It had been billed as a weekend of rest: two full days of monastic silence, hours and hours of sleep, whole mornings or afternoons spent strolling alone in the dunes at Cape Henlopen. The stack of manuscripts in the trunk of Will's car would remain under lock and key. His laptop, too. He would slow down amid the hurry-up of migrating birds. The ospreys had just returned to the area to nest. No doubt warblers were moving through. Will hoped to add a bird or two to his life list. That was all he considered as he sped eastward through the gritty neighborhoods of northeast Washington, and later, past the outlet malls that clung like barnacles to the shores of the Chesapeake.
He stopped for gas on Kent Island at a convenience store with a huge inflatable crab dancing on the roof. Inside, he bought a cheese sandwich and a six-pack of beer. Will was planning to hold off on the beer until the end of the journey, but succumbed to thirst during the slow crawl through his fourth or fifth Delaware town, speed limit twenty-five miles per hour. It had been years since he had driven out to Lewes, and the last time he had arrived at midday. Now, close to midnight, he drove back and forth on darkened streets, utterly lost until he found himself in the parking lot of the local hospital. By the time he located Michael and Alejandro's large Victorian house two blocks away, a full bladder had him squirming.
In pitch black beneath a droopy evergreen, Will fumbled with the key ring, trying desperately to identify the one that opened the side door of the house. "It's the key with serrations that feel like three-day whiskers," Michael had told him. In the white light of the Amtrak club car this had seemed like a useful tip. But here in the darkened driveway, dancing with discomfort, Will realized that he stood as much chance of locating a key that felt like three-day whiskers as he would have had besting Michael in a Verdi trivia contest. So he abandoned the task and hustled toward the backyard, shamelessly preparing to relieve himself behind a bush. Then he spied steps, and recalled that Michael had mentioned a kitchen door off the deck with a torn screen and a loose pane of glass. Suddenly it occurred to Will that everyone who came out here, straight and gay alike, must have trouble identifying the three-day-whisker key.
So there he found himself a few moments later, noiselessly removing that loose pane of glass, carefully setting it on the ground, reaching through the door to unlock the sliding bolt. He felt for a light switch which was not, alas, where a building inspector would have wanted it. Then he had a foot inside the door, still patting the wall, now wondering if there might be a beaded chain hanging somewhere in the middle of the darkened room. A nearly inaudible murmur -- "Shit" -- had just escaped his lips, when all at once, as if in punishment for this puny curse, Will found himself clubbed to his knees. He screamed out in pain. Then another blow glanced off the side of his head, and he actually saw stars.
Woozily, he tried to escape to the porch, but found himself pinned by the heavy door. He shouted, "Stop! Stop! I'm a friend!" as his assailant continued to pound his arms and back.
A woman's voice called out, "The cops, Hank! Call the cops!"
"Alejo," Will cried. "Michael! I know them!"
The pummeling stopped instantly but the door didn't budge. Will remained trapped like a mouse. "Who are you?" the woman demanded.
"Will Gerard. I ran into Michael on the train. He sent me out here."
"Without a key?"
Will's head throbbed as he tried to sit up; but he found that he couldn't move.
"Michael gave me a key. Gave me an entire ring of keys. I couldn't find the right one. Call him. Ask him. I'll stay outside, I promise." Silence. "Q and Seventeenth," he went on. "202-553-something."
The woman leaned heavily against the door, then let it open just wide enough for Will to scoot backward to freedom. Instantly the bolt snapped shut. Will thought about standing up, but rejected the idea. His head, throbbing in time with the mournful call of a distant foghorn, suddenly felt three sizes too large. His back, shoulders, and arms pulsed with aches. Sprawled on the wooden deck with eyes fixed on the black sky seemed the right position until this mess was straightened out.
"Hello, Michael, it's Annie." There was no hint of panic in her voice. No fear. "Look, I'm out in Lewes and I've got a huge problem. Just now a guy tried to break in through the kitchen door. He claims he ran into you on the train, and that you sent him out here." Long pause. "Oh," Will heard her say. "Oh," she said again. Another pause. Then: "Jesus." Then: "Well, I don't know. I must've hit him about twenty-five times with that big flashlight." Then: "Sure...sure. Thanks."
The cordless phone appeared at the empty panel of the door. "Michael wants to talk with you," the woman said.
Will struggled to his knees.
Michael's voice was shrill: "Good Lord, man, are you okay?"
"You've got a hospital right down the -- "
"I know, Michael. I know. It's not that bad."
"And there's arnica for bruises. In the medicine cabinet. Oh my word. What a screwup!" A ripple of self-conscious laughter followed. "Alejo must've talked to Annie and I talked to you and we never talked to each other!"
"Let me talk to him."
"He just stepped out." Silence. "He really did." Another pause. "This was a mistake, Will. Honestly, I had no idea." Michael chuckled nervously again. "And that flashlight! Ouch!" Long pause. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Thank heavens!" The laughter deepened to a rumble. "Who would've ever guessed that you'd be the sort to break into a strange house!"
An empty house, Michael. All those damn keys -- "
"C'mon, Will, take a deep breath." His voice dropped: "There could be an upside to this."
Will gazed at the sky.
Michael, in a whisper: "I know you won't believe this, but last week Alejo and I were actually talking about you and Annie."
"Oh, I believe it."
"We would never do something like that."
A snicker now.
"Good night, Michael."
"Who knows, someday you may thank -- "
The overhead light in the kitchen had flickered on. Will's assailant stood beside the stove with her arms crossed. She was tall, with short brown hair and a narrow face. Her neck was elegantly long. She had delicate features which seemed at odds with the image on her oversized T-shirt: Edvard Munch's Scream. Will faced her through the door. With the pane of glass missing, he felt like a kid at the ballpark waiting for an order of fries and a Coke.
"Look, I'm sorry," he said. "I had no idea you were here."
"Are you hurt?"
"A little banged up." Will shrugged, and the pain in his right shoulder radiated across his back. "My self-respect, especially."
Her face relaxed. The tiniest hint of a smile appeared. One front tooth slightly overlapped the other. Her eyes matched Munch's blue swirl of water.
She still held the huge black flashlight in her right hand, and used it to gesture toward Will. He glanced down to discover a gaping zipper.
He pirouetted. "The long drive," he explained. "After I gave up on the key..."
"Sure, sure." The door came open. She was suppressing a grin now. "Look, I'm really sorry about this. I turned off the lights about ten minutes ago. When I heard noises, I thought mice had gotten into the food that I left on the counter. I was already in here when I saw your arm coming through the door. It scared the daylights -- "
"Hank," said Will.
Annie bit her lip.
"Where is Hank?"
"Well," she said slowly, "when strangers come around, Hank generally, um, retreats to the litter box." Long pause. "When he's with me, that is." She smiled gamely. Then her gaze narrowed and she lifted her chin to examine the lump on Will's forehead. "I think that needs ice." She shook her head. "I can't believe I actually clubbed another human being."
Will asked about the downstairs apartment. Annie reported that it was in the process of being repainted: plaster dust, drop cloths, empty paint buckets, soda cans overflowing with cigarette butts.
"I can sleep in my car," he said.
"Don't be silly. There's plenty of room. I have the Turkish harem; you can take Martha Stewart-does-Montana." Another smile, a wry smile this time. "By the way, my name is Annie Leonard."
She looked at him. "Am I supposed to know who you are? What I mean is, on the phone Michael made it sound as though you were some kind of celebrity."
"There was a piece in the paper a few days ago," he replied. "Michael seems to think..." Will paused. Think what? He didn't know, couldn't guess. "My fifteen minutes," he said weakly.
There had been an article in the Washington Post three days earlier, a splashy Style-page profile of Will Gerard, literary agent. Every writer and would-be writer in town, it seemed to Will, had read the story, and then dusted off a manuscript to send to him. The boxes and padded envelopes that used to arrive on his doorstep in ones and twos suddenly started coming by the dozens. Over the course of that miserable week the telephone never stopped ringing. Will's fax machine burned up. His assistant, Teddy, who was also his nephew, vowed to quit; and this vow was repeated hourly, like a mantra. Will felt trapped, like an old bass in a small pond, its favorite spot in the shadows identified, now subjected to the relentless torment of line weights and fishing lures. Friday morning, with just one appointment in his book, he fled to New York. Late that afternoon he found himself on the platform at Penn Station, heading home.
"Will Gerard? Is that the Will Gerard? The famous literary agent?"
Heads turned. Will found Michael Phillips, an old friend, pushing toward him through the crowd with a broad grin on his face. Will put a finger to his lips, which Michael took like the flick of a riding crop.
"So what in heaven's name does it feel like to be the toast of the town? Are the young ladies lined up at your front door?" Michael took Will's elbow and steered him toward the club car. "Admit it: you love it."
"For God's sake, young fellow. I know folks who pay flacks tens of thousands of dollars in the mere hope of getting publicity like this."
"Who do I pay for a good night's sleep?"
Michael laughed. "Sleep is for babies and for people who are unhappy and depressed." Then, in a whisper: "Not for a young man with a soulful look in his eyes." He began to fish around in the attache case that a moment earlier had yielded two airplane bottles of Johnny Walker Black. Soon Michael produced a ring of keys, which he pressed into Will's hands. "Everyone sleeps better at the beach," he said.
Will had clothes in the trunk of his car, gas in the tank, Teddy at home to feed the cat and ignore the ringing telephone.
"You sure you don't want to check this out with Alejo?"
"Go!" said Michael.
"And so I went," Will told Annie. "I picked up my car and drove straight out here."
They were standing in the hallway outside a darkened room, Will with a small bag of ice pressed to the side of his head.
Annie said, "Alejo talked to me and Michael talked to you, and they simply forgot to mention it to each other!"
"It does sound a little fishy, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does."
She was addressing Michael's well-known reputation as a matchmaker, and Will was recalling the wide smile on Michael's face as he pressed the house keys into his hands.
He said, "You really think he'd do something like that?"
"Probably not." Then: "Actually, he might."
Annie reached for a switch. When the overhead light came on, the first thing Will saw was a huge bed with a tan spread. A bedspread made of leather, he realized. It had a ragged, faded American flag tattooed at the center, and an elaborate fringe of coiled silver wire. In all it looked as if it must weigh two hundred pounds. There were saddlebags hanging from the rough-hewn bedpost. The small bureau set against the far wall was covered with cowhide. Beside it, on a display stand in the corner, was a western saddle. There was a bullwhip tacked to the wainscoting, two framed "wanted" posters, a set of antique revolvers in a velvet case. No doubt the bookshelf between the windows held the entire Louis L'Amour oeuvre, Zane Grey first editions, signed copies of All the Pretty Horses and Lonesome Dove.
Will stepped inside. "Why are gay men so relentlessly thorough?" he asked.
Annie, in the doorway, shrugged. "Probably just another thing to blame on their mothers," she replied. "Feel free to sleep on the couch in the living room if the smell of buckskin gets to be too much for you."
The living room was farther down the hall. There at least the decor reflected the local scene: dried beach grass in straw baskets in each corner, photos of a fog-shrouded coast hanging on the wall, sisal carpet trimmed in teal green, a beige sofa as broad as a dune, a bookcase filled with shells, various nautical devices, and books about the sea.
Will said, "So how long have you known Michael and Alejo?"
"Years and years," Annie replied. "In fact I'm renting from them right now."
"On Q Street?"
"Wonderful apartment," he finally managed.
"You know it?"
"I, um, used to live there."
"Oh," she said.
"Years ago," he added. "Years and years ago."
"It's a great place."
"And so convenient."
"You can walk everywhere."
"I guess that was the main reason I took it. That, and the two of them."
It was like a dance, a modern minuet.
"Back then," said Will, "I was traveling all the time. Two weeks on the road, and I'd get back home and find a pot of Michael's chicken soup on the stove. Homemade bread on the counter. Salad in the fridge."
"I believe the word is nurturing," offered Annie.
"With Michael you'd need a full paragraph."
"A whole book."
Will smiled. The smile froze. All at once he lost confidence in small talk. Some innocent remark about Annie's apartment -- how much he'd enjoyed the sunsets on the back porch, say -- would end with him describing the time he'd locked himself out and had to squeeze through the high window above the refrigerator. "Um, could you point me toward the bathroom?" he said.
"Down the hall. On the left." Again she studied the side of his head. Then she reached out and gently touched the bruise on his cheek. "There's aspirin in the brandy snifter on the shelf beside the window."
"Let me guess," said Will. "Roaring Twenties?"
Annie smiled, shook her head. "Fin de siècle," she replied.
The house felt empty when Will awoke. His brain sloshed about painfully as he pulled on a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt, and staggered into the bathroom. The sink was an old one with two spigots. Will filled it to the brim with hot water. He scooped handful after handful onto his face -- washing, rinsing, massaging, scrubbing again -- before daring to lift his eyes to the mirror. There was a striking purple lump on the side of his forehead, and a matching bruise on the opposite cheek. In his toilet kit he found a plastic container of Tylenol, and swallowed three. Then he hunted around in the back of a closet for a warm jacket and a pair of binoculars, and drove out to the highway. The young waitress at Dunkin' Donuts stole glances at his battered face as she filled his order: two large cups of coffee and a heart-attack cruller.
Afterward, Will drove out to the beach.
It was still early, a frigid March morning with ice glinting from the tips of the marsh grass. A flat winter sun stood like a brilliant coin on the horizon. Will stopped at the fishing pier, deserted but for a few gulls. The bait shack remained boarded up, the vending machines at its front door wrapped in tattered plastic. There were no ducks in the shallows of the Delaware Bay: just cormorants and a few grebes. Farther into the park, Will saw killdeer at the tennis courts, and in an adjacent field, a flock of small birds with black, harness-like markings.
The parking lot at the tip of Cape Henlopen had one car, a green Taurus with D.C. tags. Annie, Will presumed. He drove to another section of the park, to a lot beside the ruins of a World War II-era gun battery set on a dune high above the blue Atlantic. He sat in the car in the warming sun and finished the second cup of coffee. Then he descended to the beach through heather and wind-stunted pines, and walked among the bickering gulls and skittery sandpipers. Will wandered the beach for several hours. He sat on his heels pitching stones into the incoming tide. On the drive back to town, he spotted a Volvo station wagon parked at the side of the highway. An old woman stood beside it peering through binoculars at an osprey platform attached to the top of a utility pole in the adjacent marsh. Will pulled his car to the shoulder.
There was a female osprey perched on the nest. A male circled high above. The old woman's binoculars stayed fixed on the nest as Will approached. She was white-haired, tall and thin -- heronlike, thought Will, with her gray down vest worn atop a light blue windbreaker.
"Illegal to park here," she called out. "Cop comes by, he'll ticket you."
"What about you?"
"My car was overheating."
Will looked out at the nest. "Mine, too," he said.
The woman turned to him, a smile tugging at the corners of her thin lips. Then she noticed his bruises, and frowned slightly.
They returned their attention to the birds.
Will lifted his glasses. "When did they get back?"
"Day before yesterday."
"In the park, there was a flock on the field -- "
"Turnstones," the old woman said.
"What else is around?"
"Brants in the cornfields. Skimmers, buffleheads, goldeneyes, gallinules, yellowlegs at Prime Hook. Had eagles there, too. Nesting. But they're gone." She looked at him again, more intently now. "So what happened to the other guy?"
Will worked hard to appear nonchalant. He gazed up at the male osprey, still circling. "It wasn't a guy," he admitted.
"Well," he said finally, "I guess my car's probably cooled off by now."
The old woman's thin smile reappeared. "Not mine," she replied.
Will headed north on Route 1. He was planning to spend the rest of the morning at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. But a few miles down the road, he changed his mind and decided to drive back to Washington. It was a snap decision. He would let Annie have the house to herself. He would go home, take a walk on the towpath, get to bed early, tomorrow nurse his wounds and set up a triage table to sort the stack of manuscripts which had no doubt grown ten feet taller in his absence. He called Michael and Alejandro's house from a gas station on the highway to say good-bye to Annie.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Fine," he said.
A truck at the traffic light bucked into gear.
"You don't sound fine."
"No palsy, no amnesia: I remember my name, my birthday, the names of my brother and sister. I can still count to a hundred in Spanish."
"You sound tired, Will."
"Exhausting dreams," he admitted. "First, some weird gaucho stuff, then a nightmare in which I had turned into Mr. Potato Head."
She laughed. "I've put away the flashlight. I promise."
"Careful now. If Michael calls and finds out that I went home, he's liable to send somebody else."
"You're not serious!"
"Oh, Michael," she said.
"We should call him up and demand an explanation."
"He's a lawyer. He'd deny everything."
"And enjoy every minute of it," said Will.
"Yes, he would."
The snap decision to head home suddenly felt like a big mistake.
Annie said, "Look, I have a confession to make. I stopped into the town library this morning and read a newspaper profile about this successful young literary agent who is in search of the perfect marinara." The highway stoplight went to yellow. An eighteen-wheeler braked hard, clattering to a stop. "The search is over," she went on. "I'm about ready to put it on the stove."
Will said, "For some reason I thought leaving would be the gentlemanly thing for me to do."
"Only if this was a Henry James novel, which I sincerely hope it is not."
Any response he might make, whether witty retort or chuckle or dry remark, felt positively Jamesian.
"There's your favorite Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in the fridge, and fresh bread about to come out of the oven." When he didn't respond, she added, "If you don't come back right this minute, Will Gerard, I'm going to have to call the Post and ask that reporter to make a correction."
His ears were on fire.
Annie said, "You don't understand. I'm impressed by men who bake bread."
"It's the Style page," he said. "The writer is ostensibly coming to your house to ask you a few questions about what you do for a living. Then she all but pokes around in your underwear drawer."
"You were baking bread when she arrived. You should have been hunched over a manuscript by the next Patricia Cornwell."
"Patsy, we say in the trade."
"Or been parked on the telephone."
"It was Saturday morning."
"For goodness sakes, Will. You're a high roller. High rollers don't pay attention to the concept of weekend. Most of the lawyers at my firm would have rented a furnished mansion in Potomac for an interview like that. You had a Washington Post reporter out to your house on a Saturday morning while you baked bread."
"And tossed off a few shrewd observations about the hot new literary genre."
"While you were kneading."
"It was time to knead."
"You don't get it, do you?"
"Something about men who cook?"
"A western omelette for brunch would've been perfect. Baguettes and focaccia are definitely over the top."
He laughed. "So what was the message I was sending?"
"You'll have to come back," said Annie. "I can't do this on the phone."
At the house, Will found a pot of chicken soup on the stove and a note on the counter -- "Eat, eat!" -- so he ate two bowls. Then he lay down on the couch in the living room, a three-year-old copy of National Geographic propped up in his hands one moment, then flopped open on his stomach like a saddle the next. Will's fifteen-minute nap stretched on to two hours. He awoke feeling completely disoriented. In the kitchen he brewed himself a cup of coffee and watched Annie, who was sitting out on the deck in sunglasses and a hooded sweatshirt. She was reading a fat, orange-spined Penguin paperback. Annie looked so absorbed in the book that Will couldn't bring himself to interrupt.
He took a walk instead.
The sun passed in and out of the clouds as he headed toward the marsh north of town. There he spotted another pair of nesting osprey, and a marsh hawk hovering above the wide expanse of spart grass. He saw killdeer at the roadside, and an egret poised like a statue in a tidal creek, waiting to snap up its supper.
Dusk brought Will back to the house. He sat on a stool beside the kitchen window, sipping a beer. Annie worked at the stove. She wore black leggings and thick red socks, a black apron over a red flannel shirt that Will guessed she had borrowed from Michael and Alejandro's closet. Her arms were long, hands graceful. She was trim, and though not obviously muscular, she seemed strong -- strong enough to drop a grown man to his knees with a single blow. Will took a sip of beer. The sort of gal who would make short work of a pi?ata, he thought.
The pasta water had achieved its rolling boil, and the marinara was gently bubbling. The smell of garlic embraced the room.
Annie glanced at him from the corner of her eye. A moment later she spoke to the sauce pan: "'Gerard is tall, with deep-set eyes and a tangle of dark hair. In a crew-neck sweater and blue jeans, he has the casual look of a Saturday morning carpenter. He owns an old pickup truck that rarely leaves this quaint neighborhood of Sears bungalows, starter homes, rundown farmhouses, and modern Victorians. He keeps his thermostat set at sixty-two. This is a man who chops wood for exercise, who built the potting shed that sits behind his house beneath a towering maple. But don't be fooled by the country charm. Will Gerard is perfectly at ease in the big city, be it Washington or New York.'"
Oh dear Lord, thought Will.
She turned. "You know, you come off much better in person."
"Still, you came through. A little defensive about your father, though that seemed understandable." She paused. "By the end, I thought you sounded sweet. In a Southern way." She shrugged. "I think."
The reporter had noted that Will lived alone. (She neglected to inspect the "potting shed" out back: nephew Teddy's abode.) She went on a bit too long about the stray cat named Newt that had taken up residence in a wooden crate beneath Will's front porch. That Will had Newt altered and regularly fed the old tom seemed to qualify him as some sort of modern-day St. Francis of Assisi. Will had ducked the reporter's questions about his late father, whose long and storied career at the CIA was old gossip in Washington circles. All of this was dutifully reported, of course: Jamie Gerard's years in Berlin after World War II, his involvement in the 1954 coup in Guatemala and the disaster at the Bay of Pigs, the years he spent in Bangkok during the Vietnam War.
The table had been set in a dining room that was done up in various shades of yellow: seat covers, curtains, napkins, label on the wine bottle. Will regarded the steaming plate of butter-colored pasta that Annie had set before him.
"So what about you?" he asked.
"I'm a lawyer."
"Don't tell me you want to see the legal thriller I just finished!"
She grinned. "Not me," she said. "Just every guy I work with."
It was dark outside. There were yellow candles burning at the center of a yellow pine table, apricot place mats, heavy cutlery with amber handles.
"What else?" he asked.
"I grew up outside Chicago. A brick house with a hipped roof, neat lawn, white picket fence, miniature poodle." Annie shrugged. "Pretty boring, all in all. No ancestors arriving on the Ark or the Dove, no spies in the family, no childhood in the exotic East, no Pacific crossings on ocean liners."
At that moment Will made a very explicit promise to himself that he would never again submit to a personality profile. "The marinara is delicious," he said.
"The search is over?"
"Definitely top ten." He took another bite, and savored it. "Make that top five."
"One thing that surprised me about that article was what was left out. Any hint of Mr. Will Gerard's private life, for example."
"People just want the dollars and cents," he replied with a shrug.
"Nuts," she said. "At least half the reason you read a piece like that is to snoop."
He poured wine into both their glasses. "It seemed tacky to mention the string of divorces, the bankruptcy, the fraud conviction, all those years in tax exile."
"Liar," she whispered.
He smiled. "I'll bet you grew up in one of those midwestern suburbs with an Indian name that hasn't seen a person of color in the past two hundred years."
"Next town over." Annie shrugged. "We got stuck with the French explorer."
"So why did Michael take so long to introduce us?"
She picked a kernel of wax from the base of the candlestick, then looked up at Will. "The obvious answer, I suppose, is because I'm married."
Will stopped chewing. For one brief instant he thought she was kidding. There was no ring on Annie's finger, no aura of settledness or guilt about her, nothing remotely indicative of marriage at all.
"Married, soon to be unmarried," she added. Her expression seemed more vulnerable all of a sudden. "My life is a little complicated right now."
"This must be a rough time," he replied. "I'm sorry."
Annie put down her fork. "It's sad. But it isn't a tragedy. Just one of those things that happen. Life goes on."
Rob was her husband's name. He was a lawyer, too, sixteen years older than Annie, with teenage children from a first marriage. Only the bare facts were mentioned. Annie spoke softly, without affect.
The conversation rambled.
Will described the string of jobs he'd had in the book business before launching this new career as an agent three months earlier. Annie talked about law school, which she hated, and the practice of law, which she loved. She was one of three women partners at a big Washington firm. She talked easily about her job as a litigator: the strategizing, the competition, winning. She liked to win. She said this with an easy smile. She didn't mention her first marriage, just out of law school, a marriage so brief and sad she rarely mentioned it at all. Nor did she offer much more about the second one, at thirty-one, to Rob, until Will gently steered the conversation back to it.
Annie sat back in her chair. "We were friends before we got together. Rob was easy to be with. I loved that about him. I thought it would be enough." She shrugged. "Turned out it wasn't. Not for either of us."
Annie told Will that as she thought back on the relationship she was struck by the fact that the two of them hardly ever sat still. Most nights she and Rob dined out. They traveled to Europe two or three times a year; they entertained; they took in the opera, films, theater. Early on this life had seemed glamorous and exciting to Annie, but now she considered the emotional distance that had always existed between them. She and Rob were good companions. She had shared the world with this man for ten years, and somehow that was the most they could achieve. It was this realization, she admitted, and not the breakup, that left her saddest.
"So how long have you been separated?" he asked.
"None," she replied.
More wine was poured.
Annie took a sip. "I think it's your turn to tell me something about you," she said.
"Anything," she added.
"Birds," he offered.
She looked puzzled. She didn't process what Will was saying at first. At that moment she was thinking about the birds you eat: Peking duck, stuffed quail, twenty-five-pound turkeys.
"My dad was a birdwatcher," Will went on. "It's something we used to do together. I got hooked."
"Why?" She seemed genuinely curious.
He shrugged. "I like to keep track of what's going on in the world. Watching birds taught me to pay attention. To stay in the moment."
"The zen of nature?"
"The zen of wet tennis shoes."
Their plates were empty. The bottle of wine was empty.
Will reached for Annie's hand across the table. "Let's go look for owls," he said.
There were matching trench coats in the front closet. Annie rolled the sleeves on hers, and the two of them trudged out into the cold foggy night. Lewes felt deserted. At the center of town, they passed antique shops, a Tru-Value hardware store, a bank; they walked out onto the town dock, and stood for a moment at the edge of the canal, gazing out at a line of white-hulled boats rocking in their slips. The wind had picked up. It was brisk enough to catch the rope on a flagpole in front of the post office and ring it like a bell. At a wood-and-brass faux English pub with two regulars perched at the bar, Annie and Will took a table by the front window. Outside, the wind had begun to howl, vibrating the plate glass. A pizza box cartwheeled down the street.
Over Sambuca they talked genealogy: Annie's ancestors on her father's side had been among the first Jews west of the eighty-seventh meridian, as she put it.
"Tinkers, tailors, a few soldiers in the old country I was told, but that's it. No spies. None we knew about, anyway."
"But that's the point," said Will. "You wouldn't."
"Is it true that your family actually has a coat of arms that wasn't designed by a mail-order house?"
"My family brought Catholicism to America," he said quietly.
"This is something to be proud of?"
"English Catholicism," he murmured.
She grinned. "You know what floors me? That hundreds of years later, it still matters."
"Of course it matters," he replied.
"I thought the whole point of America was to check that sort of baggage at the gate. Lefcowitzes get to become Leonards. Everybody gets a clean slate."
"Only if you want one."
Will was smiling. He had a hand on the table, fingers spread. Annie reached over and placed her hand beside his, fingers interlocking. She traced a vein across the top of his hand, then shook her head in disbelief. "My God," she whispered, "it is blue."
At the side door to the house, Will was able to identify the correct key this time, but now he had trouble with the lock. So Annie took his hand to demonstrate the proper technique: "You slide it all the way in," she coached. "Then pull it back a smidgen, and wiggle it till you feel it catch." "Ooh, baby," he whispered. "Ooh, baby, baby, baby." She laughed to wake the neighbors. At the top of the narrow stairway, Will wrapped his arms around her. Annie turned, still smiling, and they sank together to the floor. She caressed the side of his face. "Where in heaven's name did you come from, Will Gerard?" He kissed her cheek, her nose, her lips. "Lady," he said, "I was just about to ask you the very same question."
There was really no choice of rooms. Which is not to suggest that Will felt that he and Annie needed the Turkish harem atmosphere of her room. But there, at least, they would be able to keep straight faces, which would have been impossible for them in Will's little bunkhouse by the sea. "Not to mention," he told Annie, "that I forgot to pack my chaps."
The lamp shades were rose-colored with blue beadwork and tassels that looked like something a stripper might wear. The bed was a plush battleship: a mahogany four-poster with drooping canopy and silk sheets. Annie adjusted the lights to establish a mood that Suleiman the Magnificent might have favored. Then she disappeared for a moment into the bathroom. Will, meanwhile, rifled the drawers of both bedside tables, the bureau; he searched the saddlebags hanging on the bedpost in his room, and the medicine cabinet and brandy snifter in the bathroom. Nothing. He was confounded. It just didn't seem possible in this grim era that two socially responsible gay men (men who stocked extra toothbrushes for weekend guests, various colognes, breath mints, disposable razors, six brands of pain reliever) would not somewhere have laid in a small supply of condoms.
Will made a report of this to Annie as they lay stretched out on the bed, the good news about their HIV status already exchanged. He added that he was willing to make a run to Happy Harry's All-Night Discount Drugs on the coastal highway.
"That's up to you," she replied. "What I mean is, it isn't necessary."
A midnight run to Happy Harry's was the last thing in the world that Will wanted to undertake at this particular moment. So he heard in Annie's comment what he wanted to hear. He defaulted to the good old days of birth control, when a remark like this (or so the assumption went) meant the woman was protected.
"Up to me in what sense?"
Will had intended this as a follow-up question, though it arrived late, nearly ten minutes late, as the two of them lay sprawled across the bed, half-undressed, locked in an embrace. Annie was kissing Will as if she would never stop. His eyes were closed. She rolled on top of him, and slowly began to rock. Then he looked at her, his eyes wide open. He was startled by how familiar she looked: like someone he had known for years. Which was when Will recalled that he and Annie had met just twenty-four hours earlier.
And so he whispered, "Up to me in what sense?"
"All of them, I suppose."
Now she was lying beside him with a leg draped over his. Will kissed her neck, her chin. A moment later Annie touched him. She did something with her thumb that nearly lifted him off the bed. She kissed his chest, his shoulder, his fingertips. He was afloat on the wide Sargasso Sea, naked in a noontime sun, as Annie gently traced the lump on the side of his head, kissed it, kissed his forehead, an eyebrow, that roguishly bruised cheek, his chin, his lips.
"Will," she whispered.
"Will, look at me." His eyelids fluttered open. As his vision came into focus, he noticed a tiny mole above her lip. He kissed it. "You need to know something," she said. "I'm not using birth control." Will closed his eyes, rested his cheek against Annie's small breast. It was soft, soft. "My diaphragm," she added a moment later. "I don't use it anymore." Another pause.
"I threw it away."
The news that a thirty-nine-year-old woman who was ending a childless marriage had destroyed her birth control device should have connected the dots for Will, but right then he wasn't in a dot-connecting frame of mind. Instead of processing what she said, he pictured her standing on the catwalk over Great Falls, sailing her diaphragm like a Frisbee into the roiling waters of the Potomac.
"What you're saying," he finally managed, "is that we're taking a chance."
"Oh." He tried to think. "Big chance or little chance?"
She looked at him. "Maybe not so little."
They held each other and listened to the foghorn. They kissed again, lovingly. Will inhaled the sweet smell of Annie's skin.
"And, um, you're willing to take that chance," he finally said.
Her blue eyes said yes. She nodded.
"What you're saying," Will went on, "is that you want to get pregnant."
This nod was more tentative. "Don't get the wrong idea. I didn't plan this or anything. Tonight just happened." She looked at him. "And for what it's worth, I want you to know that whatever happens, I would live with the consequences. I'd never ask you for anything." The foghorn bleated again, and this time Will heard in its tone the condemnatory voice of an Old Testament prophet. "What I'm trying to say," Annie went on, "is that this is completely up to you."
In Will's mind, having unprotected sex with a woman he had just met ranked right up there with sky-diving and open-heart surgery: activities to avoid. So there should have been nothing to think about. A simple no, respectful and unequivocal, was the only possible response. It was what he expected to hear himself say. But for some reason he couldn't speak. He was too stunned to speak. Or maybe he just needed time to collect himself, to think about what Annie had just said, and what he would say.
It was madness. How could she even ask such a thing! And how could he lie there like a slug as though actually considering the request, which of course he wasn't. Instead, he was trying to think of some artful way to decline without hurting Annie's feelings. Because Annie's feelings mattered to him. He liked her. Liked her a lot. So much, in fact, that in the midst of this long awkward moment a new thought, like a bubble from the depths of the sea, bobbed up into Will's consciousness: she wants me. Annie Leonard has just met me and she wants to have my child! And most amazing of all, Will's first response to this thought was to feel flattered. Deeply flattered. More flattered, he suddenly realized, than he had ever felt in his whole life.
"Would you please say something, Will?"
"If I wanted to make a run to Happy Harry's -- "
"That would be fine with me."
"You'd still be here when I got back?"
"Of course." She kissed his ear. "I'd go with you." Then she whispered, "I want this. That's where it all started."
"You want to get pregnant, too."
"I told you the truth. I wouldn't have felt right if I hadn't. Chances are it won't matter. But it might. So I had to be honest with you. And to let you know that I could live with that. Alone, if that's how it turns out."
A smile came to Will's face, a smile he didn't understand at all. Nor could he fathom why Annie's words stirred him so, even as a voice within still argued for a speedy trip to the highway. But this was a voice that could be ignored, as it turned out. Blame it on the wine and the Sambuca, or the lust. Blame it on the queasy sense Will had right then that he was falling for Annie, and that he was old enough to take a chance. Blame it on the fact that Happy Harry's All-Night Discount Drugs was miles and miles away.
"Kiss me," Annie whispered. "We don't have to decide anything tonight."
He kissed her. And he thought, of course we do. And not just tonight, but now.
Will felt jangly. He figured he had fifteen seconds to sort things out, twenty at most. What Annie was asking was crazy and impulsive. Unequivocally wrong. It would be a huge mistake. Will knew that. But then he looked into her blue, blue eyes and said to himself, for God's sakes, man, this is life as it has been lived on this planet for millions of years. Be a mensch.
He ran the tips of his fingers across Annie's belly, the belly she wanted to swell up with a child. For years now some ancient region of his brain had pressed him for a moment like this. And Will had always resisted. Now, beside him, was a woman of the highest caliber, the sort of woman he could marry, and she was naked, and she wanted him, and she wanted his child, and yet, and yet --
And yet, an outright no was simply not in the cards tonight.
It's a gift, he told himself. The greatest gift I can give.
To Annie, he whispered, "Do you promise to respect me in the morning?"
She laughed softly, kissed the tip of his nose.
Will had seen those blue movies where the men and women cavort about like sexual athletes. For all the energetic lust of those films, none had ever seemed particularly erotic, not like this anyway, lying atop a long-legged woman, moving upon her as if grooving to the nastiest Barry White tune. Annie's eyes were closed. Her expression grew a tiny bit severe, and Will had to banish the sudden thought that he was making love to a woman who might one day become a federal judge. Then all was quiet, and they floated together. The bedroom window was cracked open, and Will could smell the tang of salt and marsh. This very bed he lay upon seemed to be rising and falling with the rhythm of the sea. Once, as a boy, Will had been on an ocean liner as it sailed through a typhoon; the huge ship rode the swells and troughs of the Pacific like a dinghy. It was an electrifying experience, a feeling of helpless ecstasy for Will as he gripped the rail at the stern, gazing up into the sky at a mountain of dark water.
Then Will and Annie were moving again, urgently, the act of love suddenly frantic, intense, larger somehow. The first hint of panic left Will puzzled -- he was still that awestruck boy at the ship's rail, suddenly drenched by a crashing wave. Then he sensed panic again. And fear. The skin on his arms tingled, and all at once it felt to him as if he were a thousand miles away.
"Hold me," whispered Annie, kissing him hard on the lips.
The previous night -- a mere twenty-four hours ago! -- this very lady had assaulted him. She had dropped him to his knees in the kitchen doorway with a single blow. Now it seemed she could read his mind, every single thought.
Another wave of panic crashed over him. "It's okay," said Annie. But it wasn't okay. It was awful. Erections weren't things that suddenly vanished, never in Will's experience anyway. But this one had. Not even a ghost of it remained.
It was still dark outside when his eyes came open the next morning. Annie slept beside him. Will listened to the hum of traffic for a moment, and then remembered that he was many miles from the highway. He listened closer, and realized that what he was hearing was the muffled honks of a thousand snow geese migrating overhead. It was stunning to Will to think that he and this beautiful stranger beside him suddenly had a history together. They had life issues to mull over, hugely embarrassing events to avoid mentioning, a future to contemplate. Already they were partners of a sort: accomplices. Annie had described the loot just sitting in that bank vault, and Will had hopped behind the wheel of the getaway car with hardly a second thought. But now he was full of second thoughts. At that moment his mind was consumed by second thoughts.
Will's next impulse was to flee. He lay there listening to the high-flying geese and considered gathering up his clothes and stealing off in the dark to Dunkin' Donuts. Annie would understand. For all he knew she might have drifted off to sleep the previous night intending to wake before him so that she could steal off herself. She might even be the sort who left good-bye notes taped to the bathroom mirror: Such a mistake on my part, Will. A terrible, terrible mistake. How could I expect you to process so much so quickly? How could I even ask! The sad, sad truth is that we have nowhere to go from here, except back to our respective lives. Farewell, dear man...
But Annie slept. She slept and slept. Will sat on the edge of the bed and watched her in the half-light of dawn; and later, sipping coffee, he watched her as the morning sunlight suddenly flooded the room. Annie slept on her side with a corner of pillow clutched in her hand. She stirred when the sun hit her face, and smiled briefly, still asleep. It was a mischievous smile, a smile that left Will smiling, too. That was the moment he realized he wouldn't flee: not today, nor tomorrow, nor the day after that.
Copyright © 2000 by Karl Ackerman