The sky was gray and vast, ready to swallow her remains.
“Do you want to do it?”
He put his head down like a child who could not bear watching the removal of a splinter, “No you do it.” His voice trembled.
She tipped the urn into the abyss. The ashes poured out. A great tide of wind seized the ashes and scattered them across the sky.
He finally looked up. Immediately, he burst into tears. She placed a consoling arm around his waist, rubbing his shoulder with her other hand.
“That cloud. That cloud of dust flying to nowhere is my wife. That’s my fucking wife.” He bit his knuckle in a desperate attempt to reign in his sobbing. Taking a deep breath, he tried to pull more of the splinter out, “What happened? How...I don’t get this. I was fourteen yesterday. We were on the elementary school playground for an after school fight. The grass was still damp from a rainstorm that had soaked the town two days before. My knuckles were stained with blood and dirt. I remember the taste of his sweat. It had dribbled into my mouth when he had me on the ground, trapped in a vicious headlock. Only one of my eyes could see beyond his body. That’s when I saw her. She was with friends. She was uncomfortable. They had obviously dragged her there to watch. Somehow she noticed that my one, blackened eye saw her. She smiled. I felt this thing well up inside me. This primal urge to show her my strength. To let her know I could and would always be there to protect her. Moments later that boy laid unconscious as I stood above him. My lungs gulping air. Body still seizing from the dump of hormones. I turned to see her face groan as she pushed our first child into this world. Her hair had turned into water from all the sweat. She squeezed my hand with every gut-wrenching scream as the doctor urged her to push harder. I thought she was going to crush three of my knuckles, because she was so nervous. It was our first dance at the Junior Prom. We both looked ridiculous. Two middle class kids trying hard to be elegant and mature. Only, I kept stepping on her feet. She tried hard not to grimace, but I didn’t know what I was doing and it hurt. Still, she was so sweet. There was almost something motherly about the way she coached me as we made love for the first time. My awkward body draped atop hers, my hips slamming brutally into her vulnerability, but she held me. Her patience and forgiveness was strength. She whispered in my ear with a light kiss. ‘It’s okay, just relax and look at me,’ she said. Even as she was the one who laid dying, I was the one who needed her strength. She was the one who had always lifted me up. Even all the way back at that playground. Without her smile, I would have been ground beef. She was so strong and so loving. And that’s her, out there, that fucking cloud that’s barely even a haze. How did this happen? How did my love turn to dust? What kind of a sick dream is this life?”
“Is that what you think life is, a nightmare,” inquired the psychiatrist.
Henry cracked the knuckles of his left hand, then ran the ringers of his right hand through his unkempt beard. He collected his thoughts before responding. “I didn’t say a nightmare. I said a sick dream. All of this is so surreal, like, we think we know what time is - a bunch of seconds, minutes and hours arranged like math on a mechanical device and grafted onto calendars like some sort of navigational map featuring perfectly ruled lines plotting this course and that, but it’s not. Time breathes like melting colors...I don’t know...I don’t have the words. It’s just that some days feel so long and unendurable while others flash by and some memories feel as close to me as this couch and others only exist in photos and I see them and see myself looking back at me from the other side of some chasm, because I never remember being there. It’s all just so much like a dream, but not the dream itself. It’s that moment when you first wake up and have bits and slices of the dream still stewing about - some parts vivid, some erased. It’s just surreal.”
“But you also said it was sick.”
“I did indeed, but not sick as in nightmarish. Sick as in ill. When I stood there watching those ashes float away, there was something almost beautiful about the way they danced in the wind like a massive writhing murmuration of starlings, but at the same time not beautiful because one-by-one all the birds fell from the sky, dead. And that was my wife. My child’s mother reduced to dust, no more substantial or important than the litter at the bottom of my fireplace. Something about that just seems so diseased. It’s like somebody made the world out of Sateen Dura-Luxe, you know?”
“Actually, I’m not familiar with that reference. Satin deluxe, or what was that?”
“Oh, it’s a type of paint that Vonnegut made up for his book Bluebeard. It’s about this former artist, an abstract expressionist, who had reached a mild level of fame for some of his work. Unfortunately, he had used this unorthodox paint called Sateen Dura-Luxe and it was cursed in a sense, a time bomb waiting to reduce beauty to ash. You see over time, the paint pulled away from the canvas and fell to the ground piece by piece; and it’s like the entire world is splashed upon the canvas of time with Sateen Dura-Luxe and slowly our bodies reject time the way that paint rejects the canvas in this book and we both fall to the ground. We’re both reduced to debris. There’s something sick about that, something very ill.”
“Henry, I think it’s quite natural for you to wrestle with these issues of mortality after the untimely loss of your wife. I want you to know that there’s nothing sick about that. For now, I’d like to get you started on some Zoloft and I’m also going to refer you to a psychoanalyst I know that specializes with people dealing with grief. From the sounds of things, you’re going to need counseling to talk this out. I also have some brochures for a support group; it’s a place for those who have lost their spouses or significant others to get together and share as well as another for people struggling with thoughts of suicide. And I think that should be enough to get you released on your own recognizance.”
“I’m not suicidal. I’ve already said that,” Henry said with the fumes of irritation.
“Henry, police rescued you from the rooftop ledge of a twenty-five story building. This process is only going to work if you can be honest and unless I think that you’re dealing with this situation honestly, I cannot release you.”
“They didn’t save me from anything. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I just wanted to stand on the edge and take a peak in between the cracks - I wanted to see what’s in the space between the paint and the canvas before it finally falls. Those cops and onlookers were only saving their own perceptions, or whatever. People see someone doing something they can’t understand and they automatically jump to conclusions and call it irrational or crazy and, ultimately, interpret it in the only way they can. People are used to seeing jumpers standing on a ledge so they assume anyone on a ledge must be getting ready to jump, but like I told the police who arrived on the scene, I wasn’t going to jump.”
“Then why did you refuse to come back on the roof.”
“Because it’s none of their goddamn business and I wasn’t done looking.”
“What about your daughter? Do you think it’s a good idea to engage in such dangerous behavior when you have a little girl at home who’s already lost one parent?”
Henry’s face started turning red and his irritation blossomed into open contempt, as he snapped back at the doctor, “Don’t even sit here and tell me about my daughter. I know full well what she’s lost. What we’ve both lost. That fucking ledge is almost two feet wide. I’m a skilled rock climber, as I also told them. I wasn’t going anywhere.”
“Yes, the rock climbing. I read about that in your file. How long have you felt the need to participate in these possibly dangerous and life-threatening activities?”
“Oh my god, are you serious? I just like the challenge, the exercise and the fresh air. And the scenery. It’s so beautiful out there and totally safe. We take plenty of precautions, climb in teams and use the best safety equipment available.”
“You seem quite upset Henry. If nothing is wrong, as you claim, why are these questions so difficult for you to hear.”
Henry ground his teeth as he replied, “They are not difficult to hear. I am upset, because I have been locked up against my will and put on suicide watch. I’ve done my best to play along and be open and honest, but it’s like you refuse to hear me - you only hear what you want to hear so you can continue manipulating my words. All this time, my daughter is staying with my sister-in-law wondering what the hell is wrong with her daddy at the time she needs me the most and all because I just wanted to take in a new view of the world. See things from a higher level for some perspective. People always talk about those who live with their head in the clouds, so I thought I’d go check things out from their point-of-view. That’s it. But you people just cannot stop yourselves from intervening. I’m grieving, for fuck’s sake just let me work things out on my own. I promise you I’m not going to kill myself. It’s the last thing I want to fucking do.”
Juliet snorted out a short laugh as she sipped her wine. “I would have paid money to see the look on that doctor’s face when you said that.”
“I swear to Christ,” Henry exclaimed, “these doctors are the reason why so many people go insane. They go to see what they think is a trusted professional only to have their words twisted and manipulated until they don’t know which way is up anymore. It’s quite ridiculous.”
“Well what did you expect would happen when you started carrying on about Vonnegut and people being reduced to ashes, looking down upon the world from the clouds and all that?”
“I’m a professor of modern thought, culture and literature,” Henry said with a laugh, “I write and lecture about beauty, existential crisis, technology and the written word for a living. He should have known that from my file if he knew I enjoyed rock climbing. I’ll tell you what Juliet - jokes aside it was a terribly frightening experiencing. It was like waking up in a Kafka novel or something. Being forced into that clinic and having the oppression of the system judging your very perception of the world,” Henry shivered, “It’s enough to make me want to live off the grid or something.”
“Well, don’t let them hear you say that, Henry! Then they’ll really think your nuts. How could anyone sane want to give up all of this,” Juliet said as she waved her hand casually against the backdrop of a bustling street full of people zig-zagging out of traffic, talking into their phones and completely unaware of the world around them.
“Indeed,” said Henry as he took a drank of his mineral water.
“By the way,” Juliet asked as her voice fell to a soft, gentle tone, “how are you dealing with things?”
Henry’s left thumb played with the wedding band on his ring finger. “I’m better. It’s been, what, about 8 months now going on nine. I’m finally starting to feel the time between myself and the trauma of it all, but sometimes it’s like I’m right there. Like I stepped into some hiccup of time and she’s lying there on that bed holding my hand. We watched the sunset through the window and she left me right then and there, rode out of herself with the last shine of day. It was such a surreal moment that I don’t even know if I trust my memory of it. Sometimes I can’t remember if I’m remembering the final moments I shared with my wife or if I’m remembering a dream I had about the final moments I had with my wife. It’s very bizarre, painful and yet beautiful and reaffirming. Honestly, I guess it’s still kind of a mess inside, but I’d say that’s understandable.”
“I’d say that’s definitely true Henry, cheers.” Their glasses clinked from the light kiss of their rims. The sound barely lasted a second before being swallowed from a petulant honk of a passing taxi.
“Isabella? Honey, you’re going to be late for school,” Henry shouted up the mahogany stairs. "You don't want to be late."