The Last Stop
ONE DAY A WEEK, THROUGHOUT THAT FALL AND WINTER, she took the commuter train from Boston to see him. She arranged with her boss to leave work early every Wednesday, giving as a reason an appointment that she described in such vague terms, she knew he'd assume it was a meeting with a doctor or a therapist. At 23, she'd begun to realize that most people are happiest knowing only as much as they need to know, and that, in most situations, it's best to say less.
She'd walk from the high, shiny law offices where she transcribed documents to the noisy clutter of North Station, buy her ticket, and sit waiting with exhausted shoppers clutching bags from Filene's and with dusty construction workers holding empty lunchboxes. She'd drink in the smells of popcorn and burnt coffee, happy to have a secret and hopeful that some of the people sitting around her could guess what she was up to. So often it turned out that the best part of having a secret was sharing it with someone else.
For 20 minutes, the train rocked through the industrial wreckage surrounding the city, the steaming power plants and the confusion of road projects and traffic jams. Then, just beyond the decrepit factories of Lynn, it broke free from the iron and asphalt infrastructure and wound past deserted beaches and the rambling summer houses surrounded by lawns scorched brown by months of drought. She'd heard about the North Shore, but, despite having lived in Boston for more than six years, she'd never had a reason to visit until now. On those days when she questioned the sense of these trips, of this affair, she told herself it was important to explore new places.
His was the last stop on the line, and at that time of day, before the rush hour, the train was nearly empty when it bumped to a halt. Still, it was a small town; he was known there, and he couldn't pick her up at the station. There was no other reason, he explained, that a man his age would be meeting someone so young and so beautiful, and if they were spotted, it would cause problems. She knew he'd thrown in the compliments about her looks as a consolation prize. She wasn't beautiful in the way he meant, and she had no need to be told she was. She was happiest when people praised her for being insightful or clever. A boyfriend in college had accused her of being cold, an insult that she'd found unexpectedly flattering.
And so she walked along the narrow streets of the seaside town, past the tourist shops and the restaurants she knew she'd never eat in, down to the half-moon beach in the middle of the village, and then through the park with the rusting swing set and, at the far end, the little waterfall. Throughout September, the crowds diminished and the swimmers disappeared until the only people left on the beach were the leathery old men and women in their webbed lawn chairs. The sunny, warm afternoons gradually gave way to days of rain and then, intermittently, a biting chill off the ocean.
She tried not to think about him as she walked. Instead, she thought about the office and the responsibilities and the gossip she was missing out on. Not that the responsibilities were so grave or the gossip so interesting. Whatever work she left undone on those Wednesdays could usually be finished the next day or accomplished just as easily by someone else. Her co-workers were all like her, smart women in their 20s who'd recently graduated with useless degrees and vague plans for the future. They tried to outdo each other with ironic quips about their parents and their boyfriends, but she saw the longing behind the sarcasm, even in herself. This was a phase, all of it: the job at the law firm, the apartment she shared with two other college friends, the friends themselves, her new passion for scarves. Her affair with him.
It took 15 minutes to walk to his house from the station. Longer if she stopped to sit on a bench at the beach and turn her face up to the sun, or went into one of the shops to buy candy for herself or a cheap and silly present -- a T-shirt, a plastic lobster -- to send to the boyfriend who'd moved to Seattle six months earlier for a job. A good job, he explained, too good to pass up. The move, he told her, was temporary and didn't change his feelings about her. Oddly, it seemed to her, he never asked her if it changed her feelings about him.
Above the little waterfall at the end of the park was a pond, and his house was at the far side of it. She'd walk around the pond and knock on his door, he'd take her hand and pull her inside with an urgency that made her feel needed and important. The cottage was winterized, but he and his wife only used it in the summer. By the end of September, much of the furniture was covered in old bedsheets, and the air held the faint, distinct smell of mildew. The back faced out onto the pond where a flock of ducks splashed and quacked with unsettling exuberance.
He'd lead her upstairs to a small room under the eaves of the second floor, unwrap her from her clothes, and make love to her on a single bed that was covered in a maroon sheet his wife had started to tear up for dust rags.
She didn't know how old he was. She was bad at guessing anyone's age, and she knew better than to ask. He owned properties all over the North Shore -- a career of sorts that gave him a reason to always be on the road or out of touch -- and had a daughter who was applying to colleges. He dressed in expensive business suits and used a sandalwood aftershave that rubbed off on her skin. He had gray hair at his temples. Sometimes he looked at her with a wistfulness she recognized as longing for his own departed youth, not admiration of hers. She knew her age gave her power, but she was too young to know how to use it.
IN JANUARY, THE POND FROZE OVER FOR THE FIRST TIME. Some afternoons as she lay with him on the bed under the eaves, she could hear the scratch of ice skates, the slap of a hockey stick, the hollow echo of the cracking ice, the laughter of children in the blue winter twilight.
It was the sound of laughter that had made her weep in his arms one afternoon. Despite her efforts to stop herself, despite her pride in being "cold." What is it? he'd asked, visibly shaken by her tears. Not, she understood, because he was worried about her sadness for her sake, but because of complications it might present him.
What could she say? It had suddenly seemed clear to her that the affair would be over by spring, probably before the ice had entirely disappeared. She'd known all along that there was no possible happy ending to their relationship. Given his situation and her confused feelings toward him, she wasn't even sure what a happy ending would be. It helped that she didn't find him especially attractive. She saw it all so clearly then: the way he'd tell her it was over, the occasional friendly calls he'd make to her for a short while afterward, the likelihood that she would meet someone else and forget him and the increasingly irrelevant boyfriend in Seattle.
But none of this was what had made her cry. What it was was the thought that one day, years from now, when she was older and heavier, perhaps happier, she would see her reflection in the window of a train and it would all come back to her: the smell of the cottage, the faces of the people waiting in North Station, the lights of Boston across the cold expanse of the ocean as the train headed back into the city. Undoubtedly, she would have a husband, possibly a faithful one, children with good educations, a career of her own, or a life of comfortable leisure. And still, she knew she'd think about this period, about the ducks and the waterfall and the T-shirt shops, with longing. Not because any of it had been more than occasionally rewarding, but because all of it would be forever out of reach.
Stephen McCauley is the author of five novels, most recently "Alternatives to Sex." He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and can be reached through his Web site, www.stephenmccauley.com.