Painting by James Benjamin Franklin.
They drove back after dinner. She allowed herself to cry silently in the car because it was dark and he was focused on the road. She had come close many times during the meal, which had dragged painfully into the night.
They stepped into the apartment and kept the lights off. They had lived there for five years and knew it well enough to navigate in the dark. It was a great relief to no longer be in the company of family and friends. This relief manifested itself as an emptiness inside them, and for a moment everything seemed bearable, if only they could make the emptiness last.
“That was brutal,” he said.
“It’s still brutal,” she said.
They were both drained. The day had been filled with appointments they had made weeks ago that could not be broken. Somehow they got through them without incident. After all, they still loved each other, even now. The only difference was that she no longer believed loving each other would be enough.
“Why did you have to tell me this morning?”
“Because you asked,” he said.
That morning he had pretended too hard to be happy, and it had given him away. He had tried to hide in the shower, but she followed him. She had slipped off her clothes and joined him, as she had done many times before.
“Do you still see her?” she asked.
He was touched by her nakedness. He longed for an imperfection in it, but there was none that he could find. He foresaw himself greedily wanting to possess her again, in a future when it would no longer be possible.
“Yes,” he said.
He could not help smiling for one quick and terrible instant. Finally the time for ruthlessness had come.
“Last night at the bar,” he said. “She was there. She said she loved me.”
Tears do not glide down skin like water. They are thick and slow and leave a lasting trace.
They agreed that he would leave the next day. They called it going away for a week, time they both needed to reflect. He truly believed that he would come back, that he could settle his affairs and return to the life they had, but she knew his strengths and his weaknesses. She knew of his childlike capacity to forget.
That night they made love like strangers who find themselves uncannily aware of their partner’s every need and desire. They were slow and careful and hoped it would go on all night. If only they could make this last, none of the rest would matter.
“So that’s the last time,” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m lost, and I don’t know.”
They tried lying together afterward, but it was too absurd. He wanted to hold her, and console her, and kiss her, but if he did those things now he would then have to be ruthless all over again.
Two people can build something that is very beautiful and know that it is finished. For a time they can take pleasure in it, they can polish it and take pictures and invite friends to come and witness what they have made. She believed that they could live inside of it, too, and be happy. But he could not bring himself to take lasting pleasure from its completion, and his only impulse now was to trample what they had made and start again.
She lay on the couch and watched TV without really watching it. It was 4 am. He was pretending to sleep. When the phone rang, the noise burst like a stranger into the apartment. They both rushed into the hall and stared at the receiver hanging on the wall.
“What is it?” she said. “What is it?”
Oh God, he thought. It must be her. It’s all happening now in the middle of the night. She wants me to come and hold her. Oh God, she is saving me from this! The phone continued to ring as he took stock of his possessions. What will I say? he thought. What clothes will I take and what will I leave behind?
He answered the phone, then began to shake and cry as he had never done before.
“Who is it?” she said. “Who is it?”
She was trembling beside him.
“Tell me what it is!”
“It’s a little boy,” he said.
The sound was muffled and distant like a call from overseas. He could not make sense of it. The noises he heard were varied and dense. Adult voices prattled in the background as at a neighbour’s dinner party. There was the sharp scraping of cutlery. And the little boy’s voice speaking to him, telling him things in a language he could not decipher.
He ran to the balcony with the phone pressed against his ear and turned the lights on outside. Someone has to be there, he thought. Angels or murderers or thieves. Surely this terror had been orchestrated by someone, someone other than him.
She scrunched into a ball beneath the covers and wept. She could not be asked to remain in this apartment without him. Not after all this. He held within him too much of the contents of her life. But it was not a question. You cannot ask a freighter to turn back once it has begun to drift away. It is too immense. And as cumbersome as its parting may seem, its course is inevitable once set in motion. Soon it and all of its contents will be a speck, you must tell yourself. Soon they will be nothing.
And yet, she thought, surely it must turn back on occasion, when—after the deck has been thoroughly scoured—the cry is raised that something very important was forgotten on the shore.
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