The Widower

by Lewis Beilman

 

The man stood in the living room.  He searched beyond the bay window for the car’s headlights.  The dining-room lamp shone behind him into the darkness, and he caught his reflection in the glass.  In the half-light, he scowled.  His body remained strong, but he was beginning to show signs of his fifty years.  Gray flecks peppered his hair, creases lined his forehead, and crow’s feet stepped from beside his eyes.  In tan jacket and olive slacks, he resembled any aging man awaiting a first date.
 
He turned from the image in the window.  He shook his head, wandered into the kitchen, and poured a glass of wine.  He clutched the crystal stem between his thumb and forefinger and returned to the living room.  “Old fool,” he said.
           
He watched the car turn into the driveway and climb toward the garage.  He finished his wine, set the glass on the windowsill, and descended the stairwell to the foyer.  A woman half his age walked around the rear of her car, smoothed her skirt to her knees, and smiled.  Though it was night, she wore sunglasses.
           
The man smiled, too, a half-smile.  “Hello,” he said.  “I’ve been expecting you.”
           
The woman hesitated at the doorway, pursed her lips, and glanced from side to side.  She said nothing.
           
“I’m sorry,” the man said, fumbling with his hands.  “Where are my manners?  May I take your jacket?”
           
“Sure,” she said, turning her back toward him.
           
The man took the summer jacket from her shoulders and hung it on the coatrack beside the front door.  Beneath her golden hair, the skin on her neck was pale and dappled with sun freckles.  He placed a hand on her left hip and guided her into the foyer.  He followed her up the stairs.
           
The man had not been with a woman for more than a year, since his wife of two-and-a-half decades had died.  A twinge of sadness tarnished his anticipation, even as he admired the sway of the young woman’s hips.  He smelled the jasmine scent on her skin, and caught the pout of her lips as she tilted her head in the dining-room light.
           
At the top of the stairs she turned to her right and stopped abruptly.  The man collided with her.  He apologized for his clumsiness.
 
“Your bedroom is this way, isn’t it?” the woman said.
           
“Yes,” the man said.  “You seem to know your way around here.”
           
The woman laughed.  She still wore her sunglasses, their black lenses obscuring her eyes from view.
           
“Again, I apologize,” the man said.  “I’m failing as a host.  Would you like a glass of wine before we retire?”
           
“No; I’m all right.”
           
He took her hand and guided her down the hallway.  His fingers trembled, and he closed his eyes to vanquish memories of his wife.  At the last door on the right he halted and turned the doorknob.  “I sleep in this room,” he said.
           
The woman stood in the threshold.  “You wanted me for the entire night?” she said.  “Right?”
           
The man nodded.  “Yes,” he said.  “If that’s okay.”
           
They entered the small room.  The glow from the lamp on the nightstand cast their shadows high upon the pink wall behind them.  The woman moved to the foot of a canopy bed that was dressed in white lace sheets and a pink comforter.  Turning toward the man, she raised an eyebrow above the rim of her sunglasses.
             
The man tried to find her eyes behind the lenses.  “I sleep in my daughter’s old room now,” he said.  “She moved to the city a few years ago.  My wife, she—well, anyway, I prefer to sleep here now.”
           
The woman ran her fingers across the sheets, as if she were feeling something both distant and familiar.  “Could we use another room, please?” she said.
           
The man shuffled his feet.  “It wouldn’t seem right in the other bedroom,” he said.
           
“Don’t you have a guest bedroom here?” the woman said.
           
“We did once,” the man said, “but it’s an office now.”  His face grew flush.  He walked to the nightstand and dimmed the light.
           
The woman removed her sunglasses and drifted to the bedroom window.  Her image reflected on the glass, and the man watched her stare into the night.  “I can’t do this here,” she said.  “I’m sorry.”
           
The man skirted the bed, stumbled on a throw rug, and gathered himself behind the woman.  “It’s not like I want anything crazy,” he said.  “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
 
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, “but I can’t do this here.  I could see if someone else would come out tonight.”
           
The man bit his lower lip.  “Did I do something wrong?” he said, following the woman’s eyes into the darkness.  “I don’t have much experience with this.”
           
“No,” the woman said.  “You did nothing wrong.  Nothing at all.  You lost your wife.  You’re lonely.  There’s nothing wrong about that.”
           
The man studied the reflection of the woman’s eyes in the glass.  They remained steady, expressionless.  “What do you mean I lost my wife?” he said.  “How do you know my wife died?”
           
The woman turned toward the man.  Her eyes met his.  They were blue, like the light surrounding a full moon.  “I don’t think you remember me,” she said.  “You have a daughter named Sarah, don’t you?”
           
The man screwed up his eyes.  “I do have a daughter named Sarah,” he said, struggling to recognize the woman.  After a moment, he remembered.  “It’s Julia, right?”
           
“Julie, actually,” the woman said.  “I didn’t recall this address at first.  I haven’t been here for at least ten years.”
 
The man took a deep breath.  “I can’t believe this,” he said.  “I wouldn’t have recognized you.”
 
The woman straightened her skirt again, this time trying to stretch the fabric below her knees.  “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said.  “How could you have known?”
 
The man continued to examine the woman.  “This is so strange,” he said.  “You were here almost every day, then—”
 
“People drift apart,” the woman said.
 
“We asked Sarah what happened,” the man said.  “She didn’t say much.”
             
“We were just kids.”
           
The man walked to the foot of the bed and sat on its edge.  “Now, here we are,” he said.  “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you—”
           
“How did I end up here?” the woman said, again turning toward the window.  “I cleaned up my act a few years ago and decided to go to college.  I was on my own, and this was easy money.  I never worked in this town before.  Then—earlier tonight—last minute—a friend asked me to fill in for her.  I owed her a favor and here I am.”
             
“I can’t believe it,” the man said.  “The first time, and you show up.  You must think I’m awful.”  He let his forehead fall into his hands.
           
“No,” the woman said, moving from the window and sitting beside the man.  “Not awful.  I know what you went through last year.  I have a friend who still hears from Sarah.  She told me what happened to your wife.”
           
The man slumped forward even further.  “When I close my eyes at night, I still feel her next to me.”
           
“I’m sorry,” the woman said.  “I could make a call.  See if someone else would come out.”
           
The man shook his head.  “It wouldn’t make a difference,” he said.  He thought about his wife.  What she would think of him now?  He wept.
           
The woman draped her arm around the man’s shoulders.  She pulled him toward her.  “I’m sorry,” she said again.
 
As if to sooth him, the woman began to tell  a story.  She stumbled in places and paused in others, so that he wondered if she'd ever told it before.  It went like this: a young girl spent every day one summer with a friend.  She loved the closeness of her friend’s family; she admired the way the friend’s father doted on his wife.  Her own parents bickered often and rarely kissed or held each other.  Summer faded, and the girl wished every night that she could make her friend’s home her own. One day, when she and her friend were walking home from a hike in a nearby wood, she kissed her friend, who pushed her away and ran home alone.  She never saw the family again.
 
The man understood the woman’s story.  He put his arm around her.  He closed his eyes, rested his head on her shoulder, and inhaled the scent of her skin.
 
Running her fingers along the edge of the bed, the woman also closed her eyes.  “I always felt safe here,” she said.  “Would you mind if I lie down for a while?”
 
“No, I wouldn’t mind at all,” the man said, “but may I lie beside you?  I only want to hold you—nothing more.”
 
The woman nodded, climbed under the sheets, and rested on her side.  Following close behind her, the man drew the covers over them and pressed his chest against her back.  As he held her, the wind carried the breath of magnolia blossoms into the room.  His mind drifted through time to a day long ago.
 
“Are you comfortable?” the woman said.
 
“Yes,” he said, smiling.  “I am.”
 
Then he was lying beside his wife again, and they had just made love.  Do you think Sarah and her friend will be gone long? she asked.  Of course they will.  He held her close, listening to her heart beat in rhythm with his.  They lingered, bodies intertwined; they breathed long, steady breaths in tandem.  It was summer—and they had the rest of their lives to spare.

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