The Large Glass
The day began with the enormous print he had recently framed, at much remarked-upon expense, crashing to the floor of their apartment, the glass shattering into daggers. It had been the wind.
She returned home in the late morning to find the glass-filled canvas bag that he had left beside the front door so he wouldn’t have to explain what had happened, or his mood.
The mood had, of late, become a stronger presence in their lives. It had moved in like an unwelcome guest, and it would often sit with them at the dinner table, or ride with them in the car, or lie between them in their bed at night, unsleeping.
Her mother had always warned her that when it happened, it wouldn’t be what she’d expect. They don’t treat you better out of guilt, not at all. Instead they hate you for what they’re doing. And in the last few months she had suddenly begun typing too forcefully, drinking her tea too loudly, sighing too often, and leaving her clothes on the washing line for too long.
In the past, he only had anger when it came to meaningless frustrations, or to strangers: for other drivers, for neighbour’s noise. She only had anger for the people she loved: for her family, and for him. But now that seemed to have switched around, or perhaps she had become a kind of stranger herself. And in the last few months her cups had been left around the house more than ever, she had forgotten a tray of leftovers in the oven and let them rot, she was obsequious with waitstaff, she ate more than her share of the grapefruit, and she bored their friends with her long stories.
“There are things I could say,” he liked to say, after their fights. “But I won’t.”
It was a while ago that she’d first seen it, and now it was coming true. She’d seen it one evening when they were outside in a restaurant courtyard. They were meeting another couple, who they’d recently befriended, except this time the woman arrived alone, and explained that it would just be her. That in fact (though she didn’t particularly want to talk about it) there had been a separation.
What was it that had been so clear then, beneath the bowing trees draped with lights? Does it sound mad to say that it was a pattern, or an intricate symmetry? In any event, it was some strange resemblance. Something an ancient intelligence within her recognised from long ago. She saw it all unfolding before her, vast and perfect, as the three of them dragged their chairs toward a table.
Beside the canvas bag was the broken wooden frame and the artwork itself. The glass hadn’t only shattered (the mood explained, in its defence); it had also smashed inward and damaged the print, which had been so beautifully produced: dark inks upon thick bamboo paper.
“Now it’s finished.” That’s what Duchamp said when his enormous work, The Large Glass, eight years in the making, had broken. Or at any rate that’s how her art teacher had told the story, some twenty years before, and that was the way it had always stayed with her.
Do you remember how it happened? In 1926, in Brooklyn. They put the two glass panes one on top of the other in the back of a truck, not knowing what they were carrying. The panes bounced against the metal carriage all the way to Connecticut, cracks radiating across their surfaces.
“The more I look at it the more I like it,” Duchamp eventually said. “There’s a symmetry in the cracking. There’s almost an intention there. A curious intention that I am not responsible for, that I respect and love.”
In a different era, she would have offered the story as a fatalist consolation. She used to be able to make him feel better. She used to be able to say, “What are all these despairing sighs?” and walk over to him and hold his head against her stomach, stroke his hair. But that was then, and this was now. Now she could only reach lamely across the silence and say, “You OK?”
It was early May in the southern hemisphere; the beginning of winter. The magnolia trees on their street had started blooming in sympathy with a distant spring. The nights were falling earlier and earlier, the cloud banks were pouring in and erasing Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, Lion’s Head. Without the mountains, the pretty city suddenly becomes small and ugly, with too many highways and too much to hide.
They were traveling that day: several hours' drive out of Cape Town, much of it on dirt roads. They needed to leave early since it had been declared a national day of protest, which meant traffic. The drivers around them were honking incessantly, to contribute to the national mood of dissent. A stream of people walked past, in the direction of Parliament, wearing sensible shoes and carrying placards, their slogans bleeding lightly in the rain. She scanned them each in turn.
She saw the other woman’s face everywhere. Sometimes even in the faces of young boys: fine-featured and handsome, with their uncared-for beauty.
As the months wore on, she had begun to see evidence of the pattern’s work. Small things, in some respects. But small things take on extraordinary significance when they have been anticipated, when they serve as confirmation of something larger. It is a small thing, after all, for objects to fall to the earth. For light to bend. For finches to peck with their bills. For the planets to pass hither and thither across the sky.
She knew too much, of course, about the other woman. It was too easy to find out. So when he began eating a different sort of breakfast, she knew who else ate that breakfast. And when he began reading a new author, she knew whose favourite author it was. And when he developed a cold, he had such a specific story regarding how he’d caught the cold, like some amateur epidemiologist, including watching spit sailing through the air to land on his lip, that she felt sure that he was disguising something with all these unlikely details: some kiss. She knew who else had a cold.
In the mornings he had been singing, more and more often, Leonard Cohen’s “In My Secret Life.” At first he’d said, when she joked about it, that it was only because he’d been thinking of his friend who was conducting an affair, and how tiring that must all be. Though later he’d said that it was just a part of the tune that would get stuck in his head, and he hadn’t noticed the lyrics at all. Eventually he’d said: “Everyone has a secret life.”
(“Our song!” she exclaimed, in faux enthusiasm, when they walked into a café where it was playing).
As it rose up, slowly and unstoppably, from the realm of suspicion to the realm of certainty (expanding as it went— as if it were traveling from the bottom of a deep ocean— and finally filling her whole abdomen) she was consumed, alas, not with the dignifying emotions of resentment or indignation, but only with a clammy sort of desperation and self-disgust. These were emotions that took his side instead of hers, and they knew exactly why she deserved all of this and had only ever deserved it.
At times like these, one is especially vulnerable to the lures of commerce. To the promise that you can buy a better version of yourself: a desirable one, a self who will triumph in this new and mandatory competition. At the nadir of this delusion she arrived home with acrylic eyelash extensions: these black insects' legs crawling out from the eyes of a corpse, in all the grotesquery of what the world will have you become if you take it up on its incessant suggestions for your improvement. A woman named Irene had glued the lashes on for her, leg by plastic leg, over the course of a full afternoon, and afterward had declared her beautiful.
At home she stared at this tragic image of herself for a long time, and for a moment she felt a powerful solidarity with all women everywhere, even the one who was coming after her. She pulled the spines out by hand, along with most of her real eyelashes, and for a little while the dreadful hope was over.
They stopped for lunch. They were instructed to eat very lightly, if at all, and only vegan. That evening they would be part of a psilocybin ceremony, their first, and presumably there was a chance of nausea. They pulled over at a farm known for its garden-to-table restaurant. It was a quiet day, and the chef had insisted on touring them around. They were forced to comply with little performances of astonishment at the proud growth of asparagus spears and the gnarled fingers of Buddha-hand lemons.
They had all been getting on pleasantly—so compatible in their admiration and delight as they passed aromatic leaves from nose to nose, and rubbed the oils from the skins of fruit—when the chef’s conversation meandered gently, convivially, from seasonal farming and the ancient layout of the herb garden, to a series of casual remarks about the farm workers: their poor hygiene, lack of common sense, and proclivity for theft.
They really should have said something, but instead they said nothing, and took their place at his table, awaiting their respective broths. It was an open kitchen and from where she sat she could see the chef chopping herbs, and he looked over his shoulder and winked theatrically at her. She smiled falsely back. “I’m just smiling at the awful chef,” she explained to her husband, who looked confused by the sudden brightening of her expression. “He winked at me. You mustn’t think I don’t have options.”
Everything was already understood between them, but not a word of it had been spoken yet. To say anything would only speed it up. When the end at last arrived, she would be forced to start her whole life anew. Just the thought of it was so exhausting. So instead of saying anything it was better to rest for now, better to preserve her energy for the inevitable.
Besides: next to their silence, its depth and magnitude and sheer complexity, speaking seemed crass, almost animalistic. To speak would reduce their perfect understanding to a series of guttural sounds: bursts of air and noise withheld and released, and manipulated by a tongue. To speak would be to grasp around in search of lost words, and things that urgently needed to be said but couldn’t be remembered at the crucial moment. To speak would be to abandon the unique story of what was unfolding between them for a series of clichés that described what had unfolded between men and women for millennia.
In comparison, their silence was so eloquent and comprehensive, and she did not feel diminished by it at all. It was like a world made entirely of ash: preserved in every detail, but the moment it was disturbed it would collapse into meaningless gray heaps. To speak would be to have to lie to each other. Whereas in the silence they could both live so fully in the truth of it all. Soon they would have their respective parts to play out: of hate and betrayal and defensiveness. But now they were both still in the wings, with the stage still before them. They had, in this quiet space, so much in common; they shared this one last thing together, which was their knowledge that he was about to leave her, and their shared refusal to name it.
The afternoon had been cold, but the evening was warm. Everyone would remark on it when they arrived at the retreat to which they’d been headed. The retreat was on a stretch of reserve near Cape Agulhas: the true southernmost tip of Africa, though for the most part it had been disregarded in favour of the more spectacular Cape Point, with its sharp dividing peninsula. Agulhas is, instead, a gradual coast and there is something unsatisfying about visiting it in search of a definitive coordinate. It is just a long rocky beach, no part of it appearing much more south than any other. A plaque, set in a small stone wall, marks the official point: declaring the Indian Ocean to the left and the Atlantic Ocean to the right, the water beyond the wall utterly indifferent.
They found their room in one of the stone cottages—cold and dark inside, with deep walls broken by a small window that admitted the relentless glare—and then they set off for the beach. They were barefoot, and although within the first few meters it became obvious that this was a mistake, they persevered. The door they had just left (still within sight) seemed so much farther away, so much more of an ordeal to navigate than the long path still ahead of them. They winced their way over the snaking dried kelp, split into sharp edges, over the jagged rocks and patches of thorns. The soles of their feet stung, and the fynbos scratched into their calves.
“Shit!” They kept screaming, swatting themselves. Horseflies. The females must have a blood meal in order to breed; they grip onto your skin with their clawed feet, stab into it with one stout proboscis, while a scissoring set of mandibles slices through your flesh. A painful bite that swells to a welt and itches for a fortnight.
They had been to this coast together many times by then, and they loved it almost because of its hostility and desolation. The way a storm was always forming on the horizon, no matter the season. The way it seemed to exist with such flagrant indifference to them, with no regard for their leisure or comfort: the freezing-cold water, the jagged oxidised rocks covered in piercing barnacles and urchins, the heaps of kelp teaming with sea lice and cockroaches, the washed-up jellyfish swarming with carnivorous snails. And in every direction: a vast, unbroken emptiness.
“This is eternity,” he had remarked, years ago, as they walked through the serrated brush together. “This is eternity and half the books we’ve brought along have serious flaws.”
They had spent that trip taking turns to read aloud to each other by candlelight. Taking turns to go still. He read Kafka’s "Prometheus." “Everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.” As he was paging to find another story, she went beneath the blankets.
“Well go on, then” he said teasingly. “Just for a second.” They were in bed after a bath, after dinner, after reading for a little while, after him pressing his forehead against her chest while she moved her fingers in slow circles through his hair.
“Okay I’ll do it,” she said grandly. “You count One, Mississippi.” But pretty soon they were unentangled again, lying together, talking about some or other media controversy.
“Sex feels evasive tonight,” he said. They’d half started something a dozen times.
“You should’ve taken your chance earlier, when we were over there,” she said, gesturing to the corner of the bed. Earlier she’d been looking for a blanket, and he’d come up behind her, pressing himself against her, stroking her rump.
“When you said: ‘let’s resume this position later once I’ve digested my food?’”
“That was your window.”
It’s unfair how determinate an ending is. It’s disproportionate. She had been, at times, very powerful. And not just for a moment or two but for whole epochs and eras between them. But now their ending made a mockery of that power, made it false, like something she had only been playing at.
The first thing everyone knew about the other woman was that she had once been stabbed. The story was always passed around, person to person, whenever she came up in conversation: a violent attack when she was a teen, a psychotic assailant. A thick scar testified to the event. It was low down on her chest, but it could sometimes be glimpsed beneath a billowing blouse.
In the depths of her jealousy she was jealous, almost especially, of this wound. Jealous not to have been stabbed herself. Certain it would have made her seem more precious, remarkable, impermanent, cherished. She felt, by comparison, like some immortal lump that would remain no matter how much you took it for granted; no matter how much, even, you tried to discard it.
It was all too easy to imagine his tender ministrations to this scar. How he might kiss it or trace his finger over its edges, how he’d tell her it was the most beautiful thing about her. And how she would enjoy those little declarations because the scar was genuinely beautiful in its way, this memory of violence healed over and made surgically sterile.
Instead of this majestic scar, she had a birthmark. It was red and slightly raised and it looked like a persistent rash on her upper arm. She remembered so well—in the first performances of their love—how he would dwell on it as he kissed her body. It was, she supposed, a sort of romantic declaration: that he would love her for who she was, in her totality. Yet she had hated receiving this declaration, and she had felt the judgment mixed in with the grandeur as his lips touched the swollen patch of skin. She felt the favour of it, like the pope to a leper. No one wants to be loved for who they are. They want to be loved for who they’re mistaken for.
She had never seen The Large Glass, nor even a replica. But she had learned by rote the little interpretation of it, all those years ago: each aspect labelled and explained, as though it were truly a functional apparatus that you required instructions to operate. The work, we are informed, is a story of frustrated lust: The Bride alone in her panel of glass, unreachable, and the Bachelors forever beneath her. Both of them constituted of rust and dust, and slowly succumbing to it.
It was a group of about twenty, gathered together by an old friend who had segued, over the past few years, from a Narcotics Anonymous devotee into a sort of shaman. He had prepared the ceremony for all of them as a gift. They were encouraged to take at least four grams, in order to have the full effects.
They were part of a childish contingent who had never tried anything like this before, and they spent the evening nervously speculating about it. Another contingent wafted around knowingly, telling everyone not to worry, but also to prepare themselves because there was no telling what might happen. “Will it amplify my current mood?” her husband kept asking, almost desperately. “Because I couldn’t bear that.”
The ceremony began that night in a small hall, lit by candles. The psilocybin came as a gray powder, which they swallowed with a soapy, bitter shot of mescaline. They lay down together in a pile of pillows and blankets, like burrowing animals; a fire burned steadily in the corner. The room was silent for a while except for the assorted noises of bodies settling: coughing and sighing, stomachs groaning.
They waited, quietly, to change. To become new people, or at least to throw up. She could feel it beginning slowly on the distant edges of her, and she tried not to get in its way. Gradually it began to build, helped along by the music that has started playing, and the next time she checked on herself, instead of that familiar cold fright, she found love. They smiled at each other with their eyes. She had not exactly realised that the love had gone until it had returned like this, as a new feeling, accompanied by this friendly drug and its tendency to transform every surface into a plaything. The limewashed walls were undulating with the hunching serrated backs of slow-moving crocodiles and lizards. And when her eyes were closed: an endless kaleidoscope of splintering octagons, of stupefying beauty.
Her fear had not amplified at all but had become a strange memory. It was a puny thing, belonging to someone else. As was every other feeling that was at war with this one: of pure benevolence toward this man, for everything he had done and would do, in everything he would be to himself, and to her, and to whomever else. How lucky to have been some small part of it as it unfolded!
How was it to love him? Had she failed to mention, in the relentless pettiness of it all, just some of what that was like? She often felt that she had low ceilings within her, whereas he was vaulted; when she was close enough to him, she too could walk around in that grand space: light-spilled and echoey and sacred. Had she not bothered to provide just a glimpse of who he was? How he had made the best of all of it, learned the best lesson he could from everyone he’d ever known, including her. How he could make anything grow and since she’d known him, they had lived in a jumble of amiable plants, which she could feel secretly rooting for them as they went about their little lives. How he took such a sincere interest in everyone he met, and how because of it the world had become fascinating and full, and the people in it had become good and openhearted and wise. How he always reminded her of the best things in herself, even when she was only capable of the opposite, some corrective meanness. How his face radiated kindness and compassion, and even strangers could see it.
Had she neglected to mention any of it? The songs he made up and the strange meals he cooked. How he was secretly mischievous. And secretly brave too. If she was the cold water, then he was the plunge. If she was ink, then he was bamboo. If he was the murmuration, then she was the swarm. He was the boxer, the doctor, the driver. She had relied for such a long time on his strength and nurture, but he needed his rest now. Who could argue with it? He was just trying to be decent but also trying to find a way to make life meaningful and bearable for himself. And now he had fallen in love, as anyone might.
The wind blew off the sea and against the hall in which they were entombed. They were lying beside each other, arms outstretched, each in a kind of corpse pose.
“Shall we die in each other’s arms?” she asked, taking his fingers in hers.
“I wouldn’t mind, frankly” he said.
“I’m not busy.”
She had crawled into a hole she’d dug for herself and mistaken it for all the world. But she could see the world now, and it was vast and beautiful. And she could see him at last, and he was vast and beautiful too. The joy was always there, she could tell, it’s just that you don’t always notice it. You almost never do. You mistake it for something else: for coldness or fright or rejection, for poverty or misery or desperate loneliness.
Psilocybin, as it turned out, reacted terribly with their antidepressants and they spent the morning in bed with splitting headaches, unresponsive to painkillers. He had awoken from a dream in which he’d been eating her ribs, one by one, and she’d enjoyed it, he told her, and helped him along.
Over the preceding weeks, collapsed in front of his laptop, they had watched the paranoia trilogy and the Godfathers and Amadeus, but for one reason or another they had stopped short of the end of each. They decided to watch them now in their gloomy sick bed: one ending after the other, finishing at last with Salieri smiling benevolently as he’s wheeled through the insane asylum, holding his arms open to distribute benediction, the mad and decrepit staring wildly on from their hay and their chains and their cages. “Mediocrities everywhere," he cries. "I absolve you! I absolve you! I absolve you all!”
When they returned home the canvas bag of shattered glass remained where it had been left. A reminder that nothing had been resolved without them; they would have to do all of it themselves. The print would have to be restored, the glass would have to be replaced, and they still had to find a way to leave each other.
She hoped it would be a good ending. Or if not, that she could make it good by being Duchamp about it, sometime in the future when she was strong and strange again, and she could smile on hearing that eight years of work had shattered to the floor.
It might almost be possible. When she had glimpsed their ending at the border of her consciousness, she had found it beautiful. That shape, that pattern. Nothing suspicious or sinister in it: just something sturdy and symmetrical. It would come about by the pure force of necessity itself, and the way the world divides into small octagons: everything into little octagons, unstoppably, even light itself. That’s how powerful the pattern is.
As she had sat there on that first night, one part of the three of them, she had felt the extraordinary momentum of it. She had felt how it was so much grander than any of them, how it would continue on eternally. And it would not even be anyone’s fault. It would not even be good or bad. It would not mean anything at all.
This story was first published in the Winter 2023 Issue of The Kenyon Review, in the fiction folio "Bridges" selected by novelists Paul Yoon and Laura van den Berg.