Girl with Ice Cream
It had been a rough summer; they had tried to sell the house, beginning in the spring, but had failed. Priscilla wanted to lower the price and move on, he would have just as soon stayed if no one met the price they’d agreed on, and so they sank into a state of silent hostility. If she brought it up he’d remind her that they had a deal; he didn’t want to talk about it, which she took correctly to mean he didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to do the thing that would make her happy.
With so much tension created by a subject they didn’t discuss, animosity would surface in other ways, on other, apparently unrelated grounds. When he had made a comment about a colleague at work who’d gained weight, she had said “It’s not like your gut is exactly rock-hard.” It was the sort of thing one couldn’t deny—being true—but still, there were degrees. If he had tried to defend himself he would only have seemed pathetic, and so he just let it sink in as one more source of resentment to add to the pressure that was building up within him.
It would be nice, he thought as he took one of the double seats on the train home, to have this all behind them, but he wasn’t going to back down, not if she was going to say things like that. It was easy for her, who didn’t work, to get all the exercise she needed. He began to tote up in his head the classes she took; there was Pilates, and yoga, and spinning. There was some sort of dance thing, he wasn’t sure what it was called. On a day when she didn’t have something going on with a group, she could go to the gym or swim by herself. With that sort of free time, and those options, who wouldn’t be in good shape?
He, on the other hand, had to squeeze in exercise as best he could at the beginning of the day, usually no more than a half hour, sometimes even less if he had a breakfast meeting. On weekends he’d try to do more, but it wasn’t always possible. She often wanted to get away from the house, which meant a drive to someplace different, Cape Cod or up north, which meant sitting in a car for several hours. Then he’d be back at his desk on Monday, while she was free to resume her regimen. He appreciated that she stayed in shape, but why couldn’t she understand that as long as he was the breadwinner, he would spend most of his life sitting; in a chair, in front of a computer at work, or on a train, going back and forth between work and home.
His gaze out the window of the train as he thought these thoughts was distracted by the site of a young woman, licking an ice cream cone, coming down the aisle. She slipped into the three-seat bank across the aisle from him, being careful as she scooted across the seat in a dark blue dress not to let her ice cream topple over. She was too old to call a girl, but the contented look on her face as she ate made her seem younger than her years. He seemed to recall having seen her somewhere before, but he couldn’t recall where at first. And then it occurred to him; she sometimes worked out in his health club, although she wasn’t one of the regulars. Maybe she wasn’t obsessed with her body, which he found to be pleasingly plump—an old expression he hadn’t thought of in years. There was a little fold of flesh under her chin, which created a shadow. On another woman—an older one—he might have found this distasteful, but not on her.
The woman was setting on the west side of the car, and the setting sun bathed her in a warm, orangish-pink glow. She cocked her head a little between licks and looked out the window at the grey buildings the commuters were leaving behind them as they headed home. Unlike so many others within his sight, she didn’t seem exhausted, or unhappy, or angry. Perhaps the ice cream had raised her blood sugar, he thought, and that made her happy. Maybe I should try that before I get on the train each night, he began to think, but stopped himself. He’d been informed by his wife that he had put on too much weight for her liking; he couldn’t let her widen her advantage over him in that regard.
He unfolded his paper and pretended to look at the stories on the left-hand page, the better to be able to sneak a look at the woman without attracting her attention. She didn’t take out her phone, another point in her favor. He couldn’t understand why people had to be chatting all the time, all day long, telling the tales of their lives out loud, for any stranger to hear. She seemed—self-contained, he thought. He realized he’d let himself stare at the woman, and self-consciously tried to elevate his thoughts to a higher plane. It was nice, he thought, to see one young person these days who didn’t have to gab all the time, and he thought better of himself for shifting to general principles from the particular impressions—somewhat erotic—that were formed in his mind from his present surroundings.
The woman got off the train two stops before his, in the nearer suburb where there was more housing suitable for young, single people. He began to create a composite picture, like a detective trailing him at some point in the future, when he’d been discovered. He could tell his wife he had to work late, then he and the girl could take the train to her stop, have dinner at her place or fool around, then he could get on the nine or ten o’clock train home. No one would ever notice, he thought at first, then he saw the flaw in his plan; there were people—not many, but a few—who knew him on the train. One of them could see him getting off some night, then bring it up at a party or in a restaurant when he was with his wife. Why did he get off in Newton the other night, he’d be asked—what would be his answer?
He could always say he had to meet a client who didn’t want to drive into Boston—yes, that was it. But he’d have to be careful not to strike up a conversation with the girl when they got off the train—that would throw another element of risk into the situation. The girl might not like that, he told himself, but it would have to be part of their deal. He had no idea how lovers worked this sort of thing out at the beginning of an affair; it would depend on her personality, he thought, but she seemed so easy-going that he put it out of his mind without difficulty.
When he arrived home that night he felt tired, more tired than he’d been on the train. The prospect of silence or argument drained him of whatever sense of comfort he might otherwise have felt coming in the door of his house. His wife greeted him and gave him a perfunctory kiss, which compounded his sense of fatigue; she wasn’t going out of her way for him, and so he wouldn’t extend himself for her. He allowed his mind to drift back to the young woman, whom he now saw in idealized tones; the western light flowing in her window on the train, the cone lifted to her mouth, her tongue shaping it, catching the ice cream before it melted and ran onto her hands. He took her as the subject of a painting in a museum, one that he composed and could return to at will, re-tracing his steps down marble the halls of his mind: Girl With Ice Cream.
When he noticed her next at his health club, he took a machine behind and a little to the right of her, so he could watch her without discovery. She wore headphones, like almost everyone else, but they did something for her in that place that they did for no one else. She seemed transported, in a world of her own, as she listened to the music. She wasn’t quite singing along to her music—he would have thought less of her if she’d had so little self-possession that she would do that. But she was visibly, if not audibly, humming. From time to time her lips moved, but nothing came out that he could hear. She was, he thought, passionate, but in a quiet way.
Perhaps this was where she found herself, he thought, or more accurately where she lost herself. She worked out long and apparently hard, and then she went out and enjoyed the benefits of exercise—she ate, and enjoyed life, he thought. She wasn’t an ascetic—that was Priscilla’s problem; she kept weight off but it didn’t make her happy. In fact, what drove her on her frantic round of classes was something egotistical; she loved her body when it looked the way she wanted it to, and she disciplined herself to keep it that way. Unlike the girl, who seemed to love life and eating as much as she loved the muted self-punishment of physical fitness.
He caught himself, and tried to be charitable to his wife of many years. The girl was younger, and young people, without the burdens that come with affluence—like a house now too large—thought and felt differently than those who were older. But still, there it was. He was no longer happy with his wife, and they were deadlocked. It was time for him to try something new, and so he resolved that the next time he saw the girl on the train, he’d try to talk to her.
He calculated the risks of both rejection and success; if she didn’t respond, or declined to carry on a conversation, he was just a genial older man trying to be pleasant. If she was receptive and it lead to something, he could break it off easily and take steps never to see the girl again. He had determined that she always rode in the last train car, since it was the shortest walk from the platform. All he had to do was walk further up and ride in a car closer to the engine. He could change health clubs without trouble; his membership entitled him to go to any outlet of the chain, and there was one just three blocks away. He would hardly notice the disruptions to his life it would require.
And so the next time he saw her coming down the aisle—again with an ice cream cone in her hand—he waited until she sat down in one of the three-person seats and quietly moved up to join her, sitting in the aisle seat. He smiled over at her, and she smiled back. What should he say? he asked himself. He hadn’t thought of that detail but it was just as well, he thought. If he’d had some prepared speech in mind it would have sounded stilted, stiff; it was better to respond to the particular situation of the day.
The girl looked out the window and licked, while he tried to think of an opening conversational gambit. And then it occurred to him; the ice cream—say something about the ice cream.
“I’ll bet that ice cream tastes good on a hot day like today,” he said pleasantly and quietly, so others wouldn’t hear.
She didn’t turn her head. He hadn’t considered that she would just ignore him, and given her apparently pleasant disposition, he couldn’t believe she would. He decided that he may have spoken to softly for her to hear, and decided to try again.
“I’ll bet that ice cream tastes good on a hot day like today,” he repeated, this time leaning over to make sure she heard.
The woman saw the man’s head lean in towards her out of the side of her eyes and turned—not startled, but a bit surprised.
“Ahm zarry,” she said in a strange tone, as if her speech was filtered through a medium, or she was speaking underwater. “Dih you zay zomething to me?”
“Uh, yes. Your ice cream looks good. On a hot day.”
“Ahm sarry, ah didunt hear you—Ahm deaf.” She took a card out of her wallet that read “I am deaf or hard of hearing.” “Ah can read lips.”
The man looked at her; there was a drop of white ice cream at the corner of her mouth, which, when she realized it was there, she wiped away with a napkin. “Scyooze me,” she said, her mouth forming the words inexpertly, as if her lips were numb. “Whut did you zay?”
The man inhaled, then smiled feebly. “Your ice cream,” he repeated, mouthing the words slowly so she could understand. “It . . . looked . . . good.”