She sat and sat and sat, waves of regret crashing on the shores of her heart, waves depositing the flotsam and jetsam of her broken life on the sand, with the broken shells, driftwood, seaweed, the odd plastic bottle, and every once in a great while an intact shell, whorls and circles and spirals showing its age, a memory whole and flawless to be turned this way and that, secret chambers that may or may not still contain a living creature. She mostly surfed these waves, keeping to the surface, riding the waves, occasionally getting tossed onto shore herself, but mostly standing upright just trying to keep her balance, occasionally looking down to see layers of more regret under the waves.
But every once in a while, she’d be pulled under, hair streaming behind her in the water, the force of the undertow tugging her out to sea. Regrets about things done and not done, the shoulda-couldas, the if-onlys. If only she’d turned left and not right that day, if only she’d been on a different bus, if only she’d said or not said that one thing, that one thing that turned her life sideways, twisting things just a few degrees into a not-quite-parallel dimension, not much at all, just enough to make all the difference. That one wrong turn, that one wrong thing she said or didn’t say, the one thing that would be the hinge upon which the rest of her life opened and shut.
Of course, she knew it was never just one thing, never. It was one small decision that branched out into another, and another, each decision branching out into multiple possible futures, each branch branching further, one tiny moment at a time, until there’s such a tangle you could never get to the heart of it. But whatever it was, at the heart of the tangle, it left her bereft now. Bereft after pouring her heart, body and soul into someone whose own heart was buried so deep in unrequited love that he couldn’t love her or anybody else, 45 years of pouring herself into him when all he wanted was that other woman, long dead, and all he could fill himself with for 45 years was the booze and the drugs and sometimes the gambling. She always knew something wasn’t quite right, though they both denied it, clinging to each other’s life rafts as though their lives depended on that, and perhaps they did.
Still, over the years, knowing that something wasn’t right and some part of her yearning for something more, sometimes she’d find herself singing softly to herself a few lines from that Bonnie Raitt song, over and over again:
Have a heart Why don’t you have a heart If you don’t love me Why don’t you let me go?
Why didn’t he let her go? Why did he die with a lie in his heart? Why did he live all those years with her never knowing how all-consumingly he’d loved that other woman, so very long ago? Why did he let her live all those years never knowing? And having let her live all those years not knowing, why could he not have left well enough alone? Why did she have to find out from the note he’d left her in the safety deposit box he knew she’d have to find after his death? Why couldn’t he have told her in person? For that matter, why couldn’t he have told her years and years ago, when it could have made a difference, when she was still young enough to start over? Maybe have the family she’d wanted but he hadn’t.
He was afraid. She could understand that. She’d been afraid too. And so she’d pushed down the questions, accepted the lies for answers, that whole time, never seeing that clinging to each other’s raft meant only one of them could be safe at a time, never safe together.
And now she was bereft.
Not only because he was gone, and that had made her sad, sadder than she would have thought after spending so many years in separate bedrooms, like brother and sister (or maybe, she now wondered, because of that). Sadness spilling over in odd little ways, as she turned to tell him something cute one of the cats just did, only to find his chair empty, or as she started down the stairs to his study to ask what he wanted for dinner before she remembered that he wasn’t there anymore. The poignancy of those moments would bring the tears to her eyes, a soft, delicate sadness that left her feeling warm and vulnerable, but not bereft with the deep deep grief that she felt now.
That deep deep grief only came to her when she read the letter from the safety deposit box, confessing everything, not that he’d had an affair, nothing so tawdry, only that he’d realized he’d never really loved her; he’d given his heart to another, as they say, long before they’d even met. That it had ended long before they’d even met, didn’t, in the end, matter. He’d come to realize, over the years, that it hadn’t really ended for him at all, not at all, that he’d simply put this woman on a pedestal and left her there, all these years. He’d come to realize, too, that at some level all his resistance to marriage counselling was all about this woman-on-a-pedestal, all about not wanting to exhume the ashes of that brief relationship from which he’d never actually recovered.
That deep deep grief was there. So was the soft, delicate sadness. But it was more than that. It was more, even, than anger – and make no mistake, anger was there too – pure, white-hot fury that found her spending an entire Monday afternoon throwing all the good china against the brick wall of the garage at the back of the house. The entire set, all 68 pieces of it. Twelve five-piece settings of the beautiful gold-rimmed Lenox china plus all the serving dishes, even the gravy boat with the attached underplate, all of it washed by hand for 45 years of Christmases, Easters, Passovers, Rosh Hashanah dinners, Thanksgivings and Yule Feasts with much raucous drinking – and not a single dish broken in all that time. The crash of each piece smashing against the red brick echoed through the quiet neighbourhood, on a weekday afternoon with everyone who was likely to care at work. When the entire set lay in irretrievable shards around the foot of the garage, she paused, briefly, panting with a mad euphoria, catching her breath. And then she started in on the crystal. All that fury left her exhausted and the cats in a complete panic, but in the end it did feel good.
But it was more than all that.
Here. Here’s what it was, what totally hollowed her out in a way his death alone had not, in a way the confession that he’d never really loved her had not. The kicker was that he’d actually tried to discourage her from being with him, and in the end had ceded to her love, not because he actually loved her back, but because she fucking wore him down. All the hoops he’d made her jump through before they got married, the ridiculous demands that she never questioned, it turned out, were (lame) attempts to get her to walk away because even then he’d wanted to break it off himself, but never had the balls or the compassion to do it. All that time, when she thought she was being optimistic and giving, compromising where she knew she shouldn’t, but going along with it for the sake of the relationship. All that time.
The humiliation of that was what crept into her bones and took up residence there, depression seeping from bone into muscle, leaving her unable to stir from her bed for days on end, getting up only to feed the cats and to pee, maybe make herself a cup of coffee and some toast, all of that being enough to empty her for the rest of the day. She spent days, weeks, finally months, drowning in a tsunami of shame, though she had done nothing wrong. Still, she struggled with the shame of her own blindness, her willingness to settle, to believe there was nothing more to be had, even though some part of her knew all along that it wasn’t right, it just wasn’t right, but somehow she kept on keeping on, one day melting into another, until an entire lifetime went by and it wasn’t right but it wasn’t horrible either, and she didn’t know it could be better, she just didn’t know.
And now he was gone, and here she was.
With her cats. Her bathrobe, her coffee cup. Her heavy-limbed trudging up and down the stairs from bedroom to kitchen and back, the weight of the world not only on her shoulders but in every cell of her body.
Winter had turned to spring, the garden needed tending, but she wasn’t leaving the house at all these days, not ever, not even to sit outside in the warming air, chilly at the feet but sun warming your face, that indescribable smell like no other, that funky spring amalgam of snow melting into cold, old mud, newly exposed wintered-over dog poop, and last autumn’s leaves turning themselves into rich humus — not even for that would she go outside. Inside was safe, safe from the neighbours who had given up on trying to feed her, safe from her friends who had one by one given up on trying to coax her to come out and play again, one by one backing down, after months of being rebuffed, each of them saying, well, just call me when you’re ready then.
And now at last she was alone, truly alone, alone in her shame, her guilt, her fear, her anger. Her regret. Alone with her cats. And the cats didn’t care, demanded nothing of her but food and a clean litter box, delivered body heat and purrs at her feet every night, and a reason to get up every day.