“You don’t like beaches,” she said. “That’s the reason this will never work out.”
He smiled wanly and forced a laugh. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”
She brushed her fingers across his forehead, pushing a stray strand of hair out of his eyes and thought about how many times she’d used that line after half a lifetime together. It was true and false all in the same instant and she chose to think about those sorts of trivial generalities now that he was lying in a hospice bed, waiting for the stomach cancer to win.
Before she sat down to write this story, she had considered giving him something else, another kind of terminal disease, had leaned heavily on the car accident possibility but her own sixth sense told her that she was going to be killed someday in a car accident and she didn’t want that irony to be reflected on her telling of his passing. Instead she waffled back and forth between some kind of cancer and some kind of illness caused from years of hard living, something like emphysema or clotted arteries. She gave him cancer because it was the disease she was meant to die from but wouldn’t. Just like he was the man she was meant to avoid but wouldn’t.
His name was Paul or John or Richard or George, a generic man-name, not important. She thought about literary students puzzling over the post-reading quiz, the Who are the characters in the story? question and not remembering if his name was Bill or Brian or Chris or Tom. It didn’t matter, it didn’t matter, even though names can carry such great meaning -- like William means the guardian or Thomas the twin or George the farmer. To her, though, it didn’t matter what his name was, only that he was real, more real than any other person she’d ever known in her long life.
She was older than him and she was going to outlive him and she could barely breathe just thinking about it. There was nothing she wanted more than to trade places with him, to put herself in the position of ending, just to save his life, just to keep him going. He was important to so many people, more than just her, and she thought it might be the most important thing she could do to keep him in the present.
But none of this is in the present. It’s scattered through time, like each of their body’s ashes after the cancer ate his gut. after the car left her to bleed internally.
She remembered a night, before they were lovers, before they knew what love was all about, where he’d tugged at her shirt and asked her if she wanted to fuck. She’d said no then. Instead, she’d directed him to the piano and asked him to play and he did.
“Your day breaks, your mind aches, you find that all her words of kindness linger on when she no longer needs you…” He sang and she sang along. Neither of them knew all the words to that Beatles song or any of the others they sang that night, but that didn‘t matter. Plus, she still needed him, despite his song choice, despite her emphatic no. And he still needed her.
It was the start of something.
He said he had chosen to move to the hospice care facility instead of staying in their home because he didn’t want her to look at their bed and think, he died there. Even if he’d died on the couch. Or in the tub. Or slumped at the kitchen table. He didn’t want to die there. She knew that and she respected it but she would still look at their bed and think, he died. He couldn’t save her from that.
“You know that your garden is going straight to hell right now,” she said.
“That’s why this will never work out,” he countered. “You’re a terrible gardener.”
She laughed like only she could laugh, without reservation, and pressed her hands flat on the bed next to him. “We should probably break up now.”
They weren’t married, hadn’t ever seen the point of it, but she wished she was by his side now as a wife. She wasn’t sure how that would make this all different but she knew that it would and she knew that it would be better to have that silly Mrs. in front of her name. Legally, she was the one responsible for his affairs once the end came, but that made it all so sterile, so unlike their life together. Like she was a guardian, someone appointed by the family or the state, not someone who was family, who had a moral responsibility. She had thought about asking him to marry her before he died, but she knew that wasn’t the right thing to do. They weren’t meant to be married. Their relationship had endured because they weren’t.
For instance, if they’d been married and she’d come home to find him fucking a groupie out by the pool, she might have had to ask for a divorce and it would be messy and expensive and all over the news. But since they weren’t married, she could simply tell him she needed some time and go stay in the city for awhile until they could find their way back to each other, quietly and naturally, without media and lawyers and paperwork.
She liked to think of him as Odysseus and herself as Penelope. Odysseus was seduced by many a nymph but he only loved Penelope. The whole time he traveled, he sang about his love, his undying love, for his wife, his one true soul mate, even when he fucked another woman, even when he betrayed her, he only loved her, and she knew she was Penelope and he was Odysseus, that no matter who he fucked on the side, he only loved her. And that was why she’d turned down his three marriage proposals, that’s why she’d tell him she had to leave for awhile, that’s why she always came back. She was like Penelope, weaving on the loom, avoiding other men because she knew, in her heart, that Odysseus would come home to her, always. And he did.
She had a different sensibility than him. She never strayed. never looked at another man with serious temptation. Her body belonged to him, she didn’t need anyone else’s finger prints on it. She never did. No one else ever mattered. Not even before they were lovers. Not even before they knew exactly how lucky they were. And it’s because she knew, could recognize, how blessed she was that she put up with the other women, the sirens, the nymphs, because they were part of his journey.
Once, before they were lovers, she’d settled in with another man and when she'd glance at her phone to see if this other man had called, he’d tap her on the arm and asked, What are you doing? You’re not leaving. She’d smiled and assured him she wasn’t going anywhere.
She wasn’t going anywhere.
He reached up and touched her face, softly, along the chin line, the way that only he could, and he said, “I love you.” She pulled herself, mind and body, back into the room and she said, “I love you, too.”
She had always loved him on some level. She’d taken to telling him that from the moment that she realized it, even when his current girlfriend was within earshot, even when her current boyfriend was within earshot, she’d say it, loudly, meaningfully, with her arms wrapped as tightly around him as she could. I love you, she’d say. I love you. He always loved her, too, on some level. It just took him longer to say so. Looking back, she didn't know why it took them so long to find the straight path to each other, but it did.
Looking back, she didn’t know why it took her so long to do a lot of things.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey there, why are you crying? I’m the one who’s dying.”
She hadn’t realized she was crying but when she touched her cheek she could feel the wet streak. “Yeah, but I’m the one who’s going to have to deal with Benny when you’re gone.”
“That is a reason to cry,” he said.
Benny was his agent, a small, nervous, shrewd businessman who’d built him into a musical phenomenon. She already knew he was one, so did everyone who ever saw him perform, but Benny made it global. No one attacked the keys like her man and Benny made sure everyone knew.
Later when she sat down to write this story, she thought about the early days, long before Benny or the world knew about him, even before he was hers, and she loved how pure life was then. Here we are with our day jobs, part of the grind. Here we are part of the night life, part of the scene. This is how she met him, this is how she knew him, this is how she loved him. Looking back, she had the most nostalgia for those days, even though their life together was intense and wonderful, because in those days he’d been a man on a stage in a bar that was almost always half empty and just the close friends and familiar faces lined the walls and gathered near the stage. Where everybody knows your name. She grew to miss those days after he was plucked from obscurity, she along with him. As she wrote this story, she wanted to infuse that sense of purity that accompanied them at the beginning because that was really their essence, not the hoopla and glory, although those days were shimmering in her mind, too. How to fuse consciousness, she didn’t exactly know.
She was learning that the recreation of these events was expansive, more expansive than anything she’d ever dared tackle before.
Before she sat down to write, she sat by his hospice bed and hummed songs by The Beatles and Queen and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beethoven. She’d told him stories from their past, as if he hadn’t been there, as if she wanted to include him in his own history. He was forgetting things, she could tell, and she thought that must be part of dying: letting go of everything past and present. She wasn’t ready for that yet, not for him, not for her, so she kept talking, even when he’d fall asleep and snore lightly as she laughed over mishaps at gigs, extravagant parties, intimate moments between them.
Her favorite moment was the one where she realized that he was exactly what she wanted, a moment that came years after she knew she loved him but not yet to the full extreme. She told this story to him often and it always made him smile; she was sure he remembered it even without her telling, but she’d go on anyway.
“That night, we’d met at the bar, listened to the band, gotten drunk with our friends, and gone home together. Into your apartment and into your bed, but just to sleep. And in the morning, you got up first and then I followed suit and we sat together and talked about nothing important for the longest time. And then you looked at me and asked what I was up to that day and I saw it on your face, that change I was feeling. I told you that you were part of my plans for the day. You nodded and said let’s go and off we went to errands and lunch and a strange sense of intimacy fell over me in those hours together, an intimacy that I had been missing my entire life. And when I had to go, you hugged me so tightly I could barely breathe and we said our goodbyes until later and I walked away, stunned.”
Whenever she got to the end of the story, she’d feel the same old glow that she’d felt that afternoon, so many years ago, and she’d omit the balance of that story, the awkward strain of guilt she’d felt meeting up with him that night, him and his girlfriend at the time, a woman she liked, him and his girlfriend and another of their friends. Four adults around a table. He sat across from her and stared at her intently and she’d not known how to act. She never retold this part of the story because it reminded her of the darker side of their relationship. No one needed to be reminded of that while waiting for something final to happen in a hospice.
Before she’d considered writing this story, she’d made a conscious decision not to tell the entire story of their life together, not to the world. Close friends, they knew, they shook their heads and they held their breath, but they also saw the reverse, the good times, the moments of sheer ecstasy that almost validated the infidelities, the days of disappearing, the overt abuse of drugs and alcohol. Everyone has his own demons. Everyone has things to overcome.
Her greatest demon was him and everyone knew it.
Sitting beside him now, she knew that she’d made the right decision to stick with him all these years. Later when she would write this story, she wanted to make sure that was ultimately clear: this was their correct path.
“Do you remember the second time you asked me to marry you?” she asked.
He swallowed hard and said, “Mmm hmm. Mostly I remember you saying no.”
“Yes, but do you remember what I said?”
“You said you loved me too much to marry me. You said that you were too happy with the way things were to accept the ring I was offering.” He looked at her with a tiny smile. “You said the test came back negative.”
She giggled and nodded to confirm his accurate re-telling. “I was so sure that I was pregnant that time,” she said.
“You know that’s not the reason I bought you a diamond,” he said quietly.
She knew that. She knew that he’d meant it each time he’d asked and she knew she’d meant it each time she’d declined. For a fleeting moment, she always considered saying yes, she’d even considered asking him once or twice, like now in the hospice, but something always stopped her.
Her father was a fireman and had been killed on the job when she was young and her mother had never remarried. Her mother had spent the rest of her life mourning a man who was flawed but good. She had grown up watching her mother do everything alone, raise her children, clean storm drains, practice yoga. So she had grown up believing that her mother’s way was both foolish and necessary and when she came of age, she saw relationships as risks too steep to take. He’ll either leave me for someone else or he’ll leave me for no one else or he’ll die, like my father, she thought. Perhaps by way of self-fulfilling prophecy, she was correct about men leaving her until she finally gave in to him. But even though she was closer to him than anyone else, she still didn’t trust he wasn’t going to leave.
He strayed, but he never left.
Once after a particularly bad nymph encounter, she had stayed in the city for two months and worked on a play. She loved that kind of writing, for the stage, open for interpretation, ready for direction. The play was about a man who loved a woman who wouldn’t let herself love him back. At the end, the man kisses her on a dark stage under a single spotlight and he says, “If you only could.” The woman looks at him and says, “If you only could,” and she walks away, leaving him alone under that stark white light. She cried the entire time she wrote that scene and she never turned the play over to her agent. Instead, she banged out countless short stories and set to work on a short volume of poetry before settling in on a new screenplay about the life of Emily Dickinson.
He came to see her at least once a week during that two month separation, never begging her to come home but offering simple reminders of how much he loved her and making sure she had food in the refrigerator.
“I’m not a child,” she’d say.
“I’m not a parent,” he’d counter as he opened a bottle of wine and poured them each a glass.
Before he’d leave, each time he’d ask her if she was coming home with him that day. Each time she’d stared coolly at him and shook her head and waited until his car was well out of view before she’d slump on the floor and cry. But at the end of the two months when he asked, she said, “Yes, I think so,” and they’d gotten in his car together and driven home and made love for as long as they both had the energy.
She was a Gemini and sometimes she thought this explained it all. Gemini is the Twin sign in the zodiac and they often spend their lives looking outside of themselves to find their twin. She was a textbook Gemini and often chuckled over this small fact about her sign. Until she met him. Somewhere along the way, soon after she’d met him, something calming overtook her and she knew -- he was her twin. They were quick to become close friends and the closer they grew, the more she saw him as her mirror, sometimes reflecting her exactly, sometimes reflecting her oppositely, but always reflecting.
Later, when she wrote about it all, she'd leave out the aftermath of losing an entire half of herself. She wouldn't know how completely that had happened until just before the car would strike her down in that parking lot. She wouldn't know until she thought, I haven't been myself lately. Blink of an eye. Done.
"You know what I like best about you. Hey," he said, tugging at her sleeve. "Looky here."
Her face softened but her gaze remained fixed out the window. "Yes, I know," she said. "Me, too."