The Winter Without Milk: Stories

The Winter Without Milk: Stories

by Jane Avrich

Jane Avrich explores the perils of desire in these fifteen brilliant stories. Here are characters irresistibly attracted to excess — material, emotional, spiritual — who must in the end choose between a life of self-indulgence and a life of self-control. The results are both disastrous and uplifting, and often wickedly funny.
Throughout The Winter


Jane Avrich explores the perils of desire in these fifteen brilliant stories. Here are characters irresistibly attracted to excess — material, emotional, spiritual — who must in the end choose between a life of self-indulgence and a life of self-control. The results are both disastrous and uplifting, and often wickedly funny.
Throughout The Winter Without Milk are reimagined characters from literature and history — Oedipus, Lady Macbeth, Scheherezade, for example — as well as everyday people who want more. Avrich's writing ranges from whimsical to cerebral. She pays homage to everyone from Kafka to Keats to Sophocles but is very much an original and a major new talent in contemporary fiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Avrich's sentances are acute and piercing, giving these stories a striking delicacy and a confidence that is impossible to ignore." The New York Times Book Review

"Deftly written...[Avrich] balances skillfully between the fantastical and the real...keeps readers on the edge of their seats." The Washington Post

"Rich, wonderfully origianl writing...Highly descriptive, epigrammatic prose, literary allusions, and folkloric references offer complex, rewarding reading." Booklist, ALA

"Playful inventiveness and a fluid prose style...Stories astonish as much as they entertain." Kirkus Reviews, Starred

"Exceptional...Full of telling details, wickedly so...lives up to the promise of it's elegantly odd title...Distinctive." NPR - "Fresh Air"

The Washington Post
Jane Avrich displays an impressive register of style and voice in her playfully irreverent first collection, The Winter Without Milk. In 15 short stories, she purloins from literary history and spins memorable tales that resonate like a Bach suite, ranging from the absurdist and the fanciful to the clever and the lyrical. Though each of her stories tackles very different subject matter, they are all deftly written, and they never cease to surprise. — Heather Hewett
The New York Times
The best news here is that Avrich's sentences are acute and piercing, giving these 15 stories both a striking delicacy and a confidence that is impossible to ignore. — Max Winter
Kirkus Reviews
Playful inventiveness and a fluid prose style reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh at his most antic distinguish this debut collection of 15 unusually varied stories. Several lift characters from familiar literary sources: notably, Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, who’s chosen by a bachelor patron of the dating service "Literary Lonelyhearts"; the blind seer Teiresias, who conducts tours of the Oedipus Museum (in "Chez Oedipus"); and "Lady Macbeth, Prickly Pear Queen," whose old habits inconveniently resurface following her marriage to an ardent young fruit magnate. There are also echoes of Borges, Beckett, Kafka, and especially early T.C. Boyle in such parabolic tales as "Life in Dearth," whose heroine’s discovery of sex reveals to her the emptiness of her native village’s insularity and pride; "The Census Taker," which records the collision of an exacting civil servant with a woman unwilling "to be counted"; and "The Charwoman," an ironic paean to the pleasures of unconventional behavior, which also includes a hilarious parody of a proper Victorian upbringing. Avrich ransacks history in the clever title piece, a scholar’s lament for mankind’s lapse from times when the devout poor "happily endured injury and starvation," enabling the building of marvels like the great cathedral at Chartres--and foresees dystopian futures in "Trash Traders" (where exchanges of what people throw away cause wholesale identity crises); and "Waiting Rooms," an acerbic sex comedy about a man-hunting woman whose failure to find the complete package (so to speak) is foreshadowed by an alarming profusion of prosthetic devices. Even better are "The Braid," narrated by a paternally trained cat burglar who finds a way toassert her independence; and "The Banshee’s Song," about an ugly-duckling daughter who’s compensated for her miseries by an energizing, troubling ability "to see into the spirit world." Stories that tiptoe artfully along the edge of credibility, seldom failing to astonish as much as they entertain. Agent: Andrew Blauner

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Read an Excerpt

La Belle Dame sans Merci

Living at number 16 Evelyn Mews, Matilda often thought, was like living in a poem. Number 16 was a townhouse of bright whitewashed brick with black shutters and a glossy black roof. The slender chimneys were black too, as was the lamppost that watched over Matilda at night, bending its glowing head through the trees. In the morning the sparrows twittered in the leaves and the sun shone in pools in the shallow gutters.
Matilda had moved into Evelyn Mews when her sublet began three months ago. Since then she had adopted certain habits. She took to wearing gloves to work, taper-fingered black kidskin. At breakfast she poured her milk from a curved china jug instead of the bare carton. At bedtime, she read the poetry of John Keats, occasionally glancing at the sliver of moon through her curtain. She loved these Romantic whisperings from a bygone time--the zephyrs and nightingales and Grecian urns. She delighted in the smell of the splendid leather-bound volume with its slender red ribbon to mark her favorite passages. Matilda copied out each with the utmost care, guiding her marbled fountain pen across a creamy new sheet of stationery. She enjoyed rereading Keats’s words in her lovely calligraphic script, and she found it exciting, even uncanny, how well the poet understood her.
Matilda had altered certain mannerisms, too. No longer did she show her teeth when she smiled, bold white teeth that used to gleam atop a flame red underlip. She had mastered a closemouthed smile, which involved pursing her lips, coaxing forth dimples; the smile was accompanied with a light lift of the eyebrows and a mirthful narrowing of the eyes. As for the lipstick she’d worn in Chelsea, she’d done away with it the day she’d moved. Razzle-Dazzle, it was called.
“All the lovely people / who live in Evelyn Mews,” she thought to herself as she slid back the lacy grid of the elevator with a black-gloved hand. Slowly she began to descend, as if down a great iron vine. A verse would describe each tenant. On the top two floors, the Lester sisters, tending their greenhouse with the passion of spinsters. Mr. and Mrs. McCauley on the first floor, aging and pensive with their books and clocks. Herself, dark and lively, on the third. On the second, Mr. Barrett with his frank, gentle face, boyish despite the thinning hair.
She often met Mr. Barrett in the elevator on her way to work. He carried an alligator-skin briefcase with a dull brass buckle; he was probably a lawyer or a financier. Matilda looked forward to the meetings. There were women who wouldn’t notice how attractive he was, for Mr. Barrett wore no pomade or cologne, no broad, flashy ties. But Matilda was more perceptive, her tastes more refined. She admired Mr.
Barrett’s suits with their well-cut shoulders and sleeves; he wore them so casually, a mark of good breeding. He had a cleft in his chin and clean, hairless hands, the kind that would caress a woman gently, as if she were made of glass. Matilda loved his mellow voice--it reminded her of syrup--and the soft, light way he pronounced his consonants. They gave her goose bumps sometimes, especially the Ss and Ts.
And Mr. Barrett was so courteous to her. He would be hurrying out too, but he always had a friendly word, asking how she was getting along in her new apartment or commenting on the smell of rain in the air. Matilda would give a soft, rapturous reply and smile her new smile. When Mr. Barrett smiled back, his eyes were very blue, but Matilda noticed the fine lines that gathered beneath them, etched there by some unspoken melancholy. Melancholy about his wife, perhaps--Mrs.
Barrett, who would have to be included in the poem.
Mrs. Barrett was what Adelaide, Matilda’s Chelsea flatmate, would have called a well-kept woman. She did not work, so Matilda saw her only rarely, stepping swiftly into the elevator before striding off for an appointment with a friend, hairdresser, florist; Matilda could only guess. But these brief brushes of contact always chilled Matilda somehow, made her breasts feel floppy, her hair unkempt.
Mrs. Barrett was tall and very thin and she favored a dark angular coat tied at the waist. Her faced was high-boned with consumptive cheeks, apple-red spots on papery white. Lavender veins crept around her eyes. Her long, lean hands were unadorned except for a wedding band and a diamond solitaire together on her fourth finger. Once Matilda saw her at the market, graceful in wool, a string bag hanging from her shoulder. There was a nervous fragility about her ass she selected tomatoes and feathery lettuces, scrutinizing the leaves for bruises or browning. She fingered persimmons, saucer-shaped cheeses, a blue and white package of flour. Her wide gray eyes were oddly static amidst the flurry of movvvvvement, her expression rigid. Fear--at that moment Matilda recognized it. Fear gnawing at Mrs. Barrett, gently but steadily, from within.

The Fox-in-the-Hole Opera Company, with its contemporary adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, was quite the rage. Their Mikado was presented entirely in blue and gold--both the costumes and the minimal geometric sets--with choreography suggestive of No drama. Iolanthe was staged in the seventies, a satire on feminism with the chorus of liberated fairies challenging the chorus of sexist lords. Deirdre Barrett was well aware that her husband had pulled more than a few strings to obtain tickets to tonight’s opening of Patience, advertised to “bring Gilbert and Sullivan out of the closet.” She had her suit dry-cleaned for the occasion, a long skirt of olive silk with a cropped jacket, worn with pearls. She sprayed her short hair into a stiff roll at the back of her head and touched her lips with gloss. She looked in the mirror and felt elated, romantic.
The night was clear, with a full moon and even a few stars visible, unusual for the city. Deirdre missed the stars she used to see back in Staffordshire.
She wanted to walk to the theater, despite the cold weather. Maybe Roland would be game to bundle up and breathe out streams of frost along the way.
But when Deirdre saw him pacing in the vestibule, she was struck silent. For a moment she hadn’t quite recognized him, as if he’d changed during some absence. His build, maybe--had he grown slighter? And when had his skin acquired the sheen of a middle-aged man--over the nostrils, the bumps of the forehead? It wasn’t until Deirdre had fastened her seat belt that she remembered about the walking. Not that she would bring it up now.
Throughout Patience, she watched his feet. They too seemed different. Each time a song was performed they started a light tapping.
They appeared detached from his body, foolish and mechanical. Tap tap tap as Bunthorne gallivanted about the stage with a lily. Tap tap tap as Patience and Grovesnor moaned “willow waly, O!” into each other’s eyes.
“Quite daring, I thought,” Roland commented as he drove home. “Bunthorne openly gay, yet with his harem of girls. Quite an acrobat, too. Not much of a singing voice, but it hardly mattered.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Weren’t you in some G and S company in college?” he asked when his wife remained silent.
Deirdre was listening to the cars on the road. There was something calming about the eddies of traffic, all spilling in the same direction. She and Roland were safe for now, surrounded on all sides by cars that flowed together at the same pace.
Back at home, things would be less settled. Their return would occur as an abrupt series of halts. The chill of inevitability as Roland’s key probed the lock, jagged metal ridges sliding into place. A slam of the door after they walked in, her heels clicking, his soles shuffling their casual rhythm. The silence of expectation, or was it dread? But he had asked her a question.
“No,” she said after a moment.
“Strindberg.” She turned to smile at him, hoping she hadn’t sounded curt. He stared ahead, his gaze drifting through the tinted glass of the windshield. On the steering wheel his hands were still.

It wasn’t worth it, after all--the new stockings with the seams down the back, the ringlets taut from the curling iron.
Fermin Blore wasn’t the type to notice. His gaze was broad and bleary, moving from Matilda’s thighs when she sat, the barstool drawing up her pleated skirt, to her breasts when she leaned in for her second sherry. Matilda disliked the way his palm rested on the back of her stool, impeding her movements, while his other hand clutched a strong-smelling ginny drink. As he drank he breathed wheezily through his nose, which was covered with large pores.
For a while she tried to do her best, asking him questions about telemarketing, complimenting him on his raise. He answered slowly, his tongue sloshing a little in his mouth.
Finally she left him talking loudly to another fellow at the pub, also beefy and oafish, with hair like the bristles of a lint brush.
Outside the fresh night air flooded Matilda’s face. She breathed deeply. She shook out her hair, which smelled of cigar smoke, and ran her fingers through the voluptuous curls.
Why had she agreed to go out with Fermin Blore? He had good prospects, Deena had told her at work; he was a real gentleman with nice manners, not just a boy. Deena was always on the phone. Her giddiness was catching as she stage-whispered across the office, her hand cupped over the mouthpiece, gum cracking between bright teeth. Matilda should see his clothes, she had exclaimed: a tweed jacket, a gold cigarette case! But in the bar the jacket was tight over his fat arms, revealing hairy wrists. He hadn’t even offered to see her home.
Not that Matilda had wanted him to. She was a good walker, she decided; her stride felt lithe and free.
Soon she would be in her apartment. She would wash her hair and comb it shining and wet over her shoulders. Wrapped in her black and white kimono, she would take out her book of poetry and brew a cup of Ceylon tea. It would be pleasant to reread “To Autumn,” munching perhaps on a yellow pear.
At last! A row of lamps, warm and golden. She had reached Evelyn Mews. Behind her was the pub with its grease-stained bar; behind her were flatulent men with broad hips and big gullets. She looked up at her house, rising into the night so pale and quiet, like a shy girl. Except for the second floor, where the lights were still burning. Two windows, bright and square, as if he were waiting for her.

The next morning, Roland Barrett glanced at the folded sheet of paper in his wife’s hand. “Something in the morning post?” he suggested, pouring milk.
“No. No, Roland.” Deirdre Barrett’s voice was strangely hard. “Look at it.” Obediently but with an impatient furrowing of the brow, her husband unfolded the paper. Written in a sloping, spidery hand such as schoolgirls use, were the lines:

I met a lady in the meads, Full beautiful--a faery’s child, Her hair was long, her foot was light, And her eyes were wild.

Roland Barrett blinked and handed it back. He shook his head. “Some mistake, I suppose.” He crushed toast into his mouth, his lips greased with butter. He was in a hurry, his gestures showed: the shuffling in his seat, the swift reaching and chewing. “Maybe an advertisement for makeup. Lipstick or something.” His eyes didn’t linger on her in that lazy way they once had; instead they flickered and jumped. He had secrets that he kept as carefully as he now kept his hands, nails flat and clean, wrist cuffed with a flat gold watch. He shook his napkin, rose, and kissed her cheek. “I have to run. See you around eight.” Deirdre reread the lines of poetry.
Keats, wasn’t it? He had been one of her favorites when she was in her teens. The handwriting on the slip of paper was not unlike her own when she was a second former at Halliwell. Perhaps the note was intended for her, not Roland. Perhaps it was some sort of sign. She had always thought herself sensitive to signs. Gypsy blood, Roland used to say, wrapping her straight black hair around his hand like a skein of silk; it was long then, like the hair of the woman in the poem. He would tease her about her “aura,” mentioning the stray cats that flocked to her during their honeymoon in Venice, the butterfly in Lake Como that alighted on her hand. Unable to afford a diamond at the time of their engagement, he’d presented her with a ring set with a piece of misty green glass. For his “gypsy bride,” he said.
There were no grounds for any of it, she’d remind him. Her people were English for generations; no babies had been switched along the way. But he clung to his romantic picture.
Her father was, after all, a breaker of horses, her family huge and exotic--five girls and two boys, the mother dead but reputedly very beautiful. They lived among Oriental carpets, illustrated books the size of tablets, collections of curiosities mounted in every room-- coins, arrowheads, shards of Roman glass. At Christmas the whole family clustered before the huge, fierce fire and drank mulled wine loaded with cloves and orange slices--a secret recipe only the women of the family knew. “Witches’ brew,” Roland would murmur in Deirdre’s ear, his voice thick with desire. The next morning they were still quietly thrilled at what they’d attempted in the close, dark heat. She’d wanted a boy, with Roland’s blue eyes. He wanted a girl, with Deirdre’s coloring and her long proud neck.
Something had changed since then, something inarticulable. Maybe it was the apartment, Deirdre wasn’t sure. But a hush had fallen over them. A dimming of the light. No, that wasn’t quite right, the light was brighter than ever, but white and cold, slanting through the high, gaunt windows. It broke like glass fragments across the bed and carpet, jagged across the polished floors. Opposite the windows moved shadows of leaves, a constant, barely perceptible trembling. She and her husband spoke to each other at breakfast and dinner. During the day, thoughts pooled unsaid about the empty kitchen table, the dented armchair in the parlor, the grandfather clock with its silent, swinging pendulum.
It was so different from the house where they had lived after they were married. Comfortable and slovenly, it sprawled its creaky bulk along a soggy hill. Grasses bunched around the porch. In back was an untidy garden full of weeds and fallen petals; you could smell the earth when it rained. Somehow they’d found the furnishings charming--paunchy sofas, heavy, half-rotten curtains, a battered oak table so long they passed the salt by shuttling the shaker back and forth at high speed.
There were giant wardrobes and a gramophone and ample room for children.
But as it turned out, there would be no children. Deirdre had to accept the truth when Roland suggested this apartment in London. It was modest but well appointed, he’d told her, it would suit them just fine. And so they moved to this fashionable cul-de-sac and set themselves up on the second floor. The rooms were small, the ceilings high, creating strange echoes in the still of the afternoon.
Echoes of her feet touching wood; even her sighs seemed to bounce and ripple about like a shudder. Occasionally she heard a slight tapping, a woodpecker or a squirrel in the tree in front of the building. The tapping came in little frenzied bursts, then suddenly stopped. Sometimes scales jangled from a distant piano, she never knew whose.

Today Matilda had her lunch at the Caffe Navona, the new cappuccino bar. Like the woman she was watching in the slate blue suit, Matilda ordered the smoked mozzarella sandwich with tapenade, arugula, and sun-dried tomato. It was expensive--she had to scrape her purse for change--but worth it, she reasoned, as she had never tried sun-dried tomatoes before. They tasted like ketchup, but saltier.
Matilda had changed her lunchtime routine. On the stroke of twelve she used to switch off her hot, purring monitor, as if she were coaxing a cat into a nap. Then, pinching her cheeks for color, she whipped her coat around her shoulders and was off.
Sometimes she spent the hour having her nails done, but usually she bought her lunch at Morley’s--a bacon and egg sandwich and a cup of tea. Hassam started frying the egg the moment she entered. “Just for you,” he’d say, flashing her a jaunty grin. He tried to make conversation in his fumbling English, mentioning the weather, complimenting her on her coat, her dress, her hairdo.
He liked it up, he said, it was very fine, very--he tried a new word--stylish.
Hassam was short and wiry, his arms knotted with muscles. His T-shirt revealed gray chest hair, curling and matted. He must have been close to fifty. But Matilda liked the way his little black eyes played over her face when he talked to her, a dimple twitching in the stubble of his cheek. And his attempts at gallantry made her titter.
He always gave her an extra-large heaping of rice pudding. If she so much as sneezed, he’d dart right over, offering her a napkin, asking if she had a cold.
But not anymore. She’d made the decision on Friday. The elevator had stopped on the second floor, and Mr.
Barrett had entered with that baffled, bemused look he always wore.
“What a cheering color!” he exclaimed, his eyes on her new silk scarf. It was red, with spangles. She had returned the smile, pressing her hands together in a gesture she hoped was girlish.
All morning she felt dazed and refreshed. He was so well bred, so different from the others. There had been nothing sly or sexual about his words, no leer on his face. He was openly delighted with the brightness of her scarf, a scarf she had worn especially for him. She imagined him asking her to lunch. Just as they parted he would catch her sleeve and stammer out the invitation. Later that day they would meet in a terrace restaurant and drink aquavit.
Then, with a sudden shift, she imagined Mr. Barrett watching her at Morley’s. Through the steamy windows he would see Hassam with his biceps and his nametag, chuckling and rubbing his nose. He would see her jiggling her leg gaily as she laughed too, her mouth full of bread, a strand of egg dangling from her lip. She pictured Mr. Barrett turning away in disgust.
Finishing the mozzarella sandwich, Matilda took the long way back to work. She avoided passing Morley’s. Hassam was probably looking out for her, his pudgy face perplexed and doleful. Embarrassment rose in her throat. She had, after all, encouraged him.
With a shrug, she dispelled the image.
That too was past.

Deirdre awoke before dawn to find it already there, under the door. As if it had been laid there by invisible hands, ridden on a bewitched current of air. She turned the paper over in her hands. It was another thick sheet of white laid, smelling of jasmine.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

For hours she pondered what it meant, barely stirring in her chair. She listened. In the stillness of the kitchen everything was alive. The first fingers of sun touching the sky pale gray. The drops of water skittering into the kitchen sink, furtively, one by one.
A straw from the broom trembling on the linoleum as invisible gusts seeped under the doors, through the walls. The elements were trying to tell her something--light and air, water and matter, all of them whispering desperately.
The elements had conspired in a different way when she and Roland first met. The two of them used to recount the story to friends, his arm around her waist as she cringed with laughter. The whole encounter had been very unglamorous. It had happened six years ago, in the early spring on the ferry to the Aran Islands. Despite the clear sky, the water was rough and she became seasick, suddenly and violently, over the railing of the ship. When she managed to straighten again, a young man in a mackintosh and mashed-looking rain hat was watching her with open curiosity. Deirdre’s face was swollen, her eyes watery; the taste of bile filled her dry mouth. She was about to ask him what he was gaping at when the ship pitched forward again. “Steady, there,” he said, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Now stare at the horizon. It’ll help the queasiness.” When the ferry docked, he took her elbow and led her ashore. She protested that she felt fine, she would just hop a taxi to her hotel, but he insisted on buying her tea. She was dehydrated, he said.
The teahouse was a tiny place, no more than six tables, with curtains of apricot velvet. Its tin roof was beaten with arabesques and trimmed enamel blue. A green fan circled above them, humming rhythmically. Roland poured her chamomile tea, adding a dollop of honey that hung off the spoon like an amber teardrop. His every movement was solicitous; at the same time, there was a touch of naughtiness about him; a little-boy glint in the eye, she later told him.
Outside, the church bells began to ring, startling Deirdre from the memory. Somehow it was already noon.
Roland had gone. She had not shown him the note, but folded it carefully into the pocket of her dressing gown before setting the breakfast table.
What sparse fare it had been: a plate of muffins, served dry. She’d had to throw away the marmalade; mold had crept into the jar, speckling the surface with fuzzy green blisters. He’d glanced up in a funny way, then left her with hardly a word. Forlorn! the very word is like a bell, she thought, the words chiming in her head with each stroke of the hour.

Like anything else, shopping was a skill--the eye contact, the question and answer, the cordial thank-yous. In Chelsea it had been so drab--brushes and sponges and tinned spaghetti.
But now Matilda was perfecting her technique. She was discovering new people, new stories, as she discovered new items, things she never would have thought of owning when she lived in Chelsea--a china vase for tea roses, a spring hat (white felt with a blue grosgrain ribbon), rice powder, candied ginger. Not that she could afford them all, but she kept lists for the future.
Perfume, however, was an immediate necessity. The jasmine stuff she used to smear on herself now made her want to gag. “I’m looking for something subtle,” she pronounced in Élan, a small glass shop that resembled a perfume bottle itself.
Inside were rows upon rows of vials in all kinds of shapes--globes, diamonds, roses, hearts, crowns studded with glass gems. They held thimblefuls of mysterious liquid, clear or bronze in hue.
The man behind the counter touched his fingertips together thoughtfully. He had a tiny button of a nose and beautiful eyes, gelid blue with black around the irises. His hands meditatively stroked his silk tie.
“Subtle,” he murmured, as if savoring the word. “Subtle.” He looked up swiftly. “Possibly something floral?” He placed eight or nine different fragrances on the counter, to sample, he said, as if they were tiny liqueurs. Their names were foreign, mesmerizing--Danae, Delirium, Ma Griffe, Mon Ame. In the end, Matilda chose a wildflower scent called Psyche.
“Myrtle,” the man told her. “It positively wafts around you.” She sniffed the air delicately. “My aunt used to wear a scent like this,” she lied. “She was French.” “French! Then she must have known fragrances.” “She had a huge house where she lived all alone except for her maid, Colette.” Matilda paused to envision it all and, charmed with her invention, she went on. “The house had big glass doors, I remember, and my aunt would make me coffee with hot milk and plenty of sugar. I couldn’t have been more than eight. The fragrance certainly brings it back.” “How very Proustian!” he said, and handed her a miniature pink shopping bag.
In her high spirits, she splurged on a taxi. She told the driver about her French aunt who smelled of wildflowers. She was engaged to be married, she said, and the reception would take place at her aunt’s French country house. It would be a small but tasteful affair with everything in white--white roses, white linen, snowy silver, crystal glasses. And an almond wedding cake with three tiers. Roland, her fiancé, adored almonds.
“He sounds like a very lucky fellow,” the cabdriver said, smiling at her in the rearview mirror.
“He’s very deserving too,” Matilda said solemnly. “His first marriage was a terrible strain. It took him awhile to extricate himself.”

Deirdre kept the quotations in her secret box, an old cigar box that her father had given her as a small child. She had been fascinated with his cigars; impressive with their golden bands, they’d seemed half the length of her arm. When she raised the lid of the box, she could still smell the brown tobacco, mingled now with the odor of jasmine.
She had given up shopping. She wasn’t much of a cook these days, making odd mistakes--burning the toast, then scraping it to shards; slicing pats of rancid butter onto the potatoes. After the chicken breasts turned out pink and rubbery--although they’d looked nice enough, garnished with capers and parsley--Roland had started managing on his own. Deirdre was secretly thankful. It gave her more time to consider the signs. Constantly they murmured around her, they spattered and flecked each hour with clues and warnings. The tapping outside, for example. It occurred in multiples of threes--nine, eighteen, twenty-seven taps at a time. And the sun. Every day she followed the reach of the longest ray across the room. Two days ago it had teased the large silver watering can, flashing disks of white light around its widened belly. Yesterday it had strayed all the way to where the blond and chestnut floorboards interwove in a herringbone pattern. Light, dark, light, dark, in ceaseless alteration.
It had begun silently and without warning. One night Deirdre saw a change in Roland’s face and she knew he had given up. It was over a year ago, late in August, about a month before they decided to move. He was sprawled on the bed, his pajamas rolled up to his knees, feet bare, bathrobe hanging slackly open. She assumed he wanted her to join him, but his smile stopped her. A tolerant smile, slightly weary. His head lolled back a little, his eyes gazed down, not at her but somewhere beyond.
And so there would be no children. He had not said a word, but that much was clear. Why, she did not know. He had his own thoughts, packed into his narrow, shiny suitcase with the secrets of his trade.
Nor could she catch his eye afterward.
She couldn’t remember the last time he had looked at her face--her face that he used to find in paintings by Rembrandt and Klimt and Frida Kahlo (“That could be you, couldn’t it? Just pluck the eyebrows a tad”). She thought of yesterday’s spare lines:

She dwells with Beauty--Beauty that must die; And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu . . .

How he had rhapsodized about her long arms, her wrists delicate, as if fastened with ivory pegs. Her eyes he called delicious, the color of gooseberry jam. She reread the message she received today:

I see a lily on thy brow With anguish moist and fever dew, And the cheeks a fading rose Fast withereth, too.

Deirdre walked over to the mirror that hung in the dim front hall. Even through the dust she could see it was true. Her face was lily-pale in the shadows, floating on a too-thin neck.
Unhealthy spots of brightness showed in her cheeks; strands of damp hair trailed across her forehead.
Her youth was withering fast. It was already too late for children, too late for anything. She was lost, she saw now, and had been for a long time. Somewhere in that delicate gauze of happiness there had appeared a savage little rent, which pulled and ripped and widened until she found herself surrounded by empty wind, wading haplessly across channels of silence.

As he waited for the elevator, Roland Barrett again considered a doctor. One friend had given him a name, but it was so difficult to approach his wife about such things. It was difficult to talk to her at all. Every morning she sat with him at breakfast, wearing a quilted robe that had once been pink. How long had it been since she’d washed it, Roland wondered; or her hair, for that matter? When he offered her tea, she would smile vaguely but seemed to decline. She would start to sweat, often and without warning, little beads rolling down the sides of her face, tracing gray streaks. Blackheads clustered around her nostrils, tiny pimples across her forehead. Often her mouth was caked with dry spit; Roland could smell it as he lay beside her at night.
“Good morning, Mr. Barrett.” A low, watery voice startled him out of his thoughts. The elevator had arrived, and in it the young woman from upstairs. He ran into her often lately, a diverting little thing, refreshingly cheap. Not that she didn’t try to look proper with her silk umbrella, carried rain or shine, and those little black gloves she was so proud of, always tugging them on and off, finger by finger. It was all charmingly deliberate. The way she wore her hair, crisp and curly and piled up like a Gibson girl’s, her mannered little pleasantries, her obsolete turns of phrase. “Enchanted,” she’d once said, and “See you anon.” She amused him, Roland decided, pulling back the gate and stepping in beside her. She was wily and false and not unattractive. She smelled strongly of myrtle, that tawdry, pleasantly noxious scent he associated with those girls from Chelsea he used to visit back in his university days.
“Lovely day, don’t you think?” She smiled at him as she always did, a private, twinkling smile with the lips pursed full and close. It was a smile of the eyes as much as of the mouth, suggesting some secret between them.
Roland considered the invitation of that smile. It could not have been less subtle--but what did that matter? All the more reason to accept it, then!
“Yes.” He smiled back and drew a step closer. “Our first in a long time.”

Copyright © 2003 by Jane Avrich.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

Jane Avrich’s stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Story, and other journals and have been nominated for The Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Born and raised in New York, she received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and her master’s from Columbia. A teacher for thirteen years, she currently teaches English at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn and lives in Manhattan.

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