“…though a decree come between them, even death, her gestures would endure, cut into glass.”
-John Updike, “Gesturing”
Every two or three weeks, Richard and his mistress played golf—golf, he reflected with odd pleasure, defined their affair. They had met on a course, conversation usually revolved around club technology or events on tour, and they checked into hotels and couples tournaments using names like Mr. and Mrs. Nicklaus, Snead, Trevino. They had even, in a particularly brash maneuver, taken a ten-day trip to Scotland, the highlight of which was a round at St. Andrews, one of Richard’s lifelong dreams. Toni, his mistress, had played for her university’s club team. She was no star, no natural, but at thirty years old she could launch a consistent drive 215 yards, had a six handicap from the women’s tees.
But after two years of golf-then-hotel rendezvous, something began to change; it took Richard weeks to develop a theory, but he ultimately determined that Toni was tiring of their arrangement. Little things: less laughter, less banter, her mildly petulant requests to turn off NPR in his car. She ceased wolf whistling when he leaned to retrieve his ball after a solid putt, and she began complaining of the long treks to Raleigh, Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, when there were perfectly adequate courses near Chapel Hill, where they both lived with their spouses.
Then, during a weekend trip to New Bern, when Richard finally worked up the courage to ask her what was wrong, she laughed in his face, cruelly, teeth bared—as if she was pleased by his stupidity in asking. Richard was speechless. She had never been so nasty. Who was this person? Where was the fun, tender women to whom he had professed his love many times? To whom he was sincere and forthright in a manner he’d never been with other women? They were eating dinner in a quiet country club bar, having just finished a rather joyless round, and Toni, whose loud drunken voice he had never heard raised in rebuke, blurted across the table—
“You never say anything nice about your wife!”
A chunk of calamari sprang from Richard’s fingers, back into its little green bowl.
Toni apologized without sincerity. Then she ignored him for a month. His calls, texts, and emails went unreturned. He assumed it was over. Which would in some ways be a relief, he rationalized. No more secrecy or guilt. No longer would he have to endure Toni’s frequent rudeness to waiters and course personnel, how she recited neoconservative jargon when she drank. Still, he found himself missing her—her jocular sense of humor, her inconsistent but occasionally brilliant short game, how she curled her legs around his, for leverage, when they screwed. But more than all that, he missed the innumerable ways they soothed one another, took care of one another. She was good to him, mostly. They were, he knew, each other’s safety net.
Finally she contacted him via text. “Up for eighteen this weekend, bro?” she wrote. Her number was programmed into his phone as belonging to “Carl.” Carl did not exist.
They met in Raleigh at Bellevue, one of their regular courses, and they greeted each other as if nothing had happened. Then Richard played one of the best rounds of his life. Perhaps it was merely the charge of sexual expectation. He didn’t care, because he was having fun with her again. They joked and flirted. They held hands while waiting for groups ahead of them to tee off. But later, walking up the 18th fairway-conjuring as he always did their trip to St. Andrews and fantasies of a life where he could have committed more time to the game—he looked over and saw Toni weeping. She never wept. He went to her, took her hand.
“I told my husband about us,” she said, sniffling. “This morning. He knows everything. I just couldn’t lie anymore.”
Richard stutter-stepped—his golf clubs clunked inside their bag hanging from his right shoulder—but he kept walking. “What does he know?” he managed. “He knows my name?”
“He knew something was up, Richie. It was only a matter of time.”
“A matter of time?” Richard snapped. He released her hand.
“Don’t yell at me.”
“Well this is surprising, so pardon me. Am I yelling? Does he know my name?”
“He’s my husband. This is my marriage. How can you be so selfish?”
Richard looked ahead—he had driven the green of a par 4 for only the second time in his life. After waiting for her to pitch onto the green, he sank his eagle putt, then trudged away without saying goodbye.
That night Richard arrived home late, well after the children would be in bed. He found Mayumi sitting in the front room. She looked half-asleep, eyes glossy and unfocused, but her back was rigid like a pole driven into their blue suede couch. The only light in the room came through the picture window from the porch bulb, which he had triggered walking up the front steps.
He leaned against the wall across from her. Did she already know? How? Maybe Toni’s husband had called. Dan, that contractor prick.
“I moved here for you,” Mayumi said calmly in Japanese. “Left my country, my family.”
He felt his abdomen clench, his thighs liquefy—his body slipping into different states of matter.
“I work at a stupid high school,” she continued, her voice rising in unprecedented venom, “teaching Japanese even though I have doctorate. I should be a professor. Those stupid, selfish students. And this weather, always humid, always ninety degrees! And our children! Nina! Little Richard!”
She spoke the final two words in English, Little Richard, and despite himself Richard the Elder nearly erupted in nervous laughter. Mayumi had never fully comprehended how her nickname for the boy might be funny.
“Say something!” she demanded—devastation unhinged her voice into a shriek, but when he looked at her, she was staring blankly at the carpet.
He steadied himself, deeply ashamed that he had almost laughed, then whispered: “I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I did this.”
“Two years, Richard? All those golf trips? Scotland? Impossible. I want you to go to a hotel. I’m sorry to be cruel, but what you’ve done is so awful.”
“You’re not being cruel.”
“The man on the phone sounded like a white man. Was she white, your little whore?”
He wanted to protest—but there was nothing to say.
That night he checked into the Radisson Tower close to IBM, where he was a project manager for East Asia Mainframes, Japan Division. Once he’d settled in his room, he dialed Toni. Before today their strategy had been never to call, to leave no voicemail trace. But tonight he left a long, accusatory message, a rehearsed tirade that concluded: “And if you had ever cared for me, Toni, you wouldn’t have fucking done this.”
Part of him hoped she would call back. He wanted to see her.
Divorce proceedings began, and Richard found a condo in Raleigh just off the interstate, near two excellent golf courses. He clocked the drive to his old house in Durham—to Mayumi and the kids—at seventeen minutes. The condo was nice enough. Two stories, large windows, an official bachelor pad. But not as nice as he would have liked—he had budgeted and realized that he should have been less acquiescent during the mediations with Mayumi’s lawyers. Still, he splurged on furniture, cookware, glimmering audiovisual equipment. Overall the condo was classy and spare, every room painted matte white, so unlike Mayumi’s taste for cloying American clutter. The walls in the second bedroom he decorated for the children with jungle-theme stickers—two-tone monkeys, smiling parrots, a giant tree that grew from floor to ceiling. Little Richard was seven, Nina was five: he hoped they were still enchanted by Amazonian imagery.
From the front window of his condo he could see the complex’s pool, and from the back window, in the children’s room, a small weedy pond. The pool glowed crystal blue at night, illuminated by submerged light bulbs, but the pond was black and menacing twenty-four hours a day. A large unhealthy lily pad hovered near the pond’s center, and algae stretched across its surface like white fingers. Not the view he would have preferred for his children—but he was doing the best he could.
Richard developed new habits. Fifty pushups every morning. Jogs on a nearby trail system. He did laundry on Mondays while watching sports. Friends came over to play his new video game system—thirty-five year old boys killing zombies and quarterbacks. And every day after work, he stopped at a nearby driving range to hit balls. The place was called Leatherman’s, and it boasted a respectable pro-shop and automatic ball tees—perhaps the greatest invention in the history of mankind. Quickly he befriended the front desk employees, large Latino-looking folks with harsh Southern accents, and whenever he entered they presented him with a basket of balls, like bartenders serving a regular. With each basket he took his time, focusing on minute components of his swing in the impossible pursuit of perfection—in truth he was weary of going home alone.
He had been separated from his wife for one month when Toni called. “Carl calling,” the display read.
Fucking Carl, Richard thought with a grimace—but soon his pulse had quickened.
“Have you been thinking about me?” she asked.
“I guess so,” he said, though the truth was, More than I’d like.
“Say something funny, Richie, so I know you won’t hate me forever. You always said funny things.”
“I’m sorry?” he said. “I thought this was my friend Carl? Who is this?”
“You can call me Carl if you want.”
“My wife calls you a home-wrecking whore, which is sexier that Carl, don’t you think?”
Toni laughed through her nose, producing a tornado-like whomp in his ear. “Have you been thinking about me?” she repeated. “I’m lonely.”
“There’s only one person to blame for that, and it isn’t me.”
She came over to his condo that night, and for the first time they would make love without a preceding round of golf. When she entered his foyer, he realized he had hardly ever seen her wearing anything besides (1) golf clothes, or (2) nothing at all. How could you love someone without full familiarity with their wardrobe? Seeing her in this little fashionable dress—crushed red cotton with yellow florets sprayed down the front—he couldn’t help jumping her right there in the foyer. She didn’t resist. He was still angry at her. Her love-making was angry as well. Afterwards they ate at a seafood place called Something Fishy. “Post-coital tuna,” she said with a playfully dumb grin. He laughed, kissed her across the table, though in his ear he had heard, post-marital tuna.
When the children came for their first visit, Little Richard was impressively unimpressed by the condo. He was unimpressed by the jungle-theme stickers, the view of the murky pond with its weird lily pad, and everything about the bedroom, which he would have to share with Nina and which was much smaller than his own, individual room at home. The boy sulked, and he wandered the condo as if searching in vain for the hidden doorway to a land of treasure. On subsequent visits, Richard the Elder took them to Putt-Putt, to playgrounds and waterparks, watched the same children’s videos with them over and over on his huge plasma television. He swore them to secrecy about the junk food he fed them. Nina seemed happy as a clam with these arrangements. But not Little Richard. “When are we going home?” the boy asked repeatedly while making villainous eye-contact with his father—Richard the Elder remained magnanimous and tried to convince himself the boy was just going through a “mommy phase.”
Toni slept over two or three nights a week. She was living with her parents in a country club neighborhood in Chapel Hill. Richard had never seen the house, but he knew the neighborhood and assumed Toni had her own wing, servants, a helipad. But by the way she avoided the subject of her parents, he suspected that she found living with them unbearable, that it was simply criminal for a modern woman to move back in with her family. His condo was her escape.
“You’re slumming it with me?” he proposed.
“So what?” she asked, and she rolled toward him in bed, curled her smooth leg around his. “It was never about money with you.”
“It was about golf.”
Her hand flexed, gripping an invisible club. “A lot of it was about golf, yes.”
“I haven’t played a round in two months,” he said.
“We should play sometime,” she suggested. “You’re more fun on the golf course.”
“If you’re not having fun, why do you come?”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t having fun. I said that you’re less fun. I think that was clear.”
Despite these catty exchanges—a new, irksome facet of their relationship—he looked forward to her visits. Loneliness. He bought her presents that he couldn’t afford—golf bracelets, exquisite lingerie, DVD collections of shows he thought she might like. They made love constantly. She consented after much cajoling to anal sex, and once she even gave him a blow job outside, on his narrow side porch. He especially enjoyed watching her move nude around the condo, through his bedroom, in the shower, down the hallway, at the kitchen counter making a sandwich. The trimmed, strawberry-tinged swirl of her pubic hair, so different from Mayumi’s unsexy black plume, which now he missed in a way, too. And of course there was speaking English. Though Richard spoke excellent Japanese, spoke it every day at work, and though Mayumi’s English had improved over the years, there would always be a barrier between him and his wife. Toni understood all his stupid Americanisms.
But Toni had changed. She no longer cared, for example, when he had a rough day at work. She never offered him massages. She did not approve of holding hands in public.
And Toni hated Japanese food. He was embarrassed by how much he missed the cascading flavors Mayumi had concocted every night. The twice daily Miso. Her Jinjaraos. And especially he longed for Magurodon—the raw tuna and avocado dish she made on Fridays. The Japanese restaurants near his condo were horrible. Always oversauced. So, on nights when Toni didn’t sleep over, Richard attempted to recreate his favorite dishes. He shopped at an Asian Market thirty minutes from his house—when he spoke in Japanese to the women behind the counter, they always erupted in surprise, like long lost aunts, then went out of their way to help him with ingredients, recipes, culinary secrets. Back at home he could never perfect the proportions of sauces—garlic overwhelmed mirin, soy demolished every concoction—but he improved slowly. What he found he enjoyed most, however, were the smells. He couldn’t ruin the smells. While cooking he would step onto his patio for five minutes, clear his nostrils and his palate, then re-enter to the fresh wallop of spice; he would stand in the doorway, eyes closed, swimming in memory.
When he had met Toni, years ago, he had been insecure about his golf game. At most he had played thirty full rounds before their first flirtatious interaction in a pro shop in Charlotte. He had never measured his handicap, but it surely would have resided in the teens, twenties, or higher. Quite embarrassing. He had learned the game from his father, though they hadn’t played often; more than playing, Richard had enjoyed watching major championships on television, especially the Open Tournament at Muirfield, Royal Troon, St. Andrews. But after meeting Toni, he became a rabid student of the game—instructional DVDs from the local Blockbuster, online courses, four hundred page histories of mythic tournaments and players. Golf was a vast, fascinating world. He obsessed. He learned that the term “albatross” refers to a double eagle, and that a golf club is built like a rearranged human body—head abutted heel, face prayed upward toward neck—all in an attempt to deceive Toni that he wasn’t a novice, just “out of practice.”
But one night, in the condo, both of them now divorcees, Toni let slip that she had never been fooled. “I noticed at the range today that your swing has really improved,” she said as they shared post-coital Ben and Jerry’s. “Much more consistent follow-thru. And that backswing? Thank God you cleared that up.”
His entire act had been transparent from the first tee. Defeat.
So many lies. Your history of lies will catch up to you, unless you have no conscience. And he knew that his lying, and not his infidelity, was the true foundation of Mayumi’s coldness—she communicated with him now solely over email and text. She never answered his phone calls. American divorcees often, after time, find ways to re-establish friendship and to reminisce sincerely about their shared past. But he wasn’t sure about Mayumi. He doubted they would ever be friendly again.
And the lies were clearly behind how Toni now treated him—they were exposed co-conspirators, the lowest of the low, and coming to his condo, he knew, was her rock bottom. Her joking had become more biting, her irony morphed to slicing sarcasm. He was too short, too pale, too old (though he was only one year older than her). He was lazy. Those pushups weren’t helping his love handles. He should stop cooking Japanese food, because the condo smelled like a wet dog.
“Why don’t we play golf anymore?” she said, taking the ice cream from him.
He rolled his eyes. “We just went to Leatherman’s. I thought you liked that place. I thought my swing had improved.”
“That’s a driving range, Richie, not a golf course,” she said like a bored teenager. “I want to play eighteen like we used to, have a little tournament. Winner gets the sexual favor of her choosing.”
He forced a smile. “Well, well, well,” he said playfully. But as he thought about it, he just wasn’t interested in playing eighteen holes. It seemed like so much work. At Leatherman’s he could hit for thirty minutes, chat with the employees who all seemed to like him, then head home. It wasn’t an all-day thing.
“So?” she said.
“I guess I’m just not up for it this weekend.”
“Who said anything about this weekend?” She hopped up from the couch, walked away wearing nothing at all, into the kitchen. “You’ve got issues, old man.”
He knew that she was growing away from him, that everything decent about their once-vibrant relationship was sifting away, so he made a shockingly romantic gesture—he invited her to Japan where he was going for a weeklong business trip. He had a conference to attend, and a few meetings with executives, but mostly his schedule would be open. They could play golf. He knew great courses near Tokyo.
They departed on a Monday, played their first round overloaded with jetlag on Tuesday. The courses were beautiful as always—rocky beaches, looming conical mountains, grass a brighter shade of green than sun-scorched North Carolina. But Toni hated every second. She was miserable, insufferable. Even though he had arranged for gaijin-friendly courses and restaurants and hotels, she seemed to believe that every Japanese person she met was sneering up at her as they bowed. She remained unimpressed by Richard’s command of Japanese, and she laughed derisively when bellhops and maitre-des attempted English greetings. Was it as simple as culture shock? Richard wondered. When he went to his conference and to his meetings, she remained in their hotel room watching American movies on her portable DVD player. She showed no interest in shopping or in seeing the sights—the gardens and temples—and the extent of her cultural immersion amounted to this observation: “It’s really amazing how well everyone’s clothes fit.” She was very, very impressed by this.
On the next-to-last day of their trip, they played at a lakeside course two hours from Tokyo. As usual the caddies woo-wooed in surprise at how well Toni struck the ball—they were not used to women with such strong form. But nonetheless she glared intermittently at Richard as if thinking, It’s so boring how you thought I would like this. They had not made love since arriving. She had ceased all pretense at being polite. So he decided to ignore her, and he conversed in Japanese with his caddy like they were old friends.
On the twelfth fairway, Richard looked over the large lake at a small treed island near the far shore; for a moment he imagined that he wasn’t on a golf course at all, that he was alone on a nature walk, that he was dreaming. It wasn’t just Toni, and it wasn’t just that his scores during this trip had been horrendous. He had no idea why he wasn’t enjoying golf anymore. Standing here, facing the lake, his back to the fairway and to his mistress—this was his favorite moment of the trip so far.
“Your shot, sir?” his caddy said to him.
Richard jerked to attention, began rolling his shoulders to limber up.
The caddy continued, “The lake is beautiful, sir.”
Richard nodded, looking back at the shining gray water, the bulbous clouds overhead. “What is that island in the middle?” he asked.
“This is a volcanic lake, sir. The English word is caldera—” a Spanish word that the caddy pronounced in perfect Midwestern. “Thousands of years ago a volcano erupted, blowing away an entire mountain. Now that small mound has risen—a new island of magic.”
Richard smiled, reminded for some reason of the lily pad in the murky pond behind his condo. Then he addressed his ball, calmed his breathing, and struck a perfect approach shot that landed softly in front of the green.
They flew back to the States in silence, Toni watching her DVD player, Richard watching the in-flight movies. He felt strangely at peace, though vaguely disturbed that once again his desire for Toni had changed, that now he longed only for his family, for Mayumi in particular. He wanted to depart the airport in Raleigh and drive straight to his house in Chapel Hill, not to his condo. He wanted the smell of seasoned beef and vegetables to greet him, to play with Nina on the war-torn living room carpet, for Little Richard to be indifferent at his arrival, if that was the phase he was going through.
After they had landed and retrieved their luggage, Toni told him she would take a cab home. He was relieved. Then she confessed that she wanted to return to her husband, if he would have her.
“Would that make you happy?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s not you. I just miss him.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t crumble in rejection.”
She looked at him with pity. Then she kissed him on the cheek. “Japan sucked,” she said. “I could never be with a man who loves that country.”
One day in October, Richard left work at noon and went to Leatherman’s. For an hour he was the only person on the range. It was a cold, windy day, and his hands ached between swings. He shanked every third ball.
After two unsatisfying buckets he drove to the high school where Mayumi taught. Her Volvo was parked in the staff lot. For an hour he waited, parked near the main road, thirty feet away. He had done this several times over the last month, since Toni had broken up with him. The final bell rang at three-thirty. Soon students and teachers buzzed around him. Mayumi appeared at her car. She wore a black dress suit he had never seen; she looked like an IBM executive. She pulled out of the parking lot and drove as usual to Nina and Little Richard’s elementary school, where Richard the Elder watched the children greet her with that inexhaustible surprise reserved for blessed parents. Mayumi, playing her part beautifully, kneeled and smiled and listened to their chatter about that day’s triumphs. Then she drove them home.
He did not want to sit in a parked car in his old neighborhood, spying his old house. But here he was, sitting and spying. What was he hoping to discover? Evidence that Mayumi had become a cruel, indifferent mother? At 5 PM she stepped out of the house to check the mailbox—she now wore a thin red cardigan with a golden belt strapped around her narrow waist. Casually erotic, he thought: sexy as an afterthought. She looked slimmer. Suddenly he had an urge to apologize for everything all over again, so he dialed her cell phone number. A moment later, standing on the street, she looked at the phone in her hand, but did not answer.
As she was walking back to the house, he called again. Again, she ignored him.
So he did not drive away, as he knew he should. An hour later, a ratty green car pulled into the driveway next to Mayumi’s Volvo. A pretty teenage girl jumped out, skirted into the house. Their babysitter, Jennifer Jelly. Five minutes later, Mayumi exited and drove away.
He called her again—she did not answer. He crouched low in his seat, hoping she wouldn’t recognize his Honda several cars behind her. She drove to 15-501, took the stop-and-start highway traffic all the way to downtown Durham, parked near a restaurant named Sage in an old tobacco warehouse. The gray SunTrust Tower loomed overhead, its Art Deco tiers like building blocks, and the Durham Bulls ballpark stretched out in the valley below.
On the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, Mayumi was greeted by a tall man in a professor’s tweed jacket. Richard saw only the man’s ridiculous qualities—bright blue shoes fit for a teenager, slouching shoulders, puffy and receding red hair. But the man’s smile could not be ignored; it was playful and genuine as he kissed her on the lips. He was taller than Richard by more than half a foot.
Richard waited. An hour and a half later they emerged from the restaurant. Mayumi’s gait was a little boozy, Richard could tell. The man climbed into Mayumi’s car on the driver’s side. Why was he driving? Where was his car? But they must have arranged it beforehand—their silhouettes reunited in the car for a quick kiss as if this had been done two hundred times.
Richard followed as they drove through a leafy wedge of Durham that he, perhaps not coincidentally, had always thought of a professor’s neighborhood, and they pulled into the driveway of a house so stereotypically a “professor’s house” that Richard could barely see it. Just before they walked inside, Mayumi stopped on the blue porch and took out her phone. Moments later Richard’s own phone rang—it was her. But he did not answer, terrified that she had seen him following. Fifteen seconds later, he received a text message:
Why are you calling me so much if you don’t leave a message
No question mark. She slipped into the house.
Later that night, Richard stood by the murky, algae-covered pond behind his condo. He wore only a bathrobe. No shoes. It was freezing. On the ground beside him lay a line of twenty golf balls and his favorite gap wedge—he had intended to use the pond’s lily pad as target practice. But standing here now, he saw for the first time that his target was not a lily pad at all. Instead, it was a small fountain, designed to look like a lily pad, rusted and molded black. If he managed to hit the apparatus, the sound would ring out like a hammer striking a car, which would surely wake his neighbors.
The fountain was broken. It hadn’t functioned since Richard had moved here. It served no purpose. He decided then and there that he would sell the condo. He would push for a promotion at work so he could buy a bigger house. And he would give up golf, a game which he no longer cared for—hitting balls at a driving range but never playing at an actual course was like shooting free throws but never learning how to dribble, like formulating wise reflections on the happenings of your day but sharing them with no one. Yes, he would give up golf. What a relief! He couldn’t believe how powerful it felt to relent, to admit it to himself, that he would quit. Just quit!
But then—the memory of Scotland. Toni walking beside him up the misty 18th fairway at St. Andrews, over the rocky bridges, toward the small white castle of the clubhouse. He had been so happy, fulfilled. It had been a lifelong dream, playing golf in Scotland. It had been love, the game of golf, for as long as he had ever known.
Angry, he picked up his gap wedge and began chopping at the golf balls, aiming for the moldy, metal island of the lily pad.
His third shot hit true—the resultant Twang! barreled through him like a gunshot.
With only the slightest pause, he swung again at the next ball in line.