He can tell she’s crying.
He almost calls her Darling.
“Jean. Come on. We cannot do this.” He thumbs his temple and switches the phone to his other hand. It is better she doesn’t call.
But she sniffs in a way that worries him. “It’s an emergency.”
And he learned long ago that love is not petty.
“Alright. It’s alright. You are at your house?”
Jean is at her house. He expected, almost, a practical problem—a burst pipe, or she finally fell on the porch steps with her hands full.
Instead there is no sign of danger but the fact that she is wearing her glasses unselfconsciously, cupping her elbows as if cold. There in the doorway he feels guilty for looming over her. And she is small enough to slip past his boundaries. He thumbs her cheek.
“Your nose is red like Rudolph.”
She studies him for a long time.
“Hello,” she means to say, but it’s really just the shape of it.
(The same little shoes she always wears, but an afternoon kimono over her sweater and gauzy pants he’s seen her curled up and reading in.)
He follows her inside.
The television in the living room is muted on the news, but the porch doors are open. Her coffee is there beside the phone, weighing down her papers, which are butter yellow in the sun. Her pen’s rolled off the table. She hasn’t been inside all morning.
“There is an emergency?”
She holds out an arm for him. “I thought we could sit.”
So he does, elbows on knees expectantly. “OK.”
She walks to the porch railing and looks out over it like Juliet. Begins to fiddle with her rings. She looks tired, tense—projecting herself into less space than his usual Jean.
Suddenly, he has a terrible thought.
“Making me nervous.”
She meets him halfway toward his meaning as lovers do, assuring him immediately.
“It’s not that.” She’s not sick. But she does look at him and look at him. As a baby, Ola used to steal his car keys and look at him like that.
“How are the girls?”
Jean nods once, then again, convincing herself of something.
“You are not my only appointment today, you know.”
She takes a deep breath and smooths her hair like she is rising from water. “I will … I will get to the point.”
“But may I ask you something?”
As Jakob watches her collect herself for him, as she does for others, he considers that perhaps he has been using a counterintuitive approach.
“Yes.” He might do anything for her, and it terrifies him.
Wye River slides on below. Jean winds the hair at the back of her neck around a finger but catches herself fidgeting and flexes her hands between them to stop. “If I hadn’t ruined everything,” she hedges scratchily. “And done what I’d done. Could you ever forgive me for all the other things I demanded of you?”
It wasn’t self-deprecation. Her curiosity was innocent. She meant the shower and the shelf and the pennies, all the regular atrocities of her neuroses and the less melodramatic of her defenses. If the kiss wasn’t little, there were other little things.
Jakob shrugs. “Every person demands things.”
Even he had limits. It was true.
“We don’t forgive … children for crying,” he tries to explain.
Her eyes swamp.
She had not really entertained the possibility that he wanted her for who she was, and she could snap about the dishes without apocalypse. If they were a couple, perhaps some nights she would go out with just Maureen—because space was healthy—and when she came home, he would be there. They could schedule time apart, if they wanted. If they could really give each other what they wanted. She imagines the profound comfort of a movie on the sofa with Otis.
“I apologize,” she breathes. “For my failure to communicate. For bottling up frustration after frustration and erupting all at once. I didn’t— I honestly could not imagine a relationship enduring my … particularities.”
“You never asked me, Jean.” Had she decided that she was too difficult? Or that he wouldn’t listen? “You didn’t give me a chance. If you were my partner,” he thinks, and she trembles, “I’d do anything you say. Give you anything. You think you are too complicated?”
“It’s OK to want what everybody wants.”
Her chin wobbles.
“Or … ” He looks at his shoes, feeling like a poked bruise. Or, she is too complicated for him. “It’s me.”
“I know,” he holds up a hand. “You are too smart for me, Jean. Too smart for everybody. I’ll never understand you. Only what you show me. But … ” And here he can’t help but to smile, just for a moment, remembering. “I like to see you. Even very mad at me. I only want to know how you’re thinking.”
“It’s not you.” She was terrible to him. “I was terrible—” She covers her face with her hands. “I’m sorry.”
The part of him still waiting for a better explanation stops him from going to her.
“Around him,” Jean starts solemnly, determinedly, and though she does not say Remi they both know to whom she is referring, “I am the worst, most shallow version of myself. Because it has … often or … always been my instinct to avoid his criticism at all costs—” She forces herself to finish. “To myself. But not to you. I behaved inappropriately. And disappointingly. And … disloyally. For which I take absolute responsibility.”
He blinks. “Thank you.”
She begins to cry. “If I could go back—” Her shoulders shake and shake. He reaches out to grab her hand.
“Hey.” A thumb over her knuckles, and she squeezes tight. “It’s alright.”
With his free hand he pulls out the chair between them and she sinks into it like a fainter, spent, forehead propped on the clasped fingers at the apex of their elbows. He wiggles his—so ‘FUCK’ tickles her nose.
“Your vasectomy, Jakob,” she sighs, as only Jean Milburn could begin this admission. She opens one eye at him. “It didn’t work.”
He is no intellectual, as they say, and spends a moment wondering what Jean could possibly know about the success or failure of his vasectomy, such ancient history as it was.
“Herrejävlar!” He abruptly withdraws his hand from hers to smack both palms on the table in shock, at which Jean bursts into new tears.
“Oh,” he pouts, gathering her out of her chair and onto his lap. “Oh, I’m sorry … ”
“Do you hate me?” She weeps. “For all my talk I carry extreme dysfunction. It is unreasonable of me to— Is it totally impossible that we— Will something always be in the way?”
“Never hate you.” Jakob rubs her back in firm rectangles, shoulder to shoulder, then down and across. They cling like sailors, shipwrecked. She hugs him firmly by the neck.
A hiccup. “My shelf is so wonderful.”
“Forget the shelf.”
“Why did it have to be me?”
He rocks her like a child. “I’m here now.” And lest she forget: “You call me, so I’m here.”
She wipes her nose on his sweatshirt. “I don’t know what to do.”
He situates them more comfortably, scooting their chair to face the landscape and patting Jean’s knees, kissing her cheekbone. “It’s a good day,” he tells her. “We’ll do some good thinking.”