He said he was from France but there were a lot of French words he couldn’t quite pronounce. Take for example, on his first visit to the fancy restaurant down the street, he asked for le yaourt and cringed when the waitress frowned. He asked for tea instead, his voice low to the point of a whisper. To describe him would be to momentarily describe the afterlife: chimerical and dull. He had the most unremarkable face: a beard too rough to touch; lips, small and pink; green eyes like the lake Carezza and messy brown hair.
He wasn’t much of anything anyway. His mother’s mother had left him a reasonable sum of money in her will, God bless that woman, but it was unlikely he would live long enough to spend half of it. The drinks he had safely tucked away behind the cans of sweet corn in his kitchen cabinet would kill him first but he could not stop. He was not a drunk, lord, no, but Jared did not know where to draw the line when it came to the tipsy curve of a bottle of whisky.
When he met her, he did not love her. Her name was Emma and she was not French. She told him her father was from a small country in Africa and her mother was from Argentina. Their first date happened in a small bar with a neon sign displaying a woman. She leaned in as he gulped his beer and said,
“That, my dear, means the end of patriarchy.”
It meant nothing—that sign—but he nodded because she looked like the sort of woman who would not get bored if he began to talk about plane crashes and people who smelt of garlic. When he asked her to marry him, it was three months later in her apartment and he had no ring and she was naked. She did not say yes immediately. She waited until she’d called her sister in Italy. Then, they got married. The uneventful Jared would later come to know he would die but not from his love of wine.
Jared worked as a real estate agent and Emma pretended she was a real writer. She wrote him a story one day but Jared was too afraid to tell her about her misuse of semicolons and em-dashes. He did not love her but she was tolerable. She knew how to cook too, how to clean, how to talk about Jesus, and how to hate Jess MacBride from her yoga class.
“She thinks she is good at everything. Tell me…what good can a woman with three divorces under her belt do?”
Jared shrugged and lifted himself from the bed in a transient precision. The lights in the room were dim but she could see him and he could see her and they could love and hate each other.
Being a congenital talkative, she eased away from the bed and stood and pressed her hands against the window. “You don’t talk much these days,” she said. She did not turn to look at him. “Do you want to see a therapist?”
He shook his head and offered up a smile, carved around the edges like the back of a worn-out book. Why would she consider therapy?
“What about church?” she asked. She turned around to him, her eyes simmering with unease. He watched her as she rubbed the back of her neck and lean over to take the packet of cigarettes wedged underneath the pillow. When she lighted it up and blew smoke into the room, he shook his head again.
“I don’t believe in God,” he said, a little tired.
She frowned at him and lifted the corners of her lips in a small protest. Somehow, during the courtship and the quick wedding party, he had safely forgotten to mention he was an atheist and she had mistaken his happy eyes as devotion to a higher being. The first year, she told him she would change him. In the third year, she gave up. It wasn’t important, anyway, she told him.
“I am not saying you should believe in him, Jared,” she blew smoke again and licked her lower lip. “We could sit in church and listen to a sermon and see the priest afterward. What do you think?”
It wasn’t as if she was talking about one of the videos she’d seen on Facebook, with eyes sparkling and lips shaking. This was different and she talked now, carefully, her look drained. He stared at her hands which held the cigarette and watched her as she brought it to her lips. It reminded him of crushed paper planes and the whitewashed walls of his old apartment. She would have loved it there had she been just the right amount of shrewd. The smoke crept upward, cautiously, bathing her face in a surreal glow. She looked like his mother now.
“I don’t need to think about it,” he said to her.
She nodded and glanced around the room as though she’d never been in there before. Her eyes scanned the ruffled bed sheets and the small stain at the edge of the bed and then she lifted the corner of her lips high enough so he could see the dull smile. She would begin again and she would change him.
Later at night, she curled up beside him in bed and placed her hands shakily on his chest. His stomach grumbled and she laughed and looked up at the ceiling. He’d forgotten to eat dinner again.
“Why is it so hard to believe in something?” she asked him.
Jared closed his eyes and pretended he was combing through the walls of sleep.
“I mean, when you think about it, everything was created by a higher being,” she insisted quietly.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “You should stop.”
Jared slipped out of bed and went down to sleep on the couch. It was uncomfortable but it was better than being in the same room with a woman who did not know when to stop. He dreamt about flowers and the withering hands of an old woman. His wife woke him up with some Coq au vin and a glazed smile.
He had come to know and understand the pattern with which she came to wake him up after a fight and, as he sat on the dining chair, he struggled within himself to hide the fear he had come to know. She frightened him with her strong ideas on religion and the way she wanted him to be like her. She did not know what he truly wanted. Still, the food was delicious; he had to give her that.
Emma lit up a cigarette when she was halfway through her food and sighed and placed one hand against the table. It was Sunday. In an hour she would leave for church and come back two hours later, a song about Jesus on her lips. The pattern was unmistakably direful.
“You know you can still change your mind,” she said and smiled. It was pretentious, the sort he’d offered to his mother when the man in a grey suit read the will. Somehow he did not show her at the remembrance a year later and his mother did not call to ask. They had some sort of weird relationship but he loved her. He couldn’t quite tell how she felt.
“Could you stop it, Emma?” he asked.
She raised both her hands in surrender. One held the half-burnt cigarette and the other held his crushed dreams. She knew so much about him and of how he hated the idea of religion and something that tied down a man and yet here she was, insisting and probing and killing him.
When she was gone and he was all alone, he packed up her old books and placed them by the side of the bed. He would not read them. Jared did not like the subjects and themes of the books she bought and the ones she wrote, knowing that she would invariably choose books on religion and romance and the mystery of aliens. Those did not inspire him in any way but she loved them with a passion that surpassed his dedication and addiction to plane crashes and whisky. With her gone, he felt a cold kind of loneliness but there was nothing else to do. He would fish for books and arrange them in a pile and brush the garlic off his teeth.
She came back five hours later, breaking the pattern of timeliness. She did not sing about Jesus and did not talk to him about changing his perspective on religion. She came in, lit up a cigarette, blew the smoke out, and waited by the window of the kitchen for the first star to fall.
“Did you see the news?” she asked with her back against him.
Jared shook his head and folded his hands against his chest. She leaned against the kitchen sink and plopped her elbow on it and put the cigarette back on her lips.
She said, “A star will fall…like a meteorite. That is what they said.”
Jared arched an eyebrow and shook his head. She was being silly again. He ran a hand through his hair. “Who told you?”
“I heard it from someone,” she replied and turned to him. “A lady in church…I heard it from her.”
Jared wanted to laugh. After all, it was funny to think that his wife would fall for something so utterly illogical when she was smart but her frantic expression stopped him. Her face was pale, ghostly even and her eyes said so much at the same time, like a conundrum of reckless emotions.
“What’s going on, Emma?” he asked, his throat tightening with each word, broken into tiny bits by the subliminal edge of her face.
She crushed the cigarette in the ashtray and sighed. “It is probably nothing.”
And so, because, she looked like the sort of woman he would one day come to love, he settled for her words. He could tell that there was something she wanted to say, words secretly moving within her in flaming circles, but she could not. He would take her words for whatever she gave him.
At night, she did not cling to him. She turned to face the poster of Amsterdam on the wall and he stared at the ceiling with the fan and he thought about how distraught she’d looked when she left the window. It was probably nothing, he knew, so Jared tiptoed out of the room and brought out a bottle. The first mouthful drained the color of her face away. He forgot her words by the third swing.
“You need to see a therapist,” she said from the doorway.
Jared swayed a bit but she could tell he’d had too much to drink.
“I don’t need to see anyone,” he muttered beneath his breath. “I don’t complain when you smoke now, do I?”
She swallowed. He saw her bite down hard on her lips. He thought he saw a small drop of blood form on her lower lips. She was thinking. He hated when she did that because she would launch into her beliefs and how much she had control of her smoking habits because she had something of a higher dimension to believe in.
What did he have? A bottle and a fear.
Finally, her voice came softly, “What do you think about when you can’t sleep, Jared?”
He frowned. She’d never asked him that before, had not thought about sinking him with words that erupted in his head with maniacal precision. He was almost drunk. He needed to be alone.
“Talk to me,” she said, breathlessly.
He glared at her. “I don’t fucking know.”
She nodded. “What do you know then?”
“Are we going to have this conversation tonight?”
Jared said nothing. She would not leave him. He placed both hands in front of him and closed his eyes. He remembered being in the water, his body rocking back and forth in an almost broken rhythm, his breath coming in short. He was fifteen then and he could see, from underneath the water as his foot caught on something, as the sun danced naked in the sky. Somewhere, far from the waters, he heard the low sounds of a guitarist, stringing chords that made no sense to a drowning boy.
“Are you praying?” she asked him.
He opened his eyes and said no. She said nothing.
Jared gulped another mouthful and coughed and then placed the bottle on the table. “I don’t want to be tortured by your constant need to believe in something. I believe in the moon and the sun and the fucking snow. Don’t torture me, please.”
She leaned heavily against the door and said nothing. The silence was deafening. Then, suddenly, she came to him and she cradled his face in her open arms.
“You’re right,” she whispered. “I am sorry.”
He pressed her against him and inhaled her nightly smell of cheap deodorant. Her heart made small sounds that came upon him in waves and he listened like an animal, waiting and waiting for a brief release.
He heard the sound first and he stood and he did not sway. The shock was terribly annoying. She clamped her hands over her mouth and followed him into the kitchen. It was Jared who pulled the curtains apart and the window open. Her eyes widened with a combination of fear and childish wonder. Jared gripped her hands and they watched as the first star fell.
She left him and ran outside to their backyard. When he stepped out, he was confused. How come no one else saw the star falling?
It did not matter. He ran to Emma. She knelt on the floor. There was something shiny and small in front of her. He touched her shoulders and she looked at him. There, on the ground, was a star and it was green. When he touched it, it felt cold.
She began to cry.
He picked it up with both hands and she followed him back inside the house. Jared placed it neatly on the dining table and she laughed and she cried and called God twelve times. He said nothing but he liked the way the star glowed and the way it felt against his touch.
“What do you think this is?” she asked. “It’s a star, I know, but…what?”
He swallowed but said nothing.
She kissed it and her tears soaked through. In the morning, there was nothing on the table. She trailed her fingers along the table and then lit up a cigarette. He smiled. They both felt bereft but she did not ask him why.
Jared would die but it would be at the end of the story.