Commentary Magazine


Oh, Billy, Where Are You?

When I told my mother I was getting married, she replied: “So, Louis, darling boy, you waited until 48 to marry a woman your own age who can’t give you any children and who has already failed three times at marriage? And this is my son who’s supposed to be so intelligent?” Common sense, not tact, has always been what my mother has prided herself upon.

“Please don’t make a judgment until you meet Lynne,” I said. “She’s an extraordinary woman, you’ll see. Besides, be fair, one of her husbands died of a stroke.”

“Let’s hope she didn’t give it to him,” my mother said. “I don’t care what you say, three husbands means something’s wrong. Three previous husbands speaks to a serious flaw.”

The fact was, I considered myself lucky that Lynne Ross had agreed to marry me. She is a great beauty, dresses with unfailing style, and brought no children for me to have to help raise. A dermatologist with a successful private practice on Michigan Avenue and on the staff at Northwestern Medical Center, she was, by my or anyone else’s reckoning, a good catch, a better one than most people would say I was for her. A professional matchmaker might have said I was going up-market, Lynne headed down.

As for me, one of the most complicated questions you can ask is what do I do for a living. I went to law school, at DePaul, but found law practice too constricting, too boring, really. I suppose I’m an operator, a hustler, a scrambler, all words I happen to consider honorifics, whatever the rest of the world thinks. I put together real-estate deals, I arrange meetings between the right people, I sometimes briefly take over small businesses, patch them up, and then turn them over to new owners. I keep a one-room office in the 30 N. Michigan Building; if you walked into the joint you’d think it was a set from a black-and-white Sam Spade movie. I’m not there much. Mostly I work, as the old-timers used to say, out of my car. “Always keep a low overhead,” my father used to tell me.

When I was a teenager and shlepping his sample cases, my father gave me a great deal of advice, a lot of it irrelevant, but the one thing that stuck in my mind was his iron rule: “Always work for yourself. Only a shmuck works for somebody else!” With the exception of those few years I worked for my father, I’m pleased to say that I haven’t worked a day in my life for anyone but myself.

In my time in the field, as I like to think of my two decades and more chasing (and occasionally being chased by) women, I believe I’ve developed a reasonably good eye for quality. Beyond the age of 30, most women are, like me, whether they know it or not, in business for themselves, operators, hustlers, scramblers, out to grab what pleasure is available and make the best possible deal they can. Most men, too, let me add, in case you jump to the mistaken conclusion that I’m down on women, which I’m not. I happen to like a lot more about women than rolling around in the sack with them. I often find I can be less on guard, more myself, around women than around men, where the competitive thing has a way of edging in.

I first met Lynne as her patient. I had developed something called winter’s eczema, which gave me a terrific rash on both my shins. She had sandy-colored hair, wonderful skin, great legs, and—here was a new twist for me—impressively upright posture, which I somehow found very sexy. She instantly recognized my condition, daubed my rash with an ointment, wrote me a prescription, told me to make an appointment to see her again in two weeks. She was very formal, business-like; charged me $150 for 10 minutes of her time.

For two weeks I thought about that posture, the way it did good things for her short haircut, made her neck seem longer, her small breasts more upright, allowed her to carry her head in an attractive way. That she was a physician wearing a well-fitting grayish coat with “Dr. Lynne Ross, M.D.” sewn in cursive in blue thread above the left pocket no doubt added to her allure.

At my second appointment, Dr. Ross asked me to lift up my trousers so that she could see my legs.

“I’ll bet you ask that of all the boys,” I said. “Or have you heard that one before?”

“I haven’t,” she answered. “But I’ve heard better. Your legs, by the way, are fantastic. I don’t mean that the way it sounds. I mean that your rash has healed completely. You see, you’ve flustered me.”

“Good,” I said. “I mean good that I flustered you. So now that I have you flustered and off guard, is there any chance I might one night take you to dinner? I’d like that a lot.”

“Sorry, but I have a policy never to see patients outside the office.”

“But I’m healed, completely cured. After I leave this office I’ll no longer be your patient. And, if the rash returns, I promise to see another doctor. Maybe you can recommend someone now.”

“You’re very determined,” she said. “Did you ever sell vacuum cleaners?”

“Almost everything else but. How are you on Italian food?”

“You’re indefatigable,” she said.

“I’m not sure what that means,” I said, “but I certainly hope so.”

_____________

We had dinner at a restaurant called Francesca, on Bryn Mawr, off Sheridan Road. The place was much noisier than I remembered. When did restaurants get so noisy? A friend in the business tells me that the young like the feeling of tumult; they don’t want to be overheard whispering at the next table; they prefer to shout intimacies at each other.

Lynne ordered linguini with seafood; she manipulated her noodles, with the help of a large spoon, very adroitly, I thought. I ordered a veal dish, a little nervous about making a mess of myself with tomato sauce. Destroying shirts and ties with the stuff has been a little specialty of mine.

“How come you decided to practice dermatology?” I asked her.

“No night calls,” she said. “In dermatology, patients don’t call you at night. I was married to my first husband while I was finishing medical school. He wasn’t that keen about my practicing medicine. Actually, as I was soon to learn, he wasn’t that keen about my practicing breathing, either.”

When I told her I had never been married, she asked me how I had avoided it. “Nobody wanted me that badly,” I replied, “despite my obvious charms.”

She smiled, twirling a forkful of linguini in her spoon. I was pleased to see that she had a sense of humor. Most of the really beautiful women I’ve known tend to come up a little short in this department.

Lynne’s first husband, Irwin, was a lawyer. The marriage lasted less than three years. Her second husband, Richard, was a cardiac surgeon. He was also a player; never met a nurse under 30, she said, who didn’t require, as she put it, “breaking in.” She thought she had at last come into safe harbor with her third husband, who was neither doctor nor lawyer but instead made a serious fortune as a commodities trader. She was his third wife also, and he’d had kids with the first two, so owing to the prenup she’d agreed to sign, when he went down with his stroke, she didn’t come away with a great deal of money. But that was all right, she said; at least Harry (she referred to each of her former husbands by his first name) had left her with a notion about what a good husband is like. As soon as she said it, I wondered if I myself knew what a good husband is like. I decided, looking at her, I wouldn’t mind trying to find out.

Lots of women are able to attract men, but a far smaller number are closers. Lynne, with four marriages (mine being the fourth), was obviously a closer. Where or from what did this power in her derive? I still can’t say for sure; all I can tell you is that there was something in her that made me want to protect her, and the idea of my being able to do so was as powerful in its appeal as her good looks and elegant manner. Did her three previous husbands, I wondered, feel the same impulse?

I won’t bore you with the details of our courtship. It lasted something like 18 months. I sensed it would be best not to employ a full-court press but instead pick her up around half-court, giving her plenty of room to bring the ball up. We went to plays and movies, lots of chichi restaurants, very expensive. She was interested in cooking and had me over for meals on weekends. We did all right—maybe a little more than all right—in the sex department. We bought each other extravagant gifts. I let her slowly make small alterations in the way I dressed. We each kept our apartments and didn’t finally move in together until our wedding.

We married at City Hall, on a Tuesday morning, a court clerk our sole witness, after which we both went back to our offices to work for the remainder of the day. We had a one-week honeymoon trip to Hawaii, and when we returned I gave up my small apartment on Richie Court and moved into her larger one at 3800 N. Lake Shore Drive.

I don’t think anyone would spend a lot of time puzzling over what attracted me to Lynne: she was beautiful, accomplished, intelligent. Some, like my dear mother, might question my judgment in marrying a woman who had been married so often before. But in fact Lynne passed my own personal test by being unfailingly kind to my mother, which isn’t always easy. As for my mother, after she became partially reconciled to my new wife, I became for her something like the heterosexual equivalent of the son in the old Jewish joke who brought his mother sadness and joy: the sadness was that the son was homosexual, the joy was that at least he was going with a doctor.

But the more interesting question, I suppose, is what did Lynne see in me? I’ve stowed away a fair amount of money, but she did well enough on her own not to need mine. If I prefer to think myself more savvy about the world than she is, she, no argument here, is much more cultured than I am. All I can think to say on my own behalf is that she may have sensed how protective I felt about her, and responded to that. I’ve also heard about women who love men because they realize how much more the men love them. The origin of the universe may be easier to explain than the reasons people marry.

Lynne’s ninth-floor apartment was light and bright, with a view of the Waveland Park clock tower and the Belmont Harbor out her front windows and of Wrigley Field, five blocks or so away, out the back. She had redone the kitchen, put in new floors. Of the four bedrooms in the place, she used one as a den in which she had her television set and stereo; another she used as an at-home office, the third was her bedroom, and the fourth, which was once a maid’s room and which she kept locked, she told me was filled with things she still hadn’t straightened out since she had moved in three years earlier.

After our marriage, when I moved into the apartment, I suggested that perhaps this unused room would be a good place for me to keep my clothes, possibly my computer, and a few other items. I sensed her hesitance and so didn’t push it. When I brought it up again a few weeks later, I felt her tense up before she agreed to show me the room.

Far from being the mess I expected, this small room contained, in the most careful arrangement, shelves with athletic trophies on them and photographs of a young man in basketball and baseball uniforms and in tennis clothes. A gold-and-blue University of Michigan basketball jersey, number 19, was mounted and framed and hung on a wall. A glass case, with a light on the wall above it and a photograph of this same young man in a Marine officer’s blues, contained medals: a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. In other photographs of him scattered around the walls, he was gracefully muscular and very handsome: he might have been my wife’s twin, except his hair was dark, curly, and close cropped, his face, in the posed athletic and Marine photos, serious, even slightly stern, suggesting great powers of concentration.

On a table in the center of the room were three thick photo albums, containing photos of two children on horseback, swimming, deep-sea fishing. The young man was Lynne’s brother, Billy Ross, and the small room we were now standing in, which had heavy maroon drapes pulled closed, was her shrine to him. I figured that this was not the time to tell my wife that, my senior year at Sullivan High School, I was the eighth man on a basketball team that finished the year with six wins and 13 losses.

I had known that Lynne had had a brother, five years older, who had died flying a helicopter in Vietnam. She had looked down when she gave me these few bits of information. I mumbled that I was sorry and said nothing further, and the subject hadn’t come up again until this moment.

“I didn’t know your brother was so serious an athlete,” I said, noting all the trophies.

“He was all-state basketball at Lane Tech. He started for Michigan. He also played baseball for Michigan. He was a natural athlete.” When we left the room, she locked the door.

Once Lynne had shown me the room she created for her brother, she felt freer to talk about him. But her information came out in dribs and drabs. She said that as a kid she had lived in the glow of his fame. In West Rogers Park, everyone knew Billy Ross. Along with being an all-state basketball player, the White Sox had offered him a signing bonus of a hundred thousand dollars, a big number in those days, but he turned it down to go to college. He planned to go to medical school, to become a surgeon.

Once, when we were watching a 60 Minutes segment on Vietnam, Lynne said: “My brother could have got out of Vietnam, but he didn’t want to. Our father fought in World War Two, and Billy idolized him. He told me Vietnam was going to be the adventure of his generation, and he didn’t want to miss out on it.”

Lynne kept her maiden name after our marriage, which she had done during her previous two. We went off to our separate labors together most mornings. Running a full-time medical practice didn’t leave much time for cooking, so we usually met for dinner at a downtown or near North Side restaurant. Sometimes we’d bring in food from Chinatown. She dragged me along to Steppenwolf for plays, many of which I didn’t understand and those I did I found I didn’t much like. I did better going to the symphony with her, where I could at least let my mind drift off to the business deals then on my plate or nap off. I kept my Bulls and Bears season tickets, but used them less and less.

At one Bulls–Trail Blazers game I did go to, at halftime, my friend Mel Rosen introduced me to Irwin Harris, Lynne’s first husband, the lawyer. Irwin was in his middle 50s, with a lawyerly look of slightly oily prosperity about him, beginning to run to stoutness. No man, I’m sure, likes to be in the company of another man who has slept with his wife, but for some reason I didn’t find this guy as irritating as I thought I would.

“She’s a great girl,” he said. “Smart, too. And still a beauty, I’ll bet. I haven’t seen Lynne in 10 years.”

“She is all those things,” I said.

“Did you get to meet her parents before they died?” I shook my head no. “Remarkable people, Sid and Essie Ross. He was in scrap iron. Went to work in a Hickey Freeman suit and changed into coveralls and worked in the yard with the blacks and the Polish guys. A very tough guy. Aggressive. Used to play softball at Loyola every Sunday and in his 50s could still beat out slow grounders to third. Loved his kids, but especially Billy. Billy was everything to him. When Billy died in Vietnam, the lights, I’m told, went out in Sid’s eyes.”

“Did you know Billy?” I asked.

“Never met him,” he said.

“She hasn’t spoken all that much about her brother to me,” I said.

“But,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard me, “if I were to name a correspondent in my divorce with Lynne, it would have been one William Ross. The main problem with our marriage was that I couldn’t come anywhere near the standard set by her brother. I hope you get closer. Have you been given access to the Billysaleum yet?”

Before I had a chance to answer, the buzzer for the second half sounded, and it was time to get back to our seats.

I’m not sure why, but I decided not to say anything to Lynne about my meeting her first husband. What, really, would be the point?

“You know,” Lynne said to me one evening after an early dinner at home of omelets and salad, “I often wonder what Billy would be doing now if he were still alive.”

“He would be how old?”

“Today’s his birthday,” she said. “January 9. He would have been 54. He’d been accepted to Yale Medical School. But he was worried that Vietnam would all be over by the time he got out. He was planning to do surgical research after medical school. He would have been marvelous at it.”

“He had to have been an extraordinary guy” was all I could think to add.

“Billy wasn’t like anyone else. I think I knew that even when we were little kids. He was always advanced for his age, far ahead of everybody.”

“Were you ever envious of him? Did you ever sense that maybe he set the bar too high for you?”

“I might have felt some of that if I’d been his younger brother. But as a sister I felt nothing of the kind. I just remember being proud of him all the time, of his brains, of his athletic prowess, of the way he carried himself. Everything he wore looked perfect on him. All my girlfriends had crushes on him. He was always very kind to them, kind to everybody, really.” Her eyes began to tear up.

On Lynne’s 49th birthday, I took her to a restaurant in Evanston called Trio, where not only did I not recognize a single item on the menu but the waiter, a young guy with a very ambitious hairdo, gave us very careful instructions on how to eat each dish. I had bought a Bulgari watch for my wife, which I was planning to give her before dessert arrived.

“Billy always made a terrific fuss over my birthdays,” she said. “He would come up with sweet goofy gifts, surprise me with tickets to musicals and things for me and my friends to do. Once he actually got Mel Tormé to call just before I was to blow out the candles on my cake for my 16th birthday party and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me over the phone. I have no idea how my brother managed it, but it was really Mel Tormé. After Billy died, for years I felt I never wanted to have another birthday.”

_____________

Lynne and I didn’t have our first argument until we were married a year and a half or so, which may be a world record, though I haven’t checked this in the Guinness Book. We didn’t have money problems to argue about; being childless, disputes about child-raising caused no conflict. What we finally argued about—what I, to name the goddamn culprit, really argued about—was Lynne’s showing up an hour and a quarter late for dinner one Friday night at a restaurant on Halsted Street called Vinci. I’d had a rough day. I’d also had two martinis—not a usual thing for me—and was working on a third. I made the mistake of taking our table, reserved for 6:30, instead of waiting for Lynne at the bar. She was usually punctual. I tried to call her office, but no one answered. My irritation turned to anger and crested up around rage when, at ten of eight, she walked in.

“Where the hell were you?” I said.

“It’s a complicated story,” she said. “I’ll explain.”

“I hope it’s also a good one,” I said, though I knew I wasn’t going to let her tell it. I was, I now realize, the booze working its ugly magic, a lot happier at that moment being angry. I began dressing her down, in a loud voice, right there in the middle of the small and crowded restaurant. Dumb. Really stupid. She fled. When after a minute or two I went out in the street to find her, she was gone.

By the time I got back to the apartment—having driven slowly, hoping the effect of the martinis would wear off—Lynne had long before arrived, pulled blankets and pillows off our bed, and taken up residence for the night in the room she kept for her brother, the Billysaleum, as Irwin Harris had called it and as I, too, now started to think of it. She had locked the door from the inside. When I knocked, apologizing, she refused to answer.

She was gone when I woke Saturday morning. When she returned later in the day, I apologized again, told her how stupid I felt, it was the martinis doing the talking, that it would never happen again.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” she said.

And we didn’t ever again. But I always felt that that night was the first time I had failed her, shown my coarseness. She didn’t ever say so, but I always thought she was thinking that her brother Billy would never have done such a thing, not in a million years. Had he been alive, he might even have come around to straighten me out for talking that way to his little sister.

Every so often, at a concert, or at High Holiday services at Temple Sholom, we’d run into someone who had gone to high school with Billy. When they would mention him to Lynne, she seemed to glow in a way that never resulted from my conversation nor anything else I did.

A plumber came in one day to fix our back bathroom toilet, which had gone on the fritz, and he turned out to be a guy named Jack Mruk, who had played with Billy at Lane Tech. He was a big guy, maybe 6’4″, dark, with a low hairline, who looked as if he might have to shave three or four times a day. When Lynne remembered who he was, you could feel her excitement.

“I’d heard your brother got killed in Nam,” he said. “Lousy luck! I never had to go because of my bum knees. Bad knees are my biggest gift from all of those years of basketball I guess.”

“Weren’t you a year ahead of Billy?”

“Yeah, but two years older. I’d had rheumatic fever as a kid and had to stay home from grade school for a year. Billy was the best I ever played with. Completely unselfish guy. He was always feeding me the ball. He made me look good.”

Mruk told a story about the time Billy had dribbled out the clock with more than two minutes to go against a Chicago Vocational team. He told her about the time the two of them, he and Billy, each scored more than 30 points in a game against Von Steuben, the first time in the city any team had two players score in the 30s in the same game. Jack Mruk had Lynne’s absolutely full attention. As she listened to him talk about Billy, I ceased to exist.

That night I had a dream in which I was playing a half-court basketball game with Billy Ross and Jack Mruk against me. We were all naked. I stood by helplessly as they scored basket after basket. My heart sank at my inadequacy.

I might have had a chance against a living brother, but against a brother dead for decades, none whatsoever. I assume Billy Ross had had weaknesses, excesses, like the rest of us; or at least that, given enough knocks in life, some would eventually have shown up. Maybe he would have turned out to be a drinking man, or a gambler, or an impatient father, or a skirt chaser—something besides the perfect brother permanently fixed in his sister’s mind and memory.

Around this time we went to a wedding of a younger cousin of Lynne’s at the Gold Room at the Drake. Until then I had never danced with my wife. I did my slow-dance box step, pleased that I had managed not to step on Lynne’s toes.

“Hey, Lynne,” her Uncle Maury said when we got back to our table, “remember how you and Billy used to get up at deals like this and everyone would clear the floor to watch the two of you dance?

“When they were kids they did everything from jitterbug to tango together,” Uncle Maury continued, turning to me. “You’d have loved it, Lou. They were a knockout.” I looked over at Lynne, who was looking off more than 20 years in the distance.

I wished I’d meet someone who would tell me something really terrible about Billy: that he cheated at poker, or had a child-porno collection, or wore funny shoes. I started thinking so much about my wife’s relation with her dead brother that I did something I had earlier told myself I would never have to do as long as I lived. I saw a shrink.

A little fellow, Dr. Levitas had no couch in his office, but two plush chairs, in which we sat facing each other. He wore a gold bracelet on his right wrist, and expensive shoes that rode up over his ankles. Odd touches of vanity, I thought, for a man of science.

“Sometimes, you know, the Electra complex in young women is misplaced, attaching itself not to the father, as is normal and healthy, but to male siblings or uncles or even older cousins.”

“What, exactly, is the Electra complex?” I asked.

“Like the Oedipus complex, but played out in the psychodrama of young girls.”

Even I knew about the Oedipus complex. “Instead of wanting to sleep with her father,” I said, “my wife has never got over wanting to sleep with her dead brother? Is this what you’re telling me?”

“To say this in an authoritative way, I would need to talk with your wife, which I should be pleased to do. But the question is, how do you feel about all this?”

“I feel like a shmuck,” I said.

“For entering into a marriage so fraught?”

“No,” I said, “for paying you $175 to listen to this horseshit.” At which point, I got up from my chair and walked out of the office.

The reasons for my resisting Levitas’s interpretation of my wife’s behavior aren’t very complicated. In business as in my life, I don’t like investigations of motives that go underwater beyond a certain level—so deep that you can’t deal with them. Because Lynne missed wanting to crawl into the sack with her old man she now wants to do so with her dead brother was about 50 fathoms deeper than I was prepared to go.

Besides, it was difficult enough dealing with my marriage on the surface, which was that Lynne had had a brilliant and immensely attractive older brother, and because of him she had set her ideal of what a man ought to be inhumanly high. Two earlier husbands couldn’t make it; a third had had the good fortune to peg out before he disqualified himself; and I looked to be the next guy who wasn’t going to make it, either.

_____________

We were dining at home on a Sunday night, after which we were going to watch a movie on television. I hadn’t planned to do so, but just before we were about to take our dishes into the kitchen, I found myself saying, “Babe, forgive me, but I have to tell you that I’m worried about us. I worry that I’m going to lose you because you don’t think I’m the man your brother was.”

“Nobody could be,” she said. “I’ve long ago known that no one could replace Billy. But Billy was my brother. You are my husband. Big difference there, you know.”

“But do you also know how tough on a husband it is knowing that your happiest memories are about a boy who has been dead for more than 25 years? The other night when Maury Grolnik was talking about you and your brother as a kid dance team, I felt you’d left the room on me, and for a much better place than my company could ever provide. Whenever Billy’s name comes up, I feel wiped out.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean for that to happen. You must believe me.”

“It does happen, though, and it hurts. It hurts a lot.”

“Oh, Lou, I wish you had known my brother. Everything about him seemed golden. He never said anything stupid. He was beautiful and kind, Lou, and so generous, you could feel his goodness.”

“But he’s dead, babe, and he isn’t coming back. I know you know that better than anyone, but forgive me if I say it doesn’t always seem as if you act on that knowledge.”

“I try, Lou, you have to believe that I really do. And now that I know how you feel, I’ll try harder. I promise.” We took a pass on the movie, went to bed early, and made love tenderly and lengthily. Lynne fell off to sleep before me, and as I held her in my arms I looked down at her intelligent and tranquil face; she seemed even more beautiful in her sleep. Later in the night she turned over and, in an agonized voice in her sleep, called out, “Oh, Billy, Billy, where are you?”

I woke the next morning defeated, hopeless. Much as I loved my wife, I felt I couldn’t go any further with things as they were. Lynne had gone to the university hospital early for grand rounds.

I phoned the janitor, a sly Romanian who called himself Stefano, to ask his help in unlocking the door to the Billysaleum. After he had done so, I went inside and emptied out its contents: pictures, photo albums, medals, trophies, the works. It was a wild thing to do, but I figured, screw it. I piled everything neatly in the foyer to our apartment, six or so feet from our front door, and on top of it all left the following note:

Lynne,

I’ve decided to close up my office and work at home. I needed the room in which you’ve kept your brother’s things for my computer and a few file cabinets. We can put your brother’s stuff in our basement locker. Hope this doesn’t inconvenience you too much. I’ll be at the Bulls-Clippers game and probably won’t be back much before 11.

Love, Lou

Not very subtle, agreed, but I felt the time for subtlety had passed.

Lynne usually got home by 6 p.m. I decided it would be best not to call but to wait for her to call me. The day dragged on and seemed longer than two bad fiscal quarters. I couldn’t concentrate. I drove around the city, had lunch alone in Chinatown, dropped into the East Bank for a sauna and soak in the Jacuzzi, grabbed a sandwich, and drove off to the game. I couldn’t concentrate on it, either. Watching these multimillionaire kids run up and down the floor, all I could think was that one ball wasn’t enough for these guys; they needed six or seven balls on the court to cover everyone’s selfishness.

I struggled to stay for the full game, a blowout, Bulls 109, Clippers 86. To delay my return, I stopped at the Bagel on Broadway and had a plate of scrambled eggs, toast, and a pot of tea. It was well past midnight when I turned the key in the door. The pile of Billy’s stuff had been removed from the foyer. I turned down the hall to the Billysaleum to see if it had all been put back and found that the door was locked. Lynne was nowhere in the apartment.

In our bathroom, I found a light blue envelope taped to the mirror. I put down the top of the commode, sat down, withdrew three sheets of notepaper within written in Lynne’s good-student girlish hand, and read:

Dear Lou,

When I came home earlier this evening to find my brother’s things on the floor in the hallway, I felt first dazed, then angry, then enraged. Why would you do such a thing? I asked myself, but of course I knew. You are not the first man I’ve been married to who has complained about my brother’s being his rival—an unbeatable rival, they claimed. But I had thought of you as different, more independent, less likely to worry about false rivals, beyond all that. I guess I was wrong.

I loved my brother and love the memory of him even now, so long after his death. I can’t help it. I had hoped that you would have understood this and been able to live with it, and not feel in some sort of empty competition with a dead man. I took you for a larger man than you apparently are. My mistake again.

I have moved into the Seneca Hotel and plan to stay there for the next three days. That should give you plenty of time to clear your own things from the apartment. Please don’t try to get in touch. There really isn’t anything that we have to say to each other. I regret that things haven’t worked out. I regret it more than you can possibly know.

Lynne

I read it twice, brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas, and slipped into the bed that had Lynne’s clean, vaguely perfumed, understatedly sexy scent, which I would never smell again. Eventually I drifted off into a dream in which I was playing basketball, this time one-on-one against my dead brother-in-law. We were in a large empty gym in which the bounce of the ball echoed loudly. I was in gray, rumpled sweat clothes, needing a shave, toting a middle-aged man’s potbelly, wearing black wing tips and silky black socks with clocks on them. Billy was in his sleek blue-and-gold University of Michigan uniform. I had the ball. I feinted to my right, he lunged, and I dribbled behind my back and through my legs, and slipped easily around him to the left. At the free-throw line, I leapt and soared, in slow motion, and slammed the ball authoritatively in the hoop. I looked back to see what Billy thought of my move, but he, along with all the hopes of my marriage, had vanished.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein, a longtime contributor to COMMENTARY is the author, most recently, of The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories.




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