But he knew that he was not delusional. He knew he was not.
Simmering anger instead of fear, determination to be the hunter instead of the prey, kept Ryan’s mind circling around the puzzle in an alternately widening and shrinking gyre, circling in search of a single loose thread that when plucked would unravel the mystery into truth.
Bafflement hardened into frustration, until he wanted to scream to vent his exasperation. Instead, he picked up Samantha’s book for distraction.
Earlier in the day, he had reached the twenty-seventh of sixty-six chapters in his third reading of the novel. Now, within a single paragraph, Sam’s prose again bewitched him.
Once, while working on the book, she had spoken of subtext. He knew what that was-the underlying, implicit meaning of the story, which the writer never directly expressed. Not all works of fiction had subtext; perhaps most did not.
Samantha said that readers did not need to be consciously aware of the subtext to enjoy a story fully, because if the tale had been told well, they would subconsciously absorb the implicit meaning. In fact, the emotional effect of the subtext frequently could be more powerful when the reader was not able to put it into words, when it slammed him hard without his quite understanding by what he had been slammed.
Subtext could be layered, she said, implicit meanings spread one over another like the delicate layers in phyllo, that flaky pastry used in Greek and Middle Eastern desserts.
Ryan thought he understood her novel’s primary subtext. But he sensed other layers, the meaning of which he could not infer.
More important, this mattered to him because in those depths of the tale, he sensed a waiting revelation that could explain why they remained apart although they loved each other. Why she had not at once accepted his proposal of marriage. And why she might never accept it.
The revelation was so elusive, however, that he might as well have been a fisherman casting a line without either a hook or bait, seeking a fish that never needed to eat.
Eventually he put the book aside and watched the muted TV, which he’d never turned off. Horsemen raced across desert plains, through purple sage, past weather-carved red rocks, under a vastness of sky, furiously firing guns, but without the clatter of hooves or the crack of shots, without a single savage human cry.
He listened to the house, waiting for a footfall, for the rustle of a garment, for the snick of his stolen pistol being cocked, for his name whispered by a voice that he would not recognize but that his heart would know.
He had lived too long with the fear of death to be kept awake by that alone. Eventually he grew sleepy.
He hoped to dream. He had not dreamed in a year. He welcomed even the bad dreams that had plagued him, for the texture they would give to sleep.
The poster in the bookstore window featured a photo of Samantha and the jacket of her novel. A headline announced that she would be signing copies from noon until two o’clock, this date.
Ryan had noticed the sign days ago. On seeing it, he thought he should not come here, but he knew he would.
Now he carried with him the copy that he purchased on the day the novel first appeared on store shelves. He wanted more than a signature.
Since he’d been here the last time, a smaller poster had been added beside the first: NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER!
He had not known that the book was such a success.
A sudden set of emotions swelled through him, not one after another, but every wave at once. He was proud of her, so proud he felt like buttonholing passersby to assure them that she was unique and kind and worthy of success, but also pierced by regret that he had not been with her when she heard the news or when she got her first good review, and twisted by a guilt that he could not name, yet he also caught a wave that seemed more like happiness than anything he had felt in a long time.
Under the bestseller announcement, the smaller poster featured a reproduction of the most recent Sunday’s New York Times Book Review hardcover bestseller list. Among fifteen titles, the ninth had been circled in red. In Sam’s debut appearance on the list, she cracked the top ten.
“Sonofabitch,” he said, “way to go,” and he was grinning. “Way to go, you did it.”
Excitement effervesced in Ryan, and he tried to think of a way-the best way-to memorialize this moment, this triumph. But then he realized that the bestseller list would not be news to Sam, as it was to him, that she had already celebrated this success and no doubt others.
He had come ten minutes before the scheduled conclusion of her signing. Through the store window, he saw a line of people waiting to get to the table at which Samantha sat, and he knew she would stay late, until she signed all their copies.
Even from a distance, the sight of Sam proved that his new heart possessed all the capacity of the old one.
Suddenly concerned that she would glance up and see him with his face pressed to the window, that he would appear pathetic, he turned away from the bookstore.
He considered retreating to his car in the mall parking lot and waiting half an hour before returning. He worried he would miss her.
Here and there on the open-air promenade, benches provided weary shoppers with places to rest between bouts of spending. Enormous terra-cotta pots overflowing with red ivy geraniums flanked the bench on which Ryan sat.
For a few minutes, he tried to read Samantha’s book, but with the prospect of meeting her, he grew too nervous to concentrate. And he had too much respect for her work, even on the third reading-especially because it deserved a third reading-to give it less than his full attention.
Here in the middle of California’s four-month rainy season, with a new storm predicted to move in overnight, a temporary reprieve from miserable weather had been granted. A transparent sky, as bright and smooth as glass, cast reflections of silver sunshine on the southern coast.
Ryan watched small birds policing a restaurant patio for crumbs, numerous breeds of dogs on leashes and each one grinning with delight at every sight and scent, a tandem stroller with two pink babies in crocheted yellow tams and yellow-and-blue suits and yellow booties with blue pompons on the toes.
Putting aside for the moment the troubles of the last two days, he was glad for life, and he tried not to worry about how much more-or little-of it might be coming to him.
At 2:40, Samantha stepped out of the bookstore in the company of a cheerful-seeming woman in red shoes and a tartan-plaid dress, with jubilant masses of bouncing chestnut-brown curls and a way with extravagant gestures that, from a distance, made her appear to be declaiming Shakespeare.
Ryan’s courage sank at the prospect of approaching Sam when she was in the company of a publicity agent or a publisher’s rep. But evidently, the gesticulating woman was the bookstore manager, or at least a clerk, for after shaking Sam’s hand, clapping her twice on the shoulder, and seeming to pretend for a moment to whirl a lasso above her head, she went back inside.
Not yet having seen Ryan, Sam walked in his direction, digging in her purse for something, perhaps car keys.
She wore an exquisitely tailored black pantsuit and white blouse with black piping. Trim, lithe, fashionable, she moved with the brisk confidence that would have identified her if he had unexpectedly seen her at a distance in the street.
Approaching her, he forgot every opening line he had practiced and could say only, “Sam,” and she looked up as her right hand came out of the purse with a bristling bunch of keys.
They had not seen each other in more than ten months and had not spoken in seven.
He did not know what her reaction would be, and he was prepared for a strained smile or a pained grimace, a few impatient words and a brisk dismissal.
Instead, he saw something in her eyes that hurt him more deeply than would have anger or loathing. Although it might not quite be pity with which she regarded him, it was close.
He was grateful for her smile. As lovely as it was, however, it had an unmistakable melancholy aspect. “Ryan.”
“Look at you. How are you doing?”
“I’m all right. I feel good.”
She said, “You look like always.”
“Not if you could see the humongous scar,” he assured her, tapping his chest. He realized at once that he had said the wrong thing, so he quickly added, “Congratulations on the book.”
She ducked her head almost shyly. “All I’ve proved so far is I’m at least a one-hit wonder.”
“Not you. You’ve got the right stuff, Sam. You’re working on a second, aren’t you?”
“Sure. Yeah.” She shrugged. “But you never know.”
“Hey, number nine on the list.”
“We’ve learned it rises to seven next week.”
“That’s wonderful. You’ll go to the top.”
She shook her head. “John Grisham doesn’t have anything to worry about.”
Holding up the copy he had brought with him, he said, “I’ve read it twice. I’m reading it again. I knew it would be good, Samantha, but I didn’t expect it to be such-“
As he reached for words of praise, he discovered only surfing lingo would be adequate to express his admiration.
“-such a fully macking behemoth, pure rolling thunder.”
The melancholy in her smile remained in her soft laugh. “We’ll have to quote that on the paperback.”
Although he yearned to put his arms around her, he restrained himself, unwilling to risk that she would stiffen in the embrace or shrink from him.
Trying for a smaller grace, indicating the bench flanked by ivy geraniums, he said, “Could we sit for a few minutes? I’d like to talk to you about it.”
He expected her to plead an imminent appointment, but she said, “Sure. The sun is so nice.”
On the bench, they sat angled toward each other and, riffling the pages of the novel, he said, “You never showed me this in progress, so I never could have anticipated…”
“I never share what I’m writing while I’m writing it. Not with anyone. I wish I could. It’s a lonely process.”
“I’ve been thinking about subtext.”
“Never think about it too much. The magic goes.”
“This book is phyllo pastry,” he said.
“You think so?”
“Totally. Implicit meanings. I’ll never see them all.”
“Feeling them’s enough.”
“Forget the phyllo.”
“It’s a flaky analogy anyway.”
He said, “It’s more like the sea. Thermal strata that descend forever, schooling sunfish in this one, and under the sunfish are clouds of luminescent plankton, under the plankton krill, and on and on, light playing down through the layers but shadows rising. And down there somewhere there’s something of you, a mysterious other you. I mean…another side of you, a quality I never recognized.”
She did not at once respond, and he thought that somehow he had offended her or had sounded so jejune that she was embarrassed for him, but then she said, “What quality?”
“I don’t know. I can’t get my mind around it yet. But I have this feeling that when I do, when I understand that part of you…I’ll know why you couldn’t accept my proposal.”
She regarded him with such tenderness that he could hardly bear the weight of it.
“Sam,” he pressed, “is what I feel possible? Is there something in this book that will tell me what it was I didn’t have that you needed most?”
“I suppose there could be. There is. Though I didn’t write it to enlighten you.”
“But inevitably, I’m in it. All of me, down there under the luminescent plankton.”
The melancholy of her smile was a deeper sorrow than before.
He glanced around, wondering if passersby were alert to the small drama on this bench. Sam was already something of a literary celebrity, and he did not want to discomfit her by making any kind of scene.
The shoppers hurried past unaware, self-amused children giggled, young couples hand-in-hand drifted by in mutual infatuation, and only an Irish setter on a leash looked alertly at Ryan and Sam as though catching the scent of distress, but it was pulled along by a man in khaki shorts and Birkenstocks.
“Sam, you know, I wish you’d just tell me what it was I didn’t have.”
“During all the time we were together, I tried to tell you.”
He frowned. “Was I that dense?”
With the gentlest regret, she said, “It’s not a thing you discuss like halitosis or table manners, Ryan. It’s not a thing you can acquire overnight just because you know I need it. And the worst would be to fake it because you think it’s wanted.”
“So how was I supposed to know what it was, what you needed-by subtext?”
“Yes. By subtext. The implicit meaning of how I lived my life, what I felt, what mattered to me.”
“Sam, I’m lost.”
Revealing a pain at which her melancholy had only hinted, she said, “Sweetie, I know. I know you are, I know, and it breaks my heart.”
He risked reaching out to her, and she took his hand, for which his gratitude was too great to be expressed.
“Sam, if I read the book enough to get it, to understand what you needed that I didn’t have, and if I can be that for you, whatever it is, can we try again?”
She gripped his hand tightly, as though she wanted to hold fast to him forever. Nevertheless, she said, “It’s too late, Ryan. I wish it weren’t, but it is.”
“Is there…someone else?”
“No. There hasn’t been, not a single date this whole year, and I’ve been fine alone, I didn’t want anything else. Maybe one day there will be someone. I don’t know.”
“But you loved me. I know you did. You can’t just stop loving someone from one day to the next.”
“I never stopped,” she said.
Those three words, with such potential to exhilarate him, instead disheartened because her voice conveyed with them a quiet yet intense grief, an anguish, with which wives spoke of their recently deceased husbands, for whom their love would henceforth be unrequited.
“I love you,” she said. “But I can’t be in love with you.”
Frustrated, he said, “You’re parsing words.”
“I’m not. There’s a difference.”
“Not enough to matter.”
“Everything matters, Ryan. Everything.”
“Please tell me what I’ve done.”
She looked stricken. “No. Oh, God, no.”
Her reaction seemed out of proportion to his question, which after all was just another way of asking what she needed that he had not recognized.
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