After his wife died, Will started drinking more beer. It was the obvious choice during that sultry July in Boston, ice cold lagers assuaging whatever sorrow he allowed himself to wallow in, but eventually fall came, and winter, and he was still socking the stuff back very inelegantly. He’d sit down for dinner at some fancy place on Newbury Street, and while his friends and co-workers ordered cocktails or spring water, Will asked what they had on tap.
Things got a little better around Christmas. He started calling himself a beer connoisseur, even a beer snob, and derived much pleasure from demanding to see the “beer list” in every restaurant he went to. He started to disdain American lagers from the big breweries, started asking for microbrews and craft ale. He had his first Guinness at a raucous St. Patrick’s Day party which he otherwise didn’t remember very well, and by the following July, his wife exactly one year in her grave on Independence Day, he toasted her memory with an exquisite Belgian Trappist ale.
Apart from the improvement in his taste in beer, Will had come a long way in other regards since his wife’s death, too. He spoke more directly and forthrightly to everyone around him, not only about silly minor things like how Vera insisted on fuchsia and pastels in all her clothing, or James’s belief that the world would come to an end in three years, but also about important, emotional things as well. One evening when Sally was over at his apartment to watch a video, a scene in the movie reminded Will of something. He paused it and turned to Sally, who was munching salt and vinegar chips at the other end of the couch.
“Sally, you’ve got to give up the thing with Frank. I mean, I know you said it’s just flirting now and the occasional pinch on the ass or sneaked kiss in the kitchen, but he’s a married man and it’s just not fair to Alyson.”
He unpaused the movie and took a sip of his Belgian Chimay.
The evening continued, and they did make it to the end of the movie, but Sally was more silent than usual. When Will made a comment about some scene or character or snippet of dialogue, she acknowledged him, but perfunctorily. He found that was sometimes the case with his new forthrightness for some people. They couldn’t seem to handle it. They told him he was being nosy or categorical or judgmental, that he should be more sensitive, or try to look at the other side of the argument, or just mind his own damn business. But Will did not change his behavior, and he consoled himself with deep speculations in his lonely apartment late at night, the conclusion to which was always that he never had any evil intentions when he was giving his analyses and opinions. He was not berating or haranguing or being ungenerous: he was just looking at the facts as he saw them as an intelligent man, and then rendering an assessment.
Most of his friends understood, or at least thought it was just a phase he was going through and that in the end he would come out a little less ornery. But some of them tended to avoid him after the first incident of Will’s new method. Less than fifteen minutes after the movie was over, after Will had gone to the kitchen to return the empty popcorn bowl, Sally was in the midst of a huge fake yawn and stretch when he returned to the living room.
“I should be going.”
He saw her only slightly less frequently after that – they did continue to be friends – but some of the intensity and intimacy were gone. Sally seemed more reserved, less demonstrative around him. It made him sad, and the one time he tried to talk to her about it, she just fidgeted and laughed nervously and insisted there was nothing to it, it was OK, everything was OK. Will smiled weakly, pursed his lips, and looked down at his shoes. When he looked up, she was gone, scurrying off to the bathroom or some other contrived necessity. He sipped his Duvel, which was very good.
Since his wife’s death, he had had sex with one woman and one man, but mostly he spent his free time watching old movies (“anything before 1970,” he told his friends). The woman was one of the fellow passengers on a harbor cruise. It was about 10.30 and Will was out on the deck, nonchalantly sipping a disappointingly weak lager. He wasn’t feeling anti-social or sad or lonely. He had chatted with some of the other people milling about the bar on the lower deck, but another of the results of the shock of his wife’s death was that he could not tolerate small talk for very long. So after some respectful but brief conversations and a tour of the room just so he could check out the decorating details (such as they were), Will had made his way to the upper deck.
“Cool night,” the woman said, and then, after a pause: “Hi, I’m Janet.”
She smelled good, that’s all Will could concentrate on. It was dark enough so that he could not really tell what she was wearing, or even the details of what she looked like, but her perfume was distinctive and subtle.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she said, “but I can only take so much of the chatter in a big room like that, and I just thought I’d come up here and feel the cool air or something.”
“As opposed to the hot air down there?”
“Right. Something like that.”
The band started up down below, and Will, partly emboldened by his situation and partly in an attempt to avoid yet more chatter, turned to Janet.
“Want to dance up here?” he asked.
She looked over at him, chuckled, and said, “Sure.”
They waltzed alone there for a solid twenty minutes, covering the whole expanse of the deck like professionals in a ballroom competition. Will had never been this close to a woman since the funeral, and though he had some feelings of guilt and regret, his own honesty with himself could not prevent him from sensing and admitting his arousal as well. He pulled her close and tight, sometimes waiting for her cue and sometimes initiating it himself. He looked out over the water, the lights, the buildings, as they twirled and twirled, and he felt himself in some sort of alternate existence, something other than his real life and other than any life he had imagined for himself. It didn’t feel either good or bad to him: it was just something else.
The evening ended back at her apartment, Will feeling both revitalized and slightly saddened by the actual sex. It was good as a physical act, as a source of relief for an urge, but at the doorway, when Janet was asking him if she could call him, he felt the burden of the cliché-ness of it as something weighing him down, preventing him from moving, from reacting, from answering her simple question.
“It’s been a hoot,” he said, gripping the doorknob for some kind of support. “But why don’t we just leave it at this. You’re good in bed, you really are, and you seem like a decent person, but I just want to leave it at that.”
“OK, sure, whatever you want,” Janet said.
And Will turned the knob, kissed her lightly on the cheek, and walked out the door.
“Thanks most of all for dancing with me, Janet,” he said as he walked around the turn in the corridor to the elevator.