The Beginner's Goodbye(12)


by Anne Tyler

The earliest bedtime I allowed myself was 9 p.m. I told myself I would read a while before I turned out the light; I wouldn’t go to sleep immediately. I had a huge, thick biography of Harry Truman that I’d begun before the accident. But I couldn’t seem to make much headway in it. “Reading is the first to go,” my mother used to say, meaning that it was a luxury the brain dispensed with under duress. She claimed that after my father died she never again picked up anything more demanding than the morning paper. At the time I had thought that was sort of melodramatic of her, but now I found myself reading the same paragraph six times over, and still I couldn’t have told you what it was about. My eyelids would grow heavier, and all at once I’d be jerking awake as the book slid off the bed and crashed to the floor.

So I would reach for the remote control and turn on the TV that sat on the bureau. I would watch—or stare in a glazed way at—documentaries and panel discussions and commercials. I would listen to announcers rattling off the side effects of all the medications they were touting. “Oh, sure,” I would tell them. “I’ll run out and buy that tomorrow. Why let a little uncontrollable diarrhea put me off, or kidney failure, or cardiac arrest?”

Dorothy used to hate it when I talked back like that. “Do you mind?” she would ask. “I can’t hear a word they’re saying.”

This TV was just a little one, the little extra one that we sometimes watched the late news on when we were getting ready for bed. Our big TV was in the sunporch. It was an old Sony Trinitron. Jim Rust told me in the hospital that that was what had crushed Dorothy’s chest; the firemen said it had fallen off its bracket high in the corner. Sony Trinitrons are known for their unusual weight.

A while back, Dorothy and I had discussed buying one of those new-fangled flat-screen sets, but we’d decided we couldn’t afford it. If we had had a flat-screen TV, would Dorothy still be alive?

Or if her patient hadn’t canceled. Then she wouldn’t even have been home yet when the tree fell.

Or if she had stayed in the kitchen instead of heading for the sunporch.

If I’d said, “Let’s see if I can find those Triscuits,” and gone out to the kitchen to help her look, and then sat with her at the kitchen table while she ate them.

But no, no. I had to stomp off in a huff and sulk in the bedroom, as if it had mattered in the least that she’d refused to settle for Wheat Thins.

Oh, all those annoying habits of hers that I used to chafe at—the trail of crumpled tissues and empty coffee mugs she left in her wake, her disregard for the finer points of domestic order and comfort. Big deal!

Her tendency to make a little too much of her medical degree when she was meeting new people. “I’m Dr. Rosales,” she would say, instead of “I’m Dorothy,” so you could almost see the white coat even when she wasn’t wearing one. (Not that she actually met new people all that often. She had never seen the purpose in socializing.)

And those orthopedic-type shoes she had favored: they had struck me, at times, as self-righteous. They had seemed a deliberate demonstration of her seriousness, her high-mindedness—a pointed reproach to the rest of us.

I liked to dwell on these shortcomings now. It wasn’t only that I was wondering why they had ever annoyed me. I was hoping they would annoy me still, so that I could stop missing her.

But somehow, it didn’t work that way.

I wished I could let her know that I’d kept vigil in the hospital. I hated to think she might have felt she was going through that alone.

And wouldn’t she have been amused by all these casseroles!

That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

The TV infiltrated my sleep, if you could call this ragged semiconsciousness sleep. I dreamed the war in Iraq was escalating, and Hillary Clinton was campaigning for the Democratic nomination. I rolled over on the remote control and someone all at once shouted, “… this stainless-steel, hollow-ground, chef-quality …,” by which time I was sitting bolt upright in my bed, my eyes popping and my heart pounding and my mouth as dry as gauze. I turned off the TV and lay flat again. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth: Go to sleep, damn it.

You would think I’d have dreamed about Dorothy, but I didn’t. The closest I came to it was the whiff of isopropyl alcohol that I hallucinated from time to time as I finally drifted off again. She had carried that scent home on her skin at the end of every workday. Early in our marriage I used to have vivid dreams about childhood doctor visits and vaccinations and the like, evoked by the alcohol scent as I lay sleeping next to her. Now the ghost of it brought me sharply awake, and once or twice I even spoke her name aloud: “Dorothy?”

But I never got an answer.

The casseroles started thinning out and the letters stopped. Could people move on that easily? Yes, well, of course. New tragedies happened daily. I had to acknowledge that.

It seemed heartless that I should think to go in for my semiannual dental checkup, but I did. And then I bought myself some new socks. Socks, of all things! So trivial! But all my old ones had holes in the toes.

One evening my friend Nate called—WEISS N I on my caller ID. Him I picked up for. Right off I said, “Nate! How’ve you been?” without waiting for him to announce himself. But that was evidently a mistake, because I caught a brief hesitation before he said, “Hello, Aaron.” Very low-voiced, very lugubrious; not at all his usual style.

“How about a game tomorrow?” I asked him.

“Pardon?”

“A game of racquetball! I’m turning into an old man here. All my joints are rusting.”

“Well, ah, but … I was calling to invite you to dinner,” he said.

“Dinner?”

“Yes, Sonya was saying we ought to have you over.”

Sonya must be his wife. I had never met his wife. I suppose he must have mentioned her from time to time, but we didn’t have that kind of friendship. We had a racquetball friendship. We’d gotten acquainted at the gym.

I said, “Over to … to your house, you mean?”

“Right.”

“Well, gosh, Nate, I don’t know. I don’t even know where you live!”

“I live in Bolton Hill,” he said.

“And also I just … It’s been really busy at work lately. You wouldn’t believe how busy. I barely have time for a sandwich, and then, when I do find time, there is so much extra food in the fridge, these—these—these casseroles and these … cheesecakes. It’s practically a full-time job just to g-g-get it all d-d-d—just to eat it!”