Ned hadn’t expected to become obsessed with Sara’s fidelity to her boyfriend, a boyfriend he didn’t know, nor ever expected to, when he hired her a year earlier. An accounting position had opened up in the company and somehow, without really quite ever noticing her, he’d offered Sara the job.
Every morning she appeared on time, fresh, young, easy, smiling. It often seemed to him that of all the things that might gleam on a person—earrings, the clasps on a purse, the buttons on a skirt, the buckle of a belt—hers did so with special conviction. He liked her. He was attracted to her. Not being more than five years older, and generally considered handsome, it wasn’t outside the bounds of possibility for him to make efforts in her direction. But more than desiring her, he wanted to know if she was cheating on her boyfriend.
Reconnaissance yielded only tantalizing wisps of information. This was especially the case as at first Ned didn’t realize why he was listening with such care when her name came up. But then when Ned did understand, he took pains not to tip his hand. He asked infrequent, off-hand questions. He cobbled together details of her life and her routine he overheard in meetings or in the break room. He pulled her file. He watched Sara for mood swings, sotto voce phone calls, and unexpected visitors picking her up for lunch. He took a quick through her mail.
He observed that Sara had no picture of the boyfriend on her desk. Every morning, as she bent down to turn on her computer, slipping out of her sneakers into pumps, she had the same look of mild, guileless expectation waiting for the screen to come to life. Ned watched and thought: what would that gesture encompass, what would be reinforced, if, as she bent down, her face came closer to a framed photograph of this boyfriend? Why not have one of him? Or a photo of the two of them, laughing at a family barbecue, or framed by a vacation sunset?
This absence of a photo, however, didn’t leave him to doubt the actual existence of Sara’s boyfriend, as he had of other employees, mostly men, whose girlfriend’s had such generalized qualities as to be phantasmal. Not to mention that when they were referred to it was often done with an evasion of eye contact.
Should Sara and this boyfriend be together? Or really, should this boyfriend trust Sara, with her effortless neatness, prettiness, decency and friendliness? Ned thought of her hair, a wavy floss of reddish brown, cut into an unshowy bob. She was intelligent, reasonably amusing and quite competent. When she made the occasional mistake she acknowledged it with a laugh that indicated she recognized the inevitability of errors and they shouldn’t be turned into prolonged defensive stewing, something Ned wished all of the employees he managed could do. But, be that as it may, always it came back to the same thing for him: was she cheating?
He knew the boyfriend’s first name, Claude, which struck him as a dubious, cuckold’s name, but not his surname. Ned approached his assistant. He found her, as usual of late, in a state of incandescent joy at her upcoming wedding. This delirium had led her so far as to send out invites to everyone in the office. As if to preempt a moment of embarrassment, Ned asked to be reminded of Sara’s boyfriend’s name, suggesting somehow they’d met before. Claude, she told him, Claude Carson. He mimed a ‘phew,’ wiping his brow, and she beamed, with her indiscriminate happiness, which struck Ned as sweet, amusing and slightly insane.
But obtaining Claude’s surname only clarified to Ned that his plans lay elsewhere. It wasn’t info about Claude he needed but that of Sara, particularly what happened on the way home from work. She didn’t carry a gym bag, yoga mat or even reusable bags for groceries. He would follow her home.
Sara’s commute alternated between driving (her car? Claude’s car? one they shared?) and taking the 25 bus. Ned decided the bus would be easier, and a rainy evening he followed the 25 lumbering through streets, windows steamed with humidity. He managed without too much effort to stay back four cars. After about twenty minutes, Sara alighted, popping open a pale green umbrella that matched her galoshes.
As her she began to disappear down the sidewalk, he eased forward, peering like out the windshield like someone pretending to look for an address. He caught sight of her entering an unprepossessing apartment building that tallied with the address he’d gleaned from her file. He pulled over, and watched.
After that, on the way home, Ned often drove by their apartment. At night, he parked on the street for an hour, ten minutes, half the night, depending on his mood. The foyer of the building was well lit and had obligingly large windows. It seemed almost unnecessary sitting in a darkened car, but he obscured his profile with baseball caps and wore glasses instead of contacts. He kept a few plausible excuses at the ready should he need them and felt confident in his ability to generate feigned surprise. One night he dared to go to the rear parking lot, scanning the back of the building, but only a few plants on window ledges interrupted the curtains and Venetian blinds of the darkened windows. This foray struck him as pointlessly risky and from then on out kept his usual spots on the street.
As he sat, Ned imagined configurations of what might or might not be: Sara buying a surprise gift for Claude at the Apple store at the mall. Sara buying condoms at Rite Aid and pointing to a burner phone behind the counter, adding it to her purchases and hiding the bag under the car seat. Sara in the bathroom making a surreptitious call to the other man. Sara, on a picnic, unfettered by guilt, kissing Claude’s cheek with sudden affection. Then Sara hugging Claude at that same picnic, inattentive, stifling regrets. Sara having sex with the other man (Sara on top). Sara, her face contorted with pleasure making love with Claude (Claude on top). Sara making love with Claude thinking of the other man (Sara on top?).
Ned envisioned this other man as an ex-college athlete type, an old boyfriend maybe, leaning in a doorway, holding a beer, with an unkind laugh. Ned had heard Claude worked in IT, and could imagine him as a droll, bearded, weedy fellow in khakis with light curly brown hair.
One dark deserted Sunday morning, Ned popped into the lobby at five a.m. scanning the mailboxes. He knew Sara and Claude’s apartment number, but he liked seeing it, in the flesh, as it were, the image to go with the data: 201B, he found himself repeating on occasion.
Ned sat across the table from his friend Brad at one of their standing monthly lunches, as Brad enthused about a newfound obsession with indoor rock climbing. Brad and he had an uncomplicated friendship in college, full of tacit understandings and inside jokes. Even the smallest things—the observation that the cartoon mascot on a box of cookies looked like he was wearing a toupee, for instance—could signal they shared parallel worldviews, all the more true that both would have strongly resisted them being described as such. But for the first time Ned felt removed, as if viewing Brad from a distance, where he was observing rather than engaging with him. When Brad had asked Ned what was going on, Ned had deflected the conversation back to rock climbing.
As they left the restaurant, Ned considered his newfound interest. His obsession hadn’t alarmed him so far although he was aware it probably should. It did occasionally confound him, as his routines were becoming so rote it was possible it had become more of a hobby than an obsession. He sometimes forgot why he was sitting there outside the apartment. It reminded him of college, when his friends played a pickup soccer game on Sundays. Ned looked forward to it, he regretted not doing it, but it didn’t feel a guiding force in his life. And yet: he never, ever missed a game. And he had not told Brad about spying on Sara.
A week later, Ned finally identified Claude. A couple emerged from the building and Ned saw Sara, smiling, looping her arm through a tall, thin man with broad shoulders, heavy black hair and large dark glasses who was either Japanese or of Japanese descent. Ned recognized him immediately having seen him come and go from the building. Claude was a distinctive guy, with an intense air of introversion that seemed to somehow amplify his handsomeness into sophistication. Ned watched them till they disappeared. For whatever it was worth, Claude just did not seem like a man you would cheat on.
Work continued. Life continued. Ned’s spying continued. Sara’s fidelity, whatever state it was in, continued. Claude’s life too, presumably, proceeded on its way. Ned attended software trainings, wrote the annual employee evaluations, led meetings, mediated conflict about the coffee machine and put through a budget on time. When Sara appeared in his office to ask for time off for a cousin’s out-of-state wedding he agreed readily enough. Ned considered breaking into their apartment while they were gone but that seemed so ludicrously risky as to almost render it uninteresting.
A few weeks later, on a Tuesday, at 1:30 a.m., Sara come out the door, alone, got in her car and drove away. Ned was so startled by this he’d not had the wherewithal to start following her till she’d disappeared.
Four days later, it happened again. Ned started the car with alacrity, careful not to turn on the headlights, only the streets were so empty at three a.m., in his caution, he found he’d been following the wrong car. He returned to the building to wait for her, and fallen asleep, waking only in time to see her flip-flopped foot disappear into the foyer. The fourth time that Sara left her apartment in the middle of the night, however, Ned didn’t loose her.
Only a few cars were in the Big Lion Groceries parking lot, the store vast and defiantly bright in the darkness. Ned waited five minutes after Sara entered the store to follow. He grabbed a can of coffee as he passed a sales display as he was, indeed, out of coffee. He made a mental note to pick up soup, half and half, cheese crackers and orange juice. Later.
He found her after a few minutes careful walk through, standing down at the end of the cookie and cracker aisle appearing almost in silhouette in her dark grey and black sweats in the fluorescent light.
It took a while but Sara finally sensed his gaze and looked up, her face as peaceful and guileless as when she turned on the computer every morning without Claude’s picture on her desk. She seemed neither alarmed nor particularly surprised by him. Ned lifted the coffee can as if to explain his presence, and she smiled, even as her attention was pulled back to the cookies.
He came and stood by her his eyes following the stacks of cookie brands. Was she a stoner, he wondered? Was this just a case of the munchies? Sara peered closer to a box, and sighed, saying she couldn’t remember the brand Claude’s aunt, who was coming to visit that weekend, liked. Ned raised his brows in a question: in the middle of the night you need to figure this out? She was about to answer then gave a sound of sudden recollection, reaching for a box of vanilla wafers with a cartoon hen in a bonnet holding a teacup on the front. She raised it in mock-triumph and he high-fived her, watching her face break into a laugh. She took a second package, still smiling. He felt himself on the cusp of asking her more directly about her being there when she explained she got insomnia now and again, an admission she seemed untroubled by. She grinned saying a trip to the grocery store always cured it.
Sara ticked her head, indicating she was going to the register. Ned shook his saying he had a few more things to pick up. He was aware in his peripheral vision of headlights pulling out of parking lot.
Ned got into his car dumping the rustling plastic grocery bags next to him and sat for a moment. This innocuous late-night trip of Sara’s could have settled the question of her cheating, Q.E.D., obviously. But his suspicions had traction that just didn’t feel entirely divorced from reality—maybe the trip was a cover, maybe the store the perfectly innocent assignation spot, maybe she cheated on Claude in some other way, online, whatever, who knew. Ned sighed and reached for the box of cookies. It was like his conflicting hypotheticals about Sara’s fidelity had come to a sort of Mexican standoff. And like any Mexican standoff that went on for too long, in this case, months, he was growing something like bored. What had previously made the situation endlessly intriguing now began to just seem annoying: the near impossibility of finding a definitive answer.
He opened the cookies, staring at the hen in her bonnet, and crunched through one. He made a face. It wasn’t that it tasted bad exactly, it tasted good. It just wasn’t what he wanted.
The following spring, Sara left the company for a new job in the suburbs. Ned wrote her a good, but perhaps not as good as it should have been, recommendation. Six months later, he heard she’d gotten engaged. This was corrected: no, someone else had gotten engaged. Then another slightly indignant bulletin trumped that: no, it was Sara. The fiancé was Claude, or maybe a new fellow from Cincinnati, no one was totally sure.
Two years after she’d left, Ned walked down the dark street after work, the sub sandwich he’d bought for his dinner still warm under his arm as the November air blew about him in light but persistent circles. He was considering, as he had on occasion the last few months, whether Ian from the front office might be considering killing his ailing mother. Ian lived close to Ned’s apartment and, like him, favorited a nearby deli, Bosco’s. Ned had seen Ian and his mother’s interactions there, both with each other, and then Bosco, and heard reports at the office of her unwillingness to enter assisted care. Ned was thinking of how he might ask Ian a few questions, when he saw a couple, two men, holding hands. One of them was white blonde man and the other a tall handsome Japanese man with dark glasses. Ned paused, eyes scanning them. The darkness seemed to be a thwarting him cloaking them just as he might get a glimpse by the light of the CVS sign. Ned began to walk faster. Was the man as tall as Claude? He thought maybe not. But the again maybe he was. The dark blazer might be the same. Mightn’t it? Ned cleared his throat and called to their already departing backs: