An urban garden-party in spring, at dusk. The light waning, the air mild, the walled garden compact but lush.
A cat slinks along one flower-bed’s edge. Guests arrive singly and in couples; they pass through the brownstone’s ground floor to the patio at the back, exchanging handshakes and cheek-kisses as they meet. Their voices generate a steady babble.
Graceful in a silk shift and ballet flats, the hostess is wearing her dark hair braided down her back. She exudes a feline sensuality as she greets her guests. One of them—a tall slim man leaning against the trunk of a maple at the garden’s far edge—gives her braid a quick tug as she passes. She casts him a sidelong glance.
Her husband, the host, is in charge of the grill. He rotates steaks, basting them with marinade. Nearby, a group of women stand talking; each cradles a glass of white wine. The host listens, his slightly arched eyebrows suggesting he’s at once entertained and baffled by the conversation. After a little while, he pulls off his apron and joins the women, who begin discussing the lines on their faces. They speak of etched anxieties, of scribblings—by sun, care, fatigue—that can’t be lotioned away.
“I don’t get why crow’s feet,” says a woman as she taps the side of one eye. “I mean, why not baby-birdy feet?”
“If only we could get our girl-faces back,” says another woman.
All the women nod.
“Our girl-faces,” repeats the first woman. “When we weren’t yet…marred.”
“Now that’s a bit harsh,” says another.
“How about broken in?”
“Sounds like horses.”
“No, like a good pair of shoes.”
“When we had our girl-faces,” inserts another woman, “we weren’t yet on the list.”
“List? Of what?”
“Of femmes no longer fatales.”
“Oh fuck the French,” says the first woman, and they all chuckle.
The host smiles. His hair’s a bit gray at the temples; he has a beautiful mouth. His moment to intervene has arrived.
“One day,” he begins, “when I was eleven, I noticed my mother staring at me. We were outside, in another garden, not far from here—behind the brownstone where I grew up. We were alone.”
His voice, low and reedy, has seized his listeners’ attention.
“My mother touched my face, here.” Stepping toward one of the women, he reaches out and places the pad of his thumb between her brows, stroking the spot for a moment. Then he takes a step back.
“My mother kept staring at me,” he continues. “She said, ‘That line right there—it’s your manhood, starting to show. I’ve been wondering when I’d get to see it.’”
“Manhood!” exclaims one of his listeners. “I’ve never heard the word used like that. Usually it means something else…”
The host shakes his head. “No,” he said, “that’s not what my mother had in mind. I can’t say for sure what she meant, but I think she was talking about desire—how it marks us…”
He scans the group. “I bet your fathers had a similar reaction, the first time they noticed that same small line in that same place on your faces. I bet they each thought, ah, there it is! And your husbands, the first time they saw it—your womanhood—they must’ve been thrilled.”
“I have my doubts,” says one woman drily, and the others laugh. But the woman whose face the man has just touched can still feel the press of his thumb between her brows. No other male has ever noted that tiny vertical line there; it’s nearly imperceptible. Yet she thinks of it just as the host has described it: as desire’s hatch-mark.
The host returns to his grill, the women to their talking. The one whose face he’s touched closes her eyes. Hadn’t there been a moment when, as a girl, she’d sensed something like an impending assault? The drama of adulthood would shortly commence. She’d have to learn roles and speeches; she’d perform badly. There’d be crises, failures, retrenchments. Amidst the mounting disorder, how would she know what to desire, or whom, or even why?
She keeps her eyes shut for a few beats. As she reopens them, the host is drying his face in the crook of his elbow. She imagines the slick of his tangy skin, his cock in her hand, that excellent mouth on her nipples. The cords of his neck going taut with want.
She stands motionless, succumbing to the scene in her mind.
Still leaning against the tree, the tall slim man observes her bemusedly.
Glancing at him, the hostess notes his bemusement. She scans the patio, her expression perturbed.
Looking up from his grill, the host perceives his wife’s unease.
Off to one side, the women laugh softly as they palm one another’s faintly lined foreheads.
A diminutive, beak-nosed woman boards a subway train.
She is wearing mittens despite the heat. Her age is indeterminate—between sixty and seventy. Her eyes seem never to blink; her gaze darts ceaselessly. Her breath makes a chuffing sound.
After a moment, her lower jaw juts forward and her lips part, permitting the exit of her dentures. Like a cuckoo-bird, they rest for an instant in the air before being sucked back inside. A few seconds later, the woman repeats this jaw-jutting movement. This time, her false teeth don’t retract; they tip out and downward, bouncing off her lap and tumbling to the floor. Clattering lightly, they come to rest beneath a seat across from her.
The woman’s mouth puckers; it lacks its inner scaffolding. She goes down on her knees (arms outstretched, both mittened hands sweeping beneath the seat) and snares the fugitive teeth, which she swabs with one woolly thumb before popping them back in her mouth. She sits tensed, awaiting her next cue. Most of her fellow-riders are lost in books or newspapers; only one, a woman in her thirties, observes her actions.
“Vicious,” the beak-nosed woman murmurs, just loudly enough for the younger woman to hear. “Vicious circle!”
Her gaze follows some invisible object.
The younger woman imagines the older woman tracking the swoop of a trapeze bar. When to grab it—now, now? The beak-nosed woman glances down the length of the subway car. Then, emitting a hiss, she stares at the floor in alarm. A rushing-up darkness, the younger woman thinks—she’s caught the bar but the safety-net’s broken, now she’s let go of the bar, she’s in free-fall…
The beak-nosed woman pulls herself upright, glaring at the younger woman.
“Get out,” she orders. “While there’s time!”
The younger woman shakes her head. “We can’t leave the train now,” she says quietly.
The younger woman shrugs apologetically.
The beak-nosed woman rocks in her seat. “They want you, but you don’t want them!” she says. “Or they don’t want you, and you do want them! Vicious circle! Get out!”
“Look,” says the younger woman, “we’re almost at the next stop, you can get off then…”
The beak-nosed woman moves to an empty seat next to the younger woman. She cups a hand on the younger woman’s crotch.
“Vicious cir-cle,” she whispers, giving a conspiratorial squeeze. “Get out! While you can!”
A husband trails his wife.
Her dark hair falls loose, not in its usual braid. She’s wearing heeled sandals instead of her ballet flats. In midsummer’s harsh sunlight, the skin around the corners of her eyes is scored by fine lines.
She descends the subway stairs, her husband following her into the penumbral light below. On the platform, the two stand distant—husband watching wife as she stares into space, unaware of his presence.
A train arrives; its doors open. Out from one car flies a small, beak-nosed woman. A younger woman exits the same car. Several cars down, a tall slim man steps forth as well.
All the doors close, and the train departs.
The beak-nosed woman alights on a bench on the platform. The younger woman opens her bag, pulls out a phone, checks it, then puts it away. The husband continues to watch his wife, who moves toward the tall slim man. The tall slim man, not noticing the wife, spots the younger woman—who, seeing him, waves and walks toward him. The wife frowns, hesitates, then keeps moving.
Her husband stares as both women converge on the tall slim man.
“Ah!” all three exclaim at once.
“What a surprise,” says the wife to the younger woman.
“So it is!” replies the younger woman. “Haven’t seen you since that lovely garden-party of yours, several months ago.”
The tall slim man smiles at the younger woman, then turns to the wife.
“Yes,” he says in a tone of cool affability, “it is a surprise.”
The wife stares at him. “I thought…” she begins, then stops.
“No,” says the man, “you’re mistaken.”
The younger woman gazes at him. “Is there…did I get the time wrong?”
“Not at all,” he says reassuringly.
“But we said…” the wife starts again.
The husband walks up to the threesome. “Hi,” he says.
“Ah!” they respond, startled. “Hi!”
The husband turns to his wife. “So what brings you here?” he asks.
“I thought you were at your office,” says the wife, “so I took a walk in your direction.”
“I was at my office,” says the husband, “but I decided to take a walk, myself. And then I saw you on the street, and followed you down the stairs.”
“Serendipity,” croons the tall slim man.
The wife turns and stares at him. The younger woman nods as if to herself. She’s understood: her lover is this woman’s lover as well.
The husband directs his gaze at the younger woman, whose presence he has thus far barely acknowledged. “Wait,” he says quietly. “You were at our garden-party, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” she murmurs.
The husband looks at the tall slim man, who looks at the younger woman, who looks at the wife. The wife looks away, her gaze meeting that of the beak-nosed woman, who mutters something.
“What?” says the wife.
“Get out!” the beak-nosed woman replies.
The younger woman begins chuckling softly. The husband frowns; then he extends a hand toward her and rests his thumb between her brows.
“Now I remember,” he says quietly. “That line—wasn’t it here?”
“Yes,” answers the younger woman.
He drops his hand. “I didn’t see it, that time,” he says. “I mean, I pretended to, but I didn’t really… I just touched the spot, is all.”
“It was right there,” the younger woman says. “If you’d looked, you’d have seen it.”
“Seen what?” asks the wife.
“Out!” cries the beak-nosed woman.
The younger woman turns and walks rapidly away. The tall slim man follows her; catching up, he lays a hand on her forearm. She shakes him off with a light flip of her elbow, then vanishes up the stairs, whose steps she takes two at a time.
An urban garden in autumn, leaf-strewn, unkempt.
The owners of the brownstone attached to the garden have recently separated. The wife has moved out; the husband is home, having taken the afternoon off from work. He stands on the back steps, mug of coffee in hand, and watches a cat pick its way along the garden’s square border.
A mild breeze slips through the screen of the back door.
The husband sets his mug on the ground and stretches both arms above his head. The cat lolls on its side. Chimes sound faintly from inside the house: a doorbell. Moving quickly, the husband enters the house, trots down the hall and opens the front door. Before him stands his lover; pulling her to him, he kisses her ardently.
Upstairs in the bedroom, a pair of windows give onto the garden; the husband opens them, admitting the mild breeze. He closes the door, then kisses the woman again. He strips her of her clothes; she strips him of his. He rests the pad of his thumb between her eyes; she seizes his hand, slides his thumb into her mouth, and bites it. He laughs as he runs his hands through her hair, tugging at it.
They begin enacting the woman’s fantasies—her sexual imaginings at the moment of their first meeting, six months earlier, at the party in the garden below. She has told him of picturing it all, back then: how she’d lick the sweat off his skin, how he’d put his mouth on her nipples, how she’d take his cock in her hand… These rituals they have performed already, in recent trysts; their movements now proceed with a practiced smoothness. The husband tongues the woman’s nipples. She takes his cock in her hand, then guides one of his hands to her crotch; as soon as she feels his fingers cupped there, she comes. After bringing him to orgasm, she falls asleep at his side. Soon he sleeps, too.
In the garden below their room, the cat gently noses a chrysanthemum. Its ears prick as the front door of the house opens. The husband’s wife enters, accompanied by her tall slim lover. The wife calls out inquiringly; no one answers.
“The coast is clear,” she says. “But why’d you want to come here? Why not your place, or mine?”
“Because you still have the keys,” he replies. “And we’re not supposed to be here.”
She nods and gives him the smile of an accomplice. They proceed upstairs.
It is the tall slim man who, opening the bedroom door, sees them first—his ex-lover in bed with his current lover’s husband. The husband, awakening, sits up and sees his wife and her man.
Nobody says a word.
Curled on her side, the woman in bed remains asleep. She frowns a little, as if caught up in a dream. One hand travels to her face, her thumb coming to rest between her brows.
The husband begins talking to himself. “Oh,” he says softly, and “oh,” again —the sound an animal’s, scared, dismayed.
Staring at the woman in bed, the wife starts crying soundlessly. The tall slim man exits. Awaking, the woman in bed gazes first at the husband, then at his wife.
“Out,” she says to them both, quietly.
The mild breeze enters once more, then escapes: open window, open door.
Down in the garden, the cat rolls gaily in a heap of leaves.
Martha Cooley is the author of The Archivist: A Novel, a national bestseller published in eleven foreign markets, and Thirty-three Swoons: A Novel. Her short fiction, essays, and translations of poetry have appeared in such journals as AGNI, A Public Space, West Branch, Consequence, and Bellevue Literary Review. She is associate professor of English at Adelphi University and also teaches fiction in the Bennington Writing Seminars. This year, she is on sabbatical in Castiglione del Terziere, Italy.