The moment he left with a wave and a blown kiss, when she heard the real smack of his mouth against his palm, when she heard the click of the lock’s tongue shoved back into the metal corridor of the lock mechanism, she began to wonder if he would come back. No. She doubted that he would.
This was not new. Since the early years of their relationship, she had imagined him walking away and not coming back, as people did sometimes in books and fairytales, not killed or even necessarily run away with somebody else, but just gone, having gotten some desire to be free of the self he had presented to her. She understood that people presented themselves in a specific way to others. People were laboratories in which you could perfect the self.
She, too, performed different versions of herself for different people. She did not hold the act against him. Sometimes she would walk into a party or a room in which he was in the middle of a performance, and she would see him anew, as he was with those people, and become jealous at the him they got to see, the faster talk or the strange new way he’d touch a hand instead of a shoulder or led with his chest and not his stomach when walking. When they went home together, she’d try to find that part of him. Usually, this meant sex or questioning that left him exhausted and confused.
What’s come over you? He’d ask, finally covering her mouth with his hand to quiet her.
Now, though, the feeling came on in the form of physical panic: her knees shook, her stomach rumbled. He had been with her for too long: he couldn’t just disappear now, could he? At some point, you had to choose the self you’d made and stick with it. This, she knew, was the key to happiness: choosing something and sticking to it, even if you had chosen incorrectly.
No, he would not choose to disappear.
This time, she didn’t imagine him leaving by free will to some real place so much as disappearing, poof, suddenly not being in any of the places he said he’d be or that he planned to go. The world, no longer working by its usual rules, might dislocate him in place and time. She imagined other disasters, too: the pieces of an exploded airplane hurtling through their apartment complex and killing him in their sleep, pinned to the bed by a blade of wreckage, leaving her untouched next to him, or him losing his footing at the riverside promenade and tumbling down the rocks, breaking his head open and then being carried out into the water, even his dead body lost to her.
She went to the window to see if he’d leave out the back so she might see the last, solid figure of him before he disappeared. Down a floor, in their sleepy avenue, a child played in the street, a ragged blonde girl in pink sweatpants and a t-shirt three-sizes too big for her riding her tricycle in slow circles between the parked cars on the side of the street where the restaurant below had steady business, though the business always seemed to be the same enormous families who came in for an early dinner and usually left near midnight with a flurry of goodnights. She shut the curtains: he had probably gone out the front. Why would he go out the back?
She went about her own business. She dressed quickly, choosing something complicated, involving buttons and ironing, something approximating an adult outfit, which she wished she did more often—though she was over thirty, she still felt like a teenager in many ways, going days without wearing something with a collar or buttons. She took the bus.
At work, she stood in front of people who, though technically more than a decade younger than her, seemed far more knowing and adult. They watched her warily, and she felt their doubt that she had any right to stand in front of them and pretend to know anything. She spoke more loudly to cover the sound of their doubt, which was not a sound after all but a feeling of the air pressure rising or falling, something she felt in her body and not her mind. She taught them history—her specialty was European history from the 17th to 19th centuries, though she taught a larger swathe of time than she felt comfortable with due to the nature of survey classes. So she sometimes spoke about events that she understood only shakily, but with the necessary certainty of a low-level instructor at a community college, which is exactly what she was. If she showed that she did not know, they would devour her, and she’d end up like the practical math teacher, leaving each class shaken and near tears, afraid to make anyone stop talking or put away their cell phones for fear that they’d all get up and leave en-mass, sick of the pretense of even listening to her.
As she spoke to them, she had a clear view of the window, where the sky had darkened. He’d be at his destination by now, not yet assailed by the rain that was sure to come soon. And now it came, blurring fat streaks diagonally across the windows.
After the class, one of her students stayed behind, breathing his foul breath on her shoulder as he nearly wept about his grade.
I try hard, he said, but I can’t catch a break. I just can’t remember anything from the class. I can’t understand.
And then he really did weep, his head bowed, his hands quickly moving up to his eyes to wipe away the evidence. His face screwed up angrily then. His crying had made him angry at her and he spoke to her in short, slivered bursts. This had all happened so quickly that she barely had time to register the initial sadness.
If you’d give me more time, I wouldn’t have to fail, he told her, his eyes red.
I understand and sympathize, she said, but the syllabus clearly says—
You don’t have to use the syllabus, he said, jerking the piece of paper from her hands. She felt a flare of fear in her stomach. What was that book she read years ago, at her mother’s insistence, The Gift of Fear? Her body wanted to move, but she stayed in the chair, knowing better. The next class would come in five minutes. Her fear was going haywire, as it usually did. The trouble with gifts is that sometimes you didn’t want them. The boy was weak, his arms jiggling under his t-shirt, his furry brows meeting in the middle. He wouldn’t hit her. He wanted her to break and give him the grade that he wanted. He was angry that she had power and he didn’t, which made her own anger rise. Didn’t she deserve some power, too? She could make him cry even harder, if she wanted, and why shouldn’t she?
I’m sorry, she said, rising to make distance between them, to put her body above him. He had to tilt his head up, making it larger than the rest of his body. His proportions now were grotesque and easy to speak to with rising, sharpening tones. But I do have to use the syllabus, she said. It’s a contract between the two of us. I explained the guidelines clearly to you at the beginning of the class. I can’t make an exception. Unless you have a legitimate reason for—
He stood up quickly, though his jacket hooked around the jutting armrest, making his exit less clean and dramatic than he might have wanted it to be. She turned away as he extricated himself and let him go in peace as the next class drifted in.
She walked home early, skipping her office hours. Nobody ever came anyway, and she usually spent her time reading in the cold, crowded room, its other desks (one in each corner) empty, bearing only the books and rare picture frame or cartoon tacked on the wall above and piles of bluebooks that proved that other people used this office, too, though she rarely ever saw them and could not name them. Piles of old textbooks leaned up against her desk, most old editions of essay collections and English Literature anthologies, the latter so fat and heavy that they buckled and accordioned out in grimy chunks of pages, stairways of pages you could practically walk up. Why make the books so enormous and unwieldy?
She didn’t even bother to go to the office to see if any students were there waiting.
In not going to the office, she was faced with a problem: where should she go instead? Her stomach rumbled as it did before speeches or particularly stressful family events, like Christmases in which she and he went to his family’s house and she was made to sit in the living room with his grandmother, a rare wheel-chair ridden person who did not hesitate to bemoan her fate at every possible moment. She liked this about the woman—if anyone had a reason to complain, it was her, and she appreciated her lack of fashionable positivity. But she did not like to be reminded so concretely that the body was a delicate thing that ultimately would stop working.
Once, in a mandatory University meeting about making classes more accessible to the differently-abled, a blind woman, the director of the office for accessibility affairs, said we are all disabled people waiting for our disabilities to arrive. Blindness, deafness, inability to walk, inability to use your hands to type. These will happen if you are lucky. Worse things are more likely. Everyone will in some way have limited capacity. A healthy, working body is the exception, not the rule. Her stomach had rumbled then, too, just more evidence that the body couldn’t be trusted.
Going home would be worse than going out. She’d wait by the window the whole time, trying to read a book or watch television, but not able to. She hated this feeling that came over her when she was nervous, how her mind would not let her rest, how it made her go to the windows and lean out them, though she knew well that it would do no good and that he’d probably come from the other direction anyway. She wanted to be one of the lucky people who could put their fears aside and do something to occupy themselves.
She couldn’t go home. She took the bus in the opposite direction, toward a wealthier part of town with coffee shops and little specialty stores that sold things like yarn, wooden puzzles and games, or hand-made paper and stationary. This part of town had many families, mostly white, the women fond of sportswear like fleece zip-up jackets and yoga pants. Their children traveled in strollers with their own windshields and fat, wide wheels.
She set up her laptop at a café and ordered a cup of cappuccino, the kind of drink she rarely ever bought because four dollars seemed a frivolous amount to spend on a small cup of coffee. It was 3:30. He’d be back by 6:00. If the journey took longer than expected, maybe by 7:00, but that was the latest possible time. He’d said so that morning.
Don’t worry, he'd said. I won’t be later than 7.
But if you are? She had asked. What if the trains refuse to run?
She’d really said that, refuse to run, as if the trains had minds of their own.
I’ll call you, he'd said, though she knew that most of the places the train passed through did not receive cell phone reception. As her computer whirred and beeped to life, she looked out the windows, which were again covered with droplets. The clouds hung low, making it appear darker and later than it really was.
The waiter came to her, the coffee in small cup, the foam quivering in its rounded top, rising from lip edge to lip edge. He set it down by her left hand. She had the quick image of being burnt, somehow, by the liquid. It seemed certain to happen, the whole thing was so precarious, hot water in tiny cups balanced on little plates.
Are you planning on staying here?
The waiter stood above her, or what was it called, barista? Or is that only for women? His tray was inches from her head.
He could move quickly to the right and bash me in the head with that heavy, metal tray, she thought, and then was afraid of the thought. What a terrible thing to think. She leaned closer to the tray, as if to show him that she trusted him and did not give in to irrational thoughts.
I mean, in this seat. He lifted his eyes up to the ceiling. It leaks in the rain here. And if there’s a storm—and there’s supposed to be a storm—you’re too close to the windows.
Outside, a metal real estate sign twisted and moved with the wind. She imagined it flying through the window, aimed straight at her head.
His nervousness gave credence to her own nervousness. Of course she should stay away from windows during storms. This was only common sense.
I’ll move, she said, and relocated to a corner away from windows, buffered by bookcases filled with popular paperbacks from the 90’s and copies of John Irving and John Updike books. The computer’s hum and heat depressed her. She knew, if she got on the internet, she’d spend her time looking up information about the city he had been visiting all day, her mind eager to extract any kernel of information that indicated that he was in danger, that the danger was most likely to erupt today, most likely directed at a person like him. She shut the lid of her computer and picked up a book from the shelf behind her. The book was about a group of women who were really witches. They lived in an idyllic New England town, the kind of place small enough to have a still-functioning meetinghouse in the center of town, a white building once a church but now converted into something pleasingly non-religious. She was confused about these women: why were they witches? What did it mean to be a witch? The book did not explain. It seemed to mean that they were friends, and they were women, and that they kept shriveled things in jars. She read until she grew bored and then read the last page. It didn’t seem like much had happened in between. She placed the book back on the shelf and watched the storm from the distant window. Other people had come in since the waiter had suggested that they move—others sat by the windows, though the wind was stronger now. She wondered if he had warned them, too, or if something about her revealed that she was the kind of person who would respond to such a warning with compliance. Maybe he just wanted to get such a sad, nearing-middle-aged woman out of the window to avoid losing customers who might associate their coffee shop with acute aloneness if she were placed front-and-center.
After a while, she gathered her things. It was growing dark. By the time she got home by bus, it would be time for him to be home, too.
The lights in the hallway had burned out, so she felt her way up the stairs, sliding her shoes along each stair until she hit the base of the next one, working her way up three flights slowly. She heard doors open and close above her, people surprised by the heavy sound of her feet, expecting their own back home.
Lights still out? Somebody called. It sounded like a question, but a question to whom? Would she be walking up in the dark if she didn’t have to?
Yes, she said, and the door closed and the voice did not sound again.
The apartment was not dark, as she had left it, but lit up, the living room lamp on (his favorite lamp: he hated bright, overhead lighting), as well as the bathroom. She dropped her bags on the floor and went toward the bathroom light, down the hallway. The door was cracked open.
He didn’t answer. She pushed the door open. The room was damp, the bathroom mirror cloudy. A damp towel was crumpled on the floor by the base of the toilet. He never remembered to hang the towels up.
She went back into the living room, searching for more evidence of him: his shoes in the corner, socks deflated in the holes where his feet had been, an empty black bag from the liquor store (a small bottle of whiskey on the kitchen counter, the label red), and two train tickets. Beneath his wallet clip, there was a note: Out for a minute. BRB. Love.
She sat by the window and looked out. She couldn’t see beyond the avenue, which was well-lit with an orange-tinted light. The child who had been playing this morning was replaced with another child, this one on a motorized scooter. He went down the short street from one edge to the other at full speed, stopping so quickly that his body would jerk forward violently over the handlebars. It was some kind of game, one that he played only with himself and pain, though it seemed to give him a great deal of joy. She watched without fear as his thin body pitch over the bars until the rain obscured the window and she could see nothing.