When she first saw the photographs she didn't react- not visually; her mouth- so broad in expressive flexibility kept steady and full, her eyes fringed in casual observance, no curtain of black washed out over emotion, but he thought- this is the most I'm ever going to get from her. She wasn't smiling. She wasn't twining a thread of hair around her finger. She wasn't pressing her thighs together, her feet apart, her skirt hiked back by sitting until he could catch the faint beginning of starry white, where her tan-line ended. He saw her reflected back by the school-building of rotting corpses as ultimately her; lips and eyes and fingers and legs still, with no sense of drawing strength or feigned feminine weakness.
There, he thought, was why she mattered so much.
She sends him a drunken email on Derek's wedding night. It's long- a page-length at least, and when he prints it out, the condensed format produces two pages filled with misspellings and slurred sentences. He can see her squinting at the keyboard, balancing her sudden lapse of physical presence as the alcohol makes its fermented path along her delicate veins.
In the message she doesn't mention Derek. Not once. She goes on about someone named David, and she goes on about someone named Peter and she goes on about her father and then at the end, hidden among the grammatical travesty is one perfect sentence, without any errors, so clear it hurts:
I don't want to make you hate me Mike
The next day he sees her is a Tuesday, and Derek has been married for a few days now, and she has dark eyes, and he has his photographs from Rwanda on his desk, leafing through them. When she appears in his doorway, she looks thinner than he can remember. Her skirt is loose-fitting, and peering out on the strip of skin is the heavy outline of a heart tattooed across her belly, and Mike thinks of the sensitive warmth piling around the ink, he wonders if she cried, and if she had anyone in mind when she marked a reminder of shapely love over her small self.
"Can I bum a cigarette?" she asks. No shame. She doesn't seem to remember anything. Her eyes flicker to the photographs, and he knows he could- for a moment- make her still and without expression, but he doesn't.
He fishes out his beat-up pack of Camels and tosses them to her. There's only one left, but she doesn't realize that until she's outside, and it's started raining.
He remembers once, not long ago, when he and Derek were walking to the parking lot as twilight arced high above the collegiate lane of high trees, and the fields were stretched hot and alive with evening insects, everything reverberating back taught as the night held its breath against the last fire of day.
Derek had paused suddenly. A man walked past them, with dark black eyes and a cigarette. He stared at Derek and Derek stared back, and he thought what's not being said because that's the most important question one can ask. When the man walked past and down the winding path, Derek said.
He had glanced at him. Derek didn't curse. No like that anyway.
"People- girls- young girls- are so stupid sometimes. So stupid in how they decide to love. She-"
But Derek had stopped.
It made sense. All of it. But not the kind of sense that was easy to draw out and diagram. Only the kind that hung fraught over the waves of reddish-purple washing down the sun and calling up the bruised blue of early June.
Derek's door is shut. Amrita's in class. Joe's lost in research. Mark's still teaching his high-schoolers, and the hall is mostly empty, except for the economics professors laughing in the lounge. They sound drunk and foolish, and he wants a cigarette, but he figure's he'll hold off a few hours. She comes back, and for a moment her face looks wet, but then he decides he must have imagined that. She's unsteady on her feet, and there's a long scar snaking up her left thigh.
He thinks that every time he sees her, she's less whole- something's been cut, something's been taken, something's been left. He wonders about the tangle of misspellings etched out over a digital tableau. He has the printed-out email in his bag.
She pauses beside her doorway, and glances across the hall at him.
He smiles, but she shakes her head, as if she's too tired even to dispel the possibilities.
He's about to leave when he decides he's better served chancing fate, and he steps inside her office. She's looking at the computer screen, her back to him, and he can trace her breathing across the thin fabric of her shirt. He clears his throat and she turns around, and her eye-liner is smeared a bit, blurry at the edge of her eyes, her eyelashes heavy. It all measures to a look he's never seen- not on his wife, no on his daughter. Such a world-heavy acceptance of burden, that love is threaded angrily through the skin sometimes, on the head of needles, so you never forget it, even the mistakes.
"Who's David?" He asks her.
She draws sharply in, a breath so pointed it drills emptiness in the air and he can feel the atmosphere collapse around the open sphere left before her ashen face. She turns to him.
"You mentioned him a lot."
He can see her draw back into a haze of blurry memories, half-imagined probably, and painful. Then she closes her eyes and coughs out a grim smile, looking tired and run-down.
"I loved him," she says simply.
"And you shouldn't have," he guesses
"No. Running theme," she shrugs.
He looks at her, and then takes the photographs from his bag and crosses the sea of carpet to her desk and places the flip-book down softly. She looks up at him. Child. That's it, then, and he knows how lost a man can find himself, among familiar things and stupid stumbling words. He remembers once when it rained in Cambodia, and the road signs washed away down the twisting ravine. He had been lost for six hours in the hot crushing jungle. He remembers once in Vietnam, when they fell behind and took the wrong road and six guys were killed.
"Someone else is always worse off," she says.
"That's not why," he shakes his head.
Suddenly she's crying, and he has no idea what to do, and she sits there. No shame. The tears streak first coal-black with make-up and then run clear, and he stands over her, his hand just barely against her face.