It was Friday in Madrid. Hot. Humid. Noisy. The streets of the Centro were crowded with tourists foreign and domestic. By eleven A.M. it was almost impossible to move through the Prado for the crowds. Tour guides drilled pathways through the mobs with their colored pennants. Echoing off the marble walls and high ceilings, the din was as loud as the inside of a railway station at rush hour. The air dripped with garlic and stale breath. The guards had to lock arms in a human wall to keep the mass of humanity from smashing into the Prado’s most famous painting, Velasquez’s Las Meninas.
Seeing the plaza outside the Museo awash in bodies pressing to get inside the already over-packed building, Allison turned away and Alex followed her. “Too late,” she said. “We shouldn’t have waited this long to come.”
“It’s ridiculous. They should have a reservation system in place,” he said.
“Yes, that’s a solution.”
“I can think of others.”
“I’m sure. Men usually do.” She nudged him with her shoulder and smiled up at him. He was beautiful: unruly brown hair that curled over his ears, high forehead, deep-set brown eyes; a cyclist’s whiplash body. She could see he loved her, he was as transparent as window glass. And maybe she was beginning to love him. It was hard to tell. She’d talked herself into being in love with her ex and look how that turned out. “Why don’t you find us a quiet table somewhere out of the sun where we can have something to drink and eat. At least some nuts and olives.”
Backs to the Museo, they pushed against the oncoming tide of tourists and made their way down a narrow street between glass and concrete office blocks until tabernas appeared, tables and chairs under umbrellas advertising Mahou and San Miguel and Amstel.
They took a table and a waiter appeared. They ordered.
“I really wanted to see the Velasquez,” Allison said.
The waiter returned with a tray of beer and sandwiches.
“I prefer Seurat,” Alex said.
Around a mouthful of sandwich Allison said, “Of course you do. His paintings are made up of thousands and thousands of tiny colored dots. Just like the things you study. I see patterns in people the way you see patterns in atoms.”
He laughed. “You’re right. Quantum physics is like that, infinitely small bits that eventually add up to Iberico ham sandwiches.”
When the food and beer was gone Alex said, “So what next?”
“I need a siesta after all this.”
He understood. “And in the heat of the day.”
She fanned her face with a hand. “So hot.”
“And getting hotter all the time,” he said, counting out a handful of coins and piling them up in size order on the table.
They rose and walked hand in hand back to the room they were renting.
Late afternoon sun on her face woke Allison. She rolled away from Alex, hiked herself up on one shoulder and ran a hand down his naked flank. She was familiar with its dips and crests, the feel of the bones under his skin. Still asleep, he moved. She shook him awake. “C’mon, you. Time to get moving. The Prado closes in a couple of hours.”
He rolled over against her. “Wha?”
She climbed out of bed. “The Prado. I want to see the Velasquez.”
“But the crowds—I thought you gave up on that.”
She turned back to the bed and bent over him, her weight on one supporting arm, and kissed him. He cradled a dangling breast.
She bit his lip and stepped away. “I changed my mind.”
The sudden emptiness in his hand was painful.
The Prado was worn from the day’s crowds, waste bins overflowing with cups and wrappers and scraps of food, patterned marble floors scuffed, guards drooping at their stations, surly and sore-footed. But the crowds were much smaller. Individual voices echoed in the galleries. A small band of admirers stood in front of a velvet rope placed in front of Las Meninas and only two guards were on station before it. Arguably the greatest painting in the Western tradition, the guidebooks said, a court painting of the family of King Philip IV of Spain, his family, a man in the doorway at the far end of a room but also the self-portrait of Velasquez painting the painting, an impossibly complex composition in which everyone is staring out at the painting’s viewers, who stand where the mirrored king and queen would be posing.
Standing before the painting, within the painting, in a moment of blazing comprehension, Allison understood the novel she’d been trying to read: ICUCMe. The title said it all. It was a written analogue of the painting, a story set inside a story that was the reader reading the story about the story. Her body shook with the thrill of it, the heat of it opened every pore in her body. Sweat soaked her scalp and her face and her clothes. Never before in her life—standing in front of the painting with the book heavy in her bag—had she felt a physical jolt inside her skull. She was consumed with desire find the writer whose book defined her so completely that she didn’t know if she was reading it or it was reading her. She felt her future unfold itself before her.
Alex stood to one side watching Allison stare at the painting, unconsciously touching her mouth, her nose, turning her head slightly this way and that, peering in, leaning back, brushing her hair, as if she were staring at her own reflection in a mirror, like the painted queen whose image appeared next to her husband in a mirror at the back of the painted room. Though they’d been dead over four hundred years, anyone looking at the painting for more than a few moments felt their gaze. Even he felt himself drawn into it and caught himself unconsciously posing for Velasquez to paint him.
Allison turned away from the painting and pushed her way out of the Museo. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” she said. Alex followed her across the plaza and the boulevard, dodging traffic, hurrying towards their rented room.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“Nothing, oh nothing. It’s wonderful. I understand.”
She didn’t answer.
In their room she packed her things quickly.
“What are you doing? Where are you going? Talk to me, Allison.”
She stopped finally and faced him. “I’m sorry, Alex. But I’ve got to go back. There’s something I have to do.”
“This has to do with that painting, doesn’t it.”
“Nothing and everything. I found what I was looking for when we came here.”
“And that was?”
“What I’m supposed to do with my life.” She touched his cheek. “But I’m glad you were with me when I found it.” She zipped up her rollaway.
“And it doesn’t include me.”
“No, I’m sorry. It doesn’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will, Alex. Read this.” She tossed the book on the bed.
He followed her down the stairs to the street, waited with her until a taxi pulled up, and watched it pull away, carrying her to the aeropuerto. He turned and climbed the stairs back to his empty room where only the book waited for him.
Ten years later, an Uber pulls up to a B&B on a shady street narrowed by cars parked on both sides, nose to tail. Fall is easing in. Another academic year is about to begin in Richmond. Alex has arrived for a job interview with the physics faculty at the university and they’ve booked him in here. It is a three-story house, white clapboard with green trim around door and windows, a narrow-railed veranda and a short flagstone walk across a tidy green lawn. A sign at the front of the walk reads, “The Faber Inn.” A banner draped over the verandah reads, “Welcome Faber Fellowship Attendees.”
“What the fuck is this?” He recognizes the name and remembers the novel though he doesn’t remember the title.
The driver says, “Some famous writer who went to the U. It’s a big thing they do every year.”
Uneasy but determined, he climbs out of the Prius with his backpack and his rollaway, walks through the front door of the B&B and steps up to a pair of women standing beside the registration table talking to each other. Though it is a decade since he’s last seen her, he recognizes the White woman immediately: thick auburn hair, slim body, distinct posture.
He’s only half surprised to run into her after all these years. “Hello, Allison.”
She turns to face him. “Alex!”
They face each other carefully just outside personal space, without speaking. Anger and desire and shame well up and confuse Alex’s thoughts. Their past is a magnetic field alternately attracting and repelling him, creating an electric charge that freezes thought.
Savannah, the other woman, introduces herself. She is tall, thirtyish, her natural hair wrapped in a bright yellow scarf that complements her complexion and her deep brown eyes. “You’re checking in?”
Alex turns his head towards her. This frees Allison, who escapes past him into the kitchen.
Alex says, “The physics department made the reservation.”
“They didn’t give a name.”
“Oh. That’s odd.” It occurs to him that maybe he wasn’t the first, or only, candidate for the job.
They go through the formalities of check-in. Savannah hands him a key and directs him to his room. He climbs the stairs to the second floor, thumping his rollaway behind him.
Savannah follows Allison into the kitchen. She has taken a bottle of Irish whiskey out of a cabinet. She is holding a water glass in her other hand.
Savannah says, “Wow. I mean, you knew him. When?”
“After the divorce. Before Bud.”
Savannah waits for more but when Allison is silent, she says, in an effort to goad her to continue, “Rebound?” but Allison doesn’t respond. Instead, she fills the glass with whiskey and drinks it.
In the awkward silence, Savannah says, “What are you going to do about him?”
Allison shrugs. “What is there to do?” Bottle in one hand and glass in the other, Allison walks into the front room. Savannah follows her.
Allison settles into a club chair under a photograph of a young Bud Faber. She twists around in the chair and studies it. He is wearing the National Book Award medal around his neck that he won for ICUCMe. Though she remembers the moment when the book exploded in her brain, the actual feeling has faded into the years she shared with him. She refills her glass with tea-colored whiskey and drinks. She coughs.
Savannah sits on the sofa facing Allison. She raises an eyebrow.
Allison says, “Don’t judge me. The events don’t begin until tomorrow. No visiting professors or reporters to sparkle in front of, no seminar, no panel, no lecture to introduce, no dean or president or Faber relation to impress. No oh-so-polite innuendos about my affair with Bud and my career to smile at and ignore.”
Savannah says, “We knew you loved each other.”
“Pity I didn’t work that out until he was gone.” Allison drains her glass again.
Savannah sits quietly, measuring the pain in her friend’s voice. She knows the story. “This is the guy you abandoned in Madrid.”
“Yes.” The whiskey is beginning to take effect: Allison slouches deeper into the club chair and refills her glass, drinks it and says, “Did you know that during the Passover Seder Jews drink four ritual glasses of wine while recounting their suffering and reclamation in Egypt?”
Savannah says, “How do you know that?”
“Lots of Jewish professors at Amherst. I’ve been to several Passover Seders.”
“And that’s your third glass?”
Allison pours a fourth and drains it. “Not an’ more.” Now somewhat bleary, she leans her body a little in the chair so she can see the stairway. The past she has to reckon with is up there. She could have made more of an effort to be kind to him.
And hasn’t time been more generous to Alex than she’d been. That thought and the Irish loosen Allison’s tears, though she doesn’t know for whom she is crying.
Savannah gets up and says, “All right. If you’ve decided to drink yourself blind tonight, let’s head over to the bar and get some food into you.” She takes the glass from Allison and puts it on the side table next to the bottle.
Allison wipes her cheeks with her hands, surprised. “Don’ ya haveta get ‘Retha from day care?”
Savannah reaches down and pulls Allison up by her arms. “She’s with Gramma Jackson this weekend.” She steers Allison across the street to the tavern.
From behind the counter Joe sees his wife enter supporting a drooping Allison. He follows them to the stools they take with two glasses of water. Savannah leans over the counter and they kiss. A few drinkers sitting around the bar applaud.
Savannah says, “Get her something solid to soak up the whiskey.” Joe barks a laugh and goes away. He comes back with a plate of soft pretzels and a ramekin of yellow mustard. “It’s all I can grab now.”
Allison is unusually passive. Savannah dips a paper napkin in her water glass and wipes smeared mascara from Allison’s cheeks. “Is he worth crying over or is this you feeling sorry for yourself?” she says.
Allison shakes her head loosely. “I dunno.” She sniffs and breaks off a bit of pretzel, holds it between two fingers and considers it.
Savannah says to Joe, “Coffee.”
Alex sits on the side of the queen bed that takes up most of the room. A framed reproduction of a street map of Richmond from 1923 hangs on the wall over the bed. A narrow window looks out at the trees and the cars and the houses from that era across the street. Another photograph, this one of Bud Faber at work, hangs over the desk, the same desk that is in the photograph, though Bud’s Remington manual typewriter is absent.
He slumps. The Faber Inn, the banner over the door, Allison, for fuck’s sake, Allison, and now this tiny room, the former office where the great man wrote his novels. Alex feels as though he’s been swallowed whole by Bud Fucking Faber.
He has to get out of there.
He walks down the stairs and out to the street. On the uneven and cracked sidewalk, he turns north. A breeze rustles the leaves in the trees. They smell of autumn. Cars crawl by slowly. The street is busy with people walking dogs, couples strolling.
A dark-haired young woman in sports bra and shorts strides ahead of him with grocery bags in both hands, the bags swinging in arcs that remind Alex of a pendulum, which in turn brings to mind a sine wave. He knows he should be watching her body move instead of calculating frequencies. This one is 2.5 Hertz.
Alex matches her stride and continues on at the same steady pace after she turns into a row house. At the corner of Monument Avenue, he stops to decide which way to turn and closes his eyes. If the first vehicle he sees when he opens them is a domestic car, he’ll turn left; if it is a foreign car, he’ll turn right. It’s a trick he uses to mimic a random number generator.
He opens his eyes as a Ford diesel-pickup burbles past. He turns left and begins to walk. A few blocks along he finds himself at a traffic circle. Inside the circle is a baroque marble monument to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. A traitor.
Alex has firm opinions about treason. In fact, he has more than a few black-and-white opinions about how people should behave, which he knows is ironic given his life’s research into the quantum field, where answers are often yes and no at the same time and the rules are murky. He’s sure there’s something psychological about it. But he knows the difference between the quantum field and the Newtonian universe, and people aren’t quasi-particles, though their behavior in the aggregate is statistically deterministic.
He turns his back on Jefferson Davis and summons a disrespectful fart. It is full dark now, and he wants beer and something stronger. There’s a tavern across the street from the B&B and, God bless it, it isn’t named Faber anything and is as good a destination as any in this city he doesn’t know.
Alex stands in the doorway of Joe’s Place. It is inviting, tables and booths of gleaming varnished wood to the right, generous bar to the left shaped somewhat like a hockey stick, stamped tinplate ceiling inset with gently swirling fans, big-screen TVs across the long wall. He hesitates between a bar stool and a booth, between drinks and dinner.
He chooses a booth in the back near the kitchen, and almost immediately a young woman dressed in a black tee shirt and black jeans appears and hands him a paper menu, points at the day’s specials chalked on a blackboard nearby and takes his drink order. Her name tag reads Tammy Jo.
He orders food and watches the basketball game on a flat screen TV on the wall. When his lasagna and beer come, he eats and drinks without tasting anything, watching the game without noticing who’s playing or what the score is. He only knows the ball is moving back and forth, back and forth, bouncing, soaring, rolling, and he works out a Fourier transform that describes it well enough. When his plate is empty, he pushes it away from him and sits, soothed by the movement of the ball.
Savannah slides into the booth across from him. She places a fresh mug of beer in front of him. She smiles. “On the house. We own the bar. Joe and me.”
Alex lifts the glass, salutes her. So the tavern is part of Faber’s world after all. “Thank you. Why…?”
Savannah is silent for a moment. She hesitates. She takes a deep breath and says, “I know what she did to you in Madrid.”
Alex feels a pang in his belly. Maybe he ate too much lasagna. Of course not. He says, “What does it matter after all these years?”
She grins and says, “Bull. Shit.” She tells him the story of the years-long, on-and-off affair with Bud, that he left Allison his house, that they turned it into a B&B to honor his memory.
Alex slides out of the booth. “I don’t care. I really don’t.” He isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t owe Allison any sympathy. And he isn’t interested in sympathy from her friend. “Thanks for the meal and the drinks.”
Anyone could see it still matters to him. He’s as transparent as window glass.
The place has filled up. Alex makes his way unsteadily through the crowd and out into the dark street. The Faber Inn is mere steps away. The food, the drink, the day, have caught up to him and he climbs the stairs to the little, blue-painted room feeling inexplicably defeated.
Savannah returns to Allison, who opens her eyes and says, “Where’ve you been?”
“Time to go.” She helps Allison off her stool and guides her friend out through the noisy press of bodies. The quiet street is like a blanket.
Allison’s face is flushed. She stops just before the Inn’s verandah and takes a deep breath. The whiskey buzz is beginning to fade. She looks up at the banner and says, “I’m living in the shadow of a dead man, aren’t I. Will I become Miss Havisham?”
“Don’t know who she is.”
“Character in a Dickens novel. Left at the altar and spent the rest of her life living that moment.”
“That what comes out after all the whiskey?”
“And pretzel balls.”
“Lots of pretzel balls.”
Allison drops onto the step and holds her head in her hands. “God bless him, he was a good man and I loved him.” A tear runs down her cheek. She brushes it away and sniffs.
“But he’s dead and I’m almost thirty-five. The clock is running down.”
“Maybe you need Alex.”
Allison shakes her head. “He won’t even speak to me.”
“You really are dense about men, aren’t you?”
“I’ve got a track record.”
“Anybody could see he hasn’t gotten over you. Anybody but you.”
“I don’t know,” she says, getting up and brushing the bottom of her slacks. “Maybe.” She looks up at the window of the blue room, just above the door. It is lit. Savannah turns to go back to the bar and her husband. “See you tomorrow.”
Allison opens the door. “Tomorrow.” She can’t feel her feet all that well. She slips off her shoes and climbs the stairs with them in one hand, leaning against the banister. Now she stands in the small hallway, weaving a little. Even through the closed door of his room she feels the electricity between them.
There is light under the door. She yearns to knock on the door—but can’t. And then she has, her body tired of waiting for her to decide.
He opens the door. He is in his jeans, shirtless, barefoot. She flings her arms around him. For a heartbeat he is still. She raises her face to him. They kiss, and as if they are dancing, they move together into the room.
She wakes before him and runs her hand down his flank, and it remembers the shape of his bones, though they’re sheathed in a thicker layer of flesh than before. Time does that.
The summer sun is rising over Richmond, and it’s already sticky-warm in the room. Allison pulls the sheet down until it bunches at the foot of the bed. She whispers in his ear, “Good morning.”
They adjust themselves on the bed and continue learning how their bodies are the same and how they’ve changed.
Eventually they notice the sound of people talking and moving about downstairs. “Continental breakfast in the parlor,” she says.
“There are other people staying here?”
“Two. More coming today. For the, for the, uh, Faber events.”
Until that moment he’d forgotten that he was part of a love triangle with a dead man.
She sees his expression harden. “Forget all that. It’s history.” She forces a laugh. “I know, we can go to the art museum today.”
“Job interview at two.”
“Would you move here? That would be great.”
“But you don’t live here. Your friend says you only come down to Richmond once or twice a year.” He realizes he’s revealed something he didn’t know he meant.
She says, “I could live here.” The irony does not escape her. It’s what Bud asked her to do, move down to live with him. This time she gets it.
He says, “I never got over you.”
She knows. She kisses him. He’s as transparent as window glass.
It is only three-thirty. The interview lasts less than ninety minutes. A graduate student drops Alex off in front of the Inn. He gets out of the car and slams the door behind him without thanking the boy. He walks to the house, head down, hands pushed into the pockets of his creased chinos. He is greeted by a crowd of people and the noise of wine-and-cheese conversation. The Faber Fellowship Attendees have arrived.
Ignoring them, he pushes his way through the foyer and makes his way up the stairs to his room trailed by crowd gabble. He drops his backpack, pulls out the rollaway, tosses it on the bed and packs. It is the work of minutes.
Allison appears at the open door with two plastic cups of white wine. “How’d it go?” she says.
Alex looks up then turns back to his rollaway and zips it up.
“What happened?” she says. “Didn’t they offer you the job?” She takes a step towards him, awkward with both hands full.
He says, “They offered me a job, yeah.” He glowers at her. “In return for transferring my grant to one of their professors, they offered me lab chief for him. And allow me second authorship for the papers I’ve got in draft on my laptop.”
“Steal your research, too? I can’t believe it.”
“Dangled a full professorship in front of me to get me here. I told them what they could do with their offer.” He yanks his luggage off the bed and stands facing her, rollaway in one hand, backpack in the other.
“I’m so sorry.” She offers him a cup. He shows her the luggage he is holding. She continues to hold the cup out to him. They look at each other, unmoving.
“It’s been great to see you again,” he says. “And” he nods at the bed.
She says, “For Christ’s sake, put down the rollaway and drink this.”
She says, “They’ve paid for your room through tomorrow. Stay. Be my plus one at the official dinner tonight.”
Alex wonders if she means more. He shakes his head. “What, be your friend from pre-Faber day? I won’t compete with a dead man, Allison.”
“There’s nobody to compete with.”
He hands her the empty cup and picks up his rollaway. “Of course, there is, especially here, especially now.”
“Is this how you handle things, Alex? Run away?”
“And you don’t?”
She says, “This is our first argument and we’re not even a couple.”
He says, “If we are, come back to Iowa with me.”
She whispers, “I don’t know. I can’t just drop everything and walk away.”
“You did that once before.”
“I don’t think I’m that person anymore.”
He moves forward and she follows him down the stairs and out to the street. He taps his phone and calls an Uber. Into their long silence together a shiny black Kia sedan pulls up.
As he folds himself into the back seat he says, “Good-bye, Allison.” He closes the door, and the sedan pulls away. Once again, he feels the force binding them snap. It’s physically painful.
Savannah joins her on the sidewalk. “What happened? I thought you were—”
Allison tells her.
“Really? They actually did that to him?”
Allison nods. They watch traffic move cautiously along the street.
“So, what are you going to do?”
Allison turns back towards the Inn. “I’ve got to dress for the dinner.” But she is rooted to the spot.
“He asked me to go with him.”
“And if you wait until the weekend’s over, you’re choosing Bud over him.”
“Does Bud care?”
Allison whispers, “No.” She stares at the now-empty street. “No.”
Alex will get on an American Airlines flight to Cedar Rapids where his car is parked and arrive home near midnight. He will collapse into bed. His cat Schrodinger will jump up on the bed and bat her head against his. Tomorrow he will submit his team’s second paper to the university’s publication review panel.
He will change the title of the paper to “Quantum Indeterminacy and Events in Newtonian Time.” He will wonder what his life would have been like if Allison had come with him.
Allison will rush into the kitchen and grab her handbag from a cabinet. Coming back, she will hand Savannah the keys to her car and say, “Drive me to the airport.”
Savannah will speed Allison to the airport recklessly. Allison will look up flights to Cedar Rapids on her phone. They will pull up to the curb at the American Airlines doors just as Alex’s Uber pulls away. Allison will see him walk into the terminal.
Allison will say, “Keep the car. Love to Joe and Aretha.”
Savannah will say, “Good luck!”
Allison will pull her rollaway out of the back seat and hurry into the terminal. She will see Alex in line at a ticketing kiosk and she will walk up to him and casually put her arm through his. He will flinch in surprise and as he turns, she will kiss him.
Allison will sigh. Together, she and Savannah will walk slowly back up the flagstones, open the door and dive into the Faber Fellowship events. At eight P.M. she will drive out to the country club in Tuckahoe and enter the reception and dinner fashionably late. Bud’s sisters Fern and Lily will greet her warmly when she arrives, their brother’s almost widow.