Heart’s Desire ~ Judith Slater


Even in the postwar boom of the fifties, they could not seem to get ahead.  Like the fairy tale whose plot Matt could never remember, he and Irene spun and spun gold far into the night, and in the morning found that their work had been undone and they had to start all over again.

Which was why, even though Paul and Helen Brashler had been their neighbors now for two years, Matt had never been inside Paul’s store until this morning.  What was the point?  Anything in it was bound to be out of their price range.  The window displays changed frequently, and driving past Brashler Furniture, especially at night, was like looking in on a glamorous party to which you had not been invited.  The dining room’s crystal chandelier sparkled; champagne flutes sat waiting to be filled; silver candlesticks waited to be lit.  In the living room display an alabaster statue of a woman in an evening gown stood on a glass table.  The master bedroom was almost embarrassingly sensual, with a king-sized bed and a gold-leaf dressing table (where, without even trying, you could picture Helen sitting in a filmy negligee and dabbing her cheeks with a pink powder puff).  Matt had always felt like he was trespassing just walking past the store, never mind actually going in.

Though he and Irene had never spoken of it openly, Matt knew they both harbored some envy toward Paul and Helen Brashler.  Matt’s own envy stemmed not so much from the money Paul made as from his assumption that Paul had a better time at work than he and Irene did.  Matt had supposed that presiding over what was essentially a big toy store for grown-ups must be more fun than trying to figure out ways to help single mothers stretch a welfare check.

The new sofa was Irene’s idea, and it wasn’t like her at all.  Irene was a child of the Depression — so was Matt, of course, but he hadn’t grown up in the same kind of raw poverty she had.  Irene bought Lizzie’s school shoes a size too large so she could grow into them.  She recorded every tank of gas.  She struggled to find the money for the check they sent each month to her widowed mother, and for Lizzie’s ballet lessons and college fund.  Just last week they’d had to buy new tires for the car, and the mechanic had muttered ominously about the need for a new timing belt before long.  But at dinner last night, Irene had announced, “We ought to get a new sofa.  Let’s go tomorrow to Brashler’s and buy one.”

“This one is beautiful,” Irene said now, of a yellow sofa with a pattern of pink roses on it, so bright it hurt Matt’s eyes.  She trailed her fingers across its back.

He suppressed a yawn.  “How much?”

Irene frowned.  “The price tag is right there in plain sight,” she said testily.  He looked at the tag, and then looked again.  Had they put an extra zero in by mistake?

He was being a killjoy, he knew, and he wasn’t even sure why.  He had often wished that just once they could buy something for pleasure, without endless discussion and calculation and comparing of prices.  And now that they seemed to be doing just that, he found himself bored.  It would not do, he could tell, to suggest that she pick out the sofa while he found an armchair to wait in.  This was a large purchase, something they must do together.  Already he was feeling a little nostalgic for their old sofa, threadbare though it was.  The old one didn’t hurt your eyes to look at it.

And then Irene took a breath.  “Oh,” she said softly, and turned away from the pink-flowered sofa.  “That one.”  She pointed.  “That one.”  She rushed over to it — a brown leather one hidden away in a corner — and sat down in its exact center.

“You have good taste,” said Paul, as anyone could have predicted he would.  He’d ice-skated right up behind them, so quietly they hadn’t noticed his approach.  Paul was a life-of-the-party kind of man, big and expansive and gregarious, at ease whether he was wearing a suit or, today, since it was a Saturday, light slacks and a V-necked sweater with the sleeves pushed up.  Matt and Irene, without consulting each other, had dressed up a little for today’s shopping expedition, Matt in gray slacks and tweed jacket, Irene in a brown skirt and a crisp white blouse.

“You have good taste” was such an obvious line; it ought not to have worked on Irene, who was no fool, but Matt saw that it did work.  She seemed suddenly taller than herself, holding herself straighter as she sat on that sofa.  “It feels wonderful,” she said.  She spread her arms long across its back, crossed her slender legs.  It was as though she already owned the sofa.

“Nothing like the feel of leather,” said Paul.  “That soft buttery feeling.  Can’t put a price on a feeling like that.”

“But you have,” said Matt.  He stared at the price tag.  This sofa was more than twice as much as the yellow-and-pink flowered one.

“You’re saving money in the long run,” Paul told them.  “A couch like this is a lifetime investment.  You’ll never have to buy another one.”

“Why don’t you sit in it, Matt?” said Irene.

“That’s all right,” he said.  “I’m sure it’s fine.”

Irene’s brow furrowed again.  He was ruining the experience for her, and he didn’t seem able to stop.  Would he be acting this way if they were at the discount furniture store across town, where they should have gone in the first place?

“It’s like buying a car, Matt,” said Paul.  “You have to test drive it.”

“I can tell it’s comfortable just by looking at it,” said Matt, and Paul laughed.  Paul often laughed at things Matt said when Matt was not intending to be funny.

Matt took a breath, said the words that should have been Irene’s words.  “I don’t think we can afford it.”

Irene ignored his comment.  The only way he knew she’d heard him was that she sat up a little straighter on the sofa.  Her fingertips caressed its leather.

Irene kept track of their expenses in a large brown ledger.  She was the one who decided what they could and could not afford.  He wasn’t sure how that had happened; it was a pattern they’d slipped into.  She enjoyed numbers and he did not.

“You know what my philosophy is?” said Paul.  “I give my customers what they want.  Their hearts’ desire, no compromises.  No substitutes.  We have a layaway plan, we have a low monthly payment plan, we have a no-down-payment plan–”

“We can afford it,” Irene said firmly.  “We can pay cash.”

In the early days of their marriage, Irene’s penny-pinching had grated on Matt’s nerves.    It had seemed to him that the careful budgeting she did, the strict eye she kept on every single penny, only made them poorer.  What if, instead of talking about buying a car, for instance, as if it were some terrible burden, they could make it into a game, like Paul did?  Paul brought home brochures from the McClary Ford dealership and spread them out on his bar, and invited his friends over for drinks to vote on which color and model they liked best.  Paul didn’t spend his evenings bent over a ledger.  He spent his evenings drinking scotch, and looking out over his vast and perfect lawn.

But over the years Matt had, for the most part, come around to Irene’s way of thinking.  What Irene said was generally true: if you wanted something but you stopped yourself from buying it, gave yourself a few days to think about it, chances were the wanting would go away.  If it didn’t, if you found yourself still thinking about the object, then and only then could you consider buying it.  Or rather, a more economical version of it.  A used version of it.  A second-hand version of your heart’s desire.


Because it seemed that the sofa really was going to be theirs, Matt finally sat down on it.  Paul was right, he had to admit  there was something soft and buttery about the leather, something more than simple comfort.  His oppressive boredom lifted and transformed into another, lighter feeling, a relaxed trance.  While Paul talked to Irene about how to care for such a sofa, and told her again what good taste she had, Matt allowed Paul’s voice to fade into an agreeable background monotone.

He was drifting off — but it was a pleasant feeling, not like some days at work when he would struggle to stay awake after lunch, filling out case reports and seeing the letters and numbers go out of focus as his eyelids drooped.  This was a weightless feeling that made him feel both relaxed and energized.  He let his mind float free.  The sofa became a boat set adrift on a placid lake.  The world of furniture stores and bill-paying and traffic noise and the sound of Paul’s and Irene’s voices just faded away, and there he was, alone.

“Matt?”  It was Irene, standing over him, shaking him by the shoulder.

“Sorry,” he said.  “I must have drifted off.  This sofa is very comfortable.”

“You see?” said Paul.  “You’ve made the right choice.”

But now, when it was all decided, Irene poised to write the check, a problem arose.

“How soon can we get it delivered?” Irene asked.  She was smiling, her expression the happiest he’d seen it in . . . he couldn’t remember how long.  Expansive, brow unfurrowed, chin lifted like she was tipping her face to the sun.

“Four to six weeks,” said Paul, and Matt watched Irene’s face fall, her posture, so lovely and tall a moment ago, slump.

“Oh,” she said.  “No.”  As though all the disappointment in her life, all the things she had done without over the years, had coalesced into this moment.

“I’m sorry,” said Paul.  “I thought you understood.  This is just the floor model.  I’ll order yours from the factory in Denver, but it takes that long.  Four to six weeks is pretty standard.”

“What about your philosophy?” said Matt quietly.  He was angry, suddenly.  He didn’t give a damn about the sofa, but he couldn’t stand to see Irene so deflated.  “No compromises, you said.  We want it now, not in six weeks.”

Paul glanced at him, surprised.  He felt a thrill of power when Paul’s gaze faltered.  “I could call the factory,” Paul said, “try to put a rush on things.  But it still wouldn’t arrive as fast as you want.  Tell you what.  I’ll be honest with you.  This couch has been on the floor for a while, and I could use the space for some new merchandise.  I could sell you this one.  Even give you ten percent off since it’s a floor model.”

“Matt?” said Irene.  The hopeful look was back in her eyes.

“What about fifteen percent?” said Matt.  “If it’s been on the floor a while, it’s a little shopworn, right?”  Irene, beside him, went very still.  But after all, how could it hurt to ask?

Paul hesitated, then smiled.  “Well, why not?  Fifteen percent it is.  And how’s this for service?  Normally we don’t do deliveries on Saturday, but I have a guy working today on a special order.  I could get that couch delivered to you at the end of the day today.”  He winked at them.  “A special deal for my best neighbors.”

“We should have the Brashlers over for drinks soon,” Irene said on the way home.

They were always saying this, but in the two years they and the Brashlers had been neighbors, they’d only invited them three or four times, though they’d been up to the Brashlers’ house far more often.  Having people over for drinks was something the Brashlers liked to do.  Their house seemed to have been designed for the sole purpose of throwing parties, their bar stocked with every conceivable kind of liquor and a jar of swizzle sticks they’d collected as mementoes on their vacations.  “Name your poison,” Paul would say, and would mix people’s drinks with a flourish.

Whereas Matt and Irene were not drinkers, particularly — a bottle of scotch could sit untouched for months in their kitchen cabinet.  And their living room always seemed cramped with Paul in it; he was such a big man, and he gestured with large, expansive movements.

Paul and Helen never seemed in the least put out by Matt and Irene’s lack of reciprocity.  They kept inviting them up for cocktails.  Matt sometimes thought the Brashlers were motivated as much by a desire to show off their house as by simple neighborliness — but either way it was hard to say no, since they lived so close, especially when Lizzie was included in the invitation.  Lizzie loved going to the big house on the hill — Helen showered her with compliments and attention, and on summer nights she was allowed to play croquet on their lawn.  Lizzie had developed an only child’s ingenuity — there was almost no game Matt could think of that she hadn’t figured out how to play just as happily by herself as with others.

“No,” said Irene now.  “I mean really this time.  Let’s have them over for drinks this coming week.  Wednesday, maybe.”

“To show off the sofa?” he asked.

She nodded.


There was no mystery why the sofa had languished on the floor of Paul’s store.  It was not Paul’s sort of sofa, or his customers’ sort of sofa.  Sitting in it, you might smoke a pipe, never the Camels Paul smoked.  Paul liked leather seats in the new car he bought every other year, but a leather seat on a car was not the same thing as a leather sofa.  The first night Matt settled into it, he realized it was the perfect place for the history books and biographies he liked to read — the very smell of its leather conjured up a sense of the past.  So often in the evenings, lost in the life of whatever great man he was reading about, Matt would feel a sense of longing wash over him, though he couldn’t have said what he was longing for.  When it was time to go to bed, he would close his book with a sigh.  But tonight he looked up from his reading to see his wife and daughter sitting under their own pools of light, Lizzie with her homework and Irene with her ledger, and felt, maybe for the first time, that he was living exactly the kind of life he was meant to live.


On Tuesday night — they’d had the sofa for just four days, and already he couldn’t remember what their old couch had looked like — Irene sat at the other end of the sofa from him, frowning over one of the case reports she’d brought home from work.  She never frowned when she was writing in her ledger.  Matt had always thought Irene should have been an accountant instead of a social worker.  She tried so hard with those case reports to put the messiness of her clients’ lives into some sort of order, to give them the balance and harmony that she could achieve so easily working with numbers.

The dining table, as usual, had been cleared to make room for Lizzie’s homework.

Irene sighed and closed the folder she’d been working on.  “Hors d’oeuvres,” she said.


“For tomorrow night.  When Paul and Helen come for drinks.  Do you think we should have hors d’oeuvres?”

“I don’t know.  Like what?”

“I don’t know,” said Irene irritably.  “That’s why I’m asking you.”

“They never serve hors d’oeuvres.  Just mixed nuts or pretzels or something like that.  Do we have pretzels?”

“No, we don’t have pretzels.”  Irene sounded even more irritated.  “Well, I was thinking we should have something, but I can’t think what, and I wouldn’t have time to make it anyway.  They’ll just have to do without.”  She spoke as though the Brashlers had demanded crab puffs or caviar as a condition of agreeing to come for drinks, and were likely to stalk out in a huff when they realized they weren’t getting any.

“I’m going to bed,” she said.  She got up and kissed Lizzie on the top of her head.  “Don’t stay up too late, honey.  And don’t sit so close to the book.  You’ll strain your eyes.”

Matt sometimes wondered if Irene’s concern about eyestrain was a cover for a greater concern she had about Lizzie’s studiousness.  He often thought that Irene’s dreams for Lizzie were not large enough.  He suspected that in her heart of hearts Irene thought that Lizzie’s intelligence was somehow unseemly.   Show-offy, maybe, though Lizzie was the furthest thing from a show-off.  Sometimes when Matt wondered aloud what Lizzie would do with her life when she grew up, Irene said, “I’m sure she’ll find her niche.”  He’d looked up the word; it meant “a comfortable or suitable position in life.”


“Hell,” said Paul, and swirled the ice in his drink.  “I’m the least prejudiced man I know.  Harry Weinstein is one of my good friends.  I’ve got a colored guy working as a deliveryman in my store right now, and if he proves himself, I won’t hesitate to promote him to the floor, let him try his hand at sales.  Nobody can accuse me of being prejudiced.  I’m just saying there’s nothing wrong with a club that makes its own rules.  Every kid on every playground is a member of a club – ‘No Girls Allowed.’”  He turned to Matt.  “You can’t tell me you weren’t a member of a club like that when you were a kid.”  He didn’t wait for Matt’s answer.  “If Harry Weinstein wants to belong to a club that won’t let me in because I’m not Jewish, that’s fine with me.  If my guy Mark wants to belong to a club that says, ‘Negroes Only.  No Whites Allowed,’ why shouldn’t he have that right?”

“The Klu Klux Klan is a club that makes its own rules,” said Irene, her voice shaking with indignation.  “Are you saying that’s just fine?  That they should have that right?”

“I’m not talking extremes.  I’m not talking violence.  I’m talking about reasonable people.  Just because you always have people who take things to extremes doesn’t mean the laws should be written for them.”

This, Matt thought, was exactly why he’d come to dread drinks with the Brashlers.  He’d never felt comfortable arguing politics, didn’t like the way such conversations could take sharp, ugly turns when you least expected it.  He didn’t even like talking politics with people who voted the same way he did, and the notion of arguing with somebody who was completely opposed to you, who would never come around to your way of thinking any more than you would come around to theirs, struck him as futile to the point of absurdity.  But Irene was always itching for a good political fight.  Paul should have been the ideal sparring partner for Irene.  They were on opposite sides of every conceivable issue, and Paul liked sinking his teeth into an argument as much as Irene did.

The trouble was that Irene took it all too seriously.  She argued out of real conviction, while Paul, it always seemed to Matt, fought for the pleasure of fighting, to hear the sound of his own voice.  He would make outrageous statements Matt felt sure he could not possibly believe — defending Joe McCarthy, for example — just to get Irene’s goat.  And Irene, never a heavy drinker, always drank too much when they were with the Brashlers.  It wasn’t the scotch she couldn’t resist — it was the argument, and the scotch was the argument’s fuel.  But Paul was a seasoned, regular drinker, and that gave him the upper hand.  Irene would go home tipsy and fuming.  It always seemed after an evening with the Brashlers that it took at least a day and sometimes longer for their lives to get back on an even keel again.

But this evening they were on their own turf, and the bottle of scotch was in Matt’s hand.  Paul’s glass was empty, he noticed.  So was Irene’s.  Matt made no move to refill either one.  His drink was only half empty, and Helen had hardly touched hers.

“What about those children in the south being denied entrance to schools just because of the color of their skin?” said Irene.  “Is that the kind of ‘clubbishness’ you’re talking about?”

“Oh, I know,” said Helen.  “It’s awful.  Those poor children.  I can’t even think about it.”

“No one’s saying those Negro kids can’t go to school,” said Paul.  “I don’t believe any child in this country is denied the opportunity for an education.  It’s what you do with the opportunities you’re given.”

“I think we’re getting off the point,” said Matt, finally annoyed enough to speak.  He knew Paul well enough by now to know the direction in which Paul tended to steer every conversation.  In Paul’s view, the world was clearly divided not between black and white, rich and poor, but between people who used the opportunities they’d been given and people who did not. “Irene’s not saying those kids aren’t being allowed to go to school,” said Matt, “just that they’re not allowed to go to the good schools.  Let’s be honest, the white schools are better — they have more money, they can pay teachers more–”

“You know, I read an interesting statistic,” said Paul.  “The average person uses only ten percent of his brain power.  Did you know that?  I think you could go to the poorest school in the country and get a good education if you just applied yourself.  I started my business at the height of the Depression.  I was twenty-six.  I didn’t have money, I didn’t have a college education.”

Helen gave a little sigh, touched her fingertips to her forehead.

“I’m not the sharpest guy on the block, I’m the first to admit that.  If I could do it, anybody can do it.  That’s what’s wrong with the world.  That’s what’s wrong with the people, I have to say, that you and Irene deal with in your work, Matt.  They’re used to the free handout, the welfare check at the end of the month.  You hand them opportunities every day of their lives and they don’t do anything with them.”

“You have no idea–” said Irene, her voice rising.  Her cheeks were red.

“Initiative, that’s what I’m talking about.  When I was twenty-six, I walked right into a bank manager’s office and asked him for a loan to start my business.”

“And how do you think that would have turned out if you hadn’t been white?” said Irene.  “Or if you’d been a woman?  You have opportunities you take for granted.”

“Oh, what the hell,” Paul said good-naturedly.  He swirled the ice in his glass again.  “You’re probably right, Irene.  You too, Matt.  I get carried away.  I get on my hobby horse.  Let’s have another drink and change the subject.”

Matt would have poured the drinks — what else could he do? Paul was his guest — but he must have hesitated a beat too long, and Helen noticed it.  “It’s getting late, honey,” she said softly.  “They need to eat their dinner.  It’s a school night for Lizzie, remember?”

“Where is Lizzie?” said Paul, smiling.  “Where’s my favorite girl?”

“Practicing her ballet, I think,” said Irene.  “I’ll get her so she can say goodbye to you before you leave.”  She stood up quickly and went down the hall, and after the sudden odd silence that followed her disappearance, Helen said to Matt, “I think the sofa looks wonderful.”  She’d praised the sofa, of course, when they first arrived, said just what Paul had said: “You have good taste.”  But now she looked at it with what seemed to Matt like genuine envy.  “Your house is so cozy and welcoming.  The light is so soft and warm.  And all the books, and the music.  I just–” Helen’s voice, always tremulous, sounded wobbly and wavering all of a sudden.  Drinking too much could sometimes make Helen a little maudlin, Matt had noticed, but she’d barely touched her scotch.

“There’s my girl,” said Paul, standing up to greet Lizzie.  “How are you, honey?”

“Fine, thanks, Mr. Brashler,” said Lizzie, smiling at him shyly.  She wore her leotard and pink dance slippers, and her hair was in a falling-apart pony tail.  Lizzie was trying to grow her hair long enough to wear in a bun — a chignon, her ballet teacher Mrs. Swainey called it — but it was at an in-between stage.  No matter how carefully she pulled it back, how many bobby pins and barrettes she used, by the end of every lesson, every recital, every practice session, the rubber band had come undone and her hair fell in sweaty tendrils across her face.

“You look gorgeous, Lizzie,” said Helen.  “She has a dancer’s body, doesn’t she, Irene?”

Lizzie ducked her head in embarrassment.  “I’m too tall,” she said.  “Mrs. Swainey says five feet five is the perfect height for a ballerina, and I’m already that and I’m only twelve.”

“Nonsense,” said Helen firmly, in a way that made Matt like her more.  Matt, for one, was getting tired of hearing about Mrs. Swainey’s pronouncements.  “I’d give anything to be tall like you.  Tall and willowy.”  She gave Lizzie a quick hug.  “Paul.  Let’s go.  They need to have their dinner.”

“There’s no rush,” said Irene, a little halfheartedly.  “The casserole’s made.  I can just stick it in the oven.  Really.”

“It’s lovely,” said Helen.  She took one last look around the room.  “Not just the sofa, but everything.  Everything.”  She reached out as though to touch the sofa, but didn’t.

“You see?” said Paul.  “I told you you wouldn’t regret buying this couch.”


Usually after drinks with the Brashlers, especially after a discussion like this one, Irene wanted to rehash the whole conversation over dinner, but tonight she didn’t even bring up the Brashlers.  She didn’t seem tipsy at all.  She was her usual self, as far as Matt could tell, though a little quieter.  After dinner Lizzie went back to her room to practice some more, and Matt and Irene went into the living room and sat in what had become their usual places, Matt at one end of the leather sofa and Irene, legs tucked under her, at the other.  She made a few careful notes in her ledger, then yawned.  “I think I’ll go to bed,” she said.

“So soon?”  He looked at his watch, surprised to find it so late.  It was that cocktail hour — it had delayed dinner, and disrupted their usual routine.  It was bedtime, or nearly bedtime, but he didn’t feel tired.  “I’ll stay up a while and read,” he told her.


The lights were off in their bedroom when he finally went upstairs, but he flipped them on.  He had known from the moment he stepped into the room that she was not asleep, only pretending to be.

“What have you done?” he asked her.  “Lizzie’s college money.  What have you done?”

She sat up in bed, blinking in the sudden light.  But at least she didn’t pretend not to understand what he was talking about.  “We’ll put it back,” she said.  “I’ll put it back.”

“But why?  Irene?”

“It’s like Paul said.  It’s a lifetime investment.  This way we’ll never have to buy another sofa.  It’s just exactly what we want and we’ll never have to buy another one.”

“I know, but–”

She had left the ledger out on purpose when she went to bed.  Maybe consciously, maybe not, but she had meant for him to look at it.  Always Irene would put the ledger away when she’d finished working on it, in the middle drawer of the dining room sideboard.  She did not leave it out on the end table next to the sofa, as she had tonight, its gold edging glinting under the lamplight.  Such an act was as out of character and unprecedented as if she’d left the dinner dishes piled on the counter without washing them.

It wasn’t that the ledger was, or had ever been, private.  Now and then Matt would glance over Irene’s shoulder as he walked past her when she was working at it, but only to marvel at her neat penmanship, at the orderly way she’d organized their lives, at the fact that she could find such pleasure in an activity that to him would be pure drudgery.  He’d never had the slightest desire to know the details.

But of course it was only natural that he would be curious now, to figure out how she’d managed to fit the cost of the new tires and a wildly expensive sofa into one month’s expenses.  A magic trick — but even Irene was no magician.

The ledger, he saw, was very straightforward, perfectly easy to understand, no secrets.  “We can pay cash,” Irene had told Paul in the store, and she had paid cash — there was the entry, the check number carefully recorded.  But then on Monday — this, too, was carefully recorded — she’d transferred money from their savings account to cover that check.

They’d always said that the savings account wasn’t only for Lizzie’s college, that it could be dipped into for emergencies — like the new tires.  But over the years they’d come to call the savings account “Lizzie’s College Fund,” and they’d never missed a month of putting something, however small, into it.  Irene had never withdrawn a single penny from it without consulting him.

“We’ll just have to take the sofa back,” he said, knowing as he said the words how impossible that was.  He pictured them going back into that cavernous store, Paul greeting them at the door like the party host he was.  He couldn’t face Paul looking at them pityingly, as though he’d always known that, even with his fifteen-percent-off gift, they’d been in over their heads the moment they walked in his store.

Her shoulders slumped.  “I wanted to see if it would be worth it.  Going into that store and feeling like you could buy whatever you wanted.”  She bit her lip.  Irene almost never cried.  But when she did, she always bit her lip first to try to stop herself.  “No compromises, no substitutes.  And it was worth it, you know, just for a little while.  I felt like we owned the world.  Didn’t you?”  He had never seen her look more miserable.


He and Irene had met just three months before he was set to go into the Army.  The week before he was due to take the bus to South Carolina where he would ship out, he’d stayed up most of the night rehearsing the good-bye speech he would make to her.  He and Irene were just getting to know each other, really just beginning to feel comfortable in each other’s company.  Even if he’d been sure he loved her — and he wasn’t, at all — the war would change them both in ways they couldn’t begin to imagine.  They would be strangers when he came home.  The only thing to do was to make a clean break now, say goodbye, walk away without looking back.  Though it would be painful at first, in the long run they would both realize it was for the best.  If you see something you want and you walk away from it, if you give yourself time to think, usually the wanting will go away.

He had gone to her house, his mind completely made up, and there she was, standing so much straighter and prouder than she usually did, looking so resolute, as though she knew what he was going to say, biting her lip so as not to cry, that he gathered her up in his arms and said, “Marry me.”  And she had said yes without a moment’s hesitation.  It was probably the only truly impulsive thing either of them had ever done.

When Lizzie was born, Matt had felt tempted to say to Irene, “You see? We did the right thing after all.”  But he hadn’t been able to find the right words, without admitting that he’d gone to her that night intending to say goodbye.  It was one of the few secrets he had ever kept from her.

Finally he crossed the room and sat down beside her on the bed.  “Paul was right.  The sofa is a lifetime investment.  We’ll have the blasted thing for the rest of our lives.”

The Brashlers had an intercom system, so that they could talk to each other when they were at opposite ends of the house.  But in Matt and Irene’s small house, now, after they’d turned out the lights and were pretending to sleep, they didn’t need an intercom.  Matt heard Lizzie singing to herself in her room down the hall, singing along with her record player, though it was tuned so softly that her voice carried over it.

As a little girl, Lizzie’d sung to herself and to her dolls without the slightest self-consciousness, not caring if anyone was listening.  It had been a long time since Matt had heard her sing.  She was in a self-conscious phase now.  Her dance recitals were a torment to her, and she would never be singing now if she knew anyone was listening.   She’d have died of embarrassment.

He didn’t recognize the melody.  It was probably one of the folk songs she’d been listening to lately when she wasn’t playing her ballet music, one of those minor-key songs of longing, a western wind or a lonely traveler, a sailor gone to sea.  Her voice was light and pure.  The song was like a lullaby, though Matt knew neither he nor Irene would fall asleep as long as Lizzie was singing.  They were both listening in the dark, holding their breath the way you do when you don’t want something to end.