Breathe

All Marie remembers of the consulate and the car is frustration, fear, and the sound of her own voice filling the air. If she tries, she can remember the way her fingers cramped from holding the steering wheel too tightly. She can't remember anything she said, but that is how Jason finds her.

"You said you wanted to go to Greece," he says, the night after the afternoon he materializes in her store's doorway. "You said you missed the shop selling surfboards. And that you liked the ocean."

"I said all this?"

Jason doesn't answer at first, and when he does, it's with a tentative smile. "You said a lot."

"Someone had to," Marie says.

His smile starts to fade and before it can she reaches up to feel how it folds his face. Her stomach twists and she's nineteen again, sitting in a smoky club listening to her boyfriend of four months sing a song called "Marie." In it he compared her to a spring sunset, the sound of summer rain, and in the last verse, the elimination of third-world debt.

It doesn't compare to the way Jason's face changes when she touches him.

Later, hand tucked under her chin, Jason sleeping beside her, Marie looks out the open window, at the tiny white stars and crescent moon. She can hear voices from the restaurant around the corner where they had dinner, rough voices of workers closing up, and behind that, if she listens closely, the sea. The sound is so faint that she might be imagining it, or mixing it up with the sound of Jason breathing beside her. She loves it all the same.

She loves the sea. She loves the view of it from her cash register. She loves the store, loves the tiny flat she's lived in for months. She picked the town at random in a train station in Hamburg when she realized she needed a destination, and she could have ended up in any of a dozen other tiny seaside towns in Greece. She knows that in any one of them Jason would have ended up lying beside her eventually.

She's spent every night since Paris alone. Maybe she was waiting for him. Maybe she was afraid he wouldn't come. Mostly she's just never been a good liar; she's used to going new places, meeting different people.

She's not used to being someone different, someone not quite herself. In Greece she goes by Sophie, and tells everyone she's from Hamburg, a city she only visited twice.

He knows her as Marie Helena Kreutz.

----

Three weeks later, someone asks Marie if they've met before. A tall, blond man with a British passport and an honest face.

"Have you ever been in London?" he asks, squinting a bit.

"No," she says. She spent four months there when she was twenty. "You may have seen me in town before."

"That must be it," he says, nodding and handing her his credit card.

Jason watches him leave from the doorway. "Marie," he says, when the sound of the man's scooter has faded away.

"I know." She pushes the cash drawer in, lets the dull clang settle in hear ears.

"We can go anywhere," Jason says. "It's just – it's not safe here."

Marie looks at Jason, and then past him at the empty spot where the scooter had been. "Do you really think that man – "

"I don't think so. He was probably just hitting on you. But if I could find you, someone else could. It's better if we keep moving."

Marie runs her fingers over the numbers on the register, remembers her first sale. A pair of teenage tourists from Spain on holiday, spoiled kids who told her to keep too much change. When she looks up, Jason is watching her, his face tense. Afraid she won't go with him.

"All right," she says. "When do we leave?"

"Tonight, if we can," Jason says. "I can watch the store for the rest of the day."

"I'll go pack my things." She reaches up and unhooks the bank vault bag full of flowers behind her, moves around him to the door. She never sees the store again.

----

They can go anywhere. Marie wants to go to Africa, India, Asia, any number of places. She tells Jason all of this in the car, but says she wants to start in a place not much different from the one they leave behind: a small town on the Mediterranean, warm and sunny. Italy this time instead of Greece.

Their kitchen in Italy has better light than the one she had in Greece, and it also has Jason in it. Most days, Marie likes it better. She sits across the kitchen table from Jason one night a month after their arrival, dividing beads bought at a street fair into piles. He likes hearing about her past, as if to fill up the holes in his own, and so she is telling him about an anklet she used to have, one she made when she was working in an organic grocery store in Sweden. She wants to recreate it.

"This isn't quite the right green," she says. She pushes two more beads to the green pile and picks one up to hold against the light cast off by the lamp next to Jason. "But it's the best they had, so it will have to do."

The lamp is from the living room, moved to the kitchen so that Jason can better see the new passports he's creating. The razor blade he uses looks too small to be effective, but it cuts clean, sharp lines, and Jason handles it as if it's as natural to his hand as a pen. Maybe it is.

He finishes another cut and looks up. "What happened to the one you had?"

Marie twists the bead between her fingers. "What one?"

"The one from Sweden."

She knows where she left it: in a painted wooden box with a broken hinge, stuffed under the passenger seat of her car in Paris.

"It doesn't matter," she finally says. "This one will be better."

She smiles at him, and for a moment his face stays still and steady, watching her. When he does smile back she feels something inside her relax, and her hands move to the beads again, arranging the piles in a different order. She starts talking again, this time about the customer that got her fired from the grocery, and the pound of cheese she took with her when she left.

----

Marie noticed the dreams in Greece and Italy, but they grow worse when they move on to Barcelona, the country or the language reminding Jason of something he can't remember. She buys him a blank bound book their second week in the town. She also buys a thick-papered spiral notebook for herself. She places his book in a drawer in the nightstand next to her side of their bed, and the notebook in her duffel.

She waits for another dream. It doesn't take long. When he sits up in bed, she gets the book.

She hands it to him with her left hand, her right hand rubbing the space between his shoulder blades. "It might help if you write things down."

His breathing is harsh and shallow. "It doesn't make any sense," he says.

"It doesn't have to make sense."

Jason nods. She rests her head on his shoulder, feels and hears his breathing settle down. She lifts her head to look at him and he's already turned her way in the darkness, a funny look on his face.

"Thank you," he says.

"You're welcome." She kisses the warm skin where her head had just been. "Just write what you can remember."

He does, in the yellow light of the old lamp on the nightstand. She watches while he writes. Sometimes he closes his eyes. His breathing is calm now and she tries to keep hers that way too, while she watches him fill the page with words like "man," and "lights," and "maybe a gun."

----

Jason has his book. Marie has her letters. He writes at night, after nightmares, and sometimes in the morning after long runs. Marie writes while he's running. Her spiral notebook grows thinner every month while Jason's pages fill up, stuffed with scraps of anything that remind him of something he can't name.

She writes a letter their last week in Morocco. Dear Kathrin, she starts, writing to her best friend from childhood. Marie hasn't talked to her in two years. She asks about Kathrin's family, her life, her friends, letting herself imagine for a moment she will get a response, even though she knows the letter will be a pile of ashes five minutes after she's done.

East Africa is beautiful, she writes. They eat strange foods here but you can sometimes buy the potato chips we liked in school at the store in town. We live in a hut with a dirt floor and last night Jason said something in his sleep about blood.

She tells Kathrin everything. She doesn't lie, or make up names, or change dates or locations. She writes about the things she's seen; the way Jason gets embarrassed when she dances, how he laughs when she sings. She tells her about the time she woke up terrified, his forearm across her windpipe, suffocating her. His eyes were open and she almost didn't recognize him in the dark. She thought they'd been found, that he was dead, that it was over. She tells her about the funny sound in her ears, the cuts her nails made in his arm. About the look on his face when he pulled away.

He slept on the floor three nights, she tells Kathrin. The first night she was glad. The second night she missed him. The third night she asked him to come back. It was a nightmare, she told him. I know it wasn't you. He didn't answer. The fourth night she climbed down next to him, and he held her so tight it hurt. She tells Kathrin what she told him: that it was fine. That it would be all right. She tells Kathrin something she didn't tell him: how she almost couldn't breathe.

----

Two days after she burns Kathrin's letter, Marie finds a package of cookies she loved as a child in the kitchen. It sits on the table alone, angled toward the doorway so that she sees the label the moment she enters the kitchen. Marie stares at the blue-green wrapping and familiar German words, and picks the cookies up as gently as she would a baby animal.

It's been years since she's had them, but she remembers them so well that she can taste them while still holding the package. She doesn't open it. She walks outside with a water bottle and sits on the steps of their building to wait for Jason to come back from his run, turning the cookies over and over in her lap. It's an hour before he arrives and the chocolate on the cookies has probably melted, but she keeps waiting. They leave for India tomorrow, and she wants to eat the cookies with him the same way she ate the box she shoplifted years ago, in one sitting, out in the sun.

At first he's just a dark spot in the distance, flickering against the setting sun. By the time she can see his face, he's slowed to a jog, then a walk, going slower and slower as he gets nearer. "Jason," she says when he's just a few feet away. She holds up the package. "How did you find these?"

"They had them at a store in town."

She gestures for him to sit down next to her and hands him the water bottle. She has told him it's fine, that it wasn't him, that she forgives him even though it wasn't his fault, over and over again but still he sits a little further away than he did before Morocco. Marie doesn't say anything. Instead she opens the package and offers him a slightly-melted cookie.

"Here."

"They're for you," he says.

"And I say you should have some."

He takes a cookie but waits for her to bite into one before he does the same. She keeps the package open between them but he only eats one while she has several.

When she finishes her fourth, she looks up to see him looking at her, a small smile on his face. "They're good," she says, a little defensively.

"No, they are," he says. "You're right."

"Have another." She tilts the package toward him.

"They're for you," he says. "I got them for you. It was the only package in the store, and we're leaving tomorrow. There might not be more."

Marie shrugs and scoots over toward him on the step. "But I want you to eat them with me. Do you remember the story? I ate the whole package in one sitting, along with my friend Kathrin."

"I'm not Kathrin," he says.

"No," she says. "Kathrin was much prettier."

He smiles at her again. The sun is setting behind him, but she squints her eyes against it, doesn't look away. He's looking at her the way that takes her breath away, the way he did when he found her. Like he's glad to see her, surprised she's still around.

He looks at her like he's memorizing her face.

end