I stare down at the steam rising off the surface of the tea.
“Do you think I’m crazy?” I ask.
“I have no idea, but you’re not well.”
And she looks at me with the compassion that has always defined her.
I touch the ring of thread that’s tied around my finger like a talisman.
I say, “Look, maybe you believe what I’m telling you, maybe you don’t, but I need you to know that I believe it. I would never lie to you.”
This is possibly the most surreal moment I’ve experienced since coming to consciousness in that lab—sitting in bed in the guest room of the apartment of the woman who is my wife but isn’t, talking about the son we apparently never had, about the life that wasn’t ours.
I wake alone in bed in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, the darkness spinning, the inside of my mouth sickeningly dry.
For a full terrifying minute, I have no idea where I am.
This isn’t the alcohol or the pot.
It’s a much deeper level of disorientation.
I wrap the covers tightly around me, but I can’t stop shaking, and a full-body ache is growing more painful by the second, my legs restless, my head throbbing.
The next time my eyes open, the room is filled with daylight and Daniela is standing over me, looking worried.
“You’re burning up, Jason. I should take you to the ER.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You don’t look fine.” She places a freezing washcloth across my forehead. “How does that feel?” she asks.
“Good, but you don’t have to do this. I’ll grab a cab back to my hotel.”
“Just try to leave.”
In the early afternoon, my fever breaks.
Daniela cooks me chicken noodle soup from scratch, and I eat sitting up in bed while she sits in a chair in the corner with a distance in her eyes I know too well.
She’s lost in thought, mulling something over, and doesn’t notice that I’m watching her. I don’t mean to stare, but I can’t take my eyes off her. She is still so utterly Daniela, except—
Her hair is shorter.
She’s in better shape.
She’s wearing makeup, and her clothes—jeans and a form-fitting T—age her down considerably from thirty-nine years.
“Am I happy?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“In our life that you say we share together…am I happy?”
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“I couldn’t sleep last night. It was all I could think about.”
“I think you’re happy.”
“Even without my art?”
“You miss it for sure. You see old friends finding success, and I know you’re happy for them, but I also know it stings. Just like it does for me. It’s a bonding agent between us.”
“You mean we’re both losers.”
“We are not losers.”
“Are we happy? Together, I mean.”
I set the bowl of soup aside.
“Yeah. There have been rough patches, like with any marriage, but we have a son, a home, a family. You’re my best friend.”
She looks straight at me and asks with a devious smirk, “How’s our sex life?”
I just laugh.
She says, “Oh God, did I actually make you blush?”
“But you didn’t answer my question.”
“I didn’t, did I?”
“What’s wrong, is it not good?”
She’s flirting now.
“No, it’s great. You’re just embarrassing me.”
She gets up and walks over to the bed.
Sits on the edge of the mattress and stares at me with those huge, deep eyes.
“What are you thinking?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “That if you aren’t crazy or full of shit, then we just had the strangest conversation in human history.”
I sit in bed watching the daylight fade over Chicago.
Whatever storm system brought the rain last night has blown out, and in its wake, the sky is clear and the trees have turned and there’s a stunning quality to the light as it moves toward evening—polarized and golden—that I can only describe as loss.
Robert Frost’s gold that cannot stay.
Out in the kitchen, pots are banging, cabinets are opening and closing, and the scent of cooking meats drifts back down the hallway into the guest room with a smell that strikes me as suspiciously familiar.
I climb out of bed, stable on my feet for the first time all day, and head for the kitchen.
Bach is playing, red wine is open, and Daniela stands at the island, chopping an onion on the soapstone countertop in an apron and a pair of swimming goggles.
“Smells amazing,” I say.
“Would you mind stirring it?”
I walk over to the range and lift the lid off a deep pot.
The steam rising into my face takes me home.
“How are you feeling?” she asks.
“Like a different man.”
It’s a traditional Spanish dish—a bean stew made with an assortment of native legumes and meats. Chorizo, pancetta, black sausage. Daniela cooks it once or twice a year, usually on my birthday, or when the snow flies on a weekend and we just feel like drinking wine and cooking together all day.
I stir the stew, replace the lid.
Daniela says, “It’s a bean stew from—”
It slips out before I think to stop myself: “Your mother’s recipe. Well, to be specific—her mother’s mother.”
Daniela stops cutting.
She looks back at me.
“Put me to work,” I say.
“What else do you know about me?”
“Look, from my perspective, we’ve been together fifteen years. So I know almost everything.”
“And from mine, it was only two and a half months, and that was a lifetime ago. And yet you know this recipe was handed down through my family over several generations.”
For a moment, it becomes uncannily quiet in the kitchen.
Like the air between us carries a positive charge, humming on some frequency right at the edge of our perception.
She says finally, “If you want to help, I’m preparing toppings for the stew, and I could tell you what those are, but you probably already know.”