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They were sitting so close now, leaning in to each other. He could feel her laughter thrumming from her arm to his.
Are you having trouble picturing our somber Elihu Wingate like this, being playful, joking around? So are we. But no matter. There he was.
And here he is, years later, sitting at his computer, determined to find her, as if the Web were a real web whose strings reached from him to her, and she would recognize the vibration of one particular string, remember the nearness of their bodies, their breathing.
He recalls the plot of her novel, something about a guy who steals a famous jewel, winds up floating on the back of a giant tortoise, though Elihu can’t remember what led up to this scene—thrown off a yacht? Survived a plane crash? He does an Internet search combining diamond thief, tortoise, novel. He sifts through pages of results, mostly marine biology sites and descriptions of action movies.
He finds a blog called Anonymous (Not My Real Name), posted by Scylla, a novelist who is detailing her laborious progress through the second draft of The Tattered Demigod. Which doesn’t sound like the title she’d mentioned to Elihu Wingate on the plane, but of course she could have changed that. The plot has changed too. From the posts he reads, Elihu Wingate gathers that the main character is a defrocked Catholic priest. At some point the priest samples tortoise soup in a Peruvian fishing village, but that is a minor plot element, and the jewel heist has disappeared completely.
Elihu Wingate writes Scylla a private e-mail, describes himself, reminds her where they met.
I would love to read your novel when you’re ready to show it to anyone, he writes. Then deletes it.
Are you still married?
My wife has left me.
Finally he cancels the whole e-mail.
She’d mentioned a husband, in passing. Said the husband never read what she wrote, wasn’t interested in fiction. Elihu Wingate said nothing about having a wife. By that time the troubles at home had already begun, his wife’s alternating week-long rages and month-long silent treatments.
Elihu Wingate was a sensible man. He couldn’t afford to think about getting involved with someone else. His wife would find out. She’d leave him and take the kids. Knowing her, out of spite she would move far away, or even if she stayed in the same city she would only let him see their daughters a few days a month at most.
They’d spent the whole flight talking. Then the flight was over.
It’s easy to make too much of this. That a few seconds of two strangers looking into each other’s eyes means they’ve made a connection that their words, their polite friendly words, could never touch. It would have been impolite, really, to flat-out say a ridiculous thing like “I feel I know you, I don’t want this conversation to end.”
Later, all he could remember were her eyes.
He was never unfaithful to Violet. She left him anyway, took the kids.
Elihu Wingate keeps thinking he’s bound to run into the woman again. Here again we can see another early fissure: that groundless optimism against the astronomical odds of the same travel itinerary. Complicated by his utter inability to conjure up her face in his memory.
He remembers that she has pale skin, and those eyes, brown and deep-set, slightly turned down at the outer edges. Dark, heavy eyebrows. But hair color? Shape of face? Nothing.
He keeps looking for her. It’s almost a relief to see a woman with dark skin, or a white woman with freckles or blue eyes, next to him on the plane, riding the same elevator, ahead of him in line at the convenience store. Not her. Not her.
At the office Elihu Wingate finds another anonymous mauve envelope in his briefcase, a single sheet of paper inside.
We’re so happy, it reads, that you’re still willing to participate in the survey. Here’s Question 5: Please provide details of a past accomplishment.
Elihu Wingate thinks hard. Getting a Ph.D. was a big accomplishment. But they’re not specifying a big accomplishment, just a past one, and anyway it would be impossible to list the details of years of graduate work.
My daughters and I put together a tire swing. He pauses. They want details. He wants to give them details, but everything he thinks about, how Iris giggled at him fumbling with the power drill, how Orchid pushed back her wispy bangs, how they got grass stains on their jeans, evaporates when he tries to put it on paper.
He slips the envelope back in the briefcase, notices the previous question there:
Looking back on it now, how much was determined by you and how much by fate?
You should change the order of your questions, he writes. Maybe these are graduate students, still learning how to shape a survey. At least he can answer it better now. He makes two columns: determined by me, determined by fate. He thinks about trees and drill bits and grass, and fate. He puts everything back in his briefcase.
Elihu Wingate returns to his empty house.
Except his house isn’t empty.
There are suitcases in the entrance, boxes in the living room. In the kitchen his mother is unpacking a cappuccino machine. She kisses him. “Your father’s out back. He thought those forsythias could use some trimming.”