Who knew how long he'd been standing there. He leaned against the doorframe, listing slightly into the room, hanging there as he'd hung so many times before in so many other doorways, peering in—watching, but seldom noticed. His hands were shoved deep into his coat pockets, his cap pulled low on his brow. There were times when he barely recognized himself.
She looked up, not at all startled, as if she'd known he was there from the first moment. "Hey," she said softly, letting the word glide out into the air between them. It dropped just in front of him and settled on the floor. If he ever stepped into that room, he'd put his boot right on the little greeting.
They stared at one another for some time. He wasn't prepared to move, content to hang there in the doorway, speak only if asked a question, never remove his hat or his coat, give no signs that he wanted to visit. The ball of packing paper in her hands started to twitch the longer she held it. Presently, he was aware of the dryness of his lips, and so he closed his mouth and secretly passed his tongue across them. He looked away, to a corner of the room where the carpet curled against a wall.
She remained motionless in the center of the room. Her mind clicked and whirred—she heard it echoing throughout her body—as she tried to think of who had told him where to find her. What should have been the primary question, why he had come, occurred to her second. And what did her mother or her cousin or her roommate think when he had come around asking for her?
"You look good, Janie," he said at last, his voice so low and quiet and rumbling that it sounded like it came from somewhere else, like thunder rolling over the roof of the house. He hadn't meant to speak; his own surprise at having done so was evident in his eyes when she looked to him.
Had she left the front door open? Had her father let him in? The neighbor? What if someone came upstairs and found them there? She stared at him, petrified, unsure of what to say. He had always been in and out of her life—no, that wasn't true. He'd always been like he was now, at the door, forever standing on the outside but leaning so far in that you'd think he was there. Always peering in, always observing, knowing so much about her that it made her stomach turn to think of a life without him. But then he would disappear, most often drawing so far into himself that you couldn't see him anymore. And then, three years ago, he had actually vanished.
She couldn't stop staring at him. The ball of packing paper was having a seizure in her hand, so she steadied it with her other hand, gripping it like a basketball she was about to pass to someone. One breath. Another. She turned to the box she'd been unpacking and peered into it. For the time she spent hovered over that box, she might as well have been looking straight through it, through the table it sat on, the floor, the bedroom directly beneath them, the parlor beneath that, all the way into the basement.
Again she turned to him, lifted the ball of packing paper as if to speak, but couldn't think of what she needed to say. She pushed the paper back into the box, wanting to ask him a dozen questions, including why he had left and where he had been and how he had found her. She put her hand on her hip and angled herself back towards him. Light snared itself on the dust by the dormer window. With her other hand on her forehead, she watched the light caught in the little dusty trap. Her posture was such that she looked like she might collapse inward at any moment. She was so thin these days, almost skeletal. "Um," came her unsteady voice, "I turned thirty while you were away."
He removed his cap and folded it between his hands. His black hair was ruffled, short and so not yet curly, fraying out mostly around his ears and below, the top tamped down by his wearing the ski cap. His beard, fuller than it was when she last saw him, now had streaks of gray and white in it.
"It was hard," she confessed then, watching him watch his own hands as he turned the cap over and over in them. She dropped her hands and folded her bony little arms. Glanced out through the window, watched him watch his hands. "Where were you?" she said at last, her plaintive voice cracking as she tried to keep it even.
His eyes shot to her now, as if she had just asked the one question that could never be answered. His eyes were such a dark blue that sometimes you lost his pupils in his irises, and she suddenly remembered the first time she'd seen him in the café, how he was bent over his journal, his dark eyes devouring every stroke of the pen as his hand progressed across the page. He shrugged as if he wanted to tell her but couldn't. "Away," was all he said.
Footfalls on the staircase down the hall. At any moment, discovery.
She clutched the hem of her shirt and waited.
If he'd heard the steps—which he must have—he didn't show it. He turned the cap in his hands.
She watched him. Lost herself in a memory of those hands. Slipped back to that first afternoon in the café. And then:
"Donovan." Surprise in her father's voice.
Shoving the cap into one of his pockets, straightening, turning down the hall: "Mr. Forester." And then her father stepped into view in the doorway, his eyes at chin-level with Donovan. He turned his head to peek in on his daughter, see if things were all right. She stood in the center of the room, feeling as naked as the empty house.
"That's the last of it," her father grunted. He paused and looked to the ground as if he'd forgotten what he was going to say. "I'm taking Bill for a bite. To, ah, to thank him. Was going to see if…" and then he put his hands in his back pockets, looking down, "but you're busy, I guess."
"No I'm—I'm not busy," she said with the faintest shake of her head, looking her father dead in the eye, as if Donovan weren't even there.
Her father looked to the floor again, nodded, looked back to Jane. "Five minutes?" She nodded, and he looked back to the floor. You'd think the new carpet was stained, the way he stared at it. He nodded again to himself, glanced up at Donovan, and headed again for the stairs without a word. Instead of watching him leave, Donovan fixed his gaze on Jane.
She turned back to the box and began pulling things out of it again. He lingered in the doorway and then finally stepped into the room. It was a confident step, one sideways that brought him against the wall just next to the door. He had stepped over the feeble greeting still lying on the floor.
She sensed his movement and was surprised that he had done something so forward. "Being with you was never easy," she said, pulling an antique table lamp from the box. "I knew that at the start." Her bra straps and her spine poked against her shirt when she reached into the box.
He stood against that wall with his hands in his coat pockets, his eyes set on her back. He hadn't meant to move, he hadn't meant to speak, he hadn't meant to remove his hat, but now he'd done all three. Still, he hadn't known what to expect, and he didn't know even now.
"Being without you—somehow, that was even harder," she said, stopping her unpacking to say it.
"I'm sorry," he said, again low and unexpected.
She looked up at him and appeared to wince. "I was twenty-three when we met," she said. "I was young. I had everything going for me. And you, Doni, you were something back then. You remember. And even then, you weren't that old."
"I'm old now," he chuckled.
"Where did you go? You just disappeared."
That look came over his face again, the look that said he was unable to explain, however willing he was. "Janie…" He shook his head. "I had to leave. Just for a bit."
"I got lost along the way."
"I had to get some things in order," he said quietly.
She took a tentative breath. "I fell apart." She turned back to the box, looking for herself in it. "I thought I was stronger," she said. "But I wasn't. And then, before I knew it, I was thirty. I was old. I'd spent all the significant years of my youth with you, and then I was alone and only getting older."
"You have a house now," he pointed out. As if that made up for everything.
"I do. And a job. A real job. And I'm not hung up anymore on someone who's never there."
"That's why I left. I was never here." He shifted his weight. It was the first time she'd ever seen him do that when he wasn't leaning against something. He looked uncomfortable, almost vulnerable. "I knew I shouldn't be here until I got better at it." She crossed her arms across her chest. Four years ago, something like that would have made sense to her. "And so I went away. And I got better at it."
"How did you find me?" she asked as she exhaled.
He shifted his weight again, keeping his hands in his pockets. "Asked around. Went to the café. Stopped by the lounge, but—"
"It's closed," she said flatly.
"So I discovered." He shifted his weight yet again. "Look, I'm not asking you to forgive me because I know you can't. I'm not going to be selfish and ask for a second chance. I'm only here to let you know, I'm here now. And I know I never was before, and I'm sorry for it."
With great uncertainty, she began to slowly cross the room. When she was three feet from him, she paused. "You were something then," she whispered as she fought back tears and fingered one of the snaps on his coat.
He had to strain to keep his breathing steady, and he couldn't help leaning into her hand slightly. It killed him that she was so close, but he wouldn't let himself touch her. He watched her in silence, focusing on her hand with half-closed eyes.
"I really missed you," she whispered. Finally, she stepped forward and embraced him, closing her eyes as she pressed her face against his chest. He stood for a moment, unsure of how to react. It only took a moment for his reflexes to thaw, and soon he had his arms around her. But there was no comfort in it for him; he could not close his eyes. He rested his chin on the top of her head and stared vacantly into the room. Had he changed? Was he really here?
She stepped back from him. He let her go.
"I'm going to lunch with my dad and the neighbor," she told him. She stepped to the door and tugged her sleeves down to her wrists. "You can leave your number or your address or something, but you can't be here when I get back."
Donovan just looked at her. He closed his mouth to wet his lips again, and she left as he dropped his eyes briefly to the floor. When he looked up again, she was gone. He listened to her on the staircase, on the landing on the floor below, creaking down the carpeted stairs that led to the first floor. He tugged his cap back on and ambled to the dormer window. As he leaned against the wall, he peered down through it. Saw Mr. Forester and the neighbor Bill closing up the rental truck. Saw Jane make her way across the dusty yard to her father's pickup. And when they were gone, Donovan turned from the window. He hadn't planned to stay, and he wasn't going to. He ripped a page from his pocket journal and left a note scrawled across it for her in that old house:
The café can reintroduce us, it said. D.