My head becomes raw as the heat leaves. The heat leaves me through my head, my feet.
The darkness of a snow-sky, a white-lie, and more snow coming.
Black corn stalks sharp against my instep. I count my steps in the circle.
I am waiting for her to see me and take me in. I know that she will.
Movement in the corner of my sight. Again, around again. My head raw.
She would have come if I had on shoes.
The circle worn in the snow, blood cooling in my toes; shoes by the side of the road, the socks neatly tucked inside. Across the field.
She is coming across the field.
I click the light out, pull the covers up to my nose, cover it, attempt to cover my ears. The warm water she provided in the huge planter— dark particles of potting soil floating, feet turning pink, the toes last and prickling—helped, but the chill is still here. It settled into the damp weight of my body in her guest bed.
I want to sleep.
I want to halt the planning.
I can hear her turning in her bed in the next room.
I feel shame.
The morning starts well enough.
Up, a quiet walk down the stairs, a familiarness in the stock of her pantry, the layout of her dishes.
Everything chosen for comfort.
The dogs swirl around my feet, their thick tails making a mass of white about my body as they circle, tongues out and eyes waiting.
I lean back in a chair at the kitchen table.
Ben, I say out loud. Does the mind change when the name does?
Steven. No. Martin. A shock of pleasure.
I let the dogs out. They streak, pushing themselves forward, propelled by foreign instincts, perpetual puppies; domesticated brains shrunken by comfort.
Her feet in slippers on the stairs.
Dragging them, scuffing the heel with tired steps.
She must have heard the dogs.
This morning coming for some time and now starting a series of movements toward a standoff, toward the natural resistance to interruption.
I cannot help but smile as she steps into view.
Sleep-heavy and knotted hair.
She pulls her robe tighter around her hipless waist.
She looks stunned. I picture the look of her in places inside me.
She begins her morning by cracking eggs, the flick of a browned wrist breaking them open, tossing the shells, a quick movement of a sharp knife and the ripping sound it makes as it passes through green onions, then nearly silent as it passes through mushrooms.
Standing there at the counter watching me.
“Hello, Corbina,” I want to say.
But I am mute, like my daughter Sarah, controlling things by making the other person overact, over-think. I am willing to wait. I wait.
A name that surprised me, a roundness I discovered on her mail a few days after I saw her working a stand at the farmer’s market.
A tall stone of a woman, a strong jaw with large teeth that she probably ground in her sleep. She was selling heirlooms, giant ugly tomatoes that split their own seams.
She was eyeing inside a book about soil. She pushed her toes into the ground, digging them in, wriggle by wriggle, perhaps along with the rhythm of her reading about soil.
I took a dark purple tomato and kept walking.
I didn’t look back until I was in my truck.
She was still standing there, eyebrows gathered, lips in a slight frown.
I bit into the blackness.
Juice ran down my chin.
She leaves the house after breakfast.
I watch her walk to the greenhouse, her feet dark marks in the snow.
I open the drawers in the kitchen, in her bedroom, her study.
There are small objects hidden away.
A dried orange peel in the round shape of its missing fruit, mystic texts with underlines, a gray silk scarf with sweat stains.
[A bath of chemicals] to swoon and mourn the smallness of her experience.
I find other things, truly private things (a need to absorb, a dirty sponge, a steady opening of envelopes with others’ names, the private sound of a body in a bathtub, turning to submerge the other hip, the cold hip of a narrow tub, an egret taken from its stillness, plucked by its thin neck—the feeling of opening her drawers and cabinets, that private stillness and so thin a strategy for invisibility. Bridget, her mother: anger and satisfaction.)
I take them in, learning, categorizing her life. An ear tuned for the sound of a door.
I became accustomed to catching glimpses of people whenever I was shaken against myself—the dash to the mailbox in the towel, the bathrobe or pajamas; the person perched by the window waiting for a letter, cracking their knuckles and rubbing their palms on their thighs. Being a mailman was good for this reason, for the way people were between work selves and home selves, people caught in transition.
Corbina caught me off guard. She appeared in the window of an old farm house and I recognized her frame from the market.
This was only the second time I had seen her, one of my last days at work. I was holding her phone bill, and several mailers. I was also holding her name.
Retirement came, a party with cake and blue icing, soda.
We celebrate like children when the old leave.
I pulled out my sweet tooth and dug in, mugging for cameras, a sick stomach feeling, already forming into the self that would drop into her life.
I wondered at the attraction and if attraction was the right word for it.
This obsession was not physical, although I couldn’t protest all possibilities.
I laugh at myself.
My old body in bed, layers of quilts, layers of socks, and I imagine her sliding in next to me and feeling her warmth. How tame and sentimental I have become.
My wife and I had twenty years together—for both of us it was our second marriage.
It had been a good match, produced two children, both of whom were in college.
When the children left for school we had been alone in the house for the first time.
We had long talks about how each of us had moved into another’s apartment after high school and how what we knew of ourselves was always in relation to other people, our spouses or our children and earlier—our parents and families.
There were no infidelities, no bankruptcies, no addictions.
None of the stuff that makes people break down or run away.
And still, when I left, I felt like my place in that home had been transient, always transient—my role to pass through.
That’s not to say I didn’t love them.
And round the steps of the circle I have taken to get here.
My wife and I used to drop acid and ride the bus from one end of the city to the other.
We had to pay the fare again when the bus did a U-turn.
We were the only two on board, in a strange part of the westernmost edge.
We walked up to the driver, put our money in the machine and sat back down near the back of the bus. People came on, we listened and slid our shoes over the sticky floor.
The stiffness of strychnine creeping into our muscles and back.
But, these moments were what we would reference, later, after the kids had come.
In bed my wife would turn to me and say, an imp, a character from that bus ride,
“Hey little man, wipe your nose. Wipe your nose little name. Little man, wipe it.” It was one of the few ways we were parts of one another.
She came in earlier than I expected.
I was in the basement when I heard the front door open followed by the crush of plastic bags and the dog’s feet sliding on the linoleum.
I could have moved quickly upstairs and talked about wanting to help with the laundry.
I only had the clothes I was wearing.
I just kept quiet, listening to her unpack the groceries and talk nonsense to the dogs.
I heard her leave the first floor.
What could I have been doing down here?
I looked around. A second-hand couch with threadbare arms, yellow plaid and deep body imprints. A cabinet. A washer and dryer.
It was too much home for one person, but who should deny a want?
Corbina approached the basement and called down, my name rising a little in her mouth, making it a question—Martin?
I didn’t move until I heard her sit down.
What to do? Move slowly and say her name.
Startle her and watch the color wash over her face.
I climb the steps and say, Corbina.
She turns to see me. I watch it all and smile.
“I’m right here. Did you think I left?”
“I wasn’t sure.”
She looks down and then over to a plastic bag on the table.
She reaches for it, a brief moment of exposed hip, and then hands it to me.
I open the bag and see socks with gold toes, brown corduroy clippers and a packet of white undershirts.
I sit down and snap open the plastic ring that holds the socks together and then slide a pair on. Warmth. The slippers are a little snug but they will stretch to meet my feet. I leave the undershirts on the table.
“Thank you. My feet feel better.”
“You’re welcome,” she says, and stands.
She begins chopping carrots, her posture perfect, shoulders lined up, rough fingers moving over the orange taproot, making it smaller with each downward gesture of the knife. She looks up and meets my eyes and then looks down to her cutting board.
I can see she wants me to leave the room.
I walk slowly to the stairs, grasp the banister and haul myself up to the bed.
She is a stranger woman than I imagined.
She didn’t yell, didn’t question me about what I was doing in the basement.
She handed me socks even though I stepped on our handshaken arrangement.
She offered me gifts picked out for the old confused man, not a stranger in the basement.
What do you know about me, Corbina? I am an old man you found in a field, walking circles with bare feet. I am your stray dog. Your secret.
I hear the chopping again and smell the way each vegetable softens, the changes of texture and taste. I can smell the celery becoming transluscent.
I saw a part of her, the part she will not see.
I am surprised that she caved so quickly.
I overheard her ask her mother if she had heard anything about a lost man.
Who looks for a lost man?
Lost women are something to worry about, not men.
Even ones who have left a family behind.
A wife, a daughter and a son.
No one would look for me.
No one would bother.
Until I found Corbina.
I want to know why she hasn’t been married.
Everyone has been married, at least once.
I want this explanation from her. She doesn’t answer. She wants to know how
I know she hasn’t.
No ties, no pictures, no belts hanging on hooks in bedroom closets.
If they moved out then why would I keep those things around?
So, they moved out. I wonder about the pronouns. Not he, they.
I ask her and open a small wound, a fissure.
I realize her mother must have given her these same small wounds, increasing in time.
She is immune, a cold front.
She reaches out her hand, removes my glasses.
She folds the temples of the frames and tucks them into the front pocket of her shirt before standing to leave the table.
She doesn’t push in her chair.
I watch her back as she moves and turns the corner to ascend the stairs.
Dogs know shoes.
Dogs know that when a human puts on shoes, the dog is going outside.
The dog hopes, anyway.
Yes, the dog hopes. Have you read a dog’s eyebrows?
You know this, so why am I telling you?
When ______ happens, _______ will (hopefully or not) happen next and we try to anticipate the future using this pattern-recognizing system.
It has worked well for us as a species and maybe the dogs learned it from us, or maybe we learned it from them. We have merged survival skills.
Example: Mom begins to pull out limes. Depending on the household, you know Mom is either going to make a taco salad or a gin and tonic.
Polarized choices, yes. I’ve done that to help you draw conclusions about mothers.
And you have brought your own limes into the picture, your own memories of your mother and how you feel about her.
So, dogs. And limes and mothers.
We all practice being psychics. We are all mind readers.
But the good stories happen when the human puts on shoes to take a nap and the dog is waiting by the front door.
I’ve dropped the pattern.
I want to know what she sees in plants.
I watch as she uses her thumbnail to snip the seed pods off of a basil plant.
She holds the seeds out to me.
You think that’s fair to the plant? Frustrating it like that? It tries all year to get to that point, to make those seeds and you make it start over for your own needs.
She points to the table: hot house tomatoes, farmer’s market mozzarella and the basil from her window box.
Okay, me, too. My needs.
I splash the food with balsamic vinegar and a little salt, pepper.
You feel bad for the plant? What about the duck you keep putting on the grocery list?
The death of the duck is different.
You tell me why you do that to the plant.
So the plant doesn’t think that its life is over, its mission complete. It dies once the seeds are ready and I want it to stick around a little longer. Basil is so impossible anyway. It’s still probably going to die.
The plant thinks? The plant has an awareness of approaching death?
Of course it knows missions. It knows it has to pass on genetic material. Seeds. It’s perfect.
And the death of the duck is perfect, too.
Ugh, she rolls her eyes. But I know she is smiling too.
I can use that little gun your mom brought you. Catch one in flight over the house.
I have no idea where she got that. I don’t know if it’s legal. Don’t you need a permit?
I don’t answer. I imagine pointing the gun out of her bedroom window at a migrating flock. I imagine having the dogs fetch me the duck that I fell. I’ve never killed anything in my life, but maybe I should. Not too many years to carry the guilt, if I feel guilt.
You are thinking about it, she says, and waves her hand to get my attention.
I bite the sulfur tips of matches and chew.
There have been times that I’ve held a flame to my wrist.
Who hasn’t? Who hasn’t imagined death by fire?
Or by water, holding their breath in the tub, making a game of it.
Being old, I don’t need to play.
I am certain things are moving that way, fire or water, or some lame bodily exhalation.
Captain Beefheart. The 13th Floor Elevators, my internal rhythm, the clock I set my body’s electricity to.
It was endless, this supply of questions and doubts.
Doubts, I loved them. My wife, did not. As would anyone trying to live with another.
They are impossible to give yourself over to—to doubt that you made the right choice in marriage, in children—
Yes, let’s go with the droning drums and tinny, repetitive guitar lines.
I add things to the grocery list:
Two bottles of red. Anything but Shiraz.
Xanax. (I know, get an Rx please. Tell the doc about your trouble sleeping, your anxiety—tell a story for me.
Lately the walls come in when I speak; a black tunnel of panic.
I have learned to talk myself down, to convince myself that my mouth is not full of gibberish, my brain and mouth meeting in the usual way—
I see what your body says and go from there. Please)
Duck. (Dark meat, fat-rich, taste the seasons and the brevity of their lives.)
Celery, when simmered with carrots and onions, the holy trinity—mirepoix—is the only odor that describes safety and domestication.
Celery, that fibrous plant with so little taste until it meets heat.
A fox pup stared me down the other day. I was outdoors, not allowed in this current exile.
At first, I couldn’t make out what it was.
It stood in the road, between the neighbors’ driveways.
I thought it was a cat, then a puppy and finally a fox.
I was perhaps a hundred feet away when it moved, going behind the neighbor’s house.
I waited and saw it move through their backyard, pausing to stop and sniff the bench that was never used, the neighbor’s wife preferring to walk to the small bar on the corner,
smoke cigarettes outside and catch the attention of men she would never sleep with, not even peripherally aware of the bench in her own backyard, the husband not aware of it either, not in the sitting sense, only in the accomplishment sense, as in, I bought that wood and metal and I cemented it there, in that corner of my yard. The pup raised his eyes to mind and held them, then lowered his head and slunk away.
And, I think, I’m sleeping tonight. With dogs curled around my feet and the moon on my thinning hair, the white light on my pillow, my lunacy full.
My cousin the outlaw writes me notes and leaves them under the doormat.
I am unsure how he knows I am here.
I am sure my wife and children do not know I am in the same town.
Sharing the zip code, a matter of minutes down a country road.
He and I were born on the same day, a year apart.
We have not been able to split our lives.
Sun-dried tomatoes. Why not?
Jerky. I lost a tooth to its tough smokiness.
Where I grew up they sold it in great slabs.
It was an after-school ritual to purchase the edible leather.
I wonder if the cashier at the grocery store has noticed a change in the conveyor belt of food that she rings and bags for Corbina.
Improbable, although not impossible.
I notice a small dark mound under the eye of one of the dogs.
It is a growth, full of dark blood.
I squeeze it one afternoon and it fills up the next day.
The dog’s face is white under the eyes and along the snout.
Even his feet have gotten lighter with age.
I wonder at this bleaching of the dog, the bleaching and washing out of life.
Corbina has been cooking a lot since her mother’s visit.
She is nervous. I am nervous.
I am not ready for this to be over.
The other day I woke up and couldn’t remember where I was and why I was sleeping in a bed without my wife.
A gutless feeling, a rudderless omen.
I am not ready for this to be over.
I have not yet begun to understand it.
The other day Corbina came into the house crying.
She pointed to the newspapers next to the bed and my heart shook it its cage, ready to be exposed.
China! she said, and reading my relief, began to cry harder.
I had never seen her show this much emotion and I didn’t know what to say next.
She continued, What a waste!
What a wounded creature, I thought.
I reached for her and she let me hold her head to my chest.
She quieted down and then left the room.
What can I possibly hope to happen?
An anonymous life in a house I can’t leave with a woman who is not my wife, my girlfriend, my daughter.
My son’s image, a memory of a photograph his mother shot, of him taking a bath in the kitchen sink in our first home.
He is holding a plastic rabbit and appears concerned.
The window is open behind him to a hot summer day.
Aren’t you going to ask me?
Well, what did you do, Martin? I hate that question.
I was a mailman. I retired not too long ago. They had a party for me. I don’t miss it, not most days.
I realize that Corbina’s face hasn’t changed at all. No surprise, no interest.
Did she already know?
Finally, she says, Seems like a good job. Get to do all that walking. And seeing what magazines people subscribe to.
They weren’t the most interesting thing, though. It was the other stuff, like letters from colleges and the IRS—more personal than porn.
I think porn can be personal.
That’s just stupid.
Hey! she says, looking up.
Not stupid, sorry. Just not something I’d be interested in.
Well, it would interest me.
Your and your age are like that.
She laughs a little, in a stooped way that places my words beneath hers.
I am slapped by the rift of our years.
The strange attraction seeming tenuous at best.
I feel like I’m talking to my daughter.
I do not want to feel that.
She steps in, she saves it.
Whatever, okay. Being a mailman sounds cool.
What hard pounding thoughts of Corbina up to the day I arrived.
The reading of the weather forecasts, first weekly, then daily, on the day of, hourly.
I was aiming for snow and the weatherman was acting stage director, telling me when to enter.
I left the house without a coat, but with shoes.
My family, of course, wasn’t home.
I scanned each room before I left, looking for objects to form memories around.
A signed baseball from my youth.
I picked up a statue of a saint to find the coin my wife placed there.
My daughter’s room and the guitar that had been my sister’s and was now hers.
Her closet door was open and showed folded jeans.
I once saw the tops of a six-pack between the folds, but didn’t worry about her drinking it warm.
She needed private things the same way I did. It was more about the taking from me than the desire for drunkenness.
My son’s room only needed the slightest of looks, my eyes going right for the picture of him and his core group of friends—burned noses, bleached hair, on the dock at the lake.
They are stunning in their happiness.
Keys? Do I take them?
If I take them I can lock the door behind me.
If I leave them then they will believe I had intended to be right back.
I could not stand the idea of an intruder, even though I wouldn’t be there to see what he took. I knew the chances of this happening where next to none, but I locked the door anyway.
Down the stairs, around to the back of the house.
I lift one of the slate stones of the walkway and make a shallow hole.
I drop my keys in and cover them up.
Now I start the walk, head down, shoulders up near my ears, the wind at my neck and exposed ears.
I walk quickly, cutting through yards, using paths known to mailmen.
I was at her home before I was ready.
Before it was snowing.
I waited by an irrigation tunnel, protected from the wind.
I waited until flurries started, until the ground was covered.
I unlaced my shoes and slid them from my feet, pulled off my socks and tucked them into the toes of the shoes.
The toes pointing south, a neat pair.
I thought of nothing but the steps.
I found a pattern to count, a pattern that became an unsaid mantra.
I could barely contain a familiar greeting when she came.
The paper came everyday at 5:30.
I was up, having coffee and a piece of toast.
Corbina, warm in bed.
I hear the thump and rise to fetch.
The first time I saw my son I was surprised and angered.
He intruded this life I had sought out, crafted.
Intruded by swimming the butterfly faster than anyone else.
The picture in the paper: tight silver cap, goggled eyes, mouth open, shoulders propelling him up and out of the water.
I closed the paper, put it down, piled it under the other sections.
The next day I dug it out.
I stared at his face, the water spraying around him, the tightness of his lungs evident by his coloring.
A demented drive to win. My children were creatures I did not understand. Their young brains and ambitions. We were happy.
Seeing my son, red-faced, winning, brutalized me back to the family table.
His eyes red-rimmed, hair wet, the chlorine smell absorbed so deeply into his fingers you could smell it across the table.
My daughter, dark-haired, ironic glasses, men’s clothing, snapping her fingers at him in a hostile way, upset at some unthinking thing he did.
So different, so much a mirror of my parts.
And now, that stupid surprised silence of my chair at that table.
And she was next. I found her in the paper a few weeks later, winning at something too. Cheeks round like her mothers, hair behind her ears, confident.
Reading the paper now held a different intent.
Section by section, scanning.
Then I could start reading in my usual order, rotating chairs with the sun, feeling my circulation start to warm in my old legs.
Why did I fold them, using my thumb to sharpen the fold, neat creased boxes with images of my children’s success.
Did I ever see them in the paper before I left?
I thought back to our refrigerator. Magnets and a few Sunday comics.
Nothing of note.
How absent I had been while there, how present now.
My wife had a different idea of work.
I needed a job. I needed to do a job, get promoted, move forward.
She did not need a job to be a part of the world, to fit into a larger structure.
She seemed more authentic, untied to any occupation.
I wanted her freedom. It’s not like I even had a good job or so-called calling.
How do people say, I am going to be a doctor?
Parents were doctors or some such thing. Mostly. Some sort of edge.
Work makes me angry, even now.
I do not miss the run of the neighborhoods.
At first I was ecstatic to shape my days in whatever way they fell together.
Then I realized I got up the same time every day—without setting an alarm.
Kitchen, coffee, meal, newspaper.
The same, daily, but I had to draw things out, stretch them out so as not to have to create another something to do.
I watched my wife fill her days.
Up earlier, small chores first, then a breakfast and whatever coffee I had left in the pot.
I would follow her around the house.
I was surprised she left the house for such long stretches.
At work I always imagined her home, although I never thought about what she would have been doing there.
Alone for most of the day. It was the same, the same as working.
I looked for another job.
Greeter at a box store. Library help desk. School cafeteria. The jobs open to old men.
I didn’t want them. I applied for them all and became a greeter.
I worked for two weeks without telling my wife. I quit without telling her.
The routes I did all those years. Paths worn into front yards from my shoes. I started them again.
People would see me pass their mailbox and come out to check, then look up the street towards me, close the box and go back inside.
It was strange to be recognized outside of a uniform.
You had curls when you were born.
The nurses combed them up into a Mohawk or single large swirl.
The hair an amusement, a rarity.
I never understood why you should love me.
I never hurt you, no. But I spent your youth, your life, walking away.
I walked the same routes through neighborhoods you don’t know.
The steps memorized, an easy hustle.
I knew which houses to rush by—the widow who keeps the conversation lingering, her loneliness too much to acknowledge, the house with the pit bull—a giant mass of misdirected muscle, a baby with sharp teeth, the one with the newspapers pilled up in the yard—just a bad feeling.
I was lucky to have such a route, a private labyrinth.
Are you ashamed of me? A mailman?
Your friends with doctors for parents, parents driven towards professions.
But I could never tolerate people that wanted only to be inside.
I know you are ashamed of my commonness and the dark tan of my forearms.
I could watch it all in the way you looked at my uniform. How you wanted to spend the night at a friend’s houses, not inviting her home.
Would you have cut me off when you got your first job?
You always broke me. You know that, yes?
I saw how disappointed you were in your test scores. You wanted more.
I wanted to tell you to relax, be kinder to yourself, but I didn’t.
I knew not to come between your self and your ideal.
In Maine, you pockets stuffed with pine cones, the sap of your face from your fingers, the joy you felt at seeing each ridged cone.
Claire, my wife, my radish. You are owed a letter.
I’ve started one several times. Each ripped into strips.
I know that you haven’t looked for me, that the children haven’t looked for me.
I know that you do not look at my coffee mug with grief.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t love.
It is possible to be put together and then taken apart.
I’m not coming back, Claire. I’m not coming back.
What if I had never seen Corbina?
Would I have sat, proudly, at my son’s graduation from college?
Would I have celebrated my daughter’s first win in the courtroom?
Would I have woken, every morning, to the thin and muscular shoulder of my wife in her peach nightshirt, her neat grey bob on the pillow?
Yes. And yes. And yes.
I would have.
I would have lived that life I started.
I would have finished it among those of you who knew me as Dad, as husband.
It had never crossed my mind to leave fully.
Do you want me to explain? I will do my best:
What was I hoping for, some kind of salvation?
Those beggar mystics at the roadside, carrying their lives with them in luggage with wheels.
It’s easy to imagine their lives and the rooted sort of needs—food, shelter; the same as ours but more immediate.
An old man in a field letting his life leave him.
I would have let the toes go, blackened. Dead.
My fingers too.
If I had been found, then hospitalized, an IV drip, those tan blankets wrapped around me in layers. Diagnostic tests, condescending doctors—no pity for the old man, no sympathy for a brain in decline.
If I was then returned home, would I return to the side of the road, pick up my shoes and socks?
Would I wear them again, act like I had never made that choice?
Could I look up again towards Corbina’s house?
I don’t want those questions. I would not want their concern, the eyes waiting for the end—the veiled anticipation of freedom and loss.
The death of a parent is different for an adult than a young adult. The character departed becomes gilded.
The whole episode would have started the distancing and distrust. The tests coming back negative, one by one.
Some other motive that drove me from the house to the field.
Something less easy to acknowledge.
I could imagine their phone calls to the family I haven’t talked to in years.
Family history of violence? Depression?
That family only called to tell me about deaths.
I sent unsigned cards, willing to be connected only anonymously. Even those cards felt like a compromise.
A weakness I would regret for a few days after I sent them.
The family numbers written in an old red binder in a cabinet under the phone.
My wife, announcing herself timidly to them, having only met them a few times at the very beginning of our marriage.
I see the family balk at her questions, her asking for such personal truths and them telling her that she wasn’t family. To leave it alone.
The suggestion of mental illness an insult.
My wife went along with cutting them off, asking me few questions and never challenging me about it.
It was one of many things that made me feel closer to her.
She had said, If you don’t want them in your life there must be a reason.
What reason was that?
It was easier.
And then in a moment, a steel division between myself and my wife.
What luck that Corbina looked out her front window. What stupid luck.
A first separation, preparing the family for the final one.
I wanted something to lift us up by the armpits and show us the world from great heights. We all want to be lifted up, right? To rise?
In my coldness, I allow myself this flame.
A cutting and editing of a person. A paring down.
Basic elements gleam with smooth edges, a round vision.
Wanting to pull in severely.
To rid all that is familiar and once thought of as necessary.
She must have found the clippings.
This would explain the flux of attention and condescension.
I imagine she is curious about them.
She wanted both to know and to leave it blank.
Sexuality is something one can turn off, can decide to live without.
Until someone scalds you in some way.
I imagine that knowing I had a wife was the reason she came up to that afternoon, in the drowsy light of my bedroom.
I had been napping.
She woke up me, the sun low around her shoulders.
Nervous light in her eyes, confidence.
We haven’t talked about it and it’s never happened again, not even in the slightest glance or look of knowing.
Something had pulled away her guardedness.
She unbuttoned her men’s shirt with rough, stained fingers.
All the gestures I loved rose to my awareness.
A hurried ponytail, a wrist’s movements while deboning a bird with grace and sharp knife.
You don’t have to, I say and turn away from her straight hips.
She stood before me in cotton underwear.
I was surprised by the girlish green and blue stripes of her panties, half expecting her to wear boxers.
She took my face and turned it towards her body.
She reached with one arm, bending it back and up, to unclasp her bra.
Put your hands on my waist.
I do as I am told, feeling shame, looking away from her.
I pull her close to me, put my head on her stomach.
She slides her panties down and stands apart me from me.
I can’t, I say.
Yes, I want you to.
No, I can’t.
She stands there a moment longer, shoulders loose, body quiet.
We are both embarrassed, not by the want, but by the momentary stepping out of ourselves. The step she took towards me.
I fold my hands.
She picks up her clothing and leaves the room.
Perhaps twenty minutes later, at the dinner table, everything is as it was.
Her shoulders are a little tighter, a little higher, but all movements the same Corbina.
Your mom hasn’t called.
It’s her turn.
Maybe something is wrong.
Like what. She looks at me a little more directly than I’m used to, then looks back to her frying pan.
She is searing thick slices of ham to go with the borscht.
Pork a rare purchase. The animals too intelligent to eat, most of the time.
The soup is already on the table, a serving spoon in the sour cream.
She plates the pork and places it in front of me.
Go ahead, she says, eat.
I loved her dogs, especially as they napped with me in the sun.
I had dogs as a child.
In that big house, with the others, the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandparents. And parents.
We had two dogs, a pair of brothers, like Corbina’s.
In my head I often called her dogs by the others’ names.
One personality was stronger. These traits must develop in pairs, the one feeding the other. Just like brothers.
My brothers stayed close to the family, raised their own families and got together over the holidays.
I never wanted that.
I moved to the next town over, a compromise.
I stopped calling my mother. After many years she stopped calling me.
I found out, during a rare conversation with my brother, that she had written me out of her will.
It took a lot of praying on her part, to do that, he said. We told her she should have done it years ago.
I remember teaching you to swim. Your dark eyes daring me to drop you; you told me you could do it, to let you go.
The lake water cold, glacial.
And I did, I dropped you into its shallow bowl.
Your head submerged and then your arms.
My panic complete, coming from a source a long way from here, from the bed where you were conceived, from how long we had been trying to have you, each bored with the body’s role, bored, but happy, too.
I reached to pull you back to breath.
You were kicking, though, kicking your way up, furious that I didn’t trust your instincts.
You fought out of the water and onto the shore, a mass of dark matter. A boy.
March winds, winter still.
A hawk riding currents.
Bulbs in the ground, dormant fibers contracting with cold.
We are the same selves over and over again, the daily radiation of the living and the dead.
I stopped reading the paper.
I stopped looking for evidence of my family and their lives without me.
Corbina mentioned that she was going to stop the service, but never followed through.
I preferred books and rhythm of sentences becoming my own.
I dreamed in diction.
I dreamed my old mail routes, waving at women in bathrobes.
I seemed to be losing something of the reason I came here.
Corbina found me once, sitting in the open of the front porch.
She pushed me inside like a mother hen, scolding, scratching at the tile floor with impotent feet.
I stop looking for Corbina in her objects. I have understood some of her through them, but not enough.
Her book collection: classics read once, but read intensely, underlined, dog-eared, spines broken.
I’ve watched her consume a book, furrows in her forehead, a tight grip on the pages like the book was going to escape. A gardening book. No fiction in years, since college.
I could not look at her collection and fall in love, like I did with my wife.
But that was a young connection, a way to figure things out.
I remember telling a friend that I couldn’t date a woman if she didn’t love the same books.
To want your mate to be yourself.
We are not dating, though. We live together.
Or, I live here and so does she. The dogs the only ones truly living together.
In these books on her shelves I have found something of my younger self.
I have held the pages open to him and remembered his reactions to passages.
Spooning memories in my mouth, forcing them.
My first wife on a beach in Devon. A serious summer, an elopement. The last bit of college. And I left her on that beach, stepped away from her the way I stepped from Claire. The marriage annulled, my ancient family pleased to have me back alone.
Old family, old roots. A plot with our names on it in front of a house where my mother was born. Let’s turn around a few times and touch noses. Let’s fall down.
Maybe I was drawn to Corbina because she is without family.
Her family a presence best thought of as a collection of shells on a window sill.
Things that once held life now bleached and empty.
You cannot tell anything about a woman by her underwear.
No letters, journals. Few photographs, without captions or years or names on the back.
Corbina and a red-haired woman on a beach, in one-pieces and towels around their waists.
Corbina with a blond man, freckles over both their noses, standing in front of an old growth forest.
Corbina in a white confirmation dress, arms crossed in front of her chest, frowning.
I told you I stopped categorizing.
I was with Corbina because everything about her was a secret.
She held everything close—everything that meant anything.
And yet, I knew she would help me when I was lost in the snow. Take me in.
A safe gamble into a comfortable life.
I was only vaguely threatened by her mother and her mother’s need to push herself into her daughter’s life. A life purposefully closed to her. This interaction kept them going, a set of rules and expectations.
It was not hard to keep her mother’s visit from her.
It did not come to mind. Forcing a secret from the mother, keeping a secret from the daughter. A natural thing.
I napped and woke and only got more tired. I welcomed it.
I wanted to be here, in this house, with this woman.
To happen without a history, to mean nothing except a man had died.
Am I explaining this well?
I wanted my children to step from me into themselves.
I wanted them to move, fatherless, into the future.
A cross woman across from me.
A mother only in biology and a sense of divide.
I do not have the patience to attempt to explain her daughter to her—but she is not even interested in that. She wants me to explain myself.
The tight space they interact in marked in number of phone calls per week.
This woman does not contain her contempt for the familiar placement of my body in the armchair by the fire. A slight flash of dog tooth.
A stunted relationship coming to a head. I will not protect the mother.
The mother settles in, takes off her coat and boots. She is ready, too.
I am grateful for this, a fight, about the position I walked into when I left my shoes by the drainage pipe. I smile at the sleeping dogs.
In the end, the body becomes a circuit board, becomes luminescent.
In my head the rough pop and crunch of light bulbs under feet.
I see her pull into the driveway.
I see her face and the sounds grow louder inside my head.
Something happening now inside my body.
Like hearing and seeing for the first time in my life.
It is all of it too much, and then it becomes nothing.
A body, a man, a life.
All of it nothing at all.