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Vol. 12, No. 4

Two-Step
by Maile Meloy

It was snowing already, in late September: a freakish early snow that came after days of crisp and sunny fall weather. The other resident physicians at the hospital, the ones who had been in Montana two and three years, or all their lives, told Naomi this was nothing. "Wait till it snows in August," they said. It was a Sunday, and Naomi had the day off, and she was sitting in the clean, bright kitchen of her friend Alice's renovated Victorian, while Alice cried at the kitchen table. Alice was lanky and boyish and had always seemed supremely resilient, but now she was splotchy with tears and her nose was running.
     "But how do you know?" Naomi asked.
     "I just do," Alice said. She blew her nose in a tissue. "I can feel it. His mind is somewhere else."
     "Maybe it's just work. We're all tired."
     Alice shook her head. "It's not that," she said. "He loves the hospital. Do you want tea or something?"
     She got up to put the kettle on, and Naomi didn't protest. The cupboards were painted white, and the open shelves held blue and green dishes. A window over the sink looked out on the snow. Naomi and her husband were renting, and neither of them had the time or the inclination for decorating—they still had cardboard moving boxes as end tables—but Alice had left behind some kind of design job in Los Angeles, and she clearly had a talent for aesthetics.
     "This kitchen is so pretty," Naomi said.
     "I know," Alice said, and she made a little wailing noise. "I love this house. We were going to live here for the rest of our lives. I'm sorry to dump all this on you. It was nice of you to come."
     "But maybe it isn't anything. Maybe you will live here forever."
     "No," Alice said.
     "Do you have proof?"
     Alice shook her head. "But I never see him, and when I do he doesn't touch me. I told him last weekend that I knew something was up. I really thought he was going to confess, tell me who she was, and then we could work through it. But he didn't. I'm pregnant, I should tell you that. We weren't going to say anything yet."
     Naomi knocked over a saltshaker on the kitchen table. She tried to conceal her surprise by sweeping together the loose grains.
     "Left shoulder," Alice said.
     "What?"
     "Throw the salt over," Alice said. "For luck."
     Naomi dropped the grains down her back. "You're pregnant?" she asked, trying to make the question friendly.
     Alice nodded. "It took me a while to realize," she said. "I was so distracted."
     "Do you want a baby?" Naomi asked. A baby would make things harder. She couldn't come out and say it, but it was true.
     "I want a husband," Alice said. "And then a baby. Together. You have no idea what he's like."
     "I know a little."
     "But you only see him when he's happy at work, or being social at parties," Alice said. "Then he talks. He can talk about anything, and people just sit and listen. You've seen it."
     "I've been one of them."
     "He missed his calling, don't you think? He should have founded a cult. A big house full of barefoot girls sitting cross-legged at his feet. He could go around healing everyone. The laying on of hands. That would make him so happy. Instead he just has me, so he resents me and goes silent. Or he jokes and deflects everything."
     "I'm sure that will change."
     The electric kettle had boiled and turned itself off, and now sat quietly steaming. Alice stared at the porcelain cups on the open shelves, as if they might hold some answer in their pattern of arrangement, then pulled two of them down. She moved easily in her body and didn't slump like some tall girls; she stood straight and unapologetic. Her hair was short, and right now it looked slept on. "Black tea?" she asked. "Or I have green and peppermint."
     "Black is fine."
     "Is there anyone—" Alice began, as if casually. "Any of the residents who you think he might—I'm sorry. I shouldn't bring you into this. But you see him more than I do, almost."
     "He's a very dedicated doctor."
     "Yeah, because his patients all beam at him, and hang on every word." Alice put the tea bags in the cups and poured the water. "Have you noticed the way he keeps his voice really low, sort of half-throttle, especially when he's talking to women? His father does it, too. It's to show they're not trying to be brilliant, never trying. They're reining in their natural brilliance, so it doesn't overwhelm us all."
     "You don't seem to like him very much," Naomi said.
     "I don't, when he's fucking someone else!"
     "You don't know that."
     "You take milk, right?" Alice went to the refrigerator.
     "It doesn't matter."
     "I thought he was a genius when I married him," Alice said, pouring milk in the tea. "I thought he was a god. I never questioned anything he did. I did everything he ever wanted me to do, everything I ever thought he wanted me to do. I was his slave, because he was a god, and I was just a girl who'd stepped in the way of his godly attention. That he was, you know, married, to someone else, and had a baby—that just seemed like a technicality. We were so in love that nothing else mattered. You don't take sugar."
     "No."
     She brought the tea to the table and Naomi accepted it in silence, thinking about the cup, white porcelain, his coffee.
     "The whole soul mates idea," Alice said bitterly, "is really most useful when you're stealing someone's husband. It's not so good when someone might be stealing yours." She paused, looking out the window. "If I knew who it was, I would get down on my knees and I would beg her to go away, just to go away and leave my family alone."
     "Assuming that she exists," Naomi said. She wished she hadn't come. She hadn't been able to think of an excuse when Alice called, except general exhaustion, which didn't count. And then there was the perverse desire to know what Alice would say.
     "For a while I thought it was one of the nurses," Alice said. "Little Mandy. But I don't think it is now."
     "Mandy's engaged."
     "So? He's married." She paused in thought. "But he would think it was an outdated cliché. Doctors don't really go for nurses anymore. It used to be a way to marry up in the world, for nurses and secretaries. But now doctors go for doctors, lawyers for lawyers. So maybe it's another resident."
     "I think you're imagining this."
     "I wouldn't imagine it if it didn't seem true," Alice said. "Do you think Max is cheating on you?"
     Naomi hesitated. She had told her husband that she was leaving him, with the understanding that Alice would simultaneously—or at least soon—be told the same thing. It had been a difficult week. "No," she said.
     "Because he's not cheating," Alice said. "You see, I'm not insane, or stupid. Besides, you're beautiful, and you're a doctor, for God's sake, and you aren't pregnant and sick every morning."
     "I'm sure he loves you."
     "We were so happy," Alice said. "I gave up my job and my friends and my whole life to move with him here, and I didn't care. This was such a perfect residency, in such a cool place, and the houses were so cheap—we could never have bought this house in L.A. I loved being a doctor's wife in a place that needs doctors, and I was going to have his brilliant, beautiful baby. I was so happy to do all of that, so blissed out on it all. And now it's fucked."
     "You don't know that."
     "I do," she said. "He's never used this kitchen. He learned how to cook as a kid because his family had a bad cook, and he used to show off for me. So I made him this kitchen, and got the right burners, the right hood—and he doesn't cook anymore."
     Naomi had been cooked for, in a motel with a kitchenette, on crappy electric burners. Just eggs, but spectacular eggs, with capers and raclette. He had fed her yellow forkfuls, hot and salty and runny with melted cheese. He said she had to eat well, if she was going to keep up her schedule and these antics. "He's so busy," she said now.
     "But cooking was his thing."
     The phone rang, and Alice stood from the table, lifting her hips forward as if her center of gravity had changed, though she wasn't showing yet. Naomi wondered if she was doing it deliberately, to look like a woman who couldn't be left.
     Alice rubbed her red eyes and peered at the screen on the cordless phone. "It's him," she said, and Naomi's heart skipped. It rang again, and Alice picked up.
     "Hi," she said. "Sure. I'm just here with Naomi." She made a funny, eye-rolling face at whatever he said. "Why shouldn't she be? We're having tea. That's what women do." She paused. "No, everything's fine. I mean, except, you know, that my life is falling apart. I told her a little bit about that. I hope you don't mind. How was the gym?" There was another pause. "OK, we'll see you soon then." She put the phone back in the charger. "He's coming home. Do you think he's been out fucking her?"
     "I should go," Naomi said. The image of the adorable nurse Mandy flashed through her mind, but that was ridiculous.
     "No, stay," Alice said, trying to smooth her hair, with no effect. "You'll be a good buffer. We don't have any way of not fighting anymore. We used to do this thing—we would dance a little two-step, to make up, anytime we had a disagreement. We did it in the grocery store, and at people's houses. They must have thought it was so obnoxious. But the dancing dissolved the fight—it meant we could never stay mad. I loved him so much."
     "Do you still love him?"
     "I do," she said. "Beyond reason. I even called his ex-wife. Isn't that pathetic? I wanted to know if he was like this—then."
     "What did she say?"
     "She wasn't very compassionate—I mean, obviously. I don't know what I was thinking. She asked me if I thought I was so special that I could change him, make him faithful. She said she was still breastfeeding their baby when he left her, so she had trouble feeling very sorry for me. And she said he's a pathological narcissist and would leave whenever he felt like it. Do you think he's a pathological narcissist?"
     "I don't know. I don't think so."
     "She said at least she had the excuse that she was really young when she met him, and he hadn't abandoned any wives yet, and she wished me luck." Naomi said nothing.
     "So, that worked out well," Alice said. "That was a brilliant phone call to make. I wish I could get her to talk to the new girl."
     There was another pause, and Naomi began to sweat with the idea that Alice was playing a deep game. Alice knew and had been batting her around like a trapped mouse. "I really should go," Naomi said.
     "No, he likes you," Alice said. "Please stay. He'll be friendly and it will help me. It's such hell when we're alone. You can tell me what you think."
     "Alice—" Naomi said.
     The door in the front hallway opened. "Hello!" he called, and Naomi felt as if a guitar string in her lower abdomen had just been plucked, and left to vibrate, by the sound of his voice. She believed these responses were biological tricks to propagate the species, but that didn't make them lose their power. She had never felt that way when her husband spoke, though he was a good and decent man.
     "Alice," she said, more urgently, but Alice was looking toward the kitchen door, like a faithful retriever with her messy hair and her red nose, waiting for her master to appear.
     They heard keys drop on a table in the hall, and then he came to the kitchen doorway in gym clothes with snow in his hair. He was so beautiful, and so spoiled. Alice had a look of pure adoration on her face. Of course she didn't know. Naomi thought the pounding of her own heart must be visible through her sweater.
     "Hello, ladies," he said. "I won't kiss you, I'm covered in sweat."
     His wife tried to put her arms around him.
     "No, really," he said. "I'm disgusting."
     Alice dropped her hands to her thighs as if she had never really expected contact. "You are disgusting," she said. "We were just talking about that. That was the topic of the afternoon, in fact."
     He smiled. "I'm the leading expert. I could give a guest lecture."
     "Why don't you?" his wife asked. "It would be so edifying."
     He patted his pockets. "No notes."
     "Oh, just wing it."
     "I'm sure you have the salient facts down."
     "Actually, we don't," Alice said. "That's exactly what we don't have."
     "Why don't you just tell her?" Naomi heard herself say. She had meant to keep her mouth shut, but she couldn't stand to watch the two of them banter obliquely about what was now her life: the life she had plunged willingly, headlong into.
     He turned to look at Naomi without hurry, his gaze like a police searchlight, taking its time because it had time. It found her in the shadows, casing his house.
     "Naomi's right," his wife said. "She's an objective party. We should listen to her advice."
     He smiled. It wasn't an unpleasant smile, but it wasn't private, either—not wolfish, not adoring, not wistful. He was being Alice's husband, confronted in his own kitchen, with nothing to hide. She shouldn't have come. "Hello, Naomi," he said. "How's Max?"
     "Fine," she lied. Her husband was not as forgiving as Alice. Max had high expectations of other people and didn't care much for compromise or ethical ambiguity. When she married him, this quality had seemed passionate and decisive, but now it seemed harsh. He had trusted her, and now he didn't, and wouldn't again.
     Alice reached out to brush the snow-damp hair from her husband's face, but he was still looking at Naomi.
     "Who was it who said that marriage is a long struggle for moral advantage?" he asked.
     "Someone bitter," Naomi said. "It shouldn't be. It doesn't have to be."
     "As I was driving back here from the gym," he said, as if beginning his lecture, "I was thinking about the time I did summer stock at a theater in Colorado, because my older sister was doing it and it seemed like a way to meet girls. And how everyone was isolated, and thrown together in a place they wouldn't be otherwise, and nervous energy became sexual energy. There was friction, and suspicion about who was doing what with whom, and some of it was founded."
     "I told her we're having a baby," Alice said.
     "You told her we're having a baby," he repeated.
     Naomi watched him: his strong hands, the pained look on his face. He had the intelligence that physically beautiful people have, because other people confide in them, but he had real intelligence, too. It was irresistible, even when he was behaving indefensibly, as he was now.
     "Why don't you just tell me," Alice said, "what's going on?"
     He opened the refrigerator, pulled out a large bottle of reddish sports drink, and drank from it. Naomi thought she could see him trying to decide what kind of man he was, or what kind he might seem to be. He screwed the cap back on. "Nothing's going on."
     "He always says that," his wife said.
     "Nothing?" Naomi asked.
     "Nothing," he said, returning the bottle to its shelf and closing the fridge. "Except that we're having a baby."
     "A baby," Alice said plaintively, and she reached for him again. This time he conceded, and took his wife in his sweaty, sweatshirted arms, and they started to dance. He steered her toward the refrigerator with a little hitch in their glide, then toward the dishwasher. She looked as pleased as a child as he spun her around and brought her back in. Then they headed back across the kitchen floor as if they had always been dancing like this, and always would be, and anything else was only a vivid hallucination.
     Naomi gathered her coat and edged past them, slipping out through the kitchen door and down the hall. They ignored her and danced on. She struggled to put her coat on, with clumsy hands. His car keys were on the hall table, where she had listened to them drop as if there were no other sound in the world. She thought of taking them, or of keying some furious message into the gleaming varnish of the table, but that would get her no nearer to what she wanted. Also on the table, in a pewter frame, was a black-and-white close-up of the devastating toddler who could only be his son. Alice's stepson. The boy had loose, dark curls and his father's sleepy look, and he seemed, for such a small child, frightfully knowing. His father was still steering Alice around the kitchen.
     Naomi saw how reckless it had been to fall so hard, but it was already done. She was a careful, methodical person in the rest of her life, and she tried to think clearly. She understood, better than Alice, what he was doing. He was acting like the man he wanted to be, in hopes that he could become him. He would keep acting until he couldn't stand it anymore, and then he would be the man he was. When that happened—and it would happen soon—he would need Naomi. The thought gave her some comfort.
     She went outside and stood on the step, thinking that she would never get used to unlocked houses, or to snow in September. He might be right about people thrown together in isolation: she might have done what she did only because life felt so unreal here—the faraway place, the long hours, the lack of sleep—that a new life seemed possible. But it did seem possible.
     His car, a beat-up old station wagon that suited his self-deprecation, was parked on the street. She had meant to walk home, but to what? His windshield was still wiped of snow. He would come looking for her soon, to tell her she was all that mattered; that seemed very clear. He wouldn't dance with Alice all night. His car keys were back in the house, but she didn't need them. She was very tired. There was so little time for sleep, ever, and now this confusion. She opened the unlocked passenger door and got inside, where it was still warm and smelled of him, and she rolled the seat back as far as it would go, to sleep and wait.

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