After a short burst of sleep, I wake, my face buried in your Indian Motorcycle t-shirt. Dragged from sleep by the cold air that hovers around the shape of my body, like a crime scene chalk outline. No life inside. Wrapped in a blanket, once shared, that still smells of love and the razor-edge of life, I try to fill the emptiness with beautiful words from one of the 32 books you didn’t get to read, from our list of 100 books you must read before you die.
My friend Mike and his band are playing at Bar One, around the corner from my apartment. They are well into the first set by the time I arrive. The bar is all mirrors, I see myself reflected many times. Pale, but alive. Despite the trick of mirrors, I find Kathy and Pat at a table at the edge of the dance floor. They are holding their glasses in the air, in my direction. Toasting my return to life. Climbing up on the bar stool, I manage a laugh.
Kathy smiles at somebody coming up behind me. I see his mirror image, wild black hair and dark eyes that move quickly, before I feel him beside me. He leans in to hear what Kathy is saying, his thigh pushed against mine. I don’t move away. She motions him to sit. He moves the stool next to mine.
I force myself to walk every few days, telling myself it is for the exercise, fresh air. But I cannot bring myself to go outside today. What I am really looking for is a life force, an energy source outside of myself to touch my skin and remind me what it feels like to be alive. Human connection without pity. But the last time I went out, the sun’s energy offered no such blessing. Slipped through the spaces between my cells. The people I passed in the street looked right through me. So, I stay inside looking out, watching the trees bending with the wind. I lay on our bed, looking up at the row of urns on the shelf above. You would be pleased to see them in chronological order: dad, mom, dog, husband, dog, dog.
He shakes my hand, leans in to tell me his name. A waft of alcohol, end-of-day trace of cologne mixed with something sweet and earthy, and freshly mowed grass. My brain cells tingle.
There are grass stains on his pants, bits of cedar hedge in his hair. I reach up and pull a few out, cup them in my hand and breathe them in, identifying the earthy smell.
I laugh and shake my head. Married for 20 years and widowed for one, at 52 I don’t know the rules of this game anymore.
Near the end of the second set, I get up to leave. He wants me to put his number in my phone. I do.
Walking home I surprise myself by texting him a smirking emoji with dark sunglasses.
Change your mind? Eager emoji.
No. Laughing emoji. Have a good evening.
You too, snow white. It was nice meeting you.
I decide to try number 70 on our list of 100 books, Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Raven.” But no longer having you to read to, the first few sentences dissolve into the silence. Instead, I dig up your old book, “The Bonsai Survival Manual: The art of bonsai for beginners.” I hope that learning the difference between a concave cutter, a sickle saw and a tweezer spatula, and knowing the precise time and manner in which to wield each one, will be enough to distract me from thoughts of death. Of whether I could have done more to save you. I hope that knowing the innate hardiness or resilience of Acer palmatum versus Ficus benjamina will provide a kind of anchor for me as time insists on carrying me on its relentless current, darkness bleeding into light and back into darkness again. I hope that connecting to the earthiness of these miniature living things will awaken a spark of life within me. I try to focus on the print, but there is nothing solid inside me to give them a place to land. My mind refuses to stay in my body, my feet refuse to stay rooted to the ground.
Walking down the hall to his apartment, I smell his musky cologne laced with sweet juniper. Any thought of escape is lost. The door is already open. He grandly ushers me in. My eyes don’t recognize him, my cells do. A glass of red wine already poured, I am surprised to feel its insistent warmth in my mouth, down my throat. Still standing in the entryway, he pulls me in, smells my hair.
Getting ready, I had showered until my skin was bright red, melting away the grime of grief. Hoping the warmth would seep through my skin into my bones.
I catch a whiff of earthiness on his skin, seeped into his flesh. I put my lips against his neck, wanting to taste it, swallow that aliveness. A warm hint of life grows deep inside me.
Still entwined, we fall onto the couch together. He laughs and apologizes for knocking the wind out of me. My body is solid, breaks his fall. Not passively like a corpse, a force from within pushes me up against the whole length of him.
Later, he falls into a heavy sleep. I try to wriggle my way out from his full-body embrace, his limbs the weight of death. I dress quickly and tiptoe out of the room. A little butterfly in my chest makes me turn back, check to see if he is breathing. His body barely moves. I put my hand up to his mouth, smile at the warmth of his breath.
I keep reading the book about bonsai hoping I can create the qualities of “natural harmony, peace and balance” that its cover promises. I buy a Juniper procumbens nana (recommended for beginners), gather the tools to begin the process. The severe root pruning feels more like a massacre than the life-enhancing act I had hoped for. I abandon the mini shovel, dig my bare hand into the bag of warm, nutrient-rich soil, quickly covering its roots with as much soil as can fit in its tiny little pot.
Following the directions, I bless my little tree and then stare at it, deciding which one of its limbs to hack off. With a sharp knife, I cut into its flesh. The book assures me that “over time it will become natural-looking deadwood.” A scar of triumph against the forces of nature.
But working with the bonsai can’t make me forget that, despite an early spring, which had us filling our pots with sweet potato, corn and watermelon, last summer did not bring the harvest we’d hoped for. Instead, a plague of downy mildew, blight and spider mites. The smell of decay in the air.
A week later, we are sitting side-by-side watching two giant TV screens, barely five feet from the couch where we are sitting. He tells me about his landscaping business. He and his crew have been trimming juniper shrubs all day. He flops one arm into my lap, shows me the scratches. I run my fingers over the welts.
Taking a large mouthful of wine, I try to focus on something besides the constantly moving TV images. I notice a textbook-perfect Ficus benjaminabonsai on the shelf below one of the TVs.
“Thanks. My mom gave it to me. She’s made tons of them. Spends hours staring at them, deciding which little piece to cut off.” He mimes the act of trimming in the air, like Edward Scissorhands.
“I just started one too,” I say. “To be honest, it feels a bit cruel to me.”
“Ya. She loves that shit. Torturing things, making them do what she wants,” he laughs. “She started Bonsai after my dad died.”
“Really? Me too. It must be one of the stages of grief,” I say, attempting to be funny.
He laughs. Looks at me with exaggerated raised eyebrow. Also to be funny, I think.
He gets up to get another beer from the fridge, fills my wine glass. Sits down so close his warmth seeps into mine.
He holds his glass up for a toast.
He gives me a book about Bonsai, and I hate to bend its perfect spine. When I finally do, I see “Property of Snow White. To help you through this stage,” written in black Sharpie. I laugh out loud, warmth spreading through my belly. I close it again, not sure I can continue to justify such a taming of things, so wild and unknown and ripe with their own potential. Now that the spark of life has been ignited in me, I want to let things be what they are meant to be.
Looking at the tortured trunk of my Juniper procumbens nana, I put this new philosophy into action. Carrying it outside, I smash its bon, or ridiculously shallow pot, with the blunt edge of the concave cutter and hold its gasping roots in my hand. Dig a tree-sized hole in a large pot, pressing the rich humus around its trunk. Feel the buzz and promise of life.