Issue of 2002-07-01
Posted 2002-06-24
That afternoon she asked him, "Is that an old habit, the way you talk to yourself?" She raised her
eyes from the table and put the question to him as if the thought had just struck her, but it had
obviously not just struck her. She must have been thinking about it for a while. Her voice had that
hard but slightly husky edge it always took on at times like this. She had held the words back and
rolled them around on her tongue again and again before she let them out of her mouth.
The two were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table. Aside from the occasional commuter
train running on a nearby track, the neighborhood was quiet — almost too quiet at times. Tracks
without trains passing over them have a mysterious silence all their own. The vinyl tile of the
kitchen floor gave his bare feet a pleasant chill. He had pulled his socks off and stuffed them into
his pants pocket. The weather was a bit too warm for an April afternoon. She had rolled up the
sleeves of her pale checked shirt as far as the elbows, and her slim white fingers toyed with the
handle of her coffee spoon. He stared at the moving fingertips, and the workings of his mind went
strangely flat. She seemed to have lifted the edge of the world, and now she was loosening its
threads little by little — perfunctorily, apathetically, as if she had to do it no matter how long it might
He watched and said nothing. He said nothing because he did not know what to say. The few sips
of coffee left in his cup were cold now, and muddy-looking.
He had just turned twenty, and she was seven years older, married, and the mother of one. For
him, she might as well have been the far side of the moon.
Her husband worked for a travel agency that specialized in trips abroad, and so he was away from
home nearly half of every month, in places like London or Rome or Singapore. He obviously liked
opera. Thick three- and four-record albums lined the shelves, arranged by composer — Verdi,
Puccini, Donizetti, Richard Strauss. The long rows looked less like a record collection than a
symbol of a world view: calm, immovable. He looked at the husband's records whenever he was at
a loss for words or for something to do; he would let his eyes wander over the album spines — from
right to left, from left to right — and read the titles aloud in his mind: "La Bohème," "Tosca,"
"Turandot," "Norma," "Fidelio" . . . He had never once listened to music like that, had never had the
chance to hear it. Not one person among his family, friends, or acquaintances was an opera fan. He
knew that a music called opera existed, and that certain people liked to listen to it, but the husband's records were his first actual glimpse of such a world.
She herself was not particularly fond of opera. "I don't hate it," she said. "It's just too long."
Next to the record shelves stood a very impressive stereo set. Its big, foreign-made tube amp
hunched down heavily, waiting for orders like a well-trained crustacean. There was no way to
prevent it from standing out among the room's other, more modest furnishings. It had a truly
exceptional presence. One's eyes could not help fixing on it. But he had never once heard it
producing sound. She had no idea where to find the power switch, and he never thought to touch
the thing.
"There's nothing wrong at home," she told him — any number of times. "My husband is good to me,
I love my daughter, I think I'm happy.