Siberia, by Jessi Jezewska Stevens

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“Night Tree,” by Boris Savelev. All photographs © the artist. Courtesy Factum Arte, Madrid, and Michael Hoppen Gallery, London. Savelev’s work will be on view next month with Michael Hoppen Gallery at Paris Photo

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I have no pictures of people on my phone anymore, she said, only pictures of prose. When did I become a misanthrope?

The last time he saw her, she was wearing the same dress she’d worn the day the affair began. He thought of that dress. She thought of the hurt. No pictures of either, really.

She had to scroll back quite some ways to find faces. They made their first (last) appearance circa that last time they’d spoken. So this was a clue. Before that, people. After, novels: mentions of chrysanthemums, butterflies, an opera box. Here was a scene in which an off-duty actor slaps the proprietor with a lavender glove . . . she read the first bit aloud, then trailed off. A whole year’s worth. So that’s what she’d been up to. What did it say, this careful collection of non-humanoid excerpts—

An increased chance of dying alone, he joked.

On her end, the sirens began to sound.

The general consensus regarding the conflict raging outside was this: Someone would win. Then life would return to the way it was before. A very few would have quite a lot; a very many, not much at all. The civilian population stayed in and waited for the insurgents and the government to sort it out; i.e., they did as they were told. Meanwhile they logged in. Logged on. Looked into their screens. Unwrapped food rations marked with insurgent symbols in districts the insurgents controlled, government insignias in the government zones. They stood at the windows, a safe step back from the panes, and watched the drones and searchlights spar. They sat in stairwells and called old lovers they’d formerly sworn off.

For it seemed life had slowed down enough for almost everything to be forgiven. The subway was empty. The restaurants, closed. The streets were quieter than they’d ever been, people said again and again; on an unsecured line it was hard to come up with anything else to talk about. For a while, between the hours of noon and five, you could still walk down the block to the salon for powdered shampoo and razors, where they were also selling cigarettes. Then the hours of free movement slendered down to a thin band of light and disappeared: perpetual night. There was no such thing as curfew anymore. It was all the time. The risk of either asking to see the other, rekindle the relationship, had been thus eliminated. In other ways, life hadn’t changed. For her. For him. She was a playwright. He was a playwright. The theaters were always the first thing to go.

She said, Maybe we should write some monologues.

He was on speakerphone as she scrolled. The stairwell was alive with the after-fizz of disinfectant. She sat at the top, tucked up under the roof, twirling the end of her braid between forefinger and thumb. She wondered if he did other things while they talked, absentminded tasks like cleaning the counter, stewing a chicken, making soup. One could harmonize with these distractions. They were intimate chores to be completed in the presence of someone you loved. When she heard the clack of the keyboard, her heart sank. As for typing emails, transcripts; refreshing the news—these tasks were discordant with reconciliation. She might as well hang up.

For his part, he didn’t imagine her to be doing anything at all, because he knew exactly where she was. She’d described the stairwell in great detail, down to the convex skylight overhead. He could picture her, and accurately: spotlit, on the linoleum, slumped. Her face, propped against the railing, was obscured by a stiff veil of unwashed fringe. The bangs quivered in the gust of a door collapsing on a pressurized hinge, the narrowing gap resisting until that last moment when—

I think this building used to be a school, she said.

What he’d loved about the woman, he was reminded, was this space she left between what she said and what she meant. He liked a buffer zone. Standing in his kitchen, polishing the steel countertop while the kettle rumbled on the burner, prepping a cup of tea he already regretted and did not want, he pressed the phone to his ear and reflected that this quality reproduced in her the same power as a play: you sat safely back from the struggles onstage. He didn’t see so many plays anymore, of course. Nobody did. These days, he mostly watched YouTube clips of classical musicians. He chose a passage—the cello ascension, say, the grand stairwell entrance, to the center of Bach’s suites—and watched many cellists attempt it, one after the next. He ranked them on a Post-it secured to his desk.

And he watched her. In his mind. That dress she used to wear was a high blue color with long tight sleeves, the kind of conservative garment that nevertheless immediately called to mind how difficult it must be to get on or, more to the point, off. He’d appreciated that. He ripped open a package of tea. (What’s that sound? she asked. My latest vice, he replied; before the curfew he’d collected quite a stash.) He sometimes wondered if they’d made a mistake, separating themselves. Though it was hard to say what was a mistake, what wasn’t, when everything ended in disappointment anyway. That’s how he’d wound up with so much tea, really—you get sick of a flavor and abandon the box. This was his belief. So it was more about how much time they might have spent, but hadn’t. He steeped his unwanted—he checked the label—Darjeeling. Terrible substitute for nicotine. It was terrible to quit. He wondered what even was the point of soldiering on. Out the window, the searchlights sliced through one another, illuminating the slats of fire escapes. He could see a shadowed figure across the way, another shape in the yellow light, someone also making tea, thinking, reverse engineering how they might have lived. The age gap between him and the woman on the line stretched nearly twenty years. She was too young to remember the last time war broke out.

He drew the frilled demi-curtain along the rod. The apartment was full of ironic feminine kitsch like this. Cotton eyelet in the kitchen. A hip-high vase at the door. There were antique advertisements for nylons, framed, in the bath, details that seemed at once an appeal to the fairer sex and also a light joke at his exes’ expense: after they left, domestic life went on.

The stair landing on which the woman sat, meanwhile, or so she was now explaining, was a revolving furniture exchange—one of those computer chairs had once belonged to her. The purpose was stated right there on the wall with a little handmade sign: carousel of exchange. And yet, despite the sundry furnishings, she sat on the floor, on the top step. It was neatly done, the way the man had staged it in his mind, and not so far from the truth, as he and the woman would both have been pleased to know. It is a fantasy too often underestimated, to be guessed at correctly through the presumption of stage directions:

[Spotlight. Woman seated at edge of stage, feet dangling into orchestra pit to simulate stairs; alternatively, elevated, stage left, visible railing, against which she rests head. Presses phone to ear. Secondhand furniture scattered. Lots of it. Broken chairs. A real junkyard. Possibly a candlestick.]

[Woman touches her hair. Stands up. Looks out the barred window and spins a chair.]

SHE: Do you know that story, the one with the toboggan and the two kids, the boy and the girl, and he takes her every day to the top of a hill, it’s snowing, and they sled down three times, one, two, three, they’re at some dacha somewhere, I think it’s Chekhov—one sec, I have it on my phone, or never mind, it takes too long to find—anyway, he’s sitting behind her, arms around her, and each time they descend, he whispers in her ear, I love you, Nadya, just quietly enough that she can’t be sure she heard it, and at the bottom of the hill, when she asks him what he said, he says, What are you even talking about, so she lets him drag her back to the top, even though she hates sledding, she’s terrified, the hill is too steep, because the whole time she’s trying to decide, Was it him, or was it the wind?

[Beat.]

HE: The rule of threes, I know it, sure. But at least I never dragged you up hills.

She sat back down on the stairs, returned to scrolling through the collection of passages on her phone. Her face was blanched by the screen, the walls by the light pollution that burned off in the night to settle, like ash, through the skylight. She slid back up to the passage with the lavender glove.

SHE: It’s the lavender that makes it Nabokov’s. A compromise between the slapstick and the lovely.

[Beat.]

SHE: The problem is I have no audience for these observations.

[Stage right: Man takes cloth and mimes polishing a countertop, stops. Examines his hand.]

SHE: I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been thinking lately about whether I should have gone in for women.

HE: Well, I’m definitely the right audience for that.

Outside, the sirens sounded again.

Maybe all drama reduces to a siren’s call: there’s something in a person that craves catastrophe. The little ticket-taker in everyone longs for hiatus, release, the distant crash of buildings tumbling down, perhaps even not so distant, but just far enough away to still keep safe while last century’s rubble is pulped. The slow disaster unfolding outside whets the appetite for more. Six of one, half dozen. Between two tyrants, you find yourself psychologically predisposed to the one who’s not yet let you down. A last push against the door of the imagination, and then it is ajar, exposing scenes beyond the current desertion of the streets: your own building, halved, the small world of your room revealed, like a woman stripped, to the no one left who’s looking in. Squint into the sun. There, the end. You don’t admit thoughts like these. You catch them reflected in the periphery, in the opera glasses glinting in the darkened mezzanine. Not political enough, Nadya ... The weird ghost arrives, escaped from a pamphlet, a newspaper, something else she’s read—But no, it’s just the hiss and crash of the pressurized door in the stairwell again.

The real reason she’d called was to discuss the question of loyalty. There was a war on, after all. One was naturally preoccupied with taking sides. And yet she found she still wanted to please, primarily, this person on the other end of the line. She’d played many roles over the years, never quite able to shake the sense that she was in fact performing for someone offstage, and that her life was therefore misdirected. This audience was present even in her most private moments, observing what she ordered on a dinner date, what she did in bed. It watched her pin up bits of dialogue on note cards to organize her thoughts. There was some satisfaction, at least, in thinking that perhaps she’d made of him a muse. Not everyone found one. So, that was their loss. The world had been wrung of ancientness, made practical, was too afraid of running into itself to indulge in clichés like these.

SHE (to the audience, whispering): He always did have a special way of making me feel ashamed.

HE: What?

SHE: Nothing, nothing.

NEIGHBOR 1 (stage left, lowering pair of binoculars, sinking behind tin trash can): I think they’re finally losing it.

“Memory, Chernowitz,” by Boris Savelev

“Memory, Chernowitz,” by Boris Savelev

Down three flights of stairs, the building accordioned per city regulation, the facade jutting stepwise in and out to maximize access to light. Across the niche from the woman’s apartment, her neighbors liked to keep track of her progress: she studied her note cards, pasted papers to the wall. They observed one another brushing their teeth, painting toenails, steeping the coffee, and dressing for work. There was no need to dress for work or maintain pedicures anymore, but they half-dressed all the same, made the coffee, filed the corns. The neighbors couldn’t have known the woman was writing plays, of course. That was part of the intrigue. Tit for tat: she watched them, too. What did they do, for example, in that apartment two floors above, where they always kept the red light on? Where did one even find such light bulbs? She’d googled it once: bulb red free shipping District 31. The couple was downstairs in the ruby light right now, looking through the reddish pall into the woman’s empty studio.

Where could she possibly have gone?

To the stairs, that’s where, and where she was still trying to train her thoughts on logically compatible conclusions. She glanced around her at the walls of the former school. She hadn’t spent much time on this landing before, had visited only once or twice, when she’d had a guest and needed an extra seat, or else had an extra seat (that abominable computer chair that bucked and squeaked, for example) of which she’d wanted to dispose. She imagined children running up these stairs, trying to make it to class, trying to make out. At that moment, it struck her as far more likely that the building had debuted as a hospital or an asylum. She rested her forehead on the rail, picked at the hard denim seam that ran the length of her jeans. There was a demon in her, she thought. Some flutter in her mind suggested itself, and what it whispered was: Don’t be foolish, Nadya, and take what you can get ...

On the other end of the line, the man was thinking that she sounded very young, and lovely, lovely in a way that emphasized how young she was. He hoped she’d live a long time. He looked out his window to the empty street, where nostalgic municipal authorities had preserved the cobblestones. A figure darted across them, stumbled, fell. The spotlights rounded the corner after it.

HE: Look out your window. Look out your window and tell me what you see.

The two found themselves watching similar scenes on different sections of the same street. The searchlights hawked revenge on sidewalks, swept shadows for loose change. The conversation slowed to an exchange of breath. Her building was on the corner; she could see two streets at once, where a different figure darted, disappeared, took cover in the hooded entrance of a former grocery store. The man enjoyed a mid-block perspective, from which he watched a broken shape struggle to stand on the stones without drawing further attention to itself. The woman rose on tiptoes to peer through the barred window in the stairs. Her view was empty again. On the other end of the line, the man cradled cold tea to his chest. A small spill stained his collar when the shot arrived. Not that she could have known it.

SHE: They’ve put up propaganda over all the store signs, we protect you and the like. Do you have those?

HE: I honestly don’t know.

He watched the slow shine spread around the fallen figure, a halo for the head.

NABOKOV: If a butterfly appears on the wall in Act One—

CHEKHOV: —then its wings should ignite in Act Two.

[Burst of sapphire from stage left.]

[Beat.]

NEIGHBOR 2: Shit role that guy got.

NEIGHBOR 1 (cleaning binocular lenses with a cloth): I auditioned for the lead, do you think that maybe—?

NEIGHBOR 3 (sinking behind tin trash can): I confess to a creeping sense of desperation.

BECKETT (offstage): Leave me out of this.

The following week they were back on the stairs, back on the phone. The insurgents had either seized or liberated nearby District 36, depending on your perspective, and to celebrate had let everyone out for a time. Or so her news sources said. The government districts, they figured, would now have to respond in kind. We’re like the kids of divorced parents who compete for affection, he said. It says here for a whole hour, she replied, maybe even more—

HE: I’ll come see you.

SHE: We’ll meet halfway.

She heard the faint gong of his forehead falling against the glass.

HE: What I wouldn’t do, you know, to get outside today.

The woman confessed that some afternoons, in even the most anemic sun, she went up to the roof. She had a row of cacti up there, she explained, shriveled and frozen in little terra-cotta pots. Did he think they’d grow back? He didn’t answer for a long time. I’m not sure that’s safe, he said. Going up on the roof like that. I bet you could nearly see me, she said, if you went up on yours. Soft tan lines had set up camp on her shoulders, earned despite the chill. She suggested them, and he bronzed the image in. It’s fine, she argued. They weren’t so strict during daylight. He felt angry with her anyway for risking it, even as he admired the freckles beneath her eyes. He didn’t want to seem overly protective, overly concerned, so he changed the subject. The large desk where he sat was topped with glass, offering a faint reflection. Google Maps filled his screen edge to edge.

By way of example, he told her how he’d been traveling lately. He tracked people around the world, read restaurant reviews, reviews of parks and libraries and government offices; of galleries, cafés, and museums. Recently, he’d been in the habit of reading hospital recommendations and trailing emergency patients across Russia. The reviews were translated automatically. Sometimes the same patient had visited multiple hospitals, seeking second opinions on chances of survival. He liked these recurring characters; they were his friends. He admired their will to live. He asked her if she was at her computer now and then remembered that, no, of course she wasn’t, she was in the stairwell, where he’d left her. But when you are, he said, try typing in K—. He named an oblast.

HE: So, Google translates the reviews, so you just find a hospital, and then, well, here’s one: “Waited four hours, no bribes.” That’s not so bad, actually, compared to what I’ve seen in rural areas. But there’s this one woman, let me find her. Here. She has some problem with her stomach. She’s been to at least six hospitals in the area. And by area, I mean a huge fucking swath of Siberia.

SHE: What do you think it is?

HE: Maybe she’s a hypochondriac.

The woman peered through the bars at the propaganda that had rebilled the old stores across the street.

SHE: Maybe she’s dying and doesn’t want to believe it.

HE: “Very nice hospital. Train staff with dialogue to show listening to patients. You constantly have to wait even for payment through the cashier, the cashier was waited for two hours.”

SHE (laughing): It’s a relief to me, you know, that the algorithms are still shit.

HE: “In the ambulance, you can turn the clock around.”

She navigated to her own maps as her battery sounded its tinny alarm. She chose a town at random, not the one he had suggested, swiped away the notification that the device would soon be dead. There: a frozen place, high definition. How beautiful it was. Trees bent deeply over the road, knighted by snow. A tent in the woods was choked up by a stovepipe and its stream of smoke. Ice sculptures were dyed bright colors in the way her mother had shown her when the woman was just a girl and went out to shape fresh snowfall into igloos. Her mother mixed the dye in spray bottles once filled with cleaning supplies, which the girl, now the woman, used to inflict garish patterns on the yard. The sculptures on the screen were arranged beneath a string of flags made ragged by the wind. To think places like this still existed.

SHE: Do you think it’s better, over there?

NABOKOV: Ha!

NEIGHBOR 1 (raising and then lowering binoculars): Depends on your perspective.

She carried the phone down the stairs, through the pressurized door, down the hall, cupping the speaker to her chest. Went to open her door, found it was already unlocked. Again. That’s not smart, said the man. Please, take care of yourself. I know, I know, she said. One sec. Inside, she connected jack to cord. Slipped off her shoes by the bed. Why do you sound like you’re inside a Trojan Horse? he asked. Just my apartment, you’re on speaker, she replied. She turned on the lamp. One sec again, the people across from me like to stare. Get curtains, he said. I have a curtain, she replied, sliding a piece of newspaper, slipped onto the rod by loops of string, across the pane. Do you want some tea? Sure, he said. I fucked mine up. Okay, I’ll get it. You play some music, she said.

He was still at his desk, by the window, in front of the maps. Outside, a clean-up crew bustled. Michelin men in white body suits pointed fine hoses at the cobblestones, where last week’s stains remained. They glowed blue with the night, confirming the presence of the moon. He thought about splicing in this frame, narrating the shot to her as if it were occurring at this moment, right now, because it felt wrong to have witnessed it alone, to be forever distracting her with things like hospital reviews in K— oblast. His laptop was an oyster open to the world. Escape was always almost possible. The brash light of the screen brought out the gray in his face. He looked like shit! The tabs were open to ice storms, mountains decadent with snow, a hospital lobby, movie clips, a streaming app on which he borrowed music, incognito. He loaded the clip of the cellist and pressed play, held the phone close to his ear to catch the sound of the woman moving through her little room. He imagined those sheer, breathy curtains, floor-length, that young women liked, as if they all aspired to live inside a lung. Or maybe she’d simply tacked up a sheet. He couldn’t remember how long she’d lived here. The addresses forsook him, had washed away in the current of recent silence. He couldn’t remember if this was the room he’d visited a few years ago, where her life had seemed so upsettingly haphazard; perched on a wooden chair taken from the stairwell, for free, he’d felt that he had something to do with the observable impermanence. She used to faint sometimes during sex, he recalled, most often in the shower. Crouched there on the bathroom tiles, holding her as she came to, he’d considered the weight of the soul. He felt a pang now, felt the pull of the white suits outside. Her voice drew him sharply from his reverie.

SHE: This is depressing.

HE: I thought that was my charm.

[Muzak or satellite radio jazz audible from offstage.]

SHE: No, the music. It’s depressing. Play something else.

[Beat.]

HE: They’re cleaning up over here. Or they were cleaning up.

SHE: Oh.

HE: They’re gone now. It’s fine. Please be more careful.

SHE: Okay.

HE: It’s real.

[Beat.]

SHE: They’re brave. You have to give them that. I wish I believed in something half as much.

HE: Yes, there’s that.

[Man leans against imaginary window again, peers down.]

HE: All the same, I’m glad you don’t.

The neighbors across from the woman’s apartment were intrigued to see her light was on again. Sympathizer, they guessed. She fit the insurgent type. Young. Idealistic. Putting up quotes all over the walls. Not nearly afraid enough. And one of the only other human beings in range, really, to develop theories about.

They watched her shadow flicker through the paper shade drawn across the pane. (She was onto them; they were onto each other; the whole air shaft fluttered with headlines meant to keep out Peeping Toms and Janes.) The paper fit imperfectly over the window, and when she crossed the room, it was possible to catch glimpses through the gaps. She wore a red sweatshirt and blue jeans. Her hair was down, kinked from a braid. The couple with the red night-lights watched her draw it up into a knot. Phone balanced between cheek and shoulder, she pulled the newspaper aside an inch herself and peered out. One floor below, a man was looking back. One of his hands was pocketed. The other held a beer. She raised her eyes a floor above to see what was happening up there.

The neighbors had never been the type to draw much attention to themselves. That’s why she’d stayed. She waited tables at the trattoria around the corner—or had, before everything shut down—and then came home to fix her plays. They were all of them in this building quiet by nature and hourly waged. No one meant to pry. At the moment there was simply nothing else to do. Sometimes a bird dove through the brick channel between the windows, and they envied it. They craned their necks, considered that someone had had the job of designing the tower on which those searchlights stood. The beer fizzed. The red light bled its liquid glow and rinsed the thought away. They thought of the sea, the way the sea-foam mouthed off onto the shore. They cupped an ear to catch the sound of waves. One missed the beach. Another missed the women.

NEIGHBOR 1: What I wouldn’t do for a proper schnitzel—

NEIGHBOR 2: —or a long drive—

NEIGHBOR 3: —or an unskunked beer—

NABOKOV: The devil is in the details, and all great stories are fairy tales.

NEIGHBOR 3: I’ll show you where the fucking fairies are—

NABOKOV: The gardener used naphthalene, my mother the ether, and I myself later used many killing agents. I looked forward to the crunch of a pin going through the chitinous thorax—

NEIGHBOR 2 (rolling eyes, then lifting binoculars to them): Right, so that was the difference between them.

The woman carried her teacup to the bathtub, ran a bath. The man sat at his desk with his cold chamomile, imagining hers fresh. They listened to the water run.

For a brief period during which his wife, now ex, had been abroad, perhaps pursuing an affair of her own, the woman on the phone had stayed with him for a time. He had an image of her, perched on the rim of the tub, watching him shave. They worked in the same room, she with her note cards, he with his YouTube and Bach and halfhearted drafts. He was able to forget about her, he found, only when she was here, the both of them otherwise engaged. For her it must have been the same. He was introduced to her absentmindedness—in particular, her absentmindedness re: him—a new side to her he’d not witnessed before. He observed the automatic gesture with which she tied her robe when she exited the bed, hours after sex, loose and unembarrassed. At noon she boiled eggs and ate them over the sink. The peeled shells plinked into the basin. She let the water in which she’d cooked them cool and collected it in a beaker repurposed for watering the plants. Feminine touches, the both of them. His, the anemic fern; hers, watering it with calcified runoff. And this had frightened him greatly, noticing how easily she slipped into a routine. It was this, the saving the water for the fern, that had broken him. He withdrew, avoided sex, stood in the kitchen and raised his eyebrows at whatever she said, scratching the nape of his neck. Okay, she said. I understand. And left. He missed her immediately. It was there, a drug laced round the edges of his relief. More potent than he wanted to admit. When his wife returned, he was confused. Her body felt unfamiliar beneath his hands. What’s for dinner? she asked. Anything but eggs.

The woman on the phone, whom he maybe still missed, was meanwhile theorizing about him. It’s involuntary, she was saying. She was perched on the edge of her own tub, nursing her mug and the phone. Nursing old wounds: It’s almost as if you think too fast, she said, like you scheme without helping it. Gee, thanks. I only mean, it’s like your schemes come to you all at once, fully formed, so it’s not like they’re premeditated. I’ll take that as a compliment, he said. I’m just saying, she added, I don’t think it’s intentionally manipulative. Has it ever occurred to you that you’re pretty manipulative yourself? I never said I wasn’t. But you implied by comparison. I don’t think it’s always preferable, she said, to think things all the way through to the consequences. Like not calling for a year?

SHE: Funny, in my book, it’s you who didn’t call me.

The woman drew her lower lip between her teeth. The newspaper that hung over the window fluttered. It was the flight of juvenility, she thought, fluttering through the door. She sank a hand into the bath to test the temperature. It came out scalded, red to the wrist.

It’s been a shitty year, she said.

She taught him foreign idioms. She explained how to beat egg whites in French, monter des blancs en neige, and with what tool in German, i.e., a Schneebesen. In every other language, she noted, to beat egg whites means to make snow, whereas—We’re using the short end of the stick, he joked. The insurgents had gained further territory and were letting all their subjects out. Permanently. For good. They were closing in; they were winning; they would be here soon. The man and the woman could not resist the contagion of the festive mood. She laughed. She was ready, she said. Even overprepared. When not on the phone, she often sat in the tub for hours, listening to language courses. Her legs were covered in razor nicks incurred while conjugating irregular verbs and gendering the nouns, der, die, das. She spoke a little of everything by now. That was company, she thought. A bit of static interference and civil-sounding chatter she couldn’t understand. She rotated through, disc-jockeyed German, Hindi, Russian, French. She was fit to renounce her language for the native tongue of the invaders, the liberators, ha ha, whoever it was that came next. She knew how to thank them, how to curse them, how to plead: no rape.

HE: Do you still have that dress?

The man on the phone had an excellent tub, one of those claw-foot basins that swallows you whole. She’d long had the goal of bathing in it. In those intervals when he was not already engaged, or married, or monogamous, they’d gone instead to the public baths. The memory made her smile, though it also dredged up pain. In the swell of steam, the full force of him had been delegated to the blurry shapes of other people. She remembered she’d worn a leotard, self-conscious about her figure, but you could hardly see anyone in there, she could have worn nothing at all. The Lycra clung to her belly like a blister. What a relief afterward to step out into the cold. And how superior the sex, later that night, in bed. Her body felt purged and compact, a polished seed. The orgasm bloomed and bloomed and met its limits, then shriveled into memory. That was the way of the saunas in the public baths. You waited, you suffered, and when the suffering lifted—

SHE: I used to think you should have given me your place when you were away. You have all that space! Me, I open the oven and sit down on the bed.

HE: It’s yours. Come on over.

SHE: Thank you.

HE: Only I’m sick of it, I’d rather take you somewhere else.

SHE: Where then?

HE: I’d think that was obvious.

She tapped a foot to the surface of the water. Still scalding. The bathroom swirled with steam. She breathed in deep and choked. A drip of sweat ran down her chin. She cracked open the door. Closed it again. Then, like an afterthought, she swung it wide. There was nothing better than a hot bath in winter chill! But she had just the one window, where her neighbors kept watch. That was her request, she said, wherever they went: a magnificent tub and a cool cross-breeze. She would have liked to open everything, lift the windows and unlock the doors. It was a game of chicken, she thought. That was life. Who would draw the curtains first? She was tired of waiting, tired of accommodating. Of simply delaying capitulation, and the sordid pleasure that came with it. The suspense, she supposed, was in the when, the how much, you inevitably gave. She stood from the bath and crossed the room. The towel slipped. Delirious, ecstatic, she wedged the phone between cheek and shoulder, wedged her hands under the lip of the window, struggling to raise the pane. She told him to hold on, one sec, I just—She braced a foot against the sill, pushed with all the strength of her legs. Then, quite suddenly, the window gave and welcomed in the cold. The release drew her up to her full height, into the top pane, so that for a moment she stood like a stained-glass saint stuck in the window of a church. Then the bullet quietly opened up her chest. The last thought arrived. She was reminded that, at geological depths, the earth erupts with something like wrath.

He stared for a moment at the phone in his hand, perplexed. One sec, she’d said. I just—Then came a muffled crash. He checked the screen again to make sure she hadn’t hung up.

Crossing the apartment to the bath, he flipped on the light switch.

Hello? he said.

There was the tub, gleaming beneath the showerhead. The framed nylons ad, in which a model rolled the shadow of a stocking up her shin. He imagined the woman instead. She was seated on the rim with her tea, admiring her unstockinged legs. She wore nothing but a towel, and her thighs extended from the hem. An average-size woman, she’d become extremely heavy when she fainted, he recalled. He’d draw her across his knees and press a cold washcloth to her wrists . . . He was good at waiting. He looked at the phone. Leaving the light on, he returned to his desk. He stared into the laptop screen at the brutalized hospitals and tundra exposed to permafrost, now not so permanent. They were all awaiting miracles, these isolated towns. They willed a change in the tilt of the earth, the melting of the straits. Soon enough, the ships would sail through, like blood back into a resuscitated heart. And so they clung.

His own reflection flashed in the window. He’d gained weight, lost hair, this past year. She’d be disappointed to see him when she did. The phone was still pressed to his ear. He used to fantasize about her, about fucking her in public restrooms, at parties, in other people’s kitchens; it would be such a relief to be caught, to confess. A great sadness collected in the barrel of his chest. He swiveled in his chair and looked back into the soft white glow of the empty bath. The gleam of the tiles faintly pulsed. He recalled the way she flinched, and violently, if he so much as touched a fingertip to the vertebrae of her neck. What he’d like to do is take her to the Russian baths, had they done that yet? He’d like to take her halfway around the world, up north, away from everyone they knew, their prying gaze—away from how he saw himself—buy a plot of land and wait for the earth to thaw. A shadow shifts, something flickers in the bath. He listens, waiting for her to catch her breath, finish her sentence, call him back. Obviously they’ll learn, they’ll speak whatever she likes, he’ll tell her everything she’s ever wanted to know in as many languages as he can manage, Schnee and neige, and when the time comes, should it ever come to that, he’ll talk her softly into death. The silence stretches on, indifferent as a government—but you know all about that.

 is the author of the novels The Exhibition of Persephone Q and The Visitors. She lives in Geneva.


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