Before I go to sleep, I make the bed. I like that neat square: all the corners lined up, all the corners folded over each other. Sheets, blanket, comforter, pillowcase. For five minutes, I lie on top, then slowly crawl under, upsetting everything.
No one ever makes the bed in the morning. The rumpled landscape stays—hills, plateaus, valleys—casting bewitching shadows in the afternoon. Sometimes, I think the shape holds the shapes of our bodies, sleeping. But mostly, I think it holds the shape of our bodies leaving: the places where a head lifted up, a leg slid out, a person rose. I’m always gone before A in the morning. I don’t know how she wakes up. But at night when I smooth her sheets, I imagine how she might transition out of her sleep: shoving the covers back, lifting herself up all at once, as out of water. Once, in a Minnesota lake, she hid from me for a full minute under the flat, black surface. She came out without explanation, clamored onto the dock and toweled dry. I think her waking must be like that—abrupt, but efficient.
At night, I lie down and think for a long time about how she should find my body. Should I be on my back, like an untroubled man, like a patient waiting for the operation? I could be like that, practical about the tasks sleep will perform on me. It’s just sleep, after all. Or should I be found coiled up, twisted in the sheets, sweaty with dreams, with waiting? Would she be sorry then? Would she come to me from her side of the bed, would she put her arms around me?
While I exchange one position for the next, turning over and over on the bed, night comes down on top of me. I should say, it sits down on top of me, so I can’t move, so I can no longer consider my options. I do not ever know how she finds me. When I wake, it’s too late for the traffic outside, too late for the TV in the neighboring apartment, too late for the dogs calling out against the sirens.
And she is in my arms, curled effortlessly against me.
She tells me I’m a lunatic, it’s not like she’s having an affair. I think that’s probably true. She’s never been good at subtlety or deception. When we were first married, she came to bed with me every night, settled her naked body on top of mine, settled her face in my neck. I could tell she liked it, but she wasn’t romantic in the least. She arranged her breasts on my ribs and said, “Watch where you stick that knee.” After I covered her face with kisses, she nodded approvingly, saying, “That’s it, there we go.” Then she put her head down and went to work. It was only afterward, when she was panting, when she was pulling her hair from my mouth, that she grew conversational. Then she wanted to discuss things. She wanted to tell me the names of horses she rode as a child. She wanted to talk about China.
But she never wanted to fall asleep. Sometimes, she waited until I drifted off before creeping out, fumbling for her shirt and socks, slipping through the door. I’d wake when she sat up and watch her prepare to go, shaking her hair loose from her collar. Sometimes, she just tucked me under the sheet, kissed my head, and left, hauling her clothes after her. In the morning, she was nonchalant. She said, when asked, she simply couldn’t fall asleep right away.
“Would not,” I said, after a couple months of this.
“You don’t choose to fall asleep.”
“You choose to try.”
“How do you know if I’m trying or not?” She bit into the toast with just her teeth, keeping her lips clean.
“You stay with me for, like, five minutes.”
“What good is trying something that won’t work? It’s a waste of time.” She deposited the toast in the trash, brushing her fingers. “Anyhow, what would you know? You’re an easy sleeper.” She made it sound like a personality fault, a lack of refinement.
I was an easy sleeper, though; she was right—or at least I had been. As a child, I didn’t have nightmares or wet the bed. I didn’t wake in a sweat and worry about the shadows raking the windows. I just set my head down and switched off. It didn’t feel like I was doing anything at all: it was like digesting food, it was like disappearing. After my father died, my mother let me sleep wherever I wanted because she pitied me, and I frightened her with my resilience. (I did not sob when I heard he’d been in a crash. He did not visit me in my dreams like she told me he would. He did not sit at the foot of my bed and stroke his double chin and say he missed me.) My mother let me sleep in the plastic dog kennel, or under the kitchen table, or sprawled like a beached sea mammal on the living room floor. It suited her to tell her friends I was working through issues of disorientation. In truth, I just fell asleep when and where I was tired. I felt I’d been excused from certain human rules because of an unrelated tragedy.
By the time I was an adult, I could sleep anywhere I chose. In college, I dozed at the solemn, boring ends of parties and lectures. Later at Fenco, I took tiny, controlled naps at my desk. I propped my chin in my hand, thought about Montana or sea lions, then slipped away and back again. When my colleagues—suspicious, envious—asked, “Were you sleeping, Mason?” it never really seemed that I had. I couldn’t understand their resentment. It seemed like an unremarkable function of the body, like pissing or blowing your nose, something that warranted little discussion.
But after A and I got married, after we packed up her brother’s car in Winona and moved to Saint Louis, I started thinking about it a lot. In the beginning, when A didn’t fall asleep after sex, I thought it was just the new place: the way the gas station next door lit up the room, the way the neighbor’s dog howled and whined, the way the sheets smelled like a department store and the walls smelled like mold. I thought she was just nervous, worried that we’d gotten married too quickly and moved too far away from home, to a city neither of us knew. Once, on the Fourth of July, when our neighbors were setting off fireworks on the sidewalk outside our window, she looked at me and said, “You look like someone I’ve never met.” But then she sucked me off, neatly, wiping her chin afterward, and her anxieties seemed natural and temporary. Unfounded. I was sure she felt so too.
Some nights I’d stay up with her and we’d watch dating shows with couples in hot tubs, people who were drunk and nearly naked and too nervous about the cameras to talk or touch. Sometimes, I felt we were on those dates as well, that we were both sitting there and watching ourselves perform, wondering what the audience would make of us. I said, leaning in, trying to put my arm around her, “That man looks like Jesus. He looks like Jesus, doesn’t he? Look at that hair.”
She said, “Yes,” and for a moment, it seemed funny and real. Our marriage.
Still, she wouldn’t come to bed—even when the programming switched to infomercials selling dehydrators, close-ups on the screen of wrinkled vegetables, like the faces of old men. The host grinned with whitened teeth, and we could not talk about him, he was so painfully enthusiastic. He wanted to sell us dehydrators because he had nothing left to hope for in his career. He had given up, he could not admit it to himself, he had a machine that would shrivel grapes. Sometimes, watching these shows, I grew angry in a woozy, undirected way, and then I’d dip into sudden darkness.
I’d wake up with my head in a cushion crack and A gone. I could hear her typing on her laptop in another room.
I thought maybe she was an insomniac. I thought maybe she went through a traumatic event as a child, something she barely knew affected her so deeply. I grew confident she had a secret, and I waited for it to come out, prompting her gently. “A, did you get along with your parents? Did you play with other children? Did you have a mean aunt?” I thought I knew how anxieties managed their invisible claws, pulling them in and padding about, like cats. I thought I knew how history surfaced.
And yet, I had to admit A seemed genuinely untroubled. Night after night, long after I’d given up and crawled into bed, I’d wake and find her snoring gently next to me. Her body was so small and limp next to mine, so ridiculously peaceful. Beneath my hand, I could feel her breath move her ribs, the space between them widening and narrowing. My own chest felt tight and fixed. I couldn’t breathe correctly. I’d lean against her and try to stay awake, try to keep from giving in and forgetting she was there beside me. That’s when I began to feel she kept the act of falling asleep from me, on purpose. She didn’t really trust me. It seemed, in a vaguely competitive way, to be a matter of discrimination and attitude. Control.
One morning she wasn’t there when I woke up at dawn. I found her crouched on the living room floor with a mixing bowl and long, white gloves. It took me a minute to understand that the gloves were a thin dusting of flour.
“Mason, help me, okay?” She touched her nose with a white knuckle. “You look like I’ve insulted your hairstyle. What’s wrong?”
“What the hell have you been doing?” I didn’t say all night, I didn’t push her.
A sighed. She explained she was folding closed the mouths of dumplings for the Chinese New Year, pinching the white lips around the filling, laying them out in rows. She’d been doing this for hours. Look, the coffee table was covered with them.
She narrowed her eyes. “Did I make too many? Clear off the desk, Mason. We’re out of room.”
“There are things on the desk.”
“That’s why I said clear it off. Or I’ll do it. Here.”
I took the little ball of dough she placed in my hands, but I did not flatten it like she showed me. The dumplings were for the Fengs, who ran an international adoption agency on the first floor of our building. A had invited them to dinner because she had been taken recently with the idea of getting a baby. She’d mentioned it a couple times, but I could never quite follow her reasoning. The idea seemed both too virtuous and too theoretical, a distraction.
“Have you been writing someone on-line? Is it an internet thing?”
A shook her head and looked sorry, as if I’d made a mistake too predictable to correct. “Yes, Mason, if that’s what you want to think. Yes. I have a virtual lover and I fuck him in my thoughts.”
We boiled the dumplings and watched them bloat, surge to the surface. Then we lifted them out one by one with a slotted spoon, separating the mangled ones from the clean ones. We were surprisingly good at work like this, jobs that required careful sorting and not much communication. We agreed to eat the worst ones right away, stabbing them with forks and waving away steam. The good ones, yellow, stuffed as satchels, we wrapped in foil and froze for the Fengs.
Our marriage had always depended, to a certain extent, on recognizing together the difference between public and private consumption.
I brought home gifts. I bought a black mask with satin ribbons that tied in the back, the sort of thing rich widows wear in movies. I purchased medicinal herbs, a new comforter, earplugs that looked like green gumdrops. I got a small fan that clipped onto the back of the bed and hummed gently, erasing other sounds with white noise. At first, A was surprised by my efforts, then amused. At the dinner table, she put on the mask and earplugs, groping her way around to my side and knocking the salt in a white spray on the floor. She sang, “Marco! Marco! Marco!”
I told her I was trying to make things easier for her.
I took her in my lap and plucked out her earplugs. When she pulled off the mask, her hair got caught in the ribbons and she had to fiddle with the knot.
I repeated what I said, and she sighed. “Mason, what is this really about?”
I got angry then because she didn’t know, and it seemed simple enough. She seemed rested and oblivious, energetic even. She wasn’t drained and irritable, harried in the way of people who have been deprived of sleep. Her eyes were not red and weepy. Rather she was vital and pitying, looking down at me and stroking my hair. She seemed unnatural to me, unnecessarily cold. I stood up, scooting her off my lap, freeing myself from the bright health of her body. “I’m not the one here who’s messed up,” I informed her. “Don’t make it seem like that.”
My alarm went off when it was still dark, and I waited for the rush of bitterness to wake me up, the discovery of A’s absence. By now my injustice felt familiar and correct, a superior moral position. It was almost disappointing to find A there, curled around me innocently as sheets. I nudged her awake. “Get up. Have breakfast,” but she didn’t even open her eyes. She said she was sleeping. She said Good Night.
I left her like that, coiled under blankets, and arrived at work earlier than usual. It was a hole of an office, but I appreciated the way it stayed the same day after day. It was always chilly and brightly lit. I thought I was performing my job decently enough, but one day Mabel from Financing surprised me by touching my hand when we were eating lunch. She said, “Tell me what’s wrong with you, Mason.”
I stared at her. “You have mayonnaise on your thumb.”
She licked it off, “You don’t seem happy.”
I didn’t like that I liked her sympathy. Three years ago, Mabel suffered a stroke so now her right eye drooped, sorrowfully. She had a way of tilting her head that made her appear very focused and very young, the way a precocious, unloved child might look at you.
“My wife won’t sleep with me,” I confessed.
“Is she sleeping with someone else? Do you know who she’s with?” Mabel’s look was the same as it always was: appalled and interested.
I admitted I did not.
She took a minute to think this over. Then she grew matter-of-fact, pulling a hard-boiled egg from her sack and prying off bits of shell with a fingernail. She told me there were certain ways to deal with these things. Do you know what I mean? she asked. I shook my head. She told me I needed to go fuck the guy up, whoever he was.
“Won’t that just make the situation worse?” But my heart was pounding.
“Mason, this is for you. Not the situation.”
That night, I spent a few hours after work at McDuffy’s downtown, and when I got home it was late, bright-gloomy, the sky lighter than you’d expect for ten-thirty, like an empty stadium before the last light goes out. I found A on a step ladder in our living room, wearing a pastel cooking apron and reading glasses. She’d pushed the furniture to the center of the room and purchased a tall column of paint canisters: bright white to cover the dull white that was there before. She wanted me to help out, but I didn’t like how the new paint was so shiny under A’s brush, how it went on like saliva in long, wet streaks. I could only tell that it was there for a few seconds before it started to dry, disappear.
“Come to bed?” I asked her.
I hadn’t yet set down my bag, my umbrella.
She murmured, “Not yet, not yet.”
I looked at her then, at her thin, bony face, and remembered how she once smoothed down her eyebrows with lip balm. We’d been at my mother’s house, between courses, and she’d seemed so ingenious and strange to me then, almost horrible.
I didn’t want to beg.
“Can’t the rest wait?” My throat ached. I wanted to touch her and get away, all at once.
I thought of the dumplings, now icy rocks in the freezer. “Is this to impress the Fengs, too?”
“It’s for us,” she corrected carefully. “We live here.”
I do not stay up with A anymore; I do not indulge her. I leave the door open when I go to bed so I can hear her moving around out there, the shift of the floorboards when she steps, the water running in the sink. I tell myself I’m not waiting for her, but my mind feels scraped open, empty. At two, the lights from the gas station turn off, and the room swings into a deeper darkness. This seems to make things clearer to me for an instant; I sit up and lie back down. I try to retrieve some thought that has scrabbled its tiny claws over me. I can hear A in the other room, humming ‘Grand Ole Flag.’ I can hear her lover in there too: I want him to be there, I dream him, I make him up. I hate him so much it makes me sick, but that’s not a bad feeling at all. It’s a decent, natural sort of loathing. He is, after all, rugged and self-involved, the sort of guy I snubbed in college. Probably A has put him to work, and he’s good at it too: dipping his brush deep into the can, running it up and down in easy, gliding lines. While he’s working, A sets about exploring him in her practical way, like a landscape, like the face of some pretty cliff. She believes she’s keeping him quiet, touching him slowly with her fingers from behind, setting one hand over his dick and one hand over his mouth. But the reason he’s quiet is because he has nothing to say. He keeps her busy. He doesn’t want or need anything. He fucks her on the floor and leaves before she’s through.
A has turned off all the lights. I can hear her in the bathroom, and then she’s out. She’s standing in the doorway. I think I see her standing in the doorway, but I can’t tell. I want to flick on the lights and catch her walking in, catch the startled look on her face, the wince. But she does not come.
Then I think: With those hands that painted our walls, A’s lover will surprise her. He’s unpredictable, powerful. He won’t stand in some lake and wait like I did—his nipples turning into scabs—while A hides beneath the surface. He will not shiver and despise her. I think A’s lover will dive under, open his eyes, see A’s scrawny white legs and drifting white arms, grab her. And she will shriek. She’ll scare the ducks bobbing on the surface of the lake. He’ll pull her hair with his hand.
As always when I wake up, A is sleeping gently.
On the day the Fengs were coming to dinner, A asked me to be home early. She called me at work in the afternoon, anxiously describing a cucumber she wanted, and I could feel each coil on the phone cord, each plasticy noose around my finger. I was exhausted, inarticulate, but I could still say what I needed to say. I told her I’d come.
I put on my jacket and shut down the computer, deciding to take a little nap in the car before I drove home. In truth, I could feel the nap before it started, that ready nest of darkness like a hole I’d dug, a secret burrow. Mabel walked out to the parking lot with me because she wanted a ride to her bus stop. She held my wrist, and her hand was thick and wet, immovable. I told her I was going to take a nap before I went anywhere, just for five minutes. She said, fine, she’d wait.
I cranked back the driver’s seat and opened the window, watching a bit of snow catch in the gray air and drop. For a second I leaned back and everything stopped. But then I felt a throb in my hips and neck, my gut clenching. The snow swirled and covered the windshield and blew off, miraculously disappearing. In the end, I didn’t feel sleepy at all. I felt as though I were riding my body to someplace new, somewhere more interesting.
“Awake already?” Mabel asked from the passenger seat.
“I can’t sleep!” I confessed. It seemed that I’d discovered something A had kept from me. “I can’t sleep, but I’m so tired!” I was exhilarated by the prospect.
Mabel groaned, shaking her vulture face. She turned on the radio and commanded me to close my eyes as NPR warned of hurricanes abroad, bled into tinny banjos and an old man crooning.
“For Pete’s sake,” Mabel said, impatiently soothing. “You got to relax.”
I told her it wouldn’t work. I explained that it wasn’t as easy as that. But then my eyes were closed, and it was.
When the Fengs arrived for dinner, they took off their shoes at the door and tiptoed around in black socks with gold toes. They hadn’t been to our apartment before, and they wanted to see if it was the same layout as their office on the first floor. Polite and appreciative, they liked best the objects we hung on our walls. “Nice clock,” they said. “Good calendar.”
I admit this praise made me vaguely proud, as if our belongings revealed some measure of discernment I didn’t know we possessed. I could tell A was pleased as well; she kept touching items on tables, straightening pillows, running her hands over glasses and chairs. She said, bashfully, “We painted in here, but it doesn’t look very different.”
“Very white!” Mrs. Feng pointed out, so A blushed with pleasure.
When the Lenten bells started ringing down the street, we negotiated places at the dinner table and hovered over our chairs until Mrs. Feng sat down. She laughed because the table came up to her chest. She looked something like our gray, obedient child, poised for a test of etiquette at her first dinner party. Mr. Feng came with a pillow from the couch, and she stood up gracefully and sat down again, a choreographed set of movements. Someone’s strand of hair drifted over the candles.
A and I brought out the dumplings and sauces. We had boiled the dumplings a second time and piled their slippery bodies in the center of a large platter. They shined like yellow shells washed up on a shore, but when we bit into them, they were rubbery and difficult to swallow.
“Happy New Year!” A cried, hopefully, embarrassed.
“Happy to you!” Mrs. Feng said. And Mr. Feng nodded, apparently approving.
When did A and I relax? I thought about how eager we must look to the Fengs, how young and happy. The Fengs had been in the United States for twenty years, but it seemed important to me to impress them with our American vitality. I wanted them to be envious.
After a while, Mr. Feng asked A, “Where do you work?” and A said, “I’ve taken some time off since we moved. To get, you know, settled.” She looked over at me and shrugged. “We were hoping to start a family, but things haven’t worked out just right yet.”
By then Mr. Feng was pushing a dumpling into his mouth, but Mrs. Feng set her chopsticks down and looked at A in a way I didn’t quite understand, almost tenderly. She began describing her own children in a serious and well-organized fashion, as if arguing the merits of politicians she wanted us to support. She called them her babies, though they were now in their thirties and ran a software development company. Her babies spoke German and collected orchids, apparently, as well as other exotic flowers whose names I did not recognize and could not bring myself to imagine. When A started asking questions, I went to the kitchen and arranged the fruit on a plate. Tiny oranges, green apples, grapes. I peeled the oranges and plucked out the luminous, half-moon shapes, a bright citrus scent filling the room.
I announced, “I heard fruit on the Lunar New Year brings good luck!”
Mr. Feng turned to me. “Yes, and new clothes.” He scooted his chair out and lifted a black-socked foot, wiggling his gold toes gamely. By that time, he’d had more than a bit of wine.
I nodded, almost delighted, almost careless now. “What else?”
“Money!” Mrs. Feng laughed.
“I always want good dreams,” Mr. Feng said. “Do you dream last night?”
I realized, suddenly, I did. The dream came back to me then, extraordinary and clear, like a flush of good fortune. It seemed I had never dreamt so vividly before, and I wanted everyone to know that I, too, was blessed by portents. I wanted A to know this, to see how well I could get along. “It was about my dead father!”
Mr. Feng clapped his hands. “Good boy! What did father say?”
It seemed important to remember exactly. I had never dreamt of him before, could barely even conjure him in my memory. But now I could see him wobbling his double chins in my dream, moving something in his hands, mumbling. The image made me think of a priest with a rosary, or an old-fashioned merchant with an abacus. A man distracted. “He was counting, maybe?”
“How much, how much?” Mrs. Feng sounded as if she was beginning a long process of bargaining.
I started to make something up, to keep them clapping and pleased, but then I glanced at A and hesitated. Her face was very still and white.
I touched her hand attentively. “Sweetie, you okay?”
“Can I get anyone anything else?” she asked. She stood up then, reaching past me for the platter of grey dumplings. I thought perhaps she didn’t feel very well suddenly, but as she leaned over the table, she hissed in my ear, “You said gone.”
“I said what?” I looked at the Fengs.
She straightened up, breathing in sharply. When she spoke again, her voice had jumped a hissy octave. “That’s what you always said, like he’d left.” Her lips pulled up strangely over her front teeth. “You never once said dead.”
“I did,” I promised the Fengs. “My dad,” I explained, gratuitously.
But then it seemed I’d used the wrong tone or word, and I tried to correct myself. “My father,” I tried, apologetically. “When I was a kid—”
But A was already on her way to the kitchen. “Excuse me,” I said to the Fengs, who were silent now, looking down at their chopsticks. Gently, I patted the napkin on my plate, pausing a moment to watch the soy sauce bleed into the wadded paper. Then I stood up.
In the kitchen, A was scraping the last of the dumplings into the trash with a fork.
“Hon?” I asked her. I felt wary and, under that, just a prick of irritation.
She shook her head without looking up.
“Hey” I said, reaching out with my hand.
She took a step back. “Christ, Mason.” She was speaking to the dumplings as she slid them into the trash. “Who does that? Who doesn’t say that?” Her eyes were shiny as scales when she looked up at me. “What kind of person doesn’t ever say dead?”
I used to think the danger of marriage was getting too close, losing track of the differences between you and the other. The spring after we were married, for instance, A and I took a trip to Itasca, the place where the Mississippi started in a lake still white with ice. A took her shoes off and picked her way across the creek’s mouth: cringing, almost singing with the pain of the barely unfrozen water. It took longer to cross than she expected it would, and when I went over the bridge and met her on the other side, her eyes were watering. I sat her down on a picnic table and put her icy feet in the baggy pockets of my coat, one on each side, her legs open in front of me. I said, softly patting the bulges in my pockets, “Hey, look what I found in the Mississippi!” She giggled noisily, closed her eyes.
I say this because there were times when I felt useful to her, worthy. I remember thinking we’d avoided the pitfalls other couples had fallen into, the gooey, nonchalant forms of intimacy. Every point of connection for us, even after two years of marriage, seemed precious to me, continually rare. I say this because I was honestly surprised when I looked at the pictures from that trip and there was not a single one of us together. There’s me standing in the shadow of Paul Bunyan’s statue, A frowning forlornly at a diagram of ants. I know the explanation is simple—with two people, there’s just the one taking the picture and the one posing out in front—and yet it never occurred to me until I saw the pictures at home just how painful this made things when you looked back on them.
After the Fengs left, I expected to lie awake for a long time, but I fell asleep right away, effortlessly, without even crawling under the covers. I tipped in and out of dreams. I couldn’t remember anything particular when I woke—I just had the feeling that I’d been dreaming and I should go back: there was so much work to be done, there was all that complicated maneuvering.
Once, I woke and went to the window. I realized I was looking out there for the room I just came from, the one from my dream.
Once, I woke with A in my arms, like I’d scavenged her body from a riot. I said, “Where did you come from?”
She murmured, “I’ve been here all along.”
I said, “You’re lying.”
She sounded sad. “You’re the liar, Mason. You must know that.”
Her reasoning was perfect, that’s one of the things I loved. There was never any way around it.
Late in the week, Mrs. Feng left a message on our answering machine about coming downstairs to their office. A didn’t mention the message to me, and neither of us erased it. It stayed a blinking red light on the phone, distracting but innocuous as well, something that could be dealt with later.
At work, Mabel stopped me outside the men’s room. She took my elbow and asked what I did to the guy with my wife. She had two white bits of saliva in the corners of her mouth, wiggling like maggots when she talked, making me nervous. I was suddenly disgusted by her lop-sided face. “Why would you accuse someone you don’t even know?” I demanded. When I walked away, I noticed I was trembling.
It seems I’m left watching A watching me during dinner. She looks like she’s waiting to say something. “Everything alright?” I ask. Our plates are strewn with the needle bones of fish.
She takes my hand, walks me to the unmade bed, lies down. Then she fucks me, very swiftly, very proficiently, holding my two hips in her hands like handles. I feel shaken up afterwards. A works her toes into her socks, clips closed her bra and stands up.
I feel a panic rising in me. “Don’t go?” Her hair is in her face, the tips swaying as she moves her mouth, as she says something.
She makes a ponytail, pulling an elastic band from her wrist in a sleight-of-hand maneuver, a sudden flick of her fingers. “I’m not tired yet.” She sounds weary of explaining.
“Then just lie down and wait.”
“Mason, you can’t make me stay.” Her tone is even, controlled.
“Just try to sleep.”
“I can’t. I cannot make myself.” Now her eyes are red; I can see them very well. The tightness of her ponytail seems to have made them wider.
I tug her back to the bed. “Just stay for ten seconds,” I say, as she moves her lips away from mine. She starts to stand up, so I lean on her, I grab her wrists, I push her back.
“Stop it, Mason,” she says.
I hold her down. She has a new expression in her eyes, one that makes me feel weightless, inconsequential. She tries to push me off, but I still have her fists in my hands, those tiny rocks, those little knuckles and fingers. She makes a sound, then, a squeak, which I cover up with one hand. For just a second, I cover her whole face with my palm and fingers. I can feel her legs start to kick behind me. I can feel her sinking–into the mattress, into the pillows and sheets–but her face gets slippery and my hand slides off. I take hold of her hair.
What she’s doing, I notice, is crying with her eyes closed.
“A—” I whisper.
“Fucking bastard!” she says.
It occurs to me later, after A’s left with a backpack of clothes, that the baby A wants might already be born. I consider that he’s somewhere across the world even as I lie in bed, learning to hold his head up, learning to suck watery formula from a bottle. The thought makes me feel morose, nostalgic. I feel as though I’ve missed something important, something I should have known about and prepared for long ago. I wonder, what if he’s four or five already? What if he can read and write? What if he’s already old enough to resent my absence in his life, the gaping space between him and his future? I think about him—a ten-year old in China with a shoebox of drawings, sketches of American wildlife he’s seen on postcards—and regret wastes in my limbs. When A comes back, I think, we’ll have to call the Fengs and explain to them that we need to hurry.
I get up and decide to make the bed, that neat square, but once it’s made, I can’t resist crawling back under the blankets. A’s side of the bed feels like another part of the world. I set her earplugs in my ears and pull on her mask. I lie back in the darkness to wait for her, but there sleep is instead: faceless, pitiless, and perfect.