Waiting for August to End
This is how I remember it: I'm ten or eleven, lounging with my cousins and Aunt Corinne on her sun porch. She's wearing a pink Chanel-style dress, like Jackie Kennedy, and she's sipping iced tea from a hot-pink metal tumbler. She's just discovered, she tells us, that someone is living in her house while she and my uncle are at work. Her crossed legs are bare and one of them jiggles up and down while she talks. As she grows more excited--telling us about her strange feeling, the little things she couldn't put her finger on--her false teeth slip occasionally. (I loved to hear her tell that story: how when she was pregnant her unborn babies-my cousins-just sucked the calcium right out of her.) But on this day she's describing the scent that she couldn't quite detect, the certainty that things weren't exactly where she'd left them. How she told no one, afraid that we'd think she'd finally gone round the bend. And how, one day-her eyes snapped triumphantly as she told this part-she noticed the stranger's mistake: He left the bathtub ring an inch too high.
Now that I'm a bit older (thirty-five)-and the circumstances of my aunt's divorce are common knowledge-it seems obvious what was going on: My uncle was having an affair. But then again, who knows? Maybe it's just my experience as the "other woman" that sends my mind hurtling towards clandestine bubble baths for two.
It must be the music that has me thinking about this at three o'clock in the morning on a homicidally hot August night. The soundtrack of The Music Man is on the turntable, the needle bobbing up and down, static competing with Shirley Jones as she sings goodnight to her someone, goodnight to her love. Last year when my parents downsized to a condo, I swiped this album, along with a stack of others. I play it when I'm feeling down. Since I can't sleep, I'm sitting on the living room floor, sorting through stacks of records, tapes and CDs.
As I pick through our musical past--(Did I really buy that Billy Ray Cyrus album?)-I wonder about Aunt Corinne. Crazy as she was, I think a part of me understands how she felt. Ever since Zach moved in six months ago my house hasn't been the haven it used to be. I won't say it's haunted, exactly. Just that his son, R.J., who lives with us every other week, is as obtrusively unobtrusive as Aunt Corinne's phantom bather. Even when he's not present, he's a presence.
Every Sunday, as part of the shared custody arrangement between Zach and his ex-wife, Diane, R.J. totes his things from Diane's house--three miles north, two blocks east of here--to our house, or vice-versa. When he visits, he doesn't bring much. He has a closet full of clothes here, and, I imagine, just as many at Diane's. He uses our guestroom, with its monstrous mirrored wardrobe, antique cherry four-poster and matelassé duvet. On the floor is a rag rug my grandmother made, and botanical prints in gilded frames hang on the walls. R.J. must hate this room--I would have, when I was thirteen--but he doesn't say anything. I've offered to redecorate it for him, but he just shrugs. Anyway, he doesn't sleep in the four-poster: he sleeps on it, in a sleeping bag. Why doesn't he just tell me I have cooties? I asked Zach once, as if that were the worst accusation a boy his age could make. I don't know, Zach laughed. Do kids say that anymore?
Afton, R.J.'s sister, on the other hand, has been moving effortlessly between our two homes this summer while she's on break from college. The only time I've ever seen R.J. comfortable in our house is when Afton is here with him. She's the sweet, smart, charming kind of girl, who will become a sweet, smart, charming kind of woman, who will coast from cradle to grave-who couldn't like her?-unless she falls in love with the wrong man, which I think she already has. Zach adores her.
As if he can tell I'm thinking about him, Zach appears in the doorway. "Kate?" His face is slack and sleepy, his hair all moist and tufted. I have to smile at this: Zach sleeps as soundly and sloppily as an eight-week old puppy.
"Sorting through our music," I tell him. The overhead fan is on high, pushing humid air around the room and gently ruffling a few naked album sleeves. "You know," I hold up a Phish CD, "for someone your age you have shockingly contemporary taste. I'm feeling very uncool right now." It's a preemptive strike, focusing his attention on this CD. I don't want him to ask me why I can't sleep; I'm not ready for the discussion that will follow. I don't want to talk about R.J.--safe at Diane's for another two days--or about us, or about hope or marriage or any version of the future. "Huh," he grunts, and for once I'm grateful that he wakes up so slowly.
"Billy Breathes?" I ask. "It was in the box with your Miles Davis tapes. I've never seen this side of you before." As I say this, it occurs to me that the CD might belong to R.J., that I've unwittingly brought him into the conversation.
"Oh. Present from Afton. Before she met Dominick and started listening to opera. It was the period when she was all hot to drop out of college, hit the road, find herself." He leans against the doorjamb, looking like he might slide down to the floor any minute now. "She was hoping to marry a-what did she call them?-a Trustafarian."
I laugh, relieved that we're talking about Afton and not R.J.. I like Afton, and I think she likes me. "Your daughter," I say, "The Liberated Woman." My laugh sounds like a snort and I search Zach's face for a sign that he's offended-any comment about his children can erupt into an argument-but he's still sleepy and befuddled. If he's heard my accidental snort, he's letting it pass.
"She got a B in chemistry and thought the world was ending." He wipes his palm across his forehead. "Son of a bitch, it's oppressive in here."
"Well, we could get central air instead of fixing the stove," I suggest. The previous owners of this house left a magnificent antique Roper-circa 1930, with six burners and three ovens-that I've never had the money to refurbish. So I've lived without a working stove for six years; before he moved in, I could get by with a microwave and a toaster oven. He's offered to pay to have the stove fixed, but so far I haven't been able to make the call. "Working stove," I say, imitating a scale with my hands, "Central-"
An unhappy yowl drifts in through the open window, cutting me short.
Zach raises an eyebrow. "Fiddler must have heard your voice."
I take a sip of iced coffee, then get up and walk to the window. Fiddler, the stray cat I've been wanting to adopt, is pacing back and forth between the boxwoods. "Hey there, you little homeless ragamuffin," I say, giving the screen an encouraging pat, "I'd let you in, but the big old meanie here doesn't like cats. I told him you're no trouble at all, but he says we have enough to deal with." Fiddler stops pacing and looks up hopefully, and I'm glad he doesn't understand me. Not long ago, Zach refused to let R.J. bring his ferret with him when he came to stay with us. It was difficult, under the circumstances, for Zach to say no. A stray cat doesn't stand a chance of winning him over.
"Honey, do you have to do this on a weeknight?" Leather scrunches as Zach falls into a chair behind me.
I watch Fiddler through the screen. It's clear he's spent some time on the streets--his tail is badly broken-but otherwise he's sleek and beautiful, with fur the color of a polar bear's. When he struts across our roof, the tip of his broken tail revolves slowly, like a windsock. I used to haul out the extension ladder every time I saw him up there, assuming he didn't know how to get down. But he never let me catch him, and after awhile, I gave up. I realized he doesn't need rescuing--he just wants me to come up and play.
Zach lets out a long groan, which ends in a sigh, and when I turn he's nearly horizontal, lying across the chair with his head flung back and his arms dangling. "I redid old lady Tritipo's will for about the fortieth time today," he says to the ceiling. "Don't ask me why. She's still leaving everything to her garden club."
"Crazy Mrs. Tritipo." I own a vintage clothing boutique called The Faded Frock-closed now while the city widens the street-located beneath Zach's office. For some reason, Mrs. Tritipo always mixes up the addresses and wanders into my place instead; as if, in her experience, it isn't at all unusual for an attorney to work out of the back room of a dress shop. I sigh, picturing the frail woman lost amid the seed pearls and tender seams of dresses that may very well have once belonged to her. How did she make it to Zach's office this time, without an escort?
At the thought of my business-reminding me that it's been closed for two months-my mood plummets to despair. The city's already behind schedule, and if they aren't done soon, I'll lose the back-to-school shoppers. I don't even want to think about what will happen if I'm not open for the holidays. Zach tries to be encouraging, but he doesn't understand. Unlike retail businesses, law firms aren't hurt much by roadwork. And besides, he knows how little money I make, even when my shop is open. He thinks I should be enjoying my time off.
When Fiddler cocks his ears, I realize my fingers are drumming the windowsill, my nails clicking dully. Oh shit, Fiddler, I think, what a mess I am. Taking a deep, ragged breath, I turn and crawl onto Zach's chair, facing him. "She's a sweet old lady, though," I say to him, with effort, trying not to let my mood show. I straddle his hips. "And you're sweet to be so patient with her."
Zach pulls himself upward, struggling against the leather, until he's holding me in his lap. His hands on my waist are hot. Out of habit, I glance down at his ring finger--no tan line or indentation--and feel relieved that at least we've come this far. When he was still living with Diane, and this was just an affair, the groove from his just-recently-removed wedding ring would send me into a downward-spiraling, near-suicidal funk.
When he slides his hands up under my shirt and begins to move his hips beneath me, I grab his wrists. "Zach?" I ask. "Are you awake enough to finish what you start?"
"Party pooper." He grows still. With his eyes closed, it's hard to tell what he's thinking. Warm and expressive, they're the first thing I noticed about him, or at least the first thing I liked. I've often thought that his eyes are the antidote for his attorney's uniform of starched white shirts and suspenders.
I lean back and gaze at his face: it's his flaws that I like best. He has a faint white scar in the center of his forehead from a fall off the monkey bars when he was six, and his nose has been broken twice (by his brother), so that it's wide and slightly crooked. I reach out to smooth his right eyebrow-it always has an unruly gray hair--then let my finger follow the slope of his eyelid. Touching him, I begin to relax. The skin beneath his eye feels crosshatched and puffy; lately he's been pouring two or three tumblers of scotch every evening. As I note each familiar feature a word forms in my mind: Behold! I long to say it out loud-I hold you, behold you, am forever beholden to you for loving me-but instead I lean down and nip his earlobe.
"You look good," I tell him.
He opens his eyes and reaches up to ruffle my hair. "For someone my age, you mean," he says, and I lean my head into his hand.
"Fifty's not so old."
"Kiddo, it feels ancient."
I snuggle down and lay my head on his shoulder. Beneath me his chest rises and falls. Breath warm in my hair, he's almost asleep again. Outside there's a muffled rumble: thunder, or just a train? I close my eyes and listen to the familiar songs, let myself be comforted by them. There's a pause, the speakers crackle and hiss, then Robert Preston begins singing Ya Got Trouble and I feel like I'm ten years old again.
Quietly, I sing along with the record: Ya got trouble, right here in River City, with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool ...
"You know," I tell Zach, lifting my head to look at him, "I'll never stop feeling guilty when I hear this song. Dad used to sing it when we did something bad."
"Really?" he asks without opening his eyes, "My dad used to just beat the shit out of us."
"Well, occasionally he did that, too. But usually it was just the singing. After the singing a beating was redundant. When we did something really bad, he and Mom would do a duet. Mom sang background." I sing her part along with the record: Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble ... "They thought they were pretty funny. Of course, I would have rather had a beating. But usually I just got the song and a lecture."
"And the guilt," Zach says, eyes still closed.
I nod, though I know he can't see me, and settle my head back on his shoulder. This is something Zach and I share: guilt. I've helped him pull apart his marriage. And although I know it's serious business-nothing like dismantling a dress to see how it's put together-I was pretty naïve, all the same.
Zach stirs. "You're doing it again, you know."
"What?" I ask, but I know what he means.
Lately I've been sorting things: labeling, purging. I've tagged the tomatoes in the backyard with shiny zinc markers-Better Boy, Early Girl, Italian Gold--that glint behind the softening fruit. The tools in the basement have been arranged on a pegboard wall, with thick black outlines drawn underneath in case they're mislaid. The perennial seeds I've collected this summer have been tucked into tiny glycerin bags and stored in the refrigerator's butter keeper. And the sheets that ride up, springing from the corners of the mattress whenever we roll over? All gone.
When I sort things, the pressure in my chest eases, and the hours-endless since my business closed-no longer seem like enemies. Still, there are days when I can't find enough to do, and my restlessness has only increased with the temperature.
Five days ago, triple-digit heat settled over the Midwest like a shroud. From the moment I woke up-cheeks wet, eyes puffy, throat like corduroy-I felt unsettled. Zach was gone, already at work. R.J. was gone too; Zach had driven him back to Diane's the previous evening. Too many words had been said--words between R.J. and Zach--about me. I got out of bed and shuffled to the kitchen, my nightgown clinging to my skin, damp and uncomfortable. I had the sensation-much like my aunt must have had twenty-five years ago-that strangers were living in my house, their words, like dust, coating the furniture.
I carried a mug of coffee out into the garden, where heat-mist hung in the air like fine, white gauze. Spittlebugs had covered the chrysanthemums with milky bubbles and a new spider web stretched between the gateposts. Fiddler appeared from beneath a hosta leaf and rubbed against my leg, then ran out ahead of me and flopped on his back. I stopped to rub his belly, grateful for his uncomplicated friendship. He followed me to the shed-tripping me several times as he darted between my legs-where I keep his food hidden behind the potting soil. While Fiddler ate, I wondered, not for the first time, what I was afraid of. Surely if there was a presence endangering the precarious balance of our relationship, it was R.J. and not Fiddler.
After that, I inspected the garden, weaving my way through the rows of vegetables. There were cucumbers, some nearly a foot long. I wondered how they managed to successfully hide until they were inedible, tough and full of seeds. The lima bean and green bean bushes were heavy with dangling pods, which needed to be picked while the weather was dry. The summer squash seemed to have doubled in size in one night. Scores of tomatoes were ready to pick. As I looked them over, I noticed that the fruit near the ground had holes bored through the skin. The copper collars I'd placed around the base of the plants hadn't deterred the slugs. The day already seemed dangerous.
There was so much work to do, I couldn't think where to start: tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers? It was too overwhelming. So instead, I decided to sort through the scraps of recipes I'd saved, trying to find ways to use my superabundant harvest.
It was around noon, and I was on the back porch watching a spider swaying in the nonexistent breeze, when I heard footsteps in the adjoining kitchen, then the click-hiss of a can being opened. Zach, sipping a beer, came to sit down on the porch rail across from me. I was startled by how tired he looked: slumped from the inside out, as if everything within him had grown heavy and begun to sag. I worried about his manic behavior during the holidays, but this scares me more.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"What are you doing? Shouldn't you be at work?" I nodded towards the beer.
"I wanted to see you." His eyes--and maybe this was just the angle of the sun--seemed washed out, the color of beach glass.
"Oh," I said, edgy. I held up a stack of recipe cards. "What do you think it says about a person when they have a hundred and fourteen cookie recipes and only three recipes with any kind of vegetables in them?"
"I don't know. That that person needs to call someone to fix the stove, I guess. Have you done that yet?"
Because I don't want to spend your money, which is all tied up in the divorce, and I don't have any of my own. And because Diane is a good cook, and I'm not. "I don't know," I said. The spider I had been watching earlier was crawling towards the ceiling, reeling in his invisible line. "I just never find the time."
Zach seemed about to say something more, then stopped. He took a sip of his beer, then set the can on the porch rail. "Come here," he said.
He kissed me so deeply it seemed he was trying to become me. With one hand in my hair and the other on the small of my back, he crushed me to him. I felt claustrophobic, unable to breathe. Struggling to break free, I wedged my hands between us. "Don't fight me, please," he whispered, grabbing my waist and turning me, propelling me inside, onto the couch. Then he began to undress me, but so gently it seemed as if he thought the skin under my clothes had been recently burned. When he kissed my right collarbone, my breasts, my left collarbone-slowly and reverently--I understood that he was trying to erase, within the limitations of the male lexicon, the words R.J. had screamed the night before: slut, leech, home wrecker; to erase the echoes of his still-wife, Diane, because what thirteen-year-old boy uses the phrase home wrecker?
Later, when he was running a cool cloth over my body, he asked, "Do you think of yourself as beautiful?"
"But you know you're beautiful to me, don't you?"
He held my gaze, obviously trying to convey something urgent and important. "Zach?" I lifted myself onto one elbow, stilling the movement of the cloth with my other hand. "Yes."
Zach's looking at me now with that same inscrutable expression. Inching backwards, I stand and grab his hands to pull him up. "You know what would hit the spot?" I ask. "Ice cream."
In the kitchen, the air is heavy with the smell of coffee. I switch off the coffeemaker and rinse out the pot, while Zach grabs two spoons and a carton of chocolate chip out of the freezer. Leaning against the counter, we eat from the container, passing the ice cream back and forth. Zach knows I like it slightly soupy, so he leaves the soft stuff along the sides for me, carefully limiting himself to the frozen blob in the middle.
"So. Are you still in oven paralysis?" he asks.
"Mmm hmm." It occurs to me to ask why he doesn't call someone about the stove. But then, in my mind, I run through this conversation and realize there's too many ways for it to go wrong. It will start with responsibility and division of labor and careen, out of control, like it always does, into a discussion about baggage: his and hers.
"You know, a working stove doesn't have to be so meaningful," Zach says. "Sometimes a stove is just a stove."
Zach hands the carton back to me, saying, "Don't forget. R.J. needs a ride to rehearsal tomorrow." A positive sign: R.J. has gotten involved with community theater. He has a small part as the gravediggers son in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Sometimes I can hear R.J. in the shower practicing how to sound mysterious. Zach looks at the clock, "Or today. Whatever. Diane's busy with something and I have commitments."
"Commitments." I nod. "Yes, I haven't forgotten you have eighteen holes of commitments."
"Kate." He uses his disappointed tone of voice and suddenly I'm tired of being careful.
"Do you know how many lights there are between here and the playhouse?" I ask. "Twelve. Why do I know that? Because I count them. Because the only thing worse than being trapped in a car with a silent fourteen-year-old, is being trapped in a car at a red light with a silent thirteen-year-old."
"Kate, you're overreacting."
"I am not. His silence is malicious."
"No, it's not. You just don't have much experience with teenagers. Anyway, keep trying, okay?" He points his spoon at me. "We all need to be working at this."
The muscles in the back of my neck tighten and I search his face for some acknowledgment that he knows that I know this, that he knows I've been trying, that I've run out of things to try.
"Really," I say, letting my voice drop angrily on the last syllable. I dig a heaping spoonful of ice cream out of the center of the carton and thrust it back at him.
Zach gazes at the hole I've made in his island of ice cream. He looks up at me, says, "That's a little childish, don't you think?" in the same voice he uses when R.J. squirts milk out of his nose.
"Oh, please." I leave him in the kitchen to put away the ice cream, and go back to my records.
When Zach returns to the living room, I've already sorted through everything in his box. The only artist we have in common is Van Morrison. "Hey!" I say, hoping our fight is over. "Can you believe we have so many copies of this?" I hold up four copies of Bang Masters. "We both have it on tape and CD."
Zach perches on the arm of the leather chair. "What are you going to do with those?" he asks.
"I don't know. Goodwill?" I take aim, about to toss Van the Man on the discard pile.
"What?" I ask, startled. It's not like Zach to be possessive; I've never known him to put much stock in things. He didn't even get upset when R.J. lost control of his skateboard and dinged the door of his Mercedes. "Why not? Why do we need more than one copy?"
"I just want them, okay?"
"Do they have some kind of special meaning? Was your grandmother from Ireland? Did they play it at your senior prom?" Six cups of coffee and I can't stop myself. "Or is this what you used to listen to when you got laid?"
Zach just looks at me.
"Oh." I drop the CDs and stand up. I picture Zach and Diane doing it to Brown-eyed Girl. "Oh."
He sighs. "Do you have to do this now? It's the middle of the night."
I narrow my eyes at him. "What are you saying?"
"Nothing." He holds up his hands in mock surrender.
"You're not sure we're going to make it. That's what it is, isn't it? That's why you have to hang onto your CDs." As soon as I say this, I wish I hadn't. The ceiling fan seems to catch my words and send them whirling around the room. I want to reach out and pull them back to me; some things shouldn't be loose in the world, some things come true that way.
Zach sighs loudly. "Oh, for God's sake."
Fiddler begins to meow.
"Doesn't that damn cat have a home?" Zach asks, getting up to look out the window.
"Stop changing the subject!"
He turns. "Look, I'm tired. You're tired. We're hot and grouchy. And you're jumping to conclusions."
"Why can't we talk about her? Why do you have to be so damn discreet? Why did you leave her if she's so perfect?"
"She's not perfect."
My hands are clenching and unclenching; I can't think what to do with them. "But she would have had the stove fixed by now, right? And she'd be cooking meatloaves and tuna casseroles and birthday cakes, wouldn't she?"
Zach leaves the window and comes to stand behind me. He kisses my neck and cups my breasts with his hands. "Let's not do this now," he whispers. "Come on, let it go."
"Stop." I push his hands down and step away from him. "It isn't the answer to everything."
Behind me, Zach swears and kicks a pile of CDs, but I don't turn around. I walk right out the front door.
Outside, the sky is smudged with purple. The air smells of grass, bee balm and rain. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. The people on our street are sleeping, but everything else seems to be stirring, excited by the promise of a storm. Crickets are calling to each other insistently, scraping out a ragged rhythm. Mosquitoes and moths flit in and out of the misty halo of streetlights, disappearing for a moment before their next drunken flyby. Slugs ooze in the moonlight, streaking the sidewalk with glimmering graffiti. Occasionally, lightning flashes in the distance. Fiddler rushes to my side, rubs against my leg, then lopes off.
Walking to the edge of our property, I look back at the house. Inside, Zach is squatting on the floor, gathering up tapes and CDs. The screen door turns his image fuzzy, like a newspaper photograph that's been enlarged too many times.
Fervently, I wish I had somewhere to go.
The Douglas fir next to the house shakes, then a branch lowers to the roof and Fiddler scrambles off. He climbs to the peak of the roof and stretches out, his paws extended in front, his tail spread out behind. He looks down at me and meows. Without thinking, I walk back to the garage, drag out the extension ladder and climb up to join him. The pitch of the roof is steeper than it looks from the ground, but the openness is exhilarating. I feel my way to a spot next to the chimney and sit down cautiously. Fiddler stretches out beside me, purring.
"Things aren't good," I tell the cat, stroking his head. "I think we're fucked."
Fiddler licks his paw, then begins to wash his face.
Wrapping my arms around my knees and rocking a little, I wonder how bad it really is. When you steal another woman's husband, reality sets in slowly. At first it doesn't feel like stealing: it feels like destiny. But then, after all the splendor and excitement, the awesome luck of finding your true soul mate, along comes this reckoning. Reality on your doorstep in the form of a sullen, Mountain Dew-guzzling, Edwin Drood-singing thirteen-year-old and his still-beautiful mother, who knows your husband better than you do, remembers the expression on his face when his children were born, saw him play basketball in college and city leagues, long before he blew out his knee. Three miles north and two blocks east of here, they're sleeping in a house with central air and a working stove, a house that smells of banana bread and Pledge.
Tipping my head back, I watch the stars blink on and off as clouds parade past them. The air seems cooler up here and a breeze is moving through the tops of the trees. Leaves shimmer as they turn in the wind. Fiddler's tail flicks twice, then settles across my feet.
As I concentrate on locating first the Big Dipper, then the Little Dipper, I feel myself begin to lose balance. I thrust my hands down hard, bracing myself. The world wobbles, then rights itself. I haven't moved at all, I note with surprise-I just went too long without blinking. Sighing, I lean my head on my knees, too tired to climb down to safety.
The ladder creaks and a familiar silhouette appears at the top of it. Hesitantly, Zach crosses the roof and sits down on the other side of Fiddler.
"Hey," he says. He draws up his knees, then dangles his hands between them.
"Hey," I say. Fiddler yawns and stretches. I reach down and scratch his ears.
"About those records?" Zach's staring straight ahead at the swaying trees. "It's just that it's my stuff. That's all. It's all I've got. I left with my clothes, my golf clubs and my records. Can you understand that?"
I nod, ashamed of myself for not realizing how little Zach had left of his old life. He'd given up a lot, trying to be a gentleman through this divorce. I haven't given him enough credit for that.
Zach says, "I'm sorry this is so hard. I know you think I don't know, but I do."
Tears slip past the ridge of my nose. "He hates me, Zach."
"He's just a kid. He'll get over it."
I sniff and wipe my nose on the back of my hand. "It's not just that."
"He's so--" I close my eyes. I don't want to say the next word, admit that we are culpable, "-lost."
"I know." Zach sighs. I open my eyes and look over at him. There's a notch at the corner of his mouth; the one that means he's searching for the right--the polite and politically correct-words. "I don't like to talk about this, it just sounds like whining. But believe me, things weren't any better before. He'll get used to things. Give him time."
"Hey," He reaches over and squeezes my knee. "You're still the best thing that's ever happened to me."
"I find that a little hard to believe."
"Well, believe it."
Despite everything, I know the reverse is true: he's the best thing that's ever happened to me. His small kindnesses, his enormous optimism--I don't even want to think about life without him.
"It's not like I thought it would be," I say.
"It's not like you thought it would be, either."
"You thought we'd be screwing like rabbits."
"Well, I hoped--"
Hearing the smile in his voice, I smile myself. "Sorry."
"Not your fault."
I hesitate before I ask the next question, not sure if I want to hear the answer. "Are we going to make it, Zach?"
This is the question we've been trying to avoid all summer. Now that it's out, I'm filled with the same combination of dread and relief that comes with being the first to say I love you. Dread, because if you were going to hear what you wanted to hear, you wouldn't have had to be the first to say it. And relief, because at least now you'll know.
Zach takes a deep breath, as if he's about to explain something, then stops. He seems mesmerized by the trees again; the wind has picked up and their limbs are waving wildly. In our next-door neighbor's yard a crow squawks, then swoops down, changing branches. Fiddler sits up, watches for a moment, then settles back down. Zach shakes his head, as if he's trying to rid himself of some thought. "I don't know," he says finally.
I'm grateful for the reprieve, but my eyes still fill with tears. "So what do we do now?"
"Go to bed."
He stands up and pulls me to my feet. Gathering me into his arms, he kisses my forehead, both eyes, my mouth. We sway a little and I grip him tighter, locking my hands behind his back. "Well, maybe you'll come to bed," he says. "But probably you'll start alphabetizing the canned goods."
"Funny." I push away, hands flat against his chest. He's holding my arms, keeping me from falling. "Zach, I don't want to sort things anymore. Tell me what to do."
He pulls me back, tucks my head under his chin. "Let's just wait for August to end." The words rumble in his throat as he says them. "The heat will break. R.J. will go back to school. Things will get better."
I consider this: not a solution, but a strategy. "Okay," I say, tired. I kiss the hollow of his throat, tasting his sweat. Then he leads me to the edge of the roof and I watch as he climbs down. When he reaches the bottom, he holds the ladder for me. Fiddler peers over the edge of the roof, curious. When I'm halfway, Zach knocks on the side of the ladder with his knuckles and calls up, "I suppose now's not the time to tell you that you have terrible taste in music, is it?"
"Hey," I yell, gripping the ladder.
When I reach the bottom, Zach drapes his arm across my shoulders. "It's okay, you can't help it," he tells me. "Your parents liked The Music Man." I laugh, and together we walk around to the front door. When we pass the Douglas fir, the top of it is shaking.
Inside, everything has been returned to order. I linger in the doorway and take it all in: our books, the quilt Zach's mother gave us for a wedding gift, the watercolor my parents sent from Florida. Even R.J.'s running shoes--tucked halfway beneath the couch where I always trip on them-seem benign. It'll be okay, I tell myself. August will end. They'll finish widening the road. R.J and I will keep trying. Things will get better. I give Zach's hand a squeeze and he tugs me toward the bedroom. When we reach the bed, I stop. "Wait," I say, dropping his hand.
In the living room, I open the front door, and step out onto the porch. "Come on in, Fiddler," I call.