1950s Washington, DC. James has just accepted a teaching position for the State Department. But after too many drinks at his own housewarming party, he meets Henry, a doctor and his neighbor. Their connection is immediate, but after a drunken kiss they end up parting ways with alarm.
That's just beginning of a story that spans two decades: a story of a secret relationship, strained marriages, crumbling lives, and ultimately a love strong enough to withstand all of it.
Henry watches. The subtle turn of hands, the bend at the wrists and splaying of fingers. Precise movements, over and over in hypnotic repetition.
“It is for a weekend,” Henry says, watches the way the needle falters before delicate fingers resume their rhythm and Kitty hums a noncommittal sound.
“And you will call?” she confirms, does not look up as Henry stands from the chair, goes to the kitchen to retrieve a glass of water, to slice a lemon to set a piece within. She does smile when he sets it beside her, knowing in her concentration she will not stand, even in this heat, to get it for herself when she is thirsty later.
Gently, he touches her shoulder, allows her to press her cheek to the backs of his fingers before removing them. Before she returns to her work.
“When I arrive,” he says, “but you know how difficult one of these conferences is to escape. They demand company and conversation. You yourself fled the women by the evening of the first day.”
At this Clara smiles, and Henry finds himself doing the same; fond, soft. Something of their initial friendship glimmering on the surface of their suburban stagnation.
“Then call when you arrive,” she says, does not set her sewing down as Henry kisses her temple and takes up his travel bag.
The conference itself is not far, barely two hours out of the city, but enough to escape. A gathering of men in the psychology field, to discuss progress and new theories, patient studies, and simply to meet each other. The field grows annually, with new people joining constantly, determined to explore and understand the human mind better.
Henry can see the cars parked by the large, sprawling estate and vineyard, allows his eyes to linger but a moment before taking the exit, pulling up at the gas station and parking behind it to use the payphone there. He tells Kitty he arrived. Describes the cars he sees, the vineyard and the way it looks in the mottled sunlight. He tells her he will miss her, will see her very late Sunday evening, that she should not wait up. When she says she loves him, he murmurs that he does too, eyes up to the sky, allowing the clattering of the coins in the payphone to ground him again.
He buys a gallon of fuel before returning to the road and taking a turn for another highway, leading further past the city, into the country of lakes and fast flowing rivers, small cabins separated by acres of forest and meadow.
The drive takes him through winding roads and deep into Big Run State Park. Few people here, in fall, but the trees glow in the early Friday afternoon with gold and red and bronze around him as Henry takes the route specified on his map to the cabin.
“I’ve only just gotten here. We haven’t even been briefed yet.”
James stands from the edge of the bed, phone against his ear, and the cradle in his hand. He glances over his shoulder to see how long the cord is, turning it over in a loop to get around the small table and allow him distance enough to reach the window.
“Well, it can’t go longer than the weekend, but Jack expects me to be here for the length of it,” he answers, pauses. “Up near Cumberland. It was fine—long, but the radio’s working again so.”
James hears the words that filter through the phone, but it’s not the same as listening, something he finds himself entirely unable to do with his stomach as snarled in on itself as it is. He makes the right sounds—mm-hmms and not sures—when there are pauses enough for him to do so, and traces the window frame with his finger. His attention falls not on the trees, glittering bright with color when the wind moves them, but on the long gravel drive.
“I will when I can,” James tells Kitty, doubt coming naturally to his voice by now, unsettling the earth beneath nearly everything he says. “But it’s going to be a lot of field work, a lot of meetings, I can’t just stop what I’m doing to ca—”
He taps the glass, impatient, and forces the tension out of his jaw before saying softly, “I know. I don’t mean to snap.” Swinging the phone cord behind him, he paces back from the window, gaze lingering long on the bed until he forces it away and closes his eyes instead. A breath of laughter and he answers, “I’ll try. Just don’t be surprised when I show up with circles under my eyes.”
She means well. Her concern has never been less than wholehearted, her care for his well-being entirely genuine. The first time they really met, she’d brought him a thermos of coffee once in the library while he was studying for a test, snuck in beneath an oversized coat, and it was in that same carrell, weeks later, where they first kissed.
And the memory vanishes like smoke when he hears a car in the distance.
“Jack’s just pulling up. I’ve got to go,” he tells her, listens obediently. When Kitty says she loves him, James tells her that he knows.
The phone is returned, set to the bedside table, and James watches Henry’s dark car pull up, circle the cabin to where James had parked his until he’s out of sight. Then the engine cuts and James feels his entire body tense in anticipation. A moment, two, the sounds of birds and the forest almost oppressing until the key turns in the lock and Henry steps in.
It takes two steps for him to get to James, door already swinging closed behind him, and he tosses his bag to the floor before wrapping his arms around James and pulling him close against him, the hug tight, possessive, arms trembling with the burden he had carried of missing James for two weeks.
He can feel James’s arms caught between them, gripping Henry’s shirt, not yet moving to unbutton it.