They had met when no longer young. Their coming together was a strange and graceless business, a music composed of un-melodic piano runs, dissonant harmonies. Humbled by previous disappointments, they believed their union could endure, somehow be enough.
In Estonian his last name means “butcher,” yet he works in law. It is the end of winter and he wishes to take the briefest of vacations. A few days somewhere new, someplace un-cityish, where his mind can unspool and pressing matters of precedent will no longer rule his thoughts. He decides on Roanoke Island and begins the process of readying his office for departure. She is willing to go along so long as she can choose where they stay. She downloads brochures, makes phone calls. A week passes, the digits on her calendar light up then dim. Finally, one more day. Desperate they suddenly feel to vacate their lives. Only hours until they disappear and reappear somewhere new in holiday guise.
The sun rises in a cloudless sky, a ticket-taker smiles. Maybe they are lucky people after all?
Not so many miles later they arrive at a bed and breakfast. A sullen-faced woman hands them a plastic key, gestures toward the stairs. As they fit key in lock, Sorrow enters their room, slipping through an unseen crack, and chooses the most comfortable chair. Heavy curtains trap lilac breezes. A persistent woodpecker drills a nearby tree. The dusty oil painting Lost Colony, by a local expressionist, hangs against wallpapered wall.
So this is what we paid for, this is our escape. The thought crawls along the floor in a room that did not look so tacky online. The thought flies and swoops overhead like an albatross. The thought hangs like a sword suspended by a single thread, a single threat, single debt, net, fret, wet ...
In the bathroom, she slowly undresses, waits for the tub to fill. She watches steam cloud the medicine-chest mirror and sees her face slowly disappear within this fog. Ocean mists often veiled the austere New England town where she grew up. Family still occupies a tall house there. There, they produced four generations of doctors, including her sister: care-filled educations, quiet, stood-by principles, unshowy, abiding wealth. She lifts her hand and wipes the mirror. When did her eyes change, when did she begin to look so cautious?
Sitting on the bed, he is recalling the winter afternoon when he had peeled an orange for his sister. His hands were so small then: was he six, maybe seven? Although younger, his sister had an uncanny ability to read his childish mind; she knew his favorite hiding spots, always guessed his secret loves. That afternoon citrus juice had run down her chin, leaving a teardrop-sized mark on her hand-me-down shirt (his). He worried Ema would notice and punish him so together they hid behind the boiler in the cellar, clasping hands within dimness and dust.
His sister died on an April afternoon three years ago. A freak snow storm began and ended that same day, wet flakes disappearing just minutes after they’d formed. A single mother, his sister had been working as a bartender in a dive near the bus station while raising twin daughters. After the funeral, the twins moved in with their father who’d recently gotten an eye-lift. His sister had always fallen for attractive fools. The doctor who pronounced the tumor inoperable said his sister had been brave, fought hard until the end. When he asked about pain, How much did she suffer? the doctor stared off into the distance beyond his shoulder.
Now in this unfamiliar room, he does not hear the sounds of drilling bird or filling bathtub, he hears nothing at all but he sees, he sees as if it is a painting hung on the wall, his sister’s life complete. Now it is finished, now it can be looked at, studied and judged. Tears warm his face. Not enough time! She’d never been properly loved!
Robed and with strands of hair escaping a turbaned towel, she re-enters the room and sees his crooked form rising island-like above the blue bedspread, his head bowed. His thoughts are transmitted to her as if their minds are connected by Wifi. She recalls the photograph of an immigrant mother and two immigrant children lined up in front of a squat house with patched aluminum siding; an outline of their immigrant father (holding a camera) shadowed the truncated lawn. A familiar pang. That coarse language crippling their tongues! When they first met, she’d denied being anything but average, middle-class, and that’s when he’d stopped her, his eyes feverish: No! You are the class that cancels out all those silly Brittneys, all that trash. At once she’d seen what he meant, what he saw in her and since that day when she’d understood herself in a new way (his way) she’d waited, patient and close-lipped as was her nature, to love him back as much and just the same.
Now, she unwraps the wet towel, shakes it loose, swings her head back and forth like motions of refusal. She is all that remains for him; his immigrant parents long gone, even his sister is dead. She touches his shoulder. “Your sister?”
He lifts his face. Frightened his eyes appear at first, then simply wondering.
She feels special, uncannily gifted in some way that only he can guess. “I’ll call the twins’ father, set up a time for them to visit.” She reaches forward then and touches the rough stubble on his chin.
He reaches up and pulls her to him. Gently he disrobes her and then he is naked, too. It is a long while they float there, their limbs at times entwined, at times separated across the ocean-like bedspread. Darkness descends, a prehistoric tree falls unseen beyond their thick curtains. In their no-longer-young way they begin to make love and now for the first time he believes he has yet to make his worldly mark while she also understands something new—that all along she, too, has been playing for keeps.
Susan Scutti lives and writes in New York City. A recent story is published in (Short) Fiction Collective, a recent poem appears in New York Quarterly. She independently published two novels, Second Generation and A Kind of Sleep.