John shouldn’t have brought the girl here. They stand facing each other in his tiny kitchen, Billie’s eyes watching him and John’s flitting from her bright red hair to her chin to his cabinets and back. He can’t tell if she’s pretty or just very young, because there’s a difference, and he can’t figure it out until they get older and their faces sag near the chin and eyes. All women are young once, but only a few are truly pretty.
He hands her a glass of tequila which she sets on the counter so she can twist her hair into a ponytail, revealing a substrata of brackish roots disguised by that clownish red dye. He wonders what she looks like beneath all her paint and color, a visual barrier between Billie and the world. He cocks his head, concentrating.
“Tell me what you’ll do next semester.”
She talks and talks but has no plans. At least that John can tell. Her dreams are like half deflated balloons, the colors leached from them by the sun. She’ll quit the copy center at the university where John has taught for the past ten years. She’ll find a job, she tells John, maybe bill coding, probably across the river where her father lives, maybe not. Just a job. And then. She hasn’t thought much about then.
“You should talk to the career counselors.”
She looks at him and blinks. “Hmm,” she says.
“No, you should. I mean—” He stops and looks at her, the hard way she stands, arms crossed, one hip cocked, a playfully defiant smirk masking her inability to hold his eyes. It seems like all the girls in his classes stand like this now: both insecurity and confrontation, daring old men like John to want them. They perch at his desk with accusatory eyes, linger near his office. They’re so angry, and he can’t understand why—they have this whole big world, all for them.
He grabs more limes from the fridge and slices them. Billie lifts a wedge to her mouth and licks, and the delight in her expression conjures his youngest daughter before he can stop himself. Ashley, cross-legged in her room, building kingdoms out of construction paper. And Brianna, probably on the couch, reading, her bangs touching the bridge of her nose. Somewhere Linda moves through the house, like an apparition, the miracle of laundered, folded clothes and dusted shelves unnoticed by the girls. Place him there just a couple months ago, and he is sequestered in the home office, on his fourth beer, embarrassed every time the naked woman on screen looks directly into her web cam.
Billie wanders his living room, pausing to consider a stack of books by the couch. If she finds this place shabby she doesn’t say anything. His first week here he considered it a sanctuary.
The bare walls, the secondhand couch, all of this the Spartan neatness of someone who lives alone and on very little. But now, in the wan light of a bare bulb, this place looks desperate, sad in a way he denied each time he returned here in the evenings.
She stops at his CD case and thumbs through the few CDs he brought with him. “What’s your favorite?”
This is a test. A measure of his age, his ability to navigate current culture. If he answers with a band she’s never heard of—the Pixies? Yo La Tengo?—he has the advantage of sounding knowledgeable about obscure music. But it could also date him, sending them both careening back to the late eighties of his college days when Billie was probably still in grade school. “You’re my guest,” he says, “you pick,” and she turns her back to him, a faint sigh registering her disappointment as she plucks Nirvana from its case.
When the music starts they both sit on the couch, Billie with her feet tucked beneath her, the glass still in her hands. John at the opposite end. This is what you don’t expect: the awkward silences, a stinging self-consciousness. You forget, being married so long, the aching quiet of two people unfamiliar to each other.
John coughs. “Do you like the copy center?”
She reaches into her purse, a small clam-shaped one with sequins, like one his daughters might play with. “I can smoke?”
His place will smell for days, maybe even his clothes when he drives to the house tomorrow to see his kids. Brianna will smell the collar of his sports coat when he hugs her, and she will stiffen. She will say, when she is older, that this is the moment she knew.
“Okay,” he says.
Billie blows a long stream of smoke to the right of her face, but it still clouds the air between them. “It’s better than waiting tables. And my boss is okay.” She grins and considers him for a moment. “You should hear his ‘Dr. Professor’ voice. He does it for all of you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The professors. He does this impression of all of you.”
“What does he say?”
“Yes, about me.”
“We mostly talk about the other ones. They all want their copies that day or they have all these stupid orders for things we don’t do. I think about you we just said your sweaters look like
Muppets would wear them.”
“Yeah, like Sesame Street. But it works on you.” She grabs a ceramic coaster—a paw print Brianna made him for Father’s Day—and wipes her ash on the lip before setting it back down. She scoots closer to him. “I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings.”
He thought they’d been flirting. Both of them. He walked into the copy center one day, inhaled the powdery chemical smell of paper reams, and handed her his slip to pick up his copies. He could feel her watching him from behind the cabinet as she thumbed through the orders. She smiled the way women do in movies—all teeth and flesh, nothing hidden—and he wanted to make her laugh every time he saw her. He started drawing smiley faces on his copy orders, then dinosaurs flying airplanes, then robots holding flowers. She drew notes back. He brought her books. A dog-eared copy of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, ink marks in the margins, his thoughts probably almost twenty years old. When she gave it back to him, she looked him right in the eye and said, “That man doesn’t seem sorry for sleeping with his best friend’s wife.” “He’s not,” John had said, voice steady.
Billie stands. “Tell me about teaching. Do you hate your students?”
“I like teaching.”
She turns and heads toward his bedroom before he can stop her. She emerges from the hallway, drops her cigarette in her glass, and leans against the wall. He doesn’t feel drunk, just warm. She smiles, but she doesn’t look happy.
“The kids on your dresser,” she says. “How old are they?”
“The picture. Like they’re skiing.”
Colorado, last year. Linda packed hot chocolate in thermoses for them, and Ashley tripped, spilling hers on the snow. Brianna picked up Ashley’s thermos and poured half of her own hot chocolate inside. A small moment, but in it he and Linda felt that they had done everything right. “They’re twelve and eight.”
“Nothing. I’m just—” She leans back and looks up. “I thought they were much younger.”
This surprises him. They are young, practically still babies, nowhere near the age of this girl. But he knows better. Earlier this spring, Linda was folding laundry on the couch while he graded papers. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her pick up a flimsy bra, just two white cotton triangles and elastic straps.
“What is that?” he asked.
Linda rolled her eyes. “John, she’s almost thirteen.”
He tries to look at Billie again, to return to this limbo space that is his home and not his home. But he thinks of Linda leaving the room with the laundry basket, that bra folded neatly inside. He left his papers in the chair to find Ashley and take her to his favorite used bookshop. Up and down the aisles she smeared snake trails in the dust, searching for books about adventurous girls doing improbable things like flying or going on safaris.
“You’re wife looks nice,” Billie says, “in the picture.” He’d snapped the photograph right when Linda had called his name, and it looked like he’d captured her laugh. He loved her laugh, always, the way she swallowed each one halfway through. But that inward and shy quality had changed over the years, intensified, so that John felt as if his wife presented a fortress and pretended it was her face.
“My wife is a really good person,” he says for no reason, “but we’re more like roommates now.”
“I’m sure.” Billie nods. “Most wives are.”
Billie reaches down and draws her short skirt up her thigh. There, puckered like raised rivers on a map, are the tender pink scars of trauma and then the delicate black lace of her panties. “You’re old enough to be my father,” she says and laughs, a lone blue fingernail disappearing beneath the scalloped edge.
He wants to ask her what happened to her, her whole life, but he doesn’t think he’ll understand any of it. He senses a menace in her, acute and pointed where it was unfocused before. Linda said to him once when Brianna painted her fingernails black and uglied her face with her mother’s makeup that there are two impulses warring inside every young girl: one who wants to spit and one who wants to be spit on. What do women see that he can’t? What is waiting for his daughters?
Billie unbuttons her blouse and tosses it to the ground. Her skirt and underwear next. She straddles him, her small breasts guarded by the lace of her bra. He closes his eyes and waits for that moment of entering this girl when she will gasp as if wounded.