It is an early autumn afternoon, the leaves just beginning their brilliant decline. Twice when a cloud passes overhead she puts on her sweater, only to take it off when the sun comes back out. The pale blue cardigan slips easily on and off her narrow shoulders.
The cemetery is old and large enough that here, deep within the borders and down an easy slope among elms and maples and rows of monuments, you are secluded enough from the city’s traffic and noise to register only a distant sensation of outside life.
She has put down the blanket in a spot beneath a chestnut tree not far from the gravestone I visit. I saw them converge on this point from opposite directions, he in his tie and pressed pants walking from the main entrance near the busy streets and she in her sweater and skirt coming from the direction of the lake. They were looking for each other and did not see me. Now I move slightly to the other side of the tall granite marker so I will not disturb them. I can hear their voices. Not their words, not all of them, but the tenor and rhythm are clear, the intent. I don’t need their words, I can fill them in. Who hasn’t been a player in such intimate encounters and remembers exactly how it feels?
He nestles close to her, one hand tucked behind her on the blanket. She sits with her back straight, a perfect right angle to the ground.
He says, “Leave it to you to pick a cemetery.”
“You don’t like it?”
“It’s quiet enough — I like that. I was hoping for a private spot.”
“I like coming here. I feed the ducks in the lake though there’s a sign against it.”
He kisses her ear. The sunlight glints off her long silver earrings. He kisses her neck.
“Please, not here.”
“Do you mean that?”
She says nothing.
“You mean not anywhere,” he says.
She strokes the back of her fingers over his shaven and scented cheeks. There is something wistful in her movements, as if she were comforting a sad child.
“There are two presidents buried here. Fillmore and Grant. And a famous Seneca Indian chief.”
“You know a lot about this cemetery.”
“But I don’t personally know anyone buried here. That’s what happens when you’re far from home.”
She opens the picnic basket and starts setting things on the blanket. He uncorks a bottle and pours a glass of dark red wine for each of them.
“Do you want some cheese to start?” she asks. “Or do you want a sandwich?”
“You really went all out.”
“This is your big sendoff isn’t it?”
He tries to explain. It’s not really a sendoff, that’s not how he thinks of it.
“Never mind,” she says. “What do you want?”
“Everything. Let’s just put everything out and eat what we want.”
“I even brought dessert. Your favorite — I got éclairs at the bakery.”
They eat without speaking. A few murmurs pass between them. Oil from the salad gets on their hands and lips and when she looks in her bag she can’t find napkins. She forgot to pack them with the lunch.
“We could use the blanket,” he says.
“God no. Do you know how many places it’s been?”
She starts to wipe her hands on the grass but he reaches for her wrists and pulls her hands close to his face. He puts the tip of one of her fingers into his mouth. She lets him go on for a moment, then takes her hand away. “Not now,” she says.
He fills their glasses again, too high, as if he’s decided to drink up quickly and get out of here. “Have you thought any more about coming?” he says.
“You mean about your leaving.”
“We could talk about it more if you like.”
“Talking will only repeat what we already know. Do you mind?”
“I think you do but you shouldn’t mind.”
I understand a man has to live his life, but I would handle his situation much differently, especially with a beautiful woman like her. I mean, look at her. He has forgotten how fortunate he is to have her. Someday he will regret what he is doing. He thinks he has all the time in the world and will meet someone else, someone better, but he might not. He won’t.
She leans over and kisses him, just a touch, then more deeply, with one hand in his hair. She turns sideways and something catches her eye. I think it is me.
She lowers her voice. “Don’t look up yet, but there’s someone standing over there.”
“Don’t look. He’s sitting at the base of a gravestone.”
“Yes, I see him, but he doesn’t know we see him. I think he’s watching. Who do you think he is?”
“Just someone visiting the cemetery.”
“Do you know him?”
“He’s too far away. Why would I know him?”
“You might know him. You say you come here a lot.”
“No, I don’t know him.”
“I think he’s waiting to see something.”
“Then let’s give him something to see.”
“You feel like it. It’s what you want. It’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“You don’t need to put it that way.”
He pulls her on top of him and she and starts kissing him. He holds back for a few seconds and then responds, because of course this is what he wants, and I have to avert my eyes, I can barely watch and now he has switched positions with her and is straddling her hips with his knees on the blanket and reaches his hand down and raises her skirt.
When they finish, she is on top again, the blanket a wreckage beneath them, the remains of their picnic scattered. The glasses of wine he had filled too much have spilled. She collapses against his chest.
“How was that?” she asks, after a few minutes.
“That was perfect.”
“We’ve never done anything like that. I don’t know what came over me.”
“I did.” He laughs quietly.
“Now are you happy?”
“Yes, of course. I was fine, now I’m finer.”
“See, you get what you want and everything is fine.”
She moves off of him and pushes her skirt down, straightens her hair. “I’m getting cold, will you hand me my sweater?” She is crying a little now.
“Come here,” he says. “I love you. You know I do.”
Such poor judgment. He’s a lout, really. I would have treated her as she deserves to be treated, not like someone he can discard, not like someone he may never see again. She will be much better off without him, that much I am sure about. She is the one who will meet someone else, she is the one who will someday be thankful for this day, not him.
He gives her the sweater and reaches across her for the bottle of wine. It has tipped and spilled and little remains. He stands up one glass and pours the last few drops. He looks at his watch and drinks the wine. As his head is tilted to drink he happens to look down the row of granite markers, directly at me, as if for the first time. He lowers his glass and stares and even from this distance I believe we are looking into each other’s eyes. Everything has changed now. It is a sudden and ominous change, an unexpected storm darkening the sky.
“Hey, who’s that,” he says.
“There’s someone over there, by that grave.”
She looks over to where he had motioned. “Where? I don’t see anybody.”
“He’s there, hiding behind the stone. I wonder how long he’s been there.”
“Oh, I see him now. Oh, no, he’s probably been watching us. I hope he didn’t see us.”
“Who is he, do you know him?”
“I don’t know, he’s too far away to tell.” She thinks for a moment, then says, “I don’t know him.”
“Then what’s he doing?”
“He’s been watching us. I feel so terrible! I wish we hadn’t done that. I didn’t want to—I didn’t.”
“He’s just staring at us.”
“I want to leave.”
He stands up and takes two steps in my direction, then stops and turns back to her.
“What are you going to do?”
“Don’t,” she says. “I want to go. I knew this wasn’t a good idea — the whole picnic. I don’t know why I suggested it. I was trying to be nice about everything.”
He takes a stance with his fists closed. He sizes me up from afar. He doesn’t know it yet but he doesn’t want to come after me. It would be a mistake.
“I’m leaving,” she says. She gathers her picnic supplies and blanket and starts walking in the direction she had come from.
And now he must decide: Come after me or follow her.
I can see he wants to start trouble, and realize I have stayed too long. But I don’t always know when to walk away and for how long to stay.
Before this man comes after me and tries to make a scene, I steady my hand on the cool, smooth granite an instant longer, its hardness absolute and unforgiving, and I turn and walk quickly along the row of gravestones, through the freshly fallen leaves and down the knoll toward the lake, where many ducks and a few geese live and a sign says not to feed them.