We didn’t start talking about it until it was pretty late; we didn’t dare to broach the subject, the inconvenient and painful subject, until it was already dark and it had to be tackled one way or another, until it had to be dealt with, and until it couldn’t wait any longer, like a malignant tumor that has to be operated at once, irrevocably. We kept procrastinating and delaying this moment for as long as it was possible without incurring the risk of appearing as insincere and forced, as if we were a group of friends visiting their terminally ill companion and pretending that the deadly menace casting its morbid shadow on their whole meeting wasn’t really there. We didn’t dare to speak about it, afraid to touch it, even to get near it, even to get anywhere near its tainted and bleak vicinity, until there was really no other place to go conversation-wise, until it was impossible to pretend anymore that it wasn’t hovering above us, between us, like someone’s blunder that everyone tries hard not to notice at all. Unfortunately for me, I was the counterpart of that terminally ill patient; I was the center of all that uneasy attention, even though there was nothing wrong with me from the medical point of view, no.
“I’m glad you’ve come to me,” my friend said, lighting her cigarette and affectedly propping up her bent elbow against her thigh, and thus forming this elaborate smoking construction, akin to a wobbly house of cards erected on one’s knee, “I’m really glad you’ve come to us yesterday to talk it over.”
I listened and caught myself toying with my cigarette, rotating it somewhat, unconsciously, a bit to the left, a bit to the right, as if I were a safecracker playing with a combination dial — then I checked myself and stopped. I glanced at her husband sitting next to her.
“I’m aware that it’s painful for you,” she said, taking a lungful of smoke and exhaling it a second later in an unhurried and studied manner, as if for the purpose of a slow-motion movie, “I can’t even begin to imagine how painful it must be for you. I can’t; I simply can’t do that.”
We heard their neighbors’ kids playing in the backyard, behind the fence, right next to us, as if within our reach but at the same time seeming to be oddly distant and unreal, like one’s reflection trapped deep, deep in the mirror and that one can’t possibly touch. It was getting dark. I couldn’t see them; or rather, I could glimpse the parts of their vague silhouettes, a hand here, the top of a head there, flitting in the gaps of the lattice top parts of the wooden panels forming the fence, partly obscured by the ivy. I could glimpse them for a fraction of a second whenever one of them decided to jump up to hit the ball or something else they were playing with. But I could hear them laugh and giggle all the time; a sourceless laughter in the dark, like the one coming from a misplaced radio.
“It had to end this way,” she said, drawing my wandering attention to her, as if she were in desperate need of it. “I hate to tell you that, but it simply had to end this way.”
I took a drag on the cigarette and glanced at the fence meditatively. I found myself stroking my bottom lip with the thumb of my hand in which the cigarette was resting, just like a turntable needle scratching a leisurely spinning record. I glanced at her.
“I’m glad that you’ve come to your senses,” she went on undauntedly. “I’m really glad to see you realize, finally realize, what we, all of us, have seen for all those years — to our dismay, I want to make it clear. Yes, we’ve seen it, you should know that. You should remember that.”
I gazed at her blankly, the burning cigarette discreetly rustling between my fingers, like a wildfire in miniature. I gazed at her husband; he stared off into the distance; into the slowly darkening distance, like a sailor looking out for the promising trace of a shoreline.
“He wasn’t the right man for you,” she said, charging her voice with as much affection and delicacy as it could endure without breaking under their sheer weight, like a museum shelf overloaded with precious fossils. “He just wasn’t worthy of you, you know? He wasn’t worthy of a single part of you, remember that.”
I heard the children play; the variegated ball bounced up and down, now silhouetting against the darkening sky, now diving in behind the fence, and disappearing from my sight, like a tiny fill-in of the sun that allowed me to see as many of its little sunrises and sunsets as if I were watching a tape being fast-forwarded without my knowledge or consent.
“But don’t you worry,” she assured me. “Don’t you worry about that for a moment. We’ve got you covered.”
I looked at her, interested for the first time; I looked at him but he was still busy staring away.
“We’ve got you covered, am I right, honey?” she asked him, a bit too hastily. “Am I right, dear?”
She patted his thigh urgently — a bit too urgently, it seemed — after which touch he sprang up at once, like a wind-up toy that is being nudged to life by the turn of a winding key, and strolled away to the house as indifferently as if some random thought had just popped into his head and ordered him to do something right away. She tried to make this moment go away; she tried to mask her consternation with a smile.
“Anyway, we’ve got you covered, all right.” she said. “We’ll find you a man, I mean, a real man, a responsible man, you know, not some dodgy schmuck like that last one — if you’ll pardon my saying so. We’ll find you a man.”
I stared at her, my eyes more and more unfocused. I heard the children play but I still couldn’t see them; I heard their ball being hit every now and then, the sounds of the hits drifting to us listlessly, if not desultorily, already muffled and toned down, as though coming from a dreamy vision. It was getting dark. I wondered when their mother was going to call them home for supper.
“He’s got a friend,” she went on almost in a conspiratorial whisper. “He’s got a friend at work who is available. What do you say to that, huh? What do you say to that?”
I glanced back at their house; I saw her husband through the kitchen window pouring himself a glass of liquor or something — he downed it in one. His silhouette was as visible within the luminous frame of a lit-up window as a moth trapped inside a lantern.
“He’s nice. His friend is really nice, you know,” she said. “He’s a family man, a true family type, not some slippery guy who disappears in the middle of the night to turn up a week later in some seedy motel with your own sister, if you know what I mean.”
I looked away from her at the dusky sky, at the darkening contours of the fence, of the ball, of the nearby trees, and of the whole world that seemed to be dissolving into inescapable nothingness, like a movie right before the appearance of the closing credits.
“He’s a man of principle,” she said. “And it’s a rare thing these days; it’s a true rarity these days — a man of real principle.”
I saw him return from the house.
“Honey, I was telling her about your friend,” she said to him, as he sat down beside her without a word. “I was telling her about your friend, what’s-his-name; you know, the one with the cologne. I was telling her how great a man he is; how fine a family man he is. And he likes children too; he simply adores them.”
The burning tip of my cigarette pulsated slightly in the thickening darkness in accordance with the pace of my breathing and inhaling the smoke, like a red warning beacon at the top of a skyscraper.
“You know, I thought about it; I’ve got it all figured out,” she said, leaning toward me excitedly, as if even this tiny distance separating us might weaken the message, “I’ve got it all planned out. When you’re with that man, not necessarily with this particular man, but with any man, we’ll start taking those weekend trips out of town together. The ones we used to talk about.”
I gazed at her; I gazed at him — every one of us appeared to be looking at something else and avoiding the others’ eyes, as if in some elaborate game of glances that couldn’t so much as cross or graze one another if you hoped to win it.
“We’ll all go, you know, our two families,” she said, growing visibly exhilarated. “And our kids — I mean, when you finally have kids — they’ll all play together and ride on those silly bikes, those bikes for kids. What’s their name — tricycles.”
I couldn’t hear what she said then; I couldn’t hear her words; I simply couldn’t hear any of them — I also couldn’t hear the children next door, not one of them. All I could do was see the wooden panels of the fence close in on me, and the ivy till then docilely scaling them rush toward me in order to put a noose around my neck, like an over-friendly necktie seller. I saw the entire vast and immeasurable world close in on me, as if trying to squeeze me, as if attempting to crush me and squash me flat, as if I were an empty and no longer necessary box of cereals. I felt an irresistible urge to walk away; I had to walk right away.