The last thing my wife said to me in person was, “You are not the person you think you are, and you are not the person that others take you to be.” At the time, I thought the only thing harder than having your partner of ten years call you a liar was suspecting that she might be right. I boarded a train in Seattle that afternoon and rode it straight for three days, back to New York City.
The divorce was a nasty and savage affair. We had been in graduate school at the same time and had incurred mutual debts. We had made homes in ten cities and five countries. I was godfather to her niece. Friends and family were forced to choose sides. She was not an American citizen, so there were green card issues to be dealt with. There had been infidelities. We had taken the gloves off long before and our knuckles were bruised by the time it was over. In our last written communication, haggling from opposite sides of the country over details in the divorce papers, I pointed out the unbearable irony of her claiming that particular item, when it was soiled with the very things that had destroyed us; and she notified me that my library had caught fire and that I should expect from her nothing more than the things I had carried with me when I left.
I spent a good deal of the next five years punishing myself, with her memory following me at times like a shadow and at others like an echo; but slowly, because one has no choice in these things, I began to rebuild my life. I finished my thesis. I found a job. I paid my bills on time. I made new friends and reinvested in relationships that had lost capital. My family welcomed me back; and most importantly, I had the City, where one can be or become anything one puts one’s mind to. I moved into a loft in Brooklyn and set myself up as an artist. Despair and self-loathing gave way, under the gentle pressure of passing time, to what I hoped might be the beginnings of wisdom and humility. I had learned something, which was good; but psychic healing, I knew, was in large part a matter of simple forgetting. I waited, and did my best along the way, to forget her.
Then one morning in a November past, after staying up all night helping a friend through a difficult break-up, having a conversation in which she was, for me, a touchstone of loss and letting go, I went into work, sat down at my desk, and listened to my phone messages. I recognized the voice immediately. It was her mother, and she was crying. “This is Y—, X—‘s mother. X—’s had an accident, and it was very bad, and we thought she was going to make it, but she didn’t, and she died. I know you loved her at one time and I know she loved you too and the service is at 4pm on Tuesday…” Her voice trailed off and the crying took over and she put down her end of the receiver.
I learned that day that my wife had been killed because she walked out of her apartment one morning to go for a run and there was a truck reversing up a one way street with a ladder hanging off the back of it. She had looked in the direction of the oncoming traffic but who would look to see if a truck with a ladder hanging off its rear was going in reverse the wrong way up a one-way street? She had stepped into the street and was struck in the head by the ladder, and she had fallen to the ground and struck her head again, and she had died.
She died neither for her beliefs, which were deeply held, nor for her work, which embodied them. She was not killed by a criminal and she did not take her own life. There was no will, no intent, nothing of any value or meaning or even maliciousness behind her death. It was profoundly, incomprehensibly stupid. If she had brushed her hair out for just a minute longer that morning, or decided to change her socks before she left her apartment, or heard her phone ring on the way out or gotten her key stuck in her door, the truck would have backed up that one way street and passed her by and come to a stop. Instead, it killed her. Her death was a manifestation of the pure negativity of existence.
Ten members of my family came to the service with me. We sat like lepers off to one side of the assembled but our status went unnoticed because there were over 400 people there. The ceremony was an excruciating thing. She was only thirty-five years old; she was beautiful and very much alive. The kind of person that people would describe as being “in control” of her destiny. My impression was that she had been happy.
It was not until halfway through the service that loss—the default setting for forgetting—took hold of me. There was a photomontage projected and everyone sat down to watch. Something cascaded in me then. I had taken most of the photographs there, and I had been excised from many of those I hadn’t taken. Our most private memories were on display, and I wasn’t embarrassed or jealous for that, but it was strange to think that I was the only person in the room—in fact the only person anywhere, in the entire cosmos—who recognized what we were looking at. She was, finally, gone.
Sometimes when I think about it I feel like I’m at a dinner where the guests become more ravenous the more you feed them, or at a poker table where the stakes go up with every hand you lose. First you lose the relationship, then you lose the time and experience invested in the relationship, then even the people playing the game are lost at the table. Life deals a wonderful hand, but existence—the dull phenomenon of being—absorbs your debts, extends your credit, keeps you on and then crushes you out, like a cigarette beneath its heel. Existence is deaf, dumb and blind. Existence never loses.
I held onto the pain for a while, poking and prodding and stirring it, because it was the last thing I had where she was concerned, and letting go of it seemed like just another loss. I didn’t care about forgetting her now; existential terror is a trump card, and to watch Being win everything and move on across the table makes one want to keep a small reserve of cash in one’s pocket. But I was at the table, and if you’re going to sit down you might as well play, so I bet what I had left of her, the pain and resentment, the exhaustion, the bad memories and the good, as well as my fury that existence could just squash another player and take her stake. This time, though, it would be a relief to lose.