endings

all's well that ends

Here is a story my aunt tells me. A woman becomes involved with a man she works with, works for, to be specific. He is of course married. She is a bit indiscreet. She lingers at the office, in the hallways, in the parking lot. One evening, she follows him to an off-site work meeting. He pulls over on the side of the road. She pulls off behind him. “Go home,” he tells her. He says you cannot keep following me. If we are seen, I will lose my job, I will lose my family. Go home. 

He moves away. He divorces. Remarries. There are grown children. Twenty-five years pass. She has not forgotten. She is traveling to the city where she lives. She tracks him down, writes to him. There is no response. She finds his daughter, writes to her. Again there is no response. Finally, the day before she is to travel, he calls her. Tells her yes he is still there in that city. Yes he is alone. Yes he would like to see her. Also, he is dying.

They meet for coffee. She says her feelings have not changed even though twenty-five years have passed. He has grown children, grandchildren. He is dying. We are all dying, she says. What I mean is I was told I had three years to live. I have lived five years since then. 

In her view, everyone in his life has failed him - the first wife, the second, the children. She is needed. Her friends say he has not thought of you in twenty-five years. In twenty-five years, he has not tried to find you, they say. What are you doing now? 

He is sick, he is dying, she says. I cannot abandon him. Abandon is the word she uses. 

I have fallen behind in Proust Group, but I attend the meeting and write down the things that people say. They talk about the hawthorn, the long rapturous description of it. About  Swann and his strange affection for Odette. A woman reads aloud:

At this time of life one has already been wounded more than once by the darts of love; it no longer evolves by itself, obeying its own incomprehensible and fatal laws, before our passive and astonished hearts. We come to its aid, we falsify it by memory and by suggestion. Recognising one of its symptoms, we remember and re-create the rest. Since we know its song, which is engraved on our hearts in its entirety, there is no need for a woman to repeat the opening strains - filled with the admiration which beauty inspires - for us to remember what follows. And if she begins in the middle - where hearts are joined and where it sings of our existing, henceforward, for one another only - we are well enough attuned to that music to be able to take it up and follow our partner without hesitation at the appropriate passage. 

And later, as the discussion moves on, someone reads another passage, from earlier, still in Combray. This is in reference to Mlle Vinteuil:

Perhaps she would not have thought of evil as a state so rare, so abnormal, so exotic, one in which it was so refreshing to sojourn, had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone else, that indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the most terrible and lasting form of cruelty. 

The woman in the story (I will call her L.) writes to this man (I will call him J.) every day. She sends him text messages, calls him on the phone. He tells her please I cannot talk to you every day. I have a schedule, he says. These are the days I call my children. These are the days I have my treatments. 

She is undeterred. She speaks of them like they are together. She excuses herself from conversations with her friends to call him. She says: “I have to see how J.’s treatment went today.”

He invites her to Thanksgiving dinner. His children will be there, his ex-wife. (“She was terrible to him,” L. says.) Her friends tell her not to go, but she does. Her friends say go for a day or two then, don’t stay too long. She plans her trip for five days. She stays in a guest room in his house. He has his treatments on Tuesdays and Fridays, she says. I need to be there in case he needs me. 

My mother is not in treatment for very long. It becomes clear very quickly that there is not much time. One evening after we know, but before she becomes too weak, we watch a movie on television about a woman who takes care of a dying man and falls in love with him. We see him grow weaker. There is a scene of him vomiting after treatment. We see him lose his hair and grow thin and pale. 

After the movie ends, my mother is enraged. Why did you choose this? Don’t you know what this does to me? she asks, her voice loud but shaking.

Do you see what you have done to me? Do you see what you have done? 

I think of L. in a faraway city, in the house of this man she loves or thinks she does. After twenty-five years of silence. 

My aunt says: In twenty-five years, he never called her, never tried to find her. After his divorce, he didn’t reach out to her. After the first one or the second. I am standing at the sink, plucking parsley leaves from their stems. This cannot end well, she says. This cannot end well. 

And I find myself nodding, but what I am thinking is: what really can be said to end well?  In the movie I watch with my mother, the man dies. We see the woman walking through the places where they spent their final days together. 

My mother dies. I gather her things in boxes and bags. 

In the end, J. too will die. And L. will be with him or she will not. And he will love her or he will not. And she will know this love or she will not. 

And the endings will be what they will be, and the stories we tell ourselves will only ever be the stories we are able to tell, and we will go on, taking up the music and following it.

And don’t we know this music well enough? Isn’t it engraved on our hearts? And won’t the songs be familiar enough to allow us to go on without hesitation, these strains ever repeating until they do not?

live like lilies

My bedside table tells a story of unrealized ambitions. At night, ascending the stairs carrying the books and articles to read. Notecards and envelopes for the letters to be written. A bit of sewing to be done. All of it piled on the table, which accepts the stuff of my intentions without comment, before I ready myself for bed. By morning the pile remains largely untouched; the spirit having flagged, the body having succumbed to the soft siren call of sleep. 

But again, the next night, I add a thing or two to the pile, which taunts as it grows: A constant reminder of the distance between my aspirations and my capacities. 

After the party winds down, I pick up my friend and we head to the place we always go. It is crowded this late at night, but we find two seats at the bar and squeeze in. She is chatty and exuberant. She tells me about the wedding she went to. She shows me photos. Points out her friends, their relatives. 

In the time since I have seen her last, she has spent a weekend with her on-again, off-again love. “I’m pretty sure he’s been seeing someone else,” she says. In the morning, before he’s awake, she slips out to bring breakfast back to him. He sends her messages while she is out. “When are you coming back?” and “I am waiting for you” and “Come back come back come back.”

Afterwards, she asks him, “Have you met someone?” while she is packing up her things to leave.  He says: “There is a time and a place to talk about this,” as he kisses her on the head. 

I am carrying a bag of groceries from my car when something on the lawn catches my eye. It is what is left of a small gray bird, a bit of blood around where the head has been removed. Poor bird, dear little bird. I want to stroke its feathers with my fingers. I want to wrap its little bird body in a doll’s blanket, lay it to rest beneath a tree. 

We drive to school in the morning, but I am distracted. I am late and the traffic patterns have been altered again. From the backseat, my son chirps happily, evenly reciting the important news of his morning: “The red ninja has fire power. The white ninja has ice power. The green ninja has grass power. The blue ninja has sky power." 

As I idle on the bridge, the turn signal clicking, I think about asking him what grass power is, but his voice is so soft and so sweet, I let him go on uninterrupted until we pull up to the school building. 

I put the car in park and pull the brake. He takes that as his cue to unbuckle his seat belt and pop his head between the front seats so that I will kiss him on the cheek, and so I do.

I come around to his side of the car, open the door. I hold his backpack for him as he steps down to the sidewalk. I slip it over his narrow shoulders and in a moment he is gone, bounding down the concrete steps to the entrance, waving his hand up at me without turning around. 

We are all a bit tense, although we try to be cheerful. The school year winding down, another series of transitions. My daughter is about to leave for the summer, to spend it with B. as she has every year since the divorce and there is an anticipatory sadness that permeates these last days of spring. It is invariably a busy time - school field trips and performances and final projects. A flurry of activity such that these days pass by in a dizzying blur and then she too is gone and we are left here, our arms still reaching out after her, still mouthing our goodbyes. How is it that even after all these years, we are so unprepared for this?

Last spring, work took me to DC a couple times and when it did, I would catch up with T. She shares her life with a man whose work keeps him on another continent much of the time. Sometimes, she will join him there for a week or two, but mostly, they live this distant life of visits between long stretches of separation. He became seriously ill a while back. It was not always clear that he would make it. 

“And I thought that maybe,” she says, “if he came out of this, he would want to make some decisions, set some priorities about our life together.” We are sitting in the restaurant of my hotel. White plates of eggs and toast in front of us. 

“I thought maybe he would decide to stay.”

We see a colleague near the entrance to the restaurant. He is heading toward us, so she says quickly, “But do you know that as soon as he was cleared to travel, he was back on a plane the next day?”

This, from Mosley’s Impossible Object, in the story called “A Hummingbird.” The narrator, married for several decades, has returned to his wife from a short trip alone, during which he considered an affair with a young woman he meets, but he did not act on it. 

That night when we went to our bedroom there was the impression we were strangers; that I had gone with my Arab girl to one of those caves behind the courtyard, my wife young again and golden; the full body and bright boy’s face and myself a visitor from a northern country; strapping on my equipment in the dusty street and going to do violence under a lamp-post. She lay on the bed with the openness of women who trust in their bodies; who are painted nude and stare down at themselves with repletion, one hand on a thigh and the other trailing and the body compact as bread. I thought - She wants me to hurt her. I took off my clothes. There was guilt fluttering behind her eyes and mouth. I touched her gently and she watched me and then stretched up to me. She seldom did this. I thought - There is nothing to be ashamed of here; there is perhaps no love without power. 

Afterwards I thought - You let the day take care of itself; live like lilies. 

In the morning, there was breakfast in the dining room above the white rubble and sand-dunes. When the sea had come it it had pushed over the stones and withdrawn satisfied. 

It is still so dark when I wake the first time and I lie in bed staring up at the blades of the ceiling fan until I am nearly certain I can see them starting to spin. I close my eyes. Open them, the blades are still. Close them again, and when I open them, the blades are spinning. I play this game with myself for several minutes before I turn over on my side and drift back to sleep. 

Rilke says: “Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.” He says, “Live the questions now.” And I suppose that is fine and good and true. But living the questions, loving them does not offer much comfort as I watch my daughter pack her things to leave. Or as M.’s mother cries softly over the phone, her body in near-constant pain. Or as I lie awake in the dark, blinking up the ceiling, pulling the day’s anxieties up over me like the blanket that lay rumpled at the foot of my bed. 

I think of my little gray bird left to die on the wet grass on a morning that was like any other until it was not. 

This morning, a white mist hangs over the city. I drive through this milky fog to the place where I will ride the bicycle going nowhere. There are five television screens mounted from the ceiling in different parts of the cavernous room. The early morning news shows are on in all their garishness. In all their frenetic cuts and edits. Occasionally, I will watch the one closest to me. Without the sound cues, it is a visual cacaphony. The images pile up one on top of the other. Two men in suits sit behind a desk, talking. A wide shot of a basketball court. A crowd of people pointing up at a gray, threatening sky. A battlefield in a faraway country. A woman holding her baby, crying. A mugshot of a man with long, stringy gray hair, wearing a black sweatshirt. There is no sense of order to any of it, just one image after the other, relentless. 

There is no good way to end this. Or to end anything, I suppose. You just keep going until the moment that you do not. 

this chill

The week has been long, dreary. I find myself, in the rare moments of stillness, staring out windows onto gray, wet landscapes. At home, at my desk, the Japanese maple tree is full now, and its branches and leaves frame my view of the gray street, gray sidewalk, gray highway below. In my office, I look out just past the gray parking lot to the buildings that rise up from the river - itself a ribbon of gray. I dream of acres of gray asphalt - slick from relentless rains. 

Colder, too. As if the sweet taste of summer - the bright sun, the heat, the profusion of blossoms - proved too much to bear, and we retreated, frightened by what the heat might make us do. 

My routines are largely the same. I make a few adjustments to accommodate my work, my various personal obligations and errands, but the large arc of my day remains intact. For the time, simpler. Fewer distractions. 

M. tells me a story of an uncle he had never met. His father’s oldest brother, who had served in World War II, who was in Germany at the end of it. Who stood among piles of the dead. 

How back at home, later, in his small town in upstate New York, he fell in love with a woman his family would not approve and so they met in secret, over years. Until they were driving back together from a restaurant one night. Until the car crash that killed her. Another death to which he bore silent witness. “He was never the same after that,” the story goes. He died, not long after. He was 47. 

I tell this to my friend and am overwhelmed by the sadness of it - this short, sad life. She says: Another way to look at it is even despite his family’s opinion, he was able to have this love for the time that he had it. 

I would like to say that brings some comfort, but I can’t stop staring at the ends of things. 

Back at the beginning, in the early years of M. and me - before we imagined it would be possible to have a life together - he would say of us: the end built into the beginning, a snake devouring its own tail. 

Later, I told him: but you misread the symbol. It means eternity. It means life. Rebirth. 

It is the same, of course - cyclical. We are always beginning and ending. It matters, I think, where you choose to look at it. 

The irises are in bloom. The columbine flowers, their pinks and blues. There are tight buds on the peonies, waiting to burst forth, exuberant. And yet, this chill. 

b-side

I can’t bear to hear about any more divorces. Every where I turn, someone has news. I run into a friend at the coffee shop – someone I have not seen in months – and within moments, he says: “I think we’ll probably divorce.” Twenty-two years. Our poet friends, twenty years. Work colleagues – fifteen, seventeen, twenty-five years. I want them to be happy, of course, of course, but it frightens me, destabilizes me, to hear of all this loss.

I remember my mother saying – in one of her many proclamations about love – that once the word divorce is uttered in a marriage, there is no turning back. It then becomes only a matter of managing the speed with which you travel toward the inevitable end. “Be careful with your words,” she’d say, though she was careless and cruel with her own. “You can apologize all you want, but you can’t take them back.”

How is it that it ends, then – love?

Do you wake one morning with the idea lodged deep? The image of yourself, walking out the front door, down the wooden steps, and onto the sidewalk. You look to the right and then to the left, shove your hands deep in your pockets and walk, keep walking toward a light in the distance – a light just beyond where you can see?

Or standing in the kitchen at the sink, staring out the open window? The neighbor in her garden with her wide-brimmed hat, kneeling and bending, gathering branches, and you think, my god, I will not make it through this year.

Or in the bright light of a summer afternoon, in front of the courthouse where the papers have been signed, your copy of them rolled into your hand. With your other hand you shield your eyes from the blinding sun as you say, “No thank you,” to his invitation to lunch. “Maybe some other time.”

Or is it always ending? Are we always rescuing love from the brink where it teeters? So that the end of love is really just a series of small moments of inattention? Of looking away for too long? And looking back just an instant too late?

And what of the years that seem like magic? The years where the light is warm and endless. You drive to the beach with the windows open and spend the afternoons in the sand, the sea spray leaves you salty and damp. You picnic in the shade of the ancient trees and the sunlight is dappled on your skin. You walk holding hands as the light fades along the river that runs through the city. You stop on the bridge to look out over the water and embrace, breathe in the scent of him like it is oxygen itself, let it fill you up.

How then, does it end?

My friend says: “He asked me whether I had ever said I was sorry.” She is talking about the lawyer.

“Sorry for what?” I ask.

“Sorry that we could not make it work.”

I wait for her to continue, but she does not.

“And what did you say?”

“I said, do you mean the night that I begged him to let me stay? When I said whatever we needed to do, that I would do it? When I said, we are stronger than this, we are better than this, that whatever we are going through will pass – it will pass, if only we can hold on?”

“And what did he say to that?”

“He said. Oh. I guess you have, then.”

 

At the café, he says: “I don’t want to leave, but it’s just this constant battle. She wants me to change, I am not going to change. I’m fifty-six years old. I am not going to change.”

I am waiting for someone, but he sits down and I let him. “I mean, for god’s sake, I may be awful, but I’m not that awful. She could have done worse. I mean, after all this time, she still can’t bear me the way I am?” A man waiting in line at the counter turns around to see who is speaking. My friend lowers his voice, leans in across the table. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I am telling you this.”

I assure him it’s ok. Try to make a joke of it. Say: “But who is going to wheel you around when you are old?”

He laughs. “I know, I know. I can’t imagine trying to get to know someone new.”

“Can you imagine,” M. says, when we are with our friends, “the tedium of having to learn someone else’s music collection?” We are listening to old records we had forgotten we had. “All that history,” S. says, shaking his head. “How do you start over?”

We’re talking about a couple we know in common. “I really didn’t see that coming,” I say. We all nod in agreement, then are quiet for a moment. The record ends, and M. gets up to change it.

yellow sun

Some time ago, I get a letter from someone important. A work-related letter – a lovely, generous one with kind words about what I’d accomplished during the time I’d been in the job. With a gift – a contribution. A significant one for us. I’m delighted, of course. Thrilled. I engage all my “donor relations” skills and send notes and invite him to events. Update him on certain projects that I think he would be interested in. Weeks and months pass. No response. Several invitations go unanswered. A few declined. I tell my friend about this. She listens carefully as I go through the history. When I have finished, she says: “Oh. Do you see what happened? You thought his letter and gift was the beginning of something. But for him, it was an end.”

I drive down roads I have not driven in some time. Over the summer, it was a familiar route – second nature. But when the school year starts again, that particular drive to that particular spot in the woods is forgotten like the sand-encrusted plastic buckets and shovels that kick around in the trunk of my car. It is raining and it is dark. A distinct autumn chill. And I am reminded of the winding, tree-lined roads of Brewster that led to the reservoir where I spent so many nights of my late adolescence – climbing up the hill to the observation deck with our bottles. The moon over the dark water, shimmering.

That New Year’s Eve spent with the sea captain when he was just a boy. Before we knew he would go on to sail ships. Before we knew that he would leave his wife and daughters on land and spend his days on the vast ocean. We never made it to the party we were headed to. Instead, he parked his car near the reservoir and left the heat running. We drank beer and talked for hours. About our families. About what we thought we might want for ourselves. He turned the radio on as midnight approached and we listened as the year turned from one to the next. We raised our bottles to each other and then, he took me home. Sweet boy. Kind boy.

Years later, when I came home after my mother’s surgery, he had met the woman he would later marry. On the sidewalk in front of the movie theatre, he says, “Had I known you would be coming back, I would have waited.” It’s a lie, utterly, but I smile, touch his cheek. I am like a children’s picture book. It is so easy to see what comes next.

Seasons change. The bridge I drive over in summer in the heat – the sun high in the afternoon sky – the men lined up alongside the road casting their fishing lines far out into the water – is the same bridge I now drive over in cold rain in the dark. My chest tightens. My heart remembers something of this place that my conscious mind does not.

We take Z. to the beach when she is small. It is early spring – too cold still, but the sun is so bright and the breeze so sweet that we forget the ocean’s chill. We huddle under a blanket. M. packs the cool sand into a plastic cup, turns it over and Z. gasps with delight. He starts to makes a trail of them – around us and down the beach.

Z. takes off her socks. Lifts her round naked foot over one of the tiny castles and brings it down hard. Giggles. Does it again to the next one. She looks down the long row of them and her eyes widen. The fingers of her small hands start to twitch as she sees, all at once, the possibility. M. looks up at her and starts working faster. She looks at him for a moment, lets him see her there with her foot raised – poised, ready.

And then she is off! The laughter spills out of her – high-pitched and gleeful – as she stomps down the sand towers, one after the other. M. is packing sand in his cup carelessly now, throwing down the little mounds, backing away from her toward the water’s edge. He pantomines fear, his eyes wide. She moves toward him as fast as her legs can take her, a trail of destruction in her toddler wake.

And so it goes – the two of them, receding into the distance, the sounds of her giddy exuberance. The yellow sun up high – shining down on us all. 

we just keep walking and sometimes, we get to run

Over the phone, C. explains to me the complications of living as the other woman:

“So I’m in Bloomingdale’s the other day and I see this brush – this shaving brush. What are they made of, the good ones? Badger hair? Is it possible that it’s badger hair?”

I have no idea, I admit. Badger, really?

She goes on: “Anyway, so I see this brush and it’s beautiful and soft and full and it has this wooden base and I just want to buy it. Let them wrap it in that silver paper and put a little ribbon on it, take it over to his house. I don’t even have to see him open it. I’d just leave it on his doorstep and run.”

I am not sure what to say to this. “Oh,” I say. And then quietly, “Wow.”

“That is totally deranged, isn’t it?” She pauses. “On the upside, I guess, I’ve gotten very adept at managing disappointment.”

When I am at a loss for words, I turn to the poets. Here then is Richard Siken, from You Are Jeff:

18.
Two brothers: one of them wants to take you apart. Two brothers: one of them wants to put you back together. It’s time to choose sides now. The stitches or the devouring mouth? You want an alibi? You don’t get an alibi, you get two brothers. Here are two Jeffs. Pick one. This is how you make the meaning, you take two things and try to define the space between them. Jeff or Jeff? Who do you want to be? You just wanted to play in your own backyard, but you don’t know where your own yard is, exactly. You just wanted to prove that there was one safe place, just one safe place where you could love him. You have not found that place yet. You have not made that place yet. You are here. You are here. You’re still right here.

In college, my friend S. and I would pass many summer evening hours sitting on the stoop in front of her apartment and wax philosophical about life and love. She smoked clove cigarettes and the scent of them lingered in her hair, her clothes – a little sour and sweet. She had been to a drumming performance – of course, of course – this was Brown, after all – and she had gone up to speak with the drummer afterward. She said: “He said that what makes the rhythms is not the beats themselves, not when you hit the drum, but the spaces that come in between.”

How we loved the sound of that, said it over and over again, a kind of shorthand for all the more complicated things we didn’t know how to say: “It’s not the beats, but the spaces in between.” Nineteen-year-olds can be forgiven, I think, a bit of romanticizing.

I ran into her once, years later, when I was in New York for work. There wasn’t much time, but she walked me from my hotel to the train station, and sat with me there in the waiting room until it was time for me to board. She was admiring my shoes and sitting there on the molded blue chairs, she took hers off, slipped her feet into mine, stretched her legs out off the ground to examine them. “They look better on you,” she declared, and put her own back on. She had a tiny hole in the toe of one sock.

There is another woman I know in the process of divorce. Her husband of decades is not taking this well. “What will I do?” he asks her, as if requesting a grocery list or driving directions. “What will be my future?”

There is someone else, for her. Not the cause of the parting, but not unwelcome. “Tell her you are in love with me,” he says to her, when he knows that she and I will be speaking. And she does. She is beautiful and flushed when she says this to me. Like a woman who has walked slowly for many years and can suddenly break into a run.

What a strange time of life this seems, here in the middle place – a time of things ending and beginning, but even beginnings are not unencumbered, so full as they are, of the lives we’ve already lived, the choices already made. I get a message from a friend of mine who, weeks ago was so madly in love, so certain, so blissfully sure. “It’s not working out,” is all he says.

We want to believe that we can outrun the things we carry and for a time, perhaps we do – sprinting ahead, feeling the rush of wind cool against our skin, feeling the heart pounding with possibility.

But aren’t they – our ghostly companions – always there just behind us, waiting for us to slow down? When they see us falter, don’t they rush on up to us, with a towel for the sweat on our brows, and a cup of cool water to still our racing hearts?

Richard Siken, from You Are Jeff, again:

24.
You’re in a car with a beautiful boy, and he won’t tell you that he loves you, but he loves you. And you feel like you’ve done something terrible, like robbed a liquor store, or swallowed pills, or shoveled yourself a grave in the dirt, and you’re tired. You’re in a car with a beautiful boy, and you’re trying not to tell him that you love him, and you’re trying to choke down the feeling, and you’re trembling, but he reaches over and he touches you, like a prayer for which no words exist, and you feel your heart taking root in your body, like you’ve discovered something you don’t even have a name for.