LATER, she sits away from him on the edge of the bed: a little island, her back to him. She does not seem interested in the customary post-coital cuddle. Perhaps that will change someday; he would like very much to find out. Right now, he feels the need for a cigarette. He has a few sticks and a matchbook in the pockets of his sweats. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he says, reaching for them where they lie on the floor. She shakes her head.
He lights up, takes a drag, does the choo-choo train thing with the tiny puffs of smoke. She watches his reflection in the mirror on the dressing table, in that same soft, unblinking, mildly unsettling way, and he feels compelled to explain himself. “I’m trying to blow smoke rings. Right now they just come out like this.”
“You don’t like it when people look too closely at you.” It’s a statement of fact, not a question.
“It’s a fat person thing. You would know.”
She laughs gently. “Yes, I suppose I would.” He is relieved that she does not find him offensive. She shifts position on the bed. “At the conference you said the clock is winding down.”
Mike walks over to the sliding doors, opens them wider to let the cigarette smoke out. “Seven years, give or take.”
“So we’re all screwed.”
“Are you going to quote me?”
“Speaking to this reporter after a round of bone-rattling sex,” she intones solemnly, “WHO public health expert Michael Tejada said the entire human race is basically fucked.“
“Bone-rattling. I like that.” A pause. “You wouldn’t be misquoting me. Total contamination of water supplies will take about seven years, but most of us would have starved to death by then.”
Even as the words come out of his mouth, he wishes he could take them back. But she’s tough; she chews on it for a while, then shrugs. She beckons him back with the merest tilt of the head. He grinds the cigarette into an ashtray on a nearby table and climbs into bed beside her. She touches his face with both hands, learning every line and feature by heart.
“You’re beautiful, for a dying man.”
The kiss is deep: hunger drawn from bottomless wells.
HE IS roused from sleep by the sound of her moving around in the room. She is dressed and done packing. He speaks slowly, not fully awake. “What time is it?”
“8 o’clock.” She is tying her hair back into a ponytail.
“You’re going somewhere.”
“Water riots in Istanbul. Flight leaves in an hour. I’m late.”
He lets this sink in a moment, watching as she wheels her luggage to the door for the porter. “I’m flying to Kiribati tomorrow. And after that — well, I’ll be moving around a lot.” He hopes he doesn’t sound desperate. Not too desperate, anyway.
“Same here.” She approaches him, strokes his cheek with the back of her hand. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
He takes a deep breath, bows his head and closes his eyes. In his mind he runs through half a dozen responses. He thinks about Peter’s advice, about what’s key, about how everything else is just noise.
In the end, he settles on the simplest, the most truthful answer. “There’s little time left.”
She bends, pressing her cheek to his, her fingers brushing his silver hair. They hold each other a long moment.
“There’s time enough to teach you how to blow smoke rings,” she whispers.
“Keeping Time” was first published in the Free Press in July 2007. It won first prize in the short story category of the Free Press Literary Awards in August 2008.
FH Batacan is an editor for an all-news radio station in Singapore. She has previously published stories in the Philippines Free Press and other local magazines. Her first novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles, was published by the UP Press in 2002.