“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” (Shakespeare)
He pressed his forehead against the cold window pane until it fogged over. The front door was locked, and his key didn’t open it, or the back door either, but, through the window he could see that the kitchen furniture was gone. Going around to the bedroom window, the only one not covered over with vines, he peered in and saw that nothing remained of what had been in place when he left that morning. He felt himself telescoping to a distance, as if above the cottage looking down on it. He watched himself make his way around to the front where he found the sign: “FOR SALE” next to the willow tree.
He headed for the pub in town.
Only a few places were left at the bar. He took the one furthest from the door, where the wind rushed in with the last of the autumn leaves, wet with snowflakes. Inside, the warmth and dim lights were a familiar welcome. The sound of the end-of-week heightening chatter was filling the space. Avoiding the mirror behind the bar, he fixed his eyes on the array of bottles in various shapes, sizes and colors below it. He tried not to, but couldn’t help thinking about those early years when he had come here with her every Friday night, taking one of those cozy side tables, where other young couples now sat smiling at one another.
He remembered how they each time they chose different cocktail; some were creamy pink or green. Others were clear, sweet and fruity, or amber-colored, dry and bitter. It was all amusement as they took turns sipping from the other’s glass. He couldn’t recall how many years it had been since he started coming here alone, first at lunchtime and then most nights.
Now, she was gone. He couldn’t let himself think of her, and after the second double vodka, he wasn’t able to, his mind and memory clouding over, and his heart a cold stone. He drank until the bartender leaned into him, so no one nearby could hear her say, “It’s time to go.” He got up this time without protest, setting his course for the few block home.
Home, home, home swirled through his mind, like the frozen flakes sweeping around him.
He had already decided he would stay the night at the house. When he arrived, he stared at the little cottage, trying to bring it into focus, remembering the familiar sounds and warmth of it when he arrived home just the night before, unsuspecting. Now, it would be quiet and cold. Unsteadily he made his way to his car to grab a blanket, the one that had been in the back seat since the children were small. He crunched over the frozen walkway to the back of the house. He hit the window in the back door with his fist, pulled out a few shards of glass, edged his hand inside and unlocked the door. He stumbled into an empty bedroom, wrapped himself in the meager blanket printed with elephants and balloons and fell to the floor.
After a fitful sleep, he woke to early morning light. He felt wide awake, despite a headache, as the memories and self-reproach, he had warded off the night before, flooded in with a brilliance, like the sun shafts on the bare wall in front of him. He made his way to the bathroom to splash his face. On the floor were pieces of the white cup with painted blue sailboats, matching the ones on the wallpaper, probably dropped, he imagined, in her haste of packing. There it was, a small, shattered vessel in nowise reparable, no longer the shape of its former self.
He wanted to make himself presentable, make a plan, make some calls, get this all straightened out once and for all. Instead, he returned to the bleak room, and eased back down and stared at the ceiling, where memories began to appear like holographs, some bitter and dark, some too sweet and too light to bear.
He saw that she was lovely, vibrant, open and gentle. She was lonely; so was he. Both of them were ambitious with the necessary, youthful illusions about life, love and themselves. Even though they both grew up in the same small, seacoast town in New England, they hadn’t traveled in the same circles. She went to private school off the island. He had thought her snobby; she thought him arrogant. They had mutual friends, knew of each other, but not until they were home on spring break that year did they really “see” each other for the first time.
That summer arrived with the thrill of newness and wonder in the place they had lived all their lives, rediscovering it together. The wooded paths they had walked as children were now “Arden forest itself,” she had said. Together they whiled away days on warm beaches, chatted on sunny cafe decks overlooking the harbor, and hiked on rocky paths along the ocean shore. She felt herself to be in a Matisse painting—bright with shapes and vibrant color. He thought her interest in him must be a mistake.
She read Shakespeare sonnets to him, challenging him to imagine and think beyond their place and time, for which he adored her. He urged her to be in the here and now, the simplicity of which she respected and felt was true. In short, each had sensibilities and qualities the other needed; thus they felt a void in them was being filled.
That summer she was reading everything by Albert Camus, even though she often felt a sense of panic and anxiety setting in at what she found in his writings. As they sat resting along Old Garden Path, she took a book out of her backpack. “Listen to this,” She began to read. “At 30 a man should know himself like the palm of his hand, know the exact number of his defects and qualities, know how far he can go, foretell his failures - be what he is. And, above all, accept these things.’ What do you think?”
He struggled to understand, "What's the point? I think it’s impossible, but I guess we still have a few years to figure it all out before we get there—if that's the goal, but I don’t want to spend my time trying to ‘foretell my failures.’ I’d rather move toward my successes, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, yeah, sure, but if we don’t get some perspective now, I mean….Oh, look, something out there just beyond the waves!” He also spotted the brownish-grey form bobbing up and turning above the surface of the water. They got up and started to run along the path, keeping their eyes on the figure, appearing out of and disappearing into the blue-green sea. Further out, white sails drifted all in a row. The rocky cliffs dropped off from the path to small slivers of seaweed-strewn beaches. Then they lost sight of the unidentified, sleek and shiny creature in the shower of sun rays reflecting off the water. Hot and tired, they dropped to the ground, held each other and laughed.
He could hear it now. He loved that laugh, long since silenced.
They often spoke of settling nearby the path someday with an ocean view, but only after they established careers in Boston, in law for him and journalism for her. A wide scope of plans came into focus that summer, but stretched out over the years, it blurred into a vanishing point, after marrying earlier than they had imagined—their first baby on the way.
He turned his eyes away from the ceiling, closed them for a moment and sat up. He noticed the sun’s rays had moved across the room. He meant to get up, but instead, he lay back down waiting to see what else would be revealed to him, as if he had no control over the apparitions.
There she was, so young, fresh, beautiful. He could smell her scent; feel her softness, hear her voice, see her gestures and movements—all light and gentle and fine. He remembered his urgent desire, fierce and fiery; and later, his resentment that she had neither his intense, frequent appetite, nor his need for intimacy.
Then came images of the once well-kept cottage inherited from her her aunt, who had never married. His senses seem to fill with images of the manicured lawn; the hydrangea and lilac; the salt air— palpable; the changing moods and colors of the sea and sky; children laughing; white sheets billowing out from the clothes line like the sails in the bay below. He remembered the ocean-air fragrance of them tucked into the bed, neatly covered with a white coverlet. They had brought their babies home and lay with them there on that bed—she nursing and singing them to sleep, he yet unaware that changes were coming—slowly, but things had already shifted.
With her free-lance writing after the children were asleep, she helped finish law school, but he couldn’t find a “suitable” Boston law firm. He insisted on a practice in town, safer and close to home—a curse ever after on himself, the town and his family. For her, the children came first—their care, then the house, the chores, the yard work, the private schools, everything first but him, he felt sure. The months expanded into years, with his once-promising career languishing in his lethargy, and talk of his questionable dealings and compromises. The vibrant color of their dreams faded to a dull gray until it became clear: neither he nor she had measured up to the expectations of the other, or of themselves.
As he lay gazing up at the ceiling, he tried to push away memory of his desire for her, even now; despite her refusals; her excuses and the way he knew she merely tolerated his lips, his hands, his weight; and the way that she knew that he knew.
How many lovers develop the capacity or wisdom to learn the absolute law of relationship—that they do not get what was expected, what was longed for, or what they thought they wanted or deserved. To grow separately, yet to live and grow together—how? Maybe that wisdom can be imparted in a moment, or take a lifetime, if it comes at all. Lovers’ illusions and self-deceptions, unfounded rationales, too much pain and sore need, all intertwined like the ivy growing and spreading unnoticed until it covered the entire cottage.
Infinite are the means of creating a glittering shell of appearance, while the core of suffering goes unacknowledged by or unknown to the other. What sorrow, devices, defenses and denials mask the myriad roots reaching in every direction, compromising a once solid structure.
Silence, silence, silence--hear the vines growing!
Again, he rolled over, propped himself up, wanting to leave that house, but once more gave over to allowing the last scenes to play out in between thoughts of What if I had?” “Why didn’t I?” "If only I could have.”
The Shattered Vessel
On a business trip last year to San Francisco, he had dinner with an old friend who had recently remarried. They couldn’t wait to show him the courtyard they had designed and created together. It was edged with a variety of plantings, the most prominent of them a fragrant, night-blooming jasmine whose foliage was all dotted with white, like miniature stars in the torch light. He heard how they spoke kindly to each other. He saw how he deferred to her, how they finished each other’s thoughts
On the way to his room that evening, he saw them through a half-opened door in gentle embrace, she in a white, flowing robe, leaning into him. Their gestures toward the other were tender with the fullness of a promise.
The bay breezes were drifting in warm and balmy as he wandered into his room and closed the door behind him. He stood for a long time, unable to move, with the light and the weight of the evening coming as a revelation, but also an irrevocable blow. That night in a dream his wife came to him in the dark wearing a white robe. When she drew near to him, he saw that it was made of jasmine flowers, and he inhaled the fragrance of their perfume. As he reached for her, she vanished, and he found himself in an empty room, cold and alone.
When he awoke, he thought of the deteriorating cottage: roof, cedar shingles, chimney, picket fence, stone walls and gardens—all in need. When he returned to his law office he began to see his life in a different way. His office was damp and cluttered; he had heard rumors of his dealings being fraught with compromise and incompetence. He began to see himself and his marriage in a different way—the way it had become, but slowly almost unnoticeable. There was nothing to be done and he did nothing.
It had been a long, slow decline: his practice, the cottage, the marriage, he begging her to love him, she begging him to save the practice, his reputation and his family. Words were exchanged and resonated ever after, boring themselves into the secret and ever-widening space in their souls, and the space between their souls was too wide.
They had once been pure vessels waiting to be filled to the brim with all they lacked, longing to be seen, to share what was known, to learn from the other what yet was unknown. What was missing in the other, the longed-for "potion" was at first sweet and welcomed, a gift to be tasted and savored. Its essence though, with time, became diluted and sour with resentment, exposing a deficit, a void in the other. Don't see me as I am. Don't change me.
He got up, still wrapped in the blanket. He saw the room was grey now, the daylight faded. He went into the bathroom, picked up the pieces of the shattered white cup with the blue sailboats and put them into his pocket. He walked into each room, lingering for a moment, then went through to the kitchen. He covered the broken window with his children’s blanket. Under a magnet left on the refrigerator which read, "If you're going through hell, keep going," he left a note: I am a wandering bark.
Outside, the sun had melted last night’s snow. Rivulets of water ran in little streams along the broken walkway. Making his way toward the street, he pulled at a strand of ivy clinging to the cottage wall until it loosened, roots and all in his hand.