Chapter 1: Act I: The Flight of Swans
Start at the beginning. You are six years old and your father is dead and your mother is dying. This is your first real memory. Your father didn’t get a proper burial, just tossed into the pyre where they throw all plague victims. Rotten bodies have already poisoned the water supply, they must burn them now. It’s the only way. The pyre burns higher every night. Your mother will be next, but you’re too small to carry her. Instead, she’ll decay here. But you’re too young to know that. You won’t understand until you meet the missionary and he asks you to tell him everything. But that’s later. Now your mother is still alive, barely, and lying on the dirt floor of the one room den you call home, wheezing away with her death rattle. The fire is just embers, only faintly glowing. That’s what you remember most of all; the fire dying as your mother died. Bright to dim, bright to dim. Neither could keep you warm. Your mother used to cradle you to her breast when the fire went out. Now when you get close, she tells you, No, No, I will make you sick. Go to bed, go to bed.
You go to bed. You wake up before morning, when the world is darkest. You know she is dead before you see she is dead. You learned the scent of death before you learned anything else. She is dead like the fire is dead and you crawl into her stiff arms and wait for warmth. Something is better than nothing. Warmth does not come, so instead you wait for the plague, but that does not come, either.
You were never a lucky one.
That’s too far back. Start later. You’re still young and on spring break and have been stuck in traffic for half an hour. You’re headed to the coast, everyone’s headed to the coast. A bad accident on I-5, too. It’s 90 and growing hotter and you have at least another hour here, maybe two. Your air conditioning is broken and has been since the beginning of summer. You were never one for the heat. There is no air conditioning in the Terminals—there isn’t even an Ura word for it. Your wife sits in the passenger seat, but this is before she was your wife. This was before she was even your fiancée. This was when she was just your girlfriend. Your girlfriend sits in the passenger seat and sings along to every radio song. She has her feet on the dashboard and floral-rimmed sunglasses and this is when you first fall in love. It is not really the first time, but it is the first time you realize it. You have always been in love with her. You have been in love with her since the moment you met. Sometimes it just takes a while for things to sink in.
Do you think we’ll make it to the beach before sundown? she asks, without sounding particularly worried. She was always a calm one, calmer than you.
We’ll get there in time, you say. ‘In time’ is a relative term. You say, We can watch the sunset.
What you really want to do is have sex on the beach and then watch the sunset, but you don’t say that. That would be uncouth. You’re still young enough to think with your dick most of the time. Not all of the time, but most of the time. This is back when sex is love and not loneliness. Instead you put your hand on your knee and she lets you and that’s good enough.
Traffic passes after an hour and a half, but the beaches are full of tourists and children, so you keep driving. You want just a little aloneness, just you and her and the waves and the sand. You only want that a little bit so you can have sex with her. What you want most is to have a good time with her, for her to have a good time, in the sand and the water and becoming very sunburned. It is not so much to ask. But you don’t find it. Instead you find a cliff overlooking a beach. It’s close enough. You watch the sunset with her and you don’t have sex but that’s alright. Just being with her is all you need. You love her so, so much.
That’s too far back, too. Jump to present. That memory is too precious—you can’t think of it too much or it will fade away, like everything else has. Now you’re old and live in a shitty two-bedroom and have a job you hate and an alcoholic for a roommate. His name is Kid, which is stupid. It’s not his real name, but you don’t care what his real name is. If he goes by ‘Kid,’ it must be even worse. This is a childish thing to think but maybe you are a little childish. Maybe you have been an adult for too long and will allow yourself to be a little childish. He’s a Mason-turned-college-student and spends more time drinking than studying. But then again, so do most college students. So did you, but only sometimes. You had scholarships to maintain. You were over that phase by college. He’s an idiot who is always late on rent and never cleans the kitchen, but he looks as if he’s carved from boulder and takes dick like a champ, so it evens out. If he wasn’t such a buffoon, you might love him.
But that would require you being able to still love.
You’ve taken all the batteries out of the smoke detectors and you sit and smoke in the kitchen. You’re tired of going outside to smoke. People always try to interact with you, which is terrible. They only give you pity and you are tired of pity. You’re on your third cup of coffee and your fifth cigarette. The Kid comes into the kitchen in only his boxers. It is not such a bad look.
Mornin’, he says.
You say nothing. It’s two in the afternoon, which is not morning, which is not the time at which functional adults wake up. You’re not even functional and you manage to do it. He works days and takes night classes, but Sunday is his free day, so he sleeps it away. What a waste. You keep smoking and he cooks eggs. He always cooks eggs. You are fairly certain that’s the only thing he knows how to cook. Shouldn’t smoke in here, he says. He opens a window. Makes everything smell bad.
Again, you say nothing. He finishes cooking and gives you a plate. He always gives you a plate, even though you don’t ask for it. All you ever ask of him is the rent and for him to clean and sometimes sexual favors, the last of which is the only thing he likes to do. You keep smoking and don’t touch your eggs.
Don’t eat enough, he says. He pours hot sauce on his. He pours a lot of hot sauce on his. You’ll feel better, he says.
You subsist mostly on coffee and cigarettes. He might be right. It doesn’t matter. You smoke a little more of your cigarette and put it out. You eat your eggs. He smiles and you hate him. What an oaf. What a stupid, stupid oaf.
At least he’s nice to look at.
You wake up in the morning. You shower. You brush your teeth. You smoke a cigarette.
You miss your wife.
You’re smoking outside because the Kid put the batteries back in the smoke alarms and you’re thinking about your wife again, but ‘again’ implies you ever stopped. It’s been long enough to move on, some would say. Maybe you don’t want to move on. Maybe you never, ever want to move on. It wasn’t fair, and you think that like anything is fair.
You think that like anything else that has happened in your life was fair.
It was winter and she was driving. She hit an icy patch and spun out of control and landed in a ditch. Decapitation, the coroner said. Instantaneous. No pain. Best way to go, considering the circumstances, the coroner said.
It was supposed to make you feel better. It did not.
You had a closed casket funeral. Her parents had a closed casket funeral. You didn’t do anything. You went and everyone told you what a tragedy it was and then you left. Pity is so tiring. It’s so empty. The pity is never for you—they feel bad that you feel bad. They want to stop feeling bad. So they pity you. It’s alwaus about them, it’s never about you. It was the same way when the missionary died. Everyone told you how very tragic it was, he was a good man, he died too soon. Only your wife didn’t pity you. She kissed your cheek and stroked your hair and let you cry. She did not steal your grief and make it her own.
You miss your wife so, so much.
You smoke another cigarette. You take a break from thinking about your wife to thinking about cigarettes. Even you need a break from melodrama sometimes. You’re nearly finished with this carton; you’ll need another soon. Maybe you should go back to rolling your own. It was cheaper. But it’s easier to buy that which is prepackaged. You could also smoke less, but that’s not an option you’d consider. They make you feel a little less miserable. You’re still thinking about cigarettes when the Kid’s girlfriend comes up.
Hi, she says.
A car accident is the most absurd way to die, you say.
Okay, she says, and she goes inside.
The Kid’s girlfriend is an Ura girl named Zia. You wonder if the Kid has a “feeder fever” thing going on. It’s big on college campuses. Maybe there are some things better left unknown. But Zia is young and pretty and has big, dark eyes. They are very beautiful. You’re not sure if you’re allowed to think that. She also has a look of perpetual sadness, but maybe that's just Ura diaspora. She knows you’re sleeping with the Kid and she's fine with it. Apparently it's a young person thing, to date but sleep around and have everyone be okay with it. You wonder if you would do that if you were still a young person. You’ve had a few lovers, but you never slept around. Not until the Kid, anyway. You wouldn’t want anyone else touching your wife, either. And it sounds so tiring, so dramatic. Young person sex is so much work. You don't have the energy for that anymore, but these days you have energy for little. You don’t do anything anymore.
But sometimes Zia invites you to do things. Come to a movie with us, she'll say. Or a concert, or a Sunday in the park. Once she invited you to one of her recitals. Her invites are not so sincere; she offers them to be nice. But the recital invite was sincere and she looked so sad you almost felt bad. Almost, because these days you don't feel much of anything. But you were just another man in her life disappointing her, like her father disappoints her, like every other man for the rest of her life will disappoint her. But she has the Kid, who would do anything she asked, and then some. He is something, which is better than nothing. Anything is better than nothing.
We're goin' out, the Kid says to you one night. Zia is there and his arm is around her like his arm is always around her. Waist, because he is not tall enough for her shoulder. You should come with us.
The Kid is not so insincere; he is too stupid to have false intentions. But it is not your place to go. They go out and get drunk and come back and have loud sex. This is their Saturday night routine. This is also how you first met Zia; you came home from buying cigarettes and the Kid was on his back and Zia was on top and they were having sex in the middle of the living room. They did not stop when you walked in. You went to your room and you smoked your cigarettes and thought about Zia's breasts before you knew she was Zia. You've caught them like that many times since then. They still don't stop when you walk in. You still think about Zia's breasts. You wonder if you could have sex with her, too. But that is not drama you in which want to get involved. Sleeping with the Kid is involvement enough.
You get more involved. You tell the Kid no and go to your room and smoke until you fall asleep. They go out and come home and have loud sex. You mostly sleep through it. It's routine by now. But you do not sleep through everything; when it is both too early and too late you hear the shower going. It is before morning, when the world is darkest. Sometimes they have sex in the shower, too. A dark part of you hopes they slip and fall and die and you never have to hear them have sex again. But that's mean, even for you. Instead the shower shuts off too soon for sex. Quiet. Your door clicks open and Zia is there, naked and wet and beautiful. You try to look at her face but instead you look at her breasts. They are very nice breasts.
You're in the wrong room, you say. She crawls into your bed. Kid's room is down the hall.
I know, she says, and her words are slurred. Still drunk. She takes off your blanket and then she takes off your pants. You have an erection you don't want. You have an erection you're not entirely sure you want. You have an erection you shouldn’t want.
Now is the time to send her away and maybe masturbate and go back to bed. Zia and the Kid's sex arrangement is nebulous at best, and you're too involved already. You can have sex with the Kid, but you don't know about her, and you're not ready to explore that area. Send her away and masturbate and go to bed. Do the right thing.
Instead you say, Okay, and she sucks your cock.
Afterwards she kisses your cheek. Goodnight, she says, and stumbles off to the Kid's room.
Goodnight, you say, but she is already gone.
Jump back to you wife. You quit smoking before you two were married. She wanted you to; a bad habit, she said. Bad for your health, she said. She said she wanted you around as long as possible. Smoking is frowned upon in Caelondia. It's smells bad, it tastes bad, it's bad, it's bad. Things are different in the Terminals; everyone smokes. You started when you were fourteen. Cigarettes are cheap and rolling tobacco even cheaper. The missionary smoked too, but only from his pipe. You started quitting when she was your girlfriend and finished quitting when she was your wife. She was always supportive, never shaming. You'll quit when you're ready, she said. It'll come in time. I know you can do it.
You started again after the funeral. Maybe it'd be better to have stayed smoke free. Honor her wish in death. But everyone you love is dead, so what’s the what the point? You have no false conceptions about the realities of cancer but by the Gods it beats living.
Take a breath. Smoke another cigarette. You're feeling again and you're not ready for that, not yet. Being numb isn't so bad. Just detachedly watch the world go by. Move through life like it's a dream. One day you'll wake up next to your wife and everything will go back to normal. You will tell her about this terrible dream and she will say, That sounds so awful, and kiss you. Everything will be how it was and things will be okay.
Smoke another cigarette. Don't cry. Cry. Smoke another cigarette. Sleep away the day. It beats living.
Think about something different. Think about your father. The missionary, not your birth father. You don't remember anything about your birth father. Almost nothing, anyway. You still remember his death. But the missionary is your father, your real father. He made you what you once were: polite, kind, well-read. He taught you manners and philosophy and self-restraint. He was a man of Micia; he came to the Terminals to spread the good word and live among like-minded people. He planned to spend the rest of his life in the Terminals, too. But his visa expired, and he couldn’t renew. The borders were closing again, and Caels were required to leave. So he took you and came back to Caelondia to try and spread the good word there. The people of Caelondia lost their way, he would say. Those in the Terminals knew to revere and fear the Gods. Caels have taken the wayward path.
Our Mother gives and takes, he would tell you. She took his lover and gave him you. Everything works out in the end, he would say. Believe and you will be guided.
The Mother took you parents and gave you your father. Then She took your father and gave you your wife. Now your wife is dead and everyone you love is dead and you wish you were dead. She takes, and She takes, and She takes, until there is nothing left. Now there is nothing left to take except yourself, but you were never a lucky one.
(Jump to the future. What do you see? You are alone in an apartment but more alone than ever. Empty cigarette packs, empty cigarette cartons. Empty beer bottles and orange juice bottles. The Mother takes more. But that's enough of that. Back to the present.)
You're at work and you hate it like everyone hates it. You go outside for a cigarette break. Your coworkers are there, talking and smoking. They don't talk to you and you don't talk to them. They finish their cigarettes and go inside. You finish your cigarette and go inside. You try to remember what it's like to have friends. You can't. You try to care. You can't.
Before this job, you were a diplomat. That was your life’s dream; to work to bring the Cael and Ura people together, to stop the fighting. Uras and Caels were not so different, you felt. They could move past their history. This was back when the borders were open. Caelondia opened them for a few years, as a way of peace. There was not so much animosity. But then there was fear of spies, and the borders closed again. You were out of a job. This was only a few months after your wife died. In truth, it was not so bad. You ran out of love for your job. All your coworkers did was pity you. Look at the poor Ura man, his family dead, his wife dead. How very tragic. You’re so tired of pity. Now you work in and office and it’s terrible, but no one pities you. Everyone just ignores you.
Maybe it's not so bad to be alone.
You are not alone for long. You come from work and go to your room and Zia and the Kid are there. They are sleeping in your bed. They are naked and the room smells of sex. You wonder which one of them you should smother first.
Zia wakes up first. She stretches out and she is beautiful. You try to look at her face but instead you look at her breasts. They are very nice breasts. She tries to shake the Kid awake, but it doesn't work. He could sleep through the end of the world.
Hi, she says. You don't say anything. She crawls over and undoes your belt. Can I?
You don't say no. She undresses you and rides you hard. She is so, so beautiful above you. The Kid wakes and joins in. The three of you have sex until the early morning light filters in through your window. Zia lies on her back, legs open, spilling onto your bed and staining your sheets. You should mind, but you do not. The Kid isn't finished and he goes until it hurts. Hurts in a good way, hurts in a way you like. Hurts in a way it hasn’t hurt in a long time.
You don’t go to work. You don’t smoke a cigarette. You stay in bed with them all day. After that, they stay in your bed a lot. Your bed is not big enough for the three of you, but you make it work. It is strange to share a bed again. You’re not sure if you like it. You’re not sure if you dislike it. At the very least, it is could be worse.
You wonder how your wife would feel about this. You wonder how your wife would feel about this, but not as much as you should. You think of her less than you used to. You should feel bad about that. Instead you sometimes kiss the Kid when he’s standing in the kitchen in his boxers. You don’t know if you’re allowed to do that, but you do it anyway. You are becoming more involved in their arrangement than you ever imagined. Sometimes you think, maybe you could get used to this.
You come home from work one night and Zia and the Kid are fighting. They are both drunk. They are both crying. We had an agreement, Zia says. We were open.
Not like that! the Kid yells. That wasn’t part of the agreement!
What about Zulf?
He doesn’t count! He’s always been a part of this!
You don’t think you want to be a part of this.
Zia runs out. The Kid chases after her but she’s already gone. He sits on the ground and weeps into his hands. You bring him a beer and a cigarette and together you smoke and drink away the rest of the night. You try to have sex. You’re halfway through a blowjob when he tells you to stop and goes to bed. You go to bed. Separate beds. It’s been a long time since you’ve slept in a bed alone and it feels wrong.
You miss your wife.
Zia is gone for a long time after that. The Kid is drunk for long time after that. But he's always drunk. You? You're the same. Smoking and working and smoking and working. Less sex and more masturbation. But you've grown tired of your own hand and now you just think about your wife. You never would have become involved with Zia and the Kid if she was still here. You wouldn't even know them. A drama-free life with your wife. Back to waking up with her in your arms, back to cooking her breakfast in the morning, back to weekend outings to the coast. Dinner parties with friends. Trips to art galleries. A life of refinement and culture and not getting drunk and fucking just to feel something. More than just smoking and sinking into a swamp of numbed hatred.
You think of your wife and masturbate just to feel but you all you feel is tired.
You're smoking outside for once because the Kid's been on your ass about it. You're smoking outside and then Zia comes up. The Kid is inside, you say. Maybe they'll make up and the Kid will stop drinking and crying and everything will go back to how it used to be. You don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
I'm not here to see him, she says. She doesn't say anything after that. You don't say anything after that. You finish your cigarette and are about to smoke another and then Zia speaks again.
I'm pregnant, she says. And I don't know who the father is.
Oh, you say. You take out another cigarette. I should probably go inside to smoke, then.
You go inside. You hear her cry through the door. You smoke until it hurts, and then you smoke some more.
Chapter 2: By a Lake
You used to miss silence. You used to wish Zia and the Kid wouldn't stay up so late talking and drinking and having sex. All you wanted was quiet. Before the Kid moved in, before he started dating Zia, you lived in complete silence. Nothing louder than the strike of a match or the whirring of the coffee machine. You would go days without speaking a word. And then they came, and they laughed and cheered and played loud music. Do you miss that? No. All you miss is your wife. But you almost miss it, in the way you almost miss them.
The Kid wants a test. He says he can't afford to be a father, but really, who can. So you get a test done. You all go to a clinic and don't talk to each other. You used to miss silence. You used to wish Zia and the Kid wouldn't stay up so late talking and drinking and having sex. All you wanted was quiet. Before the Kid moved in, before he started dating Zia, you lived in complete silence. Nothing louder than the strike of a match or the whirring of the coffee machine. You would go days without speaking a word. And then they came, and they laughed and cheered and played loud music. Do you miss that? No. All you miss is your wife. But you almost miss it, in the way you almost miss them.
You go home. That night the Kid comes into your room. He kisses you and he does not taste of booze. You almost say something but then you do not. Words can come later. Instead you let him learn your body. You learned the Kid's body long ago; he was too inexperienced to know to hide himself. Keep some secrets. You were his first; Zia was the second. He was eager and able and you learned everything he liked. He has never been difficult to please. The first time, he didn’t even know for what to ask. He didn’t know how to ask. All he knew was he wanted to touch and be touched. You taught him a lot that first time. Maybe he taught you a little, too.
You keep secrets because you are smart enough to keep secrets. He doesn't have to know everything, every like and dislike and reaction. But tonight he learns them, he learns things even your wife didn't know. He learns things you never meant to share. He learns things that surprise you about yourself Afterwards he holds you and kisses you in a way that says love but he is not kissing you. He is kissing you as Zia and you are kissing him as your wife.
You miss your wife so, so much.
He holds you and you want him to let go. You want to be alone. You want to sleep alone. You want to sleep alone and bite off your own tongue and choke to death in the night. But that's dramatic, even for you. Instead you lie there and the Kid holds you and you think about your wife. You think about Zia. You think about nothing. You fall asleep and dream of drowning. You dream of being buried alive. You wake and you're still alive.
You were never a lucky one.
The results come back. You are the father. The Kid goes out to drink. Maybe to celebrate, maybe to ruminate. Maybe just because he drinks too much. Zia tells you in a voice message and not to your face. Maybe that's for the best.
Your wife was pregnant when she died. She didn't tell you; you found the pregnancy test. This was a few months after she died. You found the test in the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink, behind a half-empty shampoo bottle. Her half-empty shampoo bottle. The night she died she said she had something to tell you. A surprise, she said. You asked if it was a good surprise. She laughed and said, Yes, I think so.
You call Zia back. You leave a you message. You tell her you'll take care of the child. You tell her you'll pay for doctor's visits and prenatal care. When the baby (the, the, the) gets older you'll pay for daycare and preschool. She doesn't need to worry about that. The child will be supported completely.
She calls back an hour later. You don't answer. She calls back a lot. When she's stopped calling you listen to the voicemails. The first is her calling you a lot of nasty names. That is not undeserved. The last is her calling you more nasty names and also crying. She says you're callous and incapable of love and you'd make a terrible father anyway. She tells you where you can shove your money. She says she never wants to see you again and the message ends.
You light up a cigarette. You try to feel. Everything is so fuzzy and distant. You smoke your cigarette and you watch yourself smoke your cigarette and everything is so far, far away. You're a balloon, floating higher and higher, floating out of the atmosphere and into space. You look at your hands and no matter how you move them, they never look right. To be chained to a life of loneliness is not so bad. It has been that way many times in your life. You always survive. This will be no different. You will keep going. You will keep going and one day you will die and be free of all this. One day you will be free.
You find yourself crying and you can't figure out why.
Not everything goes as expected. You do see Zia again. She comes to your door one night with her bags packed. I told my father I was pregnant, she says. He kicked me out.
You move aside. She walks in. She looks sad in a way she hasn't before. She has always looked sad, in the way all Caelondian Ura look sad. She knows nothing of her culture, like most of those Caelondia-born. You'll be better off not knowing, their parents say. Become like a Cael and forget your past. Culture and customs are dying. Zia doesn't even know her own language. Maybe you could teach her. Maybe you could teach your child, too. No child of yours will be separated from their heritage.
Your child. Switch to the child. Distance yourself, make it easy. The, the, the. Focus back on Zia. She looks like she might cry again, so you kiss her. That's not the proper solution, but you don't know what else to do. She kisses you back. You have sex with her on the couch. This the couch you told the Kid he could never have sex on, because it is your couch. He could have sex with Zia anywhere else but this couch. You bought this couch and it is yours. You had sex with your wife on this couch. This is a special couch. And now you are having sex with Zia on it and thinking about Zia and not your wife.
When was the last time you thought about your wife?
Zia says she'll only stay for a few days. She stays a lot longer than a few days. She moves grin the couch to your bedroom. She shares your bed with you. You try not to have loud sex but sometimes you do anyway. You wait for the Kid to murder you in your sleep, but he does not. Instead, he avoids you and Zia completely. He works more and studies harder. The only hint of his existence is empty beer bottles and dirty plates in the sink. Sometimes you see him in his room through his cracked open door, drinking and reading a book. You want to talk to him but he doesn't want to talk to you, so you don’t.
Sometimes you wonder if you should leave so things could go back to the way they were, with Zia and the Kid being together and in love, but things will never go back to the way they were, so you don't.
It's only about a month into her pregnancy when Zia drops out of university. Her headaches make it hard to study and her morning sickness makes her miss morning classes. Constant fatigue and hunger exhaust her. She was senior. She majored in business and financing because her father wanted it. She wanted music and art history. Her father said if she wanted him to pay for university, she would get a respectable degree. No sense in throwing away money on something useless. Music and art was something for leisure, not career. A lot of Ura from his generation are like that. The plague started in his time, after all. When death looms, there is no time for pleasure. One must be austere about these things.
You wonder if he was as stringent in his love for her as he was with everything else.
But University is actually how Zia met the Kid; they had intro to 20th century Caelondian literature together. They bonded over an interest in the homoeroticism of female Cael authors in the 20s. You must your wife in college, too, but in a linguistics class. You both thought the professor was an idiot and found his analysis of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to be lacking. What kind of fool believes so strongly in strong determinism?
Oh, to be young and in love.
Zia is very mad about dropping out of college. She says it's your fault, which is only mostly true. It is also her fault, but now is not the time to say that. You are the easiest thing at which to be mad. You wait until she is done yelling. She cries and you pet her hair and she kisses you. You kiss her back. She takes off her shirt. When was the last time something was solved without sex? You think about telling her no. You think about ending a conflict without a desperate touch. You think about how very lonely you are and have sex with her on the couch. The Kid walks in. You don't stop. He walks right past to his room and doesn't even slam the door.
The Kid has been stealing cigarettes from your room. Your carton is nearly empty and you haven't been smoking much these days. It wouldn't do well to smoke in front of your child. You have stopped thinking 'the child' these days. A dangerous route to go down. You don't know if that's good or bad.
The Kid used to not smoke. He would sometimes bum a cigarette from you, but that was it. Now you can smell the smoke coming out from underneath his bedroom door most days. We all cope somehow. But it is not what you want for him. What you want is to say, 'Sorry I stole your girlfriend and got her pregnant', but that is not entirely true. What you want is for things to go back to how they used to be, where sometimes you slept with the Kid and that was it, but that is also not entirely true. What you want is to go back to the very beginning when your wife was alive and everything was good, but you are not sure how entirely true that is.
What you want is to lie down for a very time and you can say for certain that that is entirely true.
You find the Kid chain smoking outside at three in morning. He looks tired and cried out like you all are. I don't know what to do anymore, he says. I don't know what's happening.
You take his hand and lead him to your bedroom. Zia is asleep but wakes up when he enters. She makes room for him on the bed. You undress him and he doesn't protest. You take him to the bed and you and Zia hold him and he holds the both of you. He begins to cry and you and Zia kiss away every tear that falls.
It is hard to tell if this is good or bad.
Think about your wife. It's been a long time. Think about your father. It's been a long time. He was still alive when you first started dating your wife. He liked her. He said she was a good woman with good morals even though she wasn't religious. She went to Temple with the two of you on Saturdays and said grace with your father at dinner. She was always respectful of your views. This was back when you worshipped Micia and still had faith in the Gods. The old days, where everything could be answered with a prayer.
But your father liked your girlfriend and your girlfriend liked your father. She thought he was funny and liked his rambling stories. Your father told you to marry her. He said she was special, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of woman. Don't let her go.
Your father was there for the engagement but didn't make it to the wedding. A heart attack in his sleep. Your father was old and liked good tobacco and good food. The Gods will take me when They want, he used to say, and They did. The coroner called it peaceful. Said it was the best way he could have gone.
It was supposed to make you feel better. It did not.
Back to real life. Thinking about your past just makes you tired. Most things make you tired, but especially that. Think about Zia. Don't think about Zia. Think about Zia and pretend you're thinking about your wife. Zia grows rounder by the day. She glows, she's beautiful. You don't think you've ever seen anyone so beautiful in your life. You want to tell her this about you do not know how.
Zia does not like the pregnancy as much as you. She complains of nausea and an aching back and tender breasts. None of her clothes fit and maternity clothes are ugly. She says she wishes you had gotten pregnant instead. She says you are the lucky one, which is true on many accounts. So you massage her back and breasts and hold back her hair when she vomits. You buy her new clothes, ones nicer than you can afford. You do everything you can to make it manageable.
You do it all because you love her. This is a new thought. Or maybe it is not so new. Maybe it's been like this the whole time. Sometimes it takes you a while to realize these things. You consider telling her. Maybe you shouldn't. Maybe you should leave things nebulous and uncertain. Maybe it would be easier that way.
Jump back to telling your wife you loved her. No, jump further back. Jump back to your first love. You are sixteen and he is seventeen. He is beautiful, almost effeminate, with dark eyes and braided hair. You love him as much as a teenager could love someone else. Which is not much, really, but it's something. Most of what you do with him is trespass and smoke cigarettes and talk teenage philosophy. Eventually trespassing turns into graffiti. You get arrested a few times. Your father breaks you out of jail every time and says he loves you no matter what. He calls it a phase and says he’ll support you through it. It will pass soon, he says.
Your boyfriend starts breaking into cars. He says you should do it, too. You almost do, but you think about your father and you say no. Your boyfriend calls you a baby and breaks up with you immediately. You go home and cry for a week. Your father tells you he is so, so proud of you. You made the right decision, he says. A moral choice is its own reward. You’ll understand someday, he says. This will all make sense when you’re older.
Did it make sense? Not really. But you did make the right choice, and that counts for something.
Jump forward to your wife before she's your wife. You've had another two partners, but that wasn't love. Your wife is love. Your girlfriend is love. You fall in love with her six months into your relationship with her. Or maybe earlier, maybe you loved her from the start. These things are hard to tell. But you go to the coast and you're stuck in traffic and you fall in love. How do you tell her you love her? She tells you first. You're cooking dinner for both of you, a traditional Ura stew with plenty of potatoes and meat and earthy spices. Something warm and filling for a cold winter day. She’s watching and she says, I love how you cook.
You laugh. You say, Does that mean you love me?
Yes, she says, and she laughs in a way that says she's serious. You kiss her and you tell her you wanted to tell her first. You had a plan. You were going to take her back to the place you first fell in love. The coast. The cliff overlooking the beach. The sunset. You wanted all that again and you would kiss her and tell her that you love her so, so much.
You can take me there, she says. I'll pretend to be surprised.
You do take her back there. It goes easier this time. No accident, no traffic. A surprisingly sunny day for the time of year. You watch the sunset. You tell her you love her. She kisses you and says she loves you, too. She says she's so happy be with you. You think, By Gods, I'll never be this lucky again.
Were you right? It's hard to tell these days.
You don't go anywhere with Zia because you don't go anywhere with anyone. So instead you stay in. Make her breakfast. Pancakes with butter and syrup and pickles, because that's she eats days. She comes out of your room and she's beautiful. Her hair is messy, her eyes are tired, her pajama top is too small to cover her growing stomach.
You fall in love all over again.
She thanks you and eats. You watch her. How do you this? There's no easy way to segue into it. You could tell her this is why you love her, like your wife did, but that would be strange. She's only eating. Do you wait until she’s finished? Do you wait until she’s more awake? You did not think this through near enough.
She looks up at you and says, Is something wrong?
You're staring at her and that's weird. You don't know what to say so you just say, I love you.
She looks back down at her food. She eats a syrup covered pickle. Kid asked me to marry him, she says.
Oh, you say.
Are you going to marry him?
She shrugs. Maybe.
She goes back to eating. You get up and go to your room. You lie face down on your bed and the sheets smell of her. Maybe you cry. Maybe you don't. You fall asleep and dream you died and can finally see everyone you love again.
The Kid is in the kitchen, cooking eggs in his boxers. He looks happy. Have you ever really seen him happy before? He's never seemed unhappy, but never happy, either. Mostly drunk. But he's not drunk much these days. He's stopped smoking, too. So have you. You didn't plan it, and you suspect neither did he. Something about a baby coming has changed the both of you.
You think for the better, but you're not entirely sure.
You go up to the Kid and you mean to say, How are you, or, We need to talk, but instead you say, Why did you ask Zia to marry you?
The Kid keeps cooking his eggs. 'Cause she's my girlfriend, he says. And I love her.
I love her too, you say. Something strange boils within you, something you're not ready to name. I'm the father, you add.
The Kid shrugs. If we get married, doesn't mean you won't be there.
But I want to marry her! you say this in a way that is very loud, louder than to which you're used. You do everything quietly. Closing doors with the softest of clicks, setting down plates with no rattle, silent footsteps wherever you go.
Do you like it? Do you like this eruption of everything trapped inside? You don't remember the last time you yelled, the last time you let it all flow out.
Do you like it? Maybe. But you don't dislike it.
Do you really wanna marry her? he asks. He's still cooking his eggs, he's still looking at the pan and not you.
You don't want to marry Zia. You're not yet ready to give up your wife; you still wear your wedding ring. You don't want a new wife. You want your old wife. You want to have a baby with her, not Zia. You want to have never met either of them and to go back to the way things used to be.
Is that true? Not entirely. Maybe entirely. You don't know anymore.
The Kid is looking at you now and not the pan. What do you say? Do you tell him the truth? Do you even know what the truth is? The truth is you're exhausted and don't know what to do anymore. The truth is you wish you never became involved but you also don't know what you'd do without them. The truth is this is too confusing and has always been too confusing and you're so, so tired.
You don't answer. You grab your coat and go outside. You get in your car. You drive to the coast.
It's not the right season for the coast, but it's better that way. It's better if no one's around. You go to the cliff where you fell in love with your wife, where you told her you loved her, where you proposed to her. Jump back to then. You made her dinner and took her to this spot and she knew you were going to propose. She knew for a long time. The two of you talked about it frequently, after all.
But you took her to that cliff and watched the sunset and you asked her to marry you. She said yes before you even pulled the ring out. You don't revisit this memory often; memories are finite resources. Use one too much and it loses its meaning. You have to ration things. You've been remembering too much recently. You need to slow your pace, step away. If you keep going like this, you'll burn through all of them.
You're back at the cliff and the sun should be setting but you can't see it through the blanket of clouds. What did you hope to accomplish by coming here? You don't know. There's nothing but broken dreams here. Coming here won't give you your wife back. Coming here won't give you her approval. Would she approve of this? Would she want you to move on? What would she say?
She would say you were an idiot, you're pretty sure.
Maybe she'd tell to let her go. You've grieved long enough. Maybe she'd tell you to marry Zia. Maybe she'd tell you to let the Kid marry Zia. You remember her but you've forgotten her. You remember the things you did together and the things she liked but she as a person is fading. Maybe it's better that way. Maybe it's better to move on.
Think about your father. What would he say? The memories of him are not worn quite so thin. He'd tell you to pray to Micia. The Gods will give you guidance, he'd say. But you are past praying, and there is little Micia could do in this situation. What else would he say? He'd tell you to follow your heart. You're a smart boy, he'd say. You know the right thing to do.
Maybe. But that doesn't mean you want to do it.
You go home. The apartment is quiet and dark. It is late, and they are asleep. You go to the room you share with Zia. She is not there. She must be spending the night in Kid's; she does that sometimes. You pull out your suitcase and pack your things. Shirts, pants, toothbrush. Only the necessities. You find a cigarette pack beneath your bed. You threw out all your cigarettes not so long ago. This is just one you've forgotten.
You sit on the bed and pull out a cigarette. You light it. It's as good as you remembered.
Chapter 3: Act III: A Ball at the Castle
Life is blurry after that. In the morning you tell them you're leaving. It will be better this way, you say. You think you might cry, but you don't. Everything feels so fuzzy and distant. You watch yourself speak but it is not you who is speaking, it is someone else inhabiting your body. You’re watching yourself talk to them and it is strange. It is so very, very strange. Zia stomps off to the Kid's room and slams the door. Maybe she is crying, but it’s hard to tell. All you hear is a distant ringing. The Kid says, Don't have to be like this. He says, You can stay with us.
It will be better this way, you say again, and you leave. You stay in a shitty motel until you find a new place. The room is clean enough and you can smoke inside, so it's not so bad. Really, things aren't so bad. They are not ideal, but really, when have they ever been? There have been periods when things have been better. When your father was alive, when your wife was alive. But Micia comes and She takes as She always has. That’s just how things are, you’ve found. It could be worse. You could be dead.
Although maybe that would not be so much worse.
Time passes. Sometimes it is hard to tell how much. You go to work and you smoke cigarettes and everything goes slow, slow, slow. Everything seems so long. You don't keep track of the days anymore. Or the months, or the years. It's like you're moving underwater. It blends together. The only difference between the days is if you’re at work or not. You almost begin to like work. It gives you something to do, at least. On your days off you just smoke and wait for time to pass. Sometimes you try to read a book, but all the words overlap. Most of the time, you just stare up at the ceiling. And it always takes so, so long.
You find a new apartment, a one-bedroom. No more roommates. Roommates only bring trouble. So you live alone and live empty. Empty cigarette packs and cigarette cartons, empty beer bottles and orange juice bottles. Dirty laundry all over your bedroom floor. Cigarette burns in the upholstery. You used to get so mad at the Kid for not cleaning, but now... What's the point? It will just get dirty again.
Not everything is bad. You quit drinking, eventually. It gets to the point where you're drinking like the Kid, all night every night. Beer after beer after beer. You don’t drink hard liquor, so you tell yourself you’re fine. No vodka or gin, no whiskey or rum. Beer is just beer, it’s nothing bad. You don’t drink at work and you don’t drink in the morning. You don’t drink and drive. You don’t go out and do stupid things. You’re fine. Then one day you are at work and you realize you are still drunk. Not from drinking in the morning, but from everything you drank last night. You don’t even know how many beers you drank. So you threw out the rest of your alcohol and you quit.
See, not everything is so bad. Some things are okay.
You don't think about your past much these days. Thinking about your wife or father feels... it feels like nothing. You've used up their memories and now there's nothing left. You knew memories were a finite resource Thinking about Zia or the Kid makes you nauseous. Thinking about your child makes you want to vomit. You can't say your child anymore; you gave up that right. It belongs to Zia and the Kid exclusively now. Zia and the Kid are married now, you're certain. You wondered how long they waited after you left. Did they plan a wedding or just go to the courthouse? Was it an Ura or Cael wedding? Was Zia’s father there?
Does it even matter?
But you survive, somehow. You eat enough to keep going. You sleep when you're not working. One time you smiled. Everything goes on, as it always does. The world does not stop because one man is sad. You survive, because what else can you do? Sometimes you think about not surviving. It wouldn’t be so bad, to cut your time short. Finally have some peace. But that’s so much effort. Even thinking about how to go about it makes you tired. It’s just easier to play out a pathetic existence.
But you still have some things to fill your soul. Sometimes you walk around the park on your lunch break. Sometimes you walk around the park on your lunch break and watch the children play. It is equal parts cathartic and caustic. You should take your child here. Play on the swings and the monkey bars. Just you and your child. You watch the fathers with their sons and daughters. They pick them up and spin them around, carry them on their shoulders. You want to do that. But you've grown thin these days, your arms weak, your face gaunt. You don't think you could lift a child at all. The Kid could. Maybe you don't want to think about that. Maybe you don't want to think about him raising your child.
Maybe you don't want to think about it being his child now.
You are walking and thinking about smoking. But you don't smoke because there are children here. But you think about it. While you are walking and thinking you are not paying attention and something bumps into your legs. You look down and there is a small Ura boy. He looks back up at you with his big, dark eyes and says nothing.
You look into his eyes and you know who he is and you are terrified.
A woman runs up groin behind and calls out to the child, Sweetie, don't run off like that, you could get hurt.
You turn around and there she is. She is more beautiful than you remember, more beautiful than you ever imagined. Gods, if you could still feel something, you'd fall in love all over again.
The child waddles over to her and she scoops him up in her arms. It takes her a little to say anything. You wonder if you can kiss her. That would end badly, but you still wonder.
You look terrible, she says.
You would laugh but you have forgotten how.
She adds: Sorry, I shouldn't— you look fine. Just, just different.
I do look terrible, you say. You almost tell her you love her, but that wouldn't be appropriate. You suppose this is the part where you make pleasantries and then go home. How are you, I'm fine, we should grab coffee sometime. All the things strangers say to each other. All the things that don't matter.
Gods, you want to tell her you love her.
But you don't. The Kid runs up and he still looks handsome and stupid. He looks at Zia and then he looks at you and he pulls you into a hug. A tight hug, the kind of hug only people too stupid to control their strength give.
You're not eating enough, he says. Told you, you gotta eat more.
You think about the last time someone touched you. Not even sex, or a hug. Any touch at all. Just another human being, using their presence to show they care. Or that you exist outside of your own mind, that you’re not just some figment floating through the streets. Someone bumped into you on the street a few months ago. They didn’t say anything, just hurried by. Just reminded you that you have a form. Does that count?
Maybe, but only for people as desperate as you.
You disengage from the Kid. You don't want to but it's the right thing to do. You say, I should be going. You say, I need to get back to work.
Wait. Zia takes your hand in her own and it is soft and warm. We need to— I want to talk to you.
You should insist on leaving. It's the right thing to do. But you don't. You just look at her and hold her hand. You love her so, so much.
Zia turns to the Kid. Will you take him? she asks. She's still holding your hand.
The Kid nods and takes the boy from Zia's arms. Let's go get ice cream, he says, and puts the boy on his shoulders. They walk off and you watch them. The boy watches you back with his big, dark eyes. Let's go back to my place, Zia says.
Okay, you say, but you're still watching (the, their, your) child.
You don't do a lot of talking. It is the old apartment, but better. Decorated. Clean. The living room is a mess of children's books and toys. A half-finished puzzle, a set of over turned blocks. You want to set everything right. Clean it up, make it tidy. Instead Zia leads you to her room. Your room. Your old room. Inside it is very different. Floral sheets and paintings on the wall, her harp guitar on a chair. Back when this was yours, it was just grey sheets and a white mattress.
You're an idiot, she says. She kisses you. You're such a fucking idiot.
She is right on many accounts. But you do not have space to agree with her, because she is kissing you again and kissing you a lot. It has been a very long since you kissed her. Years. She is on the bed with you and she is kissing you and then she is crying. And then you are crying. You are both on the bed and holding each other and crying. It feels so good, to have another's touch. She's so warm, so soft. There is a slight roundness to her belly and you press your hand to it.
How far along are you? you ask.
You’re more jealous than you would like to be. The Kid gets two children with her and you get none. It isn’t fair. It’s your own fault, but it still isn’t fair.
Two months, she says. She puts her hand over yours.
Two months is not so long. She is only beginning her journey into pregnancy. You were
there for the first two months of her pregnancy with the first child. You were there almost the whole time. Which is really not such a long time. But he’s so big; how long have you been gone?
How old is our child? you ask. It's a dangerous term to use, but you have to differentiate now. It's only practical.
And perhaps a bit selfish, but you'll allow yourself this once.
Zia sighs. He's turning three next week, she says.
Oh, you say. I didn't... I didn't realize it had been so long.
You have lost all claim to 'our child'.
She takes your hand. She says, You're an idiot. You really messed up. You just—you just left us and—
Her voice breaks. You squeeze her hand. She takes a breath and continues. But you can come back, she says. We still miss you. We can forgive you.
But do I deserve it? you ask, before you can think better of it.
Zia kisses you and you don't care if you deserve it. You never appreciated how nice it was to kiss her before. You could kiss her forever. You're going to kiss her forever. You're going to kiss her as much as she'll let you. You wonder if this will be the last time. You wonder if when you leave, everything will go back to before. Them with their lives and you with yours. Separate spheres floating by in the universe. Maybe you’ll see them at the park again. Maybe you’ll never see them again.
Would it be better that way? It’s hard to tell.
She stops kissing you and looks at you with those big, brown eyes and says, Zulf, you're going to be a part of your child's life, whether you like it or not.
But what does Kid think? you ask. He did not seem so unhappy to see you, but he is a protective one.
Don't worry about it, she says. He'll be fine with it.
She pulls your head to her breast. Just enjoy something for once, she says. She pets your hair. You close your eyes. There is a feeling rising within you, something warm and glowing. You don't think you've ever felt this good before. You wonder if you'll feel this good again. It is like you were missing something you did not even know you needed. You forget what it's like to be part of a family. Has it always felt like this? It is not so bad. It is not so bad at all.
...I should go home, you say. I'm... I'm very tired.
Stay here, she says. You can go home later.
You say okay. You close your eyes. You think, I could get used to this, and spend the rest of the afternoon like that.