We notice it first in the space between our house and the neighbors: is it possible, can it be, that the old foundation, the peeling clapboard, the latticed access to the crawl space—where our cat, Dorothy, had gone to die, smelling foully until the body was removed by two men in grey Animal Control coveralls—is it possible that it’s slightly farther away this morning than it had been last night? The side yard, mostly grassy, though worn down the middle, where we traipse back and forth to take out the garbage, seems to have broadened. Standing at the sink, I say, “Is it possible the Macmillans have built out the side yard?”
“How would they have built out the side yard?”
“I don’t know. Their house seems farther than it was yesterday.”
“Do you think they had a crew in last night to shift the house over a few inches?” she says, without looking up from the paper.
“Of course not.”
“Just come look,” I say, and we stand together at the window, measuring that static space with our eyes, that static space which I think we must both know has grown or deepened somehow.
“I don’t see anything,” she says, frowning, though I can tell that this is not entirely true, that she has also noticed the new space that now exists in the side yard between our house and the Macmillans’, but is refusing to acknowledge it for reasons that have nothing to do with the side yard. In fact, I can see from her face that she has seen it, has found it disturbing, is currently creating one of her lists of probable causes and ticking through the options. I can see this as if it were physically happening in front of me, instead of behind the closed door of her face. This is one of the things you learn when you’ve been married to someone for a while.
“You see?” I ask.
But she says, “There’s nothing to see. I just said that,” and goes back to the paper, and then I can tell that we both hold the suspicion, though separately, that something is happening, expanding, and I know that she’s looking at the type on front page especially carefully for signs that it too is ballooning away, spreading out, but that she’s doing it privately.
Before we go to bed, I take a cloth tape measurer from the sewing box, and I measure the yard: 48 inches wide from the exact middle of our window to the center of the latticed access to the crawl space. I remember this number, write it down, even.
The next week, it—whatever it is—has somehow spread to our stairs. There are sixteen of them, covered in a slate grey, low-pile, hypoallergenic carpet that we chose together from a selection of half a dozen swatches Renée brought home, affixed to a square of foam core. Have I had to lift my feet quite so high in the past? I feel as though my knees are nearly to my chest with every step—a long, exaggerated stride, just to make it up to the bedroom. By the fifth step, I am panting, as though I’ve been climbing the stairs for an hour, as though I am hiking up them.
Renée passes on her way out to the garden, carrying a bag of potting soil in a chokehold. “Are you okay?” she asks.
“Are you wheezing going up the stairs?”
“I said, I’m fine.”
She shrugs and takes the potting soil out through the front door. I can see her through the picture window, spreading it on the lavender beds that frame the long walk—impossibly long, now, I think—that runs from our front door, through the identical green swatches of lawn, to the street. She had been wearing her sunhat, but it has slipped off her head as she works and now hangs down her back from its braided cord. Her hands, I know, are too dirty for her to touch her hair, and for a moment, sitting on our fifth step, still catching my breath again, I want to go out to the yard and do it for her—nestle the oversized, cracking straw hat back over her head, shading her eyes. But I don’t: I turn and continue up the rest of the stairs, high stepping over their new height.
The books feel farther apart on my nightstand; the tub has shouldered open, wide enough now for two; space seems to have grown between the sugar and creamer on the breakfast table, and despite the silent chess game Renée and I play with them as she reads the paper and drinks cup after cup of coffee—the cream now advancing, now slinking back in retreat—I somehow can’t bring them together.
While Renée is at work, I go around with the cloth measuring tape, taking the distances between things: between two photos on the mantle (the first, Renée and I in our wedding dresses, my family making up for the space where Renée’s was absent; the second, from a trip to Paris, her hands on a padlock etched with both our names); between the door and the stairs; between Renée’s desk (extremely organized—in and out boxes both empty, leather blotter bare, desk calendar filled in very neatly with her appointments), and mine (extremely messy—piles of papers on either side, books around the foot, a slurry of opened and unopened mail toward the back). I write these numbers down below my initial measurement.
Friends of Renée’s are coming to dinner, and she has been in the kitchen all afternoon, cooking for them. The countertops look like a Dutch still life: fat tomatoes spill out of a paper bag, apples fill the fruit bowl, a lemon has been grated down to its white, and a large fish is laid out—funerary style, surrounded by a wreath of herbs—on a cedar board, his single eye looking up at us mournfully. From the table, I watch Renée move back and forth across the kitchen, now cutting vegetables, now bent over a pan, now stretching to pull down the food processor (had the reach been so high for her before?), the long, lean line of her body visible for a moment under the lifted hem of her shirt.
“Can I help with anything?”
“Do you want to bring a few bottles of wine up?” she says without looking away from whatever she has been browning on the stove.
I go down the steps to the basement, where Renée keeps the good wine in a stack of wooden crates. I pick over them even though she is the sophisticate of the two of us—she is the one who knows anything about all the bottles of wine we have. The basement is quiet and cool; the concrete radiates with it, the opposite of the blacktop in summer, when the heat rolls off in waves. Away from the sounds of the street, or a neighbor’s radio, or the hum of the oven, I think that I can hear something else, some long, low groan, like the house stretching away from itself, like the sounds ice shelves make on the evening news as they crack apart.
“What did you get?” Renée asks when I come back up, and I hold the bottles for her to examine. “Oh, those are actually pretty good,” she says.
“Well, gee, thanks.”
She gives me a look over the dishtowel she’s draped over her shoulder. “You know what I mean.”
“I do,” I say, and it’s true: what she means is that she’s surprised—that I’ve picked something suitable, and she’s surprised.
“I’m going to turn everything off and take a quick shower before they get here,” she says.
“Do you need me to do anything?”
“I think the only thing left is to set the table, but I can do that.”
Even from the kitchen, I can hear her labor up the stairs, can hear from the heavy way she’s breathing how high they’ve become. Then I can hear her in the bathroom, running the shower, the open and close of the glass door. I can picture her standing with her face to the showerhead, the water seeming to fall on her from a great distance.
I put one of the bottles of wine in the fridge and open the other, neatly cutting the foil off the cork with a tool Renée bought for this purpose. I stand at the counter, looking at the collection of pots on the stove, sipping the wine, listening to the shower shut off and Renée step out. Soon, she will put on the smooth, impassable face she brings out for guests, when I get the chance to see her as if she were a stranger, a mere acquaintance, and not the woman I’ve been married to for nearly ten years now.
She comes back into the kitchen, dressed in a silk camisole cut low in the back so her shoulder blades wing out from under a curtain of her hair. She’s annoyed that I’ve opened the wine before her friends are there, but she accepts a glass from me and seems grateful to have it as she relights all the burners.
I worry that Renée’s friends will say something about the new space between things, about the way the hallway seems to have stretched, until emerging from it feels like coming out of the mouth of a tunnel, about how long the table has gotten, but the dinner goes well. Later, in bed, Renée performs the post-mortem: what was said in poor taste, what she could have phrased better, who had the most to drink. I measure the distance between our windows with my eyes, trying to catch them drifting further apart.
And then, the next thing I know, we’re hearing about it on the news. Things are getting more distant from other things, and it’s happening to big things faster than to small things. It has to do with gravity, or gravity’s opposite, explains the lab-coated man they have brought on to explain—a man with small, round glasses and a bald patch that shines sweatily through his thatch of hair—and the way every single object has its own gravitational pull, he says.
“Are you listening to this?” I ask.
“Of course I am,” Renée says.
“This is what I was trying to tell you, about the distance between our house and the Macmillans’.” Only this morning I had measured the space again, and though the number of inches remained the same on the cloth measuring tape—48—the inches themselves had stretched until each seemed nearly the length of a foot.
Renée doesn’t say anything, but pulls her lips into her mouth, which has for years been her way of dealing with being wrong. I, however, am surprised at my sudden sense of relief—that this is larger than our house, that it has been seen and recognized and explained, and in fact has nothing to do with us.
The man in the lab coat is talking about the structure of black holes, and their desire to stretch away from their centers; he is talking about Zeno’s Paradox—the impossibility of ever crossing any distance. Renée opens a bottle of wine and pours us each a glass.
It now takes us twice as long to do anything, as everything is twice as far away. The fridge is nearly ten steps from the table, and it’s four miles to the grocery store, though we used to occasionally walk, especially when we only needed something light and could take pleasure being together outside, peering over our neighbors’ fences to look in at their gardens.
I suspect, as well, that the new distance between the numbers on the clock increases our sense of slowness; an hour now seems to take an hour and a half. Renée has been productive with this extra time, spending still longer out with the lavender bushes, pruning and weeding and watering as the sun takes a small eternity to set on us. When she comes in, the back of her shirt is damp with sweat.
We sit across the broad table from one another. The news was recently on, but we’ve turned it off, and the new silence seems especially thick. The houses on either side of us are so distant now that nearly no sound travels to us—the side yard broad as a field, even the individual blades of grass straining apart, and perhaps only very faintly can we hear a Coltrane album playing from the open windows of the Macmillans’ living room. I can tell that Renée is listening to it especially closely.
“I’m scared,” she says, and I know—because I’ve never heard her admit that in all the years we’ve been together—that she means it, that she is almost childlike inside her fear.
“I know,” I say.
Renée folds one hand over the other on the table. “Do you?”
Even as I watch, more distance seems to open up between us, her features receding a little farther, the table pushing out and away from its center, the way the man on the news had said. “Sure,” I say.
She heaves herself out of her chair, leaves her dishes in the sink—“I’ll do them tomorrow, let’s just go to bed”—and then we are climbing the stairs together, pausing often without speaking to catch our breath. Renée goes into the bathroom, and I hear her running the tap, splashing water on her face. I change out of my clothes, leave them on the floor, and lie down on the left side of the bed, where it seems I’ve always slept. The ceiling above me is like the vault of a cathedral—so distant from us below that it mimics the dome of the sky, far beyond the reach of Renée’s brass bedside lamp, which pivots on its long, spring-loaded neck so she can read even after I’ve fallen asleep.
Renée comes back from the bathroom dressed in a thigh-length slip. Her arms are wiry and browned from all the new time she’s spent outside, and I think she smells faintly of crushed lavender, though perhaps she’s too far away to really tell. I have this picture of her before she turns the light out, the bed gives distantly under her weight, and for a moment, my eyes are not adjusted to the darkness and I can feel them working against it.
Renée shifts onto her side and then back onto her back, trying to get comfortable, though it barely upsets my side of the mattress. I want to say something, but I’m not sure what there is to say, and instead, I reach out toward her, but it feels that everything is expanding so rapidly between us that even as I get closer to her, the space is stretching out too fast for me to cross.