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In this hypothesis about Kathy’s disappearance, the narrator suggests that Kathy had already left John in the summer of 1983, when she had an affair with Harmon in Boston. Later, she killed herself in Lake of the Woods. Kathy has been on the brink of suicide, the narrator suggests, for many years even before 1983, at which time she flew out to Boston to see Harmon. For years, she’s been on Valium and other mood-controlling drugs, and she despises her life as a politician’s wife. As she drives the boat out on Lake of Woods, perhaps she took Valium and thought about all the events in her life that brought her to this point.
As John becomes more complex and sympathetic to us (as he does in the previous chapter), Kathy becomes a little less sympathetic. Here, she’s hardly a loving, understanding wife—she’s an adulterous pill-popper. It would seem from the mention of Harmon in this section that we’re going to learn something about who he is and why Kathy had an affair with him.
Kathy’s affair with Harmon began almost by chance, and lasted only four months. As she rides the boat, she thinks that she can remember Harmon’s round white face, but not his eye color. She and Harmon had gone dancing at a place called Loon Point, and the dancing made Kathy feel adventurous and young.
Kathy’s memories of Harmon don’t make him sound particularly appealing; more to the point, Kathy barely remembers him at all. This seems to parallel the fragmented way John remembers Vietnam. The characters in O’Brien’s novel never have a clear view of their own past, much less the pasts of other people.
After visiting Harmon in Boston, Kathy flew back to Minneapolis to see John. She drank a few martinis on her flight, and when she returned to her home, she poured herself wine. John arrived home from work and embraced her, squeezing her waist as usual. Kathy dislikes when John does this, because it makes her feel fat. On this occasion, she sensed that John had “no inkling.” John and Kathy had pork chops for dinner, and John asked polite questions about Kathy’s trip. Kathy lied that the friend she’d gone to see had been boring.
This is more than a little frustrating—for hundreds of pages, we’ve been waiting to learn how Kathy came to have an affair. Yet here we only get a few sentences about the bare bones of her adultery—when she flew to see Harmon, and how long she was with him. It’s also illuminating that Kathy doesn’t like John pinching her fat—many of the characters in this novel dislike their own weight, and weight seems to symbolize the characters’ struggle with their own flaws and poor choices, with their realities—things which can’t be shaken off easily.
As John and Kathy talked about her trip to Boston, Kathy apologized for the storm that made her fly home a day early. John is confused at this, and Kathy realizes that he’d forgotten when she was supposed to return to Minneapolis. Kathy’s pork chops tasted rancid in her mouth. She felt the need to make John jealous by describing Loon Point where she danced with Harmon. Still, she didn’t tell him anything, thinking that John would never know about her secret.
In this version of the past, John is a neglectful husband who barely remembers when Kathy is supposed to be home. As hurtful as this detail of their marriage may be, it comes with a silver lining—John isn’t cheating on Kathy (if he were, he’d have known exactly when she was returning, and exactly how much time he had away from her). Perhaps he’s too devoted to “Little Miss Politics,” as Pat suggests.
As Kathy boats through Lake of the Woods, preparing to kill herself, perhaps she thought more about returning from Boston and greeting John. When Kathy returned from visiting Harmon, she stood outside her house with her robe open, and felt a “pure wanting.” Then, when John walked outside and greeted her, Kathy closed her robe immediately. On Lake of the Woods, Kathy thinks that she blames herself for the waning of her love for John. She gave up on her dreams and on having fun with John. Her affair with Harmon was proof that she was unhappy. Perhaps, the narrator concludes, Kathy stares out onto Lake of the Woods and whispers, “Why?” The answer to this question, the narrator notes, is, “Who knows?”
As little information as we get about Kathy in this section, we do learn something important about her personality—she feels an intense desire for change, and the exact contents of the change are less important to her than the fact of change itself. This helps to explain why O’Brien doesn’t tell us more about Kathy’s affair—the exact details of who Harmon is and why Kathy had an affair with him are beside the point. The big picture is that she wanted something to be different, and the affair was a product of that desire. And, as with John, the why behind such desires is never simple enough to answer. Kathy, like John, doesn’t know why she’s done what she’s done. Every character in the novel is like their own lake in the woods, vast and unknowable, even to themselves.