Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Blue Hour

        In the blue hour between night and day, just before the streetlights go off, there is a light on in the house of someone who loves me. The house is a dark box set on a smooth, dark lawn like an unopened present. Every plane suggests a geometric barrier. The house is closed to me, its curtains drawn shut, the driveway empty.

          But in the back of the house, on the second story to the left, a light is on. There are no shadows or movement, just a bright yellow rectangle suffusing a particular, dark moment in its warm, steady glow. I turn off my headlights and park where I can watch, and I wait for it. Comfort, seeping into my chest, a trickle at a time, burning my throat. I drink it down till I've had my fill. Then I drive away.

          There's a light on in the window of someone who loves me.  I think of this after we've finished with each other, the first time I drive by his house again after more than a year. I go the first time without knowing why, just sleepless and following an aimless pattern of lonely streets.

          He hasn't lived there for decades, but that changes nothing. When I summon the image of the light on in a dark house, which I've done more often than I care to admit over the years, it has the same guilty allure as a stolen bottle of 20-year-old whiskey. What I don't wish to consider is what this light illuminates. Why, exactly, should an image so comforting leave the aftertaste of grief?

Before I push open the door of the paint shop where I plan to buy a quart of black chalkboard paint for a wall of my daughter's bedroom, I turn to press the remote on my key chain.  When I hear all the locks click shut, I see him waving at me from a parked car across the lot. I can't make out his features, but I recognize the angle of his jaw, the way he pushes back against the headrest, and how his head almost touches the roof of the car. He motions for me to get in.

          His car, I notice, is an older sedan the color of raspberry jam and has a fidgety keypad on the door. To make room for me, he throws a stack of papers, a plastic Giants cup, and a baseball cap onto the back seat.

          "What's with the grannymobile?" I ask. "Whose car is this?"

          "Eh, it gets me where I have to go." His neck looks stiff. I wonder what he sees when he looks at me?  I see the same handsome boy he was more than 20 years ago. There are the same high cheekbones and sharp jaw, the sneering, puffy mouth, eyebrows that are always poised to challenge, the same pink birthmark on the side of his neck that blushes when he's hot.  But the top of his head above the ears is bald, like a monk, with a thick brown fringe below. His lips are whitish and he winces.

         "What happened to you?"

          He tells me he's early for a doctor's appointment. I wonder out loud if he should skip the doctor and head straight to the Emergency Room.

          "What have you been up to?" He says bean because he's Australian. I tell him the kids and I have moved in with my mother, who's been sick, that I'm back in my childhood bedroom again.  He tells me most of his family has moved back to Australia and he's fed up with his job.

          After he presses my cell phone number into his iPhone, I insist on walking him to his doctor's office. I noticed he had keyed in my number but not my name.

          "Remember when I flew to upstate New York in that little Cessna to visit you at school?" he asks. "I was crazy."

          "Remember how you didn't want to wake me up in the middle of the night, so you went to a bar in Geneva, New York, and spent the night with a woman who had a double mastectomy?"

          "I told you everything.  That was my problem, I was too honest."

           I touch his sleeve before he opens the door to the waiting room.   He is wearing a brown denim jacket lined with fleece.  I've left my coat in my car so I shiver. "I've been wanting to tell you," I start and then wonder how to say it.  "I've been sorting through all the stuff in my old room, in my mother's house, and I found two boxes of your letters."

          He opens the door without looking at me and says, "You were always very organized."

          Inside, he turns to rest his palm lightly against the soft roll where my waist used to be. He leans down stiffly, pale and grimacing. I kiss his cheek and ask him to call and let me know he's okay.

          I think about him for the rest of the day, wondering if I should visit the hospital or call, wondering why I didn't take his phone number, why didn't I ask him more about himself?  I wake up in bed beside my teenage daughter, who sleeps with me while her room is being painted, in a room I used to share with him. Every night I spent there for so many years I would hear the plink of gravel hitting the window pane until I crept downstairs to let him in.

          Now my bedroom window holds back the blue hour, casting black shadows on the ceiling and floor, over our rumpled quilt, along the curve of my daughter's back. While I wait for morning, I don't think of his light.

          Tonight I allow myself to unwrap memories, opening each one as I would a box nested within another box. I see him at 18, as I saw him then, with the stricken, secret awe that a bookish girl has for the star athlete. I recall the shock of love and the bliss of love returned, I remember every centimeter of his skin, his feel, his smell, his weight and heat, how I felt the sound of his voice resonate inside me, everything sharper and more deeply experienced the first time. Going up in the Cessna before he had his license and begging him not to do anything crazy, squeezing my eyes shut as we went up, bouncing a little from side to side, then opening my eyes as we leveled off, seeing the hills, trees, and houses of our hometown rearranged far below in an unfamiliar panorama, how he followed the streets aimlessly till he pointed down at my house, but all I saw was a grid of unrecognizable streets filled in with tree canopies. The relief of bumping to a skidding stop on the tarmac. The drinking, the drunk driving, his mother begging me to pick him up from jail, my refusal. Before I knew how selfish I was, before I knew I was capable of cruelty, how I had felt sorry for him, then blamed him, wanted to fix him, save him, hated him, wanted him, didn't want him, and at last I find it, small and clear as a droplet in my open hand:

          When I come home from a run I'm surprised I've left the front door unlocked.  Before I take a shower, I open the fridge and pour myself a glass of water.  I'm singing when I walk into the dining room and hear footsteps upstairs and the sound of someone coughing. My voice breaks--at first I'm embarrassed. On the dining room table, I see the page I'd left in the typewriter is now lying face-down on the table.  I turn it over and read the last line. I don't love him anymore but he won't stop. I hadn't told him yet that I was seeing someone else.

          His heavy footsteps on the stairs, and then he is in front of me. His eyes are bloodshot and he has the childish look of a boy who's just been awakened from a sound sleep. He pushes his fists into his eye sockets, hard.

          My mouth is dry and I put the glass down on the table so he doesn't see my hand shaking. I'm not sure if it's booze I smell or the stink of my own adrenaline.  He's blocking the door, all 6'4 inches of him, legs apart, hands on his hips, but his head is bowed. The hard sound of my voice surprises me.

          "You get exactly what you deserve. You broke into my house. You read my private papers."

          "I know," he says.  "Sorry about that." I watch him stare down the empty typewriter, and then I watch him walk out the door.

           I look at my empty palm in the dark and rub at the lines I can't quite see yet, though the sky is now the deep, translucent blue of stained glass.

          What had I wanted to tell him that was so important at the doctor's office?  That I had loved him?  That I was sorry?  Or that I will cherish his love as long as he stays away?

1 comment:

  1. Bitter sweet ... that comes to mind ... this is so full of atmosphere and feeling. It really shows how alone we all are ... even having Leila next to you, no way can she or anyone know what you know, feel, sense in your private world that here clashes with the every day stuff ...
    I think it is a tour de force bit of writing and could almost be a short film.