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Hidden Meanings

One

Stepping out through the front door to pick up the morning paper, she had to stop to look at the flowers. The sight of them—just coming to full bloom—in the piercing morning sunlight gave her a feeling of gladness. She stood very still, the newspaper in her hand, breathing in the faintly damp air, made peaceful by the flowers.

She looked up to see him approaching, watching as he went by, clad in a navy sweatsuit with a white stripe running down the center outside seams, a white towel tucked in around his neck. He nodded, half-smiling as he passed and ran into the driveway leading to the house up the hill.

She glanced once more at the flowers before returning inside. How long had it been? she wondered. They seemed to have been nodding to each other mornings forever. It was forever in terms of her three-plus years in the cottage. She hadn't any idea at all how long he'd been living across the way.

His house was beautiful, she thought, separating the sections of the paper—a majestic house, set so perfectly on the hill. It blended discreetly into its surroundings and yet maintained a distinctive air. She often looked up from whatever she'd been doing to study the house and the carefully tended grounds. With more than a passing curiosity she wondered who did the gardening over there. If he did—she smiled, amused—he did it in the dead of night, because she'd never seen him outdoors at work on the shrubberies or flower beds.

Thinking of him now, picturing him again in his sweatsuit as he went running by, she felt unexplainably perplexed by him. There was something about the man, about his early morning runs and magnificent house that seemed too solitary. Every time she saw him, she thought: Does he run for himself? Or from himself—from something inside the house or within himself?

She irritated herself with these speculations. It was his right to run, for whatever reason, she told herself, scanning the Letters to the Editor. Endowing those morning sessions of his with anything more than an obvious desire for physical fitness on his part was a kind of silly self-indulgent exercise she couldn't quite understand. What the hell did she care why he ran? She couldn't have cared less.

But somehow that wasn't quite the truth, and she felt a delicate stabbing of combined anger and aloneness. Sometime, one of these mornings, she'd break the pattern, say hello and ask him in for coffee. She'd find out something about the man and thereby eliminate the daily questioning.

For several seconds she attempted to visualize that large-sized stranger sitting opposite her in the living room, easily chatting. Christ! She was being ridiculous. First of all, she had no idea how easy or difficult he might be to talk to. And secondly, he was probably up to his armpits in women.

She folded the newspaper, refilled her coffee cup and carried it to the bedroom, setting it down beside the typewriter. As she rolled a sheet of yellow manila paper into the machine she remembered something Terry had said, years before. It was the first time he'd come to the cottage in England. He'd followed her inside saying, "I might just have known."

"What?" she'd asked, always mystified by the unanticipated turns of his mind.

"This place fits the exterior you to a T. Now I'll have to go searching for the hints to the interior."

"I don't know what in hell you're talking about," she'd said, too angry, too quickly.

"You do, love," he'd said knowingly, taking hold of her in that commandeering way he'd had. "I'll find you hidden away in here somewhere. You don't fool old Terence."

It had been an affectation, speaking of himself in the third person, like royalty making proclamations. He'd been too clever, and she'd been too … what? Too readily forgetful and eager—despite all the protestations to the contrary—to display the guessed-at hiding places.

Never again, she told herself, forcing her eyes inward on minutely detailed retrospective visions. It was too expensive, too costly in every way, indulging these speculative meanderings.

She leaned her arms on the typewriter, staring over the top of the untouched paper, questioning just how much it took to convince her. You won't learn! she admonished herself. You simply will not learn!

There was no harm in thinking, she argued. But she knew better. The idle thoughts invariably led to other things: primarily an examination of her status; not the day-to-day satisfaction of her accomplishments, but her interior status, the conditions she went to such lengths to contend with. It was a matter of always forcing the accomplishments and the induced contentment to the forefront of her mind, keeping the significant, hard-won realities out in front. This served to reduce the importance of the other, more primitive needs that arose intermittently into her consciousness.

It wasn't important, she told herself. Nothing was important but her right to live as she needed to live.

Still, treacherously, her mind toyed with images of kisses and caresses; faceless men bestowing explicit attentions; images that lulled her into that familiar preliminary state of tranquillity before the body—and one small, insidious sector of the brain—went galloping into the brief, manic frenzy of physical gratification.

That's all it was, really: just sex, just a periodic craving for a mad, frictive dance before a rude return to the senses to find all the gains gone out the window for the sake of twenty minutes of skin treatment.

That really was all it was. She felt herself pulling back to herself. She picked up the stack of pages and scanned the previous day's work before typing a page number at the top of the fresh page and starting in to work.

***

Even when it rained, she came out of the white clapboard cottage at precisely the same time each morning to collect her paper and then stand for two or three minutes looking at her small garden. He could time himself by her appearances. She was always in something shapeless and dun-colored. From time to time, in the summer, he'd see her on her knees in the larger side garden, again in something long and drab, her features entirely hidden beneath a battered straw sunhat and large, mirrored sunglasses, a wisp of gray-streaked hair drooping from beneath the hat brim.

Once, in the supermarket, as he'd been wheeling his basket up and down the aisles, shopping perfunctorily, he'd seen her standing dead-still beside the cabbages with her hand lifted mid-chest, staring fixedly at the green and red plastic-wrapped heads. She'd worn one of her typical outfits, including hat and glasses—it had been in September the previous year, he remembered—and she'd stood there without moving for a good five minutes, staring at the cabbages.

He'd gone up one aisle and down another and then, propelled by undisguised curiosity, had gone back to see she was still standing in precisely the same spot. People seemed to take no particular notice of her. A small child had come to stand close to her and was looking up at her but she'd seemed unaware. He'd stopped by the tea and coffee, watching, wondering if she'd snap out of it and notice the child whose hand moved out to touch the skirt of her dress.

He'd felt embarrassed for her and hadn't known why. He'd wanted to approach her, to say hello, to make some effort to break her stare. But there'd been something so private about her attitude that he'd felt he hadn't the right to intrude. So he'd watched. And the child—a little boy of about three—finally succeeded in catching her attention. Her head moved and she'd looked down. Her hand—it was a slender, quite beautiful hand, he'd noticed—had fallen softly onto the child's head and stayed there. They stood, the child and the woman, without speaking, until the mother came by and grabbed the child's arm, exclaiming, "Where the hell've you been? I've been going nuts looking for you. I thought you were lost, for God's sake!" She shot an outraged look backward as she'd led the boy away. He'd gone off, straining around over his shoulder, looking back. His neighbor had turned to watch the boy being towed away, sagging slightly, some of the stiffness gone from her spine as she put her hand on the bar of her shopping cart. She'd selected one of the cabbages, set it in the cart and pushed on, disappearing from his view.

A few times, riding the commuter train into the city, he'd heard a couple of men he also recognized as neighbors discussing her, saying they thought she was either some kind of eccentric, monied type or just insolvent mentally. He didn't think so, and hearing these men gossip irritated him.

It was her privilege to be left alone if that was what she wanted. People couldn't seem to bear having in their midst someone who didn't seek their company. He could understand that in her, and respect it too. After all, he didn't live all that differently himself; he couldn't be bothered with getting to know the neighbors and swapping invitations for cocktails. He did wonder about her odd baggy clothes, because it was impossible to get any clear idea of the woman underneath. But it did give him a certain reassurance each morning as he came up the road, to see her door open, to see her emerge already dressed for the day. Her presence had become an integral part of his morning routine. He liked her defiance—if that was what it was. It seemed somehow appropriate that they had never spoken.

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