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On Engagement by Bryan Shawn Wang

On Engagement by Bryan Shawn Wang

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011

It was 1978, the summer before our senior year at the university, a time for surveying the landscape of my future—the daunting professional peaks to be scaled before settling into whatever halcyon realm lay beyond. As I confronted how I might navigate that rugged terrain, I understood that Connie and I as a couple also stood at an intersection. When we left Harvard the following spring—she for medical school and I, presumably, for graduate school—we could wind up in different cities, different states, different coasts, different ends of the world. My perspective in those days wavered between such grandiosity and an equally unproductive myopia.

Connie and I had met as first-year undergraduates in the organic chemistry lab; together we inhaled the sweet, pheromonal scents of diethyl ether and methylene chloride. We spent our afternoons that winter huddled in front of the fume hood nursing reactions, distillations, and a bourgeoning mutual attraction. For our final project, we isolated pure caffeine from Tetley tea bags steeped in a beaker of water over a Bunsen burner. As we plunged our purification flask into the ice bath to force the white silken crystals from the solvent, we marveled at our ability to wring such beauty from something so banal.

Over the following semesters, we collected those fragments of shared experience that we could someday assemble into a glittering mosaic depicting our common history. We circled Harvard Square, and Connie would clap her hand over my mouth when I snickered at the peddlers with their rosewood bongs, their candles, their incense. Countercultural I was not. We sucked at chocolate frappés, extra extra thick, in Bartley’s Burger Cottage. “Liquid love handles,” we said, leaving our cups on the table still half-full. We would never grow fat or lazy, old or content. We studied together, showered together, slept together, gradually reaching a level of intimacy where a raised eyebrow replaced argument, and the mere suggestion of a smile spoke more than any affirmation of love. I thought we knew each other almost as well as we knew ourselves.

Our acquaintances on campus had pronounced us, Mason Kurtz and Constance Metzler, a suitable match. Connie was genial and entertaining and more than once had plucked me from the mire of my social awkwardness. Academically, we were nearly on a par, and our respective advisors had hinted (in Connie’s case it was more than hinting) at the success that lay before us. Connie enjoyed an ease with school, and indeed, with life itself, amassing her achievements with little exertion or angst—and I wouldn’t refuse any incidental benefit to me. With her, I suspected, I would continue to improve my lot.

The next step, then, was intuitively obvious even to the casual observer: I would ask Connie to marry me. We were young, but I yearned for the kind of family that my parents, for all their wealth, hadn’t provided, the kind of home that I imagined I could build with Connie. She’d once referred to her upbringing as Harriet and Ozzie, with fewer laughs but in full color. A happy marriage and family, a charming home fenced in with white pickets, and the opportunity to enjoy it all—was that too grand a dream?

Nevertheless, the very thought of proposing to Connie disconcerted me. Perhaps I sensed the enormity of this decision even if I couldn’t guess at the full length of its shadow. Or perhaps it was the stakes that gave me pause, for the more I considered a lifetime spent with Connie, the more I valued her. Too, there was the knowledge that wherever I harbored uncertainty, she had faith—her unassuming yet unshakable confidence in herself and her abilities and the direction of her future. Was I worthy of sharing in that future? I quelled my fears by resolving not simply to ask Connie to marry me, but to propose in a way she could not refuse.

I confided in no one as I set about making preparations. I lived alone in a basement apartment in Somerville, and my few friends were elsewhere that summer—New York, the West Coast, overseas. For my senior thesis research, I was slaving away in the laboratory of the crystallographer E.S. Perlman, the future Nobel laureate. In Perlman’s lab, a cheerless place haunted by cheerless grad students and postdocs, any conversation was rare enough; nobody had the inclination or the experience to offer marriage advice to a naïve undergraduate.

I rejected the idea of using a book as a guide after flipping through Ring in Hand: Top 50 Ways to Pop the Question, which struck me as contrived. I even, briefly, thought about asking my parents for input, but my mother and father were distant, in more than one sense. We hadn’t visited one another since I’d left for Boston three years ago. They lived in southern California, where they inhabited separate wings of a modern manse. Their individual lives (my father as an executive for an aviation firm, my mother as an executive for a high-end furniture chain) left them neither the time nor the energy to obtain separate residences, much less a proper divorce or an annulment. During my formative years, I overheard my parents agree on only two things: that marriage was a bore and that their child was a chore.

Thus, lacking outside resources, I set to work formulating a marriage proposal from first principles. I devised a list of parameters and determined an optimal solution for each. I decided to keep the proposal a private event. Although Connie often relished having a fuss made over her, crowds of strangers unnerved me. I mulled over the setting, that ideal place that would deliver immediate impact and hold lasting significance. I composed, and rewrote, and rewrote again, what exactly I would say to her.

And then, the ring. I researched the purchase extensively (here I consulted a book) and visited five separate jewelers in the diamond district at Downtown Crossing. Again, I conducted a crude parameter optimization—the four C’s along with cost and customer service—at last settling on a one-carat solitaire from Akian’s, a small shop in the Jeweler’s Building.

When I went to pick up the ring, Mr. Akian himself, an elderly man with an unhurried manner and a penchant for aphorisms, retrieved the jewelry box and opened it for me.

I took the ring and inspected it. I’d selected a white gold Trellis setting that concealed the diamond’s slight inclusions. The light glinted off the stone, and I reflected not only on its overall shape and expertly carved facets, but also the underlying lattice, the nearly perfect and endless array that composed it. The ring would cost me close to a thousand dollars, exhausting the savings I’d scrimped from the living allowance my parents had furnished over the previous three years.

I nodded to Mr. Akian and returned the ring.

His face took on a thoughtful expression. “A woman can make a man as a valley makes a mountain.” He slipped the ring back into its case and snapped the case shut. “But once you have descended into the vale, you may never want to climb again.”

I kept quiet, wondering if he warned all of his customers away from his wares.

“Let me ask you something.” His gaze was hard and challenging as he leaned in close. “Why do you want to marry this girl?”

I couldn’t discern his intent. Was this a warning or a test? Or did he simply seek to make a fool of me? Then again, I realized, this was a reasonable question to ask of a man on the verge of engagement. I stammered and muttered something inadequate about loving Connie.

“Yes.” Mr. Akian shook his head. “But why do you love her?”

I blinked, trying to maintain my composure as my mind raced through Connie’s salient traits—her beauty, intelligence, ambition and poise. Even unspoken, the list sounded shallow and trite. I clutched at more poetic reasons. The scent and texture of her most intimate parts. How she embraced me with the urgency of a new lover and the reassurance of an old friend. The feeling that Connie was home in a way that home never was for me. But was I citing reasons or results, the cause or the effect? Why did I love her? For a moment, in my inability to answer, I arrived at the appalling conclusion that perhaps I didn’t.

And then Mr. Akian laughed, and the moment had passed.

“You don’t have an answer,” he said. “That’s good. Explaining why you love is like explaining why you live. You say what you like about living, you say what you like about the one you love. But there are no reasons to love, only reasons to not love.”

*

Like any budding crystallographer, in those days I was enamored of patterns and symmetry, and I chose August 7 as the date I would make my proposal. (I would suggest we wed on September 7 of the following year.) I planned the days leading up to the date as carefully as a novelist would plot his rising action to the climax. When I was with Connie, I slipped words such as “eternal” and “union” into casual conversation. We walked along the Esplanade, and I pointed out a wedding party gamely enduring an extended photography session. Whenever we encountered children around the Square, I’d wiggle my ears or cross my eyes at the young tots, inducing giggles. Children enjoyed the attention, I explained to Connie.

I thought of all of this as foreshadowing. I didn’t want to ambush her, to “pop the question” without preparing her, but nevertheless I didn’t want to reveal too much. An ending both surprising and inevitable, that was my aim.

Everything was working according to plan. Increasingly, Connie mentioned her parents and alluded to how dearly she missed them. She reminded me she was returning home for a weekend before the fall semester, and she invited me to accompany her. “Spend some time with Daddy,” she said, telling me how much I had in common with her father. In short, she’d become preoccupied with thoughts of her family—she was probably imagining her own future family, our family—and I thought with satisfaction that my message had been successfully communicated.

That summer we played tourists, visiting those landmarks we couldn’t leave Boston without having seen. It fell to me to plan these outings, for Connie had recently taken up responsibility for training a corps of candy stripers at the hospital where she volunteered, and I was grateful for any distraction from the frustrations of the lab. Throughout the latter half of July, I arranged for us to tour some of the more romantic spots in the city—a trattoria in the North End, the swan boats in the Public Garden, lunch at the rotating restaurant on Memorial Drive.

Connie grew subdued, even withdrawn. I asked her whether anything was wrong, and she responded, but didn’t insist, that she was “fine.” I attributed her behavior to impatience. She was waiting in veritable agony for my proposal. O cruel bonds of tradition, I thought, to so restrain the fairer sex, to subject her to the bumbling pursuits, the overwrought dithering, the torturous machinations of her suitor. I congratulated myself on my mastery of suspense.

August 7 arrived at last. It was a mild day, and I decided to walk to my appointment with Connie. I quit the Perlman Lab in mid-afternoon.

I left the campus and walked down Mass Avenue through Central Square and then past the steps in front of MIT’s Infinite Corridor. I started across the bridge. Looking out over the Charles, I saw boats scattered across the water, their white sails yielding to the breeze, taking advantage of it. At the far end of the river basin in front of the dam, one boat nearly capsized, but the vessel righted, and then sailed on.

In another hour, I would deliver the proposal that would irreversibly bind us together or (it was still formally possible that Connie could decline) dissociate us forever. I paused, longing to remain in that moment, in the full promise of youth and love. I sighed and drew a breath as if that would inspire me, and then I walked on.

We met in front of the plaza of the Church of Christ, Scientist. Connie would least expect a proposal in a house of worship—she knew I considered myself cured of the malady of religion in general and the Catholic ailment in particular. She herself was a Lutheran bred from Pennsylvania German stock and had once described the Christian Scientists as several planes too ethereal for her, but when I’d investigated the site myself the month before, when I’d gazed across the reflecting pool, beheld the stonework of the Extension (all the more impressive beside the modest original church), stood in the center of the sanctuary and turned round with my eyes heavenward, I’d understood, if not exactly shared, Connie’s belief in a higher power, a deity who could organize both the elements of a world and of a human life.

My plan: we would walk through the church, where the grandeur of the space would undoubtedly stir her, and then proceed to the adjacent library, where we would tour the interior of the Mapparium, a three-story globe comprising over six hundred stained-glass panels. An elevated walkway called the crystal bridge bisected the sphere. It was on that bridge, with Connie standing at the center of the world, that I would propose to her.

I’d made arrangements with the church officials to arrive a few minutes after four, after the start of the last tour of the day, and we traveled through the church alone. Connie exclaimed over the architectural detail inside the nave, the domes and the seating galleries and the organ loft. We slid into a pew, Connie leaving between us a distance wide enough to accommodate a large man. This unsettled me. As she continued to sit, absorbed in prayer, I sought in vain to devise a pretext that would force us to move on.

When at last we proceeded to the Mapparium, the other visitors had all departed. The globe’s interior seemed much larger than I remembered. At the entrance, Connie stopped and peered about. The dim light filtering through the cerulean panels of the Indian Ocean cast an alien glow over her skin.

She turned to me. “Well,” she said. She was smirking. “Can you say garish?”

I tried to chuckle along, believing that once she’d accepted my ring, I could impress upon her the Mapparium’s layers of meaning. She would appreciate everything—the global metaphor, the play on the word scientist, my acknowledgement of the importance of religion in her life.

I remained near the doorway, between Africa and Indonesia (which was labeled the Netherland Indies—the Mapparium was built in the 1930s), as she walked out onto the bridge. She stopped midway, turned, and spread her arms.

“Look, Mason,” she called. “I’m at the geometric center of a massive ball of outdated kitsch.”

I slipped the ring from my pocket and removed it from its case. She stood beneath the Americas now, at the opposite end of the walkway. Because of the unusual acoustics inside the sphere, I could ask her the question from this distance (I would start with the five simple words: Constance, will you marry me?), and she would hear me as if I were beside her.

I held the ring between my thumb and forefinger and knelt.

Connie wheeled, as if on instinct, and astonishment scrambled across her features. It was not, however, the look of surprised delight that I’d anticipated. She appeared shocked, unable to conceal her dismay. I watched the movement of her lips, apprehending what she’d said even before the sound of her voice reached my ear.

And then the words were upon me. “No, Mason,” the voice pleaded. “Not yet,” she said, and she continued to stare at me as I knelt before her. “For heaven’s sake, Mason. Stand up.”

*

Connie tried to reassure me even as the tears welled in her eyes. She hugged me and began to explain. She said before she could answer, I should seek her father’s blessing.

I stepped back. It was a fair point, but I refused to concede it, ashamed that I hadn’t thought of it on my own. “Are you suggesting I should have asked for permission? What, to request your hand?”

Connie laughed, nervously. “You make it sound so Victorian.” She said I should appreciate her father’s perspective. He was the man who’d raised her.

I put the ring back into its case and slipped the case back into my pocket. I felt the box’s bulk pressing through the fabric of my trousers into my leg. It didn’t sit right.

“So you put your father in control of your life?” I asked.

“I just want him to be party to our engagement.”

I returned to my argument. Connie was smart, confident, liberated—living in an age when women could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan—and yet she wanted me to abide by a tradition that devalued her and, indeed, the entire female gender.

“It would devalue my father not to ask him,” Connie said quietly.

I didn’t hold anything against her father, but I couldn’t appreciate his relevance. I’d met Manfred Metzler on several occasions when he and Connie’s mother had visited Boston, and for the most part he seemed innocuous as a cotton ball. Only once had I seen him truly animated, when the subject of Ernst Mayr’s recent retirement turned to a more general discussion of evolutionary theory. Manfred, whose knowledge of the subject was impressive for a layman, began to expound on the controversy over gradualism and punctuated equilibrium.

“Oh, Manny,” his wife said gently. “Don’t do this to yourself.” We hadn’t even really begun to spar, but Manfred quickly retreated from the conversation.

I took this capitulation as a sign of weakness, and had I the wit and the willfulness here, standing in the center of the Mapparium suspended between the poles, I might have asked Connie if perhaps I shouldn’t request her mother’s permission instead. Eileen, who was self-assured and well-spoken, had founded and still ran a thriving obstetrics practice. (Eileen had mentioned, more than once, that Manfred ran the household operations, which seemed a polite way of saying he was unemployed.) Plainly, Dr. Metzler was the one after whom Connie had modeled her life.

I said nothing, however, as Connie asked me again to accompany her on her trip home at the end of the month. Her father and I could become better acquainted, and when the opportunity arose, I could speak to him in private. We’d discuss the future, the past, he would offer some advice. Fathers live for that sort of thing, Connie said. I could then request and receive his blessing. By this description, the matter seemed almost a trifle, and in the end, I agreed to the arrangement.

*

As we fled the traffic around Boston, Connie carefully navigating the stream of cars on the turnpike, she asked after the progress of my work in the Perlman Lab.

I hesitated. Over the past several weeks, not wanting to aggravate our discomfiture, we’d avoided the subject of the dangling proposal, and indeed, any serious conversation at all. It was more than three hundred miles to Reading, the small city in Southeastern Pennsylvania where Connie had grown up, and I didn’t want to spend the next six hours reacquainting her with my inadequacies as a bench scientist. The research is coming along slowly, I said.

Before I had entered the lab, my university record had sparkled—I’d always known how to memorize, to regurgitate, to embellish. I could plug and chug with the best of my peers. However, once beset by a problem not taken from a textbook, a problem from “the real world,” I sputtered. Nimble with the pen, clumsy with the pipette, that’s what Perlman said of students like me. Lacking the insight/rigor/creativity/experience of my colleagues, I filled my laboratory notebook with detailed observations of negative results—i.e., failures—and for the first time in my life, I found myself occupying the broad and unremarkable hump of the academic normal distribution. I was mean among three-sigma outliers, slate among gemstones.

Connie seemed to sense my disquiet, and she began to talk about her own work at the Farber, where she’d migrated to the pediatric wards. She told stories about children stricken with exotic terminal cancers, whose medical care was no longer intended to prevent or to cure, but only to palliate.

“One day,” she said, “I’m sitting with this 11-year-old girl, and we’re reading Little Women together. We’re laughing at the idea of Laurie and Amy in Europe and debating the merits of Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer.”

Connie’s voice suddenly hung. “The next day,” she said, “the girl’s bed is empty.”

I sat silent beside her, unsure how to respond, marveling at the burden Connie shouldered. It was a load applied by her acts of caring—her inability not to care—for those in her charge. My own struggles seemed trivial and self-absorbed in comparison.

Connie soon regained control, as she always did, and it struck me then that despite the emotional battering and the long hours on the hospital floor, Connie wanted this, and had wanted it since she was a little girl. Or perhaps want was the wrong word. Medicine was her calling, she often said, as if she didn’t have a choice in the matter. Someone had summoned, and she’d responded. I thought again of the lab, where the only voices I’d ever heard were the mutterings of my labmates, Perlman’s stern lectures, my own whimper of self-doubt and pity. What did I care about science and its higher purposes—the pursuit of truth, the betterment of the human condition? Even if I could develop a mind for science, did I have the heart?

*

Connie held my hand as we started up the front walk to her house, a 1950s-era split-level in the center of town. The borough’s community pride was evident—it was the kind of town that valued its green space and century-old trees, that decorated for even minor holidays and the change of seasons, where good old-fashioned values would be served alongside the potato salad, deviled eggs, and hot dogs at the Labor Day cookout.

Connie’s father opened the door before Connie had a chance to ring.

“Daddy!” The pitch of her voice seemed a statement.

After they hugged, Connie’s mother appeared. We exchanged greetings, and Eileen led her daughter inside.

Manfred regarded me for a moment before allowing a nod. “We’re pleased as punch that you would visit us, Mason.”

His appearance was not quite as I remembered it. Where I would previously have called him corpulent, I now saw that portly was a better description. He was dressed in a collared shirt and pressed trousers; there was nothing slovenly about him. His graying beard, his glasses, even the neatly trimmed fringe encircling his balding pate provided for a look of wisdom. I told him I was glad to see him again.

I followed him inside and up the half-flight of stairs. When I dropped our bags off in Connie’s room, he frowned and then pointed out the guest room at the end of the hall. He instructed me to make myself at home in there.

The guest room was small but tidy and decorated with heirloom country furnishings. Braided rugs covered the floors, and on the walls hung framed needlepoint samplers stitched with cozy sayings—A good home must be made, not bought and Home is any four walls that enclose the right person. In the corner of each piece were three letters: M.O.M.

I took the jewelry box from my suitcase and opened it, marveling once again at the engagement ring, the symbol of my aspirations. The Drs. Mason Kurtz—what partners Connie and I would make, what a home. Wealth, influence, professional acclaim, and of course, that happy family—the details of our future were elusive, but the vision shimmered nonetheless. After I dispensed with my conversation with Manfred, I would propose again to Connie, perhaps this very weekend, and she would accept. Of this, I was certain. I closed the box and returned it to my bag.

I made my way downstairs to the den, where Connie and her parents sat before the fireplace. As Manfred set out a dessert tray, Eileen called over. “Come join us, Mason.” She patted the place beside her on the sofa.

I took the seat, and Manfred passed a plate of cookies.

“How was the travel?” Eileen asked me.

“Uneventful,” I said through a bite.

Manfred met my eye. “Did Constance drive the entire trip?”

“She did,” I said, and I began to explain that I’d fallen victim to the demands of laboratory research. Over the last few weeks, I’d logged many extra hours at the bench. Manfred winced as if he’d encountered something distasteful.

I took another cookie. “We judged it safer with Connie behind the wheel.”

“No doubt, Professor.”

I looked away, puzzled by his tone, before I remembered his own interest in biology. Perhaps he’d once fancied himself a real scientist and took my lamenting the trials of the university laboratory as grandstanding.

“Daddy’s going to take us fishing tomorrow,” Connie said.

Manfred grinned. “Does casting a fly rod hold any appeal for you, Mason?”

As a matter of fact, I hadn’t the slightest interest in the sport (I use the word in its most expansive sense), and I wasn’t aware that Connie had, either. I told Manfred I generally avoided wanton destruction and the torture of sentient beings. Karmic consequences, I explained.

Manfred collected the plates from his wife and daughter and stacked them on the tray. He left the room without a word.

Eileen, who was planning to work in the morning and wouldn’t be going along, assured me that I would enjoy the outing. “Manny will teach you everything you need to know,” she said. “I’m sure you’re a quick study.”

From the kitchen, Manfred called, “Of course, you’ve heard what they say about you fellows up in Cambridge?”

I had, I told him, more times than I cared to count, but he returned to the room and said it anyway.

“You can always tell a Harvard man,” he declared, drawing out the name with a Brahmin’s accent. “You just can’t tell him much.”

“Unfair, Daddy,” Connie cried, but she was smiling at both of us, as if it were all some kind of harmless joke. Such remarks had never bothered her. Still, I was grateful when she steered her father back to the subject of inflicting pain on fish in the name of recreation, and Manfred launched into a discourse on water levels and flow and hatches thick as paste.

*

After turning in that evening, I thought on my impending interview with Manfred. I needed to convince him—and thereby convince Connie—of my worth as a husband, but my battle to impress the man would be waged on foreign territory. I was, by any common standard, positioned for success in the world, but that seemed insufficient now. Professor. His obvious pride in his daughter’s accomplishments notwithstanding, Manfred seemed to disregard, even disdain, my academic prowess and by extension the very trappings of achievement for which I was toiling. Well, what was achievement to a man who’d achieved so little? Rather than climbing the ladder, he’d dug his own niche. That was all right, I thought. I could descend to his level.

Thus, the next day, I accompanied Connie and her father on their piscatorial pursuit. I didn’t complain when we arrived at the creek, and Connie helped me into a pair of Manfred’s old waders, which hung bulkily off my frame. At her direction, I fitted together the pieces of the fly rod, which reached over nine feet in length. I felt like a midget in a clown suit waving a telephone pole.

Connie took up her own rod while I endured a twenty-minute casting lesson from Manfred, in which he repeatedly referred to proper presentation of the fly. He rambled on about feeding lanes and matching the hatch and reading the water. He sounded few disparaging notes during his lecture, save a passing reference to “The Big H” as the scarlet letter. (Harvard’s color, as we all knew, is crimson.) Nevertheless, I suspected that the seminar was given more for his benefit than for mine, and that this morning he didn’t expect me to catch anything beyond an unambiguous sense of my own inferiority.

I clomped out into the water. Manfred’s boots were at least three sizes too large for me, and the air trapped in the waders gave my legs an unsettling buoyancy. Manfred gestured for me out in the middle of the stream, and I sploshed to him, stiff-kneed and cautious, holding the fly rod out for balance.

In front of us, a steady trail of white specks skimmed along with the current on the surface of the water. Manfred dipped his hand in the trail, and then held his palm out. In the dimple in the center of his hand wriggled an insect the size of a diminutive gnat, its clear wings spread apart as if pinned on an entomologist’s block. The fly’s form and movement suggested suffering, or pleasure, I couldn’t discern which.

“The trout are gorging themselves on these Tricos,” he said. “You learn to present a Trico spinner properly, and you’ll have a very productive morning.”

He opened his fly box and passed me a replica of the insect, bits of fur and feather secured onto a miniscule hook. This was to be my lure.

“It’s a size 22,” Manfred said. He sounded apologetic. “Do you want help tying it on?”

“Thanks, I got it.” I’d never been fishing before, but I wasn’t a child. I could tie a knot.

After spending five minutes simply trying to thread my tippet through the eye of the hook, whose diameter one could reasonably measure in microns, I heard Connie shout from about thirty yards downstream. She’d hooked a sizable rainbow trout.

I kept an eye on her as I returned to the task of tying on my phony insect. My fingers faltered from twinges of unexpected jealousy, both over Connie’s catch, and also over how much of her enthusiasm she directed toward her father.

He watched as she played her trout, her fly line a shuddering connection between human and nature. “Don’t horse him,” Manfred called. “He’s still got plenty of fight.”

Finally, I slid my tippet through the hook. I twirled and looped the knot and cinched it, and then whipped the fly across the water in triumph. I false-casted a few times as Manfred had instructed, positioning my fly above the Trico fall. My cast fell into a rhythm as the line sailed back and forth overhead. I envisioned myself in silhouette, my figure the work of a fine craftsman.

In another moment, I felt a violent tug as the hook snagged on a tree branch overhead.

“There aren’t any fish up there, Professor,” Manfred declared.

Although I was tempted, I responded with neither word nor gesture. I yanked and jerked, trying to extract my fly until Manfred waded over, took the rod from me, and with a snap of his wrist freed the line. He offered the rod back.

“Try again?” he asked. I couldn’t help but feel patronized.

I shuffled forward to reclaim the rod, but as I grasped the butt of the handle, lost my toehold within the massive boots, and my balance left me. I stumbled, driving the rod forward, and its tip struck Manfred directly in the chest. For an instant, the shaft held, flexing behind my weight in an impossibly tight arc, but my momentum continued to carry me forward and then the rod snapped, I was in the water at Manfred’s feet, and Manfred was rubbing his sternum and shaking his head.

Water entered the waders, soaking my clothes and filling my boots. I got to my feet with great difficulty. Manfred handed me the pieces of the broken rod and suggested I sit on the bank where I could do no more damage to myself or to his gear.

“Look on the bright side,” he said. “Your karma’s intact for today.”

Connie waded back to the bank. For a while, she sat with me, rubbing my knee, as if I’d suffered a bruise or another minor wound there. The pain did ease. I wondered how such a woman could have sprung from such a man. We watched for a while as Manfred caught one fish after another, too many for it to have been considered sporting. He released his catch gingerly and with feigned compassion, as if he were granting each fish a favor by ensuring its survival for the next angler. The whole thing smacked of Sisyphus’ rock or Tantalus’ pool or some other sadistic Greek punishment. But then Manfred called out for Connie, saying that the trout were hitting terrestrials now. I told her to go ahead. She hesitated for just a moment, and then she clipped her tippet and tied on a winged ant pattern, then returned to the stream to join her father. I almost wished Manfred had brought another rod.

*

That evening after dinner, Eileen and Manfred invited us to join them in a game of cards. I began to ask if we would be venturing to the Bingo parlor afterward, but Connie clapped her hands, let out a squeal, and sang out, “Mason and I are partners!”

The game was Five Hundred, a trick-taking game that the Metzlers called a watered-down version of Bridge. We would play according to Australian rules. Five Hundred was still popular in Australia—it had fallen out of favor in the States some decades ago.

“What’s wrong with Bridge?” I asked. At least I’d heard of Bridge before.

Manfred tossed out a pack of cards. “Five Hundred’s simpler to learn, Professor.”

Eileen removed a joker and the deuces, threes, and black fours from the deck, and Connie shuffled the remainder of the cards and dealt. Meanwhile, Manfred reviewed the scoring table, the bidding conventions, the order of play, the idiosyncratic hierarchy of the cards.

The rules of the game seemed as arcane as a statistical mechanics text would appear to a bus driver, but fortune winked at Connie and me, and we won the first two hands with a seven no-trump bid followed by seven hearts. I collected the deck and shuffled, the cards crisply fluttering beneath my fingertips.

As I set to deal, Manfred said, “I think I’ll cut those cards.”

He removed a sliver of the deck, perhaps a tenth of it, and set it next to the other stack. I’d never seen anybody cut cards that way, and I thought it some backhanded commentary on my ability to shuffle.

He shrugged. “Cut them thin to win.”

Eileen and Manfred achieved a nine bid that hand, and on the next deal, they won all ten tricks. Just like that, they’d taken the first game out from underneath us. They proceeded to win the next game in three straight hands.

In the auction at the start of the consolation game, Connie bid six hearts, which Manfred raised to seven clubs. Determined not to let Connie’s parents outbid us and with a hand short in hearts, I contracted for seven diamonds. Connie scowled. As it turned out, she held not a single diamond, and we missed the bid by one trick.

“Listen to your partner,” Manfred said. “You have to bend sometimes.”

“Listen to your partner,” I repeated. From the outset, Manfred had forbidden table talk during play. “Thanks for the advice. That’s very useful advice.”

As annoyed as I was with Manfred, however, I was growing even more frustrated with Connie. She seemed habitually unable to compromise—she probably felt the same of me.

“Why won’t you bid black?” I asked, when we missed the seven-hearts contract she’d insisted on.

“I can’t bid black if I don’t hold any black.”

“You’ve had the joker in three of the last four hands.”

“She’s going steady with that thing,” Manfred said in a loud whisper.

I couldn’t help thinking that this inane card game had unearthed some root dysfunction in our relationship. Even when our hands complemented each other’s, Connie and I bid clumsily, trumped each other’s aces, laid kings over queens. Eileen and Manfred, by contrast, appeared to know exactly what cards the other held (and the cards we held, too). They passed the lead like runners with a baton. Were they not winning by over a thousand points, I surely would have admired their grace.

On the final hand, I asked to cut the cards, and Eileen passed me the deck. I took a thick stack from the pile and slapped it down beside the other cards.

“Cut them deep and weep,” Manfred said.

Notwithstanding my cut, however, Eileen dealt me nearly all face cards, and after Connie bid seven no-trump, and Manfred called Closed Misère, a bizarre bid in which he would attempt to lose all ten tricks, I knew we wouldn’t see cards better than this. I bid eight no-trump, and Eileen and Connie passed.

“Luck works in strange ways,” Manfred said. He raised his bid to Open Misère, a bid that I could only beat by wagering we would take all ten tricks.

I contemplated my hand, which was deep in both hearts and spades. I had aces matched with kings and queens. Was it enough? I looked at Connie, but her expression was inscrutable. If she’d indicated anything, I probably would have misread it anyway. I closed my eyes and rubbed at my temples.

“Trying to think your way out of this one, Professor?” Manfred asked.

I opened my eyes, and to my astonishment, I got a glimpse of Manfred’s hand. He had his cards fanned out in front of him and angled toward me. He returned his cards to his chest, but not before I’d processed them.

He had all spots paired with the joker. The wild card represented a certain winner, and if I raised to a ten bid, we would go under. If I passed, however, Manfred would simply discard the joker and would likely achieve his Misère bid. Asking for a redeal because I’d seen his hand would seem cowardly and disingenuous, like a chess player demanding a draw when faced with certain checkmate.

After I declined to raise, Eileen folded her cards. (Misère bids are played three-handed.) “Leaving me for greater glory, Manny?”

Manfred collected the kitty and discarded. “That ship, my dear, sailed long ago.”

I won the first trick and Manfred, in keeping with the convention of Open Misère, revealed his cards to the table. There was no advantage to seeing them now. I took the next trick, and the one after that. All night, we’d failed to take the tricks we needed, but now I couldn’t find a way to intentionally lose even a single one. We won the seventh trick, the eighth, the ninth.

“I’m sorry, son,” Manfred said, as I collected the tenth trick. He almost seemed sincere.

“You should have bid ten,” Connie kept saying. “We won all ten tricks. Why didn’t you bid ten?”

I reached for Manfred’s discarded joker, intending to show Connie who was the bigger ninny. As I regarded her across the table, however, I perceived a growing distance between us. The specter of blame had materialized, a ghost light that would lead us ever further apart from one another, if we allowed it. It takes two, the saying goes. Two to wage war, two to sustain peace, two to create a union. But it starts with one, or the other. I withdrew my hand.

“You’re right, Connie,” I said. It was a small sacrifice, my pride, but even small actions can destroy, and small actions can build. “I should have bid ten.”

“You’re a good sport,” Eileen said, tilting her head toward Manfred’s discard pile. “You make a lovely partner.”

*

The next morning, Sunday morning, I dressed in the church clothes I’d packed at Connie’s suggestion. With the loafers squeezing my feet, the belt buckle digging into my midsection, and the cuffs and collar of my shirt chafing at my wrists and neck, I made my way downstairs, where I hovered outside the dining room, suddenly hesitant to intrude.

Connie sat with her parents at the table, their heads bowed. Before me was the very model of domesticity. I thought of the samplers hanging in the guest room, and I thought of how rarely I’d seen my mother and father enclosed within the same four walls, how they devoutly shunned the idea of making anything that could be bought. I wondered whether with that kind of upbringing I possessed the capacity to nurture a home life such as this.

The Metzlers finished their prayer, and Connie turned to greet me. She appraised my outfit and smiled.

While I took a seat at the table, Manfred removed his apron. “You’re dressed up this morning, Mason. I thought we had an atheist in the house.”

“Just because Mason’s not religious,” Connie said, “doesn’t mean he won’t go to church.”

“How courageous.” Manfred waved his butter knife in my direction. “It must be like walking into a den of lions for you.”

“Don’t listen to him, Mason,” Eileen said. “You’re perfectly welcome at Ascension.”

Manfred watched as I sandwiched an egg between two slices of toast. “That’s right,” he said. “We won’t make you believe anything you don’t want to believe.”

I swallowed. “I’m coming along. I’ve attended church before.”

Manfred passed me a napkin. “Delightful. So it will be old hat.”

We arrived at Ascension Lutheran Church as the organist struck the first notes of the prelude. The rich timbre of the instrument brought me back to Saint Benedict’s, the church I’d attended as a child, and as I walked into Ascension’s nave, I caught myself reaching for holy water and genuflecting before I slid into the pew. I knelt for prayer, but Connie and her parents remained sitting, murmuring to one another and greeting some of the other congregants around us. It seemed disrespectful not to at least pretend to pray before the service, but I was no longer in Rome, and I eased back onto the pew.

During the service, I noted the poetic language of the prayers and the hymns, the quality of the cantor and choir, the atmosphere of tranquility and goodwill in the church. While the minister preached on the Philippians, whom Paul praised in contrast to those “whose god was in their bellies, who were never content and were always seeking to achieve more,” I rested my arm on the pew between Connie and me. She smiled, took my hand, and wove my fingers among hers.

By the time we recited the creed and responded to the prayers of intercession, I’d stopped paying attention altogether. My thoughts turned to the old priests at Saint Benny’s and the even older monsignor. Every holy day, my mother and I would hurry in late to the church, and the disapproval would creep back through the sanctuary to where we sat, off to the side and near the exit. We often left before the last hymn had been sung—in order to beat the traffic, my mother said, although I imagined us fleeing the grip of our guilty consciences. Growing up Catholic had instilled in me a sense that I would forever fall short.

Ascension was celebrating the Eucharist this morning, and after the pastor had consecrated the bread and the wine and we’d recited the Lord’s Prayer, he announced that communion would be administered by intinction.

The priests at Saint Benny’s had always been very particular with respect to communion, and I was certain they would condemn my breaking bread among Protestants. I looked at Connie. “Should I go up?”

Connie studied me. “Have you taken communion before?” I nodded, and she shrugged. “Why not? Everyone’s welcome at the table.”

It was ludicrous, I knew, fretting over the fate of my soul when I didn’t even believe in God. Still, I hesitated for another moment, unable to shake the feeling of transgression, before I followed Connie and her parents to the communion line.

I’d partaken of my first Holy Communion kneeling at the altar rail beside Mary Ellen Bushey, the fourth of sixth children from an unusually pious family, and a girl for whom I’d developed an infatuation, although I’d never acted on it. (All second graders knew that girls kissed boys, not the other way around.) At the altar, I watched the priest administer the bread to Mary Ellen, his fingertips just above her tongue as he placed the wafer on it. He then presented the host to me with that same hand. She drank from the chalice, and the monsignor wiped the cup with a white cloth, smearing the print of her mouth around the rim just before I put my lips to it. I let my elbow stray perilously close to hers.

After the Mass, my mother said how proud she was of me, as if I’d done something remarkable. The Busheys held a reception and invited those communicants whose families could not or would not afford their own celebrations. There, my mother spent the hour getting drunk and explaining to the other parents that my father wasn’t ill, but he wasn’t Catholic anymore, either.

“He was an à la carte Catholic, anyway, even at his finest—which was before I’d met him, by the way.” My mother tipped back her glass and winced, then set the cup down slowly. “Not that I’m exactly the Blessed Virgin.”

She lifted my chin. “But Mason will do us one better. Won’t you, Mason?”

“You’re up,” the man behind me whispered.

I’d reached the front of the communion line. Connie, I saw, was already headed back to the pew. I stepped forward, and the pastor smiled, holding up the host.

“The body of Christ,” he said. “Given for you.”

I said Amen and opened my mouth, extending my tongue and letting it lay flat. I did this with a practiced ease, as if I’d been receiving communion for all of those years.

The minister looked puzzled for a moment, and then he took my hand. He placed the wafer in my palm, closed my fingers around it, and gave my hand a pat.

I stepped aside, my ears burning. Facing the Jesus statue above the altar, I popped the wafer in my mouth where it sat, dry and bland as dust, and then melted away. I remembered not to make the sign of the cross.

I proceeded to the cup. “The blood of Christ,” the communion assistant said, “shed for you.”

I reached for the chalice, but he didn’t offer it to me. I stopped with my empty hands outstretched.

“It’s by intinction today,” he said.

“Intinction?”

“You dip the bread into the wine.”

I felt the capillaries in my face rush open. I thought I heard snickering from the front pews. I should have left the line for my seat then, but in those days I wasn’t one to give up. I returned to the communion line.

When I stepped up for the second time, the pastor’s eyes widened. I believed for a moment he was going to refuse me. I smiled, feigning nonchalance. At last, he held up a host.

“The body of Christ,” he said, speaking slowly. “Still given for you.”

The Metzlers watched as I slipped back into the pew. Only Manfred hid his grin. Through the post-communion prayer, the benediction, and the closing hymn, I tried to ignore them all. I felt low enough on my own.

After the service, Connie said, “I thought you’d taken communion before.”

I bristled. “That wasn’t the way I was taught.”

“The way you were taught!” She was smiling as she dropped her hymnal into the pew rack.

“The Church says that laymen aren’t worthy to handle the host.”

Connie stopped. “Are you criticizing the way our church administers communion?”

“I’m just trying to explain. The host is a sacred object. It’s to be treated reverently.”

Connie stood. Quietly, she said, “Do you think we’re just going through the motions here?”

Whenever Connie and I debated issues of intellectual or philosophical concern, questions that carried no real practical weight, I defended myself ferociously, more interested in winning agreement than in truth or morality. I didn’t want to yield any ground lest someone, even Connie, especially Connie, discover I was less than what my academic portfolio promised.

And so, even though Connie was walking away, even though I sensed this was no ordinary argument, I could not help adding, “Rules are rules.”

Manfred was looking at me, relentlessly solemn, probably preparing a pithy quote about rules and fools, or the way every individual was an exception to the rule, or how all was fair in love, war, and religion. Instead, he got up and followed his daughter out of the sanctuary.

I sat for a moment, focusing on the statue of Jesus over the altar. He had his hands raised, as if calming the observer. I envied those who could submit their life to that god, who received peace and order in return. What did I know about submission? What did I know about peace?

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Eileen. “Poor Mason.” There was a lift to her voice, and she was smiling. “Poor, hungry Mason. Didn’t you have enough for breakfast?”

A man in the next pew turned and grinned. “He should have requested a second sip, too.”

Eileen laughed. “The proper response to the offering of communion wine,” she said, “is ‘Make mine a double.’ ”

I managed a smile. “I was raised Catholic,” I said, almost pleading.

She patted my arm. “We may do things differently, but I suspect it all works out in the end.”

All the same, as we rose, I stole another glance at the Jesus icon. With his hands lifted up like that, I realized, he also recalled the image of the cross. I glumly trailed Eileen from the nave.

*

The ride back to the Metzlers’ was a quiet one, Manfred and Eileen chatting in the front seat about the health, or the lack thereof, of various congregants, Connie and I in the back, not chatting. Such a small thing—the breaking of bread—and yet I couldn’t muster an apology. Despite my sacramental flub, I still believed I was fundamentally in the right.

At the house, I followed Connie upstairs, but she shut herself away without a word. I went to my room, where I unzipped my suitcase and took out the ring once more.

I had yet to approach Manfred to request his blessing, a thought that further dismayed me. I had no entrée into this conversation, no point of persuasion. The events of the weekend had whittled away at me, exposed me as less than who I thought I was.

And who was he? He’d never worked, and instead supported his spouse and raised their child with all the care of a quintessential mother. He now spent his days occupied with volunteering, garden and home, socializing, his many hobbies. He had neither goals nor successes nor failures.

As I reflected on the quiet and modest existence he’d cultivated in this small-town utopia, I found that I envied Manfred Metzler. I coveted his family, the trio whose happiness contrasted so sharply with the apathy, bitterness, and resentments among my own family. I coveted the ease with which he lived. I even coveted his frivolous pastimes. I’d taken more pleasure from those patently unproductive pursuits than I’d ever found in my studies and my research. I longed to share with Connie what Manfred and Eileen seemed to share, a balance that seemed at once simple and maddeningly elusive. I tried not to wonder whether Connie wanted to share it with me. I finished packing and buried the ring at the bottom of my suitcase. First things first.

I returned downstairs. Finding Eileen, I asked to speak to Manfred in private. She seemed unsurprised. She guided me into a room she called Manfred’s study and asked me to wait.

On the desk in the center of the study sat a framed photo of the Metzler family, taken when Connie was twelve or thirteen. Already she’d developed that poise, her eyes wide and observant, the confident set of her lips revealing just a hint of her teeth.

For a distraction, I surveyed the titles on the bookshelves that lined one wall, skimming past old textbooks and volumes of the Journal of Natural History and Evolution dating from the 1950s. I sneered a little at Manfred’s pretensions, chuckling out loud when I noticed the portrait of Charles Darwin that hung on the opposite wall beside a pair of framed diplomas.

I approached to examine the certificates. The larger one, matted in crimson and lettered in a Gothic font, caught my eye. With a start, I recognized the VERITAS crest in the corner. I drew closer. A sudden feeling of alarm stabbed me as I discovered that, on the 5 th day of June in the year 1956, Manfred Owens Metzler had been granted the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Evolutionary and Comparative Biology from Harvard University.

“Nostalgia,” a voice said, and I turned. Manfred was in the doorway. “For some of us, it’s a chronic condition.”

The man advanced and came into focus. I now appreciated the way he’d demeaned the university with an undertone of self-deprecation, or lament. He himself had once worked as an academic scientist, a colleague of sorts. The questions sprang to my lips, unbidden. What was the focus of his dissertation? Its major findings? With whom did Manfred work?

With these questions, it was as if I’d tunneled deep to Manfred’s core, releasing his long-sequestered personal history in one sustained gush. It was Martin Eastman who’d exclaimed over the promise of a young Manfred Metzler, Eastman who’d approved Manfred’s proposal to study the variation in shell morphology among rostroconchs, scaphopods, and bivalves. Even I, with only a passing familiarity with the field, understood that Manfred’s line of inquiry had anticipated some of the later theories of Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould. Indeed, Eastman had recommended Manfred to Mayr as a postdoctoral associate.

“I rejected him.” Manfred spoke in a tone tinged with self-importance and, I imagined, regret. I waited to hear who had bested Ernst Mayr, but instead Manfred told of how, after defending his dissertation, he informed his advisor that he was quitting the university to settle into family life with his expectant wife.

I didn’t understand. Manfred had rejected Ernst Mayr and Martin Eastman? Eastman, who just last year had won the Blazan Prize, completing the Triple Crown in biology? I couldn’t meet Manfred’s eye, but when he looked away, I glanced at him, again and again, as if he’d suffered some terrible accident or disfiguring disease at once repulsive and ineluctably compelling.

“It was a compromise,” Manfred said, and I waited for more, but there was no more.

He paced the room slowly for a few minutes, finally stopping behind the desk. He motioned for me to sit in the chair opposite him.

“Eileen and I believe you could be good for Constance.”

“Yes, sir.” I was almost relieved he’d turned the focus to me. While I found his story troubling, I still imagined I could take comfort from it. Manfred was at heart a scientist. Regardless of how his career had turned, we shared a perspective. Now I would outline my work with the Bacillus replication apparatus and posit how it might yield conceptual breakthroughs where the studies of the E. coli homologs had not. I would discuss the importance of DNA replication as it related to dysregulation of cell division as it related to cell transformation and cancer. It all comes back to cancer, I would say, that’s where the money’s at, and he would understand—the spin, the grants, the politics. He would believe what I’d almost convinced myself of, that I could not only play the game, but that I could win.

Manfred picked up the family photo and studied it. He was still standing. “Do you know what love is, Mason?”

My throat grew dry, my words tentative. “Love, sir?”

The train of thought had passed me by. We weren’t discussing my character and my prospects, but had instead rumbled on to some other subject for which I wasn’t even vaguely prepared. I held silent as Manfred talked about his wife and her work with her patients, her families, he called them, over the years. It was what she was meant to do, he said. He didn’t say a word about his own work, but instead talked about the support he’d given as she finished her residency, established her practice, built her career. Like any good little househusband, he said without apparent irony or bitterness, he prepared her meals, washed her clothes, cleaned her house, cared for her child so that she could devote herself to mothers-to-be and ensure that their children entered the world safe and sound. Together, they’d built a home of peace and stability and love. He mentioned that word, again and again. Love.

Manfred set the photograph down so that the Metzlers’ faces peered out at me. Again, he asked, “do you know what love means, Mason?”

Of course, I said, assuring him that I loved Connie. He frowned. I needed a better response. Remembering what the jeweler had said, I told Manfred that as I understood it, there were no reasons to love, only reasons to not love, that explaining why you loved somebody was like explaining why you lived. Manfred scowled like a man who’d discovered a cheat, nodding in a way that suggested impatience rather than agreement.

“Bravo,” he said, when I finished. “You love. Ergo, you know the meaning of love. Q.E.D.” Framed in this way, the argument’s ludicrous circularity became clear.

“Love means compromise, Mason. It means lowering your standards, your expectations and your defenses. I left the university because I realized it would be best for Constance and for Eileen.” His voice broke. “And for me. I wanted a happy family, not an accretion of stress and resentment, an unending battle over who should prepare the dinner, or shop for the groceries, or fold the linens, dry the dishes, chaperone and chauffeur our daughter. I wanted Eileen to feel secure in her work. I wanted to raise my child.”

He tapped the family portrait, and it shifted so the light fell full upon it. “I don’t regret my compromises.”

My gaze again fell on the photograph, but there was a glare on the glass now, and I saw only my own reflection there. Manfred’s logic continued to elude me, and I wondered whether the man was telling the whole truth, or if other factors had forced him to “lower his standards.” Maybe his standards simply hadn’t been set high enough. Maybe he hadn’t dazzled Eastman and Mayr. Maybe they’d found him neither original nor rigorous. Maybe, for whatever initial promise his work had held, it had in the end come to naught—a negative result. Maybe he’d been unable to escape his insecurities.

My thoughts quickened and rose the way they did whenever I loosened the knot of a difficult problem. Where he’d once glimpsed the possibility of scientific glory, he now saw only a fruitless struggle for recognition from journal editors and grant committees and incoming graduate students, an extravagant waste of physical, mental, and emotional toil on theories that few understood and even fewer cared a whit for. He saw himself as nearly everyone else would see him—an egghead puttering about the laboratory. With his growing family offering the possibility of escape, why not take it? When faced with certain destruction, why fight on? Q.E.D.

“Make peace,” Manfred was saying, and I understood that he was offering counsel in a way. “Lower your standards. You can’t build until the ground is quiet.”

I drew back in disgust. What Manfred called compromise was in reality surrender. He’d surrendered his career, letting his marriage pulverize it into an oblivion of anonymous mediocrity. He was a loser—no, even worse, a forfeiter.

Although inwardly I sneered at the man, I would not spurn him yet.

“Sir?” I used my most humble voice. “Dr. Metzler?”

“Yes,” Manfred said. “The answer is yes. You have my blessing to propose to Constance.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Thank you, Mason. Thank you for letting me share this advice.”

Manfred slid open the top drawer of his desk. He took out a small box, familiar in size and shape, and opened it. Inside, on a lining of black velvet, rested a bright circle of gold with a tiny gem set on top. Manfred held the box out to me. It was his mother’s engagement ring, he said. I could give it to Constance if I wished.

As I took the box, I thought of the ring I’d purchased myself, the one I’d deliberated over. It was so much more remarkable. The thick plain band of this ring was scratched and dulled, the diamond surely no more than a half carat. I lifted the ring out and held it toward the light in a false show of wonder. When Manfred turned away, I flipped it into the air with my thumb like a lucky penny. It bounced from my palm and fell to the floor.

Manfred turned again. He appeared shrunken now, an inconsequential old man, but in a final gesture of courtesy, I dropped to my knees and slid my hand under the desk, sweeping my arm back and forth along the carpet. My fingers finally found the ring, and I pulled away.

As I put one foot out and began to straighten, Connie appeared in the doorway.

“Mason, where have you been? Isn’t it time—” She stopped, her eyes registering mine, and then registering my position with one knee on the floor, a ring in my hand.

“Mason?”

Once again, astonishment crossed her features, but as she stared at the ring, her expression softened. “Is that for me?” she whispered. “Did you talk to Daddy?”

I felt a tightening about my chest. I fought the urge to have her inspect this ring and compare it to the one I’d selected for her. This, I would say, pointing to my ring. This is the real one. This is what I wanted to give you. It was so much more. But in that moment, the enormity of Connie’s joy filled the space between us, and I didn’t have the heart to deflate it. It was her father’s ring, and she desired it—but she also desired the engagement, the marriage, me.

It almost seemed simple then, a shortcut through the mountains, a passage to the homeland I’d so desired. The circle of gold was already within my grasp. Connie and I would share family and home.

I held Manfred’s ring up higher, but still the words wouldn’t come. “Well, Constance,” Manfred said. “What’s your answer? The poor boy’s down on his knee.”

“Yes,” Connie said, tears glazing her eyes as she rushed to me and kissed me full on the lips. “Yes, I’ll marry you.”

Eileen appeared and clapped her hands. “Welcome to the family, Mason. We’re all so happy you’ve joined us.”

As I stood, I imagined a figure peeling away from me, slipping out of my skin. My doppelganger, the life I wouldn’t live. He regarded me for a moment, and then fled, while I tried to turn my thoughts again to the homeland I would settle.

The Passenger by Alanna Schubach

Reaming: A Play by Alex Tamaki

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