By Andrew Bertaina

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The day before my brother died I went to see Clara for the last time. I hung up my mother’s soft voice and walked to the bedroom window. I rubbed a circle in the condensation and watched puddles collect on the sidewalk below. Two black squirrels ran up bare tree limbs fighting over an acorn. A girl, who might have been pretty, waited at the crosswalk beneath her umbrella in the drizzle. 

I took off my wedding ring and drove through rainbow-soaked streets to Clara’s apartment. The oaks lining the way bent in the wind. At a stoplight, a little girl in a red parka jumped in a puddle, mud spattering on her white tights.

Clara opened the door; a pink bathrobe was cinched loosely at her waist. Her hair was dark and curly; her grey eyes flicked up and down, registering no surprise. She wasn’t a beauty; but it didn’t matter to me. Steam rose from a cup of tea and disappeared into her skin. She took a sip without saying a word.

“Do I get to come in?”

“Did you call?”

I shook my head. Her thin lips lifted in a smile and she stepped aside. I walked across the white tile tracking bits of mud and dead leaves on the floor. I threw my wet coat over an orange lounge chair and walked into the living room. I wondered if she knew how badly I wanted to fuck her. The house smelled like vanilla bean candles. I sat and flipped on the television. It was a special on Komodo Dragaons.

They have saliva that seeps into the blood of their prey and poisons them.

Clara sat on the couch, crossing her freshly shaved legs. A red nick showed below her knee.

“Hungry?” she asked.

“Those are some big goddamn lizards.”

The sharp angle of her hip bone was exposed; her fingers moved absently through her hair. “I haven’t been shopping in days.” 

“You should put a band-aid on that,” I said.

She walked into the kitchen, her hips swaying slightly.

“I’ve got two Pilsners and a Bud.”

The glass coffee table reflected thin overhead light. I thought of the plug-in that I had used when my brother and I slept in the same room: the small portico of light, the heaviness of his breath in sleep protecting me from the darkness beyond. I leaned forward and appeared in the glass. Dark circles beneath my eyes and lines: lines on my cheeks, in the corners of my eyes, on my forehead, lines. The Komodo was tearing into a deer; there was no time for the poison to take effect.

“Something wrong?” she asked, slender hips resting against the arm of the couch.

“I’m dying,” I said, watching a spider descend on his ghostly thread from where ceiling met wall. A lamp on the side table cast green light from beneath its shade.

She laughed and took a long drink from her cup. Dust motes hung in a slash of light between us. “Dying? You don’t fuck like a man who’s dying.”

Two pictures by Kandinsky hung on her wall: I could have stared forever and not made sense of them. The deer had stopped struggling; the camera panned to its glassy eyes.

“Do you think there’s sex in heaven?”

She walked over and put her tea cup on the table. Her robe fell to the floor, and she knelt naked in front of me. Her breasts swayed, and her eyes were intense, and now blue. She traced the inside of my thigh with her finger. 

“I don’t think much about places I’ll never be.”

She sat up on her knees and ran her tongue along the ridge of my jaw.

“You’re alive,” she said, glancing at my jeans and smiling.

“I hope there is,” I said, bending down to cup her ass.

I fucked her against the window pane, cold glass on bare skin. A few lights were still on in an apartment building across the street. An endless stream of blurring cars moved through the shadows between street lamps. I finished and my knees went weak. Her skin squeaked against the glass as we slid to the floor.

“Was I that good?” she asked, running fingers through my hair.

Her thin arms wrapped around me. Our breathing and skin came together. 

I put my clothes on and went to the car. The rain had stopped, and the street smelled clean. She called me on the drive home, and I pushed ignore. She’d get it after a couple of weeks; nothing lasts forever. The car moved across the broken pavement: past shattered bottles on the sidewalk, a small nameless bird eating worms, a bum selling newspapers to no one. I stopped at a pharmacy and rubbed cologne from a magazine on my body, so I wouldn’t smell of sex.

When a clerk approached me, I said, “My brother is dying,” and she nodded.

I got back in the car reeking of magazine Tommy. I pulled the ring from my pocket and slid it around my finger. I drove towards the harbor of hospital light passing blurs of evergreens hung low in the wind.  My wife was waiting for me, biting her nails.

“You’re late,” she said, resting her face against my chest.

I buried my nose in the jasmine scent of her hair, “I’m sorry,” I whispered. We went up a slow elevator three levels to his floor.

My brother’s daughter was sleeping in the hallway, hair tucked behind her ears and tights—muddy to the knees. She was curled in her mother’s lap. Her mother slept too: her head resting against the chair, her mouth slightly open. She had lily white skin, angular features, an aquiline nose and deep-set blue eyes. I’d flirted with her when they’d been engaged. She had been so beautiful; I wondered if she would ever have sex again.

I walked into the room with my wife where the monitor was beeping incessantly. We stood in silence. The television showed late night talk shows. I looked away, and my wife smiled at me. I thought of telling her all the things I had failed at since we had been married; how I’d turned everything golden into shit. She smoothed a stray hair from my cheek and held my chin. She knew. I traced the lines on her palm: they were so deep; we were going to grow old together.

My brother’s forehead was cold with sweat. I moved an old metal chair to his bedside, pulled his hand into my lap, held it. His chest was lifting shallowly; the television was muted. Our two heartbeats became one. I sat and listened to him breathing until it slowed. I thought of crawling into bed with him and sleeping back to back, like when we were children, our bodies warm.

– Andrew Bertaina

Author’s NoteI wrote this particular piece a number of years ago, shortly after I found out that my brother had cancer, and I was remembering when he and I used to sleep back to back in bed when we were children.