It took Ruth a long time to begin seeing Julian. At first he didn’t have the shape of a man, but of the piles of furniture and clothes she’d see heaped beside the road. He leaned the way an old mattress leaned against a tree. He moved like a curtain that had been pulled across a window just when she’d happened to glance at it, as if the curtain had been animated by her glance. At first, the way wind blew empty cans across concrete was how Julian moved—erratically, surprising Ruth sometimes by his suddenness. But soon he could soothe her too, like when he moved by pushing himself gently along the horizon, filling and emptying the sails of the boats that stayed far out in the bay.
It became easy for Ruth to keep making him this way. She would do a little each day, adding to and taking away from who he had been the day before. She worked at night before her eyes got too tired to see who he was becoming. She would take what she’d seen on her way home that evening and add it to him. A silk dress would lend itself to his skin. The trees, their grays and greens, these would get into his eyes. How tall grass lay flat after it was cut would become his hair. Faces she’d seen reflected in windows would have a way of becoming his face, overlapping him. The way a man she’d passed had been clasping his own hand, as if preparing to ask a question, this would become one of Julian’s mannerisms.
She put everything she could see into him. Even her own reflection was there, and the square of the mirror that showed it to her, and the crack in the wall behind the mirror, and the wall: it was all there in Julian—if she looked at him long enough she would see it all.
Sometimes she thought she might be making him too beautiful. A cloud could become him too easily. The way rain gathered and ran down a windowpane in a slow, continuous stream should not be the way he came into the room, so easy it was like falling asleep to watch it happening. So she would take the rain out of him but leave the windowpane, only she would put a crack in it; or she would leave the rain but take away the pane, so when the rain came in she would get wet. She would put night into him instead of evening, when the sky was too pretty anyway. She would add to his face the darkness that accumulates in corners and the interiors of inanimate things—to the pupils of his eyes, the spaces between his teeth.
She knew that inside Julian an interior was accumulating and taking on a shape. Sometimes it seemed vast and steep, like a canyon, and sometimes it was a nearly flat cavity, no deeper than the space between wall and mirror. Other times it turned and furled like steam rising from her mug of tea. Other times, it was a shell’s spiraled cavity. And yet other times she had no idea how deep it might be. These were the times when Julian was the most real for her; appearance pressed flush against actuality and he would come to her bed and stroke her hair and tell her what he had done that day. He would say something plain—“I went to the post office” or “I picked up some groceries.” She would listen closely to the sounds that came out of him, trying to imagine the shape of what was inside him. Do you love me, she would sometimes say, but this was just a way of learning about the shape—did it go on indefinitely? What color was it? Was it gray like the clouds she’d used to add shadows to his face? Did it have many parts, chambers, like a heart, or was it a single space? Was it contiguous, or were parts of it cut off from the others, sealed away, unreachable and silent? Did it have thin, delicate parts that were stirred by any disturbance, like the field of wheat she’d seen and so had added to Julian the way it had swayed?
No matter what Julian answered, each time she would hear the shape differently. Do you love me? —His answer would come by echoing, so she thought the shape must be huge, cavernous, nearly too narrow to pass through, then opening into a vast chamber where ferns grew toward a few rays of sunlight. —His answer would be flat, a piece of paper slid across a desk, a contract. —His answer would bounce around, changing shape as he spoke, and she would think it must have come from the street, where kids were playing basketball and cars passed fast with their radios on and windows open. —His answer would be slow to emerge from anyone Ruth brought home.
A violent coup that had been preparing itself for months was finally happening, he fondly recalls; there was a window in his apartment, and a way of leaning out of it that was like a light shining onto itself. The sound of the cathedral’s bell was always imminent in those green moments; a photo of a woman’s decapitation by masked men was printed by the resistance, and there was more violence than the humid air could absorb. He would lean from the window to see the courtyard on the rooftop below, where roses tended by a blind man loomed.
Who was the blind man a symbol of back then? The streets had been renamed, but everyone went on using the old names even though to do so, they’d been warned, showed subservience to the previous regime. Something flowering made the air buzz and dream. In the distance, the mountain where he and the wealthy skied.
He remembers the young man, what had his name been, who would enter his room—really he had been a boy—carrying a plate of sliced oranges and almonds the color of skin, the boy’s, and the boy had been named Ricardo, Rico, back then.
There was a key hidden beneath a brick; such ways of moving in that dark apartment; such pleasurable, unendurable movements the odor of roses, the shapes of Rico’s teeth, the skeletal cathedral’s bell, the white chutes of speed he and Rico could achieve. He remembers trying to take an almond from Rico’s mouth with his own, and the transition of the almond’s smooth peak from Rico’s lips to his had been followed by a pleasure so intense—people were protesting in the renamed streets, there were many murders and arrests, on the mountain an avalanche and many deaths—he still makes a sound like a dove when he thinks of it. How when a gun fired, a vein in Rico leaped.
The Slow Man
There weren’t many things to talk about with the slow man. Since he went through the world at such a slow pace, he did not travel far or see many different things. Yet what he did see he would talk about in great detail. He once told her for over an hour about the pattern in the grain of a wood floor. He also spoke to her about nuances he’d noticed in the light and temperature of the few blocks’ walk from his apartment to hers. Also, the trees—he would recite their names and tell her many details about them that she would soon forget.
He would call her. When she answered, she would hear a long silence. Eventually, he would say hello.
When he entered her apartment, the thin needles that fell from his body she recognized from when she was a child and would lie beneath a tall pine that sighed as she breathed, that swayed as she waited for something she hoped to be able, one day, to name.
He used an operating system that displayed no images, only line after line of text, which he patiently parsed. He moved through his day in one long, sustained glide, like a silkworm secreting its cocoon.
She did not mind how slowly he moved, though she moved rapidly, often unable to do one thing for more than a minute before an even greater urgency appeared and needed her to stop what she was doing and attend to it. Because she moved so rapidly, beginning as soon as she woke up and going until long after dark, her health declined—a tremor developed in her right hand, and her left eye spasmed.
When the slow man finally touched her right wrist, she felt a wave of anguish, a slow-motion swan dive that abandoned itself to the gravity of her body. The slow man helped her to walk across the tall, seemingly grass-high carpet, to her bed, into which she sank like a melody remembering its beginning.
She very much enjoyed sex with the slow man. He took so long to come! And he made the softest, slowest movements with his penis. Even with his penis, he was never in a rush. Very relaxed, without any tension in their backs or necks, they had sex. Sometimes she had as many as three orgasms, each one creating a wider, more vibratory space in her, before he had even had one.
Her pace began to slow. Even when she wasn’t with the slow man, she noticed that she did not go from room to room quite so rapidly anymore. Things did not seem so urgent. She could eat a sandwich before beginning the next task on her dwindling list. Soon, she did not even make a list—there were so few things to do, and she felt she had plenty of time in which to do them.
People who knew her began telling her that she looked younger. Your skin is so smooth, your hair is so shiny, your muscles are so toned: they said this to the slow man and also, now, to her.
She and the slow man were getting older, only very slowly. Still, she knew the day would come when they would be subsumed by their surroundings.
She tried more than ever to pay careful attention to the details of what they were becoming—the pattern in the grain of a wood floor, nuances in light and temperature, trees. She looked at the shapes of the leaves, their veins. She remembered all their names.