She hears the click of the lighter through the phone. Into her ear comes Daniel’s inhale, the smoke settling in his lungs. In her mind, she sees the stars he lingers under, the only beautiful thing in his apartment complex, ceilings of cottage cheese, black cobwebs in stucco corners, an electric gate that smacks of detention.
“You’re standing by the eucalyptus tree?”
“Yes, how did you know? Beautiful night out. You should see the stars. Cheap clichés, every one of them, but my god, stunning.”
Maybe she doesn’t hear the smoke, so much as she opens her own mouth and incense pours from lips that look younger than they are. Maybe his poisons taint her. His cigarette spectral in her lungs. His Manhattan stinging in her throat. But the philosopher’s words, when he wields them well, are like no other vintage of hemlock.
She doesn’t ask. She never does. Are you smoking? It is evident, and although she has seen far ahead, knows where the paved world ends, still she does not question how he will walk there, if he will roll the leaf, tongue tacky on phyllo-fine paper, if it will be a lighter or match that sparks the smolder, or just a pack of Pall Mall’s bought at the store on the corner.
“It’s not the cigarettes,” Daniel says. “That’s not why I got sick.”
That is what he said two weeks ago. This week, “Bad news. They found a spot. On my lungs this time.”
She winces. Full moons waterslide off her lashes, fat heavy droplets on her leg. She knows exactly what has been lost.
“Biopsy in a few weeks. It’s probably just an infection.”
Nothing she has ever shown him will mitigate his way of walking. This is how men are, she is told. “You cannot change us,” says John, a serial dater; three weeks, three months and it explodes every time. John has known her a few years and yet does not know her at all, never will. He cannot change. Neither can Daniel.
But she will know, when Daniel rises, when he lifts. She will perceive what the others cannot, she will feel it bodily, his own body like a shoe that has grown too loose to hold the sole.
“It’s the chemo,” he tells her. “Can’t taste a thing. Lost half my weight. I’m disappearing before my own eyes. Some kind of magic trick.” A mouth that used to lust for every earthly sensation, an appetite for the sky and all heavenly bodies, now suffers to eat a single hard-boiled egg.
When Daniel’s light at last lifts, never having found what he most desired, when Daniel scatters like the sparks of a fire, a stop light red on the end of a Marlboro, she will know him by the warp and weft of a sky extinguished of all grace save this, his words.
He says there is one thing he regrets. One thing he meant to keep. And though he found it a few times, can tell her the names, the rings that rolled away, glint of the sun in their curves, he can’t tell her where they went or if they ever made it home. He can’t say exactly why the band felt so tight on his finger, why he faltered.
She listens. Inhale. Exhale. His smoke is on her lips. His illusions, his regret.
“I can’t date younger women,” he says. “Well, date them, yes. But a relationship? No. It wouldn’t work. I mean, what side of the bed would she sleep on? What in the world would we talk about?” He says this at 3:01 a.m., a song of two insomniacs, three hours on the phone, words like firecrackers in Beijing, like balloons over Albuquerque. Ridiculous words. Delirious words. Absurd.
“I assure you, there is one species of snail that was meant to die for the pleasure of man. And one species alone,” he says, 3:21 a.m. “The other snails are interlopers.”
“What are they called, the special snails, the ones that taste good?”
“The name slips my mind. But unlike other snails, they offer themselves up. It gives them sweetness, that tinge of sacrifice.”
“Like Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire?”
“Yes. There is a zen-ness to the snail.”
“The snails I’ve had were deceivers, smelled good but tasted of pure rubber. If they died for man’s pleasure, they died in vain.”
“Well, that is the dark magic of butter and garlic, they can make anything smell appealing. Even a garden snail.”
“Are they alive when they’re thrown in the pan? Do they taste the butter and garlic as their last supper?”
“Well, aren’t you sadistic.”
“So are snails.”
This will go on for hours. Until dawn. She doesn’t answer the questions he posed, Socratic as they were. She doesn’t tell him that she sleeps on whatever side of the bed she falls on, that she has slept alone a life time, that it would mean everything to her, the world, to wake up next to a face she trusted. She has chosen paths with no maps, no streetlights, walked to the lip of the sea and further, never mind if ever she found her way home. But this, like the subtleties of the eclipsed moon, her shadowed, crescent smile, this is the mystery he will always seek and never see, though her rays fall a few feet away, though she observes him.
When he calls again next, she does not answer. She knows what the news will be. The spot on the lung, a dot in an infinity of planets and galaxies and nebulae. That one little dot that the smoke gave to him, will take him away from her too, and he no more than a garden snail willingly prostrate to the cheap cliché of stars.