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Fiction #144
(published July 24, 2003)
Till Death Do Us Part
by Ryan J. Jack McDermott

(after John Updike)

"But he, after nearly two decades of playing the good husband, had discovered affairs, and had fallen in love locally."
—"The Other" from Trust Me by John Updike

Roger Ankorn took pride in his divorce. It had been one of the first no-fault divorces granted in the state of Massachusetts, and he cherished the memory of the kiss he had exchanged with his ex-wife on the steps of the courthouse after the anticlimactic ceremony in which they had verified their signatures below the statements of irreconcilable differences. At parties with their set in the weeks following, Roger and Martha shone like new crescent moons, each reflecting the glow of the other and finally, after a seemingly interminable spell of waning as one flesh, waxing as two. Martha, before the divorce, had found a sun to her moon in an amicable adultery within their orbit of friends. As pleased as he was by her happiness, he knew he must consummate the divorce on his end— to ease Martha's conscience— by taking a series of temporary lovers, whom he dined, laid and left with erotic insouciance. He was in search of his own sun, but, unlike Martha, did not expect to find her in the local galaxy. Only the distant prospect, the sun that may already be dead, inspired in him the lust proper to the months immediately after divorce.

Now, several years later, Roger basked in the brittle warmth of a January sun on the verandah of his pristine ski resort of choice, his table separated from a snowy declivity by the aluminum railing, through which he gazed at the infinite blue-green perspectives of wooded mountain and frozen lake. To think about the divorce still sent a shiver of exhilaration up his spine, its erotic possibilities irresistibly slithering up his back from his loins like the lift cable quivering twenty feet over his head. The parking lot below seemed a little platter titillated with cars and patches of snow, like nether-skin peeking out from under the metallic clasps of complex lingerie and a dusting of talcum powder. Everything, including his belated tryst's delay, was charged with possibility, as so many unattached electrons swimming through the primeval soup.

In the lobby the previous evening, while sipping his after-dinner bourbon, he had glimpsed a certain nose, its delicate curves smooth like sherbet, familiar in its aquilinity. The cheekbones arched like eyebrows; this too he had noticed before. She had turned out to be an old high school crush of his, one of the few, and probably the only, as far as he could remember, unrequited infatuations. They had caught up on the dead and divorced, and agreed on lunch for the next day.

Roger wondered at his fortune. Jasmine had been on his list of post-divorce things to do, light years-distant acquaintances to renew. Domestic concerns had persisted, to his surprise, after the divorce and he let his ex-wife take the computer, along with PostDivorceToDo.doc, allowing him to fulfill a long-stymied romantic dream of trading in his PC for a purring Macintosh. But Jasmine's memory refused to linger lost in the desktop Recycle Bin. Except for Jasmine, during his furiously efficient high school and college years not one seed of flirtation, once allowed to flower into infatuation, went unharvested. Indeed, near the end of that time, before he met Martha, he harvested flowers directly, it seemed, he had sown them. Only Jasmine remained, sown, cultivated, unreaped.

Now she crossed the verandah, slaloming between the round wrought iron tables, her skis like a single cupiditous arrow seen when drunk. He quickly presented himself with the image of himself that he would have her see. He felt his eyes drift over his new salmon-colored golf shirt floating against skin "lightly golden," as in a recipe for roast pheasant. He inclined his nostrils to his shirt's unbuttoned collar to intercept the waft of the cologne he mixed for himself to smell like the man who shot the pheasants should smell. She followed his mind's eye's gaze as a pedestrian will follow a stranger's pointing hand in a crowded street, and as she moved across the lobby toward him he noted the grace with which he responded to the quickly changing weather of her face, its subtle and mixed gesturing. He stood formally, and the inadvertent scraping-back of his chair took on, in this suddenly strictured moment, the role and significance of the courtier's backward-scraping foot.

"Long time, no see." He extended a firm hand adapted slightly and, he found, mistakenly for the feminine grasp.

"Mutual, I'm sure." She bent to release her bindings, scattering snow on Roger's sandaled, golden-brown feet. "Sorry I'm late. I was having the most beautiful conversation with a fascinating lady I'd never met in my life. How entertaining these holidays are."

"You know, I tried to look you up a year or so back. When 411 went national."

"But you didn't call." She wore an affectionate smirk.

"Well, no." Roger directed his uncomfortable eyes to her hand-knit ski socks. "You know how things get in a divorce. I mean, I'm just assuming you . . . you weren't wearing a wedding ring and the last thing I heard . . ."

"No, no. It's fine. You assumed correctly." He felt her eyes glide searchingly from his eyes, across his chest and lightly golden forearms, glad that he had prepared himself and satisfied with what she saw. "But you," she said, "you have a ring. Who's the lucky new woman?"

"You mean this?" Roger nonchalantly held up his left hand. "Just because you're divorced doesn't mean the years together didn't mean anything, right? Martha and I had a professional divorce and we've remained good friends. Lots of people do it these days."

"Wear the ring after the divorce?"

"Yes, if it's a professional divorce." Roger remembered how they had met friends, incidentally Martha's lover and his wife, for a post-divorce dinner, a reception.

"Is it too early for you?" Jasmine waved down a waiter.

"Not if you're having one. A Manhattan for me."

"Bombay Sapphire martini. Very, very dry and very, very cold." She turned eyes like her forthcoming martini back to him. "I got a divorce— two divorces— and I'm still friends with them, but I don't wear the rings. You always were sentimental, though. This from the boy who said holding hands was more romantic than kissing."

Roger sensed her skepticism reflected in the railing's icy sheen, as if its tubular aluminum were a garnish for her martini, her mocking eyes. He was familiar with her reaction, common among people who lived in unenlightened states where you still could not get a no-fault divorce.

"Maybe I didn't expect requital," he said, searching her face for the clue of a response.

"Do you see her often then?"

"Occasionally. We make a point of keeping in touch. Lunch every month or so. You know." Roger decided not to mention that they still lived in the same town and saw each other rather more often than every month.

"So do you get your lovers pre-approved by her?"

"Ha ha," Roger said. "You always were the sarcastic type, weren't you?"

"You always made me sarcastic," she said, lowering her voice as the drinks came.

He reached out a foot to touch her just as she swung her legs around to gain a better angle on her drink, with the result that she kicked his sandal off. It skittered over the snow, teetered under the railing and then fell to the pristine powder below.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Jasmine said. "I'm not usually this clumsy."

Roger said, "Don't worry about it." He was thinking that if he did not retrieve the sandal it would be made the topic of desperate conversation by a nerve-worn father trapped above the world in a lift car with two querulous bunny hillers, the snow-bound equivalent of the single sneaker hanging from an interstate pylon.

"No, really," she said. "How can I make it up to you?"

"It's nothing," he said. And then, "But if you insist."

She smiled. "I do. I have a very nice bottle of champagne I could use your opinion on. I'll bring it by your room at four?"

"Four?" Roger echoed. Four suddenly became a mystical number, the mark of a beast most devoutly to be desired. The numeral inflated in his mind like a circus edifice, behind which lurked a grand contingency that he could not name, a terrible consequence to four, as if his mind were blocked at the ineffable number that came after.

"Four." She seemed to smile at his bewilderment. "What room are you in?"

His mouth opened to speak, gaped, and just as her brow began to drop in concern it came to him: "Five." He sighed with relief. "Five." One two three four five, the most elementary numerical sequence.

"Next to the sauna? Good. I'll see you then, Roger."

When she slid her feet into her boots, Roger remembered reading somewhere that a vagina is like a ballet slipper, but he was sure Jasmine's was like a ski boot, rigid-walled yet plush.

"Four, then," he beamed, and returned her wave as she hobbled away, skis in hand, like an armored goddess. He remained at the table, cradling the number five close to his heart, now that it had usurped four's reign as the ordering number of the universe. A glance at his hand comforted him with its quintidigitation, its fourth finger, counting from the thumb, sheathed in the platinum that was popular in the fifth year of the fifth decade of the four-times-fifth century. When he married again he would wear it on his right hand with fondness for the felicitous divorce.

A synapse fired as Roger admired his hand, and simultaneously with the twitch of his ring finger he shouted at Jasmine's diminishing back. "Wait! Jasmine— I forgot. My room is actually six!"

Jasmine continued through the glass door, unhearing. Roger rose, the chair tipping this time instead of sliding, disdaining his bare foot in his haste to follow her. Before he could navigate the tea tables between himself and the door, he pirouetted, as if a marionette on a musical cue, to a woman's voice at a nearby table.

"But it's not six, Rogerdear. It's five." The woman raised her voice from a nearby table as a godparent talks to a small godchild.

Like the two-faced marionette, the manic-depressive Janus, whose head is too slow for its body, Roger whirled toward the voice, his seducer's face still looking after Jasmine while the face he presented to the voice behind him betrayed the secreted guilt of a precocious id.

"Martha!" he said. "Of course it's five. I was just saying that we'd meet at six, not five."

"Meet whom?" Martha asked.

"Oh, just an old friend I saw." She was now beside him.

"I thought you didn't like to talk to old friends, Roger."

"No, I don't." He stood flamingo-like with one bare foot warming itself against the sandaled other and his beak bowed to siphon miniature snow crabs through its scrim.

"Well. Then that's peculiar, isn't it?"

"Yes. Very."

"So I'm glad you're enjoying your vacation."


"Would you like to stay another week, Rogerdear?"

Roger looked at the intricate Spanish tiles fractalized in infinite intimate square-dance configurations of four and five. "Hmm."

"Oh, but you have that important meeting next week. I forgot."

"Oh, yes." Faraway on the mountain top a lycra-clad girl of twenty-five met the sun's horizon-curved beams with her own corporal topography, and negotiated by means of a slalomed sine wave a compromise between the two.

"Are you sure?"

Jasmine's body was not so lithe, but her feminine parts floated in the rarefied gravity of a space plane, while the girl's naively still struggled against gravity. "Mm. Oh, yes," he replied scientifically.

"That's too bad. Well, in that case, let's get changed for dinner. I'm meeting a new acquaintance for drinks at three."


He followed her to the elevators. Once inside, he watched her watching the lights mark their ascension. She sighed deeply and her eyes misted— intentionally, he thought.

"Ah, the week does fly by," she said, "doesn't it?"


"I met the most charming woman today."

Roger admired the lights moving with practiced ease over the numerical sequence.

"She said she knew you. Well, here we are." She pressed the "door open" button before the automation could take over. She was out of the doors before they had finished opening.

"Roger, what are you doing?"

He was standing there.



"What is it, Rogerdear?"

"Why did we get divorced?"

"Roger! What a question! Because we're both happier this way, of course."

A young room maid passed pushing a cart abrim with virginal linens.


"Ro-gerrr. Of course. We both need our freedom."

His eyes followed the maid's diminishing curved form. Then he turned his eyes to Martha's for the first time since she had caught him.

"Yes. I think you're right."

"Think I'm right? Roger, you are silly sometimes. Come on out of there. Let's go to our room, shouldn't we?"

"Yes," Roger said.


Returned to his room, slippered and silk bathrobed now, Roger Ankorn dallied at the medicine cabinet industrially stocked for the week's getaway with the applications for each of 22 meticulous stages of the cosmetic ritual tenderly administered each morning, as if singing an aubade before leaving the mirror, and each evening as compline prayers, rising as incense to the bathroom ceiling. Anticipating months in advance the transplant from bosom to bare scalp, he spritzed his chest hairs with horse hormones to stimulate growth. For wrinkles he applied the simian placental collagen smuggled from Thailand at great diplomatic risk by an undersecretary in his firm. Then, carefully lifting the oblong platinum canister from the shelf, the arrangement— canister, upraised hand, tilted head— rendering at the moment of apex the eucharistic composition of host, priestly stretched hands and reverent eye, Roger reached down the penis balm. As Ponce De Leon before the fountain of eternal Florida, he lowered the penis balm, and as he did his loins surged like an embered tumbleweed lit by the pearly flame of a grounded Great Plains helium balloon, his member rising in salute to the priceless elixir of spermaceti, Freon and myrrh.

Roger, after nearly two decades of playing the healthy virile male, had discovered onanism, and had fallen in love locally. Now whenever he was on a date the image of his penis balm— it was actually one of Martha's cosmetics— rose up, its contents gleaming, smooth finger grooves ending near the rim with his print, and deafened him to the woman he was with; without hearing her inviting words, he felt his cavernosal artery pulsating, a clock wired into a subwoofer. Twenty years tardy to man's greatest feat of momentary transcendence, he had become a zealous, single-minded devotee.

He ushered the chalice into the cedar spa room where his cauldron of pleasure awaited. As if in response to the jacuzzi's electric bubbles, an image of Martha and Jasmine flickered like satellite disturbance between his florid nose and the balm. They faced each other on stools in the cocktail lounge, legs crossed to the advantage of high-slit skirts, Fendi armbags huddled on the bar beneath sheltering very cold, very dry martinis, these carefully reposed in asymmetry with the austere peace of a saikei garden. Between flickers he saw them as in a strobe, moving opposite each other with the near-precision of mutually mirrored mimes, or miming candle flames. How triumphantly content they looked! He perceived in their intertwined smiles the golden curves of the braided Gucci grins, a snaking logo of happiness they wore with pride. He nearly forgot the precious palm-balanced balm as he eased his nether-thighs into the lavender-perfumed water. It slipped and almost fell, but he deftly restored its balance, noting that only Jasmine could have brought him to such neglect and, further, remembering that during their lunch-time conversation his erection's eye had sought, if not her cunt itself, at least a mirage of the penis balm between her legs with his fingerprints twinkling out between her pubic hairs.

He submerged to his waist and the water scalded a psoriatic scab at the vertex of his left love handle's parabola. His wincing mind's eye conjured Martha's merciless face bent over him and her determined hand wielding a peroxide swab, this weekly treatment for his flaking skin her pretense for crossing the street from her house to his, invading his chambers and officiously lowering herself to climax on his unbalmed cock before slamming the front door behind her again. When, shortly after the divorce, he had protested, she said, "When you find yourself a mistress like all the other decent men, my duty will be fulfilled. Until then . . ." and she had released the screen door to spring back in his face like an adeptly shot rubber band. He shivered despite the steam-bath and let his head sink below the water to purge the peccant vision.

Years later, after Martha and Jasmine's anniversary celebration on Martha's Vineyard, Roger would look back on these minutes in the tub, his cock floating balmy and half-erect, as the point in his life's arc where he lingered without vertical motion. While suspended in the suds, he read, over and over, the ViriRect advertisement in the Golf Magazine open on the tubside: "Shouldn't every anniversary feel like the first?"

When he failed to raise himself, as his penis dropped in retreat from the balmed hand, he saw in the mirror another Roger, a looking-glass fiction whose opposite trajectory now began to rise away from him, his ascension quickened by Roger's incantatory invocation of the ViriRect mantra. Over the years Roger watched his fictional self, he of original infidelity, rise to a life of resplendent, albeit Protestantly sublimated, hedonism. The real Roger, whose penis began falling off that night and completely departed ten years later, was parted by death, immaculately faithful.

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