At the breakfast table, Kevin stabs at his plate with a rubber-tipped spoon, gurgling to himself and smearing bits of cooked apples all over his face every time he takes a bite of food. Sitting in a chair a few feet beside him, wearing her thick yellow housecoat, reading glasses, and her blue plastic curlers, Joan’s mother is thumbing through an old issue of Photoplay, not even bothering to help him eat.
“Mom, for god’s sake,” Joan huffs, grabbing her satchel from her vanity chair, and fixing the collar of her raincoat with one hand as she breezes into the living room. “It’s all over the floor.”
Gail looks up from her magazine with a skeptical expression, arching an eyebrow in a way that means she’s already seen it, and doesn’t care.
“Joanie, he’s a baby. They make messes.”
“I know that.” Joan rifles through her purse one last time to make sure she’s got everything. Her favorite lipstick keeps going missing, and always ends up in her mother’s room. She says that’s Kevin’s fault. Joan thinks that excuse is bullshit. “Just don’t let it dry on the carpet, or else—”
“Or else what? You’re never here. Why would it bother you?”
Joan almost shuts her finger in her pocketbook clasp, she jerks her head up so quickly. The older woman’s smirking, and sets the magazine aside with a sigh, reaching for a still-burning cigarette in her ashtray.
“You work twelve hour days, barely eat, and your baby sees more of me and Greta put together than he does you. He hardly even says the word mama. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“You’re unbelievable,” Joan spits, struggling to keep her temper under control in front of her son. “Maybe I should just let us starve to death. We can live like those hippie kids on communes, or under some bridge. Is that what you want?”
Her mother seems unfazed. “You can deny it. There’s providing, and there’s avoiding, and you know what you’re doing.”
It hurts so much she might as well have slapped Joan across the face.
“I can’t believe you’re bringing this up right now.”
Joan straightens her spine, walks over to Kevin with a paper napkin in hand, and cleans apple gunk from his little cheek.
He looks up, startled, and waves one chubby fist in her direction, babbling a few nonsense words before saying a few real ones.
“Mama bye bye!”
Her mother gives Joan a significant look.
Jesus. Joan summons up the biggest smile she can muster, and kisses Kevin’s cheek, although she feels like crying. “Bye, sweetheart.”
When she shuts the apartment door behind her, there’s a lead lump forming in her stomach, and she feels like a failure.
Lane leaves the office for lunch sometime around noon, but he’s only gone ten minutes before he realizes he’s left his notebook behind. It’s not in any of his pockets. He can’t remember where it is, exactly, but it’s probably in his office somewhere – perhaps the sofa, or a drawer, or on some table.
Myra will be furious if he isn’t—no, that’s not the right word. What would she be, exactly? Oh, he’ll just have to go back.
By the time he’s reached the office, and is unlocking his door with a sheepish glance at the secretaries, he’s decided the best way to explain it. I’m sorry for my lateness, but I—misplaced—the diary, and had to go back for it.
He pushes the door open, but freezes in the doorway when he spies movement in the corner, on the sofa, and notices a familiar flash of red hair.
Joan’s sitting with her back turned to him, and seems to be in the middle of opening a—ladies’ thing, the round ones—compact. But her hands fumble with the clasp for several seconds, and there’s a loud sniff, and after another moment she just tosses it onto the coffee table, her shoulders slumping.
He can tell she’s heard him come in, and shuts the door quickly so they’re not overheard, not sure what to say, or what to do.
“Sorry, I, erm, left my notebook—I didn’t mean—”
She stands now, body turned slightly to the right and away from him. “No, I just—need a minute.”
A small silence blankets the room, only punctuated by intermittent sniffling.
Lane’s not sure if she wants him to voice the question at the back of his mind, but he glances around the room, notices his notebook sitting plainly in the middle of his desk, and moves to pocket this before he can forget it a second time.
From this angle, he can see her face, or at least, the portion not covered by the palm of her hand, which is pressed to her mouth. When she realizes he’s watching her, Joan pulls her hand away, eyes widening; they’re bloodshot, and her cheeks and nose are a brilliant red from crying.
Lane stops himself from walking forward, his brow furrowed in concern. So it wasn’t—she must have been in here for several minutes, at least.
Under his gaze, she lets out a tiny sigh.
But she doesn't finish the sentence, simply bites down on the rest of her explanation with a grimace, as if it's too painful to keep going. In the silence that follows, she picks up her compact again, flashing him an embarrassed look and wiping her damp eyes as quickly as she can.
“You’ll be late for Myra,” she says instead, waving her free hand toward the door. “You should go.”
Lane can’t find the words to say he doesn’t think that matters now, but after a hesitation, he does as she’s asked. There’s a dull pounding in the back of his head, like the start of one of his headaches, and he spends the walk to the usual restaurant fearing the worst before he recognizes the sensation for what it is: curiosity.
Why was Joan crying? What was she going to tell him? Had her mother made her cry? What could anyone have said to make Joan so unhappy? And why would she hide it? Why would she pretend everything was all right if it wasn’t?
It’s been so long since he experienced curiosity of any kind that the feeling overwhelms him, and he spends fifteen minutes wondering all these things aloud before Myra interrupts him.
“You know all of those questions depend on outside information.”
He sighs, and can’t help grumbling a little at being interrupted. “You’re telling me to ask another one.”
She takes a bite of her sandwich in response. He glances down at his notebook, today’s entry only filled with words—adjectives, he corrects himself. They’re, erm, parts of speech. Beside one of them—worried—Myra has written a single question in small cursive. Why?
“Why am I—worried?”
Lane glances up at Myra, gauging her expression. She’s put her sandwich aside, her hazel eyes watching him carefully, but there’s no clue as to what she wants him to say.
“I don’t know.” He winces. She hates that phrase. “It’s—”
He pushes at his boiled potatoes with the tines of his fork, then gets an idea, and drops the fork onto his plate, picking up his journal to flip backwards a few pages.
“Don’t pretend,” he says aloud, his mouth pursing in surprise. Joan had said that to him the other day, only she’s still doing it, and if pretending to be fine at work when he isn’t is bad for his health, then it’s bad for hers. “We said we were to be honest with one another. Or, at least, I…promised I would do.”
He winces as the faintest memory from the hospital rises into his mind— lying in bed like a limp dishrag, feverish and throbbing and miserable, unable to make himself speak, and Joan standing over him, smoothing hair away from his clammy forehead with her fingers as if he were a sick child —
Something new occurs to him.
“Do you think—we—work too much?”
Myra chokes on her water, and just as he’s thinking oh, god, she’s laughing at me, she’s already waving her hands no, gesturing toward his journal. Her voice is raspy as she muffles a cough.
“Look up your second or third entry, and you tell me.”
He does, and frowns at the handwriting here, from months before. It’s shaky and large like a child’s, but he pushes through the embarrassment of seeing it printed out, and reads aloud:
“Went to the office this morning. Came home after dark.”
Lane looks up to glimpse Myra’s knowing expression, and flips back to the entry he’d been studying before, from the other evening. Here, in a less messy scrawl that isn’t as crooked: I couldn’t go home. It was humiliating. He flips through a few more pages.
“Well, Joan’s always there before I am, and after I leave.” Another thought enters his mind. “Would she keep the same hours, if it weren’t for—what I did?”
“I think you used to like keeping long hours, yourself,” Myra says evenly.
He rushes to defend himself.
“No, that’s different, I was—”
Realization hits him with such force it’s like a physical blow. Oh, god.
Lane shuts his eyes against the rest of the unsaid thought, and reaches for his pen. If he can’t say it aloud, he has to get it onto the paper so she can see it; that’s their agreement. When he finishes writing, the word’s spelled out in thick black ink, and smudged at the end, which makes it seem more final.
After a hesitation, he turns the notebook around so Myra can read it. Immediately, she nods her head in a way that eases the tightness in his chest—she’s not going to tell him he’s wrong, or make noises of pity—but she doesn’t hound him about it, either, just asks one other question.
“What scared you?”
He wants to say I don’t know, but under her steady gaze, forces himself to come up with another way to describe this thing, this feeling, and scrawls two more words next to the first.
Rebecca had…well, made it clear she never needed him, but the agency always did, and then it didn’t, and Nigel was gone, and everyone else—
“You’re not useless.”
Lane shrugs in response, in a way that means he’s heard what she says, but his hand itches to pick up the pen again. Don’t admit you’re weak. Don’t tell anyone.
“You want to scratch the word out?” Myra takes another drink of her water. “Go ahead.”
His fingers slide over the slick paper. Scratch them out, scratch them out, scratch them out—but there’s a perverse voice in the back of his head, just a bit louder than the other one, saying no, leave them alone. Look at them. Say them. You’re afraid. Afraid you’ll be useless. Afraid you are useless.
“Joan’s doing—more than her share,” he says instead, clearing his throat, and looking up. “Of—of the work.”
Myra raises an eyebrow.
“Well, she is,” Lane huffs, gesturing toward the paper, where the horrid words still stand out in bold letters. He closes the notebook to keep from seeing them. “And I’m not—it’s not—fair.”
“So, you’re saying you want to do more?” Myra takes another chip from her plate. She’s not quite looking at him, though, she’s looking at his walking stick, shoved into the corner of the booth. He follows her gaze, not understanding, and they both blink at it for a few seconds before he turns back to her.
I don’t know. Yes. I—ought to—but—
“I’m,” his mouth feels dry as he tries to choke out the word, “nervous.”
What if he can’t do it?
“That’s not a bad thing.” She gives him a small smile. “But if you’re serious about taking on more work, you’re going to have to talk that out with Joan, make a plan. It’s not going to be like it was before.”
“No…normality,” he sighs, more or less aware of what she means—the other night proved that point well enough, there isn’t going to be hours and days of uninterrupted work anymore—and what if there never shall be?
What happens if he really is a failure?
Myra smiles at him again. It isn’t terribly reassuring.
“Let’s put your journal away for now.”
Lane returns to the office with a takeaway bag gripped in his free hand—Myra’s idea—and when he knocks on the door of Joan’s office, and promptly sets this onto one side of her desk, she stares at the small paper bag in surprise, her brow creasing into a frown. She’s wearing her reading glasses, and looks a bit tired around the eyes, although the telltale signs of her crying are long gone.
He can’t quite meet her gaze as he speaks.
“You don’t have to eat it, if you’re not—I don’t even remember what we ordered, to be perfectly frank.”
She reaches for the container, lifts the lid, and lets out a sigh, her frown shifting into an expression he can’t read. God, she probably hates it.
“Anyway,” Lane says, with a little shrug. “Erm. Sorry about—before.”
He turns to go.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, and he stops in front of her door, turns slightly toward her voice again. Least she isn’t angry. He thought she might be.
“Oh. Well—all right, then.”
They’re finishing up a second draft of the first quarter budget this week, which has been a slow and torturous process. Last week, Lane said he wanted to speak to her about something important, and that he wanted to keep from feeling useless, which to Joan’s mind meant he was ready to start challenging himself. Setting a pace for this transition has been…difficult.
He gets up from his seat behind his desk, walking over to show her some projection he’s been working on, but stumbles slightly before he can get around the table, and promptly drops his cane.
Joan watches as he shuts his eyes against the mishap, and when she speaks, she’s careful to keep her voice neutral.
“Do you want—”
Before she can finish the sentence, Lane kicks the walking stick across the floor with a wordless growl. It skitters on the tile, bumping into the legs of the red armchair as it clatters toward the wall.
“I hate that bloody thing.”
His voice is breathless, like it was tiring even to say those few words.
Joan puts her work aside.
“My father’s got one just like it,” he continues. “I don't want it.”
She takes a moment to decide her best course of action. He said he wanted to be challenged, and if he meant it, Joan can be the devil’s advocate here. Myra says she thinks he’ll be able to walk without the walking stick, in time. Maybe this is the way to get him to work toward that goal.
“So, how could you get rid of it?”
Anger and frustration tangle on his face as he turns to stare at her. Joan stares right back, leveling him with an unimpressed look.
In the end, he breaks first, and looks away.
She can’t help prompting him. “Does your doctor have any suggestions on how to improve your balance? Or Myra?”
Lane sighs, runs a hand over his still-red face.
“I don't know.”
Joan lets out a sigh.
“Yes, you do.”
Lane makes an aggravated noise at her response, waving his hand through the air as if this gesture will set the matter to rest.
“Lane.” Her voice is as level as she can manage. “Your balance was affected. It's not just going to fix itself overnight.”
“Yes, thank you for pointing out the obvious.”
“For god's sake,” Joan snaps, not appreciating his flippancy, “did you think you were going to wake up and everything would be the same?”
“I didn't imagine I would be awake,” he hisses, “so it doesn’t matter.”
It terrifies her when he talks like that, even if it’s true. She bites her tongue so hard she tastes blood.
Lane looks from her pale, stressed expression to the cane on the floor.
“Don't look at me like I've gone mad.”
“I'm not looking at you that way,” she says in a monotone, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“You are,” Lane insists. “Everyone sees me stumbling about with this—thing—they think I'm an old fool.”
“Well, you're not,” Joan counters. “And if people are looking twice at you, then they’re idiots. What the hell do they know?” She lifts up her hands in a kind of shrug, wishing she could land on the perfect combination of words to reassure him. Why would he give her such a personal reason for not wanting the cane if he doesn’t want her help getting rid of it?
My father has one just like it. He’s never talked about his father before.
There's a long silence, in which Lane fiddles with his cufflink, Joan takes two aspirin from a bottle kept in her purse, and they do not look at each other.
Finally, she breaks this with a peace offering.
“Maybe you could take up walking.”
Lane sighs. “No, don’t—give me suggestions.”
She waves an arm toward the cane on the floor, trying to keep harshness from her voice. “Well, I didn't say it would cure you. I don't know what it would do except strengthen your legs. And if you hate that thing so much, that’s one way you might finally be able to get rid of it.”
He doesn’t answer her for at least a minute. Joan's ready to get up, go into her own office and call it a day, when Lane finally speaks, in a tone that suggests he wishes she would disappear.
“Where exactly am I supposed to go walking.”
“You don’t have to go anywhere.” Joan’s relieved they’re able to have another second of discussion about this without screaming at each other. She decides to try and lighten the mood, even while knowing that he’s not going to laugh. “You might not even have to leave your apartment. Just take the stairs.”
He raises his eyebrows, like this is the weirdest thing she’s ever said, but just blinks at her, straight-faced, and shuffles back around his desk.
Two days later she puts a catalog at the top of his inbox, from the store where she’d originally purchased the first walking stick. If he hates the damn thing that much, maybe getting a different one will help him in the meantime.
Monday afternoon arrives, and they’ve been working on page fourteen of the budget for over an hour when there’s a hesitant knock at the door, followed by Scarlett’s voice.
Lane sighs, looking up from his pieces of scratch paper. “Yes, what is it?”
Scarlett enters, crossing the room in a few quick steps, and slips a large, sealed envelope onto his desk, handing him a receipt on a clipboard to sign.
“This just arrived for you, from England. Courier mail.”
Joan lets her gaze flick from the young secretary back to Lane, who hands the clipboard back to Scarlett, and stares at the face of the envelope with an expression close to resignation.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
Scarlett gives him a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes, closing the door behind her as she leaves.
Lane meets Joan's eyes for a fraction of a second, then turns back to the budget draft, ignoring the unopened envelope.
It’s the last round of his divorce settlement, if she had to guess.
Joan gives him a sympathetic look. “You're not going to open it?”
He clears his throat, reaches for the budget draft, and flips to page fifteen. “Item twenty. Expenses for Secor.”
She gives a little hmph at his attempt to avoid the question, but turns her attention back to the spreadsheet in her lap. Secor's got four percent of the overall agency budget, although Pete and Harry are doing little more than upkeep. That money could be better allocated.
“I know what it is,” Lane says after another moment, causing Joan to glance up at him. “The envelope. It can wait.”
His eyes dart toward the manila parcel again, and linger there. She sighs.
“Doesn't help to put it off.”
Lane’s brow furrows in a frown, though he doesn't lift his head from his work. “You should talk.”
Joan cocks an eyebrow. Even with the monotone, it’s as if he’s opening up the subject for debate. She can’t remember the last time they had a discussion about anything that wasn’t borne out of sheer frustration. “What?”
He looks up, and gauges her surprised expression; his gaze flicks down to her hands, folded primly on her stenography pad.
“Your—rings. You still wear them.”
She glances down, briefly, and studies the gold bands on her third finger. The engagement diamond winks slightly as it catches sunlight from the window.
“It isn't sentimental,” she says, with a little huff.
The noise Lane makes indicates he disagrees.
She’s surprised that he’s pointing any of this out at all, and narrows her eyes, trying to get him to elaborate. “You don’t believe me?”
Lane meets her gaze for a brief moment. “No.”
Joan lifts her shoulders in an exaggerated shrug.
“Well, the rest of the office has formed theories about my divorce.” She fixes him with an arch look that dares him to deny this, though they both know he has no knowledge of office gossip. “You might as well share yours.”
He clears his throat, obviously ill at ease.
“It’s—they're your wedding rings,” he says awkwardly, after a long silence. “Regardless of the, erm, outcome of your marriage, the sentiment of the jewelry is inherent. Based on—t-the manner in which it was given. Severing that link would be impossible.”
He looks away, as if he’s embarrassed to have offered his opinion.
One corner of her mouth keeps quirking up into a small smile. She hasn’t heard him talk this much in weeks. If talking about divorce engages him in a topic of conversation other than work, she'll play along.
“You think I still have feelings for Greg.”
His eyes dart back to hers, expression morphing from hesitant to alarmed, and she has to stifle a laugh.
“I'm not offended.”
Anger is one of several feelings she still harbors for her ex-husband, so technically, Lane isn't wrong. Joan allows herself to smile a little wider, and marks through a typo in the middle of the page, waiting for him to speak.
“Why else—” he begins, then seems to regret his choice of words, picking up his discarded work with a sigh. “Never mind.”
“You're curious. It isn't a crime.”
A frown flickers over his face, and he shakes his head.
“It's none of my business.”
As Joan stares down at the rings on her own left hand, an impulsive idea comes to mind. She curls her fingers around the gold bands, tugging them from her ring finger in a gentle, purposeful movement.
She holds them between her finger and thumb for a moment, her hand poised in the air as if showing them off to a prospective buyer. The metal is worn and scratched in a few places, but they're still bright, and the diamond is unclouded—still beautiful. After another moment, she sets the bands on the surface of Lane's desk, on the few square inches of uncluttered space near the edge. The gold glints against the mahogany.
Lane says nothing, but is clearly watching her movements, confusion written all over his face.
Joan's fingers lay flat against the dark-stained wood, while her palms balance against the lip of the desk. Her fingertips can almost graze the bands, but she makes no move to touch them, or to put them back on.
She doesn’t know why she wants to share any of this with him, but it feels important; even if he wasn’t the one to file the papers, he should know he isn’t the only person ever to get out of a bad marriage.
“Greg signed up for the Army without telling me. And after his first tour of Vietnam—Kevin was three months old—he volunteered for another one, also without telling me. I wanted to kill him, but I told him to leave, instead.”
Lane's eyebrows raise so high they're in danger of disappearing into his hairline. “Good lord.”
Joan can’t help smiling at his incredulous expression. “Well, we had—several problems, but that was essentially the tipping point.”
She straightens up in her chair, inclining her head toward the gold bands.
“Wearing them deflects attention.”
It takes a few seconds for the implications of attention to sink in, but when Lane's eyes widen in understanding, so does Joan's smirk. Of course he wouldn't think of that. He's a man, for god's sake.
“Oh,” is all he says, tapping the red pencil in his right hand against the folder in front of him.
“Exactly,” she replies, and he huffs out a breath as if to say that isn’t funny.
She's watching him now, and he must feel her eyes boring holes into his face, because he looks up at her again. Joan holds his gaze for a moment before glancing back to her wedding rings. Maybe he'll say something about his own marriage ending, and maybe he won't, but either way it's good for him to acknowledge that this is happening. It doesn't matter if he signs the papers today or thirty days from now. He’s still going to be divorced, no matter how much he tries to ignore that fact.
She can’t help asking one question. “Did you keep yours?”
Lane shifts in his chair, and puts his pencil aside. “No. I—erm, threw it out a window. Meant to be—punishment.”
He doesn’t specify whether this gesture was supposed to punish him or punish his ex-wife for leaving.
“Ridiculous, I suppose.”
She shakes her head no.
After a moment, Joan reaches for her rings and slips them back on, twisting them around her finger in an anxious motion. In one quick movement, Lane reaches for the parcel, taking the manila envelope in one hand and slicing the flap open with a silver letter opener he produces from the middle drawer.
She keeps her hands in her lap, and says nothing.
He pulls out the small sheaf of papers, examining several paragraphs, and flips through the first few pages before finally reaching the last one. He places this document carefully on the desk. Several lines are tagged with neon-colored post-its, obviously awaiting signatures. She can even see his wife’s signature on the bottom of the page, bold calligraphy standing out among the blank space.
Lane picks up a fountain pen and signs his name in several places, the script slow and careful. When the last page is finished, he sets the pen into a nearby inkwell, and sits back in his chair, staring at the signed document with a distant, melancholy expression.
After a few seconds, he looks up, as if wanting her to say something.
Joan offers him what she hopes looks like a reassuring smile. She remembers the day she'd signed her own papers: it was mundane, almost dreary. After the pomp and circumstance of her wedding, as small as that had been, she'd felt like there ought to be some sort of ceremony signaling the end of her marriage. In her case, it would have been a celebration, nothing funereal, but that's beside the point.
“Twenty years,” Lane whispers, maybe to himself. “Nearly half my life.”
He opens his mouth again, as if to continue this line of thought, then pauses, and speaks in a rush.
“Can we—keep on with the figures?”
She purses her mouth in a skeptical way. “You'll have to think about it eventually.”
He gives a jerky nod. “Yes, I realise that—just—for a little longer. Please.”
Joan sighs, and picks up her stenography pad, consulting her own spreadsheets.
“Item twenty two: Sugarberry Ham.”