He pulled me back from the edge
with its dizzying allure.
I held him while he shook
with decades’ worth of tears.
We are enough for each other.
That is the magic.
He pulled me back from the edge
with its dizzying allure.
I held him while he shook
with decades’ worth of tears.
We are enough for each other.
That is the magic.
Hospital chairs are cold, especially in waiting rooms of the emergency department on a late night. Or was it now early morning? A Friday night? Saturday morning? The cold air of February buffeted her being every time someone walked or ran or pushed a gurney through the doors leading to the covered parking area where ambulances and cars parked with the injured or dying or just frightened stop to unload their people, the most important people in the world, to them. She pulled her knees into her chest making herself as small as possible. The chairs were weird, hard plastic in washed-out shades of green and orange stuck together with poles against the puke pallid walls. Like anyone would seriously think about stealing from here, or maybe they would create a scene throwing a chair through a window or door or block the paths of the gurneys and the EMS team wheeling people in.
He had held her hair back as she vomited into the toilet, as exploding blueberries and raspberries covered in cream, careened out of her nostrils and mouth. Her eyes felt so swollen like they could bulge right out of their sockets and plunk like overripe fruits into the sea of puke, but he had her head too in his hands, elongated fingers that suited his large frame. She wasn’t frightened just uncomfortable and wishing it was over and that she hadn’t had so much to drink on their Valentine’s celebration in her special dress. The one she had saved for this occasion, crushed red velvet with the tie-up bodice and long swirls of skirt; a little like the dresses Anne Boleyn wore for Henry the Eighth, before the animosity and beheading. She always whoopsied when she was excited, always. And her hair was red and curly not in any way like Anne Boleyn’s thick brown strands before her husband lopped off her head. She looked up at him with only love, love, love silencing the tummy ache of crab cakes and chocolate éclairs and one too many glasses of champagne.
She had been an ill bride, just out of the hospital, still under a doctor’s care, when they said, fuck it. And got on a plane with thirty-two dollars and a new visa to fly to her homeland where the food was bad, and the scenery was lush even in October with the birds of prey circling close overhead and never landing. Her family kept them for a few days; the In-Tourist Centers set them up with bed and breakfasts for the other nights. Somehow she managed to drive a stick shift on the wrong side of the road because he was too large to fit behind the wheel of the small car they rented. But even if he did fit, he couldn’t drive a stick, so she was stuck. Even when she told him, I think I’ve made an awful mistake. He poured some more tea, added milk and sugar, pushed the heart-decorated mug towards her, before saying, we’re here now, let’s make the best of it, shall we? They did, walking old railroad tracks through one town, washing their undies in one city, downing port in the pubs in another, sprinting through brisk mornings for a newspaper. Two days before their departure, they took a detour. Look up the sign said, and they did see a blue sky, air frigid but clear floating above the dilapidated runway doubling as a road. They found castle ruins sitting on a mossy hill, beaten by the harsh winds of the North Sea. The foam sprayed them from deep below as he pulled her back from the edge, wrapped her in his elegant arms, to drive to a tea shop in the nearest town, where life seemed okay, and marriage was not so scary or smothering or settling down. She woke him up that night to listen to the couple next door having wall-pounding sex. Giggling from their secret snooping, they tried for a syncopated rhythm but couldn’t stop laughing, and fell asleep to sounds of a headboard crashing like the waves from earlier. No time for showers the next morning but she led him to the sink, tipped his head forward and washed his hair, letting the blue-black strands iced with silver, thick as her wrist, slide forward into the basin. Never cut your hair she said, and he replied as long as you wash it for me. The shampoo was slippery making his head silk-shrouded, sleek as a seal, heavy with hair and head and gray matter to become heavier again as she poured jug after jug of warm water to rinse. She smiled thinking of the times they would have together, traveling around Greece on rented motorcycles, renovating their little house, caring for their dogs and cats instead of the children that she couldn’t have. Jug after jug, she rinsed out the suds and promised herself to wash his hair, always.
They had been playing Trivial Pursuit, a game she was lousy at except when playing on a team but they were playing alone that night, drinking tequila and dark beer in the only circle of light of a dark woody bar. She felt giddy with the completion of the semester, contemplating another round. That night was before the crackdown of DUIs and MothersAgainstDrunkDriving and their maturation, so another round was possible and even probable when he asked her something else. She had been caught unaware, concentrating on the sunny yellow wedge of pie missing in her wheel, when he posed the question of marriage or Greece. Without hesitation she said Greece, been married before don’t want to do it again. He pushed the long hair away from his face and held her gaze with those long-lashed green eyes, moo-moo mouth pursed, white skin so soft that it showed the bruise of her words. Tears ran down her face knowing her time was up and this was it, and he would leave her if she chose Greece but still, she tried. Can’t we do both, no, why, not enough money, I want to go to Greece, I want to get married? Full stop.
After two days of him feeling not quite well, she worked late that Friday until checking on him she saw he looked worse than that morning. Color grim, and she called his doctor, but he was not worried, flu season, and she said to do something please for my husband. Pharmaceuticals didn’t help, and her beloved looked at her as he said, I’m so scared. She didn’t know what to do so she asked him. Stay at home. They knew they knew. Blue, the skin around his mouth and eyes turned blue, and they knew as the seizures came that his brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen. She asked again. Stay at home. Massaging him as muscles died, rocking him when he shook, whispering little love memories into his ear until he smiled. Then the smiles became fewer, frozen in pain. She dialed 911. Paramedics jumped through the door, attaching lines and tubes, speaking to him in progressively louder voices as the gurney wheeled in. She watched from the hallway, out of their way, shaking.
She twisted the heavy gold ring on her finger; first one way, then slipped it to the middle joint, then back down and twirled it the other way. The hard edge of the plastic chair cut into her thighs. Her sweater was not warm enough against the aseptic cold air rushing through the room and down her spine. She shivered and fidgeted as a way to keep warm, keep away the thoughts of the other room, what they were doing. The slip-sliding sound of the doors announced a visitor even before she saw his green-clad booties, stained scrubs, red-raw fingers wringing together. I will not look up. Nothing good will be said.
She knocked her head against the patched wall of the waiting room. Straight back. Bouncing her scalp against the plasterboard, feeling trickles of blood plaster hair against her neck, many feet scurrying towards her, hearts-blood from her scalp, the give of the wall, trying to knock out all the little love memories of Not Greece.
This weekend was the 23 anniversary of my husband’s death. This piece was originally published in 100 Voices: Volume 3 by Centum Press. It developed from a writing class through the IWP; the prompt was to write a non-linear segmented story.
YOU LOVED HIM. HE MOVED ON. YOU WERE DEVASTATED. GET ON WITH IT. Read ‘Relationships for Dummies.’ Get fitted for a new diaphragm. Get a professional wax job. Start fresh or fresher down there. Stock up on condoms. Put clean sheets on the bed and towels in the bathroom. Put on your big girl panties and sign up for a dating app. GO TO A DIFFERENT GODDAMN COFFEE SHOP.
He read Mark Strand poems into my phone. Masculine firmness mouthing each word. Susurrus of certain phrases.
Listening, couplets tangled my hair. Stanzas vibrated my limbs. Entire poems enfolded my body.
A season of love in metred details.
In the Autumn, the elegy, and words peeled away, leaving me stunned in the silence.
AN EXCERPT from a short story published in the anthology, Robot Hearts. (A woman performs the Heimlich Maneuver and goes out on a date with the man she saved.)
This month has been hard. My clients are doing the usual two-week ramp up before the Christmas holidays. They talk about their parties, hangovers, family brouhahas, and impulsive sexual escapades. The entire month makes me want to act out with them. So I did.
My holiday escapade began when I made an awkward phone call to the man from synagogue that went something like this:
“Hello. I’m the woman from Friday night services.”
“Oh, I didn’t think you would call.”
“Well, it was sweet of you to come out to my car and say thank you.”
“It was amazing how far the ruggelah flew.”
“Yes. The rabbi was surprised.”
I tapped my fingers. Reconnected with my eye twitch. Good bloody grief. I cut to the chase. “What do you think about dinner?”
“I like dinner,” he said.
“You had suggested we go to dinner.”
“Oh yes, I forgot.”
“What kind of food do you like?” I asked.
“Oh most things. Hamburgers, meatloaf, chicken soup, ice cream.”
I had a moment – a long moment of wondering, “Is this worth it?” I decided to carry on.
“Do you know Mitch’s Tavern?” I asked.
“Well. I know Mitch and he can make some great chilli and sandwiches but not hamburgers.”
“I don’t like spicy food.”
“What, never mind. When are you thinking?” I said.
“Do you have a date, a time in mind?”
“No. Do you?”
“How about Tuesday?”
“So we have the date?”
“Good. I’ll be there,” he said.
“Good. But what time?”
“Okay, let’s pull this together. Tuesday at 7 pm at Mitch’s Tavern?”
“How will I know you?”
“I’m the one who saved your life.”
“Oh yeah. Short, skinny, red hair, but God you were strong.”
“Looking forward to it,” I said.
I was sitting at the bar, talking with Mitch, the owner when a series of clunks echoed up the gloomy staircase. David clomped his way over. “It’s good to see you getting out,” said Mitch and winked before strolling off.
A cute, college waitress showed us to our booth. She smiled in first date sympathy as she handed over the menus.
“I’ll give you a few minutes to figure out your order. What would you like to drink?”
“Knob Creek. A few ice cubes.”
David’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline.
I smiled at him. He did not smile back.
“You’re prettier than I remembered.”
“Thanks. It must be the lighting.”
We studied our menus like college students cramming that last little factoid before a history exam.
The waitress appeared with my bourbon, two waters, and his beer. “Mitch said it’s on the house. What would you like to eat?”
“A Rueben with fries,” I said.
“Ham and cheese. Hold the pickle. I don’t eat pickles,” he said.
“I’ll eat your pickle. No, no wait. I won’t eat your pickle. Well not tonight. Maybe later. Another time? NO. Keep your pickle. Not that there’s anything wrong with your pickle. I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine pickle, just not a pickle for me tonight. No, no pickle for me. I gave them up. All that brine has got to bad for the mucous membranes.” I sputtered, feeling this deep pull in my belly. A spasm, a fit, a seizure, a visceral understanding of the absurdity of the situation. I started to laugh. Really laugh like I hadn’t in a long time. The waitress and I were rolling, wiping tears out of our eyes. The table shook with us. She had to sit down. I offered her my bourbon.
David locked eyes with me. His gaze suggested I had disemboweled his dog. The waitress moved away. The table was cocooned in a judgmental silence.
Dinner was fast. We politely shook hands. David walked away. I went back to Mitch’s Tavern. The waitress and I stayed up late drinking bourbon and trading war stories. We decided to just walk away the next time someone chokes.
Lying face up on my bed sifting through the night’s events, I watched the first apricot rays of dawn dance across the floor. Rod would have understood the pickle story. He would have fed me the pickle, spending our last twenty bucks to buy bourbons for the four of us (me, him, the waitress, Mitch). He would have made crude remarks for years about green vegetables. The pickle fiasco would have become a little tease, a pickle tickle about the connection between sex and love and laughter, another little curlicue in our goofy love story.
I cried three weeks ago. It was the anniversary of my wedding to Rod and it has taken me three weeks to get up the courage to write about it. It’s been twenty years since he died and I thought it wouldn’t sadden me to write about it. But I was wrong. It is bittersweet.
I was terrified of getting married again. My first, starter, marriage had been a disaster on about every level. Coming out of it left me stranded in a town I disliked, with no money, in the middle of graduate school, and deeply scared of men. Most men. (My first husband has deeper issues, he told people I had died.)
Luckily Rod was not most men. He was a gentle giant who would call me on my shit and own up to his own pile of crap. We were very good at living together. So good I managed to avoid thinking too much about the future.
When the topic of marriage first came up – pretty early on he brought it up – I refused to marry him until he was twenty-five. “Your brain changes so much between now and 25. No way.” I was a tad older. Rod kept bringing up the subject. I would say, “No, no, no. You’re not twenty-five.” And I would throw him a bone – get another dog, wax the floors (really, no euphemism here), scrape paint off the old house we lived in with a heat gun at one in the morning. Our neighbors thought we were weird but … it worked for us. Our friends thought we were weird. We just smiled at them and carried on living our lives. Rod worked in a corporate setting and kept the pack of dogs we had accumulated. I finished my graduate degrees while doing some esoteric artwork on tubs, walls, and fireplaces.
All around us friends and colleagues were getting married. We went to the weddings, toasted them, got toasted, and went home to our lovely coupleness. I was happy.
I thought all was well until the night we were sitting at a bar drinking tequila and dark beer. We were in the middle of a highly competitive game of Trivial Pursuit when he pulled the plug.
“Do you want to get married or go to Greece?”
I downed a shot of tequila. “Greece,” I said wracking my brain for a song lyric.
“I’m twenty-five in three months and I want to get married.” He said the words slowly. The noise in the bar receded until I could hear the sounds of my ass shifting on the stool.
I knew I wasn’t ready. “Can we do both?”
I heard Rod put down his beer. “No.” His fingers drummed the varnished wood.
I looked up from worrying about my next piece on the game board. “Why not?”
“We don’t have the money for both.”
Looking into his eyes, I saw how much was riding on my answer. I had a weird realization of ‘this is it. He will leave me if I don’t ante up.’ I gulped. My brain flooded with panic. The thought, ‘I have time,’ barreled into my love for this man. My moment of truth with myself and him. Did I love this man more than my fear? That sounds so clichéd.
“Okay.” The thought of losing him was more frightening than the thought of facing my commitment fears.
That’s how we came to be engaged.
In my counseling office, people tell stories of their romantic lives; how they met each other, their shining moments, and the times they howl with wounds inflicted by the relationship. Coupling is never easy, and people want easy relationships. Immediately. I commiserate then I push the lesson.
I learned two important things during the night of the engagement. First off, a good relationship is full of pain from growth. Relationships are lovely in some moments and terrifying in other moments. Second, you are never really ready. But I would not have missed or changed our relationship for the world.