Portrait of a Man

He bowed his head to gods that weren’t there, and the doctor exited the room. Sterile air, the kind that makes the lungs long for something—anything—real. White walls and lab results and the sinking feeling of This is it. In his mind, he replayed the words again and again: Your heart just cannot take it. You have to quit.

He returned home like a thunderstorm, but she remained unaware, tucked in her study. He paused, stoppering the doctor’s words in his head. She didn’t sing anymore, he realized; the house was quiet; her voice was absent. If he strained his ears, he could hear the scratch of pencil on paper. She stayed up late solving calculus equations—problems, she answered, she knew how to solve. “But you…” she blinked slowly, chewed her lip, and walked away before finishing that thought. She hadn’t spoken since.

They slept in separate beds, silence tangling with absence and whirring about like mosquitoes hovering too close to his head. Maybe she perceived the environment differently, the quiet a cascading epiphany to keep her warm—he wasn’t anymore. Maybe she preferred it this way: alone. He didn’t ask. Instead, he filled his glass and gazed out the window. A view, he always thought, of the unobtainable.

He retired his cup and went to bed, rolling between the sheets devoid of her. Down the hall, he couldn’t hear her pencil and he couldn’t hear her lungs. For a brief moment, he wondered if she’d finally left—but no, she had nowhere else to go. With this thought, he drifted into sleep like an airplane coming down to land. He didn’t think, Your heart just cannot take it. You have to quit. He thought about her pencil writing lovely letters to his name. Because acknowledging the reality would be a very cruel thing.

Morning came and with it, a splitting headache. He’d slept in too late. Coffee, his brain shrieked, I need coffee. Addiction was a beast, and even though he’d been advised against caffeine, he gave in. Bare feet upon cold floor, padding down the hall into the kitchen—

He stepped on something sharp, recoiled with pain. And when his gaze met the state of the place, his heart deflated. And his brain wailed like a baby ignored. And his hands folded into fists before quickly going limp. But a question pressed into his mind like an ink stamp: How could she have created such destruction without him hearing a thing? For the coffee machine was on the floor, smashed into jagged particles. Glass shattered and plastic battered, there lay a baseball bat by the door.

How could she have created such destruction without him hearing a thing? It was then that he knew silence and absence were not soothing to her. No, they must have been deafening. He hunted through the house for her, for her, for her. The study was empty, the desk, the drawers vacated but, it seemed, it had been done in no apparent hurry: the bookshelves were neat, orderly, stripped of her titles and condensed as if they had never been in any other arrangement. He searched for her fingerprints upon the mirrors and windowpanes where, in the condensation, she used to write his name. Nothing but water-streaked glass. Her hair wasn’t even clogging the shower drain. Herself, she had completely erased.

But even in the midst of his despair, a voice in his head cried out: Caffeine! Caffeine! Concepts mapped over this voice: white walls and lab results and the doctor’s mouth delivering Her heart just could not take it. He thought, for a moment, that he heard the scratch of pencil on paper, but he knew, he knew, he imagined it. She was gone and he would go after her—he would, he would—but first, the uproar of voices coaxed, let’s get some caffeine in you.

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