A Finished Silence

Taylor Cook


The dark of the stars drops into the sea sometimes when I’m not looking. If I don’t pay attention, I lose it all. I have to keep a close eye on it, hold it fiercely, or else it slips away. It’s not something I can time or prepare or understand. I see it the way I do, and then sometimes I don’t. When I’m sitting in the study, I’ll look out of the window, and quite suddenly it will all have disappeared, slid sideways and away, and I can’t find it. I lose it all in the dark corners of the room, in the spaces of Eva’s silences, her sitting alone down the hall. I don’t tell her when this happens. It makes her nervous.

When I’m in the study she thinks I’m working. She thinks I’m pressing away at the book, my fingers leaping over long sentences, strings and threads I am meant to tug and assemble from nothing and nowhere. Where am I supposed to find these thoughts? I used to have them. Back and before I used to have them. Now it’s as if I can see them through a window, through fine glass. They exist. But they fall away when I try to touch them. Just drop out of the air and fall fast like the stars into the deep darkness of the sea.

Eva’s sewing machine clicks as she fishes fabric through it. It speaks when she does not, always chattering away, faster or slower depending on its mood. Sometimes it growls and stalls, and then I hear Eva’s voice muttering and cursing at the machine as her fine fingers pry at its insides and outsides until it consents and sets again about its work.

I walk past her to find water, find food, and her eyes follow me. The machine speaks. Sometimes I speak back, but I cannot understand it when it answers me.

The book is going to be the third one. There are two published already, one a volume of poetry, another of short stories. This is meant to be a novel, but the parts are confusing. The length and breadth of long-form work eludes me. It takes hours to write a paragraph, weeks to cobble together a chapter. They do not read right even after they come together at long, at very long last. I feel like I am filling up space and time. My publisher bought a book from me, back when I could think straight, back when I wasn’t worried I was losing the stars. Sometimes when I lie on the hardwood of the study with my skin straining and the leather of my belt cracking in my hand, I decide I will submit two hundred pages of two sentences each. I could only ever work in minutiae. Why would I offer to write a novel? In what way would I ever have been able to do that?

That was a year ago. I feel cut off from who I was then, and cannot get into my own mind. The mind of the man who made that choice is closed to me. Eva tells me that all the time. Evangeline, star in the sky, sewing in the kitchen, she tells me that all the time.

The wood grain in the floor of the study is dark and fine. I press my cheek to it and lie still, and everything is quiet in those first few moments after the snap and crack of my match on the back of the chair. I ran out of the matchbooks I took from bars and have recently started using the long ones meant for the fireplace. The spoon is from one of the restaurants we used to go to, the cheap ones down by the water. We would bring bottles of white wine and watch the waiters slide through the narrow aisles with big plates of messy food, and we would sneak away the silverware to see if they’d notice. I slid spoons up my sleeves, and Eva laughed, closing her eyes, bright peals of laughter that I could nearly touch.

I ran out of the matchbooks because I haven’t gone out to a bar in some time. Eva goes out in the mornings to her job, to the real job that makes the real money that pays for me to write my fake book. She goes out at night, too, when the weather is nice or the wind is high, when a friend phones or she hears me striking a match in the study, a long match off the back of a chair that fizzles and burns brightly, briefly.

She screws other men. I smell it on her sometimes, after she comes back and I am in bed. She crawls in on the far side, and I turn over and smell it. She thinks if she can inspire enough envy in me, I will come back to her. Evangeline, star in the sky, siren in the sea, the light you hold is far too dim for me to see.

The book begat the silence, and that’s something to believe; that is the truth. I could not write the book and, because I could not write the book but had signed the contract to write the book—had taken the advance check that promised I would write the book—I needed to help myself. A friend, an artist, told me he was inspired when he was high. I came to his studio one night and he tied my arm and he struck a match and I saw stars, saw them bright in the sky outside his window. I saw beautiful things, spent beautiful time with them, and when I came home I wrote a page. It was enough to convince me. The second time I did not write afterwards, but lay on the beach and watched the water with my eyes wide open, laughing the whole time even though I was completely alone, Eva having gone to her parents’ for the weekend.

Her machine is clicking out its code down the hall, running over the stitches of a pale blue dress. The fabric is satiny-fine and I ripped it with one smooth stretch the last time Eva wore it, tore it without any effort at all. Eva goes out and sometimes she does not come home for a day, for two days, for three days, and I always think that this is the last of it.

I tell myself that when she does not come back, when she finally does not return, then I will give it up, and then I will write the book, and then I will bring her home. But she comes back when she shouldn’t, and I strike another match because I know I can. It’s a compulsion and it’s a rebellion, the leather cracking against my chapped palm, the cold buckle biting into my skin in the rut of a notch now familiar to my character.

I met her a long time ago. I met her when I was writing poetry in a library at the college we both attended, and she was stacking books to be returned—old journals of Sylvia Plath and Anaïs Nin that she borrowed to steep darkly in and brood over while she sipped black tea and ran her fingers through her shorn-short hair, so perfect a picture of teenage angst and decay that I could not help but laugh at her. For a minute, sixty long seconds, she stared at me, consternation furrowing her brow, heavily-lined eyes considering me with what I felt was instant condemnation. But then she laughed back, bright peals of laughter, and I told her my name.

It’s not that way now. It wasn’t after. She lightened her hair and freshened her face and had a Romanticism phase in which all she drank was Earl Grey with honey. Then there was a Greek mythology phase in which she pored over The Odyssey with a cup of coffee in her hand and her long hair pulled off her face in a tight bun that I liked to prod as she passed. There was a short fantasy phase that featured lots of Tolkien and Sleepytime, and an even shorter science fiction phase, and then it was all Jane Austen and the Brontës and frothy steaming lattés as we scrambled to finish our theses before we graduated, hair grown out and frazzled with no time for trims.

She is fixing a dress that I tore. She came home last week near dawn and tried to think I wouldn’t know, tried to walk in like it did not matter to me. I stood off of the bed and I watched her walk into our bedroom wearing a pale blue dress and dark tights and high black heels. I grabbed her shoulder, and I asked her if she thought she could walk around me, if she thought I wouldn’t notice. How could I not notice?

“Do you see anything anymore? Can you even see yourself?” she asked me. I could barely understand her words, could barely make out the syllables around all of the disgust.

“I can see you,” I said. “I can see you going out looking like that and coming back at six in the morning and I can see that you’ve been with someone else. I can see that. I can see you.”

She rolled her eyes and tried to brush my hand off of her, to go into the bathroom and wash the crusted makeup off her face, wash away the dark lining of her eyes and pull the pins out of her hair and crawl into my bed like she hadn’t been in someone else’s an hour ago. I didn’t release her, just grabbed the strap of her dress when she tried to walk away.

“Just leave if you want to. Why do you come back? Why do you keep coming back?” I asked her. She didn’t answer me and she tried to walk away and I kept my grip tight and that was how I tore her dress. She kept trying to walk away and I kept yanking her back and the strap tore and came away in my hand. Tiredly she considered my face, the bruise-purple tracks in my arm and the swatch of satin I’d torn from her dress and now held in front of her. Dark circles were smudged under her eyes, rings of ashy makeup and weeks of lost sleep, months, a year of lost sleep since I’d started striking matches in my study and decided I couldn’t finish the book.

“The problem is that I remember,” she said. Her voice was bare and fine, like stripped floors. “The problem is that I remember it all. I remember you before you were this way. Every time I think I won’t come back, I wake up thinking about all the little times. I remember them, and that’s the worst.”

One time we went to a farmers’ market near the boardwalk and I barely knew her, we’d been on only a few dates, and I wanted to get her something. I asked her what her favorite fruit was, and she asked me to guess, said we’d discussed it at some point in the short time we’d known each other and that she would be impressed if I remembered. I did not remember. I had no idea. I guessed apples as we passed a woman selling Galas and Pink Ladies, and oranges when we saw several vendors hawking them. She smiled at me, enigmatic, and said no. Evangeline, star in the sky, so sweet in your smile, I never stood a chance.

I gave up after not trying very hard at all and said I would assign her a favorite fruit, I would just pick something and that would be her favorite fruit. We walked by a stand selling fruit pies, and I bought the first one I saw, told her whatever was inside was her new favorite fruit. It was strawberry rhubarb, and she laughed long and hard, bright and brilliant, because strawberry rhubarb pie was her grandmother’s favorite, and of all the pies I could have picked it was clearly no coincidence I’d chosen one with which she already had a connection.

I saw that moment in her eyes as she looked at me, saw that one and all the rest, all the hundreds of them that we stacked between us in the years and years since we’d met. She wished she could sever herself from me but those hundreds and thousands of moments connected us too well.

She slid off the dress and left it on the floor, left me holding the ripped strap. She stepped over the dress in her high heels and disappeared into the bathroom, the door clicking shut behind her.

I hear her phone ring now, and I hear her voice, muted by distance, as she answers it. The sewing machine cuts off in mid-sentence when her foot releases the pedal to concentrate on her conversation. I sit up halfway so I can hear better, hear if she is going out, hear if this will finally be the time she leaves and does not return. The world briefly spins, darkening, brightening, and my heart trip-hammers in my chest as I will my vision to clear. As soon as the room sorts itself out I ascertain the stars outside the window, assuring myself of their vitality. I don’t want to lose them. I have a habit of that.