A fire gutted the tire factory three streets from our old apartment, where he still lives. It burned for days. The suburb was covered with a thick, gray pall for a week. Tires contain particularly flammable components, he tells me. He lists them. I am slipping away, floating from the cafe and down the street.
“Did anyone die?” I say.
“No, it was an insurance job. Why would anyone die?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
I want to say, please stop talking about tires.
At the table next to us, a girl wears ballet pink everything, a headband, a bun. She devours a chocolate éclair. I eat my toast, pretending it’s a chocolate éclair. It doesn’t work.
He tells me he has been going to the gym four nights a week. He wears contact lenses now. He is due for a promotion next financial year to senior something-or-other.
“You’re so goal oriented,” I say.
He smiles. “I am considering laser eye surgery.”
I worry for them, his bluest eyes.
A waiter passes and he orders himself another short black and another hot chocolate for me before I can say anything. He orders mine with soy. I cannot get cross.
The ancient Roman and Greek statues are his first choice, every time. We walked through that gallery in the Met maybe one hundred times. The sculptures looked down upon us, serious, imperious, sorrowful.
“What do they make of this world?” I said.
He looked at me.
“What?” I said.
He shook his head, but I saw the labels: arty, vague, flighty, probably-has-bad-credit-history, thinks-the-art-is-real.
Our first weekend away together, we went to Newport and we did not go to the beach. We barely left our room. I fell asleep and when I woke he was holding my foot.
We had a shower and the water turned our skin the same pink. He dressed me. He drew a zipper all the way up my spine. He fastened the fussy little buckles at my ankles. He brushed my hair.
We went to the bar downstairs and slurped oysters and drank champagne.
He leaned against me, smelling briny and grapey, and said, “Now I understand what all the fuss is about.”
“About oysters and champagne?” I said.
He checked his cell on Sunday afternoon when we were leaving the hotel. Eighteen missed calls. He started to return calls, while I drove us back to the city. He shook his head and said, “I can’t believe I put my phone on silent” and “I can’t believe I didn’t check my phone”. All I started to hear was I can’t believe.
Today, outside the cafe window, cars stop in traffic. It is Saturday and still there is traffic, people trying to get somewhere else in cars fitted with especially flammable tires.
At Bellevue Hospital, they reached inside me and confirmed that what had been there was gone. They gave me a paper cup of apple juice and two cookies wrapped in plastic that I could not open. A doctor passed my cubicle. I went pale and she lowered the bed, laying me down flat. She held my wrist and put her other hand on my forehead.
“How are you feeling now?” she said.
“Statuette of a girl, fragmentary” dated 3rd Century B.C, Hellenistic, terracotta. She is the one I chose as my favorite.
“Really?” he said. “She’s a pile of rubble.”
Her head lies at her feet, so does her arm with only part of her hand remaining.
“Really,” I said.
He leaned closer to her. “Even her head is broken.”
My apartment now is a studio, so white it glows, like sunlight on snow, Scandinavia, the skin on the inside of his upper arms, silence. I buy white tulips every two weeks. They sweep through me with their alpine green stems and tear-like buds. They make me dizzy.
I asked my doctor for something to help me sleep. She gave me the details of a free app for guided meditation. She told me to drink warm milk and honey before bed. Or camomile tea, she found that helped her. Had I tried a lavender bath?
“I want something artificial,” I said, “pharmaceutical, patented, branded, that will smack me over the head like a brick.”
“Has one of us lost our minds?” I said.
She patted my hand.
The “Bronze Portrait Head of Caligula” dated A.D. 37-41 said, “He loved his ex-wife, Hannah, all along.”
“I know,” I said.
A man standing nearby glanced over at me and shifted away.
“I fucking know,” I whispered to Caligula. “Fuck. Hannah.”
The truth was I hadn’t known.
Caligula muttered about needing to substitute the heads of the gods with his own likeness. He closed his eyes.
His wet hair trailed all the way down my spine along with his tongue. I couldn’t work out whether his tongue felt hot or cold, but I shivered all the same.
“Ma’am?” A museum attendant touched my sleeve. “Are you okay? You’ve been looking at that thing for an hour now.”
“This is Caligula,” I said.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “We’ve met.”
She took me to the staffroom and gave me a mug of heavily sugared coffee and a piece of lemon poppy seed cake.
“You’re in luck,” she said. “It’s bake-off Monday.”
“I had no idea.”
His laugh in bed is low and quiet.
I went to another doctor.
She handed me a script. “These will make you drowsy. Then they will send you into a deep sleep for eight hours.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The girl beside us laughs a child’s laugh, pure delight. It is loud. The cafe stops for a split-second. She finishes her éclair in one bite. Her mother shakes her head, smiling.
“As long as there is this,” I say.
He nods and maybe he understands after all.
Notes from Guest Reader Mel Bosworth
‘All of us are in pieces’ is outstanding. It’s quiet and precise and has great movement. Big things happen but the tone remains the same. It’s got a great hum to it.