Fiction

Miss You Already

Mary Ann didn’t think she would want the casket open. But when the funeral director led her in and she saw David’s body lying there, he looked relaxed, almost happy, and the thought of lowering the lid on him seemed wrong somehow. “Leave it, he looks good,” she said.

All through the visitation she found herself drifting back to his side and her friends would part, pulling away a respectful distance, giving her time with her husband alone, or as alone as one could be in a room squeezed tight with seemingly everyone who’d ever had a passing acquaintance with David Masters. What a shock, they all said. What a loss.

But all Mary Ann could think of was, How did they do it? How did they make his body seem so substantial, so untouched? Her hand reached out, slid over his chest, coming to rest on the fine cotton-linen shirt she’d bought him just the week before. A finger probed the gap between two buttons. The familiar fur on his chest. The smooth, cool skin.

Nothing showed. Not the blow where his head hit the windshield. The side of the skull, the temporal line, the doctor explained, and she misheard, thinking he said the damage was temporary. She didn’t expect to see evidence of the injury, but why was there no sign of all that had been taken from him? No sagging indentations where his eyes had been, no sign of missing lungs, or liver, pancreas and kidneys, his heart. She looked down at the face, the noncommittal slant of the mouth.

Mary Ann’s friends were alarmed when she immediately put the house up for sale. They tried to talk her out of it, suggested grief counselling. But within a month a sold sticker sloped across the real estate sign, and not long afterwards, early one sunny Saturday in June, the front lawn disappeared under a spread of furniture and linens, pots and pans and knick-knacks, a rack of David’s shirts and suits, his old golf clubs, the stationary bicycle and weightlifting bench, his skis and snowshoes and titanium touring bike. “Everything must go!!” the posters declared, the extra exclamation mark adding a sense of urgency, of exuberance.

Mary Ann made lemonade and had beer in coolers for David’s friends, his running buddies and golf foursome, the colleagues from work who shared a van and motel room on their annual trip to Saratoga to play the ponies. She saw them watching her as she moved among the browsers and gawkers. She was still slender, just forty-two, her legs long and tanned, hips slim, a body unmarked by childbirth. She kept her hair blond and boyishly cut. From a distance, she knew she could pass for twenty-one. But she wasn’t interested. She met the men’s soft gazes with a firm and steady smile.

Take them, please, she said of the cufflinks, the leather gloves, the investment analysis books. I’d rather they went to you than to a stranger or to the dump.

Not long after the yard sale, a new, cream-coloured Westfalia appeared in the driveway. On the day she signed over the house, Mary Ann climbed into the driver’s seat. All her worldly possessions were neatly stowed in the narrow cupboards and overhead bins at her back. She’d kept only one thing of David’s: the black-and-red striped cycling shirt he was wearing the morning he died, its synthetic fibres still so pungent with his sweat that when she lifted it to her nostrils, she felt faint with the sensation that he was there in her arms. She held the shirt to her face, breathing him in. Then she folded it carefully and slipped it into a Ziploc bag, sealing it shut and propping it up on the passenger seat.

She turned the key in the ignition and stepped on the accelerator, backing out of the driveway one last time. Clipped to the dashboard was a map. Seven places were circled, a thick pink line drawn from where she was now to a city in the east.

It took her a month to reach the first address. She’d taken her time. She found that she liked the driving, which surprised her, as so many things did now. She had driven herself to work at the post office for years, but it always seemed a chore, one of the necessary evils required to earn a paycheque. She was always grateful when, on their evenings out, David headed for the driver’s side of their small and sensible car. But the Westie was different. She loved being at the wheel, sitting up straight, high off the road, like the truckers who swept past her on the freeway, leaving her breathless and exhilarated in the turbulent backwash of their passing. She’d blink her lights twice to signal the all-clear, and they’d dip theirs, too, or sound the air horn, and she’d wave, wondering what she looked like, framed in the oblong of their rear-view mirrors. Like a wife? A widow? An adventuress?

For the most part, though, she avoided the freeways and kept to smaller roads, undivided highways that became the main streets of small towns, lined with fast-food takeouts and gas stations, small dress shops and bakeries and banks, then a garage or two, a big grocery store, and she’d be out in the country again, fields of corn or freshly cut alfalfa on either side. She ate by the edge of the road, pulling over on a wide shoulder near a river, perhaps—anything with a bit of a view and a patch of clear ground to stretch her legs. She kept the little fridge stocked with her favourite foods and she’d pop the roof, stand at the stove to make a proper meal, with coffee and dessert. The first few nights she stayed at campsites, but she found the noise unsettling. So many families, children whining and screaming; whether in pleasure or pain, the sound had the same effect on her: she just wanted it to stop. It was one thing she and David had agreed on. They liked sex for what it was, not as a means to an end.

We’re too selfish to be parents, he’d say.

Speak for yourself, she’d toss back, poking him in the ribs.

By the second week, she was watching the roadsides for old logging trails and hydro cuts, gravel pits and cul-de-sacs hidden behind overhanging trees. She’d nestle the van into position early in the evening while there was still some light, but even so, in the beginning she slept poorly, waking to shrill night whistles and faint rustlings in the underbrush, her heart suddenly huge and wild in her chest.

It was a Monday late in August when she pulled up to the curb in front of 3226 Stuart Street. There was no doubt this was the place. The Magee’s was spelled out in fancy wrought-iron letters over the garage door. That sort of punctuation always bothered her, the way it raised the question: The Magee’s what? But it was a good house, a compact brick bungalow cosseted with nestling shrubs, the lawn supplanted with a mosaic of flowering mosses, tufted grasses. The curtains on the windows were drawn. No mail was sticking out of the box. No newspaper on the stoop.

Now that she was there, she wasn’t sure exactly what to do. She hadn’t planned that far. It seemed enough to sell the house, buy the van, circle the cities on the map. Perhaps she should have called ahead. But then, what if they refused her?

She drove around the block and parked at the end of the street, some distance from the house. She made herself a tuna sandwich, read a few chapters of a novel, a slight story of lost love. She’d never been much of a reader, especially of romances, but they suited her now, the high drama of made-up lives. When she grew restless from waiting, she pulled out David’s shirt and held it to her cheek, rubbing the fabric against her skin, hardly aware of what she was doing.

The shadows were long by the time a car pulled into the driveway at the Magees’. The garage door slid open and swallowed the car so quickly Mary Ann didn’t see who was driving, but it was getting late. She’d have to take her chances.

A man answered her knock. He stood waiting for her to speak, a briefcase dangling from his hand. For the first time since she got the news on that rainy Sunday morning, she felt herself give way.

You don’t know me, she began, thinking, Yes you do, I can see you do.

She started over. Are you Jim Magee?

Yes, I am, he said mildly. He had a pleasant face, rather round, acquiescent, not at all like David’s, which was all angles and planes. This man was older, his hair gone to gunmetal, his skin sagging a bit from the bone.

Can I help you?

She smiled. Actually, I’m the one who helped you. I’m David Masters’ wife.

She watched as the name registered.

Oh my goodness. Oh my. Penny! he called over his shoulder. Come here! Quick!

A short, plump woman hurried down the hall, wiping her hands on her skirt, the look of alarm on her face so practised that Mary Ann felt a sudden wash of thankfulness for losing David quickly, the pain immediate and overwhelming but at least not a steady drip, the kind that wore a person away.

What is it?

This is David Masters’ wife.

Mary Ann, she said, beaming her smile at them both.

You remember, Pen. It was her husband who gave me his eyes.

The Magees couldn’t do enough for her. They insisted she stay for dinner, for the night, several nights. During the day, while they were at their jobs, she drove around the city, visiting the places Jim recommended, the places he missed most when he began to lose his sight, the first places he returned to when the sutures came out and his vision cleared. He was a landscape architect and he’d been able to keep working, he told her, drawing on the vast inventory of plants in his memory, but there were ten years’ worth of gardens he knew only as vague shadows. Some he hadn’t seen at all. In the evenings, he strolled with her through his own back garden, naming the shrubs and trees, explaining the effect he’d been after with the arching branches of pagoda dogwood, the interlace of lily wands.

It’s beautiful, Mary Ann told him.

It looks different to me now, he said.

After the first night, Mary Ann moved back to the van to sleep, not wanting to intrude, though not yet ready to leave. In the mornings, after Jim took Penny her cup of tea in bed, he’d bring out a pot of coffee to share, sitting side by side with Mary Ann on the lip of her unmade bed. He told her about the fog that had gradually settled over his world, about the blisters that ruptured, a pain like burning matchsticks in his eyes. He described the transplant procedure, drawing diagrams to make it clear, the cookie-cutter instrument called a trephine that removed the centre of his cornea and cut a button the same size from David’s, the new cornea sewn into place with a thread a third the thickness of a human hair. A running stitch, the surgeon said he used, and she nodded, for she’d sewn her own clothes since she was twelve. It’s like a hemstitch, she said, turning up the edge of her skirt for him to see. I was one of the lucky ones, he told her, fingering the cloth. His vision improved almost at once.

I see you more clearly every day, he said, catching her gaze and holding it, holding onto it for dear life. Sometimes it feels like I’ve known you always.

You have, she told him, trailing her fingers over the finely creased skin around his eyes, cupping his cheek, drawing his mouth down to hers.

The leaves had begun to turn when Mary Ann felt the urge to go. Jim and Penny hugged her, begged her to return. Anytime, they said, laughing when the word came out in unison.

The look in Jim’s eyes stayed with her for weeks. In a daze of happiness, she meandered the country roads, heading roughly in the direction of the next circle on the map: 8 Bedford Place, Apartment 103. It hadn’t been difficult to find the addresses. The operation was a miracle, four teams of specialists assembled in four operating theatres, two on either side of the tiled room in which her husband lay, his brain function nothing but a thin, flat line, his body kept alive by machines while the desperately ill flew in from across the country or waited in their hospital beds for the couriers carrying small coolers packed with ice. David had been in such good shape, all that healthy eating and those fitness club memberships paying off at last. One man saving the lives of seven. She could hardly turn on the radio or the television without hearing their names, which she searched on the web, finding out where they lived, the progression of their various diseases, their testimonials, their pleas. In the photographs, they looked stunned and happy, like lottery winners. David, they all agreed, was a saint.

Guillermo Ruy de Sanchez was half Mary Ann’s age, a construction worker who’d received blood during a tonsillectomy when he was six, his liver ruined by the virus that piggybacked into his veins. He opened his shirt to show her the scar where the wasted organ had been removed, placing her hand high on his right side, just below his nipple, which was hard, just like hers. I was almost dead, he said.

His apartment was little more than a room with a bar fridge and microwave in the closet. He did his dishes in the bathroom sink. It was the best he could find close to the hospital, he said. He’d moved in two years ago, worn a beeper for months. When it sounded at last, he thought it was the micro-wave. Her van was more luxurious, but she stayed with him, curled against his back on the mattress, holding his hand at the clinic while they waited for his test results.

I’ve never been with a woman, he told her at last, and she moved slowly, drawing the blankets down, then the sheet, his boxer shorts, her mouth always pressed to his, their breaths growing deeper, her palm outstretched, just below his ribcage, holding his torso steady as she raised herself onto him, moved him inside, bending low as she felt it, the sear line of the scar against her breast.

She stayed a month, then a few days more, in the end leaving him leaning sad-eyed against the apartment door, his arms folded across himself in a solitary hug. The first flakes of snow were skidding across the windshield as she waved goodbye, nosing the van south. Her plan could not have been better. She would pass the winter months following the pink line through the warmest parts of the country.

Already a pattern was developing. It took her weeks to travel from one city to the next, even though the trip in some cases could have been managed in a day. She needed time to settle herself. While she was visiting, she thought of nothing but David, searched the men’s gestures for his movements, their words for his phrases, his preferences, his habits. The way he tapped his fingers, a sharp tattoo, when he was impatient. Or the way he ate ice cream, circling his tongue firmly round and round the cone, not allowing a single drip. Or the way, on some nights, he’d undo his belt and leave it hanging, the top button of his trousers undone, only the zipper holding them up until, with a sly twist of his hips, the fabric would pool at his feet as he held his arms out to her.

It was exhausting, so much remembering. She felt relieved to get away. The sort of relief she used to feel when David left on his outings. I miss you already, she’d call as he backed down the drive, though she was happy to see him go. Happy to see him come back again, too.

Never satisfied, are you? he’d say.

Driving from one place to the next, she amused herself with side trips to the local sights: the longest covered bridge, the oldest tree, the biggest dam, a house made entirely from whisky bottles mortared together in neat rows. She became an aficionado of small museums, particularly those devoted to arcane subjects and objects, picking up the hand-drawn, brightly coloured flyers at gas stations and convenience stores, sometimes driving days out of her way to see the boyhood home of some forgotten silent-movie star or a barnful of whirligigs or a room next to the mayor’s office in which the largest toothpick collection in the world was laid out on plastic trays lined with black velvet.

She didn’t imagine David in these places. He would have hated them, mocked the effort that went into the displays. Don’t these people have lives? he’d say, exasperated at the human capacity for sentiment. But she loved being there, a witness to the particular, the overlooked, the mundane. When she’d had her fill, she’d carry on, get back on the highlighted line that led to the next circle on the map.

No one turned her away. They welcomed her with astonished cries, with gratitude and tears. They called their children and their parents, arranged dinners for her to meet their closest friends. She became expert on the subject of CT scans and mris, pulmonary function tests and electrocardio-grams, waiting lists and recovery times, the medications that forestalled rejection: Orasone, Prograf, Sandimmune. Every story was different—a lung scarred by asbestos, a kidney damaged by Bright’s disease, a pancreas that simply stopped doing its job—but in the end, lying alone with her, the men all said the same thing: how peculiar it had felt to have part of a stranger inside their body, how knowing her had changed all that. Twice the reason to live, they said.

She spent Christmas in a trailer with Terry and Eleanor Topps, toasting their good fortune with sparkling white grape juice. Terry was a trucker who’d lost a kidney, and when his rig pulled onto the highway early in the new year, she left too. By the end of January she was on an island, her lips locked to the generous smile of Arnie Bernstein, the accountant who had David’s right lung. No matter where they were, alone in her van or in his fancy three-storey house with his wife Shirley and her five scrappy Pekingese, Mary Ann found herself leaning close as Arnie spoke, feeling the breath from his mouth spill over her, the molecules that brushed the air sacs of David’s tissue bathing her skin.

For the most part, though, she was careful around the women. She dressed modestly in slacks and shapeless sweaters, kept her hands busy helping with the cooking, the cleaning up. She spoke mostly about David, bringing out his photograph, pictures of their wedding, the holiday in Hawaii they took to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Sitting at the kitchen table, she confessed how much it meant to her to meet the men he’d helped, to spend a few hours with them alone.

By the time she found Tony Russo (a pipefitter who’d seared a lung when he cut into a live gas line by mistake) and Colin McBain (a wild man, despite a lifetime of diabetes), she’d grown adept at drawing the men to her without alarming their wives, making it seem the most natural thing in the world to let her open their buttons, slide down their zippers, be with her husband again.

It was May when Mary Ann arrived at the stone house at the end of the long country lane. She idled the van by the mailbox for a while, then, making up her mind, she turned around and left. It was so close, why not wait?

When she came back three days later, the road was lined with cars and pickups for half a mile on either side. A big man with unruly hair and a dark curling beard answered the door with a booming, Welcome! He was wearing purple jeans and a raspberry pink T-shirt with silvery letters across his chest: Ya gotta have heart! He caught her staring and laughed, then bent out of sight and reappeared with a pink shirt identical to his in his hand.

Here you go, there’s one for everybody.

Behind him she could hear laughter cresting and falling, the jazzy clink of cutlery and glass.

C’mon in, join the party. It’s my birthday, sort of. He turned and pointed to the big #1 on his back. I’m a year old today.

I know, she said, tapping him lightly on the chest. She let her fingers rest there, just to one side of the sternum, feeling his pulse, strong and familiar.

Do I know you?

I know you.

She was, of course, the guest of honour. Nick Brossard pulled her into the room, let out a piercing whistle, and in the sudden stillness, declared, Without this woman, I’d be dead.

From the first moment, he doted on her. He made her heaps of huevos rancheros for breakfast, cooked up gumbos for lunch and complicated Cajun and African dishes for dinner, filling the house with the heavy, spicy scent of turmeric and cumin, chili and coriander. He took her for long walks through his woods, up to the granite ridge with its view of green hills that went on forever, back to the lake that was so deep no one had ever touched the bottom. He stripped off his shorts and dove off a rock, his penis dangling free of its dark nest for just a moment, then he was in the middle of the lake, waving her in, and she pulled off her clothes.

They made love in the water. They made love on the rocks. They made love among the trees, standing up, her back pressed into the corrugated bark. They made love in the secluded meadow outside the shed he’d built, then he went inside and brought out a guitar and sang to her, sitting naked in all his hairy splendour on the wooden stoop of the shed, singing songs he made up as he went along.

In the house, she kept her distance, respectful of Lil, the tall, gaunt woman who shared Nick’s life. Lil said little, unwilling to be won over. Mary Ann grew more cautious, but Nick was oblivious to Lil’s hard looks. He threw his arms around Mary Ann, pulled her onto his lap whenever she passed, announcing, We owe this woman everything.

He didn’t want her to leave, begged her to stay, offered to build her a cabin of her own down by the lake. He’d started writing songs again. You’re my good luck charm, he said. I need you here.

Mary Ann was tempted. She let herself imagine Lil’s scornful departure, her own things in the bedroom drawers, her cheek pressed against the hollow at Nick’s neck, lulled asleep by that pulse, night after night. But in those scenes, it was Nick’s body she imagined, not David’s. She knew it was time to go.

In the van, she took out her marker and traced the roads that closed the gap between the last circle on the map— Nick—and the first—Jim Magee. The wavering pink line, she saw, was roughly the shape of a face, wide across the forehead, narrowing to a long, irregular chin. Not unlike David’s face. As she headed east again, she thought of all the Davids, the young one so filled with desire that they’d spend whole days on the mattress on the floor of his room. The one who tinkered with the van, bought her a road safety kit, complete with a flashlight that worked with a crank. The one who helped her with her taxes. The one who bought her a frilly skirt, took her line dancing, made her laugh. The one who wrote her love songs. The softly crinkly eyes, the taut torso, the hairy forearms, tender fingers, the ever-willing cock. She gathered all the Davids to her, a chorus, a conclave, a museum of men, no one exactly the man her husband had been, but taken together… taken together what more could a woman want?

In the first town she came to, she stopped. It was part of her ritual. She found a drugstore and bought a postcard, something with a local scene or a picture of an animal. She was always careful in her selection, mindful of the women who would go through the mail, thinking of the man and woman as they stood together on the threshold, arms once again around each other, her departure releasing a fresh spring of gratitude that spilled into generosity, so that when they said goodbye they always added, And please come back.

The card she chose for Nick and Lil had a black bear on the front. The bear was standing on its hind legs, smiling, one paw lifted as if in a wave. She turned the card over and addressed it, then in neat, round letters she wrote: Miss you already. See you next year. Mary Ann.