8FOLD: Doomed Romance # 1

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Thu Oct 11 23:23:04 PDT 2007

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   I first met Emily while my wife was still alive. 
The three of us had mutual friends.  We only saw her a
few times, and then she seemed to drop off the radar. 
She hadn't made much of an impression, to tell you the
truth, so we never asked about it.
   I had forgotten all about her, and then about two
years after the accident, I bumped into her.  She
recognized me first.  "Finn?"
   "Uh, Emily?"
   She asked how Nora was, and so I told her what
happened.  And then we had The Conversation, the same
exact conversation I've had with just about everybody
and that I've gotten tired of.  Thankfully, she kept
it brief, throwing in a few "hang-in-theres" and
"if-you-need-to-talk-to-anybodys" before jotting her
phone number down on my palm.
   I had no intention of calling her.  I didn't write
down the number when I got home and over the course of
two or three days of routine hand-washing I had
scrubbed the numbers off.
   A couple months later, I was just sitting around
the house when I remembered a dream I had had once. 
In the dream, I was a huge giant, thirteen or fourteen
feet tall.  I had to stoop over to walk around in the
house.  Nora was very understanding.  She helped me
into the car, folded me up at night so that I could
fit on the bed, tied me shoes for me so the blood
didn't rush to my head, and so on.  And then she was
   I immediately began to shrink, loses inches and
feet in a matter of minutes, until I had whittled
myself down to the size of a thumbnail.  The house was
huge and overwhelming.  It took me days to safely
climb down the stairs.  Simple, everyday things became
monumental tasks.  And I had no one.  Just me and this
huge, empty house.
   And when I remembered this dream, with no apparent
reason to have done so, I was struck by an equally
inexplicable urge to talk to Emily.  I cracked open
the white pages and found her number.  It didn't look
like the number she had given me.  Maybe she had
changed it.  But I wasn't sure, and that was enough to
dissuade me.  I put the white pages up and went to lay
down on the couch.
   I was stretched out there for about ten minutes,
and I went over the dream in my mind, and I wondered
why I had wanted to talk to Emily.  I figured that if
I could figure out what the dream meant, and what had
triggered it, I could figure out how it was connected
to her.  And then I remembered that Emily was a
psychologist, and I realized that on some subconscious
level I must have been aware of that.  I fetched the
white pages again, found her name again, and dialed
the number.
   She answered.
   "Hi, Emily.  It's Finn."
   "Finn Berwick?"
   "Do you know that many Finns?"
   "No," she said.  Then she asked me how I got this
   "You gave it to me, remember?  You wrote it on my
   "No, I gave you my cell phone," she said.  "This is
the land-line."
   So I explained that I had lost the number, and that
I had looked her up in the phone book.  Then I
explained that I had had a weird dream, and that I
wanted to know what she thought of it.
   "What, am I in the dream?" she asked.
   "No.  I just thought that you could analyze it for
   "What am I," she said, "a psychologist?"
   "Aren't you?"
   "Not the last time I checked."
   "I must be thinking of someone else, then."
   "Must be."  She offered to analyze it for me--
"I'll do my best", she promised-- but I was feeling
very embarrassed and a bit silly.
   Emily volunteered that she was an emergency
dispatcher, and we talked about that for a little
while: different situations that had come up, people
getting wigged-out on the phone, stuff like that.
   "What happens a lot, and I mean a lot more than it
should, is people call because they have a penile
   "A what?"
   "If it bends too much, it'll rupture.  Like, snap
in two.  And it's supposed to be like this really
uncommon injury, like maybe a thousand people a year
worldwide, and I swear to God, I get it three times a
year.  Hamlin must be the penile fracture capital of
the world."
   "You know," I said, "one of Nora's students called
911 when she died."
   "Oh," said Emily, a little put-off by my shifting
gears.  "I'm sorry if we didn't get there in time..."
   "No.  They were real quick.  But they figure she
had pretty much died on impact.  There was nothing
anyone could have done.  The kid was okay, though. 
Nora was giving her a ride home.  She came to the
funeral and everything.  I talked to her awhile."
   "That's... that's great, Finn.  Uh.  So, was it a
young kid, or a high schooler?"
   "High school, a ninth grader."
   "What did Nora teach?"
   "History.  She loved history.  I loved it too; that
was one of our common interests, one of the things
that pulled us together.  But I don't have the-- I'm
not smart enough to really be good with it."
   "Oh, don't say that, Finn."
   "No, I mean, I'm not a dummy or anything.  But I
don't have the, uh, intellectual rigor to be a real
serious student of history.  But Nora had it."
   "Well, I only met her the few times, but she seemed
like a pretty special lady."
   "Yes, she was.  You know, that girl who was in the
car with her-- there wasn't a scratch on her."
   "Well, hardly a scratch.  I mean, she didn't go
into the hospital or anything.  Had a bit of whiplash
over the weekend.  But Nora-- she died right like
that."  I snapped my fingers, though now that I think
about it, there was no way for Emily to hear that. 
"The girl was perfectly fine.  If the other car had
went a little this way or a little that way, or hit at
a slightly different angle, they might both be dead,
or just the girl, or they'd both be alive.  Funny how
random life is."
   The conversation slowed to a crawl after that, and
died a quick and relatively painless death soon after.
 Before I got off the phone, Emily gave me her cell
again, and this time I wrote it down.

   I wish I could remember Nora's voice.  It was the
first thing I lost.  For weeks after, I left the
answering machine the same.  It wasn't really because
I listened to it, staying up nights playing it over
and over and crying or something maudlin like that.  I
hardly ever heard it.  But I kept it there until one
day I was struck by a very sudden and irresistible
impulse to change it.  And so I did, and I never heard
her voice again.
   I can remember certain physical details very
clearly, but only in isolation: her eyes, for example,
or the water-blister on her left prime finger, the
shape of her nose, a mass of her hair.  But whenever I
try to bring them all together in my mind, to glue
them into a face, they just kind of float there,
changing shape and proportion, getting hazy and lumpy.
 And because of this-- because I couldn't resurrect
her whole, but only in this piecemeal fashion-- I'm
never really sure if it is really her that I'm
remembering, or if, as I grope about for details and
body parts, I'm just frankensteining her together from
the lives of others.  Sometimes I wonder if I still
carry any of her in me at all.

   Now that I think about it, I'm kind of hard-pressed
to name anything that Emily and I had in common.  I'm
a voracious reader, while she didn't read much; she
had a very passionate interest in politics, which just
made my eyes glaze over; our taste in movies was, to
put it as kindly as possible, severely at odds.  (I'm
not even going to touch on our sex life.)
   But the funny thing is, at the time, it seemed to
fit.  We seemed to fit.  Everything felt right.

   A month after our first date, as her lease was
expiring, I asked Emily to move in.  We cleaned out
her apartment over the course of her last week on the
lease, moving a carload of boxes at a time and
celebrating with dinner (invariably pizza, sometimes
Chinese-- that staple of any new couple's diet) at
what was soon to be our place.
   I met her for lunch that Friday.
   "I talked to Chris at work today," she said.  "He
has a truck.  He'll help us move the furniture on
   "We're taking your furniture, too?"
   "Well, yes," she said, as if it were obvious.
   "Well, I already have furniture.  I figured you'd
just be giving yours away or selling it or something."
   She seemed put off about this.  "It's a nice couch,
anyway.  I want to save that much at least.  You have
to admit, it's much nicer than your couch."
   There was no contest there.  Emily had a nice new
leather sofa, less than a year old and practically
pristine.  We had gotten ours as a wedding gift from
Nora's aunt, who was a devout cat lady.  The ratty
polyester had been torn to shreds long before we got
ahold of it; the cushions had lost their fluff long
ago and were extremely uncomfortable.
   All that being said, I was reluctant to get rid of
it.  On Sunday, I told Chris we'd be taking Emily's
couch around the back to the side door, to the
basement.  Emily was perturbed, and I explained that
there was no use having two couches in the living
room.  We'd remove mine, of course; then we'd move
Emily's upstairs, where it belonged.
   Chris offered to help me take out the old couch
before we moved the new one in.
   "No, no," I said.  "I want to see if I can sell
   "You're going to sell it?" said Emily.
   "Or give it away to someone who needs it.  I don't
want to just throw it away, have it go to waste."
   So we moved the couch to the basement, and I
promised Emily I'd put an ad up about the old couch.

   In some ways, it wasn't like living together at
all.  I worked during the day, and Emily had recently
switched back to the night shift.  She'd come home
just after seven, and I'd have to be at work by eight.
 Sometimes we'd talk for a few minutes as she got
undressed and I scarfed down my breakfast, but more
often than not she'd come home while I was in the
shower, and she'd curl up and fall asleep before I was
   She'd sleep until two or three, and then she'd get
started on dinner.  By the time I got home at
four-thirty, she'd be just about done with it.  I was
a better cook than Emily was-- a much better cook--
but if I had spent an hour or two whipping something
up once I got home, that was an hour or two less that
we had to spend together.  I only had her until
quarter to eleven.  We wanted to make every second
count, and burnt macaroni seemed like a fair trade at
the time.
   It reminded me of when I first started dating Nora.
 We'd spend a few hours at her place or my place or
we'd go out for a bit, a couple nights a week.  The
entire week-- our entire life-- was structured around
our dates, and because there was so much downtime in
between, there was this enormous and suffocating
pressure to enjoy ourselves.  Everything is more
dramatic when you have to compress a week's worth of
affection into a handful of hours.  Faults are more
easily overlooked because no one wants to sour that
tiny window of time together with an argument or bad
feelings.  You spend much of your time telling each
other how much you love each other, and little else.
   Once we were living together, though, we weren't
under all that stress to smile and hug and be happy
and witty and clever and charming.  Things mellowed
out, and we were able to spend more time together. 
Even if the conscious hours I spent with Nora and
those I spent with Emily added up to be just about the
same, just spending eight hours sleeping next to each
other seemed to make a difference.  We fell into a
pleasant rhythm that was all our own.
   We could be comfortable with each other, and we
were allowed to be angry and pick at each other like
scabs.  It was okay to be petty and mean and cruel,
because there wasn't going to be three or four days of
separation for those ugly feelings to stew.  I could
always count on seeing her in a few minutes, and there
was always time to say that I was sorry.  That's what
was beautiful about living together.  About being
   But Emily and I, we weren't really living together
during the week; we were dating, and so we were always
very happy to see each other and we enjoyed our time
together as vigorously as possible, whether we liked
it or not.
   It was different on weekends.  On weekends, we
would spend long lazy hours together, and we would
sleep side-by-side, and I would cook.  And, of course,
we would fight.
   Just as when you're dating you save up all your
love for those few brief hours that form the highlight
of your week, it seemed like we saved up a checklist
of faults, irritants, complaints and anger all through
the week so it could explode throughout the weekend. 
That makes it sound bad, but it really wasn't: by
Sunday night, more often than not, all apologies were
tendered and accepted.  And when I came home Monday we
would I-love-you each other to death.

   Emily loved garage sales, which is something she
had in common with Nora and that I had in common with
neither.  I don't want to come out and say that women
like to shop, but let me say this: when women do shop,
much like backyard wrestling, it is done only for the
sake of doing it--Ars Gratia Artis.
   When men shop, they shop with a purpose.  I have a
finite list of very specific things that I have to
buy.  By the time I set foot in the store, I have made
out my itinerary.  I go to the first thing-- boom. 
Then the second-- boom.  Boom, boom, boom: I'm done.
   I don't dawdle, I don't look at other items.  And
God help me, I don't look at a sales-paper to see
what's on special.  (I might, at times, pause to
partake of a food demonstration.  Hit four or five of
those things and you've just had a free lunch.)  The
idea of strolling casually down the aisles, checking
out prices here and there, and, consequentially,
ballooning the damage inflicted on my wallet, does not
appeal to me in the least.  And the idea of going to
any store without any one particular thing in mind,
but just to look-- that idea drives me insane.
   And that's what garage sales are: little stores
with grass-and-cement floors and no roofs calculated
solely to drive me insane.  We have silverware, we
have books, we have place mats, we have dish towels,
we have comforters, and, yes, we have knick-knacks: we
have plenty of all these things, and still both Nora
and Emily seemed to be slack-jawed with a lust for
them that could never be sated.
   Generally, though, I didn't make a fuss: they knew
how difficult it was for me, and so they kept their
browsing time to what they must have thought was a
minimum; I, in turn, accompanied them dutifully as
they made their many, many, many rounds.
   One weekend Emily even cut it short, and we went
home after the first one.  There wasn't much there,
but Emily took an interest in some small paintings
they had for sale.  Watercolours, mostly of bowls of
   "These are wonderful," she said.
   I didn't agree, but I knew better than to disagree.
   The woman selling them was in her late thirties. 
"Yeah, they were my mother's."
   "She bought them?"
   "Nah, she painted them.  She passed away last
   "Oh," said Emily.
   "I got some more in the basement if you want to
look at them.  I don't got no use for them."
   Emily turned to me.  "Finn, you want to look at
   I honestly did try not to roll my eyes.  "If you
   And so we went into this strange woman's strange
house, down her stairs into her basement, to look at
her dead mother's paintings that she was hawking for
two bucks a piece.  To say I was uncomfortable and
irritable would be regarding me very charitably.
   The paintings weren't much better than the ones in
the yard.  One of them caught my attention, though: a
very striking young woman whose eyes were too big for
their sockets.
   "Who's this of?" I asked.
   "That's my sister, Connie," she said.  "You
wouldn't know her," she added, as if I had implied
   I put my arm around Emily.  "She reminds me of
   "Everything reminds you of Nora," said Emily.  She
quickly looked through the other paintings and turned
to the woman.
   "I don't think I'll be buying any after all," she
said.  "Sorry.  Thanks anyway.  Your mother was a very
talented woman."
   "You can have them if you want," said the woman
earnestly.  "Don't have to pay me.  I'm about ready to
throw them out anyway.  They're hogging up so much
space.  It's so annoying."  She smirked, then she
kicked at the painting of her sister.
   In the end, we left her with her mother's
paintings, and we just went home.

   Emily had a sister who lived in India.  Her name
was Meghan and she was coming back to the states for a
week so she could visit her family.  She came over one
Thursday night; Emily had arranged to take the day off
work in anticipation.  They hadn't seen each other for
nearly two years.
   We were introduced, and she sat down to talk with
her sister while I made dinner.  Over the meal, she
told us about her time in India.
   "I tell you, the first thing I did, soon as I got
on shore?"  She smiled conspiratorially at us, leaning
in before blurting: "I got the biggest, fattest,
greasiest cheeseburger I could find."
   "I know the feeling," I said.  "Nora (my late wife)
went on this vegetarian kick once, which made me a
vegetarian as well.  I couldn't stand it."
   "Well, it's alright, because I like Indian food. 
But every once in a while," she wringed her hands
comically, "I'd get this uncontrollable urge to go
   "What, out of spite?"
   "No!" said Meghan.  "Just, y'know, to be naughty." 
She laughed.  "I don't have any spite for anybody.  I
love it over there."
   "You know," I said, "Indian food-- the spices and
all that-- didn't start in India.  All those hot
spices came from over here, from the states."
   "Yep," nodded Meghan.
   I felt embarrassed-- felt like I was showing off or
something-- and so I demurred: "Nora had told me about
   "Speaking of not having any spite," said Emily. 
"Have you been to see mom yet?"
   "No," said Meghan.  "But I will."  She shoveled in
a mouthful of food and chewed it quickly.  "I don't
want to, but I will."
   "You have to," said Emily.  "It'll break her heart
if you don't."
   "That's assuming she has a heart to break," said
   "She difficult to get along with?" I asked.
   Meghan and Emily exchanged looks and broke out into
the same exact smile at approximately the same exact
time.  "You could say that," said Meghan.
   "She's never wrong," said Emily.  "Everyone else is
terrible to her, but she's a selfless martyr who never
makes a mistake and lives only for her children."
   "Nora's mother is exactly the same way," I said. 
"Always criticizing.  Always."
   "Well," said Meghan, "we had our big break when I
got my divorce and moved to India.  Now," and here her
voice swirled with laughter, "I should never have had
a divorce.  It was my fault because I didn't work hard
enough.  My mother, she's on her fourth marriage, but
that's not her fault.  She was blameless."
   I nodded in recognition.  "Nora's mother, she even
kept it up after she died.  She said if Nora hadn't
been working as a teacher, she never would have went
out of her way to drive the student home, never would
have had the accident.  So it was Nora's fault that
she died.  Unbelievable."
   It was quiet for a moment.  Then Meghan said,
   "It's a nice meal."

   I'm not sure exactly when things really went sour
with Emily.  One day she suggested that we break up,
and we argued about that, and she started looking for
an apartment.  Then we'd reconcile-- it being
relatively easy to do so since we lived in the same
house-- and she'd stop looking.  Then we'd break up
again, and then we'd make up again, and so on.
   Until one day, she announced that she had found a
new apartment.  I helped her move but we continued to
date, then not date, then date again, until we just
stopped dating altogether.  It was a very slow death,
a break-up by attrition, and when I look back on the
entire life of our relationship, I guess it was that
way from the start.
   She never really gave me a real good concrete
reason for breaking it off.  Certainly there was some
dissatisfaction, and we didn't get to spend a whole
lot of time together.  She did say that she felt
neglected, but come to think of it, so did I.  She
said I never really listened to her, but every time I
mentioned Nora her eyes just glazed over.
   It's been four years now since the last time I saw
Emily.  I can't quite remember what she looks like.  I
try to hold her together but she's all jumbled up.



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