In the late morning, Jane sees she’s gotten a text from Louis. Little heart thump. Maybe today? I’m home by 6.
I have to go to a wake at 7, she texts back. So just for a little.
Along with his ham sandwich, Roberto, Jane’s husband, has a beer at the kitchen table. He works at the Home Depot a half mile away, so he can come home for lunch.
“How was your morning?” Jane asks.
Roberto shrugs. “Stuck with a woman who asked ten thousand questions about kitchen plumbing. Wants to replace a drippy faucet herself. Doesn’t want to pay a plumber. Ten thousand questions. What if one pipe doesn’t screw into the other correctly? What if the threads on the old pipe are stripped and I can’t get the connector thingy off? Should I buy extra washers? Can you use more than one washer to get a better seal? I heard that. Meanwhile, she’s this tiny, hundred-pound thing who probably can’t lift the wrench she’s gonna need to do anything.”
“Good for her,” Jane says. “Doing it herself. I admire that.”
Roberto shrugs. “Me, too, babe. Until she floods the house. Some things you should just bite the bullet. Grab me another beer out of the fridge, will ya?”
When Jane hands the bottle to Roberto, he says, “Remember we got my Uncle Peter’s wake tonight. Last thing I want to have to do on a Tuesday night. You too, I’m sure. And you never liked the guy to begin with.”
“Oh, I was neutral about him. Anyway, it’s only right to pay our respects. But listen, Rob, I have a haircut at 6, so can I meet you at the funeral home?”
Roberto glances up at her.
“Your hair looks good to me,” he says. “But sure, whatever.”
Jane works from home, filling out spreadsheets for the town tax assessor. It’s mindless work, but the pay isn’t bad. Her thoughts right now drift back to before she married Louis, at twenty-four. She was anxious about what adulthood would mean and about taking on adult responsibilities; she married him because he was already doing quite well managing a busy U-Haul outfit that his father owned. It wasn’t only that, of course. Louis was incredibly shy around her. In the beginning, he was reluctant to even touch her; she wondered if only wanted to be friends; she wondered if he might be gay or sexually repressed. After a while, when they did get more intimate, she realized it was only that he was shy, and she loved that about him, too.
Louis never remarried. That was sad, but it was another thing about him that touched Jane.
Since she’ll be going straight from Louis’s house to the funeral home, she’ll wear a nice dress. The dark blue one. He’ll like that.
It isn’t that she doesn’t love Roberto. It’s that Roberto has stopped caring about changing, about growing. He’s content with status quo. Jane wants to feel more alive as she gets older, not less so; she wants, frankly, something to be thrilled about. And somehow, having a once-in-a-while thing with your ex-husband feels more…acceptable, less like cheating, than if it were with some random flirty guy, say, from the office.
Her hands are moist as she steers the car toward his house, formally theirs. A block away, from out of nowhere a little white dog darts into the street, its leash trailing it, and Jane has to hit the brakes as the dog scampers into a wooded lot across the street. She waits, halted, to catch her breath. She looks around for the dog’s owner, but whoever let the handle of that leash go is nowhere to be found.
Once inside, they kiss briefly and sit together on the sofa in Louis’s sun-splashed living room. Jane likes how full Louis’s beard looks since she last saw him, when it was just scrag. The T.V. is on but Louis picks up the remote and shuts it off. “They killed another black man,” he says. “In his car, with his wife right there in the passenger seat.”
“Oh, no. Not…”
Louis touches Jane’s knee. “Hey, listen, Janie, I um, I know you can’t stay long so I want to say that I don’t think we should do this anymore. I just, I don’t feel good about myself afterwards. The guilt gets to me. I know I initiate; maybe that’s why I feel so lousy. I don’t know. I just think it’s time to stop.”
The rush of shame that rises from Jane’s gut to her head makes her feel like she might tumble over. She breathes, steadies her body, blinks, tugs at the hem of her dress.
When she walks into the funeral parlor, Roberto’s already there, along with dozens of other mourners.
“You look nice,” he says. “The haircut looks great.”
Jane works a small smile.
“Go say a little prayer, huh? Tell Aunt Louis you’re sorry.”
Kneeling before the open casket, Jane feels nothing for the body she’s barely cognizant of, even as she stares at its makeup-caked face. She rushes the sign of the cross, stands, and approaches Aunt Louise, who’s seated close by the coffin along with two of her elderly sisters.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Louise beckons Jane to lean down. Into her ear she says, softly, “He wasn’t one to allow himself to be chained to anything as abstract as a vow.”
When Jane, her face flushing, can conjure no reply, Louise says, “It’s okay, sweetheart. It’s over.”
Jane lifts herself again, but Louise again tugs her down. She speaks so close to her ear that Jane can feel the old woman’s lips on her earlobe. “I wasn’t a saint either.”
Returning, Jane spots Roberto at the back of the room. He’s been watching, and he’s perplexed.