Two rows of footprints lead to the door. This means her husband is not alone. Pine needles have fallen into the prints. This is a type of clock: maybe three needles fall per hour. Ella walks in the large prints, her husband’s, slowly, careful not to slip. Her father and brother each died at a party, different parties, years apart. She parked her car around the corner.
In the foyer, the objects are banal, uncanny. A row of her husband’s shined shoes, hers in a thorny entanglement on the shelf above. In a puddle of meltwater, Erica’s pumps, size nine, too light for the weather, fish-scaled, canoe-pointy. There is a sound, from the bedroom she thinks, like air inhaled through teeth.
In the foyer mirror, Ella’s face becomes, if she wants, an early cubist face, each feature suggesting the lines of possible fracture. A war correspondent in Trieste once told her that, when she’s excited, her face appears “ready to disintegrate.” Her boots are off. She’s in her tights. She steps unpleasantly onto an icy coin of water.
It is six p.m. She’s thirty-nine and admits thirty-three. After two Russian Parrots (one ounce vodka, one ounce cognac, and a teaspoonful of mint white), she is twenty-nine admitting to thirty-five. She remembers herself at five or six—it was winter—trying to quietly approach the “rabbit man” who, her father told her, had been hiding on the verandah all night. The rabbit man was gone. There was an old blanket and a pair of pigeon feathers on the wooden bench where her father said the man had slept.
Now like then she must be quiet. Casualness and noise are ritual’s enemies. Her wet heel makes a tiny smacking sound against the wooden floor. She is delaying, walking down the corridor in a young girl’s tiptoed zigzag.
Juxtaposed against Erica’s jagged sounds from the bedroom is the thick, expectant silence of Adam. Ella’s first evening with him, years ago, was in Salzburg, the summer he taught at the Mozarteum. It grew dark and they failed to rise from the sofa to turn on the light, and when he brought her to the end of what she could feel, she found herself holding his arm with great force, not to guide him; she was semi-terrified, a Dona Anna.
Any positive (by positive she thinks she means what’s shared or binding) between them back then contained its own negative, which was the loss of that positive, a mere possibility, still, so deeply felt, it might as well already have happened. At night, in Salzburg, they walked in a park, each of his steps to her one and a half, her high-heeled instability, his pause, a clinking of her clutch’s chain, his occasional remark. She feared anything—a TV in a window, a crude anonymous shout—would break the fragile impossibility of the mundane.
She cried at the table when Adam did not like her asparagus béchamel. She cried over this smallest rejection, then cried for the time squandered crying. But she could not will herself into emotional restraint: the surface of her mind felt like skin powdered with the invisible dust of a broken window. She told herself that to fight passionately was a privilege. Nothing between them without intensity—neutrality was a calamity that happened to other people.
On the way to the bedroom there is a vestibule where they keep books and liquor. Bruts point out like gilded missiles. Ella strokes the belly of the whiskey crystal. Books haphazardly arranged in vertical and horizontal stacks, bottles as bookends. Empty bottles, others full and dusty, kept for occasions, forgotten, books opened at random, left open, unread. She moves slowly among these objects, with reverence almost, like a visitor in the house of a dead poet who, minor while alive, became posthumously popular, his everyday objects sacralized, his poetry made paltry by mindless repetition.
Adam likes to claim that Ella—or not Ella but proximity to her—had, over time, infected him with certain unexpected tastes: red wine, tomato sauce, foul language. He’s extruded into coarser, hairier, mustier dimensions. Ella likes when he says things like this. She neither particularly likes red wine nor foul language. She did, however, introduce him to Erica. They hosted a party for her and a few of Adam’s friends.
“Do you find her pretty?” Ella asked.
“She looks as if she took a deep breath and never exhaled it,” Adam said.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“A quality she has.”
“But you haven’t even spoken to her.”
“You asked me what I thought. I’m telling you my first impression. I don’t claim anything beyond that.”
“But she’s not like that,” Ella said, trying to conceal some disappointment in her voice. “I’ve known her for years.”
But Erica, she felt, was of a higher category of woman, beyond adornment: Dürer-sad, face of the cold Northern Renaissance. Throughout her twenties Ella looked younger without makeup. She used it to affect a certain rapacious symmetry. Recently, the painted face has become the younger; the bare reveals some new distasteful vulnerability. Makeup has ceased to be an extravagance. Youth is a skill.
Ella looks out at the yard-long thorns of ice hanging from the rain gutters. She unbuttons her suit’s jacket, and the buttons are cold. The thin trees in the closing fog are like hairs on old frames of film. She has spent many evenings sitting alone with Adam by this window. A few weeks ago, he told her here he felt a “cavalcade of time.”
“It’s this winter,” she said, pretending not to understand, “endless. I can’t stand the sight of my winter wardrobe.” This feigned glibness is better than the beginning of—what, dismay?
The phone rings. It is Marc about the editorial. He wants to digitally enhance the moon over the Marrah Mountains. Adam and Erica must not have heard the phone. Marc talks for ten minutes, and Ella is reassured—her own aging is not within the category of death. Death has an immediate quality. Death is in photographs, the men in her family. Her father had sisters. Her mother had sisters. Her father died at the annual Connecticut Antiquarian Society Banquet. Her brother died on a dance floor on a ship on the Indian Ocean.
She’s off the phone. By the window it’s almost as if Adam’s here with her, not in the bedroom. He is a shape so familiar as to be almost incorporeal. A word repeated endlessly. Her glibness with him is a small malice. One of marriage’s perversities.
She starts toward the bedroom door, imagining some romance novelist thinking hard, then writing: “Ella’s heart beat faster now. The core of her being trembled with anticipation.”
Erica’s low-pitched, masculine whimper—Erica, the freshman relativist of their ethics class, smoking on a dorm balcony without inhaling, or stooped over a microscope, beckoning Ella: look at these beads, they’re blood, these long tubular structures are human hair, they look like birches, bitch . . . bitches, birch. Erica on the phone from France, explaining she’s crushed a swan’s egg while canoeing through the flooded woods. Erica, sweaty, whispering drunkenly, an inch from Ella’s face: “Remember, you have to create dissatisfactions.”
The house is quiet now, as if stifled by a reprimand. Ella opens the bedroom door.
The Hiroshima shadows on the walls left by the furniture Adam has rearranged: banal, uncanny. Ella enters and gathers the rug with her toes.
They’ve noticed her, but Ella does not look at them directly—she can’t say why, but looking at them can’t be done today.
“When did you come home?” says Erica.
“A while ago. I didn’t want to come in too soon.”
“I didn’t want to interrupt. I know how hard it is for you to come. Remember when you were about to come, and the hotel guy’s donkey in Peru distracted you?”
Erica’s laugh retains a tenor quality from her boyish orgasm. Ella imagines it as a plum pit in her throat.
“Come in,” says Erica, clearly amused at inviting Ella into Ella’s own bed. Erica’s long arm, her yellow hair, enfold Adam, and Ella is nostalgic for the jealousy she used to love to dislike in herself, nostalgia for a time when it was possible a woman could have taken Adam from her.
“Tired though,” Ella says. She unhooks her skirt, and it falls like an old pious woman onto a church floor. Erica’s stocking drapes the bedpost. Erica likes to wear garters underneath old flannel pants, expensive silk slips under sweaters.
Adam watches Ella through half-open eyes, an arm across his forehead, his tiredness deeper than sleep. She gets into bed next to Erica, who’s saying, “Good. I couldn’t do anything for you right now. I’m exhausted. We didn’t know you were coming home,” and her hair is like sand, it gets everywhere, in Ella’s hair, single wisps in Ella’s mouth and nostrils.
“Did you talk to the snowplow company? It’s practically impossible to open the gate. I had to park around the corner.”
“Yes, tomorrow morning, and I told them if they don’t come this time, we’re going to cancel the service and email my lawyer.”
“You don’t have a lawyer.” Irritation—why? It flows through Ella’s legs, in two vertical currents. She bicycles them under the covers.
“Don’t billow, dear,” says Erica. “It’s cold.”
“Did you get the holes cut for the sink?”
“Not yet.” Erica shifts onto her side, her back to Adam.
“It’s probably more expensive,” Ella says, “to have holes cut in marble than to get a sink pre-made.”
“I can cut a hole myself.” Up close, Erica’s irises have tiny craters in them, lizard scales.
“I don’t think you can.”
“I absolutely can, we just have to get a marble saw.”
“Honestly, you can barely use scissors. I doubt you could cut a perfect circle in marble.”
“Giotto,” Adam says.
“What?” From where she’s lying, over Erica’s shoulder, Ella can only see Adam’s nose in profile, the slope of the bone parallel to the slope of the ceiling. She knows there are little pink veins around his nostrils. In her memory, he is whole. His mouth is disdainful but not sensual. He eats in large bites—it annoys her. How can she be sure he’s tasting the food the way she tastes it? His eyes are pioneering, forward-set.
“In any case, let’s move the slabs into the foyer. So they don’t crack in the cold,” says Erica. “I’ll see about renting the saw. I can cut it this weekend.”
Imperfect circles—Deriba Crater in the editorial photo is overblue, Ella realizes. “Marc called.”
“Marc’s bald,” Erica says immediately.
“I thought we were going this weekend with Korina and her what’s-his-name.” Ella turns onto her stomach.
“God,” says Erica, “they drink too much. And when they don’t, they’re boring. Korina’s trashy, too. I still can’t believe that parking lot story.”
“I told you this a year ago.”
“No, you didn’t. Parking lot?”
“Oh god.” Erica’s way of delivering gossip is dignified. Her voice is clear, like that of a student reciting: “Korina was going to a pharmacy to get some cotton balls, or something, I think her niece broke out with shingles. Then she’s walking to her car and a man jumps out from behind the trash bins and asks for her wallet. She says he had a gun.”
“What, really? Which pharmacy?”
“Excuse me, miss, but may I have your wallet?” Adam murmurs.
“The expensive one on Main,” says Erica. “Korina says she wasn’t very scared, which, of course, is not a sign of courage but another proof of her general lack of imagination. Then she remembers she just went to the bank and has about a thousand dollars on her. It’s a rare occurrence, I’m sure—you know how stingy what’s-his-name is. So the robber’s holding her at gunpoint, and Korina calmly proposes he kiss her and take her phone number instead.”
“Wow.” Ella props herself up on an elbow. She’s looking at Erica’s ring, as familiar as one of her own, a red gold lemniscate, two small dents in each bead. They bought it together in Maine, years ago. It was June, and Erica’s legs were bruised. She was drinking a lot then. She fell down the stairs, off a bike. Bruises like medals. Bronze, gold. It was the summer Erica decided to minimize routine activities: laundry, dishes. She ate fruit solely in the shower, made sandwiches on newspapers. They took long walks. She remembers Erica crumbling a piece of foamed polystyrene. Its bits trailed behind them like synthetic seeds, Erica telling Ella only hyperbole is really true and that, therefore, Ella should never trust her. Maybe therefore Ella did and does.
“I know,” says Erica.
“And he went for the kiss?”
“He did. He kissed her and he squeezed her ass.”
“It must’ve been because it was dark,” Ella says.
“He didn’t take her number, though. He wasn’t stupid, I suppose.”
“She probably subconsciously believes it’s fine because those aren’t even her real lips. Like a flounder. But pretty.”
“Pretty,” Erica repeats.
“Just a kiss or a make-out session?”
“I think it was quick. Some people started coming out of the pharmacy. Can you believe the trashiness? I’ll kiss a robber. As long as he went to Yale.”
Is it that Erica’s personality is so deplorable it circumnavigates the Earth and comes back from the opposite direction as a type of charm? Ella thinks this could be right. All charm, at root, comes from a sense of competitiveness, of self-importance. No one truly humble can be charming. Ella wonders if her face is red. She feels flushed, as if robber-kissed herself. She says, “Korina’s clever. Probably that’s how she got her what’s-his.”
“I miss college,” Erica announces. “It encouraged ignorance in ways I find hard to re-create.”
“Of course, you get out of your speeding tickets this way.”
“I’ve never kissed a cop.”
“You flirt, though.”
“If I do, I write it down, exactly how much flirt. And then I write it off on my state taxes. Cops don’t get a dime from me.”
“A thousand dollars is not a bad rate,” Ella says, “especially if it was only a peck. I wonder if the robber was good-looking.”
“There’s always an appeal to dissolute men.”
“I have one year to live,” says Adam.
Shameful—is it?—the displeasure Ella feels, a long thin coolness in her hands, as if of stroking a champagne flute.
“We know,” says Erica, after a moment. “We really love you, but we hear it every day.” The room is almost dark now. Her eye-whites are spheres of bone.
“Don’t think we don’t understand how difficult—” Ella hesitates. Her thought drops, lost.
“That’s why you’re doing this, of course,” he says.
A moment of abstracted empathy, of Adam’s mind as Ella understands it: too much forced into too few dimensions, three in bed tonight, behind them, in the large window, snow and the progressing night, trees, rows of houses full of beds and other people in the beds. The three of them in bed the first time, months ago, him fucking Ella on her stomach, Erica atop her, facing him, kissing him. Ella’s ass between Erica’s thighs. Chimera. Even further, further rows of trees, houses, beds, trees, houses. Beds. America, Europe. A print from his childhood: Napoleon’s escape from Russia. Far on the time-warped horizon, the sky is snowless and light again. An information overload. A final stamp on Adam’s brain.
“With dying people, you always feel like you have to be sensitive. Maybe being sensitive is being insensitive.” Erica’s fingers proceed through her hair, single strands catching between the ring’s beads. “We don’t want to be condescending.”
“No, you’re right,” says Ella, eyes on Erica. “To be completely honest, there will be a period of mourning. A long one. But, at some point, we’ll just have to find another man to do this with.”
Magdalena Zyzak is the author of The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel (Henry Holt, 2014). She was born in 1983 in Zabrze, Poland, and now lives in the United States. (10/2013)