In the morning, it is just the boy and me and I wake to his silhouette, standing in the middle of the bed. A tuft of his hair sticks straight up. We are both very still, listen to the trucks speeding by on the highway, the unmistakable sound of the weight of them, hurtling past in the dark.
I tell my friends that I have seen a car on fire. That on the highway, as I drove past in the pitch black night, I saw the steel frame of a car engulfed in flames. Later, I ask M., do you remember the night we saw that car on fire? He shakes his head, says only: “Wrong husband.”
Over the weekend, while M. is away, I drive down to the library to talk about books. The sky is gray – nearly white with clouds. There is a light, cold rain.
A song comes on that I have not heard in years, not since the early days of M. and me. Hearing it brings such heat to my cheeks so unexpectedly that I miss my exit. I take the next one and pull over into the parking lot of a boarded up restaurant, long abandoned. I retrace my steps, make my way back to the highway. By the time I merge into traffic, the song is done.
There are love stories and there are love stories. Here is one.
At the grocery store, I wander off. I come back to where M. is standing with the cart, smirking. “What,” I ask. He shakes his head. I press him. What?
He tells me that he saw me from the distance. Over near the greeting cards, from the side. Said he thought well well, who’s this here and was watching me with great interest.
“And then, you turned around, and it was you.”
I laugh. “It was just me.”
“That’s so sweet,” I say, taking his arm, “but also, a little sad.”
“Tell me about it,” he says, shaking his head. “Tell me about it.”
With a few hours to ourselves, we drive out to the beach that afternoon, a day we think will be one of our last, together. This is before we know that I will move back from New York. To stay. That he will watch me pack my car, and drive away, waving through the back window. That in the city, I will wander the long winding paths through the park with my headphones on and think only of him. That from my tiny apartment window on the eighth floor, I will watch the cars move up and down Third Avenue. That at night, when the rain streaks the glass, I will watch the headlights and taillights cross in slow motion as if watching the silent film of my life. Passing by. And that in the morning, I will know that I cannot stay a moment longer in this city, without him.
We do not yet know then that I will tell my family and my friends that I am giving up the apartment on Third Avenue. Giving up the bright airy studio down by Canal Street that the painter and I were going to share. That she will never forgive me for leaving her there, with the studio too expensive for her to keep on her own.
That day, we know only of the sun and the sand. It is too cold, too early in the season to swim, but we walk the beach, stay until it gets dark. We carry our shoes back to the car and the sand is cool underfoot.
We are the last car in the parking lot. There is not a single street lamp. I brush the damp sand from my feet in the dim light offered by the open car. I close the door.
As a joke, M. throws himself against my door, presses his face up against the window, his mouth open wide as if crying out. I scream, throw my hands up. He sees the panic in my face and comes around the other side, gets in the car, laughing. My heart is racing and I am gasping for breath.
“It was a joke,” he says, reaching for my hand. I call him names, I shout things at him that I cannot repeat here. My throat is sore from screaming. On the drive back, we are quiet. He holds my hand. “It was a joke,” he says, “just a stupid joke. I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.”
He spends the weekend with his parents, runs errands for them. Takes them out to dinner. “They are struggling,” he tells me over the phone. “They are frail.” I think of his mother, of when I saw her at Christmas, leaning on her walker, her head bowed in pain. Of his father, the way his broad hands shake as he reaches for a cup.
When he returns home, I am so relieved to see him that it frightens me. Impulses honed over decades make me want to recoil at such attachment. I pull back from his embrace, look at him, and see us suddenly, years from now, and am struck only by the things we will have lost.
I know there will be beauty. I know there will be love. I have wept at the stories of couples who have loved each other their whole lives, who have died one following the other because truly, their love is what sustained them. I know there will be this. I pray there will be this. But at this moment, all I can see is this: That a man who once during a show, leaped – leaped – on a makeshift wooden stage that collapsed beneath him and lying on the broken platform, kept playing – will one day struggle to move his legs across the kitchen we share. Whose hands – wide and pale – have held mine, have held me, have moved over my body in the night, have lifted our child up over his head and onto his shoulders – that one day these hands will tremble such that they cannot hold a cup, and that I will try to still them with my own trembling hands. That these bodies that we throw at each other will betray us. That we will watch each other struggle and be unable to do anything but bear witness. And that this, in fact, is the best thing that we can do.
At the bar, I tell J. who has been speaking of her mother, of how I am beginning to understand that the way we love each other – all of us who love – is no longer in the grand gestures that perhaps they once were, in youth. Showing up at the train station platform with flowers. The surprise weekend vacation to the beach. The ways we love now are quieter, simple. That we sit at the table over coffee for a few minutes before the crush of the day. Or for an hour in the evening with the phones turned off. A walk down the long tree-lined boulevard on a crisp bright afternoon.
My friend sends me a note to say thank you. For being there. For listening. I say of course, this is what we do. We show up. We listen. We share the little stories that we have. We keep each other company. The road is long, and we can’t know what lies ahead. So, we keep each other company.