It was 8 o’clock on Monday morning when Claire woke up. Her eyes still closed, she lay on her right side, on the right edge of the bed, searching for consciousness. The first thought she had was, ‘I love you no longer.’ It rose in her mind calmly and without anger like a fog over a damp, heath-covered field. Not fog – it is called le brouillard, she thought, how inadequate English is sometimes to describe certain things.
She turned to her left side and opened her eyes, and the first thing she saw was the back of her husband’s head. It had a comforting look, its rounded slope covered with slightly wavy black hair, thinning gently on the crown. She’d loved this part of his body, found adorable this rare sign of aging in a man otherwise stunningly vigorous and youthful. In the first several years Claire had kissed the top of his head playfully, much to his protest. Even now, she was surprised by how much she still loved the back of his head, his chubby neck and the rounded, muscular back like a sleeping bear’s.
Feeling suddenly tender – tenderness being an emotion that only exists in spontaneous discovery – Claire made up her mind to be gentle and sweet to him until the last. She kissed him softly on the cheek and whispered, ‘I love you.’ He pushed her away, still groggy and wanting to be left alone, but when she recoiled, hurt, he pulled her in close to him. ‘This is our problem,’ Claire thought as she brushed off his arm, ‘we can never make up our minds to be nice to each other at the same time.’ Paul quickly gave up trying to embrace her and rolled out of bed, complaining of the cold. Why had she turned off the radiator in the living room? She hadn’t – Claire shouted back – why would she? She stayed in bed while he went to take a shower; the next minute, he came out of it dripping wet, roaring that there was no hot water. So Claire hadn’t turned off the radiator, after all, the whole boiler must be out. It was always during the coldest weeks in the year that this happened. He dried off, cursing, while Claire silently splashed her face with icy water and put on her make-up. This was a regular morning ritual, how they began their day – like walking on gravel, sharp and uncomfortable. At another point in their relationship, the mornings had been the best part, like walking on cobblestone, cozy and romantic and exciting at the same time. Now, even as he made their coffee and she got dressed they kept shouting at one another over the smallest things, only to make up at the last minute when they kissed goodbye. Paul went to work and Claire pulled on her coat and scarf and headed out.
It was all white and gray outside and there was three feet of snow on either end of the sidewalk, leaving a passage just wide enough for one person. Claire breathed in the cold, bracing air and felt her spirits lifting. She marched on cheerfully, enjoying the crunch of the salt and snow under her boots. The cold heightened her awareness of her body, and thinking with her body was something in which she’d always excelled. Her body said, stop obsessing for godsakes and focus on moving yourself across this patch of ice. The cold forced her away from the languor and misery of her feelings; and that was why she needed this winter to hold as long as possible.
And they’d been saying for weeks that it was one of the worst winters New York had ever seen. Snowfall after snowfall after snowfall. Even now, a few innocent-looking snowflakes were starting to descend, as soft and fat and round as cotton balls. Anyone else would have been sick of snow by now, but Claire could never fail to be moved by it. Out of consistency, she thought. Only boring people change all the time, and consistency was a mark of character. She had always loved snow, she will always love snow even when she no longer loves snow.
By this point she was thinking not just to herself, but was also telling him. She hadn’t heard so much as a text from him in the past few weeks but she still carried on full conversations with him in her head. She was constantly sending messages into the ether which she felt would be met, somehow, on the other end. He knew that she loved snow; she knew that he’d think of her when it snowed, maybe not with every flurry but sometimes. Like at this moment. Whenever she ached for him.
When they’d first met, in midsummer, she knew that by the coldest point in the winter they’d be over. ‘Time is not on our side, darling,’ she’d smiled, her hands clasped behind his neck, the circle of her arms resting on his. He’d refused to believe what she meant, saying he was patient. If she had to take some time to sort things out with her husband, he would be waiting. His feelings wouldn’t change. Would never change, he had said.
But Claire did not want to think about that just now. The snow was falling faster and thicker. She rounded a corner and ducked into the subway entrance. When she reached the platform, she caught her breath – it was snowing inside the station, as well! Shimmery, silver snow was falling slowly like fairy dust over the train tracks. Claire peeked up at the ceiling. It had to be those ventilation grates that you pass by, from which you see huge, unsavory steam billow out during summer. Things were always falling through those cracks and never anything good – and now she knew where it all went. Still, she’d never noticed it raining inside the station before, no matter what kind of deluge it was under. Maybe there is another sky above this one where it is snowing even harder. Maybe we are all just living under the grates and calling that the sky.
A few days earlier there had been an article in the New York Times about a rare phenomenon, a supernova in a galaxy billions of light years away from Earth. An explosion of a star brighter than a thousand suns. Of course it had occurred billions of years ago, that alone was enough to make your head spin; but the truly thrilling part was that this had already been observed decades ago. Due to some curvature of light across the universe, we were seeing a replay of the same supernova that we’d previously seen, but from another angle. The scientists could even calculate when it would appear next in the sky. Claire thought it was sort of ‘neat’, using one of her words, following ‘exquisite’. She felt vindicated about her tendency to experience multiple realities existing in past, present, and future – being in one place in body while her mind was in another. Once she’d even lived two summers simultaneously. She was always being pulled in opposite directions, which drove her nearly mad. And yet the universe itself was on a constant loop. Time had significance still, yes sometimes she’d even felt it weighing on her knobby joints and blooming like a desert rose on her cheeks, but the chronology of time certainly fell into disrepute. What did it matter if the supernova had happened just once if we could experience it as if it were happening again and again? What did it matter if it happened n billion years ago, or n billion – x years ago, or n billion – 2x years ago? We were all just living under a sky under a sky, in which there was a supernova happening every x years.
Claire passed by the Lincoln Center and noted that the fountain, like the whole plaza itself, was covered in snow. She walked a few more blocks and then entered the studio, trailing cold air and salt. She said hello to the girl working at the front desk, stripped off her coat and extra layers in the dressing room, and pulled her hair into a bun at the nape of her neck. Behind her, Claire could sense people already walking in, shaking their boots free of salt and snow. She didn’t feel like putting on her public face yet, her ‘teacher face’ – welcoming, calm, but also a level removed. That carefully calibrated, mildly sanitized presence expected from anyone who instructs. She put on her music, smiled at the clients (the preferred term at the studio), gave each of them a piece of her warmth while rubbing sanitizing gel into her hands. It left her smelling like a spotless kitchen counter. Typical teacher move.
Claire looked around the half-full room and registered her regular morning clients, women who were older than her but not by much. She had two kinds of clients: her morning group of women who didn’t work, and her evening group who did. The morning group lived on the Upper West Side and were generally thinner and fitter and chirpier. They were used to both being taken care of and taking care. They were also more likely to come in with a judgmental attitude: was she a good teacher? Was she thin enough? Pretty enough? What brand of leggings was she wearing? The evening group came in after work in Midtown and were rather softer, especially around the middle: years of pulling in 80 to 100 hour weeks were very good for the wallet but not as good for the body. They didn’t take care, they took control; they weren’t as judgmental, but more straightforwardly demanding. Was this the correct form? Will this flatten your abs or thin your thighs? How long until you can see progress? The former group thrived on validation from favorable comparisons against other women, while the latter group was results-focused, self-possessed and keen on high ROI. Perhaps it was remarkable that these women’s behavior in ballet class exactly mirrored their outside lives. Or perhaps it was not remarkable at all.
But once the class actually started, Claire forgot all these cynical mental notes. She really did fill with pride, even love, for these fully grown women perspiring copiously, squinting their eyes against the sweat, even moaning audibly as they followed her cues. She swept around the room shouting motivational words, whispering encouragingly into a client’s ear, straightening a bent knee or tilting a hip down. She was possessed of a commanding energy, like a shaman initiating novitiates into a rite of mystery. At the close, when she whispered the relaxing commands to stretch out their legs and release head neck and shoulders – to just inhale, exhale – they really did let go of something from deep within them, no matter how opinionated and judgmental they had been before class. She loved to see how they settled into their bones and skin, because that is how she herself knew she would live. Sometimes it was more important than anything else to feel your own bones heavy on the earth, to be able to feel you existed.
She slowly turned the lights back on and people started the noisy process of collecting their belongings, either dashing out with a quick ‘Thank you’ or smiling sheepishly and lingering. Claire smiled at them all, gave praise or encouragement to each, mindlessly sanitizing her hands again as the next class filtered in. She taught a third class after that. By this point she was nearly faint with exhaustion as she slowly pulled on her coat and boots. Then, because she’d been so good, so focused and motivated through it all, she allowed herself one look at her phone. Nothing. Each time she checked her phone and didn’t see a message, she thought she was less disappointed than the last time. She could take a hint, couldn’t she? And yet. Her boots felt that much heavier, her knees weaker, and her shoulders slouched, unable to hold that ballerina carriage any longer. That was what despair felt like in the body. She felt she would collapse under the weight of her coat. But no, not here. She pushed open the door and walked into the white afternoon stretched out before her.
It was almost three and Claire had had nothing except a coffee soon after waking. She decided to get something to eat before heading home. When she reached Columbus Circle, she was startled by a tap on her elbow, and turned to find a young woman with dark, slanted eyes and long, straight dark hair.
‘Excuse me Miss, can I talk to you for a second? I usually never do this, but I had to tell you – you need help.’ The young woman said. Claire just looked back at her, not understanding.
‘You are going through a really tough time with very important decisions. You have big changes coming in your life. What I’m seeing is that . . . your world is about to turn upside down,’ the woman said, lightly gripping Claire’s elbow with her small, thin fingers. Claire’s heart beat a little faster as she fought the urge to shake off the hand.
‘I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.’ Claire said, bewildered – was she that nakedly miserable-looking? Or that gullible-seeming? Neither was an appealing answer.
‘Listen to me, please,’ the woman rambled on. ‘I’ve been seeing things since I was ten years old. Some things that are terrible for a child to see and hear, even for an adult to see and hear. Do you think I wanted that for my life? It’s not a choice. I can’t choose what I see but this is what was given to me. And what I see is that you need my help. I will give you a free reading and you don’t have to follow any of it or believe it, that’s your call.’ She slipped a pamphlet into Claire’s hand, something with crudely drawn illustration of a body with symbols along its spine and words like clarity and destiny around it.
Strange things were happening to her all the time. People were always approaching her on the streets, some more bizarre than others. The young woman was still staring intently at her with those sphinx eyes. She said, prophetically, ‘You have a broken heart.’
‘Everyone has a broken heart,’ Claire said. She shook her elbow free, and the sphinx woman let go reluctantly, muttering something darkly under her breath. Claire walked quickly away and ducked into Whole Foods, losing herself in the crowd. It was the least busy time of the day but as she waited in line she still thought she’d lose her mind for impatience. When she finally squeezed herself between strangers and sat facing some food in a waxed paper container, her hand grasping the plastic fork was shaking lightly. She swallowed a few mouthfuls without tasting any of it; once the energy started circulating through her body, she put the fork down and sighed deeply.
This was how it began. One night last summer, her friend Leah invited her to a party at her place on Bethune Street. It was one of those occasion-less parties people give about once a season when they realize they haven’t seen any of their friends for a while and decide to cram all their social catching-up into one night. Leah was Claire’s childhood friend; they had both grown up in a small town in northern California that only sent a handful of its high-school grads to college each year, and none to the East Coast. They’d somehow both made their way to New York after graduating from different colleges, staying in touch through it all, some years more closely and more often than others.
What really bonded them wasn’t their childhood but those early years in the city when they were both single. For a brief period right out of college Claire had a rotating roster of men who took her out on dates, not just at some convenient, reliably good place near their work or apartment but at trendy bars or restaurants that had been written about and talked about. In retrospect she realized that this was one way men showed how much they wanted you although at the time she just enjoyed it without giving it any thought. Then quite suddenly one of them rose to the top by virtue of being more solid than all the others, and that was Paul. He made the reservations, courted her meticulously, and called and texted her more frequently and attentively than any of the others. He knew she was seeing other people but didn’t say anything about it until he’d occupied all the space they’d once had. Then he said, Of course I knew, but I’d already made up my mind you were mine. And that confidence both exasperated and intrigued Claire, it made her think that what they had was love and destiny. She was too young to know otherwise.
Before that happened, though, Claire and Leah would get together for drinks, dancing until dawn and then meeting up again later that day to gossip and sweat out their hangovers at the gym. Leah went on dates too, less often and with fewer men, and no one lasted or made a real impression. Part of that had to do with her finance job; the hours just didn’t give much room for error. Leah was a determined, take control kind of person from the beginning; so this aspect of her life not working to her satisfaction was a huge wound to her self-esteem, which Claire enthusiastically took upon herself to nurse back to health.
Leah heading to business school was, of course, a natural progression of her career, but if she wasn’t exactly going there to find a husband, she did feel the change of scene would present more interesting romantic opportunities. After she got her degree it still took her another three years to meet Robert, at a company party. By this point Claire had already been married for three years, but Leah wasted no time with anything. She got married in exactly eighteen months, and then had two children, one year apart, a boy and a girl.
Leah’s career had taken off in those single years after getting her MBA, so she was well-settled with work; her position was such that she could now enjoy presiding over a lovely dinner party surrounded by friends. She wore a cobalt silk crepe dress and when she laughed and raised her glass her gold bangles slid down the length of her arm and made shimmering sounds. The candles flickered on the tables, smelling of gardenia and tuberoses. The other guests were well-mannered, a funny and smart sort of people who never interrupted each other or took over the conversation, all playing themselves perfectly like actors in a well-executed scene.
It was just the kind of affect that Claire enjoyed observing and complementing, but this time she found herself losing her focus. She didn’t know why, exactly, although there had been little triggers – like the fact that she’d been fighting with Paul more and more, which was also why he’d stayed home. At the start of summer, her contract as adjunct instructor of modern dance at City College had not been renewed, and she’d been trying to get another position for months to no avail. She was afraid of going into the fall without something lined up, and that was straining her relationship with Paul further. Then during the cheese course someone brought up the issue of nannies, and Leah had a lot to say on the subject; and somehow Claire put it together that Leah’s nanny made more than she had at her teaching job (now gone), even though no one was crass enough to actually discuss what they paid. It put her teeth on edge, and she quite lost the remaining enthusiasm she’d had for the party; she was just gliding along, smiling brightly while digging her fingernails discreetly into the soft suede of her arm rest, just to have some small sense of release.
Somehow she managed to stay until midnight without alarming Leah with her unhappiness, and then finally walking down the front steps she felt the purest relief in being alone again. She started walking up on Hudson Street towards the subway on 14th Street; she began to feel a little better about herself and the state of things, and at any rate, the night was beautiful and richly black and balmy. Just standing there in the breeze was like being caressed. So that was what she did; she just stood there on a corner, breathing it all in.
She saw someone rounding the far corner of her block, coming into her view under the amber light of street lamps. He became gradually closer, until he stopped right in front of her.
‘Are you waiting for someone?’ he asked, which wasn’t so far-fetched, since just a few blocks up there were bars and clubs that would just be getting busy at this time on a Friday night. But she was obviously not waiting, there were no restaurants or anything like that on that block. While she was heading toward that conclusion she took in his face, his eyes especially and his easy smile, and the tall, lean frame with his sleeves rolled up to the elbows. ‘No, I’m not waiting for anyone,’ she said. And then she added, maybe a bit defensively, ‘It’s a beautiful night, and I don’t want to go home just yet.’
He smiled at that, as if she’d said exactly what he’d been waiting to hear. ‘Then why don’t you let me buy you a drink? Come with me.’ She realized his eyes were very blue. It didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Paul had probably ended up going out with his friends, anyhow. And then just like that they went together a few blocks away, sat on the patio of a hotel bar. Three hours went by like minutes. When he said how old he was Claire said, my god you are so young! He was four years younger than her and that was more shocking than the fact that she was married and having drinks with a man who wasn’t her husband. Being paid court by a young handsome guy was not a bad thing for her self-esteem, she reasoned. Then when he walked her to the subway, they both pretended to be more tipsy than they were, looping their arms around each other’s waist. She felt so much thrill from putting her right hand flat against his body that it was actually intoxicating. His right hip left a memory like a light burn on her palm. They stopped in front of the subway, faces lingering closely for a while. She kissed him on the cheek and said, ‘You are so handsome I wish I could take your photo and show you off to all my girlfriends.’
He said, ‘Take it next time we meet. Tomorrow. Can we meet tomorrow?’
‘Maybe,’ she said, smiling hesitantly.
‘I’m going to text you in a bit. Let me know when you get home. Just want to check you’re safe,’ he said.
She winked at him and descended the steps, not knowing whether she’d really ever see him again.
That was how they met.
It stayed so cold all week that it was impossible to think straight about anything else. On Thursday she had dinner with Leah in the West Village. Her son had had a mild fever so she was working from home that day but it turned out that he had cleared up straight away. Claire listened to Leah talk about children’s vaccines and the dangers of play dates with focused interest.
Then, after they were halfway through their dinner, Leah asked, ‘How is it with Paul these days?’
‘Better. We don’t argue anymore. Peaceable. But you know – when I wake up in the morning, or right before I fall asleep, what I think about is how it can’t go on like this.’
‘So what will you do? Will you move out?’
‘I don’t really have the choice, at least not until I hear about my grant. Also, it isn’t as though we don’t care about one another just because I see that it can’t go on. All that warmth doesn’t just disappear all of a sudden.’
‘You still care about him.’
‘Yes, but it’s more than that. Don’t you look at Robert sometimes – maybe not even directly, just the profile of his face or how he looks when he’s walking toward you, or the back of his head, or even trivial things like his belt, his wallet – and just feel a kind of ache in your heart? That feeling like you’ve crossed oceans together and for one another? Nothing can change that.’
Leah, of course, loved her husband, though his belongings didn’t move her. She didn’t understand how some people could attach meaning to every little thing. And therefore she said, ‘So maybe it means you do still love him, that there is hope and you will stay together.’
‘I do still love him, in my own way, but that is impossible. It’s like,’ Claire rolled her eyes up to the ceiling, ‘like when you know a word in a certain language, one that doesn’t exist in any other language; and you’re trying to explain this word to another person who doesn’t speak the language, and by translating it all you do is make it sound so gauche and rusty that you can’t help but cringe; your best efforts have nothing of the real essence and nuance of the original word. And that is what it feels like between Paul and me – and I’m that word.’
They sipped their drinks. Leah didn’t know how much more she could do for her friend, though she did know that one has to take responsibility for one’s own life and in Claire’s case that meant figuring out what she really wanted and going in one direction or another. One couldn’t choose both backwards and forwards, left and right, and expect to get anywhere. But she thought better of saying all that, and just said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’
Claire was trying to figure it all out. She was applying for a residency fellowship at an artist’s colony. It was due at the end of the month and though she hadn’t choreographed anything in a long time or danced seriously in years, she’d been preparing for it with all the effort she had remaining. Besides the usual references and artist statement, there was also a video requirement for performance artists; though she had a few she could submit from her early years in the city when she’d both choreographed and danced more – with small downtown troupes that performed in half-full auditoriums at NYU or Columbia – she wanted to create something new to submit, something that felt right to her now. If she got it, she’d be staying at the colony in Maine for four months with complete freedom to create, interact and work with other artists, rekindling her artistic flame. This might be the last chance she would get to create something. Something that mattered, and had its own significance. It was either this or – she didn’t want to think about the alternative.
It had been her lover who gave her the idea. Not in so many words, but when she was with him she was reminded of all the things she loved. She was filled with hope and energy, felt like she could do anything. Without him she’d never have thought of doing something on her own. That she worked with her body was something that all men found fascinating and he was no exception. Most women are more intimately connected to their bodies than men are to theirs, but Claire was even more so, which made her seem quintessentially feminine. And seeing herself through his eyes, she felt again like herself as a dancer and a woman, and that gave her courage.
When she was with Paul she could only think of what he wanted her to do or be: a good wife and companion. He didn’t mind that she was no longer throwing herself into dance, that she’d phased from a downtown modern dancer to an adjunct professor to someone who taught ballet for toning to uptown moms. He couldn’t understand that she was literally in pain and grief.
‘Does Paul know that you’re applying for this?’ Leah asked. Paul did know, although he showed no outward signs that he understood how important it was to her. In his usual confident way he made it sound like it’s great if she gets it, fine if she doesn’t, and that upset her too. It came down to this: Claire was all about things that stood for something, and nothing else interested her; Paul was the opposite, he only cared for things that did not stand for anything beyond what they were. Technology, investments, football, cars, nice suits and great drinks. He didn’t worry about the meaning of things, he just liked the things themselves. He even loved people that way. Uncomplicated.
Friday was Claire’s day off. She was going to start the day a little more relaxed, but couldn’t help but rise to her regular beat. As soon as Paul was out of the apartment, she was up and about, taking care of chores left and right with a bright, humming energy. In truth, she was anxious to breaking point and was keeping herself busy almost on purpose. She’d started the week with the conviction that she’d hear from him again by Friday. It was that snowstorm on Monday that had given her that hope. And later that day, the psychic on the street who had said she was headed for big changes, that her world would turn upside down – and what other thing could be coming her way? Every day this week she’d been waiting without admitting it to herself. But it was already four in the afternoon, she was finished with all the chores and errands, and still there was nothing. At four thirty, while she was scrubbing the inside of the fridge for lack of anything better to do, the phone started buzzing in her bedroom. She ran to it, heart pounding, but it was only Paul, asking where she’d like to go for dinner. After they spoke, she lay limply on the bed, clutching her phone. The disappointment was hollowing.
This was what she deserved. It was what she’d asked for, if not what she wanted. When they’d last met three weeks ago, she’d been the one to break it off. She hated lying and being deceitful and being split in two all the time. They couldn’t just be friends, that much was clear, so the only possible solution was to never see each other again. When he realized what she was saying, he looked so wounded that she immediately wished she could take everything back. What she thought most about was that look of confused pain, like a young animal that completely trusted its caretaker, being hurt by that person for the first time.
Yes, she’d lost much of what he’d told her already. At first what she replayed over and over in her mind was everything he’d said, how much he loved her. But it only took a handful of days before the words faded and rang hollow in her mind. What remained were body memories: her palm on his right hip; their kisses and how their bodies met; and how he’d looked at her as if she were a pool he’d like to drown in. Chin cocked to one side, his eyes filled to the brim with her, dazed smile, a look of disbelief and bliss. It should have been enough that she had that memory, to have had someone look at her that way. But it wasn’t enough and she wanted so much more that she felt she might burst into tears.
She checked the time on her phone and decided she would just send him a hello. She’d already paid so much for her actions with courage or will power or whatever it was that was keeping her alive, that she was completely empty and broken. She wrote, How are you? and pressed send before she could change her mind. Then she got up from the bed; it would only make her nerves worse to lie there waiting. She busied herself with a few more errands before dinner, running to the grocery store before it got busy with the after-work crowd. She came home freezing to the bones, and then took a bath to try to warm herself back up again. When she got out, she checked her phone – and still there was nothing.
On Fridays they liked to go out to eat, and she’d picked a restaurant on Ninth Avenue near his work. They said there was going to be another snowstorm overnight, and the temperature was supposed to go down to zero. The snow started when she was walking toward the restaurant at eight thirty and it kept falling as she waited for Paul to arrive, sitting at the bar. She ordered an Old Fashioned and sat slightly turned to the windows, letting the snow fill up the emptiness. He wasn’t going to text her back, she was sure of it now.
Paul arrived and they were seated by nine. They had both had a long week and so they ate in near silence, lost in their own thoughts. From time to time, Paul would pick up his phone muttering, ‘I just have to write one email,’ but Claire no longer even cared – she preferred watching the white snow fill out the black night, anyway. After the plates were cleared and they had finally acclimated to each other’s presence, Paul reached over and pressed Claire’s hand, just for a moment.
‘Did you see that story about the supernova on the New York Times?’ Paul asked. ‘You know what that means?’
‘What does it mean?’
‘Curvature of light means curvature of the universe. Think about it. Take a piece of paper and mark an x on opposite diagonal corners. Then the shortest distance between the two x’s, is a straight line on the plane of the paper. But if you could bend the piece of paper so that the two x’s meet, then you have a wormhole where you can travel through time. You could come out of either end, and end up in the past or in the future.’
‘Like taking a subway?’
‘Something like that.’
If only she could do that. If she could go back in time, she would rather that they did not meet. Claire’s thoughts were as hard, heavy, and cold as stone. She would rather that she did not live all those years with Paul. And then when she met him, she wouldn’t let him go.
She felt like crying out in despair. She did not want. This loneliness. Instead she just smiled wanly.
‘Are you okay? What’s wrong?’ Paul asked.
‘I’m fine. Just tired.’
‘Are you sure?’
Claire shrugged. Paul was used to her being like this. Normally he would have asked for the check and then they would have walked out together, talking about nothing in particular. But something in her face made him say, ‘You don’t ever explain anything. You can tell me.’
‘Not like if I explained everything you’d understand.’
She didn’t know where to begin so she just shook her head.
‘I know things haven’t been easy lately, Claire . . .’ Paul reached over the table for her hand again. ‘We’ve both been under a lot of stress with work, and this weather doesn’t help, either. My work will slow down a little in spring . . . let’s go on vacation then. Somewhere warm. It’s kind of nice that you’re not teaching at CUNY anymore since you can take off anytime, now.’
‘What I want isn’t a vacation,’ Claire said, red-eyed. ‘You just don’t get me.’ She wrenched her hand back and covered her face with it.
Seeing her like this, Paul instinctively thought two things: first, that she looked so tiny, and tired, which reminded him how he’d felt from the very beginning, that he should protect her; and the second thought was just one word – wife. He reached over and put his hand on her arm. ‘You think that I don’t understand you, but I disagree. I understand you as much as I can or anyone can. You’re not exactly easy, you know. You’re good with words, so if you said anything to contradict me I wouldn’t win. But listen,’ he took a deep breath. ‘I don’t have to know every part of you to know that I love you. You will never not be full of secrets and dark corners where I can’t go. And I don’t want to shine light on all your hidden parts, and that’s not what you want either. You need your hiding places like a little wild animal. But I know all I need to know to be in love with you. And you don’t believe me when I tell you, but I love you. I love you. I love you.’
They looked at one another in silence. Claire’s eyes and nose became hot. This love was what she had. It was different than what she wanted or needed, but it was real. He was giving her the best he could ever give, she knew. She just didn’t know if she could be happy with it.
‘Hold me,’ she said. He got up from his chair, sat next to her in the booth and enveloped her in his arms. When her tears finally broke loose he patted her head softly, without saying anything. They stayed like that for a long time.
When they rose, she found she didn’t want to go home just yet. He was worried about leaving her alone, but he walked with her to the studio and then they split off. She watched the back of him disappear into the snowy night. Then she unlocked the door and turned on the lights in the studio. She was full of something that needed to spill out and she could do that best with music and movement. She went to the dressing room and changed into some extra clothes she kept there. Back in the studio, she rolled her bare feet through some plié-relevés, finding bearing on the wooden floor. Then she started dancing, which was in truth more like her body speaking its own language.
They said it was the coldest night of the winter and it probably was. It snowed the entire night. When she was too tired to keep moving she lay on the floor and watched the sky slowly light up. Finally she got up, wrapped herself in clothes, turned off all the lights and walked outside. The blizzard was such that the sky was less like sky than a few small spaces in the air that weren’t snow. It was hard to plant one foot after another; she pulled her hood closely over her head, but it was barely enough to protect her eyes. The cold, with the wind chill, was unimaginable. There was hardly anyone on the streets; no one without urgent business was going out this early on a Saturday, in this weather. The only person she saw was a man outside a grocery store with a dolly, receiving a fruit delivery. She was about to pass by him when, without warning, a sudden gust of wind knocked all his boxes down. Oranges tumbled out and rolled in all directions over the snow. Claire stopped dead in her tracks, less because of the oranges sitting strangely but inevitably on the sidewalk, but because the snow seemed just now to be falling up. That same mysterious gust of wind was blowing the snow back into the sky. Not just for a few moments but for a very long time, the world looked like it really was upside down.
She felt she could laugh or cry. She could stay, or walk away. She could continue on or start over. She could love and be loved, or close herself off from that insanity for the rest of this life. She could take one step, and then another and another, as she’d always done, or sink down, give into her eternal weakness, stay right at that spot and not move an inch. That was a seductive idea. She was tremendously exhausted; she wanted to rest. It would be lovely to feel her heavy bones held up by the fresh snow, littered with oranges. She could live on or she could die. Each was an equally valid option.
Always being pulled in opposite directions was how she remained upright.
Photograph © Jeremy Chivers