You ask her name, but she doesn’t hear you. Or is she ignoring you? The thought bites at you, a vicious dog.
Dick pokes you. “Go ahead, Frank,” he urges.
You clear your throat.
“What is your name?” you ask again, feeling awkward. Is there a mustard stain on your shirt? The crowd cheers. Someone must have hit the ball.
“Cerrise,” she says, or is it Sarah? You can barely hear, because Dick is shouting, “Kill the umpire!” in his booming voice.
It’s a company outing. You’ve had three beers, told all your jokes. You’d like to go home. Cerrise sits in front of you, reading. She must work in personnel, human resources, something like that.
“What are you reading?” you ask. You wonder if your breath smells too much of beer.
“The Miracle Of Mindfulness,” she says.
“It’s a strange book a friend said I should read.” She smiles apologetically. She’s got so many freckles, she’ll probably be sunburned by the time the game is over. You imagine her thin arms a painful red.
“Come on, Frank, let’s get some food.”
Cerrise or Sarah doesn’t look back as you leave your seat. Three more innings to go, you think, following Dick up the stairs.
At home, Jennifer’s suitcase is on the bedroom floor, and she is packing. Will she throw in that blue shirt of yours she sleeps in? You haven’t even had a fight.
“It’s something I have to do,” she said.
You don’t understand. She’s explained it again and again, sitting cross-legged on the end of your bed, eating a pâté she spent the morning creating. As she talks, she glops the soft meat into her mouth with blunt fingers.
“It has to do with personal freedom.”
You want to shout, “What about me?” You want to throw the pâté off the bed and remind Jennifer she redecorated your kitchen. To leave you here, alone, with those yellow walls, is unfair.
But you have learned shouting won’t change things.
You stand beside Dick in the food line and wonder how it would feel to follow Jennifer to Portland. You could get another marketing job, find a place to live.
When you mentioned this, Jennifer leaned so close you saw the uncertain specks of brown in her green eyes. “Don’t you see? Then it’d be exactly the same.”
You don’t see. None of it makes sense, but you are learning to let go, as Jennifer has encouraged. Really, you think as you squirt mustard on the Polish sausage, you have no choice.
Cerrise doesn’t look up as you return to your seat. Two more innings. Dick buys you another beer. He’s one of the top salespeople. You’re one of the top marketing people. You should be concentrating on the game instead of worrying about Jennifer packing all your spices, even the pepper.
“Would you like to borrow this?” Cerrise holds out the book. Her arms are dangerously pink, her nose red. “It’s marvelous.”
“Thank you.” You balance the Polish sausage and reach for the book. Beer spills on your leg as you take it.
“I’m in personnel,” she says. “You can return it whenever.” She turns back around and speaks to the woman next to her. You balance the book on your knee and wonder what to do with it. If Dick sees it, he will laugh.
Dick sees it and smiles. He thinks Cerrise likes you. He knows Jennifer is leaving. He is anxious for you to get something else going.
“What’s wrong with getting another marketing job?” you asked Jennifer.
She was upside down on your rug, doing yoga.
“Don’t you ever want to do anything different with your life?” she said.
She wouldn’t approve of your answer. The something different you would like has to do with your son Ryan. You want to bring Ryan from Colorado and have him live with you. You want to wake up in the morning knowing Ryan is again in your house.
“You don’t know how much work it is raising kids,” Jennifer would say. That’s what Ryan’s mother, Megan, said too. She laughed long-distance when you mentioned it. “You couldn’t handle it,” she said.
You handled Ryan all those evenings when Megan went to night school, held him in the dark, read him stories from stiff bright books, sat silent in his room until he slept. What can be so different three years later?
“Hit the ball!” Dick screams. You stand to see what’s happening on the field. Your beer splashes onto Cerrise. She wipes it off the back of her neck without looking around.
“What a game.” Dick stretches back in his seat, rebuttons his middle button, adjusts his baseball cap, and slaps you on the back. He’s a good friend. Jennifer finds him boorish.
“He ate the chicken with his fingers,” she complained when Dick came over for dinner.
“He didn’t know you spent all day making it,” you told her. Jennifer was in her final semester at chef school, and dinner was a class project. Jennifer photographed the chicken before serving it, brought it to the table, photographed it again. By the time you got a piece, it was cold.
“Delicious,” you commented, wishing for a ham sandwich and a beer.
“See you tomorrow.” Dick says now. He pats you on the back.
Small boys run by, waving sticks of cotton candy and pennants.
“Slow down,” motherly voices caution.
When Ryan comes this summer, you’ll take him to a game. After Jennifer leaves, you’re going to ask Megan if Ryan can stay awhile.
You jangle your keys and look for Cerrise. You see the same pale brown hair and pink sun dress on Row C. But what would you say if you caught up with her?
At home, the living room is dark and clean. Jennifer stands in the kitchen, wearing one of your better T-shirts, stirring and sweating. Her hair is tied into a greasy ponytail. Her legs are streaked with dust from unearthing her luggage in the basement. When you carried it down there, you tossed it into a far corner. At that time, you thought she would stay forever. But that’s what you thought with Megan. You can never remember the separateness that follows love. It always hurts and surprises you.
“What a day,” Jennifer mutters as you kiss the damp back of her neck. “This pot-au-feu is a wreck. I wanted to include it in my portfolio, but the broth is all screwed up.”
Your lips linger along her neck. Once, she would have turned, clung, kissed you.
Now, even though she is leaving, probably tomorrow, she keeps tasting broth and frowning.
You open the back door and go out to the garden. Jennifer planted carrots, radishes, and beets when she thought she was staying. You set the rows straight and tamped down the crumbled earth.
The yard looks different with the garden. The cloak of grass Megan had nurtured, watered barefoot on summer evenings, Jennifer ripped away, exposing the dirt, the rocks, the heads of earthworms. You wonder what will happen when the weeds take over, when the vegetables are gone.
“You’ll be fine,” Jennifer says at dinner. She says that a lot lately, as if she is speaking to herself.
“You don’t have to go,” you tell her. But she has already gone so far it would be stupid for her to stay.
That night, you read Cerrise’s book while Jennifer sleeps. The book urges, “Live each moment.”
You look at Jennifer’s dark burrowed head, feel her sleeping forehead, and wonder if you are here with her, or moving toward another life. Already, your kitchen grows mold, your refrigerator empties. Despite the woman beside you, you lie alone in the night.
When you awake, Jennifer is gone.
“It’s over,” you say, padding naked through the house, not willing to believe it. You shower, drive to work as another man. You can’t understand how she could leave like that. You hadn’t even fought.
You don’t come up with your usual jokes at the section meeting.
“Hey Frank, what’s wrong?” Dick asks.
You tell him Jennifer left.
“You’ll find someone else,” he says. “What about that woman from personnel?”
You wander into personnel right before lunch with the book in hand.
You ask for Cerrise. The secretary’s face is blank. You ask for Sarah.
You stand by the door hoping she will come this way for lunch. She’s prettier today, her hair done, the angry red of her nose covered by makeup. She looks bright and interesting in the circle of her friends.
“Hello,” you say. “I finished the book.”
She comes over and again you ask her name.
“Cheryl,” it turns out to be. Does she want to have lunch?
“Fine,” she says.
You eat in the employees’ cafeteria. She talks about astrology. “I’m a Gemini with Sagittarius rising. Do you have a chart?” she asks.
“No,” you answer, thinking this is a conversation Jennifer would like.
Her friend does readings for $7.50.
“Great,” you say, because you want her to like you. She smiles. Your heart catches in the same way it once did with Megan. Now Megan laughs when you try to be serious over the phone.
“You have no idea what it’s like,” Megan says of raising your son.
How can you find out? you wonder. What is the great mystery? Women hold gloved hands over your face, protect you from what really happens in the world, then laugh at your awkwardness.
You try to stand close to them, to let the smell of their hair and perfume soothe you, to let the dusky murmur of their voices be enough. But they want too much from you. They take themselves and the good parts of you and move west. They take your son and raise him without you.
“I might get a marketing job in Colorado,” you say to Cheryl.
“Why?” she asks, and the word echoes through all the empty places in your heart.