(CONTINUED) I considered my options. There was plenty of good food around, but I wasn’t hungry. I could take a walk down to Sutro baths, but I was tired. I turned on the TV and flicked through some channels. Oprah came on and I muttered, “Fuck it,” and flicked the set off. I got my phone out and made the call. Anne answered on the second ring.
“Hi. It’s me. How are you?”
“I’m fine. You’ve been away?”
I couldn’t read her voice. Not entirely surprised, not entirely unsurprised. A little bit upset, maybe a tiny bit pleased. Maybe.
“Yeah, I just got back in town. I’ve been in the desert.”
It seemed like the line had gone dead. I wondered if she’d hung up. I was about to say something when she asked, “Writing?”
“Trying. It’s not going so well though.”
She coughed. “Well, it hasn’t gone well for a long time, has it?”
That was a bad sign. I decided to just get to it.
“Listen, I want to see you. “
“Will you see me?”
A few moments passed. There was some rustling on the other end. I expected that she’d ask why I wanted to see her, but she did not. Just: “Okay.”
“Tonight?” I asked.
“The park. The usual spot.”
“I need an hour.”
She hung up without saying goodbye. I didn’t know what I felt but it didn’t feel good.
It would take me the better part of an hour to get to Stow Lake on foot, so I headed out the door. As usual, the park was filled with people and I was continuously stepping to the side of the small paved trail to let bikers and joggers pass. A tattered brown plastic tarp had been hung in some bushes and four homeless men sat staring out sullenly from underneath it at the passersby. Two men were smoking, one was taking a pull off a bottle in a brown paper bag, and the fourth was looking out at the path with a startling intensity, as if the mundane proceedings before him were nearly beyond his belief.
I arrived at the lake before Anne and sat on a bench by the boat rental. It was strange to be in this spot, this lake that had once served as a place of respite and now seemed anything but comforting. When Anne approached I stood up and we embraced quickly, the familiar made awkward.
“It’s nice to see you,” I said finally, as we began to walk around the lake.
“’Nice,’ huh? Well, it’s good to know where I stand at the moment. I can’t always be sure.”
“You know that’s not true,” I replied. “You know how I feel.”
“I guess I do,” she said, but didn’t say anymore.
We walked for a few minutes in silence. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. It was hard to recall why I’d come in the first place. All the words that had been so clear and definite, so important, suddenly threatened to vanish into the air.
“I just wanted to say goodbye…” I began, but she interrupted.
“I’m pretty sure you’ve already said that.”
I took a second to regroup. “No, I mean, I want to say goodbye. For good.”
She stopped walking. “Where are you going?”
I looked out at the lake. A few ducks were bobbing back and forth on the water. A blue paddle boat was out, its occupants pedaling in silent complicity. The air was getting cooler as evening approached. The park seemed a picture of serenity, everything within it wheeling and flowing and pumping in unison.
When Anne and I had been married and I was becoming relatively successful I used to tease her about the dark side of being a writer, warning her of the day my artistic temperament would inevitably take a turn for the hopelessly morose. “It’s the prerogative of all writers to occasionally go off the deep end,” I’d say. “It’s really the only way to maintain your status in the literary community. And if someday you find yourself unable to come back from the brink, at least you know it’ll be a boon for your estate. Hell, death is the only hope some authors have of ever getting their books back in print. You’ll become very rich when I flip out.”
Anne would laugh and tell me to shut up and get back to work. But she knew my family history—an uncle who hanged himself, a grandmother committed to an asylum, a father whose only form of entertainment was drinking cheap gin until he felt moved to throw the furniture through the windows—and, though she never said it, I’m sure she was sometimes afraid I was serious. And I WAS serious. Or I’d at least convinced myself I was serious. I considered the poison in my blood to be the source of my deepest inspiration and my twisted genes my greatest literary gift. If I couldn’t bleed that madness onto the page then I might as well pack it in and wait out the rest of my days in bed with a bottle of cognac in one hand and a .38 special in the other. At least I’d be in good company.
Anne seemed to be searching my face, then, she laughed: “God, you can’t be serious.”
I felt a little bit hurt by that, but tried not to let it show. “I’m not saying I’m going to put a gun in my mouth. I’m just saying the road looks like it might be heading over a cliff and maybe I won’t be able to stop the car.”
She started walking again, quickly. “Or maybe you just don’t want to.”
We continued on. In all the years we’d been together I’d seen her upset many times. I’d seen her weep for two days straight when her father died and all I could do was hold her in my arms. I’d heard her use language that would make a sailor blush when someone cut her off in traffic. But always there was some outward manifestation, some obvious expression of her feelings. Now she was silent, uncommunicative, and I regretted coming. Ruben had been right; I should’ve just left her alone.
She crossed over the footbridge, a little bit ahead of me, then turned and leaned against it, watching the water. The ducks paddled and quacked a bit. I watched a kite dip and bob above the trees.
The red kite spun and dove, then rose again, its yellow tail fluttering behind.
“You’ve been seeing someone?”
She turned to me and looked into my eyes. She was a foot from my face but the distance between us had vanished. I knew at that instant that we were bound together for eternity, that whatever may come, be it separation, death, or nameless oblivion, that somehow, in some terrible, wonderful, incomprehensible way, our destinies were one. I could leave her, but she would never be gone from me.
“It’s yours,” she said, but by then I already knew.
I turned back to look at the water. I couldn’t see the kite for a moment then it rocketed up from behind a tree. “Two months?” I asked.
The divorce had already been finalized by then. Whether we’d made love out of sorrow or desire or fear or anger or just plain habit I couldn’t have said. She’d lain in bed crying as I’d put my clothes on and walked out one last time.
“You should’ve told me.”
“Would you have answered the phone?”
I would’ve liked to have said that yes, of course, I would’ve answered the phone. But I couldn’t say that. “You could’ve left a message.”
She shook her head, livid. “I have some dignity left, you know. You didn’t get everything.”
Minutes passed during which I felt despondent, jubilant, angry, hopeful, ecstatic, and fearful, until it all seemed to blend and I couldn’t tell one from another.
“I’m going to have it,” Anne said, finally.
“So you can decide how involved you want to be. I will only ask that for the sake of your unborn child you not write yourself a final chapter that our baby will someday be ashamed to read.”
My head ached. I felt sick to my stomach. I took Anne’s hand in mine and held it. “Okay,” I nodded. “Okay.”
We walked back to the dock, the paddle boats all tied up and rocking slightly on the lake. Some were red and some were blue. Anne and I embraced again, but it felt different, inevitable, unavoidable.
“I need to think about this,” I said. “I need a little time.”
“Do whatever you think you need to do. I’m prepared to raise this baby by myself.”
I nodded and started to leave. I’d gone about 20 feet when I turned around, and watched her walk away. After a few moments she looked behind her and waved weakly. A sad smile crossed her face for a moment then she continued on into the deepening dusk. (CONTINUED)
All photos of SF, CA.