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The body lay on the glistening, wet sidewalk; eyes open, blood oozing from the side of the skull. The brilliant red ebb trickled into the fresh rain puddles, slowly and with intent, and in stark contrast to the shadows of the oppressive night. A faint steam rose from the growing, serpentine river as it poured into the gutter and open drain of the avenue, slowly pulling all life from the fallen.
As horrified people began to gather, a few looked around and then up. Within moments, an hysterical woman screamed and pointed to the silhouetted figure standing on the fire escape, just in front of the open, cavernous hole.
"That's him! Up there - at that window!"
Nathan stared down at the wreck below, frozen, as if time stood still. In the distance, the shrieking howl of an ambulance wove into his fragmented reality. The black, broken rail trembled in his grasp as he fell to his knees in utter disbelief at what he had just seen. Nausea welled from within his gut and, as his pulse suddenly dropped, he vomited. The sounds and lights of an ascending death filled his swirling senses and he passed out.
After she confronted him the moment became impossible. Nate reached out to comfort his wife but, in her hysteria, she grew more rigid and held up her arms to ward off his embrace.
"Oh, alright, then!" screamed Carol, shaking with rage. "Christ, just get out!"
She looked at him for a moment and, turning, stared out the large open window of their apartment. The night air was caustic and thick, and hung motionless in the summer heat. There was little breeze to soothe her tempest, even high above the sweltering street.
The living room was lit with a few low uneven bulbs and the one sad portable fan they owned did nothing but move the humid, restless air back and forth. Although they had been there almost a year, the place smacked of inconsequential afterthought, lacking focus, and offered little tangible respite in their insipid jungle of sudden, tense uncertainty.
"No," Nate said. "We need to talk about this."
He looked back her way. Sweat formed on her chin and slowly found its way down her neck in tiny sensuous rivulets that ran between her breasts. He watched it glimmer in the static neon from the theatre across the way. As she shifted her thin blouse down to reveal her youthful, slender form, he ached.
With welling tears she slowly moved closer to the window, exposing her fragile anatomy to the early blue night. Nate was unsure if she sensed how arousing he found this, but it was clear she was content to ignore him and his tortured waves of passion. Although he was tempted to speak, he waited, breathing quietly.
Carol didn't move, and Nate yearned for her to look into his pathetic eyes. He craved absolution but she refused to give him the chance to see her, touch her, to soften the pain and nagging betrayal. She simply stared out and beyond over the vast city, her salve and comfort elsewhere.
Nate hated arguing. He despised any conflict as he believed, once they engaged in it, even a little, she would lash out, then retreat into her private, dark world of which he knew little. When crouching so, preying on his fallibility, she frightened him. In her own private and indiscernible way, she would sequester everything into compartments of neurotic design, impenetrable to him, especially when frustration and anger coursed through her fragile, wounded soul.
"It's too late, you prick. There's nothing to say."
Nate thought he knew her. He walked across the room and slowly settled into his chair, facing her, but she still refused to turn his way. From where he sat her profile was remarkable in the flashing red light of the marquis. Her eyes were now closed. In this pensive moment, he could hear her breathe above the embroidery of traffic and human staccato in the street below. He was aware of her disappointment and could taste her sadness in the distant rhythm of the night.
"You look at the window as if it's a way out," he said.
No one in the shiny, concrete darkness knew the depth of her discontent.
The window led out onto a narrow fire escape where Nate would sometime sit to think. Carol was frightened of heights and never ventured out as did her husband, despite his urging. More often than not, she was content to sit inside and observe. At this moment, she stood at the windowsill, near the precipice of uncertainty, unsure of which direction to take. Nate broke the silence.
"It's too hot in here," he said. "I'm going for a walk.
"If you're awake when I get back," he continued, "we'll talk." He headed for the door, then hesitated a moment and looked back, but she remained unmoved. Claiming her territory in that miserable, saddened room, she didn't budge.
"It's hotter down there, and noisy," she said as she peered over the city. Her words acknowledged his imminent departure, but without sympathy or entreat. As she spoke, her eyes remained thin and focused somewhere in the silhouette of the disappearing horizon.
Nate turned inward.
I wonder what would happen if I left? he thought to himself. I know that you could just drift off and not know you were gone. I know a person could fade away into the blackness of this enveloping veldt, and never be noticed again. He saw strange comfort in such anonymity.
"How many of us move to the city because we cannot face our selves?" he murmured quietly, unaware he had spoken aloud.
"What?" Carol asked.
Carol didn't like surprises, so this had all come as quite a shock to her and their comfortable, if not somewhat bland, routine. She sat there, torn between that to which she was accustomed, from which she gained comfort, and the rush of uncertainty hurled when her guard was down.
Her life had been one of rules and order and anything that seemed to deviate from the expected, from the familiar, was difficult for her to comprehend or much appreciate. Her tidiness was one of the things that Nate found attractive, although he still thoroughly enjoyed the few, rare moments when she was able to let go and be spontaneous. His life, by contrast, had been lived unedited, unrestrained, and that contrast was one of the most precious and attractive forces between their personalities.
Now, however, she was close to leaving him for his choices of freedom and self-abandonment. He felt - no, he knew for certain - that if she were to dare explore what he did, to feel what he had known, she would have jumped at the chance to revel in such seductive and powerful emancipation.
It began to rain and the water riveted the old, flat roof in quarter time. He sat there, shivering in the ark and shadows of his broken dreams, his impatient pulse hot, his breath now racing, waiting for the chance to turn on her and walk out, but she remained in control. In that instant, he questioned everything, and felt as if their life was over.
I am so alone, he thought, but no one can help me. I am not sure I even want anyone's help right now. Desolation crept in as a visceral pain that hurt beyond any awareness.
The air was growing heavy with anticipation and power. The rain, hollow and large, poured into the open vestibule and began to soak the floor. As Carol reached to close the window, the sky was suddenly overtaken with a large bolt of lightening. The shock had only added to her helplessness and she jumped back, startled. In the aftermath of thunder and brilliance, the building shook and went dark. The lamps fell into blackness and the impotent, asthmatic fan ground to a painful, death-like halt.
Carol looked up and over to him, then to the door. He could smell her fear of small spaces and, as he began to walk out, she quickly maneuvered to the door and tried the handle. Nothing.
"Shit, we're locked in," she said.
"Release the dead bolt!"
"I can't! It's stuck." The door was jammed shut.
"You and your goddam gadgets! I told you it was a bad idea!"
"I did it to protect you, Carol. We are in the city."
"Well, now it's too late; the power's gone and we can't get out."
He laughed. "I thought you wanted to stay."
She shot him a satanic glance and the chasm between them suddenly became insurmountable and as black as the sea.
"You mock me," she said. "There are so many other things that needed attention and, with the super worthless, you said you would... you promised..."
The power briefly surged and an incandescent bulb exploded in a brief flash of sardonic, ghostly light. Carol gasped and, covering her eyes, again turned away. She leaned against a wall and, shaking all over, began to sob.
"I'm not as strong as I thought I was... as you imagined me to be. Not now."
In the profound darkness, he looked past her to see the intrusive neon light, now more brilliant and aware, creep across the blackened room and paint an eerie, disturbing pattern on the opposite wall. It thrust a naked shadow on their impasse, forcing them to confront their fears, their anger, and each other.
Nate slowly got up and poured a glass of scotch.
"Want one?" he asked. "It'll help relax you." Carol didn't answer.
Here in the night, faced with the cacophony of filth, anger, and unkempt darkness, he sipped slowly, calmly resigned to their immediate, self-effacing fate. After a moment, Nate opened a small inlaid box on the cluttered mantle, lit a joint, and inhaled deeply.
"I wish you wouldn't do that." Her impatience lay confused and trembling.
"You seem to disapprove of a lot of what I've been doing lately."
"In the last few months," she said, "I find that I disapprove of most everything and everybody."
"Then, I suppose I haven't a chance, have I?"
"Nathan, what you did was reprehensible."
"No one was supposed to know," he said firmly. He finished his drink and slammed the glass down hard. "No one. It was over before it began."
"How can you say that?" she shouted, "I saw her letters!"
"How the hell else could I have known?" she turned to him. "It's been going on for weeks."
"You read my mail? My private mail?"
"You left them lying in plain sight. It's as if you wanted me to see them."
Nate sat there stunned. Was I so naïve? His thoughts swirled. He took another long drag on the joint and coughed. It left a bitter, unpleasant taste in his mouth and the room began to spin. He reached for more scotch, but thought better of it, as everything had grown warm and repulsive in the stormy night air.
An unprecedented sadness suddenly befell him, an irony of betrayal born of the offender and an understanding so profound that it left him shaken, as the observer became a part of the observed.
"I'm sorry. You weren't supposed to know."
"I knew," she said quietly. "Who is she?"
Nate was silent.
"Who is she?" Carol persisted.
Nate extinguished the joint with his fingertips, placed the remainder in the box, and slid to the floor; his back against the wall, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. He stared at the musty carpet and sighed.
"Well?" she aimed her accusing eyes at her Judas.
He looked around the dull, uninteresting room and saw the walls closing in by the second. The longer he sat, the more lost and vulnerable he felt, and he lacked all energy and all reason to move or speak. After a moment, he took a deep and pensive breath.
"Years back," he swallowed hard, "before I met you, I had a brief fling with my T.A. Her name was Sara."
"I know her name."
"She helped me through that part of grad school that was so difficult and dull; you know, stats and all. She put a spin on things that made it interesting and, thanks to her, I nailed the courses.
"Short story is, after a few late nights in the library, I fell hard. I was smitten. We began to see each other, even though we knew it was wrong."
He wondered how far to take this, or how much detail Carol could endure. Clearly, she had not known this, and the punch of his revelation and his recent affair had shaken her deeply. Nate was afraid to hurt her fragile heart even more, but was bound to answer, to find resolution, to ask forgiveness.
"I was so busy, Carol, and so stressed; so alone. I didn't expect to find such comfort and warmth so quickly, and was caught totally unprepared."
"Like me now."
"Carol, I'm sorry."
"At the time, it was exactly what I needed, what we needed: to hold and be held." He wanted to cease talking, to begin anew with his wife, but she silently pushed.
"It was brief, and it was over. I finished school and moved on. I thought she understood."
He stared at the dark carpet ahead of his feet, tasting his palpable sorrow in his tight throat.
"Truthfully, I had forgotten all about it."
"Well, clearly, she hasn't."
As these emotions reached a thunderous zenith, a small, hot tear dropped onto the dirty floor. Nate despised the moment, the surrender, and struggled to suppress a guilty cry that was growing longer and deeper in the bottom of his painful gut.
They sat in tormented silence for a while. The room remained dark, their thoughts momentarily in another world. She had caught him cheating, but it had quickly become a shallow victory, for she now felt no advantage. When Carol had discovered the recent letters in Nate's mail, she had suddenly felt inconsequential to him. She had never been so shocked, and this betrayal had left her as empty as her dwindling dreams.
Nate slowly stood and walked toward her. She looked up and, as if gliding over a field of repentance, cautiously rose to meet him, arms hanging tired at her side.
"Her letters came out of the blue," he said, "I don't even know how she found me. I even hesitated to answer them but, once I did, I felt all that rush and adrenaline return."
Carol faced him with bitterness and uncertainty, her eyes seeing everything but his face.
If I can't reach her now, he thought, then I should be a fraud.
"Do you have feelings for her?"
"What?" Nate said, now looking straight into her sad eyes.
"Are you in love with her?"
"No, it was just once and I felt horrible," he said. "I just wanted my fantasy to have a life. It's so stifling sometimes. Carol, I hadn't expected anything to happen, but seeing her again brought back the thrill and freedom I once enjoyed; freedom I wish you could know."
"Isn't our reality good enough?" she asked.
"Sometimes it's too good and, yet, not enough."
"Nathan, I am not her!"
"No, goddamnit," he said as his head pounded with emotion, "you're my wife and I need you. I need you like a sickness and a cure together, like the cold and heat."
He stared at her, "I was born to look you in the eyes and know myself."
"I want to fly," said Carol, "I want to escape this hellhole and live a little."
"Yes," she said, and took his hand. "Let's look at the city; come on." She slowly led him to the window and onto the fire escape landing.
"You never go out there," said Nate, hesitating. "It's dangerous on that thing."
"I have often wondered what you do out there," Carol implored. "You seem so removed, so wanting. I do wonder and I am a little envious."
She paused for a moment, then went on, hesitantly, like a child.
"It seems to me that in order to exist, some desire must be unattainable, you know?"
For a moment, she seemed to glow, as if something angelic had overcome her. Nate never loved her more than this moment.
"I haven't seen what you see," she continued, "but now I can try."
They cautiously stepped onto the old landing high above the street. The metal was slick and noisy as it swayed under their combined weight. Nate held his wife around the waist as they ventured out, both facing the pregnant night. For a moment, neither spoke.
She moved a little closer to him and he turned to face her, holding her head in his strong hands. As he leaned over, he held her close and kissed her hard. At first she resisted, just a little, but his powerful, passionate grasp moved down to her throat and held on. She slowly began to submit; cautiously, tentatively, slowly dropping her fears, her hands on his muscular arms.
How easy it would be, he thought, as his tongue searched deeper.
He stood tall and pressed against her, kissing her, close to the edge of the fragile rail.
Suddenly uncomfortable with his unexpected intensity, she began to squirm and tried to release his grasp, but Nate was hungry.
"I don't want an apology kiss," she said. "Not like this." She began to pull away.
"Then give me one."
Nate leaned toward her again, his passion overwhelming all sense and reason, his eyes closed, arms tighter.
"I love you, Sara," he said softly.
"What?!" Carol pushed him away and, in doing so, slipped and lost her footing. Then, from the cold, wet, metal rail, lost what grasp she thought she had found and, in a silent and graceful pirouette, fell over the side. She caught soft air, became airborne, and slowly fell to the street, arms flailing, flying. She let out a gasp as she floated away, a gasp of no more pain, falling freely without restraint, falling until there was no more, until she was swallowed by the night.
Nate screamed her name, but no voice came; only a wisp and a thud when all light, all life, all sound ceased to be.
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