She’s in a small wood clapboard house in Montclair, New Jersey, and it’s raining. It’s her first holiday without John, and she’s grateful for Thora’s invitation to spend Thanksgiving away from the city. The room she’s sitting in can best be described as a thwarted den. Thora and Niles’s recent move here, plus the demands of a one-year-old daughter, have dictated that the room become a kind of holding bin for a playpen, some Pampers boxes, an overflow of toys. And now her.
Thora bustles in the kitchen down the hall. “Where is that fruit bowl?” she shouts. “Buzz was supposed to bring it by this morning!”
“I dunno,” she hears Niles respond. “Maybe he’s busy scrounging up some greens out in the wilds of Bayonne.”
Buzz was someone she had met at one of Thora’s dinner parties years ago and had had four horrible, awkward dates with. He had acted like he had never been on a date in his life, every muscle in his bony, vegetarian body rigid, abjectly terrified of her.
She goes into the kitchen in a moment of alarm but Niles calms her: “Don’t worry, he won’t show up. He’s having Thanksgiving dinner with his mother. Hey, what do you think that boy weighs?”
“About 40 pounds,” she says. “I could probably throw him against the wall.” She likes trading quips with Niles. He offers her a mimosa before she returns to the holding bin. The name of the champagne, Veuve Clicquot, is an unfortunate coincidence: it means “old widow.” She is glad to hear Thora say that she has purchased an entire case of the stuff; it appeals to her sense of irony as well as her palate.
Nothing is required of her. She doesn’t really want to help anyway. Periodically Thora’s two Great Danes stop in to check on her, like silent, lumbering nurses. She pats them on the head. Satisfied that her temperature and blood pressure are normal, they proceed single-file down the hall. She dozes over her book, savors her drink, looks out the window at the constant drizzle. Thora’s cat, seeking warmth from the damp, settles in her lap until she gets up to refill her glass, then resettles when she returns to her chair. The cat is mostly black, with a white face and paws—like the one John used to have before they got back together. She allows herself, for about five seconds, to miss John’s goofy sweetness, the way he used to ask for a hug by silently holding his arms straight out to her from his stretched-out position on the bed, eyes wide open—like a baby would.
The two nights she’s there, she sleeps on the foldout in the basement. The room’s 60’s rumpus room décor has not been touched since Thora and Niles moved in. Its garish ceiling panels and color scheme make it look like someplace a 20-year-old still living with his parents might take his date: the proverbial impoverished bachelor pad. The Single Suite, she thinks. There is even a counter with a couple of barstools along one wall. She finds it amusing, this basement lounge done in bilious turquoise and red, designed with nudge-nudge swinging couples’ hijinks in mind. Its blatant vulgarity is somehow comforting and honest. She hopes they don’t cover it over.
A black-and-white photo of Thora’s parents on one of the shelves of the built-in bookcase catches her eye. It’s obviously posed, as if taken in a studio, but with a kind of practiced spontaneity and warmth; in all likelihood it’s been taken by Thora herself, a fashion designer and artist with a good eye. She’s only met them a handful of times, and been to their house once or twice, but she can recall the DeKoonings on the wall, the Moore sculpture replicas in the living room, the father’s hobby of making faithfully crafted Victorian dollhouse furniture. Looking out of their frame, poor Jack and Helen look out of place in these cheesy surroundings. She, by contrast, is enjoying her feeling of dislocation; those first few moments of waking in a strange room are a welcome jolt.
While she’s in the den with Thora the first night, she makes sure to measure the cube-shaped pillow she had made for Niles two years ago. (Thora has had to repair the current one twice; it’s soiled and soggy with Great Dane slobber.) She has even brought a tape measure so that she can make note of the dimensions for another one. Thora has told her that Niles and the pillow are inseparable when he’s watching TV on the sofa.
Now she tells Thora she’s going out for a walk.
“Don’t get lost,” Thora says.
“I’ll try,” she replies.
“To get lost, or not to?”
“Not to,” she answers with a faint smile.
She grabs an umbrella from the front closet. Outside, she can feel the freezing rain sink into the raw bones of her hands. Still, she goes for a long walk. The streets are more winding than she had pictured. She spirals deeper and deeper into the subdivision, passing tiny parks and playgrounds. Most of the time her head is down, as she looks at puddles and mounds of wet leaves. Still she doesn’t cry. The day is crying for her.
When she returns, Niles has put himself in charge of the Thanksgiving table. “The museum room of 216 Grove is now open,” he announces with mock pomposity when all the places have been set. It’s an oblique verbal swipe at Thora’s fastidious aesthete parents. “Don’t touch anything.”
Guests arrive. She is relieved to see that as a dinner party they form a kind of mismatched, ragtag bunch: no couples, just a young single man, another man with gray hair who has recently become a father (his wife still in the hospital), and a woman who turns out to be the gray-haired man’s mother, although she doesn’t nearly look old enough. Kaela sits in her high chair, far back from the table and safely out of the traffic pattern.
After the plates have been cleared and the last glasses of wine have been poured, and Thora and Niles go into the kitchen to clean up, the mood around the table quickly turns confessional. Peter, the young single guy, tells the other guests that this is the anniversary of his brother’s suicide five years ago.
She wants to reveal her own loss, but it is too soon; it would seem opportunistic to compare her loss with his too quickly. After Peter goes out for a smoke, however, she feels comfortable enough to share it with Sandy, the woman. Sandy responds predictably: “Oh, that’s so recent! Are you OK?”
She knows that this is a natural reflex but still feels a flareup of annoyance at all the people who have asked this over the past couple of weeks. She never knows how to respond to “How are you doing?” She’s torn between the need to look poised and the fear that she will appear too self-possessed. But she’s rehearsed a response and feels it unrolling from her mouth now, almost automatically, a spiel: “I agonized over not having been in the room with him at the time he died, but then this movie came on the weekend after it happened--one of John’s favorites that I hadn’t seen, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’--and I was able to watch it almost from the beginning, and felt consoled.”
Sandy gives her much empathy and advice, talks about losing her mother, offers to meet for lunch. The social whirl of those in mourning.
When new guests arrive, too late for dessert, she says her hellos to the couple, then retreats to the holding bin.
She leaves in a hurry Friday morning, forgetting to take the leftovers from the dinner that she has carefully packed for herself the night before. She’s focused on avoiding Buzz, who Thora has warned her is coming over soon to fix a computer. The closest she’s gotten to having fun this weekend has been verbally trashing him with Niles in the kitchen. She shudders as she recalls Buzz’s naked earnestness.
The bus ride back to Port Authority in Manhattan is comfortingly bleak: warehouses of colorless aluminum siding, factories limping along at half-capacity through the autistic drizzle, a movie marquee striking in its unintentional abbreviated irony: WORLD NOT ENOUGH.
She’s home in 20 minutes. Once there, she gets out the fabric squares and portable sewing machine. This time she will make the pillow of more durable fabrics, triple-stitch the seams, and present it in a rip-stop nylon bag from the Army-Navy surplus. When she drifts off to sleep that night, her last thought is of the pillow resting in the perfect hollow of Niles’s neck.
Carol Wierzbicki has run poetry readings at ABC No Rio and elsewhere in NYC. Her publication credits include Long Shot, Public Illumination, and Evergreen Review. She is one of the editors of the Unbearables anthologies. She edited and self-published Stories from the Infirmary (Universal Publishers, 1999) and poetry chapbook The Occupations. Her second chapbook is Top Teen Greatest Hits (Poets Wear Prada, 2009). Her book reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail and American Book Review.