after Chekhov

Talk around the island said a new man, a Navy commander on leave, was poking around the docks, looking for a fishing boat. Genie Ratliff, who had already been two weeks on Islamorada and was beginning to fancy herself a local, kept an eye out for him. Sitting at Wahoo’s, eating blackened Mahi Mahi, she saw him—it must be him—walking his Chinese pug out on the boardwalk and looking down toward the water, probably at the long white fish that lounged beneath the pilings.

    She kept seeing him after that, once at the movie theater two islands over, twice again at Wahoo’s, a few times standing on the beach with the dog. He was always alone, and although everyone was talking about him, she never saw anyone talking to him. Even standing on the beach, unobserved so far as he probably knew, he stood straighter than any man she had ever seen, his shoulders wide and his chest pushed out, out of habit she thought, which didn’t make him any less handsome for it.

    There was no woman with him so far as she could tell, though he did not seem lonely. He must be a man who did not mind being alone, who sought after solitude. She imagined him on the bridge of some ship at night, the captain asleep in his quarters. His would be a quiet bridge, certainly, and no one would talk of feelings.

    She was fleeing talk of feelings. Her husband Leslie, a principal at a private Christian school near West Palm Beach, was always taking her emotional temperature, and then he would want to pray together about whatever he could wring out of her. She was not yet thirty but already he had made her to feel like a very old woman, and the pleasure he took from anything motherly she did for their two small children—Anna, five, and Les Jr., two—seemed as far removed from the life of the body as anything she could imagine.

    She was coming into her body. She was as beautiful as she had ever been, and she was beginning to know that she was. Here, on the island, she knew she could have the men who looked her over, and it felt good to her, this knowledge. She felt like she was on the edge of something, some new kind of life that had been deprived her.

    Twice, already, she had fooled around on Leslie. Once in Honolulu, on a trip like this one, working on a Budget Travel guidebook, with an older man she met at the hotel bar. She was not an experienced drinker—her family and Leslie’s were independent Baptists from South Carolina, and so teetotalers—so even though she was only into her third Scotch and water, and more water than Scotch, she was feeling it, the pleasant thumping of the drink throughout her. He said his name was Alvin, “But you can call me Al,” he said, and his was Texas talk, big, all swagger, drawl, and gesture. She let him touch first her shoulder, then her leg, at the bar, and then, in the hotel Jacuzzi, she let him put his hands between her legs and kiss and touch her until she came, although she did not go up to his room like he wanted her to do, and she was surprised and a little frightened at how he pressed the issue. Still, upstairs in her own room and away from him, all he was was what he had been for her in the Jacuzzi, and she knew this was something she could do again.

    The second time was last March in Cozumel, the hotel a cheap tourist trap that catered to college students on Spring Break, and she was pleased to know that she was wanted as soon as she set foot in the bar built to look like a Tiki hut, where the girls lay on the table, and the bartenders poured shots into their navels, and the boys leaned down into their long tan stomachs and drank. She had never known this kind of living, but now she wanted to try it, so she hoisted herself up onto the table, and watched the college boys fight over her, and found it pleasing that she could choose—“You there,” she said, “the pretty one”—and then there were more of them, their faces stubbly or clean-shaven against the middle of her, a night of this, and dancing, and then the choosing—choice itself an intoxicating novelty—and the trip upstairs with lean, shapely David, and all they did there, which she had lately been replaying in her mind as often as she wanted, which was often.

    And then, a Thursday evening, she went out onto the beach at dusk to walk and watch the sky turn orange, then pink, then purple, then black, and the Navy commander came out onto the beach with his dog, and surely he was Annapolis, surely well-off, money in Blue Chips, and alone here, and surely married, and surely worldly enough . . . And these were the Keys, after all, although the whole time she had been here she had heard plenty of talk about wild nights on this beach or in the hotel rooms behind her, of secret trysting places and so on, but the talk was idle so far as she could tell, it was the talk of old women whose best days were behind them, or of young women whose best material came from books and movies, because mostly not much happened in the world, or not as much as people liked to think happened to other people.

    She found herself whistling, then, not at the man, but at the Chinese pug, and when the dog came over, she reached down to pet it, but it growled at her. She snapped her fingers at it.

    “He doesn’t bite,” the Navy man said. He was holding a Ziploc bag full of dog treats.

    “May I give him one?” she said, and he gave her a green one shaped like a bone, and she gave it to the dog, and heard herself say: “Have you been on the island long?”

    “Three days,” he said.

    “Which is how long I have left to stay,” she said. For awhile, they looked out at the water. “Tell you the truth, it’s boring here,” she said. She didn’t know why she said it when it wasn’t true.

    “It’s not,” he said, but not aggressively. Softly. The sky, now, was truly amazing, the last light stopping not at the water but at the bottom of the shallows below, because of the angle of the light and the clarity of the water, and it was not hard to think that in some ways it was the edge of the world. “Forgive me,” he said.

    “I’m sure it’s just you spend too much time around sailors,” she said, as though she had known plenty of them.

    “Sailors,” he said, as though the word was unfamiliar on his lips—did they call themselves sailors?, or was that the word officers called the enlisted men?, or what were the words they used?, when it came to these matters, she was lost—and she admired the square of his jaw when he smiled. Leslie’s face was round.

    They stood quietly until the sun went down. Then they were walking. It was because of the dog, or rather it was because the dog gave them a reason. He asked her how many sailors she had known, and she asked him how many Budget Travel correspondents he had known, and they went on like that for awhile, asking questions and giving no answers, brightly, until he was telling her that, sure, he liked being an XO, and she said, “Anyone would,” and he said not anyone, many people didn’t like it, chafed at it, wanted their own ship, and that he was lucky because he had been under the command of good men, friends, really, and that he didn’t itch for action like many men he knew, even though it was said to be the ticket up. “It seems you’ve moved up anyway,” she said. He couldn’t have been more than forty years old—“Thirty-six,” he said—and she did not say it must be because he was tall and handsome and well-spoken, with that square jaw and that smile. Men responded to the same things women responded to, gave power to other men who were attractive in the ways he was.

    And then she was telling him about her mother, who handmade the dresses she was made to wear growing up—“Hideous, really,” she said, “floral prints, usually, and no shape to them at all, and never slacks, only these sack dresses, which got worse and worse the older we got”—her sisters and her, she meant, and he asked about them, and her oldest sister Flora was his favorite already, he said. He liked the way Flora sneaked around with the boys who lived on the dirt road, how she came in through the upstairs window by way of the roof, and: “How did she get up on the roof?” Genie told him about how her father had measured wrong when he was building it, didn’t account for the upslope of the hill behind their house, “A happy accident,” she said, “because you could sit up there in the cool of night, or if you just needed to get out of the house,” and there, a vista, the farmland spreading out around them, and the red clay trenches between the rows, “so much like the ocean, I’m noticing,” she said. She told him her name was Genie, and he told her his first name was Everett, “but it’s not a name I like,” he said. “It’s not a name that suits a man, so I go by my middle name, James.” If he had a wife, he did not mention her, and she did not say anything about Leslie, but only because he hadn’t come up in the conversation.

    That evening, in her hotel room, she thought about him—James, Everett James. No doubt she would see him again tomorrow. He would find her; she wouldn’t have to look for him. She meant to call Leslie, to check in and check on the children, but it was ten o’clock, and he liked to be asleep by eight, since he was up by four to prepare for the school day and to pray and read his Oswald Chambers and all the things she had tried to do along with him their first year of marriage, but which she couldn’t, not at four o’clock, although she did remember with fondness the times she had, the dark and the quiet and the two of them holding hands the way they seldom did now, and the warmth of his body as she leaned into him . . . And of course it could be that he was awake now, waiting for her to call—that would be like him, would be the kind of thing he would do—and she wished, if he were waiting up, that he would be watching television, something late night, some comedian doing a monologue, wished that Leslie would be laughing at something that he thought he should not be laughing about, that he would feel that freedom, there and alone, without worrying about what she would think of him for laughing the way any other person would laugh.

    She did not call. Instead, she turned on the television and found a comedian on a cable channel, and she listened to his monologue and knew that his jokes were funny but did not find in herself any reason to laugh at them. She thought of James and how she had felt walking alongside him, and of course he was married, and of course he had traveled the world, the XO, Annapolis, sharp in the uniform. These were not things she knew about, but what came to her mind was Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, Macao, Okinawa. Dots on the map, but now all of them full with James and with women of all kinds, and which kind did he prefer? She got up from the bed and stood in her underwear and looked at herself in the mirror, and admired her own shape, and remembered what it was like when she was seventeen and Leslie called to ask her to be his date to the junior-senior banquet—a banquet, because there was no dancing at their Baptist school, so no prom—and after Leslie’s phone call she stood like she was standing now, in front of the mirror in her underwear, but not with the pleasure she felt now, looking at herself. That girl was fat in the wrong places, there were skin problems, moles. What did that girl look like? She couldn’t remember anymore. Maybe not so different from the way she looked now as she might have thought. How much of her life had she thrown away on account of her own thoughts?

Two days passed. It was Saturday. Lunchtime he was waiting for her at Wahoo’s. She got the table beside his, but then moved to his table, and he asked about her father, and she told him the received story about her father, the one that came from her mother, which was that he had loved her more than anything in the world, that when he died, when she was eight—combine accident in his own fields, foggy rural roads, her mother dragging his body across the field and somehow getting him into the back seat, the family car stuck behind a tractor on the rural road, and no way to safely use the passing lane; maybe he would’ve made it if they had lived near a hospital—anyway, that when he died, the last words on his lips were of her: “Tell my Genie . . .”

    “But, really, my mother was a liar,” she said. She never talked to Leslie this way. James lowered his head a little. The way he listened, without probing, opened things up. Genie lowered her voice a little. Why did it matter? She would never see any of the people in the restaurant again. But still she lowered her voice. “My mother had a saying: If you can’t be nice, at least have the decency to be vague. And other times she lied flat out when it suited her idea of nice. I was there at the hospital when her mother died, and by then my mother hadn’t been to church for ten years and never went again. But her mother said, ‘Give me some peace before I go,’ and my mother said, ‘Jesus is the dearest thing to me, mother,’ and, ‘I’ve made my peace with God; I’ve prayed, and he’s heard my prayer,’ and she promised her straying days were over. So I don’t know anything about my father, James. For all I know, he wanted a son and died of grief for having me.”

    “I have two daughters,” James said. “No father dies of grief for having a daughter.”

    “Perhaps,” Genie said. She was saying too much. Outside it began to drizzle.

    “Did you ever think of chalking it up to compassion?” James said.

    “The lies?”

    “Her kindness,” James said. “Her decency.”

    “So you have daughters,” Genie said. “You’re divorced?”

    “I’m married,” he said. “Eleven years, to Valeria.”

    For some reason, this thrilled her.

    “You have children, too?” he said. Texas Al had not asked questions like these. David the boy, neither. And her mother was not in any way noble.

    “Anna and Les,” she said, leaving off the Jr., somehow knowing he wouldn’t press, anyway.

    The drizzle turned to rain. Briefly, she considered how easy it must be for him to say kind things. She pictured him in Rio, in Dubai, listening the way he was listening, but to some Brazilian woman, some wealthy Arab businesswoman. Surely it was cultivated. She needed to know that she knew he was practiced.

    “I’m afraid of lightning,” he said, and reached his right hand across the table and put it on her left. “This isn’t that kind of rain, though, and would you like to take a walk under the umbrella?” She found herself rising with him, her right hand cupping his for a moment, so she was holding his hand between hers, and then she let herself look at him for a moment, stand and cup his hand and forget that there were people in the restaurant who believed they knew something about her, and now perhaps that they knew something new, and she didn’t mind giving them something to talk about to whomever they talked to, the same way they had talked to her when she had first come to the island two and a half weeks ago, which seemed, now, holding his hand and looking at him, like two months ago, or two years.

    He took his umbrella from the rack at the front of the restaurant and they waited for the cars to pass, then crossed the street on foot and made their way to the beach, and he suggested they take off their shoes and walk on the wet sand in their bare feet. She thought he must be kind to his wife and not talk about the things that, anyway, surely she knew went on. They would be separated for months at a time when he was at sea, and she was learning how people made arrangements, sometimes without saying anything about them. Perhaps his wife had lovers, too.

    They began to walk in their bare feet. A week earlier she had walked the same beach, in the rain, without an umbrella, she didn’t mind, and the sand was the same consistency, the same wet. But now, walking with him, under the umbrella, she was aware of the skin on the bottom of her feet, her awareness heightened in a way she had not known before in her life, and she felt the cold wet rain where it hit her arms when she swung them outside the shadow of the umbrella, and she felt his skin brushing hers, his arm and her arm, and she felt her whole body, the weight of her breasts, and the muscles in her face, and between her legs. And she felt the walking, the way the blood pumped through her, and the breath in her lungs. They were walking briskly, not like lovers, but like people enjoying a brisk walk. She did not struggle to keep up with him, but if he had walked any faster she might have lost her breath. But her breaths were deep. She thought of the word oxygen, and then there were thoughts of red blood cells and arteries. A phrase from junior high life science: Capillary action.

    She stopped him, then. Put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around. Leaned up and kissed him on the mouth, under the umbrella. Pressed her lips to his and kissed him hard, and he put his hand to the small of her back. “My room . . .” she said, meaning to say that it was nearby, but then he had taken her hand in his, and they were walking in the direction of her hotel. “Our shoes,” she said, and hoped he would say leave the shoes, he would buy them new shoes, but then she worried he would want to retrieve them, so she said, “Let’s leave the shoes. I’d like to buy you new shoes.”

    She wondered briefly about the dog, and asked, and learned that the dog was waiting in his room, that the room was air conditioned, that there was food, and that he left the television on children’s shows, which the dog liked, and this pleased her. She unlocked her room, and they walked in barefoot, and he was careful to step over the carpet at the threshold and onto the tile of the bathroom, so he didn’t track sand on the carpet.

    She followed him, and turned on the water in the bathtub, and she wondered if he would take her foot in his hand and rinse her feet. She thought of Leslie, the way he would sometimes look at her when she was undressing, and how something in him sometimes seemed unable to act on whatever she stirred within him. She always had to give Leslie some signal. He would wait for her signal. And he would not come into the bathroom when she was using the toilet, even though she had no qualms about walking in on him, and even though they only had one bathroom.

    She put her feet under the water and looked at James, and he sat on the edge of the bathtub next to her and put his hands on her feet without her asking him, and he rinsed away the sand from them, and then he was facing her, her feet in his hands under the water, and one of his feet in the water next to hers, so their legs were touching.

    She thought of her husband, and knew she was betraying him. This feeling had not come to her with the boy or the Texan, but the Navy man filled the room in the way they had not. Where before she had felt only excitement, now she felt like she was breaching something—she tried to push the word promises from her mind—and then she was in South Carolina, in the summer heat, beneath a tent, a gathering of all girls, and a woman—not a preacher; women were not preachers—but a woman who had been a missionary’s wife in South America, whose husband had piloted a yellow plane, had been killed on the narrow strip of sand along the river where he had landed the plane while trying to bring the Gospel to a lost Amazon tribe said to be cannibals, “And purity,” the missionary’s wife was saying, “purity unto the Lord,” amidst surprisingly frank talk about the passions men could arouse in women, talk like Genie had never known before, My goodness, I must have been seven or eight years old!, and then the call to purity, to “passion and purity, my beauties,” all of the girls under the tent standing, then, and walking forward, crowding around the missionary’s wife at the front of the tent, and she stepping down from the wooden platform, coming down to their level, and everyone holding hands together and singing, “You’re my brother, you’re my sister, so take me by the hand . . .”

    James put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Did I lose you?,” and, yes, she was defective. She considered the women of his she had been imagining. Lisbon, Rio, Dubai. His wife, Valeria, dark, certainly, with jet black hair and piercing dark brown eyes. A slightly older woman with a stomach like a washboard, who spoke three languages, who had not spent her childhood summers beneath tents in South Carolina.

    How would a woman like that hold her head, her shoulders, her body? Who taught a woman to be a woman like that? What kind of life was possible for a woman like that?

    James took one of the towels from the rack above the toilet and laid it on the floor, and then he took another, and swung her legs out over the floor, and dried her calves and her feet with the towel. He was crouching down now, not kneeling, but crouching, the weight of his body balanced on the balls of his feet. He was looking up at her, not smiling exactly. Expectant might be a better word for what it was, and not expectant in the way she might expect from Leslie, who carried his worries with him wherever he went, including their bed. This James was fully present. She considered that he did not hold any thought in his head at the moment except for her. Perhaps it was not true, but whether it was or was not, the way he crouched at her feet, drying her legs with the hotel towel, looking up at her, he made her feel as though he did not hold anything but her.

    Perhaps this was how to be true to whatever person you were with, in whatever moment you were with them—to put aside anything but the present, and to know enough to enjoy it, and this, she decided, was how she would live her next few moments, with this man who made her feel as though, in the here and now, she was all there was.

    The next day they sat on stools in a cabana bar open to the water, the Chinese pug at their feet, and she said, “It’s good that I’m leaving,” and he did not say anything, which she took as his way of disagreeing, or at least she wanted to believe that he disagreed.

    It occurred to her that she had not met up the next day with the boy or the Texan. She had nothing to say to them, and though she did not have anything in particular to say to James, she felt as though there was much that had passed between them, and that there was no need to give words to any of it, that sitting next to him was enough.

    They sat until it grew dark, their legs touching, and then he put his arms around her, and she pushed her bar stool next to his, and he turned his body so that she could lean the weight of her body back against him. He held her for awhile and kissed her neck and put his face in her hair, and she was sure to hold the moment close and hold other moments from the past and future away from her.

At home in West Palm Beach, Leslie rose early and went to work early and came home early to cook dinner and spend time with the children, and then he went to bed early. When he asked her, now, how she was doing—how she was really doing—she said she was really fine, she thanked him, she kissed him on the cheek, she helped him chop the vegetables and put them into the Crockpot with the roast and the sickly smell of it filled the kitchen.

    Sometimes, standing with him in the kitchen when the children were already asleep, in the hour before he went to bed, his hands in the dishwater and hers on the dishtowel, drying the plates and the silverware, she found that she really was fine, that she could allow him to be the man with his hands in the dishwater rather than the man who rose at four in the morning to pray and read Oswald Chambers, and that she could herself be the woman who helped him chop the vegetables rather than the woman whose father built the house with the roof you could climb upon, or the sister who worried the eyes of God watched her keep secret Flora’s nightly escapes, or the daughter at the tent meeting giving herself to the words of the missionary’s wife who lost her husband near the yellow plane.

    She began to do things for Leslie that Leslie had mostly done for her without her noticing. Often before she woke, he would run their clothes through the washer and put them in the dryer and then take them out later in the evening when he arrived home from the school, and press the dress shirts and put it all away. Other women she knew complained about their husbands, that they did not help with the laundry or dusting or vacuuming. Perhaps they grilled steaks. Leslie did not grill steaks. One Thursday morning she took the children to the day care, then bought two choice cuts of filet mignon, and marinated them in the afternoon, and grilled them so they were ready to eat when he walked in the door.

    The minister who married them required six premarital counseling sessions of them, and she remembered that he told her that the feeling of love would fade, that it was chemical, that this was the natural way of things. When the feeling of love fades, he said, service is the pathway to rekindling it. Certainly Leslie was responding to the things she was doing for him. In the evenings, after the children were asleep, he wanted to make love more often rather than going to bed early. He left notes for her around the house, handwritten notes thanking her for all sorts of favors real and perceived, and pledging undying love and all the sorts of things she knew should move her heart with love toward him.

    In time, she thought, the Navy man would recede in her memory, and perhaps he would only come to her half-formed in dreams, the way her grandparents sometimes did, or old boyfriends, or people she must have known when she was very young, in kindergarten or the first grade. She joined the women’s group at the church and participated in things she had avoided her entire adult life, such as making pies for auctions to send high schoolers to third world countries, or canned food drives, or something called the Angel Tree, meant to make Christmas merry for the children of prison inmates by filling their stocking with possessions.

    But another month passed, and Cmdr. Everett James was as clear in her memory as if he had held her in the cabana bar only the day before. If possible, he drew into sharper focus than he had even in the days she had spent with him in the Keys. When she heard the voices of her children crying for her or for Leslie in the night, or when she saw a Soviet or Chinese military procession on the television, or felt the wind off the Atlantic when she took the trash to the curbside, he would rise up in memory: their feet wet and sandy, his hands on her legs in the bathtub, the Chinese pug watching children’s television shows in his hotel room. The thought of him would fill her, and gradually she began to allow herself to believe that what had happened was not simply an episode from the past, not simply a dalliance, but instead a harbinger, an omen, an opening out onto possibility. She would see a tall, fit man in the grocery store picking apples, and for a moment she would allow herself to think it could be him.

    She wanted to talk about him, but to whom could she speak of him? Not to Leslie, certainly, nor to the people she knew from his work and their church, the people they called their friends. What would she say, anyway, if she was able? Had she been in love, on Islamorada? And if not love, what then? Was there anything learned, anything that she could take from those days and bring back to her old life?

    She thought of her mother when she found herself speaking in vague terms about love, about men and women, about the flash and flower of romance, and Leslie, for his part, took her to mean that she was talking about him and her. She found that he was standing straighter, slumping less often in his chair, speaking more about himself at the dinner table. Perhaps there were things old women knew that young women needed to grow into knowledge of, and perhaps James was right to say that her mother was kind rather than selfish and petty, her lies and her omissions.

    One night after a planning meeting for the Angel Tree, she leaned over to Doris Jones, wife of the man who coached the soccer team at Leslie’s school—it was late, and they had been joking as coarsely as any of the church women ever joked, about the prisoners and the hunger they must feel for women, and anyway she was tired, and Doris had used the word “dreamy,” but only in the abstract, not about any particular prisoner—and Genie said, “If you only could have seen this Navy commander I met in the Keys.”

    It was as if Doris didn’t hear what she said, but of course she heard, because she walked away, briskly, as though a man were following her in a parking lot, and got into her Plymouth Horizon, and started it, and drove away without saying another word.

    What if, Genie wondered, I got into my own car and drove away?

He had sent a courier to deliver his letter, a young man in white bell bottoms who stood straight as he did. When she answered the door, the young man said her name, and she answered to it, and he handed her the letter. She said, “What is this?” and the young man said, “I don’t know, ma’am,” and then he turned and marched toward the street and stepped into a Lincoln Town Car that could not possibly have been his own, and drove away.

    Dear Genie, it said, and her blood raced at what came next. He was no longer to sea. He would be stateside, administrative from now on, and he didn’t mind. He wanted it. He had asked for it. He wanted her if she wanted him, and here was how. The phone number of a travel agent who could make the arrangements. An airport Hilton in the District of Columbia. His home address, but please, love . . . And of course, when he gave her his address, he meant it as a trust, and of course she would no more visit him there than he would send a letter by post, where Leslie could intercept it. And that word: Love.

    She called the travel agent and made the arrangements, and told Leslie about trouble at Budget Travel. The D.C. job that ought to have been hers. “Someone’s cousin,” she said, “always someone’s cousin, or someone who went to school with someone,” and this, of course, was how she had come into the assignments she had, too. There was trouble to be straightened out, fact checking, certainly trips to the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Museum.

    “The Hope Diamond,” Leslie said. “Friendship Seven. The Lunar Module . . .”

    When he said it, some part of her wanted to offer to take him with her. She found that when she thought the words she needed to say to convince him to take a few days away from the school, she could see herself at the museum with him, walking the halls with him, holding his hand as if he were her child, and she could see him rushing ahead, skipping almost, the way he did when they went to see the Atlanta Braves play a Spring Training game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Municipal Stadium, and they were late, and he was afraid he might miss an inning of Jim Kaat. But she also could see him at the Fat Man and Little Boy exhibit, see him lecturing some Japanese tourists about how it was necessary to drop the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to avoid the land invasion, how it was not just American lives that were saved, but Japanese lives, too, if you considered the projected net casualties.

    “ . . . the originals,” he was saying, “were sure enough carried in the party of Lewis and Clark.” And certainly he had vacation days. She could not recall that he had ever used a vacation day. She could go with him and forget about the Navy man, take some of the money she had squirreled away from her work, and, to keep up the appearance of working, slip away here and there on pretense of writing things down . . . And still Leslie was yammering dumbly. She watched him talk and hoped to see something new in him, but everything was the same as it always had been.

    On the appointed day, Leslie drove her to the airport at six in the morning, and kissed her on the forehead and said, “Are you all right?” The truth was that there was no way for her to gauge what the truth was, and she said, “Fine,” and started out the passenger door.

    He grabbed her by the arm—not roughly, but it was still grabbing—and he said, “Something is wrong, Genie. I should see you off at the terminal. Maybe we can talk there. Talk for a few minutes before the flight leaves. Or anything. I want to listen to you.”

    He let go of her arm and waited. She patted him on the knee. She felt the pillow of air between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. She went out and took her things and did not look back at him before she went through the sliding doors and into the terminal.

    James met her at the airport in his dress uniform and greeted her by her last name and carried her bags as though the admiral had sent him, and she looked down at herself, at her pantsuit, and him in his dress uniform, and wondered that any charade were necessary at all, that anyone would look at him and look at her and believe that there could be anything between them, on account of their clothes.

    In the Lincoln Town Car, though, he took her face in his hands and kissed her fiercely, and took her directly to the elevator at the airport Hilton, and there in the room he was the lover home from five years at war, and never before had she thought such a thing, and never before had she considered thinking about such a thing—certainly never when she returned home to Leslie.

    He presented her with a new dress, charcoal gray, and cut an inch above the knees. It was late in the evening, then, too late for restaurants to be open, and he had arranged for a room in the closed dining room downstairs, and wine and soft lighting and soft music. She had never owned a dress so fine. He poured her a glass of wine, and poured one for himself and drained it quickly, without toasting, and his face flushed, and he poured another. She looked down at herself and the dress, and then across the table from him, and she said, “We are beautiful.”

    Now he was leaned back in his chair a little, this posture new on her. “You,” he said, and now he raised his glass, and she raised hers, and they clinked them together and both of them drank. There were children to think about, and she did think about them.

    “My father worked for the railroad,” he said. “He would leave for three days and come back with packets of orange marmalade.”

    She began to cry. He was slow to reach across the table, and then he moved his chair around the table and beside her and held her.

    “How?” she said. “How? How?”

    Never before had she known options, though she felt like what was left to do had been marked on her before she was born.

Kyle Minor is author of In the Devil's Territory (Dzanc Books, November 2008) and editor of The Other Chekhov (New American Press, 2008.) His recent work appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2008 (Houghton Mifflin), Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers (Random House, 2006), Surreal South (Press 53, 2007), The Southern Review, and The Gettysburg Review.

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Kyle Minor

The Navy Man