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A quarterly international literary journal

The Surgeon's Hands

* for bf

/ Fiction /

Louise sat at the bar, working on that day’s crossword, waiting for her date to arrive. He was late. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand it was when people were late.

Around her, groups of men, post-work, still in their suits with loosened ties and exposed shirt tails, drank large glasses of beer and shouted at each other as if they were deaf. A few seats away, a man and a woman sat next to one another, staring at their phones, not actually talking. Louise wondered if they were texting each other, as if that were what intimacy had come to these days.

She thought about ordering a glass of wine – the bar was filling up and Louise was, after all, taking a seat and holding another with her coat – but decided to give it a few more minutes. She pulled out her phone to see if he’d left her a message. Her screen was filled with dating app notifications -- a frustrating feature she could not figure out how to shut off – boasting about successful dates (# dinner&dancing, # Romance!) or updates on their relationship status (# taken). The comments were brazen and public in a way Louise could never imagine acting. A show for the rest of the world. There was also a recent message from Allen, the only man she’d been on more than one date with during her foray into online dating, telling Louise he missed her, but nothing from her current date to let her know he was running behind. Not a word.

Feeling restless, she opened the menu, trying to look busy, but she’d eaten before she had arrived and wasn’t hungry. What’s more, there wasn’t enough light at the bar for her to see the tiny print on the ridiculously large menu. Not wanting to risk getting any more attention from the bartender than she’d already received, she shut the menu and pushed it away, annoyed with herself for trying to look busy while she waited. No, at her age she saw no reason to pretend her intentions were anything but what they were. She was 79 years old and going on a date with a man she had met online. Not quite a blind date, but still.

Her phone buzzed, this time a call from her son. She hit the “accept” button, and said, “Hi, David.”

“You home?” he said. No ‘hello.’ No ‘how are you, Mom.” He had inherited her late husband’s penchant for skipping pleasantries.

“No, not right now,” she said.

“I’m having a drink with some woman,” he said. “I was going to come over in like an hour. Maybe eat something. Will you be home by then?”

She looked at her watch. Twenty minutes late now. “Yes, I actually might be home,” she said.

And then she felt the touch of a hand on the small of her back. She flinched, turning to see a tall, elegantly dressed man in a pale gray suit standing over her. She recognized his face from the dating site. The sweep of his silver hair, the angular edge of his chin and cheekbones. Distinguished, she’d thought when she’d seen the photo and it still held true.

“David, I’ll talk to you later,” she said and hung up.

“Louise?” the man said.

“Yes. How did you guess?”

“I just looked for the most beautiful woman here,” he said, a broad smile on his face. “And there you were.”

A smooth talker too, she thought, smiling back. She extended her hand to shake his, but he leaned in, kissing her firmly on each cheek. “Vili, right?” she said, slightly flustered from the intimacy of the kiss.

“In the flesh,” he said.

She had asked him online how his name was pronounced, and he had written back, “Just as it is written.” That hadn’t satisfied Louise – a former schoolteacher -- who struggled to understand whether it was a long or short ‘i’ sound, or where the stress in the word fell. Anna, her daughter -- who had originally suggested she try online dating -- had joked that it might be pronounced ‘Willy.’

“I apologize for being late,” he said. “I could not get a taxi. That’s the trouble with hospitals. There’s a line of taxis when you don’t want one, and when you do...” He sighed, letting himself fall on to the stool. “I should have hitched a ride on an ambulance.”

“You could have taken the subway,” Louise said.

“I don’t take subways,” Vili said. He began to fuss with the cuff of his shirt, and then produced a pair of eyeglasses, like a magician, from his sleeve. “Too… too…” he said, searching his mind, before settling on “plein du monde, plein du bruit.”

Louise knew he had just spoken French but had no idea what the words meant. Nor was she impressed. “I took the subway,” she said, her voice boastful.

This was a lie. She had walked. The April weather was lovely and she adored Central Park this time of year, the fertile smell of spring finally emerging after a long winter, the cherry blossoms exploding in a storm of white and pink petals. The park had always been her oasis, where she could step outside the stress of taking care of her children and, later, her husband. She never missed an opportunity to lose herself in its paths and green.

“It’s the noise,” Vili said. He turned to look at her, his expression changing from a stern look of disapproval to an amused smile, as if he believed he had said something particularly funny. “I can’t hear a thing in the subway.”

That Louise understood. “Funny you would pick this place then,” she said.

“What shall we drink?” he asked. He answered his own question, calling over the bartender and ordering two glasses of red wine. “You’ll love the Burgundy,” he added, and Louise nodded, although she typically made it a point not to drink reds. Something about them kept her up at night. The bartender returned and handed her an enormous glass of wine. “Cheers to you,” Vili said, raising his glass. “And the magical world of online dating.”

“To online dating,” she said, raising her own glass.

* * *

“You need to get back out there,” her daughter Anna had insisted during a phone call a few months ago. Anna lived in San Francisco, on the other side of the country from Louise, but they spoke regularly enough to make Louise feel as if she were a part of her daughter’s life. “It’s been long enough, mom,” Anna added. “Dad’s been gone like what? Two years now?”

Nearly three, in fact. The most tangible traces of Stephen’s presence in the apartment had been long since boxed up, donated, or passed along to neighbors and the men who worked in her apartment building. Much of it simply thrown away. Still, there were certain ghosts more difficult to excise from a home: The worn tract of carpet between his side of the bed and the bathroom. The scent of his cologne absorbed into the plaster walls and cedar shelves of the closet. Junk mail that continued to arrive with her husband’s name on it.

But his immediate presence, so dominant, even overpowering in the later years, had faded. Her life had begun to take on lightness and space that she had imagined would feel liberating, but had become oddly unsettling. It was as if after taking care of someone for so many years, she’d forgotten how to take care of herself. Sure, she saw David – her son lived just a few blocks away – and she talked to her daughter on the phone, but more often than not she was by herself. The stillness of that time had begun to frighten her. Sometimes, alone at the movies, she sat in her seat marveling at the couples walking the aisle, arguing about where to sit or what to eat after the film. She had no nostalgia for the everyday negotiations that often defined a long-lived relationship, the dance and friction of two people who knew each other far too well. Still, when the movie started and she would look out at the silhouettes of other people in front of her, shoulders pressed against shoulders, bodies leaning into one another, she would remember that no one knew where she was or what she was doing. She was completely alone. Sitting there alone, she would be overcome by a chill, as if the death of her husband had done more than leave her a widow in the eyes of the world—it had erased her completely. Maybe her daughter was right: online dating was something to try. Find a companion. Someone to join her at the movies or dinner. She wasn’t interested in romance. No, just a person to help fill the time, days that often bled from one into the next.

Her son had been less enthusiastic about her dating. “If that’s what you want,” David said. “It’s a minefield out there.” She couldn’t tell at the time if his dismissiveness was because she was his mother and he couldn’t imagine her with another man or if he simply worried that she might have more success than he was having. He was single and dating and came over several times a week to get a home-cooked meal, maybe do some laundry, often debriefing her with his own stories of online dating. Louise marveled at the dramas: A woman had started crying over her ex-boyfriend in the middle of the appetizer. Another woman had put David on the phone with her mother, asking his intentions. “People are damaged goods,” he told Louise. “Online dating just gives them a platform.” Everything about David had begun to remind her more and more of her late husband, both in his appearance – thinning hair, a growing paunch around his midsection – and in his refusal to acknowledge that she might want something more at this point in her life.

The truth was that joining the dating sites had been fun. She ended up subscribing to one catering to men and women over 60. She liked the look of the website, its neutral and pastel tones, photos of handsome white-haired men and women walking along the beach or laughing over fancy meals. It was a put-on, she knew, and yet the act of cataloguing her own interests (her children, crossword puzzles, reading, white wine) and her dislikes (lying, calories, conservatives, lateness!) had given her a sense of pride. She laughed at the fact that if she had stumbled across her own profile, she would be delighted to meet herself.

Her first few dates had been disappointing.

“A part of me died that day as well,” Jerome, the widowed musician, had said to her when they met a few weeks ago. Brian, the retired lawyer, asked her if she might come with him to his dialysis treatment. Carl, the retired insurance salesman, told her he was frightened in his apartment at night. Louise suggested a cat.

The only man she’d been on more than one date with was Allen, a music professor. He was kind and gentle, maybe a little shorter and rounder than she might have preferred back in her youth, but there was warmth to his smile that made her trust him. He was kind and he plied Louise with questions about her life and her children and glasses of Sancerre. When the bill arrived, Allen made it quietly disappear. After dinner, they walked through Central Park, even thought it was dark. He talked with admiration about his daughter and grand kids, pointing out constellations in the night sky. He sent her an email after asking to see her again, later posting a notification on the dating app that read, “# SmittenUnderTheStars.” This, she had thought at the time, could be enough. When she told her daughter about him, Anna asked, “Have you had sex?”

“Of course not,” Louise said. “We’ve only been on two dates.”

““He’s a man, Mom. Viagra lets them be horny teenagers until they keel over.” Anna’s words raised the specter of something Louise had packed away like so many of her husband’s things. She thought of David, who often told his mother that he slept with the women he dated, even if he didn’t like them very much. Anna added, “I’m sure it’s crossed his mind. He’s not just there for your charming personality.”

“I suppose,” she said, but of course she knew it was true. Allen had complimented how she looked on their next date, had sent her an email an hour after waxing poetic about her smile. He had even suggested they take a weekend away, maybe somewhere in the Berkshires.

And then just last weekend, he had taken her to a Brahms concerto at the Philharmonic. It was a selection of music she had heard years ago with her husband on their honeymoon in London. She was astounded that she remembered it, but the staccato violin section in the opening measures flipped a switch inside her, triggering a series of memories: How young she and her husband had been on their first trip abroad, spending far too much on tickets to the concert, leaving them nothing to eat for dinner, and how later they had slipped back to the tiny flat they had rented for the week and devoured each other with a passion that, at the time, seemed all one could ask for in a marriage, maybe in a life. Brahms’s baby, they called Anna, when they later found out back that Louise was expecting.

That night, at the philharmonic, she looked over at retired professor Allen, his hands clasped over his belly, his chin settled on his chest, sound asleep, and she felt a wave of panic. She left immediately, later explaining that she hadn’t felt well but didn’t want to disturb him. She went home and responded to Vili’s request for a date and now here she was, listening to another man drone on about himself. It was as predictable as it was disappointing.

* * *

Vili’s day, as it turned out, had been full of disagreeable meetings and consultations. He was a surgeon, specializing in back and spinal injury, but in the last few years, he had reduced his hours to focus on teaching, only performing surgery once or twice a week. “My hands are still steady, but my heart isn’t in it anymore,” he said, before asking what she had done all day.

“I returned some books to the library,” she said. “And then I went to my Silver Sneakers class.”

“That explains it,” he said.

“Explains what?”

“How fit you are.”

His words stopped Louise. It was the word ‘fit’ that threw her. She immediately felt as if she were in a doctor’s office wearing a thin, paper gown. She said, “How would you know how fit I am?”

He took a sip of his wine and then turned to her. “I can tell just by the way you sit,” he said. “Posture doesn’t lie. The spine tells many stories.”

Louise smiled, understanding that this might be the best he could do as a genuine compliment. “Do you consider yourself fit?”

He pursed his lips, shaking his head. “I’m 73 years old. I swim three times a week. I don’t smoke.” He raised his glass again. “I drink too much. I am fighting the tides of age as best I can, knowing that eventually I will be swept away.” He turned to face her again. “But you. You look fabulous for 72. And I mean that as a doctor and an admirer.”

Louise brushed her hair behind her ears, taking a long sip of her wine.

She’d been completely truthful about everything else on her profile. That one question – how old are you? – had given her pause, particularly as she looked at the men listed on the dating site. They were in their late 60s, sometimes early 70s. The ones who managed to live to Louise’s age looked ancient, like dying kings searching for a young queen or the infirmed in need of a nurse. She hated dishonesty (dislike!) but when she thought about it, was she really telling a lie? In men’s years she was in her early 70s, maybe younger. Her husband had been five years younger than she, and now he was gone. Age was a state of mind, not a number, she had decided.

Her phone dinged. She pulled it out of her bag and on the screen were several texts.

David: Meet you @home ltr? Asked about marriage on 1st date!!

Anna: How’s Willy? :}

The only other message on her screen was another dating app notification, this time from Allen, her sleepy professor. Without thinking, Louise clicked on it. A photo of Allen kissing a woman under a tree filled her screen. A much younger woman. The caption read, “# SmittenInCentralPark!” Louise let out a little gasp.

“Everything all right?” Vili asked.

She flipped over her phone. Enough, Louise thought. No more online dating, including this old Casanova. “My kids checking on me,” she said, shifting in her seat, desperate to slip away. “You have children, right?”

He had two children -- one in Europe, one in the States. His son was a doctor back in Hungary. He was less clear about his daughter. “She is…” he said, his voice trailing off. “Well, she’s working for some kind of save-the-seals-global-warming-is-killing-us-all organization.”

“That’s admirable.”

He snorted, his lip twitching. She’d struck a nerve. “At twenty, yes. Twenty-five, maybe,” he said. “Not at forty-five years old. With children. A job that pays might be nice.”

It was all coming back to her now. The one thing that had made Louise hesitate when she first read over his profile. Politics? the question had read. “Conversative,” he had written. Louise couldn’t decide if it was a misspelling or some kind of joke about being a great conversationalist, the kind of ironic response many gave to this particular question, as in “If we must” or “Check, please.” She’d made it a point to steer clear of anyone advertising themselves as anything but liberals or left-leaning. She wouldn’t have even given his profile a second look, but Vili had “winked” at her profile. When she went to look at his, she was still learning the ins and outs of the interface, how to click on a photo to get more information, how to hit “ignore” if she wasn’t interested, how you hit the big red “flirt” button if you wanted to return someone’s “wink.” Buttons, she later complained to her daughter, that were far too close together. She had accidentally “flirted” with Vili when she meant to “ignore.” He “flirted” back immediately, commenting about her love of crosswords. Within minutes, they were chatting back and forth about his work as a doctor, her life as a teacher.

“Tell me about your children,” he said.

Louise took a sip of the wine, the warmth of it settling in her chest. “I have a daughter in California,” she said. “One grandchild.”

“Living in the bay area? Maybe a dog?”

“Good guess,” she said.

“Husband in the tech field,” Vili added.

“No,” Louise said firmly. “Lawyer.” She didn’t mention that Tom was legal counsel for a software firm.

Vili nodded, as if he should have known better. “Of course,” he said.

Louise looked at her watch, deciding an hour was the maximum she had to endure this man. “I’m sorry,” Vili said. “It’s a doctor’s habit. Creating a checklist of symptoms. Matching them with conditions.” He took a drink from his wine glass, finishing it off. “My brain is a muscle that has done one thing for too long. I can’t help myself.” He reached out and placed his hand over hers. Had she sent out signals that suggested she wanted him to do this? Did all men think women wanted to be touched? Her mouth dropped open as if she were going to say something, but she didn’t; instead, she looked at his hand, the long, slender fingers, the manicured nails. She imagined them covered in white gloves, a scalpel in hand, cutting into skin, exposing the inside of a body. She slid out her hand and picked up her nearly empty glass. Vili turned to the bartender, a silent exchange occurring between the two of them. Before she knew it, the bartender was refilling both of their glasses. She barely remembered drinking hers, but she could feel its effects taking hold, the edges of the world becoming softer.

“You haven’t told me about your son,” he said.

“David?” she said. “He’s here in the city. Works in finance. Investment banking.”

Vili smiled. “Stocks and bonds? Buying and selling? Margin calls?”

Louise nodded, recognizing the discourse of finance that had surrounded her throughout her marriage. Her husband, a stockbroker for years, had been incapable of talking about anything else. David was no better. When he came over to her house and talked about his work, she would smile and let her mind wander, deciding which of her plants needed to be watered when he left.

“It’s all legalized gambling,” Vili said. “No better than trips to Monte Carlo or Las Vegas. A global roulette table run by men in cheap suits.”

“Let’s assume,” she said, “that some of them know what they’re doing.”

Vili laughed. “There I go again! Up on my soap box!”

Louise took a sip of wine and then said, “You’re entitled to your opinion.”

“Entitled, yes,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s always welcome.”

That, Louise thought, was the understatement of the evening.

“Please, tell me more about you,” Vili continued. “You’re a widow, correct?”

“Yes. Going on three years.”

“I’m sorry,” Vili said, his face softening. “What was it?”

“His heart.”

Vili nodded, staying silent.

“He had a pacemaker and a defibrillator,” Louise continued. “All these devices inside him keeping him alive. He took a pharmacy’s worth of pills several times a day. He was bed-ridden and had trouble breathing.” She wasn’t sure why she was telling him so much. Maybe because he was a doctor. Or maybe because she didn’t know this man and could say anything she wanted. Maybe it was the wine. She had already decided she wouldn’t see Vili again. “He couldn’t be alone. I had to be at his side at all times.” Louise recalled that when she would leave to go to the store or steal away for a walk in the park, he would call her on her cell phone and ask when she would be home, not because he was worried about her, but simply because he didn’t like when she wasn’t there. She sometimes felt like an animal tethered to a short leash. Louise didn’t like to admit that Stephen’s passing had, in fact, been a relief, but it had been. “What kind of a life is that?”

“No life at all,” Vili said.

Louise felt a swell of guilt for how she was characterizing her husband. “He was suffering,” she said.

“I was talking about you,” he said.

Louise took a long sip of her wine, then said, “And you? Divorced, right?”

“Three times!” His tone was almost boastful. “It’s occurred to me that perhaps I’m not cut out for marriage.”

“What happened?” Louise asked.

“Who knows? We each want different things from life. From the world. From each other. We want other people.” He took a sip of his wine and a drip of it fell on the cuff of his white shirt. “Three strikes, you’re out, correct?”

“I’ll say,” Louise said.

Vili slapped the bar and let out an enormous laugh. “What, you wouldn’t marry me?”

“No, I don’t think I would.”

“And why not?”

“You’re clearly not very good at it,” she said.

Vili’s posture didn’t change, but the edges of his mouth slipped downward. His eyes fell to his hands. She’d gone too far, Louise thought, wounding him. She had forgotten how sensitive men were. “Damn it,” Vili said, noticing the stain on his cuff.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“And why not?” he said, dipping his napkin in water and rubbing it on his sleeve. “You can say what you like.”

“That will come out with salt.”

“You’re like so many Americans,” he continued as he worked at his sleeve, “measuring a marriage’s success based on its length. Duration. As if marriage is some kind of endurance test. A marathon of joy and suffering and back again.”

Louise didn’t know what to say. Her marriage with Stephen never felt like a marathon, but a series of intense sprints, through early years when they had no money, the challenges of raising children, and later through her husband’s illnesses and death. Her marriage – her life? – had been punctuated by crises, but she still considered it a success. “That’s what a marriage is,” she said. “Good times and bad.”

“I prefer the good,” Vili said.

At that moment, Louise hated this man. She hated him because he was the kind of person that stuck around during the easiest times, and then cut his losses when things became difficult. She hadn’t done that. Just the opposite, hunkering down when the marriage felt most fragile. Had there been times when she wanted to leave? To have her own life back? Of course. But she didn’t. She stayed. That’s what you did.

Vili sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You probably think me a coward.”

“Yes, you are,” Louise said. Vili looked amused. “Sorry,” she added. “The wine. It’s just been a long day.”

Her phone pinged again. “You are very popular,” Vili said.

“It’s those hateful notifications from the dating app,” she said. “I can’t turn them off.”

“Let me,” he said, taking the phone from her hands without even asking. He pulled on his glasses and worked his fingers on her phone. “There,” he said, handing it back to her. “I prefer to live in blissful ignorance.”

“Afraid I’ll see all your conquests?” she said and immediately regretted her words.

Vili laughed. “I like to believe they don’t see me that way,” he said.

Louise felt her face flush. “I should probably be going,” she said. She stood, her legs weak beneath her. Vili nodded, helping Louise into her coat. He asked if she would let him walk her uptown.

“I can take the subway,” she said. “I don’t mind the noise.”

“Nonsense. It’s lovely out. We can walk through the park.”

Louise was tired of fighting. The thought of a stroll in the park sounded like exactly what she needed at that moment.

They made their way to the front of the restaurant, weaving through the crowd. Two of the men she’d seen carousing at the bar now stood in an embrace, hanging on each other, clearly a couple. She saw the couple who’d been texting each other at the bar now sitting at a table in a quiet corner. The man leaned forward and kissed the woman tenderly on the cheek. So much love all around her, Louise thought. How had she not noticed before? How had she missed it?

Vili walked to the young hostess by the front door, who said, “Your usual table?”

He smiled, handing her his coat check. “No, not tonight.”

As they walked out in front of the restaurant, Louise couldn’t help laughing. “Your usual? I see. Did you really think we would be having dinner?”

“Guilty as charged,” he said. “But best to be prepared. You saw the crowd!”

“What’s next? A horse-drawn carriage waiting at the corner? Champagne chilling bedside?”

“I shall call off the violinist,” he said.

He led her across the street and into the park. It was just after seven, the sun falling behind the horizon, the sky caught in the cool luster between day and night. They walked along the path, under an arching tunnel of cherry blossoms branches, scattered petals like snow beneath their feet. Her phone dinged – another text – but Louise let it go. Instead, she turned her gaze up, staring at the patches of dark blue sky, nearly night, bleeding through the leaves, until she slipped on loose petals gathered under foot. Vili caught Louise by her shoulders. “Are you all right?”

“I think so,” she said.

Vili extended his elbow for her. “May I?”

“All right,” she said tentatively, threading her arm through his.

They walked down the path that ran along the edge of the Central Park pond. Louise was surprised by how comfortable and easy it felt to be with him. People passed them, staring at the “charming old couple,” she imagined, as if the two of them had stepped off the screen of the dating site. She enjoyed their smiles, their furtive looks. She allowed herself to give in to the moment, leaning into his tall thin body, letting him lead her.

That was when she saw him. Allen, her sleepy professor, walking toward Louise, arm in arm with another woman. In a city of eight million, here he was. The two couples were a mirror pair, except Allen’s partner was younger. Much younger. The woman from the notification. The kiss. “Louise,” he said, stopping in front of her.

“Hello, Allen,” she said.

“I sent you a text earlier,” he said.

“How nice,” she said. “I haven’t checked my phone.”

He nodded, looking at Vili and then at Louise. Vili took the initiative, saying, “Good evening.” He extended his hand to Allen and introduced himself. “Nice to meet you,” Allen said, and then added, “This is Joanne.” The woman didn’t extend her hand but tightened her grasp around Allen’s arm.

“You have lovely eyes, Joanne,” Vili said.

“Aren’t you charming,” she said.

“She does have beautiful eyes,” Allen added, looking at Joanne with a look of longing that unsettled Louise. What was the feeling? Anger? Disgust? Jealousy? She couldn’t decide. “It’s nice to see you, Allen,” she said. “We need to go.”

“Do we?” Vili said with a smirk.

“Yes,” Louise said. “We do.”

“Text me when you can,” Allen said. Vili and Louise turned and continued on their way.

“A paramour of yours?” he said after Allen was out of sight.

“A what? No,” she said. “Nothing of the kind.”

“I don’t think he sees it that way.”

“I don’t care what he thinks,” Louise said, before adding, “or what you think for that matter.”

“That’s probably for the best,” he said. Louise couldn’t stand it any longer. She was sick of this man – all men – and their willingness to do whatever they wanted, when they wanted. She pulled her arm out from his and stopped in the middle of the path. “You’re unbelievable,” she said. “You think you have it all figured out.”

“A few things maybe,” he said. “Not everything.”

“You’re just like all of them. Men. You… You want. You don’t care. You only think about fulfilling your…” She paused, searching for the right word and finally said, “Desires.”

“Sometimes,” he said. “Is that wrong?”

Louise’s mind was racing, her thoughts addled by wine. “No,” she said. “It’s just…” Her voice trailed off. Nearby, a group of friends in row boats had gathered by the edge of the pond, but their boats had crashed into one another and they struggled to extract themselves from the shallow water.

“And what is it that you want?” Vili said.

“What do I want?” Louise said. It was such a simple question. “I’m not sure,” she added, her body struck by a chill, as if she weren’t well. Vili smiled and then leaned in and kissed Louise, drawing his arms around her back, pulling her toward him. She could feel the heat of his body, his beating heart against her chest. She felt herself succumbing to his lips, getting swept into the moment, but then stopped herself, forcing her hands against his chest, pushing him away. “What are you doing?!”

Nearby the group of men and women on the boats cheered, raising their oars in the air, pointing and shouting in their direction. It was as if the spotlight of the world had turned on them.

“What on earth gave you the impression that I wanted you to do that?” she said, her hand at her mouth.

“Absolutely nothing at all,” Vili said.

Her phone buzzed, as if on cue. A call. She couldn’t stand the thing and wanted to throw it in the pond. Another buzz. She pulled it from her bag and saw her son’s name, although this time he was calling. “Good God,” she said, taking a step away from Vili. She clicked on the “talk” button. “Hello, David.”

“Mom, where are you?”

“What do you mean?” Louise asked.

Vili walked away, giving her some privacy.

“I came to your apartment,” David said.

“I’m still out,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “Why aren’t you home yet?” Louise heard the words she’d heard for so many years from Stephen, a command buried in a question. He was just like his father. They all were. Even Vili, she suspected, who stood near her, his arms crossed, watching her with a smile. Selfish, arrogant. Still, there was just something different about how she felt around this strange man – seen in a way she hadn’t in so long. She worried pushing him away might close that door again. And it surprised her to think she didn’t want that to happen. “Please come home soon,” David said.

“No,” she hissed, turning away from Vili. “I don’t think I will.”

“What do you mean?” her son said.

“Goodbye, David,” she said, and clicked off her phone.

She sighed, feeling a weight lift off her shoulders. She turned back, looking for Vili, but couldn’t find him. He was gone. She could feel her heart start to race, her body tense, as if all of this – everything tonight – had been something she had dreamed up.

“Louise,” he called out. And there he was, standing by the lake’s edge, staring out at the boats, a broad smile on his face. He was admiring the people still trying to make their way out to deeper water. They had formed a chain and were pushing each other with hands and oars. The whole scene was filled with cries and laughter, and yet somehow it was working. Slowly, a few of them launched and paddled off. Louise walked over and said, “I have lived in New York nearly all my life and I have never been in one of those boats.”

“I have,” Vili said. “Wife number one insisted on it many times. Thankfully, wife number two got seasick easily. Wife number three? I’m not sure she knew there was a park in New York, let alone a pond. She was more interested in shopping.”

“I have a confession to make,” Louise said, surprising herself.

“Excellent!” Vili said with delight.

“I’m not 72 years old,” she said. “I’m 79 years old. Almost 80.”

His expression shifted and was difficult to discern – shock? pure disappointment? Louise felt a pit in her stomach. She worried she had lost him, that any interest he might have had was gone. This realization – that she actually wanted his attention – stunned her. “Then you are a sorceress!” he said, leaning down to her. She leaned forward, stretching onto her toes and kissed him, testing the waters of something new, something uncertain. When she pulled away, Vili smiled, looking more like a boy than an old man.

She started walking again and he followed in step with her. The path turned uphill, a steeper climb. Louise felt her face getting flush, her muscles stretching out.

“I have a question for you,” he said. “Undoubtedly a foolish one.”

“Oh really,” she said.

He pointed at a tall building along Central Park West. From where they stood, they could see it above the trees, the apartments rising up toward a dark blue evening sky. “I live right there,” he said.

“How nice for you.”

“If you count down from the left, three windows,” he said, “That’s my apartment. The light is on.”

“You haven’t asked me a question,” Louise said, her heart quickening.

“Come home with me,” he said.

It was foolish arrogance on his part to believe that she would have any interest in being with him. And still at that moment, it was all she wanted. She could suddenly see how being with this man, even for one night, might open up a part of her she’d forgotten was there.

She started walking. Vili fell in step next to her. She threaded her arm through his, letting her hand slip into his pocket. She found his hand, still warm, strong and steady, the hand of someone who had cut through flesh, stitched wounds, repaired broken bones, and she laced her fingers through his.


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