At length, the dead Man, ‘mid that beauteous scene
Of trees, and hills and water, bolt upright
Rose with his ghastly face.
Wordsworth, “The Prelude,” V. 11, 470—472
When Jonathan Holmes decided to go to England again, his wife Gloria had been dead for seven years. For seven years he filled every waking moment with matters so trivial and obsessive that they even entered most of his dreams and blocked her presence there. He took every substitute teaching job in local schools that was offered to him, some even as far as 50 miles away. Students groaned when told he would be their teacher because they knew he would assign two or three papers a week and would ask them to have conferences with him after school, but none of them knew he did this so that he would have stacks of work for evenings when he arrived home late and while he finished his daily bottle of red wine. If he worked intensely enough, he might drop onto his bed and into a sleep that sometimes lasted till the first pale wash of dawn.
Gloria was always with him, a low hum vibrating in the back of his head. Sometimes he also saw her in the faces of people around him who had known her and could not meet him without thinking “Gloria is dead.” This subliminally transmitted message would make him realize that friends would never be able to see him without calling up his “other self.” Well, he had to admit, he also liked them for that. He would not have wanted them to forget her. His paralysis since Gloria’s death was like a black hole in his private galaxy sucking in his weeks and months so that even the brightest days were only a glaze concealing the blank space, and shadows were rifts showing the darkness beyond. Gloria’s arrival in his life, her willingness to stay there, were the central miracle and mystery of his existence. Deep sleep was the only place where he found some peace and comfort.
Whenever Jon thought of traveling, he considered a trip to the Lake Country in England. He had been there twice with Gloria, once by himself. Since childhood, he had loved the poetry of Wordsworth and often taught it in classes when the students were either bright or patient enough to endure his rambling discussions of various poems. But if he went, would he only be plunging himself into intense memories that would make her loss even worse? Whenever he looked up the phone numbers of travel agencies, he would close the book, sit down, and concentrate on practical excuses. Finally one evening he stood just outside the closet where some of her belongings were still packed away in boxes, his face to the door. This was the center of Bluebeard’s Castle, even if he had only one wife hanging up in there. If he went to Coniston Water, he would certainly find her in ways not even the closet could contain. He could list everything in the closet because he had packed all the boxes and hung the clothes in bags. In a place where he and Gloria had only been for two weeks at a time but had been there happily, he would find her in unexpected locations and smells. He imagined her in Coniston Water itself, very deep and dark in places. How far would he have to dive to bring her to the surface there, if he wanted to?
Which, he decided was what he actually did want. Enough of her diffuse and constant presence, the low hum. A resurrection in Coniston. Time to bring Gloria to the surface. He called the travel agent with the largest ad in the yellow pages, opened his evening bottle of Chianti, and cooked some pasta on which he poured the heated contents of a can of tomato sauce. When he was sipping the last glass of wine, standing naked in the dark beside his empty bed and in the silence of his house, he toasted Gloria, then his father, finally even his mother—all of whom were dead—as if to exorcise his ghosts. The next morning he wondered if that was the excessive glass that gave him the meanest headache he had suffered in years.
The first time Gloria and Jon had gone to England, her illness had not become apparent. By the second visit, she seemed nearly recovered. She had been diagnosed as suffering from either bipolar or unipolar affective disorder. The terms were confusing, and their doctor’s attempt to describe the effects of either one was not clarifying. The consultation immediately flung Gloria into a depression deeper than any Jon had seen her enter in the two years since her state of mind had begun to show itself overtly. For the first time, as he sat in their bedroom all afternoon, reading while she lay on her side and stared at the dresser that hunched against one wall, unwilling to let her out of his sight because even his very brief reading in the library that morning had indicated that some sort of self-destructive gesture was possible, he was frightened.
In the beginning they never stopped talking about it, except in those worst moments which could stretch into hours and days before the right drugs were found at least to keep the swings of her moods in check, although not providing a cure. They searched for causes. Jon began, like anyone living closely with someone undergoing such a profound change, by blaming himself, trying to probe Gloria for things he might have done or not done.
“Don’t,” she said to him two weeks after they had visited Dr. Salter and she was about to go to the hospital for more tests. “There’s no point in all this talking.” She had lost weight. It showed in the way her cheekbones had become more prominent, the way her slacks hung loose and her belt had to be cinched in, making pleats where they were not intended to be. She blinked, her hands clenched tightly in her lap. “It got worse. Maybe it will go away.”
He did not answer. He was becoming more and more tongue-tied after the initial flurry of verbalizing that they had gone through.
“I can’t explain this well since you might not believe me. I hate it but it doesn’t frighten me like it does you. It’s part of me and always has been. You just haven’t known me.”
That was when Jon understood what all of his palaver up to then was trying to cover up. What she was saying was true, and he was being confronted with the fact that this person he thought he knew so well after some years of marriage was a stranger in a profound way. He came back to this moment at times over the years, especially after the longer intervals in which her problem was so well controlled that he was lulled into forgetting it until something would initiate one of those deep withdrawals—perhaps forgetting to take the pills, or taking them in the wrong sequence, or times when the doctors altered dosage and new drugs were administered. When she died, he was forced to remember those words vividly. “You just haven’t known me.”
Always, he came to see, the wall was there between the one who was living the pain and the one who offered solace. The deepest pain was totally private, even when shared with others who knew it. Gloria tried attending some group sessions with persons who suffered various kinds of depressive states, listening and sharing and occasionally returning home with a sense of relief that never seemed to last beyond that night’s sleep. Therapy never took with her. She found some comfort in knowing other people suffered from the same condition and were surviving, but she was not about to describe her own relationship to it or babble on about her difficult childhood and adolescence. Even in their own relationship, Jon and Gloria had taken years to tell some of those stories to each other.
Jon and Gloria met in Colombo State College’s Evening Division when he was teaching a basic course in the writing of expository prose. He was teaching it in addition to his daytime schedule in schools because he wanted to make a hefty down payment on a new car since his ancient Ford was so rusted that he could see the road beneath if he lifted the patch on the floor, passenger’s side. She was taking the course because the adviser in her Allied Health program suggested it would make her a better technician. She wanted not only to write up her reports with greater clarity but also to be able to express herself more fully in any form of writing. He did not tell her or the other students that this was the one course he had vowed, if he ever had the power to choose, never again to teach. Nuts and bolts, distinguishing the Allen wrench from the monkey wrench, the ball-pean hammer from the claw hammer was the nature of the course as designed by the committee that oversaw it, and to bring a piece of literature into that setting was regarded as heretical. The students were not there because of any propensity for the elegant sentence, the rhythms of words. They wanted to know how to lay one cinder block on top of the other and then give it all an inexpensive facing of bricks.
Three weeks into the course she came up to his desk after class and waited out two other students who wanted to complain about the way a quiz on various types of sentences had been graded. He had enjoyed talking to Gloria before, about her reasons for being in the course, about her concern for dangling modifiers and how to better identify them. “They always get me in trouble,” she had said. He found that letting his eyes wander to wherever she was sitting, letting his gaze pass over without lingering too obviously on her golden hair or the attentive, always expressive face, was a strong antidote for having to explain the proper punctuation in bibliographical citations. While he dealt with the complainers, she had been packing her books neatly in a blue canvas bag she always brought with her. When they left, he began stacking his books and did not try to conceal the very deep breath he took, a way to banish the need to scream furious obscenities down the hallway at the departing dolts who would never be able to distinguish a compound from a periodic sentence and furthermore would take pride in that.
“You really hate this course, don’t you?” she asked.
“I’m trying to make a down payment on a car.”
She did not seem shocked or upset. She nodded slightly as if she had already figured that out.
“What do you like to teach?”
“The Romantic Poets. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Donne. Milton. Spenser.”
When he paused to gather breath, she said simply, “Literature.”
“Yes. Anything but these bloody, naked parts of speech.”
“Are you English?”
He began to sense that he was in the presence of a “hopper” as he called persons who jumped from one moving thought to the next, some of them going in the opposite direction.
“What do you mean?”
“Just the way you used “bloody.”“
“Occupational hazard. I spend too much time reading through the heads of Englishmen. And women. I haven’t been to England often. I hope to do so soon, though. After I get the car.”
She smiled. “Will you do this course again? To go to England?”
“I decided last night, and tonight confirms it, that I will go into debt before I teach this course again. Ever.”
“Are you going to make it through till December?”
“Miss Donnelly, I will. Please don’t desert me.”
“I won’t. I’m getting just what I signed up for and what I expected. I understand much more about how to write the kind of dull and utterly ephemeral documents I have to write.” She smiled again. “Is that cynical?”
“No. Accurate. Bless you anyway.”
“I have a suggestion.”
“Do you like that expression? I wish people wouldn’t use it. I don’t like to think I’m shooting someone when I say something.”
“You’re right. Don’t use me for target practice. I’m listening.”
“Why don’t you just teach the course using the things you love? Why don’t you bring in some poems and give them to us? Surely we can learn things about writing from them or thinking about them.”
“That’s subversive, Miss Donnelly.”
“Gloria, please. My parents used to call me that when they were scolding me.”
“Then be subversive. You say you don’t want to teach the course again. If you do it your way, they’ll never let you.”
“But you said you liked the course. You’re learning from it.”
She was listening again, and he began to understand it was to an inner voice, testing the words before she said them, which was an odd contradiction to the way she followed the leaps in her thoughts so spontaneously.
“I am. But I think I’d learn more if you were teaching something you loved. And frankly, I can’t bear watching you go through such misery. I find it painful.”
She lifted her bag, he lifted his stack, and they both walked down the hall and out to the lot where their cars were parked. They made some casual conversation on the way and then said they were both looking forward to Friday and the last class of the week. From that evening until the end of the semester they entered into a conspiracy together that brought Wordsworth and Keats and Coleridge and then Donne, Marvell, Herrick, Shakespeare and many others tumbling into the room where they cavorted and sang in front of the bewildered faces of students still trying to distinguish the head of a screw from the head of a nail. He did not care if they saw the slot or not. Gloria listened and read and then wrote papers about the poems he loved in ways that allowed him to see them differently from how he ever had before. Which continued for all the days they lived together, unmarried or married—she helping Jon to see many things in ways he never had before.
After her death, one of his most tortured recurrent dreams was to find himself in the classroom again, seeing Gloria as he first knew her. She would be, as she usually was, leaning forward, her face concentrating intently, pen held ready to take a note but never moving as she followed some thought she would tell him later, her golden hair released in an absent-minded moment. When he had finished the class, he would wait until all the other students filed out of the room. He would gather his books and papers, then sit for a few moments to stare at a blackboard scattered with equations from a math class, incomprehensible numbers and letters leading to an equals sign that in turn lead to more symbols, undoubtedly the elegant resolution of a problem. One last time he would breathe deeply without regret the odor of chalk and veneered wood scratched with the graffiti of names and messages. Then he would stand, and she would stand too, and they would walk out of that place slowly, hand-in-hand.
On the evening before his departure for England, he sat in the living room and untied his running shoes, deciding he would not take his usual run. A calf muscle had tightened two days before and was not stretching out. Maybe he would take a walk after packing. So he gathered the few guide books he and Gloria had collected, especially the Blue Guide to the Lake Country, and took them upstairs to his empty suitcase. The book fell as he stooped, and a note slipped out—two sheets of folded paper, written in neat and tightly packed lines. Gloria’s handwriting. At first he assumed it was a letter she had been composing on their last trip and had forgotten to send. But it was addressed to him.
Please do not take this note as a cowardly act. The gesture that follows it may be, at least in the eyes of many people. Of course, I don’t think of it that way, and I am hoping that since you have lived through all of this with me, you won’t either. We have discussed the possibility often, and you have put up good arguments against it. I guess I am counting on you to remember those conversations and to read this brief summary of reasons, and then to understand. It’s all too compelling, and I can’t continue in this way any longer.
I am putting this in the Blue Guide to the Lake Country because I know you will be going there soon if you do what I hope will happen—you continue into your life, especially finding solace in the places where you have found it before, your books and landscapes you enjoy. But none of this should be suggested by me. I am not trying to “control your” future life. I am only explaining why the note is in this place.
It is horrible for me to imagine that you will find me, and in my milder versions, I have one of the neighbors look into the garage and discover that the car is running and someone is in the car. But realistically this is much too fortuitous. It will be you. And then there will be the usual business of ambulance, police, investigations, etc., that must accompany any death and must especially be attached to a suicide since the act is so abhorred by our culture. Like other people who have come to my “conclusion” I consider the act to be inalienably mine and a gesture, finally, of freedom.
But I will come back to that. What I am trying to provide for you is some of the privacy I know you treasure so much. My act is private, it’s effects are very much private, and our relationship is no one else’s business. I am almost as grieved at the thought of what I am putting you through in societal terms as I am by our loss of each other. You, the house, our lives will be swarmed over briefly, and all of our friends and acquaintances will conjecture, will commiserate with you but hope for clues and explanations, will make you feel invaded. Not for long, dear Jon, I hope. May they leave you alone soon. But a suicide note is a public document, and this note is intended for no one but you. It’s our last conversation which I, unfairly, have turned into a monologue. I know what you are thinking, maybe even saying aloud, and I accept the scolding. Maybe if I’d taken the risk of saying all this to you again, you would have dissuaded me. Maybe I’m not giving you that chance because I’m afraid of that possibility. We’re not noble Romans and Stoics. You would not be able to walk with me to the garage, give me a final kiss, and close the doors yourself. But even imagining that provides me with comfort. As I go about doing this, I may well conjure that up as a final image to hold onto—you closing my eyes with four kisses, as if I were weary from a long day in the lab, and you, about to work later into the night, have come to pull the blankets higher around me and wish me good night.
I am doing this because I am unwilling to continue the eternal damnation of the up and down, the pattern that no drugs have totally eradicated, and above all the threat of it which is almost as fearful as the hours when I am trapped in the whirlpool. Even when the pills are working, even when life for me assumes the kind of even-toned and monotonously leveled sequence of days that most people can experience (I’m not saying other people are dull, nor am I excluding the passions which can jerk us around from day to day—but we live with them and can cope or learn to cope, and what I live with is not directly under my control, hence almost not mine, alien, an invasion), I am aware of the fact that this is an illusory state. The real one lies just below the surface, the huge and undulating coils of some water serpent that will drag me to depths further and further down each time I go.
But now I will tell you a terrible paradox. Although I say this monstrous condition is almost alien, it, and the struggle I have with it, are more mine than anything else in my life. What is clear to me now is that whatever I know of truth and understanding is located in those darkest moments. I mean dark beyond all light, dark like being closed up in the core of a granite mountain. What I find there is the fearful center of the universe, not just my own dread and horror. I have never wanted to be there. I never chose to be there. I love light. But now I enter that place with a sense of knowledge. Or has the knowledge passed into the realm of wisdom? That darkness is me and all that is not me. Not to enter it forever and as soon as possible is only to delay the inevitable. Instead of having it be alien, something that seizes me, I will seize it and welcome it and become one with it. I have only been fighting my own fate for all these years. Science, medicine, have blunted my understanding of this. If only I could tell you how clearly what I am about to do is to me an act of affirmation, acceptance, unity, the highest act of a free will.
My beloved Jonathan. I’m not asking for forgiveness. I am still too stubborn for that. Perhaps I am desperately wrong, perhaps this is all just chemistry gone berserk and what I think I see and know are delusions. Then tear this up and think of it in whatever way you must. I would never want to take away from you all that we have had by taking myself away. I hope all of what we had together, good and bad, will continue to live with you. I could never have come this far without you, and coming in your presence has given me all the light anyone could ask for.
Jon sat on the windowseat and stared at the distant mountains across Lake Champlain. For a while he felt nothing at all. The letter had been placed correctly in terms of the Jonathan Holmes she knew. But it had taken him seven years to go looking for her or to risk the trip she anticipated he would take much sooner. She was right in one way. He would not have been able to give her that last, imagined gift of kissing her to sleep. Who could live with that afterward?
For some minutes he had been seeing a very concrete image, the one that came to him often when he let himself remember that terrible afternoon—the chair in the den where she kept her computer, the chair she sat in while working on a report she might have brought home or writing letters. It had fallen over and was lying on its back, the legs pointing forward, the cushion flopped against the backrest. When he walked into the house that afternoon and, as usual, called her name, but received no answer, he wandered through the rooms, unbuttoning his shirt, expecting to see her concentrating on something so hard that she had not heard him. He entered the den last and did not find her there, but the chair was on its back, pointing toward him. In that moment he had no reason to suspect what was waiting for him in the garage, but he felt apprehensive, as if the fallen chair were a mute image of violence.
He righted it, then took a shower and changed his clothes, something he always did when returning from the stuffy room of a high school, its air reeking of old tennis shoes and decades of chalk dust and uncleaned lunch boxes. The ritual ablution passed him over from the outside world and its stench to the inner sanctuary of home, cooking a meal, the evening in which they would putter about the house or read or occasionally watch some television, always aware that the other person was there by the small sounds in another room, a cough, maybe a laugh at something read that would have to be shared. Often he would hear her voice speaking to someone on the phone, and he would not listen to the words, would go on about reading his book or magazine, and all that he would listen for were the tones telling him if the conversation was making her angry or annoyed or happy. And always he would find some way during the evening of reassuring himself that her medications were working, never by asking direct questions, but by concentrating briefly on her gestures, expressions, responses to something he might casually say. He did not think she was aware of this. He tried very hard to keep it as cloaked as possible because he knew it only made her feel her condition even more fully, and he did not want to seem to be questioning her ability to cope.
He had picked up the morning paper, which he had been too hurried to read during breakfast, and he sat in the living room waiting for her to come home. By five thirty she was not back yet and he had not even read the editorial page. He checked the kitchen table where they sometimes left each other messages. Nothing. But the dinner he had planned was more complicated than usual, requiring him to roll out some homemade pasta and then prepare a sauce with Gorgonzola and some finely chopped prosciutto. He set to work, running the strips of pasta through the hand-cranked machine, then hanging them to dry on a rack. The double boiler began to steam and he started on the sauce. He would go as far as he could, then wait for her, and short of actually boiling the pasta, everything could be ready. It was unusual for her to be late, but not rare. Sometimes a patient would come for an appointment at the end of the day and would need immediate lab work so that one of the doctors could make a decision. She liked the doctors, liked being reminded that what she was doing could be crucial even if most of the time it was as routine as emptying bedpans.
He took the double boiler off the heat when the sauce was done. The kitchen quieted down. He had not yet started to boil the water for the pasta. He went to the windows looking out on the driveway and detached garage, watching the birdfeeder. The chickadees were making quick flights to grab a sunflower seed and retreat to the branch of the nearby spruce where they would peck it open and discard the hull. A cardinal settled onto the rail to do his work without carrying seeds away. Jon admired his bright, red chest and the buff female when she joined her mate. As he watched them peck and eat and jerk their heads around in pert watchfulness, he began to hear the low, continuous hum of a car engine and realized that he had been hearing it for some time, a drone just beneath the level of consciousness. He was going to walk to the front of the house to see if someone could be parked out in the street when his gaze focussed beyond the birds to the door of the garage, and he saw the faint line of gray fumes exuding from its base.
He had no doubt what it was—the car engine running, the garage full of exhaust, the dim figure of Gloria lying back against the seat. But the door was locked and he had to rush to the bedroom, retrieve his key, grope it into the lock with shaking hand, fling up the door. He held his breath like a diver who must descend 90 feet and rise again to the surface without breathing. One car door was locked also. She was on the unlocked passenger side, legs drawn up under her and cheek nestled to the seatback, as she often rode when they were going on long trips together and she wanted to nap. Head pounding, chest clenched against the need to breathe, he managed to half carry, half drag her out to the driveway where he covered her mouth with his and blew into her again and again, pausing for any sign of her own lungs trying to fill themselves without his help. But she was still and cold and nothing moved, not even the eyelids, closed in such a relaxed and peaceful manner that he was not willing to believe this was death.
He yelled once or twice, hoping one of the neighbors would look out a window and help by calling an ambulance. But no one heard him, and he knew soon that he was doing no good. He went inside and picked up the phone. From where he was standing, he could see her lying on her back, legs bent and drawn up slightly, one arm flung wide as if she had been swinging from something and fallen. Later he remembered how he had wondered what he would do with the pasta and its sauce.
Some insensitive minor investigator felt obliged to berate him for moving her, but he was reprimanded in Jon’s presence, and various officials kept making him go through the sequence of events. For five days he lived in a peculiar state of denial in which he knew he was being irrational but needed to cling to anything that would block the relentless image he had of Gloria walking to the garage, closing the door and locking it to give herself that extra time should one of the neighbors understand what was going on and try to rescue her. Gloria starting the engine, moving to the passenger side, making herself comfortable for the long voyage, and then staring unmoving at the window, the steering wheel, perhaps the dim contents of the messy garage. Surely the process had taken time. The fumes would have to gather for a while before concentrated enough to begin to work. But he knew her patience and determination once she had decided something. She might almost have waited with the curiosity of a fine medical technician. Would the first signs be a slowing of the pulse, a gradual drifting of consciousness as it is when sitting in a comfortable chair with a book and beginning to nod, losing the sense of which line of print to focus on, starting to insert a daydream into the text? Would at least one of those moments have been a sudden regret, a struggle to change her mind and escape? But her pose was too relentlessly relaxed. Then darkness. The darkness she was seeking. Home, as he learned she regarded it from the note in the guidebook he read seven years later.
He concentrated on the overturned chair. He took the officers into the den and pointed to where it had lain, his voice trembling with rage. He insisted she had not done this to herself. Someone had been involved. This was a crime of violence, even if it looked like a suicide. Where was the note, if it was suicide? His wife would not have done this without leaving a message. They listened to him carefully. He wondered if one of the detectives on the case might even have been conjecturing that this might be some kind of quirky confession from a deranged man who had killed his wife. They had not had the advantage of seeing her position in the car. Perhaps the detective imagined her thrown onto the back seat after being made unconscious in some manner, then dragged out when enough time had passed. Jon pushed the man’s suspicions, willing to be considered the murderer of his wife rather than be left in limbo, because he was hurt, baffled, deeply violated by the fact that she had left him no explanation. Only her body. Only what she had already told him over the years. “The chair,” he said, as the detective stared at him impassively, and he tilted it over into the position it had occupied when he found it. “We don’t go around our house knocking over chairs and leaving them that way. Something awful happened in this room.”
An autopsy was performed. The room was carefully screened. The car doors were dusted for fingerprints. Neighbors were questioned. The police did everything they should have, and within a few days they had no doubts and left Jon none either. No signs of violence anywhere on her body. No traces of chemicals other than her medications. No other poisons in her body than carbon monoxide. Death self-inflicted. He sat down and wrote a brief letter to the officer who was heading the investigation. He thanked him for his patience under the pressure of tirades. He hoped he would accept the fact that Jon was too bewildered to be rational. The man did not write back. He telephoned and let Jon know that he had not been the least bit put out by his behavior. Very understandable. He had seen much worse. He hoped Jon understood how very sorry he and his colleagues were, and if anyone could help, please to let them know. Jon thanked him. He tried to sound as though he had returned to his more normal behavior. He even tried to reassure the detective that Gloria’s death was “not unexpected, you know, given the long struggle with her disability.” He made it sound like the first stage of his recovery. He wanted them to leave him alone.
But it was unexpected. Yes, he had imagined it often, but that afternoon when he made pasta and watched the chickadees finish off their day with sunflower seeds, he was not expecting her to die. Her death would always be unexpected because otherwise it would become acceptable. And no, he did not accept Gloria’s death. Some part of him would always be furious at her. He was willing to continue the argument until he found his own way into the center of that stone—or perhaps into greater light than he had ever known.
Whatever her letter had brought to mind was not new. No totally forgotten or ignored memories were released. But the ragged intensity, the randomness with which they returned buffeted him all evening. He had never been able to explain the overturned chair. Finally he had settled on the assumption that one of the animals was responsible, most likely the cat who sometimes, when climbing a chair to be closer to a fly batting against the ceiling, would topple it. He had to let it go at that. The chair was overturned. It was a fact that would always be simply a fact. Like the statement, “Gloria has killed herself.”
No funeral. No service of any kind. Some friends sent flowers to Jon. Many wrote or called. To any who asked, he said no, he had decided Gloria would have preferred only the simple message he wrote for the obituaries in the local paper. Donations to the charity of your choice. He was moved by a few letters he received from patients in the medical practice where she had worked. They remembered how cheerful and calm she had been when doing their lab work, how she always knew their names and recalled even the names of children they had talked about. He took the time to write each of them a note. He told them how that human contact was what she valued most about her job—not the hours working up the results. Her body was cremated, and he kept the ashes, placing them in the back of a closet. After a few years, he managed to store enough objects in front of the box containing the urn that he could not see it. He could never decide on a suitable place for scattering the ashes, but he was certain that someday he would know.
He could find no consolation in her letter, other than the fact that he now could be certain that she had considered the effect of her action on him, which he had, in his worst moments, sometimes doubted when no note was found. But for one of the few times in his life, he simply did not want to know. He almost preferred the ignorance he had lived with before opening the guidebook. He did not want to have the letter’s words constantly coming back to him in phrases like the fragment of some song that would not leave consciousness. He did not want her way of seeing her death to come between her death and what it meant to him. But he knew he was being unfair. Part of the problem in all this was the timing, and the fact that he had not discovered the letter relatively soon after her death was his own fault, not hers. He was not sure what it would have meant to him to have it a few months, even a year afterward rather than seven years later. Now, when he was reaching the point in his life where he could look through the bleak moments—her depressions, her death, his grief—and discover more and more what came to mind were their happier times, he was being forced back into another layer of mourning.
He picked up the guide books to England and held them, staring at the titles on their spines. Perhaps he would go no further than London, a city he had always liked but never stayed in long enough. For a moment he sensed his life stretching ahead of him interminably—20, maybe 30 years more—and he wondered whether he could invent a life to fill those years. But sometimes recently the days had a fullness even if he did not see what they contained. A certain fall light shining through the maple branches and in the window of the living room would either call a particular memory up or more likely some overlay that was her presence, and he would feel calm, glad that what they had found stayed with him. But what he was beginning to feel now was very simple. A stubbornness that made him place the books carefully in the center of his half-packed suitcase.
He leaned against the alcove wall as the light lengthened. No matter how dense Gloria thought the darkness was that she had entered, she was light to him and nothing would change that. One winter they went in pursuit of sunlight, doing something unusual for them since they did not like resorts and preferred to save their money to enrich their lives in more lasting ways—trips to England, books, concerts, some piece of furniture that she would find in an antique store that was just right for a corner of the house that had stood blank and waiting for it for years. The winter had been long and very cold. If it stopped snowing and the temperature climbed, the sky would turn gray again and this time the hard earth would be glazed with freezing rain. When the ground was bare, the temperature plummeted and the cold edged in from every corner of the house, working its way even through wool, flesh, deep to the bone. The medical practice had given everyone a substantial bonus at Christmas, and Gloria had set it aside for an oriental rug she thought would do well in the dining room, but the price was still too high and she was waiting for it to come down. By mid-February the price was not lower, spring seemed impossibly far away, and even her medications could do nothing with the form of depression that settled around them. She went to the store determined to buy the rug even if she did not have enough to pay, willing to take interest charges on her card for the right to assert her will against the icy winds, the intractably gray sky. The rug had been sold.
Jon came home that afternoon to find her hunched on the couch weeping. He sat beside her and asked what was wrong. Had she taken her pills? Yes, yes, it wasn’t that sort of thing. Then, sobbing so hard that her words came in gasps, she told him about the rug and how it was just right and she had waited too long and it was gone, gone, and nothing was right about this shitty winter and her idiot head and the stupid cups filled with everyone’s piss and why didn’t it just all go away? He held onto her tightly while she lapsed into wordless heaves, her breath hot against his collar bone. He was almost relieved to see her grieving in this way. This was not the silent staring at wall or vacant window, the pit she could fall into so deeply that all she could do was make mute gestures to Jon from a distance—a nod of her head, a shrug. She was mourning like a child would who has been told she could not go to the circus because the show had been cancelled.
“Let’s go somewhere. Let’s get on an airplane and go looking for the sun.”
She held still. “We can’t do that. How can we do that? You teach, I have to work—go where?”
She turned her face sideways so that she was not speaking into his chest. He kept running his hand through her hair, along her wet cheek.
“I’ll talk to Jerry about that place in the Virgin Islands he and Bonnie went to last spring. This sub job I have ends next week. You have some vacation days.”
“You can do that? You never do that, just walking out on the next job.”
“I’ll tell the agency it’s a family emergency.”
In an hour she was defiant. She would fling the rug money in the face of the fickle weather. She asked him to call Jerry right away. She wanted to know it was going to happen. In the middle of dinner she stood and closed the drapes. Standing a few feet away from him she slowly stripped off her clothes, and when she was done she leaned down and put her arms around his neck and said, “Dear heart, how like you this?” quoting one of their favorite poems, the one she had written her best paper on. He liked it so much that he carried her upstairs and they let dinner get cold, and before they came down again to heat it up and enjoy the rest of the wine, they made love slowly and talked for a while about how lovely it was going to be to lie on warm sand and close their eyes and listen to the ocean.
They did all that, although for the first two days they were plunged into another form of letdown that neither of them could discuss because they were too disappointed and the prospect of failure was too bleak. The weather seemed to follow them down the coast. Coldest February they’d ever had, the desk clerk told them, and it looked as if only Gloria and Jon had not known this. The hotel was almost empty, and nothing was more depressing than the dining room with only a few guests, an overabundance of waiters falling all over each other and their table just to have something to do, silence in the lobby that made their footsteps seem invasive, gray beyond every window that even turned the palm trees to pewter. They woke early, ate without appetite, took desultory walks along a beach clutching their arms tightly to themselves because they had each brought only one sweater. Even the seashells they tried to collect, tried to hold up and admire, had lost all color.
One evening darkness came much too early. From the window of their room they saw the strokes of lightning far out to sea, but each one coming closer. The storm crashed over them and hovered there for much of the night—waves of storms like the pounding surf that they could hear between each heave—and they slept fitfully, waking to a room made strange by its sudden coming and going in the flicker and blast. Just before dawn, the wind ceased, the rain no longer pulsed against the windows, and they slept deeply, as if being rocked in the slow, steady rhythm of the waves.
They woke to sunshine unlike any they had known, unrelated to the brilliant, edgy light of the north that etched patterns of shadow and pierced the cracks in granite. This was mellow, surrounding, something that made the air both billowy and ripe. They stood on the balcony, and Jon told Gloria that the sun looked plump and she laughed. It did. Everything did. Light made everything fleshy, sand was satiny with warmth. They did not waste much time with food that day. They slathered themselves with protective oils and wore as little as they could. They walked as far as they could along the sloping beach and sometimes ran and veered into the wide, tumbling waves, touching each other, always touching each other so that when they flung themselves apart to enter the water or scamper along the reach of a wave, it was only to create an excuse to be close again, and when Jon thought of snow and ice, he could not believe they existed anymore.
When evening came, they walked to the most deserted part of the beach and took off what little they were wearing and swam far out into the calm lift and fall of the sea until, floating side by side, they could look back to the distant white walls of the hotel, the line of dark green palms above the strand, and he smoothed his hand along her side, the lift of her hips, her slowly moving thigh and wished they could be born up by the sea like dolphins joining, rolling together into the depths and rising again to the oncoming, velvet night. They swam back, and he reached shore first, standing unsteadily on sand again as if using legs for the first time and unwilling to accept the return of gravity’s laws.
Jon stared back into the blood orange sun that hovered just above the water, spilling its final light over the ragged horizon of waves. For a moment, he was terrified. He could not see her anywhere. The sun full in his face, he could only see the bloody surface and she was not part of it. Had she gone under, drowned, been pulled down without a cry? He staggered toward the water again.
She stood, curved body rising from the water, sun turning her hair molten, and for a moment she did not move, his Venus emerging from the sea, his Gloria holding out her arms and waiting for him to join her.