My neighbor watched my girls while I had dinner with the divorce lawyer. He had encouraged me to get out more. Had he and I not been occasionally sleeping together, his encouragement might have been encouraging. Instead, it felt invasive. And hypocritical. Except for his work, which he mostly spent with his head tucked under car hoods, and the weekends with his daughters, my neighbor was practically a shut-in.
“You need to get out more,” I’d said.
“That’s different.” He liked to play that my husband’s death trumped his marriage’s demise, but I knew better.
I’d met the divorce lawyer at a famous author’s reading. I much admired this famous author and owned all his books. I figured if I was going to force myself to go out, it should be to see him. And I was going to force myself to go out, all right. I would take my neighbor’s advice until it fell on its spindly legs.
The famous author’s reading, sponsored by the writing school where I taught, took place in an auditorium much like a college lecture hall, and I pretended I was young again, to see if I knew how. I didn’t. Decades of stress banded my forehead; layers of sadness pushed at my gut like so many tree rings. I had just endured a couple of people asking “How are you?” and had managed to avoid my stock answer: “My husband is dead.” After a few months, people no longer tolerated grief’s eccentricities, and I included myself among them. “I am fine. How are you?” I answered, my words a tuneless staccato.
The famous author was brilliant and charismatic, full of self-deprecating humor that made us love him more. But when he read from his work, what gave life to his writing dissolved in the sludge of my brain, his story as lost to me as the bliss his famous books once inspired. I tried harder to grasp his words. They slipped away, beautiful fish in an ocean where I’d lost my air.
I imagined telling my neighbor about the joylessness of my outing. “You don’t know anything about me,” I’d say, precisely because he did know a thing or two.
After the reading, I sipped white wine in a corner, blurting, “I am fine. How are you?” to anyone who asked. When the divorce lawyer approached, I had my answer at the ready. I’d seen him at other events. He was tall and handsome, dressed like a golfer, his trim Anglo features predictably arranged. Yet a girlish curl in his lashes, a hint of Farrah Fawcett flip-backs in his just-short-of-short hair, cut against his Übermensch appeal.
“So, what did you think?” he asked, his attempt to start a real conversation enraging me.
“Nothing,” I said.
“I saw your face,” he said, with a disturbingly winning grin. “If anyone in there was thinking, it was you.”
“If you know so much,” I said, “why don’t you tell me what I was thinking?” Remembering my job, and how much I needed it, I formed my lips into an all-in-good-fun smile. He looked like the kind of man who might sit on the writing school’s board.
“I know a lot. But I don’t know that.”
“What do you know, then?”
“I’m a divorce lawyer,” he said. “I see people at their worst. Criminal lawyers got nothing on me.”
“That’s impressive,” I said. “In its way.”
“In its way,” he repeated. We were starting to understand each other. My eyes needed a break from his good looks. I dropped my gaze.
“It’s like watching sausage being made,” he said. “My job. Not only don’t I want to eat sausage, but I don’t want to eat.”
“Everyone has to eat,” I said, returning my eyes to him.
“Yes.” A hunger sharpened his face, and his girl lashes seemed to reach for me. “Can I take you to dinner sometime?”
I held up my left hand, wiggled the finger that still wore my rings.
“Nice try,” he said. “I know what divorced looks like.”
“I’m not divorced.”
“If you don’t want to have dinner, just say so.”
“Oh.” I waited for the apology, the reddened cheeks. Instead, he nodded deliberately, as if I’d just confirmed for him a deeply held belief.
“I’ll have dinner with you,” I said.
The night of the dinner, my neighbor answered the door in his evening uniform: a pair of plaid pajama pants and a tee shirt, this one black and, I remembered, soft to the touch. His dark hair was perpetually tousled, as if he’d been scratching his head in confusion all day long, and his eye whites always contained an inexplicable hint of red, suggesting fatigue, illness, vice, even as his trim, muscle-man form burst with health. He grabbed my girls’ sleeping bags. His arm neared my mouth, and I wanted to gnaw the deltoid swelling his sleeve. Instead, we avoided looking at each other, our default mode when we were with our kids.
“We’re going to watch The Avengers,” he announced. “And eat popcorn.” He reached into his tiny kitchen and grabbed a microwave popcorn bag, waving it in the air as if presenting evidence. Our girls, however, had found each other, and we were as good as gone to them.
“Have fun tonight,” my neighbor said, to his hands. He thought I was meeting a friend. “I’ll try. Thank you.”
“Glad to help.” His sad eyes grazed mine.
Even when we were alone, we barely spoke. I didn’t mind: it served the sexy mix of mystery and shame between us. My neighbor worried he was taking advantage of me. “Are you sure this is okay?” he’d sometimes ask. “To whom?” I’d respond, sticking my tongue down his throat before he could answer.
Our minimalist exchanges seemed to have nothing to do with my gabby marriage, and so, I liked to think, neither could implicate the other. But after I’d peel off my clothes, the way my neighbor said my name sounded like my husband in such moments. “Lila”: the cunnilingual tongue flicks, the sigh of the “i,” the awe of the “uh.” It was as if my husband had come back as a torment, just to leave me once more.
“See you tomorrow,” I said to my neighbor. “When I pick up the girls.”
“Take all the time you need.”
I wanted to stay and curl myself against his warmth, clasp his skillful paw, glue my wrist to his forearm.
“Don’t say that,” I said. “You’ll never see me again.”
The divorce lawyer had offered to pick me up, take me somewhere close, but I insisted on meeting him in the city. I wanted to keep him from my neighbor, but I also wanted Denver: my husband and I had shared a tiny Capitol Hill apartment there before we were married. Together we’d carved a little world of Chinese and pizza and Mexican and burger joints, the Safeway and the small gourmet market, coffeehouses and woo-woo crystal shops, the bountiful library and the Sixteenth Street multiplex. No bars: at night we smoked weed in our apartment, and I’d sense myself at the center of the city’s vast reach, stretching into endless suburbs, rippling foothills, desolate plains. That time in my life was long lost to me, and I was used to mourning it.
Our meeting spot, the divorce lawyer’s pick, was one of those aggressively modern restaurants with an interior of canny angles and curves, the servers all beautiful and young and probably fucking each other. He’d made a reservation, and we were seated forthwith, at a round chrome table so cool and smooth I wanted to dent it with my skull. Around us, affluent urbanites shout-talked and cackled, throwing back their heads. Our hip waitress hid her hatred of our bourgeois blandness exceedingly well. The bread was fragrant and crusty. I inhaled my drink.
The divorce lawyer and I quizzed each other about our lives. We ordered entrees. My salmon was a revelation.
“This is amazing!” I said, forgetting the partially chewed food in my mouth.
“That’s why we’re here.”
I took a swig of my third cocktail. My appetite hadn’t returned to what it had been before my husband’s cancer, but the drinking, the deliciousness, the alien surroundings now made me ravenous. I packed it in, and the divorce lawyer, watching me, followed suit and shoved bites of his tenderloin in his mouth. My husband had also been a fast, voracious beef eater, and if I squinted really hard, it could have been a taller him sitting across from me.
I squinted at the divorce lawyer, hard, and gulped down my drink. Then I asked him the question I realized I’d been wanting to ask all night: “At the reading you said you know what divorced looks like. What does that mean?”
He traced the rim of his cabernet glass. “Destroyed,” he finally said.
“Oh.” I let that sink in. My face had always had tales-from-the-crypt tendencies when I was tired. And I was tired, all right, not just physically and emotionally, but existentially. I had to live because of my girls. This trap made me want to die all the more. If I could have in good conscience killed myself, I might have wanted to less.
Our waitress passed by, and I did the finger-in-the-air summons the divorce lawyer had already done countless times. “Another vodka and tonic,” I said.
“Careful, now,” said the divorce lawyer. “Far be it from me to tell you how to live, but you have to drive home.”
“Who says I’m going home?”
We marched the Capitol Hill sidewalks side by side, speechless, crossing Colfax, its weary vitality, the rainbow of color and dirty grays. Soon our footfalls synchronized, tapping a soft beat to the one-way surge of cars on Seventeenth. I thought of my neighbor, the quiet so often between us, the sexiness of words restrained. And my husband, with whom I’d walked many times on this very sidewalk, bantering and psychoanalyzing and philosophizing.
The divorce lawyer and I turned down a stripe of a side street crammed with parked cars, and it was our street, my husband’s and mine, where we’d once lived. Then we were on our block, heading toward the entrance of a building with our address, except it wasn’t our square rust-brown stucco building, but one of the condos that had grown up around Denver like weeds, its exterior a patchwork of dull greens and dark reds, sections jutting out to articulate each unit, graced with uniformly immaculate balconies. I wondered where the other residents had gone: the Cuban classical guitarist, the bleached-blond transgender mural artist, the squat Broncos fan who screamed at her boyfriend, the old-lady super who moonlighted in a strip-joint kitchen and called me “doll baby” and told us to “stay sweet.”
I followed the divorce lawyer inside and breathed in the beige air.
His condo was spacious and clean, a geometry of fingernail-sharp edges and reserved hues. But in the middle of the room sagged an enormous old cinnamon-brown sectional, bursting with curves, its lush incongruity, like the divorce lawyer’s lashes, beckoning.
“One of these things is not like the others,” I said.
“The couch?” he said. “I’m attached. Out of spite. Got it in the divorce.”
“You were married?”
“Figuratively speaking. We cohabited. I thought not getting married would save us. She concurred until she didn’t. She loved that couch, but she couldn’t move it alone, and I wouldn’t help. Could have gotten someone else to assist, but she preferred to play the martyr. I was glad to let her.”
“Yes,” he said. “I was a real prince.”
“Still a prince.”
The couch seemed like a portal to a different world, a place both softer and darker than this one, where my old life might hide in the shadows. I climbed on, my feet finding balance between the cushion puffs, and stood tall, seeking the outline of our little apartment unit, listening for whispers of the old-timey folksongs my husband liked to sing. A whiff of pasta boiling in municipal water. The press of old springs inside the Murphy bed we pulled from the wall at night and sometimes didn’t put back for days.
I watched the divorce lawyer watch me. His bemusement turned to something else as I unbuttoned my shirt, let it slide off my arms and drop behind me. I unzipped my pants, pushed them to my ankles, and stepped out of each leg with yanks of the foot. Bra: off. Underwear: gone. “Say my name,” I said.
“Lila.” And there it was, the purr of my husband’s voice. My eyes warmed with tears. I alighted from the couch, took his hands, looked deep into him for a glimmer of my husband there.
“I’m sorry,” the divorce lawyer said. “I can’t.”
“Oh.” I stepped back. My belly swelled and my breasts shriveled and I aged ten years. Which is to say, I remembered myself.
My clothes, apparently, had evaporated. “Here,” said the divorce lawyer, handing me my blouse. I managed to locate the other items and place them on my person.
“I like you,” the divorce lawyer said. “A lot. I just realized—I’m not ready to begin our walk to the slaughter, however short or long it may be.”
“You know,” I said, “divorce doesn’t destroy everyone. Half the women I know celebrate theirs.”
“Did you ever think about it—divorcing your husband?”
“No!” I said. Yes. In the innocent days before my husband’s cancer, I had sometimes liked to quip that the only thing worse than being stuck in a bad marriage was being stuck in a good one. Around me, couples were splitting, and where the divorce lawyer saw destruction, I had seen freedom. Perhaps they were the same thing.
“You did,” the divorce lawyer said. “Can I see you again?”
The divorce lawyer insisted on walking me back to my car, and I insisted he not. I wove through the grid of quiet side streets and bustling thoroughfares, the bursts of manmade light in their various neons, whites, and golds. I talked to my husband, inside my head. I apologized for my past jokes about our good marriage, and I made him say, No need. I totally get it. And then I apologized for sleeping with my neighbor and stripping in front of the divorce lawyer, and I made him say, I’m not going to judge you for anything you do right now. And I said, Why are you making me make you talk? And he said, Because ashes can’t speak. And I said, But don’t you believe in an afterlife? And he said, I hoped for one. And then I went off on my spiel about afterlives, a conversation we’d had often, in which I blasted people for assuming that an afterlife automatically meant a loving God or any kind of heaven, and asked what if the afterlife were just another manifestation of this one, with all the godless inequities and iniquities and pain, pain, pain? And he said, That’s why I love you. And I said, That’s why I love you. And then he was gone, because he was never there, and if I squinted hard, the man loping up the sidewalk could have been him, and if I squinted really hard, so could have the woman leaning against her car, and if I squinted really, really hard, every fire hydrant and oak tree and old hatchback and new SUV and 7-Eleven and micropub and laundromat and golden retriever and alley cat and wrought iron fence could have been him, and then I squinted so hard I couldn’t see anything at all.
A ding from my phone. “I’m sorry,” texted the divorce lawyer. “I don’t know what came over me. It was like a wind of dread. It passed. Are you still nearby? Can you come back?”
A wind of dread. Is that how the dead speak? Had my husband kept the divorce lawyer from me? If the dead spoke in silences, was my neighbor’s and my quiet together my husband’s radio?
“Too tired,” I wrote back. “Too late.”
I felt a magnetic tug at my back, from the north. In the maelstrom of missing my husband swirled something else: My neighbor. I missed him, too.
When I got home, I texted my neighbor to ask if the girls were asleep. “No way,” he wrote back.
“Go to your window.”
I crossed the street and scurried down the block and padded through the grass to his side of the duplex. His bedroom window scraped open, a fine screen between us. The bags under his eyes seemed to have grown since I’d left, and I liked it.
“Hey,” he whispered. “Have fun?”
“Yes,” I said, surprised by the truth of it. “I was with a man.”
“Oh.” His face softened, then hardened. “That’s your right,” he finally said.
“I took off my clothes,” I said.
Now his jaw moved side to side, like he was trying to churn his feelings into something he could eat. “You’re killing me.”
“I don’t want to.” It was the most I could give. I pressed my palms to the screen, an offering. He just stared at them, at me.
“You should go.”
I pushed my face against the screen, thinking the bank-robber smoosh of my features might make him laugh. He just stood there, a scared, angry creature trapped in a lightbox.
“Close the window, then,” I said. “Leave the room.”
He snorted, shook his head.
I lifted my blouse, my bra, and pressed my breasts against the screen, so hard it stung, those tiny squares that together made a pliant, cutting cage. I’m hurting myself for you, I wanted to say. Can’t you see how I’m hurting myself?
But I said nothing, and he said nothing. Slowly, he reached forward, an animation broken to a series of stills. He touched my chest, that grid of pain. A streetlamp fogged the night, its light a giant ghost.