Porter sits on the back porch steps. At Maureen’s. He is waiting for her. For her to come out. For her to bring the coffee she is making.
The air is cool, and a blanket of mist covers the tops of the white pines, blocking his view of the water, which lies down the steep sandy slope behind her house.
He brought pastries from home. It is Sunday morning. He has not read the Times yet. It lays folded on the stair next to him. They will read it together later. Maybe walk to the beach.
They had met at a school function. The class play. That was a year ago. She taught English there. His children had gone to the school, though they never were in her class. One of them, his youngest, was set to graduate next year.
She was standing behind him during intermission. On the line for water and chocolate chip cookies.
“Saramago,” she said.
She pointed to the book he was holding.
“I have just started it. I like it so far.”
She introduced herself. She knew who he was. Which one of the students was his. They talked until the lights flashed on and off.
He watched her walk back to her seat, down the side aisle to a seat near the front. His eyes were drawn to her, waiting for her turn around. She did not.
During the next week he wrote a note to her, leaving it in her mail slot in the school office.
From inside the house, he hears the kitchen telephone ring and hears her answer it. The coffee would take longer. He thinks of going in to finish it up for her. She was less concerned than he was about it. About the coffee. He knows she thinks he is finicky about the coffee. In truth, though, she has never said that. Rather, she had asked him to show her how make it the way he liked it. What beans to use. How long it must steep.
“Who was on the phone?” he says when she comes out.
“It was Henry. He thinks he left his squash racquet here.”
Henry had lived with Maureen for three years. He was also a teacher. They shared in paying the rent. All the bills. She broke it off with him in the weeks after she met Porter, after they had spent time together. Kissed in a way that fed them both.
And when she asked Henry to leave, he moved his things out of the house, taking the bed with him, leaving Maureen to sleep on the couch in the living room until she could buy a new one. One that Porter found for her. One that a friend of his was selling before his move to Arizona. One he helped her pay for. The one he and Maureen made love on, on evenings when her children were staying at her ex-husband’s house and his daughter was with his ex.
Maureen sets down the tray with the coffee and the pastries he brought on the porch steps and sits next to him. Porter pulls her close. Her shoulders relax and fold in against his chest. He breathes in the earthiness of the skin on her forehead. He pulls her closer still.
Her physical presence stirs him. She is trim. Muscular. In some ways boy-like. In others, totally womanly—the curve of her smooth, rounded buttocks, the swell of her breasts, her head of thick black ringlets, her soft, confident voice. He craves this closeness with her.
She is older than he is. A couple of years. This is something that they both like.
She looks up toward him, smiles, waiting for him to smile back. A small muscle in the corner of her eyelid quivers. He notices it and sees a ripple of disquiet cross her face, like an unexpected breeze riffling the surface of a pond.
They sip their coffee. Share a Linzer tart. He kisses the powdered sugar from her lips. Licks the raspberry jam from her chin.
A moment passes between them
A silence hangs in the air. A silence that they both feel. A silent space in which he could say he loves her. But he does not. A silent space that is filled with reticence. Her reticence. Her fear of asking more from him. Her fear that time is running out. And his. His reticence to engage. A reticence that wearies him. One that wears on him when they are not together, but which he cannot parse. At least not entirely.
“Is there someone else?” she says.
“Then what is wrong?”
“I don’t know.”
He knows immediately that that is the wrong answer. Because it is not true, and because it hurts her. He does know what is wrong. He wants what they have. But no more. The coffee, the newspaper conversation, the books, and the love-making. It is, to him, all like a soft blanket that he can tuck beneath his chin at night. One that soothes and warms him. But one that, at two or three in the morning proves to be much too warm, smothering, which he must pull away and cast off.
He touches her arm and she looks at him. She sees things she does not want to see. She wishes it were different.
They look away from one another. Down the slope to the water.
She gets up. “I’ll get us some more coffee,” she says.
He wants to say something but no words come.