again, Don was reciting poetry under his breath, and I tried to
make out what he was saying as I drove. I heard him say,
“Ach, du,” which sounded like a foreign sneeze and
couldn’t have been from anything optimistic. But I
had my sights set on an intimate dinner-for-two and romance for
once in a very long time, and so I considered interrupting that
nail-gun language he was mumbling with a few lines of a sweet
poem he wrote me, “Ode to Constance.” I never
could tell, though, whether Don would be in the mood for his own
stuff or not. I’d sometimes made Don squirmy by
blurting out one of his lines—I knew a ton of his poems by
heart—while he and his students sat around our living room
quoting poets such as Mr. Depressed and Mr. More Depressed.
They followed Don home every Tuesday night after his poetry
writing class and had ever since Don moved in a few months ago.
They’d argue about topics like “no ideas but in
things” then get uncomfortable when I brought “things”
like our new fridge into the conversation. Soon it became
clear that the only “thing” I had in common with
Don’s students was that a lot in life reminded us of the
poetry we knew by heart. But reading one of Don’s
poems was like delivering a package whose destination you weren’t
sure of until you arrived there, and I guess it was a trip you
had to be in the mood to take. Don wasn’t always in
Don sighed and when I glanced over, I saw that
he was fiddling with his passenger seat-adjustor, bouncing his
leg impatiently. The bouncing caused his wiry body to
vibrate, which of course only frustrated his attempt. If
Don’s history with anything remotely mechanical had any
bearing now, Don would end up breaking the seat.
at the adjustment knob, trying to keep my attention on the road
at the same time. “Need some help?”
“Thanks.” Don splayed back against the
When I pulled up to a red light, I leaned over,
tweaked the knob, and shoved his seat back. Then of course,
being so close to something so bookish and serious, I felt the
need to make it a little wild, and I kissed his neck for a few
seconds and slid my hand over his chest. Traffic could go
to hell. By the time a car behind us tapped its horn, my
move worked, and Don was grinning.
From the car
to our right I could hear the thumping, bubble-gum voice of a
talk radio host. When I glanced at Don again, he was
resting his head against the window, staring at the passengers
and rubbing the skin around his thumb, a habit he had when he was
distracted. If Don was distracted, even though this was the
only semblance of a date I could talk him into in weeks, then
that was fine by me. Distracted was better than moody, and
I hoped that tonight, for once in a very long time, Don would not
be moody. I followed Don’s gaze to the SUV. A
large man sat high, clutching the steering wheel. A woman
was fussing with something in her lap.
If I looked into
other cars often, I would wonder what made me and Don so
different that I always drove instead of him. But I was
just a better driver—better, in fact, at all the handy,
practical things. Don was better at things it seemed like I
never had time to bother with, like smelling oak in wine.
“Guess I’ll let you pick the wine at Red
Lobster,” I said. Often if I threw something out in
the middle of a long silence, Don would tell me what he’d
been thinking as if I’d said, “Tell me what you’re
Don picked at the skin around his thumb,
still looking off to his right. “Why do you suppose
that different colors put us in different moods? They say
soft yellow promotes happiness.”
“I’m not so sure about all that. I think it’s
more like what we pair with the colors in our head. Like
yellow and sunshine.” The light changed and we
continued to travel alongside the SUV until the next light, when
once again we hit a red.
“Association may have
something to do with our responses to color, but happiness and
the chemicals which produce it are all linked in our brains.”
Don smoothed his hair then leaned back against the headrest,
still looking at the SUV. He was always staring at other
people until I told him to quit. Don was the kind of guy
who was happiest when he was trapped in a public place, where he
could watch everyone else mind their own business. “Say
I believe yellow makes me happy. Sooner or later I may
chemically nudge my brain into producing serotonin when I see
This was an unfortunate case of Don believing
everything he heard. “Did you read this on the
internet?” I turned the heat down. Don was
usually in control of temperature, but he must have been too
distracted. Not that I minded a little heat in the car with
the smell of his aftershave. Not that I minded at all.
The light changed again, we moved a few yards, the SUV
pulling slightly ahead, hopeful, it seemed, of making it through
the yellow light, but it didn’t, and we all stopped again.
“What the hell? How difficult could they possibly be
Don nodded and tapped the window as
if he had expected precisely such a response from me. “You
see,” tap, tap, “you live mostly in the world of
“Sorry. Go ahead.”
I put my hand on his thigh.
Don didn’t seem to
notice. “You react to most of the world on a literal
level. You are wearing a red dress because red looks good
with your pale skin tone and your brown hair. But,”
he paused dramatically, “I live in the world of
imagination. Even without thinking about it, I know I love
that dress because it reminds me of the first time I saw passion
in your eyes—the night of the eclipse.” Don
turned to me and his look made me want to pull over and show him
some more passion.
The SUV moved forward and turned
right, and Don’s attention snapped back to the window.
I squinted and saw that he had not, in fact, been looking at the
SUV. He was looking at a cemetery all along.
almost groaned out loud. I knew what this meant: Celia
nostalgia coming my way. Celia, who Don dated for six or
seven months before dumping her, without remorse or high drama
from either of them. Their breakup had been of the ordinary
see-you-around variety. I was only buddies with Don at the
time, just another one of his buddies at the bar. But all
of a sudden one night after they broke up, when I sat beside him
and took a swig of the fancy beer he always ordered, I realized
he was sexy as hell, and I guess he saw me different, too,
because we started dating pretty soon after their break-up and
soon after that, he moved into my place, where it was the Fourth
of July every night. That’s when the doctors
discovered stage four breast cancer in Celia. A few weeks
later, Celia died.
After Celia’s death, something
remarkable happened. In Don’s mind, Celia attained
the status of a saint. I started finding mementos of hers
around the apartment, started catching Don watching Law and
Order, her favorite show, a show he always hated, never having
been a fan of violence or of crime-solving or, as it was turning
out when it came to Celia, emotional problem-solving.
week, in fact, I came home from work to find Don sitting on the
couch, staring at the coffee table. “She was so good
to me, and I, I was so awful to her.”
I knew from
the dramatic way he said it—those two “I”s
taking twice the blame—that he was torturing himself.
For the record, he wasn’t awful to her, and that’s
what made his grief so annoying and pitiful. In fact, when
they were together, there wasn’t a weekend that went by
that when Celia would let Don out of the apartment to shoot some
pool, he didn’t show up with his tail between his legs
because of something or other she’d said to make him feel
terrible. Oh, tonight Celia said my new haircut made me
look like an eighteenth-century retard. Or, Oh, tonight
Celia said I should go hang out with the losers because I need to
reconnect with my roots.
Now I know as well as everybody
that you can’t say shit like that to Don. He’s
one of those sensitive types, and Celia knew it, too. So
Don would come to the bar all mopey, staring into his beer, which
he hardly drank, polishing his stick, which he hardly used
because he hardly played. Eventually he’d scribble a
few lines of poetry on a napkin and leave. I knew it
wouldn’t last with her. So finally he broke free, and
oh well, good riddance, she told him. To look at him after
Celia’s death, with the way Don carried on, you would think
a different person died. For the past month, I was
beginning to feel like I was watching Don grieve for an imaginary
But we were on our way to Red Lobster, hadn’t
really let any sparks fly in I don’t know how long, and
damned if I wanted to have indigestion from having him squirm and
sigh all evening. “You must be thinking of Celia.
Don did that thing he does,
cocking his chin up to the heavens. “Yes. I
am.” He let his hazel eyes drift to the clouds.
Christ’s sake, I wanted to say. But I knew better.
I would help him to avoid the kind of indulgence that would make
him brood all night. How you did this lately was to face
thoughts of Celia head-on and suddenly, then brush them out of
the way with incontestable force. “At times, it must
be so difficult to pass by a cemetery without being reminded of
her,” I said, facing things head-on. “There
will surely be pain whenever you see gravestones for the rest of
your life. Be at peace, though, knowing that once we pass
on by, the pain will lift.” This was the brushing
part. “Let it wash over you then ebb away.
You’ll feel remarkably grateful for the short time on earth
we do have. Such is the nature of death.” Oh, I
thought that sounded pretty darn good! I mean, Don was the
big-deal poetry professor, but I knew a thing or two.
have to go there!” Don sat up. “We have
to visit that cemetery.”
I then realized that at
some level he was on to my ploy, and that my brushing had only
forced him to heighten his reaction. I wondered what on
earth I could do to save dinner and our romantic evening.
“I think her memory will best be honored—”
“Please,” Don was looking at me and his thin
limbs tensed, all leaning toward me.
I put the blinker on
to get over to the cemetery entrance. “Don, I’m
trying to help you through this,” and I was also trying to
match his life-or-death tone, but I’m starving, I wanted to
say, in more ways than one.
I knew better than to say
anything about all that, though. I had to be subtle to get
Don into my frame of mind. Don liked it when I was somewhat
elusive—that way, when we had sex, he thought he’d
seduced me. And I, in turn, privately liked thinking things
were the other way around. I pulled into the cemetery’s
gravel-lined horseshoe drive and parked, arching my back as if I
were stretching, then lifting my dress slightly to scratch my
But Don didn’t notice. He sat there
for a moment, his eyes scanning the stately grounds. It was
my turn to sigh. Perhaps he was looking for the ghost of
Celia. Having no other choice, I looked, too. And as
a matter of fact, the cemetery’s grass was such a bright,
unnatural green with eerie yellow patches that a ghost would not
have looked out of place.
Don got out of the car and
started walking. I could tell he was heading toward a grave
on a distant hill with a large concrete angel statue looming over
it. I guessed I’d have to follow him and kiss the
angel with him, or some damn thing. I always went into his
states of melancholia with him about as meditative as a groupie,
but of course, I went nonetheless. While other couples were
going to restaurants, here we were, paying symbolic homage to the
dead. That was the thing about Don: when you were with him,
life and all its expected tragedies somehow mattered more.
I followed Don’s careful tread along the narrow gravel
paths to the grave with the concrete angel, I thought about how
he’d helped me when my grandma Mimi died a few months
back. I wanted to call in sick from work, but I delivered
the mail anyway, and I’m sure neighbors were getting each
other’s mail that day, I’ll tell you that. But
when I came home, Don had fixed fried chicken and potato salad
and baked a chocolate cake, all from Mimi’s recipes.
Not only that, lying on the counter was an album he bought, along
with all the pictures of Mimi that I had around the house here
and there, all just so I could make a “Mimi album.”
Sitting next to the TV was a boxed set of The Andy Griffith Show
that I watched with Mimi when I was a kid. Best of all,
after I ate too much and slapped pictures in the scrapbook, he
let me cry as much as I wanted, right in the middle of Andy
Griffith. He read me some poetry about someone dying before
I went to bed that was depressing but made me feel better at the
same time, if that makes sense. It was comforting, somehow,
to be with someone who treated sadness with such respect, who
treated death as something sacred, all because it had something
to do with me.
As Don walked ahead of me, his long
leather coat billowing dramatically, I thought about how, in a
lot of ways, his life was an examination of the extraordinary and
mine of the ordinary. He taught poetry, read it out loud
when I was in the bathtub, wrote it for me, and sure, even though
I mostly felt like life was like delivering mail, right on
schedule, no surprises, Don made me feel like sometimes life was
something more, something important and special and urgent where
we were concerned. So I’d been telling myself with
this Celia thing, hey, couldn’t I make him feel the same?
For once, couldn’t I be poetic and soulful and empathetic
for real, like he had been with me?
As we got closer to
the concrete angel, it became apparent that a large area of the
graveyard was devoted to this particular grave. On a red,
marble pedestal at the top of a small hill, the concrete angel
loomed at least seven feet high with womanly features but
magisterial musculature, expression, and wingspan. There
were concrete benches arranged in a viewing area at the bottom of
the hill, and the gravel paths grew narrower until they merged
into one which led around the hill and up a slim path to the top
of the grave.
Don reached underneath the coat to his back
pocket and retrieved his wallet, from which he extracted a folded
piece of paper. I caught up with him and stood by his
side. His cheeks were flushed and he was a little shaky as
he unfolded the paper. Don gave me a solemn look I couldn’t
read and for some reason, that frustrated me. Then he began
reading from his paper and I moved closer to him so that I could
“’The Well-Beloved,’” Don
read, “by Thomas Hardy.”
I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Don wasn’t
paying attention to me, anyway.
“'Yet I wanted to
look and see
That nobody stood at the back of me;
thought once more: “Nay, I’ll not unvision
shape which, somehow, there may be.”
So I went on
softly from the glade,
And left her behind me throwing her
As she were indeed an apparition—
unturned lest my dream should fade.’”
looked up again at the stone angel presiding over his little
poetry reading and as if that weren’t enough, he started to
cry. It began to mist chill gusts over the graveyard as if
we were on the special effect stage of Don’s own personal
cinema. I turned to look at Don and his long mouth was
drawn down, his eyes red-rimmed and loitering over the features
of the stone angel.
Something bugged me. While Don
stared at the angel, I took the poem from him and looked at it.
Paraphrased, it said something like, “I know there’s
nothing behind me, but if I turn, I won’t be able to keep
pretending that there is.” Don wasn’t pining for
Celia. We came out here in pursuit of Don himself.
Don was in love with his own devotion to Celia.
and walked back to the car. I didn’t care if he was
behind me or if he thought I would wait—I drove off.
Fancy bells and whistles didn’t make real grief, real
passion, or a real heart to feel it.