Sarah sat in the kitchen, alone. She had made herself a cup of tea and it sat, untouched, on the counter in front of her.
For once, she was glad to be alone. Nicky hadn't even stirred when she'd crawled out of bed.
"It's not so easy as all that to be exempted from your culture," Perry had said the night before. "No matter who you sleep with."
Sarah wrapped her robe more tightly around her legs. The events of the previous night replayed themselves endlessly in her mind. She couldn't forget the look on Sam's face as he'd gone off to bed. She was furious at Terry, at Sam, at Perry even. And at herself, though she couldn't have said why. She wanted to hit something, but the pain in her hand reminded her how futile that could be. She clenched her fist experimentally, wondering if seeing a doctor might not be such a bad idea after all.
Perry opened the unlocked apartment door. He listened as he closed the door, quiet as a burglar. The apartment was silent.
He stood in the hallway for a moment, his head throbbing. The first door on the left, the girls' room, was closed. The door beyond, Sam's, was ajar and dark. The first door on the right, the living room, was open, a single light on.
It was empty, to his relief, and he sat down heavily on the sofa yawning.
The Today Show had been a disaster, as far as he'd been able to tell, and he was distressed (and somewhat amazed, everything considered) to discover that someone had had the presence of mind to program the VCR to record it. He considered erasing the tape, but he knew he couldn't bring himself to do that without watching it first, and he definitely wasn't up to that.
He kicked off his boots and stretched out on the sofa. He didn't expect anybody to get up anytime soon. The clock on the VCR said ten-twenty.
And Nicky slept, dreaming of being on television.
Perry found himself thinking how nice it would be to go home. Then he sat bolt upright as a howl of anguish came from Sam's room. He stumbled to his feet and crashed into Sarah as he ran to Sam's room.
They opened the door all the way and stood transfixed in the doorway. Sam stood naked, his back against the wall, looking at the bed. The bedclothes were tangled and ripped, and covered in blood. There was no sign of Terry.
Terry took off her glasses and squeezed the bridge of her nose, her eyes clenched shut.
Sam wasn't surprised she had a headache. It had been a hard week. She closed her book on a finger and looked out the window at the twilight scenery.
There were only about a dozen people on the Boston to New York bus that Sunday night.
"Why don't you take a nap?" he asked.
She smiled wryly. "I usually can't sleep on busses, but today I could probably manage it." She dog-eared a page and stuffed the book into her handbag. She smiled, leaning back, and tapped the book he was reading as she closed her eyes.
"Don't you nap, now. I'm next in line and I'm getting antsy."
She folded her scarf and cushioned her head with it as she leaned against the window.
The book Sam was reading was Perry Nelson's latest novel, already moving up the best-seller lists. Perry was Terry's step-brother. Sam had met him a few times, the child prodigy, but Terry usually avoided him, though she liked him and conceded his genius. She just kept away from him because, since she was a fellow writer in the same family, completely unsuccessful so far, and several years his elder in the bargain, she felt enough in his shadow as it was without having to meet it face to face.
Sam read for a while, but what was between the lines was so full and challenging that he had to close the book and lean back to sort it out. He decided to buy Terry her own copy when they reached the city. He wanted to take his time. Perry would have given her a copy, but she never would have asked.
He looked over at Terry, who was fast asleep. He found himself looking for a long time at her face, or what he could see of it in the dim light, with her lank hair falling across it. It was about the only time he could ever look at her without her snapping, "What?"
It was dark outside except for the lights of the cars on the highway. Terry's glasses were between her fingers, dangling precariously. He rescued them, snapped them into their case and deposited them into her bag.
Sam looked her over with a feeling of incredible luck welling up in him. She was several years older than he, a high school English teacher by day, an unsuccessful writer by night. A smart, bright, supportive friend by day, a smart, agile, inventive lover by night, he thought. She was tall and lean, with shoulder-length ash-blonde hair framing a narrow face, with large eyes over a small nose, mouth and chin. She was dressed well as always, a cream sweater over a dark brown collared shirt, tan corduroy slacks and her knee-high dark brown boots.
She looked drawn and pale, even for her, and that was one reason he'd asked her to come down to New York for his birthday. He'd spent the weekend in Boston with her, and he'd been worried by how tired she was. It had been three weeks since the last time they'd seen each other, and on the phone it hadn't been clear she was in such bad shape. So, with some effort, he'd managed to persuade her to call in sick and come to New York with him for a couple of days.
She'd been teaching by day and writing feverishly every night, sleeping very little and drinking much too much coffee. He wondered if Perry's new book was the reason for the sudden intensification of activity, but he hadn't mentioned the possible connection to her. She'd probably figured it out anyway.
It would have been nearly impossible to pry her loose, except that she'd had to admit that what she'd been writing was seriously flawed.
Sam glanced at his watch. More than an hour to Port Authority. He was impatient to get Terry home to his apartment and to bed. She looked really rocky.
As if aware of his gaze on her, she opened her eyes and shivered. He held out his arm and she curled against his shoulder. In the cold light of day the sight of her six-foot frame folded compact enough to cuddle up to him like a child might have looked a little silly, but in the dark it was just nice, filling him with a special feeling of wonder that this thorny, hyper-intellectual creature trusted him enough to relax with him and maybe even to risk looking a bit foolish.
When they reached New York, Terry looked so queasy that Sam didn't even consider the subway. He kept his arm around her as he hailed a cab and bundled her into it. They each kept clothes at the other's apartments, so there was no luggage to worry about.
Ten dollars later, as Sam unlocked the apartment door, she said quietly, "I'm not up to any fun and games. Are they home, do you think?"
He shrugged. "Probably. You just go to bed and don't worry."
He opened the door and she steamed down the hall and into his bedroom. He followed somewhat more slowly, glancing into the living room as he passed. Empty. The door to the girls' room was closed.
When Terry was in bed, Sam came out of his room and closed the door. He heard voices from the kitchen, so he looked in.
Nicky and Sarah, dressed in long flannel nightgowns, were perched on stools at the kitchen counter, devouring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They looked up, grubby-faced and grinning, and Nicky said, "Hi, Sam. Want some PB&J?"
"Where's the Perfect Woman?" Sarah asked as he sat down and got himself some bread.
"She's asleep. You two leave her alone, now. She's pretty shaky."
"What's the matter with her?" Nicky asked.
He chewed and swallowed. "Overwork, far as I can tell. Maybe more, but I don't know yet for sure."
"I'm dying of suspense," Sarah said dryly. "So, what're we doing for your birthday?"
Sam pouted. "You mean you're not going to give me the usual surprise party?"
Nicky laughed as Sarah jumped off her stool and padded over to the refrigerator. "What surprise party?" Nicky asked. "We've never given you any kind of party at all."
He nodded as Sarah returned with a carton of milk. "I've been meaning to speak to you guys about that. I think it's time I got a party." His first sandwich was so good he started to make another.
"What do you need a party for?" Sarah asked around a mouthful of sandwich. "You've got the perfect woman girlfriend, an absolutely splendid sister and your sister's equally splendid girlfriend. How about a small, intimate dinner for the four of us at a nice restaurant of your choice? Your treat, of course."
He shook his head. "I'm starting to wonder whose birthday this is supposed to be."
"Oh, don't be so selfish," Nicky chided him. "Think about the rest of us for once."
He finished his second sandwich and drank some milk. "Well, I'm not going to make any plans until I see how Terry feels."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "That woman's just too fragile. She–"
The phone rang. Sam reached behind him to grab it before the bedroom extension awakened Terry. He chided himself for not thinking to shut it off.
"Hello," he said.
"Hey, welcome back," came Charley's cheerful voice. "You pry Terry loose?"
"Yeah, she's here. I don't think we're up for anything wild, though. She's asleep already."
Sarah and Nicky looked a question. Sam mouthed Charley's name and they chorused a giggly hello as they put away the dregs of the peanut butter and jelly.
"Well," Charley said with a laugh, "that certainly wasn't Terry. You and the kiddies want to go grab a brewski?"
Nicky put three boxes of cookies on the counter and climbed up on her stool again.
"I don't think so. That bus ride wore me out. As soon as we eat every cookie in the house I'm going to crash."
He sounded perplexed. "Okay, if you say so. You've got some pretty warped values, though. Cookies instead of beer? Huh!" Sam chuckled. "Oh, yeah," Charley went on, "the boy genius is on TV at eleven-thirty."
"He is? What channel?"
"Thirteen. I saw it in the paper. Well, see ya later."
Sam hung up and took a cookie. They were going fast.
"What did he want?" Nicky asked.
"The usual. He told me–"
"Hey," Sarah cut in, "what if we wanted to go out drinking with Charley?"
"Then go out drinking with Charley."
Their eyes widened and they threw their arms around each other, panic on their faces. "Us tender young things go out with that horrible, horny beast without our brave hero to protect us?" Nicky protested. "We'll be raped and pillaged!" Sarah nodded in furious agreement.
Sam laughed, checking his watch. "I see what you mean. You guys want to see Perry? He's on TV in a few minutes."
They looked at each other and shrugged. "Well," Sarah said carelessly, "it beats being raped and pillaged."
They sat next to each other on the couch, Sarah with her arm around Nicky, who had her feet tucked carefully under her. Sam turned on the TV and the VCR. Nicky whispered something and Sarah giggled.
Red hair next to blonde, faces never holding one expression for longer than a minute, always together and usually touching, they could seem ten years old one minute and three times that the next. They had their own language, their own jokes, their own rituals and habits and secret names. Being with them was to be a witness to a constant silent conversation, all gestures and expressions. He could already tell that Terry resented it, she thought it was silly and childish and frequently offensive. Sam could see her point, but he really rather enjoyed it.
The show started. Perry was the only guest. He was all of twenty-one, and looked about sixteen. The interviewer started out treating him as a child prodigy, talking about the amazing critical and financial success at such a young age and so on, but Perry gently and firmly moved the conversation onto the subject of his writing itself. He was already an expert at graciously refusing to be a sideshow attraction.
"What's the book like?" Nicky asked suddenly.
Sam considered the question. "It's supposed to be the best yet. I've only read about a quarter of it so far, and it's pretty good, but it's hard to tell exactly what he's getting at. I assume it'll become clearer as I get further into it."
"The question of men and women has to be looked at in an entirely new way," Perry was saying. "Why do these relationships usually follow such predictable patterns? Is it built into us as human beings? Of course not. The society and the world around us have much more of an effect than most of us would like to admit.
"But the danger with this realization is to lose the human element, to lose the recognition of free choice. The point of starting to understand these things is to get some power over them, not to find new excuses.
"No matter how clearly we see the world and its effect on us, our perception of our own emotional lives starts with the subjective. Any situation that actually affects our innermost feelings is felt before it can be analyzed and understood, if it ever is, and literature must embrace both processes, in that order."
He was asked why, if the point of the book was relations between men and women, were the two central relationships in the book homosexual.
"There are two main reasons. One is that it distances us a bit, forces us to see things more clearly than we do in their familiar contexts. The other reason is that the patterns I'm concerned with show up in all relationships, heterosexual or not. They're a reflection of society as a whole, and we're all a part of that society, like it or not. Having the two gay couples wrestle with these problems emphasizes this, especially since one of the couples, the women, think they're exempt because they're women. They've decided men are the problem. But, of course, they find it's not that simple."
By the time the show was over (one hour), they had consumed four beers (two for each of the girls) and one and a half mugs of tea (for Sam). He shut off the TV and the VCR and they just sat there for a minute. Then Sarah said, "That guy's no fool." She turned to Nicky. "You ever finish reading the one I gave you, Portland?"
Nicky looked a bit dazed, or maybe it was just sleepy. "I think so," she replied slowly. "Yes, I did."
She yawned as Sarah stood up and stretched. "I'll lend you the other ones, if you want." She hauled Nicky up and steered her towards their bedroom. "C'mon, Portland. Bedtime."
Sam picked up the beer bottles and put them into the bag in the hall. It was getting pretty full and he reminded himself to turn them in the next time he went shopping.
He rinsed out his mug, shut off all the lights and went into his bedroom.
Terry was lying on her back, the bedside light on, her glasses on, Perry's latest open beside her. She was fast asleep. Her face looked really unhealthy.
Sam put the book and her glasses on the bedside table, undressed, got into bed and turned off the light. He considered waking her up, there were a couple of things he wanted to talk to her about, but he knew that in the mood she'd been in sleep wouldn't come so easily twice, so he let her be.