I wake in the morning. I know it is early; the light is gray and pale. I can’t hear the low whir of the heater fan. The air from the open window is still crisp against my cheek as a roll toward you. I curl my left hand into a small fist, thumb slightly behind the fingers. Like all mornings I reach out to tuck it into the small indent at the juncture of your lower back. Such light connection gives me a sense of when you are tense or relaxed or breathing easy. A jerk at contact tells of rough dreams, a sigh, of peaceful sensibilities. I learn whether you are warm or cold and I should draw the covers up.
Sometimes a pillow blocks access – a rough and flipping night when your prop-ups become disarrayed. I can feel the vibrations of a quiet snore, the rhythms of your rest. I can smell the scent of your hair on the pillow as I reach out until my fist slides unimpeded from the covers and I remember. I am sleeping alone as you just aren’t there anymore. I get up.
I step over the dog, still sleeping. He opens a half eye and drifts back with slight moan as I stumble to the bathroom for a piss and then to the sink to rinse my hands, splash my face. I draw a tall glass of water, take out vitamins - routine for forty years. Your side of the double sink is still a mess – hairbrush, dryer, make up. Your toothbrush still nestled in the holder and a half-squished tube of Crest next to it. Arrayed around the small make-up mirror are an eyelash curler and tweezers, along with an odd assortment of make up brushes. The mirror you’ve nursed along since you were a pre-teen. I brush a layer of dust off the top and press the button. The light responds but shines on no one sitting on the stool in front. You aren’t there anymore, either.
I realize I haven’t replaced the toilet paper. At the moment it doesn’t matter, but I need to get to it before something more urgent requires a fresh roll. I pull on some old Levis and a t-shirt, John Mayer printed in fading letters across the front and some slide sandals on my feet. The boy has roused from his bed by my side – yes, still two sides even though you aren’t there anymore.
Together we go downstairs. He always walks to the left, safer by the wall, I assume. He’s done it everyday for 12 years, slower now, and out the back door to the yard. Business to take care of, while I wait. Then, when finished he comes back asking for breakfast, so I wipe the dew and dirt from his paws and put dry food and green beans in his dish while he bounces in anticipation. “Wait” I say. He sits patiently while I set the food down. He will not move until I say “Okay”. You taught him well. You just aren’t there to appreciate his obedience anymore.
I heat up three-day-old coffee and toast a bagel with some butter. I pick up my cell to check emails. There are too many to look at – friendly, solicitous, consoling, querulous. I go to play Words with Friends and add a word, realizing you aren’t there to reply anymore, I push play anyway.
The day is adrift. It feels like that anyway. Nothing sharp or fully in focus. It has been that way for weeks, maybe months; time is relative. I was certain someone would be along to drag me from the doldrums, but those who come by are fewer and offer no new spark to get conversation going. They talk about how wonderful you were, are, always were – it clearly gets awkward. They know I will agree so, for them the conversation is easier. Maybe that’s my role to make sadness easier for others. I, however, had a different idea.
Sometimes I want to disagree, just to shock a reaction “Oh, she was a bitch, all right.” Or “Who are you talking about?” I am certain I would get sent to a home in upstate somewhere with meds of compliance added to my daily Rice Chex. But, we would have laughed at the irony. You just aren’t there anymore so I have to curb my own devil without your assistance.
I step out to the front to collect the Post. I’ve started taking it again because if I read from front to back, I am certain to have filled a few hours of the day. I curse those fucking Washington liars enough to get my heart rate up – assurance of life. Your car is still parked at the curb. I had to move it so the coroner could get in and out, taking you from me. Come to think, I may have left the keys; amazing no one has stolen it. Hey, maybe it is haunted. Does your specter loom in the front seat at night? I didn’t think you liked the car that much. It was just a means of getting to the store, the school, the doctor, the hospital, not some point of pride. That was your bicycle. I better imagine you a riding wraith on the neighborhood bike trails scaring the shit out of families out for an evening stroll. Can you get the bike out of the garage if you’re a specter? I should check the car for the keys, later.
I lit one of those horrible torpedo cigars you always hated and sit on the stoop. I won’t take it inside. I am certain I would hear your complaints, even though you aren’t here anymore. The air is crisp and clean, other than my Cohiba, with sun shining. This is your kind of day. It is fresh, as if life is renewing. I saw seven daffodils in the back this morning while out with the dog, reminding me of the song. Its a harbinger of spring in February. Eddie the egret was strutting across the wetlands, behind the house like he owns the joint. You would’ve seen him from your make-up stool, but you just aren’t there anymore.
At paper’s end I take the boy for a stroll; time he loves and you did, too. Sun is out and the path is recovering from winter. Leaves are coming out and the reeds in the waterways are bent forward from the stream rush. Come summer they will stand tall in a bed just damp with little water left, but now they are folded over to accommodate the power of the flow. I feel likewise bent to accommodate the power of your absence.
The dog boy is exploring every territory marker left by others on the path; my distraction allows him ample time to place his own notes out there. Besides it matters little if he goes off path. There are no foxtails until the heat of summer, so no risk. I see you bent taking pictures of flowers and oddly twisted or shaped branches. Glancing up occasionally, assured I hadn’t moved too far beyond as you point your Sony at the next interesting moment. Your flowers are all over our home. Pictures of spring and summer; no fall – you hated the fall. Spring permeates our walls. I wander room to room to look at the life you managed to freeze in time; so proud, as you framed them. But you aren’t part of the array. Always the photographer, never the subject. Your absence is tangible now.
There is a girl sitting on a bench up a bit from the dog’s pause. He sees her, too. His pace quickens pulling me along. It isn’t you, but the dog is excited and my pulse picks up, too. We both trot ahead just in case. “Hello, are you enjoying the morning. Yes, us too. Nice stroll. Have a good day.” We are disappointed it’s not you. The walk becomes slower; we take the shortcut home.
Lunch finds me sitting in one of our chairs in Barnes and Noble, listening to Debussy (not the violins you hate). Looking about, with a glass of wine and vacant stare on my face. Someone takes the other chair and I nearly say I am saving it, but I’m not; you aren’t coming anymore. No one fills my sight like you. Your blond framing your face and smile. Vente iced tea ever present. Studying your book or magazine looking for the right crafting idea to fill your hours in your room. I’ve not touched it, by the way: papers and stamps strewn about, cards partly done awaiting inspiration or perseverance. Your shawl still hangs over the back of your chair and though the sound is off, I am certain Pandora is playing jazz in silence. I should shut the computer down, but I can’t go in, your presence is palpable, even though you are not there.
So, I sit. Can’t get up to go to the bathroom even, who do I ask to save my chair, much less my stuff. If I take my stuff with me my chair will be gone. I am trapped between this moment and when you were last present. “Don’t let anyone steal my seat” I would jest. Upon return, “Sorry, I am saving that for my husband”, you would say. I would show you my matching wedding band to prove I could sit and we would smile, over and over and over again, never tiring of the repetitive exchange. I have no one to show my ring. I take a slow breath and leave not asking anyone to save me.
I walk around the corner to Whole Foods and make a salad. After all, it is old man lunch time. Meals get earlier as we age driven by boredom. I can’t think of anything else to fill the time so might as well eat. Sit at a table eating from a brown box with plastic utensils. The food is healthy except for the abundance of ranch dressing. You would tell me “put it on the side you will use less.” While true, I would enjoy it less, too. I like it all mixed together though I detest the lack of your company, not that we ever did this much. We ate caddie-corner from one another in our kitchen for decades, laughing, chatting, and watching the news. Filling time with each other. Now it is me and cable. Insurance came and the house is now paid off; we are paid off; not certain there is a single bit of debt left out there. Life belongs to us now. There is no longer a need to worry or struggle or fret, even though I would trade one for the other. Freedom without you is confining and small. I should sell and downsize or become a motorized vagabond. I used to have places to go, but you are present even where we have not yet been.
I spend the afternoon writing and reading, hoping the world will provide new inspiration. Not looking for a reason for living, only a reason for another day without you as its fulcrum dividing day and night, silence and sound, solitude and conviviality, life and better life. No luck so far, but I keep looking. Somehow, I think it is part of the tasks you left me to complete – find life, again. It is hard, Miss, without your hand filling mine.
Our daughter calls for dinner – come and I’ll cook, or we can go out. She continues to be amazing. I recognize she looks like me, but provides me a sense of you. Maybe it is how she turns her head or laughs, full throated. Maybe it is just the look of recrimination – Dad, you have to get about living – filling her eyes. All well enough but I know she is in the void with me. It is the drive of youth, which pushes her forward with greater speed than I can muster. It could be she has a broad pool of friends (like you always did) to lift her up from this spot in the world. But, I know she has lost your phone number and all the calls that would come to you, her best friend, have no place to go anymore. She has valiantly tried to shift it to me, but it tends to end in some awkward pause. I don’t know what to answer. I don’t just listen, I try to solve problems – such a man thing you would say to me – and that isn’t what she wants or needs. She is competent like you and solves her own problems. She seeks an ear, loving and open, but you cannot listen anymore.
Dinner does provide respite; I laugh and am glad for loving company not framed by consolation or care taking. She provides a mini-version of all the communication short cuts you and I invented over time. I can start a sentence and she is at the end ahead of me and we laugh. What a wonderful and rare sound these days. We talk about so many silly escapades created by the three of us.
It is an easy drive home with a slight rain patterning the windshield and street lights glisten. I listen to music from the 60s on Sirius radio and sing along. I remember high school and early college days. Dancing at the YMCA Friday nights with girls who raised my temperature then. We have so few songs that belong to us together – Dancing in the Dark at our wedding, seeing Frank or Tony, Marvin Gay with or without Tammi Terrell. You would never go to the opera with me, and only listened half-heartedly to country music, but you got lost in every piece of jazz and it played all the time as I held your hand. I close mine around nothing these days, your fingers don’t link with mine anymore.
The house is quiet after the regular dog greeting. I shut the alarm off, although there is little to protect. Give the boy a pat as he protests I have been gone too long and asks where are you. He rushes past me to the back door and sits waiting for you to follow me through. With a puzzled look on his face he is certain you are coming behind. I remind him, you aren’t there anymore. Eventually, he moves to his crate a bit despondent goes in and lays on his back, I know that position. I have been there, too.
I need to allow for the dysfunctions of my head. You have been gone for a while now, but the process of your leaving is still so tangible. I still smell antiseptic and hear the whir of machines that cleaned the air and kept it moving. It took months before I could remove the non-allergen sheets and covers off the mattress. In fact, I slept most time in the guest room or the chair pulled close to the bed. I know in the night I would reach out for your hand. Amputees talk about ghost sensations, I could feel your dwindling hand in mine night upon night. In your absence, I would feel you reach for me, wrap my wrist with your fingers, a contact point I wished would allow the transfer my life energy to you.
The vibrancy stayed in your eyes. It was the intensity of thoughts and conversations, though more in whisper – fall in love again, don’t be cooped here for long, don’t isolate, talk to me about our meeting, our first date, our wedding, our child. Such prompts of conversation. Some stories told over and over. You never tired of listening. I do wonder sometimes if the act of repetition was to make certain I would not forget…I will not forget.
Our moments of skin to skin when young were passionate and had such full connection. The touch of your skin would light me like an arc lamp. Late, it was about tenderness and contact. I would lift and carry you to the bench in the shower, so light, as you sat on my lap and I washed you and your hair in languid motions. There was no rush as long as you were comfortable and warm. The steam and moisture provided some relief and your arms about my neck were so familiar. Holding on as I dried you with towels freshly warmed by the dryer, fresh undies, fresh t-shirt and back to bed. I miss that hug. I can close my eyes and feel it, not weight, just warmth. The stool sits outside the shower now. After all, you are just not in need anymore.
I spend long nights reading by the bed, I can’t remember the last time I watched the Late or Tonight Show, which we did through the end. Laughter could bring on wracked coughing, but it let humor into an unfunny time, and we enjoyed it together. I should probably cancel cable, but I might go back to it. For now, I will just continue to read to you, some Scarpetta mystery or another, even though you cannot help solve the crime or parse out the bad guy, you’re just not puzzled by it all anymore.
At the close, I stretched out next to you, easy in your…our bed. Turned to you taking hold of your arm.
“Turn me please,” you whispered and I shifted you toward me so we were face to face.
You hand reached up, two fingers slid behind my ear and two rested by my temple, softly cupping my head. You put your cheek to mine and I could feel the softness of your breath as it tickled my ear.
“Bear, my Bear. I have loved you since the day we picnicked in the park. The trees were flush. The air spring fresh. We spent the day and night together and after you were mine.”
You belonged to me. You were mine and have been all these years. Everyday, you told me and I knew it for fact. You were mine. You were mine through a baby and all life’s churning. You were mine as we aged. You were mine through all that brought us here.”
“I just can’t be there anymore, Bear. I need to release you. You can’t be mine anymore.”
“Shh, it’s not fair to you. I mean it. You need to belong to someone. You need that. You won’t do well alone. You never did. It’s like cutting off the best part of you. So you can’t belong to me anymore.”
“I know it won’t happen right away, but it has to happen. It’s okay, you know. I’m not jealous or sad or mad. I’m just not here anymore and you need someone present. Tell me you know this is true. Tell me.”
“You aren’t mine anymore, Bear. You can’t be.”
Your breath feathered past my ear and I waited, and waited and waited. I opened my eyes to see your face, but you just weren’t there anymore.
I sleep alone now. In the bed. In the chair. On the couch. It really doesn’t matter. They came and took you away. They dressed you and pyred you, and put your ashes in a box so I could place you on my shelf. But, it’s not you just ashen remnants. You are right. I have lost the best part of me. I forgot how to flirt long ago. I don’t know how to get back there. You should have given me lessons. Now, I just wait, am there for our daughter, tend to the dog, and manage the accoutrements of life. My life. Waiting. Without you. Uncertain if I am here anymore.