He moved sweaty palms down the front of his pants from thighs to knees, disturbing the pleat, and shifted in the chair. “Well,” he said, trailing off.

She smiled again, seeing his discomfort. “California will be great,” she said. “Sunny.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, returning her smile. They talked about restaurants and the weather before he stood to leave.

“Well then,” she said, “I guess our time together has come to an end.” She had laughed, but he hadn’t. He was not ready to end their time together, not ready for the padding of her sandals and the sighing of her dress to fade and disappear in the wake of his new life in California and the fresh start Allison claimed they needed.

He drank his coffee standing in front of the window and attempted to gauge how many leaves had turned yellow on the tree outside overnight. It was an okay tree, Sarah had said of the honey locust, but she liked the trees with the red leaves the best. Sometimes they would walk around the neighborhood during her lunch, and she would point out her favorites. “That’s a good one,” she would say, pointing at leaves violently red against pale bark, and he would agree. She said she thought there was nothing as perfect as a New England fall. What would he do out in California with all those palm trees? Did he even like coconuts? He decided that he would go when the tree outside the window finally lost its leaves. He would say goodbye to Sarah and to the fall and drive out to Allison and whatever it was that came next for him.
 

 

“He looks like he has TB,” she said, leaning back on the hard bench and squinting up at the oil painting of the young man with translucent skin.

He laughed. “He is a very serious man with a very serious cravat.”

“I like his jacket,” she said. “You should bring that style back.”

“I believe, if I am not mistaken, that it is very similar to a university jacket.”

“I don’t know. I think it’s a bit longer than a university jacket, but you could pull it off.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Do you think we should stop?” he asked.

“Stop discussing nineteenth-century men’s fashion? I don’t see the harm in it.”

“You know what I mean.”

She sighed and turned her head. “Do you want to stop?”

“I don’t know.”

“We have a lot to lose,” she said.

He wasn’t sure whether she meant Jonah and Allison, or whether she was speaking of him. He wished for the latter, but feared it was the former.

“I know,” he said.

“Do you want to have dinner on Thursday?” she asked. “Jonah’s out of town.”

“I would. Sushi?”

“Sure.”

He brushed her hair away from her face. “You could spend the night.”
“You get up too early,” she said.

“I’ll be quiet.”

“For three hours?”

“For as long as you need.”

“Are we bad people?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said.

She nodded. “I thought so. You know,” she paused, “I was worried that you would hate me. That you would feel guilty and that you would hate me for making you feel that way.”

“I don’t hate you.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s how I know we’re bad people.”

A guard entered the room and stood sentry near the doorway. He usually patrolled the more popular galleries, keeping an eye on school children on field trips or college students armed with sketchpads and charcoal. Today the two of them must have seemed suspicious, he thought. Taken for visitors who might not be able to control their inquisitive fingers around objects of beauty.

“I should go,” she whispered.

She took his hand and pressed her lips against his palm. Her hair fell in a wavy curtain across his wrist, and he felt the way he did in front of the Rothko, like he was falling face-first into a field of blue and that he would never land.
 

 

“I like how you always order the same thing,” he said.

“I like my sushi dichromatic,” she said. “And you used to watch me eat the same lunch everyday; this cannot be a surprise.”

He laughed. “You did, didn’t you.”

“I still do.”

“Peanut butter and jelly. Like a little kid.”

“I like what I like.”

He thought about the first time they had come here, after he had quit his job, after the movers had come and gone, and after Allison had waved goodbye and wheeled her bag into the airport. Sarah had suggested dinner before he left town for good, and he met her at this restaurant. She had worn the blue dress. He told her what he had told Allison, that he had a lot of projects to finish before they could sell the condo. He said that he was good at starting things and bad at finishing them. He looked at her across the table, pinching green and white rolls between two chopsticks with precision, and knew that she was something he badly wanted not to leave unfinished.

After dinner, she had hugged him on the sidewalk. Not the awkward co-worker hug he had received on his last day, as he balanced a small cardboard box under one arm and bent down to wrap the free one around her and pat her back. Her cheek had pressed into the stiffness of his lightly starched shirt and he wanted to put the box down and try again, but others were watching and he hadn’t dared. But this time, there on the sidewalk, she stood on her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around his neck. He allowed himself to feel the lightness of her dress, and the coolness of its zipper, and the smallness of her waist, and when she tilted her head up to wish him luck he kissed her. Tentatively, at first, a faint pencil sketch of his desire. He had thought she would pull away and that the darkness would hide his blush as he apologized to her, but she did not pull away. He brought her back to his empty condo, and when he unzipped her he felt part of himself come undone and break off into space.

“How’s the tile coming?” she asked.

“It’s tricky,” he said. “If the floor isn’t perfectly level, the tiles won’t lie flush.”

“I guess it’s hard to start with an uneven foundation.”

“Floors are always uneven,” he said. “You have to level things yourself.”

“I can’t believe you haven’t hired a contractor yet,” she said.

“I like doing it myself.”

“I guess I shouldn’t suggest things that would make you leave sooner,” she said.

He looked down at his plate and then up at her.

“I am leaving,” he said.

“I know you are.”
 

 

She liked to walk naked through the empty condo, lithe and unselfconscious. He watched her perfect posture exit the bedroom and return with a glass of water.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll spend the night.”

“I won’t wake you,” he said.

“Good.” She crawled under the covers and put her head on his chest. “I’ll need to go see my sister soon.”

“How is she doing?”

“She’s okay. She doesn’t like to talk about it much and I don’t blame her, but it’s a struggle to get basic information from her.”

He stroked her back. He worried sometimes that he would accidentally break her, that she was made of hollow bird bones he might inadvertently snap. But then he would touch her and feel the ropey sinew and carved muscles that covered those bones, the hard abdominals that defended her belly, which was not soft and vulnerable like his, but practically armored, and worried that he would be the one to break instead.

“I thought it would be quick,” she said. “I thought that she’d have surgery right away and then maybe some radiation and recovery time and that would be it, like with our mom. I thought I was ready to do this again.” She sat up and reached for a tissue. “At first it was like stepping out in front of a truck. You know it’s going to hurt, but at least it’s going to hurt all at once, and that’s a thing I can handle. Being hit by a truck and limping off to recover. That’s a thing I can do. But this,” she paused. “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to manage five months of chemo and a bilateral mastectomy and three more months of chemo. I don’t know how to deal with nine months of cancer.”

She looked away. “Shit. I’m sorry,” she said. “We don’t have to talk about this.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “We can talk about it, if you want.”

“No.” She shook her head. “You must be tired. It’s past your bedtime.”

“It is,” he said with a yawn, “but we can keep talking.”

She rested her head on his chest again.

“I feel sick all the time,” she whispered. “Nauseous, seasick. I know that I’ll feel better about fifteen minutes after I get off the boat, but there’s nowhere to dock the damn thing. It’s just miles and miles of ocean. Ocean for days. Ocean for nine months.”

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