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Eros, Philia, Agape By rachel swirsky
Lucian packed his possessions before he left. He packed his antique silver serving spoons with the filigreed handles; the tea roses he’d nurtured in the garden window; his jade and garnet rings. He packed the hunk of gypsum-veined jasper that he’d found while strolling on the beach on the first night he’d come to Adriana, she leading him uncertainly across the wet sand, their bodies illuminated by the soft gold twinkling of the lights along the pier. That night, as they walked back to Adriana’s house, Lucian had cradled the speckled stone in his cupped palms, squinting so that the gypsum threads sparkled through his lashes.
Lucian had always loved beauty—beautiful scents, beautiful tastes, beautiful melodies. He especially loved beautiful objects because he could hold them in his hands and transform the abstraction of beauty into something tangible.
The objects belonged to them both, but Adriana waved her hand bitterly when Lucian began packing. “Take whatever you want,” she said, snapping her book shut. She waited by the door, watching Lucian with sad and angry eyes.
Their daughter, Rose, followed Lucian around the house. “Are you going to take that, Daddy? Do you want that?” Wordlessly, Lucian held her hand. He guided her up the stairs and across the uneven floorboards where she sometimes tripped. Rose stopped by the picture window in the master bedroom, staring past the palm fronds and swimming pools, out to the vivid cerulean swath of the ocean. Lucian relished the hot, tender feel of Rose’s hand. I love you, he would have whispered, but he’d surrendered the ability to speak.
He led her downstairs again to the front door. Rose’s lace-festooned pink satin dress crinkled as she leapt down the steps. Lucian had ordered her dozens of satin party dresses in pale, floral hues. Rose refused to wear anything else.
Rose looked between Lucian and Adriana. “Are you taking me, too?” she asked Lucian.
Adriana’s mouth tightened. She looked at Lucian, daring him to say something, to take responsibility for what he was doing to their daughter. Lucian remained silent.
Adriana’s chardonnay glowed the same shade of amber as Lucian’s eyes. She clutched the glass’s stem until she thought it might break. “No, honey,” she said with artificial lightness. “You’re staying with me.”
Rose reached for Lucian. “Horsey?”
Lucian knelt down and pressed his forehead against Rose’s. He hadn’t spoken a word in the three days since he’d delivered his letter of farewell to Adriana, announcing his intention to leave as soon as she had enough time to make arrangements to care for Rose in his absence. When Lucian approached with the letter, Adriana had been sitting at the dining table, sipping orange juice from a wine glass and reading a first edition copy of Cheever’s Falconer. Lucian felt a flash of guilt as she smiled up at him and accepted the missive. He knew that she’d been happier in the past few months than he’d ever seen her, possibly happier than she’d ever been. He knew the letter would shock and wound her. He knew she’d feel betrayed. Still, he delivered the letter anyway, and watched as comprehension ached through her body.
Rose had been told, gently, patiently, that Lucian was leaving. But she was four years old, and understood things only briefly and partially, and often according to her whims. She continued to believe her father’s silence was a game.
Rose’s hair brushed Lucian’s cheek. He kissed her brow. Adriana couldn’t hold her tongue any longer.
“What do you think you’re going to find out there? There’s no Shangri-La for rebel robots. You think you’re making a play for independence? Independence to do what, Lu?”
Grief and anger filled Adriana’s eyes with hot tears, as if she were a geyser filled with so much pressure that steam could not help but spring up. She examined Lucian’s sculpted face: his skin inlaid with tiny lines that an artist had rendered to suggest the experiences of a childhood which had never been lived, his eyes calibrated with a hint of asymmetry to mimic the imperfection of human growth. His expression showed nothing—no doubt, or bitterness, or even relief. He revealed nothing at all.
It was all too much. Adriana moved between Lucian and Rose, as if she could use her own body to protect her daughter from the pain of being abandoned. Her eyes stared achingly over the rim of her wine glass. “Just go,” she said.
* * *
Adriana bought Lucian the summer she turned thirty-five. Her father, long afflicted with an indecisive cancer that vacillated between aggression and remittance, had died suddenly in July. For years, the family had been squirreling away emotional reserves to cope with his prolonged illness. His death released a burst of excess.
While her sisters went through the motions of grief, Adriana thrummed with energy she didn’t know what to do with. She considered squandering her vigor on six weeks in Mazatlan, but as she discussed ocean-front rentals with her travel agent, she realized escape wasn’t what she craved. She liked the setting where her life took place: her house perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, her bedroom window that opened on a tangle of blackberry bushes where crows roosted every autumn and spring. She liked the two block stroll down to the beach where she could sit with a book and listen to the yapping lapdogs that the elderly women from the waterfront condominiums brought walking in the evenings.
Mazatlan was a twenty-something’s cure for restlessness. Adriana wasn’t twenty-five anymore, famished for the whole gourmet meal of existence. She needed something else now. Something new. Something more refined.
She explained this to her friends Ben and Lawrence when they invited her to their ranch house in Santa Barbara to relax for the weekend and try to forget about her father. They sat on Ben and Lawrence’s patio, on iron-worked deck chairs arrayed around a garden table topped with a mosaic of sea creatures made of semi-precious stones. A warm, breezy dusk lengthened the shadows of the orange trees. Lawrence poured sparkling rosé into three wine glasses and proposed a toast to Adriana’s father—not to his memory, but to his death.
“Good riddance to the bastard,” said Lawrence. “If he were still alive, I’d punch him in the schnoz.”
“I don’t even want to think about him,” said Adriana. “He’s dead. He’s gone.”
“So if not Mazatlan, what are you going to do?” asked Ben.
“I’m not sure,” said Adriana. “Some sort of change, some sort of milestone, that’s all I know.”
Lawrence sniffed the air. “Excuse me,” he said, gathering the empty wine glasses. “The kitchen needs its genius.”
When Lawrence was out of earshot, Ben leaned forward to whisper to Adriana.” He’s got us on a raw food diet for my cholesterol. Raw carrots. Raw zucchini. Raw almonds. No cooking at all.”
“Really,” said Adriana, glancing away. She was never sure how to respond to lovers’ quarrels. That kind of affection mixed with annoyance, that inescapable intimacy, was something she’d never understood.
Birds twittered in the orange trees. The fading sunlight highlighted copper strands in Ben’s hair as he leaned over the mosaic table, rapping his fingers against a carnelian-backed crab. Through the arched windows, Adriana could see Lawrence mincing carrots, celery and almonds into brown paste.
“You should get a redecorator,” said Ben. “Tile floors, Tuscan pottery, those red leather chairs that were in vogue last time we were in Milan. That’d make me feel like I’d been scrubbed clean and reborn.”
“No, no,” said Adriana, “I like where I live.”
“A no-holds-barred shopping spree. Drop twenty thousand. That’s what I call getting a weight off your shoulders.”
Adriana laughed. “How long do you think it would take my personal shopper to assemble a whole new me?”
“Sounds like a midlife crisis,” said Lawrence, returning with vegan hors d’oeuvres and three glasses of mineral water. “You’re better off forgetting it all with a hot Latin pool boy, if you ask me.”
Lawrence served Ben a small bowl filled with yellow mush. Ben shot Adriana an aggrieved glance.
Adriana felt suddenly out of synch. The whole evening felt like the set for a photo-shoot that would go in a decorating magazine, a two-page spread featuring Cozy Gardens, in which she and Ben and Lawrence were posing as an intimate dinner party for three. She felt reduced to two dimensions, air-brushed, and then digitally grafted onto the form of whoever it was who should have been there, someone warm and trusting who knew how to care about minutia like a friend’s husband putting him on a raw food diet, not because the issue was important, but because it mattered to him.
Lawrence dipped his finger in the mash and held it up to Ben’s lips. “It’s for your own good, you ungrateful so-and-so.”
Ben licked it away. “I eat it, don’t I?”
Lawrence leaned down to kiss his husband, a warm and not at all furtive kiss, not sexual but still passionate. Ben’s glance flashed coyly downward.
Adriana couldn’t remember the last time she’d loved someone enough to be embarrassed by them. Was this the flavor missing from her life? A lover’s fingertip sliding an unwanted morsel into her mouth?
She returned home that night on the bullet train. Her emerald cockatiel, Fuoco, greeted her with indignant squawks. In Adriana’s absence, the house puffed her scent into the air and sang to Fuoco with her voice, but the bird was never fooled.
Adriana’s father had given her the bird for her thirtieth birthday. He was a designer species spliced with Macaw DNA that colored his feathers rich green. He was expensive and inbred and neurotic, and he loved Adriana with frantic, obsessive jealousy.
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