He turned a corner in the Big Barn hardware and saw a woman at the far end of the aisle gawking up the skyscrapers of faucets, basins, and vanities with an open-lipped smile so shocked with delight that he stopped to look at her. Her hair had gone splendid grey and the skin relented a little to pouches and lines but the eyes were the same: sharp and crystal.
She had thinned. She wore a plain white shirt and cream slacks. Heels instead of sandals and a narrow purse meant for a phone, a few cards, lipstick. She looked good. A commercial for successful aging.
She was supposed to be dead. Or, at the very least, suffering.
If she found him lurking at the edge of her vision several expressions were possible. The most likely, the most reasonable, would be relief. No postponement for her. No dragging through a mud of what-if’s. She was clean, stripped and restored, wearing a new, crisp surface like a fresh coat of paint. Any moment he expected a slim man in a pleasant shirt, grey at the temples, to round the intersection of Kitchen and Bath, take her comfortably by the waist, and walk her through the options. Sinks. Classic, modern or rustic? Let’s put one downstairs too. We have more than enough space.
If he waited too long, her gaze would float and find him, pin him. He would have to squint through his old man glasses and dress up his voice with surprise. It’s good to see you. You haven’t changed. No, really.
But, she had, in the ways that counted. The last night they were together they had sat in his car in a parking lot with the rain and the wind beating on the roof and street lights hemorrhaging all over the pavement. She had taken her hands away from him and folded them like a white envelope in her lap. She would not kiss. She would not be held.
What is it now?
Too much, she said. Too much. I cannot be sick and deal with you too.
What do you think you’re dealing with?
Kindness isn’t love.
Then what is?
You drive me to doctors in the middle of the day, she said. You rub my back when it hurts so bad that I can’t stand. You hold my forehead when the meds keep me retching into a pail. You think it’s love but there’s no love here. You’ve loan-sharked me. I can’t ever pay you back. Her head down and hair weeping all over her jacket. Just let me be, she said, again and again. A mantra for pain.
Resolved: that one battle was all she would fight.
He moved out, because it was easier for him to leave. He was angry for a long time. His friends said they had seen it coming. She was one crazy bitch. You should have known better than to take her so seriously. He couldn’t explain it either, or why the urge to defend her still wormed away.
It was a well that took years to exhaust until one day he realized the bitterness had shrunk to a dead pebble and he put it away.
Well, she could have been right.
Eighteen winters down, he built houses for other people and that give him a solid, thorough satisfaction. The woman he lived with filled the days with lists and numbers. They had come to an arrangement of duties. She would have found the idea that he was too good to her as bewildering as a foreign language.
The smart thing was to keep moving. Pull up his heels and walk away. He never did the smart thing.
“Hey,” he said.
Her eyes slid across and she smiled. He strode slowly down the aisle.
“How long were you going to stand there?” she said.
He laughed, almost genuine. “You looked so content that I didn’t want to interrupt. They’re only sinks.”
“So many choices.”
He glanced to the display, then back to her.
“You look good.”
“Oh my, that’s nice of you to say.”
“No, really. You look—” and he stumbled silently over words that would be half-true. “You look well. That’s what I meant.”
“I feel better. Clinical trials, three rounds of surgery and a map of scars. I think of them as my slow miracles. It took years to make it back to the surface. You can’t imagine how wonderful it feels just to window-shop for things I can’t afford.”
He nodded, as if he understood. The graceful chrome, mounted on brackets above them, like a vast landscape of possibilities.
She tugged at his orange work apron with the Big Barn logo. “So, you work here.” The touch made him uncomfortable and warm.
“When I’m between jobs. They needed someone who knew what he was doing.”
His skin remembered. Long fingers more beautiful than bone. A mole on her shoulder, like a leftover part he used to adore and press against his chest. The hollow in her back on a cold night. Sickness had always repelled him with its need, its weakness. She had been different and he never thought to ask why.
Her smile faded out. The ceiling fluorescents, meant to trick and shine metal and ceramic into something hard and wonderful, somehow reduced her to plainness when he stood beside her.
“Is there anything I can help you with?”
She shook her head. Wrinkles radiated above her mouth and very fine hair downed her jaw. Up close, he saw that the purse was old, the cuffs of the shirt frayed.
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.”
Brian Moore lives in Toronto, Canada where he worked as a project manager. He is previously published in Flash Fiction Magazine and Gravel.