At the Set Time
by Miriam N. Kotzin


I should have been worried when I noticed that he smelled like freshly washed sheets, line-dried in the summer sun. Or when I joined his image with mine, reflected in the window glass, thinking that he looked enough like me to be my son. Not until too late did I remember.

The laboratory where I work as a research chemist hires a few college students as vacation replacements. The worst are a combination of smarminess and arrogance. Early on, I decided that Dave was neither. He was charming.

He asked just the right questions about the direction of our research. He would lean over the table at lunch as though all the rest of the world had ceased to exist. His face gave away his every emotion.

One Monday morning soon after he had begun work, he came in early, smiling. He'd spent Sunday in the library and found an article in the latest issue of Nature that he thought might have an application to our work; he'd brought me a photocopy of it. After listening to what he had to say, I agreed that he just might be right. He'd held in his hand a sheaf of papers, data that he'd analyzed. I was impressed.

Once, leaning against the centrifuge, he said with no context, "It's amazing how much baggage people carry with them."

The glassware and metal of the lab gleamed. The gray work surfaces shone in the light. I wondered what he would say about baggage when he reached my age.

Then late in July he came to work looking different. Usually he wore conventional Oxford cloth shirts. That day he wore a silk shirt, the color of sweet butter, sleeves rolled up. He was tall with the kind of body only a young man who doesn't work out can have. The shirt said, "Touch me."

Around four o'clock, he looked at me over his beaker of coffee and murmured that he was "running on empty. It's funny how you can go all day on no sleep and feel great."

He told me that he'd had a date the night before that began on the steps of the Art Museum.

I imagined them sitting on the steps looking down the wide tree-lined Parkway leading to the city lights. The spot-lit fountains marked intervals leading up to the LOVE sculpture with its nearby pillar of water. But I said nothing and the subject dropped.


He hadn't mentioned a woman since he'd told me about Lisa the first night that he had come to my apartment for dinner. Dave had lived with Lisa for more than a year, and he was still trying to figure out what he wanted months after she'd moved out.

"I don't want to go back with her unless we can make it work." He used his fork to pick a choice morsel from the chicken on the serving platter.

"What do your friends say?"

"They think she's wonderful. After all, she's smart and beautiful and charming."

I didn't want to hear any more about her virtues than absolutely necessary. "So?"

"They don't know that she's made my life a living hell." he paused then continued, "As crazy as she is, I really do love her."

I had been married, knew about love and living hell. I wasn't about to tell him any part of it.

From then on whenever I went out with my friends, I scouted the room when we walked in, half expecting to see Dave earnestly leaning over the table, his fingers woven into a lover's clasp.


Somehow our dinner on Friday became a habit. Then one night after what had become our routine kitchen clean-up we sat together in the study at opposite ends of the sofa, our arms stretched out across the top of the back, and, absently, he stroked my hand. "You don't have to be careful, Sarah. I won't leave you."

Tears came to my eyes. I turned away a moment, hoping he wouldn't notice, being careful.


He invited me to his apartment, the third floor of a Victorian house in University City. Walking up the stairs with him, passing his neighbor who gave us a barely curious nod, I felt self-conscious with Dave as I had not in weeks

The middle room was the bedroom. A queen-sized mattress took up almost all of the floor. The bed, with its white sheets, was unmade: two pillows, the sheet left in waves flung to one side. I looked at the pillow which still bore the indentation of his sleeping head. I stepped back out into the hall.

Everywhere I saw bookshelves, jammed with the eclectic reading of an undergraduate. I felt free to peruse the titles. When I commented, he said he'd done a lot of reading during the years he'd been out of school. "I took six years off . . ."

His voice rose as though asking a question. He looked puzzled at my laughter.

"I thought you were twenty-one."

"I didn't mean to hide anything from you. . . . People sometimes look at you funny if they think of you as a dropout." He asked, " Would it have made any difference to you?"

I shook my head no. "It's just that you seemed so, " I searched for the right word, "precocious."

At the time I didn't think about the contradiction. He had, in fact, intended to conceal something from me. I had been feeling ridiculous; when I learned his age I wondered whether this embodiment of virtue, industry, honesty and intelligence would have seemed quite so special had I recognized that his maturity was no more than I would have expected in a man his age.

When I was twenty-seven, I was working full time, and I had been married for two years. His age did make a difference. He was no longer a child; this was a grown man I cared for.


On the last Friday of the summer after we had been talking for hours, he said, "I'm really determined to work things out with Lisa." He hadn't mentioned her name for a long time. "If we can be happy together, I want to stay with her." His voice trailed.

"You'll marry her?" I was careful to keep my question neutral.

"It's not too much to ask--to think that you have a pretty good chance of being happy, of staying together if you plan on marriage, is it?"

"Is there a deadline?" I couldn't bring myself to ask directly, "Is she pregnant?"

"No deadline, but she said that she'd move to Colorado if I don't marry her."

"I know a couple of men who got married like that. They're happy--as far as I know."

"She thinks it's odd that you and I spend so much time together. I told her that there's nothing to be jealous of."

Nothing. In effect, I had been dismissed.

But then he said, "My friendship with you isn't negotiable."

I remembered his having told me, "I won't leave you." I wanted to believe him. I said, "It might have to be negotiable. But I hope you'd explain to me so that you wouldn't just disappear."


When the summer was over, we kept in contact sporadically by phone. I imagined conversations with him, talking to him as though talking to a younger, better part of myself. In late October I invited him to come for dinner, and he agreed.

He arrived harried. "I was at the hospital with Lisa last night."

"What happened? Is she all right?" I repeated the question, imagining the worst: he had lied to me; there had been a pregnancy. Every story I had ever heard of a botched abortion replayed itself. "Is she all right?" I was surprised at my own urgency for reassurance. "What's wrong?" After all, who was this girl to me: she who had made his life a living hell, who set his eyes alight with pleasure.

"She's all right. She's pregnant. There was some fluid."

"When is she due?"

"This week."

Somehow I managed to produce a semblance of sincere congratulations. I wondered silently what Dave would have said in August if, instead of asking him about having a deadline, I had asked him bluntly if Lisa was pregnant.

"Do me a favor," he said. "Call her."

"You want me to call her?" I struggled to keep outrage and incredulity from my voice.

"I want you to be a part of my life . . . and if it's going to work, she has to want you to be a part of her life too."

I told him I would, but that I couldn't promise that I'd do it right away. I couldn't imagine the conversation I would have with her. And then I realized that he didn't know how much he was asking of me. I had been careful, so careful that apparently he hadn't the slightest idea of how I felt about him.

"I said I'd be here tonight--and I am, but I have to get back to Lisa in case her water breaks. I have her car." He looked at his watch. "I have to go. I promised her I'd only stay a half-hour."

I thought, "How could you leave her? Why are you here?" I kept silent.

He answered my unspoken questions. All of them, with, "I promised to be here tonight." And then he was gone.

A few minutes after he left, the phone rang. I didn't answer.


And then for days I didn't hear anything more. I rethought what he had said during the summer. His remark about the baggage was no longer amusing. Though young, he had as much baggage with this pregnancy as I had with my own much-regretted childlessness.

That Lisa had said she would move to Colorado was no mere ploy to get him to make a commitment; it was a threat to move away with his child. His life must have been a hell, far more than I had ever imagined.

He had only alluded to what was happening to him, to what he had been feeling. Just as he had no sense of how I had come to love him, I had guessed nothing of what he had been suffering

Still no word.

What could I have expected? Who was I, really, that he might call me from the hospital to say that Lisa had gone into labor; to say that all had gone well and that he was a father. And if he had called, loving him as I did, how would I have felt hearing him say that another woman had given birth to his child, knowing that even had he come to love me, whatever else I could have offered him, what I wanted most to give, wanted most to have, was impossible. I would never have been able to have his child: I was, simply, too old.


On Friday I was putting together papers to take some work home. I heard a tap at the door. Dave looked drunk with exhaustion and exhilaration. "It's a boy. Lisa picked the name. 'Isaac.' Do you like it?"

"It's a fine name." I laughed. He was wholly unaware of the irony of her choice. "A fine name. I couldn't have chosen a better one myself." I didn't explain the Biblical reference.

"We've been up for 72 hours, but I wanted to stop by on my way home to tell you the news in person." I gestured towards a silver heart on his jacket. "I haven't seen that before."

"It's from the baby monitor. Lisa stuck it on me before I left the hospital." I leaned forward to see if I could glimpse my reflection in its surface. All I could see were amorphous shapes and colors. He must have been too far away, for now in his shining heart I could find nothing of myself.


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