As the sun falls into the room and across the furniture, Rachel Blumberg opens her eyes and, for a moment, has no idea where she is. “I feel claustrophobic,” she says to Harold, already awake. “Move the furniture back.”
“But Rachel,” he says, drawing himself out of bed. “You said it made the room look bigger.”
“I never said any such thing,” she says.
She seems to remember thinking at one time the room needed to be opened up. Still, knowing this doesn’t account for much. She loses things somewhere between the last few seconds of day and the first seconds of sunlight.
“Are you all right?” Harold says from the bathroom. “Do you want me to call Dr. Murphy?”
“I’m fine,” she says, slipping into her robe.
She escapes into Daniel’s room to finish tidying it up. When he went away to New York, the Blumbergs got rid of everything in the room and bought a filing cabinet and a bookshelf stuffed with dusty books. For a while, Harold planned to add an extension to the house, but hasn’t gotten around to it. Something Rachel has a tough time forgiving him for, as it would make living there more bearable. She hates the house, with its faux-wood paneling and brown shag carpet. She’s tried over the years to talk Harold into moving, but he simply shrugs her off.
“When your pension kicks in,” he usually says, “then we’ll think about it.”
Rachel teaches geometry to sophomores at the local high school. Although she loves the sense of order it brings to her disorderly life, she can’t imagine ever going back there. Since Daniel’s death, the thought of standing up in front of a classroom terrifies her. She has three long summer months to decide what to do. One more box to pack up and I’m done, she thinks, running a finger along a shelf devoted to books on grieving. Elaine gave them to her when her own daughter died of leukemia, saying, “These really helped me through the worst of it.”
Out in the kitchen, Harold says, “Do you want me to come with you to the airport?”
The open pill bottle sits beside her bowl.
“No, I don’t,” she says, counting out three pills. “And while I’m gone, how about trimming the ivy away from the trees like you promised?”
Harold looks up at her, sprinkles a handful of cheddar cheese over his grits, and says, “Yes, dear.”
A year ago. A strange man on the other end of the telephone telling her in-between sobs the news about Daniel. The voice kept repeating her name, Rachel Blumberg, as though he weren’t sure he’d dialed the right number. Everything he said ended with a question mark, so that even she felt he’d made a mistake. Hadn’t he?
Rachel still hasn’t gotten over the way she handled the news, as if it were happening to someone else entirely. She expected to react differently, to run through the house screaming, to chop off all her hair, to set fire to the backyard. But she isn’t this kind of woman. She’s more like her mother than she cares to admit. She recalls her mother’s bizarre behavior after Rachel’s father died of a massive coronary. The dozens of young men her mother saw, as if she were holding tryouts rather than dating. These rendezvous inspirited her mother, but they enervated Rachel, who had to hear all about them. And then: one of them took and grew and two months later there was a civil ceremony. For months, Rachel condemned her mother’s hasty remarriage. She refused to speak to her when she called and made excuses not to visit. No wedding gift sent, no note of kindness or even a mazel tov.
She summed it up for Elaine once: “Forty-seven years of marriage, escaping Hitler, building a life together on Long Island meant nothing to her. Well, it meant something to me. Where is her loyalty, I ask you?”
Ten years ago, the cruelty of silence was a part of her youth. She regrets those months, wishes she could have seen past the loneliness, past the arbitrariness of her mother marrying a man half her age. When Rachel finally spoke to her again, things between them remained strained. She didn’t recognize this other woman or what she was saying about her father, and it frightened her.
“I loved your father,” her mother said, “but I never should’ve married him. Frank makes me feel like a teenager. We went dancing last night, Rachel. And then we stayed up to watch the sunrise. It was the most romantic evening I’ve ever had.”
“You’re in shock, Mother,” Rachel said. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“If this is shock, darling, then I’m loving it,” her mother replied.
Feelings haunt her, especially the feelings of not having done enough when her mother was alive, that if she’d been a better daughter, she might have made a better mother. This same principle she applies to Daniel as well.
If I’d been a better mother, she thinks, he might still be alive.
Rachel grips the steering wheel tightly in her throbbing, arthritic fingers. Everyone handles grief differently, she thinks, driving around San Antonio’s airport until she pulls up to the short-term parking lot and eases the window, grabbing a ticket. As she does, she catches her face in the rearview mirror. It’s as blank as any note she might have found among Daniel’s possessions. If only he’d left a note, she thinks. But there wasn’t any note, not even a goodbye.
At the gate, passengers pour off the gangway, bewildered, arms loaded down with bags. She looks for Daniel among them, always looks for him in a crowd, as if the last year were nothing more than a magic trick. Sometimes, she convinces herself that it is and that any day, Daniel will call and say, “Come to New York, Mom. We’ll take in a show.”
While she rummages through her purse for her lipstick, someone touches her shoulder, and she jumps.
“Mrs. Blumberg? Rachel?” the man asks.
She wheels around slowly and faces him and though she’s carried around a picture of Cliff in her mind for months, the image barely matches up to the one before her. For one thing, this man is tall, thin, and black. For another, he’s strangely familiar-looking. She recognizes something in his eyes, set diligently into his wide face, the full lips, the angular jaw.
“Cliff Williams,” he says, “Pleased to meet you.”
“Oh, yes, well, we—me and my husband—we’re so pleased you could make it. It means so much to us that you’re here,” she says, though she never expected Cliff to come in the first place. In fact, when he’d called last month to ask if he could stay, she’d done her best to talk him out of it.
It was Harold who’d said, “It’s not like we don’t have the room, Rachel. Three days go fast. You’ll see.”
In the car, Rachel thinks about the last PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting she went to months ago. Many years later, she still blames herself as any mother might for her child’s same-sex attraction. Elaine, who runs the biweekly meetings, told her that getting used to it was like getting used to an amputated limb. But for Rachel, it’s more like getting over the surprising idea she never knew her own boy. Like when she accidentally found his stash of porno magazines—Playgirl, Hustler, Cherry, Swank, Kandi, Lick—while cleaning up Daniel’s room one afternoon. She counted over a hundred of them scattered under his bed. She didn’t wonder how or where or why he’d gotten them. He was a teenager, awkward and gaunt, and spent hours in the bathroom, lighting candles, and listening to Bauhaus. He wore black.
On the way home, Cliff says, “I hope you don’t mind, but I took it upon myself to invite the cast of Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My.”
This was Daniel’s last Broadway show, an all-male revue, in which he played The Great and Powerful Oz. The show was a tell-all, told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West whom Cliff played.
“No, not at all,” she says, although she can’t imagine what sort of people will turn up.
“Daniel was quite an Oz,” Cliff says. “A wonderful wizard.”
“Yes, we read a review of the show,” she says. “I wish we could’ve seen it.”
“Luckily, we’re starting the road-show in about a month,” he says. “I’ll get you tickets.”
“Splendid,” she says. “I’ve always thought the witch got the short end of the stick. It’s about time someone shined a small light on her suffering, too.”
Cliff says, “Well, I’m glad you see it that way. A lot of folks think that what we’re doing goes against everything L. Frank Baum stood for. The guy was a proto-communist, did you know that?”
“No, I did not,” she says as she pulls into the parking lot of Robert E. Lee High School. Mid-afternoon and the sun’s beginning its slow descent. Rachel smells Cliff beside her, his aftershave, which Daniel might have given him. She wrings her hands.
“I have to run inside quickly,” she says, “to pick up a box of stuff. I’ll only be a minute.”
“I’ll wait here, I guess,” he says, lighting a cigarette while rolling down his window.
Rachel wanders into the quiet, empty building. She’s there to get her box and leave. But she can’t help lingering and finds something undeniably lovely about being in school when regular school isn’t in session.
In her classroom, Rachel gathers up the files, the folders, her Teacher of the Year award, the rulers, graph paper, protractors, all the things that mean so much less now that they are crammed in a box. Before she leaves the building, she heads to the bathroom at the end of the hall, where she catches sight of Cliff strolling toward the football field. She applies some lipstick and with the box in arms she hurries to the car whose trunk is overflowing with junk: some of Harold’s old shirts she’s been meaning to give to Goodwill, an unusable spare tire, a stack of newspapers, a box of Daniel’s full of what she doesn’t recollect. She places her own box in the backseat and then pulls this smaller box out and heads toward the bleachers.
Cliff sits on the risers, smoking a cigarette. He waves at her from across the field, a curl of smoke escaping from his mouth.
“Are you ready to go?” he calls.
“Not quite,” she says, rearranging the box in her arms.
Far heavier than she predicted, she wonders what part of Daniel’s life hides inside it. She wants to open it but is afraid of what she may find. Will there be more magazines, hateful letters to her he never sent? Some things, she knows, are better left in the dark. She’s not too sure how Cliff will react when he sees what she is about to do, but she doesn’t really care. If he wants an explanation, I’ll refer him to one of Elaine’s books, she thinks, or simply tell him what I read—how compulsivity often goes hand in glove with grief. In the center of the overgrown field, she lowers the box down, then from her purse extracts the lighter fluid and matches, which she always carries around with her. For a moment, she realizes how crazy this must seem, but again she doesn’t care. Grief is crazy.
“Mrs. Blumberg, are you all right?” Cliff asks.
“Don’t tell Harold,” she says, glancing around to make sure no one’s looking. “I read about this in a book,” as Cliff takes another drag off his cigarette.
“Isn’t this against the law?” he says. “I mean, public fires.”
“This is Texas,” she says, dousing the box in lighter fluid. “Nothing’s against the law.”
This isn’t the first time Rachel’s set fire to a box of Daniel’s things. The first week after his death, she packed up a box of his books and took it to Goodwill, but there she burned it in the parking lot instead. She still has no idea why.
“I don’t know what this means to you,” he says, “but I guess it’s really important.”
“Yes, it is,” she says. She opens her hand and Cliff places his lighter in it. “Thank you,” she says, curling her knurled fingers around it.
Rachel, thumb poised on the lighter, looks around her. No one, nothing. But her unreliable thumb, swollen and achy like the rest of her, cannot get the flint to spark, cannot work the lighter at all, which only further insults this already insulting moment. She hands Cliff back the lighter, then digs around in her purse for the book of matches. Although this is no less painful, there is no wind, and the match ignites with a wondrous prestidigitation and a puff of sulfur.
To her shame and relief, the cardboard box catches instantly and in a matter of minutes is nothing more than a smoldering pile of ash. Rachel stamps out the last remaining embers and then the two head back to the car.
At the house, Rachel shows Cliff to Daniel’s room and says, “If you need anything, I’ll be in the kitchen. There are towels in the bathroom. The knobs are funny. You have to play with them. Harold should be home soon. We like to eat at six o’clock sharp.”
Cliff stands with his back to her, his face folded in shadows. From this angle, he seems much smaller to her, his suit hanging off him like a drape. But maybe it’s just an illusion. She read in a book about men carrying grief differently, shrinking into it rather than expanding away from it. While grief for a woman lodges in her body, grief for a man is reflected in his posture and clothing. Rather than inhabit it as women do, men are enshrouded by grief. She can’t help seeing this in Cliff. She closes the door and heads down the hall, stopping short when she hears Harold and Elaine.
“Rachel,” Harold calls, “are you home?”
Through Harold’s study window, a shard of sunlight catches a stain in the carpet. An urge comes over her to get on her hands and knees with a sponge. Instead, she decides to call a cleaning service later. And yet every time she goes to the Yellow Pages, she has trouble remembering why, as if between thought and action she has slipped into another universe. She can’t explain it, although she has tried.
“Here I am,” she says, smiling and entering the room. “What’s all the fuss, Harold? Oh, hello, Elaine.”
Harold greets her with a kiss on the cheek. Rachel watches Elaine watching them, a momentary scowl slipping almost unnoticed across Elaine’s tanned face. She’s a handsome woman, with frosted blond hair and large cat eyes. Always smelling of expensive perfumes, Elaine works at a department store selling specialty soaps.
“We ran into each other in the mall,” he says, holding a bouquet of flowers out to her. “Where’s Cliff?”
“I think he’s taking a nap,” she replies. “Did you know, dear, he’s an actor on Broadway?”
“I just think it’s marvelous you invited him this weekend,” Elaine says. “It really shows how far you’ve come.”
“Yes, well, I don’t know about how far we’ve come,” Rachel says, going into the kitchen, “but I do know how far I’d like to go.”
“Let me walk you to your car,” Howard says to Elaine.
“Yes,” Elaine replies, although it’s Rachel who takes her by the arm. “We really did run into each other at the mall, Rachel.”
“I’ll have those books back to you next week,” Rachel says, squeezing Elaine’s arm until she feels bone, and sort of half hurls Elaine out the front door.
I’ll leave her a little fiery present in her front yard, she thinks.
When she returns, Harold has already put on the TV. She takes a seat at the opposite end of the couch, the flowers, which he put in a vase on the kitchen table, already wilted. Even from where she sits, she feels the heat of Harold’s body and it makes her aware of how cold she’s been the entire day. Suddenly, she wants to kiss him, the way they used to kiss when Daniel was asleep, and they had the house to themselves. But they don’t have the house to themselves and even though it’s not filled with Daniel, it might as well be.
Harold says, “I have to check on the stocks,” and leaves her to the TV.
She follows him into his study, a place usually off limits to her. There is the chime of the computer, and she knows then she’s lost him again to charting their portfolios and retirement funds.
“Are you planning on mowing the yard?” she asks at last.
“Yes,” he says. “Are you planning on using that tone of voice with me for the rest of our lives?”
“What tone is that?” she asks, innocent.
“Rachel, one day we’re going to have to talk about—”
“No,” she says. “No, we don’t have to talk about anything, Harold. I just want to get through the next couple of days.”
“Okay,” he says. “But you can’t tell me I haven’t tried.”
She watches the screen come to life with flashing boxes and dollar signs and numbers, all sorts of numbers and figures that Harold once showed her, but she has forgotten, numbers that tell the story of their lives. The numbers make her dizzy, and she rests her hands on Harold’s chair. She almost kisses the back of his neck but then takes a breath and leaves the room.
After dinner, Harold and Cliff sit out on the patio, discussing the stock market. It seems Harold has found an ally, and this helps Rachel relax, even though she still finds this hobby of his—gambling with their life savings—somewhat horrifying. She remembers that day back in 1987, Black Tuesday, when their IBM stock fell fifty-six points, they lost half a million dollars, and had to take a second mortgage out on the house. The money was not the issue—not to Rachel anyway. The issue was funding Daniel’s college education.
She remembers the afternoon he came home from high school after track practice. She was in the kitchen, finishing dinner.
“Danny, we have to have a talk,” she said.
She wanted to bear his anger and disappointment because she was his mother, because they were closer.
“We can’t afford Cornell,” she said. “You’re going to have to make other arrangements.”
“What are you talking about, Mom?” he asked.
“We were a bit reckless with money,” she said, seething at Harold but not showing it.
“I see,” he said. “Well, there are other schools,” although he’d talk of nothing but Cornell since he was a boy. Cornell, where his father had gone to college and his father’s father as well, a history of Cornell men.
She was surprised by his reaction, more grownup than she had thought he’d be, more resigned than she had hoped for him.
“If it’s important to you, I’m sure you’ll find a way,” she said offhandedly and returned to making the salad.
On the wall of his bedroom, she looks for the missing diploma, the graduation pictures never taken. She hates herself for not being the kind of woman strong enough to handle her husband. Daniel might still be alive, she thinks, if you’d been a different kind of wife.
She shuts the door, lies on the futon face first, and screams into the pillow. She screams and screams, pushing her voice down into every fiber of the pillow, the mattress, the carpet beneath her, down into the foundation which she hopes will crack, swallowing her, swallowing Harold and Cliff and every stitch of the ugly furniture. She screams for five minutes without stopping, just one long continuous scream that burns her throat and rattles her teeth. Then when she can no longer scream, she gets up and straightens the futon, but before leaving the room, she goes to the closet. Her joints burn and ache as she reaches up and takes down a box marked TAXES, 1985. She pulls the dusty, cardboard lid off and peers down at Daniel’s bright and glossy magazines. She sees what Daniel must have: the candy-eyed girls with large lips, the men with smooth, unadulterated skin. She flips through the magazines for the first time, not sure what she’s looking for but looking nonetheless. And that’s when she finds the Playgirl.
She gasps, her heart shattering. For on the cover is a man who resembles Cliff. Ten years younger in the face, the exposé speaks of this man’s likes and dislikes when it comes to women. He likes a girl who reads Shakespeare and dislikes a girl without a sense of humor. She flips through the pictures of this man who might or might not have been her son’s lover, pictures that reveal ridges of muscle and a navel ring. She runs a crooked finger over Cliff’s face and thinks, the world is a strange place, and I’m a stranger in it. My best friend sleeps with my husband and my child jumps off a forty-story building.
She lugs the box into the den and, on one of the shelves above the Encyclopedia Britannica, Rachel locates the bowl of matches. She’s never understood Harold’s matchbook collection, especially as neither of them has ever smoked, and they don’t have a fireplace. But people collect all sorts of stupid, useless things, she thinks, pausing at the bay window. The moon comes down through the trees and lights up the men’s faces, Harold who sits in his discussion posture, feet extended out in front of him, one leg curled over the other, Cliff who raises a hand to his face to bat away a mosquito. They discuss, their faces serious, rapt. Rachel tries to read Harold’s lips. She catches random words—sick, marriage, wife, child—finally realizing she can’t despise him for his affair with Elaine any more than she can despise herself for having allowed it to happen.
Walking through the door, she heads past Harold and Cliff with the box and out into the yard. Harold calls, “Rachel, Jesus, not again.” This is the sixth box in a year. “Why don’t you just set the whole house on fire?”
“Why don’t I just set you on fire?” she says.
Cliff stares up into the trees, shifting uneasily, and lights a cigarette while Rachel sets the box down on the spot where the pecan tree used to stand.
“Think about the neighbors,” Harold calls. “They aren’t going to like this.”
“So, who cares. We don’t like our neighbors, Harold,” she calls back. “Besides, half this property is mine.”
“Thirty-seven years of marriage, and this is what I have to show for it,” she says to the box. “Half an acre of land, a husband who cheats on me, a house I hate, a dead son, and the Wicked Witch of the West on my patio.”
Right lights a match, holds it to the box, then turns to face Harold who is now wielding a garden hose. “Step away from the box, woman,” he commands.
“You bastard,” she says.
“Get away from the box, Rachel,” he says. “Don’t make me do it.”
Rachel digs her bare feet into the soft, cool grass. “You’re going to have to blast me,” she says.
“Rachel,” he says, hitting her in the face with a stream of water.
Behind her, the box burns brightly, steadily, the heat on her back alive and pleasant, a small conflagration of pictures, of body parts and faces of strangers that add up to nothing and everything.
“You’ll have to do better than that, old man,” she says.
Cigarette in hand, Cliff makes his way between them, posting himself in the yard. He closes his eyes and draws a hand across his face which becomes, when he lowers his hand, the face of the Wicked Witch of the West. As he draws on his cigarette, Cliff sings, “Those ruby red slippers/they hold me in their thrall/I am nothing without them/no, nothing at all.”
His falsetto rises as he runs his hands over a pretend crystal ball and scrunches up one shoulder. Harold increases the water pressure.
“Listen, Cliff, no offense, but I’m kind of having a fight with my wife right now,” he says. Then to Rachel: “This isn’t funny anymore. What if one of those sparks ignites the fence? Who’s going to pay? Who?”
Cliff stops singing and turns to Rachel. “Mrs. Blumberg, he’s right you know. It’s a danger with the wind and all. Who knows what might happen?”
In the distance, there is the sound of sirens, as Rachel imagines what might happen, how easily she could set everything on fire and watch it burn to the ground. She thinks about the manila envelope in her drawer, the pictures of Elaine and Harold.
When Harold accidentally hits Cliff with the water, Rachel says, “Harold, you idiot.”
Cliff raises a hand up to his face again to wipe away the water or prevent another attack, saying, “Not a problem,” but then throws up his hands and disappears into the house.
Harold sprays Rachel until she can no longer tell the difference between the water on her face and her own tears. She turns to the box, and he shoots her back. But the fire has teeth, and it gnaws on the box, warming her, the smoke curling into the air. The ink in the magazines colors the flames blue and green and pink.
“This is no way for a grown woman to act!” Harold says.
“I could say the same for a friend of yours!” Rachel says.
Harold finally turns off the hose, saying, “I’m calling the fire department,” and leaves.
Rachel lets him go. She stands over the box, her body wet and chilled as the wind blows over her, this wind that enlivens the last of the flames which consume the last of the magazines and the box itself until there is nothing left, and she returns to the house.
That night, her arthritis unbearable, Rachel climbs out of bed and instead of the pills, she pours herself a jigger of brandy. It’s the same bottle they’ve had on the shelf at the back of the cupboard for years. She drinks it down and refills it. She’s angry and tired and her body hurts as if God himself has taken a mallet to it.
But after a while, Rachel, drunk for the first time in years, no longer feels anger or fatigue or hurt. She goes into the living room where Harold’s hi-fi, a relic from the 70s, sits against the wall. Rachel riffles through the albums, finds “Pink Moon,” puts it on, and sings along. She drinks straight from the bottle now, thinking nothing about Daniel or about Harold or about Cliff, nothing about the cemetery, the mourners, the prayer for the dead. The tombstone. Nick Drake croons on and she loves him, the rich warmth in his voice, the smooth texture in her ears. She drinks. And she dances. As she does, she imagines the parties never thrown and the wine never spilled, the trips never taken, and the houses never built. She dreams about another boy, the real love of her life, a boy who died early and young, and she dances with him around the room, until the album ends, and she drops the bottle to the carpet, dizzy and giddy and sad.
Before going back to bed, she stops at Cliff’s door and presses an ear against it. The house shifts under her—the foundation, the floor, everything unsettling. She loses her balance, plants a hand on the wall, her throat burning. She burps. In her daze, the phone rings and it is Daniel thanking her for showing him how to be The Great and Powerful Oz.
Opening the door, she wobbles into the room, the moonlight cutting Cliff’s damp face. He mumbles, incoherent, lines from a play, lines from her life. She remembers his voice over the phone last year, three thousand miles away, and what he said: “I would’ve called sooner, but Daniel told me his parents were dead.”
Rachel thinks about jumping as she moves to the bed and leans over Cliff. When he opens his eyes and stares up at her, surprised, Rachel reaches out and touches his face with her bony, painful fingers. She says, “I couldn’t wait to get away from my horrible mother and Daniel couldn’t wait to get away from me.” She pauses. “I don’t know what happened here in this house. I can’t explain it,” and sits down on the edge of the bed.
“Mrs. Blumberg, you should get some sleep,” he says.
“I loved a boy once. It was devastating.” As soon as she says it, she feels funny, a tingling. “I was still getting over him when I met Harold in the elevator of the Time-Life Building. He lavished me with expensive dinners and chocolates and flowers. And he did something no one had ever been able to do,” she says. “He used to finish my sentences.”
Cliff says, “Do you have any more of that scotch?”
Rachel shakes her head. “There’s some wine for tomorrow.” According to the clock by the bed, it’s four-thirty in the morning. “Oh, my. It’s…late, late, late.”
“I’m usually up at this time anyway,” he says. “I like to run in Central Park before all the annoying people get there.” He rises, puts on a pair of sweatpants over his boxers, and ties his running shoes. “I’m going for a jog.”
“If you wait, I’ll drive you up to the school,” she says.
“No, that’s all right,” he says. “But if I’m not back in an hour, send out a search party.”
There is a moment just before he disappears that she wants to ask him: why did Daniel jump? But she feels anything he says won’t ever be enough. There aren’t any words to make sense of what she’s going through, this bewildering, which shifts furniture around in the middle of the night and makes people feel things that aren’t even there.
She steps into the bedroom she shares with Harold, closes the door, and clicks on the light.
“Jesus, Rachel, what is it?” he asks, rising on his elbows and rubbing his eyes. “Do you need your pills?”
“You blame me for Daniel’s death,” she says.
“Don’t be absurd,” Harold says. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I blame you,” she says. “Someone’s got to take responsibility, Harold. I can’t do it anymore.”
Rachel opens a drawer in her nightstand and pulls out the manila envelope, dumping the contents on the bed and spreading the photos across the sheets. Pictures of Harold and Elaine, pictures she’s gone over a thousand times. When the man who took them delivered them to her, he said, “Prepare yourself.”
Harold reaches out to touch her, but she recoils and withdraws.
“Rachel, please,” he says. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she says and flexes her burning fingers. She reaches down for one picture of Harold and Elaine lying on a grassy lawn with the University of Texas at Austin’s Main Building in the background. The Spanish tiled roof glimmers in the sunlight, and all around them hangs the spiny fruit of mesquite trees.
“The three of us used to go there all the time,” she says. “God, I feel like an idiot.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Harold says. “Listen to me—”
“I’ve been listening to you for years,” she says and gathers the photos in her hands. “We’ve never been happy together.”
She replaces the photos in the envelope, dresses, and then walks out the door.
Envelope in hand, Rachel moves slowly through the field to the bleachers. She marvels at how everything is exactly as it was when Daniel used to run here. She remembers coming to watch him jump the hurdles, the way he flew from one to the other with such uncanny speed, so she wondered where he’d gotten it.
She pulls out a picture of Harold, his face full of an expression—happiness, relief, joy—she hasn’t seen in ages, the same expression when she told him he was going to be a father. Having a baby was supposed to hold us together, she thinks, taking out the matches. But then, with bloated fingers, she begins to fold the picture, first one corner, then another. There is something in the folding, turning something flat and square into an object with dimension and depth. And she realizes that this is what loss really is: sharp corners, hard edges, unknowable quantities. For a moment, she cradles this odd arrangement of paper in her hands. Then she stands up and sails it into the air where it catches briefly, soaring.
David Samuel Levinson is the author of the novels, “Tell Me How This Ends Well” and “Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence.” His stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Post Road, The Brooklyn Review, and West Branch among others. He’s originally from Texas, which makes him a Jewish unicorn.