After the Season

"People were always saying something had completely changed them, some experience or book or man, but if you knew how they had been before, nothing much really had changed…in truth the most you could expect was to change perhaps one thing and even that would eventually go back to what it had been.” James Salter

In “After the Season,” the first short story in Bernhard Schlink’s new collection, Summer Lies, a middle man and woman meet after the summer crowd has left a village somewhere out on Cape Cod. He walked by a popular restaurant one night, saw the woman sitting alone, reading a book, hesitated for a moment until she looked up and smiled at him.

“Then he took his courage in both hands, walked over to her table, and asked if he might join her.”

No doubt you can see where this is going. Susan is wealthy, has inherited from her former husband a large home and a smaller cottage not far from the restaurant, a condominium in Manhattan, and one in Los Angeles. Richard plays the flute in a New York orchestra, earning a paltry salary that requires him to live in a tacky apartment in a noisy, sometimes threatening, run-down New York neighborhood.

“He didn’t like rich people. He despised inherited wealth and considered earned riches to be ill-gotten.”

Nevertheless, they begin to see each other, then live together, fall in love, and start to plan their future. They spend many hours walking along the beach, cooking, and in bed. Schlink writes that she saw something in him that he was not aware of and he found it impossible to resist the “gift of it to him.”

No doubt he was also taken in by the allure of living like the rich in her New York condo and the end of his financial worries.

Eventually Susan must fly to Los Angeles to work for a while organizing her foundation and his vacation has come to an end. They part at the airport and Richard flies back to New York to resume his work with the orchestra.

After living so luxuriously, it was difficult to get used to his neighborhood. The kids were sitting out on the front steps of their houses, smoking, drinking, and blasting tunes from their boom box. He wasn’t entirely sure he was safe.

However over the years, the neighborhood began to change. He started to meet doctors, lawyers and bankers and could take his visitors out to a decent restaurant. His building wasn’t torn down or renovated to bring it up to date. But that was fine because he liked it the way it was.

“He liked the noises [in the adjacent apartments]. They gave him the feeling that he was living in the real world, not just a rich enclave.”

He had his life there, the second oboist who he met for dinner once a week, the old man who lived on the top floor who came down to play chess with him, and Maria, the kid down the street who wanted to learn how to play the flute.

When he arrived back in front of his building, Richard sat down on its steps, listened to the children playing hide-and-seek, greeted his neighbors who welcomed him back, and waved to his Spanish teacher who was walking by.

“This was his world: the street, the neat houses and the shabby ones, the Italian restaurant on the corner…the foot shops, the newsstand and the fitness center…He hadn’t just got used to this world. He loved it.”

He had forgotten he would have to give up all of this for the new one Susan offered. He would have to decide which one to choose fairly soon. He went up stairs, switched off the light, and went to bed.

I was completely absorbed by “After the Season,” by its reminder of what we so easily forget, and the importance of remembering it once in a while.