Copyright is held by the author.
“I’LL HELP,” Adrian said cheerfully. It was almost as though he had raised his hand like a kid in school.
“All right, Adrian” Jean said slowly, drawing out each syllable, so that each word seemed like 20. “You can help.”
Patrick looked up at Adrian, startled. But Patrick always looked startled. Jean would taunt him about being the absent-minded professor. Then she would kiss him on the forehead to make it all right, to convince Patrick that this was just the sort of teasing that married couples did all the time.
“Are you sure, Adrian,” Patrick asked. “I mean, you are our guest and all.”
“Of course. It was a hell of a dinner, and now I have to pay the bill.”
Patrick stood and stretched his arms. “Good. Well, then, I can go out and clear off some of this damned snow. Oh, Christ.” Patrick fished in his pocket for the noisy phone.
“Christ. Shit.” He pulled out the phone and clasped it to his ear. Jean smiled at Adrian as though she knew what would happen. Adrian looked from one to the other, just waiting.
“All right, all right. Just stay there. All right.” Patrick’s voice rose with each word. “I said just stay there.” He paused and raised his head. “You’re sure you can’t get a ride? I know it’s snowing and there is no one out. Just wait. I will be there as soon as I can”
Patrick stopped the conversation and put the phone on the coffee table. He shook his head.
“Karen?” Jean asked.
“Of course it’s Karen. She was out with friends and now she is stranded. The others are long gone, back to the dorm.”
When Patrick left, Jean and Adrian turned back to the kitchen, chuckling about Patrick’s departure, which was accompanied by stomps and curses. They heard the engine rev up in the driveway, but once on the street, the car slowed, a smart move given the heavy snow.
“It will be hours, won’t it Jean?”
Jean looked at him. “Oh, I don’t know. He can be pretty determined.”
Adrian paused. “How is your painting going?”
“I’m not sure.” She stopped and swung the dish cloth across her shoulder. “I started a new landscape yesterday. I don’t know.”
Adrian shook his head. “I give you credit, Jean. I know the feeling, though. The rejection can get you down.”
She looked up. “No, you don’t. You’re successful.”
He paused, not sure if she was kidding. “More like lucky than successful. And I took my lumps — still do”
He thought later that the chattering and giggling were just preliminary acts, a warm-up of sorts. There was something ludicrous to think there was anything intimate about passing dishes back and forth and plunging hands into the same water.
Jean stood back and looked firmly at Adrian. “I think you knew that this would happen.”
He pulled her close and kissed her vigorously on the lips. It was as though he wanted to say something, but knew it would sound foolish.
“I know you wanted that, Adrian.” She laughed. “You’ve been checking me out.” She twirled suddenly and ran her hands along her hips.
They both laughed and then became serious.
“We could go upstairs,” he said quietly.
“No, we couldn’t,” Jean replied. She gently punched at his chest. She was grinning, but Adrian thought that she was serious, too. He knew what it was. It would have been unholy for her to have sex with another man in the marriage bed. That was understandable. Adrian could not really comprehend all of that since his Julie had slept with God knows how many men on their bed.
Jean shook her head. “I didn’t mean for it to sound like that.”
“All right. Let’s finish up here.” They completed things, joking and passing dishes back and forth.
“How long have you felt this way, Jean?”
“I don’t know.” She wiped her hands.
“A quickie isn’t a quickie at our age.” Adrian, naked, was standing by the bed. He flexed his arms in a comical impression of a strongman.
“Speak for yourself,” Jean replied as she rolled over a little and pulled the sheets over her hips. “You’ve got some years on me.”
“Not many, my dear, not too many.” Then he leaned over and pecked at her forehead.
Jean lay back and closed her eyes.
The darkness of the room was being diluted by the brightening of the sun. Adrian scowled at the cheap furniture and the battered prints, which were like something you would buy at a liquidation sale. Adrian had selected the motel, hoping that a quiet, out-of-the-way location would be just the thing for their first night.
Jean didn’t rise from the bed as much as emerge from it, reminding Adrian in an odd way of the bare Venus in the Botticelli painting. He could not help staring at her, thinking at once that she was gorgeous and that her beauty was wasted on a klutz like Patrick.
Patrick was a nice guy, but he was just not right for Jean. This was not mere covetousness, he thought, but just a plain fact.
Jean shook her head, wrapping the blanket around her waist. Then she began, awkwardly, to put her clothes on under the covers.
Adrian laughed. “You look like a kid trying to squirm out of a wet bathing suit under a towel at the beach.”
“Oh, shut up.”
He stood opposite her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Come on. Don’t be shy. I’ve already seen it all.”
She looked angry but then she kissed him hard, letting the covers hang loosely from her
“What about Patrick, Jean?” Adrian looked at her, realizing how softly he had spoken.
Jean let everything fall to the floor. “Don’t think that this isn’t difficult. It would be different if Patrick did things to the young girls at the college, but that is not him.”
“Yes, but you have your own wants, too.”
She turned from him and began to pull on her clothes in a brisk, almost military manner.
“Is that what this is, a want, a goal?”
Adrian grinned. “Come on, you know what it mean.”
“Look at this crappy place. I’ll pick out the location for out next adventure.”
“I’m sure you will, Jean. I’m sure you will.”
And then Karen died.
Patrick called him, sobbing in frantic, disjointed phrases. When he thought about it later, Adrian realized that Patrick must have been struggling to hold onto some sort of control.
It was as though one side of a picture frame had come loose, and if you were not careful, the rest of the damaged thing — glass, painting, and all — would crash to the ground.
“Jean, Patrick, how is Jean?”
Patrick sighed. There was pain there, of course, but there was also something else, something bitter. “Ok, I guess.” Then he added slowly, “thank you for asking.”
Adrian put the phone down and looked around the room. The heavy paintings and the objects on the table gave a visitor the impression that a woman was behind all of this. But Adrian was divorced. The only female involved was the young woman from the design firm, a thin girl, who was at once stern and accommodating.
He wandered toward the kitchen, wondering if coffee or a beer would be a good choice. When he looked at the clock, he knew that neither was appropriate.
Adrian did not know the details of Karen’s death. He felt guilty knowing that for him the image of the young, pretty kid would always be transformed into the image of her mother.
He wanted visit Patrick and Jean, but he could not do it now. He had no children, and he would not attempt to know how they must feel. He wanted to see Jean, to comfort her, but he knew there was a sexual element to that feeling, too.
He should do some writing. His publisher had sent him angry texts and emails about the next book. Adrian could not ignore these forever. He was satisfied with his work ethic. And living in a suburban neighborhood was best, rather than trying to work in some apartment in Manhattan surrounded with preening struggling writers and besotted fans.
Adrian skipped the services. He thought about the wake or viewing or, as some called it, the visitation. Visitation made it seem like something ghostly. And the setting would be too intimate. He would have to confront Jean and Patrick up close. Then, too, there would be streams of bawling young people, fellow students and friends.
He forced himself to write. He usually wrote in the study which, after all, had been created for that purpose, but today he sat in the living room, writing in longhand, looking at the cars. Sometimes the cars stopped at Patrick and Jean’s, but sometimes they just slowed and then sped up.
Adrian looked up suddenly as the brisk wind blew a handful of sticks across the lawn. He was bored with the novel, and he paced from room to room.
Jean was unreachable. He could not call and he could not see her.
Adrian returned to the draft of the chapter and his notes. He began to doubt the quality of what he had written, and he wondered if he could finish the novel at all.
“I don’t think of you as a neighbour,” Jean had said one night.
“What are we then? Fellow artists? Lovers?”
“I hate to put a name on it,” she said.
Staying at the hotel in Boston was risky and expensive. Adrian assured her that he could afford it since his publisher had comped him a free night. They will do anything, he said, to get me off my ass to finish the book. Jean was standing next to him, and she began to take her clothes off with a movement of slow indifference.
“Don’t you mean,” she said, “that they want you to sit on your ass to finish it?”
“Well,” he said, laughing, “that, too.”
Later, with their wines, Jean inclined her head so that it rested on Adrian’s shoulder. Adrian could not see her face, but he felt that she must be smiling an easy smile. He wondered if she did this with Patrick. Perhaps they had done this long ago, when they were young and frisky, but not lately.
“How did we end upon the same street?”
“I don’t know, Jean. It just happened. As I told you, I didn’t want to live in the city. I wanted someplace quieter, someplace to write.”
She wriggled away from him. “Don’t be so snarky.”
“I’m not. I like living in the neighborhood.”
“Sure. You are just like us. Except you have a lot more money.”
“Stop it.” He tried to get up, but she pulled him back and gave him a slow, warm kiss. He hands began to work, and he wondered what she was like when she was younger. It was not just the younger flesh, he imagined, but the intensity of the sex itself. He wondered what it would have been like with the moaning and clutching.
They continued to talk, he remembered, but not about anything serious. They talked about the rain and the crowds in the city and the length of time to travel.
“Where do we go, Jean?”
She closed her eyes. “I don’t know. There is too much, with Patrick and Karen.”
If he had been faster, Adrian could have scuttled back to the garage before they came by. Since the air was warm for April, Adrian decided not to wear even a light jacket while dragging out the trash bins. He had seen Jean and Patrick on their solitary walks, sometimes holding hands, sometimes not. As long as he could, Adrian kept up the fiction of some day running up to them and expressing sympathy. At times, too, he thought of knocking on their door, touching them and hugging them, and telling them of his sorrow.
He knew, of course, that they would not respond well.
Since escape was not possible, he stood and waited. Both nodded at him at once. Adrian felt hot.
He started to talk. “I’m sorry.”
But Patrick stopped him with a sharp look. “We felt terrible that you never came to the services or called.”
Adrian nodded rapidly and said quickly, “I’m sorry”
“We hoped — kept hoping that you would call.” Patrick sighed and turned away, toward the next corner.
Adrian started to talk, but then he stopped. He felt brave enough, finally, to look at Jean.
Jean had a hollow look — that was the only way to describe it. But there was something else there, too. Anger? Fury? She did not acknowledge Adrian at all, but inclined her head toward her husband’s shoulder.
Adrian lifted his hand, but by then Jean and Patrick had started to walk again. Adrian wanted to return to his house, but he waited until Patrick and Jean had turned onto the next street. This waiting, he felt, was part of his punishment.