Our coffee cups, still in the sink, a few crumbs on the counter, added to the house’s feel of empty and ignored as I enter in what was just a few hours ago, familiar. You tried to clean up before we left but I wanted to get started. I have no idea why I was so anxious.
Actually, I do know why, both of us tired, the train trip back into the city seemed excruciating to me. The night before we had the train practically to ourselves. Oh, a few people sat in jolting, distant, silence, here and there within the train car we were in – an older gentleman, who thought you were my wife, sat across from where we stood. I didn’t try to dissuade him of his notion. You had your back to him but I watched him watching us. Though your hair was pinned, somehow, high upon your head soft curling strands fell down upon the curve and back of your neck — small glints of silver gray, unashamed, glistened upon your temples. Your eye makeup, slightly smudged from blinking and rubbing fatigue, only seemed to make your appearance softer. You insisted upon standing, claiming you preferred it but we both knew you were simply fighting sleep. I looked away from you to hide a smile and caught the old man looking at us — his expression, a sort of longing look, perhaps envy.
So I turned back to you, looked down upon your face, pale, sleepy, beautiful.
I opened up my arms, grasping the cold metal bars above your hands. You blinked and looked up at me. A small frown between your eyes and I realized you were questioning me. Was I really inviting you to step forward, place your head upon my shoulder, lean in? Gently I inclined my head toward my shoulder.
No sarcasm just rest. Trust me a little.
You moved forward and I lost sight of you but for the first time, beyond the casual handshake or the quick friendship hug, I felt you.
Your body against mine, resting.
For the first time in years, I was slammed with continuous, slightly frenzied thought. I was terrified I would have an erection and then terrified I wouldn’t, then terrified I was having those types of thoughts about a woman who was diametrically different from me in almost every way. And then I caught sight of the old man again, he winked at me and smiled and quickly looked away.
Was he afraid I’d try to explain? Hey, she isn’t my wife, she’s the most aggravating, mind-bending, hawkish woman I’ve ever met. I became conscious of your weight against me and realized I was the only one on the train stressing. Stressing like some overwrought prom date. So I lowered my arms along the bars to encase you further against me and I felt a small shiver move between us. You seemed to radiate heat within my protective circle; a heat I was aware of but not consumed by, a heat that was meant for me to know of, but not to know. A heat that so few women are aware they possess, that permeates their body when approached like the opening of a leaf when finally in sunlight long enough. A power really, that is self-contained, yet subconsciously utilized.
I thought about saying that aloud but I could hear your scoff, your “masculine conceit,” argument and so remained silent.
I continued to watch nothing out the window, the flash of lights as the train moved quickly from the old city to where I lived, alone in the new housing. I thought of the many times I had made this trip by myself, exuberant from a time on the town, ready for solitude and rest. Would I feel that way again?
The train began to slow, our stop tonight, mine alone later. I felt your reluctance to move so I moved my chin against your forehead, felt your soft skin beneath me. I could feel the old man watching and I most desperately did not want you to thank me. I felt myself stiffen as if waiting for a tight-fisted blow but you didn’t even look up. You placed your hand upon the center of my chest as if touching me was something you did often, and softly pushed yourself away.
The train stopped and the rattle of the doors opening and the cold air of late night, early morning, coursed into the car. I glanced back. The old man was watching, again his look of envy or remorse upon his face, but he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at you. We stepped toward the door and your hand was in mine. You never held my hand before and I did not feel incredulous but suddenly concerned for you.
The doors shut behind us and we began moving away from the platform, toward my house, my small world I had let you invade, on my invite, for a few days.
“Do you think he rides just to pass the time?”
I looked away from your face, your sad voice but re-gripped your small hand in mine and said nothing. I did not realize you had even noticed the old man. Rebukes flooded my mind. What did you care, you who feel overtaxed, and burdened by the world, what could you care about one lonely old man. I remained silent and we continued to walk because your rebuke would make sense too. Why was he alone, when could society take the place of an individual’s touch?
The street was dark, my house darker. My hand trembled as I inserted my key into the lock and opened the door.
I stepped aside and let you in first.
You walked down the long hall toward that narrow entry room that separated the dining room from the drawing room. I watched you. You placed your hand deep within your hair and pulled out the magic that held it aloft upon your head all evening. I watched your hair cascade down and brush your shoulders. You placed the magic absent-mindedly upon the small narrow table that belonged to my Mother and seemed destined for this narrow tall house, deep within this bohemian, suburban, sprawl.
Your back still to me, your hands went up and rubbed your temples and I could imagine your face, eyes closed and worried about the old man on the train.
I wanted to man up, wrap my arms around you, fight your hair ‘til I found your neck and place wet kisses there, feel the tension drain away and hear you sigh. I wanted to work every inch and curve of your body against mine. Maybe you were right, there might be a God, and He had a hand in making things fit.
The moment passed, I allowed it.
I let it pass and I let you walk to your room, close the door without saying goodnight and I sat up the rest of the night with very expensive wine and as far away from God as the day I decided He didn’t exist.
You told me not to stay with you at the airport, that you’d be fine and I honestly felt that you meant it. You seemed relieved to be there, to be boarding a plane back to your beloved Chicago. Dark circles under your eyes and your hair disheveled and sexy, the waiting area for your flight suddenly seemed to lift your spirits.
I thought seriously for a moment about leaving. We were adults, behaved like adults, and didn’t have a thing to worry about or remember tonight. But to your annoyance, I stayed and I wanted you to take my hand and I wanted to put my arm around you while we waited but you read your book and I paced the floor.
A call to board.
Why had I waited for this moment? What did I face now? A quick, friendly hug, a joke, a laugh –next year in Chicago. But you had caught on, hadn’t you? You straightened your back, shrugged your bag higher up on your shoulder, and waited for me. For one moment, one glorious moment, I thought, yes, I surrender. I surrender and there is no way in hell that you can stay but I don’t care the enormity of pain watching you board that plane will be worth one honest square moment.
I asked you what the weather was like in Chicago.
You didn’t say anything, smiled a small smile, gave me a quick kiss and was gone.
And now I’m standing in this house. Sunlight streaming into the windows, dust motes floating in the air and the sound of a distant city on a Sunday afternoon.
I waited for the telephone to ring, had visions of you at my front door but the house remained quiet. I told myself, as I settled in and cooked my evening meal peace and tranquility had settled back into my house.
I preferred to be alone, admired from a distance, known for my austerity and non-hypocritical friendship, I was a haven for my friends.
Darkness and I still waited for the telephone to ring.
I broke down, washed your coffee cup from the morning, and placed it away with the others. I went upstairs and entered the guest room. I could smell your perfume, knew that I would. I told you to leave the bed that I’d wash the sheets for the next guest. I pictured myself naked chest down upon your sheets, shook my head and roughly pulled the bedding up ignoring your sent and stumbled out the bedroom door.
I washed everything. My small machine and I worked. I sweated hanging your sheets in the basement to dry, smelling now like laundry detergent.
No one at the door, no telephone ringing, I grabbed my keys, locked the front door and started walking. An all-night coffee house down the street. I took you there a couple of days ago.
The coffee house was expensive but good. I took no book, no electronic gadget, I just watched the quiet Sunday evening world move by.
And oddly enough I didn’t look for you.
You are gone.
I looked for the old man.
I saw my partial reflection in the depth of the coffee cup. I saw my reflection, dimly, in the darkened windows of the shop. I tried to look beyond myself, out to the suburb and city I know, but my reflection was in the way. My hair, silver, my expression somber, my shoulders still broad, not stooped, not yet. What would we look like sitting there together?
What did we look like sitting there?
My hand didn’t tremble at all when I pushed the key into the lock and shoved open my front door. The door did not creak and the floorboards beneath me did not moan. The house was dark; I switched on the light and stood in the long hall. There where you left them, were the magic hairpins upon my Mother’s table. I picked them up and held them in my hand. Smooth, warm, small; how could something so compact help defy gravity? I placed them back down on the table, arranging them how you had left them. I walked up the stairs, into the barren guest room, laid down on the bare mattress, smelling faintly of your perfume.