In the beginning, they fucked in the dark, the lightlessness making new strangers of them. Cold and hungry and blind, she had the body she’d always wanted. The air itself—black—was reaching out to touch her, to cup her hips, to draw her up, to pull her back—
After, they lay with their wool sweaters half on, sweat drying on their skin. It was so quiet, he could hear her breath even out, could feel the mattress trembling beneath him every time she shifted, his body seismographically attuned. The aftershocks grew smaller and smaller, and further apart; her tremors stopped. They lay without touching, connected somehow more primordially by the amniotic dark. He knew the moment she fell asleep, the shape of her shrugging back into her clothes, into the blankets, and then the settling stillness, which fell like a layer of dust. He reached out to touch the bow of her spine; she was a comma in the rumpled sheets, stark and solidly punctuative. In the shelter, it was so dark that once she fell quiet, he could almost believe she had ceased to exist, and him with her.
He stood up slowly, carefully: the dual protests of his knees, the answering sigh of bedsprings. In the pitch black of the narrow, familiar space, he opened a can of vegetables in water, the sound of the tin dull and hollow. The stewed greens already smelled thin and saltless—even in the dark, the color gone from them. He paused with his hand halfway to his mouth, hoping always for some shard of light caught in the full belly of the spoon, but there was nothing.
Finished, he crushed the tin, and stood against the cool steel of the emergency door, listening—but nothing, nothing.
In the dream, it was the Fourth of July, the year he was born. His mother was the shape of the distended moon, three-quarters full in profile. She stood at the top of their front steps with her arms crossed, watching the fireworks, her face lit up in magnesic flares. The last dandelion-head of sparks burst, wilted, faded into nothing; the last bang—slightly delayed—echoed around the street. From the park up the hill, there were cheers and the electric crackle of sparklers. Then his mother turned, went back inside, and he watched the house lights go off one by one. For a while, he stood on the street, watching the traffic ebb to a trickle, taillights disappearing at the end of the block. The streetlights went off, and the porch lights, and the moon, and it was pitch black in front of the house where he grew up. He lowered himself to the front steps in the dark.
They sit together in the cold. It’s impossible to know the time of day, but they conceive of it as evening, as the evening meal. They have taken cans from the shelf at random and opened them, and she has given him one-third of her baked beans with sausage in the cloying soup of molasses.
I went to England. In college, she says.
I know. We had pictures.
You know the thing about England? she says. You know the thing? It’s green. It’s so bright green it hurts your eyes.
I had this white bicycle—white with pink writing—older than I was—and I used to take it out and ride around the fields, where there was nothing but sheep. I miss that bicycle. I miss that feeling. Do you know what I mean?
He ran his finger around the inside of the tin, molasses clinging to him just as the dark did. I know.
And so much light, she said. So much light.
After, after, when the water began to run out, to grow sulfuric from the tanks, she stood with her back to him in the black bell of the shelter, the silence so complete it rang. He took the kitchen scissors, antiseptically cold, and cut off handfuls of her hair. There was nearly a luxury to the wastefulness and the economy of it. He could hear her in the dark, running her fingers over her skull, the sandpaper sound of her curls, her sobbing. She said, Will I still be pretty—after, and he said, Yes, yes, of course, yes, so quietly the words barely left ripples on the silence. He held her, and even through the layers of clothes, he could feel her bones against his, diamond on diamond, cutting one another to pieces.
They sat side by side on the bed. He opened a can of mixed fruits in thick syrup—the circular grate of the can opener, the coolness of the tin—and fed them to her. She said their names one by one through the film of sugar on her tongue: peach, pear, pineapple, cherries—a color he could barely remember from childhood, like a dream in bright candy crystals. It was so quiet, he could hear the sounds of her digestion, the way fullness rang like hollowness in the empty cavity of her stomach. We’ll have real cherries, after, he said.
There aren’t any cherries left. There’s nothing left up there.
Of course there is, he said. Of course there is. Just a little longer now.
When it’s safe.
She lay back against the bed, sighing with the mattress springs, each at a different pitch. He lay next to her and felt the shortness of her hair. I like the way this feels, he said.
How will we know when it’s safe?
We’ll just know.
She rolled away from his hands, pulling the skeletal peaks of her knees toward her chest. I don’t think I can do this much longer.
It’s not long now, I promise.
Tell me about after.
What about after?
What will we do. Where will we go.
I don’t know, love. I don’t know. Anywhere you want.
No, tell me about it. Tell me about the colors.
Anything you want. Anything.
He cut paper into squares, punched holes in them, worked clumsily in the dark.
What are you doing? She asked this often, her face towards the wall, her voice a low ricochet in the silence.
The papers were thin in his hands—newsprint, perhaps, a magazine insert, a candy bar wrapper, the chocolate long eaten and licked clean from the package. They’re cards, he told her, fifty-two, with the numbers all punched.
For playing cards with.
He tried to remember games he had known when he was younger—gin rummy, spades—the rules taught to him on a dock in Michigan, by a cousin whose face had fallen into childhood’s solipsistic shadow. It had been just around his twelfth birthday, or his thirteenth—a hot summer—his extended family gathered along one face of the lake. The whole memory smelled of cocktails with grain alcohol, and wet grass, and sweat. But all that was left of the cousin now was his sloe-eyed look, sunlight.
The games of that heliocentric summer did not translate well to the dark. They played only once, over their last bottle of wine, fumbling to count the holes in the thin cards. When he reached for his glass, he did it carefully, so as not to knock it over. He was nearly paralyzed by her, faceless and silent across the tiny table, laying down cards like a stranger, their knees so close they almost touched. When she grew frustrated and threw down her hand, they scattered across the black surfaces with the dry sound of leaves. I hate this, she said. I hate this fucking game.
We’ll play something else, he said. Whatever you want.
The only game I want to play is the one where you tell me about what our house will look like after, or the one where we write grocery lists. What about that game.
Whatever you want to do. Whatever will make you happy.
Don’t act like this could be normal, like we could drink wine and play cards like we’re college students again and nothing’s wrong. We can’t do these things anymore. I can’t.
I fucking hate it.
The only card that survived was wedged beneath the corner of the bed when she stood up—the two of clubs, lowest in the deck. He found it much later—slipped further into the cool space under the mattress—and sat holding it for a minute, lepidopterally poised on his open hand. She had eaten them—after the rice was gone, she had eaten the whole deck. He woke up in the empty bed with the sound of her teeth on paper, the pure grate of it that made his gums ache, the static crack and crumple like a radio turned to white noise. What are you doing? he said. What are you doing.
She said nothing, chewing the cards into pulp, swallowing, pushing more into her mouth. He got out of bed and found her in the dark, held her arms at her sides, shaking, with the torn stubs of two playing cards left in each fist. She began to cry, the sound thin and pathetic around a mouthful of paper. When she stopped struggling, he put his fingers into her mouth—gently, gently—and pulled out the wet lumps of paper, the way you might take something from a child. Shh, he said. Shh. Stop. You don’t want to do this.
She bent double, knocking her head against the corner of the table and vomiting bits of paper all over the floor. He could smell bile—sour and thin with nothing else in her stomach; it turned his. She stayed that way for a long time, her body clenching spasmodically on the pulpy emptiness, her sweater damp with sweat. OK, OK, he said. OK, into bed.
She let herself be swaddled in blankets that stopped her trembling; she sipped obediently at a cup of water. He listened to her sink further and further into sleep as though into water, erasing herself bit by bit until she was gone. He stood in the center of the room, holding one half of the two of hearts—cut from glossy magazine paper—holding it tight.
She still wakes up sometimes with the belief that she is deaf or blind or dead. She chokes on air like ink until he hears, and turns her on her side, his hands smoothing over the hollows of her chest. It’s OK, it’s OK, he says, over and over again, the words breaking down into sounds, into nothing. It’s OK.
I can’t breathe sometimes, she said.
You’re just imagining it, love. There’s plenty of air.
I know, I know. It’s not about that.
What’s it about?
I just can’t breathe.
You’re OK. Just lay still for a second. You’re safe. We’re safe.
She falls into a fitful sleep, jerking awake occasionally, as though caught at the end of a plummeting dream. He holds her, whispers nothing in particular when she starts from sleep, the sonorous roll pushing her backwards, downwards.
Later, she wakes up with him beside her. His body does not cut the painful cold of the shelter, just tips the mattress towards his weight. She knows exactly the distance between them by the angle of the bed; she could be a cartographer of this cant, a maritimal navigator of the narrow channel between them. She imagines, though, that she can’t move, takes strange pleasure in paralysis, consciously countering the unconscious demands for motion. She knows that this is what it would be like to be buried alive. She opens her mouth, as though to scream, but no sound comes out.
The bed is empty, and when he calls her name, the room is empty too. He can hear the difference in the quality of silence, the shape of echoes. He runs his hands across the surface of everything, tips cans sideways on their cool, wire racks, disrupts the things in their the cabinets. It is on his hands and knees that he finds the two of clubs, tucked where she had left it, uneaten. There is nothing else left of her. He knows, knows from the cold, that she is gone, and the panic of it is effervescent in his chest, so close to joy it is almost indistinguishable.