(Copyright by Roy L. Pickering Jr.)
You can get lost staring at flickering flame atop a candle. You can forget everything that happened while captivated by the fire’s hypnotic shimmer. As the flame dances and sizzles and candle wax drips to form new fantastical shapes, you can forget the entire world, forget that it has crumbled. But eventually the candle will burn out, and as black smoke rises from the extinguished wick you will begin to remember all over again, to feel the pain as if experiencing it for the very first time.
My bottle is empty. It doesn’t seem that I could have consumed its entire contents already, but no other explanation is feasible. I did not spill a drop and the gin certainly didn’t evaporate. Yet I have never been more sober. I take a swig of the tonic I had meant to use as a mixer but somehow forgot to open until now. I’ve become quite absent-minded of late. I used to always be on top of things, a slave to the diction of the clock, organized to a fault. I was a master of minuscule details often overlooked by others. Now what I look over is a hole in the sky that used to be occupied by two testaments to the industriousness of mankind. The twin towers of Babel were taken away from us. Nothing left in their place but the rubble of decimated architecture and broken dreams.
I light a cigarette in order to have something to do with my hands, although I know better than to smoke inside. Rules, like brick and steel and concrete and glass, often prove too fragile for the exploits of desperate men. Merciless time inches forward. Eventually I notice the nearly inch long ash clinging to the end of my cigarette. I have not been bothering to tap it off as it grows. I have probably not even been inhaling and exhaling the toxic vapors, but merely watched the nicotine clouds floating upwards, spiraling towards the Heaven that I now hope exists more than ever, dispersing before managing to reach the ceiling fan.
I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the glass door of the china cabinet. When did I start crying? I suppose it doesn’t matter. The tears will stop on their own, just as they will no doubt resume flowing when the whim strikes. My stubble is near the point of a full-fledged beard. I have been clean-shaven my entire life. My face has always suited me just fine as is. I’m the sort of person who has known who he is and what he wants from day one. Never had to go searching for myself. No need for experimenting, whether with my appearance or the ideologies I follow. It’s as if I was born completed, no growth of any kind necessary. This is the sort of proclamation that pisses certain people off, but they tend to be people I couldn't give a damn about impressing anyway. Many would say that I was full of myself, an accusation I don’t find completely fair. Let’s just say I had a rather narrow set of self-indulgent priorities. Now my lone objective is either surviving this heartache or else succumbing to it.
Why was it fated that our last words to each other would be spoken in anger? Do I not have burden enough to bear? Did she understand that I did not truly mean the awful, hurtful things I said? I try to convince myself of this, but the attempt is in vain. I know how convincing I can be. The next day I would have arranged for a bouquet of roses to be sent to her. Later I would have apologized in person, on bent knee if necessary. Not merely to appease her, but because I’d had an epiphany, like the song goes, was blind but now could see. But the next day would turn out to be no ordinary day. The next day would drastically alter my existence along with the lower Manhattan skyline. Many other lives would be forever ruined as well. But with all due respect, this is not their story. It is mine.
The day I first met Alexandra, I was left breathless by her beauty. I resolved on the spot to win her over, was determined not to rest until she was mine. To consider a lifetime or even a single night with anyone else was out of the question. If I settled for someone else, someone lesser, I would forever be haunted by the knowledge that my ideal was in the arms of another man.
There are men who take what they have for granted, but this was not the case with me. Even after dating for a year, then moving in together, then getting hastily married when she missed her period, I gave a silent prayer of thanks to no god in particular every time I awoke and gazed upon her face in the morning light. As she continued to sleep, barely disturbed by the alarm clock that I would quickly silence, I placed a gentle kiss of gratitude upon her supple lips. You could say that my life was Camelot. I do not recall what specifically went wrong in King Arthur’s idyllic world. But if memory serves, it did not last.
I am ashamed to admit that as Alexandra grew with pregnancy, resentment defied my will and began to settle in my heart. Gone was the lean, flexible, amorous goddess who set my body ablaze on our four poster bed. My wife did an awful lot of eating for someone who knew she wouldn’t be able to hold down the fatty foods she now relentlessly craved. I missed the passion, the excitement, the ecstasy that had once marked our days. I could not wait for her gestation to end and my nirvana to return.
Hope was indeed the most precious child ever born. I doted on her every move during the first few months. The slightest change in her facial expression would fascinate me. I loved experiencing the world through her new eyes. In addition to being a very proud papa, I was also quite anxious to resume loving my wife as in days past. But it seemed that unlike the weight gained in pregnancy, Alexandra’s carnal desires had abandoned her. Every night I would literally receive a cold shoulder from my bride. I accepted her unresponsiveness more readily than you might think, for my desire was muzzled by the loose vagueness of her flesh. So you see, everything had changed from what it once was. Alexandra appeared to have minimal interest in returning to the role of my fervent lover. My own longing was for a woman who no longer existed, one who had been swallowed whole by a woman who bore only a passing resemblance to the great love of my life.
At first I was silent on these matters, confident that they would right themselves soon enough, that her true form and fire would return at any moment. But over time it grew increasingly clear that there was a holding pattern on my domestic torment. And so my frustration began to manifest itself in bitterly muttered remarks and less than subtle glances of disapproval towards a body once comprised of sinewy feminine muscle, now doughy and stretched out to unappealing proportions. The woman beside me in our unruffled bed was not the one I had fallen for. I felt as if I had been robbed of something precious and did not have the luxury of resenting from afar, because I lived with the thief. I found myself lingering for longer than necessary at the office, accepting offers for after-work cocktails or whatever else might come up to keep me away from home. When I did return to my wife each day, a fresh wave of disappointment washed over me. My God, it feels so harsh to have felt this way, so utterly cruel. Yet I will not lie, mislead, or sugar coat the dread that engulfed me. Point your finger and accuse away. The poster child for shallowness, that’s exactly what I was. And I earn no points nor stray any closer to your good graces by owning up to my faults now. I did not abuse my wife, did not cheat on her, did little outwardly that would earn your condemnation. I simply mourned for what I had lost and ceased to appreciate all that was still mine.
I suppose I instigated our argument with some snide comment, but on that night Alexandra refused to let it pass as she had on prior occasions. Instead she demanded that I speak my mind, that I hold nothing back, and once I got started there was no slowing down, much less turning back. I’m not exactly sure how I put it. I cannot recall precisely what I blamed her of doing. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time it seemed remarkably crucial. Alexandra had changed in shape and substance. Regardless of whether her metamorphosis was caused by conscious decision or hormones now flowing in a different direction than before, it was interpreted by me as a personal attack, as unwarranted rejection. I needed to get the heavy feeling of abandonment from off my chest, for nothing is worse than being abandoned by someone who is still there. Whatever was said, I vividly remember that I pleaded my case with limitless zeal, and what I earned for the effort was seeing my wife cry.
We eventually went to sleep, she in our bed and me on the sofa. The war of hateful words was supposed to be temporary. Everything would work out in the end. Couples fight sometimes. We hurt who we love precisely because we possess the power to do so. The truth was, I felt more relieved about having finally spoken my piece than concerned that irrevocable damage had been done to our marriage. Now that Alexandra understood the depth of my confusion and hurt, we could begin to work on making our life as it had once been. Now that I had spoken plainly rather than making veiled insinuations, perhaps the things that troubled me would come to weigh less heavily on my soul.
Her early morning appointment at the World Trade Center had been set up weeks earlier. Whether or not I argued with my wife on the night of September 10, 2001 had no bearing on where she would end up the following day. I was able to foresee no better than anyone else that terrorists would attack, striking with our own planes, bringing those two majestic structures down.
Did I love Alexandra for the wrong reasons? No, I do not believe this is so. When I saw the wounded look in her eyes on the night of our argument, I recognized that it was there because she loved me unconditionally and believed I did not feel the same. But she was wrong. I did love her, in spite of my pettiness, my anger, my frustration over a situation that it seemed she had purposely spoiled. For a time, it was difficult for me to see past Alexandra’s extraordinary beauty. For another time, it was just about impossible to see past what I perceived as the ruin of her near perfection. But in the moment of clarity that occurred seconds before she banished me to our sofa for the longest night of my life, I understood that the love I felt for my wife was indestructible. Loving Alexandra was what I did best, no matter how badly I botched the expression of it. Loving her was what I would do forever.
I rise to my feet, command them to bring me across the room, then lift my child from her crib. Hope is too young to recognize the chaos about her. She does not comprehend that the empty space within view of our living room window is actually filled with what cannot be seen – fear, uncertainty, pain, loss, rage. I believe she understands that her mother has not returned to her, for she cries much more frequently than she used to. Does she realize that I am barely holding on, that she is the sole reason I haven’t surrendered to the hurt, to my guilt, my regret? If she looked upon me with the slightest hint of sympathy, this might be enough to convince me that I am worthy of release from these mortal coils, worthy to join my beloved Alexandra. But Hope shows me no mercy, only need.
And so I will change my daughter’s diaper and fix her a bottle of formula. I will take a shower and shave. I will move on with my life because I have to. Perhaps that is not the best motivation, but it’s all I am equipped with right now. It will have to do.