Michael gazed across the Hudson River towards New Jersey. He was treated to the sight of a seagull pirouetting just above the reach of waves that followed a ferry like a puppy at its master’s feet. Watching boats pass by his vantage point on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was Prozac to Michael’s soul. From here, all hurlyburly was put on hold. He came to this basin when he wanted to clear out the clutter in his mind, to banish matters of distraction so he could render decisions that would determine the direction of his life.
Not long ago, he would observe the rolling surface of this water on a regular basis as he contemplated the state of his marriage. He knew that Elisha was a good fit for him. There was no need to question her devotion, nor reason to doubt that he was far better off with her than without. When he looked into his wife’s piercing green eyes, he felt certain that she understood him more clearly than he comprehended the workings of his own mind, the longings of his own troubled heart. Yet with deep regret, Michael had concluded that he did not love Elisha. He could not, for he was incapable of loving more than one woman at a time, and his loyalty was pledged to another.
His life was supposed to have been spent with Isabelle. It was she who had answered wishes made upon stars and dandelions. But one tragic night, Michael’s fate had been re-written. Alone when she should not have been, taking a route best avoided at such a late hour, Michael’s first wife was confronted by a gun barrel placed to her temple and a demand for her belongings, to which she complied. When a nervous finger accidentally pulled the gun’s trigger, all for Michael was lost.
Time came to a standstill at the moment of the police officer’s pronouncement. Though seasons continued to change, historic events unfolded along with the commonplace, and people grew older if not wiser, for Michael, the sand had become trapped in the center of the hourglass.
Three years later, he met Elisha at a Super Bowl party. Both of them being equally uninterested in the game’s outcome, they fell into easy conversation. Neither exerted much effort trying to impress the other, or in feigning the characteristic buoyancy of singles on the prowl. Instead they spoke naturally of matters of consequence and mutual interest. When told a week later that she was interested in him, and prodded by busy body friends to act on this, Michael decided no harm would be done by giving her a call. So he arranged to have his first date since the passing of Isabelle. He treated Elisha to dinner and a Woody Allen movie. Not agreeing with friends who had promised it would just like riding a bike, naturally taken up regardless of how long an absence, Michael expected for there to be awkward moments as the two of them fumbled their way from intrigued strangers to passionate co-conspirators. But within half an hour it was as if they were an old couple, beyond sexual tension, too world weary for desperate optimism. Their relationship moved along from day one with minimal exertion. Michael and Elisha fit neatly into each other’s lives, allowing one another’s lonely spots to fill in with unquestioned silence. A year to the day they met, they were wed.
Michael truly wanted to be happy with Elisha, or at least a reasonable simulation, and thought for a while that this just might be possible. He had done, at least by appearances, what people are supposed to do, what concerned loved ones had urged him to do. He had let the past go and moved on. But once the honeymoon ended and they settled into their new home together, reality sunk in. Isabelle’s side of the bed could be filled by another, her title of Mrs. Michael Beechman could be passed on, but no one could hope to take her place. The trappings of supposed marital bliss served mostly as potent reminders of what had once been, of who he had once loved, of who he loved still.
To the best of his ability, Michael kept these feelings hidden from Elisha. He wanted to spare her from undeserved pain, for she already harbored more than a fair share from a tortured past of her own. He earnestly desired to fulfill the duties of a steadfast husband. Elisha was not to blame for the memories that held him captive, nor was there anything she could do to release him.
Doctor Sylvan came recommended by Michael’s sister. Without telling Elisha, he began to meet with the psychiatrist once a week. This went on for three futile months. Analysis could only explain, but not change the simple facts. He had fallen completely in love with Isabelle and could not figure a way to climb back out. Michael was not in denial that she was gone. He just did not want her to be. One impossible thing was all he asked for. He wanted Isabelle in his arms again, wanted his life as it had once been, wanted his destiny to be put back on course.
Laura Mesalina’s services came to Michael’s attention from a woman he worked with. Strong skepticism was his initial reaction to the thought of visiting a medium. Hocus pocus was well and good for entertainment, but no matter how cleverly a magician deceived people, no illusion could hold up to the scrutiny of common sense. The notion of ghosts made for spooky bedtime stories, but in real life, the people one came across were made of flesh and still pumping blood. Death was a permanent exit, with no long distance calls to those who had left. Michael considered psychics to be the equivalent of card sharks, kept in business by the pathetically gullible. Those lost souls were paying for fantasy. Nothing wrong with that. But it would be more economical to laminate the messages found in fortune cookies.
“It was an amazing experience,” Barbara proclaimed in one of her morning visits to Michael’s office for gossip and chit chat. “I know you think this sort of thing is silly, but I’m telling you, Laura definitely channeled the spirit of my mother. There is no way she could have known some of the things she said. My mother was in that room. She spoke to me, I spoke to her. It was real. As real as we are to each other right now. Laura has a gift. A very special, wonderful gift.”
Michael handed her his handkerchief, for Barbara’s eyes had begun to tear up at the recollection. She was a bit of flake, no doubt about that. This was not the first strange tale to have come from her lips. Barbara was one of those people in constant search of fantastical reasons for ordinary events. Since she was a sweet woman who doted on him, Michael accepted her eccentricities without ridicule.
“I’m sure it seemed quite real to you.”
“It didn’t seem real. It was real.”
Michael smiled and hoped his expression did not appear patronizing. He then excused himself and put the conversation out of mind. Or so he thought. But an idea had been planted in his brain, and in spite of his resistance, it took root and started to grow. Desperation caused one to ignore the laws of logic. One month later, he had his first session with Laura.
“Do you remember the day we first met?”
“Of course I do,” Michael answered, having decided to play along for a little while that the psychic’s body was temporarily in possession of his wife’s spirit, pretending that it was indeed Isabelle who spoke to him. He knew his patience for this game would be short. He had come primarily to rule post mortem communication out as a possibility.
“I returned Taylor to you.”
Michael did not bother to hide his surprise. Had this woman researched him after the appointment to see her had been made? Had she spoken to his friends and family members in the past few days? How else could she have known that he had lost his dog; that he had plastered the neighborhood with signs offering a reward for his safe return; and that just when he had about lost hope, Michael came home to a message on his answering machine that a woman had found Taylor?
“I could tell you would be a nice guy from the posters you put up. Something about your words stuck out.”
“They stuck out because you had my dog,” said Michael, feeling a bit foolish that he was still speaking to a charlatan as if she were his dead wife, but getting caught up in the bizarre scene unfolding.
Laura ignored his sarcasm, just as the real Isabelle had always done.
“When I spoke to you on the phone, you seemed really sweet. Especially when you told me who Taylor was named after.”
“Well I couldn’t call him Stevie Wonder,” Michael said. “My turtle already had that name. So James Taylor it was.”
“I was hoping you would be single, and cute.”
“All I wanted was my dog back. Until you opened the door. Then everything changed.”
“I had a good feeling about you before we ever met. It was just a crazy hunch, but sometimes crazy hunches are right.”
“I got my dog back,” Michael said, tenderness overcoming him, marking each of his words. “And I met a girl.”
“You met your future wife.”
“I bet you wouldn’t have worn that dreadful shirt if you knew who you were about to meet.”
Michael now knew for certain that Laura was for real. It was none other than Isabelle who sat across the table from him, somehow drawn from the realm of the dead into this woman’s body. Like his deceased wife, Laura had shoulder length chestnut brown hair. The two women also possessed similarly shaped mouths. This was the first thing Michael had noticed about Laura, and was now what his eyes focussed exclusively on.
“Of course I would have,” he said. “That’s my lucky shirt.”
“It didn’t make a very favorable first impression. I thought I would have my work cut out for me. Fortunately, the rest of your wardrobe wasn’t nearly as sorry looking.”
“I think it’s a fine looking shirt, but that’s beside the point. Luck doesn’t need to look good. It just has to work.”
“I was the one feeling lucky after I opened my door. I knew immediately that you were the guy I had been waiting for my whole life.” “I knew you were the girl I was supposed to fall in love with,” Michael said. “Plus I got my dog back. I didn’t even blame Taylor for running away once I saw who he had run to.”
“You never wear that shirt anymore, so why don’t you throw it out?”
“I wouldn’t do that any sooner than I would get rid of Taylor.”
“I know, Cuddlekins.” Michael had not been referred to by the silly nickname Isabelle had given him since the morning of her death. He forced the lump that had formed down his throat.
“I miss you so much,” he said.
“I know that too.”
Regular sessions with Laura were penned into Michael’s itinerary. What initially seemed unnaturally strange joined habits like his morning coffee and bagel and his evening jog. It was the closest possible thing to having Isabelle back. As the subsequent months went by, the distinction between these simulated resurrections and the actuality of such an event grew dimmer. Once a week he stared at a mouth shaped nearly identical to the one he had kissed countless times, recalling indelibly stamped memories with the spirit of the woman they were made with. It seemed to Michael that he had everything he could think to ask for, and then some.
He was living, or at least reliving, a wonderful existence in this room of alternate reality. But the rest of his time was spent in another world, with a woman who was legally acknowledged as his wife. The two situations could not mesh indefinitely. Guilt over his spiritual infidelity began to set in.
Isabelle was no longer relegated to private reflection in quiet moments. She was now the other woman. Or was Isabelle in the forefront while Elisha remained in shadow? Had reality been pushed to the background of his life in favor of an affair with an apparition? Michael didn’t know what to think, but knew something would have to be done to make sense out of the chaos.
He needed to choose between yesterday and tomorrow. Between the dead and the living. Between his one true love and his one true chance. Between remembering and hoping. Should he embrace a fate of sweet sorrow, or that of sorrowful sweetness?
His heart leaned in one direction while rational thought guided him the opposite way. He needed the wisdom of someone who would understand his dilemma and advise him without prejudice.
“So what do you think, Isabelle? Should I stop coming to see you and give my marriage a chance? Or should I leave Elisha, now that I know where to find you? If you want me to end my marriage, I will. But if you think I should give life with her a chance, just say the word, knowing this would mean me staying away from you. I will go by whatever decision you make. I will do whatever you want. Just tell me.”
No response came in the minute to follow. Finally, the silence was broken.
“She’s gone, Michael. She needs to think it over. Come back next week same time as usual, and she’ll have an answer for you.”
“Okay. Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
Michael’s eyes were not met, so his gaze fell onto Laura’s mouth as she spoke.
“Your time is up. I have another client waiting. I’ll see you next week.”
“Take care, Michael.”
Three days later, he came home and found his wife sitting on the sill of their living room window. Michael did not ask her why she had been crying. This was not due to his being a callous man, but rather, one who easily adjusted to routine. The sight of Elisha in tears was not uncommon, for the measure of her grief was beyond containment. Twenty two years ago, after six years of torment, her accusations had finally been believed. Her mother found all the evidence she required and was forced to acknowledge the unthinkable. Shortly thereafter, Elisha’s step-father was arrested for his deplorable acts.
Michael walked over to his wife and rubbed her shoulders.
“Did I ever tell you why I was so adamant that this was the apartment we should make a home of?”
“You liked the moldings,” Elisha answered. “And the height of the ceiling.”
“You sat down right where you’re sitting now, the sunlight was framing you the same way it is today, and I knew I wanted to view that perfect picture as much as possible.”
To a stranger, it would not have seemed that Elisha’s expression changed quite into a smile. But Michael had mentally cataloged her many subtle looks and knew she was pleased.
“You forgot to mention that we got a good deal because of your business deal with the owner.”
“I’m trying to be charming here. Cut a guy some slack.”
“I’ve always been a sucker for smooth talkers,” Elisha said, placing her hand for a second on Michael’s cheek.
“So, you want to try the new Vietnamese restaurant that opened around the corner for dinner tonight?”
“You’ve read my mind. I suppose then you already know about the decision I made today.”
Michael sat back. Elisha was far more adept at reading his thoughts than the other way around. Nevertheless, he sensed correctly that she was about to reveal something of greater importance than her choice of new drapes for the bedroom. Since first meeting her, Michael had never ceased to marvel at Elisha’s habit of dramatically reacting to mundane events, and conversely, describing the extraordinary in a banal manner.
“No, I don’t,” he said.
“I guess my mind reading is reserved for culinary matters. You’ll have to tell me.”
“It’s time I claim myself back from him.”
Michael took hold of his wife’s hands. He knew she had traveled a long road to reach this point.
“If I don’t,” she said, “it hardly matters that he was caught and punished, or that he found religion in prison, or that he’s dead now, so changed or not, there’s nothing he can do to me anymore. I’ve never stopped feeling used and degraded. And there’s no use continuing to blame him. I’m the only person who can do anything about it. So that’s what I’m going to try to do, with your help. I don’t want to be that terrified thirteen year old girl anymore.”
Michael sat back quietly as his wife spoke. He had wondered for a long time if she would ever be able to say these things. Now that the moment had arrived, he wasn’t sure how to feel. Certainly he was happy that she was allowing her wounds to heal. But their lives would undoubtedly change on account of this, and Michael had not adequately prepared himself for a different sort of existence with her.
“I want a baby,” Elisha said. “I want a family. I’m ready.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Michael’s question was a reasonable one, given the circumstances. He and Elisha had been man and wife for twenty three months, but their marriage was not yet consummated. Elisha had never willingly given herself to a man. The period of hell that ushered her from childhood to shattered woman had closed her mind and heart to the possibility of lovemaking. Their marriage had therefore been arranged with the condition that Elisha would be unwilling and unable to accommodate carnal needs. This arrangement had worked out fine for both of them. Michael had been celibate since Isabelle’s death, and the urges of his flesh had remained subordinate to the quality of his grief. He and Elisha had been content to cuddle together like lost orphans nursing the wounds of their pasts. While setting up this tepid life, it scarcely occurred to Michael that one of them might eventually want more from the other than a shoulder to cry on.
Elisha ran a hand through her husband’s hair. Their relationship was not conventional, perhaps a little more complicated than the norm, but this in no way subtracted from the authenticity of her love. Her mind was made up to act upon this. There was however, an important issue to be addressed, a question that she had to ask.
“How about you? Are you ready?”
Four days later, Michael stepped through the doorway of Laura Messalina’s mystical chamber. Melodic chimes announced his entrance. As was his habit, he took a moment to adjust his vision to the room’s dim lighting. The duration of his pause was longer than usual, filled with innumerable thoughts. This would either be the final time he communicated with Isabelle, or else the passing of the verdict that his marriage must be sacrificed.
Elisha’s decision to remove the chastity belt binding their marriage had been no less surprising to Michael than his subsequent yearning to comply with her wishes. When she leaned forward to kiss him, he anticipated blankness. But what he found was passion. The kiss instilled uncertainty and even a degree of fear into him. It unearthed desire, which could only compromise his ability to reason at this most critical juncture. Yet he did not wish for the kiss to stop.
Michael did stop, however. He had to. He told Elisha that he needed time to get used to the idea of legitimizing their wedding vows. Her change of agenda had certainly not been made swiftly. Still, it came too suddenly. Especially since he was just days away from finding out what Isabelle wanted. His marriage might soon be over. It seemed ludicrous to begin a love affair with his wife now.
“Hello, Laura. Well, this is it. Time to find out what Isabelle has to say.”
Michael sat down across the small, round table from Laura and tapped his fingers on the elaborately embroidered silk cloth that covered it.
“I’m prepared to do whatever she asks of me.”
Laura took hold of his fingers to still them.
“Sorry. Guess I’m a little nervous.”
Laura’s eyes issued understanding and compassion. Michael had looked into them for many hours, yet felt as if this was his first time seeing her. She was not merely the vessel through which Isabelle reached out to him. She was a kind and wise and beautiful woman who knew more about him than practically any living soul.
“Laura, does it seem nuts what I’m willing to do? I want to know what you think. I suppose it’s in your best interest if Isabelle asks me to keep coming back.”
“If I was to give you advice, I would never let money influence what I said.”
“Of course not.”
“But I’m not going to give you advice. I can’t.”
“Why not? Would that break some code of your profession?”
“No, nothing like that. It’s just … It’s just that I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
Laura withdrew a piece of paper from her purse and slid it across the table. Michael looked down and saw that it was a check. A check made out to him for fifteen hundred dollars.
“What’s this for?”
“That’s how much money I owe you. That’s the amount I’ve cheated you out of.”
Michael could do nothing but stammer that he did not understand what this was about.
“Fifteen hundred dollars covers how much you’ve paid for the last ten sessions. It isn’t right that I accepted payment for them, because I’ve been deceiving you.”
“This doesn’t make any sense. You’re a fake? How could that be? No phony could have known the things you knew.”
“I’m not a fake, Michael. I’m only reimbursing you for the last ten sessions. We’ve met far more often than that.”
“I’m lost here. You were really channeling my wife’s spirit at first? For months and months everything was legit? Then you decided to stop doing it, but pretended you still were in order to keep getting paid? Is that what you’re saying?”
“It’s not quite that sordid.”
Michael had come to this room with the weight of the world already on his mind. Now on top of this, Laura had it spinning in circles.
“Then what the hell are you trying to tell me?”
“I didn’t decide to stop channeling Isabelle. The choice of when and if a spirit wants to speak through me always belongs to them.”
Michael took a deep breath to help steady himself. “Yes, I understand.”
“Isabelle came voluntarily for a long time. Longer than most. She knew how deeply you were hurting, how badly you missed her. She wanted to help.”
Laura put a strand of hair into her mouth for a couple of seconds. This was not a habit that Isabelle ever practiced. Michael had spent a great deal of time studying Laura’s way of speaking and gesturing. Picking out which characteristics were reflections of Isabelle and which were Laura’s own had become a reflex.
“Continue,” he said.
“Then one day she told me something. It was a message I was supposed to pass on to you the next time we met. But I didn’t. I didn’t tell you that Isabelle would not be coming back anymore. She felt you were growing too dependant on these sessions. She wanted you to walk amongst the living again. She wanted you to seek happiness. Isabelle believes you can have a good life with Elisha if you would only give your marriage a chance to be real. The answers you expected to receive from Isabelle today have already been provided. But I’ve been keeping them to myself.”
Michael allowed the information to settle in. He felt almost as if he had lost Isabelle for a second time. And in a way, it was even worse this time around. She was now leaving him by choice. He put his hurt and disappointment aside to deal with later, on his own. For the present, he would focus on his anger at Laura’s deception.
“For God’s sake, why? Are you that greedy?”
“I knew you would only continue to come if you thought Isabelle was still showing up. That’s why I started pretending. I already knew so much about her, and about you, and about your relationship. It wasn’t very difficult. And it was necessary. You see, to answer your question, I suppose I am greedy. Only, my greed had nothing to do with money.”
“Then why have you been doing this?” Michael asked.
“Because I’ve fallen in love with you.”
An hour later, Michael looked across the Hudson River towards New Jersey. The setting of the day’s sun was nearing completion and he took in the routine miracle of beauty. While he watched a sailboat pass by on route to safe harbor, he did not reflect on what had been told to him in the past few days, but rather, on what he had figured out for himself. Something he learned the moment he last crossed Laura’s threshold, as if entering a chamber of essential truth. This knowledge had been lurking beneath his awareness for some time, waiting for a signal to announce itself. Without benefit of spiritual guidance or any variety of hocus pocus, Michael suddenly understood the bent of his heart.
His words were caught by the same breeze that was carrying the sailboat along. Michael felt confident that they too would reach their destination, and was not perturbed that he would receive no reply. He scratched his dog behind the ears. Then he opened the case clasped in his hand and examined the necklace it held. Two weeks remained before he was to give it as a wedding anniversary gift. Michael put the necklace back into the pocket of his blazer and next examined the pocket watch that he wore. The heirloom had been passed down through three generations of first born sons in his family. One day, if ordained by destiny, it would be handed over to a fourth. For now, it merely informed Michael of the hour, from which he deduced that Elisha had probably just been dropped off by a taxi in front of their apartment building. She would be patiently waiting for him.
“Come on, Taylor. It’s time to go home now. It’s time to go home.”