green coats hanging in the closet—it was just because I couldn’t control my desires.”
Outside, the sky, the topmost dome of it, was brushed with clouds and the stars were dim. Adele finally made him out, standing far off in the darkness. She walked unsteadily toward him. His head, she saw, was raised. She stopped a few yards away and raised her head, too. The sky began to whirl. She took an unexpected step or two to steady herself.
“What are you looking at?” she finally said.
He did not answer. He had no intention of answering. Then,
“The comet,” he said. “It’s been in the papers. This is the night it’s supposed to be most visible.”
There was silence.
“I don’t see any comet,” she said.
“Where is it?”
“It’s right up there,” he gestured. “It doesn’t look like anything, just like another small star. It’s that extra one, by the Pleiades.” He knew all the constellations. He had seen them rise in darkness over heartbreaking coasts.
“Come on, you can look at it tomorrow,” she said, almost consolingly, though she came no closer to him.
“It won’t be there tomorrow. One time only.”
“How do you know where it’ll be?” she said. “Come on, it’s late, let’s get out of here.”
He did not move. After a bit she walked toward the house where, extravagantly, every window upstairs and down was lit. He stood where he was, looking up at the sky and then at her as she became smaller and smaller going across the lawn, reaching first the aura, then the brightness, then tripping on the kitchen steps.