It was a single car accident with all of the ambiguity that implies. Sean didn’t usually drive; he had no real need. He rode his bike. Work, football, his friends, they were all within riding distance. And his mother came to see us. So the fact that he was in the car, essentially my car, spoke volumes for the police as did the fact that the accident happened in the early hours of the morning and I didn’t even know that he had left the bed, the house, and taken the car. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I thought everyone blamed me, and why shouldn’t they? Because how can you be married to someone and not know that that sort of shit is going on, right under your nose? I don’t know, I really don’t, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention or maybe he was keeping the clues to himself. What I had thought was low level depression that was medicated, as it is for so many other people, turned out to be something else again.
I didn’t keep many of his things. Most of it I gave to his mother, couriered to her at great expense in Indianapolis. Some of it I gave to charity but a lot of it I threw out, because no one wants well worn gym gear or out of date university text books. But his bike, I kept that. It was still leaning in the hallway from where he had left it. As if he might grab it, roll it outside and ride away.
She was carrying a small bouquet of flowers, roses and baby’s breath. For a moment, she looked like a very old bride, walking towards me. The early sun caught a fine silver thread through her mauve jumper. Her low heels were sharp on the footpath before she stepped onto the grass to walk to me.
She put her arm around my neck, stiffly, and pulled me down closer to her bottle blonde, permed hair.
“Ah, dear, it’s a sad day,” she said.
I was standing in front of Sean’s grave on this, his first anniversary. Perhaps she was going to marry him with that bouquet.
“I didn’t think you’d be here this early, Diane,” I said.
She smiled at me. “Old people don’t sleep.”
And I wanted to say, yes, only young, dead husbands’ sleep.
She moved closer to Sean’s grave and I stepped a few feet away, closer to another, as if to give her the privacy that she had denied me.
My heart beat a little faster and something crawled under my skin, agitation or maybe just plain anger. It happened whenever she was near, her and her crocodile tears. She grasped my arm, gesturing for me to come closer to his grave, so that we could mourn together for heaven’s sake. I pulled her hand off.
“Just leave me alone,” I said.
And I went back to my car. She didn’t call after me. She would have thought it disrespectful in that place, not that anyone was there at 8am other than me and her and hundreds of people who had already died.
Later I heard her car pull up out the front of the house and those footsteps again, loud and heavy on the path, like dread walking towards me. She rang the bell. Her voice was muffled by the front door.
“Laura? Can you let me in? I know you’re in there. Your car’s out the front.”
And of course, it was at that moment that Joe’s pickup pulled into the driveway, as if he owned the place. I stood back from the kitchen window, out of sight, and watched them speaking together. After a couple of minutes she walked away, to her car. She gave a backward glance at Joe as he moved towards the house, towards the backdoor rather than the front, the way that I came into the house and the way that Sean used to too.
He found me in the kitchen, making coffee.
“You know that was your -?” he said and hesitated at what to call her.
“Yes. I know.”
“I don’t think she was too pleased to meet me.”
I turned and smiled. “No. I think it would have made her quite angry.”
He watched me as if he was realising a thing or two. I walked over to him and hugged him, pushing my face into his shirt. It took a few seconds before his arms closed around me. His plaid shirt was soft against my cheek and smelt of wood. He was an arborist and, like a vet who loves animals but spends so much time putting them down, he spent a lot of time cutting down trees.
“Are you home for lunch?” I said.
He moved away from me. “Just a quick bite.”
Normally we would already be on our way to the bedroom, but not today. He was pulling out the bread and looking in the fridge for the food that was right in front of his face.
“Will you have coffee?” I said.
He looked at the mug I was holding as if it was a very big decision. “No. Thanks,” he said and turned back to his sandwich, piling on layer after layer of filling.
“She said she saw you out there,” he said.
“Out there?” And I don’t know why I wanted him to say it.
“At the cemetery.”
“Yes. She did.”
“She said she wanted to take you out to lunch.”
He leaned against the bench and began to eat his enormous sandwich. It silenced him, having to extend his jaw around it and chew and chew. But of course, he wasn’t really silenced. His eyes watched me, above his shifting mouth, asking questions and telling me that he didn’t want to know. What a thing for him to walk into – this.
He finished a mouthful. “I know we haven’t known each other very long,” he said.
He sort of smiled. There was a spot of mayonnaise on the side of his mouth and I swiped it away with my thumb.
“But you get very wound up when it comes to her. You aren’t usually so -”
He shrugged. “So angry.”
“She’s a compulsive liar. And her favourite pastime is rewriting history. So she’s rewriting everything. Her mothering. Sean. The lot. She’s been doing it for years. And now she has the perfect tragic dimension to that story.”
He winced. “Laura. She’s lost her son.”
“She lost him long before he died.”
He took a deep breath, his chest rising to take it in. I could not imagine what this looked like to him, this familial landscape that he had no part of, this terrible place of scorched earth.
He rubbed his hand against his beard and it made a rasping sound and I realised he was nervous.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d want to see me today,” he said.
“What? You were here this morning.”
“I know,” he said and seemed guilty. “I can take myself away for a few days, you know?”
I looked at him. There was something in his tone that sounded like he was trying to persuade me, as if he was about to tell me that he wanted to slow things down. But perhaps the day was liberating, because there was no way he could do that to me on Sean’s anniversary.
“Let’s go out to dinner tonight,” I said.
“Yeah, tonight. After you get home from work. Let’s go out to dinner.”
He sighed now, long, as if he was letting out that breath.
“Okay, sweetheart. If that’s what you want.”
Before I met Joe, I had seen him around town in his pickup. He was usually pulling in somewhere or pulling away. “Joe Clement – Arborist” was printed neatly in silver on his truck which was dark grey and gleaming. He seemed organised and professional, like he had an office, answered his phone with his full name and paid his taxes.
I don’t know why I had started wondering about him, maybe because it felt like I saw him everywhere. I saw him getting out of his truck out the front of Safeway, or leaving a cafe with a take away coffee, and once I saw him pat a dog on the head on his way into the post office. He was tall, lean, with dark blonde hair and a beard and I had begun to think about that beard. I had begun to think about the oak tree in my yard and its couple of low lying branches.
That evening, when I heard his truck pull into the driveway my heart jolted. He was so new and I felt his absence keenly.
He came into the kitchen, carrying a six pack of beer. He was already drinking from the first bottle. Sean used to drink quite a lot and I wondered if I drove a man to drink. Or maybe I just knew how to pick them.
I was already dressed for going out and his stare on me was like heat. I was putting on my earring, bending slightly to one shoulder. He put down the beers and walked to me and pushed his beautiful wet mouth against my neck that was exposed. I think for a moment he forgot what day it was, perhaps we both did. But no, it was fixed firmly in the front of my mind. It wouldn’t let me go.
His hands slid around my waist and moved down and stayed on my arse. He was hard against me.
“You remember we’re going out to dinner?”
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said into my neck.
But then the penny seemed to drop and he stepped away, back to his beer.
“You sure you want to go out?” he said, in a new voice: cold, wary.
“Yes. I’ve ironed your shirt.”
His head fell and then he drained that beer in one long drink.
We went in my car. It felt like I had kidnapped Joe, dressed him and was driving him to his final destination. And I wanted to yell at him to get a backbone. But I was being indulged, I knew that. His idea of a fun night was beers and takeaway on the couch and sex starting there and eventually making its way to the bedroom. That was my idea of a fun night too. But for some reason I wanted to get dressed up and go out.
I couldn’t do the bar – Sean loved that place. And I couldn’t do the other bar, the smaller one near the train tracks that everyone forgot about, the one that Sean didn’t like. So we just went to a cafe. It was Monday night, there wasn’t much else open in that small Michigan town. We were too dressed up. We looked like we were on our way to somewhere else. Stevie Nicks was singing on the radio. I smelt the slight stink of dishcloth, very faint but unmistakable. I ordered a G and T. Joe ordered a beer. We hadn’t looked at the menu yet. I was working out whether or not I could get trashed.
“It would be unseemly, wouldn’t it? To get wasted?”
He smiled, wanly, as if he really didn’t care. He took another drink and when he brought the bottle down I saw that he had made a decision.
“I don’t really want to do this,” he said. “I mean I know it’s your night -”
“It’s not my night. You make it sound like my bloody prom or something.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Could we just have our meal and go home?” I reached across the table and our hands locked. “I do need you here.”
“I know,” he said.
It turned out to not be a good idea at all. We both ate silently, as if it was us who had been married for ten years – but it wasn’t a comfortable silence. My chicken and pumpkin risotto was difficult to digest, the food moving down my throat in lumps. We shared a bottle of wine which he drank most of, the wine tasted like metal to me. When I caught our reflection in the glass, we looked straight-backed, estranged.
We walked back to the car and he didn’t put his arm around me, like he usually did. And I couldn’t extend my hand to him. Somehow it would have felt instructive, like Diane laying her hand on my arm, trying to get me to do something I didn’t want to do: come closer to the grave with me.
I drove us back and it shouldn’t have been a surprise when half a minute into the trip he said, “Can you drop me over at the apartment tonight?” but it was. I couldn’t believe that he was going to desert me.
“What about your truck?” I said.
“I’ll walk around tomorrow. It’s not that far.”
And I wondered whether he would even come into the house tomorrow, or if he would just get into his truck and leave.
When we pulled up out the front of his apartment he said, “I don’t think I’m the right person. Not generally. Just tonight. I don’t think I’m the right person tonight.”
My hands clenched the steering wheel. I had left the car on. I just wanted him to get out. He seemed like a very mean, selfish man to me, but I knew he wasn’t. I knew it in my bones.
“Well, who is the right person tonight?” I said.
He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
“No one, sweetheart,” he said, and pushed open the car door, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I watched him walk away up the path to his apartment, where he hadn’t been for a couple of weeks. I imagined the spoiled milk, the black, disintegrating couple of bananas in the fruit bowl and that musty, decaying, smell of a place closed up for weeks, abandoned. And he wanted to be there rather than with me. He waved from the door to the building as he went inside and it took a lot of self control to not get out of the car, run up that front path and ask him to let me in.
Back at home, by myself, in that house Sean and me had bought five years ago, I didn’t know what to do. Sleep was impossible. I thought that seeing as I was alone I should do something ritualistic, where I sat down and went through our wedding photos, one by one. But there could be nothing worse than seeing those photos of us smiling, naive, happy, before the disaster, because that is what his death was, a disaster. For all that people complain about growing old, there is nothing worse than a young person’s death. It breaks the heart in one swift movement, or at least it did mine.
I watched television and drank a couple of Joe’s beers. An Austin Powers movie was on and I felt myself smile a couple of times. I wondered if Diane was staying at a motel in town or if she had already flown home. It was as if Sean had left me with the shittiest aspects of his life and there were none of those good things, the reasons I married him in the first place.
And now when I thought of him it could turn mawkish, very quickly. Bring on the sepia tint and the slow motion and the dancing. Or it was just miserable. Him crossing his arms across his chest and his eyes so endlessly sad, the silver fly of his black jeans coming slightly apart at the top. And I didn’t tell him, because I was past telling him things like that.
I don’t know when that happened, when things slipped between us. It might have been when we were told there were fertility problems for us and he took that so badly. Or it might have been when he had to assume more responsibility at work after a round of redundancies. Or it might have been when we bought the house. He liked to tell me that in the word mortgage, “mort” is from the Latin word for death. I knew that already and it didn’t help. In truth, the mortgage was modest but he seemed oppressed by it.
So, following his death, after a few therapy sessions that my parents paid for, I didn’t think of him. Perhaps even in those sessions I didn’t think of him, I thought of me; I had lost my husband and that was where the conversation began. Now I tried very hard to not think of him at all. He was gone, I knew that.
I picked up my phone and scrolled down to Diane’s number. She was one button away.
At the morgue I had identified Sean and that is something that I cannot forget. There was no one else. His brother lived in Sweden, his father was dead and Diane was on her way up from Indianapolis, but I knew she would be useless. My parents were on holiday in Germany and after my phone call were busily trying to catch the next flight back. And Sean had friends in town, but they would have been soundly asleep in their beds because I didn’t have the courage to ring them. And really, wasn’t that the least I could do, identify him?
His body — that was what it came down to — his needy body lying broken and battered and still. He did that. And I wondered whether he hated me, whether deep down he reviled me, because how could you do that to someone that you love? It was as if he was saying, this is what you did to me. He couldn’t have articulated it better. For there was no note and in my frame of mind at the time I thought, he didn’t even have the courtesy to leave a note. And I almost laughed, because how could courtesy be relevant when you had gotten to the point of slamming your car into a tree?
When Diane arrived in town she was a storm of tears and quavering, incomplete words. Sometimes she shook, just shook. She stayed in the house for a day before I had to ask her to leave. I couldn’t cope with her as well. She called me various names that have stayed with me, sucking her teeth and throwing clothes and toiletries back into her massive suitcase. She had left her horrible black dress hanging from the back of the spare room door and I got it sent to her motel – I didn’t take it myself.
It was so quiet when she left that there were times when I wanted her bluster, name calling and tiny reddened eyes like sores in her face. Something to focus on and distract me from the real issue at hand: Sean. But there was nothing for it, no relief, and so I went over it and over him and over me. And if we wanted to get into who did what to whom, he had done the ultimate act.
I pressed Diane’s number. It rang several times and I thought it was going to go to voicemail.
She answered in her small phone voice. “Laura. It’s very late.”
“Sorry. Were you asleep?”
“I don’t know how you can.”
There was silence.
“I mean how do you switch yourself off like that?” I said.
“I know I said old people don’t sleep. But they do really. They just go to bed earlier.”
“I’m not talking about other people. I’m talking about you.”
She sighed. “There’s nothing I can do for him now, Laura. He’s dead. That’s the reality.”
And I wanted to laugh, as if she was the best person to tell me what was real.
“But you’re a Catholic,” Diane said. “So you probably think of him as an angel looking down on you. Or maybe you don’t want to think of him that way anymore.” And there was no accusation in it, she sounded sad, just sad.
“I’m sorry. I was going to tell you about Joe, at some stage.”
“He seems like a nice young man, dear.”
“I don’t begrudge it. I don’t. You have to live your life.”
“Yes. Thank you. Good night, Diane.”
I ended the call.
And I felt as if I had done her permanent damage, as if what Sean did was only part of what I had just done to her. I imagined her weeping quietly for her son, for him losing his wife to someone else, for those embryos of him and me that waited in a clinic in Lansing that would never get their chance.
I went to bed and pushed my face into the pillow on the other side of the bed and it smelt of Joe, just Joe. And of course it only smelt of him. After Sean died I had bought a new bed, pillows, duvet and bed linen. It seemed so important to get rid of the last place we were together, but now I wanted it back, just for a little while.
A mutual friend, Chris, introduced me and Joe at a dinner party. It was only about ten months after Sean had died and my friends were beginning to make those first hesitant invitations to me and I knew from their tone or sometimes they told me that there was someone “nice” who would also be going along. It all felt far too early to me, but still I went.
Joe had only just taken off his jacket and been given his first beer, before Chris walked him over towards me. It was so quick. I wanted to tell Chris to let him catch his breath, but the introduction was already underway. Joe’s voice caught me, warm, low, polite, as if he had been educated at some excellent private schools, which he had as it turned out. He smiled when he said my name, which was really just politeness, and shook my hand which made it seem even more that we were meeting at a conference rather than in Chris and Erin’s living room, but I liked the newness of it: the first meeting, the first shaking of hands, and his ready smile. He was undamaged, freshly washed and smelling of shaving cream and shampoo.
Chris moved away and I wanted to call him back because I couldn’t remember how to do this.
“I’ve heard about you,” Joe said.
I laughed. “The local widow?’
And he looked stunned for a second. “Well, no. Aren’t you a journalist?”
He smiled. “Yes, your career.”
I shrugged. “I left the paper. I’m doing a bit of freelancing. No more daily deadlines.”
Joe looked like he didn’t know what to say.
“Sorry about the widow comment,” I said. “I thought that’s what you were referring to. It seems to be what most people refer to.”
“I’m sorry,’ he said and shook his head. “I hate that I said that but I don’t know what else to say.”
“So you heard I was a journalist. Anything else?”
He smiled. “Available. Pretty.”
I smiled too.
Joe chinked his beer bottle against my wine glass. “I thought I should do that so people can think everything’s okay and stop looking at us.”
“Ah, yes. Well meaning friends. Isn’t there some saying about a road being paved with good intentions?”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” he said and smiled. “I’d say it’s too early to say we were on the road to hell, don’t you?”
I laughed but it was more like a titter and I thought, my God, get me out of this. I actually cannot do this. I drank more as if trying to find the bottom of my glass. And I was feeling that thing he does, where he turns his gaze on you and it is something unique, and when he smiles and those little creases appear at the corners of his eyes, it can be downright disarming. I didn’t recall anyone looking at me like that before, ever.
As if sensing difficulty, Chris came over and refilled my glass.
Joe raised his eyebrows at me and said, “So, I guess I’m driving then.”
And Chris exploded with laughter and put his arm around me. “Careful with this one,” he said before walking away, and I didn’t know whether he meant for me to be careful or for Joe to be careful. In any case, I don’t think Joe needed to be told. He was very kind to me.
Joe sat beside me at the table when we ate dinner and his hand fell on my arm when he told me a story. I glanced at his hand and wondered for a moment whether he was gay, the movement was so unconscious and yet so attentive to me. But I put it down to a privileged, New York upbringing and schooling, where perhaps boys and young men were given some latitude and were permitted to socialise and be themselves. It wasn’t the way they raised them in the Midwest, or at least it wasn’t the way Sean was raised.
And I liked Joe’s hand on my arm, his long, angular, intelligent fingers.
Joe and I left the dinner party in our own cars but as arranged I followed him to his apartment. We spent a long time drinking coffee in his little kitchen under a buzzing fluorescent tube. I told him about Sean, nothing too meaningful, just the bare facts. It probably sounded like a police report or a newspaper article.
“I know that’s heavy, when I’ve only just met you. I probably should have saved it for some other time,” I said.
“No, I’m pleased you told me,” he said. “That you felt you could tell me.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“You know, Laura. We don’t have to do anything tonight.”
“You’ve changed your mind, haven’t you?” I said. “About me?”
Joe crossed his arms on the table and leaned across them towards me. “Why would I do that?”
“It’s not exactly inspiring, hearing about a woman’s husband’s suicide.”
“You’re not just some woman.”
“No, I am just some woman.”
“You’ve always been like this, haven’t you?”
I smiled. “I guess. I used to cry at Barbara Streisand singing Memory. I think I was eight.”
He laughed, but it was short, a gasp.
“This should never have happened to you,” he said. “Especially not to you.”
“That’s life I guess. Stuff happens.”
He took the mug from me and took up my hand and pulled me over to him to sit on his lap. I pushed my face into his pulsing neck and it felt like a place that I wanted to stay. My eyes filled and I hoped he couldn’t feel it against his skin. To have him pressed against my face, it was unspeakable, vast, as if he had torn open my chest.
He brought my arms one by one up over his shoulders, and put his arms around me. His head bent low so that his face was pushed against my shoulder. His breath and my breath fell into time with each other. We could have been fucking, very slowly, so slowly that I could faint or weep. But we weren’t, we were sitting in his kitchen, fully clothed, under an unforgiving light. For the first time in a very long time I was holding another man, and he was so close to me he may as well have been inside of me.
There was a moment when I felt as if things were turning, when warmth began to spread through my body, my brain. It was a couple of weeks after I had first met Joe. We were sitting outside on the back deck at my house eating breakfast, but it was late, almost midday. The sunlight was moving across us, as clouds pushed across the sky.
And there was a dazzling spell when the sun could not have been stronger. I turned my face up to it. A bird flew above us, flapping its wings and then gliding, stretched to its full wing span. I shut my eyes. I was wearing clothes that I was just waiting to pull off again, because that’s what it was like with Joe. But sometimes it wasn’t enough and I wanted more than sex with him, I wanted his blood and his bones. I wanted to lay down with him and crawl up inside of him under his skin and feel his heart beat bloody, ceaselessly, against my cheek.
I felt his gaze and when I opened my eyes he was smiling at me. I wanted to tell him what this was like, the welling, filling, of me. I could have burst. I could have drowned. But I could not open my mouth to speak. It was as if words would have ruined it, because some things cannot be described. I realise that now, sometimes words do not come close.
The next morning I heard Joe’s step on the back stairs. It was early, his hair wet from the shower. He was carrying a bag of pastries. I had half expected a call from him telling me he wasn’t the right person, at all, ever. I had dreaded it. He looked over at me eating my cereal at the breakfast bar. He switched on the coffee machine. He didn’t ask me how last night was, he just said, “Enough of that bird feed, sweetheart.”
He pulled the bag of pastries open.
Melissa Goode is an Australian writer, living in the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney. Her stories have appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, The Fiction Desk, Crannog and Word Hut. She is currently working on her first novel.
© 2015, Melissa Goode