What We Forget
What we remember
For her it was the days that followed the first catastrophe. The first failure. The first hospitalization. The beginning of the end. The oxygen pump hissed and thumped, and she thought it was music playing. Some techno-pop thing turned low and going on in the background. Some dreary song, repetitive, dull, the kind of music she used to listen to when all was well and she was driving his car, buzzing on Diet Coke, and taking the long way around into town to get something or other, just for the sake of being out. The hiss and the thump on the radio—her heart kept pace with it. She was happy then and all things seemed sharp, bright, filled with promise and purpose. The diamond on her finger, gleaming in the sun. His smile. His teeth. The shine of his skin that paled, then turned dusky. His nose blue first, then purple. The bruise on the back of his leg that never had a chance to brighten back to yellow again. It was spring when he fell the first time. Winter the second. The year turned and by the end of the next summer, it was over. By fall the closets had been cleaned, the drawers emptied, the children were gone, the friends too. By fall she was alone. And then everybody wanted to know: Will you stay? Or sell the house? Find something smaller? She has a son in New York and a daughter in California, so there was no reason for her to stay put. You can travel now, they said. There is money. You’re set. But the last thing she wanted, she said, was to be alone.
What we forget
For me it was the smell. Which after the first weeks of my first wife’s illness I didn’t notice anymore, except when I’d been out, which was hardly ever anymore. I knew what was in store, and I didn’t want to leave her. I wanted to be there. I had to be there, I thought, so even a short trip to the store, an errand, a drive to the post office was enough to put me into a sweat. I could never shake the pressing urge to get back, and only then, coming in from outdoors, did I notice the smell, which I soon forgot again. When she died, finally, I was there, waiting, watching. The sun was high in the sky and bright in the window, and so I’d pulled back the curtains, to bathe her and myself in light. Later I threw open the window too, though this was in midwinter and the house was freezing when the hospice aide showed up, bustling in, a whirlwind of exclamation and hands, her coattails flying out behind her, to find my wife, cold, white, still on the bed and me asleep in the chair.
I forgot the smell and the silence. There was no question for me. I sold the house immediately. I took a room at the hotel.
She was at the bar. And that was how we met.
What we forget
For me it was the details. The daily this and that of living with a person. A stranger, really. A woman, mysterious and alien, in her way. The small things about her that I’m still learning every day. At first this is what drew me in and I never wanted to think of it as a trap, she some exotic flower opening feathered jaws, hidden barbs, to devour me; although there was a part of me then that longed to be devoured . . . subsumed . . . I don’t have the word for it. Absorbed, maybe. I wanted to lose myself in her, at first. Forgetting the details, the way she might look at me, the questions she might ask. Her sudden fits of temper, how easily frustrated she can be, slamming a door or throwing a glass, angry at an inanimate object as if it has a personality and intentions—she takes its intractability personally. Her clothes in a pile on the closet floor. She’ll get to them, she says, and shuts the door. Her shoes, scattered, and I trip over them. Her hair clogs the shower drain. And all of that makes me wonder why I couldn’t leave well enough alone, spend some time living on my own, getting on by myself, maybe I would have liked that, or I’d have learned to like it anyway. But no. The grief and the strangeness of it assaulted me, it blinded me, I have come to understand since. Sugar on the countertop, spilled. Crumbs on the floor. She is not a tidy person. She doesn’t notice things. The spatters on the bathroom mirror. Sometimes she snores, which appalls me. I lie next to her, listening to the hum of her breathing. Pig-like, it is. Honestly.
What we forget
For her it’s things. Objects. Her glasses. Her keys. The grocery list. The letter to be mailed. Her watch. Her hat. Her gloves. There’s always something and we’re always going back for it. Setting out and then at the first stoplight, she begins. Sometimes later. She’ll start, hiccup, Oh! And remember. So we’ll have to turn around and go back. At first it was a joke. I thought for a while that maybe she was doing it on purpose. And then I tried to second-guess it. Going over a list. Which made her mad. Asking her, counting on my fingers. Do you have, did you remember: phone, wallet, license, credit card, the bottle of wine for our host?
* * *
We’re on our way to a party that neither of us wants to attend, but she said yes anyway because her oldest friend will be there, and her sister too. The two of them, who always look at me askance as if to say, She could have done better, you know. And you’re a very lucky man.
Usually by this time, ten minutes from the house, she’ll be digging in her purse, lips tight, eyes wide. I can’t look at her; I keep my own eyes on the road. It’s raining and the wipers are going crazy, so loud that the radio is no use—and the car isn’t the cozy refuge that I’d like it to be. Her bare shoulders and her perfume, her hair stiff with spray. Her hands folded in her lap. Pearls glowing at her throat. The swish of her stockings when she crosses her legs.
I splash around a corner, onto the avenue. Spatters of red from the other cars’ taillights glisten in the rain. The traffic has stopped because of something up ahead, an accident or a traffic light gone out in the storm. I wish we’d just stayed home. A quiet evening together, just the two of us. A drink in the living room, like those times when we were first together. Her all dressed up and me too. So formal, we were then. I thought she was too shy, too reserved, and that this trait was going to show up elsewhere, in bed for example, where she would be modest about her aging body, ashamed of perceived flaws. But it was nothing like that. She surprised me. Slipping out of her dress and standing there, open, for me to see. This is who I am, what I’ve got, it’s yours if you want it. Her expression frank. Ready for anything. Watching to see whether I winced or turned away in any way. But I didn’t. Of course not. I took her up on the offer and then again and again—until there it was, I was caught, and we were married and now this. She has begun to stir. I can feel it coming. I creep the car forward. Rain pounds us and I can’t see much more than the taillights of the cars up ahead. She’s turned to look at me. Then away. I’ll wait for her to speak, I think. Someone honks behind us. I shake my head and mutter, As if.
She looks at me again, and I can’t help it, I glance back and see the panic in her eyes.
I sigh. What is it?
She shakes her head. Tears glistening. Her hands clenching now in her lap.
I brake suddenly, jolting her forward. She puts a hand on the dash to brace herself, but that’s not necessary. The traffic moves but I don’t budge. That car behind me honks again. I glare at the rearview mirror, as if that might help. I mutter again, Fuck off.
She is looking at me. Her hair, softened by the damp, has fallen. Her teeth are bared, revealing the chipped tooth that I found so charming once. Another flash of panic in her face. She’s pleading, Please?
Before we left tonight, I asked her—we went through all of it, as has become my habit now. Do you have everything? Her flash of annoyance, exasperation. Yes, of course, I do, she said. As I went on, all the way through the whole list. Purse. Keys. What else is there? Every time this happens, I have something else to add to the list. Sweater. Hat. Checkbook. Camera. It’s endless and it changes. But why would I have a camera with me tonight? she asked. Shaking her head and looking at me as if I was the one who was losing his mind. But then smiling because she’s that way, naturally cheerful. Silly, she said. Clucking. Nipping a kiss at my cheek. Bustling off to get her coat. Umbrella. The gift. Map. Bottle of wine. The champagne. The casserole. Whatever it was she meant to bring along.
This time there’s been a change in all this. Because it’s not what she’s left behind but what she’s left undone. The back door open. The dog in the yard. It could have been anything, but tonight it’s the dog.
That driver is leaning on his horn again as the gap ahead widens. I can see him in the rearview mirror. He’s gesturing as someone else slips around in front of us, into the gap I’ve left. I jerk forward as if to make up for that, feeling the anger surge through me now too, then pull over to the right and keep on going. She has a hand over her mouth as we bolt along the shoulder, and the rain is making it that much harder for me, for everybody. She cries out my name; but I can’t stop, furious, I want to tear the steering wheel apart, I’d be happy for an accident just now: some catastrophe for me to pour my rage into. My hand on the horn. Get the fuck out of my way, through my teeth. At night I grind them. Or clench them. One thing or the other. I used to do this when I was younger too. Cracked the molars, had to have them all replaced. They don’t break anymore but my jaw throbs.
The shoulder narrows until I have no choice but to turn off, and immediately I can see it’s a mistake. This road won’t get us back, it’s curving off, and we’re going completely the wrong way, the lights of town are dimming behind us now. The rain, the dark, and she’s got ahold of the door grip, her feet are braced against the floor. My anger steams in the small space of the car. I take a curve too fast, fishtail, and slow. When I look over at her, I can see her eyes are wide with fear. I roll to a stop. We both say it at the same time: I’m sorry. Hers a whimper, mine stronger. I say, We’ll go home. She nods. The rain is still coming down hard. The headlights crack the darkness ahead of us. I could turn around but not here, the road is too narrow. Nothing but empty fields on either side. She gazes out the window, picturing the dog out in the rain, I guess. He’s okay, I tell her. She nods. We’re creeping forward again now. My anger has dissipated, and with it my courage has gone too. This is my fault. If I had stayed put, if I’d kept my head, we’d be through that knot of traffic by now. I could have talked her out of it, maybe, her worry for the dog. We might have got somewhere with all that. Or I could have found another way to get back. Or . . . but never mind, because here we are. The road drops down, then rises. There will have to be a turnoff soon. This road has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?
Out here in the farmland, there are all these little towns, one after another, houses huddled around town squares. We’re bound to come upon one sooner or later, and sure enough before you know it, I see the lights ahead. I turn to her and smile. Again, I say, I’m sorry. We’ll find a place. Pull over. Stop and go in. This will be something new for us. An adventure. A drink. Dinner. It will be romantic. I’ll hold her hand. I’ll kiss her. Maybe there will be a shop, and I can buy her something. I reach out, brush her cheek with my thumb. She likes that. I love you, I say, and she nods, like she already knows that. Or she agrees. Or she loves me too.
This little place turns out to be not much more than an intersection with a stop sign and a gas station on one corner. There is no town square. No restaurant. No bar. But at least the lights are on in the station and a silhouette of someone sitting behind the cash register in the window. The rain is letting up too, as I turn and pull up to the pump and stop. I have plenty of gas. We don’t need gas. I don’t forget things like that.
She’s out of the car before I can say anything. One hand covers her head as she skips across the pavement and up the steps and inside, where I can see her form outlined in the window, beyond a display of motor oil cans stacked up to form a pyramid that mimics the pyramid that is the logo of the brand. I don’t know why I remember this detail, or why I mention it, when I’m telling the story again, of how we stopped here and she went inside, to use the bathroom. No, there was no argument. And, no, I was not angry. By then I wasn’t upset anymore and neither was she.
When I look again, she’s coming outside, holding a key attached to some kind of paddle, or a ruler maybe, or some piece of wood. To discourage theft I guess, but who would want to keep that key? She’s using it to unlock the restroom door. Just then the wind picks up and blows her hair around. She turns on the light and goes in and closes the door behind her.
I’m thinking, if only she had turned, if only she’d looked back at me, then maybe I could wait for her. But she didn’t do that. She trusts me.
I haven’t even turned off the motor. We don’t have cellphones. She’s forgotten her purse, left it here in the car with me. I don’t back up. The attendant does not come out. The rain stops. I wait a few moments. Awhile. I can’t say how long I wait. That’s what I remember, but the attendant will say I didn’t wait at all. That I drove off right then, and I left her there. I can’t say why.
* * *
The house is dark except the light at the back, in the kitchen by the door, the one she always leaves on. The dog is not in the yard, and the gate is open, and I’m thinking she was right to worry about him, but then I hear the barking and as I let myself in, I am able to settle back into my old certainty about the way things are. The dog bounds past me, squats to pee on the grass, then comes back again, and he’s sitting at the door, waiting for me to let him in. He’s wet now, tracking muddy paw prints on the white kitchen tiles. The gleaming surfaces. Everything in its place. One cupboard door has been left open, and I tap it with a finger so it smacks shut, and the sound of this seems to echo in the empty house. I glance at the phone, but she won’t be calling, not yet. I imagine her confusion. The clerk looking up as I drove away, thinking at first that she was with me, worried at first about the key on the paddle, then going to check and instead finding her. Bewildered. She will wait. She’ll be thinking there’s some explanation for why I’ve left her there, but she can’t remember what it is.
* * *
The clerk says she did not come in, but just handed him the key and told him she was fine. She lived not far, she said. She would walk. Now that the rain had stopped and it was a lovely night. The sky cleared pretty quickly. The stars were bright and the moon was high and bright too, so if she’d wanted to she could have easily found her way.
* * *
I have explained it as best I can. I was fed up but I was going to go back. I just wanted to teach her a little lesson. Self-reliance, maybe. I was only going to pull around to the side, into the shadows where she couldn’t see me. Confuse her that way. Scare her a little, maybe. But then I just kept going. There was music on the radio and that was nice. I thought I would turn around pretty soon, but then I didn’t do it.
You can’t say I meant her any harm, exactly.
It’s not a crime, is it, to leave your wife alone somewhere at night?
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