by Joan Gaustad
Part 1: AN INKLING
“Does it get any easier after three months?” my neighbor asks as I watch him shove hollyhock seeds, South of France-style, between the alley cobblestones next to his narrow townhouse. We’ve rarely spoken in decades of close proximity, and it takes me a moment to understand what he means—losing my husband. Yes, it must be three months now, I think, reluctant to relinquish my denial. Not lost—just not around.
I’ve heard my neighbor is a professor at the university where my husband taught. His nice wife, I’ve known only from a distance, because my little rescue poodle would like to kill her sweet Springer Spaniel. My neighbor looks up, wet-eyed under his straw hat, and it dawns on me that his wife’s diminishing body and presence is now absent.
He invites me into his high-fenced, flower-filled courtyard, and we stand face to face in the steaming, breezeless heat as if in the eye of a storm. A storm of grief and guilt. He is a serious fisherman, he tells me, and had begged his wife to come with him on his boat to ease her chemo nausea. She was fearful, reluctant, but she relented and seemed to give in to the gentle rocking. Then, the sky suddenly turned Turneresque and the slamming sea became terrifying even to him. They made it to shore, but he could not forgive himself. The rims of his eyeglasses fill with tears, and he lifts them to let the flood pour down his cheeks, into his graying beard. He had been out on a run when she died, he says.
How long will we stand here in this hot whirl of mosquitos, buzzing and biting?
That evening, we sit in his cozy kitchen, the gentle dog in the corner grieving too. We talk in a scattershot way about anything but our guilt, our grief—books, art, gossip. He tells me he is going fishing in Canada for a few months on the huge boat his wife had resented: “Obscene!” she’d complained of the cost. “Give an equal amount to Doctors Without Borders,” he told her. She did, but did not forgive him.
He texts when he returns. While he was away, his wife’s dog died of lung cancer, the same cancer that killed her. He invites me for dinner.
I call my little sister for advice. I have not dated since I was 22—almost four decades now—and I wasn’t very experienced, even then. “My neighbor has asked me over for tonight, but I have a birthday date tomorrow with my too-young-for-me fence builder to go to the river.”
“Fence-with-benefits,” she laughs.
“Be serious,” I say, “I need your help. I want to know if it’s ok to kiss the age-appropriate professor to see if I’m interested, when I think I really like the young guy?”
“I think you should sleep with as many men as possible!” she says.
“That’s why you’re my ethical advisor.” I’ve already fallen into and out of the hammock with the Tai Chi-master fence builder, but it seemed like silly kid’s play—hot yoga, I rationalize.
“A fisherman’s feast,” announces my neighbor as he opens his front door. “Salmon caught in Canada.” I brought gelato and slip it into the freezer. Without the calming presence of the sweet dog, he fusses nervously with a fish reduction, refilling his wine glass several times. “Let’s let it simmer and I’ll show you the house.”
The house is tiny but artfully filled with artifacts from Africa, his area of study and passion. “Sit,” he says, pulling me down onto a small stiff couch, Miles Davis’ “Summertime,” soft in the background.
“There’s a line from a movie I like,” my neighbor says, “I want to fuck your brains out.”
I’m unprepared for this from the borderline pretentious professor, “Well that’s not going to happen,” I say, “But we could kiss.”
He roughly pulls me towards him, twisting my sensitive spine. I wince, untangle myself from his grope and retreat to the fishy kitchen.
He follows, pours more wine, continues to fuss at the stove and make a mess of the dinner. We eat in silence. I devour the gelato and say goodnight.
No offer to walk me the dark half-block home.
After eight years of being strong for my husband as we tried to navigate the terrors of early-onset dementia, I am not handling widowhood well. My spine hurts, and I weep in my solo bed. I’m mad at myself. I wanted the gelato. Why didn’t I just grab it and run? It’s the night before my first birthday without my father and my beloved—my protectors. I feel like a snail without a shell—a slug. I can’t sleep. I had refused grief counseling, enough sorrow! I just wanted life. Is this the price?
Those who lose their mates to dementia often find new mates immediately, while most who are widowed remarry after two years. This, the thinking goes, is because the spouse had been lost to illness long ago. The blessing of the form of dementia that my darling had, vascular, was that our deep connection, our love, remained. Still, I have a physical longing for a beating heart next to mine. A longing for life.
Early morning, I’m out walking my pup when my neighbor calls out to me from his run. I pull Misha back. “Stay away from me!” I hiss.
“It was just a line from a movie.”
“It wasn’t what you said. It’s what you did.”
He tries to explain, “I’d been drinking martinis before you came. My wife hated that, but they make me like myself better.”
“And made me like you not at all.”
We’re done dating, but I forgive him. I’m crazy too. We, the long-married, no longer know how to be in the world with only one oar. We spin.
I call my sister, all pathetic. She has the phone on speaker and her husband calls out, “Give the guy a break!”
I shout back, “You just want to fish on his boat!”
My young teen niece overhears. She texts her sisters, who text me, “You’re dating?!” and tease, “How’s Mr. FYBO?” Laugh emoji, laugh emoji, laugh emoji.
“What upsets me most is that I stayed for dinner,” I tell my new therapist.
“That’s not at all unusual,” she says. “We don’t want to believe that this is our life, so we act as if it isn’t happening.”
These words come back to me again and again. I don’t want to believe that this is my life. But it is. And I stay.
Part 2: A FICTION
Light comes suddenly, pink through her eyelids. She blinks them open to the low Berkshire sun pouring through the adjoining, always-locked bedroom door. Why is it open? Her boyfriend moves towards her in all his naked 72-year-old glory, more aroused than she’s seen him in years.
Do you really want to do this in front of your brother? She rolls out from under him, jumps up and slams the door.
The boyfriend grabs her ponytail and yanks it back so hard she fears the long slender neck he once admired will break. Pulling her down by her hair onto the bed—pounding—a jackhammer. Her throat constricts. No sound will emit. (Did you say no? she will later be asked.) Leaving her rumpled in the sheets, he retreats to the shower where he loudly finishes himself off.
She stumbles down the steep spiral farmhouse steps into the kitchen and sips water to soothe her choked throat. Sounds of his family stirring. The boyfriend walks in.
I’m calling for a car, she says. I don’t care if I have to stay in the airport for days.
What? he says.
You raped me!
There’s all kinds of sex, he says, leaning back against the counter.
That was assault! Why did you open the door to your brother’s room? Are you that crazy- jealous of him?
The boyfriend’s daughter and granddaughter slip in through the screen door from their carriage house bedroom. The little girl gives the girlfriend a sleep-warm hug, reaching around for a tender tug on her long ponytail. Wince. The boyfriend’s older brother and his groggy wife padding behind him enter from their ground-floor suite. I’ll get the coffee on, he says.
Their son, back from his run, plops the Sunday New York Times on the table and pulls out the magazine section. Let’s play Ethics! His mother reads the ethical dilemmas out loud and solutions are offered.
The girlfriend takes a seat, her white eyelet robe wrapped tight. She accepts a cup of coffee, warming her hands and pours cream to the top. A wholesome family picture, she thinks— a scene right out of Norman Rockwell, whose museum they will visit in the afternoon. And Yo-Yo Ma tonight. The hated, mother-favored younger brother arrives with fresh donuts, always the hero, not knowing he had missed a planned show.
What story will the girlfriend tell herself? Happy picturesque family? Brutalizing boyfriend? What happened is never mentioned again. Her spine is nerve-pinched in a sudden car swerve on the drive back. He says he prefers her injured and makes sure she stays that way, while always insisting that the car slams and body slams in bed are unintentional.
The next summer, they return to the Berkshire vacation house. The older brother seeing her diminished body, a big brace on her back, says, brow furrowed, You’re a ghost of your former self. His son glances at her once-strong legs. No hiking, she guesses he’s thinking. The now ten-year-old granddaughter hugs the girlfriend’s arm and gives it a kiss.
The youngest brother asks, Why did you drive her over those rough roads coming here? They know what he is, she thinks.
How did this happen? Friends had warned, He’s controlling. But she’d laugh and respond, I’m uncontrollable! She had thought, It’s the stress. Once his book is published, once his overpriced house is sold, once his barely-living wife is eased into the next life, it will be all right.
Each resolution brings no change. When her physical therapist, relocating her hip, says, This must stop, she changes the locks.
“All these Me-Too women,” she says to her sister—”They’re so brave. I’m a coward. I tell people that we’re still friends and actually smile in public when I cringe at the sight of him.”
“If you told,” her sister says, “they would want to know why you stayed.”
She wants to know that, too.
Part 3: A CONVERSATION
“Why did you write this as fiction?” Patti asks, dropping the pages on her coffee table.
“I changed some things. Things about the family.”
“But the thing is true.”
“Yes. The thing. It’s the only way I could tell it—as if it was someone else. And I had to tell it. You know what they say, ‘If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, it will kill you.’”
“Sounds like constipation.” Patti eyerolls.
“That’s what my GI doc friend says! And that’s exactly how it feels: soul stuck.”
It’s good to be here, to have her usually raucous house to ourselves, sipping coffee.
“So, did the writing help?” she asks.
I slip down onto the floor across from her and pull my legs into lotus. “Some things are coming to light. There should be an anthology of Why I Stayed stories.”
“I’d buy that book!”
“Me too, and I think a lot of people could contribute. For some, the reasons are clear— children, financial dependence, family pressure. Sometimes, it’s just love. My marriage wasn’t always easy, as you know, but Mama said she never saw two people more in love. This time the love stopped early, so it made no sense.”
“Well, in the beginning, you were addicted to the sex—three times a day for hours— endless orgasms.” Patti laughs.
“Ridiculous! I know. I’d just gone on Medicare! But it was the first thing that took me to the place of no-thinking. Even art couldn’t get me there anymore. My need to blot out my guilt and grief made me overlook truly awful things.”
“Even in the beginning?” Patti asks as she pours us more coffee.
“Oh yeah. He proudly told me he had printed out an email to a young woman he was hot for and left it for his girlfriend to see. He said—he was smiling when he said this—that when she found it he heard her scream.”
“Yikes.” Her big dog jumps onto the couch and gives her a loving lick.
“And I think he had some weird mama stuff going on. Once when I kissed him, apparently too enthusiastically, he recoiled, saying ‘You kiss like my mother.’ I said, ‘If your mother kissed you like that, you need therapy.’ I know that was snarky-mean. I was hurt, but there must have been some dark past. Something. Why else would he want to harm women?”
“Did he hurt his wives?”
“He said they both betrayed him and blamed feminism—another waving red flag that I didn’t want to see. He has a scar on his hand from slamming his fist into a wall when he found out wife-two also cheated. Slamming was a thing, I realize looking back. And he would laugh—crazy laugh—when I cried out in pain from car slams and a whack on my back in the pool. He looked like The Joker!”
“I didn’t know,” Patti says quietly.
“Because I didn’t want to know. It was so much worse than other relationships where I never understood why people stayed. And I told him that. But I couldn’t seem to get out. Just caught.”
“Like a fish on a hook.”
“It did feel that way. Every time he hurt me in bed I would say ‘We have to talk.’ He’d just turn away. ‘It won’t happen again. End of discussion.’ He said that, like twenty-six times. He hadn’t even kissed me in over a year before the injury, only touched me in public. I would cry and say I can’t live without affection. But I did, and then when I was broken, vulnerable, he had to have it.”
“So weird.” Patti shakes her head.
“Looking back, I think it was the harming that turned him on. He had heard my rehab doc say that the most important thing was for me to let the nerve heal. ‘It’s like a frayed wire that will break if it keeps being assaulted.’ He took note.”
“What do you mean?” Patti asks.
“My car pillow was suddenly gone. He had taken it and then plowed over a speedbump. I cried ‘Why!?’ He said, ‘It’s not my fault it’s so big. You have to take responsibility for yourself.’ It didn’t make sense— maybe he wanted me to break up with him.”
“And he disrupted my sleep. On trips with friends, I would wake in the night as a pillow hit my head. He denied it. But why was it on my face? I was exhausted and emotional. I think my friends thought ‘Poor guy.’”
“Gaslit!” Patti says.
“I can see that now. And people thought he was so nice. If they’d known that he thought their baby was disappointing and unattractive…that their thighs were unfortunate bordering on unforgivable…that their thank you gift was insufficiently thankful…”
“But after you locked him out and said you could sleep and eat again, you were telling everyone, even me, to be nice to him. You asked your friends to invite him to Thanksgiving when you came here. Why?”
I take a deep breath. “Yeah, I was wanting to be all Buddhist. And I was afraid. I had nightmares of him getting in the house. I would be friendly if I saw him at an opening or in the grocery store. But I’d cringe. Then he started coming up behind me with more of a whack than a tap on my shoulders. I’d jump and he’d laugh. After he found someone else to live with and moved away, I would wake up smiling—actually laughing.”
“That’s when you started telling me what happened.”
“I felt safe. Finally. And relieved. But still angry, more at myself for what I had let happen. I’d lie face down on the floor trying to will my spine back into line and think, If I could heal I could forgive. Finally, it came to me that if I could forgive maybe I would heal.”
“Didn’t the neurosurgeons say it wasn’t possible?”
“Well, my foot won’t lift, but I’m walking. Dancing!”
“Yeah, about as well as you sing!” she laughs.
“I bring forth a joyous noise.” I smile and pick up my pages from the table.
“I do think writing the ‘fiction’ is helping me understand my part in what felt like a lobster trap. It goes back to what my counselor said about me staying for dinner with the professor: We don’t want to believe that this is our life.”
I sip my now-cold coffee. “And it starts when we’re young. Like when we were kids visiting Mama’s family in Louisiana. Did we think it was weird that our glamorous grandmother’s husband was younger than her daughter?”
“Well, their story was supposed to be this big romance, and Kenneth was so funny. At those delicious Creole dinners, we’d laugh along with the grownups at his wild humor. ‘What a fiend!’ They’d grin about him crushing babies in grocery carts—sliding his cart up slowly from behind and looking all innocent when the parent would turn to see why their child was suddenly howling.” Patti pauses. “Remember he called a squirrel ‘Big Balls’ and peppers, ‘peckers?’”
“Yes. It was bizarre, but we sisters and cousins would giggle and doubt the darkness of what he’d done to us. And we were all alone in it, then. The dark part.”
I try to see Patti’s face, backlit by the suddenly sunny sunporch. “Opelousas was the closest thing we had to home in our army brat lives, and we wanted the parts we loved. Playing under the pecan tree, the banana palms, running wild in the gullies during those sun-shot flash storms.”
“Yes. That was the light,” Patti quietly muses.
I think back to those steamy gin-and-tonic-scented days. “Remember when we visited on the way back from our years in Bangkok? You were all on your way to Germany, and I was headed to college. Everyone—cousins, aunts, uncles—piled in the dark TV-lit big bedroom to watch the moon landing. At dinner, you tried to bring up Vietnam and kept getting interrupted, ‘Pass the dirty rice.’ You flipped. ‘All we ever talk about in this family is food!’ My little sister—I loved it.”
“I was fifteen.”
“I wonder now if part of your rage was what had happened in Moonie’s king-sized bed.” Patti pulls her warm dog close. “We never told each other. Until we were all the adults.”
“We didn’t tell ourselves. It showed up in my paintings. I think it’s why I was compelled to make art from a young age. Other people saw what it was about before I did. Like Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell the truth but tell it slant.’”
“You named a show that!” Patti remembers.
“I did. And then the dreams started. But still, I doubted. I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted to believe the love story the family loved to tell. I told it too.” I was getting that tingling sensation in my legs that comes when memories haunt me.
“Didn’t you go to a bunch of shrinks?” she asks.
“Ja,” I say, laughing. “Like ten. I would bolt when the truth got too close. It takes work to understand that what happened when we were children, even after, does not define us.”
Patti settles back into the couch with her pup. “It’s hard. But finally talking helps.”
“Yes. And the writing. I love the Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘One Art,’ when she says ‘Write it!’ like make it right. Writing the ‘fiction’—as if I were looking down on someone else’s life—helped me feel compassion for myself and stop asking why? why? why? I began to see that seeds are planted young. We learn to live the half-life—the half-lie. And we stay. And stay.”
Let It Flow
by Delta N.A.
Joan Loren Gaustad’s memoir Someone’s Missing…and I Think It’s Me (VCU Libraries 2021) has been nominated for The Library of Virginia Literary Prize in Nonfiction.
Joan has participated in art shows nationally and internationally. Her house is filled with art, knee-high piles of books, and her beloved poodle pup, Misha.