he city, like so many others at that time, was reviving. The neighborhood of modest bungalows, a mile from downtown but seeming farther, was in transition. There were working class couples whose children had long since left home; grown sons who’d moved back after a divorce or lay-off, taking over the work of mowing the lawn, visited on weekends by children wearing Disney T-shirts and sneakers that lit up. There were young professionals with Japanese cars, replanting their stretch of boulevard with native grasses, taking down the ugly asbestos siding that was so effective at keeping out drafts; Public Defenders and stay-at-home parents, programmers, academics. For four years Jerome had felt he belonged in this latter category. Then his wife left him and everything went to seed. The front garden she had made, cultivated out of the stubborn monotony of turf, steadily became feral. Un-pruned branches of ninebark and hydrangea half-covered the front windows—a detail the realtor remarked upon when the bungalow next door came on the market.
“Neighbor’s a single father,” she said, both an explanation and an apology. She was showing the house to some newlyweds. The wife—ludicrously called Kiki and looking to be about sixteen—had paused halfway up the front steps, arrested by the strangle of vines and color one house over. Several of the stacked stones that edged the raised bed had come out of place, like wayward teeth, freed by the exuberance of Jerome’s six-year-old son when he had been allowed to visit the previous Saturday after Hebrew school.
The way the newlyweds set up house was like nothing the block had ever seen. Within days they had installed a table of heavy wood in the front yard that was better suited to a dining room. They seemed always to be there, laughing into the late spring calm, arguing loudly, drinking coffee from delicate porcelain cups or leafing through a Swedish newspaper, its title ostentatiously displayed: Dagens Nyheter.
In the evenings they ate there as if on stage, while neighbors passed walking dogs or jogging behind a child’s wobbling bike. The young woman, dressed for dinner in vividly patterned vintage dresses, mules, frosted coral lipstick, was like a girl emerged from her grandmother’s closet. “Join us,” she hollered, her forthrightness out of keeping, making her seem a tiny heckler. “It’s Kiki; come have a glass of wine! Share the evening with us! Jessica, come!”
She referred to everyone by first name, regardless of age or title. It put many on the block at a disadvantage, not knowing names themselves, not in the habit of visiting with one another.
“Jerome, here you are! Home at last!”
In the street beside his car he glanced over his shoulder, as if there might possibly be some other Jerome loitering behind him. He was a large man, well over six feet, heavily built. In his hand, the scarred plastic container in which he carried his lunch to the office where he worked as an accountant.
“How about a drink?” she called.
He could hear his dog howling lowly, waiting to be let out. He stood feeling at the seams in his pockets, worrying the frayed edge with the corner of his fingernail, thinking how much he hated his ex-wife. It was awkward socializing on his own. Since his wife left he had felt more conspicuous in his blackness, like the person in the fairy tale whose costume has begun to melt away.
“I bet you’re a gin man.”
“Oh?” Jerome was emphatically not. He associated gin with country clubs, and the white boys he had been at boarding school with.
“Per, do something.” She threw her hands dramatically in the air. “Make him come!”
“What do you say to a Manhattan, Jerome? Would that be any good?”
“Mister, this is a far cry from Manhattan.” He laughed awkwardly, nodding down the block, and they didn’t join. It occurred to him the comment had sounded snide.
“Long day for you, Jerome?” said the man, Per.
He shrugged. “The usual,” he muttered, his rudeness persisting like a cough he was helpless to suppress.
“So now we get to corrupt you,” she cried, springing forward laughingly to open the little wooden gate.
Stepping inside the foreign yard that first time, Jerome had a prickle of unease. It seemed a moment from a dream, where you are somehow privy to the danger ahead but can’t turn away. As if perched on a branch above, he took note of himself: the bald spot hovering near the back of his head; the hunched shoulders; the rumpled suit, shiny at the elbows, that even new had been neither stylish nor fine.
“Isn’t this a little impractical?” he said, gesturing to the wooden table with a sly smile. “Won’t it get ruined in the rain?”
“Probably,” she said, and laughed. “But that would only make it more beautiful. And anyway, I just thought it looked handsome here.”
A turquoise metal trolley bar was set off to the side of the front door, beside which Per stood mixing the drinks. His whitish blond hair lifting on the breeze resembled milkweed threads. He was tall, delicately made. Beautiful, Jerome might have described him with quiet disdain, were there anyone to whom he recounted his days. She too was beautiful, he supposed. Far too skinny for his liking, flitting at his side like a wasp. She wore pink ballet slippers instead of shoes, a gauzy top within which her girlish breasts were silhouetted. A brightly colored cigarette extended from two gaunt fingers, unlit.
“Do you like it?” she eagerly asked when Per handed him the drink.
He nodded, though he had not yet tasted it.
“Per thought it up himself.”
“The secret,” Per said, lowering a hand over Jerome’s shoulder in a way that implied trust, a confidence being shared, “is a splash of Lillet and some muddled purple basil.”
“Purple basil,” Jerome echoed, as if repeating the punch line to an inscrutable joke. He fished a finger into his drink, stirring the sodden leaf.
“It’s from your garden,” Kiki said. “I hope you don’t mind?”
“My garden?” Somehow it took him a moment to understand. “My wife’s.” After a beat of silence, “She never made drinks out of it,” he added foolishly.
Kiki was undimmed. How long had he been divorced? Jerome frowned. They had settled themselves around the large table in such a way that he was staring across the low fence at his own yard. Mutely he surveyed the disorder of his life. Worst of all was the yearning—in spite of his rage, persevering through all the years and the fact she had remarried and now was pregnant—for his wife to come back.
Four years. He heard himself give that information, though he had not decided to divulge it, his eyes still fixed on the chaos of his property.
“And she never made you a drink?”
Jerome stared at her. Had he said she never made him a drink? “She left me,” he mumbled, draining his glass.
“Women.” She was shaking her head, smiling knowingly.
“What about them?”
“They’re such cunts,” she said.
End of Week Cocktail Hour read the handwritten invitations, tied shut with red ribbon. It was a source of wry amusement, the way she drank and ran around the block. Her antics. She wore cut-offs with the white tips of the pockets showing; pleated skirts and knee socks. It was talked about. Suddenly everyone talked. They had been brought together.
“Jerome, you know Buck, I think? He has a retriever also.”
Jerome smiled awkwardly. “How old?”
“What’s that you say?”
Jerome had a quiet way of speaking, as if the words were directed in, rather than out, that in another type of man would have invited people to lean closer.
“He asked how old your dog is,” Kiki said.
“Oh, she don’t get around much, nowadays.” The old man shook his head. “Used to hunt; I don’t suppose you go in for that?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Jerome’s dog is called Bird,” Kiki interjected, “after the saxophone player.”
The old man looked stupefied. “Daisy,” he called to his wife, laughing, “this fella’s got a dog named Bird. Probably feeds it worms.” After a pause, “Why don’t you have a drink? Big fella like you, big ole . . .” he gestured before him, at a loss for words.
“Maybe a glass of wine,” said Jerome.
“Wine, he says!” Buck roared, thinking it a joke.
Despite the unintended slights, generational and otherwise, the unexamined bigotries, people spoke now when passing on the sidewalk. They took pleasure in knowing each other’s names, a certain pride in crossing boundaries, in their acceptance of one another, as far as it went. Of Kiki herself little was known. She would say, I’m a gardener; I’m planning to attend architecture school; I adore horseback riding, do you know of any good stables close to the city? On occasion she grew subtly shaming. That’s all anyone can talk about in America, people’s work. The implication that she had lived abroad hung in the air above her like a thought bubble suddenly visible—buttressed by other things she did and said.
At the cocktail party, seeing Jerome stepping toward her, “I’m a housewife,” she told Lynette, her voice suddenly brighter, surer. In the momentary silence she watched the yearning and jealousy play about Jerome’s face.
“I didn’t think anyone claimed that title nowadays,” Jerome said. He glanced with complicity at the others: Lynette, Jessica, Benjamin who was married to a man no one had met, Daisy who worked as a cashier at the new gourmet grocery store to augment Buck’s retirement. “Wasn’t that finished with women’s lib?”
Kiki laughed. “God, I hope not!”
Per was perched before her on a blue ceramic garden stool. Jerome noticed a momentary panic pass into his eyes—or was it guilt, or pity? The sun had slipped behind the houses. Kiki’s fingers were rested on the tops of Per’s shell-pink ears.
“It’s cold,” Per commented, gesturing with his empty glass, laughing urbanely as though something witty had been uttered.
“I’ll get your sweater.”
“No, never mind; please—”
But she had already turned and was scampering toward the door. “I need a drink,” Per said, looking suddenly grieved, adding feebly, “it seems we’ve lost our sun.”
The block’s children were soon running in and out of her yard. They slammed the wooden gate. They chorused at her door, “Can Kiki come out to play?”
During the long summer days she played tag with them, hide-and-go-seek. She jumped with them on the trampoline in Jerome’s backyard. He had bought it as an act of resistance, because his wife once commented they were too dangerous. Kiki invented a game for it, called “love,” in which the players tried to imitate the flips and spins of the leader until all but one remained.
Of all the children, Jerome’s son Emmett was her favorite. He was her special man. Though he was only six, she taught him how to strike a match, and how to sew a leather pouch using a forked tool and a little hammer and waxed thread.
“It’s for survival,” she mysteriously said.
“Will we live in the woods?”
“We may have to! You know what they say, about the earth getting warmer, and the ice melting and raising the sea.”
When Emmett told his father this, voice trembling with awe and terror, Jerome tried to comfort him. “She’s just a blowhard.”
“What do you mean?”
They were cooking pasta, Emmett on a stool beside him. “She’s full of wind, there’s no meaning to it.”
In the silence of Emmett’s considering Jerome grew panicked, as he had whenever his wife fell silent during an argument, as though the absence of words were cementing their incompatibility and separateness.
Finally Emmett said, “Maybe the wind means something.”
No, the wind is heartless, Jerome wanted to holler; it tears the roofs off of houses.
Then again, he told himself, maybe that wasn’t her. Maybe she was the wind that made the trees dance, and pushed the sailboats across the water.
In the fall Per began his residency. The socialness of the block ebbed, children returning to school and parents to full-time work. Kiki was unsure what she wanted to do with her degree—a useless one in itself, she complained to Per—although they both knew she was several credits short and had none.
“Who cares how much poetry I’ve read?” It was a frequent subject of discussion over the elaborate meals she cooked whenever Per was home.
“What’s on the agenda today?” Per asked one late October morning over breakfast. On the table were tea and scones, soft-boiled eggs in tiny blue and white cups, their yolks pierced with sprigs of marjoram.
“I have no agenda,” she answered sharply. A bit of flour clung on the tip of her nose. In semi-darkness, she had made the scones, kneading and shaping them as expertly as if a doting mother had taught her. In truth, she had been raised by a string of distant relatives and foster parents. Reaching forward Per thumbed away the flour as a parent might. He tucked the hair behind her ear. There was a time when the idea had enchanted him, to be everything to her. To invent a life out of nothing.
November. Cloudy skies, gray. The somber march of days. Though the weather had turned, she persisted in sitting at the outdoor table. Tucked in her heavy wool car coat, waiting, hoping for anything: a fire truck; a bunch of kids selling things; a squirrel flattened by a car. In a small book she entered the meager comings and goings of the block. Lynette leaves in minivan, moments after putting Piper on school bus. Applies lipstick while fleeing. Affair?!
Kiki herself did not drive. She rode her bike to the library, where she borrowed copies of Vanity Fair and French Vogue by furtively stuffing them into her homemade leather saddlebag, always pausing to exchange a few pleasantries at the circulation desk. “Stolen things are more delicious,” she had once confided to Emmett, picking a raspberry from a neighbor’s yard and reaching it toward his mouth.
One Wednesday, she saw a car she didn’t recognize pull up in front of Jerome’s house. A middle-aged lady with a slight limp and a bucket of spray bottles got out.
“Nice day, isn’t it?” Kiki strode to the fence separating her yard from Jerome’s, leaning forward in an enquiring way. “I’m the neighbor.”
“Cleaning lady,” the woman introduced herself.
“For Mister Washington, yes.”
“You’re kidding. I mean; it’s just that I had no idea he had one.” And seeing that the woman had taken offense, “Can I offer you some tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“You’re sure?” Smiling, gesturing behind her. “Well at least let me open the door for you. It sticks.” The woman began to object, but Kiki was already skipping toward her. “He doesn’t lock it.”
Kiki’s hand was on the doorknob. “His wife left him, you know.”
“Poor Mister Washington!”
“You’re about to see why.”
They both laughed then. Kiki had stepped ahead, standing in the dim entryway, the dog stench meeting her as her eyes swept the disarray. On the dining table, under a cracked glass paperweight, were three crisp twenty-dollar bills.
Kiki did not tell Per how she had become Jerome’s maid. That she had gotten Jerome drunk, the lie she told to get the other woman fired. She kept secret, also, that Jerome had recently fallen into the habit of playfully hiding her pay around his house, under a lamp on his bedside table, under a jazz CD he thought she would enjoy, borrow it scrawled in marker over the uppermost twenty-dollar bill. It was the way things were now. Evenings after she cleaned they sat drinking, listening to music.
Jerome had used to feel an indefinable upset, turning onto the block and seeing the big wooden table and the two pale forms, growing larger as he approached. Now she was always alone. Seeing her now, he felt that particular flutter of excitement and slight disbelief that marks new relationships. He looked forward to the weekly withdrawal at the bank of the sixty dollars, the bills a proof of what had grown between them.
Kiki cleaned, yes, but also she rearranged. She moved his couch and chairs, lugged up an old chest from the basement for a coffee table. She cut things from his garden: the last of the sedum, dried hydrangea, redberry. Tall sprigs of Chinese lantern were arranged in vases he didn’t remember he owned. The whisky he’d always kept in his cupboard now sat on a battered silver tray above the fireplace, two glasses ready beside it. On a newly emptied shelf, his long-abandoned trumpet was like a piece of sculpture, an invitation to a different life.
Sometimes he found himself inventing pretexts to knock on her door.
“Do you have a cup of sugar?” A light snow had begun, the first of the season.
“Sugar,” she chuckled. “What the hell are you talking about?” Moving aside for him to come in, “Look at me,” she demanded.
She looked the same as always, he thought. Her little shoes, her hair swept off her shoulders. She was moving busily around, putting on music, turning different lights on or off. He said, “You know what really needs attention?”
She was walking toward the kitchen. Raising his voice to carry he said, “Not now, necessarily. At some point.” Alone in the living room, he examined the various photographs and drawings, the assortment of dried flowers, seashells, dishes holding rings and stray coins, pleased at all the ways his house now resembled hers. From the kitchen came the sound of glasses being taken down. She was humming an old standard, “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.” With a start he recognized it. He had been listening to it only that morning. He had left the CD, he remembered, on the chest-cum-coffee table, where he had taken his usual breakfast of rye toast and black coffee.
“Who needs attention?” she called.
“What? Oh, Emmett’s room.”
“God, yes. That room is a fucking masterpiece of mayhem.”
Masterpiece of mayhem, he repeated quietly, not knowing was it wonderful or senseless, only that she could swear and seem as if she were handing you a wrapped up piece of candy.
“I should just take things in hand, then, Jerome? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
He felt the now familiar rise in his gut, saying, “No one else is going to do it.”
“Do you want there to be?” In the doorway she held a tray all arranged. He could see olives—or maybe they were dried cherries. “Someone else, I mean.”
“I’m very picky,” he said. “You’d be surprised.”
“You’re right about that much.” She threw back her head and laughed.
After she had redone Emmett’s room—moving the bed beneath the window, hanging a string of paper lanterns from the ceiling, everything orderly and clean smelling—she sometimes lingered there in the afternoon. Curled on his bed, drinking Jerome’s whisky, she studied Emmett’s baseball cards and the tiny skateboards he made do tricks with his fingers. She sorted through Emmett’s dresser drawers, placing on top the clothes she liked best. Beneath a blanket of late afternoon sun she wondered what it would be like to be so young again? To be a boy? To have Jerome for your father?
One afternoon she took a bath in Jerome’s over-scaled tub the previous owner had installed, lacquered now in an irremovable layer of soap scum. Afterward she dozed naked among Emmett’s stuffed animals, too hot for her clothes. The dog Bird watched her from the floor, his square head resting mournfully over his paws.
“I found an old yarmulke in Jerome’s house, covered in lint.”
“When?” Per asked, beside her in bed.
“When I went over to walk the dog,” she lied.
December. Outside a branch mewled, rubbing against the eave. It was snowing again.
“What is it?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Of course I don’t,” he said, then suddenly felt uncertain. He had been at the hospital nearly forty-eight hours. Had he remembered to order the EKG for Mr. Koslowski? He saw the man’s face; the little girl’s with the gash through her cheek. He had tried to explain it to Kiki once. His patients’ needs were vines tangling around his ankles.
“Per, why are your eyes closed?”
Per’s eyes fluttered open. Like a weary guest in a hotel, he swept the walls with his gaze. She had recently painted them a deep gray. It’s an elegant color, she’d insisted when he was horrified at its darkness, when he told her about his patients and wept because he and Kiki had not made love in nearly a month.
“He’s taking Milnacipran.”
“Who is?” Per asked, startled.
“Why the hell would you know that?” He stared at her, incredulous.
She would not answer. She was all reflection, staring back at him. Her emptiness pulled him like a tide. He thought, I could put my hand clear fucking through her.
“Well?” he demanded.
He had not slept through the night in two weeks, had never been this tired. His face felt waterlogged, a cardboard mask left out in the rain.
“Kiki,” he said. “Try to listen to me. I need to come home to someone.” It was a supreme effort to stroke her hair. He felt no tenderness at all. “I need you to be present.”
“It’s just that he’s lonely.”
“For fuck’s sake !”
“You don’t understand people, Per. Their frailty.”
“I can’t care about everyone,” he said angrily. Neither should you, he was about to tell her, but the words caught in his throat. She had buried her face in her hands, and begun to cry.
Trash, Kiki came to understand, is deeply intimate. Discarded bottles of dandruff shampoo and used Q-tips, half-eaten containers of Chinese food, the credit card bills documenting mundane errands that she pooled into a plastic bag and disposed of. Together these tidbits composed the novel of Jerome’s life. In his bedside table were two ancient condoms. She envisioned a scenario in which Jerome, finally in need of one, tore it open and a puff of dust rose, like a tiny mushroom cloud.
She discovered photographs of his ex-wife, a compact woman with dense brown curls and a sneering smile. She examined the Christmas cards he set out on his buffet. Some were from the year before; some were addressed to both him and his wife, unaware she had left. A few were not signed, bearing only a generic exhortation—Joy of the Season!—and she wondered with a pang had he bought them himself.
“God, I don’t want to hear about it,” Per complained.
“Did I tell you about the letter I found?”
“Stop; it’s too depressing.”
Awake in the middle of the night, she imagined Jerome alone and out of place at Emmett’s bar mitzvah, the faded yarmulke pinned to his woolly hair.
On another occasion she imagined him at her own funeral, crying because he could not adequately explain his grief, could not say, “she was my maid,” and have what existed between them understood. Doggedly he followed the procession to the cemetery. She saw him bend to toss a handful of earth into the freshly dug hole. It fell and scattered open, like the bloom of a lusterless firework, before being subsumed into darkness.
It was a period in which she thought a great deal of death. February. The mounds of snow blackened and shrunken, the avenue made ugly by its hard remains. These days, she seldom passed anyone walking to the library or the small grocery store where she bought milk and bread. The streets had the empty stillness of rooms after a party. In the parks the fountains were boarded shut with graying plywood.
Neighborhood Potluck the e-mailed invitation read, Jessica attempting to fill the void left by Kiki’s summer cocktail hours. As if she could, Kiki thought. “Potluck,” she’d sneered to Per over the phone, Per on call that day. “I hate that word, what does it even mean? I hate the whole concept.”
Still, she went. She arrived late, dressed in her pink plaid coat with the oversized buttons, her high-heeled suede boots.
I tell him, don’t ask me, Kiki’s the only one who knows.
It was Jerome she heard say this, as she was crossing Jessica’s living room toward the drinks.
“After she’s been through the house, we have to call her,” Emmett chimed in. He didn’t resemble Jerome—light-skinned and short, with hazel eyes—but something in the way he now held himself made him seem a miniature version of his father. A defensiveness, a stubbornness that ill-suited him. “We’re like, where’s the remote control? Where’s the lotion?”
“And she knows?” Lynette asked.
There was a ripple of laughter.
As if sensing her proximity, the group—Jerome and Emmett, Lynette, Jessica holding her youngest, Buck and Daisy—suddenly fell silent and turned. Kiki felt the hotness come into her cheeks. She hadn’t meant for everyone to know. She had not thought that aspect through.
Lynette was the first to speak to her. “So you’re cleaning Jerome’s house,” she said, smiling strangely, “is that something you’re doing now?” She had put the word doing in quotes with her fingers, meaning were there other houses; was this to be her career?
Kiki shook her head.
“Because, actually, we’re looking for someone.”
“No, no,” she said, forcing out a small laugh. “It’s only Jerome.”
In the brief silence, she glanced at Jerome. He had set his mouth and would not look at her. She guessed then it was Emmett who’d given it away. “The thing is,” she faltered, “it just seemed he needed someone.”
“She seen the sorry state of things,” Buck said, coming to her defense. “That’s the truth of it! A man without a woman,” he nodded toward Jerome, who was now grinning doggedly into the blank space in front of him.
“I would have guessed you’d do something with children,” Lynette said. “The kids all love her so much,” she added, turning her smile to the group.
“Oh, they do,” Jessica rushed to agree.
A babysitter, Kiki was thinking. A maid. A wife. That’s all they think I am. Worst was knowing that it was true.
To regain herself she looked slowly around the living room, its ugly furniture clumsily arranged. She looked at her neighbors talking and laughing, their unwiped mouths, their heavy legs pressed together to balance the paper plates on their laps. Classless people. Ordinary. These people whom she had illuminated so sharply, lightning flashing in their midst. She no longer cared for them at all.
She lifted her legs to meet her outstretched hands, thrilled at the wind rushing as she fell.
Spring had come, a single swift motion, like a curtain tugged away. Sunday. The block’s houses quiet, their windows black with reflection. Perhaps everyone was at church, Kiki considered. When they were tired from jumping, she and Emmett lay on their backs on the trampoline, gazing through the still bare branches. Though the sun had long since risen, the moon shone above them. “Isn’t it weird?” she whispered, pressing her lips into the tight whorl of Emmett’s ear.
“The moon.” She laughed. “It’s like an old man’s face.”
He lay quietly ruminating. At his mother’s house, he had a baby sister now. He would be seven in a week. There were certain things that had newly begun to preoccupy him.
“What makes people get married?” he asked into the silence.
“I’ve been wondering: can you get anyone to marry you?”
“You, probably,” she said, poking his side, the soft flesh. “You could get anyone you want.”
“Even if they’re already married to someone else?”
“Sometimes,” she said carelessly. “If you love them enough.”
In the silence she felt a pang. She began tickling him, Emmett squealing, rolling sideways, burrowing into her. When he had become still again beside her, she touched his hair, saying, “It’s more usual to find someone who isn’t.”
“But how do you?”
“You meet them somewhere.”
“But I mean, do you just go door to door?”
A picture came to her: Emmett in a tiny necktie, politely asking at the door, Pardon me, are there women inside?
“Are you laughing?”
Bolting up, “You are, I saw you.”
She reached to touch his face. At his temples were tiny reservoirs of sweat. “Come on,” she pleaded. “I promise you, Emmett.”
When he fell into her arms, his body was soft in a way she had lost track of. The special suppleness of things not finished becoming. Grief enveloped her. I was like this, she at once thought and disbelieved. Threading her fingers into his hair, the faintly animal odor of his scalp reached her, forbidden and desired.
At the kitchen table, a deck of cards idle in his hands, Jerome had watched all of this. He had seen with growing indignation the way she touched his son. His son’s face thrown back in joyful laughter. The bend of his spine as he curled against her. Her whispers, her fingers in his hair. All the little gestures of possession that passed between them. All so she can break his heart, he thought, suddenly furious, desperate. She’ll turn him against me, and then she’ll break him.
Since Jessica’s party she had not cleaned. Jerome had thought she would move past it, all he had to do was wait. But he’d miscalculated his worth. It was his life’s perpetual, brutal lesson.
When she bent to kiss Emmett’s cheek, unable to stand it any longer, Jerome came onto the back deck, the screen door slamming behind him.
“Emmett, come off that trampoline!”
“I don’t want to.”
“You’ll do what I tell you,” he shouted.
I’ll kill you, came the unbidden thought. Even as it sprang into his mind, the terror and shame of it overcame him. He shook his head, as if to shirk it away, it isn’t me, it’s her! She made me think it!
Mechanically Jerome had begun to walk down the patio steps, toward them. But he was looking only at her. For a moment, their eyes met.
“What’s with you?” she said, laughing.
“That’s not your boy.”
“Jerome, don’t be a fool.”
He stopped, wild-eyed.
“We could play at your house,” Emmett said, placing his hands on either side of her face.
“Yes, let’s.” She wore a smug look, her eyes flaring briefly toward Jerome and then casually away. She was scooting toward the edge of the trampoline, the narrow parting in the net. To Jerome she seemed absurdly small. There was something abhorrent in her smallness, like a rat, a cheat. He said, “Emmett won’t be coming.”
“Isn’t that for him to decide?” she said, reaching back her hand as if to hurry Emmett toward her.
Jerome set his jaw. She returned his stare. A single, dull beat of silence passed between them. The silence of things dying.
“Come on,” Emmett urged her, climbing over her legs and jumping lightly to the ground. “What are you waiting for?”
Jerome stood positioned atop the low hill beside the broken fence gate. As she picked her way through the scrubby stalks of wild grass, her strides made a dry, sorrowful sound that in some unbroachable place Jerome recognized. He didn’t say anything to her until she was sidestepping past him. At which point he said, his voice strangely without emotion:
“Get a life, you bitch, and stop trying to take everyone else’s.”
She was not sure, afterward, had he seen her cry? Had he heard her?
Dropping Emmett’s hand she ran to her house, up to her bathroom. She felt off-balance, as if the world was tilting, spinning too quickly. She felt she would be sick, and braced her hands on either side of the toilet seat.
Then, rinsing her mouth at the sink, she felt nothing. Only chilled—as if someone was holding a garden hose above her head and slowly filling her. She had stopped crying. In the mirror she studied with detached loathing the little upturned nose, the huge eyes, the wiped-clean lips still edged in coral. A child’s naïve line-drawing of a face.
After she had finished explaining to Per why they had to move, pled and cajoled, promised wild happiness as yet unknown to them, birdsong because there would be trees and fields and uncut dewy grass, unbridled fucking, Per lay mute and depleted, seeing his life with her stretching clearly ahead. An endless series of abandonments and reinventions.
These were costs he had not accounted when he found her, a girl of nineteen.
“Why are you standing in the rain?” he had asked, coming upon her in the middle of the quad, huddled like a stray.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
He laughed. “You like to be cold and wet?”
He was twenty-two and about to graduate. She was only a freshman; he had seen her working in the student union.
“Perhaps,” he teased. “Who says that?”
“Should I have said maybe?” She smiled at him. “Maybe I was waiting for you.”
Why hadn’t he laughed at that, too? He could still see the outline of her through her wet clothes, this diminutive thing, this stray that had insinuated itself in an instant into his life. He found himself going along with her. They fell in step, she in her tiny high-heels that were slowly being ruined by the rain. At the Old College Inn where he took her, stodgy and plaid-carpeted, she surprised him by ordering a champagne cocktail, breathlessly telling of a childhood moving from embassy to embassy; of mean maids and eager young diplomats; shiftless and motherless. “Like a gilded leaf,” she said, prettily, strangely.
But you’re on aid, you work at the student union, he thought and didn’t say. There are people for whom one overlooks the truth. How dull to live without stories, she chided, when he told her he was pre-med.
Suddenly leaning over the table, she said, “You know what I’m into now?”
He waited, breathless. Her eyes closed. Her mouth parted. Her shirt billowed open like a wet sail; inside it he saw, or thought he saw, a moonlike bit of areola as she whispered, “‘Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems.’”
He was speechless. Her mouth; the hunger of her eyes when she opened them. “I dreamed of you,” he found himself answering, blushing at the triteness of the phrase, how strange it felt to lie.
And then, that night, he did dream of her. They were walking hand in hand through a crowded bazaar, a foreign place with colorful tents and veiled women, when suddenly he pushed her against a wall and pressed his mouth against hers. He still remembered it these many years later: the violence of his need and the iron saltiness of blood. Teeth hit. His tongue sliced into her mouth, knocking her backward as she kissed him with small sucking motions, drinking him, enflaming him.
“Was it all right?” he had asked her in his dream, finally pulling away.
“You don’t need to ask me anything,” she’d answered evenly. “I belong to you.”
The house sold quickly. Despite the fine weather, the front table had been taken away. The realtor felt it would be better for showings, Kiki explained to the cluster of neighbors who stood puzzled and hurt before the large FOR SALE sign, an offer by then already accepted. She would have stayed, she vehemently assured them all, tears in her eyes. She didn’t want to leave; she had to.
At first they pitied her. Soon after she and Per left, a rumor went around that she was ill. She was so thin! Cancer, someone suggested. Hearing the rumor repeated by Benjamin one fall evening, both of them walking their dogs, Jerome said nothing to dissuade him. The first leaves had turned. The block teetered on the eve of great change: foreclosures and short sales, new couples and children and dogs. The Great Recession had begun. And gradually, without ever speaking of it—they no longer spent time in one another’s company—the neighbors that remained came to associate her with the decline. In their collective imaginations, she became the embodiment of all the grandiosity and deceit that had made it possible.
Only Emmett stubbornly clung to his love for her. He thought of her whenever he lit a match.