The summer that my divorce was finalized, a man collapsed in my arms.
I was working at a small law firm, and he was one the three partners for whom I wrote summaries of case decisions for the client newsletter. He was divorced, too, and sometimes we’d talk about what an awful thing it was, to face this person that you once loved (might even still love, or feel something akin to love) across a wide wooden desk, and enumerate the things you had between you, assign them value, and tally up the numbers in columns: This I will keep, this you can have. This, we will split between us:
The small wooden table with the curved legs that you found at the flea market downtown, that he carried all the way home on the subway, unwieldy as it was. The looks you got from the other riders as he bumped and jostled, poked them with its legs. You take it, you say, I don’t have room in my apartment.
The set of copper pots you put on your registry, although his mother warned you about how hard they’d be to keep clean. And they were. But at night, you’d polish them with the special cleaner and then the soft cloth, and they gleamed, hanging there on the pot rack. The one on which you spent two weeks pay. I don’t need them, you say. I’ll leave them with you.
And the string of pearls from his father’s mother that he gave to you that first Christmas. You lifted your hair up so he could clasp them around your neck. They were cool and fine against your skin. He says, please keep those. I want you to, and so you do.
But this man.
He had a deep voice and he was lonely. It was getting late, and we were talking. We went down the block to get something to eat. It was a warm summer evening and the sky threatened rain.
We were led to a wide round booth.
The waitress came over and we ordered drinks. His voice was thick and slow. As she walked away, I noticed him leaning toward me. I thought he was about to make a joke, so I leaned into him, and then he slumped down. I put my arms out, but I couldn’t hold him up. I must have made a sound, a cry, because the waitress turned around and when she saw us, came rushing back. “I think he’s collapsed,” I said. “Call someone,” I said.
By the time the paramedics came, I was standing near the door, but I can’t remember how I got there. I called the office – a few attorneys were still there, and I told them that T. had collapsed. That emergency was on the way. My friend, J. said, “Wait there, I will come and get you.” So I did.
They moved him to the floor. They made a circle around him. I watched them work at him for a few long minutes before they took him into the ambulance. No one spoke to me.
J. took me to the hospital and while we waited there, pacing, his ex-wife came in, his children. “Who was with him?” she asked, and I responded weakly. I was wearing a long black skirt with a slit up the side, and my cheeks burned as she looked me up and down. It’s not what it looks like, I wanted to say. It’s not what you think it might look like.
We waited there for a long time. The attorneys and me. The ex-wife, the teenaged children. I went outside to get some air, and it had started raining. The sky was still light. I stood under the awning of the emergency entrance and watched the rain fall in sheets.
Soon after, J. came out. “We lost him.”
The divorce had taken so many long, angry months, that when we signed the final papers, there were no tears left. We walked out of the courthouse together, and in the bright sun on the sidewalk, B. asked did I want to get some lunch?
I thought about that wide wooden desk where we had spent so much of the last months of our lives. About the way he whispered to his lawyer and his lawyer whispered back. I thought about the nodding of their heads. The way he slid the papers across the desk at me without meeting my eyes.
I thought about the things I left behind – the table, yes, the pots and pans, the furniture that had belonged to my mother. How I left it all behind because I wanted to owe him nothing. I wanted to think I could travel light.
And I thought about what I took with me, what I carry still. The memory of something that once was beautiful, as fleeting as the moment was. About the day we married, a bright winter afternoon. How it was warm but still, there was snow on the ground. And how we floated above our lives – radiant with expectation.
The afternoon was so bright, I had to hold my hand up over my eyes to face him. “Maybe another time.” I heard myself say. “I should probably get back to work.”
He shrugged as he walked away. “OK. See you.”
T. had loved the ocean. Had loved to sail, to fish. He talked sometimes about his boat and about afternoons spent out on the water. The quiet of it. The way you could drift. The way you could lean your head back on the rail and close your eyes, let the sun beat down on you. The undulating water beneath you. And how when you opened your eyes again, you couldn’t see a thing at all. How the sun left dark spots. And so you’d close your eyes. And open them again. And close them and open them, until finally, again, you could see.