Julie’s hands were deft and graceful as she arranged the unexpected bouquet of Persian buttercups. Her fingers were long and agile, her nails short, smooth and spotless.
Snapping out of a brief reverie, she realized that she had been staring at her own hands again, instead of arranging the flowers. Julie called it “checking out” whenever she went into a funk like that. Observing the fluent, autonomous movement of her fingers, as if they were someone else’s, always made her feel one step removed from the here and now. She didn’t like it.
The sound of the toilet flushing reminded Julie that she had a guest. Peter was a genial community-college teacher nine years her senior. They had been formally introduced—even though they had previously met—four months earlier at a mutual friend’s birthday party, and that would have been the end of it if Peter hadn’t called two days later to ask her out to dinner.
Julie didn’t know whether to pursue anything beyond their present friendship. She sometimes felt that she could pinpoint that inevitable shift of focus towards a more erotic affection—even before the man himself knew. On their last few dates she had begun to sense that change in Peter. And she knew that a change in interest never went without a change in expectation. Many a lover and would-be boyfriend had come and gone in her life, and more than a few friendships had been lost.
Peter had just arrived unannounced from an alleged late dinner with some colleagues. Upon entering, he had given her the bouquet, excused himself and gone straight to the bathroom. Julie had smiled at his candid urgency. He had, however, seized the opportunity of her surprise to kiss her hand when greeting her. A quick, solid kiss, leaving Julie both confused and charmed. Coming from a suitor her own age, the move would have been laughably flamboyant, but Peter somehow managed to get away with it. She was staring at her hands again.
Julie left the flowers and gave herself a quick look-over in the art deco mirror by the front door. She had hoped for a quiet Thursday evening alone, and was wearing a striped, gray-and-red sweatshirt, faded black jeans, and no shoes or makeup. Her hair was a mess, but she managed to touch it up with a few quick strokes.
She stepped back and sighed, “That’s the risk a guy takes, calling on a girl without notice.” She let her arms drop along her sides. “This is what she looks like.”
Peter’s footsteps in the hall alerted her, so she quickly sat down on the black leather couch and tried to look relaxed. She disliked having to feign composure, but she was too self-conscious to abandon her facade. Peter was kind and charming, but Julie was very conscious of the near-decade between them, and of the fact that he had been pushed out of a marriage two years before. She was mindful of her attraction—and her attractiveness—to Peter, and has always been careful to keep her feelings and her conduct in check.
“Sorry about that,” Peter said as he briskly walked into the living room. “Nature calling and all that.”
She gave him a disarming smile. “Happens to me all the time.”
“I do hope I’m not bothering you. I just—felt like dropping by.” He sat down on the opposite end of the couch, taking one of the small chintz pillows and patting it on his lap.
Julie pursed her lips. “Don’t worry, I’m getting used to it. You’ve been bothering me for a while, you know.”
For a moment, Peter’s face clouded: he couldn’t tell if Julie was joking. But when her serious expression softened into a playful smile, he relaxed back into his boyish, suave elegance. He, too, had felt that there may be something growing between them, but he didn’t want to say or do anything untoward. He knew that he wouldn’t forgive himself should he lose Julie for having been too insistent; on the other hand, he wanted to avoid not having being persistent enough. Or was he being silly, worrying about “losing” something that hadn’t even materialized yet?
And there it was. The moment Peter had been dreading: what to say? He had no flair for small talk, no valid excuse for being there at all. Julie seemed to have read his thoughts.
“So. What brings you here?”
“Nothing, really. I was in the neighborhood,” he fibbed. “Ever been to Dolce Firenze?”
“Italian is so… Italian.”
“Well, it is kind of nice. Every once in a while.” Their vitello tonnato was his wake-me-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night favorite.
Julie didn’t feel she had a particularly perceptive eye for the undercurrents of human behavior, but she could always spot a lie, white or otherwise. Especially when the man telling it was attracted to her. In her mind’s eye, male behavior was conveniently subtitled. She could imagine what Peter must be thinking: why did he feel so insecure, why couldn’t he just tell her the truth, hadn’t he learned anything from his past experiences? In a way, Julie felt sorry for Peter, and she didn’t like what it did to her.
But Peter was older than she was, and although Julie had accurately gauged the nature of his feelings, she misjudged their effect on him. Peter was indeed self-conscious and a little disillusioned, but it didn’t make him apprehensive. A long time ago, he had decided to stop thinking about what would be or had been, and to concentrate on making the most of his life, one baby-step day at a time. But life’s lessons had not made him any more confident. You can’t un-live a life, and the voices of reminiscence and responsibility were always there.
Peter was not an unhappy or pessimistic person by any measure. He genuinely enjoyed life’s better moments, and tried to soften its disappointments by cheerfully acknowledging their inevitability. And even though Julie didn’t quite realize it, it was precisely this which drew her to him. She had always associated simple acceptance with failure, or at least impassivity. She blamed herself for wrong turns taken and had grown to believe that other people’s happiness must be the outcome of either fortune or self-control. When she had first met Peter she had mistaken the apparent effortlessness with which he balanced his life for resignation; now she was not so sure.
“How’s life?” she conceded, before the silence stretched into embarrassment.
“Oh, I’m doing okay. I guess. To tell you the truth, I haven’t been getting much sleep lately.”
“Really? What’s her name?” Her quip’s riskiness only hit her after she’d made it.
“Un-unh,” Peter shook his head and chuckled. “Too many papers to grade, too many committee meetings to attend. But I’m learning: I took tomorrow off, I need a break.”
Julie mimed a what-more-can-you-do expression. She felt more at ease now and decided to host the evening after all. She looked Peter straight in the eye, almost challenging. “Do you want a drink?”
“How can I refuse?” Peter leaned back. “What have you got?”
“Coffee, tea,” she offered. “Wine, port, vermouth. Buttermilk.”
“Port…. Haven’t had that in a while.”
“White, ruby, tawny?”
“Seriously? You run a liquor store?”
“White, ruby, tawny.” She folded her arms.
He smiled, “Tawny. Definitely.”
Julie left for the kitchen. Peter let go of the pillow to air his palms. He wasn’t sure about the “definitely,” but thought he had done well enough so far. He suddenly felt uncomfortable sitting alone on the couch, as if it obligated him to be relaxed, so he stood up and stepped out onto the balcony.
It was late in the evening and there was a cooling June drizzle and not much traffic. From Julie’s ninth-floor apartment, the people and cars were still clearly visible, even as their sounds merged into the anonymous hum of urban circulation. Peter liked the city by night: it was calm, but never completely quiet. It truly slept, and perhaps it dreamed as well.
In the kitchen, Julie checked her watch. Ten forty-five. She took out a new bottle of port. Peter had been in her apartment twice before, but not this late. She ran her thumb over the gold-relief lettering on the black label. Also, he had kindly implied that he didn’t have to go to work tomorrow morning—or was she imagining things? She opened a drawer and took out a corkscrew.
She ripped off the leaden bottle cap and remembered that this port always came with a stopper cork. Annoyed at her forgetfulness, she thrust the bottle opener back in the drawer. She pulled the cork out with some difficulty and noticed that she was looking at her hands again. But this time her gaze was powerful and intent. Julie was surprised to admit it: her hands were trembling.
Out on the balcony, she passed him his glass. When he took it, his fingers brushed hers.
“Thank you. What? Yes, can you tell? Is it still wrinkled?”
“I guess it’s the way you wear it. I don’t think I’ve seen you in stripes before.”
“Oh.” Peter sipped his port. “Nice.”
He looked at Julie as she overlooked the city. He thought of saying, “You look good yourself,” but realized that she hadn’t said she liked his new shirt. Was she toying with him, and if so, what were her intentions?
“Do you think about your ex-wife a lot?”
Peter was taken aback by Julie’s question, and didn’t notice that she had said “your ex-wife” when she knew Gail’s name. He answered promptly, masking his surprise.
“Not really. We sorted just about everything out. I got a letter the other day. She’s doing okay, apparently.”
A siren sounded from the direction of Tickford Plaza. The drizzle was thickening into a steady rainfall.
“Good for her. And her ex?”
Peter laughed. “Well, you know me. I’m philosophical about this kind of thing. It’s no good to suffer needlessly. Besides, it’s been a while already. Life’s too short.”
When he turned back to face her, he realized Julie had been looking at him all the while. Her gaze was fearless and purposeful. It provoked him and it unsettled him.
Julie stepped back inside. As Peter followed her, he saw her fill up her own glass, pouring out the rich, tawny liquid in a single, fluent motion. When he joined her she held out the bottle to him.
“Do you have to drive tonight?”
Again, Peter couldn’t guess the meaning of Julie’s words. Was this an invitation to stay or a signal to leave? Or were there no hidden layers to her words and was he just nervous? Was she being intentionally ambiguous?
Before he could answer, Julie had refilled his glass. She sat down on the floor, resting her shoulder against the couch. She unapologetically observed him as he joined her on the floor.
Julie managed an upmarket boutique lingerie store called Odette & Lily and had been positive, ever since the first time she met Peter, that he had come to the shop several years before to get something for—she presumed—his wife. She couldn’t recall what he had bought, but she was quite sure it was him. A man alone was an unusual customer and easily remembered.
She had secretly marked a parallel when she mentioned Peter’s new shirt: today she’d taken home from work a splendid, sheer silk set from a new designer label, which she was now wearing under her plain jeans and sweatshirt. It was a quirky pleasure to project such a casual outward appearance while concealing sexy lingerie from a man she knew desired her.
“What are you thinking about?”
Damn, she thought. “Nothing,” she said. “Work.” Which was true.
“You’re in… clothing, aren’t you? You don’t talk much about your work.”
“A boutique, yeah.” She didn’t want to be too specific, lest he remember. “But let’s not dwell on work. It’s your day off tomorrow.”
“Thanks for reminding me. Unless I do something useful, I’m sure it’ll be one of those days when you end up wishing you’d gone to work anyway because you didn’t do a thing you wanted to.”
Useful, Julie thought, that’s not a word I’d have in mind when I was thinking of seducing someone. Then again, was she being seduced? Or was she playing chess on a checkers board?
“You’re not seeing anyone in particular, are you?”
“I’m looking at you.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I would have told you by now.”
“’Kay. Didn’t think you were.”
“I’m that obvious, hunh?”
“You know you aren’t. You just radiate an… a sense of freedom.”
Peter hadn’t anticipated what was happening now. How did this get out in the open? He had thought of Julie mostly with a kind of detached propriety; he had respected her as an individual, separate person. A bit younger, to be sure, but an equal in every way. Now he could not make himself forget that she was also an attractive woman. His eyes involuntarily scanned her body and he forced himself out of it. Had she noticed? Peter erased from his retina the tempting X-ray vision of her shoulders, her breasts, her thighs.
He got up.
“I’m sorry. Blame it on the bladder.”
“Two tiny glasses of port,” she breathed when he had gone. Now she regretted not having changed in something more appropriate. But when she touched the lace trimming on the shoulder strap under her sweater, she smiled.
In the bathroom, Peter sighed. He had in fact recognized Julie immediately when they were introduced. He clearly remembered their fleeting encounter at Odette & Lily—it had been one of the cruelest days in his life, and every detail of it stood out in his memory. He hadn’t mentioned this to Julie, not wanting to embarrass her, and initially because he needed to put Gail behind him. It takes time for memories to become untethered, but Peter didn’t see that silencing them only slows the transition.
He returned to the living room in time to watch Julie pick out a record and put it on the turntable. On a previous visit, he had already noticed the vintage 1980s all-in-one stereo that sat on the low TV stand next to her flatscreen. Something old, something new. She sat cross-legged on the floor, her back straight, her hair pulled forward over one shoulder. Her movements were precise and efficient. She held the LP’s sleeve in her hands and examined the back. The music was jazzy and easy and polished and not exactly Peter’s style.
In a single turn, she stood up.
“Now the atmosphere’s complete,” she smiled.
“You said it.”
Julie sensed his hesitation, but she wasn’t going to placate him. Folding her legs onto the couch, she said, “This isn’t your thing, is it? Sit.”
“Well, it’s my house and we’re playing by my rules.” She leaned over to pat him on the chest. “I like the shirt. Navy pinstripes and all.”
“Thanks. You had me wondering.”
“I know,” Julie grinned. “Could do with another tie though. Paisley doesn’t cut it anymore.”
Peter immediately removed the offensive article and struggled to open his collar. He was so used to wearing a suit and tie that he had missed how overdressed he was in his present company. He looked at Julie for approval.
“Better. Speaking of fashion sensibilities. How do you like my hair best: in a ponytail, like this? Or if I let it down, like so?” She never lost eye contact. Was she being too cruel?
“It’s okay either way,” Peter confessed. “I really like your curls, they’re beautiful.”
“And they’re mine. One hundred percent certified by Mother Nature. I really shouldn’t drink any more. You want some coffee too?”
“You know where the bottle is.”
In the kitchen, Julie stared at the sink and the unwashed dishes and the stray basil leaves and then downed a glass of ice-cold water. This was a mess. Was this a mess? As soon as she regained her sense of balance, she giggled at made herself a double cappuccino. What was she thinking? Was she thinking? Then again, her esteemed guest had said it himself: life is too short. There is opportunity and there is outcome and somewhere in between are the choices you make.
Returning to the living room, she peeked at Peter from under her bangs as she took a sip from her cup. She saw him watching her lick the milk froth off her upper lip. Her gaze met his.
“You’re not a very spur-of-the-moment kind of guy, are you, Peter?” she ventured. “I mean, you don’t go and jump into fountains and stuff like that?”
“Not with any regularity, no.”
“Neither do I. Nice and Dependable are my middle names.” She huddled up on the couch, a bit too close. “Don’t you ever long to break out of it?”
“I’ve tried. It doesn’t work.”
“That’s right, I forget. You’re half a generation ahead of me.”
Peter shot out a laugh, his first uninhibited moment of the evening. Julie examined his face, parked her coffee on the floor.
“Well, not quite half.”
They kissed. Neither knew who moved first or how it happened. Peter’s hand on her cheek, then the back of her neck; Julie’s hand on his shoulder, then chest. He responded to the quiver through her frame, she clenched his fingers in his hair.
For a second they let go and looked at each other, still unsure. He pulled her closer. She straddled him. Their lips darted, nuzzled, baited, bit. She tried to unbutton his shirt. He took her sweatshirt by the hem and pulled it over her head. Julie tore her arms out of the sleeves and fingered his shirt even as his mouth grazed her breast. Peter felt the cool silk of her bra and the small hardening underneath.
She fingered the buttons again, but the shirt was new and starched and stubborn. Suddenly she stopped, and then stopped him when he insisted. Julie noticed that she had been staring at her hands again as if they were somebody else’s. How had she let herself check out?
“No, really. It’s me, I—”
She took Peter’s hands in hers and held them. Gently, tightly. She let the impetus fade.
Unsolicited sounds rose in the ruffled, pregnant silence. Cars honking a block away, a neighbor’s dog barking. The steadfast beat of Julie’s grandfather clock near the door to the hall, a flat creaking of the leather couch when Peter moved. An improvised jazz solo that refused to settle into a steady groove. Their own breathing as they avoided each other’s eyes.
Peter tried, “Look, I apologize, I didn’t mean to—. It’s okay. And If you don’t mind my saying, that’s a really beautiful brassiere. But then you’d know that better than I do. Right?”
“You do remember.”
“Of course I remember.”
She held his face in her hands, but what she saw was something that wasn’t him and wasn’t her. What was there between them? She kissed him one more time, steadying her lips against his, feeling his breath on her face. He didn’t kiss her back.
“You’re a kind man. But I don’t know what this is.”
“Maybe it’s too soon.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Peter was the first to move. Untangling felt unavoidable and uncomfortable. They stood and looked at one another and shared an uneasy hug. Peter moved over to the window, and looked out into the deepening summer night. Julie slipped back into her sweater, not bothering to turn it right side out again. She looked at the flowers on the table. He swallowed a sigh and turned to face her. She nodded and smiled away his well-meaning apologies and regrets. Peter said he’d call. The dull sound of the door bolt snapping shut nested in Julie’s mind. Solitude offered no consolation.
She went out onto the balcony. The city was dark and slept and dreamed of what it would someday have or do or be. Julie imagined that there were dozens of people like her, people who stood on balconies and watched their follies and fantasies become a part of the city’s smooth, titanic slumber.
She leaned her full weight against the parapet and felt raindrops sprinkle her face. The water was soft and refreshing, but she went back inside. The elevator would be downstairs now, and she didn’t want to wait and see Peter turn up his collar against the rain.
• • •