It was a photograph of white kittens with blue eyes that was their undoing. It tugged the long lace on their clumsy bow. The photograph itself was fine, a little fuzzy because it was shot on film decades ago, but the 70s technology and lighting imbued it with a golden, nostalgic, “safe at home while the storm rages” aura. The problem, for Alex, was that the photograph had been die-cut into a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s been so long since I’ve done a puzzle,” said Melissa, not excited, but relieved to find a way to pass another night in isolation, spreading the pieces across the dining table, wondering how she never noticed Alex was so dull, turning all the pieces photo-side up. “I think it was at Hattie’s mother’s beach house. It had sailboats.”
“I don’t remember that,” said Alex, leaning on the top of her chair, wishing he was elsewhere, wondering why he stayed, scrolling his phone and hoping to find the strength he needed to leave.
“Before your time. Can you refill my wine, please?”
Melissa began sliding all the edge pieces to one side. She liked the edge pieces. She felt an affinity for them. Dead straight on one side, tight holes and knobs on the others. Alex would be straight on all sides with nothing in the middle. Like the first stage of building a puzzle—fitting together the border, the interior empty, the edges weak and unsupported.
The kitchen was a narrow horseshoe of countertops within an alcove. It had a single window over the sink that looked out on the red bricks of the building next door. Alex took a bottle of chardonnay out of the fridge and drank from it, three long draughts, before pouring the rest into Melissa’s glass. Then he grabbed an Asahi for himself, regretting he had not picked up a couple of cases of Corona when their prices got slashed. When he returned to the table the wine was softening his head.
“Watch where you put your beer!” said Melissa as he sat down with the drinks.
“Thanks for the wine,” said Alex handing her glass over.
“Yes, thank you for the wine, but don’t put your beer on the pieces.”
Alex slid his beer back to the edge of the table. Melissa had sorted the border pieces by colour and pattern and had started assembling sections based on the little piles. There were gaps and Alex could see the pieces that needed to be fitted into the gaps. He looked at Melissa. She was staring right at the pieces but completely oblivious to where they needed to be placed. Jigsaw puzzles were stupid and he refused to help but it was just so obvious.
“Can’t you see this goes here, and this here and this one here?” he said, snapping the pieces into place.
“Oh my god!” said Melissa, “how did I miss those?”
He must really think she is stupid. She couldn’t have made it easier if she handed them to him. Maybe now he’ll keep going.
Alex continued on the puzzle, but first he took a drink of beer, being careful to slide the bottle off the table instead of lifting it, letting the puzzle piece that had been hidden under the concave bottom of the bottle drop into his hand. He pretended to scratch himself and tucked it between his side and the waistband of his Nike sweatpants.
He had Melissa’s inevitable disappointment now to motivate him. Despite his protests, she wanted them to do a puzzle together. She would see what a complete waste of time it was.
The first kitten, off to the side, its fur bordered by wallpaper in the background, took a beer and a half to finish. Another beer for him, a glass of wine for Melissa, and they had, within the square border of the puzzle, an amorphous border of kitten feet, ears and fur against red cushions and white rattan.
He stopped to pee. After-images of pieces swam in front of the white tiles of the bathroom. The tiles were square and fit together so simply, with such straight edges, he couldn’t believe they stayed on the wall. They needed tabs and slots.
The puzzle was bringing out Melissa’s competitive streak. She was going to complete the lion’s share of the puzzle, just like she did the lion’s share of the cleaning and the cooking. Alex would have to acknowledge her superiority in this as well. But damn if he wasn’t working fast.
“I need another drink,” she said and left the table.
Her drink was white wine, but with a bit of water. He still had half a beer, but she opened him a new bottle anyway.
“Here you go,” she said, standing beside him, holding it out.
“I’ve still got some here,” he said.
“Then finish it,” she said. “Go on. Get it down.”
He did as she said. He always did when he was deep in the tipsy stage and heading towards drunk. The balance was in not letting him get too drunk, when he became a different kind of pig-headed.
When she went to the bathroom, Alex moved as fast as he could to complete the kitten she had been working on. On her return, finding the kitten complete, she had been enthusiastic. It almost made him want to quit. His vision of her face when she saw the gap in the finished puzzle kept him going. He’d seen the expression often enough. It was her weapon of choice. He didn’t want to go brunch with her mother? Expression. He hadn’t cleaned the bathtub? Expression. His immunity to it wasn’t quite complete, especially not when hungover, but here, after two weeks locked in the apartment with her, after four beers and half a bottle of wine, he was looking forward to making it appear.
The placing of pieces accelerated as holes were filled in and there were fewer pieces to sort through.
“More wine?” he said.
“Oh, yes please,” said Melissa.
How excited was she about the stupid puzzle? He opened another bottle of wine and filled her glass. Good. The more excited she was the greater the disappointment. And this time it would be aimed at the puzzle and not him. He deserved another beer.
Returning to the table there were only a few dozen pieces to go. They didn’t look at each other as they snapped the pieces into place. They both placed a final piece and sat back.
The dark wood of the dining table was visible within the belly of the middle kitten.
“Look at that!” he said, pointing with his beer. “They left out a piece. I’m so glad we spent all night working on a puzzle missing a piece. What a great evening. Great idea, Melissa. One of your best. Maybe you could have counted the pieces before we started.”
He was doing his drunken best to rub it in, but even as he spoke he couldn’t help but notice she wasn’t making the expression. Her face, if anything, showed a calm curiosity. She sipped her wine and tilted her head like she was studying the gap in the kitten. She reached out and put her hand over the space and there was a quiet click. She withdrew her hand and the belly was filled in, the kitten and the puzzle were complete. She sat back and looked at Alex across the top of her wine glass.
His hand dropped to his waistband. He pretended to be looking down at his beer. The piece must have dropped out in the bathroom, where she would have picked it up, perhaps hours ago.
He was too drunk to formulate an explanation, but not sober enough to apologise or attempt to re-cast it as a prank. The result was silence, enduring silence that he couldn’t break and she didn’t feel the need to.