Although she is dead, she is dreaming. The TUNK sound of her head hitting the side of the bathtub mutters something about a watermelon or a pumpkin. She should not have balanced on one foot, like an ungainly flamingo, tugging on her second sock. She should not have been standing on a satin bathrobe, which she should not have tossed, crumpled, on the floor.
The TUNK sound– or is it a painless, dreamlike sensation?– does not repeat so much as it merely never ends. It fills the space where her mind once was, making her want to escape, although there is really no longer any ‘her’ or ‘want’. The sky is an uncertain ugliness that might be muddling toward dawn, or might only be the bruised, navy-apricot of city lights against the low, murky atmosphere. The turbid illumination is nothing that she wants to rise into, but up she goes, although there is no longer any ‘she’ or any ‘up’.
If she still had emotions, they would be amazement and rage. The shame and sorrow that overwhelmed her just before she fell have dissolved. Stupid, stupid to have been ugly-crying about a man. Stupid to have let his words and his rejection of her body unravel her into hard, hitching, snotty sobs.
Her husked-off body on the bathroom floor will provoke no coarse jokes between the emergency techs who drive up, siren-less, to bundle it away. After a long, healing shower, she had already put on her bra, t-shirt and practical panties. And one sock. She should not have gained the weight that made it necessary to pull on socks first, before the too-tight legs of skinny jeans. Her lover had pointed out that slight but observable gain to her, bluntly, cruelly. She slumped in his bedroom doorway, arms unconsciously crossing to cover breasts, plainly pendulous, beneath the lace of a camisole with the tags still fluttering from it. She ducked back into his bathroom, stuffed on her street clothes and managed not to cry before she got back to the sanctuary of her own apartment.
In her own bathroom, there is very little blood, as her heart stops pumping almost instantly. There will be no decay, as she will be found within hours of her death. Her worried daughter will call the police for a welfare check when her mother doesn’t answer the phone in the early morning for a continuation of their awkward, previous day’s discussion.
Stupid to have given in to such vulgar, overblown emotion, when in truth, she could not even claim that this late, unexpected lover had broken her heart. That desiccated organ had been ground into dust over many years of marriage to an emotionless mummy of a man, whom, when he died, became just another huge chore. It reminded her of the gargantuan task of cleaning up after their oil furnace exploded, blowing black soot all through the house. The corpse of her marriage was not even a repulsive, decayed thing but merely a powdery husk. She swept it away and took up the tedious work of being a widow.
“Widow”. The very word felt black and scrabbling, dry and spidery. In the months that followed her husband’s death, she had sifted from one corner of the ugly subdivision house to another, like tracked-in sand, not so much missing her husband as longing for the chores and hubbub of nurturing a family. The days held far too little to do. She made lists and was vaguely disturbed when she managed to cross off every item. Her not-grief felt uncomfortably binding, like someone else’s clothing and because of the cat hair, she couldn’t even dress herself in the black of false sorrow.
She was surprised, although no one else was, when she moved across the country, close to her daughters. Radio blasting, she drove away on a bright Saturday morning, with one of the cats, two paintings and her grandmother’s dresser, relieved and peaceful and utterly ready to begin a new life. Alone. In an unaccustomed city, she walked in the clean autumn air of unfamiliar parks. Although she did not climb them, the surrounding mountains felt like invitations. Eating alone in little sidewalk cafes, for the first time in her life, she felt daring, Parisian almost, as though she was wearing an invisible beret. She bought round, red-framed eyeglasses and dared to imagine herself as a picture in a magazine.
Her youngest daughter showed her the profiles of men on the “Plenty of Fish” site. She perched the red glasses on top of her head and used her phone and computer to compose only very slightly edited photos of herself. Smoothing away one or two wrinkles and adding a little more cheek coloring somehow took up the whole afternoon and made her feel ridiculous and vain. She finally chose two images and wrote a description of herself that she hoped sounded mildly intriguing without seeming desperate. Friendly, not slutty. “A friend,” she told herself. “It would be so nice to have a friend.” It all seemed unreal, like a very odd game or ordering something on Amazon. Clicking from one man’s profile to another felt like playing with paper dolls. She remembered cutting Betsy McCall dolls out of her mother’s magazines, so very long ago. The men she read about didn’t seem like real people, much less potential lovers. Her body had been quiet and only her own for such a long time. She had grown gray in the neutered ruins of her marriage and had acquired that aging woman’s sense of being invisible. She never expected to be noticed, much less touched, in that way again.
And then, suddenly, it turned real. She caught his eye, or her photograph did. And then they were laughing over a lunch. And then a dinner. And then, unbelievably, in bed, in the earliest slanting sunshine through unfamiliar, slatted window blinds, her body’s joy so utterly unexpected. He was only a handful of years younger, but she realized that she had grown set, stodgy. Old. The sudden freedom of becoming such a different person was exhilarating.
They took car trips to adjoining states and she breathed in, sharply, when she thought about their nights in hotels. She wore new clothing. She tasted fashionable, unfamiliar foods. She reassured her slightly worried daughters. Love, she thought, or passion certainly, was somewhat wasted on the young. People younger than she had to wedge romance in, between jobs and responsibilities. She and her lover had the luxury to linger over coffee, conversation, caresses. Except that their conversations, increasingly, became his monologues. His need to be right, to be always uncontested, became, subtly, more apparent. The endless list of rules by which he lived grew more obvious and less quaint and amusing. The rosy mist that blurred her early days with him began to dissipate.
Thank goodness she had not given up her apartment in those first, dizzy weeks of wanting to be constantly together, of hungering, almost, to crawl inside each other’s skins. The air in his house grew thick with his admonitions and criticisms, like the relentless cadence of his collection of dozens of clocks. On some murky autumn afternoons, the atmosphere felt almost too thick to move through. How had she never noticed how dark he kept his overstuffed rooms, how ugly the always-closed, plastic blinds were? How had she not realized that he was, in truth, a hoarder and that she was merely another object, acquired and then set aside?
At lunch, she confided in one of her daughters, but only a little. Her daughter’s brow furrowed. “Mom, if he has to squeeze through his rooms sideways, he needs help.”
“It’s not as bad as ‘Hoarders’,” she replied, twisting up slippery udon noodles with her fork. Her lover was probably right about that: that she didn’t know how to eat properly with chopsticks. They were lunching in a funny little Asian fusion place with a door that faced diagonally to the street corner, where, she was pretty sure she would see him first if he passed by. How bizarre it felt, not wanting him to see her, but he resented the time she spent with her daughters.
After all those long, desert years of invisibility, it was like an addiction, being seen, being touched. When she was alone in her apartment, the light coming through her white lace curtains seemed too cold, even though it was beautiful. She felt disembodied, fluttering, ghostly, without the hot, grounding weight of another human body next to hers in the night.
“I’m not becoming one of those pathetic women who defines herself only in relation to her man,” she semi-lied to her daughter. “I can leave any time I want. I’ll tell you. Really.”
“Well, I think you’re getting too thin. Your heart’s not broken or anything is it?”
“Actually, I’ve gained a couple of pounds since I’m back eating mostly at my own place.” And no, your father crushed my heart into powder years ago, she thought. And now it’s what? Atoms? How teenaged and embarrassing and excessively dramatic. And just because I imagined that I caught a spike of contempt in my lover’s eye?
“I still think you’re too thin, Mom.”
Ha, she thought, her lover would massively disagree with that. For a stocky– well, all right, slightly fat– guy, he was obsessed with weight. Lately, she wondered if he would actually prefer if she wasn’t a woman at all or, at least, had a more androgynous body type. “Why,” he had asked, just a few days ago, holding up his own arm and poking at his still relatively firm triceps, lip curled in distaste, “Why do women’s arms get… you know… jiggly?” She realized that, for the first time, she was becoming ashamed at how easily and quickly she had relaxed into their affair and then ashamed at how trustfully she had come to sleep beside him. Then, she was ashamed of being so ashamed. Some days, she wanted to curl up, like the edges of a burnt love letter, in the hot, charred smell of all that shame.
And on some days, like this one, walking back from lunching with her daughter, in the cold, gentrified afternoon, she wanted to try again to touch him, to woo and once more win him. She so very much craved that sensation of mindlessly sinking into the warmth of his body, of being cradled in the cocoon of their love. Love? Was it love? She had called it that in her own mind, although in recent weeks, the actual word was almost never spoken. Had it been spoken too fast? Too carelessly? Suddenly, she felt inexperienced and stupid about lovers, in spite of having lived all her adult years as a strong and practical woman. She sensed, in that unremarkable afternoon hour, that she was coming to a momentous decision, and one that she was entirely unprepared to make, a turning point, a crux, a nexus in her life. Even the unfocused winter sky looked portentous. She realized that the fact that a word like “portentous” popped into her mind at a time like this was probably the reason that she had not dated much before marrying her cold professor husband. “I was sort of old, even when I was young”, she thought. “And now, here I am trying to be youthful without being immature”. To be daring without being stupid. And most of all, to have a final adventure without making herself utterly ridiculous. It all seemed so awkward and unfamiliar. So baffling. Her head felt flimsy and unstable from the single glass of wine she’d drunk at lunch and with the strangeness of not quite telling her daughter the truth.
Her chilled, benumbed feet took her past an old brick storefront that was painted an incongruously tropical, fleshy pink. Displayed with deliberate, elaborate carelessness in the widow, were self-indulgent scraps of satin and lace lingerie: nightgowns, camisoles and peignoirs or whatever they called them nowadays. A string of little brass Nepalese bells tinkled as she opened the door and stepped inside.
TUNK. And now, she is dead and she may be dreaming. From the time she was a very young child, she had never believed in gods or ghosts or supernatural spirits. It had not made sense to her that some wisp of consciousness could hover near where a person became disembodied. If, truly, some wraith or revenant could return to pull vengeful pranks near the scene of a betrayal or murder or where someone suffered a last great agony, then, surely hospitals should all be maelstroms of wailing ectoplasm.
And, in fact, when her husband had lain, thankfully briefly, dying she sensed nothing that convinced her otherwise. She had stood dutifully by his mechanical bed, scorched with guilt because she did not feel the deep sorrow that she thought he probably deserved. She caught his dulling eye, above the encumbrance of the respirator. She sought a final connection with his medicated and unblinking stare and tried, with her gaze, to at least communicate sympathy and thanks for their past and for her beloved daughters. But she saw no fog or phantom coiling up from his failing flesh. In the darkness outside the hospice, no dog howled. No owls called anyone’s name.
Back in the lava-hot shower in which she had tried to scald away the shame of her lover’s rejection, she had kept obsessively repeating the single word: stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, like a two-syllable poem that was somehow incredibly hard to learn. She forced herself to stop repeating that pathetic mantra, stop crying and begin to make new plans. She would kick the silky lingerie into a corner and put on simple, familiar jeans and a t-shirt, start over in the morning. She imagined Scarlet O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Except maybe that was Rhett Butler? Clark Gable with his permanent smirk at the end of the movie? She would make up for her wasted, passionless life and recent, few, misspent months of what she had imagined was fun. She would shape this into a wonderful new beginning.
And then, it is the end. It is her turn to be dead. There is only an instant of really awful pain and then, like turning inside out, she is no longer an individual looking outward but consciousness itself blinking, eyelessly back at itself. Rising bodiless, through the ugly sky, over the unfamiliar city, she might be dreaming, except that she no longer possesses a separate mind with which to dream. Through pendant clouds hanging down like the flapping arms of old women, it could have been a dream of flying, which is a pity, because she had loved winged dreams. Her former, overly intellectual, atheist mind could never have posited anything like this great unfurling. She had always argued against any sort of afterlife, insisted that nonphysical, massless computers can’t exist in the same way that perpetual motion can’t exist. No functioning physical brain, no consciousness. She had so very rationally expected to be nothingness. Now she is everything.
And she would never have anticipated the gorgeousness of her uncoiling rage. Without a self to contain it, the fury that she had kept folded meticulously away, like embroidered antique table cloths, flaps loose and blazes, an entity unto itself. Being done with bodies, she is also finished with shame and tears and smallness and she becomes something very much like the deity that she had never believed in: a goddess of death. Being infinite, she does not have to “go” but flows, at one with the strange, aching, peach colored light. She streams around her lover’s house where he hunches, gnome-like over his workbench. In his gloomy basement shop, he is crafting a precise metal part for one of his clocks, swearing under his breath and slamming down tools. How had she ever crumpled herself into a small enough shape to fit into the life of this fussy, petulant, cruel old man?
Amazing how a lifetime of anger compressed and denied, then sharpened into razor-thin, unappeasable fury, can actually slice a hairline crack in the metal cylinder that fuels his cutting torch. Incredible, how, in the smallest shard of a second, the tiny hiss of escaping gas can combine with a spark from dazzling, melting metal and become the towering roar of an explosion. Surprising, how a complete human can also detonate into a fountain of mindless meat.
Time is now no longer a solid prison wall, marked with all the little clock ticks of its persistence. In this instantaneous but perpetual midnight, time stretches, streams, in every direction, so that the crimson spray that had been her lover seems suspended like luminous ribbons, glittering outward, outward. Like matter in the first few nanoseconds of the universe, it is surprisingly uneven, lumpy, as he had been in life. Larger bits hang there, sparkling shards of bone and darker, glossy scraps of organs, along with a mist so fine that the red becomes an iridescent rainbow. She dabbles in it, grasping. She catches his eye, then tosses it away, as she continues to become eternal, starry, infinite.