She cannot work when the man is in the house. She is working on a project that she has been working on for a long time, and ever since she began living with the man the project has been moving slowly and she is no longer sure that she will finish it. In the evenings, after they watch the TV show they both like, she and the man lie on the couch together reading or looking at their computers, and sometimes she will try, secretly, to work on her project, but, after a few minutes, the man will hear her hesitant typing and look up from his book to ask her what she is doing. She can’t tell him about the project because once, when she felt tired of his questions about it, she told him she had stopped working on it. Too many things had changed since she began all those years ago, she said, so it no longer made sense to continue, and instead she would spend her spare time on her studies. But the truth is that she has continued.
All this time, she has continued, even though it is true, she supposes, that it does not make sense to continue.
Every week she looks forward to Sunday afternoon because that is when the man will go for a long ride on his bicycle. She will have the house to herself then, and she will be able to work.
Nobody will creep up on her, nobody will call out to her, nobody will want to read aloud to her passages from a book or a newspaper article. She will be alone with her work and only the sounds of shuffling and scraping upstairs, where a woman and her elderly mother live. On a few unexpected occasions the man has stayed out late during the week, and she has hurried into her work at these times, but nervously, because she never knows when the man will arrive home and ask what she is doing. He has a certain way of arriving, throwing the door open as though popping the cork on a bottle, and instantly the house is reorganized because now he is at its center, whereas before she and her work were at the center, and she was traveling through the center of the work, moving slowly, very slowly toward the time when the project will be finished.
One late Sunday morning she is jumpy, thinking about her afternoon and how much progress she might make on her project.
She has a feeling that today, if she works diligently, she might come close to finishing. She watches the man preparing for his ride: filling his backpack with food, spare tire tubes, a bottle of water. He charges his cell phone in case he has an accident and needs to call for help. When they were first living together, she would sometimes daydream that the man would have a terrible accident and not come back for a few days, and in that time she would be able to finish her project. The daydream makes her feel very ashamed now, because the man is kind to her, and he does not like to leave her alone. She no longer allows herself the daydream. But even though she cares for him, and even though she knows he will go eventually and she will be alone this afternoon, she grows more and more anxious for him to leave.
She goes to the spare bedroom and sits at the desk. Over and over she reads a page of her notebook where she has written a list of tasks. The thought of finishing her project floods her with happiness. She can hear the man moving around the house, the sounds of zippers on his backpack, the click of fasteners. He will be leaving in a few minutes. She hears the toilet flushing. She hears him in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards. Soon she will hear his footsteps in the hallway. He will come into the room to kiss her goodbye, and he might stay for a while to talk to her about the route he plans to ride. On a few Sundays he has begun to talk about other things too, such as his own projects, or what they might have for dinner that night, and on those occasions he has stayed past the time when she would reasonably expect him to leave, and she has felt an increasing desperation to go into her work and has become afraid she might start pulling at her hair, or stabbing at herself with a pen, or tearing at her clothes. Then, just at the moment when her hand is losing strength from squeezing the pen so tightly, he has left her. He has walked up the steps along the side of the house, past the window of her room, to the little door that leads under the house to the dark cramped place where he keeps his bicycle out of the weather.
There was one Sunday, though, just after he walked out the door, when she heard a strange thump and looked up to see him pressed against her window. He was smiling at her from underneath his helmet, waving his arms above his head, and he looked like a giant spider. She knew then: He knew that she wanted to work, and he was teasing her. Then he waved once more, and as always, retrieved his bicycle, then slipped down the road and out to the coast and was gone for some hours.
There is no sound in the house now, even though the man is still there. Her chest has a funny feeling, as though her heart is rippling and growing larger, beginning to blur, dispersing like dye into water. As the feeling in her heart spreads into her arms, it begins to softly fizz, as though she were filled with strange debris.
She is ready to go into her work to escape these feelings, but she can’t hear where the man is. At least twenty minutes have passed since she heard him moving about in the kitchen. The feeling is curling up into her neck and face and eyes, and she feels overcome by it and afraid that she will cry out. Finally, she stands.
In the living room, the man is sitting on the couch, in his cycling clothes, even his helmet. He is eating slices of toast. He smiles at her and says he is going soon but that he thought he should eat something first. There are still three slices of toast on his plate and she calculates that it will take him at least fifteen minutes to eat these, for he eats slowly.
She imagines running outside and throwing herself into the muddy ditch at the bottom of the garden, covering herself in cool leaves and grasses, covering herself in another feeling besides the feeling in her heart and her fear that she might stab at herself with a pen or tear her clothes apart. But instead she sits down beside the man and picks up a book that she left lying open the night before. She pretends to read as she listens to the man eating. Each chew is as loud to her as if she were inside his mouth, sliding this way and that, up and down, watching the slick insides of his mouth, and his teeth, which are slightly crowded together, breaking the toast down.
After he has finished the final piece of toast, he begins to talk about the ride he has planned. It is always at this moment, when he is telling her about where he will ride, that her impatience and anxiety lift away. It is easy to talk to him when he is about to leave. It is as if they are both standing at a train platform or a gate at an airport—she will go away to her work, he will go away to his ride—and the places ahead of them both, where they will not see each other, feel exciting but also places to be traveled through quickly so that they can return to each other again. In that moment, even though she wants very badly to work now, she looks forward to seeing him again.
The sound of his cleated shoes takes a long time to fade as he carries his bicycle over his shoulder up the steps to the road. She waits for a few minutes, making sure. The air takes time to settle in his departure.
Then, she works. She works greedily.
Deep inside her work, she feels her body disappear; she can travel through the work with grace. She barely notices the sounds of shuffling and scraping overhead as the woman upstairs, perhaps, tries to settle her elderly mother. She works for such a long time that when her body returns, it is in protest; she is tired and hungry. When she looks up, her eyes feel guarded, as if unsure about any sight but work. The clock says that many hours have passed, and indeed the sky through the window is now dim.
For the first time since she began to work this afternoon, she thinks about the man. He was riding all the way around the peninsula, he’d said, and then over a small mountain range. He would ride into a strong headwind and on some parts of the road the waves would come up over the road. He’d told her about the new lights he’d bought that were brighter than all other lights, so bright that they would light up every mark on the road and all the leaves on the trees. She imagines him out there on his own.
She decides to take this opportunity to continue to work. As the hours go by, hours and hours, and the man still does not return, and her work goes on before her—slipping always just ahead of her so that she cannot catch it—the feeling in her heart returns, but stronger. Her heart seems to ripple outward like a puddle, spreading so far that it might fill her body completely, leaving her unable to move but for a slow throbbing. Finally, she begins to hope that the man might come home soon to relieve her. As she lowers her eyes once again to her work, it is as if her work is looking out at her, pressed up against her hands, refusing to leave her.