Dancing in 4/4 Time

By MAX ROSS

1.

Among the snowy houses, a small woman in a white wool coat shoveled a path from the street to her front door. Meanwhile snow was falling, gathering slowly on the path being cleared, and on the small woman shoveling.

Each of the woman’s movements was like the second half of an echo: It seemed as if her gestures weren’t occurring now, but had been initiated some time ago. Faint, also fated. She emptied half a shovelful of snow onto a large bank, and then gathered more snow in her shovel.

Her shovel was as tall as she was, its blade curved and royal blue. She had one hand atop its handle, and her other hand gripped its middle, and she pushed the shovel softly along the ground as if it were a broom.

Some of the snow was from the previous day, when it had also snowed. As Gail shoveled now, the falling snow dotting the air made her realize she would probably need to shovel her walkway again tomorrow, too. She didn’t mind: even as it snowed now, she wished for more snow to shovel.

Her shoulders and lower back were becoming sore. Despite the repetition—gathering in and emptying out again and again—her movements didn’t become more efficient or fluent, and she continued to clear only a small bit of path with each pass of her shovel. Once, as she emptied a heft of snow, a gust of wind came and scattered it all back onto her walkway, and she laughed a small frustrated laugh and stamped one boot on the ground. Snow shook off the sides of her boot.

Now, at dusk, the snow was blue; but during the day, when the sky had been cloudy, the snow had been gray. Certain shadows—from a cedar tree, from a parked minivan—cast red or green tints on the snow.

One of her neighbors across the street began shoveling now also, and the sound of Gail’s blade and the neighbor’s blade growling against ice and concrete resounded through the neighborhood, which otherwise was silent except for airplanes occasionally passing overhead.

She exhaled heavily into her scarf, causing her glasses briefly to fog up.

Soon her son, David, was coming over to eat leftovers—their Thursday ritual. If she didn’t finish, he would shovel the rest of the walkway for her. It was important to try and finish shoveling before he arrived. Tonight they would eat leftovers and he would jokingly berate her for not having yet sold her house, even though there was nothing more she could do to get the house sold. Her husband had left her three years ago—“I am,” he’d said one evening, “essentially a gay person.” She had been doing the dishes, and she could remember the difficulty she’d had, after his announcement, removing her rubber gloves. In the following weeks she’d been unable to conjure any anger toward him; she understood immediately that their separation was his only chance for a contentment that had always, despite their bond, eluded them. Her contentment, meanwhile, would have to come from where? From elsewhere—Elsewhere, a land faraway and likely imaginary. But their divorce had been finalized in the last year, and it was time for her to leave their home. Again she emptied snow into her yard.

David parked his Honda at the curb.

“I thought I said I’d shovel.” He was protective of her—needlessly, but still she didn’t want to deny him what he believed to be his duties. She saw this as her duty to him.

“I’m sorry,” Gail said. “I know. It’s just that, actually it’s kind of funny, but I really felt like shoveling.”

They hugged, jackets rustling. David had come from the restaurant where he waited tables, and Gail observed that, beneath his coat, he was still in his server uniform; he’d dropped out of graduate school, and lately he seemed to be working a lunch shift every day. Snow gathered on their shoulders, and David wrested the shovel from her.

“I can do it,” Gail said.

“Mom, just—”

“Don’t you need gloves?” Gail said.

She went into the house, and David began to clear the rest of the walkway. A moment later, one could hear her practicing piano. The music came through the living room windows muffled, Chopin in a minor key. Gail kept her foot too long on the sustaining pedal, and, sourly, the notes slurred together. She’d begun to take lessons as a means to fill her evenings, and was playing again the pieces she’d performed in high school and college, which she was surprised she still remembered. It was her fingers, their muscles and tendons, that remembered. She didn’t need the sheet music, but kept it in front of her just in case.

Alone or with company, Gail peeled the price stickers off her wine bottles before opening them. Shreds of sticker caught under her fingernails like citrus peel. She and David drank their first glass as their food heated.

“Can we cheers?” she said. She held her glass in the air like a baton.

“What are we cheersing?”

“I don’t know. It’s just cheers.”

“It’s me and you,” David said. “There’s nothing to cheers.”

“It’s Shabbat.”

David said it was Thursday.

“But we do Shabbat on Thursday,” Gail said, and extended her arm to clink her glass against his. He shook his head at her. He had, Gail knew, become embarrassed by her, was ashamed of even the smallest intimacies—clinking glasses, hugging hello. He was, she thought, embarrassed by her need for these formalities, her need for him to prove his affection, her need for him to remain her son.

She saw out the kitchen window that the snow had begun to fall more heavily.

“Snow,” she said.

“Winter,” said David. “Minnesota.”

“I was just saying,” Gail said.

She’d put on the Miles Davis album that she played on Thursdays. While she adjusted knobs on the stove, removing a lid here and poking a piece of fish there, David set pairs of plates, forks, and napkins on the table. On one of the chairs Gail had piled old newspapers, an old New Yorker she wanted to read because David had told her to, coupon-heavy junk mail, dog leashes, her reading glasses, and several pencils—the things that accumulate during a lone woman’s week.

“What should I do with all this?”

Looking up from a pot, Gail said, “Oh, I’ll take care of it.”

She removed the pile from the chair and set it on the counter by the radio.

“Why not just ask me to?” David said.

He stood beside her at the stove and nudged her elbow with his elbow. In the last few years she’d begun to feel a little as if he were flirting with her—he’d distanced himself from her and teased her to collapse the distance.

“I’m sorry. It was a long day,” she said. “It was a day where I feel like I didn’t get anything done. We don’t have enough volunteers to do snow removal, and the ones we do have don’t have snowblowers. They’re supposed to have snowblowers. It was a lot of figuring things out.”

For dinner they had chicken Gail had roasted two nights ago, and salmon and rice from the night before. When she ate alone, she always set aside a portion to save for Thursdays with her son. Crumples of tinfoil lay shiny on the counter. As she dished two plates, David asked if she’d heard from anyone about the house, and Gail said no, and repeated that no matter how much preparation she did—she’d had the bathroom and living room repainted, had switched out all the dead lightbulbs in the basement, and, with funding from her ex-husband, had a new dishwasher installed—it felt like there was always more to do.

“I’m still a little sad to sell the house, though,” she said.

“You’ve been saying that for two years almost.”

“I have not. Has it been that long? It doesn’t feel like that long.”

The house had been on the market for twenty months, and the one offer—tendered nineteen months ago—had made her so fretful that she’d asked her agent to remove her listing from his catalogue. Then she’d called back the next week and asked him to relist the home. Still, she didn’t want to leave. She had no idea where she would go. There was nowhere she wanted to go to. But there was pressure to sell from her son, from her ex-husband, from her agent, from herself, from her therapist, from her co-workers who listened, and she understood that selling her house was the appropriate thing to do. She wished she didn’t care about appearing appropriate. David refilled his wineglass, which hadn’t been empty. Gail clinked hers again against his. He said, “But it’s so big for just you and Rabbit.”

“And you,” Gail said. “It’s your home, too.”

“And all you ever do in winter is complain about how cold it gets. And you refuse to turn up the heat to human temperatures.”

“Are you cold?”

“I’m fine,” David said. “Have you thought about lowering the asking price again?”

“Okay,” Gail said. “I get it.”

“I’m just saying. Maybe what you’re asking is too high. And it seems intentionally too high.”

“You know what? Enough.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too.” Gail put down her wineglass. “Things are still hard. Everything happens for reasons, but things are hard. And I have to do what’s right for me.”

“Which is sometimes nothing,” David said.

When Gail cried, there usually weren’t any tears at first, just a strange way of breathing that caused the base of her throat to become hollow. “You give me such a rough time,” she said. “This is my home.”

In the middle of the meal, she remembered to insist on lighting and blessing Shabbat candles. David opened a second bottle of wine and poured full their glasses. The sediment stain on the inside of Gail’s lower lip darkened each time she sipped. When they’d finished eating, and after Gail had wrapped the leftovers in various foils and plastics and given them to her son to take home, Rabbit made it known with a moan that she wanted to go out for a walk on Cedar Lake.

It was snowing still. Another inch of snow had accumulated on the front walkway. Even for Minneapolis this was a notably snowy winter. The night was silent except for the crunching of Gail’s boots and the occasional scrape of a neighbor’s shovel. On her way down to the lake, she passed a large man walking his small, annoying dog, whom Rabbit, her black Labrador, chose not to acknowledge.

Once on Cedar Lake, Gail was wary of ice patches and did not lift her feet, gliding instead as if on skates. The lake’s surface was pockmarked with fishing holes, most of which had frozen over since the sun went down. In the distance, a cross-country skier scissored by, dressed in black, or dark blue.

One of Gail’s neighbors, a recently widowed woman also named Gail—Gail Goldstein—was on the lake walking her boxer, Molly. The women greeted each other and the dogs sniffed one another’s rears, huffing with sapphic intention.

“Is it okay that I dropped the leash?” Gail said. “I should have asked.”

“Oh, it’s all right,” said Gail. “They seem so happy. This is good for Molly. She’s been cooped up all day.”

They watched the dogs circle. Not knowing what to say, they said nothing. Still, the women filled the space between them with words.

“Is it getting colder out?” Gail asked. “I can’t tell.”

“I think so. I think it feels colder. And usually it gets colder around now. I still just can’t believe the snow,” Gail said. “Rabbit loves the snow. Don’t you, Rabbit?”

“It’s pretty, at least. Do you know what it always reminds me of? There was that scene from Doctor Zhivago, the movie, when they’re on the train. And there’s a lot of snow.”

“I heard it’s supposed to keep falling through tomorrow.”

“Rabbit will be so happy.”

“Not Molly. Molly’s going to be cooped up all day in the kitchen while I’m at work.”

“I guess Rabbit will be cooped up, too.”

The dogs gnashed at each other’s feet and tails.

“You know what, though? I feel cooped up all day, too, sometimes,” Gail said. She brushed to the ground snow that had gathered on her hood. “Some days, and this sounds sad—I don’t mean for it to sound so sad—I just think, ‘What’s the point?’”

“Yes! Like when I wake up and it feels like the day’s already over,” Gail said. “Especially in winter, when it’s still dark in the morning.”

“I hate that! I get up and go swimming and then I work all day. And then it’s dark by the time I’m home.” Gail removed her glasses and, instead of polishing them, blew the snow off the lenses with two quick huffs. “Just the other day, do you know what I did?” she said. “When I got home from work, I put on Pat Metheny in my living room and danced all by myself. And I enjoyed it! But I knew that if anyone saw me—except Rabbit; Rabbit danced too, in her way—if anyone saw me I’d be so embarrassed.”

“I love that,” Gail said. “I love doing that.”

“It was nice, though.”

They made plans to walk their dogs together and dance later in the week—it was strange how naturally this date was conceived; the women had never spent time together before—and then Gail proceeded on. She walked past the skating area, where high school boys were playing pickup hockey as their girlfriends screamed on the sidelines, wearing white sweaters and drinking from mirrory flasks.

“Aren’t they cold, Rabbit?” she said aloud. “They look cold.”

Another cross-country skier (or maybe the same one as before) passed by them, close enough so Gail could hear his skis tracing through the snow, like sandpaper on rough wood. She watched the skier recede through a screen of falling snow toward the shore.

2.

The next week, something terrible happened: Gail’s real estate broker called to say a young couple wanted to buy her house. They had a small child and liked the neighborhood. Apparently the husband had grown up nearby.

Gail considered this offer more carefully than she had the first. At the JCC she sat at her desk, her eyes closed. She was the Volunteer Outreach Coordinator, assigning volunteers to shovel snow from the walkways of homes owned by the elderly and the feeble. A spreadsheet glowed on the screen in front of her. She swallowed and breathed. She sensed that, like her childhood, like her marriage, another of her lives—the sad but oddly cherished three-year span of post-separation—was over.

“It’s a very strong offer for this market,” the broker said.

“Okay,” said Gail. She was eating lunch. On her desk, by her keyboard, were a container of coffee-flavored yogurt, half an apple, and a paper napkin she’d used at lunch the day before. “This is a big decision, though. I’d like to think, if that’s okay.”

After she hung up, Gail put one hand on each of her knees and stared at her computer screen. Her knees touched lightly together. Her shoes, black ballerinalike flats, touched at the toes but not the heels. I can’t sell my house until I’ve found another, she thought. But I don’t want another. I just want to stay. But I can’t stay. I’m not sure why, but I can’t. Patches of her white napkin turned yellow after she wrapped the rest of her apple in it.

“That’s terrific,” her ex-husband said.

“I know,” Gail said. “It is. But I need to make a decision. I’m just so unsure.”

“It is a decision,” said Mark. “And, as I’ve said, what’s most important is that you do what makes you comfortable. It’s wonderful that there’s this offer now, but what it indicates to me is that you won’t have huge amounts of trouble getting other offers, and I don’t think you should let the thought of ‘Will this be the only chance?’ enter your head.”

“It’s my home.” Gail disliked how Mark had already taken up both sides of the issue, ready to be enthusiastic about whatever she decided. It made her feel her own desperation.

They had continued to sleep together for several months after he’d left, even though Gail was aware he must have been sleeping with men as well. She’d wondered—and it had struck her as absurd—if she should have him wear a condom. Yet she couldn’t deny him. He was still her husband, and she’d wanted him with her even as she disliked this permissive, needing wife in herself. They didn’t have sex anymore, but he came over occasionally to walk their dog, to eat dinner. They spoke about money (Mark still paid an enormous portion of her mortgage); they spoke about their son. Their talking was pretense; Gail knew her husband simply needed to see that she was still herself, that their home was still their home, and that he still had access to them. He wanted her to stay here, she suspected, as much as she did—and this made her want to go.

“And now I have to look for a new place,” she said. “I stopped when it seemed like nothing was going to happen. Oh, I wish nothing was happening.”

Mark was a quiet a moment, and then said: “What say I came with you to check out houses this weekend or next weekend? I have, as you’re aware, a sixth sense for this sort of thing.”

Gail dunked her spoon over and over into her yogurt, thickening it, and said she didn’t know. He would end up choosing her house; he would be insulted if she didn’t like what he liked.

“That’s a really nice thought,” she said.

As she finished her yogurt, Gail sent emails confirming the participation of the volunteer snow-shoveling groups she’d arranged for the next week. As she typed, the offer on her house continued to preoccupy her, and she became distracted. She checked the payroll program to make sure the payroll for the week had gone through, but forgot to reimburse herself for the new shovels and bags of salt she’d purchased for the JCC.

In the staff kitchen she rinsed out her yogurt container and put it in her purse to recycle at home. Then she shut down her computer and turned off her desk lamp, yanking the small chains connected to the lamp’s bulbs.

When Gail arrived home that evening, after turning on the oven and removing the price sticker from the bottle of wine she’d picked up for her and Gail Goldstein to share, she walked through her house to make sure nothing had been stolen or rearranged that morning when it had been shown. Nothing was, and this was what Gail found most disconcerting—because she knew someone had been here, could tell that the bathroom had been used and her piano’s keys futzed with. But nothing was displaced. When she walked through open houses, she was careful not to displace things, too. She lifted a vase and put it back in its same spot.

Gail Goldstein was ten or so years older than Gail—in her late fifties—and slightly heavier. She had a white puff of hair. Her eyes were blue and busy with assessment; she looked at everything as if appraising its price. Before he’d died two years ago, her husband had been the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Gail Goldstein, who had a great deal of money and a Ph.D. in art history (she’d written three books on Gustav Klimt) was still a board member. The women had just walked down to the lake and back with their dogs, and now, in Gail Ross’s living room, they drank pinot noir. Before sipping, Gail Goldstein first sniffed her glass and wrinkled her nose.

“Oh, this store I work in,” she was saying, lowering her glass. “I do it just to pass the time, really, and to be with people, but sometimes the people drive me crazy.” Three days a week, she worked at a specialty kitchenware outlet in the Macy’s in the Mall of America, selling German knives. “Our knives really are wonderful. I’ve used them for years. But people just don’t trust them.”

“That’s too bad.”

“I’ll show people how to use them and care for them. I do these little demonstrations, chop-chop-chop. But two weeks later someone will come back with a damaged blade. They’ll claim we switched the knives in the box. People just don’t know how to take care of nice things. It’s nice to be in a house with nice things,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Gail Ross, flattered.

The living room’s lights were dimmed halfway (and, as whenever they were dimmed, they emitted a soft buzzing sound). Rabbit and Molly were curled into each other under the piano, asleep. By now each woman had been warmed by her half glass of wine and, somewhat unbeknownst to themselves, were nodding their heads to the Pat Metheny album Gail had put on. The music was no louder than it had been fifteen minutes before, but it seemed louder, as if dampers had been removed from the trumpets. They stood from the sofa. In dancing, Gail Ross’s usual clumsiness evolved not quite into grace, but into a nimble fluttering. In eight steps she turned a circle without touching her heels to the floor or spilling any wine. She thought she was spinning toward the window, but she ended up near the piano, smiled, and turned back the other way. Gail Goldstein sashayed beside her, holding one hand to her cheek. She danced as if there were a partner in front of her and she were trying to seduce that partner. Her bracelets added a jangle to the music. For a few minutes they quit speaking. The song was Metheny’s rendition of “Order,” a piece that itself had no order—shifting key signatures and time signatures, like a deck of cards being shuffled—but both women continued to dance in 4/4, as if they’d turned the album on as an excuse to dance to the more traditional pieces playing within themselves, the unceasing inborn music that dictated their movements. Gail Ross balanced on one foot and made her other three limbs sort of explode away from the rest of her body. Gail Goldstein walked two steps forward and then, jauntily, two steps back. As she danced by the dogs, Gail Ross shook her finger at them as if saying, “No, no,” and they each looked up briefly from their nap. Gail Goldstein quit dancing and, quietly panting, sat on the sofa with her wine. She watched her hostess, shaking her head with amazement after each of her twists and hops. When the album finished, unaware that it had finished, Gail Ross continued dancing for ten or fifteen seconds. She turned circles while staying in place. After she’d stopped, she pressed her palm to her chest, feeling her own heartbeat, and said, “That was so good!”

They moved into the kitchen. So did their dogs. Gail Ross made coffee, and the women spoke of other dog owners in their neighborhood.

“I’ll be sad when you leave,” Gail Goldstein said.

“I will be too,” said Gail. “The whole neighborhood feels like my home. I’ve been here for so long.”

“Change can be a good thing.”

“It can,” Gail said. She took a small, conscious sip from her coffee. “But it can be the wrong thing, too, can’t it? I don’t feel ready. I might need to wait.”

“What for?” Keeping her eyes fixed on Gail’s, Gail Goldstein moved her chin through air, guiding it over an invisible fence. “Opportunities disappear. You’ve got this offer, right? There haven’t been others. I would have thought it’s relieving to have the offer.”

Gail said that, yes, it was relieving. “But I’m trying to be honest with myself,” she said. “It’s a big change. And I need to know it’s what I’m supposed to do. It shouldn’t matter,” she went on, wanting not to bring up her ex-husband, yet knowing that, caffeinated and tipsy, she couldn’t stop herself, “but Mark says he understands if I want to stay, and knowing that is a big help, too.”

“You’re still in contact. I’m curious.”

“Of course,” Gail said. “From time to time, we still go on little dates. Not dates, really.” Her cheeks flushed pink as she said this. “It’s odd. It’s nice, but it’s odd.”

Gail Goldstein made her chin jump the fence again—a gesture of disdain. The skin of her neck stretched out as she did so.

“It still feels like he’s my husband. I can’t help feeling that. So much of him is the same.”

“Well, I understand that, but it might not be the healthiest mindset. It’s been a few years now, correct? Certainly he shouldn’t be influencing your decisions.”

“He’s not,” said Gail. “He doesn’t. Not like that, anyway. But we’re still close. I don’t think we’ll ever not be close.”

“What about when you find someone else? Will you still be close then?”

Gail Ross refilled their mugs of coffee, as well as their glasses of wine. In three years, she’d dated two men. The first had been twenty years older than her, and even she recognized that she was with him only because she wanted to be with someone so stable, so set in his routines, that she wouldn’t have to worry about unexpected change. The second had, like Mark, been an attorney, but with childish enthusiasms. He collected rare comic books, and took her to see the Lord of the Rings movies as soon as they were in the theaters. She had tried for months to break up with him but always lost her courage. Eventually she simply quit returning his phone calls. It was, she found, staggeringly easy.

“Yes, I think we will,” she said. “Is that enough cream? There? Good. He wants me to be happy—he does. But he hates hearing about me dating. But it’s funny, too—he’s so proud when he talks about Thomas. Thomas is his boyfriend. And it’s awful. It makes me feel just awful—it does—to hear about Thomas.”

“He’s controlling, it sounds like. No, I mean insecure. He’s insecure.”

“That’s not what I’m saying. He’s sad that I’m sad. He’s sad that I can’t find anyone yet. But Mark’s said that to me, too—that he doesn’t know what his reaction will be when I start dating someone seriously. And I do, I worry if that’s something that’s preventing me from being involved with someone. I’m afraid of how much it might hurt him. But if it does happen, I do think we’d still be close.”

“You can’t keep clinging to him. But you know that, I suppose. I suppose I’m being boring.”

“You know what I wish? It’s so silly, but I wish there were some way I could look, just very quickly, about five years into the future, and see that everything’s all right. If I could see that, I think things would be much easier for me than they are right now.”

“That’s not how it works, though,” Gail Goldstein said. “You have to live it first.”

Their conversation shifted to their children, and how well they were doing. Before long Gail Goldstein clipped Molly to her leash, put on her jacket and gloves.

“We’ll do this again,” both women said.

Except for the kitchen, Gail shut off all the lights in her house. Speaking with Gail Goldstein had conjured up Mark’s image with unusual force. She washed the wineglasses and coffee mugs by hand as, suddenly behind her, at the kitchen table, her husband went over one of his legal documents that Gail barely understood. He was preparing for a deposition and absently bobbed his tea bag in his tea. Gail cleared his dessert plate for him and washed it at the sink. She always wondered what world he went into while he was working; his concentration transported him entirely. Work, work, he’s always inside his work, Gail thought to herself. Well, I’ll do his dishes.

She recalled the fads they’d gone through together—watching Northern Exposure, abstaining from red meat, power walking—and soon the memory of him dissipated into general vagueness.

She and Rabbit went upstairs and performed their nighttime rituals—Gail brushing her teeth with her new electric toothbrush; Rabbit stamping the imaginary grass on her pad—before settling down. For a moment Gail reflected on what she would do in a few hours when it was time to get up (make tea, write in her journal), and readied herself for a night of fitful, caffeinated sleep, wondering without worry if her son would come home tonight, if her husband would come home tonight. She would keep the house a little longer, just in case.

3.

The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth offers on her house Gail refused as well. Everyone said the housing market must be back, but Gail wished it weren’t so.

Her refusals took place over two months, during which she lost fifteen pounds—diminishing her to a sum total of ninety-seven. With the weight she also lost much of her energy and strength. What had once been easy now wasn’t: mornings she could swim only half a mile; she became winded walking around the lake with Rabbit, bending over at intervals, a hand on each knee, to catch her breath; generally it was difficult to keep warm, and at home she wore a knitted blanket around her shoulders. Too many offers and she would waste to nothing.

When she came home one evening from the JCC, there was a bird—a robin—perched on her refrigerator. Fist-sized, with black wings and a bright red chest, it had its talons curled just over the edge of the refrigerator’s door. Rabbit sat and stared at it, her tail wagging slowly. As Gail entered the kitchen, the robin rose up and flew a circle around the room. The flutter of its wings was surprisingly loud for a bird so small, cotton rubbing cotton. Rabbit scampered out of the kitchen, afraid, and returned only when the bird had landed once again atop the refrigerator.

Gail didn’t know what to do. She wondered foremost where the bird had come from. It was an intruder, menacing. The robin’s face was hawkish. How long had it been here? It was winter, too cold for the robin to have flown in from outside. Was there a nest in the attic? From what she deemed a safe distance, Gail waved her hand at the bird, prompting it to fly around the kitchen again. This time it landed on a chair across the room. When Gail shooed it a second time, it perched on the sink’s faucet. Gail laughed, sat at the counter, removed her glasses, and rested her forehead against her palm. Evidently sensing its victory, the bird again circled the kitchen to perch on the refrigerator.

Gail fed Rabbit, then went upstairs to change into her robe. She had no plans tonight except to look over pictures of houses and condominiums her real estate agent had emailed her. She hoped that when she went back downstairs the bird would be gone, back to wherever it had come from. But when Gail returned to her kitchen, the robin was still perched on the refrigerator. And Rabbit was pacing on the far side of the room, panting hysterically. Every time Rabbit turned around, she looked up at the bird to make sure it was still in its place. She was wagging her tail, and Gail knew she was afraid.

“It’s okay,” Gail said, and knelt down to rub Rabbit’s chest. “You’re afraid of a bird. It’s just a bird. It’s okay.”

Rabbit pressed her muzzle against Gail’s hand, but resumed pacing nervously once she’d stopped being petted.

As Gail prepared dinner—a small salad of mixed greens and a piece of the previous night’s quiche, reheated—she remained aware of the robin’s presence. Stubbornly it stayed on the refrigerator, allowing itself to be swung back and forth when Gail opened the door to retrieve her chilled bottle of wine. Maybe it had been living in her house for some time. She hoped not. Maybe there were eggs. Gail, with a sudden happy thrill, thought her house would be impossible to sell if it turned out to be infested with birds. She chopped a cucumber into wheels, and then quartered the wheels. Once, maybe five years ago, she and Mark had used a trail of popcorn to lure a pigeon, which had flown in through an open window, into a stockpot. David had been where? Away at college. That’s right. She’d been airing out his room for spring.

The timer on her oven buzzed; startled, the robin took flight; Rabbit ran into the living room, then sheepishly returned; Gail’s quiche was ready.

Paging through her real estate agent’s pictures, she looked over the interiors of bathrooms and porches. The images were from summer, and it seemed she wasn’t looking over house listings but vacation brochures.

Two weekends ago she’d agreed to go with Mark to see a house in Lowry Hill, the neighborhood where he now lived.

“Every day I pass this place on my way to work, and I swear to you I’ve had the thought, If this place were for sale, it would be perfect for Gail,” Mark had said. “And then it shows up on the market.”

The house was two stories and painted blue, with a red brick chimney sticking out its top. When they entered, the agent showing the home was speaking with another couple, and Gail and Mark moved through the rooms by themselves.

“And it’s exactly as I’d imagined it would be,” Mark said. Without quite seeming aware of it, he’d kept his car keys in his hand, and jingled them whenever they stepped from one room into another. “The living room with the south-facing windows. Tell me that isn’t crossword puzzle territory. And the kitchen with its big marble counter.”

“It is nice,” said Gail. She ran her hand over the back of a sofa.

He wants me near him, she thought, and he doesn’t even know it. That’s him, though: he’s convinced, he really is, that the house is perfect for me—but really it’s just perfect for me for him.

“It seems like a good price for the market,” she said uncertainly.

“First off, money’s not an issue,” Mark said. “I can help out with whatever. But, yes, what they’re asking isn’t in the realm of the unreasonable. Oh, and this could be your office.” They stood in the doorway of a bedroom not quite big enough for a bed. “If it were me? This is where I’d stick all my computer and filing stuff. Though I’d probably repaint.” He was in the middle of renovating his own home and, Gail knew, had come to see domestic spaces as potential for better domestic spaces. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Gail said. “I like it. I do. But I’m not sure it feels like a home.”

They walked back through the rooms, Mark jingling his keys in his palm.

He’d called several times in the intervening weeks to see if she wanted to look at more houses. “Signs are everywhere,” he said. But she refused him each time, saying she was tired, or had plans with Gail Goldstein. Perhaps he’d finally sensed her reluctance; in the last few days, she hadn’t heard from him.

As she ate her quiche, the robin up on the refrigerator behind her, Gail became absorbed in the pictures from her real estate agent—square footage and property taxes and, instinctively, school districts. She decided to light one of the two Shabbat candles on the table, humming the tune of the requisite prayer. As soon as the wick was lit, the robin flew from its perch down to the table. First it landed on the back of the chair adjacent to Gail; then, after a moment, the bird hopped onto the tabletop, near the flame.

Gail remained immobile, the extinguished match smoldering in her hand. She stared at the robin, and the robin appeared to stare back at her, although its eye was an opaque black, like a button.

“Okay,” Gail said. “Okay.”

The robin hopped back and forth, landing on a napkin, overturning a spoon, but always staying close to the candle. Gail placed a bit of cucumber near the bird, which it ate immediately. She set out more cucumber bits, and a sliver of carrot. The bird quickly ate them all. To eat, the bird bowed its entire body, a fat housewife bending to fix her shoe. “Okay,” Gail said again. With her hand she fanned out the candle’s flame, and the bird flew back up to the refrigerator.

After finishing the dishes, she called Mark to tell him about the bird.

“I wish you could see Rabbit. She runs out of the room every time it moves.”

“What’s the bird doing?”

“Well, it’s not doing anything. It seems to really like the top of the refrigerator.”

“I suppose that’s where I’d go if I were a bird. That seems almost logical. The highest perch.”

Gail pressed the phone to her ear with her shoulder. She looked up at the bird. “I don’t, I really don’t like it being here,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of it. But I can’t send it outside.”

Mark said he would be by in ten minutes.

After they hung up, Gail realized the only reason the bird was in her house at all was so she had an excuse to invite him over. But why this should be, she didn’t know. She lit a match. The bird flew toward it, Gail shook it out, and the bird swooped around and went back to the refrigerator.

Minnesota in winter was cashmere sweaters and thick, warm wool socks. Four o’clock dusk; eight o’clock midnight. Snow. Long, silent stretches of just looking out the window. One could say one was watching the snow. Gail counted a million flakes of it. Her front yard was a beach. Soon the headlights of Mark’s car shot through the dark.

Although he still had keys, Mark didn’t open the front door himself. He tapped its glass lightly with one finger until Gail let him in. As always, Rabbit was enthusiastic to see him, urinating a little onto the boot mat.

“Rabbit misses you.”

“My women,” said Mark. “My traumatized ladies.”

He hung his coat on the coat tree, and then removed his hat and scarf and stuffed them into his coat’s sleeves. He hated to be cold and yet had never left Minnesota—had never, Gail considered at times, been able to leave the place where he was from and where he wasn’t him. Instead he wrapped himself until he could cope. They’d met in winter, during their sophomore year at the University of Minnesota. In the main library Gail had been writing a paper on Chopin’s Preludes, and Mark asked if he could join her at her table; it was finals week, and there were no other places to sit. After removing his gloves, he’d spent several minutes warming his hands by blowing into them and rubbing them. Meanwhile he read a small, square book by Wallace Stevens. Mark wanted to be a poet, and had published several poems of his own in the university’s literary journal, but it would be weeks before he mentioned this to Gail—an act of concealment. He refused ever to read his work to her—another, ongoing act of concealment. He’d continued to write poems through law school and the early part of their marriage, but he never shared them. He would say they weren’t finished, and then he would never finish them, so he would never have to show them. At some point he’d quit writing them altogether.

Before trying to capture the bird, Mark insisted on checking out the attic to make sure there wasn’t a nest. He directed a flashlight toward dark corners. There were cardboard boxes with sheet music, old framed posters that had hung in the apartment he and Gail had shared before they were married, a bicycle missing its handlebars and seat. Gail hadn’t been in the attic for a year and now realized she’d been avoiding it. There was too much here to remind her of the life she wanted not to be reminded of, because she wanted to be in it.

A blue plastic laundry basket was filled with their son’s albums of baseball cards. Mark picked one of them up and absently flipped its pages. Each fit nine cards, in three rows of three, protected by thin plastic sheaths.

“David was such a nut about his card collection,” he said, with wonder. “The weekly inventories. Arranging his favorites by price. I wonder if they’re still worth anything.”

“Can we please just do the bird?” Gail said.

“We are. But look at this.”

“It makes me sad, I think,” Gail said. “I don’t want to look.”

Mark set down the album in its basket.

“It’s just us,” he said.

“Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“It does and it doesn’t. But mostly no. No. I like being up here.” He clicked off the flashlight, and they stood in darkness for a moment before he clicked it back on. His voice was more somber as he spoke. “All this stuff. It’s from a part of my life that I don’t get to visit much anymore,” he said. “It’s a part of my life that I miss. I’m glad it’s still here.”

“It’s not still here, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not really here. It’s not really anywhere,” Gail said. Her therapist had instructed her, in moments when she became overwhelmed with upset, to try and step back from herself and assess whether she’d been truly provoked. But right now Gail had no means to distance herself from herself. Her ex-husband had taken too much from her by giving her too much. She wanted him to quit helping with her bills, she wanted him to quit offering to look at houses with her, she wanted him to quit letting her live here, she wanted him not to be here now. She had invited him over, she sensed, so she could tell him to go. “None of this stuff is real anymore,” she said. “It’s all been taken away. You like to visit it. You like to visit me. But it’s all gone; it’s not here. I’m not here. I’m not here,” she repeated. “I’m here but I’m not here and neither is any of this.”

“Gail.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but can we please just do the bird?”

When they returned to the kitchen, Rabbit and the robin were watching each other from across the room.

“Do you think they’re communicating?” Mark said. “It’s like there’s some supernatural force connecting them.”

Gail, not wanting to agree or disagree, said, “Maybe.”

To catch the bird, they decided to use their popcorn trick. Gail poured the kernels and a few tablespoons of oil into her popcorn maker and set it on the stove. When she lit the flame beneath the pot, the bird flew down and landed on the nearest empty range top.

“It likes fire,” she said.

The bird stared into the flame. Its body was bent sideways, as if it were peering under a bed. 

“That,” said Mark, “is so bizarre.”

He waved his hand in the bird’s periphery, but it continued to look only at the flame.

The popcorn made its hollow sounds, rapidly at first, but then less frequently. Mark stepped near Gail and placed his arm around her shoulder. When she didn’t remove it, he turned toward her fully and dipped his hands inside her robe. He wanted no more than to do this, to encircle her with his arms, but he knew the gesture implied sex, implied he wanted something more. How unfair that everything had implications now. Instinctively Gail stepped into him. The embrace was familiar. But then she sensed what he’d sensed—the unwanted implication of sex. Nevertheless they held each other a moment longer, looking at the robin and listening to the popcorn pop.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I don’t even know if I really want to catch it. I don’t want it here either, though. I wish it wasn’t here!”

“She wishes it weren’t here,” Mark said.

He took a pasta pot from where it hung above the counter. He set it over the mesmerized bird. It began to flap its wings. They scraped the metal, and the pot trembled under Mark’s hand. He smiled at Gail and raised his eyebrows several times—his standard, not very good impression of Groucho Marx. Then the bird shrieked, an awful sound that filled the entire kitchen like a siren. Its shriek was an infant’s shriek, disproportionate to its size, and desperate. Mark, frowning now with effort, slid the pot’s lid into place and fixed it with a double layer of masking tape.

“I think I need more wine,” Gail said, once the bird had quieted. “Is that bad?”

She poured out glasses for them both. They drank standing up. Mark spoke of his boyfriend, and the renovations they were doing on their house, and a vacation they’d been thinking of taking to Ecuador. He didn’t like to talk to Gail about his life, but otherwise felt he was avoiding it, thereby forsaking it; he spoke of his life to ratify it and remind himself that, in leaving her, he’d acted honestly. Now he picked up one of the real estate printouts Gail had been looking at earlier.

“Some of these are really nice,” he said, and suggested they get together again to look at houses.

“Maybe,” Gail said.

“Is maybe a yes?”

“I don’t know. I think maybe is maybe. No, actually, I think maybe is no,” she said. She’d suddenly begun to tremble, and took a breath to calm herself. And then another breath. “I need you to know that looking for a house—it’s incredibly hard for me sometimes,” she said. “Things are hard, still. Things are hard for both of us. But it’s been different for me lately. That’s what I was trying to say upstairs, I think.”

Why, she wondered, did she always feel she was retelling him this?

“Of course it’s different,” Mark said.

“I’m not sure if you understand, though. I think getting the house sold has taken its toll on me. And finding a new place is taking a toll, too. I’m a little scared to do it. And I have some things I need to say. About everything that’s happened.” She gestured around the kitchen, toward the refrigerator, toward the sink, to indicate that these objects were included in everything. Her hands were shaking, she saw, and she made them into fists and stuffed them into her robe’s pockets. They shook there, too, and she willed herself not to cry.

“I don’t know what I need from you,” she went on. “But I don’t think I want you more involved in finding a new house. I think that talking about that with you all the time would be really hard. It’s already been hard. And I don’t think you’ve picked up on that. You’ve worked very hard to make sure I’m comfortable,” Gail said, “to make sure I didn’t have to worry about anything. I know you said I could stay in the house as long as I need to, and that’s been helpful. But now I just want it to be over. I don’t want to be here anymore. Even though it’s my home. And it’s difficult, because I don’t want to leave, either. Does that make sense? I need to make my own decisions.”

“Gail. No one’s trying to make any decisions for you.”

“No, I know,” Gail said, putting her hand in the air: stop. “But even if you think you’re just being helpful—sometimes when you think you’re being helpful—and you are, you’re being helpful—it’s hard on me, because it’s hard to refuse your help. And sometimes I don’t think your help is what’s right for me.”

“I don’t know what you’re asking me,” Mark said.

“I’m not asking you anything!” said Gail. “This isn’t a problem to… fix. I just need you to understand where I’m coming from. I’m asking you to try and understand.”

And Gail explained why she couldn’t ever refuse to see Mark when he asked to see her—she loved him, she was his wife—but how his requests had begun to make her dislike him, and even, she realized as she said it, to make her intimidated by him because he could be so demanding; she understood that Mark missed being loved by her, missed being known by her, but he couldn’t keep asking her to comfort him, because being near him made her want to always be near him, and it was unfair for her to have to endure that.

Mark nodded his head slowly, rearranging the real estate printouts into a neat stack. “Everything you’re saying is totally understandable,” he said.

Mark tapped the edges of the papers against the table, straightening them.

“I’m sorry I didn’t, and I haven’t, handled things as appropriately as I might have,” he said.

The house, Gail said again, her car, her electricity, and all the money things that Mark still took care of. Shoveling, mowing the lawn: everything Mark had done that she now did, she said. Dating; having to make new friends, she said. He was attached to everything, somewhere, everywhere, and she wanted him not to be.

“Gail.”

She glared.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m sorry,” Gail said. And then, “No, I’m not. This is how I feel. It was all piling up.”

“So I see.” What Gail had been afraid of was exactly what was happening: rather than appearing surprised or hurt, Mark’s face arranged itself into a hardened expression of sympathy for her. “That makes a lot of sense,” he said.

“I’m not sure it does. I’m not sure it makes any sense at all. I don’t like that you think that it makes sense. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“It does,” Mark said. “I can see what you’re saying. I’ve been imposing myself on you, and you’re completely right, it’s completely true: this is something I’d never considered had been happening. But now that you say it out loud, it makes total sense to me.” He set down the printouts, lining them up precisely with the table’s corner. “And I’m so sorry,” he said. “But, yes. I see in practically a thousand ways why it’s better for you if I recuse myself from looking for homes. It’s totally understandable.”

Now it was as if it had been his idea that he not help with the house. She wasn’t preventing him; he was recusing himself. He had usurped her agency.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“You have absolutely nothing to be sorry for.”

Hearing this, Gail felt deprived of all the things for which she wanted to be sorry.

“It’s just what feels right to me.”

“Okay,” Mark said. “I understand.”

Once he had gone, Gail felt she’d been wronged again; she’d been deprived of her malice.

4.

The night was a great black parachute hovering over the city, and seemed to be sinking lower and lower. Mark drove aimlessly, distracted, his eyes unblinking as he looked out on the road. Halfway around Lake of the Isles, he pulled over and took the pasta pot from his back seat. The bird was still flapping energetically inside. Using his car key, he split the masking tape and lifted the pot’s lid. The bird flew into the air; Mark watched it rise above the trees and disappear. The pot, he saw, was filthy with shit and small black feathers. He didn’t know why that surprised him so much. Before going home, he went to Lunds to pick up a slice of chocolate cake for him and Thomas to share—he never told Thomas when he was visiting Gail, and had said he was going out to get some dessert. At the pastry counter, he ran into one of their friends who’d been sick but was apparently getting better, if such things could happen. And then he cruised around Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun, picking with his fingers at the cake as he steered back to his house.

“Chocolate cake,” Mark said.

“Oh,” said Thomas. He knelt on the kitchen floor, hovering over blueprints he’d drawn himself. “You were gone for a while.”

“I went for a drive. I had some work-related head-clearing to do, I realized once I was in the car. And the plows must have just come through earlier. The streets were totally cleared, and there was no one out tonight.” Mark bent down to kiss Thomas, and handed him the paper bag with the chocolate cake. “I ate my half,” he said. “It’s all yours. Although, if you found it in your heart to give me just maybe one more bite, I wouldn’t say no to it.”

“Should I make coffee?”

“Scotch,” Mark said. “You should make scotch.”

“I’ll make scotch. That sounds good.”

“There’s something about chocolate cake and scotch that just goes incredibly well together. Don’t move, though. I’ll get it going.” Mark poured each of them a measure. “I don’t even need a whole bite,” he said. “Just a half bite. For the chocolate. To get the flavor of it.”

Kneeling over the blueprints—he always knelt, like an imaginative child—Thomas appeared boyish and sad. He was an architect specializing in suburban townhomes; the houses he built were not identical to each other, Mark thought, but were identical in the (very small) degree to which they differed from one another. 

He handed Thomas a glass of scotch. “I put an ice cube in it, to release its bouquet or whatever,” he said.

Plastic sheets were taped over the kitchen’s windows. The floors were sprinkled with plaster dust. The oven had been removed; deactivated electrical wires snaked out from the wall menacingly. Mark wanted more natural light for the kitchen, but was irked that Thomas kept insisting on making the windows bigger—didn’t he understand how expensive it was to put in new windows? Didn’t it mess with the house’s foundations? He wanted the electric lighting to be subtler, finding tacky and obvious the recessed fixtures that Thomas suggested.

Right now he was still charged up with adrenaline from capturing the bird and releasing it, from being berated by Gail—had he really been so overbearing? He supposed he probably had. There was something—more than something—to her idea that he’d suggested she stay in the house only because he wanted her there. He poured himself more scotch, and promised himself that that was it for the night.

“The cake is soft,” Thomas said.

“Lunds,” said Mark. “You know who I ran into at the store? Alexander. He’s up and about.”

“I like Alexander.”

“He looks terrible,” Mark said.

“Is he okay?”

“He is. He’s been doing all that medication stuff. He says it’s doing its thing. And he says Wade is taking mostly excellent care of him.”

“I like Wade,” Thomas said.

Mark stood above him, and his own shadow spread over the blueprints. Everything was rectangles, circles, triangles, numbers, and he couldn’t translate it into a kitchen.

“How’s it looking?” he said.

“Well, I’m trying to figure out the lighting, actually,” Thomas said. He erased something with his pencil and bent down incredibly close to the paper, prostrating, to blow the erasures away. Mark fit one of his feet directly on top of Thomas’s foot, as if it were a car’s accelerator pedal.

“What are you erasing?”

“I’m erasing a line that I drew accidentally.”

“You know what I like?” Mark said. “Is there are these sort of nuanced track lights I’ve seen. They’re very out-of-the-way, but at the same time, if you place them right, they can hit all the right spots with this really great light.”

“You mentioned that. Our kitchen’s probably not wired for them. We’d have to rewire everything, and take down the entire ceiling.”

“I’m just saying,” Mark said. “They’re very nice lights.”

Thomas erased something else from the blueprint and then added in something that Mark assumed was dubious, expensive, and wrong.

“We talked about having a chandelier in the middle of the room, and then the hanging lamps that you liked over the counter.”

  “I know,” Mark said. “But I’ve decided—I’ve been thinking about it, and I just don’t like that idea at all. It’s just so many things hanging everywhere. It’s like kitchen of the tentacles.” He poured himself more scotch, a slight amount. “I could ask Gail what those lights I like are called,” he said. “We had them put in not too terribly long ago.”

“Wiring.”

“I think we needed to rewire, too. I remember it not being such a huge deal.”

“Well, I’ll just wait on doing anything else, then,” Thomas said. “And I’ll call the contractors to tell them not to come tomorrow, because the electricians have to come first.”

“All right,” Mark said. “All right.”

“And maybe I should call Gail and ask what electricians she used.”

“Hey, that’s out of line. That’s totally unfair.”

“We could replicate her entire kitchen. We could make the whole place hers.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“We could invite her to live with us.”

“Enough,” Mark said.

Soon the kitchen would have no walls. Around himself, Mark felt the room’s emptiness vibrate like a plucked string: in the last week it had been rebuilt by men who specialized in removal, repossession, and lack. Each of the last six nights, since the oven had been removed, he and Thomas had eaten out. Despite jogging every day, Mark could feel his stomach getting soft and dense. Mark had bought Gail a dishwasher and was still paying more of her mortgage than she knew; he was supplementing their son’s income; he was paying for his own renovations on top of his own mortgage. He’d had a good few years at work, and his debts were manageable, lessening. Still his life was all mortgages and owing. Thomas licked his thumb, scrubbed away something that the eraser couldn’t get, and then licked his thumb again. Mark reached for Thomas’s hand, licked his thumb—it tasted like lead—and then gave him his hand back. He said, “Hey, you know what? I’m sorry. You’re right about the kitchen. You’re doing excellent with the kitchen. And what’s great about you when you get touchy,” he went on, “is you think you’re being very serious and angry, but then you have this big piece of chocolate smeared on your lip. It’s very cute actually.”

“You need to give me some credit,” Thomas said. “I know what I’m doing. And I think we could design a really fun kitchen.”

“Baby, let’s have fun then. That’s all I want, is for you to have some fun designing.”

“I’m trying to.”

Kneeling: posture of children; posture of supplicants; posture of gentiles praying foreign prayers; posture of subordination—to God, to Mark; posture of giving head, weeding, floor-scrubbing: activities of the un-Mark; activities he needed performed, but would not perform himself, and which he looked down on.

Soon there would be nothing anymore to kneel on: Tomorrow the contractors were coming to rip up the floors.

5.

The real estate agent lived in the outer-ring suburbs, and Gail didn’t trust that he knew his way around Minneapolis. Driving from house to house, he went too fast along indirect streets constipated with slow-moving snowplows, brave idiot bicyclists, and snow. Nevertheless, even though she knew exactly where they were going and how best to get there, Gail followed behind him, David beside her.

But then, braking for a yellow light that the agent had sped through, Gail’s car lost traction on an ice patch and skidded into the intersection where France Avenue met Excelsior Avenue, four lanes in each direction. Her Subaru floated toward the intersection’s center, spinning left as Gail spun the steering wheel, ineffectively, right. “Oh no,” she said. Her eyes widened as a minivan approached. Its driver, Gail saw as it came closer, was a young woman in large sunglasses, and there was a child in the front seat. “No,” Gail repeated. The minivan steered around her, barely, trailing a honk behind it like a ribbon. Gail inhaled through her teeth. Her car continued sliding; it rotated counterclockwise. In the middle of the intersection her wheels finally found grip again and the car stopped. Her gym bag thumped to the backseat floor. “Okay,” Gail said, “all right.”  Shaken, she removed her forearm from David’s chest. After a moment she pressed her boot tentatively down on the gas. Her real estate agent was far up ahead, headed circuitously toward some residential neighborhood where an empty brick house was waiting to be unlocked and inspected. 

“That was so scary,” Gail said, once she was in the correct lane.

“Icy streets,” David said, playing it cool.

“My heart is racing,” she said. “Are you all right?”

She told David to turn off the stereo so she could concentrate on driving. To focus better, she inched her seat up closer to the wheel, so that it was against her chest.

“It’s like the time coming home from the Children’s Theatre,” she said. “I thought we were going to die.”

“I was too young to remember,” David said. “Did you think we were going to die just now?”

“That’s not what I meant. I’m just saying it reminded me.”

“Maybe I should drive.”

“That’s not—where is he going? That’s not what I meant. He’s going so fast.”

Already that morning they’d walked together through three houses. David had flicked light switches and flushed toilets and corroborated the agent’s assertions that Gail should think about making an offer. Gail asked questions from her notepad. She inspected range tops knowingly, and frowned. Whatever had felt familiar and hopeful about these houses from the catalogue listings had dissipated; she couldn’t imagine living in any of them. Although it was early in the day, she’d become unusually tired. Her eyes were scratchy with fatigue. Once again she reminded herself to eat more, to sleep more, but knew she wouldn’t. She was bereft of these simplest urges. 

“I don’t know if any of these places have felt like a home yet,” she said now.

“I know,” said David. “They haven’t. But it’s also kind of like, what’s going to feel like a home? That seems to be asking a lot from a house, when it’s just a fifteen-minute thing.”

“I’m not sure,” Gail said. The agent went through another yellow light, then pulled over to wait for her. “But I’ll know. It will feel like home.”

She reached behind herself to try and hoist her gym bag back onto the car seat.

“You should see if you can look at houses at five in the morning, or whenever you wake up,” David said, “to see what their early-morning aura is. I bet that’s a big deal for you.”

“No one would let me in their house at five! And I wouldn’t be comfortable with it,” Gail said. She held her bag by one of its straps, but it was too heavy, and she couldn’t maneuver it on the seat. “And it’s been closer to six lately. It’s so dark out in the mornings.”

The light changed, and the agent pulled quickly out from the curb and was soon far ahead again. Gail let go her swim bag and did her best to follow.

“But I’ll just know,” she said. “When we were looking at home—I mean our house—Dad and I just looked at each other, and both of us knew.”

“A surefire method.”

“You know what? Just enough, okay?”

She followed the real estate agent down a block that ended in a cul-de-sac; she followed him around the cul-de-sac; she followed him back up the block, and then the opposite way along the street they’d just been on.

“Where is he going?” Gail said. “I did like the house we’re about to see, though, in the catalogue. I hope I still like it as much.”

Soon they were navigating Kenwood’s alphanumerical streets. It was the second day of a snow emergency, and cars were parked all along the even-numbered side. Abruptly, Gail parked behind a station wagon on Fremont Avenue. They watched the agent’s car recede and turn eastward at the next stop sign. A moment later they saw his car pass again, this time heading, faster, west.

“I think I’m still just a little shaken,” Gail said. She kept both her hands on the steering wheel and, even though her car was in park, her boot still pressed down on the brake. “We’re looking for a home. We skidded in the car and we’re looking for a home and I’m a little shaken, okay? I’m a little shaken and I’m a little upset. And I just feel like I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough. Does that make sense?”

Ahead of them, the station wagon’s bumper was covered with pacifist and feminist and environmental stickers that David tried to decipher the dissatisfied humor of. Gail looked at him as his ears, and then his face and the back of his neck, reddened. Still gripping the steering wheel, she could feel her pulse in her palms.

“I’m glad you’re doing this with me—and I know you’re trying to help, and I know you’re very cool—but what I need is a little less sarcasm, okay?”

“Okay,” David said.

“Does that make sense?”

“It does,” David said. “I’m sorry.”

“Okay,” Gail said. “Thank you.”

A snowplow passed slowly by, beeping and flashing, and pinged Gail’s car with salt spray.

“Can we hug?” Gail said.

Chests pressing against their seatbelts, they embraced. They kissed each other on the cheek (eyeglasses clacking), and then David kissed his mother’s lips. Their faces separated for a moment, and then, unsure why, he kissed her again. Both were brief, but the second kiss was longer than the first. His eyes had closed. Again their faces separated, and Gail looked at David inquiringly—purely inquiringly: without implication, her eyes just wondering, flatly, innocently, “What?”

Backing away into his seat, David was unsure what sort of face to present. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes with his palms.

His seatbelt tugged him into place. It had been an instinct: kiss Mom, she’s upset. And while it was exciting how quickly that instinct had punctured their relationship’s exoskeleton of politeness and privacy, already he could feel their diffidence recalcifying. It was an instinct he felt often, felt more often than he cared to acknowledge—kiss Mom—but suppressed for all the normal reasons. But it saddened him that, even around his mother, he had to be so careful and performative. He didn’t know when that had started. His lips, cheeks, and chest all burned. For a second, or half a second, he’d believed he was comforting her. But then, as soon as she seemed calm again—as soon, almost, as their lips had come apart—all the queasy associations with kissing returned, and he wished he hadn’t done it. He hadn’t punctured their exoskeleton at all, but merely kissed and disturbed that and, in so doing, made the bones more sensitive to themselves, more certain of their own structural necessity.

Gail turned fully around and, with both hands, lifted her gym bag onto the back seat. Her son’s (and husband’s) affections were such warped, mutated things while, unfairly, Gail and her wants were always simple, always the same. She was so unchanged. David had kissed her. It seemed a weak and perverse compensation for their last dozen years of increasing separation, and she knew it wouldn’t open anything up between them. She had been unchanged again.

From somewhere the real estate agent came driving down the block and parked on the empty, just-plowed side of the street. He got out of his car, his teeth and blond hair shining in the sunlight, and walked up a flight of icy stone steps to a small brick house. He fit the keys into the lock on the front door. A foyer of absolute darkness opened up in front of him, a black rectangle inside a white day. The agent waved at David and Gail—his arm locked straight out, his hand flapping limply—to come inside.

[Purchase your copy of Issue 13 here.]

Max Ross‘s writing has been published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Paris Review Daily. The prequel to this story in The Common appears in the spring 2017 issue of American Short Fiction

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