The Twisted Mind of the Architect

The architect sits in his house overlooking the Brewster Flats. It is a house of his own creation, built at a time when he was enamored of the natural world, and so it is a low building with an open plan, suffused with light from broad windows that invite in the view like an honored guest.

The architect perches on a stool at his desk, a huge tilting space with clips for blueprints. The desk is placed by an alcove window, with a winter view of the lawn that slopes to the water. The silver gray of the Flats flashes between the trunks of a stand of elephantine sycamores that raise their bare limbs to the sky. He looks down at the paper attached to the desk, the outline of a building commissioned ten years before.

Not many people liked his buildings, but then he liked buildings not many people liked. He could admire Boston’s City Hall for hours, marveling at its computer chip symmetry, its Lego-ness.

His own designs are filled with whimsy and irony, which means he is wildly popular in Europe, where they understand such things. But here in the States, he is considered mean and caustic, and the surprises he includes in his buildings, in this building in particular—stair-like areas that go nowhere, exit ramps that lead only to a view of the skyline—are considered impractical, a waste of money. In the end, the building had been constructed without them.

As he reviews the plans, he notices that the thin platinum band on his left hand matches the color of the Flats today. The architect had married at a weak point in his life, when he thought it proper to have a wife and family. He fell in love with her angularness, all elbows and knees topped by a sharply pointed chin. And her asymmetrical face, nose slightly to the left, mouth slightly to the right, and eyes not quite level, whose balance she maintained with a slight tilt of the head. He thought she understood his sense of humor because she did not become angry as everyone else did. But she was simply young and confused and soon tired of his ironic asides. A devout Catholic, she would never have divorced him and instead died quickly one year of a cancer that can now be easily treated.

The architect looks up from his desk and gazes into a backyard no longer cold and barren. Incongruously, his wife plays with Mary on the lawn in the late spring sunshine. She holds their daughter’s hands as Mary moves her shaky legs across the green grass, her face alight with the understanding of movement, mobility. Enraptured, the architect smiles and returns to his sketches. He is puzzled by the bits of steak that cling to his jeans, an item of clothing he knows that he first purchased when Mary was a teenager, long after his wife had died. He looks up to see the Flats restored to their dull winter light. The remnants of lunch are cold on the kitchen table, a burrito delivered from a local restaurant: he is again the widowed architect.

How odd, he thinks, that he would dwell so imaginatively on the past when he considered himself so happily rooted in the present. He thought again of Mary, thought how she too would find this amusing. Mary understands his sense of irony. She was born with the understanding as surely as she was born with green eyes that observed everything around her. It had been uncomplicated raising her after his wife’s death, their temperaments were so well-matched.

All was well until she had a child of her own and brought the family for a weeklong visit. The architect teased the boy as he teased everyone; but his attempt at humor confused the three-year-old, whose blue eyes filled with tears.

Amused, he said things that only made the situation worse. Mary picked up her towheaded boy and with him on her hip, berated the architect while her Norwegian-born husband packed up their car in silence. “It was only a little joke,” the architect said, turning his head to look out over the Flats, as though the situation were meaningless, nothing more interesting than the view.

“He’s only a child,” Mary hissed before driving away.

The architect’s pride was hurt. She had always been his ally, always held his gaze and smiled when he’d say similar things to the string of boyfriends she’d brought home over the years. But now there is someone in her life more important than him, and that the architect is unable to forgive.

Mary sends letters, cards at Christmas that detail the growth of her young man. But he stopped listening to the messages she leaves on his answering machine and never replies to her correspondence.

The architect dismisses the memory of his disfavored daughter and stands to shake the stiffness from his legs, and shake the odd time shifts that have troubled his consciousness of late. Walking to the kitchen, he opens the back door and steps into the Spanish sunshine. He is standing with Josep Lluis Sert, the famous Catalan city planner, in Barcelona, viewing Sert’s latest construction. The architect is not an architect yet. He has left college to wander through Europe, many years before this became a popular pursuit. He is drawn to buildings, ancient and modern, from medieval cathedrals to Sert’s brash designs. The sun shines in their eyes as Sert points to the pitched roof, and the architect nods at the explanation of this detail. What was only a glimmer before becomes a certainty in him: he will abandon his studies in business and become an architect, to hell with his father and his father’s money.

The architect blinks as the sun blinds him to darkness, and he is once again standing outside his house overlooking the Brewster Flats. His arm is lifted and rests on his forehead, shading his eyes from a sun that set long ago. His line of sight views the pitch of his roof, a detail he included as an homage to Sert. He drops his arm as pins and needles shiver in his muscles. He cannot hear the ocean but can feel its presence, taste the salt of the air on his tongue. The winter air has turned his ears to ice and as he stumbles back into the warmth of the house, they begin to burn with sensation. Confusion tires him and so he goes to his bedroom and falls onto the mattress, the view of Barcelona, the palm trees waving in the Spanish breeze, as wallpaper in his mind.

He awakes to the pale sun. For a moment, he feels his wife beside him, believes he has been woken by Mary’s infant cries. But it is many years later, and the architect’s wife is long dead.

The architect is becoming concerned. He has often reminisced about the past, but never relived it in such detail. He feels like a character in one of the science fiction epics Mary read as a teenager. He moves out of bed slowly, sitting on its edge and running his hands over the stubble prickling his face and scalp. He knows he cannot call Mary, that would be admitting he needs her care. After all, he is a celebrated architect, he has won eight major architectural awards, even now he receives letters from students requesting his counsel.

He wraps his pear-shaped body in a blue cotton kimono, purchased on a trip to Tokyo. The building he designed there for a major international banking firm had won him his fifth award. Knotting the obi around his waist, he pads barefoot down the hallway toward the kitchen, passing six of the eight awards he has hung on the wall. He is dazzled momentarily by the morning sun, which pours in through the windows and a skylight over the sink. His feet, used to the hardwood floor, step onto water and warm sand instead of the expected quarry tiles.

The architect stands in the mud of the Brewster Flats, warmed by the sun whose rays sparkle across the shallow water and by Mary who has leapt onto his back to escape the hermit crabs that scuttle around her toes. Mary laughs and squeals in mock fear as the architect lists from side to side, pretending to drop her, then lurching back to balance. A green plastic bucket dangles from her hand, half filled with sand and water. Two hermit crabs inside bounce off each other as the architect sways.

He laughs as Mary laughs, happy in a way he has never been. His laughter sounds strange to his ears, echoing and cavernous. The sun dazzles his eyes and he blinks, the water and bright light dissolving to a winter scene. The architect blinks again and staggers into the kitchen sink. There is no sand, no hermit crabs, no laughing Mary in pigtails. There is only the silence of his solitude, broken by the hum of the refrigerator.

He feels suddenly bereft at the loss of his daughter. His friend, his ally, his confidante. He shakes his head and takes a deep breath to remove the weight of pity from his chest. He was solitary before and he is solitary now. No difference.

The architect shuffles to the bathroom and turns the shower on hot, inhaling the steam that flows around him in wisps. He focuses on his plans for the morning, measures the length of each task as he parcels out the day. Dressing in his jeans and a black wool turtleneck, he returns to the kitchen and puts coffee on to boil, Swedish style. He turns to his desk in its alcove and reviews his mail—a letter from a young architecture student, a query from a firm in England that wishes to build an office on the Costa Brava, a pitch from Architecture Today asking to feature his house in an article on buildings that have stood the test of time. The architect smiles, any residual pity vanishing at the accolades peppered throughout the letters.

Still smiling, he places the letters to the side as he turns to an introduction he is writing for a biography of Sert. The scent of coffee, rich and dark, creeps slowly from the kitchen, bringing with it memories that tickle the back of his brain. He remembers their trip to Scandinavia, a gift, he said, to Mary on her graduation from college. In reality, it was just another commission, this time in Norway, in the country’s far north. He took her first to Stockholm, where they stayed a few days with the widow of a colleague. Mary was happy then, standing in the woman’s kitchen as she learned to make the coffee. The architect stared out the windows at the Sound that divides the city, restless for the Norwegian fjord that was his ultimate destination. He whisked Mary away north far too soon, and her disappointment was evident, though easily ignored.

The architect puts down his pen and fetches the coffee from the burner, leaving the pot to the side so that the grounds can settle.

A breeze comes from behind him, a breeze in his otherwise draft-free home. Turning, he faces a wind blowing hard off the North Sea. He is tramping on the cliffs of a fjord, immersed in his conception for a museum that will soon stand here. He envisions a building with two wings that extend out from a central entry area. The wings he will erect with sculpted walls that mirror the shape of the fjord, making the building the locus of the natural formation, reaching its arms out until at last it is transformed into the wildness of nature, stretching away to the distance, and the sea.

So lost in his reverie, he has forgotten the time, forgotten Mary whose vacation has been lost, once again, to his work. The sun hovers near the horizon, but it is June and will sink no lower. Looking at his watch, he sees that it is midnight and finally drags himself to reality. The architect raises his head and looks to the opposite cliff, where Mary stands, head upturned, next to the blond, blue eyed, Norwegian driver-translator that has been their guide for a week. The Norwegian has a hand on Mary’s face, a finger really, gently raising her chin. Light shines on them, oblique rays of an almost setting sun. The breeze ruffles wisps of brown from the barrette that holds back her hair, and he watches as the space between them slowly shrinks until they kiss, a gentle meeting of their lips, once, then twice. The architect thinks he sees a tear glisten on Mary’s cheek. The sight at once touches and angers him, rage quickly overwhelming the sentiment he could have felt for their moment of recognition. How dare he? the architect thinks; how dare she! he fumes silently. He never considers the week of loneliness she faced, he trudging along the fjord, she for all purposes alone. Alone but for this man who must have spoken with her, walked with her. Hadn’t they left him alone, sketching, while they drove off to a small village for coffee, or food, or something else? He was barely aware of their presence, much less their absence.

The architect is full of fiery anger at Mary’s betrayal, full of hurt that someone else could be closer to her than him. How dare she? How dare they?

And this, he realizes, is the true source of the injury to his pride, not the argument that was to follow ten years later. Ten years after they’d returned to Massachusetts, the Norwegian following, then marrying, his precious daughter. He could not allow her to see it, though; because even she would not understand his reluctance to let her do what was right for herself, instead of what was best for him.

A noise sounds from behind him, and instead of facing a wave of grass on the cliff, he turns to see the old Bakelite phone in his house. But it doesn’t make the loud ring it should, it sounds squeaky and high pitched. He is scared by the foreign sound, it is unlike anything he’s ever heard before. Smears appear on the wall, drips that fall over the phone, like water thrown at a portrait that takes away paint leaving only the canvas. And instead he sees his silver cordless phone, with its beeping ring, now suddenly silent.

The architect’s heart beats fast with fear and realization. His incomprehensible sense of humor, his architecture awards, his pride, all mean nothing as he stands alone in his house overlooking the Brewster Flats. Waves of dread flow from his heart through his body to his fingers and toes. Even his stubbled hair stands on end. The architect knows that soon he will forget he even has his pride and then it will be too late to ask for help.

Mary would help. Mary would want to help. And he feels for the first time that he wishes her to help. Needs her in a way he had refused to consider. The architect reaches out a shaking hand and picks up the receiver, dialing the number he knows by heart. He stands by the window and gazes out at the Brewster Flats, listening to the telephone ringing, hearing at last the lisping sound of a little boy’s hello.

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