Nicholas Petrov stood with hands clasped behind him looking out from his glass bubble. That’s how it seemed at times. Glass walls on two sides running floor to ceiling, no windows that would open, filtered air.
On the desk behind him glowing white words clung to a black screen and a telephone buzzed periodically. Twenty floors below, microscopic men scurried about and toy boats steamed down a gray river. A miniature freight train inched up a trestle to cross a bridge over the river, its black diesel smoke joining that of the boats and the chemical plants on the far bank. When the telephone fell silent a voice came from a speaker in the ceiling.
“Mr. Petrov, call the operator.”
As the voice, too, quieted only a faint hum remained in the air, as though high voltage passed through the metal walls. No sounds from the ground came up through the glass.
“There you are, Nick.”
He turned. A young woman in an efficient black dress stood in the doorway of his office.
“Why didn’t you answer your page?”
He shook his head. “Didn’t hear it.”
She nodded toward the telephone and its dot of blinking white light. “It’s your wife.”
As he paced toward the phone the woman shook her head, pulled a half smile, and moved off down the hallway.
“Nick. I’ve only got a minute. Don’t forget we’ve theater tickets tonight.”
“I thought that was Friday.”
“Today is Friday.”
When he made no audible response she said, “You’re still thinking about him, aren’t you?”
Phone in hand Nick turned back to gaze on the dismal scene outside the glass walls.
The river now shone silver-black and kept moving. Nick looked down at it through similar glass walls, those of his apartment. Reflected movement in the glass caused his eyes to focus there. He saw his wife sitting at the desk rolling cut leaf in a cigarette paper. She lit it, took a long pull, and held in the smoke. Nick refocused his eyes on the river and moved back into his own thoughts.
“You never did answer me.”
When he wrinkled his brow and tilted his head slightly she added: “About beginning a family. It’s time.”
He studied her: thin, almost blonde, desirable. She didn’t look near thirty though she was. Nick saw her glance at her watch, suck in one last stream of smoke, and carefully roll the ember from the half-burnt joint. She grabbed her purse.
“Half hour till curtain.”
Nick wore the same gray flannel suit from the office. She wore black. The play was Strindberg, The Father. He watched the characters intently, allowing himself to be drawn into the drama of the stage household.
But then a line spoken by the wife to her officer husband made Nick turn to look at his wife sitting next to him. The woman in the play had planted a seed of doubt in her husband’s mind as to whether he was the father of the child he had known for years. Nick studied his wife, not wondering whether he would be the true father of any child she might bear but, more broadly, whether he might trust her. Whether he might unreservedly entrust her with his child.
At that moment he noticed a thin, almost imperceptible line—just the slightest crease in her smooth, elegant face—running downward from the corner of her mouth. The precursor of an age line, he realized, unimportant in itself. But he also saw it as the beginning of a permanent, indelible sneer. An ever-present emblem of her distaste for life. A sneer at which Nick—and any child he might sire—would forever gaze. He turned back to the stage.
However, Nick now no longer saw there the captain and his wife but merely two actors plying their trade. The willful suspension of disbelief required to feel the emotion manufactured by the actors had been broken in him. And the line that ran downward from the corner of his wife’s mouth seemed now to crisscross busily the glass bubble in which he lived.