The Loan (continued)

fiction by Michael Sato

I had no confidence, and at last my insecurity compelled me to stop at a grocery store and buy a box of a kind of chocolate that Sarah likes and buys sometimes for herself. Like words planned in advance, though, I lost faith in the chocolates by the time I reached home, and alas, I threw them away before going in the house, the chocolates seeming by then altogether too much like a parody of apology.

Inside, Sarah was cooking; she said hello flatly without looking up. It looked like Japanese food, and Sarah was arranging items which looked as if they might become sushi: black seaweed, rice and vinegar, a dish of salmon eggs, slick and translucent in the shifting evening light coming through the kitchen window. I told her it looked delicious and she smiled at last. This gave me a little assurance, so I kissed her and said, "I'm sorry."

"In general, or for something particular?" she said.

"I'm really sorry, honey, that I didn't call today."

A sheet of seaweed dropped from her hand and wafted on a draft from the heating vent. "Didn't call?" she said.

"I was just so busy."

"Didn't call? My voice mail broke down today. I'd assumed that you'd called and that I'd lost your message." There was a silence during which there came to me no words at all. Then she said, "You've never just forgotten to call before."
"I know. I'm sorry."

"Just, 'I'm sorry'? You could have bought me a chocolate or something."

"I was just so busy."

"That's the whole point. The point is that you care enough to call even though your busy."

"You're right," I said. I picked up a fish egg and held it against the light. "When did you learn to cook Japanese food?"

"Don't try to change the subject on me."

"Honey, it's only a phone call."

"It's not only a phone call. I thought about you all day, and you forgot about me. Everything that's happened lately makes me feel more like you slipping away from me. It's gotten too easy for me to run out of things to believe in."

"Well, everything has its ups and downs."

Sarah flung a pair of chopsticks at me, and then a rice paddle, and then some rice. My apology was going badly. She stamped her feet, and then, finding all these gestures dissatisfying, swept the whole mess of rice and eggs across the counter and onto the floor.

"How can you be so cold to what has been happening to us?" she said, and held my eyes, waiting for the answer. "Do you know what's been happening to me?" She waited for an answer. No words came to me. Sarah shook her head, disgusted and resigned, and slumped into her chair.

"Then I will tell you," she said. "I have been getting so afraid. Afraid, and afraid of my fear. It makes me shiver. At work today, showing a home to a client, I shuddered so hard I thought I was going to fall to the floor. I couldn't stop it."

She looked down at her hands, smoothed her dress with them, across her thighs. Needing to do something, I picked up the chopsticks she had thrown and the black seaweed she had dropped and brought them to the counter, then I got to my knees and with a sponge I started to push the scattered rice and fish eggs into a pile.

"Stop it, Kristian," Sarah said.

"But I can't think of anything to say."

"You had better," she said. "Listen to me. I'm telling you that I can't go on being this afraid. Any other kind of pain would be better. Any other."

I nodded without looking at her, and I tried to clear my throat without making any sound. Then, still holding the sponge and on my knees, I pushed some more of the rice and eggs into a pile.

"I'm telling you that you have to tell me that I don't need to be afraid," Sarah said.

The kitchen window glowed pale with dusk-light. The light moved with the shadows of tree branches outside, shifting the pieces of darkness that had been moving into the room. I took the dustpan from under the sink and held it against the pile, and tried to push the pile of food into the pan. It was too dark to see, and much of the food smeared around the edges. So I crouched lower with my sponge, and when I did something slipped from my jacket pocket.

"What is that?" Sarah said.

I passed my hand over the surface of the scattered food and shadows to find the small softness, and then I picked it up and carefully took it to her, and set it in front of her on the table.

"I picked this for you this morning," I said. The petals, all day in my pocket, were pressed and bent and unhinged from the stem. "It was prettier this morning. I wanted you to see it. There was dew on it."

Sarah took a minute to look at the flower, cautiously and without touching it, though it continued it seemed to fall apart under her gaze.

"Tell me what it looked like," she said.

"It looked like something naked."

"Oh," she breathed and, tentatively, picked the flower from the table, some more petals falling off from the movement, and she put her nose thoughtfully against a gap that fallen petals left, against the yellow stamen. The last intimation of day through the kitchen window colored the air between us pale and cast vaguely the awkward shape of the camellia on her cheek. She closed her eyes and took some slow breaths, a line coming to her forehead from thinking very hard. She was thinking very hard.

"I see," she said. Her fingers closed around the base of the stem, where it had been clipped, and she breathed in against it, again and again, struggling to take within her its tiny, obscure taste.

"God, I can't bear to let it pass," she said.

She kept the flower to her nose, though little of it was left besides a couple of stubborn petals, and breathed. It was dark; the shadow of the flower had faded from her cheek, and its petals were scattered and lost in the dark, on the table and on the floor. I dared at last to touch her. I touched her hair, my fingers following the line of its fall to her ear, and I touched her cheek where the shadow had been, and her hand which was preciously holding almost nothing—nothing but a memory that wasn't even hers.

"Don't give up," I said.

"But it's you who has given up," Sarah returned. "Since the very beginning, it was you."

So we were back to the beginning again, standing at the fork where it remains to be decided whether it is belief or disbelief which is the original sin. We stood there in the dark, late into the night, our banter not so much ending as pausing, finally, in bed, dribbling off into sleep only hours from daylight.

The last words Sarah said last night, in the warm silence of our room, both of us just barely awake, were, "When we are fighting, do you ever wish that you could be somewhere else?" I didn't answer; I was too far asleep to speak.

"I never had," Sarah said. She leaned into me and nuzzled my neck. Sleep was so close that I could feel its soft weight on my eyes and my mind; I could see the beginnings of dreams in scattered fragments of voice and color, pieces of the world that I made, for my sake, coming together into a whole. That world that I made is suited to the dark, where I am lying still, unable to speak or move. Fitting that it is trapped there, from where it can't intrude on the day, into its hard pale light.

Every night as the fragments of my dreams coalesce I look for, but have never once seen, the line over which I pass the moment my dreams become real.

The last message on my voice mail came to an end. Marie, this morning, had so far not called. I checked with my young underwriter, and I also searched through three hours worth of phone logs on the computer for a request from one Marie Stalwart for an application withdrawal. I did not think Marie had either the courage or stupidity to pursue the loan after talking to her this morning. Surely I had given her no reason to believe that I would choose not to tell Joe. I myself had no reason to believe that I was not going to tell Joe.

But Marie's name was not in the phone logs. Up to the minute, no one in Sentinel Banking Corporation had taken her call. I could only wait. That was more work than one would think, for if normally I pick up one out of four or five calls, today I snatched up the receiver before the end of every first ring, and each time expecting Marie. Instead it was the normal round of complaints from our clients, routine questions from appraisers, apologies from blundering title companies—calls easily handled with a couple of messages from people I had perhaps never once spoken to in real time. Worrying, while on the line, that Marie was just then trying to get through, I was curt with them all.

My young underwriter brought me another stack of files about which she had some questions. She gave my desk a look, then stacked her files on the floor, next to my waste basket. She mentioned that she had to leave early this afternoon to take her son to a doctor appointment. I must have seemed as if I was interested, because next she had propped herself against the wall and was telling me everything else about her family, how her children were doing in school, about their vacation plans, the deal they found on their airline tickets. The gurus of corporate culture have decreed that it is fitting for middle managers to spend some minutes each day taking an interest in the personal lives of their staff. The time spent is an investment into building community and a sense of loyalty to one's company, they say. It bothers me to think that a relationship should be so starkly functional, not rising from any genuine and common attraction or need. On the other hand, it was amazing how effortlessly my underwriter exhausted her concerns on me. Our rootless friendship might last till the stars fall. Neither of us wants anything from the other.

"How are things with you?" my young underwriter asked, when she had finished with her story. In fact, I wouldn't have minded telling someone how things were with me; it would have been a relief. But the instant I opened my mouth to speak, the phone rang. I snatched up the receiver. When I said hello the voice that returned gave me the thought, lamentably, that this was the call I'd been waiting for.

I said, "Marie."



"Why did you call me 'Marie'?"

"You sounded like someone else."

"Did I sound like Marie Stalwart?"

"I don't sound like Marie Stalwart."

"You're right. You don't," I said.

"You said you would call in an hour. I've been waiting."

I had completely forgotten about that. I must have frightened my young underwriter, still propped against the door, with my grimace. She scuttled quickly away.

"See, things keep getting worse," Sarah said. She was very upset, and on the verge of sobbing again.

"What is worse?" I said, pulling my own hair.

"They keep getting worse, but I can't let them get any worse. I wouldn't be able to stand it."


"All your talk about staying in touch with reality but you are the one who is missing it completely." I heard the sound of her hand coming down on and covering her receiver. Behind it she was crying. Then, when she came back, she said, "You let everything get so bad. Kristian, I think that I have to save myself."


And then, somehow, Sarah stopped sobbing and she pulled herself together again to say, in a low, perfectly even tone, "I have heard, Kristian, that more than anything else one always remembers the last words they hear from someone who is special to them. More than anything else one remembers last words, exactly as they were spoken, forever. Do you believe that to be true?" These words were planned words. They were words that Sarah had sometime before planned and set aside—saved for this particular moment.

"Yes," I said. "Why?"

I waited for Sarah's answer with perfect, unguarded, crystalline attention, my mind a clear, empty space. I listened. She didn't answer. There was not a sound. It dawned on me at last that the line was dead, that Sarah had hung up on me. The realization was blinding, and I listened still, not even to silence, and not even waiting. Where her words should have been was blank, a vacuum with its edge against my ear. Then there was my manager, standing in the doorway. How long had I been holding a dead phone to my ear? How should I go about hanging up? It took too long. I had to concentrate on the mechanics of it—pull down the arm, move it across the desk. My palm, when I tore it away, left a print of sweat on the handle.

My boss stood under the threshold, looking at me.

"I have to believe that, though you were holding the phone to your ear, you were neither talking nor listening to anybody," he said. His eyes passed over the condition of my office. "I'm not sure why, but I find that disturbing."

A drop of sweat fell from my forehead onto a stack of files.

"Are you okay?" he said.


"Then why are you listening to no one, and why is your office still such a nightmare?" he said.

"Maybe I'm in one."

"I think that you are. Look at your desk. You haven't been catching up. It's getting worse."

"Well, I've been taking calls all morning."

"Calls don't count when there's no one on the other end. This is getting serious. It's high time that you wake up from your little nightmare." My boss leaned towards me and clapped his hands together next to my ear. "Do you hear me? Wake up now. Wake up."

I pushed his hands back but, standing, my boss had too much leverage and he simply moved his hands behind my ear, and then, to the other side of my head. "Wake up. Wake up."

So I put my feet up against the edge of my desk, coiled, and kicked away. My chair went wheeling across the room.

"I'm trying!"

My boss looked at me blankly. "Good," he said, and then, coming upon some kind of decision, put two fingers to his protruding chin.

"Do you have plans for lunch today?" he said.


"Maybe you had better cancel them, try at least to get all this organized by the end of the day. I think you owe us the time."

I nodded.

Two new messages had come in on my voice-mail. Neither was from Marie. I checked the phone logs again. She had not called.

The next time my roving boss passed from my field of vision, I left for lunch. I tried to be clever. I left my jacket and briefcase behind and went out in the direction of the men's room so that whoever did see me might not think that I was leaving the building. So that it looked as if I was away from my desk only momentarily, I left my office light and my computer on. Degrading, these childish tricks that adults must play, sometimes. I think that I was more of an adult—a bigger, prouder person—when I was much younger.

The day it began, on our high school soccer field, with a fist fight—one with all the graceless kicking and pulling that befits two awkward and desperate adolescents—was a day like today, cold with a scattering of dry, broken clouds on the sky. This was my first year in high school. Joe was a sophomore. We both had a crush on the same girl, who was also a sophomore. Mine was a burning, torturous infatuation that wracked me some days to physical sickness. We fought because Joe, who I knew then only by face, said to me that day in a corner of the field, "She'll never be your girlfriend. She doesn't even know your name." I fought Joe because what he said was true. The girl was hopelessly inaccessible to me; she didn't even know my name. She was prom-queen material, and I was shy and reticent, utterly incapable of making myself known. That was the truth, and Joe made me see it. That's why I fought him, although, to be clear, what I hated was neither Joe nor the truth. What I hated was my infatuation.

Joe was bigger and stronger than I and, impassioned as I was, I fought longer and more furiously than I should have. It occurred to me years later that Joe, in his mind, was fighting for the rights to this girl, though in fact the truth that he forced upon me applied just as well to him. He was just another pimply-faced nobody and the girl was effectively just as far out of reach to him as she was to me. I don't know how long it was before Joe finally caught onto this. I don't know if he ever did see his own feelings in the proper light.

I was dizzy and bloodied by the time the crowd that gathered to watch our fight caught the attention finally of the gym instructor, who had no easy time tearing us apart. He was really frightened at the damage we had managed to inflict on each other, so he sent for the nurse, and made us lie down on the grass while he checked to see if any limbs or noses were broken. When he was satisfied that we were out of immediate danger he said, "You boys shake hands now," and Joe, beside me on the grass, took my hand and held it while we waited for the nurse, all kinds of pain starting to soak in through the adrenaline, and stared straight up at the silent audience of clouds.

"Now everything is going to be all right," Joe said to me. "Now everything is settled."

For the next couple of years after that fight Joe and I we were rarely apart. Now Joe and I play golf together and, when we make plans to entertain, always check to make sure that the other is free. That is all. Before today, I had not seen Joe's innards for a decade or more.

I felt a kind of shock when I entered the restaurant, a new, fifties-motif diner, and saw Joe waving me over from a table near the back, under the arch of a massive silver jukebox that was playing fifties rock and roll, the music's unwavering bounce and dry optimism like whitewash on old wood. Joe was snapping his ankle and semiconsciously nodding his head to the tune. The shock was my own sudden cognizance of the ugliness of what I was about to do. I was shocked at the irony of it.

He had a toothpick between his lips—a habit he adopted when he quit smoking eight months ago. As far as I knew this gnawing was his only remaining vice; in the past few years he had pared his lifestyle to the shining bone. He had quit drinking, quit eating desserts and red meat, quit watching television and the reading of crappy novels.

He was dressed casually, as always, in a corduroy jacket and jeans, tie-less, sitting with this shoulders back and straight above his waist. He had quit slouching.

We shook hands. Joe pulled the splintered toothpick from between his teeth and laid it in an ashtray. "I'm starting to understand why our parents liked this music," he said. "It's so much happier than ours."

"This music presents a naïve view of reality. It set up a generation to be disillusioned."

"But it's so much happier," Joe said, tapping a finger on the table. He asked me about work and about Sarah. I said that both were going badly. He asked me if I wanted to talk about it and I said no. As for Joe, he runs a small publishing business specializing in textbooks for children with learning disabilities. His market is small but stable, and there were no problems, he said. He was also putting in some volunteer hours at the literacy center; it kept him hopeful. And things were fine as always with Marie.

Joe ordered a salad and I had a burger, the "Ball of Fire Burger," with fries. Joe called the waiter back to change his order to a hamburger, but then changed his mind again back to the salad, this time with the dressing on the side.

I took coffee, Joe just water.

"I quit coffee," he said. "About a month ago."

"How is it going?"

"Easy. But I've had a headache for a month."

"That could be your allergies."

"Could be. Seems like spring is coming early this year. I look forward to the memories more than spring itself. There are certain memories that come to me only in spring. Is it the same with you?"

"On the first day of each spring it occurs to me that I had forgotten what spring is."

"How depressing," Joe said. "Is this day one you're looking forward to?"

"It was yesterday."

"Really? I missed it."

The waiter came and poured my coffee. It was strong, and it felt good. Eyeing my coffee, Joe drew another toothpick from his jacket pocket and pushed it through his lips. His jaw flexed as he impelled the toothpick back and forth between his teeth, and his eyes turned up towards the ceiling. I could see that behind them Joe was planning words, or reciting to himself words already planned. It seemed he was unsatisfied with them; his lips thinned as if he were looking for a certain taste, and then, as if the taste had been bitter, he winced. It's so hard to plan words.

"Did you ever wonder why I never told you how I felt about you career choice, Kristian?" he said, the focus returning to his eyes. "I often wish that I had, but I never knew how. I never knew how to go about getting that personal. That sounds strange, but I know that you take your work so personally."

"You say that as if it's wrong to take work personally."

"Whether it's wrong or not depends. In your case, it is wrong, because your work is so bad. Bad, I mean, in an evil sense. I could never put my finger on exactly what it is that your work has done to you. But you learned a bad lesson from it. It somehow messed you up. Deeply."

Truly enough, Joe had never levied upon me this particular accusation. But hyperbole has always been Joe's manner, so I was not so taken aback by his provocation as I might have been. "It doesn't seem to me that my job was so different from any other," I said.

"Your job is an epitome. Your job is the very soul of capitalism."

"I am a capitalist."

"But we both know what capitalism really is. And we both know that debt is the only fact of every created desire. Don't we?"

"Perhaps. Still, it is not we who create the desire."

"The creation of desire it a petty sin. You exploit the essence of desire. Just look at your own literature. So brightly colored, simply worded—it reads like a children's story. You sell loans as if they were toys, as if money were a toy, as if life were a toy. Do you see? You promise to make people feel like children again. You promise to make people feel free. And no matter what ostensibly they want, freedom is always, at bottom, what people desire. Your promise to give it to them is a horrible, unconscionable lie. And I'll tell you something else. It's as tempting as hell. I want to believe it, and it takes work to resist, ugly, paranoid work every day. You don't know how hard Marie and I have had to work to get out of the debt that we had when I came around to the lie of it. You don't know how hard it is to stay one step ahead of people who are always thinking and scheming and calculating some way to sneak into my desire, knowing that there must be some way, somehow, to take from me what I have."

"You're right in this," I said. "You are paranoid."

"Then why did Sentinel call my wife?"

"What did she say when you asked her?" I said.

"Naturally, she said she didn't know anything about it."

"And you believed her?"

Joe raised an eyebrow. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"I'm just wondering whether you asked Marie in passing about the call, or if you really pursued the matter."

Of course, Joe had gathered my insinuation at once, that is, that his wife was dissembling, and I took from the flush on his cheeks to mean that I was rousing his anger. His face hardened, his mouth twisted painfully into a knot around his toothpick, and the fingers that had been keeping time with the music were now pressed against the surface of the table. I was also unnerved. It is not safe to rouse the emotions of a deeply repressed man. I touched the arms of my chair and pushed the balls of my feet against the floor.

But then Joe, his aspect desperate with gravity, reached across the table and laid his hand on my arm, gently, his eyes reaching out to mine with paternal warmth. I had misjudged him completely. The color on his face had come not from anger, but sympathy. Something I had said made Joe sorry for me; I think, he pitied me.

Withdrawing a splintered toothpick, he nodded to himself and smiled poignantly at me and at himself for his own new understanding. "I have just put my finger on it," he said. "So that's what it has done to you. You let your work into your relationship. It's infested more than your mind. It's in you heart. It's made you blind."

"I see things clearly."

"You are blind in this way: You expect that as you regard Sarah, I should regard Marie," he said.

"I ask Sarah about the people who call for her, if that's what you mean. I allow myself to worry. I allow myself to pay attention to the way the answers."

"So you think that I should too, and so should everyone."

"Yes, I do."

"But Marie and I are married, whereas you and Sarah are not."

I knew this tone of voice. Joe was trying to teach me.

I said, "I have told you the reasons why Sarah and I are not married."

"The reason you and Sarah are not married is because of your work. You took it personally, and now you see even marriage in terms of debt. Because you are not married, there remains between you are Sarah some suspicion. You can't see beyond that. You can't see that there is another way."

"There is no suspicion at all between you and Marie?"

"It is the very meaning of marriage that there is none whatsoever."

The food came, and I was glad because I was not expecting to have to think about these things in the context of Joe's perspective, and I was not sure how to get around them. The burger, by the way, was to my taste delicious, though the coffee had dampened my appetite a little. Joe said through his first mouthful of lettuce that he was happy enough to be able to chew on something that was not a toothpick. I wished that Marie had withdrawn the application.

"What I have learned from my work," I said, "is that the only real part of any desire, any idealization, any dream, is debt. To let go of suspicion is to idealize, because people are tempted, and people fail. In the long run, we have to doubt each other. More than once a little vigilant suspicion on the part of Sarah and I has preempted mistakes that might have damaged, even ended our relationship."

Joe was not impressed. "Do you love each other?" he said.

"Of course, insofar as love indicates a difference of degree."

"As opposed to?"

"One of kind."

"Your life must be insufferable."

"It is my duty not to expect too much."

"Such waste," Joe said, and there it was again—his feeling for me.

He set down his knife and fork and, with one hand still on my arm, leaned forward on his other elbow, across the table.

"You fight to have little, when life wants to give you so much. Listen, every person you have ever met who is happy, fundamentally happy, has the same secret. They all have the same secret. It is one that they never tell because it is such an embarrassing, obvious secret. Do you want to know what it is? One day, a long time ago, because I was sad, I took a leap of faith—a faith that I found at the core of my being. It takes that much to truly love or to trust—a faith that is the core of your being. You can try to wait for trust. You can wait until you feel your whole life dwindling away, falling apart and its parts scattering, becoming smaller and becoming at last nothing at all but an object, nothing but a happening. Trust does not accrue over time. Trust is a choice, it is a leap that is magical. And then you wonder why before you had made everything so hard, and it seems to you that before you were dead. And your life after you take that leap becomes just like a dream."

"There. I can see in your eyes that you are beginning to understand," Joe said.

It was like stepping into new light.

"The secret is the leap. To get from one plane to the other."

"What if you were wrong," I said, "to take that leap?"

"But you see, in taking it, the very possibility of being wrong is removed. Faith is beyond logic, like a miracle is beyond logic."

"Some people lose their faith," I said.

"People who lose their faith never had it at the core of their being," Joe said.

With the same arm that Joe held, I turned my hand and held his. The new light settled and made the world different. Everything in the past seemed different.

"Sentinel called Marie because they found a way to take what you have," I said.

"What is the way?"

"Through your faith."

I clung tightly to Joe's arm. A lump formed in his throat, and he swallowed. His toothpick hung tenuously from his lip. "Is that right?" he said.

As everyone knows, it is when a dream becomes a dream as such that it begins to end. I wiped my mouth, and took out my wallet, and put some bills on the table.

"I'll pay," Joe said.

"I know you will."

I'm not sure why I said that. A store of bad feeling welled up, from somewhere. I didn't know if I'd ever see him again, and my feeling was: I just wanted him to know, when he finally figured it all out, that I had been right. I guess that I was seeking revenge. I guess that Joe had managed to hurt me.

I found when I got back to the building that my little ruse at the office had not worked very well. My light and my computer were both turned off, and there was a stick-up note on my desk from my boss telling me to come see him.

He was speaking on the phone, but ended the call when he saw me approach. He waved me in, and motioned for me to close the door behind me. He had a stack of files on his desk that had before lunch been on mine; that he had taken it upon himself to catch up for me was clearly bad. With one hand on his great chin, stroking an afternoon shadow, he pointed at a chair with the other, and did not bother to ask if I had been in the men's room for the past hour.

"Three things," he said. "First, you should go home now, and we shall regard this day as a sick day, which is just, because you haven't done anything today but act sick. If you are well tomorrow, then you should come to work and together we will spend the day trying to clean up with the assistance of a temporary employee, or two. Second, as you should know, because of the sensitivity of the information with which we work, there are no employees at Sentinel, not excluding you and I, who are allowed to invite to the Sentinel campus visitors of a personal nature. Third, there is a visitor here to see you."

I shrank in my chair.

"She is still here only because I myself gave security permission to allow her to stay." He shrugged. "She seemed like a nice girl."

"I'm sorry."

"She's waiting for you in the reception area."

Then he motioned for me to rise, and then he motioned me to the door, and as I was leaving, he motioned for me to shut the door on my way out.

I didn't leave right away. I went back to my office, and I sat down and went to work. It is not true that I did absolutely nothing for Sentinel today. I finished one file.

It seems there was a time when I would have felt insufferably guilty for my perilous, giddy attraction to Marie—guilty enough, in fact, to keep me away from her. Now I feel no guilt, really no adverse feeling at all related to our, for lack of a better word, alliance per se. There is only the general, low hum of self-loathing, which they say is anyway these days endemic to white-maleness, but that I have learned to carry with no overt manifestation that I know of. To be clear, I had not at that time so much as kissed Marie, and we have scarcely mentioned our feelings for each other, for if we did then we could no longer pretend that the friendship we had had not been growing into a different creature. We saw each other two or three times a week, usually at lunch and sometimes after work given we both had an alibi to be home a little late. Additionally I played tennis with her twice a month, which has been our habit anyway for two or three years.

As nearly as I can ascertain, it started last fall when Marie came to me with her unhappiness with Joe. She chose me as her confidant because, she said, her woman friends would not understand. They would not understand how she was no more to Joe than an pawn in a scheme, or a princess trapped in a tower. Only I could understand, she said, because I was a person who had no schemes, and I was a person who had no towers.

Strange, the mechanics of the heart. I did understand her, and, privy to her loneliness, I did want to help her. Then, one day, she had half of my thoughts.

She sat waiting for me with an open magazine in her lap, chatting with the receptionist about the misery of hay fever. Her smile, when she turned, was golden, though I managed to preserve a flat countenance, since I was supposed to be angry with her. She returned the magazine to its table with a spirited little toss and popped from her chair to face me.

"Hi there," she said.

How I was happy to see her. I led her out and she suggested that we walk. The Sentinel Corporation, when this building was constructed, was obliged by the city to make an enormous investment in the local environs, and so its setting is park-like, albeit according to the sterile suburban taste, and not unsuitable for walking in. Grass grows green over gentle hills four feet high, and there are neat rows of peach trees that do not bear fruit but blossom at the end of each March. There's no life but some crows that come in from the farmland farther out; they are enormous and their black color is vivid against the grass and mirrored exterior of the Sentinel building. Overhead was a the same scattered patchwork of blue and gray, and from that an endless consecution of transient light and shadow on the ground.

Marie took my hand—our one physical indulgence—and swung it playfully to our step. "Are you mad?" she said.

"Not now. Before and later, yes."

"I'm sorry about this morning."

"That's nothing."

"And I'm sorry that I couldn't bring myself to tell you before; I was so scared. But I've done some thinking, and I'm not scared anymore. I sent the application to you because I had to be sure that you were on my side. That's selfish of me, I know. I didn't want to cause you trouble. But look at my side. I was willing to take that chance. It means that much to me."


"Because it's all for nothing if I have to be alone."

"If not for me, you would stay with Joe."

"Yes," Marie said, with an ease that was terrible and so charming. "Yes, without you, I would stay with Joe."

"Do you know how badly what you're trying to do would hurt him?" I said.

"I know my husband. It would hurt him so bad that it would change him. That's why I need the money first, you see, before the hurt comes. He idealizes me so, and there has never been a man as certain of himself and Joe is. My leaving would take that from him, and when that's gone, he'll be as lost as something new-born, and he'll become dark, and he'll have to start all over again, as a person, you know, without really knowing A of life's ABC's. That's why I couldn't withdraw the application. If I left first, then it would be too late to get anything."

"How much do you think he owes you?"

"He owes me more than money. I gave him love. My love. Real love."

We moved from sunlight into the shadow of a cloud. It got colder. Marie squeezed my hand and pressed close to me as though we might share the heat of our bodies through our jackets.

"I approved your application."

"Oh, I knew you would!" Marie jumped into me and, with her arms around my neck, hung on there with so much of her weight that I lost balance and went over like ballast onto the grass, with her coming down on top, laughing. And still laughing, she kissed me, the laughter like the giant heartbeat bouncing inside her chest. And I laughed too. "I knew that you would take my side," she said. "I knew that things were moving that way." Without actually letting go of each other we moved over the top of the small hill to the other side, out of the view of the building and of any traffic on the sidewalk or street. There we kissed a little more, wordlessly, and then she settled beside me with her head on my arm. "Now I'm so happy," she said. "Are you?"


"I've been so afraid and waiting so long to do this, and now I'm so glad that I've done it. I feel like I'm new. I feel like I can do anything. How long it has been since I've felt that I could do anything, felt free. Don't you love how it feels?"

"Yes, I do."

She snuggled against my jacket; she held it and caressed it, as if it were a living part of me that had feeling and needed care. So I held the cuff of her sweater, her warmth soaked into it, and she even sighed with the pleasure of our quiet, skinless lovemaking.

"Did I ever tell you why I liked you so much?" she said. "You have imagination. I love your imagination."

"You have imagination."

"But mine is a simple, selfish imagination. I see shapes in the clouds. I wonder what it would be like to fly. Your imagination is powerful. You have imagination in your heart."

"I hate my imagination."

"Oh, what's this?" she said. She had found the broken flower inside my jacket pocket.

"It's a flower."

"Did you pick it for me?"

"I picked it because I missed spring."

"Missed spring? Silly, spring hasn't even started yet," she said, and tucked the flower back into my pocket, a couple of petals falling onto the grass between us.

She said, "You know, I've always had this one dream. I've always dreamed of living in the South of France, somewhere near the beach, in a place where there's a café on the street, where people meet and talk to each other—really talk, you know? Talks that fill an afternoon, and then a night."

"No phones."

"Yes, and no voice-mail, and no passwords, and no creeping around on some spooky Internet."

"And the ocean."

"We would drink red wine on the sand where the waves rolled up to our toes."

The cloud passed over and the sun came down again. Above was a long space of clear blue before the next cloud passing. The light felt sharp against my skin, made delicate by the winter, and Marie's face too was bright with color.

"We could really do it," she said. "It doesn't have to be just a dream anymore. We could make it real. Now, because of you, I could take care of us both. It's a lot of money I'm getting. We could make it go a long, long way." She reached over and touched the side of my face with her palm. "Kristian," she whispered, "You could be my dream."

The sun was still in the stretch of blue, burning clear yellow and white. The next cloud was so far away as to also seem still, though it wasn't, and with attention, I could see its near edge unsettled and changing, its tiny pink billows rising against the blue and edging forward. Is that cloud's edge the line, over which passing, dreams become real? I closed my eyes, looking for and end or a beginning inside, looking for some way to tell the difference.

"Kristian," Sarah whispered, "I could be yours."

I had thought I had been more awake. Always, always, I had thought that I had been more awake.

"Say something Kristian. Wake up." Marie was nudging my shoulder. "Are you sleeping? Wake up."

"I'm trying," I said.

It's after seven now, and dark, and Sarah is not home yet. I made dinner when I got home and put a candle on the table and put the camellia that I picked this morning in a blue glass dish next to the candle. There's even less of it left today than there was of yesterday's, from so much running around, and from lying on the grass. The dish is a dish of petals, scattered in a roughly circular pattern. The dish serves to hold the petals together, so that they mean something. They mean the idea of a flower, the idea of its former beauty.

Every time I hear the sound of a car outside coming down our street I expect it to be Sarah's, although I know the sound of her car well enough, and none of these cars are hers. They pass by, one by one, their sounds fading into not-quite-silence. She has never been this late before—not without letting me know in advance of her plans. My first sight of every day for the past seven years has been of Sarah—two thousand memories scattered across my mind, each of them different from the moment of their becoming. I don't know what she looks like. I have one clear memory. It is a memory of some last words that aren't there. Sarah gave me this empty space, on purpose. She knew I won't forget it.

Michael writes: I recently completed my MA in English and have been teaching English in Ota, Japan for the last six months. I am 28.


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