FAILURE TO THRIVE: A short story by Neil Connelly


ConnellyHeadShot6.4MBBIO

Neil Connelly directed the MFA Program at McNeese State before returning home to his native Pennsylvania, where he now teaches at Shippensburg University and lives with his wife, their two boys, and a white dog named Muffin.  His stories have appeared in Southern Indiana Review, Southeast Review, Grist, and Rivercity, among others.  He is the author of five novels, most recently The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible (LSU Press) and The Pocket Guide To Divorce (A Self Help Work of Fiction) which was awarded the inaugural Molly Ivors Prize for fiction by the publisher, Gorsky Press.  His sixth novel, Higher Ground, is forthcoming from Arthur A. Levine Books.

 

Failure to Thrive

I was the first of the moms in playgroup to notice the man on the bench. He sat in the shadow of a live oak on the far side of the walking trail that circles Drew Park, about a hundred feet away from the picnic table that we gathered around every Wednesday afternoon. He wasn’t doing a crossword puzzle or reading a paperback or eating a late lunch. But he also wasn’t leering, taking photos, or offering candy. He was merely sitting, staring in the general direction of the huge pirate ship on which all the children played. Anyone occupying that bench would automatically face the kids. The thirty-something man was dressed in Dockers and a dress shirt, the kind of outfit I’d likely pick out for my husband, Brad. That first day, he seemed more mysterious than threatening. So when one of the other moms asked me what I was looking at, I kept him to myself and told her I thought I recognized an old friend. The lie came easy.

The following Wednesday, the second in October, while Marlene and Kristi spiked straws into juice boxes, I saw the man stroll into the park from the entryway down by the lake. He followed the walking trail until he reached his bench. Angela, who never brings her own juice boxes, asked once again if she could borrow one for Frankie Jr. I caught Marlene’s eye roll, intended only for Kristi. Marlene said, “Of course. I always pack extra. Just in case.”

The roar of a Medivac helicopter from St. Jude’s drowned out any other snide remarks. It zoomed just above the pines, racing toward some distant crisis.

The sound didn’t wake my ten month old, Thomas (always Tommy to Brad) who was sleeping by my side in his blue stroller. About twenty feet away, still dressed in their private school uniforms, Lou, Ashtonia, Blake, Miles, Crawford and Frankie Jr. clambered over the rope ladders and slides of the pirate ship. They ignored Kristi’s juice box invitation and kept playing. Angela’s daughter LeeAnn worked a purple crayon over her coloring book at the edge of the picnic table. As a general rule, LeeAnn preferred the company of adults.

The other moms settled into familiar conversation: accomplishments of their children, the plans for the upcoming Halloween party, and the relative flaws of their husbands, all of whom work at ChemCo, one of the chemical processing plants across the lake. Kristi filled us in on Hank’s newest home renovation disaster. Frank Sr. hunted every weekend, worked long hours, and always hired sexy receptionists. “Do they always come ditzy and blonde?” Angela asked, apparently oblivious to the fact that she fit the description. Marlene’s husband Todd had recently installed an HDTV in their bedroom. “The other night he was watching one of those shows on HBO,” she said. “I come out of the bathroom ready for bed and strangers are screwing on my wall. In high def.”

They munched on pretzels shaped like tools.

“What about you?” Kristi asked me. “How’s that Brad?”
I looked down at Thomas, hoping he’d wake.

“C’mon girl,” Angela pressed. “Dish a bit.” All three of them stared at me. I thought of Brad’s moustache, meticulously trimmed just above his lip.

At the pirate ship, Ashtonia and Lou shoved each other on the plank and screamed. It’s a ten foot drop. The other moms stayed focused on me, waiting like a jury.

“Have you noticed that guy on the bench?” I finally said.

Following my eyes, the other moms turned. I went on. “Kind of creepy, don’t you think?” I did not, in fact, think he was creepy.

“Maybe he’s waiting for someone,” Marlene offered.

“No,” I told them. “He was there last week too.”

“I didn’t see him,” Kristi said.

“He was there.”

“Somebody should call Dateline,” Angela said. “We have a possible perv sighting.”
“He’s too cute to be a pedophile,” Kristi said.

“What’s a pedophile?” LeeAnn asked, and we all looked at her holding her purple crayon.
At that awkward moment, cries rose from the pirate ship. Ashtonia and Crawford wailed from the plank. Below them, Lou lay face down in the mulch, weeping. It took the moms a few minutes to dry tears and sort out who needed to be placed in time out for how long. All the racket woke Thomas, and he wouldn’t settle till I pulled him from the stroller. He blinked, cried, and raked a fingernail across my face, as if in retaliation for waking him up. LeeAnn shook her head and continued coloring.
When I looked back at the bench, it was empty.

* * *

The third Wednesday in October, the man was there when I arrived. Usually I steer Thomas’ stroller straight across the lawn and duck through the swings, but I gave in to the urge to get a closer look. So after I gathered up the diaper bag and strapped Thomas in, I followed the gravel walking trail. At the picnic table, I saw Kristi and Marlene turn and notice me. They watched to see what exactly I would do. I felt important and interesting.

As I neared the man on the bench, his gaze stayed fixed ahead of him. It seemed undeniable that he was, indeed, watching the children play. The gravel’s crunch turned his face and for a moment our eyes came together. “Hello,” he said. His hands remained on his legs, but he fluttered his fingers in greeting, like he was playing the piano. He had strong hands. I flirted with the idea that he was a musician, composing in his head.

I said “Hi” and kept moving.

He glanced at Thomas and smiled. It was genuine but reserved.

The dominant impression I gathered from the encounter was that the man was tired. Although he was clean shaven, his eyes looked weary and his shoulders sagged.

There was an aura of heaviness about him. Death in the family? I wondered. Lost dream? Broken heart?

I had not told Brad about the man on the bench, though he asked on a regular basis how my day went as soon as he arrived home. He was always careful to get a full report on what Thomas had eaten and when, how long he had slept, the nature of his bowel movements, etc. By October, it had reached the point where what I wanted most to say was, “Why do you need to know any of this? Don’t you trust me to take care of our son?” Even taking into account Thomas’ “diagnosis,” Brad’s questioning was extreme. The whole thing had the tone of a returning parent’s interrogation of a suspect babysitter.

For my part, I offered no more information than was asked of me. I did not tell him that Thomas played in his crib after his naps and I would, from time to time, leave him there while I watched the end of an afternoon movie or emailed my old friends at the firm or called my mother. I even stashed his favorite truck in the corner, hoping for ten extra minutes. He was happy to play. It was Brad’s idea that I stay home with Thomas, and I enjoyed taking care of our son. But it was lonelier than I thought it would be. Every now and then, I’d even take a phone call from a telemarketer and listen to his pitch, just to hear a grown up’s voice. If Brad noticed I was lonely, he did not mention it.

Kristi’s husband worked in the same lab as Brad, and when the suggestion came in mid July that I join the playgroup, it felt more like a summons than an invitation. Brad thought it would be good for Thomas, even though the kids were much older. He had to learn to socialize. This all closely followed Brad’s sister’s conclusion that Thomas was sick. Failure to thrive was the term she’d found on the internet. The condition covered a variety of symptoms: below-average growth, absence of sustained eye-contact, disinterest in play, irritability, a general withdrawal. Though I thought it silly, Brad took off work to accompany me to the doctor’s office.

Sitting on a stool in a bright room the size of an elevator, Dr. Bennet said we shouldn’t be too worried about Thomas’ fluctuating weight. He’d lost a half pound in the eight weeks since his previous visit. This was atypical but not alarming. He said we should wait and see how some other indicators developed. Brad, who not only held Thomas the entire time but also answered all the doctor’s questions, wasn’t comforted by Bennet.

In the clinic parking lot, he strapped our baby into his car seat and told me about the playgroup. It was just a good idea for all involved, something he’d been meaning to suggest.

But I knew Brad was holding back.

I knew that he blamed me. He had found me wanting as a mother just as he’d found me wanting as a wife.

Back in August, when he began trimming his moustache, I did not ask him about it. He did not ask me about the second glass of wine I began having at night. And this is how our marriage had settled in the year since our son’s birth.

When I reached the picnic table after my reconnaissance mission that third Wednesday in October, Marlene greeted me wide-eyed. “So what did he say?”

I considered lying, then told them, “Just hi.”

LeeAnn climbed down and waved at Thomas. “Can I push him on the swing?”

I shook my head and Thomas reached for her crayon. She let him have it.

Kristi said, “He’s looking at us right now. He’s looking at you still.”

Angela took out her cell phone and said she was going to call the cops.
“Don’t be silly,” Marlene said. “He hasn’t done anything. Yet.”

Thomas sucked on LeeAnn’s crayon. I took it away and gave it back to her. “I don’t think he’s going to do anything.”

“Did he have a ring?” Kristi wanted to know.

“Didn’t notice.”

“What kind of guy just hangs out in the park?” Angela asked.

While the older kids played, I propped Thomas in a swing and pushed him gently. He seemed interested in the movement and the trees. Behind me, the other moms engaged in wild high school speculation. The man on the bench was an undercover cop; a park designer studying how kids played; a participant in the witness protection program; a doctor from St. Jude’s taking a break; a recovering addict from Holman House who walked all the way from Broad Street. LeeAnn stopped coloring long enough to propose that he might be an alien studying our primitive culture. She asked again if she could push Thomas and I relented.

As for myself, I decided that the man on the bench was indeed from the hospital, but he was no doctor. His little girl was sick, I was certain, cancer perhaps, and she was in mortal danger and her mother was dead or uncaring, so only her dad could love her, and he did it all day and night, he never left her side, except for half an hour when she took an afternoon nap. He left behind the sterility and walls so white they hurt your eyes, strolled down by the lake and then here to the park, and he breathed the rich air and watched the healthy children and prayed for the day when his baby girl could join the other kids.

As we were leaving that day, cutting under the swings on the way to parking lot, I lingered in the back of the pack and let my eyes wander over to the man on the bench. He was watching. I left one hand on the stroller, but lifted the other slightly and stretched my fingers toward him as if casting a tiny spell. And he nodded, just a dip of his chin really, then went back to looking at the children. I admired him for his love and devotion. I knew he could use a friend in hard times like these. I thought about his strong hands and determined to tell no one our secret.
That night I woke from a dream. The kind I hadn’t really had since early in college, before Stephen and long before Brad. The man on the bench was there and we were alone, together. After I woke, there was a moment when I was surprised to find Brad next to me, turned on his side and snoring softly. One night in my second trimester, I woke with the craving that sometimes grips pregnant women, and I stirred Brad by nibbling on his ear, caressing his chest. But once he came awake, his hand settled over mine. He held it still. The silence in the room was crushing. I felt underwater, the pitch black bottom of the ocean. Brad whispered, “The baby. I don’t want to hurt it.” In all the months since Thomas has been born, I haven’t disturbed my husband’s peaceful dreams.

So that night when the man on the bench visited me in my sleep, I accepted his embrace without shame or guilt. He gripped my hair and looked me in the eye. And when my waking interrupted us, I finished the dream by myself, with my sleeping husband beside me.

That Saturday, Brad took Thomas over to visit with his Mawmaw and Pawpaw. I begged off, claiming I had a list of errands to take care of. Laundry. Walmart. That kind of thing. Brad didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t joining them, and I thought again of checking his cell phone for recent calls. I imagined him complaining to whoever she was about how little I was involved in Thomas’ life. Early on in our courtship, I realized that Brad had a habit of trimming his moustache when he planned on kissing me and making love. I found it endearing and cute and never told him I noticed. As the pregnancy wore on, the wiry hairs grew bushy and thick, all but covering his upper lip. Then this past August, with Thomas eight months old and asleep in the crib, I heard the snipping of the scissors in the bathroom one night. At first I was elated–misguided fool–and I quickly changed into one of the slick evening gowns Brad once found enticing. I slid under the covers and pulled the sheets up to my chin, waiting to reveal that I was equally eager to renew our love. He brushed his teeth, stepped into our bedroom and kissed me on the cheek, rolled on his side and faced the wall, same as he’d done every night. Staring in the dark at the ceiling fan, I came to the obvious conclusion. Given my experience, I had no right to be surprised. I wondered who she was, fleetingly, and I determined then and there to say nothing, ever.

So on that Saturday, while my husband and child played at his parents’, I felt no particular guilt when I drove past Drew Park on my way to Walmart, even though it’s on the other end of town. From the parking lot, I saw that the bench in question was occupied by two middle aged women, and an unexpected sense of relief came over me. In the pharmacy at Walmart, when I was picking up ointment for diaper rash, I did not buy condoms.

On the way home, my mind refused to settle. I told myself to be practical. I had milk in the back, ice cream. But when I passed my exit on the loop, I knew where I was going. Pulling into the parking lot, I felt silly and childish. Then I saw him on his bench and there was only the tug of jeopardy.

He didn’t see me get out, and without thinking much about an alibi for my appearance, I approached undetected. At the last few feet, he turned. Recognition was instant. “Well hello,” he said. “You don’t usually come here on Saturdays.”
“Why do you even know that?” I asked.

He shrugged. “People tell me I’m observant.”

I stood there and he studied me. I thought of what I was wearing, sweat pants and a t-shirt. I noticed he wore no ring. He caught me looking. At the pirate ship, children yelled and laughed. Finally he asked me, “Where’s your little one?”
“With his father,” I said, feeling like this might keep me safe from myself.

A strange smile formed on the man’s lips, one I couldn’t read. “That’s nice. It’s important for a boy to be with his daddy.”
Together, we watched a dog snap a thrown Frisbee from the air.
“You know,” I said, “two of my friends think you’re dangerous.”
“That means one of them doesn’t.”
“Yeah. She figures you’re just weird.”

He laughed. “Weird and dangerous. I’ve been accused of worse. What about you?”
For a few seconds, I thought he wanted to know what I’d been accused of. Then I realized what he was asking. “I’m not quite sure what to make of you.”

“A guy can’t sit on a bench,” he said without hostility, “not if there are kids around.”
I looked at him. A jogger passed behind me on the gravel path. The man on the bench looked at the pirate ship then back at me. I said, “You have kids of your own?”

He sighed, then stood. From his back pocket, he pulled out a laminated name tag on a white rope necklace. It read Lionel: Assistant Kitchen Manager. “I’m here on my break from St. Jude’s. I work in the cafeteria. This time of day, nobody’s eating anything but lunch leftovers.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to make you explain yourself. It’s just, it’s clear that you’re watching the kids play.”
“This is a relaxing place,” he said. “But if it makes you and your friends uncomfortable, I’ll sit down by the lake when you’re here. Really, that would be okay. I’m a white guy. This is the only stereotype I can complain about.”
“Don’t be silly, Lionel,” I told him. I waited for him to ask my name.
Instead, he glanced at his watch. “I need to get back. Enjoy your exercise.”
My confusion must’ve shown on my face.
“Your walk, whatever it is you came here for.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being coy, but he held eye contact with me until I looked away. We didn’t exchange goodbyes when he left. But I watched him walk down the trail to the lake and turn towards the hospital. Just before he disappeared from view, he glanced back to see if I was looking.

Just outside my house, I thumbed the button to raise the door on the double wide garage and saw Brad’s truck. I parked and began bringing in the groceries. He met me in the living room and lifted the packages from my hands. “Thomas played so hard he exhausted himself, so I bailed,” he explained. “He’s passed out in his crib.”

I went out for more bags. While we were unpacking in the kitchen, Brad told me his mom asked about me. “She says she calls here during the week and you never answer.”

“I’m fine with Thomas,” I told him, thankful for caller I.D. “We have plenty of fun.”
“I know that,” Brad said. “It’s just . . . . Thomas really likes being over there. Mom’s got nothing to fill her days, and it might be a nice break for you. She’s always been good with kids.”

“Yeah. She’s good with kids.” Inside the opened door of the fridge, I bent down and shoved a head of lettuce into the crisper. My caring husband thought I needed a break. When I stood and turned, Brad was right there. He took my two wrists inside his hands. His eyes were soft. One of his thumbs caressed my palm. “Listen,” he said. “I’m worried about you.”

I knew that concern like this, coming from nowhere, was a certain sign of his outright guilt. Brad may as well have confessed to an affair right there, with the cool air from the fridge rolling past us. I stared at that perfect moustache and said, “No need to worry” then pulled my arms free and went back to unpacking. We worked in silence for a few minutes, then Brad asked, “How come this Rocky Road is so soft?”

Stephen, my first husband, did not give such overt signs of his betrayal. Or perhaps, more likely, I simply hadn’t learned what to look for. I married him my senior year at Tulane and for three years thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. We laughed and made love and I felt special, protected. We told each other the secret things you never tell anyone else. Then over the course of a winter, things soured between us. Stephen began to insist we attend mass. On a Sunday in February after the 12:30 service, I found myself having tea with my husband and Father Vincent, who explained that he’d been counseling Stephen for some time. He coaxed my trembling husband to confess his infidelity. Stephen cried. Father Vincent passed him Kleenex and suggested we pray. I dumped my tea on the Oriental carpet and went home to pack.

The final Wednesday in October, I was running late thanks to a longer than usual nap from Thomas. Eventually, I just woke him up. When I got to the park, I was surprised and upset to see the bench empty. But then I found Lionel at the picnic table, his broad shoulders facing me. He was sitting with Kristi, Marlene and Angie. The other moms leaned in, listening intensely. As I neared, it almost felt like I was disturbing something. LeeAnn saw me and waved, which made them all turn. Angie was wiping tears from her face. Marlene and Kristi were somber-faced, pale. Lionel looked over his shoulder, then stood and offered his hand. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Lionel.”

We shook, and I understood that he hadn’t mentioned our Saturday meeting. It was our secret. In the center of the picnic table was a large plastic tray of quartered sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies.
“Who’s this little fellow?” he asked as he bent and poked a finger under Thomas’ chin.
“My son, Thomas,” I explained. Thomas pushed Brad’s hand away.
Angie sniffled and covered her mouth.
“It’s alright,” Lionel assured her. “I’m fine.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Lionel brought us some food,” Marlene said, clearly changing the subject. “He had the crazy idea that we might think he was some kind of dangerous character.”
LeeAnn looked over with a raised eyebrow.
“Perfectly understandable,” Lionel said. “Nobody could miss me staring. Frankly, in today’s day and age, I’m surprised no one’s called the police. Really, I’m terribly sorry if I caused you any concern.”
“None at all,” Kristi told him.
Marlene reached out and touched his arm. “We didn’t even know you were there.”

Lionel tapped Marlene’s hand, as if consoling her. Then he said he had to be going and stepped away. “Lunch hour’s never an hour. I really just wanted to meet you and your kids. They’re all great.” He turned to the pirate ship, where the children hung with chocolate chip smiles.
Angie sobbed and wiped at her nose with a tissue.

“Good meeting you all,” Lionel said. As soon as he turned his back, the moms all fixed me with teary eyes. When he paused and returned, they brightened falsely. “Look,” he said. “I feel like a total ass that I was freaking you out. The hospital is having a Trunk or Treat on the top deck of the parking garage on Friday. Six o’clock. I wasn’t here last year, but everybody tells me it’s a real hoot. It’s open to the public.” Then he turned his face to mine. “You all should really come.”

After he was finally gone, they filled me in, practically cutting each other’s throats to relay Lionel’s story. His wife and child had been killed last September in a car wreck in Houston. Since then, he can’t help but see kids and wonder about his daughter—what she’d look like, the kinds of things she’d be doing—if only she hadn’t died. So he finds himself haunting parks, school yards, always because it helps him imagine her alive and happy. Marlene and Angie sobbed as Kristi finished the recounting. LeeAnn didn’t lift her head from her coloring book when she said, “His cookies don’t taste nice.”

“Don’t be rude,” Kristi snapped. “Mr. Lionel is a nice man and his cookies are good.”
Angie dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “Next week, we should invite him to come sit with us. It’s so lonely, him sitting off by himself like that. It’s terrible.”

“I know we can’t,” Marlene said, “but we should blow off that damn plant party.”
I was already thinking something along the same lines.

Two days later, I dressed Thomas in a bunny outfit his Mawmaw made from scratch, complete with a hood with huge ears and a fuzzy pompom on the seat of his pants. I strapped him into the car seat and we headed for the interstate that leads to the bridge that leads to the plant. Thomas’ costume looked uncomfortable, but he didn’t complain. He never complained, really. He might cry when he was hungry, but then he ate. And he cried when he was tired, but he fell asleep after a few minutes of rocking. Sometimes, when he was lying in the crook of my arm as we rocked, he’d suddenly look directly into my eyes, and I’d become certain my infant son could read my mind. He knew I married his father even though I wasn’t sure I loved him. He knew that I agreed to Brad’s request for a child because I thought perhaps that too might bring joy back to my life. Sometimes it occurred to me that all the bitterness I felt after Stephen had penetrated my very genetic material, that this was the reason my son was stoic and distant.

I drove over the bridge into Sulphur and only vaguely thought of St. Jude’s. ChemCo’s facilities are huge and overwhelming, something out of a science fiction movie. I circled the parking lot for ten minutes till I found Brad’s truck and parked two spots away.
Human Resources holds social events to keep people from feeling insignificant in the global industry. They rent busses to bring families to the Houston Zoo. They have Two-For-One day at the rodeo. They invite parents to bring kids in to trick or treat the offices near closing time and transform the cafeteria into a haunted mansion. I ran into Marlene near the front gate. Ashtonia was dressed like a witch, and she flipped her wand in my direction. Together, the four of us passed through security, where a football player and an astronaut stood guard.

Thomas seemed uninterested in the various ghosts, cowboys, and cartoon stars. As Marlene and I went from office to office, I stared down every receptionist, wondering if she was the one sleeping with my husband. One wore a tiara. Another was dressed in striped prison uniform. None avoided eye contact. Finally I reached Brad’s office and he pulled Thomas from the stroller and pecked me on the cheek. “Where’s your costume?” Brad asked.

In my closet at home hung my nurse’s uniform, something that in years past Brad found mildly titillating. And there was a moment right then—I remember it–when Brad’s eyes showed desire and disappointment, that I wondered whether he was unfaithful at all, or whether I was simply being paranoid. But before the thought could lodge itself, I answered his question. “I’m not feeling well,” I told my husband. “In fact, if it’s all the same, I’d like to just head home.”

Brad looked worried. “Okay, okay. Want me to stop at the Walgreens?”
“You don’t have to leave. I know you wanted to show Thomas off. Go do the haunted house thing. There’s two jars and some crackers in the bag.”
Brad glanced under the stroller and stared at me. He didn’t believe that I was sick, but didn’t want to accuse me of lying.
“I’ll be fine,” I told him. “I just want to go home and lie down in the quiet.”
“I don’t have a car seat for Thomas.”

“I’m parked right next to you. Take the van.”
He nodded, realizing I couldn’t be persuaded. “Be careful,” he said.

Driving back over the bridge, now in my husband’s truck, I didn’t think to look for evidence of his betrayal. I didn’t think about where I was going and what I was planning. I just drove.

Rising up the corkscrew ramp to the top floor of the St. Jude’s parking garage, I anticipated a parade of costumed kids and loving parents, families making memories. So when I reached the top, I was surprised to find no more than a half dozen scattered cars, and no children in sight. While I tried to figure out what went wrong, one of the cars left its spot. It looped slowly around the perimeter, circling closer to me. When it came alongside me, I rolled down my window. Lionel rolled down his. “Did I say Friday? I meant Saturday. The Trunk or Treat is Saturday. My mistake.”

I didn’t smile at his little joke, but I also didn’t look away.
“Okay then,” he said. “You want to just follow me?”

His apartment was ten blocks south. The paintings on his wall were like the ones from a hotel. On his balcony, he showed me some plants he was nursing back to health and his view of the back of the mall. He offered red wine and played a jazz CD.

The sex was like sex. I turned away when we were done and he spooned up against me, pressing his nose into my hair. I slid from the embrace and got dressed facing the wall. But then, realizing that I was about to head back to Brad and Thomas, that I had no where else to go, I hesitated and faced Lionel. Still naked under the sheets, he said, “There’s no need for you to run off,” he said.
“The wife and daughter in Houston,” I said. “Total bullshit, right?”
He tilted his head, considering how to answer. “Only the part about the wreck.”
“You’re married,” I said. For balance, I leaned into the door frame.
“If you want to get technical.”
“You have a daughter.”
“Haley’s about seven now. She’s a spunky kid.”
“Don’t tell me about her.”
““I left them,” Lionel explained. “I drove off when she was five and there’s no good reason and no going back. There’s my confession. But I like going to the park and pretending I’m a good dad. I pick one of those kids and imagine she’s my happy daughter and every now and then I forget what I really am.”
“That’s pretty screwed up.”

He sat up a little in the bed. “I’m sure I don’t need you to tell me that.” He flipped the sheet down next to him and patted the mattress. “Come on. How about you come back for round two? Then you can tell me your story.”

I thought about my story. It occurred to me that Brad hadn’t been cheating on me at all, that I’d simply concocted his infidelity. I had no desire to tell Lionel anything, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave. “When you were on the bench and watching us, what did you think about me? How did you know I might do this?”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
“I’m asking if I seem lonely.”

Lionel thought about my question and reached for his shirt on the floor. He tugged it over his head and sat half naked on the side of the bed. “I don’t know. I guess maybe.” He pulled his boxers on.
“Do you think I’m cold?”

Now he stood and faced me. “You’re comfortable with a secret. That’s all.”

I wanted to ask him what it was like, leaving his family. It was the kind of thing that had crossed through my mind, now and then. I imagined a distant city, an anonymous job, an apartment with dying plants, a park bench of my own. Without speaking, I turned and let myself out.

I took the long way back to the house, driving slowly and watching the road. The sidewalks were crowded with angels and monsters. By now, Brad would be done bathing Thomas. When I got back, he’d already be in the bedroom with him, rocking him to sleep, worried about where I was, worried because he loved me. Afterwards, he’d come out and find me alone on the couch. I would have a glass of wine. I could picture all this clearly, as if it were a memory. What I wasn’t sure of was how my confession would take shape. Navigating those darkening streets on the way home, I was searching for the words that would help me start, for the right place to begin.