A Theory of Everything

A short story

"Portrait d'une jeune femme tenant un petit chien," Matthijs Naiveu, 1678, courtesy of The Louvre and Wikimedia Commons

I really don’t remember what I thought on those golden days when I promised if you died before I did, Nora, I would never remarry, that I would, instead, get a dog. We made this pact under the influence of laughter while I thrummed with a love so deep I ached with it. Minus the dog, our little improvement on banality, we had fallen into cliché and knew it: even in that rarest of funhouses--a truly happy marriage--such promises are often made and broken, the recipient, after all, no longer living to claim the prize.

But my dear, for almost two years, now, that I’ve been without you, I have done exactly as I promised. On my seventy-fifth birthday I bought a puppy, a beagle I named Emily. She is lovely, white with scattered splotches of black and nutmeg. To quiet her whining at night, I lifted her into my bed, where she nested in the down comforter like a spotted bird. She still sleeps on the bed, though I sometimes wish I had not got her into the habit. Most nights I find her curled on my pillow, and I must endure her groans of protest as I nudge her toward the foot of the bed.

I keep replaying in my mind our conversations over the years about who would outlive whom, playful marital jousting, at least until the end, when we knew. Though I was older by seventeen years, all along you sensed your youth guaranteed you nothing. You drove faster, skied faster, ate faster, read, swam, walked, biked, and, in a testament to your sexual health and energy, even reached orgasm faster than I did. (Granted, I matched you in my younger days on that last one but faded in my dotage, became the flickering fluorescent light to your incandescent bulb. Still, we managed. An understatement.) You also ate so much healthier than I did, a vegetarian diet I never fully adopted. I confess I still count potato chips as a serving of vegetables, likewise French fries, catsup, corn chips, and, forgive me, beer (the barley and hops technically grains, I well know). Life is not fair, death less so.

A glass or two of Cabernet Sauvignon each afternoon at four remains my only curative, the antioxidants in the fermented grapes good, they say, for my heart, which still beats with all original wires and hoses. Except for the baby aspirin I swallow daily with the wine—the only body and blood of eternal life I partake of, these days—I take no pills. Anyone owning stock in slippery pharmaceutical companies will not grow rich on this old man.

Given your recklessness, you suspected you’d die in an accident. I am pleased you were wrong, that I was spared that sudden loss. You would have chosen it over the disease that chose you, I know, the wheelchair and ramps, the hospital bed in the living room, the other indignities. I’ve forgiven you a thousand-fold for your anger at my complicity. I plead guilty to the neediness of the lonely, the fear of the loving. The three months I read to you, bathed you, narrated the coming of spring, seemed a fortnight to me. I fed you like an unfledged young bird, endured the daily pleading in your eyes, until one night, your breaths shallow, your pulse a feathery whisper, the young osteopath from the hospice met my eyes and handed me enough Dilaudid to send you on.

Your tears of thanks on that darkest of nights became your parting gift to me, though I worry I have banished us to eternal separation. I stopped attending St. Anthony’s because I could not accept the church’s teaching that I have now blocked my path to heaven. I cannot imagine a God with a zero-tolerance policy for the sin of mercy, though the Old Testament provides a convincing primer. For a long time, these thoughts kept me awake nights. Now, as with most things, I grow weary of worrying about it.

I am going on, forever the long-winded professor, and I apologize. Yes, I am stalling, bringing you minor gossip, hiding the watermelon in a bushel of tomatoes.

Awhile longer, if you please.

Since you left, in addition to the puppy, I have added an island in the kitchen with an Italian marble top, an indulgence, I know, though as our dear boy, Benjamin, noted generously, might as well splurge while I can. I’ve mounted one of those wire contraptions over the top where one can hang pots and pans within easy reach, having always been one who preferred reaching up to bending over. The island takes up far more room than I expected—you were right about that—and functions as a roadblock to one passing from fridge to sink, or sink to dining room. But I keep a tall-backed stool there and take my meals in the kitchen now, on the cool marble, within easy reach of the fridge, thereby sparing myself the ordeal of eating alone at our dining table.

I also had the gravel driveway cemented over, which was expensive (again, when I consulted him, Benjamin said, “Pops, you can’t take it with you.”) I like the way the concrete steams in the summer when rain begins to fall. And of course in winter, snow blowing goes so much more smoothly since I am no longer blasting the house and garage with gravel. The trade-off, a sad one, is that the large white oak growing along the curve of the driveway is dying. The foreman of the crew sent out to pour the cement told me it might happen. White oaks, especially those hundreds of years old, have sensitive feet, he said. So of course now I wish I had left it alone.

Darling, the tomatoes emptied, I will produce the watermelon: I’ve met someone. Her name is Meg, and I met her, of all places, at the dog park, where I take Emily an hour or so each day, for exercise. We spotted her on the far side of the field, an old woman in a broad-brimmed hat, pale blue ribbon about the crown, walking beside an enormous black poodle. She resembled an impressionist painting: Petite Femme avec le Grand Chien. Emily nosed the trail of a rabbit, and as the field grass parted before her, the frightened cottontail bounding in a frenzied maze, Emily ran in pursuit, baying happily. This went on awhile, the cottontail adept at escape, Emily tenacious enough to find the scent and howl on. Eventually she lost both rabbit and scent and ended up mere yards from the enormous poodle and the small woman. Emily wandered beneath the poodle, sniffing and being sniffed, as dogs do. I arrived winded from the fast walk, made a human introduction and apology for Emily’s bold behavior. Many dog owners at the park have a command over their animals that few enjoy even over their children. Emily, alas, is about as well-trained as a fox.

I was mortified to see my dog brazenly sniffing the anus of another dog, and, far worse, plunging her wet snout into the sweet meats of his elderly owner, both of which Emily did with her usual vigor, the latter perfectly timed to coincide with my arrival. One look at the giant poodle, which stepped toward me, as if to reciprocate, froze me in my tracks. “Emily!” I said, pathetically, “heel!” This was not a command she knew, of course, but I’d heard others at the park utilize it to good effect.

“They always know the business end of things, don’t they?” the woman said, cheerily tolerating Emily’s snuffling about in her crotch. As she bent down to pet Emily, the wind caught her hat. It tumbled into the grass, exposing a sail of silvery hair that unfurled in the breeze. Emily caught sight of the roiling hat and ran to fetch it, returning it to me proudly, the brim punctuated by the pin pricks of puppy teeth and smeared with saliva.

Her formal name is Margaret, though she goes by Meg, and her dog, which may be part-pony, for all I know, is named Simon. Simon cuts a virile-looking profile. I daresay his testicles resemble a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from someone’s rear-view mirror. Meg and I have met at the dog park, now, nearly every day for a month. We are the same age, have both recently lost beloved spouses, and we sit in the sunshine and talk while Emily runs about, sniffing. Simon stands watch regally, wary of Emily’s energy but appreciative, I think, of her uncensored joy. Meg packs us picnic lunches every Monday, an unbidden kindness for which I feel both grateful and guilty. I bring the wine. Last week she carried ham sandwiches, a bit of potato salad, and slices of blueberry pie, blueberries being in season.

The pie startled me, as you can imagine. It brought to mind the hours you and I spent each year, crouched in the late-July sun, picking those tiny blueberries that grow wild out in Necedah. For just a moment, when Meg handed me that slice of pie, I felt as if you had returned to me. Meg sensed my awkwardness, a pause in the flow of the afternoon, and asked if I was allergic to blueberries. “No,” I said, making the old joke, “only to hard work.” I know I made a pathetic fieldhand, whining about the heat and mosquitoes, the stiffness in my back, the ache in my knees and blued fingers. It seemed to take me hours just to fill the bottom of my little bucket. When you were satisfied, we’d gathered enough wild berries for pies and to freeze for pancakes in the winter, you’d take my hand and lead me deeper into the woods, beyond sight of the road, fulfilling your promise to make the trip worth my while.

Do you remember, Nora, the first time our bodies dropped the bridle and really ran? A cold December evening, the two of us afire under goose down. The loving left us raw. We dipped tongues into open wounds and tasted light. From the beginning, you spoke during lovemaking, and at first I felt as if I’d bedded a television news anchor. You told me you now understood what it meant to be descended from angels and ascended from animals, both states of being somehow twisted into the double helix of human DNA. We feel the angel in us and, at other times, the animal, but rarely, if ever, the pure, braided shock of both. I quoted Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone,” the only appropriate response, it seemed to me, to the way desire witched fluid from our bodies:

“Dear, I know nothing of/ Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love/ Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur/ Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.”

Afterward, lying with your head on my arm, you told me that you would never sky dive because you feared the experience of jumping out of an airplane would be so exhilarating you might fail to engage the parachute in time. What you were trying to say was that life with you would be a freefall, and I best be prepared for it. That I would have engaged the parachute immediately, perhaps even before exiting the plane, you seemed to have already known.

A month before then, after an agonizing prelude, I had left my marriage. With humility I faced the rage and agonies of my wife, Susan, a good woman who deserved better, and the tears of my thirteen-year-old daughter, Cynthia, who understandably began stoking a lifetime of resentment the night I left home. For some, bitterness becomes an addiction, a trickster that communicates as energy but is, all the while, a crippling disease. All through that terrible time, my father left biting messages on my answering machine: “Ben you are making the biggest mistake of your life. She’s young enough to be your goddamned daughter! You are stepping into hell, Ben, and she is holding the door for you.” A cliché for every season.

My colleagues called us Eloise and Abelard. You were twenty-five, hardly a child, and I forty-two. For your part, you refused to be the reason for my failures, for someone’s loss of a good husband and father, for the unraveling of a well-knit life. I should return home immediately, you said, if I were leaving merely for you. Merely. I would have launched a thousand ships, my dear. I would have abdicated the throne.

God, Nora, I miss our conversations, those long nights reclined by the fireplace in winter, or on the screen porch futon in summer, drinking wine or inhaling a little homegrown, the golden buds a gift from our young neighbors, Hap and Laura. Good for my glaucoma, Hap said, wondering how anyone could make it into his sixties before getting high for the first time. I was a late bloomer, you told him. A moonflower.

What is it about love that drives us to seek metaphors to explain its power? In the beginning we used to lie awake, sometimes until dawn, stalking it with beautiful words, as if figurative language could make love known to us. We read aloud from the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, lines from Millay, Sappho, Donne, the incomparable Shakespeare. We laughed at the unfortunate lovesick, whose quest for appropriate metaphors reflected an earnest, if tin, ear, particularly the metaphorically challenged Prince Charles of Wales, who yearned to be his lover’s tampon, perhaps a possibility, you noted, if it weren’t for the size of his ears.

I also miss our futile efforts to understand Stephen F. Hawking and his desire to discover a unifying theory of the universe. We read and reread A Brief History of Time, yet Hawking always lost me a third of the way in, my mind furrowed for poetry, not physics, though he could, at times, make them seem to be nearly the same thing.

Perhaps most of all, I miss discussing your theories, Nora. Under the spell of love and a dancing fire, our nude bodies warmed by burning oak and afterglow, we explored without telescopes or complicated mathematical formulas. Free radicals, you called us. Speculating on the biological function of the female orgasm, you theorized that it might simply be a reward from a just and feminist God for the pain of childbirth. Sweeter still your theory that we carry the buoyant spirit of all those we love inside of us, which explains why some people move so effortlessly through the world, unburdened by the many gravities that weigh down the angry, the spiteful, and, as you always noted playfully, Righteous Republicans.

Sometimes as the fire dropped to a pool of embers, our whispered conversations dwelling in that netherworld between wakefulness and sleep, our bodies and brains melted together, and we often felt as if we were on the verge of something huge, something you called a Theory of Everything. Those were transcendent moments, states of somnambulant perfection, fleeting as shooting stars passing through the atmosphere. As soon as I became conscious of them, or I should say just before that conscious awareness, they were gone, leaving behind a lingering shadow, a profound contentment, like the faint scent of lilacs that remained just after we closed the bedroom windows on a late spring evening. I knew something in those moments that I’ll never know again.

 

On Sunday I had our children over for dinner (I sent Cynthia a written invitation, too, but received no response). Olivia came alone as John is embroiled in legal work involving a corporate merger and has been living at the law office. She looked beautiful, as always, her thick, dark hair as dense as water, our dour, resilient, brilliant child. Still childless at thirty-one, she seems deaf to the ticking of any biological clock. Her work at the clinic has slowed now that the viruses and bacteria of the spring season have moved on. She said I looked a bit thin, asked if I’d had a recent physical, quizzed me about what I’d been eating, but I said, “Livvie, I’m fine!” and she let it go.

Ben and Karen arrived late with little Sarah. I was relieved to see their smiling faces at the door. They came with a bottle of Chardonnay and a tall vase of Turks cap lilies, your favorites. Ben and Karen seemed happy, as always. Their teaching careers are going well. Karen moved over to the charter school with Ben last fall, and being at the same elementary school has given them some celebrity with the fifth graders, who make much of their stolen moments of affection in the hallways, a peck on the cheek, a brush of a hand along the arm.

I cooked salmon and asparagus on the grill and added fresh basil to the mashed potatoes until they were vibrantly green. Sarah, who is now seven, pushed the buttons on the processor to whip the potatoes. Her face beamed with delight. She is such a lovely girl, the picture of Benjamin at her age, all joy and affection.

We ate in the dining room and left your chair empty, at my insistence. During conversation, even after all this time, I still found myself turning toward you. It felt a bit like taking a walk through familiar woods, when one looks down to find one’s feet effortlessly following the same trail taken years before. I know Livvie noticed, and seemed disturbed, by the attention I gave to your empty place at the table, but I tried to smile her reassurances that I was not seeing a ghost.

During dessert, a cheesecake Livvie baked, I announced that I’d made a new friend at the dog park. Livvie insisted upon details and seemed hopeful there would be someone to “take care of me,” as she put it. She feigned shock that Meg is my own age, figuring, perhaps, that we cradle robbers are career criminals. Benjamin, our dear love child, smiled at me, his eyes shining with tears. He knows things without asking, as he always did even as a boy. I smiled at him and blinked back tears of my own.

I actually thought Cynthia might come. I felt encouraged seeing her at your funeral, though she sat in the back and never removed her sunglasses. I called and left messages afterward, wrote two letters sent in care of her mother, but she never responded. Benjamin said perhaps she needed proof you had passed. If so, I hoped it would have been the antidote to her toxic anger. I wonder, now, if it even was her there, and not some unrecognized friend or acquaintance who merely looked like her.

Things got awkward after dinner when Livvie discovered the state of my bedroom. Ben, Karen, and Sarah had already left for home. After seeing them off, I came inside and found Livvie frowning outside our bedroom closet.

I have left your things as they were, Nora, your dresses, blouses, and sweaters on hangars, earrings scattered atop your dusty dresser, drawers full. Your lingerie chest remains in the corner, a sentinel guarding the many glowing campaigns of our erotic life. I’ve left almost everything alone: your toothbrush still marked by chalky white paste along the handle, the tousle of hair in your hairbrush, a grocery list written in your wandering script, your bath crystals and lotions aligned along the windowsill, still, as if you might light candles and draw a bath at a moment’s notice. Livvie found this sad and rather ghoulish, and told me so, though of course she meant well.

“You have to move on, Dad,” she said, fingering the dust that had settled along the shoulders of your blouses. She ordered me to sell the house if I had to, to make a fresh start. What exactly does moving on mean, I said, and why must one leave everything and start over? Can’t one simply keep adding on? She answered something forgettable, being neither old enough nor, perhaps, in love enough with John to understand, though of course I kept these cruel thoughts to myself.

You will be pleased to know Livvie hates the dog, so she remains your ally in that department. She believes the fact that it sleeps in bed with me is evidence that my brain is turning to cottage cheese.

 

Once Livvie left, I tidied up the kitchen a bit, and as I did, a sad fog began drifting into my old head. It came in uninvited, and crowded all remaining light into the shadows.  I fed Emily a late snack, poured myself a glass of wine, and absent-mindedly sat alone at the table, across from your empty chair. I took only one drink of the wine when I was seized by an attack of weeping so intense my throat burned. Sensing my distress, Emily circled the chair and churned beneath my feet, settling finally at my side. She pointed her snout to the ceiling and howled.

After some time, I calmed down. I turned out the lights and sat in my recliner in the living room with a blanket thrown over my legs. You know my cheerful nature, Nora, how my brain is usually annoyingly sunny. Throughout that long, dark night and early morning I felt too distraught to sleep. Emily came down the stairs after midnight, whining, puzzled by the break in our routine. I tried to lift her up onto my lap, but the gesture merely startled her.

What can be done at such times? Too old for distraction, distrustful of simplistic bromides—everything happens for a reason, and so forth—I sat in the darkness thinking of you and watched the moonlight pass from window to window until birds began singing, and a faint, gray light filled the room.

Now my hands quiver from lack of sleep, and my head aches. I feel wrung out, a little hopeless. I called Benjamin, got him just before he and Karen left to take Sarah to swimming lessons. We talked pleasantly about the previous evening. I brought the conversation to a close, but Ben wouldn’t hang up. He knew, as he always seems to know, that I was calling for something else. He kept me on the telephone until I spilled over.

Nora, I never thought--. I didn’t go out looking. I never expected to find pleasure again in the company of a woman.

“Pops, just talk to Mom the way you used to,” Ben said. “Work it out.”

So I lit a fire in the fireplace, sat down in the warm, jumping light, and conjured you.

Do you remember the morning before you died? You whispered, “What kind of dog will you get?” Probably a beagle, I said. You didn’t know what a beagle looked like. Spotted, I said. Floppy ears. You smiled and gripped my hand, said I could have had a dog all along, you really wouldn’t have minded. The kitchen island and the concrete driveway, too. You said you had long passed any need for me to demonstrate my love for you, but felt I still needed such opportunities, and that I should have them.

It’s late Monday morning now, and the sun is shining. Emily whines at the door. She knows it is past the time we usually leave for the dog park. She can’t understand the days of the week, but she always seems to know when her date with Simon will include treats pulled from a wicker basket by a small, lovely woman with a sheaf of graying hair.

I call Emily to me and she slowly wanders over, hesitating, her toenails clicking against the hardwood. She turns and hurries back to the door, looks at me, disappointed I have not followed.

I roll to my back and close my eyes, the fire a warm glow along my side. I breathe slowly. When I open my eyes again Emily stands over me, her silky ears cocked, her nose rough and cool against my chin. I run one hand gently over her head, and she wags her tail briskly. After a few minutes, she leans a hip into my ribs, drops to her belly with a groan, lowers her chin to the floor along my shoulder.

Our planet spins once every twenty-four hours, and the rise and fall of the tides can be perfectly charted, but a lover’s constancy is daily at risk. It is, perhaps, why love poems outnumber every other kind. Though physicists try to explain the universe with mathematical formulas, the galaxies swirl with no more force or mystery than the touch of a dying lover’s hand, or the raspy zephyr of her final breath.

“You divorced a living woman but cannot leave a dead one,” Meg will say, harshly. Yes, I will answer. Yes. But only if we understand death to mean one thing and not another: the daily wash of memory against consciousness, the sweetness of carnal dreams, the haunting shine of a promise: Kept.

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