After Herbert turned off the car, and after some time of staring at the brick façade of the house in silence, it occurred to him that he and Sylvia might look suspicious. The source of his self-consciousness was a recent news story (a headline for days on the TV circuit) concerning several jewelry store robberies and murders by a young white man on Long Island—his girlfriend cased the shops, and his mother waited in the getaway car. But it was a quiet Sunday in a predominantly Irish neighborhood, which led Herbert to conclude that they were safe from scrutiny. Most families would be in church.
“No one’s home,” Sylvia said from the passenger side of the SUV. The house conveniently faced her side of the car, giving Sylvia an unobstructed view.
Herbert unhooked his seat belt and let it retract, the heel of his left hand pressed to the steering wheel. “Looks quiet,” he said.
The interior of the small, two-story house where Sylvia had spent her entire childhood was impenetrable to the eye, the window shade fringes skimming the sills. New grass sprouted on the small front yard. Someone had planted pansies in the window boxes on either side of the closed front door accented by a brass knocker no one in Sylvia’s family had ever used. The outer screen door, once silver, had been replaced by a black one, an aesthetic choice Sylvia disapproved of.
“They loved this house,” Sylvia said, her face claiming new color. She opened the window wide, craned into the space beyond the car, and surveyed the suburban plot. It was spring but still very cool and windy. The stinging breeze filled the car. Sylvia wore a lightweight jean coat with big pockets, a long-sleeved top beneath. She was an oversized woman with large, fleshy arms and huge thighs. This accounted for the fact that her outerwear was never very substantial. She could slip gracefully into a frigid lake when others shivered at the banks, and with a startling comfort in her own skin could sunbathe in a standard swimsuit that smaller women might hesitate to pull off a store rack.
“They loved it,” Herb said, “because they spent so many years here, if nothing else.” He zipped his cotton jacket to his neck.
“It’s more than the years,” Sylvia said. “It’s the work they put into it, raising the children, the meals—it’s my whole life.”
She slipped out the tissue she had tucked in her jacket pocket before leaving the house and dabbed her eyes lightly. She reached for Herbert’s hand, looked at him lovingly, and then turned back to the stationary house. Herbert said nothing as a way to let his wife have her time with things.
He removed his hand from the steering wheel and laid it in his lap. The SUV was officially Sylvia’s car. Herbert’s car, a Chevette, sat at the train station every weekday while Herbert worked in Manhattan. But Herbert drove the SUV when they traveled together, despite the fact that Sylvia had the better sense of direction and longer experience as a driver. Sylvia had grown up on Long Island, just over the border from Queens and far from public transportation, a semi-suburban enclave where she drove at sixteen. Herbert was from Brooklyn, where he rode the subways until he met Sylvia.
For a moment, Herbert wished their teenage sons were there so that he could look in the back seat and wink at them. One or both of them would ask how long they planned to sit there or what they were doing for lunch or comment on the embarrassment of staring at a place that their mother had entered over and over again but was now off-limits to her.
They had swung by the place a few years earlier, on Sylvia’s birthday. She’d wanted to show her boys where she’d come from and tell amusing stories—the time her brother introduced her to beer, several of them, on her thirteenth birthday; how once there were 40 people for Easter dinner; how her aunt, a nun, visited each winter to help the kids make snow caves.
When they’d visited the house on her birthday, Sylvia’s parents had been alive, living in another state in a small condo that was easier to manage than the house and closer to Sylvia’s older brother’s and sister’s homes. Now they were both gone—her father the year before, her mother only two months earlier. The whole family had come to the neighborhood again, but not to the house, on the day of her mother’s funeral. All the siblings and their spouses and their children had supper at the Italian place that had catered Sylvia’s and Herbert’s wedding years before, when an intimate group of friends and family (no more than 25) had gathered in the modest living room. The marriage ceremony had been performed by Sylvia’s uncle who was a Catholic priest. The meal of heroes and hot platters from the local restaurant, supplemented by Sylvia’s mother’s corned beef and cabbage, was served on covered aluminum tables in the back yard. Sylvia had worn a cream-colored sheath accented by a corsage of gardenias, and Herbert had bought his first suit, several sizes smaller than the many suits that hung in his closet now. A picture of the two, 17 years earlier, standing nervously linked at the waists before a bramble of bushes in the small yard, still sat, as it had for years, on Herbert’s desk in his study.
Herbert had made the previous visits to the house for the sake of his wife. This time, he considered the trip to be a pilgrimage he wanted to make for himself, too—an homage to mark the end of his own association with Sylvia’s parents, who had been parents, of sorts, to him. Not that they had given him much—money or compliments or advice—not that they were the warmest two people, not that they were particularly wise or courageous or extraordinary, but that they had accepted him as a family member when his own parents had passed away years before.
“I feel like getting out, walking around to see the back yard,” Sylvia said.
“Go ahead,” Herbert said. “I don’t think they’d mind.”
“I’d feel like I’m snooping,” she said.
“So snoop,” Herbert said. “No one’s home.”
“I think I’ll stay here,” she said. “It might make me feel too bad. If the azaleas are gone or if the grass is dug up and replaced by concrete, I don’t want to know.”
But he wished she would go. He wished it because he wanted to have the moment to himself without her owning it all, without it being her childhood home and her parents and her grief and her love and loss.
“Why don’t you get out? Walk to the front steps at least,” Herbert said.
“When my friends came over,” Sylvia said, “my mother made the turnovers. I loved her turnovers.”
“The turnovers?” Herbert said.
“Yes,” she said. “The turnovers. The ones I loved. Don’t you remember my stories about the turnovers?” Sylvia said.
“Of course I do,” Herb said.
“And how delicious they were and expertly baked?” Sylvia said.
“The turnovers?” Herbert said.
“What is it with you?” Sylvia said.
“I thought,” he said, “that you didn’t like the turnovers. I thought they were dry and didn’t have enough filling. I thought you said they reminded you of what your mother couldn’t give you.”
“That’s what I thought when I was a kid,” she said. “But I could never appreciate them then. Other mothers didn’t do that. She was so thoughtful.” Sylvia looked back at the house.
“My mother couldn’t cook much of anything,” Herb said. “I guess it was amazing she cooked as much as she did, considering the polio.”
“But we’re not talking about your mother now,” Sylvia said.
Herbert put the heel of his hand on the steering wheel again. He felt very tired, so much so that he sighed, then yawned.
That’s not what you thought when you were a kid, Herbert mused to himself. That’s what you thought last year—that your mother’s turnovers were dry.
If it is possible to feel a thought without allowing yourself to directly think it, this is the thought he felt: Your mother was an efficient, competent, disconnected woman. How has she become thoughtful?
This idea, which was not consciously acknowledged, was experienced only as a feeling in his body, translated as an ache in his groin. He shifted in his seat, rearranged himself. The feeling made him look out the driver’s window, away from the house, to think about lunch possibilities. The feeling made him swivel his eyes toward Sylvia instead of turning fully toward her to see that she had slipped off one of her flat, backless shoes and put her foot up on the opposite bent leg.
“Thoughtful?” Herbert said, without having the true intention of saying the word aloud. “Stop it, Herb. You’re repeating everything I say.”
Sylvia began rubbing her raised ankle, making small circles around the bone with the flat tip of her finger. She often engaged in this self-comforting behavior when she was thinking hard or during one of her own lengthy explanations. He watched her finger rotating, and this motion that used to comfort him now tormented him. He had the urge to tell her to stop. But he could not do it because there was no way he could explain why she should.
It was then he became sure of his choice for lunch: a meatball Parmesan hero at the Italian place.
Once this decision was made, his mind wandered back to the after-work drinks he’d had, two weeks earlier, with a group of coworkers at a lively bar-restaurant near Grand Central. He rarely socialized after work because he preferred going home to Sylvia and the boys. After supper, he read with his sons, rented films, in moderate weather shot hoops or threw a Frisbee. When the kids were in their rooms for the night, Herbert and Sylvia talked about their day. Herb paid bills, caught up on e-mail correspondence, cruised the Internet. On many nights, Herb stayed up late, hours past the time Sylvia fell asleep. He liked to line up his plans for the next workday, pull a book off the shelf—any book—and read a chapter or two, skim the sections of The New York Times he’d missed on the commute home. But there were a couple of nights each week when they agreed to go to bed together and make love. These midweek matings had become less frequent since Herb had neglected to do some life insurance research that he and Sylvia had agreed he would do. He’d also missed a mortgage payment for the first time, and Sylvia had come upon the late notice. She’d been irate; she’d said she’d felt betrayed, and for the past two weeks had been going to bed early, turning off all the lights in their bedroom, including the firefly night-light that was the signal that he could wake her, kiss her, and more if he was interested when he came to bed.
The bar at Grand Central filled his thoughts so completely that he was no longer aware that he was seated several feet above the ground in an SUV on a quiet, suburban street, waiting for his wife to say that she was satisfied with this visit and that she was ready to go. He could clearly recall the two women who’d come to the bar that evening, invited by Jim, a guy in ad sales. Herbert hadn’t paid much attention to the women, hadn’t even been introduced to them because there had to have been at least 15 Spike TV employees standing around the bar and mostly, they’d clustered in departments. But after an hour or so, one of the women stepped over to Herbert and told him how much she liked the new Web site he’d helped design. He found that he couldn’t stop looking at the indentation at the base of her neck, an undulant valley above her collarbone. She had been wearing a tight white top with an open boat neck that revealed the ridge of her collarbone and the V of soft cartilage between. The formfitting sleeves extended to her thin wrists. She was younger than he was, maybe by 10 years. Their conversation moved around the company, from her work in ad sales to the suit Spike Lee had made against the company when it recently changed its name.
He’d had two drinks already, usually his limit, when she’d asked if he wanted to sit down and order another one. He’d said yes, he would because he’d realized how heavy his legs felt, heavier since the moment she’d asked him to sit, so that he imagined that they might give way like his father’s legs gave way toward the end of his life, making him fearful of standing or walking.
They’d sat in a corner, several yards from the smoky center of activity, and they’d talked until he could not recognize one remaining Spike TV employee at the long, curved bar in the distance. At first, they’d talked about benign things like the time he’d gotten separated from his family in a museum and lost them for hours, her old boyfriend who loved motorcycles and brought her to biker conventions, the way he liked to rent movies in a series—either by director or actor or theme. But soon she’d moved to memories of her father beating her with his leather belt on her bare bottom. How he’d told her no man would ever love her because of her thick middle.
By this time, she’d had to prop up her face with the heel of her hand. By this time, she’d looked at him for a long time without looking away, and he’d liked it. By this time, he’d lost track of the time. By this time, his cell phone was ringing, and it was Sylvia. By this time, he was thinking that she was beautiful and what the hell was her father thinking about a thick middle. Her eyes were a startlingly clear blue—two round circles with black bull’s-eyes that reminded him of a modern painting he’d once seen of a woman with blue breasts.
He’d worried that she might not get home safely though he’d waited with her for a cab, held her elbow as she angled in, then turned to him and said You’re such a nice man. He’d worried about her falling on steps, getting the key in the door and collapsing in her clothes. He’d worried when he’d slipped into bed and Sylvia was already asleep, though she’d turned to show him that she’d heard him. He’d stayed up for an hour or so, feeling as if he’d been unfaithful, though nothing, physically, had happened. By the next morning when the sun rose and he got to work and there were no announcements of hurt employees, he forgot about her. He forgot about her until Sylvia said Stop it, Herb.
Now, as he waited for Sylvia to have these moments at her childhood home, he couldn’t stop thinking about the young woman in the bar. He’d told her about the firefly night-light, and she’d said she thought he shouldn’t have to wait for the light; he should go in and kiss her and make love to her whether it was on or not.
More than once, when they were first married, Herb and Sylvia had made love on his desk in midtown. That’s how it used to be. He had always loved her. He even loved her right now, sitting in the car seat next to him, rubbing her foot. Years ago, it was Sylvia who’d told him he was such a nice man. She was the smartest and the strongest woman he’d known. She’d shown unfaltering courage and steadiness during every crisis&mdash:the removal of her ovary; the death of both his parents; his back injury; her breast cancer scare; their older son’s flirtation with marijuana; their younger son’s learning disability.
“I’m ready.” She looked at Herb briefly, her lips pursed closed, then looked out of the windshield with a steady stare.
Herbert turned the ignition key, shifted to drive, and headed back to the Parkway. “How about lunch at the Italian place?” he said.
“I want to go home,” Sylvia said. “I’m not in the mood.”
Herbert did not make the turn for the restaurant and instead continued along the Parkway service road toward the entrance ramp. Although he was unaware of it, some of the new settling of his body came from the fact that he no longer thought about the young woman in the bar. Instead, what came to mind was an image of two women he’d seen just that week on the streets of Manhattan. They were both so obese that, unable to walk, they’d cruised down Broadway in wheelchairs. They’d navigated through the lunchtime throng with a chilling ferocity, their amorphous flesh undulating and shifting in front of their seemingly disembodied, miniscule heads. It seemed to Herbert that it was only their bodies that led the way, undirected by grey matter.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Herbert said.
“No,” Sylvia said.
“You’re always hungry,” Herbert said.
“I am not,” Sylvia said. “What is wrong with you, Herb? You’re acting ridiculous today.”
Now a trembling erupted, only in his right leg, from the knee down to the foot that activated the accelerator. He had a crazy thought—what if it were the beginning of Parkinson’s, the disease that had taken Sylvia’s father? What if he lost control of the other leg, and then each hand, one at a time?
He tried to retain smoothness in his driving even though his foot shook delicately on the pedal.
Hebert signaled right and glanced at Sylvia as he moved to the right lane. For the first time since he’d known her, he felt enraged by her ample girth. It was something they rarely talked about. She had an amazing acceptance for what every TV show, billboard, magazine ad, and Hollywood movie told her was unacceptable. He had always loved her abundance, her soft folds, her ample breasts, and the protection of her very largeness. But now it was a cushion of distance, a barrier, an insidious separation.