My ex-wife and I are sitting on the floor of what was once our living room. The room is empty now except for us. This place is the site of our marital decline, and we are performing a ritual cleansing on it. I've been washing the hardwood with a soapy disinfectant solution, using a soft brush and an old mop, working toward the front window, which has a view of the street. My hands smell of soap and bleach. We're trying to freshen the place up for the new owners. The terms of sale do not require this kind of scouring, but somehow we have brought ourselves here to perform it.
We're both battered from the work: Emily fell off a kitchen stool this morning while washing the upstairs windows, and I banged my head against a drainpipe when I was cleaning under the bathroom sink. When I heard her drop to the floor, I yelled upstairs to ask if she was okay, and she yelled back down to say that she was, but I didn't run up there to check.
When my wife and I were in the process of splitting up, the house itself participated. Lamps dismounted from their tables at the slightest touch; pictures plummeted from the wall, the glass in their frames shattering, whenever anyone walked past them. Destruction abounded. You couldn't touch anything in here without breaking it. The air in the living room acquired a poisonous residue from the things we had said to each other. I sometimes thought I could discern a malignant green mist, invisible to everyone else, floating just above the coffee table. We excreted malice, the two of us. The house was haunted with pain. You felt it the minute you walked in the door.
Therefore this cleaning. We both like the young couple who have bought the house, smiling, just-out-of-school types with one toddler and another child on the way. We want to give them a decent chance. During our eight years together Emily and I never had any kids ourselves, luckily—or unluckily. Who can say?
Anyway, now that we've been cleaning it, our former dwelling seems to have calmed down. The air in the living room has achieved a settled, stale quietude, as if we never lived here. The unhappiness has seeped out of it.
Emily is sitting on the floor over in the corner now, a stain in the shape of a Y on her T-shirt. She's taking a breather. I can smell her sweat, a vinegary sweetness, quite pleasant. She's drinking a beer, though it's only two in the afternoon. She's barefoot, little traces of polish on her toenails. Her pretty brown hair, always one of her best features, is pulled back by a rubber band in the sort of ponytail women sometimes make when they're housecleaning. Her face is pink from her exertions, and on her forehead she has a bruise from where she fell.
She's saying that it's strange, but the very sight of me causes her sadness—a complicated sadness, she informs me, inflecting the adjective. She's smiling when she says it, a half smile, some grudges mixed in with this late-term affability. She takes a swig of the beer. I can see that she's trying to make our troubles into a manageable comedy. I was Laurel; she was Hardy. I was Abbott; she was Costello. We failed together at the job we had been given: our marriage. But I don't think this comedic version of us will work out, even in retrospect. She tells me that one of my mistakes was that I thought I knew her, but no, in fact I never really knew her, and she can prove it. This is old ground, but I let her talk. She's not speaking to me so much as meditating aloud in the direction of the wall a few feet above my head. It's as if I've become a problem in linear algebra.
My general ignorance of her character causes her sorrow, she now admits. She wonders whether I was deluded about women in general or about her in particular. To illustrate what I don't know about her, she begins to tell me a story.
But before she can really get started, I interrupt her. "'Sorrow,'" I say. "Now there's a noun from our grandparents' generation. Nobody our age uses words like that anymore except you. Or 'weary.' You're the only person I know who has ever used that word. I'm weary, you'd say, when you didn't look weary at all, just irritable. And 'forbearance.' I don't even fucking know what forbearance is. 'Show some forbearance'—that was a line you used. Where did you find those words anyway?"
"Are you done?" she asks me. We're like a couple of tired fighters in the fifteenth round.
"What's wrong with saying 'I'm bummed'?" I ask her. "Everyone else says that. 'I'm bummed.' 'I'm down.' 'I'm depressed.' 'I'm blue.' But you—you have a gift for the … archaic." I am trying to amuse her and irritate her at the same time, so I wink.
"I wasn't depressed back then," she says. "I was sad. The two aren't the same." I scuttle over to where she is sitting and take a swig from the beer can she's been clutching. Only the beer is gone. I take a swig of air. Okay; we may be divorced, but we're still married.
Before I met her, but after she had dropped out of college, Emily moved to the Bay Area. This was quite a few summers after the Summers of Love, which she had missed—both the summers and the love. She rented a cheap basement apartment in Noe Valley, one of those places with a view of the sidewalk and of passing shoes, and during the day she worked in a department store, the Emporium, in the luggage department.
I interrupt her. "I know this," I say. "I know this entire story."
"No, you don't," Emily tells me. "Not this one." One of her co-workers was a guy named Jeffrey, a pleasant fellow most of the time, tall and handsome, though with an occasional stammer, and, as it happens, gay. He proved himself an effective salesman, one of those cheerful and witty and charming characters you buy expensive items from, big-ticket items, out of sheer delight in their company.
This co-worker, Jeffrey, befriended Emily soon after she had moved to San Francisco. An amateur guide and historian of tourist spots and dives, he showed her around the city, took her to the wharf and the Tenderloin District. He loved the city; he had had his first real taste of a possible future life there in that city, a potential hereafter of happiness. My wife-to-be and this Jeffrey rode BART over to Berkeley once and had a sidewalk vegetarian lunch—mock-duck tacos, she says—at a seedy little restaurant devoted to higher consciousness. On another day he drove her to Mount Tam in his rattly old blue VW. He'd brought sandwiches and wine and some pastry concoction he had made himself, as a picnic offering. They ate their picnic in the shade of a tree, the FM radio in his car serenading them with Glenn Gould. Why did he go to all this trouble? Emily says he was just being a friend, and then she pauses. "His boyfriend had left him a month before," she says, looking at her bare feet on the floor of our empty living room. "So he was lonely. And he was one of those gay men who have a latent hetero thing going on." How did she know this? She shrugs. She could tell by the way he looked at her sometimes. On a few rare occasions he looked at her the way a man looks at a woman.
It's true, I haven't heard this story. "So?" I ask.
So one day Jeffrey didn't show up for work. Or the next day or the day after that. He was sick, of course, with pneumonia, and after he recovered he came back to work for a few days and then disappeared again for another two weeks. Everyone knew he had the plague, and this was before all the antiretroviral drugs broke through to the population at large, so at work everyone avoided the subject of Jeffrey, someone they all liked.
By this time I am looking out the front window at our street. This is a nondescript neighborhood of similarly designed brick semi-colonials like ours, and as I watch, I see a guy in a Santa Claus suit come jogging by.
"Look," I say. "It's Rolf, from down the block. He's wearing that goddamn Santa Claus suit again."
Emily glances out, lifting herself halfway. "He must not be taking his meds."
"It's not that," I tell her. "He thinks it's better for visibility than a running outfit. Drivers see him right away. 'You don't accidentally hit Santa,' he told me once. At least he hasn't tied on the white beard. At least he's not wearing the cap."
"Who're you kidding?" Emily asks me. "The guy's bipolar. The Santa comes out in him whenever he gets manic."
"You could do worse," I say to her. "You've done worse."
We sit there looking at each other for a moment, unsmiling. Neither of us says anything, and I hear the furnace come on. The light flaring through the window has that burnished autumnal warmth. The furnace creates a low hum. Outside in the yard the leaves could be raked, but I'm not going to do that now.
"What happened to Jeffrey?" I ask, after another long pause. "He died, right?"
No, but he was in one of the Kaiser hospitals, where Emily went to see him. He didn't look good. "Wasted" is probably the right word. She tried to cheer him up, but he resisted her efforts. Still, he had one request. He wanted her to take some pictures of him, as a memento of how handsome he was despite his illness. He thought his looks had trumped the virus somehow. Beauty had staged its victory over infirmity, he thought. So she did it. She bought a camera and took some pictures of her friend sitting up in the chair next to the hospital bed, out of his hospital clothes and in his best: black jeans, leather jacket, etc. "You probably didn't know it," he said as she took his picture, "but I'm an aristocrat." He posed as if he were a rake and a bit of a snob, smiling an old-money smile.
But when the film was developed, the pictures proved unshowable: his skin wasn't just sallow, it was waxlike. His face seemed rigid, a staring mask. She didn't know what to do with these pictures. Ten years ago retouching photographs digitally wasn't as easy as it is now. But if the guy could tell lies to himself when looking in the mirror, she thought, maybe he could tell himself the same lies when he saw these photographs.
She arrived at his apartment—he was convalescing at home by now—and sat down next to him at the dinette table. One by one the pictures were laid out like playing cards, like the hand he'd been dealt. With his reading glasses on, Jeffrey looked at these images of himself. As it happened, the pneumonia had hung on for a while and he had lost a considerable amount of muscle tone; in the photos his cheekbones were garishly visible, and his eyes, despite his smile, had that peering-into-the-void anguish—there, I used that word—that you see on the faces of the near-dead. So Jeffrey was sitting there, looking down at these photographs of his death sentence, and he began to cry.
Emily tried to console him, but he turned away from her, shaking his head. He went into his bedroom, got dressed, and told her that they were going for a ride in the blue VW. He asked her to drive. He said that he had to have his hands free.
He directed her down toward the Presidio and then onto the Golden Gate Bridge, and when they were about midway across the bridge, he took the photographs and held them up one by one outside the window. The wind seized these portraits of him; some of them fluttered over the side of the bridge into the bay, and some of them just lay there on the gridded pavement for other cars to drive over. Dust to dust. Emily told him that he could be ticketed for littering, but he didn't listen to her; he was too busy getting rid of these snapshots. "They won't arrest me," he shouted over the road noise. "Not after they get a good look at me."
Then he instructed Emily to drive up the coast so that they could go whale watching. However, it was the wrong season: no whales that time of year. After a couple of hours they pulled over at a roadside rest area within sight of the Pacific. The two of them got out of the car. Though no whales were visible, Jeffrey, leaning against his car and staring out at the water, said he saw some. For the next half hour he described the whales swimming by, all the shapes and sizes and varieties of them, whale after whale, under the surface. He was like an encyclopedia entry: here were the humpback whales, and there the bottle-nosed, and the pilot and the beluga, the right whales and the blue. When he was finished with this harmless hallucinatory description, he got back into the car, and my wife—that is, then my wife-to-be and now my ex-wife—drove him back home, to his apartment on Clement. When they got back to his place, he was distracted and confused, so she undressed him and put him to bed, Good Samaritan that she is. And then—and this is the part I couldn't have imagined—she got into bed with him and put her arms around him until he fell asleep.
She's still sitting here in the living room, looking at me in silence, still unsmiling. The point of this story is that she loved this man—loved him, I think the phrase is, to death.
"No," I say, "you're absolutely right. You never told me that story." My heart is pounding slightly, and I have to work to sound calm. "So you loved him. What happened to this Jeffrey?" I ask her.
She looks at me. "Duh," she says. She removes her foot from my grasp. I hadn't realized I was holding on to it. I wonder what else she might have done for him that she hasn't told me, but I don't ask. "The thing is," she says, "I often dream about him. And these dreams—I often wake up from them, and they're terrible dreams, no comfort at all." She looks at me and waits. "They're really insane dreams," she says.
"How are they insane?"
"Oh," she says, "let's not spoil it with words." But I know my wife, and what she means is that in these dreams she is still lying next to him. She glances out the window. "There goes Santa again." She laughs. It's not a good laugh—more like a fun-house laugh. I get up, make my way to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, take out two beers (we've cleaned out the refrigerator except for a twelve-pack), and bring one of them back to her. I open the other one and gaze out the window, but Santa has turned the corner and is no longer visible, to my great disappointment. It's getting to be late afternoon, the time of day when you could use some Santa and aren't going to get it.
I take a good slug of the beer before I say, "No, you never told me that story. My God. Maybe it's true. Maybe we didn't know each other. Can you imagine that? We were married and we never knew the first thing."
"Spare me your irony," she says.
"I'm not being ironic. I'm telling you what you told me. But the thing is, your story isn't about you except on the sides, by comparison. You're a minor saintly character in that story. You're just the affable friend," I say, which isn't true, because that's not what the story has been about. I'm feeling a little competitive now, in this singing contest we're having. "After all, I've known plenty of people I've never described to you."
"I've heard that before," she says.
"Well, no, you haven't," I say. "Not exactly."
I am not an admirable man, and my character, or lack of character, accounts for my presence on this living-room floor on this particular day. If I am unadmirable, however, I am not actually bad, in the sense that evil people are bad. If I were genuinely and truly bad, my ex-wife wouldn't be sitting here on the floor with me, her ex-husband, after we'd cleaned the house for the next occupants.
My trouble was that after our first two years together, I couldn't concentrate on her anymore. I was distracted by what life was throwing at me. I couldn't be—what is the word?—faithful, but actually that was the least of it, because unfaithfulness is a secondary manifestation of something we don't have a word for.
When I met Emily, I was a clerk in a lighting store; I sold lighting fixtures. I suppose this was a pretty good job for someone who majored in studio art during college. I know something about light. My little atelier was filled with life-study drawings and rolled-up canvases of nakedness. That was pretty much what I did: nudes, the human body—the place where most artists start, though I never got past it.
I was always drawing and painting one particular woman, and, of course, it wasn't Emily. It was never Emily. The model was a woman I had seen for about two minutes waiting in line for coffee at one of those bookstore cafés. She had an ankle bracelet, and I could describe her to you top to bottom, every inch. I could do that, trust me—just take my obsession on faith. She had come into my life for two minutes, and when, that afternoon, I couldn't forget her, I began to draw her. The next day I drew her again, and the next week I began a painting of her, and a month after that I did another painting of her, and so on and so on.
One Saturday—this was about two years after we were married—Emily came into my studio, sometime in midafternoon. I had college football playing on the radio. As usual, I was painting the woman I once saw standing in line at this bookstore café. Emily asked me again who this person was, and I told her again that it was just someone I caught a glimpse of once. It didn't matter who she was—she was just this person. Which was, of course, untrue. She wasn't just a person. Emily stared at what I was doing with the canvas, and then she unbuttoned her blouse and hung it on a clothes hook near the door. She took off her shoes and socks and stood there with her bra and jeans still on, and then she unzipped the jeans and unclasped the bra and off they went, onto the littered floor. Finally the underpants went, and she was in the altogether, standing in my studio just under the skylight, the smell of turpentine in the room. I interrupted what I was doing and eventually went over to her and took her in my arms, but that turned out to be the wrong response—so wrong that I can date the decline of our marriage from that moment. What I was supposed to do was look at her. I was supposed to draw her; I was supposed to be obsessed by her; and finally, I was supposed to be inspired by her.
But that's not how everyday love works. "I want to be your everything," Emily once said to me, and I cringed.
The next time we made love, she was crying. "Please draw me," she said. "Dennis, please please please draw me."
"I can't," I said. Although I may not be a great artist, I was not going to draw her just because she asked me to. She was my companion. We were getting through this life day by day, the two of us. I loved her, I'm sure, and she loved me, I'm sure of that, too; but she has never inspired me, and I have never been obsessed by her. All the things that followed, including the affairs, both hers and mine, were small potatoes compared with that: I couldn't draw her in good faith.
At night I would hug her and kiss her and tell her that I loved her, my flesh pressed against her flesh, but that just made her cry all the more. The poisons in the house grew. Emily was not my everything, not my muse and inspiration. I never knew why she wanted that role, but she did, and because she wanted it, and I couldn't lie to her about how she could never be what she said she wanted to be, I could fold my arms around her as we stood or lay quietly together but it was never enough. And because it was never enough, it was hateful.
We were like two becalmed sailing ships carrying sailors from different countries who shouted curses at each other as we drifted farther and farther apart.
"No, right, sure, of course," she says, standing up and stretching. "Two ships." She turns toward me and loosens her hair so that it falls lightly over her shoulders and so that I can see her do it. Her eyes are glittery with a momentary thrill of distaste for me. No more housework today. "Right. You just told me stories and listened to the radio and painted your dream girl." She looks at me. "If you had been Picasso, everyone would have forgiven you."
Now, late in the afternoon, we go walking toward the park, a way of recovering our equilibrium before we get into our separate cars and drive off toward our separate residences. Anyone seeing us strolling past the piles of bright leaves on the sidewalk, the last light of the sun in our eyes, might think we were still a couple. Emily's wearing a little knitted red cap and a snug brown jacket, and she's squinting against the sun's rays; and because we are also facing a cool breeze from the west, her eyes fill with moisture—I refuse at this moment to think of it as tears—that she must wipe away before she says anything to me.
"It's true," she says. "Sometimes I forget the nicest things you did for me. Like that time you bought me flowers for my birthday."
"Which birthday was this?" I ask. The sun is in my eyes, too.
"It doesn't matter," she says. "What matters is that you walked into the house with these six red roses clutched in your hand, and I smiled, and I saw from the puzzlement on your face that in your absent-minded way you had forgotten that you had bought roses for me and that you were holding them in your hand at that very moment. Imagine! Imagine a guy who buys roses for his wife and then carries them into the house and still forgets that that's what he's doing. Imagine being so fucking absent-minded. It's a form of male hysteria."
"Watch your language," I say, kidding her. "It's true," I say. "I was presenting you with roses that I had forgotten about."
"And what it meant," Emily tells me, as if I hadn't said anything, "was that your instincts, your—I don't know what you would call it … your unconscious still loved me, even if your conscious mind didn't. I thought, My husband, Dennis, still loves me. Despite everything. You could absent-mindedly get me roses on my birthday without knowing what you were doing. Somewhere in there you were still kindly disposed toward me. Your little love light was still shining, before its last flickerings."
We arrive at the park. On our side of it is a small playground with a slide, a climbing structure, swings. One little boy is still playing, while his mother sits on a bench and reads the paper, but now, in the dusk, she's squinting in order to make out the print. She calls to her son, but he won't return to her quite yet. He won't follow her orders. Emily sits down in one of the swings, and I sit down next to her. She puts her shoes in the patch of dirt and slowly begins to swing herself back and forth. Behind us the woods seem to be breathing in and out.
"I liked childhood," Emily says to me softly. "I liked being a kid. A lot of the other girls wanted to grow up, but I didn't. They wanted to go out on dates, the excitement of all that—boys, cars, sex, the whole scene. But not me. I didn't want to launch my little ship into adolescence. I didn't want my periods to start. I didn't want what was about to happen to happen. I had this dread of it. I wanted to stay a kid forever. I thought being an adult was the awful afterlife of childhood."
I can't remember ever being afraid of growing up, so I don't say anything in response. Even at this late date Emily can still surprise me with what she says.
"And it was awful. I mean, it is awful. It's terrible, but of course you can learn to live with it, and it's okay after a while even if it's terrible, and besides, what choice do you have?"
"No choice," I say to her. The woman on the bench calls to her son again, and this time he comes down to where she's sitting, and he stands by her side and puts his hand on her arm as a signal that he's ready. She nods, briefly looking at him. Then she folds her paper, stands up, and takes his hand. These gestures are of such gentle, subtle sweetness that they feel like a private language to me, and my mind clouds up, given the weight of the day, given my own situation.
"You know," I say to Emily, as I swing back and forth in my swing, "I've been getting postcards. Anonymous postcards."
"Dennis," Emily tells me, "I don't have time for another story. I have to get home. I have a date tonight, if you can believe it."
"No, listen," I say. "They've been arriving in the mail every few days. They're anonymous—I don't know who's sending them. Not to work but to my home address, the apartment. And they have these picture-postcard photographs on the flip side—Miami Beach, the Bahamas, the Empire State Building, the usual. But on the message side it's something else."
"Dennis, really," she says, "I have to go." But she's still sitting there, in the playground, in her swing. "I have to get ready," she says, in a flat, neutral tone.
But I'm going to finish, and I say, "And what it is, these messages—they're always handwritten, always in blue ink, always in large letters, uppercase, all of them. Short, punchy sentences. Condemnations of me. Judgments." I hold up my hand to suggest a headline, even though the words have to fit on postcards. "'Your work has come to nothing.' 'Your life is a disaster.' 'Someone is watching you.' 'Aren't you ashamed of yourself?' Now, who do you suppose would send postcard messages like that?"
She looks over at me in the gathering dusk with a genuine expression of surprise, and I understand the moment I see her face that it's not Emily who has been sending me these postcards. All along I thought it would be her idea of retribution, these insane postcards. But she hasn't been mailing them, and this sends a brief shudder through me. Perhaps I knew all along. After all, I would know her handwriting even if she tried to disguise it. We're almost twins that way.
"If you're thinking it was me," Emily says, "think again. It wasn't."
"'You are a perpetual outcast,' another postcard said. And last week I got one that said, 'Have you no remorse?'"
"Well," Emily says after a pause, "whoever is sending them must know you. That's a good word—'remorse.' I could have used that word on you. A flea-market word, one of my grandparent words. You never used a word like that. Must be one of your little girlfriends sending these messages. Somebody who's a little obsessed with you, Dennis."
"Some poor devil," I say.
"Yes," she says, "a poor devil. That sounds about right." She gets up out of the swing and goes over to the climbing structure. "Which one do you suppose it is?"
"Well," I say, "I don't know." But actually I think I do know. Once, this woman and I were at dinner together, a woman who in her day had done a lot of drugs—the ones that give you dime-store visions. And out of nowhere she said, "I can see all your thoughts, you know. I can see them, and you don't even have to say them aloud, because I know what they are." She was holding her wineglass, this woman, and it had been a good evening until then, but when she said she could see my thoughts, it seemed time to get out of there. She sat up straight. "God and his archangels have taken a real dislike to you," she said, as I was motioning for the waiter. "They have a gun pointed at your head. I just think I should tell you that."
"She really said that?" Emily asks, coming down from the play structure. "That God and his archangels had a gun pointed at your head?"
"Yeah," I say. "Those were her exact words. But I can't imagine anyone's being obsessed with me. I have such a …" I can't think of the phrase.
"Where do you find these girls, Dennis?" she asks.
"Where everybody finds them. In the street, and so on."
"You should look in different places."
"I don't know any different places." What are Emily and I talking about? I've completely lost the thread.
"No," she says, "I suppose you don't." She waits. "Did you see that woman and her little boy? Did you see how … I don't know, how calm they were with each other? God, I loved seeing that. That calm. It makes you want to be a kid again. Of course, I always want that anyway."
I take her hand, and we walk back.
W hen we get to the house, my ex-wife is about to unlock her car and drive away, but she's left her purse in the kitchen. So together the two of us go in the front door, into the foyer, and step into the living room. They're completely dark—it's night by now—and only the streetlight is spraying a little bit of illumination into the room, barely enough to see by.
"Close your eyes," Emily says. "Could you find your way around in this place with your eyes closed? I bet you could."
"Of course," I say.
So I close my eyes and hold my arms out in the dark, and I walk all around the room where the lamps and tables and chairs once were where Em and I once lived, and I go into the dining room, still with my eyes closed, and I walk into the kitchen, past the counter and the dishwasher and then back out, taking my steps one at a time through these spaces I've come to know so intimately. While I'm walking through this dark house where Emily and I tried to stage our marriage, I have this image of Santa jogging—no, sprinting—away from me, and I probably have a grim look. It's right about then that I'm back in the living room and I bump up against Emily, whose arms have also been out in this game we're playing. In the story that I don't tell, we excuse ourselves but then, very slowly and tenderly, we are inspired by each other at last, and we embrace, and all the bad times fall away, and we kiss, and we mutter our apologies—our long-standing, whispered, complicated remorse—and perhaps we sink to the floor, and we make love in the dark empty living room, on the floor, understanding that maybe it will not be the last time after all. And as we make love, Emily makes her utterly familiar trembling cry when she comes.
That's the story I don't tell, because it doesn't happen, and couldn't, and would not, because I am unforgivable, and so is she. Two poor devils—what we don't feel is remorse, the word on that postcard. We bump into each other, two blind staggerers, two solitudes, and then, yes, we apologize. And that's when Emily goes into the kitchen, her eyes open, but still in the dark house that she knows, as they say, by heart, and she picks up her purse from where she has left it, and she comes out, sailing past me, and maybe she half turns in the dark and blows me a kiss. But probably she doesn't.
She closes the front door behind her, absent-mindedly locking it, locking me into the house. And it's then, and only then, that I speak up. "Good-bye, honey," I say.