Jená Maharramov has written poetry, short stories, and novellas over the past several years, with a few of her works published in local literary journals. Jená enjoys writing, as well as other forms of creative expression. In her spare time, she maintains a blog: www.gaudylanguage.com. She also models, acts, and (most recently) wrote and produced a short film entitled: If Not Now, When?
Her body had lain at the bottom of the terrace stairs for days in the bitter cold. A family friend had gone searching for her- well, all of them had been searching for her- but he had been the one to discover her cold form sheathed in a thin nightdress. Later, he’d tell our circle of friends that she’d looked peaceful- as though she’d merely tumbled into bed to slumber. He’d never tell that to me though- after a time, none of my friends wanted to exchange anything but the shortest greetings with me.
Perhaps I should tell you more about myself- it certainly isn’t very polite to start a story with the most grisly part. It’s a bit jarring. Well, maybe I wanted it to be a bit jarring. After all, I was quite rattled when they called me that chilly evening to tell me that my wife had been found at the bottom of the cold terrace steps at our vacation home that we shared with a few other friends. They told me, breathlessly, that they didn’t see any signs of foul play when they discovered her. They said the police were on their way and that I must hurry, hurry! there to be by her side.
I can’t remember what I’d said to James, Dove’s old friend, but I worry even now that whatever I had said had been too calm for someone who had just lost a spouse. Well, everyone grieves differently, right? And everyone expresses shock differently. I truly was surprised by the news. And saddened! I was saddened, but there was a dark part of me that was glad. And I fear even now that when James told me that he’d found her lifeless body at the bottom of the stairs, that he had heard a note of joy in my voice.
The woman looked at me quizzically as I spoke on the phone, the blankets tucked around her like a cocoon. I waggled my eyebrows comically- I’m not sure why I did that- and she smiled slightly, giving view to those perfect, straight, white teeth that I’d noticed when I met her. She then lowered the blanket seductively, given view to her naked, youthful body.
I realized then that I might be a bad person.
I’m not a bad person. Not really. The story I’m recounting makes me seem like a bad person- really I’m just a person. Merely human. I’ve done some tremendously good things in my years here on earth and I’ve done some tremendously bad things. I suppose we’ll all answer to our crimes on Judgment Day, as they say. My crimes are not as bad as those of most and that gives me some comfort. I don’t go about with a sense of moral superiority, as some do. Pompousness isn’t one of my crimes- well, at least not moral pomposity. I’ve been accused of being pompous in regards to my fame.
I’m a bit of a celebrity. Well, more than a bit of a celebrity. Anyone with children under the age of 13 knows me. I’ve written children’s books for the past twenty years of my life, helped turn some of those
children’s books into movies, and have had more public appearances and public speaking engagements than I can count.
It’s really quite odd, if you consider that fact that I started out wanting to be a dentist. After I realized the error of this thinking, swamped in the rigors of dental school, I dropped out and decided to give art a chance. I’d always been a fairly decent artist, even had a few works shown in local galleries in my late teens, but I’d never thought it would ever be an actual career choice. Careers were done in medical offices or courtrooms or even in halls of learning, not sitting behind an easel or sketching on a scratchpad. When I broke the news of my academic failure and subsequent career change, I think I broke my mother’s heart. My father, characteristically, unleashed his wrath upon me and then made peace with it. I think my mother resented me quietly until the money from my children’s books and movie deals made me much, much more wealthy than a dentist could hope to be.
It was while I was a misguided, young dreamer that I met Dove. The youngest child of five, she was energetic, brash, quick-witted, and determined. I had grown up the only child of two wealthy parents, coddled in the arms of White suburbia. Dove, on the other hand, had grown up around the country, dragged along by parents who were both wealthy and bohemian in nature. Her lineage was a mixture of African, Hispanic, and Native American, which was etched in her dark eyes and across her high cheekbones. I met her in a café as I was doodling on a napkin, wondering what the next decades of my life would look like.
She had walked by and stopped dramatically, eyeing my drawing with curiosity and delight. “You do this for a living?” She asked me. I told her I wanted to. “You should.” She said simply, and left the café.
I went to that same café nine days in a row trying to see if she’d come back. The owner had started to regard me with unmasked suspicion by the fifth day. “You must really like these tarts,” he’d said quietly, almost staring through me with his sharp eyes.
“I find it’s a great environment to draw,” I said, cheerfully.
“On my napkins?” He’d retorted, but he let me walk away without further inquiry.
On the ninth day, I looked up from another one of my doodles to see her walk in and sit in a corner. I wish I could tell you that I had some clever line or was remarkably charming. I wasn’t. To be honest, I found myself stammering over all my words. I’d never seen anything like her before. No brown women with large dark eyes and clouds of black, curly hair had ever entered my world before. I think she found me a curiosity and so we began to meet at the café once a week to talk. Eventually, we met outside the café. And some time later, we were in love.
I’m simplifying things, of course. Nothing is ever so easy. At least not for me. First, there was the matter of getting her to continue to talk to me. I did this by being an oracle of art facts and interesting trivia. When this well ran dry, I tried mentioning aspects of my parents’ wealth- the tennis courts, the cars. She didn’t find this at all interesting, considering the fact that her family was also wealthy and was not the tennis court type. She told me on our honeymoon that the reason she’d decided to start dating
me was because she told me she was writing a book and instead of patronizing her, as many men did, I’d given her constructive criticism. Some men have interesting brains, some men have the bodies of Greek gods…I have constructive criticism in my romantic arsenal.
Our parents accepted our relationship very differently. Her parents were always very “free love”- you know, that hippie sort. They met me and immediately complimented my aura, my vibe. (For all the people who look upon me with disgust now, I would like to tell you that her parents loved my aura!) They immediately welcomed me into their home, into their family. Now, my family, on the other hand was a bit reticent. Like me, they’d never really spent an extended period of time interacting with brown people with big curly clouds of hair. That sort of people always existed in our periphery, perhaps in our subconscious. Not in our living room with a glass in her hand and her other hand tightly entwined in the hand of their son. I’m sure, like my abbreviated collegiate career, this choice was a surprise.
I don’t want to get bogged down into too many details but now, as I’m relating my story to you, I find myself feeling the sharp pangs of nostalgia. I told you in the beginning that my wife had died- had been found at the bottom of our guest house stairs and I found out about her death while…engaged in carnal pursuits with another young woman. I told you that I’d felt a sense of joy upon learning of her death. I’m sure this paints me as a terrible person. I did love Dove. I’m sure I love her even now- that I cherish her memory somewhere in the recesses of my heart even as I cavort with that other woman. After all, she was the reason I even found myself doing my dream job- that I am publishing children’s books and serving as screenwriter for my movie adaptations instead of being a failed dental student living off his parent’s trust fund.
Dove’s family friend, James, had recently been hired to a publication company, in the children’s division. He was a tall, quiet man, large hawk-like nose and spectacles, the quintessential editor in appearance. He had an obvious crush on Dove, which he tried to hide with the almost constant adjustment of his glasses. I pretended not to notice anything and was as warm to him as though he were my own family friend. It paid off when Dove convinced him to publish my first children’s book: Spinder Spider and Her Grand Adventure.
I’ll be honest- the book was utter trash. I say that with great confidence after having many more books under my belt now and also, having an inkling of that same fact even as I handed it in. It was the most simplistic of story lines and the drawing was not my best work. I did it mainly out of desperation, fearful that perhaps the artist’s life wasn’t for me and I would spend my life as a freeloader. (I was living with Dove at that point and we were to be married in six months.) Even as I gave it to James, I had the perverse desire to have him glance through it and throw it back in my face. Perhaps part of me was worried that people might like the book and then I’d have to come up with better stories.
The book was published and the public devoured it. I did book signings for that stupid book, trying not to look sheepish as I signed short missives to little Timmy or Tommy or Ashley or whomever. Of course, Dove loved it all- she was always one for a lot of fuss and drama. She helped to organize most of the book signings and went to them with me, seated beside me like a queen. Perhaps I’m making her sound pushy or like a prima donna, but she wasn’t. She just believed in me and my work. Her belief is why I
continued writing and drawing, eventually writing less and less garbage and more and more decent work.
Ah, Dove. Those were the best times, I think. We weren’t really struggling- it wasn’t one of those stories where the young couple struggles for years until they finally make it. We both grew up wealthy and because of this, nothing was ever really a struggle. Either we or our families had connections that would help us enter almost any field we had an interest in. I don’t say any of this to sound arrogant, only to paint a better picture for you of the lives we lived. These were the best times because we were discovering each other, Dove and I. Not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. We began to understand each other’s thoughts as though we were thinking them. It was one of the single most beautiful things I’d experienced in my life. And of course, you’re thinking that if it were so beautiful, why did I find myself with some young naked woman while others searched for my missing wife- please, don’t make me terrible yet. I want you to understand the wonderful thing my wife and I had together, when we were just beginning.
Dove began to design and sell clothing, which was a very successful venture. She loved sitting up all night trying to gain inspiration from random things. Personally, I could wear the same brown pants and white shirt every day. (She saw to it I didn’t.) I say with some shame that I wasn’t nearly as supportive of her career as she was of mine. Not that I didn’t want to help her- I just didn’t understand exactly what her career entailed. Sometimes I showed up to her meetings or to model fittings and I felt instantly like a grubby, out of place tree. The clients’ eyes would look me up and down and then past me as though I were an odd and distasteful piece of artwork. The models treated me with the same disregard with which most of society treats the homeless. After a time, I stopped accompanying her.
Marriage had always scared me. I’m not sure if this is the appropriate time to insert this particular information, but this fear is integral to the story. You’ll have to forgive me- I’m a writer of children’s stories and these stories are very good but very simplistic. I’ve never had to spell out the reasons for my sins or delve into the darker aspects of my psyche. I like writing about puppies and rabbits and ladybugs who talk to flowers. Of course, my story requires less gentle protagonists.
Marriage had always scared me and to a degree, I think it scared Dove too. I had no direct experience with divorce but I had seen it among family members. Even a few of my acquaintances had experienced divorce and we hadn’t even reached thirty. It just seemed like a horrid proposition, a gamble. You try making a life with another human being and if it didn’t work, you could suffer a horrible split. Not to mention the mess it could make of your finances. Not to mention the fact that you’re tying yourself to another human being for life. For life. For life. Those words echoed in my head over and over as I tried to decide if I should propose to Dove. Could I be a husband? Could I have a lifelong relationship? What if I found someone else I liked more? I know that sounds callous but how can you ever be sure that you’ve found THE ONE for you when you’ve only met a small percentage of ones throughout your short, young adult life? I thought I loved her but what if I was wrong? There are so many beautiful women in the world. Of course, I couldn’t be sure in my twenties that I was making the best decision for the entire rest of my life.
Still, Dove was wonderful. In the moments I spent with her, I felt like I was something more than what I was. I certainly felt I was more talented that what I was. In the time that I was starting as a writer and artist, it was her confidence in me that actually made me feel like I was shining. I was simply reflecting her enthusiasm. Later, I’ll admit, the adulation from the public took her place and I found myself seeking her support less and less. Later, when I began receiving emails from fans of my work or had people stop me in the streets because they recognized me (this came after my movies) I found myself more distant from Dove.
But we weren’t talking about how it fell apart, were we? We were talking about the beautiful beginnings. We moved into a beautiful white house with a white picket fence after we were married. It was almost nauseatingly perfect in appearance. We even adopted a little white dog named Rusty- well, Dove adopted him, I merely tolerated him. (I’m happy that when Dove left, that little yapper disappeared too.) We filled our house with furniture and other gifts given to us by family members. We made love in random places- even outside in the backyard twice. We worked hard at our respective careers with the bright optimism of our youth.
I had feared falling for other women after I was married- I didn’t find this to be the case, not when we lived in that white house and looked into each other’s eyes instead of at the stars at night. I noticed beautiful women, certainly, but Dove outshone them. I had always had many female friends since my college days, but there was something about Dove that was more alluring, more amazing. Like I said, those were the happiest times of our lives together.
Now I’ll tell you how it fell apart. That’s the most interesting part, isn’t it? Not when things are particularly beautiful but how uniquely and irrevocably they are damaged?
I became famous, I told you that. I was the writer of some of the most popular children’s books in the country. I got to work with celebrities when we did adaptations of my films- they even gave me a little director’s-type chair. I was such a fool about that chair. It had my name on it and everything- I took it home when filming was done and would allow no one to sit on it. Of course Rusty, that little hell hound, would gnaw on the chair legs, but it was still a symbol of how far I’d come professionally.
Dove and I had been married about fifteen years at that point. Fifteen years. It had gone by in a flash. We’d moved from the white house with the picket fence to a larger house after the movie deals. This house was brick with a stately wrought iron fence around it. Beautiful. But cold because of the ghosts that haunted it.
Not literal ghosts- this isn’t a horror piece. Just ghosts of the past. Things that had happened that we dragged along like suitcases. I want to tell you how things got bad for us. We had a daughter, Dove and I. We conceived her under the stars in the backyard of the white house with the white picket fence. Her name was Lillian after my grandmother and she was beautiful. I had feared marriage but I had never feared parenthood. I’d always loved children- hell, I was a children’s book writer. When I held Dove in my arms, I felt like I was unstoppable. When I held my daughter in my arms, I felt vulnerable. I can’t describe the feeling of having a child- I mean, I had nothing to do with the childbirth, but actually holding a baby in your arms, a part of you…It was the most incredible feeling I’d ever had.
I remember the book I was working on- Peter Pea and the Tree it was called. I’ll never forget the book I was working on. I still have it- it’s buried in one of my trunks in the garage. One day, I’ll have the strength to look at it again. I’ll never publish it.
I was working on Peter Pea and the Tree while Lillian toddled around in my office. Dove was out shopping with friends- it was her day to get a break from the rigors of child care and I was in charge of watching our little girl. Lillian was never too much trouble- she was a sweet child, her sparkling eyes were the color of spring meadows like mine and she wore an almost perpetual smile. Everyone doted on her and she absorbed our love like a sponge. My little Lillian.
Rusty, that little nuisance, had been entertaining Lillian for several minutes but then began whining and pawing at the door. I tried ignoring him but he set up such a racket that finally, with a sigh, I pulled the door open and let him scamper out. Now Peter…next Peter meets Gertie. That’s the next part of the story, I thought as I made my way back to my desk.
I cannot describe to you the sound I heard. I don’t want to describe to you the sound I heard. It was the most horrifying sound I’ve ever experienced and it haunts my dreams still, these many years later. I heard her short cry and then that sound and everything seemed to stop for a moment, even my heart. My legs were unsteady as I stood up and turned to where Lillian should have been. She should have been there on the rug playing with her toys but she was gone. I looked and the door was open- I’d let that wretched dog out and had forgotten to close it. I stumbled through the door as though drunk. “Lillian!” I yelled. “Lillian!” And I knew she wasn’t there- I knew she wasn’t inside because the sound had come from outside and it was a horrible sound but I couldn’t stop yelling- it was like a mantra. It was like an incantation and maybe if I said it loud enough and fast enough, everything would be okay and she would be there, on my rug playing with her toys. The door to the room next to my office was open. I walked through. The window was open. I walked over to it. And looked down.
I called Dove to tell her what happened. She’d hung up on me. She called me back, accusing me of pulling the most inexcusable prank on her, but when I started crying, wailing actually, she hung up on me again. And I was alone with the police and the paramedics, who were gathering up the remains of my daughter from the asphalt of the driveway. At the time I didn’t know they were her remains- for some reason, I had the wild hope that she had survived the fall from the second story window. I insisted that they be careful. I asked them which hospital they were taking her to. I told them to do all they could. They looked at me with awkward pity. Her neck was at an unnatural angle- at the time, I didn’t want to see it. She had stopped breathing- I didn’t want to believe it. I told them to do all they could. The police began asking me questions. It was the damned dog, I told them. It was the damned dog. If not for the dog, I would have never opened the door. They took notes.
Dove parked on the street and came flying up the driveway, her hair spreading out around her head like a lion’s mane. Her face was open and vulnerable. Her eyes were shining and wild. She was primal. For some strange reason, I remember thinking that next to our wedding day, this was the most beautiful she had ever looked.
She only regarded me for half a second before she searched for our baby. When she saw her, her voice rose up in a wail. “My baby!” She cried. “My baby!” She screamed it over and over. It was her own incantation but Lillian wouldn’t be coming back. I was in awe of her grief and was too afraid and ashamed to approach her. I stood there watching the scene as though I were just a bystander- as though it were an interesting play. It was amazing, that sense of unreality. That sense that I would wake up and everything would go back to the way it was.
I don’t know why Dove stayed with me. Thinking back now, we should have divorced then. I wonder if we had, if things would have been different for her. If she might still be alive. She might have died anyway. I think we stayed together because we didn’t know what else to do. We had already suffered one loss, divorcing would create another. So we stayed together and it was terrible for us both.
She blamed me for Lillian’s death. She didn’t say it- it was in her body language. At the funeral, she smothered her face in her father’s shoulder and didn’t once look in my direction. When we were home together, she floated through the house silently, not saying a word. Occasionally, I could feel her eyes on me as though she wanted to ask me something but when I looked up, she didn’t say a word. For my part, I spent a good amount of that time in some sort of catatonic state. I don’t remember details about that time. I don’t remember how much I ate or drank. I did lose several pounds. I put my work on hold and didn’t pick up a pencil or use my laptop for several months.
Dove had to contend with grief. For me, it was grief mixed with guilt. It was almost unbearable, the way my mind whirred- the way it tried different scenarios. The way it told me that if I had just remembered to shut the door, she would still be alive. The way it told me that if I had just paid attention- if I hadn’t been so engrossed in my work, that I’d still have my daughter. I had been punished by the Heavens for my negligence, that’s what it was. And my wife blamed me for my daughter’s death and I suspected that our friends and families felt the same. This was probably the lowest period of my life.
I’m not sure what broke me out of my grief. I didn’t attend the grief classes with Dove, partly because I didn’t like reliving that day, especially with strangers. Also, Dove hadn’t asked me to go with her. I don’t know why the clouds parted for me. Perhaps one day a television show came on and I was actually able to laugh for once. Maybe the sun shone one day and it was a welcome sight instead of an annoyance. It didn’t mean that I missed Lillian any less, but I felt as though I wanted to keep living instead of being an organic mannequin.
When I began to live again, Dove seemed to resent me even more. I think in her mind, I should have been suffering twice as hard as she was because it was my fault that our child was dead. She almost said as much once, but bit back the words and ran from the room. She began sleeping in another room. I began sleeping in my office chair. I didn’t want to be in our bed alone.
When Lillian died, the newspapers picked up the story. They were wretched about the whole thing, calling the house throughout the day and trying to get a statement. Absolute vultures. They reported that the “daughter of children’s book author and fashion designer” was killed after a fall from the
second-story window. One online publication went so far as to insinuate that I had thrown my own child from the window, but after a heated threat to sue them, they removed the article. It was like the world was taking my grief and making it their own entertainment. It drove Dove and I even further apart.
I was doing a book signing when the woman approached with her son. She had dark eyes with long brown hair. Her face was plain but she smiled and it lit up everything around her. Her son looked at me as though I were some sort of mythical creature.
“Hello, I know we are one of the last people here and you must be tired of hearing this, but I wanted to tell you that my son just loves your books. He won’t sleep unless I read one to him.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say.” I responded, politely. She was right- I had heard that same line over and over for the past few hours. Still, her eyes were wide and genuine. I signed her book and returned her smile with my own.
Suddenly, she waved her little boy over to one of the bookracks and leaned in. I unconsciously leaned forward too. “I heard about your little girl and I am so sorry.” I recoiled slightly and her expression became one of contrition. “I’m sorry, I know that’s a terrible thing to bring up here at your book signing but I heard about it on the news and I just wanted to let you know that I feel for you. You seem like a good man and…I just…I feel for you.”
I stammered a thank you. I don’t know what possessed me to say what I said to her but I muttered: “Most people are just upset with me. Hell, I’m upset with myself about what happened. I just wish I could change it.” She nodded and then scribbled something on a slip of paper.
“Excuse me, my daughter and I have been waiting here a long time.” A man complained in the line behind her.
“I’m sorry, sir!” The woman gave me a brief smile then dashed off to collect her son, who had grown bored with looking at the bookrack and had started kicking things.
The woman- “Sarah” her scribbled note stated- had given me her phone number on that little corner of paper. I had put it in my pocket and spend the rest of the hour signing books, absentmindedly. I wondered why she had given me her phone number. Did she want to talk more about the loss of my daughter? Was she looking for more of a romantic exploit? I went home that day, touching the piece of paper in my pocket as though it were some sort of talisman. I wasn’t very happily married at that point, but I did have a lot of respect for Dove. If Sarah wanted something untoward, I simply wasn’t going to be a part of it. But if she wanted to be a listening ear, then that would be nice. After all, I had grown weary of Dove’s silence, her parents’ accusing stares, and my own parents’ drawn mouths and haunted eyes. I had lost my daughter too, but everyone looked at me as though I had engineered the whole thing. As though I were the villain of the whole story.
Sarah’s phone number went into my little drawer, hidden among all my socks. I tried creating some sort of conversation with Dove, but as usual she was hidden from me. Since our daughter had died, she had
built some sort of invisible wall against me. Even on decent days, when I could coax a smile from her, I still felt as though there were part of her that I couldn’t see and could never again reach. But in order to avoid arguments, I acted as though these were old times. As though the guarded Dove was the Dove I had loved for years.
We argued over something small, I remember. I think it was something related to the dishes. If not the dishes, it was something in the kitchen, because that’s where we began screaming at each other. I can’t remember what I said to her but suddenly, for a split second, that invisible wall came down. But instead of revealing that beautiful vulnerability that I remembered, there was only sheer hatred. The anger smoldered in her eyes and for a brief moment, I wondered if she would take one of the carving knives from behind her and jab it into my chest. Would she be capable of that? If she destroyed me, I wondered, would it bring back her happiness? She would never again have to look into the eyes of the man who had allowed her daughter to toddle out of a window to her death. She would never again have to make small talk with this grotesque person or attend family functions with him by her side. All of it could be a memory if I were gone. She didn’t grab for the knife, though. She just stood there, focusing her hatred at me as though it were a spotlight and I cowered.
I called Sarah that night, after Dove had taken off to spend time with her girl friends. She was having more and more of these women’s outings and I suspected that they spent them talking about me and my failures as a husband. I used to be welcome among all her friends- I think one or two of them even harbored a slight crush on me, especially Ally who was always trying to find ways to talk to me and always gave me a lingering look when she said goodbye. Now, they all looked at me with forced smiles while their eyes regarded me darkly. I stopped talking to them altogether, after a while.
The phone was sweaty in my palm as I waited for Sarah to pick up the phone. I felt as though I were in high school again, about to ask a girl to see a movie with me. The phone rang three times and then I heard her voice. “Hello?” She said and for a moment, I couldn’t speak.
“Hello, Sarah? It’s that author you met at the book signing. I’m not sure if you remember-“ I felt like a fool. How many book signings did she go to? Of course she remembered me.
“Yes! I was worried I’d creeped you out by giving you my phone number. It’s been a few weeks.”
The conversation was awkward, to say the least. She was bubbly and I was a bit reticent even though I was the one who had made the call. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted exactly. For her to tell me that in her opinion, my daughter’s death wasn’t my fault? What did she want? To have the privilege of consoling a children’s book author?
At the end of the phone call, I had agreed to meet with her at a small café in town. I threw my phone on the bed, then scrambled to pick it up and saved Sarah’s number under the name “Sam.” As I saved the name to my phone, I felt a slight pang of guilt. Perhaps I was doing something wrong? Honestly, I just wanted reassurance- for a female gaze that wasn’t suspicious or cold. I wanted some warmth. I just didn’t need my wife finding calls to and from Sarah.
Dove wasn’t around the night I went to meet Sarah. She was probably out on another’s girls’ meeting. I found myself creeping into the café and peering around surreptitiously before spotting Sarah and slipping into the seat across from her. She was dressed casually, but wearing a top that showed a bit of cleavage. Was this a date? She smiled brightly. She had the sort of smile that transformed her face into something radiant.
“Thanks for meeting with me.” I felt like I called a business meeting. Should I describe for you how awkward our initial conversation was, me trying to figure out what she wanted and her smiling at me both warmly and enigmatically? We started with pleasantries, even dipping into tepid conversation about the weather and the forecast for the week. We moved on to more personal issues, looking from our food into each other’s eyes, becoming lost in our conversation. At some point, I stopped worrying that my wife or someone who knew my wife would see me and ask me why I was out at dinner with this woman.
I think it was when she started talking about how disconnected she felt from her husband that I began to see what she might want from me. They had been high school sweethearts, had the sort of romance that everyone knew would culminate in marriage. So they got married. They had a child and for some reason had trouble conceiving any other children. This resulted in bitterness and the sort of quiet resentment that I found familiar in my own marriage. They were at the point where they were putting on a public performance for family and friends but spending much of their time apart. She said that part of him still loved her but she felt too far away from him to close the emotional gap.
We made our way out to her car, filled with wine and personal regrets. She opened the door to her car and turned to me. And then...she kissed me. Or I kissed her. However it happened, our lips met in the little parking lot behind the café and I was thankful, so thankful that she had parked in the shadows.
The kiss was the only thing that happened that night. I wouldn’t lie to you- after all, I’ve been honest about everything else. I went home and for once, found Dove in our bed. Seeing her lying there, tangled in the blankets made me feel worse than I had felt in my silent car on the way home. I still loved Dove but thinking of her had become so painful for me. That night I lay beside her, watching her sleep, until the gray light of morning poured through the window.
I wish I could say that the kiss was the end of it- that I never contacted Sarah again. I contacted her the next day. There was something that Sarah fulfilled in me- she was nurturing, she cared about me, or did a great job of pretending to care about me at least.
We met at night in out of the way places. Maybe that was something that attracted me to her. Sarah wasn’t as beautiful as Dove nor as cultured, but she was down to earth, charming, and sweet. I can say now she was what I needed then. Perhaps the danger of being found out was another thing that attracted me to being with her- I was famous in that way that authors are often famous, not as famous as reality TV celebrities but certainly noticeable. I waited for the day that a parent on date night would glance at me and then the word would spread that the author of such works as Hank Hamster in the Laundry Basket, father of the little girl who had fallen out of the window of their home, was out constructing an affair with a woman who was sad and broken in her own marriage.
That day didn’t come.
It was strange, almost disappointing. I thought that something would change if I ever engaged in infidelity- that it would be life altering. I expected some sort of lightning bolt, I suppose, but it never came. I made love to a stranger, someone who wasn’t my wife, and then I went home to my wife and she never suspected anything or said anything. She sometimes did sweet things for me despite the bitterness of our marriage. We still had the same terrible fights sometimes, the same painful silences. It was as though nothing had really changed in my life.
When I made love to Sarah, it was foreign. The lines and curves of her body were different from Dove’s. Her mouth felt different on mine. At first, I couldn’t decide if the foreign feeling was unsettling or alluring. I didn’t look into her eyes and she didn’t seek mine. We were what we needed at the moment. That was all. We were using each other in a way.
And so it went, for about a year.
When Dove didn’t come home after work, I naturally assumed that she was out with friends as usual. I left to spend time with Sarah- our time together had been more and more sporadic since her husband had begun questioning her constant absences from the home. I didn’t feel very guilty about that- he was some faceless entity out there in the world. I didn’t care much about his fears. I suppose that’s selfish.
When my wife didn’t come home that night, I didn’t worry. Perhaps she had spent the night with her friends or went to her parents- she had been spending more time there lately. Part of me was happy she was away from home- she had been making me miserable with her attitude and her dark eyes following me around the room, accusingly. There were times when I thought of divorcing her. Not in order to marry Sarah- just to get away from it all. Even in a new house, the guilt haunted me- she haunted me, the living embodiment of all my failures. If I was divorced, perhaps I could start over again, maybe end my affair with Sarah and live a solitary life. Sarah had been more and more needy as of late and I had fleeting worries that she was going to get it into her head to try to destroy my marriage so that she could try at a relationship that wasn’t as stale as the one she was trapped in.
The next morning, I decided to work. It had been a while since I had worked on my new book- it was about an insect. Wasn’t my best work, really- it needed some heavy revising. I sat down at my desk and noticed a piece of paper that hadn’t been there when I had worked on my book a few days before. It was written in Dove’s characteristic scrawl.
I want to keep this short. I love you. I love you more than I can describe. As I’m writing, I can’t help but think of all the wonderful days that we had and the sweet moments we shared. I love you, despite everything that happened- the death of our daughter. I know you think I hate you but I love you even though you were closed off from me, even though you moved on with your life, moved on with your fame even as I was crushed by grief. I love you. I know about the woman you’ve been seeing. I’ve known for a
few months now. You only kept it poorly hidden from me- didn’t you? You didn’t care if I found out, did you? You’ve broken my heart again. And so I’m going to say goodbye this way- not living with you as silent roommates for the next 50 years…not with a painful divorce and the ensuing bitterness. I don’t want to live like this anymore but I don’t want to live without you. You would haunt me the same way Lillian haunts me now. I don’t want to do this anymore and so I’ve decided to take my own life. Please burn this letter after you read it- I hope that my death will look accidental and that it doesn’t create a scandal for our family.
I didn’t look for her. I’ve already identified that I had become a terrible husband at that point- I had allowed our daughter to die, I was having an affair with a needy woman who was trying to escape her loveless marriage. Not looking for her was probably the most terrible thing I’d done. I told myself that she was just being dramatic. She was often dramatic. Well, she used to be dramatic before Lillian died-she was known for youthful pouts and tantrums when we first got married. After Lillian died, she became a muted version of herself. To be honest, I knew that something was wrong and that my wife might actually be dead right at that moment. Part of me was horrified. Part of me was happy that our marriage had reached some sort of resolution. For months, I had wondered when everything would fall apart irreparably. I had figured that the end would come when Dove discovered that I was having an affair. I figured there would be screaming and tears, a grand scene… Perhaps Dove was simply being dramatic and would show up again, ready to tear my throat out for cheating. Still…she was my wife.
I called around and alerted everyone to the fact that she was missing. I followed Dove’s directions and burned her letter. There was no sense in creating unnecessary problems. They asked me question after question after question. The police were called…I started to get a headache behind my eyes.
I didn’t handle any of this in the best way. I was antsy. I didn’t know what to do. On impulse, I called Sarah and asked her to spend some time with me. In hindsight, spending time with a woman that is not your wife isn’t the best course of action when your wife is missing, but I needed someone to be there for me. We had sex in the guest room bed and I tried to get lost in the melding of our bodies but my mind was on Dove. Afterwards, I sat lost in thought as Sarah snuggled down into the blankets.
The phone call shook me from my thoughts. It was James, calling to tell me that he had found Dove’s body outside at our vacation home. I, of course, should have been the one that found her. I didn’t think of searching there. I was sad but part of me was glad that it was over. I was ashamed that I was glad it was over. Dove was every wonderful memory and every bitter memory in human form. But she was right- I never would have been able to leave her and she never would have been able to leave me. Over the years, we had become so wrapped up in each other…Now it was over.
The woman lay beside me, looking up at me trying to discern who I was talking to. I looked at her and waggled my eyebrows comically. I’m not sure why I did that. She smiled at me, her eyes wide and somehow innocent, despite the things we’d done. I wondered suddenly how I would leave her- how I
would take leave of her misery and try to reconstruct a life for myself. I wondered how it would feel to say goodbye to Dove and the last 15 years of our life together.
“Are you still there?” James’ voice was tense, upset. I tried to match his tone even as I was lost in my own thoughts and worries.
“Yes. I’m just shocked.” I said, quietly.
“Well, you should get here as soon as you can.” Was his terse reply. I think James always thought he’d be better for Dove, a better match for her than I was. Perhaps he was right.
I thought of that dark eyed girl with the quick wit and quick smile, the one who had pushed me so unrelentingly, who had made me feel that I could take on the world. I thought of the woman I married, shy and demure under a white veil. I thought of Lillian in my arms, her first moments in the world. I thought of Lillian in my arms, her body lifeless and her eyes blank. I thought of Dove in tense silences. I thought of the few drunk moments in that brick house with the wrought iron fence in which we’d actually been able to make love to each other. I thought of the times when I lay sleeping in my office chair unable to bring myself to find her, wherever she was sleeping in our cold, lonely house. I thought of her lying outside at the bottom of the terrace stairs, finally at peace and finally leaving me at peace.
“Hello?” The voice was irritated now.
“I’ll be right there.” I said. When I ended the call, Sarah opened her mouth as if to ask a question, but I simply pulled on my clothing and left. As I made my way to the vacation home, I thought for a moment that perhaps the police would think I had killed her. Perhaps they would arrest me, try me for her death. Perhaps they would say that in a rage, I had pushed her down the stairs. After all, our marriage had grown cold, hadn’t it? Our daughter had died and that was a strain on our union, wasn’t it? But no, Dove was thorough. If she wanted people to believe a certain thing, she likely set everything up for everyone to believe it. Perhaps the scenario was that she had simply decided to take a break from it all, spend some time up at the old vacation home. Take a little look around at the top of the stairs. A slip, a stumble, and then her demise. An accident, not a murder. No trial to be had for the beloved middle-aged cartoonist.
My hands were tight on the steering wheel as my car sped silently through the night. Perhaps at that point, I wanted to be tried.