Lydia and Rowley jogged a cool-down lap around the Central Park reservoir track after their running class, reveling in their sore quads and aching hamstrings. “We’re masochists,” she said.
“More like lapsed Catholics,” he said, panting. “Hills are the new hair shirts.”
It was a mild April evening and the reservoir track was steeped in new green leaves, fragrant with cherry blossoms. The setting sun, blazing on the Fifth Avenue skyline across the rippling water, felt like her old life leaving. At thirty-five, after a winter of twice a week speed training classes, Lydia was in the best physical shape of her adult life, and she felt strong enough, too, for a new romantic relationship. That morning, after a ten-month separation, she’d signed divorce papers, ending months of negotiations over alimony payments, the Upper Eastside apartment, and all the other assets amassed during Charlie’s reign in the pharmaceutical industry.
She wanted nothing more than to celebrate alone with Rowley, but dull, pudgy Enrico caught up from behind and wedged himself between them as he did after every running class and again later at Flynn’s where they went for post-workout beers. She pitied him. If Rowley had wanted anything more than friendship, it would have happened a long time ago.
At Flynn’s she pushed past Enrico to grab the stool closest to Rowley’s. Seconds after the bartender took their orders, Enrico complained about a cold draft. He eyed the stool on the other side of Rowley, but someone had draped a jacket over the back of it. No way was she giving up her own seat. She crossed her long legs—her best asset—and her pink running shorts rode perilously up her thigh. Aware of Rowley watching, she removed her barrette, letting her blonde hair fall around her shoulders.
She once believed there was honor in suffering, in enduring without complaint. Saint Lydia, Charlie would call her when he’d wanted to needle her. He’d light cigars in the apartment and stay out late with his buddies, daring her to complain. Those days were over. Her marriage was kaput, and after a winter of fartleks, tempo runs, and hill repeats she’d lost ten pounds and her appetite for docility. Let the meek inherit the earth. She’d take Rowley.
The bartender set down three Guinness. “Here’s looking up your old address,” she said, leaning back for the three-way toast. Beer splashed over the rims of their mugs. Enrico handed her a napkin and she dabbed her thighs, while he mopped the bar.
“Missed a spot,” Rowley said, laughing at them both it seemed.
She wadded up the napkin and threw it at him. He ducked, and it hit the bartender in the neck, but he didn’t break his stride. She loved Flynn’s. All the noise and commotion, the stink of spilled beer, made her feel young again, as though anything could happen.
“You looked good tonight,” she told Rowley. She meant his running, but his looks were growing on her. He was two inches shorter than she was, a more compact, neater package than her ursine ex. In the soft light reflected off the dark wood bar, he appeared leonine with his wavy blond hair, flat nose, and wide spaced eyes.
“Almost busted my lungs on Cat Hill,” he said. “I saw Coach Liam pull you over. What for?”
She mimicked Liam. “For fek’s sake, move up a group, and stop draggin’ these poor bastards after ya.”
“No one likes a hotdog,” Enrico muttered.
“Keep challenging yourself,” Rowlely said. “Don’t hide in the slower group.” He shook his head. “I’m jealous. Don’t know how you do it.”
“Join me on Saturdays for long runs,” she said. “It’s the only way to build endurance. Any Saturday. Nine a.m. You know where to find me.”
Every morning, she searched for him among the other runners in Central Park. For all she knew, he ran at a gym downtown where he lived. She could ask him, but she preferred the romance of a chance encounter.
“Saturday’s movie day,” he said, looking at Enrico. “Last week we saw Cache and La Piscine.”
“I like movies,” she said, but was drowned out by a group of rowdy men entering the bar in baseball uniforms. They settled in at the other end of the long bar and shouted for the bartender to change the TV channel.
“Do you still think La Piscine is the better film?” Rowley addressed Enrico, but he kept glancing at the ball players; they were making a racket.
“Not better,” Enrico said. “More entertaining.”
“Cache makes you uncomfortable, isn’t that what you mean? You thought the Algerian was sending those tapes. Haneke got you to side with his bourgeoisie, racist protagonist. That’s why you didn’t like Cache.”
“Honestly?” Enrico tilted his head coquettishly. “I was bored. At least in La Piscine, when the plot dragged, I could ogle Romy Schneider and Alain Delon and that dreamy villa.”
She had to give Enrico credit for sticking with his lowbrow opinion. Rowley taught a graduate course in French cinema at Columbia; she would never risk his censure.
“Enrico, mon petit fous.” Rowley reached over to squeeze Enrico’s arm, and his hand grazed her nipple. Did he notice? He picked up his beer as though nothing had happened.
Patsy Cline’s Crazy was playing on the jukebox. Exhausted, she leaned on the bar. From the first night that Rowley had invited her to Flynn’s, she’d felt superfluous. But, why else would he invite her if not to deflect Enrico’s advances? The men talked around her back about La Piscine. If she were serious about usurping Rowley, she would make a study of French cinema, but at the end of her teaching day, she preferred lighter fare. Foreign films, with their confusing plotlines and annoying subtitles, didn’t provide the same escape as a good romantic comedy. The Patsy Cline song ended and started up again. She wasn’t the only sad sack in the bar tonight. She sat upright, forcing her friends to jackknife forward.
“How about Sundays?” she said, interrupting Enrico mid-sentence. “Can you run on Sundays?”
“Be right back.” Enrico slid off the stool and headed toward the men’s room at the rear of the tavern. Rowley watched him go, scratching his collarbone through the neck of his T-shirt. “You hurt his feelings,” he said.
“You didn’t ask him to run—” Rowley broke off. A loud chorus of cheers had erupted from the ball players. Would she ever have his undivided attention? He turned back to her. “Believe it or not, he used to kick my ass on the hills. Before we met you, before his mother got sick.”
Rowley’s concern for Enrico exasperated her, but it was his kindness that had attracted her to him in the first place. When she’d arrived for her first running class four months ago, demoralized by Charlie’s affair, Rowley had taken her under his wing. Was she the lost duckling, attaching herself to the first kindhearted creature to cross her path? Or did she and Rowley have a real connection?
“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” she said. After a short pause, she raised her mug. “A toast. To my divorce. Official today.”
“Fantastique.” He raised his empty mug to meet hers. He allowed himself one beer after class. “You must be relieved.”
“It’s been a tough year. Hard to believe it’s over.” She’d kept the details vague. Only an idiot would have failed to see what was going on right under her nose for a year.
“Surprised you don’t seem happier,” he said. “It’s none of my business, but from the little you’ve told me, you’re better off alone.”
She heard reproach in his words. “I may be better off,” she said, “but alone is not what I want to be.”
The men’s room door opened. She had to act fast. She touched Rowley’s shoulder. He flinched. Slow down, she coached herself, but Enrico was drawing closer. “I want to get to know you better. Outside of class.”
He looked as though a bus were careening down 86th Street, coming for Flynn’s plate glass window.
“What did I miss?” Enrico slid onto the stool. She sipped her beer, not trusting herself to speak without betraying irritation.
“Lydia’s divorced,” Rowley said, sardonically.
“Yay for you!” Enrico said. “When you’re ready to date, say the word. I know three guys at Deloitte who’d fall all over themselves to take you out.”
She gave him a tight smile. You won’t get rid of me that easily.
Rowley scowled. Maybe the thought of her dating one of Enrico’s dull risk-management colleagues troubled him. She sent him a warm smile. To hell with Enrico’s feelings. “I’m considering graduate school,” she told Rowley. “Maybe you could tell me about Columbia’s—”
The ball players were on their feet, shouting at the TV.
“Huh?” Rowley cupped his hand behind his ear, but he was watching the action down the bar.
Two weeks later, after a ten-mile run in Central Park, she stopped at her favorite bagel shop on Lexington Avenue before going home. Thunder rumbled in the distance; the sky had a yellowish cast. She ordered double lox to cheer herself up. Maybe it was time to try internet dating. A stack of student essays waited on her coffee table—she taught AP English at LaGuardia High—but she craved a soak in the tub followed by a nap. As she turned from the counter, she caught a glimpse of Charlie passing on the sidewalk. Alarms went off in her head. She hadn’t seen him in tenth months. The coward communicated with her through his secretary and his lawyer. She pushed through the door and followed him down Lexington, trailing his shock of silver hair bobbing above the pedestrians. Odd she hadn’t run into him until now. What was he doing in her neighborhood when he was shacked up with his concubine, Candy, in Washington Heights?
Storm clouds gathered. She maneuvered around the pedestrians pushing baby strollers and trailing dogs. He darted across the street on the amber light, and she followed, narrowly avoiding a turning bus. He was wearing her favorite blue linen shirt. What did she hope to discover now that she’d caught him doing the worst possible thing, and doing it doggie style on her favorite antique Persian rug? She’d thanked Charlie for regularly including her gloomy cousin Julian in their weekend plans. But it was Julian’s wife, Candy, that blowzy whore, Charlie had wanted to see.
He stopped short on the sidewalk and spun around. She pretended to be interested in a shoe store display. She watched his reflection in the darkened pane, terrified at being caught, amazed he didn’t see her. He looked robust, despite his insatiable cravings, despite the omnipresent cigars, as though joi de vivre had its own salubrious effects. He backtracked, walked past her, and turned into the next shop. A warm wind picked up, lifting scraps of trash on the updraft. His cigar smoke lingered. She waited a moment before glancing in the shop. He was removing his sandals at the pedicurist’s station. He climbed onto the throne-like chair and thrust out his feet. She turned away, thinking: Rowley wouldn’t be caught dead getting a pedicure.
She hurried down Lexington, swallowing her tears. The sky heaved. Heavy raindrops splattered the street. A metallic-scented steam rose up from the hot pavement. She couldn’t face her empty apartment. She tossed her bagel into the trash and descended into the subway. The train was packed. The intimate odors of sweat, scalp, and perfume repelled her. For years, she’d been insulated from this side of city life, from the grimy fight for limited space and resources. Charlie had rescued her from all this. She grabbed onto the pole for balance, trying not to think about her ex, but that made him more present. What would Rowley—disciplined, cerebral—make of Charlie’s endless need for sensory stimulation, his resolve to eat at every new four-star restaurant and to see every first-run show? It shamed her to admit that despite the satisfaction she took in her new disciplined lifestyle, she was sometimes nostalgic for those immoderate days. But who wouldn’t prefer a hired car to this stinking subway? Daniel’s over McDonald’s? If Charlie had practiced more discretion, she might have sailed contentedly along on that luxury cruise until the final port of call.
By the time she reached her best friend’s apartment on Houston Street, she’d choked back her tears for so long it felt as though her chest would explode. When Suzanne opened the door, Lydia broke down. “I saw Charlie,” she wailed. “I miss him so much.”
“Oh, honey. You don’t miss that sleazebag.” Suzanne pulled her inside and closed the door. She led Lydia by the hand to her tiny bathroom, wallpapered with old Playbills. Friends since high school in Goshen, New York, the women had helped each other through various catastrophes. After Suzanne’s divorce in her mid-twenties from the director of her first acting job, an off-Broadway all-nude production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, she’d moved into Lydia’s East Village walkup for a year. Five years later, Suzanne had supported Lydia during her two miscarriages.
Suzanne grabbed a towel from the shelf over the toilet. “What happened with that guy? From your running class.”
She sat down on the toilet seat, staring at the Playbills. She’d been in this bathroom a thousand times, but now she zeroed in on the Lion King drawing. Rowley. “Did I tell you he collects rare books?”
“Did you make a move yet?” she said, drying Lydia’s hair.
“I asked him to run with me,” she said from under the towel. “But he’d rather go to the movies with Enrico.” Her voice rose higher with indignation. “Fucking Enrico’s cockblocking me!”
“Oh, brother.” Suzanne whisked the towel away and locked eyes with her friend. “Are you serious about getting something started or—”
“I am serious,” she said, but after seeing Charlie, she had doubts. If Rowley hadn’t approached her at the first running class, she might not have noticed him. He was fourteen years older than she was and not her type at all. But hadn’t Charlie proved she needed a new type?
Suzanne draped the towel around Lydia’s shoulders, and then sat on the edge of the tub. “Sounds like you’re sending all the right signals. What’re we missing?” She paused. “Two single men in their late forties? Any chance they’re…you know?”
She shook her head. Years in the theater had given Suzanne an overly sensitive gaydar. Once burned, she liked to say.
“You sure? You do have a history of not seeing what you don’t want to see.”
“If anything,” she said, “Enrico won’t take no for an answer. He’s such a persistent little bastard. I’d like to—”
Suzanne grabbed her by the shoulders. “Forget Enrico. Focus on seducing Rowley. A boner is your best barometer.”
The sun was shining when she left Suzanne’s an hour later with her stinky running clothes stuffed inside a Chinese take-out bag. She’d borrowed sandals and a periwinkle sundress that seemed tailor made for her new fit figure. Suzanne had a date later on, so Lydia was on her own. She couldn’t face her lonely apartment, that stack of student essays, so she strolled down Houston Street, circumnavigating clumps of stalled tourists. Lost in thought, she didn’t realize she was approaching Film Forum until the marquee loomed overhead: My Night at Maude’s. The possibility that Enrico and Rowley were inside propelled her toward the ticket booth. The movie had started fifteen minutes ago, the ticket seller informed her, but she was only interested in spying. She dug inside the bag and pulled her credit card from her damp running shorts.
She stopped at the concession and bought M&Ms and a soda. Hands full, she had to prop the door open with her foot to enter the theater. Heads turned as light from the corridor poured in. She chose the last row, wedging between knees and seatbacks while holding her soda aloft. She muttered apologies, until someone shushed her. She dropped into the vacant seat and sat stock-still—eyes closed, clutching her candy, soda, and bag—afraid to move.
She dozed off, waking when her soda cup smacked the floor. A wave of annoyance surged through the theater as the coke snaked its way toward the front rows. She slid down in her seat. On screen, the actors were in bed together. She was too far behind to catch up, and the subtitles were not helping. She spent the remaining time, scanning the theater for Rowley and Enrico.
The credits rolled and the lights went up. Moving with the crowd as they funneled through the corridor, she overheard snatches of conversations. “Catholics love all that guilt shit. Makes them hornier,” someone behind her said. “It’s about choice, isn’t it? The shades of gray Pascal ignores?” another person wondered. “You think it holds up, feminist-wise?” said the older woman in front of Lydia.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. She spun around, prepared to deny everything—not my soda. When she saw Rowley, all the blood drained from her head.
“Almost didn’t recognize you,” he said, “dressed like a woman.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?” He made her sound like a cross dresser. People were staring.
“Interpret it however you want,” he said, touchily.
Jostled from all sides, she inched forward again, feeling Rowley’s presence behind her like heat. Was Enrico with him? When the crowd thinned out in the lobby, she saw that Rowley was alone.
“Enrico’s mother was admitted to Columbia Presbyterian yesterday,” he said as though reading her thoughts. “Doesn’t look good.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
They moved out of the way of the exiting crowd and stood near the wall of movie posters. All six of Rohmer’s Moral Tales were scheduled to run. She hoped he wouldn’t ask her about My Night at Maude’s.
“He lives around the corner, but he’s staying at her place uptown, so it’s easier getting back and forth to the hospital,” he said, sounding anxious. He rolled his eyes. “Italian men and their mamas.”
If they were going to waste their time, talking about Enrico, she might as well cut to the chase. “He likes you, doesn’t he?” she said.
His cheek twitched. “Sure, we’re friends.”
“I mean he really likes you.”
“I’m aware,” he said woodenly. “I’m not interested in him that way.”
She knew it: Rowley was straight. To hide her delight, she pretended to study the movie poster for My Night at Maude’s. They stood shoulder to shoulder. She wanted to ask him why he didn’t level with Enrico, but she didn’t want to make him any more uncomfortable than he seemed to be.
He said, “What did you think of the film?”
“You think it holds up feminist-wise?”
“How do you mean?” He looked ready to pounce.
“Never mind.” What else? “It’s about choice, isn’t it? All the variations of choice what’s his name ignores.”
“Pascal.” He smiled, encouragingly. “You could say that.”
Quit while you’re ahead, she told herself, but he was looking at her, waiting for more, it seemed. “Catholics need guilt to enjoy sex,” she said.
He jutted his head forward, seemed ready to speak, but she jumped in first. “Anyway, if this is your usual movie time, you can still fit in a long run, can’t you?”
“We can’t run together,” he said. She must have looked disappointed, because he quickly added, “I couldn’t keep up with you!”
She laughed with relief. “I’d run whatever pace you want.”
He slapped his forehead. “Never adjust your pace for anyone! You’ve worked too hard. You have no idea how good you are. No wonder Liam gets so frustrated with you. Why do you keep underestimating yourself?”
“It’s scary, moving out of my comfort zone,” she said, and then seeing his disappointed wince, she added, “Liam thinks I should enter a race.”
“Try the half marathon. You’re built for endurance. I could give you training pointers. I used to be pretty good at that distance…” he trailed off. “Or you could ask Coach.”
“I’d love your advice.” She heard Suzanne’s voice in her head: Ask him to dinner. He glanced at his watch, and she lost her nerve. “I’d better get going,” she said. “I’ve got papers to grade.”
He walked her to the subway station. On the way, he talked about the challenges of the half marathon. A warm breeze lifted the hem of her dress and blew it around her knees. She felt buoyant, as though she were floating above the gritty sidewalk and noisy traffic on Spring Street. He pointed out the rare books dealer he patronized. As he talked about a first edition copy of Madame Bovary, she worried he’d expect her to say something intelligent about the novel. Was it Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina who’d thrown herself in front of the train?
“You’ll like my buddy, Maurice,” he said.
“I’m sure I will,” she replied, though she’d lost the thread of his monologue.
“His Madame Bovary course always has a waiting list, but I could pull a few strings. You could attend as a non-matriculating student, get your feet wet.”
So, he had been listening at Flynn’s. “Great idea,” she said.
“And, if you’re a good girl, I’ll show you my first edition.”
They’d reached the subway entrance. People bumped and elbowed them, but she was reluctant to say good-bye. She leaned in to kiss his cheek. He turned his head, and their lips met briefly. They locked eyes for a short, electrifying moment, before he fled.
In June, the best thing of all happened: Enrico pulled his groin muscle. She and Rowley were alone at running class now. At Flynn’s they mapped out a four-month training plan for Lydia’s half marathon in October. They’d moved from the bar to a table where it was quieter. He’d chosen an impossible goal for her, but she pretended she was capable of it. Next, Rowley told her, they’d address her academic career.
“He believes in me,” she told Suzanne. “He pushes me out of my comfort zone.”
Suzanne, curled up on the other end of Lydia’s couch, made noises of approval, but Lydia got the impression she wasn’t fully tuned in. It was a humid Saturday afternoon in early July, and they were watching Kissing Jessica Stein. Suzanne kept joking that they should become a couple like the movie girlfriends. Lydia left the couch and walked the length of the Persian rug, the same rug where she’d caught Charlie and Candy in flagrante delicto. She bent to straighten the fringe.
“Why aren’t you at the movies with Rowley?” Suzanne said. With Enrico’s mother on her deathbed, Lydia had taken his place at Film Forum.
“He’s helping Enrico with something,” she said. “I’m learning so much. Last weekend we saw The 400 Blows. We went for coffee afterward, like we always do, and he explained everything I’d missed. Oh, and did I tell you? We always kiss good-bye now.” On both cheeks, European style, she neglected to add.
“What’s wrong?” Suzanne said. “You don’t look happy.”
“I keep comparing him with Charlie,” she confessed. “We had great chemistry.”
“Stop comparing. Charlie’s a shit.”
“It’s because we’re in public that I’m not feeling the spark. I have to maneuver him into bed—”
“Maneuver? Look in the mirror, girlfriend. If he isn’t trying to get you into bed…” She trailed off, but Lydia got her meaning.
“I don’t want to get coffee tonight,” Lydia told Rowley. It was a muggy August night. They were loitering on Houston Street after seeing Stolen Kisses at Film Forum. “I’d rather see your Madame Bovary.” She’d registered for the Flaubert course. The novel had confused her. She needed to read it again. Was she supposed to admire Emma?
He winced. “Place is a mess. Un autre temp?”
“Not another time.” Her French and her mettle were improving with every film they saw. “Tonight!”
Without a word, he flagged down a cab. He spent the short ride to Chelsea, staring out the window. He’s nervous, she thought. Quelle cher.
They didn’t speak again until they were inside his apartment. “Nice place,” she said, looking around. His living room, she was relieved to see, was decorated with sturdy bookcases, dark leather loveseats and nubby club chairs. The coffee table was a slab of gleaming steel. She’d half expected some froufrou French décor. He offered her a beer, and she followed him into the kitchen. She sipped her Kronenborg, leaning up against the old white stove, feeling nervous.
“What did you think of the film?” he said. “You realize it’s the same character from The 400 Blows.” His tone was weirdly aggressive.
“Of course.” She didn’t remember—they’d seen so many French films. It irked her how much it mattered to him. Why couldn’t they ever see a Hollywood romantic comedy? When she’d dared to suggest one last week, he’d given her a withering look.
“I’m starting to wonder,” she said, flirtatiously, “if you really do own a first edition copy of Madame Bovary.”
He left the kitchen, and she followed him into a small, plain bedroom. He used a skeleton key to open a glass-fronted bookcase, and the faint odor of mildew wafted out. Waiting, she glanced at the double bed, covered with a thin chenille spread. She imagined lying back on it, legs open, and became aroused. He turned toward her with an old maroon book. He showed her the number one on the copyright page, indicating it was an authentic first edition. “It’s worth five thousand,” he told her.
She put her beer on the night table, and took the musty book from him. She turned it over in her hands, stroking the cover, imagining it was Rowley. She glanced at him. He seemed offended, as though she weren’t sufficiently impressed. He took the book from her and turned away, but she shoved him backwards onto the bed. He looked up with the disappointed wince she’d come to dread. Ignoring it, she climbed on top of him, straddling his hips. His mouth hung open as she reached around her back and pulled down her zipper, exposing her small plump breasts. His expression changed with a small shift of his features to one of pain that she decided to interpret as lust. His hands remained at his sides, so she squeezed and pulled on her own nipples, leering down at him. All the while, she was aware of acting the part of seductress. She was no longer aroused.
He glanced away. It dawned on her that she was sitting on a squishy mushroom. A boner is your best barometer. She pulled up her dress and left the bed.
“I’m gay,” he said, getting up. “Thought you knew.”
“So why did you let me—” she waved her hand at the bed.
“You didn’t give me a chance. And, well, you seemed to need it. I thought maybe I could…” He raked his fingers through his mussed hair. “But I couldn’t. Sorry.”
“I don’t need your pity.” She struggled to close the last inch of her zipper. The pale blue dress she’d carefully selected for the seduction felt like an ill-fitting costume.
“Let me help,” he said, reaching out.
She swatted his hand away and left the bedroom. He followed. “That day at Film Forum, after the Rohmer film, when you asked if I was attracted to Enrico,” he said. “You seemed to understand.”
She turned to look at him, realizing she’d deliberately misinterpreted his words. Just because he didn’t like Enrico that way, didn’t mean he wasn’t attracted to other men. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She reached for the door.
“Wait here,” he said. He slipped into the bedroom and returned a few seconds later with Madame Bovary. “Show it to your class. Take as long as you need.” He thrust the book at her.
She didn’t want his stupid consolation prize, but she was anxious to get away. She took the book. She’d mail it back to him in the morning.
She skipped Tuesday’s running class and stretched out on her couch, watching You’ve Got Mail. Heat lightning flashed outside her window, illuminating the fresh scratches on her wood floor. Earlier, she’d dragged the couch, the coffee table, and two chairs off the Persian rug, so she could roll it up against the wall. Her arms and lower back ached, but her sense of satisfaction was as great as it would have been if the corpses of Candy and Charlie were rolled up inside. Bored with Meg Ryan, she picked up Madame Bovary from the coffee table where it had lain untouched since Saturday. She’d had no time to mail it to Rowley. She opened to the first page. This time, as she read, she sympathized with the hapless devoted husband. Monsieur Bovary, c’est mois?
Her cell rang. The number was unfamiliar, but she answered in case it was Suzanne calling from her summer stock theater gig.
“Oh, Lydia,” Enrico said. “Thank god you picked up.” He sounded breathless and frightened. Mortified, she imagined Rowley standing nearby, coaching him. She tossed the book onto the coffee table, as though they could see it. “Rowley had a heart attack,” he continued. “I’m over at Columbia Presbyterian. They’re saying he might not make it. You should come.”
Enrico looked haggard, standing outside Rowley’s room in Intensive Care. He’d been at the hospital since seven; it was nine-thirty. Dressed in running clothes, he smelled sour and his eyes were red. He told her Rowley had collapsed in the park during a fartlek session. Several minutes had passed before another runner could perform CPR. The doctors, concerned about oxygen deprivation, had induced coma.
“They say he might not be the same, mentally.” Enrico’s eyes filled.
She glanced inside the room at Rowley, shrunken in the hospital bed, hooked up to a respirator. To think he might be permanently incapacitated made her shamefully grateful he hadn’t been interested in her that way. Contrary to her ex-husband’s gibes about saintliness, she was not enough of a martyr to tie herself down with an invalid.
She stayed away from the hospital for two days, and then feeling guilty, she stopped in on Friday afternoon. The respirator was gone, and Rowley’s mouth hung open. She moved closer to study his ashen face, his cracked dry lips, his quivering purple eyelids. The roots of his hair were gray. She would never have guessed he dyed his hair. He was a stranger. She touched his arm, and he lurched forward, sat upright. Horrified, she backed away. He glanced around the room with vacant, unseeing eyes, his jaw working as though he wanted to speak. She pressed her back to the wall, making herself invisible, until he lay back down.
“It’s a good sign,” the nurse reassured her in the hallway. “Waking up from a coma is a gradual process.”
She stopped visiting, though Enrico called her every day with updates. Enrico’s mother had been moved to hospice, but he remained in her apartment so he could be nearer to Rowley. His proprietary tone irked her, though she had no claims on Rowley. Nor did she want any. On Labor Day, he phoned to announce that Rowley was awake and out of intensive care. She was unprepared for this news. A part of her had expected Rowley to remain comatose forever, the memory of her humiliation eternally submerged.
She waited a few days before returning to the hospital. Rowley’s room was filled with visitors—no one she recognized. They were more interested in each other than in the patient. Rowley sat up in a chair, eating with deliberate concentration. His graying hair was parted on the wrong side. In the thin hospital gown, he looked gaunt, so unlike himself. Shaken, she turned to leave, but Enrico was right behind her. He took her hand and led her to Rowley.
“Look who’s here!” Enrico spoke in the too bright tone people used with children and the elderly. Rowley’s legs were spread, exposing his angry red scrotum. She wanted to throw a blanket over his lap. She wanted to run.
Rowley peered up from his string beans—his unshaven chin flecked with gravy—and he gave her a sly smile. “I know you,” he slurred.
She saw herself through his eyes, all her defects magnified: her intellectual laziness, her stupid vanity, and her shameful, horrible greed.
“Don’t tell me.” He closed his eyes. “You teach Shakespeare, right?”
On a brisk November evening, she left the Columbia University campus with Maurice, her Flaubert professor. A few of the female students referred to him as Gerard Depardieu’s handsome brother. He was mesmerizing, the way he danced around the classroom like an agile bear. He asked provocative questions, and he never settled for the easy answer. He perched on the dumbstruck student’s desk, gently probing. He took clear joy in his students’ discoveries. Last week, it was her turn when he’d opened her eyes to Flaubert’s use of different time signatures. She’d lingered after class, and he’d offered to continue the conversation at the Lion’s Head. After a few beers, Maurice admitted he looked forward to seeing her every week. The other students—like her, mostly high-school English teachers—were too anxious to provide the right answers, he’d told her. “But you’re not afraid to take risks, are you?” She’d leaned into him then and felt encouraged when he didn’t flinch or pull away. Later, in the street, he’d drunkenly kissed her.
They were headed back to the tavern now for round two. Broadway glistened with the recent rainfall. Waiting with Maurice for the light, she spotted a familiar face on the opposite corner. Rowley! They hadn’t spoken since that day at the hospital. After her successful half marathon race, she’d wanted to call him, but something had stopped her. Enrico had kept her up to date with periodic phone calls. His mother had died, and he’d moved in with Rowley to help out. Rowley’s long-term memory had returned, but he still struggled with the short-term. Every day, Rowley mislaid his keys and wallet, forgot appointments. It sounded exhausting, but Enrico was upbeat. “He didn’t remember ordering a new laptop before his heart attack. Insisted I send it back. But I found the receipt in his jacket.” He sounded triumphant. She told him he was a saint for helping.
The light changed. She averted her face, but Rowley spotted them. “My two favorite people.” His speech was still slurry. “Maurice and—” He faltered. To save him embarrassment, she pulled him into a hug. “Lydia,” she whispered. He pulled back. His smile was different. Guileless. “I know,” he said.
As the men gossiped about a colleague that was denied tenure, she studied Rowley. He winced as he struggled to find the right words. He looked weary, at least ten years older; his hair was entirely gray. He glanced at her once, sensing perhaps that she was watching him. His flat brown eyes mirrored her own bewilderment. How had she ever convinced herself she was in love with him? When she heard Maurice inviting Rowley to join them, she smiled broadly to hide her disappointment.
“Can’t. Got to see those people.” Rowley raised his chin in the direction of campus. “You know. Those people. Insurance.”
“HR! Good luck, man,” Maurice said. “Too bad. This one—” He draped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “This one promised to show me her first edition copy of Madame Bovary.”
Rowley looked at her, brows knitted, mouth open. She waited, blood pounding in her ears. After a long moment, his face opened into a grin. “No kidding. That’s really something.”
They all shook hands, and then Rowley crossed the street and disappeared into the campus crowd.
“Forgot you knew him,” Maurice said.
“Actually, I’m better friends with his roommate, Enrico.”
“So you heard the story. Poor guy’s on disability leave. Who knows if he’ll ever be back.”
“Enrico told me everything.” She took his arm. “So tragic.” She’d return the book tomorrow. Or maybe she wouldn’t. They strolled down Broadway, arm in arm. The traffic lights, as far as her eye could see, all switched to green.