The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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That bus is going to slam into my daughter. In my stop-action memory, everything lies bare a grace note before the accident. The school bus grinds forward stupidly, a yellow hippo. Henry is at the crosswalk, waiting for me as I turn the corner. He is not holding Mary’s hand.
I’m forever saying, Remember to hold on to her. She bolts toward the cat across the room, the crocus past the fence. She unfastens from me, too, and I have to catch her. In my arms she grows vehement and fights like a fish. We chose the name “Mary” because it is plain-spoken, classic, but after she was born, I looked it up: It means “rebellion.” Even while she floated inside me, her thigh bones twitching like fire-making sticks, producing her fiery skin, she was already a grace note ahead of becoming herself, rising out of the skeletal place where our names store their forgotten meanings.
My hand goes up in a half wave, half jabbing motion to indicate that he must get a grip on her. (Only the stop-action reveals that the warning comes before the greeting.) We are going across the street to Belinda’s Crafts, because Mary loves tempera paints. Henry is tired from long hours at Ketchum & Doherty, where he is a paralegal. He has recently completed the task of threading his father, who is riddled with Alzheimer’s, into an open spot at Sunrise Homes. I have just finished teaching my geography seminar at Redwood University. After visiting Belinda’s, we plan to stop at Jun’s for Korean barbecue. Mary is five years old. She considers the wet green seaweed a wonder.
For a fraction of a second (not available to the naked eye: I detect it only when I run the film on its slowest speed) Henry takes in a pretty blonde going down Jasmine Street and then turns to wave at me while I scream, “Mary!” She can’t wait. She wants to be at Belinda’s; she’s on to painting the next picture.
Memory has lifted away the sound of the impact; horror first thrusts itself into my nostrils: the brew of rubber, the ether of exhaust. I smell rather than hear the wail of the woman driver. It’s all milk and oil. She’s fat and lurching about, like the dybbuk of the bus let loose from its host body. Henry jumps back. It’s just a twitch, an instinct, because then he throws himself forward, but I’m there first. I run with that voidance of time that puts you in the place you can see before you should land there, so I’m ahead of Henry (how could that happen?), leaning over her. He’s reaching around me; tall as he is, he makes a shell for me to tuck myself inside, but I’m the animal with her probes out. Thin red stripes cover Mary, as if she wants to keep this clean and neat, but then there’s an explosion of blood with my hands in the middle of it.
Henry must have pulled me away; I must have stood up. Because everything else is gone now. It is only later that Mary’s voice finds me: Blue sky. Yellow bus. Me in red, Mother. I had been teaching her that, out of the primary colors, all pictures can be made.
I’m slower than you are, Isabel, Henry likes to proclaim, and he is. Slower to get out of a car, to add up sums, to get ready for a party, to remember. I loved it once, that slowness. It used to embody care, the tea-ceremony approach to living; care in arranging items in the trunk of a car; care in brushing my hair, slowly, until it knocked me out; slowness in kissing me.
I want her ashes buried at sea. Cold penetrates me while I sprinkle her over the San Francisco Bay. I’m wearing an apricot dress and my stockings with the black dragons, the ones Mary adored. Mary in the fire, then Mary in the water; Mary red, then Mary blue. Where is Henry? He’s on the boat, but I don’t see him until we’re back in our tiny bungalow for the wake and he’s setting out meats and hardened bread slices, fingers of carrots, a knife stuck in mustard. I’m quaking from the chill. Henry reaches for me, and I shudder. My colleagues and neighbors are not bad people, but the weight of trying not to say, “If there’s anything you need . . .” causes Lucille, an assistant professor, to ask, “Isabel, aren’t you part Mexican?” I know what she means: cha-cha-cha happiness, cha-cha-cha grief. Why aren’t I screeching? We’ve seen them on newsreels, those women with their ululations, writhing like octopuses atop coffins. But after “Mary!” there isn’t anything left to yell.
What’s pounding the cage of my insides is a whisper. Henry is on his third beer. I can tell the thought that comes out of me hits him a glancing blow, because his head rears back and he opens another beer: Can’t you remember anything? I told you not to let her go.
I walk outside. A bird of paradise guards our lawn and the Joseph’s Coat roses. I say aloud to no one, “You forget everything.”
In the fable, the barber who sees that King Midas has sprouted the ears of a jackass crawls outside, digs a hole, and whispers into it, “King Midas has the ears of a jackass!” He covers up the hole.
The barber is stunned when the plants exude the chant, “King Midas has the ears of a jackass,” grass echoing to grass, until the whisper goes inside everyone and bursts from their mouths.
The guests leave, and there’s only Henry and me, two middling souls, bloated and weary. Even in the three months before Mary died, we made love only twice. A run through a dragon on my stocking makes it appear beheaded. The whisper blows in from the wide outdoors, where I left it, and scrawls itself in the air, in plain view.
Henry disappears for one day. His own whisper erupts: You sit there without a word of comfort. It could have been you.
In Henry’s absence, Simon and Lana, my friends from the art department, arrive with a video cassette of The Terminator. They are married and work together on kinetic sculptures, winning grants to bring discarded bits and pieces of scrap metal to life and then drinking up the outraged howls. Lana favors velvet dresses and mud-caked army boots. “Isa-bella-donna,” says Simon, hugging me. The three of us laugh ourselves sick at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s murder of the entire planet.
I am alone in bed in the afternoon when Henry returns. He stretches out next to me, and I don’t release the new whisper, but it’s that fast into the earth and through the trees, exhaled by the leaves: I can’t touch you. We even hold hands — a sad little unity, but the only one we have, because we both hear the words at exactly the same time.
The arrival of Jacob Meyers at our bereavement group one Saturday morning causes a shifting, a tremor of discomfort and excitement. Even in a basement room at Redwood University, there is a ranking and collating, an assessment of celebrity, a hierarchy stuck over the wet mess of pain. Jacob Meyers is a famous attorney and a single father whose eleven-year-old girl, Dawn, was tortured and left disemboweled near the highway outside Sacramento. Betty, whose infant died after his insides refused to grow, scurries to get Jacob some coffee. She has given up asking me where Henry is. He says, “Those people didn’t know Mary, so I don’t want to know them.” I am not beyond admiring that sentiment.
Jacob takes the cup from Betty. He’s tall and hesitant, dark and sharp featured, and where most men seem to be a head and hands and clothing, he is a body barely contained by what he is wearing. He was in the search party that found Dawn, and he offers a detail that we did not read in the newspapers. Betty gasps, and hands fly to mouths when he says, “A rabbit had jumped onto Dawn.” Dawn, though brutalized, was still offering a living thing a place to rest. I understand for the first time that line “Every angel is terrible.” I burst out with, “She was lovely!”
My words cleave the room. Coffee quivers seismically in people’s Styrofoam cups. Betty may swoon, and Andrew, whose son died of cancer, might strangle me. Right as I am about to apologize, Jacob says, “Yes, thank you.” Desperate to find the words that will destroy the grotesqueness, he says, “It was like her, what she did, holding on to something alive. That’s it; that’s Dawn.”
The meeting does not last long. The group disperses, and I see Jacob in the hallway, lingering and looking at me as I walk toward the ladies’ room. His hand is on the water fountain, but suddenly it is too much for him to bend over for a drink, and I put my hand on his inclined back and say, “I . . .” I keep my hand there.
It is such a short distance to lean into him as he rises to meet me. We open our mouths against each other to deliver the words coming from our throats.
We go to the Pine Resort Motel on the Redwood Highway. I hold on to his arm while he drives, and he pulls me toward him in a way that almost lifts me off the seat. Inside the room, I stay lifted up. That is the marvel of him. The carpet is worn in spots down to its beige grid; an aerosol scent of lavender makes a dome over a staleness of smoke. He presses me against the wall to kiss my neck, and my hands are all over him, and I say, Wrap my legs around you, and I am thoroughly in the air. I used to try to guess: is it the man trying to crawl into the woman’s hide, or the other way around? With Jacob gliding in and out of me and me pouring wet down the front of his thighs, I see that it’s both at the same time. All that desire rammed up against cauterized nerve endings, deadened in order to get us through the day. Is everyone like this? I wonder — and still do. I think: Yes. Flail off my skin. Kiss me until I feel teeth. Crack open my chest.
We collapse together, sleep, and then, still holding on to each other, we go into the bathroom and take turns peeing, like an old married couple. I touch the underside of his penis, the liverish patch where the doctor’s knife miscut him when he was a baby. It is time to go home. Out in the light, we blink. The highway and the rushing cars, blue and red and yellow: the landscape faint but filling in. Where am I? What’s here? Where is my daughter? I want to talk to her — not about this, but about our need to watch out for each other, since I’m given to bolting, too.
Jacob leads me to his car and opens the door for me. I don’t want to climb in and make this be the end of us. When his hand sweeps the hair out of his eyes, it is like that first gesture we make in the morning, coming to, recalling ourselves. My head rests against his shoulder. His hair is a disaster area. I like his tallness, his dark eyes. I like all that he is, down to the history of himself that even he doesn’t know. I put my hand on his chest, and the tremors are still going through him: the remainder of loving me, the great, fine habit of the body to retain the memory of its finest hours. His fingers go through my hair to my scalp. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” he says. “I don’t mean to hurt you.”
There’s only us, with throbbing stars crowning our veins. The sky looks as if it’s been swabbed with erasers. I’m blindingly, out of my skin in love. “It isn’t hurt I’m feeling,” I whisper. He kisses the spot where the water pours out of my hairline, as if there’s a fissure there.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” he says. “It is. That’s what it is.” He adds that I’m pretty, that he likes the light in my eyes, and says, “I won’t forget this. I won’t forget you.” Today is the day that everything else must fit itself over.
I elicit a promise: Will he call me every year on my birthday — to see how well we manage to fit time over today?
He says yes, he won’t forget.
As he takes me home, we agree, yes, nothing is better than when joy curves so far around it sucks on its own sorrowful tail.
But in the night, knives come at me and worry the body’s slits: eyes, asshole, ears, cunt, mouth, nose, nipples, navel, pores, leaking everywhere. Henry comes home late from work, while I’m asleep, and wakens before me the next morning. He calls from work to say, “Were you drunk? You wet the bed. I thought that was my job, wet dreams.”
I say, “Getting drunk is your job,” and hang up on him.
How can you go on? That’s the implied question whenever an outstretched hand hovers over my skin, worried that a mere touch might detonate me. People don’t mean to be cruel. They’re just not as lucky as I am. No Mary or Dawn to reveal to them that memory only seems locked in the past to disguise how it streams forward. I live in a constant thrill: What will Mary do next? Life twists the paths begun in childhood: her vehemence might turn into a romantic fervor, doomed and hidden. She comes to me with her eyebrows — black and heavy, like mine — plucked into a thin line, the result of a lifelong project of badly taming herself. Why does it persist, this invented memory of Mary wearing a mortar-board and graduation gown, this perpetual finding her on the verge of something? It seems to grow out of Mary in her water wings in the backyard pool. I ask Henry if he thinks Mary would have been as good a swimmer as he is, and he stares at me before he says, “She already was.” Henry’s grief has a sadder twist; he can’t dream her forward, so he has left her stuck in time.
It works backward, too, memory; it revises the past we foolishly think can never be altered. I was born in Mexico City and lived there until I was seven. My father, Inocencio, was an electrician who played the harp. I would ride with him in traffic while he transported his harp, a Veracruz jarocho, on a bicycle we’d bought from the baker, with enormous side baskets. We wobbled past buses with riders hanging out of the doors, past swerving green cabs. Once, we rammed into a man steering a red toy wagon filled with piglets. A friend with a chestnut cart liked to pelt us with uncooked chestnuts when we passed his corner, which made my father roar with laughter and almost crash as we headed into the Alameda Central, with its booths of miniature Kings of the Orient and Snoopy dolls, maize leaves, clay whistles, and amplifiers. My father kept shouting, “Here we go, Mechita!” My middle name is Mercedes, and he found my nickname there, because I was thin and quick-tempered and mecha is also the wick of a candle. I recall being fearless.
This is my native country for me: father, harp, baker’s bicycle heading through traffic, people with their lives dangling every which way. A fullness reigned there: cracks in walls sprouting ivy with wood spiders hanging from the leaves; a perilous, decorative, brimming disaster taking a long time in front of a mirror to put on its hat; everyone trailing bits and pieces, everything bendable or easily shattered, like vertebrae.
Mary lived only the years she would have remembered little of as an adult, so I invite her in to revise what I think I know about my own early years. She insists that my father is not shouting, “Here we go!” but, “Hold on!” The past changes, thanks to her: I’m clutching my father’s guayabera shirt until I feel skin, because I must hold on, and I’m holding on, holding on, danger spilling past me, holding on to my father and to the daughter not yet born, Mary Gomez Eisenberg, my name tucked into the middle of her.
My father died not in traffic, but in his bed, of a heart disease. My Texas-born Irish mother moved us to San Francisco, where she had a sister. Henry had a Jewish father and a Norwegian mother, and when we were first married, we joked about his mother’s native gods in their severe costumes. Mary was our prediction of a new hybrid rule. We did our part to free the world of its obsession with tribal purity.
On my first birthday after the accident, Jacob Meyers calls and says, “Tell me what you’re doing.”
I am putting away a box of Mary’s paintings that I have recently taken down from the walls. (I never kept her clothing or furniture, things another child could use.) My favorite is the one I call “Blue Flamingo Looks at Red Water.” The blue flamingo is looking at its reflection in a red pool. The water is giving its tones to the bird, and the bird has lent its color to the water.
“I’m looking at her paintings,” I say.
“That’s good,” he says.
He tells me he is writing a book.
On my second birthday after the accident, Jacob Meyers calls and says, “Have you found Henry again?”
They are only now returning to me, people orbiting around objects — streets, strata, names, all of which should matter to me, a teacher of geography: Foraging with Simon and Lana in the junkyards for bizarrely shaped iron. Henry as I watch him go out the door with his orange bag of swimming gear, on his way to the Olympic pool on the corner. Henry going gray while slumbering in his chair, the night still young. (How could I have married a man twelve years older without imagining this time would come?) The town, Redwood, white-hot in summer, the flanks of dogs marinated with the oil of the wild mint, the red plastic cups in the gutter from the kegger parties, town versus gown, California’s affection for giving its streets self-loathing names: Yale, Harvard, Cornell. Henry sitting at Roma Café, denying that he is gazing at girls. But when I study his corneas, the images are stuck there, scrapes of sexual fandango. The forty-year-old geography teacher who gave up the dream of being a photographer and the fifty-two-year-old paralegal who was never a lawyer; the late bloomers, late parents, mildly, slowly — with Henry’s slowness — sliding toward erosion. The second glass of wine topped off heavily, so that the next glass can be thought of as a third and not a fourth. The game show after the evening news, eroding further into an addiction to police shows. Ending a marriage isn’t easy. You hack it to pieces, but the pieces sprout into tiny replicas of the marriage, bleeding on your shoes.
I go to our bedroom, a bursting-at-the-seams place, books and clothing piled on the floor, T-shirts over the backs of the rickety chairs that Henry saved from college and never replaced. That I never replaced, either. Henry lies asleep, kneading the sheet in his hands the way people do in hospitals right before they die, as if retreating under a winding cloth. His tight grip on the sheet alarms me, and I kneel on the bed, tugging the covers away from him. I shout, “Henry? Henry!” He fights for the cloth — white with sprigs of violets, my selection, not his; how many men lie down every night in the woman’s choice? — and I fight back and succeed in pulling it away. There is a cushion of beer under his skin, up and down the length of him. It’s a light and foamy thing, the beer simply pooled beneath the surface without any digestion, pausing only to wick anything alive out of his hair, which used to be blond but now is straw. Here’s the answer to why his eyes have yellowed.
“Oh, Henry,” I say, my palm on his chest. He pulls me to him, and that quickly I am below him and he is inside me, clinging so ferociously I can’t move. “Henry?” I say. He’s crushing me. I don’t have a sensation of my chest, only of my bare rib cage, a carcass picked clean by ants. It’s not Henry’s face pressing all over mine, but the skeleton inside his face; it’s the bones I feel as he suffocates me with kisses. I have an image of the jangling man from biology class, hanging by a thread to teach us femur, clavicle, butterfly plate of pelvic bone. I kiss him back because I am too sad not to. He thinks all is forgiven — and it is, because I am suddenly aware that this is what I’ve been building toward: I want to cut the last tie that will keep me from slipping into indifference. Because this isn’t love; this is a determination to reinstate love through impact. I want him to release me. I struggle, and that is enough of a response for him to moan my name. I am crying. He kisses away my tears. Still he holds on, his pressure won’t relent. I stroke his back with my hand. And I take back, frightened, the notion of indifference: if it is not love, it is compassion soaking into me, and that, after all, is not far from the thing itself, though we may never get back to it.
In the morning we rest against each other without speaking. He buys me new walking shoes, and I train climbing roses, tea-sized crimson, up the front of our bungalow. He gives me blank books with elaborate covers depicting antique maps or Victorian clocks. That’s the old Henry, as he was when I first met him: generous, suffering a hundred details on my behalf, taking two hours one day to correct my timing of frog kick to breast stroke in the pool; me generous right back, thinking up ways to thank him.
His oddest gift now is an intensification of his silence. Every now and then, he flinches. He tells me that he’s reliving the sensation of impact. His frame takes the hit of it. It is what I am missing about Mary: he goes to it and winces, while I pull up short. I can’t go where he’s going, but because it’s some recollection of Mary, I try to draw closer to it. The doctor said that Mary hadn’t felt a thing. Mary feeling nothing? What is that split second like, to have your body crushed, your head slammed against metal? What is the enormity of that pain? The bus a mastodon against the bobbling wind chime of a child’s skeleton.
I don’t know how to rescue Henry from this. I would like to supplant the sensation of impact with sounds of sad beauty. At the music store, I find a CD of the Portuguese fado singer Mísia. Fados are the traditional songs of fate, mournful; a singer risks disappearing into the heat of them. Mísia has a Louise Brooks–style bob haircut and full lips and is said to bring a modern sensibility to this music of the past.
Henry thanks me, inspects the CD, turns it over in his hand, sets it out in view, but does not play it.
He hangs paper fish on the patio and calls it the Inland Sea. My arm around his waist, I say, “Thanks, Henry. It’s pretty.” I don’t mind that the wind comes in and shreds the fish. We watch pieces of the lobster being carried away. Red dots will land on far places, and no one will guess that the specks are lobsters from an inland sea. Would a person taking a ferry on the bay know that they are riding over my little girl? I stop. For the first time, I can identify a moment — watching the lobsters — when Mary (or is it Henry?) has given me relief from contemplating her.
But it is Henry who clings more and more to the relief of not dwelling upon Mary: too much imagining of the impact has shattered him, and now the pieces of him are going sailing who-knows-where.
I say, “Remember when I took this photo?” Redwood no longer has any redwood trees, but there was once one so huge that, when they sawed it down, they polished the stump into a dance floor. We went to a fancy party there. We dressed Mary in her green shift, and I let her wear my clip-on shell earrings and red lipstick. I snapped a picture of her blowing kisses, surrounded by women in evening dresses and pearls and men in suits who had come to whirl around on top of the chopped-off neck of the King of Trees. Henry had disappeared into the crowd.
“Sorry,” he says. “Was I there?”
We drive to the Yuletide Farm for a Christmas tree. Henry takes Road 102; it’s as if the valley heat defeated any imagination for naming the byways. (My student Maureen’s essay comes to mind: “How Terrain Determines Our Degree of Hope.”) The landscape’s redness is brought out by the rain, as if storms have flayed away the pale skin. The Persian-rug colors, gold and crimson, are interrupted only by an apiary, a dairy. Milk and honey. (Matthew, another student, who is taking geography because he wants to map the real world — the erosions, depths, rings, and upheavals — writes about the effects far inland of California’s crumbling coastline.)
I am happy; we used to take Mary to the Yuletide Farm, and she’d stamp her feet and dash into the thicket of trees. “Remember the time that Mary climbed one of the firs?” I ask.
“No, Isabel, I don’t,” Henry says, impatient, and I am so furious that we end up leaving our saw in the car and selecting a tree that’s already cut down. In silence, we tie it to the top of the car in the traditional slaughtered-deer pose.
Is it willful erasure, an attempt to acquit himself of her? Often his Sorry, no angers me, and other times I experience a guilt that leaves me thinking, To each his own way. If Mary had selected me and not him to keep reliving the sensation of her last moment — how wearying. No wonder he’s exhausted. Then, now, always: he wants her to stop.
But he starts saying, Stop, to me, too.
On the third anniversary of Mary’s accident, I ask Henry what’s on his mind. To me, the square of the day sits on the calendar like a jack-in-the-box with its hair-trigger latch: out springs Mary.
“I’m thinking that maybe you think too much, Isabel,” he says.
He goes beyond the great three lost items — keys, glasses, wallet — and now misplaces events. I ask him to make a reservation at a restaurant, and he neglects to do it. I leave out the papers he needs to bring to work, and he overlooks them. Now what was that fellow’s name again? Now when was that? Was that Thursday? The refrain drives me into the bathroom, where I shut the door and splash water on my face to keep from shrieking. He jots down lists before going to the grocery store, and then he forgets the list but brings back something he knows I’ll like.
I remind him to call Sunrise Homes every week to get permission to take his father out for their Sunday breakfasts. I collect magazines for his father, and then Henry leaves them behind. He has been visiting his father several times a week; are sympathetic symptoms afflicting Henry? His dad’s Alzheimer’s has not yet removed the memory of his son, and of course Henry should cling to that slender tie as long as possible. I walk outside to cool off: You forget everything is still written in the air where I first spoke it, circulating on the breeze that stirs the last hanging fragments of the Inland Sea.
At Simon and Lana’s, Simon asks Henry if he remembers the night with the coyotes.
“No,” says Henry, his voice low and tired.
I’m startled. It has honestly gone out of his head.
“Sure you do,” says Simon.
Lana, cutting the strawberry torte, pauses with the knife and says, “Henry, that was six months ago.”
“We were at my brother Patrick’s ranch, out in Death Valley,” says Simon. He shoots a glance at me, but I have to look away. I stare at their sunflower-patterned tablecloth, dizzy.
“We’d been drinking a lot of beer, and Patrick led us out to piss around the perimeter of the ranch, because he’d heard the scent of humans keeps the coyotes away. We laughed about getting skewered on the cactus spines, remember?”
“Sort of,” says Henry.
My foot swings out and knocks a leg of the table. Lana stops cutting the torte. I’m not going to be able to contain myself. I can recall that evening down to the low-lying wildflowers, a vibrant purple. Henry and I made love that night with a howling like the furious animals held at bay around the ranch’s borders.
“How can you forget that?” I say, more harshly than I should.
“What?” he says.
“Jesus Christ!” I shout. “Can’t you remember anything?”
Henry is red and subdued. Lana says, “Shhh, it doesn’t matter.”
“It does,” I say.
“All right,” says Simon. “It’s been a long evening. I didn’t mean to —”
“You’re fine,” says Henry. “I’m fine.”
I’m going to strangle on the words: No you’re not!
When we say goodbye, Simon whispers, “Don’t worry. It’s good to see you both out and about again. That’s all.”
But it isn’t all. In the car, I say, “Henry, what is with you?”
He explodes. “Nothing. Nothing is . . . what did you say? — ‘with me.’ ”
“That’s right. Nothing is with you,” I say, and he stares straight ahead. Instead of asking him what’s wrong, I start to cry and say, “I’m sorry, Henry.”
“For what?” he says, and smiles at me sadly. He squeezes my knee. He absolves me so readily, as if my outburst has already fled and gone from him, the images dissolved in his head.
When Jacob calls me on my birthday that year, I say, “Tell me what’s new with you.”
He has finished his book. It is not a rehash of his “case”; he won’t offer up Dawn for public scrutiny. It’s a novel based on his childhood in Idaho, where the Snake River vanishes into a terrace of land. He is becoming who he is now by revising who he was. His law practice is doing well. He is getting married, to a violinist who teaches poetry in the schools. Her name is Emily.
“Jacob,” I say, “I’m so glad.” Because it amazes me. At any diminished point, with its impetus toward further diminishment, life pulls up, fresh and strong, turning away from the wall.
He asks, “What’s ahead of you, Isabel?”
I freeze. It’s as if I lift my head and look at the approaching years: why have I been so frightened to see Henry? I think I know; I think I’ve known for quite a while. I figured that, after Mary, our account with tragedy was so overdrawn that it would leave us alone. But time has trickled on to a new present, a new dilemma, even if I have not been ready to name it.
“I don’t know what’s ahead,” I say to Jacob. “I think I’m afraid to say.”
“Will you take care of yourself?” he asks. “Will you take care of Henry?”
© Bill Emory
Henry arrives home that night with my birthday present: a gift certificate for scuba-diving lessons. My affection for water is romantic; I’ve mentioned that I would like to make it real. He has kept this in mind.
I kiss him. Women often ask about men, What has he done? when they know they must ask, Who is he?
He extracts the Mísia CD from the heap near our disk player. “I love this album,” he says. “Remember how we made love while this played in the background at the ski cabin four years ago?”
Surprise courses through me. Instead of saying, Henry, are you out of your mind? I bought that for you a short while ago. How can you forget? I am quiet.
He goes on with his reverie: It’s the weekend we like best, our annual winter trip to the mountains, when everyone else vanishes inside to watch the Superbowl. The scenery of pure snow clears away until there’s only him and me, and maybe some others. But mostly it’s him and me, and the world packed up in white, ready to be stored away, as if then, truly, it would be just the two of us.
I close my eyes. He thinks I’m shaking from the memory, so he touches my face. Fifty-two is young, but I can guess the end that is in store for him. He has turned toward old age. He is not forgetting Mary to avoid pain; he is entering a new pain that is famous for not stopping. As befits Henry, it is happening slowly, and that is how I will lose him, instead of full-force and swiftly, as we lost our daughter. I have been too horrified to see what is true. The dead body of a little girl is not a painting. It is not beautiful. And loss of memory can be a physical fact; death strolling in when we weren’t looking, grinning, taking its time. Taking its time in telling us that it has come to stay.
Henry has a surprise for me. He knows that on my birthday I like trying something a little frightening or new. We run two blocks to the civic-center pool and steal over the fence, like high-school kids. He brings my suit, goggles, and towel but forgets my cap. I tell him not to bother going back for it.
He wants to teach me the butterfly, a stroke I’ve never mastered. It requires a person to sweep her arms outward, as if trying to toss her body into its own embrace, right as it’s time for the next thrust forward.
“Like this,” he says, telling me to hold on to his neck. I stretch out full length along his back. “Don’t let go,” he says. His hips arch and descend, and mine do, too; it’s supposed to look obscene, he’s told me, as if you’re humping the water. When he pauses at the wall and asks if I’d like to try it alone, I say that, left to myself, I would drown.
“Then hold on,” he says, and I put my arms around his neck and lie on his back again. His muscles know so perfectly what to do that they no longer need reminding. His legs pound in the dolphin kick as his arms circle. I liked this about him the first time I saw him, before knowing his name.
We haul ourselves out and sit, shivering. Henry puts his arm around me, along with the towel. The moon is smeared into a white glaze. He says, “Are you going to leave me, Isabel?”
Our hearts are working hard — his from swimming the distance, and mine from the effort of making the new motion. The body sends its tired blue blood to the heart, where, in the divided chambers, hidden but ceaseless, the work goes on, minute by minute, cleaning it to red again. Bless its repetition; bless that old washerwoman, the heart.
Because I have not answered, he asks again merely by saying my name.
Bless Mary’s blue flamingo, speaking to me across the years: blue washing its reflection in red water.
“You’re always talking about what Mary did,” he says. “I only remember who she was. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” I say.
“Her black hair, like yours. Her impatience, like yours. Her hands covered with paint. The way she called out for me and expected me to come running.”
I know what is to come with Henry as he drifts farther into forgetting, but not whether I have the fortitude to bear it all the way to the distant finish. I’ve neither set him free nor loved him enough nor looked clearly at his dying memory. I have been letting go of him with brutal slowness.
“Isabel,” he says, “remember our time in St. Louis?”
The two of us are riding a riverboat on the Mississippi. One dance floor offers rock-and-roll, another ballroom dancing. A third features big-band music and older couples reliving that odd sensation of being festive during wartime. The sunset flattens a replica of itself onto the river: red sky onto blue water, then blue-black night sky looking at red water. Stars shrunk to the size of waterbugs are painted on the surface. We have not been married long. Neither of us is a dancer, but we both know how to move through water; we met and fell in love while swimming, and here we are still — carried upon this river.
We stumble across something marvelous: The first deck is reserved for a large group of people in wheelchairs. They have come with spouses, who hold their hands and wheel them in a dance while the music rises up from the other floors: Bach and then the Stones and then some country-western. Everyone is content to veer without hurry. The faces of those being wheeled are lifted toward the lit-up eyes of the dance partners guiding them around.
“I remember,” I say to Henry. “I’d forgotten.”
As the Mississippi moves below the different styles and times stacked one on top of the other, we play that igame of whispering: Would you love me if I couldn’t walk? Would you kiss me if my hair fell out and I went blind? Would you still want me?
Would you love me if I forgot my name and yours? If I forgot my past and everyone in it? You would have to remember for me that we promised never to leave this behind, this wanting to die of happiness as the wheelchairs circle. The river is slow, and the boat is slower. The porthole windows let in the air as the bands play. Already, before we know her, our daughter comes to greet us with her wild imaginings, because the water is scarlet. The heart is halved. The sky was red and will wash blue by morning. We pass by the lighted cities that we will never visit, with their storehouse of invisible lives and lovemaking in unknown rooms, with the blue and the red and the river without letup making its mysterious sounds while slowly bearing us on.
Katherine Vaz’s story “Blue Flamingo Looks at Red Water” [May 2002] was a beautiful piece of literature and a valuable source of insight into an unbearable situation: the loss of a child. I’ve lived alone almost all my life, partly to avoid just such a pit of anger and despair. Vaz made me understand better what I have gained by my decision, and what I have lost.