The following is excerpted from Rachel Swearingen's debut short story collection, How to Walk on Water. Swearingen’s stories and essays fiction have appeared in VICE, Agni, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. A recipient of the 2018 New American Press Fiction, she has won the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction and the 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
He had never paid attention to the woman across the way before. Now he caught himself holding his breath as he watched her, his tea turning cold. Their brownstones were so close together he could peek through his curtains into her dining room. She must have been about his daughter’s age, in her mid-thirties. She rarely had visitors. Instead of sitting down for a simple bowl of soup or salad as he usually did in the evenings, the woman set the table each night and lit a candle. Then she brought out a silver platter stacked with what he discovered were picture postcards.
She separated the cards into stacks, lifting them one at a time and gazing at the pictures or bringing them to her nose. From what he could tell the backs of the cards were blank. When she finally found a satisfactory one, she set it on her plate. She ripped tiny pieces from the corners as one might tear crumbs from bread. She placed them in her mouth one at a time, closed her eyes and chewed.
He considered knocking on her door. It would be easy enough to discover her apartment number and get into the building. But he was retired and must stop thinking like a psychiatrist, and besides, what pretense would he use? He simply missed his daughter. His story would shock the woman across the way, or encourage pity, and he didn’t want that. Three illnesses in less than two years. His wife given just six months. She refused chemo. And then their daughter. It was an impossibility, but she too was diagnosed, and within months of her mother’s death she was gone as well.
It was all a sad joke. When he felt the lump in his neck, he laughed out loud. No one would believe this in a movie. He didn’t refuse treatment. He went through it all, accepted the volunteers’ rides back and forth from the clinic, the deliveries of groceries and medications. He had lost his hair years earlier, and unlike his wife and daughter invited no looks of recognition at what he endured.
His appetite had returned, but everything had a chemical flavor. When he watched the woman across the way, his mouth watered and he drank his tea to wash the bitter taste from his tongue. He was sixty-eight and in otherwise good health. He had sold his practice, and now met friends for coffee or took walks along the lakeshore. He was not one to travel, though his wife had begged him for years to attend more conferences and take her with him. She and their daughter traveled together—Paris, Crete, Maui, Buenos Aires. By the time they decided to travel a last time, to Venice, they had given up on him and didn’t even ask him to come along.
The painting was by a Finnish artist and had nothing to do with Venice, though the inscription was in Italian.
Books no longer interested him, but he tried to read a novel. His apartment was too silent, even with the cat and the television. As he watched the woman across the way, he remembered the postcard his daughter sent during that trip—an impressionist painting of three boys on a veranda overlooking the sea, in blues, pinks, reds, and yellows. The boys held a toy boat. There were sailboats in the bay behind them. The painting was by a Finnish artist and had nothing to do with Venice, though the inscription was in Italian. He remembered thinking about this, how it wouldn’t have seemed strange to him that it was Finnish if it had come from an American museum with an English inscription.
One evening when the woman set her table, he set his own. He boiled water for tea. It was good tea, from a canister he found outside his building with a note that said free and for your happiness. His next-door neighbor told him he was suicidal to drink it. “What if it’s poisoned?” But he took the gift as a sign that things would get easier. He watched the bundle of tea blossom in his cup. He washed a place setting from his wife’s china set and found a half-burned candle in a drawer in the kitchen. He fetched the postcard from his daughter and placed it in a serving bowl. The cat hopped onto the table to watch.
At night, it was more difficult to observe the woman without being seen. He opened the lacy curtains a few inches. It was almost like they were having dinner together. He thought she caught him staring, but she was gazing into space. He read the back of his postcard: Well, we made it. See, Dad? No nosedive into the ocean. We’re going to eat our way through the city. Mom said to tell you not to take every meal at the diner, and also she’s going to have a brief affair with a gondolier. Ha ha!
He tore off a corner. In everything that medicinal flavor, but it was comforting to know that in this case it was due to dyes in the paper. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the smell of his daughter’s hair when she was two. He smelled salt water and sea air instead, a psychosomatic response.
He turned the postcard over and left the table. The woman across the way practiced a ritual of loneliness, and he had wanted such a ritual too. He found it amusing that he was like so many of his patients, that he could feel like an orphan at his age. He went for a walk, past the park where the old played Bocce. He refused to think of himself that way, as one of the old. He walked all over the city and when he returned home his cat wrapped herself around his leg and begged to be fed.
When the flight attendant delivered a plastic plate with chicken and half-frozen carrots, he was surprised that there was, for the first time in months, no aftertaste.
Unlike her, he could no longer bear routine.
He’d have to find someone to look after her when he went away.
He had a phobia of flying. He had denied this to his daughter and his wife, had told them that travel was unnecessary once you realized that every place was essentially the same. He pretended a Buddhist sensibility. They had never believed him. Now he bought a ticket to Venice.
He leased his apartment to a conscientious intern on rotations at the hospital and asked him to take care of the cat. He tucked the postcard into his pocket and packed a bag with a few changes of clothing. He’d stay just long enough to gaze at the sea and put his feet in the water. And he wasn’t afraid this time. He felt none of the familiar lack of air and space in the plane, nor the downward pull of gravity. When the flight attendant delivered a plastic plate with chicken and half-frozen carrots, he was surprised that there was, for the first time in months, no aftertaste.
At the airport in Venice, he chose the poorest most disreputable looking taxi driver and careened through the city to the very hotel where his wife and daughter had stayed. He didn’t know what room they had booked. His was on the second floor above the street, away from the canals and the ocean. That evening, he rode a gondola and dined out on shellfish though his guidebook warned against it.
In his suitcase he had packed a rope and instructions for his body. He would spend one more day and one more night, and then he would step off a chair and it would be over. He liked the simplicity of his plan. At a café, he ordered a bottle of Chianti and sipped it at an outside table. A jewelry vendor with large jowls and a neck laden with gold joined him. “A pretty necklace for the wife?”
He bought the cheap, gold necklace and put it into his pocket with the postcard. He offered a glass of wine to the vendor and listened as the man spoke in fragmented English about the many places the psychiatrist should visit. Everything acquired a pretty blur. Under the table, the psychiatrist pulled out the postcard and tore off a bit and popped it into his mouth like a pill, washing it down with more wine. Down the street a woman played guitar and sang the blues. She was American, not Italian. Her voice was ordinary, but a crowd gathered nonetheless. On his way out of the restaurant, he dropped the necklace into her case.
By the time he reached the sea, the rain had stopped, though the sky remained muddy and not at all like the sky on the postcard.
In the morning, it rained. He took his coffee in his room before the open balcony and threw bread to the pigeons. Then he went down to the lobby to wait for his ride to the beach. By the time he reached the sea, the rain had stopped, though the sky remained muddy and not at all like the sky on the postcard. He took off his loafers and his socks and waded into the water near a group of teenagers bodysurfing. A gull circled and dove. He sat down and let the waves soak his trousers and watched sand and water pour through his fingers. The last time he had waded into the ocean was during a semester-long residency in California. He had a lover there, an Irish colleague with perpetually sunburnt skin, and they sometimes spent weekends rollicking at the sea. He eventually came clean to his wife about the affair. It had taken fifteen years for her to forgive him, and he sometimes wondered if this was the reason she hadn’t asked him to come along to Venice.
The teenagers were laughing and when he looked over, one was mimicking him by sitting in the waves and crying into his hands, which sounded especially pathetic in an Italian accent. The psychiatrist stood and walked out of the water. Just you wait, he thought. Your time will come too. His anger surprised him, but so did his embarrassment as he pulled himself from the waves with his pants sticking to his legs. He had lost all sense of propriety, and a part of him was proud for he had always concerned himself too much with the opinions of others.
When he reached his hotel room, he pulled out what was left of the wrinkled, waterlogged postcard—a distant bay, a few sailboats, the red of a boy’s beret. He tore off a piece and was about to place it in his mouth when he remembered the patient who had to be restrained in her bed to keep her from eating the bed railings and even her own hands. He hadn’t truly understood her until then.
He turned the paper scrap over and read the words tomorrow Ferrara. He couldn’t recall his wife or daughter mentioning anything about a town called Ferrara.
That evening on his veranda, he listened to music from a dance club down the street and toyed with the rope in his hands. He couldn’t find a sturdy place in the room to hang it from, and he wouldn’t subject the tourists below to such a horrific display. He made a noose and tied the rope to the shower bar. He moved the chair underneath and climbed onto it. When he stepped off, he found that he had tied the rope too long. It hung slack around his neck. He adjusted the length and tried again. This time the bar ripped from its mounting. He catapulted forward and hit his head on the sink, and imagined the hotelier discovering him collapsed and unconscious next to the toilet. A tourist from Chicago. A psychiatrist no less. Tied a rope to a spring-loaded shower bar. He thought of the many stories he had heard over the years, from patients and doctors alike. If he had succeeded there might have been an autopsy. Belly full of linguini with clams. Cancer survivor. Who would they have contacted for next of kin? He could fill volumes with stories of botched suicides and unclaimed bodies, some so ridiculous you couldn’t help but laugh.
At the train station gift shop, he purchased some envelopes and notecards, along with a black and white postcard of a girl waiting for a train with a schnauzer on her lap.
He wiped the blood from his forehead and went to bed.
In the morning, he turned over the stained pillow. Then he looked up Ferrara in his guidebook. It was just a short train ride away. He packed his things. He coiled the rope and stuffed it into the wastebasket under the desk.
At the train station gift shop, he purchased some envelopes and notecards, along with a black and white postcard of a girl waiting for a train with a schnauzer on her lap. Then he stood before the railway map and remembered how his daughter had poured over maps at the dining table when she was a child, tracing her finger from one town to the next just to hear herself pronounce foreign cities. He read aloud from the map now and heard her voice: Ferrara. Malabergo. San Giorgio di Piano. He sat down on a bench and scribbled a note to his renter to deliver to the woman in the apartment across the way. When he was tired of traveling, he would return home and visit her. Tell her I will send others, he wrote. Tell her this is for her happiness. Tell her the next one will be full of color with something good to eat.
Excerpted from How to Walk on Water by Rachel Swearingen. Excerpted with the permission of New American Press. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Swearingen.