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A thin film of coffee covers the bottom of the carafe, which her houseguests, the Blumenthals, have left on as a courtesy. Judith pours the scorched liquid into the sink, and opens the freezer to take out the beans which have been disappearing so quickly that she might as well have had them ground at the store. She starts a new pot. She has forgotten how much other people consume.

Today this set of other people will go home to White Plains, her college room mate Eve and Eve's husband Leonard, and their teenage son, Alan Michael will leave her Swarthmore for what Eve called "their little nest." "There was evening and there was morning, and there was the eighth day,--though God rested on the seventh--and he thought His creation was good." Although the Blumenthals had been making visits for almost twenty-five years, this is the first year Judith feels she has suffered an infestation. Something terrible has happened to Eva, she is sure, in the two years since the last visit, some short circuit in her brain's wiring or maybe her synapses have been wired together to change the way Eva uses language. Instead of saying, "May I help with dinner?" she examines every way in which dinner can be prepared and she can figure in its preparation. Plans for the day are similarly explored, in a way that Judith thinks of as pointillistic perseveration. She looks at her old friend, transmogrified and ask herself, "Is this the change? What's happening to me?"

She hears a voice at her side. "Judith, dear, my Leonard made coffee this morning, but my Alan Michael had three cups before he went running. Did I tell you my Alan Michael runs three miles every morning, Judith, dear?" Alan Michael has run each day they've been there, so this is the eighth time Eve has told her, using, Judith thinks, nearly the same words. She knows what will come next. "I think he shouldn't run in this heat in spite of his being in training and trying to lose weight to make the 137 pound weight class for wrestling, but My Leonard says that my Alan Michael is getting to be a man, and men...." Eva speaks a little too loudly, talking over the voices of talk radio, a station strange to Judith who keeps her radios set to Classical music stations.

The Blumenthals changed the station almost before they had set down their bags. They'd explained to Judith that they kept talk radio on at home "to find out what real people think." Since Leonard had retired from his business as an accountant " he's taken such an interest in the real world." They’d told her assertively, that she, Judith, had told them that they should always think of this as being their home away from home. Of this Judith has no memory, but she knows her memory is not what it used to be. She would look for something and forget what she was looking for. And names vanished and reappeared: names of former students, and names of what she thought of as new actors. The only actor's name she could remember was Jean-Claude Van Damme, and she didn't know what he looked like or the title of a single one of his films. Judith tunes back in aware that Eve is crooning that she "was sure you wouldn't mind, would you, Judith, dear? You know what My Leonard says."

Judith feels that she is raising her voice to ask about what Leonard says, but just then he walks into the kitchen, carrying an empty coffee mug, and beams at Judith, who has poured herself a cup of the coffee she's made. "I see you found, the coffee I brewed, " he says.

"My Leonard is so helpful around the house, aren't you Leonard, dear? I hope my Alan Michael will make some woman as happy as you've made me, Leonard, dear."

Judith believes he will. She has watched him grow from a sandy-haired tot sucking on a pacifier to an seventeen-year old who rarely appears without headphones attached to a CD player on so loud that when they are three feet apart she hears the chkk chkk chkk of the music. He's at the awkward stage, and on the second day reheating coffee in the microwave, spilled the coffee and shorted it out.

Leonard smiles absently. Perhaps he is tuning his attention to the discussion on the radio. Judith wonders whether the voices on the radio and on TV are his clever war with Eve's new flood of words. "I'm a lucky man," he says as he returns to the living room where he sits all day reading the Times and listening to C-Span. Sometimes when Judith walks through the room, Leonard looks up and swears in gentle, old fashioned way about an amendment he feels is "downright wicked." He vows to vote Libertarian or Unitarian, which Judith can tell is his political and religious humor.

What have she and Eve have been talking about during their weekly phone calls? Has someone substituted an Eve look alike for her friend? "My Leonard listens to talk radio all night. Did you know that, Judith, dear?" Eve nods solemnly and confesses, "I wear ear-plugs. . ."

Judith does know that he has the radio on all night. She can hear it through the wall. "Is this something new?"

"He started last year when I had the hot flashes and woke him up when I threw off the covers. My Leonard was so understanding, but to fall back asleep he turned on the radio and that's how it began." Eve sighs, "You know how it is?" Eve keeps talking about the change and her new gynecologist, and her old doctor, and physicians assistants and how helpful and how kind, how dear...."

Judith hears Eve's voice and the radio on the counter and the television and she swears that she can hear the radio from the guest room still on and even, yes, a radio in her study which Alan Michael has been using as, he would say, "a place to crash." The air is thick with syllables like the wings of moths, making her blink as the moths fly too close to her eyes, beating against her exposed flesh. She wants to scream and to put her hands over her ears. If she opens her mouth to reply they'll fly into her mouth. And she knows this is crazy, so instead she pours too much cleanser into the sink and scrubs.

"Judith, dear, do you still write your cute poems? I haven't seen you writing at all the whole time we've been here. I always thought your poems were so cute, even back in college. . .”

Judith wants to grab Eve by the hair and stuff the can of Comet into her mouth, but she knows Eve does not consider cute an insult. Judith thinks are own poems are cute like Albert Pinkham Ryder's paintings are like Holly Hobie illustrations. "Well, Eve, I've been spending all my time with you. And about the poems, I'm not exactly trying to be cute, " she is careful to keep her voice under control.

"But you rhyme and your poems look so nice on the page, Judith, dear, and you write about nature so well, naming all those little white flowers. And we'll be gone in a few hours and then you can write to your heart's content. You write little stories now, too, don't you? I was always so proud of you, Judith, dear, you know that..."

Judith does know, and she can hear the hurt in her friend's voice. What was it Anais Nin said, " We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are."? Eve sees cute. She, herself, sees infestations. And so, when Eve asks Judith about her social life, instead of side-stepping the question, Eve stares hard at the calendar on the fridge, her appointment with her gynecologist, Dr. Roitman, on the 28th. She decides to let Eve have something to fuss over.

"He's like a comet the way he came into my life. A momentary streak of light in my sky." "Who is he? How did you meet him? What does he do?"

Judith forestalls more of what will be a long series of questions by interrupting with a partial answer. She smiles and says, "His name is Jean-Claude," Judith turns to get another cup of coffee and Eve waves away the offer of yet another cup.

"What a romantic name!"

"We met three months ago in Border's on the Main Line. We were both reaching for Mary Oliver's poems." Judith continues before Eve can ask who is Mary Oliver. "He teaches English too."

"And you both like poetry, you have so much in common, why a comet and not some other heavenly body, like the sun, maybe?" Judith smiles at her friend's unwitting pun, but Eve continues, "Don't have such a negative attitude, Judith,, dear. Just because you haven't been so lucky as I was with my Leonard. He isn't one of those men of yours who...?"

"He's just young. That first night when we had coffee he said he liked older women. What he said, exactly, was, 'Who would you rather talk to, a girl l9 or an older woman--twenty-nine?" And I thought, older, twenty-nine!"

"But, Judith dear, you must be old enough to be his mother."

"I'd rather think that he is young enough to be my son."

"I don't see the difference."

"I do. Listen. I always asked "How old were you in l968? to help me figure out what somebody'd think. He wasn't even born."

"Judith, dear.. ."

"When I talk about something that happened before he was born--which isn't such a good idea in a situation like this-- he asks me if I know where he was then? And I say no," Judith pauses, but continues before Eve can interrupt. "And then he says he was waiting to be with me. We celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday together."

"That is romantic, Judith, dear, it reminds me of my Leonard, who when we were dating said the nicest things, and he still does, and he's so considerate. He always helps around the house and he always praises my baking, you know I love to bake, and I wish I had brought you some of my schnecken, but you were always such a good baker, too, Judith, dear. Did you make this Jean-Paul of yours a birthday cake?"

"Jean-Claude. Why does everybody say Jean-Paul?"

"Jean-Claude, I'm sorry, of course, Jean-Claude, but did you make Jean-Claude, " she emphasizes the second syllable now each time she says his name, "one of your wonderful carrot cakes?"

"No." Judith lowers her voice, "Eve, when I asked what kind of cake he wanted he said he didn't want a cake. And when I asked what he'd put his candles on, he said, 'I'll put them on your body.'"

"Your body?"

"We used tea lights. Not twenty-eight. But I lay very still and he placed the tea lights just so, and lit them."

"Weren't you afraid? And fire!"

"And when they were all lit I asked him if he made his wish."

"Judith, dear, you didn't."

"Eve, dear, I did." Judith thinks about lying in the dark, on her bed, naked and motionless with tea lights on her chest and belly and thighs, and her Jean-Claude looking down at her candle-lit body, as she looks up at his candle-lit face. And then she can almost feel his breath on her body as he blows out the candles. She smiles, glowing with the secret pleasure of the moment.

"Remember, a comet. Don't expect me to talk about him again. Our relationship is a secret. You're the only person I'm telling, " Judith says, "And don't worry about me."

Judith knows that given half a chance Eve will explain every reason why she should worry about her, drag all Judith's mistakes out onto the table like dead cats. So to get her off track, Judith asks about Alan Michael, and lets Eve talk until the kitchen is filled with drifts of soft gray wings, heaps of dead moth words. And sometimes Judith retreats, thinking about Jean-Claude.

And then after a hurried dinner, the Blumenthals are going. Alan Michael deigns to give his honorary Aunt a peck on the cheek, the walkman still going chkkk chkkkk chkkkk, and apologizes again about the fried microwave, and Leonard, who Judith knows is itching to get into the car and turn on the radio, squeezes her shoulders, and Eve, hugs her longer than usual, happy to be taking home the secret of Jean-Claude, though she wouldn't trade her Leonard for any man.

Finally, Judith is alone again, and all the radios and the television are off.

“Thank you, Jean-Claude," Judith says to her creation. "If you were here right now I'd lave your feet from pure gratitude." She laughs at her words and at the image of washing his feet; she laughs at how the cleanser inspired his coming into her life like a comet; she laughs at how the date on the calendar had given him his age, the actor his name. She laughs when she asks herself if Jean-Claude is more a product of her imagination than what she sees in the men she really dates, than what Eva sees in her Leonard Dear.

She looks around her quietly humming kitchen, the gap on the counter where the new microwave will go. "Tomorrow," she says. She heads for her study to put words on paper, blamelessly inventing truth to her heart's content, and as the image of Jean-Claude as a heavenly body dims, she settles into the nearly silent twilight of her life.

(c) 2005 Miriam N. Kotzin. "Secret" was published in Carve March, 2005.