“Sometimes I feel like a spider watching its web get shredded by the wind.”
Susan cups her hands together and breathes warm air into her palms. She turns up the heat in the car. Michael asks if she’s cold and she says that she’s freezing.
“You know it’s going to be a lot colder in the mountains,” he says.
“I know, I know. I’m allowed to be cold though.”
“Yes. Yes you are.”
She leans over and kisses Michael on the cheek.
“You’re the best boyfriend, you know that?”
He offers an awkward smile. “Well,” he says, “I try.”
“Are you going to miss me?”
Two weeks ago Susan decided to visit Leah in France. Michael said it was a good idea but since then she’s noticed a peculiar distance in his behavior toward her. She wonders if he’s angry she decided to go away without talking to him about it first.
“Of course I’ll miss you.” There is a pang of guilt. He squeezes her thigh and returns his hand to the steering wheel.
“You know I wouldn’t be going if Leah didn’t need me.”
“I know. But you don’t need to apologize about taking the chance to spend a week in the French Alps.”
“It’ll be fun to go skiing. I haven’t been skiing in years.”
A green sign with white letters announces that the airport in under 2 miles away. He wonders what Veronica is doing.
“Susan,” he glances toward her and then back to the road, “I hope you have a really good time.”
“Me too. I’ll call you when I get there.”
Back in his apartment, Michael’s guilt disappears beneath a swell of anticipation. Susan is on her way across the ocean and tonight he will be alone with Veronica. His mind won’t focus on anything else. He tries to read but the words don’t form a larger meaning. He turns on the television but he forgets what he is watching during the commercial breaks. He begins to clean but ends up standing above a sink, half-full of dishes, and staring blankly toward the cabinets. Every few minutes he checks the time.
Susan is seated by a window toward the rear of the plane. Her eyes are fixed on the line of clouds that stretches out beneath her. When she catches a glimpse of the ocean she feels drawn to its depth. She wishes that Michael were here beside her. She wants to rest her head on his shoulder and feel him take her hand. She closes her eyes and pictures his face. She feels safe.
Heinz Memorial Chapel dominates the lawn behind the Cathedral of Learning. Large stone arches frame an elaborate array of stained glass windows. The chapel is 100 feet tall at the nave and its steeple extends another 50 feet into the air. Ironwork weaves across the large red doors. Above the entrance an image of Jesus is carved next to symbols of Christian virtue. Michael approaches the chapel and listens to the wind brush against the stone.
The large door creaks as he pulls it toward him. Veronica is waiting for him in the entranceway. She smiles when she sees him enter.
“I’m glad you made it,” she says and slips her arm into his. “My friend Jay is about to start playing.”
A few dozen people are scattered in pews throughout the chapel. Veronica leads Michael to an empty pew near the rear and a small grey-haired woman steps up to the lectern. Her speech is measured and sophisticated.
“We thank you all for attending this evening of music in Heinz Chapel. Tonight local pianist Joseph Gattoni will be performing a series of Fugues for organ composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. During the opening piece we will light the stained glass windows. Again, we are happy that you have joined us on this wintry evening and we hope that you enjoy the program.”
A thin man with short hair and a trimmed beard stands from the first pew and approaches the organ. With the first chord music pours down from the ceiling. Veronica slides next to Michael and her knee rubs against his thigh.
“Look,” she whispers and points to the windows that surround them. According to the program there are 23 windows made up of over 250,000 pieces of stained glass. The tallest windows on either side are over 70 feet tall. When Michael arrived, the images in the glass were dull and cloaked in shadow. The music increases in intensity and the light begins to bleed through the windows. Each piece of glass glows in its own hue and Michael watches, as they grow more brilliant by the moment. Veronica takes his hand and he lets her fingers weave between his own. The notes of the organ seem to speak to each other as a pair of melodies intertwines. The lanterns above grow dim and the altar becomes bathed in colored light.
Michael turns toward Veronica. She is wearing tall black leather boots, dark jeans, and a knee length leather jacket. Her breasts swell beneath a tightly fitted white sweater. She flexes her grip on his hand, and then lies back on the pew, and closes her eyes. Her body sways gently with the music. He remembers the first time he saw her walk into Faraday’s class. Even now, he feels like he is watching her from afar.
Before the program is over, Veronica suggests they find someplace else to go. Her voice is smooth and assertive and Michael is happy to follow her lead. At a bar around the corner they order two beers and two shots of whiskey. She tells him about the first time she heard Bach as a child.
“There was something beautifully ordered about it. That’s how I first got interested in math. It got me thinking about the beauty in structure. Sometimes when I solve theorems it’s like I can hear them. Do you know what I mean?” Michael shakes his head. Veronica orders another pair of shots.
“You hear them?”
“I mean I can sense what’s coming, I anticipate the rhythm.” She glances at their reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “It’s not the type of thing you can explain.”
Michael feels out of his depth. “Pythagoras invented the modern harmonic scale didn’t he?”
Veronica smiles suggestively. “Yes. He did.”
Veronica’s apartment is a single rectangular room. A mattress and box spring are centered on the wall opposite the front door. An oven and sink are built into the left wall and separated from the rest of the room by a few feet of tile-patterned linoleum. On the opposite side of the room a small, faded blue coach faces toward a pair of windows overlooking Frick Park. Beneath the windows and on both sides of the bed are stacks of books and unpacked boxes. Michael steps inside and focuses on maintaining his balance. They’ve been drinking for over three hours. Veronica drags her fingers across Michael’s waistline as she passes and leads him toward the coach. She asks if he wants to smoke some pot and picks up a plastic bag and a small glass bowl. He says yes and begins to scan the titles of the books stacked around him. Most are contemporary fiction. There is a stack of essays ranging from Cicero to Robinson. Beside them is a taller stack of math textbooks and worn out composition notebooks. Ibn al’Arabi’s “Bezels of Wisdom,” is opened on the floor. Beside it is a copy of “Sein und Zeit”.
“You read Heidegger in German?” he asks.
She hands him the bowl and a black lighter. “I like German,” she says, widening her eyes as she smiles. Michael feels the need to kiss her but hesitates.
He takes a hit and passes the bowl back to Veronica. He feels caught up in decisions beyond his control.
Michael settles into the couch and closes his eyes. His nerves settle as the pot mixes with the liquor in his system. He feels insulated from the outside world. Veronica’s body is warm beside him. There is a sense of fulfillment. “Do you believe in fate?” he asks. The question seems to come from nowhere but Veronica doesn’t mind.
She touches his knee. “Belief is a funny way to talk about fate. But, I guess, if we’re looking for a reason why you’re here and why I’m here and why we’re drawn to each other the way I think we are,” she slides her hand up his thigh, “then fate is as good a word as any.”
Veronica leans toward Michael and they kiss. Her lips are full and lush. He feels her hands slide under his shirt and her nails scratch into his back. He pushes her back on the couch and kisses her neck. She lets out a long sigh that bends toward a moan. She touches her lips to his ear. “I want you to fuck me,” she whispers.
* * * * *
Susan’s cheeks are numb and the wind whips her scarf in the air. She digs her poles into the snow and pushes forward while skating with her skis. A moment later she is gliding downhill atop several feet of powder. She bends her legs and twists her hips to steer her way down the mountain. She picks up speed and looses herself in the motions. Her breathing syncs to the rhythm of her turns. Trees flash by the sides of her vision in a blur. It dawns on her that skiing at this speed could be dangerous but she feels in control. Occasionally, she hits mounds in the powder and she’s lifted away from the mountain. She feels her heart and lungs rise in her chest and then drop when her skis return to the snow beneath her. Halfway down the slope, she turns off to the side to take in the view.
She glances back over her shoulder. She can feel the mountain’s strength radiating around her and she’s tempted to lie back and let it hold her. A pair of skiers passes by and something rustles nearby in the woods. Susan pans her eyes across the landscape. Mountains rise in front of mountains for as far as she can see. She wishes Michael were here. There is a tingling across her nose. Her eyes begin to water and she blames it on cold.
When Susan was just twelve years old her mother would take her skiing and let her go off on her own. At times Susan would relish this independence but often she felt lonely. She remembers asking herself once, as she skied solo down a windy slope at the edge of the resort, if there was any point to doing something if no one was around to watch her. She imagined herself alone on a desert island sitting idly without any motivation to survive. The memory gives Susan a strange feeling. She tries to dismiss it as frivolous but her mind can’t move on so easily. I’ve never been satisfied when I’m alone. She repeats the thought as a question and pulls her goggles back over her eyes. She bends her knees and then pushes against the slope. Her goggles give the scene an amber hue.
Susan watches Leah descend the final stretch of the mountain in short choppy turns.
Leah skates toward Susan. “Zoom zoom,” she says, “you were flying up there. You have to teach me how to do that.” Susan smiles. She’s glad to see Leah happy.
The chalet Leah has rented for them is large and removed from the others. There are two large bedrooms, each with its own bath and extra beds. Five-foot tall windows offer a view of the snow-covered mountains around them. A waist high cedar counter with a granite top separates the kitchen from the main room. The furniture is comfortable to the point of luxury.
The sun has set and the night is descending into deeper shades of blue. Susan sits on the large green recliner facing the windows and counts the stars as they appear. Leah stands behind the stove stirring melted chocolate and heating a pan of milk to a simmer.
“Leah, that smells wonderful,” says Susan, turning slightly toward the kitchen.
“Do you want any whiskey in yours?”
“Maybe just a little.”
Leah uncorks the whiskey bottle. With a quick turn of the wrist she coats the bottom of Susan’s mug and then adds a little more. She fills her own mug to just under halfway full. She tops off the drinks with a mix of chocolate and milk and then adds a crown of whipped cream.
She takes the mugs by their handles but hesitates before picking them up from the counter. She thinks of Marcel and what to tell Susan. The last time they spoke she had nothing hopeful to say about her marriage. Recently, she has begun to warm to the idea of forgiveness. Marcel has repented and he claims he’s ended things with Annelies. Leah isn’t sure she believes him but she wants to. Glancing around the chalet she reminds herself of the type of life that Marcel is able to provide for her. Women have endured worse for much less. I should be grateful. Her thoughts have a taste of desperation. We can still make this work.
Susan sips her chocolate, “This is delicious.”
“You know this is the first time I’ve ever been out of the country?”
“Of course Suzie. If you’d been out of the country I’d have known about it.”
“Well I just wanted to thank you for inviting me out here. It’s really good to see you.”
“Susan.” They sit for a while in silence and drink their chocolate. Leah wants to tell Susan that she loves her, and that she’s more than grateful she came to be here with her. “Susan,” she says again, and reaches her hand toward her.
Susan stands and takes a seat next to Leah on the couch. She sets her chocolate on the table and wraps her arm around Leah. Leah nestles her cheek just above Susan’s chest.
“So,” Susan whispers, “Do you know what you’re going to do?”
“No. I don’t even know what I want to do. No matter what I do I’ll feel like a failure.” She pulls away from Susan. “I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to make things work with Marcel. I mean…” she rolls her eyes, “he is my husband after all.”
“I mean just because he broke his vows doesn’t mean I should break mine too. And he says he’s ended things with his fucking whore and he’s trying to avoid working with her when he can. And I’m his wife and she’s just a fucking whore.” Leah can see her and Marcel standing together on their wedding day. I do, he said.
“And you think you can trust him?”
“We promised to spend the rest of our lives together.”
Leah’s voice begins to crack, “He promised.”
Leah wipes the tears from her cheeks with her palms.
“I’m sorry I’m such a wreck.”
“I don’t want to just sit around and cry about myself all night. Tell me about you. How are things with you and Michael?”
* * * * *
Michael and Veronica are sitting up in bed, naked, with their backs to the wall. A white sheet covers them up to their waists. They are sharing a cigarette. Snow piles on the windowsill but the air inside is hot and thick with the smell of sweat. It’s been four days since Michael dropped Susan off at the airport and tomorrow morning he will return there to pick her up. The thought has hardly any effect on him at all.
The past few days Michael has felt like he was watching his life through a kaleidoscope. He stares forward and the scenes unravel in his memory. At a club by Station Square, strobe lights turn Veronica’s movements into a series of stop motion photos, she averts her eyes as she dances, her shirt is damp to the touch, she cuts him a line of cocaine on the bar of an afterhours spot in the strip district, he slides his hand up her skirt in the cab on the ride home, her naked body slides against his own, he finds math theorems written in lipstick on her bathroom mirror, she holds his hand while they listen to the bass solos on an Ornette Coleman album, he asks her about her family and she says that she is a child of nature, she tells him she’ll never be in love, she tells him she’s never felt as close to someone as she does to him, she asks him to split a cigarette, he tells her he has a girlfriend and she says she doesn’t care, she says that he doesn’t have to care either, they walk at night through Scheneley park and she stays two paces ahead of him, they smoke pot in the morning and watch movies through the afternoon, they buy vegetables in the strip district and she makes couscous in a tagine she brought back from Morocco, they drink liquor with lunch and dinner, he calls her name while she’s writing and she tells him to shut the fuck up, they fuck on the floor just inside her apartment door, she asks if he wants to share a cigarette, he asks how many men have fallen in love with her, she says she doesn’t believe in unrequited love, she tells him about how her brother killed himself, they drink red wine from the bottle, in the minutes before sleep he tells her she can trust him, she says that she hopes so.
The day is almost over and they haven’t eaten since breakfast. Veronica stubs out the cigarette in the ashtray by the mattress and announces that she’s going to order Thai food. “You should pack a bowl,” she adds.
Michael picks up the glass pipe and bag of pot from the foot of the bed, “Susan is coming back tomorrow.”
“Then I guess our little holiday is coming to an end,” she says from the other side of the room and then jumps into an order for vegetable Pad Thai and green curry.
“It doesn’t have to,” says Michael. He takes a hit of the bowl. Veronica slips on underwear and a loose fitting cotton dress.
“No?” she says. She returns to her place on the bed and Michael hands her the pipe.
“I can talk to Susan. I like being with you.” Michael struggles to keep his tone from getting serious.
“I like being with you too.”
“You make me feel alive.”
“You shouldn’t need me to feel alive.”
“I know. That’s not what I mean.”
She squeezes his knee and Michael understands that she doesn’t want to talk about this right now.
“Do you want to split a cigarette?” she asks.
“You want me to crack a window?”
Michael pulls on his boxers and walks toward the window. When he pulls it open a wave of cold air pours into the room. He feels a chill on his feet and shivers run along his back. Veronica takes an exaggerated breath when the cold air reaches her toes. She lights a cigarette and closes her eyes.
After they eat, they watch an old French movie on her computer. The action is slow but the dialogue is witty and Veronica laughs out loud at several points. The theme of the film is the relationship between spiritual transcendence and submission before God. But, asks one of the characters, is God without or within? When the film is over, Veronica takes a bottle of wine to the couch and stares out the window. The snow and ice have etched designs across the glass. A steady stream of cold air continues to pour in from the opening at its base. Michael reads a few pages from a book of stories and notices that Veronica’s expression hasn’t changed. He walks over and sits next to her on the couch. She passes him the bottle of wine. He takes a gulp and she reaches for him to return it.
“I want to keep seeing you but I don’t want you to break up with your girlfriend.”
“Because I’m fucked up and I can’t make any promises and I don’t want you to be hurt.” She takes a drink of wine and looks down quietly. Michael can tell she wants to say something. “Can I ask you something?” she says and turns toward him, “Did you ever notice anything strange between me and Faraday?”
The question takes Michael by surprise. “No,” he says and shakes his head slightly.
“Well,” her voice continues in a detached whisper, “After the first class we had with him, the one where he said all that shit about beauty and truth, I followed him back to his office. I don’t know what I was expecting. I know I had an idea to ask for more clarity on the assignment but I also remember having a crush on him. I had this fantasy of locking his office door. Obviously I didn’t do that but I did flirt with him and when I mentioned I was going to see a concert a friend of mine was giving I said that he should check it out. I didn’t expect him to say yes but he did. That night he drove me back to my apartment, not this one, my old one, and on the drive he gave me some cocaine and I snorted it off the dashboard. When we got home he came in and we had sex and then he left to go home to his wife and kids, he had a fucking wife and kids.” She presses her fingers into her forehead. “And then we started doing that type of thing every couple weeks and then every week and then twice a week. We’d do some coke and fuck and then he’d leave.” She takes a long drink from the bottle.
“How long did this go on?”
“Off and on until a few months ago. Anyway…” She lights a cigarette but doesn’t ask Michael to share. “Faraday sometimes talked about you. He noticed how you’d keep looking at me during class and later on he’d talk about it. He said that you wanted to fuck me. He said that you were smart but that your ideas never went forward they just spun around in circles one way or the other. He said that’s why we were perfect for each other and then he’d make me promise never to fuck you. That’s the word he used. Fuck.”
Michael sets his hand on her knee but Veronica brushes it away.
“That’s why I approached you and gave you my number. I wanted to burn every promise I ever made to that asshole. But I didn’t expect to actually like you. You’re a good person Michael. It’s been a long time since I spent time with a good person. But we shouldn’t be together. You should pick up your girlfriend tomorrow and forget about me. Don’t worry about me. I’m used to being alone.”
“I don’t think you’re fucked up.”
“I am. Trust me… Sometimes I feel like a spider watching its web get shredded by the wind.”
Michael watches her close her eyes. He thinks she might cry but she just sits still. After a while she stands and walks to the window. She opens it as high as it will go and then presses it shut. Clumps of snow fall and melt into the carpet.
* * * * *
Susan holds up a large green cashmere sweater for Leah to see, “What do you think of this one? I think Michael might like it.”
“It’s nice I guess.” Leah is not enthusiastic about helping Susan pick out a present for Michael.
“No,” Susan trades the sweater for a blue one with a higher collar, “I think I like this one better.” She slings it over her forearm.
“Do you really have to leave tomorrow?”
“You know I do.”
Susan feels sorry for Leah but she’s looking forward to going home. She wishes that Leah could be as lucky as she is.
“Fine,” says Leah, bitter but still joking, “go home to your loving boyfriend.”
Susan smiles. Tonight she’ll fall asleep in his arms.
(This is an excerpt from the novel Pictures of the Sky. Here is a link to the full novel: https://www.amazon.com/Pictures-Sky-William-Minton/dp/0692423559/)