On the occasion of their silver anniversary, Stan and Connie spent the day looking for birds. The hibernating hills of the Pocono Mountains offered little they couldn’t see at home, yet Stan insisted on combing them, pacing through the woods, slowly, as if he would wake the trees. Connie turned out to be less interested than her husband in the avian varieties housed by the Stony Creek Ski Resort and went ahead to wait in the car with the heat on.
When Stan finally joined her inside the vehicle, a woman knocked on his window. She was probably ten years younger than Connie, dressed in a belted ski coat. Blond hair curled out the bottom of her fur hat. An older man stood behind her, also bundled for the weather. The first thing Connie thought was, It isn’t. It couldn’t be.
“You left these on the bumper,” the woman said and passed a pair gloves into the car.
“Thank you,” Connie said. She leaned across Stan to take them.
The woman smiled, and the couple started toward the trail. It wasn’t until Stan started to pull out of the spot that Connie found the courage she needed.
She opened the door of the slow moving car. “Jack!” she called.
Stan stopped the car, and Connie jumped out. “It’s my old neighbor, Jack,” she said.
Everyone convened in the center of the packed dirt parking lot.
“Connie?” said Jack in disbelief. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“I barely recognized you, with all that snow gear,” said Connie. It’d been nearly forty years since she’d last seen him, and everything about his appearance—hair color, weight, height—had changed. Introductions were made, and Connie learned the woman with him was his wife, Sloane.
“I almost didn’t call out,” Connie said. “If it hadn’t been for the gloves…”
“We usually ski down in Virginia,” Sloane said.
“Is that so?” Connie asked.
“It’s the second largest developmental psych conference on the east coast,” said Jack.
“Well that explains all the cars,” Stan said.
Jack and Sloane laughed, although Connie knew it hadn’t been a joke.
“Well,” Stan said, shaking both their hands, “take a left when you get to the fork. It’ll bring you right down to the waterfall.” He was an expert at ending conversations.
But Connie, still flush with the impulsiveness of shouting from the car, said, “Why don’t you join us for dinner?”
They agreed to meet later that evening.
“That was some coincidence,” said Stan when they were back in the car. “Maybe our best.”
“It was pretty good,” agreed Connie.
“Can you think of some of our others?” He was still in bird-watching mode, wanting to collect run-ins like species on his life list, which was up to two hundred fifty-seven in North America alone.
The mere thought of trying to answer the question exhausted Connie. “I don’t know, this might be our best,” she admitted, and knew the minute she said it that it was true.
At the restaurant, Connie and Stan were the first to arrive. They sat down at the bar to wait.
“You know,” Connie said, “I used to have the biggest crush on Jack when we were kids.”
“Really? Him?” Stan asked.
Connie sighed. There was no bartender in sight. “I was a kid. He used to drive me to school. All my friends were jealous.”
“Were they?” Stan put his hand on Connie’s arm. “I bet they still are.”
Connie smiled, thinking of Jack. She had been overcome by childish excitement when she saw him, the kind of heart flip she hadn’t felt in years. Back then, those car rides were the main fact of her day. Most nights, she’d soak for hours in the tub and think about what they might talk about on the way to school. She’d plan things to say while lightly touching his arm: “I heard you got into college, Jack. Congratulations.” She said it out loud and touched the side of the tub for practice.
Connie could almost feel the heat of the water, the refreshing chill of the porcelain on her fingertips. She curled her fingers over the edge of the bar. It was made of imitation leather.
“Think anyone will ever take our drink order?” she asked.
“We might do better to wait at a table,” Stan said.
They chose one and sat down. Finally the waitress came around and they ordered cocktails.
“Should we have a toast?” asked Stan.
“I don’t know. To life lists. To retirement without boredom.” Stan raised his glass and touched it to Connie’s.
“You’re excellent retired,” Connie said. And she meant it. Stan’s perpetual good mood was a marvel, especially lately. He was much better than her at having no obligations, and she was beginning to seem depressed in comparison. Loyalty was very important to him, and even in her most lonely moments there was no question that their marriage would be lifelong. Yet, although they had never discussed it, Connie knew that if she were to die first Stan would remarry, and he would love that woman as well as he had loved her.
Connie looked over Stan’s shoulder at the door. There was still no sign of Jack.
“They’ll be here,” Stan said.
She picked up the menu, just to have something to do with her hands. “Know what you want?” she asked.
As usual, out of to some bird watcher’s allegiance to variety, Stan insisted they get different entrées.
“I wish we could call them,” said Connie. “It was silly of me not to get their number.”
Stan looked at his watch, a too expensive model Connie had given him for his retirement, and frowned. “Do you think we should just order?” he asked.
“Let’s wait,” said Connie.
Stan caught the waitress’s eye and wiggled his empty glass.
“It’s all booze, remember,” Connie cautioned. “A cup full of booze.”
“We’re on vacation,” Stan said. Since retirement, he’d gotten interested in single malt.
“Tell me more about this crush you had on Jack.”
Connie laughed, her face already warm from alcohol. “What about it?”
“Why didn’t you mention it before?”
“Before what? It was pathetic, really. I was this chubby kid, pining after my neighbor who refused to notice me.”
“But you didn’t stay chubby,” Stan said with a grin, referring to the way she looked in college: a hard and narrow straight line topped by overlarge breasts.
“It’s true,” Connie replied. “I reached puberty. Then he started to notice me. Once I heard from someone he called me ‘drop dead.’ According to them, he left off the gorgeous.”
“All those years, and nothing ever happened between you two?” he asked.
Connie looked at him. “Not exactly,” she began. There were certain parts of her life about which she hadn’t been forthcoming: nothing serious, just details. “Jack wasn’t the only one who noticed me. It seemed like one day I woke up and people paid attention. I don’t think I’ve ever been more vain in my life. I used to stare for hours in the mirror because I didn’t recognize myself. I lost my baby fat and grew breasts so quickly I looked like a different person.” Connie lowered her eyes but felt Stan studying her face. Her body now was something with which she was more or less at peace. She no longer scrutinized her reflection beyond the capacity of a mirror, but rather, accepted it as best she could through storefront windows and out-of-focus pictures.
She continued. “On the one hand I was still a kid, and then, on the other hand, I had this new confidence I didn’t know quite what to do with. My parents used to pay Jack to trim our hedges and what I’d do was I’d look out the window, wait for him to get good and sweaty, and then I’d prance out there in my tennis skirt to see if he wanted lemonade. A few times, I actually laid out in my bikini.”
Stan’s face changed with her story, mostly mirroring whatever it was she put forth: shock when she meant to be shocking, a touch of jealousy at the mentions of flirting. One of the key reasons their marriage had lasted this long, Connie suspected, was that Stan let her put on a show like this for him.
Connie continued. “The other thing I did was I got some fellow who was my year to be my boyfriend. We pretty much just went to the movies a couple of times and held hands in the hallway, but the point was for Jack to stop seeing me as a little girl and start thinking of me in a sexual context. I was very deliberate about it.” She paused to sip her drink. She meant for the story to be at least titillating, and, if she was lucky, to bring Stan to see what remained of the young girl in her.
“You’re fourteen, and he’s what? Eighteen?” Stan asked.
“Jailbait. That’s what you were.”
Connie considered this possibility. “No, I don’t think so,” she decided. “He was worried about my being younger, which is why he took so long to ask me out. I was a freshman and he was a senior, which was significant in high school.”
“He asked you out, then?”
“Finally. He took me to the movies and dinner, but the whole time it seemed like he regretted it. He gave me a strange kiss at the end of the night, which only partly landed.”
“That’s probably better. Shows he respected you.”
“Maybe. But that’s not how I took it at the time. I was up all night, frantic. I thought I’d missed my only chance. When I couldn’t take it anymore I walked over to his house and climbed in his window.”
Stan’s face tightened. “You didn’t.”
“Sure I did. There was a tree in just the right spot.”
Connie imagined Stan’s head filling with images of her, not as she was at fourteen, but how she looked now, struggling her way up a tree trunk, her huge ass staring down at him.
“Then what? You lost your virginity?” Stan joked.
Connie paused. At the time, she’d lied with good reason. She could tell, even then, that he would need one of those First Lady church-going types. So the first time they went to bed together she told him she was a virgin, which was an easy thing for him to believe about a college freshman.
Connie had difficulty meeting his eyes, but when she did look at him, she saw that she’d let the pause go on for too long. His reaction, something between disgust and betrayal, was fully formed on his face. But before she could say anything, Jack and Sloane appeared with the hostess. Connie’s lie loomed in the air, like bad breath.
“Boy, the night we’ve had,” Jack said, taking off his coat.
“I am so sorry we’re late. I’m really sorry,” Sloane said. She touched her cheeks to Connie’s, one after the other.
Connie patted Sloane on the shoulder. “That’s alright,” she said. “But you have some catching up to do.” She indicated her nearly empty glass.
“So, what happened?” Stan asked. “Sounds like you’ve got a story.”
Jack chose the seat across from Connie. “Car battery died. Sloane left the light on.”
“He alleges,” Sloane said, taking her time to fold her silk scarf, the only item in the room capable of obscuring her plunging neckline, and place it in her coat pocket.
Once everyone was seated, Sloane ordered a bottle of wine.
Connie said nothing. She had planned not to drink any more that evening but was quickly changing her mind.
“You wouldn’t believe how difficult it was to find a jump. And we were at Stony Creek, for God’s sakes. You’d think they would plan for this sort of thing,” Jack said.
“Why didn’t you call the restaurant?” Stan asked.
“Stan,” Connie scolded.
Jack grinned gamely, and Connie saw that the crows feet by his eyes gave him a caring and aged look, as if kindness had been worn into him by water. He was still older than she was.
Sloane laughed. “I didn’t think of it! The thought didn’t even occur to me. I felt so badly. Every minute that passed and we couldn’t get the car started I felt worse. I know how excited Jack was to have run into you, and for a while it seemed like we wouldn’t make it at all. I even thought, ‘I wish there was a way to call them.’ What an idiot!” She laughed again. “What’s this place called anyway?”
“The Mill,” Connie said.
Jack put his hand on the back of Sloane’s neck, still looking at Connie.
“Enough about the car. You’re here now,” Connie said. “What have you been doing? Tell me everything.”
Connie had kept track of Jack over the years, not on purpose entirely, but she’d hear something every now and then. Her mother, who still lived in the same neighborhood, was in touch with his mother.
The waiter approached from across the restaurant. “Don’t you think we should order something?” Stan said. “It’s nearly eight. We haven’t eaten since noon.”
“Right-o,” Jack said. He leaned over and glanced quickly at Sloane’s open menu.
Stan ordered the dishes he and Connie had decided on earlier.
The waiter turned to Jack.
“I was going to go for the pork chops, but you’ve inspired me, Stan. I like a man who can resist red meat. Salmon it is.”
“I’ll have what she’s having,” Sloane said to the waiter.
“Double it up!” said Jack. “What symmetry.”
Connie glanced at Stan, who didn’t find Jack’s showmanship amusing.
“I was about to tell you ‘everything,’” Jack said. “Where to start.”
“Do you have any kids?” asked Connie.
“Three, all grown up. With my first wife, Elizabeth. You probably remember her. We dated in high school.”
Connie took a long sip of wine to bury her reaction. She hadn’t known they had married. It was possible, after the many nights she spent crying herself to sleep after Jack dropped her, that her mother had kept this information a secret on purpose. Elizabeth was the reason Jack told Connie they had to keep their affair a secret, after less than an hour spent together in bed. Elizabeth, who Connie had admired pathetically in the halls, the one who had prompted her to feel an uncanny sense of accomplishment the day they happened to wear the same red sweater.
“What happened?” she asked, hoping her sickened expression registered as neighborly concern.
“Nothing in particular,” Jack said. Connie could see, from the movement of Sloane’s shoulders, that beneath the table she had taken Jack’s hand. “We married too young. Right out of college. She was pregnant with our oldest, David. I don’t regret any of it, but sometimes a life is too long to start at twenty-two.”
Connie nodded. It was a normal explanation. She and Stan had married young, but they didn’t have children. Still, the thought of Elizabeth, youthful and pregnant, testing the elastic limits of that very same red sweater, was enough to churn her stomach.
“We all get along,” said Sloane. “There aren’t any hard feelings. All of us spent Thanksgiving together. With Elizabeth and her new husband in New Jersey.”
Further details of Jack and Elizabeth’s divorce did not emerge. Instead Connie and Stan learned about Jack’s three children, all boys, and his car dealership in Alexandria. In return, Connie talked about their half-formed plans for retirement: a cruise she’d heard about in Alaska, little trips like this one they could take “at the drop of a hat.” Stan joined in only when he was asked a question. She was used to this kind of autopilot. Years of dinner parties and fundraisers meant that she could talk pleasantly to anyone, while feeling something else entirely.
By now their plates were cleaned, and they were working through the last of the wine.
“Tell us about growing up together. When you were kids,” said Sloane.
“Teenagers, really,” Stan corrected.
Stan had his debate face on, the way he looked when he’d premeditated disagreement, but Jack’s face registered no reaction, and Connie saw there was still a possibility for the evening to remain pleasant. “That’s right,” she said. “And Jack is a few years older than I am.”
“Really!” exclaimed Sloane, displaying more surprise than was polite. “I had no idea.”
Connie tried not to take it as an insult. “It’s true,” she said. She knew she didn’t wear her age lightly.
“Connie and Jack were lovers,” Stan said, as if he was announcing the weather.
Connie’s chest seized. “You make it sound like we were characters in a romance novel,” she said. “It was the suburbs of Connecticut, not Europe.”
Jack put his glass down. “Pardon?”
Connie reddened. “I just mean ‘lovers’ is an overblown thing to call it.”
“It’s okay, Jack,” Stan said. “Connie told me all about it.”
“All about what?” Jack asked.
“About the two of you,” Stan said.
“You mean about the crush she had on me?” He turned to Connie. “I’m surprised you brought it up.” Then back to Stan, “It was an embarrassing situation. For everyone.”
“Embarrassing how?” asked Stan.
Connie put her hand on Stan’s arm, pleading with him to change the subject. “It’s okay, really.”
“No. I’d like to know why Jack finds your ‘crush’ so embarrassing.”
“It’s just that everyone knew about it: the kids at school, my parents. She was a little obsessed. But that was ages ago. It’s all forgotten now.”
“So you never returned the feelings?” pressed Stan.
“Connie was five years younger than me. At the time, that was a pretty big age difference.”
“That’s not how Connie tells it,” Stan said.
Sloane leaned forward. “Oh? How does Connie tell it?”
Connie tried to take her time before responding. “Like Jack said, it’s all forgotten. I’d really rather not go into it. Truth is, I barely remember. It was so long ago.”
“Come on, Connie,” said Sloane. “Just a few details.” She spoke to Connie as if they were friends. “I’m dying to know what Jack was like as a teenager. I always say one of my biggest regrets in life was that I didn’t meet him sooner.”
“Well, he was smart for one thing. And very good looking,” said Connie.
Sloane laughed briefly. “I’ll bet.”
“No wonder I succumbed to his charms. The charms of an older man.”
“Connie,” said Jack. He was holding back real anger, she could tell.
Connie ignored him, and went on talking to Sloane. “It was no big thing, really. We were never boyfriend and girlfriend. We just had sex. We did it every chance we got. There was even a parking lot on the way to school. ‘Our parking lot,’ Jack called it.”
Sloane’s face tightened.
“Connie,” Stan said, “you’re drunk.”
“I’m a little drunk. You’re right. I’ll admit it. But come on, Jack? Any of this ring a bell?”
Jack turned to Sloane. “Honey,” he said, “I just want to say for the record that nothing ever happened between me and this woman.”
“This woman?” Connie could tell by the tension in her neck and temples that she was about to yell. “I was fourteen, Jack. Fourteen. I was certainly no woman. Do you remember how you said ‘good girl’ when you thought I came? Well of course I didn’t come. I was a virgin. But you knew that.”
Jack was already pulling a series of twenties from his wallet and swatting them onto the table. “I don’t know what’s happened to you, Connie, but if I’d known you’d become some kind of sociopathic liar I would have pretended you had the wrong guy.” He stood up.
Connie stood as well, and took a step toward him. “Why are you doing this?” She wasn’t yelling anymore. The question came out as barely more than a whisper. She tried to take his hand, but he pulled it away quickly, as if he felt a mosquito.
Sloane was still sitting in her seat, dumbfounded.
“Come on, Sloane,” said Jack, holding up her coat. Sloane let him put it on her, all the while staring in wide-eyed amazement at Connie, who dropped back into her seat. Jack took Sloane’s elbow and pulled her out of the restaurant, leaving Stan and Connie nothing left to do but watch them go.
Stan began counting the money. “Damn,” he said. “He left enough for the whole bill. I’ll have to get his address and send him a bottle.”
“You can’t be serious,” Connie said.
“Well I certainly can’t let him pay. He’ll go on thinking he’s some kind of gentleman. A master of manners.”
“I’m confused. Does that mean you’re on my side, now? After you let him humiliate me?”
“Your humiliation has nothing to do with me. I think the man didn’t want his personal business of forty years ago aired over a dinner table.”
“Yes of course. All men understand other men. You’re in a little psychic club together.”
“Why are you so fired up about this?”
“You brought it up.” It seemed a point worth making.
“No, really. I’m asking. Why were you such an expert at climbing that tree? Done a little peeping during those lonely nights in Stamford?”
“I was a kid. We climbed trees. It was one of the things we did for fun.”
“Sure. Just a normal kid, like any other. Creating elaborate plots to give up her virginity at fourteen.”
“Can you just shut up and get the check? Can you pay me that one courtesy?”
“Gladly,” Stan said, and went to find the waitress.
Expectedly, Stan took his time. Whenever he was mad at her, the first thing he did was disassociate. Pal up with strangers. Once, when she’d confessed to faking a migraine to get out of a campaign fundraiser, he spent the entire plane ride to Albuquerque talking to a dentist instead of to her.
Stan paid the bill, put the tip on the table, and left without a word. Connie followed him to the car, which was parked in front of the restaurant. He was already sitting in the driver’s seat with the engine on, waiting. She got in and he pulled away from the curb.
“If there is anything you’d like to tell me, Connie, I’m all ears,” Stan said.
“What are you implying?” Connie asked.
“Nothing, I’m just giving you the opportunity to be honest with me.” His voice was artificially level, as if he was reasoning with child.
He turned away from the road to look at her. He really thought he was doing her a favor. “Stop the car,” she said.
“Excuse me?” Stan asked. He didn’t brake.
Connie unbuckled her seat belt. “Stop the car,” she said again. “Stop it or I’m going to jump out.” She gripped the handle and pulled, cracking the door open so that the winter air moved in and she could see the pavement rushing by beneath her, the way water experiences a riverbed.
“Jesus Christ,” Stan said and pulled over.
She walked around to the driver’s side and opened his door. “It will only take a minute.”
Stan turned on the emergency flashers and got out. The lights blinked red on their faces.
“Who do you believe?” Connie asked. Her tone was flat, calm.
“Excuse me?” Stan asked.
“I want to know who you believe, him or me.”
“Take it easy,” Stan said. “This whole thing has gotten out of control. Whatever happened between the two of you doesn’t matter now.”
“Yes, it does,” Connie said. “Who’s lying? Answer the question.” She searched Stan’s face, trying to predict what he would say before he responded. The moment was long enough for her to try, and fail, to remember a time when she had put him on the spot like this before.
“It’s not that simple,” he said finally.
“Alright then,” Connie said. He’d told her what she wanted to know, and she made a point never to forget it, no matter how much time passed to make this exchange insignificant compared to the breadth of their lives together.
Connie got back in the car, but Stan didn’t follow. He stood with his back to her, hands on hips, staring at the sky, perhaps hoping to catch one last errant bird to bring him up to two hundred fifty-eight.
He could have all the time he needed, she thought, and turned away to look out the passenger’s window, where the reflection of the silver world made a mirror of the finger printed glass.