After Flaubert by Andrew Bertaina

There’s a letter from Flaubert to his lover that I think you’d adore, about the way he passed the day after his lover had returned home. The details are quiet and mundane, the ice-shrouded lights, the carriage ride home through the snow-muffled streets but there is something magical about the language, it’s Flaubert after all, that soothes me. 

In the early evening, when the pastel houses take on a magnificent glow and the wind starts picking up off the water, I can’t stand a damn thing in this city. Can’t stand the way everyone is so busy, so self-satisfied, so happy with baby carriages and low-interest rates on home loan mortgages. Can’t stand the way they have friends over and sip wine, go to museums and talk about the people they’re seeing over boozy brunches. Can’t stand the way the city keeps evolving, pop up Latin markets and designer shoe stores.

In our early days, I loved everything about it. You’d sneak away from your quiet little house and we’d find bakeries, sample scones, muffins, sweet cakes, in secret garden cafes. We’d share cappuccinos, talk about our dreams together, and hide away from that other world you carried, a husband, a child.

Last February, when the trees turned decadent yellows and vibrant reds weeks earlier than usual, I swore I was going to change the trajectory of my life, apply to graduate school, call my father for money, quit my dead-end job at the cafe. And you assured me I was right to want the change, that you saw a different version of me emerging, the person you always knew I could be. I thought your excitement was meant for us, our future. Since you left there are months I can’t even muster the energy to change the sheets, let alone the vast and immutable self, which has always evaded definition for me. 

Yesterday, I engaged in a mad dash of spring cleaning, pulling out the Swiffer and lemon-scented Pledge, attacking toilets, linoleum floors, and the inside of the oven with militaristic vigor. The warm scent wafting throughout the house felt like reconnecting to the world, until I found a strand of your hair, lying behind the couch. How long had it lain there, waiting to ambush me?  I put it on the sill and cried. 

After, I stood on the fire escape as people shuffled in and out of restaurants beneath me, carrying steaming boxes of Styrofoam home to the people they loved. Remember those evenings when he was away, when the city seemed like a vibrant cluster of stars and our life together seemed to be just beginning, a baby’s breath, the first shared laugh over coffee?  Remember how we swore we’d move to California and live along the northern coast, working together in a bakery near Petaluma?  I’d write and wait tables, you’d bake. I know it’s silly, but so is life, so is existence and dark matter and platypuses and everything we think we understand. 

Do you miss me yet, out in that crisp country air? In that small mountain town where the stars are burning like little fires in the sky, and where he must hug you tightly on the large wooden porch as you press into him, warm, safe. 

I started reading poetry to try and trim the distance between us. Nights you were with him, you’d send me fragments of things in texts, poets on birds, light, water, air, and then you’d fall asleep or go kiss your sleeping child on the head, and I’d stare at my phone in the dark and wonder if your husband still kissed you. 

My friends all preach movement, action. I wait for the mailman sometimes, trying to look unobtrusive as I read a book until his small truck arrives, a dash of hope, a rattling of the key—a bill, a credit card offer, emptiness.

In the park we so loved, I regret to inform you that the geese have taken over and are honking and squawking and shitting everywhere. In a better world, they’d all be chased away by coyotes or mangled by a kindly gardener. You’d often say, we do not live in a better world, sadly, we live in this one and then lean over to kiss me with that faraway look in your eyes that told me you were thinking of your husband, your child, your life without me. 

Sometimes I dodge the geese and snag our old blue bench beneath the willow and watch the wind make the shape of rabbits on the water. Today, a woman sat next to me, and I spent twenty minutes wondering if I should talk to her, say something inane about the weather, sure is cold for December or quite the winter we’re having, but the moment passed. When I got up, I smiled at her and nodded, while the geese hissed and carried out mock charges.  

Remember when you told me your divorce was inevitable? How you could always see the rupture coming, from the wedding when you’d wanted one cake and he another and how somehow you’d known, right then, it wouldn’t last forever, how immutable he was, how he’d never understood you. 

Since you left, I take the long way around, cutting through the rose garden and out onto that long stretch of grass, which runs to the rim of the water, the airport, just beyond.  I wish I could pretend I saw it coming from far away like scientists telling us when the sun will burn out. But I didn’t see it coming, didn’t see how soon you’d be gone. Most days now, I can’t see anything of use, not you, not my future, just a cathedral vault of sky overhead, and the contrails of planes cutting through it as a knife–an afterimage, nothing more.

ANDREW BERTAINA — Andrew’s short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC, and currently serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

Art by LILY JONES —  Lily works in the environmental sector in Pittsburgh. She lives with her gecko and snake, and runs long distances in her free time. This is her first online art publication.