by Maja Lukic
Lena closed her eyes, expecting darkness, but Dr. Novak’s face was etched to the back of her eyelids, his mouth moving, the sound of his voice grainy like that of a doctor in a 1950s health documentary. Her eyes flew open again, and she stared straight into the sunlight. The sun’s power had magnified, made her feel infinite. She could feel herself fading. She thought about moving to the beach, abandoning her body to the waves for a time, but something delayed her action, arresting her in a sort of psychological Siberia.
Beyond the private patio gate, candy-colored umbrellas emerged from stretches of white sand like striped candles in a child’s birthday cake. Nearby luxury buildings and hotels rose toward electric blue skies.
Earlier that morning, when she woke up after sunrise and stepped out on the balcony overlooking the water, she could still discern traces of the moon in the sky. The waves were liquid silver in that pale light and the visible lunar mass had animated the grounds with thin pathos.
On the other side of the pool, an instructor led a group of older women in a water aerobics class. They twirled and bobbed in the water like wrinkled ballerinas. Behind the class, Peter’s younger sister Becky sat with Mr. and Mrs. Patakis, the middle-aged Greek couple from the eighth floor, under their umbrella. Peter’s entire family was in for the long weekend. His parents had retired, moved out here to a beachside condominium in Hollywood, Florida, a few years back. There was Peter’s older brother, Alex, recently divorced with four little girls in tow. There was Lena and Peter. And then there was Becky, the youngest, who came alone, who always came alone.
Lena looked down at her fingers, which grasped and combed the empty air of their own accord. It was only Saturday. The weekend loomed before her.
Peter thought a few days out of the city would be good for them. He was probably right. The last few months had been a vortex of illness—the infection, the slow recovery, antibiotics—but somehow she’d emerged on the other side as if nothing had happened so that when Dr. Novak called her in one morning, she was entirely unprepared for the gray, austere light in his office, the syrupy dust embalming his desk. Lena grimaced. He’d talked for over an hour then, dropped critical concepts like landmines—“ovary,” “scarring,” “diminished chances”—as the office environment disintegrated and all she could hear was the broken vibrato of his voice. She left his office and never said a word to Peter.
Not that she’d wanted children. Other than a vague conviction that small children had no place at brunch or on airplanes, she hadn’t given it much thought before—not even after her nieces were born.
But now her mind was chaotic, images coalescing like bubbles in the heat, melting into other images. There was an acrid emptiness in her stomach, a disturbing sense of something vital leaving her, but, also, a confounding sense of relief—as in, she wasn’t nearly as upset as she thought she should be.
Icy water landed on her abdomen, tiny cold blades lancing her skin. She gasped and looked up to see Peter standing in front of her, the sunlight behind him. His features were obscured except for two slits in which his green eyes glowed cool and distant like a Russian Blue cat in a dark hallway. He laughed at her and rubbed his beard with a towel.
“You’re in my light,” Lena said.
“Sorry.” Wet bangs stuck to his forehead in slick isosceles triangles. Red sunburnt splotches covered his chest and back like aberrant continents.
Off in the distance, a sailboat disturbed the perfect line of the horizon. The seagulls flew low like planes nearing an airport, skimming the foamy crest of the tumbling waves.
“How’s the water?” she asked.
“Amazing. You should jump in for a bit instead of roasting out here.” Peter shuddered once, a tremor that vibrated his entire body, and then again.
“I’m happy where I am.”
There was a pause. The music from the aerobics class drifted over. They could hear splashing water, the instructor calling out steps. The old women now bobbed up and down in the pool like sausages cooking in a pot of boiling water.
She hadn’t told Peter yet about Dr. Novak. In moments, Peter was unreachable. A certain tension lingered between them these days, an opaque cloud of conflicts that seemed to contract and expand throughout the day depending on their moods, the environment, or any number of other factors. The scars accumulated, calcified. Like the time a few weeks back, the morning after her conversation with Dr. Novak, when Peter had been preparing breakfast and Lena the coffee. Lena had just poured boiling water into Peter’s old French Press but they had been arguing over something or other and she rammed the plunger of the French Press down with her open palm. Brown liquid swelled inside the cloudy carafe—the glass shattered. Jagged shards flew across the counter, smashed on the floor tiles. She hadn’t even realized the inside of her right arm was burning and bleeding until Peter ran over.
“Mom and Dad are planning dinner at seven,” Peter said.
“I thought you and I had plans tonight.”
“I forgot. What?”
“Nothing.” Lena frowned.
“It’s family.” He threw the towel down on her legs and kissed her cheek before turning back to the beach.
Lena looked down and pressed her arm where a raised burn scar sickled from the crook of her elbow down to the midpoint of her forearm—a pale, hooked crescent like the ebbing moon in the morning light.
Ocean air drifted in through the open windows. Angular shadows moved across the ceiling as the clouds blocked the afternoon sun. Even with the brief cloud cover, the air in the room was cooler, the atmosphere loose.
Lena could hear noises from the parking lot below, the distant splashing of pool water. Peter sighed next to her. They were resting on the bed, a spatial gulf between their bodies.
Her right hand clenched into a fist and then released tension into the air. She repeated the gesture.
“Are we getting married?”
Peter shifted, folded and slid one arm under his head, and blew out air again. Somewhere outside, in the parking lot, two men carried on a loud argument in rapid Spanish.
“Why did you think of this just now?” Peter asked.
“I think of things all the time.”
Peter uncoiled his body away from her and stretched his back until something, some joint or meeting of bone and sinew, popped back into place or out of place. The banality of the action was jarring. This was not, ordinarily, how she imagined a marriage proposal might go down.
“What?” His gaze shifted to her face before traveling back to the ceiling. “Things are good now. Why don’t we talk when we’re back in the city?” His voice sounded testy, unsteady at the edges.
“Why are you upset?” she asked.
“I’m not upset. You seem upset.”
“I’m upset that you’re upset. I asked an important question.”
Peter breathed in and out, transitioning from inhale to exhale with the fluid rhythm of a swimmer beating laps. Lena pushed herself up to sit. The room was dim, shadows stretching deep and long across the walls. She could hear the neighbors moving upstairs, someone watching television in the living room next door.
“Do you not want to marry me?” It was an attempt at a joke, but the words somehow tumbled out heavy and definitive. Her voice wavered in the almost anechoic room.
“I don’t know right now.”
A long silence followed. The men outside had moved off. An airplane flew by overhead.
Lena felt pressure throbbing behind her forehead with the force of an aggressive Congolese rhythm ensemble. She’d never considered, in their four years together, that Peter was weighing his options, appraising her value. She slid off the bed and stood up, thoughts splaying in multiple directions with no central fulcrum.
Peter slid over to the spot where Lena had been. “I mean, I don’t want to change anything for the moment. Besides, children need solid parents.”
Peter looked uncomfortable. “I’m not there. And you—you’re never honest, Lena, you never face anything. You’re like a child yourself sometimes.” He added in a nostalgic voice: “My parents were amazing.”
“I wasn’t raised by wolves, either.”
“No one said you were.”
Lena grabbed her sandals, slid her feet into them. She fumbled with the buckles but it was as if her fingers had bloated, unable to manage the simple mechanics of grasping the latch or sliding the straps into the buckle openings. She abandoned the effort and grabbed her purse.
“Where are you going?”
She left the room without answering. The door slammed shut behind her. Outside, she stopped and slowed her breath. The windowless hallway stretched long and dark. At one end, it opened into a living room with an adjoining balcony. The room was now subsumed in soft light, like the mouth of a tunnel on a sunny day. At the other end, the hallway funneled into the kitchen and the front door of the apartment. The rooms along the way were closed. Grateful for the privacy, Lena stumbled toward the front door, her loose sandal buckles clacking against the hardwood.
A chubby little girl emerged from the kitchen and blocked her path in the hallway like a kind of clay dough apparition.
“Want to help make caramel brownies?” The child’s sticky fingers squirmed in the air like tentacles.
Lena pulled back. It was one of Alex’s girls, Tara or Tea—she was blanking on the name.
“Move,” she snapped.
The child’s head bent back in an awkward way, her features crumpling for a moment before she disappeared out of view. Lena heard soft, rapid footsteps retreating down the hallway behind her.
Probably, no one had ever yelled at the child. She turned around to apologize, but the hallway was empty again.
In the kitchen, she passed the detritus of broken eggshells, smears of brownie batter, and melting slabs of butter on the counter. The oven was still on. Lena turned it off in case no one came back. As she reached for the front door, keys jangled behind her, a shoe clicked on the kitchen tile.
“Let’s go for a drive.” Peter grabbed her arm and led her out of the apartment, down the hallway to the elevator, and across the marble lobby.
By the time they reached the car, Lena’s entire system felt disturbed. Her mind had splintered into countless impressions and ideas—all negative.
They pulled out of the parking lot and drove along the wide boulevard in silence. The sun was in retreat now, leaving behind an undercurrent of quiet violence in its place. Charcoal tones muted the palm trees and spaces between low buildings. Shops advertising fresh juices and Cuban coffee tossed deep shadows on the sidewalk. The pastel motels along South Ocean Drive appeared dilapidated in the sinking twilight—chipped paint, yellowed lawns separated by rusty chain fences. Figures emerging from the motels were thinner than the ones on the beach.
Lena rolled down the window. An erratic wind stirred the palms, which loomed over the car like ancient guillotines beneath a gray sky.
She shivered. In the distance, a mass of clouds converged over the waters, which had lost their azure tones and now looked murky and cold. A storm was spinning on its way toward them.
The car pressed forward and Lena stared at her lap and didn’t think about Peter next to her. She thought instead of a crystal lake in New Hampshire where her father took the family every summer when she was growing up. The lake was shallow for miles and as translucent as blown glass. Lena remembered looking down into the water at her feet, bloated and pale, wavering at the edges.
Peter squinted up through the windshield at the blackening sky.
“We can’t be out here.” He stopped the car and executed a U-turn in the middle of the street.
Ten minutes from home, the downpour began. They inched along the empty streets past white houses and expansive green lawns, a conveyor belt of blurry watercolor images.
Peter rubbed his beard with one hand and steered with the other.
“I’m driving blind.” He stopped the car by the side of the street under a palm tree. The palm’s thick leaves filtered the water before it pounded the roof and the windows. Sheets of liquid glass lacquered the windshield. Lena had the sensation of drowning—a wave barreling down on her alone, a cold hand clamping itself around her throat.
Peter rested his outstretched arms on the wheel and shook his head.
There was an opening, an aggressive silence, for Lena to say something. Instead, she began sobbing into her open palms, gasping for air with inhuman sounds.
Peter looked bewildered at first but then faced out into the storm again.
The night and rain buried the streets.
Lena sat in bed staring at the television. She aimed the remote sideways like a pistol, flipping channels, skimming through daytime programming and a fog of studio audience laughter, until static appeared on the screen. Fine sand—white, black, varying gray tones—moved over the screen to a dissonant buzzing. The visual distortion was comforting. She muted the sound and watched the grains milling like a swarm of fireflies whose lights had extinguished.
The shades in the room were drawn to keep the space cool, but the windows were open. Undiffused afternoon light angled in through the cracks between the curtains, illuminating random, isolated objects. By its saturation, she could tell that it was a bright day outside, hotter than the day before. Her eyelids ached at the thought of all that light.
There was a looping soundtrack of faded beach noise, poolside humming, shouts and violent splashes of water. But the scene outside was indeterminate, an eluding dream. Only an occasional propeller airplane flying low to the ground seemed tangible until, it, too, receded into distance. She pictured the plane’s advertising banner flickering in the gauzy sky until the banner became a palm branch swinging in the wind and she was back in the storm with Peter, water hammering the car’s rooftop, and Peter’s eyes gleaming in the darkness as he stared ahead at the empty street.
They’d returned to the apartment last night, soaked and miserable, as everyone was sitting down to dinner and navigated around each other all evening. By the time she woke up this morning, Peter had already gone out.
A light knock on the doorframe announced Becky’s face in the doorway. Becky lingered on the threshold, a glass of yellow liquid in each hand. The ice cubes in the drinks knocked together as her weight shifted from one foot to the other.
Lena turned back to the television and waited.
“How are you feeling?” Becky asked. The ice cubes clinked again.
“Like I’ve had a lobotomy.”
Becky continued to loom in the doorway, as if an invisible gate blocked her entry. Lena had never noticed before the way Becky loomed. It was as if Becky couldn’t exist within her environment but floated on top of it, as superfluous as leftover pastel confetti. On a different day, in a different mood, she might have more patience for Becky, but today, she was simmering with the sort of dispersed anger that defied focus.
Lena waved her inside.
“What are you watching?” Becky looked at the screen and frowned. “Oh.”
“I can turn the volume up,” Lena offered.
But Becky didn’t laugh at that. She set the drinks down on the bedside table by Lena and wiped her hands. Lena stared at the glasses until condensation frosted again over the clear smudges and the fingerprints disappeared.
“I made white sangria for us.” Becky pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down, beaming like a small child backing a lemonade stand.
“Thanks,” Lena said.
“Would you like to talk through it?”
“Not at the moment.”
“It could help.
“I don’t believe so.”
Becky was silent. Lena waited. She turned off the television.
“Peter doesn’t want to marry me.” Lena shrugged. “You can see how talking wouldn’t help the situation.”
“He is difficult.”
“You’re better than he is. I always thought so.”
Lena turned to her, surprised. But Becky seemed distant and reflective, staring off at some point along the wall. For a moment, it was as if Becky understood what it was to feel diminished, downgraded.
After Becky left, Lena pulled herself off the bed and raised the shades. From her vantage, she caught a narrow slice of the beach. It was clearing in a late afternoon way. She pulled on a long silk dress and slipped out of the bedroom, keeping an eye out for Peter.
By the time she reached the gate that led to the beach, the sun was low and mystical in the clouds, melting into an acrylic painting of gold, orange, and magenta. Marigold light irradiated the skies and the waves.
Lena pushed the gate open and walked across the sand.
The last few holdouts sat on folding chairs with their feet anchored in the sand like ancient statutes—as if they had sat that way with the waters for as long as the tide has rolled in and out. They ignored Lena and she ignored them.
She walked along the shoreline for a time. Her dress grew heavy as the tide rolled over her ankles, mild with residual heat. The day before, the ocean had been more dark blue than green, cresting in turbulent waves, but now it was slow, easy. She slipped further in until the water reached her knees and silk billowed around her legs. It was shallow for a time until she arrived at a slight dip in the ocean floor and she was in waist deep, wearing the ocean like an infinite fabric.
She drew in a breath and leaned back until she was levitating, her hair splayed over the water’s surface. The waves rushed by her ears with a steady rhythm, another dimension of sound in which everything was broader, amplified. She could almost hear evening falling. Tension bled from her extremities out into the water as she floated along.
She thought again of early mornings at the lake with her father, at an age when she was almost too young to form complete memories. With the sunlight glinting off the lake’s surface on a clear day, he had taught her how to swim by tossing her in—old school methodology—but first, he’d showed her how to float on her back. Lena considered now that she had been floating on the surface of this wave or that ever since, never moving with autonomy but only drifting directionless. The thought made her feel sad.
Then she thought about Peter. The word “diminished” came to her again.
The light had turned lilac. Her feet touched the sandy floor and she raised herself up until the water hovered at her torso again. She turned back toward the building.
Further up ahead, a child was standing along the shore, dangling a kite in the water like an absurd anchor. The kite’s strings trailed from the girl’s hand down to the waves, but she ignored it and stared at the horizon. As Lena moved closer through the waters, she realized it was Ana—Alex’s oldest daughter. Lena slipped out of the ocean and looked around for Alex or another adult, but the beach was empty of familiar faces.
Ana’s sinewy frame rose from the sand, unmoving but poised as if to leap into the air at any moment, weighed down only by a rope of blonde hair plaited down her back.
Lena approached her and stood dripping water on the sand, shivering loud enough to be heard over the murmuring waves. She was awkward with children, even with her nieces. It was a matter of vulnerability. Children somehow cleaved through a person’s fog of pretenses with reflex candor.
“What are you up to?”
Ana turned to her with glassy eyes. Tears curved down her cheeks.
“The sunsets are beautiful here, no?”
Ana shook her head, an almost imperceptible sway to the left and right. Stray hairs escaped her braid, moved in tandem.
“But I’d say my favorite time is in the morning. Right after sunrise, the waters look silver. A silver sea,” Lena continued.
“It’s an ocean.” Ana turned to her again, with exasperation this time, before looking back at the water.
Lena followed her gaze. A ship inched along the horizon, a faded specter of a cargo vessel. Ana started humming a wavering tune, a seafaring melody that seemed lost through time. At the higher ranges, her voice cracked into something that approximated a wail before grasping for the lower notes again. Fresh tears edged over her lower lashes and small dimples formed in the sides of her chin.
“Why are you crying?” Lena asked.
Ana’s humming trailed off and she wiped her face with a backhanded sweep. “My best friend is sick. And she loves the ocean.” Remembering the kite, she dragged it in toward the sand. “My sisters left their dumb kite out here,” she explained.
“Your friend will recover.”
Ana tossed her a simmering look. The child was a master of calibrated expressions, Lena thought.
“She has leukemia.”
Lena was startled. Her mind scattered again—the thought of a sick child, parenting a sick child, losing a sick child. She had nothing to offer Ana. There should be a capable adult here, not Lena, a diminished carapace of a person.
“People recover from leukemia, Ana.”
“They don’t.” Ana sniffled and busied herself with the kite again, shook the water from its neon skin, threw it down near her feet.
“But they do. It depends on the type of leukemia, but there are treatment options, hopeful prognoses.”
Ana marked Lena’s soaking dress. It struck Lena that swimming in her clothes didn’t add much to her credibility on the whole.
“You’re not a doctor. You’re just a nutritionist,” Ana decided.
“That’s correct. But this is something even a nutritionist might know.”
Ana rolled her eyes and then closed them, as if listening to the waves. Blue veins laced her eyelids.
Have you ever seen the moon after sunrise?” Lena asked.
“Not possible,” Ana countered, eyes closed.
“But it is. It depends on the lunar phase and the moon’s position in relation to the sun.
Ana opened her eyes. “Everything you say depends on something else.”
Lena smiled. “How old are you?”
“Ten and a half.”
“Are you lying?”
“Why would I lie?”
“I used to lie about my age.”
“That’s dumb.” Ana wrinkled her face.
“Yeah. It’s dumb to lie about important things.”
They watched the horizon. The sun was gone. The waves were steady, the rhythm of the ocean beat on. Lena continued. “I mean this about the moon. Some mornings, you can see it.”
Ana looked at her with limited respect. She had stopped crying at least.
Lena scanned the empty beach.
“Head back in?”
Ana shrugged but slid her sweaty hand into Lena’s extended one and they walked back across the sand together. Ana dragged the kite behind her, its ribbons trailing wet sand, the painted face drooping upside down morbidly. They passed Mr. Patakis and his neighbor Boris, sitting in the sand like lone survivors of a shipwreck. The men were diving into a cooler full of ice and beer, refreshing their cigars.
Yellow lights glimmered in the buildings along the beach, oscillating in front of Lena’s eyes as she moved, their centers indiscernible from their shimmering edges. Music streamed from the neighboring hotel bar over the sound of laughter and conversation.
As they reached the patio and the pool, tall lamps with round bulbs illuminated the night air like glowing lollipops. Ana ran ahead and burst through the gate, wet feet pattering toward the building entrance, the kite rising behind her.
Lena looked back at the beach. The moon was out, a bloated crescent lost in the dark expanse, a pallid iteration of its daylight elegance. The moonlight immortalized the waters and their footprints in the lucent sand. In the morning, a large truck would roll over the prints, comb the sand, and the tide would wash away the remains. The sand and the ocean would begin again, Lena thought, retaining no trace of their bodies. That they molded to a person for a time was only a transitory obligation. The elements were impermanent and mutable like that, in perpetual transit.
She closed the gate.
By Monday afternoon, Lena and Peter were sitting in their living room in Brooklyn Heights, their unpacked suitcases waiting by the entrance. Their ground floor loft rested on the intersection of two quiet streets. The windows were open, the room soft and dimming. Lena listened to the murmur of a water fountain in the garden patch outside. Some days, she heard a coin flick against the marble before it dropped into the water with a passing stranger’s wish.
The overhead fans pushed the hot air around the room, which spread and converged into every corner of the apartment’s high ceilings.
On the way home from the airport, she’d stared out the window at cabs shooting by, one flash of turmeric after another. When she finally told Peter about her conversation with Dr. Novak, he sat quiet and pensive for a time.
“I don’t know what to say.” His voice vibrated over the fans. He stood up and poured two glasses of water from the fridge.
Lena waited for him to ask her how she felt. He could say that. But he didn’t ask.
A car rounded the corner outside before heading down toward the River. Lena thought she might hear a barking dog or the rickety wheels of a stroller, which was now a critical downside of their neighborhood—the constant presence of young families—but it was silent.
“This is terrible,” Peter mauled his face with his hands and shook his head.
Lena looked at him hard. The ceiling fans turned.
“It’s not, though,” she said.
Peter looked surprised.
“This doesn’t upset you.” He sat down next to her and squeezed her knee with a limp hand, still wet from his water glass.
“Yes and no. But it is what it is. Not sure I want children.”
“Not even someday?”
“No, not even someday,” she shrugged.
“I thought you did.”
“I thought I did. But I never actually did,” she explained.
Her words sank heavy, melting into the heat. Peter’s face was pale. He chugged the water and stared at her over the glass rim.
Lena felt tired. She had an inexplicable urge to walk out and close the door. But the inertia of the moment left her paralyzed, her dominant equilibrium these days.
They sat for what seemed an eternity. When Peter suggested they walk down to the Pier to watch the sunset, she agreed but trailed behind him on the sidewalk the entire way. He walked ahead with a quiet urgency, looking back at her from time to time, his face growing obscure and gray beneath the shade of tall London planes arching over the streets.
It was twilight when they finally reached the Pier and the promenade that wound along the East River. Coral ribbons marbled the skies, trailing a dissolving sunset. The air was blue, the stolen shade of Borage flowers. The Pier was deserted where they stood.
“Damn, we missed it,” Peter said.
Peter looked at her, surprised. Lena leaned forward on the guard railing and shivered. An empty ferry crept along in the water, dark and slow like a slug. Manhattan’s steel and glass towers glimmered across the River, gracing the waters with gold foil.
Billie Holliday’s voice floated over from a nearby restaurant—a rooftop party where couples swayed under strings of white lights. Peter pulled her in and they swayed, too. There was warmth from his body in a physiological sense but not much more than that.
Lena breathed in and out the crisp air and the sad congruity of the moment.
“What are you thinking?” Peter asked.
She was struck by the way the question seemed abstracted, as if Peter were standing on the other side of the River instead of beside her.
If she were to distill the truth of the moment, it was this: she was leaving Peter. Their relationship was over and dancing awkwardly on the Pier did not alter that fact. For months, a year or more, she’d been resisting a shift that was breaking. Floating wasn’t incorrect, but resistance, denying the natural movement of things, was wrong, dangerous even. And it was Peter, not she, who wanted everything to stay the same when, in fact, nothing could.
A light breeze skated the surface of the river, dappling her skin with dew, but she didn’t feel it. What she felt now was an inexplicable release, observing the scene and herself in it. The moment was already glowing with a nostalgic quality, and Peter was a figure she once knew, paling into the past.
She would walk away soon, but for a time, she held on to him, to them, and swayed to the soft notes floating out into the blue night.