Now is the Time to Light Fires
It’s like last winter when she took that girl Lena on a road trip and left me to finish my thesis in the sub-zero gloom. Marzana is gone but her chattels prevail and everything, even the Weeping Fig she lugged from Ikea, evokes her. My Lorazepam shuffle wears a triangle from couch to bed to toilet back to couch, where I curl in her threadbare sweater.
Sleepless, dreamless, I up my dose.
The department offers bereavement leave and contracts my replacement, a kindness that permits me to stay home, forever pantless. I stack my research and drape it with cloth. Now who will argue the importance of historical processualism with archaeological data from pre-literate cultures? I draw the blinds. Stop changing, stop bathing. I eat cereal dry out of the box by the handful.
I’m not me anymore; I’m husk, shucked and forgotten.
After the truck hits, that’s grief. Hydraulic pistons fire and the open-box bed lifts at its hinges: a dumping, a burial.
Every day is Sunday.
I light a candle. “You can come home now,” I say to webbing that ghosts the empty corners of our room. I say to the drunkspun moths, “Come home!”
One day she does.
Marzana’s lingerie drawer slides open and her garter dangles like a question mark. My spine zings with apprehension. Her perfume spritzes, infusing the room with her scent. The bed sheet turns down on her side.
I whisper, “Is that you?”
There’s an indentation on pillow and mattress, a definite presence.
“You’re here,” I say.
She shimmers when I kick off bunched socks, toss my T-shirt, join her on the bed. I trail fingertips down my throat, collarbones, my scarred solar plexus. I falter—shy at last.
She hurled herself at me the night we met, a hastily-bought rose between her teeth. I relive our drunken tango at last call, the halting, zigzag lurch back to my old place, necking against darkened storefronts, groping under clothes. Now, lying in our dusty bed my hand works alone, intent and sorrowful, but a censoring pall hovers. Perhaps in her transformed state—nebulous, ethereal—she feels sexually inadequate? What allure does the primal realm hold for her now? I rest sheepish palms above the comforter and, suckling close, she spoons me instead. It’s not warm flesh, but it’s something. Old soup comes to mind, some kind of gelatinous substance, and I can hardly breathe for fear of crushing her in the night. Like she’s a newborn or a kitten and not the crystalline essence of herself—her Soul infused with her distinctly flawed personality—that has transcended time and space, travelled countless unknown dimensions, returning against all odds.
All summer long we bump around the condo, relearning how to share this space. Nights, she settles against me and I contemplate an eternity of abstention. Sex with Marzana used to be like shouldering an oversize grain bag, pouring, pouring an endless pile. The thinning rush over time, a lessening stream, the pitter and pat to empty. In her After Life she prefers not-quite sisterly camaraderie—cuddling, hugging, holding hands.
I am pent. I simmer. But at least I’m not alone.
Marzana still roots through dresser drawers and abandons chucked clothing in piles on the floor. She stacks DVDs in towers by order of preference, her massive rom-com collection mocking me with sunny Hollywood covers. I survey her mess, mark a Cartesian coordinate system grid to impose order, and begin to excavate her cultural materials. I cradle and brush each item, starting in the southwest corner. I tag and label, jot notes.
This becomes my Stonehenge, my very own Pompeii.
Artefact 1. 1: tucked in an overdue library book, I discover a black and white photo of Marzana at Hanlan’s Point, a nudist beach I refuse to visit on principle. Who took this portrait? Marzana turned just as the shutter opened and her hair caught the wind, obliterating most of her face. But her mouth is open. Sensual, teasing. The lines of her body echo in the pines behind her, in the boardwalk strips and faded pier: she was disappearing even then, waving goodbye.
Other things surface. Things I do not especially wish to see. Phone numbers on tiny scraps of paper, some with lipstick imprints from hungry mouths. Love notes, an entire incriminating series spanning more than a year from Lena, her so-called art-friend. Each piece of evidence spontaneously combusts in my hand or else Marzana ferries it out of reach. Those letters dance upon the ceiling, taunting. I string up clothesline and peg each charred, surviving remnant in chronological order, then cross-reference dates with my personal calendar.
An alleged out-of-town softball tournament occurred the same weekend as a particularly amorous getaway, recounted in gory detail by Lena.
Marzana skulks behind her green recliner and, righteous, I fume for days.
It’s bad enough she died. She had to cheat, too?
Marzana’s mother calls. I stare at the phone but don’t pick up and naturally she refuses to leave a message. Marzana retaliates by not coming to bed which is fine because frankly, I prefer to starfish the mattress, face planted, and I sleep better than I have since before it happened.
Artefact 4. 6: a card from her family filled with their slanted, foreign cursive—squiggles and so many consonants. Jare Swieto. It depicts old world children parading from a small village to the river, carrying ghoulish dollies that they beat with sticks and set alight. Another incomprehensible springtime ritual that bears examination. An uncashed cheque floats out when I open the card. Marzana snatches it mid-air. I wonder, can we still deposit it? Nobody’s haunting the electricity bill.
Soon the place is a booby-trapped eyesore. Dishes pile by the sink. Spills congeal in the fridge. Milk sours. A meagre harvest comes and goes. October bequeaths a snowstorm that eats November and I become almost as much a ghost as Marzana, padding barefoot on the frigid floor, confounded. If I could only assemble the clues correctly, I’d finally know: who was she, really? What has she become?
Our bickering escalates to dorm-room levels. Someone removes grid notes from the excavated artefacts; I find them taped to a box of maxi pads in the bathroom cupboard. Someone dims the lights while I work causing eyestrain and mental fragility. She feigns ignorance but I catch her twinkling with mirth. I crank the Gregorian chants she hates and my stereo disintegrates completely, leaving a blank square on the dusty shelf. Instead, her favourite song by that shitty Canadian band blasts the air, sourceless. Marzana’s peace offering—finger-painted hearts boasting our initials—dribble condensation in the frosted windowpanes. I wipe them with an angry palm.
Caroline, department administrative assistant, says she has to meet with me. “Paperwork, you know?” She offers to do this off-campus. “It must be so hard,” she purrs in the Tim Horton’s. The release agreement sits before me, its tiny font devouring the page like so many ants.
“They’re firing me?”
“You don’t have to sign now,” she says. Sotto voce, she adds, “You might want to consult a lawyer. ”
Caroline smells sympathetic, like lilies, like gardenia. Her face is impossible: pink cheeks, lavender eyelids, perfectly groomed brows. Her skin is soft and powdered. I consider stabbing it with the plastic stir-stick.
“Marzana eats all the groceries, she won’t do dishes. I can’t even re-decorate,” I confide.
She pats my arm. “I know you miss her, sweetheart. ”
Caroline’s pretty face is a curtain, drawn.
“You think I’m making this up?”
Mortified, I abandon my green tea.
“Don’t you want your donut,” she calls after me.
My throat sticks when I imagine opening the front door to our suite, breathing in that musty bog. Terminated. How will we live without my disability pittance?
Outside, I pace in front of our building. Snowflakes nip my face. They convene on my hair, my clothes. I have sneakers, not boots, and my feet slide on black ice hidden by the heron-coloured silt. Winter is coma-quiet and, just like Marzana’s life, virulent secrets lurk.
It may never end, this bone-clacking cold.
Wind rakes my flesh, pulls my nerves taut. It wakens something in my reptile brain, the part guarding ancient history, and I remember things weren’t always terrific. This profound loneliness, this disappointment, had arrived long before she died. All those stay-home Saturday nights—too much dinner, bloated on the couch watching some anaesthetizing bullshit from her dread movie collection. But mostly, mostly, it was just me waiting for her to call or to finally come home: hammered, incoherent and utterly blameless. She’d simply pass out, shoes still tied, forearms X’d on her chest, shut up like a pharaoh’s tomb, mysteries sealed intact.