Martha’s Vineyard September, 2011
Carla Pacelli and Whitney Dane had once loved the same man, one in his youth, the other in his final year, and had found their lives transformed. Now, forty-three years after Whitney’s fateful summer, they sat behind the guesthouse of the summer home she had inherited from her parents, gazing out at the Atlantic, Whitney pensive, Carla pregnant with her lover’s child.
Though the two women shared a quiet pleasure in the pristine August morning – a cloudless sky, light fitful breezes stirring the boughs of nearby oak trees, a thin sheen of silver-grey mist dissipating over white-capped aqua waters – Carla thought them an unlikely pair to share this history, or even this hour. A mere two years ago, Carla had been a striking presence on the screen, a lissome Italian-American brunette with a carriage that radiated grace and vitality, dark intense eyes that seemed to look through whomever they turned on. Now she had the tempered beauty of a survivor, and the directness of her gaze was leavened by self-knowledge and a trace of sadness. Her parents were working class, and, though she had trained her smoky voice to be more polished, it retained trace elements of their Mediterranean intensity. She was not lightly educated – despite her immersion in drama, she had been an exceptional student in high school, and at UCLA had a minor in psychology at which she had excelled. But because of her appearance, the impact of which obscured all else, beauty rather than intellect was what struck others at first glance, whether in person or on the screen.
Carla had been a serious actress and her skills – which she still felt under-appreciated – had focused her inherent ability to, as one network executive had put it, ‘pop through the lens into people’s living rooms’. But Carla now judged that woman an empty shell: the pressures of carrying a television series, and making movies during breaks, had led her to reach for the crutches of drugs and alcohol. The rabbit hole through which she had fallen – increasingly erratic behaviour culminating in a sojourn at Betty Ford – had dimmed her intensity and poisoned her career. The Carla who emerged from rehab discovered that her manager, a thief himself, had parked her money with another thief who made it disappear. With little but the determination to summon a stronger and more reflective woman capable of forging a new life, she had sought refuge on Martha’s Vineyard, settling in Whitney’s guesthouse through the good offices of friends.
When Carla arrived, Whitney was concluding a year in Paris, indulging her passion for French history and culture. At sixty-five, she was twice Carla’s age, and, while the deep brown eyes that were her most attractive feature lent her round face an air of perception and good humour, she had never turned heads simply by entering a room. Nor was age and appearance their only difference. Whitney was a WASP, the daughter of privilege, and spoke with the flawless, slightly arid enunciation of the East Coast patrician. An accomplished novelist, she had managed at once to be well respected and widely read, not least for her grasp of the hidden recesses of human nature, which cut so close to the bone that readers might squirm in recognition, yet lacked the cruelty that might drive them away. Though Carla had not yet mentioned this, for fear of fawning, she deeply admired Whitney’s writing – especially for its unflinching depiction of the challenges still facing women, some of which Carla knew all too well. And she could not help but envy the older woman’s air of settledness. Unlike Carla, Whitney had been disinclined to call attention to herself, preferring to let her novels speak for her. When interviewed – which she generally avoided – Whitney was tart, clear and concise. But, again unlike Carla, her personal life remained her own. The two women had never met. This morning, on returning from Paris, Whitney had called on Carla out of courtesy and, Carla assumed, a curiosity which was exceedingly well informed – even in Europe, Carla’s life on Martha’s Vineyard had reached the tabloid media. All this because of Carla’s involvement with a married novelist who was Whitney’s age but twice as famous, whose life had ended in a fall under circumstances so murky that they had raised suspicions of suicide or murder. And so, once again, Carla found herself notorious, a fact that coloured this encounter with considerable tension. Whitney Dane would know almost everything save the reasons for her actions, and Carla could only await her judgment and, perhaps, her expulsion from her guesthouse.
At first, the subject did not arise. Instead, the two of them drank tea on the deck, the sun warming their faces. Politely enough, Whitney asked about her pregnancy, and how the guesthouse had suited her. Edgy, Carla kept waiting for the questions that never came.
Finally, she said bluntly, ‘I’m sorry I’ve become an embarrassment to you. And to say that I didn’t mean to do that sounds pathetic.’
Whitney’s smile, though ambiguous, was not unkind. ‘I understand more than you may think,’ she answered. ‘I knew him, you see.’
The Delphic remark puzzled Carla. ‘Who did not?’ she responded. ‘Even if you hadn’t been neighbours.’
Whitney’s smile diminished, and her tone flattened out. ‘Actually, we rarely spoke. At least, not for years.’
Caught up short, Carla wondered what outrage of his had provoked this. That there had been one seemed certain, but given his proclivities she was reluctant to inquire. The keen look in Whitney’s eyes revealed that she saw this. ‘No,’ she added, ‘he didn’t proposition me at a cocktail party. As one look at you confirms, his esthetic standards became more rarified. The truth is that his wife and I became allergic to each other.’ She hesitated, then finished more softly, ‘A complicated story.’
The change in Whitney’s tone – at once bitter and rueful and valedictory – pricked Carla’s curiosity. There was something this seemingly composed woman wanted to say, however reluctantly, and something else that made Carla – a stranger until now – a potential listener. ‘No surprise,’ Carla ventured. ‘He was a complex person.’
For a moment, Whitney gazed into the distance, as if at her own past. ‘So were we all,’ she said, then turned to Carla. ‘Were you in love with him?’
‘Yes.’ Intending to leave it there, Carla felt the need to explain. ‘Age softened him, and the cancer – facing death, really – sobered him. He could feel the window closing, that he’d leave nothing good behind him but the books he feared that people would forget.’ She touched her rounded stomach. ‘We were his last hope, he told me.’
‘Not his wife? What an irony for them both.’
This was said with what Carla took to be an unusual asperity, marbled with some deeper emotion she could not identify. Instinct told her to say nothing.
‘And how sad,’ Whitney added quietly. ‘The worst thing for him, I came to think, would be to face the void at the centre of his all-too-eventful life. Though he concealed that awfully well.’
With a sadness of her own, Carla remembered the man as she first knew him: his frame still robust; a full head of jet black hair streaked with grey; the aggressive prow of a nose; dark, probing eyes; the sardonic, challenging smile of a movie pirate; a baritone voice; all combined with his brusque and flavourful speech to create a persona which, as he no doubt wanted, could fill a room – perhaps, as Whitney suggested, to camouflage the scars within that Carla had slowly discerned.
Reading her face, Whitney shook her head in self-rebuke. ‘You’re the party in interest here, not me. But his death seems to have shaken me more than it should. The other day, I found myself re-reading my own ancient diary, written by a young woman who seems a stranger to me now. Page upon page was filled with him.’
‘I understand,’ Carla answered, unsure of what she was understanding save that it was important to Whitney. ‘I’ve come to know Adam, you see. We talked about his father quite a lot. Including the damage he caused within his own family.’
Whitney’s eyebrows raised. ‘Then Adam doesn’t despise you? Despite his apparent loathing for Dad.’
‘No. Adam doesn’t despise me.’
‘Nor you him, it seems.’
At this, Carla looked directly into Whitney’s face. ‘Far from it.’
Whitney tilted her head, as though considering Carla anew. ‘So where is Adam roaming now?’
‘Afghanistan. Working in agricultural assistance, he says. Not that I really believe that – there’s this sense of alertness about him, like in a given circumstance he could be quite dangerous . . .’
‘How like his father.’
‘I know. But with Adam, I think it’s because he has to be, for reasons he can’t reveal. Not because he wants to be.’
Whitney regarded her with deep seriousness before a smile played across her lips. ‘I haven’t seen Adam for a decade. In his twenties he seemed so like his father, ready to match himself against the world. But without the fatal product defects. Adam’s the one who might be safe to care about.’
Carla studied the deck. Softly, she answered, ‘I don’t know that yet.’
‘But you want the chance. Even though you’re carrying his brother.’
The bald statement caused Carla to flinch with embarrassment. ‘Even so.’ Hoping to move past this answer, she ventured, ‘You said that you and Adam’s father rarely spoke. But it seems you once knew him very well.’
Whitney’s eyes narrowed in reflection, and then she brushed away a tendril of steel grey hair. ‘Knew him?’ she repeated. ‘Looking back, I barely knew myself. But there came a time when I learned a great deal about us both.’
Carla watched her face. ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear about it. He changed my life, after all. But there are still so many holes and unanswered questions.’
Whitney gave her a probing look. After a time, she said, ‘Yes, I suppose I do need to talk about him. And wouldn’t he be pleased at that.’ She paused, adding dryly, ‘Under your current circumstances, I don’t suppose you keep any wine around the place.’
Carla smiled faintly. ‘No. Not a good idea for me.’
Whitney sat back in her deck chair, as though trying to relax herself. ‘Then I suppose I can try without that.’
Haltingly at first, then with the skill for narrative that underpinned her craft, Whitney Dane described the summer of her twenty-first year.
Martha’s Vineyard June, 1968
In June 1968, hours before the events which pierced her soul and scarred her generation, Whitney Dane would have said that her youth had been as blessed as her future promised to be. So, as she walked the beach beneath her parents’ summer home with her closest friend, Clarice Barkley – the first warming breath of spring in the air, the water of the Vineyard Sound a light, sparkling blue – this birthright informed her answer when Clarice asked curiously, ‘How are you feeling at this great crossroads of your life? Like the ingénue on the cover of American Bride? Or like you’ve been catapulted toward marriage, still clutching your diploma, wondering how you got to be a grown-up?’
The tart phrasing, displaying an ironic turn of mind that Clarice tended to conceal, made Whitney smile as she considered her answer. ‘It’s moment to moment,’ she confessed, ‘depending on how good I am at suspending disbelief. A wife and mother is what Mom is, not me. But how can I not feel lucky? And now I’ve got four months with nothing to do but plan a perfect wedding on this perfect island. Unless it rains, of course.’
‘Even then,’ Clarice answered blithely, ‘I imagine Peter will show up. He seems suitably besotted.’
Whitney paused for a moment, a swift tug of honesty surfacing from the self-doubt at her core – she had always been the smart daughter, not the pretty one, with a pleasing but unremarkable face, and a sturdy figure which had made her wonder at her genetic mismatch with her striking and willowy sister, their mother’s ideal. ‘I still can’t believe that someone like Peter is attracted to me,’ she confessed. ‘And now I’ll have a life with him.’ She glanced at Clarice, adding dryly, ‘For one shining day in late September, hopefully sunny, Janine won’t be the centre of attention.’
Clarice’s smile at this was slightly sour. ‘Not that the Crown Princess won’t try. I can imagine her using the rehearsal dinner to announce her engagement to Mick Jagger.’
Her friend’s jaundiced view of Janine warmed Whitney with its loyalty. ‘Mick Jagger?’ she responded. ‘Dad wouldn’t hear of it – you know how he is. And David Eisenhower is already taken.’
Clarice shot her a wicked grin. ‘Thank God. Imagine an entire life spent in the missionary position. Not that our princess doesn’t deserve it.’
Startled by her friend’s irreverence, Whitney laughed aloud, thinking that her luck included meeting Clarice in childhood. Among the Danes, Clarice had become the unofficial third daughter, joining them on vacations and sharing their celebrations. On the Vineyard, the Barkleys owned the property next door, and Clarice had a standing entrée to appear at dinner unannounced. At twenty-two, she retained the careless insouciance of her class, a girl for whom the laws of gravity and commerce seemed suspended – in no rush to find a job, Clarice was spending the summer after her graduation from Wellesley on the Vineyard, sailing and swimming and playing tennis, with trips off-island to shop or see friends. At its end, she would be Whitney’s maid of honour.
Clarice was a popular choice. Everyone seemed to like her – except, perhaps, Janine. Like Peter, Clarice was energetic, with a sense of fun, and, on the surface, disinclined to brooding or introspection. She had a pretty, sunny appearance – Grace Kelly with a touch of Doris Day – and people always invited her to their parties; her demeanour was cheerful, her manners impeccable, and she could be as good a listener as Whitney’s own mother, a master of the art. Clarice drew boys while hardly trying; one whom Whitney had secretly liked had called Clarice ‘classy without being scary’. Perhaps only Whitney saw the elusiveness that lay beneath. Others thought they knew her, but few really did; good grades and a well-crafted exterior concealed a subterranean wild streak and a keen sense of her social surroundings. Even for Whitney, at times it was impossible to decipher what Clarice Barkley was thinking or feeling. Her best friend, she had come to realize, was far more complicated than she seemed.
‘What about you?’ Whitney asked. ‘Is there anyone special? Or are you still searing the souls of the unwary?’
Stopping to look out at the water, Clarice dug her toes into the sand. ‘Why decide?’ she responded Delphically, then turned to her friend. ‘No offence, Whitney, but I’m glad that when I get married I’ll have had sex with more than one man. I mean, don’t you ever wonder what that would be like with someone different?’
‘No offence, Clarice,’ Whitney replied mildly, ‘but I don’t want to be promiscuous. I can only sleep with someone I really love.’
By unspoken consent they turned to walk into the surf, feeling the cool ocean water on their ankles and calves. ‘Love,’ Clarice informed her friend archly, ‘is an elastic concept. There’ve been times when I was willing to love who I slept with, if that’s what was required. I wasn’t thinking about marriage.
‘But after marriage, sex becomes routine, and sleeping with other guys problematic. So I might as well enjoy it now, because that’s not all I’m after in a husband. I’m not marrying some boy just because I like him inside me. I want a husband who’s also a man.’ Glancing at Whitney, Clarice’s eyes glinted with humour. ‘And please don’t be shocked. These days shock is unbecoming unless you’re our mothers.’
‘I’m not shocked,’ Whitney rejoined crisply. ‘I just don’t want to be shocking.’
Clarice gave a twitch of her tan, graceful shoulders. ‘In your position, I’d feel the same. I just hope you don’t get restless, that’s all. Imagining things isn’t the same as doing them.’
Whitney waded in up to her knees. ‘So maybe I’m just unimaginative,’ she said over her shoulder.
‘You? I doubt it. So maybe having sex with Peter and imagining Paul Newman will work just fine.’ Clarice stopped beside her. ‘So how is it with Peter? You never really say.’
Whitney smiled a little. ‘Would you settle for “sweet”?’
‘“Sweet”? That’s lovely. But does the earth move? Or is it more like a mudslide?’
Folding her arms, Whitney replied with mock dignity, ‘I have nothing more to say, Miss Barkley. You’ll have to rely on your own lurid fantasies.’
To her surprise, Clarice did not respond in kind. Instead, she turned toward the sound, watching a sailboat in the distance. More seriously, she said, ‘I’m being kind of a pill, aren’t I? Maybe I envy you a little.’
‘Why should you?’
Still watching the water, Clarice spoke more softly. ‘Your life is settled, all laid out in front of you. You have someone you love, who loves you. You don’t have to wonder who he’ll be, or if that man will want you, or how the two of you will live.’
In faint surprise, Whitney studied Clarice’s flawless profile. It was she who had always admired her friend’s serene blonde looks, her self-containment, her matchless ability to charm and engage others – especially men. ‘You can have your pick of guys,’ Whitney assured her. ‘All you have to do is choose.’
‘I suppose,’ Clarice replied in a distant tone. ‘But how will I know that he’s the right one?’
Once again, Whitney felt her own good fortune. She, and not Clarice, was the one Peter Brooks had chosen.
Excerpted from Loss of Innocence by Richard North Patterson. Copyright © 2013 by Richard North Patterson.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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