Will emptied all the ashtrays, though nobody smoked, he had stopped years ago, and there were only a few candy wrappers to shake out in the trash. Then he ran a vacuum around the place perfunctorily and briefly dusted with a new, easy—you could hardly call it an appliance, it was just a stick with a sort of cloth attached, though apparently it was a goldmine for whoever had been smart enough to invent it; he owned one, didn't he? Afterwards, he wasn't winded, his energy was high, he had done a mediocre job of cleaning because he was nervous and excited, not because he was tired, he never was, never even considered being—and his mind was racing like this because he was eager, not addled, or however someone his age was always portrayed.
He didn't feel his age, sixty-five, however that was supposed to feel, and he didn't look it, believed he looked fifty-five if that, since he was still in shape and had a full head of gray hair. The woman he was awaiting and quickly cleaning up for was twenty-eight or thirty, and that's how he felt, too: young.
Will had straightened up the bedroom last and least, merely plumping (was that the word? his mind was moving again, but out of jitteriness not because it was foggy or cobwebby or whatever word was always used in news stories about "seniors" who hit the gas when they mean to brake and sail and crash into benches full of innocent people in public parks) merely plumping the pillows, because he did not want to press his luck by preparing a room into which he might not be lucky enough to persuade his guest to go. An undergraduate would have felt the same; there was no difference in attitude between them, regardless of their ages: they were both young.
Will's wife, Jane, was young, too, youngish, no student but forty-one, and she would be away at work all day. For years, Will had been an art teacher in the city's public schools (representational work, he could never abide abstraction) and he had met Jane—who was in the mayor's office as an educational liaison—three years ago at a function. She had thought him charming and slightly rugged, which he supposed he was in a way, an Army veteran and all, which most of the young men she knew were not and never would be, and he had thought her, well, classy, to use an old world word, and beautiful, to put it mildly, and things had progressed from there. He said theirs was a Tracy-Hepburn kind of relationship, a reference she only vaguely recognized, and so one he soon stopped making.
Some of her female friends had wondered aloud at their age difference, but Jane said she liked her work, didn't want kids—and Will already had two sons from two earlier marriages, each ended by divorce—and she never liked conventions, anyway, and maybe she liked older men, what do you think about that? she'd say and laugh, somewhat but not too defensively, he didn't think. They had gotten married right after his retirement and, with their combined savings, had bought a house ninety miles north of the city, which was where he was now.
Will had looked forward to staying all day in the house, free at last to paint, which his teaching schedule had never allowed, while Jane commuted with the occasional sleepover at her old digs in the village which she had kept; he had at long last let his own apartment go.
Now Will swiftly stacked some newspapers but didn't bother to throw them away. If things hadn't turned out exactly as he had hoped, whose fault was that? How was he to know that, in a matter of months, staying home all day to paint would be unbearable, that he would get nothing done, that he would miss the contact of students and faculty, despite how often he had hated them both, and that if he had really wanted to stay home and paint he would have found a way to do it all those years ago, would have made it a priority in his life instead of a constantly deferred—intentionally, it turned out—dream.
And it wasn't Jane's fault that she was who she was—a somewhat cool woman without a great deal of interest in romance or sex or much of anything except city government, who seemed to like having him at home, safely ensconced, where she could keep an eye (or, since their main form of communication had turned out to be the telephone, an ear) on him. Her father had been largely absent and maybe this was her way to control and corral an older man, said one of those friends, an amateur shrink Will couldn't stand and whose suggestion Jane immediately and testily rejected.
It was no one's fault that, far from free, Will felt at once put out to pasture and into a cage, if such a thing was conceivable, both abandoned and imprisoned, treated as a pet and a threat—it was just the way things turned out, that's all, that was the extent of his thoughtfulness. Though he thought he'd tired of it, he missed the city, sometimes dreamed of himself as in a science-fiction film, a giant reaching from an ocean to embrace the skyline, but suddenly caught and stuck in quicksand (which was the country? he was no "brilliant" interpreter of symbols, like Jane's friend) and deterred, kept ever at a distance. He missed action; it was too early for him to be entombed; he was alive and so, to his way of thinking, he was and always would be young.
Will straightened a framed poster on the wall from a Monet show at the Met which had been an inspiration at first and now was merely an irritant. The whole house—starkly modern in design, airy and blindingly bright, isolated off a main road and built in the middle of a sort of swamp which led to the woods—had been inspiring at first and now seemed cold and inhuman, jagged and angular, the staircases alone, you had to walk to the side like Groucho or Milton Berle or some other comic, and these were old references he had to remind himself to avoid when she showed up, and not she, show some respect: Angela.
It had taken him awhile to meet Angela, taken him a few "sightings" as if she were a celebrity or an exotic bird—he wasn't sure he'd seen her at first. Will had been spending his days in a small truck he'd acquired, driving aimlessly around the town—which was considered one of the region's most prestigious, populous, and "busy," but to him now seemed dead, depressing, and in these weekdays during the summer, stultifyingly dry and hot. He would cruise to the few areas of interest, an art exhibit at a school, a book sale at the library, even the farmer's market on days when he could convince himself he cared about produce, which he never had. And one day right before he was ready to keep on driving, straight to the highway and back down to the city and maybe who knew where from there, he was sure that he saw her.
She had been at all these same places, a slim, appealingly plain woman with dark blonde hair and sunglasses, as if she were following or perhaps preceding him there. They had never acknowledged each other—and it had taken an effort not to, since they were usually the only ones around—they had simply silently admired (or in Will's case endured his view of) the local landscapes being displayed or browsed the old books being offered or felt and/or sniffed, in Will's case with false expertise, the fruits and vegetables. Even on this day, when it was obvious they had similar interests—or just were alone with an identical desire to find something, anything, to do—Will was too unsure of the situation to say anything and had begun to go away again. Then, in a good-humored voice, she had stopped him by asking,
"So? Where are we going to go tomorrow?"
He only smiled, didn't respond right away. If he wasn't mistaken, he thought he heard a trace of an English accent, maybe one fading but still fighting to stay alive after years in the U.S. He could have been a clever guy, good with the comebacks, but he only said, "Right, right," and made it clear that he saw what she meant, that was what mattered most. And then he was emboldened to extend his hand and say who he was, and both their skins were similarly sticky and wet and their spoken names—"Will," "Angela"—seemed to merge in the moisture that was made in their palms and forge a pact, the same way children do—did they still?—when they spit on their hands and shake. In other words, they had been linked to each other from the very start.
They had lemonades at the "quaint" local deli, which was now utterly empty. He was right, she was from overseas originally, she didn't say England, but it was implied, and she shared his boredom with the town and, while never specific about her circumstances—she didn't wear a wedding ring—said she had fled the city to change her life and taken a job there in the Chamber of Commerce, which Will had noticed was a stand-alone storefront on the main street, not even air-conditioned, more like a shed than an office. Angela was the only employee and so spent much of the day out, driving anywhere to avoid being there.
"It's like a coffin," she said.
Will, of course, understood: he, too, had recently unearthed himself, risen from the grave, refused to go under and become a ghost. He was not explicit but mentioned being married—why not, she'd seen his ring—and Angela didn't answer, she barely blinked. The lemonade, the languid afternoon, the lack of any others in the place—it was for Will like being a teenager on a first date in the middle of July at the end of the earth. He felt that time had been suspended, that it hung there as heavy and lifeless as the humid air.
In his life, he had never known the moment when he left the particular, protected, exclusive world of youth. Unlike other men with younger women, he never perceived the possibility—and they knew it grew greater the older they grew—that he was being played for a fool. He didn't promise young women things; he didn't intend to teach them. He approached them sentimentally or erotically, as a young man might, as himself. He was doing so now, and this was what Angela seemed to see: the eternal Him, as he'd always been.
Still, Will was discreet, patient; he didn't even touch her hand until the third time they met in the same place, still swapping stories about their loneliness—and even then he made sure that the nosy and annoying owner (always eager to engage in boring talk about rustic things like canning and riding and planting) had stepped away. He drew Angela's face on a napkin—a perfect likeness and the best and really the only work he'd completed since coming to the country—and gave it to her as a gift. Then he invited her to his house and she agreed to come, and everything was clear to them both.
He only worried about being discovered. He'd been unfaithful to both his wives and neither had known, his second ex-wife had died without knowing, so what had been the difference? none. Maybe he'd been betrayed by both of the women, as well; he'd probably never know now, either. This was bigger than guilt: it was as if he and Angela had wandered into each other in a fog, like actors in an old movie about London, or stumbled into each other's arms, like lovesick zombies or something—he was never good with similes, he only knew it felt too right to refuse and he was sure she felt the same.
Now, on the day they had decided, unbearably eager for her appearance, Will kicked a last dustball beneath the couch. If he breathed heavily, it was from want, not from an age-related constriction of the lungs. He had done enough, the house looked lived-in but not inhabited by shut-ins or lunatics; she would not be repelled. Soon he heard tires rolling slowly on the gravel of the drive, a purely mechanical motion that irrationally he was aware promised pleasure.
From the window, he watched Angela leave her car. She was wearing her sunglasses and looked weirdly glamorous in a Jackie O sort of way—that was an old reference, too, even that—though also awkward and even nerdy, an endearing combination, tilting a little in her flat shoes on the gravel, almost falling over before righting herself. Her imperfections meant she was alive, Will thought; only the dead could not be improved. He opened the door before she even rang the bell.
"Well," she said, "here we are again, as we always are. In the middle of nowhere."
It was hard for Will to answer. He had been worried about her reaction to the new environment; but there had been such a quick connection made, the remark soldered them together so suddenly, that he was both relieved and aroused, in a state of infinite calm and impatient desire, the way adolescents are when they get a first crush, deeply sure and totally panicked, and why they call and hang up, call and hang up, just to hear the other's voice, reassuring and rattling themselves, or how they did, Will thought, before technology both increased and obliterated secrecy.
In the sterile and impressive house, which Angela scoped out politely but with thoroughness, she looked younger than ever. Will was aware that she didn't remember Watergate let alone WWII, and while it might have been unseemly to others, it didn't matter at all.
She looked out the picture window which took up most of the wall and saw the sort of swamp and where it led.
"You ever go walking in the woods?" she asked, her accent still staying alive on "wa" and "woo."
Will shook his head. "I'm always afraid I won't come out again."
She nodded, a way of saying, me, too, and it excited him to see it.
Then, without warning, she went into his arms, and since she was only slightly smaller, bowed to place her head upon his chest like a child, her open lips near the silver hair apparent above the buttons of his shirt. Will could smell her strawberry shampoo, a kind used by even younger women, and, after hesitating, stunned, for a second, he slipped his hands around and held her with a powerful feeling of protectiveness and need. When she pulled away, there were tears in both their eyes and he was sure for the same reason.
"Is there a bathroom?" she said. "Or when you move into a place like this, do you never have to go again?"
"No," he said and smiled. "You go more often because there's nothing else to do. It's up the stairs and to the right."