The Dinner Guest
by David Samuel Levinson
I push my way out of the wind on this, another fall night in Manhattan, and take my place in Great Falls. I look around as usual for Celeste, my wife, but again, I am disappointed not to find her on her regular stool at the bar. The last time I spoke with her, she swore that she was on her way to meet me, then never showed up. That was a month ago. At first, I was worried, but at least now I know she isn’t missing. When I’m at work, she takes clothes from the apartment. I find more empty hangers every time I get home.
Why do I come to Great Falls then week after week? Because it’s our bar, always has been. It was where we went to relax and forget ourselves, where, whenever we were fighting and reached an impasse, one of us said, “Truce…. Great Falls?” Even though we joke about the décor—Early American Ugly, we called it—we have a real fondness for it. I asked Celeste to marry me in a corner booth, in fact. It was a Wednesday. I remember this because for the last seven years, we’ve been meeting here pretty much without fail every Wednesday for happy hour.
In my coat and tie, I grab a stool and order two drinks—a shot of whiskey for me, a gin martini for her—then settle in to wait, glancing at the rickety tables and cracked vinyl booths, the postcards of waterfalls from all over the world tacked up on the faux brick walls. Once, long ago, we put up our own postcard—a weekend getaway to Niagara Falls, a boat ride on Maiden of the Mist—and I look for it now as I down my whiskey. I’m about to start on the martini when I glance up and there is Ken Loomis in the door.
For a moment, I think Celeste must be trailing him—it is her way, to lag a few paces behind—but Ken is alone, no entourage, no lawyers in tow. I’m surprised to see him, but the smile he gives me surprises me all the more. Ken and I are hardly friends.
I haven’t seen him in ages, not since our wedding, when he flew down to Dripping Springs from New Haven and stayed with Celeste’s parents: a mix-up in hotels left him without a room. He brought a date, a flat-faced, snub-nosed blond much taller than he was. Whenever I saw them together, it was hard to keep from laughing. But I didn’t laugh. He was gracious enough to show up and suffer the hateful Texas heat with the rest of us.
Now, in Great Falls, he moves toward me, his small hand outstretched. In the light, his pink face matches the pink of his polo shirt, his khakis riding high on his narrow waist. He looks as if he’s just been golfing, his knees faintly grass-stained. We shake hands as he hovers behind me; there aren’t any available stools.
I ask him if he wants a drink and he says, “I’ve been at it all day,” and I wonder what “it” means—drinking or golfing or drinking and golfing. Even then, at my back, I catch the whiff of sweat, beer, and the earthy outdoors. As the bartender hands me Ken’s bourbon and I pass it to him over my shoulder, I keep my eyes on the room. But there is no Celeste, just Ken, saying, “Yeah, they put me up in a penthouse apartment around the corner,” and I raise the martini into the air, a phantom toast. But who put him up?
“NYU,” he says proudly. “They want me to teach a class at the law school—jurisprudence in Shakespeare.” He pauses and takes a sip of his drink. “No more defending the scum of the earth. No more sitting at home on a Saturday night. I’ll take Manhattan,” he says, without irony, which annoys me, both the literary allusion and that he doesn’t seem to get the joke.
A short, southern man with severe cheekbones and a flat, open face, Ken usually keeps his blond hair cut short, but it’s grown out and sits up in a thousand spikes. We were roommates our senior year at Harvard, but fell completely out of touch after I left for medical school. At home, I have a boxful of postcards from him—a timeline of sorts that marks his journeying: Toronto, Berlin, Mumbai, Paris, Tokyo, as well as a few informing me of his changes of address, some simply with the words, “Keep in touch.” The postcards stopped soon after our marriage, though sometimes, I still found myself looking for them among the bills and junk. The postcards never mentioned Celeste, which was strange, since Ken and Celeste had been good friends. It was he who’d introduced me to her.
At one point, Ken leans into me, whispering, “I’m sorry to hear about your marriage.” It seems he is sorry, even as he adds, “But it’s not a surprise, is it?”
I turn to face him, but the words I want to say are lodged in my throat. Instead, I fumble for an excuse—“Dinner plans with friends”—and hurry out of Great Falls and into the cool spring air. It is breezy and the wind picks up my tie and tosses it over my shoulder as I head down 13th Street toward 7th Avenue, thinking all the while of Ken. Not a surprise?
To me, it’s the most surprising, most horrible turn my life has taken, worse than when I had to shut down my practice those days after 9/11, worse even than when Celeste awoke one night with a ruptured ovary, though not nearly as awful as the last time I saw her, when she stood in the middle of our bedroom and asked, “Why are we still doing this, Armand?”
I thought we were still doing this—couples counseling, date nights at Great Falls, weekends away—to save ourselves from what we saw happening around us, the dissolution of our friends’ marriages. I thought we were doing this because Celeste still loved me, and I her.
I am nearly at the brownstone when I glance back to see a rushing blur of pink: Ken. By the time he reaches me, he’s winded, his face much pinker than in the bar. As he catches his breath, I dig for my keys, eyeing the door and the frail light that spills from the parlor, my heart knocking in my chest. Every night since Celeste has been gone, I turn my walk home from work into a game: if I make it to the door before eight, which is unusual, all the lights will be on; if I pick up dinner from our favorite Italian restaurant, Celeste will have set the table. But each night, the lights are never on, which means the table will not be set. Each night for the last month, I play this game, each night except Wednesday, when I go to Great Falls.
Ignoring Ken, I push open the door with incredible anticipation and call out Celeste’s name; the small alabaster table lamp is on. I call her name again as Ken wanders into the room. And it is then, as I sober to the facts, that I realize, in my haste to get to work this morning, I forgot to turn the light off. A shameful blush rises in my face, but my olive complexion hides any sign of this from Ken, who, after closing the door, takes his place on the loveseat, as if he’s been waiting for me all day.
“I’m sorry, maybe another night,” I say and tell him again about my dinner plans. “I think I’m coming down with something, so it’ll probably be an early night.”
“That’s cool,” he says, but doesn’t make a move to go. “I haven’t eaten yet. Maybe I can join you? I’d like to meet some of your friends, you know.” Though I find this overture bizarre, I don’t find it unfamiliar, because it is how he’s always been. In college, the moment Ken learned I was going out, he wanted to come along. As my roommate, I indulged him. Tonight, as I did at Harvard, I tell myself he’s lonely, that he doesn’t know anyone in the city. Why else ask to join me in my imaginary dinner plans, someone he hasn’t seen in seven years? If I didn’t like Ken back then, I certainly don’t like him any better now, as he scrutinizes the room, which Celeste decorated in French country: antiques and knickknacks and an old wooden pitchfork preserved above the fireplace.
“Nice pitchfork,” he says, at last. “A perfect spot for it, too.”
“It’s an heirloom,” I say. “It belonged to Celeste’s great-great-grandfather. So, hey, I wouldn’t mind at all if you wanted to have dinner with us, but we’re not exactly going out.”
“Oh,” he says, “a dinner party.” And again, he glances around the room, as if expecting the guests to leap out of the closet. “I guess a lot’s changed since the last time I saw you. I had no idea you added cooking to your repertoire of tricks or even that you enjoyed it.” He pauses. “I thought Celeste did most of the cooking, as I did.” His voice climbs on these last couple of words.
Yes, Ken did most of the cooking that year, most of the cleaning, most of the laundry. Ken repainted the apartment, lined the shelves with contact paper, re-caulked and re-grouted the bathroom tile. He filled the place with furniture, a TV, a stereo, and I thanked him for all of this by inviting him to dinner, to movies, and to parties. In the beginning, as it is with any acquaintanceship, I found Ken’s generosity stirring, but a few months later, as we settled into our lives, I saw what he was really after. I thought it was Celeste. But I was wrong.
I switch on the lights, as the temperature outside drops and the radiators clang to life; April nights in Manhattan. I hang up my blazer, then loosen my tie and when I return, Ken is standing at the fireplace. “It’d be nice to make a fire, like we used to,” he says. “Remember the time you set fire to Celeste’s hair?”
“I didn’t ‘set fire’ to Celeste’s hair,” I say. I was stoking the fire when a loose ember jumped up and caught the back of Celeste’s head, singeing it.
“That’s not how she remembers it,” he says, reaching for a log.
“You’ve … spoken with her?” I ask, as casually as I can. My pulse pounds, my ears ring, and the room goes bright and hot, as if the summer sun is hanging out the window. I go to the window and lean my face against the glass. Am I getting sick? I touch my forehead with the back of my hand; it’s warm and sweaty. Chilled, I excuse myself and go up to grab a sweatshirt and swallow a few aspirin.
On the way down, I stop, hoping Ken has left, but he hasn’t. I find him in the kitchen, peering into the empty fridge. He looks up and smiles. “I hope your guests aren’t too picky, Armand,” he says. “Three eggs, a jar of pickled okra, a rotten head of romaine? Looks like a feast to me.” Shutting the fridge, he adds, “And to answer your question—yes, I’ve spoken to Celeste.”
I swallow hard, my throat the tiniest bit raw, and let his words settle through me. “When? Today?” I ask. “Is she all right? Did she tell you where she is?”
I’ve been phoning Mr. and Mrs. Edge, my in-laws, in Dripping Springs every day, sometimes twice a day, to find out about Celeste, but neither her mother nor her father will speak to me. I’ve also dialed my own parents in Columbus, but hang up each time.
“Not today,” Ken says and seems utterly pleased.
“Does she…. May I talk to her?” I ask, moving into the room, my head thumping. “Where is she?”
“I promised her I wouldn’t say,” he says. “I’d like to tell you, but I can’t. What kind of lawyer would I be without my word?”
“Without your word?” I ask, quaking, my whole body giving in to the chill. I sit down and will myself not to throw up. I shut my eyes, which are suddenly burning, my fingers massaging my temples. Can it really be that I’m coming down with something?
“Are you feeling all right?” he asks as I stand up, the room tilting away from me. I take a step and crash into the stove, knocking the pot full of cold coffee onto the floor. The pot smashes, the coffee splashing up Ken’s body, wetting his pants and shirt, muddy drops dotting his face. It is hard not to laugh, but I don’t, as Ken grabs the broom from the pantry. “This whole place could use a thorough cleaning,” he says, more to himself than me. After he sweeps the glass up, he goes to the sink, moistens a dishtowel, and wipes the floor, over my every protest that he should leave it, that I’ll mop it later. “But what about your dinner party?” he asks innocently, running the towel along the legs of the table, even as he gazes up at me. “What will they think?”
“My guests,” I say and am about to tell him the truth, to end this ridiculous charade, when the headache eases into a dull throb. Still, my skin prickles, my muscles tense and achy. I long for a hot shower, for Celeste all the more, the cool press of her hand, the fresh ginger root she’d buy, then slice and boil into a tea, a spiced curative.
“If you don’t mind,” I say, heading for the front door, “I need to get ready.”
“Are you sure?” Ken asks, following. “You look pale, even for you. But if you’re serious, maybe I can help you out? Like old times?”
“It’s an intimate gathering,” I say. “I wouldn’t want you to feel awkward.”
“But you’re here, so how can I feel awkward?” he asks, touching his face, only to smear a thick dot of coffee down his cheek. I go into the kitchen, wet a paper towel, and hand it to him. That he’s spoken to Celeste and knows where she is only intensifies my dizzy dislike of him. Still, weren’t we roommates at one time, friendly if not friends? Doesn’t this have to count for something?
“Okay,” I say. “Just give me a few minutes.” I move upstairs as Ken goes back into the kitchen.
Pausing on the landing, I hear his muffled voice below. “Now, if I were a dustbin, where would I be?” he asks the kitchen, as I hurry into the bedroom and shut the door.
The room is as tidy as the day Celeste left. I like to keep it like this—spotless, the bed made for her eventual return. It is something about me she once admired, though brought up during our last argument—my compulsion to neaten.
“Sometimes, I feel like I married Mr. Cleaver, not Dr. Cantor,” she said. Haven’t I always been like this? She laughed, but it wasn’t convivial. She said, “If you mean anal, then yes, you have. If you mean controlling, then no, you haven’t.”
I hang my pants in the closet and pull a pair of jeans from the bureau. The aspirin has relieved the chill, but not the ache behind my eyes, which takes in the places Celeste used to be—at the window, on the edge of the bed, in the middle of the room—when she announced her intentions of leaving me. I go to these spots—the window, the bed, the middle of the room—trying to understand what happened, what it was she felt. But I can’t. All I feel is the pulse of my blood and the fire in my body—host to whatever infection is multiplying inside me.
I am halfway down the stairs when I smell smoke and, rushing into the parlor, find Ken poking at the kindling. Then the flue takes hold of the smoke and the fire is lit, as he fits the grate in place. During the winter that we lived together, Ken and I were never without a fire. After a long walk home in the bitter cold and slush, it was, I have to admit, a pleasure to see him there, tending the hearth.
Now, however, I find it presumptuous and nearly tell him so when he asks, “Do you think…. Would you mind if I borrowed a pair of jeans and a shirt? First impressions and all.” He gazes at his spotted khakis and pulls at his even spottier polo.
Do I mind? Hell yes, I mind, but even as I fight to hide my irritation, I am saying, “Be right back.”
While Ken removes his shirt, I trudge back upstairs, hoping this is the last time, that in a little while I can finally say goodbye to him and fall into bed.
But Ken won’t let the dinner party go. In fact, he’s even more revved up about it when I return and hand him the jeans and sweatshirt.
“I’ll go do the shopping,” he says. “If that’s what you’d like, of course. I have an idea about what to serve.”
“Yes, that’d be very kind of you,” I say, thinking that once he left, I’d crawl upstairs into bed and sleep, that I’d conveniently not hear him buzzing or knocking. Soon, he’d simply go away, and that would be that. Except, of course, that that wouldn’t be that, since he’s the only person who knows where Celeste is and how to contact her. This is a new game and it’s time to play it.
Even as we set out for the grocery store, Ken repeats that he can go alone, but I think the fresh air will do me good. With him beside me, in my jeans and an old Harvard sweatshirt, we may as well be back at college, heading to the University Coop all over again, or, I think, with a shiver, it’s as if we never left school at all.
Every Friday evening, no matter what else I had going on in Cambridge, I met Ken at the apartment. It was a standing date, those Friday nights, when we drove the ten blocks in the heat or cold, loaded up the cart with whatever we were out of or craved, then piled the bags into his battered Dodge Daytona and headed home. Once there, Ken put away the groceries, then insisted on fixing us a meal. Like the dedicated scholar he was, he had an excellent palate as well, preparing dishes as though he’d just graduated from culinary school. He preferred French cuisine, heavy meats and cream sauces. But as I had an allergy to milk and didn’t eat pork, he often forewent what he liked for what I could eat, mostly vegetables and beef. In his capable hands, even what might’ve been bland tasted extraordinary. He knew just how much spice to add and when his rice was impeccable. He was never happier, he once told me, than when he was making dinner for his friends. Even then, as he said it, I felt guilty; I still didn’t consider us friends exactly, merely friendly, two people who inhabited the same cramped space.
Now in the grocery store, we drift down the aisles as he asks me what I want to serve and how many guests are coming. While he washed his face and changed into my clothes, I put calls into my friends, though still had no idea who would turn up, if anyone. The more the merrier, I think, yet see no merriment in the evening ahead. What I see is the empty brownstone, Ken and I seated across from each other, while I compliment his food, ask about Celeste again, and he continues to stonewall me.
“Some kind of fish and a mixed-green salad,” I say. “Enough to feed six.”
He pauses, turning over my recommendation. “Fish at this time of night? I don’t think so, Armand. We might have to settle on some sort of pasta. How about my spinach lasagna? That way, if there’s any left, you’ll have leftovers. If you freeze it, it’ll stay good forever.”
As Ken pushes the cart and I gather what we need, I am reminded again of how impatient I was with him at Harvard, how it shouldn’t have bothered me to invite him along to parties. But it did bother me, because, just like this Wednesday night, Ken is doing what he always did—insinuating himself into my plans. He was always the first to arrive at any party and the last to go. Sometimes, one of the girls who threw the party awakened me in the middle of the night, begging me to get him. “We want to go to bed,” she’d say, “and he just doesn’t get it.” His need to stay to help clean up the mess, to chitchat a little while longer, never failed to arouse my frustration. Even tonight, I see how graduating from high school at fifteen and entering Harvard at sixteen might’ve turned him into the man he is today—a gawky, lonely defense attorney. It was just my dumb luck and a desire to impress a girl, Celeste, his best friend, that I ever agreed to room with him in the first place.
As we carry the groceries home, though, I find myself feeling decidedly different about him. Perhaps it’s the infection raging through me, dulling the world, but the hostility I normally feel toward him is easing, just as the headache is easing. Though I am still chilled and upset he won’t tell me about Celeste, I am coming to see that his appearance in Great Falls may not have been as luckless or unfortunate as I have imagined. After all, we do have a history together. If anything, Ken rescued me from Great Falls and the hopeless drunken hours I would’ve waited for Celeste. I should be grateful. And I am.
Inside, the fire has gone out and Ken rekindles it, saying, “You really don’t look well, Armand. Just relax.” He leads me to the leather armchair. “This shouldn’t take long,” he adds, then disappears into the kitchen. As I shut my eyes, the fire bathing me in a comfortable glow, I wonder which of my friends, our friends—Serena, Jack, Stan, Petra, Jerald, Ethan—has gotten my distress signal and which of them, if any, will come.
Half an hour later, the doorbell startles me out of sleep. Ken emerges from the kitchen, the sight of him in one of Celeste’s aprons rattling me, even as I rub my eyes and get up, wobbly. The headache has returned, a cudgel at my temples. Still, when I see Serena, one of my oldest and dearest friends from Harvard, and Jerald, my business partner, a few steps behind her, I feel somewhat restored and gather up a smile and a great big hello.
At first, it’s unclear what Serena makes of Ken in Celeste’s apron and my sweatshirt—she’s seen Celeste in the apron and me in the sweatshirt a hundred times—but like the actress she is, she doesn’t miss a beat, saying, “Ken, it’s so good to see you again.” As they hug, time slows and I have a vague memory: Serena on the phone, amused and a little terrified to get Ken out of her room. This memory rises and falls instantly, fading, and I wonder if it isn’t fever-induced, if I’m not mixing people up.
I introduce Jerald to Ken, who says, “A dermatology practice in downtown Manhattan,” as if the idea has just occurred to him. “You must do pretty well for yourselves. I suppose you’re the brains and Armand is the brawn?”
Jerald, always affable, just smiles at Ken’s outlandishness, but not me. I seethe. With an MBA from the B-School, Jerald runs the day-to-day operations, while I take care of the patients, though sometimes, according to Celeste, I am the one who should be in back, not Jerald. Celeste has taught me a lot in the few years Jerald and I have been working together—to take deeper breaths, to go on a walk every couple of hours, and to soften my prognoses. If I have learned anything at all, it’s how to listen and to be kinder, though I’m pretty sure Celeste might say the opposite.
I open and pour the wine, as Ken checks the lasagna and I return to the parlor to find Serena and Jerald on the loveseat, whispering. Serena says, sotto voce, “You could’ve at least warned me,” and stares into the kitchen, where Ken is humming, something else about him that always irritated me. I can’t remember a time when Ken wasn’t at the stove, humming. But it wasn’t just a hum. It was an insistence, a reminder. Tonight, however, it amuses me more than anything and I take a seat, laughing. But what was I supposed to have warned Serena about?
“He’s harmless,” I say, repeating what I’ve repeated, perhaps even to Serena herself, dozens of times. I lean forward and say, quietly, “He’s lonesome. He’s a chef without diners. A recovering lawyer without a courtroom.”
“And Celeste?” she asks. “Is she joining us?”
I want to say yes, she’s on her way, but I say, “I honestly don’t care if I ever see her again. I’m enjoying myself. No one to check in with, no one to remind me what a lousy husband I am. None of her insomnia or depression or refusal to take her meds, even though I’m a doctor and I love her and she should trust me for fuck’s sake.” All of this surprises me—I didn’t know it was there—and when it comes out, Serena and Jerald lean back away from me.
I don’t see Ken in the doorway until he clears his throat, announcing dinner. But I know he has heard me and regret what I’ve said immediately, almost as much as I regret treating Ken the way I have, the way I did. Because really what else did he do but take care of me the year we lived together? Without him, I might never have eaten a decent meal, met Celeste, or experienced that kind of love. And it seems to me, as we take our places around the table—Jerald lights the candles, and Serena pours the wine—that this is all that Ken was offering and all I thoughtlessly rejected.
“I deal with two kinds of crazy people,” Celeste, who was a social worker, said from her spot in the middle of the room the night she announced her intentions to leave. “The ones who are grateful because you show up and the others who despise you because you refuse not to.” What was she telling me? Which crazy was I? “People are much more than pimply skin and frown lines and vanity, Armand,” and then, oddly, she brought up Ken. “You remember the toast he gave at our reception?” I told her I did, though only remembered it distantly, just another toast among many. “He called you his best friend. His best friend?! You didn’t even want him at our wedding! I had to invite him,” she said. Then crossing her thin, sinewy arms on her chest, she stared at me and I wondered if she saw what she’d fallen in love with initially—my head of thick black hair, full lips, heavy-lidded eyes, and protruding nose. “I always thought you disliked Ken because he and I were friends,” she said. “But that wasn’t it at all, was it?”
No, that wasn’t it at all, I think, as Ken serves the lasagna and we pass the salad. It was harder back then to pinpoint the center of my hatred, but this Wednesday night, as we chat about Serena’s new play and Jerald’s guitar lessons and I watch Ken with my friends, I realize my hatred was nothing but the consummation of my greatest fears, a deflection against what I saw in him—a dreaded future of one-night stands, endless dating, and empty nights. Another roommate, another hopeless romance.
While Celeste and I lived our defined, effortless roles, Ken and I existed in an alternate universe, where he rubbed my feet, cooked my food, and did my laundry—and the more I let him, the more I let myself be seduced. What did he ever want from me but this, the promise of an everlasting friendship? Instead, I moved out on him in the middle of the night and avoided him as much as I could after that. Instead, I stole his best friend away from him and married her. Instead, I crossed some unidentifiable line inside myself that twisted the innocent gestures of a lonely boy into a fiendish, subversive desire: we kissed once, just once, and that was all. But the memory of that kiss suddenly finds me again, as do the chills.
I push away from the table, my appetite gone, shivering with every step, until I am at the fire. Ken is beside me then, wrapping me up in the afghan he removed from the back of the loveseat, this afghan that still smells of Celeste. In the other room, Serena and Jerald speak in murmurs, and I hear the clink of cutlery against plates, the echo of footsteps.
“He’ll be all right,” Ken says to them, though I don’t feel as if I’ll ever be all right again. The fever has a grip on me, squeezing every molecule of warmth out of my skin. Even the fire and the blanket aren’t enough to stop my teeth from chattering.
“What can I do?” Serena asks, stepping into the room.
“Do you have kids?” Ken asks.
She nods that she does.
“You don’t want to take home whatever he has.”
At the door, she blows me a kiss, says she’ll call in the morning, and leaves. Then like before, Ken is leading me to the armchair, where I collapse, shaking uncontrollably, wave after wave of nausea cresting through me. As if from some remote place in the brownstone, I hear him tell Jerald to leave the dishes, that he’ll take care of them, and when Jerald puts up a fuss, Ken says, “I’ve known him for years,” like this explains everything, which, in a way, it does. Ken has been there, before Celeste, to hold my head when I threw up, to see me bent over the toilet, the full extent of my helplessness, my ugliness. I wanted to spare Celeste these things, to be better than I was with Ken, but instead I think I have overcompensated, keeping her at bay, holding tight to the pious union I have with perfection. Nothing gets out, not my deepest terrors, not my darkest secrets and my life, I finally see, is as glassy and unblemished as the skin of my patients is not.
Inside me, something is giving way, the flesh on the bone slipping. The fever is raging and I am melting and Ken is behind me, touching my forehead with a cool washcloth, speaking softly. “Celeste told me I’d find you in Great Falls. She told me to meet you.” As I struggle to rise, he presses more firmly, keeping me steady. “Your marriage is over. That’s what she wanted me to tell you.” I know then she’s been staying with Ken the entire time. “The funny thing is,” he goes on, “she doesn’t hate you. I don’t hate you, either.” He pauses. “But you hate me. You always have.”
Yes, I always hated him, but at that second, as he places another log on the fire, I don’t hate him at all. I think back to our wedding, when he raised his glass and offered up his toast, further back to the year we lived together and beyond this to the night we kissed. How can I tell you I didn’t want it, or that I didn’t lean into him the way I did? How can I tell you what it felt like, to kiss him? It was the only thing I could give, but I gave it for all the wrong reasons—spite, ingratitude, and disdain. With the full disclosure of distaste on my lips, I breathed it into him for one brief moment, thinking, We might both be smart, but we’re nothing alike, thinking, Here’s what you’ve always been after, a simple little kiss. But of course it meant more than that to Ken.
Upstairs in the bedroom, Ken pulls back the blankets and settles me on the bed, clothes and all. Then he grabs the bottle of aspirin and a glass of water and lays them on the night table. I shut my eyes as he hums, and as he does, I reach for his hand. It is cool in my own and softer than mine, a lawyer’s hand, I think, his grip firm and powerful, but gentle and yielding. I remember the moment after we kissed, when I pulled away and felt oddly at peace, cleansed. One kiss and it was over. One kiss and I moved out the next day.
Ken sits with me, as I knew he would, and I want to ask him if he’s told Celeste about that night in our apartment, when I came home soaked and exhausted, shaking as I am shaking now. And how the fire was lit and dinner was made and I felt a surprising thankfulness for him mixed with all those other feelings. And if I can believe one thing about that long-ago night, I’d like to believe he tasted gratitude on my lips more than anything else, but I understand, just as I understand Celeste isn’t ever coming home, that the only thing he could’ve tasted was the sourness of my contempt.
I doze and awake with a start, looking for Ken, but he’s gone. Then I hear his faint humming from somewhere below me and I know that he’s wrapping the lasagna, that I’ll find it in the freezer tomorrow. This is Ken. For a second, I want to call him back, but the second drops away. And as it does, there are footsteps on the stairs, though I can’t tell if they are coming or going or if I am imagining them. But then—a door creaks open and I prop myself up on my elbows to wait, yes, to wait, for Ken to hold my head as he did, to sit beside me.
There he is, in the doorway, in my sweatshirt and jeans, and he comes into the room, his steps unsure, his face all the more so. He smoothens the blanket around me, the heat of him as familiar and unfamiliar as Celeste’s. I blink my burning eyes and open my burning lips to speak, Ken’s breath in my ear, then on my face, and I struggle against the moment, as his lips find mine again, and I pass along to him whatever it is I have.
David Samuel Levinson is the author of the novel, “Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence,” and the story collection, “Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will.” His fiction has appeared in Post Road, The Brooklyn Review, and West Branch, among others. He’s the current Fiction Fellow at Emory University.