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[Story]

Terrace Story

“Untitled #15 (Heterotopia),” by Karine Laval © The artist

[Story]

Terrace Story

The old window gave a grand view of Yellow Tree, trunk to branch. They called it Yellow Tree even though the ginkgo was yellow for only about a week each year, its fan-shaped leaves rustling to the ground at the first suggestion of a breeze. Annie and Edward held the baby to the window and said, “See? Yellow!” But she was too small to say “yellow” in response. She just looked and watched and touched the glass. They wiped her fingerprints from the window and kissed the fingers that made the prints. Then the leaves fell, and the scenery changed. Some views show less than half of what needs seeing.

When the rent became unpayable, they went in search of a more affordable living situation. What’s your living situation? Annie turned the phrase over in her mind, the situation of their life. They had not saved nearly enough for a broker’s fee, let alone a security deposit.

“It looks smaller than it really is,” Edward said, leading Annie around the new apartment. An uneven, dimly lit square, four walls and a slanted floor. “Give it some time, it might grow on you!”

“You mean it might literally grow?” Annie asked.

At the new apartment, there were no views of Yellow Tree. The introverted windows were gated and clasped and huddled around a central shaft that Edward dubbed Pigeon Tunnel. Edward and Annie liked inventing proper nouns for their world. Yellow Tree, Pigeon Tunnel, Closet Mystery. Closet Mystery was Annie’s term for the mystery of their single, overstuffed closet. Upon opening, what would catapult forth? It was a bona fide enigma. Edward and Annie picked a proper noun for their baby, too. Her noun was Rose.

Annie strapped Rose to her chest while she unpacked, stuffing diapers and deconstructed boxes into Closet Mystery, keeping an arm around her, holding tight, in case the fabric of the bindle happened to unfurl like a scarf in a gust of wind, loosing the baby onto the ground.

“Careful,” she said to no one but herself.

Someday, Edward said, they would have a bit of outdoors all to themselves. A square of grass for playtime, a pot for planting herbs. They had said that at their last apartment, too, and at the apartment before that, and they continued to say it even still, though perhaps with less conviction. They were cramped, Edward said, but in a way that felt familiar and warm, no? Yes, Annie agreed. Secretly, she felt that their lack of space probably signaled her lack of promise, a final judgment on her poor priorities and half-hewn choices. But it was a judgment that, in her deepest heart, had grown commonplace and comfortable, only jabbing its elbow of discontent at moments that found her particularly low. They were lucky in so many ways. They were healthy and happy and fine. They had spent every penny saved on moving in and moving out, even the coins from under the sink. Now there was a new sink, and an empty jar for fresh, shiny coins.

The building was closer to Edward’s work, which offered day care. When Annie’s unpaid maternity leave ended, she took the bus to her office, and met Stephanie on the steps outside. Stephanie had covered Annie’s clients while she was away.

“The prodigal mother returns!” Stephanie said.

“Where’s my marching band?” Annie asked.

“Let’s have lunch today,” Stephanie said. “I see a bagel in my future.”

“Hey, did they move the copy machine?” Annie asked.

“No, they moved your desk.”

They ate BLTs with bags of chips, and talked about the reshuffling of the sales team; the new, luxe chairs in the conference room; the water fountain that was still out of order. Annie was looking for an update on her clients, some distress call that signaled she was still needed.

“What can I say?” Stephanie said. “You missed nothing.”

“Come over for dinner one night, why don’t you?” Annie said.

“Oh no, no,” Stephanie said. “I don’t want to get in the way.”

“Get in the way. We need to assemble our table. You can be the excuse.”

Annie came home and told Edward they needed to buy a table. They put it on the credit card. Annie cut cloth napkins from old fabric, laid out the glasses, the forks, the recently unpacked dishes from her grandmother, each plate painted with a small, gold animal.

“I brought wine!” Stephanie said, shoving through the front door and shaking Edward’s hand. “Oh, and who on earth are you?” she asked Rose. Rose responded by handing Stephanie a toy.

Annie’s first instinct was to explain the size of their new home. The neighborhood, his office, the day care, what a steal! And then she would nudge Edward to apologize for the lack of space, so cramped, but the good kind of cramped, the amicable kind, the colorful balls and bags and dolls on the floor.

But it was Stephanie who spoke first. She said, “Should we eat outside? It’s such a beautiful night.”

She opened the door that normally led to their closet, and revealed a terrace, decorated with strings of twinkling lights. Knotted vines gathered around the edges, forking and blooming and racing up the sides of the apartment.

The terrace was news to Annie, and also news to Edward. Had they simply overlooked it this whole time? No, it wasn’t possible.

“What?” Annie said under her breath. She settled Rose against her hip and peered out onto this terrace (her terrace?), which was equipped with a table and four chairs, a grill, and the kind of sturdy umbrella one could shove open on a sunny afternoon. Everything looked glossy and expensive, as if just purchased, as if just invented. She felt like she had found a missing pair of glasses sitting on top of her head.

“Closet Mystery indeed,” Edward said, coming up behind her.

“Real Estate Mystery,” Annie whispered. They looked at each other and walked through the terrace door at the same moment. (That’s how big the door! That’s how large the terrace!) They were unharmed, unchanged, and caught in the embrace of a warm autumn evening.

Stephanie was admiring a view that did not match the position of the apartment. There was no sight of Pigeon Tunnel, not anywhere. Straight ahead, they could see the remnants of a sunset, even though their side of the building faced east. Stephanie did not seem to notice the faulty geography.

“Shit, what a great space,” she said.

“Imagine the look on my face when we found it!” Annie said, bringing forth the wine.

They sat on the terrace for hours, refilling their glasses and plates. In fact, the longer they stayed on the terrace, the more solid it felt underfoot. Edward let Rose fall asleep in his lap, and kept her there for fear of waking her when standing. There was a sharp tension, followed by a sense of overwhelming calm. The two emotions alternated for Annie until both expired and were replaced with the achy, snoozy joy of a long day spent at the beach, or a morning spent running around a playground. It was an outdoor kind of joy. She could certainly move her arms and legs, but she chose not to. They were weighed down and happy. Oh, and the way the breeze felt on her forehead, the way it brought a soft campfire smell up and over her face.

At the end of the night, Stephanie helped them carry the dishes and utensils to the kitchen, and they showed her down to the street.

“What fun. Especially this girlie,” Stephanie said, tugging at Rose’s foot.

“Thanks for making the trip,” Edward said.

“Next time, you come to me!”

“Of course we will,” Annie said, wrapping Stephanie in a hug. She couldn’t wait to have the terrace all to herself, alone with Edward, with Rose, her family. She thought maybe they would sleep outside that night—how wild! Just to prove it was real.

When they climbed the stairs back up to their apartment, the terrace was gone.

Annie opened the closet door, and closed it, over and over, hoping for the kind of outcome that had already lodged itself beyond reach.

“Maybe it only appears when we entertain guests,” Annie said.

“Or maybe it was just this one magic time!” Edward said, throwing his jeans into a ball on the floor, next to the crib, next to the stove, next to the table, for which they really did not have enough space, neither in the apartment nor on the credit card. “Tonight was super,” he said. “Tonight we had a terrace. We’ll talk about it forever.”

“Still,” Annie said into the pillow.

“Still,” Edward agreed.

Edward and Annie never went to Stephanie’s home for dinner, because she did not invite them. Also because, more than wanting the return of Stephanie, who was nice enough, they wanted the return of the terrace, which was more than nice. It was perfect.

They invited over Edward’s parents, their old neighbors, their best friends from college. They had a nice time catching up with all the people in their lives, introducing them to Rose, hearing their current stories. But there was no terrace, not with Jim and Joanne, not with the O’Neills, and not with Liza and Sunny. For each visit, Annie would set the table in just the same arrangement, with a mug of pollen-shedding flowers, and the collection of gold animal plates, and then she would try to reveal the terrace. Instead of releasing the glow from a setting sun, the closet would release a stray bag of diapers.

“Maybe you have to turn the knob a certain way,” Annie said, trying her hand at terrace sorcery. “Maybe it’s all in the wrist.”

The proper noun for this period of time was, as Edward put it, Sadness Home.

Annie wandered the apartment in a state of perpetual frustration, Rose hanging from her breast, the dishes gathering in the sink. She even missed a couple days of work. She dug through the mess of Closet Mystery and pressed her hands against the back wall, looking for a trapdoor or secret hinge.

She woke up early to feed Rose, and paced the kitchen. What if the terrace was tied to cycles of the moon? What if the apartment was haunted by the terrace?

What if there’s only a terrace when Stephanie is here? she wondered.

She was right, of course. When Stephanie returned for a Sunday brunch, the terrace returned, too. It was resplendent in the afternoon sun, the wooden slats dappled with light and strewn with acorns, gold and orange leaves underfoot.

“You guys need a good sweep, huh?” Stephanie teased, kicking some leaves through the bars of the terrace, and watching them float down to the street.

They spent the whole afternoon outside, plying Stephanie with drinks and snacks, and snacks and cheese, and then a giant mug of steaming cider.

“I’m never leaving,” Stephanie said, her overlarge sunglasses lolling down the bridge of her nose.

“Fine by me!” Annie said. She spread a blanket on the terrace floor and sat with Rose in her lap, the lip of the umbrella creating a perfect wedge of shade. They played with the plush pig, and Rose chewed on the corners of a book made from crinkly fabric. Edward grilled hot dogs and tightened the screws on the terrace chairs, entertaining Stephanie with stories about things that had never happened. Vacations they had not taken, friends they’d never had, the fortune they’d inherited from Annie’s grandmother, when really all they had inherited was her set of gold animal plates.

“Just like that time when you and Edward were in Italy!” Stephanie said one day at the office, and Annie had to remind herself: they had never been to Italy.

Annie and Edward called these Terrace Stories, because when you are in a place that does not really exist, you can populate it with as many fables and legends as you like.

“I will never lie to you on solid ground,” Edward said, and Annie knew it was true.

Yellow Tree, Pigeon Tunnel, Terrace Story.

Every weekend, Annie invited Stephanie for a visit.

“Maybe I can pop by for a minute,” Stephanie would say, but it was never just a minute. They played Scrabble and chess, and they knit scarves and read books in the sun. They had picnic lunches and picnic dinners, and a picnic breakfast at dawn. Annie purchased some flowers and flower pots and potting soil, for the perimeter of the terrace. She put it all on the credit card. Stephanie helped her nestle the mums in mounds of dirt.

“We can’t keep forcing her to come over here,” Edward said under his breath.

“Who’s forcing?” Annie whispered. “I barely need to suggest it. She practically invites herself.”

“But what’s in it for her?” Edward asked. “I mean, besides the terrace.”

“Rosie, you’re so stinky!” Stephanie said on the other side of the umbrella, holding the baby up in the air, too high, much too high, too near the edge.

“Careful, careful, careful,” Annie shouted, and ran to take Rose and change her.

“Oh, boo-hoo,” Stephanie mock cried. But for a moment, Annie noticed real sadness along the edges of Stephanie’s voice, and tried to locate what kind of space those edges indicated, how that space wanted to fill itself. If there was a yearning, Annie could not tell what the yearning was for. She looked back at Stephanie, and Stephanie met her gaze, holding Annie’s attention for a moment too long. Really, who was this stranger in her home?

Stephanie walked to the terrace door and blocked the entrance, shouted, “Hey Eddie, you got another beer for me?”

They stayed up playing charades and laughed so hard they thought the terrace would fall straight down through the center of the earth. The toilet was clogged again, and this time they would have to call a plumber, a real plumber, not simply a friend who owed a favor. But for the time being, just once, Edward turned his back to the ladies and peed off the edge of the terrace. They howled with laughter.

“Annie’s going to start stocking up on diapers for you, Eddie!” Stephanie roared, leaning too far back in her chair.

Annie and Edward fell asleep without cleaning up the terrace, but the terrace cleaned itself. Stephanie came over on a rainy Saturday, and it sparkled in the drizzle, no beer bottles or napkins, no trash to be found. The mums were growing large and lush.

At the office, Annie’s supervisor moved her desk to a different floor, and redistributed some of her clients to Stephanie, just for convenience. She’s more up-to-date on everything, the email said. Be the team player we all know and adore!

“Do your co-workers adore you?” Annie asked Edward.

Edward asked, “Hey now, is this a Terrace Story?”

“I was thinking maybe Stephanie could bring a friend when she comes over this weekend. What do you think?” Annie asked, shoving a tower of toilet paper into the closet.

“Great idea. I adore it.”

Annie texted Stephanie, making the invite. Bring a friend? Or maybe more than a friend, she added, dot dot dot.

Stephanie came by herself, carrying a board game. The dice and tiny plastic parts tumbled around the box with a rattle, the type of messy noise that lets everyone know: important pieces are missing.

“Just you?” Annie asked.

“Just me,” Stephanie said, and went to sit next to Edward.

One night, Annie pulled the record player out onto the terrace, stringing its cords back through the apartment. The three of them danced and took turns waltzing with Rose, holding her up and wiggling her legs, but never throwing her in the air, not like this, not so high, not outside.

When they were completely out of breath and tired of being on their feet, Edward told a Terrace Story. Later on, it would be the only one that Annie would remember from start to finish. It was about a date that they had never had, with a limousine they had never hired, and a cheesy bouquet of roses they had never purchased. And that’s how they came up with the name Rose, in the context of this Terrace Story. In the context of real life, Rose was Annie’s grandmother’s name. Annie did not appreciate this small erasure.

“This restaurant,” Edward said, “it’s the kind of place with private dining, where you get to sit in your own room, a room with just one table and two chairs. And the waiters knock on the private door before bringing the food, the drinks, the bill. They even knock before entering to ask, Would you like to have dessert?”

“But how many times do they knock?” Stephanie asked. “Is it a rat-tat-tat?”

“No,” Edward said. “It’s more of a rat-a-tat-a-tat-tat.”

“Rata-matata-matata?” Stephanie asked.

“Shave and a haircut, plus two bits.”

Annie twitched. It was all so playful. It was an inside joke, and she was on the outside. The Terrace Stories were meant for Edward and Annie, not for Edward and Stephanie, but here they were, tapping their secret codes on the terrace rail. And there was the look on Stephanie’s face, like she knew the whole story by heart. Why a private room, Annie thought, unless you don’t want to be seen?

“That was a real date,” Annie said. “A real date you went on with someone else.”

They were throwing off their clothing and throwing off their shoes. It was late. Stephanie was gone, and so was the terrace.

“What are you talking about?” Edward said.

“That wasn’t a Terrace Story—it was a real story.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Don’t lie. I mean, the whole bit with the knocking!”

“Annie, come here. Stop now. Come here. It wasn’t real.”

They lay as far apart in the bed as possible, which of course was not very far. Then Edward’s heel wedged itself between Annie’s ankles, and soon they were hugging, and soon everything was on its way to better.

Annie woke up to feed Rose, and she checked the credit card statements. She looked for a restaurant charge. She looked for a limousine, or a place in their neighborhood with private dining rooms. There wasn’t anything logical about how she felt, and yet, can the woman who visits an imaginary terrace really claim logic for herself? Even if the story about the date wasn’t real, Edward had made it real by telling it, and now the false story was part of their living situation, like a fresh growth on the side of a plant, like the terrace.

Edward stumbled out of bed and found Annie in the chair, nursing Rose. “Maybe it was a real date I wanted to go on, someday,” he said. “With you.”

Stephanie joined them for Thanksgiving. The weather had stayed warm, and so of course they ate outside. Annie had tried to purchase a turkey, but the credit card was declined. She had to carry the turkey all the way back through the store to the last aisle. Edward burst into action, stirring and mashing, declaring their dinner the Meal of Sides. They feasted on supplementary dishes, which, Stephanie insisted, were the best part anyway.

“I love a good stuffing!” she said to Edward, throwing broken bread crusts in the pan.

Rose stuck her fingers in the potatoes and wore a pumpkin onesie that Annie had picked out special.

And New Year’s Eve, with the weather still just right for sweaters, they gathered on the terrace with mugs of bad champagne. Thanks to the altered view, their party could see large, blossoming willows of fireworks in the distance. These were the ones that Annie remembered from her childhood, her grandmother taking her to the local park to see the flowering gowns of twinkling white lights, opening, falling, and disappearing through the dark.

“If you celebrate the New Year on an imaginary terrace,” Edward whispered to Annie, “does it really happen?”

“It all really happens,” Annie said, smiling up at Edward.

When the minutes turned to seconds, and the seconds concluded their downward march, Edward turned to Stephanie and kissed her on the cheek, perhaps so she would not feel left in the cold. Annie took Rose up in her arms and kissed her all over her face, planted a raspberry on her stomach. Then Stephanie reached for Rose, as a kindness, so that Edward could move for Annie’s lips, which he did, but once again, Stephanie brought Rose much too close to the edge of the terrace, much too close for Annie to bear, and she grabbed Rose back from Stephanie without waiting for Edward’s embrace. The physicality of the moment passed quickly, but it lingered from the end of one year into the beginning of the next, Annie and Edward standing only steps apart, the sensation of extra space tucked between the inches.

In early winter, they bundled Rose from head to tiny toe and plopped her on the terrace floor. She could now sit up without support, her hands slapping her thighs, mittened and buttoned.

“She looks so much like both of you,” Stephanie said, as if making a concession. She was building a snowman at the edge of the terrace, embellishing his face with perfectly ripe vegetables that Annie had planned on cooking into a stew for dinner.

“How should I do his eyes, Rosie?” Stephanie laughed.

Annie would retrieve the vegetables when Stephanie wasn’t looking, she decided. The cold would keep them usable for dinner, surely. The snow was still fresh. The carrots would need to be washed and peeled, diced, but otherwise, fine. Then Stephanie knocked the bundle of carrots over the edge of the terrace.

“Whoops! Man down,” she said. “Should I run and grab them?”

“Don’t bother,” Annie said. Where, exactly, would she run? Where would she even end up?

On a frigid Monday, Annie had a meeting scheduled with her supervisor. She planned on asking about pursuing additional clients, to make up for the redistributed list. She planned on asking for a raise.

Instead, they suggested shifting Annie to a part-time schedule. We can only afford to keep you on for these days, at this rate, her supervisor said. Especially with Stephanie taking most of your clients. You are always welcome to find something else, if this doesn’t meet your needs, and so forth.

Annie decided that the job no longer met her needs.

“To be honest, you’ve seemed distracted,” the final email said.

She packed her plant and pictures and pens in a box, and ran into Stephanie near the elevator bank.

“Oh, it’s you,” Annie said. Stephanie was always popping into view, as familiar as any of the furniture in her home.

“I just heard,” Stephanie said. “Listen, I’m so sorry. It wasn’t my—”

“It’s fine. Are you leaving now?”

“Yeah, I was just about to head out.”

“You should come over,” Annie said.

“Really? Right now?”

“Now,” Annie said, holding the doors.

Standing in the elevator with Stephanie was the opposite of standing on the terrace. Annie could feel their heat, their silence contained and amplified and spun in circles. She wanted to bang on the walls or smack the emergency button, her eyes welling with an unexpected rage. She wanted one of them to be somewhere else, but felt they were doomed to always be in the same place at the same time. She caught Stephanie staring at her from the other side of the elevator with a rude sort of curiosity, and resisted the urge to swat her away. She needed for Stephanie to come to her home, reach out her hand, to open the closet door, and everything would resolve, her anger sizzling off the sides of the terrace. But hadn’t Annie sometimes felt angry on the terrace, too? Hadn’t she felt something worse than anger?

“Can I carry your box?” Stephanie asked.

“No,” Annie said.

When they arrived at the apartment, Edward was feeding Rose and warming up leftovers for himself.

“Oh! I wish you had called first,” he said, motioning to Stephanie.

“It’s fine,” Annie said, trying to remain calm. All she wanted to do was relax and feel that lazy kind of joy, the happy weight on her legs and arms. “Let’s go sit outside.”

“I don’t know,” Stephanie said, halfway out of her coat. “It’s below freezing.”

“Who cares? We have blankets. We’ll drink hot tea!” Annie exclaimed, throwing her box of office goods down near the closet door.

“It’s ten degrees outside,” Edward said. He looked at the box, and then at his wife.

“Can’t we stay inside?” Stephanie asked. “We can watch a movie. Cozy, cozy.” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other, looking uneasy, and, for the first time, unwelcome.

“I don’t know,” Annie said. She felt an outrageous despair rising inside her, that jab of discontent, hitting harder and sharper every time Stephanie opened her mouth to speak. She took Rose up in her arms. “I don’t know, on second thought, maybe you should just leave.”

“Annie, if this is about work—”

“Stephanie, don’t go,” Edward said. “It’s really fine!” He scrambled toward Stephanie, trying to make sense of the moment, probably terrified that Annie would say something awful to her, Annie figured, something that would reveal the way they had used Stephanie ill, taken advantage, negotiated her friendship for a bit of outdoors. Or worse, perhaps his desire that Stephanie should stay was a genuine one. Perhaps he felt—and this word fell down like an unhitched icicle—a fondness for her. The pain of that noun was more urgent than the other, previous pain, and Annie relented.

“No, no, never mind,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m so sorry. I’m not myself. Of course we can stay inside. We can watch a movie.”

Stephanie gave a look to Edward and put out her hand, mouthed, It’s fine, gathered her scarf, and walked to the door. Annie tried to picture Stephanie returning home to her own apartment, and realized she could not picture it. She still had not been invited to visit.

“See you later, sweet Rosie,” Stephanie said.

The nickname burrowed under Annie’s skin, and did not leave. Before Annie was taken to live with her grandmother, she was just Anne. Nouns can change once, and then change forever, all thanks to a small addition.

It was not until early March, when snow started melting down the windows, that Annie fully felt the loss of the terrace. Her claustrophobia had gloved itself in flannel and down for winter, but in spring, it had no disguise. With her new free time, she went out for long walks with Rose buckled in the stroller. They rolled through the neighborhood, sampling the occasional discount doughnut and coffee, Rose grabbing at the drops of water that trickled from branches, vocalizing with the birds. Annie tried to avoid crushing the earthworms, but occasionally, one worm was bound to split in two. And then their walk would end, and home again, there were no exits or entrances to safely throw open, no extra air or space to claim. She didn’t feel trapped, or at least that wasn’t the word on her tongue. She felt it had been easier to bear the boundaries of her home before the terrace.

She marked the days with Rose’s milestones, which accumulated at an alarming rate: Laugh, Crawl, Food, Wave, Word. These were the new proper nouns in her life, all firsts. She marked them down in a book of firsts, and dreamed about the other nouns to come. Even the ones that weren’t firsts or lasts were exciting. The middle would be just as good, or even the best, like the center slice cut from a square cake.

Despite the terrifying, mounting expense of Annie’s unemployment, Edward seemed resigned to the new arrangement, even happy. He encouraged her to take her time, as much time as she wanted—not too much, you know, just the right amount, as long as the right amount was the amount she needed. He never mentioned Stephanie, at least, not until the day she rang their bell.

That morning, it was truly spring, and the temperature climbed to what would have been ideal terrace weather. The birds had made their nest on the window ledge in Pigeon Tunnel, and the pigeon eggs did not provoke disgust in Annie, nor tenderness, rather a sort of sustained curiosity. She checked on them every morning. She was checking the eggs when Stephanie arrived.

“Can I come in?” Stephanie asked, carrying what looked like a pan of homemade brownies.

“Of course,” Annie said. But why of course? Some animal tendency unveiled itself within her, and she bared her teeth. After a moment, she could play it off as a smile, and she did.

“Should I take off my shoes?” Stephanie asked. It was an absurd thing to say, after the many months she had spent stomping through their home in heels and boots and flats alike. But perhaps their home had changed. Perhaps Stephanie had changed, too.

Annie waved her hands, dismissing the question. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said, and immediately regretted it. Was she glad? She made way for Stephanie, for the brownies.

“Stephanie!” Edward said, coming from behind the counter with Rose nestled against his hip. “What a nice surprise.”

Annie knew when her husband was surprised. She remembered his face from the first evening of the terrace. This wasn’t surprised.

“Let’s go sit outside and talk,” he said, leading Stephanie to the closet door. She took the knob in her hand as if she’d never been away, and with a slight rotation of the wrist, there was the terrace, just as they remembered it. The mums, despite the interceding months, continued to bloom. Annie had forgotten what it felt like to have the door open, the air rushing through their home, the light filtering the color of their floors with a richer hue.

“Did you invite her?” Annie asked Edward, once Stephanie was safely outside.

“Don’t be cross,” Edward said, shuffling Annie through the door and into the sunlight. He followed closely behind her, carrying Rose. “Please,” he added.

They wandered around in silence for some moments, surveying the surroundings, taking in the terrace and its new season. In spring, they learned, the terrace smelled of dew and fresh flowers. Had the trees changed, Annie wondered, and been replaced with more fragrant versions, to best convey the current month? Of course, Stephanie did not know they had been bereft of their terrace, and so their puttering around must have felt bizarre to her at best.

“Stephanie, would you like something to drink?” Annie asked.

“Oh no, thank you. I won’t be staying long,” she said. She waited until everyone was seated before speaking again. “I wanted to apologize, for intruding on your life, your work. I feel I probably made a complete nuisance of myself.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Edward said, and Annie watched him, watched her. Was this exchange rehearsed?

“I somehow couldn’t help myself. I have trouble,” Stephanie said, looking down, an oblique confession that, nevertheless, seemed honest.

“You’re never a nuisance,” Annie said, watching Edward again, and Edward made a motion with his chin, encouraging Annie to continue. “We’ve missed you. Rose has missed you.” Annie took Rose into her lap, as if to cancel the previous statement, laying unequivocal claim to the child. In mere moments, the sun had dried Rose’s wet curls, turned them warm and soft. Annie burrowed her face in Rose’s hair, lingering on the phrase Rose has missed you. There was something crucial here, but the crucial information darted away, refracting and escaping in the pleasant morning light. Stephanie watched Annie with great interest, as if this moment were the only one she had come to witness.

“Anyway,” Stephanie said. “That’s all I have to say. I’ve been so grateful for your hospitality.”

And then, as if propelled by the terrace, in conjunction with the word hospitality, Annie jolted from her seat. “Stay a little longer,” she said. “I’ll go and plate those delicious brownies you brought.”

She set Rose down in Stephanie’s lap, and lifted herself away, barely in control of her limbs, wondering if she had been speaking aloud, or only in her head. Before long, she was in the kitchen. How did I get here? She thought. And where is Rose? She could hear the birdsong and the song of her family in the distance, their familysong, Rose cooing and producing sounds to accompany the planes overhead, her husband’s laugh rising and then falling in its distinctive staccato.

“Babe, come back quick!” Edward said. “There’s a flying squirrel!”

Annie felt her heart pounding in her chest, a shortness of breath. She dropped the plate on the floor. She somehow knew she would never see the flying squirrel, but did not yet know why it mattered.

Edward said, “Quick! You’re missing it!”

When Annie turned around, Stephanie’s body was fully blocking the doorway. She had a neutral expression on her face, or maybe it was slightly bemused. She closed the door halfway, the light dimming, a shadow falling on the floor. And then, she took hold of the knob as she had so many times before, only this time, from the outside. Stephanie closed the door shut. The terrace, once again, was gone.

If it is ever possible to stop thinking of death, then Annie willed this for herself. In order to proceed, it was necessary to eliminate the threat of death from her thoughts. The exposure, the winters, the heat, the animals, the rain, the snow, the unknown. In order to proceed, Annie needed to make an assumption of life. It was under this assumption that she waited for Edward and Rose.

At first, the waiting was easy. Their return felt imminent. She waited with the assumption of life. Of course there were the initial screams and the side-splitting moans, sounds that came from some nameless part of her body. But then, she waited. She observed the eggs of Pigeon Tunnel, ate the pan of brownies, sat on the floor near the closet. With great diligence, she tried to rotate her wrist at just the right angle, pulling the knob toward her and hoping to reveal Edward, smiling on the other side of the door.

Or was he Eddie now? Was she Rosie?

Then the pigeon eggs were abandoned by their mother. Then they broke open without hatching, a thin skein of yellow rising from the shell of each egg. Then the eggs were snatched, eaten by other pigeons, and so the consideration of death always had a way of returning.

Annie moved from her spot next to the closet, and huddled inside the closet itself. Proximity, she thought, will get the job done. Only a few days after that, she could hear their voices beyond the closet wall, or so she believed. Their familysong, pealing like bells just beyond reach. And of course, she could hear them more clearly when the closet was completely closed, so she tucked her knees to her chest and pulled the door shut.

She could have listened to them forever, sitting there, her head cushioned against their abandoned sweaters and puffy coats. Of course, she didn’t. Grief is not the door that tucks you in; it’s the door that shuts you out. But Annie allowed herself this moment. The plastic hangers above her head shifting with the weightlessness of wind chimes. The questions hardening and multiplying. What nouns will my daughter learn? What Terrace Stories will she tell? An imagined breeze from somewhere unseen. A proper name for this feeling, on the tip of Annie’s tongue. The rest of the world receding slowly from view.

is the author of the novel Temporary, which was published in March by Coffee House Press/Emily Books. She teaches at Columbia University.
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June 2020