By Pamela Dellinger
I can’t go to Wade’s funeral.
It isn’t because I don’t know when it is. I work in a flower shop, for Chrissakes; I know when all the funerals are. I can’t go for two very good reasons:
Number one. I’m not invited. Okay, nobody’s ever really invited to a funeral, but let’s just say when Wade’s mother hung up on me when I called, I had a pretty good idea I wouldn’t be welcome.
Number two. There are some things that push beyond what I can do. There isn’t enough lithium produced in North America to get me through the funeral of the lover I was with for two mercurial years. To get me through the end of what our relationship had become. To get me through.
There are some things sending flowers just doesn’t cover, and our relationship is one of them. I’m sending the wisteria vine I ordered from my wholesaler to add to the arbor where Wade loved to stretch out and read in the spring, but while I’m dressing it for the funeral home, all I hear is Janis. Goddamn Janis Joplin. His hiking boots are still beside my bed every time I hear her.
I was living on stilts beside the creek, dancing my way out of my clothes from work with the music rolling from my open windows and over the balcony. Shaking out my hair and the tension from the day, I fixed myself a gin and tonic and wailed with Janis about the Ball and Chain I’d cut loose the year before.
A knock at the door.
There he stood on the porch with a nervous smile, my neighbor, Wade, with a rainbow of dye on his hands, spattered across his old hiking boots, babbling on about some neighborhood party. We’d met at the mom-and-pop grocery where I worked, and since then, he’d come to the store at least once a day, usually more. On that day, he had come in four times, splitting his shopping into opportunities to talk to me in my line. The last time he had come through for a single pack of Doublemint gum, all pretense of shopping surrendered. I surrendered as well, saying he could drop by the creek house after my shift.
I had him stashed in that drawer marked “nice” I’d started after the divorce. I wasn’t on that drawer yet. I was still working my way through the one above it, labeled “masochistic.” One last, not so subtle look at his legs, another pull on the gin and tonic, and I figured, “Why not?” Maybe a party would do me good. As I ducked into my room to grab my purse and do a quick make-up check, I figured I deserved a diversion, and maybe a “nice” was what I needed. Later, I would file him under “D” for depressed, drunken, dependent, dead.
The beginning, I think, was good for Wade and me. I don’t know for sure. The manic episodes tend to blur my memories. Sometimes I think that’s a blessing. For these early memories with Wade, it’s a curse. I want to remember the specifics, but all I can conjure are snapshots:
Riding in the car to nowhere in particular, windows down to let in the sun, holding my hair out of my face while I smile across at him.
The first time we had sex, when I rushed to his house during my lunch break, knocked on the door, and led him to his bed without speaking, his cigarette still burning in the ashtray as I let myself out. Later that night when we could take our time.
The first dinner he made for me. Beef stew. He forgot to peel the onions, and I didn’t eat red meat.
Tie-dying all weekend to meet an unexpected order for a gross of shirts, laughing as I try to find somewhere to place the shirt I’d just bundled, while Wade looks on the tables, the floor, the balcony of the creek house, every inch of it covered in cotton and dye.
Lying in bed as he played me to sleep with one Neil Young song or another, a rambling of notes that would match the way our life together seemed to wander.
Then I could share myself without worrying when the next high or low would come. I didn’t have three calendars to schedule meds and doctor’s appointments. I didn’t need to sleep in another room to regulate my days and nights. Nothing was out of control. We played guitar and tie-dyed enough shirts to survive. At night, I raised the window above my bed to let the band in the bar next door find words for us.
Six months later, I came home at 2am, riding a manic episode that had refused to let me sleep for three days. My clothes were all in the middle of the living room, and not one item survived in a swatch larger than two inches square. Wade still had the scissors in his hand like he didn’t know what he should do with them.
“I love you,” I said.
The words left me breathless, fighting their way out through all things that were proper and nice and helpful. They resonated across the years I’d excused, begged, enabled. They leapt away from all the should-haves and could-haves, and scattered like pebbles on the floor between us, landmines on the field of battle that was our living room. And in spite of all the battles that had come before, and how well-trained we were in the art of heart-to-heart combat, how bloodthirsty we had become in seeking pain from the other, the skirmish that was over in an instant won the war with no winners.
Across the chasm, then, I said the words to Wade again, “I love you, but you have to leave.”
And just as simply, I saved myself. The spell of one was two.
I stood in the kitchen, eating my dinner at the counter, while I watered the blooms on the windowsill and pretended not to see Wade on my balcony. He came almost every night, his voice railing against the heavy darkness, the weight of all the things he didn’t understand—what had happened, why didn’t I love him, why couldn’t he come home? Back and forth he would pace across the confines of the peeling boards, until he wound down like a child’s toy.
I made the mistake of looking at him. A glance, really, just an involuntary reaction to a quick turn he made. It was enough.
It had been careless to raise the windows, but without air-conditioning, the house was oppressive when I got home from work, and there was always a breeze that billowed from the water. I had raised the sashes of the oversized windows on the off-chance that he wouldn’t come. I had been diligent for weeks, locking the doors, drawing the curtains, curling my fingers around the worn wooden handle of a little league bat as I slept alone. If I slept. His rantings kept me awake, and in the silence there bloomed dark dreams.
It was careless to open the windows, and he stepped through the screen from the balcony into the living room without even touching the window frame, swatting away all my cautiousness with the back of his hand. When I turned from the dirty dishes in the sink, he was there.
Desperation rode him, his body wet with the effort of it, smelling of slept-in clothes and the beer that leaked from his pores. The drugs made his hand vibrate gently as he placed it against my cheek.
I lunged for the bat, across the room, leaning impotently against the couch, and he caught my wrist. The familiar caress turned to chafing, to wrenching, to a struggle for power collapsing in on one another, skin pried, torn, burned in the crawling away, the dragging back.
He left when the sun rose, and I spent the day cleaning and screwing the windows permanently closed, the marks on my body blooming where no one would ever see.
I don’t remember where I was on what was probably the most selfish day of my life. I could have been at work, making a flower arrangement with irises, snapdragons and gerbera daisies for a patient in the hospital. I could have been hanging organza from the ceiling of a reception hall, all white and flowing for a wedding that weekend. I could have been riding in my truck with the windows down, letting the sun warm the skin of my arm. I could have been making a spray of vine, roses, hydrangeas and tulips for the top of a casket. Where I was that day doesn’t matter. It’s where I wasn’t that does.
Wade always needed something. A ride downtown, some time I didn’t have, me. It didn’t matter that we weren’t together any more, that I wasn’t with anybody any more. If he needed me, he called. That day was no different, and I wasn’t surprised to hear his voice on my machine as I hit the button coming through the door, arms full of groceries, dropping my car keys in the tray beside it.
As I put the groceries on the kitchen counter, I heard him start with the usual request for a ride to the pawnshop.
“Hey, um, it’s me.” Dead space as the tape whirred. “Do you think I could catch a ride uptown tomorrow? I need to run the Peavy to the pawnshop on Palmetto.”
The “o” in the street name was cut short when he took a quick drag from one of the Camels he chain-smoked. He only took those fast tokes when he was agitated, as if smoking faster would make things happen more quickly. I could only guess that his Honda was back in the shop, since it spent more time there than in his driveway. Wade had been through three cars since we met. He was hard on everything.
He moved on to tell me about his new girlfriend, then moved farther still to tell me how different she was from me. He managed to make that sound like a bad thing, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her and feel an old pull in the direction of his voice.
But we had established boundaries.
Since my voice hadn’t interrupted on the line to react in real time, he began to raise his, and settled in a rant about how distant I had become, and how he didn’t know me anymore. I put my hair in a ponytail as I wandered from the bedroom into the kitchen, still listening. I mumbled, “I don’t think you ever really did.”
I heard him let out the cat, Snicklesnort, who used to hate me and sleep on my neck; move the laundry to the dryer with the slam of its door; then go back to the argument with only one side. I started to unpack the groceries, and he reminded me that I left him alone. Everyone in his life left him alone. He was always alone. All the frustration poured from him as he listed my faults, and it’s the one time I heard clearly as he struggled to make himself understood.
I was across town putting my groceries away when my kitchen was filled with the soft sound of his crying, and my hand stopped halfway to the cabinet, holding a can of diced tomatoes. I lowered it to the counter, and turned toward the doorway, toward the sounds coming from the tinny speaker on the box. He cried as he sagged into the sofa with the huge orange flowers. He pulled the trigger, and I wasn’t there. His last message ran out the tape on my answering machine.
Pamela Dellinger is an Adjunct Professor of English and high school English teacher in rural South Carolina. She has published creative nonfiction in Brevity, Flashquake, and (obviously) Watershed Review. This piece is from a larger work tentatively titled Bone on Bone: A Memoir of Love and Manic-Depression. She lives in her hometown with two rescued dogs and a pocketful of lithium.