Last Night – Intermediate Level
Walter Such was a translator. He liked to write in green ink and had a habit of raising his pen in the air slightly after each sentence, almost as if his hand were part of a robotic arm. He could read lines of Blok in Russian and then tell you what they meant in German, pointing out their beauty. He was sociable, but but did not like it when people he met had different ideas. He lived with his wife in a manner they liked. But Marit, his wife, was ill.
He was sitting with Susanna, a family friend. Finally, they heard Marit on the stairs, and she came into the room. She was wearing a red silk dress in which men had always found her attractive, with her loose breasts and shining, dark hair. In the white wire baskets in her closet were folded clothes, underwear, sport things, nightgowns, the shoes thrown about the floor. Things she would never again need. Also jewelry, bracelets and necklaces, and a small box with all her rings. She had looked through the box for some time and picked several. She didn’t want her fingers, bony now, to be bare.
“You look re…really nice,” her husband said.
“I feel as if it’s my first date or something. Are you having a drink?”
“I think I’ll have one. Lots of ice, she said.”
She sat down.
“I have no energy,” she said. “That’s the most terrible part. It’s gone. It doesn’t come back. I don’t even like to get up and walk around.”
“It must be very difficult,” Susanna said.
“You have no idea.”
Walter came back with the drink and handed it to his wife.
“Well, happy days,” she said. Then, as if suddenly remembering, she smiled at them. A frightening smile. It seemed to mean just the opposite.
It was the night they had decided would be the one. On a saucer in the refrigerator, the syringe lay. Her doctor had supplied what was in it. But a farewell dinner first, if she were able. It should not be just the two of them, Marit had said. That didn’t seem right, so they had asked Susanna. Marit was not very friendly with her only sister, and did not want any older friends who might be too full of sadness. Susanna was younger. She had an intelligent face and looked like the daughter of someone important, a little naughty. A dirty girl, one of their friends had commented about her, in a way that suggested this was a good thing.
Susanna, sitting in a short skirt, was already a little nervous. It was hard to pretend it would be just an ordinary dinner. It would be hard to be herself and make light conversation. She had come as night was falling. The house with its lighted windows – every room seemed to be lit – had stood out from all the others like a place which was celebrating something.
Marit looked around carefully at things in the room. The photographs, the lamps, and the large books on art, garden design, or country houses that she had always meant to sit down with and read. The chairs, even the rug which seemed more beautiful than when they first bought it. She looked at it all as if she were somehow noting it, when in fact it all meant nothing. Susanna’s long hair and freshness meant something, though she was not sure what.
There are certain memories that you would like to take with you, she thought. Memories before Walter, from when she was a girl. Home, not this one but the original one with her childhood bed. The window at the top of the stairs out of which she had watched the wild storms of long past winters. Her father bending over her to say good night. The lamplight in which her mother was holding out a hand, trying to put on a bracelet with the other.
That home. The rest was less clear. The rest was a long story so like your life. You were going through it without thinking and then one morning it ended: there were blood stains.
“I’ve had a lot of these,” Marit said.
“The drink?” Susanna asked.
“Over the years, you mean.”
“Yes, over the years. What time is it getting to be?”
“Quarter to eight,” her husband said.
“Shall we go?”
“Whenever you like, he said. No need to hurry.”
“I don’t want to hurry.”
She had, in fact, little desire to go. It was one step closer.
“What time is the reservation?” she asked.
“Any time we like.”
“Let’s go, then.”
It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neck of her dress the skin, although without color, seemed to give out a darkness. She no longer looked like herself. What she had been was gone; it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the next life and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one he had promised to help when the time came.
Susanna sat in the back as they drove. The roads were empty. They passed houses showing a moving, bluish light downstairs. Marit sat silent. She felt sadness but also a kind of confusion. She was trying to imagine all of it tomorrow, without her being here to see it. She could not imagine it. It was difficult to think the world would still be there.
At the hotel, they waited near the bar, which was noisy. Men without jackets, girls talking or laughing loudly, girls who knew nothing. On the walls were large French posters in shades of black and white.
“I don’t recognize anyone,” Marit commented. “Luckily,” she added.
Walter had seen a talkative couple they knew, the Apthalls.
“Don’t look,” he said. “They haven’t seen us. I’ll get a table in the other room.”
“Did they see us?” Marit asked as they were seated. “I don’t feel like talking to anyone.”
“We’re all right,” he said.
The waiter came and handed them the menu and a wine list.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“Yes, definitely,” Walter said. He was looking at the list, which was set out in price order. There was a Cheval-Blanc for five hundred and seventy-five dollars. “This Cheval-Blanc, do you have this?”
“The 1989?” the waiter asked.
“Bring us a bottle of that.”
“What is Cheval-Blanc? Is it a white?” Susanna asked when the waiter had gone.
“No, it’s a red,” Walter said.
“You know, it was very nice of you to join us tonight,” Marit said to Susanna. “It’s quite a special evening.”
“We don’t usually order wine this good,” she explained.
The two of them had often eaten here, usually near the bar, with its shining rows of bottles. They had never ordered wine that cost more than thirty-five dollars.
“How are you feeling?” Walter asked while they waited. “Are you feeling O.K.?”
“I don’t know how to express how I’m feeling. The doctor has given me something for the pain,” Marit told Susanna. “It’s doing the job,” she said. “But… there are a lot of things that shouldn’t happen to you.”
Dinner was quiet. It was difficult to talk as if everything was normal. They had two bottles of the wine, however. He would never drink this well again, Walter could not help thinking. He poured the last of the second bottle into Susanna’s glass.
“No, you should drink it,” she said. “It’s really for you.”
“He’s had enough,” Marit said. “It was good, though, wasn’t it?”
“Makes you realize there are things… oh, I don’t know, various things. It would be nice to have always drunk it. She said it in a way that was very touching.”
They were all feeling better. They sat for a while and finally made their way out. The bar was still noisy.
Marit stared out the window as they drove. She was tired. They were going home now. The wind was moving in the tops of the shadowy trees. In the night sky there were brilliant blue clouds, shining as if in daylight.
“It’s very beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” Marit said. “I’m struck by that. Am I mistaken?”
“No.” Walter cleared his throat. “It is beautiful.”
“Have you noticed it?” she asked Susanna. “I’m sure you have. How old are you? I forget.”
“Twenty-nine,” Marit said. She was silent for a few moments. “We never had children,” she said. “Do you wish you had children?”
“Oh, sometimes, I suppose. I haven’t thought about it too much. It’s one of those things you have to be married to really think about.”
“You’ll be married.”
“You could be married in a minute,” Marit said.
She was tired when they reached the house. They sat together in the living room as if they had come from a big party but were not quite ready for bed. Walter was thinking of what lay ahead, the light that would come on in the refrigerator when the door was opened. The needle of the syringe was sharp, the shiny metal point cut to form a razor-like edge. He was going to have to push it into her vein. He tried not to think about it. He would manage somehow. He was becoming more and more nervous.
“I remember my mother,” Marit said. “She wanted to tell me things at the end, things that had happened when I was young. Rae Mahin had gone to bed with Teddy Hudner. Anne Herring had, too. They were married women. Teddy Hudner wasn’t married. He worked in advertising and was always playing golf. My mother went on like that, who slept with whom. That’s what she wanted to tell me, finally. Of course, at the time, Rae Mahin was really something.”
Then Marit said, “I think I’ll go upstairs.”
She stood up. “I’m all right,” she told her husband. “Don’t come up just yet. Good night, Susanna.”
When there were just the two of them, Susanna said, “I have to go.”
“No, don’t. Please don’t go. Stay here.”
She shook her head. “I can’t,” she said.
“Please, you have to. I’m going to go upstairs in a little while, but when I come down I can’t be alone. Please.”
There was silence.
They sat without speaking.
“I know you’ve thought all this out,” she said.
After a few minutes, Walter looked at his watch. He began to say something but then did not. A little later, he looked at it again, then left the room.
The kitchen was in the shape of an L, old-fashioned and unplanned, with a shiny white sink and wooden cabinets painted many times. In the summers they had made jam here when boxes of strawberries were sold at the stairway going down to the trains in the city. Unforgettable strawberries with a wonderful sweet smell. There were still some jars. He went to the refrigerator and opened the door.
There it was, the small lines marked on the side. He could see the liquid inside and tried to think of a way not to go on. If he dropped the syringe, broke it somehow, and said his hand had been shaking…
He took the saucer and covered it with a dish towel. It was worse that way. He put it down and picked up the syringe, holding it in various ways – finally, almost hidden against his leg. He felt light as a sheet of paper, as if he had no strength.
Marit had prepared herself. She had made up her eyes and put on a beautiful white nightgown, low in back. It was the nightgown she would be wearing in the next world. She had made an effort to believe that you go on to a new world after death. The crossing was by boat, something the ancient Greeks knew with certainty. Over her shoulders lay the chain of a silver necklace. She was tired. The wine had had an effect, but she was not calm.
Walter stood at the door, as if waiting for permission. She looked at him without speaking. He had it in his hand, she saw. Her heart beat nervously, but she was determined not to show it.
‘Well, darling,” she said.
He tried to reply. She had on fresh lipstick, he saw; her mouth looked dark. There were some photographs she had arranged around her on the bed.
“No, I’ll be back,” he managed to say.
He hurried downstairs. He was going to fail; he had to have a drink. The living room was empty. Susanna had gone. He had never felt more completely alone. He went into the kitchen and poured some vodka into a glass and quickly drank it. He went slowly upstairs again and sat on the bed near his wife. The vodka was making him drunk. He felt unlike himself.
“Walter,” she said.
“This is the right thing.”
She reached to take his hand. Somehow it frightened him, as if it might mean she wanted him to come with her.
“You know,” she said evenly, “I’ve loved you as much as I’ve ever loved anyone in the world. I’m sounding sorry for myself, I know.”
“Ah, Marit!” he cried.
“Did you love me?”
He felt sick in the stomach at the thought of losing her.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes!”
“Take care of yourself.”
He was in good health, as it happened, although a little heavier than he might have been. His slightly rounded stomach was covered with a coat of soft, dark hair, and his hands and fingernails well cared for.
She leaned forward and put her arms around him. She kissed him. For a moment, she was not afraid. She would live again, be young again as she once had been. She held out her arm. He could see two blue-green veins on the inside. He began to press to make them rise. Her head was turned away.
“Do you remember,” she said to him, “when I was working at Bates and we met that first time? I knew right away.”
The needle was shaking as he tried to position it.
“I was lucky,” she said. “I was very lucky.”
He was barely breathing. He waited, but she did not say anything more. Hardly believing what he was doing, he pushed the needle in – it was effortless – and slowly injected the liquid. He heard her sigh. Her eyes were closed as she lay back. Her face was peaceful. She had begun her new journey. My God, he thought, my God. He had known her when she was in her twenties, tall, beautiful and not yet knowing the ways of the world. Now he had gently sent her, as in a burial at sea, into a different time and place. Her hand was still warm. He took it and held it to his lips. He pulled the blankets up to cover her legs. The house was completely quiet. It had fallen into silence, the silence of death. He could not hear the wind.
He went slowly downstairs. A sense of relief came over him, enormous relief and sadness. Outside, huge blue clouds filled the night. He stood for a few minutes and then saw, sitting in her car, motionless, Susanna. She rolled down the window as he approached.
“You didn’t go,” he said.
“I couldn’t stay in there.”
“It’s over,” he said. “Come in. I’m going to get a drink.”
She stood in the kitchen with him, her arms crossed, a hand on each elbow.
“It wasn’t terrible,” he said. “It’s just that I feel… I don’t know.”
They drank standing there.
“Did she really want me to come?” Susanna said.
“Darling, she suggested it. She didn’t know a thing.”
“Believe me. Nothing.”
She put down her drink.
“No, drink it,” he said. “It’ll help.”
“I feel funny.”
“Funny? You’re not feeling sick?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t be sick. Here, come with me. Wait, I’ll get you some water.”
She was trying hard to breathe evenly.
“You’d better lie down for a bit, he said.”
“No, I’m all right.”
He led her, in her short skirt and blouse, to a room to one side of the front door and made her sit on the bed. She was taking slow breaths.
“I need you.”
She more or less heard him. Her head was thrown back like that of a woman wishing for God.
“I shouldn’t have drunk so much,” she murmured.
He began to unbutton her blouse.
“No,” she said, “trying to do it up again.”
He was taking off her brassiere. Her beautiful breasts were free. He could not take his eyes from them. He kissed them deeply. She felt herself moved to the side as he pulled down the cover of the white sheets. She tried to speak again, but he put his hand over her mouth and pushed her down. He greedily made love to her, shaking as if in fright at the end and holding her to him tightly. They fell into a deep sleep.
In earliest morning, the light was clear and very bright. The house, standing in its path, became even whiter. It stood out from its neighbors, cleaner and nicer looking. The shadow of a tall elm tree beside it was as clear as if drawn by a pencil. The light curtains hung unmoving. Nothing moved inside. In back was the wide area of grass across which Susanna had been walking as part of a garden tour on the day he had first seen her. It was a picture he had not been able to forget. The rest had started later, when she came to help Marit make changes to the garden.
They sat at the table drinking coffee, not long out of bed. They knew they had done wrong, and were not acting warmly towards one another. But Walter was watching her carefully. Without make-up she was even more attractive. Her long hair was not combed. He thought that he should go to her. There were calls that would have to be made, but he was not thinking of them. It was still too early. He was thinking past this day. Mornings to come.
At first he hardly heard the sound behind him. It was a footstep and then, slowly, another. Susanna turned white as Marit came down the stairs. She looked weak, and was moving slowly and carefully to keep from falling. The make-up on her face was no longer smooth, and her dark lipstick showed cracks. He stared in disbelief.
“Something went wrong,” she said.
“Are you all right?” he asked foolishly.
“No, you must have done it wrong.”
“Oh, God,” Walter murmured.
Marit sat weakly on the bottom step. She did not seem to notice Susanna. “I thought you were going to help me,” she said, and began to cry.
“I can’t understand it,” he said.
“It’s all wrong,” Marit was repeating. Then, to Susanna, “You’re still here?”
“I was just leaving,” Susanna said.
“I don’t understand,” Walter said again.
“I have to do it all over,” Marit sobbed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” He could think of nothing more to say.
Susanna had gone to get her clothes and left by the front door. That was how she and Walter came to part, upon being found together by his wife this way. He arranged to meet with her two or three times afterwards, but nothing came of it. Whatever holds people together was gone. She told him she could not help it. That was just the way it was.