We possess a most malevolent habit of claiming to know more than we really do, a habit so developed that it has engendered the cult of lying, of deception, of chicanery. Why is lying so attractive? Because in many ways it is easier than the truth. The truth in its common form has limitations: colors, dimensions, dates, surfaces. Something happened to a specific someone at a specific time and place, and to be good and faithful reporters, we must have the precise combination of these details or confront a quick barrage of no-confidence votes. And although a certain type of mind, usually a bit dry, is most adept at bringing us the latest bulletins and in-depth coverage, it takes entirely another spirit to concoct and embellish. I suppose you can say that fiction has never actually hurt anyone, except when it bleeds into the vastness we call real life. Which brings us to a story from this collection.
Their names are Frank and Sharon Whittier, which given some revelations towards the end, should count as humorous and ironic – but let's not spoil all the fun. They have known each other since childhood, almost an eternity; they have three children; they moved in the tumultuous 1970s from "the comfortable riverine smugness of semi-Southern, puritanical Cincinnati" to New York, "this capital of dreadful freedom"; they are gainfully employed as the owners of a small art gallery on West 57th Street; and, most importantly as our story opens, they seem to have survived the self-aggrandizing and gaudy decadence that was the nineteen-eighties. They would be called high school sweethearts by a reporter if it weren't for the fact that we have no immediate evidence of the image that such a moniker generally bestows – the homecoming dances, the varsity jackets, the necking behind the gym or a locker door, the earth-shattering loss of innocence. All we have is their marriage date, Frank's fear of being drafted, and their shared interest in the humanities. Offspring bound them more closely together, as did work, and life trod on in unobtrusive fashion until one day, after about twenty years of husbandship and wifeship had sailed along, Sharon gets word that Frank has a gay lover.
The source of this rumor is Avis, one of Frank's former adulteresses – a can of worms that is thankfully kept shut. Avis is a "second-wave appropriationist who ma[kes] colored Xeroxes of masterpieces out of art books," then does something rather terrible to them with her bodily fluids. She first heard of Frank's secret life from two other members of that powerful subculture that had patiently waited its turn and was now demanding that the term "equal rights" be extended to those young men in tight jeans and somewhat feminine demeanors. Yet Frank had spent twenty years as a confirmed and shackled heterosexual without having ever suggested that what he endured every day was just that, enduring, and not enjoying. A discovery of this nature, especially given the pretentious and trashy informant (Frank apparently had a rash of flings, but Avis was particularly abrasive), tends to diminish the credibility of the accusation. Sharon questions Frank, who answers in a manner she finds studied, whereupon she remembers his womanly fastidiousness about his weight. For the time being, this minor revision is sufficient to admit society-wide subterfuge:
In the days that followed, now that Sharon was alert to the rumor's vaporous presence, she imagined it everywhere – on the poised young faces of their staff, in the delicate negotiatory accents of their artists' agents, in the heartier tones of their repeat customers, even in the gruff, self-preoccupied ramblings of the artists themselves. People seemed startled when she and Frank entered a room together: the desk receptionist and the security guard in their gallery halted their daily morning banter, and the waiters in their pet restaurant, over on 59th Street, appeared especially effusive and attentive. Handshakes lasted a second too long; women embraced her with an extra squeeze; she felt herself ensnared in a net of unspoken pity.
There is much in what follows about being the proverbial last person to know; there is also a generous helping of ambiguity that has always served as a topic for art because unlike ethnicity, age, or gender, sexual orientation can be successfully and continually suppressed for an entire life. How often have we seen film or literary characters act in an unusual and initially inexplicable way, only to have it all sobbingly confessed in the end as another case of fear and loathing? Too many, I suppose; not that such methods are ineffectual in heightening awareness and perhaps making us ponder the eccentricities of neighbors and old friends – but here we stray onto territory that should remain ungrazed.
To opine that the story adheres to a formula would be unfair. Where its tension flutters is precisely those passages in which Sharon's conscience becomes our lodestar. I will not go so far as to say that a betrayed wife's mind is a dull rock of presumption, but I think you know what I mean. The cuckolded husband and his enraged quest for knowledge is old hat even though newer additions to the canon are invariably distinguished not only by a vivid imagination, but one positively grotesque. Such is not Sharon's problem. Even when she computes the hours whiled away apart, the grooming, the lecherous looks exchanged between Frank and strangers, the "buttery, reedy tone of voice that might signal an invisible sex change" (a marvelous description), she still arrives at the same prime number. He simply cannot be something he has always been and something that he might very well be, because one life effaces the other. What can be said, however, is that there is only really one artistic exit from this conundrum, and it is the one taken by Updike. Anything less would have acceded to hideous plot devices and conspiracy at its most macabre. And what wagging tongues could possibly find all that interesting?