He didn’t expect the intercom. Hadn’t noticed it. He hesitated.
“Hello?” the woman’s voice came again.
“I’m your neighbor, Roger,” he said. “The mailman delivered your mail to me.”
“I’ll be right down,” she said.
Her scrubs were dark navy blue, and she wore white sneakers. At the door, she seemed a bit careful, which showed that she was sensible, Roger thought. Opening the door to a stranger was not necessarily a wise thing to do. It occurred to him too late that there was no proof that what he had said was true. She trusted that he wasn’t lying, that he wasn’t a robber trying to force his way into a building which might contain expensive electronics, or money, or jewelry.
He was glad that he dressed the way he did, so that her first glimpse of him would show a professional man, perhaps coming home a bit early to find his neighbor’s mail in his box. He would look trustworthy, respectable.
It was a brief meeting, with her opening the door only slightly, smiling at Roger and thanking him for his thoughtfulness. He tried to smile back, but was nervous and unsure of what his face must have reflected. He feared he might look like a terrified boy at a spelling bee who had just been given a word he had never heard before. He handed the mail to her and hoped his hand wouldn’t shake.
“My name is Roger Chadwick,” he said.
“Pilar Bardem,” she said, holding up the envelopes. “But then, you already know that.”
There was a slight accent, which Roger found charming. Dark-haired, very pretty, but up close she looked more tired. He sensed something in her – a kind of heaviness – that he recognized, and it made him want to strike up a conversation. But he thought better of it. Keep it a simple exchange, he thought. Brief.
“Well,” he shrugged. “Enjoy your mail.”
“Thank you,” she said, “it was very thoughtful of you.”
As he turned to go, she said, “Have a good afternoon.”
He turned back to her and nodded. “You, too.”
She closed the door and Roger heard the lock turn. He stood on the sidewalk, unwilling to go back to his empty apartment. He walked instead to the Italian restaurant around the corner, since he was already in a suit and tie, and feeling more like his old self than he had for a long time. Instead of sitting at the bar, he asked for a table. He’d eat a decent meal for a change – something he’d never cook for himself.
Some of her envelopes were addressed to Dr. Pilar Bardem. She was a doctor. A tired doctor who worked a night shift at one of the local hospitals, he thought. Leaving in late afternoon and coming home at dawn, she’d be seeing some of the worst a hospital handles, since it seems that more awful things happen at night than at any other time of day. Why would anyone want to work the night shift, Roger wondered? And what kind of life could you have, when you are away all night and come home at dawn, when most of the world is heading out to their jobs?
None of the envelopes were addressed to anyone else. So, Roger assumed that there was no husband. Why that would matter to him, Roger couldn’t say. Wasn’t this just about the tree? Wasn’t his goal to ask that she take the tree down?
Instead, he found himself wondering if he could ask her to meet for coffee. Maybe meeting her for breakfast as she came home from work? Or would that be silly, expecting her to sit and eat breakfast at an all-night diner at 6 am after a shift at a hospital?
While nursing a second scotch and waiting for his main course, Roger did a Google search of “Pilar Bardem, M.D.” on his phone. It was so easy now, he thought, to explore the personal details of a stranger. Her name came up immediately. A LinkedIn page. A page on the website of Pennsylvania Hospital, only a few blocks from their neighborhood. Board certified in emergency medicine. Medical degree from the University of Navarra, Spain. Internship at the University of Barcelona. A residency at Columbia University in New York.
Her photo was a good one, he thought, because she looked younger and happier. This particular hospital, he mused, probably wouldn’t overwhelm with things like gunshot wounds at 4 am; it was a relatively wealthy neighborhood more likely to see heart attacks and strokes, broken hips, maybe some car accidents, perhaps some problems with the youthful drinkers at the various bars and pubs. He was strangely relieved, for her sake. Then, as the waiter brought his vitello saltimbocca granato to the table, he switched to a light red wine, and turned off his phone, feeling a bit uneasy about his cyber stalking.
The next morning, he woke, brewed a pot of coffee, attempted some push ups and sit ups and put on a fresh pair of sweats. Then, instead of taking up his normal place on the sofa to watch the endless hours of cable news, he laced up his sneakers and went for a brisk walk. He walked down Quarry Street, crossed Second, then Front Street, and then headed over to the river’s edge, where runners and bicyclists were enjoying the cool of the morning. The scent of the water was in the air, and Roger enjoyed the mist he felt on his face. Dogwalkers held leashes of dozens of happy, eager dogs who pulled and barked. He never knew there was so much life here in the early morning. Seagulls called to each other as they dipped and dove, and a few of the barges sounded their horns, low and long. Unused to exertion, Roger took his time, sitting on the benches occasionally for brief rest, but eventually covering a few miles of waterfront. He decided that he would do this each morning, gradually adding more distance and moving to a more rapid walk-run. He’d pull his free weights from the closet and actually use them.
Back home, Roger shaved again, showered and put on another suit and starched shirt, this time with engraved cuff links, and a red silk paisley tie, lifted with a gold collar bar. He walked around the apartment this way for a while, trying to re-inhabit himself.
At his desk, he straightened some papers and dusted his keyboard. He’d begun doing some small freelance jobs, long-distance consulting for several former clients who had also been hit by the economic meltdown. Most communication was by email, and Roger had preferred it that way. But now, he decided that a bit more human contact might be a good idea. So, he made a few phone calls after a few fingers of scotch, and reconnected with a select group of his former colleagues, many also unceremoniously “retired” by company re-sizing. He arranged to meet some of them for drinks. He renewed some lapsed memberships in his professional organizations and brushed up his resume. He even returned a long-ignored call to an Assistant Dean of Temple University’s business school, a former neighbor, and agreed to teach a course for their evening program in the upcoming Fall semester.
He would ask her out. It was a relief, finally making the decision.
Each day, the tree still taunted him with its lights and Christmas ornaments. It was now mid-August. Over the next week or so, he contrived several times to run into Dr. Bardem in the late afternoon as she headed to work and he headed to dinner, and occasionally, in the early morning, as he set out for what had now become a speed walk, and she returned home.
Finally, one evening, they fell in together as they shared a few blocks of their walk.
“You work nights,” he said, hoping that it wasn’t obvious that he already knew a lot about her.
She nodded. “Five nights every week,” she said.
Even though he was terrified, Roger managed to say, “Would you like to go out to dinner on one of the nights you aren’t working?”
Pilar hesitated, searching his expression, which he feared might look as confused as he felt. She smiled, “That might be nice,” she said.
What do people do now, Roger wondered. A long marriage, and no experience dating in the new millennium left him baffled. Luckily, Pilar pulled a card out of her purse.
“Here is my business card,” she said, writing on the back. “That’s my cell phone, here on the back. That way you can call or text me and we’ll figure out a time and place.”
Roger hadn’t updated his business cards since his forced exit from the company, and immediately made a mental note that he should rush an order of newly-designed cards through, in case there ever came a time when he’d want to give one to Pilar. He spent the evening poring over online card designs and choosing one on which he was able to create a professional, consulting persona, “Chadwick Consulting”, Roger Chadwick, Founding President and CEO. He built himself a website from one of the many do-it-yourself platforms, updated his stale LinkedIn page, created a blog that would discuss the changing profile of the senior executive, and shared it on social media. After all, he told himself, he held a combined MBA/MA in International Business Management from Wharton. He used to be a somebody. Maybe it was time to remember that. He began reading Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal again, and added a few publications like Business Insider,Fast Company and Upstart. Now, after his morning jog, he’d stop at Café Ole on Third Street and read his digital subscriptions on the iPad he had in his zippered pocket, not even realizing how much more energy there was to his daily life. He’d added a few new local clients as well as several international ones, and his days and bank account were more full now than they had been for quite a while. He began teaching as Labor Day neared, and had been deciding on the materials, the syllabus, the approach he wanted to take with the students, all of which took a lot more time than he’d imagined. He taught at the downtown campus, which was a short bus ride from his home; and he liked the feeling of having someplace to go, even if it was only two nights a week. The students were bright and ambitious, and he enjoyed the experience of realizing how much he had to share with them. He was surprised to realize that he really did have a lot to offer – that he wasn’t just discarded and useless goods.
With the extra money, Roger hired a housekeeper who did wonders in cleaning up the apartment. She helped him to make it look like the cozy city pad of an international business executive. She came once a week, and it kept him honest. No backsliding into messiness and slovenly behavior.
To his relief, he and Pilar enjoyed that first dinner together, although it was, at times, an awkward evening. Roger was out of practice, not only in social situations, but in non-corporate human interactions of all sorts. Before this recent turnaround, he’d spent entire weeks inside his apartment, never venturing outside for more than a few minutes to handle essential errands. Now he was talking to students, having brief conversations with other adjuncts in the faculty suite, discussing cleaning strategies with the housekeeper. But none of that prepared him for the date, and for how foolish he felt. Isn’t dating later in life some sort of vulgar deviant behavior, he wondered.
On that first evening with Pilar, he ordered wine after consulting with the sommelier, relieved that his French pronunciation was still decent. The menu and food talk took up a good bit of time, and then the silence frightened him enough to force him to attempt conversation.
“So, have you lived here long?” Trite, he thought. Jesus.
She seemed guarded somehow as she said, “For only about a year.”
“Me, too,” he said. “Downsized from the family home in Gladwyne.”
It seemed better not to say I ended up with nearly nothing after the ’08 crash. But the reality was that he couldn’t afford the home she owned. That wasn’t something he would willingly admit. Best not to talk about the wife or the children, either, since none of that was happy conversation. Keep it simple. Basic. Conceal the worst.
Pilar nodded. “Are you enjoying being back in the city?”
Not like I had much choice, he thought. “It was an adjustment. But I think I’m enjoying it now,” he said.
She was from Barcelona, the daughter of a doctor and a theologian. Again, Roger sensed her reticence in discussing herself.
The conversation moved away from personal history to the neighborhood – its upcoming fall festival, the last few events at the Festival Pier on the river, First Fridays and the other cultural offerings of the city, the recent struggles of the orchestra’s musicians against a management hell bent on cutting their salaries and benefits. Pilar played the violin. Roger had tried and failed at several instruments, and still occasionally played the guitar, badly. Basic chords, he told her, just enough to limp through a few simple Beatles songs.
The evening ended when they walked from the restaurant back to their homes and he asked if she’d like to go to the Telemann violin duets of the Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia’s baroque orchestra. He never brought up the tree, but stood looking at it through his window that night, after getting into some pajamas, and pouring himself a nightcap.
They saw each other a few more times. There was no forced intimacy or rushed closeness. The tentative quality of this seemed to suit both of them. They shared meals at some of the nicer local restaurants, a concert, a movie, fireworks on the Delaware River. Roger didn’t expect much, and was under no illusions about his looks, despite his recent attempts at retrieving some fitness. A hard, unsentimental appraisal at himself in the full-length mirror led to one inescapable conclusion: he was no longer wealthy enough for a pretty younger woman to find his lumpy body desirable. He used to joke that, as men aged, the bulge in the pants that attracted women was the one in the pocket, not the one in the groin. It wasn’t any less true now, even if he didn’t find it funny anymore.
Besides, he wasn’t even sure that he wanted that kind of relationship with Pilar, or she with him. He still hadn’t brought up the tree, still couldn’t figure out how a career woman with such an otherwise ordered life could have such a quirk about her. It occurred to him that he was delaying asking her because that would put an end to the reason he told himself that he was seeing her. As ever, Roger resented having an insight into his motivations.
It was Pilar who, unprompted by Roger, began to reveal more. It was their fifth date; it was autumn now and the leaves had turned. The restaurants had already put out their heat lamps for those determined to sit at the outdoor tables.
“I was married,” she said.
They were sitting on the roof deck of The Revolution House, drinking coffee. It was the Saturday before Halloween, and most stores and restaurants had decorated for the holiday. The roof deck was filled with vertical clusters of haystacks, a few rows of strung orange lights, several pumpkins.
Roger nodded. “Divorce?” he asked.
Pilar took a long breath and exhaled slowly before answering. “We had a little boy. Mateo,” she said.