January 14, 2014
I know very few details about how Jo and Philip died and the reason for this is that I don’t want to hear about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, because I do.
I imagine the first moments, when Jo slipped over the tall edge of the dock. In the early morning hours, or sometimes late at night in the middle of bathing or brushing my teeth, I will imagine the first startled shouts of the men who jumped in after her. I imagine Philip. I can’t stop myself seeing in horrible technicolor the leaping bodies, all those who thought to rescue her, the splashing. I hear their raspy breaths, coming up for air and filling their lungs, plunging back down, and then doing it again and again. In the mornings when I hear and see these things, I moan into the blankets and roll over, squeezing my eyes, pushing the images far out of my mind’s reach. I imagine something else, the clothing in my closet that I will soon put on, or what wine I will pour in the afternoon for Andres. In the evenings, in the bathtub where all is quiet except for the small lapping sounds that are made in the water when I move the soap over my knees and my stomach, when the pictures come to me wholly unbidden, I swallow hard and stand, briskly drying myself with a towel from the warming bar.
I don’t dream about it, not usually. I am thankful for this one small, yet abundantly generous, thing. I had worried I would never sleep again, that the accident would take over my nights. The pamphlets on grief said that could happen, that I might not sleep. The leader of the grief crisis group was a large woman who had the most sympathetic and warm eyes, though she never looked at me straight on. After that first and only meeting, she had shuffled over slowly, as though she knew that walking directly to me with any sense of speed and looking at me directly would cause me to break. She had held out a pamphlet, printed on nubby paper that seemed to be made of fiber, and I remember thinking that this fit. That printing grief pamphlets on glossy paper would be an abhoration. I had smiled at the thought, or rather, I smiled at the absurdity of thinking such a thing at such a moment. The woman said “glad you are here” in a soft voice and shuffled back to her seat in the circle. It wasn’t until two weeks later that I looked at the pamphlet again, it had been lost under my coat and assorted papers on the passenger seat of my car. I took it to bed with me that night, reading its somber accounting of all the things I wouldn’t be able to do well again: sleep, eat, socialize, concentrate, smile. Over the last six months, I have considered each of these things, and have been relieved when first waking some mornings, realizing that somehow, despite the pamphlet and how it seemed to curse me so sympathetically and tenderly (“if you cannot sleep, consider the time as found hours. Write in your journal, enjoy a cup of tea, or pray to your Higher Power. The pre-dawn hours are a very still and quiet time to remember the loved one who has died.”). But, I do sleep. That’s why this morning I am a little unnerved, a little irritable, and why I snapped at Little Matty to hurry and dress for school (“please, what is wrong with you? Why can’t you hurry and get dressed?”). It is because for the first time in several months, I have had a nightmare. It was one of those unending, long nightmares, convoluted and seeming to go on and on, getting more menacing and complicated as it progressed. It seemed to last for hours, though I know from a psychology class I took back at Sonoma State that the entire dream must have lasted only minutes.
Wrapped in my favorite terry robe, one with arms that reach to my fingertips and a hem that flows all the way to my ankles, I walk down the hall with my coffee mug and go stand in front of the bathroom mirror. After several moments staring into my brown eyes, I sigh. The dark circles were inherited from my father, a family trait nearly all my relatives on that side bare. But the dream has left my eyes puffier and I imagine I may have tossed more than usual. My long black hair is frizzy, curly in places it wasn’t yesterday. I take my round brush, the one with the boar bristles that cost one hundred dollars, and I brush through my hair, causing it to puff up all around my face and to lay like a dark airless cloud on my shoulders. I grab a nylon rubberband, pull my hair into a low ponytail and go about brushing my teeth, scrubbing my face, applying fragrant moisturizing cream. I take a couple minutes to pluck a few dark eyebrow hairs that have shown up outside the careful arch I have worked so diligently on since I was fourteen years old. Well, my mother liked them neat, or “tailored” as she liked to say, and she hot-waxed them every other weekend from my fourteenth birthday until the weekend she died when I was twenty-eight.”Beauty is painful,” my mother would say when I would whimper, then yowl, when she pulled the cold wax away from my eyebrow, my upper lip.
I finish plucking, and feeling an almost unbearable regret for having raised my voice at Matty, I go into his room and straighten it up, bending over to pick up his football uniform, his cup that protects his 8-year old bits. I place his helmet on the shelf and stack his story books next to the bed. I think to myself that this is enough, that I have done enough work for one day, and that I still have the afternoon appointment that I need to get ready for. I have always loathed housework, but now it has become even more some kind of menace. A self-inflicted punishment. That’s an odd thought, I think. A punishment for what? I am not sure why, but I force myself to keep at it, to strip my son’s bed and lay cool, fresh sheets over the mattress. Like I’ve seen in magazines, I turn the comforter double-down, and stack the pillows in a way that no neck could lie upon them. But it is a pretty picture, it is. I feel a little better for having done it. I decide to make things even better, that I will make Matty’s favorite dinner after I pick him up, the burger-and-tater-tot casserole he has always loved, a big round pool of ketchup on the side of his old plastic Superman plate.
It is only 10:00 in the morning, but I begin to get ready to go. The drive to Mill Valley will take me at least 40 minutes. I rinse my cup and place it in the rack next to the sink to drain, feeling virtuous that the kitchen is clean and tidy, this little slice of everything having a place and everything being properly stored in my small L-shaped kitchen. The house is not large at all, it’s two bedrooms take up half it’s area, and the one bathroom is small, too. But every room was lovingly and devotedly remodeled by the previous owners. The countertops, with their caramel granite, and the cabinetry, set into the walls like cubbies. The cabinet doors are wavy bronze-tinted glass, and pieces of my mother’s china seem to shine through, the teacups and the bowls with their fluted edges. A tiny chandilier, tiny glass drops dripping from it’s brass arms, hangs above the small dining nook off the kitchen, and under my feet are maple floors, rich in color and warmed by invisible heating coils beneath the planks. It was these kinds of details that had made me want the house so much, the heating coils, the warming globe in the bathroom above the shower, the deep burnt orange paint in the living room that made even the walls seem warm.
In my bedroom, there is a makeup table, a vintage affair from the 1950s. It’s elegant curves and chipped ivory paint appealed to me when I first began to furnish the house. Hiding in the back room of an estate auction market, it was slightly run down, perhaps too authentically a part of the shabby chic aesthetic that had become so popular, but easily evoked a graceful time when women spent un-rushed minutes seated at just such vanities, carefully making themselves up, or “dollying up,” as my grandmother had called it. The whole bedroom was crafted around the little table, inspired somehow by the romantic stories I imagined it could tell. So, there are long sweeping curtains with filmy layers of lace, a tall bed with a feather comforter in a soft pink and ivory broacade, lamps with ropey silk tassles hung around their urns. A large oriental rug with a floral pattern in pale blue and mauve helped make the room feel cozy and somehow hazy and soft. Along the walls were a scattering of framed pictures depicting monochromatic shots of the backroads of West Marin. Sitting at the table, I flipped on the lamp and begin to prepare myself. Bottom to top. I have a routine. I pull a knee up under my chin and look at all of my toes, first on one foot, and then I repeat this on the other. I make certain my toenails are short and smooth, that the paint has not chipped. If it has, I dab on polish where it’s needed, and then continue on to the bottoms of my feet. They should not have any rough patches, and I take sesame oil and pour drops of it into the palm of my hand and rub it into the soles of my feet, between my toes, around the smooth curve of my ankles. Next, legs. I peer at them closely, making sure there is no stubble visible, and while I massage the sesame oil into my thighs, over my calves, I do a touch test, making sure that no hair can be felt against my fingertips. Stomach, torso. Again, the oil. Over and between the bones of my clavicle, down over forearms. On my neck, I apply a rich creme that smells faintly of gardenia.