He tells her that in an alternate universe he could, possibly, be in love with her. If he even let his imagination go that far, he tells her, which he most likely couldn’t because he deals in reality, in this world, in the rings of the trees that grow in his backyard, in the bundle of cells that became his daughters, and the woman who bore them, whom he loves.
So in this universe would there be kissing and hand holding? she asks.
I think there’d have to be, he says. She sees a slender seam of light open in his heart.
And maybe more?
He tilts his pint glass, seems to study the beer as it angles forward. I’m not sure, he says. She knows why he’s hesitant. He’s talked to her before about lines and boundaries, what he will and will not do, how he wants nothing more from her than these afternoons together, outside at a picnic table, beer and wine and French fries between them. But why? she once asked him. Why just this? To talk to you, he had said. I just like being with you. During their meetings, they have an ongoing conversation, one that spans months: their childhood Catholicism, their young children, their own parents’ flailing attempts to raise them, their physical desire. Have you ever come while thinking of me? she once asked him. Yes, he said. But I’ve tried not to.
They’d known each other for a long time, close to fifteen years, before this new awareness of one another had flared, instigated by a single sentence from her one summer night at a block party. “I feel like there’s always been something between us,” she had said, the beer allowing her to push past her reserve and fear. A decade earlier, she and his wife had been pregnant together, both with daughters. They had done the prenatal yoga classes, done savasana, corpse pose, together in a dimly lit auditorium. Her daughter had been born months too early, though, and hadn’t made it. She finds herself marking the passage of her child’s imaginary life through his girl, though she’s never told him this.
For a moment, they don’t talk. Her wine glass has been empty for a while now, and she considers getting a second, but then a thought comes to her. I think this place, this other universe, she says, looks nothing like ours. It has a purple sky and the wind is made of water, which sounds scary, but we can breathe because we have gills. She puts her hands on either side of her head for fins and makes her best fish face, cheeks sucked in, mouth puckered. He laughs, but she knows he’s worried. She imagines that he sees himself heading into dark, unmapped terrain with her, his wild pagan guide. She continues, And maybe we don’t have bodies at all in this universe. Maybe we’re just made of vapor. She wants him to feel protected from the disaster he thinks he’s edging toward, but she can’t help but balk at the thought. She imagines tucking her body away in a drawer, folded beneath her T-shirts and jeans. She doesn’t often think about dying as much as she used to, but when she does, she imagines a life without the body.
That sounds like no fun at all, he says, which surprises her. She thought he’d like this new, bodiless world.
Okay, she says. Explain.
He pauses for a moment, leans back, and crosses his arms, his eyes cast upward, a smile on his lips, a pose of his she’s been familiar with for years. She knows he’s caught up in an argument unfolding in his head, caught between two desires that he’s translated into a sharp, certain language for her many times before. He’s constructing an outline now, Roman numerals for main points, lower-case letters for subordinate points. She marvels at him, this tableau of logic and control, sitting before her. Her hands that have just been fins rest in her lap. She waits for him to talk, to erase brushstroke by brushstroke, this universe in which they could, possibly, be in love.
He uncrosses his arms and rests them on the table. He leans toward her, unsmiling. She thinks for a moment that he might reach for her, but she reminds herself that they’re in this world, and that won’t happen. Instead, he poses a question: So in this other universe, if we’re vapor, I won’t ever hold your hand, and you won’t ever kiss me? He picks up his beer and takes a sip. She knows it’s getting late, and she tries to remember how long they’ve been sitting here. They’re in the gloaming now. The sky above them has gone from gold to pink to purple since they’ve been together. And the wind has picked up, which makes her breathless.
She’s not sure what he wants her to say. She could offer a different alternative, one with bodies at least, but bodies with tentacles, two heads, twenty-four eyes, and ears that hear what’s unspoken in the mind of the other. At least they could touch then, their pink fleshy tendrils wrapped around each other. They could hear each other’s ideas unspool, catch a glimpse of the love they refuse to find words for, if they even have words. But what kind of life is that? she thinks. She likes her hands and legs, and his mouth and eyes. She likes the thought of their bodies together, and thinks about it often, though she knows she shouldn’t, which makes her angry. In another world, maybe there’d be no anger. Maybe she’d feel nothing at all, a thought which would’ve appealed to her years ago, but now it makes her want this world even more. She doesn’t know who she'd be without anger and confusion and the sadness that had hollowed her out for many years. But then came desire, an unexpected flash and swell of it that made her body shiver with giddiness and yearning.
No, she wants to tell him, no body, no kisses. That’s the deal. No skin, no fingers in the hair, no taste of wine on the lips, no salt on the tongue, no bearing the weight of each other. None of it. She knows this for certain, and so must he. Erase the body, and what’s left?
I mean, of course we wouldn’t, he says. Not in that form.
She nods at him and smiles and says, No, I guess not.
In just a few minutes, he’ll draw a five from his wallet, which he’ll leave on the table for the busboy. He’ll walk her to her car, and she’ll give him a lingering hug, the only contact they allow themselves. He’ll pull away from her and say, Do this again soon? And she’ll agree to do it again soon, though during the drive home she’ll wonder why? and in what universe does this make sense? though she’ll know the answer, the hard truth of the matter, that it doesn’t, and it never will, regardless of what she imagines for them in her longing, and of what she resurrects when night comes.