Dark Mat­ter

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - SUZAN­NAH WINDSOR

72

“DEAD BOD­IES CAN F ART ,” her son says. He blinks hard at the lin­guine dan­gling from be­tween his fork and spoon. Tries to twirl it, but its ends keep com­ing loose and fall­ing back to his plate. “Burp, too.”

This is Noah’s im­me­di­ate re­sponse to her say­ing Jonathan is dead.

Min­utes ear­lier, Kathy stood at the kitchen sink, a steam­ing strainer full of bare pasta—the smell of it warm, com­fort­ing—and she had been al­most ob­scenely grate­ful for it, that for­got­ten bag of pasta be­hind the flour and oil. She wouldn’t have to take Noah out in the dark, af­ter all, drive to the gro­cery store in the snow. Pasta was al­ways there, no mat­ter how long you for­got about it. It had been the only proper food left in the house. Not that she could ac­count for the bare­ness of the cup­board. It wasn’t as if she had been busy, wasn’t as if she’d been work­ing. Imag­ine a world with­out pasta, she thought, steam moist­en­ing her face and ris­ing up to fog the win­dow. A cup­board with no backup. Just empty space where the food is meant to be.

Noah has never met Jonathan, so Jonathan’s be­ing dead should make no dif­fer­ence to him one way or an­other. Her hus­band, Carl, is in Toronto for the week, but even if he were home he wouldn’t care, ei­ther. So, be­cause she knows it will make no dif­fer­ence to any­one but her, she has told her son the news: “My friend Jonathan has died. I haven’t seen him in a long time. Not for twice as many years as you are old.”

Noah knows all about dead bod­ies from his fun facts book. He says the proper term for a dead body is ca­daver.

As soon as Kathy said those words, she re­gret­ted them, like so many other things. She re­lies far too much on Noah, as if he’s the adult and she the child, but he’s so darn sta­ble for a nine-year-old, she finds it dif­fi­cult not to use him as a sound­ing board. To Noah words are sim­ply tools for de­scrib­ing facts, and he loves facts for the real, pal­pa­ble things they are. Emo­tions are too slip­pery for him, skim­ming over faces, hushed in body lan­guage. Noah doesn’t no­tice she’s up­set when she scrapes her din­ner into the garbage af­ter just a few bites and stands look­ing out the win­dow like some­thing im­por­tant might pass her by, or al­ready has.

Kathy’s mother was the one to call and give her the news, just as she al­ways does when there’s news to be told about any­one—rel­a­tives, friends. The lo­cal Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment. The parish pri­est. When Noah was a baby, her mother had called to say, “Last I heard, Betty said Jonathan was in the hospi­tal again.”

“Hardly sur­pris­ing,” Kathy had said, as if they were dis­cussing some­one they read about in the news. Some­one who meant noth­ing. Not some­one who had lived next door to her. Not a one-time best friend. “Sad. So very sad. He sure had a thing for you. Re­mem­ber how he used to leave po­ems in your jacket pock­ets? You were al­ways rolling your eyes.”

“He was a screw-up,” Kathy said, as she held an in­fant Noah on her lap and leaned his chin into her palm to burp him. What she’d re­ally been think­ing was that they “Dark Mat­ter”/Windsor 3 weren’t po­ems—they were songs. And he was prob­a­bly on acid when he wrote them. And what else she’d been think­ing about was how Carl had been com­plain­ing about the price of for­mula, and why couldn’t she just breast­feed like Every­one Else?

“He was crazy about you, Kathy! How can you be so mean?”

She couldn’t ac­tu­ally say, other than life, lit­tle by lit­tle, was mak­ing her that way.

Kathy got used to th­ese re­ports, so much so, they be­came a reg­u­lar part of her life. There is no Jonathan, and then sud­denly, there he is, un­earthed. Just there. Then gone, then there again, like some sick game of Whack-a-Mole. There was the time around when Noah was learn­ing to walk: “I hear Jonathan fi­nally got mar­ried.” And a few years later, “I hear Jonathan fi­nally got di­vorced.” Kathy had dif­fi­culty be­liev­ing some of this. Jonathan was not the mar­ry­ing type

or the di­vorc­ing type. But she also couldn’t help won­der­ing about this mys­tery woman, couldn’t help but be cu­ri­ous. At first she found her­self try­ing to piece to­gether faces and shapes and per­son­al­i­ties to hy­poth­e­size who he pos­si­bly could have both mar­ried and di­vorced. What type of house they would share. Whether she was pretty. Pretty was more palat­able than smart.

Around the time Kathy lost her job, her mother said, “I hear since his wife left him, Jonathan’s been on wel­fare and liv­ing in a trailer in South Gil­lies.”

And fi­nally, now, “Jonathan is dead.”

He dis­ap­peared for a few days be­fore he was re­ported miss­ing. Po­lice tracked him an hour’s walk into the bush be­fore pulling his body from the river, the same river that nar­rows as it reaches the city and even­tu­ally passes un­der the bridge in their old neigh­bour­hood be­fore mak­ing its way out to the lake.

Noah looks up from his plate, eyes the dark­est brown, like Carl’s. “Did you know dead bod­ies al­most al­ways float face down?”

Kathy tries to re­mem­ber the times she wrote Jonathan long let­ters of apol­ogy but then burned them, or tried to call him, or sat out­side his house in her parked car and waited to watch him come home, but th­ese mem­o­ries don’t come eas­ily, be­cause they aren’t mem­o­ries at all. Be­tween her mother’s re­ports, she’s sure Jonathan leaves her mind com­pletely—first for days, then weeks, then months. Yes, it’s as if he never ex­isted in the first place, as if their friend­ship is just an old film she has seen so many times she can’t stand to watch it any­more.

“Some­times their hearts keep work­ing,” Noah says, “even af­ter their brains die.”

Carl calls from Toronto. His breath is shal­low like he’s run­ning to catch the sub­way. “How’re things?” he asks, with­out say­ing hello.

She tells him about Noah’s A on his spell­ing test, the voice­mail from the den­tist. Be­hind her, Noah says, “Did you tell him Jonathan’s dead?”

Carl says, “Sounds like Kiddo’s ready for bed.”

This is clas­sic Carl, hear­ing but not re­ally lis­ten­ing. He and Noah have that much in com­mon, al­though at least Noah can’t seem to help it. Carl sees this flaw in his son but not in him­self. Some­times Carl thinks their son is stupid be­cause he can’t catch a base­ball or re­mem­ber to wash his face af­ter din­ner, even though he knows the name of ev­ery di­nosaur ever dis­cov­ered and can re­cite pi to an ev­er­in­creas­ing num­ber of dec­i­mal places.

Kathy says Noah has de­cided to do a re­search pro­ject on dark mat­ter for the sci­ence fair.

Carl says, “If he re­ally wants to win, he should do that lev­i­tat­ing mag­net-thingy we talked about.”

Kathy says, “It’s ex­tracur­ric­u­lar. It’s just for fun. He should do what­ever he wants.” She pulls the re­ceiver away from her mouth. “Buddy, what did you say dark mat­ter is, again?”

Noah says, “It’s a mys­te­ri­ous sub­stance that makes up most of the uni­verse, but sci­en­tists don’t ac­tu­ally know what it is.”

“Can’t talk long,” Carl says. “Have to get back to the ho­tel to work on my pre­sen­ta­tion.”

Noah says, “It’s ev­ery­where. It’s all around us. You just can’t see

it.”

“Right, of course,” Kathy says, even though Carl’s ex­cuse is bull­shit and he knows it, and he knows she knows it, and yet, he also knows Kathy will not call bull­shit on him, be­cause this is what they do th­ese days. This is how they go on. She has no ab­so­lute proof Carl will find some woman at a bar or that he’ll spend the night in a col­league’s room af­ter a long, in­tense ses­sion of dis­cussing Very Im­por­tant Mar­ket­ing Strate­gies. Still, his know­ing that she knows he ex­ited their mar­riage ages ago, his grow­ing ap­a­thy to­ward Noah— it’s al­ways there, an in­vis­i­ble en­ergy that bends and dis­torts the space be­tween them.

Noah says, “My hy­poth­e­sis is that dark mat­ter is the God par­ti­cle. The Higgs bo­son.”

“I’ll call you to­mor­row,” Carl says. He pauses. Then: “Have a good night.”

Noah says, “They built the Large Hadron Col­lider to find it. They’re get­ting closer and closer.”

“Have a good night,” Kathy re­peats. Th­ese are words they say now in­stead of “I love you,” and “I love you too.” They’ve be­come ex­perts of this loop­hole. Be­cause, th­ese days, Kathy feels say­ing “I love you” is like be­ing forced to give a se­cret pass­word to an en­emy. Like some­one has their arm around her throat. Though, she’s not sure who, ex­actly.

Noah says, “Stephen Hawk­ing says one day it could de­stroy the whole uni­verse.”

When she hangs up the phone, Noah is draw­ing pat­terns on his servi­ette with a ball­point pen―cir­cles in­side cir­cles in­side cir­cles. When he gets to the small­est cir­cles, which are lit­tle more than dots,

his hand looks cramped, like it’s dif­fi­cult for him to grip the pen. He says, “Did you love Jonathan be­fore he died?”

It’s an odd ques­tion. Not, “Did you love Jonathan?” but “Did you love him be­fore he died?” She tries to fol­low Noah’s train of thought: maybe he fig­ures once some­one is dead, lov­ing them is an im­pos­si­bil­ity be­cause you can’t kiss or hug or marry a corpse.

Kathy doesn’t bother try­ing to ex­plain. Any at­tempt will set Noah’s mind in mo­tion, and he won’t sleep. How can she ex­plain that love isn’t some­thing that ei­ther is or isn’t, that it doesn’t al­ways fit into neat boxes like Mother, Wife, Friend. That some­times you can love and hate some­one all at once. Or mostly hate them but love some small piece of them you see only once ev­ery decade or so, so you hang around for­ever just wait­ing for the good times. You can love them but not like them. Love them with­out know­ing it. Love some­one who hates you. Love some­one with­out want­ing to kiss or hug or marry them. How to ex­plain that there are as many loves as there are peo­ple to be loved. As many loves as there are Higgs bosons, and just as dif­fi­cult to put your fin­ger on.

The first time Kathy re­ally, truly thought about Jonathan in years, out­side of her mother’s call­ing to re­port, was when she lost her job. Be­ing ter­mi­nated felt some­thing like a bad dream of stand­ing in the mid­dle of the of­fice and hav­ing your skirt blow up, and every­one see­ing your bare ev­ery­thing, be­cause some­how, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, you for­got to wear un­der­wear that morn­ing, and now peo­ple sus­pect that you don’t wear un­der­gar­ments as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple, that you think your­self above th­ese things al­to­gether, and you know now peo­ple will talk about you, about how if you’d been a bit more pro­fes­sional, more dili­gent, this would never have hap­pened. But then, they say, there are al­ways those who think they don’t have to fol­low the rules.

In truth, Kathy’s mis­take was re­ally just that—a horrible mis­take. She’d been think­ing about Noah all day, wor­ry­ing about him on his field trip to the swim­ming pool with his class, feel­ing guilty that she couldn’t be there with him, won­der­ing if he would hold it to­gether for the du­ra­tion of the visit. Would they make him go in the wa­ter if he didn’t want to? Would he kick and scream? What if he went in the deep end and slipped un­der the wa­ter and no one no­ticed? Too many chil­dren, not enough life­guards. Would any­one but Kathy miss him if he sud­denly wasn’t there? And that had led to think­ing, who would love Noah when she, Kathy, was gone?

She re­mem­bers the look on Carl’s face when she told him about be­ing fired. “You did what?”

“It was an ac­ci­dent. I wasn’t think­ing clearly.”

“Did you talk to your boss? Did you pro­pose a res­o­lu­tion?” “What? No. I—”

“Did you of­fer to up your pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment?”

“Carl—”

“Fuck, Kathy! Who does that? Who just lies down and dies like that?”

She slept in a chair in Noah’s room that night, with no blan­ket and no pil­low, chin rest­ing on her chest. She couldn’t bear to have Carl look at her. She planned to stop eat­ing, starve her­self. Shave off her hair. But the next morn­ing when, des­per­ate for wa­ter, she slumped into the kitchen, where Noah was eat­ing a bowl of Chee­rios and Carl was pour­ing him­self a cup of cof­fee at the counter, where the over­ripe ba­nanas were still sit­ting in the fruit bowl and a patch of sun still rested in the mid­dle of the floor where it al­ways did, where ev­ery­thing looked ex­actly as it did the day be­fore when she still had a job, when she was still a hu­man be­ing, she was over­come by a de­sire to make the whole mat­ter dis­ap­pear. Not that it would go away, ex­actly, but that they could some­how see past it. She tried to put her hand in the small of Carl’s back, think­ing surely he would turn and put his hands on her shoul­ders, sigh, tell her they’d fig­ure things out. Some­how. Per­haps kiss her on the fore­head in that I’m still fond of you, I sup­pose, sort of way he some­times did. In­stead, he flinched at the sug­ges­tion of her hand on his clean, pressed shirt, and she backed away like a piece of snot flicked from his per­fectly filed fin­ger­nail.

And that—as she re­treated into the dark hall­way and back to her bed, where she would spend the next three days—was ex­actly the mo­ment she thought of Jonathan. Be­cause ac­cord­ing to her mother, his wife had left him. Per­haps he too was ly­ing awake. Per­haps he was think­ing of her, in a trailer way out in South Gil­lies. Would things have been dif­fer­ent with him? Would life have been bet­ter? Worse?

Now when Carl touches her, she no longer senses his anger but, rather, his bore­dom. As if they are two face­less peo­ple who meet in a mo­tel room ev­ery cou­ple of weeks when their bod­ies are so tired and weary and are look­ing only to meet a bi­o­log­i­cal need. The lights off so they don’t have to look at each other. Like an­i­mals. And that’s all they are, aren’t they? Just two an­i­mals. Just things that hap­pened to the world but ul­ti­mately mean noth­ing.

Th­ese meet­ings have be­come less and less fre­quent, and Carl’s busi­ness trips have be­come more and more fre­quent. Kathy is quite sure he has found some­one, or some­ones. She no longer waits up for him when he re­turns home late.

Kathy can’t imag­ine a time when she won’t want to tuck Noah in af­ter he’s fin­ished read­ing. The wall across from his bed is painted like outer space, with stars and plan­ets. Soon she’ll re­place this scene with bold pri­mary stripes, a lava lamp, some­thing more “ado­les­cent” and less “child,” whether Noah likes it or not. But who or what will re­place the gi­ant hole Noah will leave be­hind when he’s grown? There will be no more chil­dren.

At first, when they started talk­ing about an­other child, there had been at least the po­lite ac­knowl­edge­ment that a sec­ond child would be a pos­si­bil­ity, if not an out­right ex­pec­ta­tion. But then, the con­cerns. “But what if we—you know—get an­other one?” Carl said.

“That’s the whole idea.”

“Like Noah, I mean. An­other one with ... is­sues.”

Then, for a while, when­ever the sub­ject came up, Carl would say, “I think Noah just needs you to be the best mother you can be.” This—an ac­cu­sa­tion, an at­tack on her par­ent­ing. She felt the sting of im­pli­ca­tion: “Maybe if you didn’t over­pro­tect our son so much, he wouldn’t be such a weirdo.” “Maybe if you didn’t baby him so much, he would have friends.” “Maybe you’re the one pre­vent­ing him from nor­malcy.” “How are you go­ing to han­dle an­other child when you can’t make a suc­cess of this one? Or your­self.”

Kathy would say, “There’s noth­ing wrong with him.” And Carl would rub his eye­brows and say, “I’m tired of ar­gu­ing about this.” Which was al­ways the end of the “Dark Mat­ter”/Windsor 10 dis­cus­sion. Now, even the thought of hav­ing an­other child seems like a long-ago dream. Kathy does lie to her­self, some­times. It’s self-preser­va­tion. Be­cause what it’s like un­der­neath Noah’s skin—in that place be­tween his flesh and his bones, in­side those nerve end­ings, neu­rons, synapses—she just doesn’t know. All she knows is her own pain as her son, two-thirds her size and barely able to fit in her lap any­more, talks on and on and on about the stars and plan­ets and galaxies she’s never even heard of, and all the other places she knows he’ll never go.

Noah’s hands peek over the top of the du­vet. “Don’t turn off the light,” he says. “The dark makes me cold.” Kathy of­fers him an­other blan­ket, but he shakes his head. Re­peats, “I get cold in the dark.”

“Do you mean afraid?”

“I don’t get afraid. Just cold.”

“I don’t un­der­stand.”

Noah says, “Where do you think dead peo­ple go when they die?”

“You know. Their bod­ies get buried. Or cre­mated.”

“No—where do they go.”

She says, “They go to heaven.”

This is what all par­ents tell their chil­dren, isn’t it? She can hope, can’t she? She imag­ines a place she and Noah can sit and talk for­ever, about what­ever. How can she say, they go nowhere. They no longer ex­ist. There is no more Jonathan. One day there will be no more Noah.

“I have a new hy­poth­e­sis,” Noah says. “When you die, you break up into mil­lions of mol­e­cules so small no one can see you any­more. You float around the uni­verse for­ever. That’s what dark mat­ter is.” Then he says, “Do you think Jonathan could be here right now?”

Kathy dims the lamp to a hush of light. Noah has his fa­ther’s hair, her freck­led skin. Carl’s log­i­cal brain, her fear of heights. But she can’t help won­der­ing who he might have been if she’d ended up with Jonathan in­stead. If the uni­verse were to fold in on it­self right now and knead them into an al­ter­nate re­al­ity, what and who would her son be? What and who would she be?

“Non­sense,” she says, and chucks his chin. All this talk of dead peo­ple—how stupid of her. Just one more thing to add to the list. “Quiet now,” she says. “Close those tired eyes. Dream sweet dreams. Stop think­ing, would you?”

Here’s the mem­ory she no longer re­plays in her head—the not-play­ing a choice, be­cause each time the mem­ory plays out a lit­tle dif­fer­ently, the de­tails clearer or more grainy. The words grow­ing and re­ced­ing, so some­times things are only thought and not said, and some­times things are said with­out any think­ing at all.

Jonathan has promised to meet her at the bridge—the one they used to throw rocks off on their way home from school as chil­dren— around the cor­ner from his house. The one they met at to smoke pot as teenagers, be­fore Kathy de­cided she didn’t want to smoke pot any­more. It has been their meet­ing place many times in the past. A place to be still and watch the wa­ter move past. Kathy has called Jonathan to say, enig­mat­i­cally, that she needs him. She has some­thing im­por­tant to ask. In per­son. She knows that this—the sound of

plead­ing in her voice—is enough to bring him to her, even on a cold Novem­ber evening, be­cause this is the type of thing her friends do with men and are al­ways suc­cess­ful. And she’s right, be­cause he says he’ll let his band know he can’t make prac­tice and asks what time she wants to meet.

They have just fin­ished high school. Jonathan is work­ing at The Sal­va­tion Army and liv­ing in his mother’s basement. Kathy is get­ting her H.B.A. and has just moved into an apart­ment with a cou­ple of girl­friends she met wait­ress­ing at The Cari­bou. She drives over to her old neigh­bour­hood, his still-neigh­bour­hood, and parks her lit­tle Honda in front of the frosty green space across from the bridge. Jonathan is lean­ing on the rail­ing with his el­bows, look­ing down at the wa­ter. He is wear­ing a trench coat he might have bought from work with his em­ployee dis­count. He stands up when he sees Kathy walk­ing to­ward him, looks her up and down, says, “Nice pants.”

The pants. Hot pink. Of this detail she can be sure. One of her room­mates had pulled them off a rack at the mall and held them up against her hips and legs as if to com­pare, had said Kathy needed a burst of colour, that a burst of colour was just the thing to make a girl—a woman—feel alive. The pants make her feel both play­ing-at­sexy and child­ish all at the same time. She’s not sure which is the more dom­i­nant feel­ing, not sure she likes be­ing tugged in ei­ther di­rec­tion.

“Thanks for com­ing,” she says. Sur­prises even her­self with the sud­denly trans­ac­tional tone of her voice.

Jonathan presses his lips into a thin line. “You rang?”

“Yes,” Kathy says. “I’m des­per­ate for a sec­ond opin­ion.”

This, she re­al­izes im­me­di­ately, is not gen­er­ous enough. “Your opin­ion,” she says.

The guy Kathy’s been dat­ing since Septem­ber, the one she met in her psy­chol­ogy class, says he doesn’t like re­la­tion­ship la­bels. It has been al­most three months. Does Jonathan know what that means? Has Jonathan ever said some­thing like that to a girl? All this un­cer­tainty has her ner­vous as a junkie, has her buy­ing hot pink pants on ques­tion­able ad­vice.

Jonathan pulls a pack of Play­ers Light out of his coat pocket and eases one into his mouth. He takes two drags and blows the smoke in her di­rec­tion, then flicks the cig­a­rette into the river, like he can’t make up his mind whether he wants to smoke or not. He pushes his hair out of his face with both hands. The wind is cold. His skin is chapped at the nose, peel­ing.

Kathy asks again: “What do you think?” She thinks he looks like hell, worse than he ever did in high school. Won­ders how he hasn’t started grow­ing out of this phase, why he hasn’t yet shunned the long hair and black clothes. Would it take just the right girl to wean him off of this angst? Wouldn’t he look and feel like a new per­son if he shed all this mask? What about a burst of colour? “I mean, what does that mean? In ac­tu­al­ity?”

“It means,” Jonathan says, “he doesn’t give a shit about you. In ac­tu­al­ity.”

But this is not what Kathy wants to hear. She wants Jonathan to ex­plain, from the male per­spec­tive. She wants him to tell her she is per­fect and this guy is ob­vi­ously just fright­ened of her per­fec­tion and not good enough for her, and is there­fore pulling away, be­cause, she thinks, that’s what men do when they’re fright­ened, isn’t it?

She crosses her arms, shakes her head.

Jonathan says, “Shit’s sakes, Kathy. Is that it?”

No, she wants to say. No, this isn’t it, not all of it. But she’s not sure what the rest of it is, ex­actly. “I thought you’d care, is all,” she says.

“You thought I’d care. That’s funny,” he says. “I thought maybe you were just look­ing for a backup.”

“What, you’re jeal­ous?”

“Stop act­ing like such a fuck­ing id­iot!”

Now he’s yelling out over the creek, like she’s down there in the wa­ter threat­en­ing to drown her­self in six inches of wa­ter, and he’s call­ing her bluff. Kathy is glad he’s yelling at her. There is some­thing so deeply sat­is­fy­ing about it, to know she ex­ists enough, mat­ters enough, to make some­one so an­gry.

She thinks for a mo­ment she might slap him, or he might slap her. In­stead, sud­denly, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, his lips are on hers, dry. His breath smells like smoke, and she can’t force her mouth to re­lax against his. This is the first time Jonathan has kissed her, but it doesn’t take long to know it will be the last time he will kiss her. It’s what Kathy imag­ines it’s like to kiss a man you’ve been mar­ried to for a hun­dred years, and kiss­ing them is as ex­cit­ing as shak­ing a stranger’s hand. Their kiss breaks suc­tion as she drops her chin.

When Jonathan turns away and puts his hands on the rail­ing, she’s sure his fin­ger­tips will stick like a tongue to cold metal. “You re­ally don’t feel any­thing, do you?” he says. “You never have.”

Yes isn’t an op­tion, be­cause it will mean things she can’t give him. No doesn’t fit, ei­ther.

Jonathan pushes off from the rail and steps back.

Kathy says, “I can never imag­ine my life with­out you in it,” but her breath turns into fog be­tween them. She reaches out, but Jonathan is dis­ap­pear­ing. He keeps step­ping back and back and back, un­til she re­al­izes she hasn’t ac­tu­ally said any­thing. Not a word

Or maybe that’s not how it goes, ex­actly. Be­cause some­times in this mem­ory it is Kathy who does the kiss­ing, Jonathan who does the re­ject­ing. Or maybe they are both kiss­ing, both re­ject­ing, equally. Some­times th­ese things just aren’t con­crete enough to say for sure.

Noah is thrash­ing, tan­gled in ghost-sheets. His voice is stuck like a side­ways bone in his throat. Kathy floods the room with light, calls his name—but noth­ing. He won’t wake up. The room is filled with Jonathans. Wa­ter-logged, wrist-slashed, rope­burned Jonathans. Lurch­ing, grab­bing. Her hands can’t wake him. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He thrashes un­til he is so tan­gled he can’t fight any­more. Then comes the im­prob­a­ble call of Noah not for her, but for his fa­ther. For Carl. For Daddy. His voice gets fur­ther and fur­ther away un­til it slows to a whine. And fi­nally, like a wounded an­i­mal, he is still.

Kathy sits at the kitchen table lis­ten­ing to the grow­ing rush of the ket­tle, which she has set to boil al­most ex­clu­sively for the com­pany of its sound. The poin­set­tia in the mid­dle of the table is dying, its leaves curled un­der and brown­ing at their ends. She bought it the last time she got gro­ceries but now sees she has never wa­tered it. Not once. The tag still hang­ing from the side of the pot says, Keep me moist. How could she have over­looked this? Has it been two weeks? More? She will get rid of the plant in the morn­ing. She will dig out the car and take Noah to the store and buy a new one. She will place it in the mid­dle of the table for when Carl comes home, so he will see she has re­mem­bered to care.

She di­als Carl’s cell be­cause Jonathan is dead, and now for the first time in years she knows what she needs: to hear her hus­band’s voice. To tell him their son needs to hear his voice. He owes them this much. But what can she say? How to ex­plain this trans­for­ma­tion in some co­her­ent, suc­cinct way? Carl does so ad­mire ef­fi­ciency.

“We’re sorry,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “Your call did not go through.”

Her hands don’t feel like her own but like some­one else is mov­ing them for her, push­ing them along. She has to punch the se­quence of num­bers three times be­fore she’s sure she gets them right. She’ll say: I agree now Noah needs some help. She’ll say: we need to sit down and work out all the things we’ve been freez­ing out of our re­la­tion­ship. She’ll say: I apol­o­gize for not be­ing a bet­ter wife, a bet­ter mother, a bet­ter friend, a bet­ter per­son. She’ll as­sert that—con­trary to ap­pear­ances—she does care if Carl’s sleep­ing with an­other woman. But even if he’s sit­ting there on the edge of a ho­tel bed and an­other woman is ly­ing be­side him un­der a damp sheet right this very minute, Kathy will for­give him. They’ll find a way to move past it. She’ll for­give him any­thing if he’ll just hold the line and lis­ten to her breath­ing, so he can as­sure her she’s still alive, too.

“We’re sorry,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “Your call did not go through.”

She will look for work. She will help Noah fin­ish his sci­ence fair pro­ject and en­roll him in swim­ming lessons. She will learn to make Quiche Lor­raine. She will buy black un­der­wear. She will tell Carl “I love you” ev­ery day, be­cause what is love, any­how? And who’s to say she doesn’t? She very well could. And if Carl could think of just one or two small but com­pas­sion­ate things to say in re­turn, even if those words are just empty con­tain­ers, place­hold­ers for the real thing, that will be enough for now. That will make all the dif­fer­ence in the world.

The ket­tle rum­bles to a boil. “We’re sorry,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “Your call did not go through.”

Slowly, slowly, Kathy is dis­solv­ing, be­com­ing trans­par­ent, her very sub­stance break­ing into its small­est parts. Like steam, her essence moves through the room, swirls around the kitchen and down the hall, in and out again from Noah’s bed­room, slips out the back door, rises over the snow, floats down the street, ex­pands to fill the neigh­bour­hood, all the neigh­bour­hoods, the city, the coun­try. Keeps spread­ing and spread­ing un­til she is so di­luted, she dis­ap­pears com­pletely.

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