I liked to think in numbers. You liked to think in letters. When people cried I looked sheepish, and when people cried you cried too. I used to have a lot of things wrong with me, and you always knew you were perfect just like you happened to be. When someone asked me why I stayed for all those years, I said it was because you thought in letters, you felt all the sadness people tried to give you, and you were always free to live.
The first time I saw you, I saw the way you were looking at things and I checked my sweater because I thought you were looking at something wrong with me. The first time you saw me, you didn’t think anything about me because you weren’t looking at me at all.
You said the world was a garden; I said if it was a garden, we had some serious weeding to do. You said the world was a rainforest; I said I can’t live in a rainforest because all the snakes and killer bugs and poisonous flowers would kill me. You said I looked pretty alive to you.
We lived in a small apartment that I liked because it was neat and you liked because it was cozy, especially in winter when we could sit on the couch and turn off the lights and look out the window at two in the morning and see the people still walking on the street. You said each person was like a star, and I said stars can’t exist in such close proximity. You asked me how was it that when I looked at the sky I could see all the stars at once. I said I couldn’t see all the stars, and you said we see all the stars we need.
We lived in the city, and I said how amazing it was that so many people could survive in such a small space, and you said how amazing it was that so many people managed to keep from falling in love with everybody. I said falling in love? You laughed and said not that way, you meant love.
We lived all through the year, even though you liked horse-ridden Wyoming and highway towns in Ohio for vacation and I liked statistically more important places like post-problem Berlin and Harry Potter London. You thought Europe was too modern and I thought America was too backward, but we didn’t have the money for Europe so we traveled America.
We saw a lot of things together. You liked the animals, you thought deer were better than ten Mona Lisas lined up together, and I liked the way the world looked from the tops of the mountains we climbed. At two a.m. we’d sit on a side street of some town and watch the teenagers stand together. You liked to watch the dawn to see what dawn light looked like when it touched people; I liked to watch the dawn to see the rising sun-circle.
We lived through a lot of sad springs, when people asked where we were going and what were our plans, and we had to look at our lives and find something respectable to show them. We lived through a lot of sad falls when people asked where we’d gotten with those spring plans and we stood together when we told them not far.
And then your mother started to die. I guess that’s what really started doing it, although at first it didn’t seem that way. She’d fallen, or tripped, or slipped, but it was going to be six months recovery. So we kept doing what we’d been doing before with an extra tiny line on your face, maybe an extra shade in your eye when you stared into space while making morning coffee or locking the door before we went to bed. And then after six months we found out she had cancer, a fat little one-year-old tumor, and she lived all the way in California and we were living in New Jersey and you couldn’t be with her. I watched as the regret started coming, an extra you never did get this, did you, you never did finish that in our dinner conversations, a deadpan slippery sarcasm you never used to have with me before. But the surgery went well, and so we celebrated a little with a dinner free of digs and sarcasm. When we got back we locked the door tiredly but freely, and when we woke up the next morning there was a message on our machine that said they weren’t sure they’d gotten all of it. Back came the shades, and the digs, and the sarcasm and another line on top of the old one.
I didn’t know what to tell you, and so I told you about my mom, and what it had been like. But that made you angry; you said don’t you ever dare compare your mother to mine. It was our first real fight, our fight about mothers, and who had more suffering in store in our lives. I left and didn’t come back for three days.
But I had left my computer there, and I wasn’t able to change clothes because I hadn’t brought anything with me, and I didn’t know where to look when I got up in the morning and I knew I should have known better than to open my stupid number-filled mouth. And when I came back you hugged me and cried because the doctors had told you she was very weak, that she was all right now but they weren’t sure about radiation and you had to decide what was going to happen. You had said yes. We held each other and I stayed.
You were calling her every day. You were calling the doctors multiple times a day. You spent your time on the internet googling amiodarone and dilantin until you gave up and bought the behemothic doctor’s reference to medicine and lost three glasses-free years over its pages. You weren’t working well and so you started working part-time. I took on some extra hours so we’d be sure to be all right. We talked about hospitals, and medicine, and home care for seniors, and home care for outpatients who in the 50s would have been inpatients. We lived in an imaginary world of old dying people and their attendants, and when people started telling me being sad was all good and right but I was a person who needed things too, I went home and told you I loved you.
She was almost all right, but then she wasn’t, and with a heart attack she went into the hospital and never came out. Your boss wouldn’t give you leave to be away from work so you quit. You went to California with your doctor’s reference and left me in our apartment alone.
I understood. I understood a lot of things, back then. I know I was making a lot of mistakes. But you were still calling me, and you told me about all the things that were happening. All the medicine, all the doctors, all the super specialists. And then on a hunch I tried telling you about life here in New Jersey and you got all quiet and said my mother is dying and all you can think about is yourself? I hung up and you didn’t call me back for three days.
When you did you just started telling me about these alternative treatment people you had met. You wanted them to see your mother. Your mother wasn’t doing well. I said are they covered by insurance? You said no. I said well then who’s going to pay? You said we were. I was quiet for a minute because I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t say it. But I was a person, even back then, and some things just don’t fly with a person like me. And so I said I get to decide whether your mother sees alternative people or not because people make money and that person isn’t you. You hung up and stopped calling. I got billed for the alternative treatments. I paid. When people asked me why, I still said I loved you. When they asked if you loved me back, I said that when someone says I love you, you’re not supposed to say anything back. If you say it back, it’s not real. If you say nothing, they said, you don’t love the person. I said I just knew you loved me.
You called me the day her lung collapsed. You said you didn’t think she was going to live through it. I said no, she wasn’t. Maybe that was too blunt. Maybe you weren’t ready. But we didn’t apologize. You were crying. I asked if you wanted me to be there. You said yes. I told my boss my mother was dying and I would be back in two weeks. I was back in a week. I had forgotten how soon funerals happen after deaths, even though the hospitals have top-notch refrigerators these days.
When I got there she had already died. I met you at her old apartment, the one she hadn’t come back to in two months. It had been two months since you left. I missed living in a rainforest. I missed life in the garden. I was starting to look for letters, I wanted to start making words. But you looked at me and it was like you were little, and even though we’d never had children I knew I was going to be a mother for a night. I had come to California in the evening and it was going to be twelve more hours before I slept again. You weren’t crying anymore, but you told me everything you could ever remember about your mother. You didn’t want to tell me what it had been like anymore. You put your head in my lap and stayed that way. I don’t know if I listened or not. You didn’t ask me about me. I guess that was fair.
We had to prepare for the funeral. Lost of people couldn’t come because they were old and lived far away, and of course it was short notice, but funerals always are. And then you had to pick out the clothes she would wear, and you almost started crying again, but I helped you and you held my hand for the first time in a while.
And then it was the night before the funeral, and I was in the guest room where you’d let me stay with you. I was taking out the black suit I’d brought. You came in and watched me for a moment, and then you said you didn’t want me to go. I stopped and looked at you. Why? I said. You said it was because I didn’t know her. Don’t you want me to be there? I asked. You said I didn’t understand. I love you, I said. I don’t know, you said. Is this about your mother? Life is hard but it goes on. I don’t know, you said.
So I left. I gave you our apartment and half of our savings. I said if you ever needed anything, just give me a letter or an email, but not a text, and I’ll give you the money. It took three months, but when it was hard for you to find a job you asked and I gave. I still give, sometimes, when you need it. When my friends ask me why, I say because now I’ve got letters mixed in with my numbers, and when people cry I sheepishly almost want to cry too, and even though I have problems I’m actually all right all by myself.