Walter brought her to the Sackler Wing the week it opened, the Temple arranged across sparkling, still water. “Remember the mummies?” he said, taking her hand under the slanted wall of glass, the park stretching away on the far side, busy with mothers and strollers, a clutch of tourists in red scarves.
She remembered the mummies. He had brought her to see them on their second date, when they had been circling one another, showing off their cleverness, running cautious fingers around one another’s boundaries. Isabell had thought it was funny, that they had dodged into the museum, out of the rain, and wound their way into a dim room full of departed Egyptians. Her own parents had met in the mummy room at the British Museum, schoolchildren on day trips, and carried out a love affair, liaisons beside the watching dead, as university students. They had boarded an ocean liner, as newlyweds, to set up house three-thousand miles from home, and their daughter had stumbled into romance inside another room of wrapped cloth and preserved royals.
She had not told Walter about her parents’ history. He liked to be the one to introduce her to things. He liked to believe the world was unspoiled, that everything they did was new to her.
“Imagine this—” He led her away from the windows, into the shadows inside the Temple’s rough walls. “Imagine this, out in the desert, under the sun.” He tipped his head back, finding her hand in the soft dark. “It’s older than the earth.”
They left the museum after tracing through its lower floors, peering in at blue scarabs and golden earrings, then pouring themselves out onto the wide front steps. They didn’t part ways at the taxi stand, Walter touching her elbow and pressing her along into the streets of apartments and little shops. Isabell wasn’t meant to know where they were going, but she did.
Before the Temple opened in September, she had met another man. In January, at the back of a bookstore, browsing second-hand classics, she pulled Madame Bovary off a shelf, and the man beside her grinned up from a different copy. “Who doesn’t love an affair?” he said, introducing himself.
Isabell told no one about him. He was a writer, and her parents, escapees of bohemian parents, would have worried. He was not easy to get along with, he sent food back at restaurants, argued over politics, and made department store clerks uncomfortable—her friends would have tried to talk her out of seeing him. But she loved him. Loved the undercurrent of being alive that flowed in everything he did, the sparking he started on a street when he turned the corner.
They made plans, got distracted, and walked through the dark instead, Isabell humming the concerts they were missing, quoting work from the authors whose readings they were skipping, while they waited for buses going in the opposite direction from their original destination. Coat hugged tight, wool itching her chin, she watched him light up the winter waiting. He was so beautiful, it didn’t matter that he was never on time; his hands danced while he spoke, so it didn’t matter when he wasn’t really saying anything, just repeating something that had offended or excited him. He belonged to a religion that made her parents nervous, but she had asked, and he didn’t mind baptism, so did it really matter, which language imagined tongues prayed in?
He was not a dependable lover. She suspected he loved writing more than he loved her, assuming he did love her, but his dedication, his occasional absences, interested her. He was going to write a novel everyone talked about. One everyone read. He didn’t want to do something clever, something so highbrow only a handful of critics read it. He let her read paragraphs, asked for advice on how to write women, asked if she had to pull out a dictionary when he used certain words. He was concerned, with making sure she understood.
Summer unfurled, keeping the sky bright long into the evening, and he brought her across the river, to his tiny studio. They drank wine out of coffee mugs, sitting on the fire escape, dangling their legs into empty air, throwing dying cigarettes into the gathering gloom. They went to bed when she said she wanted to, and then he kept her waiting. He told stories, rolling down her pantyhose, kissing her knees, stopping to explain the color of sunrise, in the city where he had spent the first decades of his life. Ran fingers against the insides of her thighs, then told her about the first days he had spent in New York, how the air inside the subway had sucked at him, how it had smelled. Touched her, then said he wasn’t sure the first chapter of his novel was working the way it should.
Isabell lunged forward and pulled him out of his clothes.
In the gray dawn, the soft sound of his pencil working against paper brought her awake, and he returned to bed when he realized she was watching. He asked where her parents thought she was, and if they needed to call her house so no one panicked. She told him they were at a teachers’ conference in Connecticut, that the house held only the ghosts of student papers, ungraded. He asked what she planned to do when she’d finished college, and Isabell admitted that she didn’t know, that she’d thought of getting work in a gallery, to be near art, but also about applying for graduate school in Europe, of traveling through the Continent in sleeper trains, alone and untethered. Tugging the sheet away, he traced the lines of her, asking questions until she suggested there was something better he could do with his mouth.
Summer melted away and his apartment filled with boxes. He had always been honest, about it being his last few months in the city, before he struck out for the middle of the country, to finish his novel surrounded by cornfields. It had been one of his highest moments, when the acceptance letter arrived, and Isabell had bought a bottle of top-shelf whiskey and two black berets, so they could celebrate like misplaced members of the Lost Generation, burning coq au vin on his battered stove. “I’ll rearrange all the bookstore displays,” she told him when they were full of French food and the promise of his ambition, “so yours is always the first everyone sees.” He buried his nose in the bend of her arm and muttered that she would be the only one to buy it. Stroking his hair, she grinned into the dark, knowing neither of them believed in his modesty.
Walking through scattered autumn leaves with Walter, Isabell watched a child hopscotching along the pavement, refusing to step on the sidewalk cracks. Walter was bringing her to the house he had bought. She wasn’t supposed to know, but her father, who hated surprises, had told her. Walter worked at his father’s bank—would run it, one day—getting a loan hadn’t been an issue. He had bought a house, bought a ring, and asked Isabell’s father for his blessing.
Walter wanted to give her a Victorian house, with little blue tiles in the bathroom, a little square of lawn fenced in behind. But she didn’t want Walter. The man she wanted was gone, but distance didn’t stop the wanting.
Isabell wanted to come home and find her writer in a corner, playing with a child, wanted him inflamed in the evenings with wine and politics, kissing her awake in the mornings, exultant over something he’d written, wanting to celebrate with skin. She wanted to take trains into European cities, to navigate boats back to the city where the sun rose over his family. She wanted to be in the room when the ink dried on his first publishing contract.
In the weeks since he had left, she had thought of finding herself pregnant. Of her body secreting a piece of him out from the studio apartment, across the river, into the howling tunnels of the city. In quiet, unobserved moments, she slipped a hand beneath the curve of her belly and prayed. Prayed to the two versions of God who had trailed her parents and her imagined child’s father across oceans. Prayed, and touched wood, and started to write.
She sent letters into the abyss, to the apartment he no longer occupied, hoping he’d left a change of address. She didn’t mention the baby, because she was almost certain there was no baby, just her own regular irregularity.
As long as she could pretend, she could plan a trip to the country’s interior. Could walk her mind through the journey, golden fields stretching for days into the west, into radiant sunsets. As soon as there was blood, she would have to admit she would not go. He would already have found a poet, someone to share the bitter winter nights with. Someone whose voice would sing his own words back to him. Someone who knew more about what writing should sound like than Isabell did. Would have to admit that if she arrived on his new doorstep, her body cradling her wanted future, she would ruin his own dreamed-of destiny, would be pulling down whatever image he had built, for how he wanted the years of his life to unfold.
“Do you like it?” Walter said, stopping in front of a tall brick townhouse, and there was nothing wrong with it. Walter wanted her in his banker’s future.
They all had their separate shrines: vaults, and words, and unborn infants. Isabell knew, whatever she did, she would be sacking the temple of someone’s future.