Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress. He’d read the press releases, of course. He recalled, from an article, her description of nursing her last child only six months before her first radiation treatment. Then he noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra.
What did they have inside them: saline or silicone? And how did these feel, respectively? He probably stared too long. (But how could she expect people not to stare when she wore a dress cut like that?)
Had his wife noticed? Doubtful. She noticed so little about him these days.
“This is some place you have here,” he said too quickly.
Though they weren’t exactly friends, she’d come into his office before, with her little girl, and they’d talked about her plans to sponsor a mobile mammography unit. They’d formed a connection, it had seemed to him then, and their time together lingered taut as a problem in his mind. But now she’d definitely seen him staring at her breasts, about which she must have had extraordinarily complicated feelings, and she was annoyed.
“What does that mean exactly?”
“I just meant you have a nice home,” Jake replied.
“It’s too big, isn’t it?”
He didn’t know how to reply: the house, miles from the road and framed, on this spring evening, by an almost otherworldly lushness of green, was in fact an old plantation estate that included detached quarters for both servants and slaves; of course it was, technically, too big, but what could he say? “It’s lovely,” he managed.
Dissatisfied, she turned to his wife. “Wouldn’t you say a house this size is way too big, even for a family of five?”
Sheila, surveying the foyer, tilting her heart-shaped face up toward the high, vast ceiling, seemed actually to be considering the question. Jake was mortified.
To his relief she replied that she was sure the children loved all the space.
“Actually my children seem to crave small spaces,” the hostess said. “The twins once spent an entire day inside a packing crate. When I was their age I hated tight spaces. I screamed when people shut the door to my room, which I shared with my brother and was about the size of a closet. I’m afraid we’re doomed to want the opposite of what we have.” She looked back at Jake and seemed in that moment to forgive him. “Well, you two should go on in and have a drink. Don’t you look adorable, like newlyweds!”
People often immediately identified them as newlyweds. Jake worried over this, but when he asked Sheila if it bothered her, she laughed. She said what it really meant was that people were thinking of the two of them having good sex. Sheila’s implied understanding of the difference between good and bad sex also disturbed him. The problem with marrying a virgin, he realized now, was that you were marrying a girl who would become a woman only after the marriage.
“You can let go of my hand now,” she said to him at the party that night. He hadn’t known he’d been holding it.
Sheila was twenty-two, and had just graduated with a degree in music from Bob Jones University. Jake was twenty-six and before this job had worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper in Charlotte. He had loved the stink of newsprint that clung to his cubicle and the late-night deadlines, the euphoria that came over him after filing a story. Then, at a party—she’d driven up to Charlotte with some friends—he’d met Sheila, shyly beautiful and somehow detached from the noise and flash of people in their twenties parading their allure. They’d been at the apartment of a friend of a friend. When he went out on the balcony to smoke, he’d found her sitting there in a lawn chair, in a robin’s egg blue dress that glowed against the orange sunset, staring up at him with a sense of expectation so palpable he felt late. She had seemed to him, with her glossy auburn hair and knowing expression, unashamedly pure, and all of the warm summer night they’d sat out on the porch of the friend’s apartment, watching people through the glass doors and making up comic bits of conversation for them, analyzing their gestures. He hadn’t had dinner. Someone from a neighboring apartment was grilling meat and despite the smell of the steak, he stayed by her side.
“I hate flirting,” she’d said at the point in the night when people were beginning to couple off. He followed her gaze into the living room of the apartment, at a girl striding across the room in stilettos. “And I hate high-heeled shoes.” He’d noticed, when he came out onto the porch to smoke, the abandoned blue heels, her bare feet. “Do you know why people like them so much?” He said he had assumed it was because they were flattering to the leg, and she excitedly replied, “Lordosis. You know: the arch of a woman’s back during copulation?” He watched as she slipped on her heels and told him to pay close attention to the effect they had on her posture. “Isn’t our culture sick?” she said. He studied her ass, her toned calves, and agreed wholeheartedly while she continued with her criticisms, aware that she, cheeks flushed in the lamplight passing through the glass, was also aroused. She said that she wished he would stop smoking because she didn’t want him to get cancer, and he promptly ground the cigarette he was smoking beneath his heel. She asked him to hand over the pack, and, staring right into his eyes, she tossed it behind her, over the railing. He didn’t know whether to be irritated or impressed: she was so ethereal, but also kind of a bitch. By the time he made plans to drive the hour and a half to her town to see her the next weekend, he thought he might already be in love.
The wedding had taken place in a cathedral carved into the side of a mountain, at sunset, at the very end of summer. It was near perfect, marred only by Sheila’s family having to deal with the arrival of an estranged, drunken uncle—someone had promptly called him a cab before the ceremony—and by his mother arriving just as the quartet began the first piece, in the skirt and blouse she’d worn the evening before, at the rehearsal dinner. He was quietly humiliated—he knew she’d driven down to Atlanta after dinner, to meet a man she’d been chatting with on the Internet—and annoyed by the lean look of her, her too-long, graying hair. He did not want to think of her growing old alone. But the tension faded the moment Sheila, in her ivory gown, shoulders bared, approached the altar. Though she moved toward him, he was stirred by the sensation that he was approaching her, and he felt none of the fear other married men had warned him about.
She had begun with the excuses five months ago. He’d be watching television, drinking a beer after work, when she came into the living room to announce that she needed to go out and buy some paper towels, or that she craved ice cream she’d failed to purchase last time she went out. “Let me come with you,” he’d say. But she’d argue that she wouldn’t be long, that she had a new CD to listen to, and this meant she wanted to be by herself. Early on he’d realized she preferred listening to new music alone, because he was unmusical, or at least compared to her. And so he let her go. Sometimes she came back right away. But a few times she’d stayed gone for hours. On Thursdays she had a late orchestra practice, and after one of these sessions didn’t come home until close to two in the morning, claiming she’d had coffee with a female friend from the orchestra and lost track of time. That evening, he’d pulled into the drive at the same time she was dashing across the walkway, and recalled that she’d looked especially nice for her practice, her usually straight hair in the waves she sometimes wore when they went out. After they embraced, she reached back for his hand, holding it thoughtfully in her own, her thumb reassuringly—too reassuringly—massaging his palm. “Skip it,” he begged, testing her, but she seemed to look through him. he laughed as she turned toward her car.
One afternoon, meaning to call his wife at home, he’d heard his mother’s voice speak; he’d accidentally dialed her number. He made small talk for a few minutes. But in asking what he thought of as harmless questions, he must have accidentally let some of the suspicion he felt for his wife leak into his voice, because his mother began to laugh at him. She said, “Aren’t both of us a little old for you to be calling to check up on me?”
“Checking up” on her was what she used to call his less artful enquiries into her love life, the ones he made as a teenager.
“What did I say?” he asked her, already feeling a too-familiar sense of frustration.
“It’s not what you say,” she explained, exasperated with him in the manner of a daughter with her father. “It’s your tone. You talk to me like you’ve already decided I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear. Or like whatever I’m about to say to you is a lie.”
Jake thought of her when she was in love—how, when he was small, she would bend down to peer with such intensity into his eyes before school, her hands reverentially skimming his hair and cheeks before coming to rest lightly, worshipfully, on his shoulders; how, outside, walking through the cool air toward the bus stop, he felt like a sacred being, warm with his mother’s love and the wonder of his own light. He had been too young, then, to understand the effects of romance: that she spent on him the excess of her feelings for some man. In the lull between men she could never touch him in quite the same way.
Now he sighed. When he hurt her he became to her every man who’d hurt her.
“I just hope you don’t talk to your wife like you talk to me,” she replied.
He wanted to trust his wife, he truly did. But he couldn’t stop himself from noticing, in public, the way Sheila returned the types of male glances she’d before seemed not to notice. He’d be talking to her about some movie they’d just seen, or about work, and he would see her eyes dart away from him to study the back of a young waiter, or the shoulders of a man older than her father. Occasionally, he’d even seen his wife lock eyes with a stranger and offer this person a flirtatious half-smile—right in front of Jake—and when Jake asked if she knew that man, his way of telling her he’d caught her, she’d say, “He just reminded me of someone I used to know.” Or, in a puzzled, dismissive tone, as if Jake were paranoid, “I’m just being friendly.” It was upsetting not only in itself, but also because it was the kind of behavior he associated with his mother. Again he felt the unease he’d felt as a little boy, nervously cherishing the brief periods of peace they had between her lovers, all the while afraid that any of the strange men they encountered in shops, at the park, at the zoo or museum, could very well end up in their home. He understood how quickly their movie nights and pancake suppers, their reading the newspaper together on Saturday morning—her happily questioning him about what he’d read, delighting in his answers, (“Why don’t you help me wrap my mind around that, Mr. Know-it-all?”), would be replaced by the drama of her infatuation, by a monster (gross and strong and idiotic they seemed to him) who wished him dead.
Now, at this party, on this spring night, in this huge old house, one room giving way to another in mazelike fashion, all of them familiarly pleasant with their cleverly mismatched furniture and Oriental rugs, like decor from a magazine, he would have to mind Sheila. Or, he wouldn’t be able to mind her. He already felt her wanting to slip away from him and explore, and knew that she would.
She was as usual oblivious to his suspicion. “That woman,” Sheila said, grinning, speaking of their hostess, “is so interesting. I wonder if she was that strange before she was rich.”
She wore a strapless dark-blue dress. She kept rolling back her bare shoulders and stretching her arms. She seemed always to be stretching lately, especially in public.
“I doubt it,” he said, deciding not to let on all he knew of her (as if he could’ve even explained what he knew). “Things like that change people.”
“Do you really think people change, or just seem to change?” Sheila said, scanning the crowd. She would just as soon take the opposite position. She was like that. She never betrayed guilt about what she was doing to him, and that she behaved so normally around him made him think she either loved him so much that her feelings for other men didn’t affect her feelings for him, or that she didn’t love him at all. “Because I think everything is already there inside of you,” she went on. “What you are. By the time childhood is over. What I think is that you just become this purer and purer version of what you already are.”
“You mean who you already are.”
“No. That’s not what I meant,” softly, thoughtfully, as if to herself.
He’d found out about her virginity on their third date, over pasta at an Italian restaurant, after the waiter handed them the wine list. “You know, I should probably tell you now: I don’t drink. Both sets of my grandparents were alcoholics and so no one in my family drinks. But I don’t mind that you do. Also, I guess I should tell you, too, that I don’t have sex. Until I get married. I mean, I’m a virgin. Sex isn’t just a physical thing to me, but a deeply spiritual thing that I only want to experience with my future husband, to whom I want to offer my purity as a gift. Just don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
He understood that she had made this little speech before, that she offered it as both a challenge and discouragement. But he was not discouraged. In that moment he had become hypnotized by the miracle of her mouth, her hands, her chest rising with her breath. He had thoughts he’d have been too embarrassed to ever speak aloud: waking to an untouched blanket of snow, freshly cut flowers, the smell of baking bread. He thought, strangely, of women emerging from the water of the local pool, wet hair heavy against their shoulders, rivulets of water cascading down bare limbs. In grade school, on picture day, he had seen the ivory hem of a girl’s new dress on the playground splattered with mud.
He found himself adjusting the cuff of his sleeve, smoothing his hair.
“I respect that very much,” he told her. Even the sight of her fork spearing food now intrigued him.
She hadn’t acted surprised.
Pictures of Sheila as child revealed a bespectacled, awkwardly thin person in baggy clothes. Her parents were devout fundamentalists whose black-and-white television stayed up in the attic, and they limited their library to biblical commentary. Friendly but guarded, they watched him with eyes he couldn’t read. Wariness fringed their air of puritanical optimism, and their voices slipped into warning tones creepy to him when the sun had just gone down and the beige of their living room appeared gray before the turning on of lamps. But her mother’s frequent offers of snacks and tea reassured him.
“People are born with an emptiness inside them,” said her father, a big bearded man who worked in construction. While they talked, he gently, rhythmically stroked the matted back of the family’s aged terrier, his hand as wide as the dog. “If you don’t fill it with God it grows. Emptiness begets emptiness,” he said. “Nothing begets nothing.”
“Love begets love,” her mother said. She was a slender woman with a kind smile and dark, boyish haircut, her blouses a size too large.
“Love begets compassion,” the father corrected. “And compassion begets love. Compassion is God’s love.”
Sheila’s mother nodded emphatically. Sheila was picking at her cuticles and looked up to glance over at him, rolled her eyes. (She was like this—sometimes regarding her religion seriously, sometimes speaking of it almost as a joke she went along with.)
“Do you believe in God’s love?” her father asked Jake.
Of course, Jake said; though of course not, he thought. His mother had dabbled in every major faith and some of the minor ones, had even flirted with the occult, and religion seemed to him an unnecessary and too often desperate exhaustion of will. The self-infatuated tone of people’s voices when they spoke of their intimacy with a higher power depressed him. He would force himself not to cringe when Sheila’s mother, smelling of the same linen-scented detergent her daughter used, hugged him good-bye and whispered into his ear, “God loves you.” And when, a month before the wedding—breath drawn, eyes shut—he allowed Sheila’s father to drown him in the water of the baptistery at their little country church, he felt nauseated.
But he liked imagining Sheila, with her red hair and look of calm curiosity, emerging from this little cave of deprivation. In her college photos—in the succession of them, from freshman to senior year—you could see her, whom he thought of as his Sheila, distinguishing herself from this world. The cave became the background that defined her. Her body grew graceful, shoulders rolled back, hair longer and even a deeper auburn, and the simplicity of her clothes elegant; but what changed most was the way she reacted to the camera. The shy, averted gaze of the adolescent gave way to a head-on stare, her eyes lit with something like impatience. Her school uniform—the long khaki skirts and white button-down blouses—seemed to emphasize her ease in her body, an ease that communicated to him latent sexual appetite. She had, with her pouty lips, what he and his friends, as teenagers, would’ve happily referred to as “a slutty face,” and the irony of this made him laugh.
He thought, he felt, that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him.
She seemed to communicate this through her long legs, bared by short skirts—she wore short skirts constantly now that she’d graduated from the school, except when they visited her parents, for whom she dressed like an elementary-school librarian—and through the way she would press her breasts up against him when they kissed.
When his hands became too insistent, she’d pull her face from his, her long red hair falling into his mouth, and say, in a sweet, apologetic voice, “We need to stop now.” Disentangle herself from his arms. It was almost as if he were with a high-school girl.
He didn’t mind. Their future together had soon taken shape in his mind. She was pure and smart and talented—she played first viola in the county orchestra—and passionate. One evening, over the phone, she told him that when, after having just slid her bow across the strings for the first measure of the second piece in a concert, she felt the vibrations of all the other instruments in the air around her, she shivered with what she believed was orgasmic energy. The formality of her concerts became for him—from his seat among strangers in the dim auditorium, gazing up at Sheila in her black dress, in the circle of light she shared with the other players—a sort of erotic tease.
The first evening, in the hotel room, Sheila wore black-lace lingerie and kissed him enthusiastically; but as his hands and lips descended past her belly, she began to tense. She pushed his hand down, against her thigh. He tried again, and she finally pulled away from him, drawing the slightly stiff hotel sheets around her, complaining she felt sick from the plane. He knew she was scared—so much had happened: the ceremony, the flight, her first trip to London (she’d wanted to hear the London Symphony). They spent the rest of the night cuddling in the hotel bed and watching European movies that seemed to suggest people could never really comprehend their true realities; the tone of these was charmingly whimsical. He felt better. Warm. The frustration that came from her body pressed up against his was only temporarily problematic. It was sweet to him, really, that she knew so little about men.
The next day she seemed cheerful and energetic, delighting in the view from their window of the busy street—the pavement slicked with rain and the storefronts, the Londoners with their spectrum of umbrellas. The air was blustery, the gray of the city tinged toward silver. For breakfast they had beans and toast at a cafe, both of them drinking too much of the strong coffee, musing about what to do and see first.
But in the street, Sheila noticed some of the British girls’ outfits—they wore tall boots and short plaid kilts—and complained that she didn’t have anything that was in style here to wear. Did he mind shopping for a while? she asked. Inside one of the shops, she tried on a pair of black boots like the ones she’d admired, with several different skirts. After each change she stood in front of the dressing room, modeling for him. The last thing she tried on was a pink cocktail dress that had caught her eye on the way in. It was skintight, more daringly cut than what she usually wore. She frowned at her image in the mirror hanging against the wall and in the reflection met his eye. Did he like it? Yes, very much, he told her. He reached out and took the edge of the silky hem between his fingertips.
A whisper; hostile. He quickly withdrew his hand. Though he was sitting in a chair beside the dressing-room door, he felt as if he were about to lose his balance, his vision of her back and reflection in the mirror momentarily blurred into one pale, many-limbed mass. But then in a casual tone she said she looked weird in pink, laughed; disappeared inside the dressing room. He wondered if he’d imagined the tone from before. They bought the clothes and shoes, and went back to the hotel to drop off the bags. She changed into the boots and a red-and-black kilt and took his hand as they stepped back out into the street. They spent the rest of the morning at the Tate.
When, in the afternoon, they returned to the hotel for a nap, he tried again. This time he was both more controlled and aggressive, coaxing her with more strategized kissing and massaging, trying to both ease and hurry her through it, thinking once they worked their way past the beginning she’d be fine. He had expected the first time would hurt her, but he hadn’t yet gone inside her when her face changed. At first, he didn’t see it as hate. He saw her screaming, her mouth gaping strangely open, before he heard the sound. Then she slapped his face. He did not move off her quickly enough, was too stunned, and just as he began to lean back she struck him again, this time catching his left temple, almost knocking him off balance. Before he could climb off of her she’d wriggled out from beneath him. He was shocked and ashamed. He’d never before tried to make a woman do something she didn’t want to do sexually. But here was his wife, his wife, making him feel like a rapist. She scooted away from him—moving backward, her eyes all the while trained on his body—until she had her back against the headboard of the king-size bed. There, she looked down at him across an expanse of white sheets and hugged her knees. Tears ran down her face. “I’m sorry, but I can’t,” she said. “Sorry,” she repeated. “I’m sorry.” She looked, impossibly, as if she wanted to be held and also as if she might never want to be held again. He trembled as he made his way from the bed to the desk chair. There, naked, cold in the draft from the vent, he’d put his head in his hands and listened to her cry. He understood that while she didn’t want him near her, he couldn’t leave her alone in the room. He got up and switched on the TV and both of them stared at the flickering screen.
The man was the uncle who’d been sent away from the wedding, whom Jake had, because he was getting dressed, not actually seen. When, wanting some form to which to attach his rage, he asked what the man looked like, she said he was tall and thin, with dark hair. That these adjectives might also have described Jake bothered him a little; but then that was silly, lots of men fit that description. She added that the man had had a damaged eye, that he’d been in an accident, had had reconstruction work, which caused the place where iris met pupil to look jagged, “like a starburst,” she said. The abuse had consisted mostly of heavy petting, no actual penetration, but because Sheila had been raised in such a conservative household, the psychological damage was profound, insinuated the therapist. It was about contrast, Jake gathered.
She’d been twelve. The uncle and his wife didn’t have children and had invited her to stay with them in the summer at their home in North Carolina, while her parents went on a mission trip to Lugansk. Apparently he’d worked from the home. His wife worked in some office, and during her absence he’d let Sheila watch movies and listen to music her parents prohibited. He had also let her drink. The wife had come home early one day and found Sheila walking through the living room in her panties.
“We’d been listening to music in the bedroom,” she said. “I’d never heard Bob Dylan before, and he thought he was amazing, and I was laughing at him because back then Bob Dylan’s voice seemed so bad to me. He said we were going to listen until I understood.”
She had been crying intermittently, as she spoke, but now her lips turned into something near a smile. The therapist uncrossed her legs. Sheila’s smile faded.
“And I’d gone out to the kitchen to get a drink. Aunt Mira looked like she was about to say hi to me, but then she didn’t say anything. She just stared at my legs, like she was confused. Finally she said, ‘What are you doing?’ in a normal voice, and I said, ‘Listening to music.’ And she said, ‘Where is your uncle?’ And I knew we were going to get in trouble, but I couldn’t think of what to say. I took too long and I guess she saw it in my face, and you could hear it coming from the bedroom—the stereo, I mean. She went after him then. Then she came back out to me, where I was still standing in the living room, not knowing what to do. I felt frozen. She looked like she wanted to say something to me, but instead she threw up. She was standing on a nice rug, and I remember how she leaned over to throw up on the hardwood floor instead of the rug.”
“My parents came back the next day, and my dad went back there into the room after my aunt told them what had happened—I thought he was going to kill him—but when he came back into the kitchen where we were, just a few minutes later, he said my uncle was in a ball on the floor and wouldn’t get up. I remember him saying that. My mother wanted to know if I’d asked my uncle a lot of questions. She said to my aunt that she had noticed I had a habit of being interested. In other people. And I thought, What does that even mean? Who’s not interested in other people? Even my aunt looked at her funny. She was so tired. By then she just wanted my mom to shut up.”
In the car, riding home, her mother asked if she’d let her uncle touch her, and she said no. “That was exactly how she said it. Let,” Sheila said. “He only used his hands, he always had his clothes on, but I told her not at all. My dad didn’t talk the whole time. At home he walked around with this blank look on his face. For days. And for a while he wouldn’t really look at me when we talked. We never saw them again. My dad talked to my aunt on the phone every once in a while, at Christmas.”
After that her mother never treated her the same. “She tried to make sure my dad and I were never alone together in the house. She thought I didn’t notice, but I did. I noticed all the time. Once I came back from a sleepover and a pair of my underwear must have fallen out of my bag, in the hall, and an hour later she was in my bedroom, waving it in my face. She was almost screaming at me. It was like she thought I left it out on purpose.”
She again broke into tears. He was baffled. He hadn’t picked up on any animosity between her and her mother.
“He was so unhappy. He acted bored around my aunt, around everyone else, but when we were alone together he got happy. He said Aunt Mira hated him because they couldn’t have children, even though the reason they couldn’t have them had to do with her. Because of how she’d gotten hurt in the car accident they were in. He said just seeing me made him happy. He said I was so pretty.”
“My mom hated the word. Pretty. When I was little, if I asked her if I was pretty, she’d say, ‘It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re pretty. Beauty comes from being pure of heart.’ She was right. She was trying to be a good mother. I understood that. I don’t understand why I liked to hear it from him so much. I guess until then I thought I wasn’t. But he said I was. He said it was too early for most people to see but that they would.”
Her arms had been folded across her chest. Now she drew her legs onto the chair, clasped her hands around them.
“That night, at my aunt and uncle’s, after my aunt saw me, I woke up and he was staring at me. I didn’t know if it was for real or a dream. I was sleeping on the couch in the living room and Aunt Mira was over in the kitchen. The dining room was between them and I couldn’t see her, but I could see the light from the kitchen reflecting into it. She’d been in there most of the night. It was weird but it smelled to me like she was cooking stuff. I didn’t go in there. So she was awake. I felt so bad for her. And when I opened my eyes and saw him sitting there watching me I just shut them again and pretended to be asleep because I didn’t know what else to do. He sniffed. Then he was quiet. But I could feel him watching me. He was there for so long. I wanted him to go away. But also I didn’t. Nobody looked at me the way he did. I hate being looked at.”
“By everyone?” the therapist said. “Or just by men?”
Now Sheila turned to Jake. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Her lips were paler. She turned to the therapist. He thought that the therapist was excited. It had something to do with the way she leaned forward ever so slightly and seemed to be trying to keep, rather than actually feeling, the patient, attentive expression. She said that Sheila was doing a wonderful “job,” that both of them were doing “wonderful jobs,” but that for now they needed to alter the dynamic in order to get the best results.
After that Sheila attended the sessions alone.
Time passed. He considered annulment but not seriously. He still loved her and thought that with time, through standing by her, he could show her that his love had to do with much more than sex. He couldn’t stay married to a woman who wouldn’t have sex with him forever. But he could wait.
He tried to throw himself into his new job—which consisted of writing speeches and press releases, and spent a lot of time in his office, a generous space in a wing of the hospital that had once been used for patients. Because it had been a patient room, the office included a bathroom, which meant he could in the afternoons, after meetings, work for extensive periods of time without having to go into the hall. He’d long ago learned to control his emotions in order to work, and here (despite the shut door, his solitude) she’d be reduced to a mood, to a gray film through which he saw the important matters at hand. But occasionally the mood would grow too thick to see through; then he’d get lightheaded, sweaty. If it was already dark he’d go out and find a place to smoke about the grounds. If it was day, since the hospital had a new no-smoking policy that he himself had formally promoted, he’d have to retreat into the white-tiled emptiness of the little bathroom to sit on the floor, back pressed against the wall, and wait for calm.
He would always be waiting for something, it seemed. In certain moods the thought of it was beautiful, but more frequently he wondered if his ideals were ridiculous. There, in the little bathroom, trying not to think of Sheila, who often couldn’t quite mask her disappointment when he came home, he began to fantasize about female coworkers: a gamine intern; an older woman in marketing who’d brushed up against him; Rachel Delaney, whom he’d met at a hospital-wide meeting, who with her husband donated huge amounts of money to the system, who had almost died of cancer but appeared so well to him. Rachel Delaney especially.
She hadn’t looked to him at all like the other wealthier donors, with their tailored suits and designer shoes. Her ash-colored hair was pulled up messily, in a big plastic clip, and she wore a cheap black T-shirt with her skirt. The skirt was actually elegant, silk and embroidered, but the flip-flops worn ragged. At first, when his supervisor introduced them, during a break in the meeting, he hadn’t noticed she was pretty. He listened and nodded as she spoke, struggling to focus after what had been his fifth meeting that day. Then she suddenly fell silent and rummaged around in her purse. She brought out a square of dark chocolate and popped it in her mouth. “Sorry,” she said. “Chocolate’s the only thing I can take to keep me from smoking. Did you ever smoke?”
He quit before he got married, he explained.
“I know it’s not the healthiest way, but nothing else works. The only problem is that now I’m overweight. But when you’ve gone through what I’ve been through you pretty much have to surrender your vanity.”
“You don’t look overweight to me.”
“Too little muscle mass and too much fat. You wouldn’t be able to tell unless you saw me naked.”
Her figure was lovely, and he blushed at the thought of her nudity. When she noticed she looked momentarily pleased, almost smiled.
“I identify with fat people,” she went on. “I identify with the dying, because I had cancer once and will probably get it again. I was also addicted to painkillers and so I identify with addicts. I’ve been poor, and believe me when I say I can fathom murder; murder unfortunately is no mystery to me,” she rambled on, her eyes darting all over him before briefly meeting his own, only to again make their nervous cycles. “My ability to sympathize is so overwhelming that I find it more and more difficult to walk down the street, to have simple human interactions. But because I’ve got this ability—this ability to sympathize—I feel guilty for shutting it down. Which in itself becomes another, near-unbearable type of tension. Even now I’m trying to resist what I see when I look in your eyes. Sometimes I fantasize about bashing out my brains against a brick wall.”
At this Jake started. Looked to see if anyone else was listening. Nobody was. Then a VP interrupted them, and she moved away to talk to someone else. He was glad. She seemed to him mildly insane. But then, the next day, at a coffee shop, he’d had an unusual craving for dark chocolate—he didn’t even really like chocolate—and bought a bar, thinking of her and, yes, picturing her naked. Now he couldn’t help but think of her when he smoked.
At home, his wife began to lock herself in the bedroom to do special exercises recommended by the therapist. She was, as he understood it, learning to masturbate without shame. She seemed cheerful, even playful, when she came back downstairs. With the exception of hugging and light kissing, they’d hardly touched since their honeymoon, and moved about the house so politely that he felt relieved by unexpected noise: the hum of the air conditioner switching on, her flushing the toilet upstairs, the neighbors slamming the door to their car. And though they slept in the same bed their bodies remained apart. But now she began to come up behind him and run her fingers through his hair, the way she used to, before, and she no longer stiffened when he held her. He felt relieved. When he intercepted a call about two missed therapy appointments, he felt confused, but not worried. Her explanations for missing them—stuck in roadwork, an orchestra practice running over—were plausible.
One January afternoon, during the first flurry of a light snow, she called him at work, saying she needed him to come home, and surprised him at the door in the same black lingerie she had worn during their honeymoon. In bed, when he tentatively put his mouth between her legs—hopeful, but still a little afraid he might at any moment be slapped—she let him. Things were normal. Or, they were wonderful: the warm house and bed and the snow falling outside the upstairs window.
The next day the roads were too bad for him to drive to work, and they enjoyed what he thought of as their delayed honeymoon. That evening, as he lay back on the bed, happily exhausted and amused that they’d actually somehow torn away not only the sheets but the mattress cover, she sighed with what he at first mistook for contentment, and said, “I guess that’s it, then.”
“What? What’s it?” He sat up, confused. She’d seemed to enjoy herself even more than he expected she would, it being her first time; he was almost sure she had come.
She was not on the bed but standing beside it, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed. She’d put on one of his white undershirts. She’d gotten leaner after the wedding; at dinner she seemed to eat less than half of what she herself put on the plate.
“You know. Sex. I mean, it’s fun. But I thought . . .” She looked away from him, over at the basket in the corner where they put their dirty clothes. She hadn’t done laundry in a while, apparently, and clothes spilled over the basket. “I thought it would feel more . . . it just feels so . . . physical.”
Of course it felt physical. It was sex, he laughed nervously. What did she mean?
“I expected a spiritual element,” she explained. “I expected it to be physical and spiritual.”
He felt as if she’d struck him again; his whole body rather than just his head. “You mean you don’t feel anything for me.” He stared down at the mattress, the pale gray stripes exposed.
“No. No. I love you . . . I just . . . it’s me. I try to look in your eyes and I can’t and I know I’m supposed to, but I can’t. It’s fun, though. It’s great. It’s just me, is all. I shouldn’t have said anything. I talk too much.”
“Sheila.” He looked up at her. She stared straight ahead now, lost in thought. “Did you stop seeing your therapist?”
She pulled her arms more tightly against her chest and looked into his eyes, shifted her gaze again to the laundry pile. “No.”
She was lying, it seemed to him.
“OK,” he said gently.
She climbed back onto the bed and curled up against him, her head on his chest, her red hair spilling over his arm. “I didn’t mean to ruin everything,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
He lost track of her early in the night, when as some coworkers approached from one direction, Sheila darted off in the other with the excuse of needing another ginger ale. He chatted with them—some women from the marketing department, two of whom were young and pretty and seemed girlishly aware of their party appearances, hands fidgeting with bracelets and smoothing hair, bodies moving in the formal dresses with a self-consciousness he’d never have glimpsed at work. Though he had trouble following the conversation, he managed to hide it. How much time had passed? Fifteen minutes? Thirty?
The women moved on.
In the far corner of the next room (crowded, red walls) he spotted his host and hostess talking to another couple. Rachel’s husband, a bearded man with a lot of coarse blond hair, seemed to be telling a story, mock scowling and making exaggerated gestures. But while the couple grinned back, Rachel stared blankly past him, hand cupping a full glass of red wine. The room had two openings and at that moment, from the other side, a child in a white-flannel nightgown—Rachel’s daughter, the one who’d come to his office—streaked from one opening to the other, a weirdly determined look on her face. Rachel began to hurry after her, yelling her name, the anger in her voice belied by the sudden pleasure in her expression. As she passed near him she met his eye and raised her brows so that he felt included in the child’s mischief, the mother’s pursuit. For a moment he forgot where he was going. But as she vanished from his sight he again became aware of the problem, his search.
There were many familiar faces—doctors and administrators, board members and their spouses—but also plenty of people he didn’t recognize. Laughter would erupt from one cluster, and then the next. Many of them, though youthful and well preserved in the way of successful people in a mid-sized town, were much older than he. There was talk of time-shares in Europe, of healthcare legislation, of encounters with unruly patients. He smiled and nodded his way through.
Where was she? He made his way through a number of rooms, still sipping at the now watery gin and tonic he’d gotten when he first arrived. At the bar, he got another. He passed through the kitchen, where the wait staff was replacing trays with hors d’oeuvres, and moved out onto the broad back deck overlooking a little courtyard, a fountain. Out here white lights were strung up around the tree branches that grew along the walls, and people’s faces were harder to make out. The early spring air was neither hot nor cold. He studied the throng of bodies, but he could not find his wife’s face. He leaned against the railing and looked down into the courtyard. Below he glimpsed the little girl, now standing by the fountain that shimmered beneath the strung lights. Her pale hair, in the surrounding dimness, gleamed white by the glow of the water. She turned her face up toward the balcony, met his eye. Then, from the lower part of the house, from somewhere beneath the deck, a female voice that was not her mother’s called out to her, and she darted into the shadows. He waited for a moment to see if she’d return, but she was gone.
Now he found himself drawn into a nearby conversation.
“But I heard it was inherited,” a man said.
Jake didn’t recognize these people from work.
“No. I went to high school with them in Raleigh. Daniel’s parents were teachers and Rachel’s family was on welfare after her dad died. It was vacuum parts.” There was a pause, the clink of ice. “They owned factories in South America. Made a killing. But then it came out that handling the parts caused birth defects. Nowadays all vacuum parts are like that, if you notice. There’s usually a warning in the little instruction manual? You’re supposed to be sure to wear gloves or wash your hands after. But this was a while back and a company that used their parts ended up getting sued by a customer. The company tried to file a suit against the Delaney’s company but it was proven that they knew what they were buying and Rachel and Daniel got out OK.”
“I heard she had a nervous breakdown,” a woman said in a low voice. “From the guilt. I heard she thinks her cancer was punishment from God, and that’s why they donate all that money.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said a man wearing thick-rimmed glasses. “That’s just a rumor.”
“It amazed me that she let them write about her like they did—her treatments and reconstruction. I’d feel weird when people looked at me and just knew, well . . .”
“You couldn’t beat the promotion they got for the center from that, though. That was smart. Nothing beats the personal-narrative stuff. People eat that shit up.”
“Didn’t she hire the designer too? I like the paintings in the lobby there. Who is it who did those paintings?”
“The Japanese woman from Charleston?”
“No it was someone local. Smythe or Simms or . . .”
The conversation veered into a discussion of the prices of local art. He turned and went back inside the house.
It had been afternoon when Rachel knocked on the door to his office. At first he hadn’t answered, hoping whoever it was would go away. The little girl with her was very blond and wore a black pair of galoshes, with a gold-and-white jumper. She looked five or six, her eyes the water blue of her mother’s. Though it was March, Rachel wore another black T-shirt, and the same flip-flops, pale legs bare. Her long hair was pulled into the same plastic tortoiseshell clip.
“She knew you were in here,” the little girl said.
“Violet,” Rachel said in a warning voice. To him, “I don’t mean to bother you, but I just wanted to talk about the press releases for the mammography unit and—” she was looking around his office as she spoke, and now paused. “Does it bother you to work in here?”
“Why would it bother me?”
“It’s just, this was a patient room.”
“So people have suffered and died in here.”
“People have died in here,” the little girl repeated in a low, wondering voice.
“It’s a hospital,” he said in his most rational tone. He wanted them to leave, but Rachel was moving deeper in. She walked toward his window and began to speak of how this view of his must have been for a significant number of people a “last view of the world.” The little girl began to pick up and examine objects on his desk: his brass paperweight, his Post-it notes, his pens. She looked at these things as if they were fantastic, turning them in her small white hands while the water-colored eyes contemplated their sides from multiple angles.
Now Rachel reached into her purse and extracted the chocolate, her back to him. He imagined her white skin beneath the thin black fabric of her shirt. He tried to think of something else but the only something else his mind would turn to was the deceased peering out of his window. His head ached. He did not feel well. He wanted a cigarette. The little girl, with a look of intense concentration, was sticking blank post-it notes—pink, yellow, mint green—all over his paperwork and desk. Her mother still stared out his window, out at the overcast afternoon. His office smelled of chocolate.
“Could I have some of that?” he said.
She turned from the window to smile at him. She stepped close to him, his head level with her waist, his eyes drawn to her breasts. With one hand she self-consciously wrapped the sweater around her chest, and with the other handed him a square of the candy. She watched his face too long.
“I see,” she said softly.
She reached out, as if to touch his cheek, but retracted her hand. He felt, still, as if she were touching him. She might have been touching him all over with the water-colored eyes: they wanted each other. Then she averted her gaze, broke the spell. “Violet, Mr. Harrison is tired and we need to get out of his hair now. Come back another time.”
He quickly began to sift through the contents of his desk drawers for something that might interest the child. Found himself handing over pens, an old Rolodex, a small green clipboard bearing the logo of a pharmaceutical company. The child accepted these things with the air of one accepting precious gifts. Suddenly he had the feeling that all things in his office were sacred, were less and also more than what they were.
“That’s all she can carry,” the mother said, smiling. “Say thanks.”
“Thank you,” the child said to him, arms full of his things.
He was very tired. He lay his head down on his desk, face buried in arms.
The upstairs of the house appeared smaller than he expected. Smaller and plainer. But that was probably because the hall was narrow and all of the doors shut. Would he really have to go around opening all these doors? And what would happen if someone saw him up here? They’d think he was being nosy.
What he imagined was opening the door to a bedroom, a guest room perhaps, to find a couple embracing on a made-up bed. He imagined lamplight, auburn hair, her back turned to him. Some man fumbling with the zipper at the back of her dress.
He felt lightheaded. He’d forgotten to eat anything. They could go to a diner, he thought, as soon as the party ended, after he found her. What he expected, as much as he expected to catch her with a man, was to go through all these rooms and find them empty, then go back down and run into her, find she’d been searching for him at the same time he’d been searching for her, and they’d simply kept missing each other, as they did sometimes after having drifted apart in the mall, at bookstores.
The first two doors opened to darkness, the hall light skimming the outlines of an office in one room, a treadmill and weightlifting equipment in the other. Without thinking he opened a smaller door he should’ve known led to a linen closet.
The next door he opened brought him face to face with his hostess.
She showed no surprise, only amusement for, he guessed, his embarrassment, his getting caught. The child was with her.
“Strawberry,” the child said to him.
They sat on a plain white cot. The room had polished hardwood floors and ivory walls bearing soft ellipses of light from two standing lamps on either side of the room. The only shadows that broke the light came from their bodies, for there was no furniture. Rachel’s sweater lay in a black lump beside her, on the cot, her bare arms and shoulders exposed, the thin blue straps of the dress, perhaps because he was looking down at her, seeming to barely cover her nakedness. He quickly turned his eyes to the child in her white-flannel gown, etched faintly with caramel-colored flowers, he saw now. Her blond hair looked mussed and after she said strawberry for the second time, she frowned.
“He doesn’t know what we’re playing,” Rachel said to her. “He just thinks you’re being weird. Tell him what we’re playing.”
“Word association,” the little girl said to him. In a very serious voice, “I say a word, and you say the first word that comes to your mind, and then I say the first word that comes to my mind when I hear your word, and then you say—”
“He gets the point, Violet.”
“Strawberry,” the girl said again, insistently.
“Milk,” he replied.
“Hamburger,” Violet said. To Jake, “Hamburger comes from cows. People kill the cows and then they eat them. They made me eat cows but I didn’t know what it was,” she said sadly. “I didn’t know.”
“Please don’t start again, Violet,” her mother said. “No one meant to taint you. No one knew how you’d feel about it.” To Jake, “Her nanny doesn’t know how to talk to sensitive children.”
“I ate cows,” the little girl persisted gravely.
“This is not the time for us to talk about that,” Rachel said. “It’s time for me to talk to Mr. Harrison now. Time for you to go.”
“But I want to sleep in here with you tonight.”
She latched on to her mother’s bare arm and began to whimper. When Rachel gave her a threatening look, the child let go of her mother. She got up from the cot, stomped her small bare feet past Jake at the door, and in the dim hall burst into a sprint. He watched her open the door that faced theirs from the opposite end, flooding the space with light. Briefly he glimpsed a huge, high-ceilinged room with a Ping-Pong table, beyond it a sofa and a big-screen television flashing the bright pastels of a cartoon. He heard the shrieks of children. Then the door slammed shut and the hall seemed twice as dark as before.
“Close the door behind you,” Rachel told him.
When he turned back to face her, she was already pulling down the straps of the dress. Her blue eyes reflected what seemed to him one moment panic, the next anticipation. In the soft light and emptiness, the room might have been any room or every room he had ever known, and she had always been in this place that was also herself, waiting. The muted laughter from the party could no longer be heard. Faintly, the music he had not noticed below announced itself through the floor.