The house, once filled with the joy and laughter of new love, had since become empty and silent; for the first time in roughly two years, my mind was quiet enough to read. I stood in front of the bookshelf, nearly covering one wall of the small study, and stared at the collection of mismatched books of all sizes and colors, everything from leather bound volumes to an assortment of paperbacks. One book in particular, a thin brown hardcover, seemed to place itself in my hand, and I headed for the living room.
I sat down on the couch and laid my book on the gray carpet to the right of my bare feet. Out of habit, I glanced over at the wooden end table adorned with three remote controls, but they could not tempt me that beautiful fall morning. As I leaned back on the sofa, a reed diffuser on top of the entertainment center was encouraging the earthy, seductive smell of sandalwood to creep about the room and tempt my mind with memories; for scents have a way of digging up the past. Still in my flannel pajama bottoms and t-shirt, I swung my legs to the left and stretched them out over the cushions. I pulled a fleece blanket down from the back of the couch, draped it over my feet, and then adjusted the pillow behind my back and leaned against the armrest. Through the open windows, the breeze compelled the trees to dance, and I heard a swaying dove coo for peace. I reached for Dubliners and opened the book at random, pressing both covers down upon my lap. Allowing the leaves to fall where they willed, and they landed on the book’s final story. I had read for some time when a small gust of air reached across the room and brushed the skin of my arm. I turned my head left, and over my shoulder I could see the sheer curtain waving at me as though blowing a kiss. That moment, I thought I felt a presence in the room.
The hairs on my arm stood at attention when I heard the all but forgotten noise coming from the bedroom. The sound was like that of a woman yawning, drawing in her first conscious breath of the day. My body jerked up to a sitting position, my feet touched the floor, and I was slowly making my way to the bedroom. I slithered around the corner and down the hall; meanwhile, an eddy of expectation and fear was swirling inside of me. When I reached the entrance to the bedroom, I paused, and then forced myself to spread the door wider and peer inside. On one side of the bed, there lay the disheveled remains of a restless night’s bedclothes where I alone had slept.
I wandered into the master bath and stood over the sink, turning on the cold water. After splashing my face, I rested my wet hands on the marble countertop and looked up at that pale, dripping skin and those eyes marred by anguish. I leaned over the toilet, pulled back the shower curtain, and reached for the towel hanging inside. Looking down, I pictured her beautiful, naked body lain quietly in the tub, half-submerged in soapy water. Imagining her momentarily brought back our last argument with all of its sorrow, loss, and regret.
By the time I had finished preparing the sweet basil spaghetti with grilled Italian sausage, we had extinguished one bottle of Cabernet. While I was stirring the marinara, she hugged me from behind, tenderly kissed the back of my shoulder, and asked if there was anything she could do. She set the table, lit two tall white candles, and put on a Mozart compilation CD that she had found in the $5.99 bin at CD Warehouse. We were working our way through the meal, and another bottle of wine, toward an inevitable conclusion when her cell phone rang. She answered it without looking to see who it was and said, “Hello… Who is this?” I looked up and saw her furrowed brows and partially opened mouth. She stood and walked to the bedroom, continuing her conversation for what seemed like a half an hour before returning.
When she sat down, I asked, “Who was that?”
“It was someone I used to know…someone I hadn’t talked to in a very long time.”
“A blast from the past?” I could see that she was taken aback by the phone call.
“Someone I used to date.”
“Really?” I smiled at her and asked, “So how is he?” At this point, I was rather jovial, having a touch of inebriation from the wine.
She said, “He seems to be doing all right.”
“Are you all right?” I asked.
Her lips mouthed the words, “Yeah… I’m OK,” but her body was saying something entirely different.
Her gaze, fixed on her wine glass, broke away just long enough to grasp the open bottle and pour herself another. I pushed for more details. “What’s his name?”
In a monotone voice, she answered, “Antonio.”
“Antonio? Antonio what?” I was starting to become a little jealous of the tall, dark figure I saw in my mind.
“How long did you and he date?”
“What’s with all the questions?” she blurted back.
“Hey, you don’t have to snap at me. I’m just curious. You seem really bothered, and I’m trying to make sure everything’s all right.” She said not a word. The dead air was agitating me, so I asked again, “How long did you two date?”
“For nearly three years during college,” she answered.
“Wow!” I replied. “Sounds serious. What happened?”
Again, she spoke in anger. “Do we really have to go there?”
“What’s the problem? We’ve talked about old flames before.” She sat staring at her glass. “I’m starting to feel a little threatened. Should I feel threatened?” More silence ensued. “I could hear you in there laughing. You sounded like you were enjoying yourself, perhaps, a little too much.” Without ever once looking away from her wine, she told me all about him.
“He was my first love,” she said. “We met in an English class my sophomore year at U of H. He was studying philosophy and, when he found out I was a Classics major, we hit it off. I was very attracted to him, and we went out that first weekend. We had read many of the same books, philosophers like Augustine and Descartes, which he seemed to be able to explain better than any of my teachers. He was one of those guys who asked the big questions about life. He played the guitar and sang to me. He even wrote me poetry. We did everything together.”
For the first time in my adult life, I felt a little ashamed for choosing the career path of an engineer. Some of my fellow programmers at NASA liked to talk about those big questions, but I was much more comfortable with calculations than abstract thought. As I was sitting there listening to my wife of three months describe the love of her life, I realized that he was everything I was not. “Sounds like you two had a real connection.” I quickly downed my glass and poured more. She continued as though she were talking to herself.
“In our senior year, he asked me to marry him, and I said yes. I thought we’d spend the rest of our lives together.” She watched a red droplet slowly descend the length of her glass before wiping it with her finger and starting again. “His senior year he was accepted at Harvard and was going there for his PhD. He was graduating after the fall, and I had one more semester. We were to marry the summer before he began at Harvard, but toward the end of the Christmas break, a week before I went back to school, he told me that he was going to Cambridge alone; he needed time to find himself. Apparently, I wasn’t included in his search; I was devastated.” Her bottom eyelids began to pool. “I waited two years to hear from him before I dated again. I called. I wrote. But he never responded. Not a word. Another two years passed, and I met you.”
After a long uncomfortable silence, I asked, “Why did you tell me that you’d never been engaged before?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I wanted to believe that that part of my life was some other silly girl’s fantasy.”
“I hope marrying me wasn’t a disappointment.” Once again, she was silent. My words turned cold. “I said I hope marrying me was not a disappointment!” Her eyes rolled as she sipped her wine. She then set her glass down nearly hard enough to break it. Obviously, I was chopping at the root of an impassioned nerve, and I felt as though I had been awakened in the middle of the night to a home invasion, the door of my heart being kicked in. “How did he get your number?”
She was short with me. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
“Why not? Do you plan on talking to him again?” Angered by my question, she picked up her wine and stormed off toward the bedroom. Leaving both her plate and me empty at the table, she went to take a bath.
I sat quietly for a while, wondering how often she had thought about this man. Had she wished to be with him all along? I rose up and went to settle the matter…
Once again noticing myself in the mirror, I dried my face and replaced the towel without bothering to close the shower curtain; and before I knew it, my feet had carried me back to the living room. Returning to the couch, I spread myself out once more, picked up where I had left off, and continued reading until the page said, “He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie…” The bow tie reference drew my attention to the two photographs on top of the entertainment center; both captured the euphoria of that day, a day not unlike the one outside. We two lovers, each in our separate frame, were staring into each others eyes, she in her wedding gown, and I in my tuxedo.
Everyone had been scurrying about frantically getting ready for the big moment, but only she was on my mind. In keeping with tradition, I had not seen her the entire day. The large, beautiful cathedral chosen by her parents for the ceremony looked to be a place for the community’s wealthiest saints. Alone for a while, I paced about the children’s Sunday school classroom, where I was to dress, and examined the illustrated decorations scattered about. One wall had a smiling Moses holding two overlapping stone tablets. At the top of the front tablet was the Roman numeral ten; in place of the commandments were lines, as though each had been struck through. Another wall was adorned with a three foot tall cartoon image of a cross that had apparently never been utilized, for there were neither blood stains nor nail holes. A third wall was covered with pairs of animals, such as camels, zebras, giraffes, and hippos; and next to a large wooden boat, Noah stood with a look of happiness, one arm extended toward the boat, as he invited the whole world to join him. From what I learned of the Bible growing up, I could not help but think how each of the figures foreshadowed its own impending horror. However, I had long since put away such childish things. By the time I made my way to the freshly erased chalkboard, the foreboding caricatures had left my mind.
From the pile of colors resting on the blackboard shelf, I reached for a small stick of white and carefully chalked the outline of a large heart and wrote her name inside. The thought of her amber eyes interrupted my thoughts, and I imagined seeing the contrast of her fair skin shrouded in white. I opened the classroom door and asked for a piece of paper and a pen. A groomsman returned with the requested stationary, and I scribbled a note: “Dearest Love, I cannot wait to hold you in my arms and call you my wife.”
As my thoughts again returned from the past, I realized that I was standing at the entertainment center in front of her picture. People had all but ceased their inquiries and attempts to comfort, and maintaining a mournful countenance was no longer necessary. Time enough had passed to cauterize even the deepest wound. The blissful snapshot before me, that consecrated moment, had become the fossil that I knew it would; and the pretense of living in that hallowed place had come to an end. I picked up her portrait and stared at it all the way down the hall and into the garage. Pulling down the attic door, I cautiously climbed the gaunt wooden steps. For the last time, I kissed the likeness and placed her in a box.
Returning to the living room and my book, I relaxed and read until I came across another mindful passage: “His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.” As I was pondering the words, a sudden breeze urged a long stemmed rose to give a few light taps against the window screen. And for a moment, I wondered if she would ever be found and what would happen to me if she were.