The walk from the bus stop to Natalie and Dennis’ house was longer than Gerard had thought. The October wind sliced at his bare hands as they wrapped around a brown paper bag.
He wished he’d brought gloves. He wished he’d brought his backpack. He wished he knew what the hell he thought he was doing.
The bushes in front of the porch had grown a little shaggy since the party some months past. Waiting at the sidewalk, he chewed his lip and considered the sheer stupidity of what he was doing.
We’re not meant to be content, he thought as he shoved one leg in front of the other. By the time he reached the front door and knocked, he almost believed it.
Natalie opened the door wearing a blue apron. Her dark, unwashed hair was tied back in a ponytail and she smelled like a candy store. “Hey!” she burst into a grin, “What are you doing here?”
Out of the bag, Gerard pulled out a squat brown teapot with eight sides.
“Oh my god,” she said, hand on her heart, “you found it!”
He cupped the bottom in his hand and held it out. “This is like what were telling me about, yeah?”
She snatched it by the handle so quick it nearly went flying. “This is exactly the one! Oh my god!” With her free arm she reached around to hug him, then suddenly hopped back through the door. “Oh! Shoot,” she called back, ”I’ve got to put the bananas in. Come on inside; I’m making compote.”
Following in her wake, Gerard shut the door behind him. She’d set the teapot- the one she’d told him about weeks ago and he’d found, for a pittance, at an estate sale- on the dining room table.
Natalie called from the kitchen. “Just leave your shoes at the door.”
With a finger, he loosened the knot on one of the sneakers, and studied the bookcase by the door. It was clear to see where Natalie and Dennis’ reading tastes differed. While the top shelves held Dennis’ glossy reference books, with titles like Small Business Tax Simplified, and Winemaking For Dummies in bold, modernist typefaces; the middle of the case was stuffed with books of fantasy and imagination. Curved black letters ran down the spines of yellowed paperbacks and discarded library hardcovers, the latter with the catalog numbers still taped to the bottom edge. King Oroboros, The Screaming Jewels, The House on Night’s Border, and one of his own favorites, The Bridge of Lost Desire.
One shelf was half full and in the bare space a silver frame was propped up. Against a sea blue sky, Natalie and her husband sat on the prow of a boat, holding each other in their summer whites.
Gerard picked it up. In the shot, the sun had caught the diamond of her wedding ring and it glowed on her finger like a tiny sun. Dennis’ arms wrapped around her while she reached up to brush her fingers against his neck.
There was only blue water in the background. The two of them could have been at sea or on a lake. Somewhere, floating. Together. Were they nervous? Scared of the waves and all that could go wrong on a sailing trip? Or didn’t it matter, them being together, whatever came?
Gerard set the frame back down, carefully, exactly where it had sat before. With the knuckle of his forefinger, he tapped the spine of Lost Desire, smiled weakly, and went to tell Natalie goodbye.
The kitchen smelled sweet and fruity, with hints of maple and lemon in the air. Standing in front of the gas stove, Natalie tipped a bowl of sliced bananas into a large metal pot. She dipped a finger into the dark amber syrup, brought it up to her mouth, and sucked the sticky sheen of it.
Gerard swallowed. “Hey,” he said.
She turned, smacking her lips. “Oh my god, this is amazing. Rum really does make everything better. Here.”
She swabbed her finger back through the compote, and held it out to him. Just past the glazed tip was the sparkling sun of her wedding ring.
The scent was intoxicating. There were hues and tones of spices radiating from her, fruit and sugar. Christmas in summer. Gerard stepped back.
“I…”He scratched at his neck. “I don’t know that your husband would want me to do that.”
Natalie’s finger didn’t waiver.
“What if I want you to?”
Her words passed through Gerard like a bullet of fog, and they stood there stunned by what they had heard and said. Outside the sound of bamboo wind chimes broke the silence as they waited for someone to make a move.
“What if I see the way you look at me and I like it? What if I hardly see my husband anymore because of his job, a job I wanted him to get and now I spend so much time alone in this house I feel like, like…”
This was what he wanted, wasn’t it? This window of opportunity, the chance for the world to break from its prescribed script and deliver anything and everything that was possible.
He started: “I just-” when a flash of blue caught the corner of his eye. Gerard turned to see the cordless phone on the opposite counter glow blue and start to trill insistently.
Natalie still looked at him, still held up the compote-glazed fingertip. She didn’t move, didn’t say anything, and neither did he.
On the third ring, the message kicked in. Natalie’s voice spoke from the past, warm and precise. “You’ve reached the home of Natalie and Dennis; we can’t make it to the phone, so leave us a message-thanks!”
“Honey, my keys are in Aubrey’s car, they fell out at lunch. Can you bring the spare set to the winery? I still have to take those pans over to my sister’s. Love you.”
The blue light died, replaced by a tiny red light, flashing like a warning. Her finger curled up. She lowered her hand.
Natalie walked away from Gerard, stepping around the butcher block table to where the keys hung on a rack by the door. That was it. Her moment was over, the window she’d opened had shut on her just as quick. The keys weighed heavy in her palm. “I guess-” she started to say as she turned.
He was there. Gerard had crossed the kitchen floor behind her and, taking her by the wrist brought her hand up to his lips.
The keys clanked in unison on the countertop. “What are you doing?” she asked.
He pressed his lips to her finger, looking over the sparkling diamond over her wedding ring to meet her gaze. “I’m opening a window.”
Natalie kissed him. He moved into the embrace, and when they broke for breath, she waited.
There was no lightning, no explosion of guilt. No heavenly choruses or wailings of the damned. It was just a kiss.
And it was nice.
And it was not enough.
They kissed again, she ran her fingers through his hair, leaving traces of sugar and banana. The sweet aftertaste of the compote lingered between their lips. Her fingertips found a thin scar on his scalp, and she thought how even angels have their cracks and are all the more beautiful for it.
Gerard swept an arm under her ass and lifted her around to the butcher’s block table. Her neck tasted amazing as her kissed down towards her chest.
Struggling to undo her blouse, Natalie noticed a tiny dollop of fruit stuck in Gerard’s hair. She licked it out, and caught the scent of pine and salt, some rugged men’s soap. As his lips roamed over her clavicle, she nuzzled her cheek against his dark hair.
Tipping his head up, their breath spilled together. He took the sides of her apron in hand and found her eyes with his.
“Do you,” he said, watching the tiny pock on her cheek rise and fall with the corner of her mouth, “should we go upstairs?”
His eyes were like deep caves of molten chocolate. Natalie closed her eyes, and in her mind went up the stairs to her bedroom- their bedroom. To the bed purchased when they first moved in together. To the drawer full of Dennis’ neatly rolled socks and his unkempt boxers shoved in beside them. To where she woke up every morning and went to bed every night.
“No,” she stroked Gerard’s hair, and he tipped his head back into her palm. “Not there. I want this, I want you, but not there.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
He pressed a hand gently to her shoulder, and guided her down onto her back on the thick wooden table, Natalie closed her eyes as she felt his hands sliding her dress up, and didn’t open then again until she had been completely devoured.
About the author…
Greg Baldino is an award-winning journalist, Pushcart Prize nominee and earned his BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. His fiction has appeared in The Toucan, Half Nelson, and the Washington Square Review. He currently writes about arts and culture for Booklist, New City, Bleeding Cool, and a myriad of other websites and publications.