When the bomb goes off Leo is thinking of dogs. In particular: how he doesn’t like them.
It’s something about their eyes, which blink with an odd depth of understanding that appears almost human to him. A few years back, he read a story about a St. Bernard who remained by his owner’s grave for five years after the man died. People thought this story was inspiring, imagined it spoke to some essential bond between pet and master. Leo found it sad, almost frightening. If an animal is smart enough to mourn, he feels, it should be smart enough to know when to leave.
He’s not opposed to pets. He has a cat named Seymour. But felines have a pure, simple stupidity about them that Leo can respect. If he were to die one day in his apartment, he knows Seymour would have no qualms about eating his face. Dogs, on the other hand, seem too intelligent to be proper pets; he doesn’t see how such smart animals sustain themselves on doggie treats and the occasional belly rub, or why these meager affections produce such loyalty.
He is thinking of dogs because he is trying to draw one. On the other side of his easel, a woman wearing a purple turtleneck cradles a chihuahua in her arms. The pet is unnaturally skeletal, and it shivers in her lap, the air itself a kind of threat to its thin, blotched skin. Whiskers tremble on either side of its little nose, the shape and texture of which remind Leo of a dark lump of coal.
Leo is trying to focus on the woman’s face—she has high, regal cheekbones he plans to capture in her portrait—but his eyes keep drifting down to the dog. She wouldn’t have propped it up in her lap if she didn’t want it included in the drawing, so he is trying to figure out how to reproduce the shivering animal with some dignity. He can’t remember the last time he tried to draw anything but a person.
The sun has burnt off the morning clouds, providing the perfect lighting for Leo’s work, setting the woman’s features into pleasant relief. Tourists, drawn out by the promise of summer, crowd the sidewalks, which means he’ll be making some good money today. Across the street, two men are playing chess with giant pieces on a board half the size of a basketball court. It is, by all accounts, a good day—no reason to think anything is amiss, other than the minor difficulty of drawing a desperate-looking dog’s portrait. Leo is almost happy.
Then: a short, clipped burst of sound, the smell of sulfur, and the whole scene is reduced to a tiny black dot, as though someone had turned off an old television.
At first, Leo thinks it’s snowing. The road and sidewalk are hidden beneath a thin layer of white. Then he tastes something chalky on his lips, and when he breathes a film of dust coats the inside of his throat, making him cough. The glass front of a nearby coffee shop has been blown out, the sidewalk sparkling with glass, the bent frames of the windows curled outward like the teeth of an angler fish. Nearby, a man in a black suit, powdered now with dust, clutches his leather bag in his hands, wandering in tight circles with that same wild-eyed look people always get on their faces after a disaster, looking around at the wreckage and waiting for the scenery to realign itself into recognizable shapes. Someone in the chaos is screaming. Leo can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. It is not a familiar human noise.
For a few moments Leo stands there, trembling fingers clenching and unclenching the fabric of his shirt, his chest aching a little from the frantic palpitations of his heart. He coughs until his throat feels hoarse.
Finally, he understands: a bomb has gone off.
When he looks down he sees streaks of red on the ground, as grotesquely bright as veins on the surface of an eye. Sirens howl from within their little plastic shells, while paramedics stream out of ambulance interiors, their neon green jackets glowing in the haze. Leo keeps his eyes up and away from the ground after he notices there are bodies there.
He’s seen this scene so many times on television and the internet—usually captured by someone’s shaking cellphone—that he momentarily forgets he’s involved at all. He looks at his arms and legs and sees no obvious injuries. There’s a dull pounding at the back of his head, but when he reaches behind to feel it, his hands come back dry. He’s fine.
He has some expectations about what surviving a bomb should feel like—terrifying, revolting, outrageous—but he mostly feels out of place, surrounded by the crying injured, the air circulating pain, with nothing to do. His first thought is to call the police, which is absurd, because they’re already here, holding victims or their family members, loading others onto gurneys. His second is to ask someone for help, but what would be the point? He isn’t hurt.
Gradually, it dawns on him that he is a kind of interloper. Camera crews are already arriving and interviewing onlookers. Leo, standing there alone, is an easy target, and he dreads the thought of someone shoving a microphone in his face, only to realize that he has nothing interesting to say. Before the blast, he had been too focused on the dog to notice anything mysterious or out of place, so he has no integral information to share.
Which reminds him. He looks around, but the woman and the chihuahua are gone. He rifles through the papers at his feet and discovers the unfinished portrait, half of the woman’s face lightly traced out, her dog a phantom of shapes below her chin.
Stumbling around the sidewalk with his shirt pulled up to cover his mouth, he collects whatever is left of his trade. He finds his easel unharmed on the sidewalk, and is happy to see that his most expensive art supplies—his pens—are mostly intact. Remembering the blood on the pavement, he tempers the joy with guilt as quickly as he can, ashamed to be thinking about objects at a time like this.
Then, easel stuffed under his arm and pens in his pockets, he slips under the police tape surrounding the scene and walks home.
For a few days, he stays inside. He keeps his art supplies in the corner of his small apartment and takes a break from his work. In bed, he waits for some merciless feeling to find him; he expects night terrors and chills, assumes that he will awaken in the dark, screaming. But he sleeps as soundly as before. One night, he clicks open his duct-taped flip phone and considers calling Marco, but ends the call after the first ring, realizing he has nothing to say. Mostly he is bored.
Seymour seems to sense that something is amiss, though, and spends the bulk of his days underneath the bed, his tail swishing motes of dust across the floor.
On the news, people talk about the bomb. It killed four people in the coffee shop: a barista just starting his shift, a banker on her way to work, and a librarian and her thirteen-year-old daughter headed out for a day at the zoo. People are particularly unhappy about the daughter. An image of her laughing and hugging Snow White at Disneyland is displayed more prominently during broadcasts than any other photo of the dead. There is talk of legislation.
About a dozen other people were wounded as well. A few suffered minor injuries—scarring and torn muscles—while others sustained more grievous damage such as lost limbs. One man, a recently retired police officer, had a large portion of his face burned away. Leo watches the man appear on a talk show, where his wife explains to the host how the bomb has affected their lives. She says that before the bomb they were threatening one another with divorce. Now, they are closer than ever. The man sits quietly at her side, only recently released from the hospital, a single hand firmly gripping her knee. The entire right side of his face is wrapped in white bandages.
At the end of the show, the host reveals that the network will be paying for a very expensive face surgery. A new and complicated procedure with lasers. In just a few weeks, the retired police officer will receive a whole new face. The wife cries while the police officer, leaning into her, does something with his charred lips that looks like smiling.
News of the bomb eventually fades. It was not a very big bomb, after all. Earlier in the year a much larger one had gone off at a local grocery store, killing dozens of people. Leo’s bomb is much smaller and more provincial in comparison. Larger cities like New York survive dozens of bombs every year, and so pay little mind to Leo’s seaside city.
Nobody mentions the woman and her pet. Sitting on his bed eating Styrofoam cups of noodles, Leo watches dozens of news reports but never sees anything about the dog, so he can only assume that the animal and its owner survived. But he has doubts. Searches online at the library reveal that there are no statistics compiled for animals killed in bomb blasts. This seems absurd to Leo. Cruel, even, considering how much affection people supposedly have for canines. There are hundreds of websites tallying up civilian casualties from conflicts around the world—people caught in car bombs and suicide attacks and airstrikes—but nothing for animals, not even beloved house cats and dogs. Certainly, he thinks, some environmentalist organization would have put together a list about the hidden animal casualties of war. But he doesn’t find anything.
So he doesn’t really know if the dog survived. Sometimes, trying to remember the moment before the explosion, he wonders if anything in the dog’s demeanor might have alerted him to the oncoming blast. Perhaps the animal’s anxiety was some precursor—a vaporous instinct sensing the ensuing violence. But Leo drops this thought almost as quickly as he picks it up. There was just a dog, after all.
Leo tells Marco four days after the blast. They’re lying in the twin bed he has pressed up against one side of his studio, an old factory floor he rents near the waterfront downtown. Marco is straddling Leo’s back, massaging his shoulders. Outside, trains rattle over the tracks by the wharfs. The air smells the way Leo imagines the inside of a mine might, all chalk and space, and when Leo closes his eyes the combined sensation of the train and the warehouse makes him feel subterranean.
They met three years ago, when Leo attended one of Marco’s gallery openings. He is forty, nearly ten years older than Leo, and significantly better looking—the kind of man whose muscular face has only been made more charming by the passage of time, his salt-and-pepper hair lending his features the austere dignity of a duke. When Marco visits the city, he will sometimes invite Leo to his studio or take him out for dinner.
It’s Marco who first brings up the bomb. He could see the smoke here from his studio, rising from the waterfront like the plumed tail of a cat. “I was kind of excited,” he says. “Is that wrong?”
“I was there.” Leo says.
Marco’s rough hands pause on his shoulders.
“I was working across the street.”
“Are you all right?” Marco says, allowing his palms to hover above Leo’s back, as if he’s afraid the contact might damage him in some way.
Leo musters a laugh. “So far as I can tell, I’m fully intact.”
Leo considers this. He’s almost surprised by Marco’s concern. Thus far, their relationship has rarely drifted into this kind of territory. He appreciates this about Marco. The man is very clear about what he wants from the world. Mostly, when they’re together they talk about art, or they sleep together.
Thinking of his lack of night terrors, the absence of any new anxieties in his life, he shrugs. “I think so,” he says.
“What was it like talking to the police?”
“I just left.”
Marco allows the tips of his index fingers to run once, then twice, along the knobs of Leo’s spine.
“What was I supposed to do?” Leo says. “I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t have anything to tell them.”
“You didn’t try to help anyone?”
“There were paramedics there. How could I help?”
But Leo isn’t so sure, now. Maybe he could have talked to someone about the woman and her dog. Checked to make sure they were all right. He knew that was what normal people were supposed to do when faced with horror: rush to the aid of others, elevate themselves into momentary heroes. At the time, though, he ’d felt like a burden. As if his own confusion was just a little more rubble that needed to be cleared from the scene as soon as possible.
Leo often failed to respond to events the way he was supposed to. His mother once told him that when he was a child he seldom cried or laughed, even if he ’d just been handed a birthday gift, or knocked his head against the coffee table in the living room. You would just look up at me with these wide eyes, she said, like you were waiting for me to tell you how to feel.
“I guess I should have tried to do something,” he says.
“I’m sure you were in shock,” Marco replies. “I can’t imagine that anyone knows how they’ll react to that kind of thing.”
This explanation seems to please Marco. He goes back to working on the flesh beneath him, his heavy breaths forming a soft, steady rhythm over Leo’s head. From his position below, Leo can see the black nylon ropes dangling limply from the posts of the bed, cinched tight around Marco’s wrists just minutes before. He reaches out and grabs one, rubbing the coarse material with his fingers and trying to forget about the bomb and whether Marco might be judging him for having left the scene so quickly.
Marco’s desire to be tied up had scared Leo the first time he made the request—had put him a role that felt uncharacteristically dominant—until he realized he was simply a tool for the other man’s pleasure. Since then, Leo has enjoyed following Marco’s orders, learning the names of new, increasingly complex knots, experimenting with tension and restraint. It is thrilling, pulling on a rope and watching the pleasure tense through the muscles in Marco’s arms and back. After their sessions, he smiles at Leo with all his teeth, dark hair pasted to his forehead with sweat, eyes full of the kind of joy usually reserved for a good meal.
“You should make some art,” Marco says suddenly, a response to a question Leo never asked. “Think of the bomb as an opportunity. You shouldn’t waste it. Maybe working on a project will help you process things.”
“You survived a very traumatic event.”
“I really feel fine, though.”
Marco threads his fingers through Leo’s hair, massaging his scalp. “Feeling fine isn’t always the same as being fine, you know.”
Marco is a serious artist. He has galleries in Shanghai and Los Angeles. Some of his works in progress are scattered around the factory’s concrete floor: half-finished sculptures of muscular men and women climbing their way out of chiseled blocks of flagstone and granite, faces contorted into agony as they struggle to free themselves.
Leo has no doubt that, given the experience, Marco could turn Leo’s bomb into something profound. Marco mostly makes sculptures of people in pain. His figures emerge from hard slabs of stone, tugging their torsos and limbs from the material. Leo, who is not usually fond of sculpture, likes Marco’s work. It’s the faces: they are achingly desperate, but also hopeful, sure that they will tumble out of the material at any moment. Their eyes never look downward, as if they know that just beneath their chins their skin is blending, seamlessly, into the very earth they’re trying to flee.
Leo had first seen the sculptures just a month after his parents passed away, a time where he was trying very hard to make his feelings match the gravity of what life had handed him, and he ’d been struck by how personal they felt. As though Marco had made them just for him.
“I only do portraits,” Leo says, because he can tell, from Marco’s silence, that he expects an answer.
“Still stuck on that?”
“Still stuck on that.”
“Someday,” Marco says, “you’ll have to take yourself a little more seriously.”
As he delivers the admonishment, he leans over and kisses the bottom of Leo’s back. His lips are cold in a way that makes Leo shiver.
Leo doesn’t have many friends. In fact, Marco is the only person he tells about the bomb. He had a few acquaintances back when he was still in art school, but after graduation they all drifted out of the city, bound for steady jobs and marriages. As for family: both of his parents died three years ago while driving to a ski resort up north. They were quiet, dignified people—his father a pediatrician, his mother a high-school math teacher—who visited Leo once or twice a year to stare quizzically at the life he ’d created for himself. Usually, this meant sharing dinner at a nice seafood restaurant down by the water, where Leo would talk about how exciting it was to perfectly capture another person’s face on paper, while they nodded and smiled down at their salmon filets. Afterward, they ’d go to a little delicatessen near his apartment and buy him heaps of toiletries and microwavable meals, the closest they ever came to saying they agreed with his career choice.
Every time they left, though, they looked faintly disappointed, as if they ’d been planning on telling him something important but were unable to find the words. Neither Leo nor his parents were the kind of people who dwelled too long on their emotions, and Leo still couldn’t shake the feeling that they ’d all failed, somehow, to really understand one another.
Now, the only people apart from Marco he interacts with are his customers on the street—usually tourists, too confounded by the awkwardness of being drawn by a stranger to do anything but sit in silence while he sketches them.
He lives alone in a studio apartment above the city’s fish market downtown. He shares a bathroom with the people he hears shouting on the other side of his walls. From his window, he can see cargo ships bundled into bright, colorful packages as they drift in and out of the shipping harbor. When he tugs open the smudged pane of glass, he is met with a rush of city air—gasoline and salt mingled with the shrieks of ambulances and seagulls—which makes his life feel simultaneously small and essential.
Marco visited him there, but only once. His discomfort had been obvious throughout the entire ordeal, from the moment he looked up at the building’s stained stone facade all the way into the tiny room, where he sat on the bed and then stood and then sat down again, unsure of what to do with himself.
Leo had pointed out the cargo ships to him. It was nearly sunset and their tremendous bulk glowed in the water. Marco sighed and said he couldn’t look at them without thinking about all the pollutants leaking from their rusting hulls into the water.
“They’re beautiful though, don’t you think?” Leo had said. “Plus, I can see them whenever I want. All I have to do is look out my window.”
This gave Marco pause. Perhaps he had seen the excitement in Leo’s eyes, or was embarrassed at having shown his discomfort so clearly.
“It’s a nice view,” he agreed, nodding and scanning the room again, appraising each item with renewed interest. He looked funny, sitting on Leo’s slumped bed in his expensive suit. “The apartment has a spartan charm. But don’t you want something bigger?”
“What would I do with something bigger?” Leo said. “I’m only one person.”
This made Marco smile. “Well, you’re very self-contained, aren’t you?”
Leo wasn’t sure if that had been meant as a compliment or a critique.
Still, he likes his view of the ships. He marvels at their size, at the earnestness of their geometry. They remind him of his life—independent and compartmentalized, every little piece stacked snugly in its proper place, ready to be unloaded by careful hands when a proper dock is reached.
He spends a week watching the news, hoping to catch some word about the dog. Then, on Sunday, there is a knock at his door. When Leo opens it, he sees his landlord, an elderly woman half his size that he occasionally spots wandering the halls in a paisley smock, licking her thumb and rubbing it against scuff marks on the walls. Leo has spoken less than a sentence to her since he first moved in. She is frowning.
“I’m getting complaints,” she says. “About the smell.”
“The rot,” she says and leans forward into the apartment to take a heavy sniff. Her face twists in disgust. “When was the last time you cleaned this place?”
Leo turns around. The trash can beside his television is overflowing with food wrappers and empty cat food cans. The comforter on his bed looks filthy, and he notices something black, perhaps one of the flies that have begun to proliferate near the trash, smeared into the white fabric of his pillow. His clothes, the ones he ’d been wearing the day the bomb went off, are still scattered about, his jeans and shirt caked with ash or whatever else was circulating in the air that day. He can’t remember the last time he did laundry.
“I don’t smell anything,” he says, though he’s surprised by the mess.
“You’re probably just used to it,” the landlord replies. “You’re not the only one who lives here, you know. One person’s stink is everybody’s stink. You could show a little respect.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, because he is.
“Just tidy up. Or you’re paying for a cleaner.” She looks behind him into the room and shakes her head. “This is no way for a grown man to live.”
“I’m sorry,” he says again, but she’s already begun walking back down the hall.
He starts working again. Though winter is still a long way off—nothing more than a vague threat in the chill of the morning—Leo knows that soon the city will shrink beneath its gray canopy, forcing him to cram his easel under retail overhangs and into the snug cornices of buildings, practically begging passersby to stop for a portrait. He must bring in as much cash as possible from the city’s visitors while the air is still warm. Usually this isn’t too much of a problem: his apartment is cheap, he still pulls from a small inheritance left behind by his parents, and he doesn’t buy much other than ramen and art supplies. But the bomb has stolen a few days from him, so he reconciles himself to longer hours on the pavement.
He finds a new spot further down along the market, across the street from a man who plays piano and sings half-humorous covers of Britney Spears and 50 Cent. The crowds of tourists are thicker here, and Leo—used to the lighter traffic of his old corner, where he could still glimpse the sea between the buildings—is momentarily flustered by the press of warm bodies and the hoarse complaints of tired children.
But he soon finds himself back in the flow of his work. Leo has always enjoyed sketching strangers. Back in art school, when his peers were experimenting with materials—compiling abstract pieces out of their childhood toys or building environmental screeds from plastic bottlecaps dragged out of birds’ intestines—he had spent hours drawing nothing but portraits. It was an excuse to stare at people for as long as he liked, to occupy space with another person without the exhausting responsibility of carrying on a conversation.
When he arced his pencil over paper, capturing the swoop and curve of a stranger’s jawbones in as few lines as possible, it felt less like drawing and more like sculpting. Less about adding things and more about taking them away—removing the impediments that stood between him and the person’s real face. Looking past the sagging jowls, the eyes pickled by sleepless nights and caffeine, the teeth yellowed by refined sugars, down to whatever was hiding behind the face. He liked to imagine that each person he drew had an essential self that only he could see, a shimmering and delicate thing curled up within.
He enjoyed his customers’ surprise, and the way they sat there, shifting in the metal seats and joking with family members—“Is he getting my double chin right?”—who invariably stood in judgement behind Leo, their faces gradually shifting from incredulity to amazement. He liked handing over the finished portrait, liked the way the person chuckled and then slowly went silent.
The portraits were different from looking in a mirror. Without all those tricks of light and perspective, Leo showed people a more honest version of themselves.
But now, after the bomb, something has changed. The portraits take longer than usual. Ten minutes becomes thirty, and his customers sit in the sun, sweat gathering on their foreheads, while Leo struggles to find the truth of their faces. He tries not to notice the discomfort spreading over their features as he forces them to sit rigid in the metal chair, their stomachs groaning in protest as they digest cheese-filled pastries from the market. And when he hands the paper over—is it just in his head?—he sees disappointment tugging at the edges of their lips.
Someone nearly refuses to pay. A pale, middle-aged man in a bolo tie. Unlike most of Leo’s customers, who don’t feel brave enough to request a picture without a cadre of friends or family members nearby, he’s by himself. Leo thinks he might be drunk, because he keeps squirming in his chair and saying things like “make me look sexy.”
Even Leo would admit it’s not his best work, though: the man on the paper looks too tired, too crazed, for anyone to be flattered. Leo has failed to find the man’s golden secret, has reproduced nothing but his customer’s own crumbling mask.
“I’m not paying for this,” the man says.
He appears primed for violence—his fists already clenched—so Leo gives him a discount and watches the anger flicker into begrudging acceptance. He swipes the picture from Leo’s outstretched hands, drawing a few concerned looks from passersby, and trudges off.
Leo gathers his things as quickly as he can and leaves. His eyes are misting with tears by the time he gets home. He calls Marco without thinking, forgetting, until the moment Marco answers, that he’s out of the country.
“Leo?” he says, obviously confused, his words nearly muffled by the chatter of other voices. “Are you all right?”
“Of course. I’m just checking in,” Leo says, aware even as he says it that the statement is absurd. The only time he and Marco speak on the phone is to arrange a meeting when he’s in town.
“Let me step outside,” Marco says. There is a concern in his voice that Leo has never heard before. “I’m at the gallery. It’s packed in here.”
“Don’t,” Leo says. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. We’ll talk when you’re back in the city.”
“It’s fine. I needed some air anyway. These people are a bore. Just give me a moment.”
But Leo doesn’t wait. He ends the call, tossing the phone to the floor, revolted at himself for bothering Marco. He wonders if Marco will call back—if he’ll be angry—but the phone never rings. At the very least, it would be good to text him and apologize, but he doesn’t.
Instead, he reaches under his bed and grabs Seymour, forcing the animal into his lap. The cat yowls and claws at his hands until he lets go, then retreats to another corner of the room, his tail raised in tight alarm. Behind the feline, Leo’s picture of the woman and her dog keeps watch, each of them staring at him with unfinished faces.
When Leo was very young, his father used to play a game with him. He would walk into the living room and say, “Where’s Leo?” And Leo, who would be sitting on the couch working on a coloring book, would point to himself and reply, “I’m right here.”
His father would smile and shake his head. “No, no,” he ’d say. “You’re not Leo.”
And then, he would peer behind the curtains, or under the couch. “Where’s Leo?” he ’d ask again, and Leo would say, “I’m right here.”
He would do this five or six times, searching all around the room, until he finally looked Leo squarely in the face and said: “Oh, there you are.”
Except once, perhaps because Leo had become too excited with the game, his father kept asking. He looked all over the living room, and then the kitchen, and the upstairs bedroom, while Leo trailed behind. He did it for so long that Leo, who must have only been six or seven, became frightened. Eventually he began to cry, jabbing at his chest and shouting “I’m right here!”
His father, of course, meant no harm. The moment he noticed Leo’s tears, he was down on his knees, wrapping Leo up in his arms and whispering apologies in his ears.
For weeks after the bomb, this is how Leo feels. Like he is playing the game again, and he is waiting for someone to turn around and say: I was only kidding. It’s just a little joke. I’m sorry.
Leo goes to group therapy. It seems like the thing to do. Though a month has passed since the bomb, and the night terrors and the fever dreams still haven’t come, he figures preemptive steps are in order. They meet in the basement of a local community center, about a dozen people arranged on uncomfortable chairs in a neat circle. After each session, they stand beside Formica tables to sip coffee out of Styrofoam cups and eat doughnut holes.
None of the people in the group were wounded in the blast. The volunteer psychiatrist who leads the sessions calls them “psychological survivors.” She has wispy gray hair and doesn’t force anyone to speak.
Most people talk about the terrorist. He’s been caught by now. He is like most terrorists these days: a wild-eyed white man with sallow skin and paranoid delusions of grandeur. He left a manifesto behind, full of the usual ramblings about the disintegration of the nation’s character, foreign agents in the highest levels of government, and the dispersal of mind-control chemicals in the lower atmosphere. Curiously, he also thought the moon had long ago been replaced by a giant spherical government surveillance station.
People are angry at the terrorist. They talk about how he has ruined their lives. They list the symptoms that Leo has been waiting for in his own life: a general fear of the outside world and an unwillingness to leave their homes. They no longer trust strangers and avoid crowds of people. One man unleashes a monologue about what he would like to do to the terrorist, becomes red in the face as he describes how he would tie the man up in his basement and slowly hack off different parts of his body—until the therapist, still smiling, says he should give someone else a chance to speak.
Leo only talks once. Near the end of one of the sessions, after the therapist’s eyes have finally fallen on him, he asks the room if any of them remember seeing a woman with a dog that day.
“A chihuahua, I think.”
The people stare at him. After waiting a few moments, the therapist asks if he has anything else to say, but he doesn’t.
The morning after he mentions the dog to the therapy group, he takes Marco’s advice and tries to make some art. He sets the portrait of the woman and her dog back on his easel and, framed by the light of his window, attempts to finish the piece.
He can’t remember the woman’s face. The entire right side of her head is nothing more than a collection of blobs, waiting for detail. He’s never been very good at improvising—without the person sitting in front of him, there’s no way to ascertain what the face is hiding, no way to grasp the incandescent thing underneath their skin. He spends hours drawing and erasing the woman, failing each time to bring her back.
So he turns his attention to the dog. This isn’t much easier. He doesn’t have any reference material, and he hasn’t owned a computer in years. Photos of the dogs that he manages to bring up on his phone are too small. Soon the page is smudged with his efforts, the dog’s face drawn and erased again and again.
Summer drags on, and the hours grow heavy with their own heat. One afternoon a few weeks later a bald man wanders over with his family. He performs the usual ritual: stares at the sample portraits of celebrities Leo has placed in front of his easel to illustrate his skill, while his wife nudges him forward, their two children’s attention centered on some game they’re playing on a tablet. Leo smiles. The man finally sits down. For reasons Leo can’t place, the man seems familiar.
“Be sure to get my good side,” he says, and laughs.
It isn’t until he’s halfway finished with the portrait that Leo realizes who the man is, except his face is fine now. The skin has been reconstructed, the burns rubbed away like stage makeup. The surgeons did an admirable job; he’s handsome, even—though there is an odd immobility at the edges of his eyes and lips.
An urgent need arises in Leo. His pen begins to tremble in his fingers and threatens the smooth arc of his lines.
There is an opportunity in the man’s portrait. Leo can dredge up the shimmering thing under the reconstructed skin and connect it to the new face—form some essential bond between the two. He can hold it out to the man as if to say, look what you always had inside of you, look at the real thing hidden beneath all that hurt: proof, to the man and to Leo, that even though the bomb had come for both of them, certain parts of the world remained unscathed.
The portrait takes nearly an hour. By the end, the man looks worried, perhaps afraid that Leo is somehow struggling with his face. The children are whining about having to stand in the sun for so long, groaning about dinner and shade. The wife keeps checking her phone.
Finally, Leo hands over the portrait. A warm happiness swells in his chest while he waits for the man’s expression to change—for him to recognize what Leo has done for him. But the expression never comes.
“Not bad,” the man says, already passing the portrait over to his wife, who gives it a half-glance before her attention pivots to the crying daughter. “How much?”
Leo keeps his voice steady. He’s holding his pen so tightly he’s worried it might snap. “Ten dollars,” he says.
The man nods his head dutifully. He pulls a small silver clip from his back pocket and removes ten crisp dollar bills, handing each one over to Leo carefully, imparting the gravity of their worth with the pressure of his fingertips.
“Thank you,” he says, and begins to turn away.
“I was there, you know,” Leo says.
The man looks surprised. Leo can see that familiar calculation unfolding on his face, so familiar to people who live in the city, as he tries to ascertain if the portrait artist sitting before him has lost his mind.
He holds his ground. “I’m sorry?” he says.
“There was a dog there, that day. Did you see it?”
Leo enjoys the incredulity on the man’s face, the way he bites his lip as he tries to think of a response, how his children finally look up from their devices, half frightened and half exhilarated by the way he has halted their father. He realizes that he wants the man to be confused—to carry with him for the rest of his life the image of the dog he can’t remember, like a hot iron ball in his teeth.
The man still doesn’t leave, though, even as his wife reaches out for his shoulder. He moves closer. “Are you all right?” he says.
“I just think it’s strange, is all,” Leo replies, his voice too quiet. “No one remembers the dog. It’s like it didn’t exist at all. That doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
“Do you need some water? You look a little pale.”
“It just seems wrong. I saw it. I remember. I was there.”
Anyone would know to leave now, Leo thinks. Any intelligent person would hear the edge of desperation in his voice, and would go. But the man doesn’t move; he kneels down until his eyes are level with Leo’s and places a steady palm on his shoulder.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” he says. Each word is measured, precise, a heavy declaration. “But I’m sure it’s very hard. Would you like me to call someone? To help?”
The possibility of words hardens in the back of Leo’s throat. He knows he must reply soon—that he will either need to beg the man to leave or surrender himself to some kind of aid. He looks past the man’s concerned face and toward the bodies behind him, a shifting sea of people just passing through, searching the market for some trinket—a copper reproduction of a landmark, a glossy postcard of the city skyline, an elaborate leather journal no one will ever use—to prove to friends and family that they were here. Leo watches them wandering through his city, each one harboring something hidden—something only he can see—and he feels, for just a moment, a second heartbeat beside his own, a slumbering chrysalis ready to be wrenched out into the light and told how to live.
He opens his mouth, finally, and begins to speak.