The man was outside, feeding an apple to a horse. The horse’s mouth moved slowly across his palm, and he waited the way you would wait for a child to finish hot soup. He cared for rescue animals. He would have devoted his life to a woman, but there was no woman.
The night before he had said, “Come to the farm and take what you want.” We were at a restaurant with our mutual friend. His hair was short and dense as a carpet. The first time I saw him he was handsome. It was decades ago, and he had the loose-hipped swagger of a man women looked at. We were beside each other at a dinner, and I felt a gear shift. My friend and the man had been lovers when they were young, children having sex. They had moved on to other people but still lived near each other. Everyone felt the tug between them. When, toward the end of the meal, the man said, “Come to the farm,” I thought he was being kind to our friend and that I was doing the same by saying, “Okay.”
Three horses stood under a tall oak. A donkey was the companion of one horse. Their coats gleamed in the afternoon light. The man and I said hello, and then he jogged up to the donkey to steer it away from a cart of leaves. When he returned he said, “Would you like some eggs?” I said, “Yes.” I had eaten an egg from the farm on another visit, and it had spoiled me for other eggs. The yolk was orange. The white sat up high on the skillet and sizzled to a crisp along the edges. The man raised chickens. Is raised the right word?
We entered a barn. Red chickens were pecking pieces of yellow corn along the ground or fluttering up to roosts. It was quiet except for an occasional squawk, and the quiet was intense and almost sensual in the way certain absences are a presence. The man was wearing a black t-shirt. His gait was stiff. He had an old man’s thickened waist and elongated nose. He bent down to a hen whose feathers were tipped with blue and said, “Did you miss me, darling,” reaching under her belly to snatch an egg. He gathered eleven more, tan and speckled, and handed the carton to me. We did not know what to say to each other because we were not having sex.
The night before, the man had arrived at the restaurant with his shirt collar open and curly gray hair poking out at the neck. My friend had said, “Could you please button your shirt?” It was hard to be with them. You kind of disappeared. He said, “I tried to button it in the car, but it came out wrong.” He shrugged but did not close his collar. His eyes glittered. He was a little stoned. He gestured to a splash of palms and parrots on the shirt and said, “Do you like it?” There was a gap between his front teeth. My friend twisted her mouth and closed her hand. When she opened it, there was a little red mark on her palm.
I placed the eggs in my car. The farm was hot and smelled of animals, and I was reminded that every life has a crust and things to sweep up. The man asked if I would like iced tea. I said I would. We walked to the farmhouse and entered a large room with a kitchen and a wood stove. He had made an effort to straighten the place. Magazines were stacked on a rough plank table, but elsewhere kitchen implements were piled on counters, and the sink overflowed with dishes. A grayed sheet shrouded a couch that leaned to one side either because the base was broken or the floor was uneven. The man swirled his hand around and smiled as if to say, I give everything to the animals. I could not think of anything to say.
He poured a glass of tea from a pitcher in the fridge. The tea was made with honey, crushed raspberries, and basil and mint from his garden. As he poured, I imagined his hands scrubbed clean around the nails. I thought some women would not mind. The tea was sweet and pungent, and I began to feel I could exist in unplanned moments. I lived in a city that had grown crowded and loud. Sirens blared. People were falling ill at a faster rate than in the past, I supposed. I had lived in a city all my life. I had wanted to be a city, winding here and there to arrive nowhere in particular. Now the city felt like a lover that is wrong but you stay with anyway. I made documentary films that said society was becoming more fair, although I did not see this much in the world. The man offered me a piece of bread he had baked and set out a dish of butter. I tore off a hunk of crust, and I could see in his face he liked the look of pleasure.
He led me to the dusty attic where boxes from his past were stored. This was where I was supposed to take something I wanted. There was a ceramic sink in a corner and against one wall the leather couch where his father’s patients had spilled their secrets. The headrest was worn and peeling as if burned by emotions. For the past several weeks the man had been communing with his dead parents, and the scene, with its moth-eaten carpet and gilt-framed scrap of Chinese fabric, was like visiting a yard sale where the seller is not ready to part with anything.
That morning at breakfast my friend had said, “Sex is in the past for me.” She had looked over her shoulder as if sex was falling over a cliff. I had laughed to myself, imagining animals pushing against her door, first a woodchuck with razor teeth, next a raccoon with the dark-ringed eyes of a noir stranger. She said of the man, “He’s obsessed with the animals the way he was obsessed with everything else in his life. He has to keep moving. He has the attention span of a flea.” I said, “Then he’s made a good adaptation.” A year ago my friend had handed to her protégé the architecture firm she had built. She said she did not miss it. Her husband had died some years earlier from a tumor on his brain. Her daughter was a human rights lawyer who lived in Turkey and did not visit often. My friend was busy all the time, as was the man, only she tended a large garden. I liked to watch her pick blackberries, snow peas, and tomatoes before feeding them to me. She was the most sensual person I knew. It was what had attracted me when we first met at school, a snarling energy that could sweep you up one moment and the next crash itself into a tree. She said of the man, “When I broke my wrist, he was the one I called. Of course he got lost on the way to the hospital. I was crying and laughing.”
I could see them: animals in a field who had come to lean on each other. Her hair was tousled and streaked with gold and bronze. It was full and luxurious, and she carelessly pushed it off her forehead as if everyone had thick hair. She was lovely, and I thought she and the man could have sex if one of them made a move. After breakfast I walked along a road and came to a dirt path cut into woods. It crossed my mind I might not find my way out, but I did not want to live with full knowledge.
In the man’s dusty attic, I walked to the window and looked out. It was stuffy. A thin layer of sweat coated my skin. He came up behind me and touched my calf. He said, “Hold still, you have a tick,” and without another word carefully twisted the tick counterclockwise again and again, as if it had bored into the core of me. What was there? Something liquid but I could not tell if it was hot or cold. I saw myself cleaning the attic, sifting through the man’s belongings and separating out beautiful things, arranging them in the center of the splintery space—a velvet chair, a side table with a marble top, a vase of lilies and lilacs that grew beside the drive to the farm. Finally the tick let go, and the man held it in the air close to my face. I watched its fat-raisin body and little legs wriggling, and then the man popped it between his fingers, and it made a sound like a tire losing air.
The man’s fingers were stained with blood. I kept still. I thought nothing in life would happen to me if I was not sometimes still. He flicked away the tick, and I wondered how long it would take to turn to dust. I wondered if it carried disease. Mine was not the sort of life that had an arc. I had recently received an email from an old boyfriend who wrote in a friendly way, as if he had not been a bad boyfriend, as if connection when looked at from the perspective of time became good connection. The man led me to the sink, and I watched the blood swirl down the drain. When I looked at him, I saw the same blue flame I saw in my friend. He touched my calf where the tick had gone in. I heard a hum. I said, “I sometimes forget I am human.”