Studies in the Novel
Gary Percesepe

I. Shepherd

The woman in Shepherd's hotel room rifled her purse in search of her diaphragm. But it was too late for that. Their clothes lay on the floor and bed. Shepherd had pulled out at the decisive moment. At dinner earlier in the evening she had called marriage the full catastrophe.
Here it is, she exclaimed, with a sweetness he hadn't expected. Shepherd took the diaphragm from her. He placed it on the lamp stand. They had met at a psychiatrist's convention, during a session on new treatments for  hysteria. Shepherd has not practiced for several years.
Why did you say that? he asked.
Say what, darling? She perched on the side of the bed. A cigarette was in her mouth. She gestured for a light.
That marriage is the full catastrophe, Shepherd said. He reached across the bed with the matches and stuck one wooden match into flame. She drew the smoke casually into her fine lungs and made a face. She will age gracefully, Shepherd thought. Her face, that recomposed itself ivory gold against the dying winter light streaming through the window, held a quality that Shepherd had not seen before. The high cheek bones, the classical structure, built along heroic lines and tending almost cruel, would carry her like a sturdy carriage into middle age and beyond with an essential economy. Hers was a terrible beauty.
What do you know of marriage, she asked.
What anyone knows. Anyone who has been to war. Or hasn't.
Yes, nothing. Nothing at all.
Were you in the war, then?
Yes. In France and Belgium. And earlier, Italy. The government paid for my education in Switzerland. I worked at a clinic in the Alps. We treated the bastard children of the rich, the Euro-trash and the slumming Americans who bill themselves as lost in this deviant continent.
You are a cynic, then.
No, not a cynic. A realist. I've seen some things.
Here in Geneva?
Hardly in Geneva, no. Though Geneva is no different than anywhere else.
You are an American.
She snorted. You Americans always expect so much. You possess heaven and earth and want the stars and moon as well.
Is that so much to ask, he said.
She laughed at that, a low laugh centered low in her body that turned the corners of her sculpted mouth up and made her lovelier. Shepherd was glad to see her laugh.
You will never marry, then, Dr. Shepherd? You will avoid the catastrophe of which we speak?
I am married, he said.
She drew in her breath. Shepherd had not thought it possible to surprise her. He had revealed just enough of himself at dinner to cause her to understand that he was different, more European in his philosophy and bearing than American. He hadn't been back in the States for a decade. He was thirty-four and felt twenty years older.
She was brought to me as child, Shepherd said. Sixteen years old, brought in by her father, who was a famous hotelier from Chicago. An impressive, good looking man, who would have liked to have been a serious man. He had eyes that were sea gray, skin tanned from hours of rowing alone on Lake Geneva. The daughter was a great beauty, with his eyes and expressive mouth. He had written several letters to the clinic, letters that described his daughter in some detail but still seemed rather vague at that. She was obviously not well. He was nervous in the interview. The girl was sent off with a nurse while Herr Mann interviewed him in our presence, me and my partner, Rolf.
Go on, she said.
Herr Mann, he said, my daughter's not right in the head. Her mother died when she was eight, you understand, and since then I've been mother and father to her, assisted by governesses and staff -- father and mother to her both.
Shepherd lit one of her Gauloises. He inhaled deeply and blew out a thin stream of smoke as the February evening shadows entered the room.
He seemed very moved when he said this, father and mother, Shepherd continued. When questioned he said she had not always been like this, had in fact been a carefree and happy child, happy as the day is long. Smart as a whip, knew three languages. His wife used to say she is the only one of the children who never cried through the night. She liked to draw and dance and could recite long poems from memory.
Shepherd tapped his cigarette ash. It started six months ago, her father said. She got it into her head that my valet was -- you know. When he said this Herr Mann waited patiently, as the man shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I let the valet go, of course, he said. But these episodes continued, with accusations against others on the staff, which were unfounded, her father said.
She was frightened of men.
Yes, terribly frightened. Her breakdowns incapacitated her, and she frightened her father, which is why he brought her to us. Slipped her through a submarine blockade on a U.S. cruiser.
He was lying of course, she said.
Shepherd looked at the woman in his hotel room. She was a Russian princess from a faded family in St. Petersburg. Leningrad. White Russians who lost everything. A woman of indeterminate age. Princess of nothing, now, from nowhere, a woman he had met at a conference, who was nothing to him. But he was telling her this story in the dying light of February in his hotel room.
Yes, he was lying. He broke down and admitted to everything on his next visit, when Herr Mann summoned him back to the clinic because the girl had had another breakdown, a terrible one. He confessed everything. After we had secured his promise to leave the girl in our care indefinitely, and made him understand that he could not see her for five years, he was walking out the door when he turned back to us. Money is no object of course, he said. Of course, Herr Mann repeated. When he closed the door the three of us sat there, shaken by what we had seen.
Peasant, she said in disgust. She stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray on the nightstand, then lit another.
And you fell in love with this poor girl, the princess said.
Yes, Shepherd said.
And you married her?
And now you are her husband?
Her doctor?

II. Shepherd in Chelsea

He looked carefully at her face in the shadowed light. Some Indian there, maybe. The high cheekbones, dark eyes, deep set and serious. Hair cropped short, blunt cut.  In the restaurant, the clink of glasses toasting, silverware lifted, set down. They were at a corner table in a bistro in Chelsea, not far from the famous hotel.
You called to me, she said.
You heard me.
She dug a cigarette from her purse. He reached into his pants pocket, and found a lighter. The flame burned brightly in the dim light.
Outside, yellow cabs rushed down the street in the rain, the startled water spilling sideways onto the sidewalk.
Rain tapped against the plate glass window. Shepherd went on looking at her. She was right. Something in him had desired her, something apart from knowledge. They had been seated at the conference for the keynote address, with only a hotel chair between them. Her elegant cashmere coat was draped across the back of the chair, where he had laid his own navy pea jacket, their eyes making contact for this simplest of transactions. May I?
Yes, you may.
I don't know your name, Shepherd said.
Yes, she said.
The rain lashed the desolate street. Fat drops that hit then left oily lines as they slid miserably down the pane.
Would you prefer it that way, he asked.
Yes, she said.
Lights burned in the storefronts of Chelsea. Shepherd's room was steps away, in the hotel that housed artists and dreamers. His wife was an artist, a damaged one. Her work hung on the walls of the idle rich in Cap d'Antibes. They had once spent a week in the hotel. She had asked to move to the Waldorf after the first night, the voices waking her, but he had refused. There were no voices. He was -- could he say this out loud now, to a stranger? He was a psychiatrist with a one person practice.
The woman at Shepherd's table wore black high heels with a thin strap.
Looking down, as she lifted a glass of wine to her mouth, he could see almost her entire foot, sheathed in the long pointed shoe.
Do you live in New York, he asked.
She shifted in her seat. He heard the silky rub of her stockings against each other.
Sometimes, she said.
When she had left the lecture hours before she had not spoken a word to him, gave not so much as a nod. She had simply taken her coat and left the room. Shepherd had followed her. She exited the Waldorf Astoria through the parking garage, which he had found strange, avoiding both the Park and Lexington exits. She'd stopped briefly, to engage one of the parking attendants. They had a private laugh.
Shepherd hung back while they chatted. She moved forward again, at last, and Shepherd followed, ten paces behind. Her heels clicked on the pavement. When he'd appeared and asked her to dinner she hadn't acted surprised. In the cab they had ridden in silence, down Fifth Avenue to Chelsea, to this restaurant, because it was one of Shepherd's favorites. She had not questioned his choice.
Why were you at the lecture tonight, he asked.
She blew a stream of smoke into the window pane. I have an interest in hysteria, she said.
A professional interest, he asked.
Shepherd sipped his wine and regarded her more closely. She didn't give anything away, that much was clear. Not so much as her name. Or where she lived.
He heard the pitchy whine of an engine. Outside, a cab had stopped to pick up a passenger. The taxi's headlamps made a narrow silver path down the middle of the street, that glimmered faintly on the slabs of dirty ice shunted to the top of the sidewalk.
Hysteria in women is misunderstood, yes?
She waited for his nod of agreement.
A waiter in a starched white vest poured them coffee.  She waited until he had finished, and they were alone again.
Marriage is the full catastrophe, she said.