The light within the curtains is the first thing she sees. A tired light. A meager shadowing of lattices. A light like skin stretched tight across an aching ribcage. She breathes in. She breathes out. Turns toward his indentation in the sheets.
She hears the water from behind the bathroom door. She shuts her eyes. She runs her hand across the empty sheets. Trickling and splashing. That sound the pipes make when the water shuts off, like a heavy protestation. Dripping echoes down the drain.
Her husband creaks the door. She squints toward him. He is in his suit and tie. He sprays cologne. Light drifts of cedar wood, citrus, and vetiver.
She says, that one's my favorite.
He says, yes. I know it is.
He comes over beside the bed. He kneels with a gentle groaning sound.
He smoothes her hair. She says, how does it feel?
He breathes in. He breathes out.
He says, it feels good. Last time I wear this suit.
He kisses her forehead. He stands and adjusts his tie.
What time do you think you'll be home? she says.
He says, the usual.
He smiles. Maybe just a little early. I'll bring brandy for the cake.
She yawns. That would be nice.
He puts his hand over her hand. He says, I love you. So much.
She says, I love you too.
He stands there for a moment, looking at her, putting his hands in his pockets, taking them back out. I'll see you soon, he says. He walks away and shuts the door. She watches as the narrow line of light diminishes until he closes it behind him.
She leans toward the window, listening as his car pulls out into the tired morning light. She swallows, thinking, see you soon. She holds her breath.
She hears a bird call to another bird. A distant echo. She can hear the pavement crackle, tires whining like they always do.
She lies there for what feels like a long time. She keeps listing all the things she needs to do. Everything on this list seems impossible. She feels so tired. She wonders how she has done these things for so long.
She needs to do the dishes
Make the coffee
Sort through all the mail
Pay the bills
Make envelopes for bills that have not come
Walk to the grocery store
Purchase the groceries
Walk the long way home, for once
Get home and mix the cake
Put the cake in the oven
Take the cake out at the right time, so it's almost finished when he gets home
Let it sit
Fill in the filling
Serve it in the blue-green dish
She imagines the cake. The reddish layers must be perfect. Burgundy. The icing must be perfect white, with peaks like little waves. That's why she thinks that she should use the blue-green serving dish. The way the waves of icing make the cake look like a painting of the ocean.
While she's thinking, she is staring at the ceiling, which is covered in this foam-like texture. She cannot remember what it's called. In her mind, as she lists each item on the list, she jumps from one splash of this foam-like textured ceiling to another.
Stuccoing. That is what it's called. Of course. Stuccoing. She remembers now.
Outside this room, her neighbors are enveloped in the day. The smell of burning leaves drifts through the curtains, which are filled with light.
She lines the dishes on the drying rack. It's like a metal skeleton with rows of white ceramic organs. The steam rises. She dries off her hands. The smell of burning leaves mingles with lemon. She stands over the sink, stares into the drain.
She grinds the coffee, pours it in the filter, pours the water in the tank, then waits and listens for that sacred churling sound.
Another wave of steam. She breathes in. She breathes out. She holds the coffee in both hands. She sips it like she's sipping from a golden chalice.
She hesitates when she enters the grocery store. Should she take the cart, or the basket? She contemplates the pros and cons. She doesn't need too much, but need feels complicated now. She doesn't need a cake, after all, when you think of it that way.
The cart is a commitment, she thinks, but the basket's too small. She feels like she often takes the basket, then regrets it. She wheels out the cart. The wheels shriek. The cart is filled with scattered coupons, flattened and forgotten. Useless documents that were not needed.
She gets the
Cocoa. Here, she hesitates, again. She gets the most expensive. When she picks the milk, she also picks the most expensive.
As she's heading toward the checkout line, she passes through the aisle with the chocolate. She sees something that she likes. A little truffle, pocket-sized. Her heart beats faster and she slips it in her purse. She hasn't done this since she was little girl.
When the groceries are rung up, she does not take her receipt. She does not want to see what she bought or what it cost. It is a challenge, but she knows there is no point to it, that way of thinking. Now. She must try. She does not want to see things that way.
She walks home the long way through the park. The air is filled with smoke. The burning leaves. The sounds of children on the swings. The creaking sounds, like sad, robotic birds. The chattering of leaves. The scraping of their small shoes, back and forth across the blacktop.
She thinks, John. She cuts away from them into the trees. The tall pines, drowning out their smoke, their sound, their drifting movements. She thinks, John. She thinks, don't think about it. She thinks, you decided, didn't you. You will not think of things like that, or in that way.
She reaches the lagoon. This is the reason she came through the park, to stand here on the wood bridge, look into the water. She looks at the willow branches, dipping down into the pond. The tree's reflection, gray-washed, quivering, and upside-down.
The branches bend in waves and trickles. Tiny star-shaped insects skate across pond. A breeze. A deeper chill runs through her. A small flock of ducks swoops down and lands in scatters. Water splashing. Branches rustling. The sun comes out. She hears a couple laughing in the distance.
She walks through the park onto the overpass. The bars across the interstate create a cage of shadows. Now, her shadow crosses through the cage. She peers over the edge. She feels the rush of wind, the downward pull from each car as it passes.
She opens all the mail, reads it, pays the bills. She makes notes of the things she needs to put inside the other envelopes. She folds the stubs of all the bills, arranges them inside one of the envelopes. She's keeping them inside a set of files in the kitchen drawer.
The wheel runners of the drawer make a rolling sound. The drawer makes a small, stiff clicking when it closes. Then, a silence. She sits at the table and unwraps her chocolate. Gold foil crinkles at her fingertips. The truffle in her mouth.
She breathes in. She can taste an undertone of wine-like berries. Not bad. It reminds her of something she cannot trace. She thinks, John, then.
She wants to call him. She looks toward the phone. She doesn't call him. She swallows her chocolate, folds the crinkled wrapper. Now is not the time.
She turns the dial to pre-heat the oven. Click. She hears a warm reverberation, a soft, hollow rattling. She rubs a buttered pad around the edges of the pan. She dusts with flour. She whisks dry ingredients in one bowl, pours the milk into another. She drips drops of red into the milk. Before she stirs, she watches them dissolve, each separate, ghostly disappearance.
She sits down and she looks up at the clock, a circle in the middle of a set of slim, sleek silver rays. She thinks, it's probably worth money, now. She watches the hand make its revolution. Strange, to think about these things being worth money.
Now, the time is right, so she takes out the timer. Click. She slides the metal rounds into the oven and she waits. The ticking of the timer fills the room.
She rubs her temples. Click click click click click click click click click.
The warm, sweet smell. The curtains drifting in the fading light.
He comes home bearing bags of food bought from the deli, plastic tubs of pasta, three bean salad, and rosemary roasted vegetables, two sandwiches in crinkly brown paper, and, as promised, a new bottle of her favorite brandy. He sets a bag of fried mushrooms and cauliflower on the counter. Pestos, marinara, and a jar of flavored olives.
It's like Christmas morning, she says, opening the olives, fingering around the sprigs of lavender and lemon peel.
That's what I hoped for, he smiles. He makes both their plates. They sit together, chewing quietly, with small, pleased murmurs.
She dabs at her mouth. It's more than we can eat.
He sighs. I know.
They sit there, silently. She looks down at the oils gathered on her plate.
She runs a finger through them, bursting bubbles into smaller bubbles into smaller, smaller, smaller bubbles.
She returns to the cake rounds, which have cooled, runs a knife around the rims of both the pans, shivers them back and forth. Her hands continue shivering as she transfers the rounds to the serving dish. She has to trim the edges, hide them with the icing.
She sets the cake down in the middle of the table. She lays out a serving knife, two forks, two blue-green matching plates. She sets out two small rounded snifters. He opens and pours the brandy, slices, serves the cake. They sit across from one another, looking at the cake.
He takes the first bite, closes his eyes.
She says, sorry. It was crumbling at the edges.
He says, I would never notice. It's a thing of beauty.
She says, I wanted it to be perfect.
He says, you know better than to think that way about a thing of beauty.
They talk for a long time. She refills her brandy glass. He cuts another slice of cake. He says, this cake, this cake! He makes her laugh. She drinks her brandy and forgets her imperfections.
She keeps drinking til her vision starts to feel a little wavy.
She says, maybe . . . do you think we should call John?
He puts down his glass and looks at her.
I think we should call him, she says. Just to hear his voice.
I know that isn't what we talked about, she starts to say. She trails off.
He shakes his head.
She looks down.
No, he tells her. Absolutely not.
She runs the water for her bath. She drips a few small drops of scented oil, violets and antique roses. Cracks the window. Lilac bushes still in bloom. Crickets still chirping. She looks at the water running, turns the bottle, pours the whole thing in.
She lowers herself in the tub, turns off the water. The house is so quiet, she can hear her husband reading. In another room, the pages crackle, swiftly and distractedly. His chair creaks. Footsteps. Gentle knocking at the door. She says, come in. The door creaks.
He sits on the edge of the toilet. He looks at her, smiling. He says, it's a lovely night.
She nods. A very nice breeze.
He says, do you mind if I read in here?
She says, of course not. She looks at the tile. It's a patternless dispersion of small, thumbnail-sized pink squares.
More pages crackling. What are you reading?
I don't know, he says. A Farewell to Arms. I don't really know why.
She thinks, I haven't read that book since high school. She tries to remember what it's like, but she cannot seem to remember anything.
It's all nonsense, he reads. It's only nonsense.
What's nonsense? She says.
I'm not afraid of the rain, he reads in a strange voice that she's never heard.
I'm not afraid of the rain
I am not afraid of the rain.
Oh, oh, God, he says, I wish I wasn't.
She says, is it any good?
He says, it's okay.
Are you going to finish reading it?
He folds the book and puts it down.
He says, look at me.
She tilts her head.
He says, please look at me.
She looks up toward him.
They sit, looking at each other for a long time.
She hears a car drive through their neighborhood, outside.
She hears a dog bark, distantly.
He says, I need to shave.
She says, yes, that's a good idea.
He stands up and looks at himself in the mirror.
Do you mind if I shave while you take your bath?
No, not at all, she says.
She stirs her hand around inside the water, turns her gaze back to the tile. He hums as he lays out all his shaving instruments.
A nice clean shave, he says.
She feels tired. Nice and clean, she says. She lies back, drinking in the scent of violets and roses.
She towels off and walks to bed, disrobed. Her skin is shimmering. She pulls the sheets back. She can hear him gargling salt water. He has always done that. She could never bring herself to do it. She says, I'm going to bed now.
He says, just a minute, dear.
He spits. He rinses. He turns off the light. Moon rays shine through the blinds. He stands beside the closet, unbuttoning and undressing.
He stands naked, for a moment. He regards her. White hair, soft like milkweed feathers. Small breasts, like the lids of tired eyes.
She regards him. He is still strong, though his skin is strangely delicate. Broad shoulders flecked with small, dry, peeling patches.
He says, what do you think I should wear tomorrow?
Light blue shirt, she says. Gray windowpane plaid.
He nods. The day after that?
She says, dark blue, tan slacks. I have ironed them already.
You are wonderful, he says. He puts his clothes into the laundry hamper.
He gets into bed. She feels the halo of his body heat. He breathes in. He breathes out, his halo widening to take her in. Her heart beats faster. Crickets chirping, still. Her heart begins to pound. She reaches for his hand. He holds it firmly in his own.
In her dream, they are driving at night, she and her husband. She knows John is in the backseat because she can hear his voice. She cannot hear what he is saying, though. The windows are rolled down. The sound of windswept pavement, rushing, swallowing all of his words. The shadows of the trees stretch out toward them. The lamps lined along the median cast greenish light. A thick, deep fog looms just ahead. John's voice sounds like an angry static, like the sound of tidal waves that crash into the stones with far more force than you imagined.
She wakes up to smells of oil frying in the kitchen. She can hear the sound of something sizzling in a pan. She slips into her robe and steps out to the table. She sits down and yawns. Her husband sets a cup of coffee down for her.
She says, thank you.
He kisses her forehead. Toast and scramble.
That sounds nice. She sips her coffee. Just the way she likes it. She hears scuffling and scraping, stove dials clicking, dish ware clanking. You need help? She says.
No thank you, he says. Shit.
She gets up and she pops the toast. It isn't bad, she says. It's just a little crispy.
She smiles. It doesn't matter, she says.
He does not smile. It does matter, he says.
He puts two new slices in the toaster, using up the loaf. You see? It all works out, he says.
She nods. It all works out.
They go to the art museum. They walk through hallways of lit cases, mirrored walls, red velvet ropes, raised platforms of decorative furniture. A gilded fainting couch. A carved ebony chair. A marble tiled mantle with an ornate etched brass screen.
Each article of furniture is labeled with a date, a brief description, and an antique photograph. The photographs reveal the rooms inside the old homes that once housed the furniture, homes that were torn apart, or burned into the ground.
They wander through the galleries of modern art. One picture is a plain gunmetal gray reflective surface. It encompasses the whole wall. People wander back and forth through its reflection, like the glassy, low lit surface of frozen pond.
They walk toward the picture. As they move in closer, other people's movements blur to foggy streaks of light. They see themselves reflected, drawn out from the world for a moment. They stand, looking at this portrait of themselves as they are now.
They have dinner at her favorite restaurant, a quiet bistro with a patio in back where no one ever seems to sit. She orders ravioli with leeks, mushrooms, and a light herb sauce. He orders fried eggplant and green tomatoes with a creamy remoulade.
A bottle of wine? he asks.
Just a glass, she says.
He nods. You're right.
She orders white. He orders red.
She smiles. Cheers, I guess.
On the patio, there is a stony fixture that was once a birdbath. Now, it's filled with bits of empty nests and leaves.
The sky fades from pinkish gray to pale blue just as the waiter brings the tray. They eat their dinner very slowly. As she swallows her last bite of ravioli, he sips his last sip of wine, and the sky darkens to the darkest shade of blue.
They drive home with the windows rolled down. Her hair drifts into her eyes. The moon is just a sliver through the trees. Her eyes follow the sliver like a shining branch she will climb out of the forest, into what, she doesn't know, she doesn't know.
She realizes she is crying. He says, please. He brushes back her hair. She leans her head into his shoulder.
He rolls the windows up. He runs his fingers through her hair. He whispers, please. You know I'm here. You know I'm here. You know I'm with you.
Her husband falls asleep before she does. She lies in bed on her back with her eyes closed, listening to him. He sucks his teeth while he is sleeping, like he's trying to breathe through them. The dull wheezing of his teeth sounds like his footsteps on the stairs.
She dreams that they continue driving through the fog. She cannot hear if John is still with them in the backseat. She cannot see where they are going. She cannot see if her husband is with her. She hears and sees and feels nothing but the fog.
She sweeps. She cleans the counters, cleans the dishes. She puts them in boxes in the closet, next to other boxes. She puts labels on the boxes. She arranges them. She stands back and she looks at them. She tries to forget what she put inside.
He cleans their perishable items from the fridge. He holds each item for a moment and considers it, then throws it in a black bag. He throws out
a stale frozen bun
a tub of mayonnaise
a jar of pesto
a jar of brown mustard
an old jar of relish
a new jar of olives
a bottle of dressing
a bottle of white wine vinegar
half a jug of milk
half of a loaf of bread
two withered shallots
three slim cloves of garlic
dusts of nameless crumbs
a tub of tapioca pudding
leftover potato salad
and an old potato that is sprouting curls of new green sprigs.
After they clean, she wanders off into the bedroom. She takes off her clothes and folds them in the hamper. She stands nude before the full-length mirror. He comes into the bedroom and he stands behind her. She watches his reflection undress in the mirror.
You are still beautiful, he says.
She murmurs, still.
You are still beautiful, he says, again. He folds his hands around her waist.
His heavy scent, like salted tea. Her mouth is dry. His hands are somehow moist but cracked. She licks her lips. She turns around and kisses him.
He kisses her. He strokes her breasts. He bends down to his knees with a familiar gentle groaning, cups her breasts, and licks the sweat beneath them.
The sun lattices the shades, the curtains drifting. Outside, they can hear a passing plane. Someone is raking, scraping at their lawn.
He kisses underneath her breasts, kisses her breasts, parts her legs with his fingers. She breathes in. She clasps his hand between her legs. She breathes out in small gasps. He kisses in between her legs. He kisses in between his fingertips. He picks her up and carries her to bed.
Their bodies move together with less urgency than they both feel, somewhere deeper in themselves, somewhere that moves them into one another, but prevents them, nonetheless, from moving in effectively. He wraps her tired legs around him and he sighs.
She listens as he gargles salt behind the bathroom door. She hears the door creak. She says, wait. She joins him by the bathroom sink. She pours the salt into the spoon, fills up the glass, then pours them both into her mouth at the same time. She tries to make the noise he makes.
Her lips pucker. She gasps. Spits into the sink. She fills the glass, gulps it down desperately. Spits.
Was it as bad as you thought? He says.
She says, yes.
It couldn't be that bad.
She tells him, it was pretty bad, for me.
They wash off at the sink. They brush and floss their teeth.
She sprays on her perfume. He sprays on his cologne.
She brushes and he combs his hair.
They make the bed. They pull their hangers from the closet.
They lay their clothes out on the bed. They stand there for a moment, looking down.
He begins to dress himself. Then she gets dressed.
She opens the drawer and takes out the folders and the envelopes. Arranges them. Her shirt sleeves feel tight around her wrists. She feels pulled together. She looks at him. He looks at the envelopes and nods.
She says, I'm going to call John.
Hello, John, she says.
Hello, he says.
She says, I can't talk for long. I just wanted to say hello. How have you been?
All right, he says. Not much has changed. How have you been?
She says, not much has changed.
He says, it's such a nice day here.
She says, here too. The neighbors burning leaves. The changing colors. I have always loved this time of year.
He says, me too. I've always loved this season too.
There is a pause. She told herself she would not talk beyond the pause, that momentary faltering that always changes their direction.
She says, I really should go. I am sorry, but I need to go.
He says, okay. Well, it was good to hear from you.
It was good talking to you, she says. John, I love you.
He says, I love you too.
She waits. She listens. She can hear the sound of traffic passing through the phone line. From a distance, it sounds like some sort of ghostly whispering. The sound of sirens. They fade off into a quiet whine.
She hopes that somehow she will use these whispers to transmit the thoughts she cannot and never could articulate.
She says, good-bye, John.
He tells her, good-bye.
She hangs the phone up.
She looks at the gray light of the window and she says, I'm ready.
They take one of the envelopes. They take a drive around the neighborhood. They look at all the raked and unraked lawns. The bags, the tidy piles, the untidy piles, the burning piles, the piles of blackened twigs and ashes.
The humming of the insects and the motor and the straining scent of lilacs. Children playing in their yards. She bites her lip. The blinking of a light. The windows open and the windows drawn. The shadow of a woman. Flickerings of television screens.
The otherworldly moaning of the train, approaching, and the throb they cannot hear, but still feel, somehow, coming from the factories. The pulsing of the town's perimeter. She feels the perimeter. He feels it too. He turns around a cul-de-sac.
A teenage boy is taking out the garbage bags. He hunches, drops the bags, and scurries back into the house. An old man takes his old dog for a walk around the block. She hears the scuffling of his shoes. A couple, just about their age, is walking hand in hand.
Her husband pulls the car into the garage. He puts the car in park, pushes the button that will close the door. He sighs. He leans back in the seat. He looks at her. She looks at him, then watches the wood door. It's slowly lowering itself in segments.
That metallic creaking, suddenly so unfamiliar. Her heart shivers with the resonance of the door closing. All the wood parts and the metal bolts and bits and bands, all straightening themselves into one whole, complete, closed door.
She looks back at her husband. He is looking out the windshield. She looks at him as he looks away, for just a moment. Then, she looks out of the windshield. She sits, watching, waiting, as the air grows thick. She watches as the fog begins to rise.