from Travels in Vermeer

by Michael White
from Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

1. the pies

There’s a small window cut into my front door, composed of four identical, square panes with a perfect cross of slim, oak muntins dividing them. Sometimes I stand at the door, staring idly at a neighbor walking his dog outside, or the rain drizzling through the pine branches, slicking down my front sidewalk, or nothing. I rest my forehead on the juncture of this cross. It dents the skin of my forehead, which is oddly comforting.

It’s October 2003, the grass a grayish mat. My marriage is over. Except for a chronic ringing in my ears,there’s only dead silence in the house. Deep snow—sweetly anesthetic snow of Lexapro. If I’d gone to the beach, I might have noticed how the glass-green rollers,folding over the offshore sandbars,had turned slate-gray, the currents plying the lap of sand had switched from washing south to north, the surfers had donned their wetsuits. But I didn’t go to the beach. Here, in town, my pines were releasing their summer needles,drifts of blonde straw piled on the slopes of my roof, and snuffing out what little green remained in the lawn.

Because I’d nearly lost my wits in the months trekking from lawyer’s office to courtroom to mediation to counseling, the blank space in-between.The permanent custody hearing had turned into a referendum on what an unpredictable, abusive loser I really was.There were accusations of assault, a restraining order, a flurry of 911 calls—mostly made while she was sitting parked in front of my house.

Now it’s Saturday, two weeks after the custody hearing. I’m sitting in my armchair, staring at my own feet, when a loud knock jolts me out of my skin.The last few times, it had been officers delivering divorce papers, the restraining orders and summons. And so I rise rather furtively, try to steal a glance through the door without being seen. It’s Sara: a whiff of beauty in the frame. Remembering how, during her last visit, I’d been dragged away in cuffs, I think: no.And sit back down. But, a moment later, she knocks again—a pleasant but slightly impatient rap. I start to get up, sit down, cross my arms.

Suddenly, I realize the door isn’t locked, so—staying low—I make it the three steps to the doorknob, in the same instant it begins to turn. I’m fumbling with the chain too late as she pushes the door open about a foot till it stops against my right knee.Then I peer through the little square window with cross-shaped muntins.

It’s odd how time speeds up: not just an hour, but months flash past. Other times, time stops—and I feel the weight of every- thing, past present future bearing down on me. One thing I know: in the time it takes to open one’s mouth—to reach for the dangling chainlock—what happened or would happen in court in the minds of others doesn’t count, what happens now is what counts.

Here’s what I see. Sara in black raincoat, hair cut in a sharply-angled page boy—dyed a richer shade of black—the huge brown eyes outlined dramatically, her lips a flame-red jolt against the grayness. Holding a fresh-baked custard pie in each hand.When she catches my eye, she raises one pie up next to her ear—so I can see it clearly: see?—then nods for me to let her in.

It might seem a bit outrageous, a cliché—a few weeks after the arrest. From any logical point of view, the language of this encounter—pies and lipstick, raincoat absurdly open upon absurdly bare skin, the lightly freckled swell of her chest—would probably seem some sort of a joke. But it doesn’t feel like that now.

I’d always done most of the cooking, but one thing Sara had done for five years in the kitchen was ply me with desserts. I didn’t have a sweet tooth; it was only sport for her. She spent years whipping
up Christmas toffees, brownies, coconut macaroons. It turned out to be a simple vanilla custard pie with which I couldn’t be trusted alone—in no time, thereíd be nothing left but a few crumbs on the counter—and that was a triumph for her.