Issue 222, Fall 2017
During the 1980s, in California, a large number of Cambodian women went to their doctors with the same complaint: they could not see. The women were all war refugees. Before fleeing their homeland, they had witnessed the atrocities for which the Khmer Rouge, which had been in power from 1975 to 1979, was well known. Many of the women had been raped or tortured or otherwise brutalized. Most had seen family members murdered in front of them. One woman, who never again saw her husband and three children after soldiers came and took them away, said that she had lost her sight after having cried every day for four years. She was not the only one who appeared to have cried herself blind. Others suffered from blurred or partial vision, their eyes troubled by shadows and pains.
The doctors who examined the women—about a hundred and fifty in all—found that their eyes were normal. Further tests showed that their brains were normal as well. If the women were telling the truth—and there were some who doubted this, who thought they might be malingering—the only explanation was psychosomatic blindness. In other words, these women’s minds, forced to take in so much horror and unable to take more, had managed to turn out the lights.
This was the last thing you and I talked about while you were still alive. After, only your email with a list of books you thought might be helpful to me in my research. And, because it was the season, best wishes for the New Year: an e-card showing a selfie of you and your dog, and looking, I remember thinking, as happy as I’d ever seen you.
There were two errors in your obituary. The date you moved from London to New York: off by one year. Misspelling of the maiden name of Wife One. Small errors, which were later corrected, but which we all knew would have annoyed the hell out of you.
But at your memorial I overheard something that would have amused you:
I wish I could pray.
What’s stopping you?
Would have, would have. The dead dwell in the conditional, the tense of the unreal. But there is also the extraordinary feeling that you have become omniscient, that nothing we do or think or feel can be kept from you. The extraordinary sense that you are reading these words, that you know what they’ll say even before I write them.
The only animal that commits suicide is also the only animal that weeps. Though I’ve heard that stags brought to bay, exhausted from the hunt, with no escape from the hounds, sometimes shed tears. Crying elephants have also been reported, and of course people will tell you anything about their cats and dogs. According to scientists, animal tears are tears of stress, not to be confused with the tears of an emotional human being.
In humans, the chemical makeup of emotional tears is different from that of tears that form in order to cleanse or lubricate the eye, say, because of some irritant. It is known that the release of these chemicals can be beneficial to the weeper, which helps explain why people so often find that they feel better after they’ve had a good cry, and also, perhaps, the reason for the enduring popularity of the tearjerker.
Laurence Olivier was said to have been frustrated because, unlike many other actors, he could not make tears on demand. It would be interesting to know about the chemical makeup of the tears produced by an actor, and to which of the two types they belong.
In folklore and in other fictions, human tears, like human semen and human blood, can have magic properties. At the end of the story of Rapunzel, when, after years of separation and misery, she and the prince find each other again and embrace, her tears flow into his eyes and miraculously restore the sight he had lost at the hands of the witch.
I thought I knew the Grimm story by heart, but I had totally forgotten that the prince tries to commit suicide. He believes the witch when she tells him he’ll never see Rapunzel again and throws himself from her tower. But it’s because he jumps that the prince loses his sight. There are thorns where he lands, which pierce his eyes.
During the period in my childhood when my favorite reading was fairy tales, I had a neighbor who was blind. Though a grown man, he still lived with his parents. His eyes were always hidden behind large, dark glasses. It confused me that a blind person would need to shield his eyes from the light. What could be seen of the rest of his face was rugged and handsome, like TV’s Rifleman. He might have been a movie star or a secret agent, but in the story I wrote about him he was a wounded prince, and mine were the tears that saved him.
It’s true that if you cry hard enough for long enough you can end up with blurred vision. I was lying down; it was the middle of the day, but I was in bed. All the crying had given me a headache; I’d had a throbbing headache for days. I got up and went to look out the window. It was still winter, it was cold by the window, where there was a draft. But it felt good—as it felt good to lean my forehead against the icy glass. I kept blinking, but my eyes wouldn’t clear. I thought of the women who had cried themselves blind. I blinked and blinked, fear rising. Then I saw you. You were wearing your brown vintage bomber jacket, the one that was too tight—and looked only better on you for that—and your hair was dark and thick and long. Which is how I knew that we had to be back in time. Way back. Almost thirty years.
Where were you going? Nowhere in particular. No errand, no appointment. Just strolling along, hands in pockets, savoring the street. It was your thing: If I can’t walk, I can’t write. You would work in the morning, and at a certain point, which always came, when it seemed you were incapable of writing a sentence, you would go out and walk for miles. When you came back, you would sit down again to work, trying to hold on to the rhythm that had been established while walking. And the better you succeeded at that, the better the writing.
Because it’s all about the rhythm, you said. Good sentences start with a beat.
You posted an essay, “How to Be a Flâneur,” on the custom of urban strolling and loitering and its place in literary culture. You caught some flak for questioning whether there could really be such a thing as a flâneuse. You didn’t think it was possible for a woman to wander the streets in the same spirit and manner as a man. A female pedestrian was subject to constant disruptions: stares, comments, catcalls, gropes. A woman was raised to be always on guard: Was this guy walking too close? Was that guy following her? How, then, could she ever relax enough to experience the loss of sense of self, the joy of pure being that was the ideal of true flânerie? For women, you thought the equivalent was probably shopping, specifically the kind of browsing people do when they’re not looking to buy something.
I didn’t think you were wrong about any of this. I’ve known plenty of women who brace themselves whenever they leave the house. I’ve even known a few who try to avoid leaving the house. Of course, a woman has only to wait till she’s a certain age, when she becomes invisible and . . . problem solved.
And note how you used the word women when what you really meant was young women.
Lately I’ve done a lot of walking but no writing. I missed my deadline. Was given a compassionate extension. Missed that deadline, too. Now my editor thinks I’m malingering.
I was not the only one who made the mistake of thinking that, because it was something you talked about a lot, it was something you wouldn’t do. And after all, you were not the unhappiest person we knew, you were not the most depressed (think of G, or D, or T-R). You were not even—strange as it now sounds to say—the most suicidal.
Because of the timing, so near the start of the year, it was possible to think that it had been a resolution.
One of those times when you talked about it, you said that what would stop you was your students. You were concerned about the effect such an example might have on them. Nevertheless, we thought nothing of it when you quit teaching last year, even though we knew that you liked teaching and that you needed the money.
Another time you said that, for a person who had reached a certain age, it could be a rational decision, a perfectly sound choice, a solution even. Unlike when a young person commits suicide, which could never be anything but a mistake.
Once you told us, I think I’d prefer a novella of a life.
That there was to be a memorial took us by surprise. We who had heard you say that you would never want any such thing, that the very idea was repugnant to you. Did Wife Three simply choose to ignore this? Was it because you’d failed to put it in writing? Like most suicides, you did not leave a note. I have never understood why it is called a note. There must be some who don’t keep it short.
In German, they call it an Abschiedsbrief: a “farewell letter.” (Better.)
By the time the memorial took place the shock had worn off. People distracted themselves with speculation about what it would be like to have all the wives in one room. Not to mention the girlfriends (all of whom, the joke went, wouldn’t fit in one room).
Except for the slide-show loop, with its hammering reminder of lost beauty, lost youth, it was not very different from other literary gatherings. Decorum in this instance meant no tears. People used the opportunity to network and catch up. Gossip and headshaking over Wife Two’s oversharing in memoriam piece, and the rumor that she’s turning it into a book.
Wife Three, it must be said, looked radiant, though it was a cold radiance, like that of a blade. Treat me like an object of pity, her bearing announced, hint that I was somehow to blame, and I will cut you.
I was touched when she asked me what I was working on.
Can’t wait to read it, she said, untruthfully.
I’m not sure I’m going to finish it.
Oh, but you know he would have wanted you to finish. (Would have.)
That disconcerting habit of hers of slowly shaking her head back and forth while speaking, as if simultaneously denying every word she says.
Someone semifamous approached. Before turning away, she said, Is it okay if I call you?
I left early. On my way out, I heard someone say, I hope there are more people than this at my memorial.
And: Now he’s officially a dead white male.
Is it true that the literary world is mined with hatred? A battlefield rimmed with snipers, where jealousies and rivalries are always being played out? the NPR interviewer asked the distinguished author. Who allowed that it was. There’s a lot of envy and enmity, the author said. And he tried to explain: It’s like a sinking raft that too many people are trying to get onto, the literary world. So any push you can deliver makes the raft a little higher for you.
At a conference once, you startled the packed audience by saying, Where do all you people get the idea that being a writer is a wonderful thing? Not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness, Simenon said writing was. Georges Simenon, who wrote hundreds of novels under his own name, hundreds more under various pen names, and who, at the time of his retirement, was the best-selling author in the world. Now that’s a lot of unhappiness.
Who boasted of having fucked no fewer than ten thousand women, many, if not most, of them prostitutes, and who called himself a feminist. Who had for a literary mentor none other than Colette and for a mistress none other than Josephine Baker, though he was said to have ended that affair because it interfered too much with work, slowing down that year’s novel production to a lousy twelve. Who, asked what had made him a novelist, replied, My hatred for my mother. (That’s a lot of hatred.)
Simenon the flâneur: “All my books have come to me while I was walking.”
He had a daughter who was psychotically in love with him. When she was a little girl, she asked for a wedding ring, which he gave her. She had the ring enlarged to fit her finger as she grew. When she was twenty-five, she shot herself.
Q: Where does a young Parisienne get a gun?
A: From a gunsmith she read about in one of Papa’s novels.
One day, in 1974, in the same university classroom where I sometimes teach, a poet announced to the workshop she was teaching that semester, I may not be here next week. Later, at home, she put on her mother’s old fur coat and, with a glass of vodka in hand, shut herself in her garage.
The mother’s old fur coat is the kind of detail writing teachers like to point out, one of those telling details—like how Simenon’s daughter got her gun—that are to be found in abundance in life but are mostly absent from student fiction.
The poet got into her car, a vintage 1967 tomato-red Cougar, and turned on the ignition.
In the first writing course I ever taught, after I’d emphasized the importance of detail, a student raised his hand and said, I totally disagree. If you want a lot of details, you should watch television.
A comment I would come to see was not really as dumb as it seemed.
The same student accused me (his words were “writers like you”) of trying to scare other people by making writing seem much harder than it really was.
Why would we want to do that? I asked.
Oh come on, he said. Isn’t it obvious? The pie is only so large.
My own first writing teacher used to tell her students that if there was anything else they could do with their lives instead of becoming writers, any other profession, they should do it.
The problem with this story, a student I’ll call Carter says about a story by a student I’ll call Jane, is that the protagonist isn’t like a character in a story. She’s more like a person in real life.
Twice, he says it, because my mind has wandered, and I have to ask him to repeat himself.
You’re saying the character is too real? I ask, though I know this is what Carter is saying.
The character in question is a girl with red hair and green eyes who bonds with a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes only to discover that the guy the blonde has just dumped is the same person as the redhead’s new boyfriend. The color of the boyfriend’s eyes and hair are not specified, but he is described as being tall. Later, another student, whom I’ll call Viv, will say she wants to know if the girlfriend is also tall. Why is that important? I ask, masking my exasperation. (As much cannot be said for Viv, who hates being asked to explain anything and replies testily, Can’t I just ask?)
There are things I’d like to know, too. For example, why, when these two girls want to talk, do they keep getting into their cars and driving to each other’s houses? Why do they never use their phones, not even to text to find out first if the other one is home? Why do they not know things about each other that they could easily have learned from Facebook?
It is one of the great bafflements of student fiction. I have read that college students can spend up to ten hours a day on social media. But for the people they write about, though also mostly college students, the Internet barely exists.
“Cell phones do not belong in fiction,” an editor once scolded in the margin of one of my manuscripts, and ever since—more than two decades now—I have wondered at the disconnect between tech-filled life and techless story.
If anyone could shed light on the matter, I once thought, it would be the students. But they have not been much help. The most interesting response came from a grad student who happened to be the mother of a five-year-old. Whenever she reads him a story, she said, her son keeps interrupting: When do they go to the bathroom? Mommy, when do they go to the bathroom?
There are things we do all the time in real life that we don’t put in our stories: point taken. But no one spends ten hours a day going to the bathroom.
Think of Kurt Vonnegut’s complaint that “novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.”
But that is another mystery. “Nothing in their heads and nothing between their legs” is how one teacher I know describes the characters in workshop stories. This teacher is someone who’s been at it much longer than I have and is about to retire. He tells me it wasn’t always so. I remember when there was plenty of sex, he says, a lot of it pretty kinky.
What I’m saying, says Carter, is that I know this girl. I can tell you exactly what she looks like.
How’s that? The only thing I could tell you about what this girl looks like is what Jane has stated: color of eyes, color of hair—the usual student way of describing a character, as if a story were a piece of ID, like a driver’s license. So common is this that I’ve come to think the students must feel that saying too much about a character is rude, an invasion of privacy, and that it’s best to be as discreet—that is, nondescript—as possible. A student writing about Carter, for example, would put in that his eyes are brown but leave out the tattoo of barbed wire circling his neck, or the way he keeps rubbing the wrist that is sore from hours of making espresso drinks at the campus Starbucks. They would mention his curly brown hair but not that it is almost always, no matter how warm the day, covered by a black watch cap. They would probably even leave out the silver-dollar-size earplugs, which I can never look at without wincing.
I can tell you everything about her, Carter says.
To me, the main character is as thin and gray as this strand of hair I just brushed from my sleeve. But to Carter, the problem is not that she’s too vague but that she’s all too familiar.
It is his perennial critique: What’s the point in writing stories about the kind of people you meet every day in real life?
“Dangerous,” Flannery O’Connor called letting students criticize one another’s manuscripts: “the blind leading the blind.”
Carter’s own literary ambition is to be the next George R. R. Martin. His novel-in-progress depicts epic clashes between imaginary kingdoms waging never-ending war in pursuit of power, dominance, and revenge. Unlike his idol, though, he can’t be taken to task for scenes of sexual violence. There is no rape or incest in his pages. There is no sex at all, and women are hardly mentioned. When people in class express doubts about a novel that doesn’t include any significant female characters, Carter shrugs and says nothing. But alone in my office he tells me that, in fact, there are women in his novel. And there is sex, he says. Loads of it. Most of it violent. There is rape. There is gang rape. There is incest.
I delete all that for the workshop, he says.
He rolls his eyes when I ask him why.
Last night, in the Union Square station, a man was playing “La vie en rose” on a flute, molto giocoso. Lately I’ve become vulnerable to earworms, and sure enough the song, in the flutist’s peppy rendition, has been pestering me all day. They say the way to get rid of an earworm is to listen a couple of times to the whole song. I listen to the most famous version, by Edith Piaf of course, who wrote the lyrics and first performed the song in 1945. Now it’s the Little Sparrow’s strange, bleating, soul-of-France voice that won’t stop.
As it happens, one of the many legends about Piaf also concerns the miraculous restoration of lost sight. The keratitis that blinded her for several years as a child was said to have been cured after some prostitutes who worked in her grandmother’s brothel, which happened also to be little Edith’s home at the time, took her on a pilgrimage to honor Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. This might be just another fairy tale, but it is a fact that Cocteau once described Piaf as having, when she sang, “the eyes of a blind person struck by a miracle, the eyes of a clairvoyant.”
Sometimes when I’m on the computer, a window pops up: Are you writing a book?
What does Wife Three want to talk to me about? I am not as curious as you might expect. If there had been a letter or some message from you, surely I’d be in possession of it by now. She may be planning some other kind of memorial, a collection of written remembrances, say, and if that’s the case, she will again be doing something you did not want.
I dread the meeting, not because I dislike her (I don’t), but because I’d rather not be part of any of these rites.
And I don’t want to talk about you. Our relationship was a somewhat unusual one, not always easy for others to grasp. I never asked, and so never knew, what you told any of your wives about us. I was always grateful that, though Wife Three was never my friend like Wife One, at least she was not my enemy like Wife Two.
It was not Wife Three’s fault that your marriage entailed adjustments to your friendships—that is what marriages do. You and I were closest when you were between wives, periods that never lasted long because you were, to an almost pathological degree, incapable of being alone. You once told me that, with few exceptions, such as when you were traveling on business, on a book tour for example (and not always even then), you hadn’t slept a night alone in forty years. Between wives, there was always some girlfriend. Between girlfriends, there were one-night stands. (There were also what you liked to call drive-bys, but those did not involve sleep.)
I don’t want to talk about you or to hear others talk about you. It’s a cliché, of course: we talk about the dead in order to remember them, in order to keep them, in the only way we can, alive. But I have found that the more people say about you, for example those who spoke at the memorial—people who loved you, people who knew you well, people who are very good with words—the farther you seem to slip away, the more like a hologram you become.
I am relieved that at least I am not invited to your house. (It is still your house.) Not that I have any particularly strong associations with the place, having been there only two or three times in the several years that it was your home. I do remember well my first visit, not long after you’d moved in, when I got a tour of the brownstone, admiring its built-in bookshelves and handsome rugs laid over aged walnut floors, and being reminded how essentially bourgeois contemporary writers are. Once, over a superb dinner at another writer’s house, someone brought up Flaubert’s famous rule about living like a bourgeois and thinking like a demigod, though I’ve never seen how that wild man’s own life could be said much to resemble that of any ordinary bourgeois. Nowadays (the table agreed) the feckless bohemian had all but ceased to exist, replaced by the hipster known for his knowingness, his consumer savvy, his palate and other educated tastes. And fair or not, asserted our host, opening a third bottle of wine, many writers today admitted to feelings of embarrassment and even shame about what they do.
You who had moved there decades before the boom were disheartened to see Brooklyn become a brand and wondered at the fact that your own neighborhood had become as hard to write about as it was to write about the sixties counterculture: no matter how earnest one set out to be, the ink of parody seeped through.
There was a time—quite a long time, it was—when you and I saw each other almost every day. But in the past few years we might have been living in different countries rather than different boroughs, staying in touch regularly but mainly through email. In all of last year we met more often by chance, at a party or a reading or some other event, than by plan.
So why am I so afraid to set foot in your house?
It would undo me, I think, to glimpse some familiar piece of clothing or a certain book or photograph, or to catch a whiff of your smell. And I don’t want to be undone like that, oh my God, not with your widow standing by.
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Lately, since I began writing this, a new message has been popping up.
Alone? Scared? Depressed? Call 24-Hour Suicide Hotline.
“I hope this place is all right. It was so nice of you to come all this way.”
The trip, as she knows, took less than thirty minutes, but she is a gracious woman, Wife Three. And “this place” is a charming European-style café, just around the corner from your brownstone. (It is still your brownstone.) A perfect setting, I thought when I entered and saw her at a table by the window (not using an electronic device like everyone else who was there alone, and even some who weren’t, but instead contemplating the street), for such an elegant, pretty woman.
“She’s the kind of woman who knows fifty ways to tie a scarf” was one of the first things you told us about her.
It’s not so much that she doesn’t look sixty as that she makes being attractive at sixty look easy. I remember how surprised we all were when you first started seeing her, a woman nearly your own age. But even as I admire her—the freshly cut and colored hair, the makeup, the hands beautifully manicured as I know the hidden feet are beautifully pedicured—I am unable to suppress a certain thought, the very same thought I had when I saw her at the memorial event and found myself remembering a news story about a couple whose child had vanished while the family was on vacation. Days had passed, the child was still missing, there were no leads, and the shadow of doubt had fallen on the parents themselves. They were photographed coming out of a police station, an ordinary-looking couple whose faces left no impression. What stayed with me was the fact that the woman was wearing lipstick and jewelry: a necklace—a locket, I think—and a pair of large hoop earrings. That, at such a moment, a person would trouble to put on makeup and jewelry astonished me. I would have expected her to look like a homeless person.
And now again, in the café, I think, She is the wife, she found the body. But here, as at the memorial, she has made every effort to look not just presentable, not just pulled together, but her best: face, dress, fingertips, roots—all meticulously attended to.
It’s not criticism I feel, only awe.
She was different: one of the few people in your life who wasn’t in one way or another connected to the literary or academic worlds. She had worked as a management consultant at the same Manhattan firm since graduating from business school. But hey, she reads more than I do, you used to tell people, in a way that made us cringe. From the beginning she was polite but distant toward me, content to accept me as one of her husband’s oldest friends while herself remaining only my acquaintance. Better this by far than the jealousy of Wife Two, who demanded that you stop having anything to do with me, or any other woman from your past. Our friendship in particular irked her; she called it an incestuous relationship.
Why “incestuous”? I asked.
You shrugged and said she meant that we were too close. She never would believe that we weren’t fucking.
You said no. You agreed to see me less often but refused to drop me completely.
For a while you put up with the rages, the flying and smashed objects, the screaming and weeping, the neighbors’ complaints. And then you lied. For years we met on the sly, as if we really were secret lovers. Crazy-making. Her hostility never waned. If our paths crossed in public, she would look daggers at me. Even at the memorial event, she looked daggers at me. Her daughter—your daughter—wasn’t there. I heard someone say she was in Brazil, on a research project, something to do with some endangered . . . bird, I think it was.
Much unhappiness between you and your estranged only child, who was even less forgiving of adultery than her mom was.
She doesn’t understand, you said, she’s ashamed of me.
(What made you think she didn’t understand?)
But not a drop of resentment in Wife Two’s in memoriam piece. You were the light and love of her life, she said, the best thing that ever happened to her. And now, they say, she’s writing a book about her marriage to you. A novelization. Wherein perhaps I’ll find out whether you ever told her that in fact we did fuck. Once, long before she met you.
Barely out of school yourself, you had just started teaching. I was not the only one of your students to become your friend, and it was in that same class that we both met Wife One. You were the department’s youngest instructor, its wunderkind and its Romeo. You thought any attempt to banish love from the classroom was futile. A great teacher was a seducer, you said, and there were times when he must also be a heartbreaker. That I did not really understand what you were talking about did not make it less exciting. What I did understand was that I craved certain knowledge, and that you had the power to transmit it to me.
Our friendship went on beyond the school year, and that summer—the same period when you began courting Wife One—we became inseparable. One day you startled me by saying we should fuck. Given your reputation, this should not have been a surprise. But enough time had passed that I was no longer anxiously waiting for you to pounce. Now came this blunt proposal, and I did not know what to think. I said, stupidly, Why?
I don’t think it ever occurred to either of us that I might refuse. Among all my desires at the time, one of the strongest was to put my full trust in someone; in some man.
Later, I was mortified when you pronounced it a mistake for us to try to be more than friends.
For a while, I faked illness. For a while longer, I pretended to be out of town. But when finally we saw each other again, instead of the painful awkwardness I’d feared, something—a certain tension, a distraction I hadn’t even been wholly aware of before—was gone.
This was, of course, precisely what you’d been hoping for. Now, even as you completed your conquest of Wife One, our friendship grew. It would outlast almost all my other friendships. It would bring me immense happiness. And I felt lucky: I had suffered, but unlike so many others I never got my heart broken. (Didn’t you? a therapist once goaded me. Wife Two was not the only one who found something unhealthy about our relationship, nor was the therapist the only one to wonder if it had been a factor in my remaining single all these years.)
Wife One. An undeniably true and passionate love. But not, on your side, a faithful one. Before it was over, she had a breakdown. It is not an exaggeration to say she was never the same. But then neither were you. I remember how it tore you up when she came out of the hospital and immediately found someone else.
When she remarried, you swore you never would. There followed a decade of affairs, most of them short-lived, but a few all but indistinguishable from marriage. Not one do I recall that did not end in betrayal.
“I don’t like men who leave behind them a smoking trail of weeping women,” said W. H. Auden. Who would have hated you.
Wife Three. I remember your telling me once that she was a rock. (My rock, you said.) Oldest of nine children, who as a girl had had large responsibilities thrust upon her when her mother developed a disabling illness and her father struggled to hold down two jobs. About her first marriage I knew only that her husband had died in a mountain-climbing accident and that they had a child: a son.
This is the first time she and I have ever been alone together. Because I have only ever known her to be reserved, I am surprised at how talkative she is today, the espresso loosening her tongue like wine. She does that thing with her head, shaking it back and forth as she speaks, slowly back and forth—is she trying to hypnotize me? She seems nervous, though her voice is low and calm.
You were not the first person in her life to commit suicide, she says.
“My grandfather shot himself. I was only three when it happened and I have no memory of him. But his death was very much part of my childhood. My parents never talked about it, but it was always there, a cloud hanging over the house, the spider in the corner, the goblin under the bed. He was my paternal grandfather, and it had been drilled into me that I should never, ever ask my father about him. After I grew up, I did finally get my mother to talk. She said his suicide was a total shock. There was no note, and nobody who knew him could come up with a single reason for him to do such a thing. He’d never shown signs of being depressed, let alone suicidal. Somehow the mystery made it worse for my father, who for a long time kept insisting there must have been foul play. My mother said he seemed to be more angry with his father for not explaining himself than for taking his life. Apparently he expected reason from a suicide.”
Now you, of course, had always suffered from depression. And never worse, she says, than in those six months last year, when you could barely get out of bed in the morning and didn’t write a word. What was strange, though, is that you’d gotten over that crisis and, since the summer, at least, had been in good spirits. For one thing, the long drought was over and, after many false starts, you were finally launched on something that excited you. You were at your desk every morning, and most days you reported that the writing had gone well. You were reading a lot, the way you always did when you were working on a novel. And you were physically active again.
One of the things that had made you so depressed last year, she explains, was that you’d hurt your back moving some boxes and couldn’t exercise for weeks. Even walking was painful. “And you remember his mantra,” she says. “If I can’t walk, I can’t write.” But that injury had finally healed, and you were back to your long walks and running in the park.
“He was back to socializing, too, catching up with all kinds of people he’d been avoiding while he was depressed. And you know that he got a dog?”
You had, in fact, emailed me about the dog that you found early one morning when you were out running. Standing on an overhang, silhouetted against the sky: the biggest dog you’d ever seen. A harlequin Great Dane. No collar or tags, which made you think that, purebred though it was, it might have been abandoned. You did everything possible to find its owner, and when that failed, you decided to keep it. Your wife was appalled. She’s not a dog person to begin with, you said, and Dino is a lot of dog. Thirty-four inches from shoulder to paw. A hundred and eighty pounds. Attached was a photo: the two of you, cheek to jowl, the massive head at first glance looking like a pony’s.
Later you decided against the name Dino. He was too dignified for a name like that, you said. What did I think of Chance? Chauncy? Diego? Watson? Rolfe? Arlo? Alfie? Any of those names sounded fine to me. In the end, you called him Apollo.
Wife Three asks if I knew a certain friend of yours who’d committed suicide just months before you did.
We never met, I say. Though you had told me about him.
“Well, that poor man was in terrible health. He had emphysema, cancer, angina, and diabetes—his quality of life was frankly rotten.”
You, on the other hand, had been in excellent health. The heart and muscle tone of a much younger man, according to your doctor.
When I don’t say anything—what should I say?—she goes on. “My point is, though he may have had his ups and downs and didn’t enjoy growing older any more than the rest of us do, he really did seem to be thriving.”
A pause here, a near inaudible sigh as she turns her head to the window, eyes raking the street as if the answer she is looking for is surely going to appear, is just running a bit late.
“You must be wondering why I wanted to talk to you.”
At these words, for some reason, my heart starts to pound. Then she says not quite the last thing I expected to hear: “It’s about the dog.”