I caught a glimpse of him as he was leaving the office, though I’d been trying to avoid him. The building security man, in blue blazer, stood off to his left, hands folded respectfully in front of him like a funeral director receiving the bereaved, but ready to reach out and steer his charge if necessary. Bartleby shuffled forward unsteadily, as if suddenly, after sixteen years, unsure of the way out. His large, rounded shoulders were hunched, seemingly weighted down by his dull khaki raincoat. One hand held a canvas briefcase bulging with personal items; the other gripped an umbrella that abruptly opened up in front of his knees. Mumbling apologies to his escort, he fumbled to close it, and I cringed for him—one more indignity before he’d even reached the elevator bank. Then they turned a corner and he was gone.
I waited awhile in my office, looked at the pictures of my wife and young daughter, neither of whom thought of me as an unkind man, then put on my own coat and left the building. The sky above was dark with low clouds, and thick rainfall splattered down. Under the cover of my umbrella, I prayed for him not to endure any hardship. He hated me, I was sure. I’d never fired anyone before. But today I had, at the very least, ruined a man’s day. Now I would go home to a warm meal, familial love, perhaps laugh at a television show. What was he going home to? He’d have no peace or security tonight. He’d stand before his wife in squishy shoes, soaked and jobless. I tried not to let my imagination go too far, but I could see myself in his place, lying in bed, awake in the darkness, talking fearfully in hushed desperate whispers with my wife: What are we going to do?
I imagined him as I would imagine myself. But I soon learned that I knew him not at all, and that he was not like me.
This kind of work tends to attract introverts, sometimes extreme introverts, so Bartleby keeping his office door closed, while seeming somewhat unusual for the company, did not seem disturbingly odd for a proofreader in a publishing house. The woman who had held my position before me apprised me of this closed door idiosyncrasy of his, so I accepted its legacy. She also told me he was a poet and speculated that he might compose at work. My attitude was that as long as he did the work and met his deadlines, if he stole a half hour here or there for verse, no harm done. Most of us had other passions. (I liked to pick a banjo now and then.) I had always preferred a laissez-faire atmosphere, and now that I was the boss, in effect, I wanted to be easygoing. Plus he’d been there as far back as people could remember, so I assumed he knew his stuff.
He never mentioned anything personal and by his manner didn’t seem to invite any inquiries.
Not once did he comment on the pictures of my wife and daughter on my desk, the Impressionist art on my walls, or even wonder aloud what my literary tastes were. I deduced that he was an opera buff by the posters on his wall of Rigoletto and Turandot, but he never played music in his office. I did, softly: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, early Dylan. No comment from him.
We didn’t wish each other a good night or a good weekend because I rarely saw him leave—or come in. Every once in a while I’d see him trudging off to the copying machine wearing his usual faded blue and white striped shirt and baggy gray trousers. I never saw him eat lunch or noticed him going out to eat. His office never smelled of food. It gave off a musty scent, when the door did open, but that was it.
He made no mention of children, which didn’t mean he didn’t have any, but I never saw any evidence—no photos, no child-scrawled crayon drawings or splotchy finger paintings. Later, after my first discovery, I wondered, though it was none of my business, if he had sex with his wife. She did exist. Again there was no photo or conversational reference to her, but I happened to meet her one night, standing next to Bartleby in the elevator lobby.
She looked several years younger than him, maybe mid to late forties. A pleasant round face, friendly smile, bouncy brown curls. She wore loose, casual clothes, and I guessed from the file of papers under her arm and the textbooks she cradled that she was a high school math teacher—algebra. She didn’t say but reached out and smiled when Bartleby reluctantly volunteered introductions.
“My wife, Ellen,” he said in the same tone he might say, “Here’s the new Melville introduction back from the editor.”
He introduced me as Victor, and my name sounded foreign on his lips. I couldn’t remember him ever calling me by name.
She said, “Very nice to meet you,” and I said the same, and then with fixed smiles she and I
waited for the elevator to descend while Bartleby studied his shoes.
Any interaction with him was awkward, if not painful, so I kept them to a minimum. Knocking on his closed door intimidated me, as much as I told myself that it shouldn’t and resented that it did. Whenever I knocked there would be a pause, the sound of caster wheels rolling or his chair creaking, and I would continue to stand in the hall holding whatever work I had for him, feeling noticeable and stupid as I awaited admittance. It was rare that I had a conversation with him past the doorway, that I got more than a foot over the threshold. He would be there, large body blocking off the rest of his office. A solitary lamp on his desk gave off a dull backlight in the windowless room. He’d peer at me over glasses sliding down the bumpy ridge of his nose, bulging startled eyes with deep bags under them. His big ears were emphasized by a sharp crew cut; gray bristles of hair squared off his head. His thumbs were thick and knobby, topped off by long yellowing nails, sharp and square like his head. Invariably he’d be clutching a sheet of paper, as if to say, I’m working, see? Sometimes he’d be holding the phone, stretching the cord to open the door, and it seemed understood that I’d return later. He never hung up. Again, in retrospect, I’m not sure I ever heard him say anything on the phone.
The single peek I had into his personal life (prior to his departure) was a poem left too long in the printer several of us shared. His name wasn’t on it, but I assumed, especially from the opera reference, that it was his. I’m not sure why, but I took it and made a copy of it, then returned it to the printer. I never acknowledged I’d seen it, either to tell him I didn’t care or even that I liked it, which I rather did.
This is his poem:
In the trailer across the gravel drive
She plays Puccini records at three in the afternoon.
I sit in my trailer, vodka glass in hand
Listening, imagining touching her,
Tucking a finger under a strap of her slip
And pulling it over her freckled shoulder.
Our cries are drowned out by the voice
Of the immortal Maria Callas.
It never occurred to me in those early months to not work with him or that he would voluntarily leave. He’d been in the same position, the same boxy office for years. His bookshelves were overflowing; he had stacks of dusty Xerox boxes full of old files under a table. Bartleby gave off an air of permanence, if not stagnation. Like a squat three-floor brownstone bookended by new skyscrapers in Manhattan, he was staying put, in a niche. If he was in a rut, he’d chosen to decorate it. With opera posters.
The process of discovery came in three stages, the first on the day after he’d been fired. That morning I did a preliminary survey of what was in his office to see what work he had that I needed to go over. His one act of overt aggression before he left had been to slam a pile of manuscripts into my in-box without a word and stalk out of my office. But I was far from sure he’d given me everything. And I was curious. The closed door, the inner sanctum.
The opera posters had been left taped to the walls. I turned on his lamp and found the 40-watt bulb black on top with filth, a bald man with a bad toupee. Sitting in his desk chair, which teetered loosely back and forth, I opened the top drawer. Office supplies, needle and a spool of thread, lots of rubber bands, a stray clothespin, half a bottle of aspirin. The middle drawer held forms, envelopes, Post-its—paper supplies. Then I pulled open the bottom drawer.
Atop a tall listing stack sat a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. The model, in black bikini underwear, was craning her neck to one side, thrusting out her breasts, on bended knees, brown hair thrown back. I knew, in the way we all seem to know things about super models without seeking the information, that she was French. She was gorgeous. I smiled and thought, So the old dog had some tricks. It wasn’t all about opera and poetry. The hermit had an active libido, although an underwear catalogue was pretty tame, almost sweet. Some pity and guilt rose up in me again.
I peeked under the catalogue to see if he indeed had a whole stack and discovered a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue. Costumes, then, in addition to lingerie. Underneath that one I found a guide for adult films, the trim size of a TV Guide. After a glance at the open doorway, I flipped through it quickly. Lots of small square color photos with boobs and hair, mostly blond. I wondered if he had ordered porn from the office, had it delivered here? And how much? I wasn’t too deep into the stack.
Lying under half a dozen more adult film guides, I found a catalogue called “Bound for Glory” with a grainy black-and-white shot of a blindfolded woman, arms held above her head by wrist restraints. I looked at the doorway again, dropped the bondage catalogue on top of the others, and closed the drawer. I climbed out of the wobbly chair, walked to the door, then turned around. The last find had disturbed me. And the size of the stack—close to toppling out of the drawer—had clearly taken some time to accumulate. Just what was he into with the door closed?
That’s when I thought of his wife.
Naturally I told my wife. Olivia had listened to my complaints about him for nine months; she’d earned a reward. She was entitled to hear the dirt, to get a kick out of it. And I needed to confide it to someone else, someone sympathetic, who shared my sensibilities and values.
After many failed relationships of various durations, I had married my unrequited love from high school. We’d met in Italian class as juniors. I’d act up in class to impress her, and our high-strung teacher, Signora Massina, would invariably shout, “Che vergona!” Shame! At night I used to lie in bed listening to romantic folk ballads on my headphones and fantasize about what I’d say to charm Olivia in the halls before class, imagine how I might find a way to kiss her. Such innocence. Her family moved to Buffalo before I was able to work up the courage to ask her out.
I never had a girl’s tongue in my mouth until my sophomore year of college. Years later we both met up in lower Manhattan, at jury duty of all places. We had dinner in Little Italy, I confessed my crush, and we both got curious. Seventeen months later we got married and now we had Sophia.
We still occasionally joked about Signora Massina or our stout high school principal, a man ironically named Goodheart, who frowned on couples kissing in the hallways and always barked, “There’s a time and a place!” The night I came home after finding the porn, conveyed to Olivia in adult code with several spelled-out words while we fed three-year-old Sophia at the dinner table, she said, in Signora Massina’s dramatic voice of profound disappointment, “Che vergona!”
I laughed, then intoned, “There’s a time and a place.”
Olivia shook her head.
I’d thought our principal the enemy of romantic love in those days, but on that night I found myself agreeing with him.
I wasn’t a prude. I considered myself a normal guy with a normal sex life. Since our daughter had been born, we had less time and energy for frequent sex, but when we did make love, it was great. “Not bad for an old married couple,” we’d say. I liked having sex with my wife. Of course I fantasized too. I checked out women on the subway, on the street, in the office—I admired beauty. I didn’t, however, look at wrists or exposed ankles and picture restraints on them. Once, when living in San Francisco, I had a girlfriend who suggested trying a mattress pad with Velcro restraints. I told her I wasn’t interested. My fantasies involved pleasure. I didn’t even like tight shirt collars.
“Well,” Olivia said, wiping some applesauce from our daughter’s chin, then smiling over her shoulder at me, “I guess you know now why it always took him so long to answer his door.”
While we were interviewing for his position, I needed temporary help and I called on my old friend and former colleague at another publishing house, Danny Lee, who was currently freelancing. He was willing to come in and do just about anything, including help me clean out Bartleby’s office for the new person.
Partly out of lingering guilt, certainly, and perhaps partly out of prudence since I knew the contents of the drawer, I decided I should be the one to go through his office and sort out any remaining personal items he might want: the posters, some signed first edition poetry books, a curled photo of him and his wife wearing orange life preservers on a boat (I found this on the floor between his desk and the wall). I wanted to do right by the man I still felt I had wronged.
My less noble motive was a desire to reclaim the place. Was I still curious? I suppose. Though I thought I’d found his secret hiding place.
Danny and I went in one slow Friday with sleeves rolled up. The place was coated with dust. I flicked on the overhead fluorescent light, and we began to go through stacks of paper, to pull out the Xerox boxes from under the shelves and the table he had in there. Danny knew about the catalogues—he’d been a little shocked and amused—but I hadn’t told anyone else in the office.
He dragged out a large cardboard box, its flaps covered in thick powdery dust. I was trying to carefully peel off the Rigoletto poster without ripping it when he called to me.
“Look at this.” He held a fistful of pornographic catalogues from a manila envelope he’d withdrawn. Inside the box, neatly packed, sealed, were a half a dozen identical envelopes.
Danny looked up at me from where he knelt. He was half Chinese and half Anglo Texan, and his voice combined a mocking drawl with a cadence of Eastern serenity. “Shall we?” he said, handing me an envelope.
I nodded and we tore them open. Each envelope held roughly twenty catalogues. There were five
They were all full of porn guides, all packed just so.
“How long was he with the company?”
I shook my head. Brushing off our hands, we stood together in a little clearing, surrounded by big boxes of pornography.
Like myself, I imagined Danny had watched porn in his life, some with girlfriends, some alone,
on DVD, on the computer, at home. A stash like this . . . with all six boxes open, we estimated several hundred porn guides. Based on the layers of dust, they’d all been unopened for some time. I stepped over a box and closed the office door.
“This gentleman was out of control,” Danny said.
I was suddenly damn glad Danny was with me. A fellow witness.
“What about his computer?” he asked.
“We have a firewall. I think he’d get the red hand. But I guess I should mention it to IT and HR.”
“He seems like more of a hard copy guy,” Danny said, and I rolled my eyes. “Do we dare check the rest of his drawers?”
“I guess we’d better. You want to just empty the bottom left one? At least we know what’s in there.”
I went back to the poster, which had one corner flapping down, and stood there for a moment wondering why I was bothering.
Then I heard Danny say, “I’m not touching that.”
He’d pulled the catalogue drawer all the way out and behind the stack—I’d missed it before—shiny under the fluorescent light, lay a big, black dildo.
I stood next to him and we both looked at it in the drawer—in Bartleby’s drawer, in his office, in the workplace, not in a night table drawer by his marriage bed. And not, presumably, for his wife’s pleasure. Black latex—about the length of a stapler.
“It’s like a crime scene in here,” Danny said.
Grabbing some loose sheets of paper I took hold of it, transferring it to the corner of the desktop where we were putting his personal possessions. Without thinking I stood it up.
“Something else too.” Danny pointed at a black plastic bag in the drawer.
I reached in and pulled it out. We exchanged a look then I opened it, revealing a jumbo jar of Vaseline and a bottle of baby powder.
“Oh, God.” I looked around for a place to sit but decided against it. Everything now seemed suspect and unclean. The office felt booby-trapped. “Maybe . . . he had this stuff here in case he had to go to a party straight from work.”
“You tell yourself whatever you need to tell yourself,” Danny said, grinning.
“From what I understand—”
“Don’t tell me.” I held a hand up.
“Keep going? You don’t have to do this.”
“Let’s hope we’ve found the worst of it,” I said.
But there was one more thing. This time I found it, when I pulled a laptop case off a high shelf.
Despite its hard-to-reach placement, this item was not blanketed with dust. It was lighter than expected and something shifted inside when I pulled it down. Opening the zipper—opening any zipper in that office—no longer felt like an innocuous act.
“It’s a spiral notebook,” I said, feeling winded.
“Poems?” Danny asked, coming over. “Shit! A diary?”
I looked at the first page—very nice handwriting, delicate script, definitely his, with a phallus
outlined at the top of the page. I handed it to Danny. I didn’t want to read it, didn’t want to hear it when Danny read parts aloud. I’d gone from knowing next to nothing about a man I’d worked with for almost two years to knowing far more than I wanted to know about anyone.
Danny was fascinated. Bartleby, if the diary was real, had been involved in some sort of s&m relationship with a woman. All the entries were addressed to a Mme. Callous and all of them were signed, I surrender. There were no dates, no indication of how far back this went, but the notebook was close to full.
“Oh, man,” Danny said. “He was heavily into the humiliation. Rope burns. Something about clothespins. Listen to this! ‘I can still taste your champagne urine in my mouth.’”
“Let’s take a break. I need to go to the men’s room and wash my hands.”
“Me too.” Danny tossed the notebook onto the desk, accidentally knocking over the dildo. “Oops.
Are you going to send this stuff to him?”
“It’s his, isn’t it?”
“And it sure is personal.”
“Hell yes I’m going to send it to him.” I stepped around the boxes and piles and through the
office doorway. “Let him deal with it.”
“I don’t think he was dealing with it, any of it,” Danny said as he followed me to the men’s room.
“He wanted to be found out. It’s the only thing that makes sense. The whole office is a setup for exposure. I mean, what could be more humiliating? Maybe she made him keep everything here.”
I held my hands under the cold water and let him go on theorizing. Although I understood his need, I couldn’t listen anymore. Instead I watched the tap water spill over my palms, through my spread fingers, around my gold wedding band, and tried to pretend it was a mountain stream, clear fresh water washing over me.
After working with Bartleby for a few months, I began to discover that he was not as thorough at his job as I’d assumed. The first mistakes I caught made me nervous, and that anxiety increased as I started to check more of his work. The more I looked, the more mistakes I found, some oversights glaring and basic.
He got numerous admonitions from me to be more careful, to keep better records, before I went to Human Resources. They told me to keep a written record. Bartleby was in his fifties, had been with the company for years without any incident or complaint against him. They didn’t want to face a wrongful termination suit. They didn’t want to fire him. I didn’t want to either; I didn’t want to fire anybody. But he continued to miss errors he should have caught. I couldn’t find crucial paperwork in his files. When I’d ask him where something was I’d get answers like “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” Never a “sorry,” never a promise to do better. He’d sit slumped in the chair across from my desk, hangdog, pulling at the strands of hair on his knuckles or twisting rubber bands around his wrists, seeming terribly uncomfortable but in no way contrite. HR instructed me to give him an oral warning in which I said he could lose his job.
In another month we were in the office of the head of HR presenting him with a written warning. Again he was sullen but made no effort to convince us that he could improve. He was so
incommunicative, so unreadable, that the HR woman came out and asked him if he understood.
“Yes, I understand,” he replied with an edge in his tone, as if insulted.
But it didn’t seem that he did. Did he think he was being unfairly judged? Even if he thought I was being an unreasonable hard-ass—and I wasn’t, I had to keep reminding myself—why not do what I asked to save his job? Where was his instinct for self-preservation?
As the process went on, I did begin to hope he would find another job, quit before I had to be
the bad guy. Bartleby had never been easy to like, but I came to resent him for putting me in the position I was in. Then I would feel guilt-ridden for my anger and for wanting him gone.
We let him go late on a Monday afternoon. He had less than an hour and a half to gather up whatever he wanted to take with him before being forced to leave.
What we had discovered reminded me of the other question my wife had posed over dinner when I told her of his stash, before I knew the extent of things: “If he left that behind, what did he take with him?”
I called HR. I was done with that office. Guys from the mailroom came to pack up what I’d designated as personal. The building security director was on his way. I’d decided to send it all to Bartleby, dildo to diary, every last item. His mess that he made mine. Let him sort through it.
The mailroom guys raised their eyebrows and widened their eyes when they stepped into the office.
“This why he got fired?” one of them asked me.
“Not exactly,” I said, and left it at that.
The security director’s face registered disgust when he arrived, but he remained stoic and commanding. “We’ll take care of it,” he assured me, then once again I was standing in the hallway facing Bartleby’s closed door. Reassured by the ripping sound of packing tape from inside, I returned to my desk and my work.
Though I had hoped mailing his boxes back would free me of him, I continued instead to be prey to imagining scenarios which evoked more pity and guilt, for this time I had been deliberately hostile. At odd times—taking out the garbage, passing through a turnstile, washing the dishes while Olivia gave Sophia her bath—I’d picture his face when UPS rang, when he stood on the stoop of his brownstone confronted with a handtruck of packaged private life and the indignity of having to sign for it. Against my will I’d see his wife as well—always the unsuspecting innocent in my mind—clutching a dowdy bathrobe, peering over his shoulder, her expression shifting from confusion to fear.
I’d wonder how heavy the boxes would feel digging into his palms as he lifted them, carried them in one at a time. Would his face be pinched in a scowl to ward off questions from her?
Would he wait until he was alone to open them? I could visualize his hands shaking as he cut the packing tape. What place in his life would he find for these things now?
Bartleby’s replacement started on a rainy Monday, four weeks after his departure. I arrived at the office early that morning armed with a can of Lemon Pledge and a stack of paper towels.
Marion was an older woman who had freelanced for years while raising two children. With both of them now in college, she wanted to return to office work. For the interview she had worn a khaki pants suit, looking not unlike an animal trainer on a late-night talk show. She was heavyset with a broad face, round glasses, and tight, graying black curls. She was a mother, an aunt.
Wiping desktop, table surfaces, bookshelves, and doorknobs seemed like the least I could do for Marion. The carpet had been shampooed, the computer replaced, a new chair provided, but the room still felt soiled to me.
I’d decided to tell her—in a nonspecific way—what we’d found in what was now to be her office. Plenty of people knew the story and the odds were good that someone would make a comment to her. So, soon after she came in and I handed her the Pledge, I asked her to come into my office.
She sat across from me, smiling, open to whatever I had to say, respectable and innocent in the favored pressed khaki suit. As simply as I could, I told her we’d found some pornographic material (I didn’t say boxes and boxes) and some sex toys ( I didn’t say “dildo,” didn’t mention vaseline. “Toys” sounded a little like dog and cat toys left behind by a former tenant—a little mouse, a ball with a bell on it). I told her she might hear about it, so I wanted to prepare her. I assured her we’d thoroughly cleaned everything out.
“Wow,” she said. “Okay. I wasn’t expecting that.”
I apologized, she was gracious—it was a lovely normal exchange between two polite, mildly embarrassed professionals.
So the day began. I checked in on her a little later, delighted to see the door open, bright fluorescent light spilling through the doorway. The room, I noted with pleasure, smelled like a citrus grove. I hoped it wasn’t too overpowering. She sat at her desk holding what looked like a photograph. Wondering where on the bulletin board to position a personal snapshot, I thought, but immediately knew it was nothing of the sort.
She looked up and saw me and winced.
“Found something,” she said. I came around to her side of the desk and she set the photo down. I didn’t even think to ask her where she’d found it.
“Oh, good Lord. Marion, I’m so sorry.”
“No, that’s all right,” she said, standing. “I’m glad you prepared me. Is it him, do you suppose?”
It was a black-and-white photograph, a closeup of a man’s scrotum with clothespins clamped on to the loose skin all around the testicles. I had to count them. There were twenty-four. I knew instantly that it was him and knew that from now on I’d never remember his face without also seeing his balls covered with clothespins.
Unbidden, an image popped into my mind: lumpy piles of wet clothes on a basement floor, beneath a naked clothesline, and Bartleby’s wife hunting through an empty clothespin bag, frowning in confusion.
I wondered if he’d taken the photo himself and, of course, if he’d taken it in here.
“Some kind of performance art, perhaps,” Marion said. She was a trooper, she was a sport. Her first day back in the corporate world.
I picked up the photo, trying to keep my thumb and fingers off the image, on the border. “I’ll get rid of it. I’m so sorry you had to see that. I thought we’d gotten everything.”
I felt furious with him all day. Marion spoke no more about it. But I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to find him and shake him, grab him by the lapels of his raincoat and throw him against a wall.
Then it occurred to me that he might like that. The rain was pelting my windows as it had on the day I’d fired him, and suddenly I felt pity again. And frustration. There was nothing I could do to him to relieve me of this. Of course I’d already done something to him. But then why did I feel like he’d done something to me? He’d made me the top—I believe that’s the term—in humiliating him. It was as if I’d been forced into some kind of perverse game I’d never wanted to play. It linked me to him in a way I never wanted, as if we were handcuffed. I didn’t want to feel anything for him, but he’d made me feel pity, guilt, disgust, shame, anger, curiosity. We had—inescapably—a relationship.
For a while I worried about running into him, on the subway or on the street. As the months passed, I stopped being concerned.
One snowy day in early December, I ducked into a diner on Vandam to warm up with a cup of coffee. I was getting it to go when I glanced over at a booth and saw him, his face turned away from me, making out with a peroxide blond in a fluffy white coat seated next to him. I couldn’t see her face clearly either, just her spiky hair and silver stud earrings all the way up her earlobe. But it was his crew cut, the pear shape of his body. He had on one of those striped shirts he always wore in the office. They were going at it. One of their knees bumped the table, and coffee cups, both bearing red lipstick on the brims, clattered in their saucers. Half-eaten French toast with snowy powdered sugar hung off a jostled plate. I looked away to pay for my coffee and could hear in the near empty diner the wet smack of their lips, the rustle of hands over clothes.
I didn’t look their way again as I hurried out into whirling snow. Pulling my hood over my head, I leaned into the wind and started up the block.
Would Bartleby behave so passionately in public? Perhaps the job loss had freed him in some way. Maybe his wife and he had split and now he was with this blond. She could have been a poetry groupie encountered in an East Village bar. She could have been a prostitute. Maybe she was Mme. Callous herself, in the flesh, though I’d never imagined her in white plumage like a swan. She could even have been his wife, with dyed hair or a wig.
I stopped at a red light a block away and remembered to drink some coffee. The urge to go back was almost more powerful than my desire to get away without being seen. Once again I’d been a witness, but to what? Had I seen freedom or exhibitionism, passion or loss of control? Was Bartleby living outside boundaries or confined and tortured? Standing on the corner, I noticed my reflection in the windshield of a parked car. With my hood up, I wasn’t immediately recognizable.
When the light changed I spun around and walked quickly back toward the diner. The wind was behind me, pushing me along. I passed the entrance and rounded the corner, headed for the window through which I hoped to spy on them. I felt a breathless rush of excitement, felt suddenly reckless and ridiculous, and wondered if that was a little of what he felt. I slipped on some slush, spilled coffee on my glove and coat, but regained my balance and reined myself in before reaching the window. I debated walking past first but didn’t think I’d get a good enough look. If only I could see his expression, I thought it might reveal something to me.
Parking meters lined the curb, and I moved toward the one nearest the window—a good excuse for being stationary. I even dug in my pocket as if searching for a quarter. At the meter I turned and gazed at the window. The glass was steamed over. I crept forward and peered in, but even standing right in front of it I could only make out a vague white shape—her coat, I assumed. It was like the closed door all over again. I stood there feeling just as stupid and exposed, lacking only an armful of paper. My feet were cold and wet in the snow, and I took a sip of bitter lukewarm coffee. After another minute, I walked back to the meter, put a quarter in, and moved on.