By Elizabeth de la Forêt
My friend Peppa, who, back in the days of school dining halls, wore bows in her hair the size of pancakes, wanted to go together on the train from Penn Station. I texted no. I had my children with me, and she was on lithium. Some animated conversation could mean losing them, as had happened before. In the old days, if you’d been scouting out a table, she would appear, carrying her tray, you’d be embarrassed and have to take care of her. And now here we were, looking up at the track numbers on the big board. I folded my trench coat over my arm and tried to look calm.
Others of our cohort scrambled in, their rolling bags fat. Some I’d known and one I hadn’t—unremarkable at first, cheerful, running shoes tied to his backpack. He’d managed to buy a ticket on the spot, jumping the line to hold a 4-seater, strewing his blazer there, while the rest of us with our reservations were still shuffling towards the escalator. My children sat and peered into their video games.
“Heavyweight or lightweight?” I asked later on the subject of rowing. He proffered a bicep in tattersall shirt. “Heavyweight?” I poked a prudish finger. His puzzling bluffs would make the trip pass quickly.
“You married people have all the fun,” he said. Perhaps the rower had not stood by as his ceiling lights were smashed at the end of a broomstick. Or been driven recklessly, late at night, as punishment for some slight or perceived social embarrassment, while the kids slept soundly in their car seats. A clever man like him could have easily been married, if he’d really wanted to be. I wished I’d said so.
I dragged my bags over muddy bricks through the crisscross of the quadrangle. I made up three narrow beds in flat sheets and alumni association blankets that had been folded in squares and set on the top bunks. My children fell easily into their reunion junkets; energetic undergraduates put them in logo t-shirts and caps, handing out teddy bears in tiny college scarves. I saw the rower at various events, a screening of Classmates in Film and Video, a forum by Classmates Repairing Climate Change, a class photo on the great steps in the rain. Perfect posture, his cup of blueberries spilled on the ground.
A former suite mate, let’s call her “London,” spoke out of the side of her mouth. Was it an affectation, Peppa wanted to know? Had she suffered a stroke? No, she always spoke thus. London invited me to her house in Edinburgh for the festival. Bring the family, she offered. When was the last time I’d been out of the country? I wasn’t sure, maybe 2001.
If you’d ever found yourself married to someone who might throw a glass bottle at your head, or cut up the contents of your wallet with a scissor, or remove your glasses and crush them in his hand, then you know, how, over years, the derision accumulates, making many daily things impossible. And the shame of the inaction will cause dissociation, even from you, Story.
“You were one of the cool kids,” the rower spouted, alarmed, as if my sensible exterior had been misleading. We were sipping Prosecco in the Science Center, a building made of cinderblocks. I waved at his lapel and asked where he’d been when I knocked on my way to Climate Change.
“Napping.” He raised one eyebrow, when a friend, Brownie, sexy with loose dark hair, asked the rower if he wanted to marry her. I looked down at my shoes.
If you’d found yourself, by virtue of admission, part of the college, you’d know how it’s like its own country, with outposts in faraway cities, and alumni in Mexico City, or Mumbai, where I’ve not been. It was at the Faculty Club, where the rower and I happened upon each other next.
I’m high as a kite
I just might
Stop to check you out
Music from my youth was sounding its languorous complaint. The rower hung my trench coat on a hook. “I’m not fun,” I heard myself announce. He led me through the darkened doorway out onto the night garden. “Will this do?” he asked. His cheeks looked rough with red beard growth. Dopamine soaked my brain. Soon we were touching hands, then holding hands, and passing the Georgian buildings by the library steps, to sit under a fat column. What luck! No one from twenty-five years ago was around.
You know you’re the one.
If you’ve ever meditated, you know that God is not someone you can appeal to. You must picture an open door, and listen for what made sense: the children, the fear, the flight, reasonable responses, arising in the amygdala. My husband texted. Should he drive up in time for breakfast?
“Nearly check-out,” I replied with a clock emoji. “Does not make sense.” The rower stared off into the distance, undetecting. I discovered his arm again and moved towards the 19th-century brick dorm that was our reunion housing. Birds were beginning to chirp. At the dark threshold: a moment of bad feeling. “Would this be seedy?” he wondered. I smiled as if to look light and cheerful, to push the worry aside.
In the tiny dorm room, where we sat on the single bed, our shirts came off and our chests pressed together. “Skin,” he murmured. My skin? Any skin? I kept on, unbuckling and reaching for underwear. He wore simple cotton boxers, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in all the eighteen years I’d lived with my husband—a hulk of pale skin and black hair in stretchy nylon briefs I sometimes borrowed when my own ran out.
A childhood friend had called our breasts “empty sacks” now, years after nursing. Yet here mine were, in use. “I want the whole thing,” I whispered. Later, after my own buried convulsions abated, and he’d ground himself around my ass such that the stuff came pulsing out, he wiped the goo off us with a pillow case, saying gallantly, “I’ll take care of that,” as if it were a big deal, as if men know something about the quantity of fluids. He fell asleep instantly, only to be awakened by his own tiny snore, and we got up, kissed goodbye, and walked giddily back to our own rooms.
I didn’t unpack. My husband made his loud, frightening movements through the house. He slept weekends until noon or three. Our son showed me his Mudkip drawings. His little matchstick legs needed lotion. If I missed the chance to enjoy him, free from harassment, I might lose a brief opportunity for joy. It’s not forever that I can hold him in my arms. Soon, he’ll be a man.
Elizabeth de la Forêt received her degrees from Harvard and Columbia, taught high school art in Harlem, and swam from Connecticut to Rhode Island. Among her favorite stories are, “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “Blow Up” by Julio Cortázar, and “Drown” by Junot Díaz. She lives in New York City.
"Forty-Seven" is Elizabeth's first published story.