Autumn, that in-between. Where winter’s icy breath is walled off by a strange warmth that felt like skin.
I loved being in between things. A strange place, I know. Whereas most of the people I knew liked it one way or the other, that palpable certainty, like salve on a wound — I lived my life in a deliberate state of not-knowing. I was amorphous and gray, a jellyfish. Perhaps that is why my family was so shocked when I got married. Who could blame them, though? Growing up I was always between boyfriends, and there is a swath of time in which I cannot even remember being with a man long enough to learn his middle name. But, I adored my husband. I fell short of worshipping him but — bless him — he never expected that out of me. He never even expected me to give him a child. I did, though, and she was just like him: careful, quiet, beige, and living somewhere in Beige, Connecticut. I was her “crazy mother,” and my husband was “Dad.” I never took offense at this. I knew she loved me. I would just laugh off her embarrassment and remind myself that she belonged to a country club. Ha! And she was the type to dry flowers and bake tortes and collect porcelain figurines. What a monster, I’d joke. And so young! She was only 24 and had already started a brood of her own, a little pink baby with a beige name. Her husband was a petal of a man, soft and tissue-thin. He was a pediatrician or optometrist or something, I never remembered what. Likely something more admirable than what I was, for I was always between jobs. I went from being a doughnut maker to hotel manager to amateur hypnotist, and back to doughnut maker. I’d held other jobs too, but never long enough to remember. Then, that August, I took a job as a church secretary.
I was never a “woman of God,” but I wanted a job that could keep me occupied, especially during the week, when I was most listless and prone to boredom, when I enlisted myself in odd tasks that only provided temporary fulfillment. Once, for instance, I began organizing my deceased aunt’s button collection (the one thing I inherited from that old bitch of a woman). Size first, then color — an endeavor so useless, realized only in hindsight. Not so much for my daughter, though. She would have delighted to partake in it. Then one time I went through my book collection and attempted to rewrite all the endings. Fairly innocuous tasks these were, but I’d grow bored halfway through and leave them, a trail of buttons and books in my wake. My husband wouldn’t say a word; he’d just sigh as he maneuvered around them, as if thinking, Oh, there she goes again, my silly old wife.
October, nearly two months into my new job. We were in the midst of what the local weatherman deemed “a hot spell.” The Riehls next door reopened up their pool so their kids could slosh around in it after school, just to cool off. The rickety old ice cream truck started to make its rounds in the neighborhoods again, and everywhere in town people were dressed as if it were the heart of summer. At work I’d take frequent breaks to walk the church grounds, for even though it was sweltering outside, it was even more so inside, as the church was very old and lacked air conditioning.
The grounds were actually stunning, with mint-green grass and meticulous rows of mums. Must have been the pastor’s wife’s doing, I mumbled to myself, taking a bite of my apple. I thought her name was something old-sounding, like Ruth or Mildred, but she was young like my daughter. And she was quiet, mouse-like even, but pretty in a starched kind of way. Often she’d come by the church and wander around, as if lost but slightly curious. The pastor, Paul, was almost as much of a mystery. He was young and frighteningly handsome, but he lacked the warmth one might expect from someone in his position; when we’d pass each other in the hallway, he’d barely smile, and seemed to keep a good distance from the church board. Rumor had it that once he assumed the pastorship, the pews started filling up with local college girls who’d sit there rapt, drinking in his every word. Once they found out he was married, they made fewer and fewer appearances, until one Sunday when the church had returned to its usual half-capacity.
Ruth-Mildred appeared as though she knew she didn’t belong, as much as she looked the part: on Sunday mornings she’d sit in the first pew, dressed in pastels, looking up at her husband dutifully, amorously. Yet once the services were over, she’d exit the sanctuary, just like most everyone else, while he stayed behind and talked with the few remaining parishioners. I’d watch this from the back, week after week, and spend the rest of the afternoon wondering why her face would turn almost instantly once she was out of his sight. I’d recount this to my husband, and he’d say, It probably means nothing, in a flat voice that was meant as a counterbalance against my incredulous wail. Really, I had no idea why I gave such a big god damn about it, but I had decided to make it my mission.
One day, a Monday, I had decided to lunch outside in the hopes of catching her. I sat on the stone bench just outside the main entrance, picking at my egg salad sandwich as would a child, intermittently looking up to see if she was there. The continued unseasonable heat started to gather on my skin in slick, little beads, and the mid-afternoon brightness transformed everything into a sickly neon. Just as I yanked off a piece of crust, gummy from the day-old mayonnaise, I heard the slamming of a car door. I quickly glanced up to see the familiar straw-colored hair, down and just barely grazing the shoulders. It was the pastor’s wife, whose name I’d come to learn was Shane — a boy’s name, or so I had always thought. I recall thinking it didn’t suit her. She threw a bag over her shoulder and walked her way towards the church hurriedly, purposefully, as if she had been charged with warning everyone in the building that there was a bomb inside and she knew exactly where it was, but she’d need everyone to stay exactly where they were so she could disable it without any trouble. Just as she reached for the door, I decided to speak up. It was now or never.
“Hello,” I said, almost shyly. She looked up and gave me a half-smile, like one you’d give a neighbor you didn’t know and never cared to.
“Hi,” she muttered, stopping, as if frozen in place. I shoved a stale cracker into my mouth and chewed, still talking. Mother, stop! That is so disgusting, my daughter would say, appalled, as if I had just exposed my tits to her country club friends.
“How are you doing?” I asked, little gnat I was.
“Fine,” she said tightly. Then, out of obligation, “how are you?”
“I’m well,” I said, swallowing hard. And that was that. She disappeared into the church, and I spent the rest of my lunch hour picking at my sandwich like a scab.
Two whole weeks went by, and despite it being the middle of October, I still felt summer on my skin, in my mouth. My husband kept himself knee-deep in his work, per usual, and I was still on my quest to make contact with Shane. I felt oddly maternal and protective toward her, I would soon discover. I couldn’t figure out exactly why this was, and to this day I still didn’t know. I wanted to ask Paul about her, but I always seemed to shrink in his presence — I never quite got a feel for him. It only began to bother me then, this not-knowing. Still, I thought it best not to question him. He kept the door to his office closed most of the day, anyway. Occasionally he would come to me with a list of errands to run, but he kept our exchanges brief, polite.
My husband would joke that I should go back to making doughnuts. You’d have far more interesting interactions with them, he said to me once. For a period of weeks after that, I couldn’t talk to the pastor without imagining him as a six-foot-tall cream stick, waddling to the altar and back. Or sometimes I just pictured him as a plain glazed doughnut, the kind we’d always have extras of at the end of the day. Not that there’s anything wrong with them — people liked them, for the most part. The same was true for the pastor. But he wasn’t an apple fritter or a chocolate iced dotted in rainbow sprinkles. Shane was a cruller, or perhaps a doughnut hole; something about her was tender and small and confusing.
November brought more warmth, which bordered on beautiful and disorienting. One day at lunch, sun-drunk, I found myself suddenly in Shane’s shadow.
“Miriam, right?” she said. I looked up at her and smiled, my brown eyes shit-colored slits in the afternoon light.
“Yes,” I replied, with unnecessary conviction. “And you’re…Samantha?” I don’t know why I pretended not to know her name, to temporarily brand her with a name so dreadfully dull I’d have wanted to deny it all my life if it’d been mine.
“Shane,” she corrected me. I, in fact, knew much more about her than just her name; for instance, I learned that she grew up in western Massachusetts, and moved here soon after meeting the pastor. Well, I suppose that was all I knew, so it wasn’t that much after all.
“Sorry,” I said, feigning embarrassment. She just smiled, as if to show her forgiveness.
“Can you believe this Indian summer we’re having?” I asked, clearing my throat. As much as I detested banal chit-chat, in this moment it was a life preserver.
“I can’t,” she replied. I scooted over to make room for her on the bench.
“What are you reading?” she asked, sitting down and pointing a pale finger at the paperback in my hand.
“Hemingway,” I answered. She raised an eyebrow. Should I have said the Bible? Not that I’d ever read it, or even owned a copy. During Sunday morning services I would take the leatherbound one from the pew and pretend to follow along. I didn’t know the difference between a psalm and proverb; I was raised in a culturally Jewish home in the Hudson Valley — we celebrated Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah, but that was the extent of my religious upbringing. That was why my parents didn’t blink when I married an Episcopalian, and ended up working at a Presbyterian church. In fact, they found it quite amusing.
“I’ve read a little Hemingway,” she said, crossing a leg. Then it went silent, winter-quiet for a good minute. Then she said, “I’m sorry if I ever seem a little cold.”
“No, you’re fine,” I lied. She was cold. People took notice of these things.
“It’s just that I…” her voice trailed off.
“What?” I asked, as if to cut the words out of her.
“Could we meet later?”
By the time six o’clock rolled around, I was heading south on Pine Street toward the coffee shop, my body heavy as lead. What could she possibly want with me, I thought to myself, as I finished up my daily duties that afternoon. No, not molding sweet dough or swinging a pocket watch in a bid to will a sunburned tourist into a trance, but something far less interesting; I couldn’t tell you what. My stomach started as I entered the coffee shop and saw her sitting at a table in the far corner, tentatively, as if she were anticipating that someone were about to jump out and scare her. Sensing this fear, I smiled at her with all the warmth I could muster and took the seat across from her. She proceeded to stir a packet of sugar into her coffee, the spoon clanking every bit as nervously against the faux porcelain cup. I smiled, said hello.
“Hi,” she said. “Thanks for meeting me. I suppose it’s a bit odd that I asked you here, considering we’ve never gotten fully acquainted.”
How about not at all, I thought but didn’t say. She tucked a few loose strands of hair behind her ear and sighed. Was I already boring her?
“So you’re probably wondering why,” she said.
“I suppose,” I said, forcing a laugh. Around us were several patrons, mostly college-age kids, typing away on their laptops; beyond her silhouette was a newly darkened sky, pregnant with rain, the first we would see in weeks. Sharp, white veins of lightning pulsed from cloud to ground, cloud to cloud. I sat across from her, expectant, like a shark awaiting its prey. Already tasting blood.
“I’ve got a secret,” she said. There it was. My mouth began to water. But instead of showing my eagerness, I folded my hands upon my lap, like a lady would. Like Shane would, and was doing. She went on: “I’m not who you think I am.”
“Then who are you?”It was my turn to sound matter-of-factly.
“I’m not Paul’s wife,” she said. “That’s all I can tell you.” Fat fingers of rain slapped against the window. An admonishment.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you seem like someone who has a secret or two herself,” she said.
It was at that moment I knew that I had underestimated her.
“Well, if you can’t tell me who you are, can you tell me why you’re pretending to be his wife?” It was one of those moments in which I felt like I was in a sort of half-dream, that land somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, where everything teetered on the absurd.
“He’s paying me,” she said, taking a sip from her mug.
“Paying you,” I repeated.
“That’s right. I play his wife. I guess you could say this is my job.”
“A professional wife?” I quipped, not necessarily meaning to be funny. She let out a laugh.
“Something like that.”
Everything up to that moment started to make sense, like a puzzle you could put together more easily once you’ve seen the picture on the outside of the box. Still, I wished I’d never seen it, her. There was something dangerous about walking into someone’s secret. About being wedged between someone’s truth and the rest of the world.
“You have to swear to me you won’t tell anyone,” she said, a darkness washing over her face. Clank.
“I won’t,” I said, in the most convincing way I could, though I didn’t even believe myself. The storm continued to churn outside, the blackened marble sky spitting little peas of hail.
“I’m sorry to have burdened you with this,” she said. “I have no one here. No one.”
It was at that moment I realized just how lonely of a pronoun that was: I have no one. I am no one.
Her eyes moistened with tears. I reached across the chipped oak table and laid a hand on top of hers. Her fingers were long and velvety, nails painted with peach lacquer. Her mouth, quivering, peach also.
“Don’t be sorry,” I offered. “But can you at least tell me why you’re doing it?”
She wriggled her hand from mine, rested it again in her lap. “Because he has a secret, too, and I needed protection. A clean deal. Except…”
Her voice lowered into a whisper. “People may be looking for me.” Suddenly in my mind’s eye was an image of my daughter and her husband on their wedding day: a casual affair, a backyard ceremony in mid-July. She with her champagne roses and simple white dress, he with his broad smile and a tie that matched her bouquet. I looked back on that day as one of the most joyous occasions of my life. My heart fell to my feet, realizing that Shane had never had that. I pictured her mock ceremony — if there even was one — and her afterward, sitting with the fear that that was all she’d get.
“Are you in witness protection or something?” I blurted out, not thinking.
She shook her head. “No, it’s not like that.” Her tone was sharp. I decided not to ask any more questions. A few tables away, a bearded twenty-something with dark-rimmed glasses was reading a book and chewing at a cuticle; a bespectacled man with a gray mane sat at the table next to him, reading the local newspaper.
“Please promise me you won’t take this anywhere, especially the church — if Paul even suspects that I’ve told anyone…”
“I couldn’t betray him. He’s a good man.”
I nodded. “You have my word.”
And without so much as a goodbye, she rose from our table and slipped out the side door, her gauzy white dress whipping in the wind. A frozen sheath of air found its way to me, sank into my bones.
I almost couldn’t recognize the feeling — of being cold, afraid again.
There was something particularly perilous about a stranger being the only thing between my own secret and the rest of the world.