“Again, again,” Ethan said.
“Okay, but this is the last time.” Jane wound the music box ballerina that had been hers and set it to turn once more on the corner of her son’s dresser. “Good night, sleep tight, love you with all my might.”
“Good night, Mommy. I love you.”
Jane turned off the light. She used to dance, had to control every inch of her body but appear completely at ease, while the audience hid beyond the spotlight. She both missed and didn’t miss the strain of providing the deception they desired.
“Mommy,” Ethan said, “why aren’t you leaving?”
“I am, sweetie.” She left and shut the door.
Downstairs on the couch, Kendall worked on an audit. “Thanks for putting him to bed,” he said.
“You’re welcome.” Jane picked up her wine. The curved glass sliced the room into different worlds. “I need the exit plan to be three months, not six,” she said.
“It’s gotten that much worse in two weeks?”
“No, but I have.”
Kendall wanted to impress his boss, his first one since having been laid off, and he’d want to finish what he could before the faceoff that most divided their home state—Rangers versus Bruins. He had pledged loyalty to the Penguins early in life in order to avoid the worst of the tension.
The charm tinkled on Jane’s glass. “I teach creative movement, but I don’t move. I teach trust games and building relationships, but then I collect my corporate creativity consulting fee and leave. They see things, each other, differently. I don’t. Not any more.” Jane drank and pressed the wine slowly from her mouth.
Kendall closed his laptop and gave it its own cushion between them. He was attentive when he had to be.
“My clients get more creative, but I don’t. I just do the same thing. It’s so stable, it’s stifling.”
“It’s easier to find a job when you have one. Stability helps.”
“I know. But.” Jane’s phone chimed. She smiled but caught herself. She checked the screen. Besides, it was just her dad, not Craig.
Something slight thumped above them. Kendall and Jane both braced for Ethan’s scream. None came. “That must have been the ballerina,” Jane said. “I probably set it too close to the edge.”
After she and Kendall had also gone to bed, Jane slipped past Ethan’s room to the reading nook at the end of the hallway. She texted Craig.
She hadn’t expected that hearing from him last month would be like discovering a secret garden at the back of a house she thought she’d known. He gave her something to explore again, not just a broader realm but an intricacy within each thing, infinite detail and texture all around and always somewhere new to look or smell. She had felt that expansiveness and warmth when they dated after college. She had assumed it was simply youth, but now, it seemed, it was Craig.
She lifted her shirt to snap a picture. Just the navel stud for now. After all, it wasn’t like he’d never seen her belly button before
Only the piercing was new to him. She’d gotten it about a year after she and Kendall got back together—or got together, depending if they counted the few dates in college before Jane let graduation do its part.
Kendall emerged from the bedroom. Jane dropped her shirt.
“Is that picture for me?” Kendall grinned and sat.
Jane blushed and placed the phone face down on the arm of the loveseat. “I was just being silly. And bored. I woke up and couldn’t fall asleep. I started looking at jobs. It’s too much.”
“Job searching would definitely do that to me.” Kendall pulled one end of the belt of his bathrobe through his hand. “I shouldn’t have stayed up for the game. Remember how we used to wake up at the usual times after Ethan started sleeping through the night? First one of us, then the other, and every once in a while, like now, both together? We might as well have another kid if we’re going to be awake this much.”
Jane pulled her heels onto the edge of the couch. “Yeah. It’s funny how much time we could be sleeping, but when offered the routine, we don’t want it.”
“Would you want another kid?”
Jane twisted. “You just got your job back; I want to leave mine.”
“Ethan goes to kindergarten next year.”
Kendall put his hand on her thigh. “I worry about you. You’ve been out here a lot lately.”
Jane patted his hand. “I’ll be okay eventually. Just stress.”
“Maybe I’ll read for a bit.” Kendall pulled Chicken Little from the shelf. “This used to be my favorite.”
Jane smiled. “It still could be.”
“Nah, it’s… I don’t know what is.”
“Hope you sleep soon.” Jane got up. In the bedroom, she sent the image then cleared her log.
Jane draped her fingertips over the gearshift as they sat outside Kendall’s office. He worked next to a law firm, and she was dropping him off because the other car was in for maintenance and she had the more flexible schedule. She had seen ads for the law firm somewhere: “Fight like a man. We do.” Two men in dark suits loomed behind “Paternity, custody, divorce.”
“I’m earning enough now that in a month or two you could quit your job and take some time finding the next one,” Kendall said. “We’d be okay for a while.”
“What about visiting Natasha in Boston? She’s a creative type.”
Natasha was an acquisitions editor, mainly for those business-inspired self-help books that promise transformation in several easy steps. Apparently, power and simplicity sell.
So did Natasha: her elegance and intellect were equally intimidating and intoxicating to all manner of men.
The city kept her single because so much variety swirled at her doorstep. She could swipe left or right without ever moving her feet. “Would you want to move there?” Jane asked.
Kendall shrugged. “It’s not so far from Hartford that we couldn’t make something work.”
Kendall’s voice stiffened. “That guy from college?”
“Yeah. He keeps in touch with Natasha. He’s in Boston now. He got a bunch of commissions in New England, something he calls his ‘regenerative eco-landscape installations.’”
“Does that interest you?”
“I’m all for saving the environment, but it’s not really my kind of creativity.”
“Still. It might not hurt to look him up while you’re there.”
Jane couldn’t read what Kendall wanted her to say. His eyes were tired but sharp. His beard didn’t cover the creases in his face as well as it once did.
“I’m not sure that’s the best idea,” Jane said. “His marriage is on the rocks.”
Jane reached for the radio. A car swerved toward her. She yanked the wheel away. The other car twitched and stopped. A dead deer rolled onto the asphalt in her mirror. A second or two different, and it would have been her and the deer, or her and the other car, and she would have been stuck in traffic rather than receiving so much free road.
The near miss still rattled Jane when she parked outside Natasha’s. She began to text Craig. She stopped. She had told him she was coming tomorrow, not today. She texted Kendall instead: “Car next to me on I-90 creamed a deer, but otherwise, made it no problems.”
Inside, Natasha welcomed her and asked, “What do you want for dinner?”
“How about take-out Thai? Drunken noodles with tofu. Medium hot.”
Natasha raised an eyebrow, as if to ask why travel for a change and then go back to the same old things? Instead, Natasha said, “Works for me. There’s a decent place not far from here.”
“It’ll taste better here,” Jane said. “Trust me.”
They set off to retrieve the order. The few trees, pressed by cement from all sides, had yet to blossom, but the buds seemed the slightest bit bigger than in Manchester.
“Did you know Craig Lane moved to town?” Natasha asked.
Jane’s breath hitched. “Yeah. He mentioned it.” People seemingly much like herself entered and exited the Whole Foods.
“He’s somewhere, Roxbury or Jamaica Plain. I didn’t know you two were in touch.”
“As of recently, yes.”
“I invited him to drinks tonight. He’s probably lonely here without his wife. Jane?”
“What? Oh. Yeah. I was just thinking of that deer. The driver next to me, on the way here, took out a deer. A fawn or doe, from the size of it. No obvious antlers. I wonder if she even saw it coming.”
Natasha held open the door to the restaurant. A warm plume of sesame oil, chili, and brown sugar scents passed over Jane.
“Well, certainly saw it at some point,” Natasha said, “if not in time to do anything about it. Another reason not to live in the suburbs if you ask me.”
The fish, glowing neon blue in the aquarium light, undulated its tail to stay in place behind artificial kelp.
On the local news, the reporter vacillated in her opinion of the coyote’s return to the city: merely another urban scavenger, a bigger crow or less repulsive rat, or a noble hunter, an upper rung of the food chain, returning to a realm from which human hubris assumed it would be excluded forever. A wildlife biologist from Tufts seemed puzzled the reporter wanted one answer or the other. Of course the coyote was both and neither. A local resident was in tears over her cat.
“Then don’t have an outdoor cat,” Natasha said. “I hate them anyway. They kill all the songbirds. Except starlings. Kill all them you want.” Natasha got their order. She paused with her face close to Jane’s. “Wily predator or homeless scavenger? More at eleven.” She shook her head. “Seriously. Don’t people have better things to report about, like a border wall?”
Jane grabbed Natasha’s wrist. “We’re having an emotional affair.”
“Me and Craig Lane.”
“Oh, Jesus, fuck, Jane.” Natasha sat beside her friend. “I’m so sorry. How long?”
“He knows I’m supposed to be here. He just thought it would be later.”
“I’m sorry. If I….”
Jane wiped her own tears, the palm of her hand along one cheek, then the other. “I don’t want them looking at me.” The hostess and the waiter at the front desk quickly looked away. “Let’s go.”
Jane and Natasha saw Craig and his parks on the news at eleven. His work was apparently helping the coyote re-infiltrate the city. Messages from him piled up on Jane’s phone—where was she, why hadn’t she replied to him, that Natasha had said she was sick and he felt bad and could bring her anything she needed today or any time tomorrow. He could be free. He knew where Natasha lived. He didn’t think she would be in town till tomorrow afternoon but must have misunderstood or had she changed her plans?
By bedtime, Jane had neither replied to any of it nor confessed to Natasha that part of her reason for coming here was to see what happened if her and Craig’s interactions went beyond separated emotions.
Natasha held out the extra set of condo keys. “I’m supposed to have lunch with a guy from Tinder, but I’ll cancel if you want.”
“No. Have your date.” Jane weakly smiled and took the keys.
“Text me if you need. I’ll leave work on time so we can do dinner whenever. Really, unless I’m dead, in which case call the police, and I’ll send you a screenshot and Tinder boy’s phone number before I leave my office. Otherwise,” Natasha spread her arms, “the city is at your feet. I hope you’ll be okay.”
“Thanks. I will.”
Natasha’s heels echoed down the back stairwell and across the parking lot.
Jane replied to Craig that she was feeling better but wouldn’t know till later if she could keep their original plan. She left the kitchen.
Natasha’s bed had four pillows and a pair of nightstands, a need for symmetry or constant readiness for companionship. The closet was flung open to a cascade of shoes and dresses. A straw hat covered a mannequin head that wore a scarf around its partial neck.
Imagination and reality—Jane always wanted more of one when the other became too lonely.
Choreography had always liberated her. Feeling free, she thought she could do without the prescribed steps. Exactly then, she would falter. But that was why you had a dance partner: to keep you completely alive, something to react against, to take an expressive risk at the interface of security and surprise. Kendall had never much understood what it meant to dance.
The guest room bookshelves were even more crammed than the ones in the living room. Natasha read so much more than Jane. So much of everything—sci-fi, management, pop linguistics—anything contemporary and intellectual or one of the major classics from one of a half-dozen cultures. Her furniture reflected more valuable family heirlooms and a superior taste, the arrangement of dish sponges and yoga equipment free time and a brain for organization, the lack of plastic clutter the lack of a pre-schooler, but the dust under the bed and the hairs behind the bathroom faucet suggested a different priority about cleaning for guests. Nonetheless, Jane eagerly, enviously, imagined herself at home in all this.
She lifted her arms and made a small pirouette. She smiled, but then she loathed herself for how easily she could imagine threading her life through the voids in someone else’s life. Why not make her own life? Because, at heart, she considered herself a timid soul who felt fearless only when adored. When wound up, she could turn, but only in place. She had to step forward.
Outside, the spring descended from the sky into the trees, still naked and smooth from the winter.
If you fill yourself completely, what room is there for other people? It was why Natasha could not settle down. Craig had cracks. So did Jane. Something to be filled.
Her phone rang. Jane started. No. It was the daycare. Ethan had developed a fever and would need to be picked up. Jane texted Kendall to let him know.
Jane lifted her shirt and looked at her stomach reflected in the window. It wasn’t just the sidelong morning light that flattered it. It was that Craig could see it if he was out there, see her as she was, bring life to even the basest materials.
She also saw the reflection of the deer rolling away from the car. She was killing the kind of things they had hoped to save. She dropped her shirt and turned.
She would have to tell Kendall. Jane sat on the edge of the bed. It wasn’t that something might happen, but that something already had.
“Hey,” Kendall answered. “I saw your text. I’ll get Ethan. Can you call the sitter and see if she can meet us at home?”
“Why can’t you just take him for a day?” The words seemed more of a snarl than she had intended.
“Well, I guess I could. A bachelors’ weekend might not be a bad idea.”
Jane softened. “Thanks. Poor little guy. Kendall, I have to tell you something. Craig Lane got back in touch with me. We’ve been talking, maybe more than we should, but I feel like he’s opened this door in me to something that I thought had been shut forever.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“What am I….”
“I talked to his wife last week. She found stuff on his computer. Stuff from you.”
Something snapped taut like when a trapdoor falls from the scaffold.
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” Kendall said. “I don’t even really want your answer until you know for sure what it is. I have to get Ethan.” He hung up.
Jane wrapped her arms around her stomach and folded at the waist.
Eventually, Jane walked to the kitchen. She pulled a chef’s knife from the drying rack and slid it into the block. She put a frying pan under a stack of others. She moved her mug as well as Natasha’s from the sink into the dishwasher. All that could be tidied had been tidied.
The tree across the street from the guest bedroom reached so much higher than Jane. Its smooth, gray trunk twisted slowly as it rose. The upraised, slender limbs wove between a half dozen power lines to terminate in a thousand fingertips like some Hindu deity. Its upper body swayed while its roots drove deep into the soil. It grew in the only, slenderest space permitted it between the busy sidewalk and a stolid brick wall.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Meier teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has published stories, articles, plays, and textbook chapters. He has a special interest in environmental sustainability.