Skylight ConfessionsA Novel
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2007 Alice Hoffman
All right reserved.ISBN: 0-316-05878-5
Chapter One Ghost Wife
SHE WAS HIS FIRST WIFE, BUT AT THE MOMENT when he first saw her she was a seventeen-year-old girl named Arlyn Singer who stood out on the front porch on an evening that seemed suspended in time. Arlyn's father had just died and the funeral dinner had ended only hours earlier. It was a somber gathering: a dozen neighbors seated around the heavy mahogany dining-room table no one had used for over a decade. Now there were pans of macaroni and cheese and a red velvet cake and a huge platter of fruit, food enough to last a month if Arlie had had an appetite.
Arlyn's father had been a ferryboat captain, the center of her world, especially in his last years; the captain had burned brighter in the grasp of his illness, a shining star in the dark. A usually silent man, he began to tell stories. There were tales of rocks that appeared in the dark, of mysterious reefs whose only purpose seemed to be to sink ferries, of the drowned men he'd known who had never come back. With a red crayon, he drew charts of stars that could lead a lost man home. He told of a tribe who lived on the other side of the water, in far-off Connecticut, who could sprout wings in the face of disaster. They looked like normal people until the ship went down, or the fire raged, and then they suddenly revealed themselves. Only then did they manage their escape.
On his night table there was a collection of stones the captain said he had swallowed when he was a young man; he'd gone down with a ship and had been the lone survivor. One minute he'd been standing on deck, and the next, he'd been above it all, in the sky. He'd fallen hard and fast into the surf of Connecticut, with a mouth and a belly full of stones.
When the doctor came to tell the captain there was no hope, they had a drink together and instead of ice the captain put a stone in the cups of whiskey.
It will bring you good luck, he'd told the doctor. All I want is for my daughter to be happy. That's all the luck I need.
Arlyn had sobbed at his bedside and begged her father not to leave her, but that was not an option or a choice. The last advice the captain had given her, while his voice still held out, was that the future was an unknown and unexpected country, and that Arlyn should be prepared for almost anything. She had been grief stricken as her father lay dying but now she felt weightless, the way people do when they're no longer sure they have a reason to be connected to this world. The slightest breeze could have carried her away, into the night sky, across the universe.
Arlyn held on to the porch banister and leaned out over the azaleas. Red and pink flowers, filled with buds. Arlyn was an optimist, despite her current situation. She was young enough not to see a glass as half empty or half full, but as a beautiful object into which anything might be poured. She whispered a bargain, as though her whispering could make it true.
The first man who walks down the street will be my one love and I will be true to him as long as he's true to me.
She turned around twice and held her breath as a way to seal the bargain. She wore her favorite shoes, ones her father had bought her in Connecticut, leather slippers so light she felt as though she were barefoot. Her red hair reached her waist. She had seventy-four freckles on her face - she had counted - and a long, straight nose her father had assured her was elegant rather than large. She watched the sky darken. There was a line of ashes up above, a sprinkling of chimney soot. Perhaps her father was up there, watching over her. Perhaps he was knocking on his casket, begging to be let out. Or maybe he was here with her still, in her heart, making it difficult for her to breathe whenever she thought about her life without him. Arlie felt her aloneness inside her, but she was hopeful, too. The past was done with. Now she was made out of glass, transparent and clear. She was an instant in time. One damp evening, two stars in the sky, a line of soot, a chattering gathering of neighbors who barely knew her in the dining room. She had convinced herself that her future would arrive on the street where she'd lived her whole life if only she'd wait long enough. If she trusted in fate.
In the living room, people spoke about Arlyn as though she had died right along with her father. She wasn't a pretty girl, after all, just plain and freckly. She had a high-school diploma and, as far as anyone could tell, no particular skills. One summer she'd worked in an ice-cream shop, and in high school she'd had a dog-washing service, shampooing basset hounds and poodles in the kitchen sink. An ordinary girl all alone in a house where the roof might blow off in the next big storm. People felt pity, but as everyone knew, that wasn't an emotion that lasted long.
A low horn sounded as the ferry came across the water from Bridgeport; the fact that there would be fog tonight was discussed as the women cleaned up, wiping off the table, putting away the pound cakes and the casseroles before going out to the porch to say good night to Arlyn. It was a heavy, salt-laced fog that had settled, the kind that circled lampposts and street signs and made folks lose their way. A damp, soft night. The neighbors assumed that once they'd left, Arlyn would go inside her empty house. Surely she would walk along the hall where her father's coats still hung on the rack, then take the flight of stairs the captain hadn't been able to manage for the past six months. She would edge past his silent room. No more coughing all night long. No more calls for water.
But Arlyn stayed where she was. She was so cold her skin felt like ice; still she remained on the porch. Her father had said to prepare for the future, and Arlyn was ready and willing. Her destiny was sure to come to her in her darkest hour. That was now, this damp, sad night. It took some time, but after three hours Arlie's faith was rewarded. By then the fog had turned to a light rain and the streets smelled like fish. A car stopped; there was a young man inside, lost, on his way to a party. When he got out to ask directions, Arlyn noticed he was taller than her father. She liked tall men. His hair was combed back. He had beautiful pale eyes, a cool gray color. As he approached he shouted, "Hello." His voice was not what she expected - flat and nasal. That didn't matter. Anything could happen now.
Arlyn took a step back in order to study him. Perhaps the young man thought she was afraid - a stranger stopping to talk to her in a banged-up old Saab his dad had given him. He could have been anyone, after all. A murderer, an ex-con, a man who would rip the heart from her chest.
"I'm lost," the young man explained. Usually he would have kept on driving; he had never in his life stopped to ask for directions. But he was late, and he was the sort of person who was usually on time. Veering from punctuality made him anxious; it made him do stupid things. For instance, he had circled around this particular block twice. Before leaving, he'd forgotten to check to make sure his gas tank was full and now he worried that he wouldn't be able to find a service station before he ran out.
The young man's name was John Moody and he was a senior at Yale studying architecture; he recognized Arlie's father's house as an Italianate worker's cottage, built, he would guess, in the 1860s, common in these North Shore towns on Long Island. Not kept up, of course - the roof looked like flypaper, the shingles were badly in need of paint - but charming in a run-down way just as the girl with the long red hair was charming despite her dreadful clothes and the freckles scattered across her pale skin.
Arlyn was wearing an overcoat though it was April.
"You're freezing," John Moody said.
Arlyn took this as concern rather than mere statement of fact. The truth was, she was shivering in the cold light of her future, the light that had been cast by this tall young man who had no idea where he was.
Arlyn felt faint. Fluttery, really. Her whole life had been spent in a cocoon; she had been waiting for this hanging globe of an evening. This is when everything else begins. Whatever happens next is where my life will lead me.
John Moody came up the porch steps. Rickety. In need of repair. John took a moment to catch his breath, then spoke.
"I've never met the person having the party. My roommate Nathaniel's sister. I don't even know why I'm here."
His heart was pounding uncomfortably hard. His father had had a heart attack earlier in the year. Was he having one, too? Well, he'd never liked speaking to strangers; he'd never liked speaking at all. John Moody was a champion of quiet and order. Architecture meant rules one could depend upon. He was a devotee of the clean line and of truth in form, without frills or complications. He didn't like messes of any sort.
Arlyn looked over the directions John's roommate had given him. They were all wrong. "If you want to go to Smithtown, you turn at the corner by the harbor and keep going west. Four towns over."
"That far?" John Moody had been working hard at Yale throughout the semester, trying to distinguish himself; all at once he felt exhausted. "I didn't realize I was so tired."
Arlyn understood. "Sometimes you don't know how tired you are until you close your eyes."
There was no rush, was there? Time was suspended; it wasn't moving at all. They went inside and John Moody lay down on the couch. He had long legs and large feet and he fell asleep easily. He could not remember the last time he'd had a dream. "Just for a minute," he said. "Until I get my second wind."
Arlyn sat on a hard-backed chair, still wearing her overcoat, still shivering. She watched John fall asleep. She had the feeling that whatever happened next would be the true test of whether or not they were meant to be. John's eyelids fluttered; his chest rose and fell. He was a beautiful sleeper, calm, unmoving, peaceful. It felt so right to have him there. The room was littered with chairs that had been pulled into a circle by the visiting neighbors. When Arlyn's father had been at his worst, in such pain he had to be sedated into sleep, he had moaned and thrashed in his dreams and tore at the bedsheets. Sometimes Arlyn would leave him, just for a short time, for a breath of air, a moment alone. She'd walk down to the harbor and look into the darkness. She could hear the water, but she couldn't see it; she couldn't see anything at all. All she'd wanted, then and now, was a man who could sleep. At last he was here.
Arlie left John Moody and went into the kitchen. She hadn't eaten for three days and she realized she was famished. Arlie went to the refrigerator and took out nearly everything - the tins of baked beans, the homemade strudels, the ham, the sweet-potato pie, the last piece of red velvet cake. She sat at the table and ate three days' worth of food. When she was finished she went to the sink, filled it with soapy water, and cleaned the pots and pans.
She was so full no one could accuse her of being light-headed. She was rational. No doubt about it. She knew what she was doing. She took off her coat, her black dress, her slip, her underwear, even the soft leather shoes her father had bought her. She turned out the light. Her breath moved inside her ribs like a butterfly. In and out. Waiting. If he walks through the door, my life will begin. And indeed, when John Moody came into the kitchen, time hurtled forward, no longer suspended. He was walking to her, shocked by his good fortune and by the dreaminess of the evening, the extreme weirdness of setting out from Yale as a bored college boy and ending up here, in this kitchen. Arlie looked like a ghost, someone he'd imagined, a woman made of moonlight and milk. The neighbors who thought she was too plain to notice would have been surprised to know that all John Moody could see was Arlie's beautiful nakedness and her long red hair. He would never have imagined they thought of her as ugly and useless.
As for Arlyn, if nothing ever happened to her again, this would be enough. The way he circled his arms around her, the way the dishes in the dish rack fell to the floor, the good white china in shards and neither one of them caring. She had never been kissed before; she'd been too busy with bedpans, morphine, the practical details of death.
"This is crazy," John Moody said, not that he intended to stop. Not that he could.
Would he hold this against her, years and years later, how waylaid he'd become? Would he say she tricked him with a rare beauty no one had noticed before? All Arlyn knew was that when she led him to her bedroom, he followed. It was a girl's bedroom with lace runners on the bureaus and milk-glass lamps; it didn't even seem to belong to her anymore. The way time was moving, so fast, so intense, made her shudder. She was about to make the leap from one world to the next, from the over and done to the what could be.
Arlyn went forward into time and space; she looped her arms around John Moody's neck. She felt his kiss on her throat, her shoulders, her breasts. He had been lost and she had found him. He had asked for directions and she had told him which way to go. He was whispering, Thank you, as though she had given him a great gift. Perhaps she had given him exactly that: her self, her future, her fate.
HE STAYED FOR THREE DAYS, THE ENTIRE TIME SPENT IN bed; he was crazy for her, hypnotized, not wanting food or water, only her. She tasted like pears. How odd that was, that sweet green flavor, and even odder that he should notice. John didn't usually pay attention to people, but he did now. Arlie's hands were small and beautiful and her teeth were small and perfect as well, but she had large feet, as he did. The sign of a walker, a doer, a person who completed tasks and never complained. She seemed neat and uncomplicated, everything he admired. He did not know her name until the first morning, didn't learn of her father's death until the second. And then on the third morning John Moody awoke suddenly from a dream, the first dream he could remember having in many years, perhaps since he was a child. He'd been in the house he'd grown up in, a renowned construction his architect father had built outside New Haven that people called the Glass Slipper, for it was made out of hundreds of windows woven together with thin bands of polished steel. In his dream, John Moody was carrying a basket of pears along the hallway. Outside there was an ice storm and the glass house had become opaque. It was difficult to see where he was going at first, and then impossible.
John was lost, though the floor plan was simple, one he had known his whole life. His father was a great believer in minimalism, known for it, lauded for his straight lines stacked one upon another, as though a building could be made purely from space and glass. John Moody looked down to see why the basket he carried had become so heavy. Everything was odd: the way his heart was pounding, the confusion he felt. Stranger still: the pears in the basket had become flat black stones. Before he could stop them the stones arose without being touched; they hurtled up through the air as though they'd been fired from a cannon, breaking the windows of the Glass Slipper, one after the other. Everything shattered and the sky came tumbling into the house. Cloud and bird and wind and snow.
John Moody awoke in Arlyn's arms, in a room he did not recognize. There was a white sheet over him, and his chest was constricted with fear. He had to get out. He was in the wrong place; that was all too clear to him now. Wrong time, wrong girl, wrong everything. Next to him, Arlie's red hair fell across the pillow. In this light, true morning light, it was the color of the human heart, of blood. It seemed unnatural, not a color that he, who preferred muted tones, would ever be drawn to.
Arlie raised herself onto one elbow. "What?" she said sleepily.
"Nothing. Go back to sleep."