He spent much of the morning drinking coffee and staring out the window at his neighbors hurrying down the street to catch their trains. After a time the commuters thinned to a younger and more casually-dressed trickle—the temps, contract employees, and freelancer writers and artists who gnawed at the edges of the corporate world in the big city twenty miles to the north. These mingled briefly with the kids going in the other direction, up the hill to the elementary school. Finally the street was quiet, sparrows pecking the winter-bitten lawns. It wasn’t yet time for the solitary dog walker, the boxy postal truck. The weathered houses stretched down into the valley as far as Benjamin could see, beneath a sky the color of milk.
He walked through the empty rooms of his house and stepped out onto his back stoop, staring into Judy’s yard. Trying not to think too much about what he was doing, he hurried across the asphalt path separating their houses and up her back steps. His key still worked and a second later he was moving through her kitchen. It was so quiet he could hear each succulent tick of the old clock on the wall above the sink. He stepped around a scatter of toys in the living room and climbed slowly up the stairs, his heart pounding. It was his vague idea to leave a message, a sign, something small whose significance only she would recognize. As he stepped off the upstairs landing and turned into the narrow corridor that connected the bedrooms Judy came out of the bathroom, wearing a t-shirt and pair of pink cotton underpants, wiping her nose with a tissue. Her red hair was tied back in a fraying ponytail and her face was blotchy. All she had to do was turn her head slightly to the left to see him, frozen there like a deer, one foot raised. Instead, she went to the right, down the hall and into the guest bedroom. He had a partial line of sight into the room and watched her lie down on the bed and pull a quilt over herself. She rolled out of sight. A moment later her hands reached out for her phone, setting the alarm. He thought suddenly of his own phone and reached into his pocket to mute it. When he looked back, Judy had rolled out of sight again. The wind picked up outside and he heard the scrape of tree branches against the window of the twins’ room, just to his left.
Placing his feet carefully, he moved down the hallway until he stood outside the guest bedroom. Judy lay under the quilt, tissues and magazines spilling from the slope of her body. She was asleep, her phone clenched tightly in her hand. She had pale red hair, freckles, a soft, small-breasted body. As he watched, she turned over, onto her back, the fist that held the phone clenched above her head, the other splayed out on the bedspread, the tissue now fallen on the pillow. He sank down into a crouch, leaning against the doorjamb, feeling the insistent pressure of time and dread. He couldn’t tell if she was sick or if she’d been crying. She’d know he was leaving today, of course. Looking out her own window, she would have watched the “For Sale” sign go up, would have understood that his wife and son were nowhere to be seen. Almost no one on the block spoke to her, from what he had heard, any more than they spoke to him. The husbands who weren’t talking to him were jealous, although they wouldn’t admit it. The wives were offended because Judy and he had gone so long undetected—their collective knowingness was affronted.
Rising from his crouch, he walked into the room and sat down at the small desk near the window. Her familiar everyday clothes—her jeans and a cotton blouse—hung over the back of the chair. He hadn’t been in the room in months and it was as if he’d stepped into a memory of it—the scarred cherrywood dresser, the boxes of quilting samples stacked in the corner. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped together, and stared at her face, at her tangled hair. He had to look hard to discern her breathing. He imagined, for a second, that she was dead, and immediately felt the silence in the house as cubic density, as if he were underwater.
What was she doing home? She should have been at the library, where she had taken a part-time job at the front desk. He had gone in there, just the week before, grabbed a book from the shelves—he had no idea of its title—and stood in line, waiting his turn. Judy glanced up and saw him, finished checking out the person she was waiting on and then whispered something to another librarian, who immediately took her place. When Benjamin arrived at the counter, the woman stamped his book and pushed it back without looking at him. He left it on the counter and walked away.
Judy slept on, her mouth slightly open, breathing more deeply now. He remembered the feeling he’d had when he began to realize—at a parents’ meeting at the preschool and then at a neighborhood Halloween party—that she was watching him. He’d look up from a conversation and catch her eye just moving away. Staring at her now, he imagined her pupils flaring as she dreamed, like guttering candles behind the shutters of her eyelids.
After his wife and son moved out, Benjamin went on extended mental health leave from the large pharmaceutical corporation where he worked. He had recently tried to return, but there had been many lay-offs since he had gone on leave and his new manager seemed uncertain who he was. After consulting with HR, she suggested he work from home for the time being. He was connected to the office by a program that sent an IM to his co-workers informing them that he was away from his desk if his cursor hadn’t moved for ten minutes, but Benjamin had solved this problem by rigging up his son’s bobble bird to peck at the keyboard intermittently.
He heard movement and turned his head to see the twins, in their pajamas, standing at the door to the room, their cowlicks sticking up in small sheaves. They were malleable blonde boys, a year away from kindergarten. He stood quickly, holding a finger to his lips, and walked over to them. They stared up at him with runny noses. Putting his hands on their shoulders, he ushered them back down the hallway and into their room, where they sat down on one bed and he on another.
“What are you guys doing here?” he whispered. “Aren’t you supposed to be at school?”
“We’re sick,” The slightly smaller twin said. “Is Jared here?
“He’s with his mom. I think maybe you guys should get back in bed and get some rest.”
“We were in bed,” the other twin said. “Why are you here?”
“I wanted to see your mom,” Benjamin said. “But she’s asleep.”
“My dad says you caused a problem in our home.”
“Not anymore,” Benjamin said.
“I think you should leave.”
Benjamin realized that the boy was on the verge of tears.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said.
“Why should I be?” the boy replied, and then began crying. Just as he did, Judy’s phone alarm began chirping. Benjamin walked to the door of the twins’ room and looked down the hall. With the same partial view into the guest room, he watched as she swung her legs over the side of the bed and pressed the palms of her hands against her face.
“Oh,” she said.
She pushed herself up and quickly picked up the quilt, folding it and replacing it at the foot of the bed. She put on the jeans that had been hanging over the back of the desk chair. She stared at herself in the mirror above the dresser, a small red-haired woman standing in her shadowy guest bedroom, then put on the cotton blouse over her t-shirt. It was a checked, short-sleeved blouse, the kind where the sleeves ended in white cuffs. She once told him that when she still lived in the city, she’d had a long-running affair with a Danish merchant marine captain, who would call her whenever he was in town and she would drop what she was doing and go and fuck him in whatever hotel he was in, no matter who her boyfriend was at the time. When she began dating the man who would become her husband, she went to the sailor and told him that they could no longer see each other, and the man pushed her down on the hotel bed and raped her.
The smaller twin joined Benjamin at the door and they watched as Judy stood in front of the mirror and undid her ponytail, twisted her hair between her fists, and then redid it, all the time staring at herself intently.
“She’s pretty,” the twin said.
Down in the kitchen, the old clock ticked, carving out a distinct space between each second. Benjamin stepped out into the hallway and Judy saw him as she turned away from the mirror. She put her hand to her mouth and he began to feel the fabric of reality growing thin. It was difficult to describe this feeling, which was at once exquisite and very sad. It was like being the only person on a vast plain, staring up into a high blue sky that was lit from behind by a pale sun. He did his best to hang on to the sound of the clock, to his presence, to her presence, to the presence of the world.