“Private Affair” by D.S. Englander

A light breeze played through the windows of the Subaru, and it felt refreshing to Desalt, who was visibly perspiring behind the steering wheel. It was hot, hotter than was normal for May. He tried to inch a little closer to the gearshift, to escape the sun’s glare, but that didn’t do much. The whole parking lot was baking.

He watched the doors to the school, where his wife would appear. Presently, it was mobbed with activity. Teenaged boys were filing out, dressed in khaki pants and oxford shirts. It was a uniform that he thought marked them for future corporate lives. Some wore blazers, and Desalt noticed two boys with white ball caps pulled low on their brows, as if they were a pair of executives about to hit the links. He pulled the lever on his seat back in disgust, and reclined just enough to give the tightness that had been bothering him lately in his lower back some relief. He tried closing his eyes against the sun’s glare, but that didn’t work.

The school was a brick building with little flourishes and buttresses from another century, three, four stories high. From where he sat, Desalt could see the curtains billowing in the high, second-floor windows, perhaps in one of the classrooms where his wife taught. It was a pretty building, capped off with an old-fashioned clock tower, complete with roman numerals and handsome greenish metal. Yet, even in the full bloom of May, there was something a little foreboding about the school. Perhaps it was the generations of students who had passed through its doors, the sum total of old exertions and humiliations.

He watched the students form a loose column to the flat roofed athletic building, at the end of the parking lot. They were hapless as they walked through the parked cars, oblivious to his presence in the driver seat of the Subaru. He imagined they would drift through their lives in a similar fashion, hardly aware: to college, their first jobs, straight up through middle management. Even as he thought this, he knew it wasn’t true either.

Some were probably his wife’s students. While he had listened to Ali describe her students, and even remembered names, he would never be able to match those names up to faces. In any case, he couldn’t think one generous thought about these kids. One of them may be the one threatening his wife, leaving lewd notes and promises of violence.

Until last year, Ali had worked at the girl’s school across the street. That was before the boy’s school lured her away. They offered a better salary and benefits. It was an easy decision for her to make, and one that had turned out to be a good one. Ali liked her colleagues better at the boy’s school. She liked the students. She thought the boys were easier to deal with than girls. If she was in a certain mood, after a glass or two of wine, she would innumerate for Desalt all the reasons about why that was so.

All year things had been going like that. Till two weeks ago, notes began appearing on her blackboard and taped to her desk. The notes appeared every day. Ali had related some of their messages to Desalt, and he still remembered many of them. When he was alone, he sometimes repeated the messages aloud. “You went out to the soccer field at lunch, and sat on the grass for sixteen minutes.” “That beige skirt you wore today I thought about all day, and underneath, definitely underneath.” “I could satisfy you, if you let me. ”

The school was investigating. So far the police hadn’t been involved. No student had been singled out, but Desalt suspected that Ali knew who the boy was. She just wouldn’t say. She was way too blasé about the whole thing. She was probably worried about the kid.

*     *     *

He scanned his phone until he came to an email from Marcus, his editor. This week, his contribution to the magazine recounted his search for the best short ribs in the city. Marcus had changed the lead sentence, and Desalt simmered over whether to write back an angry retort or to let the matter slide.

He started to compose the email to Marcus, but he was interrupted by Ali, knocking on the passenger window. She dumped a stylish shoulder bag on the floor, crammed full of papers, and climbed in. Her dress was one that Desalt liked, made of a light, summery material that showed off her shoulders. She was an attractive woman—Desalt had always thought so—long-legged and athletic, but at the end of the school day, little traces of fatigue showed around her eyes, making her look her age.

“Another killer day,” she said, once they were driving. “Nobody is reading Our Town.” Then, as an afterthought, “I need to stop at the store. We need a few things for dinner. I was thinking we’d have fish.”

Fish was fine by Desalt. Even though he was a food writer, he couldn’t cook to save his life. He found the disparity amusing, and in social situations, often pointed it out. They drove by the playing fields, where the lacrosse team was practicing. Desalt felt anger rise within him, but he refrained from making a comment. He resisted the urge to ask if there had been any further notes. It had been his idea to pick her up from work the last few days. A safety precaution he had said. She hadn’t liked it, but had gone along with it anyway.

*     *     *

At the store, a giant Kroger that was too crowded whenever they shopped there, Ali chose two swordfish steaks at the fish counter. Desalt toted the basket, and stuck close by her side. Lately, he felt as if he had tapped into some deep reservoir for protecting his wife that he hadn’t known was there. He had always seen Ali as someone who could fend for herself. She was a runner in college, and still did laps around the track at the school. The night after the first note appeared, she joked that she wasn’t too worried about a stalker. She was pretty sure she could outrun whoever it was. Somehow that hadn’t put Desalt at ease.

Desalt worked from home most days, but for some stories, he needed to travel. He reviewed restaurants, interviewed chefs. Once a week, unless it could be helped, he put in a dreaded appearance at the magazine’s offices on 6th Avenue. It was an hour train ride from the Croton station. Tomorrow, he needed to go in, into the rat race. He wouldn’t be back until six or seven. The thought of leaving Ali alone gave him some anxiety, but he didn’t mention this. It would only prompt an argument. He didn’t know how but he was sure it would.

“I’m only getting blank stares. I think only half of them did the reading,” Ali said, when they had been driving for five minutes. “Discussion in class is dead. The kids are antsy. They’re all looking out the window or cracking up every few minutes. There are about a hundred inside jokes floating around.”

“Kids,” Desalt said, and he couldn’t blame them. It was spring, nearly summer. Who needed Our Town? He didn’t. That was for sure.

“I got a new note,” she said, and Desalt shifted in his seat. “It was brief. It said, ‘I could teach you a thing or two.’ There was a link to some website.”

The calmness in her voice infuriated him. But when he spoke, he found that his own tone mirrored hers. “Who would do it, honey?”

“I don’t know.”

“You have no idea?”

“I have no idea. What? You don’t believe me?”

Desalt fixed his eyes on the road, thinking of what to say. A Toyota pickup moved slowly ahead, with a stack of plywood piled in the flat bed. The top piece looked like it might blow off at any moment.

He tried to choose his words carefully.

“If it were me, I think I would have some idea.”

He waited for a response, but his wife remained oddly silent in the passenger seat. When Desalt looked over, she reached for his hand and held it until he needed it back on the wheel.

*     *     *

They lived in a farmhouse that was over a hundred years old, off Route 4, a wooded two-lane road that cars drove too fast. A few miles down the road, last winter, a young girl, a teenager, had misjudged a bend and crashed into a tree. A makeshift cross and some withered flower wreaths still marked the spot. From his office on the second floor, Desalt could see cars coming down the road. That night, he had watched the emergency vehicles speed toward the wreck from out of the darkness.

Tonight the road was clear, and patches of tall grass and wild daisies had sprung up along the shoulder. The day’s light was fading, but the sun had yet to set behind the pines. Desalt watched the growing shadows from his office, while Ali prepared the fish. He tried reading Marcus’ edits over, but he couldn’t focus.

Every few minutes, he glanced down at the road, as if someone was approaching. The latest note was troubling. If he could find the writer, he would stop that person. Desalt didn’t consider himself violent, but violence didn’t seem wrong in this case. He had met Ali in his early thirties after a long lonely stretch of years. She had changed his life. He felt only horror at the thought that she could somehow be hurt or taken from him.

“Chris,” she called from downstairs. Desalt stood up.

While they were eating dinner, Ali’s cell phone rang. The sound startled Desalt so much that he dropped his fork. She looked at the caller ID, and placed the phone back on the table.

“I don’t recognize that number.”

Desalt cut his fish and ate. He tried not to speak, but he couldn’t stop himself. He needed to ask.

“You have no idea who could be writing these notes? Think about it for a minute.”

“I’ve thought about it.”

“Then who?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like to think about it. But I already told you I’m not too worried.”

Desalt let out a sigh at that—it was just like her. He felt his anger building. He tried to hold it in, containing the sharp edges and points of it. He grasped for something conciliatory to say.

She spoke first. “Even if I did have an idea who it is, I’m not certain.”

“You don’t have to be certain.”

“Jesus, Chris, who are you? Matlock? I don’t know who it is. Okay?”

She looked away from the table. She may even have rolled her eyes, but Desalt refused to acknowledge such displays.

“They’re just kids, Chris. This is nothing. Really. You need to trust me on this.”

“I just want you to think about it.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I’m tired of talking about it.”

Desalt didn’t say anything after that. He ate his fish angrily. He was trying to do the right thing, and she wasn’t taking it seriously. And this thing was serious. Anyone could see that. When he finished his fish, he dumped the plate in the sink. He opened the screen door to the back deck.

It had cooled down since the afternoon. The sun had set, leaving just the faintest trace of blue in the sky. The lights of the Wattsworth’s house carried across the field. A powerful floodlight illuminated their driveway. Beyond their yards, the woods rose up like a dark column. At night, the woods made Desalt uneasy. Someone could hide back there. It was a forest preserve that stretched back for miles. During the day, it wasn’t as foreboding. He and Ali often jogged the bike path that weaved through the trees and along a winding creek.

He expected her to come out on the deck. He even prepared a few things he would say. He would speak calmly now. He would tell her the notes had gone too far. It was time the police were involved. He would say that while she might be right and the thing was harmless, it was worth checking into. Soon he saw the light in the upstairs bathroom switched on. He knew she had decided to shower.

He reclined in the chair, clasping his hands behind his head. He wished he had brought a beer, but now that he was out here, he didn’t want to go back inside to get one. He watched two cars on the road, driving with their bright lights on. Both were speeding. He looked at the woods, growing darker.

*     *     *

When Desalt was away on business, he’d lie awake in hotel rooms at night, thinking of the woods and worrying about Ali. He supposed he had read too much about home invasions. He imagined men coming out of the woods, breaking in. Ali would be upstairs, terrified. He saw her running down the upstairs hall, fumbling as she locked herself in the bathroom.

This hadn’t been a worry when they had lived in the city for the first few years of their marriage. They lived in an apartment building on West 88th Street. There had been doormen, dozens of people around all the time. Desalt hadn’t ever worried about his wife when they lived there. Out here, it was deserted. There were woods.

About a year ago, Desalt had pushed to get a dog, a big dog that would bark and snarl at the first sign of an intruder. He had read about the Belgian Malinois. He watched a video on the internet of a Malinois pulling a man out of the window of a moving car, and he had been impressed. When he mentioned it to Ali, she hadn’t liked the idea. She was a little allergic to dogs. So instead they installed a security system, an ADT, but that hadn’t stopped Desalt from worrying. If he could, he’d build a wall around his wife. Something that would permanently protect her from danger. At the same time, he realized this was a ridiculous idea.

*     *     *

It wasn’t an exaggeration to say his wife had changed his life. When Desalt thought back to the time before he knew her, the days were hazy and dark, haunted by the ghost of his past self. He had lived in a studio apartment on the Lower East Side, above an Indian restaurant, that had stunk up the whole building of curry. It had been a time in his life when he had dated a lot of women. He met the women everywhere, through work, at bars, from friends. Had he liked any of them? When he thought of it, none of them really stuck out. He never opened himself up to any of them. They hadn’t really told him much about themselves either.

Some he had treated badly, it was fair to say. But the affairs were so short that he was sure these women recovered quickly. He had done it to fill his life up, he could see that now. He was a goal-oriented guy. Having sex with different women seemed like a worthwhile goal.

Those days were a blur. There was the possibility of women and his career. Not much else. He remembered Sundays, spent alone, walking lower Manhattan. His loneliness felt thick and heavy. Sometimes he believed it would take an otherworldly shriek to break the glass that seemed to separate him from the rest of humanity. Then one spring, at a wedding, Ali had been seated next to him.

Lately, since this thing with the notes, Desalt had been haunted not by that lonely time but by a time before that. A girl, a small, pale girl he had once known in college, Karen Walsh, appeared in the spectral light of memory. Every time she surfaced, he tried to push her back down.

Into the house, Desalt took his energy. He knocked around, looking for Ali’s school bag. He needed to see the notes. He hadn’t seen one yet. He hadn’t actually viewed the handwriting. Laying eyes on it might give him a clearer idea of what he was up against. He found the bag hanging in the vestibule. He listened for the water running upstairs, before taking the bag into the living room.

On the couch, he rifled through it, finding the well-thumbed copy of Our Town right away. There were Post-it notes sticking out from the pages. Beneath the book, Desalt found her lesson plan, a three-subject spiral notebook. He flipped through it until a single sheet of lined paper flew out.

Written across the paper in black ink, was the message in a stunted blocky handwriting. Desalt read it a few times, whispering it to himself. He looked at the URL, jotted underneath. He would have stood there longer, but he heard the water shut off upstairs. He scrambled to fit everything back in the bag, all except the note. He took it out onto the deck.

Desalt had never told Ali about Karen Walsh. Pretty and fragile-looking, Karen Walsh came back to him all at once. She had been very thin and pale. Her long black hair had only accentuated her paleness. He had been able to tell right away that she was standoffish, haughty even, a rich girl. Her unsmiling mouth had aroused something cruel in him. This had been senior year.

He remembered approaching her in the dining hall or on the quad, and without pretense, criticizing her hair or her clothes. Once at a party, he told her that her skirt made her look like a slut. She never rebuked him or told him off. She only turned and walked away. When she saw him again, her eyes swept over him with indifference, as if she had never seen him before. This only made Desalt want to taunt her more. Sometimes he followed her on campus from a healthy distance but obviously enough that she knew he was following her.

To think of it made Desalt feel ashamed. He had never done anything like that before or since. It had been years ago, and he had practically forgotten all about it until this thing started with the notes. He knew he would never be able to tell Ali about it.

“You’re still out here?” she said, sticking her head out the door. She wore a light blue robe. Her hair was wet, pushed behind her ears.

Desalt shoved the note into his pocket.

“I’m going to bed soon.”

*     *     *

In the morning, Desalt parked at the Metro North station, and boarded the eight twenty-five for Grand Central. He worried about Ali, who was at school, teaching her first period class. He could see her standing in the sunny room, in her blue skirt and white cardigan, holding up Our Town. He had a hard time seeing beyond that. He couldn’t actually picture her interacting with her students. There was a futility to it he found disconcerting.

Ali was a good teacher, Desalt was sure of that, at least. When she got excited about something, her enthusiasm could take anyone in. He knew that first hand. It had happened to him. He was sorry they had argued the night before. When he had come upstairs to bed, she had already been asleep so he hadn’t had a chance to say anything. In the morning, there hadn’t been any time.

Outside the window, the scenery changed to more populated towns. At each stop, men and women, dressed for the office, boarded until the train was crowded. At Dobbs Ferry, an overweight man in a brown suit sat in the empty seat next to Desalt, and opened the Wall Street Journal. When the conductor came through, the man offered his ticket. The conductor clipped it and handed it back. The man took up the paper again.

Desalt stared out the window at the crammed-together houses that bordered the train tracks, and became lost in his recollection of senior year and Karen Walsh. Some of his friends knew what he was doing and hadn’t approved. He hadn’t cared. He thought of the thing with Karen as a private affair.

It went on for months, and each day, he became more obsessed. One night, he lingered along the edges of a party at one of the off-campus dorms. Karen was there, and he kept an eye on her as she talked with friends. When she left, he followed her out into a mild April night. She crossed the street back to campus and so did Desalt, knowing already that she was on her way back to her dorm. Suddenly she turned and came toward him on the sidewalk.

“What do you want from me?” Her voice cracked, became hysterical. He watched the smooth veneer fall from her face. Her large eyes filled with tears.

He had been shocked, knocked off balance. If she had shouted at him or called him names, it would have been one thing, but he hadn’t been prepared for this.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a low voice, and walked away.

He stopped following her. Never spoke to her again. Once in the dining hall, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed she was staring at him. There was defiance in her look, but something else too. He broke the eye contact quickly. He wanted to forget about her. A month later, he graduated. He never saw her again.

*     *     *

“Grand Central,” the automated voice announced over the intercom. Desalt watched as the train pulled into the dark tunnel, far below the city. The man next to him folded his paper over and jammed it brusquely into a black shoulder bag. When the doors opened, the man stood up and made his way out, without looking back at Desalt.

In the station, Desalt dodged through the people. They came at him from all directions. It reminded him of the time before he knew his wife, when he used to walk the crowded streets, anonymously. He had been looking for something back then, something to fill some deep, empty space. For the first time in a long while, he considered the possibility that it still existed.

He took his phone from his pocket and touched Ali’s name on the screen, knowing that she had class now and wouldn’t pick up. Her phone was probably jammed in her bag, stuffed in the bottom drawer of a desk. He listened to it ring, waiting for the voicemail to come on.

“Hi, it’s me,” he said, after the beep.

He didn’t tell her that he loved her. He didn’t like doing that sort of thing on the phone. As he maneuvered through the people, he thought it.

D.S. Englander is a writer, originally from upstate New York.  His short fiction has appeared online and in print.  “Private Affair” is part of an in-progress collection of short stories.


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