The Shoe on the Roof
THE ONE ALMIGHTY FACT about love affairs is that they end. How they end and why, although of crucial interest—indeed, agony—to the participants, is less important than that they end. Marriages might linger like a chest cold, and there are friendships that plod along simply because we forget to cancel the subscription. But when love affairs collapse, they do so suddenly: they drop like swollen mangoes, they shatter like saucers, they drown in the undertow, they fall apart like a wasp’s nest in winter. They end.
Thomas knew this, and yet . . .
There is a story, often told, possibly apocryphal, certainly apropos, of a seasoned skydiver who, in what can only be described as a monumental lapse of judgment, forgot to strap on his parachute before flinging himself from a plane. As one might imagine, he went through all five stages of Kübler-Ross in quick order, shock, denial, anger, dismay, until, in accepting his fate, he chose to embrace it. The skydiver spread his arms, turned pirouettes and somersaults while he tumbled, performing acrobatic death-defying feats all the way down.
But none of that makes the landing any softer.
Thomas was in his late twenties when he hit the ground. He’d begun his swan dive without realizing it, in an artist’s loft in Boston’s West End on a sleepy cirrus Sunday. A muted morning. The curtains were moving; he remembers that, the ripples of cream-coloured cloth: long inhalations, slow exhalations. Sunlight on the floor. A messy room (not his), lined with equally messy canvases. Oil paintings mostly: thickly textured renderings of angular faces spattered with stars. An overstuffed laundry hamper in one corner was spilling clothes like the world’s worst piñata. Bricks-and-board bookshelves, overdue art volumes splayed every which way. A telescope by the window, leaning on drunken legs, squinting upward into nothingness. Wine bottles on the windowsills, multicoloured candle wax dripping down the sides—still de rigueur among the university set. Wind and curtain and canvas. And now, this: the sound of church bells.
Amy, scrambling out of her dishevelled bed. Amy, dashing about, baffled by the very concept of time. She was always late, which was not remarkable in itself, but she was always surprised she was late, and Thomas found this both annoying and oddly endearing. She seemed to think that time was liquid, a substance that filled the available forms it was poured into, when in fact it sliced the air with a metronymic predictability.
Moments before, Thomas and Amy had been playing doctor, a favourite game of theirs, with Amy astride his lap, dressed in a man’s shirt—not his. (Where did it come from, this oversized shirt? Why did she have it? Was it a souvenir of other phosphorous love affairs? Best not to think about it.) She wore it loosely, like a pajama top, mis-buttoned, un-ironed.
He remembers the loose cotton. The warmth of her.
Amy, laughing. “Stop it.”
It would be the last happy conversation they would ever have.
Thomas is in a white lab coat with boxers pooled around his ankles. He slides a stethoscope down the inside of her shirt, and then slowwwwly across her chest. Pretends to listen.
Amy, voice hushed. “What is it, doc? Somethin’ bad? You can tell me, I can take it.”
Thomas frowns. A practiced frown. A medical frown. Listens more attentively. “Can’t seem . . . to find . . . a heartbeat.”
He was scarcely a year older than Amy, but looked ten years younger, as though his face had never grown up, as though it were still trapped in the first flush of postpubescence. It’s something she’d often commented on, how young he looked. Later, she would notice how old he had become.
So there they are, the two of them: Amy, with a raven’s wing of hair fanning across her shoulder; Thomas in his Sunday-morning stubble. Straw-blond hair that refused to hold a part, eyes so pale they were barely there. “Grey? Or blue?” Amy had asked this early on, studying him carefully before deciding. “Blue. Definitely blue.”
Our intrepid young medical student has now slipped the stethoscope further down, cupping Amy’s breasts, first one, then the other. She shivers at the touch of it. “Can’t you warm those up first?”
Now it was Amy’s turn.
She pulled the end of the stethoscope free, flipped it over, held it up to Thomas’s chest. A thin chest, almost hairless.
“So?” she asked.
He tilted his head, listened for his own heartbeat.
“Anything?” she asked.
“Nothing.” He looked at her. “That can’t be good. Can it?”
She laughed, a snort, really. “Are you sure you’re a real doctor?”
“A real doctor?”
She leaned closer, held him with her thighs. “I’ve heard rumours.”
“Med students, passing themselves off as physicians, taking advantage of impressionable young women.”
“I resent that! A slanderous accusation! Slanderous and scurrilous! Now then, take off all your clothes and say ‘Ahh.’ ”
Amy leaned in closer, whispered in his ear. “Ahhhhh . . .”
And then—and then, the goddamn sound of the goddamn church bells. Dull peals, distant but ever-present.
“We’re late! C’mon!” She leapt from his lap, hurried about, searching for underwear. She pulled on a pair, more or less at random, grabbed her jeans and hopped into them on the way to the bathroom.
Thomas fell back onto the bed, frustrated, annoyed, erect. He could see Amy brushing her teeth—or rather, chewing on the toothbrush as she unbuttoned the man’s shirt she was wearing. She tossed it to one side like a flag on the play, tried to disentangle a bra from a knot of laundry on the counter.
“Amy,” he said (sighed).
She packed her breasts into her bra like eggs into a carton, gave her teeth two decisive back-and-forths, spit into the sink, pulled back her hair with an elastic.
Thomas leaned up on his elbows, boxers still around his ankles. “Listen. About this whole church thing . . .”
She stopped. Stepped out of the bathroom with her toothbrush clenched in her mouth, glared at him. They’d had this conversation before.