The knock on the door is sharp, briefly drowning out NPR's jazz artist of the day on Jesse's kitchen radio. He reaches absently for the Shrek hand towel at the edge of the sink, and finds only air. His mouth pinches into a grimace. At some point he'll stop finding empty spaces where his family used to be.
He shakes the water from his hands as he walks toward the door, wiping the last droplets on his pants. The door falls open as he unlocks it, and the woman in the hall gives him a bright smile. She's about his age, with short brown hair and a suit that's professional enough to be businesslike, funky enough to be hip.
"Hi." She sticks out her hand. "Cheryl Fortino. From
"Jesse Wallace. Come on in."
Her eyes travel around the living room, resting first on the plushy couch, then on the bookshelf, and finally on the picture of Hank on the end table. Her eyes linger there just a moment too long. She's probing, more private detective than guest. "It's a nice place you've got here," she says finally.
Jesse shrugs. "It's small, but it's New York. Starving artist—you know."
She laughs. "Starving magazine writer, but yeah, you bet I know."
"Have a seat," he says, with a nod toward the chair by the couch. "Can I get you something to drink?"
She shakes her head. "I'm fine." She pushes the chair back to sit. Her bag shakes open, and she pulls out a tape recorder and sets it on the coffee table. "You wrote a terrific book, you know," she says.
Her tone is matter-of-fact, like she's telling him the sky is blue. But her eyes are sincere, and Jesse can't help but smile. "You're too kind," he says, trying for just enough of an edge of self-deprecation that he doesn't come across as an ass, and sits down opposite her, on the couch. Every writer's got an ego, and compliments never get old.
"No, really, it's—" She reaches for the recorder. "You mind if I turn this on?"
"No, no, go ahead."
"It's really fresh." Her expression is analytical, like she's ticking off points from a checklist, but behind it there's a genuine eagerness. "You've taken the whole 'happily ever after' cliché and turned it on its head. And telling the whole story from the man's perspective really catapults it out of the whole formulaic romance genre."
"I'm glad you liked it."
She pulls a notebook out of her jacket pocket. "Is it autobiographical? I mean, there are places where it seems to read like memoir."
Jesse gives her a shrug. It's the first of the usual palate of questions, the same ones he's heard from New York to Paris and back again. "In the sense that everything is, sure. It's like they say, you write what you know, right? I mean, I think every writer mines his life for the little details. But it's fiction." Next she'll ask a few superficial things about the plot, and then they'll end on if you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead...
"I have to say, the thing that intrigued me most wasn't the romance aspect at all, but the whole theme of responsibility." Her ballpoint pen clicks to attention. "You've got this constant undercurrent of tension between doing what's expected and throwing caution to the wind. Can you tell me more about that?"
"Sure." Jesse cocks an eyebrow at her, surprised. This one's done more than just skim. "I mean, you're right. It's like, Jeremy's at that stage where he's supposed to be growing up, settling down, but in so many ways he's really still a kid. And I wanted that to stretch throughout the whole story."
"And then Madeleine comes along."
"And then Madeleine comes along," Jesse says, nodding, "and she makes him feel like he can ignore all those outside pressures, right? Like he can just let go, and everything'll still be okay. I mean, he's never really going to throw away all his plans and stay with her in Europe, but for a couple hours there, she makes him think he could."
The reporter's pen darts across the page. "So would you say that's what
Madeleine is about for Jeremy? About sowing his wild oats?"
Jesse frowns. "Well, sure, at the beginning there's an element of that." His hands tumble over each other in the air, gesturing. "But as they get to know each other, it starts to be about something bigger. It's more about holding onto the part of himself that's still...I don't know, carefree. Spontaneous."
His eyes cloud over, but they don't fall shut—he doesn't need to close them to bring it all back. The weightlessness of the Ferris wheel, the lights of Vienna below. The sound of her laugh against the backdrop of a dozen bar conversations. The taste of mediocre Cabernet, the smell of stale smoke. Wisps of soft blonde hair flying free in the wind, against her face. Against his own.
Jesse leans forward in his seat, steepling his fingers. "I guess she brings that out in him."
The sun had already set, sucking the worst of the November heat wave out of the air, but the humidity still pressed down on the city like a smothering fog. From inside Jesse could hear his mother scolding his sister: You don't eat turkey with your fingers. Like she was six instead of twenty-six. Texas felt oppressive after six months in New York, in more ways than just the temperature.
He lifted his feet off the ground, letting the porch swing sway beneath them. Laurie's gaze caught on his, and then flicked away again. "So, um. I talked to the doctor." Her voice was low.
He swallowed. It was the fear in her eyes that made her look like a little girl. "Yeah?"
"He said he could take me next Tuesday." Her hands fidgeted in her lap. "I mean, if that's what we decide we want to do."
Jesse took a long drag on his cigarette, holding the smoke tight in his lungs. He'd known for three days, and he still hadn't asked her the obvious question. Laurie hadn't brought it up, either, but no matter how many Women's Studies classes she'd taken, she was enough of a southern belle that he knew she never would.
He shuffled his feet against the porch, exhaling. Three days that he'd known about Laurie, and three whole years since Céline. She'd been a college student when they'd met, but by now she'd be grown up, just like the rest of them. She'd have gotten a job, maybe in government or something—she'd been studying political science back then. Maybe she had her own family, a gorgeous blonde daughter with blue eyes and a carefree smile. Maybe there was some guy, her husband, who dumped his briefcase on the kitchen table and took her into his arms when he came home from work.
Jesse took another puff and let the smoke escape into the air. Maybe the
guy had already been in her life that December. Maybe that's why she
hadn't shown up.
"You know what?" Laurie's voice was suddenly firm.
Jesse's gaze fell to his hands. One was clenched into a fist, his nails digging into his palm. The other was pinched around his cigarette.
He really was a grade-A asshole.
Laurie leaped up from the swing, sending it shuddering, and her mane of black curls scattered across her shoulders. "This really isn't your problem."
He blinked. "What?"
"It's not. I mean, it's my body, right?" Her voice shot up to a squeak, her eyes darting back and forth like a panther pacing in a cage. "And if it's my right to do what I want with this...this problem, then it's my responsibility, too. Not yours."
Jesse wrapped his hands around the edge of the swing. "Now, wait a
"Isn't that what Professor Schiller always said?" Laurie's expression was almost a smirk. "No rights without responsibilities, and all that?"
"We're not talking about the international labor movement, here. We're talking about a baby." The word was like lightning on his tongue. A baby.
Laurie gave her head a vigorous shake. "No, we're not. We're talking
about a potential baby. And it's up to me to figure out whether or
not that potential ever gets realized."
Her eyes fixed on him in a cold stare, tearing through the image of
Céline that was engraved on Jesse's memory. He took another puff
on his cigarette and turned away from Laurie to exhale, but the wind crept
over to her, licking her face with his smoke.
She coughed, wrinkling her nose. "You know I'm right."
Jesse tapped his cigarette, letting the ash fall to the ground. She'd
hidden the ashtray again—a not-so-subtle hint. Twisting the butt
against the heavy chain of the swing, he met her eyes again. The porch
light was a glow against her face. She really was pretty. Beautiful,
even. And she was so great with the kids in her class. She'd make a
"Can I tell you what I think?" he said slowly, carefully.
She stiffened, her shoulders hunching as if to ward off a blow.
Jesse held up a hand. "No pressure. You're right, it's completely up to you. I just want to give you my opinion."
Laurie's jaw hardened, her lips straightening into a line. She gave him a barely perceptible nod.
"I think we should get married."
The harsh expression peeled away from her face, and in its place was an almost blinding flash of hope. Then it vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and her gaze dropped. "You don't mean that."
Jesse stood. "Actually, I do." His voice was steady.
Laurie looked up at him, searching. Her hands clutched at her stomach, gripping at something that wasn't quite there yet. All at once, her eyes were swimming with tears. A sob choked from her throat, and then another, until they all came in a rush, like a river bursting through a dam in a storm.
"Hey, hey," he said, reaching out to her, pulling her close. Her body was rigid with tension, but it melted away under his touch. She buried her face in his chest, letting loose with a wail. "Wait a minute," he protested. "I tell you I want to get married and you act like somebody's just died?"
She stepped back. A sudden laugh bubbled up from inside her, cutting through the sobs. "Sorry." Her hand dabbed at her eyes. "I'm just—that was the last thing I expected you to say."
And then nothing. For a long moment she just stood there, staring at him, only the occasional sniffle to break the silence. Jesse shifted his weight from one leg to the other, back and forth. "Um," he said finally. "I guess you don't have to decide right away."
Confusion spread across Laurie's face, wrinkling her forehead and pinching at her mouth. "Decide?"
"I mean, you can take your time."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Oh!" She let out another laugh. "Yeah."
He squinted at her. "Yeah like 'yeah, I'll think about it?' Or yeah like—"
"Yeah, I mean I'll marry you, you idiot," she said, giving him a playful shove.
She grinned at him, wide and full. The air seemed to crackle with pride, and he sucked it in with a long breath. His face tightened with a grin that mirrored hers. He was going to be a father, a husband, and it was okay. It was okay.
He bent down to kiss her. Her mouth was still moist with her tears, but she tasted safe, like apple pie at a Texas Thanksgiving.
The reporter runs her finger along her notes, reading them like Braille. "Tell me about the fight scene," she says, looking up at him.
Jesse frowns. "You mean, the thing about the fortuneteller? It's not exactly a fight."
"Jeremy calls it that." She glances back down at her notes. "Page 147. 'Did we just have our first fight?'"
Jesse rubs his hands together, his fingers glancing off his wedding ring. "Jeremy's a little oversensitive when it comes to conflict."
She nods. "Because of his parents? You only just hint at that."
"Right, his parents are divorced. And he's—you know, he's got the ordinary baggage that comes along with that. But Madeleine, she's totally different. She confronts conflict head-on. She tells it like it is, even if it might end up erupting into a shouting match."
"And that scares him?" she asks, raising her eyebrows.
"It scares him, sure, but it also..." He lets his voice trail off. The real fight was this summer, the one where she shouted at him, threatening to get out of the car. The one where his stomach kept churning as the realization set in that if she disappeared, he'd never be able to track her down.
He gives Cheryl-from-Elle a little smile. He shrugs. "Yeah."
Four empty bottles of wine were already lined up along the edge of the table. Ryan pulled the cork from a bottle of champagne, filling the air with a hollow sucking sound. "How 'bout it?" He tilted the bottle at Jesse's glass. "It's real—none of that sparkling wine crap for our honored guests." On the stereo, Billy Joel was crooning about an Italian restaurant, offering up just a whiff of staged nostalgia.
Jesse shook his head. "Nah, it's okay. I've still got to drive back to the city." Ryan was in full-on host mode; Jesse hadn't seen him like this since year Ryan and Wendy had invited the boss and his wife to their New Year's Eve party. That had been almost three years ago. Before Hank.
Laurie held up her glass, waving it a little. "I'm the designated drunk tonight." Four years in New York had siphoned away her Texas drawl, but tonight it was back at full strength.
Ryan gave Laurie a little bow and reached across Jesse to fill it. "At your service."
"To Mom's night out," Ryan's wife Wendy said, clinking her own glass against Laurie's.
Laurie's answering laugh was loose and full. "I'll drink to that."
Wendy leaned in toward Laurie like a conspirator. "I remember my first night on the town after Alanna was born," she said. "I was like a prisoner on a day pass."
Laurie's glass swirled. "Yeah, I think I've totally forgotten how to have any fun that doesn't involve large-size Legos or Pat the Bunny."
It wasn't just the accent, and it wasn't just the laugh—her voice was slurred. Laurie was drunk. The realization hit Jesse like a slap, and he froze. She was Hank's mother now, she couldn't just go out and get drunk.
No, wait, that was crazy. He drew in a breath. Crazy and probably sexist. If Laurie wanted to go out and get drunk, she'd earned it. Hank was a great kid, but he'd entered the "terrible twos" with a vengeance.
"So, Jesse." He felt a light pressure on his arm on the opposite side from Laurie—the blonde woman from the other couple Ryan and Wendy had invited. He looked up, and she gave him a lipstick grin. Marion? Mary? "Wendy tells me you're working on a novel."
Jesse didn't turn back around, but he could feel Laurie's presence like a tether to him. Today he'd sneaked in an hour to write while Hank had been asleep, and the words had spilled so easily from his fingertips that it had left him lightheaded. But he didn't discuss it with Laurie. Not since he'd first told her he wanted to write the thing and it had taken days for the dark cloud to lift from their apartment.
"Oh, I write a few lines here and there." He tried to make it sound dismissive. "It's nothing."
"It's not nothing," Marion/Mary gushed, flashing her porcelain teeth. "Everybody says they're going to write a novel, and here you are actually doing it. What's it about?"
Laurie's silence grew louder, engulfing her entire end of the table. There was a clink of glass against china, and he heard her gulp through her entire glass of champagne.
A puzzled wrinkle creased Marion/Mary's forehead, and she glanced at Laurie. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No, no," Jesse blurted, a flush staining his face with heat. "It's just—I don't really talk about it much." Her confusion deepened, and he tried again. "It's not finished yet. I don't want to jinx anything."
"How superstitious," she mumbled. Her eyes darted back over to Laurie again.
"Go on, tell them. It's okay." There was a hardness in Laurie's voice that sent a chill down Jesse's spine.
Marion/Mary's confusion turned to something that looked almost like fear, and all conversation ground to a halt. He curled around his plate.
"It's gonna be really good." Jesse felt Laurie lean in, first toward him, then toward the others. "The protagonist is a guy named Jeremy. He's twentysomething, and impossibly handsome, of course. And while he's in Europe, he meets an impossibly beautiful French woman on a train and falls in love with her."
Jesse grabbed hold of the arms of his chair, bracing himself. Yeah, she was definitely drunk. "That sounds...interesting," Marion/Mary said carefully.
"Oh, it really is," Laurie shot back, her voice candy-sweet. "And the two of them have this one impossibly wonderful night together, the kind of night that the guy remembers for the rest of his life."
"So...it's a romance novel?" Wendy asked, trying to catch Jesse's eye.
Laurie's laugh was raw and mean. "Oh, God, no. See, this guy, Jeremy, he only spends twenty-four hours with this woman, but his love for her is so deep that it ruins him. It kind of...squeezes all the romance out of him. And then he never sees her again. So for the rest of his life he pretends to love other women, even gets married, but really he's just going through the motions."
Jesse fixed his eyes on what was left of his fish, hunching his shoulders like he could shrink into his chair. One of the women made a gurgling sound that was somewhere between a cough and please, God, make her stop.
"So the one experience he had where he really felt happy ends up destroying him." Laurie gestured in the air, wide and full and out of control. "It's not a romance, it's a tragedy. It's straight out of fucking Shakespeare."
The curse hung in the air like radioactive fallout. Laurie never swore in front of people, never dared drop the demure façade even for a moment. It was a hell of a time to try something new.
From other end of the table, one of the men cleared his throat. Slowly, Laurie stood, her legs wobbly beneath her. Jesse tried to look up at her, but his gaze slid around her like ice. "You know, I think—I think I need to go home," she said.
Jesse stood. His legs were weightless, numb.
"I'll get a cab."
"I can take you," he insisted.
"I said I'd get a fucking cab!" Her voice was a screech.
"Laurie," Jesse hissed, under his breath. He sounded half pleading, half angry.
And then suddenly she wilted, all her muscles slack. Jesse grabbed hold of her, and she didn't protest. Ryan and Wendy looked mortified, like she'd thrown up on their table.
The goodbyes were short and stiff, and Jesse draped Laurie's coat over her shoulders rather than try to force her arms into it. They wouldn't be invited back, and in the morning, she was going to care about that. She held onto his arm as they walked to the car, clinging to him as if to a life preserver, but he could hardly feel her touch.
They were almost to their exit when she finally opened her mouth. "You wouldn't look at me," she said, her voice a little whimper.
Jesse's foot hovered over the gas pedal. "What?"
"You never do. Not anymore. Do you know that we have entire conversations where you don't even see me at all? I can be the only other person in the room, and it still doesn't matter. It's like you want to forget I'm there. It's like you want to forget I exist."
Jesse's hands tightened around the steering wheel. His eyes didn't budge from the road.
Cheryl-from-Elle rolls her pen between two fingers, and for the first time her confidence seems to waver. "Okay, this is going to come out wrong." Her gaze creeps over to him. "But I'm just going to say it. I really think your book's best scene is the one in the park."
"The sex scene." Jesse's eyebrows shoot up, and he laughs. "Uh-huh."
"No, wait, hear me out," she says. Her eyes are sheepish, but she's laughing, too. "You don't idealize either one of them, and that's where the humor comes from. I mean, Jeremy's inner monologue where he's asking himself whether he should try to talk her into it—that's really very funny. And even the sex itself is anything but idealized. And yet at the same time, it manages to be just about the most romantic sex scene I've ever read."
"Thank you," he says, his laugh settling into a grin.
"Is that what you were going for? Kind of...finding the romance in reality?"
He shugs. "Yeah, I think so. I guess I think there's been enough idealized book sex, you know? It tries so hard to be perfect that it just ends up dull."
"So what is it that makes your take different? What makes it so successful?"
He ducks his head a little. "Well, success is in the eye of the beholder. So you can tell me more about that than I could tell you."
She thrusts a finger into the air, like she's just managed to pinpoint it. "It's like it's their very cynicism that makes the payoff seem believable."
Jesse nods. "Well, that's really where they both are—they're cynics, but they're also romantics, right? I mean, they think they've seen it all—they've done this love thing before and are both kind of weary of it." He feels himself smile. "But eventually they both have to admit that there's something happening to them. Something that neither one of them ever expected."
Being in Céline's apartment was like soaking in her, like drinking from her firehose. The walls were lined with her books, the photographs were of her at various ages and in various exotic locales, and the sheets were rich with her scent. Jesse wanted to memorize it all. If he took enough of it in, he'd never have to lose her again, no matter how this played out.
"So." Her voice was a purr, and she stretched flat against him. Her skin was like white satin. "Was it as good as the first time?"
"Better." He didn't miss a beat.
"As good as the second time?" A wisp of hair fell across her face, and she tucked it behind her ear.
Jesse propped himself up on one elbow. "You know, I could feed you a line of bullshit about what those first two times were like, and you'd have to believe me." He tapped a playful finger against her nose. "Seeing as how you don't remember them at all."
Her face flushed. "I remember. I was just—" She glanced away. "I guess it was a protective thing." She turned back, giving him a little smile. Her hand grazed his chest. "I got grass in my panties. You thought you heard footsteps, but you kept going." Her fingers rested on his nipple, sending a shiver straight down to his cock. "You kept your eyes open the whole time, even when you were kissing me."
Jesse leaned down, nuzzling her cheek with the stubble of his beard. "If you know my eyes were open, your eyes must have been open, too."
"I remember thinking it was funny," she said, fitting herself into the crook of his arm. "Funny sweet, not funny ha-ha. It was like—like you had to see me." Her smile was the size of the moon, and Jesse's heart stuttered. "I loved that."
He cupped a hand around her breast. "Well, there was a wind. It could have blown you away." It was a line from a bad romance novel, the kind of line Jesse would have sooner shot himself than write. It took the magic of a Paris evening to keep it from sounding saccharine.
Céline fixed her eyes on the ceiling. The smile seeped away from her face. "Do you close your eyes when you fuck your wife?"
Jesse's blood froze. The sudden sharpness of Céline's jawline
angled against her neck, and he drew back his hand. With Céline,
he'd kept his eyes open because if he'd blinked, she could have been gone.
With Laurie, he always kept his eyes open so that he wouldn't picture
Céline. Laurie found it disconcerting, like she knew.
Céline turned back to him, her eyes confronting his. "You know, you never use her name. You just call her 'my wife.' It's Laurie, right?"
Jesse shifted against the bed, disentangling himself from her. The air between them chilled. "How do you know that?"
"It was in an article. About your book." She drew her knees up, pointing them at the ceiling through the covers. "She took your last name when you married. That surprised me." She cocked a challenging eyebrow at him. "It's kind of old-fashioned, no?"
"Her maiden name was Kantrowitz." His voice was dull. "It seemed easier."
Her eyes flicked away, her face screwing up in a mixture of distaste and grief. She pulled away, rolling off the edge of the bed. "Your tea's going to be cold," she said, and crept across the room to the kitchenette.
Jesse pulled the covers up over himself, straight to his chin. If he'd gotten on the plane, he'd have been in the air by now, dozing against a plastic shell of a wall and then waking up in New York. Hank would have been in bed when Jesse got home, but in the early morning he'd have padded into their bedroom, his unwavering stare and his childish giggle preventing further sleep. A sharp pain pierced Jesse's chest like a knife slicing into his heart. That sure wasn't how it would go now.
The bed buckled next to him, and Jesse opened his eyes. Céline
slid a mug into his hand, and moist, tannic heat wafted up to his nose.
Her eyes met his in an unflinching stare. "Are you going to tell her about
"She knows about you." He tipped his head to one side and tried to smile. "I mean, she's read the book, right?"
Her expression was immobile. "You know what I mean."
His eyes dropped to the bed. Laurie had given him a friendly peck on the cheek when they'd said goodbye at the airport—a peck on the cheek to sustain him for two weeks. She'd looked almost relieved he was going, relieved to be left alone.
"Is she going to pick you up?"
He shrugged. He'd last called her from Toulouse, and he'd gotten the answering machine again. It had been a short message, just the flight arrival time and a quick, automatic 'I miss you guys.' It seemed like a dozen years ago.
"So she's going to come to meet you and you won't be there." Céline sat up straight, her shoulders jutted back. Her bare skin pricked with goosebumps.
"I guess so."
"Yeah, well, that's bullshit." Her voice was cold. Stretching across him to the bedside table, she picked up a cordless phone. She dropped it onto the bed next to him. "You need to call her."
"What, now?" He stared down at the phone. "You want me to tell her while you're sitting right there?"
She shook her head. "I don't care what you tell her. Make something up—tell her you got caught in traffic and missed your flight." Her voice was sharp. "But I just slept with another woman's husband, and I'm feeling like a complete bitch right now. So the least I can do is make sure she doesn't end up sitting at the airport for hours, waiting for somebody who's not going to show up."
Jesse swallowed, nudging the phone with a finger. Céline reached across him again, rummaging in the bedside drawer. A cigarette lighter flicked, and the charcoal smell of smoke spread through the room.
On the way to his wedding, he'd seen Céline on the corner of 13th
and Broadway. He was sure of it now. He'd convinced himself that he was
crazy, but now he knew she'd been in New York then, and it only made
sense. He could have gone after her. It would have spared them all a lot
of time. If he'd only let himself believe, he would have done it.
If only. The saddest, the fucking loneliest words in the whole goddamn world.
His hand closed around the phone. The smoke mingled with the rawness of
their sweat on the sheets, enveloping them both.
"Okay. I think we're just about done here." Cheryl-from-Elle gives her notes a once-over, flipping through the pages.
"All right." Jesse leans back. "It's been fun," he says, and he means it.
She shoots him a quick smile, and then it's gone. "Now, I know your agent said you would prefer not to answer questions about your personal life."
He feels his eyes narrow, just a little. "That's right."
"But a few things have come up in my background research, and I was wondering if you might want to address them." Her hands fold in her lap.
Jesse's shoulders stiffen, and the radio announcer's voice carries into the living room, bridging over the silence. These journalists usually want to know something about his marriage, about his son, but he can say something general. "Sure," he says, tentative.
She flips to a new page in her notebook. "Now, I know your wife has filed for divorce."
His heart drops into his stomach. "How do you know that?"
"It's a matter of public record." She smiles. "Plus, I talked to her
"You talked to Laurie." His head is swimming, but his eyes narrow on her
like lasers. "Just what kind of journalist are you?"
"A careful one." Her response is planned, not defensive.
He sits up straight, his hands clenching into fists in his lap. "You
can't do this."
She shakes her head, and her smile is so patronizing he wants to erase it
from her face. "I'm afraid it's already done."
"Yeah, well, so is this interview," he says, slicing his hand through the air in a gesture of finality. This is just a job to her—his whole goddamn life is nothing but a job. "And you can walk yourself to the door."
She doesn't move. "Mr. Wallace—"
"I thought you wanted to hear about my work."
Her matter-of-fact look is back. "Your 'work' is a novel about a young man who meets a French woman on a train and spends the night with her in Vienna. Your wife tells me that while you were in Paris in July, you had an affair with a French woman. An old friend." She leans against the back of the chair. "Somebody you first met on a train on the way to Vienna about nine years ago."
Jesse's shoulders slump. Laurie figured it out the first day he was
back—she knew just by looking at him. She dragged the story out of
him slowly, with the kinds of knowing questions you can ask someone you've
known since you were twenty. Confession is supposed to be good for the
soul, but this was more of an unmasking than an unburdening, and his
cigarette smoke hung in the air like the sick smell of failure. Then,
with neither tears nor harsh words, she took Hank, two suitcases, and a
pillow for each of them and moved in with a friend.
Jesse's eyes land on the tape recorder on the table. It's still running.
He sinks back down against the couch, wiping his forehead with a finger.
It's moist. He wants a cigarette.
"Listen." Cheryl-from-Elle's voice is almost sympathetic. "I don't want to hurt anybody—really. I just don't want to finish this story without hearing a few things from your point of view."
Exhaustion pours over Jesse a fog. He draws in a long breath and lets it out in a slow trickle. He meets her eyes, resigned. "What do you want to know?"
"Do you love her?"
He blinks. "My wife?"
"Your Madeleine. Whatever her name is." She waves a hand in the air. "Are you going to see her again? Have you talked to her since you left Paris? Is this going somewhere?"
Jesse's laugh is hollow. "That's what you want to write about? You're going to try to hang a happy ending on this thing?"
"Are you saying there isn't one?"
"My wife left me," he growls. "I haven't seen my son in three weeks. Does that sound like a happy ending to you?"
She shrugs. "Is it?"
"It's a goddamn tragic ending, is what it is."
Cheryl-from-Elle sets her pen down. She watches him, waiting. Jesse doesn't know what for, but whatever it is, he isn't giving it to her.
He tries to swallow, but his tongue is like sandpaper. At the airport in
Paris, Céline gave him a hurried, almost embarrassed kiss, and
suddenly Jesse was twenty-three again, and back in a Vienna train station.
"I—haven't talked to her," he tries.
The reporter's pen darts across the page, but her eyes stay fixed on him.
"She didn't give me her phone number," he adds.
"But presumably you know her last name. And what city she lives in."
He knows what apartment she lives in. "Yes."
She jots down another few words. She sets her pen down and looks up at him. Her expression is a nudge, but he can't tell whether she's accusing him or encouraging him.
His jaw juts forward. "It's not like either of us meant for any of this to happen. It was all very...in the moment."
She gives him a lopsided smile, one side pinched into a sharp edge. "So, I guess we're back where we started."
Jesse shakes his head. "What?"
"The tension between responsibility and spontaneity."
Jesse's laugh is a quick burst. "I guess we are."
The jazz program has ended, the soothing voice of the afternoon announcer replaced by the harder edges of the on-the-hour news break. Cheryl-from-Elle glances at her watch and closes her notebook. "Well, that's all I have, so I won't take up any more of your time." She flicks off the tape recorder and tucks it into her bag. "Unless there's something else you wanted to add?"
"I don't think so," he says with a sarcastic sniff. By next week, everyone will know everything, anyway. And someday Hank will be able to track it all down and read it for himself. A pinch of pain squeezes out the flutter of nerves in his throat. "Wait. I guess...there is something."
She tilts her head to one side. "What's that?"
He holds a hand in the air. "Could you maybe...not write anything about my son? I mean, you can say what you want about me..." He swallows. "And about Laurie. But if you could leave Hank out of it—"
"I can do that." Her eyes don't waver.
They both stand, and he leads her, wordlessly, to the door. She pauses in the entryway. "We can fax you a copy by Friday for you to look over, if you'd like. Will that work for you?"
She holds out her hand. "Best of luck to you."
"Thanks." He gives her hand a quick shake and then lets it go. The door closes behind her, and she's gone.
Once he's alone, the empty apartment closes in on him like a fist. Every
inch of the place is a tribute to what used to be: the red juice stain on
the carpet from where Hank got a little too exuberant with a sippy cup,
the dent in the wall they made carrying his shelves around the corner, the
half-empty box under the end table where they keep his toys. Where they
kept his toys. He leans against the wall for support. Laurie will find a
place for her and Hank, and they'll work out an arrangement for weekends
and the occasional birthday. They're that kind of family now.
It's all about Hank, the achingly empty place inside of him. No—Hank is on the surface, the raw wound, and beneath that it's all Céline. None of it is about Laurie, and it never was. He steps away from the wall, straightening. She really does deserve better.
Jesse glances at his watch. Just after two o'clock. Two plus six—that's not too late.
Maybe it never has been.
He stares at the phone on the wall for a long moment. He walks over and picks it up.