It broke on a black winter night, the kind
that is so silent it feels like the pulse
of the earth has stopped. There was no wind, no
incessant barking of the neighbor’s dog,
no distant whoosh of passing traffic on
the highway across the glassy white field.
The only audible signs of life came
from him, the staccato of his knife on
the wooden board, and his faint, even breaths -
the legato. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Smooth in,
smooth out. Soon the water cymbal would hiss…
She came in and sat at the end of the
table. He glanced up, offered a small smile.
A pause in the rhythm. Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Pause. Smooth in, smooth out. She met his glance,
then greeted the napkin in front of her,
ran her fingertip along the crisp fold.
Tap, tap, tap, tap. Smooth in, smooth out. And then
she said it. So flatly, not with the itch
of a tongue heavy with news, nor the hushed
telling of a secret (though it was both).
Tap, tap, tap, tap. Pause… He didn’t take a
breath until he felt the burn in his lungs.
A sharp inhale. No more cutting. He waited
for her, for the words to rush in like a
guest who is late to Friday dinner.
But the room was as silent as the earth.
He felt the burn in his lungs again but
didn’t inhale. He needed to hear her,
needed those words to arrive, peel away
the silence the way he unwound his scarf
in their mudroom when he came in from the
cold. He waited, the knife frozen in flight.
The pause became a halt. The crescendo.
When he could stand the burn no longer, he
inhaled. Clunk. The knife fell onto the board.
As if on cue, the hiss of the water
came in like a cymbal. They both looked at
the pot instinctively. Then at each other.
Her eyes darted to the napkin, then the
mudroom door – and he realized she wasn’t
going to say anything more; the words
weren’t on their way. She was already
set on her exit. She had already
cocooned herself in enough layers to
keep out the chill. He began to feel how
thin his sweater was, like paper. How thin
the air felt each December. How thin he
had become to her, that he could be wiped
away in one deft motion, like the frost
that clung to the windows over the stove.
He moved toward her, reached out – why? Why was
he reaching for her when she couldn’t be
held onto…? The sound stopped him. Glass. Something
breaking. He scanned the floor. The pieces were
little kaleidoscopes, fragmenting the
navy pattern on the floor below them.
He must have knocked down something… He lifted
his gaze, to ask her to help him clean up.
At the end of the table, a chair sat
vacant, pushed back haphazardly so the
left leg rumpled the edge of the rug, worn
from a decade of that same chair being
pushed back against it. And on the table,
an empty space where the napkin had been.
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