When she heard about the man who fell through the subway grate, it confirmed all her long-held, irrational fears. Now, anything was possible. Her next flight could explode on take-off. She could catch lice by borrowing a friend’s brush. She was lucky, indeed, to have never gotten pregnant just by swimming in a pool. Or, most terrifying of all, she could finally—finally—fall in love, despite her advanced age.
At sunset, they set fire to the house they had built together. It had been a dry season, and the timbers caught quickly, then flared as if in anger.
There’s no going back now, he said, and she had no good response. She could not have foreseen this when they drew up the plans.
When it had all collapsed on itself in a pile of embers, she let go of his hand for the last time. It was a beautiful fire, she said. Thank you, at least, for that.
The bartender looked where my beer had once been, the glass now marked with Belgian lace. He raised his eyebrows.
“I’m trying to decide,” I said. “I still have to go grocery shopping.”
“Then you need at least two,” he said. “At least.”
After awhile, he forgot whether he was holding up the tree, or the tree was holding him steady. They had become almost the same, at least where his shoulder touched the bark. He had expected her to meet him here, thinking this would be the night when they finally rooted their relationship in something beyond imagination, but now she was nearly an hour late, and she was always on time to the things she valued.
Beneath him, the ground had grown spongy and uncertain. Above him, the branches spread wide, leafless petitioners to the starless night sky.
It was all reflected there: her red coat, her black pants, her slightly disheveled hair, the way her eyes shifted as if she were alert, always, to possible attacks. She had once been someone who stood up straight, but now her shoulders hunched, her body curled around its own soft places.
She did not like standing near mirrored walls, but the line snaked past this one, and today she had no choice. She tried not to look at the twin of herself, carrying the same slightly crumpled application, the same notebook filling up with rejection and missed opportunity.
Though many feet had packed the snow on the bridge, her boots still slipped. I might fall, she said. Then what will you do?
He looked at her as if she had missed everything he’d said for weeks. Do you think I’d leave you here in the cold?
She thought about what it would feel like to lie there on her back for the rest of the evening, the pinprick of snowflakes falling onto her cheeks from dull orange clouds above.
I don’t, she said, and she twirled then, safe in the knowledge of what would happen next.
Across the river rose the steel and glass containers of all those colder lives. She marched along the opposite bank, the sun at her back, refusing to look over there, where no one was friendly. Once, she had been one of them, nails painted a cool shade, hair precisely bobbed. But one night, she raised a glass at a dinner party and it shattered in her hand, as if the air itself had grown too hard. She knew had to leave immediately, and she left a trail of blood on the brushed concrete floor as she departed.