john updike’s “gesturing”

The architect had had a vision. He had dreamed of an invisible building, though immense; the glass was meant to reflect the sky and the old low brick skyline of Boston, and to melt into the city. Instead, the windows of mirroring glass kept falling to the street, and were replaced by ugly opacities of black plywood . . . Heavily planked and chicken-wired tunnels, guarded bybarking policemen, protected pedestrians from falling glass . . . Trestles and trucks jammed the cacophonous area. The lower floors were solid plywood, of a Stygian black; the building, so lovely in air, had tangled mucky roots.  


—from John Updike, "Gesturing"


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SHE TOLD HIM with a little gesture he had never seen her use before. Joan had called from the station, having lunched, Richard knew, with her lover. It was a Saturday, and his older son had taken his convertible; Joan’s Volvo was new and for several minutes refused to go into first gear for him. By the time he had reached the center of town, she had walked down the main street and up the hill to the green. It was September, leafy and warm, yet with a crystal chill on things, an uncanny clarity. Even from a distance they smiled to see each other. She opened the door and seated herself, fastening the safety belt to silence its chastening buzz. Her face was rosy from her walk, her city clothes looked like a costume, she carried a small package or two, token of her "shopping." Richard tried to pull a U-turn on the narrow street, and in the long moment of his halting and groping for reverse gear, she told him. "Darley," she said and, oddly, tentatively, soundlessly, tapped the fingers of one hand into the palm of the other, a gesture between a child’s clap of glee and an adult’s signal for attention, "I’ve decided to kick you out. I’m going to ask you to leave town."

Abruptly full, his heart thumped; it was what he wanted.


He asked, "Is this your idea, or his?"


"Mine. It came to me on the train. All Andy said was, I seemed to be feeding you all the time."

Richard had been sleeping, most nights, in the weeks since their summer of separated vacations, in a borrowed seaside shack two miles from their home; he tried to sleep there, but each evening, as the nights grew longer, it seemed easier, and kinder to the children, to eat the dinner Joan had cooked. He was used to her cooking; indeed, his body, every cell, was composed of her cooking.
He found the apartment in
Boston on the second day of hunting. The real-estate agent had red hair, a round bottom, and a mask of make-up worn as if to conceal her youth. Richard felt happy and scared, going up and down stairs behind her. Wearier of him than he was of her, she fidgeted the key into the lock, bucked the door open with her shoulder, and made her little openhanded gesture of helpless display.

The floor was neither wall-to-wall shag nor splintered wood, but black-and-white tile, like the floor in a Vermeer; he glanced to the window, saw the skyscraper, and knew this would do. The skyscraper, for years suspended in a famous state of incompletion, was a beautiful disaster, famous because it was a disaster (glass kept falling from it) and disastrous because it was beautiful: the architect had had a vision. He had dreamed of an invisible building, though immense; the glass was meant to reflect the sky and the old low brick skyline of Boston, and to melt into the sky. Instead, the windows of mirroring glass kept falling to the street and were replaced by ugly opacities of black plywood.


He tried to analyze the logic of window replacement, as revealed in the patterns of gap and glass. He detected no logic, just the slow-motion labor of invisible workers, emptying and filling cells of glass with the brainlessness of bees. If he watched for many minutes, he might see, like the condensation of a dewdrop, a blank space go glassy, and reflective, and greenish-blue. Days passed before he realized that, on the old glass near his nose, the wavery panes of his own window, ghostly previous tenants armed with diamonds had scratched initials, names, dates, and, cut deepest and whitest of all, the touching, comical vow, incised in two trisyllabic lines,

With this ring
I thee wed


She asked, "Isn’t that building amazing, with the sunset in it?"


"I love that building. And it loves me."

"No. It’s me who loves you:’

"Can’t you share?"


She felt possessive about the apartment; when he told her Joan had been there, too, and, just for "fun," had slept with him, her husband, Ruth wailed into the telephone,


"In our bed?"


"In my bed," he said, with uncharacteristic firmness.

"In your bed," she conceded, her voice husky as a sleepy child’s.


Taking Joan out to dinner felt illicit. She suggested it, for "fun," at the end of one of the children’s Sundays. He had been two months in
Boston, new habits had replaced old, and it was tempting to leave their children, who were bored and found it easier to be bored by television than by their father, this bossy visitor. "Stop telling me you’re bored," he had scolded John, the most docile of his children and the one he felt guiltiest about. "Fifteen is supposed to be a boring age. When I was fifteen, I lay around reading science fiction. You lie around looking at Kung Fu. At least I was learning to read."


A swallow of his wine inside her, Joan began to swell with impending hilarity. She leaned as close as the table would permit. "You must promise"—a gesture went with "promise," a protesting little splaying of her hands—"never to tell this to anybody, not even Ruth."

"Maybe you shouldn’t tell me. In fact, don’t?’ He understood why she had been laconic up to now; she had been wanting to talk about her lover, holding him warm within her like a baby. She was going to betray him. "Please don’t," Richard said.

"Don’t be such a prig. You’re the only person I can talk to; it doesn’t mean a thing."


Her glee whirled her to a kind of heaven as she confided stories about herself and Andy—how he and a motel manageress had quarreled over the lack of towels in a room taken for the afternoon, how he fell asleep for exactly seven minutes each time after making love. Richard had known Andy for years, a slender, swarthy specialist in corporation law, himself divorced, though professionally engaged in the finicking arrangement of giant mergers. A fussy dresser, a churchman, he brought to many occasions an undue dignity and perhaps had been more attracted to Joan’s surface glaze, her smooth New England ice, than to the mischievous demons underneath. "My psychiatrist thinks Andy was symbiotic with you, and now that you’re gone, I can see him as absurd."

"He’s not absurd. He’s good, loyal, handsome, prosperous. He tithes. He has a twelve handicap. He loves you."

"He protects you from me, you mean. His buttons!—we have to allow a half hour afterward for him to do up all his buttons. If they made four-piece suits, he’d wear them. And he washes—he washes everything, every time."

"Stop," Richard begged. "Stop telling me all this."


He saw through her words to what she was saying—that these lovers, however we love them, are not us, are not sacred as reality is sacred. We are reality. We have made children. We gave each other our young bodies. We promised to grow old together.

Joan described an incident in her house, once theirs, when the plumber unexpectedly arrived. Richard had to laugh with her; that house’s plumbing problems were an old joke, an ongoing saga. "The back-door bell rang, Mr. Kelly stomped right in, you know how the kitchen echoes in the bedroom, we had had it." She looked, to see if her meaning was clear. He nodded. Her eyes sparkled. She emphasized, of the knock, "Just at the very moment," and, with a gesture akin to the gentle clap in the car a world ago, drew with one fingertip a v in the air, as if beginning to write "very." The motion was eager, shy, exquisite, diffident, trusting: he saw all its meanings and knew that she would never stop gesturing within him, never; though a decree come between them, even death, her gestures would endure, cut into glass.



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