George took Natalie’s hand in his and they stayed silent like that until the music started up again. Schumann was the second act. George squeezed Natalie’s hand. She smiled at the floor.
After the performance ended, they stood and George asked if she wanted to go get a drink. They left the Meyerhoff. She didn’t mind the sound of her heels striking against the pavement. The humidity enveloped them. She existed.
A couple for four months. Sometimes she thought, who is this man? At the bar, he got a gin and tonic and she a glass of white wine.
The next morning, in her apartment, she stood naked by the bed. He gripped her hips, “Let’s go to the country today.” As she dressed, he called his friend, Dean, would he and Chelsea be interested in a country jaunt? Sometimes, Dean and George seemed almost the same man to Natalie, their crisp collared shirts and bright white smiles. Dean said he would drive.
Baltimore City to Baltimore County country. The two couples sat in the car: Dean and Chelsea in the front, George and Natalie in the back. Natalie traced the landscape with her eyes and thought about how it turned so rural so quickly. Horses flicked their tails in pens off yards. Chelsea admired the countryside the way city-people do. George touched Natalie’s shoulder, “Tell the story about your horse.”
Dean looked at her in the rearview mirror, and Chelsea shifted her body to face her. So Natalie told. “_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.” Chelsea nodded along, hmms ohhs. “It was just sort of surreal, to wake up again, and be told all these things that had happened,” Natalie said.
There were no horses, anymore, outside their windows. “That’s not the correct usage of surreal,” George said.
“Strange, weird, jarring,” Natalie said.
“What was the horse’s name?” Dean asked.
“Like Lief Ericson?”
Natalie laughed, “No, like a leaf on a branch.”
“Well no wonder bees were hanging out around him.”
Dean pulled off onto a dirt road. They found a field, and there laid out the blanket. After some time of eating chicken sandwiches, Natalie stood and walked towards a line of trees. She crossed an outcropping of stones and stood leaned against a tree. It felt as if she’d walked through a portal. She closed her eyes, enjoyed the slight breeze.
Until Dean came over, and smirked at her. “Hello,” he said, and she shied, turning her body away from him. “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing,” she said.
He tried to engage her, in little quips and simple questions. She answered small things. Then he pointed, slightly, towards the blanket.
“They look comfy, don’t they?”
She peered around the tree, where George was tracing an arc in the air with his hands while Chelsea laughed. “He must be telling the one where he slays the dragon,” she said.
He, Dean, offered his arm to Natalie. She took it, limply, and then boldly, as they neared the blanket.
Elise, Natalie’s friend from childhood, wanted to go to the Farmer’s Market underneath the Jones Fall Expressway. She picked up Natalie in her Suburu, the absolute image of motherhood, wifehood. On the drive she did talk of Lucy, her young daughter, but Natalie didn’t mind, chuckling at the stories. “You remember we used to see those little baby shoes at the Gap? Gosh, I got to buy those for her, but now she’s really growing,” Elise said, turning the wheel around a corner almost tenderly.
“Gosh,” Natalie said, teasing.
“I know, I know, Joe’s mother she’s got me on this…no cursing in front of the kids thing. Well, it makes sense. Joe’s the youngest, so she’s got all these grandkids already.”
At the Market, Elise whipped out a small grocery list, and Natalie trailed behind her.
Elise hit all the greens, then the dairy. Good organic and local for her daughter. Passing a honey stand, as Elise was talking about the environmental positives of eating local bee honey, Natalie’s nose began bleeding. People stared. She could feel it, this liquid moving down her face. And it was a lot. She’d never had a nosebleed before. Elise turned, at Natalie’s silence, and then she pushed her way to Natalie, grabbing her by the waist, knocking her hand from her face, and led her to the exit. “Keep your head back.”
“Isn’t that wrong? That’s what ‘they’ say, but then it’s said not to do that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Natalie, but keep your head back.” Elise steered Natalie to her car, keeping her arm around her the entire way. Natalie, the taller of the two women, hunched to make the embrace easier.
Elise placed her in the passenger seat and then scuttled to the backseat for a roll of paper towels. “They’re double quilted.”
“Only the best,” Natalie said.
Elise started the car. Natalie removed the mass of towels from her nose, to see a bloom of blood. She touched at her nose with the back of her hand. It was no longer bleeding.
At Natalie’s apartment, Elise led her in, this time holding onto her elbow. She sat her down and went to the kitchen to make tea. And then she was back, with two mugs. Natalie remembered the way Elise moved when she was pregnant, spiraling around the precious object of her engorged stomach.
“You’re a good mother,” Natalie said.
Elise shrugged, modest but happy, and plopped down on the armchair opposite. Natalie grinned, and she felt the blood stretch and crack on her face. “Oh, I should clean you up, shouldn’t I?” She was off again, and returned with a damp warm hand towel. She rubbed over Natalie’s chin and mouth. “There.” She sat down again, with a big sigh. “I want to start going to night classes,” Elise said.
“Well you know, I never finished my degree so…”
“What will you take?”
“English, economics, stuff like that, right?”
Natalie nodded agreement.
Before long, Elise had to go. She eased herself off the chair pushing up on her knees. At the front door, Elise kissed Natalie’s cheek, and then farewell.
Natalie drifted to the window. It had started to rain. Three flights up, she watched Elise cross the street to her parked car. There were those moments, observing someone who didn’t know they were being watched.
George and Natalie didn’t see each other every day, or even every other day. She worked as a chiropractor’s receptionist. He worked in DC, in politics. Monday, after work after puzzling over people’s insurances and squeezing in appointments, she fell asleep on the living room couch. A beep from her cell phone woke her up. She jerked to, as if it had just chimed, but the time of the missed call put it at almost half an hour earlier. It wasn’t a number in her contacts.
She retired to her room; she’d deal with the missed call the next day.
It was Dean. “Yes, hello, you called me last night?” Natalie said, holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder while she tucked her shirt into the skirt.
“I did. I was just in your area and thought I’d see if you were hanging out.”
He’d never been to her apartment. He must have found out from George where she lived.
That was all, so they said goodbyes and hung up. But later that night, a text arrived with Dean’s name attached: I insist we get drinks tonight. Natalie called George and they met Dean at the arranged bar, in the Station North area.
It was a weekday but the bar was still somewhat crowded. Around a table they raised their voices to be heard. Dean ordered the first round. George got up to go to the bathroom. “Where’s Chelsea tonight?” Natalie asked.
Dean smiled, laced his fingertips, and shrugged exaggeratedly, a comical indifference. “You know, when I texted you I meant that I only wanted to get drinks with you tonight.”
Natalie stared down at the table, shifted around her pint glass. It was tempting to not respond. Why fill the air with any sort of voice. “I think I knew that,” she finally said, and took a drink.
Elise called her at work, crying. She was whispering, “I don’t want Lucy to hear me.”
“Joe doesn’t want me going to classes. He says it’s not financially a good idea, but I’ve found all these scholarship options, I can make it work. But it’s like he doesn’t even hear me when I say that.”
“Hey, hey, it’s okay, you’re going to do it, if you’ve figured out the money, nothing can stop you.”
“He just wants me like, here all the time.”
“Which isn’t fair. He can’t stop you. Just do it anyway.”
Elise cried a bit more, small sounds on the other end.
“Okay…okay, thank you, Nat. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Give Lucy a hug for me.”
That weekend, Dean called them about a party, at his apartment. Natalie felt tired, the end of a long week of work. The week before George had taken her to the symphony, she remembered. That was nice. Now he had his arm around her back.
Dean came into the living room, fingers wrapped around the chilled necks of beers. He placed two down for George and Natalie. “I never know what you’re thinking,” George said to her, as she eased the bottle back. Dean’s eyes gleamed with his smile. The three of them sat on the couch, and Chelsea sat on the floor with some of her friends, discussing animatedly. They had arrived with a large jug of wine, and were already drunk.
George and Dean got to talking: money, politics, sports. Natalie drank. Later, she moved to the fire escape, slipping out the window to the tiny wrought-iron encompassment. It had been raining earlier that day, again. She was standing four floors up. Scatterings of pedestrians passed below, mostly alone. A memory wriggled itself into her brain, and then snapped back out again. Not necessarily about rain, maybe a slick wet street at night.
Dean slipped onto the fire escape, beer in hand. Maybe it was his fourth, or his fifth. It’s luxurious getting drunk in your own home. He asked about her days since they last “were together”…small talk. He leaned over the railing and glanced back at her. And then he said something. “________________________________________ ______________.” The snaking beginnings of a secret, something he probably thought she would find interesting. “It’s no one you know,” he added.
“I would hope you wouldn’t tell me if it was,” she said.
She looked around, searching the darkness for some argument. “Because you’re exploiting someone else’s pain for an interesting story.”
“Touché,” he said.
“So why did you tell me?”
He stretched the hand with the bottle out over the railing. “Because,” and then he let the bottle fall, a splintering of glass seconds later, “you never know other people’s lives. And, I think you’re beautiful.”
“Why did you do that?” She shrieked. “You could’ve hit someone.”
“What? It’s no more arbitrary than placing a bottle on the side of the street.”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “I hated when George made me tell that story about my horse. If you’re about to tell me some juicy secret about your past, don’t.” And with that, she ducked back through the window to the apartment.
“Touché,” he murmered.
Natalie broke up with George that Sunday. She paced around her apartment living room, and he followed, trying to touch her shoulder, her waist. “Did I do something?” George kept asking. “Is there someone else?”
“No, and no,” she said, evading his touch.
She held her fingers to her temple, and tomorrow back to work. Better she did it now.
George sat. “You know, Dean told me when he first met you that you weren’t someone to date long term.”
Natalie laughed. “I bet he did.”
“He said you were pretty, but dim.”
There wasn’t much else to say. It’d only been four months, after all. He stood to leave. “Bye,” he snapped, and slammed the door shut. He acted as if what was most indignant to him was that he had not been the one to break up with her.
The next night Dean called to ask Natalie to lunch. “Aren’t you still dating Chelsea?”
“It’s just lunch,” he said. She declined, and ignored some drunk solipsistic texts from him later that night.
When Natalie left Baltimore she travelled south, picking smaller towns over cities. People told her she had a northern accent. She kept in touch with Elise through emails. “They call it adult continuing education,” she wrote of her night classes, “look at that, I’m finally an adult.” Elise sent her pictures of Lucy growing, and drawings the girl did.
It was always hot. She chose houses and apartment buildings for the trees in their yards. In Mississippi, there was a storm. The branches on her tree creaked, but only the leaves danced in the wind and the rain. She thought of the area before it was lived in, houses and streets built, before humans even existed, and how a storm might come through the forests and the wind would shake and shimmy the blanket of leaves across the land.
Amanda Boyle is a writer from New York. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. You can read her other work at Cosmonauts Avenue, and forthcoming from Critical Quarterly, Queen Mob's Teahouse, and Blue Lyra Review.