He knew it when he met her. It was her laugh, and he told her as much.
"Your laugh," he said, hesitating, wondering if he should move in a step closer to her; the bar was crowded enough to justify it. "You have the greatest laugh."
She had a drink in her hand, ready to bring to her lips, and the glass hung there, poised in the air like the leading edge of a cresting wave. Her eyes darted away, then back to him, and the glass came up, and she took a sip. She returned the glass to the surface of the bar and sighed, as if pleased, shoulders rising and coming back to rest. She lifted her hair, crossed her knees, and set her eyes on his. "Thanks. It's the nicest thing anyone's said to me in months."
Her name was Elise; that much she had told him. There didn't seem to be any of the hesitation or suspicion or reluctance he often encountered, at least when it came to getting the name business out of the way. And she had insisted on sitting at the bar, which, after a fleeting burst of anger he'd managed to mask, didn't bother him now. There might not be this much opportunity for intimacy in the booth, which was what he'd initially suggested—out of the way, private, et cetera. But there they would have been sitting across from each other, separated by the plank of the table. Whereas here, at the crowded bar . . . And now he did move closer, enough to feel the graze of her bare knee through the fabric of his trousers.
She didn't pull back, but he didn't move any closer. The sound of her laugh had surprised him, or rather the sounds—it seemed composed of numerous notes, each sliding past one another, some moving up the scale, some down. There was always one thing, every time: the swell of a cheek, the shape of a knuckle, downy hair on the back of a neck. A laugh. Always one thing, and it always made itself known right away. Thirty-four, he guessed, taking her in. Thirty-six, tops. No ring on her finger, and no apparent need to get home for anyone.
"All right." She ran her fingers over the patterned seams of her black skirt. Then came the laugh. "I don't usually drink like this. Honest."
He ordered her a vodka martini, and the brimming glass now put before her held her third. He reached into his trouser pocket and closed his fingers around the last of the cash.
"Wait, wait, wait. Hold on a minute." Elise had left her purse on the bar, along with her cell phone and a book, which was bound in a rough, ancient cover that might have been hewn from wood. She peered into her purse as if looking over the side of a cliff. After rummaging a moment, she produced some folded bills, which were secured—along with a credit card and what appeared to be her driver's license—by a large paper clip. "I'll get this one." She called to the bartender. "He'll have another scotch, please."
"No," he protested. He released the money in his pocket.
"No," she said back to him, and now she placed a hand on his upturned wrist—not on the sleeve of his shirt but on the spot just beneath his palm, where the cuff had pulled back, where she might be able to feel his quickening pulse. She glanced away to smile at the bartender, to pay for the drinks, to assess the crowd. Staged gestures, minor dramatics, the elongation of the moment. A wave about to break. Her hand hadn't moved, and now her eyes met his again. "I want to do this."
The Previous One had bought him the trousers. Her word: He had never liked the sound of it, had even known a boy in school whose last name was Trouser, and he hadn't liked the boy either. "You're tall," the Previous One had said, looking him up and down. The way she had worn her bracelet the day he first saw her was the thing that had done it then: a thin hoop of silver encircling a tanned forearm. "You're tall," she'd said, once things had gotten going between them. "There's nothing that looks better on a tall man than a trim jacket and a nice pair of trousers. I guess I'm kind of old-fashioned that way."
They took a cab uptown to a well-regarded men's clothing store, where a tailor with an exaggerated Italian accent and crumbs on his shirtfront attended to him. She had watched from an easy chair stationed apart from the mirrors, but she was visible everywhere he looked, in every reflective pane, one long leg crossed over the other, bracelet flashing. From the low carpeted pedestal he managed to smile toward the mirrors as the tailor chalked the cuffs of the trousers. "You like what you see?"
"So far, so good."
He stood there and let the work continue, doing his best to ignore the bright overhead lights that made his head hurt, the heat of the enclosed fitting area, the irritating pressure of the tailor's head as it pressed against his leg. When the man spoke with his exaggerated Italian accent, he didn't remove the pins from his mouth. "You'll look very handsome in it," she told him as they left the store. "Forty-one years old. It's about time you had something like this in your wardrobe."
He was to pick it up two days later, pending final alterations. She had not let him see the price tag; all he had to do was give her name when he went to get it. The tailor gave him an insinuating smile after zipping up the hanger-bag. "Pretty good deal you got there," he had said, no trace of accent now.
The Previous One. He realized he'd begun to think of her as that even though it hadn't ended, even though he had no choice but to live with her, at least for now.
He didn't want to worry about it; he wanted to concentrate on Elise, who was looking up at him as she undid his belt. "We should be careful with these," she said, words slurred. "Want me to fold them first, put them over the chair?"
She had set a box fan haphazardly in the window, and a light breeze now brushed his face. From four stories down came the tap and chatter of taxi horns, tolerably loud, like background noise—a movie sound effect for a New York apartment scene.
"Fine," he answered. He really didn't care either way. They were just trousers.
In the mornings, he liked to have a kiss. Just that, and nothing else. Many of them expected more, would offer more, even if they clearly didn't want to. Some seemed surprised when he rebuffed them—even disappointed. Others responded just how he wanted: by asking him to come again. Elise's lips tasted like the left-over Chinese they'd eaten from the greasy carton a little after midnight, naked in the light of the open refrigerator. He had gone along with it, the game, just to hear that laugh again, then had guided her back to the bedroom.
"Will you come again?" she asked, sheet pulled tightly to her chin.
He retrieved the folded trousers from the chair, feeling through the fabric for the bills in the pocket. "Do you want me to?"
"I guess I wouldn't mind."
"You wouldn't mind?" he repeated. "Not exactly the enthusiastic response a guy hopes for." He made sure not to look at her as he said this, pretending to be focused instead on getting dressed.
"Do you want to come tonight?"
"Tonight?" And he did something then which he almost never did, which was to kiss her again.
"Oh," she said. "That was nice."
Stopping for a glass of water in the kitchen, he noticed the dog. She had mentioned something about it at the bar, or maybe on the short walk to her place. There had been stories, talk about its health and how much Elise loved it, how long she'd owned it. Not it; her: Missy, Misty, Marcy. Something. An apartment dog: medium-sized, some kind of collie mix. There were ragged, furless spots on her shoulders and haunches. He reached down to touch the nose she offered, then ran his hand over the bristly, hard head. The dog's papery tongue suddenly touched his fingers, and he stepped back. "Mangy bitch." He glanced back toward the bedroom; he didn't know yet how sound might carry in this place. "Smelly old cunt," he whispered.
The dog backed away, as if understanding him, and padded slowly on stiff legs toward a low basket in the corner of the kitchen that was lined with faded blankets.
He watched the dog a moment longer, then shouted a goodbye toward the bedroom, not waiting for an answer. The hardware rang as the door closed behind him, locks and bolts and handle all pealing like bells, and suddenly he was in the quiet, carpeted hall, his own man. Always the best way to go, he had learned, on the first morning.
He met her for dinner that evening, though he did not spend the night. It was the same way the next evening, and the next as well. It had to be that way—he couldn't spend the night, not yet; otherwise, the Previous One would need an explanation for his absence. One night away, here and there, was easy enough to explain: He had manufactured friendships for such occasions, and there was always an imaginary someone uptown, or in New Jersey, or in Westchester, he could claim to be staying with. There were business trips, too—but he liked to save this explanation for when he really needed it. He would like to go away with Elise at some point, two nights someplace out of the city. Soon enough. So, save the business trip excuse.
"Another working dinner?"
The Previous One had long ago stopped wearing the bracelet. It was almost right after he'd told her how much he liked it. They had been fighting, or she had—he had mostly been listening. To soothe her, he mentioned the bracelet. "You like it so much?" she'd replied. "Then go fucking get it." And she'd thrown it out the window. With what he'd thought of as chivalry, he'd raced to retrieve it from the sidewalk below. Miraculously, no one had yet taken it. But it had disappeared anyway after that; she had made it disappear.
"Another working dinner?"
There was a time when she was the one he'd be sneaking away to meet. Eight months ago—no, nine. Just before Thanksgiving. A long time ago. "Yes. It's been totally crazy. Another new client. But I guess that's good, right?"
She shrugged. "How would I know? It doesn't seem to translate into a paycheck."
"Soon," he said. "We're still in start-up, remember. That's the way it works. When things are up and running, then comes the regular salary. I've told you this. I just have to get to that point. And then I'll start kicking in. Contributing."
"Good thing you have someone to keep you in nice clothing until then."
"You know how much I appreciate that."
"Do you appreciate it?"
She looked at him with what he thought could be hatred. Already she was not as pretty as she had been. The silvery eyes now seemed the color of water caught in a gutter, and the lower lip had begun to fade and droop, like a wilting petal. His eyes fell to the spot on her wrist where the bracelet had been.
"It sounds as if you've begun to resent the burden," he told her. "I don't want to be a burden on you."
"Oh, that's good. A burden on me."
"You always seem angry. I'd rather not see you angry, especially if I'm the cause. That troubles me."
Her laugh was mocking. "Please. Don't put it on me. And spare yourself the agony. I can see what this is about. I can see what you're doing, what you're saying. I'm not stupid."
"Maybe I should just get my things—" It was coming sooner than he'd planned, which could complicate the logistics. No matter: There wasn't much he needed to gather anyway. At least he'd seen the wave coming, so he was prepared. He didn't need the suits and jackets. The trousers. What he wore now would more than suffice. And the cash was in his pocket, where he always kept it. He was able push his way into the room and retrieve his wallet and pack some clothes into a small duffel. She tried to stand in his way; at one point, she cried that he was breaking her arm. But he doubted that. He wasn't really very strong, not in that way.
"Of course," Elise was saying. "Of course you can stay. It's an emergency—where else could you go?"
He was looking up toward her window as she said these words, although he couldn't see her. He'd told her he was calling from his place, downtown, and that the super had let him come in only long enough to grab a few things.
"Do they know how the pipe burst?"
He thought he might be able to will her toward the window, just by thinking about it. He pressed the cell close to his ear, envisioning her appearance in silhouette form.
"No. But the damage is complete. Four inches of standing water. My insurance company is going to love it."
"So." She made a throat-clearing noise. "How long do you think it'll be?"
"As soon as I can get a cab."
"No. I mean, until you can move back in to your place."
And then it happened. There she was, in her window, head lowered as if in concentration. He wondered if this was a gesture, a mannerism, that he would come to witness regularly—was this the pose she normally struck while on the phone? She looked as if she could be praying.
"Months," he said, rolling his response in doubt, dusting it with regret. "Not just the repairs, but the mold remediation, water penetration tests—all sorts of things, I imagine." As he watched from the street, she seemed to jump a little, as if excited. He chose the moment to say it—that it would trouble him to know that he was a burden.
"A burden?" She said it with that laugh, a real laugh, nothing mocking in it, and he felt the quickening of his pulse. "How could you be a burden?"
"How's Misty?" he asked, the name of the dog suddenly coming to him.
"She's hanging in there." He detected a tremor in her voice, something suggesting stage fright, as if the situation presenting itself was new to her—as if the possibilities it hinted at were too much to think about. She wasn't as pretty as the Previous One, not by a long shot. But she would do. That laugh. "She's as excited to have you here as I am." It sounded like something she had prepared in advance—so deliberate, so considered.
"You're very kind," he told her, watching as she turned away from the window.
"It's not a problem. Really."
"I'd better go now," he said. "I think I see a cab."
She made him feel welcome, from the moment he arrived. She had cleared a drawer for him, and made space in the closet. She bought the food he said he liked. She curled her body in the bed to accommodate his length—his arms and legs, which the Previous One had so admired, which so many of them had admired.
He adapted to her as well. They left the apartment together every morning, like any couple, and at the corner she got the subway for her job at an antique bookseller's in midtown. They always made plans to meet back at the apartment in the evening. He kept to himself during the days, wandering in just after lunchtime to the bar where they'd first met, heading to the water to watch the boats move up and down the face of the river, sneaking back to the apartment for a nap. He usually made sure to be gone around the time she came home from work, just so he could make a plausible entrance. Other times, though, he'd be the one to welcome her at the door. A surprise. "Just felt like leaving the office early," he'd tell her.
That first Friday he took the credit card the Previous One had co-signed and went shopping, running it nearly to the limit on the kind of clothes she would have hated—expensive jeans, brightly colored shirts, a couple of slim black sweaters for the fall. Elise looked through his purchases, which she'd laid across the bed.
"Nice. I like that shirt. Can you wear it tonight?" He'd taken a cash advance on the card, too, so they were eating out a lot.
Before going to bed they'd take Misty out for her night-time walk. The dog clearly had a hard time making the three-block circuit Elise had established years before; each short, choppy step was an effort, and often she simply stopped and panted.
"She doesn't look like she's got much left in her," he said one night. "Why don't we give the old girl a break?"
"I have to walk her," she told him. "It's what the vet says to do. The routine, and the exercise, are the best things for her now. Besides, she's closed up in the apartment all day. I feel terrible about that. I want to get her outside as much as I can." She stooped behind the dog and filled a small plastic bag, then tied it up and tossed it on top of a trash can. "And I just love her so much." She leaned down and scratched the dog's neck, making cooing noises.
One day when Elise was working, he decided to take Misty out himself. He'd watched enough boats, felt as if he'd exhausted his other options, and a nap didn't interest him. When they'd gone the usual three blocks she stopped and looked up at him, but he tugged the leash and on they went. Six more blocks, ten—he lost track. She was barely able to stagger to her basket in the corner of the kitchen before she fell over. He did the same thing the next day. Two days after that they went even farther. At one point he had to stop and clean up after her, and when he was tying up the plastic bag he heard a voice.
"Oh, now I've seen it all."
The Previous One stood only a couple of yards off, near a newspaper box painted bright yellow.
"Got a job as a dog-walker? One of the new clients you were always talking about, I bet."
He turned and hurried away from her, but the dog slowed him down. It was like pulling a thirty-pound bag of sand. So he stopped and scooped Misty up into his arms.
"Now that's a manly thing," she said. He tried not to run, concentrating on taking even strides. "Such a chivalrous thing. Does she know the truth yet? Does the new one know the truth about you? You liar." He passed an elderly couple, their smiles turning to ice at his forced grin. Misty whined and struggled in his arms. He caught a whiff of the dog's fur. "Don't bother trying to use that card anymore, either. It's cancelled. You're on your own now. You're not getting another cent from me. Don't think I'm too dumb to learn when I've been cheated. You're lucky I don't call the police. The FBI."
He rounded a corner and leaned against a building to catch his breath. He waited for her to appear. When she didn't, he lowered Misty to the sidewalk. A girl in earphones slowed before him and smiled. He thought about her all the way back to the apartment—those earphones, the way she'd pushed her hair away when she smiled. Then he realized, pushing open the door, that he still held the plastic bag containing Misty's shit. "Stupid bitch," he said, driving the toe of his shoe into the dog's ribs. She yelped, and half-jumped, half-skidded off toward her basket in the corner. He threw the plastic bag after her. It hit the wall and opened, the contents spilling on the floor. By the time Elise came home, he'd cleaned it up; he'd even put a bowl of water next to Misty's basket.
"Left the office early again?"
He shrugged. "Not a whole lot happening today. If that's all right by you. If you need approval over how I arrange my work day."
She looked as if she'd been struck. "I didn't say it wasn't 'all right by me.'"
He sat in front of the television while she went to change out of her clothes, flipping through the channels without seeing anything they showed. When she came out of the bedroom he opened his arms to her. "Come here," he told her. She settled into his lap. She was a weight he didn't feel like bearing, but he whispered to her anyway. He needed something; he needed to hear it. "What can I say to make you laugh?"
Later that night she told him she was going away. A convention—antique booksellers from all over the east coast. "Atlanta," she said. "Ever been there?"
She was naked next to him, and as he listened to the sound of the cabs on the street below he thought back to their first night. Five weeks and a day. He couldn't tell whether it felt that long or not.
"I haven't been there."
"Mr. Talkative," she said. "Don't you want to know when I'm leaving?"
"When are you leaving?"
"Day after tomorrow. I'll be back Friday."
"Two nights?" His clothes lay across the foot of the bed, where he'd left them after undressing her first. He stood up now and started to put them on. "What am I supposed to do for two nights?"
"I don't know. Whatever it is a man does when he's freed from domestic worries for forty-eight hours."
"Domestic worries? Whoever used the word 'domestic'?"
"I'm just kidding. Have fun, is what I mean. Go to a ballgame or something."
Elise sighed. "Two nights is not that long, and I'll be back on Friday, and we'll have the whole weekend together."
He was fully dressed now, but she beckoned to him from where she sat up against the pillows. "Come here." She placed her hands alongside his waist. "Don't be so upset." She began to undo his belt. "This reminds me of the first night," she whispered.
But he pushed her hand away. "To tell you the truth," he said, "I'm kind of restless. Mind if I step out for a while?"
He passed Misty, who eyed him warily from between her paws. In the street, he looked both ways, unsure of which direction to head. It was warm—a warm evening for October, and then he remembered with some surprise that yes, it was October. The first week of the tenth month of the year. Autumn. He took several deep breaths. Maybe they could make a trip upstate, to see the leaves, to pick apples, all of that. A day in the country, or maybe even a couple of days. It would probably be needed.
He set off for the opposite side of the street and went around the corner, where there was a deli with a cash machine. The old Asian man behind the high counter seemed to regard him with extra scrutiny, even though he'd been coming in here regularly since moving in with Elise. "Nice night," he said, but the man turned to the cigarette display and pretended to adjust the packages in their plastic chutes.
For a moment he was worried the machine wouldn't take the card, but that was baseless, as was his concern about her PIN. Elise had given him her code early on, one of those first days, when she decided to wait outside the bank with Misty while he went in, and it had worked every time since. Why wouldn't it? Now the bills came out in their familiar, wave-like way, one upon the other: Ten twenties, from the savings account she so rarely checked.
He pressed "no" when prompted for the receipt, and then he casually wandered the aisles, picking an item here and another there, a small, mixed collection that would arouse neither suspicion nor curiosity, including an eight-ounce package of unsweetened chocolate he slipped into his jacket pocket. The rest he instructed the old Asian man to put in a bag. He paid with one of the fresh twenties, using the change a few minutes later in the bar down the street, where he bought his first drink. Now and then he looked around, just to see what the quiet Monday night might deliver.
The lights were out when he returned to the apartment. But there was a note on the counter: "Sorry!" it read. He left the bag next to the note and slipped into bed alongside her, disappointed to find that she had put on long pajama pants. She knew he didn't like her in bed with long pajama pants. He put his face against her back and felt her breathing. She murmured something and moved closer to him. For a long time after, he listened to the tapping horns of the taxi cabs.
It was always with him, that image in a video that still showed up on the news now and then. It followed him even into sleep. The video showed, from a distance, a mammoth wave rolling across an exposed expanse of seabed toward a beach resort. But his eye always went to the lone, tiny figure at the bottom of the frame. He had seen the clip dozens of times, and always he zeroed in on that shadow of a being who faced the onslaught directly, arms outstretched in acknowledgment of his hastening doom. In the foreground, the fronds of carefully tended resort palms swayed against the blue sky, but out there a man was letting himself be obliterated by a wave.
And it was with him now, as the hours after midnight unrolled before him like a dark, lush field. Would he have faced the wave? He had until dawn, all to himself, and most of the morning too, before he was to meet Elise at the airport. The night was cool, and traffic slid past on the black streets in near-silence. The deed was done. Done, but not without its moments of doubt, even panic. First, getting the old girl to eat enough of it. He'd read the harmless recipes on the outside of the flattened wrapper as Misty lapped up the mixture. Harmless, but not for canines, and four ounces of unsweetened chocolate should have been enough. But it was only after he'd spooned out nearly all of it that the first symptoms showed. And then the mess: He thought he'd be prepared for it, yet the diarrhea and vomit covered the corner of the kitchen near her basket like a wave of paint. The cleanup was an effort, beginning with the need to lift up her heaving body. While she was in his arms, he felt a strange undulation spread across the surface of her patchy fur, and he knew it was finished. She died in my arms, he said to himself at that moment, testing the sound of it.
He might have broken stride passing the parked patrol car, but he guessed he looked like any man on the way out to or home from the gym. The duffel was slung over his shoulder, and not heavy enough to slow him down, even with the four bricks he'd packed alongside Misty's body. At the river he sat with it between his feet. He watched a sailing yacht moving toward the open harbor under motor power, its rigging strung with lights. He looked up at the sky, yellow with the refracted city glare. He pushed the bag with his toe, an inch at a time, until it was gone.
Would he have simply faced the wave? Afterward, outside the bar, he paused with his hand on the door. He was as nearly naked, figuratively speaking, as that man who'd willingly met his end, ready to face oblivion with nothing but the clothes he wore. Still, he knew he wouldn't stand there waiting for the wall of water to wipe him out of existence. It was his decision to live always in the middle of that silent moment just before the wave collapsed beneath its weight, and he was learning something from it: That there was no shame in turning and running if turning and running offered even a chance of escape.
Two queers passed and drunkenly invited him to follow; he shook his head, careful to smile, always polite. "Our loss," one called out over his shoulder as they disappeared. He went inside. He was friendly enough with the bartender by now; he could drink until four without spending a dime if he wanted. He took a seat and ordered. It might have been the same seat she'd been in that first night. The scotch was warm in his throat. Don't wait for it to happen, he reminded himself, taking another sip; don't spread your arms in acceptance. Always run from the onrushing water.
Rain leaked down the sealed windows of the cab. They were on the highway already, just outside the striped barriers of LaGuardia.
"In my arms," he repeated, touching her elbow. She pulled away from him. The dark eyes of the driver met his in the rearview, then quickly darted back to the highway.
"You should have called right away."
"I didn't want to ruin the rest of your trip." He could hear the low groan of an approaching jet, amplified beneath the low ceiling of clouds.
"This—hearing it like this—is worse."
"I thought it was better to wait." He watched as Elise wiped her fingers across her cheek. He'd actually been ready this for reaction—it was the one he'd anticipated as most likely. He had spotted her approaching, had let her kiss him, had slung her carry-on over his shoulder and guided her down the escalator to the baggage claim with a hand at the small of her back, all while running through the various scenarios and his response to each. Only when they'd climbed into the cab had he told her. "I really thought it was better to wait," he repeated.
They moved slowly through the stuttering traffic, and finally, on the bridge into the city, he felt her take his hand. She was still staring out the window, but at least he had her fingers on his. He stared into the rearview, daring the driver to look back at him now.
At the building, she fished two twenties from her purse. They rode the elevator in silence; he opened the door to the apartment and let her enter before him. There was no chance of her suspecting anything—he had seen to that. The empty basket was in its place by the wall, and inside it were the old blankets, now laundered and folded. He'd taken some other things—the water bowl, a half-finished sack of dry food, the collar—down to the trash compactor in the basement. The license tag was in a sewer several blocks away, and the empty chocolate wrapper had vanished at the touch of a match.
"Are you all right?"
She nodded quickly and then leaned against him. He stroked her hair and touched her face, and when she pulled away she showed a grin he had not seen before; it made her teeth look large and gray, as if she were an old woman. It wasn't real; it bothered him.
"It was her time," she said, though it didn't sound to him as if she believed this. "I'm trying to think of where I was last night, when it happened, and I can't. So, am I all right? I don't know. Maybe I will be. I guess I'll have to be. Won't I?"
It was precisely the kind of talk he hated—self-involved chatter deceitfully masquerading as fortitude. He listened from the kitchen as she unpacked her things in the bedroom, thinking that this—the rough buzz of zippers and rush of drawers on their rails—was a much more telling response. That and the unmistakable sound of her sobbing. He couldn't stand it when she cried, couldn't stand it when any of them cried. So he made his own noises, there in the kitchen, moving bottles in the refrigerator, opening cabinet doors, running the water. He stayed there until she came out to him. It had been almost three full days, and it was her turn to show something now. He'd gone all the way out to LaGuardia to meet her, paying his own cab fare. He'd been alone for three days. It was her turn now. Time to act like a woman who was glad to be home.
"How's the work on your apartment?"
The questioned surprised him, and when he looked across the table, her eyes told him nothing. It could have been the shadows of the restaurant, a place they didn't come to much because he didn't like it. But it had always been one of her favorites, and tonight he had suggested it. "Where should I start?" he asked. With the tip of his finger he pushed the low candle—a flame in a small frosted glass—toward her side of the table.
"I don't know." She shrugged. "Anywhere."
"It's coming along. Why do you want to know?"
"Coming along," she repeated.
A waitress slid past them in the darkness. He raised his hand to get her attention, but she was gone.
"All right, it's not the most concrete response. I'm just telling you what they're telling me."
"I'd like to see it sometime."
"We've been down there before. Remember?"
"Not just the building," she said. "I'd like to go inside, too."
"Well, we can't go in until they do the mold remediation. I've tried. But they've got tape across the door, they've got guys in haz-mat suits. The elevator won't even stop on that floor. I mean, it's serious."
"And the insurance?"
He laughed. "Why all the questions?" When she didn't say anything, he leaned forward. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were looking for me to move out."
"What makes you think I might not want to move in?"
She turned and lifted her head, and the waitress rematerialized. Though he'd been ready to order the drinks—he was almost always the one to do it—Elise did it this time. The waitress smiled and disappeared.
"Yes. With you. It makes sense, right? It's bigger. It'll be all but brand new by the time it's redone. And, to be honest—can I admit something?"
"Of course." He reached across the table, hoping to find her hands. But she sat back in a way that made him think she had them folded in her lap.
"The sight of that basket in the corner when I came in, and the way the blankets were folded. It was almost too much. And the days since . . . " She stared down at the surface of the table. "It just hasn't gotten better."
"Too many memories." He took his arms off the table.
"It sounds so silly when you say it."
"I don't mean it to."
"Anyway. It's a thought. A fresh start might be good."
He hardly ate his food, a pile of chicken in curry-flavored gravy, and the beer tasted as if there was soap in the glass. When they went out on the street, she linked her arm through his. They walked back toward her apartment, close enough so that her hair touched his face when a breeze came in off the river.
"Why did you throw away her license tags?"
He stopped. "What?"
"It was the one thing."
He laughed—aware of how it sounded, a faint echo of the laugh he'd mustered in the restaurant. "I don't know. Now you're asking me this?"
"I just don't understand."
"There's not a lot to understand, really."
"I mean, there's always one thing, right? The thing you want to keep." Now that they were apart, it was her face that was obscured. She pulled back her hair and looked at him. "I guess that's what I would have thought to keep. The one thing."
"So, I thought to keep the basket. And the blankets. What can I tell you?" He stepped around her to continue walking; she'd follow if he got far enough ahead. But at the corner, she still hadn't caught up with him. He called to her. "Are you coming?"
Under the streetlight, poised and still, she could have been anyone, just another lonely, anonymous woman. He would never have noticed her if this was how he'd first encountered her; he'd have passed right by, on the way to something better. She would never have gotten his attention if this was how he first saw her. But now she lifted her head and came toward him, and he heard the laugh.
He let his arms fall to his sides, and he felt his shoulders relax. It was the sound he'd been waiting for since she'd come back from her trip. Now he knew they'd get through one more night, at least; now there'd be time to think of answers that would put an end to the questions. His spread his arms as she approached, ready to accept her, and just as suddenly realized what was happening. From under her laugh came the words he'd begun to believe he'd escape hearing. They moved across the rapidly closing space between them, a wave he knew he couldn't outrun.
"Kevin. I know what you did."