The reality of that summer came back to me when Sophia reappeared without warning in our hometown. We hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in five years, but the memory of those afternoons on our old garage steps had refused to die. Sophia promised she would remain in Fayetteville, and she used some of the money our father had recently willed her to buy a townhouse on the city’s outskirts. She was twenty-eight and as lovely as I’d remembered.
Except for essentials, she’d always tried to resist the impulse to own things. A week after she graduated from Wake Forest, she packed a black duffel bag that had belonged to our father and fled North Carolina. She didn’t call before she left, but over the years, postcards drifted back to me from Barcelona and Cairo. Only two of them bore lines of her pointed, knowing cursive. I hid all of the postcards in a cedar jewelry box I’d taken from her childhood bedroom the week before our mother rented out the colonial on Lakeshore Drive. Writing Sophia back hadn’t been possible. Part of me had prayed it was no longer necessary.
Not long after she returned, she started dropping by my business after work to sketch the orchids in my greenhouse. My wife—I married Brooke four years after my sister disappeared—was pressing me to close it. You don’t need the greenhouse anymore, she began saying after Sophia reappeared. You’re making money hand over fist landscaping those condo complexes, she said. Still, on gray nights, I was pleased to water the luminous clusters of orchids after everyone had gone home.
Each white phalaenopsis had a pair of ghostly petals that opened like wings, and Sophia liked to paint versions of them with pink watercolor. My sister believed in abstract art only: She said it was the most honest depiction of reality. Realism is not art, she often told me.
Two weeks before Christmas, she didn’t come by after work. She’d been home since July, and she always called me before she left her job at the florist shop. When I entered the greenhouse, the slender rows of seedlings stood motionless in the muggy air. Then I smelled the smoke. I crept down the right aisle and spied my wife’s younger brother, who was about to press a cigarette into an orchid bloom. It wasn’t a first.
He balanced the smoking butt between his lips and smiled winsomely, mechanically. I’d agreed to let him work in the afternoons because my wife thought the experience might strengthen his college applications.
Before I could confiscate his pack of Salem menthols, my cell phone rang. Dusk had descended on the city, but a thin metallic haze clung to the clouds scudding past the sparkling garland twined around the rim of the lighted water tower. “Get over here,” Sophia whispered. “Please get over here.” Her cell cut out.
I swung toward the door. Behind me, my wife’s brother snickered.
“We’ll catch you later,” he said. “We’ll be on the look out for you.”
He often talked about himself in the first person plural.
A police car blocked the entrance to Sophia’s driveway. Her boyfriend’s shiny charcoal sedan was parked crookedly in the front yard, and I raced up the front steps.
Sophia was standing next to the stove. A cop with a squat, creased face was cradling a plastic bag stuffed with ice against her cheek. I immediately recognized him; each spring, his wife bought a red delicious sapling from my greenhouse.
He nodded at me, and I took the plastic bag from him. He clomped into the living room to give us some privacy. The pink outline of a hand gleamed on Sophia’s cheek.
“What in God’s name happened?”
“He was saying things, awful things.” Sophia’s brown eyes suddenly looked black. “He was out of his mind. I locked myself in the coat closet and called 911.”
She felt her dry upper lip with one finger. “He slapped me.”
“Has he ever hit you before? Has he ever yelled at you before?”
She shook her head back and forth. “He accused me of cheating on him.” Her fingers hovered over her cheek.
I checked to see if the cop was in the living room. He wasn’t.
“What else did he say?”
“I think he’s drunk,” she said. “I’ve never heard him scream like that before.”
I dared a glance out the bay window. The cop and his partner were easing her boyfriend into their car. He was a tense, popular man who worked a political beat for The Fayetteville Observer. On weekends, he helped his friend Russell restore classic cars. Sophia had begun dating him several weeks after she came home.
“Sophia, look at me. What else was he saying before you called the cops?”
She stared at the painting beside the window. “Pray he’s drunk.”
A vein in her neck thumped, and I touched the bag of ice to it. A glowing sheath of hair spilled across her shoulders. Only the top layer was blonde; the underside was a pale shade of silver. Our father’s hair had turned the same color at her age.
“Sophia? Did the cops hear the things he was saying?”
Before she could reply, the cop with the squat face clomped back into the room. Although his weary expression looked normal, Sophia stared at the tiled floor. I managed a nod, and he informed us that night court would be closed by the time her boyfriend was booked. Someone could bail him out in the morning.
After he left, I gaped at the tiny painting beside the bay window for what felt like an hour but was only a minute. Sophia had abstracted a Luna moth from an old photograph we’d taken as children. Although the moth lacked a mouth, the red eyespots looming out of the pale green paint seemed to silently interrogate us.
I checked my cell and slid it back into the pocket of my khakis. My wife had left three messages in the last hour.
A dry, crystalline darkness had settled over Sophia’s subdivision. The beige townhouses were identical—they’d been built in less than a year—and many had been sold to retired paratroopers from Fort Bragg. My company had been hired to do the landscaping, but that job wasn’t until spring, and my tennis shoes slipped on a spine of icy dirt in Sophia’s yard. She grabbed my elbow to keep us from falling.
A silver streetlight with a hooded fluorescent bulb cast a sallow halo over the police car. My sister’s boyfriend glared out from the passenger window. In the muffled half-light, the whites of his eyes were lustrous, and his dark curls stood up as if electrified. He barely resembled the man I’d been introduced to in August.
He jammed a putty-colored palm against the window. Each finger was shrunken, tongue-like. His eyes skidded over Sophia and honed in on me.
He screamed. “Pervert!”
I ducked my head.
His shoulders shook. “You’re fucking sick!”
Sophia tugged me in the direction of my Volvo, but my legs wouldn’t budge. I watched as her boyfriend turned toward the cops in the front seat. Now, he was telling them things. The cop I knew gave him a look that seemed to demand: Who’s this freak? It was as though Sophia’s boyfriend had to be out of his mind to say whatever he’d said.
The cops backed their car out of the driveway. I didn’t know the one who was driving—he’d been in the back yard with my sister’s boyfriend the entire time—but he stared blankly at us as he drove past. Maybe his eyes veiled his suspicions; maybe his eyes hid very little at all. Sophia and I would never be able to say for certain.
Except that it wouldn’t matter. Not in the end.
“I never should have come back.” Sophia cooled her swollen cheek against the passenger window inside my battered Volvo. “But I thought it would be all right by now. I wouldn’t have come back if I’d thought otherwise.”
I steered the car along the street that led to Sunny Side Circle. My house was in Haymount, which was only a few miles from our old colonial on Lakeshore. Before our father left for California, he gave the house to our mother, who rented it out after trailing her fourth husband to Charlotte. Sophia had graduated from college a few weeks later.
“I thought we’d be all right. Didn’t we try to make it all right?”
“Yes,” I said. Somehow, my voice remained steady.
She was silent for a minute. “I tried staying away.”
A stoplight on Fort Bragg road flashed red. Kudzu overwhelmed a gulley beside the sidewalk. I turned to face her. “How did he know?”
She shivered and wound part of her long, silvery hair around her neck.
A muscle in my eyelid trembled. “I just don’t see how your boyfriend could’ve guessed. How did he know, Sophia?”
She snapped on the interior light. She stared at me. “What’re you saying?” Her rounded features were very hard and pure.
I pulled up beside the small, triangular park on General Lee Street and let the engine idle. Next to one of the wide black rubber swings, three teens—two boys and a girl—were tossing fries to a weedy spaniel. When the taller boy chucked the empty box at the dog’s scarred nose, it started furiously licking the cardboard. The teens giggled and took turns swigging from an oily brown paper bag being handed around.
I squeezed the steering wheel. “Maybe he just sensed something wasn’t right.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t know.”
“Are you going to bail him out tomorrow?”
She tried to smooth her hair with her hands. Heat poured from the vents, but she shivered again. “He’s never been arrested before. Even speeding tickets frighten him. I never should’ve called the police.”
“You had to,” I said. “He was out of his mind.”
“What he said about you before they came makes me sick.”
“Would it help if you bailed him out?”
“It might.” She winced. “It might not.”
“If only your neighbor had been there to get rid of him right away.”
“That wouldn’t have mattered,” she said. “He was hoping you’d show up.”
What did you say when he confronted you? I tried to make my lips form those precise words and failed. Wouldn’t what she had to say only fill the car with shadows? My boyfriend knows, Thomas. I couldn’t lie to him anymore. He was screaming at me, and I told him I’d never loved him. I said I couldn’t love him.
I flicked off the interior light. Twice a week now, I picked up Sophia at the florist shop where she worked, and we spent our lunch hours parked in a wooded lot a mile from her subdivision. For months, we’d been doing that. No one was ever around, and at first, we sat and talked about her travels. She spoke of teaching English near Las Ramblas in Barcelona, about getting lost in Rome searching for the night bus to Monte Mario, about the spells of green rain in Cairo. Listening to her voice, I found myself reliving the first shy, guilty kisses we’d shared her senior year at Wake.
She asked me about starting my business, about the novels I’d read since graduating from U.N.C. We talked as we had as children; there was no one else. After the first three months, we understood very little had changed for both of us.
Her tapered fingers, the pale fuzz behind her knees, the soft, blue taste of moss; our first time had been on a gorgeous late October afternoon, and the light in the back seat of my car had been solid white: She was ready when I placed my mouth between her thighs and scratched the damp hair growing there. Afterwards, her mouth had been a warm folding around me. I touched her jaw, her ear. I’d nearly suffocated—gladly.
Every afternoon, once it was done, we rested with our heads together in the back seat. Sometimes, she slept with hers in my lap. She’d done that after our father left, but looking into her sleeping face—looking as only a grown man can—I saw its lack of guile was a kind of deception for everyone else. I’d rested my palm on her back, and I felt as if the air inside her lungs was inside mine, too. But I knew such feelings couldn’t possibly make sense to other people. It would be a mistake to expect them to understand that what appeared to be purely a betrayal was somehow an expression of a yearning for life.
Thief, I thought. I’m a thief. After Sophia reappeared, my wife had begun talking seriously about starting a family, and I’d immediately said no.
And now—Sophia’s boyfriend knew the truth. His story would be too good for most people to ignore. We would be cast as either the victim or the villain. Even the people we’d known our entire lives would need to do that to make some sense of us.
She was curled against the door. When I touched her earlobe, she blinked and blinked.
Haymount’s streets were narrow and most glistened cleanly. The houses we’d known our entire lives seemed to crowd around the car. The brown grass looked shorn. White Christmas lights illuminated the freshly painted porches and naked magnolia limbs. Sunny Side Circle loomed before us, and as the Volvo reeled into the cul-de-sac, my gut fell.
My wife’s bronze stilettos lay side by side on the Oriental rug she’d bought for her sitting room. A furniture catalogue was splayed open on the coffee table. She was balled up on the sofa, asleep in a gray strapless dress.
She’d planned for us to attend a cocktail party on Lakeshore Drive. The hostess was the daughter of a senator. My wife had spent a month shopping for a dress.
I hadn’t minded, really. She was a sharp listener who knew how to tell a polite dirty joke at a party. Three years ago, at our wedding, her father had made it clear how much she pleased him. She was sweeter and prettier than her sister, he’d told all the men at our reception. My wife still competed for his favor. Her sister loathed her.
“Beautiful dress,” Sophia said.
She halted in the doorway. Once, she’d come by for coffee, and my wife, like my old girlfriend at Chapel Hill, had sought and failed to locate some likeness of herself in Sophia. Now, my wife always spoke of Sophia the way a woman speaks of a friend she wishes to resemble but no longer has any affection for.
“Please, Sophia.” I closed the door. “Not tonight.”
“Don’t look like that,” she said.
“The guest room is down the hall,” I said.
She wrapped her arms around her stomach. She didn’t like to touch the furniture Brooke had selected for our house.
“What about my study?” I said.
She curled up on our father’s couch. When he’d died the year before, he willed his antiques to us. I passed Sophia a quilt and pillow.
“These are yours?”
I nodded. “Don’t. Please don’t.”
She clutched the pillow to her chest. Her body seemed to press in on itself.
“Take me to the Holiday Inn.”
“I know this is awful. But I’ll worry myself to death if you’re alone.”
Her lips were very dry. “I didn’t tell him.” She squeezed my hand.
I touched her bare earlobe. “Do you want a glass of water?”
“Please,” she said.
Brooke was leaning against the stove when I slid open the kitchen door.
“Where the hell have you been?”
She stared at me.
“I forgot about the party.” My ears burned. “I know you wanted to go.”
“My brother said you shouted at him this afternoon. He said you rushed off without paying him.” She smoothed a wrinkle in her satin dress. “I called you, Thomas.”
“What if you’d been in trouble? Or hurt?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sorry,” she said. “You seem to say that a lot lately.”
Brooke’s arms were as spindly as bird legs. She was thinner than ever before, and tonight, even her skin seemed made of a kind of fragile beige bone.
She peered around. Her blue eyes watered.
“Where is she?”
I waited for her to ask what had happened. I braced myself, but she simply wandered out of the kitchen. Her footfalls were so soft I could barely hear her heels tapping on the wooden stairs. She walked slowly up to our room, where I knew she’d snap open her bottle of Valium and drowse beneath the television’s bleary eye. Since college, she hadn’t been able to fall asleep without the sound of sitcom laughter. As for the Valium, I’d discovered that habit not long after our honeymoon.
Still, there had been times when we could’ve told our friends everything was fine and believed it. That was before Sophia had come back—when I’d given up on her ever coming back to me. I’d never felt for Brooke how I did for Sophia. But before I met Brooke, I’d already given up on feeling that passionately about anyone else; the tepid companionship that defined so many marriages would be enough for me. And maybe it would improve over time, I’d tried telling myself.
Still, wasn’t a lot of my life with Brooke good? Wasn’t it enough to start a business and buy a house with money I’d earned? Brooke had sold surgical supplies but was able to quit after the wedding, and now our rooms were full and artfully arranged. I enjoyed giving her the things she’d been raised to expect. Mostly, though, I was relieved to seem normal, to act like everyone else. Yet I’d never dreamed of finding myself with someone like Brooke, and I often wondered if she felt the same way about me.
I rested my hands on the countertop and tried to focus on the stainless steel clock mounted on the wall over the sink.
In my study, Sophia was cocooned within my quilt. Only her nose poked out.
I sat on the arm of the couch. After our father left us, he wired money from San Francisco every month, but we hardly ever saw him. When he died in a car wreck near the Golden Gate Bridge, he was with a woman who’d been arrested for prostitution. I’d told Brooke that. What she didn’t know—what only Sophia and my father’s fiancé knew—was that the prostitute hadn’t been a woman.
Even the paramedics who’d fought to resuscitate him had been surprised.
He must’ve looked quite convincing before the crash.
The driving range near my house was open until midnight. The grounds were state of the art, and my company had installed them. It was my first major job.
The range had replaced the old drive-in theater. In the 1950’s, when our parents were high school seniors, our father would take our mother to see comedies with Cary Grant. “I should’ve guessed,” she said after our father moved out. “The way he’d laugh at those movies. Only a queer would giggle like your father. Only queers wriggle their hands like that. Your father is nothing but a fake man. He’s a fake man trying to pass for a real one.”
I jerked the most expensive driver out of my bag.
That summer after he left, our mother spent most of her time at the club searching for a new husband. During the day, she left us with maids. Sophia read nature guides to me on the garage steps. That’s how we discovered Luna moths laid eggs on sweetgum.
When the green caterpillars appeared in our backyard, we collected them. After they squirmed loose from their cocoons, Sophia pinched their bodies like the naturalist on television. Our father was an E.R. doctor, and he’d left behind a box of plastic syringes. Sophia filled one with rubbing alcohol, and she was about to stick the needle into a moth—several had emerged with extra antennae attached to their odd, iridescent heads—but I clasped her around the waist. No, I whispered into her ear. Please don’t do that.
So we released them. Once free of their cocoons, their stunted wings were very soft and fragile, but they pumped in their own bodily fluids to enlarge them. Adult Luna moths lived only to mate with each other; they couldn’t eat anything.
For the moths that couldn’t fly, we made a place in Sophia’s jewelry box.
After they were dead, we spread them across Sophia’s white pillowcase and examined the red and black eyespots on their wings with a magnifying glass. Most nights, though, we huddled in Sophia’s twin bed after supper. Our mother brought home men, and they stayed up drinking, laughing, screaming and throwing things. One night, one of them urged our mother to wake up Sophia. “I bet she’d like to sit on my lap,” we heard him grunt coyly. I could tell from the way my mother’s laugh sounded that she was drunk—what my sister called dead drunk. “Those little fakes,” our mother slurred. “Those little phonies.”
I’d squeezed Sophia’s hand. But she sprang out of bed and jerked up the window, and we climbed out. Together, we made a bed of pine needles and dogwood branches in the backyard garden. I snuggled against her spine and pushed up her pajama top so I could feel the skin between her shoulder blades. The warmth of our bodies blotted out the surrounding night, and, when she turned towards me, I kissed the tips of her fingers.
That night, like so many that summer, we slept outside. I often dreamed of a velvety darkness with a silvery opening at its center, and whenever Sophia quivered and made mewing noises, I rubbed my foot back and forth between her thighs until we were able to fall back to sleep. She did the same for me.
In those days, I would’ve done anything for her. And she was still the only person I felt like myself around.
I whacked a golf ball, and it seemed to hover over the range before simply dissolving into the darkness. My club dropped, and I pressed my temples.
I’d begun thinking about leaving Fayetteville. Sophia had never mentioned that, but I thought about starting over where no one knew us. Except living with Sophia would mean I’d always be different from the people around me in a way I couldn’t hope to explain.
Dazzling spotlights bore down on the other golfers’ heads. Several wore navy fleeces, and their foreheads shone as if they’d been wiped clean with a sponge. The sweat in my armpits felt frozen. A man to the left of me waved—he was a close friend of Sophia’s boyfriend; his name was Russell. I smiled and waved back.
In the parking lot, we dumped our clubs into our trunks. He asked me how I was. How business was. His pale eyes looked calm. A retired Army officer, Russell had been handsome at one point, but now, the skin on his neck sagged.
“Everything’s all right.” My voice remained level.
He left, and the other men climbed into their SUVs. I crushed my driver against the asphalt. Which men out here slept with their assistants before they went home to eat supper with their families? Who prowled Hay Street after their wives and children were asleep? Who had kiddie porn saved on their computers? What would the same men think when they heard about me?
On the way to her townhouse the next morning, Sophia called to find out if her boyfriend had been bailed out. He had. Russell had come by an hour before.
We went to our jobs. Sophia arranged bouquets, and Christmastime was busy. Many of the women who frequented the shop were Brooke’s friends, and I worried. Since Sophia’s boyfriend wrote for the paper, I knew his arrest wouldn’t be reported. The fact that his mother was a Bellwether would help him, too.
The hang-ups began the third morning after his arrest. A white slit of sunlight shimmered across my desk, and the cordless phone seemed to grow colder in my hand until my fingers were numb. I threw down the receiver. A half-corroded battery burst out and spun on the beige tiles. My office door swung open slowly, and when Brooke’s brother nosed in his head, our eyes met. He slammed the door and dashed down the hall.
The parking lot at the driving range was empty except for Russell. When I rushed past his MG with my bag of clubs, he smiled.
“You sure like your ass freaky, don’t you?” he muttered, almost to himself.
I shielded my eyes with my free hand.
His wide gray eyes had looked moist.
When I returned from the driving range, Brooke was standing in front of the kitchen sink. She was trimming flower stems with a pair of black plastic scissors and didn’t turn around. We hadn’t said much the last couple of days, and she hadn’t asked about Sophia. Outside, the floodlights lit the metal table and chairs on the brick patio.
“You hit this afternoon?”
“Yes,” I said.
“See anyone we know?”
I shook my head no. My arms felt as though they were made of rubber.
“These are beautiful, Thomas.” She whirled around artfully on her low heels.
I stared at the bouquet of lime green orchids. The petals were spotted with red.
She fluffed the arrangement into a more pleasing shape. “I know you’re sorry about the other night. I know you didn’t mean to do that.”
Her eyes shone—heartbreakingly lucid.
“Thanks for the chocolate, too,” she said. “Maybe I’ll have one after supper.”
She handed me a plate of creamed chicken and sautéed green beans.
“Thomas?” She studied me as if I were a glowing specimen pinned beneath a sheet of glass. “Are you sick? You don’t look like yourself.”
I ducked my head. My heart pounded, each beat feeling more distant than the last.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Everything’s all right.”
The next afternoon, I found Sophia in her studio, sitting on a wooden chair next to the oval window that overlooked the neighbor’s backyard. She’d called in sick.
I handed her the box of chocolate. I’d told Brooke they’d sent the wrong kind and wouldn’t let her unwrap it.
“Was there a card or note?”
I gave her the slip of paper. The note had been typed on a computer.
“I’m sorry about the other night,” she read out loud. “You’re everything a husband could want. Love Always, Thomas.”
She sighed. “The notes from my shop are handwritten.”
“He wouldn’t go there,” I said.
“He’d call you and hang up, yes. Tell things at parties.” She picked up the chocolate. “But this?”
“He hit you, Sophia.”
She plunked down on her ragged, paint-flecked sofa. “One of Brooke’s friends came by the shop yesterday.”
“While I was running her MasterCard, she asked me if I enjoyed ruining other women’s lives.” She rubbed her nose with her knuckles. “She called me a cunt.”
I gathered her to me. Her undershirt smelled of baby powder and moth balls. “Let’s just get in your car and go,” I said.
She pulled away. “You don’t mean that. You don’t. Anyway, we’re freaks.”
“Don’t,” I said. “Please.”
“Well we are, aren’t we?”
She let me smooth her hair. Soon, even the wisps at her temples would be silver. Maybe my own hair would resemble hers in a year or two. We looked so much alike, but the curved features that made her face so lovely were plain on a man’s.
She tried to smile. “What’re you thinking about?”
“How I was the only boy in first grade with potato chip and pixie stick sandwiches for lunch.”
She managed a laugh. “That’s exactly what you needed to grow big and strong.”
“Don’t you think you could’ve given me an apple every now and then?”
“I asked you what you wanted. Remember that day you cried for a peanut butter and chocolate sandwich? I never fixed that.”
“Only because you didn’t know how to melt chocolate.” I thought of how, before our father left, he convinced Sophia to bring a glob of her fat in for show and tell. It had come from her right arm. She’d fallen off a jungle gym while teaching me a trick, and he’d dropped the fat into a Corona bottle full of rubbing alcohol after stitching her up.
She touched my eyebrow. “I know you do.” She rested her face against my neck, but something flashed by the window.
She jerked away. “What was that?”
I peered through the window. A dachshund in a cheap gray sweater was racing up and down the neighbor’s deck.
The dachshund yowled brightly, and the front doorbell chimed. Sophia stared into the peephole, but I knew it was Brooke.
I opened the coat closet in the foyer and shut the door. A steel chain hung from a naked bulb barely visible in the darkness, and I buried my head in Sophia’s down jacket.
The bell chimed again, and I barely heard the door give way.
Sophia slumped in a coral-colored chair facing her bedroom window. I’d run upstairs after the front door banged shut again.
“Did you mean it?” She said. “About getting in my car?”
“But where would we go?”
She raised her bamboo blinds. “She knows.”
Sophia twisted around in her chair. “You could ride it out. Maybe it wouldn’t ever be the same, but most people will move on. You’ve got a business. You’re married. It isn’t the same. Not for me. I can’t stay. I won’t stay.”
Her paintings were lined up along the wall. I stared at the bubble wrap around the frames. I realized she’d begun packing a month ago. “That isn’t really it, is it?”
She stood up, her back very straight. “Everywhere I’ve ever lived people talked about arrangements, about compromises. But it’s nearly always the same, in the end. They grow old, and everything of real value has vanished on them.
“They go blind,” she said. “I’ve watched how they slowly blind themselves. They have to. Or they’d see that what counted so much in the beginning is lost.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but she held up her hand.
“They’re alive but only in so many places,” she said.
Her hand formed a fist. “Not me. I won’t ever let that happen to me. We swore we’d never be our parents. Remember how we talked in college?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe we weren’t realistic.” Even as the words left my mouth, Sophia’s saying filled my head: Realism is not art.
She continued to speak as if I’d said nothing. “When we were children, I told myself we were surrounded by enemies. But I could always rely on you. And you never let me down. Not once. There’s no one else I can say that about.”
“We did live with enemies.” I stared out her bedroom window. “We did.”
“I’ve been thinking for some time.” She picked up a pale green silk scarf she’d painted. “You can come with me if you want. We have enough money. But maybe the kind of life you want is here.”
I heard her bare feet padding down the stairs.
“You decide what you’re capable of.”
Brooke was waiting at the foot of our bed in a gray silk bathrobe. Her hands were folded on her lap. Light from the open window streaked across her reddened cheeks.
“Her boyfriend came by,” she said.
“After you left for work this morning.”
I sat down a few feet from her.
“Say something,” she said.
I rested my palms on the comforter’s thick, soft folds. What would’ve happened if Sophia hadn’t reappeared? Or what if she’d managed to fall in love with her boyfriend? In the end, would it have made a difference for me? Wouldn’t my life with Brooke still have been an evasion? In the end, would I even remember enough to see that?
I wished my father were alive: I needed to know if lying—lying to yourself—could dissipate the contents of your mind.
The furniture around me was beautiful. You decide what you’re capable of. I could stay, and maybe, maybe with time, I would learn how to trick myself into believing I had the life I desired. Or Sophia and I could leave—flee as if we were criminals—and lie to others about who we were to each other. In the end, which deception was the unforgivable crime? Deceiving yourself? Or deceiving others?
Brooke stood in front of me. “Is Sophia in trouble?”
“Is she in trouble?” She gestured at her stomach.
I shook my head back and forth.
“It’s not possible,” I said.
She held my head with both hands. Her nails dug into my scalp. “Not possible?”
“We haven’t ever,” I said. “Not like that.”
Her eyes were hard, heat-struck. “Do it.” She drew her panties down her legs. “Any way you want. Don’t think. Don’t think about anything anymore.”
She rubbed me with the heel of her hand. “It’s what you really want.” She kissed my neck. “You’re not a freak. Let me fix you.”
Something, something terrible, like false hope, made me undress her, me. I wanted to find what I’d always needed, there. Before—maybe I hadn’t searched hard enough. I shut my eyes and tried to concentrate on the feel of her skin.
Her body perspired.
A car moved into the cul-de-sac and the brakes screeched.
Brooke said my name, but her voice sounded remote, theatrical. When I pulled away from her, she staggered back, bent at the waist.
I stared at the wall while she jerked on her robe. She left her black lace underwear on the carpet.
On the street, Sophia’s hair shimmered in the last rays of red sun. I shut my wife’s window. I dressed and packed a black duffel bag. When I was finished, I peered around the room. I saw that I never should’ve married Brooke.
Sophia and I would change our names. My life with her would be different: She wouldn’t stay with me if we ever became strangers to each other. She wasn’t capable of that. So we could still lose, in the end.
Brooke gazed around the kitchen. “She can’t live here, you know. She’s ruined.”
“The house is yours,” I said. “I want you to have it.”
She noticed my duffel bag.
“It was me,” she said.
“What are you talking about?”
“I told her boyfriend,” she said.
“How did you even know?”
“My brother said she was always hanging around. And you, you never talked about her, not with anyone. So I sent a letter. If it were nothing, her boyfriend wouldn’t have said anything. It just would’ve been a letter from some crank.”
“The flowers? The chocolate?” I said. “Did you do that, too?”
She nodded and peered around the kitchen. “I can’t.” She hiccupped in the dim light. “I won’t live in this house.”
She shielded her eyes with her hands. “You still don’t see, do you, Thomas? How could I live in this house after you’re gone?” She stared into my eyes.
I met her gaze—we never know what we might desire to remember about a former life—and there, the shock of recognition, our very first.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
I drove Sophia through quiet, orderly streets. Dusk had come; it twined its smoky, powdery violet tendrils around the houses and their trim brown lawns. The night would be warm, inexplicably so, and everywhere, the air smelled of barbeque. Somewhere, someone was on a patio basting steaks on a gas grill.
Light still infused the shifting clouds in front of the windshield—sheer gold mingled with transparent white—and they shone so intently it was as if they’d managed to develop and contain a private means of illumination. They raced on, gathering wind.
On the interstate, with windows rolled down, the long wands of Sophia’s hair floated up. Neither of us spoke. We hadn’t looked at each other since starting the car. We passed a lighted billboard, and its steel planes sparkled. She turned toward the back window, and when she was finished looking, she held the steering wheel for me. The car—it continued flying down the asphalt—but the city, its thousands of lights pulsed with a convulsive beauty.
It seemed entirely real.
Even now, I can still remember the details of that place.
A. Shields is a writer in Brooklyn.