Peter Carmody is a man most people would envy. He has a successful career, an attractive wife, two children he loves and who love him. Yet Peter Carmody has been playing at a marriage that has run down over the years through emotional attrition and boredom. Sometimes, when the martinis come fast enough and the determined, frenetic gaiety of friends momentarily fills up the emptiness, the charade is almost convincing. But in the small, honest hours of the night, Peter recognizes his arrangement for what it is--the very opposite of living. In an explosive self confrontation, Peter gambles all he has against what he hopes to have in a life with Elizabeth, the woman he loves. Resented by his friends who lack the courage--perhaps the desperation--to break out of their own loveless arrangements, and humiliated by the American way of divorce that strips him of his children, property, and self respect, Peter touches despair before realizing that making an honest, joyful connection with Elizabeth is an affirmation of life worth any cost. The Husband is a very real and dramatic story of a man struggling to find the truth of his life. The Husband is someone you know.
On the way to Elizabeth’s apartment, Peter found himself ten steps behind a blond girl whose hips moved in a rhythm that excited him. He walked rapidly, despite his heavy briefcase. As he overtook the girl, the anonymous and interesting blondness changed; in profile she had a rather ordinary face. What was all the excitement about?
He knew, of course. Elizabeth had brought a sense of spring and sexuality back into his life. Now he found himself looking at women as women, not in the fraudulent manner of ogling and whistling—the male way of pretending maleness to other men—but looking at individual women he had never seen before, as if each was someone one might indeed go to bed with. He gave each credit to start with, then took the credit away if he found them unattractive in voice or walk or manner or holding onto some other man in a declarative way. The surprise to him was how many kept the credit, including older women who, he noticed, were likely to have a quick sense of their own sexuality, or the frisky younger ones whose youthful assertiveness was more stimulating than their overkempt bodies, or even women he knew but had never before thought of as possible bedmates. How much fair game there was in the world!
The legend in America was that the women castrated the men, but Peter now knew that to be inaccurate. A good deal of that overt dominance was the result of dismay, the woman in effect saying to the man: if you’re not cock-of-the-walk, I will be; there has got to be a cock somewhere.
Since the advent of Elizabeth, Peter found that in the community of females there was a sense of his cockiness. Some women, he was beginning to find out, had an immediate response to the electricity a man felt inside himself. Where had his been so long?
Peter swung the glass door to Elizabeth’s apartment building forward with more energy than called for and just made the self-service elevator in which a fortyish woman, armed with groceries, was already pushing a button.
They looked at each other. Does she know I am going up here to get laid?
Would she like to get laid? She probably hadn’t thought about it. Was she thinking about it now that she and he were in the elevator alone?
Peter looked her full in the face and was immediately convinced that she hadn’t thought about getting laid for a long time. She wasn’t unattractive.
The woman got out of the elevator, flicking a look at him, and he suddenly realized why: he hadn’t pushed a floor button. He did, and the light went out. He got the light back on. He pushed the right button. Man, get ahold of yourself!
He let himself in with a key kept not with his other keys but in his wallet, in a small envelope on which he had taken the precaution of writing a fictitious masculine name. To avoid getting caught. Why avoid getting caught?
Elizabeth was lying on the floor, six or seven open books around her. She turned away from the one in her hand as she heard the door open. Her smile had a virtue no other had ever had for Peter.
Some people have a ready smile, which they flick on to say, “I’m smiling, don’t worry.” It usually was a cause for worry, like a salesman’s “Let me be candid with you.” Peter remembered the school librarian with the perpetual smile—not for him, or over anything, or to anybody at all, just a permanent, frozen expression of pretended happiness. Peter knew an art director who, at age forty-five or thereabouts, had been told that he looked younger when he smiled, and that smiler was now impossible to look at with a straight face. It was indeed rare when a smile was an expression out of the ordinary, showing pleasure short of joy. Elizabeth smiled when she meant it and could not bring herself to smile otherwise. It was a liability in business; it put some people off but never anyone that mattered. Hers was the league of people who felt that a smile was an expression one should not cheat with.
At this moment, Peter and Elizabeth were looking at each other, and he thought how rare that was, too, men and women who already knew each other taking the other in.
He put his briefcase down and flung his coat over a chair.
She was on her back now and slowly raised her legs until they were perpendicular. Then she slowly lowered them. Peter watched her as she repeated the exercise. Was it that her body showed through her clothes more than with other women? Was it perfectly proportioned, or was this another exaggeration, a way of his describing his feeling for her to himself? Ah, the old myth-making machine: my girl is the most beautiful girl in the world.
Still, he thought as her legs moved up, then down, what a body.
“You are a remarkable woman,” he said.
It was superfluous to compliment a woman like Elizabeth.
It was not superfluous to compliment any woman ever.