The rest of our lives

Talk though we did, my love, there were certain conversations we never had.

On that first trip to White Cliff, we had not yet said I love you. I was hyper-conscious of it, both its absence, and the desire to say it, and those three little words were pressurised inside me on that drive. A funny little vision, the idea that saying I love you is like popping the cork on champagne. Seeing the words rise to the surface like little bubbles, the way they might spill over when finally released. It makes me smile to think of how tightly coiled I was before that first I love you. I knew it had to come from you, that you had to be the one to say it. But you were taking your time, and I was in a kind of agony for fear of what that might mean. I knew that your father proposed to your mother after just one week of dating, and that Joe was engaged to Jane after only 8 weeks. The men in your family had proven themselves swift with their choices. Meanwhile, I was swallowing those most hopeful of words, whilst we talked of almost everything else.

It happened at White Cliff, where that sense of beginning resolved itself into the rest of our lives. We were making love, if I close my eyes I can see this night, see our bed against the window, the gauzy curtain floating toward us in a kind of moonlit dance. Such poetry prescribed to these memories – turns out I have this talent too, Ben.

I was watching the curtain, and you above me, your beautiful, serious face in shadow, your touch just as light on my skin. I need you to know something, you said as you moved inside me, and I closed my eyes, squeezed them tight, listening to your breath, and the advance-retreat of the waves outside. My eyes were still shut when you said – I love you, Anna, and I kept them closed to hold on to the moment, to take in your body and your words. Cells and words absorbed, dissolving into each other.

And I cried Ben. I cried that first time you said I love you, lying there with my eyes squeezed shut. That’s why it took so long to say it back, that was the pause you must have felt, the silence that led you to roll off me, and turn away.

I returned the words against your back, remember?

I love you too, Ben.

I’m in that same bed tonight. Eyes still closed, searching out the memory, embellishing it with ideas of moonlight and dancing curtains. Perhaps all I really remember is the way you said I love you, and how it took so long for me to respond. From then on, it turns out we were only ever going to be able to make light of such declarations. Removing the I from the sentence, learning to hand out love you breezily, this compressed version that would become far easier to say to each other, and to receive.

We moved from declaration to assertion so quickly.

But that first I love you was magic, Ben. I just never told you, never had the language to tell you about champagne fizzing, about phosphorus under my skin. What else did we forget to say across the years?

#

~ Anna, The Memory of Stars

The Memory of Stars by Jacqueline Bublitz

Advertisements

The best of these are broken

There are two things people say to me in this first week. In addition to the chorus line of I’m so sorrys and god is mysterious that I receive, people either put their hand on my shoulder and say you’re so strong, Anna. Or they squeeze my own hand and stress – you must remember the good times. Many of our friends and family try for both at once.

You’re so strong. Like there is a way for them to measure my strength as I stand before them. As if they can see through my skin to the muscle beneath, see it coiled and ready for battle under shoulders I’ve squared. How do you know I want to ask. What makes you think I’m not falling apart? Can you measure my sadness too? My anger? And the fact that it hurts to breathe in, and more to breathe out?

What do they want to see when they say I am strong? They mistake my impassive look for some kind of resilience, my washed hair and made-up face for some kind of control. I don’t even know how I got up this morning, it was there, and I am in it, but it is a stranger who looks in the mirror and applies her foundation, who pulls her hair back in a bun. You’re so strong is what they say to her. My frozen smile is hers, not mine. Behind that smile I answer them with a scream.

No one goes looking for the sadness. For where I’ve had to hide it since the day that you died. I keep thinking of that machine the naturopath used on me, just before I fell pregnant. Remember? When we were trying different ways to load the dice in our favour. She said it would reveal my cellular composition, an important consideration for a 37 year old trying for a baby. You are made up of this much fat and this much muscle, Anna. You are carrying this much water, here and here she pointed out. Would that machine read my sadness now? Could it see that here is the ache that comes when I wake? Here is the panic that my fingers try to pull from my chest. Here is the deepest sorrow I have ever known, and here is the anger too that flares, sudden and strong. You are made up of this much sadness and this much anger now, Anna. You are carrying too much of both, here and here. This machine would not say I am strong. Not when it could see inside me.

And you must remember the good times. The urging of it, the suggestion that we can clean and polish our memory at will. Remember your wedding day, Anna. The third-dimension pain and joy of Ollie’s birth. Remember the way Ben kissed your nose, and his heavy hand on your hip. Remember the collection of days and moments when he was fully and truly yours. Clear out the rest, or push it away. Don’t think of the day you found those emails. Don’t think of how once he lied you never again knew a single truth. Don’t think of that, and what you lost. In death he has been given a pass, and so have you. This is how we would like you to deal.

Do you remember that story I loved on our honeymoon, Ben? On that white-knuckled bus ride to Hanoi.  The story that made me cry just a little, and you said I was getting sentimental in my old age, but you went a little misty just the same. The story of the lost souls of Vietnam, and how the monk we had just passed on the road was dedicating his life to walking these paths, to collecting the dead that were lost. The monk’s work was to gather up all those who had died far from home, to carry their spirits back to where they came from. In a country torn apart by war there were literally thousands of these souls wandering the countryside, wounded and lost. So many people who never made it home. The Vietnamese considered it bad luck to die away from family, and this monk was committed to returning their dead. People stood on either side of the road and prayed as he past, on a journey that our guide said would take seven years. (There it is, that number again. The time it takes for cells to renew).

He told us of another custom too, our guide, the storyteller. It was tradition for people of this region to dig up the bones of the dead. After three years of mourning, they would extract and re-bury the bones of their loved ones on family land, erecting tombstones in fields all over the countryside. These tombstones would become temples for a family to visit and honour, after they brought their dead home.

Would I dig up your bones, Ben? In three years, when your flesh has fallen away, and the matter of your brain has dissolved. Would I clean and polish each composite part and put you back together again? I wondered then, and I wonder now – what would they feel like between my hands, these bones of the dead. Would they be heavy and hard, or do the dead crumble to the touch? What would I do if I held you this way? Would I lay myself down amongst the bones of our marriage, would I honour the first seven years of our love? Or would I scoop up the bones of your affair and use them to smash out of this nightmare we’re in? Cracking you into smaller and smaller pieces until I made you disappear. What would three more years of this mourning bring?

You must remember the good times they say, and how could they ever understand that even the best of these are broken. I miss you so much, Ben. They will bury your bones and I already want to dig you up, to scrape off the dirt until what is left looks shiny and new again. I want to clean your bones, and bring you home.

I am beginning to understand the facts of your death, the detail. But grief – grief, cannot be learned in this way.

Rock Bublitz at body, remember

Another opening of the book to a random page …

Same Script, Different Cast

The morning you died was ordinary enough. Oliver muddled tennis and violin, we were half way to school when he said Mom, I need my violin. Mom. An affectation from too much American TV, my girlfriends and I had noticed the same habit in all of our kids lately, the way they rolled their r’s and whined out our names. I made a mental note to further limit TV, and turned back for home with a sigh.

My Dad suggested that Ollie might regress for at time while he processed the news of the baby. 9 years old, an only child for nearly a decade. It would only be natural if the thought of a baby unsettled him a little. And true, there had been instances in these first weeks since we told him. Losing his lunch so that I had to take time out from the office to drop off a hastily-purchased sandwich, or like today, mixing up his after-school classes after months of being on a clock-work schedule. Two nights ago he had even wet the bed. I found some odd comfort in this – my beautiful boy, still my baby, quiet and simmering under the surface. Just like his Dad. Another mental note – draw him out a little on how he is feeling, Anna, when you get the chance.

I left Oliver in the car when I ran inside for his violin. The phone was flashing, I noticed the red flicker of the machine on the kitchen bench as I dashed past. It would have to wait, I was already going to be stuck on the bridge for far too long. It wasn’t until I had seen Oliver safely through the gates (only seven minutes late today) that I reached for my phone in my bag and saw the nine missed calls, with three corresponding messages. Something fell in my stomach right there as I sat at the lights. It’s hard to say when we became attuned to what it might mean. The multiple calls in a row, and messages left one immediately after the other. When we’re so used to being contactable, so used to being found that we never expect to be chased down in this way. Unless. Unless we haven’t called back when we are needed. When something has gone wrong, and we are not where we are supposed to be.

It’s 9.11. Always a funny time to catch in the blink of your phone. Seared in collective memory, the number gives me pause and then I hit the little handset sign. All nine calls from your brother Joe. A flick to the voice mail screen – it’s Joe again, every time. I am certain in this moment that I cannot listen, that the world will alter when I hear Joe’s voice and whatever he has to say. How do we know such things, such precipice moments? When do we become aware of the moment just before? Thirty seconds ago my life was about getting Oliver to school as close to on time as I could manage, was about my mental grocery list, and a niggling feeling that I’d forgotten to pay the cleaner. Now I am holding my phone away from me as if it is some kind of bomb, the seconds ticking over until it whirs in my hand, makes me jump at the sudden flashing. Joe again, and this time I pick up.

***

Hi there Readers … body, remember started as Maggie Valentine’s story, the story of a young woman whose married lover dies suddenly, and how she has to grieve her loss in secret (if a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it and all that). I realised as I was writing her story that the other side of the coin would be just as interesting – what would happen if it was your husband that died, if you secretly knew he was having an affair … what would your forest look like? I am now half-way through Anna’s story, the wife I introduced here in the piece, Seven. The above excerpt is Anna’s experience of the day Ben/Mack dies; you can read Maggie’s version here. Same script, different cast …

Thanks as ever for reading!!

Rock Bublitz at body, remember

One of these days …

Seven

How do we know if we are lucky? What is the measure of fortune? I met my husband when I was 23 years old. I had just graduated with a degree in finance and peacefully separated from my boyfriend of five years with a thank you for the easy terms of this first love. If you believe in providence he was the door gently closing as the window flew open on the rest of my life. I was ready when it happened.

Did this make me lucky? The confluence of finishing university and heading toward a man I knew I was going to marry within 1 week of our introduction? I met my adulthood at precisely the expected time. I was engaged within a year, married within three, and Sam was born a decent 13 months after. You make it look so easy, people said. You are so lucky my single girlfriends agreed. I was at the centre of the happiest circumstances for those early years, from my graduation to our engagement, to the wedding, and the christening of the child we made.

I was lucky on anniversaries and each New Years Eve, and when we moved from his small apartment to the house on the harbour. They came and came, the blessings. I was loved, secure and successful, and I turned out to be a good mother too. Fair and disciplined like my own had been, and able to keep up with my boys, which gave me a great sense of pride. I was never political about it. But I did want to raise a good boy.

But is this fortune? Is this luck in the end? Did my richness of blessings simply mean I had more to lose when the time came? Are we ever supposed to have it so easy? Does God have certain lessons for women like me? A sermon would say there is no such thing as luck, that this discounts the providence of God, of his divine plan for each of us. God is in the detail, it would say, and everything that is happening has been planned for you, it is unfolding exactly as it should. There is no luck where there is belief.

But still I have wondered. How do I measure what I was given? Can it only be understood in light of all I have lost? My faith in God teeters at the edge of something I cannot fathom when I come to this place. Was I merely lucky and the underside of this indiscriminate application was the way luck runs out, or has its fill of you and turns its charms to another, some other who may or may not take a little of what you had left when the time comes to collect on theirs?

My husband began his affair not long after my 30th birthday. Four years after our wedding and seven years before the police knocked at my door. Seven years. For as long as I had known and loved him. Seven. The number of the unlucky. The number of smashed mirrors and distorted images. The Romans believed in seven years of bad luck specifically, they thought that the body needed this amount of time to renew, to complete the shedding and changing of life’s seasons. But could seven years ever be long enough for you to completely shake off what has settled on the skin?

My Priest does not condone my superstitions. I have admitted to them in private, the rituals I’ve followed when no one is looking. There is God’s will, and my own he reminds me, but my bones know something different. I try even harder to put my faith in God, to trust his plan. But I remember the mirror I smashed on my 30th birthday, the crack of my engagement ring against the glass and the way the surface shattered outwards, like a quiet explosion. Perfectly intact, but ruined just the same.

Because you cannot see yourself clearly in fractured glass. It will only reflect your image in fragments. The cracks separate you into pieces. This is what happened to my life when she entered. Nothing ever looked the same, it was a reflection altered forever. And though I tried to bury the pieces of glass, the way they said that you could repair such things, they were just too sharp to smooth over.

Seven years of bad luck. And then the day they knocked on the door to tell me he was dead. The body renewing itself, shedding and changing, trying to shake off what had settled on the skin. And all the while new life taking hold, the cells he and I put together to create something new and strong like this. When he died I was three months pregnant. They still say I am the lucky one. But what is the measure of fortune now? Are we all counting something different in the end?

Seven years at body, remember

Time for a new voice. I am now examining the other side of the coin …

The stones should not be too large (on writing about an affair)

The stones are not to be too small as death will not ensue; nor must they be too large as death may come too soon.” – Sharia Law

I have made it no secret that I was once involved with a married man (hey if Oprah and Barbara can admit to it …) but I do however stumble on exactly which terminology to use. If I was not the married party, is it correct to say I had an affair? Was my married man the one who had an affair and I was instead … what? A mistress? The other woman? A home-wrecker? In a more brutal moment – a whore? In any story of an affair – fiction or otherwise – it would seem the terms used rely exclusively on the perspective of the storyteller.

In my case I do tend to avoid all doubt by saying (deep breath!): “I had an affair with a married man”. Cue clapping AA style, as if I have just admitted to an addiction and am ready to confront it. But of course I did not admit this for years; with the exception of my tightest group of friends, I followed the cardinal rule of an illicit relationship – the only one required to ensure it survives in fact. I kept it a secret.

Friends, family, colleagues – they no doubt wondered at my swings in mood across the years. Every red-eyed return from the bathroom. Every dizzy-giddy moment that seemed to come out of nowhere. The way 24 short hours in my life could so regularly appear to change everything. Not to mention the perfected red herring of overt flirtation with other men. If I look interested no-one will catch on. Desperate? They never knew the half of it.

I don’t think you get closure from writing about something. Closure suggests an open the door – shut the door experience of life and of feelings. In reality the door swings on its hinges most of the time. What you get then, when both sides of your situation are revealed, is perspective. A sort of sense added to your sensibility as you consider the facts. And of course the fiction.

This is how it has been writing and researching body, remember. My first efforts here were little more than a howl of anguish as I tried to express the pain of a deeply flawed relationship that still hurt with the switch flicked to off. But I quickly realised just how much I would need to embellish in order to write a good love story. Upon review it was soon clear that my own story was … well … a little less engaging when I stuck to the facts.

The truth is my lover was neither as invested nor as committed as I’d want a character to be if I were reading about an affair. This realisation was startling, embarrassing – and ultimately liberating (my three step process for curing an affliction!). I came to see that my reflections on our relationship were essentially a literary version of killing kittens – though I was writing about my ex-lover, he was in fact no longer part of the process. I was doing this all on my own.

It is interesting to me how many people here on WordPress are brave enough to share their direct experiences. In their most vulnerable moments they open themselves up to not only support but also to criticism and outright hostility. Because let’s face it, affairs are polarising. They may be understood by those who have them, but they are loathed by those who don’t. Especially the partners on the other side – the wounded, the betrayed, the cuckolded (there are myriad terms for all parties in this). Infidelity can even arouse deadly censure – as my opening quote suggests. Religious institutions in particular consider it an abomination.

I once read an article on a religious-oriented website that suggested women would rather be raped than cheated on. I found the comparison insulting in the extreme, but I did take pause to consider that in our society affairs really are that reviled. Researching my book (and researching my life over the years) I have come across endless commentary regarding affairs, and I will admit that most of it baffles me in its rigid approach to relationships and love.

Take the articles and websites dedicated to saving a marriage (Recover from an AFFAIR!!!) where I nearly always encounter a version of the following:

[During your affair] you will feel more alive. You will feel more yourself. You will feel the most engaged of your entire existence and you will discover the sex and intimacy you have been craving and missing for so long. It is not real. This is not real life and this is not real love. And you must never, ever think it is. 

It is not the directive to give up an affair that makes me feel funny when I read this kind of advice. Affairs really are about cheating, lying and living a double life  – they offer no foundation for healthy living. What strikes me every time is the implicit suggestion that one’s primary relationship does not support the positive feelings mentioned above. And that this is okay.

Because it isn’t okay. Your reality should not require alternatives or an escape hatch. Yes I acknowledge the pressures that come with marriage-mortgage-kids, and I also know that some affairs are simply about sex and more of it. But there is no denying that a large percentage of affairs are earth-shattering for the people involved. It is like a Pandora’s box of want is opened – with so much forced into hiding, desire practically explodes when it is exposed to air.

So why do people seek out primary relationships that require them to seal up these hopes, these dreams – these essential parts of their identity? Hell, isn’t marriage-mortgage-kids THE dream? The holy trinity is certainly entered into with gusto by most. So what happens next?

It is too easy to default to tinpot psychology when considering the why and who of affairs. Men are the narcissists, or the sex-addicts. Women are insecure, have no self-respect, or are, again in a brutal moment – sluts. The relationship cannot be separated out from the devious behaviour required to sustain it. Fair enough. And yet. It suggests something. This relationship. This alternative. This escaping yourself which might actually be finding yourself – completely outside of a structure you were too unthinking or too lazy to question at a different age. No doubt the deception is wrong. But not all lies are so obvious.

Estimates of infidelity within relationships range anywhere from 20% to 70%. Either way you look at it, a large percentage of people do not cheat on their partners. I don’t believe they are  the ones living lives of quiet desperation. I like to think these are the couples dancing barefoot in the kitchen (cue my parents). The couples for whom sex equates to intimacy (or perhaps the other way around), so that a health-check is performed if or when desire wanes. The couples who still get a kick out of each other even when they actually want to kick each other (cue my parents again). To dream of escaping – well I only  have to look at my mother when my father nearly died to know that not all marriages are considered an institution.

So back to the issue of an affair, and the social imperative to SAVE YOUR MARRIAGE (sorry, it always seems like a command not an option). As much as I would preface this with don’t lie and hurt others to solve your issues, I also feel odd about this concept of working at your marriage. Laura Kipnis says it so perfectly in her (insanely good) book “Against Love“. It should be read by anyone on any side of an affair. It sort of smacks you over the head, so sudden and inescapable are her arguments against love as labour.

To quote Kipnis, “- the work ethic has managed to brown-nose its way in to all spheres of human existence. No more play – or playing around – even when off the clock.”

She makes the connection to labour explicit when she goes on to say, “- when desire is organised contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labour from employees, with marriage a domestic factory policed by means of rigid shop-floor discipline designed to keep the wives and husbands and domestic partners of the world choke-chained to the status quo machinery – is this really what we mean by a “good relationship”?”

(Tell Laura I love her. Really. I mean it. I’ve known what she means in my very bones since the days my barbies never got married. I only ever wanted love to be my best thing).

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips sums it up when he says, “In our erotic life … it is no more possible to work at a relationship that it is to will an erection or arrange to have a dream. In fact when you are working at it you know it has gone wrong, that something is already missing.”

I would add that people do in fact try – literally or otherwise – to will an erection. They take pills, they read god-awful books like “50 Shades of Grey” (which to me suggests a staggeringly low bar for female desire), they plan date nights like there is some magic waiting outside of the home that all those singles are tapping into.

Which we’re not of course. We’re at home drinking red and writing stories, and feeling completely and utterly free (as terrifying as that is). And occasionally dreaming of dancing barefoot in the kitchen – some days at least.

Which is why we don’t throw stones at glass houses. We know the cracks are all over.

Rock Bublitz by Joanne Piechota at body, remember blog

Why didn’t we run away from all the noise?
Why didn’t you grab my hand?
You were too scared to ignore the voices
That tell you what to do
(I’ll understand some day)

– YOU MADE ME SEE IT, Room Eleven

Image by Joanne Piechota.