The man at the office had silvery-gray hair, but it didn’t make him look old or dowdy the way she would look if she were to let herself go gray. His hair was thick and slightly shaggy. Lillian liked it very much, but at first she hadn’t even noticed the color. In her earliest reveries, he’d had brown hair and brown eyes, but she hadn’t been in close proximity very often and somehow she hadn’t really looked at his hair until after he became a fixture in her imagination.
He walked with a slouch—not cocky, not in a hurry—and his face had a stern look that made her nervous. When he spoke, she heard a trace of Switzerland in his accent. That was probably what undid her. The thin veneer of exoticism. She imagined the Alps when he spoke, crystalline snow and evergreen trees. He had been with the company almost as long as she had but only got transferred from overseas a few months earlier. He wasn’t in her department, but occasionally there were meetings which both of them attended, and she would find herself sitting next to him, her chair swiveling in his direction as if of its own accord.
The company produced educational materials in several languages. It was not a large company or even a particularly profitable one, but they had a nice suite of offices on the fifth floor of a glassy new building in the heart of Raleigh. She was trying to keep her weight down so she avoided the elevators, and sometimes she ran into him in the stairwell. Climbing the five flights every morning taxed her, and she was embarrassed to be out of breath when she met him on the landing, but it gave her a good reason for being unable to chat. He stood very close to her and looked in her eyes on the rare occasions when they spoke, but she always found herself flustered and tried to get away quickly.
She was thinking about the man at the office as she sat down to dinner with her husband and son. She realized she probably never would have had this absurd fixation if it hadn’t been for the dream. The dream had occurred early one morning before she was to have her first meeting with Gunther. That was the man’s name. Before then she had barely noticed him. But in the dream, he was suddenly vivid and sensual. The details were blurry, but there had been touches and a kiss that had felt so real her lips quivered. She woke up that morning while it was still dark and realized she’d had a meeting scheduled with him that morning. She dressed in a flattering red sweater and white wool pants with her pointy-toed brown boots.
“Don’t you have a game on Friday?” Terry asked Michael, who was wolfing down the lasagna that Lillian had heated up in the microwave for dinner. She never had time to cook meals anymore. She hadn’t liked to cook anyway.
“Yeah, right after school,” Michael answered. He didn’t need to ask if they’d be there. Of course they would. They were nothing if not dutiful parents.
Terry and Michael got into an involved conversation about Michael’s high school options for the next year.
“I spent a year abroad in high school,” Lillian said, smiling as she remembered it.
Michael glanced at her with questioning eyes. Even at 13, he tried to discern the expectations she might have for him. She did not let him know that the only thing she required was that he not turn out like her brother.
“Another fine meal from the frozen foods section,” Terry said, rising from the table with his plate.
“The salad was fresh,” she retorted. There had been a time when they’d cooked meals together. He was by far the more creative one in the kitchen. Now, the three of them had the requisite one or two meals together a week. Otherwise, they foraged for meals individually although both Lillian and Terry tried to make sure Michael ate reasonably healthy food.
After dinner, Terry retired to his office at the back of the house to work. Michael sat in the living room to do his homework, and Lillian cleaned the kitchen, taking her time as she rinsed the dishes and placed them just so in the dishwasher. She remembered that year she had spent in France. The teachers were so different from those in America. More men, for one thing. One of them she’d had a terrible crush on. All she could remember now was that he wore gold cuff links. How she had wanted to push the gold bar at the bottom and slip it through the holes in the cuff of his shirt, to undress him and to lie naked next to him on a warm beach. But she was young and unsophisticated, and she had never even spoken to him outside of school.
While Michael watched television and did his homework during the commercial breaks, Lillian took her time cleaning. Having Terry around was more like having a sloppy roommate than a husband. He worked at home and managed to spill catsup, peas and bread crumbs on the floor during the day. Lillian swept the detritus of his daily diet into the yellow dustpan. As she did so, she imagined the phone ringing. It would be the man at the office, asking her if she were free, if she wanted to meet somewhere, if she liked red wine.
Terry usually slept on the couch in his office, and this night was no different. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d had sex. Sex had always been good between them, always, but at some point he had stopped reaching out for her. When she kissed him, it never went any further. The last time had to have been before that rough stretch, before she’d finally gone to the doctor and he had given her the anti-depressants. She wasn’t taking them any longer, and fortunately the heavy cloak of depression did not return. She had no more thoughts of suicide, no more mornings when it seemed as if she couldn’t even find her way to her closet to get clothes.
After she was better, Terry treated her gently, cordially. But there were no “date nights,” no getaway weekends, nothing really if it didn’t somehow involve their son.
Every time she thought about leaving the marriage, she felt a gravitational force pulling her heart deep into her chest cavity. It couldn’t be done while Michael was still with them. She’d witnessed the hell her brother Sam had inflicted on their mother, lived through the anxious, weepy nights, and stood bitterly at the funeral. Her son would have a father, and her son would not be murdered in the middle of committing a felony as her brother had—an armed robbery of a little country store where the owner kept a .38 police special under the counter for just such events.
The next morning she dropped Michael off at school and drove into work. There was a meeting, and Gunther would be there. That first meeting after the dream, their eyes had met across the table and she could have sworn that something was communicated, some secret understanding. What would happen this time, she wondered. The meeting was short and official with Gunther once again on the other side of the table.
As she walked out of the room, he stopped her.
“Lillian,” he said, standing close enough for her to catch the scent of soap on his skin. “I have some new translations at my desk that you might find useful. Would you like to pick them up?”
“Sure,” she said, and felt herself smiling foolishly.
“You look very nice today,” he commented as they walked down the wide hallway.
“Thank you.” For some reason she was imagining him in a white button-down shirt with cuff links.
On his desk was a book of poetry by Rilke. She picked it up.
“I love Rilke,” she’d said. “I was a literature major, thought I’d become a professor.”
“What changed your mind?” he asked.
“The theorists. They took all the joy out of reading,” she said. “I decided life was too short to do all that work for so little pay.”
The trigger to change course had actually been Sam’s death which happened the same day she got her letter of acceptance into the Ph.D. program at Chapel Hill. The phone had been ringing even as she turned the key in the lock of her apartment door, her arms laden with plastic grocery bags and mail from the mailbox. She dropped the bags of groceries, tore open the letter and picked up the phone.
“Lillian, it’s Mama,” her mother’s voice sounded distant, as if she were calling from another country or another planet. Lillian let the letter float to the floor where it stayed the night beside the melting ice cream and the Romaine lettuce. She had no control over the past, and so she changed the future.
Lillian turned her attention to Gunther, who was looking at her with a sudden smile which had transformed his face.
“Which is your favorite poem?” he asked, like a kid who is eager to show off his baseball cards.
As they stood there pouring over the slim volume, she could almost physically feel the pheremones leaping off her body and clinging hungrily to him. He had to have sensed it, and later she cursed Terry for leaving her in this predicament. He shouldn’t have lost all interest in her as a woman. She tried to be pleasant and interested in the things he had to say. But it didn’t matter. He was polite, but he never really looked at her, never saw her.
After she left work, she stopped at a coffee shop to wait while Michael had basketball practice. She’d brought some work with her, but sitting by the gas fireplace in a comfortable armchair, her fractured mind could only think of Gunther and wonder what it would be like to kiss him. Where would it happen? In the parking garage? Perhaps they would run into each other, working late. But what on earth would bring about the kiss? She didn’t imagine any conversation or even sex later—just the kiss, gentle and warm and wet. In movies, the sex was always predominant—ravenous, ripping-off-clothes type of sex, the kind she’d had as a younger woman in some fruitless effort to create something like passion. But the movies had it wrong. It was the kiss that mattered, that held everything. She had not kissed another man since she’d been married. Of course, she and Terry never kissed anymore.
She looked over at the gas flames behind the glass. The fire exuded no warmth. It was just there for show.
Sometimes her mind wandered back to her childhood, the sweet intimacy she shared with her brother up in the top branches of a sweet gum tree where the other kids couldn’t reach them. There they lolled on the hard bark, a leafy smell engulfing them. They never had to talk; just being together meant everything. He was her brother, a part of her. His blond hair and green eyes, his sharp, pointed little face, his dirty knees and elbows. The two of them were the leaders of the neighborhood gang, staging wars and engaging in acts of petty vandalism. She thought of the grapefruit throwing episode when they broke the Simmons’ picture window and had to work all summer to replace it. They’d turned the punishment into a game. Then the drugs came and stole her brother away from her like thieves that take your silver and your jewels, one piece at a time. He’d had the look of a wild animal the last time she saw him and a metallic smell that made her draw back from his feeble attempt at a hug. He was dead long before the bullet made its way into his head.
Her son strolled into the coffee shop.
“Where were you?” he asked. “I was waiting at the gym.”
Startled, she sat up.
“Were you done already? I’m sorry. I lost track of the time.”
Michael shrugged, “No big deal. I figured you’d be here so I walked over.”
“Where’s your cell phone?”
“I forgot it today. Can we go? I’m hungry.” He rubbed the jersey over his belly.
“Certainly, sweetheart.” She gathered her things and walked with her son outside to the car. Michael was lanky and tall for his age as her brother had been, but there the resemblance ended. Michael never needed prodding to do his homework. He never disappeared behind a locked door or tried to laugh off his problems. He was just a good kid, and it hadn’t been all that difficult to raise him that way. She could thank Terry for that.
As they drove home, they were quiet. It was winter and the trees with their naked branches against the sky made her think of the webbed lines in old china plates like the ones her mother had mounted on the dining room wall. The sun was setting in a purple and blue riot of cloud and light. What would it be like, she wondered, to watch a sunset with the man from the office?
It was the weekend, and she had a thousand things to do around the house. She was redoing the downstairs bathroom, which was a huge chore in itself, but it would give her something to do, something to keep occupied. Yet staying busy didn’t seem to help. Even as she pulled the yellowed wallpaper from the drywall, she continued to think of him, to imagine his hands resting on her hips, his lips against the skin of her neck. Looking in the mirror, she wondered if she could still even attract a man. Furrows made indentations between her eyebrows, and she knew that when she was tired it almost looked as if her face were in sections. When you married someone, these things weren’t supposed to matter. You were supposed to be able to grow old together. She remembered a story she once heard about one of her uncles. Every morning until he died, he brought his English wife a cup of tea in bed.
Suppose, she told herself, carting old wallpaper out to the trash, that you were to leave, to move into a place of your own. Then what? Perhaps the man at the office wouldn’t even be interested. Maybe no man would be. Would it be all right to just be by yourself? No, it would be lonely, she thought, stuffing sheets of wallpaper into the big gray trashcan. But then again, she was already lonely, wasn’t she?
As she walked back inside, Terry came out of his office at the back of the house. He was balding and his round belly protruded over his belt, but she still found him attractive. How much of this was her fault, she wondered. Maybe she just didn’t try hard enough.
“Getting anything accomplished?” she asked.
“Not much. My brain feels like tar,” he said.
Touch him, she told herself. So she did. She placed her hand on his arm and felt a slight shift. He still needed that, she thought, even if he didn’t need anything else.
Later that night, she couldn’t sleep. She went to her computer to do some work, but she couldn’t concentrate, so she went on the Internet. Before she knew it she was online looking at cufflinks. She hadn’t even known whether men still wore cufflinks, but on the Internet there were a few million links to cufflinks—the wordplay made her smile—and as she browsed she discovered that there was nothing so tacky it could not be made into a cufflink. Skull cufflinks, ugly glass cufflinks, Superman cufflinks. Good grief, she thought. But then she saw a pair of onyx and silver cufflinks. They were beautiful, tasteful and understated. She imagined how they would feel in the palm of her hand. Her credit card was in the drawer beside her.
Sunday after church she stopped to get gas and run the car through the car wash. She usually went to the Unitarian church alone. Terry had never come to church with her and Michael was sporadic the past year. Although he liked the youth group, between schoolwork, sports and going out with his friends, he had so little time to just relax. Besides, he was a teenager now. He didn’t need a mother hovering over him all the time.
At church some people thought she was single.
“Are you sure you have a husband?” someone once joked. “We never see him. I don’t believe he’s real.”
She had answered, “I hire an actor for special occasions.”
Her marriage was a ruse. She had come to dread those occasions when they attempted conversation—that art of give and take. “Con” she thought, meaning with another person, and “verse” like poetry, like Rilke. Poetry was not what happened between the two of them. Terry usually ran roughshod over anything she said, as if her mouth were simply moving to chew up the air. And so whatever it was she wanted to communicate, even if it was just some mundane attempt at connection, became trapped, stuck inside her where it thrashed for a while and then died. How many corpses of words and ideas were there trapped in her lungs?
She pulled around the convenience store to the carwash and punched the wash code into the little metal pad. It offered her four choices. She punched another button. A robotic voice informed her that she had purchased the express wash, and she should proceed. A green light shone like a single eye at the end of the carwash house. She drove into the rectangular tunnel warily, always concerned that she wasn’t going in straight enough, but after she edged the car over some sort of metal bump, the light turned red. She put the transmission in park as soapy water began to shoot over the car. She could smell the slightly fruity odor of the soap as the bubbles swarmed over the windows. There was something comforting about sitting inside, surrounded by glass as the big brushes swirled, slapping against the roof, front and sides of the car.
She found herself mesmerized by the sound, the swishing and beating and then the spraying as clean water cascaded over the front window like rumpled sheets of silk. The changing patterns of the water on the windshield fascinated her. The line of dirt along the left-hand side that had been pushed by the slaps of the wipers, disappeared piece by piece.
Then as the brushes moved back, it seemed as if the car were moving forward. She knew it was an optical illusion, but it made her feel a little dizzy and disoriented. She focused on a brick in the wall to reassure her eyes that she was not going forward. And yet it felt as if she were, as if she were going somewhere, as if the tunnel stretched on forever. What would happen if you drove out mid-cycle, she wondered? But no one would. She certainly wouldn’t. She would wait patiently until the humming of the machine stopped and the exit light gave her permission to leave.
On Monday morning she came out of her office and saw Gunther. She looked at the back of his crisp blue shirt, and felt a familiar tensing of her muscles, the flutter of attraction. He stood in the hallway, talking to one of the young women—the vice president’s secretary, a pretty brunette with flashing eyes that held little silver fish hooks in them. Something about the way he tilted his head, the way his shoulders turned in toward the woman, delivered the news to her brain.
It took a moment, but then rather quickly her infatuation with its abundance of imagined scenarios deflated like a balloon the day after a birthday party. She sighed with relief. Now she could let go. Perhaps she was being unfair in her assessment, but there was no doubt in her mind that he was not attracted to her. She had been fooling herself, clever old girl. It was a good thing she was safely married. She’d never have her pride trampled by someone who would most likely use her, someone who might be interested for a month or two before the novelty wore off, before one of the pretty young women with their sexual power still intact lured him away. There was something to be said for marriage, after all.
She went back into her office and shut the door and stared out the window. Below on the street, a green car had stalled and a young man got out to try to figure out what was wrong. A woman in a navy coat stood across the street holding a cup of coffee. A city bus drove by. She felt nothing. No fantasy man wrapped his arms around her. She placed her fingers on the cool glass. When her brother Sam had died, she thought she could never forgive him for throwing his life away. Now she realized it was more than that which had hurt so badly, so thoroughly. He had abandoned her, and when that happened, she had somehow defined her life as one of solitude.
She picked up her phone and called her husband.
“Hello?” he said. “Hello?”
She hesitated and then said, “Hi. It’s me. I thought I left the stove on. Would you check it?”
“Sure,” he said. “That all?”
“Yes,” she answered.
She hung up and stared at the phone for a few seconds before turning her attention to the mail which she hadn’t had a chance to look at. There was a padded envelope from an address she didn’t recognize, so she opened it with a letter opener. Inside was a small box; as she pulled the box out of the envelope, she knew what the contents would be: the onyx and sterling silver cufflinks.
Lillian held them in the palm of her hand, wondering what she would do with them. Had she ever even thought about that? She looked around her cluttered desk. There was a decorative glass bowl someone had given her in the office Christmas exchange. It was full of paperclips, which she dumped into her top drawer. The cufflinks fit nicely inside. She would leave them there where she could see them every day. It would be her penance, a reminder of sins she would never get the chance to commit.
PAT MACENULTY is the author of four books as well as numerous short stories, essays, poems, and plays. She is also a teacher, workshop leader, writing coach and freelance editor. Her most recent book, From May to December was recently published by Serpents Tail.