For a moment that afternoon, it was only woman and water, the bay in all its sickening glory squaring itself for a fight. The waves flexed before her, muscly and ultramarine. The wind taunted her, whapping strands of hair across her Vaselined lips, where they stuck, and stuck again, no matter how many times she brushed them free. Spray flew, the shoreline canted—the whole scene smacked of chaos—and above the sails, large plates of cloud shifted tectonically, exposing a lethal sun.
Cassandra was no seafarer. That was Abe, who’d loved the water since childhood. They’d bought this boat because he’d always wanted one, and because she felt compelled to make concessions. It was only her second time joining him, and though the first had passed without incident, she was still in the process of gaining her sea legs. For now they seemed to work best when they were idle. So with a gin and tonic sweating anxiously in her hand, and an invisible coating of sunblock thick as paint across her face, she reclined on the cushioned bench in the stern, her feet crossed, then uncrossed, then crossed again at the ankle.
She tried to suppress her nausea, even tried to enjoy the nodding of the boat on the water, the congratulatory slapping of waves on its back. When they passed beneath the Bay Bridge she looked up into its belly, where triangle trusses pointed toward land like floor lights on an airplane, illuminating the emergency exits. As long as they sailed during the day, with the shoreline always in sight, she knew she could be strong. The open sea was another story, wider and deeper than all of human civilization, with levels ever rising. There was a time when the mere proximity of the ocean had thrilled her, its color and moisture a fresh discovery, as though she were a pioneer at the end of a punishing journey overland. She used to love the way the water merged with the sky, blue asserting itself as the most dominant color in nature. It used to make her feel very powerful. Now it only made her feel frail.
Of course these days, she saw her weaknesses everywhere she went. They leapt out at her from newspaper stories of distant atrocities she’d done nothing to prevent, and from the dusty, neglected corners of her studio at home. And the truth was, she was frail. Not yet in body. Her body still worked quite well. But in judgment. How else to explain Vince Hersh: thirty-one and broad, if not quite handsome, a rambunctious clown in bed. She hadn’t intended to sleep with him, at least not the first time. Yet through some weakness she’d given in, then through some other weakness gone back for more. Even breaking it off had been a weak decision, made in fear of getting caught. He owned a fashionable gallery in Oakland, a slick place where Cassandra never felt she really belonged. But he’d chosen one of her pieces, and then he’d chosen her. She gripped the rail now as they bounced through choppy water, amazed at how life had surprised her. She’d been an adulteress, a slave to sensation. With her husband she owned a sloop.
The affair was beyond her comprehension but she was trying her best to understand the boat. Abe’s white, perpendicular pet, with all its funny parts: fairleads, halyards, jib, boom. On this late June afternoon, she wore mirrored sunglasses, a canvas hat, and a thick belted cardigan to keep her warm. In a brave attempt to relax, she left her shoes belowdecks.
“Elizabeth!” she called as they neared shore to drop anchor for a while. “Come take some more sunblock!” She set her glass in a cup holder and reached for the tube in her bag.
Her daughter climbed down from the prow in a bikini so red it was almost patriotic. As a child, she’d been fair like her mother, but now, at eighteen, she’d suddenly managed a buttery tan. Cassandra hardly recognized her. “I don’t need any more,” Elizabeth said, checking an arm. “Daddy’s genes have finally reported for duty.”
Cassandra looked at her husband, who was bronze, and always seemed to need less than she did—less sunblock, less affirmation, less risk. He had the wheel in one hand, his gin and tonic in the other, and a volume of Borges waiting on the bench. He liked his drink, and occasionally his dope, but really he was addicted to reading. He spent hours at it every night in bed, illumined by a slim, bending lamp, growing melancholy as he neared a book’s end, as though some part of him were ending, too. He was now almost done with the fatly collected Borges, yet this time he appeared unfazed, as though he hadn’t really been reading it, only giving each page some air. Something was bothering him, something he probably had to work out for himself. She’d learned years ago not to pester him when he fell into one of his moods.
“I’m not sure it works like that,” Cassandra said to Elizabeth. “I think it probably has more to do with the ozone and the time of year you got your first exposure to the sun. You were in Mexico in March.”
“Then here’s my other theory. Beer. I’ve had more beer this year than any other. I think it might’ve altered my body’s chemistry. Made me more susceptible to tanning.” She couldn’t suppress her laugh—rational, honest Elizabeth.
“That’s ridiculous. It’s the ozone.”
“Mom. It was a joke.” She shook her head and went off to assist with the approach.
Elizabeth knew a few sailors at her school, blond, beach-club types in polo shirts, their collars popped unnaturally toward the sky. She found them vaguely preposterous, and was likewise suspicious of sailing. It’s not about who does it now, Abe had told her, it’s about how it used to be: John Smith, Columbus, Odysseus, Noah! So what? she’d protested. Everyone in history sailed, from the famous to the forgotten. Exactly, Abe told her, his point.
Nevertheless, as first mate, she’d learned gamely, scrambling for the lines according to the wind, and lowering the anchor as she did now, according to her father’s direction. Already she was a pro. The anchor secured, Elizabeth began to circle the deck, checking on various knots.
In the welcome calm, Cassandra allowed herself the pleasure of marveling at her daughter, as adept at sailing as she seemed to be at all things. How different she was—what complete faith she had in herself. Cassandra could hardly wear a bikini when she was her age, much less buy one, yet here was Elizabeth in magnificent tatters, apparently not even cold. She was going to college in the fall—Harvard. The word still gave Cassandra a little thrill every time she saw it printed on a piece of their mail. She’d done it. She’d given her vocationally trained parents a Harvard-bound grandchild, the icing atop their second-generation American cake.
Elizabeth’s tan legs returned now and walked up the deck. They stepped onto the port gunwale, then up to the guardrail above it, balancing precariously as if on a tightrope, and an instant later, had sprung, splayed and fearless, into the freezing bay.
“Your sister’s a regular circus artist,” Cassandra whispered to Ferdinand, the Portuguese water dog, who had come to rest his brown head in her lap.
“An artist?” Abe asked from his bench.
Over the years Cassandra’s art was one of the few things that had given him hope when doctoring turned gloomy. It was incredible, the things she could make for no other reason than she wanted to. Abe was a rheumatologist, and his patients, beset with lupus, osteoporosis, and debilitating strains of arthritis, were people in great pain. They came lumbering in with walkers wide as doors, fat ankles spilling out over their shoes like muffin tops. They had hunchbacks and butterfly-shaped rashes across their cheeks and bodies as brittle as glass. After two decades of approximate science—“How much does it hurt, on a scale of one to ten?”—inconclusive labs—“Your blood work shows no evidence of the rheumatoid factor, but of course twenty percent of patients never do”—and infinitesimal changes in dose yielding negligible changes in pain, he was encouraged that his wife saw a different future for their daughter. At least with art, it was possible to lose yourself in beauty, to forget for a moment that life was mostly brutal and unfair. At least with art, one did not have to look a thirty-three-year-old mother of four in the eye and tell her that thanks to some inexplicable, overzealous urge of the immune system—genetic, hormonal, he couldn’t say why—she had suffered irreversible damage, the cartilage having almost completely worn away, the pain destined only to increase.
“I’ve just been thinking about Elizabeth,” Cassandra told him, caressing Ferdinand’s ears. “Everything keeps coming so naturally to her. She’s a teenager; she ought to be tormented. But she’s not. She’s a regular magician.”
“And that makes her an artist how?”
Cassandra looked out over the wrinkled water, which seemed as fruitless in its journey as they sometimes were in conversation. Abe awaited his wife’s response, his finger calmly marking his page.
“Circus artist,” she said, hearing this second time how stupid her comment had been.
“Ah. Because of the way she was standing on the rail . . .” His voice trailed off. “Remember that play she did in the hall? With Jessica? And those togas they had to keep gathering at their knees to keep from tripping? It was very witty.”
Cassandra remembered the play for other reasons, but in many ways she preferred Abe’s version of the past. “She was in middle school. Can you believe that’s already five years ago?”
“Good God, what happened?” he asked. “How did we let her get away with this?”
She laughed, and in that moment of sweet understanding, she felt she ought to tell him about Vince, that he’d forgive her and pull her to his chest as he’d so often done when they were young. If there was one thing she’d loved about their marriage back then, it was the freedom they’d felt to be honest. She could tell him when he’d been hurtful, and he would hear her, and try to change. She could confess her own transgressions, and be forgiven and even understood. It would take more effort to be honest with him now, and Cassandra couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. She shook the ice cubes in her glass as he stood to fuss with a line.
Most things about her husband now were firm: his reason, his resolve, his rules. Even, at forty-seven, his body, with its extraordinarily durable bones. He knew and sometimes overestimated his strength, imagining himself armored by his scrappy layered heritage—German Jewish, Italian, Scotch-Irish, African. Abe himself was inscrutably tan, which seemed to give him permission to disappear in any crowd. He watched the white sails ahead of them shrinking toward the bowing bridge and wondered how many outings it would take before Cassandra would be ready for the ocean. It still disappointed him that she, who’d never really lost someone, could be so frightened of the truest, greatest things.
Suddenly restless, Ferdinand lifted his head from Cassandra’s lap and vigorously shook himself out. He circled a few times, then went straight for Abe’s leg, which he thumped against with a sigh. Cassandra clucked her tongue and retrieved an apple from the snack cooler as Elizabeth reappeared on the boat. Funny the things that bugged her: Elizabeth’s tan, Ferdinand’s loyalty. She felt the onset of a dangerous feeling and, biting into the apple, tried to chew the feeling away.
“Hey, toss me a towel, will you?” Elizabeth stood, shivering, a weed coiled around her ankle, her bathing suit heavy and dark. She pulled the corners of her top down over her goose-bumped breasts.
Cassandra did, and Elizabeth cloaked herself, blotting her limbs and the seat of her suit. With a twist and a squeeze, water streamed from her hair to the deck.
“Daredevil.” Cassandra held out Elizabeth’s hooded sweatshirt. “How was it?”
“Cold!” She wrapped the towel around her waist and pulled the sweatshirt over her head, teeth chattering in confirmation, her shoulders hunched, her face now a lavender-gray. “Too cold for you, Mom. But not too cold for Dad!”
“It’s probably too warm for Dad,” Abe said, happy to extend the myth of his stoicism. Like Cassandra’s effortless hair and Elizabeth’s effortless grades, it was part of their sense of themselves as a family, another facet of their specialness. They would never be some great, big powerful clan—the Rosenbergs, the Kerrys, the Poznanski boys who all played football—but in some ways they were more special because they were just the three. A family rendered in its most essential, basic parts: mother, father, child.
Elizabeth pulled up the anchor and joined Cassandra on the bench. She was nearing the limit of her patience with parents. “When do you think we’ll head back?” she asked, once they were under way again.
“An hour maybe,” Abe said. “Too pleasant to turn in just yet.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Not too much longer, okay? I want to meet up with some people tonight.”
“What people?” Cassandra always wanted to know, to imagine the scene.
“The same ones who are always there . . . Rachel, Jessica, Brian . . . Henri.”
“Henri? Do I know him?”
“He’s just this diplomat kid. We’ve been hanging out a few months. He’s friends with the guys.”
“That’s an old-fashioned kind of name.” This was Abe, from the wheel.
“Whatever, so’s Abraham.”
“But I’m a boring, middle-aged dad. I’m supposed to be old-fashioned. How old is this poor Henri?”
“What does that matter?” Elizabeth asked, her cheeks a sudden pink.
Abe’s eyes met Cassandra’s. He hadn’t expected this.
“Don’t be running around with older boys, Lizzie,” he said, trying to keep his tone light. “You don’t want that kind of trouble.”
“Dad!” She laughed. “I’m going to college! All the boys will be older in college.”
“Hmm, might want to rethink that, too.”
“Just be careful.” He cleared his throat. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Elizabeth flushed again, irritated at her father’s sudden seriousness. “Of course I’m careful. I’m not an idiot. I can handle myself with anyone. Doesn’t matter if he’s eighteen or twenty-three.”
Cassandra winced. “Is that how old he is—twenty-three? Honey.” She leaned forward to look her daughter in the eye. “Are you dating this boy?”
“No! . . . I mean, not necessarily . . .”
“Christ.” Abe swung the boat sharply, getting in line with the wind.
“He’s a really good person! His age doesn’t matter!”
“Easy, Abe!” Cassandra clutched the handrail and her hat.
Elizabeth pulled her orange-and-white striped towel tighter around her hips. She hadn’t intended for it to come out like this, if at all. But now that it had, she couldn’t let them get all worked up, absurdly imagining him to be some kind of predator.
“He’s actually about to start a Ph.D. in French colonial literature,” she told them. “He knows people who have worked in clinics in Africa, and he knows a lot about wine. Like, maybe even more than you.”
Abe gave a humorless laugh.
“Not so fast, Abe!” Cassandra’s stomach dropped. “You’re scaring me!”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Cassandra, it’s called sailing.”
“You guys should meet him,” Elizabeth said. They were all slantwise and speaking louder at their brisk new clip. “I’m not saying I’m going to marry him or anything, but I think you’d both really like him.” She felt mature, idly talking to her parents about a man.
“Elizabeth,” Abe said. “I’m not making any judgments about him. I just don’t want you to have any illusions. Don’t be thinking you’re going to lose your virginity to some romantic Frenchman.”
He had never mentioned her virginity before. The word on his lips was mortifying.
“Well,” she said, as everything flapped, the sails above them full. “That’s not going to happen.”
It wasn’t going to happen because it had already happened, at a party the previous fall. Zach Lando: white rapper, baggy shorts, large nipples. Flat on her back on a blanket in the woods, dead beetles crunching dirt underneath. Afterward, they’d smoked a joint, and she’d pretended nothing had hurt. “You’ll hate me in a few days,” he’d said. He was right.
“Good,” Abe said, feeling even more unsettled than before.
Cassandra had grown silent. Her daughter was having sex. There was a moment in the recent past when it had begun, and somehow, in her selfishness, she’d looked away and missed it. She reached for Elizabeth’s hand. “You’re being safe, of course?”
“Mom!” Elizabeth cried. “Of course!”
Abe’s brow grew moist and hot. His lip twitched, and he suddenly felt he couldn’t control the muscles of his face. His glass was already empty, his throat constricted and dry. They were all crowded so close to one another, and he needed something to drink.
He left the wheel with Elizabeth and went below to the galley. Over the aluminum sink, he measured out a generous portion of gin, adding ice and only a splash of tonic. He sipped, allowing it to burn slowly down his throat. Through the porthole, he could see Elizabeth at the wheel: a sweatshirt with two legs, her towel having dropped to the deck. Cassandra stood beside her, an arm around their daughter’s waist. She leaned in and whispered something in Elizabeth’s ear. They laughed, like schoolgirls conspiring. His beautiful redheads. He remembered a time when he thought it dangerous to have a wife this beautiful. Like opening your wallet on the street, you were just asking for someone to rob you. In the old days, when he took her to bed at the end of a long day apart, he was reckless, sometimes tearing buttons from her shirts. If he wanted her so badly, he could only imagine how other men felt, who couldn’t have her at all.
This was the last of the gin, and still, he needed more. He had not yet begun to feel light.
“Cass!” he called from the hatch. “Where’s the—wine?” He shuddered, thinking again of Elizabeth’s Frenchman.
“Just have some gin!”
“What?” Her voice was small and resonant as though she were speaking from inside a tunnel.
“None left!” He stepped up for her to hear.
“None? Abe, I was saving that!” She came toward him, tentatively, bracing herself on the rails.
“Then don’t tell me to drink it.” He held up the empty bottle for her to see.
“Where’d it go?” The wind rushed past her ears, whipping her hair into her mouth, forcing her to continue shouting, though she was now face-to-face with him at the hatch.
“I think we drank it,” he said, growing impatient with her refusal to comprehend.
“But it was half full. God, are you really such a pig?”
She was teasing, and didn’t mean the word in anger. But her body, which had betrayed her before, betrayed her yet again. With the gin, and the wind, and the faintest hint of seasickness rising, Cassandra’s mouth had been growing drier and phlegmier all day, and though she had not quite realized it before, it became apparent to them both in that moment, when, on the sharp, punchy syllable “pig,” she accidentally spat in his face.
“Well,” he said, wiping the bubbles of saliva from his cheek, even as they evaporated.
“Oh, Jesus.” She touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry.” Cassandra was expert at apologies. They often leapt off her tongue before she fully knew what she’d done wrong.
“Well,” he said again, more acutely this time, suddenly aware of everything. “Why don’t you just go fuck Vincent Hersh.”
She was stunned. “Who?” she asked, instinctively, withdrawing her hand, hoping she’d somehow misheard.
The wind slowed and Abe found himself wanting to strangle her. She’d been sleeping with the kid. He’d known this, he realized, for weeks. The way he’d singled her out at the opening. How happy she’d been. He’d had all the clues, yet remained somehow stumped, like a foggy-brained Scrabble player unable to unscramble his letters. He’d kept himself in the fog, making nonwords, not wanting to believe her betrayal. But with the spit, it was as though the fog had lifted and the tiles finally clicked into place. He felt he could squeeze her throat until her face turned blue.
“Don’t deny it,” he said. “I know.”
Her eyes watered; she was guilty. She couldn’t have looked guiltier if he’d caught the two of them in bed. “Abe. I didn’t—”
“Jesus Christ, Cassandra, I know you did!”
“No, you listen,” he roared. “Fuck. You. Really, Cassandra. Fuck. You.”
“Daddy!” Elizabeth reproved him, her voice breaking in panic.
A moment ago, she hadn’t known a thing, and now she knew too much, as though she’d grown up in a matter of seconds. She wanted to rewind, to stuff all she’d learned back in its bottle and toss it overboard and never have to see it again. She wanted that, but she knew it was impossible. Her father had unleashed the fuck. For her family, saying fuck was less like opening a bottle than like turning on a broken faucet. The fucks would continue to pour out, limitless, insensible to the damage they caused.
“No, fuck you!” Cassandra cried, suddenly enraged. “Fuck you for always making me feel like shit!”
Worse things were said, things that might have been funny in another situation, but in this moment meant the end of the world. Abe was dead inside; Cassandra was an unrepentant whore. They hated each other and pronounced it with glee. They flung their words violently, ungrammatically. They scrunched their faces like babies, tears spilling down their noses and cheeks, their voices oscillating wildly, covering every decibel of rage. Elizabeth stood clutching the wheel, watching her parents completely break down. They’d been known to shout, but this was worse than any shouting they’d ever done before. This was practically unrealistic. People wouldn’t believe it had happened this way if she tried to tell the story later; they’d say she had forgotten something, left a crucial detail out. Perhaps they’d be right; perhaps she would; perhaps she was already erasing it as it occurred, saying no to a life of hysteria, turning their insanity away at the door.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Was she even there? Could they even see her? Elizabeth steered deaf through the tempest, heading for the marina as if for safety, as if she believed their fury, like a fish, couldn’t survive on land.
And then, suddenly, her mother was sitting, gripping the bench with her fingertips, and her father was standing, purposefully, on the very edge of the starboard gunwale. They were silent under the noise of the wind. And then her mother stood and started to say something, and her father turned his back and dove. His body was in the air for an instant over the water, and then, as if by some camera trick, there was nothing but water and air. They rushed to the sides, looking everywhere, until a moment later he surfaced, already behind them, his head bobbing up and down in the waves, his arms stretching in sequence, one after the other, pulling for the shore.
“Stop the boat!” her mother cried. “Turn it around!”
Elizabeth ran back to the wheel. The wind seemed to be coming from all directions; she didn’t know which way to turn.
“I have to think!” she yelled. “I’ve never done this alone!” She looked at the horizon and at the other boats for help. Ferdinand was barking at the water on the side where her dad had jumped and her mother continued to shout at her, or maybe at her dad, though he wasn’t responding in any case. He was swimming away from them, and making it look ordinary, growing smaller and smaller against the rumpled sheet of blue.
Which left her mother, barefoot and stricken on the deck, and herself, a sudden grown-up, in charge of getting them home.
A moment passed. Maybe a year. Maybe she’d already graduated from Harvard and these weren’t her parents at all.
Remembering the motor, she turned it on, and the horizon steadied itself into recognizable layers of sky, land, and water. There: something to hold on to. She clung with every particle of her eye. In her ears was an awful empty sound where the wind had been. Even Ferdinand no longer barked.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Cassandra said finally, having come to stand by her side.
“It’s okay,” Elizabeth told her, because it wasn’t worth it to say much else. “Do you think Dad’s going to swim the whole way?”
“He’ll make it.”
“Are you sure?”
“He’s an excellent swimmer.”
“Then I guess we ought to head back.”
“Yes,” Cassandra said. “Thank you. I love you.”
“Sure, Mom. I love you, too.”
IN THE BAY, Abe swam full on toward the trees. He wasn’t far from the coast—a mile maybe, no more. There were small sharks in these waters. He’d seen them when they surfaced, but he didn’t care. They could eat his legs if they wanted. In his rage, he’d outswim them anyway. With each stroke he felt he was shedding an atom of his accumulated anger, replacing it with an icy atom of the sea. He breathed in brine: it seeped through his pores. His eyes became silty pebbles; bay grass overtook the straining bands of muscle in his arms; his heart became the heart of a halibut: flattened, bottom-dwelling, varying its color in vibration with the earth.
When he washed up on the marshy shore ages later, Abe crawled, insensibly, to higher ground, and slept, his cheek in the mud, sludge filling his ear. A salt marsh harvest mouse and a pair of brown pelicans looked on, a tuft of glasswort in the mouse’s paw, the pelicans’ mouths open wide and empty. Endangered species too, they were no strangers to a sea change. They stood crouched on opposite sides of the shivering man, as if wondering what he was. Beads of water clung to his surface and the grass around him shifted while the pelicans regarded each other with elongated beaks. After a space of time they seemed to reach an agreement and scuttled off. The mouse remained a moment longer, chewing on the last of his glasswort. When he was done, he sniffed the man once more in case he harbored some morsel of food. Finding nothing, he made for the water. A third pelican was not far behind, taking flight in preparation for a dive.
The Violet Hour
Life hasn’t always been perfect for Abe and Cassandra Green, but an afternoon on the San Francisco Bay might be as good as it gets. Abe is a rheumatologist, piloting his coveted new boat. Cassandra is a sculptor, finally gaining modest attention for her art. Their beautiful daughter Elizabeth is heading to Harvard in the fall. Somehow, they’ve made things work. But then, tensions overflow, and they plunge into a terrible fight. In a fit of fury, Abe throws himself off the boat.
“A bittersweet tale of breakup and forgiveness” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Violet Hour follows a modern family through past and present. As Cassandra, Abe, and Elizabeth navigate the passage of time—the expectations of youth, the concessions of middle age, the headiness of desire, the bitterness of loss—they must come to terms with the fragility of their intimacy, the strange legacies they inherit from their parents, and the kind of people they want to be.
Exquisitely written, The Violet Hour is “a rewarding family saga reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s novels...Hill’s story unfurls from the kind of sensational marital spat that makes you feel better about your own imperfect union…wonderfully witty and assured” (The Washington Post Book World).
- Scribner |
- 368 pages |
- ISBN 9781476710334 |
- August 2014
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
One summer afternoon, Abe, Cassandra, and their daughter Elizabeth set sail in the family’s new boat. As they’re celebrating Elizabeth’s acceptance to Harvard, a secret is revealed: Cassandra has been unfaithful. Abe leaps from the sailboat, swimming ashore and effectively out of their lives. But when Cassandra’s father dies unexpectedly, the family must come together once again to reconcile the present with the past. In The Violet Hour, Katherine Hill has crafted a transcendent tapestry of love, desire, ambition, and renewal.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Violet Hour moves back and forth through time. How did this narrative structure enhance your understanding of the characters and story? How would a chronologically straightforward story be different?
2. The novel is told through numerous viewpoints. How would it be different if, for example, Abe had narrated the PTA fundraiser, or if Eunice had narrated Cassandra’s childhood in the funeral home? How do the author’s see more