With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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These are ten things that only you know now:
He joked that he would die young. You imagined ninety-nine to your hundred. But by “young” he meant sixty-five, fifty-five. What “young” ended up meaning was thirty-five.
In the memory book the funeral home gave you (actually, that you paid for; nothing there was free, not even delivering the flowers to a nursing home the next day, which cost sixty-five dollars, but you were too used up to care), there was a page to record his exact age in years, months, and days. You added hours; you even added minutes, because you had that information. You were there when he had the heart attack.
Now, when thinking about his life, it seemed to you that minutes were so very important. There was that moment in the emergency room when you begged for ten more minutes. You would’ve traded anything, everything, just for one more second, for the speck of time it would take to say his name, to hear him say your name.
Later, when you thought about it (because suddenly there was so much time to think; too little time, too much time — time was just one more thing you couldn’t make sense of anymore), you wondered why he’d told you he was going to die young. The first time he said it, you punched his arm. “Don’t say that,” you said. “Don’t ever say that again, ever.” But he said it another day and another and lots of days after that. And you punched his shoulder every time, because it was bad luck, bad mental energy, but you knew he’d say it again. You knew then that there would always be one more time for everything.
He once compared you to an avocado. He was never good at saying what he meant in fancy ways. (You had a boyfriend in college who dedicated poems to you, one of which won a contest in the student literary magazine, but that boyfriend never compared you to anything as simple and real as an avocado.)
You were sitting on the patio in the backyard. It was the day the dog got loose and ran out onto Route 50, and you found him by the side of the road — two legs mangled and blood everywhere — and you pulled off your windbreaker and wrapped the dog in it while your husband stood next to you whispering, “Oh God, oh God,” because there was so much blood. He drove to the vet, catching every red light, while you held the dog close and murmured dog secrets in his ear and felt his warm blood soak your clothes. And when the vet said she was sorry, that it was too late, you were the one who cupped the dog’s head in both hands while she slipped in the needle, and you were the one who remembered to take off the dog’s collar, unbuckling it slowly and looping it twice around your wrist, and you were the one whose face the dog tried to lick but couldn’t quite reach.
So, that night, out on the patio, the two of you were sitting close, thinking about the dog. It was really too cold to be on the patio, but the dog had loved the backyard; every tree was a personal friend, each squirrel or bird an encroaching enemy. It was just cold enough that you felt him shiver, and he felt you shiver, but neither of you suggested going inside just yet. That’s when he said, “I’ve decided you’re like an avocado.”
You almost didn’t ask why, you were so busy thinking about the dog’s tongue trying to reach your face and failing, even when you leaned right down next to his mouth. But then you asked anyway.
He looked up at the dark sky. “You’re sort of tough on the outside,” he said. “A little intimidating.”
“Maybe,” you said, but you knew he was right. In photos, you always looked as if you didn’t want to be there. Lost tourists never asked you for directions; they asked your husband. It was something you’d become used to and no longer thought about or wondered why anymore.
He continued: “But inside, you’re soft and creamy. Luscious, just like a perfectly ripe avocado. That’s the part of you I get. And underneath that is the hardest, strongest core of anyone I know. Like how you were today at the vet. Like how you are with everything. An avocado.”
At the time, you smiled and mumbled, but could only think about the dog, the poor dog. That was five years ago. What you remember now is not so much the dog’s tongue, but being compared to an avocado.
He predicted a grand slam at a baseball game. It was the Orioles versus the Red Sox, a sellout game up in Baltimore, on a bright, sunny June day, the kind of day when you look out the window and think, Baseball. But in Baltimore it wasn’t possible to go to a game just because it was a sunny day; they were sold out months and months in advance — especially against teams like Boston, which had fans whose fathers had been Boston fans, whose kids were Boston fans, and whose grandkids would be Boston fans. He’d actually bought the tickets way back in December, not knowing what kind of day it would be, and it just happened to be that perfect kind of baseball day.
He’d grown up listening to games on the radio, sprawled sideways across his bed in the dark listening to AM stations from faraway Chicago, New York, St. Louis. He still remembered the call letters and could reel them off like a secret code. Now he brought his radio to the game in Baltimore and balanced it on the armrest between your seats, and the announcers’ voices drifted up in bits and snatches, and part of him was sitting next to you eating a hot dog and cheering, and part of him was that child sprawled in the dark listening to distant voices.
The bases were loaded, and Cal Ripken came up to bat. Cal was your favorite player. You’d once seen him pick up a piece of litter that was blowing around the field and tuck it into his back pocket. Something about that impressed you as much as all those consecutive games he’d played.
“What’s Cal going to do?” he asked.
You looked at your score card. (He’d taught you how to keep score; you liked the organization and had developed a special system, with filled-in diamonds for home runs, a K for a strikeout, and squiggly lines to indicate a pitching change.) Cal wasn’t batting especially well lately — the beginnings of a slump, you thought. “Hit into a double play,” you said. Cal had hit into a lot of double plays that season, ended a lot of innings.
He shook his head. “He’s knocking the grand salami” — meaning a home run bringing in all four runners. You’d never seen one in person before.
“Cal doesn’t have many grand slams,” you said — not to be mean (after all, Cal was your favorite player), but because it was true. You knew Cal’s stats, and his grand-slam total was four at the time, after all those years in the majors.
“Well, he’s getting one now,” he said.
After Cal fouled twice for two strikes, you glanced over at him. “It’ll come,” he said.
On the next pitch, Cal whacked the ball all the way across that blue sky.
Everyone stood and cheered and screamed and stomped their feet, and he held the radio in his hand and flung his arm around your shoulders and squeezed tight. From the radio by your ear, you heard the echo of everyone cheering, and you thought about a boy alone in the dark listening to that sound.
He was afraid of bugs: outdoor bugs and indoor bugs; bugs big enough to cast shadows and little bugs that could be pieces of lint. Not “afraid” as in running screaming from the room, but afraid as in watching TV and pretending not to see the fat cricket in the corner; or walking into the bathroom first thing in the morning and ignoring the spider frantically zigzagging across the sink.
“There’s a bug on the wall,” you might say, pointing, hand outstretched, forcing him finally to look up and follow to see where your hand was pointing. You’d repeat: “There’s a bug on the wall.”
Still he’d say nothing.
“Do you see it?” you’d ask.
So you’d grab a tissue and squish the bug, maybe letting out a sharp sigh, as if you knew you weren’t the one who should be doing this. Or, if it were a big, messy bug like a cricket, you might try to scoop it up and drop it out the window. Sometimes, if you waited too long, the bug (silverfish, in particular) would scurry into the crack between the wall and carpet, and you’d imagine it reemerging in the future: bigger, stronger, braver, meaner. Bugs in the bathtub were easiest, because you could run water and wash them down the drain. You learned many different ways to get rid of bugs.
He never said, “Thank you for killing the bugs.” He never said that he was afraid of bugs. You never accused him of being afraid of bugs.
He kept his books separate from yours. Certain shelves on certain bookcases were his; others were yours.
Maybe it made sense when you were living together, before you were married. If one of you had to move out, it would only be a matter of scooping armloads of books off the shelves, rather than sorting through, picking over each volume, having to think. It would allow you to get out fast. Plus, with separate shelves, he could stare at his long, tidy line of hardcovers, undisturbed by the scandalous disarray of your used paperbacks. He liked to stare at his books with his head cocked to the right — not necessarily reading the titles, but just staring at the shelf of books, at their length and breadth and bulk. You never knew what he was thinking when he did this.
After your wedding, when you moved into the new house, you said something about combining the books, maybe putting all the novels in one place and all the history books in another and all the travel books together, and so on, like that.
He was looking out the window at the new backyard, at the grass no one had cut for weeks and weeks. Finally, he said, “We own every last damn blade of grass.”
“What about the books?” you asked. You were trying to get some unpacking done. There were boxes everywhere. The only way to walk through rooms was to wind along narrow paths between stacked boxes. There were built-in bookcases in the living room by the fireplace — two features the realtor had mentioned again and again, as if she knew that you were imagining sitting in front of a fire, reading books, sipping wine, letting the machine take the calls. As if she knew exactly the kind of life you had planned.
“I’ll do the books,” he said. But he didn’t step away from the window.
It was a nice backyard, with a brick patio, and when you’d stood out there for the first time, during the open house, you’d thought about summer nights with the baseball game on the radio and the coals dying down in the grill and the lingering scent of medium-rare steak and a couple of stars squeezing through the glare of the city to find the two of you.
Again you offered to do the books; you wanted to do the books. You wanted all those books organized on the shelves; his and yours, yours and his.
“I never thought I’d own anything I couldn’t pack into a car,” he said.
You felt so bad you started to cry, certain only you wanted the house, only you wanted the wedding. “Is it so awful?” you asked.
He reached over some boxes to touch your arm. “No, it’s not awful at all,” he said, and it turned out that this was what you really wanted — not the patio, not the built-in shelves next to the fireplace, not the grass in the backyard, but the touch of his hand on your arm.
You did the books together, and suddenly something about keeping them separate felt right, as if now you realized that the books would be fine on separate shelves of the same bookcase, in the house you’d bought for the life you had.
He once saw a ghost. He was mowing the lawn in front, and you were in back clipping the honeysuckle that grew over the fence. Your neighbor — an original owner who’d bought his house for three thousand dollars in 1950 — wanted to spray kerosene and set the vines on fire, but you said no. You liked the smell of honeysuckle on June nights. You liked the hummingbirds flitting among the flowers in August. You even liked all that clipping, letting your mind go blank as you wrestled with the vines, cutting and tugging, yanking and twisting and pulling — knowing that whatever you cut would grow back by the end of the summer, that in the end the honeysuckle would always come back, maybe even if your neighbor burned down the vines.
It was that time of the early evening when the shadows were long and cool and the dew was rising on the grass; that time when, as a barefoot child, you would start getting damp toes. You half heard the lawn mower whining back and forth, back and forth, and you were thinking ahead to sitting on the patio and watching the fireflies float up out of the long, weedy grass under the apple tree. Then the lawn mower stopped abruptly; it needed more gas, you thought, or maybe there was a plastic bag in the way. When the silence lingered, you walked around to the front yard, curious, and found him leaning up against the car in the driveway, the silent lawn mower in front of him. The streetlight flicked on as you reached him; he held out his arms for a hug, and you felt his sweat, tacky against your skin.
“I saw a ghost,” he said.
You pushed the hair back from his forehead and blew lightly on it to cool him down. His forehead was pale compared to the rest of his face.
He pointed over toward the big maple tree, the one that was so pretty each autumn. But nothing was there.
“What kind of ghost?” you asked. You still had your hand on top of his head, and when you removed it, his hair stayed back where you’d pushed it.
“Like a soldier from the Civil War,” he said. “He was leaning against that tree, and then he was gone.”
“Confederate or Union?” you asked.
He looked annoyed, as if you’d asked the wrong thing, but it seemed a logical question to you.
“It was a ghost,” he said. “I saw a ghost.”
“Did he do anything?”
“Maybe it was the heat,” he said.
“Maybe it was a real ghost,” you said. “There were Confederate encampments along here.” There was a silence. A car went by too fast, music spilling from its open window. “That tree’s big enough to have been here then.”
“This is stupid,” he said, and he leaned down and pulled the cord on the lawn mower. The engine roared, and he couldn’t hear you anymore, and you watched him push the lawn mower across the yard. You saw nothing under the maple tree, just newly cut grass spit into lines by the lawn mower and shadows stretching slowly into the dark.
Now you’re the one who cuts the grass. People tell you to hire a service, but you don’t. When you’re done mowing in the evening, you lean against the car and wait, but all you ever see are fireflies rising from the damp grass where you leave it long under the maple tree.
When he ate malted-milk balls, he sucked the chocolate off first. Thinking you weren’t watching, he’d roll the candies from one side of his mouth to the other, making the sort of tiny noises you’d imagine a chipmunk would make, or a small bird, or something else tiny and cute. If he caught you watching him, he’d instantly stop. Sometimes, just to tease him, you’d ask a question to make him talk, and his words would come out all lumpy and garbled, pushed around the sides of the candy. “What?” you’d say, teasing. “I don’t understand.” But no matter how much you teased, he never chewed.
That’s the way he was. He had a special way of doing everything. He developed a method of eating watermelon with a knife, cutting slices so thin the seeds would slither out, and setting aside the juiciest fillet from the middle to eat last. There was an order in which to read the newspaper (sports, business, style, metro, front page). The two of you never left a football or a baseball game until the last second had ticked off the clock, regardless of a lopsided score or a ten-below windchill or being late to meet someone for dinner. He always carried a pen in his pocket and kept long lists of things to do and places to see on little yellow sticky notes inside his wallet.
If someone had told you about a person who did all these things, who imposed these rules on himself, you would’ve thought he was odd, annoying. But you found out piece by piece — like putting together a puzzle — and now you couldn’t imagine your husband being any other way.
You watched him eat malted-milk balls one Easter morning (you’d made two little Easter baskets, setting them up on the kitchen table, each different because you liked different kinds of candy), the two of you reading the Sunday paper in his usual order. You were about to tease him, to make him talk around that gob of candy, to see if he’d bite down just this one time, but before you could say anything, he mumbled something to you, and you didn’t say, “What?” because you knew exactly what he’d said; there were always more ways to say, “I love you,” and through a mouthful of malted-milk balls on Easter morning was only one.
He hated his job for years. You lay in bed and listened to him grinding his teeth at night, unsure whether to wake him. You fantasized about waking him: “Let’s talk,” you’d say, and he would tell you all the things he was thinking, tell you exactly why he hated his job and how he really felt about the long, endless reports he wrote that no one ever read. You would offer sympathy, advice, kindness; you’d tell him to quit his job, offer to do his résumé on the computer; or maybe the two of you would just cry and hold each other tight.
But that’s not what happened the times you did wake him. He told you he was fine, told you he was tired of complaining about his stupid job, told you to go to sleep. He used kinder words than these, but his voice was expressionless, like a machine that runs on and on by itself. And then you both pretended to be asleep, and then he really was asleep, because he was grinding his teeth again.
You tried to bring up the subject during the day. “No job is worth this,” you said when you called him at his office.
“I can’t talk now,” he whispered.
“Then when?” you asked.
There was a pause, and you heard his boss being paged in the background. He said, “My father worked for forty years on the line at Chrysler. You think every day was great?”
“This is different,” you said.
And he said, “Nothing’s different.”
The conversation never went any farther than that. It was his boss; it was the nature of the business; it was turning thirty; it was stress; it was long hours; it was making enough money that most other jobs would be a step down; it was too much overseas travel; it was overly ambitious co-workers and unambitious secretaries; it was rush-hour traffic; it was sucking up taxpayer money to fund projects that improved nothing except the bottom line of the firm; it was living in an expensive neighborhood in an expensive city on the East Coast; it was a wife who wanted to be a writer and consequently was earning no money; it was needing his health-insurance plan because that was when you still thought you could have a baby together; it was being the oldest child, the responsible one; it was being raised in the Midwest; it was trying to prove he was as tough as his father and his grandfather — tougher; it was being brought up to despise weakness and whiners. You knew it was all those things, but you suspected there was something more that he didn’t want to or couldn’t explain but that you could help with . . . if only he would talk.
This is what you thought about on those nights when you pretended to sleep: You prayed for him to talk, even though you hadn’t been to church in ten years. It felt strange to ask God to make a man talk. You thought about numbers: How many Monday mornings are there in a year? How many Fridays when he had to work late? How many quick lunches at a desk? What do you get if you divide X amount of dollars in his paycheck by Y amount of unhappiness and multiply the result by a year, two years? How many times can one man grind his teeth in a single night?
“It doesn’t have to be me,” you told him. “Talk to anyone. A friend, your dad, a therapist, a bartender. Just talk. Please.”
“There’s nothing to say” was all you got from him.
The silence was thick and hard and invisible, like air before a storm. You waited and waited.
One night, you woke up and he wasn’t next to you. When he didn’t come back to bed, you got up and found him downstairs at the kitchen table writing on a yellow legal pad. A tiny moth circled the overhead light; you watched it instead of him. You asked, “Working late?”
He shook his head, kept writing, flipped the page over, wrote some more, and finally said, “I’m writing a movie.”
He might as well have said he was being beheaded in the morning; it was that surprising.
The moth flew too close to the light bulb then dropped onto the table next to him. You leaned in, brushed the dead moth into your cupped hand, threw it in the garbage, and went back to bed.
The next day, he told you the plot of his movie: a guy who hates his job goes to baseball camp to relive his childhood fantasies and wins the big game, not by blasting in a home run, but by bunting.
It took him months to write the screenplay. He thought he was going to sell it in Hollywood and buy a house with a pool and retire. By the time he realized that wasn’t going to happen, it didn’t matter, because there were changes at his job, new projects that he’d developed and was implementing, ideas that made sense, that made people pay attention. It wasn’t the same old story.
You liked that he was happy at work. He talked to you about what he was doing, about his projects, about the results of his work.
The handwritten manuscript of his movie stayed on your nightstand.
The combination to the lock on the garden shed (0-14-5), where you keep the lawn mower, the rake, the snow shovel, the garden hose.
Every fall, mice took over the shed; you never actually saw them, only the traces they left behind — dry droppings like caraway seeds; a corner chewed out of the box of grass seed; footprints crisscrossing the dust. He looked into poison. A neighbor across the street told him the right kind. “It shrivels their body from the inside,” the neighbor explained, “so they dry up: no smell, no mess in a trap, no nothing. Clean and easy.”
You didn’t like mice. No one likes mice. But what kind of way to die was that, leaving nothing behind?
He set out the poison anyway.
Now, when you open the shed to drag out the lawn mower, you look for some sign of the mice, but he cleaned out the shed in the early spring, swept up all the droppings, hosed away the dust. You think that maybe you thanked him, but maybe not. After he was gone, faced with so much more to do than anyone could imagine, as if the world’s to-do list had ended up on your own, you were relieved that cleaning out the shed wasn’t on the list.
Now you’re somehow disappointed that there are no mice, no way to know they were once here. You think, They’ll be back in the fall. And you know that during the winter you’ll keep the shed locked, that you just won’t look. Then you can think, The mice are there, never checking to see if you’re right or wrong.
You cheated on him. Once. Barely. Not enough to count, not really. But it was with his best friend, the one he’d grown up with, the one with the odd nickname you never quite understood, the one who met you at the emergency room and cried as hard as you did.
It happened in your kitchen at a party one night when you were drinking too much and your husband was drinking even more than you and, even though it was his birthday, you weren’t talking to him, and he wasn’t talking to you, but no one knew this except for his best friend, because you both acted how you were supposed to act at a birthday party. You were telling his friend your side of the story, why you were right, and he was agreeing, and the next thing you knew, you were kissing the friend, not a quick, simple kiss, not an embarrassed kiss, but a real kiss, lingering.
It was that sudden.
You thought about that kiss for a long time afterward. You remembered every detail — and that, as much as the kiss, was the cheating part, wasn’t it?
The friend said he wouldn’t tell, but he did. You didn’t find this out until a couple of weeks after the funeral, when you were talking to him on the phone late one night because neither of you could sleep. (There were a lot of long, late nights; each time, you thought, There couldn’t be a longer night, but it seemed the next one was always longer.)
“Yeah, I told him,” the friend said. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”
“What did he say?” you asked.
“He broke my nose,” the friend said.
You remembered the broken nose, the funny story about walking into a ladder.
“I thought things were pretty much fine between us after that,” the friend said, “because we were talking and joking again. But now I think there was something different. I can’t say what.” There was a pause. Then he said, “What’d he say to you about it?”
There were so many ways to answer that question, so many lies you could’ve told this friend, but you picked the easiest: “He was furious. Absolutely furious.” Then you faked a yawn, said you were getting tired and wanted to grab some sleep while you could. But you didn’t go to sleep for a long time — OK, not at all — because you were trying to remember a time, any time, a minute, a second, anything, when there was something different between you and him. But there was nothing to remember, nothing.
That’s how much he loved you.
And that’s the thing you know most of all.