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Illusions

ONE

She'd known Joel was going to die. They'd all known it for a very long time. But when it finally happened Leigh was shattered. She couldn't seem to absorb it, even though she was there at the end, and saw for herself how, with dreadful ease, Joel simply ceased to exist. While there was a certain, hateful rightness to his death, there was also a terrifying simplicity to it at the last. And she kept thinking it should have been a larger, grander moment somehow. The ease and simplicity distressed her. If he could die this way, after such a long, valiant battle, she had to wonder if there'd been any point to his having struggled as long and as hard as he had.

She was frightened, exhausted, and angry, and the only thing she wanted to do was go to visit her father. She admitted it was an arbitrary idea, even probably irrational. Nevertheless, she was determined to go. She was in sudden, desperate need of a destination.

Once in her aisle seat in the first-class smoking section of the 747, she put a tape into the Walkman, adjusted the volume and the earphones, opened a book, and tried to ignore everything going on around her. She didn't want to have to speak; she had no desire to communicate with anyone except her father. And she had no notion whatever of what she wanted to say to him, or what she hoped he might say to her.

"You're off on a fool's errand," her mother had declared earlier that day. "No one's ever been able to hold anything remotely resembling a conversation with your father. He'll undoubtedly be up to his thighs in manure; he'll likely give you one of his typical blank stares while he huffs and puffs a bit about the weather; then he'll offer you a glass of cheap sherry and tell you about the cost of seed, or something equally captivating. I wish you'd reconsider, Leigh. This is truly ridiculous."

"He's my father, and I haven't seen him in almost thirty years. I want to see him!"

"I know you're upset, dear"—her mother took another tack—"but do you really think this is wise?"

"I can't give you straight answers," Leigh told her. "I don't know if it's wise. I don't know anything."

"It's just that I do worry about you ..."

"I know that. I worry about me, too. I'll call you from London."

"Please don't do anything foolish," her mother had begged.

"I will try my very best not to."

"It's all madness." Marietta had sighed. "Take care."

"I will try," Leigh had promised.

She'd no sooner finished the conversation with her mother than the telephone had started ringing again, and she'd wanted to ignore it, let the machine answer for her. But she thought it might be her mother again, with some last-minute thought, so she'd picked up the receiver to give a wearied hello.

At once, Miles had made his pitch. "The last thing you should be doing is flying off this way, leaving your mother to cope with all the arrangements."

"You just talked to her, didn't you?" Leigh had guessed.

"Yes, but—"

"And if you talked to her, I'm certain she told you she has agreed to cope; she volunteered to cope."

"Yes, but—"

"Miles, this is one of those times when I wish you were agent for one of us, but not both. I loathe all this back-and-forth business, with you rushing between the two of us. It's unfair to everyone."

"Speaking of which," he'd said, "I know it's probably not the best time, but at the risk of life and limb, dare I ask when, if ever, you intend to work again, to get on with your life?"

"It is not the best time. I may never work again. And I especially loathe it when you start impersonating my mother, sounding like her and trying to browbeat me with good intentions. Miles"—she had tried to overcome her exasperation—"I know you mean well. I know you care. But I don't want to talk to you now."

"All right," he'd backed down. "I know the timing's dreadful. It's just that we're very concerned about you, Leigh."

"I know that. I thank you for that," she'd said, and put down the receiver.

Giving up now on her attempt to read, she raised the volume on the Walkman so that her eardrums throbbed achingly as she looked around the cabin. A few more minutes to takeoff and, with luck, the seat next to hers would remain empty. She'd barely completed the thought when one of the flight attendants touched her on the shoulder. Leigh switched off the music and simultaneously slipped sideways into the aisle so the latecorner could get to his seat.

"Sorry to disturb you," he apologized, passing his overcoat to the waiting attendant.

Leigh gave a slight nod in response, sat again, fastened her seat belt, turned the cassette back on, and closed her eyes. Please, she prayed, not a chatty executive; please not one of those pin-striped wonder boys flying on a company ticket for a few days' business in London.

Finding her place in the book, she tried to force herself to read. It was like being back in school, at a time in childhood when words had been individual entities that hadn't seemed to want to be joined together to make sentences. Simply recognizing random words had been a significant accomplishment, worthy of parental applause. Hopeless. She couldn't make sense of the neatly printed blocks of letters set so reasonably on the page. She closed the book and stared at the back of the seat ahead.

The only reason she'd married the Good Doctor, in whom she'd had only a minimal interest initially, was because she met and was at once taken with his twelve-year-old son. At their first meeting, Joel had made coffee for them and then sat and talked with her about a production of The Pirates of Penzance in which he was playing the lead. He'd been so self-possessed, so wise and witty and charmingly confident, that she'd known she'd involve herself with his father in order to spend more time with the son. She'd been open about the selfishness of her motives, and had told Joel about the son she'd lost. He'd loved her anecdotes about Stephen, and had encouraged her to tell all about him. Joel had no jealousy. He was so firmly entrenched in his own identity, even at age twelve, that he was able to hear stories about another twelve-year-old boy and find only pleasure in them.

In view of how little interested the Good Doctor had been in the son of his late wife, Leigh had taken the position that, at the very worst, she and Joel would benefit from one another. And they had.

For just shy of ten years she'd had not only a new model for her books, but also the privilege of watching Joel grow to become even wittier and wiser. Not even his father's eventual outrage had daunted Joel's confidence. Despite the hurt, despite the brief span of the marriage, despite everything, she and Joel had remained close. When Joel "came out," revealing to his father what Leigh had sensed intuitively almost from the start, the Good Doctor threw him out, and refused to see or speak with him even after Joel became ill.

It still infuriated her to think that anyone could be so stupid, so rigid in his thinking that he'd sever himself from his only child simply because that child had not turned out to be interested in girls. It meant nothing to the Good Doctor that Joel had been generous, gifted, and giving. He'd preferred his lovers to be male, and not female. He was, therefore, in his father's eyes, a sickening aberration, a degenerate, a pervert, a disgrace.

Now Joel was dead, and she doubted his father would even attend the funeral. She wouldn't be there either, but Joel would have understood that. They'd been saying good-bye for three years—from the initial diagnosis, through the two remissions, until just two nights ago, when his hand had gone limp in hers and he'd exhaled one long, slow, final time. She'd held her own breath, waiting for him to inhale again, to go on living. But he hadn't. His eyes had ceased to see; they'd gone opaque and visionless. With that final exhalation the humor and inventiveness and energy that had been Joel had left his body. She'd imagined his essence blending invisibly with the air of the room, and she'd breathed deeply as if, if she took in enough of that air, she might take in some significant part of her stepson.

Ten years of running out to catch a late showing of some old movie Joel insisted they had to see; of afternoon concerts at Avery Fisher Hall; of Sunday brunches, and dinners he prepared; of weeks at a stretch in the country where she worked and he tried to do something with the hopeless old furniture, by means of new arrangements, or painted the kitchen a bright grass green, or came into her studio, with coffee and sandwiches, to keep her company while she took a break; of celebrating when an audition turned into a job and he had three days' work on a commercial for a soft drink, or six weeks in an Off Off Broadway production that gave him an opportunity to demonstrate how immensely talented he was. He'd brought his friends along to meet her; he'd come racing across town in a cab, popping in on his way to a party to show her the clothes he'd bought with the residual check from his second commercial. There'd been occasions when he'd stopped by late, after some outing, to have coffee with her and to tell her how angry he was with Jeff over some misunderstanding, or how delighted he was about their reconciliation, or, finally, how exhausted and ill he felt. "I just hope I haven't got the plague," he'd whispered in the waiting room when they'd gone together for his tests. "I've been so goddamned careful."

He'd actually been relieved when the doctor had called them in to give them the results. He'd laughed, and the doctor had stared at him quizzically. "It's a respectable disease," Joel had explained. And when he'd been admitted to the hospital to begin chemotherapy, he'd said, "People have been known to beat it, Leigh. I intend to beat it." But his blood had turned to water, and he'd died.

She swallowed to ease the knot in her throat, and looked around the cabin. Why, with so many empty seats, had they put someone beside her? She felt suddenly furious. They should have known better than to put someone beside her. But at least he hadn't made any attempt to draw her into conversation. And he was, she saw peripherally, wearing an attractive Cartier tank watch and fragrant cologne. A briefcase sat unopened on his knees. The instant the no-smoking sign went off, he lit a cigarette. It smelled wonderful, and she realized it had been quite some time since her last cigarette back at the airport.

Just as she held one to her mouth, a gold DuPont lighter popped up in front of her to light it. She said, "Thank you," hoping she wasn't shouting. Joel was forever accusing her of bellowing when she tried to talk with the Walkman on. She said the words without turning, hoping to discourage further courtesies. She felt very edgy, dangerously full of untapped negative energy. Anything might set her off, and the next thing she knew, they'd be making an unscheduled stop, to put her into restraints before removing her from the plane. She could see herself being dragged, screaming, from her seat. There was a kind of jagged wedge of anxiety inside her chest, just behind her ribs, and when she indulged in imagining the darkest possible scenarios, it felt about the same way it did when she pushed the nail of her little finger into the flesh behind the nail of her thumb: a keen minor pain with the potential for considerable growth.

She'd heard the Albinoni twice, and ejected the tape, assaulted at once by noise—of the aircraft itself, of conversations, of pages turning in books and magazines, of ice cubes and liquids in glasses, of a wailing infant. Airplanes were so damned noisy. Just like hospitals. Hospitals were the noisiest places on earth, what with the announcements echoing up and down the corridors, the efficient-sounding squeak of rubber-soled shoes, various trolleys wheeling here and there, some with medications, some with food, some with mystifying loads of arcane equipment. Joel had never complained, though, about any of it; not when his hair came out, not when the medicines made him violently sick, not even when an acute toxic reaction to the drugs turned his face scarlet. "I'll beat it," he'd told her. "I'm going to beat it." Ah, Jesus! she thought, pushing through the tapes in her carry-on bag. I believed you would, Joel. If anyone could have beat it, I believed you would. No one's meant to die a few weeks before his twenty-second birthday. It's too bloody young.

She gave up trying to find a tape, removed the earphones, and at once felt robbed, as if of armor. Why was privacy something one had to erect between oneself and others, like a barricade? It was simply horrendous the way people refused to recognize one's desire to be left alone unless it was clearly signposted by an open book, or headgear hooked up to music, or work arrayed on the tray table. If you simply sat gazing straight ahead, someone was bound to intrude. She was indulging in misanthropy, knew it, and didn't care. Since Joel's death, she'd had to fight an all but overwhelming desire to tell absolutely everyone to fuck off and get the hell away from her. Beneath this desire, rather like the bottom sheet on a well-made bed, was her knowledge of the transitional nature of her present feelings, as well as an ungrudging admiration for the completeness of her alienation, no matter how temporary. She was so deeply, pervasively angry, so utterly, desperately grief-stricken, that she wanted, from one moment to the next, to lash out at anyone who inadvertently crossed her path.

She'd only just finished a cigarette and already she wanted another. Why couldn't she quit? Joel had been nagging her for years to give up the habit. It should, she'd long reasoned, have been possible to go to bed one night and wake up the next morning as someone who didn't smoke. If she quit, her lungs would clear in time, her breath would turn sweet as a newborn's, her teeth would stay clean, she'd add years to her life. What for? Who cared?

She turned slightly to take a look at the man with the cologne and the Cartier watch. Late thirties, an impeccably tailored navy suit, crisp white shirt, gold tie pin; clean-shaven, good skin, dark hair, eye color unknown due to lowered gaze, hands resting motionless atop the still-unopened briefcase; no glaring abnormalities, ears and chin well proportioned. He looked young.

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