The joy was what caught him and chilled him. To glimpse a three-year-old who has spied a soccer ball rolling across a busy boulevard and is speeding toward it like a war hero’s wife at an airport gate is to meet motivating animal panic as if for the first time. To act or not cannot arise as an issue when horror and its antithesis have already begun a convergence that cannot happen and unquestionably will.
David was a quarter of a block behind the boy, who had reached the grass strip between the sidewalk and the parked cars from between which he would materialize in hurtling rush-hour traffic. The woman David did not see, who would turn out to be his mother, was pacing with an infant in her arms perhaps 20 yards away, chatting with other spectators as teams of eight-year-olds thrashed their way across a chaotic ballfield. No one, except for David and the kid across the street who had kicked the errant ball, saw the delirious toddler in pursuit of that flabby prize. The afternoon was brilliant beyond any he could remember, grass and concrete alike almost audibly ignited.
He found himself laughing as it happened – a gallop, a swoop, a hook of his left arm around the little protruding belly, a pirouette to a flawless stop, a nonchalance that bore no relation to the circumstances or the thumping of his heart.
The mother had seen and was stumbling toward them, babe in arms, as David set the gaping child on his feet. David reflexively reached for the flopping infant as he had seized the boy, but the woman managed to enfold both children as she huffed and groaned like birthing them again. Shaken himself now, David resisted the impulse to touch each of the three heads. He started to resume the daily walk that had brought him into their lives.
“Thank you, sir! Thank you so much,” he heard behind him. That damned S word he was enduring in his mid-40s from adults with whom he still felt to be peers. He turned slightly as he mouthed the “No problem” he likewise hated, a borrowing from the heedless young; and he locked onto a face that was not freshly young. It belonged to one in her late 20s or so, with the honed jaw line, enviable teeth and $100 chestnut hairdo tied into a ponytail, standard package in David’s perfunctory assessment of his pass-through environment. But the brown eyes were haunted, dark-circled, of a vigilant weariness clearly not brought on by this harrowing and providential moment. They both stood for a few silent seconds, she with a light grip of the boy’s neck, until he squirmed free and she broke the spell by leveling the lecture: “You! Stay! Right! Here! Do you know what you did? You were going in the street and you know Mommy told you you never cross the street without Mommy or Daddy. Mommy would have lost Colin if this nice man wasn’t there.” The boy was oblivious. Her words brought his mother to tears. Other parents had turned from the game to watch the encounter, knowing nothing of what has precipitated it. “I’m Carol,” she said, dabbing her eyes with the heel of her hand and laughing at last, sharing the release. “I just want to know who I have to thank.”
“David Monaghan,” he replied, not extending his hand to her but letting it drop lightly on the boy’s shoulder. The innocuous gesture made her presence all the more palpable. “I was just in the right place at the right time. No heavy lifting. And besides” – sensing a fleeting opportunity to set her at ease – “he probably would have stopped on his own; he’s a sharp little guy.”
She smiled meagerly, gazed at David. He had been more or less contentedly divorced for five years and tended to dismiss the allure of women as an invitation to unwelcome complexity. He noticed that she was starkly slender, just this side of plain skinny. Her jeans and sweatshirt surely could have fit the husband. “Well. I’ll see you,” he said; and, genuflecting in front of the little boy, “Colin, you be my pal and listen to your mom, OK?” Colin nodded and David strode off. The woman watched him for a half block and then turned toward the soccer field where her eldest was playing. The frenzy of padded muddy legs and piping voices seemed to resume from stop-action.
“It was a big deal.”
The feminine voice was brittle, chopped with agitation. Instantly recognized. A weathercaster was chirping away on David’s tiny kitchen TV.
“What you did saved my son’s life. I just want to make sure . . . “
For all the tenderness he harbored toward the strangers who had occasioned his moment in the sun, his sensation was of being invaded. He groped for her name.
“Carol, I really appreciate, well, your appreciation. I didn’t mean to imply to you that this wasn’t a real serious situation. I merely . . . I’m positive anyone else would have done what I did. I feel lucky, actually. Blessed.”
It was as if she heard not a word.
“I haven’t been able to sleep these three days. I tried to tell Roger what happened and . . . He didn’t want to deal with it. Of course not. Like you, he said it probably wasn’t so terrible. Overdramatic.”
“Well, I wouldn’t . . . “
“And you know what? Fuck that.”
David barked a laugh. Her speech seemed to take on some slack.
“So I guess I’m harassing you on the telephone,” she said. “I looked your number up – you’re the only David Monaghan by any spelling in this neighborhood – and I stewed around all day and finally decided this had to be cleared up between us or I’d just go crazy. So I called, and you’re free to hang up and go on with your evening, and your life.”
He turned down the television and pulled up a seat at the kitchen table. Did he know anyone else who still had a landline wall phone? He opted for the lighthearted mode. He’d always envied friends who were smart-asses and who managed to convey the essential good will to get away with it. He thought of the rapt discussions he’d have with fellow art students, in the days before he put “graphic” before “artist” and moved on to grownup work, as his ex-wife expressed it. That late afternoon at the playground fit the true meaning of surreal, he remembered thinking as he sprinted; it was frameable. How often, still, he fell to framing what his vision presented.
“How about,” he said, “a testimonial. Like in The Wizard of Oz? Or wait, wasn’t that a medal?”
Silence. Oh God.
“David,” she said at last, “I feel like I’m giving you a hard time for being a good person. It’s just me, really. I have this picture in my mind of my little Colin running in front of a car that doesn’t stop, that doesn’t even see him …”
The halt this time didn’t trouble him. He was an ear; all that was needed, and as easy as the rescue itself.
“So,” she resumed, calm now, “the only way I was going to get this . . . sight . . . out of my head was to put you in there. I hope that doesn’t sound nuts. Another way to put it is: A big – effing – deal and nobody takes it for anything less.”
“I can manage that,” he said.
“You can manage that.”
“And you’re not going to tell me it’s not heavy lifting or whatever you called it.”
“I won’t make that mistake again.” He chuckled at the quip, but immediately wanted it back. She laughed, and he experienced an old rush, a sensation of heat in his neck and shoulders that was long forgotten by the time he and Linda pulled the plug.
“I’m praying that Colin never makes that mistake again,” she said.
“Not to worry. He’s my pal and he promised.”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m glad.”
“Well,” she said. “I’ve taken up enough of your time. I’m sure your family wonders just what kind of crank caller you’re dealing with.”
“It’s just me,” he said. “And really, I’m glad if . . . this . . . has made things better for you. Get some sleep!”
“Yes, it has and yes, I will. Yes, you have. I’ll let you go.”
“Good night, David, and thank you.”
He banged the phone against his forehead. He hadn’t closed with her name and he had no idea how to reach her.
It burst upon him that she would call him. The certainty filled him with a delicious mixture of mischief and dread.
They chose the soccer field. A night-time walk without the children was a perk for her, and the brief time the arrangement gave them allowed her to portray it as “my chance for a nice closure.” Wearing a black trench coat against the slight chill, her loose-falling hair half covering her face, she bore the look of a 1940s spy movie heroine beneath the clinical white glare of the streetlight. After some deliberation, he had settled on his usual jeans and windbreaker; this, he reminded himself, was not a date.
“Thanks for meeting me. I hope you don’t find this too weird.”
“You are a lady of endless gratitude.”
He hadn’t realized the irritation was within him until that utterance leaped out. The smile that had greeted him vanished.
“I guess I’m a lady of bad ideas, too. I’m sorry. I should let you go.”
He gathered himself, even as he questioned none of those three assertions.
“Know what?” he said. “I can be kind of an ass sometimes. I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”
She looked up at him. Her fists drove deep into her coat pockets.
Something like annoyance rose in him again. He was an unmarried man because a woman simply could not allow drift.
“I think you have gone out of your way to be gracious to me,” he said slowly, “and I really don’t want to ask for anything more from you.”
“I understand – David. I don’t mean to ask too much of you, either. We just have a few minutes anyway. I’ve got to get back. Can we walk a little? Get out of this awful light?”
She sidestepped up the slope that led to the dark interior of the playground, freeing her hands and gesturing from the waist like an usher. He followed, heart racing. She watched the ground as she turned ahead and proceeded, a discreet yard apart from him, talking as if alone.
“I keep having this dream. Asleep and awake. I’m here, I’m having a good time, I’m being a good mom, I’m bouncing Hannah in my arms, I’m cheering Robert on, I’m laughing with all the other moms, and there’s Colin. And where’s Colin?”
David searched for words to offer should she pause. He embraced an odd tranquility, as if this might be the simple closure she’d advertised.
“What keeps returning and returning and returning is this picture of my back – my back is to my son, his whole life is about to get pulled under and ground to nothing by this . . . herd of monsters, these horrible machines that don’t care who he is or how he’ll suffer, and I’m off somewhere busying myself. I’ve turned my back to him.”
Her voice was soft but steady, monotonal. There were no tears.
“Carol,” he said, “I don’t want to argue with you and I absolutely respect your feelings. But you know you’re not to blame for anything. And God damn it, you have your son. He’s fine. He’s with you just like last week. This is a nightmare, but that’s all it is. It didn’t happen.”
She stopped and faced him. “It did happen. Without you, this unbearable thing I would have had to live with happened.”
“And . . . maybe that’s why my dream doesn’t end there.”
David grinned in spite of the tremor her soliloquy sent through him. She was not smiling. Her gaze was a door that he now was to choose whether to open.
“And what, may I ask” – one more feeble stab at nonchalance – “happens next?”
She lowered her face to his chest level and spoke flatly, as if to herself.
“You stay. You stay with us. You take my son and me by the hand and we walk. And then, it’s just you and me, saying nothing, walking.”
She lifted her eyes to his again and he struggled for some answer.
“Well . . . “
Her embrace stunned him only for a moment. Automatically, as if in polite greeting, he spread his hands across the expanse of her bony back, then drew her tight to him. They held on like long-separated siblings for a full minute before their mouths met. As if commanded, he reached inside her coat and beneath her blouse to seize her surprisingly full left breast. She gasped, and pressed her belly against his erection until he finally grimaced in mild pain. “Come home with me,” he hissed, pulling away and holding her face in both hands. Silently, she took his hands in hers, released them, stretched to brush a fleeting kiss across his lips, and turned to stride into the night.
An affair with the mother of three young children, married to a surgeon who could be expected to brook no trespass, is the worst of entanglements. Or, the most congenial. David had known no women well, certainly not his former wife; and in Carol, he discovered a yearning he’d always misidentified: a need not so much to know as to be known. She wanted into his life to work out a resolution to a whim of fate that was driving her mad. He wanted to be a rescuer, again. And he wanted her. And all this theater could be contained in discreet encounters sturdily walled off by her fealty to a home that trumped any fully realized romance. She left him that night wordlessly, but she stopped and turned twice under the streetlight. Her valedictory gaze was as firm a seal to him and his own, groundless, fear for her safety on her walk back to her family. He could not remember when he had last shopped for clothes.
When she entered her house, Roger was pacing with a squalling baby and had ensconced the two brothers in their beds upstairs, as was customary when her walks started late or went long. This arrival was inordinately delayed, and his look was peevish. Her own anger in response, as the spender of a pittance of free time from duties he escaped every day, was compromised by a guilt she felt to be visible. Guilt for what? She thought, suddenly aflame with a new grievance, a resentment that this touch she had allowed herself might be begrudged. She took the baby amid a silence that was tense, and familiar.
“I ran into a friend,” she told him as they lay apart after their first night of lovemaking in months. She had pulled him against her, clawed off his pajamas, pounded his back, straw-bossed his fucking her. He was panting as he collapsed onto his pillow.
“Whoa! What got into you tonight?”
“Oh. Tonight? I don’t know. Just feeling like myself, I guess.”
“Mm. I like.” But he was already detaching, welcoming sleep, as she’d long since become accustomed to sensing.
“So,” he yawned. “A friend, you say.”
“Yes. Friend of Colin’s and mine. A pal.”
“A pal? Gal pal? Guy pal?”
“Does it matter?”
“Why should it matter?”
“Yeah. Why should it?”
The bed creaked as he rolled onto his side, facing away from her. Her voice, softer, broke the lull.
“A very nice man,” she said, “who went out of his way.”
“Mm.” Drowsiness was near claiming him.
“Maybe you should meet him.”
“That’s OK. Really.”
She gazed upward into the star shower of passing headlights on the ceiling. She said nothing until she heard his steady breathing.
“OK,” she whispered. “OK is what this is. OK is what this is. He will meet me at the playground, and he will take me by the hand into the dark and he will fuck me, and then we will go to where he lives and we will fuck again, and only then will he send me home to my children to make sure everyone is safe, and he will wait for me to come back to him and tell him.”