It’s late in Hampstead and my coat is too thin. It may as well be midnight, but it’s just before dinnertime and he thinks I’m not watching him make his way home: his slightly tipped lope, his bag slung on his shoulder. He doesn’t look back to check on me, and it’s about to snow. We take the train in every morning and back every night, but as we approach Belsize Park, we stop touching each other. Standing close, his body starts to turn against me and halfway up the stairs I see it: the angry look he might shoot my way if anything were to happen to compromise his situation.
When we come up from the Underground, the cold air should slap me aware, but it doesn’t. Though I know I am heading south toward my third floor flat with brown carpet and borrowed furniture, most nights I stick to my role; but this night, after we get to the top of the stairs and don’t say goodbye, I stand and I watch him as he goes.
He looks both ways and crosses the road as I follow him up the High Street. I move north and when he passes the store where we once bought hard sausages and cheese, he waves at somebody. Without his seeing me, I cross the street and am amazed I can keep him in sight all the way down his road until the moment he mounts the first step, stands on the porch and uses his key to open the door, and then crosses the threshold. He disappears and I am emptied. There’s nowhere else to go, so I follow him.
The front porch light shuts off, because he’s staying in for the night. The streetlamps come on and the snowflakes that fall inside the light fall slowly, fall the way god’s words might fall if he were speaking to me, saying something more than science moving water to ice, and I am moving as slowly as the snowflakes are falling as I cross the street in black suede boots to my knees and black cotton stockings. My long black coat is open in the front, the belt not tied, and there’s no sound under my feet as I step up onto their front porch.
I press my ear against the front door painted a pale grey-green the color of my eyes sometimes, but my eyes are mercurial: blue when the sky is blue, teal when I wear teal; they are, like me, pretty much anything you want them to be.
The doorknob is brass and old, splotched with patches of black where hands have touched and turned it without ever thinking about leaving traces. The snow is falling up, like a light wind is carrying it, instead of letting it fall. Everything on the street is quiet as a whisper. Every human in each house conspires to leave me there standing alone with a pane of frosted glass that keeps him from seeing me, through which I can hear his voice.
He calls hello, and upstairs she closes the door behind her. The small latch clicks, and her leather shoes brush each stair as she walks down to the kitchen. I can almost hear her camel wool slacks, Ferragamo flats that match her slacks, as she moves into the kitchen just footsteps from where I stand on concrete steps with a scarf that muffles the sound of my breath.
Mauro’s accent is more English when he’s with her, more American when he’s with me, but tonight I hear it all confused like a chameleon falling too fast from one branch to another. He stalls with the mail, flips through bills while her shoes click in short shuffles on the old hexagons of brick that are her kitchen floor, because she’s setting the table. The lettuce is already in the wood bowl, so he picks up a knife and chops scallions I can almost see.
“What was the writing like?” he asks.
She lays out the silverware and also the final plot twist she worked out over a short glass of whiskey this evening, before he got home. They trade places in the kitchen and she takes the knife and cutting board and he steps away to open a bottle of wine. The cork pops. My ear is pressed firmly to the glass, or I will lose bits of what they’re saying.
“You’d never just toss them in whole, would you.” His tone has changed and I realize he’s just evoked me in the tomatoes I toss in whole. The baby tomatoes I toss into a salad without cutting them in half.
“You mean the tomatoes?” she says with a soft a in tomato, her voice smaller than I expected. “I could. Mauro, do you want them whole?” I realize she knows I exist. Standing with my neck twisted in the cold, the tender lobe of my ear numb against the icy pane. She assumes I am an enhancement for Mauro, a young woman somewhere warm with my own glass of wine, Spanish cheese on a cracker in my hand, alluring friend’s with wit and invisible enticements.
Her voice is vulnerable when she offers to cut the tomatoes in half.
She’s not what I had imagined when, one day two years before, she took the chair across from me in the lobby of the library in Los Angeles: she seemed all angles and absolutes, nothing vulnerable, nothing uncertain or wary. She had sat with a stack of books as long as her body, sat down across from me where I’d already been sitting waiting for a swim in the pool with Mauro, and I knew her from her photograph, the author’s photo on the back of a book I borrowed, once I found out she existed. He’d not told me right away. She sat so close that day, I could smell she smelled of must, mostly, but also a spritz of tired Chanel. Her clothes too big for her body, she was old enough to be my mother, which struck me as odd because in no way was he old enough to be my father.
She looked like my mother when she turned her head to the right, her neck muscle thick with tension. She knew nothing about me, then, and I almost said something to her that day. “I’ve read all your novels,” I almost said. “I learned of them from Professor Martins,” I almost said.
There is the sound of a heavy clay bowl placed on the table and it smells like it’s probably filled with a sauce rich with anchovies and oregano. I know what he likes, because he’s taught me what he likes, and I have a small library, in my heart, of wines he loves and cheeses. I can picture the table just the way it is, because he’s taught me how to make it so. So, I know what they are doing as they place cloth napkins on their laps, then sip a wise Bordeaux.
“I’ve decided to introduce a gun,” she says.
“I know.” Her father is an Irish writer, so she knows. “But I think it makes sense. Where I want it, I think it’s inevitable.”
I’ve been inside before. I’ve sat at the edge of their bed to watch Mauro shave, while he shaved crept into her closet to discover things about her, and also her study. So now I see it, without leaving my vigil at the front door. Her study where she would have sat all day with pots of tea and nothing to eat. He worried about her, because she’d get to writing and never leave the house, never break for a bite to eat. I can imagine her index cards with scribbles and notes, and then also the postcards, and the drawings she’s made of places in the book. The mess in the room, the piles of books by the twin bed covered with an Indian bedspread bought at a store in Chelsea, after they married the very year I was born.
“Has to be inevitable,” he says. “Say more.”
I hear why he stays with her. I listen to her voice rise and fall, and I know why he stays with her. The house is plain except for the clutter of words and bright color in her small study. The red shoes and one red dress in her closet to the right of his side of the bed. Without her in the house, there’d be no sound of typewriter, no eraser erasing their son who has no room there, is grown and gone and barely managed to survive the day she threw herself down the stairs trying to abort him, or the rage that mangled Mauro’s glasses and threw a typewriter out a window in Rome. Without her there, Mauro would have been alone.
They are eating dinner together and the conversation grows quiet, though she’s still describing the reason for a gun and he’s still pouring glasses of broody wine, when I hear a throat clearing and it comes from somewhere behind me.
I’ve lost the world and it’s hard to turn my head, as if the joint is frozen, but when I do, when I turn my neck, and then my body, there’s a bobby standing on the sidewalk beyond their front steps.
He stands calm, not close to the stairs, but close to the street and I don’t know how long he’s been watching me. The snow has stopped falling and it’s made the world calm, the way a blanket does.
“It’s his wife inside,” the bobby’s voice is low, and I step away from the door, out from under the gable. He nods up the street and waits for me to walk away from the door and follow him. Past fifteen Georgian houses, neither of us speaks a word until we sit on a bench on the High Street, sit on a bench where he says, “You know you deserve more.” His accent is strong. “I’d like to stay with you till you feel ready to go home. Where are you from?” I tell him about California and he follows every word. Light snow falls as he tells me about his wife and newborn son.