I had known Bill for five years but had never seen him outside the office. "Don't you find that strange?" Annie asked me one evening. "We're co-workers," I argued, "and hardly have anything in common. To tell the truth, I think he's a bit of a bore."
"But you see him forty hours a week. That's a hell of a lot of time to not know someone properly. I mean, if you crunch the numbers, you probably spend more time with him than any of your friends."
I shrugged it off at first. But as the days went by, I caught myself looking up from my reports and glancing sideways to find him in the cubicle next to mine. Bill was as average as his name suggested. He had a receding hairline, puffy eyes from being a new dad, and he always wore slacks and checked shirts. In winter, they had long sleeves, and in summer, the pattern ended above his elbow.
Later that day, I went to the copier and found him bent over with his head all red. "Paper's jammed," he said. We waited for the other copier to be free. I cleared my throat. "How's the baby?" I asked. He had shown us the ultrasound a while ago and, after the birth, the glossy photograph of a girl.
"She's alright, but you know how they are at this age."
I didn't know how they were at any age.
He scratched his head. "That reminds me, Lisa would like you to come over for dinner. You and your girlfriend, of course. Annie, isn't it? Thought it might be nice to get to know each other."
When I told Annie, she lifted her palms in a "What did I tell you"-gesture. "Poor guy probably wanted to ask you over for a beer for years now, but you never talked to him," she said. I accepted the invitation, and we went over to visit Bill and Lisa on the weekend.
The car ride was half an hour long. "Turn in here," Annie said suddenly.
"To buy flowers. I think it's rude to show up without a present."
"I thought you wanted to buy them in the morning? We're already late."
"Oh, what does it matter?"
Annie bought the flowers, and we left the city behind us as the streets grew longer and more uneven. Left and right, fields and grass flanked the concrete. "Cut your own flowers," a sign promoted in the middle of a flower field. There was a small mailbox next to it. Annie squinted. "They let you cut your own flowers, and you leave the money in that mailbox," she said. "We could have gotten the flowers here. They look a lot better than the ones from the store."
"Too late now."
"Maybe we can stop on the way home and get some for ourselves. Do you believe people really leave money in that box?"
"I don't know. Would you pay the full price if no one was looking?"
"I think so. I'd feel more awful for not leaving money when these people are so trusting. It makes it worse to cheat on them than, say, taking something from a store without paying. You know what I mean?"
We listened to the radio until we reached Bill's street. I pulled into the driveway and stopped the car. The street was silent except for the cawing of a bird. "I could never live here," Annie said, and I agreed. We both preferred the city with its littered streets and loud noises. We liked to complain about these things because they seemed significant.
Bill opened the door in his usual slacks and checked shirt. It was a surreal moment, seeing him like this. As if someone had copied the office Bill and pasted him to suburbia. "It's nice to meet you, Annie," he said, and they shook hands.
"What a beautiful house you have," Annie said.
"Thank you, we just had it re-painted in spring."
"The colour still looks fresh. It's a nice shade, isn't it, Nick?"
Bill's wife, Lisa, appeared behind him, and a new round of introductions followed. She was as plump as her husband, with straw-coloured hair that revealed a pinkish scalp. It's true what they say about married couples - after a while, they start to look alike. A total symbiosis. I could imagine them donning the same North Face jacket when it rained. I noted the moment to tell Annie about it later and joke that she better choose a nice haircut and jacket if I was to look like her in ten years.
Bill went outside to heat up the grill while Lisa gave us a quick tour of the house. The interior was as bland as the exterior suggested. Persian rugs, a brown sofa with rose-patterned cushions, and vases full of flowers. Bland but homely. "The infirmary is just down the hall," Lisa said, and I felt something press against my leg. I stooped down to pet an orange cat while Annie followed Lisa. The cat looked up affectionately and purred. I held back a laugh. Even the cat looked like Bill and Lisa. "This is our bedroom," I heard Lisa's voice further away now. Annie murmured something in response. They chatted while I stayed with the cat, only hearing fragments of their conversation. It had to do with IVF treatments, and I didn't want to intrude. Lisa's voice was closer now. "She's already asleep, but maybe later. You know, it's so rare to have a relaxing dinner for yourself."
In the garden, Bill opened a bottle of beer for me. It was still cold from the fridge. At the last moment, he asked Annie if she would like a beer as well, but she declined. "I'd like a soda, please."
"You must have cooked for the whole neighbourhood," Annie said when Lisa brought out bowls with salads and plates with bread and sweet corn.
"We have visitors so seldom these days," she explained. "With the baby. Even though she's an absolute gem, we're so lucky to have her. Hardly ever cries and sleeps through the night. Children are such a blessing."
Truth be told, I never understood the baby craze, but I put on a polite smile. The meat on the grill sizzled in its own fat, and I took another swig of beer while my eyes wandered around the garden. The grass was neatly cut, the green luscious and deep. You could have put a picture of it in a catalogue for gardening or outdoor furniture.
Bill talked about work until the ribs were ready. "That Devin is a stickler," he said with a passion I had never known was in him. Devin was our supervisor. In the office, Bill always acted demurely around him. "An absolute know-nothing. I wonder how he managed to hold on to his position for this long." I pushed back against the cushions with a confused smile. It was the first time I had ever heard Bill having any drastic opinion.
When the meat was ready, we took turns scooping potato salad, coleslaw, braised butter beans, charred corn, and bread onto our plates. "Short ribs, anyone?" Bill asked, and I held out my plate. He dropped the ribs next to the potato salad.
Cutlery scraped over plates as we ate. Annie took a sip of her soda and wiped the greasy rim of her glass. "The bread is fantastic, Lisa," she said. "Did you make it yourself?"
"It's an old recipe from my mother. The secret is to use bread flour instead of all-purpose flour. That and a bit of sparkling water."
"I'm afraid I'm terrible at baking. The last time I tried out a recipe for garlic bread, it turned out so dense, you could have whacked someone over the head with it."
"You have to be careful with the dough," she said, and her voice faded away.
"Could you pass me the barbecue sauce, please?" I asked Annie and felt strange for how politely I spoke, as we were strangers. Bill and Lisa lifted their arms with one synchronous motion, chewing on their food thoughtfully. When they lowered their hands again, they lay parallel to each other with only a small gap between them.
A static sound made me freeze. It started as tiny as a pea on my spine and edged upwards, crawling over my scalp until I clamped my teeth. Nauseated, the world tilted out of focus. I heard deep breathing, almost wet as if from the other end of a phone receiver, a noise that swelled up until I drew back, waiting for the crescendo to crash down. I was surprised to find that everyone at the table looked confused.
Then, Lisa broke out in laughter. "Oh my, did that scare me. "She turned around to reveal a baby monitor. "It's just the cat. Silas must have gotten in her room again. I'll just take a quick look and get him out. I hope he hasn't woken her up."
Annie lifted her hand to my neck and began kneading my muscles with her fingers. I felt better with her hand touching my skin.
"That cat," Bill said when Lisa was gone. "Too clever for his own good. Figured out how to open doors."
"All settled," Lisa announced when she was back. She ate a small forkful of potato salad. "Silas just gets in every room, we don't know how he does it."
Annie told us a long-winded anecdote about her college roommate's cat who figured out how to open cupboards to tear into her food. Lisa laughed, inhaling deeply as if sucking in air until it got compressed into a tiny lump sticking in her throat. Bill laughed while exhaling. Seeing them laugh like this was like seeing them breathe in and out as one person. It set my teeth on edge.
After dessert, we were all stuffed. "That was delicious, Lisa," Annie said and patted her stomach. "You might have to roll me back to the car, honey." She patted the armrests before gripping the wood and hoisting herself up. "May I use your bathroom?"
Once she was gone, I felt her absence on my right side as if a cold breeze was blowing. Ripping at the paper label on my beer, I swirled the bottle and emptied it. "Any vacation plans?" I asked, grasping for topics to fill the silence.
"Not this year," Bill explained.
"But maybe next year. When the baby is bigger. We've always wanted to go to Madrid, isn't that right, Bill?" Lisa's smile was so big it stretched the sides of her face. Her eyes stared ahead like round marbles. The illusion was so perfect I thought I saw the light reflecting in them.
"Have you ever been there?" Bill asked me.
"No, but I'm sure it's lovely. The climate and all."
"What is lovely?" Annie asked, and we told her about Madrid.
On the drive home, Annie was silent. "That was quite an evening," I said. "I might have gained five pounds just from the smell of that apple pie. I wonder if she misread the recipe, it was awfully sweet."
"The other food was really good, though," Annie replied in a toneless voice. She put her finger under her chin and watched the cornfields pass by. "What do you know about Bill?" she asked suddenly.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, what do you really know about him."
"Not much. You've probably talked more with him today than I did the whole month. He grew up in the area, likes football, and always drinks his coffee with two sugars. Just a regular guy. And he wants to go to Madrid, apparently."
"And you've never noticed anything out of the ordinary?"
I gripped the steering wheel, my knuckles white. "Like what?"
My mouth was dry. In truth, I had never noticed anything special about Bill. But leaving him and Lisa behind, I felt something slimy coat my body that I couldn't put into words.
"Just everything. Him and Lisa in general."
"I guess they were a little strange. But nice."
"Have you ever actually seen their daughter?"
I squirmed in my seat. "No, but he showed me the ultrasound picture. I mean not just me, the whole office. Only time I've ever seen him that happy."
I caught her gaze, and she swallowed. "You know, when I went to the bathroom, I found the door open. The door to the infirmary, I mean. And I swear I didn't want to snoop, it was just that I had this bad feeling, and I thought the cat might have gotten inside again, so I peered inside. And…"
"There was no one in there but the cat."
"You must be mistaken. Maybe it was the wrong room."
"The crib was empty, Nick. I know what I saw. Everything in there was polished and unused. It was as lifeless as a hospital room."
We both stared straight ahead, unable to voice the obvious. The flower field came into view, but I kept a steady pace and watched it vanish in the rearview mirror. Annie gripped my hand, put her palm above my knuckles, and squeezed lightly. I lifted my thumb to stroke the side of her hand.
"You just never know with people," she murmured.
"Yes," I said. You just never know.