The Final Set

Her friends, her girlfriends, insisted from the very early stages that he was seeing somebody else. That he had a girl in Texas, an old girlfriend, somebody he had met on tour, whoever, that he kept coming back to. This is what all those airplane trips are about; this is why he keeps having to meet up with the contractors and the architects in person. But Dana shook her head. She genuinely didn’t think that this is what was going on. Part of her wished that he was having an affair—because it would suggest some reasonable ambition or desire on his part, to live a kind of life she could recognize, to make up for whatever was missing in their own relationship, which she could maybe address, in one way or another, after the inevitable upset and recrimination and heartbreak of finding out. Sometimes she even asked him about it, just to provoke a response. “Please,” he said. “You know me better than that.” And she thought she did.

“Just another thing that people get competitive about”

Barton Springs Pool in Austin. Photo via Flickr.

The following is an excerpt from Christmas in Austin, out now from Faber & Faber.

The first stage of their separation, if that’s what it was, was also the easiest to identify. Paul bought the house in Wimberley—he flew to Austin five days after losing to Borisov in the first round of the US Open and arranged the bank transfer and signed the contracts. Dana was welcome to come along, he told her, and bring Cal, if she wanted to . . . but the fact is, they had argued about buying the place and he had won the argument simply because he had the money, more money than he knew what to do with, and she couldn’t reasonably stop him from using it. Also, it was pretty clear to her at the time, if not clear to him, that he was going through something—some kind of trauma or post-trauma about retirement, which involved a certain amount of denial about its own existence, which was part of the problem. In other circumstances, she might have fought harder, if for nothing else than the view of their relationship that meant they should make these decisions together. But she let him go; and he went.

Now she realized that maybe this was a mistake. Because when you buy a house it’s not a one-off decision or transgression, it’s only the beginning in a long line of future decisions and transgressions, which is what it turned out to be.

Paul started spending more and more time there. He hired a contractor to fix the place up, but he also brought in various architects to discuss other projects. The house came with twenty-seven acres of land, much of it along the Blanco River, and part of Paul’s ambition for the property involved building a cluster of houses, with enough bedrooms and facilities (kitchens and bathrooms and laundry rooms) for everybody he knew, or at least, everybody he liked, or at least everybody who was genetically related to him, to stay and hang out—in their own private space, which was easy enough to arrange, but also in some shared or communal areas which meant that if they wanted to large numbers of people could go about the business of daily life together. Cooking meals, eating them, looking after kids, playing games together, watching movies.

All of which occupied an increasing share of his time and attention—talking to architects and contractors and city planners, soliciting and receiving bids and designs, discussing his ideas with his brother and sisters but also flying out to Austin to go over these plans on site. Dana understood that after you give up on one career, which took up all of your energy and time (and he was used to being on the road, away from both of them, often six months a year) you need something else to fill the vacuum. But it seemed to her that what he was filling it with was a deliberate attempt to replace the perfectly viable family he had in New York with other people. Specifically, his old family—who, so far as Dana could tell, had little interest in the project, and were mostly humoring Paul, if that, and were also very worried about him and kept calling Dana to find out what was going on.

‘What do you want me to say,” she said. “I don’t know. I just figure—I don’t know—it’s his money. If that’s how he wants to spend it. What can I do.”

Which isn’t to say that she didn’t also pick fights with him. She did that, too. So that it got to the point that he didn’t want to bring up anything connected to the Wimberley house in her presence. So they stopped talking about it. Dana resented the fact that every time he flew to Austin, she was left holding the baby, holding down the fort, whatever you want to call it. But Paul, reasonably enough, pointed out that she had Inez five days a week, she was hardly over-occupied at the moment. And in any case, he was very happy to take Cal with him, if she didn’t want to go.

“What am I supposed to do with Inez?”

“That’s not a—that’s not a reason for me, or for you to—I mean, she can come along, if this is the kind of job she wants. But I’m not going to hang around New York for the nanny.”

“That’s not what I mean. I’m thinking about Cal. He has his routines, he’s got his little friends. This is where he lives.”

“He’s more moveable now than he’s going to be at any other point in his life. Trust me on this one. And there are kids in Texas. There are routines for him in Texas.”

This line of reasoning had the effect that maybe Paul wanted it to have—she stopped complaining about being stuck with Cal. Until the second stage of their separation, when these sorts of details had to be part of the discussion.

Along the way, while all this was going on, it was very hard to tell how much Paul liked her. Whether he liked spending time with her or her and Cal together, and whether he was angry with her or not. She really couldn’t tell. He didn’t seem very happy, she almost never saw him particularly happy, but she never got the sense that he was unhappier around her than he was with anybody else. Not that he seemed in any way obviously or measurably depressed—Paul was always a low-key kind of guy, very easygoing, somebody who didn’t get too worked up about anything. For example, he very rarely lost his temper with her. Almost never. Rarely enough that this seemed an almost-conscious decision on his part, a piece of strategy. Not because he used to get mad all the time, but because when they were getting along better, or if not better, more intimately, little fights just seemed like part of the deal, something you couldn’t entirely avoid at close quarters, they just came up from time to time, and escalated, especially when Cal was very small, and nobody got enough sleep.

But these conditions weren’t quite the conditions under which they seemed to be operating. Cal slept through, almost always; in any case, both of them had gotten used by this point to the broken nights. They didn’t matter much any more. But she also got the sense from Paul that whatever decisions he had privately taken he was also waiting for her to make her own decisions, maybe to take the burden off his hands; and that in the meantime he had honorably reflected, it wasn’t fair to get mad at somebody for not being what you had already decided they weren’t. So he reined it in, he reined himself in, he had that look of a man in training who decides on how much sugar and alcohol he will permit himself, and the answer was, at least in terms of their intimacy, not much.

Sometimes, it’s true, they still had sex—mostly when she initiated it, but not always. One of the chillier aspects of their relationship, one of the things that freaked her out most, is that when he commenced sexual operating procedures (a phrase which, in their happier days, he had used to describe whatever he used to do to show her he was in the mood) and she put him off, by kissing and releasing him a heart-beat sooner than he’d like, or any of the other physical gestures you learn how to make without any need for verbal reasons or indications, in the course of a long relationship, he never pressed her any more—he never forced her to give her those indications and reasons, he simply accepted it. The atmosphere in their bedroom was friendly and almost polite and about two degrees lower than room temperature. You had to look pretty closely, with extremely finely calibrated instruments, to realize not just that they weren’t getting along very well but that the level of human communication between them, in all its various forms, had sunk to record lows.

On the first night, when he flew back from Texas, after a few weeks away, they usually had sex. With some need, some appetite for the act. And sometimes it felt impersonal, people making use of each other for practical and not dishonorable purposes, and sometimes it felt like more than that—a reminder, an expression of deeper urgency, but it wasn’t always easy to tell the difference. And after a while the difference didn’t seem to matter to Dana very much.

At some point, of course, they had to talk about what was going on. And it was never Paul’s style, as inward and self-sufficient as he tended to be, to shirk these conversations. It was a point of pride with him, not to be the kind of guy who refused to admit there was anything wrong, as a way of sliding out of a situation. If you want to talk, let’s talk, was his attitude. Let’s go over the whole thing from the beginning. But she got bored of his tone. She wanted something else from him, she wanted it to cost him more—which you couldn’t really express in those terms. At least, when she did, he seemed unusually reasonable in his replies. I can only be as unhappy as I am about what’s happening. I can’t be more or less. I don’t want to pretend or fake it just to . . . be polite or something.

Dana throughout the year and a half the slow process of their separation took had the sense that she was playing one of those defensive specialists who keeps winning points just by getting everything back, until you lash out and overhit, just to end the point, one way or another. Because you can’t keep going back and forth this way. You start running out of legs. You stop caring. At least, this is what happened to her.

Her friends, her girlfriends, insisted from the very early stages that he was seeing somebody else. That he had a girl in Texas, an old girlfriend, somebody he had met on tour, whoever, that he kept coming back to. This is what all those airplane trips are about; this is why he keeps having to meet up with the contractors and the architects in person. But Dana shook her head. She genuinely didn’t think that this is what was going on. Part of her wished that he was having an affair—because it would suggest some reasonable ambition or desire on his part, to live a kind of life she could recognize, to make up for whatever was missing in their own relationship, which she could maybe address, in one way or another, after the inevitable upset and recrimination and heartbreak of finding out. Sometimes she even asked him about it, just to provoke a response. “Please,” he said. “You know me better than that.” And she thought she did.

But it was an argument along these lines that eventually produced the third stage of their separation—because he figured out, or insisted, that maybe what was going on here is that Dana needed someone else to fill the gaps. “You’re trying to push me away,” she said. “This is what you want to happen.” She had been rejected before along these lines, she was sensitive to it. In spite of the fact that she was very used to the attention of men, she had also become accustomed to their inattention.

“What I want here,” he told her—they were having this conversation on the phone. For some reason, most of their intimate conversations happened on the phone. And in this case something she said had forced him to go under the skin, at least a little; to admit part of what was going on. His tone had changed. He sounded on the edge of tears, not because he was actually going to cry, but because he was always weirdly susceptible to the idea of honest conversation, of breaking through in this way—the idea itself was enough to move him. But maybe that was just her own cynical take. “What I want here,” he said, “is something that you have made pretty clear to me that you don’t want. Which I don’t blame you for. I want to get out of all of this competitive . . . living, I don’t want to do it anymore, and I don’t want to put Cal through it either. But that’s not entirely my choice here, which I freely recognize.”

“Look, Paul. You’re just going through something right now, which is understandable . . .”

“Of course I understand that’s what’s going on. But just because it takes a certain life event to make a point of view possible, doesn’t mean you can dismiss it on those terms.”

“Well, yes, that’s what it . . . that’s why they . . . I mean, when you were a kid, this is what your parents call a phase. At least mine did.”

“And when you were a kid, it annoyed the hell out of you, right?”

“It did. Of course, it did. But I mean, they turned out to be . . . they were right, right? That’s what you figure out.”

“I don’t think that’s what I figured out. I had fifteen years of being exposed to a very specific worldview, about what counts and what doesn’t, and what you should strive for, and . . . what it should feel like to strive. I’m talking here about learning to endure really pretty high levels of physical pain, on a daily basis. Now, I realize, I’m not an idiot, that this is . . . like I said . . . an extreme form of what’s generally going on out there . . . but even at Cal’s age, when you see him with the other kids. I can run faster than you. You’re stupid. You don’t know how to read. You can’t even spell your own name. It’s . . . totally relentless . . . And what I feel like saying to these kids is basically just that . . . all of you suck. Not just now but in the future. This is what your life experience is going to teach you. That at everything you care about and want to get good at the world will turn out to be full of people who are much better than you are. And it’s pointless.”

“I don’t know what you expect me to do about any of this, Paul. I mean, this isn’t something I can fix.”

“I don’t expect you . . .”

“And we can’t fix it for Cal, either. If that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Look, that’s just not . . . Look, I mean, what we have, through no virtue of our own. What I have. Is a lot of money, by any reasonable standards. And the truth is, you can buy your way out of a lot of this kind of existential trouble. That’s what I’m trying to do. Whether you want to . . . whether this is something . . .”

“Paul, all that you’re doing here is moving to the suburbs. Or the country. Or whatever. Some place outside Austin, I don’t know what it is. Suburbs or country. But I mean, people have done this before. This is not some radical solution. This is just another thing that people get competitive about.”

“If this isn’t something . . .”

“What do you expect me to do?” she said.

“You should do what you want to do. You should feel free to do that.”

That was really as explicit as they had gotten on the subject. And the next time he called, the next time she saw him, other things came up. The circumstances that had produced the mood that had produced the conversation were not repeated. And since both of them, maybe for different reasons, were slightly embarrassed by the conversation, which felt much more important and philosophical at the time than it did to Dana afterwards, when it seemed to her the kind of intense exchange you have in college late at night with some guy who is probably too awkward to make a move on you, and keeps putting off the moment, until you don’t really want to make out with him anyway.

The funny thing was (though it was absolutely predictable, too) that Paul seemed to spend all his ridiculous amounts of free time training or staying in shape. There was a group of guys around Austin, semi-celebrities who used to meet up and go running together. Along the river, or around Decker Lake or out by Zilker or along the Greenbelt. Lance Armstrong was one of them. He was like the leader of the pack, and Paul started biking with him, too, maybe once a week or once every couple of weeks, a bunch of them hit the road together and tore up the miles. Afterwards, they swam a few laps at Barton Springs. Lance was getting serious about the triathlon, though at this point Paul was mostly just along for the ride.

But his whole physical shape had started to change, the impression he made or the aura he gave off or whatever. Obviously, he was never fat, he always looked like what he was, a physically confident and athletically able young man. But tennis required a certain amount of upper body bulk, which is partly what attracted Dana to him, physically, in the first place—the strength of his forearms, the way his shoulders moved inside a collared shirt. But all that was changing. He was now like one of those skinny guys who it looks like can run forever. And when he smiled (somehow he seemed to smile more these days, though maybe this was because most of their conversations happened by way of Skype, he was staring at them out of a computer screen, and maybe he felt like his facial expressions had to do a lot of the work of communicating with Cal), she could see the skull under the skin very vividly. His mouth was a jaw, his eye sockets protected his eyes, the whole structure, foundation and purpose of his face seemed visible to her. He didn’t look good, she thought. He looked like somebody who believed in something and had a purpose. And even when he seemed particularly happy or charming, it was like his whole countenance was lit up by a candle-flame which flickered behind it, and that he was aware of this precious flame and wanted to show it to the world. He reminded her of some of the good-looking ultra-Christian guys she knew at Sidwell Friends, who responded to the embarrassment of class privilege with a kind of self-denying and aggressively happy humility. Some of those guys could be real assholes about sex, she knew first-hand. At least Paul wasn’t.

And what made the whole thing hard on her was the fact that in spite of everything, and indeed sometimes because of what he was going through, and what his response to it was, she really liked him. He was a decent guy. One of the things you learn as an athlete is the kind of self-discipline that allows you to practice what you preach. And Paul had become extremely good at doing what he said he was going to do. If he said he was available to Skype with Cal at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon, Dana knew perfectly well that the little buzz-ring of her computer, one of those manufactured happy sounds that genuinely did the trick, produced the emotion it was meant to suggest, would buzz and ring at three o’clock on the dot. When they bought the apartment they set up a joint account to pay the mortgage. Paul almost never used it these days but it was always full—he clearly kept an eye on it, and topped it up months before she might have wanted to ask him to. He never mentioned this either and so they never needed to have a conversation about money, or the larger conversation that the money conversation would have included. This was just something he did. If he said he could take Cal for three weeks in August, he would fly to New York on the agreed day to pick him up and then either stay a few nights in the city with Dana, to acclimatize Cal to the change-over, or take him back to Austin on the afternoon flight, whatever it was they had decided beforehand.

Plus on some level she genuinely believed everything he was saying, about competition and striving and the pointlessness of it all. Paul had had the same reaction to his competitive athletic ability that she had had years before to her own physical attractiveness—that it was superficial and occasionally useful maybe, but also something you have to learn to put up with, and which can easily become a distraction from things that matter. After a while you realize that every time you enter into an intellectual conversation with some guy at a party, or even with one of your friends of long standing who should have known better, just the fact of your prettiness seems to them to be making promises which you have no intention of keeping. Every time you confess a feeling or make a joke, you give off these promises. And there’s nothing they can do about it, there’s nothing you can say to them or explain in advance, because whatever you say or explain they just keep hearing more promises. So on some level you realize that whoever you actually are, whatever it is that you are actually like, is so tied up in the complicated but ultimately predictable way that other people react to you (women, too, whose expectations based on your looks are usually different from but not always deeper than the expectations of men) that you genuinely can’t tell any more if you’re funny or interesting or honest.

Moving to Wimberley, or to a house outside Wimberley on the Blanco River, seemed to Dana like an extreme reaction to this problem, or whatever version of this problem Paul was responding to, but it also seemed to her like an understandable reaction. She just didn’t want to move to Wimberley. She had no life there, her son had no life there. Even Paul had no life there; the life he used to have was in Austin, and that was almost forty miles away and twenty years ago.

Which meant that when she did start seeing somebody in New York, she was more shocked and upset by the sudden realization of what was ending, or what she was giving up, than she had expected—and the depths of this realization, the emotional frame of mind it put her in, the vulnerability it exposed, gave off more of those promises to the guy in question (like a scent or a body odor, intimately connected with you, but which you also have only limited control over), so that everything in both directions (retreating from one lover and advancing towards another) happened faster than she could internalize or digest. She had reached, in ordinary daily life—the decisions you make, the places you go, the people you see—the kind of hyper-speed unpredictable reality of accident scenes, in which instincts you were only dimly aware of suddenly emerge and become visible, act in the powerful ways they are capable of acting, before submerging again and leaving you to cope with or come to terms with their appearance.

The guy in question was a TV producer. He was older, he had been divorced two times, some of his shows were pretty successful, though most of that was in the past; and in fact he seemed much less sure of himself, more touching and awkward, than any of the obvious ways of describing him would suggest. Which didn’t prevent him from being fairly persistent in his pursuit. They met through friends—his daughter worked with one of the photographers Dana also sometimes worked for. Stephen had a big apartment on 3rd Avenue, a nice place, though in other respects he seemed to Dana fairly hard-up, in an attractive way. He had inexpensive tastes in restaurants, this was his own phrase for it. Most of his money was what he called “old money, from the 1990s”—his current income fluctuated between modest and non-existent. But he also didn’t seem to care that much about any of this stuff. In that way he resembled Paul. He had made some decent television programs he was still proud of, he had worked on a couple of turkeys, too; in any case, that side of his life was probably behind him, a fact that he had painfully come to terms with. But he was still ambitious in other respects. After you’ve been through two marriages and two divorces, after you’ve raised two kids, at the age of fifty-three you realize, you have a limited time left, you’ve got limited vitality, to do the stuff you want to do with your life. This was all part of his pick-up routine, part of his sales pitch, which he was self-aware enough to flag up even while he was making it.

They still hadn’t slept together. In that respect, it was all much more innocent than she could have imagined. They made out once, in the back of a cab; but she broke it off, a fact about which he was surprisingly understanding. Look, he said, I get it, I’ve been through these things, through the ups and downs. It’s also true that I can probably control myself now a little better than when I was twenty years old. “I need to make a few things clearer, in my own head,” she started to say. “Not just in your head, sweetheart,” he told her. “These things aren’t just in your head. What you want is a note from teacher. That it’s okay. But nobody’s teacher anymore.”

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