A witch is cursed to relive a doomed love affair through many lifetimes, as both troubled muse and frustrated artist, in this haunting debut novel.
Washington, DC, May 24, 2012
Just after my divorce was final, my friend set me up on a blind date. I walked through Le Bar at the Sofitel on 15th Street and asked for the “Varner party.” The hostess pointed to a man sitting alone by the window.
Washington is—at its heart—a genteel Southern town with a dress code to match. In a room bursting with navy suits, bow ties, and the occasional summer seersucker, Luke Varner was terribly out of place. Dressed head-to-toe in black, he looked like an art director from Soho who’d taken the Acela the wrong direction at Penn Station only to find himself surrounded by overfed men swirling glasses of bourbon and chewing on unlit cigars.
He looked up, and I could see that he was neither dashing nor smoldering. The man possessed no exotic features; he was, in fact, rather neutral looking, like a favorite pair of khakis. For a moment I wondered what my friend Mickey had been thinking. This man was not my type.
“I’m Helen Lambert.” I extended my clammy hand, a sign that shouted I hadn’t been on a date in nearly ten years. My first thought was that this would be brief—one drink just to be polite. I was getting back out there, and a practice date would do me some good.
“Hello. Luke Varner.” He stood, studying me for a moment like he was surprised by what he saw.
Despite my own disappointment in him, I sank a little, wondering if, somehow, I had also fallen short of Mickey’s description. Luke took his seat but seemed pensive and quiet, like he was solving a puzzle in his head. After he motioned for me to join him, there was a long, unnerving silence between us.
“Mickey told me all about your house. He says it’s lovely.” I sat down and started to chat, rambling really, arranging my cloth napkin on my lap, picking it up and putting it down. To my horror, the white threads from the napkin began shedding all over my solid black skirt. I waved the offending napkin at the hostess as though surrendering.
The corner of Luke Varner’s mouth turned up in the beginnings of a laugh at my futile attempts to get the attention of our hostess. Suddenly I felt that I was inadvertently hamming it up like a vaudeville actress.
“Well, it’s old,” said Luke.
“Huh?” I gave him a puzzled look.
“My house.” He laughed. “You were asking about my house.” His voice had a sandpaper texture to it, like he’d enjoyed his share of cigarettes over the years. “I like homes with period details, or ‘character’ as they call it nowadays.”
“Character.” I nodded. “Did Mickey tell you that we sometimes work together?”
Luke leaned back in his seat with what seemed like a smirk. “I heard you run a magazine.”
“In Frame.” I straightened. “The name is a take on photography—what’s in the shot or ‘in the frame’—we’re looking at trends, what is next to come into focus whether it’s global politics, culture, religion, fashion, lifestyle… we have beats all over the world with our reporters and writers looking at trends bubbling to the surface. We’re known for our photography.” I was beginning to sound like a brochure, so I stopped myself before adding that In Frame had just won the National Magazine Award, and had been described as “one of the most important magazines contributing to not only the national, but global stage.”
The hostess finally handed me a new black napkin, and I spread it across my lap. I was nervous and crossed my legs so they’d stop shaking. Why was I so anxious about a man I’d already decided I had no interest in? I chalked it up to nerves in getting back into the dating scene. But there was something else.
“In Frame, that’s right,” he said. “I’ve seen it on the newsstands.”
“It’s bigger than most magazines,” I offered. “Makes the photos really jump.”
He took a deep breath and looked at the table as he spoke. “You haven’t changed. I mean you have changed… the hair mostly. It is more of a copper color now.” He began studying his fork. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
“Excuse me?” I thought I’d misunderstood him. “We’ve just met.” I laughed and rearranged my own fork and knife.
He flipped open his menu, scanned it, and then slapped it down. His head tilted. “Do I look familiar to you at all?”
I shook my head, suddenly embarrassed. “Have we met before? I have the worst memory.”
“Nothing? Really?” He leaned in closer, I assumed so I could inspect his face. His small, deep-blue eyes danced above the lit votive on the table. I noticed his face had an unintentional tan, like he worked in a garden, and he had at least a day’s worth of blond stubble—or was it gray? At that moment, in the light, something did seem familiar. “Nope.” But that was a lie.
“I hate this moment.” He rubbed his legs, looking nervous. “I go about thirty years hating this moment, and then you call me and we do this all over again.” He circled his slender forefinger to illustrate. “I just haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“I’m sorry… I call you?”
“Uh-huh. The first time was 1895 in France.” He paused. “Actually, that was your mother, but we don’t need to get technical about it.”
“My mother?” I was envisioning Margie Connor, my mother, who was at this very moment guzzling box wine and gobbling smoked Gouda cheese bits at her book club in Bethesda. This month they were revisiting The Poisonwood Bible.
“Then there was Los Angeles in 1935. Last time was Taos in 1970. Honestly, I wish you’d come back in Venice or somewhere a little more interesting. I mean, this Washington place is a swamp.” He scowled. “I know you see a resemblance to Paris here, but…” His voice drifted off and he casually settled back into the banquette like he’d just told me about his day at the office.
I exhaled loud enough to inadvertently catch the attention of the man at the next table. “Let me get this clear. I called you in 1895?” I placed my napkin on the table and eyed my jacket. Finally, I stood up. “Mr. Varner. I’m sorry. You must have me confused with someone else.”
“Helen,” he said with an authority that surprised me. “I’m really not good at this, but theatrics are childish. Sit down.”
“Sit down?” I leaned in, placing my hands on the table. “You’re a lunatic, Mr. Varner. I don’t know you. I’m thirty-three years old, not a hundred. I’ve never met you in France… or anywhere else for that matter. And my mother? She works for the National Institutes of Health. She did not… call you in 1895, I assure you.”
“Helen.” His voice quieted. “Sit down.”
And for some strange reason I obeyed, lowering myself onto my chair, like a child.
We sat there looking at each other. Throughout the bar, the candles on the tables were like little streetlamps, and I felt something familiar. Then it hit me. Gaslights? I shook my head to ward off the clear image of this man’s weathered face illuminated under a gaslight. The images in my head moved quickly, like flashes—this man smiling at me while we went down a wide boulevard in a carriage, the sound of purposeful hooves hitting pavement, the lights around us shining, brightening his face in a sepia-toned wash the way a flashlight does when you shine it under the covers. His clothes were strangely out of place—almost like he was wearing a Victorian costume—and the setting was all wrong. I swayed in my chair, gripping the table with both hands, and then turned and looked out the window. Even the trees outside, swaying slightly in the breeze and lined with string lights, were conspiratorially twinkling, making his face glow mysteriously from another time, like a tragic character from a Shelley poem.
He pushed the menu away. “You called me a little while ago and asked me to do something for you and I did it.”
I began to protest, but he held up his hand. “Helen, really? We both know what I’m talking about. Don’t we?”
And I did.
Washington, DC, January 2012
At the end of January, Roger, my husband, told me it was over between us. We’d had our lawyers on hold, neither of us making a move toward a divorce despite being separated for a year. We’d tried therapy, living together, living apart, but nothing seemed to fix the broken pieces of us in a way that felt we were a going concern. Mostly, I’d felt abandoned by him for his first love, the Hanover Collection.
Roger was the chief curator and director of the Hanover Collection, a museum that contained more than three thousand French and American paintings, plus one of the largest black-and-white photography collections ever assembled in the US. But that is making the Hanover sound like a building, and it was much more than that. The Hanover Collection was my husband’s obsession. No space was good enough to house it, and there weren’t enough hours in the day for him to work on it. I’d find sketches of buildings and floor plans of new wings on napkins and errant paper scraps—even in the bathroom. It was difficult to get Roger’s full attention for any length of time for mundane things like fixing a broken dishwasher. For three years, Roger led an eighty-five-million-dollar capital campaign to build the perfect home for his collection—the success of this effort due largely to hiring Sara Davidz who was, apparently, a fund-raising phenomenon. Roger had managed to grow the museum’s attendance beyond 425,000 visitors, not bad considering the Hanover, a private institution, competed with the free Smithsonian museums scattered all over Washington. In a museum town, Roger Lambert was a king. A wunderkind in the philanthropy world—a mad genius—he was profiled in the New York Times and Washington Post style sections as well as The Chronicle of Philanthropy. He even gave a famous TED Talk on how grassroots organizers could raise money for causes they believed in. Now he’d shocked Washingtonians—arguably some of the greatest creators of museums—by working not with an American architect, but with a Japanese firm to build a block-and-glass contraption in the up-and-coming Waterfront area. The move to take the Hanover out of its location in the old Georgian mansion on Reservoir Road in Georgetown to the trendy stretch along Maine Avenue was one that, briefly, turned the museum world against him—the Washington Post labeling his treasured museum design as “an expensive travesty resembling stacked ice cubes.” As the stately, labyrinthine mansion in upper Georgetown remained empty, kids began to break the windows, forcing the historical society to board up the eyesore. And then Roger Lambert fell further out of favor.
Roger and I were a bit of a fixture in Washington. We were a couple well known for entertaining at our house on Capitol Hill. Each month, we’d host a dinner for someone we’d profiled in the latest issue of In Frame—like “bringing an issue to life.” Our dining room could fit sixteen people comfortably, so a seat at our monthly gatherings became a coveted invitation. Roger and I were careful with our guest list, mixing painters with politicians; mathematicians with musicians. Once a year, we might do an all-artists dinner or an all-politics dinner, but the fun thing we both enjoyed was curating an eclectic guest list with some tension. The invitation itself was a phone call from Roger or me, and you’d be surprised to find that people flew in from all over the world just to sit around our table. But our process wasn’t without problems. A renowned photographer once turned down an invitation by hanging up on me, saying we were “too bourgeois” (we were, a little, but that was part of the fun). Then a famous actor stormed out of our house because we sat him next to a scientist who didn’t know who he was. Unfortunately, our Maryland Avenue house wasn’t on a frequent cab route so he had to spend ten minutes in a glacial January waiting for a Nigerian cabdriver who also had no idea who he was.
But it all ended abruptly at the end of January when Roger took me to dinner at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant on Connecticut Avenue and told me that he’d fallen in love with Sara. In truth, this news wasn’t entirely a surprise. I’d first suspected then known about them, but I didn’t take her, or their fling, seriously. I thought it was a phase he was going through.
As he explained it, though, his love for Sara was a hopeless, terminal love—the kind he’d never known until she’d walked through the door. I nodded like a dutiful student in the front row of class, spooning my pho while he wore this wild look on his face—a look I hadn’t seen in years. I take that back—a look I’d never seen.
I’d met Roger at Georgetown University when he sat next to me in a class called American History Since 1865. It was a class no one wanted to take because the professor was famous for never giving out any grade higher than a C. Although a senior, Roger had registered for classes late, so he’d been forced to take it. As a political science major, it was a requirement for me, and I would be awarded the rare A grade. In those days, I wandered the campus with my red hair up in a high ponytail with Bettie Page bangs and sported a pair of cat’s-eye glasses and a thick volume of Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, one of several books he’d written about Lyndon B. Johnson, always tucked under my arm. At first glance, I found Roger annoying because he was never prepared for class, but he must have sensed I could be wooed by political maneuvering. That fall, he rigged the homecoming queen contest in my favor, feverishly stuffing ballot boxes and getting large droves of students to vote for me. It was such an LBJ move that, honestly, I was flattered. In the end, I was named a respectable second runner-up and Roger was rewarded for his efforts with a date that lasted ten years.
As I closed my eyes, I could still see our life together—the late nights dressed in our formalwear after a gala eating midnight breakfast at Au Pied de Cochon on Wisconsin Avenue; dinners at 2Amys and Pete’s in Friendship Heights, where we debated over which restaurant made the best pizza; buying a grand old row house on Capitol Hill that we could barely afford; driving to Charlottesville in Roger’s Jeep listening to House of Love’s Babe Rainbow tape until it wore out; and finally, him nervously proposing to me among the Barboursville Ruins during the intermission at Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
But there were bad times as well. Roger and I tried, and failed, to have a baby for several years. I suppose for me, this became my obsession. The monthly deliveries of Clomid had sat hopefully in the refrigerator next to the eggs. (The irony of that was not lost on me.) Our marriage had been five wonderful years and two not-so-great ones.
But the Hanover Collection and Sara had changed everything. Roger explained that he’d called his lawyer, who’d put in the paperwork to rush our divorce and that he hoped we’d be in court within thirty days to “finalize things.” I hugged him goodbye and went back to my own apartment, curled up in my bed, and with a primal, child-like focus wished Sara harm—or dead—I’m not really sure which anymore. I didn’t want to finalize things with Roger. I wanted him back. I wanted the gods to even the score. Now I know that I was sloppy with my wish. But we’ve all wished someone dead at some point, haven’t we? We don’t really mean it.
Two weeks passed before Roger called again. Our talks were purely transactional now, so I assumed he was calling me concerning the court date he’d wanted so badly.
“I can’t meet you tomorrow about the house,” he said. “Johanna died.”
“I’m sorry, Roger.” I paused. “Do we know a Johanna?”
“Sara’s mother, Johanna,” he barked. “Sara’s mother is dead.”
I realized that we, in fact, did not know a Johanna.
When couples separate, you pick up the slightest thing that shows that the distance between you has increased, switching from morning coffee to chai tea, your ex sporting a new T-shirt that you know for certain you’ve never washed, or peppering a new name in conversation. Roger had an entire new Rolodex of names now that I knew nothing about. Johanna was one of them, and now, apparently, she was dead.
I was just learning to adjust to being without Roger. In my observations of divorce, if there is another party involved—and Sara was, indeed, another party—your friends spill every last detail to you out of loyalty. They aren’t sure of the permanence of your marital situation, so, hedging their bets, they dispense information freely—names, places, cars, times they’ve seen her, exactly what she wears and where she gets her nails done. Then, just as suddenly as it starts, information shuts off. These same friends look away and change the subject at the mention of her, deciding it’s time for you to move on and that hiding details will hasten your grieving process along. But what it does, instead, is alienate you from everyone. As Roger rambled on about Johanna, it occurred to me that I felt utterly alone.
The following week, I passed Roger in the hallway of my lawyer’s office where he’d stopped by to transfer the car title. I was startled by his appearance. His face seemed to have been dragged over a cheese grater—an old, rusty one at that. With his hands wrapped in several bloody bandages, Roger explained that the window in Sara’s house had shattered on him while he was cleaning it. The whole time he was telling me this story, his voice a whisper, he never looked at me. I’m not sure if it was because he was in pain or because he had seen enough of me, but I was unsettled by something I couldn’t put my finger on. That afternoon, I called our mutual friend Mickey and asked him what he’d heard. Over lunch at Off the Record at the Hay-Adams Hotel, Mick painted the whole picture for me.
“First”—he leaned in conspiratorially—“Sara’s mother died in some freak accident in like four feet of water at the YMCA before her aqua aerobics class. Four feet? Who dies in that? I mean, stand up, right?” He shrugged. “Then a grieving Sara begins to clean everything in the entire fucking house including the windows. Yuck, right?” Mickey rolled his eyes. “Apparently, she has floor-to-ceiling windows in the new addition to her midcentury.”
I rolled my eyes. “Of course she does.”
“Well, one of those fabulous windows shattered on both Roger and her. It could have killed them both.” As if I didn’t get the gravity of the situation, Mickey drew a dramatic line across his neck. “They don’t make windows like they used to, I guess.”
Then he lowered his voice and dropped the bomb. “Sara asked him to leave. She thinks it’s bad karma over their relationship.”
And I had to admit that I agreed with Sara. Something in the universe was swirling, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had been me who’d done it—first Johanna, then the window. I was probably being delusional and narcissistic. I couldn’t control things like that in the universe. Could I?
And then I met him and he confirmed everything.
Washington, DC, May 24, 2012
I was about to speak, but Luke raised his finger to stop me. I turned to see the waiter standing directly behind me.
“We’ll have a bottle of the Château Haut-Brion,” Luke said in perfect French to the waiter, who scribbled the order down before retreating. “As I was saying, you called me, but then you called it off… changed your mind. Shouldn’t surprise me by now, really. You aren’t a vengeful creature. You never were.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I hissed.
Luke raised his eyebrow. “Really, Red?” He reached across the small bistro table between us and moved a lock of my hair out of my eye. “I seem to remember you wanting something pretty bad, curled up on your bed.” Luke took a deep breath. “I was hoping you’d ask me to kill him, but you didn’t. I would have enjoyed that. This time around, Roger Lambert is an even bigger asshole than Billy Rapp, more clueless and duller. Why is it always him, Red? Always. I guess you can’t help it, though, can you?”
“What on God’s earth are you talking about? Who in the hell is Billy Rapp?”
He looked at me as if deciding something. “Never mind.”
“You drowned Sara’s mother.” My voice croaked.
“No.” He pointed to me. “Technically, you did.”
Luke had ordered appetizers, and the pommes frites with Parmesan and truffles arrived. He began chomping on frites like we were having a casual conversation about the band we’d just seen at Rock & Roll Hotel or something and weren’t, in fact, having a conversation about killing a woman. He paused until the waiter walked away.
“Seriously, Helen, you could be a bit more careful around the waiters.” He pulled another french fry from the silver tray and pointed it at me before dipping it in mayonnaise. “You were sloppy. You said you wanted… let’s see… how did you phrase it.” He stared up at the ceiling. “‘Harm to come to Sara.’”
“I said I wanted her dead.” Like a pouting child, I took a couple of frites and stuffed them in my mouth. I chewed them slowly, hoping it showed my disgust.
“No.” He shook his head. “You most certainly did not say that.” He took a drink of water. “Had you said that, she’d be dead. End of story. You never remember this stuff, do you? We’re very specific about these things.” He actually shook a fry at me.
“I never said to kill her mother.” I sat back and crossed my arms, smug.
“I repeat. You said, ‘I want harm to come to Sara.’” He threw up his hands. “Harm can mean anything. You don’t want to play with this shit, Red. You should know that on some cellular level, surely.” He put his hand out like he was presenting something to me. “You call in a general order for poultry, you might get Cornish hen or you might get Thanksgiving turkey, am I right? Precision is key here.” He pointed his fingers in emphasis like a politician—and then just like a lunatic in a bad B movie, Luke Varner changed the subject. “I like this place.” His face lit up. “It reminds me of us in 1938.”
“You’re crazy.” I lowered my voice.
He ignored me. “Your name was Nora then. Nora Wheeler.”
The name off his lips shook me, like a song that I’d heard a long time ago, one that had been out of reach in my memory but that I’d still longed for. I didn’t admit that to him, of course, but the name Nora Wheeler was familiar. I had the strangest urge to correct him and say, No, you mean Norma. This whole thing was mad and it was messing with my head. I figured I’d give it another five minutes before making an excuse to go to the bathroom and slipping out the back door. Tomorrow, I’d deal with Mickey for this date from hell.
Luke continued to snack while the waiter opened the wine and poured the Bordeaux into his glass and then mine before setting the bottle between us. “Can I show you something after this?” Luke picked up his glass and drank it without fussing, no spinning it in the glass or sniffing it, as if there was nothing about it that could surprise or delight him.
We ate in silence and then Luke insisted on paying the check. Once outside the Sofitel, we caught a cab, but I stopped before I got inside. “I’ll take the next one,” I said. The doorman already had a Diamond Cab cued up.
Luke shrugged. “Meet me at Maine Avenue. The Hanover Collection.”
“I can’t go there. My ex-husband is—”
“Roger Lambert… you think I don’t know that?” He shook his head and crawled into the first cab. “Jesus, Red, sometimes…” I could hear him mumbling.
This was my chance to flee. I got into the cab and told the driver to head toward my apartment on East Capitol Street. But as my cab headed down New York Avenue past the Museum of Women in the Arts, my curiosity began to needle at me. If I was honest, Luke had begun to agitate me, like the tingling before an itch. Despite the crazy things he’d said, there was something comforting about him. Since my divorce, it felt like I’d been holding my breath. I found myself exhaling for the first time in a year. I leaned toward the front seat and instructed the driver to change his route. Minutes later, the cab left me at the Maine Avenue entrance, where I found Luke leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette. “I figured it was fifty–fifty you’d show.”
“You have fifteen minutes.” I folded my hands in front of me. “Impress me.”
I expected us to get turned away. It was after hours at the museum, but Luke walked in ahead of me, through the front doors like he worked there—no—like he owned the place. The staff greeted him with a too-pleasant “Welcome, Mr. Varner” as we came through the metal detectors. I was shocked because while Roger and I were married, we never came here after hours. In fact, I stopped in the hall and wondered how in the hell we were even let into the museum at this hour, yet the late-night security staff seemed thrilled to help him.
Overlooking the water, the Hanover Collection building spanned a full block and was three stories tall. Usually, I got turned around in the rooms, finding myself lost deep in the Flemish painters’ section. Luke Varner didn’t need a map to make his way through the rooms, like he was navigating a Ms. Pac-Man game, never turning back once to check if I was behind him. He knew I’d follow.
“I hate this place.” I sounded like a child on a forced field trip. I did hate the glass-and-marble contraption.
“Why?” Luke looked down at the slick floors, recently polished, his boots squeaking. His voice echoed in the hall.