I am thinking of my ex-husband and the scene he made at Union Station. The guard who escorted us out of the building had a tattoo of Jesus Christ on the side of his face so intricately detailed I could see the whites of Christ’s eyeballs and blood dripping from the crown of thorns. It was a first for me, seeing Christ-on-a-face, and I wanted to remark on how sublime it was, how wonderfully awful to have the Lord and Savior strung up next to your nose, his cheeks painted blue with tears. Blue! The color of sorrow, Amen.
I tried to show the tattoo to Victor, but he was sniffling and dragging the sleeve of his coat across his nose. I had never seen him do that, and in my distance from him I was fascinated. Meanwhile we walked like two dumb puppies on either side of the security guard, who had one firm hand against my back. As soon as we had been deposited on the marble walkway, Victor started up again. Yelling loud enough for people on the taxi line to stop brushing snow from their coats and stare at us, two fools in the shadow of Christopher Columbus’ horse, one of whom was screaming, “Who is she? Who is she?” at the other, as though it would help to know her name.
The story was that I had been in New York for a night on business, but Rosemary and I had really gone to visit her daughter in Brooklyn. Indira had Rosemary’s competent, relaxed attitude toward entertaining. Within an hour of our arrival, she had sautéed root vegetables and browned to perfection a crispy-skinned duck. We ate by candlelight at her tiny kitchen table.
Later, she gave us her bed and made up the couch. When Rosemary had fallen asleep, I got up for a cigarette (I had noted the kitchen window, the fire escape). I wanted to sit awhile in the cold, clear air, blowing smoke and breath. I intended to be alone, but when I bent to look out, there was Indira, perched on a bath mat over Second Avenue like a puffy dove in a white coat. She motioned for me to join her, and I lifted up the window and climbed onto the narrow ledge. I crouched down low and touched the freezing metal with my bare fingers. She was holding a joint—this surprised me—but I accepted it without comment.
I shrugged. For an old lady, isn’t that the line?
You don’t have any children? She took the joint back.
Never wanted any?
We had cats.
You and your husband?
Victor. A Maine Coon, at one point. A special needs cat with no back legs. He dragged himself around our house in a slingshot with wheels.
You know, I’ve never really gotten along with my mother, Indira said. She was too controlling when I was a kid.
People tend to relax in their old age.
I understand her more now that she’s realized she’s a dyke.
That’s good. I took another drag. I wanted to go inside. I wanted to stay on the ledge forever.
Thanks for helping her realize who she really is, Indira said. She handed me the joint and climbed through the window.
Rosemary and I took the train back to Washington the following day. We parted on the station platform and I met Victor at a bar inside. I thought a public place would eliminate the possibility of hysterics, but it didn’t work out that way. After I got him in a cab, I walked a long way in the cold, through the pagoda in Chinatown, past the National Portrait Gallery, around Dupont Circle where Victor and I had our first apartment together after law school. When I got to Rosemary’s, she was in her study, making notes on the patients she would see in the morning.
With her back to me, Rosemary confessed. She hadn’t gone home at all, but had lingered behind a large fern and witnessed the denouement with Victor.
I was curious, she said. I wasn’t sure you would go through with it.
What would you have done if I hadn’t?
The housekeeper opened the door then and we stopped talking. Oh! she said, bowing slightly. I’m sorry, Madam.
That’s when the pain started, first dull enough that I ignored it, and then so sharp that I woke in the night and crept downstairs to Rosemary’s kitchen, where I watched icicles on the eaves dripping to a fine point.
My father, who was a film critic, used to describe the experience of seeing Citizen Kane for the first time, in someone’s attic at Wesleyan, projected onto an old sheet that rippled when people came in and out of the room. They were very serious then, the students, and there was no popcorn or beer and certainly no talking. I imagine him, rapt in the light of the projector, sitting on a milk crate, his ears sticking out from his head. Those freckles. Hands tucked between his knobby knees. Light and shadow playing on the face of the old newspaper scion, closed up in rooms that extended for miles.
Later, to pay the bills, my father went into copywriting, but still he would go up to Maine once a year to give a summer lecture—on John Ford or Orson Welles—to a bunch of school friends, nouveau riche types with boat shoes who, it turned out, had always been rich, though at Wesleyan they wore threadbare sweaters and ate canned beans like my father. They paid his fare north because he was clever and could entertain a crowd. Also I suppose they liked the charity.
Not one of them attended his funeral.
It must be night now, because the one I like has come. The night nurse. He walks along very close, and I’m relieved he’s near. He murmurs in another language a string of sentences that repeat. Long words with barely any space between.
I sat across from Rosemary for more than a year, discussing my marriage. Finally I said: I’m distracted by how much I want to touch your face. My mouth tasted of grapefruit. My insides hummed. The river flushed along toward the sea. Her, quietly: We have to stop. She stood up.
A friend brings me an iPad to mark my third week at the hospital. Late at night, after final rounds, I discover YouTube. From there, a video of a jungle cat gnawing on hallucinogenic plants. How was your night? Rosemary asks when she arrives in the morning. Great, I say. I watched videos of a jaguar tripping. She swallows loudly and looks down at her hands. Really, I say. I think of the big cat’s green eyes, bulging. He lazed around, chewing, and rolled onto his back, cradled by the humid soil below his fur, exposing a long white belly. Above his head the lacework of trees against the sky. Paws in the air, he tucked his chin. Want to play?
The first time I met Victor, a flying squirrel jumped from the rafters of an old house and hit him on the head. He was with a group of law students spending Thanksgiving weekend at someone’s mother’s cottage on the Chesapeake Bay. I had just come in from the cold with my overnight bag and my friend Marcy—a scholarship girl like me—and there was Victor, doubled over, his head twisted to the side, on his face an expression not of pain but wonder. His eyes were squeezed shut and when he opened them he looked right at me.
There was some commotion while people shrieked and chased the squirrel around the room. Through it all, Victor remained in the same position—regarding me as though I were responsible for the blow—and then he put a hand on his black curls, which were already frosted with gray. From there he moved his hand to mine, slowly, taking his sweet time.
It was a squirrel, I told him.
Victor, he said.
Later, Marcy covered the floor in newsprint and set down a bowl of chocolate sauce. The law students sat around the bowl jabbing squares of pound cake and strawberries onto wooden sticks. We were in our first term, and there was a good deal of anxiety about whether or not we could pass Contracts. People kept asking Victor if he wanted to go to the hospital, in case the squirrel had rabies.
No blood was drawn, he said. He dipped a piece of cake in the vat of chocolate. One of the honors boys trapped the squirrel in a closet, and there was talk about whether it might suffocate. Victor stood up suddenly and went into the other room with an empty beer carton. When he came out, the squirrel was making scrabbling sounds against the side. Victor walked out beyond the deck and into a stand of trees. Something drew my attention away, and when I looked back, the box was on the ground, and the creature was free. Victor stood with his back to us, the wind flapping at his sweater.
Later, I found him in the kitchen reading the newspaper. When he saw me, he put a finger to his lips. Then he drew a squiggle on my arm with chocolate sauce and I drew one on his and soon we were flicking sauce at each other, our bodies drizzled and marked like canvases, like paintings that don’t yet know what they will be.
They don’t tell you how much time there is. One develops an appetite for armchair scholarship. I crack a book on Finnish folklore because why not? and become enthralled by the story of Väinämöinen, the first man, whose mother was the daughter of sky, whose father was the ocean. Väinämöinen never knew land when he undertook to swim ashore. What he must have thought, alone in the primal sea, riding the froth, distant plunge, lonely as the wind.
One morning after I was diagnosed, Indira came to town for a conference, and the three of us went for a walk to see the cherry blossoms on the Mall before they fell. It was overcast and the sky was white. Tourists in baseball caps and sweatshirts waved little American flags.
Indira was a few paces ahead with her camera. I took Rosemary’s hand and told her that I was mad at her for eavesdropping on me at Union Station. It was a terrible thing to do, I said. I must have spoken too emphatically because a blond woman in pink velour grimaced as she passed.
Rosemary didn’t answer right away. Then I heard her crying. You’re going to make it, she said fiercely.
I’m angry about the spying. It felt like a betrayal.
I had a patient once who beat this, she said.
Hey! Indira called, spinning around. Look at this incredible bloom!
If I remember correctly, Citizen Kane ends with a shot of Kane’s boyhood sled, Rosebud, burning in an incinerator, unnoticed by Kane’s employees. Rosebud is what Kane says before he dies, a phrase no one will ever understand.
The TV in my room has a VCR. Rosemary goes all over town looking for a version to rent on tape. She finally finds a copy and brings it over triumphantly. Should we watch it now? she asks, popping it into the player while the nurse draws blood. And how about some more pudding?
Rosemary needs to be useful. Alone, together—that was when the voices of usefulness and service subsided. When her self-love was bare and shivering, tremulous with discovery. I think of the curtains drifting in and out of the window of her bedroom as time passed, unheeded; I think of a current meandering
But then I do not want to watch Citizen Kane.
I see my father in wire-frame glasses on the milk crate, dreaming of deep focus. In that film Orson Welles used a strategy of lighting that allowed everything in the frame, front to back, to be in focus at the same time. Describing the technique at dinner years later, my father banged his fists with excitement. On the heaped table, my mother’s dishes rattled. She looked at him over her shoulder, a dishtowel in her hand, and adjusted the placement of the creamer.
Indira arrives, alone. She wants to talk about the end.
I watch her set her smile through a crack in the curtain. When she enters, she holds her hand up for a high five, and I oblige her.
Nothing to see here, just a lady slowly dying in the nation’s capital, I say.
She looks stricken.
Joke. Walt Whitman died here too. Also Abraham Lincoln.
Your color is good, she says, starting again. I was hoping we could talk about Mom. She slides a chair over to the bed. If the worst happens, I want her to have a game plan. Do you want—
I don’t want her to be here for the final…
Do you want her to make the arrangements?
I want to talk with you. But I’m going to fall asleep in the middle of this conversation. It’s the drugs.
Indira pats my hand.
When I wake, she is gone.
Victor comes to the hospital and stands outside my door looking in. He shakes hands with Rosemary. I thought he would be devastated, but he seems grateful, his dark eyes keening, his face flushed. And the look he gives me. Thank you for sparing me this last wrench. This flip-flop of grief.
He doesn’t say anything. We look at each other for awhile, and then he goes.
Rosemary gets up to get coffee. Even in my condition, the visit from Victor makes her shrivel up. She needs to leave me to come back. I let her go.
It’s a nice place they put me. My bed is next to the window. I have a view of the little square of grass where the families of terminal patients sometimes wheel their hunched, bald relatives for a few weak moments in the fresh air. There is a line of tall shrubs and beyond, if I raise my head high, I can see a strip of gray river. Every now and then a tern works circles over the rapids.
Victor appears below in the grass. He walks across it in halting steps. I hadn’t realized how old he has become. His shoulders roll forward toward the wind. He looks small in his leather coat. The sun slants sideways in the parking lot, the kind of autumn light that angles in low. The last time I see him, he is looking into the sun in profile, his whole face blazing with gold.
When it rains, I think it’s time. I turn my head to the window and watch a tree swish in the wind, the rain dappling the pane the way it had since I was young, since they made windows, since there was rain. I see two blue circles on the face of a frowsy circus clown that terrifies me, there’s popcorn on the floor, gum on the cement, Mary Janes that I begged for, and my brother but he’s gone now, father gone, all gone, the four of us at the dinner table chewing open-mouthed like cows in the field.
Please, I hear Victor say. His voice trembles. Let me in. I just want to stay a few minutes. My pal is in there.
The night nurse turns him away.
Victor. Oh, Victor, I’m here! Victor!
When he doesn’t respond, I try again. Victor, I say, raising my voice. Want to play? Want to play? Want to play?