Jeanette braces the sunshade against the inside of the windshield. A metronome in jeans passes on the sidewalk. Jeanette hears the clicking of the woman's heels as if she has always heard it, counting off the beats that remain in a day. When the woman trips, it breaks a spell, and Jeanette is inside herself again. It'll become serious when Jeanette opens the car door because it will be the second time she's been over, which will make it more than a one-off, which will make it a thing she does for weeks, a thing that she will not be able to explain to her mother when she finds out, but how to make amends, and how does she begin?
Inside, against all seductive odds, Douglas will be watching the sports channel, a pink Vitamin Water in hand and protein bar wrappers scattered on the coffee table. This is not at all how she'd hoped it would go down. But it has. Gone down, that is, as she has on him. But not vice versa. So like a once-handsome man. His formative sexual years informed by the eager undergrad populace of the cuticle-clipped. All of this, she surmises. How else does someone become a sexual adult without basic clitoral aptitude? She teaches him this. That giving pleasure can be getting pleasure. Because she doesn't care that he doesn't care. He's not a part of her life, will deny his existence. There's no one, she'll say to Henri, conjuring Douglas distinctly in her mind.
Douglas throws away designer clothes. You're like my mom, he says, when she removes these clothes from his kitchen trash can—even his trash is unsoiled—and puts them in a clean bag which, perversely, she will offer to her husband. They are so nice! The truth being that she is mad and has been for a long time now at Henri. Henri who can't stop smoking pot despite the bike accident, the traumatic brain injury. He blows up. What do you expect? he asks. I can't work. I can't go anywhere! So when she takes the outstretched joint from him, she will feel doubly defeated. She's failed to make a point. Are you going to find a man with a working brain? he asks. Don't talk like that, she says. Your brain works. Was just a bit joggled is all. And she will wrap herself around him on the couch, her face at his neck, and she will be so close to confessing, but she will not.
Henri had trouble learning things the first time through, dyslexia, so it will be difficult for him. But she loved the way his mind worked, a whole different machine than hers. What a mind! This is a man who holds up his daughter's felt butterfly to the light. Watch this, he says. He makes its shadow fly along the wall. And then they are making a show of it, with characters and voices. But what will we do if Princess Sofia dies? he asks her at the breakfast table. She's our main character.
The neighborhood parents bring their kids to the show in the backyard. People drawn to the makeshift stage of bed sheet and flood light, people they'd never had a reason to talk to, and Henri and Eloise give a repeat performance, putting more gusto into the voices. It's not that she doesn't love Henri. He was drunk when he fell. Cocaine in his system. And on his way to the set. Henri could not tell them where his bike was. Where is your bike, Henri?
She is dressed up for Douglas. Breasts proffered by new bra, thighs sewn together in pencil skirt. She wants to be wanted by this man she looks down on, but she doesn't know why. She's told Douglas that she is late for their date when in fact she is early, so when she sees him standing outside of her car window, his gasping Labrador pulling his arm uphill, he says, You're a strange woman.
Your dog, she says, needs to be trained.
Douglas eats out nearly every meal. He has a shelf of self-help books for businessmen. He meditates. He's at a point in his life when a relationship is untenable. He's been married, has three kids, lost half after he put his wife through college.
For them, there are no text messages, no voicemails, no gifts. Each arrangement is unique, of course. Why did he not go for a college girl? Too messy, he said. It's not my thing. Jeanette has not felt sexy in a long time. But, with Douglas, she does.
Why not a sex worker?
I like that you're a mom. It does something for me.
When the affair ends, it will have been a matter of weeks is all. Douglas will keep working as an investment banker, life unhindered. Douglas will retire to Santa Barbara, a bachelor, but he will give many widows a good time, and he will have Jeanette to thank for that. He'll ask a woman, Cindy, to move in with him, a woman who makes him laugh. He'd never met a woman who made him laugh, not really. They will go on cruises together, gambling his money, salsa dancing, and he will be happier than he ever had reason to think he could be. Not such a bad guy, Douglas. How we can improve our lives? There might be a plug that's suddenly disconnected.
After Douglas's funeral, his kids will be in his kitchen with Cindy, a woman they always found ridiculous, with her unnatural red hair, her yellow teeth, her garrulousness, and she will say to them, Your father. My god, I loved your father.
This will shock them. They don't like their father. This birthday-check-father of theirs. I'm just related to him is all, Adriana thought, all her life. This stiff-backed, inconsiderate man, roosting on his fortune.
They will hate Cindy more when she inherits the money, and she knows this. Don't worry, she tells them. I'll die soon and give it to you.
That's very nice of you, Adriana says, turning from Cindy to load the dishwasher. Who would say such a thing?
But they don't know Cindy, who was an unimportant actress for decades, who had many friends and lovers but no children. She never wanted children. She helped raise other people's children though, spraying their sandy feet off after beach trips. What little people! Inhaling the exhaust-filled air and pushing through, nonetheless. How they love life!
Can't bring it with me into the grave, she says. I feel like I knew more people than most because I wasn't stuck at home. And I'm loud. I know I'm loud. Look at me. I was not a beautiful woman. I never needed to brace myself against the tide of old age.
Jeanette, like Cindy, asks herself, does this make them a mistake, all those years, when it still ends? They succeeded in loving each other, of teaching one another, of creating a small person, Eloise, who is dramatic and daring even in play. Eloise who makes them catch flying insects with cups and release them outside on the porch. Jeanette will think twice before squashing the spider in the sink. Who am I to kill you? You didn't know this was my house. You, whose house is a screen that bends in the wind.
A friend of mine is an Occupational Therapist, and one morning she was telling me about a patient, a favorite among the staff, who was recovering from brain trauma. The patient couldn't recall the cause of the trauma, but his bike had gone missing.