She sat on the stoop and stared as I wrestled my suitcase through the door. Her eyes peered at me from a face swollen by a long night of tears and pleas. But she was silent now, clutching a cigarette like it was a life raft.
I hated when she’d smoked, but I could complain no longer. And as I reached the bottom step, turning to look at her again, she closed her eyes, pulling a long drag from the filter between her fingers and turned her head to the side. We’d said all that could’ve been said, twenty years of marriage rolled into a tight ball and tossed at our feet. But it still felt odd, leaving without a kiss.
Not a kiss. But I did always have to get the last word.
My own shaky voice rang in my ears as I walked down the shaded boulevard our house resided at the end of. A knot in my throat, the wheeled case behind me, a couple thousand dollars and a credit card was just going to have to be enough.
I could maybe catch a cab at the main road. I could’ve called for one, but something itched at the soles of my feet. The bite of freedom needed to be walked on. ‘Determined’ had not been a word used to describe me until late. But I had a dream and a pocket full of will. That would just have to be enough.
Marrie hadn’t understood this new creative ambition. An accountant is, after all, the general definition of boring. Honestly, I truly had been. Studying the news and stock markets with such intensity that I could never be bothered with hobbies or side business. So, when I sat on the bench in the back garden sketching and smoking my pipe every weekend throughout one summer, she’d thought it was a side effect of our recently empty nest.
One humid evening as she flipped through a magazine at the kitchen table, sipping on a glass of tea, I sketched her. She’d looked so soft and serene, and the resulting painting won me a display at a local gallery that autumn.
But when she saw the image, she crumbled.
“You’ve given me so many wrinkles. Why have you made me look so old and sad?”
She didn’t look old to me at all. Sad, maybe, as the loneliness of losing our children to adulthood had sagged against her from the inside, despite nearly nightly calls from our daughter and weekend visits from our son. But to me, that sorrow was beautiful. An attribute that can only be worn by a woman during the sunset of her life.
She forbade me from sketching her again. Refusing insistently and abusively, calling my talent ill-formed and amateur.
But I found willing muses then, in other venues.
The night before I left, I’d been unwilling to listen to her apologies. The longing for complete freedom to explore this new purpose gave birth to a vindictive cruelty of words that spewed from my lips as if I’d hated her. A year of hiding my work and lies curdled the adoration of her I’d held for decades. And the glory of retribution for her degradation of my art was addictive.
But as my feet fell into a soft rhythm on the concrete and the sun warmed my face, I felt the edge of my speech cut through my mind, the memory boomeranging back into me.
“You’ve stifled me for long enough. I am a man with art in my veins and I’m not sorry for ways I chose to bleed it out of me.”
Her voice cracked as she asked me how, who and when.
“Those women saw the gifts I offered them instead of the lines I painted on their faces. And the joy of their bodies in return might seem to you as my taking advantage, but I held them each in such reverence.”
The begging turned into convulsive sobs. But she was missing the point completely.
“Marrie, if you could only feel the pleasure of seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes, you would have never turned away.”
She’d sat at the end of our bed, gazing at the tissues in her hands.
“If you’d just explained. Carl, I could’ve-”
“No. I shouldn’t have to. You could’ve been my muse. You forced this upon us. Not me.”
It had been a cold thing to lay blame upon her, my righteous indignation at her ignorance giving voice to the devils of my conscience. Under the blaze of day though, my guilt sprouted wings and prodded me to look into the light.
On Ferry Street, I looked up to witness the broad colorful swath of a paraglider skimming through the crisp darkening clouds of October. Marilla adored such sights, and the desire to share it with her broke open inside my chest.
What had I done? Where was I going? Was I really so stubborn that I couldn’t draw her to please her or help her see the beauty within herself, as bright and expansive as that patchwork wing above?
A handsome young man in glittering white stood beside me, looking up and smiling.
“Wherever you go, there you are,” he said.
It was a mere whisper, but it vibrated through my skull like a gong. I turned toward him as recognition surged through my nervous system. I followed his gaze as he swiveled and his eyes fell on something in the distance, behind me.
A crowd was forming on the sidewalk I’d just stepped from. A frantic woman called for help. A teenage girl dialed her phone as she kneeled. A young man ripped open a coat…
I sprung forward, stopping near the edge of the circle of strangers all gawking at the crumpled face I knew so well. The face of a stupid man who’d wasted the last night of his life breaking the heart of the only woman he ever loved.
“Aneurysm,” said the man in white with a lilt in his soft but booming voice. “Even if you’d stayed, you still would’ve died.”
I turned to face him, still feeling the weight in my hand of my wheeled case and now tasting the bitter plastic of my pipe pinched between my lips. The world around me faded into a whimsical scene, stalled as though captured on a canvas.
He strode away from me, up a road I wasn’t sure I was allowed.
He beckoned me to follow.
But all I wanted was to go back.