As I got sicker, Ross started calling me Amy again rather than JJ, as if his sidekick had already departed, as if he was politely but most assuredly removing himself from the clutches of the stranger now camped out on the living room couch, preferring the more familiar phantasm in his mind. That phantom girl was his; he had won possession of her he wasn’t sure how. He couldn’t let her go; he couldn’t suffer another intimate loss. If he had the sense to realize how much this hurt me, he would have stopped himself somehow, but the split emerged and gaped slowly, almost imperceptibly. His bird had flown, raised to a beautiful belief, someone he could think about, something he could cling to, but no longer someone to address in the flesh. He turned his attention, his face to the sky.
And maybe he was right in his stubbornness, as he generally was. If I wanted those times back, if I wanted him, I’d have to turn the physical tide; I’d have to get better. He was trying to keep me out of the grave by the force of sheer will. He was gambling his sanity on his belief in the strength of my love, on the lengths I would go not to desert him, desert us. But I had a new master to address. I wanted to follow Ross as he turned his back on me, but what if I didn’t have it in me? What if I couldn’t do it?
This was a new phase in our relationship. Disarmingly affectionate during normal times, appropriately shell-shocked by the initial news, Ross now perversely refused to play the tragic hair-tearing husband at my bedside; our friends expected nothing less of him and were silently perplexed, but I understood he was too entwined in fear for any sort of action. He just shut his eyes; sometimes he could barely move. He just thought and thought. Sinking deeper, suffering sensual, suffering spiritual leakage, we were eventually stuck beyond the pale of both worlds.
Gray and silent, my boat, detached from its mooring, drifted empty behind my closed eyes. More and more I lived in this misty pain-stained isolation, more and more separated from all I loved, set adrift until one day I would no longer be able to open them and see the shore. Darling, don’t forget me as the years go by. Your inner vision will eventually fail you, I’m afraid. Don’t forget . . . but, I’m afraid you will. My voice, my breath in your ear, how we pushed each other higher and lower, higher and lower than we’d ever been before, the smell of jasmine, the scent of linden . . . my perfume, my dreams and sorrows, my paints and oils. I’ll never forget you. How fierce your love could get, like a storm blowing through; will it still capture you? I remember the day we buried Napoleon. Leaving his grave with the sun shining on it, I labored under an almost unbearable loneliness for him, as we left him there, at the mercy of the elements, the living trudging back to their cars. Only now did I understand that he had made his departure long before and we were taking our parting that day from no one.
* * *
One day late in the afternoon, Colleen called on me. It had not been a good day, the air hanging hot and still. I’d not gotten off the couch since early morning except to mutely wobble to the bathroom and back. Ross had recently hired a high-school girl to stay with me during the day—a babysitter. She was sitting outside in the sun on the stoop, reading, and let the visitor in.
We had lost touch with Colleen; she left HRI several months ago never to be heard from again—giving up her good works and unfaithful dreams simultaneously, I’d supposed, but here she was. She had not seen me since I fell ill, and unconsciously drew in her breath a little on first sight of me. “Not pretty, is it?” I said, reading her thoughts, sitting up and easing my feet to the floor, instinctively putting my hand up to my face, rubbing my eyes with the heel of my hand. She looked exceptionally clean and neat, and I became aware of the sick, sweaty smell emanating from me. Well, here’s her opening at long last, I thought to myself. Had she come to offer sweet condolence to Ross? She had brought me an arrangement of white flowers in a glass vase: airy baby’s breath and roses and lilies with deep green ferns, beautiful and expensive. The gesture touched me, but the flowers’ heavy scent and shapeliness were nauseating, disturbing.
At my request and determined not to flinch, she moved the bucket sitting on the floor next to the couch into the bathroom, put the flowers out on the kitchen table, and poured me a fresh glass of water which I sipped at. Reparational duties. We had a bit of rudimentary conversation, and then she told me why she had come—as an atonement of sorts, to pay her penance for wishing in the past that I would just go away so she would have a clearer road to Ross.
She told me of her feelings for Ross. I said I knew. She shrugged; that was to be expected. You know, she had often thought to herself, when she finally allowed that Ross and I were in love, that if I were just to disappear, have an unfortunate accident or something, well, that would work out well for her, wouldn’t it? Ross would eventually come to her. Mentally she had been ready to go that far. I was a little taken aback by this, more by the unflattering honesty than anything else, but not too much, because I knew how her mind worked, it worked like mine. Now that I was sick, she went on, determined to tell the full story; now she didn’t want it. She’d come to an understanding as well, through her work with HRI, as to what disappearing meant; she never used the term lightly anymore, and just to drive the point home personally, her father had recently passed away.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yes,” she nodded in acknowledgment. He was getting ready to drive to the store one morning and just collapsed at the steering wheel, dead from an aneurysm. She was now afraid, irrationally but unwaveringly so, that something similar would happen to her husband as punishment for her not wanting him while he was here, for being so ready to dispose of him, and me, for that matter, for something assumed to be far better. “All of this has forced me to look at myself and gain a better understanding of love and loss,” she said in the formal phrasing that was typical of her. “So, I wanted to come here and tell you all this, lay it all out and apologize and wish you and Ross the best . . . you two belong together. Get well—I believe absolutely that you will—and, and . . . live happily ever after.” She waved her hand, laughing self-deprecatingly, as she proclaimed this last letting go; the silly gesture contrasting with an empathy in her eyes that had been lacking before, making her quite lovely.
I felt my previous dislike of her slide off me, replaced by a kindred feeling for those for whom things did not come easily or gracefully. “Ross and I would like you to come back. We need you,” I said. I could be generous now. “You were good.”
Well, we’re expecting our first child in February, she said; she was going to see where that took her. I stretched my lips in what I supposed was a smile, but the news seemed irrelevant to me; the corporal, procreative world that I used to share and had hoped to share with Ross had at this point faded out of reach, had become foreign, like the beauty of her flowers.
“But I’ll be back sometime, please understand that. Despite all the crap, my intentions were good. They are good.”
“I don’t question that.”
Colleen got up and hugged me lightly and carefully. I clung onto her for a moment before letting go, inexpressibly tired. “See you soon, sister,” I said as she was walking out. She turned around and gave me a salute, the exact same gesture I’d made to Lawrence a thousand years ago, and went out the door.