Around the block from where she lives, another brick row house waits. Victorian like the rest, with deep blue trim and a stoop of four marble steps. The not-so-young couple that lives there moved into the neighborhood about the same time she left the suburbs and chose the city to find an engaged life. Hoping for weekends that didn’t include the rituals of lawn mowers and Weedwackers and piles of mulch. Planning for museums and long river walks.
She saw the couple a few times right after her move: the woman with a full-to-bursting belly, the man with his fifties crew cut. He was nothing to her then—just one of her neighbors. Occasionally she saw him stoop-sitting or carrying groceries home. She remembers talking to him a few months ago when neighbors gathered to chat.
Today, she is sixty-five and Medicare-ready. Because her hormones have long ago declared a ceasefire and her eggs have long ago disappeared, there can’t be a chemical trail running invisibly toward that neighbor’s house. But he has sensed something through the summer heat. He asks for her number one afternoon in front of her house while his dog wraps the leash around the urine-scented tree.
“Here’s my home phone,” she tries.
“No, your cell.” He laughs. “That way we can chat.”
She is sure of what the neighbor wants—as if the book on seduction has suddenly opened to her again. Just two weeks earlier, she’d left her second husband in the middle of their European vacation after a fight that never belonged in a lavish restaurant overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal. Lashing together her stuffed bags and carry-on, she rolled them down the street, making her way to the airport alone.
She’s spent the time at home revisiting old photo albums filled with her lost young man. They’d been married fifteen years when he died, gone before he could bald, work on his beer belly, or become bored with her. Disappeared in the middle of their lives along with all their memories, so she could never again turn to someone and ask: Remember when? No one would ever know her young, or dream a long future with her, or remind her of that exact moment their children were born. It should have lasted fifty years, that marriage.
But the neighbor doesn’t know her story; he only pauses in his dog-walking to get that number and start words flowing between them.
* * *
Let’s meet for coffee, the neighbor texts. Or for a drink or dinner. I’m really free next week.
So transparent, she thinks, as she loads on the wedding bands and her engagement ring. And chooses a dress that shows her figure but doesn’t reveal too much. How her body has changed in the last ten years, slackening into an odd variation of itself. She turns away from what she sees.
Locking the door behind her, she thinks that she’s always lived an honest life. Holding to rules that might protect her from moral disaster: Keep shared secrets; don’t hold grudges. Don’t envy others even when they’ve loved the same person for a lifetime. Don’t sleep with more than one man at a time. And certainly not with a man who belongs to someone else.
She isn’t even sure it’s him when she enters the bar, running through what she remembers from the sidewalk interview. That clipped hair. Tanned skin. Trim for a guy around fifty. Waiting for him to turn around, she feels all the years compress into this single moment. She is both that skinny teen waiting for her breasts to appear and the woman who has collected more experiences than anyone merits. Time confuses her, filling her with sadness.
“I’m not sure about my marriage,” she starts, getting to the truth even before she sips her wine. Even before he can start his seduction. “Not sure he can change. Or of what I want.”
She wants to say: I know what you’re about and you scare me. This scares me.
“I’m very attracted to you,” he says. “Was from the moment I saw you talking to your friends.”
“On the stoop?” she asks. “That was months ago.”
“I think about you whenever I walk by your house.”
“With or without the dog?”
He is laughing. “Marriage is hard.” Then he adds, “There are gaps,” as if admitting a secret.
She advises like someone’s mother. “But you have a child. You must be careful.”
“Supplementing works,” he offers.
“To fill in those gaps?” When he nods, she says, “Have you done this before?” His hand trembles slightly, the ice hitting the glass. As if he’s afraid.
Supplementing, she thinks. Like increasing vitamin D. Or devising a financial plan to insure both growth and safety. Or adding fiber to every meal. Supplementing: a new way to describe an ongoing problem since biblical times—one so common there’s even a Commandment against it. Number seven, she calculates.
So why that night does she say No, then Yes when he opens his front door? “Do you want to see the house?” Hadn’t she always been curious about that third-floor addition?
And first No, then Yes when he asks, “May I kiss you?”
He touches her face, his hands in her hair as he guides her into the kiss. Her hands stay by her side, and she wonders if she should move them. He pulls them around his neck and plays at her lips with his best technique. She tastes alcohol on his tongue.
She leaves so quickly the neighbor must wonder why, almost slamming the door behind her as she runs toward her house. But she is simply amazed that she has dared. The first new mouth in years. In front of her mirror, she wonders if this sin is etched on her face. Across the places where she rubs creams and glycolic acids each night.
She thinks of a statue that long ago beckoned—even before she was naked with a man, even before she had kissed passionately. The man’s hand rests gently on his lover’s bare thigh. The woman’s arm is around his neck, but he holds back, restraint tightening the muscles along his back. Nothing exists for them but the sensations their mouths produce. Their marble bodies glowed before her. For the first time in years, she wants to visit that sculpture. To revisit that kiss.
* * *
A few days later, in the middle of her living room, the neighbor’s second kiss is familiar and hungry. His mouth more insistent, less polite; his hands strong against her back. She’s aware of the fullness of his lips and the rhythm of the kiss. The very shape of his body.
“Mmm,” he mutters. “I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
But she remembers kissing her lost husband the first time behind the college dorms. He’d pulled her close, holding her against him in the spring air. Couples were locked together in every dark spot next to the building. Back then there were no husbands or wives or nosy neighbors to hide from. No teenage kid to damage. No grown children to disappoint.
“I want to kiss you now,” that lost husband had said when they were nineteen.
“If you didn’t,” she answered, her mouth against his ear, “I’d be rather disappointed.”
She can still pull the words and feel that long-ago kiss, one of thousands before the disease ignited within him to destroy. Before she washed his face after his breathing had stopped, and kissed that stilled mouth one last time.
The neighbor studies her face. “Are you here?” he asks. “Here with me?”
“Yes,” she answers.
* * *
Before the third kiss, in the corner of his hallway far from the windows where someone might see, the neighbor holds her tightly. The colored bubbles have flown between their houses, between their separate beds a block away. Foreplay that’s so provocative she can’t breathe. Can’t imagine being wanted this way after so long. Her now husband has stopped kissing her, along with everything else. A quick peck on the lips seems to be all she merits. She, who has always relished the physical.
For the first time she gives in to the neighbor’s kiss. She thinks of swooning Victorians, of young girls who lose control and later pay, of foolish old women chasing the past. She wants to cry and sing at the same time, to call out: I am still here. She wants everything this man can offer, played out in those bubbles that find her instantly in the bed she has taken over.
It’s the same she once shared with her lost husband—her lifetime bed. An antique they’d found on the Outer Banks when just engaged. The one she made her babies on. The one where she clasped him to her that night before the hospital, not realizing that they would never lie together again. The one she wept in after he died.
With her second marriage, she changed the mattress. Jettisoned the older one with hopes for the future. That husband, still in Europe, calls her daily, begging her to keep his spot until he returns. If she lets him come home. Tonight she will sleep on the diagonal, claiming all the territory as her own.
* * *
For days, all she is sure of are the sensations the neighbor’s mouth has ignited, like in some pulsing romance novel she always ignored in the store. I will, she thinks. I’m my own person. I want to live. I’m tired of being abandoned.
But the neighbor panics. I’m not sure I can, he writes. Afraid of making a mess. Please understand. I’m very, very sorry.
The texts slow down, then stop. She sees him on his stoop with his son. Walking with his wife on the street. Summer is over, and in the indifferent air, rules are once again important.
Only an interlude, she tells herself after she reads, I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. It’s beginning, middle, and end already marked. She will not deceive her own face in the mirror. A small moment, she knows. And nothing more. Her husband will return with his apologies packed in his oversize bags and with his secret, tight mouth.
* * *
In winter to come, the house around the block will be closed. She will watch the shades open and close, the window boxes cleared of flowers, the collected trash on the curb for recycling. Inside will be the man who once kissed her. Before, she might have convinced herself that none of this mattered and passion was over. That she was old enough to be happy with what she had. That she shouldn’t again expect something like those three kisses and all those imaginings.
But nothing will work against what the future cannot hold. Because in his coming and disappearing, in the colored bubbles that once floated through a sensual twilight, he has left her pregnant with desire.