The Texture of a Moment
by Carrie Milford
Carrie Milford

Carrie Milford is a senior in the University of Pittsburgh's Creative Writing program. A native of Pittsburgh, she has also lived in California, Washington, D.C., and London. Besides writing, she enjoys traveling, reading, and Mexican food.

The girl seemed to shoot up like a dandelion from the mulch surface of the playground. Jim didn't see her walk up or sit down on the bench next to him, but suddenly she was there.

"Beautiful kids." She was wrapped in a puffy blue coat and a long white scarf that she fiddled with, twirling the loose strings on the end around her polished fingernails. "Are they yours?" She didn't look at Jim but instead stared straight ahead.

"Yes. The one in the red coat is Lana and the one in the green is Maria. Twins." Jim pointed to each of them as they raced up the ladder and down the slide, Maria yelling at Lana to watch out for the lava at the bottom.

"They're very cute. How old?" The girl rubbed her palms against her jeans.

"Just turned five last week."

"That's a good age. Good age." She seemed to consider good ages and bad, right and wrong, all encapsulated in her faded moss eyes that finally turned to face Jim.

"Yes, it is. They don't know how to exist in the world as they should yet. It's nice." Jim met her gaze.

"What do you mean?" She cocked her head to the side slightly, the skin on her forehead scrunching into a "V." Jim thought for a moment, trying to shake himself from the spell the gold flecks in her eyes seem to have cast on him.

"I mean that they don't have any . . . ideas about how they should feel about a person yet. They like someone if the person is nice to them and can make stuffed animals talk in funny voices. They don't see weight or skin color or . . . you know." Jim cracked his knuckles, cursing his sudden inability to be articulate.

"That makes sense. That's a really beautiful way of looking at kids." The girl smiled, the "V" in her forehead replaced with smooth satin. "I'm Lorena." She stuck out her right hand and Jim extended his own. Her palm radiated heat. He studied her hand in his, probably for too long, her red nails striking against the black hairs on his wrist.

"Jim," he answered, dropping her hand and her gaze. They watched Lana and Maria darting around the swing set for a few minutes. Jim kept talking, like some sort of conversation vomit. He picked out words from Lana and Maria's swirl of yelling, talking about how fun it was to hear them find new ways to describe the world. Lorena stayed silent for a few minutes, letting Jim listen to the tinkle of his voice against her skin before she finally spoke.

"Words are such a strange thing, if you think about it. They can mean different things to different people, be so malleable. It's probably better to have as few words as they do. Less complicated." Lorena wrapped the end of her scarf around her palm and held it tight, a white snake caught between red fingernails and pale flesh.

"That's true. Words are deceptive." Jim wanted to hold her interest so that she would look at him again, but Lorena seemed to operate on a different plane where talking about talking made sense and wasn't at all awkward. Jim took a deep breath and tried to find something familiar to hold on to. "I've always been most fascinated by prefixes, more than any other language device, I guess." Jim fiddled with an old gas receipt in his pocket.

"What do you mean?" Lorena asked. She was interested. Jim inhaled her curiosity and used it to fuel confidence.

"I don't know. I guess it seems absurd that words with wildly different implications have the same beginning. Like necrophilia and necrology. A necrology is a list of people who have died, and always crops up in Christian churches on All Saints Day. Necrophilia is the sexual attraction to corpses. It doesn't seem right that these two words have the same beginning, even if they both deal with death." Jim exhaled heavily, feeling as though he had accomplished something more than he had in four years of college, two years of grad school, and fifteen years of working, his explanation as smooth and developed as a thesis statement.

"That's a cool way of looking at words." Lorena said, letting the scarf tumble from her grasp into a wrinkled puddle on her lap. "You know, if you think about it, people are the same way."

"Yeah? How do you mean?" Jim shifted in his seat so he could see her profile better. She was softly constructed, as if from bendable copper and marshmallow fluff, and her eyelashes invited snowflakes. Even from the side, her lips looked as if they could translate the feeling of driving on a highway with the windows down for 300 miles into a simple ten-second kiss.

"Well . . . we all start out the same. We're all born pretty much the same way. But then we spend some time on the Earth and we leave the prefix stage and suddenly the endings of our words make us look at each other differently. Kind of like how you said your daughters don't know how to judge people yet. They will when they've completely left the prefix stage."

Lana screeched for Jim, tearing him violently from his trance. He looked over and Maria had her in a headlock against the slide. He apologized to Lorena and asked her to sit tight while he went over to pry them apart. He pointed out to Maria how mean it was to hurt her sister, how they needed to stick together, and then made Maria apologize. They hugged and made up and Jim went back to the bench.

"So, you were saying?" Jim settled back into the curve of the conversation, drowning out the bubbling of Lana and Maria's laughter and yelling.

"Not much of anything, really." Lorena smiled and tossed her hair over her shoulder. They were silent again, watching the weaving and climbing of the girls' games. "Can I ask you a question, Jim?" Lorena asked after a couple of minutes.


"Do you think people can erase moments from their lives?" Lorena pulled her hair into a ponytail. Jim felt a flutter of disappointment as the wavy strands were tamed into a thick spurt of hair that stretched down her back and curled around her ears, as if trying to escape.

"You'll have to explain that one a little more." He turned back to facing his children as they swung higher and higher on the plastic swings.

"I was just wondering . . . . Imagine your life was plotted on a chalkboard and each moment, the important ones anyway, were written in little paragraphs that grew endlessly as you got older. Do you think you could erase one if it had the wrong effect? If it didn't turn out the way you intended, I mean."

Jim turned to look at Lorena again, trying to find more clues. She couldn't be more than twenty-two or twenty-three, he decided, because the scrunches of skin around her eyes disappeared when she went from a thoughtful expression to an indifferent one. She was a conglomeration of moving colors: green eyes, brown hair, blue coat, white scarf, red nails, brown shoes. She seemed to dance without moving, her colors and words swirling with the crisp air and floating into a seamless pirouette. Jim thought about her question and captured a sigh in his chest. He wouldn't lie to her, and then she would find him as cynical and dry as an elevator in a retirement home.

"I think the problem is, all of those small moments, those chalk paragraphs, are all connected. Erase one and you lose something of yourself. Even when you're their age," Jim pointed to Maria and Lana. Lorena nodded and her shoulders sank a bit. He felt like he'd just told her she was stuck where she was, that there was no way to somewhere different. She was young and hadn't rubbed her life with sandpaper yet and so everything probably still seemed fresh and jagged, as though every decision meant something monumental in the arc of her life. He released the sigh from his chest and crumpled the gas receipt in his palm until it was moist with sweat.

"I guess you're right. It's all part of . . . you're right." Lorena brushed an invisible spot from the sleeve of her jacket, her hand swooshing against the nylon.

"Well what do I know?" Jim asked. "I'm just an old man with a wife and two kids and a suburban house with a porch light that needs to be replaced." Jim smiled and winked, thinking it was the wrong thing to do the moment his top eyelid met his bottom one.

# # #

Claire tried not to wonder why he was fifteen minutes late. Jim was always in his head and sometimes things like the time escaped his observations. But the girls were probably getting cold, and it was dinnertime. They'd be hungry and she had made spaghetti, always a crowd pleaser.

She stood near the kitchen window and fiddled with the edge of the curtain. Outside, it was the color of dulled silver, an un-cleanable tarnish coating the sky. The grass shivered and the few leaves left dangling from tired tree branches seemed to hang on without much hope. Claire scanned the sidewalk by the curve in the road, searching for Jim's khaki coat or the bouncing, bright shapes of Lana and Maria. The pasta water boiled and spit against her sleeve. She turned the heat down on the stove and leaned against the sink with her back to the window. She refused to look like she was waiting. She walked over to the refrigerator and grabbed a head of lettuce, carrots, and a tomato. She tore the lettuce and ran it under cold water, tossing it into the big salad spinner her cousin Jerry had given her and Jim as a wedding present. Then she lined the carrots up on the cutting board and grabbed a knife that was too big for the job.

Claire held the knife in her palm, the dull edge digging into her skin. The carrots separated into satisfying sections but the slice of the knife through orange flesh was not enough to erase her anxiety. Jim was notorious for being five minutes late, but fifteen was strange, especially when he had the girls. She was about to butcher the tomato when she heard the front door squeak open and Maria and Lana's indistinct chatter fill the hallway between the foyer and the kitchen. The door shut and she focused on cutting the tomato in time with her breaths. Jim's voice sounded foreign as it mixed with the girls' chatter. She turned the pasta water back up and gave it a stir. She heard him tell the girls to go upstairs and change. His socked feet padded down the hallway. She put the sliced tomato into the salad bowl and began tossing it with the carrots and the torn lettuce.

"Hey, sorry we were late. I just . . ."

"Lost track of the time?" Claire finished. The tomato juices stung a cut on her left pointer finger. She extracted her hand from the bowl and sucked the juice from the small slice of red, exposed skin.

"Yeah, I'm sorry. They had the whole place to themselves and I didn't notice it getting darker." Jim leaned against the doorframe. He didn't look particularly guilty or winded from running home so as not to worry her. There was a slight flush to his cheeks, but other than that he looked content, even happy. Claire set the knife on the cutting board. She could hear Lana and Maria stomping around their room. There were probably socks flung against the floor and smelly t-shirts strewn across their beds that she would have to pick up later.

"It's not a big deal. Dinner in ten." Claire pushed the salad aside and turned her back to Jim to stir the pasta.

"I'm really sorry, honestly." Jim's voice sank to the floor and crawled over to her, grasping its way to her ears. She knew she had broken him, if just a little, if only just a chip in the side of his calm exterior.

"It's ok, really. It's really not a thing." Claire heard the sharpness in her voice, as if she'd cut her words into choppy, juicy sections along with the tomato.

"Ok . . ." he trailed off. Claire opened the oven before remembering that she'd decided to use microwavable garlic bread. She shut the door and stirred the pasta an unnecessary one more time. She felt Jim leave the room and a few seconds later heard his footsteps on the stairs above her head. She shut the water off and drained the noodles into the strainer in the sink. The steam fogged up the window and she drew a little flower in the condensation.

Her mother had always warned her that picking a fight with a husband was useless. It only led to an unhappy dinner table, she'd said. It could even cool the food and remove the spice, make your mouth taste like stale bread and sour milk, no matter how crisp the preparation, how well set the table. Claire took a deep breath and spooned spaghetti onto four plates, trying to focus on the way warm noodles felt against cool plates.

After Claire had settled the girls into their chairs and placed plates of spaghetti in front of everyone, she took a minute to look at Jim in a way she hadn't in a while, as if he were someone she didn't sleep next to and share a toothbrush holder with. He hadn't shaved in a few days because he'd been working from home instead of going into the office this week. There were flecks of gray buried in the black of his stubble. As he chewed, light creases formed along the edge of his mouth. He reached across the table to stop Lana from picking up the spaghetti with her hands and wiped the sauce off of her hand on a napkin. Claire searched the rising of his chest, the flecks of gold in his brown eyes, and tried to dig up what it was about him that had made her want to sit across the table from him for the rest of her life.

# # #

Jim knew he shouldn't time his day around her. As a child, he had learned that hope was an expectation built of mismatched bricks and poorly mixed cement, something to avoid at all costs because it inevitably led to a pile of crumbled disappointments. Besides, Claire had taken the girls to ballet, so he had no real reason to be at the park. And just because Lorena was at the park last Tuesday at five o'clock didn't mean she would be there again this Tuesday. And even if she was, there was no reason for him to place himself in her presence. She was too young. He was married. She probably wasn't interested anyway. He was just attracted, and attraction faded and yellowed like newspaper print.

The arguments to stay in his home office were lost in folds of curiosity and desire to see Lorena's green eyes again, and so Jim found himself on the bench with his binder of research. It was a nice day, unnaturally warm and sunny for November in Germantown, Maryland. He could read about countries that received U.S. aid and used child soldiers in the peace of the sunshine and the sleeping trees. Burma, Chad, Somalia, Sri Lanka. Jim dragged his highlighter across the countries, trying to imagine his own children, trying to remember why he had cared so much about this research a week ago.

He told himself that he wasn't looking for her, just getting a change of scenery. But the thought of seeing the curve of Lorena's thighs and the jumble of shiny brown hair fall across the hood of her jacket made his eyes constantly flit from the page to the sidewalk behind him. He managed to read three pages and underline two more countries that were probably using U.S. aid money to stockpile weapons and starve child soldiers before she appeared beside him.

"I guess you come here often." Lorena smiled and crossed her right leg over her left. Jim glanced at her tight-clad leg as it jutted from beneath her skirt and snuggled into her black boot.

"Often enough. I live just up the street and this is the closest park." Jim smiled and sandwiched his highlighter in the binder to save his place.

"What are you reading?" Lorena pointed at the binder. She was wearing nail polish the color of a cartoon flamingo today.

"Just some things for work. Nothing exciting."

"Oh yeah? Where do you work?"

"CDI. Center for Defense Information. It's a think tank based in D.C." Jim fought to keep his gaze on a spot between Lorena's eyebrows, but she was jiggling her leg and the fabric of her green skirt was splashing across her thigh.

"That doesn't sound boring at all." Lorena uncrossed her legs and drifted further toward the back of the bench.

"I guess it's not. I'm just so used to it. It's just a job. I mean, I'm not James Bond or something cool like that." Was he imagining it, or had she shifted closer to him, even if just an inch?

"Well, James Bond isn't real." Lorena shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket.

"Touché." Jim said.

The breeze kicked up a parade of leaves that marched over their shoes and settled into a heap at the edge of the bench. Jim fiddled with the zipper on his jacket and tried to think of a way to hold her interest, the same panicked feeling from last week swirling in his stomach as he flipped through topics in his brain and discarded all of them.

"So what do you do?" He settled for small talk.

"Nothing much. Things here and there. Mostly, I work at the ice cream place near the mall. On the weekends I take photos." Lorena placed her purse on her lap.

"Photos, huh? Like, artistically or for weddings or . . . ?"

"A mixture of both. The weddings help pay the bills." Lorena pushed a stray leaf with the toe of her boot.

"Sure, sure." Every question Jim asked seemed to elicit short answers and he felt himself longing for her to show up even as she sat beside him.

# # #

Claire tried to tune out Maria and Lana as they fought in the backseat. It was over who got to be the fairy queen when they got back to the house and who had to be the princess, or something like that. The radio chattered pretentious NPR noise from the speakers next to the vents blasting dry air. Claire punched the radio off and inhaled deeply, trying to remember the relaxing exercises she had learned in the yoga class she'd taken a few years back. She turned the SUV onto their street and braked at the stop sign near the park. She saw the girl before she saw Jim. She had the hair Claire had always wanted, a deep chestnut color that seemed alive in the sunlight. Probably from a bottle, Claire thought, and just then she saw Jim walking a few feet behind the girl, disappearing behind trees every few steps.

Claire paused, her foot arched against the brake pedal and ready to shift to the accelerator. Jim and the girl were walking the opposite direction from the house. Jim jogged a bit to catch up to the girl. They were far enough away that Claire couldn't see if they were talking, if Jim was looking somewhere besides straight ahead.

"Mommy! Maria won't let me be the queen and she got to be last time so it's my turn!" Lana was near tears.

"I'm queen." Maria crossed her arms against her chest and slammed her back against her car seat throne. Claire shifted her gaze to the rearview mirror and watched Lana pawing for Maria's jacket.

"That's enough. Enough. We'll be home in a minute. You have to be quiet until then." Claire focused on the endpoint, their driveway, just a few hundred yards around the curve in the road. The girls didn't listen of course, and kept chattering at each other. But Lana did retract her hand from Maria's jacket and made a fist on her lap instead.

Once they pulled into the driveway, Claire released the girls from their car seats and watched them totter towards the backyard. She walked into the house and hung her coat up on the rack before putting water on for tea. She felt strange in her clothes, in her house, as if she had become someone else in the past two minutes and now she was breaking into someone else's hell.

Claire watched the girls through the window over the sink. They were at the edge of the backyard, playing on some stumps from two elm trees that had died last spring and had to be cut down. The trees were growing too close together and had strangled each other beneath the grass, their roots twisting and suffocating in the damp soil until the bark on each tree turned gray. Claire had made Jim wait to cut them down until late spring, just to make sure they weren't hibernating a little longer than normal. She woke up every morning and walked out to the trees in her slippers and sweatshirt, always hoping to find even one green bud bursting from a translucent casing. By May, it was clear no leaves were coming back and there was nothing they could do to save the trees. Jim had cut them down with an ax they'd borrowed from the neighbor.

Claire tugged her sweater closer around her as she watched Lana sitting on the shorter tree stump, her head resting in the palms of her hands. Maria was standing on the taller tree trunk, her left hand clasped around a twig scepter that she pointed at invisible subjects. Clearly, Lana had lost the argument.

The teakettle screamed and Claire poured near boiling water into a mug and ripped open a tea bag packet. She pulled a chair from the kitchen table to a spot in front of the sliding glass door and sat down. She raised and lowered the teabag, creating clouds of brown in the formerly clear water, and thought about how this time six years ago she had been at the seamstress, or maybe at the photographer's office. She had been skipping and gliding across town with her sister, Georgia—her binder of dreams and actual preparations stapled to her arm. There was always somewhere to be, some arrangement to be made, some relative in need of coddling. The organization of the binder had given her fuel, made her eyes giant brown orbs of flower arrangements and bridesmaid dress sizes and cake frosting options.

If someone asked Claire to make a wish, she would ask to be ignorant of what happens when the binder becomes useless. She would want to believe that once her garter was gone, once the flowers rotted, once the plates were soiled, that every moment in her resulting life could be organized just like that binder. At the very least, she would wish for a future with a plot worth following.

# # #

Jim jogged to catch up with Lorena, who was halfway up the mulch path from the park. A car sped away from the stop sign, its engine noises ricocheting off of the trees. By the time he caught up with Lorena, they were on the sidewalk walking away from his house.

"So, like I was saying, I try to find something new with the same color blue in it every weekend. Then I take a black and white photo with just the blue part in color," Lorena ran a hand through her hair.

"So it's a continuous project?" Jim fell into step with Lorena.

"Yeah. I've been working on it for a little under a year, I guess." Lorena made a small swooping motion with her arms. Maybe it was because of her nail polish, but the gesture reminded him of a flamingo about to take flight, its pink body reflecting against the shallow African water it had been anchored in moments before. He imagined Lorena soaring above a savannah in the late afternoon, the gold of the sun pale in comparison to the striking sheen of her hair.

"That's impressive. You know, that you've been interested in the same thing for that long." He felt his lungs fighting Lorena's pace. She was on the shorter side and her legs were half the length of his, but her strides were as large as her ideas.

"Because I'm young?" Lorena smirked.

"No, because you're human, I think."

"Oh, a funny man?" Lorena let out a little laugh that was gruffer than Jim might have imagined her laugh to be.

"Oh yeah. I'm headlining a comedy club all week," Jim laughed too, but really he had begun to wonder whether Lorena was something and not someone. He suspected that she was a creature from somewhere without phone bills or burnt grilled cheese, a place more concerned with the texture of a moment than with the expanse of a lifetime.

# # #

It was seven o'clock. Jim wasn't home yet. How long did it take him to fuck, anyway? Claire couldn't really remember. Maybe he could keep it up longer for someone with smooth skin and a bounce in her step.

Lana and Maria sat in front of Dumbo. They had eaten and had baths and were content to rest on oversized stuffed bears in front of the television. The television was magical, turning their voices off instantly and melting a filmy glaze across their eyes.

Claire sat on the couch behind the girls, watching the chests of their footy pajamas rising and falling steadily. Dumbo was a sad movie, she thought as she sipped her second glass of Pinot Noir. None of the characters get to go back to when they were happy. What a cop out, Walt Disney. Wasn't he the king of happily ever after?

The telephone rang. It was a wrong number, but the caller refused to hang up. Instead, she insisted that Jillian had given her this number.

"Three-zero-one, five-five-five, zero-one-nine-one," The woman on the other end of the phone repeated slowly, breathing a kind of importance into each number usually reserved for late night confessions over cheap vodka.

"Yes, that's this number, but there isn't a Jillian living here," Claire answered, taking a deep breath and trying to conjure patience from the bottom of her almost empty wine glass.

"But she wrote it down, and specifically told me to call at seven, and . . ."

"I'm really sorry, I wish I could help. But Jillian doesn't live here."

"All right, okay. Well, thank you anyway." Claire found herself feeling sorry for the woman. She envied the woman's ability to let her exasperation crumble into her voice, seemingly without guilt. Claire felt camaraderie with this woman, who clearly thought she knew what she was getting into.

"Maybe one of the 'ones' was supposed to be a seven?" Claire offered.

"Perhaps. That makes sense. I'll try that. Thank you." The woman hung up and Claire placed the phone back in the cradle.

Lana and Maria had collapsed into each other and their breaths were slower and steadier than normal. Claire watched them sleep and imagined how heavy their limp forms would be to carry upstairs to their beds. She took another sip of wine as Dumbo flew down from a burning building and landed on a big trampoline that looked as if it was made of wet paper.

Her mind wandered from the movie, from the kids, from the wrong number woman. She found herself imagining that Jim might actually enjoy post-coital cuddling with the hair dye girl. She could see him fingering the ends of the girl's perfect hair, admiring the way her skin felt against his. At the very least, he probably wouldn't curl away to his side of the bed like the edge of a library book page. When was the last time they'd had sex? Six months ago? Claire finished the glass of wine and sunk into the couch cushions.

# # #

Jim watched Lorena spread the photos across the floor as if she were setting up a giant chess game. She crouched with her knees pressed together, her gray tights pulled thinly across her thighs. Jim smiled as she hopped backwards to place more photos on the ground. There was something graceful about her surprising movements, something intriguing about the way her pink fingernails looked against her hair as she tucked it behind her ear. She placed the last photo at the end of the last row, which was encroaching from the living room into the hallway of her apartment. There were at least fifty photos, each black and white with a shock of robin's egg blue somewhere in the photo.

Jim paced the exterior of the photo chessboard. The picture in the top left corner was a close up of a woman's upper chest, a brilliant turquoise stone resting at the bottom of her clavicle bone on the end of a thin silver chain. One in the third row down was peppered with grayscale trees, except for a blue plastic shopping bag floating from a twig in the lower right hand corner. The last photo that Lorena had taken was of the park they had just left, everything gray but the heavy-duty blue plastic of the swings.

"These are incredible." Jim looked up at Lorena, who was sitting cross-legged on the couch. She had taken her boots off and she was tugging at the toe of her tights.

"Thanks. I mean, they aren't really anything special." Lorena smiled.

"Maybe not by themselves, but one after another like this . . . I don't know. It's almost like," Jim paused and ran his hand through his hair. "It's almost like everything in all of the photos melts together except for the blue things. They seem alive."

Lorena cocked her head and grinned, releasing her tights and folding her arms across her chest.

"You have a little bit of artist in you, huh?"

"Not really. I just know when I see something I like." Jim shrugged. He watched Lorena uncross her legs and walk toward the kitchen, her skirt swaying in an imaginary breeze. He stood paralyzed at the edge of the coffee table.

"You want something to drink?" Lorena shouted, her voice muted by the walls between them.

"No, I'm good." Jim swallowed, a thick ball of something that tasted like metal inching down his throat. He suddenly felt that he was an intruder in Lorena's gray world, that he wasn't blue enough to stand on her carpet. His hands felt like thawing ice. He thought of the colors of his living room at home, how everything was disorganized in a familiar way that made him feel solid. When Lorena walked back into the living room with two glasses of water he was surprised to see her. It was as if he had expected Claire instead of Lorena. She tiptoed around the photos and handed him one of the glasses.

"Just in case you get thirsty. Have a seat, if you'd like." She gestured toward the couch with her free hand.

"Thanks." Jim sat on the far side of the couch and Lorena sat next to him, maybe a foot away. He swore he could feel the heat from her hip, could smell her shampoo, something like a mixture of lilacs and that exhausted feeling you have after you swim for hours on a dry summer day. He gulped down an uncomfortable amount of water.

"So you haven't told me what exactly you do at CDI." Lorena took a sip of water then lowered the glass and let it perch on her palm.

"It's really no big deal, just research and trying to . . . trying to . . ." Jim trailed off, losing his words in a photo in the fourth row. It was a picture of Claire, walking down the sidewalk by the park. It had to have been from a few months ago, because she had cut her hair and it was no longer same shoulder length as it was in the photo but was cropped just beneath her ears in chunky layers. Everything was gray, black, white, eggshell colored, except the blue of Claire's tennis shoes.

"Jim? Are you okay?"

Jim realized that his hand had moved along the cushion of the couch until it rested next to Lorena's leg. The edge of his palm quietly grazed the fabric of her skirt and he jerked his hand back as if he'd touched a hot pan he expected to be cool.

"Jim?" Lorena scooted away from him, just an inch, enough to communicate her apprehension.

"Sorry. Yeah, wow, it's eight o'clock already? I really have to go. Claire will be . . . I really need to go." Jim didn't take his eyes from the photo. He looked at the Claire in the photo, a Claire who was looking over her shoulder for something, her jaw bone a perfect line running from her ear to the soft angle of her chin.

"Of course, no problem. Thanks for looking at my photos." Lorena said as Jim edged toward the door, his eyes still on Claire's jawbone. As soon as he found himself on the sidewalk outside Lorena's building he allowed himself to breathe again.

# # #

Claire had tucked the girls in and read them a quick Peter Rabbit story before slipping into a pink cotton nightgown. It was only 8:30, but she unmade the bed and spread out between the sheets. It was getting colder. This was one of the first nights she'd need the comforter.

Claire clicked the TV on and watched ads blink across the screen. She should probably be angry, surprised, or at least worried. She jiggled her legs, as if the emotions were lodged in the muscles beneath her knees. She only felt that this night had been a long time coming.

The front door creaked open and Claire heard Jim toss his keys on the table in the foyer. A few seconds later she heard him hit the squeaky board outside their bedroom. A second later he was standing in the doorway.


"Hey," Claire answered, not turning her eyes from the ad for Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

"I'm sorry I'm late. I went to the coffee shop. I was caught up in my research." Jim tapped the binder in the crook of his arm as if this prop demonstrated his honesty.

"No problem." Claire flipped the channel to an Animal Planet special on dolphins. She felt Jim's gaze enflame her skin. She settled further into the bed, pulling the comforter around her neck.

"Okay, well. Okay. I'm really sorry you had to take care of the girls by yourself today. I can make dinner tomorrow, if you'd like." Jim walked farther into the bedroom and peeled off his sweatshirt.

"Sure, that would be nice." Claire's heart was beating quickly. She put her hand on her stomach underneath the sheets, looking for her center of gravity. Jim had gone into the bathroom and she heard him running water, brushing his teeth. A few minutes later he emerged in his boxers and a gray t-shirt. He slipped into bed next to her and pulled the comforter up around his neck as well.

"Mind if we go to bed early tonight? I'm beat." He flipped the light out on his nightstand and turned so his back was to Claire.

"Sure. I'm tired, too." Claire turned the TV off and the room was abruptly dark. She curled toward her nightstand, her back to Jim's back. Their bodies made a shape like the space between the stumps in the backyard. Claire stared at the curtains. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, the folds and billows of the fabric became clearer. Her heartbeat had returned to normal and she felt a sense of distorted pride. Jim had acted just as Claire had predicted he would, detached from her and the life they led, totally ignorant that she knew he hadn't been at the coffee shop.

Her eyelids started to feel impossible to hold up and she let them close. Claire tried to relax into her darkness and find the threads of sleep she longed for. She had been concentrating on weaving sleep for at least twenty minutes when she felt Jim's hand trace the curve of her spine. She flinched as his fingers found each dip and mountain of bone. Claire kept her eyes shut. She didn't turn over.

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