It is early on in our relationship, and I am staring at the photograph above the fireplace again. Bex wears a silver sweater and an impossible smile. Her parents stand, leaning together at center like the hosts of the most cheerful social in town. The nieces and nephews are fresh, seated below, linked in neat affection, as if lifted from a clothing ad. And far-right, oddly disconnected, Bruce half-kneels, staring back at me.
“What do you see?” Bex asks from the couch.
“A beautiful woman. A beautiful family.” I turn, telling a truth. What can I say? I am in love with a widow.
Lung cancer took Bruce after a five-year battle. His death ended 24 years, one month and five days of marriage. I learn this and other things, scrolling through Facebook. He flourished through the connections of Rebecca’s social web. Hundreds pulled fiercely for him during his struggle against a relentless disease. He loved well the clan he married into. His family embraced his lovely wife in a tight decades-long hug that still warms her. My Bex was his daisy girl. He died in her arms. And his ashes are here now, in this house that has become ours, where they rightfully belong.
One month into our relationship, I gently listen to Bex’s memories again. So many stories. At gatherings I hear low mentions, or polite omissions of Bruce’s name. There is a portrait where he lifts her in the air, her head flung back in joy. This photo was inspired by a song whose lyrics also happen to be tattooed down either side of my torso. Many more pictures are hidden away in albums I see, or do not see. Lit like dots on an electric map in my head, they possess an energy I distantly dread. I offer appropriate smiles, wanting to be a good person. I know that I own no membership to these charged signs and symbols. And this is how it starts, my relationship with Bruce, my slippery rival.
“What do you see in the photograph now?” Bex asks, catching me in front of it once again.
“I’m sorry.” I answer. “I don’t know why I look at it. Maybe because you look so happy.” Pausing, I glance at her and lift my chin. “Why isn’t he sitting closer to you?”
My mother decided I was sensitive when, at four years of age, I broke into tears over a drunken homeless man rolling in the middle of a New York City street. I would spend most of my lifetime challenging that notion. So, it comes as no surprise to me when I throw a tantrum about Bruce. Bex and I are in bed. We have developed an unhealthy pattern of talking most of the night. Seems it is never too late for our story. I feel lifted, overjoyed at what is happening to me, to us. After weeks working through hang-ups, quirks, and fumbling firsts, we are falling in love. Stretching, I note the items arranged on the tall shelf by the wall. I hadn’t noticed the book of photos before now. Bex looks up, sensing a change. My hackles rise. I race out of bed as quick and agile as my body allows. Faster than he could ever get there, I think. I grip the album.
“Can this, please, be a spot for just us? I stand pointing an arc across the bedroom. He can be everywhere else. Just not here. This space is mine now.”
Rebecca sits up and stares at her knees. She nods, unsurprised.
At two months, I speak of Bruce often. Bex tells me she wishes we talked less about the past, but I am hungry for more. I want to consume everything about her. Childhood events, boyfriends, the marriage. She asks me some of the same questions, and answering them, I wonder whether she imagines scenes to represent my stories. I build my own memories from her memories. Hosting karaoke parties, vacations on boats, opening a business, all the houses, the lake, the dogs. I do not know it yet, but I am crafting a vision of her life and their marriage, a timeline, a map of peaks and dark moments. It feels immense, the scope of their days.
I have gone silent, wandering in time. “Come back to me,” she says. I nod, but glance away. “Why are you sad?” I say nothing and she lets it go.
I work at night while Bex sleeps. This situation presents logistical issues. We catch each other in passing, mooring briefly, sharing what we can before it is time to move on. I suggest we use a calendar to better plan our hours together. Eventually she gives in and we craft a more practical routine.
We meet in the morning. Winding down from work with a beer in hand, I am warmed by the fire, gazing once again at the photograph. I sense her behind me and turn. She cradles a cup of coffee in one hand and smiles, wrapping the other around my waist.
I disentangle partially and point my chin like a weapon. “I’ve lost a quarter century to him.”
“I think it’s time to move it.” Bex says. And she does, the moment I pull away and leave for work.
We are driving together, Bex and I. At six months, we are a poised couple, rejoicing in our good fortune. Weekends are reserved for us, and tonight, I take her out. On the way home, we play a variation on a game initiated before we met in person. She plays a song for me, then I do the same, mining our catalogue of music and memories. I flip my headlights on even though they have already ignited automatically. My vision is poor in full sunlight, so driving in darkness requires additional attention. It begins to rain. Big, full drops splat and streak.
It is my turn, but I cannot remember who sings the piece I’ve chosen. “Maybe it’s K.D, Lang.”
Turns out I am wrong. Bex knows the song. “I’ll play you my favorite version,” she says, and I yield. With the first few bars of Blue Bayou, I am reminded that this is Linda Ronstadt and her pure seventies voice. Up ahead, blue and red lights strobe through the darkness and rain. Someone has attracted the attention of the authorities. Appears to be a minor accident, a spinout down the embankment.
We leave the incident behind as the song and lyric build. “Oh that boy of mine, by my side…”
I relax my grip on the wheel, asking, “Was Blue Bayou ever a real place?”
Bex’s voice is throaty and veiled. The world tilts into incorrectness. What I have missed is Rebecca curling into herself, her forehead pressed against the window. She is in tears. My right hand finds her leg instantly, but I am not sure who is steadying whom. This affair is deeper than I had imagined. My time with her is not yet done, but nor is her time with Bruce. Bex has been sheltering me, hiding that each day is a narrowing balance between new love and grief.
There’s No Place Like Now
“Now is the most important moment of our lives.” I smirk. Bex knows I am up to something, but she plays along anyway. We are staying at her parents’ home, choosing to sleep out in their vintage trailer, an aqua and white Retro by Riverside resting on cinderblocks in the driveway. We lay side by side like matchsticks, staring up at the paneled ceiling. Woken by hard rain at two or three, we cycle through distant days and building dreams.
“You cannot say that for sure. And why now?” She turns toward me and a shock of soft blond hair tousles over her eye and nose.
“Because now is the only moment we will ever have. It will always be now, always has been.”
“True, but you’re just playing with words. It doesn’t really mean anything.” I shrug.
Earlier that evening we work our way through the family albums. When we reach the end of each book, her father is there again smiling, offering, “this one’s next!” Rebecca graduates from high school, scalds her face at one year of age, countless pics from the two-month tour of Japan, Bruce naps with the tireless Jack Russell Eddie, “Leadfoot Lorenz” tends goal, this is the old apartment on campus, and her mother made that wedding dress by the way. Images flash by to slide into every possible gap in my timeline. I am filling over.
Back in the trailer, I reach one hand down to clasp hers, the other brushes the hair from her face. Struck by her eyes, something opens inside me. I sit up. Floating over these visions, versions of her, alone, with others, with Bruce, knowing that ever and always they were bound to a singular now.
I grasp her arm. “We could never have been us at any other time. How have we not seen this? We didn’t lose anything. We would have been some other similar couple, making different decisions, different mistakes.” Bex looks up, comfortably catching on, “That’s right. We needed them to get here. They helped mold us. You needed Bruce.”
And there it is. I have lost my rival, in an instant, lost the thief of those impossible years.
Bex finds my eyes with hers. “You know he foresaw you and predicted us.” I slowly nod. “He said that I would have another life, meet someone, get married. He believed that.”
“And gave you his blessing.” I add.
Something opens physically when an object of resentment shifts into a source of gratitude. the muscles of my stomach release. I feel like I am breathing fully for the first time in as long as my body remembers. Then I say the thing that I should have felt from the start, the thing I needed to unearth, the thing he deserves to hear, though he cannot.”
“Thank you, Bruce.”