Before She Knew Him – Peter Swanson

The two couples met at a neighborhood block party, the third Saturday in September. Hen hadn’t wanted to go, but Lloyd convinced her. “It’s just down the street. If you hate it, you can turn around and come straight back.” “That’s exactly what I can’t do,” Hen said. “I need to stay at least an hour or else people will notice.” “They really won’t.” “They really will. I can’t just look around at my new neighbors, then turn and leave.” “I’m not going if you don’t go.” “Fine,” Hen said, calling his bluff, knowing that he’d go alone if pressed. Lloyd was silent for a moment. He was in front of the living room bookshelf, rearranging. They had closed on a single-family in West Dartford at the beginning of July, during one of the worst heat waves in Massachusetts history. Two months later, the weather had cooled, and Hen was beginning to feel that the house was theirs.

The furniture was all in the right rooms, paintings were hung on the wall, and Vinegar, their Maine coon, had started to occasionally come up from the basement where he’d been hiding. “What if I ask you to come with me as a favor?” Favor was an unacknowledged code word between them, a gambit Lloyd usually used only when Hen was unwell. In the past, it was how he sometimes roused her from the bed in the morning. “Don’t do it for you. Do it for me. It’s a favor.” She occasionally resented the word and the way Lloyd used it, but she also understood that it was reserved for times when Lloyd thought it was important. Important for both of them. “Okay. I’ll come,” she said, and Lloyd turned from the bookshelf, smiling.

“I apologize in advance if it’s awful,” he said. Saturday was sunny and blustery. Sporadic gusts of wind ripped at the plastic tablecloth, weighted down with bowls of pasta salad, chips, endless hummus and pita. Dartford was a well-heeled commuter suburb forty-five minutes from Boston, but West Dartford, separated from the rest of the town by the Scituate River, had smaller houses spaced closer together, all built for the workers from a long-defunct mill that had recently been turned into artist studios. The converted mill was one of the reasons that Lloyd and Hen had picked this location. Hen could have her own studio that was walking distance from home, and Lloyd could take the commuter rail—the station was also walking distance —into Boston for his job. They’d still need only one car, the mortgage was less than what they’d been paying in Cambridge, and they’d practically be in the country, away from it all. But standing at the block party, dominated by young hip couples, almost all with children, it didn’t feel all that different from their previous neighborhood. A woman named Claire Murray—the same woman who had hand-delivered the block party invite—introduced Hen and Lloyd around. Invariably, conversations broke out along gender lines: Hen found herself explaining her name —“short for Henrietta”—at least three times and that she was a full-time artist another three times— and told two of the women that, no, she didn’t have any children yet.

Only one, a darkly freckled redhead wearing a T-shirt with the logo of a preschool, asked Hen if she planned on having children. “We’ll see,” Hen lied. It was a relief when, after eating some pretty delicious pasta salad and half a dry cheeseburger, Hen and Lloyd found themselves back together, conversing with what appeared to be the only other childless couple at the party, Matthew and Mira Dolamore, who turned out to live in the Dutch Colonial immediately next to theirs. “They must have been built at the same time, don’t you think?” Lloyd asked. “All the houses on this street were,” Matthew said, rubbing at the space between his lower lip and his chin. When he took his finger away, Hen saw that he had a scar there, like Harrison Ford. He was handsome, Hen thought, not Harrison Ford handsome, but good-looking in the sense that all his features—thick brown hair, pale blue eyes, square jawline—were the features of a good-looking man, yet they all added up to something less than their parts. He stood stiffly, a dress shirt tucked into unstylish high-waisted jeans. He reminded Hen of a mannequin, with his broad shoulders and his large, knuckly hands. Later, when they all had dinner together, she would decide that he was one of those harmless, cheery men, the type of person you’d be happy to see but would never think of when they weren’t around.

Much later she’d realize how wrong that first impression was. But on that bright Saturday afternoon, Hen was just happy that Lloyd was back by her side, conversing, and she wouldn’t have to fend for herself. Mira, about half the size of her tall husband, moved in closer to Hen. “You don’t have children, either,” she said, more a statement than a question, and Hen realized that their new neighbors had undoubtedly spied on them as they moved in back in July. It was strange that they hadn’t come over and introduced themselves. “No, no children.” “I think we’re the only couples on this street who don’t.” She laughed nervously. Hen decided that Mira was the physical opposite of her husband, that her features—a slightly too large nose, a low hairline, wide hips—added up to someone far more attractive than her husband. “What do you do?” Hen asked, immediately annoyed at herself for instantly relying on that particular question.

The four talked for another twenty minutes or so. Matthew was a history teacher at a private high school three towns over, and Mira was a sales rep for an educational software company, which meant, she said several times, that she spent more time traveling than she did at home. “You’ll have to keep an eye on Matthew,” she said. “Tell me what he gets up to when I’m away.” The nervous laugh again. Hen should have hated her, but somehow she didn’t. Maybe the move really had mellowed her, but it was more likely the effect of her current meds. Another burst of wind, colder now, came down the street, rustling the still-green trees, and Hen pulled her cardigan around her body and shivered. “Cold?” Matthew asked. “Always,” Hen said, then added, “I think I might head on back .

” Lloyd smiled at her. “I’ll come with you,” he said, then turned to Matthew and Mira. “Believe it or not, we’re still unpacking. Nice meeting you both.” “Nice meeting you, Lloyd,” Matthew said. “And you, too, Hen. Is it short—” “Henrietta, yes, but no one, except for my birth certificate, has ever called me that. It’s always been Hen.” “Let’s get together sometime. Maybe cook out, if it’s not too late.

” This was from Mira, and they all agreed, in vague responses that made Hen decide that it was never going to happen. So Hen was surprised when, a week later, Mira ran out from her front door as Hen was walking home from her studio. “Hen, hi,” Mira said. As usual, after spending an afternoon working, Hen felt spacey, in a good way. “Hi, Miri,” she responded, realizing right away that she’d gotten the name wrong. Her neighbor didn’t correct her. “I was going to drop by this evening but I saw you coming down the street. Can you come over for dinner this weekend?” “Um,” Hen said, delaying. “Friday or Saturday, it doesn’t matter,” Mira said. “Sunday even works for us.

” Hen knew she wasn’t going to get out of this, especially now that three possible nights had been offered up. She and Lloyd had no specific plans that weekend, so she picked Saturday night and asked what they could bring. “Just yourselves. Yay. Is there anything you can’t eat?” “No, we eat everything,” Hen said, neglecting to tell her about Lloyd’s phobia of any meat that came attached to a bone. They settled on seven o’clock on Saturday, and Hen informed Lloyd when he came home that night. “Okay,” he said. “New friends. You up for it?” Hen laughed. “Not really, but it will be nice to have a meal cooked for us.

We’ll be dull and they’ll never invite us back.” She and Lloyd arrived exactly at seven, armed with a bottle of red and a bottle of white. Hen wore her green-checked dress with tights on underneath. Lloyd, who’d showered at least, was wearing jeans and a Bon Iver T-shirt that he sometimes wore when he went running. They were taken to the living room—the layout was identical to theirs—where they all sat around a low coffee table, arrayed with enough appetizers to feed a small party. Hen and Lloyd sat on a beige leather couch, while Matthew and Mira sat in matching chairs. The room was very white and sterile, incredibly clean. There were interesting prints hanging on the walls, but Hen thought she recognized them from Crate and Barrel. They made small talk for about fifteen minutes. Hen was aware that they hadn’t been offered a drink—was this a nondrinking house?—but didn’t particularly mind, except she was thinking of Lloyd.

But just as Mira was asking if Hen was going to be part of the upcoming Open Studios, Matthew stood and said, “Can I get anyone a drink?” “What are the choices?” Lloyd asked, a little too eagerly. “Wine, beer.” “I’ll have a beer,” Lloyd said, while Hen and Mira each asked for a glass of white wine. Matthew left the room, and Mira asked again about Open Studios. “I don’t know,” Hen said. “I just got my space set up, like yesterday. It seems strange to suddenly have people parade through.” “You should do it,” Lloyd said. “Yeah, you should,” Mira said. “Have you been to Open Studios before?” Hen asked Mira.

“Yeah. Every year we’ve been here. I go, anyway. Sometimes Matthew does. It’s fun, you should definitely do it. You might even sell something. That’s where I bought these prints.” Mira indicated the framed prints on the wall, and Hen felt bad for thinking they’d come from a furniture store. Matthew returned with the drinks, Hen noticing that he’d brought a can of ginger ale for himself. “Tell us about your art,” Mira said.

It was not Hen’s favorite thing, explaining her profession, but she did her best, and Lloyd, always her champion, jumped in and took over. Since college, Hen had been a printmaker, first in woodblocks and later using copper or zinc plates. For years, she created works of pure imagination: grotesque, surreal tableaus, usually with a caption. These illustrations were made to look like they came from books, often terrifying children’s books that didn’t exist except in her mind. She’d been fairly successful all through her twenties, selected for several group shows and even profiled in a New England arts magazine, but she’d always had to supplement her income by working in art supply stores and sometimes as a framer for a prominent Boston painter in the South End. All that changed when she’d been approached by a children’s book author to create actual illustrations for the first chapter book in a proposed fantasy series. She’d taken the job, the book had done well, and that had led her to an agent, and now she was a full-time children’s illustrator who only occasionally created an original piece of art. She didn’t mind. Secretly, she felt happy these days to be told what her compositions should be. Her current cocktail of meds, which included a mood stabilizer, an antidepressant, and something that apparently boosted the antidepressant’s effects, had kept Hen’s bipolar disorder from rearing its ugly head going on two years, but she did feel that it had also removed all of her creative impulses.

She could still do the pieces—still loved the work, really—but rarely had an idea these days for something original. Not that she told any of this to Mira and Matthew. Mira was mostly interested in the fantasy books, since she’d heard of them, and was promising to buy the first in the series. Matthew asked her several questions about her artistic process, leaning in and listening intently to her answers. They eventually moved to the dining room, where the food had been set up on warming plates on a sideboard: mashed potatoes, drumsticks in a bright yellow sauce, a green salad. “This was how my grandparents used to serve food,” Hen said. “On a sideboard.” “Where are they from?” Mira asked. Hen explained that her father was British and her mother American and how they’d moved back and forth between Bath in England and Albany in New York during her childhood. “I thought you had an accent,” Mira said.

“Really? I thought I didn’t.” “It’s mild.” “Are you from . ?” “I’m from California, but my parents were both from the north of England, by way of Pakistan, and they acted very British. All our meals, including breakfast, were served from a sideboard in the dining room.” “I like it,” Hen said. Conversation at dinner was fine but never really kicked into anything lively. It was a lot of talk about their respective jobs, the neighborhood, the ridiculously overpriced housing market. Whenever Matthew spoke it was to ask more questions, usually of Hen. She realized, after he’d asked her if she’d survived the block party, that he was fairly perceptive.

Lloyd, hoping to turn the conversation to sports, asked Matthew if he did any coaching at Sussex Hall. Matthew said he didn’t (“the only sport I was ever good at was badminton”). Hen, who, right out of college, had spent a disastrous three months trying to teach a preschool art class, asked him if he found teaching to be emotionally draining, and he said that the first two years were hard. “But now I love it. I love the students, learning about their lives, watching them change so much from freshman year to senior year.” Hen could sense Lloyd, steadily working his way through several glasses of wine, stifling yawns. After dessert—a warm rice pudding with raisins and cardamom—Hen said that they should be going, that they were driving the next morning to Lloyd’s parents’ house. True, but they weren’t leaving until late morning, at the earliest. The two couples stood in the front hallway, Hen saying again how much she loved the way they’d decorated the house. “Oh, we should give you a tour,” Mira said.

“We should’ve done it earlier.” Surprisingly, Lloyd agreed, and Mira took them through the renovated kitchen, showed them the deck they’d added off the back of the house, and then brought them both into Matthew’s downstairs office. It was a room so different from the light colors and clean lines of the rest of the house that Hen felt it was like walking into an entirely different house, maybe even a different time. The walls were papered in a dark green with a faint crosshatch pattern, the floor was covered in a well-worn Persian, and the room was dominated by an enormous glass-fronted cabinet filled with books and framed photographs. There was one small desk in the study, with a leather-padded chair; the only other place to sit was a corduroy sofa. Nothing in the room seemed remotely modern, and every available space was taken up by knickknacks or framed pictures, all in black and white. Hen, drawn to small objects and anything old, took two steps into the room and couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Oh.” “This is all Matthew,” Mira said. Hen turned back and smiled, noticing that Matthew, who’d been doing the dishes through most of the tour, now stood nervously in the doorway. Hen felt awkward, like they were being shown something far more private than a study.

“I love it,” she said. “So many interesting things.” “I’m a collector,” Matthew said. “Mira is the . what’s the opposite of collector? A throwerouter?” There was a fireplace, and Lloyd was asking if it worked, as Hen scanned the objects along the mantel. It was an odd assortment—a small brass snake, wooden candlesticks, a miniature portrait of a dog, an illuminated globe, and, in the middle, a trophy, the figure of a fencer in mid-lunge on top of its silver pedestal. For one terrible moment Hen thought she might faint. Her vision blurred, and her legs felt as though water were rushing through them, then she gathered herself. It’s probably just a coincidence, she said to herself, stepping forward to look at the inscription on the base of the trophy. THIRD PLACE EPEE, she read, then, in smaller script, it looked like JUNIOR OLYMPICS and a date she couldn’t make out.

She didn’t want to get too close to it. She turned and, in what she hoped was a normal voice, asked Matthew, “Do you fence?” “God, no,” he said. “I just liked the trophy. I bought it from a yard sale.” “You okay, Hen?” Lloyd asked, looking with alarm at her face. “You look kind of pale.” “Oh, yes, I’m fine. Tired, I think.” The two couples congregated again in the front hall to say their good-byes. Hen could feel the blood moving back into her face.

It was just a fencing trophy—there must be thousands of them, she told herself, as she praised the dinner again and thanked them for the tour, all while Lloyd had one hand on the doorknob, trying to escape. Mira swept in and kissed Hen on the cheek, while Matthew, behind her, smiled and said good-bye. She might have been imagining it, but Hen thought he seemed to be intently watching her. Back outside in the cold damp air, after the Dolamores’ door had clicked shut, Lloyd turned to Hen and said, “You okay? What was that about?” “Oh, it was nothing. I just got a little faint. It was warm in there, wasn’t it?” “Not really,” Lloyd said. They were already at their door, and Hen wanted to walk a little bit longer in the night air, but she knew Lloyd was eager to get inside and check to see if the Red Sox game was still on. Lying in bed later, Lloyd asleep next to her, Hen told herself that it had been a ridiculous thought to have, that the world was full of fencing trophies, and that they probably all looked the same. But it’s not ridiculous, is it? Matthew teaches at Sussex Hall, and that’s where Dustin Miller went to high school. Chapter 2 After Mira fell asleep, Matthew got up and went down to his study.

He stood in the same place that the woman from next door had stood, about four feet from the fireplace, and stared at the trophy, trying to read its inscription. He could barely make out the date and place, and he had perfect eyesight, and he already knew what the inscription read. Still, she might have been able to read it. He’d been stupid—stupid and arrogant—to have the trophy just sitting there in the center of the mantelpiece for anyone to see. Still, what were the goddamn chances of someone actually making that connection? She had, though, hadn’t she? Just looking at her, he could tell she had been ready to faint. He thought she was going to and wondered if her not-so-bright husband would be quick enough to catch her before she dropped. Matthew felt the knot in his chest that he felt when he was anxious. He thought of it as a baby’s fist, tightening and untightening. He did some jumping jacks to make it go away, and after he was done, he told himself he’d need to get rid of the trophy altogether, just hide it away. That thought filled him with something he imagined was what grief felt like.

“It went well, I think,” Mira said again the next morning. “I really liked Hen.” “It’d be interesting to see her art,” Matthew said. “I know, right? Let’s go to Open Studios. Do you know when it is?” Matthew got on his phone to check what weekend was Open Studios, while Mira started to pull items out of the refrigerator to make breakfast. It was one of their few routines, a large, hot breakfast on Sunday mornings. After eating scrambled eggs and hash browns made from leftover mashed potatoes, Matthew told Mira he had lesson plans to work on and went into his study, shutting the door. He stood for a moment in the dark room, breathing in the air, picturing how Hen had looked in his room. She was small, and dark, and pretty. Brown hair and large brown eyes, and slightly elfin features.

The thought that she knew what he had done to Dustin Miller—even if she just suspected—filled him with both a feeling of terror and a feeling of something close to giddiness. Had that been why he kept the fencing trophy in the first place? Had he wanted someone else to know what he’d done? He picked it up. He would need to get rid of it now, that much was obvious. But did he need to get rid of it at this exact moment? Would the police be arriving at his house today? It was possible. And what about the engraved cigarette lighter that he kept in his desk drawer? Would anyone connect that with Bob Shirley? A tremor of sorrow coursed through Matthew. Their new neighbor was going to be responsible for his getting rid of his most prized possessions. He breathed slowly through his nose, then thought of a way to get the souvenirs out of the house but not entirely gone from his life. He went to the basement and found a cardboard box that seemed about the right size. He passed Mira on his way back to the study; she’d changed into yoga pants and an old T-shirt. “You going for a walk?” he asked.

“No, just doing my yoga program on TV. What’s the box for?” He told her that he wanted to return some of the history textbooks he’d accumulated over the past few years back to Sussex Hall. “You’re going there today?” she asked. “I thought I would. Give me an excuse to get out of the house.” “It’s Sunday. You can bring them in tomorrow, can’t you?” “I was actually going to try and get some of my lesson planning done there as well. Write some dates on the whiteboard.” Mira shrugged. “Come if you want.

We can walk around the pond afterward.” “Okay, maybe,” she said, and walked toward the living room. He watched her. He’d always loved her walk, the way she rose a little on her toes with each step. She’d told him that between the ages of five and thirteen the only thing she’d cared about was ballet, but that her dream had been crushed by her inability to grow much beyond five feet tall. She’d been a gymnast in high school, and she could still do a back handspring. Back in the study, he wrapped the Junior Olympics fencing trophy in newspaper and put it in the bottom of the box. He added Bob Shirley’s lighter, the pair of Vuarnet sunglasses he’d taken from Jay Saravan’s BMW, and, finally, the battered schoolboy’s copy of Treasure Island that had belonged to Alan Manso. He then hunted down several history texts lying around his study—books he no longer used in any of his classes—and piled them on top of the four souvenirs. Then he taped up the box and went to tell Mira he was going to school.

She’d just finished her yoga, and the living room was warm and smelled of her sweat, but not in a bad way. “I’m off,” Matthew said. “Should I wait for you?” “No, that’s okay. I have plenty to do here. How long are you going to be?” “Not long at all,” he said, grabbing the car keys and his sunglasses. He stood for a moment in the foyer trying to think if he’d gotten everything. Standing there, he realized that Hen or her husband, Lloyd, might be out in front of their house, or looking out the window. They’d said they were going somewhere, but what if they were back and saw him leaving with a box? Would it be obvious he was getting rid of the trophy? Fortunately, his driveway was on the opposite side of the house from theirs. He’d be visible to them for all of about ten seconds as he left the front door and turned toward his car. He could risk it.

It was warm outside, more like a midsummer day than early in September. Across the street Jim Mills was mowing his lawn again, even though it had been only a few days since he’d last done it, and the smell of cut grass and gasoline filled the air, making Matthew slightly ill. It had been one of his jobs as a kid, mowing the back lawn of his parents’ house. His nose would run, and his hands would itch from the vibration of the push mower, and on wet days, the cut grass would clump underneath the mower and stick to his shins. He got into his Fiat and turned on the air conditioner. He put the box next to him on the passenger seat. Because of the smell of the lawnmower he’d barely even thought about Hen or Lloyd spotting him with the box. Probably a good thing that he didn’t cast a guilty look toward their house. It was a twenty-minute drive to Sussex Hall, a private high school with about seven hundred students, half of whom boarded and half who came from the surrounding wealthy towns of this part of Massachusetts. Built on a hill, all the buildings of Sussex Hall, except for the newish gym, were constructed from brick at the turn of the previous century.

Matthew did not always love being a teacher, but he did love the Sussex campus, with its Gothic dormitories and its nondenominational stone chapel. He parked in a faculty spot even though it was Sunday and he could park anywhere. He entered Warburg Hall through the back door, using his own set of keys, and went straight down the narrow stairwell to the basement. As one of his extra duties, Matthew had taken on stewardship of the history textbooks, most of which were shelved in one of the closeted storage spaces in the finished basement. But he also had a key to the older section of the basement, filled with the extra lawn chairs used for graduation ceremonies and, behind those, the discarded furnishings—blackboards, mostly, and old school chairs. There was also a stack of boxes in the far corner that contained the original cutlery from the dining hall. It was there that he slid his box of mementos, sure that they would never be disturbed or found, even if someone were looking for them. And even if someone did find the box, he’d made sure to wipe any fingerprints off all the items, and he’d checked that his name was not in any of the old textbooks. Back upstairs, after washing his hands in the faculty bathroom, Matthew went to his classroom to work on his lesson plans for the week. Most of his classes were ones he’d taught dozens of times, but this semester he’d agreed to do a senior seminar on the cold war, and he needed to brush up.

This week they were focusing on postwar reorganization. He’d been at his desk nearly an hour when he heard the loud metallic screech of the back door opening, then a timid “Anyone here?” He stepped out of the room into the dim hallway and shouted, “Hello.” Michelle Brine came up the stairs, said, “Thank God. I hate being here alone on weekends. It gives me the creeps.” He wasn’t surprised to see Michelle here. It was her second year teaching, and he was amazed she’d survived the first. Timid, mousy, and imbued with the honest belief that her students cared about history, she had faltered, frequently crying, through her first year. Matthew had taken her under his wing, offering up his lesson plans, his strategies for discipline, and then, toward the end of the spring semester, his thoughts on her personal life as well, coaching her through her relationship with her asshole of a boyfriend. “I’m so glad I’m not the only one panicking and coming in here on a Sunday.

I’m so behind already.” She had followed Matthew back to his classroom. She wore jeans, something she never did while teaching, but he recognized her black blouse, buttoned to the top button, as something she sometimes wore with a skirt while teaching. “It’s nice in here on weekends, don’t you think?” “I hate it when I’m the only one. How long are you staying?” “I was getting ready to leave, actually.” “Oh no,” she said, unzipping her backpack. “Can you look at something real quick? It’s something I’m planning with my sophomores.” After he’d gone over one of her lesson plans that had the students creating their own mock Constitution—“Maybe teach them the actual Constitution first,” he’d suggested—she’d instantly launched into a new story about her boyfriend, Scott, how he’d played a gig with his band two nights ago and didn’t get home until three in the morning. She went to look at his phone while he was sleeping in, and he’d changed his passcode. “That doesn’t sound good,” Matthew said.

“I know. I know. He’s cheating on me, isn’t he?” “Tell me exactly what he said when you called him out on it.” Matthew, who’d already texted Mira to tell her he was running a little late, leaned back behind his desk and did one of the things he was very good at doing. He listened to a woman.


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