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She had watched the men from the insurance company inspect the bowls in the sink, four-day-old dried flecks of grease, yellow rings of seasoning floating above the puddle of liquid left over in the bowl that would remain unless rinsed out or licked up. She had watched them tromp up the stairs to determine how damaging the footprints the firefighters had pressed into the carpet were, the rectangles of their thick boots distinct, stamped in. Lai had shown them. She had watched. He hadn’t mentioned how it’d all happened—grease fire was all he had said, which was what he’d told the EMTs also, and the police—that she’d been the one to leave the stove roaring, the oil uncovered, too busy pinching fingerfulls off the fritters, the latkes, or whatever they would be called. It didn’t matter now. She had kept salting them and salting them, thinking it wasn’t enough, silvering the potato. Meanwhile the flame had still been on. Meanwhile the bud of the fire that she could not forget as Lai seemed to have—how she had been afraid watching him throw towels over it through smoke that seemed to burn her eyes, how he had been calm and methodical—had been unfurling at the bottom of the wok.
She wished he had mentioned it. She wanted to call the men up now. She’d tell them. It had been her. They could stop casting looks at the bottle of fish sauce on the kitchen table, stop staring at Lai’s slippered feet, stop whispering when they didn’t think he was listening. They could stop watching—though never speaking to—her. Like she was a glass too close to the edge of a table or an exquisitely white cat that kept trying to lick its paws clean of ash, but kept failing, but kept trying anyway.
She would tell them of all the nights she’d spent in Lai’s bed, which she now realized had been Lai’s bed all along, curled like a comma into the hollow space of his body, her back against his chest, her knees tucked around his knees. Nesting spoons had worked for her previous boyfriends but not for Lai; even enveloped in his warmth there hadn’t been that clank of two things fitting correctly together, that chime. She thought of all the times she, facing away from him, had felt his dumb, flaccid penis against her. She thought of how she’d move herself against him, almost like she was shifting in her sleep, to rub some hardness into it. It had been heavy, limp. She was sure it was now, too. She wanted to put her face very close to the sink until the white enamel erased the nausea that threaded up her throat each time she thought about it.
They had begun seeing each other years ago, before everyone they knew one by one lost their jobs and before their friends, dressed in flannel and holding signs above their heads, had gotten tear gassed by cops in lower Manhattan. It had been winter, not snowy but cold, and they had agreed to meet for dinner. She had stood outside the restaurant, chin pushed into her scarf, her shoulders curved against the wind. The streetlamps had been orange. Lai’s black coat had glowed under them as he walked toward her, and she could see even at that distance his nose crumpling as he sniffed. He’d tell her later he had a bit of a cold, and she’d excuse him for not kissing her at her front door. There would be kisses later, for years and years, though now she couldn’t distinguish if they’d been genuine or if he had never loved her as he’d said.
The streetlamps, too, colored his skin, and she’d thought he’d looked beautiful, sturdy and kind. He’d smiled when he saw her standing there. Then his foot had hit a disk of ice on the sidewalk and he’d tilted. Arms had flown out from his pockets, his torso suddenly like a bird, untethered, unwanting. His face had emptied in surprise.
She didn’t want to think that had been the first and last time he’d been so honest with her—that orange-lit street, the visible puffs they both exhaled, the dim chatter from inside the restaurant widening whenever the door opened. The buttons on Lai’s black coat gleaming like the hard shine of his hair. She didn’t want to remember his face when he’d slipped on the ice, though she did even now, even as she moved cans around the pantry, searching for something other than soup. There were some beans, some fruit in sugar syrup. The cans closest to the doors of the pantry had acquired a film over them, although whether it was dust or ash Maria didn’t know.
She thought she could hear Lai shuffling around in his office, the legs of his chair scraping against the floor. He’d taken the couch downstairs since telling her and was always up before she came downstairs, a blanket already folded and pushed to the side, the pillow he’d taken from the guest room on top of it. He was waiting for her. Sometimes she wanted to sneak downstairs to watch him sleep, but he was a light sleeper. She wouldn’t, if only to keep him waiting longer.
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