He was doing the dishes, midmorning, when he noticed the white car drive by, and drive by again. A quiet street, on the way to nowhere. At eleven, the school bus would show up, to deliver lunches to the children who couldn’t go to school. Otherwise, almost no cars he didn’t recognize.
The third time, the white car stopped in the parking strip in front of his house and Kit got out. She didn’t wear a mask. It had been four years or maybe five. He shut the water off and dried his hands. She waited for him on the front lawn, the bright green grass.
Hello, Ted, she said.
Startling to hear his name in her mouth again. He said, What are you doing in town?
Oh, I got itchy feet. Thought I would come and visit my friend Marcelle. You remember Marcelle.
Crazy Marcelle, he said. Sure.
You said all my friends were crazy.
Not all of them. I still talk to Sheila.
Sheila, she said. Fuck. Where’s Ellen?
She’s at work.
They shut down for a while, he said. They’re just doing takeout now.
Are you going to invite me in?
I’m not contagious.
How do you know?
Nobody knows anything, she said. But I already had it. Right at the beginning of the whole thing. Not the bad kind.
There’s a good kind?
Well, now I’ve got antibodies, a shitload of antibodies according to my doctor. I was on my last gasp for a week but I’m fine now. My friend Jason, the one that gave it to me? He got pneumonia and died. So yeah, there’s a good kind.
I have mixed feelings. He did let me go on kissing him. He knew he had it.
But you’re okay now.
Better than okay, she said. I’m immune.
She smiled at him then, a small, opaque, false smile. Then said, You want to go to the park?
Ride with me?
I’ll meet you down there, he said. I’m trying to be careful.
I told you I’m not contagious.
I’ll meet you down there, he said. When he went inside, the Bluetooth box was still playing next to the sink, Michael Barbaro explaining the world. The voices in his head had all started sounding like Michael Barbaro. The half-done dishes in the sink. Should he go to the park? He could just not. He could just skip it, and there were reasons not to, lessons learned.
He shut the box off, let the dishes be.
It was only three blocks to the park. The white car in the parking lot, some kind of big American boat, a back seat full of road-trip trash.
California plates, he said.
I live in Alameda now, she said. She sat at a picnic table in the shade, dappled sunlight, high spring. She said, I just woke up one morning in Seattle and it was raining for the hundredth day in a row. Life is too short.
She wore a blue sundress, a lavender fuzzy jacket and hiking sandals. Her feet were small and pretty and her nails were vivid red. She had a water bottle and looked like she was coming from or about to go on a hike. Chameleon, he remembered, always dressed to fit in. On the river she looked like a guide. In Paris, their one major breakaway, the shop clerks and ticket sellers addressed her in French, mistaking her for one of their own.
She said, What’s new?
Nothing much. Same house, same job. We lost Nessie last year.
I was going to ask.
She was sixteen, he said. A pretty good run. And I quit drinking.
No kidding. How come?
For a second, he thought of telling her the truth but decided not to. He said, I don’t know, it just felt like it was time. My dad had a hard go with it the last few years of his life and I didn’t want to repeat that. Some kind of pro-life thing. Anti-death.
When I had the bug, she said, right in the middle of it, I was pretty sure I was going to die. At the time it didn’t matter. I just wanted it to stop, you know? I really made it all the way to where I didn’t care. Or I thought I didn’t. There was some part of me that couldn’t give up. The body.
I’m glad you made it through.
She laughed at his puzzlement.
It’s strange to see you afraid, she said. You didn’t used to be so afraid of a little bit of risk. You seemed to kind of like it.
That was a different world, he said.
But we’re the same people, she said. Anyway, I wanted to see you. I don’t know why.
He recognized this as flattery but was flattered anyway. They sat for a minute not saying anything. He wondered what the odds of them getting caught were—not zero, it was a small town and a warm day and everybody had been cooped up inside. Strollers and bikes and dogs went by. But it might not matter, somebody might see them and not jump to guilty conclusions. He just remembered, years before, how quickly everybody he knew and everybody Ellen knew had formed an opinion.
You two never had kids, she said.
None of your beeswax, he said. But no.
I thought you would.
Look, he said.
I’m sorry, she said. I’ve been by myself so much lately. I’ve kind of lost the knack with people. Maybe that’s why I wanted to see you, it was easy with you.
For a while there.
Even with Jason, she said. I mean, the sex was great—she shrugged then, as if to say What can you do?—you know, he was a little younger than me. So that part of it was great. But then we’d get out of bed, and it wasn’t like he was stupid, but it wasn’t the same. Sometimes with you, I would just know what you were about to say. You’d say it but it would be different, a bit of a surprise.
He knew exactly what she was talking about. He remembered feeling that way about her—then realized that she had read his mind again. Telepathy.
How long were you together, you and Jason?
We weren’t really together, she said. Off and on. But a couple of years.
For one open moment it looked like she might cry, and she turned away quickly. Flowering trees, sunlight, running water.
Maybe he didn’t know, he said.
He knew, she said. The last thing he said to me before he went to the hospital, he said he was sorry, said he didn’t realize it was that big a deal.
She got up, walked around the table, keeping her face from him.
This was early days, she said, I have to remember that. Nobody really knew what was going on. How serious it was.
She sat down directly across the table from him, two feet away, the voice in his head calling out: beware.
I can’t help you, he said.
I know. That’s not what I’m looking for.
What are you looking for?
I don’t know, she said. I can’t sit still. Walk with me?
They started down the paved path, past the other picnic table, a family with Burger King bags, all this ordinary life. He wasn’t having an ordinary day. He remembered that feeling of secrets and specialness, that glow. He was feeling it again.
You really disappeared, she said. I don’t even see you on the internet anymore.
I quit everything at the same time. Booze, Facebook.
I thought you might come looking for me, she said. I kind of expected it.
I thought about it, he said, surprising himself. This was supposed to be a secret.
Why didn’t you?
I don’t know. I guess I never made up my mind to.
That sounds like you. You never could make up your mind.
He wanted to argue with her but she was right. How long he had lived in the in-between, wanting Ellen, wanting Kit. He felt it rise in him again, alive, alive again and in motion. He felt the danger like water in the face, like a man waking from a long sleep.
I guess you did make up your mind, though.
I asked you to come with me and you didn’t.
You didn’t, she said. Water under the bridge. I didn’t come here to argue.
What did you come here for, then?
To see Marcelle, duh, she said.
The game, he thought, the game, the game. He remembered the fun of it. He was starting to feel it again. He said, And how is Marcelle?
Chicken with her head cut off, she said. As usual. She’s decided she wants to go back to school.
Again? What for?
She wants to go to law school.
Lord a mercy.
I know, right? But she seems happy enough.
Only the silly people get to be happy.
Well, you’re in a cynical mood today, she said. Give that baby a cigarette.
They came to a quiet place in the trees, dappled with shade. Without agreeing to, he followed her down a worn path to the creek, where they sat next to each other on a drift log and watched the water go by, high and quick. The reeds on the far shore shuddered in the current.
Are you? she said.
Oh, no, he said quickly. Not me. I was never built for it.
Me neither, she said, and laughed.
Jesus Christ, he said, it’s good to see you.
Oh, she said. You too.
She took her fuzzy jacket off and bared her shoulders to the sun. He remembered her body then, her runner’s belly, her shallow navel. She ran every day then, an hour, any kind of weather. He thought she still must. Her body gave off a compact power.
You live in your head, she said. I don’t really. I need to be out and around people and all. I never know anything until I talk about it with somebody, you know?
So all this started and I was just in my apartment by myself and Jason a mile away. I have this nice apartment, on the bay side, you look across the water at the city. And Jason in his own place a mile away, locked down. Should I be telling you this? Is this too much?
I don’t mind, he said. Go ahead.
I just haven’t been able to talk to anybody about this except Marcelle, and she never listens.
She took a breath.
I lay on my stomach because I read somewhere that you were supposed to and I told my body to breathe. After a while things get fuzzy. I didn’t have the energy to close the drapes and that big window looking out over the bay and I don’t know, I just felt like something was out there watching me. Some big eye. I wasn’t going to die while it was watching me. Just the feeling I had. I’m going to beat you.
And you did.
I didn’t. I got beat. I gave up, Ted, just closed my eyes and said goodbye.
She stopped then and shivered, there in the sun. He said, What happened after that?
Like I said. The body took over. The body didn’t want to die and it didn’t. I just woke up one day in the afternoon and I could breathe. I couldn’t move. I pissed the bed.
Why weren’t you in the hospital?
I was alone, she said. And Jason was dead by then.
He wondered why she was telling him this and then remembered that she had already said why: Because there was nobody else. The last safe place. The sudden shut-off of loneliness. He was supposed to be feeling sad and sympathetic at her terrible story, and part of him was. But part of him was the other thing, coming out of shadow into hard sunlight. How many years alone before he’d met her. How many years since.
I’m sorry you had to go through that, he said.
They cremated him and his sister came from Indiana and picked up the ashes. No goodbyes, no nothing.
I’m sorry, he said again.
Sorry sorry sorry, she said. When are you going to do something about it?
He laughed, which turned out to be the right thing to do when she laughed back.
Jesus, he said.
It’s like some kind of weird nightmare, she said. It doesn’t end. The big eye is still watching. But I’m not dead, I wanted to tell you that, I don’t know why.
I’m glad you’re not dead, he said.
A sudden moment of awkwardness, self-conscious, didn’t know what to do with his hands, she didn’t seem to know either.
I’ve got to go, she said. I’m supposed to meet Marcelle for a walk like five minutes ago.
Wait, he said.
She said, You know where to find me.
Stood, and he stood, and then they were kissing. He started it. She kissed him back and pulled him close. He felt her hard little body through the dress. Such a small person. He had forgotten, small but strong, her arms around him, pulling him in. Then he felt the disease. He tasted it in her mouth. She was immune but he wasn’t. He could die from this, which didn’t make him want to stop. One kiss and then she pulled away from him, smiling.
Hello, stranger, Kit said. Did you miss me?