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Oct/Nov 2016 Fiction

Out Taming Horses

by Lesley Trites

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection


A sudden dearth of pomegranates is messing with Julia's salad plans. She calls Rene, tells her she can't make it to dinner.

"You're coming," Rene says. "Use dried cranberries instead."

Rene is a pharmacist, used to doling out orders disguised as advice.

Julia is an hour late, everyone already perched around Rene's expertly styled Moroccan print living room, sipping Lillet. Rene and her husband have rules about shoe removal, a middle stair that acts as a boundary. Deprived of her thigh-high boots, her otherwise demure outfit is now marred by the red and pink-striped socks her mother mailed her for Valentine's Day. Seeing them and knowing their origin, Rene raises her eyebrows.

"It might be time to start buying your own socks, hun," she says.

Julia sits on the arm of the sofa next to Rene and stuffs her feet under it. Four other women in the room, and they're all wearing heels. They knew enough to bring a pair of indoor shoes to change into. Why didn't Rene tell her? The men are in black socks, save one man in the corner wearing loafers.

She dangles on the edge of the conversation like an unruly bit of punctuation until a woman named Susan turns and envelops her in a spray of words.

"Have you tried going online?"

Susan has heard great things about eHarmony, the quality of people you can find on there. She doesn't bother to lower her voice. Rene's friends aren't the type to know many single women.

"Your profile photo will stand out with that red hair," Susan insists.

Time speeds up, and Julia's thoughts wind down into a repetitive loop, as happens sometimes when she's forced to be around too many people. Her heart beats uncomfortably in her chest. She blinks, unmoored.

She escapes to the bathroom, suddenly worried about her breath. She'd eaten an entire tub of roasted garlic hummus that afternoon (a spoon, no crackers) and now remembers she forgot to brush her teeth. She grabs Rene's toothpaste and runs it over her teeth with her finger. A funny taste. She spits it out and looks at the tube. Muscle relaxant.

You are not equipped for this life, Julia tells her reflection. Mirrors don't lie, but they don't answer, either. Her red hair like a flame in Rene's otherwise spa-white bathroom. Her too-pale skin lends her reflection a transparency as if, if she stood there long enough, she might fade away. She finds a bottle of mouthwash under the sink and takes a swig, bringing herself back to her body by focusing on the sting of menthol on gums.

Julia flinches when she hears the name of the man attached to Rene's arm. Trey. The loafers. She expects an upper crust financial advisor, someone with a booming voice under which hers can only slide submissively. An expense account, a doting wife who bestows expertly coordinated ties on birthdays. But the voice that accompanies the name is surprisingly soft, sonorous and soothing.

"So you're Rene's sister," Trey says.

How to respond except to affirm?

He wears dark-rimmed glasses. Once upon a time, that was a clue. Now, who knows? A lawyer, an accountant, an artist, a consultant, or, God forbid, someone "in marketing." Better not to ask. A stiff wave of blond hair that looks like it belongs in a 50s sitcom.

"I like your socks," he says.

She makes a mental note to buy hordes of black socks the next time she takes the bus downtown.

Her therapist says she needs to look people in the eye, and so Julia forces herself to look up at Trey. This proves uncomfortable after a second or two. That's when she notices his hand. Or, rather, his lack of a hand. Long sleeves provide some camouflage, but the bottom part of his left sleeve is clearly unfulfilled. She averts her eyes back down to his loafers, not wanting to stare.

"So, Rene's sister, what do you do?"

Just then Rene calls everyone into the dining room. Susan clutches Julia's arm and propels her to a seat at the end of the table. Not who she would have chosen as a seatmate, but at least Susan delivers her from a stalled conversation with Trey. Soon, though, Julia is trapped by stories of Susan's cat, Hazelnut, who has to be taken to a naturopath and given special homeopathic pills so he'll calm down and sleep. She only got the cat for her son, Susan confides.

If there's anything more boring than people who go on and on about their kids, it's those who go on and on about their pets. Especially cats. At least dogs have personalities.

Trey has taken the seat on the other side of her. Worried about accidentally staring at his hand, she keeps herself turned toward Susan as if deeply engaged by the conversation. Trey, meanwhile, falls into conversation with Lorelai, a divorce lawyer. Eventually Susan turns toward Jeremy, the CEO of some tech company Julia pretended to have heard of because everyone else seemed so impressed.

Julia's gaze darts back to Trey. She notices his ring, gleaming under the light from the chandelier as he clutches the stem of his wine glass. A wedding ring, but it's on his right hand. As he turns and uses his fork to carve his chicken into manageable bites, his eyes meet Julia's. She feels his gaze wing through her until she looks down. He's attractive—she's willing to give Rene that much.

She used to be married, too. Marriage, she learned, is not a permanent state, is not nearly as solid an entity as it first appears. But, really, what is permanent? She's been trying not to think so much. Her meditation teacher used to say the mind is like a wild horse, and she had to learn to tame hers. This teacher took an especially strict approach when it came to disciplining the mind. Some found his teachings too secular, too detached from their spiritual origins, but for her, they worked. Her mind required discipline.

She makes it through the meal with some serious fingernail inspecting, the conversation floating around her, small thoughts constantly assaulting her like daggers. Her salad lacks the crunch the pomegranate seeds would have provided, the cranberries too artificially sweet. Rene's chicken tastes like she imagines a dog's plastic chew toy would. The white wine is too warm, too oily and thick.

"You're awfully quiet," Trey says.

Normally she hates it when people say this. But he says it so quietly, it sounds approving.

"So are you," she says.

"Yes," he says. "I like quiet."

They both direct their gaze toward Susan, who is emphatically waving her arms at Jeremy, pantomiming a cat taking a large leap, and exchange a grin. Julia blushes. Her gaze falls again, and when it lands on his arm, she panics, looks back at her plate. She is embarrassed to see how clean and empty it is. Isn't it unsightly, to have such an appetite?

She wracks her brain for a conversation topic. She'd read an article recently that said the more polite question, better than "what do you do?" is "what's been keeping you busy?" Less aggressive, less of a minefield. Less political.

"So what's been keeping you busy?" she asks Trey.

He smiles.

"Busy," he says. "Funny, isn't it, how we assume everyone's busy?"

"Um. I didn't mean..."

"Sorry," he says. "It's been a while since I've been on the dinner party circuit. Maybe I need a refresher in the social niceties department."

Maybe she does, too. And she's never been on a dinner party circuit. She thinks of the self-help books sitting in a small, guilty pile on her coffee table, stacked as if to pounce. Their titles range from Awaken the Spirit Within to How to Completely Change Your Life in Thirty Seconds and The Universe Doesn't Give A Flying Fuck About You to the more mundane The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. For a week after she moved into her new apartment, she'd sat in her only chair and opened them at random, paging through one after the other, thinking if she sat there long enough in the sun, the words might permeate and purify her, as if through osmosis. Now all their wisdom jumbles together. Would tidying her kitchen drawers reawaken her spirit? She's always been a neat freak trapped in a messy person's body. Jared used to say that was the root cause of her perpetual anxiety.

Trey doesn't appear to be answering her question, so she tries again.

"Do you like dogs?" she asks.

"Dogs? Hmmm... never put much thought into it. Always seemed like too much work, too much mess. I don't know how I feel about the way we've domesticated animals."

"Oh. I've been thinking about getting a dog."

Jared had adopted a dog to try to fill the gap that grew between them. Some poodle type thing he named Sharpie. She'd been disappointed in his lack of imagination when she'd spotted the container of pens and markers on his desk a few days later. But, considering they'd met at a meditation center, at least he hadn't named it Bodhi or Om or Shanti.

She hadn't liked the dog at first, it representing what she knew it did, a last-ditch effort. But there was this thing Sharpie did. When she and Jared had been in bed, he'd jump up, stick his nose at the edge of the covers until they lifted, then burrow himself in, deep down between the two of them at the foot of the bed, where he warmed their feet. He was comfortable there, sheltered from the world, and she could relate. She'd been afraid Sharpie would suffocate, but he never did.

Her new apartment is small, barely qualifying as a one bedroom. The windows are single pane, and she hears every noise that passes, every conversation that takes place on the sidewalk below. Friday and Saturday nights the bar next door and its cheap pints spill onto the street. She envies those students, the freedom they have, their lives still in bloom. Of course it only highlights the silence inside the apartment, and she misses the click of Sharpie's nails against hardwood.

"I don't know. I always thought animals should run free," he said.

"Maybe."

"My wife, though. She wanted a dog."

Julia absorbs the past tense.

"What kind?" she asks carefully.

"Jules," Rene trills from the head of the table where she's begun to collect plates, "can you help me with the dessert in the kitchen?"

She passes behind her sister through the swinging door.

"Julia," says Rene dramatically, taking her in with a sweeping glance down her body. "Do you want to borrow a pair of socks? Or shoes?"

"Rene," she says. "No. And don't you think it's a little obvious you've called me in here for some kind of time-out huddle?"

Rene waves her hand dismissively.

"Actually, no. You think anyone is paying attention to us? They're three drinks in, extolling the virtues of local produce at the new Sunday farmers' market down the street, or that play half of them went to see last week, the one about the beekeeper and the cosmologist. Or debating the situation in Afghanistan—Carol and Carl just can't stop with the politics, those two."

"Uh, huh."

"Really, though, we're not exactly going to bring about peace in the Middle East over glasses of Chardonnay tonight. I wish they'd give it a rest and lighten up for once."

"Right."

"Except maybe Trey," and now Rene stops to wink. "He may be paying attention."

Julia rolls her eyes.

"I think you missed a key detail, Ren," she says. "He's wearing a ring."

"I keep telling him to stop wearing that, but he doesn't listen. It's time," Rene says.

"Time? How much time?"

"I just want you to know what you're getting yourself into," Rene says. "I mean, after what you've been through."

It's kind of her to put it that way, really, as if Julia had been through something. In fact she feels as though she's simply slid past something. Slid past most of life, really.

"Aren't you the one who wanted me to meet him? Isn't that, secretly, why you invited me here tonight? In hopes of pairing me off so I'd be less of a burden on your soul? It must be unsettling, I know, to have a single sister."

"Don't get me wrong," Rene says, ignoring Julia's sarcasm. "He's a catch. I'd go out with him in a heartbeat, if I was single. But, you know, he's got baggage."

"His arm..." Julia starts.

"Trey moved here from New York, in 2001, late fall," Rene says.

Julia barely has time to absorb the place and the date when she continues.

"His wife was in one of the towers."

She winces at Rene's offhand manner. Rene can be crass. She's not uncaring, but she prefers to get to the point. Doesn't believe in couching niceties. She's trained to get to the root of the problem as quickly as possible; there are always other customers waiting in line. Trey, she supposes, was once one of those customers. One of Rene's recruits. She pictures Rene in the pharmacy, her shiny black hair pulled back in a smooth bun. She's always been jealous of Rene's hair, even though Rene always says she'd love to be a natural redhead like Julia. More like orange, though, and who wants hair the color of a carrot?

"Oh," Julia gasps. "How awful."

"Anyway, sweetie. It's been a long time, and I think you should go out with him if you're interested. Both of you need to get out more. But I just wanted you to know. I know how you can sometimes put your foot in your mouth. Without meaning to, of course. I know how you mean well."

Julia sighs, but she helps Rene serve the dessert, a store-bought chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla frozen yoghurt. When she offers Trey a plate, he declines politely. She's relieved to discover he doesn't like dessert, either. With so many, there's this pressure to eat dessert, like you're depriving them of their pleasure if you don't participate, highlighting their guilt by your refusal of sugar. To her, it's always seemed a waste of calories. So many other things she'd rather eat. Things that don't taste quite so empty, quite so fake. These days she prefers the taste of earth and dirt and blood, meat and greens and root vegetables.

Recently her skin exudes a strange sweat unlike any she's ever smelled, and all the showers she takes doesn't get rid of the stench. Overripe yellow mangos, curling citrus, soured cream. She'd recently splurged on an expensive lavender body cream she rubs into her skin each evening until she feels calm enough to sleep. Now, though, she gets a whiff of lavender and worries she used too much before leaving the house. Maybe everyone around her is secretly gagging on her overuse of lavender. Maybe it's obvious, the way she's trying to self-soothe.

She takes her seat again and looks at Trey with what she hopes is a neutral expression.

"Oh, no," he says. "I can see it in your eyes. She's told you."

Julia's face has always been an open book. She's a terrible liar.

"Well, Rene did mention something about your wife," she admits.

He groans.

"As if this," he tilts his chin toward what remains of his left arm, "weren't enough."

"Oh," the realization suddenly dawns on her. "Were you there, too?"

"Oh, God, no," he says. "Nothing nearly so heroic as that, I'm afraid. Quite embarrassing, actually, how this happened."

"Heroic?"

"Well, the thing is, she might have got out alive, my wife. But she ran back to help."

Now he's the one looking down at his lap.

"So she went back in...?"

"After. That's right. She went back in after the second plane hit, to try to save people."

"Whoa. I heard about all the firefighters, of course. That must have been unspeakably awful, all that smoke, plunging yourself into that mess."

"The firefighters got all the press. But there were others. Police officers, EMTs. And some civilians, like my wife. Not a trained rescue worker, just someone with a big heart. Too big."

"God, I'm so sorry. That's terrible."

"Let's talk about something else, shall we?"

"So, how did it happen?" she asks, looking at his arm.

He pauses.

"Oh, God, I'm sorry. You don't have to... I know that's hardly a better subject."

She is kicking herself. Whenever she makes an effort to put herself out there, she ends up asking the precisely the wrong question. Rene was right, of course. She always is.

"No, no, it's okay. Well, it happened ten years ago. My wife and I, we took a trip to this nearly deserted island in Greece, a location she deemed romantic and I considered inconvenient. We were climbing down a large cliff to get back to a black sand beach we'd seen from the road. I slipped, and the picnic basket, which contained not only our lunch but also two bottles of wine, three ice packs, and some rocks to secure the picnic blanket against the wind, fell on my arm. Hard."

Her breath made a whistling sound as it drew in through her teeth.

"It was nothing, at first. A bruise. But the bruise bloomed, until the next day my hand was so swollen and green it looked like one of the Greek olives we'd been gorging ourselves on. No hospital on that tiny island, and no ferries until the following day. By the time we made it back to Athens, it was too late. The doctors said there was nothing they could do to save the hand."

"Oh, God, I'm so sorry. Does it still... hurt?"

There must be something better she could say right now, something more empathetic than God and sorry, but those are the only two words she seems to be able to get out.

"Not physically, not anymore. I just get tired of the stares, you know? I could get a prosthetic, but really, who would I be wearing it for? Not for me. It wouldn't help me, it would just help others. My fellow subway riders, restaurant diners, coffee drinkers. I've reached an age where I don't seem to care anymore about making other people more comfortable. Life's too short, you know?"

"I know."

Does she know, really? Life. God. It goes by so fast sometimes. It was hardly so long ago, really, that she'd been at the meditation center. She'd had this grand vision, thought it would solve all her problems. That first morning, she woke up in a panic to the sound of a long, ominous gong at 5:30 AM. Where was she? A small, dark room, the outline of a cot taking shape around her, snores floating over the top of a partition wall that didn't reach the ceiling.

But what was the point, really, of achieving inner stillness, of being so cut off from the world, when planes had been crashing into buildings in the outside world? When people's husbands and wives and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and aunts and uncles and friends were being killed, simply wiped out from one day to the next? Had it been selfish, to stay at the center in the midst of all that?

"What about you? I mean, you must have someone in your life," Trey says.

"I'm divorced."

It's the first time she's said it out loud. She doesn't think of herself as a divorcee. She's only 34, for one thing. And divorcees wear black lace, not striped socks. Right?

"Recent?" he asks.

She nods.

"My husband, or I should say ex-husband, he left town a few months ago."

Husband. It's not a word she thought she'd ever associate with herself. She'd barely had time to do so, and now she has to get used to saying ex. Surely he's happy, wherever he is. Unlike her, he'd never had difficulty with the happiness thing.

"I'm sorry. How did you meet?"

This question seems a bit tactless given the circumstances, but then again, had her questions been any less so?

"At a meditation center."

Jared had been the only person in the meditation room when she'd arrived on her first day, less than five minutes after the gong. She didn't know whether to say anything, whether that would interrupt his mental state. Was it fragile, the pre-meditation psyche?

She was assigned to Jared's chore group, and they ended up in the kitchen together that afternoon peeling carrots and potatoes. Jared had pale skin, tight blond curls. Of Irish origin, he grew up in Vancouver, where his classmates made fun of his ghostly complexion, his scrawny appendages, his delicate nature. People there were more rugged, more Mountain Equipment Co-op. Not everyone at the center was friendly toward newbies, disdaining their lack of knowledge about Buddhist precepts, but Jared was.

"The trick is to communicate with the essence of the carrot before you peel it," he'd said.

She looked at him.

"I'm messing with you."

Jared had grinned, tossing a few carrot peels at her, and she'd begun to fall for him, just like that, almost too easily. Could Jared be the reason she'd been drawn to the center?

"What made you want to go to a meditation center?" Trey asks.

"I thought it would help me focus, give me some direction, some perspective. And some discipline? I don't know."

She'd thought it would change her, this center. That she'd be able to return to regular life afterward, calmer, more centerd. Able to listen empathetically rather than clamoring around in her head trying to figure out what she was going to say next. Purified of all desire. She'd become lean and thin, survive on green juices, do yoga every day. People would admire her glowing skin, her peaceful demeanor. She would be stripped of neuroses. How long would it take, she wondered, to affect this change? Two weeks? A month? Three? Six?

"Did it work?" Trey asks.

She shakes her head.

"Not really."

She'd decided on six months. That was enough time to change a whole person, wasn't it? She'd need that much time to truly grasp the concept of meditation. But after seven weeks, Jared convinced her they should leave. Together. They'd been going to their separate cots every night, after the day spent meditating and working side by side. All their energy went into manual labour, the good of the group, all the individual desire stripped out of them. They'd have to teach their bodies to desire again, after all that stillness had been drilled into them. They married with a simple ceremony, their last at the center. Jared had insisted they do so before re-entering the real world. It was important to stay unified against its seductions.

They still hadn't slept together. She figured that would come later, once they'd left the pure, sexless aesthetic of the center, once they were back in the real world, where people were more carnivorous, eating steak, drinking wine with meals, running off excess energy on treadmills. Back in the world, their passion would be ignited. But it was like the temper of their relationship had already been set, hard as she tried to change it.

"What was it like, life at a meditation center?"

"Easier. Simple. Structured. But harder in some ways, too, sitting all those hours in silence."

Life had been so much easier at the center, she realizes now: a strict schedule, an enforced vegan diet, few decisions to make other than whether she wanted camomile or raspberry leaf tea. Whether to peel the carrots or potatoes that day. Whether to use a mantra during meditation. Most aspects of life were controlled. She'd become accustomed to the gongs, the lack of need for a watch, the ebb and flow of the center, the people who came and went. The few who stayed.

When she turned 33, four weeks in, she thought about how she'd never owned a couch, never signed a lease, never had a bathroom that wasn't shared. She'd spent the decade following college living in glorified dorm rooms in various Asian countries, teaching ESL. She never made a lot of money, and what she had made she'd spent on travel, so she'd lived simply in her furnished rooms. Her daily bowl of ramen noodles like a meditation, she'd subsisted otherwise mainly on green tea, water, dried fruit, and nuts.

"Was it weird, to go back to, well, real life, after that?" Trey asks.

She nods.

"Everything seemed so loud, so excessive, so... abundant."

She'd been excited about things, about amassing collections that could be grouped into decorative little piles. They moved into an empty apartment with all white walls, two large backpacks their only furniture. She bought a stack of decorating books on credit. She sat on the hardwood floor leaning against her backpack, sipping tea and turning pages, looking at rich, colorful spreads of fabrics and textures and objects. Phrases like peach palette, salvaged materials, natural elements, weathered patina.

She finagled a job at an interiors store where she could continue to surround herself with the language from those magazines. The owner wanted a Buddhist on staff to impress customers. Julia didn't bother to correct her. She'd been at a meditation retreat, yes (it had been implied she'd been there much longer than she had), but she wasn't a Buddhist. She was a failed Buddhist, a failed meditator, if anything. How quickly she succumbed to desires, to the call of capitalism! But anyway, something about westerners calling themselves capital-B Buddhists had always felt false to her, a whiff of cultural appropriation.

Sometimes the owner treated Julia like an oracle, as if she possessed an inner wisdom about which arrangement of throw pillows would sell a fainting couch. Julia showed fabric samples, organized displays of napkin rings and dishes, arranged fake flowers in vases. She began sneaking things home, one small, meaningless item at a time, until the accumulation amounted to something bigger and, under her curatorial thumb, their apartment slowly began to resemble one of her magazine spreads.

She fell away from the principles she'd cultivated, unconsciously in Asia and then consciously at the center. She imbibed to the point of heedlessness. After living so simply for so long, she drank it all in. She got greedy. She had a taste of meat and then gorged on it, craved it, started sweating upon sight of the meat hanging in the window at the butcher's shop. She told herself this was what her body needed, that these cravings were the result of an underlying nutritional deficiency. Gradually, she stopped finding time to meditate.

Without the confines of the center and its strict rules, life became loose, woolly. Maybe she'd never really been meditating. She'd never learned to accept her thoughts for what they were (always unruly, always messy) and observe them without judgement. At the center she wanted something clean, something simple, a mind like Jared's. But the little asshole voice in her head wouldn't shut up. Back in the world, she began to see the charm of freedom in chaos.

"So, if it's not indelicate of me to ask, how did it end?" Trey asks.

She reaches down to fix her sock and knocks a knife off the table in the process. She feels Susan's eyes on her as she straightens up.

Their marriage, wrecked. Her fault. He was chaos in bodily form: ten years younger, a set of biceps with a tattoo of a Celtic knot, a stream of frenetic chatter. He was a warm body. He didn't care about her steak, her glass of red wine. He didn't expect her to sit in meditation for one hour each morning, to still her mind, to observe her passing thoughts with compassion. He had desires of his own. He, surely, would let the horses run free. He, well... let's just say it was the best orgasm of her life.

Later, Jared said she was projecting her guilt onto him, that he didn't actually care about all those things. He cared about her. If he'd cared so much, why couldn't he bring himself to have sex with her a little more often, she wondered. Jared just hadn't seemed that interested in sex, at least not after the initial newness had worn off, to the point that she'd assumed he simply wasn't attracted to her. Had that been it? It was too late to know.

Her boss saw her in line at the butcher shop one day, her eyes widening in surprise. She'd always thought Buddhists were vegetarians. Continuing her fit of radical honesty, Julia finally admitted she wasn't a Buddhist. The next day, her boss used the pretence of "seasonal changes" in the retail landscape. She was fired.

In her new apartment, she'd been tunnelling deep into shame, allowing herself to feel her feelings but trying to keep the shame from spilling over, from drowning her. The shame had taken up residence in the dark corners of the apartment, peeling the cornflower blue she so carefully painted after moving in. It lurked in dusty doorjambs, in the crud behind the faucet, in the two-week-old bed sheets. It gurgled up when any past action came to mind, something no amount of toxic Drano would fix. She thought about all the things she had ever said or done, and panic clotted her throat.

But was it really her fault? For wanting things? Was it really so bad to give in to desire?

"It just didn't work out," she tells Trey. "I guess we were too different in the end. We wanted different things."

Isn't that what people always say, when the sex wasn't good?

Trey nods.

She looks down to the other end of the table. Everyone has their phones out, alcohol having loosened the propriety that kept screens slipped into pockets and purses, eager to share photos of babies, dogs, cats, iguanas, exotic vacation locales. Everyone glancing politely at the others' photos, much more engrossed by their own pixels.

"How about some coffee?" she asks Trey.

She rises from her seat, wanting to cut through the haze the oily wine has settled over her.

"Okay," he says. "I'll come with you."

In the kitchen she flicks at Rene's Nespresso machine, fills it with water, finds two espresso cups. They lean against the cupboard, facing each other. She wonders if Trey feels any sensation where his hand used to be, if he ever tries to reach for a mug and then remembers. He looks remarkably self-composed, leaning against the counter, looking at her, gaze naked.

They're different, her and Trey. What kind of restaurants does he go to? The kind of place where the waiter wipes imaginary crumbs off the tablecloth and changes the cutlery between courses? Surely not the bohemian bring-your-own-wine Indian and Nepalese places, the kind of restaurant equally frequented for take out as for dining in, that she and Jared had favored.

"Tell me about your wife," she says.

"Mindy?"

His eyes soften when he says her name. But he continues to meet Julia's gaze.

"She ate a lot of apples," he says.

Julie looks away as she tries to assimilate this random piece of information.

"She couldn't stand fish. She never learned how to swim. She dressed in bright colors, and sometimes she laughed so hard she snorted. She could never remember the proper names for the drink sizes at Starbucks, even though we went there together every morning on our way to work. She cooked elaborate, sporadic meals while listening to Guns N' Roses and dirtying every pot in the house. Her skin was sensitive, and she developed rosacea after she turned 30, so that she always seemed to be blushing."

His voice rises in a crescendo as the details pile up, assembling a cut-out of a person in front of them, a physical presence Julia can almost see taking shape in the air between them and the fridge.

"She once told me," he continues, "that if for any reason she ever went first, I had to continue on without her, that I had to find someone else. Someone quiet and tidy like me. She was a very messy person. She said it in jest, but I've since come to believe a part of her really meant it."

"She sounds wonderful," Julia says quietly. "A whole person."

"It's funny," he says. "But in the weeks before, it's almost like she suspected something. Like she knew what was going to happen."

"Really?"

"At the time I thought she was distancing herself from me, or being morbid, and I got worried. But I think she was trying to figure out how to say goodbye. She started making little comments."

"Like what?"

"Oh, like, how I'd better start being more of a disciplinarian with her cat, because he was going to walk all over me when she was gone."

"Oh, so you're a cat person. Got it. But go on. What else?"

"About how, if anything happened, she didn't want me to sell the art above the kitchen table. She knew I never really liked it."

"And is it still there?"

"Well, I've since moved..."

"Of course. Sorry, I forgot."

"But it hangs above the kitchen table in my new place."

"I read somewhere," she says, "about this machine at Princeton, the Random Event Generator. Apparently it predicted a cataclysmic event three hours before it happened."

He shrugged.

"Even if we'd listened, to that and other people's intuition, which is unlikely," he says, "could we really have done anything to stop it?"

"Do you ever think about them? The people who did it, I mean."

"Never," he says.

"Never?"

"Never. I don't want to give them that satisfaction. Mindy, remembering her—that's what deserves my full attention."

"Of course."

"I'm far from alone, after all—there were 1,609 of us who lost a spouse or partner in the attacks. But I've never been interested in going to the memorials, the support groups. I just want to move on."

It's the first time she's come so close to someone personally affected by the event, as she came to think of it. Surprising, perhaps, given the statistics—she'd read that 20 percent of Americans knew someone hurt or killed in the attacks, so you'd think she'd have come across someone who knew someone before now. Then again, she hadn't been coming across much of anyone until Rene had started dragging her out of her apartment.

She has a moment, just then. One of those moments where she steps outside of herself, and from that vantage point, she appears small, shoulders especially bony, neck especially delicate, and wonders just what life has been hurtling her toward, these past 34 years. Is it this? She looks back at Trey again, curious. What message does he bring?

"Did you love each other?" he asks, referring back, she quickly realizes, to her husband.

She pauses. Surely there had been a time when they did. But by the end, they didn't. What qualifies as love, anyway? There must have been a single second, somewhere, when they crossed that line, the line that divides love from its opposite. And then another when they crossed back over.

"There were definitely moments," she says to Trey. "Perfect moments, even."

"I guess that's all we can hope for," he says. "A few perfect moments."

She smiles at him, and he blushes, seemingly recognizing his platitude. She shrugs, signalling that she, too, sometimes takes comfort in platitudes.

People are starting to drift toward the door in twos and threes, lazy goodbyes filtering through the air, phones tucking away.

"Your sister described you as someone who is uncomfortable in her own skin," he says. "But I disagree."

"I'm working on it," she says, slowly.

"On what?"

"Acceptance."

"Me, too," he says, raising his arm. "Me, too."

She picks up her empty salad bowl. Maybe the cranberries weren't so bad after all. Maybe the cranberries were just what was needed.

 

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