Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy were third cousins. No one remembered which Morris had married which Cardworthy, and no one cared except at large family gatherings when this topic was introduced and subjected to the benign opinions of all. Vincent and Guido had been friends since babyhood. They had been strolled together in the same pram and as boys were often brought together, either at the Cardworthy house in Petrie, Connecticut, or at the Morris's in Boston to play marbles, climb trees, and set off cherry bombs in trash cans and mailboxes. As teenagers, they drank beer in hiding and practiced smoking Guido's father's cigars, which did not make them sick, but happy. As adults, they both loved a good cigar.
At college they fooled around, spent money, and wondered what would become of them when they grew up. Guido in tended to write poetry in heroic couplets and Vincent thought he might eventually win the Nobel Prize for physics.
In their late twenties they found themselves together again in Cambridge. Guido had gone to law school, had put in several years at a Wall Street law firm, and had discovered that his heart was not in his work, and so he had come back to graduate school to study Romance languages and literature. He was old for a graduate student, but he had decided to give himself a few years of useless pleasure before the true responsibilities of adulthood set upon him. Eventually, Guido was to go to New York and take over the stewardship of the Morris family trust-the Magna ,Charta Foundation, which gave money to civic art projects, artists of all sorts, and groups who wished to preserve landmarks and beautify their cities. The trust put out a bimonthly magazine devoted to the arts called Runnymeade. The money for all this came from a small fortune in textiles made in the early nineteenth century by a former sea captain by the name of Robert Morris. On one of his journeys, Robert Morris had married an Italian wife. Thereafter, all Morrises had Italianate names. Guido's grandfather was Almanso. His father was Sandro. His Uncle Giancarlo was the present administrator of the trust but he was getting on and Guido had been chosen to be eventual heir.
Vincent had gone off to the University of London and had come back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had begun as a city planner, but his true field of interest was sanitation engineering, as it was called, although Vincent called it garbage. He was fascinated by its production, removal, and possible uses. His monographs on recycling, published in a magazine called City Limits, were beginning to make him famous in his field. He had also patented a small machine for home use that turned vegetable peelings, newspapers, and other kitchen leavings into valuable mulch, but nothing much had happened to it. Eventually he would go off to New York and give over his talent and energy to the Board of City Planning.
With their futures somewhat assured, they lolled around Cambridge and wondered whom they would marry.
One Sunday afternoon in January, Vincent and Guido found themselves perusing an exhibition of Greek vases at the Fogg Museum. The air outside was heavy and wet. Inside, it was overheated. It was the sort of day that forced you out of the house and gave you nothing back in return. They had been restless indoors, edgy out of doors, and had settled on the Fogg feeling that the sight of Greek vases might cool them out. They took several turns around. Guido delivered himself of a lecture on shape and form. Vincent gave his two minutes on the planning of the Greek city-state. None of this quieted them. They were looking for action, unsure of what kind and unwilling to seek it out. Vincent believed that the childish desire to kick tires and smash bottles against walls was never lost but relegated, in adulthood, to the subconscious where it jumped around creating just the sort of tension he was feeling. A sweaty round of handball or a couple of well-set cherry bombs would have done them both a lot of good, but it was too cold for the one and they were too refined for the other. Thus they were left with their own nerves.
On the way out, Guido saw a girl sitting on a bench. She was slender, fine-boned, and her hair was the blackest, sleekest hair Guido had ever seen. It was worn the way Japanese children wear theirs, only longer. Her face seemed to print itself on his heart indelibly.
He stopped to stare at her and when she finally looked back, she glared through him. Guido nudged Vincent and they moved toward the bench on which she sat.
“The perspective is perfect," said Guido. “Notice the subtlety of line and the intensity of color."
“Very painterly," said Vincent. “What is it?"
“I'll have to look it up," said Guido. “It appears to be an inspired mix of schools. Notice that the nose tilts-a very slight distortion giving the illusion of perfect clarity." He pointed to her collar. “Note the exquisite folds around the neck and the drapery of the rest of the figure."
During this recitation, the girl sat perfectly still. Then, with deliberation, she lit a cigarette. “Notice the arc of the arm," Guido continued. The girl opened her perfect mouth.
“Notice the feeblemindedness that passes for wit among aging graduate students," she said. Then she got up and left.
The next time Guido saw her, she was getting on the bus. The weather had become savagely cold and she was struggling to get change out of her wallet but her gloves were getting in her way. Finally, she pulled off one of her gloves with her teeth. Guido watched, entranced. She wore a fur hat and two scarves. As she came down the aisle, Guido hid behind his book and stared at her all the way to Harvard Square, which was, it turned out, their common destination. They confronted each other at the newsstand. She looked him up and down and walked away.
Two weeks later she turned up under more felicitous circumstances. She appeared at a tearoom with a girl named Paula Pierce-Williams, whom Guido had known all his life. Paula waved at him, and he ambled over to their table.
“Guido, this is Holly Sturgis," said Paula. “And Holly, this is Guido Morris."
“We've met," said Holly Sturgis.
“I never see you anymore, Guido," said Paula. “Are you still working on your thesis?"
“I'm almost finished," said Guido.
“I can never remember what it's on," said Paula.
“Medieval property law and its relationship to courtly love," said Guido. Holly Sturgis snickered.
Guido was not in the habit of falling in love with girls he saw on buses or in museums. He had had two serious love affairs and a small number of casual encounters. These he tried not to think about-they had puzzled and hurt him. He explained to himself that he was an old-fashioned man living in modern times, shackled with the belief that all real love affairs led to marriage. If they did not, they must in some way be bogus, built on bad faith or lack of true emotion. Therefore they were bad-once they were over, no matter how ardently one had begun them. The casual encounters Guido chalked up to sheer impulse. You could not call something that lasted for a day a love affair. Vincent tried to explain that these things were a matter of process-the process of growing up, but this was no consolation to Guido. In the case of his two serious love affairs, the partings had been equitable but not understandable: both the girls had married and sent him cards at Christmastime. Where, he wondered, had all that feeling gone?
Now as he entered his thirties, he believed that one made mistakes in love until one was perfectly sure. That surety found its object in Holly Sturgis. He was serious in matters of the heart, and serious in matters of aesthetics. Something about Holly Sturgis struck him profoundly. One look announced her elegance and precision. Everything about her the calculation of her nloves, the grace with which she walked, the fact that she took off her gloves with her teeth-moved him. He believed that desire was mere shorthand for aesthetics and intuition. He wanted Holly Sturgis, plain and simple. He wanted access to that sleek, vital Japanese hair. He wanted her naked in his naked arms. He imagined that her shoulders smelled coolly of jasmine.
In the way of people who fantasize rather than analyze, he knew that Holly was probably difficult, quirky, and hard to live with. It was obvious that she was precise-even her hair was precise. He knew all this because his daydreams were usually accurate-Vincent said he was a visual thinker. And so he imagined himself and Holly lying against crisp white sheets at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He did not bother to imagine how they got there or what led up to it. There would be anemones on the night table. Holly's hair would look like a sable paintbrush against the pillow and in his daydream she was smoking, balancing the ashtray on her stomach. The late afternoon light would be fuzzy with smoke. She would be entirely silent. He, of course, would be consumed by the event -it would be the first time they had been to bed together- and he saw himself looking cautiously at Holly, but unable to tell what that lovely, intelligent face was expressing or concealing from view.
Paula Pierce-Williams poured the tea. Then she went off to make a telephone call.
“Did you engineer this?" Holly said.
“Certainly not," said Guido. “I can't help it if you follow me around."
“I don't find that amusing. What do you want?"
“I want you to be more gracious to people who fall at your feet."
“I don't notice you falling at my feet."
“Maybe you don't know how to look," said Guido. He saw Paula walking toward them and quickly asked Holly to have dinner with him. To his astonishment, she said yes.
Their first encounter did not take place at the Ritz-Carlton, but at Holly's. The anemones Guido had daydreamed about were a series of ferns that hung above her bed and got into his eyes when he sat up. The sheets were crisp, but not white. They were printed with violets. The pillowcases were decorated with blue roses. Holly was smoking and the ashtray balanced on her stomach was a little Wedgwood plate decorated with black vines.
Holly's apartment was white and airy and it was as precise as Guido had imagined. Holly made small, absolute arrangements of things. On a white table was a bird's nest, an Egyptian figure in blue stone, a Russian match box, and a silver inkwell. The bed, before they had rumpled it, was made so that you could roll a dime across it. The sheets and pillows smelled of lavender.
It was better than a daydream, better than those highly ornate night dreams that leave behind a sweet taste of inexplicable happiness in the morning. Guido turned to Holly and touched her dark, shining hair. She was wearing coral earrings the size of tuxedo studs and nothing else. It was a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in late March, and Guido felt quite wiped out by sensation. Everything seemed uncommonly rich to him: the print on the sheets, the pattern on the quilt, Holly's gleaming hair and earrings. Her shoulders did smell of jasmine. When Guido turned to look at her, he saw on her face the look he had known he would see-a look so private and impenetrable and unclear that it rendered anything he thought of to say inappropriate.
Holly was the granddaughter of old Walker Sturgis, who had taught classics. Her father was an executive in a copper company and her mother wrote historical novels for children. She was an only child, an only grandchild, and she was nearly perfect. She had her own ways, Holly did. She decanted everything into glass and on her long kitchen shelves were row upon row of jars containing soap, pencils, cookies, salt, tea, paper clips, and dried beans. She could tell if one of her arrangements was off by so much as a sixteenth of an inch and she corrected it. She was constantly fighting off the urge to straighten paintings in other people's houses. In her own house, her collection of botanical watercolors was absolutely straight. The shoes in her closet were stuffed with pink tissue paper and her drawers were filled with lavender sachet. In each corner of her closet hung a pomander ball.
She liked to have tea on a tray and she was fond of unmatched china. The tray she brought to Guido held cups that bore forget-me-nots, a lily-of-the-valley sugar dish, a cream pitcher with red poppies, and a teapot covered with red roses and cornflowers. This tray, when set on the bed, contributed to Guido's sensory overload. He was touched to think that this effort had been made on his behalf, but when he got to know Holly better he learned that she made up identical trays for herself when she studied.
Guido had wondered if she knew how to cook. Her slight air of otherworldliness suggested that she did not, while her precision indicated that she did-in the way the Japanese did. He expected a dinner that looked like a painting. It turned out that she was a real marvel. Guido was surprised by the sheer deliciousness of it: food that good must, he felt, spring from a truly charitable, loving spirit. But charity did not seem to be in Holly's immediate emotional vocabulary. After a spectacular afternoon in bed, they had spent the rest of the day in polite half silence. Therefore, dinner almost did him in. Not only did it taste wonderful, it looked wonderful. Guido pegged Holly as a strong domestic sensualist. She had a positive genius for comfort but he was only a visitor: that comfort had been created long before he met her.
He spent a sleepless night next to her, very much aware, even when he dozed, that he was sleeping in a stranger's bed. He dreamed brief, disconnected dreams and woke suddenly, unsure of where he was. The sight of Holly did not immediately locate him-she seemed so dreamlike and unapproachable. He spent a long time gazing at her and realized that he did not want to go to sleep. He did not want to miss a minute of her.
But he did sleep, and when he woke, she was nestled beside him. But would she nestle up so sweetly when awake? She woke with a little shrug and rolled away. Guido sat up, catching his hair in the hanging fern. He was very bleary and beset by impulses: he felt all awash. He wanted to turn Holly into water and drink her. He wanted to throw himself at her feet. He wanted to throw himself at her entirely. Holly turned over and looked at him.
"Say," she said. "Would you mind getting the papers?"
Copyright © 2010 by Laurie Colwin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.