July 16, 1991

The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire

The evening before, Robin Bauer and his wife Lina had had a ridiculous, typical and completely debilitating argument. After leaving work and picking up their five year old son Todd, Lina had met her mother Trudi for dinner at Armando's on Clinton Street. When the boy was distracted and Trudi was fairly sure he was not listening, Trudi had regretted, for the one millionth time, that Lina had not married the older of the two Bauer brothers.

Lina hoped that by the time she turned fifty (she was thirty-eight now) she would become completely insusceptible to Trudi. Uneasily, she reassured herself that Trudi could not directly make her angry at Robin; she felt fairly certain she had picked a fight with him for a secondary reason, because he did not make enough money to remove her and Todd from Brooklyn and thus take them all beyond the scope of Trudi's criticism.

She had come home to the two-bedroom apartment on Willow Street and found her big, shaggy husband lost in a reverie at his computer, logged in to one of his employer's servers in California, trying to figure out why a database program that had worked fine for two years wouldn't distribute properly any more. Lina came in planning to open a bitter conversation immediately, but Todd disarmed her for a moment by telling her that their older daughter, Kim, had called from Michigan, where she was studying environmental engineering. She was working for Ford for the summer and had successfully conducted an environmental drill.

It was not until she had put Todd to bed in his airplane-bedecked room and navigated the tiny living room that she uttered to Robby, still at the computer on his desk in their bedroom, the words which he dreaded: "I can't do this any more. I want to move to Westchester."

Her husband, who weighed about thirty pounds more than he should but carried it well on his large frame, sighed and began what she recognized as the log-out procedure. She waited until he had shut the computer down, then said, "You promised me when we married that we'd get out of Brooklyn when we could."

"Yes, I did," said Robby, who had swivelled his chair to face her. "I mean to keep that promise. I just don't see how we can do it now."

From there, the conversation ran in familiar grooves. The bedroom was a bad place to hold it, for it was completely unadorned. Todd's bedroom had more personality than theirs did. The apartment was a co-op and had previously been inhabited by Robin's older brother Rick. Their mother, Dr. Nora Bauer, had purchased it as an investment when Rick still lived there, and Lina and Robby had rented it from Nora as what had seemed an extremely temporary solution when they got married. Lina had never expected to be living there with a child, six years later. Every time the question came up of spending any money to paint or redecorate the apartment, they deferred every decision on the assumption they would be moving someday.

Now Kim, whom Robin had adopted after their marriage, was in college and they had discovered that they fell into the broad zone of middle-class families too wealthy to receive financial aid, but not well-to-do enough to pay for college without sacrifice. Lina and Robin had talked at length, away from Kim, about two choices: Kim could go to a public college, or she could take student loans which she would have to repay later. Robin had decided--she had hoped but not dared to prompt him--that the best approach was to pay cash for Kim's education. He was adamant that Kim should not go to an inferior school, and he also did not want her to be launched into adult life with crushing debts. His parents, both doctors, had paid cash for their son's educations, and even though Robin had not completed his, it was important to him to do the same for Kim.

Lina was the purchasing manager at Rick Bauer's Wall Street law firm, and Robby was the database administrator for a middle-sized textile company. With her last raise, she made, for the first time, slightly more money than Robby. Before marrying Robby, when she was approaching thirty and living in Flatbush with her parents and small daughter, the money they now made would have seemed more than sufficient to her. Now it didn't stretch very far, after laying out twenty-four thousand a year for Kim's education and the monthly rent, which was exactly the maintenance on the co-op and involved no profit for Nora. Will Hanrahan, Kim's uncle, gave her a small allowance towards her living expenses. Lina's parents kicked in another two thousand a year; Lina had always been disappointed it wasn't more, but her father had sold the Griglia agency when he retired and made some bad investments of the proceeds.

Lina had an obscure feeling that she should have been able to save a little money, but, though she didn't feel they lived extravagantly, it all went. She frequently felt angry and disappointed that Robby was not any better with their finances than she was; married people were supposed to complement each other, not have the exact same flaws. From time to time, they would do a spreadsheet on his computer, and calculate that they might save a certain sum every month if they ate out less often or stopped taking yearly vacations, but they lacked the will.

Rick was only three years older than Robby, but he had been made partner in a large firm and Lina knew from having seen his paycheck in the office that he made four hundred thousand dollars a year. She had grown up in Flatbush knowing both the Bauer brothers; Rick had been her close friend, and Robby their pet or mascot. Then she had married Brian Hanrahan in high school, had Kim and lost Brian to a gunshot. After that, she and Kim had lived with her parents for ten years.

Lina could not say for sure she would not have married Rick, if it had come up. There had been a day ten years before when she had run away from what might have been an opportunity. The next time she encountered the Bauers, a year and a half later, Rick was engaged to Lisa Steinberg. Rick was more than ever her friend--he had gotten her her job, and she saw him every day--but when her judgment was unclouded by Trudi she was sure that she had married the right brother. Lina did not like the way Rick treated his wife: he alternated between sarcasm and anger. Lina had once made the error of saying as much to Trudi, who immediately had responded that Rick had married a cold woman and would not have treated Lina like that. But Rick, over the years, had adopted first that "I'm a lawyer" superciliousness and then the practically unbearable "I'm a partner" veneer over it. He even wore suspenders every day (but called them "braces".) Only when he was alone with Lina for a few minutes in the office, or at a Bauer family occasion, did he relax and seem anything like the old Ricky. Most of the time, he was a pompous ass. Nonetheless, out of recognizance, Lina did her best to ignore his faults. Instead of giving Robin a hard time about marrying her, Rick had welcomed Lina into the family, and found her a very good job when her lack of a college education would otherwise have made things very hard for her.

Robin Bauer was kind and attentive and very easy-going. Lina knew that her husband loved her, and over the years, she had watched Kim bloom from being in proximity to him. Kim had been a bitter and selfish ten year old; she had become a mature and affectionate teenager, and Lina knew that the responsibility had been mainly Robby's. It wasn't always possible to point to particular events or behaviors and say, "Robby did this", but he had created the environment, treated little Kim with love and respect, and given her the expectation that she could pursue any path in life she wanted.

Still, it was hard sometimes at Thanksgiving to compare Lisa's clothing and jewelry with her own, or to see Rick's Mercedes parked next to Robby's Honda.

Nora Bauer lived a few blocks away, in a brownstone on State Street, and they dined with her once or twice a month. Lina's relationship with her mother-in-law had always been cautious. On the one hand, Lina had known Dr. Bauer all her life; on the other, she had always felt intimidated by her, and she had never known whether the older woman's silences revealed an awkwardness on her part or signalled disapproval of Lina. At times, Lina felt that elegant Jewish Lisa, she of the diamonds, was the daughter-in-law from heaven and that she herself was the daughter-in-law from hell: older than Robby, Catholic, widowed, with a child.

A year after the wedding, Lina had converted to Judaism in the reform synagogue near their home in Brooklyn Heights. Robby was startled when she first broached the idea to him. He liked having an Italian wife, rarely went to synagogue except for weddings and bar mitzvahs, and was not personally religious. At first, he joked that he himself was thinking of converting--not to Catholicism, but to Italianism, he said. Later, when Lina told Nora she was planning to become Jewish, Nora said, "Then maybe Robin will too."

Lina's conversion had not really taken, though she still wore her Jewish star with pride in place of the cross she had worn her entire life before then. At least she could say truthfully that she was as Jewish as her husband. Lina's parents had not cared very much about the Catholic church, though Lina herself, encouraged by Will Hanrahan, had flirted with religion once or twice in the long years after Brian died. Lina was not certain today of all of the impulses which had driven her to convert. She had vaguely hoped to find a religion about which she could feel enthusiastic, as she instinctively wanted passion in every part of life. But she was not even certain that the reform rabbi believed in God. In retrospect, she sometimes thought she might have done better converting into the conservative Jewish sect; but the Bauers had always been reform, and the make-up of the congregation had reassured her, because it contained some Italian and Irish women who had married in, and even some black and Asian spouses and adopted children.

Another problem was that Judaism was, as she came to learn, a very cerebral religion, where there is a huge empty space between humans and God--the space which Catholics people with Jesus, his mother, and the saints (including her mother's favorite, St. Jude, the patron of lost causes).

Lina had expected naively that her conversion would make everything completely right with Nora, but her mother-in-law had continued to be just as remote after as before. Whenever Lina told Robby that Nora liked Lisa better, he said, "Nonsense. Nora thinks Lisa is cold and selfish, and she speaks very warmly of you." But when Lina would ask why, in that case, Nora didn't speak warmly to her, Robby could only say, "That's not her way."

Sometimes they fought and Robby accused her of having swapped one mother for an even more demanding one--his. After she calmed down, she acknowledged, until the next argument, that there was some truth to this. Trudi only wanted her daughter to be rich and happy and live in a big house; Nora, she felt certain, wanted all of the above, plus for her to be younger, born Jewish, college-educated, and not have joined the family with a half-Irish child. It wasn't even that Nora was not nice to Kim; she was very cordial to her, even more so when Kim proved to be highly intelligent and went off to Michigan. But Lina felt sure that Nora could be nice to her and to Kim, and still wish that things had been different.

Lina suffered torments over her own lack of a college education, and her husband's lack of a degree. At thirty-eight, she still had not relinquished the idea of going to college, though there was no money or time to do it. She felt more harshly than Robby did Nora's continuing disappointment that he had never finished school.

All of which was in Lina's mind when she began what Robby called their "why can't you make something of yourself" argument. She said, "I'm almost forty, and I have a few requirements. I want you to write a program to meet them. That's what you do every day, don't you--write code to match requirements?" She sat on the bed, and he in the swivel chair, twisting his lip with his hand as he waited for her to go on. She hated that particular habit, and she reached out and pushed his hand down just as she did when Todd sucked his thumb.

Lina said, "We need a bigger place and I don't want it to be in Brooklyn. I want Todd to grow up in nicer surroundings. I don't want Nora to be our landlord. I want a better car."

They had said the same words to each other so many times that Robin evidently felt weary of saying them again. After a few attempts to evade or defer the argument--he was dealing with a database emergency, after all--he said: "You know that until Kim graduates, we won't be able to afford to move. We could have sent her to a public school or had her take loans, and then we could have moved sooner."

Lina forgot this except when Robby said it and then she felt angry and hopeless.

"If you made more money...." she said.

Robby was still very patient, though his voice now was starting to assume that hurt, tired, quavery edge. "I don't have a degree. When I joined Kastmeier Industries ten years ago, they paid me eighteen thousand dollars a year. I now make almost three times that."

"Kastmeier doesn't pay you enough. Computer skills are hot."

"My experience is broad but not deep. I know a little about a lot of things, and Kastmeier's systems are not standard. I'm a database administrator without strong coding skills. And I'm completely self-taught."

"You've never tried to look for another job. You promised me you would."

It was extremely important to Robby to keep promises. "I know I said that. I should never have promised you I would, at least not now. Steve Kastmeier loves me and I can work there the rest of my life, or at least as long as the family runs the business. Suppose I did find another job that paid more--and I'm not sure I could. But suppose I did, and I left Kastmeier, and the other place didn't work out. I'd be on the beach with Kim still in college. What would we do then?"

He pulled at his lip again and Lina cried, "Of course if you say you'll fail, you will fail. But if you said you'd succeed-- said it and believed it--then you'd succeed."

Robby was a slow-burning man but she could see he was angry. Lina put the finishing touch on by adding, "I'm sick of all this failure talk."

Lina watched the results of her handiwork for more than a minute as Robby thought, opened his mouth, thought again, said, "I--maybe you--"

She knew what was coming: Married the wrong man. "Maybe I did," she shot back before she could restrain herself. Even in her worst moment, she knew she didn't mean it, and she immediately wanted to take the words back. Robby was putting a shirt on, saying, his face clenched and gray, "I have to go out." "I didn't mean that," Lina said, taking his sleeve, but her husband only repeated, "I have to go out for awhile."

Todd called her and she went in and got him settled again. She called a friend and talked for half an hour, and then lay on the couch watching television. At eleven, exhausted, she wrote a note which she left on the kitchen table--"My darling, I'm so sorry"--and went to bed.

Robby had gone out around the corner to the Promenade, the walkway with the magnificent view of the river and the Manhattan skyline, right around the corner from their apartment on Willow Street. The Promenade was crowded with couples of all ages, and it took him a little while to find a bench where he could be away from them. Looking at the impressionistic effect of the Manhattan lights on the East River calmed him down. He thought about his beautiful, smart, great-hearted wife, who could be so fierce and so terrible when she was unhappy. He wondered, not for the first time, if he had been selfish to marry her; he had been so much in love, but it had all been one-sided on his part, to think so much about how happy she made him and not wonder too much if he could make her happy. He had no regrets, for he had never expected to marry anyone so passionate and beautiful. He knew his wife was better looking than he was, and he was proud to be with her anywhere they went, and to know at the Bauer family events that Ricky might be richer but that Robby had married better.

Robby's physical passion for Lina had never diminished; every time she entered a room he found that his attention to her was complete. He loved to watch her undress as much as he had the very first time; her every movement--the attitude of her wrists and arms, or the angle of her back at any time--was graceful.

He remembered his wife as a teenager. She had been a happy girl, the kind who made the people around her happy as well. Lina was still like that at moments, especially when they were away somewhere, but the moments were rarer.

When they had made the decisions about Kim's college education, they had been so caught up in the rightness of it that they had failed to count the cost to their own plans. Robby detected more selfishness in himself on this score. He liked living in Brooklyn Heights and felt no strong desire to leave. He had sacrificed something that did not matter to him but was very important to Lina.

He left the Promenade and began to walk. He remembered how, as a teenager, he had been very sorry to leave Flatbush. On East Twenty-first Street, you could play outdoors with your friends in the street or in the yards all day long. In the Heights, which was all brownstones, there were no front yards, not every house had a backyard (their apartment building had none), and the streets were too busy for children. In addition, the world had changed. He and Ricky had gone outside by themselves all day long and their parents, who never knew exactly where they were, did not worry so long as they came home for meals. Now one worried about predators; little Todd was never outside without supervision. Instead of a child walking outside to see what friends were available, one made playdates with classmates. Todd, for some reason, did not have many friends; he reminded Robby of Ricky, preferring to be alone with his toys and computer games. Robby felt responsible for his son's loneliness, though he was not sure what he had done to cause it. Still, he sometimes wondered if he had not done better with the child who was not genetically his than with the one who was.

Another thing he had always missed in Brooklyn Heights were the fireflies. Flatbush had been full of them in the summer. He had actually assumed that fireflies, like frogs and box turtles and other familiar things from childhood, had become much rarer in the world. One day, he commented to Ricky, "I remember when there were fireflies," and his brother said, "There still are, you just don't have them in the Heights. There are zillions of 'em in our yard in the summer."

He wanted to go home but was afraid that Lina would not be calm and that they would start the fight again and wake Todd, so he went to see a forgettable science fiction movie a few blocks away at the Brooklyn Heights Twin. When he came in just after eleven, Lina was already asleep. He found her note on the table. He tiptoed in to look at Todd, who was sleeping with his usual pouting expression, and then at Lina, whose face was hidden under the covers. He listened to her breathing for a few moments, then carefully took the laptop computer, cords and power source and carried them into the kitchenette, where he set them up again and plugged the computer into a phone jack. He logged back in to the California server and worked until five o'clock to solve the problem of the duplicate and disappearing database records.

At five he still didn't have the answer, just several more likely paths for investigation. He realized that there was a pattern, like that of an incipient migraine headache, fluctuating at the edge of his visual field, against the kitchenette tiles. He turned off the computer and went in to bed, inserting himself carefully under the covers so as not to wake Lina. He was asleep in minutes.

Robby dreamed about his father, Dr. Samuel Bauer, who had died in 1985 of lymphoma. He and Lina had planned a spring 1985 wedding, but when Dr. Bauer had been diagnosed with cancer and had announced that he did not expect to live more than a few months, they had moved it up to January, and their planned honeymoon in Paris had become a weekend in Florida instead. Dr. Bauer had been very pleased with them. At the wedding he was thin and weak, walking with difficulty and heavily medicated, but smiling every moment. He had always loved Lina, and she often said, after a holiday dinner with Nora and Ricky and Lisa, how much she missed him.

Robby missed his father too, and dreamed about him once or twice a year. Though Robby was not superstitious, he sometimes liked to think that these were more than ordinary dreams. Those he had on other topics were inconsequential and self-contradictory, but when he saw Dr. Bauer, the dreams settled down: they were calmer and had more of a narrative. In addition, they seemed to be cumulative: you could string them together and they told a sort of a story.

In the first dream he had had of him after his father's death, Robby was driving his parents somewhere in his Honda. They were both in the back seat. Dr. Samuel Bauer was enraged about something, and was ranting in a shrill, incoherent voice; Robby could not make out the words. His father had died at home, very calmly and with dignity, refusing medication for his last infection and falling asleep forever. Partly as a result, and partly because it was the Bauer way, the whole family had also been very calm; no-one had cried for more than a moment, except Lina. One explanation for the dream was his own unexpressed sorrow and rage about the loss of his father. Robby liked to think, though, that Dr. Bauer was actually speaking to him through his dreams: in each succeeding one, his father had been calmer, until he seemed as magisterial in death as he often had in life. There was nothing frightening in the dreams now: when he saw his father, who looked just as he had before he had been ill, his death placed no more of a barrier between them than there would have been if Dr. Bauer had had a speech impediment from a stroke, or spells of forgetfulness.

Robby was sitting on the balcony of a house on East Twenty-first Street, opposite his old house with the white aluminum siding. (In reality the Barros house, which faced theirs, had no balcony.) He was looking down into the street where he saw Lina throwing a rubber ball, a Spaldeen, with Todd. He looked to his left and saw Dr. Bauer, sitting about fifteen feet away from him in a folding chair, watching them. Dr. Bauer looked up and smiled at Robby.

He woke and saw Todd standing by his side of the bed. His son had been playing with a strand of Robby's hair to wake him. It was six-thirty and he had had only ninety minutes of sleep. He put a finger to his lips--Lina was still under the covers fast asleep--and rose carefully. He took the game disk from the friendly blue plastic case on his dresser, led Todd back into the boy's room, and turned on the computer, not the PC on the boy's desk but Robby's old Commodore 64 which he had set up on a card table in the corner of the little crowded room. Robby and Todd had been playing a vintage sword and sorcery game, Ultima, for some days; you maneuvered little characters around a landscape, fought monsters and acquired magical objects, until you had enough strength to enter a castle for the game's denouement. The game had minimal graphics but had always been one of Robby's favorites, and Todd was entranced with it. He had found a spaceship, which was needed to visit another continent, looking for a magical object found only there. Robby saved the game and then showed Todd how to launch the spaceship, realizing with a hollow feeling only as his son touched the key that he had forgotten that you must also have a spacesuit to make the journey. Todd hadn't yet found one, and the little boy began to cry when the screen displayed a message that his character was dead. Robby tried to restore the last saved position but when you restored after a death, the game placed you in a different location than the place where you had died. Restoring the game now placed the spaceship on water; Todd's character could not exit without drowning or launch without dying. The little boy was completely inconsolable. Robby took his son in his arms and promised him that in the evening, he would recreate Todd's warrior and play the game himself until the warrior had regained the same strength and had the same magical objects in his collection. He noticed that the disturbance at the edge of his eye was more intense now, a sort of flashing moire pattern.

Todd quieted down and ate his cereal and Robby, with a heavy heart, went to wake Lina. She woke looking at him with her gentle brown eyes. "I'm so sorry, baby. I don't know what gets in to me. I was a horror." She put her arms around him and leaned to him and he breathed in his wife's sweet soap smell. She caught him looking down the front of her nightgown and they both laughed.

There was no more time to talk, though, because Lina had to get to work by eight-thirty; she went off to shower. Robby walked Todd over to the day camp at the Brooklyn Heights synagogue, and when he came back Lina had left. He ate his own breakfast bagel, drank two cups of coffee and read the newspaper. He kept his left eye closed.

Robby arrived at work in the garment district of Manhattan at ten-thirty and greeted Steve Kastmeier, who was standing by the reception desk drinking coffee. When he was about twenty feet past them, he heard the pretty but cheap-looking receptionist say, "There goes owl-man." Had he heard correctly? The remark was doubly mysterious, because he was not sure if it referred to him, nor why the receptionist would be so familiar with Mr. Kastmeier. When he heard the latter reply, "Cut him some slack--owl-man was still logged in to the server at 5 a.m.", Robby knew they were talking about him. He had heard himself called a bear and a big shaggy dog before; seeing himself as an owl was no stretch of the imagination, with his tousled brown hair which sometimes stuck up like tufts of feathers and his big bespectacled eyes. The only non-mysterious thing was Mr. Kastmeier's knowledge of what Robby had been doing on the system; he himself had written the script which emailed the user activity reports to Mr. Kastmeier every morning. The owner was constantly paranoid about salespeople stealing information from the database.

Robby sat down on his special kneeling chair in his cubicle; the backless chair made him keep his spine straight and he didn't hurt so much at the end of the day. He shut out the sounds of the chattering salespeople on their phones around him, and went back to work on the problem of the failed data distribution. After a while, his left eye was troubling him so much that he went into the men's room, where there was white tile like in the bathroom at home. When he looked at the floor, he saw a large persistent splotch in his eye, like a flower with flecks of red. With a sickened thrill he knew there was blood in his eye. He could no longer deny that there was something happening, that it was not just a migraine.

He went back to his cube and dialed his opthalmologist, Dr. Stephen Conrad of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. When he explained to Conrad what was happening, the doctor told him to come in right away. Robby went upstairs to Mr. Kastmeier's palatial glass office and told him he had an eye problem and had to leave. Kastmeier was very concerned; though the two men didn't talk very much, Robby knew that he was one of the few people Steve Kastmeier really trusted.

The quickest way was to hop on the subway back to the Heights and then take a car service from there; no taxi cab he hailed in midtown Manhattan would be willing to take him to Bay Ridge, and unlike Lina, Robby minded arguing with cab drivers. Anyway, the half hour subway trip would give him some time to sort out his thoughts.

Robby exited the subway at Clark Street, Brooklyn, where the tiled floor confirmed that the frightening flower was still there. He went into a Korean store on Henry Street and bought himself a box of fruit-shaped marzipan candies, then walked into the storefront office of the Promenade Car Service and asked for a car to Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge. Within moments, he was seated in the back of a Lincoln Town Car on the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, peeling the plastic off of the candy. Robby took comfort from the taste of the marzipan. It reminded him of childhood Thanksgivings on East Twenty-first Street, when Nora always put it out on the sideboard. Unbidden, some lines of poetry he had read long ago came to his mind as he ate the candy:

O vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire,
The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay....

Conrad had a group practice with several other opthalmologists; together, they owned a small one-story brick building on Fourth Avenue. Robby sat in the torn plastic armchair, not able to look at magazines. The nurse had put drops in his eyes to dilate the pupils, and his vision was now blurred. Even against the blur, he could detect the flower.

Before receiving the eyedrops, he had noticed a beautiful and elegant-looking black woman in her sixties who was looking after her mother, a tiny, wrinkled woman who was also still beautiful. Now, when the younger woman went off to the rest room, the older one said to Robby, "I'm a hundred years old and I can't die." She had a gauze patch over one eye.

Dr. Conrad took him inside and examined him. Conrad was a nice man two or three years older than Robby, very well-groomed but also the most compassionate doctor Robby had ever visited. He was never in a hurry and always spent as much time with you as you needed. Now he told Robby, "You've burst a small blood vessel in your retina. Its not dangerous in any way but I'm going to have to use a laser to tack it down." Conrad told him he had rarely seen anyone as young as Robby rupture a blood vessel in the eye, unless there was a history of diabetes. Robby had none. Conrad asked if anything unusual had happened--had he been shouting or doing hard physical work in the last twenty-four hours? Robby told him that he had had a fight with his wife. The doctor explained that a moment of high blood pressure might have caused the event.

Robby had to wait a while before Conrad would be ready to perform the laser surgery, so he went to a pay phone and called Lina at work. It was now four o'clock. Lina wanted to come immediately, and Robby tried to dissuade her. Every time Lina left work early, for a family matter such as a fever of Todd's, Robby was afraid that she would lose her job. Lina insisted on leaving immediately and said she would be there within an hour.

Before she arrived, Conrad ushered Robby back inside. The doctor explained he was about to insert a large lens under Robby's eyelid. Robby had always been adverse to contact lenses and had never had anything under his lid, so he felt a bit weak, but the lens went in easily. He sat in a special chair facing the laser. Conrad said that the procedure would not hurt--there were no nerve endings in the retina which could feel pain. Crack--a beam of light shot into Robby's eye for a fraction of a second. Conrad examined him again, then said, "One more"; crack. Conrad led Robby to a room where he could lie down and rest. Though Conrad had been right that he could not directly feel the laser, Robby's left eye hurt, as if he had been punched.

When she hung up the phone with Robby, Lina thought, I did this to him. Please God, let me not kill another husband. She told her boss she was leaving. Rick was traveling or she would have told him as well. She called and arranged for an acquaintance whose small son was a friend of Todd's to pick him up at the synagogue. Lina caught a cab back to the Heights, and had it drop her at the end of Willow Street, where she had parked the Honda.

Driving to Bay Ridge on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Lina thought about the day that Robby proposed to her. She had accepted him on the spot and with gratitude, and that evening she had gone to Mass and had thanked God for Robby. She had been asleep for ten years of her life and this kind, insecure man who loved her was ready to rescue her and Kim from East Seventeenth Street. But, Lina reflected, no-one can stay on that level forever; sooner or later we set a new baseline and start looking for something above it.

It was not Robby's fault that she had lost ten years of her life after Brian. She had missed that entire period which began with all her peers going to college and which saw them all marry, commence careers, buy houses. Lina felt desperate sometimes about making up for lost time; to be thirty-eight and cramped in a small apartment with a husband and child was very difficult. But no-one that she knew had found a kinder, more attentive man than she had. He had changed her luck and Kim's in every respect.

Looked at that way, Lina felt that Robby was more than she deserved. She knew that Robby also felt that Lina was too good for him. There was a pleasant balance in two people not being good enough for one another.

She parked in the street outside the doctor's office. Her husband was in the waiting room, ready to leave. He had made an appointment to come back on the weekend for a follow-up. He explained to her about the procedure and she held his arm on the way to the car, as he still could not see well. She began to drive back to the highway.

Robby started to cry. He was very ashamed of himself, but he was badly shaken by the experience. Conrad had been unable to tell him exactly why it had happened, or whether it could happen again. Lina pulled the car over.

They were on a little street lined with one family houses, exactly like East Seventeenth Street where she had grown up or East Twenty-first Street where Robby had. The houses were solid, shadowed and sleepy in the early evening light; an oppressive, luminous sky arched over them, pushing them down. On the corner, an elderly man was walking a little dog.

"What are you doing?" Robby asked.

"I'm kissing you. Kissing you and petting you."

I have three children, Lina thought with love and anger, holding her husband to her breast.

Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning love's lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
And hiding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet.

-W.B. Yeats, "He Bids His Beloved Be At Peace"