George lay in bed with the blanket pulled around his throat. The flat light on the walls meant that snow had not fallen in the night, meant that the clouds were still hanging above the dirty ice in the streets. He was thinking of what he wanted for breakfast.
Leslie lay on her side with her back to him, facing the wall. He could not tell if she was awake; she had been when he first woke, but she had been lying in the same position, eyes closed, for more than twenty minutes. He guessed she had gone back to sleep.
“Do you want to go out to breakfast?” he asked.
“Is there anything in the house to eat?” Her eyes were still closed. “I think the milk is all gone.”
“There’s bread and cereal. I could go get doughnuts.”
“If we’re going to breakfast I should get in the shower now. I’ll need time to dry my hair.”
“No. I’ll just go get doughnuts.” He rolled onto his side and swung his feet from under the covers and onto the cold tile floor.
“No maple,” she said.
George got up and went into the bathroom, thinking that it was too damn cold outside to go for doughnuts. He turned on the shower for the water to warm, then peed, then changed his mind about the shower and went back into the bedroom. He slipped under the covers and twisted the dial on the electric blanket up one number.
“I can’t believe there’s not a damn thing in this house to eat,” he said. “I just bought some stuff last weekend.”
“Go look yourself,” she said.
“Damn it.” George flung the covers back. “I wanted to sleep today. I don’t want to be running around in the goddamn freezing weather buying doughnuts.”
He pulled on a pair of pants and walked out of the room. Leslie got out of bed and went to the bathroom. When she returned George was sitting up in bed, his back resting on a pillow propped against the wall, eating a slice of toast.
George had met Leslie where he worked. She delivered office supplies to the metal fabricators where he cut, punched, and bent the shells for drinking fountains. One day in the summer, when the weather was warm enough that he often ate his lunch at the picnic table beside the loading dock, she stopped on her way out to the parking lot.
“How come you’re the only one that gets a lunch break?” she asked with a smile.
“I’m not. Everybody else eats inside, in the break room. There’s a radio in there.”
“Don’t you like music?”
“I just like to eat outside.” He looked back down to his lunch.
She sat down on the bench across from him. “You know, until I started this job, going inside all the factories along the river, I never thought much about where all those things come from that we use every day. Like water fountains. Or portable heaters. I deliver to them, too. There’s all kinds of interesting businesses around here. Now whenever I drink from a fountain or turn on my heater or make toast I think of these places.”
George snorted and looked up from his sandwich. “What do you think of when you pee?” he asked. “They make toilets across the river.”
“I don’t deliver to them. What do you think of when you pee?”
He grinned. “You got me.”
She stayed until his lunch break was over, and before he went back up the steps of the loading dock she gave him her phone number.
The first time he called her they met for a drink at a bar near her apartment. The bar was attached to a Greek restaurant; you could look out the doorway of the bar into the hall where the cash register for the restaurant stood. George had suggested the place, saying that they could have a drink, then go into the other room for dinner. She wore a dress that he thought looked all wrong on her, made everything seem too serious. He kept looking around the bar to see if anyone was looking at her. After a couple of beers he relaxed, and when he realized that she was keeping up with him in beers, this made him feel better.
“Would you like another?” he asked, after she had tipped back the last drops of her second one.
“I’d like a drink,” she answered, “something different.”
He ordered a Seabreeze for her and another beer for himself. “I’m a beer man, always have been. I don’t go for those fancy drinks. Once in a while I’ll have a shot of something, some tequila, maybe, for variety. But I like beer.” She watched him take a drink from his bottle, and smiled when he looked at her. “You’re being awful damn quiet,” he said.
“I’m a quiet drunk,” she said, and they both laughed.
Neither one of them remembered that they’d come to have dinner, and when George found that he was down to his last five-dollar bill he suggested they go to her house for a nightcap. They stood up and moved through the bar, past the hostess stand for the restaurant, and into the parking lot. George was weaving noticeably, and when Leslie offered to take her car he just nodded and moved to the passenger door.
“I don’t mean to sound pushy,” she said, “but I don’t think I drank as much as you.” George just nodded again.
Leslie’s house was a brownstone in a row of brownstones. She rented the basement, which had its own kitchenette. A divorced mother with three small children rented the two upper floors. To get to Leslie’s rooms in the basement they parked in the alley, walked across the small backyard and through a door into the laundry room. Leslie led him through the darkness, around the washer and dryer and past the basket of clothes, into the large room that was both living room and bedroom. She mixed drinks while he walked along the walls of the room, looking at the framed landscape photos hung from the plasterboard.
“The air conditioning is broken,” she said, “so open a window if you want. I have to call the landlord in the morning.”
He sat down on the couch and took the drink she offered to him.
“I’m going to the ladies room.” She smiled at him. “Don’t finish that drink before I get back.” He studied her figure as she walked across the room and hoped she would change from her dress to pants.
When she returned from the bathroom he was gone. She turned on the light in the laundry room and walked to the back door, past the laundry basket that he had overturned on his way out.
She peered out through the door screen to her car. George was sitting in the front seat with the passenger door open. The dome light was on but she couldn’t tell what he was doing, so she stepped out onto the lawn and moved toward the car.
“I can’t find my goddamn wallet,” he shouted when he saw her crossing the lawn. He was running his hand along the crack in the seat where the back folded down.
“It’s a folding seat,” she said. “Your wallet would have fallen onto the floor in the back.”
“Fuck.” He got out of the car and tried to lean the seat forward. “All my money’s in there.”
“How much was in it?”
George didn’t answer. She helped him get the seat forward, and they searched the back. They checked the front again but found nothing.
“It’s probably at the bar,” Leslie said. “We’ll call in the morning.”
“It’s not at the bar,” he said, whirling around to face her with such a fierce look that she stepped backward. “I didn’t leave it at the bar.”
“Okay,” she whispered, “but it’s not here. Let’s go back inside and we can look for it in the morning.” She turned and moved toward the house.
He crossed his arms on the top of the car and laid his head on them. He heard her open then close the screen door, and turned to see the light go off in the laundry room. “Damn it,” he shouted, and looked around to see if any lights came on. Then he slammed the car door and went across the lawn and back inside.
They did not have sex that first night, didn’t even touch each other in Leslie’s bed, which folded out from the couch. Early the next morning she drove him back to the parking lot at the restaurant to get his car, and they looked all around the parking lot for the wallet. He called the bar when they opened at two o’clock, but no wallet had been turned in. He called Leslie and asked her to search her house again, though they had searched there and the lawn before leaving that morning. Before hanging up he asked her to meet him for a drink later that week, and she agreed.
They met early in the evening and stayed for only one drink before Leslie asked to see George’s house. He drove this time, though she offered to drive until he could replace his driver’s license.
“I drive to work every day,” he said. “If I get pulled over, hell with them. I’1l just tell them my wallet was stolen. I don’t have time to take off to get a new license.”
Leslie stayed that night, and every other night that they went out in the next three weeks. She was the first woman George had ever been with who talked during sex, and after she went home the next morning he tried to recall what she had said. He had tried to make himself talk back to her, but couldn’t.
One night she suggested that they go out with some of his friends from work, one of the other guys who had a wife or a girlfriend. “We could all go out to dinner or to a movie.”
“I don’t know who has a wife,” he said. “And I’m broke.”
“I could invite someone from the warehouse,” she said, “and I could fix dinner here.”
“Whatever. I’d just as soon stay in as go out.”
“Why don’t you like to go out? There are more exciting places to spend an evening than this house.”
He took a quick step toward her and pinned her roughly against the wall. “I work too goddamn hard to pay for this house to put up with you bitching.” He dropped his hands, but she stayed against the wall. “You don’t even have a house. You don’t seem to mind it here when you spend the night. Where would you rather be?”
“Anywhere,” she said, and slipped away from the wall toward the door. He took a step in her direction, and she turned to watch him.
He looked at the flush in her face, her teeth clenched and eyes wide. “Fuck you,” he said, and went down the hall to the bedroom.
She spent that night on his couch, and left in the morning before he woke.
Now she crawled into bed beside him and looked accusingly at the piece of toast he was eating. “Does this mean we’re not getting doughnuts?”
“It’s too damn cold out. There’s bread in there for toast, or if you want doughnuts so bad, you can go get them.”
“I don’t care,” she said, “you brought it up. I thought you wanted breakfast in bed.”
He dropped the piece of toast he was eating onto the sheet between them. “There. Breakfast in bed.” He slipped down under the blanket and rolled away from her. She looked at the back of his head for several minutes, then at the shape of his body under the blanket. “What are you doing?” he finally asked.
“I think we could talk. You’re not being very nice to me.”
“I’m not nice,” he said, his back still turned to her.
“No, you’re not. You’re unfriendly most of the time and downright mean when you want to be. Which seems to be about all of the time that I’m with you.”
“Leave,” he said.
“I should. I should walk out of here and go home and just stay the hell away from here. You don’t give a damn about me. Why is it so hard for you to talk decent to me?”
George rolled onto his back and looked at her. “What is it you want me to say?”
“Anything. Something nice. I’m trying to remember something nice that you’ve ever said to me. Can you even think of a conversation we’ve had in the last two weeks?”
“Yeah. We talked about going someplace warm some weekend.”
“That wasn’t a conversation. You were just talking to the weatherman, to the goddamn television. We can’t afford to go anywhere.”
“So what? So what’s the point? ‘I’m not nice. I don’t talk.’ What’s bugging you?”
“What’s bugging you is the question. You hate your job, you hate me, you hate your life. How can you just go on with your ‘I don’t give a fuck about anything’ attitude? You can find a new job. You don’t have to stay there for the rest of your life.”
“Jesus, Leslie.” He rolled away from her again, and she slid from her sitting position down under the blanket. The sun had not made it any warmer in the room. He turned back again.
“I hate my life, huh? When did you start reading my mind?” She kept her eyes closed and didn’t answer his question. “And if I hated you would I let you stay here every night? Does that seem like someone who hates you?”
“I don’t know.” She opened her eyes to see his expression. She knew the way his face looked when his temper was hot: his eyes narrowed and stared unwaveringly at her; his jaw muscles became tight knots. She had learned to back off when he got this way, to remain silent until he tired of his intensity. This time he was calm. He was only bullying her. “I don’t know what you feel about me. I think I’m supposed to be your girlfriend. I think that’s what all this means. I know we’ve been doing this for five months, and you’ve never seemed happy about being with me, or about anything else. Why don’t you tell me what it seems like when someone hates you.”
“When someone hates you they sure as hell don’t go out with you all the time. They don’t have you in their bed every night.”
The telephone rang. “I’ll go get doughnuts in a minute, all right?” He picked up the phone from the floor. “Hello.”
“Can I talk to George?” The voice was a man’s. George did not recognize it.
“This is George.”
“Did you lose your wallet, George?”
“A goddamn long time ago,” George said. “In August. Did someone find it?”
“Yes, it’s been found. It’s at the restaurant where you left it.”
“Where I left it? I lost it at Niko’s.”
“That’s where it is, pal. Niko’s.”
“Who found it?” George looked at Leslie, who was mouthing ‘the wallet?’ He nodded at her. “Did you find it?”
“The five that was in there is a pretty small reward.”
“Reward? You took five fucking months to call me and tell me you found it. Do you work at the bar?”
“Look, the wallet is there. At Niko’s. You’re lucky to get it back.” The caller hung up.
George reached over the edge of the bed and hung up his phone. “The jerk found my wallet and took five months to turn it in. I can’t believe that.”
“Where is it? Where did he find it?”
“It’s at that restaurant where we went for drinks that first time we went out.” George stood up out of bed and reached for his pants. “I’m going to call the restaurant and see if it’s there.”
“It’s nine o’clock in the morning. They won’t be open.”
“Fuck.” George dropped the pants back to the floor and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I know it’s not there.”
“What do you mean?”
“It sounded like a joke. Like he was just calling to toy with me.”
“But he must have found the wallet. He knew who to call.”
“I know he found it.” His voice was raised, and when he turned to look at her she could see the flash in his eyes. “I know he found it. But I don’t think he’s going to turn it in. I don’t think it’ll be at that restaurant this afternoon when I call.”
Leslie closed her eyes. She’d been awake an hour, and the room seemed colder than when the sun had first lightened the sky and she had woken to look at the clock and at George’s sleeping figure. She had thought then that she should get up silently, dress in the pale light, collect her things from the cabinet in the bathroom and from the bedroom closet, and leave George’s house before he cleared his head of last night’s drinking and awoke. She had held these thoughts, weighed them in her drowsy mind until they lulled her back to sleep, and when she next woke she could tell from George’s breathing that he was awake and that she had stayed.
Now she held her eyes tightly closed and gathered the blanket around her neck. George was still standing at the side of bed and she knew that if she opened her eyes he would be looking at her. Her breath was measured and slow, and she was listening to the sound of it when George spoke.
“I’m going to get some doughnuts.” He paused, “Do you want to come?”
Leslie kept her eyes closed. “No.” She knew he was standing, looking at her, until finally she heard him move across the room and into the bathroom. She opened her eyes. The light in the room had not changed from the cold grey of an hour before, and she felt the cold more strongly now that she lay in the bed alone. She rolled to face the wall, blanket tight around her neck, and drew her knees up. George came out of the bathroom and back to the side of the bed, where he stood for several minutes before sliding under the blanket and closing his eyes.