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Due Preparations for the Plague

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“Four. Five.”

“Must have given you strange dreams,” Elizabeth says.

“I still have mermaid fantasies. I get a humming in my ears whenever I see a woman with wet hair.”

“Sometimes,” Elizabeth says, lowering her eyes and studying the stem of her glass, “in the middle of the night, I would find him reading Homer in his study. He said it calmed him.”

“That was always his first love. But he won prizes in math and science too, and that’s where he went.”

“He claimed all he ever really wanted to be was a classics professor.”

“Sometimes I believed that,” Lowell says. “But mostly I didn’t. What made him take the direction he finally did, I’ve never understood.”

“They needed linguists,” she says. “In Intelligence. That’s what he told me. Especially ones with scientific training as well. An old friend from his prep school recruited him, he said.”

“He used to have me reciting Homer in Greek at dinner parties when I was six,” Lowell says. “Like a little parrot. His personal performing dwarf. Still, he was less strange to me then than later.”

“It was like living in parallel universes, he said. All the time. Simultaneously.” Elizabeth sighs and turns the stem of her wineglass in her fingers, clockwise, three revolutions. “I was never sure which one he was in when he was with me.”

“He was always somewhere else. Even when he was with us, he wasn’t with us. I never really knew him at all.”

“I didn’t either,” she says.

“I wanted so much to please him, but he kept on raising the bar. I could never measure up. So of course I chose to measure down. Easier to get his attention.”

“I had the same problem,” she says. “I could never measure up either.”

“That’s not true.” Lowell stares at her. “You were the ideal Washington hostess, he told me. Everything my mother wasn’t, he said.”

“I tried,” she says. “I was sad when you stopped accepting our invitations.”

“Not your fault,” he assures her.

“You and I never got a chance to know each other.”

“No. Well. Nothing to do with you.”

“So why?”

“Well, he just made me too nervous. I always felt like I was twelve years old again, not measuring up. And then, Rowena … I mean, my own marriage falling apart. I didn’t want one of his third-degrees.”

“Your father was sad too. When you stopped coming, I mean.”

“That’s a laugh. My father couldn’t stand sadness. My mother was sad for years, and it irritated him. It irritated him to have me around.”

“I think you’re wrong,” she says. “I think he missed you. He was very proud of you.”

“Oh no, believe me, he was embarrassed by me. He sent me to his own boarding school—”

“Yes, I know.”

“—but I blew it. Loser in a school for winners. My father’s name was on all the honor boards, Mather Lowell Hawthorne, gold medal in this, gold medal in that, Latin, Greek, math, physics, athletics, glee club, drama club. Awful. Like a millstone around my neck. Most expensive private school in Massachusetts, and I could always see him thinking sow’s ear when he looked at me.”

“He kept a photograph of you on the bedroom dresser.”

“He did?”

“You’re wearing your school blazer and holding a silver cup.”

“Oh yeah. That. Cross-country run. Only prize I ever won. Yeah, I’m good at running. Running away’s my specialty. But there you are. The way my father calls it, you win or you lose. He was a winner, I was a loser. Like my mother.”

“You seem to me very like your father,” she says. “Sharp-minded and courtly and sad.”

“Courtly! Me?” Lowell laughs. He looks curiously at his reflection in the dark plate glass behind the bar.

“He could be so gentle,” she says. “It’s not true that he never showed his feelings. He was always sad. Always haunted.”

“He was haunted,” Lowell agrees. “My mother did that. You know she left him for another man before the … I never forgave her. They were both on that plane.”

“No, I didn’t know,” she says. “You mean they went down together, your mother and her—?”

“Not down. You know the details. The hijacking, the explosion.”

“Hijacking?” she says, leaning forward, avid. “I don’t know details. I hardly know anything. He’d never—He just said she died in an airline disaster.”

Lowell is stunned. “September ’87,” he says. “Paris to New York, the nerve-gas hijackers—”

“Oh my God. That hijacking.”

“Air France Si—I can’t say it. I’m superstitious about the number.”

“No survivors.” Elizabeth presses her hand against her lips. “Isn’t that right?”

“Except for the children.”

“Oh, the children, that’s right, I remember now. I remember seeing those poor little children on TV.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t know.”

“No. Nothing. He’d never say a word about the past. I’ve always been curious.”

“Look,” he says uneasily. “It isn’t something I can talk about.”

“No, of course not. I’m sorry.” She plays with her wineglass, puddling spilled wine with her finger. She draws an S in the liquid on the low table. “Was the man’s name Sirocco? The man your mother left him for?”

Lowell frowns. “It was Levinstein. Violinist.”

“Who was Sirocco?”
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