Because I felt like mixing things up. Because I can. Because I had a small window of time. Because, while shitty first drafts are definitely best kept private, shitty second drafts might benefit from being shared with friends. Because, Thanksgiving, you beautiful, topsy-turvy world.
His Garden of Earthly Delight
At just past 5:00 on the last Saturday in July, the summer before his 50th birthday, Peter grabbed a bottle of Champagne, put on his rain jacket, locked his empty Back Bay apartment and drove to Wellfleet for a party he had no interest in attending.
The traffic was heavy, which he’d expected, but the drive was more tedious than usual because he was alone. He considered a detour at Plymouth. He could call to say he’d had car trouble, stop in a bar, go for a walk in an unfamiliar place, waste some time. But then he would be stuck either staying in Plymouth for the night or making the unpleasant drive back into the city, so he pressed on.
The drizzle he’d been expecting had started, and there would be fog on the Cape. This would be a small consolation, the fog.
When he got to Orleans he started to turn, out of habit, and then corrected, too sharply, and almost ended things there and then, right in the middle of the Mid Cape highway. There would have been something delicious about that, he thought, a full-circle ending. He kept driving. Ten more minutes, if that.
He wondered, absently, then anxiously, who else would be at the party. Robert, the host, was an art conservationist who specialized in Old Masters restoration. He’d been a rising star at the Gardner and was now moving to L.A. for a post at the Getty, hence the going-away celebration. Most of their friends, Robert’s and Faith’s, were artists, academics and educators, with a few environmentalists here and there.
Peter fit none of these categories, not really. He was an outsider, invited because these were mostly Virginia’s friends who had become, loosely, over the last two years, Peter’s friends, too. He would be expected to attend, but he wouldn’t have to stay long. He could walk in, give his regards and go straight back out the way he’d come.
Or, and maybe this was better, he could drink heavily, immediately, park his stupor in a chair for a few hours and then sober up, later, help Faith clean the kitchen, after everyone else had gone, nap on their sofa and drive back to Boston before dawn. He did not even consider going to the house on Kescayogansett Road.
It was close to seven when he arrived, the party already an hour underway. He parked the Land Rover at the far edge of the lane and walked along the dark road toward the noise, cool mist gathering in his wiry hair.
The front door was open, and he stood there for a minute taking stock. It was a smaller crowd than he expected, and he was surprised to recognize only a few people, even fewer whose names he could remember. He wondered how he should introduce himself. “Hi, I’m Peter the widower.” “Oh, that’s Peter the sad sack,” they would all think. “How about ‘Peter the wanker, because that’s how you’re acting,’” Virginia would have said. And she, as always, would have been right.
“You came. I’m glad,” Faith said into his ear. She had snuck up behind him, a bag of ice in each hand. She looked him up and down and nodded, apparently satisfied. “Now go on in and hang up your coat. You’re not going to believe what my brother has made.”
In the square room, with its wide-plank floors and hooked rugs, there was a small cluster of people with their backs turned to Peter, looking at something Peter couldn’t see. The sound of a cork popping in kitchen drew their attention and momentarily parted the sea. And that’s when he saw the cake.
It was a pastry interpretation of a Dutch still-life, layers of ivory buttercream collars decorated with an abundance of candied figs, pears, pomegranate seeds. A luminous, pale caramel glaze froze everything in place. It was magnificent. Then Peter noticed, at the bottom corner of the bottom layer, almost obscured by a bunch of crystallized white grapes, a tiny, bright red “A.” He let out a laugh.
To most of the guests, the cake was a nod to Robert’s new job. To a very few, Peter included, it was also an inside joke.
While Robert had been finishing his Ph.D. and her job teaching kindergarten wasn’t quite making ends meet, Faith, who had a small but loyal following for her landscape paintings, took the pseudonym Hester Prynne and started painting Pilgrim-style portrait commissions, reminiscent of Dutch Masters only with, as she called it, a sick Van Gogh twist. They were an instant hit, mostly because Faith was a very skilled painter, but also because the whole endeavor was shrouded in mystery. Only a handful of people, Peter among them, knew Hester Prynne’s real identity.
Within a year of starting her business, Faith, as Hester, opened a gallery on Newberry Street. It had an opulent-looking sitting room with a one-way mirror from which she would sketch her subjects in secret. Now, years later, the waiting list for a portrait was still always full, despite a 12-month delay between booking and sitting. She was the most famous unknown artist most people would ever meet.
This curiosity-shop talent evidently ran in Faith’s family, because the pastry chef in question was her brother, David, who lived in Toronto, where they’d grown up. David hoped to follow Faith to Boston, Peter knew, and judging from this debut specimen he might well have found a niche. It wasn’t so much that the cake looked exactly like an iconic Vermeer or Rembrandt, but rather how it conveyed the same overall impression of somber serenity.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” Faith said, siding up to Peter’s shoulder. “He’s so fucking talented, I wanted to give him a chance to show off.” They lingered there, admiring her brother’s handiwork.
“She would have loved it, too, wouldn’t she?” Faith said softly. “I miss her wicked sense of humor.”
Then she tugged on his elbow, and said, “Now come out to the back porch and help me set up dinner.”
The dinner, in contrast to the elaborate cake, was standard summer-on-the-Cape fare, lobster, mostly, with a light green salad and lots of bread. They’d stashed the regular furniture away and replaced it with small café tables and red checkered tablecloths where small groups would sit, eat, and then hand over the real estate to another small group that would sit and eat, somehow maintaining essentially the same conversation thread of politics and art. No one else mentioned Virginia.
By midnight most of the Boston-bound crowd was long gone, and only the Cape crew remained: Robert and Faith; Faith’s brother David; Tom and Larry, who lived in Truro year-round; Rebecca and Paul, schoolteachers from Dover whose summer house was next door; and Courtney, a textile designer, who somehow always had a house-sitting job somewhere between Falmouth and Provincetown, all summer long, every summer.
They were in the tiny kitchen, half-heartedly cleaning, whole-heartedly drinking the Macallan that had suddenly appeared (a gift meant to be saved for L.A.), when Peter, who’d hardly said a word all night, got the idea.
“I’m going to throw myself a goddammed birthday party in November, and I want a goddammed Hieronymus Bosch birthday cake.”
The house on Lonnie’s Pond had been in Virginia’s family for five generations. Her great-great grandfather, a fisherman, cabinet maker and Universalist, had three healthy sons who were surprised at their father’s death to find the property left to their sister, the first-born child and only daughter, Miriam.
Miriam, who married at 19 was, by virtue of being married, fully entitled to inherit the property. Through the successive generations the tradition continued, with the house and land passing to the eldest daughter.
Virginia’s mother Elizabeth, first-born of three girls, died when Virginia, an only child, was 11. Elizabeth’s sisters, who had children of their own and who were very fond of the Cape house, appealed to their mother, who was still alive, to break tradition and let them share equally in ownership – along with Virginia, of course, as soon as she was of age.
They were all at the beach picnicking one afternoon, the summer after her mother died, when Virginia overheard her aunts talking about how wonderful it was going to be for them all to stay together at the house, how their children and their children’s children would all grow up with the garden and the sleeping porch and the ocean.
That night Virginia asked her father about the house and whether or not it was still hers, as her mother had promised. He told her the story of King Solomon’s baby, explained that sorrow and justice and mercy weren’t always simple.
The next morning at breakfast, having thought about it all night, Virginia explained to her father that the property had rightly belonged to her mother, and that it should rightly belong to her. The property was not at all like the baby in the King Solomon story because, first and foremost, there was no evidence and no documentation in the case of the baby. King Solomon had only the subjective stories of the two women on which to base his decision. Conversely, in the case of the Orleans house, there was both the objective history of tradition and the clear documentation of two wills, her mother’s and her grandmother’s.
That was when Virginia decided to become a lawyer.
When they met, in the summer of 1987, Virginia was working on behalf of the newly-formed Save the Harbor/Save the Bay campaign. Peter had spent years surveying waterways from 30,000 feet in the air and not liking some of the things he saw. One afternoon he found a flyer under his windshield wiper advertising a kick-off rally for a new local conservation effort. He wasn’t much for protests, but he was committed to the water clean-up, so he went to the harbor to hear this new group had planned.
There was nothing especially attractive about Peter, though nothing especially unattractive either. His wiry hair started turning silver in his mid 30s, around the same time wrinkles started to set around his pale blue eyes, giving him an appearance of early wisdom. What drew people to him, women in particular, was the way he leaned in with curiosity, as if every person he met held the most fascinating story and he wanted to unlock it, one tiny door at a time.
The story inside his first wife, Pam, a nurse who looked like a Breck girl and whom he met when he returned from Vietnam, was one of pure, tender compassion. She had been the caretaker in her family, for both her grandfather and her younger siblings, who still lived in the same small house in South Natick where Pam had been raised. She lived to serve others – family, friends, strangers, the abandoned rabbits behind the garden shed. She was simple and soft and loving and utterly unsuited to Peter, who was cynical and enjoyed being challenged. Their marriage ended after 18 months when Peter put a definitive end to any possibility of children by getting an unannounced vasectomy.
His second wife, Belinda, held a tale of mystery and dark intrigue. She was raven-haired and mischievous, and she toyed with Peter’s affections to keep him interested. She had been married before, too, twice. Her father was a diplomat, and she’d grown up mostly in Rome. Looking back, years later, Peter would see that she’d been thrilled by the idea of marrying a pilot because, in her mind, it conjured constant adventure. By the end of eight years together the excitement had burned complete. She’d grown bored, she said one day, and though she’d love Peter for eternity, she was leaving him for a more adventuresome man.
Virginia was unlike either of Peter’s other wives. Her story was a spiral of resolve and determination, a chambered nautilus that grew from her steady center. She was the kind of woman, kind of person, who could constantly adapt while staying completely the same.
The first thing Peter had noticed about her, the thing that had captured his attention that first afternoon at the rally overlooking the water, was the delicate arc of her ear. It was windy, and she kept reaching up to tuck her hair back into place. Every time she did it, he wondered what soft sound she was listening for, what whisper she hadn’t yet heard.
“I’m Peter,” he’d said afterward, striding up with his hand outstretched. “Have dinner with me, tell me more about how we’re going to clean up the harbor.”
They eloped six weeks later, spent two weeks bicycling Prince Edward Island, and settled, that October, in the cedar-shake house on Kescayogansett Road, with its illogical added-on rooms, ancient kitchen, drafty windows, expansive yard and an asparagus patch in the middle of victory garden that the women in her family had planted before Virginia was born.
Her solution to the family bickering, years earlier, had been to suggest that the property be placed in a trust, controlled by Virginia after her grandmother’s death. The aunts weren’t entirely happy with the solution, but they weren’t entirely unhappy either, especially when they continued to enjoy use of the house. They had stayed close as a family, and as her cousins had families of their own, Virginia enjoyed the comfort of future continuity.
They kept Peter’s apartment in town, partly because it was a closer commute from both the airport and her office, but mostly because it afforded them privacy the following summer when her aunts and cousins descended on the Cape.
In the summer of 1988 she and Peter turned the long-shuttered servant quarters, which sat 50 yards back from the main house, into a cozy, 600 square foot, private guest house. They furnished it sparely, with only things they cherished: walls of bookshelves, a hammock, a fireplace, a bed. Of necessity they included a small kitchen and adequate bathroom, and they added an outdoor shower for practicality, since they both loved working in the garden.
Once the weather turned cold, in late October, and all of the other family members stayed put in their mainland homes, Peter and Virginia could have moved back into the main house. But by then they had both spent more than enough time in big spaces with room to roam. They liked their cocoon, the close smell of salt and smoke, the sound of the nearby trees when the wind changed direction in the night.
Their short time together was spent largely in this kind of seclusion, just the two of them. She adjusted her work to fit Peter’s flight schedule. When he was away, she stayed in town, put in long hours, drafting conservation easements and reading obscure legislative briefs. When he was home, they stayed in Orleans, even in the winter. They cooked dinner with their small group of friends and stayed up late drinking Irish whiskey. They re-read books they loved, worked crossword puzzles.
It was late in the afternoon on a lazy Thursday in February when Peter first felt the lump, small and high in her left breast. Before that day they had lived in a luxurious slowness. After that day everything became quick, short staccato bursts.
They had every reason to be hopeful, the doctors said, very confidently. So Peter was hopeful through surgery, and hopeful through chemotherapy, and hopeful through Virginia’s remarkably quick recovery. He was hopeful at the good prognosis from the oncologist on the first of November 1989. He was hopeful, cheerful even, a week later, walking to their favorite restaurant in the late fall fog to have dinner and plan for the upcoming holidays.
On the way back to the cottage, she slipped on the slate-lined path and broke her ankle. They drove to the hospital in Hyannis where the doctors x-rayed, wrapped her in plaster, wrote a prescription for pain medication and sent them home. It was a laughable mishap that paled in comparison to the prior six months. He drove her back to the house, propped her up on pillows, made her tea.
A few days later she was listless and warm. Her body, tired from beating the thing they could see and feel, apparently harbored an invisible invader. An infection, which had found a home in the soft opening of her fractured bone, grew undetected and spread silently, quickly. He would learn all of this after the fact, and they would tell him there was nothing he could have done. She died from sepsis on November 20, three days before Thanksgiving, five days before his 49th birthday.
In the spring, right before Virginia started chemotherapy, she had transferred control of the trust to Peter, a purely precautionary measure. After she died so unexpectedly, Virginia’s family wanted to give him time to grieve before inquiring what would become of the property. In comparison to adjoining tracts, theirs was a vast piece of land, the value of which kept increasing steadily every year as the Cape grew more and more popular with developers.
Virginia despised real estate developers, and Peter took seriously his obligation to honor her wishes. He interviewed her surviving aunt, all of the cousins, and all of their children, including spouses, until he was satisfied he had found a suitable trustee who would both protest and protect to Virginia’s satisfaction.
By August, two weeks after the party in Wellfleet, Peter was ready to transfer control, pending agreement on one final request: use of the house, the whole campus, for the weeks before and after Thanksgiving.
Alone, on November 20th, the first anniversary of her death, Peter scattered Virginia’s ashes, some in the garden, some around their small house, some along the path that led to the water. He spent the next day and the next, which was Thanksgiving, painting and mending and tidying things up. The weather was cold and clear, and the neighbor’s barn cat wandered over to keep him company.
On Friday, Peter started preparing for the party. In September he had met a Cuban chef who showed him how to roast a whole suckling pig. It was supposed to be a New Year’s delicacy, Peter knew, but he had come to think of this birthday as his new year. He had planned the evening accordingly: They would feast on oysters and Champagne, which he had been stockpiling from trips to France, and then the roast pig with its traditional accompaniments, all prepared to Alejandro’s specifications. Then David would unveil his grand cake, which he began assembling Friday morning in the unheated mudroom where no one would see it.
When Charlie’s car pulled up, a little past 10:00 on Saturday morning, Peter was in the kitchen of the main house shucking oysters. He heard the crunch of gravel, and then doors opening and closing, a trunk popping open. Peter wiped his hands and walked through the side door to meet the four people he was expecting: Charlie, Peter’s older brother; Adam, Charlie’s son; Kate, Adam’s girlfriend; and Glenda, Charlie’s long-suffering wife. Peter had asked them to come early on the pretense of needing help but really wanting to make sure they would have time to see the house they’d never visited and walk the grounds before it was no longer his.
Adam was a senior at UMass. Shortly after the start of the fall semester Adam had wrecked his third car, and Charlie, in a rare display of resolve, not only refused to buy him a fourth but also announced that he’d be driving to campus for Thanksgiving pick-up so he could see how Adam was doing at school. Kate, a trim blonde, had been Adam’s girlfriend for more than a year. Peter, who generally preferred the company of women, secretly preferred Kate to his nephew’s, so he was glad when Charlie said she was coming.
The fourth person in the car was supposed to be Glenda. From the time Peter first announced the party until the weekend before the actual date, Glenda, who was thrilled that Peter was finally moving on with his life, insisted she was absolutely coming. Peter knew she absolutely was not.
And, in fact, as Charlie was now explaining, while he was busy lifting bags from the trunk, Glenda was so sorry but she had gotten a last-minute call from her mother in Concord and would be spending the weekend there.
Peter was fairly certain that Glenda was in her Beacon Hill bedroom with a trashy magazine and two fingers of scotch, and he didn’t blame her one bit. His brother was a lovable, insufferable, philandering asshole, and after 25 years of marriage to him, Glenda had earned every peace she could find.
The surprise passenger who arrived in Glenda’s place was a tall, bohemian-looking woman. She was, Peter guessed, Charlie’s entertainment for the weekend. It was bold but not outrageous. Most of the dinner guests had met Charlie only at Virginia’s funeral, if at all, and none would pay a minute’s attention to Charlie’s companion, whether it be Glenda or not Glenda.
“I’m Alison; I’m crashing your party,” the woman said, walking up to Peter with a broad smile. From the added height of her boots, she was every inch as tall as he. She had his same ice blue eyes, same thick, dirty blonde hair, same fair skin. Her lips were fuller, her shoulders narrower, and there was small gap between her front teeth; but otherwise she could easily have been mistaken for Peter’s sister or, more realistically, he conceded, his daughter.
He showed them into the house and up the narrow back stairs to the second floor where there were five, small guest bedrooms. “Put your things anywhere you’d like,” Peter said, gesturing broadly down the hallway, and then adding, “There all different and yet all exactly the same.”
The rest of the guests arrived shortly after six, by which time Peter had finished setting the table, rearranging the place cards to swap Alison for Glenda, and had pulled out every serving dish and trinket that had meant something to Virginia in her youth.
The table was a long rectangle, set in the middle of the candlelit living room. Peter placed himself at one end, Faith at the other, and Charlie in between.
To Peter’s right was Robert, who’d flown in from L.A. to be with Faith, who was spending November taking portrait commissions and helping open her brother’s new pastry shop. Next to Robert were: Tom from Wellfleet, Courtney from nowhere and everywhere, Peter’s nephew Adam, Peter’s first wife Pam, Larry from Truro, Tom’s wife Rebecca, Peter’s brother Charlie, Adam’s girlfriend Kate, Paul (who was mad at Larry and glad not to sit next to him), Faith, Faith’s brother David, Peter’s second wife Belinda, Belinda’s boyfriend John, the four musicians who’d played before dinner, and Alison, sitting directly to Peter’s left, in the place he had originally set for Glenda as her reward for coming to the party.
Robert and Faith told wild stories about their new life, and how California was very much not Massachusetts. Pam, who had been Peter’s wife when Adam was born, still thought of Adam as her nephew and was curiously asking about everything in his life. Belinda took a fancy to David, as Peter had guessed she might.
Peter, still thinking Alison was Charlie’s mistress, struck up polite conversation: Where was she from? What did she do? How had she met Charlie?
She was getting her master’s degree in comparative literature and working as a teaching assistant, which was how she had met Kate and then Adam. Adam and Kate had been helping her move some furniture in her office, late on Tuesday afternoon, when Charlie had knocked on the door looking for his son. They had all visited for a short while, and then Charlie treated the three of them to dinner. Sometime in the course of eating and drinking, she found herself invited to the party. She had never been to the Cape, and though Adam was sometimes reckless he seemed decent enough, and she had no plans for the weekend. So Alison drove to Boston on Friday, spent the night with friends, and met Charlie, Adam and Kate early Saturday to ride to Orleans.
On the trip from Boston, they had apparently told her some of Peter’s story, so the questions she asked him over dinner were more interesting than the ones he posed to her: What did it feel like, the first time he pulled up into the air? When had he become interested in clean water? What did he believe about the afterlife? How had he selected the wines? Her topics wove in and out between innocuous and investigative.
A sudden squeaking from the mudroom interrupted at precisely the right moment for Peter to avoid answering the first question she’d asked that had made him feel uncomfortable. He pretended he hadn’t heard it and instead looked up, along with everyone else at the table, as David rolled out an old, creaky tea cart, atop which sat four tiers of cake that had been decorated with an extravagance of fantastic birds, some with open mouths and sharp beaks, flowers, gold symbols, spun-sugar globes, green foliage, and a mass of shining, peach-colored marzipan figurines. It was beyond anything Peter could have imagined when he made his tipsy, impulsive, bittersweet request in July for a Garden of Earthly Delights.
After the appropriate exclamations over David’s masterpiece, Faith clinked a glass and started a chorus of Happy Birthday. Everyone sang and clapped. Peter said a brief word of thanks, and he was just about to cut into the cake when Charlie, who was well lubricated by that point, rose to make a toast.
“To my little brother,” he said, lifting his glass and looking directly at Peter, “the only man I know who could get 20 people, including two ex-wives, to drive to the Cape on Thanksgiving weekend for some 50th birthday debauchery at his dead wife’s house. Cheers to you, Peter, and to the restorative power of seduction,” at which he nodded in Alison’s direction.
It was meant to be funny, in Charlie’s peculiar way. A still pause followed. Then Belinda, who would always love Peter and never like Charlie, stood, her glass aloft, and said, simply, “To Virginia.”
“To Virginia,” they echoed, most of them, anyway. And they drained their glasses and looked at one another, and at Peter, and at Charlie, and tried to resume their chattering.
Alison, who, seconds before the toast, had asked the question that Peter continued to ignore, now leaned closer and said, in a low voice, “I think I’m supposed to be your birthday present.”
Twenty years later, on his 70th birthday, which happened that year to fall directly on Thanksgiving Day, Peter and his fifth wife, Vanya, a botanist, were sitting at a long farm table in the middle of Georgia. Vanya was looking through a scrapbook of leaves and flowers that Alison’s children had made over the summer and continuing into fall.
Thanksgiving was one of the few occasions on which the orchard was closed to outside guests. So, while many of the people at the table were strangers to one another, they were all connected, in one way or another, to their hosts.
Alison had been begging Peter to come for years, but he and Vanya were always somewhere far away, usually for her work. That year, however, by pure coincidence, Vanya had been invited to give a short lecture series at Emory, starting in mid-October and ending with the semester in early December. “Oh, for God’s sake you’ll be in Atlanta anyway,” Alison said, “so please come out for Thanksgiving.” And he’d agreed.
“Tell me again,” Vanya said, as they were driving south from Atlanta that Thursday morning, “how did the two of you became friends?”
At the end of his long, full, 50th birthday party, Peter had walked Alison out to his small guesthouse, instead of the guestrooms upstairs, where Adam and Kate and Charlie (and, likely, Courtney with him) had already gone to bed.
It was cold, so he lit a fire, and then he turned back the duvet and told Alison to climb in. He plopped on chintz chaise beside her. He’d found the chair at an estate sale in late spring the year before, and he bought it for Virginia to use as a summer resting spot during her recovery. It had ended up more often serving as his bed on the nights when Virginia’s skin hurt and she couldn’t stand to have anything touching her. Sleeping there felt as natural to him as anything else.
He gestured to the books on the shelf next to him and asked her favorite author or poet. He would read to her until she fell asleep, he offered. No, she’d replied, firmly, turning on her side to face him and resting on her elbow. She had a feeling his story would be far more interesting. “Start from the very beginning,” she said, closing her eyes and drawing the covers up to her neck. “Tell me from the very start of everything.”
He had always had a weakness for beautiful women, for a long as he could remember, he began, and it had never ceased to punish him.
He told her about Mary Margaret Clement, the prettiest girl in third grade, who would lie in the soft grass on the playground next to him and hold his hand while they looked up at the oddly-shaped clouds, until one of the other children ratted them out, and suddenly the boys were kept separate from the girls at recess time.
He told her about Emily Smithwick, the prettiest girl in seventh grade, who indirectly got him sent to military school when one of the nuns caught him eyeing the curve of Emily’s thigh.
He told her how he’d lost his virginity, at 16, to the 18-year-old sister of a classmate who, Peter learned later, had $20 riding on the outcome.
He told her about Vietnam, about Pam from Natick, about his honeymoon in Lake Como with Belinda. He told her every single thing about Virginia, while he could still remember all the minute details.
He told her, with a trace of bitter irony, how Charlie, who could barely keep his pants zipped in public, had somehow managed a quarter century-long marriage while Peter, who’d never been unfaithful to a woman in his life, had scarcely hung on to a thing.
He paused there. She was so still that he thought she’d fallen asleep. He pulled a blanket over himself and decided to nap for a few hours, until the sun came up.
“You’ve got it wrong, you know,” she said sleepily. “He’s holding an empty basket that will always be empty, while yours is a true cornucopia.”
At breakfast the next morning, the morning of Peter’s last Sunday in the house on Kescayogansett Road, Charlie walked downstairs and clapped his brother hard on the back. “Fucking a 24-year-old fixes everything, doesn’t it?” Charlie said.
Peter paused, looking out the tiny kitchen window at the dormant garden, the morning fog, the neighbor’s cat. Then he turned to Charlie, examined the puffy bags around his bloodshot eyes, the heft of saggy skin around his thick neck. “Nothing fixes everything, Charlie. That isn’t how it works.”
Four months later, on a chartered flight to Newfoundland, where Charlie was taking Peter to look at a piece of property, a blood vessel ruptured in Charlie’s brain. He was gazing at the expanse of blue beneath them, explaining to Peter that he wished he had paid more attention to water, when suddenly, mid-sentence, he went silent. And that was that.
Alison saw the obituary in the paper and was the first to arrive at the funeral home five days later, where she stood next to Peter and held his hand and let everyone think whatever they thought. She followed him afterward to his apartment and stayed for four days before heading back to finish the semester.
When she returned to Boston at the end of May and saw the condition of his refrigerator, she told Peter she was moving in for the summer. She immediately set up camp, first on the sofa and then on the futon Peter bought for her when he realized she wasn’t going away.
She met Will in September at a Harvard alumni event where Peter was celebrating his 30th reunion and Will his 10th. By February Alison and Will were engaged. To his credit, Will never once asked about Alison’s living arrangement.
While listening to her make wedding plans, Peter realized he didn’t know anything about Alison’s parents. “I don’t really like to talk about them,” she’d said. And so they never did.
Over the next several years Alison and Will moved to Georgia, where they bought a bed and breakfast on an old peach orchard. She and Peter stayed in touch mostly by mail, her sending pictures of the renovation, their first baby (and second, and third), while Peter sent postcards from all over the world. He had stopped flying shortly after her move south, and he decided to spend his time working on a book. Within a year of retiring, Peter met, married and divorced Carole, a lovely but bi-polar novelist he met at a writers’ workshop in Jackson Hole.
“I’m finished with women! I’m burying myself in science!” he wrote, on a Guinness illustration postcard mailed from a bar in Dublin. He had sublet his apartment, Alison learned from the next card, a few days later. He was planning to live out of a suitcase, working with traveling scientists, documenting their efforts as they catalogued temperature readings and changes plant behavior.
In late spring 1996 Peter flew to Sweden to meet a group of botanists and entomologists for a three-month expedition. There were 16 in the group, most of whom Peter knew only casually, if at all. The first two weeks they stayed at a lodge, planning their work and making preparations for the six weeks they would spend mostly outdoors at various campsites.
On the morning of their departure into the woods, Anders, the group leader, stood on the top step in front of the lodge and called out the names of people who had been paired for each tent. The third name on the list was one of the group’s more prominent members, Vanya Tomsen, who happened also to be one of only three women. When Anders read the name of Vanya’s tent mate, Vanya, who’d been quietly reviewing a map with a colleague, raised her head and said, “No, I’ll be staying with Peter,” tilting her head in Peter’s direction in case there was any confusion.
Anders looked at Peter for confirmation, and Peter, caught off guard, did the only thing that seemed appropriate and nodded, first back to Anders and then to Vanya.
“I’ve been following your work; you’re very detailed,” she said to Peter later, when they were walking. “And I think you are a man who can be trusted.”
When they pulled up to the orchard in Georgia, 14 years later, Vanya and Peter hadn’t spent more than three days apart since their first meeting that day on the steps of the lodge.
After lunch, sitting on the long wooden bench at the farm table, on the afternoon of his 70th birthday, Peter felt Alison settle in beside him. She looped her arm under his and rested her head against his shoulder. “Good birthday?” she asked, and he nodded.
“I heard you, you know,” he said, after a few minutes. She looked at him, puzzled. “That first night we met,” he continued, “right before the spectacular cake and the embarrassing toast. I heard your question. I was ignoring you.”
“Ah,” she said, thoughtfully, rubbing her bottom lip with her index finger, the way she did when she was trying to sort something out. “So,” she said slowly, “what’s the answer? What’s the thing in the world you’re most afraid of?”
He looked up at the fading light, filtering through the peach tree branches, heard to Vanya in the distance, explaining to the children why flowers need bees,
“I’m afraid that the world is going to run out of beauty,” he said at last.
“Yes,” she agreed, “me too.”