Battle Road was named after the Battle of Princeton, which took place over 200 years ago on a vast field that stretched all the way from Nassau Hall to the outskirts of town. The battle is reenacted every year by actors dressed in period costumes who fire canons and rifles into the smoky field. Over the years, though, Princeton has built itself over most of the battlefield, so what remains is now confined to a sweeping green lawn between the Institute for Advanced Study and the Quaker Meeting House.
Nothing about Battle Road suggests war or strife; the street is lined with some of Princeton’s finest mansions. Every year for over three decades, Sigrid has celebrated New Year’s Eve on Battle Road, with her husband, Teddy, at the home of his lover and her husband, George.
The house is a grand Dutch colonial built in a more elegant century. Its handsome, unpainted front door is flanked by two slender, white columns and the front of the house is shaded in the summer by a cool canopy of sycamores lining the street.
Inside, the house is spacious, and the lingering glamour of a past era makes Sigrid think of the way a star’s light continues travelling long after it dies. There are plenty of antiques and a velvet-cushioned armchair stuffed into a sunlit nook where the old windowpanes of the French doors cast wavy, surreal light that fades everything it touches. Waist-high bookcases lined with first editions are built into the walls of the living room where on this evening, as on so many others, the couples take their places on the sofa and chairs that are drawn up to a perfectly constructed fire in the hearth.
George builds the fire according to a set of strict rules. He recites them to Sigrid in his poignant, froggy tenor.
“You see, first, you always use a good hardwood-it takes longer to light but the fire lasts longer. Next, you have to arrange the kindling around the tinder like a teepee, so that when it burns, the outside logs fall inward to feed the fire-most people don’t know that! But the most important thing that people always forget is that it takes time to build a good fire.” He nudges a smoldering log affectionately with an iron poker. “You have to watch it constantly so you know just when to add more kindling.”
The fire was always too hot, no matter where Sigrid sat. George’s wife hands Sigrid a martini and escorts her to a slipper chair facing the fire. Teddy requests a glass of mineral water and the others sip sherry from crystal glasses. Displayed before them, leaning precariously against the mantle of the fireplace, is a hand-blown Chianti bottle that is, perhaps, 5 feet tall. Most of its height comes from a slender, elongated neck that emerges from its fat, round base. It glows eerily like green water in the firelight.
George’s wife tells the story of how they lugged it back as carry-on from their honeymoon in Portugal because they had been enchanted by its shape. George’s wife blushes easily. Sigrid imagines that George must have had to convince the airline not to charge for an extra passenger.
Sigrid leans over to set her sweaty glass on one of the coasters George had placed on the low, Japanese tree-table.
“Have I put enough coasters down, pet?” He asks his wife, but he is squinting at Sigrid, fearful of her glass leaving a ring on the table.
“Yes, lovie,” George’s wife is droning and indulgent. “You know there are always more than enough.” Her rolling eyes suggest some sort of complicity between the women and she seems genuinely apologetic about her husband’s fierce and finicky domesticity.
While Sigrid sweats miserably, her neck prickling from the low-grade martini buzz, she places both her palms on the cold, sleek table. It’s truly a work of art, Sigrid thinks, a perfect slice of the tree’s cool, mysterious heart. The black-walnut burl table was made by George Nakashima, the famous woodworker, and probably belonged in a museum.
The top was cut from the base of a massive trunk, at exactly the point where the burled, spreading roots entered the ground. The greater the deformity, the higher the value. No attempt was made to conform to the typical notion of a table. The wood’s smooth surface was pitted-there were actual holes in the tabletop where something small could fall through, defying its purpose-and the unfinished edges were so wavy that some places were bridged with seamless wedges called butterfly joints. If Sigrid could just meditate on the tree’s elusive, innermost dot, moving in strategically from the periphery, she calculates, a great epiphany surely awaits her.
A candelabrum with unlit candles serves as the dining table’s centerpiece and four handwritten place cards, one at each empty plate, indicate seating. The place cards are always meant to be witty, to mock convention, but they feel oppressive. There is always a tense moment as they take their seats at the long table, wondering what food will be put before them.
George’s wife has never learned to cook, and she announced this shortcoming often, with a shrug of apology that, nevertheless, betrays pride. Tonight they are each served whole, stuffed guinea hens which bleed slightly when cut into, turning the herbed rice pink and forming a bloody moat around the creamed spinach. George speaks to Sigrid about saving soap.
“I just have to,” he chuckles. “I always have to save that sliver of soap that’s leftover and squidge it onto the new bar-”
“I do that, too,” Sigrid grins in solidarity, only a faint trace of embarrassment tugging down the corners of her mouth.
“I’ve got it down to a science now. First you have to wet the old sliver and then you press it into the new bar of soap-really weld it down-and then, just wait for it to set. Voil…!”
Sigrid and Teddy sit across from each other at the middle of the long table, chatting and chewing, while George and his wife preside at either end. There is a soothing cacophony of laughter and plates clattering. The wide, gleaming, Federal-style mirror that hangs above a polished heirloom console reflects the scene.
Teddy asks George’s wife if it’s cold. Only three hushed words, and then she is up, walking briskly around the table. She barely pauses as she passes Teddy’s seat, letting her hand graze his arm. Teddy lifts her hand to his lips and presses a kiss into her open palm.
“Now break it up, you two,” George wags a finger at his wife.
“I’ll be right back, lovie. I’m just fetching one of your sweaters because Teddy’s feeling chilly.”
“You didn’t bring one?” Sigrid asks.
“George never turns the heat above 65,” George’s wife winks, “no matter how cold it gets outside.”
“You know,” George continues, “it must be something about a Depression-era upbringing. I just can’t waste anything. I used to take the kids out to the tree farm on Christmas Eve and we’d look for the cheapest tree. I mean, we actually competed to find the ugliest one-the most lopsided, with the fewest branches and the least needles. But let me tell you, the real challenge was bringing it home and trying to decorate the bloody thing. It took some real artistry to make a tree like that presentable-we loaded it up with every damn ornament we could lay our hands on-and somehow our trees always looked splendid.”
“George, your children must have had such a marvelous childhood.” says Sigrid. His wife only sees his fussiness, she thinks, what a shame she doesn’t appreciate his unique qualities. Sigrid can think of no one else who so vigilantly protects his assets and makes every effort to create beauty out of lack.
There is no need to excuse herself from their little gathering, so Sigrid crosses the heavy silver cutlery on her plate in a neat X and drops the soiled linen napkin on top as she rises from her seat. Then she thinks better of it.
Sigrid always found herself retreating to the bathroom at some point during these meals. The bathroom was the invisible hub of the house, a modern architectural marvel sprouting up incongruously across from a wet bar in a short, tight passageway that bridged the kitchen, the dining room and the front hallway. This intersection was easily closed off by swinging out a door to block the front hall, which exposed the bathroom, or by closing that door to conceal the bathroom and open the intersection of rooms.
George was an expert sailor, and when their children were young, he took his family out to sea every summer on a sloop that was still moored at a marina in Portugal. To economize on space, George had designed this bathroom to be just like the head on his boat. Standing under bright, recessed lights in front of the well-stocked wet bar where Sigrid had left her handbag, she backs into the tiny bathroom and pulls the door shut. There is only blackness until she fumbles with the lock and it slides into place. A dim light flickers on with a blast of white noise from the fan, muffling the sounds outside.
No window, no doorknob, no sink, no towel holder, no waste bin-not even a light switch-everything pared down till there is nothing unnecessary, and barely enough room to turn around. Sigrid shimmies her slacks down, bumping her elbows against the tight walls, struggling to offer her ass to the toilet bowl. She recalls one of George’s stories, a story his wife had told more than once, her cheeks blazing, how after guests leave, George always counts the silverware. George nods his head, grinning, when his wife tells this story; he never denies it.
Once Sigrid sits down on the cold seat, her knees almost touch the mirrored door. There is nowhere to look but straight ahead, at the murky, life-sized image of herself. If she perches on the edge of the seat, she can press her forehead against the chilled glass. “Damn you, bitch,” she whispers at the mirror, looking down at the reflection of her pants clinging like something organic twisting around her ankles, trapping her like roots. She wonders who she’s addressing; it could be any of them.
“Damn you,” to the red, bloated face glaring back, still complicit, only inches away.
“Damn you,” to the pressed, contrite line of her mouth.
But when she looks herself in the eye, everything softens. Sigrid thinks of the tree table and the missed epiphany. She sees something clearly now in the reflection-it is tender and blameless, crouching in the shadows, alive but quivering and, it seems to her, at knife point-the point, like the flickering point of a remote star fixed in space, only its cold blue light is able to cross the unimaginable distance between not knowing and knowing, between knowing and unknowing and back again.
The stolen, sterling silver knife is already in her handbag and she knows George will say nothing about it to anyone. All these years, he never does because, after all, this is their own, private ritual of complicity. Happy New Year, she thinks.
Sigrid stands up and straightens her blouse, tucks a stray lock of graying hair behind her ear, removes the tube of lipstick she keeps in her pocket and applies it carefully to her mouth. She’s ready to go back.
Charlotte Heckscher lives in Princeton with her family and four cats.