Shaded by Robin Michaelson
When the phone rang this morning I dreamed of waking to answer it. In this dream, on the other end of the line, was Marie. She was calling from far away, from some other country, someplace warm and full of light. Her voice was full of light, and soft as ice in glass. She was sitting in the sun, she said, and the sky was blue, and there was not a cloud. She told me, laughter jiggling up through her words, how clear it all was—the meaning of it all—and that the past was gone, and that she was going to stay forever. How I wanted to be with her, and I tried in my mind to be with her, and I tried to speak to her. And by nothing by the act of trying I crossed a line, and then, as if from nothing but the darkness, my awareness of the dream as such was born, a tiny, cold glow in the corner of my awareness, pale and spreading. The pale light grew over and covered Marie's nimble chatter, and I let it fade, for, as everyone knows, no matter how it begins, it is when the dream becomes a dream that it begins to end.
And then Sarah, next to me in bed, was nudging my shoulder with the real phone, and not too gently anymore. "Wake up, wake up," she was saying.
"I'm trying," were my first words of the day. The dream was gone but now I was struggling to keep its memory, and I had not yet opened my eyes. "Strange. I dreamed I was awake."
"Do you usually dream you're sleeping?" Sarah returned. "Take the phone, will you? It's for you."
I was trying hard to hold that dream, but already I was forgetting the sound of Marie's voice. I put words to the sound, to try to describe it, but they only formed a caricature around the echo. It's pointless to try to hold something beautiful still.
"Who is it?" I said.
"It's Marie," Sarah answered.
Now this was a bad start, even for a day set up to be bad. "Marie who?"
"Marie Stalwart. Joe's Marie."
"Tell her I'll call her back, and then hang up."
Sarah pressed the receiver into my palm. "Don't be ridiculous. The day is here."
Powerful words, those. The day is here. So I had to talk to Marie, with Sarah next to me in our holy bed, close so I could smell the warmth of her breath and feel it on my neck. My heart was beating too fast so I slid away a little, for fear Sarah might feel the vibration of my pulse.
I put the phone to my ear. Marie, whose sound sense was prone to deteriorate in tight situations, had been recently making some bad mistakes. Calling me at home in the morning was one. Another, that I became aware of yesterday, was her attempt at stealing ninety thousand dollars from my oldest friend, her husband.
"Good morning, Marie," I said.
She was in a panic. "Kristian, I'm sorry, I had to call while Joe's in the shower; I don't have very long. Honestly, I had meant to have explained everything to you, but I was so scared. I've never seen Joe so worked up. How much have you told him?"
"Oh, thank God. I knew you wouldn't tell him."
"I'm having lunch with him today."
"What are you going to tell him?"
"Marie, why did you send that application to my company?"
"Because I had to know whose side you were on. Joe has lots of friends. You're my only friend. What are you going to tell Joe?"
"Nothing, because you are going to call Sentinel right away and withdraw the application."
"Don't ask me to do that."
"I'm not asking."
"Oh, now Joe's out of the shower." There was some rustling, and the sound of footsteps. Her voice got very low. "Kristian?"
"My application works, doesn't it?"
And then she hung up.
Had she still been listening, I would have answered that yes, statistically, the application worked. But in the end it is people, not statistics, who do or do not pay the loan back. I have never approved an application before it was clear to me who exactly was going to pay.
In the case of Marie's application, there was nothing I wanted to do less than to have to make that clarification.
"I hate being hung up on," I said to Sarah as I handed the receiver back to her. And then I turned again to face her, and I took a breath, and I opened my eyes. This is an old habit of mine, and my favorite secret. My very first sight of each and every day for the past seven years has been of Sarah. This is a secret because Sarah doesn't know I make a point of being sure she is next to me, and that I am facing her before opening my eyes. And there again was her face, beautiful in dim light, soft lines across her forehead and falling from the outside corners of her eyes. Maybe there was a new line this morning; I had watched over the years each line fall, one by one, slowly from her eyes, across completely smooth skin. Change within sameness, like the movement of clouds on the sky, or fallen petals on a dish.
They showed only in the morning, those lines; they were easy for her to cover. Only I knew they were there. Only I saw the way I had worn on her.
I kissed her matted hair, and her cheek, warm to the touch of my mouth.
"It looks like Joe and she are having problems again," I said to her cheek.
"Worse than ours?"
"Different. Money problems, you could say."
At this Sarah rolled her eyes. Joe's manic obsession with becoming and living completely debt-free was well known in our circle. In his zeal he had a couple of times found himself short of cash in the face of some contingency, and thereby disposed to borrow from friends. Bourgeois asceticism, is what Sarah called it.
"Marie never before had to bother you with money problems at six in the morning," she said.
"She had to call while Joe was in the shower. She's keeping a secret from him."
"Well, I don't know if I could handle one more problem to have to worry about," Sarah said—a semantically awkward conclusion, given its context, and I took her meaning to be she did not wish to be informed of and thereby involved with some other couple's mess, on top of ours. Such was her right, since the Stalwarts were friends from my side of the relationship. Joe I have known for twenty years, since he kicked my butt on our high school soccer field, and I have been with Sarah for only the last seven of those years.
Now, I think Sarah was also telling me her suspicion had in fact been aroused. I think she was trying to warn me.
Friends who care to comment on Sarah's and my relationship—and they all do—often posit it is too regimented, and that Sarah and I are too rigorously egalitarian in our roles. For example, so the other can catch an extra ten or fifteen minutes of sleep, Sarah and I alternate turns to the right to the first shower. Today was mine to shower first. Included with the right to the shower is the duty to turn on the heat and to go to the kitchen to start the coffee. Included with the duty to start the coffee is the option to finish cleaning any dishes or other mess left from the night before.
Our friends say we have over-politicized our private lives. In fact, we need the stability of routine more than others. Unlike some other relationships, ours is not anchored to any abstract purpose.
This morning in the kitchen there was quite a mess left from the night before. I winced. We had scattered dinner around room last night instead of eating it. Dishes from its aborted preparation were still in the sink, still dirty, and there was food smeared over the counter and in blotches on the floor. There was, also, a scattering of pink flower petals on the table, the petals as dry as dead skin and pallid in vague morning light coming through the kitchen window. I blamed the flower for last night's fight, which had been much worse than usual, more grave and proceeding farther into the morning. I couldn't tell if, for that, it had been more productive; it's not easy to resolve an argument about time. But after months of fighting virtually the same fight over and over, clearly something more was happening.
When I say "time," I mean the time that confers on us all the differences we never sought out and never asked for. I mean the time that changes what you thought could not be changed—changes the way we think, changes the shape of our minds; it seems the things we want, even the shapes of our memories change. You try to stop it and you try, for safety, to look for some fixed point, something solid, to moor onto. But you find eventually that what you're anchored to is itself nothing more than a mere idea, an empty space, and time has kept moving, and time has not passed you by. I try to explain to Sarah that in a relationship, as in life, the struggle is to accept what time does, to work hard to keep in touch with what is real, to resist the temptation to anchor onto a dream. I think Sarah has been trying to find a way to escape from change and from the work of change. She has had enough of it, and wants to give up.
"What is giving up?" Sarah said this morning. She was sitting at the table over the newspaper, waiting for breakfast. Since I had the first shower, this was also my day to make breakfast, which was going to be just toast and fried eggs. There has evolved in our argument an awful terseness and efficiency of delivery, Sarah rendering her lines between sips of coffee and mine returning between the cracking of eggs and trips to the refrigerator.
"Giving up," I said, tossing some pieces of bread into the toaster oven, "is taking recourse in one idealization or another."
"But what can one do without idealizations?"
I turned the stove on and put some butter in the pan. "Be vigilant against them."
"But to what end?" Sarah said, stirring sugar into her coffee.
"To the end of staying in touch with the difficult, gray area that is reality, and that is always changing."
If the lexicon of our polemic seems too rhetorical or abstract, that is my fault, for I am, paradoxically, congenitally given to thinking in the general rather than specific, and Sarah is used to indulging me. But our point of contention was specific enough.
After all our arguing, and some honest talking and listening, I still did not understand the reasons this morning as well as I am beginning to now—the reasons, that is, why Sarah had decided she wanted to get married. Now I had conceded from the beginning that ours is the kind of relationship that usually comes to marriage, and that before the passing of seven years. Also true, however, is that we had both brought with us to our relationship the conviction we would never be married, either to each other or to anyone else. This I still held, but the years since then had played differently on Sarah.
"But now I want to be with you forever," she would say.
"But forever is an idealization, and marriage is a dream. I don't want to live a dream."
"I want to live that dream."
And there is the crux. What makes it harder is we have each other's sympathy. How I would love to dream, to lift the veil and kiss her in the church and sleep in the blessing of God. But I can't because I know, I know under that blessing, that idea, that solid point, reality goes on; it's all on the books; it's all on credit. Dreams undertaken always end, and then must be paid for.
"In that dream, we stand to lose what is real," I say, and the argument usually ends, without resolution, somewhere around there.
But the momentum from last night was too great; something was happening, and this morning Sarah had again something new to say. She was completely sincere. She said it right from the heart.
"If you don't marry me, Kristian, I think our relationship will end."
For both of us this was shocking to hear. It took time to hear, a time like the momentary blindness that comes from stepping into new light. And then the light makes things clear—clearer than they were before, and everything looks different, and memories are different. Sarah bowed the way she always bows—slowly at the neck, with her back straight—before beginning to cry. I left our eggs on the stove and, muttering something meant to comfort, laid a hand on the back of her head, stroked the top of her spine. We fear crying; it is a concession we are far too stubborn to make without shame. Sarah cries almost noiselessly. Her breathing is deeper and wet.
"Sarah," I said.
"I'm not trying to pressure you."
"It just now, all of a sudden, became clear to me that's what will happen. Things are moving that way."
"But honey, that's the future."
"I can tell about the future."
The kitchen was filling with smoke from burning eggs and toast. "Sarah," I said, "there's nothing we can't work through." My voice made a thin sound though—clearly, some things can't be worked through. I wonder what Sarah saw in the future this morning, and if it was that future that made her so sad. I wonder if it's because I am a man that I have never seen the future in that way. Wordlessly, and without looking up, Sarah took my hand and let me lift her to her feet. She put her arms around me. She rested her head against my chest. I must have a hint of a father in my soul. I held her and rocked her slowly from side to side, just as a father comforts a child. And Sarah held me. Is this where dancing comes from—from giving comfort to suffering babies, when nothing else seems to work. Not quite dancing, Sarah and I became each other's babies there, rocking in the haze of burning toast and eggs, the smoke yellow from the morning glow of the kitchen window, alone together in the midst of what she had said, where at least its terrible unhappiness was our unhappiness, not my unhappiness against hers. We both wished it to last, and Sarah pushed her lips to my ear and whispered, let's spend this day together, we need a day together. And when I refused, she said, then only a while longer this morning. But I couldn't. I had to go to work. And so did she. I had to let go of her. I had to get ready for work.
I am a mid-level manager in the underwriting department at Sentinel Banking Corporation, where applications for no-fee home equity loans from all over the country are processed at the rate of 200 or more in a day. We move fast in my office; nothing gathers dust. For anyone in our department to miss any given day brings considerable inconvenience, and I, supposedly a role model, was already way behind. About thirty per day of those 200 applications cross my desk, all of them marginal, to be swiftly scrutinized and given judgment, yes or no, survive or perish. There is no one else in the department who can scrutinize as well as I, although there were at least 20 files on my desk that should have been already completed.
The files had gathered on my desk like logs in a jam in a matter of hours yesterday afternoon because I spent the time thinking about Marie's application, and there is no time at Sentinel to think; there is time only to process. My thinking anyway had come to little. There was so little I could actually do. Since mathematically it was sound, I could not decline the application out of hand. Because Joe might have answered his phone at home, I could not even call Marie. Today everything rested on that Marie withdraw the application herself by noon. Otherwise, I would have to meet Joe with her file still open. If I had to meet Joe with Marie's file still open, I would have to find out whether or not Joe was someone who was going to pay.
So at 8:30, half an hour late, I pulled a tie over my ears and kissed Sarah goodbye. Sarah is a real estate agent and had appointments scheduled today with three prospective buyers. When I left her she was gathering herself, struggling into her work clothes before the mirror with the averse sluggishness of someone who is very cold. I couldn't think of anything comforting to say to her that wouldn't make things seem better than they really were. So I just kissed her.
"Whose turn is it to call?" she asked me. Sarah and I take turns, on alternate days, calling each other at work. Yesterday was my day to call Sarah, but I had forgotten.
"It's still my turn," I said. "I'll call you this morning."
"I'll call you in an hour."
She gave me a hard look. "Okay."
I put my jacket on at the door and braced myself for the cold.
And it was cold, colder than yesterday, the blue sky blemished with an assembly of toddling, pointless clouds, pink-edged in morning light. The dry wind was back; if there had been dew, it had dried. I paused to smell for spring to make just sure I couldn't, and I couldn't—not a whisper. Spring can be smelt in its essence only on its first day, flat against the backdrop of sterile winter, and that day was yesterday. You can't know it from words, that smell, but when you're there you can feel in your feet the twitch of new life in the dirt, and feel on your skin damp pollen mixed in the breeze flitting through new leaves of branches, pulling on yet bare branches stuffed with buds aching to bleed out pink.
What happened to the smell of spring, the push of it? Memories change, and leave a shell of words. There was dew, yesterday, on the grass. Some purple and pink camellias basking in the sun along the side of my neighbor's home were jeweled with dew, and the way each drop reflected the light made it seem as if the dew on the flower was so many stars against a circle of twilight sky. I longed to show those flowers to Sarah and on that impulse I jogged across my neighbor's lawn and clipped a camellia at its pedicel with my fingernails. Of course, the instant the stem broke in my hand the drops on the petals ceased to glitter, their angle against the sun having been altered. I no longer cared to show the flower to Sarah, so I dropped it in my jacket pocket, and for the time being forgot about it.
This morning I found myself again, already late, jogging across my neighbor's yard to steal another camellia, even then thinking how stupid it is to try to hold something beautiful still—that is, something that had been beautiful. I couldn't stop myself.
Even though it was late there was still traffic on the road. It seems as if every day a few more cars need to find room on our undersized highways. When I finally reached the Sentinel building it was well after nine. As luck would have it, my boss was coming down the hall just as I was sneaking in. The man has a distinctively massive gait—he was a linebacker in college—and even his facial features are still heavy with muscle, intimidating even at a distance. His big lips turned down in a frown when he came close enough to see I was just arriving. I apologized with a shrug, penance of self-deprecation. He stopped me anyway.
"I was looking for you," he said. "Some people down the line were asking for some files. I found them in your office, unfinished." He put two fingers to his big, morning-smooth chin and gave it a stroke. "It looks a little rough in there, you know. Looks like there's been a snag."
"It won't take long to catch up," I said, lying.
"How about if I get you a temp?"
"Everyone else is always begging me for temps."
"I don't like temps. They're too transient. They can't be trusted."
My boss considered this, his eyebrows slowly folding in to a point. "My daughter is doing temp work."
"Well, that's different, of course."
I am prone to gaffs like this, and my boss knows me well enough not to take them too seriously. He was right to be concerned with the state of my office, and has never been shy of reminding me of my shortcomings, and there are a few, as a mid-level manager. My staff of underwriters do not always perform to their potential, and though they respect me professionally, I think they regard me personally as being socially stiff if not misanthropic. In spite of this, I have never been seriously scolded by my boss or any other superior, for there is, as I said, no one at Sentinel who can as reliably as I divine the potential of a marginal application. So marked is my skill, to both my superiors and my team of underwriters I am a kind of spectacle. Only twice in three years have I given my approval to loans that proved bad. In the past people have given up their lunch hours to watch me work, try to figure out my trick. Some think I'm a psychic.
I can explain. There is no trick.
First, let me generalize and say there are basically two kinds of people who find themselves disposed to bring to the altar what is likely to be their largest financial asset and apply for a no-fee home equity loan. First, there are those who are seeking a loan as a means to begin a dream. By the numbers, these people are more likely to qualify. They are younger, have cleaner credit histories, shorter tax forms. They tend to be still in their first marriages, have stable employment, and fewer children. So far, they have lived modestly, and don't need the extra cash to subsidize their quotidian lives. The fact is, they want to leave them altogether. Restive and bored, they long to escape from their prudent, safe, day-to-day grinds, and they believe they have earned the right, and in a sense they have, to try. They believe there is a life for them definitively better, some privileged, happier mode of being.
I don't believe there is such a life, for anyone. But that is not my business. All these people want from us is a boost. I decide whether or not to give it to them.
The second kind of applicant—the kind not asking to begin a dream—is the kind who has woken up from one. Their files are exponentially more complicated and difficult to process. These people are partners in failing corporations or the owners of bankrupt small businesses. Or in the aftermath some indulgence or another they thought would never end, they find themselves suited with impossible, somehow unforeseen debts. Or they have, after failed marriages, enormous alimony and spousal support obligations. They are as cunning as they are desperate, and the applications they send us are tangled with obscurities. They submit incomplete or fraudulent tax returns, fictionalized profit and loss statements, forged pay-stubs, W-2's, and social security documents. They hide debts, evade credit bureaus. They pose, on the phone, as their own employers for jobs they no longer have. They direct appraisers to houses they don't own.
A good underwriter could spend a week picking through one of these applications without finding every discrepancy and deception. Why then is my judgment so infallible? An application is more than a mass of statistics. An application is a biography, a life, a personality. And in the sum of all the numbers, at the root of all the lies, is a person who either has or has not yet in his or her life come to understand what it means to have to pay—a person whose vision does or does not extend in real terms beyond the fact of getting the money. While dissecting a marginal application—one which mathematically works but is for some reason suspicious—I'm looking for the person who will not feel, when he or she gets the money, that everything is settled, that everything from then on will be all right.
Not everyone knows what it means to have to pay. It is no easy thing to believe nothing is free.
I took a breath and switched on my office light. Stacks of files were lined along the edges of my desk like bulwarks, unread memos and faxes of varying import stuck between them, a timeline like fossils in layers of earth. Our department is an inexorably efficient mechanism, and does not long abide such a clog. The people in funding were waiting for these files with their fingernails chewed to the nubs.
My voice-mail was full with twenty-three messages. I keyed in my password and began to skip through them—a blather of words from staff, clients, bosses—listening for the sound of Marie's voice. At the same time I reached under my desk to turn on my computer; there was the vaguely grinding whir of its booting up. To make room for my mouse I moved a stack of files to the floor. I began to scroll through the phone logs.
This fact is the centerpiece of our marketing strategy: Sentinel can process your home equity loan, with no cost to you, in ten days. Try to get a library card in ten days. I was doing my part, in fact quite in my stride yesterday afternoon when one of my younger underwriters came to me with an unusual application submitted by a woman who, although married, wished to take a loan on one hundred and seventy thousand dollars of home equity singly, that is, without the formal consent of her husband, with whom the home was owned jointly—an endeavor which is technically legal in this state since only one party of a home owned jointly is required to be present at the signing of the closing documents.
I skimmed very quickly through the file. The problem was as novel as it was obvious. While the purpose of the loan was listed as "debt consolidation," the applicant had, according to her credit report, virtually no debt aside from the fifty thousand still owed on the home.
"Hidden debt?" my underwriter suggested.
"Possibly, but I guess she wants the money for something else." I snapped the file shut and gave it back to her. "You had better give this woman a call, try to get some clarification."
My underwriter nodded. "As long as I have to talk to her, should I also ask her why she's applying singly?"
"No, we're not allowed to ask that."
"Can I talk to her husband?"
About ten minutes later a call came through to my desk. It was Joe.
"Some woman from your office just called here asking to speak with Marie," he said. "She wouldn't tell me what she wanted."
It was a moment before I could answer. "That's strange," I said.
"Why would anyone from Sentinel Banking be calling Marie?"
"I don't know."
"Well do you think you could find out what's going on for me?"
Not so much because he is a calm person as that he is so solidly repressed, Joe almost never expresses surprise or anger overtly. Typically, even when there is a serious problem, Joe has a convincing, almost religious way of carrying himself as if he were above it. But I could not think of a time since, in high school, when he kicked my butt on the soccer field, that Joe had been this abrupt with me.
"I can check the phone logs," I said.
you'll look into it, then."
"I'll check the logs."
"I just want to make sure our names aren't floating around where they shouldn't be. You know how important that is to us."
"I'll check around," I said. By then I was waving my young underwriter back to me, motioning with my hands for her to bring the file, so by the time I hung up with Joe, I had already laid eyes on what is normally overlooked as the only truly superfluous piece of information in any given file: the applicant's name.
"I tried calling, but she was out," my underwriter said.
"Don't bother calling again," I returned. "This applicant has no hidden debt."
My young underwriter raised her eyebrows at my confidence.
"I'm a psychic," I said.
"So I've heard," my young underwriter replied, and she went back to her desk.
It was about five years ago when Joe, for reasons more philosophical, if not paranoid, than practical, endeavored to make his household, once and for all, wholly free of debt. He liquefied inherited assets to pay for their cars and to settle Marie's lingering student loan, and paid off and closed each of their dozen or so credit card accounts. Their only remaining obligation in fact was their mortgage, which to end Joe and Marie had for five years been making all kinds of sacrifices—of their lifestyles, their IRA's, vacations. Joe is not a typical miser. He holds that with debtlessness comes a higher order of freedom. Higher in the transcendent sense.
I disagree with Joe about almost everything. He is a Democrat and I, a Republican. He likes Bach. I prefer Mozart. I had for years believed Joe and I were still friends primarily because our friendship was never formally dissolved. I think we believed, when it began, that our friendship was the friendship to end all friendships. Perhaps it was; I can't say I've been as tight with another man as I once was with Joe. Maybe it's because of that, that I could not bring myself to believe it when, in college, I started to feel the heart of Joe's and my alliance fade. And since I myself could not accept that change, of course I could hardly rouse the courage to confess it to Joe. How does one say such a thing? How does a man tell another man he no longer cares so much for his happiness?
I never learned how, and neither did Joe, and for that reason my friendship to Joe hardened, over time, into one which was both ostensibly central to my life and yet made mostly of gestures. For example, I served, when he married Marie, as Joe's best man. There was no one in that church who knew Joe better. But there was also no one who was less like him.
Marie mostly kept to herself how unhappy she was in her and Joe's marriage; I think she confided only in me. She didn't mind so much the imposed frugality, but, as she put it, Joe's and her souls were distant. He didn't know her. She was lonely. I pondered Marie's file looking for some other explanation, though knowing I wouldn't find it. It would take time to believe Marie was, in effect, stealing from her husband their one meaningful asset.
It was a few minutes before five, when my underwriters were cleaning off their desks and getting ready to leave, when I realized with a moan I had forgotten to call Sarah. Embarrassingly, I moaned out loud. Some people standing outside my door turned to look. I made, ridiculously, like I had coughed, and put a Kleenex to my mouth.
"Are you okay?" someone said.
"I'm late for something," I answered, to make my hurrying out, and the mess I was leaving behind, seem a little less precipitate.
Before yesterday I had never failed to call Sarah when it was my turn, and she likewise had never forgotten to call me. I was frozen with fear, and all the way home I endeavored to think of some meaningful way to apologize, futilely, since I have no skill at preparing words in advance for any given situation. I made a mental list of strategies to avoid: don't say you were too busy to call, I told myself. Don't try to downplay the error. Never try to change the subject.
Have confidence, I said to myself. In the face of the moment, the right words will come.
I had no confidence, and at last my insecurity compelled me to stop at a grocery store and buy a box of a kind of chocolate Sarah likes and buys sometimes for herself. Like words planned in advance, though, I lost faith in the chocolates by the time I reached home, and alas, I threw them away before going in the house, the chocolates seeming by then altogether too much like a parody of apology.
Inside, Sarah was cooking; she said hello flatly without looking up. It looked like Japanese food, and Sarah was arranging items which looked as if they might become sushi: black seaweed, rice and vinegar, a dish of salmon eggs, slick and translucent in the shifting evening light coming through the kitchen window. I told her it looked delicious and she smiled at last. This gave me a little assurance, so I kissed her and said, "I'm sorry."
"In general, or for something particular?" she said.
"I'm really sorry, honey, that I didn't call today."
A sheet of seaweed dropped from her hand and wafted on a draft from the heating vent. "Didn't call?" she said.
"I was just so busy."
call? My voice mail broke down today. I'd assumed you'd called and I'd
lost your message." There was a silence during which there came to me no
words at all. Then she said, "You've never just forgotten to call before."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Just, 'I'm sorry'? You could have bought me a chocolate or something."
"I was just so busy."
"That's the whole point. The point is you care enough to call even though your busy."
"You're right," I said. I picked up a fish egg and held it against the light. "When did you learn to cook Japanese food?"
"Don't try to change the subject on me."
"Honey, it's only a phone call."
"It's not only a phone call. I thought about you all day, and you forgot about me. Everything that's happened lately makes me feel more like you slipping away from me. It's gotten too easy for me to run out of things to believe in."
"Well, everything has its ups and downs."
Sarah flung a pair of chopsticks at me, and then a rice paddle, and then some rice. My apology was going badly. She stamped her feet, and then, finding all these gestures dissatisfying, swept the whole mess of rice and eggs across the counter and onto the floor.
"How can you be so cold to what has been happening to us?" she said, and held my eyes, waiting for the answer. "Do you know what's been happening to me?" She waited for an answer. No words came to me. Sarah shook her head, disgusted and resigned, and slumped into her chair.
"Then I will tell you," she said. "I have been getting so afraid. Afraid, and afraid of my fear. It makes me shiver. At work today, showing a home to a client, I shuddered so hard I thought I was going to fall to the floor. I couldn't stop it."
She looked down at her hands, smoothed her dress with them, across her thighs. Needing to do something, I picked up the chopsticks she had thrown and the black seaweed she had dropped and brought them to the counter, then I got to my knees and with a sponge I started to push the scattered rice and fish eggs into a pile.
"Stop it, Kristian," Sarah said.
"But I can't think of anything to say."
"You had better," she said. "Listen to me. I'm telling you I can't go on being this afraid. Any other kind of pain would be better. Any other."
I nodded without looking at her, and I tried to clear my throat without making any sound. Then, still holding the sponge and on my knees, I pushed some more of the rice and eggs into a pile.
"I'm telling you, you have to tell me I don't need to be afraid," Sarah said.
The kitchen window glowed pale with dusk-light. The light moved with the shadows of tree branches outside, shifting the pieces of darkness that had been moving into the room. I took the dustpan from under the sink and held it against the pile, and tried to push the pile of food into the pan. It was too dark to see, and much of the food smeared around the edges. So I crouched lower with my sponge, and when I did something slipped from my jacket pocket.
"What is that?" Sarah said.
I passed my hand over the surface of the scattered food and shadows to find the small softness, and then I picked it up and carefully took it to her, and set it in front of her on the table.
"I picked this for you this morning," I said. The petals, all day in my pocket, were pressed and bent and unhinged from the stem. "It was prettier this morning. I wanted you to see it. There was dew on it."
Sarah took a minute to look at the flower, cautiously and without touching it, though it continued it seemed to fall apart under her gaze.
"Tell me what it looked like," she said.
"It looked like something naked."
"Oh," she breathed and, tentatively, picked the flower from the table, some more petals falling off from the movement, and she put her nose thoughtfully against a gap that fallen petals left, against the yellow stamen. The last intimation of day through the kitchen window colored the air between us pale and cast vaguely the awkward shape of the camellia on her cheek. She closed her eyes and took some slow breaths, a line coming to her forehead from thinking very hard. She was thinking very hard.
"I see," she said. Her fingers closed around the base of the stem, where it had been clipped, and she breathed in against it, again and again, struggling to take within her its tiny, obscure taste.
"God, I can't bear to let it pass," she said.
She kept the flower to her nose, though little of it was left besides a couple of stubborn petals, and breathed. It was dark; the shadow of the flower had faded from her cheek, and its petals were scattered and lost in the dark, on the table and on the floor. I dared at last to touch her. I touched her hair, my fingers following the line of its fall to her ear, and I touched her cheek where the shadow had been, and her hand which was preciously holding almost nothing—nothing but a memory that wasn't even hers.
"Don't give up," I said.
"But it's you who has given up," Sarah returned. "Since the very beginning, it was you."
So we were back to the beginning again, standing at the fork where it remains to be decided whether it is belief or disbelief which is the original sin. We stood there in the dark, late into the night, our banter not so much ending as pausing, finally, in bed, dribbling off into sleep only hours from daylight.
The last words Sarah said last night, in the warm silence of our room, both of us just barely awake, were, "When we are fighting, do you ever wish you could be somewhere else?" I didn't answer; I was too far asleep to speak.
"I never had," Sarah said. She leaned into me and nuzzled my neck. Sleep was so close, I could feel its soft weight on my eyes and my mind; I could see the beginnings of dreams in scattered fragments of voice and color, pieces of the world I made, for my sake, coming together into a whole. That world I made is suited to the dark, where I am lying still, unable to speak or move. Fitting it is trapped there, from where it can't intrude on the day, into its hard pale light.
Every night as the fragments of my dreams coalesce I look for, but have never once seen, the line over which I pass the moment my dreams become real.
The last message on my voice mail came to an end. Marie, this morning, had so far not called. I checked with my young underwriter, and I also searched through three hours worth of phone logs on the computer for a request from one Marie Stalwart for an application withdrawal. I did not think Marie had either the courage or stupidity to pursue the loan after talking to her this morning. Surely I had given her no reason to believe I would choose not to tell Joe. I myself had no reason to believe I was not going to tell Joe.
But Marie's name was not in the phone logs. Up to the minute, no one in Sentinel Banking Corporation had taken her call. I could only wait. That was more work than one would think, for if normally I pick up one out of four or five calls, today I snatched up the receiver before the end of every first ring, and each time expecting Marie. Instead it was the normal round of complaints from our clients, routine questions from appraisers, apologies from blundering title companies—calls easily handled with a couple of messages from people I had perhaps never once spoken to in real time. Worrying, while on the line, that Marie was just then trying to get through, I was curt with them all.
My young underwriter brought me another stack of files about which she had some questions. She gave my desk a look, then stacked her files on the floor, next to my waste basket. She mentioned she had to leave early this afternoon to take her son to a doctor appointment. I must have seemed as if I was interested, because next she had propped herself against the wall and was telling me everything else about her family, how her children were doing in school, about their vacation plans, the deal they found on their airline tickets. The gurus of corporate culture have decreed it is fitting for middle managers to spend some minutes each day taking an interest in the personal lives of their staff. The time spent is an investment into building community and a sense of loyalty to one's company, they say. It bothers me to think a relationship should be so starkly functional, not rising from any genuine and common attraction or need. On the other hand, it was amazing how effortlessly my underwriter exhausted her concerns on me. Our rootless friendship might last till the stars fall. Neither of us wants anything from the other.
"How are things with you?" my young underwriter asked, when she had finished with her story. In fact, I wouldn't have minded telling someone how things were with me; it would have been a relief. But the instant I opened my mouth to speak, the phone rang. I snatched up the receiver. When I said hello, the return voice gave me the thought, lamentably, that this was the call I'd been waiting for.
I said, "Marie."
"Why did you call me 'Marie'?"
"You sounded like someone else."
"Did I sound like Marie Stalwart?"
"I don't sound like Marie Stalwart."
"You're right. You don't," I said.
"You said you would call in an hour. I've been waiting."
I had completely forgotten about that. I must have frightened my young underwriter, still propped against the door, with my grimace. She scuttled quickly away.
"See, things keep getting worse," Sarah said. She was very upset, and on the verge of sobbing again.
"What is worse?" I said, pulling my own hair.
"They keep getting worse, but I can't let them get any worse. I wouldn't be able to stand it."
"All your talk about staying in touch with reality but you are the one who is missing it completely." I heard the sound of her hand coming down on and covering her receiver. Behind it she was crying. Then, when she came back, she said, "You let everything get so bad. Kristian, I think I have to save myself."
And then, somehow, Sarah stopped sobbing and she pulled herself together again to say, in a low, perfectly even tone, "I have heard, Kristian, more than anything else one always remembers the last words they hear from someone who is special to them. More than anything else one remembers last words, exactly as they were spoken, forever. Do you believe that to be true?" These words were planned words. They were words Sarah had sometime before planned and set aside—saved for this particular moment.
"Yes," I said. "Why?"
I waited for Sarah's answer with perfect, unguarded, crystalline attention, my mind a clear, empty space. I listened. She didn't answer. There was not a sound. It dawned on me at last that the line was dead, that Sarah had hung up on me. The realization was blinding, and I listened still, not even to silence, and not even waiting. Where her words should have been was blank, a vacuum with its edge against my ear. Then there was my manager, standing in the doorway. How long had I been holding a dead phone to my ear? How should I go about hanging up? It took too long. I had to concentrate on the mechanics of it—pull down the arm, move it across the desk. My palm, when I tore it away, left a print of sweat on the handle.
My boss stood under the threshold, looking at me.
"I have to believe that, though you were holding the phone to your ear, you were neither talking nor listening to anybody," he said. His eyes passed over the condition of my office. "I'm not sure why, but I find that disturbing."
A drop of sweat fell from my forehead onto a stack of files.
"Are you okay?" he said.
"Then why are you listening to no one, and why is your office still such a nightmare?" he said.
"Maybe I'm in one."
"I think you are. Look at your desk. You haven't been catching up. It's getting worse."
"Well, I've been taking calls all morning."
"Calls don't count when there's no one on the other end. This is getting serious. It's high time you wake up from your little nightmare." My boss leaned towards me and clapped his hands together next to my ear. "Do you hear me? Wake up now. Wake up."
I pushed his hands back but, standing, my boss had too much leverage and he simply moved his hands behind my ear, and then, to the other side of my head. "Wake up. Wake up."
So I put my feet up against the edge of my desk, coiled, and kicked away. My chair went wheeling across the room.
My boss looked at me blankly. "Good," he said, and then, coming upon some kind of decision, put two fingers to his protruding chin.
"Do you have plans for lunch today?" he said.
"Maybe you had better cancel them, try at least to get all this organized by the end of the day. I think you owe us the time."
Two new messages had come in on my voice-mail. Neither was from Marie. I checked the phone logs again. She had not called.
The next time my roving boss passed from my field of vision, I left for lunch. I tried to be clever. I left my jacket and briefcase behind and went out in the direction of the men's room so whoever did see me might not think I was leaving the building. So it looked as if I was away from my desk only momentarily, I left my office light and my computer on. Degrading, these childish tricks adults must play, sometimes. I think I was more of an adult—a bigger, prouder person—when I was much younger.
The day it began, on our high school soccer field, with a fist fight—one with all the graceless kicking and pulling befitting two awkward and desperate adolescents—was a day like today, cold with a scattering of dry, broken clouds on the sky. This was my first year in high school. Joe was a sophomore. We both had a crush on the same girl, who was also a sophomore. Mine was a burning, torturous infatuation that wracked me some days to physical sickness. We fought because Joe, who I knew then only by face, said to me that day in a corner of the field, "She'll never be your girlfriend. She doesn't even know your name." I fought Joe because what he said was true. The girl was hopelessly inaccessible to me; she didn't even know my name. She was prom-queen material, and I was shy and reticent, utterly incapable of making myself known. That was the truth, and Joe made me see it. That's why I fought him, although, to be clear, what I hated was neither Joe nor the truth. What I hated was my infatuation.
Joe was bigger and stronger than I and, impassioned as I was, I fought longer and more furiously than I should have. It occurred to me years later that Joe, in his mind, was fighting for the rights to this girl, though in fact the truth he forced upon me applied just as well to him. He was just another pimply-faced nobody and the girl was effectively just as far out of reach to him as she was to me. I don't know how long it was before Joe finally caught onto this. I don't know if he ever did see his own feelings in the proper light.
I was dizzy and bloodied by the time the crowd gathered to watch our fight caught the attention finally of the gym instructor, who had no easy time tearing us apart. He was really frightened at the damage we had managed to inflict on each other, so he sent for the nurse, and made us lie down on the grass while he checked to see if any limbs or noses were broken. When he was satisfied we were out of immediate danger, he said, "You boys shake hands now," and Joe, beside me on the grass, took my hand and held it while we waited for the nurse, all kinds of pain starting to soak in through the adrenaline, and stared straight up at the silent audience of clouds.
"Now everything is going to be all right," Joe said to me. "Now everything is settled."
For the next couple of years after that fight, Joe and I we were rarely apart. Now Joe and I play golf together and, when we make plans to entertain, always check to make sure the other is free. That is all. Before today, I had not seen Joe's innards for a decade or more.
I felt a kind of shock when I entered the restaurant, a new, '50s-motif diner, and saw Joe waving me over from a table near the back, under the arch of a massive silver jukebox playing oldies rock and roll, the music's unwavering bounce and dry optimism like whitewash on old wood. Joe was snapping his ankle and semiconsciously nodding his head to the tune. The shock was my own sudden cognizance of the ugliness of what I was about to do. I was shocked at the irony of it.
He had a toothpick between his lips—a habit he adopted when he quit smoking eight months ago. As far as I knew this gnawing was his only remaining vice; in the past few years he had pared his lifestyle to the shining bone. He had quit drinking, quit eating desserts and red meat, quit watching television and the reading of crappy novels.
He was dressed casually, as always, in a corduroy jacket and jeans, tie-less, sitting with this shoulders back and straight above his waist. He had quit slouching.
We shook hands. Joe pulled the splintered toothpick from between his teeth and laid it in an ashtray. "I'm starting to understand why our parents liked this music," he said. "It's so much happier than ours."
"This music presents a naïve view of reality. It set up a generation to be disillusioned."
"But it's so much happier," Joe said, tapping a finger on the table. He asked me about work and about Sarah. I said both were going badly. He asked me if I wanted to talk about it and I said no. As for Joe, he runs a small publishing business specializing in textbooks for children with learning disabilities. His market is small but stable, and there were no problems, he said. He was also putting in some volunteer hours at the literacy center; it kept him hopeful. And things were fine as always with Marie.
Joe ordered a salad and I had a burger, the "Ball of Fire Burger," with fries. Joe called the waiter back to change his order to a hamburger, but then changed his mind again back to the salad, this time with the dressing on the side.
I took coffee, Joe just water.
"I quit coffee," he said. "About a month ago."
"How is it going?"
"Easy. But I've had a headache for a month."
"That could be your allergies."
"Could be. Seems like spring is coming early this year. I look forward to the memories more than spring itself. There are certain memories that come to me only in spring. Is it the same with you?"
"On the first day of each spring it occurs to me I had forgotten what spring is."
"How depressing," Joe said. "Is this day one you're looking forward to?"
"It was yesterday."
"Really? I missed it."
The waiter came and poured my coffee. It was strong, and it felt good. Eyeing my coffee, Joe drew another toothpick from his jacket pocket and pushed it through his lips. His jaw flexed as he impelled the toothpick back and forth between his teeth, and his eyes turned up towards the ceiling. I could see that behind them Joe was planning words, or reciting to himself words already planned. It seemed he was unsatisfied with them; his lips thinned as if he were looking for a certain taste, and then, as if the taste had been bitter, he winced. It's so hard to plan words.
"Did you ever wonder why I never told you how I felt about you career choice, Kristian?" he said, the focus returning to his eyes. "I often wish I had, but I never knew how. I never knew how to go about getting that personal. That sounds strange, but I know you take your work so personally."
"You say that as if it's wrong to take work personally."
"Whether it's wrong or not depends. In your case, it is wrong, because your work is so bad. Bad, I mean, in an evil sense. I could never put my finger on exactly what it is your work has done to you. But you learned a bad lesson from it. It somehow messed you up. Deeply."
Truly enough, Joe had never levied upon me this particular accusation. But hyperbole has always been Joe's manner, so I was not so taken aback by his provocation as I might have been. "It doesn't seem to me my job was so different from any other," I said.
"Your job is an epitome. Your job is the very soul of capitalism."
"I am a capitalist."
"But we both know what capitalism really is. And we both know debt is the only fact of every created desire. Don't we?"
"Perhaps. Still, it is not we who create the desire."
"The creation of desire it a petty sin. You exploit the essence of desire. Just look at your own literature. So brightly colored, simply worded—it reads like a children's story. You sell loans as if they were toys, as if money were a toy, as if life were a toy. Do you see? You promise to make people feel like children again. You promise to make people feel free. And no matter what ostensibly they want, freedom is always, at bottom, what people desire. Your promise to give it to them is a horrible, unconscionable lie. And I'll tell you something else. It's as tempting as hell. I want to believe it, and it takes work to resist, ugly, paranoid work every day. You don't know how hard Marie and I have had to work to get out of the debt we had when I came around to the lie of it. You don't know how hard it is to stay one step ahead of people who are always thinking and scheming and calculating some way to sneak into my desire, knowing there must be some way, somehow, to take from me what I have."
"You're right in this," I said. "You are paranoid."
"Then why did Sentinel call my wife?"
"What did she say when you asked her?" I said.
"Naturally, she said she didn't know anything about it."
"And you believed her?"
Joe raised an eyebrow. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"I'm just wondering whether you asked Marie in passing about the call, or if you really pursued the matter."
Of course, Joe had gathered my insinuation at once, that is, that his wife was dissembling, and I took from the flush on his cheeks to mean I was rousing his anger. His face hardened, his mouth twisted painfully into a knot around his toothpick, and the fingers that had been keeping time with the music were now pressed against the surface of the table. I was also unnerved. It is not safe to rouse the emotions of a deeply repressed man. I touched the arms of my chair and pushed the balls of my feet against the floor.
But then Joe, his aspect desperate with gravity, reached across the table and laid his hand on my arm, gently, his eyes reaching out to mine with paternal warmth. I had misjudged him completely. The color on his face had come not from anger, but sympathy. Something I had said made Joe sorry for me; I think, he pitied me.
Withdrawing a splintered toothpick, he nodded to himself and smiled poignantly at me and at himself for his own new understanding. "I have just put my finger on it," he said. "So that's what it has done to you. You let your work into your relationship. It's infested more than your mind. It's in you heart. It's made you blind."
"I see things clearly."
"You are blind in this way: You expect that as you regard Sarah, I should regard Marie," he said.
"I ask Sarah about the people who call for her, if that's what you mean. I allow myself to worry. I allow myself to pay attention to the way the answers."
"So you think I should, too, and so should everyone."
"Yes, I do."
"But Marie and I are married, whereas you and Sarah are not."
I knew this tone of voice. Joe was trying to teach me.
I said, "I have told you the reasons why Sarah and I are not married."
"The reason you and Sarah are not married is because of your work. You took it personally, and now you see even marriage in terms of debt. Because you are not married, there remains between you are Sarah some suspicion. You can't see beyond that. You can't see there is another way."
"There is no suspicion at all between you and Marie?"
"It is the very meaning of marriage that there is none whatsoever."
The food came, and I was glad because I was not expecting to have to think about these things in the context of Joe's perspective, and I was not sure how to get around them. The burger, by the way, was to my taste delicious, though the coffee had dampened my appetite a little. Joe said through his first mouthful of lettuce that he was happy enough to be able to chew on something not a toothpick. I wished Marie had withdrawn the application.
"What I have learned from my work," I said, "is the only real part of any desire, any idealization, any dream, is debt. To let go of suspicion is to idealize, because people are tempted, and people fail. In the long run, we have to doubt each other. More than once a little vigilant suspicion on the part of Sarah and I has preempted mistakes that might have damaged, even ended our relationship."
Joe was not impressed. "Do you love each other?" he said.
"Of course, insofar as love indicates a difference of degree."
"As opposed to?"
"One of kind."
"Your life must be insufferable."
"It is my duty not to expect too much."
"Such waste," Joe said, and there it was again—his feeling for me.
He set down his knife and fork and, with one hand still on my arm, leaned forward on his other elbow, across the table.
"You fight to have little, when life wants to give you so much. Listen, every person you have ever met who is happy, fundamentally happy, has the same secret. They all have the same secret. It is one they never tell because it is such an embarrassing, obvious secret. Do you want to know what it is? One day, a long time ago, because I was sad, I took a leap of faith—a faith I found at the core of my being. It takes that much to truly love or to trust—a faith that is the core of your being. You can try to wait for trust. You can wait until you feel your whole life dwindling away, falling apart and its parts scattering, becoming smaller and becoming at last nothing at all but an object, nothing but a happening. Trust does not accrue over time. Trust is a choice, it is a leap that is magical. And then you wonder why before you had made everything so hard, and it seems to you that before you were dead. And your life after you take that leap becomes just like a dream."
"There. I can see in your eyes you are beginning to understand," Joe said.
It was like stepping into new light.
"The secret is the leap. To get from one plane to the other."
"What if you were wrong," I said, "to take that leap?"
"But you see, in taking it, the very possibility of being wrong is removed. Faith is beyond logic, like a miracle is beyond logic."
"Some people lose their faith," I said.
"People who lose their faith never had it at the core of their being," Joe said.
With the same arm Joe held, I turned my hand and held his. The new light settled and made the world different. Everything in the past seemed different.
"Sentinel called Marie because they found a way to take what you have," I said.
"What is the way?"
"Through your faith."
I clung tightly to Joe's arm. A lump formed in his throat, and he swallowed. His toothpick hung tenuously from his lip. "Is that right?" he said.
As everyone knows, it is when a dream becomes a dream as such that it begins to end. I wiped my mouth, and took out my wallet, and put some bills on the table.
"I'll pay," Joe said.
"I know you will."
I'm not sure why I said that. A store of bad feeling welled up, from somewhere. I didn't know if I'd ever see him again, and my feeling was: I just wanted him to know, when he finally figured it all out, that I had been right. I guess I was seeking revenge. I guess Joe had managed to hurt me.
I found when I got back to the building that my little ruse at the office had not worked very well. My light and my computer were both turned off, and there was a stick-up note on my desk from my boss telling me to come see him.
He was speaking on the phone, but ended the call when he saw me approach. He waved me in, and motioned for me to close the door behind me. He had a stack of files on his desk that had before lunch been on mine; that he had taken it upon himself to catch up for me was clearly bad. With one hand on his great chin, stroking an afternoon shadow, he pointed at a chair with the other, and did not bother to ask if I had been in the men's room for the past hour.
"Three things," he said. "First, you should go home now, and we shall regard this day as a sick day, which is just, because you haven't done anything today but act sick. If you are well tomorrow, then you should come to work and together we will spend the day trying to clean up with the assistance of a temporary employee, or two. Second, as you should know, because of the sensitivity of the information with which we work, there are no employees at Sentinel, not excluding you and I, who are allowed to invite to the Sentinel campus visitors of a personal nature. Third, there is a visitor here to see you."
I shrank in my chair.
"She is still here only because I myself gave security permission to allow her to stay." He shrugged. "She seemed like a nice girl."
"She's waiting for you in the reception area."
Then he motioned for me to rise, and then he motioned me to the door, and as I was leaving, he motioned for me to shut the door on my way out.
I didn't leave right away. I went back to my office, and I sat down and went to work. It is not true I did absolutely nothing for Sentinel today. I finished one file.
It seems there was a time when I would have felt insufferably guilty for my perilous, giddy attraction to Marie—guilty enough, in fact, to keep me away from her. Now I feel no guilt, really no adverse feeling at all related to our, for lack of a better word, alliance per se. There is only the general, low hum of self-loathing, which they say is anyway these days endemic to white-maleness, but I have learned to carry with no overt manifestation I know of. To be clear, I had not at that time so much as kissed Marie, and we have scarcely mentioned our feelings for each other, for if we did then we could no longer pretend the friendship we had had not been growing into a different creature. We saw each other two or three times a week, usually at lunch and sometimes after work given we both had an alibi to be home a little late. Additionally I played tennis with her twice a month, which has been our habit anyway for two or three years.
As nearly as I can ascertain, it started last fall when Marie came to me with her unhappiness with Joe. She chose me as her confidant because, she said, her woman friends would not understand. They would not understand how she was no more to Joe than an pawn in a scheme, or a princess trapped in a tower. Only I could understand, she said, because I was a person who had no schemes, and I was a person who had no towers.
Strange, the mechanics of the heart. I did understand her, and, privy to her loneliness, I did want to help her. Then, one day, she had half of my thoughts.
She sat waiting for me with an open magazine in her lap, chatting with the receptionist about the misery of hay fever. Her smile, when she turned, was golden, though I managed to preserve a flat countenance, since I was supposed to be angry with her. She returned the magazine to its table with a spirited little toss and popped from her chair to face me.
"Hi there," she said.
How I was happy to see her. I led her out, and she suggested we walk. The Sentinel Corporation, when this building was constructed, was obliged by the city to make an enormous investment in the local environs, and so its setting is park-like, albeit according to the sterile suburban taste, and not unsuitable for walking in. Grass grows green over gentle hills four feet high, and there are neat rows of peach trees that do not bear fruit but blossom at the end of each March. There's no life but some crows that come in from the farmland farther out; they are enormous and their black color is vivid against the grass and mirrored exterior of the Sentinel building. Overhead was a the same scattered patchwork of blue and gray, and from that an endless consecution of transient light and shadow on the ground.
Marie took my hand—our one physical indulgence—and swung it playfully to our step. "Are you mad?" she said.
"Not now. Before and later, yes."
"I'm sorry about this morning."
"And I'm sorry I couldn't bring myself to tell you before; I was so scared. But I've done some thinking, and I'm not scared anymore. I sent the application to you because I had to be sure you were on my side. That's selfish of me, I know. I didn't want to cause you trouble. But look at my side. I was willing to take that chance. It means that much to me."
"Because it's all for nothing if I have to be alone."
"If not for me, you would stay with Joe."
"Yes," Marie said, with an ease terrible and so charming. "Yes, without you, I would stay with Joe."
"Do you know how badly what you're trying to do would hurt him?" I said.
"I know my husband. It would hurt him so bad it would change him. That's why I need the money first, you see, before the hurt comes. He idealizes me so, and there has never been a man as certain of himself as Joe is. My leaving would take that from him, and when that's gone, he'll be as lost as something new-born, and he'll become dark, and he'll have to start all over again, as a person, you know, without really knowing A of life's ABC's. That's why I couldn't withdraw the application. If I left first, then it would be too late to get anything."
"How much do you think he owes you?"
"He owes me more than money. I gave him love. My love. Real love."
We moved from sunlight into the shadow of a cloud. It got colder. Marie squeezed my hand and pressed close to me as though we might share the heat of our bodies through our jackets.
"I approved your application."
"Oh, I knew you would!" Marie jumped into me and, with her arms around my neck, hung on there with so much of her weight, I lost balance and went over like ballast onto the grass, with her coming down on top, laughing. And still laughing, she kissed me, the laughter like the giant heartbeat bouncing inside her chest. And I laughed, too. "I knew you would take my side," she said. "I knew things were moving that way." Without actually letting go of each other we moved over the top of the small hill to the other side, out of the view of the building and of any traffic on the sidewalk or street. There we kissed a little more, wordlessly, and then she settled beside me with her head on my arm. "Now I'm so happy," she said. "Are you?"
"I've been so afraid and waiting so long to do this, and now I'm so glad I've done it. I feel like I'm new. I feel like I can do anything. How long it has been since I've felt I could do anything, felt free. Don't you love how it feels?"
"Yes, I do."
She snuggled against my jacket; she held it and caressed it, as if it were a living part of me that had feeling and needed care. So I held the cuff of her sweater, her warmth soaked into it, and she even sighed with the pleasure of our quiet, skinless lovemaking.
"Did I ever tell you why I liked you so much?" she said. "You have imagination. I love your imagination."
"You have imagination."
"But mine is a simple, selfish imagination. I see shapes in the clouds. I wonder what it would be like to fly. Your imagination is powerful. You have imagination in your heart."
"I hate my imagination."
"Oh, what's this?" she said. She had found the broken flower inside my jacket pocket.
"It's a flower."
"Did you pick it for me?"
"I picked it because I missed spring."
"Missed spring? Silly, spring hasn't even started yet," she said, and tucked the flower back into my pocket, a couple of petals falling onto the grass between us.
She said, "You know, I've always had this one dream. I've always dreamed of living in the South of France, somewhere near the beach, in a place where there's a café on the street, where people meet and talk to each other—really talk, you know? Talks that fill an afternoon, and then a night."
"Yes, and no voice-mail, and no passwords, and no creeping around on some spooky Internet."
"And the ocean."
"We would drink red wine on the sand where the waves rolled up to our toes."
The cloud passed over and the sun came down again. Above was a long space of clear blue before the next cloud passing. The light felt sharp against my skin, made delicate by the winter, and Marie's face too was bright with color.
"We could really do it," she said. "It doesn't have to be just a dream anymore. We could make it real. Now, because of you, I could take care of us both. It's a lot of money I'm getting. We could make it go a long, long way." She reached over and touched the side of my face with her palm. "Kristian," she whispered, "You could be my dream."
The sun was still in the stretch of blue, burning clear yellow and white. The next cloud was so far away as to also seem still, though it wasn't, and with attention, I could see its near edge unsettled and changing, its tiny pink billows rising against the blue and edging forward. Is that cloud's edge the line, over which passing, dreams become real? I closed my eyes, looking for and end or a beginning inside, looking for some way to tell the difference.
"Kristian," Sarah whispered, "I could be yours."
I had thought I had been more awake. Always, always, I had thought I had been more awake.
"Say something Kristian. Wake up." Marie was nudging my shoulder. "Are you sleeping? Wake up."
"I'm trying," I said.
It's after seven now, and dark, and Sarah is not home yet. I made dinner when I got home and put a candle on the table and put the camellia I picked this morning in a blue glass dish next to the candle. There's even less of it left today than there was of yesterday's, from so much running around, and from lying on the grass. The dish is a dish of petals, scattered in a roughly circular pattern. The dish serves to hold the petals together, so that they mean something. They mean the idea of a flower, the idea of its former beauty.
Every time I hear the sound of a car outside coming down our street I expect it to be Sarah's, although I know the sound of her car well enough, and none of these cars are hers. They pass by, one by one, their sounds fading into not-quite-silence. She has never been this late before—not without letting me know in advance of her plans. My first sight of every day for the past seven years has been of Sarah—two thousand memories scattered across my mind, each of them different from the moment of their becoming. I don't know what she looks like. I have one clear memory. It is a memory of some last words that aren't there. Sarah gave me this empty space, on purpose. She knew I won't forget it.
Michael recently completed his MA in English and has been teaching English in Ota, Japan, for the last six months. He is twenty-eight.