They could see the window from their kitchen, where they sat at the table slicing their anniversary cake. Happy Trails, Janine! was written on the top in bright green icing, elegant script. Huck had bought it on his way home from work. The cakes were his latest thing, half-price after 5:00 pm for the pre-ordered cakes that hadn’t been picked up. He loved the idea because it was a bargain and satisfied his taste for irony. They would always take a moment to spare a thought for Janine, whoever she was, where her trails might have been leading, and contemplate just how she’d gone off-course. It turned out that parties were cancelled all the time.
Not this one though, this intimate gathering by the light of the paper chandelier. Huck and Janet, married for ten years. They might have marked it with more occasion, but money was tight, it was the end of the week, and they were exhausted. That the kids were in bed by now was monumental, as celebratory as anything got these days. The cake was cut, wine glasses topped. It should have been enough, but they kept taking turns glancing outside, looking at the window. Second-story in the house behind theirs, blank-faced, blinds pulled down just like civilized people do.
“Stop it,” said Janet. “Nothing to see.” She took a forkful of cake. She glanced up just to confirm.
Huck said, “You’re doing it too.”
Janet said, “I’m not.” Her mouth was full.
Huck said, “It’s a reflex. My head turns that way now.” And Janet said, “I know.”
Huck and Janet lived on the edge of a small city. Until the 1970s their subdivision had been a farmer’s field whose vestiges were goldenrod and hayfever in springtime. It meant good soil for the garden and big enough lots, but not a lot of shade. At every house there had been a maple tree installed on its front lawn, and in four decades, these had grown tall and impressive, but backyards stayed barren, only wooden fences to mark the lot-lines.
It had been six weeks since he’d moved away, the neighbour from the house behind theirs, with whom they shared a back fence but had never met in the flesh. Or not in the flesh exactly. This neighbor hadn’t been one for the outdoors, never mind what was suggested by the upholstered furniture on his back patio and a barbeque the size of an artillery tank. Huck and Janet would peek through the slats in the fence, the spotless tableau such a contrast to their own toy-strewn yard, sod with the yellow spots where the dog peed. Their neighbour’s grass was always manicured; he must have hired somebody to do it. You wouldn’t even have known that anybody lived in that house, except for the scenes in the upstairs window, the window they couldn’t help but see from their kitchen table. They also had that spectacular view from upstairs in their bed.
They hadn’t known he was gone until the Friday night when somebody lowered a blind. It felt like a gut punch. There they’d been in their skivvies, utterly let down. Turned out he’d sold the place to a family that was part of a pyramid scheme. The woman came around one morning not long after they moved in, wondering if Janet wanted to get in on the fix. Vegan candles; she’d be having a party. She left her card. “I want to get to know the neighbours,” the woman said, her eyebrows raised, rubbing her palms together. She actually said, “Fresh meat.”
Right now, Janet said to Huck, “I think we can do this.” He said, “I’m terrified.” He licked his fork. He’d had his slice. He wanted another.
Janet’s eyes were just about to wander up and to the left, out into the yard, above the fence, so she focused on Huck instead. Her husband. Ten years ago, she’d promised him a lifetime when she’d scarcely known him at all, or how long a lifetime could be. And all these years later, she still loved him just as much, and she was in it for the long-haul, but she couldn’t believe the blitheness with which she’d made her vows, how easily she might have jumped into anything. She would never again be so brave or audacious.
She said, “I don’t really think it’s so bad as that.” He put his hand on her hand, but she pulled it away. She wasn’t yet ready to try.
They’d moved into the house nine years ago, their first proper place together because their condo had really been hers. Downtown and tiny, impractical for their plans, so she sold it, and here they were in a farmer’s field. That first spring, they’d had to put in central air because her allergies were so bad she couldn’t have the windows open. Which was only a preview of how her body would eventually let her down, the nursery they’d planned remaining empty for six years through three rounds of IVF, and the lumps on her breast and on her neck. Lumps that were benign, she was told, but it all seemed so ominous, empty wombs and tumours, and now she was crisscrossed with scars, from a c-section and biopsies. Now she had an abdomen she had to tuck into her pants.
And through all that—the physical decay, the fear, heartache, disappointment, and despair—the man at his window had sustained them. They hadn’t even needed him at first. They could go it on their own, but there he was at the back of their minds. A one-sided competition, and he always won, but as a couple they were strengthened in their defeat. At the Infertility Support Group, before things got serious and Huck had to start rationing his semen by doctor’s order, they were famous as the couple who still had sex three or four times a week.
“Like clockwork,” Huck had announced, tipping back in his stacking chair, hands folded across his chest. As though he could take some kind of credit for it, as though, the workings of the clock, its cogs and wheels, were not external, getting laid on the other side of that wooden fence.
A plane had gone missing over the South China Sea, disappeared from radar, from the air. It had been four days, and the world was waiting to know what had happened. In their kitchen with their cake, Huck and Janet were waiting too, troubled by the distance between the story and their lives, the way it was ever expanding and retracting. Too close. Too far. Like a telescope.
Here they were in their little kitchen with their anniversary cake while halfway around the world, anxious people in airport lounges sit waiting for news to blow their lives apart, never too far gone to seize on the smallest slivers of possibility.
“How can something just disappear?” was what everybody was saying. The gauge on the map was deceptive, that there’s enough sea in that sea to have swallowed a plane. Not even a proper ocean and it’s 3.5 million square kilometers, the South China Sea. The world is enormous, and while sometimes distance is reassuring, it was also the kind of space that could take you whole.
So they were sipping wine, eating cake, with no idea how the story would end.
“To ten years without calamity,” said Huck, his third toast of the night. They’d come far enough through their troubles that they could say that now. They had perspective. They were both healthy (knock knock), and so were the two little children asleep upstairs.
Janet said, “But how have we got away with it so long?” What she meant: how long could calamity be contained on the other side of the world? Some of those people had supposed they were ordinary before they got on that plane. You can step into a moment and your life disappears. She said, “It’s so terrifying, isn’t it? Being alive, in the world. How do you even think in all that vastness?”
“Oh, no,” Huck said. “Don’t start with that, or this is never going to work.”
“Sometimes, I think,” said Janet, “I might actually will calamity to happen, just for the relief of the waiting to be over.”
It was possible they had willed their neighbour’s departure. Certainly they’d talked about it, the problem of trying to quit cold turkey, how it was impossible to just turn away and sweep the curtains shut. It would be easier, they often said, if one day they just woke up and he was gone, but now he was gone and they were paralyzed.
For six weeks, they hadn’t touched each other once. In the beginning, all those years ago, the arrangement with the man had been casual. They’d happen to glance up at the window and see him there, and one thing would lead to another. It took a while, months, before they were able to admit it to each other, that they were both aware of what was happening. Because it was a bit shameful, really, and it felt safer to pretend it was coincidence. The kind of thing you might confess in the dark, but never in the light of day.
But once they finally did confess, it was better. It was matter-of-fact and it was good for them. They didn’t need it all the time, and sometimes weeks would pass, and they wouldn’t think of him. Then some evening, one of them would look up, and there he’d be. And this was during a time in which there hadn’t been a whole lot else to count on. It is possible that those nights, and the man at the window had been what got them through. When they might have been spinning farther and farther apart, instead they clung to each other. It was because of him that they could toast to ten years without calamity. An exalted status he’d been allotted so they could justify it when he’d become more than a crutch; by the end, it was a full-fledged addiction.
Janet wondered if the cake was another bad idea, a method of avoiding the point. She didn’t think the discounted cakes were as funny as Huck did, and she wondered if he even thought it was funny at all. If the whole appeal wasn’t just to save a few bucks—Huck could be cheap. She wondered if this wasn’t the kind of arrangement that could go wrong. It starts with cakes that aren’t yours and then one day you wake up and your life isn’t either. And really, cake was the last thing she needed. Her incessant waistband.
She pushed her plate away. “No more,” she said. Huck said, “It wasn’t bad though. Let us give thanks to Janine.”
“To Janine,” said Janet. They clinked their glasses, and she downed what was left in hers. She said, “You know, the problem is that I see him even when he isn’t there. Seared on the back of my eyelids.” In this image, he was naked and standing in profile, seemingly oblivious to the window but then who else was he posing for? Stroking his erection as though to accentuate its length, which was impressive, certainly, even from a distance.
There had been a bed in the room, white walls behind it, blank except for a poster of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. On one hand, you couldn’t imagine having sex with Einstein’s tongue staring at you, but on the other, Janet and Huck had done just that a few thousand times. From far off, it wasn’t disturbing at all.
She tried to think about something else. She poured another glass of wine. She said, “How long do you wait? The plane I mean. Those people at the airport—when do they get to go home?” In all the images, grief-stricken people were sobbing on the floor, surrounded by photographers.
“What do you mean?” Huck asked.
She said, “The airport in Beijing, all these people crying all over the floor. How long does that go on?” She’d given up hope already. Already, she’d accepted that a plane could disappear. Impossible was ever a mutable concept. Moving on, next question please.
He said, “They’re not there still, surely.”
“There’s pictures online.”
He said, “It’s the same picture, or close enough. I’m sure the photographers have left already. There’s nothing left to see.”
She said, “I wouldn’t leave, if that were me. They couldn’t make me. Just imagine the resignation, putting your coat back on, picking up the car from short-term parking. Driving home. I would be unmovable, if it were me. If that were you.”
“You would commit to eternity in airport departures.”
“If I had to,” said Janet. She’d had too much wine.
“I’d be like one of those dogs at his master’s grave. Really.”
“Kind of dramatic,” said Huck.
“I mean it,” said Janet. They were morbid, these mental diversions in which Huck was dead and gone. But they were useful. She liked to imagine she might be prepared should it ever happen. A kind of insurance. It helped her remember too just what he meant to her, this man across the table so often seen but she hardly ever really looked at him. It helped her remember just what was so important about an exercise like tonight’s. Why you had to bother or it could all just go away.
But where to start? They’d lost all the cues, the rituals, the grooves and paths that lead two people where they need to go. This was the biggest problem. They didn’t know where to find it in each other, the spark where the whole thing begins to happen. Instead, they’d grown accustomed to passive encounters, to sitting back (but together, holding hands. She’d insisted on that) and being presented with the scene at the window. The man and Albert Einstein’s tongue. Sometimes he was alone, and other times with a lover or maybe two, men and women. The others were rarely as beautiful as he was, but their choreography was always flawless, their bodies all part of a perfect machine. And watching it work, doing things that neither Huck nor Janet had ever imagined that bodies could do—things they couldn’t even figure out afterwards with the help of diagrams—both of them would begin to feel the same things. In their loins, of course. There was no less awful way to say it. A warmth and a tingling that would spread through both their bodies as they watched the scene unfold.
To the point: they became horny.
Which was remarkable considering the years, the twins, the tumours, her empty womb. How they were always so exhausted, but it worked every single time. The man at the window would finish what he was doing, and then they’d turn to one another, no matter what. They’d come together, and it wouldn’t be about the man at the window anymore. This was the important thing. He was gone, and it was them, this moment, their bodies, the tensions released in an explosion of two. It was all and it was everything, but now the man was gone, a blind had been hung, and they didn’t remember how to go it alone.
“It’s not like it’s porn.” They had said this to one another a number of times. It was their second-favourite justification for their habit, right after the one about how he’d kept them together when they might have been torn apart.
“What’s the difference then?” they’d quizzed each other at one time or another, playing devil’s advocate. Trying to make it all okay.
“Well, it’s not that we seek him out,” they’d say. “He’s just there, larger than life. We can’t turn him off.”
“You could turn away.”
“I could. But I can’t.”
There’d be a silence.
“It’s not like it’s porn.”
And then they’d tried porn, something different, something to prove that it wasn’t all about the man. But maybe the porn was the wrong porn, because it didn’t work.
“What that scene needed,” said Huck, “was Albert Einstein’s tongue.”
With porn, they’d always end up analyzing the camera angles, and repeating the ridiculous dialogue. They tried turning off the sound, but it still didn’t work.
With porn there was always too much to say, when the man at the window would ever leave them speechless. “I sometimes think the problem is too much talking,” said Janet. Huck would be inclined to agree. How can a plane disappear? How long do you wait? The distances between our lives and our death. Maybe not everything needed to be put into words.
Because the wine was gone. Heads were light. They stood up from their seats at the table. And he wrapped his arms around her shoulders, buried his head in her neck.
She hugged his waist, her hands finding their place beneath his shirt. Feeling the softness of his skin, the fur under his bellybutton and how it continued down below.
She felt it with her fingers.
She said, “I think I remember the way.”
Photo by Flickr user The Lamb Family