Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The fog might be lighter today. I tell Sonia this, and she smiles. It might, she says, and pours more coffee, that which resembles coffee, as the ocean resembles the ocean—briny expanse, crashing waves. Dirty peach foam, vaguely magenta in the deep end.

From the terrace we watch the foam suck at the crumbling rock wall. It used to rise to some kind of outdoor stage but is now being slowly consumed by whatever is slowly consuming things here: God, salt, alpha particles. Fog begins the daily routine of melting the gray mountains in the distance, swallows scorched palm trees and thatched umbrellas.

Nobody tells you how boring the apocalypse is. The gray, flat waiting.  

Actually, this is the first time Sonia has talked to me since three days ago, when I heard her searching for a frequency on the CB. I commandeered a walkie-talkie down the hall and intercepted the signal. I thought we both could use a laugh. 

“Hello,” I said; relying on the static, I dropped my voice an octave. “Hello, searching for signs of life. Come in, is anyone out there?”

Immediately I was sorry for the excitement in her voice, which has since echoed against her punitive silence, while I contemplate whether I’ve ever been able to elicit such a tone, such tremor and hum.

“Hello? Oh my gosh, hello. I’m here. Who is this?”

My first urge was to hang it up—a prank call, wrong number. But then she spoke again: “Hello? Are you still there? Oh please, please come in.” Two walls away I knew the hopeful angle of her chin as she grasped her neck with one hand, reassured herself of the blood still pumping, bright chapped lips parted—a sexual, scientific mouth—breathing all that hope for a person not me.     

“It’s your loving husband,” I responded in my real voice. “I just wanted to know what you’d like for dinner—kidney beans and peas, or refried beans, and we have one more can of pineapple?”          

Static: bodies at rest, electrical disturbances. What rattles in your chest, alone at the end of the world.

Today, though, all might be forgiven. She hums to the Billy Ocean song playing over the sound system, sad songs to make you cry: We are cowards for silence. I close my eyes and over the ocean, under Ocean, the can opener creaks; I imagine slow-roasted veal shanks with mint chutney and creamy mashed potatoes, gobs of garlic and butter. Sonia tells me this only makes it worse, that fantasy will be my undoing, but I believe it good exercise—hope strengthening.

In her former life, Sonia studied rock formations, the aftermath of geological events. She was finishing her postdoc at the University of Colorado when we met at the Grand Canyon. I was a poet trying to make small talk about erosion. We stayed up all night under the bright chaos of stars, and while she spoke of lava flows and the silver iridium scabs left by asteroids, the cracking and pouring and stretching that dictates where and how we live, I tumbled into love.  

It’s coming, she said. Great stores of carbon in the Arctic released. It’s already happening. Permafrost isn’t so permanent after all.

Yes, but the whales, I said. They’re still singing.

Soon the whole ocean will fizz like champagne. The world changes only very slowly, except when it doesn’t.

We will destroy ourselves before the earth even has a chance.

It’s not an either/or.   

When I open my eyes, Sonia is grinning at me over a can of tuna. Actual tuna—the crinkle of brown paper bags, soft white bread. Blue sky and endless chlorine Sundays.  

“Where did you—?”

Though it’s the middle of the day, Sonia has lit a candle, is pulling the cork through a bottle of wine—one thing we will likely never run out of, the cellar of the old resort packed to the gills with bottles.

I lift my eyebrows. “In the afternoon?”

She pours the wine into two glasses, bright as blood, holds her glass up.

“To us,” she says, smiling like the devil.

“What’s the special occasion?”

The next and only other CD clicks on, calypso beats that again for a brief moment fool me into thinking we’re still on our honeymoon about to drink piña colada out of a pineapple, ask the waiter for more bread.

“I have some news,” she says. Those words used to have another connotation, once. She couldn’t possibly mean. I study her for flush, but she doesn’t look any different. Besides a slight hollow to her clavicle, a few new shadows, she is ravishing, tall and slender as an ibis, her hair now Rapunzel-long, kinked with salt.          

“And what news is that, my dear?”

“Not yet.” She cuts a small piece of pinkish gray fish and puts it in her mouth, closes her eyes with pleasure.

What could it be? I love secrets. There have been so few. Or rather, everything is enshrouded here, little room for manageable mysteries. Even so, sometimes I think this is the best thing that could have happened to us, that we missed a bullet, so to speak, avoided having to live in that other world, the one with corruption and bigotry and cat videos. Though there are few creature comforts here, no creatures whatsoever, it is our world. Every day we wake up survivors, our identity constant as the fog. There is only one thing missing, besides food (I miss cheese). The thing we don’t talk about.

“Scrabble or bridge?” I ask.


“Take a dip later?” I ask.

“You really shouldn’t swim in that.”

I roll the tuna around in my mouth. Neural firing, windowless rooms full of addicts, starving artists, smug conspiracy theorists: everyone clapping for a bit of canned fish.      

She hasn’t touched the wine since that first sip. I am paying attention. She glows. A discernible light pulses from within, her eyes clear and bright.

We’ll have to be so careful, I think. We both had just assumed it would never be possible, the toxins and radioactive particles and God knows what else floating and swimming and seeping into everything. But life thrives. Given a chance, it beats the odds. I remember once an image on the news of small, yellow buds pushing up—sunflowers planted at Chernobyl, soaking up the radioisotopes in the soil, both hope and remedy.

I imagine a child running around the pool, laughing, carrying out some silly game he invented. We would find a way to clean it. Or fill it with something else—how would he know?—Jell-O. He wouldn’t miss hummingbirds or the glittering afterpath of a slug on a sidewalk. Always it will have been magenta waves and ashy fog.

Maybe we’ll have more children after that. Repopulate the earth. No wars or disregard for life, filled with an appreciation for the way ash corrupts limestone, the vocabulary with which to sing it. I would take charge. I would do what needed to be done. Fatherhood would cure me of ineptitude and the vice of daydream.             

Sonia was pregnant once before. We’d been dating a short time. Sonia’s career was just starting to take off; my book was almost finished. I went with her to the appointment, sat beside her as she filled out the forms. The nurse called her name, and she didn’t look at me, just let go of my hand and followed the woman beyond the door. While I waited, I did the New York Times crossword. It was a Tuesday, so the solution was still within my capability. I should have been able to finish it in a half- hour. But there were several clues that eluded me; I circled like a hawk, hoping to surprise them from different angles, but they remained stubborn riddles with missing words. I tried not to think about what was happening behind that door, though now the image of Sonia, pale in a white gown, staring up at cloud-painted ceiling tiles, is spliced with ten blank squares.

When she came back out, she looked dazed but intact. I didn’t know what to say. She was holding a small, powder-blue plastic bag. I tried to take it from her, but she wouldn’t let me. That night, she cried in my arms. I felt sad and protective and, I admit now, also relieved and grateful—wrapping my arms around her, I was able to provide concrete comfort, and it was over. Our lives could go on as they had been.

“What’s your news?” I take another bite of tuna, a sip of wine. “I’m dying to know.”

“Just wait.”

“Then dance with me?” She takes my hand, presses her angles against my angles, hipbones and shoulders moving to a private beat outside the calypso. I wrap my arms around her, vibration beneath her skin. I imagine a life curled within, a small bean. A compact, dazzling seed of energy, unfurling the next Big Bang. I twirl her, the fabric of her dress a loose pale cotton that somehow always looks clean, the outline of her strong body glimpsed through the fabric, and I think: stay in this moment.

Then she is behind me, sliding her hands beneath my shirt, and then up to cover my eyes, a game we used to play.

“What were you just seeing?”

I smile, her hands dry and warm on my cheeks. “The most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

“No. After that. When I moved behind you. What was in front of you?”

“The terrace. Umbrellas. Petrified bird shit.”

“You weren’t looking.” Her hands are sweaty, and I am a little tired of this game. I try to lift her fingers from my eyes, but she presses them tighter.

“Sonia. Enough now.”

“Are you ready?”

She lifts her fingers, and the world blinks into existence again: the tables and chairs, the umbrellas, shapes behind the fog. And a bird. Sitting perfectly still atop an umbrella—a seagull, white with light-gray wings, bright yellow beak and discerning, scheming beady eyes.

“Can you believe it?” she asks. “I tried to track him yesterday, but he flew over the inlet and I lost him. He can’t be the only one, the only life—they’re scavengers.”    

Before I have a chance to say anything, the seagull opens its wings and screeches and is off, disappearing into the fog. Sonia stands in front of me and holds out her hand.

I’m tired. I close my eyes and see seagulls at the shore every summer of my childhood diving for french fries and hamburger buns, cutting their shrill song against the crashing waves. A kiss under a pier, cool sand, saltwater taffy, and ketchup. Gardenias on a summer night, bonfire smoke as the night sea sings hamartia and a bottle of cheap whiskey is passed, clothes shed before running into the water, stars promises from an honest and generous god as the waves crash into and around us like gentle bombs.

As a teenager, I used to pick locks. Houses, cars, whatever looked like it might not have an alarm system. It was the give of each pin I was after, that soft click of release.  A handful of wood and metal—the barriers are so much more permeable than anyone ever imagined.

Sonia tugs at my hand. There are rooms upon rooms. There are pictures on the wall. Knick-knacks, dishes in the sink, shoes in the middle of the floor and always a smell: French toast, sweat, plaster, paint, skin, mold. Sonia tugs at my hand, but I am a rock, a boulder, a wall that will eventually, through no will of my own, crumble into the sea. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014