The feeling disappeared before Chaz could make it out, like an animal scampering into the woods. Even for a second, after it was gone, he thought he could still make out the shape of the thing, thought perhaps it would come back into view. But it didn’t and he didn’t give chase, because sometimes with these things it’s just a squirrel and sometimes it’s bigger. He had a sense about this one.
Other feelings, appropriate feelings, flooded in to fill the space it left behind. He knew they were appropriate in the same way he knew that the first one was not. Shock. Sadness. These are the feelings one should have upon learning that someone young has died. Even these though, brought with them a tiding, understood in something other than words, that his initial impulse would eventually have to be dealt with.
So young,” his mother said on the other end of the phone. “Tragic.” Mrs. Bellefontaine excelled in the use of generic platitudes. She kept them ready for any gossip-worthy event. Chaz heard them. Nodded at the right moments as if she could see him, but already he was slipping off someplace else, visiting a mental space where he could contemplate this news. Turn it around in his hands and understand it.
His attention snapped back to the call when his mother added, “I always liked her. You were good together.” Chaz looked at Allie, reading on the couch. He turned in the way that seemed most likely to aim the phone away from his wife. She liked to joke that her superpower was abnormally strong hearing. At restaurants she would listen to the conversations of people three, sometimes four tables away and then fill Chaz in on their fights and their secrets. He sometimes wondered if she made it all up.
Jacqui. How many years had it been now? Five probably, closer to six. He and Allie were just engaged, but how long ago was that? How do we forget these things he wondered. What happened in those years to make him lose track? Life churned on, he supposed, flowing from one milestone to the next. The milestones ought to have made it easier to mark the time, but the milestones weren’t about Jacqui. She was, by necessity, kept at a remove. Absent from his life. Absent from his thoughts, except when she wasn’t.
“The services will be on Saturday. I saw her mother at the grocery. Imagine that. How do you shop after something like this? But there she was just dropping things into her basket. Jello. I don’t understand the jello. Maybe Jacqui liked it. That can’t be a healthy way to mourn, cooking for the departed. She’ll be glad to see you. Mrs. Randall. She’ll be happy to see you. Do you think you and Allie would like to come by here for dinner afterwards? I won’t make fish. I know she worries about the mercury.”
That first feeling growled at him from inside the bushes. It rustled and menaced, something worse than it had been before.
“I don’t think…”
His mother would argue with him about etiquette and respect and community. He didn’t want that. Couldn’t hear it now.
“Maybe mom. We’ll see.”
The obvious question came so much later than it should have.
“How did she die?”
He finally put the phone down on the counter and breathed out. Low. Long. Allie shifted on the couch, asleep beneath her book. All he could see of her were her legs crossed over each other and propped on the arm of the couch. Even in the moment he paused long enough to cast an admiring eye on them, on her, forever with her head in a book, not to get ahead or advance. Simply because she always stood amazed by the endless variety of experience that life offered. He felt the familiar guilt that came with admiring her and knowing how unworthy he was.
The internet knew more than his mother. Cancer. He hadn’t known. Why would he? They hadn’t kept in touch, had agreed that they just weren’t one of those couples. When he thought of her he pictured her as a train on a parallel track, just over a horizon. Not visible except, from time to time, for a puff of smoke. There was comfort in this, comfort in knowing that even if the tracks would never cross that her train also carried some of the more pleasant memories. There was a degree of immortality in such thoughts. We live on in that way. In the memories of others. It was Chaz’s cold comfort, on not knowing what to do with those particular memories, that at least someone else had them stored somewhere, similarly uncertain.
He had once had a sense that those memories would come to something, that he and Jacqui would find an appropriate time to pore over them. Then came the last memory and with it the certainty that they would not, could not.
When Facebook really took off he hadn’t bothered to friend her. Often he thought about looking at her page. He even typed in the first few letters of her name a few times. He always stopped short of clicking on the magnifying glass in the corner. Somehow that act was a bridge too far.
Allie, still sleeping, rolled over on the couch, clutching a throw pillow to her stomach.
No harm in cyber-stalking the dead. He found Jacqui’s page, the one Facebook’s algorithms had wanted him to friend so badly for so long.
He avoided the pictures, but scrolled through the comments.
“Courageous until the end.”
“You were my inspiration.”
“The strongest of the strong.”
Such a trite collection of euphemism, but then nobody writes the truth. Nobody writes about how odd it is that someone can be so young and look so withered, so hopeless.
Chaz wondered if it could be true. Courageous until the end. He remembered the weekend in Seattle when she ate that chicken salad sandwich from the 7-11. She grabbed it from the open refrigerator at the back of the store and he’d tried to warn her off. He’d suggested Oreos and granola bars. Even a Pop Tart. Food poisoning kept her retching all night into the toilet at their bed and breakfast. Every time her stomach roiled again she moaned, “Why me? Why now?” Hardly courageous.
Unfair of him. He knew. She was younger then. They both were. Young, and poor, and stupid, and yes, it did seem like the world could offer no greater injustice than a GI bug on a long planned getaway. What did they know of cancer? Could she be tougher now? Chaz corrected the question. Could she have been?
One “friend,” a name he recognized from a trip back to her hometown in Ohio, used the occasion to implore everyone to get mammograms and “screw the advice of the AMA about waiting until you’re forty.” Her heart was in the right place, but her post came off as shrill and heartless. Comment after comment tore her apart. If she ever returned to the page she did it without writing anything more.
Chaz scrolled down through the posts looking for the Jacqui he knew. Nothing. He found memories of the high school Jacqui, the star athlete. Her “grown up” friends described her as a doting mother. He strained to hold back tears. They were not for Jacqui so much as for any mother dying young. He couldn’t imagine her with children.
He closed his eyes. Squinted and tried to push beyond that one night. He pushed to find inside him the picture of the girl who introduced him to jazz and candlelight dinners. The girl who first made him feel like an adult, who suggested to him that they had reached their time, when they could drink deeply of all that was sweet in life.
He went back to an October Sunday just after he turned twenty-one. They had driven to Pennsylvania, to a winery she wanted to visit, an old farm. It claimed to predate the revolution. In the cellar of the farm house, the oak barrels and the stout stone foundation didn’t argue the claim.
The owner, who might also have predated the revolution, poured them generous samples, He explained the intricacies of each, taught them to swirl the wine in their glasses, see if it had legs and inhale the scent before they sipped. After a time Chaz found he really could taste the lingering notes of cherry, the caramelized char of the oak. He hadn’t been bothered by the pretense of it all. It made him feel worldly, sophisticated.
They had decided on a Riesling and packed it into a bag with a picnic Jacqui had prepared. They carried their bounty along a trail up a nearby hill, never breaking a sweat. The air had turned just cold enough to require a sweater. They drank their Riesling, and ate turkey sandwiches with thin sliced apples and Dijon mustard, a combination he’d never have imagined. One he still could taste echoes of on crisp fall days.
After lunch, tipsy from the wine, they made love wrapped in their fleece picnic blanket and swore that adulthood would be just like this, an endless stretch of perfect autumn afternoons.
Chaz tried to stay there reclined on that hillside, but memory begets memory. He came to another time, a chance encounter, another bottle of wine, Burgundy this time. They’d both said that they shouldn’t. They couldn’t. But their legs were touching under the table as they said it. He couldn’t remember how it moved from there, but it did. He’d felt the familiar pressure of her against him. The familiar wine tinged taste of her tongue. When their hands intertwined he’d felt her engagement ring, thought of the ring he’d just given to Allie, but if things were going to stop they’d have stopped before that.
He carried that memory into bed with him every time he had lain with Allie. He felt the revulsion of his own impurity every time his finger traced a line up her leg. He burned with fear that she might sense his distance and guess where that other part of his mind had gone off to, that she and Jacqui might somehow meet. That it might all come out. That he might blurt it out. Five years, or was it six now, of the constant guilt.
And suddenly he wondered if he had found the feeling that had darted off into the woods.
Relief. Could that be right?
What did people say? Something about the only safe secret being the one you kept yourself. Chaz couldn’t come up with the right wording. He told himself it didn’t matter. Jacqui was gone. The only other evidence of that night, the only place where it existed outside of his own mind went with her. That night held no more reality now than if he had dreamt it.
He wondered if he could make himself believe that.
Chaz looked back at the computer, at the face of a thirty-eight year old woman who looked an awful lot like someone he had dated. He wondered if she ever thought about the winery, about the food poisoning. About…the other things. How had she remembered them, remembered him? He wished he could ask.
He scrolled down until he found a post from her.
“Thanks for the well-wishes everyone. Not the best birthday ever, but I feel so much stronger and I’ll celebrate in style next year!”
A single tear snaked down his cheek.
Allie appeared silently behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. He started and turned, trying to cover his tear, wondering what, if anything, he might have said out loud. Then he realized, that his sorrow was appropriate, that it would appear appropriate.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” Allie finally asked.
Chaz sniffed once, the emotion real, raw born of sorrow but fed by everything else as well.
The words came out quietly, not quite without affect, but close. He held back from saying more, fearful of spilling the entire story.
Later, while they cleared dinner, Allie asked if he would go to the wake.
The snarling bite of dread returned.
Would Jacqui’s husband know of him? Most likely. Not all of the details, not… But you can’t edit the longer relationships out of your life story. If things had turned another way Allie would have known Jacqui, would have seen pictures of her in old photo-albums. Even a few, Chaz realized, taken that day at the winery.
Would Jacqui have confessed to her husband? He couldn’t answer. He didn’t think so. He didn’t. But he didn’t know Jacqui anymore. Hadn’t known her. Hadn’t known what might have become important to her in her final days. If she had said something… What a scene that could be. He leaned against the sink, weak at the thought.
He closed his eyes and watched it play out. The yelling. The punch. There would have to be a punch thrown, even there in the funeral home with the coffin barely visible for the flowers. Jacqui’s husband would punch him. He couldn’t duck away from it. He would have to accept it and then, when that was finished he would have to explain to Allie and there would be more yelling and maybe more hitting and none of it mattered so much as this. The world would come to see him as he saw himself. That thought was too much.
He wept again and Allie held him. She held her husband even when she understood his tears to be for the loss of his ex. In that moment her unrelenting decency was the only thing that could have made him feel worse.
The memories came at him now. They poked his shoulder with their bony fingers and they accused him. They came fast, one and then another. Now he could taste the Reisling and now the sandwiches and now the Burgundy and now Jacqui and the only thing he was sure of was that all of it was real and that the feeling he had tried to catch hold of had never been relief.
On the night of the wake Chaz and Allie settled onto their couch. She disappeared into her book, her lovely feet in his lap. He tried to read a magazine, but his thoughts strayed to the woman whom he had once loved and who, as he read, lay in her coffin. In his mind’s eye he pictured the cold engine of her train stopped on the track, watching the smoke from his own disappear off into the distance. Get through tonight, he thought, and she becomes a memory.
For a while he believed he could do just that. He believed he might wake in the morning and find that old best version of himself waiting for him in the mirror. But each time he returned to an article, Ten Ways You’re Undermining Your Own Workout Regimen, his mind went back to her. He came to understand the truth of her immortality and with it, the death of that old best him.
Some act was required. Some attempt to struggle against this. He got up from the couch, lifting Allie’s feet and placing them gently on the cushion. He walked to the computer.
Three keystrokes brought him back to Jacqui’s Facebook wall and the messages that had been piling there since her passing. Without reading, he scrolled down past them and composed his two word eulogy.
Even as he typed he knew the words to be a lie.
Paul Myette’s fiction has appeared in the Elm Leaves Journal, Pank, New World Writing and Apt Literary Magazine and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the Bread Loaf School of English, Paul is currently at work on his first novel. He lives with his wife and children in Byfield, MA where he shares his writing space with several aggressive squirrels.