Andrew sat in his leather chair at the center of his meticulous den and studied Jessica, who stood only an arm’s length away. The child frowned and pulled at the scalloped hem of her dress, which was two sizes too small although she refused to yield it.
“It is time to retire that dress,” Andrew said.
Jessica stomped her feet. “Why did Nanna have to get her hair cut today? She knew I was coming.”
He agreed with the sentiment, but here they were, and he figured they might as well make the best of it. “That is not the way to start our time together,” he said.
“But you’re so old,” she complained. “And grouchy.”
The child’s words were less indictment and more fact and, frankly, a refreshing reprieve from the modern world of political correctness, but her assertions could not go unanswered. “First,” Andrew said, “I am not grouchy. I am serious. And second, of course I’m old. I’m your grandmother’s father for goodness sake.”
Jessica shrugged as if she couldn’t fathom what age had to do with anything and leaned forward and scratched at something on Andrew’s nose. Her nails felt like needles and he plucked her hand away. “It seems to me there are better things for us to do than discuss my disposition. For example, activities. Surely there are activities that amuse you.”
“Why do you talk so funny?”
Andrew rolled his eyes, which he had a tendency to do whenever he was around young people, and clasped his hands in case the child should have a sudden urge to grab one. Children were such oddities to him. They had a need for structure but loathed it. They found the silliest things hysterical, and they rarely elected to bathe even if they were covered in mud and had bad things growing in their hair. He supposed women were drawn to them because they required so much fixing and tending to, neither of which held any interest to Andrew, but here he sat with full responsibility for the child all because his wife had to have her hair done. “Full sentences,” he finally said. “It’s how people spoke in the olden days.”
Jessica chewed her lower lip and stared harder at his nose. “You have a funny freckle,” she said. “It looks like a heart.”
“It’s probably skin cancer.”
“No,” she said. “It’s a heart.”
Andrew sighed and leaned back in his chair, letting his hands separate and fall over the sides of the armrests, which Jessica mistook as an invitation to climb atop his lap and pressed her back into his chest. He thought maybe he should unseat her, thereby teaching her a lesson in propriety, but he wasn’t much for personal confrontation and so he allowed her to stay.
Jessica reached a hand to the side table and fingered a model ship that was an exact replica (by dimensions) of the Steven Fort, the ship Andrew had once commanded. “I didn’t know grown-ups had toys,” she said.
Andrew bristled. “It is not a toy. It is a model ship.”
“A toy ship.”
Andrew chose not to debate her. It did not matter what such a little person thought. Jessica, however, was unmoved by his silence and prattled on about how the boys at school played with ships like this all the time and how sometimes the ships broke and the teacher would have to throw them away. And then she paused and scratched her chin. “Why is it gray? Gray is a horrible color.”
Andrew rolled his eyes again. “All navy ships are gray,” he said, thinking (but not saying) that if she read a book every once in a while, she would know this sort of thing, but then again, she was only five, and it was quite possible five-year-olds didn’t know how to read. “Let me ask again,” he said. “Is there something you would like to do?”
For no reason at all, the child stood and began to twirl, her bright orange dress exploding around her like a volcanic flower, and Andrew wondered how long his wife’s haircut would take. His never took more than twenty-two minutes. Not ever. But hers, it seemed, would take an entire afternoon.
When Jessica finally stopped twirling, her eyes wide with a funny, far-away look, she stumbled toward him and leaned into his chair. She then inspected his knees and, as if she found them wanting, announced, “I’m going to teach you to paint.”
“I already know how to paint,” Andrew said.
“Not on the sidewalk you don’t.”
After a tedious search for paints and brushes, all of which were buried in the broom closet of all places, the two managed their way through the front door and to the sidewalk just below Andrew’s steps. Instantly, Jessica began to bark instructions. “We are going to paint hearts,” she said. “Like on your nose.” She paused and scratched her chin. “But not silly ones.” She frowned, seemingly certain he did not fully comprehend the complexity or import of her words, and proceeded to lecture him on the ugliness of wobbly lines. Finally, she pointed to an array of clouds. “The hearts should look like they fell from the sky. Not like we put them there.”
“Yes sir,” Andrew snapped and the child’s brow furrowed. “I was in the navy,” he reminded her. “That’s how we responded to orders.”
Jessica clucked and grabbed Andrew’s hand. “First you have to hold the brush right,” she said. With surprising force, she manipulated his fingers around the handle, forcing his thumb and forefinger into a triangular bridge. Tentatively, she let his hand go, her own hand hovering in case she should need to redirect him.
Andrew held his hand as still as age would allow, and she nodded in approval and twisted off the lid to the red paint bottle. He studied the paint, which had hints of blue and yellow only visible when the sun hit it directly. How odd, he thought. A simple red paint meant for a child should be just that: simple and red. But it was neither.
“Aren’t you going to start?” Jessica demanded.
“Yes, yes,” he mumbled and carefully situated himself on the bottom step, his hips and knees creaking on the descent.
“You’re so slow,” she complained.
“Well, that happens when you get old.”
“Nanna’s not slow,” she said. “Not slow at all.”
That was true. Andrew’s wife had lost neither her energy nor her fluidity and, to her credit, she had run a tight ship, humble as it may have been within the confines of their home. But all that was beside the point. “I will proceed at my own pace,” he said and dipped his brush in the paint.
Jessica sighed and turned her attention inward and on her own work, which unfolded just as she had said. Hearts with well-defined contours fluttering here and there like clouds. Andrew took care with his heart, the outside lines concrete, the heart humps equally dimensional. As precisely as he could, he followed the child’s directions, but somehow his heart turned out rather sterile and ill-placed, and he decided he would not paint another.
When Andrew returned from his own hair appointment, which had taken no more than twenty-one minutes, he found a disheveled stranger sitting on his front steps. The man’s palms were pressed into his temples and he leaned forward as if on the verge of vomiting. Andrew felt his jaw tighten and he marched toward the stranger. “These are my steps,” he barked. “There are benches and parks and bus stations all over this city. That’s where you should be. Not here. Not on my steps.” Andrew’s shadow swallowed the man, who Andrew could now see was rather small.
The man looked up. His hair sprouted enthusiastically from his scalp and he had to tuck the longest strands behind his ears to clear his vision. Worse, his clothes were unkempt and dingy and two sizes too big, and a dark, permanent-looking stain sat square on the collar of his short-sleeved shirt. The man was a mass of carelessness, repulsive to Andrew, and yet there was something cared-for about him, an innocence that could not survive the streets alone.
“Did you paint the hearts?” the stranger asked.
“How old are you?”
The stranger frowned. “Twenty.”
“I remember being twenty. Didn’t care for it much.”
The young man rolled his eyes. “Did you paint the hearts?”
“You either did or didn’t,” the boy said. “It’s not a trick question.”
Andrew felt himself bristle. “What if I supervised the placement of the hearts?”
The boy stood and shielded his eyes by cupping a hand over them. His arms were stick-thin and sunburned. He was probably the sort of person who had to be reminded to eat. “Well, I wish you wouldn’t have,” he said. “My girlfriend broke up with me because of those hearts.”
Andrew placed his hands on his hips. “Listen here, young man. You sound like a fool.”
“I’m not the one painting hearts on the sidewalk.”
Andrew shrugged. He noticed an odd ache in his hip. “You still sound like a fool. That’s probably why she left you – not because of some silly hearts I painted.”
“I thought you were just the supervisor.”
“What’s your name, boy?”
A loud clap of thunder made both men turn toward the bay and Andrew suddenly understood why his hip hurt: Rain was coming. Andrew was a careful man and it was unlike him to be caught unaware by weather, which unnerved him. “Well, Pete,” he said, ready to be rid of this vagabond, “one thing is certain. You would never make it in the navy.”
“Who the hell would want to make it in the navy?” Pete demanded and stormed off just in time to beat the rain.
A week later the boy returned. Andrew studied him through the kitchen window. It seemed the young man was confounded by those hearts. For an hour now, he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet with his gaze glued to the concrete. Every few seconds, he would freeze, his face contorting, and then shrug, kick the pavement and resume his rocking. Andrew could not fathom such unabashed fascination.
Finally, the boy plopped back on Andrew’s steps. Andrew really did not like people on his steps and he stormed outside to shoo the boy away. But when he reached him, the boy looked up with that impossibly young face, and Andrew said only, “I see you’re back.”
Pete’s brow pinched. He seemed unsure of where he was. Displacement. When a person is disoriented by trauma. That’s what they called it on Andrew’s ship. Andrew took a careful seat next to the boy, embarrassed by a loud pop in his knee, and shifted his weight from cheek to cheek in search of comfort, surprised to find the concrete gritty and granular. He wondered if it might give way beneath them.
“The hearts,” Pete said after several quiet moments. “My girlfriend wanted to know who I thought painted them. She wanted me to imagine it.” The boy’s legs were as lean as his arms and Andrew wondered if he might be carried away by a hearty gust of wind, which left Andrew with the feeling the boy may never become a man. There were boys like that everywhere, even in the navy. Boys who had no chance, mistakes of nature. “But I couldn’t,” Pete continued. “It just seemed so silly. I mean who cares who painted them? And even if I did guess, I’d probably be wrong, but she kept saying that wasn’t the point.”
“Well, what was the point?”
The boy shrugged. “You know, all that girl stuff. Being romantic. Being vulnerable. All that crap they like to talk about.”
Andrew smiled. “I’m glad I’m not young anymore.”
The boy stood and walked to the outer edge of the sidewalk, seemingly ready to make a run for it, but then he turned back to Andrew. “The thing is, I really couldn’t imagine it,” he said. “I wasn’t just being an ass. I mean, it felt ridiculous, and like, if I started, it would never end. Like I’d drown or something.”
Andrew forced himself to stand, his knees growing weary from the effort. “My great-granddaughter,” he said. “She’s the one who painted them.”
The boy nodded, his eyes too wide. “What’s she like?”
Andrew thought for a moment. “A bit of vinegar. A bit of vigor. A bit of charm.” It occurred to Andrew that the word he wanted to use was alive, but he did not say it for what it implied about him.
The boy walked back to the stairs and leaned into the banister. “Do you think it will make a difference that I found out who actually painted them? I mean that is at least as good as imagining, don’t you think?”
Andrew studied the boy. He was just as disheveled as before but now he was more awake and prickly, which made him seem unhinged. Andrew thrived in order, avoided chaos at all cost, and yet he could not turn his back on this ridiculous boy, on the vulnerability he wore without shame. Andrew had trained his own children to be tough, to bite a lip if it were about to quiver, to excuse themselves if tears were brimming, to congratulate the man who whooped them. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren were a bit of a mess, parented as they were in a culture fixated on fostering self-esteem (as if it were a thing that could be forced upon a person), but there was little he could do about that without getting sideways with Ellen, who would do something subtle but virulent like serve a week full of vegan meals in response, which he could not tolerate.
“Well,” Pete pressed. “What do you think?”
Andrew cleared his throat. “I don’t even understand the question,” he finally said. “Nor do I understand why you would want to please a girl who dumped you and who wants you to be one of those artsy imaginers, which, obviously, you are not.”
“She says everybody can do what she’s asking. If they try.”
“Then she’s an idiot.”
Pete’s lips puckered and he pulled away from Andrew. “I don’t mean anything bad by this, but you’re kind of a prick.”
Andrew felt himself smile. He’d been called worse. His legs had grown stiff and he began to pace back and forth to loosen them.
“It’s okay,” Pete said. “My dad was a prick, too.” He ran his hands through his hair, which only seemed to make it bigger and wilder, and then placed his left foot directly above one of Jessica’s hearts. “He was in the army,” the boy continued. “Iraq. I always figured that pretty much fucked him up.” Pete dropped his foot and leaned toward Andrew, but Andrew did not reply. He simply continued to pace.
“You were in the navy, right?” Pete asked. “That’s why you said I wouldn’t make it there.”
“I said you wouldn’t make it there because you wouldn’t. But, yes. I was in the navy. Admiral. Decorated. Retired twenty-six years.” Andrew felt his chest expand. He couldn’t help it. It was the envelope of his life and, on the rare occasion he was asked to open it, he brimmed with pride. His entire life had been the Code: Honor, Courage, Commitment. And of that, he was proud.
Pete lifted his foot again and let it hover over the concrete like one of Jessica’s imaginary clouds. “That is what fucked you up though, isn’t it?” he pressed.
Andrew’s stare moved from Pete’s foot to his face, which had become crumpled and pale. He stopped pacing and grabbed the handrail, a sudden breeze pressing against his shoulders and encouraging him to move along.
Pete jammed his hands in his pockets and turned toward the bay. His hair fluttered behind him. “You did see action, didn’t you? I mean you killed people, right?”
“Yes,” Andrew said. “Of course.”
Pete whisked around. “And that didn’t mess you up?”
Andrew found himself unusually careful with his words. “Not me,” he said. “But there were men who couldn’t handle it.” He thought of Reyci, the man he worked hard to forget. He saw Reyci’s body hunched over, his left foot only inches from the severed arm of a Japanese soldier. Reyci had vomited into the wet sand at the edge of the water, and the waves kept coming and stealing little pieces. The man was crying, crying, and Andrew knew right then and there his friend was incapable of living the Code. The navy would kill Reyci, one way or another. “Not all men are strong,” Andrew said as he turned the handle. “And the military has a way of exposing that. It’s just a fact of life.”
“What do you and that boy talk about?” Ellen asked over a dinner of Cornish hen and asparagus. Andrew and Ellen, who had been married for over sixty years, sat at opposite ends of their expansive dining room table just as they had when their children were young. Over time, Andrew had given the empty chairs names (three for his children and three for his favorite grandchildren). He wondered now if there should be a chair for Jessica because she suddenly felt more important than the others, vital even, although he couldn’t say why.
“Andrew,” Ellen pressed. “I asked you a question.” She wiped her lips with her napkin and gracefully returned the napkin to her lap. Her fingers had grown thin and would have appeared skeletal on a different, less elegant person. But Ellen was Ellen, a tour-de-force of grace and equanimity.
Andrew set his fork down, aligning it precisely a quarter inch from his plate. “Nothing actually. The boy just blathers on and on about utter nonsense.”
“And yet you allow him to return time and again. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Confounding,” Andrew admitted, “but hardly interesting.”
Ellen pushed back from the table. “Let’s take a walk,” she said. “It’s lovely out. The dishes can wait.”
The temperature was pure San Francisco, mild and breeze-filled, inviting. The sun still clung to the sky even though it was well past eight, and dogs jostled here and there in their dimwitted excitement. In the midst of these pleasantries, the people espoused their uniquely Californian ideologies. A woman with a tambourine and only wisps of clothing danced around an old man who had a sign hanging from his neck that read, “Love all thy neighbors, not just the white, Christian ones.” Another man stood atop a boulder and held up a bible and asked who Jesus would bomb. Andrew understood these gestures were indictments of him and his values even though he was a regular churchgoer and gave five dollars to the collection each Sunday when most people only gave one or two. But he had grown accustomed to being hated and it rarely bothered him. He didn’t much like the people who hated him anyway. But there was the matter of service, and he did wish these people could understand that the very freedoms they used to vilify him were the ones he had so heartily fought for. Still, he knew better than to make a fuss. The young and the old could never really understand each other.
“You look happy,” Ellen said, surprising Andrew.
Andrew frowned. He felt neither happy nor unhappy. He simply felt the way he always did: neutral, forward marching.
A little boy with bright red hair ran past screeching and chasing a flock of fat pigeons, all of which sputtered away but never quite far enough. The boy stopped to pull up his pants (which had fallen to his knees) and then resumed his attack, to what purpose Andrew could not imagine. The birds squawked in annoyance and the boy cackled, his cheeks turning the color of his hair. Now that is happiness, he thought and again the word alive came to him although he said nothing to Ellen.
Andrew turned toward the water. A couple standing alone at the end of the dock faced one another. The woman leaned against the railing and the man pressed into her and nibbled at her neck. She laughed and ran a hand down his back.
“Youth,” Ellen said, pointing to the couple. “And certainty. Do you remember those days?”
“I do,” he said as he looked back at her. “The pressing nature of it. And the certainty for sure. That was the beauty of the navy, the certitude of routine and understanding one’s mission. I miss that.”
Ellen’s left eyebrow lifted. “You were in a war,” she said although it came out as a question. “How could there possibly be certitude in a war?”
Andrew glanced toward the bay. The water foamed with tiny breaking waves. He thought of his ship. He wished he were on it. “The regimen suited me,” he said. “You know that.”
“Suited you. Well, yes, there was that.”
Andrew reached for her hand, which lingered only inches from his, and studied it. Delicate, feminine lines so faint they were unknowable by touch alone. “You are still beautiful,” he said.
She smiled but the corners of her mouth straightened. “Be wary of that boy, Andrew. You are too old to learn new tricks.”
With minimal discussion, Pete and Andrew agreed that Pete would come on Wednesdays at 2:00, an arrangement that seemed to confuse Ellen although she did nothing to deter it. One Wednesday, a few hours before Pete was due to arrive, Andrew ventured into China Town and bought a long stretch lawn chair. He set it up just below his front steps, only inches from the flurry of hearts. Ellen stared at it uncomfortably. “Certitude,” she said with impeccable diction. “Remember how much you like it.”
“Oh dear Lord, woman. He’s just a child. It would take more than that to alter the paradigm of my life.” Ellen said nothing in response.
When Pete arrived, he didn’t even mention the chair as he was too absorbed in the onslaught of a sudden and extreme heatwave that had settled into the bay area. “I feel like I can’t even move,” he said. “It’s like the air is mud, and we are stuck in some damn inferno.”
“You should consider the military,” Andrew said. “It toughens a man up. There’s no room for worrying about what feels good or what you want or – God forbid – what you think you need. You just follow orders and move forward.”
“It’s hot,” Pete said. “Hot as shit. There’s a reason I don’t live down south.”
Andrew shook his head. “You’ll never understand,” he sighed and lay back in his chair and closed his eyes. Although the repeated sound of cars coming from behind was unsettling, Andrew enjoyed the idea of a blind conversation. It felt monumentally less treacherous.
“I’m thinking about calling Samantha,” Pete said. “Telling her about the hearts and how I found out who actually painted them.”
“That the girlfriend?” Andrew asked from the darkness.
“I really don’t see why you would do that.”
Pete didn’t answer and Andrew was forced to open his eyes and sit up. The boy’s face was a disaster of emotion. “Because I love her,” he said.
Andrew winced at the intimacy of the boy’s statement. It did not seem appropriate that he would share such details with a stranger. The boy’s sweating worsened, water now dripping from his forehead to his chin in a steady stream. Andrew felt a surge of embarrassment. “Have a little self-respect,” he snapped. “A little pride. If the girl left you, she left you. It’s time to move on.”
Pete frowned. “But what if I don’t want to move on? What if I can fix it?”
Andrew lay back in his chair and closed his eyes again. “The complications you create for yourself are confounding,” he grumbled. “Responsibilities will come your way soon enough. No use rushing them.”
Pete did not respond and Andrew decided to let his words percolate inside the boy’s brain, which led to a quiet long enough for Andrew to fall asleep. When he finally woke, Pete was gone and Andrew was left with a loneliness he had thought was long lost to him, the loneliness of his youth, of losing the one person who had made him feel alive, of a life forever dulled.
Pete convinced Andrew to take a walk through the redwood forest. It was a warm afternoon in late August and the leaves were still meaty enough to form a canopy over the trail, so much so that the forest felt like a cave. The air pulsed with the cleanliness of a recent rain and left Andrew with the sense of a beginning, an odd feeling for a man who focused on endings. “I like it here,” Andrew said.
“Yeah. It’s cool. You can do a lot of good thinking here.”
Andrew grunted and studied a redwood trunk big enough to swallow a car, an absolute marvel of nature. He pointed to the tree. “That, Pete, is all you should be thinking about. Nothing else.”
Pete smirked and picked up the pace. The boy’s natural gait was more of a run than a walk and although Andrew tried to keep up, he was soon panting like an old dog. Pete stopped and slapped his own cheek. “Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to walk that fast.”
“Nonsense,” Andrew barked. “I like it.”
“Nah,” Pete said. “I don’t feel like rushing today.”
A breeze trickled through the branches and the leaves began to flutter as if they were laughing, which made Andrew bristle. “It doesn’t matter to me,” he snapped. “If you want to meander like a little old lady, that’s your prerogative.”
Pete smiled and the two resumed their hike, albeit at a snail’s pace. They walked in silence for the next several minutes and Andrew wished the sun would work a little harder for he was chilled – although he would never say so.
“You know,” Pete said. “I don’t really have a dad. I mean I did at one point, but he left. Just sort of freaked out. I guess I kinda miss him.”
It had not occurred to Andrew that he might be a substitute for the boy’s father, and the thought made him uncomfortable. “I’m not your father,” he said. “I’m just an old man you have chosen, for some reason I will never understand, to befriend.”
Pete stopped and rested his hands on his hips. “I know,” he said. “That’s not what I mean. But you remind me of him.”
Andrew laughed. “Because he was a prick?”
Pete nodded. “And the military thing. Like I said, it really messed him up.” Pete started back walking. The boy’s pace was fast again but Andrew said nothing. He just trudged along as best he could, ignoring a strange prickle that raced down his left arm.
Pete expertly maneuvered a patch of wet earth riddled with roots and stones and dismantled cones and stood on the other side waiting on Andrew. With great concentration, Andrew lifted one foot at a time, directing each landing as if docking a ship in perilous waters. To Andrew’s surprise, Pete backtracked and placed a hand on Andrew’s elbow, guiding Andrew through the terrain. Embarrassed but aware he needed the boy’s help, Andrew said nothing.
When their feet returned to firm ground, Pete let go of Andrew’s arm. It was the loosening of the boy’s fingers that did it – that feeling of letting go, the unexpected stab of loss. Andrew’s eyes blurred and he stopped and blinked to clear them. Pete stopped as well and it seemed the two were caught in a still frame of a movie from which Andrew would never escape. “You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago,” Andrew said although he knew that was not exactly true. Pete looked nothing like Reyci. He acted nothing like Reyci. And yet the boy’s presence had somehow brought Reyci back – even on that first day. “He was my friend,” Andrew continued. “He died. Shot in the chest by a Japanese soldier he was trying to help.”
Andrew paused and allowed himself a moment to remember Reyci’s features. The sharpness of the chin and cheekbones. The green iridescence of the eyes. The straight, too small nose. The perpetually chapped, thin lips. The man could cripple Andrew with a wink, disable him with a touch, free and chain him with an embrace.
Andrew took a deep breath and forced himself to do the only thing he knew how to do: focus on Reyci’s faults. “It was stupid, really,” he said. “Helping a man who is trying to kill you, but that’s who he was. Too tender. Too concerned.” Andrew limped to the side of the trail where Mother Nature had bent a tree into a bench and took a seat. He reminded himself that he had done the honorable thing. Two weeks before Reyci had been blown to bits, Andrew had left him. Andrew packed that part of his life away and resolved to lead the life the world expected of him, the motivation being the promise he had made to Ellen. Real men, especially naval officers, did not break promises. They lived in accordance with the Code, and he would not now sing the sad song of a bird with a broken wing. Period. He would not do it.
Pete walked to within a foot of the bench but did not sit. Instead, he rocked from one foot to the other as if cradling a baby. “That’s kinda what I was talking about,” he said. “That the military can fuck a person up. I mean what if he hadn’t tried to help? Wouldn’t he just be dead in a different way?”
Andrew shook his head, forcing himself back to the conversation at hand. “There is only one way to be dead,” he said and slapped his leg.
“I don’t think so.”
“Your generation,” Andrew sighed. “You overthink. I assure you, there is only one way to be dead.”
Pete frowned and kicked at the dirt. “My dad came back from Iraq different,” he said. “Like the old him just got left there. He was angry as hell. Bitter. Explosive. And you could tell he couldn’t help it, and we would all just sit around and wait for him to flip out.”
Andrew grimaced. A determined army of ants marched past his left foot, and he could not help but be impressed and fortified by their industriousness. “Like I said when we met, not all men are strong.”
Pete made an S in the dirt with his right foot. “He came home a hitter, too. That was new.”
“Did he hit you?” Andrew asked.
“Yeah, well, all of us, I guess. Not just me.”
Andrew forced himself to stand. He wiped his pants clean, ignoring the anticipation lodged in the tilt of the boy’s head. “I don’t know what to say here,” Andrew admitted. “Hitting you was wrong and leaving you was wrong, but I can’t say why he did either – other than an obvious lack of courage.” Andrew shook each leg to get the blood flowing and resumed the hike.
Pete followed. “Why is it wrong he left?” he asked. “I mean I miss him and all, but we were better off without him. It wasn’t even him anymore. It was just this shattered person who hated himself and everybody else. My mom kept saying we were lucky. That it was a gift he left us so we didn’t have to leave him. I guess, after a while, I agreed.”
Abandonment is an act of cowardice, Andrew thought, but all he said was, “Let’s keep moving. It’s a long way back.”
Andrew situated himself on his steps just as he had seen Pete do on that first day. He studied the hearts, which had begun to fade. Everything has a lifespan, he thought. It’s only a matter of time. And then he thought something worse: he was becoming like the boy. Thoughts, ideas, niggled at him constantly and without reprieve. What if he had been truthful with Ellen? What if he had left her? What would her life have been like? Was happiness even real? But yes, it was real. He knew this because he had been happy with Reyci, no matter how hard he tried to convince himself otherwise. This reality led him to a dark place: he had stolen something from Ellen, and it could not be replaced.
To distract himself, he studied the hearts harder and hoped his brain would magically downshift. It helped a bit that the hearts really had begun to disintegrate as if little bugs had been gnawing around the edges. The heart he had painted was particularly wrecked and had lost one whole side of its body. But then, they were just silly little hearts, not sturdy enough to keep thoughts at bay, and the thinking returned. The first thought was a concrete, workable one. Painting on the sidewalk was a kind of littering. Defacing the concrete may even be a crime. After all, it was public property. How had he not thought of this before? And then he wondered what he would have done had he caught Pete painting them. Oh that boy would have had some lame-ass excuse, some new age, woe-is-me, I’ve-got-to-express-myself reason, which would have infuriated Andrew to the point where he might have even called the police.
But Andrew would never call the police on the boy now, a fact that made the real thinking, the percolating, resume. Why had Pete studied those hearts the way he did? Why did it matter? But then again, it wasn’t really studying the boy was doing. It was marveling. Or better said, what the boy’s girlfriend had done was marvel, and what Pete was trying to do was understand the marvel. Andrew could not help but wonder if that singular act, the decision to fight for someone against all odds, might not be an act of courage.
The wind picked up, as it had a tendency to do, and it seemed to Andrew it spoke: Get on with it, old man. It’s now or never.
Ellen studied Andrew’s reflection in her vanity mirror as she unlaced her bun and began her nightly ritual of combing her hair in long, slow strokes. “Something’s troubling you,” she said. “And I suspect it has to do with that boy.”
Andrew pushed his back into the pillows he had propped up for his evening read and placed his book on his lap. He had, momentarily, forgotten his thoughts, but now they came rushing back. “I do not understand why you insist on bringing that boy up day and night. He’s just a boy.”
Ellen placed her brush on the vanity and turned to face him. “But he’s not,” she said. “And I’m sorry for that.” She shook her head and stood, walking slowly to her side of the bed and pulling off her robe, which she folded over the wooden chair by the window. Silently, she slipped under the covers. “I do feel it was my fault,” she said. “I left you with Jessica quite purposefully. I thought you needed a little cheering.” She had not been facing him but rather looking again at his reflection, but now she turned and faced him directly. “I didn’t see the rest coming. The hearts?” She shook her head in disbelief. “The boy? None of it. I saw absolutely none of it.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. You’ve been talking in riddles ever since that boy arrived.”
Ellen smiled. “We’ve always spoken in riddles. You know that.”
Andrew’s shoulders knotted and lifted toward his ears. He looked down at his hands, which trembled slightly against the open pages of his book. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he said.
“Andrew,” Ellen snapped. “Is this really necessary?”
“Of course it’s necessary.”
Andrew’s stomach twisted to where he thought he might throw up. “There is something about me you don’t know.”
Her brow crinkled. “Doubtful,” she said. “Very doubtful.”
Andrew felt a strange surge of anger. Why wouldn’t she just let him speak his peace? “I’m gay,” he blurted and sat back to watch his world implode.
Ellen seemed unimpressed. “And?”
“What do you mean and? I’m gay. Gay for Christ’s sake.”
Ellen shook her head. “You thought I didn’t know?”
Bewildered, Andrew sat back into his pillows. He could think of nothing to say.
Her hand caressed his forearm. “Andrew, dear, I was quite happy with our arrangement.”
“We had an arrangement?”
Ellen frowned, and Andrew thought for a moment that perhaps she had no soul, but he knew that was not true. “You are an amazing woman,” he said. “Why would you settle?”
“Settle? I don’t settle. I didn’t settle.”
Andrew pushed her hand away and stood and walked to the window. He peered out into the lamp-lit San Francisco evening. It was a peaceful sight although it did not soothe him. He heard her push back the covers and walk toward him. Her hand landed on his left shoulder. “You are a wonderful husband and companion,” she said. “I happen to care for you deeply.”
“Care for me deeply? Didn’t you ever want more than to care for someone deeply?”
Her hand slid from his shoulder. She took a deep breath. “Of course I did, and I had that. Andrew, you are not suggesting …
Andrew’s eyebrows crinkled. He turned to face her.
“Roger Callows,” she said. “He was the love of my life. Twenty-three years we were together.”
Andrew felt a burning in his chest. His neck itched as if crawling with bugs. “Roger?” he demanded. “That bastard from the club?”
Ellen nodded, her face as stoic as if reading the mundane items of a grocery list.
“Twenty-three years? That’s impossible. How could I not have known?”
She crossed her hands over her chest. “That is an excellent question,” she said. “How could you possibly not have known? I didn’t hide it from you.”
He shook his head as if he did not know the answer to the question, but he did know. He had chosen not to see. His whole body tightened.
It suddenly seemed Ellen was a stranger, and he took her hand in his and studied it in the way he always had, which was when he realized that this act was, in a quiet way, a type of marveling. He did love and appreciate his wife in the way one might love and appreciate a sculpture. But he hated her, too. Especially now. For she was the one who had done the robbing. And yet, he knew that was not exactly true either.
“Does this mean you were alone?” she asked. “All these years?” The pity in her eyes was more than he could take and Andrew turned his gaze to the floor and the worn Oriental rug that had felt soft against the soles of his feet for decades. There had been times when the comforts of his home had felt like indictments, and he understood that those times had followed his own, short-lived infidelities. There had only been a handful, maybe seven or eight, none of which had anything to do with love, and they had been painful, shame-filled endeavors that had made him feel filthier than a flea on a feral dog.
The light outside the window seemed to shift. Perhaps the neighbors had simultaneously turned out bedroom lights or closed doors, or perhaps the clouds had gathered at the base of the moon. Whatever the reason, the room grew darker, and Andrew felt suddenly very tired. He decided he would sleep, simply close his eyes and drift away.
Story by Lisa Youngblood
Art by Zoe Mazurkiewicz