by Lily Iona MacKenzie
Lily Iona MacKenzie
A Canadian by birth, Lily Iona MacKenzie has been teaching writing at the University of San Francisco and other Bay area colleges for over twenty years. She has published personal essays, articles, poetry, travel pieces, and short fiction in numerous publications in the U.S. and Canada. She has completed four novels and three poetry manuscripts, all currently in circulation. Keeping a dream journal, gardening, working out, and dabbling in the visual arts (sculpting and painting) occupy her when she isn't writing or teaching. You can read her blog at http://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.
It ended not in the way marriages usually end. No divorce. No removal of rings. Not even any discord. We continued living in the same house. We slept in the same bed. We even had sex at times.
But the marriage had died and refused to be resurrected. Or maybe it couldn't be resurrected. Perhaps there is no afterlife; we're given only one chance. If we blow it, that's it.
I awaken one morning. It's June, the time for weddings — new life, promise and hope. A glorious day, even for Northern California, sun in command, the sky a Mediterranean blue, a touch of cloud here and there to add tension — a day to die for.
I roll over and stare for a while at Don sleeping next to me. At other times I've felt proud ownership and warmth when I've watched him sleep, his arm flung over his head, dark curls tinged with gray growing erratically, mustache framing his lips, calling attention to their softness in the midst of all that bristle.
I want to kiss those lips, to explore their texture; but now they seem so foreign, lips of a stranger, hard, resisting, barring me from tasting the dark interior of his mouth. Still, I try to probe gently with my tongue, attempting to get past this barrier, searching for the pearl at the heart of the shell. I want to pry open these lips, force my way in.
He awakens like someone who's been under water, his mouth and lungs filling, flailing his arms, trying to catch his breath. His lids open, startled brown eyes registering fear. "What in hell are you doing, Brenda?"
He pushes me away and sits up in bed, wearing only his pajama bottoms. He used to wear only his tops. Now he seems to be protecting something.
"Christ, I thought I was having a nightmare. Shit." He shakes his head like a swimmer flicking water from his hair. "You scared the hell outta me."
I write my name on his bare back, circumnavigating the moles. He shrugs me off. "Stop. I don't feel like fooling around."
"I could help you get it up."
"Lay off, Brenda. I'm not in the mood."
He used to be in the mood. All the time. Much more than I was. I sing "Mr. Watcha call him watcha doing tonight. Hope you're in the mood and that you're feelin' all right . . ." Before he would join me, the two of us doing a kind of jig around the maypole of our bed. Not any more. Not since . . .
It had been another splendid summer day. We'd just dropped off Don's mother at the rest home after taking her out for lunch and for a drive in my new VW Passat. The car radio was playing "Mac the Knife," and we were singing "Oh those sharks babe, have such teeth babe . . ." While reaching into the back seat for my purse, I pulled onto the freeway. Then the lights went out.
When I came to, I was in the hospital on a gurney, my only sister Stella holding my hand. I tried to sit up, but a piercing pain in my ribs stopped me. "Christ," I gasped. "What happened? Where's Don?"
"It's okay, Brenda. You've just got a few broken ribs. Don's in surgery. Head injury."
Worse than the pain in my ribs was the anguish that rushed through me: I'd been driving. If Don died, it was my fault. How could I live with myself?
As if reading my mind, Stella said, "It wasn't your fault. Some jerk in an SUV cut you off. The crash was unavoidable."
I wanted to believe her, but what if I'd been paying full attention to my driving? What if I hadn't reached for my purse? Could I have avoided the accident?
I'll never know.
"Mrs. MacLeod?" My name. I looked around. A man in his mid-forties, my age, wearing green scrubs, stood over me and rested his hand on mine. "Your husband will be okay. We had to put a plate in his head, but he's lucky to be alive."
Lucky to be alive. Plate in his head. My Don?
"Don't worry. He'll be good as new in no time." The doctor smiled down at me, the smile not quite reaching his eyes.
Well, Don did recover, that's true, though I wouldn't call him "good as new." Someone with a plate in his head will never be good as new. I just hope he doesn't get close to any giant magnets. Most important, he was alive. I guess I should say he is alive. Sort of. So little of the man I married remains that at times it seems like he did die. It's not easy sharing a bed or a house with a stranger, believe me. Or a ghost.
It took months for him to regain his strength, and even longer to recover his memories, the part of his brain that was most seriously damaged. He never did recoup everything. His past resembles Swiss cheese. We spend a lot of time nibbling around the holes, trying to piece together his life for him.
It wasn't so bad during his recuperation. There was still hope my husband would turn up eventually, wiggling through those gaps in his synapses. Occasionally I'd get a glimpse of the man I married, his humor almost surfacing, but it was like a flickering candle in a drafty room. It didn't take much to snuff it out. I assumed these lapses were just part of the healing process and soon everything would be as before.
But it became harder to keep hoping. Everything about Don seemed different, except for his appearance, though the surgery had left a purple scar near his receding hairline. The angry color gradually faded somewhat, but the scar was a constant reminder of my carelessness. Each time I looked at him, I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach.
In the past, Don was indifferent to what went into the food he ate, consuming whatever I put on his plate, willing to eat almost anything. But after the accident, he became obsessed with his diet, insisting on shopping at Whole Foods rather than Safeway. "Organic's the only way to go" became his constant mantra, though in the past he pooh-poohed organic hunters. He'd say, "I like the feeling of Safeway better. No yuppies there trying to show off how superior they are." Yeah, right.
Scene: breakfast. Don's sitting in our nook. He's begun his granola rant for the morning. He has several bowls lined up in front of him, each offering a different variation of the cereal. He puts a spoonful of one kind in his mouth, checking the crunch level, swirling it around like some rare wine before swallowing and moving on to the next bowl. "That one has a little almond flavor," he says, nudging my arm and pointing, "but it overpowers the other ingredients."
I nod, trying to read the Times, poking my spoon into the Rice Krispies I bought at Safeway. Granola requires too much effort to eat. All that crunch. It takes forever to work your way through a bowl. But Don thrives on the stuff, enjoying the endless chewing each spoonful requires. He even closes his eyes as he munches, shutting out all distractions, unaware of my snap, crackle, and pop.
If I get up and clear the table, put dishes in the dishwasher, sweep the floor, he sulks. "Christ, Brenda, can't you do that later? It's no fun talking to a wall." He expects me to sit through this ordeal, needing an audience for his pronouncements about the merits of granola sweetened with honey versus ones using only fruit juice, expounding on the crunch and the relative quality of each kind.
Before the accident, he read the Times too, and we talked about politics and what was happening in the world. Now he has no interest in reading anything, except for the ingredients in the food he buys.
These fixations aren't limited to food but to every aspect of our life together. He even needs to discuss the merits of high-octane over low-octane gas. I don't even know what an octane is. All I can think of is octave, an octave of gas. I told him, "I don't give a damn about what kind of gas you buy." We were having dinner, and I just couldn't get into a conversation about gas. I stared at the peas swimming in a sea of soup. They looked like bullets to me, and I wanted to plug him with one, anything to shut him up.
But I'm afraid it would have taken more than a bullet to do that. He just kept his rant going, lecturing me on octane: "Octane's the fuel's resistance to knocking. There's no benefit if the octane's higher than what the engine needs. Engine knock occurs when fuel in a combustion chamber ignites before it should. This disrupts the engine's operation. But electronic knock sensors are now common and have nearly eliminated engine disruption. So you don't need high octane gas any more."
"No kidding," I said. "What a relief that is."
Of course, that wasn't the end to his lecture on gas. He kept it up for days. I was ready to run screaming from the house.
His next subject? The virtues of various types of toilet paper. Double versus single ply. Colored versus white. Recycled versus non-recycled paper. He filibustered for days on that one. I wanted to stuff his mouth with a roll to shut him up and get some peace. I felt I'd scream if I had to listen to more of his analysis.
What kind of monster did the surgeon release? I mentioned my concerns to Don's doctor once, but he brushed them off. "There's always an adjustment period after this kind of surgery, Mrs. McLeod. Be patient. You're lucky your husband's alive." Thanks a lot, doc. Plunge the knife a little deeper, why don't you. I should just wear a sign "I'M GUILTY" like Hester Prynne. Except I'd sooner be branded an adulteress than carry around this guilt for essentially murdering my husband.
Anyway, I don't feel lucky. I resemble Chicken Little, only for me the sky has fallen and I keep getting hit with chunks of it. To make it worse, I'm truly chicken. I don't want to deal with this new husband. I want the old one back. But I'm stuck with the chains of marriage. How can I just check out?
My daughters would disown me for running out on their father in his time of need, and I wouldn't be able to live with myself. But they don't have to live with him. I do. They're both in college in another state. They saw him after his surgery. Otherwise, they come home rarely for short visits. They haven't really experienced the new Don.
Catch 22? Hell is more accurate. I couldn't have lived with myself if he'd died, and I'm having trouble living with him — or myself — because he lived.
The situation might be more bearable if Don's job took him away for several hours a day, but he has his own PR business. And guess what. He runs it out of our house. I'm his assistant, so I'm blessed with his presence round the clock; prior to the accident, I was Don's partner, not an assistant. Now I'm completely under his thumb.
Scene: After the granola rant, Don says, "We'd better get to work." Of course, he doesn't take into consideration that the house is also my work. Before the crash, he shared most of the chores with me. Not any more, unless you count his grocery shopping, which doesn't amount to much since he only buys his current obsessions, not all the items needed to keep a household going. So I shop, too.
I say, "Give me a hand clearing the dishes, hon."
"No time. I have to dictate a bunch of letters, and there are some phone calls you need to make for me. Time to generate new business!"
"But I'm in the middle of the big project you gave me yesterday. You said you needed IT pronto."
"That can wait. This is more important."
I bite my tongue. Instead of saying "Up yours, Buster," I make excuses for him. He's still adjusting to life post surgery. He's still finding himself. He'll mellow over time.
But at the moment, he's a tyrant, my employer and my husband. Before I would have said "Buzz off, Bozo" if he got too bossy, and we would have laughed over it. Now — you've got it: the guilt's sucking the life from me and giving him too much power.
I understand how Prometheus felt, enduring his punishment, strapped to a rock, an eagle eating his liver every day. All I stole was Don's former life, but there seems no end in sight for me either.
Who is this new man I share a bed with? Has he always been there in the shadows but I've been too naïve or blind to notice? Of course, he's totally unaware of what I'm feeling. Or totally indifferent. Maybe he always has been and I just ignored it.
I try to block out the present with the past, thinking about our former life together. I remember after Kay, our first daughter, was born. We were only in our early 20's, barely adults. We didn't have a clue about caring for a baby. I was the youngest in my family, so I had no experience raising younger siblings. He was an only child. But we learned fast. Still, it killed me that Don was more skilled at changing diapers than I was. We used cloth ones then. They had to be folded into a triangle and secured with big safety pins. His always looked so neat; mine barely stayed on her bottom.
Were we really happy once, zipping along, anticipating our daughters being launched and our helping each other through old age? Maybe I'm inventing that part of our life. If the past exists only in memory and artifacts, and if memory dies with a person, then maybe there isn't such a thing as a past. Besides, how do I know my memories aren't faulty, a defense against what's going on at the moment? Anyway, the new Don keeps intruding into these reminiscences, making it impossible to escape him, robbing me even of those earlier, more carefree times.
Worse, everything in this house reminds me of what has died in our marriage. I can't go into a room without being inundated by images our furnishings evoke. Don and I bought the Shaker chair several years ago during a trip to New England, drawn to its simple upright lines, even though its origins in a strict religious community gave it a strait-laced quality. We christened the chair Martha soon after we got it home, trying out several positions on it, trying to shake its celibate vibes. Martha has kept watch over our family ever since.
Then there's the lamp that has a mermaid for a base; we found it at a garage sale our first year together. Her green nipples light up whenever the lamp's turned on, and she has a dusky rose lampshade, fringed with six-inch tassels. We paid $1.00 for it and giggled all the way home, wondering what Don's mother would say when she saw those lit-up nipples in our living room. We thought she'd be shocked.
She wasn't; she loved it. So when I look at the mermaid, I see Don's mother and my mother and my daughters. It also reminds me of mermaids surfacing from the depths and life's mysteries.
Every item has a similar story, though now these objects have taken on their own life and seem to be mocking me rather than giving comfort as they once did. Actually, my whole marriage has become a mockery, resembling Medusa's head, the tendrils reaching out and entangling me. Like Medusa, I may have to destroy something precious to me for my own survival.
A marriage can and does form a third entity, something beyond the control of the couple involved, a life of its own. Like a leech, it can suck the vitality from husband and wife, feeding off of them for its own survival. I'm not talking about all marriages. Only the ones that turn bad, like rotten fruit, stinking up the place and exacting a price for their continued existence.
Whenever Don's napping or shopping, I get out of the house. I've been attending an art therapy workshop that meets three times a week. It's such a relief not to talk if I don't want to. Nor do I need to listen if others blab on. If people do talk, they do it quietly, as if we're in a library, respectful of others' space. We're all there to focus on the art materials. Period.
It isn't that I'm trying to make a sculpture or anything. In fact, I try very hard not to make art at all. I only want the clay to surrender to my fingers probing, to experience its malleability, to be soothed by its sensuous texture. It's therapeutic just to have a little control over something. But most of the time, I surrender to it, letting the clay lead.
Stan, the teacher, doesn't do a lot of teaching, thank god. He looks totally out of place in that setting with his broad shoulders, great pecs, and bulging quads and biceps. He must have been a football player in another life. He drifts from person to person, grunting when he sees something that pleases him, silent most of the time.
I didn't get it at first when he seemed to linger at my table much longer than at the others. Since the accident, I've lost any sense of myself as sexually desirable, so the thought that he might find me attractive never entered my mind. Imagine my surprise when this hunk started breathing heavily while standing next to me, this raw animal energy bouncing off his skin. He even started loading up on after-shave before class, a mating call for him, I guess, but a real turn-off for me.
He's not my type. Seriously not. I've always gone for the slender, poetic-looking guys. Like Don when he was younger. But it's still flattering to have a man without holes in his mind showing interest in little ole me. I find myself responding to the pure animal vibration Stan gives off, even though I try to ignore him.
Most of the time, I let my mind go blank and sit there, the lump of terracotta plopped on a piece of board resting on my lap. Then I knead and push it for two hours, pressing it away from my body, working with the heels of my hands until the clay finally fits the square wood surface it's resting on. And that's all I do, each day emptying myself of something distasteful. It's the best therapy I've ever had.
But I can't go on like this. Don is so absorbed in his own world (he just spent days raving about bird feed, claiming that the quality isn't as good as it once was) that he doesn't even notice I'm totally miserable. I want to feel sorry for him and embrace his new limitations — his blindness. I want to make his life easier.
Till death us do part repeats over and over in my mind. I've made a vow. A promise is a promise. I can't take a lover. That would just give me a bigger load of guilt to cart around. And I can't run out on a crip. Can I?
But what if Don were to run out on me? I wouldn't be responsible then. It would be his choice. Maybe he'll meet someone who'll actually fall for this new Don. He's not a bad-looking guy. A little paunch. Not unusual for someone his age. He still has his hair. Earns a decent living. A pretty good catch given the scarcity of eligible heterosexual men in the Bay Area. He'd get nabbed fast.
And a new woman wouldn't have memories of former times to combat. She wouldn't know any different. She'd fall for the new Don. I even start sifting through my current women friends, wondering if I can do some matchmaking. Kathy, one of my more dippy acquaintances, might complement Don better than I do. But again my daughters come into the picture. They wouldn't stand for it. Nor would I. I wouldn't wish Kathy on anyone, especially Don. She has a brain the size of a peanut.
I decide if I can't get rid of Don himself, I can start moving in a new direction. I want to shed some of the things we purchased together during those halcyon times: it's simply too painful to look at them day in and day out. So I hold a yard sale one weekend when Don is off scouting a band that needs his PR skills. It's his first trip alone since the accident, a major step for him — and for me. He needs to know he can do things on his own without me as an appendage. I need to know I can have a life without him. It's our only hope as a couple. Independence.
Actually, I don't have a yard sale exactly; it's a household furnishings sale, the yard part being a teaser. I put an ad in the newspaper under yard sales. I also post notices on all the telephone poles in the neighborhood. Then I put a few things outside as a come on and invite people inside. "Take a look," I say. "Make me an offer I can't refuse."
Some of my neighbors turn up, of course, sniffing around. Sally from next door climbs through the bushes separating our properties, pushing away cobwebs. "You and Don moving?"
I say no.
"You're not breaking up I hope. Not after all you've been through together." Her face scrunches up with worry.
"Nope. We just need to clear out the clutter."
She makes an offer for our mermaid, but I don't want the lamp moving next door where I can see it all the time. I'm relieved when a stranger, a pint-sized male, bids higher. In the middle of this bidding war, my heart lurches around in my chest. I'm more attached emotionally to the mermaid than I am to the new Don. I choke back the tears and shout "Sold to the man in the green sweat outfit."
As much as I hate to see the mermaid go, I make a sizable amount more than the $1.00 we paid for her. I do well on the other items too. What has been junk to us is a new category — distressed, or antique.
By Sunday night, the place is practically empty, dust balls chasing each other around the bare wooden floors. I even managed to sell the rugs. I'm feeling empty myself, wrung out from the experience of giving up these treasures Don and I had discovered together. The only thing left is Martha, our Shaker chair, the one thing I absolutely couldn't part with, and Don's favorite black leather recliner — I didn't have the heart to let that go, though I did get a good offer for it. I also didn't touch the girls' rooms or the computers. But the rest? Gone.
And I've pocketed the money. It's tempting to pack a couple of suitcases and buy a plane ticket to Costa Rica or Puerto Vallarta. Start a new life. It's so tempting that I even check out what Expedia.com has to offer. But I keep getting flooded with images of Don and me and the girls. Their first communion. The recitals and dance performances. I remember Don attending Lamaze with me, and he was such a rock during both births: he was excellent with the breathing exercises and coached me so well during labor that the time flew by. He never left my side.
I've been trying to blot out the past, to prevent it from bleeding into the present, unwilling to let the two merge. But the past does exist; it isn't just hitched to our possessions. It shifts and changes as we do, our present coloring everything. I've also been unwilling to explore what this new Don has to offer me, forgetting that the man I married is still lurking somewhere inside him. I've kept him away and let my guilt turn him into a tyrant.
I just had a déjà vu feeling that I've had this experience before of sitting in a practically empty house, waiting for Don to return. And in fact I have. When we first bought this place, we couldn't afford much furniture, but we didn't care. We had a bed, a dresser, a kitchen table and chairs, adding what we could from yard sales or flea markets when we got a good deal.
He didn't have his own PR business then but worked for someone else, gone all day. I was a full-time mother with two toddlers under foot all day, just a year apart. I loved the girls. Don't get me wrong. But by the end of the day, I wanted an adult to talk to who could use complete sentences and wasn't just focusing on me, me, me. Know what I mean?
So when I heard his car pull into the driveway, my heart soared. I was elated to see him walk through the doorway. He gave me the lopsided smile that I loved so much, tossed his briefcase on a folding chair, and said, "Baby," wrapping me in his arms, the word echoing throughout the house. The girls tottered into the room and squealed, grabbing his legs.
You can see why it isn't so easy to fracture a family and be responsible for radically changing everyone's life. I have a writer friend who does that with her characters. She can invent whatever past or future she desires for her creations, not having to bear the consequences. But we aren't characters in a work of fiction. We have to live with our choices. My daughters: it would hit them the hardest. They wouldn't have a history they could trust. Their childhood would seem like a deception. It would throw their whole identities into question. How could I live with doing that to them?
Not that marriages shouldn't or don't end. People grow apart. Maybe the split in our relationship is permanent and the girls will just have to adjust, as I've had to adjust since the accident. I can't protect them forever.
I'm sitting on Martha, waiting for Don to return from his trip, and I'm thinking about resurrection. I've never quite believed the stories of Jesus resurrecting from the dead. Not only does it seem physically impossible, but it also makes a statement about heaven itself. If it were so great, then why in hell would Jesus return to this mundane life? I don't quite buy it that he sacrificed heaven for us. Besides, I'm not Jesus, willing to forfeit what's left of my life for the good of — what?
I'm mulling these things when Don walks in the door, suitcase in one hand, briefcase in the other. I thought he'd throw a fit when he saw that our furnishings were gone, maybe even turn violent. So I'm surprised at the look of relief that passes over his face, as if a dark cloud has lifted. He's wearing a fedora that hides the scar, allowing me to forget for a moment that the accident even happened; and he's shaved off his mustache.
"Hey," he says, "you've been housecleaning."
"I hated that old stuff. Just never had the nerve to say so."
Our voices echo in the empty room. The reverberations whack us around a bit, like a Zen koan, throwing us back on ourselves. Maybe something can rise from the dead. Resurrection may not come in the form we expect. It may not come at all. But it's worth giving it a chance.
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