Mary had lived alone for the better part of a year now. In that year she had grown into the habit of keeping lit every light in her apartment, even during the daytime. Marcus didn’t understand it, although he didn’t ask about it but once. “Do you want to pay my light bill?” Mary asked him. “Because if you want I can call my husband and tell him. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to discuss it with you.” The next time he used the bathroom, Marcus remembered to leave the light on when he closed the door behind him.
Marcus was a patient man. He had learned patience in Otisville Correctional, where he had spent five years of his twenties. He was 40 now. He wasn’t shy about it, and would often joke that he had been a Jew only by name until he went to Otisville, where he learned to eat gefilte fish and intersperse his conversation with bits of yiddish. It was really a strike of luck, he said when he talked about it now. Had his surname been different, or had he burned down an apartment building outside of Williamsburg, he could have been sent to a real prison instead of a federal sleepaway camp. No matter how much he underplayed it, five years is a long time, and his habits still bore the mark of his time upstate. In fact, all of his hobbies seemed to be a product of what he called his “long walk in the country.” He read constantly, played tennis twice a week, and took classes at a community college downtown. He had never gone to college, but discovered in Otisville that he enjoyed the ceremony of sitting in a classroom. He figured out that he liked being the class clown, and had passed the time mastering a range of sleight-of-hand tricks. This was how he met Mary.
They sat next to each other by chance in “Masterpieces of Western Art Music”, the class they were both enrolled in at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He asked her in a whisper if he could borrow a pen. She dug in her purse and handed him one, which he took and wrung out like a washcloth. When he finished, the pen had vanished and he held his hands open to her as if it was her fault. Mary handed him another. He clapped it in between his palms, which he then held facing the ceiling, open and empty, motioning to Mary with his fingers to hand him another. He repeated variations on this trick until she ran out of pens, and finding none under his sleeves or in his desk or in his lap, she laughed loud enough to draw the attention of the whole room.
That was the first time Mary had laughed honestly in months. Since she had begun to live alone, she had been taking classes at BMCC in whatever subject interested her. She wasn’t working towards a degree, and didn’t, in reality, do much studying at all. The past year of her life had been measured out in 8-week quarters, sitting through classes with titles like “Physics for Poets” or “How to Read Violence”, for which she read little and learned even less. It got her out of her apartment during the daytime, where the lights were all still on while she was gone.
Almost a year before she met Marcus, Mary sat at Tompkins Square Park while her son played on the jungle gym. She flipped through the pages of a magazine, although she was not particularly interested in anything she read. For the rest of her life she would remember how she resented sitting on that bench at that moment, passing an hour between appointments downtown with her son during a time of day that was too late for coffee but too early to eat, an amount of time too short to go home but too brief to ignore completely. Orchestral music played from a tiny speaker attached to the top of an ice cream truck, violins blending into the ambient sounds of taxicabs and far-off sirens. It was the act of trying to identify this music against the jumbled background that roused her from her reading. She sat and listened. It wasn’t one of those simple, single-note versions of Beethoven or Bach that ice cream trucks played, entire symphonies condensed into single melodic lines meant to identify the truck amid the noise of the city, but a real, full recording. What struck Mary, once she listened, was the tenor of the music itself. She closed her eyes and listened to that song that sounded like mourning, removed from the screech of tires and the voices of street peddlers, slicing through the exchange of money as it sleepwalked from one set of hands to another, the sounds of laughter and anger, brass-throated horns blaring against the collected sounds of the city that churned itself into a fog. She opened her eyes. They came to focus again on the jungle gym, and she blinked twice and realized she could no longer see her son.
That disappearance was a minor scandal in the city, if only for its unexplained nature and the gap-toothed face that appeared on the second page of the Post several times throughout the next month. The police scoured every block of the city. On the first of June, he returned, floating in the shadow of a warehouse on the bank of the East River. Mary remained hopeful up until that morning.
She moved into an apartment on her own three months later. Her friends tried to comfort her. They said that not many marriages were strong enough to stand up under the weight of such a tragedy. One afternoon, while she was wandering through the city, Mary saw a group of her friends eating at a fashionable cafe on the sidewalk without her, shopping bags spread under the table. They were laughing, their children undoubtedly safe under the watchful eye of a West Indian nanny somewhere out of sight.
Once a week Mary saw a therapist with an office in Union Square, a friend of her husband’s, who had made it a non-negotiable term of their separation. She treated it as such. Most weeks they sat in relative quiet. When they spoke, it was about minor annoyances and inconveniences. Mary saw no reason why she would bring herself to weep in front of a stranger just to get her money’s worth. The morning after she found her friends having lunch without her, she asked her therapist about them. He said that grief has a longer shelf life than compassion. It lingers like cat piss, not strong enough to merit comment, but hangs in the air even after your fingers have been made raw by scrubbing. Once the initial sobbing has stopped, grief becomes a private embarrassment: A cold to be nursed, or a case of the clap that one waits to heal alone, as there is no quick fix and one certainly ought not to sour the mood of an otherwise happy room by bringing it up.
She had let Marcus come over to her apartment for the last few months. He had begun to visit regularly, and she had begun looking forward to it. Leaning over her fire escape, she would watch him look for parking in his big contractor’s van up and down her narrow section of Christopher Street, cheering him on silently. He had dinner at her apartment on weekends, and would stay late into the night before finding an excuse to drive back across the river. Most nights his excuse was work. He would say he had to get up early the next morning to be at the job site. This was a lie, and she knew it: even though he still wore the calluses on his hands, it’d been years since he had held a sledgehammer. He’d had his own crew for almost a decade, and for the most part he paid them so he wouldn’t have to show up at 6 am. Some nights he didn’t bother with this excuse, and instead pointed up at the lights. “Can’t expect me to sleep here, where it’s daytime until dawn, can you?” he would say.
Both of them knew that they were inventing stories to get Marcus out of the apartment. The first night they slept together, Mary made it clear that she demanded a certain amount of distance if this were to continue. Marcus said he didn’t want to be there when she turned back into a pumpkin. She didn’t get the joke but she smiled anyway.
One night, they laid awake in bed together. They had run out of things to talk about during the intermission between acts. She grabbed a pen from the nightstand.
“Show me how to do that thing,” she said. He took the pen and made it disappear with a flourish.
“I’ll need a pen first,” he said. She rolled her eyes at him.
“You make them all disappear, but you don’t bring them back. It’s unfair. It’s more theft than it is magic.” He sat up.
“You don’t get to be a critic when you can’t even do the trick,” he said.
“You won’t teach me,” she said.
“Then the fun would be gone.” She rolled over and covered herself with the blanket. She pretended to sleep.
“If you really want, I’ll teach you,” he said. She jumped up.
“You mean it?” she asked. Her eyes brightened up. She dug in the drawer of her nightstand. She found a tampon and handed it to him.
“I don’t have another pen, this’ll have to do,” she said. He pretended to squeeze it between his palms as hard as he could, and when he couldn’t squeeze any harder he opened his hands and revealed the pen she had given him earlier. He handed it to her.
“You’ll have to wait if you want the tampon back,” he said. She flung herself back onto the bed.
“What if I need it?”
“Think of it as collateral.”
“Isn’t it past your bedtime?” He rose and dressed. After a moment he turned to leave. “Lights on or off?”
Mary reached out to her former friends. They met at a cafe that they used to go to and she told them about Marcus. She told them first that he was a felon, second that he was a Jew, and third that he was a contractor. It was a minor scandal, and they all loved it. They asked if he had killed anyone, if he was circumcised, if he came over smelling like dust and sweat. “He has the most wonderful hands,” Mary answered, and wouldn’t say anything more.
Marcus was absent from class the next day. Mary texted him. She stared at the cream-colored walls. Her mind wandered. The professor droned. Mary knew he was saying something about opera, but nothing else would penetrate the fog in her mind. She became completely absorbed in her thoughts. After a few minutes, the professor put in a CD and pushed a few buttons until strings began to emerge from the cheap, tinny speakers fixed above the board. Mary began to listen again. On the chalkboard, the word Götterdämmerung was printed with special emphasis on the umlauts. The strings rounded, punctuated by the violent shudder of the brass, and she felt the back of her eyes begin to warm. Mary ran from the classroom and the door slammed shut behind her. She sat on a toilet in the bathroom crying. A minute later she was followed by a student from her class, whom Mary recognized through her tears by her shoes.
“Are you alright, girl?” she asked.
“Yeah, just women’s troubles” Mary said.
“You need a tampon or something?”
Mary accepted and reached under the door. She put it in her purse and waited quietly for the woman to leave.
That night she told Marcus how she had left class crying, and how on the walk home she looked up the phrase she had seen written on the chalkboard. He put his hands on her shoulders. Mary felt moved. Later, after they had been to bed, she looked Marcus in the eye.
“Would you listen to it with me?” she asked.
Marcus connected his phone to the big speakers in the living room and they went and sat naked on the couch. She closed her eyes and he pressed play. Her heart was racing before the music began.
“Wait,” she said, and rose. She went through the apartment and found every light switch. Every switch was turned down, even the one that worked the closet in the far room. He pressed play again. They sat naked, listening to the song in a fullness Mary had never heard, every note played by every instrument ringing clear and full against the darkness as he pulled her face to his. She looked at his outline in the dark and waited for her eyes to adjust.
The next morning, Mary woke early. She sat at her kitchen table with the Times crossword. She was halfway through when Marcus walked up and took her pen.
“Watch,” he said, and began showing her step by step how he would obscure the pen with his wrist, folding the pen first into the deep crevice of his palm. As soon as she began to understand, she rushed to shut her eyes, washing the room in darkness.