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ON HER THIRTEENTH BIRTHDAY MARISA'S FATHER TOLD HER THAT being her parent was the single most challenging and rewarding experience of his life.
"I had my doubts, you know, Keed," he admitted that day. "The last thing I thought would happen would be my raising you alone. Scared the living hell out of me—more than anything else ever did, I promise you. But you were my girl. We wanted you, Rebecca and I, and I just couldn't turn you over full-time to a nanny and go on about my business, pretending I was doing my best by you. It felt like I was on my knees when she died." He looked off into the corner of the dining room, his voice dropping. "I just couldn't believe it, couldn't believe anyone could die that way at the age of twenty-four. Twenty-four," he repeated, with fresh disbelief. "We were such wise-asses, Risa; we thought we were going to live forever. I at least should've known better. I mean, I was older. But your mother ... she was still a kid. She was so young ... " His eyes returned to her. "I remember sitting on the landing staring out the window, with the feeling there was this tremendously heavy thing weighing me down. I couldn't move, the weight of it was so enormous. And then I heard you come running down the hall and I turned to watch you, with your arms held out and your little legs pumping away. Laughing. How could you be laughing? I asked myself. And then I realized death wasn't something that could possibly be real to you, not the way it was to me. You were only a baby, two years old. What could death mean to you? I remember that moment in every detail, remember understanding I had a choice: I could call for Sarah to come get you, or I could open my arms and catch you when you came running. I could make something of what your mother and I had created."
"So you caught me." Risa smiled.
"Damned right, I did! You weren't some accident that happened to us, Keed. You were someone we wanted, someone we'd planned for. And now, here you are, a teenager. I'd sure as hell like to know how that happened, when a few minutes ago you were this titch I could pick up with one hand."
"You'd get a hernia if you tried picking me up now with both!" She laughed.
"To say the least."
"You always go all mushy on my birthdays," she said fondly.
"I thought that's what birthdays are for," he replied, fixing an ingenuous expression on his face.
"Naturally," she agreed. "And I hoped you'd go so mushy this year you'd maybe break down and let me have a dog."
"You are one relentless kid," he told her with a smile. "The answer's the same as it's always been: no. I've explained this to you maybe three or four hundred times. Dogs make me nervous, Risa. I can't live with one. I'm sorry. You're going to have to wait until you're an adult, with a place of your own. Then you can have eight or ten dogs, if you want them."
"Okay," she backed down. "But I had to try."
"Do me a favor, Keed, and give it up. You've 'had to try' one time too many."
"All right, Dad. I'm sorry."
That evening at dinner he gave her the tortoise-shell combs that had belonged to her mother. She only wore them at home, fearful of losing or having them stolen at school. She intended someday to give the combs and other items of her mother's to her own daughter. And she'd give them in just the way her father had given them to her: on each birthday, to celebrate the occasion.
Over the years he told her he wanted her to have a sense of occasion, to know that some times were more meaningful than others. "You have to earn what you most want, Risa. Otherwise, you'll have shoddy values. And you have to know that things can never be as important as people, or occasions." He paused, then said, "I hate the idea I might be spoiling you."
"I'm not spoiled, Dad," she said very seriously.
"No, you're not," he concurred, proud of her.
He hadn't ever segregated her out of the company of his friends because of her youth; he'd encouraged her to speak her thoughts; he'd tried to teach her to be as thoughtful of his employees as she was of him and of her friends; he'd insisted she believe in her worthiness as a person. He'd worked hard to be sensitive to her needs, to be open and accessible the way he imagined Rebecca would have been to their daughter. He took time away from his business in order to be at home with Risa or to take her away on holidays; they played one-on-one basketball together, and raced each other the length of the driveway. It was all by ear, as he liked to say, all from instinct tempered by good judgment. And she wasn't spoiled. Which had to mean he was succeeding as a parent. She did have a tendency to get hold of an idea and pursue it—like the business of wanting a dog, despite his repeated explanations—but he quite admired her tenacity.
The ongoing, concerted effort he put into guiding Risa through her childhood had an unexpected and gratifying reward in his dealings with the women he saw from time to time. He found himself more attuned to their words and moods, and was able as a result to enjoy their company more. He even, early on, considered remarrying. But in the end he managed to find reasons why it would be unwise to upset the status quo. He couldn't stand the thought of anyone or anything detracting from the closeness he felt to his child. He did study the issue closely, to determine if he was behaving too selfishly, and decided that if his devotion to Risa could be deemed selfish, then he'd live with the consequences. He was happy to watch her evolve and grow. As the years passed, it seemed he required little more than this.
On the evening before her sixteenth birthday, he announced, "It's time for some renovation, Keed. This place is starting to fall down around our ears."
"I don't know exactly. The kitchen, primarily, which is driving Kitty crazy. She says if we don't get some decent appliances, she may have to resort to dire action. And you know Kitty. That could be anything from serving up nothing but macaroni every night until we beg for mercy, to leaving us altogether. And we don't want to lose her. Plus, my bathroom plumbing's a disaster. I'm tired of having to shower down the hall. So, I guess, mostly it's a complete overhaul for the kitchen—expanding it, bringing it into the twentieth century. And redoing a couple of the bathrooms. I've got someone coming to look things over—as a personal favor to me, you understand."
"One guy's gonna do the whole thing?" She looked around the room as if trying to gauge the scope of the work.
"Not quite. And this 'one guy' isn't just 'one guy.' I've actually persuaded Erik D'Anton to consider doing the renovation. It's not the kind of thing he'd normally do."
"Persuaded him to consider it? Who is he, anyway?"
"A genius," Cameron Crane answered simply.
Risa rolled her eyes and made a face.
"He's stopping by tonight to have a look at the house."
"Why tonight? Why not during the day when he can really see everything?"
"Erik doesn't do business during the day."
"Why not? What is he, a vampire?" She laughed.
"You'll understand when you meet him."
"You're being very mysterious," she accused.
"I'm really not. You'll understand," he said again, "when you meet him."
"Okay. But this is weird."
"I cannot tell you how pleased I'm going to be when that word finally vanishes from your lexicon."
She got up and went behind her father's chair to press her cheek against the top of his head. "No, I'm not going to ask for a dog," she said with a soft laugh. "So don't get nervous." After a moment, she asked, "How do you do business with someone who only works at night?"
"Quite easily, all things considered." He shifted to pat her arm, then got to his feet. "I've got to dig out the original plans for the house. They're in one of the boxes in the cellar, and I want to do it before Erik arrives."
"Okay. Do I get to sit in on the meeting?"
"Of course, if you want to. He'll be here in about an hour."
"Boy, maybe I should go check to see if there's a full moon."
Instead of laughing, her father frowned. "Go easy, Risa. Erik isn't like anyone else you've ever met."
Sobered, she said, "All right, Dad."
Upstairs in her room she looked at the homework waiting to be done. She didn't feel like working and instead turned on the radio before stretching out on the bed with her arms folded under her head. Three more months until school ended. Then, next year, she'd be a senior and they'd really start putting on the pressure for her to decide what she wanted to do after graduation. The problem was she didn't know. There were so many things she thought she might like to do: art college, to study either painting and drawing or fashion design; a music school to pursue her singing seriously; theater school to study acting, or maybe set or costume design. Why did people expect you to know so young what you wanted to do with the rest of your entire life?
Cousin Brucie was raving away on WABC, going at his usual hundred and fifty words per second. She tuned him out, waiting to hear what they'd play. Most of the time she preferred the stations that played jazz or stuff from the twenties and thirties. It was a song by Bread. "I Want to Make It with You." She liked the song, mostly because David Gates had a decent voice. But she had to wonder about the time and energy, the books and movies and records all dedicated to the theme of love and sex and romance. The only boys who ever asked her out were the mental midgets, the jocks who thought being seen with her would score points for them. She couldn't stand those guys. The one boy she'd decided to go out with was Hardy Belmont, who'd used up all his courage just phoning to ask her. When they were finally in his car on their way to the movies in Westport, he was so nervous he couldn't talk. He'd kept staring over at her and gulping a lot. She'd felt sorry for him, and to help him out she'd started this totally one-sided conversation that she thought made her sound like a complete moron. Poor Hardy. He had the highest grades in the school, but when it came down to it he was exactly like the rest of them. He'd only asked her out because of the way she looked and not because he really wanted to get to know her.
She couldn't figure out why people got so worked up about the way she looked. For years now she'd been staring at herself in various mirrors, trying to see what people saw when they looked at her. All she could see was that her nose was too short and her forehead too high, and her ears were kind of long, and so was her neck. She was way too tall—by the time she started eighth grade she was already five feet ten—and had practically nothing in the chest department, not to mention arms and legs that would've been better suited to an ape. The only things she liked about herself were her hair, which was long and black and wavy like her mother's, and her eyes, which she thought were a good shape and an interesting amber color. Her skin was white as paste, and ten minutes in the sun turned her into glowing neon. She also had this weird pale line that ran from her navel all the way down her belly, as if she'd been made in two pieces and this line was the seam where they'd joined the parts of her. She was positive nobody else had a seam like hers, and thought she was probably a freak altogether, what with her skinny ankles and wrists, and that line bisecting her dead-white belly. Yet the jocks were forever calling her up, chuckling and snorting over the phone. And the girls never wanted to be friends. Except for Meggie. God, but she missed Meggie!
All her life Meggie had lived in the house next door. Then, just like that, she was gone, the family moved to Boston. Sure, they still talked on the phone and wrote letters back and forth, but it wasn't the same. Meggie was already writing about the new friends she'd made and how much better Boston was than Darien. And Risa had no one. The weekends lasted forever; the summer would be endless.
She looked over toward the window, thinking of how, for years, she and Meggie had gone creeping around the old house on Contentment Island, believing it was haunted, terrified the ghostly occupants would come shrieking out at them. They'd crawled around the perimeter of the house on their bellies, trying to get a look inside through the filthy basement windows. Then something would always happen to scare them off and they'd go running, fearfully laughing and breathless, back up the driveway to where they'd hidden their bikes in the bushes, and pedal off back to Meggie's house, or here, to sit huffing on the front steps, laughing and red in the face, exclaiming over their adventure.
A car door slammed. She got up and went to the window to see a tall figure striding toward the front door. Was the man actually wearing a cape? Was that what geniuses wore? She wished she could see his face, but a broad-brimmed hat concealed his features. The car was fantastic, sleek and foreign and black, something like a Maserati or a Lamborghini. This was going to be interesting, she thought, hurriedly switching off the radio and straightening her clothes before going to the dressing table for her mother's combs. She'd wear them for luck, although she wasn't sure why. There was a kind of security in the combs, a part of her history tucked snugly against her scalp and holding the hair away from her face.
"Here's Marisa!" her father announced, and she came across the living room with her hand outstretched, a smile on her face, to meet this night-caller, who was standing with his back to her and who began to turn so slowly that it seemed he emerged from the shadows in degrees. It took eons for that turn to be completed, so that her arm grew tired from being extended, and her smile felt exaggerated and unnatural; her entire body ached from the suspense of waiting. The man turned and turned, gradually committing himself to the available light, and in that time Risa was aware of her father watching, and of her inability to look anywhere but at the face being revealed to her. She experienced an odd hesitation in her heart, as if she'd suffered a physical blow, and felt sorrow, terrible sorrow—her own? this man's? She didn't know. She was smiling still. So was her father. But their breathing seemed to have been suspended, as were their thoughts. This man didn't smile, however. His gravity was so pronounced, so habitual, it was like an additional garment he wore.
"Marisa, meet Erik," her father said at last as her hand continued on its route toward the stranger. "Erik, my daughter Marisa," her father said, as her hand was engulfed and held in so fearful and tentative a grip that she could feel the foreign blood pulsing against her fingertips in confirmation of this man's life and reality. Her eyes, she knew, were unblinking as she took in the details of the face before her.
Only his eyes were intact, undamaged. Deep and black, they held her, filled with such a wealth of messages and emotions she couldn't begin to separate and interpret them. In the briefest fragment of time she recognized fear and great intelligence and even, surprisingly, humor. But above all, she saw the sorrow, as dense and impenetrable as something constructed of lead. Around those eyes, which sat behind heavily rimmed spectacles that seemed to be of clear glass, were overlapping ridges of scar tissue, and multi-toned areas of shiny flesh. His face appeared to have been sewn from many tattered patches of flesh. He had no eyebrows, no facial hair. His mouth too was intact but for a deep scar that began at the left corner and ran in an arbitrary path toward his hairline. Yet the eyelashes behind the lenses were quite luxurious, lending a certain innocence to his gaze. There was something about his nose, something to do with the glasses, but she hadn't enough time to figure it out. She was too mesmerized by the face and by the many faded and tortuous trails intersecting the swaths of polished skin. His hair, as if in defiance of the face it might have concealed, was cut short and brushed straight back from his high, rounded forehead. And it was a cape he'd been wearing, she saw when she'd regained herself sufficiently to glance away from his ruined face.
"I'm happy to meet you," she said, her hand still joined to this man's.
He nodded as if unable to speak, his fingers gently closed around her long pale hand.
"A drink, Erik?" Cameron asked, bemused by the silent interchange between his daughter and his friend.
"Thank you." Erik spoke at last, simultaneously releasing Risa's hand.
His voice was deep and very soft, no more than a whisper, so that she instinctively leaned closer to hear his words. "Cognac, if you have it, please," he said, his words lent musicality by an English accent, his eyes on Risa.
She couldn't stop staring, at the same time struggling against an impulse to lift her hands to touch that face. She managed a smile, and stood with her fingers laced together in front of her.
Stupidly, Erik wanted to ask Cameron why he'd failed to speak of his daughter's beauty. She was so young. Her bones were only just emerging from behind the protective cushion of youthful flesh. His hands curled into themselves at his sides and he forced himself to turn away at last from the painful radiance of this child and take the seat his host had offered him upon his arrival. To his consternation the girl came to sit in the companion chair that was positioned at an angle to his, and with her arms crossed on her knees, her body bent toward him, she asked in hushed tones, "What happened to you?"
"Risa!" her father exclaimed, handing Erik a snifter of Armagnac.
"Twenty-four years ago," Erik told the girl in a flat, expressionless whisper, "my parents and I set out for a drive in the car one Sunday afternoon. They died. I didn't."
Risa shook her head and sat back, only to lean forward again after a moment. She could see now that he was wearing a sort of mask. It was formed of the glasses and what had to be a false nose, with flesh-colored extensions on either side that partially hid his cheeks. He'd seated himself deep in the wing chair so that the wings cast shadows over his face.
"I didn't mean to be rude," she said, noticing that his hands were magnificent; elegant and graceful, they moved as if independent of his mental commands. One was curved around the balloon of glass, the other lay on the arm of the chair like some resting but ever-vigilant creature. Each time he spoke his hand came to life, gesturing to underscore his whispered words.
"Of course not," Erik said, assaulted by the very sight of her. Refuse this job! he told himself. It wasn't the sort of work he normally accepted, but Cameron was as close to a friend as Erik allowed anyone to be. He had enormous respect for Cameron—for his energy, integrity, and business acumen. But even so, it would be torture to have to return here and encounter this exquisite child with her curious eyes and direct questions. He'd at last constructed his life so that forays outside his house were at a minimum, because it grew progressively more difficult with the passing of the years to deal with the reactions generated in others by the sight of his obscene face. Cameron was one of the few who were willing to deal with the admitted eccentricity of his terms, of night meetings and business transacted primarily by letter or telephone. Erik accepted work nowadays only to prove to himself that his skills were in no way diminished. He had no need of the money, nor of the acclaim his buildings would have brought had he been inclined to accept it. He had no need of anyone or anything. He had his house, his music, the plans he prepared of fantastic buildings no one would ever see. Why add more horrified portraits to those already lining the walls of his memory? No. He would never again take another risk, he vowed, confronting the eyes of this breathtaking girl, whose beauty was more intimidating than anything else he could imagine. It would be so easy, too easy, to fall prey to those dreams of love, of possession, of heat and bodies and minds in concert were he to subject himself to further exposure. But he would do this job, if only for the chance of seeing her one more time. He'd held her hand for those few seconds, and he did not regret that. Marisa. Even her name had a special taste on his tongue. So very young, and possessed of such daunting beauty. Marisa. He felt like weeping at the wrenching pleasure he derived from studying the fall of her hair, the sweet bow of her upper lip, the fullness of her cheek. Marisa.
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