People like us, like Martin and me, didn’t skip funerals. Especially not our own, or his own, I should say.
“Just let go,” the masseuse again commanded in her Russian-ish accent.
I couldn’t blame her for trying. But I could almost picture my shoulder muscles in coils, neat, winding circles tucked into themselves and clustering under my skin. It could have been finding my husband face down on the tiles we’d selected only a month before for the bathroom floor in our new home in Saratoga Springs, where we’d planned to live out our retirement (or his, what I was retired from was impossible to say at that point in our lives). The tiles are a terra cotta color, smooth, diamond shaped. We’d been conspirators in the big box hardware store, picking them out. Us against the army of choices that we couldn’t seem to make matter the way our friends did when buying things for their homes. Furniture shopping or choosing silverware or carpet or paint colors always snapped us out of our responsible selves for a moment, making one of us whisper, this seems like a job for an adult. Then we’d look around, shrug and dissolve into hysterics, like we were teenagers again, which is how old we were when we met.
The masseuse, working assiduously now on my upper back, was a young woman around twenty. Tall and commanding in her white cotton uniform, a muted version of medical scrubs, meant to evoke confidence in her wellness capabilities. She huffed a little, but was I that much more tense than other women she worked on? Perhaps.
Or maybe she didn’t like that when she’d come to collect me from the Quiet Room, I’d asked if she was the masseuse. The term was outdated, like stewardess, I realized after saying it out loud, but it was what they called themselves the only other time I’d been there forty-five years earlier, when there hadn’t been a slogan emblazoned on the brochure, it starts with you, and a menu of “healing” treatments and a maze of spaces with water pouring over the faces of bronze Buddhas. There had just been a beige waiting room without a vaguely authoritative name, another beige massage room, a table with soft linens. And afterwards, Clark.
Martin had sent me that first time, even arranging for a driver to take me the forty minutes from Albany to Saratoga, saying I needed to relax. I’d felt like a lady in a 19th century novel being sent to the sanitorium to calm her nerves, when the job of a woman was clearly to never let one’s guard down. Martin made a big show of feeding Heidi her bottle of formula, which he’d taken it upon himself to buy, while also telling jokes with Sandra. I’d stopped myself from asking him how he would feel if I showed up at his office one day, playing make believe at his desk like there was nothing so hard about it after all, before I flitted out again, not even bothering to look back.
I’d planned Martin’s funeral down to the last detail. It was exactly what he’d wanted, minus my presence, that is: At a funeral home instead of a place of worship, a few funny speeches by only people he’d liked, then a brass band in a procession behind the attendees, following them to where they’d scatter his ashes in the Kaydeross, where he’d planned to fish every day of his retirement. I was supposed to be carrying the urn, the choosing of which was the only part of the funeral we hadn’t talked about ahead of time. When the funeral home director tilted his laptop screen toward me and my daughters, allowing us to see their vast urn selection, I said that this seems like a job for an adult, and no one laughed, so I chose a simple wooden cylinder while trying to catch Martin’s guffaw still lingering somewhere in the universe.
Sandra would likely carry the urn in my place. I’d sent my daughters a text message, a group text, as they called it, letting them know I was fine, but wouldn’t be coming to the funeral. I’d turned my phone off and stored it in a locker before I could see what they’d written back. Sandra would have questions, admonitions. Heidi would probably say something with lots of heart emojis about how I should grieve in my own way, but Sandra would say sometimes there was only one chance. She’d be right, but what was it a chance to do? Be the widow? What an awful word. Its roots, I’d heard once, meant “to be empty.”
Bowls of my famous chicken salad were in the refrigerator along with homemade rolls covered in plastic wrap with instructions on a post-it for how to warm them stuck on top. Martin had made me promise, as if we’d both known he’d go first, that he wouldn’t be commemorated with slimy cold-cuts and cold store-bought bread. A cooler with fresh ice and beer and soda cans sat in the corner of the kitchen, the large red cooler with the white top that Martin always took down from the top shelf in the garage for me. It had taken me a stool and jostling the cooler until it crashed to the concrete, but I’d done it, and for a moment, heart pounding, I’d sat on the white plastic cover, triumphant. Then I’d wept.
That was also when I’d known I wasn’t going to stay and that I was going to come here instead. I wasn’t thinking I’d see Clark again or even that I wanted to. I’d driven by the spa our first week in Saratoga, the keys dangling from the ignition as I’d stopped in front, staring up at the last place I’d been only Darlene, separate, whole, capable of, even adept at, existing untethered.
“Let. Go,” the maybe-Russian woman insisted.
I was beyond trying, though the mindfulness articles Sandra was always sending me would say the trying was the problem. She thought I didn’t understand them, didn’t understand anything, but I did. That was really the problem, the understanding without the sanction of youth. My daughters could spout that this or that thing was the key to mental and physical and emotional well-being, never wanting to know what I thought. Which was that nothing was the key. Martin had taken reasonable care of himself, never smoked, swam laps every day, ate a heart-healthy diet, and had still died of a stroke two weeks before his seventieth birthday.
During various phone calls and unsolicited visits over the last couple days, our friends had declared it such a shock, such a shame, perhaps much like they were reacting now to my absence at the summit of married life. How could she, I imagined some of them saying, how could she not show up to peer over the edge of the mountain? The abyss was as much your duty as the climb. You didn’t get to have one without the other, and yet I was afraid of that vast darkness which I was meant to somehow accept. Though I’d always (excepting what happened with Clark) done what I was expected to do, some would say even with more grace and proficiency than others, I didn’t know how to do this.
As I made the awkward turn under the sheet onto my back, I thought of all those years ago, Clark setting down complimentary tea and fruit on a glass table next to the one lounge chair out by the small pool. I was still in my white robe, naked underneath, which made me feel both vulnerable and emboldened.
“You’re going to be hungry after that.” He pointed to the fruit.
“Oh?” I asked, registering his curly hair in a ponytail, the one earring, his skinny, boyish body playing dress up in white button-down shirt and black slacks.
Martin would have hated him on sight, assuming he’d been a hippie war protestor. Though the war was over by then, he still denounced them as lazy drug addicts and dropouts. But depending on how you looked at it, Martin was lucky or smart enough to have a high mark on the “Vietnam exam”, deemed by the Selective Service System worthy of finishing college. I’d celebrated with him and had never begrudged him this freedom, only his belief that he somehow deserved it. Though Martin would’ve thought I begrudged him nothing at all. Our marriage was predicated, as I imagine most long ones are, on at least some suspension of disbelief.
When Clark lingered, a slow smile spread across my face, knowing yet innocent, a smile I’d thought exterminated by marriage and certainly motherhood. “So what do you propose I do about it?”
He didn’t hesitate. “There’s a place down the road that has burgers and beers. I get out in an hour.”
I admired his audacity. I’d taken off my rings and put them in my pocketbook in the locker room so as not to ruin them, but married or not, for all Clark knew, I’d report him to management. I liked that he saw me as someone who wouldn’t and also as one of those girls who didn’t worry about their waistline or grease dripping down their chin or belching in public.
This was way before beers with their fancy lettering, always in cans, started showing up in the hands of my daughters, before it was normal to see a woman crack open a beer and cheers her husband, like Sandra did even in her wedding dress. Granted, she got married on a mountaintop in Vermont, not exactly a formal affair, so it really was on par with the freedom she and her sister had always experienced. Like it was nothing to wear a short yellow sundress to one’s wedding, to shrug off the idea of priests or rabbis, to treat one’s guests to campfire smores instead of the chicken or the salmon, to ask for experiences instead of things for gifts. They were women born into a way of escaping convention with such blasé aplomb, different and more permanent, though less brazen, than rolling in mud at a concert, getting high, or protesting the government.
It would remain my secret that I also desired freedom, but as a deviation rather than an unremarkable expectation. Close to an hour later, I slipped back into my belted white dress with its high neckline and didn’t slip back on my rings. The dress seemed too formal, too square, for Clark, but it was what I had. I took care to run a brush through my cap of blond hair a few more times, admiring the shine of it in the low lighting of the women’s locker room.
As I went out to the parking lot, at least a half hour too early for the driver to come back for me, Clark leaned against a brown pick-up truck. Now he wore clothes more suited to him, faded jeans and a tie-dye t-shirt, his hair loose around his shoulders. He opened the passenger door and offered his hand, which I didn’t take as I climbed up and settled myself on the tan seat. Inside, it smelled of old leather, mint gum, marijuana. I should have taken his hand—it was an explainable intimacy for women to have with men not their husbands, and I didn’t want to be rude. But I did want to hold on to a bit of mystery, an illusion of withstanding, like the virginity I’d guarded so carefully before my wedding night and would never get back again.
Girls who didn’t wait were hussies, floozies, loose, terms imparted in disdainful, warning whispers by my mother. I vowed I would never be one of those, even as Martin stuck his hand up my dress in his heated car and my insides went molten too, dizzied as I was by all the satiation—the transgressive touch of a handsome and popular boy, the malted milkshakes half-drunk in the car cupholders, the drive-in horror movie a looming threat. Temporary and benign, though thrilling.
Clark drove with the windows down, the Animals blasting from the cassette player. My breasts tingled, then swelled with milk, betraying my choice or trying to render it impossible. We couldn’t talk over the wind and music, so I watched the blur of green rush by, holding the milk in barely like a stream of urine threatening to let loose.
The green was one of the reasons Martin and I had decided to retire to Saratoga. Such ripeness, such lush greenery that we couldn’t find in the grayness of Albany, and yet still close to our old friends and to Sandra and Heidi, to our grandchildren.
When the sign for the bar came into view, red with white letters on a tall pole sticking out of a gravel lot, I shouted, “Keep going!”
Clark tucked hair behind his ear. “What?”
I didn’t know why I’d said it, only that I wasn’t ready for this to end in an ordinary upstate bar, smelling of grease and hops. He did keep going, the car flying further west until he pulled into a gas station, and I saw the gauge was pointing almost to empty. Without talking about it, I paid for the gas with the cash Martin had given me for “extras.”
Then I went into the gas station bathroom with rust-colored stains on the walls and graffiti scrawled in garish letters. I leaned over the chipped sink and took out one breast, then the other, kneading excess milk into the sink without looking into the cracked mirror. When I walked out, I felt giddy in this depleted way, with an undercurrent of laden guilt, not because of Clark, but for wasting my baby’s food like that.
Outside, Clark had a map spread out on the front hood of his car.
“Where are we headed?” he asked, sweeping his hand over the map as if all of it were a possibility.
I got the sense we agreed that the husband and children, should they exist, would not be discussed, and I also (perhaps erroneously) took it for granted from the way he still clung to a persona losing its hold on our generation that he was content to roam the world, alone and free, not having capitulated to marriage and children, mortgages and fastidiously mowed lawns.
I didn’t know what to tell him. We weren’t headed anywhere. That had been the beauty of it. But that couldn’t go on forever. Things needed their beginning so they could end.
Clark scanned the map holding it down from the wind with a flat palm on either side. What was he looking for? It wasn’t like today where my daughters typed with alarming speed on their phones, exclaiming over traffic and routes until somehow they’d found the right formula to take themselves where they wanted to go. They were always telling me it was easy, that I could do it too, but I resisted. Maybe it was that I still hoped to surprise myself by getting lost once in a while.
“Let’s go here.” I pointed to a random town on the map.
Clark nodded as if I’d chosen a paradise. “Alrighty.”
I’d picked it because it looked far, but close enough that I could still get home, even that night. Was Martin worried? Should I find a payphone to tell him I was safe, at least? But the thought of him looking for me and me nowhere to be found was somehow part of the point.
Dusk was falling outside, and we sang along to the radio. A Frankie Valli song, a Billboard hit, more my speed (and Martin’s) than what he’d had on earlier. Eventually Clark pulled over and turned down a dirt road.
“Are we there?” I asked.
Clark shrugged. “Maybe, but this seems like as good a place as any.” He stopped at the edge of a clearing and turned off the car. “Want to look around?”
So this was it. I hopped out, and we walked in a slow circle, looking up at the pine trees. The air was cool and damp. This time when Clark reached out his hand, I took it. The wind had died down, leaving the trees, the dirt, the earth quiet for us, waiting, patient, seeming to know that years would replace moments, that these steps we were taking were miniscule, inconsequential, that one day the fallen pine needles and the rustle of leaves and our breath would seem like echoes barely bouncing back to us from some dream-like horizon, until we were also dust scattered by the wind.
I stared up at the dim orange-y light, breathing in the smell of lavender, the tinkling of meditative music a hopeful drone. The massage therapist had left some time ago, saying I could take as long as I needed, her voice kinder then, and I realized she must’ve seen when I turned to my back the wetness dotting the face cushion where my eyes had been. I stumbled out of the massage room, taking a glass of water from a proffered tray without looking up as I murmured my thanks, and then it was his voice saying you’re welcome.
Except when I did look up, it was another older man, though not nearly the age Clark would’ve been.
“My husband died,” I said. The words tasted strange on my tongue, tangy and wrong.
He nodded, as if he’d known, then told me he was sorry and asked if there was anything else he could get me. Sandra was probably cleaning up by now, tossing half-eaten sandwiches and paper plates in the trash with controlled aggression, while Heidi entertained all their children with a game of hide and go seek.
Grandma! they’d exclaim when I walked in the door. Where were you?
I’d tickle the bellies of the youngest ones and make up a story to explain my disappearance just like I had so many years before when Martin had mentioned once and only with his eyes the streak of dirt from the truck bed across my white dress, because a story had to be told and rendered legitimate, tacit agreements reached if one was to come home.