Furlough

Colleen was coming home from Iraq. Henry worried about how the girls would react when they saw their mother again after all this time, when they saw how she’d changed. And then there was Moira, Colleen’s sister. She was like a surrogate mother now. Almost a surrogate wife.

By Alexi Zentner

Image: Andrew Hem

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Alexi Zenter discusses the new military family and the fine line between emotion and sentimentality.

On the night that his wife shipped out to Iraq, Henry agreed to let his daughters sleep in bed with him. They had begged, and he said okay, but only for the one night; the concession seemed a small one given that the girls were, at least temporarily, losing a mother. He was never able to regain the ground he lost, however, and for five months they encamped in his bedroom. But last night had been the final night. Tonight, for the first time since their mother left, the girls were going to sleep in their own beds. Colleen, missing most of a leg, was coming home.

“It’s like having your very own little insurgency,” Moira had said to her sister on one of their many phone calls while Colleen was serving in Iraq. Moira said things like that. Colleen’s sister was the kind of woman that Henry liked, wry without any of the mocking bitterness. “They’ve occupied your bedroom, Colleen. I keep telling Henry that he can’t let them bunker down. Get them out before it’s too late. Buy them toys. Bribe them off. Weapons of mass distraction. Hell, give them candy, whatever it takes, just be a man, that’s what I tell him.”

But despite Moira’s words, neither she nor Henry had tried to move the girls back to their own beds while Colleen was gone; among the many small betrayals that Henry had committed as a father, depriving his daughters of this small sense of security would have loomed large. Besides, he did not mind sleeping in the same bed with his daughters; their presence, the gentle weight of their bodies, their hot sticky breath on his neck, was comforting to him in a way that his wife’s presence had never been. No, sleeping with them was not the problem; instead, the actual process of getting the girls to fall asleep was the torment for Henry. Tilly, barely 3, shifting against him, kicking at him, talking to her doll, and then the grunting—her porcine grunting rising in volume until he had to threaten to take away her monkey blanket—and Karen, almost 5 but with a teenager’s penchant for exaggerated sighs, hands roving over his face, touching his eyes, his ears, no matter how many times he took her wrist and laid her arms flat against her body; that 30 or 40 minutes of trying to get them to go to sleep every night made him doubt his ability to raise his children without violence.

Still, the torment was worth it for the precious few minutes he had with them when they were neither awake nor asleep, when they were finally still and their breath began to flatten out in rhythmic heaviness, when their bodies fell slack and rolled in toward him, toward the black-hole depression that he occupied in the middle of the mattress. They always fell asleep within seconds of each other, and he often wondered if some magic formula could make them fall asleep more quickly, say, in three or four minutes, instead of the better part of an agonizing hour.

Once Tilly and Karen were sleeping, Henry always crept out of bed with exaggerated carefulness, though he knew that something more momentous than his evacuation would be required to rouse them. Karen occasionally talked in her sleep, muttering and mumbling, no words that he could decipher, the language of somnolence. She seemed to be having a conversation she would not let him enter; dreaming, she asked and answered her own questions. But once they were down, they were gone to him until morning. He was still amazed by how soundly they slept, as if night were some sort of pit they had been thrown into, something irreversible. He could do nothing to disturb them.

By the time he left his room, he knew the house would be clean. Moira, already a frequent visitor before her sister left, had gotten into the habit of coming over every day to play with the girls while Henry cooked, to lend a hand with bath time and reading stories. While he lay with the girls until they fell asleep, Moira washed the dishes, straightened up a little, put in a load of laundry, and if she had time, sent an e-mail to her sister. Moira liked to send photographs or scan drawings that the girls had done, to tell Colleen what the girls had eaten for dinner, what they had said that was cute, what changes Colleen was missing. “I want her to come home to kids that she still knows,” Moira told Henry one night.

That empathetic concern was one reason Henry was still amazed at how little compunction Moira had shown about her affair with him. She had no qualms about taking Colleen’s place, both as surrogate mother and as Henry’s lover. To be fair, Henry often thought that, in many ways, the first was a bigger betrayal than the second; Colleen loved her daughters unequivocally, but her husband was a different matter.

Henry had gone to college with both Colleen and Moira, had met Moira first, in fact. Moira was the popular sister, funny and smart, one year younger than Colleen. Moira was the one who dated and went to parties, the one who had a full ride on a softball scholarship, the one who was friends with everybody but kept her mystery, as if she had some hidden substance that nobody would ever discover. Colleen, though physically similar, seemed determined to be everything Moira was not. Colleen was a loner, except for her sister’s company. She was sour, quick with a harsh word, and she did not play sports, joining the ROTC instead to cover her tuition. He had watched enough movies to know the way it worked: Moira was loud and shiny, but Colleen was the one with depth, the true treasure. He thought he was being clever when, near the end of his and Colleen’s senior year of college, he went after Colleen. He thought he had secured a prize.

Henry soon realized he had outsmarted himself. Both sisters were exactly as they appeared on the surface; Colleen was petulant and better suited to her own company than anybody else’s, and Moira was genuinely likable and smart, an interesting woman with a complex profundity that made him feel vital in her presence. He understood his mistake, however, a bit too late: after a few weeks of dating, Colleen was pregnant. Henry was the kind of man who believed in duty, and he compounded the error by marrying Colleen, in a small ceremony immediately after graduation. Momentum set in, the marriage became irreversible, and a year later, when Moira joined Henry and Colleen in the sisters’ small hometown, Moira became a fixture as both aunt and friend. Only later, once Henry was left alone on the home front and Moira had stepped in neatly, taking over Colleen’s role as mother and wife, did Henry, for the first time, have a visceral understanding of what marriage should be, of what marriage could have been had he chosen better.

He had thought about it before Colleen left, had even come close a time or two, when he was alone with Moira, but he had never acted, had never tried to kiss his sister-in-law. And when Moira finally kissed him—she initiated their affair, they both agreed on that—he had hesitated.

His life with Colleen had been less miserable than he would have thought, and he knew that kissing Moira back meant a precipitate and ineluctable dissolution of the stability that, in his marriage to Colleen, was the bedrock from which he carved out certain joys. He taught English at the local high school, a job that felt like nothing more than destiny, and he loved the small confines of Lake City, the familiar security the town offered. They had bought a neat house tucked two blocks off the main square, an easy walk to school for Henry, and only a block away from City Hall, where Colleen had landed a job as the assistant city manager. They had enough money to pay his student loans, to hire a babysitter when Colleen’s parents were not available, to buy a matching cherry crib, dresser, and gliding chair for Karen’s room. And they had Moira, as well.

Moira lived with her parents, but seemed content to spend her time in Henry and Colleen’s company, as if she had done all of the socializing she needed to do while she was away at college. She doted on Karen, and then, 20 months later, on Tilly as well, bringing clothes, toys, and stuffed animals for the girls. On the few nights when Moira went out with friends or ate dinner with her parents instead of Henry and Colleen, Henry found himself wishing for his sister-in-law’s presence. He enjoyed Moira’s company. She was funny and quick, as happy to talk about music as politics, the first one to tell him about gossip from the high school, where she taught math, and he had often hoped that something else was behind her smile: a hint of regret that he had chosen the wrong sister. But more than that, Moira’s presence transformed Colleen, made her into a better person, somebody who was finally generous with her emotions, who was affectionate with Henry. Some nights, perhaps once a month or so, that sense of generosity and affection carried through the night into Henry and Colleen’s bedroom, staying with them long after Moira had left. They had sex on other nights, but those were the only times when sex seemed like something other than a duty, something other than just a part of marriage that they had both signed up for. He knew that if not for Moira, their marriage would not have contained enough happiness to keep him and Colleen together.

But that had been before the inevitable, before Colleen’s Army Reserve unit was called up for active duty in Iraq. Before Colleen shipped out, they had achieved a sense of balance, something to maintain the shape of their marriage, as unfulfilling as it often was. With Colleen gone, Moira was no longer a bridge between them but a destination in her own right. He wanted her to kiss him, and on that third night after Colleen had left, when he and Moira were sitting on the couch and she touched his leg and then, when he looked at her, when she shifted up onto her knees and leaned into him, kissing him, her eyes open, watching to see what he would do, he was reluctant to pull back.

More than just the dissolution of his marriage made him pull away. “We shouldn’t do this now. Probably not ever, but certainly not now,” he said. “That you’re her sister is bad enough, though God knows betrayal is betrayal—I mean, even if we didn’t have kids, if you and Colleen hated each other, if you and I were drunk—but this is something different, another level. If Colleen was just out of town for the weekend …” he said, trailing off, trying to say what seemed so obvious to him. “We shouldn’t do this,” he said, “at least not now.” But, for once, he seemed to be speaking past her, and only later did Henry realize she had willfully misheard him.

“Then when? How long? How long are you going to stay with her, Henry? Another year? Another five? And if you don’t pack it in, Colleen will. She was going to leave you. Did you know that? She was going to leave you and then she got called up. All we’re doing is delaying the inevitable.”

“She’ll never forgive you.”

“Christ, Henry, that’s one of the reasons why you guys suck as a couple. Of course she’ll forgive me. She’s already forgiven me, even if she doesn’t know it yet.”

“And what about me?”

“What about you, Henry? You don’t matter.” He startled at the words, and she tried to soothe him. “Come on. You know I don’t mean it like that. But she doesn’t love you. She never really has, and you’ve never loved her.” She paused, and Henry, embarrassed, nodded. “She’ll be pissed for a little while, and then she’ll get over it. Hell, if anything, she’ll be happy about it. At least she won’t have to worry about a wicked stepmother for the girls.” She got up on her knees and straddled him, and this time when she kissed him, he did not pull away.

He should have pulled away. He knew that. They both knew that. They could have waited. They had already waited. A few more months would not have made any real difference to them. But they did not wait, and because Tilly and Karen had occupied the bedroom, Moira and Henry occupied each other in the family room, against the kitchen counter, on the dining-room table. They were circumspect at work, in town, with Colleen and Moira’s parents, at home when the girls were awake, but when they were alone they were urgent, as if trying to make up for every night they had not had sex before.

They did not talk about what they would do when Colleen came home. “What’s the point?” Moira said. That was something else that Henry liked about Moira. She never suffered pointless agonies or sheltered herself from anything, and she knew when others should not be sheltered either. When Henry and Colleen’s dog got hit by a car, Moira was the one who insisted that Henry tell the girls the truth. “You can’t shield them from this, Henry. What are you going to say if Colleen gets killed over there? Tilly won’t understand, but Karen is old enough. You can’t tell her that Maxie went to a farm and expect them to understand that Colleen isn’t ever coming home.”

She did not try to shield herself from Henry either. Once, two months in, she told Henry that she almost hoped that her sister would die while overseas, how simple and elegant it would be, such an easy solution for them. They would be the only people who knew about the betrayal, and after an appropriate time of mourning, six months, a year, they could appear as a couple in public. A natural conclusion, best for the children, people would say, and they were already such close friends. Perhaps a few whispers, but that would be all.

Henry did not respond. He knew he was not meant to respond, that to speak, to acknowledge Moira’s words, would make them concrete, more vulgar, something real rather than a horrible speculation. He was quiet, but the idea had momentarily thrilled him, because Moira was right. He did not feel any real enmity toward Colleen. He did not want to be with her, but he did not love her enough, had never loved her enough, to really hate her. He did not want her dead, but he would not have mourned her passing beyond its effect on Tilly and Karen, and he did not know what made him feel worse, the secret affirmation that his wife’s death would solve many of his problems or his lack of guilt over this knowledge.

So when the call came, he was oddly perplexed to learn that Colleen was not in fact dead, but had only lost her leg.

He had tried to prepare the girls, had explained what happened.

“How did she lose it?” Karen asked.

“In Iraq.”

“But where is it? Why can’t you put it back on?”

Moira struggled to smother her laughter. Karen’s innocence was funny, after all, and Henry smiled, because that was just life now. Something that Tilly and Karen would have to get used to. “It’s not like that, honey. Mommy got hurt really badly, and the doctors couldn’t fix her leg. They had to cut it off.”

“The whole leg?”

Tilly drew her own leg up onto the chair and pulled up her pants leg. “I got boo-boo.” Moira took Tilly onto her lap.

“Not the whole leg,” Henry said. “Just from here, I think, just to above the knee.” Karen nodded and looked down at her snack, as if that was it, as if that was all she needed to know. “Mommy’s going to be on crutches for a while,” Henry said, “but she’ll be able to walk soon. She’s going to get a fake leg, like a toy leg, sort of, and she’ll wear it around and soon enough you won’t be able to tell that she got hurt.” Karen started to laugh. “What? What’s so funny?”

“How’s she going to wear shoes?”

Henry smiled. “That’s pretty silly, isn’t it? She can wear shoes, though. She’ll just wear one for a while, and then, I guess, when she gets her artificial leg, she’ll wear the other shoe on that one.”

Explaining to the girls had seemed simple enough, but Henry had his doubts. Nothing was ever that simple. Colleen had told him that she wanted the girls to go to preschool, as normal, on the day she came home, so she would have a chance to get settled before they saw her. “I’m tired, you know. Tired all the fucking time,” she said. She must have sensed some hesitation through the phone, because she said, “But I’m getting better. They’ll pay for me to cab it in to the clinic as long as I’m in rehab. I’ll have to go into the city for my first fitting, but everything else, I can do at home.”

When Henry saw Colleen at the airport, she seemed deflated, smaller in the wheelchair, as if more than her leg had been taken from her. Though her uniform was sharp, crisp, the left pants leg pinned up where the limb ended, Colleen could have been a mannequin, for all the presence she had. He held back, watching how wooden she seemed when Moira rushed forward to embrace her.

In the parking lot, Henry scooped Colleen out of her wheelchair, and though he handled her weight easily enough—both she and Moira were petite women—he was surprised at how substantial she felt in his arms. He let out a little sound, an exclamation, and Colleen laughed. “Come on, I’m like 15 pounds lighter now. That’s the one good thing about losing my leg. Instant diet.”

“Your leg weighed 15 pounds?” Moira hefted the wheelchair into the back of the minivan. “Maybe I could get somebody to blow my ass off.”

“No, only like five, maybe eight pounds, but I’ve lost more weight from the hospital and stuff. I guess the whole leg would have been more, if the wound had been higher up on my thigh, or whatever.” Colleen shifted herself in the front seat.

“We’ll get some weight back on you,” Henry said. “We can get Thai food tonight if you want.”

“Right, Henry, because that’s what every woman is dreaming of,” Moira said. “Putting weight back on.”

“They’ve been having me suck back those protein shakes. Strawberry, chocolate. The shit that they have geezers and weight lifters drink. It doesn’t matter. They all taste like chalk. And I’m just burning it off. It’s the rehab. I don’t think I’ve ever been in this good shape. Except for the leg.”

“The upside,” Moira said, “is that you have an excuse now for why I’m faster than you.”

“Thai food, or pizza, or whatever you want. We can go out if you prefer.” Henry almost flinched when he felt the weight of Colleen’s hand on his leg. “The girls are so excited to see you. I’ve tried to tell them.”

“I’ll show them,” Colleen said. “That’s the easiest way. That’s what my psychologist said. Just show them where it is.”

“What’s it look like?” Moira’s voice sounded eager, almost ghoulish, to Henry. He did not want Colleen to answer. Did not want to see it himself. He had never had a strong stomach for deformity.

“Raw. Angry. Red and nasty, but oddly sealed. The skin’s pulled over it, kind of like an envelope.”

Later, after Karen and Tilly had fallen asleep in their own beds—“A fucking miracle,” Moira said to Colleen. “I don’t know how you managed that”—Henry saw for himself what Colleen’s leg looked like.

She was shy with him, and he was reminded of their first date: how she looked away as he unbuttoned her shirt, how she closed her eyes as he pulled down her jeans. After Moira’d left, he’d carried her up the stairs to the bathroom, leaving her crutches downstairs, but she had either hopped or crawled to their bed. When he came into their room, occupied territory so recently reclaimed from Karen and Tilly, Henry felt as if another enemy had encamped. Colleen was not dressed the part of a combatant, however; she was wearing a white silk negligee, modest, almost demure, more dressing gown than lingerie, and he recognized it as the same thing that she had worn on their wedding night. He had the same reaction to it now as he’d had on their wedding night, when the sheer fabric accentuated the beginnings of her pregnancy: disgust, and a sudden understanding of the almost limitless boundaries of his entrapment.

She lay with the covers off her, and the stump looked obscene to him. She had described it well. It was angry, it was raw, but it looked somehow complete next to her undamaged leg, as if the leg that had been spared was overbuilt and in need of modification, as if it was merely waiting until it, too, could be amended, foreshortened.

“It’s been a while,” she said, as if nothing was wrong, as if her leg had always been maimed. She did not acknowledge his stare or the incongruity of the situation, and Henry thought that maybe Colleen did not herself understand that things had changed. He was sure she did not understand. She lay there, waiting for him, wearing the negligee from their wedding night, believing that he would come to her as he had always come to her, as if this were some sort of a fresh start. And then she spoke, and he realized that she did understand, that she understood more than even he had. “If not tonight, then soon enough,” she said. She rolled over and burrowed into her pillow. “You don’t have a lot of choice anymore.”

For those first few nights, when the girls were asleep and Moira had left, Henry walked carefully through the house, afraid of stumbling upon Colleen unawares. He stayed up late, watching basketball or reading, waiting until he knew that Colleen had fallen asleep and then slipping silently into bed beside her, careful not to disturb her.

The following weekend, Lake City threw a parade for her. Not for her, exactly, but she was the event, the occasion, the reason the Memorial Day parade was more than a few dozen poorly decorated cars, the high-school marching band, and a string of sad horses followed by the ceremonial cleanup brigade.

Afterward, her parents held an open house, and neighbors and friends and the children of friends and neighbors dutifully tramped through the house to speak to Colleen, to commend her, to avoid looking directly at where her leg should have been. Henry left Tilly and Karen in the charge of their grandparents and decamped to the second floor, lying down in Colleen’s old bedroom, on her narrow childhood bed, closing his eyes and trying to shut out the buzzing sound from below.

He was not asleep but he was not awake either when he heard a brief burst of conversation, the door opening and closing, the click of the latch. He felt the sag of the mattress and then her lips on his. She slid her hand under his T-shirt, danced her fingers lightly on his stomach and up over his chest, and Henry kept his eyes closed, not wanting to know whether it was his wife or her sister.

She let her hand drift lower, slipping open his button and skimming onto his crotch, and after a moment he arched his back, lifting himself so she could slide his jeans over his hips.

Colleen was awkward on top of him, her equilibrium thrown off by the missing leg, and once, when she raised herself up and put too much pressure on the stump, she let out a sharp hiss, stopping briefly before lowering herself over him again and continuing to rock back and forth.

Henry still did not open his eyes. He had his elbows splayed, his hands above his head, and Colleen pressed his wrists down into the bed. He did not know how much of the pressure was because of her need for balance. Despite the noise in the house, he and Colleen were almost silent, their only sounds a few muted moans.

She finished before him, but kept moving for another minute or two, until he gasped and shivered underneath her, pushing up against her weight; it was, he felt, almost his only contribution to the process.

They lay like that until he slipped out of her and he could feel a warm wetness spilling down his leg, and then Colleen rolled awkwardly off him. He still did not open his eyes, just listened as she struggled back into her pants, lay there as she wiped him gently with a tissue. The bed bounced as she stood, and he heard the thump-step of her crutching across the room to her desk.

“This is what it feels like to be a hero, huh?” she said. “It’s not so exciting, really. I guess my heart really isn’t in it anymore.”

“Thanks,” Henry said.

She laughed. “Your heart isn’t really in it either,” she said.

“Are we talking about the same thing?”

“We should go downstairs,” she said.

Henry nodded and then finally opened his eyes. He sat up and looked at his wife. She was sitting on the edge of her desk and looking out the window, down into the backyard.

“Tilly’s going to have an upset stomach,” Colleen said. “Mom’s giving her another piece of cake.”

“She’ll be fine,” Henry said.

Colleen turned toward him and stared at him for a moment, and for the first time since she had come home, Henry realized that there was something sad in the way she looked at him; it was not sadness for herself, but rather for him, some sort of pity, a recognition, an acknowledgement that he had been happier when she was gone.

“She’s 3, Henry. She’ll eat cake as long as we let her.”

He wrestled his underwear and jeans back up and took a few steps across the room until he stood behind her, looking over her shoulder at what she was again looking at: the yard, her parents’ friends and neighbors, and the same children of those neighbors and friends.

“It’s a short trip for you,” Colleen said, and Henry needed a moment to realize she was talking about the ease with which he’d crossed the space of the bedroom.

“You’ll have an easier time when you get fitted for your prosthesis,” he said.

“It would have been easier if I hadn’t lost the leg. It would have been clean for both of us.” She paused. “It should have been you, shouldn’t it? That’s the way it’s supposed to go. The man goes off to war while the woman stays home and takes care of the home front. And if I had left you, they would have called me names for a while, would have scorned me for a year or two, but the judgment would eventually fade. But you, oh, you’ve got a problem, haven’t you? If you leave me, you’ll never live it down. You’d have to scratch everybody out of your life. Your wife goes off to war and comes home a cripple. You can’t just duck out on that, can you?” She ran her finger across the surface of the desk, then held it up for Henry to see. “She still cleans in here, dusts every other week, like I’m going to be coming home.” Henry didn’t say anything.

“Moira told you, huh?” Colleen asked. “She told you that I had been thinking about leaving you?”

“Yeah.”

Colleen sighed. “You too, I bet. It wasn’t that bad, was it? Before I left? Our marriage?”

“No.”

“But it wasn’t that great, either,” Colleen said. “You probably should have gone after Moira. You guys would have been a good couple.”

Colleen looked out the window again, and without the need to keep her gaze, Henry did not know where he should look himself. He glanced at the desk and was struck by how impersonal it was, how bare the surface was. A lamp, a corded telephone that Colleen’s mother could have used when she herself was a teenager, a coffee cup with a few pens and pencils in it. Henry felt that he should touch her shoulder or offer some other sort of reassurance, but he knew she would understand that he was just going through the motions.

“I thought about us a lot while I was over there,” she said. “You have no idea how fucking boring it was most of the time. Sometimes I was absolutely terrified, but those were just a few hours, in a few days of months and months of busywork. I thought about the girls and I thought about you, and I thought about what would have happened if you and Moira had gotten together, if she was the one who had gotten pregnant. You’re happy with me when she’s around, you know that?” She looked at him and nodded. “Of course you know that.” She looked away again and hesitated before asking, “Did you sleep with her? No. Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”

This time he did touch her, but not on the shoulder. He laid his hand on her thigh, careful to keep his fingers up above the stump.

“You know the first thing I thought of when I woke up? I thought, Fuck, it would have been better for everyone if I had just died.” Henry let out a small laugh, and Colleen turned to look at him, a brief flash of her teeth, and then she leaned into his chest. “You too, huh? What the fuck is wrong with us?”

“You’re right,” Henry said.

“About what?”

Henry wanted to say she was right about Moira, right about him regretting that she had not just bled out when she lost her leg, right about the fact that he would never be able to outrun leaving her now, but instead he said, “About our marriage. It wasn’t that bad.”

“Is that enough?”

He shrugged. “It’s more than some people have.”

“We got married for the wrong reason.”

They both looked out through the window at the guests milling about in the yard. Tilly sat in Colleen’s mother’s lap, still eating cake, and Karen ran around the dogwood, chased by one of her cousins.

“They missed you,” he said. “I told them stories about you every night, went through our wedding album. I never betrayed that, never once.”

“No,” she said. “You wouldn’t have.”

Outside, Karen stopped running, cocking her head and looking toward the house at something unseen by both Colleen and Henry. She shook her head and then started laughing and running again. Moira stepped out onto the grass, unaware that as she watched Karen, Colleen and Henry watched her.

“Can we just muddle through for a while?” Colleen said.

“If that’s what you want.”

“Nobody wants to just muddle through, Henry.”

She was hot against his body, and Henry moved his hand off her leg and wrapped his arm around her chest, pulling her even closer into him. “I do love you,” he said, even though he knew that she knew that he did not mean the kind of love that either one of them wanted. “Karen and Tilly love you too.”

“They don’t know me anymore,” Colleen said, and then she sucked in her breath and looked at him, and he realized that she was embarrassed. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to talk to you anymore …” She trailed off, and in her silence Henry knew that they were both thinking that they had never really known how to talk to each other, and that if they had, they probably would not have already muddled through for so long. “I appreciate it. Appreciate that you tried to keep me alive for them, that Moira kept me involved in their life, but at their age I was gone long enough that I’m more like an aunt than anything. I suppose that they think of Moira as their mother more than me.”

“She’d make a good mother,” Henry said.

“She’d make a good wife,” Colleen said, and both of them were quiet again for a moment, and then Colleen stood and crutched out of the room, leaving Henry leaning against the desk, looking out the window and over the yard, over his daughters, over his lover and her parents and their friends and neighbors and the children of neighbors and friends, knowing that he and Colleen would muddle through until they no longer knew what else to do.

Years later, when Colleen could walk without a limp and Karen was old enough to babysit Moira’s children, Henry thought of those nights when he used to lie down with his daughters, how he used to usher them toward their dreams, sometimes traveling along with them, waking with a start after he had been sleeping for 10 or 15 minutes.

He and Moira slept together one more time after Colleen came home.

Colleen had gone into the city to get fitted for her prosthesis, was staying overnight, and Moira had come over to have dinner with him and the girls, and she had helped him settle them in their beds, joined him in reading to them, singing to them, kissing them good night.

Neither of them said much. There wasn’t much for them to say, and there wasn’t the sense of urgency that they’d had together before.

That last time together, they had sex in Henry and Colleen’s bed. Again, Moira kissed him first, but he was the one who kissed back, who peeled her shirt off, who slid her panties down and slid her skirt up onto her waist. He was the one who touched his lips to her breast, who lay on top of her, and while Moira stared up at him, he was the one who ultimately closed his eyes, as if he did not want to know whether he was making love to his wife or to her sister.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/furlough/307535/