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Photo by Krista Mangulsone

When they reached the door, the knob was cold, and it wasn’t “eightish.” It was 9:37 p.m. She was surprised that she hadn’t stayed later on purpose. What had taken the most time was talking with the class coordinator at the art center. She was positively thrilled to have a volunteer instructor signing up.

“So many people want part-time gigs right now with the economy, you know.”

The woman at the desk leaned toward the office window, inviting the new teacher into her tedious chinwag.

“If you ask me, it’s usually just an ego boost for the prima donnas who never made it.”

The short, chubby woman wore too much rouge, but she was attractive, radiating the same kind of quirkiness that trinket shop owners in American tourist trap towns label as “sass” or “creativity” that is expressed in multi-colored reading glasses, spunky short haircuts, excessive eye makeup and bauble-wearing, and an inexhaustible admiration for Joni Mitchell and Emerson Lake and Palmer.

These kinds of women always have mints or chewing gum, she thought, as she allowed the talk to pass beyond her face and float toward the gargantuan local impressionist painting behind her. She tried to listen or empathize, but all she really wanted to do was get upstairs to check out the mirrors and see if they really had a decent practice space.

Ms. Sladkey, or Jean, could have talked for an hour about the merits of the Chamber of Commerce and the rivalry for attendance between the Art Center’s and the Downtown organization’s fundraisers every year during the Christmas season. Somewhere between gushing about the upcoming wine-and-cheese fundraiser and the benefits of the recent floor waxing, Jean handed her the keys.

She hardly got to warm up before realizing it was already nine. The bunned girls were gathering their coats and little duffel bags from the hooks in hallway, just released from the classrooms on the opposite side of the hall. She waited until the last one descended the stairs.

In the car, she found her phone on the passenger seat. On it, she found one text message from Mark. It said, “I love you.”

She turned the key, and as she drove home, she listened to an interview with some small-town artist on NPR. He was an author who had written a book on the flight patterns of red-tailed hawks. Or was it some other fowl? It was a typical monotone interview with controlled laughter, nearly perfect cut-offs, and thinly-veiled leading questions that produced rote responses encompassing conservationism, environmental responsibility, and the dangers of cuts in federal spending for wildlife preserves and national parks.

By the time she pulled into the parking lot, she was already bored and locked into the drone of the book talk. She sat in her spot with the key still in the ignition and the lights off.

It was quiet, and she could have stayed there to listen to the next artist in the series, who was a half-Japanese surrealist who had painted a mural on the side of Fire Station No. 9 on Lake Elm Street. Just when she was going to begin, Mark came.

“Did you come to get me?”

“Oh, no. I just thought you might want an escort.”

“Really?”

“Well, that, and to be honest, after looking through those piles of mail, I saw that we didn’t have any from today. I saw you on my way to get it. Want to walk with me to the box?”

That’s all he had to say. It was enough to ask her if she wanted anything. Because she did, the love they made later was good.

When he was already asleep, she realized she’d forgotten about her. While he was still curled up and clinging to her side, she felt that space inside herself. She remembered when she was young and didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like. Before they quit using condoms, she had thought it would be like feeling full in another stomach. It was funny for her to think of it that way now, like she would share something in common with some filled-up pastry or stuffed holiday bird. The only analogies she could think of brought to mind things to be eaten and broken down.

Thinking of herself as a sacrificial food reminded her of the phrases “breaking of the bread” and “breaking of the body,” which she recalled from distant catechism courses about communion from her childhood. In that instance, consumption could simultaneously acknowledge and unite one with the sacred. But she didn’t think she was holy, even though she might be broken or consumed by the communicant lying next to her.

As she considered potential parallelisms of communion, she wished she’d never been so embarrassed to wear her holy medals while she had sex. She’d taken off her confirmation gift only a few months after she and Mark were married because it sounded like jangling quarters when it clinked against her neck. She could never ignore feeling like she was being observed, so she quit wearing them altogether after another month.

Contemplating the verities of the Last Supper eventually worked its way back to the sex, and how he felt better when they had removed what they thought to be the last layer between them. He said that this way felt more like coming “home.” Although it wasn’t life-changing for her at the time, it was still good.

Lately, however, she found it strange to be the hollow one. Her organ was so vacuous, reminding her that the space she could feel was terrible and growing bigger. It rubbed against her shrinking skin. She wondered if it were possible to break like Christmas bulbs broke. She knew that it wasn’t, despite her skin feeling taut over her bones. From bed, she could hear the sound of her childhood dog knocking over their Christmas tree. One of the frosty purple bulbs hit the stone near the fire place, exploding in a tinkling.

Mark rolled over, tugging some of the covers along with him. She lay there thinking, I am not a pond, not a fault. I am a bubble. Wait. I am not a bubble. Maybe I’m—She didn’t figure out what she was because she fell asleep when she was beginning to tell herself that bubbles pop, not break, and this wasn’t like that. She was breaking.

This is a scene from of “The Fault,” a short fiction about infidelity I wrote five years ago. I’m just now posting. Check out the beginningsecond scene, a previous installment, and one about cracking bones for reference.