Rhea couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man from Allston Electric. He had fiddled all afternoon at an electrical outlet in her drafty living room only to emerge rumpled and disappointed, muttering, “Can’t do it.” He found Rhea in the kitchen, where the fluorescent light turned him gray under the eyes. “Nope. Wire’s dead.” Though he said this definitively, it was clear from his tense jaw that what the man wanted more than anything at that moment was to be able to revive the wire and impress Rhea.
Sitting at the nicked kitchen table, which she’d turned into a computer desk for the day, Rhea felt a small rush of pleasure. She was grateful for any admission of failure. She was tired of everyone always saying of course it can be done, Rhea, of course your love life can be renewed, your career saved. All around her the facts screamed: No! Yet even her closest friends at first remained hopeful after learning that Gregory had moved out. Though they saw for themselves that his dented Civic was no longer accruing tickets at the curb outside, and that Rhea no longer wore the little green-beaded bracelet he’d given her, they passed along books with titles like When Love Isn’t Enough and spelled out names of therapists who had saved various relationships—or at least prolonged them for months, sometimes years. Rhea’s mother, meanwhile, insisted that Rhea would find someone better, as if Gregory were a vacuum cleaner that had stopped working.
Rhea never allowed herself to say to her, “What if nothing gets better?” She woke up every morning at seven o’clock in the pale yellow bedroom she had once shared with Gregory, and wished for good news. It wasn’t a conscious wish, more like a vague hope that was there when she awoke and gradually diminished as the day waned. Mornings seemed to hold possibilities, the way the light shone in through the little window across from the bed, tattooing slanted rectangles on the wall where Gregory’s desk had been. His chess magazines, Rhea realized months after he moved out, still sat in a little pile in the corner. One day Rhea would bring them downstairs to the recycling bin; she knew this. But she also knew that she could not do it yet, though the magazine pile was gauzy with dust.
The living room, on the other hand, no longer showed any sign of having been inhabited by anyone other than Rhea. Her fiberboard bookshelves and filing cabinets cluttered the side of the room ruled by her large oak desk. Atop one of the shelves, tucked in an oversized manila envelope, was the wad of dissertation—on apostrophe in the Petrarchan sonnet—that she had completed a year earlier. Though it had won her much praise in her department, no one seemed to want to publish it. The library had a typed copy that no one would ever read. Rhea had received numerous direct-mail offers to have her work bound in book form, with an engraved leather cover. The mailings kept coming, like those twelve-cd’s-for-a-dollar music clubs.
Each day Rhea sat in front of her hand-me-down computer writing job applications, query letters, and proposals for post-doctoral fellowships, all the while listening to the classic rock station on the radio. When advertisements came on, she grimaced at the mottoes of the world: Be all that you can be! Just do it!
For this reason it was a relief to see the man from Allston Electric standing in her kitchen doorway, his worker’s hands shoved shamefully into the pockets of acid-washed jeans, explaining that he couldn’t do it, that no one could, that the power line was broken somewhere behind the wall, irreparable. “Problem with these prewar buildings,” he went on. “I can see they haven’t kept this one up too good.”
Rhea nodded and took a bite from a ripe pear. She was constantly hungry. She had, for the past year, been snacking nearly every hour (bananas, peanuts, Swiss chocolates on sale that week) and felt heavy with extra pounds though she hadn’t actually gained weight. In fact she was skinny, as she always had been. It had crossed her mind at one point that perhaps she had a worm of some sort, but she knew deep down that this wasn’t so, and that it would, like everything else in life, pass. She looked at the man, of whom she had been only vaguely aware since telling him, two hours earlier, the whole little story, complete with sound effects, about the lamp she had turned on, and the hissing noise, and how she used that outlet all the time, since it was the only other one where she could plug in her computer, which had a cord with three prongs, and on which she was revising her doctoral dissertation.
The man from Allston Electric had looked straight into her eyes as he listened, frowning at appropriate moments. He then lowered his chin to his chest and said gravely, “We can’t have this interrupting your career.”
He had approached the outlet with vigilance. But now he looked let down—let down like no repairman Rhea had ever seen. The old building was in poor shape; for the consequent affordability Gregory had selected it, and for this reason Rhea was able to continue renting the apartment alone now that Gregory was gone. The landlord hadn’t visited the place in years, and appliances were often keeling over in melodramatic ways. One day the oven spontaneously caught fire: a sudden flame like a blowtorch scorched a loaf of zucchini bread Rhea was baking. When the smoke subsided, Rhea saw that an entire section of the oven was nothing but ash. In the “Description” column of the receipt the next day, a repairman scrawled “exploding oven” as if it were a common occurrence.
Always men came to fix these problems, and looked pleased when Rhea—with her dark hair and wide-set, if slightly uneven, eyes—answered the door. The man from Allston Electric hadn’t even swaggered into the apartment the way the men usually did, winking and wielding tools. He had knocked lightly on the door, twice, with a slight pause in between. When Rhea opened the door, he was holding a battered black toolbox, perfectly still, with his feet apart in a way that made him look like someone had told him not to move. He said, “Allston Electric,” and followed Rhea to the living room. There he had worked conscientiously, quietly. But it hadn’t paid off; the line was still dead.
“I came with a band-aid, and what you need is open-heart surgery, you see what I’m saying?” he told her now. “Replacing the dead wire, that’ll mean knocking out the whole wall.”
“But I need to be able to use that outlet.” Pear juice was dribbling down her wrist, and Rhea felt, if only for a moment, utterly discomposed.
“The best I can do for now is tie up the dead wire and connect the existing line to the busted outlet. I just gotta call my boss now, though. To let him know that it’s surgery, not a band-aid. Mind if I use your phone? He always has me check in.”
The man from Allston Electric held the phone to his ear a few moments before someone picked up. Rhea watched him speak into the receiver. He was slight and freckled, in his late twenties like her, Rhea guessed. As he spoke to his boss, the muscles in his jaw tensed. “Swear to God,” he was saying, “I checked everything. Line’s dead, man, I swear.”
There was something almost handsome about him, Rhea decided, but in a way that more than anything proved the great distance between “almost” and “handsome.” A perfectly nice nose, but too big for the fine-boned face. Rhea watched the man’s lips move and noted that while he had a nicely dimpled jaw, his mouth was small in relation. She felt inexplicably saddened, watching this face with its various pleasant features. They were features that must have once seemed to hold much promise, but that he had somehow never grown into. Probably, Rhea concluded, people had told him when he was a child that he was good-looking, and now he was spending the rest of his life realizing that it wasn’t necessarily true.
“He wants to see for himself,” he told Rhea when he put down the receiver. “He’s coming here—Mike, my boss. He wants to make sure.” The man bit at the corner of his lip. “It’s like he doesn’t believe me.”
“I’m sure you did everything right,” Rhea said, though she had no reason to think that, really. To demonstrate her reasoning, she added, “You were in there a very long time.”
“Yeah, thanks,” the man said. “I don’t know why Mike doesn’t trust me. He gets that way sometimes. But I don’t say anything about it. Mike, he’s my fiancée’s brother. I don’t want to cause any problems in the family, see.”
“When are you getting married?”
“Two months. We’ve been together two years. Lucky for me. My mother was really starting to harp on me, and then Laura, she was, too, talking about her biological clock, you know.”
Rhea nodded. She was certain that she wouldn’t fall in love with anyone in time to create a baby.
“Well, yeah, so there was some pressure to, you know, tie the knot.”
Rhea was going to tie the knot with Gregory, and then one night three months before the wedding, when they were driving home from a late movie, Gregory pulled his car over just off Storrow Drive, put on the parking brake, and said in a frightened voice, “I can’t do this.” Rhea thought she would probably wonder for the rest of her life if throughout the entire movie he had been worrying about what he was going to say to her.
It had now been over a year since Gregory had left, over a year since Rhea had felt a man’s bare arms around her. Over a year since she had felt the sureness of sitting next to Gregory at a party or in a restaurant and knowing that afterward, without awkwardness, they would go home and get into the big, messy bed and make love. In the morning she used to wake up and, always, find him already awake, composing ideal-mates on a miniature magnetic chessboard. Even if she didn’t move, just opened her eyes, he would always notice the moment she awoke, reach over and clumsily brush his palm along the side of her head.
Now there were just men. Rhea had gone on dates with a number of them in the past ten months, at first with something close to enthusiasm, and later with something more like dread. The last date she had agreed to was weeks ago, a friend from an internship back in grad school. He took her to a South End restaurant, and when they finished eating, Rhea checked the time and said with surprise, “It’s later than I thought.”
“What time is it?” the man had asked, and then reached over and turned Rhea’s wrist toward him to glance at her watch. Afterward, in her mind, Rhea saw this action over and over again, this perfectly nice young man reaching over before she could realize it, taking her wrist in his hand, and each time she disliked him even more, until she knew that she never wanted to see him again.
There was another man, too, whose phone calls Rhea wasn’t returning. He was a good seven years younger and ended his telephone messages by saying, “Later.” He wrote little e-mails titled “Howdie!” and “Chow!”
The one she liked was the one it could never work out with. He was the former boyfriend of one of Rhea’s oldest friends, so that even now that he was single there was no chance of a future with him.
Rhea hadn’t had sex in over a year. It struck her as phenomenal that she had survived, that people all around her were somehow surviving alone in single beds. Not so much without sex; what surprised Rhea was the fact that she had gone for over a year without feeling her hand in another warm hand, or her arm about another’s waist, had not leaned over to quickly kiss Gregory on the cheek, just a momentary, automatic, almost involuntary action. That unwanted hand on her wrist at the restaurant was nothing like Gregory’s easy, relaxed hand on her thigh, or her neck, or her shoulder, which had known it had a right to be there.
Rhea hadn’t felt anything like that in more than a year. There were moments when such thoughts were enough to stop her mid-motion. She would find herself staring at the kitchen cabinet, reaching up for a bottle of vitamins, and then realize that her arm was sore: how long had she been standing there like that?
The man from Allston Electric was leaning on the formica counter. “Mike said he’d come here as soon as he could, but I don’t know how soon. I’m really sorry about this. Man, I hope he doesn’t find some way to fix it that I didn’t see.”
“What if he does?” Rhea asked. “Can he punish you?” She didn’t mean for this to sound menacing, but it came out that way. The man from Allston Electric stood up straight and raised his eyebrows.
“Well, he can’t fire me, since he’s Laura’s brother. What he’ll do is, he’ll tell Laura, and then Laura’ll say, when I get home tonight, ‘Mikey says you screwed up big time at work today,’ and then she’ll look at me like this and wait for me to explain myself. Like she wants me to prove that I’m worth marrying. And I’ll have to say something smart back. To reassure her.”
Never had a repairman been so forthcoming, Rhea reflected. But the man continued.
“One time Mike clipped the wrong wire, and I caught it. Sort of saved the day. And I told Laura, and she looked so relieved, like it was all she wanted to hear. Like she’d had doubts about me, you know?”
“My ex was like that,” Rhea said, surprising herself. “I think he needed constant proof that he’d made the right decision in falling in love with me. I remember one day I complained about a professor of mine. I thought that Gregory would comfort me. He just gave me this look as if maybe the whole time he’d been wrong to think that I was intelligent.”
“I know that look,” said the man from Allston Electric.
“I could tell what he was thinking,” Rhea continued. “That maybe I was just some mediocre student. And the thing is, that made me start to wonder if maybe I really was mediocre. And that made me start to doubt Gregory himself: because why was he with me if I was mediocre?” Rhea remembered what had happened next. How, if only momentarily, their entire relationship had seemed to her nothing more than a union of two unworthy souls, a mistake that could be snubbed out with the tip of a finger. But Rhea had never acknowledged to Gregory this pattern of thought, and so they had never spoken about it.
She supposed that Gregory had had no such doubts about Jeannine Piolat. He had met her while in Paris for a conference on Contemporary Phenomenology. This he told Rhea that same night after the movie, as the Honda deposited exhaust at the side of the road. No, Jeannine was not a philosopher or academic. She was a dancer in an avant-garde troupe whose performance he just happened to have seen. Rhea imagined a long-haired woman with a translucent scarf around her neck.
Rhea tried to halt her thoughts. “Where’s the wedding going to be?” she asked the man.
“Mike’s wife’s parents’ house. They have a big yard. Out in Woburn. Listen, I’m really sorry about the wait. But when Mike’s doing other stuff—well, he takes his time.”
The man held out his right hand and breathed in. “I’m Lonny.” He pronounced it “Lowonny.” Then, sounding as if he were asking Rhea to a dance, he added, “Mind if I ask your name?” Rhea shook his hand and told him.
“Rhea,” he repeated. “That’s pretty. Does it mean something?”
“It’s from Greek mythology,” she said, but didn’t bother explaining. No one had ever called her name “pretty” before.
“My name just means Lonny. It’s not even short for anything.” He looked at her for a few seconds, and Rhea looked back at her computer screen, pretending not to notice that he was watching her. She felt a sudden craving for potato chips. “You all right working in here?” Lonny asked. “There’s barely any light.”
He was right. Rhea had moved her computer to the kitchen for the afternoon sun, but hours had passed, and the sky outside was now a dim winter pink. “I’m just staring at a computer screen anyway,” Rhea said. Lonny looked concerned that he had said something wrong, so that Rhea heard herself adding, “But you’re right, it’s pretty gloomy in here.” The walls, once off-white, had aged into a dirty yellow, and the cabinets were of a cheap dark brown wood. The fluorescent light tinged the room sallow. One of the overhead bulbs had burnt out some time since Gregory left, and even standing on a chair Rhea couldn’t reach it.
She looked at Lonny and felt she should do something. “Would you like something to eat?” was what she came up with.
“Oh, no, that’s okay, thanks,” Lonny said bashfully. But Rhea felt certain Lonny was as hungry as she was. She stood and took a box of oatmeal cookies from a cabinet, saying, “Here’s a snack, if you’d like.” Then, without asking, she took a cookie out of the box, handed it to Lonny and said, “It doesn’t really matter what Mike finds.” She had wanted this to be uplifting, but her voice, she decided, made it sound nihilistic.
Lonny said, “Thanks, thanks very much,” and immediately began to eat. Back in front of her computer, pretending not to see Lonny any more, Rhea ate, too.
And then she found herself speaking. She didn’t look away from her computer screen. “I know you’re right,” she told him. “I’m sure of it.”
Why was she so sure, she immediately wondered. She must have just said it to make the man feel better. Without shifting her gaze, she could see Lonny stop chewing. He looked at her with wide eyes. “I appreciate it,” he said, almost in a whisper. And then he raised his voice a notch and said, “I’d better leave you to your work.”
Lonny went into the open hallway that connected the kitchen to the little sitting room and sat on the tweed loveseat Rhea had bought at the Salvation Army. His right leg began to jiggle nervously. Rhea could see this out of the corner of her eye. She could see Lonny get up from the loveseat and walk hesitantly to the open kitchen door, where he knocked twice on the outer wall.
“You want me to change that light for you? I noticed one of the bulbs is out. I can change it if you’d like.”
“Well, sure,” Rhea told him. She had bought a new bulb months ago, and its white cardboard box stared at her every time she opened the closet door.
Lonny pulled one of the two wooden chairs over to the center of the kitchen and stepped up onto the seat. He began to remove the fixture.
The small wave of relief she felt at having this attended to took Rhea by surprise. It was immediately followed by a small wave of shame. She was ashamed of needing him, of needing a man to step up on a chair for her. Ashamed to admit that her life had been fuller when she had had Gregory there to step on a chair for her.
Four months after that night in the Honda, he had called from France to tell Rhea he was married; he didn’t want her to find out some other way. She hadn’t spoken to him since that call, but she knew from friends that he and Jeannine were living in an obscure village in Brittany. That made it all the worse for Rhea, knowing that she couldn’t blame it on the lure of a glamorous city—knowing that Gregory was willing to spend cold winters in a small and probably boring place, as long as Jeannine was there. She could barely imagine the Gregory she had known being so confidently in love. According to friends, he always said that he and Jeannine were a “yin yang” couple.
The day he called to let her know he was married, Rhea had gone and canceled all of her weekend plans. She wanted to force herself to be alone for a few days, to prove that she didn’t need Gregory or anyone else. And she had done it, spent two days and three evenings completely alone. At times it was fine, and at other times she thought she could no longer take it, her head full of the thought that no one loved her any more, not really, not truly, not the way that Gregory had.
“This light cover’s pretty dirty,” Lonny said when he had screwed in the new bulb. “Let me wash it for you.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to.” Lonny stepped down from the wooden chair, went to the sink, and rinsed out the globe full of dust and dried-out bugs.
Where was the shame in needing someone? Rhea wondered as she watched him. And yet she continued to feel it.
“Wire’s dead,” Mike announced, as if it were a groundbreaking discovery. He was a tall, thick-limbed man in a Celtics sweatshirt. He stood next to Lonny in the kitchen and told Rhea, “We’re going to have to connect the existing line to the dead outlet. Lonny here will take care of that for you.” His bright blue eyes sparkled. Did his sister—Lonny’s fiancée—have those eyes, too? Rhea wondered. Mike slammed shut his tool case and left.
“Whew,” Lonny said when Mike had gone. “I knew I was right. Well, we’d better work quick. The sun’s going down.” The kitchen was wan now, the sunlight gone. Rhea worked in the dusk, while Lonny did his own work across the hall. She could just barely hear him. It was pleasant, the din of human labor. Now she remembered what it had felt like: the comfort of silent, easy company, having someone nearby, with her in a way that was other than social, the two of them toiling away with care and concern. A sensation came to her, familiar in a long-ago way, a reminder of the time when Gregory would revise his papers quietly at his desk while Rhea worked on her dissertation at her own. It was the sensation of shared emotion—in this case a certain relief at having solved a problem, and a sense that something good might come of a bit of work.
When the telephone rang, it sounded louder than usual—an interruption of their quiet, common toil. Rhea made no move to get up, felt no urge to rise from her chair. She heard herself call out, “Would you do me a favor and answer that?”
Lonny appeared at the kitchen doorway as Rhea added, “Could you tell whoever it is that I’ve moved?”
Where had the thought come from? Rhea wondered, watching Lonny raise the receiver. She wanted to move, that was it, she wanted to have already moved on, to a place with sockets that didn’t burn out, to a place where hard work felt good and paid off, to a place where if you were alone it felt fine, and if you weren’t it was even better.
“Umm…she moved,” Rhea heard Lonny say. “Well, yes, I’m sure. Ummm…well, today. Yes, she moved. Uh, no, I don’t have the new address. No, I don’t have the number.” There was a brief silence. “I’m sorry.” Lonny hung up. He eyed Rhea doubtfully and said, “That was your landlord.”
Rhea began to laugh, first just from her chest and then from her belly. Lonny laughed, too. Then he looked at her in a puzzled way and asked, “Why did you do that?”
“I was feeling really fine right before that phone rang, and I guess I worried it would bring me back to my life.” She pursed her lips and added, “I didn’t mean for that to sound depressing.”
“I’d rather hear that than learn you’re on the run from the law.” Lonny smiled. “Well, I’d better get back to work.”
About thirty minutes later, he was back at the kitchen door.
“All set,” he told her. “If you’re worried about both sockets being on the same line, you can get a surge protector, but that extension cord should do just fine.”
Rhea thanked him and asked how much she owed. Lonny ripped a pink slip off of his clipboard and lowered his head, shaking it slightly. He explained the costs for labor and repairs. “I’m sorry, all that and I couldn’t even fix it, really.”
“It’s my landlord’s money, if that makes you feel any better.” Rhea handed him a check. He took it and looked at her signature in a lingering way, then put the check in a folder with the repair slip.
“Do you get to go home now?” Rhea asked him.
“Yup. Too late for any more repairs.”
Rhea thought about this for a moment and then added, “Will your fiancée be home?”
“Yup.” Lonny let his shoulders drop. “I noticed that the top of the window blind was stuck. In the living room. I’ll straighten it out for you.”
He left the kitchen for a few minutes. Rhea sat back down in front of her computer, but she couldn’t refocus on her work. He had been here long enough, she told herself. As soon as he left, she could move back to her desk in the living room, where the westward windows offered each day’s last light and stunning sunsets.
Lonny returned, clearing his throat. “Blind’s fixed. Everything should be fine now.”
“Thanks again,” Rhea said, and stood up to accompany him to the door.
Lonny walked there slowly. When they passed the fuse box in the entranceway, he looked at the smudged fingerprints leftover from Mike’s fiddling and said, “Let me wipe this off for you.”
“No, no, please don’t worry about it.” The afternoon had been fine, Rhea thought, but now it was time for him to go. And as if he sensed this, Lonny stepped out of the door, said goodnight, and was gone.
Rhea closed the door and locked it. She turned back to witness the last moments of sunset through the bay windows of the living room. The sun had already dropped away, but the elongated clouds made red streaks in the sky. Though she had seen such spectacles before, Rhea stood and watched with amazement. She watched for seconds, then minutes, until she realized that the room had become dark. She went to the repaired socket to turn on the torchiere lamp, the one that had indicated the whole electrical problem in the first place. Pressing the switch, she braced herself for disappointment, but the lamp sent up its bright rays, and it seemed miraculous: the room lit up with halogen sun.
Anyone out on Commonwealth Avenue could easily see in, Rhea realized, see the large woodblock prints on the walls, see Rhea standing with her hand still on the little switch of the white lamp. Lonny could see her, if he were waiting for the T; it stopped right in front of her building. Rhea walked over to the windows to begin shutting the Venetian blinds. She looked out, but the T must have just left. There was no one there.
Tears welled in Rhea’s eyes. And yet it did not seem a bad thing that for a few hours that day—as Rhea now saw quite clearly—the man from Allston Electric had cared about her more than anyone else in the world.
Daphne Kalotay is the author of Calamity and Other Stories (Anchor, 2006), and has published stories from this collection in The Missouri Review, AGNI, The Literary Review, Good Housekeeping, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Russian Winter, is forthcoming from Harper in September. (updated 6/2010)