Joseph and his friend Kevin were driving to New Paltz for a hike. Kevin was driving with one hand, elbow out; Joseph had his whole arm out, hand on the roof. They had finished their MFA in creative writing weeks earlier and they felt great. Kevin had just published an essay in a big-deal magazine that paid. Joseph's mother had been seriously ill but now she was getting well. It was a spring day; the car windows were down and the breeze smelled good. The bright sky was lightly arrayed with brighter clouds. They were drinking sweet sodas from cans and arguing happily.
"It's like what John Ruskin wrote about architecture," Kevin was saying, "a style that allows for flaws may not be the most beautiful, but it's the most engaging because it reveals a human hand-print."
"I so dislike that line of thought," said Joseph, "the whole 'human' thing. It's usually a euphemism for mediocre and anyway it's meaningless. Only humans build buildings, only humans write books, those things are human by definition."
"You're mimicking Braver," said Kevin, and his voice expressed light scorn; he meant Professor Janice Braver.
"How? Janice never said that, I said it," said Joseph.
"She said it. Maybe in private conversation with me, but she said it."
"Since when were you having private conversations with her, you didn't like her. Anyway, horrible things are human, rape and murder are human."
"Don't change the subject," said Kevin, and paused to take a sharp, dreamy curve that made the car feel unwieldy and boat-like. "To say that art is human doesn't mean it's morally good, it means it engages you. It's not static with everything in place, it's everything, including flaws and clumsiness."
"It's everything," mimicked Joseph. "That's vague and grandiose."
"Bellow and Roth write about everything."
"That's not why they're great, they're great because"
Kevin swerved into the park so sharply that the soda popped out of Joseph's can and splashed his faceJoseph yelped, Kevin loudly grinned. Joseph wiped his chin with his shirt and said, "They're great because"
But Kevin was already out of the car and rummaging in the back for water and lotion. Joseph got out saying, "Bellow and Roth are great because" Two girls in shorts and hiking boots came walking down the trail, cool and laughing as if they'd just come out of a movie theater. "They're great because they're deep," said Joseph, looking at the smaller of the girls.
Kevin stood and the girls both turned to look at him; even at a distance Joseph could see them spark up. Kevin was tall and athletic, he had broad shoulders and a wide mouth. Aware of them, but not looking at them, he flexed his chest as he shouldered a light pack. "They write about particular things deeply," said Joseph, and threw soda in Kevin's face. Kevin lunged; they scuffled; the taller girl looked back and smiled. Kevin tried to get Joseph in a head-lock, Joseph broke free and danced back, feinting. The girls got in their car, talking to each other.
The boys quit their scuffle. They rinsed away the sticky soda with bottled water and rubbed on bug lotion; Kevin put his foot up on the hood of the car to better rub his long half-naked leg. The girls pulled out of the lot, one of them smiling from the window as they went. Kevin put his leg down and gazed after them. Now he looks, thought Joseph. A family pulled up in an SUV, radio blaring, two little boys in the back, one of them twirling something bright and multi-colored.
They started up the trail.
Kevin and Joseph had grown up in Westchester. They became friends in junior high because both were bookish boys obsessed by horror comics in which bad things happened to girls until the hero came. Then Kevin grew nearly two feet and began to play basketball; in high school he made the team. A circle of girls sparkled around the new hero while Joseph stood on the outside with dangling hands.
Then Kevin's family moved to Manhattan. The boys might've drifted apart had the move not occurred just weeks after Joseph's parents were divorced; the two separations became linked in the pattern-making part of Joseph's mind, and without knowing it, he was determined to defeat the pattern, to re-create unity where he could. And so he visited Kevin in Manhattan whenever possible. He liked being in a home with two parents. He especially liked Kevin's mom, Sheila. She was not pretty, but her eyes were warm, and her soft, pouchy cheeks were somehow warm too. Her smile was like a warm hand on your face, and her scolding was merely a firmer version of this warmth. They liked to wrestle in front of her, and once they pretended to have a real fight: Joseph put pieces of white candy in his mouth and when Kevin play-socked him, he roared and spat the candy out like teeth. Sheila pretended to be horrified, then burst into her delicious laugh. It was so great they ran out right after and took the subway to Chinatown. They went to a cheap place and ate an enormous meal, trying everything on the menu until they couldn't eat anymore. A waiter with tattooed hands sold them illegal beers and then they walked all the way back to the West Side.
Walking up the mountain, Joseph could still remember walking in Chinatown, the small neon signs speaking bright-colored Chinese on each side of them, the dead fish and exotic vegetables heaped in alleys and spilling out onto the pavement. He looked at Kevin's back and remembered the closeness of wrestling, the laughter, the tattooed hands, the beers
Kevin reached out, picked a leaf off a branch and dropped it. "So who do you think will be the next to publish something big?" he askedhe having been the first.
"I think Adam," said Joseph. "His thesis was so strong, and he's a hard-charger."
"Nah," said Kevin. "I mean he's good, but he has a long way to go. I think it's Tom." He paused, lunging slightly as the path steepened. "Or Marisa. I think it could easily be Marisa with those last stories of hers."
Marisa: the word was still a small, smartly struck bell between them. Kevin had flirted with her, but she had chosen Joseph. She had chosen him, and then after three weeks, she had dumped him. He didn't think her recent work was that good, but he was afraid of what it would sound like if he said so. Instead he said, "What about Andy? He's gotten really good."
"Are you kidding?" said Kevin. "He's weak. And he got weaker listening to Braver."
Joseph sighed. "I don't think you understood what she was saying some of the time."
"I didn't understand what she was saying? About how important it is to describe how characters look?"
How to tell Kevin that sometimes he was so busy being smart he couldn't understand anything? In class Janice had said to him, "Maybe you should close your mouth and open your mindyou might actually learn something." Kevin answered, "Maybe I would, if there was anything to learn." The room was quiet. Janice's face stiffened, then relaxed. "Wow," she said, smiling softly. "You're a real pisser, aren't you?" People laughed. Kevin flushed. Joseph suppressed a smile.
"I don't know why you're still stirred up about it," he said. "The semester's over."
"I care about writing whether the semester's over or not." Kevin's voice was mild, but feeling came off his slightly hunched back. "And what's important in writing is what's happening between the characters, what they are doing, not what they look like or what things look like."
How Marisa looked: narrow-framed and supple, giving the appearance of coiled quickness, like a pretty weasel. Small lips, short unpolished nails, blue eyes, poised, expectant posture. She told him that on the street one night a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk yelled to her, "Hey chickie! Hey chickie, little chicklet! Come sit on me, you'd fit me like a glove!" She said, "He sounded so wistful," her voice hitting "wistful" like it was two words, one pitched high, the other low.
He'd acted disgusted, but the homeless guy was right, Marisa was supple and functional as a glove, and she liked to sit on him, back arched, earrings swinging, pale belly flashing in the dark. When he pictured that arched back and flashing belly, they somehow became a picture of a crescent moon, a gleaming sideways smile far away in the dark. When she broke up with him and he tried to make her change her mind, she held his face in her hands as if she loved himthen she said, "Honey, don't make me feel sorry for you."
After that he had to sit through a three-hour class with her every week. It was Janice's class. Two days after the break-up they read a story by Chekhov in which a cruel woman scalds a girl's baby to death. Janice read aloud the part where the girl is returning home from the hospital on foot, at night, in the woods. She wanted them to notice the "soft and open quality" of the description, of the darkness and its sounds; animals, insects, the voices of men. Joseph sat across from Marisa immersed in darkness. He was astonished that such pain could have been roused by this small alert girl who would not meet his eyes. He told himself it would pass, that he only had to ride it out. "Yours is not the worst of sorrows." An old man in the story said that to the young girl who had lost her child; he said it to comfort her.
Janice asked them, could they imagine such a scene written now? The suffering girl walking in the live darkness, the vast world of creatures all around. The girl and her suffering a small thing in this mysterious, still-soft and beautiful world. Through this description of physical life, said Janice, mystery was bigger than human feeling, and yet physical life bore up human feeling as with a compassionate hand.
Joseph slowed his pace and looked at physical life: bushes, mountains, stones. The warm sun dappling the path, a tiny red rag someone had tied to the branch of a small tree. Grasses. Bugs. He could not connect any of it with Janice's talk about mystery or compassion. But at the time, her words had moved him. He had looked at Marisa and had known with certainty that his was not the worst of sorrows.
Two weeks later his mother called and said she had cancer and Marisa became a mote in a world of sorrow.
"Am I walking too fast for you?" Kevin was turned around, walking backwards.
"I'm just not in a hurry," said Joseph, picking up his pace.
Kevin slowed to wait for him; the path was now wide enough for them to walk abreast.
"I'm thinking about what I'm going to do," said Joseph, "like for a job."
"Yeah," said Kevin, "I know. I am too. People think it's going to be easy for me because of the essay. But I doubt it."
Easier for you than for some, thought Joseph. He looked up at the tree line on a ridge above them, at the branches moving gently against the sky.
"What is it?" asked Kevin.
"Those trees, the way they're moving."
"When my mom was sick, I would sometimes come out of the apartment at night and watch the trees move against the sky. It made me feel better. I don't know why."
"I understand that," said Kevin. And his back gave off a different kind of feeling.
Joseph's mother and father had been divorced for eight years. His younger brother Caleb was in Ohio studying theater. His mother lived alone in Westchester, where she ran an upscale women's clothing store that made money. She did not have a lover, but she had a lot of friends. She told her friends about the tumor in her breast before she told anyone in her family. When she told him, she'd known for nearly a week.
"Why?" he asked, astonished. "Why did you wait?"
"I was afraid you might cry," she said. "I didn't want to make my sons cry."
"Mom, I'm twenty-four years old and anyway there won't be anything to cry about because you're going to be okay." And then he thought she would cry.
But she didn't. She said that the prognosis was good, that they were doing the mastectomy just to be sure. She was going to have a reconstruction done at the same time; they would use tissue from her stomach. "I hope you don't think that's grotesque," she said. "But fifty is the new forty, and forty-three is too young to be disfigured like that." She laughed. He felt sick with pity. He said he would come to be with her. She said he didn't have to do that, that she didn't want him to miss school.
"Don't be ridiculous!" he snapped. "I'm going to come."
"I think of Max when I hear certain songs on the radio," said Kevin. "Songs I know he really likes."
Kevin's brother Max was a Marine; he'd been in Iraq almost a year. "How's he doing?" asked Joseph.
"Okay, I guess." Kevin paused. "I'm not sure. He calls. But I'm not sure he tells us what's really going on."
When Joseph called his brother to talk about their mom, Caleb said, "This could not have come at a worse time. I guess stuff like this always does."
"Are you coming to New York?" asked Joseph.
"No," said Caleb. "She said she didn't want me to."
"She says that, she doesn't mean it, it's obvious."
"Joseph, I can't. I'm playing Ricky Roma in Glengarry, Glen Ross. I'm rehearsing non-stop. She's going to be all right, she said the doctor said that. It's awful, but breast cancer is so common now, it's practically normal for a woman her age."
He had to call his father several times before he got him on his cell. He was driving in his car, going somewhere with the wife who was almost twenty years younger than his mother. When Joseph told him, he was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, "Well, I never would've wished that on her. She was so vain about her body, it's going to be bad for her." Soft gusts of distorted traffic noise came through the phone. Joseph felt disgusted at his father, but what he said was true; his mother was vain. Even at fifty-three she had a great figure, so slender and supple that from a distance she looked young; even up close her body sometimes had the quickness of youth. Just five years ago his friends had punched his arm and said, "Your mom is hot."
"Call me any time," said his father. "I don't want you to be alone through it."
"Can you call Caleb?" asked Joseph. "Can you tell him to come? Mom told him it was okay if he didn't, but I know she wants him to. And if something happens to her, he's going to feel horrible."
His father sighed. "I know how you feel, Joe. But I don't think you can tell someone to do something like that."
"You ought to be able to," said Joseph. "If you're his father." And he hung up.
The path narrowed, but they continued to walk abreast, so close their shoulders rubbed together. "Ruskin's ideas are pretty ironic," said Joseph, "considering the way he treated his wife."
"What do you mean?"
"He refused to have sex with his wife. After courting her for years starting when she was something like twelve. He'd written these passionate love letters to her when she was a child. Then she got old enough to marry andforget it. Wouldn't touch her. It went on for years. Finally when she was nearly thirty she said, enough. It was the most notorious divorce trial of the time."
He went to see his mother a day before the operation. She met him at the train station, smiling and waving. She was wearing tight pants and a down jacket, like a woman in her twenties might wear. They went to the store to shop for "nice ham and tomatoes"; she wanted to make sandwiches the way she'd made them on some occasion that he could not remember. She loaded the cart with ice cream, imported cookies, sardines, artichoke hearts, paper towels, and cleansers. She got upset because the fancy ham counter was closed, then angry because there weren't any good tomatoes. He tried to say it was okay, but she insisted they were going to have the sandwiches. Angrily, she chose processed slices of ham and hard, pale tomatoes. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I should've come earlier and now it's too late. Our night is ruined."
"Really, it's not."
"I just remembered the last time you and Caleb came and he was unhappy because I didn't have anything he liked in the refrigerator." Her voice rose. "And I went out and I got Heavenly Ham and tomatoes from a farm stand." Her rising voice broke a little. A man stared. "We had sandwiches and he said, 'These are delicious!'"
"Mother." Joseph touched her shoulder. "It's winter, there aren't going to be good tomatoes now. We can just eat something else. I'm not as picky as him."
She laughed and said, "That's the truth," her voice gone back to normal. "Still, I wanted you to have something delicious."
On the way home they rented a comedy about a dysfunctional family and watched it eating the sandwiches from plates on their laps. Then he did the dishes while she talked to Caleb on the upstairs phone. When he turned off the water he could still hear her voice through the ceiling. He went into the living room and finished up the rest of the artichoke hearts.
The path opened onto a small meadow of pale grasses with a single tree standing in its middle. It was a large tree, with branches stretched in all directions; roughly half the branches seemed fully alive, with flourishing leaves and rich-colored bark, but the other half looked deadblackened, dry, naked of bark or leaves.
"Want to hear how he explained himself?" asked Joseph. "Ruskin, that is?"
"He said 'It was not made to excite desire.' Meaning his wife's pussy. Or maybe her breasts. Or maybe just her body period."
She was in surgery for fourteen hours. She came home with plastic tubing attached to the wounds in her stomach and chest, tubes that functioned as drains, collecting the pus in detachable plastic bulbs. He could see the tubes under her clothes; he was aware that she took the bulbs off, emptied them of pus, put them back on. While he was with her, he was not squeamish about the tubes and bulbsif she'd asked, he would have detached, emptied, and replaced the bulbs himself. He didn't mind the new breast made out of stomach either. He scarcely thought of it, and when he did, he felt tenderly towards her vanity, and glad that it could at least have the protection of this stomach-breast. He couldn't help feeling superior to Caleb, who obviously squirmed even to hear about it on the phone.
"It was not made to excite desire," repeated Kevin.
"I guess it was a little too human," said Joseph.
"A little too old, it sounds like."
"It amounts to the same thing," said Joseph. "Anyway, public opinion was overwhelmingly on her side. She won the case and married Ruskin's protégé, Millais. They had eight kids."
"Something poignant about the whole situation," said Kevin. "For both of them."
In Westchester it was okay. But the first night he got back to Albany he had a nightmare in which his mother's breast was a piece of gnawed cake. He woke from the dream feeling disoriented and sad. He didn't think his mother was going to die. But it made him ill to think that men in surgical scrubs had labored to take some of her stomach off and put it where her breast had been, to think of her sleeping with plastic drains sewn into her soft, gowned body, of the bulbs pressing against her when she turned. In the past they just would've cut the breast off and left it that way. Deeper in the past she just would've died.
He sat up on the edge of his bed and looked out the window, between the shade and the sill. Naked tree branches stirred in the wind, dark, rooted, and corporeal against the pale, ungraspable sky. He thought of seaweed slowly stirring on the ocean floor, of his own lungs subtly moving in his warm fluids. He thought of the sky traveling up, growing colder and colder until it dissolved against the final dark cold of space. He thought of his mother standing on earth, angry because she couldn't make wonderful ham and tomato sandwiches. Light from the store bright around her, darkness pressing down from above.
He ran his hand across the rough foliage growing beside them; it stirred in his wake.
"How would you describe this?" he asked.
"Why would you describe it?" answered Kevin.
"Feelings," said Joseph. A dragonfly lighted on a wildflower and made it bob. "It would bring feelings into the story." The dragon rose off the bobbing flower and lilted in the air.
"Feelings come from people," said Kevin. "Not bushes. Bushes don't have feelings."
"I know bushes don't have feelings." Joseph flushed slightly. He wasn't in fact sure that they didn't, but he wasn't going to say that to Kevin. "It's the character that sees the bushes and has feelings about them."
"Sure, that's fine," said Kevin. "But think of Don Watson. His stories are filled with emotion, but it comes from what the people in the story are doing, an engagement with the human world. They come from the work he does with Israeli and Palestinian writers who deal with the psychotic shit that's going on there. Not from bushes."
Emotion was coming off Kevin again; Joseph wondered why. Was it about Marisa, still? Probably not. It was just Kevin's nature to always be stirred and needing something to butt up against. Wow. You're a real pisser, aren't you? He had enjoyed seeing Janice call Kevin out, and she was right to do it. Still, he was moved by the feeling coming off his friend; he respected it, wanted to stand with it. That was his nature.
Abruptly the path steepened. They both fell silent and began to hike in earnest.
When he returned to the university he decided to write a story about a young man whose mother had cancer. The young man would be some kind of business executive, maybe in advertising. Or he would be an office temp who was trying to be an actor. Or an architect just starting out. He would not have time to go home and care for his mother, and his do-gooder brother would be giving him grief about it. Over the course of the story, his deeper feelings would be uncovered.
He went to Janice's office to discuss his story idea. He prefaced the discussion by telling her that his mother had been sick, that he had missed a class for that reason, and might have to miss another, depending on how things went. He told her more than he'd meant to, about his father and his brother and the way his mother had been with the sandwiches. She listened and her face grew soft, much softer than it was in class. Her soft silence felt to him like touch. Her eyes touched him, not just their expression, but the signs of age around them, the lines in the skin, the soft sagging of the lids. He realized that she had once been young, and that her youth was still there, like a light growing dim; that touched him too.
But when he told her that he wanted to write about his experience for his next workshop story, she spoke adamantly. "Don't do that, Joseph," she said. "It's such a vulnerable time. More than you know. Excuse me." And she got up to close the office door, which surprised him; teachers typically kept the door open when a student was with them. Door closed, she sat in the chair beside him instead of behind the desk. She sat beside him and told him that she was married to a man who was thirty years older than she. He had been very ill two years back, so ill that she thought he might die. She said that during his illness, she had underestimated her own vulnerability and that other people had too. "I'm sure no one would be deliberately cruel about your story," she said. "But it's too raw now for public discussion." He told her that he didn't think he could write about anything else. "It's fine to write it," she said. "But don't turn it in to the workshop. Please. Turn it in to me and we can discuss it privately. Workshop something old, just to keep up appearances."
And so he workshopped something he didn't care about and brought the real story to Janice in various pieces and drafts.
They had been hiking for nearly an hour when the path forked. For no reason, they argued about which way to take. Finally they decided that both ways would come to the same end and split up, feeling safe with their cell phones. Joseph intuitively chose the smaller trail, which quickly proved steep and jumbled with loose rock.
In the story it was revealed that the architect who was just starting out was not merely indifferent to his mother. He was angry at her. He did not even fully believe that she had cancer. She had a history of acting out and hypochondria and had ruined his tenth birthday party by saying she couldn't breathe, insisting that their father break up the party so that he could take her to the hospital. He was also angry at his brother who was still living at home and didn't have to make any sacrifices to look after her, angry at the way this brother had bought into her self-mythologizingthe myth of the beautiful woman who could've been an actress if she hadn't been stunted by early marriage and children.
The trail became increasingly chaotic. There were flat sun-baked outcrops mixed with cool, wet fissures full of mashed pine needles. Bushes, mosses, and little trees grew out of the fissures, pushing their way out of huge rocks. Smaller, broken chunks of rock wobbled under his feet, forcing him to slow his pace; some were dry, some slippery with mud.
In real life it turned out that there were two positive lymph nodes in his mother's body, and that she needed chemo. In the story, she needed chemo too. In real life she lost her hair; in the story she lost her hair too. In the story she screamed and cried about losing her hair. In real life she made jokes and shopped for wigs with her friends. In the story the architect finally came home, and was forced to confront his angry brother. In real life Caleb came home and delighted their mother by acting out scenes from Glengarry, Glen Ross. In the story, the dutiful son was the favorite. In real life, it was Caleb.
He came suddenly close by a coiled snake and, stepping away from it too fast, he stumbled and fell, banging his knees and hands. Too quickly he clawed for purchase and cut his palm on a rock. Blithely, the snake slithered away. He cursed as he stood. There was a dark, yeasty odor, as if something crushed was bleeding its scent into the air.
In the story the brothers got drunk and had a fist-fight on the lawn. In real life they did the dishes together. In the story, the architect makes the do-good brother realize he's giving himself away to win his mother's love. The do-gooder makes the architect realize he's riding free while his brother does the real work of keeping the family together. In real life, no one realized anything.
"It's hard," said Janice. "It's hard to be the one who sees things nobody wants to see."
Sweating and irritated, he emerged from the path. Here was a clearing, an overlook. There was no way to go further up, though there was another way down. He sat on a rock and breathed. Either he had reached the top ahead of Kevin or he was lost. Either way was okay. From somewhere came rustling, the sound of rubbing cloth and parting limbs; Kevin had come. "You beat me," he said.
"It may not be right to have a favorite," said Janice. "But if it were me, the one who came to take care of me would be my favorite."
Kevin came and sat beside the rock, dropping his pack beside him. Joseph passed the water; Kevin drank. They sat a long time silently, looking at the grass, the trees, the sky. A bird, black in the distance, flew with pleasing grace from one point to the next, dipping almost out of sight before rising again. Kevin gestured broadly.
"If you described this," he said, "what meaning would it have?"
"That would depend on the story."
Kevin leaned back on his elbows, legs stretched out before him. Joseph felt great affection for his friend, for his strength, and his arrogance too.
"So do you think you'll stay in touch with her?" Kevin tilted his head slightly up and back, glimpsing at Joseph with a sliver of eye. "Janice?"
"I don't know, maybe a little. It wasn't a social relationship, she was my professor."
"Students keep in touch with teachers."
"Are you going to keep in touch with anyone?"
"Yeah, Don and I will definitely be in touch. I want to follow his work in the Middle East, maybe go over there with them."
"Wow," said Joseph, "that would be incredible." He thought of Kevin's mother, with his brother Max already in Iraq. The Odyssey rushed to the front of his thoughts; he remembered how, when a soldier had been killed, the narrative had stopped to say who his mother was and what kind of blanket she had wrapped him in when he was a baby. He relaxed his leg so that it rested against Kevin's shoulder. They sat in silence looking at the trees, the river and the sky.
When Joseph shifted his leg, Kevin turned to face him. "I have to tell you something," he said. "I feel like I have to tell you."
"I had sex with Janice."
"I fucked Braver."
"Why would I lie?"
"But you didn't like her. She didn't like you."
"She liked me."
"When did this supposedly happen?"
"The weekend before the graduation ceremony."
That weekend: yes. Joseph had been at that party too. Everyone was at that party, all the grad students and most of the faculty. Everyone was drunk. Late at night, he had been surprised to see Janice and Kevin talking in a corner: Kevin was leaning very close into Janice and she was looking up, her face avid, her body receded, almost crumpled. He had not paid further attention because he was trying to get a girl to give him her number.
"But you said you didn't like her." Joseph stood up. "You made a whole huge point of not liking her."
Kevin stayed sitting on the ground. "I didn't like her as a teacher. I liked her as a woman."
"She's married. She's old enough to be your mom."
"No, she's not. She's forty-seven."
"That's old enough."
Kevin stood up. "Why should I care about that? It was good, for one night. We both understood it was for one night."
"I don't want to hear details."
"Who said anything about details?"
Kevin turned away abruptly. He walked to the edge of the overlook and bent to pick up a rock. Joseph wanted to kick him. Kevin threw the rock over the edge, hard, like a little boy with something to prove. Joseph wanted to kick him in the ass. Kevin turned around; his face was startled and soft. The kicking urge went away. Kevin spoke mildly. "Do you want to go back down your way?" he asked.
"No," said Joseph thickly. "It's all slippery rock."
But Kevin's way was slippery too; almost immediately, Joseph stumbled and fell against him. Kevin staggered and nearly went down; anger flashed in his eyes. They pushed away from each other and nearly fell again. They crouched slightly and slowed.
Joseph said, "Why didn't you tell about Janice until now?"
"She made me promise not to."
"But you're telling it now."
"The semester's over. You just said you're not really going to stay in touch with her. It doesn't seem like it matters now."
Joseph tried to concentrate on his footsteps. Instead he thought of Janice naked, in sexual positions. He had never thought of her that way before. The thoughts were faintly sickening, but they also made him hard.
"So how was it?" he asked.
Kevin didn't answer. His broad back expressed an upright reticence that was somehow more insulting than lewdness.
"Did she like it?"
"Yes. If you want to know, she did." He paused and then added, as if he couldn't help it: "Even though she cried."
Semi-crouched, Joseph stopped. "Why? Why did she cry?"
Kevin turned and slipped a little; rocks rolled away under his feet. "I thought you didn't want to hear details."
"Your face is red," said Kevin. His voice expressed wonder; his expression grew horribly gentle. He said, "I didn't know you felt anything like that for her."
"I don't," said Joseph.
"It isn't anything, I just..." He thought of Janice with her legs spread. He did not see her face or even her upper body, only her spread lower half. "I just want you to go on down," he said quietly. "I'll come in a bit."
Kevin looked away deprecatingly. "Okay."
The sky had changed. The clearing was now covered with soft shadows broken by slow-moving light. Joseph sat on the stone and put his head in his hands. His thoughts of Janice faded. He thought of Marisa, how she had held his face in her hands and asked not to feel sorry for him. He dropped his hands and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He thought of holding Marisa from behind, her breasts in his hands. Yours is not the worst of sorrows. In truth, no one knew if his mother was well, or if she still had cancer. They could not find cancer now, but one day she might go to the doctor to check and cancer would be there again. She would have to check and check for years, three years at least.
He stood up, looking into the valley. Giant broken rocks fell motionless down the incline, harsh gray stippled with black moss, shadow deeply pitting the spaces between the raw chunks. Broken trees stumbled down the slope, half living, half dead. At the bottom, only the living parts were visible, converged in the crease of the valley like virile hair at the fork of the body.
He remembered Caleb acting for his mother in the living room, how she had laughed. It wasn't what Caleb said that made her laugh; it was something in his voice that, without his trying, touched her some place Joseph couldn't reach.
He looked up; a flat field of clouds hung low in the sky rippled with soft gray and subtly filling with some other color that was not yet visible to his eyes. Above the clouds, bright light massed together as if trying to give itself a shape, like a sound trying to form a word. Out of this light rose pale young sky that deepened and became intensely blue as it rose higher into cloudlessness. He thought, Kevin will always win. That is just how it is. From under the celestial field colorless radiance shone, receded and shone.
Mary Gaitskill is the author of Veronika (nominated for a National Book Award) and Because They Wanted To (nominated for a PEN Faulker Award), among other works of fiction. This story is part of her collection Don't Cry, appearing from Pantheon in 2009.