still life with roses, orchids

There are five of us around the table. K. has made lamb. The small apartment is warm, the scent of rosemary, faint trace of mint. The table is set in browns and reds and golds. One of us offers a toast. We raise our glasses. We talk about our work, our friends in common. M. tells us about her ex-husband, forlorn. How she meets him for breakfast and he tells her he is sad all the time. She says: I cannot be all these things for you. I cannot be all these things.

They share homes, still. One here and one on an island. She takes her friends down to the island home every winter and they lay out on the beach all day and go dancing at night. Sometimes, in the summer, he will bring the woman he is dating to this island house. But he has not been dating now for some time.

I wake from a strange dream in which I watched a man plummet to his death. He was a scientist. I had traveled far to meet him. I had crossed a wide desert in the dark. I had climbed a stone staircase in a stone cathedral. He was waiting for me there. As I approached, breathless and dizzy, he leaped. There was no sound as he fell, just the falling. On the ground beneath us, snow. His broken body arranged on it. A still life with roses.

K. talks about the man she has been dating. He works all the time. It is difficult for them to see each other. He has a daughter. He has a mother whose health is failing. An ex-wife, an ex-lover. All these require attention and time. K. says: He wanted to spend the afternoon here, but then his daughter. She does not finish the sentence. I stand up to clear the plates.

I drive home in the dark. It is cold and the wind is fierce. As I merge onto the highway, I am overwhelmed by a sudden, sharp sadness. It fills my ears and mouth. It makes my hands tremble.

I am halfway through the draft of this novel, but I should be further. I write around it now, on scraps of paper. I scribble phrases. Questions I will ask myself and not answer. I sit at this desk and hold my head in my hands. I make grocery lists. I examine the stitching on my sweatshirt. Gray thread on gray fleece. Tiny flawless stitches.

I see the forlorn ex-husband all over town. We all do. At opening nights at the galleries. At the new restaurant on the west side. In front of the bookstore on Westminster. Sometimes, he will be with R., sometimes with someone we don’t know. But most often alone. This city is so small. How grateful I am that everyone I have ever thought I loved is far from here by now.

Years ago, walking in another city in another life I can barely remember, I crossed the street in front of the library and bumped shoulders with a man I used to know. It was like a scene that had been staged. The light turns, the clusters of people spill out into the crosswalk and one man and one woman cross in opposite directions. The woman’s hair is longer than it once was. She is small and walks quickly with her shoulders hunched. The man’s gaze is at some point in the distance, but when they make contact, he turns to look at her. In the moment of recognition, the background music swells and they are frozen there with the swirl of people all around them. She walks across the street with him. They stand on the sidewalk and embrace.

Perhaps the stage directions say: They hold each other not so much out of love, but of recognition. A familiarity, a glimpse of one’s past self, which gives its own sort of comfort.

They bought the house together and imagined wintering there each year. The white sand beaches, the mountains, the waterfalls. The orchids. How the orchids alone could make your heart ache. She does not speak of how they parted or why.

In the dream, the scientist had been calling for me, but I do not know why. I only know there is urgency and so in dream logic, I trudge across the desert until I come to a glowing city. I have walked all night. I reach the cathedral at first light. There is snow on the ground. It is cold.

I ascend the stairs, slowly at first but then fall into the rhythms of climbing. The steps are endless. The staircase narrows then widens. It opens out to a small balcony from which more stairs beckon. These are steeper than the others and barely wide enough to accommodate my body. I climb higher. There is no sound except my feet on the steps and my own breathing, growing labored, growing short.

The stairs end on a wide balcony. There is a low wrought-iron fence and my scientist is leaning against it. I reach the top step and run toward him. He turns to face me for a moment, then he is gone.