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They went upstairs, took their clothes off with their backs to each other, got into her cold bed and started to touch.
"You were right," said Tucker.
"So far, anyway," said Annie. "But there was that bit about maintenance."
"And I'll tell you," said Tucker, "you're not making maintenance much easier."
"Have you . . . I didn't come prepared. For understandable reasons. You don't keep anything lying around, do you?"
"Oh," said Annie. "Yes. Of course. But I don't have any condoms. You'll have to excuse me for a moment."
She'd already thought about this moment; she'd been thinking about it since her conversation with Kath. She went to the bathroom, stayed in there for a couple of minutes and then went back to make love to him. She didn't kill him, even though it felt like parts of her had been asleep for as long as Tucker's career.
The following day, Jackson talked to his mother on the phone and became upset, and Tucker booked their flights home. On the last night, Tucker and Annie shared a bed, but they didn't have sex again.
"I'll come back," said Tucker. "I like it here."
"Nobody comes back."
Annie didn't know whether she meant the town or the bed, but either way there was some bitterness in there, and she didn't want that.
"Or you could come over."
"I've used up a lot of my holidays."
"There are other jobs."
"I'm not taking lectures on alternative careers from you."
"Okay. So. I'm never coming back here, you're never going over there . . . It's difficult to find the place where we can at least pretend that there's some sort of future."
"Is that what you normally do after a one-night stand?" said Annie. "Pretend there's a future?" She couldn't seem to change the tone in her voice, no matter what she did. She didn't want to scoff and taunt; she wanted to find a way to hope, but she only seemed to be able to speak one language. Typical bloody British, she thought.
"I'm just going to ignore you," said Tucker.
She put her arms around him. "I'll miss you. And Jackson."
There. It wasn't much, and it was entirely unrepresentative of the grief and panic that were already probing for promising-looking ways of escape, but she hoped at least he heard uncomplicated affection.
"You'll e-mail, right? A lot?"
"Oh, I've got nothing to say."
"I'll tell you when I'm bored."
"Oh, God," she said. "Now I'll be scared to write anything."
"Jesus Christ," said Tucker. "You don't make it easy."
"No," said Annie. "That's because it isn't. That's why mostly it goes wrong. That's why you've been divorced a thousand times. Because it isn't easy."
She was trying to say something else; she was trying to say that the inability to articulate what one feels in any satisfactory way is one of our enduring tragedies. It wouldn't have been much, and it wouldn't have been useful, but it would have been something that reflected the gravity and the sadness inside her. Instead, she had snapped at him for being a loser. It was as if she were trying to find a handhold on the boulder of her feelings, and had merely ended up with grit under her nails.
Tucker sat up in bed and looked at her.
"You should make up with Duncan," he said. "He'd take you back. Especially now. You've got about nine years' worth of material for him."
"Why? What good would that do me?"
"None at all," said Tucker. "That would be the point."
She tried one last time.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what to say. I know that . . . that love is supposed to be transformative." Now that she'd used the word she felt her tongue loosen. "And that's how I'm trying to look at it. There. Bang. I've been transformed, and however it happened it doesn't matter. You can go or stay, and it will still have happened. So I've been trying to look at you as a metaphor or something. But it doesn't work. The terribly inconvenient fact is that, without you around, everything slides back to how it was before. It can't do otherwise. And I have to say, books haven't helped much with all this. Because whenever you read anything about love, whenever anyone tries to define it, there's always a state or an abstract noun, and I try to think of it like that. But actually, love is . . . Well, it's just you. And when you go, it's gone. Nothing abstract about it."
Annie was confused, but Tucker seemed to know who it was immediately. Jackson was standing by the bed, damp and malodorous.
"What's up, son?"
"I just threw up in my bed."
"I don't think I like Twiglets anymore."
"You've maybe been hitting them a little hard. We'll get you cleaned up. Do you have any spare sheets, Annie?"
As they washed him and changed the bedding, Annie was trying not to feel unlucky, doomed, born under a bad sign. Feeling unlucky, she had noticed, was her default mood, and yet she could see that there were alternative interpretations of her current predicament. For example: if you choose to fall in love with an American-an American with a young son and a home in America-who comes to stay for a couple of days, how much ill fortune is involved in his leaving you? Or could someone brighter have seen that coming? Or here's another way of looking at it: you write a review on an obscure website of an album by an artist who has chosen to remain a recluse for over twenty years. Said artist reads the review, gets in touch, comes to stay. He's very attractive and seems to be attracted to you, and you sleep with him. Is there any bad luck in that? Or could someone with a sunnier disposition come to the conclusion that the last few weeks contained something like seventeen separate miracles? Yes, well. She didn't have a sunny disposition, so tough. She was going to stick with the notion that she was the unluckiest woman alive.
How did that fit in with the previous night, when she had pretended to put in a contraceptive device in an attempt to secretly get pregnant? How lucky would she have to be, at her age, at his age, in his state of health? But maybe there was no contradiction. She could already feel the disappointment that would arrive along with her period, and maybe that was the point: final, incontrovertible proof that there was no point in trying anything that might make her happier, because she'd fail regardless.
"Can I get into your bed?" said Jackson.
"Sure," said Tucker.
"Can it be just you?"
Tucker looked at Annie and shrugged.
"Thanks," he said. Over the next few weeks, that one word was subjected to more analysis than it could probably stand.
"What should I tell Mom about the trip?" said Jackson, when they were waiting for the plane to take off.
"Tell her anything you want."
"She knows you got sick, right?"
"I think so."
"And she knows you didn't die?"
"Cool. And how do you spell Gooleness?"
Tucker told him.
"It's funny," said Jackson. "It seems like I haven't seen Mom for ever. But when I think about what we did . . . It wasn't that exciting, was it?"
"Maybe if I watched a lot of SpongeBob SpongeBob on the way home it would seem more exciting." on the way home it would seem more exciting."
Tucker didn't know whether he'd been listening to an elaborate ruse intended to obtain parental indulgence or a simply expressed but complicated idea about the relationship between time and narrative. Jackson had put his finger on something, though. Not enough had happened, somehow. In the space of a few days, he'd had a heart attack, spoken to all of his children and two of his ex-wives, gone to a new town and slept with a new woman, spent some time with a man who had made him think differently about his work, and none of it had changed a thing. He had neither learned nor grown.
He must have missed something. In the old days, he maybe could have squeezed a few songs out of this trip: there had to be a good lyric about a far-death experience, say. And Annie . . . he could have turned her into a pretty and redemptive girl from the north country who had helped him to feel, and heal. Maybe steal, and kneel, if he pushed it. She'd certainly cooked him a meal. And maybe without her he'd congeal. But if he couldn't write, what was he left with?
The truth about autobiographical songs, he realized, was that you had to make the present become the past, somehow: you had to take a feeling or a friend or a woman and turn whatever it was into something that was over, so that you could be definitive about it. You had to put it in a glass case and look at it and think about it until it gave up its meaning, and he'd managed to do that with just about everybody he'd ever met or married or fathered. The truth about life was that nothing ever ended until you died, and even then you just left a whole bunch of unresolved narratives behind you. He'd somehow managed to retain the mental habits of a songwriter long after he'd stopped writing songs, and perhaps it was time to give them up.
"Well," said Malcolm, and then there was nothing, and it was all Annie could do not to laugh. She had spoken quickly and unhaltingly and without swearing (she had remembered to refer to Fake Tucker, rather than its contraction) for fifteen minutes, and however much silence he was going to inflict on them now, she wasn't going to break it. It was his turn.
"And can you still buy his CDs?"
"I just explained, Malcolm. This last one has only been out for a few weeks. That's how we met, sort of."
"Oh. Yes. Sorry. Should I buy it?"
"No. I just explained that, too, Malcolm. It's not his best one. Anyway, I'm not sure that you listening to Tucker's music would help us much."
"We'll see. You'd be surprised."
"This sort of situation has come up before, has it?"
Malcolm looked hurt, and Annie felt sorry for him. She didn't need to be unkind. She was feeling rather fond of him, actually; her fifteen-minute splurge had justified her entire painful relationship with him. For months she'd been coming in here and telling him about Duncan's failure to buy milk when he'd been explicitly asked to do so, and they'd poked about in the ashes of her inner life in an effort to find some tiny spark of feeling. This morning she'd told him about recluses and heart attacks and failed marriages and one-night stands and duplicitous attempts to get pregnant, and she thought he might explode with the effort of trying to act as if he'd been expecting a story like this all along.
"Can I ask a couple of other questions? Just to make sure I've got things straight?"
"What did this man think you were doing in the bathroom?"
"Inserting a contraceptive device."
Malcolm made a note of some kind-from Annie's position, it looked like inserting cont. device inserting cont. device-and underlined it emphatically.
"I see. And . . . When did his last relationship end?"
"A few weeks ago."
"And this woman is the mother of his youngest child?"
"What's her name, actually?"
"Do you really need to know that?"
"Saying her name makes you feel uncomfortable, perhaps?"
"Not really. Cat."
"Is that short for something?"
"I'm sorry. You're right. There was quite a lot in there. I'm struggling to know where to start. Where do you want to start? How are you feeling?"
"Bereft mostly. A bit exhilarated. How are you feeling?" She knew she wasn't supposed to ask that, but she was aware that Malcolm had been through a lot in the previous twenty minutes.
"It's not my position to judge. As you know. Actually, scrap that last remark. Strike it from the record. And the concerned bit."