A Story

In the late winter of 1985, John Rogan had been a surgeon for almost forty years, and though still active and vital, a tall, erect, white-haired man, with a reputation for audacity matched by success, he was thinking of retiring. His older brother, also a surgeon, had apparently committed suicide the year before. He had fallen or jumped from the turret of a castle he was visiting in Ireland, and Rogan, who had always pursued life as though sighting a rifle, suddenly found he was losing his aim.

It seemed possible that if his brother could destroy himself, then suicide might overtake Rogan as well. He struggled with this thought and concealed it. Now he was on his morning rounds, and Nina Hendersen passing in the hall caught sight of him and on an impulse stopped him, placing herself in front of him, blocking his way. She had heard other women talk about him and liked his looks but didn’t know what she wanted with him.

She was plain, and not long ago Rogan wouldn’t have given her much of a glance but now he did. She was young-looking to be near forty. The tag on her smock said she was a physical therapist. She gazed up with an odd look of determination and then, remembering herself, smiled. Excuse me. I need some advice, she began in a small voice and then gathered strength and went on in an exacting way as though making a diagnosis. I have a patient with an injury to the adductor longus. It separated from the pubis in a skiing accident. She wants to know when she can have sex again. The words spilled almost without Nina’s awareness. She scanned Rogan’s face, thinking he looked like Paul Newman. He had the same blue eyes.

Rogan understood she was trying to flirt. Well, how long has it been?

Nina pulled an answer from the air. Weeks.

Any time then, Rogan said with a trace of humor, as long as she keeps the leg straight and holds still.

But then it seemed Nina’s nerve failed. She blushed deeply, saying she would give the patient his advice, and then hurried off, her thick braid flicking at her waist, putting Rogan in mind of a girl he had once known who spent all her time riding horses, a small, angular, and oddly attractive girl who had little to say, at least to him. He watched her to the end of the hall. At the last instant she looked back in panic—she didn’t believe what she’d said—and turned the corner and was gone. He smiled wryly and dismissed the event, yet at odd moments found himself thinking about her. The braid looked as thick as a man’s wrist.

Late that same day Nina’s husband, Johnny Hendersen, arrived home from Cleveland, where he’d been on business for Pharmikon, one of the drug companies that employed him as a PR consultant. She had not expected him that afternoon or any particular time at all, since in the past months his trips had become more frequent, his delays unconvincingly explained in long-distance calls from hotel rooms.

She had been vaguely waiting for him to call again from wherever he was, and now when she was startled by the familiar sounds of his movements—the cautious turning of the key in the lock and the surreptitious whisk of his door across the carpeting—as he came in through his office instead of the family entrance, she knew he had been with another woman this trip and could already see the dishonest grin that would greet her. She felt exhausted, her anger banked down to hatred. If she didn’t act glad to see him, he would frown and go back in his office until Eric and Ian came home from school and he could avoid her by paying attention to them. If she confronted him, they would argue. But she knew what was true without asking. It was a year since they last made love. She wouldn’t lower herself to accuse him. Yet a silent, unthinking part of her wanted to believe he was faithful.

That night, after the children were in bed, Nina sat at the vanity and carefully unbraided and brushed her hair. It made static and sparks. When she was a girl, adults at parties often gathered around her and took turns touching her hair, holding her braid and exclaiming over its softness and weight. Hendersen, lying in bed, watched her over the top of his book. He loved her hair, and the sight of her brushing it, her arms raised so that her nightgown pulled against her chest and ribs, aroused him. Her eyes caught his in the mirror, and he glanced away. Soon, she came to bed, and they lay side by side, he with his book and she with hers. He was a former football player and lay under the blanket like an escarpment under snow. After a time, he closed his book and turned toward her. It’s not what you think.

How do you know what I think?

We’ve been through it before, he said.

She turned a look on him. What else can I think? The way you act, the way you treat me.

I’ve haven’t been cheating on you, he said firmly. I’ve just been going to see Polly for the past few months—whenever I travel, that’s all. I stop off and spend an afternoon or two with her. I didn’t mention it because I knew it would upset you.

Polly was their teenage daughter institutionalized with severe cerebral palsy. They seldom talked about her, and it seemed to Nina that he was using Polly as an excuse. Why would you start going to see her again all of a sudden?

I had a feeling.

A feeling, Nina said flatly.

That I should go, he said.

Her frustration with him was becoming unbearable to her. She marked her place in her book and put it on her chest, folding her hands on it. What do you do there? What could you possibly be doing there for days at a time.

I just visit. Hendersen lifted a hand, and his fingers made a small gesture caressing the air. I hold her. I talk to her. Sometimes I take her outside in a wheelchair and put her on a blanket in the leaves. She’s getting better.

Nina’s voice rose with fear. Better? How is she getting better?

It’s just small things. She’s stronger, more alert. Sometimes she squeezes my fingers. I think she recognizes me.

You always think that, Nina said.

Hendersen was offended. No, I don’t.

Yes, you do. You just don’t remember. Anyway, the doctors have told us over and over: there’s no way to reach her.

How do we know that? Hendersen sat up, dragging all the covers with him. If she’s aware, then everything we do reaches her, and if she’s only a little aware then something reaches her, and even if she can’t respond, what difference does that make? It’s not about her recognizing us, it’s about us recognizing her.

I don’t believe this, Nina said tensely. Give me back the covers. I thought we’d been over this all a long time ago. I thought we agreed. You have no idea how cruel it is to bring it all up again. Nina was seething. You have no idea—none!—what it’s like to be the mother.

A minute passed and then another.

His weight shifted toward her. Listen to me. Will you just listen to me. You don’t have to do anything, just listen. He reached for the book on her chest. May I put this away?

She shook her head. I’m going to read some more. He lay down and closed his eyes but it was hard to keep silent. He needed to talk it out. He wanted to know what Nina really thought. Unanswerable questions percolated in him. Was there a meaning to Polly’s life? If she was given life, wasn’t she also given love? But if she couldn’t express love, what happened to it? What was love? What was their love? His thoughts circulated until at last he said, You know, I get lonely.

Nina eyed him bitterly. Maybe you should stay home more.

Maybe I should, he said.

Later, she lay awake, and a troubling memory came to her. She saw the unborn child, like a small beautiful darkling god, folded upside down waiting to be delivered. But afterward, the infant, whose injury showed in small indentations of forceps on the sides of her skull, seemed like a punishment for the unwed pregnancy, an atonement she was meant to embrace but could not. It was too ugly, and now it seemed to her she never would have married Johnny Hendersen if she hadn’t been pregnant. People said he was nice, but if you listened to him, if you let his words in, they were cold and confusing, coiling around your heart to trick you into admitting something when there was nothing to admit. There was a name for his trick, but what was it? She tried to think until her mind grew weary and blank, and then as she was falling asleep it came to her that the word she wanted was deceit, and she drifted off with the satisfaction of at least having named the thing.

The next morning, he was up early and out of the house, and Nina, feeling alone and defiant, picked up the phone and called John Rogan’s office. She invented an ailment and dropped the name of a well-known internist that would get her in sooner. An appointment was made for the next day. Nina felt herself expanding, pressing outward, filling space so there was no separation between herself and the things around her. She had a mad desire to tell someone, to shout, to break things. The inside of her face felt tight and unfamiliar. She thought the difference must show. But in the mirror in her closet she looked the same. It was like being two people at once. She parted her robe and drew a line down along her breastbone, over her abdomen, and smoothed her hand onto her pubis. She struck a pose, raising one foot on its toes. Her stomach was flat. She didn’t look like she’d had children. There were no stretch marks. She slid the robe off and leaned her forehead against the glass, imagining the other person was him.

When she arrived, a small woman, looking hurried and flushed, and dressed in an odd, plain brown dress as clumsy as a monk’s robe, Rogan greeted her with a slight smile. His memory of her didn’t quite coincide with the reality. When she was seated, they grew silent until at last he said, What brings you?

The color rose vividly in Nina’s face. She had imagined he would make everything easy. I’m worried about arrhythmia, she said. It runs in my family. Her chin strained upward in defended pride, revealing strong chords and vessels in her neck. She looked quite healthy. My heart makes a noise in my ears, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, like the wings of a bug trapped inside my ear. I have pains in my chest. She made a face as if none of it mattered.

The surgeon nodded. I see. And what did your doctor say?

Nina made a small, indifferent noise. He didn’t say much of anything.

Rogan thumbed up the corner of Nina’s folder and let it drop. It was empty except for the pink sheet she had filled out in the waiting room. I suppose, he said, we could order some tests. That hasn’t been done yet. He made an upward turning motion of his hand.

Aren’t you going to examine me? She was afraid she was about to be dismissed.

Rogan leaned back, pressing his fingertips together, and gazed at her. I’m a general surgeon, not a cardiologist, assuming that’s what you need? His eyebrow twitched up in query.

She seemed to draw back a little into herself. You have a good reputation, and I didn’t know where else to go.

Rogan wasn’t sure why he was reluctant. The situation seemed clear, and in the past he wouldn’t have hesitated. He swiveled his chair and stood up. Her eyes followed him, and she moved to rise, her hands closing like bird beaks on the flat gray purse sliding from her lap.

Rogan cleared his throat. I’ll go out while you undress. When you’re ready, have a seat on the table. He gestured toward it and smiled musingly. But I guess you know the drill since you have patients of your own.

Nina had been holding her breath and now exhaled. She wondered how much to take off. Her dress was two pieces, a skirt and top.

Rogan went out, pulling the door behind him. His nurse glanced up and thought, I might as well take lunch early.

You look serious as a stone, she teased. I guess I know what that means.

She enjoyed his embarrassment. What’s the complaint?

Heart, Rogan said.



Then you’ll be safe enough. She fished her wallet out of her purse and touched his arm as she went out.

He was surprised to find himself alone. He went out into the hall, toward the men’s room, his heart quickening, which amused him because it would seem that at sixty-one—but I’m young enough, he thought—and as many times as he had done what he was about to do—I’m going to, aren’t I . . . yes, I think I am—he should not be particularly nervous, yet there it was, a quickening that would scare the wits out of a heart patient. He paused to take a drink from the water fountain. The arc of water crossed his lips and swirled into the silvery bowl. Could he trust her?

He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, the posture he assumed when talking with the next of kin. By long practice, he approached questions in terms of their underlying statements: Ultimately, the woman in his office was not interested in him personally but in him as a means to an end.

Another doctor rushing by spoke out in passing, Hey, that was a nice piece of work in the ER. Looks like you’re back in the game.

Rogan nodded. So everyone thought he was flagging. His brother had once told him that being a surgeon was simply an extreme form of life. You oppose death, and you have to be strong. It was a question of will, and ego.

As he stepped into the men’s room, he glanced at his watch. He had an hour and a half free. Perhaps she had figured out his routine and planned her visit to fall before the lunch hour. Perhaps she believed she had thought it all out and understood everything. Or, perhaps she was acting impulsively. In any case, she was bold. But later, if she went home and realized she was more than ever alone, she would be inclined to come back. He would have to be clear with her, so they’d make no mistake.

Glancing in the mirror, straightening a strand of his hair, he thought of his nurse. She had been with him twenty years. Longer than most marriages, and like a married couple, they had grown alike. Their separate lovers came and went, and they remained each other’s longest companion. She had an aunt in Iowa and went once a year to visit. When the aunt died, she would have an inheritance. If anything happened to him, she could retire if she wanted or go to work for someone else. But what could happen?

He washed and then dried his hands, holding them up in the mirror. They were smooth from many washings. The lines of his fingerprints barely showed.

Meanwhile, Nina was seated on the examining table in the bay window. The furniture in the room was heavy wood, which recalled childhood visits to the doctor. She liked going because there was comfort in being told you were well, or in having an illness named and being told what to do. She recalled how good it was to be young and strong and growing, and suddenly that sensation went cold. She put her hand on her chest and rubbed the cloth of the dressing gown.

The door opened, and the surgeon came in, drawing his stethoscope from his pocket and placing the ear pieces around his neck. He closed the door, and Nina heard the click of the bolt.

He stepped forward, a single, narrow line pinching his brow. Are you all right?

Her hand fell to her lap and she gazed down. The top of her head seemed round and small. He worried he had misjudged her. Is it your heart? Is it hurting you now?

Nina glanced up, and her expression was impatient. It seemed to her he should already know what was going on. Her body ached. She wanted to stretch.

He saw it was up to him and cleared his throat. Usually I’d have my nurse in, but it’s her lunch hour, and since you’re in the profession, too—He made a dismissive gesture with his hand—I thought we could get along without her. It’s a risk we can take, don’t you think?

Nina spoke as if amused. I’m not going to sue you.

So you say, Rogan said lightly, but patients are notoriously ungrateful, you know that?

She smiled. I won’t be ungrateful.

Good. He warmed the head of his stethoscope in his palm. Let’s listen to your heart.

He put the ear pieces into his ears, and for a moment he and Nina watched each other. He saw the hooded anger in her eyes and knew she was scared. Why don’t you turn around, he said.

He opened the vent in the back of her gown and auscultated her. His left hand rested on her shoulder, his thumb at the nape of her neck. Her braid was in the way and she reached over her shoulder to free it, and their hands touched, sending a hollow sensation into her knees.

Cough, he said. And again.

You’re listening to my lungs, not my heart, she said.

That’s true, he said, but all we know is that you have a pain in the chest. Does it hurt when you breath?


His hand tightened on her shoulder and then released. All right, he said, the other side now.

She slipped her arms from the sleeves of the gown and let it fall to her waist. She was muscular, the collarbones curving cleanly into angular shoulders, the sternum like a deep thumbprint between shallow breasts, the ribs and abdomen well defined. She turned her face away, a tense smile on her lips.

He placed a hand on her shoulder and brought the stethoscope to her heart and looked down as he listened.

She saw white hair sprouting in his ear and the shaven slickness of his cheek and the starched texture of his white smock, the weave of the cotton minutely clear. She felt dizzy. She wished he would say something.

He listened to the few small ounces of blood moving from auricle to ventricle. Your heart is normal, he said, though I think you’re nervous about being here. His hand tightened on her shoulder. Would you like to listen to your heart?

She made a reflexive noise in the back of her throat, half yes and half no, raising an arm to cover herself. He placed the head of the stethoscope in her hand and moved it to her heart. Her eyes trembled with a sudden tenderness. He put the ear pieces in her ears and turned and walked a little away to give her a moment’s privacy. Perhaps she would change her mind, perhaps not. If life was blocked, wouldn’t the heart rebel? Wouldn’t it ache?

Nina tried to catch the sound. It came pulsing through the stethoscope, and faintly from inside her.

What she wanted—His back was turned. He would face her in a moment and she knew she would have to be ready—to lie down with him?—was something she had always believed was wrong. But there was already so much wrong that the old rules no longer held, and something new had to be found. The colliding beats of her heart grew sharp. She pulled the ear pieces from her ears.

The surgeon came to her and took hold of the stethoscope, which Nina started to let go of and then held onto, her hands folding in, his hand on the ear piece moving toward her so that neither of them knew how it happened—did she mean to? did he? The back of his hand rested against her breast. His thumb moved across it and paused. They watched the stillness of their hands. You have a husband, he said.

Her hand closed tightly on the ear piece. It won’t matter.

Everything matters, he said.

She pushed herself against him, putting an arm over his shoulder. The paper on the examining table crinkled. Her mouth bumped his and her tongue darted against his teeth. His hands were on her hips. You’re determined, he said. But you ought—

Stop it, she said. She pulled the gown from around her waist. Take off your clothes. I want to see you. She tugged the ends of his bow tie loose.

Wait, he said. I’ll do it.

He folded his clothes over the back of his chair. She waited, crossing her arms, watching his freckled backside. And then he turned, and she saw he was attractive after all, lean and whitehaired. He took her hand and they lay on the carpet.

As he kissed her, he toyed with the end of her braid, brushing it against her cheek. His fingers tugged the red elastic band. Let me undo it, he said.

No, she said.

Why? I’d love to see it down. It’s so thick. He brushed the end against his lips.

It’s too much trouble, she said. I’d have to braid it back.

I’ll do it, he said.

No, she said and drew it out of his hand, leaning forward to kiss him.

After a while, their breathing grew fast. Rogan got up and went to the desk.

Nina watched, propped on an elbow. You don’t need that.

Nevertheless, he said.

He looked ridiculous, the penis arching upward, armored for love, the nipple tip drooping, his testicles hanging like an old valise.

Her expression went unconsciously wry with the comedy of sex, and lying there propped on her side, one leg drawn up, she seemed at once deliberate and innocent. Rogan reflected that people who didn’t know any better thought seduction was romantic but it was usually complex, involving endless strategies. You’re beautiful, he said, like a girl standing up on horseback in a circus. Nina saw herself and was amazed.

He knelt and she gravely drew him down.

For a time, it seemed the pair might exhaust themselves before they reached the end. She watched sidelong, with slit eyes, her head turning in small rhythmic circles, Rogan raised on his fists, as if pushing up. He varied his tactic and began touching her, and his touches reached her like urgings in a dream. He was a stranger. What they were doing could not be undone. They would do it again and again. Nina came suddenly, dully; and Rogan, a while after. As it rippled away, she saw her apartment, the rooms sunlit and still, the floors tilted yet everything in place. She thought of going there, and the distance seemed too great, her will insufficient to carry her.

His fingers brushed her lips. He was watching. What are you thinking? he said.

Nothing. My mind was wandering. She gave him a little push to get off her, and he rose and went to the sink and brought a small white towel.

Nina laughed abruptly.

What? he said.

You’re a doctor—her voice wavered and broke off.

It occurred to him that she was unstable and might make a scene. He wanted to end things gracefully but would end them abruptly if he had to. He offered a hand to help her up.

She made a show of ignoring him, stretching her arms over her head, and then got up on her own. She did a little dance step. She was amused because she was supposed to be uncertain what was next, yet she knew. All she had to do was whatever she wanted. She went to the window and lifted an edge of the shade and peered out. Cars were parked bumper to bumper. The metal gleamed. I have a child, she said.

Rogan was buttoning his shirt. You have two, I think.

She spoke as though repeating something everyone knew. No, another one . . . in a hospital . . . . She’s dying.

I’m sorry, Rogan said automatically. Maybe that’s what’s been causing you pain.

Nina laughed. Didn’t you know? I made that up.

She turned from the window and walked toward him, raising her head. Let him look, she thought.

He saw that he had trapped himself. If he refused her she would hate him. For both of them, it was a question of getting from one moment to the next.

She came to him with the soft impact of a small, dense body jostling a large, light one. He steadied himself against her. She took him into her hand and circled his waist caressingly. They lowered themselves to the floor, Rogan wondering if he could manage a second time.

After a while, he rose and went back to his desk. Nina studied him. Take off your shirt.

Of course, he said.

He moved to her, and at the last instant she held him off, a hand on his pelvis, and stared into his eyes. They were deep blue, the pupils narrowed to points of lust in which she felt her power. His hips trembled, her hand sliding off. They joined, and some of her heaviness of soul went over into the emptiness of his. Then, they were nothing more than the act itself.

They scooted, inching across the carpet and knocked into a sofa. Nina broke out laughing while Rogan plunged on.

She saw the blank ceiling and thought of Johnny who wouldn’t love her, Johnny who did this with others. She held onto the surgeon and lifted her hips, and when they came—Rogan, in big round pulses, and Nina, in sharp high beats that opened and closed around him—she wanted to say I love you. She felt her heart going out to him and held it back.

Rogan touched her ear, traced the line of her jaw and kissed her, covering the moment with decorum.

When she was gone, Rogan tidied up and glanced at his date book. He had one more patient to see, a call to make to his broker, and then a tennis match at his club. Afterward, he would go home to dinner. He would turn in early and read from a journal. His habits defined him. He leaned back in his chair and thought about the past, about other women, what they’d said and done, but it was an odd thing about sex that before long it left no memory of the feeling itself. Each new episode replaced the last, or, no, Rogan thought, it’s something else. Each episode was replaced by desire, so that what he remembered was desire rather than love itself. And it came to Rogan that in a life of desire all that might be left to desire was death. He turned back a page of his date book and then another, as if looking for something.

In the hall outside her apartment, Nina heard laughter. She pushed open the door and saw Johnny and the children and the new au pair lying in a circle on the floor with their heads in each other’s laps. When they saw Nina, they stopped laughing, and the room seemed sharply divided. Each of them saw it. Her eyes met Hendersen’s with a look of triumph. His face was red from laughing. It’s a game, he said and began struggling to his feet.

Nina motioned to the boys. Go get cleaned up, and I’ll be there in a minute.

The au pair hesitated and then followed the little boys.

Why do you keep trying to hurt me? Nina said.

That’s unfair, Hendersen said. We were only playing.

It’s inappropriate, she said.

You make things so ugly, Hendersen said.

I know what I see, Nina said.

That night, Hendersen read a goodnight story to Eric and Ian. Tucking them in, he kissed each boy’s forehead just below the hairline and inhaled their simple smell, which was dizzying in its reminder of how easily happiness was lost, and as if sensing his father’s worry, Ian, the younger child, put his arms around his father’s neck and wouldn’t let go. Hendersen took the boy into his arms and silently hugged him, their two hearts—Hendersen’s big, middle-aged heart bumping with cares and the boy’s small, light one—beating together until father and son were contained in each other, and Ian let go of his father’s neck and, placing his small hands on Hendersen’s cheeks, said, I see where it hurts.

A rush of shame filled Hendersen. I know you do, he said.

It was something of a miracle, Hendersen reflected, that no matter what else, Ian seemed to know what was right.

The older boy, Eric, lay watching them from his bed. I’m trying to sleep, he complained. Above the lip of the blanket his eyes were full of suspicion and seemed to take in everything for an accounting to be made in the future.

As Hendersen went out, he glanced in perplexity from one child to the other. That his children looked on him with sorrow and reproach touched his conscience, and passing through the hallway toward the living room, he summoned his resolve to humble himself and try again to put things right.

Nina was in her chair reading, her feet under her, the lamp sending a pool of warm light onto the crown of her head and over her, as though she were in a world of her own. It was a sight that made Hendersen veer. He scarcely knew he was afraid of her, but paced quietly around the room, trying to compose his mind, hesitating to speak. He stopped at the stereo and turned on a jazz station.

Nina spoke to his back, I’m trying to read.

Hendersen lowered the volume and went partway to her. I’ve been thinking, he said, and maybe it’s true: I’ve been trying to hurt you. He gave a small, sad laugh, and Nina looked up alertly.

I think I’m angry, he said, that I have to go see Polly alone and that you can’t really talk to me about her. He knew he was on thin ice and hurried on. But that’s no excuse. I owe you an apology. I should have let you know where I was and what I was doing instead of leaving you to wonder. Or, I should have kept it to myself and handled it in a way that wouldn’t have mistreated you. I don’t know, maybe I wanted you to think I was staying away to see someone else but I didn’t think that. I just thought I was saving you from worry. I’m sorry, he said. I don’t want to act with resentment.

He stood there looking uncertain and her heart wavered. She thought he would say something more to make up for her misery, but nothing came. Instead, he held his arms open and made a little motion of his hands for her to come to him. It was too clever. She couldn’t trust him. You only want to feel better about yourself, she said.

But, Nina, Hendersen implored, if we don’t make up what else can we do?

I don’t know. All I know is you’re going away again . . . aren’t you?

It’s for work, he said.

It’s always for work, she said.

The conversation continued and they were like two sides of a sharply pitched roof, though neither of them quite saw it. Each counted on the tension provided by the other. Between them were twenty years of marriage, the bonds of familiarity, the hopes and promises begun in youth. It passed through them like nostalgia: if they separated, their life so far would be wasted. They sensed it for the first time and fell silent.

What do you expect from me? Hendersen said.

It seemed to her he was trying to take something away. Nothing, she said. Can’t you just let me read?

Hendersen turned and left the room.

The piece playing on the radio was ending. Nina listened. A trumpet cried and faded, the string bass flurried and descended, disappearing, while the piano sent footsteps strolling, someone not ready to go home, rain beginning lightly to fall, and a car passing on the wet street, the last bright notes sounding like dawn and the promise of sleep while others wake. Nina wished for a different life than her own, a life of freedom and choices and exciting people and love.

She didn’t owe Johnny anything. She was sick of feeling an obligation. She thought of Rogan and then of Ian’s swimming teacher at the Y and how his genitals pressed against his tank suit when he got out of the pool.

Hendersen sat in his office and stared at mail and papers stacked on his desk. He thought miserably of forgiveness and how it was a simple matter of yielding to one’s better nature, but it was impossible to forgive someone who wouldn’t forgive herself, and equally impossible to live with her if she wouldn’t forgive him. He thought of how he had taken care of Nina after Polly’s birth, how he had made it all right for Nina to stop seeing the child, but now it seemed that all he’d done was help her hide a pain that was worse for being hidden. There was no relief, and the interior of life was closed to them. He reflected that this misfortune was what their sons would learn from them, and he thought of taking Eric and Ian and raising them on his own. It seemed to him that he could manage it, but as soon as he thought it, the idea of taking the boys from her seemed cruel and impractical. She would never let go. They were what protected her from the fear of being a bad mother, having rejected one child. It occurred to him then that he had everything backward: She was punishing herself but somehow she had tricked him, or he had tricked himself, into acting like the one who was punishing her. No matter what he did it would never be good enough. Anger rose in him and quickly grew stale. He reflected that he was responsible for his part in their affairs. But why he had taken on such a role mystified him. It was extremely disheartening, and Hendersen, who was a romantic, sat for a while longer, sentimentally recalling the past and resisting an ultimate conclusion. Finally, he took himself to bed.

Nina was curled under the covers in a fetal posture of sleep, her hair spilled on the pillow. He lay beside her, afraid to disturb her but ached with a longing for which he had no name—his own need to be taken care of and loved. He took a thick strand of her hair in his fingers and rubbed it, as if it were all of her, and all of him.

In the morning, she looked so peaceful and rosy he wanted to let her sleep. He got the boys off to school and was eating toast and reading the paper when she came in the kitchen barefoot, wearing a robe. He noticed the slimness of her ankles and calves and the straightness of her back.

She moved silently around him fixing herself some tea. She poured water from the kettle and somehow it slipped and fell, splashing water on her feet. She cried out, and Hendersen jumped up and gripped her shoulders, thinking to help.

Let go, she cried, I’m all right.

Your feet, you’ve burned them.

She wrenched from his grasp and rushed to the bathroom and ran cold water in the tub. She sat on the edge, thinking he was an idiot who could never make her happy. He appeared in the door with an anxious look and an ice tray which he cracked methodically into the tub, and then he stood there waiting.

What? she said. What do you want?

He looked surprised. What’s going on with you? What happened in the kitchen?

I had a cramp.

He nodded, pursing his lips. Do you want to take a Motrin or something?

She waved him away. The medicine cabinet was full of his pharmaceutical samples. I’m not an addict, she said.

Hendersen frowned. What does that mean?

I’m not—and then she cried out in exasperation, Ohhh god!, and leaned over clutching her knees.

Hendersen put his arms around her. Water was thundering into the tub.

She breathed as if sobbing. Please, he said, what is it? They stayed like that until Nina calmed down and sat up and cut off the tap. Hendersen stepped away. Cramps? he said.

Nina gave a minuscule nod.

Maybe you should see a doctor.

I already have, Nina said, and there’s nothing wrong.

There was a noise in the hall, and they looked up to see the au pair. It was as if they had been caught in a guilty act. Hendersen made an open gesture of his hand. Everything all right?

The girl smiled glumly and continued down the hall.

Nina stood up and Hendersen reached for a towel. He had an impulse to bend down and dry her feet. The idea frightened him. He had no idea where it might lead.

Nina, he said, I’m worried about you.

What exactly are you worried about? She took the towel and began to dry her feet. They were red and bony, and it occurred to Hendersen that he hadn’t done anything wrong and there was no reason to keep standing there. In his mind, he began packing to leave town the next day.

Nina’s heart was racing all the time. It was bursting out of her chest and to keep up she had to move fast. She discovered that certain kinds of shy and deceptively quiet men were drawn to her without her doing anything in particular to attract them. They liked her and that was all.

A month went by. Late one afternoon she ran into Rogan on the sidewalk outside the hospital. You cut your hair, he said.

Her hand reached up to the blunt edge. Do you like it?

Yes, he said. I miss the girl but now I see the woman. It was exactly the kind of thing Nina wanted to hear but from him suddenly felt too personal. He looked older than before, slightly stooped. She couldn’t imagine him touching her.

There was an awkward pause and Nina said she had to go. A moment later, Rogan found himself looking back over his shoulder, thinking she had called his name—John. He was sure he heard her, but there was no one there except a group of teenage boys crossing the street, and one of them, a tall, skinny fellow, trailing behind on a skateboard, pushing it with hard kicks, hurrying to catch up with his friends. The first rush of evening traffic was coming up the avenue, and the cars seemed to bear down on the boy with irresistible intent. Rogan wanted to tell him not to be careless, not to be fooled into thinking life would keep pouring onto him like a gift. The boy skated safely out of the street, and the cars rushed by creating a hot wind.

Originally published in Ploughshares.