how close can you get?

On the first morning after the storm, I sit at my desk and try to remember a line from a dream. My son is playing in the next room. His voice rises and falls. He says: “I’m creating a game that will see how much knowledge you have about Star Wars.”

I say: “I should tell you that my knowledge is limited.”

“Well, we’ll see,” he says and returns to his play.

I can hear my husband outside shoveling snow. The scrape of the shovel on the wooden porch. He slipped out this morning without a word, did not interrupt me at my desk, where I have been sitting for the past two hours, reading, writing, trying to. I watched the sky go from dark to light. These are beautiful hours, early morning. Such quiet.

I spend the day like this – reading, cooking, making attempts at writing things down. The simplest pleasures. Chopping vegetables – leeks and carrots and celery. Minced garlic. A pile of chopped parsley. Swiss chard and red kale. I make a cassoulet. A roast chicken. A kale salad. I fry potatoes.

Between the simmering and the roasting, I take the laundry still warm from the dryer. Fold it, make piles. And the dishes from the dishwasher: warm plates and silverware come out and mixing bowls and measuring cups go in.

How satisfying these tasks have become. How unexpectedly sustaining.

On the second morning after the storm, I read an article about freezing to death. What happens to the body as it reacts to the extreme cold. The way the blood thickens when the core temperature drops. The way the heartbeat becomes erratic.

The strange, cruel sensation of heat in the moments just before loss of consciousness. How some people who have frozen to death are found undressed, having shed their clothes in an attempt to stop the burning.

M. is outside again. Through the curtains, I can see motion against the backdrop of white, but from here, I can’t tell for certain if it my husband or the movement of the tree branches, laden with snow, rustled by wind.

Later I go out, too. We’ve lost one of our snow shovels, or at least it is buried under several feet of snow, so I use one meant for the garden instead. We work in silence. My progress is slow. In this particular domestic chore, I contribute little. I start our cars, clean them off. I go back inside while he is still working. I fill the teakettle.

We meet for dinner, the four of us, early forties, married a decade a more. Maybe we are all a little overdressed, maybe too much lipstick for a weeknight. We all see people we know. They saunter over, chat at our table. We order oysters and wine and laugh loudly. The company emboldens us.

One of us talks about leaving. Moving west or abroad. We’re applying for jobs everywhere, she says. We’re ready to go wherever.

Seven children among us. Four boys, three girls. We are writers and artists and architects. We came here from New York. We came here from Paris. Some of us have jobs with healthcare. Some of us have lost our fathers.

Later, I hear distressing news about friends of friends. A young woman dies in her sleep. Another, a sudden illness.

M.’s parents have had a good week, though. One night there is a concert at the facility where they live and his mother and father sing along.

My son starts with easy questions nearly anyone could answer. “Very good,” he tells me, “but now it’s going to get harder.”

He holds up a space ship that I cannot name. I shrug. He shakes his head. “What about this?” and he holds up another.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I have no idea.”

He leaves the room and I turn back to the piles of paper on my desk.

By afternoon, the sun is out, high and bright. A friend of my son’s comes over and the two of them discuss what to do first. “We have a lot of work to do,” he tells me as they climb the stairs.

I am working on something that is more difficult than I had anticipated and so I find myself easily distracted. I wander into the kitchen, make tea. I re-organize a cabinet. Run a cloth along all the countertops.

How close can you get to a person? This is the question I am turning over in my mind. It is not mine, but Nan Goldin’s, and I am trying to write about her photographs. I watch an interview with her in which she asks it several times, says it’s a question that drives her work. How close can you get to a person?

And when she says it, in my own mind, I answer without hesitation: Inside, inside, get inside.

Over dinner, we talk about desire now in these marriages, after children, in these forty-year-old bodies. One of us talks about a passing flirtation with a man in a coffee shop. One of us talks about a former lover. “What could possibly be more powerful,” one of us asks, “than feeling desired?”

We pass on dessert. We check our watches. “I just want more,” one of us says. “I want it to be the way it was.”

A man at a table nearby glances over at my friend, and for a moment, I see her the way he might. She is beautiful. Her dark hair frames her face. Her skin is pale and smooth, her features delicate, doll-like.  

She leans forward and lowers her voice. “It feels unfair to ask sometimes. There is so much on his mind. He is working all the time. The kids.”

She stands up to put on her coat.

“But I just want more than this.”

Outside, in the cold night, there is snow on the ground and a light snow falls. In the parking lot, we embrace, promise each other we will do this again before too long.

And then the four of us disperse, each to her car. Each to her family and her warm house, the lights on the porches burning.