Autumn already. The maples on his street turning, sycamore bark scattered on sidewalks, a chill in the air when he woke up and took a short jog before work, it all gave Williams a sense that the summer hadn’t really happened. Those warm, seemingly endless, days of sitting with his neighbor, Caitlin, in the alley behind their houses, barbequing hamburgers and hotdogs, playing gin rummy or, if her children were there, go fish. Those hot afternoons where they’d walk together through their neighborhood, her kids racing out ahead of them, to the city pool. And best of all, the mornings when she’d invite him over for coffee and they’d sit quietly, watching steam rise from their mugs, and he’d feel an overwhelming sense of happiness, of belonging, which came partially from the smell of her freshly showered skin and the rich coffee and partially from just being so close to her. A woman he had secretly always loved but could never admit it to himself until just a short time ago. But as he looked around the room and saw the Kimball upright piano her husband had given her and the framed pictures of them together, the ones taken just before he died, Williams felt more like a visitor to a foreign country; he was welcome to enjoy the sights and the smells and the sounds but he couldn’t stay and he would never really belong.
Now that it was fall he rarely saw her except in brief moments. The other night he ran into her as they were wheeling out the dumpsters the night before garbage day. She wore only jeans and a t-shirt and he saw her shiver as she let go of the dumpster. The wind picked up, blowing a few orange leaves off the maples.
“It’s getting cold out,” he said.
She looked at him and folded her arms across her chest.
“Yeah,” she said. “I guess it’s jacket weather.”
He nodded and they continued staring at each other. The wind died away and it was quiet except for the hum of the streetlight.
“Well,” she said, uncrossing her arms. “I guess I’ll go inside.”
Another time he was standing in front of his bedroom mirror, buttoning his shirt and combing his hair before work, and he happened to look out his window to see her. Usually her second floor curtains were shut but she must have forgotten and he watched as she walked across her bedroom in a bathrobe she hadn’t yet cinched at the waist. She was moving quickly through her room and with each hurried step he could see the brown and red checkered robe give way to quick flashes of her pale skin. For a moment he was so caught up watching her he forgot the distance separating them and the fact that he couldn’t go to her, slip off her robe, and feel the strong pulse at the base of her jaw.
Even though he sometimes went days without seeing her he could at least hear her every afternoon. As he sat in his study grading homework and tests, he’d open his window and listen to her instructing her piano students, playing sections of Mozart and Chopin or maybe just scales. And he could always tell when it was Caitlin playing rather than the students. Sure, most of the students were beginners but even the more advanced kids, the ones who could play Mozart, didn’t play every piece with the same tragic approach. In Caitlin’s hands the most triumphant waltz sounded like a mockery of everything good about civilization, especially love and companionship. Sonatas, mazurkas, and nocturnes called to mind someone dying alone in a large and once great mansion.
At work – he taught math at the local high school – he couldn’t concentrate. He would often find himself standing at the blackboard and forgetting which class, algebra or geometry, he was even teaching. There was one afternoon in particular where he really lost focus. He had been talking about triangles and then he suddenly broke off midsentence, staring out at the rows of faces looking back at him. Every time he tried to form a thought all he could think of was the photograph of Caitlin he had taken out of his wallet at lunchtime. It was a picture of her swimming at the city pool and it somehow captured her quiet and nervous energy. He had made a promise to himself to never look at it, especially not at work, but things sometimes happened.
The silence in the classroom seemed to grow and so did his sense of the awkward way he was standing; one arm raised partway, a worn piece of chalk clutched between his fingers. But still he couldn’t move, or speak, or do anything except stare straight ahead. Eventually, someone in the front row coughed and Williams turned to face the blackboard where he saw an isosceles triangle he had drawn moments ago. He quickly scribbled the proof he had been talking about, took a deep breath, and resumed at least close to where he had left off. Over the next few minutes his mind cleared a little more but he had no conception of the reason behind what he was teaching. If one of the more sarcastic kids were to raise their hand and say, Why do we need to know this? he probably wouldn’t have the answer. Because you need to pass Geometry to get your diploma. He might say that, if they really pressed him.
He hadn’t seen her, really seen her, since Labor Day weekend. They were supposed to have gone on a trip together to her parents cabin in northern Michigan. The cabin was built next to a lake and they went every year for the swimming, tubing, and fishing. This would be the first time in years she would go without her husband. Williams had been surprised at the invitation. They were drinking coffee one morning, her kids quietly playing in the next room, and she leaned over and touched his knee. He remembered staring at her hand, the chipped fingernails contrasting with the perfect shape and color of her fingers. It was her right hand, the hand without the ring, and he had wanted to attach some significance to the fact.
“Terry,” she had said. “I have something to ask you. I guess you’d call it a favor.”
He knew he’d say yes to whatever she asked of him. He still remembered what she said after she invited him, I don’t want to be alone up there. At the time he didn’t think to mention that she wouldn’t really be alone; her two daughters would be there too. He started packing for the trip later that day even though they weren’t going till next week. His bathing suit was faded and smelled of mothballs so he went out and bought a new one. He also bought sunscreen, beach towels, beach toys, and two plastic fishing rods for the girls. Probably Caitlin already had that kind of stuff – or at least they would find it at the cabin – but he wanted everything just in case. He knew it was ridiculous but he imagined a scene where he came to the rescue by having some much needed item. The two suitcases he had packed were still sitting by the front door, right where they were when he received her phone call saying she had changed her mind about him coming along.
By late October his state of mind hadn’t changed much. If anything he felt worse; he couldn’t even hear strains of music from next door now that the weather was usually cold enough for people to keep their windows closed. He bought records: Mozart, Chopin, Shumann. Her favorites, music he never would have thought twice about before. He played the records at night, after he finished grading tests and just before going to sleep. A few times he drank wine or beer as he listened but mostly he closed his eyes, imagined it was still summer, and thought about her, the smell of her skin. He remembered all of their conversations too. He remembered them even though she mainly talked about her husband. We married young, she had told him. But neither of us knew what marriage was. We could barely live in the same house together.
There was a night where, after playing records, he stood looking out his second story window at her house. No lights were on but the blinds weren’t drawn and he thought he could see a person walk by the window. She did this several times and Williams kept staring. Eventually, Caitlin stopped in front of the window and it seemed like she was looking right at him. He knew he should step out of the way, close his curtain or somehow pretend he hadn’t been watching her. But he felt detached from every part of his body except for his jaw, which was set tight, his teeth grinding against each other. Although he couldn’t tell for sure it seemed like she was looking right at him too and he had almost worked up the nerve to smile or raise his hand when she shut the curtain. In the moment before her face disappeared it looked like she was staring at the ground and shaking her head. He went to bed right afterwards but he couldn’t get the image out of his mind and it stuck with him till the next morning when he woke from a bad night’s sleep, went downstairs, and moved the suitcases to the basement utility room.
He called in to work a few times too, something he had never done before. He just needed a break. Overall he was doing better with not spacing out during class, but there was one afternoon where he did a problem wrong on the board and a student, not even one of the smart kids from the front row, pointed it out. He had wanted to use a sick day so he wouldn’t have to see his students the following afternoon but he made himself wait till later in the week.
On the days he called in he skipped his morning jog, stayed in bed late, and, after he finally got up, he sat in his office drinking coffee. From this spot he could see part of her living room; the piano, the couch, a couple paintings on the wall. Every now and then he saw her and always he would look away. Then he’d get up as if he had been planning on leaving the room. He would take his coffee and wander through his house, staring at the furniture, the walls, the clothes in his closet. Everything seemed so impersonal compared to what he saw in her house. Sure, everything he owned was of good quality – he bought expensive furniture and carefully selected his clothes after studying the mannequins at upscale department stores – but none of it said anything about who he was. Williams remembered what his last girlfriend had said the first time she came over, Everything goes together so well. Her comment made him think of math: addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, numbers and shapes, problems he could solve without pen and paper. At first he had taken it as a compliment but then he saw how she was biting down on her lip and shaking her head.
He stayed the night at her place once. This was a couple days after she invited him up north. They had been watching a movie with her daughters and everyone but Williams fell asleep. He remembered watching the three of them and noting how they all kept one hand pressed against their neck, just below the jaw. After Caitlin woke up he rose from his seat, said he was leaving, and headed for the door.
“Wait,” she said. “Let me put the girls to bed and then we’ll say goodnight.”
When she came back she took his hand and led him to the couch. They sat down, still holding hands, both of them looking at the blank T.V. screen. Before long she turned to him and said, “It’s too quiet, don’t you think?”
He shrugged. He wanted to hear her play something on the piano but knew it would be too loud with the girls being asleep.
“I think it’s too quiet,” she said.
She grabbed the remote, turned the television on to a channel that played music videos, and laid on top of him. She did all this without letting go of his hand. They made out for what seemed like hours and when he closed his eyes Williams could almost imagine himself fifteen years younger, exploring the taste and feel of a girl’s body for the first time in his parent’s basement. At some point they took off their shirts. They laid sideways with their bodies pressed against each other, not kissing, but just enjoying the feel of warm skin. They stayed like this for what seemed like a long time and then she sat up and let out a loud breath.
“What do you want?” she said.
It seemed like the whole summer had been leading up to this moment and he answered her right away.
He ran his hand along her hip and then moved it to the inside of her thigh.
“That’s not what I was talking about.”
He nodded, took his hand off her leg, and touched her cheek.
Afterwards there was a feeling in the air like they had gotten away with something. Neither of them looked at each other although they held hands for a while. He didn’t look at her until he thought she was falling asleep; her hand fell away from his and her breathing turned shallow. The T.V. was still on and he stared at it for a while, trying to decide whether to wake her or not. He couldn’t imagine them both sleeping there the whole night; the girls waking up to see their mom and the next door neighbor half-naked on the living room couch. Every time he reached to touch her shoulder his hand seemed to stop on its own. Then he’d look at the blue light of the television on her face, her hair, the slope of her shoulders and he’d tell himself he’d wait a few more minutes before waking her. Eventually though, even he fell asleep.
When he woke up she was standing above him. She was fully dressed and he couldn’t remember her getting up or putting her shirt on. The T.V. was off.
“I guess I should go,” he said.
She bent down, grabbed his shirt from the floor, and handed it over.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “You could stay here.”
He pulled on his shirt.
“On the couch?”
She nodded and looked away from him.
“It’s the best I can do right now.”
She walked out of the room before he could say anything. After she left he tried to be O.K. with the situation; he laid back down, shut his eyes, and tried to sleep but he kept imagining how the girls would react when they saw him in the morning. Eventually he gathered up his shoes and left, hoping she was asleep and didn’t hear him slip out.
Her husband died in a car accident last winter. For weeks Caitlin’s driveway was filled with cars, relatives from both sides coming to stay with her and help out with the girls. Neighbors stopped by almost every day, bringing with them casserole dishes, pies, trays of baked goods, so much that he wondered how one family, even one with a lot of houseguests, could possibly finish it all. He waited a month before going over there. It was a weeknight, around eight-thirty, and he figured her girls would probably be asleep. He walked out of his house, up his front walk, down the sidewalk a short way, and then up her front walk. It would have been quicker to cut across his yard and then hers but it seemed wrong somehow; it had snowed the night before and his bootprints would have broken the yard of untouched snow.
She answered her door right away, like she wasn’t at all surprised to have another visitor. He said he was sorry he hadn’t stopped by sooner.
“That’s fine,” she said. “It’s been crazy over here.”
She motioned him inside, crossed the room, and sat down on the piano bench. She sat on it sideways so that she wasn’t facing him or the piano. The only seat close by was a large sofa with cushions that sank under his weight. She didn’t seem to notice. He told her he was sorry about her husband. She nodded, dragging her fingers across the piano keys, stopping every now and then as if she had just remembered a song she wanted to play.
“If you ever need someone to watch the girls I’m home in the afternoons.”
She nodded again and turned so she was directly facing him.
“Charlie used to sleep on that couch,” she said. “When he was home anyway.”
Williams knew her husband had been a truck driver although he had never given much thought to how much he was gone.
“It’s strange,” she said. “The girls never asked me why he slept out here. They probably thought it was normal.”
She laughed and quickly turned away from him, bringing her hand up to her mouth as she moved, as if to cover her laughter.
“I should get home,” he said. “If you ever need me to watch the kids though.”
She ran her fingers across the piano keys once more then stood up.
“I feel like I should miss him more,” she said. “He was my husband.”
She looked at him and raised her eyes in a way that suggested she wanted a response.
“Well,” he said.
Her eyes got wider and he opened his mouth to say more but nothing came out.
One afternoon he looked out his window to see Caitlin’s girls raking his front yard. They already had a pile that was almost as tall as they were. He watched them for a while and before long they had set down their rakes and were jumping into the pile, tossing fistfuls of red and yellow maple leaves into the air. He went outside to the garage, grabbed his rake, and joined them out front. Both girls stopped jumping around when they saw him. Their cheeks were flushed from the cold and he could see their breath whenever they exhaled. They waved him over.
“Terry,” they both said as he came closer.
“That’s quite a pile you got there,” he said.
Ellen, the younger girl, looked up at him and smiled.
“We’re helping,” she said.
“Yeah,” Louisa said. “I need some help with my homework and mom said we should do something for you.”
Williams nodded and said that was nice of them. Ellen smiled again and jumped back into the leaves.
“What kind of homework is it?” he said.
Louisa frowned and then said, “Long division.”
He looked across his yard over to their house. He thought he saw Caitlin standing by one of the front windows.
“That’s hard,” he told her.
He helped Louisa with her homework every day for a week. She came over after school let out. Before they got to the homework she’d take out a bag of cookies, usually oatmeal raisin, her favorite, and split them with Williams. She always turned down the glass of milk he offered. They hardly spoke. He wanted to tell her how he missed spending time with her and Ellen; watching them practice their dives at the city pool, playing go fish, and barbequing their hot dogs the way they liked, charred all around. But since she never brought up anything about the summer he kept his mouth shut. He was surprised at how quiet she was though. Normally Louisa always had something to say but that was when her mom and sister were around. Aside from her saying hello or asking if she did a problem right the only sound was her writing. It reminded him of how all the times he was alone with Caitlin they never said much.
One day though, Louisa stopped in the middle of a problem, looked up at him, and said, “Maybe tomorrow you should come over to my house.”
He smiled and nodded.
“Yeah,” she said. “Your kitchen’s freezing. My fingers get cold.”
“Oh,” he said. “I have a space heater I could bring up from the basement. Would that be all right?”
She said that would be fine. He wanted to tell her that he couldn’t do this anymore but they still hadn’t talked about remainders.
The next day he saw Caitlin in his yard. She was raking his leaves – the girls had only finished half the job and he didn’t care enough to say anything. Williams threw on his coat, stepped outside, and walked over to her. She said hello and smiled. Up close she looked different than he remembered; she had on glasses instead of contacts and her hair seemed more red than brown. He didn’t care for either change; she had the look of a woman who had moved on from something.
“I like your hair,” he said. “The glasses too.”
“The girls don’t like it. They say it makes me look like this teacher at their school.”
He pointed at the pile of leaves she had going.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said. “I was just going to leave them there for the winter. Someone told me it’s good for the grass.”
She stopped raking and took off her glasses. She held them up to her face like she was checking them for smudges.
“Louisa tells me you’re really helping her out. I appreciate you doing that.”
“She’s really doing most of the work.”
She took one hand off the rake and touched his arm. He noticed she wasn’t wearing gloves and he was surprised at how dry her hands were. Probably they would blister from raking if she wasn’t careful. He was about to offer her a pair of his gloves when she said his name.
“Terry,” she said. “I think we should talk.”
They finished the leaves together and then went to her place. He waited on the sofa while she made coffee. It was dusk outside, the sky a dark purple like before a big rain. A few boys were in the street, practicing moves on their skateboards. Every now and then one of them would look his way and smile. The boys seemed to like having an audience because every time they did a new trick they’d catch his eye as if to say, Did you see that one? In a few years he would probably have those boys in his freshman algebra class, although by then they wouldn’t seek his approval or even like him very much.
Williams watched them for a couple more minutes until Caitlin came into the room. She handed him his coffee and then shut the curtains. He could still hear the boys; the clack of wheels against pavement after a jump and the shouting that followed. Caitlin took a seat close by him on the sofa. She blew on her coffee a few times before taking a sip.
“I think we both moved too fast,” she said. “And I probably talked about Charlie too much.”
He started to shake his head but she cut him off.
“I should have been talking about you more, you’re so good with Ellen and Louisa. Jesus, Charlie couldn’t even remember their birthdays.”
She laughed and then took a sip of her coffee. Outside, one of the boys was shouting and then the sound of the skateboards trailed off like they were riding away.
“I’m sure he wasn’t as bad as you make it seem,” he said. “There must have been something between you.”
She set her coffee mug down on the end table, crossed her legs, and looked around the room. Williams couldn’t be sure but it seemed like she was staring at each of the photographs. When she was finished she uncrossed her legs and said, “Did you even talk to him?”
He told her they had only spoken a couple times. What he did remember was seeing Charlie playing catch with Ellen and Louisa in their front yard. Williams mentioned this to Caitlin too.
“They looked like they were having a lot of fun.”
“You’re not listening to me, Terry,” she said. “I’m trying to say that I think you’re a decent man.”
She put a hand on his knee. He had been holding his coffee mug with two hands but now he took one away and set it on hers.
“So what does that mean?” he said.
Apparently it meant their relationship would be like it was before. They saw each other all the time except now that it was winter they did puzzles, watched television, and took the girls sledding. The red faded from her hair, she rarely wore her glasses, and she used a self tanner so altogether she looked like she did over the summer. She still talked about Charlie a lot, pretty much whenever the girls weren’t in the room. She always apologized but Williams said he didn’t mind. He figured it was her way of moving on. Usually her comments about him weren’t of much substance but one evening she surprised him by talking about their sex life. The girls were staying over at their grandma’s house and they had cooked dinner together. Afterwards Caitlin had made a fire while he washed dishes. When he was done he joined her by the fireplace. It was almost Christmas and the mantle was hung with stockings and the photographs had been cleared away to make room for various decorations.
They each said that dinner was good and then they were quiet for a while until Williams asked if she would play him something on the piano. He asked her expecting to hear her usual response which was, No, it always seems like work to me now. But if she heard him she didn’t show it. Instead, she told him that the one thing she didn’t hate about the marriage was the sex.
“We hardly spoke to each other,” she said. “But we still made love. And to keep it interesting we’d play games, pretend we were strangers. I’d lie in bed with the lights off and I knew he’d get up from the couch and come to me but I didn’t know when. It got to be so that was the only way either of us liked it.”
As she spoke he stared at the flames until his eyes lost focus. He tried not to hear the nostalgic quality of her voice. When she came to the end she laughed and then said, “See, Terry. You really don’t want to be with me.”
He had the feeling that she was somehow testing him and that if he spoke too soon or waited too long she’d quit seeing him again. He kept looking at the fire, as if the random flickering held an answer. When the silence had gone on for longer than he could take he turned to her, smiled what felt like a weak smile, and said her name; it was all he could think to say.
“Maybe it would help if you told me about the women you’ve been with.”
He shook his head and turned back to the fire.
“There isn’t that much to tell.”
She slept with him that night and he felt like it was mainly out of pity. They were tender, almost careful, with each other and they both seemed to fear the awkwardness that would come when it was over. And so they spent a lot of time kissing and asking each other what felt the best, as if this could solve their problem. Afterwards, when there was nothing left to ask, they laid by the fire some more, holding each other and looking at the flames and the Christmas decorations. When the logs got down to a few embers she asked if he wanted to stay. He looked around the room, first over to the Christmas tree and the presents he had bought for the girls, then over to the couch.
“It won’t always be like this,” she said. “I’m trying to change.”
She leaned over, kissed him, and then rose to her feet. He thought about saying that he was trying to change too and decided it would sound weak.
“I’ll get you some blankets,” she said. “Maybe that’s why you left early last time.”
She said this in a tone that somehow didn’t place blame on either of them. Still, he got up and said he was leaving. His voice was quiet though and he wasn’t looking at her.
“What if I played you something?” she said. “Would you stay then?”
He paused for a moment as if he was really weighing this choice. Then, he nodded and made his way to the couch.
He woke up to the sound of his name and at first he thought he had been dreaming. But he heard it again, Terry, it said, and he knew it was Caitlin although he couldn’t tell if she was asleep or awake; her voice had a hollow, far-off quality he hadn’t heard before. He got up from the sunken cushions with some difficulty and crossed the room, walking slow and waiting for the reassurance of her voice calling out again. When he got to the Christmas tree he paused to look at the brightly lit branches, the decorations, and the presents underneath.
She said his name again, louder and clearer than before, and he hurried through the hallway to her room. But when he reached the open doorway he stopped although she was telling him to come in, “I changed my mind.”
And he knew he would do as she said but for several minutes he stood in the doorway, staring into the darkness, waiting for his eyes to focus, as if he could see not just her dim figure in the bed but also the man he was becoming.