The following is from Thisbe Nissen's novel, Our Lady of the Prairie. Phillipa Makestad is teaching in Ohio for a semester, away from her husband of 25 years and their soon-to-be-wed daughter. And during those few months, she begins a passionate affair with another man. Thisbe Nissen is the author Out of the Girls' Room, The Good People of New York, and Osprey Island.
Our statistics are thrown off because we tend to remember the unusual rather than the usual.
—William R. Corliss, Tornados, Dark Days,
Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena:
A Catalog of Geophysical Anomalies
From the moment I saw Lucius Bocelli I wanted to go to bed with him. If I’d known then what Michael would put me through by way of penance—in 26 years of marriage you’d think if he’d so badly needed to spank me he’d’ve found an opportunity—I might have simply given in. Instead I spent three months in tortuous longing before succumbing to all I felt for Lucius. But retrospect is convenient, life less so. Even if I should have foreseen—or already known of—my husband’s peccadilloes, I still could not have gazed into the future to know, say, the path that May’s tornado would take across Iowa, straight through our daughter’s wedding. I met Lucius in late January. I’d just arrived in Ohio for my semester’s teaching exchange; he was recently back from a year and a half in France, a research sabbatical he’d extended with an additional six-month leave. His work was on Nazi collaborationists of the Vichy regime, and he’d be headed back to France that summer, but when we met it was only January. The Democrats hadn’t even nominated someone to run against Dubya and bar him from a second term. Bernadette—the mother-in-law whose belligerent existence I’d suffered for more than half my life—was still alive and kicking me at every available opportunity, and Ginny wasn’t yet married to Silas Yoder, or pregnant and off her psych meds and once again as miserable as she’d been before the electroshock. Orah and Obadiah Yoder were already dead—Silas and Eula’s parents, hit head-on and killed by an SUV, in their own buggy in front of their own Prairie farm—and a year had done little to dissipate that pain. The birth of Eula’s baby had diverted us, yes. My point is this: when I met Lucius my life was more stable than it had been in 25 years. I met him, and I wanted him—more clearly, and maybe less complicatedly, than I think I have ever wanted anything in this life.
There’d been a reading at the U of O—a progressive political commentator—with a gathering afterward at the dean’s home, for the obligatory university-issue cheese-and-cracker platters and a Midwestern supermarket arrangement of crudités: concentric moats of gray-tinged cauliflower, parched baby carrots, and inedibly mushy grape tomatoes surrounding the ranch dip bowl. Guests represented the left of the U of O faculty, and there was a collective relief at being surrounded by other sane people at a time when the main—hell, the only—criteria for sanity were (a) abject terror at the state of the union, and (b) downright hatred of the president, who had about as much ability to run the country as one of our thickheaded, 18-year-old frat boys. And less humility, which is almost inconceivable. The wine flowed that night, and it was lousy, but it was on the U, so we drank with zeal. In Ohio, at the end of January, four-foot snowbanks turning the campus into a giant ice maze, you drink what’s offered, and you’re grateful.
“To see him smile felt like a triumph, and I may have known then that I would love this man with a ferocity, and an urgency, and a gravity I had never experienced before.”
I’d gotten a lift to the dean’s house from Anthea Lingafelter, a Romanticist. As we entered, I saw, leaning in the arch of the foyer, a man I took instantly to be the actor Ed Harris. I’d like to imagine my next thought would have been, What the hell is Ed Harris doing here?, but Anthea had paused to make introductions and my hand was already extended as I heard her say, “Phillipa Maakestad—on loan to us—Theater.” I was beaming a sort of I-thought-Pollock-was-brilliant smile when it seemed that, of this man whose hand I was shaking, Anthea was saying, “Lucius Bocelli, History.” His expression mutated from pleased-to-meet-you to perplexity. I’d been holding his hand far longer than appropriate and dropped it abruptly, jerking away. A step behind my own actions, the soundtrack of my brain was out of sync with the picture. I shook hands with the others in the group, registering nothing. Then Anthea guided me away toward a den, slipping her parka onto a futon couch where coats were being piled.
“I thought he was Ed Harris!” I told her.
Anthea glanced back, her look inscrutable to me, and said, “Lucius?” When I made a face to say, Yes, the Ed Harris look-alike, who else?, she lifted her chin and let out a hoot—a hoot that only became clear much later when Lucius told me of the affair they’d had years before. Lucius, I will note, had nothing to do with Anthea’s divorce.
I encountered him minutes later on line at the makeshift bar. He came up behind me. “The wine’s no good,” he said, “but it makes the socializing go down easier.”
I was conscious of my own breath—I heard it like the rush of wind through a tunnel—and I’m not a woman often conscious of her own breath. “I’m so sorry.” I lifted my hand toward the site of our introduction. “I thought you were Ed Harris.” I shook my head in castigation for my absurdity. A smile spread across his face, crinkling his eyes, and I saw he was older than I’d realized. For no reason I can understand, it was this that hit my pelvis: realization of his age somehow turned my breathless giddiness into grave desire.
Lucius’s eyes—pale, pale blue—were deeply set, corners striated with wrinkles, the skin there thin and tissuey as parchment. I had to physically restrain myself from lifting my hand to run a thumb across that delicacy. His face was so hard and sculpted it made that thin-thin skin at the corners of his eyes seem all the more fragile, their sadness devastatingly palpable. To see him smile felt like a triumph, and I may have known then that I would love this man with a ferocity, and an urgency, and a gravity I had never experienced before.
He dropped his chin, tucked it to his neck, and peered at me as if over reading glasses he wasn’t actually wearing. “I suspect,” he said, “you just can’t tell one bald man from another.”
“Come on,” I said, “it’s not like I mistook you for Danny DeVito.”
His grin broke wide again—the shine of those sad, deep-set eyes. He conceded my point.
“Or Gandhi,” I said.
“No,” he said thoughtfully, mock-thoughtfully. “No, not Gandhi.”
“Bruce Willis. . . Telly Savalas. . . Yul Brynner. . .”
“Now you’re talking really bald—I have my scruff.” He fluffed at his hair. “My tufts.”
“Which,” I pointed out, “is why I thought you were Ed Harris and got a bit tongue-tied.”
Lucius looked suddenly disappointed. He’d glanced at my left hand: “You’re married.”
Without thinking, I shifted my hands on my hips to cover my knuckles, absurdly hiding the ring he’d already seen. “You?” I asked.
He tipped back his plastic glass, drained its dregs, stuck it in the underarm crook of his blazer, and held his hands out as though I’d asked to inspect his fingernails. Because of the cup, one arm was hitched up shorter than the other, his back bent as if in halfhearted Igor impersonation. His fingernails were clean, cut short, healthy pink, and he had small hands, downy with grayed hair I could tell had once been golden blond. They made me think of lifeguards on the California beaches of my childhood—muscled hands, thick-veined, wiry like the rest of him; he’s sinewy and compact as a greyhound. He wore no ring. “Thrice was plenty,” he said, then straightened and caught his cup as it fell.
I’d be lying to say I wasn’t alarmed. Three marriages? But he was so forthcoming, and emotion overrode skepticism. I was already in love, and reconciled the question instantly. One failed marriage in this era barely warrants mention; at our age, two is hardly surprising. Three, though, calls for a story: a brief starter marriage, maybe, then a long-term one, ending in her death—cancer—and then an awful, grief-spurred, six-month catastrophe. That’s what I imagined. “Kids?” I asked, and I’d like to think if he had more than, say, four—or any were still underage—I would have run, but I’d probably have found a way to reconcile that, too.
He was nodding. “Two, from my second marriage. Jesus, they’re middle-aged,” he said sheepishly. “Hannah and Tim. Both married. Kids of their own who aren’t even kids anymore.” He laid it out like he was coming clean.
“Grandkids—how old are you?” I’d assumed he was maybe Michael’s age, sixtyish.
Lucius chuckled. “Put it this way: I’m Medicare-eligible.”
“You are not.”
His lips closed in a knowing line. “Oh, yes. Indeed I am. And yourself?”
“Fifty,” I told him.
“And the rest?”
My eyes felt extraordinarily wide. I dropped my hands and faced him like a refugee. Like someone with nothing left to lose, which wasn’t the case at all. “One daughter, Ginny. Twenty-five. Getting married in May.” It was so easy to say. Just like that, I’d practically written Ginny a new life story— leapt over years of hospital corridors and caloric mandates, meth dens and court orders, razor blades and electroconvulsive shock—flew over it all and announced that I had a daughter about to be married. It wasn’t a lie; it was entirely true—and it was glorious.
“Mazel tov,” he said.
“You’re a Jew?” I said.
“My mother was,” he answered.
“Mine too,” I said. “And my father.”
“And you?” he asked.
“You’re a Jew? Unto yourself?”
“Me neither,” he confessed.
“I never was, growing up, but in Iowa I sort of am, because no one else is. My parents weren’t at all; my father’s folks were—they were the ones who came over. A job at UC got my grandparents out of Germany early. Turned them into Golden State Jews.”
“You’re from California!” He looked delighted. “Where?”
“Bay Area, Berkeley.”
Lucius smiled, tipped his empty cup to his chest. “L.A.” He shook his head: “Two California Jews in the heartland. . .”
“My husband calls me a Murphyist.” It was the wrong thing to say: giving voice to Michael made him real and present, and me terribly uncomfortable. To cover, to lose the word “husband” among others, I babbled: “An anything-that-can-go-wrong-will framework with a healthy Judaic fear of the kinehora thrown in: don’t draw attention to the good or it will turn to shit. I’d call it a kind of nonsectarian superstitionism, if you will.”
“I will,” Lucius said. My memory goes a little funny from there. I’m pretty certain that’s all we said, but I don’t know how much time passed before I reawoke to our surroundings and realized we’d been staring at each other as the bar line split and re-merged around us, like a river past a boulder, there in the middle of Dean Sewell’s living room.
Three months passed before Lucius and I succumbed to a fully consummate affair. Our relationship was not something I entered lightly; I understood the gravity with which it would bear upon my marriage. One does not simply step away after 26 unstrayingly married years. When Michael and I met, I was a young grad student, he my young professor. Such things were less taboo then, which is not to say that they happen now with any less regularity, just with a greater threat of lawsuit. I fell in love with my professor, and he with me, and when I finished my degree we married and I joined the department; they divided his teaching appointment in two, and I became his second half. We taught, and produced shows at the university theater. Michael practically grew up in the U’s costume shop—Bernadette, his mother, ran it for decades—and he’d spent his childhood trolling the theater, raised, so to speak, in the wings. His ubiquitous lifelong presence made it only natural for him to assume an official role at the theater. Straight out of his own undergrad studies, they hired him as an assistant professor to do what he’d already been doing for years: run lights, sound, sets, etc., for the entire theater, and teach in a new major, theater design and technical production. My role in the department has always been more traditional, and more peripheral. I stage shows—they give me the musicals, of which I’m irrationally fond—which I’ve mostly enjoyed, and I teach acting, directing, history of theater, wherever they stick me. My own degree’s in playwriting, but it’s been a long time since I made specific use of it. I am the department’s generic professor: I teach nearly everything we offer and, unqualified as I may be, I still usually know more than the average undergraduate. So it goes in American higher education. I think it was different once upon a time. My grandfather was a Berkeley professor, and—who knows?—maybe it was really all in the three-piece suits, the briefcase. Or in his stature as “Professor” or “Grandpa,” but he certainly seemed more learned than the people I work with. He’d’ve been appalled by me. I can just hear his voice, that accent, thick: “What is it you have on, Phillipa? You’re lecturing in your pajamas? These hoodlums—these are your students?”
Michael and I were married a year when Ginny was born and her difficult life—and ours—began. We raised her as best we could, and that had been my life for 25 years. Which is to say, Ginny’s life had subsumed my own for a quarter-century. But she’d made it—we’d all made it—through to an ease we’d never dreamed possible. In 2004, for the first time since 1979, I finally had a life again in which I was not my child’s caretaker before all else. I was not unhappy with Michael. Certainly our marriage had, like so many, grown staid, but after all we’d gone through in Ginny’s childhood, her adolescence and early adulthood, we were fine with staid. Everything was fine. Which is what Michael kept saying: “What happened? Everything was fine—wasn’t everything fine?” Because it had been fine, and probably would have continued to be fine, if not for Lucius. That’s not blame but acknowledgment: Lucius and I collided like a force of nature. We’re no more to blame for the resulting combustion than air pressure fronts and atmospheric conditions are to blame for a tornado. Blame me, but blame me for inadequate shelter provisions, neglectful stormproofing, general lack of preparedness. Blame the tornado, if you must, though a tornado hurtles blindly. Or, fine: blame me! But blame me for my explanations and justifications and rationales, my refusal—here, again—to take responsibility or claim agency. Blame my acquiescence to forces I insist were beyond my control. What I won’t back down from is this: Lucius and I met and we were a twister. We tried to keep ourselves apart, but some forces are too great. Some forces are beyond control.
From Our Lady of the Prairie. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2018 by Thisbe Nissen.