In the morning, as Paul pulled out of his driveway, Marsha was walking to her car with Pete. Out of reflex, Paul gave a little wave. Marsha had a funny, dark lookshe seemed not to see him. Pete stared after Paul.
Paul drove to the plant, parked far from his old spot, and walked to his barren office. The walk would do him good, he thought defiantly. He'd park far away every day to get the exercise.
Steve popped in a while later. "Kelly and Ben are seeing some of the top Air Force brass. We should have you off the hook in a few days."
"We're going to have a hell of a challenge selling your concept, Paul. Even Kelly is still a little skeptical, but I think in his heart he's on board with us."
"Got another tidbit of news for you."
"Your old bosom buddy, Alex Fitch. He's quit and gone over to Northrop."
"No. My heart bleeds."
"That's not all of it. One of our ex-employees is suing the Government, Lockheed, and Fitch for a number of things, including battery."
Paul closed his eyes. "Let me guess."
"Some woman. Nice looking babe, actually. Name of." He snapped his fingers twice, couldn't seem to remember.
"Yeah, that's her name. How did you guess?"
"She is my next door neighbor. They've been seeing each other, I guess."
"Yeah. I didn't get the full story, though you know how rumors fly around, like what he may have done to her. Our boy got a better offer at Northrop and they snapped him up. So."
"What did you mean by 'ex-employee?' "
"I dunno. It's common knowledge that she resisted his advances, and he was her boss, so he wrote her up, papered her file, prepared the way to fire her. Kinda the same bullshit you've been going through, in a way."
"Excuse me, Steve, I gotta run home. I forgot to bring my lunch."
"We'll take you out to a fine restaurant to celebrate, Paul."
"Not today, Steve. I think something else is what I need."
He drove home, heart pounding in his chest, hoping she was there.
He pulled into her driveway, ran up to the house, and pounded on the door.
After a moment, someone yelled: "Go away!" distantly, in the back somewhere.
"Marsha, it's me, Paul."
"I just want to talk with you. Please."
After a minute or so, the door knob rattled hesitantly. A dark crack appeared, and a faint face. "Paul?"
He gently pushed, and the door yielded, swinging open. She stood with her head down, her arms hanging.
Paul put his arms around her back and pulled her toward him. She slumped against him limply. For a moment, he thought she'd fainted. But her arms rose and her fists rested loosely on his shoulders. She'd been crying, and now big drops again fell down her cheeks. Her hands were cold and she held a soaked hankie in one. "I deserved what I got."
He helped her to the couch. "No, no, no. Nobody deserves to be hurt like that."
She breathed: "I'm sorry."
She looked haggard, aged.
"I'm going to put on a pot of tea. Funny, I don't even know where you keep things because I've hardly ever been in here."
"You don't want to be here."
"Why? Are you radioactive or something?"
"You deserve better."
He put cups on the table while the kettle began to make popping noises. He had the gas on full blast. "Really? You mean the woman I'm looking at right now wasn't good enough for Jeff Kassner?"
She slammed her fist down ineffectually. "Stop that!"
"No, I think we deserve an answer here."
"Did you come to torment me too?"
"Oh stop being a martyr, damn it." He pulled tea bags out of a yellow pot on a shelf. "I want you to think about what I just said. If I recall correctly, you are the woman Jeff Kassner loved. You are the woman who Pete tells me cries herself to sleep some nights over losing Jeff Kassner."
"Please, Paul, don't..."
Nothing to do now but wait for the water to boil.
He let her cry for a few minutesweak, broken sobs. She'd been crying a lot, and was tiring out. When the kettle began to scream, he yanked it off burner, poured, turned off the heat, set the kettle down, and picked up the tray he'd prepared. He carried the tray to the table, noting how similar the layout of their homes was. He wondered if the layout of their hearts was as congruent.
She sat on the couch, hiccoughing a little, kneading that soaked hankie in both hands.
He pointed at her: "So are you going to tell me that Jeff Kassner was wrong? Jeff Kassner had bad taste in women? If you're saying that, then I disagree with you. I agree with Jeff Kassner, who had great taste in women."
"Oh Paul, you silly man." She sighed.
"Luckily, I happen to agree with Jeff Kassner. His taste and mine are fairly similar, and I trust my judgment."
She slid close to him, rested one hand on his chest, pressed her head against his side. "Would you hold me for a minute?"
"Sure." He embraced her, worked her so she was before him, rubbed his cheek against her hair, stroked her back, and the back of her head, with his palms. She still had a little of that coconut-fresh scent. "You smell the way you did when I took you to San Diego."
She sniffed. "That was the most wonderful weekend I've had in years."
"We can do it ag."
She clamped a hand on his mouth. "Don't. I can't handle anything more than going from one moment to the next."
"Okay," he said, gently brushing her hand aside. "Let's do tea."
They sat in silence. It seemed there was so much to say, but there was a woundedness about the moment that filled the whole house with melancholy. The very air was like thick, noxious quicksilver.
"I was in a car accident once," she said, "and I was still in shock hours later, sitting at my parents' table. That felt kind of like this. Who told you I cry at night?"
"My son Peter was sharing confidences with you?"
"When, may I ask?"
"Oh, couple of weeks ago he came running over. I guess he escaped from the baby sitter. Remember the time we were sitting on that rock on Mount Palomar? I was going to kiss you but then Pete saw us and ran back into the woods? He told me he did it because he was hoping I'd kiss you. Apparently you were telling him how much you enjoyed kissing with JeffreyI'm sure it was a lot more than kissingand he just wanted to see you happy for a change."
She shook her head in wonder.
"I gather he also developed a healthy hatred for Alex Fitch."
"Don't mention that name unless we are in a court of law."
"I'd rather not mention him again, if it's okay with you. He and his buddies nearly ruined my career."
"He told me."
"I know he did."
"How do you know?"
"What don't you know?"
"What I don't want to know, so don't start telling me."
"I'm all cried out so this is probably the best time to say it. He tried to rape me. I was not happy with him from the very beginning, and I was going very slow."
Paul was silent.
"I couldn't see that he was rotten to my son, for which I will long hate myself."
"Don't. Don't be hard on yourself."
"I feel so ashamed that I had such poor judgment."
"You are a bereaved widow. You have the right to make a few mistakes."
"Now what do you mean by that?" she said leaning close with a weary smile.
"Nothing at all. I'm not ready right now and neither are you. But next time I go to San Diego, I want to take you along."
"I'm going to be moving back to Oregon, I'm sorry. I've had it with sunny Southern California."
"Would you do yourself and your son a favor and wait a while? Let your feelings settle down?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so. My mother is very ill, and my place is up there. Peter will grow up where I grew up and my parents grew up. I think that's important."
That night, he watched until Pete's light went out, then a half hour later, her light. He dialed her number.
"Yes?" she said in a tired, husky, unhappy tone.
"I'm lonely over here."
"Oh?" She seemed to brighten a little.
"Yes. I've been through the wringer the past two months, and I think things are starting to get back to some semblance of reality."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"So I just thought I would kiss you. It's been prescribed for both of us."
"Hmm," she murmured, "I think you'd better bring that medication over here."
The prospect of losing each other again soonfor goodmade what time they would have all that more intense and precious.
She showed him Pete, who was sleeping on his side with his chin pulled up and his mouth slightly open, illumined by an otherworldly faint bluish light.
She put a finger over her lips and gently tucked her son in.
Then she took Paul's hand and led him down the hall to a larger bedroom. He'd never been in here, and he noted the frilly four-poster bed with a little surprise. She turned off the lightseven the hall lightso that the room was steeped in that same faint blue haze.
As he undressed, he realized suddenly that she had swept off her nightgown, revealing her full, firm breasts. Her skin was smooth to his touch. Her fingers roamed eagerly around his head, in his hair, down his back. His palms roved along her curves, feeling the downy skin, the firmness of her buttocks. He leaned down and kissed one puckered nipple, then the other, and she inhaled sharply each time. Slowly, sweetly, they drifted to the bed, and there they found the wild pleasure each had missed for so long.