Waccamaw
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The Runaway

                                    Kristen Hamelin Tracey


Greg doesn’t talk much at night. He’s always tired: too little sleep at night, too much sun during the day. One of the reasons Diane suspects him of having so much to hide is that he doesn’t ever get used to the physicality of his work. A man brought up the way Greg says he was brought up would be hardier.

Summer evenings in Pennock are cold, and then the construction sites go silent and he comes to sit with Diane on her porch.

Diane’s a receptionist for the only real-estate agency in town. Mainly she dresses up in low-cut white blouses and reads magazines, and it’s not hard, but she feels as if she runs out of smile by the end of the day. Still, she does like to hear Greg talk about his job when she can get him going—to narrate, in his funny, diffident way, the little pitfalls and even more minor successes that make up a day on the job.

That’s another thing that makes her wonder about him, how he finds the mundane so absurd.

One of these summer evenings, she makes them both margaritas. They drink on the porch as the sun sets, watching the calm sway of the tall grass lining Foxhill Lane, or the rare progress down its unkempt narrowness by a jarring car, or the travails of an exploring rabbit, nosing outwards towards the potholes and pebbles, and flashing its white tail in retreat when discretion overcomes valor at a noise or movement too subtle for human senses.

Diane’s on a wicker chair, and Greg on a hanging bench that swings and groans with the gentle motion of his breaths. She notices, not for the first time, his boyish round cheeks and dark, dark eyes; even though his skin is pale, and he is the first white man she’s ever taken up with, she knows who he reminds her of.

He drains his margarita and says, “I should go soon.”

She looks hard at him. “That’s fine.”

One of the first few times he was here he fell asleep by accident in bed, his head on her breast. Woke shouting a woman’s name, Sarah. When she asked him what the name meant, he said she must have misheard him, and that he’d never known a Sarah at all; she still remembers how roughly he shoved her worried hand away from his forehead. After that he never let himself get sleepy after they made love, hardly even stayed long enough for her to catch her breath before he was sitting up, yanking off the condom, pulling his shirt over the sweatshine of his torso.

Now she braces herself for him to leave right away, but so far he’s still swinging, dangling the empty margarita glass by the stem between two fingers, looking out at the kids playing Frisbee in the park across the lane. Seems like he knows she’s working up to something.

She stands up. “Do you want another?”

“No thanks.”

In all the eighteen months they’ve been sleeping together she’s never seen him lose control to drink.

“I’m getting another.”

“Di—” (Remonstrating.)

“Stay another half hour,” she calls from just inside the house. The pitcher is sloppy now, the ice having melted into the margarita, and it turns out there’s only enough for one more decent glass. Good thing Greg doesn’t want any. “It won’t kill you.”

She hears the creak of his obedient fall back against the bench, and the squeak of links in the duplicate chains that hold the bench up and fasten it to the ground. The margarita tastes watery so she pours more tequila in it, and that makes it just taste like tequila.

Oh well. The more the better.

She sits down and says immediately upon the whispergroan of the rusty screen door closing: “Michelle called me.” Now she’s at the point where it’s harder to get out two-syllable words; she hears herself, smashing the “M” and the “shh” of Michelle together, clumsy-tongued.

Greg looks vaguely alarmed. Whether it’s on her behalf, or on his own from the unexpected intrusion of the biggest skeleton in Diane’s closet, she can’t tell. “What happened?”

“Let’s just say I’m paying her college tuition now.”

“What about your dream house?” he says, at least half kidding. She’s told him about it. It will have a view of water, a wall-mounted flat-screen and a few pine trees. (That’s it? he said once. Those are your requirements? She said yes, that was it.)

“It can wait. Or be bought by a childless woman.”

“It’s good of you, Di.”

“Her dad, Joe, I’ve told you about him? Says he won’t pay her tuition if she majors in women’s studies.”

“What a prince.”

“I know, right?” She shakes her head. “I married that guy.”

“But you have flawless taste otherwise,” he says, gesturing to the cut of his pecs underneath his T-shirt. “There must’ve been something good about him.”

“Maybe,” she says, but she’s thinking mostly about Greg. She thinks about how skinny he was when he came to town, even if he was strong, and how people thought he didn’t belong and couldn’t fathom why the foreman had hired him. And then how his pecs grew under his shirt and his forearms got sinewy and his hands went brown. And now, how he has come to look like everyone else thinks he should, just as Diane, with her dark skin and painstakingly straightened hair, looks like Pennock folks’ idea of a receptionist. But he (she) is not, not at all.

She has her reasons for acting a part she doesn’t fit: a surprisebaby will do that to you. What are his?

He came into the office one day to look for studio rentals. On that first day, while he was waiting in the reception area for Lee, the junior agent, to see him, Greg had chatted to Diane about the magazine she was reading, St. Paul Gourmet. Asked her if she’d ever been to St. Paul and what it was like. It was odd for someone who had grown up in northern Wisconsin, as he had, never to have been to Minneapolis or St. Paul. But as she got to know him there were a lot of places he said he’d never been—just about every place, in fact, that she mentioned.

(He ended up renting a studio above a shabby discount dance school for $300 a month. He cooks, if he has to, and that’s only when money is extra tight, on a tiny stove that consistently sets off the smoke alarm. Plus, he has cockroaches. Diane knows all this from Greg’s stories and from office gossip, but she’s never seen it.)

“Are you sure you can afford it?” Greg, back to the Michelle conversation, but treading gingerly.

“I can afford it. What else do I have to spend money on, sweetpea?”

Now he looks fully, specifically alarmed—Diane knows she sounds bitter, especially because they don’t ever use pet names with each other. He tilts his glass back for a last, invisible drop. The bench creaks faster.

“Go on, go on,” she says when his twitchiness starts to annoy her, nodding at his scuffed turquoise Honda parked half-in-half-out of her drive. She also remembers that people made fun of his turquoise car when he started bringing it to church, and it always did seem an odd choice for a man.

He needs no second urging.

She thinks maybe she likes the look of his back when he’s leaving best of all. Or the blank, almost sleepy look in his eyes when they have sex. Times when he is escaping, so that he doesn’t look at her like a trapped thing.

And she’d thought this would be so safe and so easy, a white man, a guarded and secretive man, a construction worker for Christ’s sake.

After Greg leaves she takes his spot on the swing herself and sits in the dark until she’s numb with cold. She realizes she wanted him to hug her. She wanted to cry on someone’s shoulder, just once: to ask someone “What have I done wrong?” and have them answer, “Nothing, nothing wrong.” 

The ache of missing her daughter is real but small. It’s beside the point of how she lives her life, which is day by day. Besides—she never wanted a child or expected one, and because of that she wasn’t a good mother. Or so it was said. Joe wielded her secret regrets against her after the divorce, making her feel like shit for letting Michelle go to Chicago with Joe when he moved, even though the girl had asked [begged]. After all, Joe was the one who’d fallen in love with the nursery school teacher, who’d traded in his family.

But she has missed Michelle. Missed her somatically. The wriggling weight on Diane’s lap. The soft heat in the crook of her arm where the girl used to rest.

And she’s never admitted it out loud, not once, since the two of them moved away without her. Once Joe took Michelle to Chicago, there were always birthday parties or ballet performances or special summer theater classes in the city that Michelle would miss if she came back to visit Pennock, and Diane had felt it would be exhibiting a kind of bad grace to begrudge her daughter a happy and busy life in Chicago. And she felt unwelcome flying herself there, always humiliatingly unnoticed by her own daughter once she arrived; it got to the point where she didn’t think she deserved to visit. So somewhere along the way Diane turned into an awkward faux-parent sending tiny support payments instead of actually showing up, and Michelle turned into a sullen teenager who wanted only her independence anyway, and the thing had seemed too late for mending—until recently.

After a while Diane decides that she will not be calling Greg again. If he would like to see her again he can call—which he’s never done, throughout their relationship (if that’s what it is), unless there was some concrete necessity. Having decided this, she gets up and goes to sleep, and her dreams are inexplicable; erotic dreams about Joe.

On Wednesday, Greg calls but by now it’s been six days, and she’s well on her guard.

“I need to get a tux for Bob and Gracie’s wedding,” he says after polite preliminaries. “Just wanted to check to see what you’re wearing so my tie matches you and stuff. There’s this one that I have that’s salmon but if you’re wearing a different shade of pink—”

Ruthless, she cuts him off. “I think you should wear whatever you want and not worry too much about what I wear.”

A word catches in his throat. “Wait, aren’t we going together?”

Diane feels a curious mixture of compassion and exasperation. “I don’t think so.”

“Isn’t there some kind of rule that the best man, like, shouldn’t go alone?”

She coughs a laugh. "Well, you’ll remember I’m friends with Gracie from high school. I wasn’t invited as your plus-one.”

“No, of course not, but I thought we said—”

Now comes the time that she needs to say what she’s been practicing. “I actually kind of needed you, that last night you were here. And you just left.”

“But we always agreed on this, on how we liked things to be.” On ending their nights early, keeping their phone calls functional, their conversations friendly. On quietude and kindness, not margarita-fueled tears on porches.

Diane had prepared a spiel; it was going to be so long, so eloquent. Now she’s bored of it already. He’s right, they’ve always agreed; she never wanted to start believing in a man again. That she’s started needing to believe anyway she’s inclined to think is her weakness, not Greg’s fault.

“That’s true,” she says after a while. “I guess I’m changing the rules on you. Or, not really. I guess I’m just letting you be.”

“Leaving me be. Leaving me.”

“Yes,” she says, “yes.”

“Okay,” he says and she is aware of a dim flash of tenderness because he sounds like a little boy. “I guess I’ll see you there.”

“You’ll see me there,” she agrees and hangs up, knowing he won’t call again.

That night Diane checks online to see whether the payment to Bates has cleared (it has). Even though the hit to her bank account is big, she likes the feeling of having less money: in Michelle’s hands it might do more. The new Michelle is adult and strange, but Diane feels the tendrils of something growing back where she had viciously, earlier in life, tamped it down.

 

Over the weekend Michelle calls again. Diane has, a few days earlier, changed the ringtone for her daughter to (something Michelle loved as a child) “The Boy Is Mine” and it clangs out, tugging at her. She waits as long as she can, two rings, before trying to answer. She’s been letting her new coral nail polish dry in front of a Tivo’ed Trading Spaces, so she has to scoop the phone up from the table and cradle it in her fingertips.

“Hi!” she says at last.

“Oh! Heyyyy, Mama.” Michelle still talks like a teenager, which, technically, she is: alternately drawling on certain words and blurting entire sentences all at once. “I just heard from the Registrar that they’re like, set with everything. With the tuition, I mean.”

“Yeah, I sent the payment in as soon as I got your email.”

“Yeah. Well I heard a couple days ago I guess, but I’ve been mad busy. Anyway, I wanted to call and thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Diane says. “To anything.”

“That’s really cool of you.”

“I believe it’s in the parenting manual.”

“Ha,” Michelle says.

“Get the most of your time there,” Diane says. “It’s a time to grow. To learn whatever the hell you want.” (What does she know? After Joe left, she managed a semester of community college. Just one semester, and then she quit, telling everyone she was too busy. Really it was because she was disappointed, having expected the kind of in-depth philosophical arguments she saw in colleges on TV, and not the by-the-numbers multiple-choice learning you got from disappointed non-tenured academics, embittered and hopeless, who looked at the sea of brown and black faces and thought, this is as far as you’ll get anyway.)

“I will, then,” Michelle says. “Screw Dad, right?”

“Well, I’m sure he’s doing his best,” Diane says, paying lip service to parental unity and feeling quite saintly for it.

"Right.”

The instant there’s an awkward silence, Diane blurts out what she’d been planning to weave subtly into the conversation: “Hey, do you want to maybe come visit sometime?”

“Visit you?” Michelle sounds surprised but not off-put.

Diane tries to phrase it in a way that doesn’t make it sound like there are strings attached to her offer. She would like to explain, in fact, that the mere narrow reopening of contact between them, beyond the dutiful biweekly email-or-phone updates of the past fifteen years, has awoken her to her need for more. But to drop your needs so heavily on your daughter: that’s got to be some kind of cardinal maternal sin. “Yeah, if you have a few days off from school and nothing to do, maybe you could. Definitely only if it works in your schedule. I just thought it would be nice to see you, I mean... well, all this is reminding me how long it’s been.”

“Pretty long,” Michelle says. Then, “Maybe Thanksgiving.”

“Thanksgiving!” Diane can hardly believe the luck of that. She’d hoped for Columbus Day or some other expendable nothing kind of holiday, at best.

“Well yeah, for sure. I mean, Dad doesn’t need me for every single holiday every single year. I could come to you.”

“I usually celebrate with my work friend, Annie’s her name. Her husband’s a cook, so his Thanksgiving dinner is the real thing. Homemade stuffing and cornbread and everything. I know it’s not family, but they’d love to meet you, they’ve always said that, and it is usually delicious...”

“Mama, it sounds like it could be fine—could be awesome. I mean it’s not like Dad and I usually do anything so fancy.”

“That would be really wonderful. I’m sorry I haven’t seen much of you, honey. Real sorry.”

She sounds stupid and she knows it even though Michelle says “It’s all right, Mama. Don’t worry yourself about it.”

The other thing about Michelle’s teenspeak is that her sarcasm, her polite voice, and her serious voice are almost indistinguishable. Because of this, Diane doesn’t know if her apology’s gotten through at all. Maybe Joe, who has the wealth of experience on his side, can read the  nuances of this girl’s voice, but Diane can’t.

Michelle hangs up, promising she’ll look into her schedule. Before letting her go Diane has the urge to say something else that she has only very rarely said to Michelle and never to anyone else, except Joe. But she doesn’t want to push it.

Once they do hang up, she finds herself narrating the phone call to Greg in her head with a sarcastic twist on Michelle’s teen-girl mannerisms, the way she would’ve if he came over tonight and sat on the porch with her. A thought process that sours on her quickly and leaves her with a thirst for alcohol that she quenches with whiskey and uneasy sleep.

 

The wedding festivities come up more quickly than Diane quite expects. She’s come up with a new routine that she likes, that makes the time go faster. Going into St. Paul on weekends to go to art fairs and buy pottery and wall art on the cheap (always, in her head, looking at her house through Michelle’s eyes, wanting it to be attractive and homey or at least—dare she say it?—not tacky, even if it’s not like the paintings Michelle is probably learning about in school). Gym after work, dripping sweat onto the stationary bike. Drinks by herself, of an evening, on the porch with books on tape—she’s in the middle of Atonement and plans to work through some classics next that she never got around to in high school. The voice reading Atonement is pleasant and vaguely British-sounding without having an accent. She practices speaking with that kind of diction to herself in the shower as a joke, then catches herself over-pronouncing her “t”s at work, and Annie hears it too and makes fun of her without mercy, as if she’s pretending to be something she’s not. “Oh, I will have a good nigh-tuh, Professor Fuller!”

It’s all very nice, though, this life on her own. Quiet and nice. She isn’t tempted to call Greg, and when she changes the sheets they feel all cool and clean for days in a row, without smelling like sex and man.

And then—what she had rather expected. Michelle calls to say Thanksgiving won’t work. “I’ll actually be spending it with Dad, after all.”

“Oh...” She tries to remodulate her voice to sound enthusiastic. “Well, that’s good. That you’ve made up with him, or you’re trying.”

“He’s actually kind of—” Michelle takes a breath so deep Diane can hear it from two states away—”given in.”

“So, he found out I was paying and had a sudden change of heart.”

“How did you know?”

“It’s classic Joe, my dear.”

“I guess he realized the most important thing was the education. I was shocked, for serious.”

Diane hardly believes Michelle is so naïve as to think Joe wouldn’t step right in when it came to a question of competition. How could she not realize—how could she not see it?

“But it’s still a good thing, isn’t it?” Michelle ventures. “This way you don’t have to spend your money. I know you work your ass off for it.”

“Of course, yes. It will be nice, not to have to spend it.”

Michelle sounds so relieved that this conversation has been easy. “Dad said the same thing, that you’d be glad.”

“That Joe,” Diane says. “He knows the value of a dollar.”

 

At Gracie’s bachelorette party, in Coon Rapids the night before the ceremony, Diane gets drunk by accident, even though she’s much too old for that kind of behavior. She flirts with a man at the bar, feels herself tempted to go home with him, and to avoid it slips back to her hotel room without taking leave of anyone. An Irish good-bye, Greg would call it, and Gracie will probably just call it weird.

She sleeps, dreams, wakes, and sleeps again, and her dreams are no different from the ones she has at home. Joe atop her; his wide chest damp and mahogany-smooth; his broad hands on her shoulders or neck. Repulsed as she might be when she wakes up, in her dreams it’s as good as it ever was. “No one fucks you like I do,” he used to say to her. Then make her parrot it back, obediently, reversing the pronouns.

In her dreams, she says it on her own.

 

At the ceremony Diane has a sudden rush of vicarious happiness for Bob and Gracie. They’re embarking on a difficult endeavor that she’s pretty sure is useless even if it’s successful, but she admires them for their beautiful faith in each other. It’s in Gracie’s upturned eyes while she says her vows before the altar, and in the way Bob bows his head for a second after the ceremony, as if he’s praying all on his own.

It’s a perfect, warm day such as occurs so rarely in Minnesota, and that’s lucky: the   reception can stay outside as planned, on the lawn outside the inn. Additional guests descend in hordes, and meanwhile Diane’s dripping sweat down her back, she can feel it. She’s wearing a yellow crepe dress that won’t show water but is clearly clinging damply to her, and she can feel the set of her hair softening against the humidity.

While she’s trying to cup her hand closely enough to scrape the layer of moisture off her neck, and inching towards the crowded table with chicken fingers and heaping bowls of goopy potato salad surrounded by hungry Midwesterners, she feels Greg’s hand on her back.

His skin feels rough, work callused, even through the crepe, and she’s been expecting him to come up to her. She takes a deep breath before turning around.

“Hey, Di.”

She nods a greeting. "Any insight onto the line structure to get to that food?”

“I think there is none. It’s eat or be shoved aside. So to speak.”

“Hmm. I guess I hope for the former.”

“You look great.”

“You look hungover.” The signs are subtle, but she knows the redness on his eyelids. Never mind that she’s feeling the same.

“The wine flowed pretty freely at the rehearsal dinner.”

“Not surprisingly.”

“How’ve you been doing?”

His voice is a little too apologetic for her taste, or her pride. “Oh, it’s fine. There’s one thing I’ve been wondering.”

“What have you been wondering?”

She brings it right out. “What is it? That you’re afraid of me knowing, I mean. You a serial killer? Child molester? Have a wife stashed away somewhere, a kid? What?”

“No,” he answers, without trying to disguise the fact that he’s, either literally or essentially, lying to her, and she acutely catches which questions he’s answered with his monosyllable.

Diane knows her heels are wobbling in the soft grass when she turns around and walks away. But she tries to keep her back strong, so he’ll know that she’s made up her mind about him already.

After the reception, though, they somehow end up taking a walk together, almost without discussing it. It seems not to count, since it’s a wedding, or, more accurately, it seems to draw her attention to her sharp unexpected desire to share happy experiences with him. She recognizes it all as a rebirth of faith, as her hands reaching out into the barrenness, too late, for love.

They walk slowly. She sees his hands shoved into his pockets. Hears the winded puffs of his smoker’s lungs. Her feet in the black pumps she wears to work, mismatched but the only ones she had, are beginning to hurt but she braves it tight-lipped.

“I got that leak fixed,” Greg offers.

“Oh, good,” she says. Somewhere in that apartment she’s never seen there is a sink from which water has been dripping with a steady tap tap tap she’s never heard. “Was it a hassle?”

“They said they’d come between nine and one. I waited till three.”

“Then they came?”

“Then I put an ad on Craigslist and said the lowest bid from a qualified plumber got it.” He chuckles. “We’ll see. The pipes will probably explode in a week. Kill me, flood my neighbors...”

“Maybe they’ll last till your lease is up at least,” Diane says.

“Maybe.” He slows down even further and her inquiring glance reveals him to be tilting his head up a little bit, at the top of the hill they’re heading towards, where Coon Rapids’ small shops and mild pedestrian bustle taper into a pretty country road lined with grass and tiny toylike houses. “Sometimes I want to run away from the suburbs, you know? Go to the city, live a real life.”

“Like in Minneapolis?”

“Sure, or even L.A. Paris. Portland. I don’t know.”

The sentiment is foreign to her. She loves Pennock, despite its quietness and what Michelle called once its “dragginess,” despite the fact that she’ll never be taken seriously there by people who’ve known her since she was a headstrong teenager, belly swollen by Joe’s baby. “Would it be so different from where you live now?”

“I don’t know, and I guess I never will.” There’s something curious in his voice, something hard and certain. It’s not the voice of a man defeated, but of one trapped.

“There’s nothing keeping you from moving,” she says, “unless it’s fear, or...”

“Or friends?”

“Or that wife I keep thinking you might have.” (She can picture her [Sarah?], slender and tall, fair-skinned of course, with darkshiny hair. She’d be his high-school sweetheart; she’d have gone off to the East for college perhaps, but come back here to marry him in a filmy off-the-rack designer gown in excellent taste, and to raise two or three smart, polite children with him, now teenagers.)

Then behind them, a male voice cuts through the murmur of docile small-town conversation on the sidewalk to yell, “Jamie!”

The first time it happens Greg completely stops walking.

Diane thinks he’s just startled, but when he takes her hand and drags her faster faster faster towards the corner, where the dim walk light has just changed to a little red hand, she gets nervous. The voice comes again. Diane looks back and sees the weathered face of a man in his forties or fifties peering forward, about twenty yards behind them.

The man’s voice is not afraid or upset, but bewildered and—something else Diane can’t make out. Excited, perhaps. Insistent.

“Oh, I remember him,” Diane says. “He came to the reception, but not the ceremony. One of Bob’s like, fourth cousins or something. Why is he calling you—”

“He was at the reception?” Greg says. “Fuck. I didn’t see him.”

“He came late and you were out by the” —she trips, and he keeps dragging her, doesn’t care— “by the garden. Why is he calling you Jamie?”

But Greg pulls her again, a brutal right, away from the red don’t walk, and fairly drags her off down a side street. He’s walking so fast that, in her heels, she has to break into a trot to keep up.

“Have you seen a cab in this town?” he says, eyes ping-ponging back and forth. “I think I’m getting heatstroke or something. I should get back to the hotel.”

“I don’t think towns like this have cabs,” Diane pants. “We’d have to call an agency or something.”

“Good point,” and he makes an even more sudden detour, a strong hand around her elbow.

They’re standing in the grimy back doorway of an ice cream shop. The air is redolent with chocolate and caramel, oozing from the overstuffed Dumpster a few feet away. Greg leans against one side of the doorjamb; Diane leans against the other. Even so, they’re less than a foot apart.

She doesn’t quite recognize Greg’s face now. Of all the vast spectrum of emotions that comprise the human experience of fear, the only color she’s seen for herself is the sniveling kind that she and her past lovers have exhibited on their way out of countless doors, fleeing the clutches of needy partners in countless beds. She’s never seen naked, animal terror. Not until now.

“Everything okay?”

He’s not looking directly at her and his breath is puffing louder. “Just wanted to be in the shade for a second.”

“Greg, come on.”

“Huh? No, it’s fine. Let’s just, let’s just stand here, OK? While I catch my breath. It’s so hot here.”

She hardly thinks it’s heatstroke that’s got him wheezing like this.

No one walks by for a long, silent interval. Diane checks her watch and notes the time after that; then checks it again when a diminutive old lady walks by in a lavender floral dress.

“Well,” he says finally. “Shall we go inside? I would like some ice cream to cool me down.”

“Through the back door where they bring the garbage? Sure,” she mutters, “that’s perfectly normal.”

He gives the door a shoulder-check and realizes, naturally, it’s locked. The knocking sound it makes against the latch is enough to get the attention of one of the cashiers, who looks annoyed but opens the door to them and shoos them out to the front of the register.

“Oh—shit,” Greg whispers after scrutinizing the list of flavors for a second.

“What?”

“I don’t have cash. Can you just cover me?”

“What do you want?”

“Just a mint chocolate-chip cone. OK?”

“Sure,” she says. This doesn’t make any sense, since they both filled up on food at the reception, but she buys herself a mini oatmeal cookie along with his cone because she’s not sure what else to do. Brings it back, along with a slip of paper on which the cashier has put the phone number of a cab company, to a round white table in the corner of the store where Greg—or Jamie, if that’s his name—has settled, his back to the wall, leaning his head against it and breathing slowly as if recovering from a race.

He eats the cone in silence, chips and sprinkles crunching, watching the front door over her shoulder. Diane nibbles at her cookie. Once in a while, Greg leans his head back again. There are red blotches on his cheeks.

“I really think,” he says after he’s done, “that you can’t beat the Midwest for a really good waffle cone.”

“I thought you’d never been away from here.”

“So I’ve never had a better one to contradict my theory,” he says after a long pause.

She leans across the table to push his shoulder a little less than gently. “Who are you?”

He shakes his head. “You know who I am.”

“I don’t,” she says. “I mean, I don’t, you know, know much in any case; I don’t know what chases you out of my bed in the middle of the night, every time we see each other, or who ‘Sarah’ is that you call out for in your sleep, or why you’re so afraid to get drunk in front of me. But now I think, I might not even know your name.”

“You know my name, Diane.”

“You were scared,” she says. “I mean, you were legitimately scared. Of that man.”

He plays coy ineffectually, with overly wide innocent eyes and a hot red blush on his cheeks. “Of—what man?”

“The one who called you Jamie!” Diane exclaims.

Two people look over at them from a table near the counter. Greg grabs Diane’s upper arm and pulls her with him into a little restroom For Customers Only. Her oatmeal cookie crumbles in her hand.

He shuts the bathroom door. “Don’t say that,” he said. “Ever again. Do you understand?”

The tone of that question gets to her before the content registers. “Hey, let go. Let go! Jesus!”

She shakes his hand off the moment it loosens.

“Sorry.” He’s panting. “Sorry.”

“I wouldn’t have said it if I’d really thought it would cause you harm! Jesus!”

As much as she hopes the dull throbbing in the muscle and skin of her upper arm will result in a bruise—a mark for her to press down on later, a way for him to stay in her life a few more days than he’s going to—she knows he probably didn’t grab her that hard. Perhaps she misses Joe and his brutality more than she knows. Oh, Joe was never abusive, not like other husbands she knows, even Annie’s ex, for example. No, Joe traded in subtler currency. Accusations of infidelity, insinuations that Diane was unattractive, even a loutish sexual pressure too subtle to be definitely coercion.

Diane turns her upper body halfway around, away from Greg, so that she can shake oatmeal crumbs out of her hand into a little trash can, where they land on top of a snowy pile of facial tissues and paper towels. “It does, doesn’t it?” she says. Her hands are sticky now.

“Does what?”

“For me to say it—say ‘Jamie.’ It puts you in danger.”

“Yes,” he says. “If that man manages to find me again, I might quite literally die. I’m telling you this so that you know. So that you know that when we go out here, we’re going to act like we were getting frisky in here, and so that you know never to mention it again to a living soul, and so that you know—so that you know—”

She’s afraid he’ll cry, and that would blow their “frisky” cover, not to mention that it would pretty much destroy the sexier, tough, taciturn illusion of him that she’s always carried around with her. “So that I know what?”

“So that you know why you can’t know more,” he says. “I might end up leaving Pennock soon, I think. Very soon. And if I don’t tell you beforehand, it’s not because I didn’t want to say good-bye.”

“So what,” she says. “So you were like, some innocent bystander, right? You saw something, something completely unrelated to you, and it just happened to be a dangerous thing, very dangerous, so you had to—to hide. To go away. Right?”

“No,” he says to himself shaking his head.

“No, you weren’t an innocent bystander?” she hazards.

“No, we’re not having this conversation! Diane, for God’s sake!”

“I just want to know if your life is fucked up just because of some big, crazy coincidence,” she says. “Or if it was because of something you were doing, or—who you are.”

Greg taps the flat of his hand against her jaw. “Isn’t everything because of who we are?”

“Not an answer.”

“Too damn bad.” Another tap, and this one lingers; she feels her sexual desire for him stir blearily and then—die. “Let’s go, pardner.”

Diane rumples her dress, archly. “Convincing?”

“Very.”

They emerge holding hands. The reproachful eyes of the store clerks follow them out, but as soon as they round the corner, Diane lets his sweaty fingers loose with a shove. Now she’s made up her mind.

 

When she gets back to Pennock after a dreary hot drive, her eyes—inexplicably—mist at the sight of Bob and Gracie’s new house, waiting for them after they get back from their honeymoon, a few blocks away from her own. She can’t even bear to drive by the block where Greg’s apartment is, soon to be abandoned again and rented to the next gullible tenant.

Her own home, too, is dark and expectant. She flips on all the lights immediately and looks at her small space, the bit of property she has struggled so hard to maintain, the sanctity she has defended against any possible intruders until she, perhaps unwisely, let Greg in. It’s not quite enough for her, now. Maybe it was never quite enough.

Before she even rolls her suitcase into her bedroom, she powers up the clunky desktop computer in the living room and starts searching for flights to Chicago.


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