Aud has to work so Benji goes alone, in a huff, to drink mimosas and eat smoked salmon at his old flatmates’ house in Watertown, where he lived through the end of his studies into this first year as visiting assistant professor without a whiff of tenure, where he lived until she came to him across the growing Atlantic. On his return from brunch to Calvin Street, she’s sitting at the drop-leaf kitchen table, earbuds in, staring out of a cobwebbed window.
She is listening to Dinah Washington’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” while watching above the rim of her laptop as the neighboring couple, who of late ripped open the scrappy earth and stowed things in it, tend to their dizzying garden, which looks like a drug-induced hallucination, engorged with movement and gaiety. She does not move at the noise of the cowbell that clangs when Benji enters. From behind, he worms his arms around her ribs and nuzzles one side of her neck under the earlobe. He presses his mouth to her cheek and she flinches. A scent of fish lingers on his breath. She knows what it is he wants.
Won’t you wash first? she asks.
He shrugs and walks away.
She calls after, through the archway, into the next room: I’m sorry, baby, but it’s slightly gross. He doesn’t speak, just unlatches the piano lid, rubs the edges of his mouth with his fingertips, drags his hand through his beard and hair. Her stomach twists. Off he goes again into that other place of his. She cannot work, just watches him with an eye. He never let her see the murk inside him, not until he got her neat inside his life and distant from her own, which she seems somehow to have sacrificed without realizing. She did it as if she were born and raised to renounce herself. Was she raised to renounce herself? Not deliberately. But he has the power, or he seems to have the power; and because of this power he’s not always nice anymore. She feels less without knowing why.
Benji wipes his hands on his sweater. He smears the keys of the piano as he plays, over and over, the theme music from Death in Venice. Or is it Brief Encounter? Something lugubrious and ardent. He’s feeling awfully hard done by and sorry for himself. She’s denied him what he’s owed. He’s pounding into his piano instead of into her. Is it because of his father or mother? Is it because he hasn’t sisters? Because he’s Roman Catholic or an academic? Because he’s American? Anyway, she doesn’t get it. His mood saturates the house. He drags like an anchor through her stomach.