All winter that year we shared a small office and walked home together at night and I would think how strange it was, what I used to hear about you—how cold you could be, how distant: the quintessential Ice Princess, people said. But it was always from a distance, what these people observed.
Before I knew you—when you were just an acquaintance, a familiar face in the coffee shop or on the street—I met a woman at a party who said she thought you were very strange. She said the two of you had been good friends some time before but that you never spoke with her anymore, that you passed her on the streets of our small town and never looked up and all the while, she said, you wore that hat.
That hat! Apparently she’d given you that hat some winters before.
Sometimes when we walked home at night, I’d look at you out of the corner of my eye—you, so tall and thin and walking with such perfect posture and care—and I'd wonder if you knew what people said about you, how everyone seemed to be a little in love with you. But we never talked about it as we passed the coffee house we liked and the bars we never went into and the orange house where the noisy young drummer boys lived and then, finally, the small square park, the park that was brown and frozen in winter but whose grass would soon turn bright Easter-grass green. That's when we knew we were almost to your house, a big white house where you lived in a second-floor apartment with your big fat cat Stella.
It was a very small winter hat—tight-knit, flecked in myriad colors—and it suited you.
The first time we really talked was in that coffee shop. I had seen you around town for years and had thought what so many had thought—that you were very beautiful, tall and thin with high cheekbones and dark eyes and a wide mouth and short, unfussy hair. In the winter you kept your hair covered in that close-fitting winter hat, in the summer in a khaki-colored sailor’s cap. You had lived in Iowa for many years, first as a young poetry student, then to finish a PhD. I had finished an MFA, then stayed on to write, teaching whatever classes I could get at the university to pay the bills. We had been introduced before but you never seemed to remember me from one time to the next. I considered myself unmemorable so I was not particularly surprised by that.
But that hot afternoon in the overly air-conditioned coffee shop, you remembered me and seemed pleasingly awkward, not cold or distracted at all. Up close you looked tired, maybe even vulnerable, as if your face, if someone touched it without warning, might crack open and your eyes would bleed.
You asked me many questions that day and I told you I was flattered and I started talking and couldn’t stop. I told you I was working on a memoir and because something about that embarrassed me, I couldn’t say exactly what—maybe something to do with its apparent transparency—I quickly turned from what I was writing to tell you about this theory I had—well, not a theory, exactly, but something I was thinking about, something to do with the nature of autobiography and the nature of authenticity and I told you how I had been thinking this might involve The Truman Show and also the most recent film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the one with Kevin Kline playing the ass. I wanted to make a little joke about Kevin Kline’s fine ass, something to make you laugh, but I didn’t know you yet and I was too nervous to make a joke like that.
So I just kept talking, babbling really, and told you I thought the end of that recent film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was amazing, the way Bottom, dressed as a woman, took his wig off at the start of his final speech, how his voice went from a mock female’s falsetto to an authentic deep male baritone, how comedy at that moment turned to something serious, and the play’s meaning for me became clear: all the drinking and bedeviling and mix-ups and shenanigans; all the fairies and artifice and silliness of the play within the play—all of the experience of artifice necessary, I said, for humans to recognize the authenticity of love.
You listened carefully and for a moment I thought I had made a terrible mistake, that I shouldn’t have said all this to you—you, a poet and a Renaissance scholar; someone who taught Shakespeare every year! But you nodded and smiled and said it was a very smart reading.
In the fall we were assigned an office together on the second floor of the English Department’s building where we’d both taken degrees.
You asked me to move a bookshelf, holding out your twig of an arm and saying you were no Popeye, that you were a weakling, and at first I thought you were playing the role of a delicate girl, trying to get out of the dirty work. But then, when I looked at you—you, just a slip of a thing and your arm, truly, pencil-thin—I realized you couldn’t move the bookshelf if you wanted to. I said no problem, and I moved the bookshelf easily because I was—I am—such a sturdy girl—the Mighty Katrinka, my person, M, says now. After that, you suggested we divide the shelves evenly and we did, and then we put posters on the walls—a poster of The Tempest above your desk (the production Julie Taymor had a hand in), a Matisse poster next to mine (from the Cut-Outs)—and then it was natural to start walking home together, stopping sometimes at the coffee shop where we would share a table and grade our students’ papers, working quietly side by side.
Once I was in the office getting ready to go teach a class when you met with a student and the student, who was writing a paper on John Donne, kept pronouncing Donne as if it rhymed with bone rather than Donne as if it rhymed with sun. I kept waiting for some flicker of annoyance on your part, some raising of the eyebrows, some widening of the eye, some hint of condescension. But it never came.
In November you invited me over to your house for dinner. You served something with chicken and pasta that you had worked up from a new recipe. I was amazed at your ease. You had seemed to me up to then one of those brainy women who wouldn’t want to cook or would think cooking beneath her. But you delighted in making the meal and when I opened the cabinet to reach for a glass I was surprised to find clusters of spice jars that looked as if you used them every day.
Everything about the apartment, the physicality of it, surprised me, even though nothing was unusual—your large lumpy sofa, the kind better suited for me, while my furniture, two houses down the street—a small black sofa and a delicate antique armless rocking chair—seemed more like you: small-boned and spare; Stella, who eyed me suspiciously (because she knew I was allergic?) before settling down at the bottom of her scratching post to sleep; even the small piece of paper on which you’d typed a few lines, wrinkled and taped to the top of your computer:
The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair.
That night we drank a bottle of wine and you told me about your past: a family of sisters, the men you had refused, the repercussions from chemo that had plagued you over the years, from age twenty on. If you think you’re going to die young, I don’t know— maybe you’re careful, you said, as we talked about how we had each come into to our late thirties, unmarried and childless.
I knew a little about your ongoing illness—I could not remember then or now when I learned about it or from whom—but had never spoken with you about it. On this night, you told me bits and pieces: how you were in college when you were diagnosed and had taken a German class during chemo. As if German weren’t bad enough, you said. How you speculated that it came from Delaware just as you did, a part of Delaware where corporations dumped poisons into the river regularly. I remember thinking you seemed like a character from a Victorian novel, that your story unfolded tragically whether you wanted it to or not. Then I immediately felt guilty for rendering you a fiction when here you were, flesh and blood, sitting cross-legged on the floor of your apartment, wine glass in front of you, Stella now asleep in front of the window.
Your mouth—very wide for a face so small—reminded me of Carly Simon’s.
We talked about many things that night. You blushed at one point and said you were talking too much, confessing too much. I said there could be no friendship without confessions, that the best of dinners included the breaking of bread, the drinking of wine, the spilling of secrets. I told you about the married man I spent too much time thinking about, the one with two children, a boy and a girl, and a beat-up yellow truck and how I still found myself looking out my bedroom window sometimes, hoping to see that truck even though it hadn’t stopped in several years.
We talked briefly about still lifes, which we both loved. You were writing about trompe-l’oeil at the time, about the failure of vision. I told you I loved the still life’s simplicity, its fragmented quality, the way objects become charged once people are relegated out of the frame.
Or maybe it is the everydayness of those objects, I said. A bowl of fruit. A cup of tea. Maybe that’s what I liked to see: the objects themselves, simplified. A book open on a table. A glass of water. A sprig of herb. The still life appears to stop time and encapsulate the movement of time, past and future simultaneously, creating a visual embodiment of something urgent standing still. You can imagine someone snuffing out the candle, peeling the lemon halfway, clearing the table, brushing breadcrumbs from the white linen cloth. But for now, it is not the story of what happened before or might happen afterward that compels. It is the objects themselves—three heads of garlic, a cabbage, a melon—that still the eye.
We took the dishes back to the kitchen and when I offered to help wash you said no, you wanted to leave them till morning. So I buttoned up my big black winter coat and looked out your window that overlooked that small park nearby and I wondered how many times in all the years before this I had passed your house and looked up to your window without wondering who lived here.
We were both looking for jobs that fall and planning to leave town. I was ambivalent about going. I liked the sturdy squareness of Iowa, the quietness of the town, and the tall windows in my apartment—the apartment made up of three square rooms; the apartment in the two-story white building just across the street and a few houses shy of yours. The white building had a bright red door. I liked that. I liked my whole life, writing in the morning, teaching in the afternoon. When someone told me that my very job as an “adjunct” meant “non-essential,” I had to confess that I even liked that— the word sounded unsparing to me. But you said I should move on, that I would never rise above the role of student here, that no one who went from student to adjuncting ever did, and that I deserved to work someplace that fully saw and appreciated me.
You helped me revise my job letter so it sounded more professional, less chatty than it had been, and I read your job materials too, including the description of your dissertation, an examination into the cultural and literary preoccupation with the fragmented and objectified body in Renaissance love discourse. But I couldn’t help you. Not really. All I could say was they would be crazy not to hire you.
In December we interviewed for jobs at the Modern Language Association conference. The conference was in New York City that year, not that we saw much of the Big Wormy Apple. We had agreed in advance to share a hotel room, hoping to save money. But that first night, after a long day of interviews, I started thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.
You were in your blue-and-white-striped pajamas, reading in your bed, when I went to the bathroom to get undressed and to take a swig of NyQuil, knowing I had to sleep—not only for myself but for you, so I wouldn’t keep you up all night. When we turned out the lights, I told you I hoped I would not snore but that I had lived alone for so many years now that I didn’t know if I did.
In the morning, you looked tired in your pale pink robe and when I asked if I had kept you up, if I’d been snoring, you hesitated. So I knew the answer was yes.
I was mortified and said that I would get a separate room for the next night, that sleep was too important to miss at a time like this.
You thanked me.
We both set out in our ironed clothes for another day of interviews. When we met that night in the hotel bar, you told me I had left some sweatpants in the room—or anyway, you had assumed they were mine. It was such a small thing, but there in the shimmer of that swanky dimly lit hotel bar, I was mortified all over again, embarrassed for the body that could sleep so effortlessly yet not restrain itself from snoring, ashamed of the body that wore something so sloppy as Joe Boxer sweatpants and a T-shirt to bed. When I started to say I was sorry, you brushed my apology aside and said it was nothing and not to worry. You said, I know I’m difficult and it’s hard to deal with sometimes, and I thought, no, not difficult, fragile. And then you made a toast and so I raised my wine glass to yours.
To new jobs! you said.
In new cities! I said.
January was cold that year, colder than all the years before. Sometimes when we walked home in the dark, we’d stop in the coffee shop just to get warm. Then, braving the cold again, we’d near your house and you would say you needed to get inside to work on an article or feed poor starving Stella—Stella who, I have to say, could never have starved, Stella who was the fattest cat I’d ever seen. And then I would cross the street to my place and stop for a moment outside the Victorian house between us, the intricate house with the huge blue spruce in front of it, and wonder if the towns where I had applied for jobs had trees. And I’d think, I don’t care if there are trees in those towns or not because with or without trees, there wouldn’t be this tree in this town on this street in front of this Victorian house with this pointy roof, a house so close to my white house with its dear red door, a house across from a white house with a fat cat named Stella and my friend E—E who loved red cowboy boots, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and lyric poetry.
On those nights nothing seemed wrong with this land-locked, fiercely cold Midwestern state. On those nights I thought maybe no one should ever leave.
In March one morning you were in our office and I was surprised because you weren’t usually there on a Wednesday and when I asked what you were doing, you said you were on your way back from the doctor’s. You’d vomited blood that morning, you said. There are a lot of things you can ignore, but vomiting blood isn’t one of them.
You said not to worry, that you were used to things like this happening—repercussions had followed you for years since chemotherapy—and then a student of mine arrived and I met with her. You took off, and the next day we were in our office again and I asked if you’d heard back from the doctor and you said yes. This part’s a little gross, you said, but it’s a fungus on my lungs and it’s not contagious and the doctor has given me medicine that should take care of it.
Later that night as I stirred the chili in the crockpot at home and looked out my kitchen window at the bare branches of the hickory tree, I replayed in my mind what you’d said and it dawned on me that it would never have occurred to me that what you had might be contagious. I could see, then, you must be used to this, not just having health problems for so many years but having to reassure people about them, and the burden of it, or the double burden of it, seemed much too much.
In May you invited me along with a friend of yours I hadn’t met before to go see Charlie’s Angels and you ate popcorn and kept offering me some and I took a handful or two and enjoyed it and thought it was strange how usually I hated people who ate popcorn during movies but this time I didn’t hate it at all. The movie was ridiculous: a cartoon-meets-action flick where the women wore skimpy clothes, and I figured you would think it was ridiculous too, so I sat through the movie, composing a critique that I hoped would impress you, a review meant to show how scathingly intelligent I could be.
But afterward, when I asked if you liked it, you said, Yes, wasn’t it great? And you made an awkward little karate chop move toward my face and another directed at your other friend’s knees and she laughed and I laughed and the critique I’d planned disappeared just like that.
In June we went to dinner at K and A’s house, where they took our photograph among day lilies in the backyard. They put the Polaroid up on a corkboard wall in their kitchen with dozens and dozens of their various friends’ pictures—a whole wall, baseboard to ceiling of friends. You had your camera that night and asked them to take a separate photograph of us in the garden, one that you later copied for me. Then we ate smoked salmon and drank white wine and sat at a table covered in white linen on a porch encased in thick black dramatic curtains, the humidity heavy around us.
K and A talked that night about all the men they’d known over the years who had been in love with you. They had known you for much longer than I had and knew how to tease you easily in a way that made me envious. I looked at your profile in the candlelight and thought you might be blushing, but I couldn’t be sure.
Walking home that night under the streetlamps in our college town—a town that turned empty in the summer months, as if we had it all to ourselves—you asked me what made me write. I told you I wasn’t sure but then I remembered something that happened in seventh grade when our teacher, Mr. Manning, read out loud a poem by Lisa Lauder and the poem had the word hatless in it and I went secretly mad with jealousy, wondering what was so great about Lisa Lauder and that word of hers, “hatless,” and sometimes, I told you, I thought maybe I could use the word hatless and please someone.
We were standing in front of your house by then. Fireflies were out. And there was the faintest hint of a breeze in the night air. You laughed and said, Oh, I would love to have known you back in seventh grade, and I said, I would love to have known you then too. But I would have been a little intimidated, I said. Or maybe smitten was the better word, for surely this much is true: I have always loved the shy, intelligent girls best and wanted to be one since I am more boisterous than bookish overall, more of a sturdy peasant girl meant for field work than someone destined for royalty.
You laughed and said we definitely would have been very very good seventh grade friends and you linked your arm through mine and like schoolgirls we walked past your house toward mine, to the end of our street where we said goodbye, smiling broadly under a moon shining through the sycamore tree.
The last time I saw you, you were moving. It was July. You’d gotten a job in Texas. I wouldn’t find a job until the following year. I was scheduled to help you clean the apartment once the movers finished in the afternoon and later we would have dinner together with your mother, who was visiting to help you move. But you called me in the morning to see if I could come over sooner because you were feeling under the weather and the movers you’d hired—two scrawny little college boys who looked dreamy and stoned—were moving so slowly you were worried the work wasn’t going to get done.
So I went over and between us—those skinny boys and your tall, strapping mother and me—we moved all your belongings out of the apartment, one box at a time, out onto the street and finally into the truck. You stayed put in the air-conditioned living room that day, taping up the last of the boxes as we carried them one floor down and you made sure that Stella stayed safe inside. I remember coming up the stairs during one run and seeing you standing in front of an empty bookshelf, so pale and thin and floating, your skin transparent, your eyes exhausted and glazed. I understood at once what the word delicate means.
That fall someone moved into our office and put a quilt on the wall where your poster had been.
Those things you’d given me, leftovers of your move—a couple of bottles of whiskey and one bottle of gin, drinks I told you I’d never drink; and a large pickle bottle full of pennies, which I told you I would cash in and then use to take you to dinner in your new city, which I would visit soon—sat in my apartment all year, untouched.
When I walked home that year, I walked alone past the coffee shop where we’d graded our students’ papers and over the bridge covering the creek and past the small green park just before your house, and at the corner of College and N. Dodge, I always looked up to see if your light was on.
The following summer I moved to California. You were still in Texas. We talked by email. I told you about my new neighborhood, the one that was so confusing to me—so wonderful, on one hand, smelling like fresh goat cheese and coffee and ocean water, but also shockingly and frighteningly expensive. I was paying more than twice what I’d paid in Iowa on rent and on the day I had signed the lease to my apartment, I got violently ill.
I walked my new neighborhood and watched in awe. At the co-op near my apartment, I could peer through the hallway-shaped store to see dozens of pretty people in white aprons running around, pulling pizzas from the oven. Behind them stainless steel racks overflowed with bouquets of fresh basil and row upon row of ripe tomatoes. California was all beauty and abundance then. But it was also something else. Outside the co-op, further down the street, I’d pass a large man muttering under his breath, wearing a deranged orange parka, pushing an overflowing plastic shopping cart whose stench lasted the length of the block.
Do you ever miss our little landlocked town sometimes? I wrote.
You said you did, a bit, but not nearly as much as when you first moved. Now, you said, you had a general sense of loss whenever you thought of landscapes in the Northeast or in Iowa. But at the same time, you had made ties in Texas, especially to people and to your apartment, and it was easier now to engage with your new life. You and I both love more places than we can live in, you said. That’s in a way a bad thing, but also a good one.
You were working on an article and getting your ducks in a row before classes started in the fall. You’d had landlord troubles that you couldn’t bring yourself to talk about yet. But you’d also had people over a few nights before for a Cuban dinner. You’d cooked a whole fish on your Little Smokey grill, and made surprisingly good mojitos, you said, considering you don’t like rum drinks. The kitties—now plural—were good. You’d gotten Gracie, Stella’s new friend. Gracie was adorable. You should come meet her. We'll just have to dope you up because of your allergies. You had two nights free at a hotel to use up before October 15. How about a weekend in Austin that fall?
I was so busy, I rarely wrote.
The following summer you said it was back. But doctors performed surgery to give you a beautiful new esophagus. Beautiful. That’s what you called it. You wrote, I swear there were wolf-whistles coming from the x-ray room. All the tests are confirming that the cancer is gone.
That Christmas you sent a card: cutouts of small red mittens tied with red yarn with a message written on the back.
When you died, I’m told, you died in your sleep. That was April. I remember fog enveloping the neighborhood. The smell of eucalyptus trees. Someone playing harmonica underneath my window. I never saw who.
Leonard Nathan writes: Memory is a tiny room lit / by a wan lamp. The radio plays soft static / but nobody minds.
Maybe I have read too much into the soft static here, found a melody no one else would hear. Maybe memory must marry itself to imagination, must take, invited or not, the length of the hard narrow bed.
How else do the grieving sleep?
The summer after you died I returned to our little college town in the Midwest and on my last day there, a Sunday, I walked to the library hoping to read your dissertation. But the library did not open until noon that day and I had to leave to catch a plane.
The next summer I returned. Again on my last day in town, a Sunday, just hours before I had to catch a plane, I rushed to the library again, determined this time to find your work. I did and in a rush, I took the book from the shelves and fed quarters into an ancient Xerox machine to make copies, one page at a time.
For some reason, I think you would appreciate this, the image of a woman hurrying to lay the pages of a book flat, catching partial sightings of the text.
Bodies of Water
levels of “artifice”
the painted berries or the poem
All portraits are, in this sense, employing commemoration
a repetition of the water element
collapse into the waters
the impoverishment of the monological eye
When the plane landed, it was not the argument that stayed with me as I walked the length of the airport, then stood before the carousel looking for my black bag with its small orange ribbon attached to its handle among dozens of other black bags marked by small ribbons tied to their handles, ribbons in orange and red and yellow and blue. It was a stray typo that stayed with me—“issue” with one “s” in a footnote about representations of bodies as supremely charged.
In that note you wrote so long ago, the one where you told me about getting Gracie for Stella, you said you were writing poetry again. I just remembered that.
I still have the picture of us in the garden of day lilies. We look small, surrounded by so many large orange-petaled flowers, smiling and hatless in what remained of that late summer day.
Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men in My Country, a memoir set in Japan. Her work has been published recently in Hotel Amerika, Southern Review, Ascent, and The Normal School. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area where she directs the MFA Program and teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California. (updated 10/2010)