While clicking through informercials on antenna TV, my husband of thirty-two years mentions that his ex-girlfriend never answered his last emailed how’s it going inquiry. I say “Oh?” with a minimum of interrogative surprise so as not to rouse alarm.
Mariah has been drunk the better part of a decade. A few years ago, she smashed her hip, stumbling stupefied about the cabin she once shared with my husband. It’s been oxycontin, unopened bills and bourbon ever since. “Maybe had to hock her laptop?” I venture.
“Hope it hasn’t come to that. She’s wheelchair bound, nothing to do but answer emails.” Mariah was the girlfriend of my husband’s freebird era, his misspent youth. She was muse of his halcyon days of writing protest songs, smoking weed, marching to end war and save whales. Hand in hand they passed beyond the doors of perception, quoting Kahlil Gibran and Jim Morrison.
“Doesn’t mean somethings happened,” I say, though I’m sure that it has, as sure as I am of the mourning to come for their severed tether. Like the short end of a wishbone, the knowing snags in the soft tissue of my throat.
My husband mutes an actor ballyhooing spray-on make-up. He glances at the computer. “I’m going to google for an obituary.”
He finds one, though it’s terse, too sparse to mark anyone’s passing. He calls Mariah’s cousin to fill in the blanks. She might have overdosed, who knows, says the cousin. A neighbor from two hollows over came by to weed her garden, found the wheelchair overturned amid ragged columbine and Mariah resting comfortably on her side, if you can say that of the dead, fitted in the furrow between squash vines and sunflowers.
Mariah lived alone off the sole road on a mountain’s backside, wouldn’t sell the cabin my husband built for her. Told the doctors, the bankruptcy lawyers, even the cousin to get lost when they hyped the nursing home.
Our friends will tell you unequivocally: I rescued my husband from an aimless future as wandering minstrel. I saved him from acting the Tarot card fool with a flute, stepping off cliffs to fall in the abyss. I corralled a meandering spirit, rechanneled misdirected energy, convinced him to become a real builder, though he still won’t work for track house developers or contract with clear cutters, never mind the boost it would mean for our IRAs. When we first got together, in the post-Mariah years, he doubted we should have children, still worried about greedy Homo sapiens overpopulating. I argued we had the right, the duty to reproduce. Our older son is in law school and the younger, thank God, changed his major to business writing. He was spinning poems I thought obtuse, sci-fi stories based on silly premises but we nudged him to study something more lucrative, marketing, advertising copy, the psychology of persuading others to consume. Like his father before him, our first-born veered into music, composing jazzy-blues hybrids that would never earn a living. Now he’s on solid ground, writing scripts for commercials, no yawning chasms in his future.
I ask if there’s to be a memorial service, a celebration of life. My husband shakes his head no, says, “I’m taking Danity out.” I’m grateful because it’s starting to rain. Our little Shih Tzu hates any form of humidity. She shakes and quakes and pulls me towards home at the skimpiest drizzle.
I’ve known better than to talk against Mariah. I’ve tolerated their (mostly) virtual friendship with grace and elan. It wasn’t much of a hurtle, as she lived three states over and we’ve hardly encountered her, once at a gallery debuting her creepy paintings of wraith-like creatures (can’t imagine paying for one) and later at the funeral of a mutual friend. Doesn’t hurt that I have the patience of Job, the good judgement to bite my tongue when my husband reminisces about his peace and love years. The two of them worked part-time crap jobs for the sake of their art. They greeted mornings with green tea and tai chi, howled at blood moons from the mountaintop, scrounged gas money for whatever journey of enlightenment brightened their twin gypsy auras. Meals were earthy, colon friendly: beetroot, soy burgers, pumpkin muffins, rhubarb pie, no beef or pork. As soon as we started dating, I set my husband straight on the need for real protein. Would you believe, he evolved into quite the grill master, his prime rib succulent, buttery tender.
Since Mariah died, my husband’s forays down memory lane are growing frequent, strange and too public for comfort. After thirty-two years, love is not so physical but you’re making love, aren’t you, when you listen with rapt attention to rambling stories about the foundling dog he and his bell-bottomed Venus raised. Zeus had the phenotype of Disney’s shaggy dog; the genotype of the outback’s dingo. With the dingo’s disdain for artificial safety, his loathing of man-made spaces. At dinner parties and art receptions, at book launches and barbeques, in the middle of our community pool, my husband venerates Zeus. There was no way—he tells everyone within earshot—even when icicles stiffened his belly fur and he clinked like cheap windchimes when he walked—that Zeus would enter the blanket lined doghouse with the cedar shake roof. Uneasy guests glance my way, discomforted friends pour themselves another glass of merlot but I don’t look away or ask the price of a barrel of oil or drift to the canapes table. I listen like a priest in the confessional, the indulgent mother of a toddler, a counselor of the bereaved, a cocked head terrier straining to understand human language. I listen with solid, steadfast presence, self-effacing generosity of spirit and that’s the ungrudging essence of higher love, isn’t it?
Claire Massey served as Selection and Prose Editor for the 2019 and 2021 print editions of The Emerald Coast Review. Among other journals, her creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry have appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review, Snapdragon Journal of Art and Healing, Flights 2020, Halfway Down the Stairs, Lucky Jefferson Collection, Bright Flash Literary Review and Saw Palm: Journal of Florida Art and Literature. She designed a virtual workshop on flash forms of prose for the Florida Association of National Pen Women in 2021 and was appointed to the editorial team for The Pen Woman magazine. She appreciates the power of brevity and the art of flash.