Theirs had been a winter romance. She had arrived at the newspaper in the fall, fresh from some southern university with a doctorate in art history. Their first date had been the weekend after Thanksgiving and they first kissed in a lamp-lit snow after Midnight Mass.
"I have to cover an exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington on Saturday," she said. "Why don’t you come? We can visit your mother while we’re there."
"What’s the exhibit?" Ian asked.
"Caravaggio and Rembrandt."
"Caravaggio? What did he have to do with Rembrandt?"
"Light and sadness," Beverly said. "Don’t you want to come with me?" She looked at him with pouting eyes. He held her face in his gaze and smiled.
"What are you looking at?" she asked.
"Light and happiness."
Early on Saturday morning they left the city in a rented car. Beverly drove. She said he was a city boy and couldn’t be trusted with heavy machinery. They stopped at the McDonald’s on 125th Street before slinging into the light traffic on Riverside Drive, then rode north towards the George Washington Bridge. He settled into his seat and watched the gray Hudson beneath them as they soared on suspended spans through the still-bleak morning. The road was familiar, but he was surprised at how different it looked from the passenger seat. He watched the houses perched on granite cliffs formed by the blasts that had made the highway.
"What is she like?" Beverly asked.
"Your mother."
He had not seen her since the blow-up at Thanksgiving. They had spoken a few times on the phone: polite, formal, guarded conversations. "She’s extremely liberal, and she can’t stand the fact that I’m not."
"That bad?"
"She’s like a New York Times editorial, or one of those insufferable Graydon Carter columns in Vanity Fair. You know. The sort of thing that starts out about Elizabeth Taylor’s poodle, but somehow manages to work in that Bush is a moron."
Beverly watched the road, not saying anything. "Did I say something wrong?" he asked after too much of this silence had passed.
"No–it’s your tone, I guess. It’s not the way someone should talk about their mother."
"We’re civil," he said. "But it’s just the way it is. And I can’t stand the man she married after my father died."
"I still want to meet her."
"You’ll meet her. She’s expecting us. We’ll have high tea, I imagine."
"High tea?"
"My mother always had an Anglican temperament, even in her Buddhist phase."
"I’m a Southern girl," she said. "I’d like that."
They drove in silence for a while, through the beige wasteland of I-95. They were somewhere between Trenton and Cherry Hill, and the trees along the highway were pale brown and leafless. The empty McDonald’s cup lay in the bag with the other trash at Ian’s feet. How many times had he taken this road, driving down from college to see his parents, to watch a Redskins game with his father? Driving all night, finding the different classic rock stations all the way down, like a pilot being handed over to different air-traffic controllers.
"When I was becoming a failed novelist," Ian said to break the silence and change the subject, "I used to spend a lot of time at the National Gallery."
"You impress me more every day," she said sarcastically. "I always wanted to date a failed novelist." But she was smiling again.
On many of those trips he had imagined driving forever with the woman he loved by his side. Especially at night, with the radio on and the motor running smoothly and that sense of absolute solitude that a vehicle can give you: navigating a galaxy where the lights of the cars seemed like the suns of other universes. The woman, back then, was also only in his imagination.
"Whatever happened to your novel?" she asked.
"It was like one of those characters in a Japanese folk tale: it died of shame."
"I’d like to read it, anyway." She turned to look at him, her half-smile punctuating her comment. He smiled briefly and turned again to the road. He was thinking that their relationship was still too young for that much intimacy. The intimacy of a first novel, written while imagining imaginary girls you could drive all night with. He mumbled that the manuscript was in storage somewhere in Queens, with much other juvenilia. But he promised that if he found it, he would let her read it.
His father died when Ian was a senior in college. Ian had taken the rest of that semester off, going back to Washington, spending his days at the museum and his nights at his mother’s house, sleepless, pen in hand, as if through some persistent process in which ink substituted for blood, grief could be leeched. He thought his presence at home would console his mother; instead she had hinted, faintly at first, and then more firmly, that he needed go back to school. It was Greg, he realized, who had consoled her in those difficult days. And he sensed from the way she fidgeted that sex was part of his consoling. Finally he realized that she had already been sleeping with him before his father died. So he moved back to New York, returned to school, and chose a different museum to waste his time in.
The great marbled hall of the National Gallery was instantly familiar. They took the escalator to the basement where the exhibit entrance was. He found himself looking for his younger self on the benches, as if time had stopped when he left and could now be restarted . That was the way it was when you returned after a long time to places that were once as intimate as home. But Beverly was the one with the notebook now, and Ian dutifully followed her through the exhibit, looking at the paintings and trying not to think about the afternoon ahead of him. She commented now and then on this use of light, that thickness of brush; on this point of anatomy, that surprising miniature landscape. Mostly, though, she was quiet, as if in church, putting her thoughts into her notebook. He liked the way art transformed her; he even liked, in a sad way, how it took her momentarily away from him.
Both Rembrandt and Caravaggio had painted scenes of Abraham and Isaac. They were hung next to each other, juxtaposed, easy to compare and contrast. While Beverly went on through the exhibit taking notes, Ian remained transfixed in front of them.
Rembrandt’s Abraham seemed relieved when the angel knocked the blade from his hand; his other hand held over Isaac’s face, shielding his son from the knowledge of what he was about to do. Caravaggio’s Abraham seemed annoyed at the interruption, as if he distrusted the angel and his message. The palm of his left hand pressed into the nape of his son’s neck, the knife moving in, while the angel seemed almost desperate to hold back his hand.
The mouth of Caravaggio’s Isaac was open in what at first seemed like a scream. When Ian looked closer, he saw that it was probably a reflexive gasp from where his father’s thumb pressed on his mandible. From the side, a ram looked on with curiosity and relief, as if thinking: there but for the grace of God…
Up close he was struck by the brutality of it, as if Caravaggio’s brush strokes themselves had been stabbed into the painting. He was transfixed by the moment it depicted, just before the angel came to save Isaac, aghast at the possibility that a parent could do that with such enthusiasm.
Beverly returned to reclaim him. "Didn’t you want to see the rest of the exhibit?"
"No. This was enough for me." He looked at his watch. "It’s time for tea."
His mother had made little sandwiches with the bread crusts sliced. There were cucumber, watercress, and smoked salmon. On another plate were scones with clotted cream. All this was laid out in the sunroom where Ian used to watch the Redskins with his father. After they sat down, she wheeled in the old tea trolley bought long ago during a vacation in England. It had been a reliable feature of his youth, pushed many miles between the kitchen and the sun room over many teas. Steam rose cheerily from the pot, disappearing in the bright afternoon light, and the self-standing strainer gleamed with self-importance.
Greg had been reading the Times when they arrived. His subscription to the New York Times’ Sunday paper was one of his conceits. He liked to drop a conductor’s name into his conversation, or mention some opera then playing at Lincoln Center. He was one of those Washingtonians who assiduously studied the goings-on in New York in order to argue that, in the end, DC had as much culture as New York. Ian was often tempted to say that he had never met a New Yorker who worried whether New York had as much culture as Washington. But he resisted the temptation; one must maintain the peace even at the expense of letting people live with their illusions.
Greg stood up when Ian and Beverly entered the room, placing the paper in a little caddy beside his armchair.
Beverly smiled in her charming Southern way and held out her hand, dipping slightly in a gesture that was as close as an American gets to a curtsey. Ian thought that she was suddenly as beautiful as could be, and sensed Greg noticing it too. Ian gave his mother a dry peck on her powdered cheek and shook Greg’s hand.
"Well," his mother said, "what a lovely surprise." As if they had just dropped in unexpectedly. Ian suddenly feared that Beverly and his mother had too much in common. His mother’s hostess pride would speak to Beverly’s Carolinian etiquette.
"Ian said you were covering something here in Washington," his mother said. "Are you also a journalist?"
"I write an arts column for the New York Sun. That’s how we met. There’s an exhibit of Caravaggio and Rembrandt at the gallery."
"Fancy a couple of New Yorkers coming down to DC to get their culture," Greg said.
"The world is going through such a terrible phase right now," his mother said, ignoring her husband. "I think it’s very important that we have art."
"I see that John Adams is directing ‘Nixon in China’ at the Met," Greg said, sitting down again in the deep chair that used to be Ian’s father’s. "He composed it, you know? Adams, I mean." Ian stared at him and then turned away. Beverly said, politely, "We should go to the Met one day. We don’t take enough advantage of living in New York."
"Nixon went to China," Greg said, almost to himself. "I think he should have stayed there."
His mother passed the sandwich tray around and poured the tea. They made small talk over the small sandwiches. His mother and Beverly chatted as if they had always known each other. Ian waited for the inevitable.
"I was just reading about that mosque that was blown up in Samarra," Greg said to Ian. "I’m telling you, they’re on the brink of a civil war there."
"Mmm," Ian said. "It’s a terrible development. No question."
"I don’t know how we got into this mess," his mother said. "It was all so unnecessary. There was not even a connection between al-Qaeda and the Iraqis. But then Bush lies about it and goes in anyway."
"How we got into this mess is very easy," Greg said. "A lot of Americans voted for a man who was stupid enough to confuse Saddam Hussein with bin Laden. And certain newspapers endorsed that man," he added.
"I’d rather not debate the Iraq war this afternoon," Ian said.
"There’s nothing to debate," Greg said. "It’s a disaster–that’s a fact. It’s clearly beyond debate. We are governed by a moron and people are dying as a result."
Ian stirred milk into his second cup of tea.
"Are you also a Republican, Beverly?" Ian’s mother asked. "Like my wayward son?"
"I don’t know," she said. "I guess it depends on who’s running. But my family’s pretty conservative. We’re from the South."
"We’ve always been Democrats in this family. I don’t know what happened. Ian’s father was a lawyer. He worked on civil rights cases. That’s the environment Ian grew up in, but somehow he ended up a Republican." She smiled weakly.
"All kids eventually rebel against their parents," Greg (who had none of his own) remarked with casual authority. "It’s just a form of rebellion." Ian wanted to hit him.
Instead, Ian said: "It might actually be an intellectual choice, my conservatism. What sort of adolescent rebellion begins after college and continues for a decade?"
"I suppose your mother and I would prefer it was psychological rather than intellectual," Greg said, laughing. "At least then there would be medication for it."
Ian hated that–"your mother and I"–as if the two of them sat around each evening discussing the tragedy of his political alignment and whether it might be corrected. He felt his anger begin to rise and tried to choke it off with other thoughts–Caravaggio and Rembrandt, sadness and light. He didn’t want to ruin this for Beverly.
He glanced over at her; she was bearing it all quite well. The southern sun was friendly to her, welcoming back its native daughter. Her teacup was perched on her bare knee, and her blond hair was tossed back against the knitted Afghan thrown on the sofa.
"Anyway," his mother said to Beverly. "Thank God his father didn’t live to see it."
The cup tinkled in its saucer on Beverly’s knee, and there was a doom-filled silence. Ian, who knew what to expect of these conversations, was nonetheless shocked at his mother’s comment. It was as if some taboo had been broken and even the gods did not know how to react.
"That’s a terrible thing to say," Beverly said with a burst of passion that only left the silence thicker.
The smell of gunpowder lingered as everyone rebalanced their teacups and tried to figure out what had changed and what remained the same.
"Well," his mother said, stiffening her back and cocking her head unconsciously in an effort to hold her ground. "It’s true. He would have been very disappointed. Maybe he would have done a better job than me in trying to lure him back."
Ian was slumped into his chair, his eyes half-closed, head weighted towards his chest, examining the fabric threads of his shirt.
"Is it really that bad?" Beverly asked.
"Well, look at the world we’re in. The Republicans stand for all the wrong things."
"It’s true," Ian said, sitting up. "My father would have been very unhappy about it. That’s a fact beyond debate. Let’s leave it at that."
He turned to Beverly, whose cheeks burned with embarrassment for all of them. He stared at her and wondered if she could read in his eyes what he was thinking: that he would probably not ever love anyone as much as he loved her at that moment.
"So," his mother said, having won her point. "How was the Caravaggio?"
"It was wonderful," Beverly said, accepting the olive branch–or, Ian thought, the instruments of surrender. "You should really go. Ian only saw half of it, though. He stopped at the Abrahams."
"The Abrahams?"
"Both Caravaggio and Rembrandt painted scenes of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. Ian spent his whole time looking at them."
"I never did understand that story," his mother said. "What kind of God would tell a father to kill his own son? And what kind of father would do it? Better to rot in hell, I think, than kill your own son."
"It was a different age, then," Ian said impatiently. "God had a more literal meaning." Religion was another topic to avoid. His mother liked the flowers at Easter and Schubert’s "Gloria" but had never understood why anyone would put up with the more inconvenient demands of belief.
"Well, you should really see the exhibit," Beverly said. "I highly recommend it."
"And we should be heading back to New York," Ian added, rising to his feet. "Avoid the traffic."
They drove back up the highway, and it was dusk when they crossed the Delaware, riding high on the suspension bridge, soaring like pilots. Beverly drove and Ian closed his eyes for a moment, seeing the paintings that were burned there. He thought again that there were many ways to tell the story of Abraham. And many ways to not understand it at all.
Right then, he thought of Caravaggio.
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