The black, breathless shroud. An emptiness to end the emptiness. An infinite, dreamless sleep.
The IV is a cold finger on his skin. Its slow drip of forgetting ushers him from the black into the gray. Thoughts float like ashes and dissolve like cotton candy. Images flash like lightning and fade like Polaroids peeled too soon. Beginnings. Endings. A lingering embrace. A longer goodbye. There is freckled skin, warm, alive, eager. And then her fading scent on an empty pillow. Hope disappears like an almost-kiss.
The gray is an Escher paradox. Impossible paths leading everywhere and nowhere. At the center of the chaos, a tremulous pause, a hesitation where never-arriving calm threatens shadows into panic.
He opens his eyes. Shapes like faces hover. Some familiar. Some strange. They smile. They stare. They curse. They pray. They ask why.
There was a song. A very specific song, repeating, repeating, repeating. Were there pills? He remembers music. Not this music. Electronic beeps and clicks, a rhythm without a melody. Soulless machines singing soulless songs to save his soul.
What was that song?
It made him feel. One last feeling before the black.
He is dizzy, swirling. He is Scrabble tiles looking for words in a tornado. His feelings are woodland creatures – sad bunnies, angry chipmunks, happy squirrels. They stand in formation across a meadow, then turn at the edge of a blazing forest to shrug before losing themselves in the smoke of it. Don’t go, he says. He wants to cry for them, but they have his tears.
Days and minutes blend into each other like the side of a rotting barn against a storm-welcoming sky. He sleeps for a moment and a year. When he wakes, the gray is gone. It does not go gently, like a woman teasing her lover awake with a song. It runs away like rabbit on fire. The room lights that seemed distant as stars pierce him like spotlights pressing for truth. They water his eyes. A false tear drips disappointment down his cheek and through the blur he sees a woman's face.
He wonders if she will speak. If she will yell at him for trying to leave. If she will try to understand with words what he doesn’t understand with or without them.
He remembers now. There were pills.
Knives stab his stomach. Hammers pound his brain. Pliers pinch his arms. Chlorine and urine assault his nose. He feels the blood pump in his veins, defying him, teasing him back. He wants to be angry. He is too weak. He wants to be sorry. He doesn't know how.
What was that song?
He listens for it. Strains to hear its echo. There is nothing but the beep and click. And then, a sound like a sob. Another tear falls down his cheek. It is warm, and he wonders if it’s hers. She reaches down to wipe it away.
Her fingers are cold and their touch surprises him. The sobbing stops. And then she begins to hum. It is a sweet melody that reminds him of Christmas mornings.
That’s not the song. That’s not it at all. That’s the opposite of the song.
He opens his mouth to complain. She presses a finger to his lips. You’re not alone, she sings. You are never alone. We are all broken. And we are okay.
She closes his eyes with her cold fingers. Rest, she says.
When he opens his eyes, she is gone.
He feels the throbbing in his chest and wishes it would stop. His bones ache.
He sleeps for another moment and a year. When he wakes, he looks for her.
Where is she? he asks the nurse.
The woman who sings.
You've had lots of visitors. Do you know her name?
She has cold fingers.
The nurse laughs. I don’t know, she says.
He sighs. My head hurts, he says. It hurts so fucking much.
More gray sleep. More stairs that lead nowhere. More waking and sleeping and waking and sleeping to the incessant beep and click. And then, a different sound. Whispers.
He opens his eyes to a room full of people. His brother is here. His ex-wife. The friend who found him. Not the one who broke him.
Where is she? he asks.
Let her go, they say. She's no good for you, they say. They don’t mean the woman with cold fingers.
A nurse stands over him.
How do you feel? she asks.
Everything hurts, he says.
Do you want something for the pain?
He looks at their faces. His brother, his ex-wife, his friend, the nurse. They are silent. They are waiting. They are listening.
You're not alone. You are never alone.
That’s not it, he yells. That’s not the goddamn song!
We're all broken...
A tear rolls down his cheek. That's not the song, he sobs.
His tears last a moment and a year. Then, a smile from nowhere and everywhere gently twists the gray into blue. He says it again, but this time his voice is a laugh like Christmas mornings.
That's not the song.
He looks at his brother. His ex-wife. His friend. The nurse.
He sees everyone.
And begins to sing.
This unvoiced decision marks the moment her descent into darkness finds its voice, the moment her secrets become scars. It is only after this moment that everyone else sees the changes that have been seeping into her soul for months. The evidence - a defeatist attitude, a disregard for deadlines, poor hygiene - leads to confrontation, then concern, then a painfully intimate conversation with her supervisors. She is given phone numbers for doctors and therapists and granted a leave of absence for an "indefinite period." They tell her this is a good thing, that they want her to be well, that they'll be here when she's better.
When she hears the words "indefinite period" she sees a rowboat in the middle of the ocean with no oars.
It's a month before her birthday when Becky's best friend Lindy finds the courage to drag her out of her apartment. Becky doesn't want to go out for coffee. She would rather lie in bed and search for answers and lies in the lines and shadows of the white textured walls. Bed is the only place she feels safe. She begins to tell Lindy this, but before the words come out, she decides it's another lie. In that hesitation, Lindy gets her way.
When they get to The Waterfront Cafe, Becky catches her reflection in the window and wonders who the homeless woman is standing next to Lindy. They are seated on the patio, which affords a dramatic view of the wide brown river, the walking bridge filled with arm-in-arm couples, and the setting sun. Becky only notices the arm-in-arm couples. She hasn't brushed her teeth in three days.
The chairs are made of wrought iron and when Becky tries to slide hers back across the concrete it catches on a seam and she nearly tips over. Somewhere between the tipping and the recovery, she feels weightless and afraid. She wishes she could stay there.
The small round table between them is barely big enough to fit their coffee cups and Lindy's dog-eared copy of Let's Pretend this Never Happened. She's read it twice. She means to give it to Becky.
The conversation begins with a proclamation spoken loudly enough that it brings a glare from a woman in a white dress sipping tea. It will end with the same proclamation offered in whisper.
"I hate the word hope," says Becky. "I fucking hate it."
Becky's life is an accumulation of losses. She does not enumerate them today, but Lindy could. The loss of her father to cancer. The loss of her self-worth to a disinterested husband. The loss of her marriage to an affair. The loss of her lover to reconciliation. The loss of her son to cocaine. The loss of her mother to…whatever it is that makes mothers crazy. And the loss of her career. "Temporarily," Lindy would argue. Becky adds another loss to the list after staring at a couple praying at a table near the patio door.
"There is no god," she says.
"I think there is," says Lindy.
"You can't sit there and tell me that the god of the universe is looking down at me right now and thinking 'ah, that's just where I want her,'" says Becky.
Lindy wasn't going to tell her that. Not again.
"And don't give me that 'mysterious ways' bullshit, either," says Becky.
The next seventeen minutes go by without a word from either of them. Becky holds her coffee cup like she's telling it a secret. She sips it cautiously, like it's filled with acid.
"I miss you," says Lindy.
Becky wishes she could say the same thing to Lindy, but words cost too much and she is broke. She sips more acid.
"I hate the word hope," she says.
When Lindy takes Becky back to her apartment, she puts the book on her kitchen counter.
"The author reminds me of you," Lindy says, pointing to it.
This was a Sunday.
On Tuesday, Lindy brings Becky Chinese food. She answers the door in a Grateful Dead t-shirt three sizes too big. They eat in silence at the kitchen counter. The book is right where Lindy left it.
On Thursday, Lindy intercepts Becky's mother in the driveway and convinces her not to visit, and definitely not to make a big deal about her daughter's birthday. Not yet. Becky's mother looks like a broken doll when she leaves.
Lindy spends most of Saturday cleaning Becky's apartment. She dusts around the book on the kitchen counter and puts a vase of daisies next to it.
The next three weeks look the same to Lindy and Becky. The only thing that changes is the kind of flowers in the vase next to the book. Mums, next. Then tulips. Then roses.
It is a Thursday when Lindy sits in her car for fifteen long minutes, praying for the strength to walk the 37 steps to Becky's apartment building. It does not come, but she walks the 37 steps anyway.
When she uses the key Becky gave her two weeks before to open the door, the first thing Lindy notices is the smell. It is a wretched blend of sour milk and roses. She dumps the curdled milk into the sink and ignores the flowers and walks into Becky's bedroom with slow, fearful steps. Becky is where she always is, lying in her bed. The window is cracked open and a breeze is blowing lacy white curtains into a dance so delicate it makes Lindy's stomach ache. She sits in the chair at the end of Becky's bed.
There is a long silence. Lindy doesn't know where to begin.
"It's Ben," she finally says. "I just found out that he…he…" but she can't finish the sentence. She can't say it out loud. She buries her face in her hands and begins to sob. When she looks up, Becky is sitting on the end of the bed, just a few feet from her. She is wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt four sizes too big and holding a box of tissues.
Lindy takes a tissue and blows her nose and this is when she notices the book on Becky's nightstand.
"He's cheating on me," says Lindy through a sniffle. Just saying the words brings a new flood of tears and she hides in her hands again. "I hate…"
There is another long silence. The breeze releases the curtains and they fall flat against the window.
"I hate the word hope," Lindy says. She feels her best friend's bony arms encircle her. It feels like a hug from a glass butterfly.
"Me, too," says Becky. "Me, too."
Her breath smells like toothpaste.
He looked at his friend, the seriousness in her eyes betraying the question as one she had already asked – and answered – herself.
“I’d spend the rest of my life trying to prove the uncertainty of certainty,” he said. She didn’t flinch.
“Even knowing you would fail? Because you understand the premise, right? It’s not going to change. Ever.”
He brushed a cherry blossom from his shoulder, glanced up at the tree as if to ask a question, then looked at Holly again. She had the wrong color eyes. They were blue. The color of faded denim, she would argue, but he thought they were darker. “I think they’re more of a sky blue,” he had said. “But I want them to be denim blue.” “Okay.” She had wanted to be taller, too.
“Yes. Even knowing I would fail.”
Holly found Jack on a dating site. Eight men ago. But they had never dated. In Jack, she had found the girlfriend she’d always longed for – the person she could tell anything to without fear of judgment. Sometimes she called him that. Her girlfriend. The first time, he responded with uncharacteristic verve, offering claims of heterosexuality so outrageous she half-wondered if he was a homophobe. He wasn’t. He was just being funny.
Sometimes she felt bad teasing him. She knew about all of his insecurities. Some she’d discovered by observation, others he’d just spilled onto the table like a woman emptying her purse. She laughed at this thought, filed away the words for a future teasing. She liked watching him squirm. There was something compelling about Jack’s discomfort. A strange beauty revealed itself in his vulnerability. She would never tell him this, though. He had gotten the wrong idea once when she’d offered an unguarded compliment. Something about his way with words. Moments later, he had his arm around her. They were at the movie theater he called "theirs." The movie was Titanic. In 3D. She had turned to him and stared through the plastic glasses with such a curiously furrowed brow that he knew immediately he’d done something wrong. When he said, “Sorry, I thought you were Rose there for a moment,” she had nearly regretted the unvoiced complaint. He returned his arm to the armrest and she wondered then, for the first and only time, what it would be like to hold his hand. Perhaps if they’d been further along in the movie – the scene where Rose poses for Jack – she would have done it. They never talked about it.
“Why?” she asked. A reflected ray from the setting sun touched her face then, and her eyes did seem a lighter blue. Faded denim. Maybe she had only ever seen them in such light? No. Though she rarely wore makeup – an observation that always prompted a familiar ache – she would surely see her face in the mirror every morning, every night. Her bathroom had no such magical light. It was a dim, dark, windowless place. He had seen it just once, but the picture had stuck with him, a puzzle piece that didn’t fit with the woman he knew as an infinite source of sun-bright energy and shadowless optimism.
He’d only spent that one night at her house, after a party she invited him to turned into a drinking competition. She had won. He had lost, but only by virtue of having not played. She asked him to drive her home, and he did. Then she had slurred an invitation to spend the night because of the long drive, which he not even for one second imagined meant sharing her bed. This was before they saw Titanic.
“I don’t think I could handle living the rest of my life without the hope of love, the possibility of it,” he said.
“But you’ve given up on love. You've given up on hope, too. You said that. Didn’t you mean it?”
Her smile was somewhere between curious and coy. He thought of reaching over and pulling down the left side of the smile to erase the coy. It wasn’t meant for him. But they didn’t touch one another that way. They had only hugged once. Awkwardly. The coy, the sexy, the wanting – those were always meant for Michael, the lover who got away. The lover she sent away. The lover she always talked about between failed relationships and sometimes in the middle of moderately successful ones. He’s in South Africa now. Or New Zealand. She pretends not to know which, but it’s always the first she mentions. The second is merely an attempt to dilute a poorly-hidden ache.
“I meant it when I said it. I still mean it.” He didn’t need to tell the story again. She’d heard it a hundred times. But he paused anyway, to give her time to recall it. The desire, the bliss, the deception, the emptiness, the loss, and his own poorly-hidden ache.
“So you’d rather be alone, than with someone other than her.”
“But you hate being alone.”
“Look who’s talking,” he said. Another cherry blossom landed on his shoulder. He didn’t look up.
“What if the closest I get to the moment is now,” she said.
“It’s from a song. ‘What if the closest I get to the moment is now.’ Katie Herzig.”
“Should I listen to it?”
“You will. Over and over again.”
“I’m going to hate it, aren’t I,” he said.
“No. You’re going to love it. You love all the things that break your heart.”
A waitress came by to smile and drop off the check. He took it before she could reach for her purse. It was their only dance, and he always led. Her best girlfriend.
“Oh, you need to see this,” she said with her words, her hands, and her eyes all at once. “Come sit on my side of the table.” He obeyed without hesitation. The patio lights dimmed just as he stood. He dragged his chair across the tile floor, sat next to her, but not so close as to fear the accidental brush of his hand against hers. Together, they looked out over the city at a fading day. The sun’s escape was painting a yellow and orange and red halo above the mountains.
He had seen thousands of sunsets, of course. Every one broke his heart for all the right reasons. The last few thousand, for those reasons and one more.
“You see her everywhere, don’t you,” Holly said, her voice softened by the night.
“Everywhere but next to me.”
She took a sip of her wine. Red. Always red. “I hope you can do it,” she said.
“Prove the uncertainty of certainty.”
He smiled then. A kind, sad smile that would have made a sound like a sigh. Then he spoke, his voice strong, confident.
“’Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’”
“Dylan Thomas?” she said after a respectful pause. “I love that you know poetry.”
“I don’t know much. That’s the only part I remember,” he said.
“If Michael had known even one verse of poetry…” Her expression darkened, and he saw what she must see every morning, every night in the bathroom mirror. Someone she didn’t want to be. The darkness only lasted an instant, and she was back, sparkling denim eyes and bright spirit called to purpose by sheer force of will. “Well, I don’t now about you, but I’m going to rage every single day,” she said.
Holly looked over at Jack. He continued to stare straight ahead. She wondered what he saw in the color and the light. Then she realized she already knew.
“I think I will go gently,” he said, finally, this time with uncertain voice.
Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm sounded, a dog barked. Behind them, the rattle and scrape of tables being cleared. The patio was nearly empty when a breeze stirred the cherry tree. Blossoms fell like snow then, pulled to the ground by gravity and the first chill of autumn.
She walked into the bar, six or seven steps behind the waitress, three ahead of him. He was talking on his cell phone. She walked with her head down, an apology to the waitress who was nearly done with her shift and hoping to hurry it by walking faster.
She took the booth side under the TV, he the one facing it. She did this because of the one time she didn’t. The TV was tuned to a soccer game. She anticipated his scowl before it appeared and almost allowed herself a smile. He told the waitress to change the channel to “real football.” She said she couldn’t do that but she could find them another booth near another TV if they didn’t mind waiting. He minded.
She wore not-skinny jeans and a heather gray V-neck sweatshirt decorated with an orange C. The sweatshirt was at least five sizes too big, but it wasn’t his. He was barely her height and skinny enough to wear her clothes, which he had but only one time and only then because he was drunk and she was passed out on the sofa and he just wanted to know.
Every time she set her wine glass on the table the sweatshirt slipped over her left shoulder, revealing a black bra strap. She tugged the sweatshirt back into place like she was trying to teach it a lesson.
She wasn’t wearing makeup. Her eyes were tired and her skin pale and freckled. Her shoulder-length dirty blonde hair was tied in back with a rubber band. Escaped strands kept falling in front of her face but she didn’t scold them like she did the sweatshirt.
When they’d first met three years earlier he’d told her she reminded him of Charlize Theron and he’d said it again tonight but he was thinking of her role in Monster and she’d never seen it so she mistakenly thought he was being kind.
Her baked chicken was under-baked and she shouldn’t have mentioned it but she did in a sort of half-whispered dictation, another thing added to a secret list. This time he was listening so he called the waitress over and told her to fix it (and his overcooked steak, too) or he’d tweet about how bad the restaurant was and he has over seven thousand followers. The waitress apologized and took the chicken and the steak and the angry words back to the kitchen.
He wore sunglasses the whole time, not to hide his bloodshot eyes (they were) but because he was as vain as he was clueless about how stupid he looked wearing sunglasses indoors.
“They look good on me,” he’d said when he bought them a month earlier at a store that sold only sunglasses. It wasn’t a question, though he’d expected an answer. She’d said “yes” then. It wasn't her first lie. He bought her a pair a week later. They cost half of what he’d spent on his, but that was still ten times more than she’d ever spent on sunglasses. She snapped the frame in half the next day quite by accident, but he doesn’t know it yet.
He checked his messages six times between the complaint and the delivery of the new food. He noted this aloud to the waitress (who had not been cut after all and would quit later that night after the third kitchen mistake), then experienced a rare, strange joy when he silently compared the checking of messages to the tapping of impatient fingers and recognized this as metaphor.
He looked at her once with an expression that surprised her. He shook his head slowly, disbelieving something. She thought she remembered the look from when they were first dating. The “how did I get so lucky?” look. The one that preceded his comparison of her to Charlize Theron in The Cider House Rules. But it quickly faded into something like dismay. She brushed the hair from her face and took another bite of chicken.
Halfway through the second attempt at supper, he got up to use the bathroom or take a phone call or both and she looked across the aisle. She smiled politely and I tried to smile back in kind but all I could manage was a sad half-smile because honesty had filled the vacuum he’d left behind.
It was then that I whispered those three words. I hadn’t planned to say anything. I never say anything. I am an observer, not an intruder.
But the words came out and I couldn’t retrieve them.
“You are beautiful.”
There was no invitation in the words. I didn’t want to start a conversation. I didn’t want to fall in love with her or kiss her or sleep with her. I didn’t want anything but to say those words and I didn't even want to do that until they'd already come out.
I saw her catch her breath then and wondered if she’d been looking at me or the picture window beyond. The sun was setting and the sky was purple and orange and yellow and a few colors I hadn’t seen before.
He came back a moment later and said it was time to go and she nearly told him that she’d come for the blueberry pie and couldn’t they at least get some to go. Instead, she slid soundlessly out of the booth and put on her coat and gathered her purse and walked past him, out the door next to the picture window and into the parking lot. By the time he was done paying the bill, she had kicked off her heels. By the time he was stepping off the curb, she was almost at the highway. He walked to his car with his phone at his ear while two strangers chased after her. She stepped in front of the semi just as he opened the driver’s side door.
He turned when the horn sounded and stood there next to his just-washed car while she rolled into the median and came to a stop with her legs bent the wrong way and her body bloodied and her dirty blonde hair tied in back with a rubber band.
He stood there a long time. Long enough to notice a smudge on the hood. Long enough to start to feel something like sadness.
I might be wrong about some of the details. I’m not sure if he ever wore her clothes or if blueberry pie was her favorite dessert. But I am certain about some things.
The guy was an asshole.
The woman stepped in front of a semi.
And I didn’t say “you are beautiful” loud enough.
In the afternoon we picnic down by the thinning creek that divides her grandfather’s farm from neighboring undeveloped lands. Trees line either side of stream like dedicated servants holding sheltering umbrellas.
We spread a quilt under the sun, inviting what the trees deny. I want to take pictures of the trees. She shrugs and opens a bottle of wine.
Her glass is empty but for a small button of red swimming above the stem when I return with a camera full of nothing.
Trees are boring unless you know their story, she says.
So tell me one of their stories, I say.
She hesitates, then pours a second glass and takes a long sip.
There is a tree, not here, but upstream a bit. She doesn’t point, but holds a finger to her lips. Do you hear it? she asks.
I hear the trickle of the water and a whisper of wind through the leaves, then in the distance a roll of thunder that sounds like it’s wrapped in a blanket.
No, I say.
Listen harder, she says.
She leaves the story in the uncertain air and lies down on her back, balancing her wine glass on her stomach. A warm breeze blows straw-blonde hair across her cheeks and ruffles the hem of her sundress. Tiny daisies printed on yellow cotton slow-dance in the wind, then relax to tease more of her bare legs into the sun.
I aim my camera at her and click a succession of photos, close-ups that begin at her unpainted toenails and travel up her thin legs, past her hips, to small hands wrapped around crystal and crimson. I pause at her chest to watch her breathe, remembering the moonlit silhouette of her naked body from a dozen nights and a thousand dreams. Then I continue the photographic journey to her shoulders, bare but for a few lonely freckle constellations. Her lips are slightly parted, her eyes closed. A bead of sweat drips down her cheek. Or a tear.
The light here is terrible, she says. I will be washed out and pale. I will be a ghost.
Sometimes I see her that way, like the pinched wrinkles on a forsaken bed sheet. Or the smell of raspberries in an empty kitchen. Sometimes she is light without shadows. Sometimes only shadows.
This tree upstream, she says, is missing a limb.
And then she waits again. I write a dozen stories in my head. A child climbs out over the stream to catch a butterfly and the branch snaps. This is the day he learns to swim. Or doesn’t. A hunter shoots at a squirrel and misses, splintering wood instead. A desperate man ties a noose. Disease attacks. Lightning strikes.
I set the camera down and lean over to kiss her. She inhales just before our lips meet, and exhales a sigh. There is no one more beautiful in any light.
I’m going to find the tree, I say, and start to get up.
No, she says. She nearly spills her wine when she reaches out to grab my hand. Stay.
I take the glass from her and set it on the picnic basket, then lie down on my side next to her. I rest a hand on her stomach and she covers it with both of hers.
The tree wants to forget, she says. A photograph makes it remember.
I kiss her shoulder and breathe in the only scent that speaks to me of safety. Of home.
Okay, I say.
Hours pass. The storm turns away and looks for a different picnic to interrupt. Clouds drift by in a parade of deformed animals. A giraffe with a monkey’s head. A legless lion. An elephant without a trunk. The elephant’s trunk.
You know what word I like, she says. I thought she was asleep. Nevertheless.
She doesn’t explain. She doesn’t have to. I’d thought the very same thing once.
Another hour passes.
Do you hear that dog barking in the distance, she asks.
Everything out here is in the distance, I say. I think I am being clever.
Not everything, she says.
She folds the quilt and I pack up the picnic basket. We climb the hill hand in hand while I write a story of all new things and she writes one on top of old things.
When we get to the abandoned wagon, she stops. The sun has nearly set and the light coming through tall grass is painting streaks across the side like tiger stripes. I reach for my camera.
She drops my hand, walks over to the wagon and kicks it with her bare foot. The she kicks it again and again and again. Four times. Five, six, seven. She kicks it until the grass lets go and the wagon flips end over end and a wheel flies off.
Her breathing slows and she hobbles back to me. Her foot is bloody. I bend down to wipe it with my shirt. I don’t ask why. She had already answered that question.
It was her father’s wagon.
I kiss her foot, then stand and hold her in my arms until the sun goes down and the tiger light fades and the wagon disappears into darkness.