In the Clouds
Each night I set my alarm for two hours earlier than I used to so that we have time for breakfast together. Then I head to the subway and travel to my store. Being with Annemarie is now the most important part of my life and my greatest pleasure. I enjoy looking at her gently snoring when I awaken in the morning; I love sleeping next to her, cuddling against her warm body in the middle of the night, wrapping my arms around her, and breathing in her sweet lemon drop scent. When she wakes up she smiles and even on her worst days she holds out her arms for me. Our hours and days and nights together fill us with delight and comfort. I marvel at what my life has become.
She wants me to give up my apartment, and I have said I will, but I just haven’t gotten around to doing that. At her insistence, I hired two young people from Morningside Heights, Ahmad and Leona, to help out in the store and run the place during the days when I’m not there. Taking whole days off from work to be with Annemarie is something else she insisted I do. I now look forward to those times. Even though I still love being in the store and handling books, my favorite times are the ones I spend with her, both at home and around the city. I’ve even begun to almost enjoy going to the theater.
I have promised Annemarie that I will start thinking about selling the store. What will I do then? Maybe I’ll write a book about my theory of the planes of existence. The trouble with that is I still do not know what is real and what is whimsy, what really happened to me and what I imagined. Maybe there is no clear demarcation between those opposing ideas. Perhaps that is the case with everything we do in reference to what we call life.
I still do not conform, although, when Annemarie tells me that, in a particular social situation I should do or say this or that, I try. At this point in my life—I’ve stopped referring to it as “this version of my life” or “this plane of existence” or “this time and place”—I am able to enjoy being with people. I’m no longer the adult version of that nine-year-old who felt ashamed and thought that he should not share or even have contact with others. Am I still peculiar? I suppose I am. Then again, isn’t everyone peculiar in his or her own way? That’s a good thing. I have learned, at this late stage in my life, just how wonderful it is to talk to strangers, listen to their stories, and learn about their unique experiences.
Of course, if you talk to enough people on a regular basis you hear about the disappointments and tragedies in their lives, but that is a good thing. I have found out that just listening, really listening to someone tell his or her sad story about a wayward spouse or a sick child or a missed opportunity goes a long way toward helping that person. Sometimes all an injured soul wants is the ear of another soul.
I think about Faye, but I no longer wish I was back with her in that time and place. I’m finally cured of that affliction, that burning need to remake my life, to disassociate myself from my present existence and dwell in the past. When I think of Faye, it is with a complicated mixture of joy and regret. I remember with fondness and appreciation how much she loved me and how much pleasure she brought to my life. At the same time, I mourn the fact that I did not understand her love or even how to love and that I rarely provided her with anything other than physical affection whose origin lay in my strong and unrelenting sexual desire for her. I am still, all these years later, astonished by the fact that she never rebuked me, no matter how selfishly or oddly I behaved, that is until I said what I said and caused Peter to run away. She seemed to understand that something was missing in me, some vital part of my psyche or my soul or in terms of my way of viewing life. If I had that—whatever part of me had been missing back then—I would have been able to care for people and be interested in what they thought, and Faye and I would be together today. I hope she is with a man who is able to return her love and address her concerns and make her happy each and every day.
I said that I do not wish to be back with Faye, but the truth is I am with her and she is with me. Even though I love Annemarie unconditionally and cannot imagine my life without her, I love Faye too. No. Not that kind of love, but, ironically, now that she and I are apart and have been for decades, I understand that there is an astonishing, indissoluble bond between us, one that is an important part of my life and, I hope, of hers too. I also have come to believe that there is no clear boundary between what we call life or existence and what we call death, at least in the sense that all that is alive is still in that state—still alive—even when the “shell” no longer functions. I believe that existence refers to all living things and that since existence is eternal, then all living things are eternal too. No, I am not referring to an afterlife, but, living or dead, we are all part of the cosmos.
Once Annemarie helped me to understand the meaning of love—I do not know how she did that—I found out that I am capable of boundless amounts of that, of love. Therefore, in that part of my brain that allows me to feel for other people and care about them, there is a place for Faye and for Peter and for all of the others whose lives have intersected with mine, and I care about all of them.
I worry that Faye never found Peter, that he disappeared into the shadows of the city or that he died somewhere, alone and unloved. That grieves me. It tears at my heart, but even though I know I will feel guilty about what happened to him until my last sentient moments, I am grateful that, at last, I finally do have a heart that allows me to grieve.
After seeing the photograph of my father, Robbie Santorino, and me in front of Mr. Lee and remembering what I am now quite sure happened that day on the green green ocean, I have come to understand that a switch had been turned on—or off—in my brain, causing me to hide from life. That was my reaction. Another boy or girl in a similar situation might have gotten angry and acted out or laughed or ignored what had happened, but I turned inward, like a snail.
Once Annemarie recovered from her surgery we took a few short trips—to Savannah, to Palm Beach, and back to that same lovely rural inn in Concord. She has making plans for us to cruise the Aegean and tour western Europe and spend a few weeks in South America. She has assured me that I will have plenty of time to read. I still spend hours each day doing that, especially when she has a bad day after chemo or radiation. Yes, four months after her surgery, the oncologist decided that she had to undergo a course of treatments, but that will be over soon, and she swears that when she feels better she will eat like a marathon runner and regain her strength and her joie de vivre and her “old gal” figure. I don’t care what she looks like, because, although I love her face and the feel of her hands in mine and the warm curve of her back as we nestle in bed, I dwell in and take nourishment from her astonishing soul, which, despite all that she has gone through, remains loving and beautiful.
One night, when she felt especially sick, weak, and nauseous after her treatment, when all she could keep down was hot tea, she said that she had to reveal more chapter from her past and unburden herself because the guilt was debilitating her more than the chemo. She held in her hands the old, ragged pink towel that she calls “Mama,” which is her only connection to her real mother, who she thinks of most nights before she falls asleep. Clutching it, she told me about fighting off Reverend Towler in the motel room and stabbing him and stealing his car. She explained how she had survived during those years of her eastward journey by working in diners and stores in little towns and living with men. A shadow crossed her eyes as she explained how, years before, she used to take money from boys she would meet after school. Then, with ragged lines of anger creasing her tired face, she told about the young man who plied her with drinks and brought her home and repeatedly raped her. “All of that happened because of what Father did to me. Don’t get me wrong,” she whispered. Then she took a moment to swallow some tea and relax her stomach before she continued: “Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have to go that way. I did not have to travel that path. I guess I could have risen above it or become a nun or a frigid woman or even a normal person, but I did not. I became who I became.”
“If you had become a normal person you might not have been interested in me, because I’m different too. I didn’t have to react to what happened on that boat as I did, and run from life.”
“You know, your years of solitude provided you with a gift: you enjoy life so much now and think about it more than most people.”
“Maybe. I know I appreciate my life, but I’m still an oddball, which makes me wonder why you want to be with me.”
“I like you as you are. You make me happy.”
“Life is strange. Here’s a bit of irony: if that guy hadn’t pushed me into my apartment that night—right past Frank, a man I liked—Frank and I might have stayed together and maybe gotten married. If that had happened I wouldn’t be here with you now.”
“And you might be happier.”
“No. You make me very happy. I can’t imagine my life without you. You are who I want. You are my home.”
“I’m so grateful you love me, but I still don’t know why that is.”
“I don’t know. It has to do with things beyond our comprehension, something bigger than you and me, something that has to do with a butterfly flapping its wings in China or ... Oh! I have to run!”
I helped her hobble to the bathroom and I held back her hair as she vomited the little bit of tea she had drunk. I trembled as I worried that she did not have enough nourishment in her to get her through the night, the next day, the next week, through the days of my life. Selfish? Yes, but isn’t loving someone a selfish act, a self-centered state of being? I love Annemarie with all of my imperfect heart and I do all I can to show that to her and help her to feel secure and safe. However, loving her makes me feel good. It helps me to define my life and it brings me joy. Just looking at her face and touching her skin makes me happy.
I no longer wonder about whether I am experiencing only one of many variations in terms of my existence. I’m just grateful that I have learned how to take joy from this life, the only one I know and the only one that matters. I still go to Dr. LeMane, but now the sessions are not heavy and grief-filled, as they were in the past. Now we talk about my hopes and my fears and my plans, almost all of which have to do with Annemarie. Dr. LeMane says that even though that is a positive step, I should not be surprised or dismayed if I fall back to my former depression from time to time. After all, he says, for each week of sunshine, there is likely to be a cloudy or rainy or bitterly cold day or two. I know he’s right, but the thing is, at this point in my life, I look for glimmers of sunlight through the clouds each day.
For the first time in years I have a family. Roger, Annemarie’s son, and I have become very close to each other. I consider him my second best friend. He and Pat have moved into a lovely old townhouse in the West Village. They seem to be very much in love. Yes, Pat—Patrick—not Patricia. Roger says that while he still finds women attractive, his heart and his home are with Pat.
When I called Mark’s grown children to tell them that Annemarie had cancer they flew to New York to see her and comfort her, Katherine from Atlanta and Kevin from Chicago. They have promised to remain close to Annemarie, because she took care of their father and made him happy for many years. Sometimes the connections between people are astonishing and wonderful. I never cease to marvel at that.
A few days ago, I told Annemarie that on the first day she feels well enough we should apply for a marriage license. She said I must be crazy to want to marry her. I told her I’d be crazy not to. Then I said that I would have to use my real name, Martin Joseph Fox, on the application for the license, and not Howard Roark Fox, explaining my youthful attraction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy and how I had unofficially changed my name. Annemarie thought for a second and said, “That’s okay, but I don’t know anyone named Martin. I love you as Howard.”
“You might not like the name so much when I tell you that Howard, in the original Middle English, means ‘sheep herder’”
Annemarie’s face brightened and then she wiped away a tear.
“Are you okay? Are you in pain?”
Laughing for the first time that day, Annemarie said, “I’m fine.”
“Then, why the tears?”
“It’s just that when I lived on that farm with the Herndons I used to look at sheep in a nearby pasture and envy their simple lives: grazing, sitting in the sun, sleeping, making love, if you can call it that, nursing their babies, and being shorn of their heavy wool coats in the springtime. I love the idea that you’re my shepherd. I just hope I don’t lose all of my wool because of the chemo.”
Annemarie and I understand that living and losing are inextricably bound together, whether what we lose is hair, our money, or our house keys. We have promised each other that what we will not lose, what we will pursue and embrace on a daily basis, is the chance to spend as much time with each other as possible. That is at least partly because we have both spent too many years feeling unfulfilled and lonely.
I want to remember all of my time with Annemarie, in case she dies before I do; I want Annemarie to remember our time together, in case I die first. For that reason, I bought a camera—the first one I have ever owned. I take it with me each and every time we go out, even if it is just for a neighborhood walk. I take photos of Annemarie and she takes pictures of me and we take lots of pictures of wherever we are. Occasionally, we act like tourists, and ask passersby to photograph us. We always hold hands and stand very close to each other with our faces touching. In a small way, that camera allows me, us, to take in the complexity and beauty of the world. We are able to bring at least some of it into that box, and then we view it again and again, until it becomes part of us. I save all of the photos on my computer and on hers and on a flash drive and in the clouds. I love the sound of that phrase: in the clouds. I don’t believe in heaven and hell, but I hope—I almost said “pray”—there’s a giant computer server up there, in the fluffy, misty clouds that gently sail across the blue blue sky. I hope that is where the pictures of us and the places that we have visited will reside for eternity. But, since I’m a practical man I also print each and every one of them, and then, using an old fashioned fountain pen, I write on the back in blue blue ink the date and where we were when the picture was taken.
In that way, whoever sees any of those photos, even if it is after we are both long gone, will know that all of our times and places together were the best parts of our lives.