He opens the door and she’s there; a dress of cobalt blue, three buttons undone at the neck. He can see the beads of sweat in the hollow of her throat, an ocean the size of his thumb, but this is the wrong picture. She is supposed to be in the third seat, fourth row of the last bus headed out of this burned-out town, sleeping on her duffel bag and banging her head against the window on right turns. En route to safe things, which is somehow different than the things he can offer.
She holds one hand up to him, palm down, then twists suddenly to reveal the plum hidden beneath her fingers.
“I give you the end of Spring,” she says. “Look, we can hold it in our hands.”
Hers is the ability to leave him breathless even when he is enraged with her. He wants to throttle her, hands around her neck like snapping bird bones; he wants to throw himself against her and kiss her with clashing lips and teeth; he doesn’t know what impulse will win out. He begins to ask her what she is doing here, why didn’t she leave with the others….but her
hand catches him at the wrist. A lace glovelette, ripped at the palm, like stigmata. She is his despairing saint.
“Adagio,” she whispers. “Adagio.”
He pulls her inside before the searchlights grow curious, shuts the door behind her. A flick of the switch and light from his only lamp– cracked, the shade torn, a general fire hazard– colors the room in warm spice tones. Yellow, orange, brown. She walks over to it and holds her hands above the glow as if before a fire.
“I had only walked six blocks and I had already forgotten how beautiful this is.”
“The light of our lamp at night.”
“It’s a piece of junk.”
“Our piece of junk.”
He’s deciding whether to love her forever or cut her throat. Right. The usual choices.
“You’re insane, you know that?”
She grins. “Certifiably. It’s rubbed off over the years.”
“We had a plan. You take the bus out of here, get to the other agents and the safehouse, and I catch up as soon as I finish a few minor details up state.”
“A dreadfully good plan to be sure.”
“Bite your tongue.”
“Do it for me.” Her eyes thin to two slits cut into a sheet of paper with a knife. A dull knife, because the edges of her eyelids are worn ragged. “But don’t lie to me, Jeremy. Johnny. Whatever the heck your name really is. You aren’t coming back. You’re going to do something stupid and heroic and then they’re going to hurt you. You’re going to be in pain and you aren’t going to let me be a part of it.”
“You don’t want to be part of it. They’re landing ground troops to weed out what’s left of us, they have names. They want us alive–”
“I’m not afraid of that.”
“That’s because you’re young. You have to live–”
“No, I don’t. We have to live, or it’s not worth it.”
“You ever seen me taken down hard?”
“Of course. All I have to do is kiss you in the right spot…”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“And you think they’re not going have something worse?”
“You’re not a hero, you idiot. Don’t you get that? You just aren’t. Neither am I. We’re in it for the bed sheets, right? Come on, I’m waiting. You want to give me my three dollars before or after?”
“Dont’ say it. We don’t have time to apologize.”
All during this conversation he orbits her without touch; it is important to maintain his balance, not to be the one who falls first. He watches the moonlight slide across her collarbone and thinks that to this day, even now, she has never forgiven the agency for its betrayals. I would rather it disappear altogether, she says, like a ghost. Every time her hands passed over him, he was left with that impression: the idea of erasure. She was condensing him to a ghost, to nothing but soul.
He tries another angle.
“Why do you think I brought the plum?”
“I’ll cook us something. We’ll use the plum for dessert.”
“You like stirfry?”
There is something hypnotic to him about touching with his own bare hands something that will touch her bare mouth, and this magnifies the details: the tango of the lamplight across the knife as she slices three carrots into chunks the thickness of her pinky; the dot of blood across the thumb when the knife slips. Before he can react, the finger disappears into her mouth, and she sucks the wound clean before dousing it in a blast of water from the sink. War wounds, she says, a sideways grin.
She’s following his lead, he suspects, allowing him to play her to the bone. What’ll it be, mister? Three dollars before or after? He would slap her if it wouldn’t prove her point.
The scent of spice and chicken and peppers curls in steam towards the ceiling when he shakes the skillet just right, and he opens the last remaining ration tin of milk– no use holding back now. He lifts it in a toast to the curve of her lower lip. One bowl, one fork, one tin between the two of them; they sit near the breeze of the window and pass them back and forth as shadows that slip between their hands in the spiced light.
After all of this, she peels the plum with her teeth, pulling back the skin with deft skill. She has not learned this from him. Because of this he understands who she was as a young girl– the kind of child who grew up around trees with plums that you ate on hot nights at the end of June. He hears her mother tell her not to wipe the juice from her mouth with her dress. She’s a good girl; she uses her hand instead of wiping it across her mouth, each finger searching out wasted juice, and then she licks the stickiness away.
“Your turn,” she says.
“Why do you insist on showing up at my doorstep every time I try to send you somewhere better?” He asks, taking the plum from her hand. A sweet pulpy wetness, like she’s put half of her heart in his palm.
“Why do you insist on opening the door?”
“Asked you first.”
She stands up, wipes the excess off her hands onto her skirt. This she has learned from him, or maybe she broke Momma’s rule all along. He takes a bite of the plum, then another. He swallows without chewing.
“Because I can.” It’s hard to hear what she’s saying, she’s stuck her head and shoulders out the window, into the street. Her fingers braced on either side of the window for balance. “Because they can’t stop me. They can’t tell me who I am.” Her fingers constrict, relax, beating a fragmented rhythm into the wood, aimless and desperate. “Because the entire world’s gone mad.” She mutters into the street. “I’m going mad and I’d just as soon be here when I do it.”
He cups the back of her skull in his hand, as if checking for swelling, or some other such indication of madness. Her last word hangs over the street for a second, one drawn out moment, then dissipates. She has nothing else to say.
“We have five hours until dawn.” He brushes her hair away from the back of her neck, which is salty with sweat, and pries her fingers loose from the window, one at a time. “A long time.”
Her eyes catch him unexpectedly, a flash of lightning on the edge of a horizon. “You owe me my three dollars first,” she whispers. “Pay up.”
He takes his wallet out of his back pocket, and pulls out three crumpled dollar bills. He slides the money down her wrist and tucks it into the band of her short glove. One word for every dollar.
“I. Love. You.”
“You want change for that, mister?”
What follows next is not a surprise.
The room, he will remember, smelled of shattered light and half-eaten plums.
In the time when early morning is a blot of ink dissolved into water, he rolls off the broken mattress in the corner, untangling his legs from the sheets, and he realizes he is alone. His hand touches the coolness out of reflex, searching for her back, for her shoulder, for the thin ridge of scar tissue at the base of her neck (biking accident, age twelve). All this is a reflex, understood by anyone who has lost a limb.
He kicks the sheets across the broken chair and begins to pack his duffel bag, everything he will need for the mission. Food, water, ration kits, money, fake papers, two identical guns. Bullets…a lot of bullets. The wrinkled envelope that contains his death letter to her, the one that she will never see, either way. He finds the note on the windowsill, but he does not read it to find out where she is going. He knows. Safe places. Places Other Than His.
It is now that he understands her presence on the doorstep. She will not fight beside him, she will not die for him, or with him, or any of the above. This is a grace she has given him, this stubborn self-preservation, because she knows that he will not allow himself to live without her.
Three pairs of words on the scrap of note paper: (Amo te. Amabam te. Amabo semper te.)
Underneath, three dollar bills. Weighted down by the stony heart of a plum. He slides the piece of paper into his wallet; later he will mount it on his dashboard in lieu of a picture of her, which he has never had.
He tests the weight of the plum heart in his palm, and then carefully wraps it into the wilted money.
(Cut her throat or love her forever, the usual choices. O the water of love. Amabam. Amabam. Amabo semper.)
Then it’s flying out the open window, arching across the broken streets, arching into the darkness, a wild rocket speeding into darkness under the light of a one-eyed streetlight. It is her heart, his heart, that is flying, wrapped together with all of the cheap, irreplacable things. He is already gone before it falls back to the cement; he will never see them hit the ground. He carries these pieces of her with him into the broken city: the stigmata lace glove, the scrap of note paper.
And on his hands, his mouth, his face, a scent of plums.