Erin swore she smelled rain wet grass, but there wasn’t a blade of it here. She stood on the rooftop terrace outside the gallery. The rain had stopped. The gallery behind her was a golden light box. People moved within it slow, smooth, at gallery pace, as if they were swimming under water.
Above her, above Chicago, the night sky was orange, fizzing and shining with electricity. The city hummed. Closer, thirteen stories below, cars swept along the wet street, a horn sounded, the pedestrian lights changed, allowing people to walk. A siren wailed a few blocks away.
Erin pulled out a cigarette, guilty, guilty, guilty. The deepest pleasure in her life reduced to a once-a-day event. She took the first incredible draw, shut her eyes and gripped the wet edge of the concrete wall that protected her from certain catastrophic death.
“Could I have one of those?”
She groaned inwardly and opened her eyes. He was one of the artists, a bigger fish for tonight at least.
Erin offered the pack and he took one and she lit it for him. “That’ll be five bucks,” she said.
He smiled around the cigarette and then did what she had just done—shut his eyes, gripped the edge of the wall, but he leant hard over it.
“It’s a good show,” she said. “Don’t do it.”
He laughed and pulled himself back. “I fucking love these nights and I utterly despise them.”
He was one of those people who took all of the available oxygen, she could tell. Please leave me to it, my one quiet, solitary, secret, contraband cigarette, she wanted to say. Instead, resolving to be a good, artistic community citizen, she held out her hand. “I’m Erin Alexander. You’re Jack Perry, right?”
He shook her hand. “Right.”
“Are you going to tell me that your paintings are like your children?” Erin said. “You can’t bear to sell them? Even though you can now pay the rent and eat for the next two years? Even though you might get a three sentence review in the Sunday arts section of the Chicago Tribune?”
Jack looked down at her and drew hard on his cigarette. He was inscrutable. “I would never say a painting was like my child,” he said. “I have a child. A son. It’s completely different.”
Erin laughed. “You’d give up that son in a heartbeat, right? You’ve spent longer on your art.”
He shrugged, smiled. “You’re right. About the time spent anyway. Fifty thousand hours on those five paintings in there.”
“Congratulations. That’s a good result.”
“Are you an artist too?” he said.
“A journalist. I’ll be writing those three sentences.”
“Jesus,” he said, and went pale. His hands closed in a prayer directed at her. “I should be buying you drinks. Not scabbing cigarettes.”
“I could buy you a meal?” he said. “A burger at the diner downstairs?”
“I have journalistic integrity.”
“Of course. Is there an oath or something?”
“Yes, before we kill someone in public we promise to do it properly.”
He laughed, but he looked ill.
Erin put her hand on his arm. “It’s okay. I will do it nicely. You won’t feel a thing.” She dropped her hand, yet still felt his bare skin, the hair on his arm. His sleeves were rolled to his elbows. Her hand was hot.
“Should I take you around to show you the paintings?” he said.
“No, Jack. No, don’t do that.”
He muttered, “How did I not know about you? Why didn’t somebody tell me?”
Erin held onto his arm, longer this time because he wasn’t going to mind, he probably didn’t even notice. “The people here are not your friends. You know that, right?”
He turned even paler. He was probably five years younger than her, in his mid-thirties, and lived and died by reviews. She particularly liked his painting of a public swimming pool at night, the security lights incandescent, glancing off the still, dark surface. The water was unknowable, depthless. She should tell him, it would probably make his day.
“What I say doesn’t really matter,” Erin said.
“It matters,” he said. “It definitely matters.”
Someone leaned out the door of the gallery and yelled, “Jack. Get your ass in here. Now. Another customer.”
Erin waved a hand. “Go. Go. That’s January to June, waiting for you.”
Erin wrote most of the review on her phone on the train home.
She entered her apartment—her cat, Bean, lay still on the kitchen floor. Erin stared at him, uncomprehending. Finally, she lowered herself to the tiles. He was only six years old, his body already stiff and cold.
Erin pressed her face into his black fur that still smelled of him. “My little Bean, sweetheart,” she whispered. “What happened to you?”
She drew him onto her lap. He was so small, so light. She murmured to him, willing him to open an eye and wink at her, at this joke. It might have been his brain or his heart, she would never know. They didn’t do post-mortems on cats.
“I should thank you for not taking me down,” he said.
Erin recognized the voice and looked over at him. They were both at Adams/Wabash station, waiting for the train. It was a month since they met outside the gallery.
“It’s customary to send flowers, Jack,” she said.
“Can I take you out to dinner?”
She peered down the tunnel for the train. “You know I’ve left the paper? I’ve moved to a journal. Art history. You won’t appear in that one until after you’re dead.”
“Just dinner, Erin. It’s not payment.”
She smiled. “Shame. I’d like you to feel some indebtedness.”
The train was at least one minute late. Erin resisted every urge to pull out her phone and check for updates. She drew her jacket around her more tightly and looked up at him. He seemed to hide a smile—barely beneath the surface of him—Erin felt it like a swift kick, hard and low in her gut.
“Your review mentioned your dead cat,” Jack said.
She jolted. “Bean,” she said, and sighed despite herself. “Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that bit to get in.”
“And what was that quote you used?” he said. “‘Believe me when I say it was all going to be so beautiful.’”
Erin nodded. “Stéphane Mallarmé, the French poet. I love that one,” she said. “Mallarmé wrote that the night before he died, in a note to his wife and daughter in a letter titled ‘Instructions for dealing with my papers’. He told them to burn the lot.”
Erin turned to him. “I didn’t say that you should burn anything.”
She laughed. “Are you going to kill me in the taxi on the way to dinner? Or in the restaurant in plain view?”
“I was going to do it a couple of times.”
She almost swooned. “I’d love to.”
They arranged to meet at a wine bar in Near West Side. Erin plowed through a bowl of olives and two glasses of Sancerre before Jack walked in. He held up his hands in a prayer.
“Namaste?” she said.
“Very fucking sorry.”
“You made me feel like a sixteen year old being stood up,” she said, and was stunned to hear her voice shake.
He seemed taken aback. “I am sorry, Erin. Really.”
“It felt like shit.”
She stood, shoving the chair back so hard behind her it toppled onto its back. He leant down and picked it up. He put his hand on her arm and she had to stop herself curling against his chest.
“My son,” he said. “He was talking about dying. Us dying. Him dying. He’s four. It threw me. I forgot the time.”
Erin watched him. “He’ll be an old, old man,” she said.
Jack’s expression softened. “That’s what I told him. He wanted to know if I would be old too and I said I would. I didn’t tell him that I would be old long before he is. I didn’t tell him that growing old is best fucking case scenario.”
Erin nodded, unable to speak for a moment. “I hope you’re a vegan,” she said, finally. “The restaurant at the end of the block serves the best steak in the city.”
She left the bar and he followed her. Don’t let me be like this, I am not really like this, she wanted to say.
Outside the bar, he put his arm around her shoulder. Erin felt his warmth all along her side. His ribs, his hip, the length of his thigh right against her. He kissed the side of her head as if they had been together forever. She closed her eyes and let him lead her along the busy sidewalk all the way to the restaurant.
The next morning they lay in his bed in a tiny apartment in West Town, the sun falling on them. Jack held her wrist, her hand in front of his face. Erin knew he was studying the bones in her hand, the skin transparent and pink, illuminated by the sun. She had done it before and thought it was a private thing, to see your own skeleton. To see how it was all going to end.
“I am sorry about your cat, Bean,” he said.
“Are you shitting me?”
He looked over at her. “No. Not at all.”
“If you’ve got the review printed and highlighted, then pull it out now. Let’s get it over with.”
He drew up the edges of his pillow and her pillow. “It’s here somewhere.”
“I could find your review in half a second online,” he said. “Everything survives.”
“Not us,” she said.
“No, not us. Not Bean,” he said, and kissed the palm of her hand. “I hated that fucking quote you used.”
“I was referring to your potential,” she said. “World domination.”
Jack smiled at her and it felt warm and true and left her without anything further to say. He rolled on top of her. He was above her head and below her feet. He held her wrists in one hand on the bed, above both of them. She was being taken over. This is it. This is all there is. Why do we tie ourselves up in knots about anything when this is everything? She was pinned to the bed, but felt her chest open, her arms spread wide, as she dived. There was a moment of suspension when she wasn’t in any place and then the water closed over her.
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, New World Writing, Cleaver Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Pithead Chapel, Gravel, Bird’s Thumb and Jellyfish Review among others. She has been a featured writer in Bang! One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company, Jungle. She lives in Australia.