When Antonia is in Florida, she does things that she will rarely do in any other place. She watches television and shaves her legs above the knee. At dinner, she orders steak. She almost forgets that such things are not rare and miraculous for the rest of the population. Antonia’s parents live in Florida so this is where she goes any time she needs to leave New York. Probably she is too old for such flights, from troubles with money, or men, though her parents are kind, and say how common it is nowadays, these pauses and misfires, in men and women her age. This summer she is staying with them again. She has not decided what the terms of this staying are to be. Aside from the mutter of a washing machine, her parents’ house is quiet, with rooms that are large and full of light. Her queen-sized bed, the same she slept in as a girl, has one set of pillows she is allowed to put her head on, and another she is not. The shams of the latter are a pale satin blend, likely to show fingerprints. In the morning, her mother taps gently at her door, asking her down to breakfast. Antonia finds it is so easy here to forget her age, and the habits of city life that once knocked so vibrantly against her brain.
The last she saw of Gordon was weeks ago, when he came to her apartment to bring her a few things and tell her he was leaving, earlier than planned, for Mozambique. That was in May. He phoned first to make sure it would be all right that he came. When Antonia saw him through the curtain, her mouth went sticky with hope, though what she hoped for she could not say. She opened the door and said, quietly, hello. She looked for light of injury in his eyes, or delicate meanness rising up against her, but she saw nothing. Gordon greeted her in soft warm tones. He held a box at one hip, and a small potted plant hanging by his side. Tall and sharp-shouldered, and narrow through the hips, with smooth skin and light, not unfriendly, eyes, Gordon was the sort of man who looked to be an army engineer, or geology student, nothing too strident or unkempt about him. She always thought if he grew a beard and gained twenty pounds he’d be handsome. Gordon is a student of politics, which was the reason for Mozambique. His research had to do with political institutions at the local level. Really, it was more specific and complicated than this, but Antonia had never given it enough attention.
Gordon did not seem as if he wanted to come in, but he did. He carried in the box, and the potted plant, and asked where she would like them, and then he wiped his hands on his jeans and would not sit. Antonia offered a glass of water, like he was any guest, and he declined. There was very little furniture in her front room—it was not dignified enough to be called a living room—only a table and two chairs, but it did not look particularly well-tended or clean. Sometimes she could not believe this was a place where people actually lived. There was an ashtray on the floor beneath the window, and unwashed coffee mugs, and empty wine bottles in the windowsill, the only evidence that bright and careless communion had ever existed here.
Gordon looked around the room. “Maybe the plant will help.”
Antonia had never owned a plant. For some reason, the idea of owning one made her think of her parents. Its leaves were long and pointed, dark green along the edges, with variegated spots of yellow and a paler milky green at their center.
“What is it?” she asked him.
“A Chinese evergreen. It doesn’t need much water.”
The other things he brought were in the box, wrapped in tissue, and taped. Mostly she had left books at his house, he told her, but also clothes, cosmetics, and a baking dish that he could not remember her using. He brought other things, along with the plant, which were not hers. Things he planned to give away to friends then thought better. Did she not need cutting boards? A butter dish and coat hangers?
Antonia thanked him and for a moment turned away her face. Spring had come late this year, and the light in the room, even in the afternoon, was weak, as if afraid to enter windows. She considered switching on a light, but that would be no better.
Then Gordon told her that he was leaving for Maputo. He was leaving in a week.
She did not understand what he was saying. “You’re leaving in August,” she said gently, as if to remind him, and smiled at his mistake.
“No. Not anymore.”
He did not speak impatiently, gesture with his hands, or meet her eyes. Arms held close at his sides, he spoke as if he knew the news would be repugnant to her and it was his duty to present it kindly. Always this—his reliable and stunning sense of duty. Gordon was the only person she knew, other than her parents, who paid to have a paper delivered to his door each morning. He followed gubernatorial campaigns in states he did not live in and had never lived in. But she was not that way. When she told him of her romance, if she could call it that, with David Crane, she had strained to be unkind.
Antonia had known as long as she had known him that eventually he would go to Mozambique. But this was a blow. The news worked its way painfully across her face. Gordon could not go to another country. He could not live by an ocean she had never seen and scarce believed existed. That would mean he had settled on not forgiving her and was prepared to fill his mind with other things. The Indian Ocean—was it salmon-colored, threaded with delicate light? Or did it smell of gasoline? What picture would she have to carry around in her head?
That afternoon Gordon asked all of the correct questions. He asked whether she was writing, and had she heard from her parents, and was she still looking for another job? Something in education? He did not ask if she had spoken to David Crane. She had not. She would not speak to David Crane again.
When Gordon left Antonia put the Chinese evergreen beside her door. She never watered it and the leaves slowly curled and turned brown, and then the whole thing went suddenly, shrinking in on itself like a deflated balloon. Funny how a life could implode with so little fanfare.
Since Antonia came home, her parents have been solicitous. They speak in quiet tones and offer to buy her shoes, but they haven’t come right out and asked her what her problem is. She thinks they must know her grief has to do with a man, but they pretend they do not, and she is grateful. For breakfast they set out grapefruit and yogurt, toast and turkey bacon, on plates and in bowls that are thick and cream-colored, like old-fashioned crockery. Her parents are quiet people, not festive, with impeccable taste. They appreciate things that are simple and beautiful and easy to consume. As her mother brings more toast to the table, her father stands up for sugar and cream. Every morning her parents sit down together for breakfast, this optimistic ritual they insist on. It is a meal they respect and never skimp on. Antonia wonders how day after day they can muster such effort. She never eats anything that cannot be poured directly into a bowl. Toast is a novelty, and so is fruit.
“I almost forgot,” her mother says, springing up again from the table. “There’s a grapefruit for you too.” Though nearing sixty, her mother has a vigor that arises from the posture Antonia knows she is careful about, and her light-colored eyes, with their maidenly expression of hope. A calm and luxuriant graying has taken place behind her ears, but she has never seemed bothered.
Antonia looks down at the pale half of grapefruit she does not know how to eat. The light coming into their kitchen seems so cheerful and insistent, pooling brightly on the large tiles beneath their feet. Her parents watch, their faces sharp with concern, and finally her father suggests she try a spoon. Now that Gordon has gone to Mozambique, Antonia thinks no one but her mother will ever be willing to bring her a bowl of grapefruit.
She met Gordon at a party the year before, in the winter. Everyone at this party seemed to have just come back from Shanghai or from visiting a boyfriend in Greece. But the women did not have on makeup, or blouses with too many details, and they did not seem shrill, as wealthy people often did. Antonia was bewildered. She could not tell how old the guests were, or the nature of their professions. The man and woman hosting this party had a particular appeal for her, though she did not speak to them at all. The woman was tall, as tall as the man, with long, uncombed hair that she wore in a ponytail pulled low to one side, below her ear. The man was not wearing a watch or shoes. Athleticism sat easily on them, without the risk of becoming too severe, and they teased anyone who came near them, though gently, with smiles. But they did not often talk to one another, and Antonia was impressed. She appreciated any couple who did not need to be reckoned with as a couple or not at parties anyway. But late in the evening Antonia learned that the man and woman were married to one another, and for some reason this discovery appalled her. She thought there should be something more to mark them off. They were young. They looked as happy as other people. It was not all right for a woman who was also a wife to wear her ponytail below her ear, in this jaunty and strange location.
She turned into hallway and immediately a man spilled a drink on her. He moved away giggling, about this, or something else entirely.
Gordon saw this happen. He appeared quietly at her side with a towel. “I would chase the guy but I don’t think it would do you any good.”
Her mind was still on the married hosts and she forgot to be grateful. Instead, she blurted out what she had been thinking, and he looked at her with surprise. Then he laughed, offering his hand. “Ah, a misanthrope. Pleased to meet you.”
At first Antonia could not remember what the word meant, and she was bothered. Then she did recall and stepped back, offended.
“No, no. I’m only giving you a hard time,” he said. “I’m sure you’re very fond of humankind.”
He did not move away as she expected. He asked her name and what she did, and Antonia found herself explaining that she worked at a daycare but was also trying to be a writer. Usually she did not admit that writing was something she wanted to be serious about. She thought it an embarrassing ambition to have, until you had some success at it, but Gordon was a stranger and likely had a poor opinion of her already. At once, his face grew keen, and he stepped in closer. He had questions. Did she mean a novel? What did she write about exactly?
“Forgive me,” he said. “I don’t know anything about this.”
Antonia could not remember the last time she’d heard anyone say, “Forgive me.” She thought it a tidy and regal construction.
“I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” he added.
She thought, of course. This was what had been coming. Everywhere she went these days, she met people who never actually read novels, yet thought they might like to write one. Months later, she gave Gordon one of her stories to read—he had asked—and afterward all he said was that it reminded him of Bill Clinton. Antonia did not know what this meant and never gave him any of her stories to read again.
But Gordon was not done. “It would be too hard, though. Harder than what I’m trying to do.” And he explained about his research. Why Mozambique? Well, it was a country that Americans did not study or write about because not enough of them knew Portuguese. In fact, he did not speak it well, but he had been studying and thought he would pick it up easily once he was there. He knew French and Spanish already.
She asked the question her mother would ask. Is it safe?
Gordon smiled tolerantly. He would be fine.
Antonia did not take him seriously for weeks. She had never cared for people who “picked up” languages and she thought little of going to Mozambique. He seemed so unaware of how normal people lived, even more than she did. He could not say who had played in the last World Series, and all of his women friends had pimples on their chins. In fact, she did not take him seriously until she realized that other people did. For some reason this was slow in coming to her, that here was a man much sought after. Any place Gordon went there was some reverential throng of friends to whom he calmly parceled out advice. They seemed to think about him as they would a professor, or someone who in twenty years would play a part in running the country. A man of rare, uncanny perception. Once he had been called on to advise a Congressman, but Gordon did not like mentioning such things. When it came out he’d been in the Peace Corps in Senegal, and Antonia moved to offer praise, he quickly told her it was nothing, that mostly what he did was sit with local leaders, drinking tea.
When finally she saw the sort of man she had on her hands, she saw the question that followed in everyone’s heads. What is he doing with her? She thought they would say it was how she looked. She was compact, with dark hair nearly to her waist, a high unmarked forehead, and the feet of a ballet dancer, arches beneath which you could slide a deck of cards. She made an impression, she knew. That had been a part of becoming an adult, gaining an accurate understanding of her own appearance. But she did not care about Gordon’s friends. What did she have to prove?
From the beginning, Gordon was superstitious about her, in the way one might be superstitious about a muse. He believed there was something bold and adrift about her—which she needed to be reminded to eat and wash her underwear. A splendid, intuitive girl and maybe he was right. He spoke with such honest, implacable wonder, how could she not be flattered? Though at some level Antonia was not surprised. She always suspected some exceptional man would not be able to get along without her.
Antonia has little to do in her parents’ home, and each day melts away without victory or sense of accomplishment. She eats a sandwich in halves, watching the midday light climb across the tile floor, and washes her plate the moment she is done. At night, she watches television with her parents. Though she is tired of knowing so much about other people, she finds it comforting when those people are not real. Once over dinner, Gordon listed for her all the unkind things he had ever done. She ought to know everything about him, he believed, down to every vile useless moment of primary school, and any snippy thing he ever said. When he was ten he kissed his cousin on her mouth. In the third grade, he called a classmate “urchin face.” Antonia thought, what kind of insult is that? As Gordon looked at her across their table, she could think only of how he was so flush with good intention. Always that, she thought, his good intentions.
In Florida, there is never this obligation to confess. People are concerned about the cost of things and what is on television.
Her parents prefer television shows about women, though they will not come right out and say this. They speak gently about the characters in these shows, considering how the characters relate to people they knew when they were younger, and Antonia interrupts only to express horror at the puny size of the female characters’ waists. She does not like shows that have plots, nor does she like the news. What kind of show does she like? Her father wants to know. Usually something about his demeanor, his ducking and teasing, and high, mobile brows, calls to mind the phrase “bedside manner,” with its connotations of competence and warmth. But at the moment, her father’s face is pained.
For a long time Antonia considers his question. She decides she likes shows where an older pleasant-looking man is being interviewed, giving facts and telling you things you are unlikely to know already.
One night she persuades her parents to watch a program on the Discovery Channel about the great variation of life under the sea. The point of the program is that even at the darkest, most nightmarish depths of the ocean, there are tiny translucent things scurrying about, alien, flat-bellied creatures mucking along the sandy bottom. This is amazing, she thinks. That life can exist in such precarious locations.
When the program is over a stiff look comes onto her mother’s face, as if she has missed something and does not know what to say. “Well, that was interesting,” she says brightly and looks at Antonia. “Can I get anyone some ice cream?”
It was Gordon who introduced her to David Crane. She cannot remember how Gordon met David to begin with, but Gordon was always meeting people, on the street, in the library, or at lectures. He was not like her. He did not aim to go from one place to the other without talking to strangers. No—Gordon believed in what people had to offer. And he brought David Crane home to meet her, because David was a creative type of person, he believed, and would interest her. A poet, it turned out. But Gordon was never a good judge about true creative people. His appraisals had mainly to do with wardrobe—men who wore dark unwashed jeans and had mustaches, women who didn’t wear a bra. Also, anyone who scribbled publicly in a journal. Any little pretension and Gordon was apt to be deceived.
They were drinking coffee around the table in her apartment—she and Gordon and David Crane—and David asked if she had any whiskey. It was not four o’clock yet, and Gordon found this request delightful and disarmingly bold. Antonia offered a beer. She did not like David Crane at all. He was not clean enough exactly, and had tiny cuts across his chin from shaving, and his face jumped too much when he spoke. But as soon as David Crane got onto the subject of his poetry, Gordon excused himself to go to a meeting. He was in great demand at meetings across the city, and would never think to consider the politics present in any occasion of a man meeting a woman. David found great humor in this later—it was a joke that never ceased to warm him—what role Gordon had played in their coming together, but Antonia found it terribly depressing. Another joke was how much Antonia insisted she hadn’t liked him at first. Sure, David liked to say—you really couldn’t stand me. Sometimes she thought he said this rather too sharply. It was not unlike the voice he used when he would saunter across her bedroom and say, “So what has our useful friend Gordon been up to?”
That afternoon when Gordon was gone, David Crane got up and paced through her apartment without asking, so what else could she do but collect her beer and follow? He went into her bedroom and looked at her things. Here her furniture concerns were centered on what to do with her books. Some were stacked atop an overturned laundry basket, and others were on the floor, or in her bed. When people came to her apartment, they always looked at her books and felt obligated to say something. They would notice one book—usually a novel a relative had given her, one of the few she never planned to read—and say how good it was, and think something had been settled between them, some score evened. Who does she think she is to own so many books, they seemed to think. But David Crane did not do this. He lifted two or three from the floor beside her bed and looked inside and without saying a word, he seemed pleased. In the evening, they made love on the floor beside these books, and the next afternoon on the cross-town bus, Antonia still felt a bright pulse coming off her shoulder blades, where she’d been pressed so keenly into the floor.
What she had thought would bother her—his arrogance, his laxness in matters of hygiene—did not. Not even the humid sour smell around his balls. There was something rough and territorial about him, a puffing up in his own domain, as if her apartment had now become his. When he got up from bed and went to the kitchen he never bothered about clothes. Not once did she ask David Crane about his poetry, a fact that unduly pleased her. His poems did not interest her, and anyway she was not prepared to believe he was any good. And this was why they got on so well. They knew not to ask too many questions. Once he asked if she would cut his hair and she refused.
David came in the afternoons—Gordon was at school—with whiskey for himself, always taking the bottle when he left. Antonia became brisk with self-possession. Alert, her mind a needle of focus, she felt light and long-limbed, all of the time. Though she wondered what to do with the sharp desire that, on the afternoons David Crane did not come, felt like a stiff, sudden curling in her womb.
“Turn over,” he told her once, when he came back with water from her kitchen and sat naked in a chair. In bed, she rolled obediently onto her stomach. “God,” he said, in a voice that rang of desperation, pushing a hand through his hair. “I could look at your ass for hours.”
Better than any compliment Gordon could give her. This bald sexual worship—she could make it last for a very long time. But Gordon always thought she needed to hear about their connection at the level of the soul. He thought he should look into her eyes and swear he could never make love to another woman after her. He was talking about marriage, she supposed. But what she did not explain to him was that she did not hold up lovers in competition with one another. There were just two kinds of them really—past and present—and if he left off with his puerile claims, she would not so much want to get away. But he always thought she needed more affirmation. He thought love meant being so absolute.
One weekend morning Antonia and her parents drive to the mall and back, and then her mother thinks of another mall and they go there, too. Antonia is taking back the pair of salmon-colored espadrilles that last week her mother coaxed her into buying. She has acquired a sudden appetite for fashion magazines though she finds them tiresome, the insipid double entendre of the headlines, the pouty models with collarbones thin and sharp as pencils, and so much useless instruction, how to know if it’s love or lust, how to keep your man happy in bed and out. All they do is clutter her mind with garments she must buy. The shoe Antonia wants is more solemn than an espadrille. It is open-toed, with a wedge heel. Not a sandal, but something she might wear in summer. She hopes to become unfamiliar to herself, no longer quick-tempered and grim, with captious eye. Not desirous of anything, surely not of attention from men. Her mother has often remarked that looking better is the first step to feeling better, and Antonia wonders if everything her mother says may be ludicrous and true.
“Does anyone want a piece of gum?” her mother says. “Look in my purse.”
“I’ll get it,” says her father.
Too cautious, holding the wheel with both hands, her mother is uncertain about when to change lanes and when to stay. For some reason her father does not like to drive, which Antonia thinks is a quality not to be discounted, that he can be so easy about letting a woman drive him. In the car, the morning sun falls pleasantly across their shoulders. Antonia never went to a mall with Gordon. Only once was she ever in a car with him, when they rented one to drive to Saratoga for the wedding of his friend. There was no question about who would do the driving then, either. She settled behind the wheel, Gordon in the passenger seat, with his books at his feet. He described the books to her, so that finally she asked him to shut up, look at the landscape, and let her drive them to Saratoga, which she was perfectly equipped to do.
Inside the department store, her mother is swift and attentive. She immediately takes stock of all the store has to offer, and decides whether they should stay and ask for sizes or go. There are dozens of women moving along methodically, shoulders sloped, through the aisles, and her mother weaves deftly between them. She turns, pointing out a pair of leather sandals that have beads at the toe.
“No,” Antonia says. “That’s not what I’m looking for at all.”
Her father is holding up a pair of purple shoes that appear to be made of plastic, with silver teardrops climbing their heel. So accustomed to being the only man in their family, he is happy to tag along and offer his opinions. The mall does not strike him as the orbit of women alone. “What do you think of these?” he asks and grins. “Or maybe for your mother?” Antonia rather likes the purple shoes.
“I’ll buy those for you,” her mother says to her father.
The young men who file in from the mall entrance have a pink and settled look around the neck, above the collars of their shirts. Antonia has noticed before that she is not the kind of woman that men in Florida have interest in, or that is what she believes. She is too sullen, she thinks. She doesn’t believe in sandals. But then she remembers she is taking a break from caring about whether men look at her. Is that not the point of new and unrecognizable shoes?
Her mother is looking at her with amusement. “You didn’t bring in your shoes. How will you exchange them?”
“I don’t know,” she says. Her parents are such tolerable people that she hates to disappoint them. She hates showing how raw she is around the edges, though at times she cannot avoid it. “Maybe I won’t.”
“You’re not making this easy for me,” her mother says.
Her father is standing nervously at her side. “Nightgowns, anyone?”
“I know,” Antonia says quietly, to her mother.
One night very late in April, Antonia went out for coffee in the rain. Gordon was working late—it was the middle of the week—and she was angry with him, though knew she should not be. She wished one night he would close his books early and come over with a magazine and an interesting kind of custard. After Antonia ordered her coffee and was seated in the corner, she was surprised to see David Crane coming in from the rain. What reason other than her did he have to be in this neighborhood? She’d seen him only a few days before.
David was with a girl who had been a runway model in Europe, and did not see Antonia when he came in. Both were profoundly drunk. David had mentioned this girl before, and said she was a friend, and though Antonia had never met her, she recognized the girl at once. Partly because she was so tall, much taller than he was. But also, because of that odd combination of looks models have outside of photographs, exotic, long-necked, and thin, with a dreaminess of gesture, yet also freakishly plain. When David Crane first told Antonia about this girl, he said she was very bright, though young, and still finding her way in the world. Antonia had looked at him with suspicion. Did not one use the word “bright” regarding children who were not actually smart at all? David had laughed, conceding her point.
In the coffee shop, David looked as if he had not showered in many days. His pants were wet up to the knee. He looked rumpled and childish, his torso smaller than she recalled, wholly drained of carnal things. The runway model had fared no better. With hair undone and falling in wet clumps across her cheekbones, she looked like a newborn kitten, still sticky around the eyes. David ordered biscotti, which for some reason was immensely funny. He kept repeating the word loudly and plucking at her sleeve. She laughed along uncertainly. Everyone in the coffee shop was looking at them and pretending not to, as the runway model, drink in hand, blinked and looked bewildered. But David had taken her by her elbow and was steering her across the floor. Then he turned her chin to him and kissed her on her mouth. The girl reached calmly across the counter for the sugar jar, registering no reaction.
What surprised Antonia was not that this woman—a runway model—would be with David Crane, but that he should seem so damn pleased with himself. It was that awful bouncing along behind her, the pinching at her sleeve, and puckering of his lips, as if his eyes were going to bug out from satisfaction. Of course, he would be the same as everybody else, engaged in acts of stupid and selfish worship. How silly of her to think otherwise, that there was something light and clever about him, astonishing as a bubble rising up to the sky.
David turned to find a seat and then he saw her. It was as if his face had twisted in some new and obscene direction. There was a touch of humiliation in this look, that she should see him looking as he did, bedraggled and unclean—but that was not all there was. No, there was in it an expression of leering, of cold contempt, and amusement. He looked down, and Antonia followed his gaze, to what was in her hand—it was a library book, dark and unmarked—and then he looked back at her. He smiled, the bitter curl of his lip vanishing, and she thought she had imagined it all. Then he left the model reeling, and trotted close to her table, where he knelt upon the floor. Draping himself over idiotically, David bobbed his head up and down, and touched his fingers to the floor, in some frantic imitation of genuflection, as if he had looked at her and known at once she was thinking about worship.
“Was that what you were waiting for?” David said, breathlessly. “An-ton-i-a.” And he rolled out the syllables slowly, with vicious delight.
Antonia stared and could not move. It was late; he was drunk, she told herself, though even as she made such excuses she knew they were not exactly true.
“No?” he said. “Then was it this?” And he reached a hand between her legs.
She did not love David Crane. She never had. But the sting of his gesture was more than she knew what to do with. Had she not given her best self to him, facile and attendant—and gratis—never asking for undue allegiance? What reason did he have to make a fool of her now?
This question sent her out into the rain to wrangle with Gordon, and that was the end for them.
One evening Antonia and her parents watch a show about a team of American doctors trying to remove a 160-pound tumor from a woman in Bucharest. Though her parents did not want to watch this program, they are watching now, silent and stricken. Once in a while, a sound escapes from her mother, a crushed sigh of exclamation. The woman in Bucharest is in her forties and has three grown children. She has not been able to stand up for four years. Below the eyes her skin looks as if it has been pushed in by thumbs, and at her neck the skin is wan and flabby. Actually, it is this way on all of her body—her skin is hanging from her like a hammock. The program begins with the woman at home, in her plain bed, in a gloomy corner of the room, her thin legs plopped uselessly on the bed before her. Antonia cannot decide if she is wearing a wig. But the woman seems shrewd. She is preparing to die.
Later the program shows her in the operating room. Attached at her middle, the record-setting tumor spreads behind her like a stingray, its great glutinous wings fanned out on the table, stretching two feet to either side. A trunk of blood vessels as big as a fist has grown up along her spine to feed the thing. An illustration comes onto the screen to shows how this trunk pumps blood to the tumor’s every last obliging cell. This strikes Antonia as a feat of engineering. How the body might organize blood, and feast upon itself.
The team of doctors is from Chicago. The surgeon leading it is a trim athletic-looking man with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and a flat, no-nonsense accent. A man with good hygiene, who will never raise his voice, she thinks. On the program, he takes care to always refer to the woman by her first name. It is a name that sounds like Anya. When the surgery begins, the woman is on the table on her back. The doctors first slice the tumor from her sides with the tiniest strokes of a scalpel, and then they must flip her and do the same once again. But this—turning her over—is the most dangerous part of the operation. Things could tear. She could lose blood. It could all be over in a matter of seconds.
The woman’s husband is interviewed and he says that the first thing he will tell his wife when she wakes up is that he loves her. The hallway he stands in as he says this does not seem to have been long out of Communism. It is the sallow illumination of the lamps across the linoleum that makes Antonia think this, and the dark vinyl seats nailed to the floor. After saying that he loves her, the man becomes choked up with emotion. He turns his face away from the camera and covers his eyes with his hand. On the couch beside her mother and father, Antonia weeps.
It is always too much, to hear a person speak of love in any way. Why can it not come off as a jumble of words like any other—less grasping, less demanding of her heart and her attention? She takes one of the silky olive-colored pillows that guard the corners of her parents’ leather couch and holds it up in front of her face. Her father has turned the volume to mute, and she imagines the sounds of her crying winging through the vast rooms of their house, knocking against all those smooth hygienic surfaces. The faces of her parents have gone narrow with fright.
“You can’t call him, sweetheart?” her mother asks.
Antonia looks between her parents. “No. He went to Africa.”
“Oh,” her mother says, looking down into her hands. Then she adds, hopefully, “Why don’t I make you a cup of tea.”
Antonia sees her tears have wet the pillow in her hand, turning parts of the silky fabric dark—can this be satin? Sometimes she cannot believe people live in this place, among such breadth and intransigent light and ornamentation, any more than they live in her own. “No, I don’t need a cup of tea,” she says coldly. “A cup of tea is the last thing I need.”
Her father speaks in a low and disappointed tone, not meeting her eyes. “You don’t give us much idea about what it is you need. Do you?”
There is a postcard waiting for her when she returns to New York in September. Drawn from the accumulation of unwanted mail, the card feels warm in her hands. The postmark shows it was sent in July. The picture shows a muddy green cove and long curve of beach, and a skiff floating in this cove. At least Antonia thinks it is a skiff. It is the sort of meager fishing boat found in poor coastal outposts around the world, its drooping sails unevenly rolled. On the left, the beach rises into high dunes that are covered with low tough scrub, a few thin-trunked palms standing up awkwardly here and there. It could be any other dry destination in the subtropics, she thinks. It could be Florida. Across the back of the card there is a single line scrawled at a slant. It reads, “Regards from Mozambique.” These words are written in what seems to Antonia a dark and swollen ink. Each letter is tall and pronged, like flatware, and is difficult to read. She has forgotten this about Gordon, that penmanship may be the least tidy thing about him, or the only. And what a formal, hokey thing to say, though Gordon may not have known that. He was never a good judge of either.
What is she meant to do with this? This card. This message. This is not any kind of picture to carry around. She has an idea that he will be eating curry out of bowls, and going around without shoes, but what does she know. Maybe he lives in the mountains. She wonders if he has found another woman on whom to heap his impatient and florid love. But, no. She doesn’t think so. Perhaps after all he means to come back and take her up again, as a challenge. Perhaps this is the first of many communications. Is he not interested in difficult paths—research that takes him to Mozambique, and a woman who will provoke, preen, and never properly arrange her feelings for him?
There might be some moral principle hiding in that. Return might be the hideous height of his prevailing good intentions. But really what does it matter? He can do that and they will pick up again. Or he will leave her be.
The Chinese evergreen plant that Gordon gave her is just inside her front door. Before she left for Florida she meant to take it to the trash, but that was one of many tasks she left undone. Only the stalk remains, fibrous and dark, and a sheath of cottony yellow mold stretching out around it. Along the edge of the pot, the dirt has shriveled and drawn back into a series of sharp holes like the surface of limestone, and there is a storm of ants coming right up out of that dirt, as if they know they are being observed and have come up on cue. She wonders how they can possibly be alive. Without thinking, she drops the postcard into the dirt, and at once, the ants draw near. They mount it briskly and scurry across this picture of a beach, a cove, and a skiff that Gordon has so kindly sent her from Mozambique.
Dyannah Byington is a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. She is from central Florida.