Very rare: blue moon, bright Mars. Both rose just after sunset that late May evening. I stayed out in the backyard gazing up into the night sky until they were nearly straight overhead. So vivid, they appeared to tremble. Astronomers called their alignment “in opposition”. That seemed apropos; my ex-wife had moved out earlier that evening leaving me dumbstruck.
“I respect you,” she’d said. “And I admire you. But, I don’t love you anymore.”
When I’d reached for her, she’d shrugged under my arm pulling her small suitcase. I’d stood afterwards listening to the sound of her car disappear down the street.
“I believe in love that lasts. I believe in love that grows.” When my ex-wife said that, we were on our second date, sitting across from each other at an outside café table above a lake sipping iced lattes. It was hot, late afternoon, Indian Summer, and she had to leave shortly for Back to School Night where she taught. We’d both just been hired in the same district and had met on a morning break during their new teachers’ orientation. She’d come up to me at the coffee urn and introduced herself. She was from the area, and when she found out I’d come from another state, she offered to show me around. That was our first date. We ended up near sunset in a cow pasture with raspberries, a baguette, chocolate, and a bottle of wine. No cups, so we drank straight from the bottle.
My mother used to float gardenias in a bowl. When she began making her yearly visits alone after my father’s death, she’d cut the blossoms from the tall bush off our side deck. She claimed they had a lovely, faint scent, though neither my ex-wife or I could detect one. But, they looked nice floating pale pink in their shallow blue bowl where she set them on the dining room table. My ex-wife usually relocated them to my mother’s guest bedroom where she wouldn’t have to see them.
I’m not a big fan of beets. My ex-wife was. Beet salad, candied beets, beets in the smoothies she made for breakfast and lunch when she was trying to lose weight during the period just before she left. I didn’t think she needed to lose weight; she still looked wonderful to me. Of course, I didn’t understand then that it was someone else she was losing weight for. It seems now that she may have begun serving beets often with the dinners she prepared towards the end as a kind of message to me. One I was oblivious to, I guess, just like all the others she claimed were obvious.
My best friend Tim, as he was called then, built me a small wooden chest shortly before we graduated together from college. He used no screws or nails; everything had been fitted together precisely, tongue and groove, based on a craftsman’s design from the 16th century. He gave it to me as a graduation gift, a “worthy vessel”, Tim called it, in which to keep my paltry attempts at poetry. I did store those inside it for a while. But we went our separate ways after graduation, and I didn’t try contacting him again until a long time later when I came upon the chest in my basement covered with a sheen of dust. I was down there storing away some of the things my ex-wife had left and never returned to collect. I blew the dust off the top, opened it, read a few of the lousy poems, thought back to those days with their lightness of being, and began to cry. More than two decades had passed. I tracked down his number, called, and when the wife I’d never met answered, I asked for him.
She replied, “Michael, you mean. He’s gone by Michael since I’ve known him. It’s his middle name.”
“Okay,” I said. “Michael, then.”
No, she told me, he couldn’t speak to me. Literally. He’d had a freak accident several years earlier while they were vacationing in Hawaii. He’d gotten knocked down while standing ankle deep in small surf on the beach and had broken his neck. Was paralyzed afterwards, bedridden, had to be repositioned every couple of hours, could only utter a few words and those exhausted him. She sounded exhausted herself.
“Oh,” I said. I squeezed my eyes shut. “I’m so sorry.”
She didn’t reply. The phone just disconnected, followed by a dial tone. Both his life and mine had taken turns, I realized: significant and unexpected ones, though his were much more severe. I realized in that moment, too, that I’d never been closer to anyone than I’d been with him in those earlier days.
Mrs. Baker’s roses bloomed twice that same summer. She’d given them to my ex-wife and me shortly after we’d moved in next door as newlyweds. She’d been old then; she’s ancient now. We’d planted them near our front French doors: a Mr. Lincoln and a Sunsprite. My ex-wife and I tended them carefully together until she left, though I’d done little with them afterwards. But that particular summer was so hot that they bloomed twice in spite of my neglect: once early on and again in August, bursts of red and yellow against the surrounding greenery. Unlike the gardenias, they did have a strong and beautiful scent. It reminded me of hope. It reminded me of dreams. It reminded me of love.
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and The Boiler. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.