After the funeral, we’re standing outside your building, saying nothing to each other. Shielding you from the wind as you light your cigarette; the most romantic gesture I can think of at this moment. A dog barks impotently into the chilled air from somewhere nearby, breaking the silence. No eye contact, not right now. Eyes on your shoes; casual but dressy. The shared silence as you smoke is more intimate than we’ve been in a while. It’s intense and claustrophobic; there’s a pressure in my head, ears and sinuses ready to explode. Your composure doesn’t crack, steady handed as you draw in the nicotine and tar. When your cigarette is out, we go upstairs to your second-floor apartment. The usually bright jangle of your keys rings particularly hollow in the empty staircase as you unlock the door.
I sit at the kitchen table while you grab a bottle from on top of the fridge. It's a heavy-handed pour. We drink like we invented it. Your face etched with that whiskey wince. Prayer cards laid across the table, like some kind of hobby, sticky with spilled drink. A kid’s baseball card collection or amulets to ward off evil spirits.
A car pulls up outside. Headlights projecting across your wall, lightly spiraling, nebulous and ephemeral like a transitory ghost. It’s parked but the engine is running loudly. You don’t notice it or ignore it, I can’t tell. You shuffle across the kitchen gingerly as if trying not to wake anyone. The floor creaks like a moaning, dying thing. I notice the coffeepot is on, half-full. You’re pouring coffee and adding more than a splash of Jameson, your ragged relaxant. There’s nobody around to wake, but you still speak in loud whispers and won’t raise the volume on the TV because it might wake who?
I drag myself on uneasy footing to the couch. The TV is playing an old movie, black and white. I don’t recognize it. A man and woman, dressed elegantly, dancing in an opulent ballroom. “It’s a lethal tango,” you say, but I don’t know if you’re referring to the movie or our current situation.
The buzzer near your door is ringing. You notice it but ignore it. You sit on the couch, next to me but distant, curling up against the opposite arm. The buzzer continues to ring intermittently. You’re watching the movie; hands clenched, shoulders tense.
“We’re in the glow of the aftermath,” you say, strangely sanguine, looking straight ahead. Not dressed-up makeup but still dressed-up shoes. The headlights illuminate and blanch your face. I nod, feeling fevered and faded.
Your phone lays face up on the coffee table in front of us, and the screen lights up with a notification. “Your subscription has expired,” an automated message from your antivirus software tells us. “Please renew to avoid unnecessary vulnerabilities.”
“Apparently we’re now susceptible to vulnerabilities,” you say, half-smiling, side-glancing.
“I expected a more sophisticated and profound comment,” I say, exaggerated disapproval in my voice.
"Too many whiskies into the night for profundity and sophistication. Now is the time for gut reactions, split-second decisions. Mindless spontaneity."
You describe your theories on the state of our relationship; where fault lines lie. Your monologue is passionate, speech staccato as you search for the right words, brusque and beguiling, filled with the stilted, simplistic bedroom poetics of teenagers, sullen and morose, all claims of misunderstanding and heartbreak. Reciting verse, inciting division. Using the quotidian to describe the esoteric. Thinking you may be conjuring incendiary alchemies.
“Our empire is crumbling,” you say, motioning your arm outward, perhaps a beckoning gesture of covert confession, but I can’t tell if you’re referring to us personally or society at large.
There’s a knock on the door. You whisper-shout “Not now,” but the knocking continues sporadically. You circumnavigate the room nervously, changing clocks, chewing gum. You change every clock by exactly twelve hours and I don’t know whether you are moving them forward or backward. Time doesn’t matter anyway; we ran out of it long ago.
“Have some coffee,” you say, gesturing to your cup of caffeinated alcohol, cocktail in a coffee mug.
“I prefer tea.”
“I don’t have tea. Tea tastes like the rain,” you say, “It rained last night, it was awful.”
“Not as awful as today.”
Your phone is ringing, but you silence it. Moments later it rings again, vibrating on the table, uselessly excited. This time you look at the screen, eyes belying your masked fear. “It’s probably nothing,” you say, silencing your phone again and sliding it across the coffee table.
You grab a photo from the table. A photo of us; motion blur and sparkles, flashy smiles, hand-holding, formal attire. It’s badly faded; our lives in radiant decay. As you hold the photo in your hand, blood suddenly starts dripping from your nose onto the picture. You try to wipe away the blood but it smears across the photo, obscuring our faces, dimly shimmering against the glossy finish. You can’t stop laughing. You haven’t laughed for weeks.
There’s something wonderfully naïve in the way you say you don’t fear death. “Do you fear death, accept it, or embrace it?” you ask.
The car outside is honking its horn, flashing its brights. The lights are blinding; momentarily erasing everything in sight. The engine is idling in the most laborious manner possible. The knocking on the door has evolved and crescendoed into an aggressive pounding, shaking the door in its frame, rattling on its hinges. The meat smack of fists on the other side is palpable. Your phone is having a nervous breakdown, vibrating so consistently that it’s ready to throw itself off the table, sacrifice itself to the floorboards below. A hushed hysteria. We’re surrounded, there’s no escape. “You have to embrace it!” you shout at me over the noise. A catechism of claustrophobia. Enthusiastic and acidic morbidity in your voice. I look at your shoes.
Amidst the cacophony, room shaking, we look at each other knowingly. We’re trapped here. Purgatorial and cursed. You slide across the couch, holding a balloon and a bottle of beer. You lean in, put your arm around my neck, mouth to ear, and whisper, “We’re in the aftermath of some great glow.”
On the TV, the man and woman embrace as they waltz through an empty room. The masked woman is smiling lovingly at the man, the man with no emotion, as they dance in slow motion, completely engulfed in flames.