The door closed and he stuffed his hands in his pockets. He often had his hands in his pockets, especially on nights like this.
It wasn't that his hands were cold, of course. They always found his pockets after he saw her. He'd never really thought about it, but it was his own small defense mechanism--hands in the pockets was a sign for anyone to read: "Leave me alone. I don't want to talk to you." So he walked down the steps and around the corner, picking his slow way home through the chilly evening, musing on their conversation, kicking pebbles with his toe.
"Are you happy?" he had asked her. He always asked that question, even though he knew her answer.
"Oh yes, very much!" she said, eyes shining. She always said that.
It all seemed a bit idyllic to him, no matter how many times she said it, no matter how often she explained it. He had heard that people could be happy like that. That it suited some people to live the life she did. But he never saw it for her.
Hadn't he known her since she was young? Hadn't they had grown up together, played together, gone to school together? They had the same classes and knew the same people and liked the same things. She had so much potential, so much energy, and so much promise! He had seen great things in her future, wonderful things. And yet he couldn't wrap his own conception of her around the fierce reality of her happiness as he sat there, face to face with her smile.
And yet, he had to admit, she did seem happy. Her laughter was the same as when they would climb trees in his back yard and sit in the topmost branches, feeling the fresh breeze on their faces. Her smile was, if possible, brighter than he remembered it when she got the highest grade in the class. And she laughed much, and smiled even more. Yes, she was happy. He still knew her well enough to know that. But it still surprised him.
He looked up and realized he was just a block from his house--he had been walking more quickly than he thought, or thinking more deeply than he was wont. But he didn't feel ready to go inside yet. He didn't want to share his visit with anyone else yet. He didn't understand. Burying his hands deeper in the pockets of his jeans, he walked on, passing the familiar street where he played with her for so many years.
"So why didn't you take that job, Ellie? It really was perfect for you!" He didn't usually bring that up, but it had come to his mind while they sat together in the front room.
"I told you, Joe, after I went away, things changed," she shrugged her shoulders. "I didn't come back the same person. I had learned so much, and the job wasn't perfect for me anymore. I'd already found something perfect," she'd said.
Oh he'd heard that several times before. Why did it bother him so much tonight? Why couldn't he just accept that she wasn't the same woman he knew before she left? Why couldn't he forget about her? How could someone have changed so much in just a few short weeks? What did she learn? And why did he keep coming to visit her? What always drew him back? What had she found when she went away?
He had no answers.
He thought of her smile and her happy laughter. In his heart, he knew she was the same person; and different, too. He suddenly felt a hot yearning for those sunshiney days of his childhood when they laughed together, when happiness was a given and questions were for later in life.
He paused. "Had she found answers?" he wondered.
Somewhere a dog barked and shook him out of his reverie. He raised his eyes from the sidewalk. He had wandered all the way to the park across town. It was late. The sun had set long ago. All was now quiet.
He took his hands out of his pockets. And strode briskly back home.