2011 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up
They catch sight of each other at four hundred sixty-six miles per hour, or at the speed where four hundred sixty-six suddenly turns to zero in a burst of broken glass and burning support beams. She is strapped into seat 8J and he is at a desk on the ninety-fifth floor. The nose of the plane nudges the window, and in the moment before his neck snaps and the cabin bursts open, the window of 8J passes by his desk.
Neural impulses travel faster than planes, making assumptions and twisting impressions through the myelinated crevices of the barely conscious. They exchange last glances, and with this, Isabelle begins to remember geometry.
She could tell him that the closest analogy she can devise for their moment is Euclid’s geographical point: fixed and depthless in space. She could expand on this theory, could argue away his rebuttals after they have met for the first time somewhere else, on a dreary February afternoon in a café far from New York, after she has introduced herself, extending an awkward hand as she admits to twenty-nine-year-old Joshua (always Joshua, never Josh) that she has just turned thirty-one last week. Taking her hand to shake, Joshua feels the blush of a teenaged boy confronted with the elusive interest of the older woman.
He asks her to dinner, and she accepts.
They argue about geometry as they eat lobster bisque, which will leave them both with food poisoning by the end of the evening. They both admit (but grudgingly) that they do not remember much of geometry, having no real use for it: she works at a small museum in the Fenway, and he does menial tasks vaguely tied to insurance. He offers examples of his position’s tedium as they walk under a single umbrella down the street, which is when the soup begins its attack, and they finish the evening slumped pale and sweating and exhausted on her bathroom floor, Isabelle picking dejectedly at the matted fibers of the fading, non-slip rug spread in front of the shower’s folding door.
Outside their geometric point of a moment, the din is horrific, a cloud of bone-splitting vibration and black smoke, but in their suspended nothing, the only sound is the crunch of dry, white toast under teeth. The coffee pot is silent this morning, perhaps feeling abandoned on its corner of the counter. Isabelle props her cheek in one hand and watches Joshua, who consumes his toast with the apprehension of a neophyte lion tamer.
Their meals will become more daring as the days go on, until finally, in mid-March, they go together to a sushi restaurant and their bodies accept the food with an innocent passivity, as if to deny that lobster could ever have been a problem. After this, they will always be suspicious of seafood, but will credit it with bringing them together, with providing such a miserable bonding experience by which to begin a relationship.
They build a relationship on laughing through miserable experiences: out-of-the-blue rainstorms on day trips to the shore, failed experiments with new sexual positions, missed dates they blame on daylight savings, passionate arguments springing from the most mundane subjects. (For instance, Joshua believes it is criminal to use actual utensils in order to eat Chinese takeout. Isabelle is a devotee of real plates and an enemy of disposable chopsticks. This fight almost destroys their fantasy before planes and skyscrapers ever get the chance.)
In March, they dabble in vegetarianism. At two in the morning after only a week, they find themselves in a twenty-four-hour grocery store, and nineteen minutes later they burn their tongues on bacon they’re too impatient to let cool. This will be the first time they admit to loving each other, Joshua trying to keep her still with a hand on each shoulder to say the words while she curses her way through the alphabet, complaining about reddened fingers and a metallic taste. The conversation is as follows:
Isa, listen, I
Fuck, fucking goddamn bitch of a frying pan, why did you let me
Isabelle, I’m trying to say
This is all your fault, shit ow shit, I’ll never eat bacon again
which was, of course, a lie, followed by,
I love you,
which was not.
In the rush of a month they have learned each other, and they have presumptuously declared themselves rivals of history’s great lovers — Tristan and Isolde, Orpheus and Eurydice, Bogart and Bacall. They move into a single cramped apartment, which replaces two separate cramped apartments, and with Isabelle’s decree that they must break in their new mattress at once, they forget half of their books in boxes on the curb, under gray clouds that finally make good on a day-old threat and choose this moment to rain.
Among these: Vonnegut, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Capote, Whitman, and Wilde. Also: Balzac, Flaubert, Molière, Corneille, Baudelaire, et Zola.
At Isabelle’s urging, Joshua quits his miserable insurance job. They move to a smaller apartment, where in one corner they fit a desk, at which he will spend his time when he is not running shifts at the public library for minimum wage. He works on translations. At night, their dirty dinner plates piled in the sink (or, their empty Chinese cartons clouding the air around the trash can with their fried, leftover smell), they sit in their little living room, Isabelle poring over provenances, Joshua suffering through the rain-swollen pages of Mallarmé. He is determined to be the first to faithfully preserve meaning, tone, and phonetic ambiguity all. Isabelle asks him to read to her originals, though she speaks only seventeen words of French, the dusty, cobwebbed relic of a French grand-mère and the summer of 1986, which she spent with her mother in a tiny southern village full of elderly men who were always playing pétanque.
Six months pass in the geometric fantasy, untouched by a burning Boeing, amid crumpled translations, bacon at midnight, damp bedsheets and open windows (open partly to cool the summer air and partly to annoy the neighbors). Alternately, their kitchen smells of Chinese delivery, of Joshua’s under-seasoned Tex-Mex, of Isabelle’s obsessions with pasta and the hundred different sauces she can devise for its dressing.
You only love me for my cooking, she declares when he starts untying her apron strings at the stove, fitting his fingers in the space between her belt and the riding-up hem of her shirt, and he says something quiet in her ear, and when they get off the floor, rearranging their clothes, the sauce has burnt.
The smoke sets off a fire alarm. The smoke chokes them. Even dead on impact, there is still opportunity for smelling smoke. They open windows and clear it. Their kitchen is a collage of their time together.
After six months, they prepare for their first night apart the way lovers used to prepare for the separation of war. Isabelle has a ticket for American Airlines, flight number eleven, for a Tuesday in early September, which she will use to visit Los Angeles for her mother’s fifty-fourth birthday. Joshua has taken the days without her free from work; he has chosen this time to find her a ring, and he is almost disappointed when she calls him at 8:03, having missed her plane by four minutes because she went to the wrong gate.
I’m not a morning person, she says defensively into her cell phone, standing below the signpost for gate B-32, which she had bypassed for D-32. She rubs her eyes. I wasn’t wearing my contacts is all.
Joshua, with his coffee mug in their little kitchen, watching the news on mute, laughs at her and asks when there is another flight, if she thinks she’ll still be going. He wonders how many jewelers he can visit today if she comes home, if he pretends to go to work as usual. Forty-eight minutes later they are again on the phone, thanking each other and thanking God:
I would’ve thrown out your contacts myself if —
and, I’m so glad you were miserable there, I’m so glad you aren’t anymore, there, or miserable, and you’re not —
Their words shiver over airwaves full of sobbing people, voices crying into phones. Their words evaporate under the weight of their own impossibility, floating ahead in time where there is no possibility of time. Six months pass without them, and on the Tuesday, she is onboard her plane and he is in an insurance cubicle, and they have never met.
In an instant, in a geographical point of nothing-time, neurons fire and two people make contact without contact, leaving behind the invisible imprints of fried bacon, of French poets, of rumpled bed-sheets.
Outside of this geometric instant, the window for 8J passes a man’s desk at four hundred sixty-six miles per hour. It keeps going.