Fiction: “When We Are Gone the Light Is Alone” by Michael McCanne

The women departing slip of their chemises of light

All of a single sudden not a soul remains

When we are gone the light is alone

                Paul Eluard

Predawn.

In the city, a factory burned.

Luisa paused, her brush frozen in the air, touching her lashes.

The transportation workers are out on strike; the freeways blockaded.

The capital will be cut off.

From up high, the city was unnaturally still.

She continued applying make up, noticing, perhaps for the second or third time, that the circle of lights around the mirror made tiny rings in her pupils.

Drinking coffee on the balcony, she watched the smoke rise in the distance against the ashen sky. She loved being in the apartment early in the morning when her husband was gone. It gave her sense of calm and readiness for the day. In their room, the bed was already made and her suit lay across the sheets.

Her husband had withdrawn a bundle of dollars, in case the peso devalued, and had put them in the freezer, inside a plastic bag. They never kept much money around the house and since he had left, three days prior, she found herself, again and again, in front of the open freezer, looking at those frozen bills.

She walked back to the balcony and lit a cigarette, another luxury of her husband’s absence. In the distance, a brownish haze hung where the smoke had been. She stubbed her cigarette out in the abalone shell she used for an ashtray, tipping the ashes out afterward and watching them flutter towards the street below.

Today is the last time, she thought to herself. Although later couldn’t recall if she had said it aloud or only mouthed the words. She went back to the kitchen, opened the fridge and looked at the money again. She closed the door, turned the radio off and left.

*

She had been married for seven years. They met in university and were engaged not long after they both graduated. She loved him then, of that she is sure. Maybe she still loved him. He had studied law and she sociology, they met in a class that bridged both disciplines. His family was more conservative than hers but he seemed uninterested in politics and she found this appealing. He liked fun: fun things, nice restaurants, movies and talking. He kidded her but never too much. After university he became a lawyer and then started working for an American company. She took a job in a PR firm and their marriage settled into itself. They moved into a high-rise apartment and talked about starting a family. In the beginning they had sex often  but slowly the frequency tapered off. After the wedding they stopped using condoms but she never got pregnant. This didn’t bother her so much but, although he never brought it up, she could tell it bothered him. He talked about his colleagues’ children in a certain way.

Driving through the back streets of downtown, she was again struck by the unnatural quiet. She waited at an intersection while a man and a young boy pushed a cardboard-filled cart across the street. At a pile of trash they stopped and began sorting out bits of refuse. More and more people were living off recycled cardboard. Luisa watched them for a while and tried to remember the moment that she lost her desires. There must have been a time before, a time when she wanted things, when she dreamed, desired; but only the present hung all around her, an endless, empty present in which she asked for nothing and received nothing in return.

Finally a car came up behind and honked.

She drove on, unhurried.

*

The affair had started a year before the collapse. She met him at a friend’s party, on a rooftop. It was small and they had all just sat around in white plastic chairs drinking wine or coca-cola and talking. Her friend had strung Christmas lights across the patio and they moved in the breeze coming in off the river.

He came late and took an empty chair next to her. He was younger by a few years and charming, in a quiet way. He worked for the center-left party but seemed ambivalent about it. Just a job, he had said, like any other that needs to be done. They talked most of the night. Towards the end of the conversation, when the sky was turning warm grey, he told her about a book he liked, a book by Fabián Casas, and she said she would be interested in reading it. He offered to bring it by her office and, for a moment, his eyes rested on her wedding band. He looked at the ring without expression, then back at her face and the flirtatious smile returned, tugging at the corners of his mouth.  She thought about it and then gave him her office address.

She was surprised when he brought the book a week later, she hadn’t expected him to come. It was dog-eared and coffee stained and she could feel the many creases as she turned it over in her hands. They went out to lunch and pretended as if they were friends or business associates. It was uncomfortable at first, tense even, but after a while the playful flirting returned. He even made a few jokes that made her blush, the blood pounding against her skin. After lunch, he asked to see her again and added afterward, at the very least to get the book back. She said they could meet in a few days and took the book off of the table from where she had set it down. I’m a fast reader, she said, smiling.

Walking back to her office, she bought a pack of cigarettes.

That Friday they met in a bar, in the old part of the city, crowded with tourists. She arrived first, ordered a vodka tonic and waited at a small table towards the back, near the door to the kitchen. He rushed in, looking flustered but relaxed into a comfortable swagger when he walked over to her. His bristles scratched her skin as he kissed her on the cheek. He smelled clean, not of soap but as if he lacked fragrance. This brief moment of intimacy was electrifying. They managed to get through two drinks but the tension between them was palpable. It became a hostility: hostility at the bar for being full of people, at the table for keeping their bodies apart, at the weak pretenses that hung between them.

In his apartment they didn’t make it to his bed but had sex on the floor, in the light spilling from the kitchen. Afterwards, the coolness of the tiles spread against her back as if she were touching them for the first time. They talked for a while and shared a beer from his fridge. They arranged a time to meet again.

The affair continued for a year, in a very pragmatic way. They met every Thursday afternoon, only on Thursdays unless her husband was out of town. They met at his apartment or, occasionally, a cafe nearby. They had sex, often several times. Sometimes he made a late lunch or ran out to get pastries to have with coffee. They talked but never about much. At some point she realized that he was the same as her husband; that he had the same closed indifference. He never asked her to leave her marriage and she never said that she loved him. They met every Thursday and, though he was rough, he was careful not to leave marks on her body. Sometimes, while he was sleeping, she walked through his empty apartment and cried in the kitchen, quietly, so as not to wake him.

*

The city was waking up and she thought about how he dragged his hand across her face while they were having sex, as if trying to rub off her skin. Throngs of people were walking though the streets, some carrying signs. There must be a demonstration today, she thought. Men stood on the street corners watching the people, arms folded or smoking cigars, a few cars, mostly taxis, raced through the intersections.

She arrived at the bank, where she had an appointment, fifteen minutes early and parked in front. The bank building was unnaturally dark, light coming from only a few upstairs offices. A chain and padlock hung around the inside handles of the large glass doors. She knocked anyway, rapping her rings against the glass. A guard came out of the darkness and walked towards the door. He was holding a thin shotgun casually in one hand. Through the tiny crack between the doors she told him she had an appointment. He looked at her as if she was crazy and finally said that no one was there, that she should go home. When she tried to argue he simply receded into the darkness of the building.

She sat in the car for a long time. She must end it. It was all she could think, over and over. She turned on the radio but could not concentrate on the words. It was too fragmentary: more factories closed, banks smashed, streets barricaded. She turned it off; the world felt as discordant as she did. The windows of the car were tinted and the sun caught the dust sweeping through the streets, the air was full of particles.

Everything had fallen to pieces so quickly: the economy, the peso, the country. She couldn’t remember a time when people didn’t talk about the crisis but those days must have existed before: a time when people were happy to spend and spend, lapping up the inexorable wealth, sure that it would last forever.

She tried calling him but the line was busy. She felt that, from the darkness of the bank building, the guard with the shotgun was watching her. She tried calling his office but no one picked up. She started driving, just to move.

Passing through the streets she realized she was heading towards his apartment. It was the logical place to go. She called again and this time he answered. He was distracted; she could hear the television in the background. He spoke in apocalyptic terms and didn’t say why he wasn’t at work. He hung up without a goodbye.

She had always hated his apartment building. It was rustic, South American and yet as artificial and sterile as the modern high-rise she lived in. She hated its inauthenticity, its deceit. She always took the stairs because she couldn’t stand to wait for the elevator.

The door was open and he stood in the living room, remote in hand, watching the big screen TV. On it were images more chaotic than before: people looting a store in the provinces, police firing teargas, images from a helicopter: jerky and pixilated. She closed the door behind her. This is bad, he said, without looking up.

She stared at him, at the side of his face. She felt the familiar feelings: hate and shame and lust. Her lips went dry. They stood like that for what felt like a long time. Finally she said that she couldn’t see him anymore but he didn’t hear or pretended not to. She leaned her back against the wall and said it louder and he turned around. He was framed by the television, a shadow against lines of color. He walked over to her and asked why she would say that. She turned her head to the side and gave the reasons, the ones she had practiced in her mind and the ones she had said before. She didn’t sound convincing and again her cheeks flushed with shame. He grasped her shoulder and looked into her eyes.

Now, of all times, we have to stay together, he said. She shook her head emphatically but also placed her hand on his. He took hold of her other shoulder and kissed her neck. The resistance fell out of her. He bit her neck and she moaned, she struggled and he pushed her against the wall and then she was kissing him, her tongue lapping at the edge of his mouth. His hands up her skirt, pulling her panties off, shredding them against her thighs. And then he was inside her and she was only shoulders and a wall and pounding blood. She bit her lip to stop from crying out and choked. On the screen a tear gas canister arced against the sky. When she came, tears flooded her eyes.

They had been through this ritual before.

This time they sat and drank black coffee on the couch. He touched her legs, he touched her hair; they didn’t say anything. Later he tried to convince her to stay but she wanted to go home. He offered to drive but she refused. They kissed at the door.

*

The streets were still empty. She raced through them, hoping for catastrophe. No car appeared though, not even the police. She thought about leaving both of them; she could get on a plane, if they were still flying, and go to the United States or Spain and then be free of both their deadening silences.

At home Luisa took the ziplock bag out of the freezer and set it on the table. She put her passport next to it and sat and watched the moisture condense on the inside of the bag. She lit a cigarette and turned on the radio.

Two protestors had been shot and the Minister of Finance had resigned. The unemployed were pouring into the capital; people were attacking banks.

Luisa stubbed out the cigarette and walked to the balcony.

Tomorrow there will be a general strike.

From high up, the city looked the same.

Luisa walked inside and thought about putting the money back in the freezer.

Before falling asleep, she remembered she still had her make up on.

She could feel it on her skin.

Michael McCanne is an editor at Lightful Press (lightfulpress.com). He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

Advertisements