MY SUMMER WITH SYLVIA was like sighting deer in the woods. You hold your breath, try hard not to spoil it. Suddenly you have nowhere to be, nothing to do. You’re a kid again. It’s hide-and-seek—you’re hiding. Later, if somebody asks how your walk was, what can you say? “I saw a deer,” you say. “That’s nice,” they say.
I met her in the rain in a park not too far from where my mother lived. She was sitting under an oak tree, reading, hunched over her book to keep it dry. She was wearing a dark green sweater and a gray skirt, no raincoat. The oak was the biggest tree in the park by far, so I asked if I could join her for some cover.
“As long as you don’t ask me to marry you,” she said.
“As long as you don’t ask me to marry you.”
When I assured her I wouldn’t, she agreed. I sat down. I hated getting my pants wet, but it’s hard to have a conversation when you’re standing and the other person is sitting. Not that I was sure there would even be a conversation, given how adamantly she returned to her book, but for my part I wanted to keep the possibility open. I noticed she was reading The Brothers Karamazov.
I played with a twig for a while and watched the remaining kids on the playground. They were getting a kick out of how fast they could slide down the wet slide.
“It’s just that I saw a movie last night,” she said abruptly, still looking at her book, “in which a pseudo-romantic boy asked a blockhead of a girl to marry him while they were standing under a tree in the rain.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, I’m no pseudo-romantic.”
I asked about her book, whether she liked it so far.
“I wouldn’t say I like it, but I’m close to confident it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever read.” She looked up at me. Her eyes were as dark as her wet hair, and she had skin the color of wintertime.
“I took a course on Dostoevsky this past semester,” I said. “Which translation do you have?” I knew the answer already, but it seemed like a reasonable thing to ask. She ignored my question. After a minute I added, “Maybe that sounded pedantic. It’s just that everyone seems to be so gung-ho about the new translation, but I think the old Constance Garnett one is actually—”
“I wouldn’t mind if you held my hand,” she said.
“When I told you not to propose to me, I didn’t mean to rule out the possibility that we might hold hands.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”
She asked where I went to school.
“My grandparents live in Connecticut. It’s beautiful during Christmastime. My name is Sylvia.”
“I’m just reading the translation Mrs. Lewis gave me. The librarian. She’s the one who recommended it to me.”
We talked about the book for a while. She was about halfway through. I said it was an interesting thing to be reading next to a playground, given that there’s a whole chapter about children dying violent deaths.
“Oh, that’s why I came here,” she said. “I wanted to be around kids when I read it. So that I could feel the outrage, I mean. I didn’t feel the outrage so much when I was reading in my bedroom. All my pillows and books lying around.”
I looked down at her shoes—worn-out Converse sneakers, double-knotted. I noticed writing on the sides and scooted closer to read it. She didn’t seem to mind. Such a secret place, read the left shoe in faded black ink. She moved her right one so that I could read it: the land of tears. I reached out and pressed the toe of her shoe, and her toes pushed back against my fingers.
“That whole semester, no one showed any outrage over the dead children. All they talked about was polyphony and existentialism.”
“Those sound like important topics,” she said.
I kept my fingers on her toes for a while, and we felt the rain drip down from the leaves and watched the kids on the wet slide. One of them was a little girl in a soaking yellow dress who screamed like a madman every time she slid down. There was a trace of terror in her scream, it seemed to me, but the bulk of it was elation. I took Sylvia’s hand.
Maybe it was more like catching a wave, the kind that takes you all the way back to the shore. Almost by accident, you find yourself caught up in its huge movement, gliding along without any effort, without any anxiety except the thought that you’ll never get another wave like this again. You’re pleased and a little sad. Even the sadness is nice, in a way.
I said before that her skin looked like wintertime, but it felt warm. We held hands again the following day, in the movie theater. We met there in the afternoon to watch an action movie. During the previews, Sylvia lifted the armrest between us and put her head on my shoulder. Her hair smelled like lemons.
We watched the movie without talking, but we laughed together when the dialogue was especially corny or another hundred bullets narrowly missed the hero. Whenever things got tense in a real, dramatic way, Sylvia would bring her feet up onto the seat and cover her mouth with the hand I wasn’t holding. Toward the end, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a little notebook and a pen.
“What are you doing?” I whispered.
“Writing a poem.”
“When are poems normally written?”
I lost track of the end of the movie. I kept wondering what sort of strange poem could find its inspiration in the noise of a summer blockbuster. After the movie we went to a diner called Jay’s. Sylvia liked it because they had a nice smoking section.
“You smoke?” I asked.
“No, but I like to be where smokers are.”
We sat in a booth near the back. In the pond outside, some ducks were grooming themselves and looking for food. Sylvia was wearing a Superman shirt. Her hair was wavy and messy. As she looked at the menu, she grinned as if it were a comic book, or Dr. Seuss’s magnum opus.
It’s funny—if I had first seen Sylvia in a photo I would have described her as odd looking, maybe even ugly. She had a sharp nose, thin lips, eyebrows that swerved downward towards her temples. But how can I begin to say how she affected me then, reading her menu in a smoky diner? Suddenly I found myself outside my own life looking in.
“What are you getting?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe an epiphany.”
“Well, get it with hash browns. They have the best hash browns here.”
After we’d ordered and the food came, I crossed myself and said a prayer. I tried to do it covertly, but Sylvia noticed and asked if I was Catholic.
“Yeah. I mean, sort of—yeah.”
She asked what that meant, and I explained that my father was Episcopalian and my mother was Catholic, and since she was the more devout one, I had been raised Catholic, but for a long time had been having doubts, difficulties, etc. I further explained that my parents had divorced when I was ten, and my father had moved to California.
“I memorized a psalm once,” Sylvia said. “After hearing it at a funeral.”
“I’m not sure. My favorite part was, ‘The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.’ Oh, and, ‘Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord.’ I get chills at that part.”
I asked when she had memorized it.
“Three years ago. Well, thirty-seven months.”
She looked quickly at her food.
“I’ve always planned on making a habit of memorizing things,” I said. “Passages from my favorite books. But every time I try, I’ll memorize two or three passages and then get tired of it.”
“I try to memorize a poem per week,” she said. “Poems are easier than prose.”
“Have you succeeded?”
“Sometimes I do two or three, but I try to limit myself to one. You can’t really savor a poem unless you give it a week by itself.”
I asked if she had ever tried getting her own poems published.
“Not really. I can’t imagine Rilke or Emily Dickinson being very thrilled with me promoting my own work as if I give a damn what people think of it.”
“Don’t you give a damn?”
“That’s the thing. I do. But I don’t think I should publish until I really don’t give a damn. I don’t want to contaminate everything by opening myself up to that nagging question: Will people be impressed by this? Will people admire me? It’s like losing your virginity.”
We finished our food and looked out at the ducks for a while. Almost sunset. The males with their glossy green heads floated tall and proud on the orange water. One of the females kept diving down sharply, as if attacking something under the surface. She had a fierce black stripe across her eyes.
A few tables over, an old man with a raspy voice was going through an endless repertoire of jokes, most of them off-color.
“You want to know something sad?” I asked, my eyes still on the ducks.
“Always,” she said.
“Back at school, I decided to join this group—a sort of debating society—and when they were grilling me to see whether I was worthy of membership, they asked me to tell a joke. And I couldn’t think of a single one. I had nothing.”
“Debating society? Now that’s a joke. Sorry if that was mean.”
“No. Most of the time I get the feeling I’m trapped in a room full of egos. Even when someone makes a good point, I wonder if they made it because they care about the point or because they care about looking smart. And of course, one of the egos in the room is mine.”
“It would be nice to be a duck,” she said.
“It would. Or a squirrel. Usually I end up leaving and smoking next to the cemetery. And I talk to the squirrels there.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“My mother smokes,” she said. “Or she used to. I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“She doesn’t live with you?”
“No, just Dad. My parents aren’t divorced, but my mom—it’s a long story.”
I nodded to show that I knew that such things could be long stories. She grabbed the check and scooted out to pay at the cash register. I told her I owed her one.
“Just give me a debating lesson sometime,” she said, and we stepped out into the warm evening. “We’ll call it even.”
That night, after my mom had gone to bed, I grabbed a book of poems and went out to the front porch to read. I liked one called “The Portrait” and thought I’d memorize it. She speaks always in her own voice / Even to strangers. A yellow moth came and landed on my hand. I took in the brightness of its yellow, the symmetry of its brown spots, the shape of its wings. Already I was looking back on this odd moment I’d once had with a yellow moth.
The next day, Sylvia and I met at a public pool. We were both unemployed and rich in free time. I wouldn’t have minded a job, but my mother was sure I needed to rest up after a stressful academic year. As for Sylvia, she had been working at her father’s advertising office but had quit sometime in May. She said the job put a strain on her filial affections.
The pool was crowded. We waited in line for the high dive. “Isn’t this the perfect American neighborhood pool?” she asked. “I almost want to sing the national anthem when I come here.”
When we reached the front of the line, Sylvia went first, a perfect cannonball. When it was my turn I meant to do a front flip—my specialty in years past—but I overdid the thing and landed on my stomach, which knocked the wind out of me. I took in a huge gulp of water, lurched to the surface, and started coughing loud enough to attract the attention of everyone at the pool. I waved off the lifeguard. “I’m fine,” I barked. “I’m fine.”
“Are you okay?” Sylvia laughed.
I took a seat on the edge of the pool.
She sat down next to me. “Your stomach’s red as a fire hydrant!”
“What’s it like to have a near-death experience? Did Virgil give you a tour of the underworld?”
“He did, in fact. Did you know there’s a circle in hell for people who laugh at the suffering of others?”
“Oh, buddy,” she said, and she reached over to rub my back.
We went to the shallow end. A red-headed boy in goggles grabbed my arm and told me I was it. I tagged Sylvia, but she and a chorus of piercing voices informed me that I had to close my eyes while shouting “Marco!” At first I was casual about it, but as time went on and their laughter grew louder, I began lunging, almost diving, in every direction. Eventually I felt Sylvia’s hand on my shoulder.
“You’re terrible at this game,” she said.
She was it for about ten seconds before tagging the red-headed boy. I got out of the pool, and Sylvia followed me to our chairs. We reclined them and lay on our backs.
“When I was a little girl, I was the worst at Marco Polo. I was terrified of being tagged because I knew it would take forever to tag someone else, and everyone would make fun of me. Whenever I finally did tag someone, it was like a huge weight had been lifted, like I was alive again.”
“Thanks. But I’m not too devastated about sucking at Marco Polo.”
“Sometimes I really wish I could die and then come back again. You know, like Hamlet’s dad. I think everything would seem fresh and peculiar. I would just look at the grass for a while, or sunlight flashing in a pool. I think I’d finally see everything like it’s meant to be seen.”
“I’ll kill you if you’d like.”
“Those kids could kill me,” she said. “In their little bathing suits. I love them.” She sat up in her chair. “I want to eat them.”
As we walked to the ice cream store, I asked what she had hated about working in an advertising firm.
“Mostly the sense that everything I did was directed at manipulating people so they’d buy things they didn’t need.”
“Like ice cream?”
“Maybe. But you can tell people to buy your ice cream without manipulating them. I mean, you can tell them you have good ingredients or friendly service. But if you show a voluptuous girl eating ice cream, you cheapen the girl, and the guy who’s supposed to be watching the girl. I mean you reduce the guy to a bundle of, I don’t know—appetites.”
“Maybe that’s what guys really are,” I said.
“I hope not.”
We waited at an intersection, and when the signal turned I lagged behind a few steps. I wanted, just for a second, to watch her. Is that wrong? I wanted to make sure I’d remember her crossing the street in her T-shirt and sandals, tangled hair, towel around her neck. I wanted to remember for the rest of my life this girl who hoped for something noble in the world, in me.
I paid for her ice cream, and we sat outside on the curb as daylight faded. We talked about politics, the way it resembled advertising, the way no one seemed to mind being lied to or manipulated, the way people pretended to be disgusted with the political process but then endorsed it by voting and telling everyone else to vote, too. It was dark by the time we walked back to our cars. She asked if I’d ever gone night swimming.
“I assume that’s a cool way to say swimming at night.”
“Liar.” She got into the car.
“By the way,” I said, my hand on her door, “I was thinking about your death wish. I mean your death and then back-to-life wish. Something like that happened to Dostoevsky. He was sentenced to be executed, and when he was walking to his execution, it was like he saw everything for the first time. Everything slowed down. The most mundane things seemed, I don’t know, astonishing. And then, at the last second, someone came and revoked the death sentence.”
“Oh, Fyodor. What a guy.”
“Even if he did have a gambling problem,” I added, but she had already closed her door.
I drove home. Normally I listen to music in the car, but that night I took a rosary from the glove compartment and prayed the luminous mysteries.
When I tell people about my time with Sylvia, they ask if she was my girlfriend. Instead of answering, I describe the places we went, the things we learned about each other. She took me to a library and introduced me to the librarian, a tiny old lady with a taste for tragedy and Russian angst. We browsed adult fiction and shared visions of the future. She mentioned going to Bavaria. I mentioned living in the Appalachian Mountains and writing essays or novels, though my father wanted me to find “real” work, like investment banking. “Thus the centaur-like absurdity of my double major in English and econ.”
Sylvia said she had been an English major before leaving school. She said college was nice, but there were family things that took her away.
Another time, I took her to my favorite bookstore, a quaint place with wood floors and creaky stairs leading to an attic full of theology and a basement full of poetry. We rambled around the maze of polished black shelves and bindings in leathery brown, sea green, and brick red; hard covers and soft; thick and thin; most upright, a few leaning where books had been taken away. In American lit, Sylvia claimed she could identify a book by the scent of its pages. I covered her eyes and held one under her nose.
“I sense a bit of pine,” she said, “but with a salty aftersmell. Which can only mean one of two things: Walden or Moby Dick.”
I uncovered her eyes to reveal Franny & Zooey.
“My nose must be rusty.”
“Shameful. The Glasses have such a distinctive scent.” I put the book back on the shelf. “Have I already asked if you have siblings?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Do you?”
I told her how my mother had wanted more children, but my father thought one was enough for the time being. The time being turned out to be five years, six years, seven. For a while he showed an interest in Catholicism and joined my mother and me for Mass on Sundays, but then he ran away with the organist.
“Oh, buddy,” Sylvia said. “I’m sorry.”
“Anyway, do you have siblings?”
“Sort of,” she said. “I had a brother.” She grabbed a book and flipped through it. Dust floated up from its worn pages and made her sneeze, a girlish squeal with a contorted face.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I mean, bless you.”
She wiped her nose. “Bless whoever buys this book that’s tattooed with my snot.”
Another time we went to Jay’s diner and drank coffee and talked about my ex-girlfriends and her ex-boyfriends, about how much fun it would be to get them all in a room together and throw a party in honor of our collective failure to complete one another. We talked about hook-ups and the way nobody stayed in one place anymore.
“Still, the myth goes on,” she said. “True love. Happily ever after.”
“I think I believe in that myth.”
“It’s hard to resist. One must be vigilant.”
“Do you want to come to Mass sometime?”
She looked out the window, but it was too dark to see any ducks. “Okay.”
My mother and I picked her up the following Sunday morning. I spent the car ride assuring her she wouldn’t make a fool of herself—all she had to do was stand when we were standing, kneel when we were kneeling.
“And when we go forward to receive the Eucharist, you can just stay in your seat.”
“Receive the what?”
Our parish, Saint Clare of Assisi, had a sanctuary built to look something like Noah’s ark. A ceiling of slanting wooden beams made the place dark and almost cozy. My mother led us to a pew in front and we knelt down. I tried to pray but couldn’t help but watch Sylvia as she looked around, smelled the incense, tried to figure out what to do with her hands. When the organ started and we stood up, she whispered, “I’ve never known what to do about God.”
“Just sing for now,” I said.
“I don’t know what faith is supposed to be.”
“It’s hymn number 301,” I said.
After Mass, I gave her a tour. I showed her the stations of the cross, explained what the tabernacle was, recounted my first communion. She listened politely, but I could tell she wasn’t eager for details.
“Anyway,” I concluded, “that’s the church. We can get lunch now.”
I started toward the door, but she grabbed my shoulder. “What’s that called again?” she asked. “Behind the table thing.”
“That’s a crucifix.”
It was dark wood like the beams of the ceiling. Jesus was extremely thin, his long fingers curling upward.
“I zoned out most of the Mass,” she said. “I couldn’t stop staring at that. His ribs are so pronounced.”
“What’s the deal with the Eucharist? I mean, are you supposed to be eating—him?”
“But, I mean—why?”
“I don’t know.” I sat down in a pew and looked up at his sunken cheeks. “There are a million ways to answer that.”
“Give me one.”
“Remember when we were at the pool and you said you loved the little kids playing Marco Polo? You said you wanted to eat them. The Eucharist is like that. I mean, Jesus isn’t cute like a little kid. But you want to eat him, in a way. Or some people do.”
We walked out to the car where my mother was waiting. Sometimes my mom can say things without thinking, and on this occasion she noted that Sylvia and I seemed to have no friends but each other. The ride to lunch was quiet after that.
She was right, though. The fact was I had drifted from my high school friends—slowly, inevitably, like a loose boat from a dock. We had nothing to hold us together anymore.
And then Sylvia. Miles from the dock, my boat had drifted into hers.
I made big plans for her birthday at the end of August. I’d be leaving for school the next day, and this would be our last hurrah. Even if we stayed in touch, even if we met up again in days to come, we could never find our way back to the unforced rhythm of that summer.
Our first stop was an outdoor production of Macbeth in the park where we had met. We bought turkey legs and red wine. I laid out a towel, and after we had toasted—“To regicide!”—she leaned back with her head in my lap, popping up now and then to take a bite of turkey and a sip from her plastic cup. I watched the people around us: families, elderly couples, little girls dressed up as witches, boys fighting with rubber daggers. Gray clouds on the way. It was nearly dark by the time the actors took the stage.
If their performance went wrong at all, it erred happily on the side of enthusiasm. The audience was wild with gasps and cheers. I tugged on Sylvia’s earlobe when things got tense. She squeezed my calf. Around the time Banquo’s ghost showed up, a drizzle started coming down. I tried to shield her with our towel, but she said she didn’t mind getting wet. The hum of raindrops on leaves only seemed to amplify the actors’ voices. When Macbeth cried, “Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,” I saw Sylvia, riveted and wet, mouthing the words.
Afterwards, the standing ovation never seemed to end. I wanted it never to end. We gathered our things and dashed through muddy grass to the parking lot. After slamming her car door, Sylvia panted, “What an exquisitely badass gift that was.”
Our next stop was a bar downtown. The band was supposed to sound like some of the bands Sylvia had told me about. Acoustic guitars, pensive lyrics. The wood floor was glossy and sticky. We found a spot toward the front. The lead singer’s voice stunned me with its purity. No tricks, no trills—just the melody, simple and genuine. After a few songs, the singer leaned into the mike and asked, “How do you make a small fortune in folk music?” Someone in the crowd had heard the joke before. “Start with a large fortune!” he yelled, and everyone laughed and clapped.
Sylvia leaned close to me. “Now you’ve got a joke. For your debate club.”
“I’ll try to remember it.”
We took turns going to the bar for drinks. Our spot in the front felt more snug as the night went on and the crowd thickened. During a song about June Carter Cash, Sylvia stepped in front of me and wrapped my arms around her. At the time I didn’t even know who June Carter Cash was, but the sound of her name made me shiver like an incantation. I breathed in Sylvia’s lemony hair and watched rain stream down the window behind the band.
I’m a contemplative drunk, and though I’d only had a few drinks, I started contemplating things. “It’s astonishing,” I said in Sylvia’s ear.
“Yeah. But I mean, all songs. Music. The fact that something so useless and wonderful exists at all.”
“The whole universe is like that,” she said. I guess she was a contemplative drunk, too.
The concert ended around midnight. I didn’t realize how drunk she had gotten till we were walking to the car and she leaned into me for balance. The rain was coming down even harder than before, but we took our time. It was a warm rain. “If you can’t drive,” she said, “we will lie down right here in the parking lot and count the stars until you’re ready.”
“The stars aren’t visible right now.”
“Touché. You are a debater.”
I assured her I was fine to drive. “Funny you should mention stars, though,” I said.
“Why is it funny?”
When we got in the car, I reached back and grabbed her present. The wrapping paper was just a pattern of poets’ faces that I’d printed out—Chaucer, Pope, and so on. She opened it up and pulled out a new pair of black Converse.
“I needed these!” She almost dove into me for a bear hug.
I showed her that I’d written something in black Sharpie on the sides.
“As if all the stars were laughing,” she read aloud.
“It’s another quotation—”
“Oh, I know. I know.” She punched my arm, which I understood to be a thank you.
“Well, let’s not get gooey.” I started the car.
We rode a while in silence, except for the rumble of rain and the gulpy swoosh of windshield wipers. At stoplights we’d glance at each other. We knew goodbye was coming. She had on a plaid skirt and a soaking red blouse. Hair more tangled than ever. Around the time we passed Saint Clare of Assisi, she put her hand on the back of my neck and asked, “Have you always believed in God?”
“More or less.”
“I mean, was there ever a time when you really started believing?”
“I don’t know. That’s hard to say.”
“Oh.” She laid her head on my shoulder.
“I remember one time,” I said, “when my grandma was visiting for Christmas. She and my mom were in the living room, and I was one room over, writing in my notebook. All of a sudden they started singing Christmas hymns. I was about to start writing about how cheesy and lyrically annoying most Christmas songs were, especially sung with voices like my grandma’s. But then they started singing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,’ and all my criticisms melted away, and all I could do was keep repeating to myself, ‘Oh, God, it’s all true. Oh, God, it’s all true.’ It wasn’t really an emotional thing—I wasn’t crying. I just knew I believed in this baby who was God.”
At this point the rain was coming down harder than it had all night. I turned my windshield wipers up to full speed. We listened to the metallic rumble of the rain and didn’t speak until I parked the car. Then she said, “Hey.”
“Hey,” I said.
“This isn’t my house. Where are we?”
“Night swimming,” I said.
She didn’t hesitate. She jumped out of the car and beat me to the gate, which of course was locked. When she had made it over, I stuck my foot in one of the bigger holes—it was an old chain-link fence—and hopped up easily enough. It was the way down that got me. I slipped on the pavement and fell hard on my back. I didn’t feel a thing. Sylvia helped me up, and we continued our charge to the pool. On reaching the edge, we paused.
“Okay,” she shouted, “on the count of five. Two—times two—is five!”
And we jumped in, fully clothed. By the dim light of nearby streetlamps, we splashed, swam around, drank the rain, played a version of Marco Polo that amounted to jumping on each other in quick succession. Her breath was hot, her eyes bright.
“What if the cops came? What if we drowned?” she asked with a perverse exhilaration, even a smile.
“What if the rain just came down harder and harder?” I asked. “What if tonight were the end of the world?”
“Mountains would rise up out of the ground,” she shouted, “and they’d skip like giant rams, and the hills would skip like lambs, and the earth would tremble. Everything would shake!”
We slapped and punched the water, enacting the apocalypse. Right then, as if to help us, an ambulance roared by, sirens blaring against the rain, blue and red lights flickering like fireworks. I climbed up to the edge of the pool and leaped in again, putting all my weight into a cannonball. Another ambulance drove by. Sylvia climbed up and sat on my shoulders, shouting after the paramedics, “It’s all up to you now—you have to save the world!” She lurched backwards, and together we crashed into the water behind us.
After a while, the rain got softer. We sat on the edge and caught our breath. Spanish moss, drenched and gray, drooped from the trees around the fence, swaying in the breeze. Sylvia hummed the chorus from one of the songs we’d heard at the bar. I thought of the girl on the playground all that time ago—the one who had shrieked going down the slide. I grabbed Sylvia’s hand, and together we lay back on the pavement, our feet still in the pool, eyes closed, raindrops falling soft on our eyelids. I was half asleep and dreaming about something—the beach, maybe, or the summer camp I’d gone to as a boy—when Sylvia spoke.
“My brother killed himself.”
I turned my head and looked at her, but she kept her eyes closed.
“He’d been depressed for years because he backed over a little kid with his car. My mom couldn’t handle it. I mean she couldn’t handle his depression, and then she really couldn’t handle his suicide. She’s at a clinic now.”
I faced the sky again and closed my eyes.
Eventually it stopped raining, and there was only the sound of raindrops dripping from trees into puddles. I tried to return to my dream, but I couldn’t fall asleep. I thought about the Karamazovs. I thought about the Book of Job and the crucifix in Saint Clare of Assisi. I smelled the thick air.
“What book does it smell like?” I whispered.
Sylvia said nothing, and I figured she had fallen asleep. I got up, walked around, touched the scrape on my back. It was starting to hurt. The clouds had thinned out. I could see the moon and a few stars. I looked at Sylvia and wondered what gesture, if any, would be appropriate for our goodbye. A kiss? A handshake sealed with blood? I squatted down and stroked her hair. She opened her eyes.
“Oh, buddy,” she said. “Oh, buddy.”
In the morning I went to Jay’s and sat by myself next to a window. The ducks were on the far side of the pond, mostly hidden behind bushes. I drank coffee and smoked a cigarette. The smoke floated up like a ghost into the clouds of brown on the yellow ceiling.
If, after dying, I got to come back for a while, even a short while, I think I’d be thankful for the smallest things. A tree covered in Spanish moss, a gust of wind. I think I’d repeat what God repeated when he created the world. “It’s good,” I would say. “It’s good.”