A cloud blotted out the full moon. Across the courtyard the neighbor’s
apartment one floor lower glowed like the crimson eye of a hearth oven.
The pervasive damp-earth scent of Frankfurt in spring had disappeared. I
was sure I could smell violets from the adjacent garden, vaguely
resembling her perfume. She moved from room to room, long ebony hair
dancing in her wake. I took a deep breath.
“So,” my wife said. “How was the cigarette?”
Her fingertip caught a page’s edge in her book. “Real smooth,
“Oh,” I said. “It was fine.”
Michelle lay in bed behind me, the covers up to her waist, wearing the
faded red Victoria Secret flannels I’d given her a few years back. The
Christmas-colored underwear of the same gift had never made it out the
box. Her voice was sugary. Had I not heard it so often I would’ve
thought her happy. She slapped the book closed.
Framed by open curtains, a silhouette of the woman’s back
posed in the window. My hand reached for the windowsill, and I turned
one ear to my wife.
“Charles,” she said, “you stink.”
My feet tingled as I searched for something else to look at.
“Really, if you’re going to smoke, just do it. Don’t pull
this nonsense where you pretend you’re emptying the garbage, then come
up and wash your hands like it never happened,” she said, and followed
with more of the same old standby – how I’m almost forty, how I smoke
too much, how I’d promised to stop when we moved to Germany and again
when Jonathan was born. That was six years ago for Pete’s sake. It
should’ve been clear that promise was going to stay broken a while
The woman turned to face the window. Directly above, a sliver of moon
came from behind the cloud, lighting the courtyard.
I’d never seen her before, never met her until ten minutes
ago, which was strange since we’d been in the apartment almost five
years. I had been downstairs searching my pockets for a lighter. From up
the street came the staccato of heels striking cobblestone. It wasn’t
pumps or flats, clogs or boots, but the focalized click-clack of high
heels coming home after midnight.
At the mailboxes in the entranceway she’d stopped. Her patent leather
shoes glistened in the amber lamplight. “Guten Abend,” she said,
her key sliding the mailbox lock open.
I froze, half-full wicker basket in hand, paper recycling bin gaping
open, the all-but-forgotten cigarette dangling from my mouth. I studied
my watch and said, “Oder vielleicht guten Nacht.”
Past the hair hanging over her shoulders I saw a smile, or thought so
anyway. Her perfume couldn’t mask the heady scent of whiskey. I imagined
her putting a glass to full lips, wondering what kind she preferred.
Single malt with a hint of smoke; neat, no ice.
Three jaunty steps past me she flicked her head and said in her best
Queen’s English, “I can smoke in my flat.”
She went into her building. I lingered, smoking the
cigarette down to the filter. On my way up I thought about what I should
have said instead of the lame “Well, that’s a plus,” I’d offered in
response. Taking the steps slowly, I avoided out of habit the one with
the loose baseboard between the second and third floors. I’d paused,
hoping a few more seconds would disperse the leftover scent of smoke.
“Charles,” my wife said. “Are you ignoring me?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“Charles, look at me.”
I turned halfway. From under the covers she brought one leg,
bare up to the hip, where a trace of emerald green lace peeked out. “I’m
sorry,” she said with the same smile as when she’s let me win at chess,
which is a slightly more sympathetic version of the one when she’s
beaten me. Her eyes followed mine to the lace band.
“Recognize them?” she asked.
“I found them while I was straightening up the closet the other day,”
she said. A light blush rose in her cheeks, the same coloration of days
gone by, when we were younger and I could make her blush more easily,
without thinking about it or even meaning to. The blanket shifted,
uncovering more fabric.
A phone pressed to her ear, the black-haired woman was
sliding into the jacket she’d removed just minutes before. I envisioned
her strolling into the lobby of a posh hotel, her steps fluid on the
“Don’t even think about trying to go down for another
smoke,” Michelle said.
The woman’s head tipped back, her mouth open. She was
laughing. And then she wasn’t. She went rigid. My face warmed, and a
long moment passed as we studied one another from a distance. She
cinched the belt of her jacket and turned from the window.
“What are you looking at?”
“The moon,” I said. “Can you see it?”
From the bed, directly opposite the window, she could see
the giant orb alone in a dark sky. “It’s beautiful.”
“It is,” I said, turning to her after the heat on my face
had subsided. The dull echo of the woman’s steps reached our apartment.
“Amazing,” my wife said.
A hiccup leapt in my throat. “What is?”
“How the moon seems like it’s right outside, so close we could almost
I nodded faintly as the rhythms from the courtyard rose and
fell, then disappeared.
“Charles,” she said. “Forget about the cigarette and come to bed.
I left the window open and pulled the curtains as far closed
as they would go. Through the space that was left, we watched together
as the moon passed from view. We made love in the dark, the once-warm
air cool at my back. Afterwards, Michelle curled into my chest. Her
breath grew deep and I felt the telltale tremble of her leg against
mine. She fell asleep, but I did not.