I'm sitting with Susan on a terminal summer evening, in rocking chairs I built, even as we were building our family. Neither of us is rocking. She traces the flight of straggler fireflies to the point that her head dips off to the side, glides down, and button-hooks back to starting position.
Susan has mentally checked out of our marriage. The signs are obvious. I might have missed them, but for having experienced them once before—with my own mother. Dad failed to notice the quarter turn of her face at the approach of his kiss. Or the flat opaqueness that like a film had settled over her eyes—the sparkle gone. And then one day, shortly after I turned six, she was gone, and Dad hadn't seen it coming.
I'm afraid to check for a glow in Susan's eyes. Even if it were there, it might only be the reflection of the fireflies—not something emanating from within. The turn of her cheek, though, has been unmistakably present. The lack of conversation, of intimacy is also a reality. Two solitary occupants of a house hemorrhaging the glue that once held it together.
"Do you think it's time to move into something smaller?" I ask and immediately want to kick myself.
Susan sets her rocking chair in motion, the see-sawing action long and deliberate. I follow suit a full beat behind.
"It's something to consider," she finally says.
There's a rhythm to the creaks created by our zig-zag rocking. She zigs, I zag—the creak occurs at the zag.
"This house is a part of us," I say. "Every floorboard."
"Every window," she answers.
I don't know what that means, but then an image comes to mind. She's standing at the living room window, her left hand on the sash, her forehead resting on glass. I spied her in that position this morning. And yesterday morning. And the morning before.
"If you want to leave me, Susan—say it. I won't stop you. I won't—but I can't handle this anymore. Limbo's evolving into something else."
She doesn't respond—leaves me languishing.
Maybe, I'll leave her. She shouldn't get to control everything. There's nothing to stop me…except: I, Henry, take thee, Susan, to be my lawfully wedded wife… Those vows clearly don't mean as much to her. A breeze streams across the yard, causes the flat ovate-shaped leaves in the old birch tree to flutter in the moonlight. The Albertson's terrier barks from next door. Fierce warrior. He's watching us from his usual spot at the property line. An invisible fence keeps him contained. Just like me.
"My uncle was a magician," says Susan.
"I didn't know that."
"He was a lot younger then. His dream was to perform in Vegas."
"Did he make it?"
"Naw. I thought he was good, but I guess he wasn't good enough."
"That's too bad."
"He used to tell me how the eyes were easy to fool. That the brain filled in missing pieces with what it thought should be there. That illusion was actually more common than accurate perception."
"What did he wind up doing?"
"He went into advertising. Was really good at it."
"I imagine he was."
"See, that's exactly your problem, Henry—you do too much imagining. I'm not on the verge of leaving you. Stop looking for what isn't there. It's killing our relationship before its time."
I'm tempted to protest, but am afraid the words might warble in the shifting air—make me appear weak. Fierce warrior.
"I love you," says Susan. She places her hand firmly over mine, bringing the creaks of our rocking into sync. "I won't ever leave you."
That was the scene, the conversation of a late summer evening. Is it any surprise I felt betrayed when six months later I was burying my wife under a lingering winter snow?
Something unseen had infiltrated first one organ, then another, till she begged for mercy, and God heard her cry.
Yet, just as suddenly as she'd left me, she was at my side again, matching me emotion for emotion. I tried to explain this to our daughter. She didn't believe me, attributed it to my imagination—repeating what her mother used to say.
I, though, am in Uncle Martin's camp—my brain, or maybe it's my heart, is just filling in with what it thinks should be there. Illusion sometimes being preferable in the face of the invisible.
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