THAT SHE HAD NOT KILLED HIM IN HER SLEEP WAS STILL THE GREAT RELIEF of every morning.
Not that she actually believed he was dead when he slept in on a Saturday. It was merely a leftover ritual, the weak ghost of an old fear from years ago when she awoke and waited, barely breathing, as close to prayer as she had ever got in her life, for a single sound of him: a little sigh, or the scrape of his feetie pajamas across the floor. He'd scuffle into her room still warm and puffy and half asleep, and the piercing relief of him collided with the horror of possessing such a fear and the dread of its return the next morning.
Now here he was at quarter of eleven, finally, his boots whacking the stairs, missing steps, his shirt unbuttoned but with an undershirt beneath (she didn't know what grew on his chest now and didn't want to). He shook out half a box of cereal and ate it in a few loud smacks at the other end of the table. Still, what sweetness flooded beneath her skin! She did not, could not, let him see it, and instead told him to remember to close his mouth please.
His back to her, carrying the empty bowl to the sink, he said he was going over to Jason's. To take apart a television.
She watched him cross the soccer fields diagonallyno home games today, thank Godand disappear down the path to Jason's house. All the delicious, fleeting relief of him went, too. She returned to the mounds of essays in front of her. Within a few hours she reached the bottom of the freshman papers and moved on to the juniors'. Peter didn't come home for lunch, so she forgot to eat.
Vida began to contemplate canceling her plans for the evening. Tom would want to touch her again, scrape his mustache against her neck. Her armpits grew slippery. The telephone on the wall urged her ona virus, a migraine. A quick call and it could all be over, the sweating, the rancid taste, and the sensation that she was no longer inside her body but beside it. And yet it was this disassociation that immobilized her, prevented her from getting up from her grading and walking the five paces to the phone. Instead she continued to watch the pen in her hand make small thick checkmarks beside the strong passages, and larger aggressive comments beside the weak, and then, below the last line of each essay, deposit a grade. She always graded more harshly in the afternoon before an evening with Tom Belou.
Peter answered the door. When had he come home? She hadn't heard the doorbell. It would be Lloyd or Wendell, the custodians, looking for an extra hand to move some chairs from one wing to another. But then there was a strange swishing in the hallway, coming at her, and Tom himself appeared in her kitchen. He was wearing a parka. She'd never seen him in any sort of coat. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees since last weekend. It was beige, with a belt he let dangle at the sides.
"You off to climb Everest?" she said, feeling trapped in her seat at the table. She didn't go to great lengths primping before she saw him, but she did brush her hair and her teeth and change out of her old slippers with the stuffing bulging out. Until this moment their encounters had been quite formal, with precise beginnings and ends, no sleepovers, no weekends away. Neither had ever dropped in on the other like this; their children had never met. Their touching was tentative, nearly absentminded, though her memory of it was acute, a confusing ache of pleasure and shame. No intercourse.
Miraculously, they were in silent agreement about that.
Her dog Walt nudged Tom's hand with the long bridge of his nose, but Tom didn't respond as he usually did. He just stood there in the doorway, his eyes flicking over her impatiently. He was going to break it off. It couldn't have been clearer to her. This was just the way he would do it, in person, in a parka, perhaps after a trip to the dump. He needn't bother. It was hardly anything to her. She had enjoyed his company, his lack of demands on her, but that couldn't have lasted much longer.
From The English Teacher by Lily King. Copyright Lily King 2005. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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