Loving someone from a distance is always preferable to the mud-wrestling and hurt feelings that can happen between dull sublunary lovers when monsoon season arrives. John Donne was on to something – gold to airy thinness beat and all that. My love for Kris has been beaten and twisted and stretched out from here to the other side of time-space. The Valley of Death is all filigree now and the munchkins are happy, and it’s easy, so easy to love him this way . When I consider the idea of distances, I suspect they may be greater between people here on earth. There are things we say and things we don’t say to those we love, and the things we don’t say are not said for good reason.
There were a few months after Kris died when I abandoned the idea that you shouldn’t ever say some things, when I decided that because life is fleeting and could be squashed at any moment, the very best thing I could do would be tell everyone exactly how I felt about them, in real time, from one moment to the next!
God, life is so short – you know? So short, man, so short. So I just want to say that I really love, admire and respect your entire incarnation, from your head to your toes. Oh God, your head! Your head is so beautiful, and your toes are adorable! Would I be able to look inside your mouth for a minute? I would love to be a food in your stomach, LOL!
It turns out that people don’t especially like frank declarations of love and admiration, so I have learned again what I knew before, which is that it is better to keep your shit to yourself here on earth. And it’s kind of funny that I had to learn this lesson again, since before Kris died I was happily frugal with feelings talk.
I’ve decided that it would be best to surrender and live like a New Age Nun, devoting myself to Kris and making the whole entire rest of my life about beating down the gold. I’d like to think he was right and we really are living in a simulation.
If I can figure out a way to bend the rules from my end, can you alter some code from your end?
Yes, darling, and we will meet one day in a meadow made of of 1s and 0s.
Once Kris and I went to a movie about time travel. There was a hero and a bad guy, and the hero’s only job was to go back in time and prevent the train he was on from being hijacked and derailing off a cliff. The hero didn’t know who the bad guy was, though, and there were hundreds of potential bad guys on the train, so he had to keep jumping back in time to figure it out. It was like a combination of Speed, Thomas the Tank Engine, The Time Machine and Clue – a deeply confusing movie that made me nauseous.
“This is making me feel like I’m going to puke,” I said to Kris.
“I know,” he said, “it’s awesome.”
We’d only been together for a few months at that point, so we were still in that marshmallows-on-fire sweet burning of new love. He kept leaving the theatre and going to the bathroom. Four or five times he got up, but because everything then was spun sugar and flames, I didn’t suspect anything untoward. Even though every time he came back I thought I smelled alcohol, I’d also been working all day, and since my job involved running errands with drunk people in my car, I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t having an olfactory hallucination. Still, I decided I would mention it to him just in case he’d slipped on a rum-soaked banana peel on the way back from his fifth pee.
“I smell alcohol or something.”
“Oh. I don’t smell anything.”
The hijacker won in the end. The train derailed and everybody died. The moral of the story was that time travel is a total waste of time.
The people who lived next to me and Kris were in their 90s. We called them The Old Man and The Old Lady, because that’s who they were in our minds and who they would have been to all young people who believe that they will never get old in the blink of an eye.
Every day, The Old Man walked down the driveway to get his mail. He had the distinctive old man gait, entirely slow and creaking. Sometimes The Old Lady would join him. They would walk arm-in-arm, their terrier on his little leash all dolled up in a knitted blue vest.
The Old Lady was a round, hammy person with deep frown lines. She was always wearing bright polyester mumus and red lipstick, aviator sunglasses and orthopedic socks pulled to her knees. Her hair was jet black with a shock of white at the roots, and because her body was hammy and hard to move, The Old Man’s trip down the driveway was even longer when she went along. She had to stop and catch her breath every few steps.
When they’d get to the mailbox, they would collect their mail and then just stand there for a few minutes looking around, like they weren’t sure what was going on. And then, at exactly the same moment and without saying a word to each other, they would turn around still arm-in-arm, a solemn polka in slow motion, and start their sitcom-length journey back up to the house.
“I don’t like it when The Old Man looks at me,” I said to Kris one day. “He just stands there in the driveway five feet away and stares at me when I’m getting the kids out of the car.”
“He’s just old. He’s looking at you because he wants to make friends.”
“Well I don’t want to be his friend. I can’t help it if garbage falls out of the car when I open the doors. He shakes his head at me! I don’t want an old man friend who stares at me all the time and judges me.”
Kris told me not to be silly, to just relax. “Why do you always assume that people are out to get you? Why isn’t your default assumption that people are friendly and kind?”
“Because they aren’t.”
“The guy is two hundred years old, Chelsea. He’s just hoping you’ll say hello to him.”
Tell me if you’ve ever had this dream:
You wake up in a basement full of meat hooks and hanging deer carcasses and there are stacks of National Geographic and cat skeletons everywhere and a fuzzy radio is playing Dean Martin and it smells like mildew and broken hearts and you’re looking for a door to escape because this is just so darn creepy, and you see a window and start toward it but then but then a naked woman with sagging skin blocks your way and puts a bag over your head and marches you down more stairs, and her skin is so sagging that she has to gather it up like a skirt so she doesn’t trip on it, and she takes you deeper underground down stairs that lead to another basement under the first basement, and in that second basement which is painted perfectly white there is a claw-foot tub, and she takes the bag off your head and orders you to undress and get in the tub, and you obey because she’s holding a sword and threatening to chop off your arms, and once you undress and get in the tub you find it is actually very pleasant, filled with lovely warm water and fruity bubbles, and you begin to relax and believe that a nice soak is actually just what you deserve after being so scared in two basements, and you close your eyes and smile but then you feel something cold and wet land hard on your body, and it’s the naked woman with the sagging skin and she’s grinding against you and moaning and you can feel that the teeth of her vulva are actually sinking into your thighs and you realize that what she’s doing is getting ready to orgasm and that when she does orgasm she will swallow you, suck you up into her womb because she wants you to be her baby, her sweet little bath-time baby forever and ever, and even though you try to resist by screaming and splashing all you can there’s no use, you can feel it happening, you have been poisoned and your insides are turning to broth, your bones dissolving, you are getting sucked up -up -up into her freezing cold vagina, and your entire being including your soul is being squeezed and slurped and fed into a tiny, dark brown room where you will now live forever and ever and ever, because this is how we all die sooner or later, sucked back into the old cold cunt of the universe whether we’re ready or not.
Have you had that one?
The Old Man was always out in his yard slowly raking things and pushing small piles of foliage around in a wheelbarrow. I would watch him sometimes from my kitchen window when I was making dinner.
One night last August, I noticed The Old Man was raking fig leaves even more slowly than usual. It was as if he was pulling the rake through molasses. I took note of this, but got distracted by cooking and kids, and it couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes later that somebody down there was wailing terribly and an ambulance was rolling up The Old People’s driveway with no siren and no urgency.
“There’s an ambulance at The Old People’s house,” I called to Kris, and he sauntered into the kitchen and leaned over me, saw the paramedics. The wailing was louder now, closer to our window, the rhythmic, hyperventilated sobs of mourning, that toe-crushed-with-a-hammer throbbing sound.
Kris went out on the deck to get a better look. I followed him with a half-peeled potato in my hand.
“Look,” he said, “The Old Man is dead.”
And he was, his body crumpled on top of a pile of brush at the trunk of a fig tree, the handle of a rake still in his palm. His green cardigan and brown pants made it so that he blended right in with the yard. And there was his wife, kneeling, a mountain of sobbing flesh rocking over her husband’s smallness.
“Oh God,” I said.
“He’s dead as a doorknob,” Kris said, lighting a cigarette and leaning over the railing for a better view. “Must’ve had a heart attack.”
The paramedics had made their way down the sloping grass to the fig tree. One of them put his hands on the woman’s shoulders, gently trying to pull her away from the body while his colleague looked for a pulse.
“I’m going inside,” I said, “You should come inside too.”
“No! I can’t miss this,” Kris said. “I want to watch.”
“Okay, fill your boots, but it doesn’t seem right.”
He poked his head in every minute or so to give me an update. They’re taking the old guy’s shirt off now! Why are they cutting it off? Oh, it’s a sweater! But why are they doing that? Oh, they’re going to shock his heart I think. Why are they bothering – he’s clearly long gone, so why?
I ignored him, kept peeling the potatoes. One of the kids came and asked for a glass of milk. I took the roast out of the oven, washed some dishes. I was putting potatoes in the pot when Kris arrived back inside and hugged my waist and kissed the back of my neck. I turned around and crossed my arms over my chest.
“I don’t want to make out when you’ve just been watching the saddest day in The Old Lady’s life,” I said, “it’s too sad and horrible.”
“Come on, don’t be so serious,” Kris said. He grabbed a beer from the fridge, popped the tab and took a long swig. “I’m going back out there – come watch with me! ”
“No,” I said, but I followed him out anyway, because what else was I supposed to do?
It was a just about to rain, the air thick and wet and electric. Kris put his arm around my shoulder and I leaned my head against his chest. We stood there together, watching this death that meant nothing to us.
“I feel bad for complaining that he stares at me,” I said, “I actually really love it when he stares at me.”
“Yeah, you should feel bad. I always said hello to him, so my conscience is clean.”
One of the paramedics heard the talking, looked up at us. Kris did a sailor’s salute. The paramedic saluted back.
The old lady’s wailing had stopped. She was moaning quietly now, kneeling on all fours and rocking back and forth a few feet away from her husband’s body, a hospital blanket draped over her back like a horse. Another ambulance arrived, and two more paramedics hopped out and meandered down the hill, snapping on their latex gloves. They made small talk with their colleagues who pointed up at us. Then they all smiled and waved.
“This is weird,” I said to Kris as we waved back and smiled.
The old man’s corpse was lifted and placed inside a long black bag on a stretcher. We were so close that we heard the zipper close.
“Do you think he knew what hit him?” Kris asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “But it’s kind of lovely that he was doing yard work. He seemed to really enjoy yard work. He was such a good guy.”
“Yeah, great guy,” Kris said, “salt of the earth.”
It started to rain, so I went inside, but he stayed out there smoking one cigarette after another, totally fascinated. He had to watch all of it, he said, he had to get to the end. I fed the kids dinner. The sky was growing dark and Kris watched the paramedics wheel the stretcher up the hill.
I was giving the baby a bath when he came inside, sat on the toilet beside me.
“She wouldn’t leave the spot where he died,” he said.
“She was just sitting there in the pouring rain leaning against the tree. Some middle aged guy came and sat beside her. It must be their son.”
“Yeah, probably their son.”
That night, Kris got drunk and passed out on the couch for a few hours after the kids were in bed. I was reading a book when he woke up. He came and sat beside me. Still drunk, he grabbed both my hands urgently. “Put your book down,” he said. Then he head-butted my book against my chest and tried to lay his face against my heart.
“No.” I said.
His eyes were bloodshot, his face ruddy. He was so drunk he couldn’t focus properly on my face.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said.
“I’m tired,” I said.
“The Old Man didn’t know he was going to die,” he said.
“No.” I said.
“Come to bed, darling. Come and tuck me in. Come cuddle.”
I looked at him for a long time then, looked at looked into the drunken swirls of his eyes. He looked back and blinked slowly, tried a lopsided smile.
“Bed?” he asked.
I shook my head.
He put his face in his hands and began to sob.
“You don’t love me any more.”
“I don’t want to be around you when you’re loaded and I’m not talking about this now. Please go to bed.”
“But The Old Man loved The Old Lady and then he died,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “it was sad.”
“You don’t love me,” he said.
“Go to bed, Kris,” I said, “Please. Please don’t do this tonight.”
He knit his brow and looked at me searchingly. I looked back, trying not to cry too, because my tears would be for different reasons, pointless and bottomless.
I must have looked mean, because his face hardened and his eyes narrowed.
“You’re a bitch with no soul,” he slurred.
“Yeah. I guess I am. Go to bed now.”
He tried to maneuver his body up, swayed over the coffee table for a moment before falling over. Then he cleared his throat, tried to get up and fell down again.
“I’m a good person.” He said, to himself mostly, as he crawled toward a chair that he used to steady himself and stand.
He made his way down to the bedroom, slammed the door. I went back to my book.
An hour later, he appeared again in the living room.
“Hi,” he said sombrely, seating himself beside me on the couch again, “What’re you doing?”
“Put your book down,” he said. He headbutted my book against my chest and tried to lay his face against my heart.
“You’re so beautiful.”
“No. No, no, no. Please.”
“The old man-“
“Yeah, the old man loved the old woman and then he died. You just did all of this an hour ago. You’ve already said all of these things.”
“Yes, an hour ago.”
“No I didn’t. I just woke up. I had a nap and I just woke up.”
“No, you said all of these things an hour ago. You’re drunk and you don’t remember. And you won’t remember any of this in the morning. Please, go back to bed now.”
“Hey, hey hey hey darling, hey. Can we talk about it, what’s bothering you? I can tell you’re mad but I don’t get it.”
All diseases are cruel. They’re all bad, callous, destructive and ugly in their own special ways. Addiction is the same, but there’s another layer to it. It’s not like a psychotic disorder where a mania or psychosis renders your loved one obviously insane. No, it’s far more insidious that. The addiction is a plagiarist, and the addicted person’s brain and personality is plagiarized and then slowly, slowly, slowly overwritten with a new narrative but in the same pen. You look at your person and they seem okay. Your brilliant, beautiful person, your Big Love.
The plagiarist brings hors d’oeuvres and doesn’t seem like a plagiarist at all – he’s wearing fancy clothes and has great taste in music and it’s all so free. But there must be a bill to pay? Who’s paying the bill?
Relax, he says, I’ve got everything covered.
After the night Kris went to sleep and didn’t wake up, and after the coroner had come and gone and after the fog of the funeral and the I’m So Sorrys and the care packages – those days of the first and second day bleeding into the twentieth, thirty-fifth and fiftieth – I remembered The Old Man and The Old Lady.
When I’m out on the deck I look up the hill at the house where The Old Lady lives now, widowed. Her whole life is behind her. Long marriage, children grown. She’s so lucky, I think, to be in her epilogue. I watch as her son visits to bring her the mail, take out the garbage, rake the brush below the fig tree where his father died.
Did she see the paramedics at my house that day, carrying Kris out in a long black bag?
Does she watch me and know we are connected, that the fractals of our lives have been drawn in parallel lines? She knows all about distances now too.
The Old Man loved The Old Lady and then he died. He just died.