It isn’t until mid-December that she phones him. He hears the dry quiet in her voice. She’s empty, he thinks, as he listens to her explain that she misses him. She needs me. He books a ﬂight for the following weekend, tells the ofﬁce he’ll be out for a family emergency, and ﬂies north to her.
* * *
Winter has found its way under her skin. She’s always talked about how the sun fuels her, gives her encouragement, helps her move through the day. But now she is halted by what she calls a ‘total lack of horizon.’ She blames it on the season, which Jonah thinks is nice, because blaming the winter makes it no one’s fault. There is no sex the night he arrives. She’d said over the phone that she couldn’t, that this was something he should not expect. Instead he holds her, but she shifts away from him ﬁnally and throws one of the blankets to the ﬂoor. “It’s difﬁcult,” she says. She’s grown accustomed to sleeping alone.
She doesn’t even put the coffee on in the morning. He notices right away. It’s Saturday. She wakes with a click in her jaw and a need to wash the dishes that she was too tired to clean before bed. He stands there, leaning on the counter beside her until she places the last glass in the drainer, waiting for her to step away so he can rinse the coffee pot. He prepares enough for four cups. Then he takes Ella’s hand, guiding her into the living room, to the couch.
“Sleep eludes me,” she says, her head in his lap. “I really need to pick up more of those ear plugs—those waxy ones that ﬁll your entire ear.” She holds herself in a tight ball, as though she is freezing, even though she’s been wearing a thick sweater ever since she left the bed. It must be seventy-ﬁve degrees with the radiator kicking up, but she doesn’t seem to feel it. He wishes to God he could crack a window for just a second. But he stays put.
“Right. Sorry El. I forgot about my breathing—how it bothers you.”
“Jonah, I’m just talking about earplugs. This isn’t some kind of attack on your character.”
He breathes, loud, in and out, so that they both can hear it, and smiles down at Ella, whose eyes are now closed. She seems smaller than the last time he saw her, six months ago, when he helped her pack all ten thousand boxes of her clothes and shipped her off, out of San Francisco. He runs his ﬁngers down her jaw and sees the faint coloring of tiny blue veins under her cheek. He wonders if she’s popped blood vessels just from the strain of smiling. She’s so damn fragile, he thinks, it’s sickening sometimes. Scanning the living room from where they sit together, dead center in the middle of the couch, he notes that her apartment is immaculate. Books line the shelves, pillows are propped on the love seat, the coffee table holds coasters and oversized books about decorating—books about crafting a new life after leaving a boyfriend of ﬁve years. He can see, from where they sit, that the towels hanging over the oven still have their tags.
“So did you go nuts cleaning the place before I got here?”
“No. This is how I keep it. I’m just one person.” She says this with a hint of pride—proof of something that makes him hate her, if only for a moment.
“I think you left me because of the food,” he says. She turns on his lap and stares up at him. Instantly, he feels guilty. Her body tightens and he senses that she’s beginning to pretend that she is not there.
“That isn’t true,” she says. But she’s gone now. She lives alone. No one watches her. He hates her when she does this, when she goes away like this.
Andre, the couple’s counselor they’d gone to for the last month or so they lived together, had said this was called disassociation—this disappearing act Ella performed. Where did she go? Of course Ella would remember Andre because she probably still carried his card in her wallet, along with the cards of every other therapist she’d ever gone to. Jonah had searched for years for clues, in her wallet, in the way she hung her clothes when they shared the same closet. She told him once she saved the cards just in case. He hadn’t asked, in case of what? Maybe someday she’d ﬁnd herself in the kitchen, totally undone, and she’d have a wallet full of phone numbers she could call. Just in case.
“Sweetheart,” he says, “Your coffee’s gonna get cold.”
She opens her eyes and smiles. “You’re right,” she says. “It’s nice though, just sitting with you like this. All quiet.”
And like that she sits up, sips her coffee, and begins coming alive again. She asks him about work, about San Francisco. Is he sleeping in the bed or on the couch? She remembers that when Jonah was alone in their apartment he usually ended up sleeping in the living room. Often, it was Ella who’d coaxed him away from the television, away from his computer, got him into bed. He tells her that yes, he mostly falls asleep on the couch. And though she makes a big fuss about how important it is that he put himself to bed—that he’ll sleep much better there—Jonah can tell she appreciates knowing his routine and knowing that he’s worse off without her. It must make her feel useful and connected somehow.
Later in the day they walk through the streets of her new neighborhood, land at the local restaurant on the corner, and she takes his hand, pulling him into a booth in the far back.
She orders a quesadilla with black beans, minus half the cheese, and he orders tacos and a salad for them to share. They drink beers.
“Incidentally, I thought of a new name for my girl band,” she says. “‘Ladylike Pee.’ Of course, I still have to learn the guitar.”
He nods, hiding his lips behind the pint glass. He thinks of the other names she’s mentioned over the years: ‘The House Slippers,’ ‘The Dirty Skirts.’ Ella didn’t play music. She just said this kind of thing. It was one of the games she played.
“You don’t have to,” he tells her. “You’re so beautiful, you could just stand there. Shake a tambourine.”
Ella pulls hair from her face and kisses his neck. Pink has surfaced under her cheeks and her eyes are focused again.
Every bite she takes makes him want her back. It’s funny, he thinks, the way one singular meal can make it all feel like a fresh start. Her skin is pale and dry from the wind.
This is the winter Ella, he thinks—the quiet Ella—and remembers. This is the season, these are the months in which she drives herself hard; hours of sunlight are easily eclipsed by hours of darkness, and sleep becomes nearly impossible for her. It’s merely one version of Ella, he knows this, but it is always the toughest one. He remembers approaching the long winter months together in San Francisco, when she would say that she couldn’t come, she couldn’t feel anything at all. She explained once what she’d learned from her nutritionist—that there’s a hierarchy of physical needs. Food, sleep, and warmth ﬁrst. Then, maybe, he could make her come. It is always patience layered upon patience with Ella.
But, he thinks, as he watches her close her eyes and drink her beer, I can’t imagine waiting for anyone else. She so clearly needed him. But more than that—and this was something new, something that never occurred to him until she nestled into the booth next to him—he had, he realizes, in the most profound way, actually missed being part of her struggle; in her absence he’d longed to feel useful again. It was the work he was most proud of, his work with Ella. She was his mitzvah, of sorts. His beautiful, arduous, good deed.
They sit side-by-side at the restaurant for nearly two hours. Their feet interlock and her leg feels solid, strong, next to his. He waits while she sips down to the last half inch of her pint, and nibbles until all of the black beans have disappeared from her plate. He listens as she tells him about her high school student, Tyler, who is a hopeless writer of papers and has huge tufts of blonde hair that stick out along the edges of a baseball cap. She says he grins at her when class is over and calls out, “Goodbye Ms. B, have a good day!” She says that Tyler knows she really doesn’t care if he ever writes like a pro or not. “Thank God,” she says, “they know they’re worth more than their stupid papers.”
“You make them feel special.”
“It’s like raising retarded children,” she says with a smile.
“I gave you that line.” He pushes their plates away and pulls her legs in, closer. He cups her so that she is almost sitting in his lap. Her denim is soft and his hand feels warm tucked underneath her. She lets him move her; perhaps time was all she needed.
It’s pure love, he thinks, this moment is. He is pretty sure sometimes that he taught her how to love. “Be generous,” he’d tell her, when her mom would call. She never wanted to answer; she didn’t have the energy, she’d say. But he’d tell her, “Ella, give her this. It isn’t for you, it’s for her.” And Ella would nod, sigh, and she would answer. It didn’t matter where they were—driving somewhere across town, grocery shopping—he told her it didn’t matter, you answer when your parents call.
They talk about their families and as usual, she brings up their mothers. Jonah’s mom still calls him around eleven thirty every night. She calls him “Bear” and recommends recipes over the phone—easy dishes that she would prepare for him herself, if she lived nearby. Ella’s mom could never remember how long it took to hard boil an egg, but she could, with merely a glance, distinguish a gash in the ﬁnger as one that needed stitches or did not. Different talents, both born out of love, he always says, Ella’s mom being a doctor, his Jewish mom being an expert on beef brisket.
“But when I got sick,” she says, “My mom never saw it.”
This is where he is convinced she is wrong. First of all, it wasn’t cancer or something awful like that. Ella just didn’t eat. And so she disappeared and she couldn’t see what others saw.
“She didn’t do anything, Jonah.”
He studies her. Her bony elbows pierce the corners of her sweater.
“See?” she says. Her eyes stare off to where a waiter is wiping down a table at the front of the restaurant.
But her mom had tried. She didn’t say anything directly, but she watched Ella—Jonah saw this—how she studied Ella’s movements at the table, during family dinners. And she’d paid for the doctors, the counselors, the nutritionist. She sent boxes of cookies and mixed nuts for every holiday—Valentine’s, Easter. Jonah knew it was merely her mom’s way, but Ella couldn’t tolerate the silence.
It was hard to believe her mom could’ve said anything to change things. He certainly never could. There were times when he felt close. There were meals, lovemaking, moments when it felt as though he’d managed to bring her closer, only to ﬁnd that, hours later, what he had was a distant, faded girl.
Jonah pays the bill and they walk back outside into the cold. The sun has almost disappeared, and he watches as Ella wraps her neck in a thick green scarf he’s never seen. Her face glows under the lamppost which gives off a faint, rising ﬂuorescence, making her eyes seem like huge pools, soaking in the deep freeze of the night. She grabs his hand and they walk in silence for several minutes.
“I miss eating with you,” she says. “It’s probably in my top ten.”
He wants to tell her that she could have this all the time if she hadn’t ended it. Her top ten? Then why did she rip up her meal ticket? But the truth was, if he brought this up now, they’d only ﬁght about it. And as she had said, right before she left, before she boarded the plane, she just didn’t want to ﬁght anymore. “I can’t bear saying one more unkind word to you. I love you and it hurts too much.”
“God dammit, Ella,” he’d said. But he’d whispered it only after she was through security. Only then did he push his sunglasses down and let his eyes ﬁll just to the brim.
“I’ve changed,” she says. “I’m ﬁnally picking up the pieces.” She burrows in her scarf so that all he can see are the hollows of her cheeks and her eyes, too big now, too animated, ﬂickering and wild against the darkness.
“You’ve built a nice little life for yourself,” he says. The cold air makes his words come out a bit choked. He worries at how this sounds, at the obvious regret, the sadness.
“No, that’s not what I mean. There’s nothing cute or perfect here. I’m not better in the absence of you.” She stops walking, facing him. He’s seen this look of severity before. “What I mean is I’m ﬁnding things I’d lost. I’m remembering important facts, words that I had somehow forgotten. Things I was just too tired to care about.”
She moves closer, her ﬁngertips, though they are dressed in mittens, dig into his arm. She wants this too much. Whatever it is she needs to say, he knows there is no possible way he can win, no way he can hear her well enough. There is something angry in her, some hurt for which he knows he isn’t entirely responsible.
“There was a long time Jonah, when my head was in such a fog. You saw it, I know you did. I’d look up at the sky and have no idea what I was looking at. And I had no energy to be curious. Like the phases of the moon, waxing and waning. I couldn’t remember which was which. I couldn’t remember words, rhythms. And I was disconnected from you. Just sleepwalking through life. I hated myself. I said things that weren’t true. I didn’t just leave because we fought, Jonah. I left because I was turning into a monster, and you had to keep coming home to me night after night. A zombie in your bed.”
She shifts so that the lamplight falls directly on her face, a spotlight, which seems to be exactly what she wants in this moment. All eyes on Ella. None of this is a surprise. Losing her words, her voice, and on and on, he’s heard it. But the last part is new, the part about why she left. This idea that Ella was the one protecting him.
She’s ranting. She has a tendency to take things too far.
“All right,” he says.
A pale shadow of freckles dots the ridge of her nose, a soft constellation that would multiply and darken in the summer months. He remembers how much color her cheeks can hold once the sun comes back. The waxing of freckles, he thinks. He wants to see her skin like this again, warm and alive. They just have to get through this winter, see it through together.
“Well?” she says. She seems to relax, to relent a little. Her eyes look like the eyes in one of those movies about people freezing to death, trying to stay awake, after their cheeks have gone pale, their eyebrows are covered in some death frost. It makes him wonder if eyes are the last to hold any sign of life, after everything else shuts down.
“I’m happy for you Ella,” he says. “Happy that you’re happy now.”
He pulls her near and holds her. Through her thick winter coat, he can still feel the curve of her ribcage. She gives in and lets him lead her down the sidewalk. She doesn’t mention the moon again.
* * *
Sunday morning he wakes up to see her across the room, peeling off a sweaty t-shirt, an oldie of his that he’d given her after she’d shrunk it in the wash. Her face is ﬂushed and she bends to unlace running shoes.
“Morning princess,” she says.
She leaves the room quickly. Several minutes later the shower is running. He can smell coffee. She has energy. Jonah can’t tell if the sun is out or not since the apartment faces west, but he remembers the quesadilla and the oatmeal cookies they baked together late last night. She’s terriﬁed, he thinks. Here he’s come, ﬁlling her rooms with his bags and shirts, his Levi’s strewn in the corner. He burrows further down into the sheets because what he wants is her. He’s hard and he came here for her. Damn it, he thinks. No one in this relationship just says, “I’m hungry,” and gets fed.
She comes back wrapped in a towel, smelling like lavender. He watches as she dries herself, hidden from his gaze. She doesn’t look over, but Jonah can tell that she is aware of his eyes on her, the way she hides herself behind her towel, her careful discretion. Were she to dress and undress without concern, he might not watch her this way, but it is in fact her sly movements with the towel—like some old-fashioned burlesque show, shadows, the ﬂash of collarbone—all of it was orchestrated to cause him physical agitation.
She wipes away beads of water from her legs and arms and then she surprises him by walking over to the bed, nestling next to him. Jonah studies her face. Pieces of wet hair hang over her cheek, as she rests her head next to his—her chin makes a tiny imprint in the pillow.
He wonders at the possibilities. He wonders if perhaps, when she wakes up with that frantic energy, what would happen if she did something else with it. But it’s too late for that. She seems exhausted now. She rubs the freckles on his forearm and keeps her eyes closed.
“Jonah, it’s almost eleven.”
So what? he thinks. This was always their problem. She hated the bed. She saw it as the place where she had to confront terrible truths.
“I want you.”
Her eyes are still closed but she says, “Okay.”
Though her skin is warm, as soon as her towel is off, he covers them both quickly with the sheets, the way he always used to. He pulls them up all the way behind his neck, letting the comforter fan out to either side of him, with Ella underneath it all. He runs his hands along her spine, up under the corners of her shoulder blades, feels how the points of bone press against his palms just as they had the ﬁrst time he lifted her, like a child, asleep from the couch. He fell in love with these corners, these sharp points in Ella that she didn’t even realize she possessed. It was like a secret he kept with her body—what he felt, what he could touch, what she couldn’t see. Such fragile parts.
He closes his eyes, waits for her familiar hips to press into him. He remembers one of the ﬁrst times with Ella, years ago back in Noe, when she called him at work, how she wanted him—could he come home to her? It was back when he rode the train, before he owned a car. In ﬁfteen minutes he was there. When he found her in the bedroom, she wore an old ﬂoral dress, too big for her in every way, hanging off her as she rose to her knees on the bed. She was like a ghost, almost ﬂoating there—a woman whose body refused to grow up, so it remained lithe and willowy instead. He had marveled at her skin, covered in ﬁne hair that felt warm, almost wet to the touch. He remembers how he took her just like that, didn’t bother with the dress, took her down in the blankets. Made sure she didn’t ﬂoat away.
He pictures her like this now, remembering how they moved, her dress hiked up between them, her skin pale, hungry. He moves faster, knowing this is what she’s always needed, this is why she called him—just as she had back in Noe, and again, just days ago. She needs sustenance. She needs him to break through her and keep her alive.
When she winces, he knows he’s being too rough, and he slows down, keeps his attention on her movements, her breathing. He inhales and lets his breath come out loud. He wonders if she still owns that dress. God, how he’d love to see her in that dress again, to see Ella swallowed inside of it and reaching for him. He relaxes into this memory of her and lets go. He opens his eyes.
She doesn’t come but she seems to have enjoyed it. She picks up her towel and moments later he hears the shower water running again.
He can get up now. He walks to the kitchen and pours himself some coffee, looks in the fridge to see what there is for milk. She has a box of baking soda, a head of broccoli, pickles, and a Tupperware of some sort of soup. He locates soy creamer and adds it to the cup. Everything can be ﬁne again between us, he decides. She’s pulling herself together. We could start over. She just needed some time.
Ella opens the door from the bathroom and walks into the kitchen, her eyes scanning the ﬂoor. She once confessed to Jonah that she hates walking barefoot on kitchen ﬂoors after she’s showered. She is dripping again from her towel.
“I forgot to tell you,” she says, “There’s a fundraising concert thing tonight, if you want to go. It’s for the school. They’re holding it downtown. Maybe you could stay another night?”
It warms his heart to think of her having events, social functions to attend. “Sounds great, El.”
He takes three steps and has her again in his hands, under her towel. He reaches for her ass but she grabs his wrist and pulls away.
“Jesus, Jonah. How much do you need?”
He stops. He backs away and watches her. She seems more in shock than he is.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, J. That just came out.”
He leans against the refrigerator and digs a hand into his pocket. There was that dress years ago, maybe in her closet, maybe gone now. There was that afternoon when the sun poured in and Ella wore that dress and he told her then and there, he’d never forget that moment. He never forgot. He never will forget.
And there’s now. Ella dripping from her towel. And he loves her. He makes sure to show her this with his eyes and his lips as he stares at her. He wants her to know he only ever had love.
“I don’t know, Ella.” he says quietly. “None of you, actually. I don’t think I want any of you."
* * *
On the plane ride back to San Francisco Jonah orders a gin and tonic, even though he rarely drinks on ﬂights for fear of going down drunk. He sips and stares out his oval window at a thick scape of clouds, puffed and childlike under the sun’s glare. He stares, and as the sky grows dark he remembers jogging early one morning, years ago in Golden Gate Park. It was one of those overcast, drizzling days, only months after he’d met Ella. The air was warm with the sweet vapor of eucalyptus and dry brush. A thick fog held moisture close to his cheeks, and as he ran through the mist and trees, he remembers having felt very, very awake. He was falling in love with her. He was realizing this as he ran. It was early fall then.
Toward the end of his run, he found himself near a couple who walked slowly, several feet in front of him. They were an older couple. Jonah slowed his pace and remained behind them, fascinated by how they moved in sync, careful on the uneven path. They held on to each other as they made their ascent up a steep incline littered with fallen pine needles and patches of grass and dirt. He held back, just close enough to hear the man speak to his wife.
He said, “Love, what kind of rain is this?”
She’d pondered the question for a moment, let it hang in the mist, before she answered, “Ah, it’s a San Francisco rain. The kind that feels like the ocean. A gentle rain.”
Maybe there had been a sigh, maybe a hint of resignation in her voice, as if he’d been asking inane questions like this for years, straining her patience, forcing her to abandon a comfortable silence. But her arm stayed wrapped around his waist.
Jonah had returned home to Ella that morning, found her in the kitchen in her overalls, down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the linoleum. She didn’t notice him when he walked in; she had one of her strange albums blaring from the stereo. As she scrubbed, her hair fell past her cheeks from the knot on top of her head. He saw patience in her movements, the same enduring calm he’d sensed in the woman's voice at the park.
As she worked at the grime, the impossible layers of dirt always embedded in that checkered ﬂoor, he saw her determination, the narrow margins she assigned to life, what was good and what should be avoided.
She’s perfect, he remembers thinking, just as he’d thought of his mother, when he would come home to ﬁnd her baking lemon cake in the kitchen, loving Jonah with each measured ingredient. He remembers how it amazed him that even after he’d left, when he was physically distant, that he could remain the object of someone’s love—his mother’s, Ella’s.
When she ﬁnished washing the ﬂoor they both stood back to admire her work, because when she gave of herself, she was impeccable. Of course, Jonah thinks, she would also resent him for the strain, for her tired limbs at the end of the day. In bed he would reach for her and she’d say she was too tired. She’d fall asleep with her back to him.
He closes his eyes. He wonders if perhaps now, years later, the woman from the park has died of cancer or if the husband has begun to lose memory, leaving doors unlocked, his face unshaven. He pictures one comforting the other, rubbing her feet, kissing his forehead. Never running out of love, no deﬁcit, no hunger.
Jonah remembers the couple but he can’t hear their words anymore, not the way she had said “a gentle rain,” nor does he feel encouraged by the memory, the way he’d rushed home to write those words down, to carry them back to Ella like an ocean-worn stone. Words they could both admire.
He can’t hear them anymore. He sees only Ella’s eyes, vacant and winter-gray. He hears, “How much, Jonah? Just, how much more?” He sees her turn pale, go cold, and freeze, right there in her bedroom where he’d left her sitting, disappearing again, as he packed his bags. He tells himself this is how she will remain ﬁxed in his memory. This is how he wills himself to keep her.
MARIANNE SALINA lives in Spokane, Washington and received her MFA from Eastern Washington University. She is currently working on a collection of stories and has work forthcoming or published in Birkensnake, Split Lip Magazine, and various online publications.