BY ETHAN CHATAGNIER
I’m looking out a black window tonight, out over where I know the river is, when it occurs to me that everything else in the world is outside it—the supermarket, the college, my friend Sharon and her dying mother, my sister’s divorce; yes, those, but also things further out: deforestation in the Amazon, solar panels empowering African villages, strife scattered across the planet. Almost everything in the world is outside that window, even though all I can see in it is myself. Myself, a few bright stars, and every once in a while the drifting orb of a small-prop plane. Ronald, my second husband, is a shadow in my background, too far from the window to share my reflection.
One of those planes went down nearby a few years ago. That was ten miles north of here, nothing I could see from the river house, and it was in bright daylight, or bright as it gets through the smog. Bright up there at flight altitude, I imagine, up above the carbonized air that smudges the map of the earth. I’ve watched it from the window seat of an airliner, the blinding white of the snowcaps giving way to a farmwork quilt dulled by the brown chalk scrapings of air pollution.
They were on their honeymoon, a commercial realtor and a sculptor, one of those odd matchings of positive and negative ions, clamped together by the bonding force of money against meaning. They ran out of gas. The husband had taken the Cessna out for a practice run earlier in the week and neglected to refuel. It seems impossible. You can forget to turn off the stove or close the garage door. Can you forget to put fuel in a plane, killing yourself and your new bride?
Her sculptures sold at an auction after the incident at inflated prices. We have one in the foyer.
The crash was something of a local tragedy. We spoke of it at dinner parties, at faculty meetings, as if it were a reminder of a shared mortality. “Who among us,” I said to Ronald, “might not die in an easily avoided plane crash?” Though it was a joke you could only make in private, with a spouse who’d managed to stay a forgiver of all sins, he and I both felt the weight of it. I felt it really could happen to me, to him.
I didn’t see that accident out this window but now every plane I see through it seems to trail the anchor of that collective memory. Helicopters are what actually fly dangling something from the string beneath them. Those, I did see, standing in my search vest in Zumwalt Meadows. We’d been looking for Karl, my first husband, for three days, walking in teams through the woods. He’d been backpacking in the Canyon and was four days past his planned date of return. We were on a break for coffee when the buzz climaxed overhead, a God snore, and I saw the chopper rushing west, the load trailing beneath it, dangling slightly behind like an afterthought.
I thought: they don’t drag you through the sky like cargo if you’re breathing.
I looked at the granite hillocks ridged above the grassline, at the meadow veined by boarded trails and a slow river, and I wondered, can it still be beautiful? Of course it could, but now there was something between the beauty and me. That’s seventeen years ago. I was as old that day as I am now. Karl’s death fast-forwarded me, then paused me.
The remains that trailed behind the helicopter built this house. The house that Karl and I had dreamed of, had sketched together, was paid for by the premiums of other men his age with a matching assortment of risk factors, men who hadn’t defied the odds to die young. Karl and I had had that talk all couples have, the talk that is supposed to remain hypothetical. He’d want me to remarry, he said. After some time had passed. When I felt ready. I’d never feel ready, I’d said. I didn’t know if it was the truth.
Do you have an intense aunt? A relative who really believes in the Zodiac? Mine taught me that black windows like this were ghosts’ only tether to our world. They float in the dark spaces, not just immaterial but incorporeal, formless. They don’t exist during the day. During the night they exist only enough to watch from the outside of darkened windows. A suburban row of front windows was to them like the bank of display TVs in a big box store. In that case our southeast wall of windows, designed to showcase the river view and catch the morning light, would be for Karl like a cinema screen.
“Would you want me to live in this house without you?” I ask the window.
This house whose value, according to the actuaries, is equivalent to that of his life.
I’m already living in it.
Ronald gets turned on when I speak to the dead.
He steps behind me at the window. Now he shares my reflection. Now he’s on the inside.
“No answer?” he says.
“Don’t be a dick.”
His fingertips go to the hem of my dress and edge it up. Ronald the n-night stand turned second husband. A man named Ronald being good in bed is the surprise of a lifetime. He understands it’s less about speed than pressure. He gets to live in it too, in the house built from Karl’s body. Does he mind? No, in his cowboy voice, like it was a question written in lace. He has no intense aunt; he senses no ghostly peeping.
The sculptor who died in the Cessna called her oeuvre “the disrupture of the erotic.”
Ronald and I bought one of the more understated pieces at her posthumous exhibition, a nude sculpture of a woman’s hips. Cut off at the thighs, cut off at the waist, but with a hand snaking around from behind to massage the vulva. We had to buy something and this one, at least, wasn’t some phallus waiting to catch your shirtsleeve. I’ve come to like it for the responses it draws from guests. The crisp relief of the hand has the effect of obscuring, until one looks closer, the subtler lines of hipbone and lower belly that reveal the object of the hand’s caress for what it is. I like the way it draws the guests in closer, gets them to lower some personal curtain, before they react to it.
There’s not much art in the piece, but there’s art in observing people’s reactions.
It’s the least explainable item in this house.
Ronald’s always taken the sculpture to reveal my secret fantasy. The hand reaching around from behind. Not that it’s unenjoyable. It’s just not where the lightning is. A decoy fantasy is a good asset in a marriage. Else they’ll poke around endlessly searching for the real one.
Behind us, more faintly, is the reflection of our interior space: the high bookshelf against the back wall, the kitchen island with its decorative cheese board, irises shooting from a tall vase on the table. I could have stood in this same spot fifteen years ago—I did, surveying the site with the architect—and there would have been no walls or doors, no irises or cheese boards. I stood in a stretch of foothill chaparral dotted with blue oaks, grass up to my thighs. That was more perfect than this, of course. No box. But the box is not for the landscape. The box is for shelter. Home is the name for the boxes in which we contain our lives because only constraints can give them meaning. Home lets you get some distance from the world outside the window. The sky is an oven pre-heating. The president is a maniac. If he could fling fireballs from his tower we’d all be dead. Every species in the world is dying while billionaires fight over outer space.Twice a year fire sweeps the mountains at the speed of wind.
I can keep 2,400 square feet of the world sane.
Or tailored, at least, to my personal strangeness.
Reflected in the window is the life I’ve chosen for myself. My table, my chandelier. The lurid sculpture I bought. The second husband whose hand is mimicking its action. He likes to hitch up my dress, to take me with my clothes mostly on. He likes the idea that the passion overwhelms us too much to bother with zips and buttons. We’re not actually so impatient, but like to signify that we are. But tonight I’m not impatient. I unzip the side of the dress, I unbutton the buttons at the neckline one second at a time. I slip out of it all slowly, as if I’m putting on a show for someone watching. I even take off my necklace, my earrings, until there’s nothing from this world on me. I drop them on the floor.
Outside the window is the space I can’t see.
“Take me home,” I tell him.
I put my hands against the cold glass and press back against him, ready to let the weight of his body push me against the window or through it.
Ethan Chatagnier is the author of the story collection Warnings from the Future (Acre, 2018). His stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, the New England Review, Barrelhouse, the Cincinnati Review, and other journals. His stories have won a Pushcart Prize and been listed as notable in the Best American Short Stories and the Million Writers Award. He lives in Fresno, CA with his family.
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