The Story of an Hour
Piran posed naked on a rock.
Eden picked her way through rock and towel, across flawlessly sculpted legs and luxurious folds of fat, past the blonde beauty perched on a boulder. “If you are in an unfree world,” announced a discarded shirt, “make yourself so free / that your existence / is an act of revolution.” An enormous puddle of jellyfish flubbed against a rock with a tragicomic grin. Four interchangable characters were entangled in the usual rehearsal before an audience of sunbathers who applied more sunscreen, having seen it all before.
Eden peeled off shirt and shorts, daintily. Her covered bellybutton broadcasted American prudishness to this montage of Slovenian nipples and buttocks. Her shaver was abandoned in a hostel somewhere and a civilization grew beneath her arm, tangled and livid, feeding on the days. She knelt to stroke his Whatsapp: a photo, cramped and insufficient, flashed across the miles. He would return with something unexpected, she knew, she knew he had an important interview. Her breath caught on the smoothness of him, the jaunt across Madison Avenue. Whatsapp flashed back “which tie” and an assortment of snaky blue things against a green-striped table. “The one with green stripes,” she prompted, because she did not speak tie, because cities and roads grew in the hollows beneath her arms. She knew the table from his apartment in Midtown, where it was all very romantic and impersonal, somebody else’s movie, somebody else’s arms.
Is a tie a tether?
She did not know why she was there. Why the hieroglyphic timetables, please and thank you in four new tongues. Why the streets of Zagreb curled up to meet her with the faded grandeur of Miss Havisham’s house, the sorrow of a rusty copper penny, cracks and peels that no one dared or bothered to patch. There was a picture in her hostel room of a couple kissing in a generic parenthesis, insert-you-here. She knew why she was there. She wanted to disappear. A pair of eyes. A smile without a cat. A byline without a face.
Someone in Zagreb handed her a heart, red and hard and plastic, to take home.
You are not here.
She waded in. The water clambered up her calves. He had been an email, at first.
Q: Apparently there is a large new biography of Martin Luther just out. I’m not sure the Reformation was a good thing.
A: It was definitely a bad thing for the tourists. As a tourist of Christianity myself, I don't approve.
Q: I've never told anyone, but I’m kind of into Christian rock as morning inspiration. Definitely listened to Pentatonix’s Mary Did You Know in the shower this AM.
A: I went through my share of Christian radio talk shows. 6 arguments against abortion. Why the Lord loves us. 10 arguments against abortion. Amen.
Q: A Mormon missionary recently asked me whether Christ plays a role in my life, which was confusing because, well, yes, but it’s more or less a strictly literary role.
A: Sounds like a successful conversation.
Q: When will you be in NY?
She was startled when they first met, as if Mr. Darcy had stepped off of the page and into a real-live conversation. She was not sure that she would like a real live Darcy.
* * *
They were everywhere.
The jellyfish. She had never been stung before. Something about a piercer that enters the skin, a gruesome anatomical image from a ninth-grade biology textbook, foreign hospitals that wave dirty needles in dark allies, a murky end in a buzz of indecipherable syllables. She was not panicky but she also did not know where she had put her insurance card. She did not want to die.
Eden returned to shore and rummaged through her faded blue bag, shoving aside two napkins, a fork, keys to the hostel, and a little wooden box. The box was for him. She had wandered Ljubljana for an entire day before finding it, sorting through the city’s array of postcards and snow globes, handcrafted salad forks and persimmon-scented soaps. She tucked it into the safest pocket of her backpack. It was there when she vomited all over a street corner in Bled and when she lost the path in Triglav. It was there when a Spaniard sidled up to her in the hostel lobby, You’re traveling alone? Me too. I have a bottle of wine in my room, private room, and I was thinking… She pushed him aside because she could not lose herself, because she had a box to give to someone.
It was the first thing she had ever bought him. He had sent her books: poems by Shelley, The Age of Innocence, a collection of Caravaggio’s finest, all scribbled with inscriptions that made her blush and keep the books in secret places even though she did not like Caravaggio and she had no patience for Wharton. He was a modernist. He drank cold brew coffee from mason jars and went clubbing in Brooklyn and quoted Walt Whitman when he had nothing else to say. She watched him as if from a different century. His American authors seemed too easy to her, too knowable. He gave her Memoirs of Hadrian and she told him that she hated it. Yourcenar’s Hadrian made too much sense. She wanted a history riddled with lacunae and manuscript variants, something as utterly strange as the present.
“Sometimes, I’m not sure which one of us sounds crazier to the other,” he said to her.
Eden shrugged. “At least we have insanity in common.”
She carefully pushed aside the painted box and pulled out a D.H. Lawrence novel. Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves one’s self as it were slurred over. Shadows lengthened along the beach. The sea was calm that night. The naked blonde shifted her nipples. Her pedestal quivered. A rock fell.
* * *
Eden went back to New York. She sat in a little bar on the corner of Amsterdam and 81st Street. He glided in and gazed down at her, and she handed him a little parcel.
He took it in his hands and pulled the wrapping off of a painted box. He examined it, carefully, reverently, and she knew that he was confused.
“What’s its story,” he said, and she knew that he meant why this. She did not have a story packaged for him, so he turned back to the box. His fingers pried open the lid and she buried her nose in the menu because she knew that he was looking for the secret, the gift that gods threw to gullible men, the feminine charm.
It was empty.
He placed the box on the table in front of them, reverently, ridiculously, and they talked of other things.
“Shall we?” He stood, fixed his tie, beamed at her, turned to go.
He forgot the box.
Eden nodded, said nothing, left with him, left the box to gaze about with the reproach of an abandoned shaver.
He invited her to a party. His friends would be there, she knew, and then she knew that she did not want this. His phone rang, her head rang with things she must say and not say, so special to get to know you, if not for the distance, still be friends. She must not say that she could only have him as a string of emails, a literary character, a matter of words. His phone, her head, his phone will ring and ring and he would not pick up.
The next day, a text, the party was canceled, his friend had a concussion. The next day, at a café arranged by text: so special to get to know you…if not for the distance, maybe…still be friends… She looked at him, numb, confused, he stole her words, he settled the bill and then they looked at each other and then they did not look at each other and then they walked away. She walked home, numbly, wondering if there would be a bruise. There should not be one. This was what she wanted. She bought a pint of Ben & Jerry’s caramel cone anyway because this was what she was supposed to do. Then she woke up in the night with queasiness in her stomach and it might have been him, might have been the ice cream.
“But you were supposed to break up with him,” her friend fumed over the phone.
“He got to it first.”
“The dick. How do you spell his name? I’m Facebook stalking.”
Eden gave it.
“Nothing comes up. He must not be searchable.”
“Look on my wall. He liked most of my recent posts.”
“Not seeing anything.”
She pulled up her own Facebook. 17 likes. 16 names. She typed his name into her search engine. He was gone.
“That was fast.”
“He said he wanted to be friends.”
“Eden. Everyone says that.”
“His friend never had a concussion, did he.”
“You really thought he did.”
* * *
A splash. Something surfaced. An ancient woman emerged from the waters. She seized a towel, glowered at the rows of sunbathers with a librarian’s severity, and ambled off. Eden stared, admiring the flabs and wrinkles, the defiance. She wanted this. She edged back to the translucent blue.
Toes and heels and knees. Cold lapped at a swimsuit. A pink body appeared and Eden swerved. Another one. She shifted left. Seven. She stopped. A child shrieked and giggled. A body materialized just in front of her breast and she retreated, stopped, resumed. The water reached her shoulders. She wondered what would happen if it touched her neck. She did not shudder. Death was someone she read in a novel. She breathed and plunged into oblivion.
* * *
There once was a man who could walk on water. There once was an Eden, a younger Eden, who watched him hammer out his cross in a painting at the Met Cloisters. A man she had just met stood close, breathing, expectant, and she laughed.
She pointed. Behind the man hammering out his cross, there were buildings, and on the buildings there were crosses, dozens and dozens of them, as if a religion could not imagine its creation without already presuming its existence, as if chronology vanished, as if… Her finger stopped.
Something was beeping. An alarm.
She turned back to him. He looked around, embarrassed. It occurred to her that she was not supposed to put her finger so near the little painted crosses.
“Is that me?”
He nodded. She withdrew her finger and they moved on. The face of Ivana Kobilca looked and did not look at her from the next room. It was not a happy face. It thought too much, slept too little, died too soon. It did not meet her gaze. The next frame showed a French beauty, red cheeks on white skin, perfectly coiffed curls, pearls dangling carefully. There are those who can walk on water and there are those who can drown in it and which is the ghost. The women would not look at each other.
* * *
Eden surfaced. Bobbing pink jellies crowded her swimsuit, arms, chest. She was a pillar of salt. She felt nothing. There was a wilderness beneath her arms. City walls, the Church of St. George, the old lighthouse. She swam on and on. A golden globe nodded overhead in the fading halo of a medieval saint. Europe was dying. It did not matter much. Europe was always dying, loved to die, to sell itself into a graveyard of outdated gods. One could die for ages.
She swam and swam and swam and did not look back.
If she had, she would have seen someone in a green-striped swimsuit rifle through a faded blue bag, push aside a silly painted box and a sentimental novel, pull out an American passport, and walk away.
Ayelet Wenger studies ancient Judaism and early Christianity at the University of Oxford. She received her B.A. in Classics from Princeton University.