He watched her as she sealed her lips around her last spoonful of strawberry ice cream. The tip of her tongue circled her mouth and she smiled. Her eyes positively glowed, he thought.
“You’ve been watching me.”
“Of course. Some things never tire.”
The evening had been perfect. He had picked her up at her place, they had gone to chase the wind on the beach, they had seen the sun percolate into the sea (her phrase), and they had had a perfect candlelit dinner. They had even danced! He, the sixty-year-old novelist with wooden legs who even as a young man had thought himself too old for the two-step, and she, the intelligent, articulate editor every bit as stunning as she had been at sixteen.
“I like the bob,” he said.
“Are you sure? It still feels ticklish.”
“It makes you look younger.”
“Cheap. You’ve done better.”
He raised his hands in mock lamentation, “For once a gentleman’s got the truth on his side…”
She glowed. “You’re sweet. The truth is, I’ve been reorganizing everything. Furniture, library, wardrobe, I’m inventing me all over again. I got the itch.”
His eyes locked on hers, knowing.
“Can we have another round?” She tilted the empty ice cream bowl.
“This means I’m paying?”
“Don’t you people diet anymore?”
“Tried it for a decade. Spoils all the fun.”
“You know you can.”
“Good. Waiter, I’d like another one of these, please. Why do they wear name tags anyway? No one’s actually going to call them Roberto or Juliette. Waiters are supposed to be anonymous. In restaurants the food has names, not the people.”
“I rather like the name tags,” he said. “It gives you some indication of what their lovers gasp in ecstasy at night.”
“A dirty old man. I don’t believe it, you’ve become a dirty old man.”
“Age is not a variable in this equation. But it’s true, isn’t it? These people have a life like anybody else, they go home, they’re human, they have name tags.”
“Well I don’t care, I just want them to bring me my food and go away. Thank you very much.”
“Bet he heard you.”
“Roberto didn’t hear. You talk while I gain weight.”
He never tired of observing her. Her movements were slow and deliberate, as they had always been—but graceful, poignant. Still, he thought he detected a still restlessness under her skin, in her breathing, in her eyes. He wasn’t sure.
Mr. Nametag served her her second round. They must have these things ready-made in a freezer, he thought.
“Well, the itch didn’t get me. I haven’t moved a thing at home for years and I’m not about to start now.” After a pause, his voice darkened and softened. “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days. About the way it’s been, and where we’re headed. I haven’t written a word in months.”
The erratic melody of her spoon chiming against the glass bowl stopped. She pursed her lips.
“I didn’t mean to lock myself up like that. Or to lock you out. It happened.”
“You know it doesn’t change how I feel. I just wanted to let you know.”
“Can I stay the night?”
Neither of them could remember the last time they had been together like this, or if they had ever been. She laughed a little, but she had that wayward look in her eyes. They squeezed hands.
“This feels funny.”
He said, “I know.”
She didn’t finish the ice cream. They got the check and walked home. She put her arm through his, and he drew her closer. The way young lovers might, he thought. They walked in silence. Once or twice she thought she could sense him thinking about it, and she pulled him in.
The night was warm and moist. A multitude of strangers was going places. He noticed men noticing her. He was jealous and proud. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk and her weight against his. They only let go when he reached for his keys.
He took her coat, she turned on the lights. The room was immediately and intimately familiar, even though she hadn’t been there for some time. She let her nails tick-tick over the baby grand’s keys, she felt the embroidery on the tablecloth, she picked up a picture of the two of them on the beach, long ago.
She heard him in the kitchen making tea. He was humming and she listened, again. He had managed very well on his own, she thought.
“So, let me in on the good bits,” he said, carrying in the tea tray. “What’s your life about?”
“What life? Give me a break. My love life’s a one-night disaster, I have three friends and I haven’t seen them in months, and Ferdinand the fish died on me last week.”
“Of starvation, I’m sure.”
He poured the tea and the room smelled of cinnamon. They looked at their cups and at each other and didn’t drink. She clipped off her earrings, rolled them onto the table.
Together they slipped into a quiet stream in time, into a balmy well of knowing and remembering. When at last she spoke, her words were almost weightless.
“There are so many things I should have said and done.”
An inaudible sigh.
“I just don’t want to make the same mistake twice.” Now, she looked at him.
“Hey, I’m not about to dissolve into thin air, you know?” he tried.
She managed half a smile, but her eyes were burning.
In a single movement, she crouched before him, he edged forward on the sofa, they embraced, she pressed her face against his chest, he rested his cheek on her hair. He could feel the good warmth of her body against his and it comforted him. Their breathing slowly moved into a reassuring synchronicity. He listened to the ticking of her watch.
When he sensed her slipping away, he stirred and rubbed her back.
“Come on, drink your tea.”
They drank and talked past midnight; their voices and words were tender with distance. He wanted to ask her what she felt, she wanted to let him know, but neither did. At times he would pretend not to notice her brushing a tear away.
Finally, he said, “You never get used to it, do you?”
“No,” she breathed, “you can’t. But it can become a part of you.”
A new tranquility passed between their gazes. He sensed her release, and let her go.
“Go on, get some sleep. It’s late. You know where to find your stuff.”
She got up, and bent down to kiss him. He touched her face, lightly; it was warm and soft.
“Good night, baby.”
“Good night, daddy.”
• • •