“I’ve just rented the house across the way. I’m so sorry if I’m here at a bad time . . .” A smiling face. Round cheeks. A firm grip. Startling light gray eyes, almost silver to match her hair.
No one during our time has lived in the house next door, the only building within sight of our home. I have stopped thinking of it as having an interior. It has become solely a shabbily beautiful façade.
“Gus Edelman,” I say. “Augusta, really, but Gus. Welcome.” My voice is riddled with question marks; and then I remember that I am only in a bra. Folded in among the thoughts of a neighbor is the thought that the bra, which is purple, may pass for a bathing suit; then the thought that it serves her right, barging in—though she hasn’t really barged in. Then the thought that it’s too late to say anything about my bra. We have absorbed the fact of it already. We have moved on.
“It’s so lovely here, isn’t it?” she says.
“Yes, it is,” I say. “Can I help you out in some way?” It isn’t quite right, I know. I sound like a salesperson at the end of the day hurrying to close the store.
She tells me she is leasing the place. “At least through September,” she says. “Maybe beyond. Depending on how things go.”
“I hadn’t realized they were renting it out.”
The owners, a young couple who inherited the property from distant family, have only ever visited once, maybe eighteen months before. They walked the land, several acres, had seemed to be arguing and then had driven off, never to return.
“You haven’t seen the advert?” she asks. “Because you’re in it. You and . . . is it your husband?”
I shake my head, frowning. “I had no idea . . .”
“On one of those rental sites. One of the features is the couple who lives next door. The writer. The painter.”
“Oh. How strange. They never mentioned . . .”
She smiles. “I promise not to be a pest, but it did make the setting more appealing. I’m actually a painter too. And somehow the notion of a creative enclave . . . plus I figured if the ad mentioned you, you probably weren’t axe murderers.”
“Not recently,” I say. “Not me, anyway.” As we speak, I decide she’s only a few years older than I, despite the gray hair. Early fifties. We look at one another a bit more, awkward, until she says she should be getting back to her unpacking. I tell her please to let us know if we can help her settle in, but I don’t say it with much enthusiasm and as she steps away I lean down to pick some of the leggy basil, as though she has caught me in the middle of an important, pressing task.
“Many thanks,” she calls back. “So good to meet!”
When I’m sure she’s gone, I straighten up, my hands full of basil stems. I look toward the barn, and think of going there. A new neighbor is big news. But then I decide it can wait. Owen needs to be left alone to push the rock back up the hill. And I too need to get back to work, so instead of turning left, I turn right and go inside.
We’d moved into the farmhouse nearly three years before, after Owen’s Aunt Marion died, surprising us by leaving a small fortune. Very small. But still, a fortune to us. It was enough money that we could think hard about what changes we wanted to make in our lives, enough money that we could afford to make changes without thinking too hard. For the first time in forever we had a safety net. We’d always talked about living the country life in a maybe-one-day kind of way, but once it was possible, we started to get serious, checking real estate online, driving beyond the suburbs to explore houses that we knew within seconds we would never want to own. Too new. Too obviously designed for families of four. Too close to other human beings.
But then we found the farmhouse, and as buyers we were sold right away. Built in 1918, it was exactly the kind of lovely we’d been looking for. We saw it first on a breezy day in May when the land shimmered with every leaf imaginable, from ground to sky. I thought we’d stumbled onto the hidden spot in which the universe tested out its most exquisite shades of green. The pond, perfectly round, had a fairy-tale look, frog princes poised to set themselves on its edge. I have fallen in love very few times in my life, and once was with those seven acres, our home, on that day.
I wanted to live there. I wanted to paint every vista.
Owen could write in the stone bank barn once we ran electricity, and I could set up a studio in the enclosed porch, with its windows on three sides. There was work to do, of course. The kitchen, set back in the house, was a horror show, its only saving graces a beautiful worn terra-cotta-tiled floor and the old glass- paned door out to what would become our garden. The roof was a joke—like the old dribble glasses, designed to leak. But the house itself was dirt cheap and we had more than enough money to fix it up.
Our friends back in Philadelphia, incurably urban, thought we were mad, and we both rather enjoyed that part. In our crowd it was hard to latch onto any eccentricity no one else had yet claimed. Overnight we became oddballs, objects of affectionate eye rolling and shaking heads. They’ll be back in a week. We had set ourselves apart from the crowd. And in some other sense, some entirely literal sense, that was exactly what we needed to do.
Neither of us acknowledged that our move had anything to do with my infidelity two years before. It had been some months since our City Hall ceremony, the ritual that was to have been the punctuation-mark ending to the whole episode. But that didn’t mean the betrayal wasn’t a lingering presence in our lives, a taunting little goblin in the shadows, daring us to call him out.
For Owen, I knew, there were reminders everywhere. When I’d confessed to him, I had confessed fully—with all the misguided passion of one who believes that she is cleansing herself and forgets that she may be staining the listener. Owen became the man who knew too much. He carried in his head a map of meeting places, of locations where we might run into Bill. He could envision us slipping into this dim café, slipping out, a few minutes apart, from this hotel. He knew how to drive from our home to Bill’s. He knew where Bill’s law office was.
I always half believed that Owen would have an affair one day himself to restore balance of a kind. In certain moods, dark moods, I even believed he was entitled, though the thought of it was hideous to me. Sexual jealousy. Emotional jealousy. I couldn’t bear the prospect of going through what he had gone through. (What I had put him through.) But a part of me believed that it was only fair. A part of me thought maybe it would set us right again.
A couple of times, I almost convinced myself it had happened. There was a student of his whose name seemed to come up too often. Victoria Feldman. And a little later there was a young woman, a girl really, who worked at a nearby coffee shop. I thought I could catch a little atmospheric hum around each of them. I had my hunches. But then, for whatever reasons, I changed my mind. Maybe he said Victoria Feldman was tedious, a word I knew he wouldn’t use about a woman he was taking to bed, not even to cover something up. Maybe I looked a little more closely at the coffee shop girl and realized he would be appalled by her age, closer to sixteen than I had thought. I don’t remember the details of how my mind first entangled, then disentangled him from these nonexistent liaisons, but the point is that I was always on alert.
When I was a teenager, long before any of this, my sisters and I used to play a game, just between ourselves, that consisted solely of muttering under our breath, there’s a nice little friend for you, whenever we saw a boy—or in my sister Jan’s case a girl. Most of the time it was said sarcastically: there’s a nice little friend for you, just as the most appalling skinhead cousin of the kid hosting the party walks in. Every once in a while, though, it was said appreciatively. There’s a nice little friend for you. No, seriously. By the door. We were always on the lookout. All teenagers are, I suppose. We were human periscopes, scanning, scanning. And the fact that there were three of us, close in age, meant that there was never a time when at least one pair of eyes wasn’t engaged.
The period between my affair and our move to the country was a bit like that. Is this her? Is this possible? There’s a nice little friend for you. I hope he doesn’t think so. I hope he doesn’t see her. I hope he does. I hope he never tells me. I hope he does. It was never far from my mind.
We could move out to the country now, you know.
As we always told the story, the idea came upon us both at once, as though we had acted on it without either of us having to speak the words aloud. But in fact I was the one who said it, sitting in a diner, dawdling over late night pie and coffee, trying to comprehend the degree to which our circumstances had changed with our newly copious bank account.
“We could move out to the country now, you know.”
This is Owen, on the day we moved in: He is pacing off the distance between the kitchen door of the house and the great doorway of the barn. Well over six feet tall, slender to the point of being skinny, as he places one heel to the front of the other foot’s toes, and again, and again, he looks single-legged and as though he will blow over with just a mild gust of wind. It is autumn, mid-October, and the greens of our first encounter with this land have dressed up in fancy costume, orange, scarlet, yellow, to welcome us. It is almost too much to take in, all the beauty. And this is why Owen is doing what he is doing, measuring this line— which there is no reason to measure. Because this is what Owen does when he is overwhelmed.
Watching from what is to be my studio, I know he doesn’t really need or even want to know how many lengths of his own feet it is from one building to the other. Except that it is a start. In this hurricane of incomprehensible loveliness, he begins with the ground, with his own feet on that ground. He begins with a count. And standing at the window, I remember how he first loved me, physically. What those earliest sexual moments were like when he counted the freckles on my belly, when he stretched his hand across my breasts, nipple to nipple, measuring my body with his own, so earnest, so strangely in his own head yet defined by the act of knowing me, all at once. It felt like a form of devotion I had never imagined, as he committed my body to his memory and so committed himself to me.
I could never match it, I was sure.
When he reaches the barn, his form relaxes. He turns and walks briskly, loosely, back to the house. He is still boyish at forty-eight. He is that boy with the just-too-long hair that falls into his face, wearing the sweater he must have borrowed from his dad. His limbs still seem as though he’ll grow into them, with time. As he nears, I see the earnestness on his face. He has solved a problem. He’ll move on now to the next one. Testing the depth of the pond. Or counting the steps to the basement. This, for him, is moving in, as for me painting walls and hanging pictures is. He is all about acquiring knowledge. I am all about recasting a place into what I want it to be.
These are the sorts of things you see when you step away. It doesn’t mean you’re right. It just means it’s what you see.
Robin Black’s story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, was published by Random House in 2010. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Freight Stories, Indiana Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). She is the recipient of grants from the Leeway Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Sirenland Conference and is also the winner of the 2005 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition in the short story category. Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.