Every night is the same. Richard comes awake when she snicks off the hall light and then he sees her every move—in spite of the walls, in spite of the darkened room, in spite of his closed eyelids. He sees her sitting on the toilet, elbows on knees, compact belly resting on firm thighs, heels raised so that her weight rests on the balls of her feet. He sees her at the sink, holding her toothbrush under the faucet, flicking off excess water with a snap of her strong wrist. He cannot escape her reflection in the mirror, the short brown hair with a natural wave and a few strands of gray. She turns her face from side to side, chin elevated, lips drawn back, examining big, even teeth. Revulsion stabs him. Carol would be surprised if she knew. And terribly hurt. He has no right to hate her.
Carol moves stealthily in the darkened room, from the bathroom door to the bed. Richard clenches his teeth, wills himself to stillness. With the deft economy of long practice, she feels all three pillows and puts the firmest one between her updrawn knees. She lies on her side, facing outward. And then, as she has done every night for the last decade or more, she twists her upper torso to the right until her spine cracks. She sighs softly, nestles into her pillows, pulls up the sheet, and pushes down the blanket.
As she settles into sleep, the sole of her foot touches the back of his calf. Richard does not kick her foot away. He inches closer to the edge of the bed, willing his body smaller, begging the powers of the dark for oblivion.
* * *
Standing in the steamy shower, Richard rubs in shampoo, eyes closed against the cascade of soapy water. His mind will not stay blank. Several strands of brown hair come away in his fingers and he tries to drown speculation about how soon he’ll be bald. He rolls the soap in his hands, lathers his broad shoulders, arms, and chest. He washes methodically, moving down the wedge of his torso, front and back, armpits and belly. He pulls back the foreskin of his soft penis, washing the groove around its head.
A vision of Allie explodes into his consciousness.
* * *
He was at baggage claim in the Portland airport. She was concentrating on retrieving her suitcase. Pixie tendrils of blonde hair fit her head like a baby bonnet, emphasizing her wide blue eyes and the three-inch gold loops in her ears. He said, “May I help you with your bag, Miss?” and without even a glance she said, “No, thanks. Someone’s meeting me.” He said, “Are you sure you don’t need help with your bag?” Her head snapped up. She whirled and flung herself into his arms. She smiled radiantly and euphoria surged through him. They held each other a long time.
* * *
Richard chokes off the sob that threatens to strangle him. Tears sting his eyes, but he turns his face into the hot spray and does not feel them on his cheeks. Twenty-five years ago, they really believed they had a future. Richard shudders, remembering how anxiety and guilt immobilized him during the months after Allie’s visit.
* * *
When he married Carol, he’d promised to take care of her. After their separation he helped her move, bought a new car for her, filled out her tax returns. When Carol took an overdose of tranquilizers and called to tell him what she’d done, he called 911 and held her hand on the way to the hospital. She kept saying she didn’t want to live without him, couldn’t stand the thought of him with “that woman.” He didn’t go back to Carol then. But he didn’t move forward with the divorce, either. His therapist said he was doing fine, but Allie sent two novelty buttons for Christmas—no letter, no note, just two buttons: “Not To Decide Is To Decide” and “If Not Now, When?”
* * *
Richard makes the water hotter, nearly scalding his skin.
* * *
The next time he called Allie, she sobbed. She said she had to get on with her life, had to know whether he was in it or not. He said nothing, pain and dread stopping his words. After a long silence, she said, “I can’t go on like this. If you ever get a divorce, let me know. I’ll always love you.” He managed to choke out something like “If that’s what you want,” and then the line went dead. Why could she not give him the time he needed to extricate himself from Carol’s clinging devotion, to deal with the guilt of abandoning the woman he’d promised to care for?
Eighteen months later, Allie called. It was nearly one o’clock in the morning. Her words were soft and fuzzy at the edges, an echo of nights when they had drunk long and she wanted to be loved to sleep. She asked whether he was living with Carol again, then said “I’m getting married in two days.” The call was brief, her words piercing his gut like knives.
When he returned to bed, Carol brushed his shoulder with her fingertips. “Richie? Richie, was that Allie?” He did not hit her. He never hit her. But his tight snarl stopped her quavering voice as effectively as a blow: “Yes. She’s marrying a man named Buck Brady.” That was the last time either of them spoke Allie’s name to the other. Since then, he hears her name only in his dreams, sees it only in his journal.
* * *
Richard begins washing his legs, his feet, his toes. He stands in the steamy spray, muscles tight, apprehensive. Soapy water runs off his body and swirls down the drain. It carries away the tears, the fallen hair, the dead skin cells. Every day more of him dies. Every day more of him washes away.
Soon he will see her again. It’s unavoidable—as unavoidable as the years passing—as unavoidable as his pain. Did Allie try to persuade her husband not to serve on the Board of Trustees? Did she suggest he befriend another college? Surely she knows I’m on the Board. But West College is her alma mater. Maybe she’ll make excuses, not attend the Trustees’ social functions. No, she isn’t a coward. Never that. But maybe she no longer cares.
Nora steers Duet down the Chester River, wondering how quickly the new West College trustee will learn the rudiments of sailing. Buck Brady is big, burly, and middle-aged, with sandy hair, a well-trimmed mustache, a quick smile and a deep voice. Her glance takes in his unbuttoned cotton shirt, beefy leathered hands, the yachting cap set low over his left eyebrow. New boat shoes strike the only discordant note in his old salt appearance. If she didn’t know better, Nora would expect him to spin a yarn of his early sailing days. She scans the sky. Dark clouds are forming in the west. “Buck, take the helm. I’m going below to catch a weather report.” They are in the middle of a wide, open space at the mouth of the Chester River, no other boats in sight, nothing ahead but the red channel marker pointing the way to the Chesapeake Bay. “Leave the channel marker to port and head for the open water.”
Buck says “Aye, aye, skipper.”
She senses that he’s checking out her ass as she starts down the companionway …