(an excerpt from the novel In Between Days, reprinted by permission of the publisher)
since his divorce, Elson has fallen into the habit of stopping by the Brunswick Hotel for a quick drink after work. He likes the Brunswick Hotel because it’s one of the newest hotels in the city and because he knows that no one he knows will ever find him here. He likes the anonymity of it, of drinking here alone in the third-floor bar area, of sitting here at the window, staring out across the street at the futuristic office buildings, at their slick glass surfaces, knowing that behind these glass surfaces men and women in finely pressed suits are probably packing up their bags and briefcases, making plans for dinner or drinks. He likes to imagine these people leaving, likes to watch them as they walk out the door and get in their cars. There’s something strangely soothing about it all, about this daily routine of watching the city empty out, of watching it grow quiet and dark.
Tonight, the barroom is empty, save for a few out-of-town businessmen, drinking alone, and outside the window, the city is quiet, a light rain coming down now, a cold winter rain, which is somewhat atypical for Houston this time of year. In an hour from now, he will be meeting Lorna Estrada, the woman he has been sleeping with for the past six months, the woman he met just after his wife left him, at a barbecue at his friend Dave Millhauser’s house. Lorna is twenty-seven years old, and many years his junior, and yet surprisingly mature for her age. He sometimes speculates that this is because of her Filipino upbringing, because of the strictness of her parents, or other times because of the fact that she came to the States so young, that she got a firsthand glimpse of how cruel the world could be to a non-English-speaking adult, especially in a city like Houston. The first and only child in her family to ever receive a degree in anything, Lorna works as a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts and shares with Elson a strange and fervent interest in minimalist architecture. That Elson is himself an architect was perhaps part of the initial allure, the fact that they could talk with ease about the work of Claudio Silvestrin or Vincent Van Duysen or Souto de Moura, but now, Elson wonders, what has that allure become? A few empty hours at the end of the day. A couple of drinks, maybe a movie. Mostly sex. And even that has become routine. In the early days of their relationship—if that is in fact what this is—they would go to the houses of Lorna’s friends. They would sit around drunkenly discussing the state of the world, or art, just as he’d done back in college, and though most of these people were younger than him, some of them young enough to be his own children, he still enjoyed it. He liked to watch the flicker of the candles, the shadows playing along the walls. He liked to listen to the conversations from a guarded distance, with a vague sense of amusement or perhaps jealousy. How long had it been, after all, since he’d shared these types of convictions himself? Later, he had even started smoking again, joining a small group of them as they went out to the yard to have a cigarette after dinner. And as he stood there beneath the lamplight of the porch, or in the shadows of the garden, he would look over at Lorna and smile, and she would always smile back.
But what has happened since then? He often wonders whether he has maybe upset her or embarrassed her in some way. Or if it is simply the fact that he, Elson, is so indicative of everything that she and her friends despise. It has been a month since they’ve done anything but meet at Elson’s apartment after work, and even when Elson has inquired about her friends, Lorna has been evasive. They are always too busy, she tells him, working on their projects or organizing some event or protesting some local politician. One night, earlier that week, he had stopped by her apartment after work to drop off a sweater she had left at his place. He had not told her he was coming, but he had expected she’d be happy to see him. He had knocked on her door several times, and when no one had answered, he had stood there for a long time and listened. Through the clear glass window, he could hear voices coming from the other side of the apartment, laughing. He stood there for a while longer, listening, and then knocked again. After a while, the voices grew quiet, and a light went off in the kitchen. He wondered what to do, whether to stand there and wait, humiliate them all when they eventually came out, or whether it would be better just to leave. Finally, he had decided to drop the sweater off in the doorway and leave. The following night, when Lorna came over to his place, she denied ever hearing him knock. She claimed that they were planning a rally about something or other and that they were probably too busy, too engrossed in their project, to hear him. Elson had shaken his head and smiled. Whatever, he’d said, borrowing an expression from Lorna herself, an expression that she often used when she wanted to dismiss him. And then he’d stood up and walked into the kitchen for a beer.
Now, sitting in the dim-lit glow of the Brunswick Hotel bar, Elson finds himself wondering whether he should have handled it differently or whether it would have even mattered. He looks over toward the bartender and motions at his glass. A moment later, the bartender walks over and fills it. He’s a young man, this bartender, and fit. He reminds him of some of the boys that his son, Richard, used to bring over to the house.
“Looks like it’s going to break,” the bartender says, nodding toward the window.
“The storm,” he says. “Looks like it’s going to be a bad one.”
Elson stares out the window and realizes that the sky has darkened, the clouds from the east moving in over the city like a fog.
“Good,” he says.
“You looking for a storm?”
“You could say that.”
The bartender stares at him quizzically, then smiles. “I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I? Last Tuesday.”
“Maybe,” Elson says. “I come here a lot.”
The bartender nods. “You know, I actually just started here last week.” He smiles at him. “Just moved down here from Austin.”
Elson nods again. He can tell that this bartender is looking for a conversation, maybe even wanting to ask him something personal, so he quickly turns away, staring at the wall on the far end of the bar until the bartender finally leaves.
When he comes back a few minutes later, Elson pulls out his wallet.
“How much do I owe you?” he asks.
Later, as he stands outside the front lobby of the Brunswick Hotel, waiting for his car, Elson lights a cigarette and watches the sky grow dark, the palm trees in the distance swaying hypnotically in the wind. He wonders why he acted the way he had at the bar and whether or not he has ruined the Brunswick Hotel forever. He looks across the street and thinks of Lorna and realizes that the promise of the night has suddenly vanished. He wants to go home and sleep it off.
The valets are putting on rain parkas with the hotel logo printed on the back, and when his car comes up the ramp, they all swarm in around him, holding out their arms, swinging an umbrella above his head. He tips them generously and takes off, realizing it might be a long time before he returns here again.
Outside the edge of downtown Houston, he stops at a light and checks his messages. He is hoping for a call from Lorna, hoping for a last-minute cancellation or maybe a change of plans, but instead what he sees is a long list of messages from his ex-wife, Cadence, each one spaced out by a couple of minutes, most of them left in the past half hour. He pulls over on the side of the road and calls her up, feeling a sense of uneasiness, a sense of dread. The last time they spoke, almost a month before, he had vowed never to call her again directly, to handle all of their future correspondences through e-mail or perhaps a third party. The last time they spoke, she had called him a monster, a term that had stung him so deeply that it had taken him several days to shake it off.
He expects that Cadence will want to pick up where she left off the last time they spoke, but when she answers the phone, her voice is surprisingly calm.
“What’s the emergency?” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you called me—let’s see—seven times.”
“Oh,” she says and pauses. “No emergency.”
“You just wanted to talk?”
“No,” she says. “I wanted to tell you something.”
Outside the window, the rain is coming down hard now, obscuring his view of everything. He turns off the windshield wipers and waits for her to finish.
“I wanted to tell you that Chloe is going to be coming home tonight and that she’s going to be staying with me for a while.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean simply that.”
“Doesn’t she have classes?”
“Well, no. Not at the moment.” She pauses. “She’s been asked to take a leave.”
“A leave from school?”
Elson feels his pulse quicken. “What are you talking about?”
“Just what I said. She’s been asked to take a leave for the rest of the semester.”
“She’s been expelled?”
“Well, no, not exactly. It’s more complicated than that.”
Elson looks out the window and feels his body loosening, his mind swimming with possibilities.
“What I’m saying is it hasn’t come to that yet. They’re still in deliberations.”
“The provost, the president, the dean of student life. Most of the Student Judiciary Council.” She pauses. “As I said, we’re hoping it doesn’t come to that.”
“Jesus,” he says. “What the hell did she do?”
“Well,” Cadence says, but doesn’t finish. “Look, Elson, this is something she wants to talk to you about herself.”
Elson sits there for a moment, silent.
“I told her I wouldn’t tell you.”
“You’re keeping secrets from me now?”
“No,” she says. “It’s not like that.”
“How long have you known?”
Cadence is quiet for a moment. “I don’t know,” she says. “A couple weeks, I guess.”
“A couple weeks?”
“Look, Elson, I’m not going to talk to you like this, okay. I’m not looking for a fight. I just wanted to tell you that she’s coming home tonight and that she’s agreed to meet with you tomorrow if you’re willing. She can explain the whole thing to you then.”
Elson considers this. “Who’s picking her up?”
“I’ll get her.”
“No, Elson, that’s not part of the agreement. Look, I told her—I promised her—I wouldn’t even tell you until tomorrow.”
Elson grips the edge of the dashboard with his left hand, squeezing it until his knuckles turn white. “So, you’re telling me that I can’t even pick up my own daughter from the fucking airport? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
“I’m hanging up now, Elson.”
And before he can get out another word, the line goes dead.
He looks at the phone, then redials her number, but all he gets is Cadence’s voice mail. He considers leaving her a message but decides instead to just hang up. He drops the phone on the floor and then feels his stomach drop. He wonders where his daughter is now, whether she’s high above the earth in an airplane cabin, circling the tiny suburbs of East Texas, or whether she’s still back at the airport in Boston, waiting for her plane. He tries to picture his daughter’s face, tries to remember the last time they spoke, but the memory is vague. Instead what he sees is his daughter as a child, as a young girl, standing in the doorway of his study, asking him what he’s working on, then coming over and sitting on his lap, watching him as he works on his latest blueprint, studying his hand as he makes tiny markings on the page, measuring things out with a ruler and pen. She smells like bubble bath, her hair still wet, her skin moist, and as he lights up a cigarette and turns to her, she makes a face, scrunches her nose, as she always does. I thought you were going to quit, she says. You promised. And he assures her that he will, that once his project is over, once he’s finished, he will definitely quit, and then the memory is gone, and Elson is reaching into his pocket for a freshly opened pack.
A moment later, as he’s driving past the gay bars in Montrose, he dials up Lorna’s number, his fingers twitching so badly now that he can barely hold the phone.
When she answers, her voice is calm, guarded. She tells him that she’s talking to someone on the other line.
“I’m coming to see you,” he says.
“I’m not ready,” she says. “I haven’t even showered.”
“I need to see you right now,” he says. “Something’s happened.”
Lorna is silent. Then she says, “What’s happened?”
But he doesn’t answer. He realizes only now how upset he is, how he doesn’t even have words to explain it.
“I’ll tell you when I come,” he says finally.
“Give me twenty minutes.”
“Okay,” he says, and then he drops the phone on the seat. Outside his window, the storm is finally breaking, the heavy clouds from the east rising up over the city, combining with other clouds to form a giant mass. He pulls over on the side of the street and parks. The rain is coming down quickly now, pounding the car, and in the distance he can see brilliant displays of lightning splintering along the horizon. He looks out the window to his left and notices a small row of brown stucco houses, all old and somewhat disheveled, and realizes then, with something like panic, with something like fear, that he doesn’t actually know where he is, that he must have made a wrong turn somewhere, that somehow, in this city where he’s grown up, this city where he’s lived all his life, he is lost.
Andrew Porter is the author of the story collection The Theory of Light and Matter, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the novel In Between Days, which was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has received a Pushcart Prize, a James Michener/Copernicus Fellowship, and the W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts. His work has appeared in One Story, The Threepenny Review, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts. Currently, he teaches fiction writing and directs the creative writing program at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
You can read Porter’s 2012 interview with Front Porch here.