The Giants had just won the Super Bowl and the spring semester was underway. The forecast had called for snow, but the morning was unseasonably mild, as the rest of the winter had been, and it didn't feel like snow—there was even a faint, damp smell of spring in the air. Jeff walked down the steps of Penn Station holding coffee in one hand and a white, paper shopping bag in the other. When Alex invited him to her home for dinner, Jeff wasn't surprised. They had been friends in high school even before she'd started dating his best friend, Ethan. Once Alex and Ethan began dating, they had drifted apart due to the murky territorial boundaries that arose between friends and their girlfriends. But during college they reconnected: he feeling lonely at his rural Vermont school and she feeling stifled in the middle of a New York City dorm. And now Alex was married to a guy ten years older than her and she had just had her first child, a baby girl named Kayla, six months earlier.
Jeff bought a ticket from one of the machines and walked down to the train. He sat by a window and placed his white bag next to him. He had brought two bottles of wine, a box of cookies from an Italian bakery near his apartment and a very soft, stuffed monkey from FAO Schwartz. It had been three years since Jeff had seen Alex—he had even missed her wedding—and he was very moved by her invitation. She had invited him to come out in the fall right after the baby was born, but it had taken Jeff a few months to organize himself and his life in order to visit her on Long Island.
As the train started, Jeff looked down at his phone. There were five voice messages that he had not listened to. One was from his father, the other from his friend Ashley, one from a professor in his department, and two from Olivia—the student he had just finished having an affair with. He wasn't going to listen to any of the messages, so he put the phone away.
The train moved above ground, passing old, large, ivy-lined Forest Hills apartment buildings. He thought of Alex. She had been one of the prettiest girls in school and had looked exactly like Pocahontas. They had first known each other during the summer vacation when Jeff was fifteen and Alex was fourteen. It was one of those impossible summer days when everything is too hot and too bright and there is nothing to do. He and his friends were sitting at the picnic benches by the Shore Deli when Alex and some of her friends from her grade showed up. Jeff had known Alex from study hall, so he said hello and the girls joined them. The whole group decided to walk along the harbor to a small beach near Jeff's street. So they walked in the bright heat along the water and, since Jeff was the most comfortable talking with girls at the time, he walked in front with Alex and her friends while his buddies tried to awkwardly make conversation as they hit each other with long reeds from the marsh. Jeff couldn't remember what they ended up doing, but he could remember the hot pavement, the ducks honking and the people setting their boats off in the harbor to ride out into the Sound.
Jeff transferred trains and, before he knew it, the two hour ride was over. The train pulled past the playing fields of the University and slowed to a stop at his hometown station. He got off and frowned so that anyone from his past who might be at the station would have a harder time recognizing or approaching him. Jeff crossed the track and walked along the parking lot. An old, blue, Jeep Grand Cherokee honked its horn and pulled alongside him.
He looked up and saw a guy with a reddish face and a well-kept brown beard. It was Alex's husband.
“We've definitely met before.”
“I thought we had. C'mon get in. You can put your stuff in the back.”
Jeff opened the door and saw the baby's car seat. He placed his bag on the floor below it.
“Thanks for coming out,” John said as they left the station. “I know you're busy.”
“No, just disorganized. I should've made it sooner.”
“That's alright, Kayla's only starting to crawl now, which is early I guess.”
“I saw the pictures.”
They passed the Clark School and headed toward Alex's neighborhood. She and John had moved to a small house up the street from the home that Alex had grown up in. That house was a big, old Tudor home filled with strange corners and hallways as well as a large, spacious concrete porch that wrapped around nearly the entire house. Jeff remembered sitting out there with friends when they were in high school on a rainy Friday night. They had lit candles and he forced them to play a game where they all confessed the things they disliked most about each other. He was always trying to push some kind of emotional brutality back then.
“We went to the parade this week. Some run that was.”
“Don't talk about it,” Jeff said, feigning disgust.
“I'm a Skins fan.”
“I'm sorry about that.”
“Yeah, they stink.”
Jeff looked out the window as they rode onto Alex's block. The lawns were neatly maintained. The trees were bare and the grass was a dull sea-green color, which was one of the things that made a Long Island winter so hopeless. They passed Alex's old house. Jeff smiled at the U-shaped driveway, the small stairway up to the kitchen's screen door and the thin willow tree that stood in the front yard.
John pulled onto a small road that Jeff didn't remember. The street was tight with parked cars and unkempt with dead, littered leaves. They turned into a driveway that was lined with thick hedges along the right side.
John stopped the car. “This is it.”
Jeff got out and grabbed his white bag of gifts from below the car seat. The front lawn was small but free of leaves. On the far side of the yard was a thicket of woods that nearly hid the home next door. They walked on the grass up to the house. It was blue and narrow, but it was tall; it was a sort of ageless house that Jeff associated with his youth. It wasn't quite a Cape Cod, but it wasn't quite anything else. In the fleeting moments when he romanced his profession, he imagined living in a house like this in some small college town somewhere out in the world—the vision was never filled out by more detail than that.
John opened the front door and a jingle bell chimed from the inside knob. Jeff stepped in and was met by a friendly, grey pit bull mutt who trotted down the stairs to greet him. The dog pawed Jeff's leg.
“Sadie, back it up,” John said.
Jeff held the white bag under his right arm and awkwardly bent to pet the dog with his left hand. The dog curled, sticking its hind towards him and blissfully showed its teeth. Many times lying in bed, Olivia told him stories about the two pit bull mutts she had grown up with back in Ohio.
“Nice, pup,” Jeff said.
“I'll take that bag for you,” John said, pulling the bag from his arm and walking down the hall. “Alex! Company's here!”
Jeff followed John past the stairway. The hallway led to a den where John turned right immediately. There were colored wood shapes, a pink rattle and a variety of stuffed animals littered on a large, thick area rug that covered the wood floor. Jeff paused and looked at the long sectional couch and the fireplace on the far wall. His gaze stuck on a smiling, bright green stuffed snake that lay lifeless with goggle eyes on the floor.
“Oh my, God,” he heard Alex's voice.
He turned and there she was. She was just as thin and tan as she had always been. She smiled at him and her eyes became slits. He hugged her. There was a faint smell of the perfume she used to wear, but it was hidden by the more prevalent smell of baby powder.
“You're so thin,” she said.
“I was going to say the same thing.”
“Don't you eat at all?”
“Sure, I do.”
“Well, you'll eat here.”
He looked at her and didn't want to smile too broadly. She was still beautiful and he felt his heart flutter just looking at her. He wanted to be silent and just take in her shape, but he knew he had to say something.
“Thanks for pushing me to come out here.”
“Oh, it was such a struggle?”
“No, that's not what I meant.”
She hugged him and poked him in his side.
“I know,” she said. “The baby is sleeping. Come into the kitchen. Have a drink. I know you won't get comfortable until you have a drink.”
Jeff sighed and shook his head. He followed her into the kitchen. Outside, through the back windows, he saw John picking up branches and other pieces of brush.
“Did you get that bad wind storm in the city?”
“Do you want a drink? John bought some beers or I've got some good bourbon I've been saving.”
Jeff looked at John out in the yard. It was still early afternoon, but the desperate winter sun would begin to set soon.
“No, that's alright,” he said.
“What about tea?”
Alex boiled water and poured cups of Darjeeling tea. They talked. Jeff had forgotten the rhythm of her conversation, but it slowly came back to him as she explained giving birth to Kayla right in the house. She had a way of, not quite mumbling, but lowering her voice so that her words trickled along, and every now then she would speak loudly—always remaining feminine—while she described some distinct action such as John's face when he first held Kayla, or the searing pain in her thighs while she gave birth on their bedroom floor.
“I'm one for slow cooking and eating locally and organically,” she said, “but I did not plan for a birth without drugs.”
She retained some kind of girlish quality from the teenage days and nights they'd spent together. Jeff couldn't place it, but he felt it had something to do with her facial features. Though, from afar, everything about Alex seemed sharp, fit and well assembled, her face had secretly soft, round edges to it. An image of Olivia with her own round face came to him. She was standing in the dim lamplight next to the desk in his bedroom, her fingers lightly touching his collection of pens. She only had on her college sweatshirt with its formerly bold, white initials on the front. Her parents had probably bought it for her when she had visited the school with them for the first time.
Jeff drank the warm tea and focused back on Alex.
“Do you still like teaching in the city?” she asked.
“There have been some ups and downs, but overall, yeah.”
“I don't know how you do it. I wanted to get out of there as soon as I graduated.”
“I know. The city never took for you.”
“Who knew? I thought I was meant for the design world. But now,” she paused, “We'll see.”
John walked into the house from the backyard.
“God, Al. That storm blew crap everywhere.”
Jeff smiled. He was the only one that had ever called her Al when they were younger.
“Are you cold?” she asked John.
“It's not bad out.”
“Have some tea.”
He took a sip and then turned to Jeff.
“You want a beer?”
Jeff nodded out of instinct and John went out to the garage. Alex got up and walked over to his end of the table. She put her hand on his shoulder.
“I'm going to start dinner before I get the baby up. You two can watch college football or something.”
“It's basketball now.”
“I'm supposed to know that,” Alex whispered and then shook her head. “Go, Giants!”
Jeff held his head in mock-shame and John re-emerged from the garage carrying two bottles of Blue Moon beer. He handed one to Jeff and the bottle was so cold that it slightly stuck to his hand.
“We'll go keep ourselves busy,” John said.
Jeff followed him down the hall into the den. The dog, Sadie, was lying calmly on the couch. She lifted her head as they sat and wagged her tail slightly. John turned on the TV. Georgetown and Pittsburgh were playing. Jeff and John both sat, listening to the pleasant noise of sneakers on wood mixed with the constant chatter of the college cheering sections.
“Your school's team isn't that good,” John said.
“They're never on TV that's for sure.”
John laughed, “Yeah, it's a shame they're breaking up the Big East.”
“I know. There's something classic about it. Georgetown and Syracuse. St. John's and UConn.”
“You're an English professor right?”
“Yes. Sort of.”
“I thought that's what Alex said.”
They sat quietly and watched the game. The score was close and low-scoring like all Big East games were and, from the kitchen, Jeff could hear Alex moving pots and pans. John had always been around town when Jeff and Alex were younger, and even then it seemed as though he were almost forty. When Jeff was a teenager and was out all night, he would see John in the Shore Deli on weekend mornings eating first eggs. There was something about John that tied into the oldness of the town, of the fishing past and the colonial history—it was something that Jeff never felt a part of. Slowly, the smell of dinner emerged from the kitchen. In the game, the teams were fighting over a loose ball and a little skirmish had started.
“That's what we'll miss.”
“So you work for the town?” Jeff asked.
“I manage the arboretum.”
“That's the only place I go when I visit, and I don't visit often.”
“It's beautiful. You should stop by the main house and say hello sometime.”
From upstairs, distant cries began to drift down into the den. John finished his beer and raised his eyes to the ceiling.
“Someone knows that company is here.”
He got up from the couch and went to the stairs. Jeff listened to the heavy footfalls as John made his way up to the second floor. Alex came from the kitchen and looked into the den.
“He heard her?”
“Now you get to meet my little girl.”
“It smells good,” Jeff pointed toward the kitchen.
Alex smiled and leaned against the wall. John came from upstairs, rocking the baby against his broad, round shoulders. The baby was wearing full-length, light pink pajamas and her eyes were wide as she surveyed the room.
“Kayla, say hi to, Jeff,” Alex cooed.
John sat down on the couch next to Jeff and turned the baby so that she was facing outward. The pink pajamas had little bumblebees sporadically placed at different areas.
The baby stared at him wide-eyed and moved her lips slightly. Jeff tried to imagine what her mind was processing. Out of reflex, he smiled. The baby, seeing his smile, mimicked it and then turned its head abruptly back up towards John. John propped her on his lap.
“Do you want to hold her?” John asked.
“No, that's alright. Maybe later.”
John set the baby down on the floor and she began to crawl towards the stuffed animals that had been strewn about.
“She's beautiful, Al.” Jeff said.
He could feel John look at him for a moment.
“Thank you,” Alex said.
“I'll get us another beer,” John said.
He and Alex walked back into the kitchen and Jeff sat on the couch looking at the baby as she grabbed her rattle and began to shake it. Every now and then she would stop and glance at the light and images from the TV before resuming, which caused the dog to open its eyes—just a cursory glance to make sure everything was alright. While he waited for John to come back, Jeff watched as Pittsburgh won the game and the afternoon light slowly began to fade from the room. He pulled out his phone and looked at the messages again. For a moment he imagined what Olivia was doing—a Saturday in New York at twenty-one—but he let the thought pass and wondered if maybe he should sit on the floor and play with the baby.
John emerged carrying two more beers and a bottle of milk. He gave the milk to the baby, turned on the standing corner lamp, and passed another beer to Jeff.
“Al's almost ready for us,” he said.
They sat and watched the baby and made passing comments about sports. Jeff wasn't sure what kind of politics John ascribed to, so he didn't mention the upcoming election; he wasn't very interested in talking about it anyway. As soon as they both realized that they were watching the news, Alex came in and told them that dinner was ready.
She had made a roast chicken with mashed potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts. She had made a salad as well. It amazed Jeff that Alex had been able to get all that accomplished in just one room over. The baby sat at the head of the table in its high-chair and Alex alternated eating from her own plate and then feeding the baby spoonfuls of her vegetable puree. After they had started eating, Alex reminded Jeff about the wine he brought. He jumped up quickly and got the bottles. Alex pointed out the glasses and Jeff grabbed three, opened the bottle and poured them each a glass as deftly as he was capable. They toasted to old friends and drank the wine and steadfastly continued to eat. Jeff marveled at the baby. She was so well behaved and barely made a mess on her bib whenever Alex fed her—she was merely content to sit and watch everything that went on. Jeff laughed to himself. He felt almost envious at the fact that the baby could just sit and watch.
Eventually everyone finished eating. Jeff offered to clear the table and clean the dishes, but John insisted that he sit and drink and enjoy his wine. Instead, Alex suggested that he could make a fire in the small parlor room. Jeff was feeling warm and almost drunk and was happy to accommodate the request. He went to the fireplace and saw that Alex and John already had newspaper and small pieces of tinder ready, as well as four logs stacked neatly in a holder. Jeff set the pieces of tinder in a square, put the paper underneath, lit it and, once the tinder caught, placed two logs on top of the flame. The logs slowly began to smoke and the fire was underway.
He sat by the fire with his glass and the second bottle of wine and waited for Alex and John. After a few moments, they walked into the room carrying the baby. As they entered, John turned on a dimmer switch with his free hand. Jeff smiled, realizing that in his slightly inebriated, pleasant state he had been sitting in and enjoying the dark. Jeff refilled glasses of wine for John and Alex and they all sat and looked at the fire.
“What's the schedule at, Al?” John asked.
“I think we can give her a bottle and put her to bed. They say you should try to get them to sleep eleven to twelve hours at this age.”
“Does she do it?” Jeff asked.
John shook his head.
“Want me to take her?” Alex said.
“No, its fine. You guys sit.”
John walked back into the kitchen and Jeff could hear the refrigerator door open and glide shut.
“So what do you think?” Alex said.
She laughed. “I don't know. You used to be perceptive.”
“No, I mean, it's all great. You guys are great. The baby is beautiful.”
“You've really become something.”
“And I wasn't always?”
Jeff could hear John's feet stomping up the stairs.
“No, you were. But now you really are.”
Alex finished her wine and held her glass out. Jeff poured her another.
“I still remember that night in the rain when you made us all say all those terrible things to each other.”
“No one else would have done it.”
“I told that story in college and no one believed me.”
“What do you want? Life was boring. I didn't want to be bored the same way everyone else was bored.”
Alex laughed again. “But you're not ready to settle down are you?”
Jeff took a drink of his wine and shook his head.
“No, I could. I don't know.”
“You're not ready?”
“Maybe. I like this. I would like to have a daughter like you.”
“And you're happy?”
“As far as I know.”
“It seems like it. And John's great. He's a good guy.”
“Here, let me pour you some more wine.”
Jeff held out his glass.
“Are you seeing anyone?” she asked.
“No. I just finished seeing someone.”
“She was a student.”
“Shut up! You wouldn't.”
“Alright. No, she was actually a woman I met on the subway. I was leaving the department late and I got on the train and she was holding a copy of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. No one reads that book, so I had to ask her about it. We hit it off and started seeing each other.”
“I don't know. It just kind of fizzled. You know how things are.”
They were quiet for a moment and looked at the fire and drank wine.
“Why don't you stay over? Just get real drunk. The couch pulls out.”
“C'mon I'll make breakfast and everything.”
“No, I should go back.”
“Don't be stubborn.”
Jeff felt the wine warm in his face and he felt good but he also felt slightly angry. He wasn't stubborn, but he wanted to tell her that he just wasn't like her. He couldn't stay here with her and her husband. He wasn't in love with her and he wasn't jealous that John had her. And he wasn't jealous of her well-behaved baby—he just couldn't stay. But he didn't say any of it. Instead, he drank his wine.
“OK,” he said. “You've convinced me.”
“You're making a wise choice.”
John's footsteps once again came from the stairs and he entered the little parlor room.
“Jeff has decided to stay,” Alex said.
“Great. We can pull out the couch.”
Jeff smiled. “That'll be fine.”
Alex put down her wine and stuck one finger in the air. “Didn't you say you were bringing sweets for me?”
Jeff got up and went to his white bag and pulled out the white box of cookies he had brought. He set them down on the coffee table in front of the fire. John put the last log on and as the light from the fire began to pick up, Jeff looked at Alex. She held a ridged sugar cookie in her hand and brought it to her mouth. She took a bite and chewed slowly and Jeff watched as the dim orange from the fire played along the secret round edges of her face.
It was dark and the house was silent.
Jeff got up from the fold-out bed. He quietly pulled the sheet and blanket off the thin mattress and then put the couch back to its rightful position. He folded the covers and placed them gently on the couch. It took him a moment to find his shoes in the dark, but he put them on and groped his way towards the door, hoping that he wouldn't wake the dog. By the door, he opened the narrow coat closet and searched for his jacket tag. After two sweeps through, he found it. He put the coat on, took one more look around the house and walked out into the night.
It had turned very cold, so he walked briskly along the silent streets, hearing each footstep echo out into the empty night. The windows were dark in every home. The walk seemed to drag on forever and for a moment he thought he was lost. Finally, he made it to the train station and he checked his phone: there were still ten minutes until the last train—he had timed it perfectly.
He bought a ticket, crossed the tracks to the westbound side and huddled in the waiting booth. Further down the platform there were two similarly, shivering forms. After what seemed like longer than ten minutes, the train arrived and Jeff rushed into the warmth and the harsh fluorescent light. He slouched in a seat and tried not to doze off. He thought about Alex. What was it that kept her so beautiful? She wasn't the same girl that he'd known, but yet, it seemed as though she was now more herself than she had ever been before. How did that happen? Was that what being a mother meant? He didn't want to think about it.
It was just past one o'clock. Jeff transferred trains and sat in one of the long three-seaters, falling in and out of sleep. He had a strange dream about fighting with Olivia that disturbed him and caused him to sit upright. The train was just going underground into Penn Station. He yawned, stretched and stood. The train finally came to a stop. He got out and made his way to the street, passing drunken girls in short skirts and long coats with overabrasive boyfriends; pan-handling, red-faced bums and exhausted municipal workers.
When he got to the street, he noticed that light flakes were beginning to fall. Seventh Avenue was still filled with traffic and he started walking toward Herald Square to catch the subway. As he walked along 32nd Street and smelled the faded odor of fried potatoes and grease, he paused for a moment and looked up. The flakes were very small and could barely be seen amid the lights of the city. Jeff resumed walking and thought about where he was going. He was going to his apartment, he was going home, but he didn't know why.
As the delicate snow continued to fall and dampen his jacket, Jeff remembered that he had never given Alex's daughter the stuffed monkey he had bought for her. He reached the subway steps, stuck his hands deep in his pockets. The night was warmer in the city, but he wished that he could remember things better.