When Erica took a leave of absence to complete her research she knew almost immediately that she would fail. She devised lists of people to telephone, penciled in a schedule of interviews and columns with questions. Her handwriting seemed small and bruised. She called no one.
She remembers now, in the long mornings when Flora and Bob are gone, that she always detested fragments. Or more accurately, the need to order them, to invent a spine, a progression, a curve that resolves.
She is, at her core, too nervous, restless and cynical. There is something within her that can only say no. It’s odd that she had thought she had subdued this, found her own rainforest, slashed and burned it to the last acre of cold ash. She wonders if she should be grateful. Perhaps somewhere on a balcony, in a permanently ochretinted city she isn’t certain of, there is more air for someone, a woman standing mute and confused in a scented dusk, a woman searching for something.
It was late morning. Day was elbowing clouds above glazed roofs of orange tiles, and she felt startled and amazed. Seen from the right angle, the city was a sequence of seashells, glistening abalone, mother-of-pearl. She became aware of the fact that she wasn’t worried about abandoning her project or the implications this might have on her tenure profile. She had always sensed a rainy day coming. It would be an afternoon in winter when some massive typhoon would speak her name. There would be a new fluid language, a kind of cursive rendered in acid. Then it would invade her lungs, she would be singed, and it would be the time of the drowning.
It occurred to her that the suddenness with which her behavior altered had a predestined quality. It was as if all her life she had been secretly engaged in a dress rehearsal for precisely this abandonment and divestiture. This knowledge felt perpetual and alluring, like sin or revelation. It was inescapable, a kind of return. It had always been there. This was the cove where she was meant to anchor.
This must be what she was thinking about at traffic lights, why she didn’t play her car radio and was never bored, why the static in the air seemed a kind of hieroglyphic she tried to decipher. This must be why she would walk out of theaters and not remember the title of the play, the setting or even the genre. Had it been a musical, a love story or a comedy? She would walk across a parking lot, shaking her head.
Perhaps she had been tuned into another station entirely. There was something on the margin that attracted her, something in the extreme edge of the register where you couldn’t be certain of dates or motives or outcome. She could never understand, really, why the motion picture was more interesting than sitting in the lobby with the carpet that looked like a stained glass in reverse, deco blood petals, panels of crimson and lime that marked not translucency but rather the end of the line. Here couples glared at each other above the too yellow popcorn and all things were random, vaguely metallic and swollen. She thought of hooks that were swallowed. And why was this less significant than the other images, the ones you sat in the dark rooms for, sat as if a subliminal force were fattening you for a harvest or a kill.
Erica realized that time would pass and her grant would expire. The questions she had planned to examine seemed distant and trivial. She wondered if it were possible to be defined by refusal. Certainly the most brilliant of her subjects would listen to her questions, run a slow hand across a soft mouth and remain silent. She was looking out the kitchen window when she realized this. There were five pigeons on a strip of grass and the red bands around their necks were exactly the same shade of corrupted pink as the red no-stopping lines painted on the curb in front of their house. Had she finally discovered something?
She began to sleep past eight o’clock. She called a taxi cab for her daughter the night before, gave Flora ten dollars, told her to wait outside and keep the change. She reminded Flora not to mention this to Bob. She squeezed Flora’s shoulder with her fingers when she said this.
When Erica woke up late, she made a second pot of coffee, put brandy in it, ate an extra piece of toast, layered it with jam. She turned on the stereo. The concept of rock and roll in the morning by sunlight was stunning.
Her husband came home for lunch. She hadn’t expected him. She was looking out the kitchen window. There was a tarnish in the air, a sort of glaze. Perhaps part of a complicated cleaning solution with invisible ammonia, it was designed to bring out the shine. But the sky was overcast.
“You seem troubled,” Bob said. He put his briefcase on the table. Its proportion seemed monumental. “Is it the research?”
She shook her head, no. It was nearly noon. It was the hour the working men sat on lawns smoking cigarettes and eating lunches that looked too meager to sustain them. They leaned close to one another, planning burglaries and trading lies about women.
“You aren’t yourself,” Bob decided. He paused and studied her face. “I don’t have to go to Seattle. Christ. I don’t even have a paper to deliver.”
Erica said, “Don’t be silly. I’m perfectly fine.”
Later, she stood in the backyard where the bushes were trimmed and resembled elongated skulls. She had forgotten he was going to a conference. Now that she knew he would be gone this night and the next, she wondered if his absence mattered. Was it fundamental, was it definitive, would there be change? She leaned against the side of the house. These were the stark fragments that bruised, made you fall, made you hoarse. It was best to create methods of walking with your eyes shut.