He arrived at her building one day after work, and she had come down already to wait for him. It was a beautiful day, but Leon didn’t seem to notice. He was all wide eyes and sweat; his hair was terrible and he smelled like he hadn’t showered.
He took the door from her hand then let it shut behind him and they walked to the elevators and caught the same one she’d brought on the way down.
“You smell, Leo,” she said.
“I’ll take a shower if you want me to,” he responded after a pause.
The elevator released them and they passed a young couple, a white girl and a black man, in the hallway. Leon didn’t recognize them. Heather lived in a younger building than he did, a building of hipsters — faux grungy with short beards and sunglasses. Either these kids were new here, because he recognized faces, or else they were agents of the Quixote sent to baffle him. Either explanation would have made perfect sense to him.
Heather was letting the silence between them extend, but he didn’t know how to break it. He was too distracted. He shouldn’t have come today.
“Let’s get a bite to eat,” Heather said when they were inside her apartment, pleasantly neat, the curtains drawn back and the sun shining through.
“Should I take a shower?”
“You’re a funny man.”
“Don’t tell me.”
His hand was in his pocket. He fingered the Quixote. “Today is the day,” the thing seemed to tell him.
“Your place looks lovely,” he said.
“Thank you,” she answered. “Let me just clean up a little bit in the bathroom, then we’ll go out.”
“That sounds good to me.”
“I believe you, Leon,” she said, but she didn’t believe him, she’d only said it to say something. His body was with her but his mind was elsewhere — and his right hand was still in his pocket, and she realized that he’d brought the figurine with him here too. That’s why his hand was in his pocket, all warm, sweaty metal.
When she came back from the bathroom he smiled at her gamely, all white teeth; he had great teeth. He was trying to recover himself.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
“We’ll walk to Haight Street,” he said.
They took the elevator back down and started to walk, and Leon started to talk, but he wasn’t saying anything. His mouth was moving and sounds were coming out, but Heather didn’t have to listen to him. He might as well have been talking to himself.
Joggers and walkers passed them, young people, middle aged people, San Francisco sophisticates.
“I can’t find out what’s going on at work,” he was saying. “They’re all talking about something when I’m not in the room then they change the subject as soon as I walk in.”
She was listening to him now.
“There’s a subtext and they’re not letting me in, and I can’t figure out how to get the angle to it. I’m becoming an outsider.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because it’s what I’m going through, I thought you’d want to know.”
“You just haven’t been yourself.”
“I’m as me as I’ve ever been,” he lied.
It was a beautiful neighborhood. Heather had been in her little studio apartment for five years. She was comfortably ensconced. She could brag now about how good she had it compared to those who tried to find affordable housing in the city these days. Leon said the same thing was happening in Oakland, but San Francisco was a world unto itself. Oakland was still a part of the world around it, the third world included. But Leon had a nice apartment. He lived in a nice area. She loved walking the Lake with him. Usually. But she didn’t think she could take too much more of this frantic, insecure Leon. And his hand was still in his pocket.
Heather found a maternal panic building within her as she realized that she wanted to help him. This sort of feeling was not to be trusted at face value.
After they got their food they took it to Buena Vista park and found a bench beneath the shade of a grove of oak trees. Leon hadn’t spoken since the cafe, had fallen silent as sudden as a car wreck, drained of steam.
His hand left his pocket, because the sandwich required it.
Finally she could take it no longer, this hangdog self pity:
“What’s wrong with you?”
His head shook blearily.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
“There’s something wrong with you today.”
He didn’t answer her. He took a bite of his sandwich.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked.
Leon shrugged. Whatever else on his mind occupying him completely.
Was it another woman? It couldn’t be.
She felt helpless; some foreign element influencing her Leon. She felt like a teenager again, incapable; water slipping between her fingers.
Slowly he mouthed these words:
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you back to normal,” she answered.
“I’m here, Heather.”
“No you’re not. You’re a thousand miles away.”
He took a bite of his sandwich. A gorgeous pair of young girls jogged past them. Leon did not appear to notice, and his voice was soft when he told her that “This sandwich is good.”
Heather stomped her foot, stomped both her feet.
Leon did not appear to notice.
“Leon? Do you hear me?”
He chewed slowly in circles like a stoned cow.
She watched his hand creep slowly back into his pocket.
“Get your fucking hand out of your pocket.”
He shook his head, slowly, cow-like.
She reached across him then and grabbed his wrist. Leon looked her in the face, and there was hurt in his eyes, like she were wounding him. Heather pulled at his wrist, tried to get his hand back.
“Your pocket, Leon, get your hand out of your pocket.”
Leon’s hand wasn’t budging. He could be infuriatingly stubborn.
“Get your hand out of your pocket.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“It’s like that thing’s taking over your life. It’s like an obsession.” Her hand was growing sweaty as it gripped tight to his wrist. The longer it stayed there the sweatier it got, and she kept expecting that her grip would soften, that she would start to caress him, start to forgive him. But she didn’t. Her hand stayed like a vice, and she tried again to pull his hand out of his pocket but his hand just wouldn’t budge. In that sense, at least, he was stronger than her.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, even though they hadn’t spoken a word to each other for some fifteen seconds, just struggled stupidly with Leon’s hand in his pocket.
It couldn’t be, could it? The odd little statuette? It looked funny but that was it, right?
She felt a burning frustration that rose up in her gut, and told her it would not be assuaged by this man, Leon, sitting before her. Why did she even bother struggling with him?
She let go of his wrist.
“Why do you carry it around with you?” she asked.
Leon shook his head again.
“There’s nothing in my pocket,” he said.
“Why are you lying to me?”
Leon only shook his head.
“Goodbye, Leon,” she said, standing up.
“God bless,” she thought she heard him answer.
And she left him there, munching on his sandwich.
When she was gone, he took the Quixote out of his pocket. That had been a close one. It had almost taken her too. But it hadn’t. She had left instead. That was probably the preferable outcome.
He sat there on the bench and watched the pedestrians downhill from the park on Haight Street; and the crowds of Quixotes, clip clopping back and forth.