small. Rummage through his closet while he’s sleeping,
through the old college boxes he has folded shut, the red sleeve
of a sweatshirt poking out. You’ll find two textbooks
he forgot to sell back—econ and physics—and an
album of snapshots from some spring break. He’s suntanned
in all of the photos; his glasses hide his eyes. The girl next
to him will be blonde and very thin. Tug at your t-shirt. Remind
yourself that birth control makes you gain three pounds a year.
Put everything back the way you found it—make sure
the sweatshirt is facing the ground, the torn flap of the
cover pressed neatly down. Wade through the dark back into
bed. The space you left will have shrunk to a vague impression
in the sheet, a wrinkle in the mattress. Curl against him
and trace circles on his back.
Some winter morning, your sister will ask you how much
you really know about him. He’s six years older than you—maybe more, you’re bad with
months. Shuffle uncomfortably in your chair. Stir your cocoa. Say: “We
haven’t been dating that long.” Or: “He teaches at St. Mary’s
Elementary school.” Don’t mention the toothbrush you’ve already
left in his bathroom. At home, look him up on Google. Wish his last name weren’t
so common. Try to remember his middle initial. Remind yourself he’ll
be over after class. Plan a hotdish. Delete browser history.
Your sister works at the court house. Decide that if he’s a criminal, it’s
best to know now. She will find: Two parking tickets, unpaid. One moving traffic
violation last year. Tell her: Well—it’s best to know now.
You will find yourself alone in his apartment on Groundhog’s Day. He will
have to stay late for conferences. In your pocket, toy with the key he gave you
last week—a slim silver copy, specially made. Wander around the living
room. His apartment will always smell vaguely of cinnamon and laundry detergent
and furnace heat; years later, you will remember the way those scents just
sat on the air, unmoving. Notice now how clean he is, how orderly. The mini-blinds
will never grow dust. His bookshelves will be alphabetized. He reads Salinger
and Dostoevsky. Remember to tell him he needs Dr. Seuss.
Notice his phone blinking red. Three messages. Stare at the answering machine.
Wait ten minutes. Touch the gray button with the tip of your fingernail, lightly.
The first will be his mother. Good. She will want to know if he’s still
coming up next weekend, and not to forget that new crock pot she has on order,
and is he bringing whatshername, Katie? Not so good. You hate being called
Second, Steve from Desota—Just calling to remind you about Friday. Wonder about Friday. Wonder what Desota is. Stretch slowly, peer out the
will be covering the parking lot. No fresh tracks.
Third. His mother again. Paul, honey, maybe it would be best not to bring
her this weekend, your dad isn’t ready to meet another new girl.
Busy yourself at the stove. Have an omelet waiting—green peppers, olives,
mushrooms, cheddar, the way your father used to make them while you watched
cartoons. Remember Bugs Bunny, and how your hair used to be so long it brushed
the ground when you sat. Think of making yourself a nametag: New Girl comma
Another. Tell yourself it’s better than Katie. Don’t ask him
about this weekend.
For Valentine’s Day, get him a sweater or a watch, something from the basement
of that huge department store downtown. Pretend you don’t know about the
bracelet he bought at Ranegan’s. Pretend you like bracelets. While
he runs in to check your reservations, search through the list of names in
Make a smaller list in your head. Who are: Barbara, Sarah Jean, HLM.
In March, drive past his apartment when he has tests to grade. Yellow light
will peer through the window, blinking out at your car. Think about the deck,
tiny bird feet leave prints in the snow like a code. Three tiny slashes,
the small round mark of a claw. Think: SOS. Resolve to bring him hot cocoa.
to your sister’s instead. Watch reruns of M*A*S*H* and stare idly at the
clock in the hall. Wonder how many tests he’s graded, his crisp handwriting
at the top of the page, red ink blurred by a thumb.
Every weekend, your mother will ask you when she’s going to meet him. You
will come up to meet her for lunch, wearing one of those Sunday dresses she still
buys you every holiday. She will reach across your salad to tug at your collar,
folding the fabric neatly along your neck. Slide your napkin across the checkered
tabletop. You will be sitting in her favorite café, the one she
took you and your sister to every Thursday between the divorce and the
college. The yellow lights will leave a stain on your hands.
Tell her that Paul is very busy.
Your mother likes to say this: Someday you’re gonna wake up,
baby, and wonder where the hell you are. She has been saying this since
you were fifteen,
when she decided you were finally old enough to understand the word sex.
You have always seen this as her personal warning against beach parties
and those one night stands she would tell you about while her eyes wandered,
her slim hands sweeping over the table. You would picture yourself in a
tawdry novel, waking naked in purple sheets under the blank light of noon.
Watch her as she says it this time, picking at your salad with her fork.
unavoidable, Kate, she will say. Remember, you’re gonna wake
Finish it for her, break eye contact.
Wonder where the hell you are.
It will happen like this: you will be driving home in April, through fog
and a cold rain. Ahead of you, last year’s leaves will blow through the street,
gusting and falling as the cool air beats. Beside you, at the edge of the road,
two boys will be riding bicycles. You will know the kind—you remember
the chrome of handlebars, the dulled red metal, colors flattened by heat
seats broken by springs that poke through fabric to rasp against jeans.
The boys will be twelve or thirteen, slender, confident. Keep to the center,
thick yellow line; notice the way they swerve now and then toward your
They will wait for you to pass. You will see it happen through your rearview
On their bicycles, the boys will cross traffic. They will be headed to
the other side, the strip mall that beckons with blue light and pedestrians
umbrellas. The first boy will pass easily. The second will falter. For
you, a moment has never lasted this long. You will see his bicycle twist,
against tar: a grinding, tearing screech. Notice he isn’t wearing
a helmet. Notice the looming white lines of a truck beginning to skid through
In that moment, everything will cease. You will have time to grip your
steering wheel, clench your hands, almost brake. You will have time to
think of squirrels.
You will remember their tiny gray forms, so easily crushed, how they seem
somehow no different from that crumpled boy on the road—bodies bent
close, limbs awry, the inevitability of tires on wet tar roaring ever closer.
Chant to yourself: Oh God Oh God.
And the truck will swerve. The boy will move, scrambling on scraped hands
as the white beast lurches around him, slamming a curb. The geese that
to rest beside the road will explode into flight. The air will fill with
white feathers and the crackling rain will finally ebb.
Don’t stop. Instead, reach into your purse for your cell phone. Your boyfriend’s
number will be listed first: not alphabetical. Shake as you dial. Remember standing
in the middle of a road, five years old, your sister pulling you urgently across.
Remember the truck bearing fast upon you, the traffic lights that gleamed on
your skin—red, green, a quick passing yellow that turned the whole
world gold for an instant. Remember not telling your mother.
Your boyfriend will answer on the second ring. For a moment, don’t speak.
Think of everything you’ve memorized about him: his schedule, the
names of his favorite students, the long scar trailing the palm of his
His voice will be groggy from a nap.
He will say: Kate? Think that he knows your silences, the way you breathe.
Remember Caller ID.
Say: Yeah. It’s me, sorry. Did I wake you?
It’s okay, he will tell you.
Or: do stop. A mile past, pull over to the side of the road.
Get out of your car. Stand at the edge of the curb, hugging
yourself. Passengers in sluggish
vehicles will glance at you, their heads turned slightly as they roll forward.
Listen to groaning tires, the lead slap of rain on pavement. Feel your
damp hair curl at the ends.
Remember your sister’s voice over cocoa. How much
do you really know about this guy? she asks. Think of
unpaid parking tickets, the feel of his
rising and falling beneath your fingertips, the smell of cinnamon. Listen
to motors stutter, the howl of approaching trains.
Think how quiet it is here, how all around you the stillness rings.