They were lying on the floor in her classroom when Gin invited Tracy to her daughter’s birthday party.
“Please come,” she said. “You’ll get to meet Amanda.” Her head was rested on his shoulder. She traced her fingers across his stomach, pausing to plunge her pinky into his navel. His belly twitched but he did not laugh; he took a deep breath and said nothing.
“What is it?” she said. Propped up on one elbow she looked at him sideways. Cool sweat dripped down his chest. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m still not sure it’s a good idea.”
“Tell me again why not.”
“You know,” he snapped. “I just can’t.”
“You’ll be fine. I won’t let anything happen.”
Desk chairs – writing surface an extension of the right armrest – encircled them. He pictured her students staring down from those perches, sketching their lovemaking. “What we’ve got – I … I don’t want to ruin it.”
“It’s a kid’s birthday party,” she said. “Amanda invited fifteen friends, and I’m sure some of their parents will come. You won’t be alone. You’ll meet new people.” She tried to sound hopeful.
“I don’t want to,” he said. To himself he sounded like one of the kids in his class: petulant, whiney.
She turned away from him, faced the chalkboard on the back wall. He rolled onto his side and grabbed her waist, pulled her hips against him, wrapped his arms around her chest and buried his face in her mango scented hair. Kissed the the gap between her neck and collar bone. A cool breeze drifted from the window. Street lights through the blinds slashed their bodies.
“You know what I mean,” he said. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Please,” she said. She pulled his arms tighter around her. “For me.”
“I’m worried and I’m scared,” he said. “You’re asking too much.”
She reached around and put her hand on the back of his neck. “If I ask for anything it would be too much.”
His chest rose and fell a dozen times.
“Trust me,” she said.
He concentrated on her name written in block letters in the corner of the blackboard.
A seven year old in a pink dress answered the door. “Happy birthday,” she yelled.
“You must be Amanda,” Tracy said..
“Yup.” She wrapped her arms around his leg. “Are those for me?”
Tracy nodded. He had asked three different sales people at Toys R Us what seven year-olds liked, and after heated discussions between two of them he purchased one Barbie dressed as a doctor and one Ken dressed as a nurse. Sitting in the car in the parking lot he had hastily wrapped the two boxes in bright red paper.
A man came to the door in a white T-shirt and a blue denim apron, tattered jeans and sandals with white socks. The photos Tracy had seen of Len had not prepared him for reality. Gin’s husband was a toolbox, with club-like arms, hammerhead fists, a Craftsman-built chest, unbreakable, lifetime warranty. He wiped his hand with a towel. “You must be Tracy,” he said. They shook hands over the girl. “Len. Good to meet you.” His smile was warm and friendly. Disarming. Tracy had hoped for sullen and disaffected.
“Sorry I’m late,” Tracy said.
Len waved him off.
Amanda said, “Daddy, look at the presents.”
“Honey,” Len said, “why don’t you go out back with the rest of the party? I think they’re about to start the game.”
Amanda smiled at Tracy then released him, turned and scurried back through the house, her pony tail bouncing. Len took the boxes from Tracy, then led him through the dining room, where he left the wrapped presents on the table with other brightly papered gifts, and into the kitchen.
“Beer?” Len asked.
“Sure,” Tracy said.
“Gin tells me you teach journalism.”
Tracy swallowed a gulp of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “English, actually,” he said. “And I advise the student newspaper.”
Len nodded and took two circular pans out of the oven. He turned them over and tapped out two chocolate cakes, covered them with a white dish towel then picked up a metal bowl and began stirring together the ingredients for icing: powdered sugar, milk and chocolate that had been melting in a pan on the stove. “Weekly?” he said.
“The paper,” he said. “Is it a weekly?”
“Oh, the school. The Weekly Star. Students named it a long time ago. Sounds like a tabloid, I think, but they like it, so they keep it. It’s theirs, anyway.” He swallowed more beer. Outside he heard the soft echo of laughter. Through the window above the sink he saw Gin crouched in front of an orderly row of children. She was tying balloons to their wrists.
“Gin’s outside, you want to say hello,” Len said.
Tracy stepped onto the concrete patio and looked out across the grass. Gin smiled when she saw him.
“What happened to the parents?” he said.
“Change of plans,” she called over the din of a dozen children. “It’s just us three.”
“Good thing I came,” he mumbled.
He smelled a coolness in the air. Wisps of cloud smudged the sky like stray markings on a chalkboard. A storm was brewing in the distance, black across the horizon. A breeze kept a constant flow of fresh air blowing, making everything, the grass, the trees, the sky, everything, including himself, including Gin, including the children who had organized into a neat circle around her, new and green and young and crisp and alive. Gin was wearing thigh length tan shorts. He watched her soft, sinewy muscles and remembered how they had wrapped around him only two days before. Her auburn hair was loose and draped like a towel over her bare right shoulder. He studied the faint blue outline of a bathing suit, visible beneath her sheer blouse. She was standing in the middle of the circle of children, each with a balloon tied to their wrists. Amanda sat in rapt attention, listening to her mother speak. Another child giggled and pointed at Tracy. Then two more looked at him. Gin clapped her hands and all eyes were again on her. This was the way he had first seen her, when he knew he wanted her, through the small square window in her door, surrounded by children in her classroom, demanding their attention, commanding his, that first day of school. She didn’t try to hide her marriage, talked about her husband and daughter. He assumed their flirtations would lead to nothing. Until about a month later when they were both working late, had eaten together in the lounge and were walking through the empty hallways of the empty school. She slipped her hand in his. He stopped and she stopped and the world stopped. Silence bounced off metal lockers. He held his breath. Without a word she led him into a dark classroom and kissed him.
The game began, a variation of Duck-Duck-Goose. Amanda walked slowly around the circle, tapping each balloon as she passed. Then she came to a boy whose balloon she struck with such force it popped. He jumped up and chased Amanda around the circle of kids who were now screaming and shouting. He wasn’t fast enough, though. Amanda out ran him three times and then plopped down in his spot, folded her hands in her lap and beamed.
Gin came across the grass and stood in front of him. He wanted to kiss her. Instead he said, “What happens when they run out of balloons?” She was barefoot; he loved her feet.
“They stop,” she said. “Only the ones with balloons can be picked. That way, everyone gets to play.” She slipped her arm through his and led him back across the concrete and into the house. “You meet Len?” she asked.
In the kitchen Len was putting the finishing touches on the cake’s icing and decorations. The words read, in pink, jagged script, as though written right-handed by a lefty, “Happy Sixth Amanda.” Gin giggled and kissed her husband’s cheek, tugged at the collar of his shirt.
“Couldn’t be a little more fun with it?” she said.
Len said, “What, that’s not fun?”
“Sounds like something I’d write,” Tracy said and laughed uncomfortably.
A child screamed and Gin ran to the yard. Len looked out the window. “Shit,” he said. Tracy followed him through the living room and to the back where Gin was carrying a boy across the grass. Her blouse was covered with blood that for a moment Tracy thought was the red paint that was splattered across her apron at school. She handed the boy to her husband.
“Come on,” Len said to Tracy. “You drive.”
He looked at Gin. He wanted to stay behind. He wanted to see her; that was why he had come. He wanted to touch her in her house. He wanted to kiss her in her kitchen. He wanted to lean against her on her couch. He wanted to lay next to her in her bed. Instead, he followed her husband out the front door to the driveway. Len got in the backseat with the boy. Gin waved from the lawn as Tracy backed the car into the street. He wondered for which of them it was meant.
“You’re going to be fine, Shane,” Len was saying. “It’s just a scratch. See?” Shane was sobbing, but his screams had subsided. Tracy decided the boy was tired. So was he.
“You know where you’re going?” Len asked..
“Near the school, right?”
“Yeah, the closest. No, wait, turn right,” he said suddenly, and Tracy had to slam on the brakes to make it. He braced himself against the steering wheel, but Shane bumped against the door and began to scream again. “I know a short cut,” Len said. “It’ll be all right, Shane. We’ll get you fixed up in no time. Left here,” he told Tracy.
“What do you do?” Tracy said.
“I’m a mechanic,” Len said. “That’s my shop.”
Tracy looked. AAAAUTO REPAIR, the sign read, bold script, blue and white blocked letters. “Is that a firehouse?”
“Sure is,” Len said. “Been there three years now. Wanted to call the place Len’s but Gin said it’d be better if I was first in the phone book, so I went with that.”
“Oh,” Tracy said.
“How do you like our little town?”
“It’s a nice place.”
“You’ve been here, what, a year?”
“Think you’ll stay?”
“Maybe. I like it so far.”
“It’s a good place. People’re nice. Everybody’s honest, you know? I mean,
I’ve been to some places where they’re polite to you, but you know they don’t mean it. Here people are what they are. No sneaking around. No secrets. No lies. Know what I mean?”
Tracy nodded and kept his eyes on the road.
Len carried Shane into the emergency room where the triage nurse directed them to a seat. Len handed the boy to Tracy. Shane gazed, transfixed, at the ceiling. Dried blood caked his right arm, his shirt and his pants. A piece of crimson string was tied to his wrist.
“Make it quick,” Len told the nurse. “Kid’s got a gash in his arm as long as California and I don’t know if he’s had his tetanus.”
Len called his wife from a pay phone. “Yeah, we made it,” he said. “No, not yet. You get in touch with him? Unavailable? What the hell’s that mean? It’s his damned son! What did she say? What? Jesus. All right. I love you, too.”
“What happened?” Tracy said. Len ran his fingers through thinning black hair and looked at Shane slumped in the chair between them, eyes closed and asleep at last.
“His father’s at the beach or something. Gin can’t reach him on his cell and his mother says it’s his father’s weekend to watch him so she won’t come either. Something about the courts deciding, she said.” He wiped matted hair from Shane’s forehead and shook his head. “Jesus, they let anybody be parents these days.”
“How long you been teaching?” Len asked. They had been waiting for nearly three hours.
“Not long. You’re young. She’s got a few years on you, you know.” He picked at dirt or grease or chocolate under a fingernail. “She still hasn’t decided,” he said. Tracy waited for him to finish. “I can go wherever, you know. Doesn’t matter to me. But she’s determined to pick just the right place for us. And to find that perfect job for her. I mean, being a college professor’s all right, I guess, but I’d think the rewards of teaching kids — well, for me that’d be enough.” Shane was quiet, eyes closed, in Len’s lap. “She’s got this professor friend up at Yale she talks to all the time, letters back and forth, he gives her advice on stuff like this. I don’t know. I want her to be happy, you know?” He shook his head. “She thinks I’m too physical, too shallow, to understand. Maybe I am. Yeah, I am. But what the hell, right? Let her be the intellectual one. I’m okay just fixing cars.”
For almost a year they had been seeing each other, sneaking evenings in her classroom or his office, a weekend teacher’s conference. She had told him how much she liked it here, how she never wanted to move away. He had begun to get used to the idea of staying.
“This professor guy? You’d like him. English type, white beard, pipe, all that. Nice guy. Came to Amanda’s party last year.”
Tracy tried to laugh.. “Here I thought I was something special,” he said. He hoped it sounded like a joke.
“Nope,” Len said, smiling. “Just another in a line.”
Shane slept in the backseat on the drive to his mother’s house. Len sat in front and admired the car.
“It was my father’s,” Tracy said.
“Your father. When did he pass?”
“He’s not dead.”
Len laughed. “Oh. The way you said it I thought…”
“No, he just gave it to me,” Tracy said.
“In that case, congratulations,” Len said. He clapped Tracy on the shoulder. “Congratulations,” he said again.
Together they walked Shane up the steps to his house. His shirt had been torn off and he wore a hospital gown the nurses had cut so it wouldn’t drag on the ground. His mother opened the door and took hold of the hospital gown and pulled him to her. Despite his hurt harm he hugged her leg, buried his face against her pants.
“Who are you?” she barked. Len started to explain what had happened but she cut him off. “I’m going to sue you, both of you. Don’t you ever come near my son again.” She slammed the door.
“Too bad,” Len said. “I think Amanda really liked him.”
It was almost midnight when they got back to the house. Len kissed his wife and went to the bedroom to tuck in his daughter, who was, Gin said, already asleep. Gin led Tracy to the kitchen and kissed him quickly. He closed his eyes and held his hands at his sides. Before he had wanted to pull her close to him, to feel her body pressed to his. But not now. Not like this.
She touched his cheek. “Thank you,” she said.
She smiled. “Just for being,” she said. She poured a cup of coffee and handed the mug to him. He sipped it, black. It was bitter but he didn’t ask for milk.
“Len’s a nice guy,” he said, just to have something to say.
“He’s great with Amanda. Treats her like a princess.”
“I can see why you married him,” he said.
She didn’t smile when she said, “Do you still love me?”
He looked at the swirling liquid in his cup. He could see his own faint outline in the black ripples. It was a vague, hollow image. Once, after they had made love on her students’ art projects, he told her he loved her. She kissed him, hard, but hadn’t responded with words. He told himself it was one of those things people say in the throes of passion. Although he felt alive for the first time in his life, he knew that what they had wasn’t real. It wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t his. He began to realize that he was lying to himself. And he wondered when he would have to return what he increasingly felt like he had stolen.
He said, “Yes,” just before her husband came into the room.
“She is one happy kid,” Len said. “Barbie under one arm, Ken under the other, and a smile as wide as a bumper.” He got a beer out of the refrigerator. “Thanks for your help, Tracy. Don’t know what we’d have done without you.” He laughed, a hearty, full laugh, and his muscular arms shook his shirt.
“I’d better be going,” Tracy said. He handed the empty coffee cup to Gin and rubbed his palms together.
“So soon?” Len said.
“Yeah, it’s been a long day. Thanks for inviting me. It was, uh, exciting.” He shook Len’s hand and offered it to Gin, not wanting to hug her in front of her husband. She put her arms around him instead, pressed her cheek to his chest. He felt the loose band of her belt, the ripples of her back, her hard flesh. Her hair smelled of dirt and laundry soap. He kept his eyes open and found himself lingering in her arms longer than he thought appropriate, longer than a friend would. Abruptly he pulled away, but she held onto him with her arm around his waist.
Len was looking out the window above the sink, his back to them. “What was it?” he said. “Sprinkler head? Gopher hole? Guide wire?”
Gin smiled at Tracy. “I think so,” she said. “Something like that.”
The house lights twinkled in the darkness as he backed out of the driveway. Gin’s silhouette filled the front doorway. His vision blurred; salty rivulets puckered his lips. He twisted his fists around the steering wheel and opened the window to the breeze and the fresh, moist smell of rain looming in the distance.
J L Smith lives and works in New York City with his wife and two cats. His fiction has appeared in The Cynic Online Magazine. Jeff has run eight marathons including five in New York City. When he’s not writing, he can be seen riding his bike around the streets of Manhattan fixing computers. He rants at rustlingreed.com/blog.
© 2010, J L Smith