Shortly after the Dravens moved into the townhouse next door, Jenna went over to borrow some soup. She told the three-year-old to stay put in front of the TV and walked to the Dravens’ door in her socks.
“Sorry,” she said. “But I’m making chicken casserole and it calls for cream of mushroom. The baby is sleeping and I just can’t run out.” Mrs. Draven invited Jenna to stand in the foyer while she rooted through a cardboard box on the kitchen counter. She was very tall, almost too tall for a woman, Jenna thought. Her shoulders were immense and muscular, like an Olympic swimmer’s.
“I think I might have some,” Mrs. Draven said. Her voice was deep and gravelly, like she needed to clear her throat. “I haven’t really unpacked the kitchen yet.”
“Thanks for looking,” Jenna said. “I’m kind of desperate.” She sucked in the smell of fresh paint and new carpet and closed her eyes a bit. It was nice in here, a break from her own house, which smelled of dirty diapers and the tuna fish from lunch. Mrs. Draven was taking odd cans out of the box and lining them up on the stove. They were exotic things like pitted olives and some sort of white bean soup.
“Well, I don’t have cream of mushroom,” Mrs. Draven said. “But I have cream of chicken and a can of water chestnuts. Do you know that recipe? The casserole with the cornflakes on top? Chuck makes it, and it’s simply amazing.” She fished a pile of index cards out of a box and sorted through it, handing Jenna a neatly typed recipe for Amazing Chicken Casserole.
“Thanks,” Jenna said. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you. I know what a pain moving is.” Mrs. Draven was standing close to her and Jenna thought she smelled good, a sort of exciting musky scent.
“Well, actually,” Mrs. Draven said. She pushed a strand of long dark frizzy hair from her bulging shoulder. “Are you home in the daytime? I need someone to let the cable guy in tomorrow. Chuck and I have to go to work.”
“Sure,” said Jenna. She stared up at Mrs. Draven’s throat, which had a very prominent Adam’s apple. “I can do that.”
“How wonderful,” Mrs. Draven said. “Thank you. I’ll just leave the door unlocked for you.”
As Jenna left through the front door, Mrs. Draven touched her elbow very lightly, so Jenna might avoid bumping the door frame.
Back at home, the baby was screaming in his crib and the three- year-old had removed his diaper and peed on the kitchen linoleum. Jenna bounced the baby on one shoulder, where he spit up all down the length of her shirt. She grabbed the cordless phone and called Dan on the construction site, holding the receiver away from the baby’s howling mouth. Dan answered the phone with a yell to one of his workers before he said hello.
“I think our new neighbor is a man,” Jenna said. “I do, too,” Dan said. “His name is Chuck.” “No,” Jenna said. “Not the husband. The wife.” “Ok,” Dan said. “What’s wrong with Kenny?” “He spit up,” Jenna said. “She’s the man.”
“The wife is the man,” Dan said.
“I think so,” she said. She ripped off a paper towel from the stand on the kitchen counter and dropped it on the floor, dragging it over the puddle of pee with the toe of her sock. “I’m not sure, but I think so.”
“Can you make me ham for lunch tomorrow?” Dan said. “I’m sick of tuna.”
“Can I talk Daddy?” asked the three-year-old. He was naked from the waist down and butted his head into Jenna’s thigh.
“No,” Jenna said. “Daddy’s very busy working.”
Later that night, Jenna lay in bed and watched her husband drop his orange construction T-shirt in a heap beside the bed, adding his jeans and underwear to the pile a few seconds later. He stood naked and indifferent at the foot of the bed and looked at her.
“I hurt my bicep today moving concrete,” he said, rubbing his arm. “And I pulled something in my back.”
“Really?” Jenna said. “I’m sorry, honey.”
“I think that chicken stuff gave me indigestion, too,” he said and Jenna could hear his stomach lurch as he sat down on the bed beside her. “Did you put crunchy stuff in it by accident?”
“I liked it,” she said, sleepily. “I can get you some Tums.” She fell asleep before he answered her with a shrug, his head falling heavily into the pillow, eyes already closed.
The next morning, Jenna opened her front door wide so she could see when the cable man came. The baby woke up with a diaper rash that caused him to screech with pain every time he sat down. He crawled around her feet while she loaded the dishwasher with the dirty breakfast dishes.
When the cable man arrived, Jenna sat the three-year-old in front of the TV with a Blue’s Clues video and a cup of juice. She turned on the baby monitor in the living room and stuffed the receiving end in her sweatshirt pocket. She tucked the baby under one arm, taking care not to press on his diaper too much, and went next door.
While the cable man hooked up the box in the living room, Jenna wandered around with the baby, looking in each room. Everything was immaculate and neatly arranged. Even the unpacked boxes stood in orderly stacks against one wall, their corners lined up perfectly.
The furniture was a neutral shade of tan, and they had a few pictures on the mantelpiece in the dining room. One was of their wedding, Mrs. Draven in a long white gown and her hair in an elaborate up-do, a veil sweeping over her shoulders. Mr. Draven was almost equal in height, and he stood behind her and slightly sideways, his broad red hands on her waist. When Jenna narrowed her eyes to blur their faces, it looked like a photo of two men posing together.
When Jenna wandered in to the kitchen, she discovered a note for her from Mrs. Draven, with another recipe card. “Mr. Draven just tried this one,” it said. “It’s a favorite.”
“Just one more box, upstairs,” the cable man said. Jenna could hear the ending music for Blues Clues from the monitor in her pocket, so she ran out the front door and stuck her head into her own front door, where she could see that the three-year-old had fallen asleep in front of the TV, his juice cup still clenched in one fist. She went back inside the Dravens’ house and headed upstairs to the bedroom.
The bedroom was all white and appeared to be the only room they had fully unpacked. There was a fluffy white comforter and long white draperies on the windows. The bureaus were painted white, and there were twin white lamps on each night table. Jenna thought the room was beautiful, so unlike her own, full of mismatched hand- me-downs collected from her parents and Dan’s, and littered with packages of baby wipes, plastic toys, and the baby’s crib. She let the baby crawl on the bed while the cable man sat on the floor tinkering with wires. On one of the bureaus was a black-and-white photo of Mrs. Draven; a close-up, framed in white ceramic. Jenna picked it up and examined it closely. Mrs. Draven’s forehead was quite broad, and the skin looked rough with large pores. It still wasn’t clear from the photo if she was a man or a woman. The long dark hair looked real enough to Jenna, but she was pretty sure that her head was angled just so to hide the prominent Adam’s apple.
When the cable man left, Jenna waited until his truck pulled away before heading back into the Dravens’ house. Up in the bedroom, there was an immaculate closet full of Mr. Draven’s clothes and another closet full of Mrs. Draven’s clothes. Jenna was slightly disappointed. Although she had never seen Mrs. Draven dressed as a man, she had expected the closets to be filled with men’s clothes. The bathroom revealed the usual collection of items belonging to a married couple—two different sorts of shampoo, a plastic container holding a reasonable amount of makeup, some shaving equipment lying in a heap, wires tangled. She realized it was going to be very hard to find enough clues to solve the mystery in this house. Even if Mrs. Draven were a man, he was living as a woman with a woman’s things. Jenna yanked the white comforter until it was straight, erasing the indentations left by the baby. She was relieved she had no answers. Now she could just relax.
At home, Jenna made Mr. Draven’s recipe for Braised Tofu with Shiitake Mushrooms, served over rice. She had never cooked tofu before and was amazed at how well it soaked up the soy and vinegar marinade. She didn’t think Dan or the three-year-old would eat it if they knew it was tofu, so she told them it was pork.
At dinner Dan said, “You know, that Pat next door does look manly. I wonder if it’s the way she dresses. Not very feminine, all those sweat suits. Even her work suits hang funny.”
“That’s not nice,” Jenna said and realized she was defensive, although she couldn’t say exactly why. “I like her.”
The next evening, Jenna knocked on the Dravens’ door in her bathrobe. Mr. Draven answered, still dressed in his business suit.
“I’m so sorry to bother you so late,” she said. “I was wondering if I could borrow some lettuce.”
“Oh,” Mr. Draven said. “We might have some lettuce. Come in. We just finished dinner.”
“I’m sorry,” Jenna said. “I was making my husband’s lunch and realized we were out of lettuce. It’s kind of late and I just thought . . .”
“It’s no problem,” Mr. Draven said. “Want to try some of our left- overs? I made blue marlin with mango salad tonight. Pat thought it was wonderful, but you know a wife is always biased.” He opened the refrigerator and bent over the crisper drawer, pulling out a neatly wrapped head of lettuce and a plate wrapped in tin foil.
“I just need a little lettuce,” Jenna said. “And that looks wonderful, but really, don’t go to any trouble for me to try it.” Mr. Draven already had a sliver of fish and rice on a little plate and he handed it to her with a fork.
Reluctantly, Jenna took a bite. Her eyes widened with the taste, a sort of decadent combination of lime and ginger. “That’s so amazing,” she said. “I wish my husband cooked like that.”
“Hello,” said Mrs. Draven. She appeared in the foyer from the living room, wrapped in a red silk robe. Her hair was piled loosely on top of her head and Jenna thought she looked very beautiful, even if she was a man.
“Hi,” said Jenna, a little breathlessly. Her heart was beating fast. “I just came to borrow some lettuce.”
“Really?” Mrs. Draven said. “A person can borrow lettuce?”
“For my husband’s lunch,” Jenna said. She gripped the head of lettuce on the counter with both hands, the smooth plastic wrap bunching a little under her fingers. Mrs. Draven smelled like shaving cream, the kind that Dan used, and Jenna felt a little thrill.
“Well, goodnight,” Mr. Draven said. He walked around Jenna and held the door open for her.
Mrs. Draven leaned toward Jenna and tapped the head of lettuce with a forefinger, tipped with a scarlet red nail. “Make sure you return that now,” she said, with a large smile.
“I will,” Jenna said. This made the Dravens both laugh loudly, a blend of deep throaty chuckles. “Thanks again,” she said.
At home, she pulled off enough lettuce for Dan’s sandwiches. When he passed through the kitchen on the way to the TV in the living room, he grabbed her from behind at the counter and humped her lightly, as a joke.
“Get off,” she said, but then on a whim she pulled her robe up a little so he was pressing against her flesh, and pushed backward into his thrusts. He stopped right away, not sure how to take this.
“I need extra mustard,” he said. “Did you put on extra mustard?” The next night and day, both the baby and the three-year-old were sick. Jenna didn’t sleep at all, comforting first one and then the other, all night. They both had diapers so filled with diarrhea that Jenna could not get them changed fast enough. When she finally had the baby clean and changed, the three-year-old threw up all over himself and the couch. Jenna put him in the bathtub and tucked the baby back in the crib, where he screamed until his face turned bright red. The three-year-old wailed and threw a bottle of shampoo across the bathroom, splitting it open on the toilet seat cover, covering the floor and Jenna in a layer of slimy soap.
Dan called around noon and Jenna answered on the cordless phone. She was so tired she wasn’t entirely sure what he was asking for.
“No,” she told him. “I can’t pick up your paycheck. I can’t take the kids out at all today.”
She wasn’t sure what he said in response, because the baby had thrown up all over the crib and the nursery floor. She shut off the phone and went to get him out, stripping his clothes again, holding him against her shampoo-slimed shirt. She never heard the doorbell ring, so when Mrs. Draven appeared on the top step, Jenna almost fainted from shock.
“I didn’t hear you,” said Jenna. Her palm moved to her chest, aware that she couldn’t possibly cover the wide variety of stains with a single hand. Her heart was beating so hard she could feel it pounding in her chest.
“I have the day off. I just wanted to bring you some of the lunch Chuck made me. It’s Spicy Spanish Patatas Bravas,” said Mrs. Draven. She extended a Tupperware container into the space between them.
“And ask if I could borrow some dish washing detergent.”
“Thank you. I haven’t eaten yet today. The kids are sick,” said Jenna. The three-year-old ran past them, escaped from the tub, naked and glistening. “But help yourself to whatever you need.”
“What can I do for you?” said Mrs. Draven. She reached for the baby and before Jenna could think, she handed him over.
“Oh really, I’m fine,” said Jenna. The baby reached up and pulled Mrs. Draven’s long, coarse hair. “He likes you.”
Mrs. Draven snuggled the baby closer to her chest, which Jenna could see now was not the chest of a woman at all. She wondered why she didn’t bother with fake breasts.
“Here,” said Jenna. She reached her arms out for the baby, who screeched in protest, wanting to stay with Mrs. Draven.
“I’ve got him,” said Mrs. Draven. “Now what can we do for the other little one?”
Jenna walked down the hall to her bedroom where the three-year- old had disappeared. He was curled up on the comforter, clean for the moment, asleep. Jenna put a diaper on him and covered him with a blanket. Mrs. Draven stood in the doorway, rocking the baby as Jenna worked.
“Thank you,” Jenna said. “That was a huge help.” She reached out her arms for the baby, but he squealed again and resisted. He seemed to be petting Mrs. Draven’s chin, which Jenna realized was slightly rough with a tiny bit of facial growth.
“Can I watch him for you for a while?” asked Mrs. Draven. “I love babies.”
Jenna was so exhausted she nodded without considering much. “I’m so tired,” she said.
“Go on down and have some lunch.” She produced the plastic container with the food again from her sweat suit and waved Jenna down the steps. “Go, go,” she said.
Mrs. Draven played with the baby on the living room floor while Jenna sat down at the table with the plastic container and a fork. Jenna took a bite and her mouth filled with spice, paprika, chili pepper, cumin. She coughed a little and swallowed hard. It was so spicy it excited her, the blood rushing to her face and her nose running a little.
“Chuck made this?” she asked. “Does he do all the cooking?”
“Every last bit,” Mrs. Draven said. “A good thing, because I would eat éclairs all day if it weren’t for him.”
Jenna watched Mrs. Draven lean over to hand the baby a ball, her muscular shoulders rippling beneath the nylon jacket. She took another bite of the Spanish patatas and closed her eyes as the spice sensation invaded her sinuses and her throat. She could never cook something this exotic, this spicy, for Dan and the kids. She realized she had never eaten anything quite like it.
The baby grew sleepy as Jenna ate, so she took him up to her bed- room and put him in the crib. She turned on the monitor and put the receiving end in her pocket. When she got back downstairs, Mrs. Draven had already cleared her lunch dishes away and put them in the dishwasher. She looked large and comforting in Jenna’s kitchen, but there was something else, too. Jenna thought somehow she seemed sexy in here, too large for the space, yet at total ease.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Jenna said. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it through the day.”
“Why don’t you bring the monitor over to my house and relax a bit,” said Mrs. Draven. Her face was soft and sincere, her eyebrows arched with the invitation. “I’ll give you one of Mr. Draven’s coconut cream cheese brownies. They’re to die for.”
Jenna considered. “Maybe just for a little bit,” she said. Before she left, she ran upstairs and changed her T-shirt and washed her face, tiptoeing around the sleeping children in her room.
In the Dravens’ house, Mrs. Draven cut her a huge slice of brownie and poured her a glass of red wine, which made Jenna giggle. “I’ve never had wine in the middle of the day before,” she said.
“Well you need it today, honey,” Mrs. Draven said. “Come on up and put your feet up for a while with me. This is what I planned on doing with my day off, anyway.”
As she followed Mrs. Draven up the stairs, it occurred to her that this was an odd invitation from a neighbor, but somehow Mrs. Draven seemed so natural, and trustworthy. In the white bedroom, she set down her wine glass and the baby monitor on one of the night tables.
Mrs. Draven turned on the TV and propped herself up on one end of the bed, patting the spot next to her for Jenna to join.
“You’re eating your brownie in bed?” Jenna asked. “Won’t it get your white comforter dirty?”
“Oh, it’s fine,” said Mrs. Draven. “It’ll just brush off.”
Jenna sat down and stretched her feet out in front of her. She leaned back into the enormous white pillows and took a tiny bite of the coconut cream cheese brownie. Sweet texture filled her mouth and she felt a little happy shiver shoot through her chest and belly. Beside her, Mrs. Draven was tall and broad, sinking her section of the bed a little deeper than Jenna’s, gently pulling Jenna’s body toward her. She smelled of spice and shaving cream and her broad chest rose and fell slowly, relaxed. One of the children stirred a little on the monitor, then grew silent again. Jenna reached for her wine glass and took a sip, the fruity liquid warming her tongue and mouth.
She only fought sleep for a few moments. When her head started to sink back with the weight of fatigue, Mrs. Draven slipped one arm under her head, and Jenna wondered why this didn’t seem at all strange. She sighed deeply and leaned into her, Mrs. Draven’s warmth pressing against her hips, her shoulders. She pressed her face into Mrs. Draven’s shoulder, the scent of fabric softener filling her nose.
“I’ll wake you when the kids stir,” Mrs. Draven said.
Jenna nodded, her eyes closed. She pictured the whiteness of the bedroom and ran her tongue over the taste of chocolate set in her teeth. She could feel her breath grow deeper and warmer, her body heavy, melting into the comforter and pillows.