Conversation with a Stranger

It was approaching nine, post meridiem, on the plus side of the hour, the minus side of eternity, and the season’s air was uncharacteristically warm. The hum of everything around him, everything he saw and heard and touched, could not interfere with his thoughts, that he was heading alone for the Gulf but did not know why and perhaps he could hear already the train approaching and it was that night, a bowl of peanuts and raisins nestled in his lap as he watched a candle burn incandescently. Caren, his wife, and Philip II, Mark, and Bathsheba, a son, a son, and a daughter, were spending the evening at the home of his parents-in-law. A falling tree limb had snapped a power line, shutting off electricity in their area, but Philip chose to stay behind. Though crime was not a concern, and had it been he owned no weapons to defend himself and property, and his family believed it senseless to stay alone overnight in a power-less home in autumn, the unseasonable warmth notwithstanding, Philip never fully considered leaving. “Someone,” he said, had to “hold down the fort,” to Caren’s unsurprise and unsurprising distrust.

She was his second wife, whom he playfully called “Deuce,” and mother of his two youngest children. They met at a company picnic; she was the guest of someone he did not know, and her hair, then as well as now, was a sort of lustful red and pouring over her shoulders and onto her breasts and she spoke with a twang he was unfamiliar with and tugged at the hems of her perfectly fitting chino shorts with her thumbs and index fingers, which were painted red, too, and introduced herself with a knowingly reluctant smile and tilt of the head. Philip was a widower, having decided to leave his first wife shortly before she died. Their mutual silences about their mutual infidelities had become wearisome. She was, his first wife Dylan, thought to be the love of his life. They met at the wedding of Philip’s best friend, he a groomsman and she a close cousin and maid of honor to the bride, and her raven-colored hair flowed down her back, and against her strapless, violet dress her skin illuminated, and she too smiled upon meeting him, guilelessly, without affectation, and that day they never left each other’s side and to a person the families predicted an altar, from chance encounter to wedded bliss as the fairytale invariably goes. And so it was …

Two years later, Philip and Dylan were married, after playful prodding from those they knew, false hopes of proposals on trips to Cancun and Jamaica, and a few months prior the arrival of their son, a large boy with green eyes, in the very church where they first laid eyes on one another. With ease, they acquired the habits of husband and wife, mornings of coffee and bagels, scrambles for keys misplaced, concluding always with a kiss, and Philip off to a mid-sized firm where he planned to move up the ladder and Dylan to her fifth grade class after her mother had arrived to watch junior. In the evening, they did it all in reverse. For Christmas, they wore reindeer sweaters; and mama dressed papa and son in matching shirts and shades for vacations on the Gulf, family and friends receiving pictures of every moment. Beneath the young couple’s feet, wedding flowers forever covered the earth. As they aged, and single, initial hairs of gray appeared in their heads, the routines of matrimony were maintained, though Philip had come to hate his work but continued, he said, at her behest, and Philip II and Dylan traveled to school together, but it lacked the fervor of their youths, along with the youthful belief that each problem is surmountable. They were, by appearances nevertheless, what everyone believed them to be. Even just below the surface, a love of remembrance, of what may have been, of what should be, a love indistinct but real and powerful, palpitated with vigor equal to that of their earliest hours, and would forevermore. But Philip had never been faithful. And, because of that, neither was she. As he confided time and again to his best friend, Maurice, prior to the latter’s wedding and following his own, during dull moments when an attractive woman appeared on television, or some desirable college-aged girl with an ounce of baby flesh still quivering on her bones passed them on the street, “It’s not that there’s so many of them, it’s that there’s so many of them you can get, and if I go long enough without getting one of them, my stomach hurts so bad I feel like every organ inside me is about to explode … But once I’m done, I’m done. I love the chase. The kill ends it for me. I’m like a lion that doesn’t eat its prey.”

There was, during his and Dylan’s beginning moment, the period of reciprocal revelations and days that could only end too soon, a colleague whom he had in his parked Chevy a mundane Thursday afternoon as well as a quiet, dimple-cheeked Chicana who belonged to Maurice’s running group, neither lasting more than two or three encounters. His affairs were brief, harshly utilitarian, in idea and act, which also lent them a layer of honesty. He and his partners were never uncertain about the nature of their relationships. They were in each other’s lives temporarily, for one purpose, which once extinguished meant the winding roads that had placed them together would then lead them apart. To previous partners, he had been forced to admit his infidelities, once the circumstances of his late work days or long grocery trips or unanswered messages had strained credulity too far, had become too far-fetched for even the most trusting souls to believe, and a litany of women, some of whom were now nameless and could only be recalled by a scent or physical feature or verbal tic, Philip would recount as best he could, genuinely upset he had been made to harm the person with whom he wanted to be and wished to protect. With Dylan, he had to admit nothing. Though she as well suspected then knew he was unfaithful, she accepted his answers with quiet disbelief, an assenting expression belied by every other bit of her being. She would, on those occasions, say more or less, “Okay, I was getting worried because I hadn’t heard from you. You should eat and get to bed then, you must be dog-tired,” in an even, maternal, almost pampering tone. Philip knew, however, the instant when he could no longer falsely believe she remained in the dark. She had come over for the evening. After dinner, he was sitting at the desk in a corner of his living room, skimming the paper, and the television, which had been humming to the sound of changing channels behind him, went off and he turned, and she regarded him blankly, then raised her eyes, then her head, then her body and went to bed, never uttering a word. It resembled the look of conscious modesty with which she comported herself normally, always crossing her legs whether she wore pants or not, refusing to swear on Sundays, but its texture, its meaning differed, and momentarily he wondered if she would return to scream at him or fight him or worse, but she did not, and he saw the look just one other occasion: when he knew she was no longer faithful to him. She was wearing a white jacket over her shoulders and his favorite of her outfits, a blue garden dress patterned with tiny dandelions, carrying a small purse near her waist, and returning from lunch with friends to which he had not been invited or told about until that morning, and he remembered it was Sunday, the open windows welcoming no breeze, and it was the same expression and Philip immediately knew she had been with another man, but was not angry or jealous or even somewhat bitter. Contrarily he felt relief since it meant she had decided to settle the score rather than leave him, because she was loved by Philip more than he could love any other woman, along with pity inasmuch as she chose a course unnatural to her, having not the need for varied pleasures as he did, and fear, also, for what the tit-for-tat may ultimately do to her. But he wondered sometimes about with whom she was intimate, when a coworker or friend of hers was seen or mentioned he considered whether the man had had his girlfriend then wife, and if she enjoyed him in the same way or more than Philip believed she continued to find pleasure with him, or when they made love and his mind wandered to someone else as he knew hers had as well, but these were idle rambles because the import was their tacit arrangement, which had given him the happiness of a life nearer to perfection than he ever knew, but there were also moments he looked at their son and pictured her lover or lovers because he felt the boy may not be his.

From his first sight of Philip II, senior believed something was untrue about the child’s complexion, though everyone said the bronze-colored boy was the ideal mix of shadow and light, the same he felt about his brownish hair, the curls of which were not those of Philip’s. When he looked into his eyes, they too appeared to possess a green different than Dylan’s, an alien shade as though his real father were watching him. Philip, as well, was a man of average build and height, with sloping shoulders, a rounded, childlike though untraditionally handsome face and congenitally bad hips and knees, coupled with a personality of charm and wit, none of which was present in Philip II, who was a big newborn and always tall for his age, and had squared superhero-like jaws and shoulders and said little and showed none of the verve of Philip, who was nonetheless forever quiet about his suspicions because Dylan had given him a gift and silence was his repayment.

Philip’s phone began to ring—Caren or the kids—but was unanswered, and he ate another handful of peanuts and raisins, and continued to watch the candlelight dance and candle melt while contemplating why, since Dylan’s death, were there times when light enraptured him, random streetlights he could not turn away from, a neighbor’s porch light, the bulb above the kitchen sink, flashlights he turned on simply to see the beam, sources of single light, in dreams as well, moving toward them or staring at them as he did in his waken reality. Heating pads were on his knees, on the coffee table were his feet, setting between them the candle, and his phone rang a final, futile time. The flame sparkled with a yellow similar to the blankets on her hotel room’s bed, the woman he had met at an out-of-town conference, where she led a private law workshop and wore a denim-colored wiggle dress, her curly, black hair pinned up with loose strands teasing her nape, his stomach aching. She was married but traveling alone, as was he. On the conference’s second and final day, they walked to her hotel and shared drinks at the bar, highball for him and seven and seven for her, her hair having been let down during their walk, and he remembered the two molars with silver fillings, the whiff of liquor on her breath, shutting door 16D behind himself and calling Caren to wish her good night. Philip blew out the candle, but the light remained.

When Philip awoke, each clock was flashing twelve, and his hips and knees were newly sore from sleeping on the cramped couch, somewhere inside his head the house was already reanimated with the sounds and presence of Caren and the kids, and from somewhere equally inside himself he wished the ending of their imagined there-ness would also be the ceasing of them altogether, there in his mind without their lived reappearance. But, as clearly as though they were together or he had assumed divine perception, he could see them packing the few clothes they had taken with them, before having his mother-in-law’s homemade biscuits and peach preserves for breakfast, and sitting around that big, oak table which had been in their family for two generations until Caren checked her watch a final time, and they all got up, and exchanged goodbyes, hugs, and kisses, a brief trip and they were once more grabbing their bags from the SUV and coming up the front walkway and Caren unlocking the door as Philip II stood quietly with drooping shoulders, Mark and Bathsheba wailed for their toys, and she ignoring it all while he lay on the couch in a mood of isolation, and about three years separated Dylan’s death from his marriage to Caren.

His first wife’s decline was steady and her death unexpected, had he allowed himself the honesty to fully consider her state, mental and physical and emotional, but when Philip thought of her death, he inevitably contemplated the way her passing left him to parent Phillip II alone, thereby altering the easy routine he had previously known. He loved his son, as he did each of his children, but not more than he loved Dylan, then Caren, or himself, or the manner of living given to him by the women in his life, which produced a fissure between himself and his children, what they needed and what he was able to give, many of his interactions with them being heartfelt failures or mere acts of obligation. Following Dylan’s passing, he briefly considered having his or her parents take the boy off his hands, as it would benefit Philip II to be raised in a home more stable than a single father could provide. He never asked, however, because he concluded it would not succeed, or, if it did, only for a short time, and having Philip II leave to ultimately return would feel as though he had never gone. During his widowhood, there were days on which father and son did not speak, or when they communicated in nods and mumbles and mutually understood silences, which translated into “Good morning” or “How was your day?” or “You’re on your own for dinner,” and nights when Philip would grudgingly return home and peek into his sleeping son’s room so he could tell himself the day had not passed without seeing him. There were moments, too, when one would speak while the other remained silent: watching football one Sunday, Philip talked about the game’s history and how it was played contemporarily, its star players, his childhood favorites, and when he was thirteen or fourteen and playing on a field near his home, an abandoned then demolished drive-thru restaurant, on the game’s final play as the street lights glowed amber against the purpling dusk sky, he caught a short pass and ran the length of the field for a touchdown, which was demarcated by the lot’s southernmost boundary, when he suddenly felt as though Philip II had left the room without him knowing, but there his son was, shoulders curved forward, and Philip could not read the boy’s mood or mannerisms and thought him irretrievably alien to himself.

Caren, he believed, saved the promise of his future from the commitments of his past. A childless divorcee, her first marriage was to someone she hardly knew but believed she passionately loved, which hope and obligation carried on and off for more than a decade, until they parted and she promised to never marry again, all of which she told Philip during their relationship’s earliest stages, but he believed her mind could be changed and was proved right. Not because he believed matrimony was the only acceptable way for man and woman to live, many times he told Maurice he thought the institution a sham, nor because Dylan then Caren would not have stayed without it, rather because a sense of old-fashioned duty pervaded him and he knew of no other means to repay the loves of his life, his initial sweetheart and the one who took his child into her arms as though he were her own, and internalized safely from himself, Philip held marriage preeminent. Caren embraced Philip II, deciphered his utterances, talked with him endlessly the night they first met. Philip had not heard his son speak as much since the death of his mother. Thereafter, she cooked his favorites, surprised him with “thinking of you” gifts, and simply listened as he recounted his schooldays and directed his feelings to her instead of his father, while simultaneously her quiet fear Philip was not faithful yielded to equally quiet acceptance she could not change him. Unlike with Dylan, however, there was no unspoken sign Caren was aware of his affairs, but there was a point when Philip knew she was in the dark no longer and, as with Dylan, it was also when he learned she would never leave him and he would inevitably marry her, during an unrelated argument, her face covered with tears, she accused him of not loving her, but Philip said he loved her, loved her more than any woman alive, and she wept as they made love then cried herself to sleep, but she was there the following morning and remained thereafter. Philip, though, never asked himself why his wives and mistresses accommodated his corporeal whims and wishes. For him, it was a certainty, the way the world invariably was and would be, an aspect of his life he could not fully control or understand but which flowed in his direction, as opposed to the twins, Mark and Bathsheba, who were never supposed to be born.

Of Caren’s first marriage, Philip knew in her late-thirties she miscarried a baby girl named Hope, an union-saving gesture that failed in theory and practice, which nonetheless left him secretly hopeful what nature had not rendered unlikely by age, the past had made improbable through misery, and, as a consequence, with her pregnancy, he felt betrayed not by Caren but by life itself, as though the odds had been stacked so heavily as to make his disappointment greater, had for the first time stripped him of the ability to act, so that when she initially told him and subsequently, he was unable to ask for an abortion, even as her body ballooned and time dwindled, and when the ultrasound showed one then two children and for neither did he feel the same affection as Caren, his opposition was secreted and he mustered what paternal feelings he had, but it was different with Dylan, with whom his distaste for her pregnancy had been shared. He thought of their last birthday, when Bathsheba flung a bowl, inadvertently hitting Mark and how the boy shrieked and Philip wanted nothing more than to cover his mouth until his son’s will had been broken and he would never cry again, the shrill which drowned out everything else in the house, including the condoling tears of his sister, and caused him to not hear Caren’s “We’re back” as they entered the front door.

Philip greeted his eldest (whose response was curt and under breath), the same and a kiss for Caren as he picked up the twins, and thought how he would be well into his fifties when they started junior high, near sixty when they finished high school, and from there he would be able to see the end for himself. Caren asked, “How was your evening, hear any bumps in the night?” The children’s cries had become whimpers, they were sniffling, and Caren walked by a floor lamp which had come on with the electricity. Even with the sunlight peeking and poking into the room, Philip could see the tiny fluorescent in its own right, “Quiet, really quiet,” he answered, “How was it at your mom’s?” She responded, “Not so quiet, but nice. It’s always good to see them. They asked about you, said they wished you had come and that we saw each other more often … ” and he no longer listened as she spoke, putting the children down, who walked toward one another, fell then stood and continued on, but approached the lamp, the heat of which he felt was warming his face, and coming closer he walked a bit quicker and “ … Philip, did you hear me? Philip? What did you do last night? Philip, what’s the matter with you?” Almost at the lamp, he turned toward her, she had been unzipping a bag but stopped mid-motion, face scrunched with confusion, “Oh, sorry, I couldn’t tell if this lamp was on or off,” he said, “Nothing, ate peanuts and raisins,” and she dropped her head and finished opening the bag, “I have no idea how you get away with eating raisins and peanuts so often. If it’s on, you should turn it off, no use in it being on.” From his first marriage, a handful of pictures—wedding photos, vacation snapshots, randomly taken images at parties or in front of newly-seen statues snapped with his outstretched arm and Philip II held between him and Dylan—and the lamp were the only objects Philip possessed, even his wedding band had been sold away as a memory he could no longer take, and undimmed it remained after Dylan’s death, inexplicably and constant, even after his hand had snuffed out its physical flame. “I believe it’s off now,” he said, and “What?” Caren replied, raising her head momentarily, unsure of what he uttered, “I said ‘I believe it’s off now,’” Philip responded, and she, raising her head once more but leaning sideward to view the lamp, then answered, reapplying her attention to the bag, “Are you sure nothing’s the matter with you?” He said, “Nothing, I’m fine,” tapping the wall with his curled fingers, an unknown and presaging chord of G major, same as the gentleman sitting across from him with his hands pressed to his legs, as the stranger’s friend reached for his wallet, causing a photograph of himself having sex to fall from his pants pocket to the ground, which he covered with his foot then placed into an interior pocket of his jacket, after giving it a last, self-satisfied look.

A single train line ran through Metro, Tennessee, one rumbling early morning, terminating in the North, the other barreling southward, late evening to the Gulf. The hilltop station neighbored a police headquarters and was reached through an inclined entryway that bent rightward to the parking lot, which bordered the tracks and was half-filled with blue and white patrol cars, or from the street below through creaking doors and up a set of stairs, past an idle banquet hall and into the small lobby, decorated old-fashionably with wooden benches and potted plants and a television tuned to the weather that was suspended above a desk containing luggage tags and brochures and schedules, the latter of which was the pathway Philip took, exiting a taxi with a vintage, orange hard shell suitcase in one hand and roundtrip ticket in the other, the suitcase he bought before he and Dylan’s first vacation together, a family train trip to the Gulf the last desire he recalled her making before her death. With the going out of the lamplight, he began to remember more and more clearly how her devastating smile grew mundane as she labored toward the cemetery, less and less capable it was of warming his chest and gut or even hiding her sadness, and her walk, the way she swayed and manner in which she bounced a bit on the balls of her feet, slowed and was no longer a feature of her attractiveness rather a detail of her demise. He could hear as well, or believed he heard, her voice weakening as his memories moved closer to the present, though while she lived it was all seen and unseen, heard and unheard, and every characteristic, which appeared evident to Philip as his marriage to Caren became paler in comparison to his relationship with Dylan, was merely grounds for divorce. “I think one of her guys must’ve finally ruined her. Just my luck she took up with some kid who left her for the homecoming queen,” Philip had told Maurice, “But I have this sort of archaic aversion to divorce, something about it just seems wrong, and I’m not even sure why. When I think about downsides of it, making her a single mother what have you, I feel it’s worth it but don’t want to pull the trigger.”

“You think you’ll get to that point,” asked Maurice.

“I’m nearly there now,” Philip replied, “Just a matter of getting over the hump.”

It was a Wednesday, the middle of an October afternoon, a shallow, russet puddle beneath his feet and unfastened umbrella in his hand, when Philip decided he could no longer continue his marriage, hailing with a half-wave the cab he would take to the apartment of his lover, a petite and mixed race and idealistic 2L with large ears, to whom he had been introduced at a networking event, and with whom he had quickly and roughly remedied his belly pangs once before to the soundtrack of unfamiliar music, and for whom his interest was nearly gone, but Dylan would die before he could tell her. As he saw her now, his first wife’s death had taken place long before she died, though he could not pinpoint the moment she was no longer the woman he married, when an apparition began to walk among him and Philip II, bereft of the inner-illumination to which Philip was initially drawn and thereafter, rather it was a stranger who spoke to him in the mornings, a frail and slightly trembling hand now bringing a cup of coffee to her lips, and accompanying his son to school and in the motions of their youths would sometimes still unlace her robe to flash him before climbing into bed. Whoever this person was, she was not his wife. He would tell her after his divorcé life had been put in order, once an apartment for himself had been found and leased, and an amicable way to split what they owned had been devised, their son, however, definitely remaining with her. But a month to the day he decided their marriage was over she died, without ostentation, excusing herself from brunch with friends to go home, where she slipped into bed, cause of death undetermined. It was evening when Philip returned and touched her hair to wake her, and “Damn, all I can say is damn,” he said to anyone who would listen afterwards, it was a starless night and the bustle of the busybodies who gathered near their lawn after the officials arrived buzzed in his head occasionally, as was the hubbub in the train station, unwhispered feelings that should have gone unsaid—“Did someone kill her?” “I hope the train doesn’t derail and we all die.”—Philip rubbed his eyes then crossed his legs to tie a shoelace, imagining what his thoughts would be when he set eyes on the Gulf. Standing under the television, a man used a floss pick. There was as well, near the front desk with its Plexiglas barrier, a family of four sitting on their luggage, and a young woman at the ticket kiosk with a guitar case and nothing else. The piano player hesitated, leaving one hand suspended in the air, before restarting, slowly and unsurely at first, then with certainty he touched his legs, his friend watching disinterestedly before turning his attention to the presence at the door, who entered with soft steps in a gray sweater dress and the blackest of black leggings, undoing her bob with a single hand, her dark hair then undulating on her back as she walked, and at the front desk she removed and unfolded a slip of paper, from where Philip did not know, showing it to the clerk who nodded and gestured toward the lobby, and she turned and surveyed the room and moved toward Philip with a small jounce in her step, smiling lambently as she sat next to him, a frankness of expression he had not seen in years, and introduced herself as Lynda, he ached already from wanting her. “Going to the Gulf too Philip,” she asked, after he had told her his name. Had he succumb to the immediacy of his desire, he would have clutched her legs and devoured her breasts, instead he answered while envisioning them in a cramped washroom, he steadying himself against the swaying of the train with his hands against the walls, she doing the same, ass angled over the sink and limbs encircling him, he and she only undressed enough to smother the fire their happenchance meeting had ignited, “I am indeed,” he said, “I was being pulled there for some reason, and now I believe I know why.”

She was younger than Philip, he felt she had yet to reach thirty, but carried herself with a bygone reserve, an outmoded allurement which spoke for itself rather than being displayed, and would occupy his mind until the moment he had her. “Oh, do you,” she replied. “Yes,” he responded, “absolutely, I believe I do,” and complimented the viridity of her eyes, her skin’s pearl against the midnight of her hair, and she thanked him and asked if he was traveling alone, to which he said “I am,” she then grasped his hand, “And what about her,” she asked, kissing the tip of his ring finger. “She believes my best friend and I are on an impromptu trip to the Carolina coast, he believes the same about she and I,” said Philip, “And none of this matters to you and me,” pressing, finally, his lips to her hand.

“Perhaps,” said Lynda.

“Perhaps … perhaps … ,” pecking her hand another time.

His phone began to ring. It was Caren and he excused himself, stepping into a corridor which ran between the front desk and the restrooms. He answered just as he inhaled the faint smell of urine from the men’s, the door of which had been propped open to the sight of a man quickly running one hand through a streamlet of warm water and in the mirror the back of another standing at an urinal, and “Hello, hello are you there,” Philip said but to no answer. He would try again the following morning.

When he re-arrived, the lobby was empty except for his suitcase and the front desk clerk, an elderly black man with an unconvincing comb over and fever blister on his upper lip, who disappeared through an office door when he and Philip’s eyes met, and returning his attention to the lobby, he saw Lynda at the exit, “What are you waiting for,” she asked, and he grabbed his luggage but she was no longer there, and he left the building, forcing his way through and around people outside with muffled requests for pardon, searching for her, calling out once, quickly “Lynda!” and he spotted her on the platform, and pushed toward her, walking then walking faster and transitioning into a jog, yet farther and farther away she moved, and she leapt onto the tracks and began to run, still he followed, even after she vanished into the luminance of the galloping Cyclops, now screaming “Goodbye everybody! Goodbye everybody! Goodbye!” as people ran alongside and grasped for him, he shoving their hands away, and eventually they gave way as he continued, throwing his suitcase aside and “Goodbye everybody! Goodbye everybody! Goodbye!” he yelled and everything flattened—buildings, cars, bystanders, the train itself—became two-dimensional and, like a blanket, was pulled over all he saw and heard and touched.

Conversation with a Stranger was originally published in The Blackstone Review in May 2015.