She's a beautiful girl, my Claire, and one of a kind; you'd recognize her in a fingersnap if you could see her. Pretty as a picture in the right light-the biggest toothy smile, the readiest laugh. dimples, even, like Christmas morning. You couldn't ask for anything more. It only hit me the other day how blue her eyes are, as if I'd never noticed them before. Oh, sure, she's hardly a model or anything; she's got her flaws. I even used to think that her mouth was too thin, until I noticed one day how it dips with the symmetry of a heart in the center, and curves out with a delicacy you almost can't see. When she is asleep she really does look like a child, like the old cliché-

Don't think I'm too dirty an old man; it's not the age difference that's attractive. Not at all; it's more like finding a hungry stray cat. Not the wild kind that spits and scratches, but the tired, grateful kind that curls up under your kindness, with her arms tucked under her head on the arm of the couch, a magazine crumpled under her knee.

Claire's knee. I always liked her knees. She doesn't wear skirts much-she's not what she calls, somewhat sadly, "a girly girl." When it was still a secret that we were together, I used to draw my hand over her knees where no one could see, just to watch how red she'd turn. Mostly she just wears those jeans she's worn and washed (and worn, and washed) into silk, almost as soft as peau de soie. I got her a real silk dress to wear to the library's renovation fundraiser; she blushed and said it was too good for her, but I could see by her eyes how she liked it. She didn't wear much jewelry, or even do much to her hair (clean, shoulders and below, dark stripes of blond), but damn if she wasn't the prettiest thing in the place.

And damn if everyone else didn't notice it, too. I'd say she's got more of an unconscious, conversational charm than a physical beauty, but even so she got a little carried away with that champagne flush on her face. "I have to talk around," she said; "It wouldn't look good for your wife to be just a wallflower." But I wasn't so sure she had to talk quite so much-or drink so much. She couldn't see the way those men smiled at her, like they were appraising her, while she was there talking and laughing and carrying on, not a care in the world. Wilson was there, too. I hadn't seen him since he'd Tendered His Resignation, etc., etc. (By then he still hadn't done half as well for himself as when he was working for me.) And he seemed a little too happy to see her. It wasn't as if I could ever forget that fit he'd thrown in my office-he excused himself when he saw me coming to reclaim my wife-and he knew better than to let me catch whatever he was saying to her. I would have been worried, but.well, when she said your wife, I thought, her heart must be in the right place. She's just young and naïve-she just doesn't understand how she looks to men like that.

* * *

We've had trouble, of course, an odd couple like us. She takes public opinion a little hard-and of course she gets the lion's share of the torment. They always assume she's after some fictional pile of money, what with the age difference between us. Makes me long for the "olden days," as they say, when this kind of thing wasn't so unusual. Though she is an unusual girl. Grew up fast, I suppose-not like those poor girls who have hard home lives and "daddy issues" and end up on the street-I mean that some children are just wise for their age. Old souls, we used to call them. I had a young cousin like that-quiet, shy, bookish. Preternaturally well- spoken. She was more like a niece to me; at the family gatherings she'd be off in the corner dreaming, and sometimes I could get her to tell me her little stories-all about the fairies in our apple orchards, with all these complicated lineages and goings-on. "Of course they're not real," she would tell me, very soberly, at the age of eight, "but I like to think about them anyway."

I met Claire when she was sixteen-of course I didn't even think of her as anything but a kid until much later-and gradually she showed me her own stories, her writing. "It's not any good now," she'd say dryly, "but eventually I'm going to get the hang of it." Which wasn't true at all-she was quite good. Quite good for her age. And I couldn't help but think of Beth and her orchard stories-the sober translucence of her face, that early perceptiveness. It can be hard to explain.

And of course I've married younger women before-but Claire isn't like any of the others. Bless their hearts, none of them were smart like her-well, actually, Penny had a very pragmatic intelligence, but she was no intellectual. The others, well-good women, both of them, but you'd never find them on a quiz show. Claire's almost a little too smart for her own good, I'd say-it's so funny and sad to watch her go borrowing trouble with these existential dilemmas she pulls down out of the blue. When you're my age, you learn that all you can do is just what you feel is best, and everything else can only fall into place in your wake.

That's why it's so funny to me that people presume-if you've got a twenty- year-old and a sixty-year-old, she must be some gold-digger and I'm a cradle-robber. If you could see her, you'd see how funny that is-she's no Anna Nicole Smith, if you will. And it's never been so difficult for me before-when the age difference isn't quite so great, it's as if you've won the Super Bowl, as far as other men are concerned. There's a lot of nudging and winking and such-people never harassed me the way they do Claire. But then, hell, they don't even treat me now the way they used to. I suppose it can be hard to understand, such an extreme age difference. They don't take into account that a man wants to be understood as much as anything. The other women before her, they never understood-that I'd need to move about a bit, need a little time alone, need to be myself. Claire needs that herself as much as I do. And now, I suppose I am a little readier to "settle down" some. And she understands me. She knew me for-what?-five years before we were married? Something like that. She knew what she was getting into.

Wilson, now, he had problems with it. With us. I can't imagine why-was it any of his business? Oh, I'm sure he had a little "crush" on her-but I don't know who he was to talk, being three or four years older than her himself. (There's a big difference, you know, developmentally, even between nineteen and twenty-three.) I was trying to train him to take over the business for when I moved on; that's what I do, you see-I buy small companies, fix them up, and move on. He met her at the office, and I could tell he liked it when she came around every other afternoon or so. (What, did he think she was coming around for him?) I thought he knew; we always left together, and Claire isn't very good at hiding things-we were was written all over her face. But after I'd given her the ring Wilson threw an almighty fit. You'd've thought I'd swiped his girl. "Jesus, Will, she's practically a child!" he shouted, as if she were still on the bottle. He was such an elder himself. So that was it for young master Wilson; he stormed out and sent me a letter basically to say that he was taking his toys and going home.

* * *

Home. Claire's home was less at her parents' house than at her grandmother's. I remember a lunch, after we were married, at the old family house-the grandmother was gone by then, of course, having died just as we had gotten engaged, but Johanna and Sarah, the two oldest daughters, were living there with their brother's widow Julie. It's one of those huge, run- down antebellum confections in the historical district downtown; Claire likes to call it the Aunt-Hill. It's a nice family she has on her father's side-very close-knit, lots of pretty women, and lots of family meals en masse. Rather like my family when I was a little boy, when the war was just starting.

(I remember Sundays in my grandfather's garden the most, all the family around on the veranda, my grandmother and lemonade, and I was the baby. All those tall cousins in brown ready to go overseas, with all those military pockets buttoned full of candy for me, and later, real German shells or foreign postage stamps-all of them already young men bringing pretty girls to Sunday dinner, and me barely up to their knees. And I remember the winy mounds of apples in the chill, and the hired hands trudging out to the harvest, with my father pacing through the orchard rows so sternly. He had served in the first war, and we couldn't possibly spare him with all the boys in the family gone, all the boys that wouldn't come back.)

It's a strange feeling I get at these dinners and lunches with Claire's family-"The Sprecace women have never had any luck with men," Sarah always says with a smile. It's only Claire's father who's left. His father died fairly young, leaving Joan with five children: the brother had a car accident, leaving behind Julie and their daughter; Sarah is long divorced with twin girls; Jo never married, so I have no idea who her daughter Sophie's father is; and Kate, the youngest, is still single. All women, and all girl cousins-so many women.

(Sometimes I look around-sometimes I can see my own family, all gone by now anyway in the passage of time, but shimmering there in that garden after the war, after Beth died of polio, bereft.)

Altogether, though, Claire's family is a lot more jovial; they've also been able to weather things one at a time, in the course of nature and not war. They were good to me at first for Claire's sake alone, but I've always been good with women, and I think we all get on just fine now. Even her father's a sport, and you'd think he'd hate me. Of course, he can't afford to disapprove; we got married at a very difficult time in the family life, right as the grandmother was dying and Claire's parents' were separating, so it was almost a tacit agreement: we would all accept his new girlfriend if they would accept me. Besides, Claire's always been her father's favorite.

And I think that goes back to the "old soul" thing-Claire's always had that early maturity, which probably helped her father weather those twin sisters of hers better. And what is it with this family and twins-and girls? I've never seen the like of it before. All the aunts, all the cousins-and now the first grandchild, Sophie's daughter. Claire's the oldest cousin but for Sophie, fresh out of graduate school, who got married just after we did. Already the little girl's very attached to her-Megan, that's her name. We were at that lunch when Claire just hoisted her onto her hip with such a strong arm, and with such a patient smile, listening to Megan prattle on about preschool and finger-painting and whatnot, as if Claire was talking to anyone her own age. They talked about how their jeans were both the exact same shade of indigo blue and how Megan could come over to our house again to help stake up the sunflowers and have some seeds for her own, and Megan threw these tiny little arms around her neck and called her "Aunt Claire." Very lovely. She would make a wonderful mother, I thought then.

Not that we could ever have children. Of course not-I've a daughter of my own already, and Claire hardly has the time, what with her name starting to become known to the literary journals. Fortunately she's so young yet, it'll be years before her biological clock gets out of hand, and by then she'll understand on her own what an impossibility children would be for us.

But then sometimes Claire can't understand what's sensible. Oh, usually she's the soul of sense-but it's like the time she was seriously talking about spending her junior year in Spain, of all ungodly places. There was a scholarship to study abroad, and otherwise, she claimed, she wouldn't have the money to stay in school any longer-but good Lord, I could have given her the money! And I offered as much-besides, there are government loans of all kinds, and dear God, there are more scholarships in the world than just the one that she'd lost! She didn't even want to keep up her Spanish for a living-she'd dropped it from her major, only wanting to write, the way all the actors say they want to direct. Even the way we all say in business that we want a company of our own. (And, I can tell you, having had several, professional "independence" is nothing to write home about.)

"Just think," she said. "Spain. The bullfights and the museums and the wonderful old Roman-Arabic architecture. A year in Spain would be something to write about forever."

"Like Hemingway?" I said. "Look, writing's good and all, but you can barely speak the language-"

"All the more reason to go, to pick it up really well-Kate's always talking about how wonderful it is, how you slip right into it, and I could visit her in Mallorca-"

Kate, that infernal aunt of hers-a translator or something, I think, on the other end of the world, putting ridiculous ideas into her niece's head so she'll have someone else out there to keep her company.

I tried to tell Claire how wrong Spain would be for her. She'd barely been outside the state (I took her to Atlanta once for a Picasso exhibit, but if she's been anywhere else, it's news to me), much less outside the country. On her own she couldn't punch her way out of a wet paper sack-she wouldn't last a week in a foreign country by herself. Just her luck-she'd catch some disease her immune system would never be prepared for while she was out there all alone, with all those strange dark men around and not knowing how to handle them-she doesn't know what she is to them, you see. Those slick Europeans would size her up in a minute. She's just another hors d'oeuvre for them. Just put her on a platter and serve her up. Even if she did come back she would never be the same.

"You could come with me!" she cried. "You used to travel all the time, you know how to do everything-come on, it would be so much fun!"

So much fun, indeed. I did all my traveling on the continental United States, thank you very much. All that foreign currency to keep track of and the time zones and the inconvenience of running the business from abroad-

"It's an internet company!" she said. "Isn't being able to do anything from anywhere the point of it? Isn't that what you're selling? Besides, you only picked it up so you could sell it off in a couple of years!"

Imagine-telling me how to run my business! What does she know about my work, or my plans? But that wasn't even the worst of it-what was I going to do for a solid year, tag along with a college kid when I don't even know the language? Be tied to her Spanish-speaking apron string? I think not! I'd be mistaken for her senile old grandfather. They'd all talk about me behind my back, only in Spain I wouldn't even be able to understand what.

I got her to see the light, of course. She

was moving along so well publishing her stories, making a little name for herself, that she couldn't afford to lose her focus for a year abroad. Really, she didn't know what she wanted; she was just grasping at straws. I can hardly blame her-you can't possibly know what you want when you're twenty. God knows I didn't. And she'd just turned twenty at that. It didn't help that her parents were beginning to break up, or that her grandmother (rest her soul) went and died unexpectedly in the middle of all this. Claire was her father's favorite, her grandmother's favorite.she was having a bad time of it all around. I don't blame her for wanting to run away.

And I'm glad I could be there for her. I'm glad I could see these things objectively for her, for her sake. In hindsight I can see how she felt she was losing everything-her mother was making her choose sides in the divorce, her sisters wouldn't speak to her or the father, the grandmother died, and then she lost her scholarship-she was starting to have panic attacks at the littlest things, hyperventilating. "I just feel like it's all closing in on me," she'd gasp.

We even had some childish fight ourselves-I mentioned getting married and she said she didn't want to anymore. I think she was upset over Spain, but- what was I supposed to say? "Yes, dear, that's fine, go run away from all your problems. I'll just sit here until you're ready to come back." So then, I think, she tried to run away from me-she couldn't even see that I was trying to help her, to do the best I could for her. That fight-it was the only time I have ever hit her, God forgive me, and she's been good enough to forgive me herself. I admit I was frightened that between losing so many things and then throwing others away herself she would self- destruct. Bless her heart, Claire is not the most stable person I've ever known. To hit her-it was almost the way you'd hit someone who was hysterical, to shake them out of it. But that's no excuse.

The way she looked at me after I'd done it-we were out on the slope behind her dorm building at the random hour of one in the morning, and she just dropped to her knees as if she'd been shot. All I could think was, My God, I've killed her. Not her-what we'd had together. She would hate me. She wouldn't even answer me at first, just crouched over double in the dry dead February grass, a hand to her cheek. It was not my best moment. But I know when I've made a mistake-I couldn't apologize to her enough. I even cried a bit-I'm not ashamed of it!-but she just stared at me, glass-eyed. And then I heard this tired little voice: It's fine. It's fine. Don't worry about it. It's fine.

But I do worry about it. Every now and then it comes back to me.that night, like a sudden gust of cold at my back. What she must think of me. whether she ever really forgave me. But I think she see now that she was not being.rational. Not that she provoked me-God, no; how terrible!-but it was a rare situation. She was not being rational: She didn't want to get married, she didn't want to look for more college money here, she didn't want to do anything the sensible way. Claire, Claire, Quite Contraire. And even though she'd always been so close to her father, well-he was off with another woman (and I don't blame him, having met that shrew Claire calls a mother), and it was hard for Claire to realize he wasn't just a father but also a man. She needed a father figure just then; she's always losing herself in her own problems. And, well, then, her grandmother died-even when I met Joan months before I could see that she was in a bad way, but Claire never even saw it coming; none of the aunts wanted to tell her, lest it upset her schoolwork. It crushed her, really-what could I do but offer a shoulder? I was all she had left, and she was all mine again, as if that terrible thing had never happened between us. Tragedy can do that, you know; it just makes you reevaluate your priorities-brings you together through the rough patches.

* * *

It's still hard for her, of course. She's been through a lot, and I'm not completely convinced.that is, I think she's what we used to call a little.touched. She'll just stare and stare for hours-I suppose she's in her "zone," as she calls it, planning her stories. I could not tell you where she gets her imagination. And she wakes up in the night sometimes, clutching me-"Did you hear that? Did you hear that?" And of course there's nothing there. Or she'll sit up till all hours at that rinky-dink old laptop of hers-"You go on to bed, I'll be there when I finish this page"- and the next thing you know, it's three in the morning and she's asleep, head buried in her arms on the coffee table.

And sometimes she does cry. Crying seems to be the thing she can't shake, but even then it's not the worst I could imagine. When she cries she doesn't want me to know.yet she manages to do it when I'll be around to find her, all crumpled up in the window seat or on the edge of the bathtub. She'll wave me away and say, no, no, just leave me alone and I'll be fine; but you know she doesn't really want me to go, so you have to talk through it until she gives in. "I just don't want to be a problem, you know," she'll say, in that sweet little roundabout way of hers. "I don't want to be any trouble." But she wants someone to take the trouble for her, I think. She is like a small, frail animal that way.

"I just don't know what to do," she'll say when she cries, or, "I just don't know what's wrong with me." She gets in these pitiful moods-of course, most women do sometimes-when she's just "ugly," or "stupid," or "never going to be anything." When she wants to be comforted. Because of course she can't see herself for what she really is.

She's told me about when she was younger, in high school-it was much worse for her then, these moods. I've known her since she was sixteen-have I told you that already?-just a nervous little thing with a bad complexion then, and a curtain of overlong hair. I met her at a wedding reception, one of those convoluted friend-of-a-friend things-it was for Karyn's niece, and Karyn's daughter Sherry was, at the time, Claire's best friend.

(An evil little thing too, that girl turned out to be. And Karyn wasn't much better. Claire never would have lost that church scholarship if it hadn't been for Karyn's little brat-always bullying Claire into writing her papers for her, until one day Claire just sent her off with an old paper that the professor would recognize. Served the kid right, too. But of course she and Karyn fired back with the one thing she could use against Claire: "immoral behavior." I ask you, was it Claire's fault that I wasn't divorced from Penny yet? Was it the business of anyone else but her and me?)

But I never dreamed then of anything she might be to me later; I'm not that dirty an old man. I just remember that she was wearing five pearls strung on a thin chain at her throat, and a red dress-not a red-red dress, but one rather the color of a ruddy peachskin, and it brought out the flower in her cheeks when she smiled. She was drinking rather expensive champagne- probably for the first time-and too much of it. She was tipsy, which was endearing. I never drink anymore, of course; I have three AA meetings a week, even after twenty-three years sober. I have no tolerance for drunks, but she was just tipsy, just a schoolgirl-it was much more fun to talk to her than any of Karyn's in-denial alcoholic friends, to this high school kid who was still starting out fresh in life.

But, like most teenage girls, she was unhappy. Oh, she never said so outright; she was raised too well for that, but you could tell. I remembered the age just fine-my daughter Addy had been out of college a good few years by then, so I had lived through the trauma of female adolescence before. They just want someone to listen to them, smile at them, validate them-that's all. And she was a sweet little thing and had good taste in movies, so it wasn't too much trouble to bond with her at the art-house theater once a month or so. A little like the Big Brother program. It's no trouble for someone who's always happy to see you.

So after the movie we'd "hang out" in some out-of-the-way parking lot, with the top of the car down if the evening was fine. I think that's what so nice about Claire being so young-she hadn't had the enjoyment of life crushed out of her yet. You enter the work force and you get that multi- tasker cubicle complex: Everything Must Be Completed in a Timely Fashion. But Claire, still so fresh, still knew how to waste time pleasantly, and the more I thought about an eventual retirement, the more I myself wanted to relearn that skill.

And she was already smart enough to dread the idea of corporate life-her mother was an overworked monster. I'd buy Claire chocolate milkshakes and she'd pour all this out to me: Her mother had Big Plans for her. Her sisters double-teamed her for all the parents' attention. Her father, a chef, was trying to get a little restaurant of his own started and wasn't there for her much anymore. She wasn't afraid of work, but wanted to work on her own terms. (Right. Good luck.)

But she had other troubles. Long after we were married she finally told me how she and Karyn Greene's little witch used to drink stolen liquor all weekend-it boggles the mind, really, all the evil that other kid could get up to. And then there was her depression. I don't think Claire was eating, either; she'd gone anorectic like so many girls do. Back then I considered getting a milkshake in her a good day's work.

She was a good kid, though.always so happy to see me. She could make a man feel welcome, I'll tell you that. Of course I knew I had to be playing some role in her development, but I never dreamed that she had actual feelings for me-not right up until the afternoon that she kissed me. Can you imagine! A bold move like that from a kid like her! We were just sitting outside on that slope behind her dorm one September afternoon, as we were wont to do when the weather was fine, and it was the "siesta hour" before dinner, when all the kids took their pre-party naps. Not a soul to be seen, and the sun was high and dusky on the grass. She says something maudlin to me about how good a friend I've been to her-and then she kisses me.

I am sorry to say that the first thought in my head was, I wonder what else she's crazy enough to do? (That was the shock talking, is what that was.) The first thing I did, of course, was to kiss her back properly. Then it was as if I'd never seen her before. She was as taken aback as I was-she was blushing so fiercely-and I knew that she'd used up all the nerve she'd ever have for that one gesture. So I led her the rest of the way, if you will, "down the garden path" that night. I never would have made her go any further than she wanted to. But she did want to, and we have been together ever since.

And it looks as if she's going to stay. She's outside in the back garden now; it's so much nicer now that there's the two of us to keep it in order. The azaleas are starting to come in altogether now, a carnival of fuchsia and ruby and candy-pink, and she's been going around trimming them, cutting ruffled irises for the vases as she goes. (The way her hair half-falls over her brow, and her collar away from the bone.it's a loveliness you couldn't design if you tried.) Half the time she doesn't realize I'm watching her, and I wish she could know what a beautiful girl she really is.

Originally written 1999-2000.