SECTION ONE: JOHN
She had a perm. John didn’t know anything about those kinds of things, but he was surprised later to find out—when she came home one afternoon smelling of bitter plastic and fish—that what he had been running his fingers through and adoring splayed on his white, eyelet bed linen, was a ruse. And that smell. He could hardly stomach his pork chops and fried potatoes from the stink of it. Then a week later, at the academic ball, he drew her close to fit her curves to his body while everyone watched and commented on her fiery youth, and when he buried his face in her chestnut curls his nostrils were assailed and he coughed, hesitated in his waltz step.
The song ended and her warmth escaped him as she stepped back and opened up to the room, clapped. She was trying so hard to be perfect but there were things about her that eluded her careful manicuring; the things he loved most. He had seen them from the first moment she filed into his classroom, carefully lined a notebook and pencil up on the desk top at right angles. The careful color of her nail polish was a little too fluorescent to avoid notice, her pale hands never stayed completely still so she sat on them sometimes.
Like tonight, he was so proud that she had on red, even though it seemed to defy all her literary training what the red in red dress signified. Gemma, in red? He must have loosed something inside her that the young bride would choose sports car red, fitted to her form and smoothing over her tight waist with an obvious bulge, her round bottom, her ample bosom that might be the foreshadow of children, or affairs, or weight gain, but none of them with restraint.
Gemma’s lips were lacquered red to match her dress. (Subtlety and Cindy Crawford had not yet happened to makeup, in the 1960s.) She turned to him with her face flashing a brilliant smile (her smile was expansive and full of perfect, blue-white teeth) which deflected quickly off of his constant watchfulness. Sparkling eyes? (Why was that? Did humans produce excess ocular moisture when happy? And why? Mating reasons? He would have to ask George.) That would signify she was enjoying herself, despite his secret misgivings. Maybe she had them, too. He took her girlish hand in his—slight, warm, ornamented with the aquamarine wedding ring that he chose to accent her eyes—and would remember that moment for all the rest of his ninety-two years, the gold of a thin chain nearly disappearing next to her whiteness, a ruby pendant (Had she planned her outfit because of this wedding present?) cradled in her clavicle.
* * *
The dogwood was in bloom then. He could tell by the piece pressed into the pages of her journal and taped there, dying the page in brown blotches these four decades. In his mind’s eye, he could see the dark wash of East Coast evergreens with wintry bark, desecrated by the crystallized fireworks of all those dogwoods. He could smell them, feel the way they dressed up a campus, a town, a freeway, an alley.
He lay a veiny hand on the page, on the mummified dogwood sprig. He wasn’t sure where else to go, just here in the bedroom. How much time did they spend together in this room, anymore? Anymore. Not anymore. He found Gemma here, yesterday, and now he was trapped in the domestic silence (ticking grandfather clock, heater hum) and cream voile and doilies and Hummels.
Who were you supposed to call when you found someone dead? Why didn’t people talk about those sorts of details? It was mostly unexpected, but he was certain there was no foul play. You had to call the police, anyhow? Report death to the government like you had to births? Yes sir, my wife is dead. I’ve filled out all the required paperwork. And now the bulk of her was at the funeral home and he was in the bedroom.
The kids would be coming. Like him, they wouldn’t know what to do. Unlike him, they would do what occurred to them. Until then, he sat in limbo, stuck between the voile and the dogwoods.
* * *
“When you see something more than once, it’s a sign.” That’s what he had said to her. He couldn’t have known it then, but saying that to her was like holding a newborn to your chest or inviting Homeless Pat over for Christmas dinner. Of course, it was meant ostensibly as a comment on literature, but there under the raging blooms under a crystal sky, the heat between their bodies and the shadows in their eyes were indicative of his subversive meaning. He would tell her clearly soon enough. He believed that when he saw something repeated, it was a sign. And that was the second time he had seen Gemma floating between classes that very day, the day of meeting her in class.
And it was spring, a season for blossoming love. The flowers were exploding, pollen erupting into the air and shifting with the winds. Flowers were making love. The earth was softening, the grass the greenest and softest it would be all year. How long had he watched these portents for other men, other women? How many times had he highlighted them in stories for dimwitted students? It is spring. The world is in bloom. The girl with the pink nail polish is seen walking under the cherry blossoms. The girl with the pink nail polish is seen sitting neatly on the lawn, her books and papers scattered about her. Then a paper breaks free of its makeshift weight and moves spastic as a butterfly until it lands at the young professor’s feet. That, he explains, is foreshadowing. That is a sign.
So where was his sign, now? What did he miss that unveiled the secret of Gemma’s death before it unfolded? He could not comprehend that perhaps the author of this story was cruel or inept enough not to give the proper clues to soften the blow, to create that perfect moment of “Aha!” when it became clear the ending was—although secret—always inevitable.
This in no way felt inevitable. But he had missed the signs, surely. What were they? Where were they? What weapon was hidden in the paragraphs of her life, what antagonist creeping along the pages and waiting to spring from the shadows, unbidden but practically absolute? Maybe he had just forgotten. Old age. How long ago was it that he first noticed his words tripping over each other, his thoughts hitting against the front of his skull and then falling back into his brain before he could form the word on his tongue? “It happens to everyone,” Gemma said to him. They were driving in the car, sometime, somewhere. All he could remember was that feeling of plastic and glass all around, the slide of pavement beneath them and scenery around them lost in the sounds of the car, and her beside him looking forward over the dashboard. She was trying to soothe him. She knew he was thinking, Not me. He told her he must have lesions on his brain from a life of headaches. She sighed. He knew she was thinking, Sometimes we are just ordinary, just like everyone else.
* * *
When her fire surprised him, her ferocity erupting into his cautious life, he became full of romantic ideas. There was a plane trip to New York City to eat at a restaurant she had mentioned. There were the Poconos and all that skin and sexiness which was something he had never thought of before and was all he could think of afterwards, distracting his work something dreadful and being a bit of a scandal besides. They went rowing on the lake, and then they did it again, and again. He would pack a generous picnic basket, never dreaming of the way she would handle each food as though it were sensual. Later, he lay in bed and the food would come back to him in flashes; a red grape surrounded by her pretty lips and held in her fingertips, her nails painted lilac, her fingers ivory, so slender; an ice cube on a wave of iced tea, clinking against her pearly teeth as she struggled not to smile, pushing her tongue against them; even a chocolate cake, one bite at a time, and how her eyes would first widen with the bite and then shudder closed as she chewed, a private ecstasy.
Dusk was smearing the sky pink and a purpled gray on the far side of the lake and he had taken Gemma on another rowing picnic. He packed while she was in her perfect dorm room, or so he imagined; he had never been stupid enough to actually visit her there but he had painted in his mind’s eye her small bed with ruffled comforter, her school-issue desk with drawers lined with floral contact paper and sharp pencils with unused erasers, a divider between paperclips and rubber bands, shelves with lines of Ken Kesey, King Lear, Of Mice and Men, Simone de Beauvior. And would she be bold enough to have a framed photo of them together reclining idly on the bureau next to the vase of flowers that he kept full with wildflowers and occasionally a bouquet from Anna’s downtown? Maybe he was buried in with her panties, but he imagined he was on the dresser, watching her furrow her brow and bend her head over her novels and course texts until her eyes were slits and the only light left on was her desk lamp and somewhere her roommate was snoring and Gemma was slumped almost onto herself.
But that was a rabbit trail. One that he loved to take. Those old memories. On that particular day—the other one he had been thinking about—it was purpled dusk out in the row boat and he could still recall the bounty of the picnic basket. Pasta Alfredo from Vinnie’s, still warm from the way he had wrapped it in layer on layer of towels. Red wine. Chilled. Fresh bread that steamed when he ripped it open. Olives, the kinds with pits still in them. And Gemma had oohed and ahhed as he wanted her to, as he needed her to. She was good at that. A skill he later learned was not a gifting of all women, but of the crafty ones. It would keep him producing, keep him fawning for their whole marriage, this rewarding him with innocent praise.
She tipped a wine glass back so that the rim fell across her wide eyes, brushing her eye lashes, the wine ebbing in between her lips. There were a few stray pieces of bread on the bench in between them, who knows how they happened to be there? And a crow came suddenly swooping from the land and the shoreline of darkling trees and right across the barely rippling water (darkling too with barely a reflection of the lazy, cloud-smudged sunset). With a raucous flapping the crow landed on the side of the boat. He snatched a piece of bread into his bill before John could wiggle his hands at him and yell “shoo!” Gemma had been cool as a cucumber, giggled into her wine. John leaned back and stared at the bench with bread crumbs, dubious. A crow? What did it mean?
It didn’t matter. He went ahead with the proposal anyhow because there was nothing he could do about it. His fate was with Gemma, no matter if she was his femme fatale or what. He had the sense, that night, that he was walking into disaster, what with the crow and all. But he would never tell her that, would never really have the need to. She slid the ring onto her slender finger and held it out in front of them as they snuggled in the same end of the boat, his arms around her waist (with an obvious bulge, again), supporting her thin arms and draped with her chestnut curls, his nose at the crown of her head. She watched the dusk wane in the luster of the aquamarine, then the starlight twinkle there. John was looking up at the sky, watching the gods and warriors march their way toward morning, shivering as silent black bats flew between him and the infinite universe, wondering if a single crow were more ominous than bats against a waxing moon.