Ben Kegan
November

    It was late November and this particular afternoon brought with it the sharp hint of the approaching winter. Diane's voice was shrill and hard to understand over the phone. She said Danny had stormed out of their house, and that she was afraid this time he might not come back. Except for a young girl with two children and a stroller, Jeff was alone on the train. The evening rush of lawyers and stockbrokers had yet to arrive, and Jeff felt out of place. In his mind he rehearsed what he would say to Diane, words of sympathy and gentle understanding. His own divorce was not so long ago, and Jeff felt that this gave him a privilege of understanding earned through experience.

    In the four short blocks from the train station to Diane's front door, Jeff's mind caught itself on the thought of the changing seasons. It would not be autumn much longer. Although brittle leaves still stretched across the pavement, it was apparent the season's coy winds were losing their patience. The air was stiff and the pending dusk bit at Jeff's fingertips.

    Jeff stood hesitantly at Diane's front door. He was unsure whether to ring the doorbell or just enter. Although he and Diane talked frequently, he had not been to her and Danny's house since a New Year's Eve party almost two years ago. The house, a sturdy suburban estate with a manicured lawn and arching doorway, felt smaller now, less significant. That New Year's he and Diane stood at her doorway sharing his cigarettes while the gentle sounds of clinking glasses, bursts of laughter, and the patterning of footsteps seeped outside to accompany their conversation. Diane did not smoke, but Jeff did, and she took deep drags of his cigarettes. In between his breaths she talked about the increasing frequency of her arguments with Danny. Adam, their youngest son, was a senior in high school at the time and Danny wanted to sell their house and move into a loft in the city after Adam left for college. Diane wanted to stay. Jeff considered himself a thoughtful talker. When Diane asked Jeff about his divorce, finalized only a few weeks prior, he was careful to appear collected instead of resentful. There was a hesitance in the way Diane approached Jeff's failed marriage, not because the subject felt overtly personal, but because the reality of divorce was something Diane feared. The two of them stood outside for close to an hour, passing Jeff's cigarettes between them. They missed the Times Square ball dropping on the television set and were only reminded of midnight by the cacophony of counting voices that spilled past Diane's mahogany door. When she stopped talking about Danny, when her guests finished counting, and when they smoked Jeff's last cigarette, they kissed. Their lips were cold and their breath held the sting of tobacco, but it was not without passion. Even then, so many years after dating in college, it was familiar.

   

    Diane sat on the couch with the television on. Except for the gentle glow of a tabletop lamp most of the lights in the house were off.

    "Jeff, you came," Diane said.

    "I knocked but you must not have heard me, so I let myself in."

    "Of course, you don't need to be a stranger," Diane sighed.

    Diane had a comfortable elegance about her, a quality that seemed to reveal itself more as she matured. She wore a loose sweater with a draping neckline. Diane had a habit of wearing delicate cottons that instantly brought a touch of warmth when brushed against another's skin and left him feeling a chill when the soft threads left.

    Jeff removed his jacket and placed it across the back of an overstuffed armchair. He took a seat for a moment on the chair before getting up again and settling on the sofa next to Diane. The couch was large, with three leather cushions that dipped where the seams met. The leather was cool at first, but quickly warmed as Jeff sank into the corner. A cashmere throw lay upon Diane's knees. Jeff slid towards her, the leather making a loud creak, and placed his hand on the warm blanket, just above Diane's knee.

    After a pause Jeff asked, "Danny isn't back? He hasn't called?" Jeff knew Danny was gone. There was no car in the driveway, and he knew Danny probably had not called. He knew this because he had refused to call his ex-wife when he stormed out of their house during one of their many arguments leading up to their separation, and then their divorce. But he felt he had to mention Danny, if only once so he would not have to again.

    Diane reached for the remote, and silenced the television, but did not turn it off. Her eyes held a sullen gaze, exaggerated by recent tears. Jeff remembered the only time he had seen Diane cry. They had sat across from each other at a local café their sophomore year of college. Diane had asked Jeff to meet him there. It was mid December, a few days before Christmas break, and although the New England snow dampened the bottoms of his jeans, Jeff walked from his dorm to meet her. Diane was waiting for him at a table outside, buried beneath a navy wool coat, knitted cap, and lavender scarf. A coffee mug sat in front of her, untouched, steam rising to meet the exhale of her breath.

    "You didn't have to wait outside; let's go in," Jeff said.

    "No, I want to talk to you here, in private." Diane pulled the coffee mug towards her, nestling the warmth between her hands. "Jeff, my father died."

    That break Jeff went home with Diane, and met her family for the first time. Although he had never met her father, Diane's grief touched Jeff as well. He stayed in a guest bedroom, but did not sleep there. Diane enjoyed watching Jeff as he walked into her childhood home. She took comfort in the way he stepped delicately, as if in a museum and unsure of what he was allowed to touch. She liked the way he paused in front of her bureau to pick up a photograph of her as a young girl sitting on a hay bale, her hands stuffed snugly into a pair of purple mittens, arms securely wrapped around a brilliant pumpkin. Jeff held the glass of the frame close to his face, and then, before returning the picture to the bureau, turned to look at Diane. Jeff could remember what he thought in that moment. He remembered the feeling of longing to be in that photograph.

   

    Diane placed her hand on her thigh and then on Jeff's hand. Jeff did not care about Danny. He did not care where he was or what he was doing or what he and Diane were arguing about, but he was curious about Diane. Diane had always been cryptic and guarded her moments of vulnerability fiercely. Jeff worried that perhaps Diane had called him in an impulsive desire for companionship. Perhaps he was not the first person she called. Perhaps she talked to others first, or perhaps she called Jeff only after the phones of her closer, more immediate friends rang, but did not answer. Jeff glanced at his watch; the light outside was diminishing, causing their reflection to sharpen in the window.

    Jeff shifted in his seat, uncomfortable.

    Jeff saw Diane's eyes linger about her home, avoiding his gaze. She looked at her living room, well furnished and comfortable. She admired the decoration, the warm earth tones of the rusty reds and muted oranges. Each piece of furniture, from the cashmere throw to the delicate pillows, created an atmosphere distinct to her home. Diane remembered when she and Danny bought their couch. They found it after a tiresome afternoon of shopping. Weary from walking a marathon of showroom floors they sat on this couch because they were tired and the arches of their feet ached with strain. It was the first time that afternoon they did not gasp in excitement over how perfect a couch would look, or wince with a look of distaste. They sat down because they were weary. Diane had slipped off her shoes, dug her feet into the crevasse between the arm and the cushion, and slid her head down Danny's chest until the back of her neck rested on his thigh. They sat like that, exhausted, until the showroom closed. The next day a truck arrived and two thick men carried the couch into their living room.

   

    "I'm going to make some tea. Do you want any?" Diane asked.

    Diane walked past the couch, her hand grazing the dark leather, and into the kitchen. Jeff stood up and moved towards her, but then stopped. He watched Diane step into the dim glare of the kitchen light. She lifted a pale blue teapot from the stove and brought it to the sink. The burner clicked before igniting with an audible hiss. Diane opened another cupboard and brought forth two large mugs, one with a floral-cream print, and the other a souvenir mug with a picture of the Grand Canyon wrapped around the base. Diane placed the mugs on the countertop next to the stove. The familiarity with which Diane moved about her kitchen, shuffling the contents of an open drawer to reach a box of herbal teas, made it clear to Jeff that this house was her own and not his. She placed a tea bag in each mug and then left them sitting there, perfectly ready, waiting for the kettle to steam.

    "A fire would be nice," Jeff called from the darkness of the living room.

    "That sounds perfect," Diane responded. "I think there's some wood in the garage. It's left over from last winter, but if there's any that is where it would be."

    Jeff had to move Danny's bike aside to get to the pile of firewood. He placed a bundle under his arm, the cool grit rough against his palms. Back outside, Jeff drew the garage door closed with his free arm. He stepped inside; the back door closed with a metallic clang, and the warmth of the room greeted his exposed skin. Jeff knelt in front of the fireplace, his knees sinking into the thick carpet and hands pressed against the cold stone of the hearth.

    Diane brought the two mugs from the kitchen and placed them on the coffee table atop the Monday New York Times. Jeff reached for the Arts section.

    "Wait. Use this." Diane handed Jeff the sports section.

    Jeff crumbled the paper and stuffed it beneath the logs. He patted his pants and glanced over at his jacket before asking Diane to pass him his lighter from the inside pocket.

    "You're still smoking?" Diane asked.

    "I told myself I'd quit as soon as I remarried."

    Diane laughed and a thankful smile broke on Jeff's cheek. Stretching out his arm, Jeff positioned his hand upwards so Diane would be forced to brush his palm when passing him the lighter. Diane placed the lighter in his hand and Jeff closed his fist around hers, the lighter pressed between their fingers. Jeff focused his eyes on the back of Diane's fingers. They were long and elegant, gently tapering towards her slender wrist. Jeff traced the blue veins that ran across her hand with his eyes as if they were the map of a neighborhood he once knew well, but had long since visited. Diane started to pull her hand away and Jeff tightened his grip. Jeff tried to look at Diane's eyes, but her head was tilted to the side, watching the reflection in the window.

    "Jeff." Diane turned her head towards him.

    Jeff squeezed harder. His eyes met Diane's. He could see that she was scared. But he would not let go.

    "You and Danny fight so much," Jeff said. "We never fought like that."

    "That was a long time ago," answered Diane. She said this lightly, with a self-conscious tone of dismissal.

    "But we didn't fight. Sure we had some arguments, but nothing like this. I never left for days at a time," said Jeff. "We never even broke up, we just sort of, well, I suppose we just graduated."

    "Was that how it happened?"

    Her refusal to remember their past, or the ease with which she had forgotten it, hurt Jeff. It attacked him with a dull jealous pain that swelled in his stomach and crept through his limbs.

    Jeff tightened his grasp on Diane. He could tell she was uneasy, practically scared. Jeff had to push further and press harder. He saw her unease as an irritation, and like a scab he knew he should leave untouched, he could not fight the urge to scrape. He tightened his grip, Diane's red fingertips dissolved into a pale white.

    Jeff thought about leaving, releasing her hand and walking away. But he did not want to leave. He did not want to walk outside where it was cold and already dark. He did not want to imagine her, while he walked the four blocks back to the train station, tucking herself back under that blanket, turning the volume up on the television. He did not want to imagine Danny opening the heavy door and finding her there, as he did, sitting on her couch, snug and longing for company.

    "Why did you call me?" asked Jeff.

    "I wanted you here." Diane paused. "But as a friend. I just really need a friend right now."

    She spoke the word "friend" easily, repeating it, enunciating it crisply as she emphasized and elongated the word. It angered Jeff the way she used the word, as a compromise, an offering, and an escape. He knew Diane took pleasure in speaking it. The word sank heavily inside him; he resented the protection it granted her.

    He wanted to hurt her. He wanted to dismiss her feelings the way her friendship patronized his desire. He wanted to tell her stories that dug into her life and scarred her nostalgia. He wanted disfigure her past and char her most sacred memories. He wanted to tell her how he slept with her roommate, or lied when he said, "I love you Diane," for the first time. But he could not, because when he spoke these thoughts in his mind, even to himself, they sounded trite and untrue, which they were. He knew too clearly that he'd never desired Diane's roommate, and was too aware of the candor with which he spoke those words to her. He could only ask a simple question. His voice deep and words sincere.

    "Was it so long ago?" Jeff asked.

    "Yes, very long ago," Diane whispered.

    Quickly, Jeff drew Diane's hand to his hip. The lighter, no longer held in place between their palms, dropped silently to the thick white carpet below. Jeff took Diane's jaw between his forefinger and thumb, pressing her cheeks inwards. Her flesh was taught between his fingertips, causing the faint lines in her cheeks dissipate under the pressure of his grasp. Quickly, he pulled her neck towards him until her lips were firmly against his own. Diane looked at him, her eyes narrow and afraid. Diane knew that it was too late, too much had happened, and Jeff, looking at Diane, her hand shaking in his, realized this too. He understood that now, because of the way he held her and the way she resisted his embrace, she could not call him again.

    Jeff pressed his lips against Diane's in what resembled a kiss; only it was not a kiss. Diane would not grant him that, she would not let him kiss her. Jeff continued to depress his lips against hers. He wanted her to feel his desire, but she forbade him.

    Jeff parted Diane's mouth, taking her lower lip between his. He held her there, between the folds of his mouth, feeling her tremble. Then, to stop her lip from quivering, Jeff pressed his teeth into her lip. Her lip was soft, and gave way. Jeff felt as though there was nothing between his teeth but air. Sharply he clenched his jaw. A shrill gasp escaped from Diane's mouth. Diane pulled away from Jeff and brought her hand to her lip, retreating until the back of her head met its reflection in the windowpane. She stood there, her eyes fixed upon Jeff. Now Jeff's lip quivered too because he could taste the warm crimson and iron of her blood. Diane lowered her eyes to the floor and Jeff collected his jacket before leaving. No words were said.

    Outside, the air was no longer crisp, but cold. Stepping off Diane's lawn and onto the sidewalk, Jeff placed a cigarette between his lips. He patted his jacket in search of his lighter, and there, as he pressed his palms against his empty pocket, Jeff felt the pain of a longing, sharp and immediate, unfulfilled, but familiar.