Samar Farah Fitzgerald
Where Do You Go?
One spring, when they had been married two years, when they both had good jobs they could do from home, they left the big city as they had always planned to and bought a house. The house had a two-car garage so they bought two cars. In the attic—they’d never had one before—they stored everything they thought they’d outgrown. Kierkegaard, for one. Plus, her thrift-shop leather jacket, his music posters, their longhorn cattle skull.
They had found the skull—desert angel, dank bone picked clean in certain morning light—on a trip out West, shortly after they moved in together. It was expensive and awkward to carry on a plane but perfect for the front wall of their studio apartment. One year, before a party, someone painted the horns blue. Another year, someone stuck a dried corsage in a hollow eye socket.
Their new home was an hour from the old studio, in a town that was nothing like the boastful but forgettable suburbs nearby. More of a village than a town, set snugly on a pretty, wooded hill. A person might live five miles away and never know the place was there. But it was. If you took the right road and stayed with it around a narrow bend, then up the hill, eventually you’d come to a clearing with modest homes encircling a small lake. All of the houses were cottage-sized—no three-story colonial fortresses here—and yet remarkably distinct and intricate. Pointed turrets and steep gables, stick work in the Victorian gingerbread style and eaves extending over small rounded doorways like visors. Their three-bedroom stucco sat at the bottom of the hill. It had a prim stone walkway, two short chimneys, and a slim cast-iron balcony with enough standing room for one, facing the water.
Because they were so charmed by the setting and the architecture they were willing to overlook the fact that most of the residents were older, much older—retired couples, widows, and divorcees well into the winter of their lives. The evidence was everywhere. The nearest supermarket stocked blood pressure monitors at the checkout counter, and signs within a half-mile radius proclaimed street names in a colossal font. Wednesday nights, half the village gathered for card games in a community center at the top of the hill. They could see these tepid parties from their side of the lake, the large atrium windows giving up a dozen or so round, indistinct silhouettes. On weekends, a purple bus rumbled up the hill and idled in front of the center, waiting to carry the cotton-headed gamblers south, to the casinos and beaches.
It was sort of funny that they’d joined an outpost for the near-to-dying—that’s what they were able to tell each other at first. They enjoyed themselves: “Next stop on the casino bus: diaper change in Freehold.” At the beginning, anyway, they were too busy relocating to give much more thought to their new neighbors. When they’d moved into the studio years before, it had been a simple merger: his things and her things coming together. Now, although their total living space had more than tripled, nothing from the past seemed right—the painted longhorn skull looked kitschy in the foyer, adolescent in the master bedroom—and they were struck deeply with the desire to purge and start all over. Some of their belongings they posted for sale online, some they hauled to the dumpster, and what they found themselves unable to remove entirely from their lives they relegated to the attic. They wrapped the skull in a large white sheet and set it on an old piano bench abandoned by previous owners. It wasn’t long before the sheet loosened and pooled around the animal’s brow, so one exposed eye socket loomed threateningly each time they climbed the attic stairs.
They took breaks from the purging to order a new couch, a dining room table, a kitchen table, and matching nightstands for their bedroom. Late at night, worn out from the effort of recalibrating the value of the things they owned, they made their way to the balcony. They stood, holding each other—the only way they could both fit—and contemplated the new scenery. It was high summer by now. When the moon was bright and a light breeze lifted the boughs, they watched turrets and gables undulating on the surface of the reservoir.
But it didn’t matter how tightly they held each other. Henry and Vega were always alone with their thoughts. Taking it all in, he was often reminded of the porcelain Christmas village his grandmother would unbox every winter. He looked out at the water and swelled with nostalgia, a sweet and mellow sadness for all the things they’d discarded and for the days to come, which of course would one day be past, too. Vega, looking at the same scene, was mostly reminded of a movie—was it a documentary or some kind of supernatural drama?—about a group of little people living in a dense forest. Sometimes, though, all she could think of was Hansel and Gretel, the perilous cottage.
“You ever think,” she said one night.
“It wouldn’t be that hard for me to do something really horrible to you, something really violent, Henry.” His hands were clasped in front of her, and his chin rested lightly on her head. She twisted in his embrace and looked up at him. “What if I strangled you? Or stabbed you with our kitchen knife? It would be possible, you know. A little while ago, I saw you bent over the box in the dining room.”
He shook his head. He took her slender neck in his warm hands and squeezed gently. “I think I might win that one,” he said. This made her smile, and he let go.
In the city they would part ways on the front stoop, one of them going east and the other going south to their separate jobs. Now they shared an extra bedroom as an office. It took a little time and effort to arrange the furniture but finally they positioned their desks so that they sat with their backs to each other. And it was sort of pleasant working side by side, or back to back, on their projects. Henry courted Vega all over again. He sent her e-mails with subject headings alluding to the pattern or color of her underwear, which he noted each morning as he watched her dress.
Subject: Getting my ducks in a row.
Subject: Nothing but blue skies.
Subject: Remember the Pink Panther?
They had sex instead of lunch some days. And as the summer grew melancholy with signs of fall, Vega threw out her pills—five packs of little blue pellets wrapped in foil sinking in the garbage. They found the added sense of purpose invigorating and kissed more, even when Henry was deep inside her, as if the kisses went straight to his sperm and her egg, pumping their future child with all this love. Nothing except love.
They slept with the windows open. In the mornings, without a commute downtown or crosstown, there was time to read the paper—the entire front section, plus one or two stories from a “silly” section—before they each had to dial in to the publishing houses where they worked. Some mornings there was even time for a spinach and feta omelet before the telephone rang and their inboxes filled up. They wondered aloud if their work was suffering, but nobody had complained. Still, because nothing in this world was given freely, they tallied their losses. They had to haul themselves into the car for the simplest errand; no longer could a whim, a pang for an apple or a baguette, take them down the block to the corner bodega. The independent movies didn’t always show up in the local theater. And they missed their friends in the city, though not as much as they said they did when they had the chance to see these people for dinner or drinks. All in all, small things.
Meanwhile, the neighbors had taken notice of the young couple. They waved tentatively as Vega and Henry took the bend around the lake in one of their new cars. “Slow down,” their nervous fingers seemed to say. They came by with gifts. Raisin pie, bran muffins, wheat cookies in holiday tins with wintry scenes.
Vega found their welcome gestures stale. Or, not so much stale but peculiarly flat.
“Really? Tastes good to me,” Henry said, snapping a cookie in two and taking a bite.
“No, they taste like old people,” she said, her hand on her stomach and her lips curling with distaste.
One afternoon, deep into October—the warm weather now far from everyone’s thoughts—Cynthia Lippincott from next door knocked. She was a short woman, plump from the hips up and with a natural rouge in her cheeks. In the crook of her ample arms she cradled a tin of gingersnaps, like a mother with her infant.
“I’ve come to warn you about Gordon,” she said brightly, handing over her gift and stepping nimbly into their home. Her husband—the tall, stooped man who never smiled or waved—was not well, and Cynthia didn’t waste any time explaining his condition. It was emphysema: his heart was dangerously enlarged from the stress of breathing. She wanted Henry and Vega to know that Gordon would probably come around asking for cigarettes. “The man who lived here before you, he was a young bachelor, and he liked to give my husband smokes. When I asked him to stop, well, Gordon started paying him to do it.”
Henry did his best to assure her that neither of them smoked nor would they ever think of buying cigarettes for Gordon. Cynthia nodded, satisfied. Her presence was above all social and, once she was convinced that business had been taken care of, she wanted to know everything about Henry and Vega. How long had they lived in the city? Did they plan on children? What did they do on those computers all day? “You’re both editors? Isn’t that fascinating,” she said, wistfully. “People work at home now, don’t they? Not like when I was young. I suppose it wasn’t his fault, but Gordon was gone such long hours.”
Henry offered their visitor a seat on the living room couch and disappeared into the kitchen. Vega sat herself on the opposite end of the couch, her knees angled politely toward Cynthia.
“What does your husband do, Mrs. Lippincott?”
“Well now he’s a full-time professional pain in my ass,” Cynthia said and erupted into sharp laughter. Her hand extended, as if to pat Vega on the knee in recognition of some wifely bond, but her stubby arm came up short. She let it hang there a moment, then settled for rubbing the cushion between them. “You mean before he retired, of course. Oh, he was, you know, a manager over at Grayson. That large pharmaceutical just two or three miles north of here, closer to the highway? He was with them for a long time. Good pension. We could have moved anywhere, honestly, after he retired, but here we are. Still living up the road. People are funny, aren’t they?”
Henry came back smiling and carrying a flowered plastic tray with the ginger cookies. The tray caught Vega’s eye. It had been a thoughtless flea market purchase years ago. Where had Henry been storing it? The memory had almost escaped her mind, a last-minute trip to a bed and breakfast in Rhode Island. Later that night, they had their first shower together: her fingers and his mouth where they hadn’t been before. And the next morning at the flea market, there was a sun so bright and warming that nothing, absolutely nothing except the day itself, entered their minds.
She forced her attention back on the old woman. Exactly how old was Mrs. Lippincott anyway? She seemed younger than Mr. Lippincott, but her husband looked so frail and pallid he could have been just a few days away from one hundred.
Not long after Cynthia dropped by, Vega went out one night to harvest her herb garden. Back in July a flare of ambition had driven her to till the small plot on the side of their house, and she had decided to plant more than the ordinary mint and basil—herbs like fennel, lovage, and dill. It was after eleven now. Henry was upstairs, his teeth brushed, in bed with a section of the paper. She was not accustomed to nights like this, black, suburban nights. In a childish way, it frightened her to think about all the small faceless creatures moving around the recesses of the yard, the nameless fish darting in the lake, an intruder skulking past the shadowy angles of the neighbors’ houses. She crouched over her garden and began to fill her plastic bag with crisp, pungent stalks, setting the curve of her body against all of that unknown. Soon, the wind shifted, and the sharp, buttery smell of tobacco wafted over her shoulder. Or, she felt his eyes on her. She couldn’t have said which happened first, but Vega stood abruptly and turned around, in the direction of the Lippincott house. She started.
There was Cynthia’s husband, Gordon, standing at the edge of his property, under a leafy oak. He was wearing what Vega recognized as his usual outfit of gray pajama bottoms and a navy suit jacket. He was smoking and watching her. She gasped lightly and set her hand on her chest, but he did nothing to acknowledge her alarm. She wrapped her cardigan tight and stepped tentatively his way. She drew closer to his thin, decrepit form as she might have approached the apparition of a large animal, with a mix of fear and irresistible disgust. But just as she got close enough to see the slight quiver of his cigarette hand, he coughed softly. He became an old man again.
“Mr. Lippincott?” she managed to say. “Gordon?” She was about to add, “Are you all right?” but stopped herself. Henry had a tendency to slip into a ministerial habit with the old people. It bothered Vega, just as it did when he would unconsciously flex his vocabulary around their doorman in the city. “Julio,” Henry used to say, “you are the best doorman we’ve ever had, inimitable.” He hadn’t meant anything terrible by it, of course. She understood that her husband was simply a man who was grateful for the things he had. But still, it made her squirm.
Gordon nodded “hello,” or “fine,” and reached into his suit jacket. He pulled out a cigarette. For her. “Don’t go telling that husband of yours either. He’ll tell Cynthia, I know he will.”
She couldn’t help smiling at this, but she shook her head. “I don’t smoke.”
“You? You smoke. I could tell it right away.”
Gordon shrugged. Then he started coughing again, this time more seriously. It was difficult to watch. Only when he finally brought the cigarette to his lips and took a long drag were his lungs tamed. Amazed, Vega watched him exhale. He lifted his head slightly, lowered his eyes, and basked in the release. Who knew, maybe the shortness of breath and coughing were a welcome substitute for words. Vega decided that he did not seem like someone much interested in conversation, emphysema or not. She knew the kind. Before Henry, she had been drawn to solitary and taciturn types. Her eyes drifted to his crotch, unprotected in his pajama bottoms. She wondered how much he could still feel. She looked up and his face flickered awareness of the direction of her gaze.
The truth was that she used to be a casual smoker. But she hadn’t accepted a cigarette from a man in a long time, not since her years right out of college, first traveling as a journalist in Eastern Europe, then back in the city. “All right,” she said, and felt herself smile coyly. Gordon lit the one for her, and as her dry lips closed around the lost habit, she pictured him briefly as a young man, when he must have been imposing in his new suit jacket. He was not unhandsome. He had an abundance of gray hair and a strong forehead and chin.
The cigarette didn’t taste quite as good as she remembered, but the papery softness between her fingers was nice, and she welcomed the lightheadedness that came slowly. “Your wife doesn’t like you smoking, you know,” Vega said.
He frowned. “Well, it’s got nothing to do with her.”
When she asked him for another, he looked satisfied. Now she saw not the young man, but the boy he must have been—in his mouth and his eyes there were traces of a willful child. His thin hair sat stiffly on his head and she wanted to reach out and pat it down.
She brushed her teeth vigorously before climbing into bed with Henry. In the morning, she told him about the smoking anyway. To his patient, “Do you think that was a good idea, Vega?” she only shrugged.
But that wasn’t the end. A few weeks later she drove by a small park not far from the village and spotted Gordon sitting on a bench, cigarette poised between his lips, both of his hands placed formally on his legs. A light drizzle was falling. Before she could change her mind, Vega turned into the small car lot next to the park. She found an umbrella in the back seat and approached the bench. Beyond where Gordon sat there was a plastic jungle gym. A child squirmed in his mother’s arms, pleading for another turn down the slide. Finally the mother relented and watched her triumphant son run up the slick ladder.
Vega shivered. Mr. Lippincott didn’t look up when she greeted him, but he slid his hands slowly along his thighs and she took this as a sign that he recognized her. She sat down next to him and extended the umbrella over his head. “Do you need a ride, Gordon? Come on, I’ll give you a ride.”
He was far away. She waited for him to look at her and acknowledge, in some small way, their moment under the oak the other night. Finally, he started to stand. She offered her arm, but he managed fine without her. As she was pulling onto their road, she turned to look at his profile in the passenger seat.
“Do you have a cell phone, Gordon? You can call me, next time you get stuck.”
“Cell phone? What for?” He explained that walking was his doctor’s idea, but he hated walking one way and coming back the same exact way. So, sometimes he ended up wandering too far and had to rest a good hour before he found strength for the return. That’s when Vega mentioned a nice path she’d discovered that meandered around the lake. “It slopes in a few places, but nothing too steep. It’s pretty.”
“Well,” he said, when they were idling in his driveway. “Thank you for the ride.”
The next day, he knocked on their back door. “I’m ready now,” he said. “For the walk.” And instead of blanching at the abrupt invitation, as she might have expected herself to, she grabbed her parka, called out to Henry that she was stepping outside, and closed the door behind her.
After that, they walked regularly, every afternoon during the week at four, unless Vega had a deadline that interfered.
Sometimes Henry boiled tea and stood at the kitchen window. So he could watch Vega and Gordon embarking down the footpath that led first toward the lake and then veered off into a patch of wood. Gordon’s suit jacket, usually unbuttoned, flapped in the wind, and his pajama bottoms clung indecorously to his crotch. Vega’s compact frame, shifting slowly below the latticework of brittle branches and sunlight, looked ghostly. Henry was surprised to see his wife, always so quick and impatient in her daily routines, taking careful steps at the old man’s side.
He loved her so much that it was okay to think certain things, as a rhetorical exercise. For example, he wondered sometimes, if he hadn’t found Vega when he did, ten years ago, if he came across her now for the first time, would she still manage to captivate him? He was a couple of months out of college, without a job, without an apartment, wallowing in his own shiftlessness, when they met. She was leaving in two months on a journalism fellowship to Romania, after which she’d promised to meet him in New York. Their first kiss was in his parents’ basement. He told his friends that she was intense. What he meant was that she wasn’t afraid to ask a question directly, and nothing anyone could say seemed to make her flinch. Not even that unbelievable story she extracted one evening from the bartender on 86th, who hobbled around on a prosthetic leg. When Vega had asked him how he’d injured himself, he looked briefly like he was going to evade her question with a joke. Then he wiped his hands on his towel, folded his elbows on the bar, and told them—told Vega, Henry was just a bystander—his story. Which was this: four years before, having failed to convince at least half a dozen surgeons to saw off his healthy leg, he took a lifelong obsession to be an amputee into his own hands. He froze his limb in a cooler of dry ice as long as he could stand it, and then called 911. Though Henry was incredulous, Vega believed every word, including the bartender’s claim that he had absolutely no regrets.
After her fellowship ended, she took an extra two months to see the rest of Europe. Eventually, she did meet up with Henry in the city, and later they found an apartment together. She spilled into his world, bled into his clothes, and stained his skin. With time, though, he saw what he hadn’t been able to see right away: that she would leave for long stretches, turn into herself for days. She never faltered in the ritualistic ways of couples, a hand rubbing a shoulder, fingers exploring the nape of a neck. But her gaze grew distant, less direct, and she lay awake in bed for hours at night. If he tried to reach her then, to pull her back with his desire, she recoiled as though he were violating some agreement. He learned to accept that Vega was a proposition. He could have her, shroud himself in her good looks and borrow her passion and her brand of fearlessness, but in return he wouldn’t ask about her silences.
Now there was something new. Since leaving the city, Vega was having inexplicable episodes of disorientation. Her face would go sallow and she’d grip his arm tightly. This happened at the supermarket, even at home. Henry researched and printed up a diagnostic list of symptoms for panic attacks. He talked with her about it. She agreed to see a doctor but never made an appointment. She started going on these lake walks with Mr. Lippincott, with the old man, the two of them disappearing down the footpath. And Henry started having dreams that he was looking for his wife in crabby caves under the lake. He worried that if he could properly assemble everything in his head, wrap his mind around all of Vega, there might be reason to think she might really, physically, vanish for good one day. He waited for the packed suitcase on the bed, the note on the credenza, and felt, more urgently than he had imagined he could, the desire for a baby.
Where they lived now, the smallest excursion brought new risks. Vega went out for the mail one day and saw Mr. Jenkins from across the street on a gurney, his eyes wide and alert, but his body limp and ineffectual as an EMT lifted him onto an ambulance. She stepped out to pick her dill and saw frail Mrs. Wallsterson, folded over the railing like a banana peel as she climbed her front steps. She stopped at the pharmacy for stamps and overheard Mrs. Height asking for more steroids for her cancer.
When she reported these things to Henry, he would shake his head sadly. Sometimes he shared similar observations. But he had no trouble returning to the shopping list in front of them or the unedited manuscript on the computer screen. She didn’t fault him, but for her it was harder.
Sweet, but not terribly interesting—that’s what she’d thought, dismissively, the night she first met Henry, at a party. He was introduced to her as the friend from the suburbs who was crashing on the couch. He wore khaki pants and a polo shirt. He held a napkin under his beer. He was, that awful phrase, clean cut. And easy to talk to. He asked a lot of questions about her, and when she answered, he looked right at her. Meanwhile, her eyes drifted, searching out someone grumpier, more aloof—more mysterious, she thought. Henry didn’t say or do anything that night that made a powerful impression on her, but over the next couple of months she found herself accepting his invitations to go out—the first time because why not, and after that because . . . because on their first date he had gripped her forearm so firmly as they crossed an intersection that it actually hurt. The gesture had stunned her. She rode back to Jersey with him one night, to his parents’ house, and they kissed in the basement like furtive teenagers. Her friends called him naïve and simple, and she found herself defending him. He wasn’t those things, but he lived by a secular faith that he could keep himself and those he cared about safe. And despite what she’d believed for years about herself—that she was unshakably independent, empathetic with strangers but cruel and indifferent to those she was intimate with—she found herself moved by the idea. No one was more surprised than she was. Except for, perhaps, Henry himself. And at some point, Vega’s unlikely reaction to Henry’s attention—the very fact that she didn’t anticipate falling for anyone like him—became more exciting, more arousing to her than the adventures she could have with a man who was uncaring, unkind. She thought she would forget about him when she went to Romania, but he was the first person she called when she returned.
In the early years of their relationship she would occasionally have a passing concern. Had she tricked herself into falling in love with Henry? Had she merely inverted one set of expectations for another? But she didn’t worry much anymore about her love for him; time had successfully argued against her doubts. Still, as they got older, her husband’s protective manner affected her less and less. Her anxiety had worsened since they left the city. Sometimes this anxiety was diffuse, like a dull headache. Other times it was overwhelming and sharp. Once, the two of them were waiting in line at the supermarket, their cart brightly loaded with tomatoes, detergent, peanut butter. Henry was talking about an irksome writer resisting fixes on an article, while she shifted their groceries onto the conveyor belt. There was no one thing that could have caused it, but the air in the room reconfigured suddenly, enlarging certain discrete facts to an oppressive size and pitch: the familiar thickness of Henry’s voice, the beep of the barcode scanner, the pointed finger of the woman in line, disciplining her daughter, and the ripe, earthy smell of tomatoes. It was enough to make her gag.
“Henry, stop. Just stop for a second,” she heard herself saying, because she couldn’t ask the mother or the checkout clerk to stop. By the time Henry had guided her outside, one hand on the small of her back, the other pushing the cart, she was better. But it was only a matter of time before that feeling, the knowledge that something was coming for her—and for Henry too, coming for them both—would return.
Henry helped Cynthia prune her bushes one weekend and after that she spread the word that he was “handy.” Other single old ladies and widows in the village began calling on him for assistance with odd jobs—setting up a new computer in order to e-mail a grandson or replacing a dead bulb. He did not in fact consider himself a handy man, or even a man who really liked to roll up his sleeves. But he didn’t mind these odd jobs they found for him to do. They always served him cake and coffee or tea afterward. Or they insisted on making him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And it was so easy to make them laugh! He’d flex his arm and make a little joke about his overpowering strength and they girl-giggled. Oh, it was pathetic, blushing at the flattery of old women. Vega would have teased him. But she wasn’t there. And besides, flirting was a good way to avert his eyes from some of those living rooms and kitchens.
For the most part, the homes he saw fell into two categories. Some were excruciatingly clean, the fear of bacteria and viruses sitting in for the fear of death. Mrs. Height, who had just finished a round of chemo, kept fresh paper towels on every surface that a guest might come into contact with: the armrests of a chair, the top of an end table, the seat of her toilet. She asked Henry to gather up and throw away any that he touched at the end of his visits. Other homes were layered with the dust and sour stench of a life gathered under one roof. These homes were cluttered with tarnished mirrors and milk glass containers filled with stale candies.
But the women cheered him with their modest flirtations and touched him with their gratitude. They looked almost teary-eyed when he stood, ready to leave. They never forgot to mention how lucky and appreciative Cynthia was to have him next door. He found himself developing a mild protectiveness toward Mrs. Lippincott, and when she complained to him that her husband’s breathing was getting worse and worse because he was smoking more and more, he offered to talk to Vega. It was wrong, Mrs. Lippincott said—and Henry agreed—that Vega was smoking with him. Vega’s reply was that she only smoked with Gordon sometimes. She was getting him walking, and wasn’t that a good thing? But Henry felt sorry for Cynthia. He sensed a sadness in her that Vega seemed unwilling to recognize.
He went to talk with her one afternoon, when his wife and Gordon were taking their walk. She didn’t seem at all surprised to see him—pleased, rather, as if she’d been waiting for someone. She wore a jumpsuit with a pattern of yellow daisies on the breast pocket, and a plastic barrette clasping together a few gray hairs above her ear. A line of pink lipstick teetered across her thin lips. He thought of a child’s sincerest efforts to color within the lines.
He recalled that she had asked him to fix a squeaky hinge on the medicine cabinet.
“Don’t worry about that now,” she said. “Come have tea with me.”
He followed her to the kitchen. She was very short, and Henry guessed she probably came up to Gordon’s elbow. He wondered if Gordon wasn’t stooped from years of bending to hug and kiss her, and then thought of Vega, a few inches shorter than he was, and hoped—foolishly, he knew—that his own body would start to curve over the years.
She took his mug to the table. She herself was not having any. He sat next to her.
She patted him on the knee and then folded her hands on the table. The sun threw long bars of light across the cabinets. A small sapphire stone on her finger refracted the light, but the band was swallowed up in the creases between her knuckles.
Henry asked after Gordon’s health.
“Better this week.”
He could tell she didn’t want to talk about the emphysema. “He’s just, well, you know, he’s always been Gordon. He does things his own way,” she said.
“I know a little about that,” Henry said tentatively, unsure where her thoughts were headed. He wondered if it made sense to put a hand on her shoulder. “Is there something else?”
She let her hands fall into her lap. She drew her shoulders together, took a deep, shaky breath and said, “It’s been years since . . . now he goes on these walks every afternoon. He didn’t used to. He always hated me for nagging him to walk. I always said—” She paused and then sat up a little, fortified by her frustration. “I’d ask him, ‘Gordon, want to take a walk today by the lake, together? It’s nice out,’ I’d say, ‘it’ll be good for you.’ And now of course he walks with your wife every day and I’m grateful, because it is good for him, even though they do smoke. But I don’t know where they go. And, well, I always wanted us to walk together.”
“Mrs. Lippincott,” Henry said, softly. He decided it was okay to touch her shoulder. Her smallness surprised him.
“You’re a nice man, Henry,” she said. “A good husband, I bet. Your wife is lucky.” He felt an immense pity that he didn’t want to feel, for Mrs. Lippincott, for himself.
Before he left, she pulled out a small envelope from her purse and handed it to him. It was an invitation to the annual Labor Day dance in the community center, featuring Live! The Funky Monkey Jazz Quartet.
“Bring your wife, too,” she said. “Everyone is hoping you’ll both go.”
Vega knew that Henry was worried about her. And that he didn’t know what to think about her afternoon walks with Gordon. The old man wasn’t as sweet or solicitous as his wife. He probably cared for nothing as much as he cared for his cigarettes. But Vega thought there was something honest there. Better than the old people buzzing and twittering in the community center Wednesday nights. As though it weren’t true their hearts could stop at any moment.
She decided not to tell Henry about the time she and Gordon took a break from their walk, stopping to rest on a stone bench near the lake. Thanksgiving was behind them at this point, Christmas still a few weeks ahead. A few neighbors with helpful and available children had strung lights across the backyard trees and set up mechanical reindeer, for the benefit of those across the lake. But in the thin daylight the effect was more broken and sad, and as she took this in Vega thought she could feel Gordon next to her thinking the same. She turned so that he could light her cigarette and he cupped his hand around hers, to block the wind. She inhaled deeply, his rough hand still touching hers. When she pulled away, she saw that he was eyeing her chest.
She was wearing a scarf wrapped around her neck, a snug parka. Underneath, a loose silk blouse. She hesitated only a moment. “Here,” she said, and unzipped her jacket. She took his hand and guided it under her parka, over her right breast. His fingers tightened; he squeezed her like a child might squeeze a ball. This made her smile. She wanted to give him more.
It was December, cold, but she unbuttoned the top of her blouse and shifted her bra up, revealing both breasts. Gordon watched with a cigarette dangling in one hand. Then he raised his other hand back to her right breast and ran his thumb over her nipple, till it hardened. A silent sigh escaped his shoulders. He tugged on the silk of her blouse. She reached up and touched the crown of his head. His hair was stiff, as she’d imagined.
That was it. Their conversations never went too far. She didn’t confide much in him, though occasionally she would ask questions, easy questions. He was born in upstate New York, and he had been an engineer for decades, but he’d always wanted to be an architect. He had one child, a son, who lived in Florida. Mostly, she just liked watching him inhale—the recklessness of it.
Henry had to coax Vega at first but she cancelled their dinner plans in the city and they went to the dance.
They went a little drunk from a bottle of wine they shared at home. They went with ironic smiles, determined to record absurdities. In their tipsy walk up the hill, they joked about a fiber cake, prune-flavored vodka martinis, door prizes including monogrammed heart monitors. They even dressed up a little. Vega wore a chiffon skirt and Henry found a bowtie.
The room—the large atrium they’d only seen from across the lake—was dolled up with streamers and balloons in red, white, and blue. “Overstock,” Vega whispered. “From the Fourth of July.” And Henry squeezed her hand.
They stood near the door for a few minutes, feeling shy, feeling like a new couple. Plastic platters of pigs in a blanket and chips and dip were arrayed along one wall, soda, beer, and wine along the opposite. In one corner, The Funky Monkey, four reedy men in rented tuxes, were already on their first break. Mrs. Height—a blue silk scarf tied snug around her head—was sashaying their way with a plate of Ritz crackers and cheese. Someone’s grandson was using the band intermission to play a CD on a laptop, and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” strained the small speakers. In the open space between food and drink, half a dozen or so couples two-stepped hand in hand.
Cynthia found Henry and pulled him into a ring of her friends near the alcohol. Vega followed. “Look who made it, look who made it,” she cooed. Gordon was sitting in a chair not far away, a beer in one hand and in the other, a carrot stick that he rolled between two fingers.
One of the women took Vega’s hand and Henry’s and clasped the two together. “You kids have to dance at least two songs,” she said. “That’s the rule for us, and don’t think you’re getting out of it. No one does.” They waited for the Funky Monkey to start up again, and then they did join the swaying hips and shoulders. For Henry, there were winks and nudges from the ladies on the floor. The quartet included a flutist, and when he played a weeping solo at the end of a peppier number, everyone slow danced. Henry bent his knees so Vega could rest her chin on his shoulder. As they danced, their ears touched.
When the time came, it was going to be different for each of them, they both knew that. Vega would become unreachable, impatient and sullen as a teenager. Henry would cry and, if his wife was still alive, he’d draw her into his weak arms.
They stayed at the party maybe an hour, no more than two. They both felt something pulling them home. In the kitchen, they shed shoes and bowtie and chiffon skirt, and kissed each other deliberately, thoughtfully. Upstairs in their bed they took their time. They brought each other along. In the morning, Henry placed a hand on Vega’s stomach and looked at her hopefully. She nodded “yes,” although it was impossible to know yet for sure.