The sound of gentle rain seeps through the open hotel window. A Nor’easter forecast to bring strong winds and torrential rains to Boston had unpredictably veered seaward, its fringes bringing a low blanket of clouds and coolness, but no umbrella-bending gusts, and only moderate precipitation. Vibrating against the window sill, raindrops mute a blend of voices and music rising from the noisy bars at the intersection of Kenmore and Commonwealth several stories below. Neil stops spooning Lora, his wife of fifteen years, and rolls on his back. His eyes follow a thin crease of light that slithers the length of ceiling, created by an opening in the ill-fitting curtains.
He looks at her form, nightgown gathered up above her waist where he had been stroking her earlier. Her back, her hips, her thighs, a hint of breast—touching her should have aroused him, but had not, and this was his fault. The weather had unleashed memories, but wasn’t itself a distraction. Before bed, he had been ready to present Lora this one missing piece of his past, had practiced arranging the parts like a manuscript, only to find the pages scattered in his mind.
After a dozen sales trip to Boston over the years, Lora had finally decided to join him.
Early on in their marriage, each time the trip was forthcoming, he had asked Lora to come; to see where I grew up, the house my family lived in. Year after year she had politely declined, and eventually he stopped asking. A few weeks ago, as the two coordinated their calendars at the breakfast table, Lora out-of-the-blue announced her intention to go with him to Boston—answering a question that had gone unasked for years. I think I finally get it, she had said as the two of them packed for the trip. It’s not about your family history, it’s about her. Alex what’s-her-name.
She was right, of course. He’d been damaged goods when Lora met him, and had treated his emotional wounds as gently as a nurse tending to a burn victim. But for the entire length of their marriage he had secretly believed that only Lora’s presence on those Boston streets, in the Boston buildings, breathing the Boston air, could exorcise completely the painful memory of Alex that confronted him every trip he took there. He had worked out the psychology of it: The house he’d grown up in with his family had been razed ten years ago. That year he had walked by the empty lot, and visualizing the house was easy. The next year the entire block had been replaced by an apartment building. Standing on the sidewalk, facing a gyros restaurant with a purple awning and yellow trim around the door and windows, he struggled to picture his boyhood home. The following year he could not conjure up any image at all. When he got home, he anxiously paged through old family albums to find photos of what his mind could not recreate. If replacing one thing for another could do that for a happy memory, what might it do for an unhappy one?
He had grown up in Somerville, north of Cambridge; then attended college at B.U. Brooklyn is home now, but when people ask him where he is from, he still says, Bahs-ton, in the accent his parents had, but which he never acquired. Lora had been raised on military bases all over the U.S. and half the reason she married him was to literally settle down. He had married Lora, in part, to put Alex behind him once and for all. She had succeeded; he had not.
* * *
Earlier that afternoon Neil had closed a sale; then met Lora at the Fine Arts Museum. Later, he led her down streets from his childhood, showed her the six-story apartment complex in Somerville where his parent’s bungalow had once stood; on the BU campus he pointed to the 6th floor dorm window which had been his opening to the world his freshman year. Lora smiled, but was quiet. They dined with his client and his client’s wife, talked about sports and movies, drank mid-priced wine, and kissed on the cab ride to the hotel. Not a word about his old flame.
They kissed on the elevator. In the hotel room, over the sink while brushing their teeth, they kissed again, and laughed about the pointlessness of their dinner conversations.
But in bed, he was not aroused. Touching her skin should have done it, but instead of reaching around her, turning her head slightly and kissing her, he had turned away. He wondered if she had waited all day for him to open up. If so, he had failed her. She had fallen asleep, or worse—had feigned sleep to avoid intimacy.
* * *
Hours later, he is awake and she is sleeping soundly. He cannot sleep because he assumes that eventually Lora will ask him, Did you love her more than you love me? The correct answer—the answer he most certainly will give—is, No, of course not. But she will read something in his expression, and know he is lying. And he knows Lora must know this, or else he would have been telling stories about Alex as easily as he had shared the rest of his past. In his present life, the relationship with Alex, long ago—and abruptly—terminated, is like a driver’s distraction, just enough to pull your eyes off the road, just enough to be dangerous if the conditions ahead became uncertain.
The sliver of light on the ceiling thins and widens rhythmically in the steady pulses of warm wind coming through the curtains. The changes are minute, but just enough to draw his attention. As if a muffle has been removed from his ears, he senses a deepening, a more dense quality to the rain. The combination of light and sound act as triggers; he pictures the old Tivoli Theatre that they had passed by that afternoon, when the skies were clear, when he said nothing. Now, with Lora sleeping beside him, with the rain releasing heat from the asphalt streets and cobbled sidewalks, his mind flails helplessly at the onslaught of memories about Alex.