The Untouched

Tianxing Ma

By This Time Tomorrow

        Maria kept dreaming smoke was a man, his knee on her stomach, hands crushing her throat. When the men from the insurance company came, she saw that they had the same kind of hands, used to touching. The insurance men had said they’d call soon, and Lai had frowned as their boots left the house. Maria, too, had been unaccustomed to his no shoe policy when they’d first moved in together, and how the cutlery drawer was divided into half chopsticks, half forks and knives, and the dampness his newly washed hair imprinted on the bed before they slept.     

        She had been hungry but didn’t want to spend any time at the stove. One of the burners still worked. Lai had made eggs the other day. Otherwise, they mostly ate soup. She microwaved a bowl and brought it to him. She hadn’t left it in for much time; it was barely warmer than her fingers. She’d been afraid. She kept envisioning microwaving it for too long and dropping it on her way to Lai, scalding vegetables and shards of porcelain everywhere. Crusted on top of the ash, which they’d been instructed not to touch, so that the insurance company could make a more accurate estimate.       

        “Thanks,” Lai said when she set it down next to him. He blew at the screen, clearing away more dust she couldn’t see. He was between stories and so was roving around online. She’d asked him, a few times, if being between freelance gigs felt like being unemployed. He’d told her a little. He’d said that it wasn’t like what she was doing, though, taking a few months, then half a year, then an entire year to assess what she wanted with her life before finding another job. It wasn’t like that at all.       

        “Do you have a new story?” she asked, wedging herself in front of the desk onto his lap. His hands circled her hips.

        “Not really. Here, let me eat, that’s going to get cold.”

        She straightened some of the papers around his keyboard. Rough drafts, different colors of pen crawling out of the double-spaced text into the margins. The pages were out of order. She recognized the article as his most recently published one. It had gotten some attention—not a lot but enough that at a friend’s party one night he’d drunk too much and made out with her on the couch behind a piano, like a teenager, his tongue feeling new in her mouth, warm, sour. She started to shuffle the papers into the correct order but settled for aligning all the corners instead.

        When she turned back to him, his hand was holding the spoon halfway to his lips. His eyes were closed. The curves around his mouth gouged into his face, frozen.

        “What’s wrong?” Maria said.

        The exhale he gave her moved a strand of hair across her forehead.

        “Is it the soup? I can heat it more.” She was aware her body was rigid. The air through her nostrils was like cotton. Her heartbeat pushed hard against her ribs, and she wondered if this was a heart attack.

        Later she would hate how he spoke like each word cut coming through his lips. Would remember how they felt leaden at the time, but that the dull weight just kept settling, heavier and heavier.

        She would hate how he looked like he was about to cry. Would hate that he followed her out of the office back to their bedroom, where she would stand in front of the window. The ash hadn't touched this part of the house, but she wished it had so she could've focused on each little gray speck, the way it lightened on the side closest to the window, the jagged irregularity, how they had fallen in the pattern of the air currents at the time of the fire. But the windowsill was untouched, white, the marigold curtains she and Lai had installed when they'd moved into this new house together stretching a shadow along the wood. If it had snowed this year, there would've been tracks outside left by the fire trucks, the ambulance, the police cars, that Maria would've been able to see standing in the window, deep ruts in the face of late December snow, thawed and refrozen across several days until it glazed over, hard and blinding in the sun. But the lawn was brown. There’d been no snow, only cold that pulsed on the window to the timing of Maria’s breath. Her hands felt heavy at her sides, her fingers stiff but filmed with sweat. Lai was behind her, so quiet she could almost forget his toes that dug into the carpet when he was distressed, the mouth that melted downwards, the eyes on her back that really wished to be back downstairs in the safe, blue hutch of the computer screen whose hum was probably—she realized now that he’d told her he was asexual—warmer than she had ever made him, rather than here, up by the sharp light of the window from which they looked onto the sad, unhidden lawn outside they’d worked so hard to manicure each summer, through which enough of the chill reached inside that she felt it down her spine and hoped that he felt it too. “How long have you known?”

        “Before I met you.”

        “Why are you telling me now?”

        “I’m sorry.” She heard his feet on the stairs, the door to his office close. She wondered if he was eating the soup.

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