Cinder from the House of Godby Nicholas LaRocca
In the dark, Daniel pressed his flat palm upon the flat plane of Meredith's breastbone, her double-mastectomy. A moan escaped her lips, puckered for a kiss, and he brought his lips to hers as she brushed her cheek, with sweet deference, against the sandpaper of his cheek. He had been the clean-shaven type before they'd met, but she adored a five-o'clock shadow. "It lends you your special power," she used to say, with a blaze in her eyes that was her particular magic, her love of men and manhood—and finally, as they fell in love, of finding herself beside him, as she reshaped herself into monogamy from the wildness of a previous life. They loved each other with abundance, lost in an exclusive adventure, two children referencing a secret with blushes and laughter as others around them pout at not knowing.
Her mouth tasted like dead skin; her tongue was as dry as communion.
She welcomed him politely, on her back, with a quiet body, provincial as a deserted road through a stretch of desert, her ATP store depleted, the very vibrancy of life that completes tasks, by nourishment, by choice and comfort of when and how to expel energy, gone and gone forever, so that their movements and counter-movements could not be inspired by what was to come, the way new lovers, growing comfortable but not yet comfortable, might be inspired by a happy future. So she welcomed him, and because of that hardness, because this was her body now and forever, he entered her softly, slowly, and, though she was aroused, tentatively, searching out whether sex was what she wanted—or, instead, to embrace tenderly, without the destruction of intercourse. She answered by pushing her hips against his with what energy she had, a gesture more of support than desire.
She whispered, "Thank you. I know I'm not attractive. Thank you."
How to tell her! The words he chose were imperfect. "I love you."
What he wanted to say, inside her, was something much greater, that his love for her had burned with the sweet madness of a childhood crush, that he had found in recent years, finally, in her arms, in her eyes, in her admiration, his own manhood, conjured by the beauty of how great a fool she'd made him, and what sickened him, what made this their first act of love-making since she'd lost her breasts, was that God had stricken her after God had made her perfect. No one would ever love him the way she had. How to tell her he was afraid of loving her even more because he would love her too much forever, and he knew there would come a time when he would need and deserve love again, and he would be unwilling to seek it out except, as any man might, in the most depraved places, which tortured his soul and had, in fact, enveloped him during the lowest, most anemic days of the fight she finally palliated, when he listened to her retching behind the bathroom door and felt impotent as he offered assistance that would accomplish nothing, when he lost her vitality and had just barely held on to his own faithfulness—this by telling himself that if he strayed, he would be unworthy even of the curse of God.
How to tell her he had not thought about God but in passing for years, yet now he thought mostly of God, and despised the old man, and swore to Him that if He took his wife's love, took their hearts in middle age while their marriage was new and their love was new, and if He did not offer something in its place—at least His own love—then He was a tyrant, no better than Assad or Khomeini: a dictator, and a homicidal one, to be reduced and cast away: Napoleon on the island.
He moved his lips down the thin line of her withered neck, felt the sharp ridge of her collarbone with his chin, bone to bone. Gone was the youthful plumpness so present for so long when they went wild for one another and rediscovered lust, joy, and pleasure, and were envied among their colleagues at the school—that bunch of scabs, full of Schadenfreude, now, as though they had warned her never to love or be happy, for it was all a myth, like a perfect student.
He moved down and kissed her ribs like fingers through her flesh. He kissed her hips, slender as a boy's, and kissed her barren belly with all the imperfect tenderness he could conjure, feeling unsuited for the honor of her closeness.
In the backyard a few nights later, he lit a match and went around to each of the tiki torches he'd planted in the ground when they'd bought the house four years ago and which they lit for parties. He felt the flame of the match as it inched closer and closer to his fingertips. He lit each torch. He blew out the match calmly, though his fingertips were licked by fire.
He stood in the center of his lawn, laughing self-consciously at the odd ritual of flame he seemed to be hypnotized by, like a man half his age. But hypnotized he was, as he watched flames dance around him and noted the danger of fire, the short but perceptible rise in heat (or was he imagining it?), and the way each flame seemed in its bobbing and weaving to be of him.
Did it matter whether he was imagining it? Did it matter that when he thought of his wife, he pictured her before the illness?
The power of what burned around him! He would sprinkle her malignant cells into a pyre, listen for their crackle, watch them rise from the firelight like cinder and flutter, dead and burned to ash, into the water of the pool, onto the grass of the yard—or carry up into the air and vanish.
He snapped his fingers, as though he was a magician, but this was no trick.
He took her to a bonfire on the beach, thrown by the township. In the crowd were many people they knew from the school system—where he had been principal of the high school at which she'd taught through last summer. Colleagues gave their hellos. Some genuinely meant their compassion. Most were relieved there was a greater heartache than their own to witness, those depraved voyeurs.
He held her as tightly as her frail body would allow. He whispered beautiful promises and meant each, as the fire grew taller and threw such heat on their faces it was as though they burned again with passion.
Meredith passed on a Thursday, not long before Christmas, after a tough Thanksgiving, when, in the weeks leading toward the end of the year, a great fear of mortality seized her, and the fear of death drove her to the end. She was hurried into hospice and passed a short time later. He hardly had time to speak the words to her—and what words? Daniel's heart seized up the way she was seized by mortality, and he felt as though he was dying alongside her: the strange figure she made in her hospice bed at home; the odor of decay that came from the bedroom, where he no longer could sleep; the way he turned and left the room when it was time for the nurse to bathe her with a sponge and basin. He once watched the ritual in the reflection on a window, in the bedroom across the hall. He marveled at the light of their bodies, which made a motion like flames dancing, and noted how little eroticism it aroused, yet in a former time, such an image would have heightened the very masculine fever Meredith adored most.
At the funeral, he had an idea to burn the flowers that adorned the backdrop of the casket. Cremate the body. Ashes to ashes. He tried not to remember but could not help remembering her youth, which had been present just before she grew sick and present at times even while she was sick. He wished he had known her in her teens or twenties, the wild child, in those wonderful summer dresses, a flower whose graceful movements made hard men obedient.
He wished she would be buried whole—she had not quite made it a second time to that sacred position under the surgeon's scalpel, to be restored. The flat plane of her chest, the deathly pall on her face, the lost vigor of her cheeks, the odd, pained crinkle of her brow all lent her a masculinity she never bore in life. A queer thought passed through Daniel's mind: Meredith was challenging him.
After the funeral, he was left alone. It was a lonely ritual even when he was not alone, to be accompanied by family, friends, colleagues, former students—all of whom among the latter adored her, and many of whom credited her with the happy direction of their lives. He was with them through the point of no return, as her body rested in a casket above her gravesite, then back to his house to eat and remember. But then he was deserted one-by-one, so that soon he stood alone in the house and felt oppressed—as Meredith, who'd been a school teacher with early hours, had often complained when the house was empty and it was that lulling time of the afternoon.
The remains of the afternoon in December, even in St. Augustine, Florida, are chilly. He thought of lighting a fire in the fire pit—those wild, odd thoughts had returned during the funeral, though they had not struck him nearly as urgently as he was struck now, when with a new compulsion he wanted to sire a flame. He dragged the fire pit from under the covered patio to a clear spot beside the pool where he could build the fire as high as it would go.
He had no firewood. Up the street was a pharmacy, and they sold such things, he remembered. He got in his car, still wearing his funeral suit, and in the driver's seat finally loosened his tie, which tightness had buttressed him somehow. He checked his hangdog, worn out face in the rearview: the five-o'clock shadow Meredith adored, over pale cheeks and around sunken eyes, beastlike and impotent at once against the general malaise of sadness all over him and so deep within him that he felt himself an easy victim and knew he needed to stoke the fires of his own manhood and seize his own strength again, or else.
He'd spent a fair amount of time in this drug store buying for Meredith. The regular cashier, a young lady, very pretty, whose name was Donshekia (the "i" was silent, he would learn), had eyed him once or twice after she'd seemed to figure out his motive for such continued visits—she noted his wedding ring, which now, behind the wheel, he checked by picking with his thumbnail and did not remove. When he arrived, she was on duty, tall and lean and wearing a summer dress as Meredith might have despite the chill—though she'd pulled a hoodie over her shoulders. She nodded to him from the other side of the walkway, where she was smoking an electric cigarette, and followed him inside. It was quiet in the store, a Sunday, with the light failing. There were some other shoppers in other aisles, making white noise.
He found the fire logs and bought three bundles—these did not come in cords but were the sort engineered with lighter fluid. He brought them to the front, and Donshekia said, "We have firewood outside, too, Mr…"
"Daniel," he said, glancing at her with attraction—sudden and needful and vulnerable, so that she was made timid, though not put off. She was familiar to him, after all the visits, and always seemed pleasant in her greeting when his turn came.
She pulled the sides of her hoodie closed to hide her slender figure. She had pale black skin, almost gray, and Cuban cheekbones, and she wore her long hair in braids that tumbled over her hood and snagged in her hood, though she didn't flip them clear until he wasn't looking. Her eyes were gray in the dim light of the store. She stood upright in her posture and spoke in a clear voice, without the heavy Southern accent he had expected. He'd assumed she'd grown up in Jacksonville or South Georgia, but she had a central Florida accent, perhaps local.
"Do you want any actual firewood?" she asked.
"Yes, I'll take a cord."
She gave him his price, and he gave over his phone number to get his loyalty points. Outside, he thought of stealing an extra cord but did not.
And yet, as the fire was building, she called and asked, "Did you take extra firewood, Mr. Logano?" She spoke immediately upon his answering the strange number, and her tone was playful.
"I swear I didn't. Is the girl from the pharmacy? Donshekia? How do you know my last name? How did you get my number? It's okay. I'm just confused—as usual," he laughed.
"Don-sheik-uh," she reminded him. "Silent 'i.' You have a membership with us. Hon, I wanted to call you. I know your wife has been sick. Did she pass?"
When he didn't answer—by which silence he did answer—she went on. "Please don't tell anyone I called." She wanted to add something, but took it away and spoke in its place on another topic. "I'm in the back room now. Are you okay?"
He laughed self-effacingly. "No. I'm terrible. And I'm building some kind of fire back here, so apparently I'm a pyromaniac."
She laughed with him. "Why did you buy from us? They sell it cheaper at other places."
The fire was rising in front of him. The cinder crackled and fluttered into the pool. He'd turned on the skimmer to capture it.
"I was cold," he admitted.
"Not me? Did you want to see me?"
He heard himself say, "Yes. I think you're beautiful. My wife lost a lot of weight at the end, and your figure reminds me of her—but you're healthy. I don't like how I sound. I sound like I'm thinking about—"
"You're a man. That's all you think about. This is my number, on your phone," she said. "I realized when you came in that it's nice to see you. I like older men," she added, hastily. She went on, as though she was the one who needed to build a case in favor, "I'm taking pre-med at U.N.F., in Jacksonville. I start med school this summer, in the Caribbean. I'm not just a cashier."
"No," he agreed, whatever that meant, because it sounded elitist, and a nice cashier made a day more pleasant. But that was… his thoughts were everywhere. He knew he had to say it, felt it everywhere, and felt terrible about himself but knew it even more because of how terrible he felt to hear the words in his mind before he spoke them. "I do want you to come over. Will you?"
She came over that evening. She toured his house. He seemed to remember her differently, as though something small but significant was missing from her person now. He noticed a tattoo inside her wrist. Merry. That was Meredith's nickname, and many called her Merry as recently as the funeral.
She looked over the wedding pictures in the entertainment center, of beautiful Meredith with her brown hair and tanned shoulders leaning back, an image of repose and quiet beauty in her halter-style dress, with her veil pulled up and falling over the backs of her naked shoulders. She was ten years younger than Daniel, and she looked even younger than that.
"I like this picture. She was beautiful. You guys were married how long?"
"She wanted to, for a time, but it didn't happen, and we resigned ourselves to fate. It made us a different couple. She became—" he wondered whether he should be frank, but understood she was at least intellectually his equal, so, though she was young, she would expect frankness, and he could expect her not to respond with bashfulness. "She became more libidinous without the pressure of trying to have a child. We were one of those rare couples who are happy without kids."
"Yes, but you would have been happier with them."
Donshekia replaced the picture. She turned and betrayed her youth, swinging her hands together in a loose clap and snapping her fingers: click, click filled the silence. "What do you do?"
"I was a principal for a number of years. She was a teacher. That's how we met. I had to quit my job to be with her. It was time, though. I consult in education now. I'm a dirty businessman," he winked.
She gave a cursory, flirtatious response, polite because the humor was inorganic to her: "Dirty's good. She was a great teacher—I bet."
"Would you like something to drink?"
"I'd like a glass of red wine. It's work to studying for me. I think the ritual… it's become who I am? I'm happy to be here," she added.
After the initial awkward caresses, and after a derisive poutiness she at first betrayed—she frowned and giggled at him, as though he was feeble in his attempts, until she saw, by the look in his eyes, that he was not feeble, she was not to giggle, and he could be too strong if she dared him—she settled into allowing his hands to move all over her youthful body. Something about the way they moved felt ill-timed, and he ascribed the lingering doubt in her to the entire circumstance, including his own doubt, which at moments made him tentative, the emotion she'd initially misread.
She had a delicate figure, with slender hips and small breasts, and wore her pubic hair low and shaped wide to her underwear, which were practical cotton, cut almost like boy shorts, so that they covered her in a U. They were decorated with pictures of comic book characters. She might have bought them at the pharmacy. They were not delicate and the cut, especially given how thin she was, was unflattering, but the cotton was thick and had been pleasant to touch.
She smelled lovely because she smelled like life. She'd come from work. Her shyness as he made his way down coaxed him on, and he found himself being forceful, but carefully so, realizing she had not had many lovers. A much more serious young woman than Meredith had ever been. The next generation. He tenderly but firmly clutched both her hands. She couldn't pull away.
When he went down on her, the orgasm was a byproduct. His wanted to taste her. He pushed his tongue inside her, licked her low to high. She had a mild taste, starchy and soothing. With her eyes closed, and perhaps a rebellious thought running through her own mind—rebellious even against the rebellious endeavor in which she was now engaged (he got a feeling her own motives were more complicated than sympathy and a template desire for older men)—her arousal grew into moans and her hips moved to curve his tongue within her.
She asked whether she could smoke, and he told her, "Outside. I don't want you falling asleep and burning the house down."
"It's an electric cigarette."
"Even worse. It feels too much like Blade Runner."
She thought it over, not knowing the reference, and a queerness settled in the air, strange as the fake cigarette.
She said, getting out of bed on one side, while he got out of bed on the other, so that her back was to him and, in regaining herself, she was hunched over as though worn out and peeved, "I see it more often than I should for nine dollars an hour. Death. I've probably learned more about illness from working behind that cash register than in any prep work I've done for med school. It's a different experience, when you're seeing it from the other side."
She got to her feet and faced him, and in the residual light from the kitchen a couple rooms away and the moonlight coming through the blinds in the bedroom, she looked, though pale, healthy and youthful.
She said, "It's a worthwhile experience, but I understand why doctors don't do a good job with it. If you start doing sympathy, you lose the medicine. You're not a doctor. You have to keep a balance in both. So, don't throw them away, Dan."
She was intentionally withholding, which peeved him. "Throw what away?"
"The pictures. But put them away. Out of sight. You're never going to forget her."
"Or I could just obliterate them," he said, facetiously. "Incinerate them."
"You're past that."
She was a sweet, slender cookie—and very bright. Had he irritated her by seeming juvenile? Truly, what sense did obliteration make? But she understood his vehemence, built of fury.
They walked naked out of the bedroom and in the kitchen light looked each other over. Her nipples were wide and purple on her dark gray skin. It was easier somehow to notice, now, hair extensions where the braids were tied to her roots. He himself was too thin, had lost weight suddenly, and in the sliding door opposite the kitchen noted how emaciated he looked and decided he was certainly the less attractive of the two—he decided this because for whatever reason he was suddenly enamored with her. He wanted her again. He dreaded each moment that she might not linger a moment more.
And she seemed to know, because she stood at the sink drinking a glass of water slowly. She did not rinse and wash the glass but left it in the sink with her lipstick on the rim. She made her way across the house and out back and stood there smoking her fake cigarette a little while, lost in her thoughts while he cleaned up and watched her through the glass.
It was not very late, ten at night, but when she came back in, rather than get dressed, she merely gathered her things, folded them, and placed them on a low bench against a wall in the bedroom, where Meredith had often folded and left her own clothes. She crawled into bed, covered herself, and made a place for him by folding back the covers on the other side and tapping the mattress.
He came into bed desperate for her to hold him. He was tearing up, with his back turned.
In the morning, when he woke, she was waiting for him. With a kind of romantic intent, she climbed on top of him. He found himself easily aroused. She slipped him inside her and moved her hips and rubbed herself against him aggressively until she came.
She dressed quickly and told him, matter-of-factly and with sincere quietude, not with soap-opera melodrama, that she would find her own way out. He sat up in bed and listened to the sounds of her leaving. The house felt cavernous and brutal, with its shapes and shadows and occupied nooks, and he felt, as though it made its own sound, the hand and heart of its decorator.
It was then that he felt utterly alone—that is, apart from his place and time.
He texted Donshekia before he heard her car leave his driveway. "Will I see you again?"
He waited, watching the phone, but she did not reply. He coaxed himself out of bed and hurried to the hall window, where he saw that she was calling someone—she sat in her running Honda, old enough that exhaust rose foully behind the trunk. She stayed in his driveway like a scandal, holding the phone and quite suddenly talking animatedly behind the windshield. He could even make out the ink of the tattoo on her wrist.
She did not notice his figure in the window. Squeezing the phone to her ear, she threw the car into gear and backed out quickly. She halted in the middle of the road, half into her K turn, clutched the phone in her hand, and shouted for several seconds before starting off.
He remembered his first impression of her, that she was missing something small on her person. He remembered all those visits to the pharmacy, and suddenly he saw it in his mind! Her small engagement ring, a thin band that managed to swallow a speck of a diamond, had not adorned her finger last night nor this morning.
He took a shower and worried he would never be able to face the day. Tomorrow, he would have to return to work, hop a flight to Atlanta, actually. Today, he had football, maybe a decent meal—though at the moment, he had little appetite. He found himself imagining his wife watching him with a flat expression of disappointment. He heard himself speak to her in the shower—and felt ridiculous that he was speaking as water ran into his mouth: "What am I supposed to do, now?"
When he got out of the shower, he saw his phone alight and go dark on his nightstand, and going to it hoped that Donshekia had texted him back.
But it was a member of the Board he was meeting in Buckhead, in Atlanta, wishing him a safe trip. "If you can't come up, we understand. We can reschedule."
He wrote back second-naturedly, "I think it would be good for me. I'm looking forward to it."
He slept well that night, and his dreams were quiet.
In Buckhead, he was a genius, and as was his custom while consulting, after spending two days going over the numbers—budgets, student test scores, dropout rates, percentages of exceptional students, gender, race, socioeconomic status—he developed a smart little ten point plan, which he presented Wednesday to the Board. They clapped after his presentation, both genuinely at its elegance and because he was obviously a tremendous man, in their estimation, who had worked so well through so much personal tragedy.
They took him out and thanked him profusely and spoke somberly and with emotive, Southern compassion that rocked him—he was a Northern boy, a transplant, and up there, compassion, though equally genuine, was intellectual by nature and seemed colder and more rote, more mathematical than artistic. One man, named Al Hansen, the assistant superintendent, handsome in his late-fifties, half-bald, with a fake tan and a neat salt and pepper mustache that gave his face the friendly appearance of a cartoon walrus, sat with his hands folded, nodding with his eyes as much as his chin, and listening to every word in a way that struck Daniel as minute. When they shook hands later that night, something decent passed between Al's and Daniel's eyes.
Very late, he got a text from Al. "Are you okay? Can you sleep? Do you need to talk?"
He pretended not to have read the text until morning, and in the morning pretended to be innocent of the subtext. "Thank you. I slept well. You all have been great. I hope to see you and the others soon, when I check out your implementation. Remember to send me the implementation plan by the end of this academic year."
He hopped his flight back to Jacksonville, found his car easily in the parking garage (that was a relief, and he'd started to rely on the small things, and was more cheered by them than was their due), and drove patiently south on I-95 to St. Augustine. He crossed over the Intracoastal that separated the best of the town from the outer islands that had been developed into a mixture of spring break flophouses misnomered as "resorts" and middle class and wealthy homes, their value dependent upon access to the water on either side. His home was in a development on the barrier island's west side. Houses on the far end of the neighborhood were more expensive because they backed up to the Intracoastal Waterway. His own property was landlocked and small, but the home was big and newish and had, until Meredith got her hands on it, turned him off for being too much of a cookie cutter.
When he arrived, there was a very old car parked in his driveway, a blue Datsun, maybe 1979, with a flimsy back bumper and a long antenna to which a plastic, miniature tennis ball had been tied. He scarcely pulled in beside it when a short, pudgy, light-skinned young black man, in his mid-twenties, wearing a worn, dented, white fedora, a black screen tee with the words Mickey Mouse in bright white across the chest, and a pair of blue jeans ended by white sneakers, stepped out. Of all things, he was holding a tennis racket.
"Excuse me?" he said.
"Excuse me," Daniel said. "What are you doing here?"
They stood with the car between them, Daniel too frightened to move toward his house—he would have to pass the young man—and the young man seemingly more bark than bite. And he hadn't even barked.
"Do you know Donshekia?" The young man pronounced the "i."
"I know her as Don-shiek-uh."
"How do you know her?"
"From the pharmacy."
The young man laughed. "Then she knows you better. She's my fiancé," he said. "But she's leaving me. To go to med school. I encouraged her, and she's leaving me. I know she spent the night here, man. She told me."
Daniel grew frightened, though there was absolutely nothing frightening about the young man. Under just about any other circumstance, his Haitian face would have appeared jolly; he hadn't moved an inch; his own chest was heaving nervously; there was anxiety all over his expression, heartbroken, not angry; and like Donsheikia, his pronunciation and enunciation were solidly middle class.
"Are you armed?" Daniel asked.
"I have a tennis racket," the young man laughed, and moved to hold it up as though volleying at the net.
Daniel surprised himself. "Would you like to come in? You have to promise me right here in my driveway you're not going to hurt me. I don't think I can deal with that."
The young man nodded—shyly.
Daniel moved to his trunk to retrieve his suitcase. The young man moved in the same direction with body language indicating he would help—and would have except he was still holding the tennis racket and the suitcase was small. Instead, he opened his own trunk, which required him to crouch and use his legs to force the stuck door. He placed the racket in the trunk beside several cans of tennis balls.
"What's your name?" Daniel asked.
"Sean, let's go inside. A beer?"
"Yes," he said, enthusiastically.
Passing him, Daniel caught a whiff of marijuana, which further explained the young man's calm.
Inside, Sean was also curious of the house, of the pictures. "You're married?" he asked, turning and looking around for signs of a woman, which were everywhere and nowhere—there but not alive.
"My wife passed away. You're sure you're not going to hurt me?"
He laughed. "I'm a pacifist. I've got some Rastafarian ideals, except I don't always live by them. I'd like to. I just don't."
Daniel had gone to the kitchen and popped open two bottles of beer. He handed one over the kitchen counter to Sean, whose mood was less and less sullen, which continued to surprise Daniel. It felt as though a freedom Sean would never have granted himself had been given to him, though the freedom was bittersweet. Daniel recalled, Donshekia, the woman Sean so obviously loved and who was obviously ill-suited, in her severity, seriousness, and ambition, to his whimsy and apparent addiction to tennis, smoking an electric cigarette, lost in her thoughts on the patio. And now, with greater force than during the original moment, Daniel wondered just what those thoughts were.
Sean read something on his face. "She knew your wife," he explained, suddenly.
Sean looked confidently into the older man's eyes. Daniel felt strange under that youthful confidence, which could have been mistaken for aggression in another young man.
"Your wife was her teacher. They didn't keep in touch, but I think she learned a lot from her. Donshekia lost her own mother. Her father didn't marry again."
"Why didn't he?" Daniel asked.
"You'd have to ask her."
"You're engaged to her, and you don't know?"
"There's a lot we both don't know," he said, and added, in a self-effacing manner whose maturity surprised Daniel, "but she didn't get engaged to me because she wanted to marry me. She got engaged to me because I asked and she's a really nice, genuine person. And she was going to get away. I think she always planned that. She was just… biding her time."
"So she knew Meredith," Daniel said, more to himself.
"Knew her! Didn't you see? She has her name tattooed on her wrist!"
"No, that was Mer—I thought that was just a word," Daniel said, shocked.
"Your wife inspired her to pursue her passions. They kissed once."
Now the young man's eyes sparkled.
Daniel thought he was lying. "Don't be silly."
"In the classroom, end of senior year. You know, she told me all this, but not about her father, which is why I knew she would never marry me."
Meredith had kissed this girl—as a girl. Well, it wasn't illegal just to kiss—his mind went there first. And perhaps it was more innocent on Meredith's part and the girl, being in love with her beautiful teacher, had taken it another way. But then he knew it wasn't so. Five years ago. A year into their marriage. When talk of children ended and her spirit returned. Wait, that kiss—and suddenly, he knew there had been others, with other students!—had been a celebration. He felt he hardly knew his wife, yet he loved her even more, and when his eyes came back to Sean, he recognized that this young man felt exactly the same way about Donshekia. As they shared their beer and talked, Daniel could not escape that he was an unwitting yet happy victim of revenge by a second party against a third, that Donshekia had been with him to be with Meredith and to not be with Sean. Her vengeance was upon Sean and him both for not being Meredith, and, yes, he was happy to be used and jettisoned—just like Sean.
That stuff Donshekia had said about healing his pain? It wasn't a lie, but it was incidental, same as whatever she'd done for Sean was incidental (Sean turned out to be a talker and a drinker of more than one beer).
As they drank and talked, it was all there, everything he needed, in Sean's intellectual equivocation, the way he insisted upon accepting Donshekia's betrayal as natural and inevitable though his heart didn't quite feel that way. Daniel understood he'd been lucky to attract Meredith, which, in fairness, he had realized and had resigned his position over. Sean, because he was younger, though he knew Donshekia outclassed him, could not quite accept the degree to which her being with him had been a life-changing favor. That would come in years to come, as would the position Daniel now found himself in, so that Sean and he were, like father and son, linked behaviorally and psychologically to the same fate: there would always be the potential for capriciousness, but only by luck, and there could never again be the same smooth shape to life. Yet it all could not be burned through, and if it related to flame, it was not cinder, but it danced.