I set the table.
It has to be just right.
The table itself, old and oak, inlaid with shells, whorled with carvings, round and raised and varnished. Set in a small room, in the centre, in the shafts of sunlight that invade plate glass windows. Autumn. And the colour of the air is brandy and caramel, the light slides down the walls, darkening towards a toffee darkness, towards evening. And the leaves fall, leaving patches of lava beneath shedding branches, set at intervals along the planted roadside.
I’ve been doing this for years now. A decade, just over. Every year, against the autumnal equinox. In secret.
My friend, Stacy, says I need to move on. She looks at me with her serious eyes, reaching out and covering my hands with hers. She says: “Look, I get it. I know it must be hard to let go. It must be hard to admit that he’s gone when you just don’t… know. I’d keep wondering and hoping too…”
“It isn’t that.”
“But Jody, you’re so closed off. You haven’t been with anybody… not since he disappeared. Nine years without sex, girl! You can’t tell me you don’t miss it.”
Well. Well, yes. And if I could just explain to her… if I could pour out the words…
“I just don’t like to see you wasting away. Wasting your life.”
If only you knew. But what I say to her is: “I’m not. I just haven’t found the right-” man? moment? – “time. Or…for things to be right. You understand?”
She doesn’t. She feels sorry for me. She doesn’t know how to help.
But I have found him. The right man. I never really lost him.
And I don’t have regrets. I just wish one in a hundred people could believe me.
And I wish he were here, right now.
And so, it has to be perfect. I lay the table, a plate on each side, a knife, a fork, a spoon. I serve the meal, pumpkin, chicken, corn, crumbed mushrooms, just the way it was, that last time; that binding memory. And I set the crystal in the middle of the table. I mix salt with shaved glass, and with fennel, and with granulated ice made from raindrops. I put the salt crystals in every corner, mark each window with chalk, take the salt mixture and pour it in a circle. As the sun’s nearly set, I light a match.
He’s sitting opposite me. I never see him appear. In the complex half-light, amongst all the reds and yellows, there he is, as if he’d been sitting there all along. And I examine his face, I drink in every inch of him. He changes every time – it’s not ageing exactly – I can’t decide if he ages faster or slower than I do – the changes are more transformational, the way his hair seems thicker, almost ropey, the way it’s changed to a muddy colour from what had once been blond. There’s amber in his eyes, and his lips are crusted in rough, bluish scales.
“You’re…” and I’m not quite sure if ‘alive’ is the thing I want to say.
He misunderstands: “I’ll always come back to you.”
Once a year. Briefly. And then the other half life begins.
He tries to share it with me, and I realise, staring at him, that this is his justifying himself: this is why you should wait for me, why you should endure, why you should be here for me instead of living a life of your own. “Because it’s glorious,” he says, “the future. It’s astonishing. It isn’t what you think, I don’t see people anymore, almost never, it’s just the swirling dust, and the colours. And the shapes that form in it. There’s something up ahead, and I think it’s even more glorious!”
But it’s your glory, isn’t it? I know he’s trying to share it with me, he’s doing his absolute best, and I know that he wants to race back in there, fill up on this meal – of food and love and a little magic – and then plunge back into the vortex, mapping the future. He used to say he would write a thesis about this, make us rich and famous. But he doesn’t say that anymore, it’s all about the journey now, about what’s out there and what will be.
I ask him, “How far do you think you’ve gone.”
“It’s hard to keep track now.” At first there’d been peoples and cities, newspapers, a burgeoning internet, the date available at every second glance. But then there’d been changes, subtle twists in the human anatomy, and there’d been conflicts he couldn’t make sense of, and couldn’t relay back to me because he couldn’t make that sense. And then just these scraps of humanity, battling a storm, becoming the storm – swirls of ochre and snow-white, red-wine, blue-ice, charcoal, fire. This became Darren’s world settling all over him, seeping into him, scraping him a cell at a time away from me. He says: “It might be thousands of years. I actually think I could be looking at millions.”
“Millions.” It’s not quite a question. There’s a raising of eyebrows – acknowledging, respecting, but not questioning.
“I accelerate, I think.”
“But then what?” I ask him, and there are tears in my eyes. “What at the end of all this?”
“Why, I come back to you.”
He doesn’t mean it. I know he doesn’t mean it.
He reaches for my hands. “You. You’re my anchor. Surely you know you’re my anchor.”
I nod. Of course. I try to blink the tears back but they’re not having any of it tonight.
“Surely you know.”
“Without me you’d drift away, you’d become lost, you’d starve and die.” I say it by rote, but I know it to be literally true. The ritual sustains him.
Or does it hold him back? The thought is so new, it glitters there in my mind, shying away from my tongue, wary of becoming something out loud and irrevocable. But it huddles in my mind, testing itself out. Suppose he didn’t starve and die, but transformed, became one with the enticing storm he even this moment wants to rush back into it?
I could give him that. I could cut him off. The gift of freedom. The idea is painful, and yet it holds something, a soft flame, a sense of exhilaration. Because the freedom would be a gift to us both?
“We only have these few hours.”
But he doesn’t want to talk about me, about my life, my job, my friends, my family. My Uncle Reg died last month, and I had thought I’d be able to tell him about it, let him help me understand my complex feelings: sorry, but even sorrier that I couldn’t have grieved deeper, because I didn’t feel deeper. The kind of thinking to share with a life partner, with a man you love and who loves you. But I don’t share this quandary, I don’t even mention my uncle. Darren wouldn’t want to know.
He talks about the feeling of float-flying, of the moments when something almost like a sky is on the very verge of opening up to him. His calculations.
He says: “The chicken’s good”
“Exactly as you remember?”
My voice might break a tiny bit: “I’m glad you like it.”
“This is all thanks to you,” he says.
I know it. Oh yes, I know.
“I couldn’t do this without you.”
“Are you all right, Jody?” The first real words about me.
“I’m fine. But I miss you, and I wish I could live a normal life sometimes, with my husband in my bed,” and daring it: “with anybody in my bed. It’s been close to a decade, you know?”
“For me too.”
But he doesn’t feel it the way I do. He doesn’t feel time the same way. And he doesn’t miss my body the way I miss his. I look at his faded trousers, at the seemingly ordinary bulge there – there’ve been changes in other parts of his body, so why not there, where it’s so much more sensitive? If we ever fall hungrily into bed together again, I wonder what I’d find when I pull down those trousers to take a look.
He’s beginning to fade. The swirl is calling him back in. I can see it coalescing around our room, dappling the air, casting shadows on the wall.
A few years ago: “Take me with you.”
“Jody, I can’t. There’d be nobody to pull us back.”
“You could find somebody.”
“No. Not with the love that you have. It’s all about your love.”
No pressure then. And not as if that love could fade over decades of being neglected, or having so little to remember by, so little to guide itself and stay on course.
He doesn’t want me anyway. He wants to be alone out there.
He maintains some part of his humanity. There’s fear in his fading eyes. “You’ll be here for me next time.”
“Of course. Always.”
And when he’s gone. Alone. Drinking too much whiskey. I know that I could cut him off, I could cast him adrift. I could do it. Or I could be here, waiting, dinner on the table, just as I always have. I could do either. Go either way. I curl up in the window seat and watch cars go by, buoyed by this new understanding that the decision is mine. Something I can own. My destiny in my own hands.
I settle against the cushions. I have a whole year to decide.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work