Listened

Charles reached across the seat of the cab to cover his wife’s dry hand with his own. The knuckles of it were tensed and he felt the ridges there.

“When was the last time we saw the McClaines?” his wife asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “March?” He made a humming noise. It was November and the windows of the cab were white at their edges.

His wife did not say anything. He looked at her flat cheek in the moving light and thought of how there were small hairs there which he could not see or feel.

Their friends the McClaines had this dinner party the week before Thanksgiving. It was better than the holiday. Ben and Alice McClaine had an apartment of low, constant noise that moved warmly. Charles loved this, how he felt filled by the sound of the place.

“I like this much better than Thanksgiving,” he said to his wife. “Of course. You know.”

She looked at him, his eyes and then his neck. “We’re not having them over this Thanksgiving, are we? The McClaines?” Charles looked: a long look. She was lit up, his wife, wholly and by things outside of her.

“You don’t want to?”

“It’s just a lot of people.”

“Yeah, no, yeah,” he said. “Yeah, definitely. We don’t have to. I wish—you know I wish it could be just us. Just that. I swear.” His fingers reached to touch her palm, its fold of skin, looking for warmth held there.

The hall was lit from far away and he could hear voices at its end. Charles held a hand to his wife’s back through the thick black coat. She rang the doorbell and Alice answered.

“Hello!” said Alice, the vast height of her flushed and red. His wife looked with a hard turn and said, “Alice, hi.” She walked forward and took the wine.

“Thank you so much!” said Alice. “You two—always the best taste. Whatever you get, I love it. Really.”

“Ben!” said Charles, his arms out. “Good to see you.”

Ben smiled. “And how are you?”

Where had his wife gone?

He walked with Ben to the low wooden table. He spoke slowly, expanding words with his hands, and enjoyed the pauses that Ben took before speaking. The room was warm, he found his wife by the placement of her elbow on a chair, he looked away and smiled.

“How is she doing?” Ben asked him, glancing at his wife. “I mean, she seems happy.” His wife was sad in a constant sort of way, and the knowledge of this was present in him as a hard and artificial thing, a terrible thing down inside of him.

“She’s good,” he said. “Changed doctors. The old one wasn’t right for her anymore, you know? Wasn’t—sympathetic. You know I don’t think she needs to go. You know that. But if it helps her, I don’t know, she’s getting better. She’s good.” Ben nodded. Alice appeared behind him.

“Some wine?” she said. “Some of your lovely wine? I’ve had a glass”—she dipped her shoulder and was suddenly nearer to Charles—“and it’s wonderful.”

Charles looked down the table. “Oh, no,” he said, “ask my wife, I’m sure she’d love some.”

The wine bottle sank an inch. “Of course!” she said. “I’ll—yes, I’ll go ask.”

He watched his wife, across the table, look up at Alice and stop smiling. She took the glass from Alice’s hand and held it in front of her as if it were a different thing.

The meal was good and warm and Charles watched his wife, who sat next to Ben but not to him, pour herself four glasses of wine. Alice poured the first. “Pour some for Charles, too,” said his wife, looking at the long white hand of Alice.

“Oh,” he said, “I’m fine, no.”

But Alice, in the chair across from his, leaned to refill his glass. The fabric of her dress was tight against her and Charles looked to his wife, whose bottom lip was pressed to her wineglass. The food on her plate was moved and manipulated but none was gone. “Eat,” he said to her. She finished a long thick sip.

“Yes, darling,” she said. “Alice, I’ll ask you for the recipe later. This is very good. Or I’ll have Charles ask you.”

When the meal was finished, when Charles sat talking quietly to Ben, there came from the living room a low and beautiful female voice, singing. It started quietly. Then great long vibrations began, reaching through the walls, it seemed, and Charles’s words became lost so he could do nothing but stop to listen. It came through the wall like strong heat.

“What—?” he said to Ben.

“Oh, Molly,” he said. “Has to practice. In some chorus thing.”

Molly, their daughter. She was too young for these dinners, and it had been a long time since Charles had seen her.

“I forgot she could sing.”

He did not know how he came to be standing in the corner of the living room, far enough from the source of the voice that he felt safe from it. Old things haunted him in that sound.

Charles looked at the figure sitting at the piano, straight-backed. She seemed to be made of not enough color, but that was the light of the room, maybe, which was lit only by what leaked from the dining room. There, at the table, another dark figure sat; Charles’s wife watched him as he watched Molly and Molly did not watch anything, only sang. Things in motion stopped moving.

Charles had to leave the room or the weight of the voice would press him to the ground. The look he saw on his wife’s face as he turned to the light and the table lasted ten years. He had to sit before he said, “OK, we’re leaving.”

Neither of them turned on the lights when they walked into the apartment. It was cold. They sat next to each other on the edge of the bed and light came in from the avenue.

His wife made no noise, but she was beginning to speak. He looked at the curve of her bottom lip against the brassy light.

“It’s been years since you looked at me like that,” she said.

“I wasn’t looking,” he said. “I was just listening, hon. It was a gorgeous song. You have to know that. It was—I can’t even say. I’ve never heard—”

She turned. He lost the sharp profile of her face and missed it. “Alice,” she says. “You looked at Alice. With her dress. And the wine. And she’s so fucking tall. And. She was looking at you.”

His ears rang with the song. It was tinny, ruined. “I never,” he said. “I never looked at Alice, honey, sweetheart, please. I thought you were talking about the girl. Because I was listening to her music. But that’s just not the thing, at all. Why—?”

“You looked, you looked,” she said, and he couldn’t find the edges of her eyes in the dark anymore, and she didn’t know that there was no looking but only listening, and when he reached out to feel for the bottom lip he no longer could see she drew back into the orange light.

————————–

Diana Kole is a comparative literature student at New York University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Staccato Fiction (Fall, 2009), Kill Author (April, 2010), and Mud Luscious Press (July, 2010).

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