by Kate Felix
My neighbor says, “It’s a shame my wife doesn’t like you.”
A small shadow passes over the morning; fleeting, like a bird that glides overhead and momentarily blocks out the sun.
I wonder why he said that?
The last time I had seen his wife, she had offered me muffins and had shown me pictures of their grandchildren. The polite distance between us had seemed natural, given the significant difference in our ages.
I had wondered, when my neighbor had appeared at the front door of the house this morning, why his wife had not come with him. Now, it seems, I have my answer.
When I come up to our summerhouse, I usually bring my family. My children roam the yard like tigers while my husband watches nervously from the hill with his stick in hand; alert for the coyotes he is certain live just beyond the grass.
This time I came up to the house alone, and so did my neighbor.
I recall the way his hand had lingered when he had hugged me hello. Just a little too long. Just a little too low.
I make us tea and turn my eyes from the kettle to look at him sideways. My neighbor sits at the table with his hands folded politely atop its Formica surface, and observes me. His face is open and friendly; it is as if we are sharing a happy childhood memory.
I smile pleasantly and select two mismatched teacups from my stack. I admonish myself for my suspicious thoughts. He is a nice old man, my neighbor; the one who came to our rescue when the shingles blew off the roof and there were not enough pots to catch the leaks. .
I pour the tea and ask him what he means about his wife.
He raises his eyebrows in that way I have always found endearing, and speaks to me in the lyrical accent of the old-timers. He tells me it’s nothing specific. Just a few comments she made after I left last summer, and the fact that my email address went missing from their fridge. He tells me ‘his girl’ has always been like that: jealous of the other women.
This shadow is more like a cloud. The interruption of light is less temporary and sends a subtle chill over everything. Still, I tell my insides to stay quiet. We don’t need any trouble. We can just enjoy the tea.
He slides his hand across the table, pats my arm in a soothing gesture, and tells me what he thinks I need to hear.
He is not going to tell his wife he is here.
I take a sip of my tea and force a little laugh. His eyes catch mine and he laughs too.
I tell him an amusing anecdote about my husband’s recent battle with a lapdog, and then catch myself in the act. My husband is back in the city, probably knee deep in the cacophony of our children’s breakfast, but I have intentionally introduced his presence in to the room with my story.
I feel like a paper bag drifting across a meadow; caught up in a battle between wind and gravity.
My neighbor helps himself to another biscuit.
The room is crowded with all of the unexpected guests who have entered; my neighbor, his wife, my husband, my children, my churning insides. I long to be transported back to the moment just before my neighbor arrived, when I was still alone in my house; before everything got complicated.
I rise from the table under the guise of retrieving a napkin and increase the physical distance between myself and my neighbor.
From behind the cover of my kitchen counter, I advise my neighbor to tell his wife about the visit. If he does not tell her, it will make me feel strange. I pretend not understand the full extent of his implication and give him an easy path out.
He looks at me like a proud parent and thanks me for my forthright nature. I decide to stand in the kitchen for the rest of his visit, just to be sure.
When he leaves I come out to the porch, like I always do, to see him off. He approaches me, like he always does, for a goodbye hug.
There are usually five of us, including my husband, lined up for this hug when my neighbor departs. I keenly fell the absence of the other four. I realize, although she is always there, we never hug my neighbor’s wife.
I think back to what passed, and didn’t, in the kitchen. I congratulate myself for the way I handled things. I did not upset the fine balance of the morning. I assure myself that my neighbor now understands our respective positions. We can resume our easy friendship. I can give him a goodbye hug. To fail to do so would be to make it ‘a thing.’ I do not like ‘things.’
He wraps his arms round my waist and tells me he always enjoys seeing me. His gnarled hands slide up and down down my spine as he says it. His fingers rest low, long, and firm. There is now no mistaking his intent. The sun becomes trapped behind a solid wall of grey. I stand frozen on the porch as he invites me to drop by next week, when the rest of my family arrives.
I try to smile as his truck drives away. I try to make light of the situation for the benefit of my dark, complicated insides. I tell them to get a grip on things. He is an old coot, harmless, close to a hundred. When he grew up, it was probably fair game to take one’s chances with women who were left unattended.
Those sound like excuses.
I was never in any danger. If things had gotten out of hand I could easily have overpowered him. He is frail, elderly, and half dead.
Yes. But is physical harm all that bothers you?
It is not worth it. Who wants to blow this whole thing of proportion? Some old fart gets a little handsy and you are going to start a holy war with the neighbors?
So you are afraid of what he will say about you?
He is a neighborhood treasure. Everybody likes him. They will take his side over ours. He is their golden grandfather and we are that uptight family ‘from away.’
So you realize he has power over you.
Power? Come on. What can he really do to me?
He can make you stand there, on your own porch, and let him grab your ass.
Really, girl? Is this it? The badger next door and his saucy tea party? Is that going to be your ‘Me Too’ moment?
Were you hoping for something better? More glamourous? More sinister? More violent?
Is this what that I am supposed to confess to my girlfriends over coffee after they bravely reveal their legitimate past traumas?
Is it a competition now?
I think nothing really happened here.
Are you planning to tell our husband?
Now that you mention it: no.
So the visit will be a secret?
I think of our husband, up on the hill, slashing his stick at the slightest rustle in the grass. It is too much to deal with his cave-man antics on top of everything else.
Yet you conjured him to defend you when you told that cute little story about the lapdog, cave-girl.
I will think about it later.
Yes. You will.
* * *
Three weeks later, I pull the car into the little coffee shop by the highway. My husband is back at the house, preparing to build a fence around the yard. All three children are in the back seat. We are on our way, without him, to the sea.
My oldest son presses his finger to the window. He sees my neighbor’s truck in the parking lot.
I grip the steering wheel, stunned with indecision. The children become quickly restless for their ham sandwiches and ice cream. They demand to know why we are not going inside.
I do not want to go in. I tell my insides it is not because I am scared. It is simply that I don’t want to have to deal with a ‘thing’ in front of the children. It will not be a big bother to drive a little further. There is another coffee shop.
I look in the rearview mirror at my three children. Each one buzzes with impatience. I tell them that maybe we will try the place up the road, for a change.
My second, angriest son demands answers. He was promised ice cream.
Will you lie to him too?
My second son kicks the back of the seat.
I suddenly feel all of the energy that swirls in the car.
I see my daughter, standing on a porch, telling herself not to make a big deal of it.
I see my oldest son sliding his slippery hand across a Formica table.
I see my second son lashing out because he doesn’t know, or care, about what lives inside that person’s head.
That is when it all unravels.
I tell them about my neighbor, and the way I felt when his rough hand scratched the side of my ass. I tell them how I didn’t say anything, I just stood there and let it happen. I was afraid I was overthinking it, that it wasn’t a big enough deal. I tell the children that’s how they get you. They make you think the problem is your reaction and not the crap situation that they know damn right they have created. I tell the children we are going into the goddamn coffee shop to order our lunch and no hundred-year-old asshole with fast hands and a slippery tongue is going to stop us.
When I come up for air, my second son escapes the back seat and runs in the grass beyond the parking lot. My sorry ‘Me Too Moment’ was insufficient to hold his attention. I tell myself he is eight. It is too much to expect him to grasp the complexity of this boring, adult situation; but I am still stung by his indifference.
I walk toward the restaurant with the two other children. My daughter reaches up to take my hand and gives me a shy smile. I have become something foreign to her. She is not sure how to tread.
My oldest son stares reluctantly at the door of the coffee shop. He has lost the appetite for his ham sandwich.
We pass through the door and find my neighbor in front of us, paying his bill. He turns to greet us with his usual friendly affection. He tells the children they are growing like weeds and asks them if they will come soon to visit.
My oldest son’s response is beautiful in its simplicity.
My neighbor looks at my daughter, who stands with her eyes narrowed and seems not to notice when she steps slightly in front of me.
His milky, old eyes meet mine for a brief instant but his face does not acknowledge what we all know is happening. He is serene, jovial, and in his element.
Our movements are fluid; our tones are calm. None of us make any real fuss. The other people in the coffee shop, if they notice us at all, just see a group of friends having a polite conversation. It is all very civilized as I tell my neighbor that no one in our family will come to visit him anymore and he is no longer welcome to stop by our house.
My neighbor doesn’t blink when I say it. He just gathers his take-out container, wishes us a good summer, and slides out the door as smooth as rain. The slickness of his exit tells me this is not the first time he has navigated this conversation. I realize that tomorrow, when I talk to the woman down the street, she will have a similar, whispered confession. I think of my neighbor’s wife, slipping my email address into her kitchen garbage, and how her motivation might have been more than simple jealousy.
I realize that secrets hold power, but only if you don’t tell them.
* * *
When our order is ready, we take our food outside.
My neighbor stands in the parking lot, giving directions to a group of tourists. His hearty laugh dances in my ears and I feel a brief regret that we cannot just keep the best pieces of people; that we must consider them, always, as wholes.
We pass my neighbor’s truck on our way to the outdoor picnic tables. I notice something fluttering under the truck’s front wiper. It is a napkin, marked in red crayon by the jagged script of my second son. There, pressed against my neighbor’s windshield is his eight year old’s message:
The sun reflects off the sea of grass beyond the parking lot. I raise my hand to my forehead and squint to see what has happened to my second son. He sits atop a picnic table, watches me intently, and waits for his ice cream.
Kate Felix is a writer and filmmaker based in Toronto, Canada. Her work can be found in Room Magazine, Litro Magazine, and Reflex Fiction, among others. Her short films have been featured in over thirty festivals and her screenplays are finalists or award winners in several competitions. She has been shortlisted for many fiction prizes, has never managed to win one, but plans to keep on trying. She is the nonfiction editor for Cauldron Anthology and a reader for Tishman Review, Cease Cows, and The Nasonia.