“How are you?” he asked.

“I’m falling apart,” she said. “Very slowly, so that no one will notice.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. He inched his hand closer to hers. She always sat like this—leaning back, arms stretched out behind her—as if reclining on a beach in the sun instead of sitting on a hard museum bench in this room full of early American furniture and stern portraiture. He always sat to the right of her, his posture erect, his hands resting lightly on the bench on either side of his body, bearing no weight.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll put all the pieces together again eventually. I just won’t look the same is all.”

“We should go look at the Picasso then,” he said. “For inspiration.”

She smiled. “You don’t like the Picasso.”

He moved his hand to rest upon hers. “We could try something different.”

She shook her head. “Why?”

He sighed. “What does Jonah say?”

“About what?”

“About your falling apart.”

“He doesn’t believe me.”

“Why not?”

“Because he doesn’t want to.”

He removed his hand. “I have to go soon.”

She turned his wrist toward her, examining the time. “Me too.”

“No,” he said. “I mean go.”

“California,” she said.

“California,” he answered.

“Allison,” she said.


She kissed the back of his hand. “I know.”

She tilted her head toward him and he brushed her lips with his. Lightly, like a brushstroke in one of the watercolors in the adjacent gallery. Sometimes it was like this, like the Manet on the second floor; the one of the reclining woman in white whose direct gaze unsettled him. Other times it was like the Picasso on the ground level, her lips pressed hard against his, as if she were trying to combine their sharp angles and edges into a grotesque imitation of a whole person. At others still, those times when they slipped away to his empty condo, she felt to him like the Pollock, covering his tacks with thick drips and gushes of oil paint, coating him, leaving him incomprehensible, even to himself.

“When are you leaving?” she asked.

“Soon,” he said.

She nodded. “You’ve been leaving for weeks.”

He didn’t say anything. The movers had taken his and Allison’s belongings over a month ago. Allison had followed soon after to start her new job and begin putting their new life together in their new apartment in L.A. He had stayed behind to finish things. To get the condo fixed up and on the market. To tie up loose ends. It would take a week, he had told Allison. Maybe two. But still he stayed in an empty condo with a mattress on the floor next to the cardboard box that served as a nightstand in the bedroom where he brought Sarah to melt beneath him in a fuzzy pool of turquoise and indigo and ultramarine, the depths of which threatened to drown any water lilies brave enough to float on the surface.

“You should go,” she said.

“I know.”

“Why haven’t you?”

“I don’t know.”

She stood. “I have to get back to work.”

He caught her hand. “Come over tonight.”

She bent over and kissed the top of his forehead. His hands rested on her hips. They looked large against the smallness of her.

“I’ll try.”

“Try? It’s Tuesday.” He smiled.

Her fingertips chased each other from the base of his skull, down the back of his neck, beneath the neatly ironed collar to the point where the tag on his white undershirt met his skin. She then pulled them back upward in light strokes along his nape.

“You know, I am eventually going to have to go to dance class, instead of just saying I’m going to dance class,” she said. “I’m going to be out of practice.”

“Tomorrow, then,” he said. “Call in sick.”

She took a step back and lowered her face to his. “Tonight,” she said, kissing him beneath the surveillance of the furrow-browed, tight-lipped American forefathers on the walls.


She buzzed promptly at 7 p.m. He opened the door to admit her slight frame wrapped in a black leotard with crisscross straps in the back, hair pulled up in a bun, too-long warm-up pants brushing the floor. When she was feeling silly, she would put on her ballet slippers and dance about the empty living room, leaping and pirouetting on the dusty hardwoods. Like a Degas, he thought, but less tawdry, more joyful. When she was feeling sad, she would curl in his lap where she seemed even smaller than she was—a bird in a nest. Tonight she tossed her bag on the floor and sat on the mattress like a child, criss-cross applesauce. He stretched out beside her and lay on his back, hands laced behind his head.

“We saw the genetic counselor this afternoon,” she said.


“And she said what I thought she would say. That I should be tested for the genes my sister carries. She kept talking like it was supposed to be empowering, but that’s such bullshit.”

“Why?” He turned on his side and covered her knee with his hand.

“Because there are no good options. There is nothing empowering about choosing between invasive screening and worrying twice a year that you’re about to receive very bad news, and deciding to go full Angelina Jolie and have both your breasts removed, just in case they try to kill you.”

He sat up and pulled her down to the mattress. They faced each other, nose-to-nose,mo and stretched out to their full lengths. Her toes ended at his shins. He was fourteen inches taller than she, yet she made him feel taller still.

“You might not be a carrier at all,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “If I am,” she paused, “If I am, I’m supposed to have my ovaries removed too, if I’m done having children.” She laughed. “If I’m done. I’m 36 and I haven’t even made up my mind to start yet.”

“Do you want them?”

She sighed. “I feel like if I wanted them, I would have had them by now. I’ve been married for almost a decade.”

“That’s not necessarily true.”

She shrugged. “Do you? Want them.”


“Why not?”

“I’ve just never had the desire,” he said. On this, he and Allison had agreed. They could work and travel and spend their money how they wanted. Her money, he corrected himself. He could hear her voice in his head: You’re not spending my money on that. It had been for the best, though he had occasionally thought that having a kid might have evened things out, might have given him someone who would have been on his side. “Your turn,” he said.

“I’m too afraid I’d be a terrible mother,” Sarah said. “I’m selfish, and I like things the way I like them.”

“I don’t think you’re selfish,” he said, inching the thin strap of her leotard off her shoulder.

“Isn’t this selfish?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, kissing her bared skin.

She shed the too-long pants and peeled off the faded cotton leotard, and the tights that were once ballet pink, but were now dishwater gray. He pulled her on top of him. Big hands, small hips. She reached down and removed his glasses.

“You’ll just be a blur,” he protested.

“But your eyes look bigger and bluer without them,” she said.


He awoke at 5 a.m., as he always did. Made coffee in the kitchen that contained a single place setting, a few wayward glasses and mugs, one pot, a can opener, a kettle, and a Chemex. He would work on the half bath today, he thought. Finish up the tile floor. Sarah would text him at some point. Something casual and funny, the kind of thing she used to say to him at work when she would pad down the hallway to his office and lean in his doorway. He hadn’t wanted to encourage things at the time, but hadn’t wanted to discourage them either. He worried that she had seen the appreciation in his eyes when she wore the blue dress that skimmed her waist and sighed softly when she walked and made his chest tighten just a bit, just enough. He hadn’t complimented her appearance, but he could not keep himself from staring at the slight swing in her walk and the zipper that ran down her back, and he thought she could tell that he found her beautiful. The only time he had traversed that hallway in the other direction was the day he had told her that he was leaving. That he and Allison were headed to California at the end of the month. That Allison had gotten a job they couldn’t say no to. Sarah had joked and made him laugh just before her face became serious—it did that, he would notice later, move from laughter to sadness in an instant. He was never quite sure whether the sadness was covering the laughter or vice versa.

“Oh, I’m distraught,” she said.

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?”


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.”

“I know,” he said, patting her back.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t talk about it at home. Jonah doesn’t think it makes sense to worry yet.”

“But how can you not?”

“Exactly. Hey,” she said, propping herself up on one elbow. “Did I tell you what Bev said at work?”

“No, what did she say?”

“God, it’s awful. I wasn’t going to tell her about Kara, but she caught me crying in my office.”

“It’s probably good to let people know.”

“I know. I had forgotten how terrible it is to tell people though. Everyone says the wrong thing, but they mean well, so I just have to stand there and thank them for making me feel angry and shitty. Like with my grandmother. People would ask if she had been a smoker. Why would you even ask that? Like if she had been then she had it coming? What a terrible thing to say.”

“People are scared of cancer,” he said. “They’re looking for reassurances. They think that if they don’t smoke and do yoga they’ll be safe.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s why I would tell them that my grandmother never smoked a day in her life.” She contemplated the tissue wadded in her hands. “There is no such thing as safe.”

“Is that what Bev asked?”

“Hmm? Oh right.” She laughed. “Sorry. I have sex brain. It’s all fuzzy up there.”

He laughed and lightly massaged the top of her head with his fingertips.

“No, she told me that she had read this thing on the internet.”

“No,” he interrupted.

“Yes! Are you ready? Avocados. She had just seen this thing on Facebook about eating avocados as a cure for breast cancer.”

“Oh God.”

“I know!” She laughed.

“What did you say?”

“I said, yes, Bev, it is amazing that my sister’s oncologist did not consider the magical healing properties of avocados before deciding to go with chemo.”

“You didn’t.”

“No.” She laughed. “I didn’t. I just nodded and was like, thank you. I will look into that.”

“I can picture this conversation.”

“It was perfect. Doesn’t it make you want to come back to work?”

“Not really.” He laughed, but it turned into a yawn.

“You’re tired,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder.

He felt his breathing slow.

“Do you think it’s possible to love more than one person at a time?” she asked.

“Sure,” he answered.

“I used to think it wasn’t. I thought that if you fell in love with someone new that meant you had fallen out of love with the first person,” she said. “Because loving someone means not loving anyone else.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I don’t think love comes in finite quantities.”

“So you aren’t worried about diluting it?”

“No. I don’t think it works like that.”

“Okay,” she said, sighing into his neck. “It would be easier if it did.”

He fell asleep thinking about the Pollock, about oil paint thinned with turpentine to achieve the viscosity at which it could run and dry in streaks and blobs, and when he slept he swam through pools of paint, emerging as if from water, shaking his head and sprinkling drops of blue pigment all around.

The next morning, she murmured words in her sleep he could not catch as he slipped from beneath the blanket at 5 a.m. He laced his sneakers and ran down the boulevard lined with trees now fully dressed in yellows, oranges, and reds. “It’s funny,” Sarah had said on their last walk, “the way trees are the prettiest when they’re dying.” He had corrected her. It was just the leaves that were dying, not the tree. She said that she knew that, but thought the trees might be sad all the same. He ran hard on the way back and paced and panted in front of his building, leaning forward to put his hands on his knees and catch his breath. The honey locust was entirely yellow and small piles of leaves had begun to collect beneath it. Soon it would be time for him to go. Time for him to return to Allison. Allison, who was becoming rightfully impatient with him. Allison, who indulged the general ambivalence with which he approached life, but only, he thought, because such a stance was so foreign to her so as to be an odd quirk. Allison, who did not speak nonsense about trees and did not care for art museums and did not fall apart, slowly or otherwise. Allison, whom he loved and had loved since he was twenty-one. Allison, who would probably forgive him if he told her, because what was a month of infidelity compared to 192 months of fealty? He would not tell her, he knew, because confessing would diminish these weeks with Sarah. Would turn them into something for which he must apologize and atone, and this was an idea he could not bear.


“Aren’t you tired of living in an empty apartment?” she asked, leaning back on the hard bench.

“Not really,” he said. “I kind of like it, actually. It’s uncomplicated.”

“It seems like living in nearly empty rooms because your stuff is waiting for you on the other side of the country is the opposite of uncomplicated.”

“It’s where I am right now. That’s all I can say. What else do you want me to say?”

“Nothing in particular. I just can’t figure out where you want to be is all.”

“Where do I want to be? On the water, mostly.”

“On a wooden boat.”

“On a wooden boat that I built myself.”

“Not a lot of room for things on a boat.”


“Or people.”

“Room enough.”

“There are boats here.”

“There are boats there too.”

“The wrong boats. On the wrong ocean.”

“I have to go.”

“I know you do.”

She sat up and took his hand. She ran the tip of her index finger along its outer edge, where dark hair met pale skin. He felt uncomfortable when she scrutinized parts of his body, even though she never seemed to find them wanting. He felt very seen by her.

“I feel like I’m on the water right now,” she said.

“I know. On a boat that’s making you seasick.”

“No. Right now, I’m floating on my back.”

“That sounds nice.”

“It’s not. It feels terrible. The last time I felt this sad, it felt like drowning. I was so exhausted from trying to keep my head above water that I finally decided to sink. I sunk all the way down to the bottom of the ocean and bobbed along with the tide, like fish do. I couldn’t feel anything anymore, but at least it didn’t hurt.”

“Is that better than floating?”

“Floating is just the anxiety of waiting to drown. Of waiting to want to drown.”

“Does Jonah know that you’re floating?”

“He doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t believe in depression.”

“That’s an odd thing not to believe in.”

“It’s more that he doesn’t believe that it’s anything more than proportional unhappiness. Fix the cause of the unhappiness, fix the sadness. It’s why he doesn’t believe in therapy. How can talking give a person a better job or more money or a marriage to the right person?”

“Or cure cancer.”

“Or cure cancer.” She paused. “I’m beginning to think that happiness is a poor metric by which to measure a life.”

“It’s a terrible metric.”

“It should be about more complicated measures. Fulfillment. Joy. Completion.”


“Oh, that’s worse than happiness. I don’t think it’s in my nature to be content,” she said.


“Really. Is it in yours?”

“I don’t know. I think so, though. Pleasure in small things.”

“Wooden boats.”

“Wooden boats. Perfect cups of tea.”

“The lines in a Matisse.”


She sighed. “I have to go,” she said. She stood and took his face in her hands and kissed him like a Botticelli this time—round and full and not floating on her back, but arriving on a half shell to save him.

He walked back to the condo. The piles of leaves were taller, browner. He watched a man with a leaf blower shepherd them into the street. No one ever takes responsibility for the leaves, he thought. They belong to everyone when they’re green and to no one when they fall. The honey locust was nearly bare. The rainy day had sent the majority of her leaves to cover the sidewalk in a slippery yellow jacket. He had finished tiling the bathroom and painting the spare bedroom. Finished spackling and patching and grouting. He had told Allison that he was going to leave next week. She had been happy on the phone. She said she had found a good coffee shop in their neighborhood and that she was nearly done unpacking. The only thing missing was him.


That night, Sarah arrived at 7. Hair in a perfect ballet bun, hand brushing tears from her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Just everything, I think.”

He carried her to the bedroom, where she folded her limbs into his lap and shuddered.

“It hurts,” she said.

“I know.”

She blew her nose. “I’m having my blood drawn tomorrow.”

“For the testing?”

“Yes. Jonah doesn’t want to talk about it. He says we’ll deal with it when we have to.”

“He wants to be sure there’s something to worry about.”

“There’s already something to worry about.” She sat up. “Wouldn’t you want to prepare? Decide how much you think you can handle in advance. A wife who hits menopause at thirty-six because she’s had her ovaries removed? A wife with scarred replacement breasts that have no nipples and can’t tell when you touch them. Did you know that?” she asked. “I didn’t know that until I looked into it. Reconstructed breasts have no sensation. It’s not like having a boob job; it’s having foreign, zombie organs strapped to your chest so that you can continue to fill out your clothing. So that you don’t make other people uncomfortable with your frankenchest.”

“No,” he said. “I didn’t know that.”

“I’m pretty attached to mine, you know.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed,” he said.

She laughed lightly, ruefully, and looked away from him.

“If I see another pink ribbon, I think I’m going to vomit,” she said. “I can’t think of a worse time to be diagnosed with breast cancer than fucking October. Did I tell you? Someone brought in pink ribbon cookies to work the other day and left them in the kitchen. The tray was upside down and I saw them and thought, hey, look at those pink nooses.” She laughed. “I think if I have to choose, I’ll just wait and let it come for me. That’s the way it’s always felt anyway, like this disease is stalking the women in my family and one day it will come for me too. At least then I’ll have a few more years of getting off left before I have to trade mine in for tattooed nipples.”

“I’m sorry.” He pulled her close. “I really am.”

“I know,” she said.

“When will you know?” he asked.

“A couple of weeks.”

“I could stay,” he said. He felt his chest compress at the promise. He held her and thought about buying new furniture. About starting over not in California, but right here. Sarah could help him pick out a new couch and nightstands. He would hold her after all the leaves had gone, straight through winter into spring when they would pop out again as new green buds. She would wear the blue dress again, except this time he would help her zip up the back before they went out for dinner and a walk down the boulevard. She would point out a tree full of green and white blossoms and say, “that’s a good one,” and she would kiss him like the Renoir, all soft edges and big eyes that said she loved him.

She shook her head. “You have to go. I’m afraid Jonah will find out and I’ll lose both of you. I wouldn’t be able to survive that, I don’t think. I think all of my pieces would float away, and I wouldn’t be able to put them back together.”

He felt a lump in his throat and looked away. “I know,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry.”

“But I am sorry things are the way that they are. Sometimes I wish I had met you a long time ago. That I had met you first.”

He sighed. “I think about that too.”

“But I didn’t meet you first, and you didn’t meet me first, and things are what they are,” she said. “And I have to go.”

He wiped her cheeks. “Stay for now,” he said.

She nodded.


“What time are you leaving?” she asked, leaning back on the hard bench.

“After lunch.”

She nodded. “California is very far away.”

He nodded. “It is.”

She looked at him. “One day, after we’re widows, when we’re old and our skin is all wrinkled and leathery, you should come find me.”

He laughed. “I will.”

He thought about the honey locust leaves, yellowing closely together on their branches, and thought it would be nice to yellow with Sarah until they slipped and fell and the sidewalk grew slick with them. He thought he would like to lie on the ground and turn to compost with her.

“I will miss you,” she said. He heard the tears in her voice, but she did not allow them to fall. She stood and pulled his head to her chest and held him. Then she lowered her lips and it was like the Hopper. He saw the door open to reveal the ocean and knew she was on one side and he was on the other, but he could not tell which was which.

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